The door creaked anciently like it was excitedly greeting me. It was the door Sophia slammed on my eleven-year-old fingers, costing me my pinky and ring finger. I could never write right again, but all was forgiven, and at long last, I returned to the place where I spent half of my childhood. I found the entire house now smelled like the basement. The living room appeared to have been subject to high winds, and there was the unmistakable sense of infestation. I walked the shaggy, dog-fur carpet, imagining it would feel crunchy and insidious walking on it in bare feet.
Sophia was the cause of this ruin. She left our childhood home alone to undo itself, about to lose the last of its ability to keep itself together.
The lack of light and life brought a cold to the house on this warm day. I was sickened by its state, angry with myself for not coming sooner, but hopeful that I could save the house from being condemned.
Crying seemed a proper response. I wanted to cry buckets, wash the grimy walls with my tears, and then use the salt of my tears to preserve the place, but the tears were trapped on my waterline, making everything a wet blur.
Sophia came here with her mother in the late summer of 2001. A few weeks later we started the first grade together as already close-knit friends who didn’t have much in common besides that we were seven-year-old girls who loved pretend play and company and had never been to a sleepover until we lived with each other. Sleepovers every night!
Sophia’s mother was gruff and intimidating. She also worked hard and too much, but had too poor of a job to provide much for her daughter. They were just getting by. They lived in our basement, which my father converted to a den when I was a baby, and had a kitchen and bathroom amenities, making it a pleasant living area when Mother chose to rent it out after Dad left that previous autumn.
Mother rented out the whole house to Sophia’s family in 2007. By then the family included her stepfather and stepbrother. I was gone by then, living with Dad and the significantly improved lifestyle it awarded. I wasn’t allowed to talk to Sophia. Her mother had forbidden her, and Mother had forbidden me. We were still at the age where we followed our mother’s orders out of love and loyalty. By the time their words turned meaningless, we no longer meant anything to each other. I thought I no longer mattered to her and feared that reaching out to her would prove me right.
Sophia’s stepfather had been out of the picture for years. Her mother was in Roanoke. For a time, Sophia had the house all to herself. Mother told me Sophia left the house and town. I told her I would check up on the place.
A hallway branched off from the living room, leading to the three bedrooms and the full bathroom. In the master bedroom, once Mother’s bedroom, then Sophia’s mother’s, were heaps of clothes like stalagmites.
My bedroom, at the end of the hall, was filled with things I had left behind: pictures, jewelry, videos, and things that I had no recollection of. I was more ready to assume they came in here on their own than that I ever owned them. Lots of things were likely to be hers. The dirtiness made me hesitant to touch anything. I looked at my surroundings while superimposing the image of what they had been before in my mind. Compare and contrast. It devastated me. There was a part of me that only wanted to leave, but I had already made that mistake; another part of me wondered, assuming she did make the room hers if she left these things for me.
There would be nights I’d lie in bed, the door would creak open, a pink of light would shine on my TV, and Sophia would announce, “It’s me.” I would wordlessly make room for her in my bed.
Sophia always fell asleep in an instant. I would always want to have a conversation or turn the lights on to play a game, but no. The minute her head hit my pillow, she was asleep.
As children, Sophia and I would lie on her noisy springy bed, right below the small window where moonlight streamed, pretending to munch on the moonlight, or open our mouths as wide as we could to create the illusion that we had some lunar power and could shoot beams from our mouths. Sometimes I imagined we were the twin daughters of a moon goddess. We would lie scalp to scalp. I was obligated to drape my legs over the bed frame, and the wood would leave deep impressions of parallel lines on the bottom parts of my thighs.
There was a particular time Sophia said, “Lie down on the bed.” She was eleven. I was ten and happy to be switching positions after all that time of parallel lines and dangling feet. As always, I lay down and opened my mouth. The moonlight was shining. The darkness of my closed eyes was blue. When the light behind my eyelids disappeared, I knew she hovered over me. Her breath touched my face, and I felt the wetness of a mouth breathing inside of mine, with lips pressed against it. Her lips were soft. I could feel her breath hitting my cheek as it left her nostrils. I was in too much shock to move at first, but when I was able to register what was going on I pushed her away and asked her what she was doing.
“I was your first,” she said, running outside and jumping into the in-ground pool fully clothed in mid-September.
Christmas ornaments Sophia’s mother brought with her in 2001 were on top of the shelf above the kitchen island. A figurine of Glenda the Good Witch smiled at me. I smiled at her. I touched her, then jumped at the sight of roaches swarming over her, claiming her. I wanted to set the house on fire. Instead, I ran out from the kitchen through the back door, passing through the stairs to the basement in the process.
The in-ground pool was a cesspool, as I had imagined, but I hadn’t expected so much of the yard to be reclaimed by nature. I began to feel sick to my stomach and thought I was going to vomit. Curious to a fault, I decided to further explore, knowing that I might never return and needing to know what had become of all that was left.
The day I lost my fingers was my birthday. I had told her how the only thing I wanted was to spend one more birthday with Mother and Dad, and in an incredible and rare act of selflessness, she was gracious to me in allowing him to come. Sophia’s mother was working like always, but Dad, Mother, Sophia and I were celebrating my eleventh.
She was there in her oversized T-shirt and polyester, floral short shorts. Her socks to her knees. Her sneakers dyed Pepto-Bismol pink, and I was in my ill-fated dress.
She had just cut her hair. It was choppy and uneven but somehow fitted her. Her mother was gone, but she liked it that way.
We were all having cake. Always the troublemaker, she took a glob of frosting from her cake and put it on my cheek. I chased her into the house. I remember the way we were laughing when she closed the door on me. She did not know my hand was in the doorway, and it took me a second to realize I was in horrible, fiery, stinging pain. My blood dripped all over the porch. When it dried, it looked like chocolate. Sophia helped hold my bleeding hand and the cut frill, repeatedly saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
The darkness of the stairwell was a sinister creature, a heavy dark that seemed to grow like a fungus the longer I looked at it. In that respect, not much had changed. It didn’t smell like the basement though. It was peculiar in that it seemed to lack any odor. There was no smell. Night had not completely fallen, but the basement had a few small windows.
It’s a tragedy that you must either get rid of what you love or risk watching it rot. Give away your plush toys before they become matted artifacts. Get rid of your car before it can no longer take you anywhere. Leave your house before you can no longer leave.
Night had not completely fallen, but the den of the basement did not let in the most light. I flipped the light switch at the foot of the stairs. The lights to the room were dead, but outside, the basement door gave off light through the window and dinky curtains, and I could see the pink flashlight. Its pink lens looked like a vermillion eye in the faint light. I took it up and turned it on. There were even more stalagmites of stuff in the basement, and I had to carefully navigate my way to her room.
Moonlight shone through her window. The window appeared glazed with grime, and yet, the light radiated onto a now-bare mattress, showing severe signs of aging. I imagined hearing cockroaches crawling within. I lay down, my heart speeding up, thinking of the chance it wasn’t my imagination, but all was still. The moonlight hit me directly in the face.
Still more stalagmites. I ran the pink circle about the room. Its faintness told me it was in need of batteries, but I speculated the metal of the battery compartment was turning to rust.
Soft lace was poking out of one of them like it was a hand. I knew what it was by the dried brown blood on that lovely lace. I thought Mother had thrown the dress away, but maybe I remembered wrong. Yeah, I remember. Mother was going to soak the dress. It went missing before she could soak the blood out.
The birthday incident was not what undid us. A few weeks later, Sophia and I were on the patio swing in the backyard. It was night-time, and she had drawn a large crescent moon on the beige patio before forming her body to look like she was side-straddling it. There was no moon, but a lantern was perched in between the two boughs of the tree the patio was built around.
“We’re nearly adults now,” she said.
“I don’t think so.”
“Can I say something?”
“I never said you couldn’t.”
She faced me. “I want to kiss you.”
I looked at her blankly – empty of expression.
She kissed me. She held onto my face and held her lips there like holding our lips together long enough would cause them to fuse together. The screen door of the back door opened and shut. Mother ran out, told Sophia to get her hands off me and slapped her. Our mothers had a conversation once her mother got off work. We all sat at the dining table we only used for Thanksgiving.
Each of us sat on a side of the table. Sophia and I sat across from each other. I cannot be certain if she looked at me, but I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t stand the sight of the red mark Mother’s hand had left behind. We were both deemed culpable. Sophia’s mother condoned the slap. Actually, she thanked Mother for doing it, acting like Mother had discovered cancer in its earliest stage. Mother turned to me and said at the beginning of the following week I’d be living with father, prohibiting Sophia and I from speaking.
I pulled the dress from the heap, and a roach jumped onto my arm. I smacked it off, did a convulsive dance of disgust and took off, with the plan to return with a garbage truck and a hazmat suit. I would fumigate. I promised myself I would clean the place up. It would be as beautiful as how I had left it, maybe even better. I didn’t think I could ever live in the house, not without feeling like I was living in a ghost, but I could fumigate it and clear it of all those clothes and abandoned items, and my mother could rent it out to another family. This was what I thought about as I moon-bathed on the bed for old times’ sake.
I had my feet dangling off the end of the bed. I was aware of how pathetic I looked, but I wanted to trick myself into feeling like it was pre-adolescence, and I birthed a new timeline in my mind where I managed to stay, where I fought to stay and won. Then I thought of a better one, where our mothers realized we were kids and forgave us, and we all got on with our lives in a super, stupid, feel-good manner. I didn’t stop my fantasy until I felt something crawling on my leg.
With that, I got up, left through the basement door, and left the house before the critters started eating me. At the time, it seemed likely. I took the dress with me. I still have it, and I got rid of the bloodstains.
Ashley Kay Bach is a Pitt student. She reads for Bartleby Snopes and works as a blogging intern at JuxtaProse. Have fun at https://ashleykaybach.wordpress.com.