by Brian James Freeman
Erin and Russ stand with their mother in the living room of Gram-Gram's home, surveying their surroundings as if they've never seen this place before. Quite the opposite is true, of course. The twins practically grew up here while their mother worked two jobs to pay the bills. Yet today the house feels different. Somehow it looks different, too, even though nothing obvious has changed.
"She's been having good days and bad days," their mother says for the third time since they left Gram-Gram's cool, sterile room at the Sunny Days Hospice Home. "I'm sorry she had a bad day today."
"Mom, it's okay," Erin says, also for the third time.
"What can we help with?" Russ wants to steer the conversation away from their beloved grandmother's final, confusing weeks. The twins haven't visited with their mother or Gram-Gram very much since they left for college last fall, but now they're home for Easter break and they understand the weight their mother has been carrying all on her own.
"I can't just sit around, waiting for her to..." their mother says, trailing off. "I can't just sit and wait. I need to feel useful, so I guess I'd like to start the prep work to sell the house."
The house. Not Gram-Gram's house, not the house where Gram-Gram and Pop-Pop raised her. Just the house. Erin and Russ exchange a look. They haven't even taken an intro to psychology class, but they recognize the emotional distancing at play with their mother's choice of words.
She continues, "It'll be tons of work, I mean, but maybe we can start packing a few boxes for Goodwill. What do you kids think?"
"Absolutely, we're game," Erin answers for both of them.
"Great!" Their mother's face lights up a little, just for a second, as if they've decided to plan a surprise party for someone they love instead of preparing her childhood home for sale while an aggressive cancer eats away at her mother.
"We'll start in the attic," Russ says. "There's a lot to sort through."
"Perfect!" their mother replies, once again with too much enthusiasm. "I'll run to the store and get some boxes. Will you kids be okay here by yourselves?"
"Absolutely," Erin and Russ say in unison.
After their mother leaves, the twins make their way up the dusty stairs to the second floor. They both grip the handrail tightly out of habit, not even aware of their actions. This was where Pop-Pop slipped and fell one spring day when they were eight years old, breaking his neck at the bottom. He died instantly.
Their mother and Gram-Gram were devastated, and Russ cried on and off for days after the funeral. Pop-Pop had been his favorite person in the entire world.
Yet Erin wasn't particularly sad about the old man's passing, although even at the tender age of eight she knew to keep those thoughts to herself. She had feared Pop-Pop in a way Russ never did. It wasn't that Pop-Pop raised his voice at her or hit her or threatened her or anything awful like that; there was just something off about the way he sometimes looked at her, causing her a sense of unease she couldn't exactly explain or even describe. This is not something Erin has ever shared with anyone. What would have been the point once he was gone?
Gram-Gram's decline began right around her husband's death, a connection the twins made as they grew older. First her mobility decreased, then there were serious health scares including a possible stroke, then the memory loss appeared with frightening stealth, and finally the cancer arrived in the night like a thief. It's been a difficult decade for the graceful woman they love so very much.
When the twins reach the second floor, they stop under the familiar attic access. As kids, they discovered they could reach the knotted pull-down cord with the assistance of a chair borrowed from Gram-Gram's sewing room, and over time they turned the attic into their own little clubhouse. Russ grabs that cord and tugs it toward the floor. The compact ladder unfolds with a shrill screech and darkness greets them from the opening in the ceiling.
"Do you want to go first or should I?" Russ asks.
"You first. You know I'm a total coward about the dark."
It has been many years and quite a few pounds since Russ last made this climb, and the first wooden rung groans under him. He pauses, confirms the ladder is actually holding his weight, and then continues upward. He vanishes into the dark. The attic's wooden floorboards creak and whine. There's a thud as he trips on something and sends it flying, but before Erin can ask if he's okay, a dull light flickers and fills the opening above her.
"Come on up," Russ calls. "Watch your step, though. It's really bad."
Erin joins her brother in the attic with the sloped ceiling, the musty smell of departed summers, and hundreds of cobwebs dancing in the shadows as spiders vanish into their hiding places. She barely notices these things, which she was expecting, because of what she wasn't expecting.
A dresser has been pushed over and the contents of the drawers are strewn around the dirty floor. Cardboard boxes are overturned and decades worth of paperwork is scattered. The family's ancient board game boxes have been opened and tossed. Two full-length mirrors lay on their sides like fallen soldiers, their glass shattered. Moth-eaten clothes, including Gram-Gram's yellowed wedding dress, are tattered and torn. Framed family portraits and watercolor paintings bought decades ago at Sears & Roebuck have been freed of their frames and ripped into pieces.
Russ says, "Maybe this was one of Gram-Gram's bad days."
"But what was she doing?"
"Looking for something, I guess."
"Where do we even start?"
"Maybe we'll just gather similar things together, you know? Refold the clothing from the dresser, reassemble the games, that sort of thing."
"Okay," Erin says. "I'll fold the clothing since you couldn't get that right to save your life."
"Hey, I tried folding the laundry once. I didn't see the point. The clothes just get unfolded again. No one wears a folded shirt!"
They don't say much else while they work, but they're not working in silence, either. The floorboards whimper with every movement and the wind assaults the roof, howling in the eaves. Russ and Erin remember these sounds from when the attic served as their secret playroom, but the space seems so much smaller now -- and those sounds are somehow louder and bleaker.
When the dresser has been returned to its rightful place with the contents neatly stored away, the twins begin gathering the components of the board games that landed in every nook and cranny the attic has to offer.
Erin is deep under the sloped roof, nearly to the place where the floor and the ceiling meet, when she stops and ponders something she has spotted.
"Russ," Erin says, "come look at this."
"What's up?" Russ asks, crawling in next to her.
"I saw this piece from the Monopoly game," she says, showing him the little silver rocking horse, "but the head of the horse was stuck between these two floorboards. That's when I realized this board wasn't actually nailed down."
She lifts the board and they peer into the dark space. Russ removes his phone from his pocket, activating the flashlight app. Neither really expects to find anything, other than maybe some dust and more cobwebs, so they're both surprised by the wooden cigar box sitting on top of the lath and plaster ceiling of the bedroom below them.
"What do you think it is?" Russ asks.
"A cigar box, you dork."
"I mean, why's it hidden up here?"
"No idea. Should we open it?"
"Well, who else will?"
Erin nods. She carefully removes the box from where it has been stashed away from prying eyes, wipes at the thick layer of dust, and lifts the lid. Russ positions his phone's light so they can see inside. They stare for a very long time.
"What does it mean?" Erin asks, studying the unexpected contents.
"I'm not sure." Russ removes the school ID cards from inside the cigar box. Most of them are plastic, although they're older than the colorful ID cards Russ and Erin carry, but underneath those are even more IDs printed on cardstock, some of which are old enough to only have the student's name, the year, and the school logo.
"Russ... the photos," Erin whispers.
Russ understands, but he cannot find the words to reply. The IDs all belonged to women. Dozens and dozens of women over many decades.
And in many subtle but unmistakable ways, these women resemble how their mother and their Gram-Gram look in photos taken during their late teens and early twenties.
In fact, these women are the spitting image of Erin now.
The twins sit at the kitchen table with the IDs spread across the green tablecloth as if they're playing some kind of card game.
The oldest ID is dated 1967 and the faded information is printed on crumpled card stock, no lamination to protect it. The woman's name is Jennifer Mitchell and the University of Pennsylvania issued the card. The newest one is dated 2007 and the student named Cindy Smith bears such a strong resemblance to Erin that the twins wonder if this woman could somehow be related to them. That ID is from Penn State University and it was issued the year before Pop-Pop fell down the stairs and broke his neck.
"Are you going to do it or am I?" Russ asks.
"I don't think I can."
They're staring at their phones, which sit on the table just out of easy reach as if the devices are unwanted, unloved, even hated. Normally, the phones never leave their hands or pockets, but at this moment they represent a true and present danger to Erin and Russ's understanding of their family and the people they love. With one Internet search, maybe two, their suspicions could be confirmed. They've watched enough reruns of CSI and Criminal Minds to identify a serial killer's trophy collection when they see it. This search cannot end well, but what else can they do?
"Aw shit," Russ mutters, reaching for his phone. He looks at the most recent ID card and then types the woman's name, her school, and the year into the search bar. Seconds later they have confirmation. He slides the phone over to Erin so she can read it for herself.
"Penn State student Cindy Smith missing for two weeks," she says, glancing from the archived news story to the ID card. "Harrisburg Patriot News. April 30, 2008."
She takes the phone and types in the information from the second most recent ID card. Within seconds, those results are conclusive, too. She slides the phone back to her brother.
"Slippery Rock student Amanda Miller still missing one year later," Russ reads. "This story is from the Butler Eagle, dated April 25, 2005."
Even though they're certain of what they'll learn, they continue passing the phone back and forth, searching for each woman's name and school. It soon becomes clear the missing women have never been found. Some of the stories are from the tenth or twentieth or even thirtieth anniversary of a disappearance. Always in April.
There are countless mentions of loved ones desperately wishing for closure. There are some families who've decided it's better to believe their daughter simply ran away and is living a happy life somewhere. There are even wild explanations to rationalize how a person could vanish without a trace. "Maybe she hit her head," suggested the brother of Julie Dean, a Shippensburg University student who went missing while hiking the Appalachian Trail in April of 1987, "and she forgot her name and she's working in a diner somewhere and she don't even know she's a missing person."
Erin and Russ understand the truth that Julie Dean's brother and many of the others cannot accept. None of these women are in California trying to make it big, or suffering from amnesia in a small town, or traveling through Europe with a rich prince they met on holiday. These women are dead.
"There are years between some of these, and some were in consecutive Aprils," Russ says.
"Is there a pattern?" Those formulaic crime-solving shows are suddenly coming in handy.
"Not that I can see."
The two siblings are so engrossed by their discovery that they don't hear their mother's car roll into the driveway. If she hadn't locked the kitchen door behind herself, obeying a habit established in early childhood when her father warned her repeatedly about the dangers of the outside world, she would have walked right into the kitchen and seen the ID cards on the table. But there's just enough warning for Russ to slide the cards into a pile and shove them roughly into his pocket.
"Oh, hey kids," their mother says as she enters the kitchen, feigning happiness again. "I bought some boxes. Can you get them out of the car for me?"
"Yes!" Erin and Russ answer in unison.
They do their best to act normal for the rest of the day, not giving their mother any indication of the awful knowledge they possess, but she still asks them several times if they're all right.
They say yes, of course, right as rain. What could possibly be wrong?
When the elevator doors slide open, Erin and Russ step into the bright and deceitfully cheery hallway of the fourth floor of the Sunny Days Hospice Home. Their previous visit with Gram-Gram the day before feels like a million years ago. Their shoes seem too heavy, squeaking loudly on the buffed floor. A television blares an episode of Jeopardy from one room, but most of the other rooms are silent.
"Are you really going to ask her?" Russ whispers.
"We have to try to ask her."
"But it's Pop-Pop. He never acted nuts, you know? How could he be a killer?"
"That's what I want to find out." Erin's tone is familiar to anyone in the family. She's made up her mind and nothing can change it.
When the twins arrive at the end of the hallway, Russ has a flash of intuition. Gram-Gram will be dead. Her cooling corpse will be slumped in her bed, highlighted by a beam of sunlight pouring in through the window. He and Erin will be devastated, of course, but they also won't have to ask about their grandfather's horrific hobby--and maybe that'll be a blessing.
His intuition is wrong, though.
When Erin knocks and pushes the door open, Gram-Gram is very much alive. Her eyes are closed and she is in a sunbeam as he imagined, but she's sitting in the chair by the window. The sunlight washes across her pale, gray, wrinkled face. She's dressed in a cloth gown and her deflated chest rises and falls.
Yesterday, she couldn't leave the bed and the words she hissed reminded Russ of The Exorcist. He has never tried to talk Erin into watching that one, even though he loves to frighten her with horror films. She scares easily. Yet, here she is, being the brave one, ready to ask her unaskable questions.
"Oh my," their Gram-Gram replies, opening her eyes and turning her head. Her eyes are blue and sharp, not the cloudy and confused orbs the twins saw the day before. "Erin? Russell? Oh, it's so good to see you! You're getting so big!"
"Hi, Gram-Gram," Russ says, forcing himself to speak.
"Please sit." She gestures toward the visitor chairs pushed against the wall under a flat-screen television.
Her chair can swivel and she uses her bony feet to glide herself around to face them. The sunlight makes her glow as if she's more alive than ever, yet even in the radiance of one of her good days the twins recognize how little is left of her.
"How are you? How is school? Not fucking around too much, I hope?"
Her voice is the same as they remember, but the words aren't. The woman they've loved all their lives would never use profanity, not even if she accidentally cut off her thumb while preparing a roast. But their mother has warned them that Gram-Gram's mental filters are gone even on her best of days and she has shocked her own daughter several times by unleashing the crass language she apparently kept locked inside her head for most of her life.
"School is great," Erin replies without missing a beat. "Gram-Gram, how are you feeling?"
"Oh, I might be having a good day, truth be told," their grandmother says, her coffee-colored teeth showing in a crooked smile on her too-thin face. She gives them a comically burlesque wink. "Haven't had many of those lately. Oh, I'm just so happy to see you both! Is your mother here?"
"Mom doesn't know we came. Russ and I... we have to ask you about something."
"Oh, what's that?"
Erin glances at Russ and he removes the ID cards from his pocket, his trembling fingers nearly dropping them to the floor. He holds them out for their grandmother to see more easily. Her eyes blink and focus. The smile fades and Russ cannot place the new expression that appears briefly on her face and vanishes just as quickly. Guilt, maybe?
"You found those goddamned mementos? Well, I'm glad it was you! Someone needed to and my brain is turning to mush and I couldn't. I searched everywhere. Good for you, kids. Good for you."
"But Gram-Gram, how could anyone do something so awful?" Erin asks.
"It's hard to explain, I'm afraid. Pop-Pop and I had so many fights about that damn ritual and yet I still don't truly understand. Each year April would roll around and if the weather was nice... well, things just kind of happened. Once the dirty business was taken care of, life went back to normal. But can you imagine the talk if the neighbors found out? Every year I'd pray for an ugly April. Then the nastiness wouldn't happen at all! But some years April would be pretty and sunny and fuck me it's a miracle the police never came knocking on our door. Not even once!"
"But those young women..." Erin's voice trails off as the question dies in her throat.
"Yes, dreadful, fucking dreadful. Their families will never have closure and I feel terrible about that. Your Pop-Pop and I argued many times about doing something to help, maybe mailing anonymous letters to the families. One of our fights actually got a little too heated and down the steps Pop-Pop went! I wish he hadn't, but he did, and I guess now you know the truth about his death, which is right, I believe. You should know. Maybe don't tell your mother, though!"
Erin and Russ are stunned into silence. They stare at their grandmother, who is smiling and speaking of horrible things they never even imagined possible when they drove home from college just twenty-four hours ago. Nothing feels real, nothing feels right. Not their thoughts and not their world, which they are seeing with cynical new eyes.
"But Gram-Gram," Russ finally says, "Why did Pop-Pop kill those young women?"
Their grandmother's lips twitch and her eyes fog a bit, glazing over like they did yesterday. Russ fears she's slipping back into the place she goes on her bad days, but then her eyes brighten and that odd expression passes across her face again, the one he saw when she first gazed at the ID cards. It wasn't guilt at all, he realizes. It was pride.
"Oh dearie," she whispers with a sly grin, "Not Pop-Pop."
-- end --
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