I walked along the offbeat path that led to our house; steeling myself. Even though it was yards away I could already hear the fighting going on. Mum and Kenny, husband number four, were screaming at each other loud enough for the whole neighbourhood to hear. My stepfather had probably come home late after his shift at the car factory. Mum was always volatile and incredibly violent. She’d probably had a shitty day working at the nursing home and was looking for an excuse to lay into someone.
I deliberately spent a few hours at the shopping centre after school in the hope I wouldn’t run into a row at home. No such luck. As I rounded the corner the yelling grew even louder. Mrs Slyde the obese woman who lived in the home opposite was smoking on her front porch. As usual she regarded me with a toothless leer. Still despite her unfriendliness the old woman never seemed particularly bothered by the constant fights going on next door. The whole Slyde family was weird.
All her sons were in jail for god knows what and the husband never came out of the house. The curtains were permanently drawn and they had a couple of half-starved savage dogs roaming around the fenced up yard. Every so often someone on our road called animal control. The inspectors came to take the unhappy animals away but the Slydes always seemed to acquire more from somewhere.
The front lawn was strewn with piles of dog excrement and broken furniture. God knows what the inside of the house looked like.
I tried to shrug off the old woman’s hostile gaze and readied myself as I walked through the front door. Daryl my sixteen year old half-brother was watching MTV at top volume evidently trying to block out the shouting. He waved a greeting and rolled his eyes knowingly at me as the yelling continued. Daryl was tall and lean as a young hound. He kept his strawberry blonde hair shaved close to his head in a crew cut and always wore the same Manchester United baseball cap. Due to the difference in fathers there were few resemblances between us. He’d always been very blasé about the fights that went on with Mum’s various partners. Daryl’s dad was Mikey; mum’s first boyfriend from secondary school. He came around from the caravan park to visit sometimes bringing the two little kids he’d had with his second wife. Mum couldn’t stand Mikey now but he wasn’t a bad sort.
I had never known my father although Daryl vaguely remembered him. My dad was apparently somewhere between husband two and three. He never married Mum – they just had a drunken one night stand at some bar in town. After I came along he didn’t want to know. It was the reason why my surname was taken after Gary, Mum’s third husband. I had been genuinely devastated when they split up. Gary had been a surrogate father to me. He drove a pick-up truck and owned his own delivery company. Sometimes he’d take me for a drive after school. Eventually Mum’s volatile behaviour sent Gary packing as well though he occasionally phoned to ask how I was doing.
I threw my school bag on the living room table and manoeuvred myself onto the faux leather sofa in front of the television.
“You motherfucker! Every god damn day I have to come home and see you like this, drunk as a skunk!” Mum screamed. I flinched as the ash tray she’d just launched at my step dad’s head missed and crashed against the wall, rolling to the stop near my feet. Kenny was a big guy; heavily tattooed with a large brown beard. He’d managed to dodge the malevolent missile but was throwing his hands up in exasperation. Notably he didn’t seem particularly intoxicated either.
“Marilyn you crazy bitch! You almost tagged Lou with that thing. Would you please calm down? I went for a drink with the lads after work, that’s all!” Mum shook her first at him fading bleached blonde hair falling around her sun bronzed face.
“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down! I work my arse off every day putting in the hours and have to come home to you liquored up!”
“I had two beers! For the love of Christ!” Kenny roared. And on it went.
* * * *
The next morning I practically fell over myself getting out the house. My stepfather had walked out not long after the ash tray incident and come back when it was dark. Unfortunately Mum had been waiting for him and it all kicked off again at around midnight. I locked myself in the bedroom I shared with Daryl. However the two of them were making so much noise arguing that when I finally got to sleep it was near three.
Kenny wasn’t crashing in the front room so they must have made up at some point. Daryl was still in bed. He played truant from school often – said he was going to join the army and didn’t need any grades to make it which was probably true. I snuck out the house quietly; not wanting to run into Mum before she left for work. There wasn’t much food left in the kitchen. After digging around I managed to find an old bottle of mountain dew and a packet of crisps in the back of a cupboard.
As I hurried out old Mrs Slyde was sitting on her front porch as usual. Crouching like a large toad on the edge of a pond, she puffed away on a cigarette. The old woman granted me her usual unfriendly look then turned away; tiny pig like eyes staring mournfully into the distance. I continued running. Didn’t want to be late for school.
* * * *
Unless I stayed with Daryl and his friends I didn’t have anyone to hang around with. But although I was something of a loner I always enjoyed classes. Mum had actually been a good student as well before she went off the rails as a teenager. I’d seen some of her old reports.
The day was fine until lunchtime. One of the older bullies, a big ginger lad of fifteen, jeered at me across the lunch room; saying that I stank like the trash I came from. He wasn’t the first. The area I lived in was such a notorious dump nasty kids always had to comment. Mum had encouraged me and Daryl to stand up to anyone who started on us so I swung a fist, punching him square on the nose. I don’t think he expected a girl to fight him back. I was surprised when his nose spurted with blood and he dropped like a stone. I started pummelling him remorselessly until one of the lunch staff dragged me away and I got hauled into the head mistresses office. Great. Now I was in for it.
Instead of the furious reprimand I expected – the headmistress, Mrs Strathern, a pretty young woman with a smart ponytail asked me solemnly what had happened. I told her the truth; that the other kid had started by picking on me. The head mistress surprised me by asking how things were at home. I sensed she didn’t blame me for fighting so instead I shrugged and mumbled back.
“Pretty good.” She tried probing me some more but I refused to give any details. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the office windows and could only guess at how messy I looked. A skinny fourteen year old girl with straggly blonde hair, very poor skin and scruffy hand me down clothes. Mrs Strathern leaned forward with her hands on her knees and spoke confidentially.
“Louise, you would tell me if something was bothering you wouldn’t you?” I nodded, tongue tied.
The head mistress looked at me one more time, then sighed and averted her eyes. She dropped a card with the school counsellor’s email address into my lap, telling me to get in touch with him if I thought of anything I wanted to talk about. I took it and gratefully left the office. Probably wasn’t the time to say that no one in my family owned a computer.
* * * *
On the walk back home I couldn’t hear the usual fighting issuing from the house. Either Mum hadn’t come home yet or Kenny was still at work. However I suddenly heard a furious barking and one of the Slyde’s rough mutts came zooming at me down the old footpath. The fence to the Slyde’s yard was significantly high, so it must have bitten a board loose or dug a hole and gotten free. I quite liked dogs (we’d had a lovely Staffordshire bull terrier called Molly that Mum had eventually got bored with and given away) but the Slyde’s were always distinctly unfriendly.
This one was some kind of brindle coloured mastiff. The hairy monster was snarling and lunging at me. I was desperately making a break for it when I saw Mrs Slyde waddling down the dusty path. A cigarette was hanging from her lips and she moved surprisingly fast, grabbing the dog by its rusty collar. I noticed that the poor brute’s ribs were clearly visible through its fur. The old woman dragged the unhappy creature home and kicked it back into the yard with the other malnourished pets.
“Go on. Git!” She turned to look at me and for the first time spoke apologetically. “Sorry gel. That one ain’t friendly much.” I shrugged. I’d had worse done in my time. Usually when Mum broke up with a partner and turned her fists on me.
“No problem.” Mrs Slyde regarded me mistrustfully. Up close she stank rankly of sour sweat and old tobacco.
“Ain’t gonna call animal control on me are yer?”
“Nah.” After a pause the old woman shot me a toothless grin.
“Can hear your ma yellin’ and hollerin’ at all times of night. Guessin’ you got enough on your plate already, huh?” She hit the nail on the head and I nodded. Mrs Slyde winked knowingly.
“Come inside. Let me fix you a drink. Least I can do since you almost got bitten an all.” Some part of me knew this was a bad idea but I was morbidly curious to see the interior of the house. Plus, I appreciated that she was trying to be friendly for once. I followed Mrs Slyde stepping carefully over the excrement and trash covered grass. A couple of the dogs looked like they were going to go for me again. However the old woman waved her stick at them warningly and the hungry creatures backed off.
Inside, it was blessedly free of vicious animals but by god it stank to high heaven. I thought my bedroom was pretty messy but it was nothing compared to this. Rooms were filled to the brim with rubbish. The floor was covered with clothes and mouldering take out boxes, old newspapers and rotten food. She must have been hoarding it all for years. There was literally no place where the floor could be seen through the waste. Mrs Slyde was stubbing her cigarette out on a door frame.
She nodded in agreement, evidently interpreting the look on my face.
“Place has gone to hell since all my boys growed up and left. I got me back problems so bad I can barely bend down no more. They all locked up otherwise they’d be here helping.” I nodded though I was privately thinking her gargantuan weight had more to do with that than anything else. The old woman lumbered forwards on her stick and tilted her head towards the kitchen.
“Come on. Let’s getcha that drink.” She pointed to a few photographs of her sons, muttering about the injustice of their prison sentences.
“They said my boy Joe Lee was fiddlin’ kids at the school he was cleanin’. Bullshit! He’d never hurt a fly.” I grunted in answer, trying to ignore this disturbing revelation by focusing on the legions of roaches scuttling down the peeling wall paper.
The curtains were all closed. Until Mrs Slyde got the lights on I couldn’t move around without tripping. The old woman hobbled into the kitchen and here the smell got even worse. It was indescribable. Stank like someone had bunged an old rubbish bag in the oven and cooked it at high pressure so all the foul juices leaked out. I wanted to put a hand over my nose it was that bad. I tried breathing through my mouth instead.
I could see a dark shape hunched over a table and realised it was probably her husband. Mum had told me once that the old man was intensely agoraphobic and that was why no one had seen him for such a long time. I hoped my presence wouldn’t make him freak out too much. It wasn’t until Mrs Slyde flipped a switch and the light bulb fluttered on in the kitchen than I gave a yell of fright.
There was no husband seated there. Instead it was a rotting stinking corpse.
The carcass was huge. It was bloated up by gasses in the atmosphere anyway but in life Mr Slyde must have been even fatter than his wife. Maggots swarmed in his empty eye sockets and clouds of flies buzzed droning around his head. Putrid liquids ran down his chin.
“Don’t worry about him none.” Old Mrs Slyde was holding out a stained glass of cola and looking concerned at my terror. ‘That’s just my Caleb. He ain’t gonna hurtcha.” I felt myself gaping like an idiot.
“He’s… he’s dead!” The gag I had been holding in until now immediately came gurgling out of my throat. The pitiful lunch I had consumed at school a few hours before seemed about ready to spew everywhere.
“Course he is. Why dyu think I got the dogs outside and them curtains closed? I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry coming over and bothering him.”
“But…!” The old woman was looking at me like I was simple minded.
“I can’t be cashing his disability cheques if them men at the tax place think he’s still alive now, can I? We all got to get by.” I wanted to run away. I wanted to scream. Being so close to a bloated stinking carcass was so physically repulsive the impulse was overwhelming. I had no idea how in the hell the old woman managed to live her squalid life with him permanently seated and rotting at the dining table.
“Plus we bin married forty five years give or take. He was daddy to my boys.” The old woman put her arm about the bloated body and cooed at it like a babe. I felt my stomach lurch again as I noticed the putrid juices run unchecked down her sweat stained clothing. “I likes having him here. I know he takes care of me.” She chucked the chin of the gas ridden thing. ‘Dontcha, darlin?” She glared at me as if I was being unreasonable. “Plus we dance. Like old times.” She took the rotting hands and made as if to pull the massive body upwards. I’d had enough. The madness, the sordid insanity was too much.
I bolted from the room and sprinted gagging and sobbing out of the filthy doom laden household. Some of the dogs looked to bolt out after me but I jumped the fence without a moment’s hesitation, hurtling towards my house. Mum and Kenny were screaming at each other again but for once I didn’t care. Home sweet home.
Cordelia Harrison has a fascination for all things gothic and macabre. She primarily writes dark fiction. Her stories have appeared in Mirror Dance.