By Marnie Lyn Adams
The odor—the putrid stink of human feces—woke him.
Ethan Jacobson’s long frame covered the narrow bed. The room was spartan, monk-like, devoid of teenage trappings. Besides the bed, the room contained an end table, a small desk and chair, and a dresser, all stripped of any personality beyond their primary function. The walls were bare; the closet contained a dozen hangers of shirts, jeans, and nothing else. Ethan’s room was spotless, a personal oasis in a sea of chaos. More than anything, Ethan wished he could be normal, but Mother’s house was a monument to the seductive power of hoarding.
The year prior, Ethan moved anything of value—Hardy Boys books, baseball trophies, and fishing poles—to his dad’s place to prevent the corrosion that permeated Mother’s from polluting what he treasured most.
The scent of spoilage invaded the lingering tendrils of sleep, along with Mother’s raw voice, “I couldn’t make it.” Mother used laxatives to lose weight but only succeeded in regularly losing control of her bowels. Mother was more massive now than she’d ever been or than either of them had imagined possible, her thighs hanging low over the sides of her motorized chair: a dirty, melted snowman of humanity. Often Ethan was so sickened by what she’d become, he could hardly look at her. Countless nights he had lain in bed wishing she would hurry up and die already.
Besides her weight, Mother’s constant companion was an oxygen tank, which rested against her leg like another appendage—the prize for thirty-plus years of smoking. She’d tried patches, pills, and gum, but gave up, satisfied with a life lived in a rolling chair, planted in the living room, chain-smoking to the rhythmic hum of air fed through the clear plastic tubing looped at her nostrils. The only abatement to the steady stream of oxygen was the sucking sounds of her cigarettes and occasional shouts discharged from the decades-old television. Mother sweated perpetually, so much her hair was often wet from it, and they both pretended the perspiration and the rank musk it emitted were normal. Mother used air freshening spray incessantly and kept a can beside her post in the living room; rather than mask the nicotine and body odor and contamination, it added another layer to it and created a whole new nauseating scent, supplementing the continuous clawing smog with a fine aerosol mist.
“Come on. I’m tired of sittin’ in this shit.”
Any guilt Ethan harbored wishing her dead dissipated the moment she spoke. He lowered his head to the pillow and felt around the nightstand for his glasses. He heard her motorized chair roll close enough he could smell her breath, a pungent whiff, like she was rotting from the inside.
“I’m askin’ you to help me out. Not sure why I went to all the trouble to birth you.”
He thought—and knew not to say it—otherwise, there’d be no one to wipe your ass.
Other than cigarettes, Mother subsisted on monthly disability checks, child support, and the occasional generosity of some otherwise disconnected relative. Mother herself was disconnected from life: she did not have to be in the motorized chair; it was a choice, one which disgusted Ethan. Lazy, pathetic, cow! Over the years, doctors had recommended physical therapy. But Mother was more comfortable in the chair, finding it simpler to pretend to be invalid than to admit the fault for her condition was her own. Now she moldered in a fifteen-hundred square foot coffin, allowing her body and her belongings to decay. Once, when the Jacobson’s were a family of three, their neighbor, Mrs. Worthington, called their home a dollhouse but after years of neglect and hoarding, the dwelling seemed embarrassed by its current state, smothered by the ceiling-high piles, sagged on its foundation, confused as to why it was no longer loved.
Mrs. Worthington lived across the street. Ethan secretly wished Mrs. Worthington was his mom: she always smelled of sugar cookies and baby powder; she slipped him lemon drops; and she gave the best hugs—long enough and hard enough to know she truly cared.
Ethan could point to the moment the outright hatred began: The summer he’d turned thirteen. Mother had given away his dog, Rex—or that’s what she’d told him. Rex had been a present from his dad just before moving out. Mother focused her acrimony over the divorce on the ugly thing—directly proportionate to how much Ethan loved Rex. Ethan relished every moment spent with his dog; Rex and sunrise fishing served as Ethan’s only respites from an otherwise sordid life. That day, after mowing at Mrs. Worthington’s, Ethan had come home, excited to play with Rex. Mother had claimed she was tired of the trouble and had given the damn mutt away. He’d cried. He’d stood there in the living room, sweaty from his work, grass clippings stuck to his socks and the green-stained toes of the shoes that barely fit him and sobbed huge tears he was too heartbroken to wipe away.
It was three days later, when he was mowing their own yard that the smell hit him. In the back corner of the lot was a shallow grave. The remains of his beloved dog lay inside, baked for hours in the 100-degree heat. This time he didn’t cry but stood stoic, immobilized and hardened by grief. After a few minutes, Ethan went inside and grabbed Mother’s favorite blanket, wrapped Rex in it, and placed the cocooned body in their wheelbarrow. That night, in the neighborhood park a few blocks away, he found an area underneath a weeping willow tree, near his favorite fishing spot, and gave Rex a loving burial.
The next morning, Mother had asked, “Didja sleep good?”
He thought—and knew better than to say it—Rot. In. Hell.
Ethan loved his dad, Owen, and stepmom, Claire, and after Rex’s death, he tried living with them—acting like a kid, laughing even. But Mother kept having medical emergencies, showing up at his school, calling at three in the morning—leaving Ethan frustrated and overwhelmed. Although his dad and Claire encouraged him to stay, Ethan felt guilty about the disruption to their lives and upset it caused his two-year-old half-brother, Todd. After months of harassment, Ethan packed a small bag of clothes and asked his dad for a ride back. Ethan stared out the passenger window—careful to hide his silent tears of defeat.
It took less than ten minutes to return to his mother’s madness. As a reward, Mother was contrite for an entire week.
Now, Ethan struggled moving Mother from her chair to the bed; her mass overwhelmed him. If you fall, I can’t pick you up. Like Owen, Ethan was tall and gangly: a buck seventy on a six-foot-four frame. When people remarked on his size, Mother was quick to claim, “He gets it from me. I was a size 2 in high school.” That comment always elicited an epic silence; Mother oblivious her bragging fell flat and pathetic.
Once Mother was splayed face-down across her king-sized bed, the uncomfortable smell became unbearable. And after her pants were pulled down, and the scope of her accident revealed, Ethan had to concentrate not to gag over the lumpy, coagulated excrement. Mother was indifferent to the odor or the unthinkable burden placed on her sixteen-year-old son.
“If I’d known how agreeable it’d make you, I woulda killed that damn dog weeks earlier.”
Ethan could not breathe. Could not think. Could not feel.
Mother hacked out a dry laugh, spraying a cloud of nicotine. “You wouldn’t believe the squeal he made the first few times I kicked ‘im.”
Rage: Ethan felt it rise as a wave through his body. Flush with raw emotion, he thought—and now had the power to say it—”Was it something like this?”
With Mother still face-down on the mattress, Ethan picked up her oxygen tank and crushed it down on her skull; she shrieked and never moved again. He hit her once for every insult, each belittling remark. He did not feel the warm blood splatter across his face but kept hitting her, again and again, for the countless days of pain and hopeless nights of turmoil. Ethan struck her for making his childhood an endless cycle of crazy-making and abuses.
When he was finished, his energy spent, Ethan laid the tank next to the ruined carcass of his now dead mother. And called 9-1-1. Ethan told the operator what he’d done and where they could find him. Then he walked out the front door and closed it quietly behind him, mindless of the bits of brain and skull covering his entire upper body. He took a long, slow, deep breath of clean air. And smiled.
Neighbors would later recall his spirited walk—whistling even—as he strolled the three blocks to the park, where he sat down near his favorite fishing spot, under the weeping willow, and waited.
Category: Featured, Short Story