Gina’s husband Ethan was leaving and taking their daughter with him. He stood in the foyer jangling his keys as if he still hoped his wife might snap out of it so they could go back to normal.
“Do you have anything to say?” he asked.
“Please keep the floor under Willa’s bed clean,” she said.
“You’re sick.” His voice wobbled. “Use this time to get help, Gina. Please.”
Gina’s sneakers were as white as bleached teeth. She studied her perfectly tied laces and willed herself not to cry along with him. She had to remain calm because Ethan loved her best when she was reasonable.
“Please make sure there is no dirt under Willa’s bed,” she said.
Ethan’s normally kind brown eyes went hard and she knew he thought she had lost her mind. Her skin felt filmed with slime as he turned away, pressing his eye with the heel of his hand, hiding his tears as he left her.
She stood still after he left, like a deer whose only camouflage was stillness. From upstairs there was a faint rustling and a male voice laughing. Ethan would say she was imagining things because he had grown up in a happy family with parents who loved him. Gina’s hearing was painfully accurate, honed by years of being a child in a profoundly dangerous home.
There was another rustle as quiet as a strand of hair falling from Willa’s hairbrush, rolling with a flake of dry skin from Ethan’s scalp, clinging to lint from Gina’s pocket. And again there was the familiar male laughter that sent Gina running to fetch bleach and a fresh rag for cleaning.
Gina knew the monster under the bed was born the year she was an eighteen-year-old UC Berkeley undergrad still living at home. When Gina was eight a swift cancer had blown through their mother’s brittle body and just like that she was gone. Since then, aside from school, Gina’s whole life was focused on doing everything she could to draw their father’s attention away from her little sister Carina. Gina was the one with the strength to withstand their father’s meaty hands and his disgusting weight when she failed to fight him off. Her job was to protect her sister no matter what.
There were occasional hours of reprieve when on Fridays their father went drinking with friends after work. He drank to obliteration those nights and sometimes instead of driving home went to sleep in the back of his truck until morning. Gina counted on that reprieve one Friday in October, when she encouraged Carina to attend an overnight trip with her Honors Biology class. They were going to Muir Woods for a nature immersion and Gina had forged the permission slips with their father’s name so that she could go.
“Text me if you need me,” Gina said before Carina boarded the bus with the other egghead freshmen in her class. Carina had skipped eighth grade and was young even among the youngsters. Her bangs hung low across her forehead and her round glasses enlarged her eyes just enough to give her the look of a pale and observant baby owl.
“He’s going to be mad,” Carina said.
“For the next twenty-four hours I want you never to think of him.” Gina tucked a lock of hair behind her sister’s ear. “Promise me.”
Gina watched the bus until it turned the corner and she was satisfied that her sister was safely gone.
Later that day after working a shift in the dining hall, Gina crossed Sproul Plaza alone. The air cooled as the fog rolled in from the Bay and she spread her arms as she walked, opening her rib cage to take a deep unfettered breath.
Carina was right, of course. Their father would be mad. Overnights away from home were forbidden for whatever reasons that rattled around in his diseased brain. He was always mad anyway. Rage was how their father moved and breathed in the world. Rage connected his bones and held together the molecules of his cells.
If he decided to stay in his truck in the parking lot of the bar until the sun rose, they would be fine. If he came home and found himself alone in the house, Gina would pay, but she would make sure that she would be the only one to pay.
If it weren’t for Carina, Gina would have long moved out. She would have slept in the park if she had to. But she would never leave her sister to deal with their father alone and she would also never throw her on the mercy of social services and foster fathers Gina wouldn’t know and couldn’t protect her from. Their combined youth weighed like a yoke around their necks, weighting them for the time being to their father and his filthy house.
But not that night. That Friday night with Carina safe on a field trip, Gina strode past the pool where evening swimmers lapped across the water. She longed to stay and watch them but she was headed to a party. On Monday a flyer appeared on a bulletin board outside her lab class for a Friday night Geography Club mixer on the fifth floor balcony. She didn’t consider it until Ethan, the grad student who ran her Climate Change seminar, suggested to the class that anyone interested in the major should go.
Gina considered her crush on Ethan to be a very good sign. She’d read that abused girls often grew up to love abusive men but Ethan could never be like that. And if she could fall for a guy who was decent and kind, then there was hope for Carina too.
Gina’s hopes grew when she reached the balcony party where a circle of shabby couches on a threadbare oriental rug made up a makeshift outdoor lounge. There were trays of cheese and crackers and fruit on low tables and students talking and laughing as if the world was a good place to be.
Gina found a perch on the arm of a couch beside Ethan. The actual professor of her Climate Change class had a thick Scottish accent and his lectures were barely intelligible but in seminar Ethan made the workings of atmospheric circulation seem as clear as common sense. His eyes were deep brown and intense, softened by a youthful face marked by dimples that dented his cheeks when he smiled. He also had a reputation for being so straight laced that he wouldn’t date his students.
To Gina, Ethan emanated safety and order. He would never do anything to hurt a woman. Maybe the proof was in the dimpled smile that reached all the way to his eyes when she or any of the students could give a right answer. Or maybe it was the way he managed to move among his students in the lab with his elbows tucked in, never once laying a hand on a woman’s back as she had seen with certain other professors and assistants. Ethan kept his hands to himself.
The sofa arm wobbled beneath Gina’s tailbone. She loved the rundown couches and the brilliant students holding paper cups of red wine, urgently talking about global warming and Paleolithic pollen analysis. Gina sipped from her paper cup and allowed herself another warm surge of hope. Carina would not always need her protection. In less than four years, she would be in college too, bolstered by scholarships. There would be a time when the grime of their father’s house would be nothing more than a bad memory they’d scrubbed away.
Gina leaned in as Ethan answered someone’s question about an accident in the lab over the summer. His smile fell and his voice grew quiet, causing everyone to step closer to hear.
“We use hydroflouric acid in the lab to prepare sediment samples, and it’s really dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Ethan said. The veins on his muscled forearms rippled under his dark brown skin. Gina wondered what it would feel like to trace them with her fingertips.
“HF is nasty stuff,” he said. “The solution looks like water, but a few drops can kill you. Happened to a man I knew.”
The joviality of the evening was turning into something else. The other grad students looked into their cups.
“We had a post-Doc last year who had a habit of leaving a disaster behind wherever he worked. Once he reserved the lab to prep his samples for carbon dating and for the whole day nobody else could do any work in there because he made such a mess.”
Ethan cleared his throat. He did that in seminar sometimes, Gina noticed, before explaining a complex process. He rested his elbows on his knees and the only sound was the splashes of the swimmers in the pool below.
“Well, the custodian went in that night and found the lab pretty much destroyed. There were papers everywhere, broken slides, a centrifuge full of dirty beakers. And believe me, the custodian knew what was in those beakers. He was a good man, named Miguel. We used to talk sometimes when I was working late. He was born in Mexico and he and his wife put their four kids through college themselves. He was real proud of that.”
“So what happened?” Gina asked.
Ethan rubbed his palms together. “He put on the blue hazmat jumpsuit and his thick gloves and his mask. He emptied the centrifuge beaker by beaker, working all night until the whole place was clean. It wasn’t until he was done and took off his gloves that he noticed a cold cup of coffee under the vent hood. He grabbed the handle to pour it into the sink and for some reason a good amount of what was inside splashed down his arm.”
“A cup of coffee?” Gina whispered. Ethan rose his eyes to hers.
“The post-Doc had dumped his extra HF in the cup and forgot about it,” he said. “Miguel knew he was in trouble because of the burning. He ran out of the building and jumped into the pool but it was already too late. The damage was done. Even then he just right away started thinking about his kids. That’s the kind of man he was, you know? He thought—at least he got his kids through school before he had to die.”
Someone at the pool blew a whistle. “How did you know what Miguel was thinking?” Gina asked. People moved to other conversations. It was just the two of them now.
Ethan stood up. “I visited him in the hospital the day he died. The acid soaked right through his skin and dissolved his bones to jelly. It was an excruciating death.”
“I’m sorry that happened to your friend,” she said.
He pointed at the cup in her hand. “You aren’t old enough to be drinking at a campus event.”
Gina’s face heated. He thought of her as so much younger than he was. If he only knew that on the inside she was older than he would ever be.
“What happened to the guy who left the mess?” she asked.
“He was invited to leave the program or face charges.” He took her empty cup and filled it from a bottle of sparkling water before handing it back to her. “They should have charged him with murder.”
Gina breathed in the way Ethan smelled of clean laundry and soap and thought that if she married this man she would never be afraid again.
“Thanks for listening,” he said.
They moved wordlessly to the balcony wall. By the pool, swimmers pulled themselves from their lanes and shivered in the cold evening air. She thought of the poor custodian in his blue coveralls, jumping into the water and praying for a miracle healing.
“I’m still not over what happened to Miguel,” Ethan said. “I guess I’m still angry.”
Gina sipped her water and didn’t say that anger could be more corrosive than acid and that some things anyway were impossible to get over.
After the mixer, Ethan invited her to join a smaller group at a pizza place nearby. Someone ordered a pitcher of beer and Ethan bought her a Coke on ice when she announced that she’d decided to file for a major in his department.
“You’ve aced every test and every lab so far,” Ethan said. “I thought you were already a Geography major.”
On the way home on the bus, Gina fanned the warmth in her belly from the evening of comradeship with other students. She’d always thought deep down that her accomplishments at school had been some kind of mistake and that she’d never be anything but a dirty rag of her father’s. That night she knew her doubts about herself had been wrong. She could take another few years of negotiating her father’s house. She could shield Carina from his nighttime visits. There was a light at the end of the long tunnel of her terrible life. She had gotten a glimpse of her future that night and it was beautiful.
Once home she was relieved to see the driveway empty but something was wrong the minute she stepped into the house. The same mildew and cooked oil stink pervaded as always but the ions in the air were charged with a new kind of wrong. She stood stock still, listening, every atom in her body tense.
On the floor by the door was her sister’s backpack.
As though on fire, Gina ran through the house to her sister’s bedroom and threw open the door, ready to kill him right there with her bare hands if she had to.
But it was just her sister alone, curled into a tight and shivering ball, her blood streaking her sheets in the moonlight.
“He’s under the bed,” Carina said but the warning was too late. Their father’s iron hand clamped around Gina’s ankle as he laughed and crawled from under the bed on his elbows. She twisted to escape but he was a large man and while he hurt her even more she stretched to grasp her sister’s hand but could barely reach her fingers.
The lab coat Ethan had given Gina to wear was so big the sleeves reached past her knuckles. It hadn’t been hard to get access to the graduate student lab. All she had to do was ask Ethan is she could observe as he loaded the centrifuge with pollen samples in their clinking beakers.
When he excused himself to go to the bathroom Gina opened the cabinet beneath the sink. The hydroflouric acid was in a plastic bottle marked with a skull and crossbones drawn on the side with a black Sharpie.
Her heavy gloves creaked as she emptied half of the lab’s HF into a travel shampoo bottle she’d bought at the campus bookstore. By the time Ethan returned to complete the cook, Gina had 10 ml of HF stashed in a double Ziploc baggie in the bottom of her backpack.
“Thanks for your help,” he said. “I appreciate your time.”
“It’s really interesting. I’m the one who should be thanking you.”
Gina wasn’t lying. She really did find the lab work fascinating and three years later when she graduated from the program with honors, she had her own lab job lined up and she and Ethan were engaged to be married. And while her father would have complained bitterly of her leaving his house to get married, least of all to a Black scientist, he got no say in the matter because the man was dead. His bones had turned to jelly after what police said must have been some kind of freak accident that he was too drunk to remember. As for her father’s part, on his last day of life in the hospital, he recalled only a hooded figure waiting for him by his truck outside the bar, and a splashing down his chest from he had thought was a cold cup of coffee. Nobody else saw a kid in a hooded sweatshirt so Gina’s father died and the police could not figure out how and in a fair world where things stayed clean and in order that should have been the end of him forever.
As it was, Gina’s lifetime of protecting her sister meant nothing because Carina had lied to her teacher about feeling sick so that she could be sent home from the Biology field trip. She was afraid Gina would get beaten and worse for forging their father’s signature on the permission slip. So while Gina was seeing her future unfold in the smile of a handsome graduate student and a slice of cheese pizza, her father had gotten a ride home from the bar and found her sister alone in the house and in his rage and perversion tore her in half and made her bleed.
After that night, Carina dropped out of the honors classes. She started taking the pills she found around at parties. Gina killed their father before the end of the semester but it was already too late. The owl-faced little sister climbing up the bus steps was gone and in her place grew an angry changeling with glazed eyes and the more Gina tried to hold onto her the more she disappeared.
When her daughter Willa was nine days old, Carina showed up to visit, her arms so thin that Gina wondered how they could support her hands. They sat in the kitchen over steaming mugs of cocoa while the baby slept in the nursery, the monitor at Gina’s elbow crackling in quiet intervals.
Crumbs littered the table from breakfast. Gina liked a clean house even then but she was so drunk with love for Willa that she’d let things go a little. She’d quit work to look after the baby and her life had been reduced to a series of naps and feedings and sweet smelling-baths and she’d been so happy.
Carina wasn’t happy. She stared into her marshmallows, her presence in the house like a burr lodged in a cozy blanket. Gina wished she would leave and felt immediately guilty when Carina asked to stay. Of course, Carina should spend the night. She should move in with them if she needed their help.
“You look so tired,” Gina said.
“I can’t sleep.” Carina’s hair hung in greasy ropes, sharp angles and dark shadows cutting into her once round face.
“Why?” In the other room the baby stirred and Gina yearned to hold her.
“He’s under the bed,” Carina said.
“You dream he’s under your bed?” Gina willed herself to swallow past the bile rising in her throat. The baby monitor hissed as the baby sputtered awake.
“I mean he’s under the bed. He never left.”
The baby yelped a short newborn cry and underneath that sound was the faraway sound of a man laughing.
Gina lurched to her daughter’s bedroom to find the baby kicking on the mattress. She dropped to the floor to look under Willa’s crib and found a film of house detritus coating the hardwood floor. While she watched, the loose balls of hair and dust gathered breadth. They moved towards each other and took a strange form as if bound by electricity. Gina watched, transfixed while the dirt under her baby daughter’s crib coagulated, took form, and somehow groaned in the same unholy way of her father when he came into her room at night.
She grabbed Willa and ran to the kitchen where Carina slumped with her eyes clouded with despair. Gina threw her sister the baby to hold in her twiggish arms and dashed back to the nursery she tore the crib away from the wall and vacuumed and wiped at the floor with bleach. As Willa cried she ran around the entire house, swiping at every cobweb and every layer of dust on every forgotten surface.
“I got him.” Gina said as she finally took the baby from her sister and put her to her breast. Willa latched on and the letdown of milk was an unspeakable relief. “Stay here with us, Carina. He won’t be coming back.”
“You can’t keep him away.” She rested her head on the table.
“I can keep him away.” Gina set her jaw. “I can protect you.”
Carina was gone in the morning, leaving a note saying she was moving back into the house that they’d inherited from their father. She’d been gone for too long but she was going to get her act together, she promised, and Gina chose to believe her. She had her own problems, Gina reasoned as she stood in the middle of the house with her baby in a sling around her shoulders, a cloth in one hand, a bucket of bleach in another, listening, listening.
Every night since he left her, Ethan called to talk. She could hear in his voice that he wasn’t sleeping and behind her terror for Willa, her sorrow for her husband waved a weak flag. Every night Gina asked him how work was going and how Willa was doing, stretching her mouth in to a smile while she spoke so that he could hear how she was trying. After five days he finally handed the phone to Willa and Gina exhaled, releasing the flood of her worry.
“Willa. Baby. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Mommy.”
“Is your room clean?”
“Yes.” Gina imagined her daughter peering at Ethan, torn between her parents and the different stories each of them told about what was really under her bed.
“He’s back, Mommy. He’s under the bed.” Her voice was a doll’s whisper but Ethan snatched the phone away.
“How could you? I told you to leave Willa out of this.”
Gina stared at the Call Ended screen and suppressed a scream that no one anyway would hear. She called Carina, praying her number was the same. Praying the sister she hadn’t seen since a week after her daughter was born was still alive.
She was. She picked up and didn’t wait for Gina to speak.
“Bring fire,” Carina said.
Gina drove the two hundred miles to her hometown without stopping and cringed as she turned onto her old street. Their house sat in the middle of the block as rotten as a tooth ruined at the root. The familiar smell of mildew and burned corn oil seeped through the seams around the front door. She tried the knob and found it locked.
She peered into the front window thinking that someone watching might see her with her tote bag and think she was a thief, though it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to steal anything from that peeling, falling down mess. There was nothing visible through the filthy glass. No dark front room. No curtain. Just nothing.
There was nowhere else to go for help or an answer. The geographical center of their torture was the only place to end this and she saw now that she’d been avoiding that truth since they were children.
Carina had said to bring fire. It was an excellent suggestion. Lighter fluid sloshed in Gina’s bag as she scaled the fence and pried open the sliding glass door in the back. She pushed through a narrow gap between a dense wall of cardboard boxes, papers, and magazines. Turning sideways and sucking in her stomach she barely made it through to the inside.
When she was a kid it had been Gina’s job to keep the house livable despite their father who ate from wrappers that he just dropped on the floor. He brought home broken appliances he meant to fix but never did. He fried sausages in used cooking oil that coated the walls in residue. After he died, Gina spent weeks cleaning and making trips to the dump, ridding the house of any sign of him.
Now it was as though their father never left. Gina’s stomach was leaden with regret. They should have sold the house long ago instead of keeping it so Carina would have a place to stay where rent would never come due and no one was around to stop her from getting high.
Her voice was flat in the stifling cave of a hallway stacked with trash that reached from floor to ceiling. The visible patch of carpet was powdery with dirt and she couldn’t tell where she was in the house. The air pressure was wrong too. Her ears ached as if she were in a submarine deep under sea.
She tried to get oriented but the floor shifted as if made of sand. She lifted her foot to find the carpet dirt itself moving like magnetized iron fillings up her running shoes, caressing the skin of her calf with a gentle tickle.
“Hell no,” she said, wedging her shoulder through the piles of garbage, keeping her feet moving and shaking her legs against the creeping dust. She called for her sister, but the only answer was a crushing silence that pushed at her temples.
Gina climbed the stairs with clenched teeth. To the left was Carina’s room where she lay on the same twin bed she slept in as a child. Garbage flowed from beneath in a wave of fast food wrappers, plastic bags, and clotted knots of hair. By Carina’s head was a square of foil with a burned black spot in the middle, a hypodermic needle, and a length of rubber tubing. Her skin was earthworm pale, her lips cracked and bleeding through flakes of yellow skin. She lay naked with one hand covering her private parts, the other hand outstretched to her sister as if on a raft moving too fast from shore.
“He’s here,” she said.
“Come with me.” Gina’s brain refused to work beyond the thought that they had to get out. Now. She reached across the threshold.
“He’s under the bed,” Carina said.
“I killed him. He’s dead.” Gina knew she was giving a false answer. Yes, she’d killed their father. But he wasn’t dead and she needed to save her sister. She stepped a toe onto the floor and immediately yanked it back. The carpet was writhing as if covered with a million tiny beetles but it was the dirt itself that was moving, alive and full of strange hungers.
Carina’s eyes widened and her stomach sank even farther between a rib cage that expanded like bellows as she breathed. A long gray finger of dirt skittered from beneath the bed as if on hundreds of legs, across the sheet, and towards Carina’s dagger-like hipbones.
“Carina. Get up.”
But her sister couldn’t move. She pleaded with her eyes, her fingers curled between her legs in a vain attempt to protect herself as the gray caterpillar thing split into many fuzzy parts, lengthening to cover her knees, crawling over her thighs, and pushing under her hand.
Gina dared a step in and the grayness sucked at her feet and shot up her pant legs to the insides of her thighs. She jumped to her toes, forcing herself to stay, forcing herself to breathe, to stay sane, to not run away.
“Fire,” was the last thing Carina said as the mass of dirt raced a thick line up her neck, over her jaw, and hooked into her mouth. Carina gagged as the furred mass covered her tongue.
Gina unshouldered her bag and stuck her hand inside.
Carina ripped at the mass entering her throat, leaving her lower body exposed. The gray covered her as she ripped wet chunks from her mouth and flung them to the floor where they twitched and throbbed.
The lighter fluid can was cold in Gina’s palm and steadied her as she fumbled for the lighter. The bag fell away and she flicked open the can. There was a roar from under the bed and the trash and the dirt and grease moved like a tsunami over Carina’s pocked and scabbed skin and her poor protruding bones until she disappeared. All that was left on the bed was a curled ball of gray like a Pompeii victim covered in ash so thick that nothing existed anymore but the tortured shell.
The lighter fluid arced in a wet ribbon over Gina’s head as the nasty dusty fingers pushed up her legs.
There was a soft click from the cheap lighter under her thumb, then a woosh as the fuel caught fire. Gina squirted lighter fluid onto the sheets as the shell covering her sister trembled and burst into in a writhing mass of flame.
White fire rolled across Gina’s feet, the heat lifting the hair from her face and burning the ends in sizzling pieces. There was no air to breathe. She lunged forward because while her brain knew survival was hopeless, her body wanted to live and wanted her sister to live. She found an impossible thin arm in the chaos and pulled Carina away. They were going to die but Gina kept moving with the pure instinct that had been driving her since their mother died and left two girl children alone with a monster.
Gina hugged Carina’s shuddering body to her side. They staggered out of the burning room and down the stairs trailing fire. Gina whipped her head around, searching the acid blackness for the door.
There was pressure on her back as if from gentle hands and a soft voice in her ear saying vamonos, vamonos.
The trash in their path fell away. The chemical smoke of the burning house spiked her eyes and through the black billows there was a man in a custodian’s blue jumpsuit and heavy gloves and paper mask. He knocked away stacks of flaming trash with long sweeps of his arms. Gina followed him to the front door that she pushed open with her forearm. The fire sucked the outside air in and a great blast from inside shoved them forward and out of the burning house.
The sisters huddled together on the bare dirt lawn and Gina wasn’t thinking of her husband, or the custodian in the jumpsuit and heavy gloves who had been his friend. She wasn’t thinking of their father or a ghost made of dirt and terrible memories.
Gina was thinking only of brushing the burnt dust away from her sister’s face and shoulders and back, holding her shivering, still breathing body close to her own and running away with her far from their father’s house forever.
Maureen O’Leary is a writer and teacher living in Sacramento. Her short fiction has appeared in Esopus, Gold Man Review, Scoundrel Time, Shade Mountain Press’s anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women and Soteira Press’s anthology Monsters We Forgot. She is also the author of the novels How to Be Manly, The Arrow, and The Ghost Daughter.