A penis is an ugly thing, especially once it’s been detached from the body. It hangs so limp in your hand, small and soft, flailing around like fat, water-soaked noodle. Despite the terrible thing he’d done, he couldn’t help but note how ridiculous the penis looked rolling towards the hole in the sink, getting caught in the plastic flaps of the garbage disposal. After giving it a nudge and watching it disappear into blackness, he flipped the switch. As the blades pulverized the penis into tiny pieces, he stared at the hole, wishing it was big enough to swallow his head. He tried sticking his thing in there once when he was little, mostly as an experiment. He climbed up on the counter and pulled his shorts down, bending this way and that over the sink, but no matter how much he twisted and turned, jutting his bony hips out or spreading his legs wide, he just couldn’t find the right angle.
At times he wonders if he would have flipped the switch if he’d ever managed to get it in the hole. He wanted rid of it, the worm between his legs. Mother would have liked him better without it; she was always going on about all the good-for-nothing men who had ruined her life. Back then, he loved her so much he might have been dumb enough to chop his private parts off to prove his devotion. By the time he reached his teenage years, he had outgrown such nonsense and started seeing her for what she was – a dried-up, hateful old thing, full of spite. He calls her the sea-hag, mostly under his breath.
The hole in the sink couldn’t take his problems away when he was a boy, and it certainly wasn’t big enough to swallow him down as a man. He knew he was going to be in trouble when Mother found out what he’d done. And she would find out. Even if he’d taken the boy’s body parts and spread them across the city, hiding them in special, secret spots, Mother would still know. She’d take one look at him and see he’d been up to no good.
She never liked him, not even when he was a little boy like the one he left resting in literal pieces. She thinks he’s dumb, but he knows he’s just different. He loves words and reads everything: magazines, the dictionary, cookbooks, paperback novels, cereal boxes, newspapers, graffiti, the closed captioned words on the TV screen, utility bills, etc.
Sometimes, he has to read the words over and over again before he can understand them – even then, he forgets stuff. Inside his head, thoughts roll around like marbles, banging together and bouncing off each other. Some roll straight through and fall out of his ear, leaving nothing behind but an echo. Numbers are harder, the symbols and formulas as incomprehensible as a foreign language. Trying to figure out math problems gave him such headaches in school, but that’s ok. He knows reading and writing, which is good enough. He also stuck around when no one else did, which has to count for something.
Mother calls him her menopause baby, claiming he was never meant to be in the first place. He knows she drank while he lived inside her belly. She gave him this funny look when he asked about it. She got all quiet and turned away, so he asked again, louder. Of course I didn’t drink when I was pregnant, she answered at last. She thought about it for a second. Couldn’t have made you come out any worse though.
She was lying, he’s sure. There’s no way she went nine months without a drink. She drank all the time when he was little. Each evening, she poured vodka in her green cup and mixed it with diet soda. Even from the next room he could hear that crackling fizzy noise. She tried to hide it for the longest time, shoving big jugs of vodka beneath piles of clothes in her room and never once taking them out in front of him. Over the years, she became less discreet, leaving her bottles in the fridge right beside the orange juice and milk. Old age suits her well. She cares less and less about what people think.
As a kid, hearing that fizzy noise of her mixing a drink did something to him. He hated it so much he squeezed his fists together and counted to ten. Thankfully, she doesn’t drink as much now. Just one in the evening. Without her nightcap, she could never fall asleep.
Never one for the bottle himself, he sure could have used a drink after the incident with the boy. He needed something to calm his nerves. He wrapped a foot and a piece of an arm in a plastic grocery bag and then shoved that into a brown paper bag. Nestled under his arm, he carried the package outside without thinking for a second that people would already be looking for the boy. But all Hell was breaking loose, the crowd of searchers already gathering. He darted around a few people on the corner and walked as far west as possible, down to Riverside Drive. He wanted to dump the package in the Hudson River but got nervous and decided a garbage can would be better. He had to get back to the scene of the crime, which is what the house he shared with his mother would always be known as now. So many terrible things have happened inside the walls of their crooked, wobbly home over the years, things that most people wouldn’t believe. The walls have been soaked in the blood of every violent thing he’s imagined doing to his mother – not to mention the very real things she did, like slapping him hard across the face, or knocking him unconscious with a frying pan that one time. It’s like the haunted memories took on a life of their own, seeping out from each dark crevice, finding a way to be born through his hands. The hands he could never trust again. Hands that hurt a young boy far more than he’d ever been hurt. Hands that unleashed a violence so explosive it could never be put back inside the bottle.
Their house really is crooked and wobbly. Just ask the men who were supposed to install a new counter over ten years ago. After taking measurements, they said the floor was uneven and the foundation was weak. They wouldn’t do the work, so he had to do it all by himself. It took forever, and Mother’s constant griping sure didn’t speed up the process. But he got the job done, unlike the useless men she’d hired.
After dumping the package, he felt dazed, like the whole day had just been one long, terrible nightmare. Any moment, he’d wake to find that Mother hadn’t gone away for the weekend, the boy was still out playing on the sidewalk, and the severed penis wasn’t real.
But it wasn’t a dream. Seeing the faces of the people searching for the boy on his way back, he knew he’d never wake up from this nightmare.
Already, they had signs posted on every corner. He recognized the boy, even if it was a cheap photocopy. His people were looking for him, wondering where their dear child had gone. All those people, the ones Mother hates. She calls them dirty stupid morons. She uses other colorful words to describe them, words he’d never repeat. Mother says the neighborhood wasn’t overrun with Dominicans back when she was a girl, although she usually refers to them as Mexicans – no matter how many times he’s explained they’re from the Dominican Republic. What’s the difference? she says. Trash is trash.
She carries on about them all the time, making him pour bleach in front of the door to keep the dogs from shitting there. They don’t clean up after their mutts. It’s a disgrace, having to dodge turds on the sidewalk. She has a point, but it’s not just the Dominicans. He sees shit all over the city.
The sound of her nagging voice constantly fills his head. On his way back home, walking through the growing crowds of people searching for the boy, he barely heard a word of English spoken. It’s like we live in a third-world country, Mother would say. If they’re gonna move in and ruin my neighborhood, you’d think they could at least learn the goddamned language. He can’t stand hearing every annoying thing Mother has to say even when she’s not around. As a teenager, he couldn’t even masturbate in peace. It’d build up for days and, when he finally found time for relief, her voice rang inside his head, distracting him: Boys playing with their peckers, that’s all they think about.
Even as an adult who should be making his own damned decisions, he still can’t take care of his personal business unless he has total privacy – as in, she’s got to be somewhere far, far away. He’s not like her. When he was little, she’d tell me to go play in his room while she had a friend over. She always called them friends. They drank more than her and smoked lots of cigarettes. She knew how much the smoke bothered him but didn’t care. He can’t stand the smell, and it hurts his lungs. She had rushed him to the hospital for breathing treatments a few times when he was a boy, but that didn’t keep her from entertaining all her friends and allowing them to smoke inside the house. Just open a window little man, one of them had the nerve to say while patting him on the head like he was some stupid dog. Squirming away, he looked him straight in the eye and told him very clearly: You are not my father and can’t tell me what to do.
The worst thing was knowing what they were up to in the bedroom. The grunting and moaning sounds were muffled by the walls, but he could still hear. He covered his ears and counted to 100, rocking back and forth in bed, but the noises still got inside. He imagined those men running their rough, calloused hands all over Mother’s body; he could almost smell the awful, sour breath they breathed against her ear. One morning, he accidentally walked in on one of them in the bathroom and saw his thing. He’d never seen a grown man’s privates before. He held his breath as the man shook off the last drops of piss and then screamed as long as he could, running. Mother rushed over and told him to knock it off, but he couldn’t stop screaming, so she slapped him, nearly knocking him over. Yelling like a little girl, she said. You gonna grow your hair out long and wear pigtails too? With big pink bows?
I hate you!
I hate you too, she said, turning away.
She stopped having friends over years ago. Men must not be interested in saggy tits and wrinkly skin. He knows he shouldn’t think certain things about his mother, especially when it comes to the way she once entertained her men. He hates it when awful stuff pops in his head, stuff that nobody wants to think about. He shakes his head back and forth, trying to make it go away. Sometimes, he has to bang the back of his skull against the wall to make it stop.
He wonders how much Juan loved his mother. He cried out for her before everything got carried away. Out of curiosity, he asked him if his parents spoke English. “Not really,” he answered. “I don’t see Papi.”
Figures, Mother would have said. The last people who should be having babies are the ones popping ‘em out left and right.
“Well, you speak English real good,” he told Juan.
“Gracias,” he said, grinning. He carefully placed the He-Man figure on the floor and stared up at me. “I should go home now.”
“Already? Let me get you another soda first. There’s more candy too.”
When he was little, he never got to play with the neighborhood kids. Mother said they were dirty brats covered in lice. She wouldn’t have him bringing their germs into her house. All those kids who spoke broken English with a thick accent looked so happy on the streets, dancing in front of fire hydrants blasting water on steamy days. They lived in a parallel universe right outside the window, having way more fun than him. He was always trapped inside, sitting by his mother’s chair as she watched her stupid soaps.
Even though he looked forward to Mother leaving him on his own for the weekend, it’s not like he planned on spending time with Juan. He’s not a pervert. But when he saw him playing alone on the corner with his cheap plastic soldiers, he decided to talk to him. Before he knew it, he was telling him to come up to the house to see his old collection of He-Man toys. The boy didn’t think twice and followed close behind.
As he got Juan’s soda, he noticed Mother’s ashtray, filled to the brim with bent cigarette butts. She had been smoking more regularly the past couple of years. He gets so mad, especially when she can’t be bothered to crack a window. Sulking around the house, he opens cabinet doors and slams them shut again, but she just sits in her ugly old recliner, smoking away. He once went three whole hours without speaking a word to the sea-hag, but she didn’t even notice. Finally, he walked up to her with his most disapproving look. Are you trying to kill me?
Maybe I am, she said, tapping her cigarette against the ashtray.
As he walked away, intent on slamming his bedroom door hard enough to shake the whole house, she mumbled something under her breath. He snapped back around. What did you say?
Don’t take that tone with me.
What did you call me?
She stared at him, taking a long drag off her cigarette. I called you a little bastard.
His face got hot like it was on fire, and he couldn’t breathe. He ran over, grabbing her arms and shaking. I’m a bastard because of you! he screamed. You you you – it’s your fault, everything!
That shut her up, though not for long. The funny thing is, she wasn’t scared for a second. He’s the one who got scared, especially when he realized how hard he was gripping her bony arms. He pulled away and spent the rest of the day in bed, thinking about what he’d done. Feeling ashamed.
“I really should go home now,” Juan said from behind, breaking through the fog of bad memories.
“No, not yet,” he told him, turning around. “Here, have your soda first.” He popped it open for him. “Go back to my room. I have more stuff I can show you. Do you like comics? I have a ton of ‘em, all the new ones.”
“Ok,” he answered, gripping the can in both hands as he turned to walk away, trotting back up the creaky wooden staircase.
For a second, he wondered what he was doing with this child anyway, realizing how bad it might look. Just then, he heard a small thud and the sound of something rolling down the stairs. When he rounded the corner, he saw Juan near the top of the stairway, looking down. He’d dropped the can of soda, spraying fizzy brown liquid all over the place. “For God’s sake,” he snapped. “What is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry,” the boy whimpered. “It was an accident.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. It’s like Mother always says – accidents happen when you’re not paying attention. You’re not stupid, are you?”
“I don’t know about that,” he huffed, turning to grab a roll of paper towels from the kitchen. He stomped up the stairs.
“I didn’t mean to,” the boy whined, still standing in the same spot. He took a step down, landing right in a small puddle.
“Don’t fucking walk through it! You’ll track it all over the goddamned house.”
He watched the boy’s face collapse into total despair. Any second, he’d start bawling like a baby. Only a few steps separated them. He ignored the whimpering and bent down to clean the mess. He would have to mop the whole staircase, and it pissed him off. The boy took a hesitant step towards him, then another. Bent over, he couldn’t see Juan but heard him mumbling something about wanting to go home. Again. “I want my mommy,” the kid cried out. He twisted around to give him a piece of his mind, but Juan was closer than he realized. His elbow smacked the side of the boy’s head; before he knew it, there was Juan, tumbling down the stairs. He landed at the bottom with a much louder thud than the can of soda had made.
“Shit,” he gasped, scrambling down after him. “Look what you’ve done now.” He came to a stop near the child’s feet, unable to get any closer. He couldn’t handle the possibility that Juan might be hurt – like really, really hurt. In that moment, he felt like he couldn’t handle anything. All he could hear was Mother’s voice: Look what you’ve done now.
“It’s not my fault,” he cried out, imagining his mother’s skinny finger pointing at the boy. “Hey, get up now,” he said. The sound of his voice was distant and strange, like it belonged to someone else. “Get up, please.” He poked him with the tip of his shoe, much harder than he meant to, causing his leg to shift over some. As soon as he pulled away, it fell back where it’d been.
Feeling braver, he stepped over the boy and bent down to look at his face. There was no blood, but he was lying so perfectly still. So much can get busted up inside a body. Knowing he had to do something, he pushed the child onto his back. Still, nothing. No matter how long he stared, the chest didn’t rise, nor was there a single flutter from the dark-lashed eyelids.
The boy was dead.
Knowing his mother would kill him, he jumped into action. He pulled the boy up in his arms and took him to the bathroom upstairs. He felt as limp as a doll, making it hard to believe he had been talking only moments before. Soon, he would be unrecognizable as a boy who once lived and breathed without a care in the world. He planned on separating the body into bits and pieces, making it easier to forget what they once added up to. A piece here, a piece there, like a game. He’d dispose of them outside, far away from home. The Hudson River was close, so he could dump some of the packages there, watching them float away forever.
Having a plan helped calm his nerves. But after he chopped up the body, everything went wrong. He tried taking part of it outside, but there were already people searching for the boy. He’d have to wait them out, so he hid things in the fridge and freezer, shoved stuff down the garbage disposal, and put pieces in the trash. He hid parts all over the house, unsure of what else to do. Maybe he could sneak out in the middle of the night to get rid of stuff.
He wondered how long it would take those people outside to give up hope that the boy would return, alive and well.
Exhausted from an excruciatingly long day, he fell into a deep sleep that night. He woke happy and refreshed, having forgotten what had happened for a precious moment. When that thick black cloud of unimaginable horror pushed its way back to the surface, he sat up with a gasp, completely bewildered. How could this have happened? To make sure it wasn’t all a bad dream, he walked over to his closet and looked into the dark corner. There it was, exactly where he’d left it: the boy’s head, wrapped in a black garbage bag. It looked like a small, slightly misshapen basketball.
And then the rest came back. The worst part of the entire day.
After undressing the boy and laying his body across the cold bathroom floor, he went back to the kitchen to retrieve Mother’s best cleaver. When he returned, he got down on his knees and pulled the arm away from the rest of the body, carefully holding it in place. He lifted the cleaver up high and slammed it down, hard and swift, almost completely removing the hand. And that’s when the most awful sound he’s ever heard echoed through the bathroom – the boy’s mouth opened into a perfectly round black hole, unleashing a terrible, shrill cry that came from another place, another dimension. The sound of an angel dying.
He was still alive.
One thing lead to the next as he took the cleaver and hacked at the face, but the screaming wouldn’t stop. He hacked at the torso, the arms, the legs, everything – but the screaming still wouldn’t stop. He hated him, the stupid boy who followed a perfect stranger. All of this was his fault. He held the cleaver in both hands and slammed it down again and again and again. The horror of what his hands accomplished was wild and extraordinarily violent, coming from a dark place deep inside his gut. The boy became a thick slab of meat, slick with blood. The harder he hacked, the easier it was to believe it had never been a boy at all. It was nothing but a fleshy mass of bits and pieces in need of disposal.
The screaming continued, but he finally realized it no longer emanated from the bloody, mangled thing before him – it was his own lungs, his own mouth, screaming and screaming. As soon as he stopped, all was quiet. He dropped the cleaver and listened as it clanged somewhere near the door. Blood covered everything – the floor, his hands, the side of the tub. The tub – of course! He pushed the body up against the tub, carefully lifting and nudging it inside. It landed with a sick smacking sound. Good, he thought. The rest of the blood can run down the drain.
Breathing hard, he stood up, balancing himself against the sink with both hands. Inside the mirror, he saw his reflection – sweat pouring down his brow, drops of blood sprayed across his face. Looking down, he saw he was covered in blood, though he didn’t feel sad or guilty. He didn’t feel much of anything at all.
It dawned on him that a thing such as innocence doesn’t really exist. Once that’s understood, anything is possible.
By the time Mother returned the next day, he’d cleaned the bathroom and hidden the pieces of the body. He was surprised the police hadn’t come by yet, expecting them any moment. The crowd was out again, searching for answers.
As soon as Mother walked in and saw him, she knew something was wrong. She locked the door behind her, dropped her bag to the floor, and took a hesitant step forward. “They say a boy’s gone missing,” she said. “Heard anything about it?”
The plan was to play dumb, to get rid of the evidence as soon as possible. The plan did not include bursting into a fit of tears, which is exactly what he did. He fell to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
Mother came over, pulling his face against her legs. She rubbed the top of his head. “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“Mom, it wasn’t my fault,” he cried out. “I swear.”
“Just tell me what happened.”
He took a few deep breaths and cleared his throat. “He was all alone out there and wanted to play with my toys. He followed me in the house, and – he fell down the stairs. It was an accident, I swear.”
She said nothing at first. He didn’t dare look up, afraid of the terrible things he might see in her face. They stayed like that for what felt like hours, until she finally let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Who would leave their kids alone like that, in this city? In this neighborhood?” she asked quietly. “What do they expect to happen?”
“I know, Mother – they’re all like that. Stupid, dirty people. He could barely speak English.”
“Come on now,” she urged, “get up.” With her help, he stood and walked slowly to the couch, collapsing against the cushions. She sat with him, pulling his head down against her chest. “It’s going to be ok,” she promised.
“I’m so sorry,” he sobbed.
“Shh, hush now.”
In his mother’s arms, he let go of everything, believing she would take care of him at last. She is his mother, after all, and he’s her sweet, sweet boy.
Cameron Mitchell’s story, “Be a Good Girl,” which appeared in Cold Creek Review, has been nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His story “Big Cat Head,” published by Sun Star Review, is nominated for the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology. His work has also appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Literary Orphans, Oyez Review, The Queer South Anthology, Jonathan, and a few other places. He grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and currently lives in New York, where he works in archives at Columbia University’s medical school library.