Written for Alameda Shorts: Storied Stories: June 2018 with 10 other writers on a single theme: Medicine Cabinet

I have been sleeping on the couch while we remodel the house, and it sucks. The cat bothers me all night long, begging to go out, begging to come in. At any given moment, she’s torn between hunting the rats in the yard, and the rats in the roof. They keep her up at night, so she keeps me up at night.

If it’s not the cat, it’s the teenage girl upstairs, who has lost her father and sobs until dawn, then wakes up at noon in a rage. I am all she has in this world, and she hates me for it.

The vent in her room takes her grief,

sharpens the edges,

and carries it,

amplified,

through the old floors and paper-thin walls,

until it finds me.

1,000 cuts to my ears, to my spine, to my soul.

And then the doors start slamming, and the epithets start hurling themselves around the house. As I stand in the middle of the bathroom, staring angrily at a gaping hole in the wall, I wonder if she has been possessed by that demon ghost they warned us about.

“That girl. She’s at it again. And those idiots took out your medicine cabinet.” Nothing gets past my mother. “Why do you insist on raising her yourself? She’s not even yours.”

“She needs me.”

Mother snorts. “Tell her that.”

I frown and squeeze past her. If I’m lucky, the cabinet is somewhere near the top of the dumpster.

Mother follows me as far as the front porch but hangs back at the top of the stairs. They are steep and she is unsteady.

“Stella will never love you,” Mother pitches over the railing. I’m in the driveway, dragging pallets over to the dumpster so I can climb in. “Love is a fantasy. A commodity. I thought you understood, Kay Kingston. Why else would you marry an ugly man?”

I close my eyes and grip the side of the dumpster. He was not ugly. He was lovely. Brilliant and kind, with enormous brown eyes. I long to swim in those soulful eyes again, to lose my small hand in his big one, to wrap myself in the warmth of his smile. Stella wears his features all over her face, and she is stunning.

“I’m only thinking of you,” Mother throws down at my head. “Why keep such a vivid reminder around? You need to move on.”

I take a deep breath and hoist myself over the side into the skiff. “I don’t know, Mom. You’re the shrink. You figure it out.”

“Oh, now you’re going to tell me he was a good man, and you owe his memory?”

Huzzah! The cabinet is on top of the pile, and the antique mirror, miraculously, is intact. I tilt my head to admire its vintage beauty. Even in full sunlight, the glare is too weak to hurt my eyes.

“You know he kicked three families out of this house when he bought it. You remember that, don’t you?”

WE kicked them out, mother,” I sigh. “WE bought this house. WE upped the rent and paid relocation fees and did everything by the book. Stop harping on it already.”

I do not remind her this home is a passion project, an investment in something meaningful. We were never some faceless entity, inflating the market for money.

I keep to myself all the hours I spent researching Alameda properties in general and Victorian Ladies in particular. The true nature of this jackpot is my secret.

“My husband was a VERY good man, Mother. And beautiful.”

“Then YOU are the heartless one. And money stupid.”

I lower my prized medicine cabinet carefully over the edge of the skiff. A rosary bounces to the ground, out of nowhere, and a brown bottle breaks on the driveway, scattering strange yellow pills everywhere.

“You’re right, mom. I should rent the ground floor apartment back to the people who lived there before. I mean, now it’s been remodeled to your exact specifications, it’s perfect for a small family. You don’t have to live there.”

“Ungrateful bitch.” And there it is. I never had to do what she did to secure my financial future, so I am frivolous. “You deserve that girl. You are her stepmother, but you are the same.”

I squat back down in the dumpster to sift through the rest of the construction debris. Mother vacates the porch in a huff.

Stella finds me on the bottom step, surrounded by an assortment of small treasures. She offers me a small plate of apple slices with peanut butter. Smiling, she eats one. “See. No poison.”

If I wasn’t suspicious before, I am now.

She picks up a child’s shoe and examines the cracks in the ancient patent leather. A small gold button hangs from the strap by a thread. “You really think Daddy was beautiful?”

“You heard that? Shit. My mother’s an ass, Stella. Two PhDs but one gigantic ass. So am I sometimes; so are you. But don’t ever think ugly words deserve a place up here,” I poke at her head, “or here.” I tap my heart.

Stella’s brow furrows, too deep for a girl her age. “We really kicked people out to live here? Why, though?”

“To secure your financial future,” I lie.

“So, I’m part owner?”

“No. It’s mine. After I die, it’s yours—if you’re in my will.”

“Am I?”

“I’ll think about it.” I’m teasing, but not really. She refused to let me adopt her. Twice.

“What if … you go to prison for life? For, like, trying to kill me?”

“Why would I do that?”

“I’m an ass sometimes?”

She’s not fooling me; I know teenage girls. And I’m a Kingston, after all.

Could she know my family stories?

Gripping the rosary, I lock eyes with the demon child.

“If that happened, I would sell this place to cover my legal fees.”

Stella disappears. Later, I find apple slices and dead rats in the dumpster.