A young woman's quest to break free from a mother's stronghold.
|Written for The Regular Writing Rampage
Prompt: Write a story, no more than 6000 words, with the phrase ‘Mothballs, mothballs, I absolutely hate the smell of mothballs,’ used within it.
“Ya could always get yourself a housemate ya know. It’s not like I have rules against it or nothin’. Besides, you could use tha company. I’m sure a young woman like yourself would like to have someone to share that big ol’ place with. I kinda wondered why ya’d wanna live there all by yourself…”
“So there’s simply no way to reduce this?” I interrupted quietly, my gaze still trained on the hastily scribbled figures on the sheet of paper. The smell of his cigar was overpowering. Stuffy. The sorry excuse for a window above him didn't let in nearly enough fresh air. The peeling paint, decade-old graffiti, and posters of barely-dressed females all pressed in at us from the walls with claustrophobic force. On the small wooden desk between us sat an ancient eighties computer and several opened ledgers. A grimy, cream-colored telephone and a family photo completed the look. Charming.
“Sorry, Miss,” he said around an attempt at an apologetic smile. “It’s them damn property taxes them bitches, pardon my French, keep a raisn’ each year.” He stabbed a lean finger on a ledger for emphasis. “It’s sho hard to keep up with this stuff and takin’ care of the land around this here place…”
He shrugged his shoulders and tried to smile again but I could see that it was all one big act. Behind those cool gray eyes, lay a conniving bastard who would sell his soul to the devil at the right price. I stared at his narrow face, the hard lines etched around his eyes and mouth and the unruly flop of grease-slicked hair that fell over his forehead, no matter how many times he tried to flick it back. He was dressed in a rather nice chambray shirt and jeans today, hardly the look of one who was supposedly the rugged outdoors man.
“Like I said, ya could always put up a sign fer a housemate. Ya know…get someone to split the bills with ya.”
I must have reacted in some way, for he held up his hands and laughed uneasily. “Hey, jest a seggestion. Anyway, it don’t take effect until tha end of the month. So ya gat plenty of time to find yaself a way to pay them bills…an’ rent.”
How magnanimous of you. I could feel my stomach churn in mild revulsion, picturing my mother’s smug face and tone as I called her to ask for money. There was no way in hell I was going to do that. I could still remember the bitter argument we had gotten into the night I made my decision to leave home, how she had accused me of being an ungrateful child and the punishment I received as she quickly ‘disowned’ me. I could still see myself stumbling out of the house, suffering the solemn and almost baleful stares of my younger brothers and sisters. I was a traitor after all. I was abandoning them in their time of need. I was the prodigal daughter and there was simply no place for me in that house anymore.
“I’ll consider it,” I finally replied as I rose to my feet. “If I do not give you an answer by the end of the month, then I’ll leave. Is that okay?”
He didn’t look too pleased with my decision, but he nodded and shrugged albeit reluctantly. “Awright, ya gat till the end of the month. Think about what I said now,” he called after me as I opened the door to let myself out. “It’s easier that way!”
Easier my foot. Nothing had ever come easy for me, but after twenty long years of being compliant with my family’s rules, I had finally gained a freedom that I rightfully deserved.
It all started six months ago, when my History professor had taken the class on a field trip to the town of Horlicks, about ten miles from the university. Horlicks has a population of roughly a thousand. The place is small enough that its one main street has the bank, the city hall and courthouse, the police station, a post office which is also the town’s bus stop, two grocery stores, a diner, a hardware store and a small movie theater called The Majesty. It is all very quaint and gives the feeling of having stepped back in time. The buildings don’t look as if they had changed from its original Twenties architecture and Professor McGready was more than happy to point that out to us. It was clear that he loved this little town and his enthusiasm rubbed off on most of us…especially me. I had fallen head over heels for Horlicks and somehow knew that I was going to live here, no matter what.
Over the next few weeks, I visited Horlicks as often as I could, leaving my classes early to drive all the way to the picturesque town. With the mountains in the distance as a breathtaking backdrop, I traversed the community, getting myself familiarized with its simple layouts, the townsfolk, but most importantly, for a place to call my own. Unfortunately, not many people had homes to rent, and apartment buildings were out of the question since there weren’t any at all. There was a boarding house run by Mrs. Whitaker – a widower who was almost regarded as royalty in Horlicks – but she couldn’t keep boarders for more than a week and besides, the thought of living under her watchful eye reminded me too much of being with my mother.
But just as I was beginning to lose all hope, Brad Jefferies had walked into the diner, on that cold Monday afternoon, and into my life. I could still remember it clearly; the way he had walked up to the counter, placed his order before launching into a tirade - to anyone who cared to listen - about putting up that ‘ol’ rust bucket of a house’ for sale or razing it to the ground. I could see myself rising to my feet and walking up to him, a nervous young woman in a two-year old black parka and faded jeans. I could feel their curious and some leery gazes on me as I finally mustered up the courage to ask him for the chance to rent his ‘rust bucket’. I was sure everyone thought I was crazy and even Jefferies had looked stunned at my request. But like every true American businessman at heart, he knew he was going to be a fool for refusing such an opportunity and was all too willing to show me around once he was through with his lunch.
I think it’s safe to say that I fell in love with the Cape Cod house at first sight. It was only a twenty-minute drive from the main town and my closest neighbor was at least a mile away. Lush trees surrounded the small house. Its driveway and front lawn looked unkempt and overgrown with weeds but it was nothing that couldn’t be taken care of on a weekend. As he showed me around the house, Jefferies explained that it had belonged to his older sister who had moved to Connecticut two years ago. He had always meant to sell the house but could never really find a buyer for it. It was a good thing I had come along, he said, or he would have really destroyed the place. How he could do such a thing was beyond me. The house was simply…beautiful. So what if the wallpapers were peeling off and looked yellow with age or that some of the windows were jammed and had to be pried open with a crowbar. What if the place still smelled a bit musty or that there were some stains on the walls that looked impossible to clean (Jefferies was kind enough to tell me that his sister had two little brats who had given the house a run for its money). Or that some of the cabinets in the kitchen were in need of some major repair and polishing. Who cared about any of those things? This was going to be my house and I was ready to give up my life’s savings for it. But it seemed like I wouldn’t have to do that as Jefferies gave me a reasonable price for my monthly rent. Papers were drawn up and before long I was a house-dweller at twenty-two. I couldn’t believe it. It almost seemed too good to be true.
However, I knew that was only one hurdle taken care of. The real test would come when trying to convince my mother. I could already foresee the ugly battle that would take place and although I had told myself that I was mentally prepared for it, it still didn’t make the confrontation any easier.
I would honestly like to believe that my mother is good at heart; after all she raised me as best she could given the circumstances. You could almost commend her zealousness and need to make sure her children – all eight of us – were raised right. But, oh my mother was a very bitter woman and it all started after my father’s passing when I was only two years old. I have three older siblings and four younger ones – from my stepfather – and for as long as I can remember, my mother has always cursed her fate in life, never caring if her children heard her resentful tirades and complaints each night.
When mother remarried after father’s death, we were forced to move out of our comfortable home in New Hampshire to a much smaller place in Duluth. My stepfather had been the perfect guy at first, all charming and sweet and kind and had even managed to make my mother happy for a while. However, after four kids from him, the bitterness returned as he began to stay away from home more often. He would leave town for some delivery, since he was a truck driver, and wouldn’t call for days at a time. There was no doubt he was cheating on her and we, the kids, were forced to deal with her angry outbursts and erratic mood swings. Two months later, we got the news that he had lost his life in a scuffle at a local bar in another state. Mother had only scoffed and said he had it coming but I swear it was like walking on egg shells in that house afterwards. With eight children to raise on her own, I was sure it was too much for her to deal with. To keep up with the bills, she worked at Mr. Briscoe’s office supply store as his secretary, and forced my older brothers and sister to find jobs as soon as they were legal. By the time I was twelve, I already had two paper routes and was mowing lawns every weekend, trying to scrape up as much money as I could to help the family.
But no matter what we did, it was never good enough. Nothing was ever good enough for mother.
Things came to a head when my oldest brother moved out of the house. He had decided to skip college altogether to join the Marines, much to my mother’s fury. But he was adamant about it and would have it no other way. For days afterwards, she made our lives a living hell, venting out her frustrations on the rest of us as if we were the ones responsible for Jacob leaving. Luckily, she calmed down when he began to send checks in the mail each month and even granted us a smile once in a while. However, all hell broke loose again, when Amy, the second child came home crying at the discovery that she was pregnant. I do not think I need to tell you just how livid my mother was at that news. At the end of it all, Amy moved out, got married to her boyfriend and is now living somewhere in Seattle with her twin baby girls.
Caleb, who was the next in line, got watched like a hawk. His every move was questioned by mother who had appointed herself his personal bodyguard. It was beginning to take a toll on him and it was obvious from how pale and listless he seemed whenever he was at home. I felt incredibly sorry for him for he was my favorite sibling of them all. We would sit up all night, talking in low whispers so as not to wake the others, dreaming of a better life while wishing that our father was still alive to see what mother had become. We would laugh and cry together in that tiny bedroom – a room, with its overwhelming smell of mothballs, barely big enough to keep nothing more than two narrow beds and a small dresser – and dream of the days we would finally break free.
For Caleb it would come much faster than any of us expected. He was killed in a car accident just a month later, an innocent victim caught in the headlights of a driver chatting away on his cell phone.
I took the news the hardest and wouldn’t leave my room or speak for weeks. My mother had mourned in her own way – going about her business with an efficiency that was almost mechanical and programmed. When she finally had enough of my silence, she barged into my room and all but screamed into my face that I was going to make something of myself. I was going to go to college, graduate and by God, get a good job or her name wasn’t Emily Anderson! I didn’t have the strength to argue with her, neither did I want to. Life meant nothing to me at that point and I could only count the days, minutes and seconds by the monotonous and mundane routine I fell into. While mother immersed herself in work, I became the head of the household, a role I loathed with a passion. I didn’t want to look after four sniveling kids, who were out to make my life a living hell. I didn’t want the added responsibility of waking them in the mornings, making their breakfasts, getting them ready for school, picking them up from school, making their lunches, making sure they did their assignments, washing their clothes, cleaning up after them while struggling to do my best in school. In fact, now that I look back on it, I think it’s a miracle I graduated and got accepted into Mercer University. I could only see my final year in high school as days of tardy slips, detentions and sleeping through most of my classes.
After my acceptance into Mercer – mother had of course, taken the news in stride, saying it was a damn good thing for my sake – I got a job in the administration office which paid rather well for a college student like me. I was still obligated to give mother a check every month, but I also saved some for myself, adding to the savings from countless paper routes, mowed lawns and odd jobs here and there. I decided to major in History, much to her chagrin, but I was a nut for things like that. I loved reading about things from the past, knowing that one could only gain knowledge of the future by digging into what our forefathers or ancestors had once experienced. I planned to teach it someday, either in high school or in colleges and despite mother’s incessant protests, I was determined to stick with my plans.
So perhaps you can understand why I had to leave home and why I longed for my freedom so much. I knew that living with her was only going to stifle me – emotionally and mentally – and I just couldn’t deal with it any longer. Getting the house was a big step for me and although it would create a dent in my savings, it was a start – a start on a new life I could dictate by my own rules.
The next few months were spent working on it. Jefferies was kind enough to lend me some of his tools as well as helping with odd jobs around the house. My neighbors, who turned out to be a retired couple – Mr. and Mrs. Hubb – would visit with either hot coffee and cookies or some home baked pie which always smelled heavenly. They leant me some lace curtains for my windows, an extra couch they didn’t really need and an antique curio cabinet which had been gathering dust in their garage. They would have given me more things, but I had to politely decline. If I hoped to give my home a personal touch, I would have to do it my way. And so after two months of intensive labor, furniture shopping and interior decorating, the once cold and empty Cape Cod house was finally a place I could call my home.
My very own house. I wept for joy that night on my new bed with its soft white sheets.
I had contemplated calling my mother to tell her the good news or to come visit, but I knew she wasn’t going to accept my invitation. She had washed her hands off me and I was free to do as I pleased.
I sighed heavily as I pulled into the driveway, staring morosely at the silent structure which was illuminated by the single light bulb beside the front door. I stared at my neat lawn with the flowers and shrubberies I had planted last month with Mrs. Hubb’s help. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the trees, their leaves rustling and whispering secrets to each other beneath the cool evening breeze. I inhaled the pungent smell of rich earth and fresh, crisp air, something you could never find in the crowded streets of Duluth. I was unaware I had begun to cry until I sniffled and felt the cold wetness against my cheeks. I had worked so hard to get to this point, toiled for hours and days on my hands and knees to make this home my own. It had taken me almost twenty years to get here and now…to think I’d have to share it with someone just because I didn’t have enough money at this time.
It just wasn’t fair.
I couldn’t imagine living with someone else so soon. I couldn’t imagine having someone sitting on my couch, watching my TV, messing up my carpet, using my bathroom and being in my kitchen. I wanted to remain alone for as long as I could and to enjoy my freedom until I felt it was the right time to get a partner. Damn Jefferies and his greed! There was simply no other way to get around it. I’d either have to ask the Dean for a raise or I’d have to get another job which I couldn’t afford to do at this time. I had college to consider. At least if nothing else, I could keep my promise to mother to graduate someday.
I groaned and thought of the countless hours I’d spend having to interview potential housemates in the upcoming days, but as fate would have it, I wouldn’t have to do such a thing after all.
I met him a week later on a cold, rainy Wednesday evening while making a last stop at the post office before they closed for the day. I had to mail out my check to mother and was lucky to catch Mr. Harrison before he turned off the lights.
“Just barely made it, Miss Anderson,” he said around a laugh as he motioned for me to come in.
“Thank you, sir,” I replied with a grateful smile as I gave him the white envelope. “It’s bad out there. You can barely see two feet in front of you.”
“Don’t I know it,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “Rainy season around the mountains can be tough.”
“But beautiful,” I added with a light blush dusting my cheeks.
“Ayuh,” he said, those gray eyes warm with pride. “Couldn’t have put it any better myself.”
The sudden chime of the bell over the door and the subsequent sensation of cold wind and rain ushered in the stranger. He was dressed in a pair of khaki pants, a blue shirt and corduroy jacket and completely soaked to the skin. A duffle bag was slung over a shoulder while a carry-all was dropped to the floor as he shook himself like a dog. I could barely hear the sound of the bus pulling away from the station next door and I knew without a doubt that he was a visitor in this town.
He ran fingers through his hair and finally lifted his head to look at us. I was immediately struck by his eyes – how green and piercing they looked against his tanned skin. His wet hair lay in dark curls upon his scalp and forehead, his features chiseled and rugged. As cheesy as it may sound, he looked like he had just stepped out of the pages of a men’s magazine…only wearing cheap-looking clothes.
“Sorry for the sudden intrusion,” he said, as he smiled at us. I wasn’t surprised to find that he had a fine set of teeth on him, just another thing to complete this illusion of perfection. He had an accent though but I couldn’t quite place it –
“But I’m a visiting professor from New York…eh…” He gave a sheepish smile and dug into his wet jacket for something. He finally pulled out a piece of paper which was soaked through and I almost giggled at how forlorn he looked at the sight of it.
“Ah…that’s not good. This was supposed to be my letter of recommendation of sorts. But have no fear!” he added quickly as he held up his hands in surrender. “I’m not a psychotic killer or anything. I just need you fine folks to tell me of a place I can live for the duration of my stay. Any suggestions?”
Mr. Harrison and I shared a look before he replied with a warm smile. “Welcome to Horlicks…”
“Chambers. Michael Chambers,” he said, reaching out to shake the post officer’s hand. He turned to reach for mine, giving it a firm pump before releasing it. I flushed and had to turn away, still feeling the rough sensation of his larger hands around mine. I wanted to leave…needed to leave and yet I couldn’t get my feet to cooperate with me. I was not a girl who believed in the whole ‘love at first sight’ routine neither did I think I had fallen head over heels for him. But, there was something else there, something I couldn’t quite define at the time. Perhaps it was the fact that he was a professor, someone with some intellect, someone who could be a good conversationalist, someone who could –
I came back to reality at the dejected tone in his voice. A quick but questioning look at Mr. Harrison had him replying quickly. “It’s the boarding house. It’s about the only place around here for visitors and last thing I heard, Mrs. Whitaker ain’t taking guests right now.”
Michael looked dejected as he mumbled to himself. “Damn…I knew I shouldn’t have taken this project…”
“I…I have a place you can stay,” I suddenly blurted out before I could control myself.
“Really?” Michael asked with hope in his eyes. “Oh, thank you so much! Where is this place? I don’t mind paying even if it’s for one night.”
“Uuum…” Knowing Mr. Harrison was watching me with interest, I finished in a rush. “It’s my place actually. I was looking for a housemate anyway and lucky me, you just came along at the right time.”
A heavy silence greeted my statement when I finished and now I was really wishing I hadn’t opened my mouth. I couldn’t believe I was actually inviting a stranger into my home – a home I was fiercely protective of. I should have just walked out that door without looking back minutes ago! And just when I thought no one was going to say anything to my sudden offer, Michael placed a hand on my shoulder, forcing me to stare into his smiling countenance.
“I accept your offer…”
“Bobbi Anderson,” I replied, unaware of the breathless quality of my voice. “And it’s indeed a pleasure to meet you.”
Or so I thought.
After my initial trepidations at having a man around, things seemed to work out just well between us. Like he had said, he was a first year professor at a university in New York City, who was interested in History and Linguistics. That, in itself, was an added bonus as it gave us an opportunity to talk about our favorite subject. His project was a thesis on Small Town America in the early nineteenth century and his nervousness and eagerness to do a good job was quite contagious. I did my best to help him as much as I could, inviting him to the university or taking him around town to visit places of historical importance.
Despite his macho appearance, Michael was incredibly neat and helped around the house whenever he could. He didn’t seem to mind the rent he was paying and even considered himself a freeloader with how much he was getting for so little. Like me, he thought Horlicks was a breathtaking town and after five days of living with him, I had figured out his routine like an eager bride-to-be. He always woke up around five in the morning and would begin typing away on his laptop with gusto while fresh coffee brewed in the kitchen. He sometimes made breakfast (he was a great cook) and washed the dishes afterwards. We would leave for town together, where I’d drop him off and head to school while he went about his business. At the end of the day, I’d pick him up from the post office and we’d go home. When we weren’t too exhausted from the day, we’d talk about his work over a hot meal. He made me laugh a lot and I think…no I was certain I was slowly but surely falling for him.
He never made a pass at me but had commented on my looks which pleased me to no end. I usually didn’t make a conscious effort to primp myself each day but since his arrival, I found myself trying on several clothes in the morning, or wondering if I should put my hair up in a bun or let it loose for the day. For goodness sake, I was even beginning to apply make-up again! Something I had stopped doing after my prom dance in high school. There was no denying that I was attracted to Michael and I was sure he felt the same way. But like a gentleman, he kept his distance and I knew I’d have to be the one to make the first move if our relationship hoped to progress in any way.
But all of that came crashing to a screeching halt a month later.
Michael had stayed home on that day, since he was done with most of his preliminary research, and had called me at school to say he had a surprise planned for me. Feeling flustered, like a teenage girl with her first crush, I rushed home after work, eager to see just what he could have possibly thought of today. I had to stop myself from grinning stupidly and as I let myself into the house, I figured that maybe, just maybe, I’d let him give me a kiss today.
But my heart slammed hard in my chest as a familiar smell assailed my senses. It was a smell I associated with a tiny, cramped room in an attic, a smell of my dead brother’s clothes, and a smell of loneliness. It was a smell that reminded me of cold dinners and stony silences, angry glares and painful swats on my cheeks or bottom. It was a smell that reminded me of a woman whose bitterness with life had seeped into the very pores of my skin, never to wash away for as long as I lived.
I stared at the kitchen table and sitting innocuously upon it were two boxes of the hateful things. Mothballs. Mothballs! Mothballs!! I absolutely hated the smell of mothballs! That acrid, loathsome smell I could never ever forget! I could feel a bitter taste fill my tongue, my stomach churning and goose bumps break out on my flesh as years of painful memories came flooding back with a vengeance. With a loud shriek of rage, I swept them off the table and began to stomp on them, screaming and crying as I ground the small white objects into powder. How dare he?! How dare he bring those things into my house?! A house I had worked so hard to cleanse of my mother’s influence! How dare he?!
I could hear him calling out my name in concern and those green eyes I had once thought striking were now despicable to me. I could see my mother laughing within them, knowing that she had won the battle after all and that no matter where I went, she’d always be with me in some way.
“I’m sorry,” I finally whispered, now feeling hollow and cold as I turned away from him. “I’m so sorry but…you’re going to have to leave now.”
“What? But Bobbi, I just made dinner and I thought…”
“Bobbi, what’s going on here? We can talk about it! Come on, Bobbi!”
I didn’t want to talk. He would never understand anyway. No one could ever understand me.
(If only he hadn’t bought those damn things.)
He must have seen the resolution on my face for he spun around with a low sound of disgust and frustration. I idly listened to him pack up his things, the pounding of his fist on the table as he left his share of the rent and the loud slam of the front door as he finally walked away. I shivered in the silence, losing track of time as I remained standing in the darkness, shielding myself within it as if seeking a solace I so desperately needed.
I couldn’t let her win. I would never let mother gloat over me. I had worked hard for twenty years to gain my freedom and I wasn’t going to let her take it away from me. This was my home and I was going to protect it the best way I could. I finally made my way towards the kitchen with determined steps and as I fell to my knees with a bucket of warm water and a brush in hand, I began the tedious and yet fulfilling job of cleansing my house all over again.
I would scrub and wipe and polish and clean for as long as I could and perhaps someday I’d finally be able to get rid of the growing filth of bitterness within my heart.
Word Count: 5265