February 15, 2023

The Bric-a-Brac of Life

9

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The air in her father’s house was stale, stagnant, sombre. It had been two weeks since he died, and only the remnants of his life were left to be discarded.

“Let’s get this over with,” Adrian said.

Madelaine turned and glared at her brother.

“Would you please not do that,” she said. “Have a little respect.”

They were standing in the front hallway, unmoving, uncomfortable and uncertain where to begin. Their father had been a collector of all manner of things, and after forty years, the house was stuffed with outdated books and records, stamps and coins, and old ratty furniture. When her father had been alive, Madelaine had always loved his collections and cherished his eccentricities, but now she felt menaced by his possessions and overwhelmed by the burden of them.

Standing there in the silence of his stuff, she wondered whether it was already too late to save her fond memories of her childhood home, and of him, from being buried in a graveyard of her pain.

She had roped her brother into joining her in her quest to salvage and save some of their family history from the garbage dump, but he had been less than thrilled about giving up a Saturday to rummage through all these things looking for something worth keeping.

Standing there, she really couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t that their father had been a hoarder, at least not in the television reality show sense. She had always believed there had been some order and logic to his madness, but after their mother died two years ago, order had frayed, and logic had failed. As time passed, the house had become darker, dirtier, and unhappier. It now felt vaguely sinister, a decrepit tomb of a once vibrant life.

She considered giving up. It wasn’t like any of her parent’s things were valuable or were even worth saving. Adrian would certainly not fault her for throwing in the towel. He had suggested that they hire a professional company to catalogue everything and discard anything they didn’t want. She had dismissed the idea as cold and insensitive, but now she wasn’t so sure.

“Should we split up,” Adrian asked. “The work will go faster if we do.”

She shook her head no. She didn’t want to be alone. Not here, not now. The afternoon sun had already started to disappear and was casting jagged shadows down the hall. She turned to look at Adrian.

“It’s not about that,” she said. “I just wanted—“

He reached out and took her hand and squeezed it lightly.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s ok. I get it. We should probably stick together. Not going to lie, I’m kind of worried a stack of books is going to fall over and bury me alive.”

He chuckled, but she knew he was masking his own sense of dread and uneasiness. She smiled, glad to know she wasn’t alone.

“I was thinking we should start in the basement,” she said.

“Basement? Are you serious?” he said.

She shrugged.

“I don’t want to be here any longer than necessary,” she said. “And I’m guessing the photo albums are downstairs. I haven’t seen them since Mom died,” she said.

Adrian looked at her. She could see the anxiety on his face. He didn’t really want to go into the basement. But she didn’t see any point in wasting time upstairs when the happy memories she was looking for would be in the photo albums. And the photo albums were in the basement.

“Come on,” she said and walked into the house. “You’re freaking me out. We’ll pour ourselves a glass of wine, find the old albums, have a few laughs, take the ones we want, and get the hell out of here. Sound good?”

He didn’t say anything but silently followed her into the house.

She moved over to their father’s wine rack and started grabbing various bottles. Each was coated with dust. She assumed wine didn’t go bad, but then she knew as much about wine as her father had, which judging by the dust, wasn’t much.

“Red or white,” she said.

Adrian had drifted over to the kitchen cupboards and was opening the doors cautiously as though he expected something to jump out at him.

“Adrian,” she said. “What on earth has gotten into you?”

“Huh,” he said. “What’d ya mean?”

“I mean,” she said, grabbing a bottle of red and moving toward him. “That you’re acting as though the house is occupied by vampires or werewolves or something. Snap out of it”

She pushed by him, opened the cupboard, grabbed two glasses, pulled open a drawer, grabbed a corkscrew, and waved at him to follow her back down the hall. The door to the basement was closed, it was always closed. She nodded at him to open the door. He hesitated.

“For chrissakes, Adrian, enough already. We lived here our whole life and you’re acting like it’s a haunted house or something.”

“I just don’t know how this doesn’t weird you out,” he said. “Being here. It was creepy when dad was alive and now, it’s—“

“Well, I think you’re being ridiculous. Nothing’s changed. It’s all the same,” she said.

He opened the door and stepped back to let her pass. The basement was dark, but Adrian flipped the switch, and the bare bulb at the bottom of the stairs, popped to life. It was an older house, and the light hummed schizophrenically with the sound of electricity.

She took the stairs cautiously, the old planks creaking with each step. Adrian followed. The floor was a mix of dirt and rock and dust. Her mother had always called it a root cellar, which had always conjured up images of dead trees and dead bodies. She ducked her head a little at the bottom of the stairs and looked around. Pockets of gray cinder block peeked out among the rows and rows of wooden shelves that lined the foundation walls. The air was cool and damp and smelled like old paper and wet socks. Like the rest of the house, almost every surface was covered with cardboard boxes, and books, and milk crates with dusty vinyl records of a bygone era. There were rusty tools thrown in broken toolboxes and discarded bits of appliances and plumbing littered on the floor.

Madelaine had forgotten how much stuff her father had stuffed into the basement and once again felt an overwhelming sense of dread. And sorrow. She missed him terribly. He had been her rock growing up, the one person in the world she had always counted on to keep her grounded and safe. He had been a constant cheerleader in her life, and now he was gone. She looked around and felt the pain of his death wash over her. She closed her eyes, suffocated her sorrow, and soldiered on.

The basement was rectangular and divided by a large rickety wooden table not much bigger than a coffin. Madelaine made her way to the table, treading carefully among the old boxes as she went. She set down the glasses and pried open the bottle with a corkscrew. The cork came out with a satisfying pop. Adrian stood on the last step of the stairs, watching her.

She would have been annoyed with him but was too preoccupied with her own feelings to call him out on his. She took a sip of red wine, savoured the taste and felt her mood shift. She was filled with quiet melancholy. She poured her brother a glass and held it aloft for him to take. He sighed, cast his eyes around warily, and moved to join her in the center of the room. He took the wine, sipped it, and smiled at her weakly.

“Well,” she said. “This isn’t so bad.”

He said nothing and took another sip.

“Cheer up,” she said. “Just stay here. Drink the wine. I’ll find the albums, ok?”

“It’s just so dreary,” he said. He took another sip and shuddered. “Don’t you feel it.”

She shrugged.

“I’m not thrilled, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “But I just thought we could look at some photos and reminisce about…”

She didn’t finish the thought. She just wanted a chance to remember happier times. She knew Adrian wanted that too, despite his grumbling. She took another sip, mustering her courage, before setting her glass down. She smiled at her brother again and moved off to examine the shelves. After their mother had died, their father had moved all of the photos and scrapbooks to the basement. She hadn’t asked him why because she knew. She knew that some memories were too much for him to bear. She knew that some memories were better stored in cardboard boxes and shelved out of sight.

As she moved along the walls, she started reading the labels of things out loud as much to calm her nerves as to reassure her brother that she was still there. Some of the cardboard boxes had started to sag, and it was difficult work trying to sort out what was in each box. The bare bulb in the room hummed but barely illuminated anything, and soon she was forced to use the light on her phone to see what she was looking at. As she pressed on, her curiosity started to stir, and she found herself pulling boxes off the shelf and peering inside to see what she could see. Most of the boxes were filled with garbage, the bric-a-brac of a collector’s life. If these dusty objects had had any meaning, the meaning was lost when her father died.

Eventually, she arrived at a corner. She was deep in the basement now and couldn’t see Adrian or much of anything really. She shoved some boxes around and finally found one that looked promising. She peered inside and could make out a few albums that she hoped would rekindle her childhood memories and help her cope with her pain. She lifted the box off the shelf and carried it over to the table. Adrian hadn’t moved. He was still sipping his wine and watching her work.

“A little help here,” she said irritably. She loved her brother, but he had always been lazy.

He smiled, took another sip of wine, and said, “your world, sis. I’m just living in it.”

“Whatever,” she snapped and dropped the box on the table, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Adrian coughed and put a hand over his glass to protect it from contamination. She laughed. She took her own glass and gulped down some more wine. Adrian pulled back the cardboard cover and started rummaging inside. He pulled out the first album, flipped through a few pages, handed it to her, and grabbed the next one. He repeated this process several more times before he grimaced in annoyance.

“What?” she said.

“You know what,” he said.

“No,” she said. “I don’t. Why are you being so annoying?”

He frowned.

“These are all of you,” he said. “The whole history of Madelaine Scott, neatly organized, cataloged and recorded.”

He tossed an album on the table in front of her. He was angry. It was the same argument they had been having since they were teenagers. She knew Adrian resented their father. She had hoped being here might ease some of his anger.

“I’m sure there are others,” she said. “This was just the first box I picked up. There are more. Just go grab one. You’ll see.”

He took another sip of wine and rolled his eyes at her. She picked up the album he had thrown down on the table and ignored him. He put his glass down and started off toward the corner where she had found the first box. She flipped casually through the pages, each photo a tiny snapshot of the joy she felt growing up. She was midway through the album when Adrian returned. His hands were shaking, and his eyes were wide in horror.

“Adrian,” she said, not sure what to make of his antics. “Did you find one?”

He shook his head no. Reached for his glass, his hands shaking so violently she thought he might actually break it.

“Cut it out, Adrian. It’s not funny. You’re freaking me out.”

He finally managed to get the glass to his lips and gulped down the wine like it was water. When he was done, he put the glass down and looked at her silently for a moment before he started to speak. But his words were gibberish, and she couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Adrian, stop it. I’m sorry there aren’t as many photos of you but it isn’t my fault. Stop taking it out on me.”

He pointed at the corner where he had just been and started stammering at her, softly at first, his voice gaining volume as he went on until he was almost shouting at her.

“Dead body,” he finally managed. “Dead body.”

He continued gesturing at the corner of the room.

“What on earth are you talking about,” she said.

But Adrian wasn’t listening. He just kept stammering about a dead body. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she set off to look to see what he was so agitated about. She took her phone out, lit the light, and waved it around in front of her, trying to see anything out of the ordinary. She couldn’t understand what had set Adrian off or why he was raving about dead bodies. Everything looked the same as it had been when she had found the first box. She stepped further into the shadows, leaned into the corner, and that’s when she saw it. A skeleton, a dried-out husk of a human, a skull leering at her from the darkness.

She screamed. And screamed. And screamed.

Madelaine didn’t remember much of what happened over the next few days. It was a blur. Adrian had managed to call the police, and soon, the basement of their family home had been cordoned off as a crime scene, just like in all those television shows she watched. A forensic team had been called in, the bones and body removed from the wooden box in the basement, and taken to the lab for examination.

She vaguely remembered being interviewed about her parents and their family history, but the details were as hazy as a daydream. She couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t live. She stopped trying. She called in sick to work. Adrian had done the same. Together they spent their time drinking wine and waiting in silence for answers that might never come.

On the third day, or maybe it was the fourth, she answered the door to find a police officer standing on her porch. He was a dour man. She doubted he was there to console them or to wake them from their nightmare.

“Ms Scott,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied.

“I’m Officer Douglas, may I come in.”

“Yes, of course,” she said and stepped back to let him pass. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, ma’am,” he said. “Thank you though.”

She led him to the living room. Adrian was already there.

“Officer Douglas,” she said. “This is my brother.”

He nodded at Adrian and sat down. He cleared his throat.

“I know this must be a shock to you both,” he said, reading from the scripted lines they hand out at the police academy to new recruits.

They said nothing. The silence grew as heavy as a hangman’s noose.

“I don’t want to intrude but thought you might want to know where we are at in the investigation,” he said.

Madelaine nodded politely. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but life couldn’t continue until she did.

“It seems the bones found in the basement are those of an adult male,” he said. “Probably 25 to 30 years old. The medical examiner believes the man was shot and put in the wooden box after he died. The examiner believes he’s been dead for approximately 40 years, give or take.”

Madelaine looked at Adrian, who stared back at her blankly.

“I see,” she said. “So you’re saying…”

“I know this isn’t easy ma’am,” Officer Douglas said. “But it appears that this man was murdered in your parents home.”

“Yes,” she said. “But I just don’t see how that…”

She was in too much shock to finish her thought. Her parents had been murderers. That didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t possible.

“Unfortunately,” Officer Douglas said. “There’s more.”

What more could there be? A man was dead. Her parents murdered him. Buried him in their family home. A home she and Adrian were born in, grew up in and had played in. It was all too much to think about.

She looked at Officer Douglas and waited.

“You see,” he said. “Both of you provided a DNA sample at the time we processed the scene.”

She nodded. She vaguely recalled someone swabbing her mouth. It had all been a hazy dream.

“The thing is,” said Officer Douglas. “The examiner was able to recover a DNA sample from the body in the basement. And…”

His voice drifted off as if he was unsure how to continue.

“Yes,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

She couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than the news that her parents had been murderers. That was rock bottom.

“Well, you see, ma’am,” he said. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but…the examiner has concluded that the man you found in the box in the basement is your father.”