Chapter 1: The Caregiver
"Quod peius inferos manet."
"Something worse than hell awaits us."
Sunday mornings are different. Mildred Moynihan is not woke by a broom handle jutting into her ribs, nor by the jangling shriek of an alarm clock. She is woke instead by a full brass band. Flugelhorns, trombones, euphoniums, tubas, all of it layered on a regimental spine of percussion. She pulls back the sheets, lying there in a sweat-imbued pink jersey-knit nightshirt that reaches her knees. A whiff of barely burnt toast lures her into the kitchen. At the square table she finds a place set. Breakfast is an English muffin, halved, a fried egg nestled on one disc and strawberry jam spread on the other. Black tea instead of coffee. She has never liked the bitterness of coffee, never grown accustomed to its flavor despite enjoying the aroma when it brews. This much she knows about herself, though she is hard-pressed to determine where her food comes from, who might have put it there, and how come - when she shuffles back to her room, after dining in J.P. Sousa’s bombastic accompaniment - her church clothes are already laid out neatly on the bed.
From the front yard of the Moynihan farmhouse, one can see Holy Trinity’s steeple domineering the Grillow Rock skyline, such as it is. Dropped haphazardly in an ocean of stubbled acreage, boasting a population that cranes its neck just above two-thousand, Grillow Rock is built flat and low, like a stunted orphan dumped on the side of the road. With the aid of her walker, it takes Mildred twenty minutes to walk the mile into town, to ascend the broad stone stairs of her church, the one where she underwent all three Sacraments of Initiation as a child.
Preceded only by the Post 83 American Legion - the original town hall - Holy Trinity is the second oldest standing structure in town, built by Calvinist settlers in the 1830s. Following an infamous attack during the Dakota War of 1862, in which ninety percent of the town’s Protestant majority was slaughtered wholesale (and the Reverend Spurgeon anecdotally scalped alive upon his own altar), the building was appropriated by Irish Catholics, remaining under their stewardship ever since.
Mildred enjoys this sense of intertwined lineage, this sense of belonging to the church, and vice versa. Father Timothy Rourke is also a native of the area. His father built the impressive stone wall encircling the Catholic cemetery with his bare hands. He even married Mildred to her late husband back in ’76, fresh out seminary with an outsized Adam’s apple and ears that stuck out too far. Now Rourke’s presence is pleasantly domineering, thin and graceful and intractable all at once, like a Doric column.
Following the benediction, as everyone belts out the closing hymn, he will stride up the aisle in the wake of his incense bearer, pausing at the rear pew, where Mildred can always be found, to give her hand a fond squeeze. His kindly creased eyes meet hers, before moving on to the young man beside her. Just a child really, fifteen or sixteen, but it seems she has known him a very long time. It could be how the priest’s eyes change, hardening to convey a look of omniscient reproach, but Mildred does not trust the young man, does not wholly approve of his proximity. She senses he is a source of hardship for her, a bringer of general misery.
The window of Joe Eggert’s Citgo franchise is so crowded with beer and cigarette ads that he can barely see through to the pumps. This is intentional on Eggert’s part. He’s grown tired of wearing sunglasses behind the register between the hours of nine and noon, when the sun slants in like a mandolin slicer. It probably looked ridiculous to all his customers. Now he has arranged a shady little niche for himself, with enough of a gap left between the poster boards that he can watch cars pull in and out. He has his Clive Cussler paperback, his can of V8, and a cooler containing a chicken parm sandwich that never fully leaves his mind, even while bantering with customers or reading Cussler.
The bell chimes (an electronic chirp, not the old silver bell he misses) and in walks the Moynihan boy. Eggert can never recall his name, first or last, but since he’s dwelt at the Moynihan farmhouse for the past four years that’s how Eggert knows him. “A bit late, isn’t it?” he ribs. “If you’re gonna be late for school, you might as well skip altogether and help me out around here. My knees don’t like me stocking them lower shelves.”
“What’s the pay?” the boy says, drumming his fingers on Eggert’s countertop, a Plexiglas sheet displaying the lottery selection. Joe recalls him saying once that he was eleven when he first came to Grillow Rock, so that puts the kid at fifteen. Even so, Joe grabs a carton of Misty cigarettes from the wall behind him and rings it up at $85.34.
“How about a candy bar of your choosing and some invaluable business experience to put on your college résumé?” Jason. That sounds right in his head for some reason, but not right enough. It’s something along those lines. Whatever his name is, the kid smirks as Eggert doles out his change. “Look, if she’s ever feeling up to it, tell Milly to come by and pick up her own smokes sometime. Tell her Joe Eggert misses her like a full head of hair.”
“I’ll pass it on.”
“Yeah, do that. Now get a move on.” Eggert rips off the printed receipt, crumples it, and chucks it in the garbage bin. “Mildred didn’t put all that time and effort in just to raise a truant.”
Stuffing the carton inside his backpack, the kid leaves Eggert’s Citgo, cutting across the lot between pumps, and crosses the sleepy downtown street to the opposite sidewalk.
Grillow Rock’s middle and high schools occupy two halves of the same sandstone building. Mason did two years in one and is starting year two in the other. It is mid-November. The fields in every cardinal direction are just endless furrows of dirt caked hard by frost. Another long, severe winter typical of southern Minnesota is forecast. For now he enjoys the remaining ochre that clings to skeletal branches, speckles of red layered within like flaming kaleidoscopes. He sacrifices a few more minutes of tardiness to smoke his Misty down to the filter. He can’t afford to be wasteful - or rather, the widow can’t afford it. Even a dolt like Joe Eggert will start to suspect something before long if she starts burning through a carton a week.
When he walks inside, the halls are empty, quiet. First period is underway. Normally Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, the secretary, would spot him from her windowed office, wave him inside to explain himself, and then in all likelihood write him a demerit. Instead of seeing her framed at her desk, Mason spies two police officers. They stand shoulder to shoulder looking down at someone who is obscured by the wall. Feeling curious and fortunate, but mostly the latter, Mason creeps around the corner. Through the glass-inlaid door he glimpses a classmate seated in a plastic chair being interrogated.
The girl is a new student. She hasn’t been enrolled at Grillow Rock High for more than two months and already the reputation she has staked is significant. Her personality is less to blame than her fashion taste. Currently she has on turquoise leggings, a houndstooth skirt, and a black pleather jacket with wide lapels and zipper pockets slashing every which way. Her black hair is cut short like a boy’s, spiked with gel, evoking a raven that’s been struck by a car. Her cheekbones are the kind championed on the covers of Vogue and Elle, almost cartoonishly contoured into symmetrical wings, and her complexion suggests that she grew up in the shadow of some Scandinavian mountain. This metaphor is made less farfetched by the fact of her name: Liza Ødegaard.
Between the waistlines of the officers she catches Mason’s eye and alters her scowl to depict cocky amusement. He continues to his locker before the cops turn around.
Checking up and down the corridor, Mason removes the cigarette carton from his backpack and stashes it under a hoodie bundled on the top shelf. He replaces it with his school binder and every textbook he will need up until lunch. Mason doesn’t like loitering at his locker between classes more than necessary. Whatever friends he once had have converted into foes, for reasons both complicated and facile. He hitches the heavier load high on his shoulders, making a beeline for Mr. Selby’s math class, not looking forward to the spotlight that will swivel on him when he enters. But for the second time in such a brief interval, Mason gets lucky. And his savior yet again turns out to be Liza.
The classroom is in chaos. Students have abandoned their desks and are conferring in huddles. Mr. Selby is nowhere to be found, then Mason spots him crouched at his own desk in the back corner, cupping a hand over his mouth as he talks into a telephone. “What happened?” Mason asks a kid on the forensics team, Clayton Huibregtse, an innocuous type who won’t give him a smart answer.
“The new girl launched her chair at Selby. Totally unprovoked. All he did was make a joke that the worksheet she turned in looked like it’d gone through the dryer. And trust me, it did.” He points at the whiteboard. “Look. It friggin’ missed him by an inch.”
At first Mason doesn’t know what’s being pointed at. His eyes pan across whimsical posters (5 Out Of 3 Students Don’t Think Math Is Important), black and orange streamers leftover from the homeroom Halloween party (“Monster Mash” on repeat, blood-red punch, jack-o’-lantern cookies), until finally he observes the hairline fracture spidering through a dry-erase equation. It is two feet long, unremarkable in Mason’s opinion, but when he pictures Liza hurling a chair from the third row and Selby dodging it just in time, a blue tongue of excitement ignites somewhere inside him like a Bunsen burner. This is followed by regret, both at missing the altercation and at Liza’s imminent expulsion.
He wishes she could have lasted at least a few more months.
On his way home from school Mason remembers there is pathetically little to eat in the cupboards. A few cans of beans, some quick oats, and half a jar of peanut butter. He can’t put off grocery shopping any longer. Fortunately, there is enough change leftover from the cigarettes to stock up on frozen TV dinners. He is in and out of the supermarket in minutes, proceeding past village limits and down the last barren stretch along Highway 14. With all the buildings behind him, there is no buffer against the wind that comes screaming from the north. Mason wishes he could try for his temps in the widow’s old Plymouth station wagon. Weather aside, it’s suffocating to be dependent on your own two feet in order to get anywhere. If he did have access to a car, he isn’t sure he could trust himself to turn around and return home, to raise his foot off the throttle before a fuel warning light engaged.
An oak tree so old it infantilizes the widow herself overshadows the hip-joint roof of the meager one-story farmhouse. Despondent and unproductive, with only a chicken coop to boast of, the homestead’s acreage was sold off to a neighboring farmer long ago, Fletcher Connelly, who tends it with a rotation of corn and soybeans. He also has full access to the barn standing with its deviant Pisa lean across the gravel driveway. For ten years or so, it has not been expected to withstand the next buffeting storm. For ten years or so, it has exceeded that expectation, even as granules of paint and planks from its roof are stripped clean by the elements.
Mason hatches a modest adrenaline surge by standing inside the barn, convincing himself it’s about to crash down on his head. With an acute imagination, he can shut his eyes and hear plainly the groan of its foundation, the snapping of thick rafters. There are shelves containing old paint cans, implements rendered useless by rust. What a ruckus they create during the cataclysmic downfall.
The house is white, blue-shuttered, with a dark wooden door that opens into the kitchen. There Mason begins transferring the TV dinners from his backpack into the freezer. A soap opera heavily segmented by commercial interruptions blares from the living room. It helps to drown out the rote depression of being back at home, such a dingy place with never enough light. Putting off the task he hates most, he stalls by sitting down at the kitchen table and lighting a cigarette. He pulls closer the widow’s favorite ashtray: a polyresin baby blue clamshell. She never would permit herself to smoke inside when she still had the habit. It was always out back by the chicken coop. Mason would hear her talking to the poultry about her day, just as nonchalantly as if it were a lunch date. And that was back when her mind was supposedly still intact.
Now the odor of nicotine suffuses every stitch of fabric in the house: the cretonne drapery, the camelback couch, the widow’s own overstuffed recliner the color of boiled peanuts. She sits there now, oblivious to having her profile observed with disdain. He knows that when he reaches the filter of this cigarette he will have to go over there and guide her to the bathroom so he can strip off her adult diaper, putrid from her choosing to sit there all day while he’s been at school. Just the act of buying those diapers in public is a regular gamble for Mason.
Sometime around eighteen months ago, it started to become incontrovertible that Mildred was losing her mind. What’s absolutely out of the question is that anyone else should discover this fact.
Aiding in this bit of subterfuge is the widow’s time-honored hermetic lifestyle. Even pre-illness, she rarely chose to call on anyone except her Sunday congregation at Holy Trinity. That’s why he decrees Saturday night as bath night. To look at her now - with her matted gray hair, rheumy eyes, and soup-dribbled nightdress - it wouldn’t take much imagination for an outsider to conclude that she is ceding a fight with dementia. But as long as she keeps making her weekly appearance, passably refreshed and cosmeticized, he can maintain the charade that keeps him from being plucked out of relative stasis and plopped back into that roulette wheel known as the state foster care system.
Mrs. Anita Bradshaw is the name of the social worker whose visits are helpfully infrequent and erratic. This could be because she has built up a rapport with Mildred over time, who has been fostering with her late husband for twenty-five years and thus is in good standing with the organization. Mrs. Bradshaw is a schoolmarmish, gray-bunned lady who likes to pair flamboyant blouses with conservative skirt suits. Her mocha nylons never come close to matching her actual skin tone, and Mason suspects they are really support hose, but that is neither her nor there. What’s relevant is that her last visit occurred ten months ago. It lasted fifteen minutes, or as long as it takes to drink a cup of tea, consisted of small talk, reminiscences about the good old days (which no doubt seemed current to Mildred), and then Mason was admonished to stay helpful and keep up his grades while Mrs. Bradshaw buttoned the front of her peacoat.
The widow’s condition has declined rapidly since then. Mason is not altogether confident in her ability to pull off twenty minutes of banter. The next appearance of Social Services weighs on him at all times, like a threat not carried through. Bradshaw is the one factor he is helpless to dodge or circumvent, the one liability that is unavoidable. Jetting smoke from his nostrils, Mason snubs out his Misty in the clamshell. He pushes thoughts of Anita Bradshaw from his mind. The widow is still soiled, so he rises to attend to business.
The sound of the postal truck idling at their curbside must elicit a Pavlov response in Mildred, some muscle memory embedded enough to supersede her illness. Mason knows not to bother checking the mailbox when he gets home. Instead, every few days he remembers to flip up the couch cushions, sure to find a trove of utility bills, sales catalogs, AARP, statements from Wells Fargo and Liberty Mutual (the firm that arbitrates Edgar’s $500K life insurance policy), plus important government memorandums concerning Social Security, which is the life raft keeping them afloat in lieu of a living wage. Mason would like to get a job, would like any excuse to be out of the house, however it’s too risky leaving his benefactress alone past the seven-hour school day. Minnesota subsidizes $325 a month per foster child, so not exactly a cottage industry, but it helps.
A new Netflix DVD has arrived under the cushion. There is no overstating the euphoria this awakes. Without a computer or smartphone, Mason is denied all modern forms of escapism beyond a few basic channels on the RCA tube television. It fits squarely into a pinewood entertainment center that must weigh half a ton, given its permanent indentations in the lavender carpet. Mildred is again in her recliner, wearing a fresh diaper and a new nightdress, one of four she circulates through because they are easiest for dressing and undressing. He sets up a TV tray before her, a hot piping meal fresh from the microwave. Her large plastic water cup with the lid and flexible straw has been refilled. It stays within arm’s reach all day, but she rarely employs enough sense to drink from it without his prompting. Her lips are always cracked. Her pee comes out stinking of ammonia, with a brownish hue.
Mason took the initiative of subscribing them to Netflix in the school computer lab one day, adding a slew of horror movies to his queue. Over the months he has screened for Mildred some of the most graphic and tasteless depravities ever recorded: tales of torture dungeons, slashers, sadists, demonic portals, black mass rituals, and psycho-surgeons run amok. Inured as he is to depictions of carnage, he commonly finds more intrigue in cataloging the widow’s symptomatic responses. It seems beyond her ability to tear her eyes from the screen, at least while it still dispenses content, spilling garish light into the darkened room. At profoundly turbulent moments, she drags her fingernails up the lengths of the chair arms, similar to a cat scratching a post. When she trembles, the dewlap under her chin flutters like the wing of some pasty bat. She at times emits whimpers or moans, wrenched by the sight of a grisly scalpel excision, or the screams of an onscreen damsel being brutalized beyond any justifiable cinematic parameters.
It seems to Mason when he leans toward her, close enough to catch the sour fruit rind of her breath, that he is be able to watch each hellish image being seared into her short-term memory, before it dissolves and is seared anew by something more terrible. This allays any guilt he might feel: the assurance that she will not remember what she’s seen ten minutes after the movie ends. If anything, what he’s doing is reversing some of the stagnation that must set in from watching flatline game shows all day. Revamping her nervous system. Actuating compartments of the brain that would otherwise atrophy were she to live a life free from abject terror and revulsion.
Besides, it’s only a movie. It hardly constitutes torture.
Though there are nights when he wonders if she really does forget, or if the images don’t stay with her, some of them, to incite the screaming that drifts from her room to his on infrequent occasions. They aren’t blood-curdling, thank god. She doesn’t possess the lung power to produce more than a nauseated moan. After listening for a few minutes to see whether it abates, which it sometimes does, Mason throws back the covers and pads barefoot down the creaking corridor. The jade halo of a night light conducts him.
Entering her room, he switches on the lamp and finds her lying ramrod straight, his meticulous tuck job undisturbed, the blanket molding her body like a sarcophagus. Her forehead percolates cold beads of sweat. Her eyes are closed, though her lips murmur nonsensical things as she musters the effort needed to launch another moan. Mason opens the top drawer of her nightstand. Therein he stores a roll of duct tape for such occasions. Confident she will not remove the tape of her own accord, he returns to his room for an immersive, dreamless sleep - until the crowing of Hansel the cock outside his window should raise him.