SLASHBACK: Cal Leandros #8
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Twelve Years Ago
“Our neighbor is a serial killer.”
It was that kind of day.
There had been tutoring no-necked football players lacking enough in brain cells that I was surprised they didn’t have calluses on their knuckles from walking on them. It would’ve gone well with their gorilla grunting. Following that had been the food poisoning caused by a casserole brought in by Mrs. Dumpfries. The teacher’s lounge had been liberally labeled a biohazard. The color of which is not orange like they tell you, but the bile green of non-stop vomiting. I stood witness to that. I’d gone through three mops.
And now we had a serial killer.
Or so said my little brother.
I closed the door behind me and locked it, not because I was immediately on board with the serial killer comment just issued, but we rented in a bad neighborhood. For us, an average neighborhood would be a more truthful way to put it. We’d not lived in better and we’d sometimes lived in worse. This cramped little house with a pronounced lean, no insulation, and cracked windows in east New London, Connecticut was nothing special in one way or the other. When we didn’t stay anyplace longer than five or six months, thanks to our mother’s ‘occupation’, it was all the same. I put my duffle bag containing my school books and janitor uniform by the door and took off my worn, but warm Salvation Army coat to hang from a rusted hook by the door.
With everything in its place I moved to the kitchen table, which wobbled, where my little brother with pencil and paper sat in a chair, which also wobbled. I lightly ruffled his black hair, shaggy in length but with a gloss like silk. Thanks to Cal being a good brother, he let me without complaint.
“Where’s Sophia?” I asked. She had given birth to us and I used the word mother sometimes, but the truth of it never quite fit in my mouth.
“Gone. With her suitcase.” The pencil kept moving and he didn’t look up.
With her suitcase…that meant she would be gone anywhere from three days to three weeks. If business was slow in the area, she went looking for it elsewhere. She told fortunes, picked pockets, ran scams, whored herself out if the price was right. There was only so much whiskey you could shoplift before the local liquor store owners became suspicious and you had to actually start paying for it. Yes, life was hard for Sophia. I swallowed my anger as I’d been taught. I wouldn’t let Sophia have that kind of power over me.
And truthfully, the times she was gone were the best times.
“Are you doing your homework?” I asked with a little disapproval for him to hear. It was six PM—although I couldn’t make it home at the same time as he did, I made it there before dark. Always.
The homework, he should’ve been done with it by now. There was also a pan crusted with burnt Spagetti-Os in the sink, some less scorched fake pasta in spots on the cracked linoleum floor, and a purple handprint, Grape Crush probably, on the door of the groaning refrigerator. Cal was a good brother, but there are all sorts of definitions for good when it came to an eleven year old.
“Yes, Nik. I’m doing my homework. Watching the serial killer made me get behind.” I didn’t have to see his eyes to know they were rolling with the disdain and sarcasm only an eleven year old could manage, and I gave him a gentle swat to the back of the head.
I took the other chair and sat down. “All right. Tell me why our neighbor is a serial killer,” I said with a patience I didn’t have to fake. I listened to Cal when he had something to say. I always listened to him. I had even when he was three and thought a monster lived under the bed, because in our world….
In our world, there was every chance that he wasn’t necessarily wrong.
I also listened to him as he’d had to grow up very fast and deserved the respect and dignity that came from surviving a harsh road that I hadn’t been able to change nearly as much as I wished. There were times I could close my eyes and see the small bloody footprints on that blackly grim path. That my larger ones were beside his every step of the way didn’t help. Didn’t absolve.
I was fifteen and I was smart. More than smart. I could admit that because it wasn’t boasting. Being more than smart meant knowing too much. If I’d a choice, I would’ve chosen to be less smart. I would’ve chosen not to know all about absolution and how hard it was to come by.
Impossible on some days.
As for right now…I’d grown up as quickly as Cal, but if I hadn’t–if I’d been a normal fifteen year old, I would still know this: you show respect to a warrior. For Cal to have survived our childhood, he was a warrior. I gave him his due. Anything else would’ve made me less of a brother.
He put down his pencil and raised his eyes from the carelessly rumpled paper. I swallowed the sigh and reminded myself that there were worse things than a messy nature. Cal was a good brother and a good kid when, if they’d lived his life, other children would be feral as wild dogs and amoral as sharks at dinner time. Cal was amazingly, painfully human in comparison and not once did I overlook that.
I reached over and gave him an encouraging tap on the back of his hand as he hesitated, something he rarely did. Cal knew his own mind about generally everything under the sun and all the other suns in at least half our galaxy. “Go on, grasshopper. Tell me.”
Grey eyes, the same as mine and that of our mother Sophia, blinked, then he shrugged. “I smelled it. On him.”
That’s where the discomfort entered the picture. Cal didn’t like admitting he could do something other people couldn’t. He didn’t want to be different. I told him that sometimes different is good, sometimes it’s better. It was one of the few times in his life he hadn’t believed me.
“Okay,” I said, calm as if that was something I heard every day. I pretended not to see the flush of shame behind his pale skin. He wouldn’t want to talk about it and if I tried, it would make it worse. On certain matters Cal was determined that no positive spin could be put on it and that was that. Stubborn, so stubborn. “What exactly did you smell?”
He shrugged again. “I got off the bus at the corner with the other kids.” To say that Cal could take care of himself better than your average eleven year old was something of an understatement, but I made certain he played it safe all the same. That he stayed with a crowd or a group of other people if he could. “I was walking home and he was at his mailbox by the sidewalk. When I passed him, I smelled it. He smelled like blood. A lot of blood. After he went inside, I snuck around to his back yard and got close to the house. There are tiny kinda half-windows to the basement. I think they’re covered up with cardboard on the inside or painted because I couldn’t see anything.” He made a face. “But I could still smell. It’s like roadkill. His basement smells like a mountain of roadkill.”
He gave a third shrug, a habit I was going to have to break and soon while I was still sane. “He has a basement full of dead bodies,” he declared, “and that means he’s a serial killer.”
End of story. Which was my brother’s way. If he became a lawyer when he grew up, he’d have the most succinct closing arguments in any court system in America.
He had already picked up his pencil again and gone back to the math problems. It wasn’t that he liked math or homework of any kind, but he knew no homework meant no TV. That motivated him to no end…normally. What motivated him now was the amount of trouble he knew was coming his way.
“You went prowling around the man’s windows? Cal, how could you do something so stupid? He could’ve shot you. If he’d seen you, he would’ve shot you,” I snapped. This was the type of neighborhood where everyone, little old ladies included, had guns, and if they saw a shadowy shape that remotely looked as if it was trying to break in a window, they would shoot first and not bother to wait long enough to register the shape was the size of a child.
“I was careful. I was sneaky. You know I’m good at that,” he replied matter-of-fact, pencil moving to write a sadly sloppy number. Cal’s handwriting wasn’t all it could be and that extended to numbers as well. That he was actually smart, if not ‘freakishly smart’ as he labeled me, but lazy as the day was long made my back teeth grind enough I thought I’d be in dentures by the time I was twenty. Now, however, my teeth were grinding for a different reason.
“Yes, I know you’re good at that,” I echoed and the urge to destroy my molars disappeared just that quickly. I only wished I didn’t know why he was so good at it. Cal was talented at being careful and sneaky as that was the best way to not be hit by one of Sophia’s bottles. The malicious verbal abuse she gave him, that was harder to dodge. She’d slapped me more than once when I was younger and smaller, but I was five eleven now, taller than she was. She didn’t slap me anymore. She had never slapped or hit Cal. She didn’t have any desire to touch him physically and if she accidentally did, she rubbed her hand against her skirt as if she’d touched a toad or a snake.
Cal noticed that more than her words. Cal noticed everything that I wished he didn’t.
Although she didn’t use skin on skin in a fit of temper, a drunken rage had Sophia quick to throw a whiskey bottle at the nearest moving target. It was fortunate for her she didn’t come close to hitting anything or anyone. Very fortunate for her. “But Sophia can’t hit anything when she’s drunk,” I pointed out to Cal as if that was something to be thankful for, tasting the blood of a bitten tongue for my punishment.
I did the best I could. I did the best I could in a very bad situation.
“And you know Sophia is a big difference than a sober man with a gun. Don’t go over there again, all right? Promise me,” I finished.
Cal snorted. At times despite my skipping a grade, reading books thick enough that he casually used them as stools, and being at the top of my class, my little brother thought I was incredibly slow when it came to common sense. He kept me humble. “He’s a serial killer, Nik. Why would I go back? He could get out his chainsaw and chop me up into pieces. Except I’m a virgin so I might get away.” Not-quite-under his breath, he added, “You don’t watch enough movies. You don’t know anything.”
“Fine. You’re the expert on all things serial killer,” I said dryly, less than glad to know my birds-and-bees talk had ended up as nothing but misinformation about murderers letting the abstinent escape. “But I still want to hear you promise.”
He exhaled, obviously aggrieved at my dense ways. “I promise.” He drew out ‘promise’ until it lasted as long as if it had twice its normal syllables.
“Good.” And it was good. I’d put Cal’s first diaper on him the day he was born. Fed him his first bottle. Imagining him shot dead in some asshole’s—damn, keep the language clean for impressionable minds—some person’s backyard wasn’t a picture I wanted to take to bed with me that night.
“Now that’s taken care of,” I continued, “let’s talk about what this man could be other than a serial killer.” Cal knew there were monsters in the world. He’d seen them. He searched the window every night for them. So did I. He didn’t need to think he was sleeping next door to a serial killer on top of that. The shadows hid enough already.
“First, he could work at a slaughterhouse,” I started the list. “Even if he changed and showered at work, you’re special. You could still smell the blood. And his basement might be full of blood-stained aprons with pieces of rotting meat on them. He’s lazy—like you, little brother.” I couldn’t resist a teachable moment. “He doesn’t do his laundry. That would explain all the blood and the smell of rot. Wouldn’t it?”
I was trying for logical. Cal would know in a heartbeat if I tried to pull the wool over his eyes, especially if the wool was made of bullshit. Bullshit, damn. Hell, impressionable minds. I had to remember that: impressionable minds. My thinking words like shit were the next step to saying them and once Cal heard one of them slip from my mouth, it was all over. I couldn’t stop what he picked up at school, but I could set the example here at home. Sophia said the filthiest of words all the time, but that was Sophia. Cal knew nothing good or right came out of her. But his big brother, although slow in serial killer mythology, could do little wrong and more importantly he was not above using that big brother worship to his advantage the first chance he got. Nik did it and if Nik did it then it wasn’t bad and Sophia didn’t count.
Cal folded his math paper and stuffed it in a folder bulging with papers from two grades ago. Lazy beyond lazy, but while I could nag him about it until I wanted to bang my head against the wall, I wouldn’t force him to clean it up. I could spend my entire life fighting that battle. I had to pick them carefully. And messy or not, Cal needed to be independent, had to be. I’d taught him so. Surviving Sophia, ignoring the monsters when they did show up to gaze in the window with lava-red eyes. Cal had to be able to handle that. I couldn’t be with him every minute of every day. If sloppy but independent was the best I could manage, I’d be more than happy with it.
He rested his elbows on the folder and cupped his small chin in his hands. He was small for his age, looking at least a year if not two younger. He was due a growth spurt anytime now. “Slaughterhouse? Maybe,” he said. “What else could he be?” Only eleven and serious as a soldier going to war. Gathering intelligence. Listening to theories—not that it meant anything. Cal’s mind was made up. The intelligence was wrong. The theories bogus. Cal knew what he knew. Changing his mind had never taken less than an act of God.
But I was trying all the same. I went for number two on the list. “A butcher.” There weren’t many butcher shops open these days. You bought meat, when you could afford it, at Kroger or K-Mart or Wal-Mart; it all depended on the city we were squatting in at the time. “He could work at a grocery store, wrapping up meat behind the counter. He’d come home with blood and brisket on him. It makes more sense than him being a serial killer. They’re pretty rare in smaller towns like this. He either kills animals or he packages meat. We already have monsters. What are the odds we’d get a serial killer too? That would be winning the worst lottery of all time, right? You get that, don’t you, Cal?”
He tilted his head, staring at me. I saw emotions roiling behind his eyes. Some I recognized: worry, resignation, and others I couldn’t make out. I hadn’t failed to read Cal’s feelings, any of them, in his short life. This was the first time. “Cal? You do see?”
“I can see how you see that.” He shook his head, long bangs flopping. “But that’s not the way it is. He doesn’t work at a slaughterhouse and he’s not a butcher. He kills people and puts them in his basement.”
“Why?” I demanded, frustration peaking as hard as I was trying to hold it back. “Why are you so sure of that?” Why are you so sure that it’s all bad? Everything.? I couldn’t let myself believe that, because how could I hope to find us lives someday, real lives, if he was right?
He echoed my finger tap to the back of his hand. This time his finger, almost as white as his homework paper, tapped and clashed with the dusky brown of my skin. This touch didn’t hold reassurance like mine had though—it held pity for me that I didn’t know. That I was four years older, but I was the one who couldn’t see, not him.
“Because this is the real world,” he said almost apologetically.
Plain and straightforward as it came.
“And this is just the way things are, Nik.”
He picked up his folder and headed for the bedroom. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t get it. That you don’t see.”
He paused to smile. I’d seen that smile before and it never failed to make my chest ache. It was touched with a near-adult bitterness that looked to have been carved into his face with the blade of that fictional serial killer. “But maybe monsters and half monsters are the only things that can see.”
Eleven years old and that’s what he thought of the world. What he thought of himself.
He closed the bedroom door behind him, leaving behind emotions that this time I could read. Disappointment that I didn’t automatically accept and trust in what he thought. Worry for me that I didn’t know enough about the real world. Worry for me—a kid that could’ve been shot crawling around the back of a stranger’s house and it was me that he spent his concern on.
I pulled the black rubber-band out of my hair to let my short pony-tail fall free, a few dark blond strands hanging in my eyes. It didn’t help my headache like I’d hoped. I could take Tylenol for that, but there wasn’t a pill for the guilt. Guilt that I couldn’t convince Cal the world wasn’t like that, not all of it. Guilt that I couldn’t believe him and possibly ruin a man’s reputation with an anonymous call to the police—not without proof first.
Which meant I’d have to get proof—proof that our neighbor with his cologne of blood did work in a slaughterhouse or a meatpacking plant. I would show Cal that not every corner, not every house, not every street, and not every minute of our lives was touched by hungry shadows. There was sun. There was normal. You only had to know enough to look for them.
Proof, then. It was a plan. I liked plans. I liked order. When everything was sorted and in its place, the out-of-control became routine and the routine became tolerable. I heaved out of the chair and moved to the sink to work on the pot crusted with blackened pseudo-pasta. Self-pity was a luxury I didn’t have and it rarely made a bad day better. Besides, now I had a plan…for one problem at least. I looked over my shoulder at the bedroom.
“Half human,” I said quietly, trying to erase his last words. “Not half monster. Not a ‘thing’.”
He didn’t hear me through the closed door.
If he had, after a day of smelling blood and rot that no one else could….
He probably wouldn’t have believed me anyway.