My mother hid a terrible secret from me – By JamesDevolson
“My beautiful little fool.”
Those were my mother’s last words. She was in hospice, on a steady morphine drip to fight the constant agony of end-stage renal failure. With great effort she reached out, lightly touched my face, and spoke those four words to me. An hour later, she was dead.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. Her mind was addled by drugs and pain. I had assumed she was trying to say something loving and the words just came out scrambled.
About a month later, I was cleaning out her house. She wasn’t a hoarder, per say, but there was still quite a bit of clutter to deal with. As an only child, I was left to tackle the task on my own. I was digging through boxes and bins in my mother’s closet when I came across something unexpected.
My mother had always been a bit of a luddite. She was comfortable with her tablet, with its large icons and simplistic touch interface, but anything more complicated than that usually just stressed her out. It was an unusual find, made stranger by the fact that she had never mentioned it to me.
I booted it up. The desktop contained only two icons. The first was a plain text document labeled Family. The second was a folder named The Fool.
I did a double-take. The Fool? My mother’s last words played on a loop in my head. It had to be a coincidence, right? I hovered the mouse over the folder, but something held me back. I opened the text document instead.
It was a list of names, addresses and phone numbers. I didn’t recognize any of them. If they were my family, they were distant relatives that I’d never been told about. And, weirder still, they were scattered across the globe. One lived in Iceland. One in Russia. Another in Morocco. They were even a few in Australia.
My curiosity fully piqued, I closed the text document and double clicked The Fool folder. To my surprise, it was password protected. I started to get a funny feeling in my gut. There was no way my mom would have known how to password protect a folder. It took her two years just to figure out how to use her tablet’s e-mail app.
My beautiful little fool.
I entered my birthday as the password. It worked. That only made me feel more anxious. Without looking any further, I closed the laptop. Whatever was inside that folder, my mom didn’t want it seen. No good would come out of me digging any deeper into this mystery.
So, of course, I dug deeper. I re-opened the laptop and looked in the folder. It was full of pictures. Hundreds of them. I double-clicked on the first one.
It was a photo of me.
I couldn’t have been older than 12 at the time. I was standing, shirtless, in the middle of the woods, smiling for the camera. The surrounding forest looked similar to the one behind my childhood home, but I wasn’t certain. In fact, I had no memory of this picture being taken. No memory at all.
I clicked through the next several photos. My back was to the camera now – I was walking deeper into the woods, and the cameraperson was following me. Documenting my journey. With each new photo, the shadows grew longer and deeper. The sun was going down.
The next photo stopped me dead. I was standing in front of a dilapidated mansion. It was built right in the middle of the forest, and nature was in the process of reclaiming it. Vines snaked in and out of shattered windows. Shaggy moss grew out of the pockmarked brickwork.
This couldn’t have been the forest behind my old house. There was no abandoned mansion hidden among the trees. My friends and I spent countless hours exploring those woods each summer. We would have found it. And if we did, I would have remembered. And yet, here were these photos. Proof. Hard evidence. I briefly entertained the idea that they might have been doctored, but that seemed even more absurd than them being real. My mother, the Photoshop master? There was no way. No, these photos were real. My eyes told me that much.
The next series of shots showed my ingress into the mansion. The inside was in worse shape than the outside. The entire first floor was overrun by dirt. I watched myself travel down a series of corridors, where grass grew in place of carpet.
I started clicking through the photos faster and faster. I just wanted to get to the end, for this to be no more than a meaningless gap in my memory, an oversight, an innocuous excursion into the forest that produced some cool pictures and nothing else.
My beautiful little fool.
And then I hit it – the point of no return. It was a photo of me, standing in the ruins of what was once the mansion’s ballroom. I was surrounded by a crowd of adults. They were were dressed formally – the men in tuxedos and the women in floor-length gowns. Their clothes were spotless but, inexplicably, their faces and hands were covered in dirt and mud.
I stared at that nightmare image for a solid ten minutes, too scared to continue but too invested to relent. I knew something terrible was about to happen. I assumed it was going to happen to me, that these photos were evidence of some horrific abuse that I had suffered as a child, the memory of which I had repressed, the trauma too great for my young mind to process.
All hope for a happy ending had vanished. I took a deep breath and clicked through the rest of the photos.
I watched as the adults advanced on my younger self, who made no attempt to flee. The crowd knelt down, grabbing hunks of dirt and mud from the ballroom floor. They smeared the filth all over my face, chest and arms, turning my pale skin a mottled matte brown. Once they were finished, the crowd retreated.
The next shot of was close-up of me. I was smiling, my white teeth shining like pearls between my muddy lips. I looked like I was having the time of my life.
After that, a series of photos showed one of the adults – an absolute giant of a man – presenting me with what appeared to be some kind of wooden sculpture. It was a tangle of knots and loops, thin strips of wood weaving between each other like a demented bird’s nest.
In the next photo, I was wearing it on my head like a crown. A subsequent wide shot showed the crowd of adults kneeling before me, like the subjects at some bizarre coronation.
The giant – the man who had crowned me – approached again, with something slung over his shoulder. It was a person. An old man. He was naked, his arms and legs bound with rope. The giant laid him at my feet like an offering. I looked down at him, still grinning like a loon. And then the giant handed me something else. Something thin and shiny.
A closer shot revealed that it was a knife.
I’ll spare you the details of what happened next. I’m not sure I could put them into words if I wanted to. I will say this: seeing yourself perform an unspeakable act of violence, while at the same time having absolutely no memory of carrying out that act… it’s like having your mind torn in two. I felt like I had gone mad.
I tossed the laptop aside and fled to the bathroom, where I spent the next hour kneeling over the toilet. Long after my stomach emptied, I continued to retch, as if my body was trying expel all the horrors it had just taken in. Eventually, I willed myself to my feet, and forced my wobbly legs to return to my mother’s bedroom. There was still one photo left to view. I had come this far. There was no point in stopping now.
I slid the computer onto my lap and double-clicked the last picture. I was greeted by the grisly visage of my younger self, still clutching the knife the giant had gifted to me. The old man’s blood had dried on my skin, congealing into a thick, rust-colored spackle. Kneeling beside me, with her arm around my shoulder, was my mother. She must have been in her 40s then. Her skin was covered in mud and soil, and yet her ballgown was perfectly clean, just like the rest of the guests.
We were both smiling. But my mother was more than just happy. Her eyes were shiny with tears. The kind of tears a parent sheds at their child’s high school graduation.
She was proud of me.
Proud of her beautiful little fool.
I closed the laptop, carried it out to the garage, and set it on my late father’s workbench. I grabbed a hammer from his toolbox and prepared to erase all evidence of this horrible chapter in my life.
I’m not sure how long I lingered there, hammer raised, working up the nerve to smash my mother’s secret into oblivion. I think I was out there for most of the night. Eventually, I relented. I ended up taking the laptop home with me.
I’m not sure exactly why I hung on to it. I have no desire to look at those photos again. I doubt I ever will. And I certainly have no intention of taking what I’ve found to the police. There’s no statute of limitation for murder. Regardless of the bizarre circumstances surrounding my crime, the blood is still very much on my hands.
No, I think what stopped me from destroying the laptop was the document. Family. The list of names and addresses. I have no doubt the names on that list are the names of the people in those photos. Those well-dressed adults with mud-covered faces. Some of them are probably still alive. Maybe one of them would be willing to talk to me. As of yet, I haven’t tried to make contact. But I think I will, eventually. Like I said before, the moment I saw that photo of me in the ballroom, I knew there was no going back. I hit the point of no return. I had to know the truth.
I guess that’s why I posted this story. As a warning. Every family has buried secrets. Take my advice and leave them buried. And if you start digging, quit before you dig too deep. Because eventually your shovel will hit bone. And then you won’t be able to stop until you’ve dug up everything there is to find.
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