No one expected Father to murder my family. By all accounts, he was an honest man who loved his family, worked hard, and had a heart of gold. When they interviewed his colleagues, they said he always wore a smile that lit up the room. I answered those questions in the same way.
Those were lies, of course, because when he came home that smile never came with him. His face was always set in a scowl, his jaw always locked. My father was a very unhappy man. No, he was more than that. The things I saw him do — the things he would say to me — were wholly unnatural. My father, I think, was not really a man at all. Not at the end at least. Not after what he had seen and spoken to.
Father was a hoarder. At least, that was what my mother called him. He compelled himself to hold onto near everything he came to own. He packed his toolbox full with bent and misshapen tools, promising himself he would find a way to fix them.
The garage brimmed with old air conditioners, lawnmowers, and household appliances he wanted to repair. The attic was stacked with boxes filled with photographs and letters, some from past girlfriends, others from family members, and others so faded you couldn’t tell who they were from.
The family heirlooms were the worst, though. He didn’t just hold onto them. He defended them. They weren’t just possessions to him. To my father, these old objects were almost people with histories and feelings of their own. He and Mother would fight over them constantly, but none were worse than the fights over the whipping board.
The whipping board was a long flat plank of oak that ended with a thin handle. It had been part of my father’s family for three generations and was the center-piece of corporal punishment for them. My father recounted tales of his father using it on them constantly, and one instance when he turned it on his wife. He would usually tell these stories with a smile, as if there was a punchline to them that never came. Whenever we didn’t laugh or nod in agreement, his mood would sour and his face would drop.
“Well, we deserved it,” he would mutter.
The whipping board hung over our fireplace. Father never used it on us, not until the end. He would threaten with it, though, and he would remind us how lucky we were that he didn’t use it. Mother hated it. For one, the whipping board was hideous with the wood rotting and chipping away. Secondly, she didn’t like what it represented. Mother felt corporal punishment damaged kids in a way that could never be fixed, and she didn’t like this violent thing looming — quite literally — over her daughters’ heads.
One day, Mother tried to put it away. She didn’t throw it away, mind you, she just simply put it in a box upstairs with all the other heirlooms. When Father came home and saw the board missing from the mantle, you would have thought someone had snuck in and murdered the whole family. He was belligerent — red in the face — and flipped between weeping hysteria and thrashing anger.
Mother told him to calm down. It was just in a box upstairs, and there was nothing to worry about. He told her he wanted it right where he left it, that putting it in a box was wrong.
“That’s my childhood you’re putting away!” he screamed in her face, “You’re trying to box up my whole life!”
After more heated yelling, Mother finally went and pulled the whipping board from the attic. When she showed it to Father, he jerked it from her hands and clutched it to his chest. She told him to put it wherever he wanted, and he told her he would keep it down. If she wasn’t going to respect it or him, he would put it somewhere proper. He stormed out to the garage with it, and that was the last anyone — except for me — ever saw of it until the end.
Father’s strange behavior didn’t just surround the whipping board. It also related to a particular screwdriver in his toolbox. The paint on the handle had chipped away long ago, showing the aged wood beneath. The iron itself was coated with something brown. When I first saw it, I thought it was rust, but the substance flaked off too easily.
“You know what that is, right?” my father asked me one day while we were in the garage.
“No,” I answered. “It’s not rust, is it?”
“No,” he replied, “It’s not rust. That screwdriver belonged to my great-uncle. He was a real son of a bitch. Worse than my dad ever was.”
I remember my father saying similar things. He always talked about how brutal his father was, but for all his savagery he was never the worst. It was always his uncle or his grandfather, but never his father. The others were cruel and vicious, but his father only dished out what others deserved. Even when it ended in death.
“Mason was a hard man,” my father continued, “and he worked hard fixing all the equipment for the farmers in his county. After Grandad hung himself, Mason became even crueler. At least, that’s what Dad said. He had a boy named Jeremy, and he couldn’t have been any older than you when this happened.
“Jeremy was working in the garage with his dad, tuning up some neighbor’s tractor. Mason was cussing up a storm, cursing this and that. He told Jeremy to get that screwdriver right there, and Jeremy ran over to his toolbox to grab it. When he turned around, though, the boy tripped on his shoe and fell forward, dropping the screwdriver. It slid across the ground and landed at Mason’s feet.
“The man turned from the tractor and saw that screwdriver lying on the ground, and his face twisted in a snarl. He scooped it up and stormed over to his son and cracked it over his head right here.”
My father ran a finger over his right eyebrow.
“Busted it right up. Mason told Jeremy if he was going to break his shit, he was going to buy his old man some new tools. And they wouldn’t be cheap. He shoved the screwdriver in the boy’s hands and told him to hold onto it. Mason didn’t care about Jeremy crying, and he didn’t care about the blood running down the boy’s face.”
Father stepped closer to me. I wanted to step away from him, but I held my place.
“Well, Jeremy decided his old man needed that screwdriver at that very moment, and while Mason’s back was turned, he pushed that screwdriver right here — ”
Father turned and tapped his fingers on the soft base of his skull.
“It went right through. Killed Mason on the spot. They charged Jeremy as an adult, and he got killed in a gang fight in prison probably five years after he was convicted.”
I looked down at the brown flakes on the screwdriver and wondered if it had ever been cleaned. Father’s hand snapped out, and he locked his fingers around my wrist. I stared up at him, and his face was right next to mine. There was something wild in his eyes.
“I know you’d love nothing more than to put that thing through my skull,” he spat in my face. “But I never put a hand on you girls! Not once! You’re lucky you never had to deal with Mason, or my dad, or god-forbid my grandad. You all would never last with them, and they’d never give you a chance to do it!”
Father blinked and that wild look drained from his eyes. He looked down at my trembling hands and saw his fingers clenching my wrist. He let go, but the skin was red and raw where he had been holding on. He stood there, staring at the marks for a long time before turning away and mumbling something to himself.
All of these things occurred when he was still “normal.”
Things began to change, though, when the dreams began.
At first, they were harmless things. They were of things any normal teenage girl had nightmares about. Embarrassing happenstance in front of classmates, arguing with parents, things of that nature. Sometimes they would have a frightening supernatural element, like the sensation of some unknown thing standing over your bed, watching as you slept. These weren’t uncommon, though. Everyone had dreams like that.
Mine were not dreams. I woke up to find what stood over me. The thing was short and stood towards the side of my bed, near to the door leading to the hallway. Its face was paper white and illuminated by some unearthly light. Thick black globs ran from its nose and the corners of its eyes. Its nose twisted to one side, and one side of its face was puffy and swollen. When I looked into its milky eyes, it smiled and in its mouth were more globs of black blood oozing between large gaps where teeth were supposed to be.
I wanted to scream and jerk away from this dead thing in front of me, but I couldn’t move. Its hollow gaze had locked me in place. My throat swelled as I choked on the air trying to rush from my lungs, and I could only sit there and behold this horrid thing.
As my fear subsided to the rush of adrenaline, I saw that this undead creature was a little boy. He couldn’t be any more than five or six. There was no malice in his eyes, though there was no life either. The dead boy waved a clammy hand in the air and hobbled to the door. He turned back to me — still lying in bed — before waving again and wobbling on his decaying legs out the door.
I don’t know if it was fear or curiosity that pushed me out of bed, but I did follow. I felt like I was floating, as if my mind were suspended in mid-air and drifting through the interior of my house. Yet I could feel the hardwood floors creak gently beneath my feet. I felt the smooth, varnished finish of the wood give way to the icy roughness of the concrete in the garage. The dead boy hobbled in front of me, leading me through a maze of boxes and gardening equipment.
We came upon what looked like a shrine in the far corner of the garage. On the ground near the wall was the whipping board, with two lit candles sitting at either end of it. On the wall was a picture of my grandfather. His expression was hard and stoic, just as I remembered him. Lastly, on the floor in front of the whipping board was a box of old letters.
The dead boy raised a fetid hand toward the box, grunted, and nodded its head. The sound was wet and abhorrent. The candlelight did nothing to warm the boy’s white and grey skin. In fact, the light did not seem to bounce off him at all. It didn’t even cast a shadow.
My attention fell from him to the letters before me. I pulled them out and scanned over them, trying to find some reason the boy had led me to them. Most of them were yellowed and too faded to read, but all were written in sharp and elegant handwriting. I discerned most of them were to my grandmother from the time my grandfather served in Korea. The letters must have been written by him.
One letter on top of the pile drew my attention. This was the reason this dead child had awakened me in the middle of the night. The ink on the page was new, the paper itself still crisp and white. The writing, though, was that of my grandfather’s, though he had been dead for six years. The words burned themselves on the inside of my skull, searing my mind forever with their intent. I can still recite it word for word to this day. It read:
They don’t respect you, boy. Hell, I don’t blame them. You’re weak, and you let that bitch walk all over you day in and day out. Those girls will grow up twice as bad, and they will suck out every last bit of your manhood until you’re nothing but bones. You have to put yourself on top, make them understand who is in charge. Women are like horses, son. You have to break them. Otherwise, they will pull you to and fro until they knock you off entirely. Break them, boy. Break them hard. Start with that wife of yours. Do it soon.
I turned to the dead boy, whose grey and harmless eyes watched me as I read.
“Why?” I asked him, “Why did you show me this?”
The boy smiled again, and that black blood spilled through his gaping teeth. Bugs came with it, millipedes and ants and earthworms. More than I could count. They spilled out of his lips and down his chin, staining his shirt and dribbling towards the ground and —
“What’re you doing out here so late?”
The boy and his bugs were gone the moment my father’s voice penetrated the air. I whirled around and saw him standing there. He wore an orange-brown bathrobe, a hand-me-down from his father. His feet were sheathed in brown moccasin slippers, the same type his father wore before bed.
“I said, ‘What’re you doing out here so late?’” His tone was sharp.
“I just…” the words caught in my throat. The letter in my hands had jumbled my mind, and I couldn’t wrap my head around that as well as talk with my father. “I…I couldn’t sleep.”
“Yeah. Me either,” Father slid down and sat beside me, looking up at the picture of his father. “I come out here to think sometimes. To clear my head.”
I nodded but said nothing. The letter felt heavy in my hands.
“I just…I know you don’t understand these things yet. Things are just…difficult. And your mother…I can never make her understand…It’s always a fight and…I just wish I could make her…”
I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Looking back, I’m not sure he understood either. He was trying to piece things together, just as I was.
“Sometimes I come out here and just talk,” he pointed up at the picture on the wall, “to him. He just…always knew what to say. I know you probably don’t remember him that well, but he was always so full of wisdom. He always knew exactly what to do.”
Women are like horses, son. You have to break them.
“But…oh, shit, where was I going?” His eyes were reamed red, but there was clarity to them. It was one of the last times I saw that in his eyes.
He looked at me, and in those clear eyes I saw so much anguish and torment and fear. I saw a man conflicted with who he was and what he wanted to be. I saw my father tortured by the things he was about to do, the atrocities he was so close to committing.
“You know I would never…hurt you, right? You or your mother or your sister?”
Break them, boy. Break them hard. Start with that wife of yours.
“I…I know, Dad,” It’s all I could bring myself to say.
“I love you,” he said.
I looked at him, and something changed in his eyes. Did he see the fear in mine?
“I love you too, Dad.”
“Get to bed,” he said, “I’ll be right behind you. Just need to think for a sec.”
After that, things were fine for a while. My nightmares subsided and the boy did not visit me again. But, I suppose like all good times in that house, it didn’t last.
I never told my father about the letter, and I never confronted him about its content. Maybe that makes it all my fault. If I had told him to stop going out to that shrine, if I had told him to get help, maybe he would not have done the things he did. Maybe the thing that spoke evil into him would not have had the same power.
The boy came to me again, but this time I did not panic. I knew there was something else he wanted to show me. He waved me to the door and hobbled out to the hallway. I followed him, my mind floating as it had done before.
When we came to the door of the garage, he turned to me and pressed a finger to his lips. He slipped the door open, and we padded quietly into the garage. In the heavy silence, I could hear someone mumbling. The sound came from the other end of the garage, where a weak flicker of light danced against the weighing darkness.
I already knew my father would be there, but I didn’t expect what I saw. As we worked our way through the maze of boxes, I heard a THWAP, like a mop slapping hard against the floor. The boy reached the perimeter of the candlelight and turned to me. He pointed toward the shrine, but never went any closer.
A stack of boxes stood back away from the weak pool of candlelight, and I peeked around them to see what awaited me. The shrine was there, just as it had been. Grandfather’s picture hung on the wall, and the two candles sat in the same place as before.
The whipping board, though, was in my father’s hand. He was shirtless, and bruises lined his back, already turning purple. Beads of blood swelled and cascaded down his back in thin, precise lines. Another THWAP resounded as father brought the whipping board over his shoulder and into his back. More blood swelled.
He was mumbling something, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
I moved out from behind the boxes. I couldn’t help myself. It was as if some other force was compelling me forward, bringing me closer to my father.
“My fault.” That’s what he was mumbling, “My fault. My fault.”
“D-dad?” My voice sounded weak against the violent slapping of the whipping board.
My father looked back at me. His eyes were glassy and hollow. It didn’t seem like he was looking at me at all, but rather seeing through me and into the past.
“It was my fault,” he mumbled, “Daddy didn’t know. He thought Jackie did it, but he didn’t.”
I didn’t know who Jackie was. I’d never heard the name before. I turned back to the boy, and he nodded my way. His way of telling me to keep listening.
“Dad,” I asked, “What was your fault?”
Something shifted in his eyes, and for a moment my father saw me. At least, he understood someone was there, someone he could unload all this pain on.
“It was the garden. Daddy always loved his garden, growing corn and tomatoes and beets and strawberries. Anything he could, really. But the bugs were bad that year, and they were eating everything. Daddy didn’t know what to do, and he just thought his garden would wither on the vine and be nothing but bug food. I didn’t want that. That garden made him so happy.
“So I took all the money out of my piggy bank, and I took it down to the store. They had a new pesticide there. ‘Kills Pests Fast!’ I remember it said. Well, I took it up to the garden when Daddy was at work, and I put it all over the plants so the bugs would go away.
“Well, I must have left the can lying out by the garden. When Daddy would come home from work, the garden was always the first place he would go. He must have seen the can I used, and he brought it in the house with him. I ran to the door, to tell him what I did. But something in his eyes stopped me. I could see that tell-tale anger in them.
“He asked me who did this, raising the can to my face as he did so. I was so scared, I didn’t want him to be mad at me. Jackie’s name slipped out before I even realized what I said. Daddy moved past me and took the whipping board down from the wall. Jackie was playing with cars in his room, laughing to himself like he always did.
“Father came into the room and stood over him. ‘You tryin’ to poison my garden?’ he asked. Jackie looked up at him, and you could tell he didn’t know what Daddy was talking about. It didn’t matter, though. Daddy hit him across the face and sent him sprawling to the ground. Jackie didn’t even scream, but I could see blood running from his nose and mouth.
“Daddy brought the whipping board down again, this time across the back of his head. Jackie went down and didn’t get back up. I don’t think he even knew what happened.”
Father stopped and looked into the small, flickering flame of the candles.
“No one doubted Daddy when he said Jackie fell down the stairs. Even if they did know, they didn’t say anything. Stuff like that happened all the time when we were kids. It was just the way of things.”
That far-seeing look snuck its way back into my father’s eyes.
“It was my fault. I should have gotten it and not Jackie. I’m the mistake. I’m the failure. Me!”
Father’s hand snatched out and held tight to my wrist.
“I never told you because I didn’t want you to know. What Daddy was. What I am. Any of it.” I tried to pull away from him, but his grip was too tight. My fingers prickled and started to go cold from the cut off circulation. “I have to make it right. You know that? Daddy knew what’s best. He had good reason to do it! And he is telling me I have good reason too!”
“Dad, please.” I was crying now. “You’re hurting me.”
He squeezed tighter.
“The worst part? The garden was fine. All the bugs died and Daddy’s plants were bigger and healthier than ever. I killed my brother for no reason.”
“Grandpa killed him,” I choked.
Father squeezed my wrist so hard I thought it would snap.
“No,” he hissed at me, “Daddy didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. Me me me me me. And I have to make it right.”
My cry shook him back to reality. He jerked his hand away from me and I stumbled back from him. He looked at me with wild sadness still lingering in his eyes.
“I need help,” he pleaded with me. “I need you to help me. Can you do that?”
I didn’t say anything but nodded weakly.
His face dropped, and those pleading eyes were replaced with something harder. Something akin to my grandfather’s gaze.
“Get to bed,” he said coldly, “It might be the last sleep you ever get.”
I fell in behind the stack of boxes again, but the dead boy put his hand up to stop me. What could he possibly want me to wait for?
“You know what needs to be done,” a voice that was not my father’s said.
An icy chill went up my spine and put all the hairs of my neck on end.
“I know,” my father replied.
“You have to take control,” the voice said. I couldn’t place where exactly it came from. It seemed to be coming from the room itself.
“I know,” he sobbed. “I know I know I know I know.”
“When?” Father pleaded.
“Tomorrow,” the voice proclaimed, “Before they go to bed.”
I looked over at the boy, and he was smiling again. The blood and bugs were spilling out from his missing teeth and twisted nose. They wiggled through his eyes and squirmed down his face, and I felt myself stumbling away from him and away from this horrible place.
My mind was racing. What should I do? Who should I tell? Who could I tell? No one would believe what I had seen, what I had heard. Mother would write me off.
Then it came to me. There was only one thing to be done.
I found my father’s toolbox and grabbed the screwdriver — the one used to kill my uncle Mason — and rushed inside, slamming the door behind me. Neither the boy nor my father followed.
I held onto the screwdriver all the next day, keeping it tucked into the pocket of my jeans. Father was at work, and my mother was out running errands with my sister.
My father came home and went straight to the bedroom. I thought maybe he wouldn’t go through with it. Maybe he would lock himself in the bedroom and these dark thoughts would pass in time.
I never heard him walk past my room. Never heard the door to the garage shut.
It was the dead boy — Jackie, I knew — who warned me to the danger. He appeared beside my bed, led me to the hallway and toward my parents’ bedroom. Another letter sat on my parents’ bed, on the side I knew my father slept on.
I didn’t want to read what was on it. I knew what was already there, but I also knew something within me wouldn’t let me leave without reading it. I picked up the letter, and in my father’s jagged handwriting, it read:
break them break them break them break them break them break them break them break them break them break THEM BREAK THEM BREAK THEM BREAK THEM BREAK THEM
On and on again. I turned to look at the boy, but he was gone already. I went to the door and peered down the hall towards the living room. The couch faced away from me, but I could see my mother sitting there, the messy bun of her hair swaying above the faux leather.
My father stepped in behind her, blocking my view. The whipping board was in his hand. He raised it up like a club and looked down at my mother.
“You trying to poison my garden?” he asked her.
My mother said something in reply, but I didn’t hear what it was. I wonder if she turned back to him, if she saw what was coming to end her. I never saw that, though. I only saw the whipping board come down, followed by a hard THUNK.
My mother didn’t make another sound, but I heard my sister scream. I saw her run over to her, screaming to make sure Mother was okay. Father raised the whipping board over his head. I turned away, but I still heard that awful THUNK.
The house grew still after that, but in the stillness I heard my father sobbing. He called my name, practically blubbered it.
“I need help,” he cried. “Help me. I need help. Help me.”
I padded into the living room, stealthy and silent on my bare feet. The screwdriver was clenched in my hand. Father was leaning over their bodies. I tried not to look at all the blood, at the awful way my mother’s neck twisted to the side.
“I need help,” he continued, not even seeing me. “I need help.”
I did help him, in the only way I could in that moment. I pushed the screwdriver through the back of his head. It was hard at first, but once the flathead punctured, it slid right through the soft base of his skull and into his brain. He jerked up and stiffened, and I felt myself panicking.
I pushed the screwdriver further until the wooden handle pressed into my father’s head. I twisted it back and forth, trying to grind up whatever black parasite had bored its way into my father’s brain. He didn’t cry or scream or pull away. He just stiffened there, until finally he went lax and fell over, and that was it. It was over.
I knew what my father was and I knew what he planned to do, but I lied to the police anyway. I didn’t want him to be made out as a monster, no more than he already would be. He wasn’t, not really. Something had damaged him a long, long time ago and it grew inside him. It grew, until finally, it couldn’t fit inside him anymore. That pain shed my father like an insect sheds its shell, moving on to infect something else.
That something else was me. I still have that whipping board, locked in a box somewhere far away, but not too far. It is an heirloom to all the pain that has carried through my family for generations. I know someday my father’s voice will call on me to use it on someone else, and I know that will be the end for me.
I have no children to use it upon, but I know it will be used in time. Eventually, the pain will be too big for me to carry, and I’ll have to pass it on to someone else. That’s what grandfather did to my father, and what my father did to me.
I still have the screwdriver, too. Maybe if I bury it there myself — shove that screwdriver up into my brain — I can kill it once and for all. Maybe the growing and shedding will stop. Maybe the pain, all of it, will end at last.
Wishful thinking, I know. These violent bugs are everywhere, growing in our friends and neighbors and loved ones. And they will continue to fester and spread, and there is no pesticide to take them away. They are always growing.