I had heard this word “Existential Crisis” thrown around quite a bit in books, and never fully knew what it meant. But as I stood by the bathrooms in the grocery store, waiting for my sister, I looked up and found a picture of myself from five years ago pinned to a Missing Persons board. Suddenly, I felt it. The first pangs of an existential meltdown. I am missing?
Yvette came out and asked what I was looking at. When I showed her my picture she wasn’t nearly as rattled as I was, so that helped me to absorb the shock.
“I found myself up there once,” she said, knowingly. “Mom says there’s something called doddlegapers.”
She was four years older than me, so I took this as the truth of the world and tried to empty my mind of the questions. But it was like something had fallen out of place that I just couldn’t put back together. A whole avalanche of uncertainty had been dislodged by that one poster.
For one, I had always wondered why I don’t look like either of my parents. Nor do I look anything like Yvette. Her skin is the color of brown sugar and I am pale as a ghost. I had always just assumed there were improper things to ask about in my parents’ past, but now I was faced with a monster of a concern: Are my “parents” kidnappers?
As we drove home, Yvette kept rattling on about how great college was. Apparently it is exciting and full of intrigue, but I didn’t really give a shit. But I didn’t want to fester over the crisis either, so I watched the people in their yards, trying to keep a clear conscience.
When we all sat down to dinner later that night, the question exploded out of me.
“Did you kidnap me?” I blurted out, while mother spooned mashed potatoes onto my plate. I don’t know what was more strange, the fact that dad rolled his eyes, or that mom didn’t seem to even hear the question. “I saw myself on a missing persons poster.”
“This again?” dad groaned.
“I already told him about the doddlegapers,” sniped Yvette.
“Doppelgangers,” mom corrected her. “And she’s absolutely right, Eric. We did not kidnap you and it’s ridiculous that you would even ask. At least Yvette had the tact not to blurt it outright like that.”
“Then why is her skin brown?” I asked, desperate for peace. Their composure had given me resolve, but I was determined to completely clear myself of all doubt now. “Neither of you have brown skin.”
“Your father had a good time with a Puerto Rican floozy who died during childbirth,” mom said, not without acid in her tone.
“Good job, genius, you cracked the case,” dad chimed in. “And it only took you 17 years to realize she’s your half-sister.”
Just like that, I was completely appeased. I didn’t even care that the dinner-table talk had taken a derisive turn towards my sleuthing abilities. I think Yvette might have even called me a Hardy Boy at one point, but I was too relieved to pay attention. I excused myself after clearing my plate and left to finish homework.
As the night wore on, I remembered the old photo album I kept under my bed. All of the talk about family and our past got me thinking about it. I was probably in elementary school the last time I opened it up. So I pulled it out, dusted it off and plopped down on my bed.
I started at the most recent pictures, from a couple years ago, and worked my way back. There we were, all four of us, waving and smiling for the camera.
I kept flipping through the pages, watching Yvette and I growing smaller; watching as mother’s hair turned back to dark auburn and dad’s beard dwindled down into a stubble that he used to keep closely shaven. Then, the pages ran out. Curious, I turned the first page back over. I was seven years old. Why didn’t it go back further than that?
That sick kind of wondering crept back into my mind. I could tell from the first moment I saw my picture in the grocery store that the unease would not go away easily. So I closed my eyes and thought back as far as I could. I came up with nothing. Just like the parameters of the photo album, my memories would only go as far back as seven years old. It might be perfectly normal to only remember that far back, but I was stricken with a savage kind of uncertainty.
I knew I would just get a derisive reaction, but I slammed the photo album shut and went to the door anyways, with a whole list of new questions for my parents. But when I reached for the door, I heard hushed whispers coming from the hallway. The clock on my nightstand showed that it was 1:00 AM, much later than I thought it was. They probably assumed Yvette and I were both asleep by now.
“…I can’t just go make him take something like that down,” it was my dad speaking, very quietly. “Don’t you realize how suspicious that is?”
They were moving away towards their bedroom, their voices growing softer as they went.
“Well we have to do something,” said mother. She sounded like she just got done crying. “We are so close, David. We’re so close I can taste it now. Everything is set in the basement and he’s almost of age.”
“I know,” dad cooed. His voice was almost inaudible now. “He was satisfied with what we told him. We’ll be able to get Jeffrey back, I promise.”
Quietly, their door clicked shut and their voices stopped. All the world became a whisper from beyond the sound of my heart as it started hammering in my chest.
I knew then that there would be no more confronting my parents about the whole situation. I was alone; isolated. I even doubted whether I could trust Yvette with what I had overheard. And all the while, I was fixated with convincing myself that the conversations did not mean what I thought it meant.
Little good that did. Luckily school had just let out, so I had time to really get down to sleuthing when my parents left for work. Yvette had a bunch of plans set up with old friends from high school that she hadn’t seen in a year. With everyone out of my way for hours at a time, I had ample time to get to digging.
The main thing I was looking for, was any information at all related to the name, Jeffrey. My dad’s voice would come back to disturb me most nights I would lay in bed. We’ll be able to get Jeffrey back, I promise. For the 10 years that I actually could remember, I had never heard anyone mention that name. Even if I had, what did I have to do with getting him back?
The closest thing I found that gave any kind of enlightenment, was an old letter that my grandmother had written to my mother:
Your father filled me in about the devastating news. I know how much Jeffrey meant to you, and I wish there was more we could have done to help. He reminded us both so much of Gerald. I know everyone in your neighborhood used to adore him. Please write me if there is anything at all I can do to help.
p.s. I mean that, darling. I can help more than you might imagine. Write me soon, Claire.
As summer crept by, I was getting more and more frustrated by how little progress I was making. All the while, my 18th birthday was sprinting up to meet me. It was only one month away, and I was no closer to finding any resolution to anything.
Then, one day there was an incident. I ran into a woman with strangely familiar eyes, blue like a robin’s egg. I was at the hardware store with my dad, helping him get some odd iron fixtures that he said we would need for my birthday. I bumped into the woman and she just looked down at me, gaping in a strange kind of way.
“He’s my son,” snapped my dad, grabbing me by the wrist.
I tried shaking him off. I was almost 18 and he couldn’t be grabbing me like that anymore, but his grip was as hard as the fixtures I was lugging around. I turned to see the woman’s face disappearing around the corner. She looked like she was about to cry. Again, the missing persons poster came back to mind. I thought about how vaguely familiar her face looked, and I couldn’t stop myself before I blurted out:
“Who is Jeffrey?”
Dad stopped in his tracks and looked down at me, as if I had just cussed at him or something. I felt like his grip only tightened as he said nothing to me and kept moving towards the register. He paid the lady for the fixtures and we drove home, still immersed in silence.
When we got home, I tried heading towards my room, but once again dad grabbed my wrist to stop me. Neither mom nor Yvette said a word as he led me towards the basement door.
“He knows?” mom asked, shocked.
Dad only nodded and led me through the door. I thought he was going to come with me, but he only ushered me down and turned, snapping the door shut behind me. I heard the lock click. Not knowing what the hell was happening, I started pounding on the door, but no one came to it. Not even Yvette.
All I could do was flick the lights on and head down to the couch we kept in the center of the chilly room. But when I got there, the couch was gone. There was just a mattress in one corner, and a shrine-looking setup in the other corner.
The shrine consisted of several used candles, lined up in a semi-circle on a little wooden table. Beneath the table someone had traced some kind of symbol on the concrete. There was a picture stood up behind the candles. I expected it to be of God or something, but instead it was a picture of a little, brown wiener-dog.
What the hell is happening? I couldn’t be completely surprised, because I had expected some kind of underhanded crap for a while now. But being locked in the basement with that was simply beyond comprehension.
All I could do was pace the concrete floor until I was tired and then lie down on the mattress in the corner of the room.
I knew the days were going by, but I had no idea how fast. All I knew was the sound of the door opening and the scraping of a water-jug and a plate of food on the top step of the staircase. Sometimes it was Yvette. I knew that because she would call down to me, “It will be over soon, bro.”
“What will?” I bellowed back at her.
But the door would simply close with a snap. And I wouldn’t hear another thing until the next scraping of food on the top step.
I kept track of the meal times. After about sixty more, the door opened and stayed open. I didn’t even think to get up when I heard the footsteps coming down the stairs. All of that time spent with nothing to do, and no contact with the outside world had left my brain feeling a little mushy.
I was still lying on my back, looking up when I heard my father’s voice cut through the silence.
“You are not our child,” he said bluntly.
“That was your mother you ran into at the hardware store.”
I was surprised to hear myself answer as I had, because I didn’t really know. But instantly after he had said that, I realized some inarticulate part of me did know.
“You seem to know everything then,” came mother’s acidic voice. “I guess we don’t have to tell you what day it is, or what is coming next.”
“You’re letting me go because I’m legally an adult now?”
She cackled lowly to herself. I looked over and saw as she pulled a some folded up pieces of paper from her pocket. One of them, I could tell, was the letter she had received from grandmother. Well, not my grandmother anymore.
David, formerly known as father, had by that time come upon me and wrestled me into submission on the bed. At that moment I realized how weak I had become during my incarceration. I could barely even put up a fight.
As he slapped the iron fixtures around my hands, he drew chain through them and attached them to some rings that were welded to the floor. Apparently during all of my time spent down there, losing my mind, I had failed to see them directly beside the bed. Meanwhile, Claire had taken to chanting something and lighting the candles on the table from the other side of the wall.
After lighting the candles, she lifted a gas can from the lower step. I hadn’t seen it in her hand before. I wondered then if Yvette was helping them. I wondered if she had scurried down the steps with it and set it there for them.
“Do you think you’re a witch or something,” I asked. I tried to sound cool and collected, but the panic was starting to seize me. So dazed from the incarceration, the immediate danger of the situation had finally come upon me. “That shit’s not real, you know. You’re just killing me for nothing.”
“Not for nothing,” she said, smiling. “For Jeffrey.”
“Who the fuck is Jeffrey?” I shouted.
“You’ve been down here with him the whole time,” David said.
He walked past the table with the candles and opened one of the cupboards in the corner cabinet. From inside, he pulled forth a small tin that was taped shut.
“You’ve been looking at his picture,” Claire added, still coming closer with the gasoline.
“A fucking dog?”
She set the can down, bent over and slapped me hard across the cheek. Her eyes were narrow and menacing.
“Don’t you ever call Jeffrey a… a fucking…”
Sharp pain split my cheek wide open again.
“But he is…”
She slapped me again. I didn’t get it. Had I been down there for too long? Obviously that picture was taken of a…dog. My mind was reeling and my cheeks on fire. But as she stooped to pick up the gasoline, I knew I would soon know what fire really felt like.
David took the ashes onto his thumb and started drawing some kind of diagram on my chest. He smeared lines over my forehead, chanting something the whole time. Meanwhile, mother laid a circle of gas around the mattress, finally crossing the stream in an X shape over my body. The fumes crept up my nose and made me light-headed.
They both joined hands and started chanting even louder. Every now and then, Claire would get mad at David and have to consult one of the pieces of paper. Relief took me every time they got frustrated with each other.
“The spell won’t work unless you say it right, David,” she growled.
He apologized and they continued chanting. But nothing happened. I could tell Claire was becoming increasingly frustrated, as if it was her husband’s fault that the spell was not working. I had no idea what they were even waiting for. All the while I thought to myself how strange it was that I had spent eleven years with these insane people.
“Do you even want to bring Jeffrey back?” Claire shrieked.
“Would I have taken her son if I didn’t?”
“Did you know my mother?” I asked. Given the situation, I still can’t explain why that was what came across my mind, but I could’t suppress the curiosity. Hearing him speak of her so informally had taken my notice. “How did you know her?”
Claire, clearly at her wits end, came and jabbed her pointed fingernail into my chest. She jabbed with the same hand she held the lighter in. I was terrified that she might accidentally ignite the gasoline.
“She’s the one who ran my dog over, you little shit,” she said in a low, wicked tone. “Blood for blood, now that you’re of age.”
“We don’t even know that, really,” said David.
Claire snapped around at him, asking him what he meant by that. He told her that they didn’t even know what time of day I was born, since they weren’t really my parents.
“I told you we should just wait one more day to be sure,” he said, with a hint of indifference.
“I knew you didn’t love him!” she raged. “You don’t give a shit about anything I care about. But if it was your Puerto Rican WHORE, I bet this would be a whole different scenario right now.”
“Yeah it would!” he shouted back, inches from her face. “Because she wasn’t bat shit CRAZY!”
And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Claire had cocked her arm back, but before she could land the blow, David had tackled her onto the ground. It wasn’t long before Yvette came sprinting downstairs with tears rolling down her cheeks, apologizing profusely.
“I can’t!” she wailed. “I’m sorry, I just can’t anymore!”
No one paid any attention to her, besides me. I was trying desperately to get her to come unlatch me, but she was too absorbed in the brawl to notice. Only moments later had I realized what she really meant. Several police officers came charging down the staircase, sweeping up around her.
They just stood there, too stunned to act at first. It was a lot to take in. But finally they snapped to and restrained Claire and David. After getting them both in cuffs, they were able to undo my fixtures, setting me free for a vigorous hour or so of questioning. They could barely believe everything I was telling them.
I told them I just wanted to go find my mother now. I was 18, officially free to do as I pleased after being questioned. I knew after running into her at the store that she couldn’t be too far away.
Apparently Claire and David were released not too long after on a technicality. They had avoided all kidnapping charges, only taking heat for spousal abuse and child endangerment. But I didn’t care by that point, because I was finally able to find my real mother. I couldn’t believe she only lived several blocks away.
Even today, it still feels like it was a really long nightmare. It was some years after everything that I drove by, just to convince myself again that it was real. But all I found was a charred foundation and a heap of burned up rubble where the house used to stand. It had burned all the way down.
With the help of a librarian I had tracked down the newspaper I sought. Its headline read:
“Abusive Parents Scorched Amidst Ritualistic Murder of Only Daughter.”