Read part 4 here.
I ran three red lights on my way to the old house on Turner Street where I grew up. How I wasn’t pulled over is some kind of miracle because I was doing easily 15 over the speed limit but the important part is that I wasn’t pulled over, I didn’t pass a single cop the whole time. Good thing, too, because the very first DVD had laid out the rules — no cops.
The old neighborhood was just as I remembered it: small, dirty, and depressing as hell. Low-income housing seemed to have sank even lower in the 10 years since I’d moved away.
My car screamed into the driveway of the little yellow tinderbox. There weren’t any other cars parked outside; a sadly sagging FOR SALE sign was jammed into the badly-tended lawn, faded to almost white by the sun.
Now that I was here it occurred to me I’d have to actually go inside. My stomach lurched violently.
I was going to have to go into that house, into that bathroom where Clay stole my innocence over and over again. I was going to have to face whoever was sending the DVDs. My only comfort was that I knew it couldn’t be Clay; he’d passed away in 2010. Brain aneurysm. Dropped dead in the middle of Home Depot while shopping for a new power drill.
I attended his funeral because he was my step-dad and Mom needed me there. She didn’t know what he’d done and I couldn’t remember, but the next day I went back to the graveyard alone. I stared at his grave for a very long time before gathering all the phlegm I had in my throat and spitting on the fresh dirt.
I hadn’t known why I’d done that. Now I do.
The front door was unlocked; it was late afternoon but dreary-grey outside. No power, so the house was dark and every shadow felt ominous. I repressed the urge to call out “Hello?” like the dumb girl in a horror movie.
I crept quietly up to the bathroom and found I was wrong —- there was power. A sliver of light shone from the crack at the bottom of the door. That made sense, Gretchen and Erin had been lit in each of the videos. It also meant she was in there.
I tried the doorknob. Locked.
Since when had the bathroom door being locked ever mattered?
I felt along the top of the doorframe for the slim metal key. Wouldn’t you know it, there it was, just where Clay always left it. When I found his hiding spot I started throwing the key away but it didn’t matter because they kept appearing, like he had a stash of them or something.
I slid the key into the hole on the metal doorknob and heard the familiar click of the lock disengaging. Slowly, carefully, I opened the door.
Behind a MacBook propped on some old plastic crates and a strategically-placed floodlight sat Erin. The ski-cap was gone but she was wearing Gretchen’s old glasses, the wireframe ones; they made her eyes look like pinpricks. Erin has perfect vision so I knew she probably couldn’t see a thing and I was right — she started thrashing violently against the chair, mistaking me for her captor.
“It’s me, Erin, it’s Amanda,” I whispered, unsure where said captor was. I moved towards her and noticed that iMovie was pulled up on the screen of the MacBook. Must’ve been how they were making the DVDs.
Hearing my voice made Erin stop, then shake her head violently. She tried to speak but the duct tape kept her voice muffled. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.
Her wrists were tied behind her with that yellow plastic-y rope you buy when you tie stuff down in a moving van. The skin beneath it was rubbed raw, red and chafing.
“I’m gonna get you out of here,” I said in a hushed voice, but before I could look for something to cut through the rope I heard,
“Well, aren’t you a good friend.”
I turned around and for a moment I couldn’t see anything but a dark shape in the doorway; the floodlight was too bright. Then it went out and as my eyes adjusted I saw her.
She was dressed normally now, just a plain pink t-shirt and jeans — no glasses or duct tape. Her bad eye sagged but beneath the destroyed scar tissue of her face, she was smiling, holding the unplugged cord of the floodlight.
“Gretchen?” I said, because I could think of nothing else to say.
“Oh, so you DO recognize me,” she said, sticking out her lower lip. “I’m shocked. I mean, I’ve been sending these DVDs for a few days now but you never showed up so I was starting to suspect you didn’t even remember who I was.”
“Of course I recognize you,” I said, stunned.
“Really? Because I think I put on a pretty good show but you didn’t show up like Prince Fucking Charming to save ME.” Gretchen gestured vaguely towards Erin with the end of the cord. “I had to up the ante and bring this one out here to get any sort of action out of you.”
“I didn’t know where you were.” I stepped closer to her, wanting to put distance between Gretchen and Erin. Gretchen made a clucking noise with her tongue and produced a small black handgun from the back pocket of her jeans.
“Don’t move,” she said, pointing it at me. “Not another step.”
Have you ever had a gun pointed at you? Your stomach goes all cold. It feels like the bottom has dropped out of your world and you’re stuck in a freefall. But I didn’t have time to be scared because it was Gretchen, Gretchen who’d been sending the DVDs and had never been in any danger at all and was clearly out of her god damn mind.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” I said, trying to make my voice soothing, placating. “I didn’t recognize the bathroom until yesterday and then you told me to wait for one more, remember?”
“You expect me to believe that?” she scoffed. “This bathroom was your fucking nightmare, Amanda, come on. Don’t fuck around with me. I know you better than that.”
“I’m telling you the truth.” I kept my eyes on her face and tried not to look at the gun. “I repressed it, blocked it or something. I didn’t even remember — remember what had happened here.”
Her face softened a little but she didn’t put the gun down.
“Not until you sent today’s DVD,” I said, and it was the truth.
Gretchen stayed overnight for New Year’s Eve 1998. Clay and Mom had some stupid office party to go to so we were left home alone with popcorn and some movies from Blockbuster. He had the nerve to say he “trusted” us because we were such “big girls” now. Fucker even winked at me like the secret we shared was a tasty one.
That’s probably the only reason I told her.
“If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell anyone else?” I asked hesitantly. We were watching “Balto”, one of my favorites, but I could hardly pay attention.
“You can tell me anything,” Gretchen said, squinting at the screen. “You know, I think that goose is the fat detective from ‘Roger Rabbit’.”
I paused the movie. She glanced at me, about to protest, then saw that I was chewing on my thumbnail. It was one of my tells when I was upset; that winter, I had chewed both of them down to the quick.
I waited a moment, my throat working as I tried to get the words out, then suddenly I was crying, great heaving sobs bursting out of me like gunfire.
Gretchen put her arms around me and stroked my hair and soon enough I told her everything.
The next morning, I woke up much earlier than usual to find Gretchen missing. Clay and Mom were sleeping off the New Year’s festivities so I snuck quietly around the house trying to see where she’d went. Her ski-cap was missing and so were her shoes.
Puzzled, I looked out the living room window to see if she was playing outside or something and there she was, standing next to Clay’s Camaro. She was holding Clay’s video camera, too, the big bulky one that recorded straight to VHS tapes. It was pointed at her face; she was saying something to it.
I slipped my parka over my nightgown and hurried outside. If she broke that thing I’d be in some serious shit.
“Gretchen, what are you doing?” I called from the steps. She glanced up, eyes wide behind her glasses.
“Oh dang, you weren’t supposed to see this yet!” she complained. “It was gonna be a surprise!”
“What are you doing?” I repeated as I hurried across the cold pavement to meet her in the driveway. Gretchen turned the camera off and set it gingerly in the frosty grass.
“I’m blowing up Clay’s car,” she said, face beaming.
“You’re — you’re WHAT?” I looked at the rag in her hand and for the first time noticed the can of gasoline at her feet; it was the one Clay used to fuel up the lawn mower.
“With this,” she said, waving the damp rag in my face. It reeked of gas. “I saw it in a movie. You soak some cloth in gasoline, stick it in the gas tank, light it, then — ka-blooey!”
“Gretchen, that’s crazy,” I said, shocked. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected after telling her but not… this.
“He deserves it,” Gretchen said firmly. “You told me what he’s been doing to you, and we’re just kids, no one will believe us over him. He’ll win. This way, he loses SOMETHING.”
She paused, thinking, then handed me the rag.
“You should do it. You should light it, you should be the one who does it.”
“I don’t want to do it,” I insisted, trying to give the rag back, but Gretchen wouldn’t take it.
“You have to. You’ll feel better.”
It was something about the way she said that, I still don’t know what it was but I felt a vital part inside myself snap.
“Don’t you get it, you dummy?” I cried, throwing the rag back at her. I threw it hard, harder than I should’ve, and it hit her in the face, covering one of her eyes. “I’m not going to feel better! I’m never going to feel better, I’m going to be broken for the rest of my life and nothing can change that and this is a STUPID FUCKING IDEA!”
Gretchen took the rag off her face and stared at me, hurt.
“I’m doing this for you,” she said, sounding confused.
“I don’t WANT you to do ANYTHING for me!” I screamed. It was coming out, all the anger and fear and self-loathing and it was directed at Gretchen which wasn’t fair but it’s what was happening. “We’re only friends because I had to move to this shithole neighborhood and someday I’m going to go somewhere else and I’m never going to think about you ever again!”
She looked at me for a long time, like she was waiting for me to take it all back.
“Fine,” Gretchen said at last, turning a light shade of pink beneath her freckles. “Fine.” She looked down at the rag in her hand and seemed to make a decision. She fished one of Clay’s cigarette lighters from her pocket and clicked it to life, intending to set the rag on fire. I guess she meant to throw it at me.
The rag caught quickly but so did Gretchen. Her skin erupted in flames where I’d thrown the rag at her, most of the left side of her face. She began screaming. I’ve never heard a sound like that, before or after.
It didn’t take long for her hair to go up, too, and she was just standing there, flailing, so I did the only thing I could do once my panic-stricken body decided to listen to me: I threw her down in the frosty grass of my front lawn, face first, and started slapping madly at her smoldering hair.
It just happened so fast. Mom heard us screaming and came running outside; after a brief moment of shock she reemerged with a wet towel which she threw over Gretchen, putting out the flames at once. Clay followed shortly after her and stomped out the burning rag where Gretchen had dropped it on the driveway. He looked at the rag, at Gretchen, at the open gas tank of his car. Looked at me. Then he went inside and called the police.
“You let them take me away,” Gretchen said now in the bathroom of my old house. She was still pointing the gun at me but had lowered it slightly. “I went to the hospital and then they sent me to a different hospital, a crazy person hospital, and you let them take me.”
“I was just a kid,” I said weakly.
“And what the fuck was I?” she demanded, raising the gun again. “I was a kid too, for god’s sake, I was just trying to help you and you could’ve told them about Clay but you DIDN’T, Amanda, you just let them take me!”
I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? She was right.
“And the worst part is,” Gretchen said grimly, “that you visited me once. ONCE. In six fucking years.”
“Clay wouldn’t let me,” I said in a small voice.
“Yeah right. You just didn’t want to. Admit it. You said what you really thought that day in the driveway, say it now. You didn’t want to see me because we weren’t ever really friends.”
“That’s not true.” My throat felt like it was closing up; tears stung hot in my eyes. “I didn’t mean what I said, I was just upset and — and fucked up — of course you were my friend, Ducky, you were my best friend.”
“Don’t fucking call me that!” she screamed.
I winced but went on.
“I visited you the first week in the hospital because Clay was at work and I had bus fare but that was all I could do,” I explained, trying not to cry. “He was watching me like a hawk, said I shouldn’t hang out with the girl who tried to kill him and Mom backed him up and there was nothing I could do!”
Gretchen didn’t say anything. She waited for me to go on.
“And then high school happened and I had to get a job to help out with the house and I just — I just got so — and then it got to where it was easier not to think about it, you know? Because he’d finally stopped, you scared him enough that I think he knew you knew and he STOPPED and eventually it was like it didn’t happen and—” I drifted off, helpless.
“And when you moved out?” she asked, gun still pointed at me.
“I just wanted to get away from here,” I said weakly. “I had to. I had to get away from this house.”
“Like I said you would.” Gretchen’s mouth was a thin, grim line.
“I did come,” I insisted. “I came to the hospital on my way out of town but you were so out of it, Gretchen, you wouldn’t even look at me. You don’t even remember. So I left, yeah, you’re right. But it wasn’t to get away from you. It was never that.”
Gretchen let out a bark of humorless laughter.
“Seriously? You think I’m going to buy that bullshit? Please. You know what I think?” she said. “I think you didn’t want to see me because you couldn’t bear to look at what you did.” She didn’t gesture to her face but I knew that’s what she meant, the destroyed flesh and drooping eye.
“I didn’t get that gasoline out, Gretchen,” I explained softly. “I’ll take the blame for a lot of this but let’s be fair: YOU did that. And you could’ve killed all of us, you know, that car could’ve taken out half the block.”
“Now you sound like my fucking therapist,” she said, and let out another humorless laugh. There was a pause; Gretchen looked at me, then Erin, then raised the gun higher, leveling it at my face. “How about I make us even? Wreck all that prettiness with a nice big hole through one of your cheeks?”
I froze, unwilling to say anything that might anger her more.
“16 years, gone,” she spat. “16. More than half of my life. And all I’ve got to show for any of it is this awful fucking face.”
She paused, then looked past me at Erin. And then she did the worst thing yet: she smiled.
“You can have her,” Gretchen said, then put the barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger.
That was more than two years ago. Two years since Gretchen sprayed her blood and brains across the flower-and-vine wallpaper in the room where my step-dad used to rape me but I still see it in my nightmares. Sometimes they’re both there, Clay and Gretchen, laughing at me. She holds the gun while Clay does what he does. It always ends the same way: she eats the bullet and I wake up screaming.
Erin and I don’t speak anymore — well, no more than the polite “hey how are you” on Facebook or an occasional “like” on one of our pictures. It’s the 21st century way of ending a friendship, I guess.
I try not to think about it but my therapist says that’s not right, it’s what caused me to repress all these memories in the first place. I tried to explain to him the thing about avoiding sharp teeth but I’m supposed to work through it. So this is me, I suppose, working through it.
He also says it’s not my fault. None of it — Clay, Gretchen, it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t ask to be raped. I didn’t put the lighter in Gretchen’s hand. Or the gun, for that matter.
I don’t believe him.
They found a box of home movies in my old bedroom. I think Mom must’ve left them behind when she and Clay moved out in 2007. Gretchen found them after being released from the mental hospital — I guess she just went straight to the house on Turner Street — and that’s how the whole thing started. They’ve been sitting in my hall closet ever since.
For some reason, tonight, I’ve decided to watch them. All of them.
Who knows how many sharp teeth I’ll find. How many times I’ll get bitten by the barbs of my past. But it’s something I have to do. Friendship bracelets and baseball games and teen magazines and flowers being choked by weeds… I need to live it all again. It’s the only way to leave my poisonous childhood behind.
The only thing I’m really afraid of — really, truly terrified of — is what else I’m going to remember.