The Soul Cleaners
A Dark Tale By Miranda Crites
“What’s the secret to living forever, Mrs. Coleman?” I asked.
My mom laughed a little and attempted to take the bite out of my question by complimenting Mrs. Coleman on her new dress.
“Now don’t you worry yourselves. I’ve got a lot of miles on these old bones of mine,” Minnie Coleman winked as she offered up a large plate of homemade cookies, “and I’ve got a lot more miles to go. The secret’s in the cookies.”
After we walked back home, my mom wore her tongue out on me, then told me to go cut her a switch. I drug my feet all the way to the dense row of privet hedges growing between our house and the neighbor’s. I knew to select the switch carefully, not too short or limber in hopes of a milder switching, or I’d be sent back to get another and receive twice the switchings or maybe even get the belt instead. I chose one that was about three feet long and began to strip it of its leaves on my way back inside. Eleven years old meant eleven whips with the switch, at least, and sure enough, mom was faster than me and I received two thrashings across my fingernails before I could get my hands up high enough. Blood running from some of the welts, I was sent to my room without supper. There probably wasn’t any food in the kitchen anyway, but I was no longer hungry. The chocolate and oatmeal from the cookie churned in my stomach.
Saturdays were my normal days to go visit Mrs. Coleman and help her with chores. She saved her aluminium cans for me to recycle. She knew we could use the money, but she always said she didn’t have “the time to fool with taking in the cans.” Louise Belvedere was never one to turn down a nickel, so she let me go “help out” Mrs. Coleman. Louise Belvedere was also great at taking most of the money I earned. Sometimes I would earn as much as twenty-five dollars after all the chores and recycling the cans. I wasn’t allowed to stop at Dairy Queen or the convenience store for a treat on the way home. I had to show my mom all my earnings for the week. Usually, I was allowed to keep five dollars, but sometimes it was less or even none.
“Mollie, we have to eat. Working is good training for the real world. It won’t hurt you a bit to help out around here, and this electric bill doesn’t come free, ya know,” she’d say on her way out the door with the money. Some of the food we got came from food stamps, but most of it was what I picked up at the food pantry on Tuesdays after school. Sometimes there was nothing to eat, but there were always cigarettes and boxes of wine. Once I protested when I wanted to spend my money on a new pair of shoes. I ended up with a black eye and needing three stitches in my lip. I had to tell the ER staff I fell.
As I walked up to the concrete steps, Minnie called out through her gauzy kitchen curtains, “How are you this fine Saturday morning, Miss Mollie Belvedere?”
I opened the door and let myself in as I always did when my mom wasn’t around. To the right, I noticed the basement door was ajar. That was odd. It was usually locked.
“I’m good, Minnie. Can I have a cookie?” I always remembered to never call her Minnie in my mother’s presence. I couldn’t sit down for almost a week after I let it slip once. She’d gone straight for the belt as soon as we had gotten home.
“You know you don’t have to ask, Mollie.”
The basement door creaked on its hinges as a breeze blew in through the open windows. Startled, I looked in that direction and caught a glimpse of something orange near the floor.
“I thought you kept the basement door locked ever since Joey Higgins started stealing things.”
“Oh, I’ll lock it later,” Minnie said. “I have a feeling the Higgins boy won’t be bothering anything else.”
Minnie was always adamant that her basement door was locked, and she never allowed anyone to help her carry her laundry up or down. Any chores that involved the basement were always off-limits. She would just smile and say, “I’ll get to that later.”
“Did your mom get the job at the pool for the summer?”
“No, she didn’t go to the interview. She had one of her bad headaches.”
“I’m sure. Mollie, I’m going to overstep my boundaries here. I try to keep my nose out of anyone’s business, but I know a lot more about your situation than you might realize.”
“What do you mean, Mrs. Coleman?” My voice trembled a little. Did she really know? What did she know? Did she know I hadn’t eaten since she gave me cookies on Wednesday or that I’d gotten a good switching after we left or…?
“Baby girl, I know things aren’t great at home,” she began as she set a plate of steaming bacon, eggs, and hash browns on the table in front of me. “I know you didn’t wreck your bike last autumn when you had the broken arm. I know you didn’t fall when you needed stitches in your lip. I know your mom sells the food she gets with the food stamps. I know she takes your money, and that you need new clothes and shoes. I know many things about you.”
I really didn’t know how to absorb what Minnie had just told me. I was humiliated and scared and little angry for her knowing all these secrets. No one ever knew anything about me. We moved to a different town or even a different state every year, sometimes more often. No one had ever cared before.
“You don’t know anything about me!” I yelled as tears betrayed my anger and streamed down my face.
Minnie came over to comfort me, and I let her. The tears came in heaving sobs until there were no more to flow.
Then, I saw movement behind the crack in the basement door again. I saw orange fur and heard a small mewling sound.
“Minnie, did you get a cat?” Swiping at the tears on my cheeks, I stood up so fast I knocked over my chair. I had wanted a cat for as long as I could remember.
“Why don’t you go see?”
I walked over the basement door and peered through the crack. Sure enough, there sat the largest cat I had ever seen.
“Whoa! He’s huge!” I exclaimed and opened the door.
“His name is Joseph.”
Joseph sauntered down the steps and disappeared into the darkness.
“Joseph? Here boy.” I looked back at Minnie. “He went down. Can I go pet him?”
Minnie came over to the door and flicked on the light switch. The basement below was illuminated with the yellow glow of incandescent lightbulbs.
“He’s probably in his cat house. He can be a bit shy at first.”
I started down the stairs and asked, “When did you get a cat, Minnie?”
“I’ve had him for about three months.”
“Wow! All this time and I had no idea.”
Once I was downstairs, I looked around for the cat house. The basement was bigger than I imagined. It seemed much bigger than the entire house that sat above it. I walked past the washer and dryer, the shelves with canned food, and the deep freeze, then I entered a completely separate room.
There was a bed, dresser, small fridge, a table and chairs, a couch, a large television, and there was even a tidy, little bathroom down here. Photographs and paintings of sunsets and colorful landscape scenes decorated the walls. It was a small apartment, and much nicer than the dump I lived in. Then I saw the cat house.
“The cat house, it’s like a giant dollhouse, Minnie. It’s beautiful!”
I turned to look for Minnie. I had been so enthralled with finding the cat, I hadn’t noticed she didn’t come down with me.
I heard the basement door swing shut and the lock clicked into place.
“Don’t be afraid, Mollie” a voice seemed to come from nowhere and everyone at once. “How about a nap?”
I turned to run toward the stairs, I needed to escape.
“This is a safe place; no one can hurt you here,” the voice came again. In my mind, I wanted to scream and run, but I felt too tired. All I could think about now was going to sleep. Exhausted, I walked over to the bed and laid down merely seconds before I fell asleep.
As I slept deeply, my entire life played out in my dreams.
A man with a face so much like mine brought flowers to my mother in the hospital. The same man rocking me to sleep, looking down into my face and saying how he would always love me. My mom, a much younger version of herself, putting me, an infant, into a bathtub full of water. The man again, crying. My mother screaming as men carried her away, “I’ll kill you when I get out! I’ll kill you!”
This man, my father, driving me to my grandparent’s home.
“Oh, Mollie. I didn’t know what else to do. Mommy will be fine at the hospital.”
We lived with a grandmother and grandfather I didn’t remember until now.
Mommy. Mommy came back. Flashing blue and red lights. Fire. Dead grandparents. Dead father. News headlines. Running. Driving away. Moving around over the years. The dislocated shoulder. The bruises and black eyes. The missing teeth. They were only baby teeth, so they weren’t supposed to matter. Three broken toes. Five cigarette burns over the years, but they were in hidden places. The scar on my wrist from a broken wine bottle. The scars on my knee from when she kicked me into the wall. Broken fingers. That’s why my pinky grew crooked. The broken arm. The broken wrist. The busted lips.
Despite reliving all the hell, a lot of it I hadn’t remembered until now, I slept peacefully. Joseph slept next to me, breathing in all the pain, feeding from it. Cleansing my soul.
When I woke, I felt at peace. I remembered some of the dreams, but now they were like old memories. I now knew that I’d had a father and grandparents who had loved me. They hadn’t been the bad people I’d always been told about when I would question my mother about them. My scars had faded. Some were still there but not nearly as prominent. My body didn’t ache. I could bend my arms and wrists without pain. I could probably even ride a bike again!
A tall, young man with a crop of curly red hair came to the door and knocked.
“It’s about time you woke up, sleepyhead,” he said. “Mom is waiting for us upstairs.”
I climbed the stairs to Minnie’s kitchen. She sat at the table working a crossword puzzle.
“Glad you’ve slept well, Mollie. I see you’re getting along with Joseph. Have some supper?”
She had kept a plate of lasagna warm in the oven for me. I nearly inhaled it.
“Good girl. You’re going to need your energy. You and your brother have a job to do tonight.”
“My brother? Joseph?” as soon as I asked, it no longer felt strange. I was home. This was my family now.
Mom opened the door, and let out two large, orange cats into the night.
The cool night air felt good on my whiskers, the sidewalk, still warm from the sun it had soaked up throughout the day, felt relaxing on my paws. The walk to Louise Belvedere’s home was short. Joseph climbed in through the open bedroom window and meowed. I took that as my cue to follow. Louise was asleep on top of her comforter, surrounded by empty wine bottles and overflowing ashtrays. Nothing new here. I wondered if she missed the daughter she had once had. We climbed into bed with her and began to fuel her dreams.
Louise wasn’t able to wake from the night terrors that ensued for hours. She thrashed about in bed as her past haunted her over and over.
Joseph and I set out for home and were let back in just as the sun broke over the horizon. After a quick catnap in our cat house in the downstairs apartment, we were refreshed and walked upstairs for breakfast. As we sat at the table, Mom brought us huge plates of food. We were ravenous.
“I had the strangest dream last night,” I said. Mom and Joseph only looked at each other.
Louise Belvedere wandered out into the street in nothing more than a filmy, dirty nightgown, screaming. A good samaritan pulled her out of the road after a near collision with a dump truck, and he called an ambulance when he couldn’t get her to settle down. The county hospital later sent her on to the state mental institution. She constantly babbles of fires blistering her skin and dead people coming out of the flames for her. They have to sedate her almost daily when she starts screaming that the cats are breaking her bones again.
Miranda Crites is a reader, book reviewer, photographer, writer, and lover of horror from the ghostly woods of rural West Virginia. Miranda has always enjoyed reading, photography, and writing. She received her first camera as a gift when she was nine years old. The writing bug bit her at a very early age. She won the young writers’ contest in first grade and never stopped writing.
You can follow Miranda on Instagram Miranda_C_rites
Follow Miranda on Twitter @Miranda_C_rites
You can find out more about Miranda via her website www.mirandacritesreadsandwrites.com