This story is by Michael P Munson and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
November 10, 1972
Mary Montgomery eagerly hopped off the school bus directly in front of her house, which is just off the corner of Cypress Street in West Islip, New York. It was a beautiful fall day, and she was excited about her 8th birthday tomorrow. Normally her mother would wait at the front door, but today she was not there. Walking towards the door, she felt a sudden queasiness.
Bright colored balloons adorned the front yard and rotting pumpkins from last month’s Halloween sat by the front door. She was short and just barely able to grasp the door handle. Even through her mitten’d hand, she could feel the door-handle was like ice and locked. Mary knocked several times with no answer. Her cat Marmalade came up behind her and danced around her legs. There was blood around her paws and then the cat scampered off towards the back of the house and she followed.
Using the spare key hidden under a rock, Mary entered the back door, while Marmalade used her cat door. She pushed the door closed and walked around the house, calling for her mother with no reply. She smelled coffee and the scent of French toast, which she’d eaten that morning. Breakfast dishes were stacked on the counter, which she thought was strange. She continued to call for her mother.
As she went upstairs, there was a sweet, metallic smell in the air. She pushed the door to her parent’s bedroom, and found her father in the bed, bloodied, with a knife sticking out of his chest. He looked like he was asleep, but she knew he wasn’t. To her right, she noticed the bathroom door was open and saw her mother lying in the bathtub with a razor blade in her extended hand. A small, but thick pool of blood gathered beneath and Marmalade’s paw prints were scattered across the white-tiled floor. Her mother’s eyes were open, but she wasn’t moving. A bottle of medicine was on the floor along with several pills. The bathwater was crimson red, and her mother’s beautiful skin seemed pale. Mary felt dizzy, and she shook uncontrollably. Then everything went black. The next thing she remembers was waking up in the back of an ambulance. Her life would never be the same.
It’s been over 20 years and Mary is now married to her high school sweetheart, Aaron Lewis. They have three young children, live in Hoboken, New Jersey, and she works as a psychologist. Her entire life has been spent trying to make sense of what happened on that horrible day. What led to her parents’ deaths? It was ruled a murder-suicide, but she never believed it. Or at least she never would allow herself to believe it. To the best of her memories, her parents were always loving, and affectionate, to her and to each other. She never heard them argue or fight.
She was raised by her grandparents after her parents’ death and was a handful, prone to panic attacks. Sleep was always difficult for her, which was one reason she became a therapist and a sleep researcher. Mary had struggled with anxiety and depression most of her life and knew that her mother most likely did as well. She was too young to understand it then. She remembers her mother taking “vitamins” at night and in the morning, but the pills looked nothing like the vitamins given to her. Was her mother mentally ill? Her father was a psychiatrist and would certainly have been aware if she was. Happy and healthy people don’t murder their husbands and then kill themselves. Or do they?
This was the eve of her parent’s death and her 28th birthday. Mary figured it was time to brush off the mental cobwebs and take a shaky walk through memory lane. She had the day off. While her husband was at the office and the boys were in daycare and school, she went to the attic to find the boxes from her childhood. They contained old toys, books, and her father’s medical journals and notebooks. She hoped that something might jog her memory. Like many therapists, her father took copious notes on patients but also recorded many of his notes and thoughts on cassette tapes. There were hundreds of tapes and dozens of notebooks.
With an armful of dusty boxes, Mary headed to the dining room table. She put on a pot of coffee and got to work. The first thing she did was open the large photo album and was immediately greeted with portraits of holidays and family gatherings, most of which she didn’t remember. One thing she noticed was how little her mother smiled in many of the photos. Her mother looked tired and sad, which immediately made her sad. She longed for her mother’s touch. The book was relatively thin because Mary had barely eight years with her parents before they died. She felt a tinge of guilt for waiting so long to look at the photos, but her gut told her there was more here than met the eye.
When she turned the page, several newspaper clippings fell to the floor. She gathered them up and saw the first was dated April 22, 1942. It was a clipping from the Valley Stream Gazette. A paper from the town where Mary’s mother was raised. It spoke of a home fire that killed three people. Her mother’s parents and her little sister, Abigail, something Mary never knew about. Her hands shook as she read the investigators, speculated the fire appeared to be deliberate, and an accelerant appeared to be used. One family member survived the fire. Her mother, Elizabeth Weber, as she had snuck out of the house earlier in the evening to be with her friends. “Holy shit”, Mary said out loud, spilling her coffee. Investigators cleared young Elizabeth and claimed the fire to be a senseless tragedy. Her world seemed to collide around her as she wondered who started the fire. Her grandmother? Her mother?
Another newspaper clipping nearly made her heart stop. It read: “Local Psychiatrist Marries Patient”. Mary felt dizzy as she discovered her mother had been an inpatient at a local state psych hospital where her dad worked as a therapist. They married one year after they had met at the hospital where he treated her. Her mother was diagnosed with advanced schizophrenia. She felt dizzy and suddenly nauseous. In less than five minutes, she found out more than she bargained for about her family. Everything she knew about her family was a lie.
Reading on, she learned that her mother’s diagnosis included a “potential for violence, suicidal ideation, and poor impulse control”. She also found that her grandmother had the same condition. It was speculated that the condition went back generations. Only strong anti-psychotic medications could curtail the violent nature of the illness. It seemed only to affect the women in the family. Mary ran to the kitchen sink and vomited. Had her mother secretly stopped taking her meds, or did they stop working?
Periods of blackouts and ‘blind rage’ were something Mary experienced much of her life. She only had flashes of memories, including the time she kicked the family dog so hard, it died, and she buried it in the backyard and pretended the dog ran away. Another time she had an incident where she lost control when a driver cut her off and she followed the woman screaming and honking her horn. She followed the woman home and barely remembers what happened next, but had bruises on her hands later.
Most frightening to her were flashes of scenes she couldn’t account for, including a flash of her holding a bloody knife. Another was a partial but blurred memory of her choking a woman on the ground. The woman’s face resembled her sister-in-law Angela, who went missing years ago and was presumed dead. Mary couldn’t imagine harming her own family, even in a psychotic state. That would be a fate worse than death to her. She adored being a wife and mother. She did however start taking a low dose of Zoloft and kept the incidents, memories, and her medication hidden from her husband. She knew she had added to the family secrets.
David Greeley had been a Fire Marshall and resident of Hoboken for 25 years and stood in the charred wreckage of a two-story home. He shook his head and thought after all these years, he still could not get used to the sight of burnt bodies, especially children. “I grew up with Aaron and was at his and Mary’s wedding”, he said aloud. Suddenly behind him one of his crew said, “Sir, we counted only four bodies. Someone made it out”. Two of the bodies were on the small side and were most likely the 12-year-old twins, James and Michael. “Sweet Jesus. Who wasn’t here and who started the fire”?