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Fiction

Katie Darby Mullins

POSSUM KINGDOM

When Jason was eleven years old, his mom started sleeping in the basement with the door locked. That way, if an intruder found his way into the house, he wouldn’t find her. Jason slept alone upstairs with an aluminum baseball bat. His father had left years ago.

He hadn’t realized she was doing it, at least not at first: Jason’s mother was slowly moving into the basement and locking the door behind her. He did notice that when he would come home from school, she’d jump when the door opened; he noticed that she didn’t like to have her back turned to anyone else in the room. She seemed to always have some kind of a weapon on her. But then, one day, she was just gone. Jason wanted to take care of her, to make her feel safe enough to leave the basement, but he never could. Sometimes she wouldn’t even eat the meals he left at the basement door for several days. She wasn’t going to take the chance of running into another person, even Jason.

He was convinced it had something to do with the Possum Kingdom murders. Every night, Jason ate dinner in front of the TV and watched the horrible story unfold. Photos of four or five women, all bottle-blondes and make-upped, were broadcast on the news every night for over a month—women just kept going missing, and turning up at Possum Kingdom Lake brutally murdered and raped. Everyone in town was addicted to the murders. So when the killer turned out to be a sixteen-year-old boy who had a fake ID and lured local women to his campsite from bars, all of Fort Worth breathed a sigh of relief.
All teenagers became suspect. Women all had pepper spray and locked their doors. And of course, Jason’s mom moved downstairs, leaving Jason alone in the house.
The basement had always scared Jason — it was little more than a bomb shelter, just one big, cold, concrete room. That’s why it shocked Jason when his mother started spending so much time down there, decorating it, showering down there. The whole room smelled like cat piss, even though there wasn’t a cat down there. It was too dark to keep any plants alive, and she’d never been much of a gardener anyway, so there were sharp, brown vines in hanging baskets; skeletons of the leaves and flowers that she would drag down with her. She started carrying her possessions down—photo albums, a television, her curling iron.

By the time Jason was fifteen, he felt he had been living alone for almost four years. He survived by cashing his mother’s disability check at the convenience store down the street where the manager took pity on him—for a cut off the top. He did all of the shopping—he had his hardship driver’s license, and though his mother still technically stayed in the house, he was responsible for her. Sometimes he sat at the door and tried to talk to her about things, but he could always hear the TV running in the background. She responded sometimes.

Jason’s mother completely withdrew from society. It made Jason sick to think about, but he told himself, hey, what can you do? He had almost forgotten how it was before. He had forgotten what she looked like. He remembered her perfume smelled like baby powder, but she almost certainly didn’t smell like that anymore. He didn’t buy her perfume.

Sometimes it was easier to pretend she was dead. Sometimes he was convinced she actually was.

He had been having feelings he couldn’t control. One day, he stood up in the middle of class and walked out without saying a word. A few weeks ago, someone had shoved him—maybe even on accident—in the hallway, and Jason punched him, broke his nose. He was afraid the school would call his house, but the kid lied—said Jason hadn’t done it, and he didn’t know who had. The worst, though, were the dreams—he had at least some control over his real life, but he was completely helpless at night, a slave to whatever horrible things he was obsessed with. When Jason finally asked his mother if he could live down there with her, she was hesitant.

“Jason,” his mother called up, sounding like she was at the bottom of a pit, “you know that I don’t have much space to judge people. But you’re fifteen. It’s crazy that you want to sleep in the basement with your mother. What’s got you scared?”

But Jason didn’t have to say anything, because what had him scared was the same thing that had his mother scared. He wondered why she wouldn’t open the door.

“Mom? Just open the door, Mom. I just want to talk about it.”

“Maybe you can stay with Juan,” she said.

“But Mama, who will feed you?” he asked. He didn’t want to understand the long pause that followed.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, and suddenly, somehow, he knew that she hadn’t been locking out intruders all these years: she’d been locking out Jason.

“Are you sure?” Silence. “Then I’ll call Juan,” Jason said, trying not to show that he knew why they were on opposite sides of a locked door. “Just for awhile until you’re ready. I’m sure I’ll come back soon.”

“Good, good,” she said. “You’re a good boy. I’ll miss you.”

He packed his bags and moved to Juan’s that night. Juan’s mother made spaghetti. Guadalupe rolled her eyes and said, “Great, now I have two stupid brothers instead of one. Gag me,” and Juan’s father said, “Bienvenido a la Joneses!” But Jason wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Dude, does your dad speak Spanish all the time?” Jason asked Juan quietly.

“Only on special occasions. And even then, not very well.”

“Should I reply in Spanish?”

“Do you even know any?”

“I guess not,” Jason admitted.

Juan, his best friend at school, was the only person who knew how Jason was really living. Juan was from somewhere out West, and he was also fifteen: he had a stringy moustache, stringy blond hair that needed to be cut, and an old pair of bright green Converse shoes that his sister outgrew. Both of his parents were white, but Juan explained to Jason that his dad had a “sense of humor,” so his full given name was Juan Pedro Jones.

Juan’s family seemed to be making the thoughts worse, though—or at least Juan’s sister, Guadalupe, was. She was three years older than they were and she was beautiful: in fact, sometimes, Jason had dreams where he and Guadalupe were mermaids. She’d come to him on a dolphin or a whale with her shirt ripped and torn, and she’d take him to an underwater kingdom. Jason sometimes wondered if he was gay because of the princess-mermaid stuff in the dreams, but was pretty sure he wasn’t, because he usually got to see her boobs. She was the perfect woman.

But Jason’s good dreams about dolphins turned into bad dreams about the campsites at Possum Kingdom State Park. In August, at the beginning of his sophomore year of high school, the tone of the dreams changed dramatically, but he willed himself to forget them . He didn’t want to remember. Eventually, he knew the solution was just to stop sleeping.

The Joneses didn’t really have room for another person, so it had been generous—but kind of uncomfortable—that they allowed Jason to stay. Juan gave him his sleeping bag and told him they could camp out in the living room, which was the exact opposite of what Jason wanted to do. Juan slept on the couch, and Jason stayed up all night with the television at volume 3, his ears pressed up against the speaker trying to hear whatever the infomercials were saying. It kept him awake to pretend to be so concerned about ear hair trimmers and headbands. And the next morning, when Juan woke up and saw him like that, sitting straight up, still wearing his clothes, sleeping bag still rolled, he shook his head and said, “Dude, this isn’t like your house. You can’t just stay up all night watching TV.”

“I’ve been having these dreams,” he said. “Do you remember the Possum Kingdom murders?”

“Kind of,” Juan said.”Didn’t they catch the guy?”

“The boy. It was a boy. And anyway, that’s what I’ve been dreaming about. I can’t get it out of my head,” he said. “I guess the whole thing bothered me more than I realized. Those women—they were so beautiful—but then I go to them, I hold their hands while they die. Sometimes their faces melt onto me.”

“Metal,” said Juan.

“Not funny, man. This is every night. I can’t sleep. I’m losing my mind,” he said.

” You know, we could go out there, smoke a little—maybe it’ll make the dreams stop.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Guadalupe from behind them.

“Lupe, I didn’t know you were standing there,” said Juan, “and you are not invited.”

“Come on—I was planning on going camping out there this weekend anyway, me and a bunch of girls. Sophie, Margie, you know—everyone.”

“Which means a bunch of guys, right?”

“Look, if you guys go, Mom will let me go.”

“There are conditions,” said Juan. “No one is to know I’m your brother, so I can be one of the guys. And you have to give us beer.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Jason.

“Shut up,” said Juan, punching him in the shoulder. “It’s a great idea. Do we have a deal?”

Lupe grunted, “Fine,” and they shook on it.

Mrs. Jones dropped them off during the afternoon, when the sun was sitting right on top of the lake. The lake smelled like dead fish and wet, decaying leaves. There was a dock with a bunch of tire floats attached to it, and a jar full of dirt sitting on the shore; probably evidence that people had been fishing there earlier, but had left. Empty beer cans were everywhere.

“OK,” said Mrs. Jones, “here are the rules. First, the only boys here will be Juan and Jason. Second, absolutely none—” She kicked a smashed an empty beer can. “—of this. Third, Juan, I know you’ve got your cell phone; call me if either of these things happens.”

“Mom, that’s not fair—” Guadalupe started, but Mrs. Jones gave her a look.

“I will stay here until Margie and Sophie get here. Then I’ll leave. Guys, I’m counting on you to make good decisions tonight.”

After the girls got there, Jason realized how anxious he’d been and began to relax. They built a fire, they saw some butterflies and raccoons, and Jason and Juan sat on the dock and dipped their toes in the water, which was cool and deep grey; most of the lakes in North Texas were brown, even at night. It was actually beautiful. He lay back on the dock and put his hands behind his head, watching hawks fly in the sunset. He squinted and tried to see the stars before nightfall: he’d always wondered if there was a trick to seeing them during the day. He knew they were always there.

Everything changed when it got dark. The fire seemed to grow; it was suddenly the height of a person, and it looked like it was dancing, hands in the air, head thrown back; it kept getting bigger. Snaps of light were breaking and popping off, and pretty soon, Jason could only see people’s faces by the firelight. The girls were turning yellow and red, and looked like they were nothing but shivering heat themselves.

Then the boys came. A truckload of boys who were three or four years older than Jason. They brought beer and wine coolers. One of them slapped Margie on the butt, and she giggled. Juan pulled Jason aside and offered him weed, which he smoked, and then one of the older boys pulled Jason aside and offered him beer, which he drank. Juan had started to hit on Sophie. Jason was alone, so he had another beer, and before long, he was feeling dizzy and watching one of the boys talk to Guadalupe across the dancing fire. They seemed all lit up and taunting him, almost like they were onstage.

Jason tried to pull her aside and ask her to walk around the lake, but she waved him off and kept talking to one of the older boys—one who had brought alcohol and was wearing a letter jacket with a patch for all-state wrestling on the sleeve. Jason kept saying please, but she wasn’t listening. Women never listened to Jason, he realized. He’d always thought he just didn’t have anything to say, but he did have something to say. He grabbed Guadalupe by the wrist, maybe a little too hard, because she pulled away and said, “Watch it, jackass.” And he was watching—he was watching her touch her chest and laugh at the other boy’s jokes like some whore. He couldn’t let her keep acting like this; the other boys would think she was nothing but a goddamn whore.

“Come on, Lupe,” he said, using her nickname for the first time. It tasted like icing in his mouth; sweet, full. If her nickname tasted that good, what would she taste like? “Your mother only let you come out tonight because she thought you’d be helping me overcome my fear.” He realized he wasn’t acting very afraid. He looked over his shoulder as if suspicious. “Just walk around the lake once, just one time.”

Lupe rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she said, and she grabbed her beer can, and she set out towards the lake. “I’m only doing this once, so you better keep up, you little freak.” Jason hurried after her, but only after looking back at the older boy—the one with the letter jacket who had been flirting with her—and giving him a smile.

She started pointing at things; they were facing a rock formation off in the distance. “That’s Hell’s Gate,” she said, “which probably doesn’t make you less afraid, either.” She turned 180 degrees and then pointed to the space in the distance behind them. “That’s Camp Grady Spruce. They bring elementary school kids out here so they can go camping. I went in fifth grade,” she said.

“They didn’t do that my year,” said Jason.

“Right. The murders.” She turned back towards Hell’s Gate and kept walking. “There’s not really much to see,” she said, and they plunged further into the darkness. It got cold over towards Hell’s Gate, and the further they got from the fire, the harder time Jason had seeing Lupe at all, save the slight reflection from the moon on her wavy blond hair. She was blue, kissed by night—almost like she was submerged, the beautiful mermaid from Jason’s dreams. When they got under heavy tree cover, he couldn’t even see that; he could barely see his own hands.

“You still back there?” she asked, and he waited a minute before saying, “Yeah, yeah, I’m here.”

“Don’t scare me like that,” she said. “Look, you’ve seen everything. Let’s head back.” Jason was silent again. He could feel twigs snapping under his feet, and he was focusing on sitting his feet down so lightly that he couldn’t hear them, only feel them. There was a power in this land.

“I’m not kidding. Let’s get out of here.”

“Are you scared, Lupe?” Jason asked, and reached out into the darkness to find the small of her back. “It’s OK.”

She jumped away from him. “Jason, that’s not cool, OK? Let’s just go.” She turned around and started walking towards Jason, who stayed still in the dark; she walked into him, and he wrapped his arms around her and she screamed and shrieked.

“Let go,” she said. She was crying. “Please let go. I want to go back. Please.”

And for a second, Jason held her even tighter, and he smelled her hair and it smelled like vanilla, and he felt how tightly he could wrap his arms around her slender frame. Her arms were pinned to her sides, and she tried to kick, but he was stronger than she was. He held her there, and finally, she stopped struggling, and was limp, sobbing in his arms. “Please, please,” she said. “Let me go.” He could feel her body spasm, and he moved one hand to her upper back so that he could feel her bra through her shirt. He whispered in her ear, “Two conditions.”

“What do you want?”

“First, you don’t ever tell anyone about this,” he said. “Second, I want to kiss you.”

She shook her head ‘no’. “Jason, I don’t understand, why are you doing this?”

He opened his mouth to say something, but he didn’t have an answer. He grabbed her hair, pulled her head back, and kissed her neck slowly: it was soft and warm, just like he thought it would be. She was still crying—she cried the whole time. “What the fuck, man?” she screamed. “What the fuck?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Are you kidding? Sorry? That’s all you‘ve got?”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have grabbed you if you hadn’t acted like you were afraid of me.

She punched him in the stomach, hard, and he dropped to his knees. He could hear the twigs crunching beneath his weight and feel them snap against his legs. “Fuck you,” she said, and she headed back towards camp, leaving Jason alone in the Possum Kingdom woods. He slowly got up and regained his breath and followed the light source as best he could until he was back out by the lake.

He sat there looking at his reflection. It was distorted in the face of the dark water. Now Jason was more afraid than ever.

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Katie Darby Mullins
 is currently finishing her MFA at Spalding University and teaches at the University of Evansville. In addition to editing a recent rock ‘n roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she’s been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Harpur Palate, Broad River Review, Big Lucks, The Evansville Review, and more. She’s also an editor at The Louisville Review and the lead writer and founder of the music blog Katie Darby Recommends.