The bell had woken me up from my nightmare. It was a long, cheerful chime that rang once and slowly faded away. It came from outside my room, or from inside my head. I wasn’t sure which. At the time, I didn’t even know if the sound was real. I only knew it wasn’t coming from my room.
The bell took me back to when I was little, when I heard it all the time. Once a day. When I heard it just then from outside my room (or in my head), I didn’t even have the language to describe it. My words were very basic and simple then.
At the sound of the tone, my lips parted and I tried to say two words: “Feeding time.” My throat was dry, and my head hurt from experiencing the memories of being a little kid. I so seldom remembered my life before this room, and hadn’t heard a bell since coming in here. Remembering things hurt me. Memories were like nightmares inside nightmares. Had I imagined being a little kid? The memories stung like they were my enemy, not my friend.
The bell’s chime had finally faded away completely. I laid my head back and shut my eyes. I didn’t know it, but it was the last time I would see this room for real. There were a series of commotions, screaming and hustling and an explosion and footsteps and gasps and sirens and shakes and bumps. I was dragged through the mud of my waking life, which as far as I knew was spent entirely here in my room.
I wasn’t sure if the room was real anymore. Was I still here? Am I there now? Am I even real?
Then it happened again, as if to draw my attention to a focused point: the happy chime of a small bell, like the sound effect you’d hear when a cartoon dog says “Eureka!” Just add a light bulb over the dog’s head and you’ll know what I mean. Except the chime took a very long time to fade away.
As I laid there, dried out and tired with my eyes shut, I gawked at the memories of cartoons, and dogs, and light bulbs. I hadn’t seen any of them in a very long time. Since I’d been a little kid. But the ethereal bell, chiming in my mind maybe, brought a dog’s smiling face to mind.
I’m pretty sure I said these words. It was my voice. My eyes moved around but I kept the lids shut. I often left my eyes closed when I was awake to spare my tired mind the sight of this nightmare. My left hand was wrapped in the rusted chain so I could only ever plug up one ear at a time. I was permanently forced to hear the sickly sound of my raw skin scraping against the cracked concrete floor, the drips and drops of liquid going down the floor drain . . . and the occasional distant rumble from behind the wall on the right. Somewhere past that wall was the door that led out. Things occasionally moved by outside, and I heard and felt them. Once in a great while I would hear scratchy footsteps and voices. I think I used to yell toward the voices. Even if I did, it clearly hadn’t done any good.
The smell of this place, all stagnant wet mold on the bricks, matted rust on my chafed skin, and my old piss pooled on the concrete floor, was oppressive. Overwhelming. Even the air in the my room was murky thick. I spent all those many days leaning against a leaky red brick wall, chained to a rusted railing above my head. The only escape was to close my eyes and not see this stagnant nightmare. When it rained outside, water ran down the brick wall behind me. Filtering through the rust and mold, the water reached me as a gross, slurpy fluid. It tasted terrible. And what a chore it was getting that water into my mouth without brushing my teeth against the bricks. Of all the dreadful sensations here, that was the worst. I hated that feeling of my sore teeth rubbing against the rough bricks.
Usually, like once a day, Papi came into my room and threw water on me, or on good days he’d hose me down for a long time. Thin, clear water that never picked up grit or slime from a mold-covered brick. Then I'd get scraps of food. Bread and bits of apple and even old meat. But, other times, like now, I went ages without seeing Papi. Days without clean, thin water. If it didn’t rain (and a vast majority of days, it did not), then I got painfully thirsty. I was desperate for that slurpy wall ooze on those days.
“Feeding time,” I said, and I know I said it that time, since my mind was thinking of food and water.
The bell chimed a third time. Now that was curious. Just when I’d said “Feeding time,” with a voice loud enough to hear, the bell chimed again ... like someone rang it to thank me. Like a reward. Which was ironic, really, since I used to hear that bell chime as a little kid, when it was time to let the dog know his food was coming. His reward for being a good boy was on the way. At the time of this story, when I was chained up in my room, I was never so educated to know what irony was. Now I look back on it, and I burn in anger at the irony involved.
I took a moment to listen to the bell’s cheerful tone, fading slowly away, and a rare image popped up over the black cloud I saw when my eyes were shut. That new image was this very setting, this rust and brick and blood room, but the dog was there. It was a brighter image, since the door was open and daylight filtered in. This room had no windows, but tiny slots of missing mortar in the bricks way up near the ceiling always let in a little air and daylight (and rain). But this time, right now, as I looked on this room (which was not yet “my” room, since I wasn't in it — it was the dog’s room), I was gasping in shock. What was happening here? What was happening to me?
“Feeding time?” These words definitely didn’t come from my mouth. It was a man talking, and not Papi. Another man. Only later would I realize the biggest difference about their voices was the “accent.”
“She’s remembering something,” another voice said. This was a woman, and it wasn’t me. And it wasn’t La Diabla either. This woman’s voice was calm (La Diabla’s voice was never calm), and it was confident (my voice was never confident).
“Does the bell mean feeding time?” the man asked. He was asking me.
It was my policy never to suck on the bloody sores around my mouth but I found myself doing it right then. I was nervous. Scared. I usually kept my body splayed outward toward the drain in the concrete floor, but now I drew myself back to huddle against the brick wall, up toward the rusted railing above my head, the railing I was chained to by thick orange hoops of iron. My skin was sticky and the flaky rust from the chains were like grating sandpaper swipes to my left wrist and left ankle. It was especially painful when I moved quickly. Like I did just then . . . only the pain, the sensations, were kind of dull. Faded. Like they weren’t there.
“Yes,” I said. I had no idea who I was talking to. My eyes were bolted shut. “But feeding time is over now. For good.”
The room, nothing more than gray concrete, red brick, orange rust, green mold, black water, and a brown dog, seemed to grow a little brighter. I had never seen it do this before.
“Was it feeding time for you?” the man asked.
“For Chago,” I said. “When we took dinner out to him, we rang the bell so he knew we were coming. I got to ring the bell sometimes.”
“Who else rang the bell?” asked the confident woman.
“My Papi. Not Mami though. She never rang the bell. She didn’t like dogs.” I choked on this memory a little, of a woman’s round face screwed up in disgust. “Mami hated Chago. She hated that Papi and I liked Chago.”
I could hear movement, light shuffling, light scratching. Later I knew this was the man and woman exchanging glances and one taking down notes. “Chago,” I said sweetly, and my mouth (ringed with bloody sores) peeled wide to smile. “No,” I said, curling up tighter. “Chago is dead. I was six when he died.”
I curled up as tight as possible, like how I’d huddle when it got very cold out at night. Strange as this sounds, my room was outside; not in a big house with heat and cold air, not in the basement of a house. I was inside (in the room) but the room was outside. If you think about it, you'll understand. I can see the room in my mind, with Chago lying dead in a pathetic heap on the cracked concrete floor. The room is even brighter, like the roof was peeling back or something, like the little kid version of me peeling the top off of a pudding desert.
Feeding time, I thought.
“She killed him,” I said.
“She killed who?” the man started to say, his voice rising with confusion and anticipation. He was obviously younger than the woman, and more eager to get to the end of a story.
The woman stopped him somehow, and changed the question to a statement. “Yes, dear: she killed him. Did you see it happen?”
I was suddenly thirsty again. I had been alone in my room for three or four days before the commotion and shaking and the mysterious bell and then these voices. Or a week or more. I’d almost forgot about what happened before the bell. The last time I got scraps of food and a bucket of water thrown on me was three or four days ago, I think. “Or a week or more,” I said, shuddering, seeing the room with dead Chago lying in it, and realizing that I was there too now. My left hand and foot were wrapped in the rusted chains. The dog’s body was rotting, falling into itself, and smelled of putrefaction.
There was no blood.
The bell sounded again, only this time it was very close to me, like coming out of my brains through my right ear. I didn’t dare open my eyes, but Chago was gone. Papi was on the ground in front of me instead. “I saw it happen,” I said, afraid I would have to describe it. I tried not to think of him dying.
The bell chimed on. The monster did it. The devil. Even as a little kid, I knew monsters weren’t real, that the devil wasn’t real. The bell chimed on, fading. But Mami turned out to be the devil. Oh yes she did. “La Diabla,” I said. I spat it, actually. “She didn’t call him Papi. She called him Luis.” I stopped talking, and the bell had completely faded away.
“Luis Ramon Chalon,” the man said, urgently.
“Yes,” I said. “That was my Papi’s name. La Diabla would scream it whenever she found out Papi was with me. She used to scream it back when we had Chago, and Papi and I were outside feeding him and petting him. What’s happening to me? My world is getting brighter and I’m scared.”
“You’re safe,” said the woman, and her confidence was soothing to me. “Your world has changed. It’s changed for the better, but it will be very hard for you to leave your old world so quickly. You will not understand your new world right away.”
“I used to leave the room, you know,” I said suddenly.
More rustling, like someone recoiling in shock. “You did?” the woman asked. It’s the first time she hadn’t been in control, didn’t know something.
“Papi would cover my eyes. It was like a game. He would take off the chains and bring me outside. Sometimes I could walk, but he always put a hand on me to make sure I didn’t fall. Or run away. If I couldn’t walk, he carried me. He said sun was good for me.” My breath was so dry. “We last did that so long ago.”
I was back in my room, just me and my mold and rust and brick and blood and the cheerful cartoon dog having a bright idea while my Papi laid on the ground by my feet, without his head, with his blood and bits of skull bone everywhere. There was a new noise, the opposite of a cheerful bell: an explosion, heat and light and smoke and choking.
The door to the outside opened. (Bright.) Then shut. (Dark.) Then opened. (Bright again). The door was swinging in the breeze, and the light was getting into my room. “He’s dead,” I said, shocked. Chago, poor Chago, who died without a drop of blood, had laid splayed on the ground after La Diabla hit him with the baseball bat. Then Luis Ramon Chalon, my poor Papi, my savior and tormentor, the towering loaf of hairy fat puffy skin, the balding man with the sick watery eyes always looking down at me in sadness, except when he looked down on me in lust, the terrible nasty drooling man who was my father, with his missing tooth in the front, always looking down at me in shame, like he wanted me to thank him for being there, for caring for me, for cleaning me and touching me, for kissing me and putting things inside me . . .
I realized with alarm that I was saying all these words out loud, and clammed up.
“He’s dead,” the man said.
I could actually hear the woman nodding. “You saw it happen,” she prompted.
“I saw him die,” I said. “I saw La Diabla kill him. I heard her screaming, I looked up, he was coming into my room in a hurry, all sweat and fear and craziness. His eyes were huge, all afraid. Oh no.” I turned my head toward the moist bricks behind me, and my blood-sore lips and dark teeth swathed up against the rough rusty surface. “That’s not rain coming down the wall into my mouth!” I shouted, and I was throwing up, heaving dry heaves that ripped my throat apart.
“It’s him,” the woman said darkly.
“It’s him!” I shouted. “It got all over me. I saw his eyes go flying! Everything was hot and salty. Bits of his bones are sliding down my neck!” I flung my free hand up to swat the bloody bone bits away. Once again, the scraping and dirty sensations were numbed, like I wasn’t dirty at all, or scraping my raw skin against anything. “She hated him,” I sobbed. “Because of me. Why did she hate me?”
“She was your mother,” the woman said, and I could hear her bracing herself. “He loved you in ways that a father shouldn’t love a daughter. Or, to put it bluntly, he touched you in ways fathers shouldn't touch daughters. Fathers should only touch mothers like that. Your mother hated that. It sounds like she hated anything that got in the way of your Papi loving her.”
“She wasn’t my mother,” I said, tears coming down my face. I hadn’t cried in oh so long. "Well," I said, meaning to go on, but I couldn't.
“Well,” the man said, helping me out, “she wasn’t just your mother.”
“And you know that,” the woman said, “don’t you. You know the truth of that.”
“I ... he called her ‘mi vida.’ He said that all the time,” I cried, “but is that even a name?”
“No. ‘Mi vida’ means ‘my life.’ It’s something a man would say to someone he loves.”
“He was scared of her,” I said. “She wouldn’t even let him have a dog. She wouldn’t even let him have a daughter. Another daughter. It wasn't any different, what he did to me. Why did she hate it when it was me but not when it was her?” And I saw her, La Diabla; my mind focused on her pretty round face, her curls of dark hair, her small hands and fat ankles and stupid blue jeans that I always hated. Then I focused on the searing heat of the shotgun blast that scattered my Papi’s head all over my room, all down my face and arms and legs.
The smoke from blast drifted away, and I saw Luis’ other daughter’s round face — my Mami’s round face — in the entranceway, distraught, the love of her life now dead before her. My room got dark. All the harsh experiences, the gritty concrete on my bare feet, the bloody sores, the oppressive stench of piss . . . it all got dark.
“Who are you?” I asked.
The woman’s breathing stopped for a second. “Detective Beverly Feldman,” she said. "Los Angeles Police Department."
“Detective David Yelle,” the man said. “What’s your name?”
“Violeta,” I said.
And I opened my eyes. The room was wholly different, but no less scary — a room packed with new and strange things, with colors I’d not seen in years. It was all clean white sheets, pale green walls, shiny metal stands and bright rectangles of light fixtures. It was a hospital. I saw them on TV, when I was a little girl, when my Mami watched her afternoon TV show.
I found myself staring at the woman sitting beside my bed. The woman’s skin was pale white, she had short blond hair, a soft face but rock-hard eyes. She was in nice clothes like a suit for women but do women wear suits? “Violeta,” Detective Feldman said, “like the color.”
“Yes,” I said, lowering my eyes to a small rectangular device in her hand. That was where the bell rings had come from. The thing had a little TV screen even. “You are very pretty,” I told her. “How old are you?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I’m 41. How old are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
There was so much lightness in the air here, so much brightness in the light, so much cleanliness in the thin linen sheet over my skin. This was a heavenly dream of a room. I had never allowed myself to even dream of being in such a wonderful place, not since my hope had long, long ago been crushed. The rust and brick and blood nightmare looked like it was never going to end, so I'd stopped hoping.
And now it had ended. How long had it lasted? “How old am I?” I asked.
“Your mother won’t say,” Detective Yelle said. He was a good looking man, also blonde but his skin was tan. He also wore a suit, but it didn't fit his skinny body all that well. “We have her in custody but she won't say anything. We are looking for the answers.”
“We will know soon,” Detective Feldman said. “Do you know what year you were born?”
“I was born June third,” I said. “What year?” I didn’t know.
Detective Feldman had a sad look in her hard eyes. “Violeta ... you should be prepared that the answer may shock you. You have spent many years in that room. The conditions stunted your growth, and you have suffered from malnourishment and lack of sun, but your mind seems sharp."
"But how old am I?" I insisted.
Detective Feldman paused. "You’re at least 21 years old. Maybe 25.”
I’d shut my eyes. The nightmare was not over.
The rust and brick and blood would always be there. Even though I was no longer chained to that room, that room was forever to be chained to me. I would always be the little girl on the news who’d been chained in her lunatic father's garage out back.
“Please ring the bell,” I begged. “One last time.”
Detective Feldman worked her little device and sounded the text message tone, the bell which had brought me into this new world.
“I was six when Chago died,” I cried.
---- "Rust and Brick and Blood" This short story © 2015 Christopher M. Morlock. All rights reserved.