The smell escaped through the cracks under the door and around the windows, to the front porch, where she’d taken to sleeping these last two days. It seeped through her clothing, her skin, entering her bloodstream, tainting her cells, and her very DNA.
It had been this way since her mother left. Bad smells sought her out, clung to her, and even named her—Ella Mae Bleeker what a Stinker!
The dead leaves were crackling under Ella Mae’s sneakers the last time her mother walked her to the bus stop. Lisa Bleeker, a skinny brunette with a habit of covering her mouth when she talked, to hide her crooked teeth, had given her daughter a tight hug, “Be good Ella Mae, I’ll be back for you soon.”
According to Ella Mae’s father, a supervisor at a car manufacturing plant who went by the name of Boss, Lisa had gone back inside that day, packed a suitcase, and walked down to the end of the driveway to wait for her lover. Boss claimed to have begged and pleaded with her not to leave them, but she’d made up her mind.
Ella Mae didn’t believe the begging and pleading part. She imagined her dad with his arms crossed over his thick chest, saying “Fine. Go. Whore,” and spitting his black, tobacco saliva on the ground at her feet. But whichever way it happened, Lisa had gone.
Ella Mae had been as good as she knew how to be. She’d done her homework and washed the dinner dishes without complaint. At night she’d listened for the sound of her mother’s footsteps outside her bedroom door waiting for the door to open, for her mom to stand beside her bed, gently brush aside her bangs, and kiss her forehead.
By middle school, hope had faded. By high school, it had disappeared altogether. She couldn’t pinpoint the day or time when anger had taken the place of hope. How could her mother have done this? Left her alone with a man who didn’t know how to love?
Not people anyway.
It had started with Sergeant, a lovable mutt with a warm tongue and soft fur. He’d made a good pillow on long, cold nights in front of the television. Cooper and Belle were adopted later that same winter. Mongrel puppies too young to be away from their mother, they’d been dumped in the ditch like fast food wrappers. Boss had warmed them in a cardboard box beside the wood stove and fed them milk from a dropper, his calloused hands as gentle as a mother with her newborn.
Ella Mae had loved Sergeant, but never warmed to Cooper who slobbered on her clothes, or Belle, who didn’t scratch when she needed out, but instead left puddles to slip in, and soft piles to be stepped over. Boss would shove Belle’s nose in the mess and send her yipping out the back door. He’d scoop up the mess and chuck it into the compost pile. Eventually, after Belle gave birth to a litter of six, and the year after that, four more, Boss gave up on the scooping and chucking. He had no use for cleaning. Not houses, not bodies. He allowed Ella Mae only one bath a week, so as not to run the well dry.
Ella Mae Stinker lives with the dogs, Ella Mae Stinker, what a hog!
Curled up in an old sleeping bag on the front porch, feeling the springs poking through the moldy seat that had once been in a car—Ella Mae didn’t know what car or when— she thought how different her life might have been had she gone to school clean. If she’d worn jeans without holes, shirts without stains, if her hair had been washed and brushed, she might have had friends.
Inside the house, the yipping and growling and whining grew louder, paws thumping out a rhythm on the wood floor; scratching their diseased skin. A yip, louder than the rest, likely meant they were fighting over one of the twisted rags they all chewed on. At one time Ella Mae could tell them apart by their yips and barks and growls—but there were far too many for that now. Too many even to name. Boss had used the alphabet for a while, assigning them each a letter. When they’d gone through the alphabet once he’d begun on doubles, AA and BB and so on. Eventually, as with the cleaning, he’d given up on the naming.
They’d be hungry again by now. Ella Mae had dumped the last of the dry dog food onto the kitchen floor the night before last, and dashed back out, leaving them to fight over it. Since then, her thoughts had been slipping and sliding, in and out of focus, in the way of words on a page when she read late into the night.
For a day and two nights, she’d been trying to collect her stray thoughts and form a plan. She hadn’t gotten far and knew only one thing for sure. She had to go inside one more time. The longer she waited, the worse the smell would be. She had to do it, had to get the money and be gone before she called the police and the humane society. Or, even better, she’d let the police make the second call. Ella Mae didn’t know if she could do it, call the people who would likely put some of her dad’s beloved dogs to sleep.
She planned to be well out of town before the police arrived. The truck ran okay, and Ella Mae was a decent driver, though she didn’t yet have a license. Her dad had let her drive anyway. He’d wasn’t concerned with legalities. Boss had never followed the rules. He’d gone to a doctor only once that Ella Mae knew of, a month before.
The doctor was full of crap, saying he had cancer. The bastard just wanted to get money out of him.
After that, Boss had stayed home in bed all day. More than once Ella Mae had tried to talk him into going to the hospital, but he’d only swore at her, insisting that he’d be up and around in another day or two, and if he wasn’t, he’d die in his own bed.
“Bury me behind the woodshed,” he’d said, too weak to get out of bed.
Ella Mae knew now that she should have had called 911. Surely the ambulance would have taken him to the hospital whether he wanted to go or not. But would she be blamed for his death? For the state of the house? Would they demand to know why hadn’t she called sooner?
It would likely make the evening news; another hoarder story for clean, decent people to shake their heads at, be repulsed by. She’d seen a similar story once. That one involved starving horses as well as dogs. Outraged people from all over the country called the news station wanting to adopt the animals. There were children too, a girl and a boy, taken from the house and sent to foster homes. Did anyone call and offer to open their home to those kids? Not likely. Foster homes were always in short supply; everyone knew that. She’d read a newspaper article once, that said when a kid turns fourteen they drop to the bottom of the urgent list. Teenagers were left to fend for themselves, live on the streets. Ella Mae would find a job and live in the truck until she found a room to rent.
For the first time all day, Ella Mae stood up. Dizziness knocked her back down. She hadn’t eaten since the scrambled eggs two mornings ago, right before she’d realized that her father had stopped breathing. She tried again to stand, this time more slowly. When the porch felt solid beneath her feet, she tore a strip of nylon from the old sleeping bag and tied it over her nose. If she moved fast and breathed through her mouth, she might make it.
When she pulled open the door, the dogs swarmed her legs trying to force their way past her to fresh air. A nameless mutant mutt with the stubby legs of a wiener dog and the face of a lab succeeded. Ella Mae let him go, knowing her dad wouldn’t have approved. The dogs used to roam free on their property, but after Brutus got run over and CC got into trouble for chasing a neighbor’s sheep, Boss had insisted the dogs be kept inside unless he or Ella Mae was with them.
As she made her way through the dogs and their puddles, her nose plugged tight, it occurred to her, that rather than call the humane society, it might be better to open the doors and release them. Some of the nicer, healthier dogs might find homes, but it wasn’t likely that all of them would. Some might starve to death. Her dad always said that it was wrong to let animals suffer. One shot to the head would put a dog out of his misery. No need to waste money on a veterinarian, they were all thieves anyway, worse than doctors.
Even with her nose plugged, the vile stench made its way into her mouth. She imagined it coating her throat, contaminating her organs. Ella Mae hesitated outside her father’s closed bedroom door. It would be easy enough to not look at the bed, but she was still glad she’d covered his face with a blanket, the way they did it on television.
She had to do it now or she never would, and she needed that money. Ella Mae flung open the door and went straight to the dresser. In the top drawer, under an old stained T-shirt, she found the metal box and clutched it to her chest. She went into her bedroom for a change of clothes and tripped over a black dog.
The dog didn’t make a sound.
It was Sergeant, the only dog she ever allowed into her room. How could she have forgotten him? She knelt down to touch his fur. Already the body had stiffened. Of course, he’d died of old age, but would the police know that? No. It would be on the news, glorified for viewers, a dead animal found amongst the filth.
Ella Mae took a blanket from her bed, covered Sergeant and went outside. She tore the cloth from her face, knelt in the green grass and retched. Nothing came out.
Her insides had dried up.
She crawled across the muddy ground until she reached the outside faucet. Sitting on the ground, she put her mouth to the spigot and took slow sips until some of her strength returned.
The metal box contained three-hundred and ninety-one dollars. It was enough to get her out of town. She’d drive until she was too tired to see, find a cheap motel room for the night, and take a long hot shower. But first, she’d give Sergeant a proper burial.
Ella Mae put the money in her jeans pocket and went into the shed for the shovel.
Behind the garbage heap, a steering wheel from a vehicle long dead, poked out of the ground as if it had been put there intentionally. She’d tried to pull it out once, to play with it, but Boss had smacked the side of her head and told her to leave it be.
Well, he couldn’t smack her now, could he? The steering wheel would make a fine grave marker.
The digging was relatively easy, the ground softened by the last rain. She hadn’t been at it for long when the shovel hit metal. Thinking it nothing more than some old car part, Ella Mae dug it out. It was a license plate. She tossed it onto the nearby trash pile and went back to digging. Again, the shovel hit metal. This time Ella Mae dug to one side of the object. When a sharp metal corner became visible she realized it was a box like the one her father kept his money in. Had he buried money?
Ella Mae dug it out and pulled it open. Inside were two wallets, one pink and the other brown. She opened the brown wallet first. No money. She should have known better than to hope for buried treasure, but why was it here? According to the driver’s license the man’s name was Blake Nelson. He was five eleven, weighed one hundred and seventy pounds and had brown hair and blue eyes. In clear plastic, was a photo of him with a woman and two children, a boy and a girl.
Ella Mae opened the pink wallet. Another driver’s license photo. It belonged to her mother. For a long moment, she stared at the photo of Lisa Bleeker, smiling with lips firmly closed.
With a sudden burst of energy, Ella Mae put the shovel in the ground and jumped on it. She tossed the dirt over her shoulder, repeating the process until the earth revealed its secret: a black trash bag. She dug around it, ignoring the blisters forming on her palms.
Using the tip of the shovel, she tore open one end of the bag.
Inside were two pairs of shoes, and two pairs of blue jeans. In the space between the hem of the jeans and the tops of the shoes, were a pair of men’s black socks, and a small pile of bare bones. Her mother’s ankles. Ella Mae backed away from the grave, trembling so violently that her teeth chattered.
In the early days, when Ella Mae had cried for her mother, Boss would say, “She knows where you are. If she wanted to see you, she’d come back.”
“You lied to me Daddy,” Ella Mae whispered. “Momma’s been right here all along.”
She put the wallets in her pocket, kicked the empty metal box back into the hole with the bones, and shoveled dirt on top of them. To hide the freshly disturbed soil, Ella Mae spread compost on top of the grave. When she was sure that no one would ever be curious enough to dig through the stinking pile of rot to the horror beneath, she wiped her hands on her jeans, took the shovel to the shed, and picked up a can of gasoline.
Ella Mae went inside one last time, to retrieve a book of matches. Careful not to allow a single one of her father’s beloved pets to escape, she closed the door firmly, before kicking over the can. Gasoline spread across the porch, lapping at the door.
Ella Mae stepped off the porch and lit a match.
In my upcoming series, Getting by in Grandville—Tales of Trouble in a Small Town, ‘Aunt Mae’ runs a home for teenaged girls and women with nowhere to go. She’s dedicated her life to helping others while keeping her past a secret.