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Set to Rights

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When she dies she leaves the uncles and aunts and his mother the house to sell and split the proceeds. She leaves everything else to the granddaughter she always played favorites with, who has the grace to look embarrassed at the reading of the will.

He never liked this house. It was old and smelled like eggs and hot metal in the winter; like boiled wool and sweat in the summer. The cousins giggled in terror about the lady in the corner. His aunts told stories about whispers in back room when no one was home, about clothes folding and unfolding. His uncle made a joke that she was such a mean old bitch because she'd made a deal with it, that's how she could sleep in that room. His aunt said no, she scared it off. And they laughed, nervous laughs, because they were still afraid of her and afraid of it.

It's less scary now. He is grown up. The stories they frightened him with at childhood holiday parties have lost their bite and seem silly now.

But he doesn't sleep in the back room, anyway. By unspoken agreement no one does. He sleeps across the hall, among the half-packed boxes. His aunt cries softly in the bed after telling him about a Christmas party where she'd gotten the bicycle she'd wanted and been told they couldn't afford, but he sleeps on the floor and does not cry. He did not love her. Blood is not always thicker than water and he would not have loved her even for a longed-for bicycle.

His dog sleeps in the hallway. She never did like dogs; she kicked a puppy once, hard. Hard enough to hurt. She is gone, but he hopes the dog shits on her carpet.

In the middle of the night the sound of the dog's whining wakes him. His aunt no longer cries; she is asleep now, and so he slips out with the blanket over his shoulders, past the rooms where his uncles sleep. The dog is pacing and will not be comforted. No sense spiting a dead woman making it go here. You'd have to clean up the shit.

It balks at the door, quivering on the rug in the front room, amid the wood paneling that was painted white just two years before, trying to hide behind her old floral chair that they'd moved from the corner to here by the window before she died. It whimpers and yanks its leash and cries. Then it begins to bark: hard, loud barks. He is terrified it will wake the house and so he yanks the door open.

There is no front porch; no rotted rocker and unkempt flower bed.

There is a room. It is the room he is in, but the floral chair is no longer by the front window. The paneling is dark wood. His old NES is on the far wall, hooked to the ancient rabbit-eared CRT.

The front door--the door he just opened--lies across the room.

He looks behind himself into the quiet house full of boxes. The dog has stopped barking and shakes against his legs. He drops the leash and walks into the room.

The NES turns on, and the screen is doing that staggered-bright-rectangles thing it does when a cartridge you got at a yard sale is jacked up and freezes, all shaking sprites and stuck tones. The family photos on the wall have hairsprayed coiffures and geometric sweaters in teal and purple, and high-waist, acid-washed jeans.

He finds that he cannot force himself to look down the hallway towards the back room. He turns his back. The walls seem much taller than they did in the other room, and the blanket heavier and longer, dragging behind him. The droning note of the NES resolves and the start menu displays, the screen tearing but the song playing, chipper and electronic in the quiet room.

Through the front windows he can see the flower bed as it used to be kept, before she was sick. He sees the neat rows of marigolds and beds of phlox, lit by the porch-light. He remembers now, before she became ill, before she was old and her children moved away. She would sit smoking in her rocker as the night fell, telling stories about meeting Elvis, telling him what a horrible woman his mother was. Then she would come inside and she would spread butter on white bread, and sprinkle it with sugar and fold it in half to make a sandwich for him. If he refused to go to bed because he wanted to stay up late playing video games she would send him out to pick his own switch off the willow tree, or use her yardstick instead.

She is dead now but he hates her. Her shotgun, a mark of her lifelong paranoia, is behind the door, far out of reach. Even standing on a bench he cannot reach it, although she was not a tall woman.

He can hear the creak of her rocker on the front steps and smell her cigarettes through the window screens. She nailed all the windows down, later, to keep out the burglars that never came. Nailed them down, too, to keep his own mother out of the house although nothing in the world would have made his mother come back here, not after what she did. Not after who she stood up for.

He looks towards the kitchen, but sees only the other room and the silhouetted shape of the dog pacing and trembling. He could look down the hall, toward the back room, but he does not. He lifts a letter opener from the dresser behind the door, standing on his tiptoes, where she stands to read her mail and bitches about the bills. It is heavy and not very sharp, but it is, perhaps, sharp enough.

He moves towards the front door. His dog, in the other room, begins again to bark, and it is muffled and distant. It is frantic as he puts his hand on the latch.

He opens the door.

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