Thursday photo #prompt – Mask #writephoto
“Ms. Jones!” The reporter yelled out. “When did you know Arlene was a serial killer?”
As odd as it might sound, I’d lived through 3 deaths at Arlene’s hands, survived the barrel of her gun by offering her friendship, gave her a job as my bodyguard, and endured 30 years living in the same mansion with her.
I’d survive paparazzi that had as little respect for the dead as I had for Arlene.
My hands clasped in prayer, I looked up at a man with a lopsided smirk. There were cameras ready to take the photo of the century. My eyes teared. As if I were Mother Mary at Jesus’ feet, I said, “I forgive you.”
Reporters scribbled, I sobbed, head in hands while the inconsiderate reporter was dragged from the church by two of the bodyguards who had worked under Arlene’s command for 15 of those 30 years.
“Mom,” Charlene whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
She held me as I cried on her shoulder. More flashes. This was going to make the front page of every magazine worth anything!
“Dr. Bellson,” The minister asked Charlene. “Do you want to say a few words about your mother’s friend?”
“I want to escort my mother out of here, and I want Arlene’s body cremated,” Charlene said. She led me through the doors, flanked by my security guards, and into the waiting limo.
I stared out the blackened windows, thinking about Arlene’s battle with cancer. When you’re distressed, you’re not looking to see if your best friend is setting you up. A letter was easy enough to include in a stack of medical forms I held for her trembling hands; just a tiny flip of one page, with a line for date and signature that looked exactly like all the others she’d had to sign.
I couldn’t imagine a better ending for Arlene. A stroke left her able to hear and see, but not to speak or move without assistance. Her children began dividing up her possessions in front of her eyes, and discovered a letter outlining her confession. Were it not for the security guard helping them pack up what they wanted to take with them, they might’ve run the offending document through a shredder. But I’m too thorough to allow that to happen.
Wanting nothing more than to make it home unscathed, I asked Charlene, “Did security do a sweep?”
“I can tell when you’re angry.”
Dr. Charlene Bellson frowned at me. Not a good sign. “You know I’m a forensic pathologist and serve as coroner in this jurisdiction. It was my duty to identify all 13 of the bodies at the bottom of that cave.”
“Thirteen?” I gasped. “Oh…God…my children could have been killed!”
“You can take off your acting mask, mother,” Charlene said. “One of the bodies was that of my father.”
“But your father died the first week I was in college!”
“The man you say was my father had type AB blood. His mother had type A. His father had type B. You have type A. So did my maternal grandmother. Grandfather had type O. The man in that pit had type O, and I have type O.”
“I don’t know anything about blood type,” I said, looking down at my hands.
“Grandma said you had been Arlene’s friend since elementary school.”
It was so calming to look out the window, to watch the landscape curl past as we traveled toward the mansion that had been my home since Charlene was very young.
“Mom,” Charlene said softly. “I’ll have to enter this information into my report.”
“I was 18 when Arlene took me to that cave. She said she wanted to show me something incredible, but I picked up the faint scent of death. I thought she was going to show me a buffalo carcass or something gross like that. I refused to go in and asked why she was so angry at me. That’s when she demanded to know if I had slept with her boyfriend.”
“Did you sleep with her boyfriend, Mom?”
“Yes, and I was pregnant with you, but I beg you not to tell Charles parents. It would kill them!”
“Why did you believe she wanted to kill you?”
“If I tell you, you’ll have me committed,” I sighed.
“Why didn’t you report her to the authorities when you were 18?”
“I thought they’d find a dead animal and I’d be the laughing stock of the town. You were 18 once, what would you have done?”
“Did you know that your ex-husband and Arlene’s boyfriend, Lee were among the last to be dumped into a 200 foot shaft?” Charlene demanded.
“Knowing what I know now, I’m not surprised. She weathered the storm of being the other woman and spent 2 years with Lee. As I had predicted, he convinced her to send her oldest son to an institution. When her son died from grief and neglect, she kicked Lee out of her bedroom and he was never seen again.”
“I heard you warn her more than once that he was bad news,” Charlene said. “But why was your husband among those who took the plunge?”
“Sweetie, she was having an affair with my husband while we were still married. I forgave her for that and promised never to tell anyone. Her siblings are your youngest sibling’s half siblings. If you don’t believe me, take a blood test and see for yourself.”
“Already did that,” Charlene said, her smile kind, a sense of relief settling in where suspicion once reigned. “Did you know she was once an assassin?”
“She did her job protecting us for 30 years. That’s the Arlene I want to remember.”
“Mom. I’m going to tell you a secret. Remember when I was 9 and asked you if people were descended from angels?”
“Arlene had a gun pointed to my head at the time.”
“I knew you were trying to save our lives. You can feign any face, but the real you shines through your eyes.”
“You did the right thing by going to bed.”
Charlene chuckled. “There’s a servants stairway at the back. I took off my shoes and crept down the hallway to listen to your conversation. I heard what she said about speaking with your classmates.”
“Her eyes were filled with so much hate. There had to be another reason. I found out she was jealous of my fame, and jealous of my life. I thought that if I could give her children the same life and a chance for fame, she wouldn’t pull the trigger.”
“You said, and I quote, ‘friends are the people who don’t ask questions, they just help you bury the bodies,’ and then you offered her a job. Did you help her dump those bodies?”
“I also said I was giving her a chance to bury the past and start fresh with people who love her. Those were the kinds of cliches we had in those days.”
“You are a stronger woman than I,” Charlene said. “You looked into the depths of her pain and filled it with love.”
“And afterward she killed more people,” I grumbled. “I gave her children no less love than my own. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and she let me down.”
Charlene picked up her smart phone and tapped it twice. “I had 2 reports prepared. One stating that I was the daughter of a victim, the other omitting that information. As of this moment, Charles is still officially my father. My paternal grandparents will never have to know the truth.”
“Thank you,” I said, relieved.
“I’m curious. What did you want to say that would have had you committed?”
“Do I have your word that you won’t have me committed for any reason?”
“You will not be committed or sent to jail.”
I took in a deep breath. “I’m supposed to be dead.”
That voice, I knew that voice! She was still in investigation mode. If I didn’t come clean, she’d pry at me until I spilled out the truth.
“I’ve fallen down that shaft three times. The next thing I remembered after being impaled on bones and covered with slime was squeezing through a birth canal. The first time I died, I was 16. The next 2 times I died, I made it to 17, and this time I managed to celebrate my 18th birthday before Arlene tried throwing me down that shaft again. When I plummeted down the shaft the first time, I screamed out the word ‘why’. This time I asked Arlene, why do you want to kill me so badly.”
“That explains a lot,” Charlene said. “There were 13 bodies spanning from 1972 until 1995, stacked in order of death. The remainder were from an ancient civilization unknown to forensic anthropologists. Did you know there were intricate drawings on the cave walls.”
I frowned at her like the time she’d taken a pair of scissors to my velvet couch. “When you’re fighting for your life, you’re not going to stop and say, ‘hey, look at all these neat pictures.'”
“Why wasn’t the cave discovered long before now?”
“We asked that question. Every person living in the area has hiked to that hill and swears there was no cave in the vicinity.”
“The first stack, in order of death, were Lee, your husband, the father of Arlene’s oldest son, and my father. Here is where it gets very, very strange. Upon further excavation, the second, third, and fourth stack were, in order of death, the father of Arlene’s oldest son, you, and my father.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that!” I ordered.
“I didn’t want to be committed,” Arlene said, giving me an impish smile. “There are 13 symbols on the cave walls. I’m waiting for a report telling me their meaning.”
Why were the hairs on the back of my head buzzing like an overloaded transformer? We were half way home when Charlene received a call. She said very little, scrolling through the report on her smart phone.
“What did they say?” I asked.
“Translation units are amazing these days,” she said. “The writing states, ‘She who dies 3 deaths and serves to live a lifetime will become the goddess of deception’.”
“You said I wouldn’t be committed or sent to jail, but…”
Charlene leaned toward me, but I could swear I was looking into Arlene’s eyes. “I never promised you wouldn’t be studied.”
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” I sighed, wondering if being impaled upon the ribs of my former lover would have been the better death.