We all know that one house on the block. The one that no child will go near, no matter how many balls or frisbees land on the yard. The one that is skipped by every Trick or Treater, and every caroling group. The one that even dogs know to run past.
In the neighborhood, that house belonged to Mrs. Mabel. Mrs. Ida Mabel to be exact. No one knew what happened to Mr. Mabel. According to the Merkowski brothers, he snuck out in the middle of the night and took a train to Philadelphia. But those brothers also said that their dog jumped over the garage, so they might not be trustworthy. Mrs. Mabel had owned the house longer than any of the kids in the neighborhood had been alive, and even longer than some of their parents. Susie Tutwiller asked her grandpa about Mrs. Mabel, and if they played together as kids. Grandpa gave her a dollar to go play outside.
Mrs. Mabel house stood on the corner of the block, with pine trees casting shadows over the front porch. A carpet of needles covered the sidewalk but unseen gardeners kept the grass inside the picket-fence perfectly manicured and pristine. The work was all completed shortly after sunrise in the morning, though the sounds of mowers never echoed onto the street. The only way anyone knew work had happened was because of two white vans pulling away in the mornings and green bins of mulch set out on the street. The house looked perfect. Always. Though no one was brave enough to set foot on the lawn, there was no question that every blade of grass measured the same height and every flower had the same number of petals. The seeming audacity of those pine trees to shed was the bravest thing on that street corner.
Mrs. Mabel was seen every few weeks by one of the neighborhood kids from their yard, or an adult out for an afternoon walk. Darkened windows to her corvette meant that the only time to spot her was during the short time between bolting the front door, taking the front stairs one step at a time, and then shuffling to the garage. The hum of the cherry red car meant that she would be gone from the area for a few hours of getting supplies. Without an intentional word, everyone on the street knew that they could breathe a bit easier and talk a bit louder for a little while. When the car hummed at the stop sign again, perfect stillness returned.
When Nathan Brown moved into the area, Susie was the first person who warned him about the Mabel house. That no one went there, that it was super important that he leave Mrs. Ida Mabel alone. Why, she couldn’t say. Only that it was important. But Nathan was not just a high school student, being told what to do by a middle school kid, but he was also a member of the football team. Seeing no reason to be afraid of some old lady in an old house, he quickly forgot about Susie’s warning. This was his neighborhood now. No girl, no lady, no one was going to tell him where he could and could not go.
Ida Emilia Swanson was born the sixth child to Bob and Chloe Swanson. She was also the first and only girl born in the family. After five rough and tumble boys who lived in a permanent layer of dirt, Chloe was overjoyed to finally have a little girl to dress up. The boys would be left to their full freedom, and full authority of their father, but Ida Emilia was all her mother’s. Given the most royal and poetic name Chloe could think of, this little girl would be raised as much of a princess as could be afforded in their Virginia town.
When you do not have a royal lineage or access to trust funds, the best way to become a princess is through beauty contests. So Chloe and Ida travelled the East Coast circuit. Starting with auditions to be a Gerber Baby, Ida learned how to apply mascara and blush before riding a bike. And the bike training was ended after the first fall leading to a bruised arm. The fear that a permanent mark might befall the princess ended any such dangerous exhibitions. Instead Ida spent her time learning Latin arias or getting fitted for her next gown, for her next competition. Some times weeks would pass between nights slept at home. When she was old enough for school, Chloe took over as mother, manager, and teacher. As long as she could read enough for the judges and count enough at the bank, other subjects were minimized as electives to be worried about later on.
Ida Emilia Swanson was expected to achieve greatness. That was all she knew of her purpose in life. Words such as fun or play were meaningless. The tiaras and sashes that filled her unused bedroom were enough; that’s what Mother Chloe said. They were all so beautiful, because she was beautiful.
Chloe Swanson died when Ida was 19 years old. According to the police report, she had a heart attack around 1am in the hotel room she and Ida were sharing. The coroner told Ida she died immediately, as a comfort to the young woman. Later tests made him wonder if Chloe had struggled longer with death as there were signs of a fractured wrist that confused the timeline. With the only possible witness asleep at time of death, and other tests inconclusive, the file was closed and Chloe Swanson laid to rest back in Virginia. Five brothers wept for the mother they barely knew. Ida shed no tears because Chloe had trained her to value her make-up too highly. To mess it up that day would be an insult.
After the funeral Ida moved back into her family’s home, back to the bedroom now filled with boxes of awards and ribbons. The walls had become too full years prior, and no much space was needed for the occasional occupant. Without her manager, Ida did not have connections to her contests anymore. Besides, some contests had began declaring her too old to compete and her mother had only gotten Ida in through lying about her age. Such deception was beneath Ida so she was relieved to be done with it.
Her father expected Ida to help with the household, at least until she got a job or started into school. Clueless about how to help with most chores, Ida was sent to complete the weekly shopping trip in town. That is where Alexander Mabel came into her life. Alexander. Ida fell in love with his name before she decided he would be the one to marry.
Alexander’s devotion to Ida, and his income from the bank, finally initiated Ida into the lifestyle her mother had always promised. A lovely house surrounded by elm trees in a growing neighborhood. The spare rooms upstairs displayed every tiara, trophy, and sash as though a museum tour might walk through. Though the thought of strangers’ fingers caressing one of her gowns nauseated Ida. The upstairs was her kingdom. Alexander was only allowed to visit with her permission, and in her presence. And typically only to repair a shelf or add a needed wall hook.
A few years into the marriage, Alexander finally convinced his bride that their home was incomplete without a child. Two choices fought within Ida’s mind: allow her body to go through the trauma of bearing a child, or bring a child into the house from another family, with unknown history and genetics. After months of study and consideration, Ida became pregnant with their first child.
With the arrival of a “baby bump”, Ida stopped leaving the house. Instead of finding solace among her beautiful things upstairs, she laid on the couch in the front room, questioning why this infant was growing so much, making her so sick, and taking so long to be done with her. Alexander could do nothing to bring joy to his wife during this period. He daily spoke of her beauty and promised the joys of motherhood. He filled their front yard with her favorite flowers, and hired the best gardeners to tend after them. And he stocked their kitchen with all of the best foods. His beloved queen was given anything and everything. Nothing would bring a smile to her face. The only words from her lips were those of necessity. One hand stretched and clenched atop a too-slowly growing child.
If Nathan Brown had never moved into the neighborhood, its unknown how long it would have taken to find the body.
Daring to prove Susie wrong, he had not only walked through the yard, but pried open a window into the bathroom. The flashlight from his smart phone shined across rooms of antiques, things that were polished and position, but had a thin layer of dust on them as no one had been through in a month. Nathan never made it up the stairs, so he never saw if the tiaras and sashes were all in their places. It was the police officers later on who would tag and photograph them, before everything was carted away. No Nathan never went up stairs because stairs were connected to the front room, where the bones of Mrs. Ida Emilia Mabel were decaying on the couch. One hand was on her stomach, the other lay at her side, seeming to point at the shovel tucked beneath the couch. All of these details were found by the police of course. Nathan only glimpsed the shadow of a skull before he ran screaming from the house.
Ida was the last death in Mabel House. It was months later when the first and second were discovered. With no known relatives, the house was sold at auction along with all of the useful goods inside. It was nearly a month before the cleaners got through the first and second floors. The unfinished basement was assigned to contractors to deal with. No furniture was down there and no one knew why the Mabel’s had never used the space, considering how full the rest of the house was.
The leveling process before pouring cement was how the first body was found. The remains of a newborn child. Testing proved the child, a boy, had died a few months after birth. Strangulation. The entire basement was searched and dug up before the second body was found. Doctors at the lab confirmed time of death was near the time of the child, and also strangulation. They could not confirm if Mrs. Mabel had killed her child or her husband first.
Long Live the Queen.
#52sparks is my year-long writing series based on an art prompt challenge. The title is inspired by a quote from Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “We are the spark, that will light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down” (Poe Dameron). The spark that lights a fire to toast a marshmallow or to ravage a forest begins in the space of an inch. So just imagine what hundreds of inches and words can do.