1. Beginning at the end
My name is Zalie Wise, and my parents died nine days ago. I am twenty-two years old, and I am currently living in my childhood home, where I haven’t been for nearly four years. I have two siblings who live here with me, my sixteen year-old brother Max and my eight year-old sister Ruby, and I’ll be their guardian until they are adults themselves. Neither of our parents had any extended family and there are no distant uncles or secret cousins hiding anywhere, it is just the three of us. I had a twin sister once, named Ava, but she died when we still shared a crib and I’ve only ever had one memory of her.
We hadn’t really been an intact family for some years, since I moved stormily off to college, which was followed shortly by Max moving into his high school dorms. There were Christmases and the odd holiday here and there, but we really hadn’t been together for a long time. But when the L2 pandemic hit, we all moved into the new house my father had built to keep us safe, and we spent an uninterrupted 126 days there together, right up until the day our parents died. Over that time it slowly became clear to me that I had never really understood them. I went to that house confident in my grasp of the world, but now it’s clear I knew nothing. I suppose everyone has these moments.
The police don’t hold me responsible for their deaths. I never got anything in writing, but that is what I was told. The first responders followed strict isolation protocols so we never really spoke to them, and by the time I was interviewed by the police detectives they had already come to conclusion that it was nothing but a ghastly accident. As I said, I never got anything in writing so it’s possible that I will get a knock on the door and a pair of handcuffs one of these days, but at this point it seems unlikely. I was as frank and forthcoming as I could be and they saw nothing wrong with what I did, never saw fit to scrutinize any of my choices or pull at any of the dangling threads. They seemed too concerned with the trauma we had all endured to question whether I might be the author of any of it. They thought everything I did was fine. A priest might have a different opinion, but I don’t know any to ask.
My siblings and I haven’t discussed that final day at all, or even much of what preceded it. My sister is just a little kid, and she’s traumatized enough by everything that happened without my adding to her troubles with my moral uncertainties. And although my brother walks and talks like an adult, he’s still just a kid himself, and I am certain that anything I might say would only confuse and dismay him, and that’s the last thing he needs right now. Plus, we were raised under a strict regime of not talking about our feelings, or anything of substance that might intersect with our feelings, so the three of us are most comfortable living in our respective spheres of silence. It’s better that way all around.
So here I am, alone in my childhood room, thinking about the role I played in the death of my parents, weighing how much guilt I should bear. Because if I am as guiltless as the police seem to believe then I why am I plagued by my mother’s pleading eyes, or visions of my father obliterated in fire? And if I am actually guiltless then at the moment of their death I would have felt horror, or grief, or something—maybe blind rage at the unfathomable impotence of mankind in the face of nature’s cruelty. Anything but what I actually felt. Because when parents died, following a path I chose for them, the only feeling I unmistakably had was relief. So what does that make me?
If I am to answer that question, I need to examine for myself the strange things that happened in that house and the people we became in response. I need to track the various currents that pushed us to that violent shore. I honestly don’t know whether I am the hero or the villain, and my hope is that by writing it down I can figure it out. I argue with myself about these events in my mind, long, circular debates that end only with exhaustion, but if I can string together the relevant facts in the proper context I hope that I will finally make sense of it and can understand my own role in the story.
Or maybe life doesn’t work that way, and there actually are no villains, just people making the best trade-offs they can under duress. As humans we like to create moral structures around us to make sense of the world, and these structures are so useful that we come to think they’re real. But in fact they are only convenient illusions and it can take just the slightest bit of pressure to obliterate them and reveal the variability of meaning itself, to show that murder isn’t murder is murder isn’t. Because if you think about it long enough you can convince yourself that it isn’t even blood on your hands, it’s just the logical end-point of someone else’s long string of dubious trade-offs.
But even as I write that I don’t really believe it. Because I have come to understand in twenty-two years and 126 days that villains do exist, and that evil is a force that stalks us all. My mother used to talk about the light and the dark, the two sides of the world itself, and the importance of turning to the light, of feeding the positive to defeat the negative. She ordered her life this way, with meditations and mantras to guide her thoughts to the good and bathe her soul in the warm light. For 22 years I watched as she embraced optimism with unwavering faith, but it was only in those last 126 days that I saw she was merely attempting to outrun the darkness within her. And now for nine days I have been in possession of an undeniable fact that renders everything I knew before it meaningless.
My mother was a monster.