Life at the Death House
Sean E.D. Kerr © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The air bit at his cheeks as he walked toward the house where he hoped he would die. After all this time, he’d made it. Tyler took a deep, satisfied breath as he slowly worked his way up the gravel driveway.
He found out about the New Life House on his birthday back in September, and had been trying to get there ever since. When he first saw the pamphlet, he nearly laughed. Strange name for a death house, he’d thought. The name just didn’t make sense to him. There was no new life for people like him. There was only death and loneliness. And pain. That’s all there was.
Despite his commitment to dying, his heart still raced at the thought. A death house. He’d already lost everything that ever mattered and then some. The only thing he had left to lose was his life, and he wasn’t convinced that would be much of a loss. There was no one left to mourn him anyway. I just don’t want to die on the streets. I don’t want to die like… He couldn’t even finish the thought.
Tyler held his breath to steel himself to the pit of guilt growing deep inside him. Why had he been the one who found the New Life House? Why couldn’t they have found it together? He’d never expected how quickly things could change in a couple of years or even a few months. How many things and how many people he could lose in such a short time. He never knew just how real life could be until the day it happened. The day he didn’t like to think about. The day he’d found he really was alone.
He stopped as he reached the edge of the paved section of the driveway, not far from the house but just far enough away so he could take it all in. It was huge. He cleared his throat and blinked as if to make sure it was really there.
The New Life House stood in the center of a two-hundred-acre piece of well-kept land. It was a large Victorian-style home with faded blue paneling, yellowing white trim, and a wraparound veranda with white paint, peeling and flaking away, revealing the graying wood beneath it. The last of the grass was fighting to be seen through spots of early snow and fallen leaves as winter edged its way in. The driveway was nearly half a kilometer of dirt and gravel, leading to the large circular patch of pavement around the front of the house, the same pavement he now hesitated to step onto.
Tyler looked over his shoulder to see how far he’d walked, but his view was blocked by a line of silver maple trees, sparsely decorated with what remained of their brightly colored leaves, that cut across the front of the property about halfway down the driveway. From where he stood, they resembled a really tall fence.
His attention drifted back toward the house. The sweet smell of rotting leaves mixed with the scent of a roast dinner filled the air, warming Tyler as he imagined what it would taste like. His mouth watered, and his stomach grumbled. He hadn’t had a proper meal in days.
What am I doing? They’re not gonna take me. This is stupid. He looked down at his worn runners, torn and caked with dirt, and wondered if his journey had all been for nothing. What if they could see right through his lies and could see what he truly was? What if they refused to let him stay? He couldn’t take another rejection. He wouldn’t let anyone have that power over him again.
Don’t be ridiculous. You’re going in. He did his best to give himself a pep talk. He was never very good at those either. The only thing he knew how to do was disappoint, but he would do anything to be allowed to stay…almost.
They agreed on the phone to let you come. Stop freaking out. They can’t change their minds that fast. He took a deep breath, stepped onto the pavement, and began his walk to the front door.
He rang the bell and waited for what felt like hours for someone to answer. “Hi,” Tyler said shyly, avoiding eye contact with the tall and athletic, bordering on beefy, man who greeted him.
“Hi there, you must be Tyler. I was expecting you about an hour ago,” the man said, smiling and offering his hand to shake.
Tyler stared at it but shied away.
The man pulled his hand back but kept smiling, seemingly unbothered by Tyler’s reaction. “Come on in. I’m Marco.” His voice was loud, energetic, and slightly more high-pitched than Tyler expected.
“Thank you,” Tyler said quietly. He looked around the foyer, in awe of its grandness. The room was large and dark with wood floors and features. On a small table next to the office, a single lamp gave off a dim glow, lighting the first few feet of the darkened hallway that led toward the common areas of the house. Across from the entrance was a wide wooden staircase, lined with red carpet that led up to the second and third floors. The sounds of children giggling and chattering in the TV room drifted softly down the hall.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming,” Marco said. “Just put your shoes on the rack.” He nodded toward a shoe rack already holding several other pairs of runners and boots.
Tyler did as he was told even though he was embarrassed that his socks were dirty, and both of his big toes stuck out of matching holes.
“Sorry I’m late.” He chanced a quick glance at Marco. He doesn’t look like a doctor.
Marco was wearing blue jeans and a Nirvana T-shirt. He looked like an old guy who hadn’t accepted his age yet.
“Can I take that for you?”
Tyler flinched and jerked away defensively as Marco reached for his bag.
Startled by his reaction, Marco retracted his hand, immediately stepped back, and shrunk his stature. “It’s okay. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” Tyler said, straightening up. “I’m not a pussy.”
Marco laughed. “I probably should have known that.”
“How could you have known? You don’t know me.”
“Most young guys who have tattoos on their necks and piercings in their eyebrows tend to have a bit of a wild side,” Marco said. “There’s an element of tough guy that comes with that look.”
“Hm.” Tyler instinctively brought his hand up to touch the black tattoo in Chinese characters on the left side of his neck and forced the burgeoning tears to dry as he thought back to the day he’d gotten it. He smirked, pleased that he came off as tough. His blue jeans were baggy and tattered; he had a black hoody on, undone over his black T-shirt that read: Do I Look Like a F*!#ing People Person?! He had put great effort into crafting an appearance that would keep people at bay. He controlled what he could. Despite his great efforts to appear tough, he was cursed with blond hair and a baby face that, in his opinion, only served to make him seem vulnerable. That’s why people always took advantage of him, but he wouldn’t let anyone do that again.
“How old are you?”
Tyler stood a little taller. “Seventeen.”
“I was pretty sure that’s what you’d said on the phone, but you look a lot younger.”
Tyler frowned and slouched again. “I know.” He rolled his eyes. He’d heard these lines before. This conversation was going nowhere.
Marco ran his hand over his bald head almost instinctively, as though it would help him come up with something else to say.
Tyler despised small talk. It was only adding to his anxiety over whether they would let him stay or not. He took a deep breath and admitted what he hadn’t on the phone a month before.
“I don’t have any money.” He said it quickly to get it over with. If it meant he had to leave, he wanted to know now.
“It’s okay. We’ll figure something out,” Marco said, reaching his hand out for Tyler’s bag again.
“I told you I don’t have any money.” Tyler pulled away and, for the first time, made full eye contact with Marco.
“And I told you we’ll figure something out.” Marco kept his hand outstretched.
Tyler cringed. He knew where this was going. It was just like all the others who said they wanted to help. It was never that simple. How could he have been so stupid?
“I’m not going to sleep with you so I can stay here,” Tyler snapped.
Marco stepped back again. “That’s not what I meant.”
Tyler gave him a confused, distrusting look.
“Oh.” He startled and clutched his bag tighter as a middle-aged woman with short, gray-blonde hair came in from the hallway. Now, she looks more like a doctor. She was wearing a beige sweater and tight, dark-green jeans. She had glasses on top of her head rather than over her eyes, something that had always amused Tyler. What good do they do up there?
“I thought I heard the doorbell ring,” she said, smiling as she walked toward Tyler and extended her hand. “Welcome.”
“Hi,” he said, shrinking away from her.
The woman looked at Marco knowingly, smiled, and said, “You know the polite thing to do when someone tries to shake your hand is to reach out and shake.”
She kept her hand extended, waiting for him to respond. “My name is Carol. What’s yours?”
“You don’t want to touch me,” Tyler said. “What if you catch it?”
Carol’s expression softened. “I’m not going to catch anything. That’s a myth. Now shake my hand before my arm goes numb from holding it out here so long.”
Tyler coughed into the crook of his elbow before shakily reaching his hand out to take Carol’s, briefly meeting her gaze. “Tyler.” He pulled his hand back and returned his gaze to the floor.
“That’s a heck of a cough you’ve got there, Tyler. Sounded like it rattled inside your chest.” Carol looked at him with concern in her eyes. “How long have you had it?”
“I don’t know. A while, I guess.” Tyler didn’t look up.
“Well, I’m the resident nurse around here among other things. I do all the routine checkups and blood work, so we’ll have to get it checked out. And then we’ll find out what the doctor thinks, but I don’t want to inundate you with logistics in your first five minutes here. Let’s get you settled and fed before I bore you with all the details. I have a roast in the slow cooker. It should be ready in a couple hours.” Carol and Marco exchanged glances. “But for now, how about you give your things to Marco? He’ll put them up in your room while I take you in to meet the others.”
“I don’t want anyone going through my stuff,” Tyler said, hugging his bag close to him and scowling nervously at Marco.
“Actually, Carol, I’ll take him up to his room where he can put his things. I’ll bring him down after we’ve gone through them,” Marco said.
“Sure, sounds good. Welcome, Tyler.” She nodded at him before turning and heading back down the darkened hallway.
“Let’s head up to the second floor.” Marco ushered Tyler toward the stairs. “I’m going to get you to open your bag and show me all of the contents. I won’t touch anything. It’s just for the safety of everyone here. We need to make sure there’s no weapons or drugs in there.”
“I don’t have any of that,” Tyler said.
“Yes, but I still have to check it out. I wouldn’t be very responsible if I didn’t. It’s for the safety of you and the other kids, your roommate specifically.”
“Roommate!? I don’t want a roommate! He’s going to go through my stuff. He’s gonna steal—”
“He’s four,” Marco interrupted. “There’s not much to worry about with him.”
“Oh…” Tyler’s voice trailed into a whisper. “Four?”
“Yeah, four,” Marco said. “It’s going to be his first day today too. Something for you to bond over.”
“What do you mean, it’s going to be?”
“He’s being dropped off in about half an hour.”
“That’s fuckin’ sad.” They came to the second-floor landing and turned left down the hall. Tyler’s room was the first door on the right.
“It is, but try not to swear, okay?” Marco pushed the door open and flipped the light switch.
Tyler followed him in, observing and scanning the room and the generic belongings. He judged the plainness of it all. The room was bright with pale-blue walls. There were two single beds, one on the left and one on the right. Both beds were done up in plaid, one with blue and the other with red. At the head of each bed was a desk with a lamp and fresh towels folded on top. At the foot was a dresser.
“How East Coast,” he mumbled.
“Sorry?” Marco looked at Tyler to repeat himself.
Tyler shrugged, embarrassed that he’d been heard. “Nothing.”
“Empty your bag out on the bed, please,” Marco said, standing to the side and pointing to the blue bed.
The zipper to his bag screamed as Tyler pulled it open quickly and overturned it to pour the contents out. “I don’t have a lot of stuff.”
“That’s okay.” Marco eyed the contents on the bed. “Can I?” He motioned to touch the pile of belongings.
Tyler nodded. At least this way, he’d know if Marco tried to take anything.
Marco gently pushed things off one another to get a clear view. There were crumpled-up pieces of paper, candy bar wrappers, food crumbs, a couple pairs of socks and boxer shorts, some loose change, a book, a photograph, and a T-shirt.
“A Whistler fan, eh?” Marco said, pointing to the T-shirt.
Tyler nodded and looked away. He didn’t want to think about that right now. He cleared his throat to chase the memories away.
“Can I hold it now that it’s empty?” Marco asked, reaching his hand out.
Tyler hesitated but then handed the bag to Marco so he could finish the search.
Marco dug his hands through the pockets and shook it upside down before handing it back. “You’re in the clear. I’ll let you get cleaned up for dinner. The bathroom is down the hall to the left. I’ll go find some clean clothes for you to wear. I think we have something that will fit you up in the attic.”
“I don’t wanna wear someone’s hand-me-downs.” The other kids would recognize their old things on him when he went down for dinner. I’d be a total loser. His stomach tied in knots as he realized that if he were to only wear his own clothing, he would be wearing the same outfit forever, which would also make him a total loser.
Marco laughed. “Don’t worry. We just have extras. You’ll see. The tags will still be on.”
Relief. Tyler took a deep breath. “Oh, then that’s okay.” He stepped out of the way and lowered his gaze.
Marco stopped at the door. “I have to ask…what’s with the choice of book?”
“What do you mean?”
“I remember having to read Beautiful Losers back in university. I’m just surprised that that’s one of your only possessions,” Marco said.
“It’s one of the best books ever written. My sister gave it to me.” Besides the photograph, it was the only thing he had to remember her by.
“Ah, okay. I’m impressed.”
Tyler felt his face redden. Embarrassed, he turned away.
Marco pretended not to notice. “It’s great to have you here. Oh, and one more thing. I didn’t see any medications in your bag. Do you happen to know what treatments you’re on? Doses or specific drugs?”
Tyler stared blankly at Marco, afraid to answer for fear of being kicked out for saying the wrong thing.
Marco again took the same nonthreatening stance he had in the foyer, this time leaning against the doorframe.
Tyler recognized the stance from the shelters in Vancouver. All the counselors and workers used to lean against walls and doors and anything they could just to keep their clients from feeling confrontational. It was so obvious, but it always seemed to work. Funny.
“It’s going to help us figure out what treatments you need. The doctor will decide, but if you know what you’re taking, I’m sure we can get you on some until you meet with him.”
Tyler felt his face flush. He didn’t want to admit that he’d never been treated, but he had to. “I wasn’t on anything.”
“Oh… How long have you known that you—”
“About a year.” Tyler cut him off. He didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. He stared at his feet as he dug his toes into the carpet for distraction, squeezing and releasing.
Marco tried unsuccessfully to hide the concern on his face. “And how long do you think you’d been—”
“I think a year before that.” Tyler hated it, but his eyes started to water. He refused to look up for Marco to see. He hadn’t realized how ashamed he would feel when talking about it.
Marco took a deep breath and exhaled slowly and quietly. “It’s okay. Let’s not worry about that now. Carol will take some blood and do a general physical exam in the next few days, and then we’ll get you in to see the doctor and all will be well.” He clapped his hands together gently. “See you down there. I’ll leave your change of clothes on your dresser while you get cleaned up.”
Marco tried to hide his disappointment by forcing a smile, but Tyler knew. He knew it was too late.