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"From the Rubble" by M.E. Proctor

My friend reminded me of a house fallen in disrepair. The slanting roof, the peeling paint, the gutters hanging loose. It can take ten years for a house to get this way. It took Ben less than one. Some of our friends might pretend they saw it coming. Ben always drank and smoked too much. There was a shrillness in his laughter, a forced joy, a suspicious recklessness. He drove too fast and partied too hard. I didn’t see any of the symptoms, I just loved the guy. That my parents warned me against him only added to the attraction. 

Of course, I can’t remember a single one of the conversations that kept us up for the better part of many nights. 

We lost touch after college when he moved out of state for a job. I had my own issues, being on unemployment for a while, before things got better and I was on my feet again, with a bank account that stopped flirting with zero. With my finances fixed, I called Ben and told him I’d like to see him. I could afford a plane ticket. He was reticent. That should have told me something.

“I don’t know, Harry,” he said. “It’s a long trip.”

“I miss you, man.”

He relented. I would go over for Thanksgiving.

The moment I emerged from the subway and saw what Ben’s neighborhood looked like, I knew things weren’t going well. It was gray and drizzling, and whatever was supposed to be green was either brown or bald. The rows of brick houses and the graffiti-stamped storefronts and blind walls might have a quirky dystopian appeal at night, but on this miserable day there was none of that. I crossed a litter-strewn square to find Ben’s street. He rented an apartment on the ground floor of an old three-story soot-encrusted house. A minuscule garden was in front, grimy broken flagstones over dirt. A discarded rusty tricycle lay on its side in a corner. Garbage bins were jammed in the other.

I rang the bottom bell. There were no names on any of the labels.

I feared the worst and saw it standing stooped in front of me. Ben was unkempt, unshaven, skin tinted gray, dark mop of hair greasy. He was too thin, the sharp angles of his face so prominent they hurt. He looked sick. After a hesitation, like he needed the time to get me in focus, he hugged me. I felt his fingers dig deep in my shoulders. He stank of cigarette smoke and liquor.

My throat locked. “It’s good to see you, bud,” I mumbled.

We followed a gloomy hallway. The staircase leading to the upper apartments was in darkness. I heard a door slam shut somewhere. A lingering smell of stale fried food and bleach reminded me of a school cafeteria. Ben’s rental unit was messy. Like his college lodgings used to be. In a twisted way, that was reassuring.

“Sorry, it’s a dump,” Ben said.

A narrow kitchen was fitted with a two-burner stove and a fridge that belonged in an RV, uneven shelves instead of kitchen cabinets, mismatched crockery, grubby pans. The main space was sitting room, dining room, and bedroom, all in one. The bathroom was next to the kitchen. It needed industrial strength scrubbing.

“The plumbing is from before they invented plumbing,” he said. “I’ll take the couch, you can have the futon.”

I wasn’t eager to slip between Ben’s sheets. The couch it would be. He didn’t insist.

After peering into the fridge, I offered to cook dinner. I had only seen dodgy bars and fast food joints on the way over. Ben gave me directions to the nearest grocery store and said he would clean up while I was away. The expression on my face must have told him all he needed to know.

I fixed us an approximation of a Thanksgiving dinner, as best I could with two burners and a microwave. A feast it wasn’t. Then we sat down for one of our long conversations.

“You never told me about that job of yours,” I said.

“I’m not sure what you do either.”

“I work for a small construction firm. I do a bit of everything, checking the books, following up with contractors, placing ads. It was fun at first, finding out how these places function, but I’m looking for something else. I’ve seen all there is to see. I was bored out of my mind after six months. What about your gig?”

Ben lit a cigarette with an unsteady hand. He’d been drinking heavily through dinner, and had now switched from wine to the whisky I brought.

“Mother did the introduction,” he said. “It wasn’t what I expected.”

I cringed. He was too old to have mom go job hunting for him. It reeked of Halloween trick-or-treat supervision. “What do you mean, not what you expected?”

“She said it was office work.” He laughed. I didn’t like the sound of it. “It’s accurate, so fucking accurate, I can’t help cackling like a mad duck. She set me up, Harry, and I fell for it. I should have asked for details, contact the manager, anything but trust her.”

I’d met his mother a few times. She was the kind of woman made for glossy magazines. Strikingly beautiful, a perfect haughty face with a cruel mouth and a hard disposition. A Spartan mother that told her son to come back a winner or not at all. She’d have done wonders in a dungeon. I never believed in the whip as a motivational instrument, but I could shrug it off, I wasn’t the one getting lashed. I thought Ben was strong enough to ignore her mean taunts. He graduated college in the middle of the pack, not a stellar result, but he finished when many didn’t.

“What did she get you into?”

He knocked back his drink and immediately refilled it. “I told you. Office work. She got me a job as a janitor.”

“You gotta be kidding.” It had to be a joke. “You took it?” I couldn’t believe he was that desperate for money. I made do with my unemployment stipend, moved back home for a while, tutored kids on the side. Ben could have done the same.

He sniggered. “I agreed to mop floors. It was that or flipping burgers. I thought it would be for a few weeks until I found another job somewhere. There wasn’t any. Now I’m here, stuck, in this lousy crib that costs too much, because I’m too proud to go home, bow to the queen, and watch her laugh at me in front of her snooty friends.” He leaned back on the couch, stared at the cracked ceiling. “My mother is a monster, Harry. If I go back home, I’ll die.”

I wasn’t sure he would make it very long in this town either. How often did he go to work hungover? His boss was bound to kick him out, he would miss paying the rent and end on the street, or he would add dope to his liquid regimen, and then what? It didn’t take superhuman foresight to see disaster looming.

“Do you have friends around here, a girl?”

He let out that rankling laughter again. Ben was a gregarious animal, at his best in a group, borderline needy, eager for the attention of others. Unlike me, he wasn’t the kind that relished solitude. We were four kids at home. I couldn’t wait to be alone. Ben was an only child.

“You have to get out of here,” I said. “There’s other options than your mother.”

“At least, here, nobody knows me,” he said. “Nobody cares that my life is a shit show.”

I told him about meeting a high school friend at the temp agency. After the initial flush of humiliation, we had a cup of coffee together. She had a degree in chemistry and was as stranded as I was. There wasn’t anything at the temp agency for either of us. She said she was up for a bartender gig, putting her mixing dexterity to good use. We ended up having a good time.

“That’s okay for you, I suppose,” Ben said. “It’s late. I’m wiped.”

I wouldn’t get anything more from him that night.


When I woke up, Ben was gone. He’d left me a key for the apartment with a terse note: Back at 5. After another peek at the bathroom, I knew what to do. Cleaning supplies were scarce, and I made another trip to the store. After a couple of hours of strenuous work, the place was still ugly but livable. I’d earned my shower. Like the day before, I cooked dinner. I could see the irony. Ben was running from his mother and I was becoming mine. When things turned dire, she baked. All the domestic activity had given me time to think about Ben’s predicament.

He showed up around seven. He had been drinking already. He gave a cursory look at the apartment, at the table that was set for dinner.

“We should swap jobs,” he said, “you’re better at cleaning than I am.”

I let the jibe slide. We ate in silence. He finished his plate.

“You’re coming home with me,” I said, after I cleared the table. “You’re falling to pieces and I won’t have it.”

He munched on that for a while. “What was the point of putting the apartment in order if I’m leaving?”

“You’ll get your deposit back.”

“Won’t pay for the plane ticket.”

“We’ll take the bus.”

We didn’t have to. The return part of Ben’s original plane ticket was valid for another week.

I had no idea how the living arrangements would work, or if I was setting myself up for an abysmal failure. We had traveled extensively together in the past. Rough backpacking and some crazy stuff. This had to be smoother. Our friendship was still there, if slightly bruised.


The first weeks were tough on both of us. Ben saw me leave for work every morning and instead of motivating him to get off his ass, it depressed him. He was cutting down on the booze and that didn’t improve his mood. Then he landed a job doing deliveries for a florist. On a whim, during college, he’d gotten a commercial driving license and it came in handy. Drinking was now out of the question. Soon after, a limo company hired him. They paid a lot better and he bought a secondhand car.

“I found an apartment,” he said, one evening. “It isn’t much but it’s in a decent part of town. It’ll do until I get more rides. The boss promised to move me to full-time.”

I didn’t remind him that he had a BA in Marketing and could do better than shuttling people to the airport. I kept my mouth shut, it would have made me sound like his mother. Besides, I wasn’t doing that well myself, still at the construction firm, lining up interviews that so far hadn’t panned out.

“I know what you think,” Ben said. “The limo service is just a pit stop, I’m well aware. Thanks for pulling my head out of the muck. I’m taking you out to dinner tonight.”

We settled into a loose routine. Lunch or dinner once a week, when our schedules matched. Ben was his old self again. We even double-dated a few times. I was more serious about my girl than he was about his, as had been the case in college. We were reverting to old habits and that was good.

Five months later, he called me at the office—I was working for an ad agency then, finally getting where I wanted to be—and said we needed to talk.

We met at my place.

I couldn’t read Ben. He was in a state of extreme agitation, talking a wild streak, his hands flying every which way. Something about the airport, a limo, an elderly lady. Emotions collided on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was in a panic, overjoyed, or high on something.

“Slow down. Take a breath.”

He threw his hands in the air. “Okay, okay. I need a drink.”

“You working tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but it’s fine, just one.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Please, Harry.”

I poured him a whisky, watered it down. He knocked it back like a tequila shot.

“Better. Okay. So I go to the airport to pick up this lady. Very nice. White hair, like a grandma in a Christmas movie. I put the address in the nav and my heart stopped. I swear, Harry. The worst. She lived right next to my mother. I thought I would faint. Anxiety attack. Big time.”

He had avoided going near the place since I brought him back. We had excised her from our conversations, from his life, and he was so much the better for it.

“I couldn’t leave the lady at the airport, so I buckled up and went. I mean, it’s not like the houses are close. You know how much property she owns, all that open land she bought to make sure nobody could block her view, ever. I figured, no sweat, I’ll stay clear.”

He sighed and handed me his glass. What I gave him was so weak, I didn’t see the harm in pouring him another one of the same vintage.

“So, I get there, and it’s safe. The lady gives me a big tip. She doesn’t have to do that, it’s all prepaid. It’s my last ride for the day, I can go back to the garage, no hurry, right?”

I caught myself holding my breath. What happened next? Did Ben run into his mother jogging, walking the dog, whatever?

“I drove a little ways, then I saw the path that leads behind the house. You remember? We called it the escape route.”

I remembered. A gravel track snaked through the trees and a fallow field, before offering a stunning view of the back of the house and the long span of tall glass windows that turned the inside into either an aquarium or a museum display case.

“I couldn’t help it,” Ben said. “I parked the limo. I had to go.” He took a measured sip of the drink. “You’re a lousy bartender, Harry.” He took a deep breath. “Mother was having a party. Twenty people or so. Cocktail dresses, dark suits. The usual. I watched. It was like a movie I’d seen too many times.”

I was helpless to stop the feeling of dread that made me shiver. “What did you do?”

Ben shrugged as if it was of no importance whatsoever. “I waited till the guests were gone.”

I grabbed a glass and poured myself a drink. I didn’t waterlog that one. I pictured Ben loping toward the house, his long legs covering the distance in no time at all, sliding one of the doors—I knew they opened smoothly—and confronting his mother. Any of the modern art sculptures on display would make a suitable weapon. The shiver was now a whole-body freeze.

“She wore a dress I’d never seen before. Purple. The imperial color. It’s so appropriate, don’t you think?” Ben took another sip of the pale whisky. “Tastes like piss, Harry.” He stood up and went to the bar. He added a slosh of alcohol and gave the fresh drink a taste. “That’s better. A manly drink.” He laughed.

“What did you do?” I muttered. The words were sticking to my tongue.

“I watched her walk the entire length of the house, behind these glass walls, like a specimen under the microscope. She went back and forth for the longest time.”

Ben fell silent. I couldn’t say another word. I had no breath left.

He drank his whisky slowly, taking the time to taste it.

“She turned off the lights, one by one. End of the show, goodbye. The light went on in the bedroom at the end of the glass wall, and then it went off, like the others, after what felt like forever.”

It felt like forever in my apartment too.

Ben hiked his shoulders. “I left.”

“What?” I was so prepped for a scene of carnage that the sudden drop in tension made me woozy.

“I left. That’s why I needed to share with you tonight, Harry. It was so clear to me. How weak she is, how useless and irrelevant, how fake and lonely.” He stood up and leaned on the back of the couch. “I’ve been blind for so long. Not seeing how small she really is. I let her beat me into the ground, pick me apart. I was like the gravel of our escape route, Harry. Broken pieces, rubble. She’s my mother but that doesn’t mean anything. Biology is mechanical. A stupid soulless contraption.” He paused to catch his breath. “I’m free.” He straightened up and raised an arm like Caesar on the rostra delivering a speech. “I disown her. I cast her off. May she rot in hell.”

It was the closest I ever got to an exorcism and I wanted to applaud.


M.E. Proctor was born in Brussels and lives in Texas. Her short story collection Family and Other Ailments (from Wordwooze Publishing) is available in all the usual places. She’s currently working on a contemporary PI series. Her short fiction has appeared in Vautrin, Bristol Noir, Pulp Modern, Mystery Tribune, Reckon Review, Shotgun Honey, and Thriller Magazine among others. She’s a Derringer nominee. Website:  


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