The nurse briefed Eliot Harper before he went into the therapy room. He stared at the girl. Michelle Baret, age 36. She was nothing to look at, a dowdy girl with stringy brown hair, small brown eyes, slightly plump and wearing the sort of clothes he thought appropriate for an old backwards woman in a nursing home. “And she did what they said?” he asked, incredulous.
“Certainly,” replied the nurse. “But what they haven’t yet determined is why. That’s your job. Wipe the shit off the wall and go to work.”
“Thanks, Lucy,” he said.
“Welcome, doc. Have at her. She used to be a nurse, they say. So don’t be putting any syringes nearby.”
Eliot Harper entered the room. The girl, name Michelle, looked up at him, unperturbed; she regarded him as if he were an Ivac entering, or a new chair. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” she replied.
He took out his notes. “Do you mind if I ask a few questions?”
“Mind,” she said absently. “Why would I mind?”
“We’re here today to talk about your interactions with Paola Baird. Can we talk about that, Michelle?”
“I go by Mickey,” she said, staring down at her tan loafers, which were stained with rainwater and falling off of her feet. “Yes. We can talk about that.”
After a few preliminaries about the courts and signatures, she agreed that she knew what she had done. She agreed that it was necessary, at the time, and that she was likely suffering from some sort of mental illness when she’d done these things. “So what I’m giving you here, Doctor Harper, is not a confession, which I already gave the police—it’s a statement of my understanding of the events. But you’re a psychiatrist, so maybe you can tell me what to do. Prescribe me some drugs?”
He asked her the necessary questions about background and upbringing, cursory though they were. To this, she said, “I had a fine childhood. My mother was rather cold, I suppose, and my father emotionally unavailable, but what child does not feel this way? Unless you are one of those strange people who is, to this day, strapped to your mother’s side, I think people always think this about their childhoods. And besides, this thing that I have done—it happened well into my thirties. I should remind you, Dr. Harper, that I stabbed her after she was already dead, so I am no accessory to murder. I neither caused the murder nor wanted the death. What I am charged with is arson. But I didn’t burn down the house to incinerate the body. I burned down the house because it was evil. An enclosure, if you will, for the most terrible sort of pain any person can imagine. And it housed Paola, who was a menace. But I was crazy in that moment. In the moment, that is, that I burned down her dwelling—because I honestly thought that if I didn’t light that match. If I didn’t soak that curtain in kerosene. If I didn’t take that kerosene curtain and liberally apply the flames to every possible room, back to front, upstairs to down, she would return. She would come back and torture someone else.”
“You started in her employment via the Mangrene Agency, correct?”
“And you had no foreknowledge of Ms. Baird before your three month engagement in her service?”
“Why were you hired?”
“At first, I was told she had heart problems, and I was to simply attend to her and call for medical assistance in the event that she needed help. I was to do her small details, such as handling her mail, helping her with bills, cooking or lifting if such things were required. She lived alone in that house, Dr. Harper. And let me tell you, the house itself was a disaster. Imagine, if you will, driving down a long country driveway after entering through an enormous bronzed gate. The driveway was full of wildflowers, oak trees, bends and curves, around which you would see the great lake in front of the house—the one with the water-lilies, much like Monet’s famous paintings. And once you drove past that driveway, you would find yourself in a rocky area, gravel, where you might park your car, in the round-about in front of the estate. Nothing was kept up. The paint cracked on the outer walls. The giant pillars were coated with bird shit. There was a junkyard out front and off to the side where appliances, old bits of rubbish, had been flung willy-nilly. The doorbell didn’t work. And when you went to work, you were let in by Paola, who kept herself fastidiously if nothing else, by a curt nod of her head. Some days she said, in a tone beyond contempt, ‘Oh, there you are.’ She was a monster. Ice cold.”
“You had worked there several months before her heart attack. Were there altercations with her?”
“It has already been established that I did not kill her, Doctor,” the girl remarked, and though she had appeared drudge-like and sparrowed when Eliot first viewed her, a strange fire burned in her eyes before she looked up at his clock, staring at that timepiece as if to pointedly tell him: you bore me, continue, continue, I’d like to be out of here.
His first frisson of nervous energy during their visit then traveled up his spine. He wanted to exit the building and return for a different patient. Her brown eyes were so cold. He took it back to the casual level. “So your average day would consist of what, Mickey?”
“I told you that already. Oh, cut the bullshit. Let me tell you something, Dr. Harper. The reason I wanted out of there, and I asked my employer repeatedly to reassign me, is because Paola never said or did anything that you could certainly label as hostile, which is to say, every slap she offered was behind the scenes, was easy to rationalize as something else, had a certain level of plausible deniability. So I give you this example, but this is only so that you may understand the type of tasks she set me to. One day she placed her address book on the table and said, ‘I need these letters hand-addressed for all of my Christmas cards. I need one for every person in this address book. Can you handle that, Ms. Michelle?’ I said yes. This was when I still tried to smile at her, when I thought it would be possible—difficult yes, but possible—to gain her good graces. So I spent three hours addressing envelopes. And then, when I was done, she walked by again. She squinted at the address book she had presented me and sighed. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘You did a fine job, but I fear I gave you the wrong address book. These people are all dead.’ And then she sat at her table and set me to polishing silver. But I do not wish to talk about that. About the details of the accidental horrors she subjected me to. I wish to talk about the house.”
“What would you like to say about the house?”
“I would like to say that sometimes, when a dwelling feels like a place of death and decay, it seems the very soul or representation of its master. The stairwells were dusty. The rooms were dusty. Every one of them was full of furnishings, expensive furnishings, accessorized. There were fourteen bedrooms in all, many bathrooms, and Paola endlessly sent me through the house looking for things she needed. ‘Go, Michelle, and get me the tortoise brush from the Red and Gray suite,’ she’d say. ‘It is on the mahogany dresser.’ And I would. But this is all I did, every day. Get things. Do things that she would discover to comment were either not done right, or not needed whatsoever. To stand with her in that house was like standing in a house with a mother who had never wanted you. I was lonely. I was bored. Paola was poor company. She stared at herself endlessly, solipsistically. She spent hours doing her hair, fine gray hair, with bobby pins, into a severe style. Her make-up was immaculate. If there was one living thing in the whole place, it was her bathroom—her trash there, the debris of her self-maintenance. Sometimes I got down sweaters from back closets. I took out furs and on rare occasions I had outings. But I told my employer that to remain in that house, with that woman, was like death to my soul. It depressed me.”
“And their response?”
“Their response was: ‘Use your cell-phone. Bring along books. Entertain yourself. It can’t be that bad. She pays a lot of money for your company and the economy is bad. This job is full-time. Didn’t you want that, Michelle?’ At first I said I did, because my brother was about to get out of jail and when that happened, I would need to pay for his upkeep until he could find work. But when I started to feel myself falling into the dark corners of Paola’s house, I had an instinct for survival, you might say. I called my employer again. ‘Please fire me,’ I said. ‘Or reassign me. This particular employment is troublesome. I’d rather wipe the shit off of some guy’s ass and help the bed-ridden than stay here with her. Give Donnie the job.’ They said they would look into it. The next day they called me back and said that Paola was willing to pay me double to keep me there, that she had apologized for her lack of attention to how I felt, and that it was no problem for me to go back now. She’d be kinder. So cheerful! It’s no problem! They further expressed that they had no other opportunities so good as this—and none that would pay so well. So, of course I stayed.
“At this point, Paola became more inquisitive. She asked me countless questions about my home life. She asked about my parents. She asked about my romances—not many, I confessed—and the more detail she had, the more interested she seemed. As I walked through the house after this, it was like my voice and my past were co-mingled. I saw myself in every mirror, just after I had told her some particularly personal detail of what I had been or done. And I was ashamed my stories were so small. Why would a woman who lived in an enormous mansion and travelled the world want to know about my mouse of a life? She didn’t want to know. Or she did. But her reasons were not standard. I thought she would never die, that fucking bitch.”
Eliot opened his file and looked at pictures of the house. “Her uncle gave her that house,” he said.
“Yes,” Mickey said. “The uncle who molested her.”
“Her grandmother was the collector of all the furniture.”
“Yes, her grandmother who beat her when she was seven for not putting away the china.”
“She was married four times.”
“Each time to someone colder and more ruthless.”
“You know a lot about her.”
“Of course I do. We were each other’s only companions. Or, I was her mouse.”
“I would like to talk to you about the day she died.”
Mickey slouched in her chair. A series of expressions traveled across her face, one of which was fear. “All right. Let’s talk about that.”
“She had a heart attack,” Eliot said.
“Somebody give you a medal for observational skill,” she replied. She glared at him. “I know she had a heart attack, Dr. Harper, because I sat across from her as it started. I held her hand through it. We had just been talking about me. About me. And then it began.”
“Would you care to let me know how you experienced those moments—the ones just before her heart attack and those right up to the moment you began to torch her house?”
“I had had enough.” The girl reached into her bag and brought out a faded brown wallet. From that wallet, she took several scraps of colored paper from the billfold, folded them again, and placed them in her pocket.
“Which means there’s a breaking point for every person, Dr. Harper…. What do you fear, for example?”
“Snakes. Big men in alleys. Staircases. Dark places that lock, where people are trapped.”
“Right. So what if I told you that Paola’s most special skill was to ferret out every single thing you feared, and then repeatedly go in for the kill, when you least expected it—stabbing you with your own fears and inadequacies—whereas moments before you thought her your closest friend and best mentor? What if I told you that she liked to hurt people, but was psychotic enough to make you need her or lean on her before she dealt the most stunning blows? Paola knew well the principle that the worst injuries could not be inflicted by those distant, had to be done by someone right up close. A Judas kiss. And just before her heart attack, smiling with glee, she inflicted such a kiss on me. She said the most terrible thing she could possibly say, while providing herself plausible deniability. As I watched her, she backed away. She was consumed by emotion, and she said she was planning to leave the whole place to me, her whole house, but she needed to contact her lawyers. And then she needled me with cruelty again, before I could be shocked or grateful. And you know what caused her heart attack, Doctor? It was not fear. It was not age. It was not anything negative per se. No, it was an excess of delight as she continued to accost me with my own painful personal details! She grinned and wove her web of pain before me. She laughed most terribly, just before she began clutching her heart. And I had asked her for nothing. Well, I had asked to get to know her. But the very last thing she said, just before she passed, still smiling in the most serene and cold way possible was, ‘I suppose I will not have time to talk to the lawyers. Be good now though, girl. Everything we said is nothing in the end.’ And this is why I stabbed her with that letter opener on her table. She was dead and she had just told me the worst horrors about myself that my smaller brain had never been able to articulate or understand—understand me?—and then she promised me the world, her world, while grinning, and then acknowledged, just before her death, that I couldn’t have it after all, none of it—and then she passed, a chill smile on her face as she lay there immobile. It was a cruelty itself, her smile! A horrible injustice. The job was over. She was over. I was over. So I stabbed her in the heart for what she did to mine. And then, because I was certain she would come back here and entrap somebody else as she had done to me, I lit up her house like a fucking roman candle. In case she could come back. She was that powerful to me. Living. Smiling. Dead. The woman was everything to me. And I cried as I watched the whole thing burn. That’s where they found me when they got there. In the lake. With all the Monet lilies. Watching her house and crying. Shivering and crying and moaning her name through my blue lips as if she were some kind of mother or grandmother I’d never had, who I both hated and loved with a furious passion. Her loss was that complex, that stunning and that painful. I loved her and I hated her more than life.”
She looked at Eliot Harper as if he were no longer there, as if she could see through him to the wall, and she coughed once. He lifted his eyes to meet hers, but found himself staring at the wall behind her, as if he could not—or did not want to—meet her eyes.
Mickey waited. After a moment of shared silence, she laughed, leaned forward, and took Eliot’s chin in her hands, murmuring to him as if he were someone she’d hated her entire life. Or as if she’d hated everyone in her entire life, and he was just one of a long string of idiots to be standing in her way.
“So, Doctor, tell me—do you have, could you possibly have, after all of this, any further questions? I feel I’ve been extremely clear.”