Why I Left the House that Smelled of Death
By Merrilee Robson
I don’t know when Starshine became so selfish.
think she’d be happy to have a visit from her only sister over the holidays.
was only a long pause when I called to tell her I was coming.
she said. “We’re all being very careful with this new Covid variant. You know
Grandpa Steve hasn’t been well since he had that stroke so we’re looking after
him, and we want to minimize our contact with anyone outside our household.”
really tried to keep the tears out of my voice, but I couldn’t help letting out a
small sob. “You’re saying your husband’s father is more important than your
“No, of course not, Rainbow. Normally we’d
love to have you. But you know you’re not vaccinated….”
“My body, my choice,”
I said sharply. “I can’t believe you want me to put poison in my body just
so I can have Christmas with my own family. You know how many allergies I have. Do you
want to kill me, Starshine?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that Grandpa Steve is
so vulnerable right now, and….”
I really couldn’t stop myself from crying. “Mom and
Dad are right. You are hard-hearted. No wonder they don’t speak to you anymore.”
can never understand how Starshine can live in a house like this – a white, two-story
house in the suburbs – after the wonderful, supportive commune we grew up in.
bought the house, she had said something about running water and not having to get water
from the well or go to the pond when she wanted a bath. Mom, and Dad are right; she really
has become too conventional.
I was also surprised when my niece sounded so hostile when she opened
All I asked was why my sister wasn’t there to
was hard to tell what she was saying with that mask on. I mean, I know there are mask mandates
and such, and the girl always follows the rules, but surely there was no need to wear a
mask in her own house.
just took some food and presents over to Grandpa Steve’s place,” she said. “Dad’s
going to stay there over the holidays.”
“Is that why this house smells like death?
that means you’re not still on the Paleo diet,” Erin said, “and that we’re not
having turkey for dinner.”
I explained patiently that the foray into the diet of my ancestors
had been a mistake and that I was back to being vegetarian. With good reason.
dropped my bags and stormed into the kitchen.
“This room reeks of pain and death,” I told Erin. “How
can you stand it. Can’t you hear the screams of the turkey?”
no, that must be very unpleasant for you. Mom just cooked a turkey breast and some roasted
sprouts to take to Dad and Grandpa. I suppose you can hear the screams of the sprouts,
too. Mom says you won’t eat them and we can’t have them in the house.”
have a serious allergy to Brussels sprouts,” I said. “It’s nothing to joke about.”
wasn’t sure if you would eat turkey. But we do have tofu. I can put the turkey in
the freezer and everything else is vegetarian.
“Then what is that,” I said. My voice
was shaking as I pointed a trembling finger at the kitchen counter.
the rolls. They’re whole grain. Mom took most of them over to Dad and Grandpa Steve
but she left a few for us. Don’t they smell great?
I shuddered. “I can’t tolerate gluten.
And is that butter? Can’t you feel the pain of those poor cows. And besides, I told
your mother I’m vegan now.”
I picked up the blue butter
dish and put it in the trash.
“That belonged to my dad’s grandmother. It’s an
antique. You can’t just throw it away.”
“How can you live with the pain of those tortured
do care about animal rights,” Erin tried to justify herself. “But the butter is
from a small local dairy. The cows are grass-fed. They spend their days in the pasture.
They’re very well treated.”
I wiped a hand over my aching head and then tried to wave the stench
of the food away.
“I am exhausted,” I said. “But I need
to cleanse this whole house first. I’ve always tried to be there for Starshine. But
Mother was right; she really is very inconsiderate.”
know how I could tell, under that mask she was wearing, but Erin was looking very smug
by the time I returned to the kitchen with the bowl of smoking sage. I wouldn’t have
put it past her to have retrieved that butter dish from the trash. Honestly, Erin is as
bourgeois as her mother, who always had a ridiculous fondness for matching china.
I had more important things to concern me.
“Honestly, Erin. If cleansing with sage doesn’t work,
I don’t think I can stay here.”
For some reason, I thought she brightened a little at that, but
all she said was, “Um, the smoke detector is pretty sensitive. What is that stuff
The ear-splitting screech was more than I could tolerate.
Who has such things in their houses, anyway. We never had smoke alarms in the commune and
we were fine. Except for the time Dad fell asleep smoking a joint and set the couch on
fire. But that wasn’t such a problem, once we had rebuilt the living room.
Anyway, I yanked the back
door open to let in some fresh air. That would clear the smoke and maybe stop the sound.
At least it would clear the smell of meat from the house.
screeching just as loud as the alarm. Something about not letting the dog out. She seemed
very upset when a brown creature dashed out the door and disappeared into the snow.
look what you’ve done,” Erin shouted. “Poppy’s terrified of that alarm. Who
knows how far she’ll go. She’s not used to being out without her leash. I’ll have
to go out and look for her.”
Honestly, I don’t know why I bother visiting this family.
Maybe Mom and Dad were right to stop seeing my sister when she married a guy who worked
in the tax department. But I’m not the kind to bear grudges. Family is family, after
“I’m sure the dog will be happy with a taste of freedom.
Our dogs always used to run free at home. You can help me carry my bags to my room first.
I’m quite tired after the trip here and I had to bring quite a lot for such a long
I thought Erin’s face was white under her mask.
And I’m sure she repeated, “A long stay?” But it’s so hard to understand
what people are saying under those masks.
you in the den,” she said. “The sofa bed in there is new.”
replied. “Then I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable. I can’t possibly sleep on
a sofa bed, with my back. Now are there clean sheets on your bed? I really should lie down
for a while.”
was muttering something about needing to find the dog, but I said Starshine would be very
upset that she was treating her mom’s only sister this way. I could feel tears gathering
in my eyes.
know she prefers to be called Stella these days,” Erin said.
“How terribly conventional,
Starshine is such a beautiful name.”
As Erin was putting clean sheets on the bed (honestly, the girl
might have thought of it earlier) I mentioned that the energy of her room was all wrong.
you move the bed for me?” I was very polite. “I’m afraid I’ll hurt my back if I
it be okay for just one night?”
“You surely don’t think I came all this way for one
night. You might not have much family feeling, Erin, but I want to spend some time with
“Well,” she said. “The room’s
not very big so I’d probably have to move the desk to shift the bed.”
would be perfect, Erin. What a good suggestion. Why don’t you move it into the den
where you’re sleeping? Then I’ll have room for my things.”
She muttered something
about needing to look for the dog but she did drag the desk down the hall, and then came
back to move the bed. I was so tired by the time she finished, she took so long.
really needed to rest but the room felt a little chilly,
after the kitchen door had been left open to clear the smoke. At least it had stopped the
smoke alarm quickly but I couldn’t sleep in a chilly room. I don’t know how
Starshine can justify her carbon footprint in this big house but she surely doesn’t
need to keep it this cool. I nudged the thermostat up a degree or two.
was still trying to rest when Starshine came home.
You would have thought they could be considerate enough
to keep their voices down.
Erin seemed to be whining about
not being able to find the dog. The animal was probably having the time of its life, running
free and playing in the snow.
“I hoped she come home
but there’s no sign of Poppy. I need to go out and look for her again so I can’t
help you with dinner. Maybe we should send out for something.”
could hear my sister’s sigh all the way from the kitchen. “I’m not sure if much
is open on Christmas. Or if Rainbow would eat anything if it was.”
Erin had seemed to be
very upset about that dog but I heard her laugh. “Can’t you just picture Aunt
Rainbow berating some poor delivery driver about the spectre of death in his delivery vehicle.”
could hear Starshine giggling too, as if there was anything funny about that.
Then, Erin’s voice
sounded more sober. “Mom, she says she wants a nice long visit. And you know she
won’t wear a mask or stay away from other people. And she won’t get vaccinated.
university classes are going to be delayed because of the spike in cases but she’ll
just be bringing her germs into the house. We might not be able to see Dad or Grandpa for
weeks, maybe longer.
stopped talking then, and I was finally able to doze off, although Starshine didn’t
bother to keep quiet while she worked in the kitchen.
She did have everything ready by the time I woke up
from my nap. I was glad because I was getting hungry.
china was on the table and she’d grouped three small poinsettias in the center of
don’t know how you turned out so bourgeois, Starshine,” I said. “All this
matching china. And the bold color of those plants makes me shudder. Maybe I can help you
while I’m here. Give you some color advice. The energy in this house is all wrong.”
ignored my offer. “Um, about your visit, Rainbow. I really don’t think….”
home then, crying because she still hadn’t found the dog. She said she was too upset
told her she was very selfish to spoil this special solstice celebration with family and
I tried to be a good guest, entertaining them with stories about my painting and weaving.
they weren’t keeping up their end. Erin kept getting up and calling the dog. And
Starshine was rude enough to get up to answer a call from her husband, right when I was
explaining about the ridiculous art critic that people thought was a bigshot, but really
didn’t know anything because of what he had said about my wall hanging.
then I felt something lurch in my stomach.
“What was in that tofu?”
some vegetables,” Starshine said. “Mushrooms, carrots, onion, celery…. Is that
a problem? I thought it was only Brussels sprouts you were allergic to.”
I groaned. “I feel
a little dizzy.”
face was white under her mask. I was going to tell her how ridiculous she was, wearing
a mask throughout dinner and just pulling it down every time she needed to take a bite.
As if that was any way to live. But there was vomit rising in my throat.
could hear Starshine shouting through the bathroom door. I should have known better than
to eat in a house that smells like death.
“Rainbow, do you really have allergies?
I thought you were just making it up. Do you have pills, or one of those
call an ambulance!” Starshine said. “Erin, why are you just standing there. We
need to get help. I put Brussels sprouts in the tofu loaf. I wanted to show Rainbow these
food fads are all nonsense. I was so upset I thought I wouldn’t care if it killed
her! But I do!”
could hear Starshine crying over the sound of my own retching. “Why aren’t you
calling 911? Give me the phone! Maybe Mom and Dad are right. I am too selfish. My poor
she’s fine,” Erin said. “Well, maybe not fine but I don’t think we need a
opened the bathroom door. “How dare you ignore my food allergies,” I said. “How
dare you put my health at risk!”
Erin must have agreed with me, because she said, “Exactly!”
very loudly as she helped me down the hall to my room.
a bowl handy beside the bed, which was kind, although it would have been nicer if they’d
let me sleep in the master bedroom. That has an ensuite bathroom.
to rest but I could still hear them talking in the dining room and the clinking of glass.
why she’s sick,” I could hear Erin say. “I could smell it across the table. And
I found these bottles under the bed. Smell
this glass she’s been drinking from all evening.”
“She said she couldn’t tolerate tap water
and she needed to drink the special spring water she brought with her.”
gin, Mom. I thought I heard bottles clinking when I carried her bags to my room. And I
could smell it on her breath just now, along with the vomit. I think she’s been drinking
drunk?” Not dying?”
“Yep,” Erin’s voice was far too loud, even all
the way down the hall “Fortunately, she still had one bottle left. I think this will
be quite festive with that cranberry juice in the fridge.”
poor Rainbow,” Starshine said. “She must have a serious drinking problem. I
should look into the programs around here. Maybe she should stay with us and I could help
Erin said. I could hear glasses and bottle
clinking. The nerve of them, with my gin! “There are good residential programs, to
help her quit drinking. You know she can’t stay here. And this can’t go on.”
she’s my sister. And family is important.”
“Mom, you tried to kill her.”
not true. Not really. I just wanted to show she didn’t have an allergy. I wanted
to help her get away from these crazy food fads. I thought I could help her.”
you’re going to help her quit drinking?”
“Well, I think I should. She’s always been
very good to me. I know you and your father keep saying she pushes me around but that’s
“And yet, here we are, eating tofu instead of
having dinner with Dad and Grandpa. And she didn’t think twice about being with all
those people at the craft fair she mentioned and then coming here with a possible infection.”
so is Dad. Don’t you want to be with him?”
Starshine was quiet.
I know you love her because she’s your sister, but this really has to stop.”
right, Erin. But she certainly isn’t well enough
to go anywhere tonight. And she probably won’t feel very well tomorrow….’
paused again and I imagined her taking a large swig of my gin. Then she said, “I’ll
tell her she can’t stay here. I’ll tell her it’s really not convenient for…for
was a big commotion then, barking and scratching at the door. And Erin crying, “Poppy,
good girl! You came home!” until I thought my head would fall off. And I swear I
could smell the dog food all the way from the kitchen. I really had to get out of this
place. Planning to stay with my sister was a big mistake. I’d have to call Mom and
Dad and tell them my plans had changed. They hadn’t seemed all that enthusiastic
when I said I might come to Oregon for the holidays, but I’m sure they’ll change
their minds when I tell them about the smell of death here.
Then Starshine said, “You
know, Rainbow and my parents keep saying how selfish I am. But she’s the one who
kept the gin to herself. I’ll have to remind her about that when I ask her to leave.”
guffawed in a way that made my head feel like it was splitting open. I’m glad I’ve
decided to leave. Then she said, “Just remind her your name is Stella.”
Robson’s short stories have
appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery
Magazine, Mystery Magazine, the People’s Friend, and various
anthologies. Her first novel, Murder is Uncooperative, is set in a non-profit
housing co-op in Vancouver, BC.