The wailing and crying gave Lisa a headache. She followed her sister-in-law into the kitchen, placing her hands over her ears.
Tiffany turned around; her blank blue eyes looked like buttons circled by dark smudges. “I told you not to come, you shouldn’t be here,” she shouted.
“Okay, okay, hun,” Lisa said. She approached the emaciated, haggared-looking new mom and circled her in a hug.
Tiffany pushed the older woman away. “I have to get their lunch,” she said. “If I don’t bring them exactly what they want on time, they get angry.”
Lisa brought her brows together, feeling uncertain. She surveyed the counters covered with sipper-seal cups, plastic bowls and divided plates. None of them were clean. The odor of something rotting–of dirty diapers, bulging garbage cans, and stale juice–made her queasy. “Do you want any help?” she offered. She wondered how long the place had been like this. The family hadn’t heard from her brother Tim, or Tiffany, for several weeks. “Mom is worried, Tif. She says no one is returning her calls.”
Tiffany ignored her as she grabbed some of the plastic ware and started washing what she needed, bending over the sink, her elbows pumping as she scrubbed.
The wails turned into chants of “Mommy, mommy,” and “Food, food,” accompanied by banging and a crash. Lisa winced. “Good Lord, Tif. What is going on here?” She marched out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and stopped in the living room where she could see the large baby gate that had been stretched across the opposite hallway that led to the bedrooms. The three eighteen-month-old boys–bunched behind the gate–quieted at once, their faces red and wet, noses slimy with snot, when they saw her. Lisa padded a few feet closer, noted that a lamp lay damaged on the oak-plank floor. “What did you guys do?” she demanded. She squatted and started to pick up the pieces of the lamp; it was small, the broken body shaped like a clown. “Is this from your room?”
“Go away,” one of the toddlers piped at her.
She stood and stared at them. She could never remember which triplet was which; they were not identical, the result of fertility treatments, but she never could distinguish them. She pointed at the one who spoke, who seemed to be the ring-leader. “Which one are you? Are you Derrick?”
“Go away, Auntie Lisa,” he answered. He wrapped his fingers through the metal cross-hatching. He tugged.
She flinched, expecting the barrier to give way. But it held. She could see now that the steel frame had been screwed to the wall. The five-foot-tall gate door was secured by an electronic lock. “What the hell,” she started but then was hit by something that bounced off her forehead.
“Go away, go away,” started again. Then, “Mommy bring food!”
Lisa turned, lamp pieces dangling from both hands, and confronted Tiffany carrying a tray.
“Here,” Tiffany said, “could you hold this for a sec?” And she shoved the orange plastic tray towards Lisa, who dropped the broken lamp to take it. Tiffany swayed a bit, then made her way to the gate. “Okay, now, sweethearts, you’ll have to move back. If you try to hurt Mommy again, I won’t bring the food.” She was trying to look tough, arms folded across her chest. But her pale skin was shiny with sweat and she was trembling.
The dominant triplet grinned. “Okay,” he said in a little, high-pitched voice. He motioned his brothers and they toddled backwards, wobbling and running into one another, their pull-up training diapers crinkling.
They almost look cute, Lisa thought. Her stomach twisted as she watched her sister-in-law push the buttons on the electronic keypad. The gate clicked open. “They can talk really well,” Lisa said as Tiffany quickly grabbed the tray. “I mean, for their age, they’re really precocious.” She held the gate as Tiffany scuttled through. She noticed that there were similar, extra-tall and secure gates across the entrances to the master-bedroom, and the bathroom half-way down the hall. “Tiffany?” she called as the latter disappeared into the nursery, the three boys dancing and bouncing after her in a way that didn’t seem quite … natural. She closed the gate. A draft of air hit her in the face as the nursery door swooped closed with a bang. Lisa gagged; the smell was terrible. It was the smell of death, and it was wafting from the very end of the hallway, from the interior of the master bedroom. “Tim? Timmy?” she called. A woman’s loud screams came from the babies’ room, followed by cries for help. “Tiffany? Tiffany? What’s wrong?” Lisa yelled.
She yanked at the gate, grasped the lock. “Oh my god,” she breathed, tears starting. “I don’t know the combination.”