A House on Baltic Avenue by M. M. De Voe

Had there been an angel in the room, none of them would have noticed. The four children were playing Monopoly. The eldest was winning, as usual.

“Advance token to nearest Railroad,” he read. His silver doggie flew to B&O Railroad without touching the squares. Pietrov was always the doggie.

“Body Odor!” yelled the other three in unison.

If there was ghostly laughter, it sounded so much like the ruffle of the torn screen against the windowsill that Pietrov didn’t notice.

“Shut up,” he said and they all made faces at him, but they shut up. He was the oldest by four years. He was in college. He had left home. A breeze blew through his hair, mussing it. He smoothed it back. Scowled at the ceiling in accusation.

“You gonna buy it?” his sister asked. She was the only girl. She was the banker. She was the shoe. When Pietrov was away, she was the doggie.

Pietrov’s money was kept in perfect piles. He pulled an orange five-hundred from its secret place beneath Boardwalk, and handed it to Svetlana.

“Better count it,” Vlad said to her. Pietrov hit him on the arm.

Vlad stood up. His chair rasped on the wooden floor. He fled into the kitchen, ignoring his mother, passed out on the sofa. Her belly rose and fell, a flowered mound. Rose and fell. Rose and fell. The breeze seemed to avoid her entirely, as if something invisible was blocking its path. She was sweating profusely in the heat. Her skin was pasty and thick, as though nature had decided to give her ugly camouflage to match their dingy oatmeal walls exactly.

“Hey, Jurgie, you want one of these mourning cakes?” Vlad called out. Jurgie looked over at Pietrov who froze while counting the six blue fifties that Svetlana had handed him as change. Svetlana rolled the dice. Their rattle was the only sound the children heard. Even the cockroaches had been stilled. They didn’t like to think about the reason Pietrov was home.

“Doubles,” Svetlana said and the spell was broken. Vlad ate a cake and Pietrov counted squares in his head and announced the shoe’s destiny before Svetlana finished stepping on each square.

“Jail,” Pietrov said.

“Just visiting,” said Svetlana, and she picked up the dice again. Her hands looked like her mother’s. The boys watched her roll.

“Twelve,” she said. “Doubles again.”

“Mine!” Vlad screamed from the kitchen. Their mother coughed, grunted, shifted. The breeze shifted directions and cooled her, and her breathing became regular again. The overhead light flickered. After a short silence, Vlad repeated himself more quietly, “Mine.”

“Illinois Avenue,” Jurgie read around Svetlana’s shoe.

“Pay up,” Vlad hissed.

Jurgie mortgaged his utility companies and St. Charles’ Place. He sold a house. He counted yellow bills, green bills, blue bills, and finally twenty-five white bills, and was left with the cheap indigo monopoly and two forest green plastic houses.

Like her older brother, Svetlana always kept a five-hundred dollar bill hidden under the board. She smirked and flashed a corner of her secret stash.

Vlad kept all of his money in one tall pile, and when it was time for him to pay for something, he went through the money top to bottom until he found the denominations he was looking for. He was always the thimble. Or the iron, if they could find it.

Jurgie paid no attention to money. He rarely had any.

Jurgie was the top-hat.

The dice showed six pips and Svetlana picked a Get Out of Jail Free card from the community chest. Her brothers howled. A book crashed to the floor from a nearby shelf. Their mother stirred awake, and they all fell silent.

She leaned on a fleshy elbow, cursing in Russian. She sat up, ran her hands through her matted hair and, still in Russian, called them all stupid Americans who had no concern for tradition. Her eyes ran with messy tears that she wiped away with the back of her thick hand and slurped into her nose. They watched her stagger to her feet. She told them their father had always been ashamed of them, then lit a Camel and shuffled off to the bathroom. They all stilled their faces not to react to the smell of her unwashed body.

“I wish she’d talk English,” said Jurgie. He was the youngest and could get away with it. No one else moved, even after the bathroom door clicked shut and they heard the awful sounds from within. It was the first anniversary of their father’s death. They listened to their mother’s wet cough, the angry throat clearing, the slapping at the cockroaches, and then the spitting, the coughing, the spitting again. They heard the flush of the toilet. They stared at the fraying game board, waiting for someone to break the silence with a joke, to pick up the dice, to move on. Minutes passed. Vlad’s pile of money toppled over.

Their father’s ghost, again. Not an angel. Not here. Never angels.

Pietrov’s voice when it finally broke the silence was feathers and gauze, “Are you guys okay? With her, I mean? At home? I’m sorry I’m so far away. I’ll try to send more money.”

The plastic from their mother’s cigarette pack flew across the floor and the updraft sent it onto a lamp where it burst into quick flame and melted. Pietrov bit his lip, and no one spoke for another while.

It was Svetlana who spoke next, reading off the card. “You win second prize in a beauty contest, collect ten dollars. Whatever. Better than nothing.” Her little brothers nodded, though Jurgie looked haunted. He was still in middle school.

“She sleeps a lot.”

“Papa keeps an eye on us. He knocks her out a lot.”

“Just like when he was alive.”

“Yeah,” Jurgie says, “But it’s nice not to have to watch it. Baltic Avenue. You owe me twenty bucks.”

M. M. De Voe writes short fiction that defies genre. Her most recent published story was included in Twisted Book of Shadows, an anthology that won a 2020 Shirley Jackson Award. She is also the founder of the literary nonprofit, Pen Parentis. She lives in Manhattan. mmdevoe.com She’s on Twitter: @mmdevoe and Facebook.

Image: unsplash.com