Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Was She Wicked? Was She Good?

She leaves the small creatures in tortured juxtapositions. Her mother and I find them on the porch steps, in the garden, drowning in small puddles, the green hose dripping water from the copper nozzle, guilty as blood. For a few weeks we are able to believe that these tragedies have nothing to do with our little girl whose smile breaks each morning like the sun. We scrape them up, gently, with the edge of leaves or blades of grass (once I cut one in half that way, a horrible accident and it bled while Sheilah laughed, I thought at some imaginary play) but we save none. Sometimes, we have to take them out of their misery, the slow agony of dying they suffer, we step on them, hard, and later scrape their squashed remains from the soles of our shoes.

It has been a long, hot summer. The flowers wither on exhausted stems. We almost regret our stance against air conditioning. We place fans throughout the house; the hum is as annoying as the insidious hum of hornets that occasionally circle over us in the garden, like a threat.

Sheilah runs through the summer days in her nightgown, pale pink and ethereal, her white limbs and moon-white face protected by slatherings of coconut-scented sunscreen. At night, when she finally falls asleep, tiny beads of sweat dotting her pink lips, heat emanates from her blonde curls as if she, herself, were a season.

Had there been earlier signs that we ignored? Certainly, we tried to believe it was all accident and coincidence until, at last, she brought her game into the house. We found them in gruesome cups of strange concoctions in the kitchen, combinations of balsamic vinegar, Worcester sauce, and food coloring, their tiny bodies floating in the noxious liquid, we found them in the ice cubes, fingers splayed against their frozen death, finally we find them in Sheilah’s bedroom, pinned alive to a bulletin board that displays her kindergarten graduation certificate, her blue ribbon for good citizenship, and a drawing of a horse. They are screaming but they are beyond being saved, we unpin them and hit them with the bottom of our shoes, feeling worse about the one who survived our repeated attempts at mercy killing only to die in agony. From this upstairs window we watch Sheilah. She is, once again, dressed in the silky pink sleeveless nightgown, sitting on a quilt under the oak tree. One second we are looking down at the golden haloed head of our child, her murmured voice rising up to us, pretty as the cardinal’s morning song, and the next, we are running out of the room, down the wooden stairs, through the meditation room, into the kitchen (with its bright windows and spider plants), down the concrete steps lined with terra cotta pots filled with geraniums, awkwardly running across the lawn to Sheilah, who sits on the old quilt beneath the ancient tree, plucking wings and severing limbs, the damaged and wounded writhing in agony while she sings.

With a moan, Anne scoops Sheilah up and runs back into the house, as though escaping a tornado, which leaves me to take care of the mess. I apologize to each and every one. I beg forgiveness. Their eyes lock into mine, infinitesimal eyes filled with the infinite suffering my daughter has caused. Later, when I go inside, I find Anne closing all the windows. “What are you doing?” I ask. “Isn’t this why we moved to the country? It’ll be a hundred degrees in here.”

She looks at me with bright eyes, as though she suffers a fever. “They aren’t going to let her get away with this,” she says. “You know they won’t.”

“You’re right,” I nod. “We need to punish her.”

Anne turns from the closed window, the air around us charged, like the feeling before a storm. “What are you saying?”

I step toward her but stop when I see the stone of her face, once beautiful, now set into the hard lines first etched three years ago. “Maybe we should reconsider. Maybe a little punishment—”

She turns away from me; she whirls out of the room. I stand there and listen to the sound of windows being slammed shut.

• • • •

This is a difficult time for all of us. Anne makes jewelry in the basement studio, which Sheilah is forbidden to enter, while I work on my second book (The Possibilities for Enchantment in a World at War with the Self, the Other, and the Infinite) in my upstairs office, also forbidden. Sheilah follows this rule so completely that, one morning, I find her lying curled against the door, like a good dog.

“Why don’t you go play?”

She looks up at me, her eyes bright and wide as pennies. “You mean outside?” she asks.

I shake my head. Sadly. “No, Sheilah, not outside.”

She purses her lips into rosebud shape. “I wanna go outside.”

Every time she mentions the outdoors I picture the little bodies, the dark eyes, the strange combination of her singing and their small screams. “We’ve already talked about this, Sheilah. No.”

“Why not why not why not?” she wails.

“You know why,” I say, and am surprised by how mean I sound. She stops her whining. She stares at me. I can’t tell if her expression is one of insolence, or horror. I step around her, carefully shutting the door behind me. My office window overlooks the backyard. I press up on the sash, hard. These are old windows, with screens and stormers that we change each spring and fall, a massive undertaking we had not considered when we bought the place, frantic to make our escape. I breathe in the scent of dirt, roses, leaves, grass, the green, loamy scent of summer, but my reverie is interrupted by droning, low and near. Hanging from the eave, like some dark tumor, is the hornet’s nest.

I am both repelled and fascinated by the hornets, their golden wings quivering as they work their way around the orb. Sheilah is no longer screaming, perhaps she’s gone to bother Anne, or maybe she’s actually playing with her crystals or her chemistry set. I breathe in until I become restless and can’t stand still any longer, then I pull down the sash. The effect is immediate; stifled in my own home. I inspect the room carefully, checking the corners, the ceiling, the hiding places behind the furniture.

We are striving for something like normal. The thought of having a “normal” child would once have struck us as a failing. Now it is our hope. The honey butter melts across the biscuits and we wash our hands under the tap as we stare out the closed window, remembering how we used to lick each other’s sticky fingers. When she comes into the kitchen, wearing that nightgown, her hair a wild cloud around her sleep-pink face, we greet her joyfully. She pushes us away with her tiny, dangerous hands. She sighs like an old woman. She demands white bread (who knows where she was introduced to this vile concoction) toasted and slathered with sugary peanut butter. She chews with her mouth open, her pearled teeth coated with oily brown, and squints at us. “I wanna go outside.”

We shake our heads.

“Why not why not why not,” she cries and flings the toast to the floor, where she follows it in a spectacular display of temper. “Why not why not why not?” We sit in the rays of morning sun, sealed in with her screams and the heavy moaning heat, and it does not escape me that, in a way, we have become her victims.

• • • •

Many nights, after Sheilah falls asleep in mid-protest, Anne goes outside, only to return streaked with dirt and grass, her blue eyes bereft of even the memory of joy. She does not invite me to join her, but one night I follow, allowing myself the freedom we must deny our daughter. Anne sits in the garden on a rock large enough, just barely, for one. She does not acknowledge me. Once my eyes adjust, I see what she has done. Miniature tombstones stand in neat rows, flowers in acorn cups arranged before them. I glance at Anne, then lean closer. Each stone is carved with a symbol: a star, a moon, a little shoe, a feather, a clock.

“I didn’t know their names.”

“Anne, listen, we—”

“Don’t. Don’t try to make this right with words.”

What else do I have? I stand there at the foot of the fairies’ graveyard for a long time, hoping that Anne will speak, but she doesn’t. Finally, I turn around and walk back inside, immediately assaulted by the hot air, the droning fans, and Sheilah’s screams, wild with terror. I take the steps, two at a time, slipping on the braided rug, pushing against the floor as I call, “I’m coming! Daddy’s here.”

She is sitting in bed, tears streaming down her face, her mouth open, her hair blowing up and back as though she is possessed, but before I can take her in my arms, Anne swoops past. She turns to me, her eyes wide, her own hair blowing in the hot fan wind. “What happened?”

I shrug. Anne frowns as if I have failed her with this answer. (I have failed her with this answer.) She is holding Sheilah, swaying side to side. The room is stifling, too hot with its shut windows, and too stuffy with a vague, sour odor. Suddenly, I feel nauseous. I step into the hall to catch my breath. Anne follows. “You can’t do this right now. You have to make sure the room is safe.” Reluctantly, I step back into the bedroom. The windows are closed and locked. I check behind the door, look in the closet. I even look under the bed. Finished with my search, I follow the sound of Anne’s cooing, downstairs into the living room, where the standing fan gently hums, its great unwieldy head turning slowly in repeated surveyance of mother and daughter sitting in the flowered chair. The windows are locked against the black night as though it is something that will creep in and destroy us if we give it any quarter.

“Can you tell me what frightened you? Can you tell Daddy?”

Sheilah sits in her mother’s lap, her curls damp at the back of her neck. She glances up at me with her copper eyes and I see in them, for just a moment, the look of murder before her long lashes flutter down. “Wings,” she says.

“Wings?” her mother and I repeat.

She nods and, sniffling loudly, wraps her small arms around Anne’s neck. The fan blows over us while Anne gently rocks. “I told you they would come after her.”

“It was just a dream. A nightmare. Kids—”

“No. It was them. Do something, Michael.”

“We need to punish her.”

Anne holds Sheilah closer, as if I have suggested releasing her into the dark yard where those who seek revenge could have their way.

“We’ve already discussed this.”

“I’m not saying we do anything corporal, I’m just saying that we need to show her that what she’s doing is wrong. They won’t bother her if she stops hurting them.”

“No.”

“Anne, listen to me—”

“Why should I? Do you listen to me? Do you ever listen to me? I told you we should have taken her to a different doctor. I told you he didn’t understand people like us. I told you—”

“When? No. You didn’t. You never said . . .”

Sheilah stirs against Anne, turning her head to reveal her profile, damp with sweat, wet curls plastered against her cheek.

“We’re not going to punish her,” Anne hisses. “She’s already been through enough.” She scoots to the edge of the chair and stands up, her eyes sharp on my face. “You’re obsessed with vengeance.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous,” she says as she passes me. It’s only when I hear the creaking of the stairs that I realize she was calling me a name.

The fissures have formed beneath us, and I am not so far gone that I don’t recognize we are falling. I stand there, I don’t know for how long, as if any movement would collapse the careful arc that keeps us suspended. The fan drones, how I hate that sound.

• • • •

Sheilah is sleeping with Anne in our bed. I try to move quietly, but they both stir when I crawl in beside them. For a while I just lay there, watching them breathe.

Bright light streams through the lace curtains of the humming room, and I awake to the sound of Anne weeping. I wrap her in my arms. She tries to explain, but the words are swallowed by her tears. I pat her gently on the back. Over her shoulder I see Sheilah standing in the doorway in her favorite nightgown. She watches with a cold, calculated expression, holding in her dimpled fingers a fairy, so small it is almost invisible. Careful to cover the tiny mouth with her pinky she pulls one wing off the poor creature, and then the other. I take a deep breath and hold Anne closer.

We’ve had this problem with windows before, when we lived in the city. I begged Anne to lock them at night but she “couldn’t feel closed in” and “had to have fresh air.” Eventually, I had boards cut to size so that the windows could be left partially open, but safe. She used them for a while, but then one night she “forgot,” or so she’s always said, and I never had the heart to confront her about it. Whether she forgot to close the windows or not, her intention had been to let in the breeze, not the night creatures, with their masks and guns.

“This happens every year. It’s like we’re all stuck in some kind of cycle.”

“We’re not stuck,” she says. “We moved. That’s one thing. I’m making jewelry again. You’re working on your book. We are making progress. Give me some credit.”

Over Anne’s shoulder, Sheilah pulls one leg off the poor fairy and then the other.

“No.”

Anne pulls away from me, her face hard. Behind her Sheilah tosses wings, legs, and corpse to the floor, then walks down the hall, humming.

“I mean, you’re right. Of course. We’re not stuck, we’re just, this is just a hard time of year for us, and I was thinking that it might be nice for you to take a break.”

“But how can I leave her, so close to the anniversary?”

“She’ll be fine. She’ll be with me. Besides, we don’t even know if she remembers anything about that night.”

Anne shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter whether she remembers,” she says. “What do you think this is all about?”

• • • •

It is disturbing, how eagerly she leaves. Sheilah and I wave from the open doorway, the scent of summer dying in the morning air, the brown lilacs withered on the bush, the squirrels scampering wildly through the yard, which is overgrown and dried out. Anne waves from the open car window, the graceful arc of her hand the last we see of her as she turns the corner. Sheilah starts walking across the porch, she turns and looks at me, wonder and fear in her small face. I nod. She breaks into that brilliant smile, and with a shout, runs free, a wild thing released. Later, I lay the quilt under the tree, and bring out a thermos of lemon aide, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She gulps the lemon aide, and tears into the sandwich. With her mouth full, she looks up at me, smiles, and plants peanut butter kisses all over my face.

She plays outside all day, and into the evening. When I call her in, she comes, tired and happy. She sits at the kitchen table and stares at the macaroni and cheese, her favorite food, but she cannot eat, instead she slumps forward, falling asleep, right there at the table. I carry her upstairs, and put her to bed in the clothes she played in.

I go from room to room opening all the windows and turning off the fans. The damp night air smells sweet, and reminds me of the scented candle Anne had in her bedroom when we first met. I stand at the open window of my office, breathing in the memory of those wild nights of limb and skin, when we discovered each other so thoroughly it was as though we were created by touch. I lean into the screen and it pops. I press just a little harder, it comes loose but doesn’t fall. I pound it with my fist, remembering, as I do, how I hammered the corners to make it secure. It’s an old house and we often found the screens fallen or dangling.

“What are you doing?”

“Go back to bed, Sheilah. I’m fixing something.”

“I’m thirsty.”

“Go back to bed. I’ll bring you a glass of water as soon as I’m finished.”

She looks at the open window. “Mommy’s going to be mad.”

“Yes, she is. If she calls and finds out that you are still awake she’s going to be very angry at you.”

Sheilah’s face contorts. I have confused her, taken advantage of her logic skills, rooted, as they are, in her six-year-old mind. “Go on now.”

Her eyes narrow as she glances from me to the window and back again.

“Go on.”

She shuffles out of the room, like a little old lady, weary with the wrongs of the world.

I hit the screen three more times, wincing with pain until, at last, it loosens, only to dangle by the bottom left corner. The hornet nest is silent, two hornets, the night guards, cling to its side.

“Daddy? I’m ready for my water now.”

It takes both hands to wrench the thing free. My knuckles are bleeding.

“Daddy!”

Finally it comes undone. I shove it away, approximating a throw, it crashes to the ground, followed by a sound of brush scattered, twigs broken. I have frightened some creature down there, a deer, or perhaps something more dangerous.

“Daddy!”

When I walk into Sheilah’s room her eyes widen. I hand her the glass of water. “Drink it,” I say, and then I say it again, in a gentle tone. “Drink it, honey.”

She shakes her head vigorously. “Don’t wanna,” she says.

I snatch the glass from her. Water slops out. “Go to sleep, now.” I lay my hand on her head, bend down to kiss her. As I leave the room, I prop open the door with the big book of Grimm, the one with the fake gold edging on all the pages.

Downstairs, the rich scented summer air flows through the rooms. I sit in the flowered chair, sipping last year’s clover wine. It was on just such a night as this that we were ruined. I fall asleep remembering the screams, the terror, the open windows. Screams. I wake to her screams, my heart pounding like a trapped creature. She screams, and I run through the rooms brightened by morning sun. “I’m coming,” I shout, “Daddy’s here.” I race up the stairs and do not hesitate as I approach her room, abuzz with dark noise and screams. She is sitting up, covered by them as if she were made of honey, their golden wings trembling. I can see her halo of hair, though some alight there as well, her mouth, open but blackened by their writhing. I grab a blanket and swing it but this only heightens their attack, she screams and they sting me without mercy. “Daddy’s here, Daddy’s here,” I say even as I run out of the room, down the sunlit hall (but wait, what was that scurrying to hide in the corner) to the bathroom where I draw the water, which comes out languidly. I run back to the room, “Daddy’s here,” I say over and over again, wrapping her in the blanket. She screams at their new assault. Through the blanket I feel their squirming, their soft bodies, their stings. I rush down the hall to the bathroom, set her in the bath, she screams. I tear the blanket off, it is alive with wings, I press it, and her under the water, releasing her just long enough for screams and breath before I hold her under again. They fly at me, as if they understand what I am doing. The water is black with them. She struggles against my grasp, her mouth wide with screams, I dunk her one more time, then I carry her, heavy and wet and screaming, down the hall, slipping but not falling, down the stairs (and there, what was that behind the potted plant, and what just flew overhead) I hold her close even as they continue to sting. I grab my car keys from the kitchen counter, I run down the crooked path. They follow us, stinging again and again, she screams and I scream too as I set her in the car. A few of them follow, but only a few. I kill them with a rolled up atlas. At least now she understands, I think, now she knows not to harm a creature with wings.

• • • •

Although it is late fall we are making up for lost time and spend much of our evenings outdoors. Anne is sitting in the garden, painting a small portrait of a fairy. She has never accused me of doing anything more than opening all the windows on a hot summer night. Why has she stayed, knowing even this? Well, why did I stay three years ago? I like to think it is love, this tendency to believe in each other’s innocence, but maybe it’s something else. I sit here, on the porch, writing in this notebook, sipping dandelion wine we bought from an old German fellow at the farmer’s market. Sheilah sits on the blanket beneath the oak. She is almost entirely recovered though she moves strangely at times, with an odd, careful slowness that you would expect from someone wounded, or very old. They had to shave her head. Her hair has grown in strange, bristly and sharp. The doctors say that it will likely fall out, this sort of thing happens sometimes as a result of trauma, and already there are a few patches of soft hair coming in behind her ears, no longer blonde, but pure white. She sits on her quilt, dressed in jeans and a cotton sweater, playing some sort of game with fallen leaves, they are scolding each other, their leafy voices brittle.

As the amber evening closes in around us, and the night fairies come out, carrying their tiny lanterns, whispering their dark thoughts, Sheilah continues playing, even when a parade of them crosses the patches of her blanket, even when several fly right past her, she pays them no mind at all. Anne and I have begun to suspect she no longer sees them, which is sad in a way, but given the choices we had, and what life made of us, we think we have done well by Sheilah. Now that we have a normal child, she will be safe in her normal world, and we will be safe in ours. We can hope, we can dream, we believe.

M. Rickert

M. Rickert has published three short story collections: Map of Dreams, Holiday, and You Have Never Been Here. Her stories have been collected in numerous anthologies including American Fantastic Tales (Library of America), The Big Book of Ghost Stories (Vintage), Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror (Tachyon) and Shadows and Tall Trees 7 (Undertow Publications). She is the winner of the Crawford Award, World Fantasy Award and Shirley Jackson Award. Her first novel, The Memory Garden, won the Locus award. Before earning her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts she worked as a kindergarten teacher, coffee shop barista, Disneyland balloon vendor and personnel assistant in Sequoia National Park. She currently lives in Wisconsin where she is working on a new novel, and teaching yoga. Her story, “The Shooter” will be published in 2019 in Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories. Find her online at www.mrickert.net.