The following is Part 2 of a story I published a few years back in a great horror magazine called Macabre Cadaver. MC is out of print right now, but the rumor is it may return from the dead. Speaking of which, readers just tuning in may want to catch up on Part 1 posted last week, wherein Jennifer first agrees with her sister to take turns being dead. And so, let this post be a thank you to those who purchased and read Slash of Crimson. You all have my deepest appreciation.
Enjoy “Sisters Inside Out” Part 2:
But if nightmares were children, death was their mother.
The place felt like it was full of nothing, but a heavy nothing, even worse than the empty feeling she had when she was alive. When she was alive. The thought sent a shiver through the stiff thing that was now her body.
She was walking through a narrow valley, very narrow with rock walls on either side. Here and there leafless trees grew along her path, their branches radiating shadows even though there wasn’t any sun. A face appeared above her, in place of a low, full moon. It was a bird’s face, an eagle sick and stupid. She wondered how it floated there without any wings. She didn’t want to look at it because its eyes wobbled in their sockets and when they got control fixed in weird directions like they wanted to get out but couldn’t.
Its beak looked different, though. It looked hungry and ready. Its sharp shape hung open over the valley and one by one children were walking toward it. They were weeping and crying for their mothers. Some of them were with their mothers.
They were eaten just the same. They cried out in pain, wailed as their bones snapped into each other and rained down on the valley. Everywhere she looked was bursting with the downpour of bones. They hit her all over and she cried out, cried out to anyone to help, and it hurt and they were cold and splintered and she didn’t want to be dead anymore…
* * * *
She was still calling out “Marsha, Marsha!” when she awoke naked under her covers. Daddy sat at the foot of her bed and when her eyes opened, he handed her a glass of water.
“Nancy, she’s awake,” he yelled downstairs and Mom came running up.
Mom was wearing her black clothes, the slacks and lacy top she wore to Marsha’s funeral. Her hair had a little plastic comb in it and wrinkles showed above her lip. “She is awake,” she said, like it was a surprise she could be that way.
Mom sat down on her bed and gripped Jen’s thigh with her hand. “Who are you?” she asked.
“What do you mean who am I?” Jen asked. “I’m Jen, Mommy. I’m Jennifer, what do you mean…”
“Shhhh!” Mom put her finger to her lips, then looked at Daddy. She let go of Jen’s thigh and felt her forehead. “No fever,” she said.
“Did she ever have a fucking fever?” he asked, swigging his beer.
“John, go downstairs,” she said.
“I just think…”
“John, you’re drunk. Go downstairs!”
Daddy got up, opened another beer from the six pack by his foot and adjusted his cap. He looked at her with a half-frown, but winked anyway, then left.
Mom leaned down over her then, so close Jen could see even more wrinkles in her blotchy, shopping mall tan. “Honey,” she said. “Do you remember anything about last night and this morning?”
Jen sat up a little in bed, wanted to get up and out and go after her father, but was caught by her mother’s eyes. She remembered the dark pathway, yes, and the trees, and the eagle’s head. “No, why, what should I remember?”
Mom stood up, put her hand on her forehead again. Her worried look changed to something else, the look she had when she was looking in her medical books. She picked up a thermometer off the nightstand and put it in its plastic sleeve. “I guess we don’t need to take your temperature again. You seem fine, sweetie. You were sick today is all. Some twenty-four hour thing. You stayed home from school but you’ll be better tomorrow.”
Her mother picked up the rest of what was on the nightstand, went out her door and clicked it shut behind her.
That’s when Jen noticed the smell. All around her even though her room was empty. Empty, even though there were stains on the floor. Everything was gone except her nightstand and the stains and the half-open closet door. And she knew the smell wasn’t throw up or sick smells or anything from the bathroom. She knew the smell was something dead.
* * * *
That night she heard a knock on the bedroom door. She almost screamed when it opened and footsteps sounded on her carpet. She pulled the blanket over her head but the thing pulling back was stronger.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Daddy looking back at her.
“I’m going to show you something,” he said through his beer breath.
He held up his camera, the one that could shoot ten minute pieces of video. He brushed back her hair, took her hand and pressed play.
* * * *
First it showed a door. She thought it was her closet door, but then she saw her father’s hand reach out and knock on it. In response she heard sucking and grunting, like a pig except with a voice that said, ‘Go away, you can’t come… in… Go away!’
Daddy pushed the door open anyway and the camera focused on a little girl in a damsel costume. She was walking in circles and wincing in pain because her back was twisted and broken.
“Daddy! I wasn’t ready yet!” Her voice sounded crusty and her lips looked chalky and gray as her skin. Blood oozed from the scar on her wrist but it wasn’t as much, wasn’t as much as the rest of the…
Daddy was moving the camera around the carpet. One of the things was definitely a squirrel, another a cat. The big one was all taken apart with its fur lying beside it but she figured out from the narrow head that it had been a deer.
“I got you and Mommy all these presents for when you came home, I already told you I was putting on a show.”
That’s when Daddy’s hand shook a little on the camera. “Jenny, honey, they’re dead. Look at them.”
Her sister’s face twisted up, stretched its smile into its bruises and sneezed a clot of blood. “I am not Jenny. I am not Jennifer. I am Marsha. Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. You have forgotten me you fuckin’ drunk but Mommy did not that crazy bitch, she did not forget, I am Marsha.”
* * * *
The video shut off and Daddy dropped the camera on the carpet. He was a little hiccupy and Jen said she’d get him a beer and he said no, just tell me who you are.
“I’m Jennifer, Daddy,” she said, and he hugged her. They rocked on her bed for a while, rocked until the sun set over the development and the neighbor’s garage light seeped through the window and filled the room with its low white glow.
* * * *
The next day she saw a square red, white, and blue sign on the lawn that said Germack Realty. She asked Mom what it meant and she said it meant that you can’t save the house by poaching deer and putting them in the freezer.
Mom started dropping her off at school every morning and going on to her new job at a tanning salon at the mall. She seemed happy and like she had something important to do even though she wore the black slacks and lacy top a couple of times a week and on the other days just black.
Sometimes she sang the words ‘With or without you’ and humdie-hummed the rest while she drove.
* * * *
For weeks Jen was tired all the time at school but she did her work because she wanted to learn it really well. Her teacher said she was remarkable and brought her a fifth grade math book with long division and she did it all right.
“But we’re concerned there’s something wrong,” Mrs. Laring, the guidance counselor, told Mom. “Is everything okay at home? We know her father used to pick her up…”
“John’s not driving these days,” Mom said. “We’re under some financial pressure. But there’s no law against that, right?”
* * * *
Daddy had been calling in sick a lot and hanging around the house in his underwear watching TV. He still put his cap on sometimes, but baseball season was over. He mostly watched The History Channel now. Sometimes he asked her to come read a book on his lap. He smelled like unwashed hair and beer and he picked books that were too young for her like Barnyard Animals. She let him do it because she had to admit she liked to be held, and Mom wouldn’t do it because she was like a prickle-bush even if you sat a foot away from her in the car.
* * * *
One winter night the closet door opened and her sister’s body stumbled out naked. Her gray chest heaved like her dead lungs could catch their breath and her pressed-down cheeks spread in a jellyish smile. “My turn. My turn again.”
Jen nodded and got up out of her body. She didn’t bother looking back at it. She hated that it was her turn again but marched across the room because she had to, when you were sisters you had to take turns, even when you got dead.
* * * *
The closet had doorways this time. The first a paint-peeled paneled thing, like they had in old houses closer to downtown. It smelled wet, like rotted wood. When she opened it she fell through splinters and damp soil.
She landed on an iced-over lake with mountains all around it. Her legs crunched and shot with pain then stood her up and made her walk anyway. In the distance, somewhere between all the high, shadowy rocks, she knew the valley was there. She shivered when she thought of the eagle’s head and managed to steer toward the middle of the lake.
All around her vapors rose from the ice up into a sky filled with northern lights. Only these weren’t like the bluey-maroon northern lights Daddy had showed her once. They were pale and sagging, like ragged curtains and the stars flickered like dying moths. She felt her feet staggering up a silver ladder. The metal hurt her hands and the curtains began to open.
The ladder fell away and she was sitting in a theater. The audience was full of folding chairs, all empty except a few, and these were full of dressed skeletons that didn’t move.
But the people on the stage did move. An organist with a shrunken skull of a face danced his fingers across his keys. An old man in a soot-covered smock knelt behind him, stoking a pile of orange coals with hands that looked blistered and cooked. And in the center of the stage a black haired girl who looked a little like her sister but was way taller stood next to a table holding a cleaver. She was smiling the way salesgirls did at the mall. A line of parents and children trailed off to the right.
“Next customer,” the girl said while the organ warbled its aimless circusy music.
The mother and the boy in front began to fight. “You go… No, you go…” they cried. She heard words like ‘worthless’ and ‘hate you’ and the mother put her hands on the boy and he squirmed like an earthworm and tried to run off the stage until the girl with the cleaver said, “Okay, you first.”
She put him on the table and began chopping. Jen was thankful she could close her eyes, that in death they still let her close her eyes. But when the chopping stopped she had to open them.
“It’s just a doll, silly,” said the girl.
She stepped to the front of the stage and held out a naked, stuffed doll that was the boy, with red yarn where the blood should be.
The whole line breathed a sigh of relief and talked and giggled a little.
Jen breathed out and wiped the tears from her face. She thought her turn must be almost over. She looked up at the stage again to see if it was true.
But the girl was shaking the body in her hands. She was giving her salesclerk smile through the blood, saying, “A dolly? A silly? No it’s not, no it’s not, no it’s not.”
* * * *
Jen woke up downstairs on the living room sofa. Someone had wrapped her in blankets and left a tilted medicine bottle beside her with blue pills spilling out. She could tell by the sun it was afternoon, but not too late because the school bus wasn’t back and the whole development was quiet except for the hissing of the highway.
When she sat up she noticed there was a folded piece of paper on the coffee table. She picked it up and read the note:
* * * *
I left the deer in your bedroom.
* * * *
Jen had to cover her mouth then because she thought she was going to get sick. She couldn’t handle seeing another dead animal in her bedroom, its body full of bent bones and the diseases Mom looked up in her dictionary.
But when she got upstairs to her room, when she held her breath against the smell and opened the door, she saw that Marsha hadn’t left her a deer at all. She had left her Daddy.
He was lying on his back, tucked into her bed with his eyes wide open and a bead of blood in his nose. His t-shirt was on backwards and mashed with throw-up. The beer bottles lay scattered on the carpet, their brown city demolished, and someone had folded his hands over the camera on his chest.
* * * *
She heard Mom moving around downstairs while she picked it up and replayed the video. It was like she was waiting for Jen to get the message, get some kind of hint before she came upstairs for her.
But Jen didn’t want any kind of hint. She just wanted to see her father’s face, confused and sad as it sucked in beer after beer handed to him by the little hands that were also holding the camera. “But don’t you miss me? Don’t you miss me, too?” Marsha was saying.
“I love you both,” he said. “I love you both the same no matter who you are.”
She giggled. “You love this,” she said, handing him another beer.
“Not that much,” he said. “Not really, honey. I think I’m done. I’m just looking after you until your mother comes back. We’re selling the house and then we’re starting over. Just the three of us’re gonna go out and start all over…”
“Four of us, Daddy. Jenny and me.”
“Whatever you say, honey. Honey, did you cut your wrist? Your hip looks funny…”
* * * *
Mom didn’t come in that night. Jen heard her around the door with the drill doing something, but she didn’t come in and Jen didn’t get up and go to her. She was too busy looking from her bed to the camera to the closet. Looking after Daddy for one more night because he didn’t scare her, it was okay he was there. And Marsha didn’t come for her either. The night passed with the carpet and the bottles and the body. She even thought of doing some math. Mr. Bartek had taught her what a variable was, how a variable could be anywhere in an equation…
* * * *
When Mom finally came for her, she was wearing the black funeral top. She gave her a starchy hug that scratched her skin and called her ‘you poor child.’ She cried a lot and kept away from the EMT people and police people and brought her into her bedroom when she said she’d be staying a while. Mom’s bedroom was a lot bigger but not much different from hers since the toys were gone. It was all white walls with the same blue carpet as the rest of the house. And its closet had a sliding door.
When it was open Jen noticed the damsel costume hanging on the rack. Beside it hung other costumes and dresses. Lots of white ones and below them shoes and a guitar. On the far side of the room stood a little wooden riser that was kind of like a stage.
But when Marsha came out it was still from Jen’s closet. Mom would leave the door open at night and Jen would hear her uneven footsteps thudding up the hall. Her sister would round the corner then and smile, throw out her stiff arms and rip Jen out of Mom’s bed by her neck. She would say, “Your turn!” not like she was making a deal anymore. She would say it bossy and rough and Mom would keep her eyes closed, her wrinkly mouth kind of smiling in her sleep.
* * * *
Jen usually had bruises in the morning because the bones rained hard in the valley. Her ears echoed with the moaning of the dead and her eyes were wide and bloodshot all day long because if she even blinked the eagle’s face was there…
She still liked solving equations at school but everything else she could barely do. The teachers never bothered her about it because of what happened with her father. They shook their heads because he drank himself to death in his daughter’s own bed. She once overheard Mom and the guidance counselor talking about it again saying at least the insurance covered the house, at least she had that stability during her difficult time.
* * * *
But when Mom wasn’t there, Mrs. Laring still stared at her a lot. There was no way she could hide the bruises from her turns being dead. The nightmares were getting worse because after the insurance people stopped coming around, Mom moved her back in her room. Whenever she was in, Mom shut and locked the door after her, and when Jen asked why, she just ignored her. If she yelled or tried to fight her, Mom’s eyes narrowed into her tan and her lips got tight. “I could have them put you away, little missy,” Mom said. “I could have them put you somewhere way worse than a bedroom with a lock on the door.”
Mom started making her watch shows about insane asylums before bed. Sometimes they were movies, sometimes they were like the news, like stories about real places. They were always bad and showed people getting shocked. She said as long as Jen went to school and came home she wouldn’t have to go there.
She even brought Jen math books for her afternoon lock-ups. She always made sure she used the bathroom first and said not to make any noise because she was going for her nap. Mom always did this after work now, like she didn’t want to sleep at night.
And sometimes, if Mom left her alone with the TV while she was in the shower or out a few minutes in the yard, Jen would sneak upstairs and look in her bedroom. She’d peek her head in and see the little stage, where sometimes the guitar was left out, sometimes the costumes were lying around on the floor.
* * * *
Once Mrs. Laring pulled her out of class at school. She told Jen she wanted to talk to her on her own. She had candy and snacks in her office that day, and a man in a suit with a cell phone on his hip. He had short, buzz-cut hair like a baseball player, like Daddy used to have. He looked strong and confident, like he thought he could do things to help people. Mrs. Laring said his name was Ray and he did a job like hers and just wanted to talk.
They offered her the snacks and asked how she was doing. They asked about her father and her mother and eventually they asked about the bruises.
“They happen at night,” she said.
“What do you mean at night? How do they happen at night?” asked Mrs. Laring.
“They’re from the bones. Or sometimes the girl on the stage.”
Mrs. Laring and Ray looked at each other. Ray pulled his chair a little closer to hers. “Jennifer,” he said, “do you ever feel confused? I mean does Jennifer ever feel confused if she’s Jennifer… maybe doesn’t want to be Jennifer?”
Jen looked at him. “I’m Jennifer,” she said. “Are you a guidance counselor or a policeman?”
Ray frowned, took a deep breath. “I work for The Department of Human Services,” he said. “I want to help you if I can. Jennifer, I know sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth. I know sometimes the truth hurts so badly it’s like we want to be somebody else.”
“I don’t want to be anybody else,” she said. “I know you think I’m crazy, but I’m not crazy at all. I’m Jen and I have problems but it’s not what you think.”
“Then tell us. If you tell us the truth, we can help. If you tell us the truth, we won’t think you’re crazy at all.”
“Okay,” said Jen. “I take turns being dead with my sister. Her body comes out of the closet at night. She puts on her damsel costume and sings songs for my mother while I go to where it’s dark and rains bones and the eagle eats the kids and their parents.”