In part as thanks to the folks who have given me good feedback on Slash of Crimson, I’d like to offer some free fiction here on my blog. This story first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Macabre Cadaver. It would require only a moderately enterprising Internet search to pull up the free PDF in the online magazine’s archive. Yet whether you’re rushing through a busy schedule, or relaxing with something cold and quenching, sometimes an extra click can be a click too many. So over the next few weeks I will be posting this short story as a spooky four part serial. It begins innocently enough, yet becomes a strong tonic for those who grin at the gruesome.
Without further ado, Sisters Inside Out, Part 1:
When Jen was seven and her sister Marsha was eight, they went in their mother’s room and played a game called princess-wedding. It meant they tried on all her clothes like they were making a princess ready for a prince. Of course Marsha got to be the princess, and there was no taking turns because she said it wasn’t that kind of game. Instead she put a silver belt around her head like it was a crown and wore a lacy top she called Mommy’s jammies. She twirled and twirled in the strange clothes and said ‘Look at me’ while she watched herself in the mirror.
But Jen didn’t care if her sister was being weird. It was worth it just to get to see her so grown up and pretty. And anyway that’s not what made Jen mad. What made her mad was when they got caught and she threw off the clothes and said it was all Jen’s idea and she was trying to make her stop. She got to do that and be the princess. That wasn’t fair.
Another day Marsha had her friend Sally over and they were making up songs on her guitar. Jen wanted to play too, but Marsha said she didn’t know how and to go away. Jen stormed off swearing she’d tell on her.
But when their mother came home tired and complaining about traffic, Marsha said she had a special surprise. She sang a song she made up called Sweet Little Sister to the tune of Hush Little Baby. Daddy came home in the middle of it and both her parents said how cute it was and said for Jen to go give her sister a big kiss.
It was hard not to, she looked so sweet with her black curls and her glassy smile. It was hard not to be confused, too, when her sister changed her mind and acted weird-nice.
* * * *
When fall came and Jen was eight and Marsha was nine, Marsha got to keep a costume from a play she was in. It was a damsel suit with puffy pink sleeves and a sparkly cap Mom said was the color of champagne. Mom loved that Marsha was good at being in plays and let her wear the costume all around the house.
Jen didn’t want to say anything about it, not really. But Halloween was coming up and she didn’t have a costume. Daddy said he’d take her to the mall to pick one out but Mom said no, it was too much money, she could make something simple. “But that’s not fair. Look what Marsha has, it’s not simple.”
“Honey, Marsha got that because she was in the theater.”
Jen hated the way Mom said theater. Like it was a rainbow or something that nobody could do anything about. “It’s still not fair,” said Jen. “She should at least take turns.”
That night Mom and Daddy argued, even through half of Daddy’s baseball game. But after they came to Jen’s room with the damsel costume and said she could wear it trick-or-treating.
For a while Jen was scared, wondering what Marsha was doing, if they had to tear it away from her. But mostly she was just happy, and she fell asleep dreaming of how she would look. The next night Daddy had only taken her around one block when she tore her sleeve on a metal fence. She was already scared that Marsha was really mad at her because she had decided not to come, and when they got home her sister stopped playing guitar and glared up at her. “Give me back my costume,” she said.
* * * *
The next weekend was an Indian summer and Daddy took everyone on a hike. Mom didn’t want to go in case it got cold again, but Daddy said it would be good for everyone to get out before they were cooped up all winter.
Marsha hadn’t spoken to Jen all week and when they got out at the picnic area, she started going right up the side of the hill. Jen really wanted to just play down by the stream, but she followed after her sister anyway, with her mother muttering, “Be careful, Jenny.”
Daddy was no help either because he was already getting out beer and sandwiches, and Jen could barely see her sister among all the slanted trees. As she ran to catch up, burdocks stuck to her dress and thorns tore at her sweater. I guess you’re just trying to get back at me, she thought.
By the time she got to the top both of them were running. Marsha stopped herself at the edge of a deep crack in the hill that looked like it was sucking little branches and trees down inside it. It felt like it was sucking Jen too, because she was going so fast she couldn’t stop herself from going over. Just in time she threw out her hand and caught a sticky little pine trunk.
When she looked up at her sister for help, Marsha’s eyes looked stern and slit shaped. She started walking toward her, feet thumping on the packed grass. Jen told herself her sister didn’t look like she was about to do the meanest thing ever. She told herself she was putting her hands out to help her back up.
But just as she reached her, Marsha’s foot caught on a root. Her body folded and fell, one arm reaching back for a branch, just like Jen’s had. Except instead she banged it against the rock ledge and cut open her wrist before plunging into the dark.
* * * *
For months and months after that Mom was sad and worried and crying all the time. She even quit her part time job, to cope with loss, she said, and to keep an eye on her Jenny’s health. Daddy’s change was a little different. He stayed up late at night watching baseball games downstairs. Sometimes when she went down for a drink of water she saw the TV glowing blue on his face and beer bottles stacked on the coffee table like a brown city.
But Daddy was still always nice, and if he saw her, he said things like, ‘Stick around, be my good luck charm,’ and ‘I can burp. Why can’t he pitch?’
But Jen left Daddy be and went back up to her room where she liked it okay even though things were hard. In her room she got her homework done. When she got her homework done, her teachers said how good she was doing. She began to think she could handle second grade math and wondered about how Marsha used to have such a hard time with it.
All Marsha’s toys were piled in the corner of her room. The doll house, the train track, the plastic fairies. The stuffed unicorn and champagne-colored damsel cap. All of it belonged to Jen now. And it was weird because she used to think their house was too plain, just like all the others in the development. The walls were all white, and her room was just a square with blue carpeting stretched from one end to the other, right into the closet.
But now with all of Marsha’s stuff it seemed crowded. The toys made shadows on the walls from her nightlight, and if she turned it off, they used the pale light from the neighbor’s garage and looked even worse. Something about its glare reminded her of how the development wasn’t near any regular roads. It just had trees on one side and the highway on the other. She didn’t mind the deer that passed silently by, but the highway was always weird-noisy, just out of sight and hissing all the time.
Mom always said Jen had a hard time falling asleep because of the things she looked up in her medical dictionaries. Things like childhood depression and PTSD and other stuff. But to Jen it wasn’t any of these things so much as the hissing highway and the big emptiness that felt heavy even though it was full of nothing.
* * * *
One night she had a strange dream. She dreamt she was standing in her room and she could look back at her body lying on the bed. She walked across the carpet, in and out of the shadows of the toys. She was walking toward the closet door, and she had a funny feeling, a tickling in her sleep. The toys seemed to give off a soft rattle each time she stepped, and she noticed, lying off to her right among the shadows, was her sister’s damsel costume from a few Halloweens back. It was all nice and neat, like somebody wanted it to be put on but didn’t know it was ready.
* * * *
The next morning she got up for school and almost forgot about the dream because of the yelling.
It was because instead of coffee with breakfast Daddy was having a beer. But the weird thing was Daddy didn’t look soupy like he did during his games. He looked quiet and straight faced. Jen ate her cereal and when Mom was done yelling about the beer and looking up cirrhosis of the liver, Daddy took out a bill and started talking calmly about the credit card. He talked about Mommy’s medical dictionary and the mortgage. He talked about the price of groceries and how he was going to have to work overtime instead of taking them up to Crawford Notch.
Jen went upstairs and still didn’t think of her dream until she went in her room and saw the damsel costume lying out on the floor. That’s when she got angry and shaky and slid down on her bottom beside her bed. She didn’t want it to be this way, with her sister dead and her parents yelling all the time. It was stupid.
Then she had a weird idea. She stood up and went to the window. She looked out at the wispy trees and deer shapes moving among them. She imagined carrying all of Marsha’s things deep into the woods and walking until she reached the crack in the hill. There she would throw them one by one down into the dark…
“Jen, hurry up, you’ll miss the bus!”
Her mother’s yelling interrupted her daydream. She ran downstairs, grabbed her backpack and ran halfway to the bus stop when she noticed one of Marsha’s toys caught in her straps. It was the stuffed unicorn with the rainbow colored horn.
When the late bus finally got her to school, she had missed homeroom and Mr. Windle even said he was going to take away her toy. That’s when she said it was a present for Lana Haine.
Lana Haine looked up when she said this. She had short, dirty hair and people always said she never took a bath. An aspirin colored pimple stuck out on her face and people said it was because she was supposed to be not one but two more grades ahead. Jen walked right over to her in front of Mr. Windle and put the unicorn on her desk. Lana Haine didn’t say anything when she did it, and neither did anyone else.
But later during recess she came up and said a stuttered thank you. “C-can I really keep it?” she asked. Jen nodded yes.
Mr. Windle watched her with a funny look on his face. He asked her after lunch if the toy was really hers and if it was really okay with her parents for her to give it away. She said it was, but Mr. Windle called her father to pick her up after school and asked again. Daddy lifted his Red Sox cap once and scratched his head. But when Jen said, “It’s okay, it’s just clutter,” he shrugged and told Mr. Windle he was taking her home.
After that Jen began bringing in a toy every couple of days and giving it away. She stopped for a week sometimes, but always started again. She was amazed at how much stuff her sister had, but was determined to go through it all. The shadowy pile of it still bothered her at night, funnier shaped now that it was slowly disappearing. But knowing it would one day be gone kept her going.
Finally on her ninth birthday she was down to the last toy. It was the damsel costume with its pointy, champagny cap. Her mother came upstairs that night, her hair even shorter and dyed darker than the last time she cut it. She said, “I hope you don’t expect much for your birthday. Especially now that you gave away all your sister’s things.”
She closed Jen’s bedroom door on her and went back downstairs. It was the only thing she ever said about giving away the toys, and also the first time Jen thought about how she was turning nine, the same age Marsha was when she died.
* * * *
That night she had the dream again about getting up and looking back at her bed. Her body looked black and hunched under the blankets. Her hair looked damp with sweat and her face pale and frowning. She wanted to go back to herself, but her legs lurched and pulled her the other way. It was like some part of herself was angry at another as she went step, step, step, toward the closet door.
It looked so tall in front of her, glowing blankly by the neighbor’s garage light, the shape like a diagram from the last page of her math book. “It looks hard,” she said aloud, like she was talking to somebody.
That’s when the door opened and her sister entered the room. She was much shorter than Jen now, mostly because her back was broken and twisted to one side. She still wore the clothes from the day she fell, her shirt ripped and all covered with dried blood and her wrist cut with a jagged purple scar. When Jen tried to turn away, Marsha grabbed her head and twisted it around to face a pair of bruised eyes that looked like they’d been punched.
“Don’t you know why I’m here?” she asked.
Jen realized then she was crying in her sleep, her body shaking back on the bed.
But Marsha was in the way, and she couldn’t go past.
“Don’t you know?”
Jen shook her head. There was blood between Marsha’s teeth and they looked small and dirty, full of soil.
“I’m here because you have to take turns. It isn’t fair if you don’t take turns.”
“What do you mean,” said Jen, “what’s not fair?”
Her sister’s bloody smile rose up out of her rags. “Being dead,” she said.
Jen’s body began shaking harder on the bed, heaving with its sobs. Marsha swayed to the sound, like she was dancing to strange music, like she had the day she dressed up in her mother’s mirror. “It was me who fell, but it should have been you,” she sang. “It was me who had the talent and you who makes mom cry…”
“Wait,” said Jen, “that’s not fair!”
“What’s fair,” said Marsha, “is taking turns. Isn’t it your turn to die? Come on, just for a while. You’ve lived all this time. And you’ll live again. But me, what do I have?” Here her sister seemed to change, shudder in her ruined body, blood pulsing at her wrist and mouth like now that’s how she cried. “Please, you have to take turns. You don’t know what it’s like… over there.”
Marsha pointed to the closet.
Jen saw that it was dark there. The light should have spilled in a little, but she couldn’t see the wall or the carpet. It was only dark.
“You want to take turns being dead?” Jen asked.
Marsha’s teeth clicked as she nodded yes.
“But how does it work? When do we start?”
“We start tonight…” said Marsha.
That’s when Jen saw her own body get up from the bed. It walked to the closet and stepped inside. She felt a sucking at the rest of her, at what had come out in her dream.
“Say yes! It’s my turn! Say yes, say yes!” cried her sister.
Jen wanted to scream ‘no’ as she fell, but then thought of Mom and Dad, how they hadn’t paid attention, thought of the mean look on her sister’s face from the day when she fell. I’ve never been like them, she thought. I’ve always taken fair turns. So instead of no, her mouth opened and said yes, just to be fair, she said yes.