The flowers next to her coffin are white. White roses and I know her eyes would be rolling if they weren’t glued shut. Roses are for pussies. Mama would frown. Tell her not to cuss. Not to dirty her pretty mouth with foulness like that. But Mama would be proud. Always proud. Her daughter was like her.
The visitors – my family, I suppose – move like oil between this room and the next where there are couches and tea and little cupcake sandwiches Aunt Dottie so thoughtfully procured for this event of hers. White cakes with pink frosting squishing between the patties and unto the white china she had ordered. I stay here, by the picture. By the bed with the lid. Everyone has already said hello to me – Hello, dear. So sorry. Much too young. Anything you need… and now they keep their distance.
I tell them thank you. Thank you for coming. Thank you for your kindness. I’m not sure why they are to be thanked or why I should feel thankful, but I do. It is nice of them to come. No one came to Mother’s. Except for Dottie.
That was the last time I saw her. When mother was where she is now. I told her not to go back. Not to that house. Please, Jane.
“I’ll be fine. Mom was sick.”
Mom was sick. And so was Jane. And so was that house. And so am I.
Dottie hands me a glass of water and I drink. My mouth is cloudy, like I ate sawdust for breakfast. Dottie doesn’t say anything and I am grateful for that. She squeezes my shoulders and pulls my hand to her lips. Then she goes to the other room to check on her guests. I turn back to the large printed image of Jane. It was taken when she was still at school, the brick of Fordham’s administration building behind her, leaves floating down around her in her fall sweater as though she had just thrown them in the air before posing, hugging her arms to her chest and laughing. I hardly recognize her. She does not look like Mama, thank god. But I wish she looked more like she belonged to us. She doesn’t. She was her own and I did not know her.
The coffin stays closed and I thank god Dottie had the sense to do that. She would not look like the girl in the picture. Not anymore. I wonder if she looks like Mama under the lid. Maybe now, after being in that house, her flesh would look tight on her bones. Hungry. Like Mama’s skin. I can picture her. Wild. Destroyed. Inhuman. I close the lid in my mind.
Outside the window, the funeral home, it is snowing. It was snowing the day we moved in, too. Snow on the hardwood. Soaking in. It wasn’t good for the wood, but the house had been old long before we got there. The wood had gone bad before we were born, probably. Maybe before the house was even built. The air was bad. The land was bad, as though an enormous black serpent spit venom into the ground, and the house rose from the bile.
Mama said the warped wood gave the house character. That’s what Mama wanted. A house with character. Daddy had been with us then. He kissed her smile, I saw it when we opened the door. Her smile. Look, David. It has such a personality. Such character.
The snow had made the drive difficult. The hill. The woods. Thank god it wasn’t dark. And Daddy was a good driver. He only ever used one hand. The other was for Mama. She held in in her lap and ran her fingers over his knuckles, fuzzy with dark coils of hair. Jane and I made snow angels when we parked in front of our new home. We didn’t have our snow pants on and Daddy yelled. You wanna freeze to death? But he laughed. We laughed, too. We were all glad to be out of the van. The air was cold but good. Good then. Bad later. I had never breathed air that good before or since. It was clean. Hot in the lungs like a good meal in the stomach. Piercing. Filling. Heaven’s air. Jane’s cheeks were rosy. She was eating the snow, pink mittens drawing globs of sparkling white to her tongue. Her skin, strawberries, and cream. Eyes like Daddy’s – always smiling. A gap where she was missing front teeth. Slush spilled over her mitten-colored lips, globs of snow and spit, and she laughed like little kids do. All breath and slobber. She was immaculate.
I look at the picture again. There is no gap between her canines. Jane’s teeth had filled in nicely, though I cannot recall if she had braces. I don’t think so. No, I only recall my trips to the orthodontist. Dottie had insisted I get them. My bottom teeth overlapped. She did not want me to be ugly. There had been enough ugliness in my life.
The women in the other room laugh. Dottie is telling one story or another to relieve the tears. It might be one of two stories. Maybe the time Jane got arrested for riding in the bed of her friend’s truck without a top on in high school? Or when we were children and ran away with the neighbor’s dog because Dottie wouldn’t let us have our own. We had come home an hour later because we were hungry and because the Tanners’ miniature schnauzer shit in my bicycle basket.
There are very few funny stories Dottie could tell about us.
The ladies’ laughter rattles my bones and I need something else. I don’t know what, but Jane’s picture is beginning to swirl, a darkness moving somewhere just out of frame. I need to leave before it creeps around my sister’s printed ankles and wraps around her flesh like barbed wire. Ripping open her ripped jeans and spilling her blood in the leaves.
Blood in the snow. Jane! There’s blood in the snow!
Snow outside. White clouds.
Jane, there’s blood.
Snow angels. We made snow angels.
Whose blood is that?
I see Dottie now. She pulls my hand to the back door and tells me to go outside so I do. Dottie hands me my coat. It was Mama’s coat. It’s deep green like pine needles. Christmas tree needles.
We had a Christmas tree that year. The year we moved into that house. We all went together to pick it out. Daddy chopped it down and dragged it home.
With an ax. Daddy had an ax.
Dottie tells me to take some time. Get some air. Come back in when I’m ready. She closes the door and it is quiet. So blessedly quiet and my mind eases. Silently, I thank my aunt. She has never understood. She never visited us when we lived in the house. But she always knows best. Thank god for Dottie. I stare down the alley behind the funeral home. Grey slush is melting in the gutters and again, I can see my little sister chewing on snow. But the image is just an image now. Not so loud. No cars drive past, but I can hear them on Main Street and am glad for their company. Glad it isn’t completely silent. I might go mad.
Like the Mad-Hatter. From Alice in Wonderland.
Alice fell down the rabbit hole.
Down the rabbit hole. Down the well.
“Stop it,” I say again.
Down the well like Daddy. Like Daddy. Like Daddy. Like Daddy.
My voice scares my thoughts and my mind slows. For a moment. I look at the street again. It is blurred and I blink until the tears spill from over my bottom lids. My cheeks are red and burn under the wet. It is still snowing and the cold is angry. My lips —
— are peeling. I bite at the skin until the pictures slow. I focus on the snow. Watching it fall, painted. I always thought of snow like paint. Houses under snow always looked like lovely paintings, no matter how uninteresting the house. Even Dottie’s house looked like a picture in a book when it was covered in a cap of white. I watch the painted flakes fall, covering my green –
– shoulders and melting. I breathe, shaky and loud, but at least I am breathing.
They aren’t. They aren’t breathing, Katherine. You’re the last one. You know what that means?
It’s waiting for you, Katherine. The house is waiting.
“I’m never going back there.”
The well. It’s waiting.
And everyone is down there. Waiting for you, Kat.
My hands weave through my hair and yank. The curls Dottie sprayed this morning now pull taught between my fingers, brittle in the cold. The pain is fierce but silent. My eyes open and I can feel the coolness of my mascara dripping on the flesh under my sockets. It is a sticky, foreign feeling. I never learned how to do makeup. Jane did mine for my prom. My wedding, too, but that also came off in tears. I try to think of her, on those nights. Nights when I sat in front of the mirror, Jane painting my face and burning the tops of my ears with her curling iron. Me yelling at her. Giggling in tune to “Hey There, Delilah” playing over and over on her purple boombox. Her trying to make me see something in the mirror other than the woman standing over the well with –
With the ax
– with hollowness under her eyes. I looked so much like Mama as a girl. I still would if I hadn’t cut and dyed my hair. If I hadn’t taken pains to put on a little weight to scare the angles of her away. Jane tried, too. She tried hard to keep the image of Mama off of me. I suppose she didn’t want to see it either.
I breathe and am glad to find I still can. The air burns hot in my body like it did the day we left the car for the snow and the house hiding beneath it. But this air is safe. It is soothing. There is no house. No well. Just the alley and the molten smell of car exhaust behind the funeral home. I breathe. I breathe. I breathe and I feel alright. The whispers stop. The pictures run with them. There is a wall of Lincoln logs, like the ones Jane used to put in her mouth and scream Tootsies!, in my head. It is a toy wall. One I know will break and let the waters run, but for now, I am alright. I can sit and chat with the ladies wearing black hats with lace. I can eat the cakes. I can smile and tell stories of Jane. I know more than Dottie does and I suppose I can tell them now. No one will get in trouble for silly, lively things anymore. There is no one left on whom to tattle.
“Okay,” I say and wipe the snot from the tops of my lips. “Okay, okay.”
I take my phone from my pocket and click the side so the screen goes black. I assess the dark reflection and gently pick the crumbs of waterproof mascara from my cheekbones, careful not to wipe and make them spread like —
Blood in the snow
– like ink. Like Ink. I wipe the ink away and assess my overall appearance. It is dim, but not entirely tragic. Mama would have been prettier, too, with some weight on her face. I go inside.
The respectful babbling is still there. Their voices hover above their cakes. They are sweet, the women, and I am glad for their presence. I go to them.
“How you doin’, sweet?” Dottie wraps an arm around my shoulders. She squeezes. I smile. “Want some hot chocolate?”
“Yes,” I say quickly. Nothing in the world would feel better than hot chocolate. The women are drinking coffee. I can smell it. But Dottie knows I despise it. Jane grew quicker than I did. She loved coffee at ten. Poked fun at me in our teens for still drinking hot chocolate in coffee shops. But I remember nights –
In the house
– in front of the fire with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Cheeks still stinging and eyes still blurring pink from playing outside –
By the well
– in the woods.
Dottie returns. Hands me the cup and I want to cry; it’s so perfect. It warms my hands and soothes me the way only hot chocolate can. I chat with the ladies. It is pleasant. They ask how work is and it takes a moment to remember what work is exactly. What a silly thing to discuss when my sister lies in the other room, surrounded by white flowers she hates and to which she cannot object. Silly indeed, but nice. I tell them it’s lovely. We have a new exhibit coming in, one from a man who sculpts on very small surfaces — hair, thread, teeth. That’s great, am I seeing anyone? I tell them, yes, but it’s very early — only a few dates. I say this because it is mostly true, but it also satisfies them. Women always want to hear of men. Of possible weddings, they might attend.
I finish my hot chocolate and search for the garbage. It is by the door. I ask them to excuse me and leave to throw my cup away, taking a few of the ladies’ dessert plates with me. I pass the open door where Jane is sleeping without looking in on her. I press the plates into the can. They break with that awful styrofoam scratch and again, I am glad to hear something on the outside. Something other than myself between my ears.
I turn back to the women but I freeze. There is someone in the other room. Someone standing over my sister and I feel the ice from outside slip under the door and into my flesh. I know who it is. She is standing –
Over the well
– over Jane, her back to me. I remember her shape. I remember the calm without warrant. It is there now. Her head rises. I can feel her feel me and I have to get away before she turns. Before I see her face that once was mine. The face she gave me that I’ve done my best to replace. I have to –
Go to her
– get away.
Go to her, Kat. Go see your mother.
I hurry past the door. I see Dottie’s face move to concern, but I smile at her and beg them to excuse me once more. The bathroom is downstairs. I need it now. A door that locks. I need a room to myself. I touch the stairs and feel my legs weaken, but I force them to stay upright. I cannot cause a scene. I cannot cause a scene.
Come, Kat. Don’t cause a scene.
There is carpet in the downstairs lounge. Red and gold like the one in Dottie’s living room. Chairs and a loveseat covered in crushed green velvet that look like no one has sat in them in eighty years. But they have. I know they have. This space is for people like me. People who need to be alone. The bathroom is on my right and I lock the door behind me.
The room is small. Thank god. I couldn’t bear the emptiness of anything larger. I stand at the sink, in front of the mirror. My mouth has gone dry and I am hot, despite the coolness of the basement. I turn on the faucet and cup my hand under, bringing it to my lips over and over again. It is metallic, the smell touching me before the taste, but I don’t care. It is wet and I am dry and I need to –
I stare into the mirror. Behind me, the toilet has vanished. The checkered tile floor, too. There is dirt. Wet dirt. The snow. Pine needles. And the well. Behind it, there is no bathroom wall cradling the painting of an angel. Only darkness and trees. Fear grips me like the breath before a sneeze, holding me. I cannot move. I can barely see, the tears have overwhelmed me. But I can hear. Them.
Kat! We missed you, Kat! Come, Kat, everyone’s waiting. Drinkkk, Kat. Come and drink.
I feel my skin calm. The tears spill onto my cheeks and I can see again. I am still shaking. I turn to the well. They are laughing. I feel the absurd impulse to laugh too. Or scream. Or both, but I stay silent as I go to the stony edge, the smell of stale water filling my lungs. The air is cold and I am glad I had not taken off my coat. Snow falls on me and it is like a hug. I hear something, far back inside me, begging. Don’t.
But I do. I look over the edge and, yes. They are there.
“Stars! Look, Kat, there are stars in the well!”
Jane, sitting on the well’s edge, points her mittened hands down. I look over and, yes, there are stars in the well. Our new house has a well outside, full of stars. It is a dark black pit with yellow eyes.
I remember it all like a flood. I see it happen, repeat in front of me in the basement of the funeral home that is now the house’s yard. Mama comes to us. Sees what was in the well. A shock for her, too. She calls for Daddy.
Daddy says it is normal. He holds Jane in his lap on the lip of the well and explains.
“It’s so deep it is like a telescope. You’re looking at the water at the bottom, reflecting the stars up there.” He points up to the grey clouded sky over our heads. I tell him it doesn’t make sense. How can the well see through the clouds if we can’t?
“It isn’t seeing anything, Kat. It’s a well.”
But it was seeing. It saw Jane. It saw me. It saw Mama.
At night, the stars rose from the water. They came to our window. They pulled Jane out of bed. I couldn’t hear them, but she could. She stood in my doorway, wearing Daddy’s Atlanta Braves sweatshirt that fell to her ankles. Her feet snuggled in thick winter socks and her snow boots. She was holding her Bunny, a white rabbit Mama had given her for Valentine’s Day years before. She was smiling.
“Kat, come on! They want to show us!”
“The people in the well. The stars! Come on!”
I heard the voices in the hallway, but they meant nothing to me. Hushes and syllables. Mama and Daddy were talking behind their bedroom door, but there were other voices. Ones I could not follow.
“What are they saying?” I ask my little sister.
“They’re glad we came. They’ve been alone for a really long time.”
Outside, the cold did not touch us, but the snow swept wildly. A blizzard. The voices grew louder. I stared at the air, the woods, the white around us, and saw between it all the stars. Vaguely. Like they were there, but when you moved your eye to them they’d hide away. But they were all around us, glowing soft between the black bars of the trees. The stars were whispering.
“What?” I asked.
“They said they like you. You don’t get cold.”
She stopped at the well and looked me over. I followed her eyes. I had come out into a blizzard, walked through the snow, without shoes.
I came to her, stood by her side, and let her listen. The voices spoke to her in words I could not know. Jane frowned. She nodded. She kissed her Bunny, held it over the cavern, and let it drop.
“Jane!” I leaned over the mouth, greystone biting my palms as I gripped it and watched the white rabbit disappear into the dark. There was no splash. Daddy lied. There was no water.
The stars began to blink, slowly like tired eyes, then went out. There was nothing in the well. Nothing now, but dark. Jane smiled her gap-tooth smile and walked back to the house. Snow covered her head until it was only white.
The next night, the stars came to me. They whispered from the foot of my bed.
“Katherine. Wake up, Kat. Come to the well.”
“Who are you?” I asked the darkness eating the edge of my comforter.
“We’re your friends, Kat. We haven’t had friends in so longggg. It’s lonely down here. Won’t you come see us? Come see your friendssss.”
I got out of bed. The floor creaked under my Santa socks as I tiptoed into the hall. Jane was already up and standing in her doorway. She held nothing and wore pants.
“Can you hear them?”
“Yes,” I said. “Can you?”
She shook her head. They weren’t there for her that night.
Outside, the lights surrounded me. Flew beside me, touched my hair, felt my skin. They were cheering. They welcomed us back. Jane followed me out to the well. She looked to me for something. To tell her what they were saying. Light surrounded her, pulling at her clothes, dancing on her shoulders, but she didn’t react. She could not see them.
“Thank you, Kat! Thank you for coming! We missed you down here!”
“What, Kat?” Jane pulled on my pajama sleeve.
“We are all so lonelyyyy down here. Leave a friend for us, pleeassse, Kat. Give us Jane.”
“Yesss. Give us Jane. She’ll be so much happier with us down here with us. Bunny is here!”
I shook my head, and stepped back.
“Katherine. Give us your sister!”
There was silence. The stars blinked and went out. They were upset, but that was alright. They would be back tomorrow and I would give them something then. An old stuffed animal or one of my Barbies. But I would not give them Jane.
I woke up in the morning screaming. Something was burning. My stomach stung. I threw the covers off and ran to the bathroom I shared with my sister. I stood in the mirror. My pajama shirt was wet. Stained with blood. I pulled it off. The skin on my stomach was torn, carved with deep, jagged letters that spelled, Give us Jane. That phrase, over and over.
Jane opened the door and I saw her in the mirror, tears in her eyes. She was staring at my stomach, at the ruin there. I found the first aid kit under the sink and put myself together.
“They did that?” she asked. I nodded. “Does it hurt?” I nodded. Janes’s face broke and she cried bitterly, “They ruined my stuffies.”
She led me to her room and I saw what she meant. Her collection of bears and dolls and bunnies and fluffs had been slain. Heads on the floor, arms and legs hanging over furniture. Torsos stuck to the walls and snowy white innards strewn around the room. It had been a massacre in the night. Jane looked to me, but I said nothing.
Daddy called for us and I put on a clean shirt before we went downstairs. He was going into the woods to find a tree for Christmas and wanted us to come. We would spend the afternoon decorating. Mama leaned on the kitchen counter, a warm turtle neck hugging her body. I asked if she was going to come with us.
“Oh, no. You girls go with your father. I’ll have cookies and hot chocolate ready for you.” I should have noticed it, but I did not. The tugs at her sweater. The hollowness under her eyes. It was there that morning, but I did not see. The flesh on my stomach burned and the prospect of leaving the house, taking comfort in the woods, away from the well, filled me with relief. I did not notice the whiteness in my mother’s face. The darkness in her eyes.
Daddy dragged our tree home. We helped as much as we could. Jane carried the ax, but Daddy did most of the work. Dragging it. Through the snow like a –
– a casket. Pine needles trickled in its wake. A heavy depression scraped in the white from the woods to our back door. We set the tree up in the living room. Mama was gone, the cookies and hot chocolate left on the table for us. We sat down, and Jane’s excited giggles washed away the night. I felt nothing beneath the bandages. The winter air had renewed us. Jane sipped from her Spongebob mug and grimaced. It was cold. Icy. We looked at one another. Everything was cold. The room was cold. The blue lights twinkling from the den floor, where Daddy had plugged them in to make sure they worked. Cold. The house was chilled and silent like a crypt. Daddy felt it, too. He was the closest to the front door. Mama had left it open when she’d gone out. Gone –
To the well
– outside. Daddy told us to stay. He shut the door behind him. I put our mugs in the microwave. The kitchen was icy. The hot chocolate came out, hot this time. It did little to warm us. We heard Daddy shout. A few times. The back door opened. He had Mama. She was grey, eyes black. Jane shrieked. Mama looked like a dead thing. In the last few hours we’d been gone, she dropped half of her weight. Her skin was the color of snow. No, of slush. Grey in a gutter. Her cheekbones stabbed through her skin like a broken hanger in a trash bag.
“Girls, go to your rooms. Mommy’s sick.”
Sick. Yes, Jane told me that already. Where have you been Dad? Oh, yes – In the well.
Jane came to my room with me. Night fell fast and we slept. Lightly. We were afraid the stars would return. They did. Not to us, but they did return. We heard the voices. Distantly, coming through our sleep like voices underwater. It woke us, but not enough. What woke us was the banging.
The thumps. Heavy. Like someone was dropping a bowling ball on the hardwood. Jane’s eyes were wide. She held the front of my shirt, peeling slightly the bandages from my torn skin beneath the fabric. It hurt, but in the back, way back in my head behind the thumping sounds. The upstairs hall was dark, but the light glowing up the wall from the Christmas tree in the den let us see the stairs. Jane held my waist, whispering to herself as we crept. I do not know what she said. I was listening to the radio that sat on the microwave in the kitchen. Bing Crosby’s voice pounded in my ears. The volume ached.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Evvvvv’rywhere you go.”
Downstairs, we submerged in an underwater world, blue lights twinkling to move the walls like waves. The cold bled through my socks. Jane gripped tighter and I felt new blood prickling into the bandages, but I let her hold. The kitchen light was off. I so badly wanted to turn the radio off or hit it until the sound of something breaking satisfied me. But I did not. If I had reached for the light, we would have seen that Mama had painted the floor. A gruesome, sticky red smeared out of the open back door. We did not. We went outside. Bing followed us, singing about a grand hotel. A sturdy tree doesn’t mind the snow.
The snow was red. Puddles in the dent where Daddy had pulled the tree inside. Red. Bright like my Santa socks. Bright like my stomach. Bright on the white like –
“Blood. In the snow! Jane, there’s blood in the snow!”
Jane’s eyes clouded. She looked straight ahead. At the woods that were lit yellow with stars, moving behind the trees. She opened her mouth and I thought she would scream, but she did not.
“Soon the bells will start.” she sang in her tiny voice.
“What? Jane! Whose blood is that?”
“And the thing that will make them ring,”
“Stop it, Jane. There’s blood!” I pulled her along, following the trail of red on white. Her voice burned in my ears as we went. I wiped away tears I did not know were falling. My body knew to be scared. It knew more than I. My stomach stung, my ears burned, my feet were numb. And Jane kept singing.
“Is the carol that you sing,”
We turned around the house’s back corner and there was the well.
And there was Mama.
And there was the ax. And the blood.
Mama stood over the well. She was a paper doll. One that had been made poorly. Jagged and out of grey paper instead of white. The hem of her pajama shirt was black with blood. The ax, too, looked as if she had dipped it in oil. She turned it softly in her hand, rolling it over and over. The stars were blinking around us, behind the trees. I wanted to scream. She felt us standing behind her and when she turned, I felt the center of my body open. Life bleeding out of me in a gasp that felt like my last.
My mother’s skin was torn. Her arms, her throat, the lumps of her chest were carved in horrid, bleeding words. Give us the girls.
“It’s okay, now, girls.” She said. She was smiling. Her voice was normal. My skin twitched so violently it was almost a song.
Jane had gone limp at my side. I held her wrists together on my waist to keep her upright.
“It’s okay, now,” Mama said. The front of her nightshirt smeared and splattered with black. It shone like the black in her eyes. “They wanted me to give you to them. They like children. But don’t worry. I won’t give you to them. I gave Daddy instead.”
The dark held me upright. I hope it held Jane, but I couldn’t remember, because I was gone in the dark. Down into the well and I knew nothing until Mama was gone.
People came. Dottie came. They put Mama in a room with a bed and nothing else. A room I never saw. They gave her medicine because Jane said she was sick. Given medicine until she was gone. She was only paper after all.
The bathroom floor of the funeral home’s bathroom is warm to the touch. Not how tile should be at all, but it is. The well is gone now, and Jane with it. Everything with it. Bing Crosby’s voice fades from my ears and I feel myself crying. Distantly. Like I am watching myself cry from deep inside my body where the real me is hiding. In the dark.
There is glass around my legs. I look up at the sink, also covered with glass. The mirror is broken. My fingers creep to my stomach and feel the words beneath the skin. Words carved by the stars. My hand falls to my side, a trail of red left in its wake. On Mama’s green coat. I stare, not remembering, but knowing. My arm is bleeding. Wrist to elbow on the inside. I don’t feel it. I look at my other and, yes, that one, too. A shard of glass held in that hand. I smile. I am glad because the bathroom is quiet. So blessedly quiet that I feel like singing. Bing’s song. Jane’s song. Wet pools beneath me and for a moment, I am sorry that Dottie will find me this way. Awfully sorry for Dottie. But she falls away. Everything falls away. I rest my head on the wall and look to the ceiling that isn’t there. Only a black sky full of stars.
Sadie Kraus is a recent graduate of Wittenberg University in Ohio. She was raised in the horror film industry and has a love for the genre. Her short story “Rot” won The Furious Gazelle magazine’s 2020 Halloween short story contest and has published flash-fiction stories in Duquesne University’s magazine, lexicon.