by Amanda Crum
Artist: Morteza Yousefi
&&&&&Here never means the same thing to someone else. Where the dark wood gleams with polish, some girls see the home of an overbearing grandmother. When the floorboards creak past midnight, others remember tiptoeing past a thin line of lamplight to meet a beau with flowers tucked behind one ear.
&&&&&I listen to the swish of skirts down the darkened hallway and picture my mother, anxious with worry, clutching her rosary as though it will give her answers. I run a bath and try to find patterns in the silk wallpaper that will make me feel whole again. In the tub, my belly protrudes through the milky water like a pale balloon, a foreign thing that has latched onto my body. When I’m very still I can feel movement, faint, like a butterfly between my ribs. I try to keep moving.
&&&&&The house is divided; half the girls are on duty Mondays and Wednesdays, the other half Tuesdays and Thursdays. We clean the house top to bottom, light the fires, tend the kitchen, keep the linens clean. Fridays and Sundays are for chapel; Saturdays are free, but since there is nothing to do and we’re forbidden to leave the property, it seems unnecessary. There’s a lethargic air on Saturdays that I thought at first was born purely of exhaustion, but I’ve come to think that perhaps it is also born of sadness.
&&&&&This house–the most beautiful Victorian on the street, a compendium of every luxury the Jazz age can provide and the home of nine wayward girls with secrets beneath their aprons–is nothing more than a bell jar, a trap for an orchid that has nowhere else to go.
&&&&&Kentucky was one rolling hill after another, greens slithering into blues on the other side of Katherine Polley’s car window.
&&&&&Everyone told her about the scenery, speaking reverently about it in their Michigan accents like it was an exotic land they would never have the chance to see themselves. There will be so many horses, they come right up to the side of the road while you’re driving by. Take your camera along, her friends had said. In the city, such things were unheard of.
&&&&&They were pretty, but the meandering roads pulled her stomach into a slick coil, so she closed her eyes against the view and leaned her head on the cool glass.
&&&&&“Feeling okay?” Adam asked beside her.
&&&&&“Mhmm. Just a little headache.”
&&&&&“There’s some aspirin in the glove box. We’re not too far away, though. Maybe another five minutes.”
&&&&&Five minutes, Mrs. Polley, a voice clanged in her head. It echoed, like the sound of an announcement in a marble-floored train station. She shut it down without hesitation and sat up straight, willing herself to act normal. This was Adam’s day.
&&&&&“Nervous?” He twined his big hand around hers and steepled their fingers together before locking them and squeezing gently, once, then again. It was their code, as old as their relationship, and she responded with a squeeze of her own as she’d done a million times before.
&&&&&“A little. More excited, I guess.”
&&&&&It had been that way since Adam had given her the news: his company, a retailer which specialized in camping gear and sporting goods, was opening a new store in Kentucky and wanted him to run it. They had offered a generous pay raise, more benefits than either of them had ever had over the course of their respective careers, and a stay in a plush hotel for a week while they looked for a home.
&&&&&&If it seems too good to be true…Katherine’s mother had immediately whispered in her mind. The truth was, she was only nervous at how happy she’d been at the chance to put 500 miles between them and the last eleven months. What did it say about her that she was so eager to leave her hometown, their friends, her parents, everything she knew? She was a creature of habits so ingrained that she didn’t have to set an alarm anymore; her body simply knew when it was time to get up. She did the shopping every Sunday, where she saw the same people at the same grocery store she’d been going to since she was a kid; she washed the sheets every Monday and made pasta on Tuesday. Habits.
&&&&&Yet she had needed to get away. Take some time off to work on her art, learn how to take deep breaths again. Here, there would be no roots. Just a nice, sturdy bed of well-tilled soil, and the proof was moving quickly toward her through the windshield: an almost-century-old Victorian painted a bright and cheery yellow. It stood tall in the middle of a lane; the nearest neighbor was on the left about a hundred yards away, a smallish ranch that looked positively sad next to the stately old home, squatting there like a frog. To the right there was only an empty field bordered by trees in the distance.
&&&&& “This is it?” she asked, unable to keep a hopeful lilt out of her voice. Adam looked at her and brought her hand to his mouth for a kiss, happy that she was happy.
&&&&& “This is it,” he said. “The realtor should be here already.”
&&&&&Indeed she was, a sunny young thing with a wave of thick blonde hair that fell down the back of her silk blouse like something from a shampoo commercial. Katherine noted with approval that when the real estate agent smiled, it met her eyes and brightened them. She loathed false niceties.
&&&&&“I’m Darla Quaid,” the agent said, extending her hand to Katherine when they reached the front porch. “It’s so nice to meet you! Welcome to Kentucky.”
&&&&&“Thank you. This is some beautiful country you’ve got out here.”
&&&&&“Honey, this isn’t even the half of it. There’s horse farms around here that look like something out of a movie. Very old money, and lots of it,” Darla said, lowering her voice conspiratorially.
&&&&&“I bet there’s a lot of history here,” Adam said. “The listing said the house was built in the ‘20s?”
&&&&&“1926,” Darla said, pulling a set of keys out of her bag. “A young couple from New York bought it in the ‘80s and tried to modernize it a bit,” Darla said, rolling her eyes. She obviously didn’t approve of such changes. “They stuck mostly to the kitchen, thank goodness, so there’s an energy-saving electric oven and a brand-new refrigerator. New counter tops and fixtures, and a chandelier that’s actually quite lovely in the space.”
&&&&&Katherine took Adam’s hand and they followed Darla inside, into the aroma of lemon polish and age. The front hall was a grand thing, bordered on both sides with dark wood that gleamed faintly even after Darla closed the door behind them.
&&&&&“The entire home was gas until about 1931, when the owners made the decision to have electricity installed. From what I understand, they did it after the neighbor’s home burned down. One of their barn lamps got too hot and exploded. The house went up like a tinderbox.”
&&&&&“Oh my goodness,” Katherine said. “Was anyone hurt?”
&&&& “The family was killed. A husband and wife and their little boy,” Darla said sadly, and again the voice clanged. Five minutes, Mrs. Polley. She felt Adam squeeze her hand and reached instinctively for her locket, a gesture of comfort from her childhood. The metal felt real and good in her hand and she tucked it beneath her shirt, where it was cool against her flushed skin.
&&&&&&“That’s terrible,” Katherine said.
&&&&&“It is, but something good did come out of it. The extended family eventually petitioned the city to have all new electric lines installed in the neighborhood–which is the oldest in this area–to make sure it would never happen to anyone else.”
&&&&& In the kitchen, modernity clashed with history so harshly that it was jarring: a new, jet-black stove and refrigerator with a matching microwave built into the wall; a shiny chrome pasta arm above the sink, with black and white tiles behind that; a black wrought-iron chandelier with crystal bulbs that would have been at home in a castle.
&&&&&“This was the servants’ passage,” Darla said, gesturing up the stairs for the couple to explore. “It leads to a similar door on the second floor near the linen closet.”
&&&&&Upstairs, all the rooms had fireplaces and intricate crown molding. In the master bedroom, twin French doors looked out over a wide balcony. Adam swung them open and they stepped out to a gorgeous view of treetops and, just below, a rushing creek.
&&&&&“The fire was over there,” Darla said, pointing to the open field to their right. “Not long after the house burned down, the city changed ordinances and declared no one could ever build there again because of the way the creek runs through. It’s a floodplain.”
&&&&&“That explains why the water is so high,” Adam said. “The weather report said it’s been rainy here for a while.”
&&&&&“It’s been a rainy season,” Darla agreed. “It’s unusual for fall but not unheard of. We had a pretty good storm here the other night and the creek just swelled up. But you wouldn’t have to worry about it reaching all the way up here, and I can tell you that in a few weeks, these trees are going to be so beautiful they’ll hurt your eyes.”
&&&&&“Darla, would you mind giving us a minute?” Adam asked with a smile.
&&&&&“Of course! I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready.”
&&&&&Katherine stood with her elbows on the wrought-iron railing, looking down at the land. It was perfect, and that scared her.
&&&&&“Well? What do you think?” Adam asked.
&&&&&She took a long breath and let it out slowly through her nose. “I like it. A lot. But it’s so big. It’s way, way too big.”
&&&&&“We’d have room for an office for me and an art studio for you. You could get started on that new watercolor series you’ve been talking about.”
&&&&&She smiled sadly and kept her gaze on the trees, but what was on her mind was a smallish box of black lacquer, wrapped lovingly in silk. “That room across from the master would have been perfect for a nursery.”
&&&&&He wrapped his arms around her from behind and rested his chin on the top of her head. “It still could be.”
&&&&&She stiffened. “I’m not ready to talk about that.”
&&&&&“I know,” he said gently. “I just think we could be really happy here.”
&&&&&That’s what we thought about the last house, she thought but did not say.
&&&&&“Yeah. Maybe we could,” she said instead.
&&&&&Fall in Kentucky is like a beautiful woman sliding a coat off her shoulders. The leaves burn and swirl, sticking to the wet pavement like confetti after a party, the scent of them perfuming the air and crowding your nose like ague. It was always Katherine’s favorite season, something her mother never understood. How can you love the death of summer? she used to ask. It was the heat. She was never one to enjoy being hot.
&&&&&Yet this year, it was hard to find happiness even in the colors of autumn. Everyone wanted her to like this place, Katherine thought as she stood at the stove, so she had talked herself into it. It was the closest she could come to blame. Perhaps the insomnia had something to do with her mood; she and sleep had parted ways weeks ago. There were other things, though.
&&&&&The wallpaper. That changing, sneaky fucking wallpaper. It taunted her in the hallways and once, in the parlor, she caught it trying to ignite itself. Luckily, she had a glass of water nearby and that was the end of that. Since then she’d been paranoid, thinking several times that she saw curly tendrils of smoke from the corners of her eyes.
&&&&&She wondered if the wallpaper was actively trying to hurt her or if it was just tired of being here, in this house. Kamikazi wall coverings, she thought, and snickered.
&&&&&Something was burning. In her fragile mental state, her first thought was of the wallpaper in the parlor. After a moment, she realized it was just the bread. She’d set the oven to 475 degrees instead of 375.
&&&&&When Adam came through the back door fifteen minutes later, Katherine was sitting at the table nursing a drink. The kitchen reeked of burnt garlic; spaghetti noodles sat in cooling water on the stovetop. She just didn’t have the energy to deal with it.
&&&&&“You okay?” Adam asked cautiously, setting his briefcase down on a chair.
&&&&&“I’m fine,” she said without looking up. The ice was melting into her bourbon, creating whorls of white inside the amber. It looked like a face. A baby, scrunched up and squalling.
&&&&&&“You could call it that,” she said slowly, dreamily. She was so tired.
&&&&&“Are you hungry?”
&&&&&Adam sat down beside her and moved to put his arm around her, then pulled away. She turned her head slowly to look at him, her eyes heavy with whiskey and exhaustion, and saw something new on his face: revulsion.
&&&&&“What’s wrong? You’re not happy to see me?” Her words came out slurred, but she honestly couldn’t have said whether it was the booze or the lack of sleep that did it.
&&&&&“Honey, when did you last have a shower?”
&&&&&She looked down at herself, at the grandpa sweater she’d thrown on over leggings three days ago and hadn’t been inclined to change. There was a red stain on the front that was either spaghetti sauce or cupcake frosting. She’d had a major sweet-tooth lately.
&&&&&“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I think I’ll go have a bath.”
&&&&&“I think you should eat something.”
&&&&&“Why? So I can sit here with you giving me those concerned looks? Flaring your nostrils like you just realized there’s dog shit on your new shoe?”
&&&&&“Katherine,” he frowned. “What are you talking about?”
&&&&&“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine,” she said, standing up gingerly. Her entire body ached.
&&&&&“I am worried about you,” Adam said softly. He looked defeated, sitting in his new blue suit with that hangdog look on his face. “You’re not yourself. I don’t know this person in front of me.”
&&&&&She staggered out of the kitchen towards the stairs, eager to get away from the sound of his voice.
&&&&&“Ask the wallpaper who I am,” she mumbled.
&&&&&Upstairs, in the hallway, she stopped to catch her breath and leaned against the wall. The dark wood gleamed around her, seeming to pulse in the dim light from the lamps. The house is breathing, she thought, and closed her eyes.
&&&&&“Where you goin’?” a woman beside her whispered, and Katherine jumped, spinning around to see who had come upstairs with her. No one was there.
&&&&&Katherine laughed then, a giggle that became a full-force laugh that turned into tears. She rested her head against the wall and looked up, trying to find comfort in the shadows of the ceiling. There was nothing there to comfort her.
&&&&&“I’m going to take a bath,” she said after a moment, still choking back a giggle-sob. “That’s where I’m going.”
&&&&&Katherine sat in the tub, slumped down so that the water nearly touched her lips.
&&&&&She used to think there was nothing that a hot bath couldn’t cure. Now there were no more cures. She wasn’t even sure what the illness was.
&&&&&Adam had taken to staying later and later at work every night. After the first few times, she started checking his clothes for lipstick, perfume, mysterious stains that pointed to sleek anonymous sex in a sleazy hotel room, but there was nothing. Somehow, that was worse; the knowledge that he was staying away solely to avoid her.
&&&&&She slid down a bit further into the water. Half an inch and she would be nearly submerged, her nose and mouth covered. She could end it so easily, like slipping into a warm bed on a cold night.
&&&&&“Don’t do it, girl,” said the girl on the toilet.
&&&&&Katherine looked at her with no surprise; she’d seen this auburn-haired girl before. Always in the bathroom, but never in the same place twice. Once, she’d been in the bathtub with the curtain drawn, a grey silhouette against the white plastic curtain like something from a nightmare. Another time Katherine had walked in to brush her teeth and found her sitting on the floor, wedged in between the toilet and the sink with her back to the wall, her knees drawn up to her chest. Mascara ringed her eyes; she’d been sobbing again, something Katherine had heard at night from the bedroom but never seen. Adam knew about none of it, of course. She had given up trying to talk to him.
&&&&&Tonight she leaned forward with her chin resting on one hand, a cigarette dangling from the other. She smelled like an old wood stove and looked as tired as Katherine felt.
&&&&&“Do what?” Katherine asked warily.
&&&&&“Slide under. You’ll never come back up.”
&&&&&“That’s kind of the point.”
&&&&&“You want to get stuck here like me? Spend eternity in this damn old house? You should just leave. Get far away from here.”
&&&&&“Why are you always crying?” Katherine said. Each word echoed through the water in her ears, muffled the tones. She felt like a dark cloud, real but without substance. “I can hear you, you know. It’s hard to sleep.”
&&&&&“I cry for the same reason you do,” the girl said, gesturing with her cigarette at Katherine’s nude body, pale and bony and nearly ruined, triangle of pubic hair floating at the top of the water. Her abdomen was crisscrossed with angry red scars that fairly glowed like neon in the unforgiving light of the bathroom.
&&&&&“Why is that?” Katherine asked, frowning.
&&&&&“Because you wanted something so badly that it drove you insane when you lost it.”
&&&&&Katherine sat up in the tub, face stormy. “I’m not insane.”
&&&&&The girl threw her cigarette into the sink and stood up, placing one hand on her flat stomach in a gesture full of habit. “Honey, you’ve been talking to a ghost and you never even asked who I was or why I was in your house. You’re unhinged.”
&&&&&She flickered for a moment, like a filmstrip, and then was gone. Katherine lowered herself back into the cooling water and went all the way down this time, beneath the surface. It was much darker there, more than it should have been. And deeper. She found she could kick her feet and move her arms around; down there, the bathtub didn’t exist.
&&&&&She felt a peculiar tugging sensation in her stomach and looked down. Her scars were opening up, gaping in the water like a fish’s mouth. Scarlet threads wove themselves outward like vines, wrapping around her thighs to prohibit her progress. Through the silence came a voice, one she’d heard many times before but always pushed away. Here, in the fathoms, she didn’t have the strength.
&&&&&Five minutes, Mrs. Polley, it whispered. She looked down at the baby in her arms, newly born and still naked, face an alarming shade of blue even in the water. Five minutes and then we’ll need to take him.
&&&&&Katherine was beginning to see black wings across her field of vision and realized she was dying. Her breath was a hard knot inside her chest, her baby a picture of her heart that had never been developed. Down below, the water began to churn and thrash, revealing the bottom of a creek bed. Rocks protruded here and there like jagged teeth, with one gleaming like onyx; a black lacquered box. One corner stuck up from the muddy bed and winked at her in the light.
&&&&&Light? Katherine looked up and found the ceiling was rushing back toward her, growing closer and closer until she slammed violently into the surface, choking on what felt like a solid channel of water. She leaned against the side of the tub, shivering, gagging, strands of saliva mingling with the bath. Her arms, like her abdomen, were empty.
&&&&&Another night, another dream. The girl at the desk had her back to the door and never turned; she was deeply involved in writing something, her hand flying across the page. Katherine stepped quietly toward her and read over her shoulder.
Dorothy is gone.
Mrs. Banks oversaw the delivery of a healthy baby girl; five hours later, Dorothy was dead. Complications, Mrs. Banks said.
We sit in the hallway, all of us girls, in the metallic smell of blood that permeates the entire second floor. Halloween has come and gone. Rose clutches her stomach with both arms, cradling her baby against the weight of loss. I think of Dorothy’s mother and where she was when she got the news; perhaps she was in the kitchen, where her daughter had once helped to roll out the dough for a disastrous pie. In the living room, where they had strung a popcorn garland around the Christmas tree. The knot in my throat breaks apart and I let loose a sob, feeling a single ache in my belly like a punctuation mark.
“She was so healthy,” Rose says from beside me. Her face is a pale oval in the gloom of the hall, covered in a fine sheen of sweat even though the house is so cold we’re all wearing thermal underwear beneath our nightgowns.
“I thought so, too,” I say dumbly. I hadn’t known Dorothy well, but she was one of us: a smart girl who got caught between a rock and a whirlpool. She had chosen the narrow passage between the two, like Odysseus, but in the end it hadn’t mattered.
Father Henley exits Dorothy’s room, head weighed down. He nods at us as he passes, the furrow in his brow righteous and angry. I wonder if he was the one who made the call to her mother and whether he managed to keep that condescending tone out of his voice if so.
“Her mother is coming tomorrow to pick up her things,” Mrs. Banks says as she comes out of Dorothy’s room, closing the door behind her. “I suggest you all stay in your rooms while she is here so as not to make it more difficult for her. In fact, your doors will be locked after lunch to ensure you stay put.”
She is more subdued than I’ve ever seen her, completely in control of the situation. Her calm tone is in direct opposition to the gore that is splashed across the front of her apron.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Rose says suddenly, and then she’s gone, with only a flash of the white hem of her nightgown to show she was there. In the glow of the gaslight I’m reminded of a deer, flipping its tail to warn the herd of danger.
Suddenly, the girl spun around in her chair and looked Katherine in the eye. It was the same girl who visited her in the bathroom, the one who cried so often in the night.
&&&&&“Don’t make this all for nothing,” the girl said, her dark eyes flashing.
&&&&& “What did they do to you?” Katherine asked.
&&&&&The girl, auburn-haired and too young to bear the weight of the answer, shook her head in anger. “What they always do,” she said. “They took everything.”
&&&&& “They took your baby,” Katherine said. It wasn’t exactly a question.
&&&&&“All our babies,” the girl said, gesturing around the room. Katherine looked up to see five other girls dressed in white cotton nightgowns, some stained with blood, lounging across the bed and on the rug in front of the fireplace. Their faces bore the same pained expressions and wary distance as they regarded Katherine, and suddenly she understood.
&&&&&“The people who ran this house…they must have made a lot of money selling your children to wealthy couples.” A single tear fell from her lashes and rolled down the curve of her cheek.
&&&&&“After Dorothy died, Father Henley and the Banks woman went through the girls like a flame through a haystack. Two of them bled out after the babies were born; Maggie had a healthy boy and then fell asleep and just never woke up. I never knew what they did to Jane, and she don’t remember. Doesn’t matter. No one dared question a priest. Back then, lots of women died giving birth. It was a certitude, and those two knew it.”
&&&&&Katherine swallowed, hard, and moved her eyes from the ghosts back to the girl.
&&&&&The girl smiled, a slow spread that bared her sharp canines and sent a shiver up Katherine’s calves. “I heard them talking one night. Henley caught me outside the door and chased me through the house. I was eight months along by then and couldn’t move very fast, but I made it to the house next door. How I screamed,” she said, trailing off for a moment. “But no one heard me when I banged on the door, so I ran to the barn to hide. He found me, though. I heard him charging through the stalls like a bull and I knew he’d kill me when he got to me, so I smashed a lamp to put some heat between us.”
&&&&&“From what I understand, they did it after the neighbor’s home burned down. One of their barn lamps got too hot and exploded. The house went up like a tinderbox,” Darla Quaid’s voice echoed in my head.
&&&&&“You started the fire?” Katherine said.
&&&&&The girl looked down at her hands in her lap. They were glowing like cinders. “It still wasn’t enough. He chased me up the loft ladder and I slipped and fell up there. I could feel the blood between my legs and I knew it was over and oh, how I hated him. I’d never felt rage that hot before. It ate me up.”
&&&&&“He killed you, didn’t he? He beat you to death.”
&&&&&“Oh, no,” the girl said, exhaling smoke that smelled of fiery pine, “Before the fire got to me, I beat him. I found a wrench and I beat the brains out of his head.”
The creek was cold and swollen.
&&&&Katherine stood knee-deep and shivering, hands wrapped around a black lacquer box. Dawn was slowly breaking behind her, turning ashy tree limbs into something pearlescent and pretty. She looked over to the land that once held a barn, the memories like a black smudge of soot on scorched grass.
&&&&&Don’t make this all for nothing, the girl had said.
&&&&&“Kate? What are you doing?” Adam asked at her back.
&&&&&She smiled and opened the box, sifted her fingers through the fine dust inside. After a moment she tilted it and let the remains of her son drift into the rushing water, atoms colliding with stardust.
&&&&&“Letting go,” she said.
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications such as Barren Magazine and Eastern Iowa Review and in several anthologies, including Beyond The Hill and Two Eyes Open. Her first chapbook of horror-inspired poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, was shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award nomination in 2015; her story “A Shimmer In The Parlor” was a finalist for the J.F. Powers Prize in Short Fiction in 2019. She currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.