Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
Addiction took our mother slowly, rocked her through it and sung her to sleep sunk deep into the mattress on her bed. When her back teeth fell out, she left them on the side of the bathtub. I was seven, and I kept them in a matchbox, the missing pieces of her kept safe so that she wouldn’t be lost forever. So maybe one day we could put her back together. Our house fell around us, and we tried our best to raise ourselves. The ceilings had water damage, the bottom stairs had dry rot, and in the winters the radiators bled rust. But it was still our house, and Annie made it a home.
My sister Annie mothered me, with lopsided Band-Aids on bruised knees and lukewarm microwave meals. She told me ghost stories and didn’t mind when I crawled into her bed later on, too scared to sleep alone. She taught me to dance, barefoot on the living room carpet, music channel on full volume on the TV shaking our preadolescent hips. She always let me shower first so that I could enjoy the hot water, and never complained when she had to make do with the cold. She brushed my hair every day before school, even when I screamed and hit her when she caught the tangles. Annie was dark-haired like her father, whoever he had been, but I was blonde. Annie was desperate to be blonde too, like Marilyn Monroe. Like Mom. I think she thought it would make them closer, remind Mom less of her dad. I’d give anything for her to have her hands in my hair one more time, even if it hurt. She moved to New York when I turned eighteen and never came back. I still dream about her sometimes.
Keeping up with our mother was impossible, and we learned from a young age that we would always be left behind. It didn’t make it any easier. When she was drinking light, she was radiant and would wake us up at 3 am with pancakes dripping in cherry syrup. Sometimes when the weather was right, and she’d had enough being drunk alone, she would call our school up and tell them we had both come down with summer sickness, and we’d drive to the beach instead. I remember being nine years old in the backseat of the car coming home after one of our ocean days, sucking the salt from my fingers. Annie had just dyed her hair blonde, her best friend Jane helping her bend over our kitchen sink. From behind, I couldn’t tell who was the mother and who was the daughter, radio up and windows down, blowing the sky inside.
When she was drinking heavily, she’d be out all night, hair piled up like a beauty queen, eyes glazed over and ringed with glitter and black. Sometimes she’d be gone a day or two. She would never give us advance notice; one day we’d just wake up to an empty house, with the fridge packed full and a post-it note on its door, complete with a smear of Mom’s lipstick in the outline of a kiss, telling us she’d be back soon. Sometimes she’d bring guys home, filling the table with beer cans and ashtrays, smoke up to the ceiling, Mom lost in the haze. We’d sleep with pillows over our heads, trying to drown out the music they would blast all night, and wake up to strangers at our kitchen table in the morning, asking us where we kept the coffee.
When Mom drank too little, she fell apart. She wouldn’t buy food, and the refrigerator went bare. She’d chain smoke, leaving cigarette burns on the wallpaper up by the stairs like the walls were sick and decaying. She barely slept, walking around with blue half-moons under her eyes, knuckles raw. She would scream at the slightest thing. I remember once when I spilled a glass of juice on the couch. She looked over at me with dead eyes and dragged me off onto the carpet and then took every single cushion off the couch and into the back yard and set them on fire. Annie went to watch a while from the window and then sat next to me on the floor, backs pressed against the skeleton of the seats, head resting in the crater of my collar bones.
It was the worst when Mom drank too much. She’d laugh too loudly and too long, at anything and everything, until her mouth started to shake and she began to cry into her cereal at the breakfast table. Annie shut down when Mom was like this, going somewhere deep inside herself where no one could hurt her. She’d stay up until the morning watching old black and white movies on TV, whispering the lines she knew by heart like prayers. When I was five years old, I’d cry when I’d find Mom passed out on her bed, sure she would never wake up. Annie would wipe my tears and tell me she was only sleeping, like the princesses in my storybook. We’d sit on Mom’s bed together and wait for her to wake up. When we were older, I was the one who would pick Mom up off the bathroom floor again and again, and Annie would put her to bed, smoothing her hair off her face, wiping the vomit from her mouth, and changing her clothes if she’d pissed herself. Watching them then, there was no doubt that Annie was the mother now.
It was October, and I was thirteen, Annie sixteen. It was a Wednesday night and Mom had been gone for two days. She’d called us that morning from a payphone, voice slurring, telling us she was having the best time with all her new friends, and that she hoped we were doing fine. When she asked me if I was having a good birthday, I hung up on her. My birthday had been the day before. Annie had given me a pile of presents, strawberry lip gloss and glittery nail polishes. I didn’t ask where she’d gotten the money for them. I didn’t care. We’d taken the bus to the beach with Jane and ate the birthday cake she had made for me, sand getting into the frosting. It tasted like sweetness and the sea, and I savored every bite and scrape of sugar against my teeth. We watched the sun go down, Annie snapping grainy photos on her Nokia as I blew out my candles, wishing over and over that Mom wouldn’t come home, that she’d stay gone this time.
But that Wednesday night, Annie and I weren’t speaking. Anger hung heavy between us, seeping through the floorboards. It began when she tripped at the bottom of the stairs. We’d both laughed, Annie throwing her head back, the gap between her front teeth catching the light. When I’d bent to pick her up, I felt her breath, warm against the freckles on my cheeks. I let go of her arms, and she fell again, hitting the floor and grinning, shaking her hair from her face. Her breath was heavy with whiskey. I couldn’t start picking her up too, couldn’t watch her fall again and again. Just like Mom, I knew she’d never get back up.
I’d stared down at her, blonde hair hanging over her eyes, and all I could see was our mother. Then I was running, feet slamming the hallway like heartbeats turned loose. I’d run for the kitchen and tipped every bottle we had down the sink, shoving Annie back as she fought to stop me, catching liquor on her fingers as it fell. She grabbed my shoulders and made me drop the very last bottle. It smashed between us on the floor, glass shards shining like we’d dragged the stars out of the sky and broken them, like pieces we could never put back. Outside through the open windows, the sky turned pale gold, the clouds a mess of pink and cream smeared across the horizon. I cried then, watching my sister on her knees picking up the pieces. That was Annie, always trying to fix things even when it was too late.
The smell of food dragged me from my room, my stomach turning traitor inside my ribcage. Annie was cooking pasta, real food not made in a microwave. She’d set the table, Tammy Wynette singing softly from the CD player, Annie gently swaying her hips as she stirred the tomato sauce, rich and warm. As we ate in silence, I forgave her more with every bite. Mom never cooked dinner, never remembered my favorite had been spaghetti since I was a kid, and never stayed sober long enough to sit up at a table. Annie wasn’t Mom.
We were washing the dishes when we first heard it. A moth was crawling down the inside of the pane, and I cracked the window to let it out into the dark. From the backyard came a faint sound. I tilted my head to listen as it was coming from far off. Crying. I figured it was Mika, the two-year-old next door, having a tantrum loud enough for us to catch, or maybe even Lucky Strike, the cat that belonged to the junkies down the street, begging for food like he sometimes did. I always wanted to feed him when he came around, winding over my ankles, but Annie always stopped me, saying once you started giving they never stopped taking. Looking back, I don’t think she was talking about the cat.
Annie flipped the Christmas lights strung up around the porch, and we sat on the plastic beach chairs watching the skies. When we were little, we’d sit outside, and Annie would tell me the names of all the constellations and the stories of how they came to be hung up in the night sky. I had to grow up before I realized she made them all up as she went along. It was a game we still liked to play now, making up ridiculous stories for the shapes we could pick out.
“Ah, yes, that one there is the Coors Light. It got there when God dropped it out of his convertible window and never picked it up,” she said, nodding sagely and hiding her smile.
“Yeah, they say if you wish on it, all your dreams will come true,” said Annie with a grin.
Then she stopped laughing, and her voice grew quiet, face tilted up to all those dead stars.
“Let’s wish, Emmy. Let’s wish.” So we did.
The sound of wailing interrupted us. It was closer this time, and definitely human. We turned to one another in confusion. Annie shrugged, and I squinted into the black. It sounded like a baby, lost, tired and alone.
“It must be Mika?” I said, slowly getting to my feet. “Maybe he walked around the back? Do you want to call Connie and tell her we’ll bring him over?” Annie didn’t reply. I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Okay, I guess I’ll do everything then.”
I stepped off the porch, grass soft against my heels. The air smelled like it might rain, fresh and clean and growing. A promise unfulfilled.
“Em.” Annie’s voice was strained. I turned to her with a smile. It died on my face when I saw the look on her own. “Em, get inside now.”
She was staring out into the dark, past me, and opening the door with one hand behind her, fingers fumbling on the latch. I froze, barefoot in the dirt. I’d glimpsed what she was looking at.
In the bushes by the back fence, someone was crouching with their knees tucked up neatly under his chin, and his arms wrapped around his legs. His mouth was agape, softly opening and closing as he cried. Like a child, lost in the dark. No – not like a child. More like someone pretending, mimicking the sound under cover of darkness. Suddenly they straightened their back, snapping upright, face still obscured by shadow. They were tall and slim, extraordinarily thin by human standards.
Panic made me move, carried forward by animal instincts leftover from a time when people still lived in nature. I was faster than Annie, dragging her inside and slamming the door behind us, hearing it bounce on its hinges as I locked it. We watched as the person slowly approached the house with long, deliberate strides.
Annie reached for my hand, holding me tight, and turned me to face her, holding my shoulders.
“Don’t turn around, Emmy. Don’t turn around.” Instinctively I started to look over my shoulder into the gloom. Annie grabbed my face hard and shook her head. I knew then she was serious.
“I’m…” her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat, gripping my hand tight enough to hurt, nails digging in, grounding herself. I looked down at our interlocked fingers, both of us born of the same bones.
“I’m going to call the cops, and everything is going to be…” Her voice faltered, stuttering. Tears spilled over her lashes. Annie never cried.
“Your phone’s on the porch,” she whispered, and bile crawled its way up my throat. Her phone was upstairs, charging.
A soft, tap-tap-tapping filled the silence. Annie turned wide-eyed to the window.
It was the sound of someone’s forehead slowly and repeatedly bumping against the glass. Then the blows accelerated, gaining in both speed and strength, skin meeting glass until they were slamming into the window hard enough to shake the panes.
A moment later the tapping stopped, and I was about to ask Annie if I could look now, when she screamed, followed by the sound of cracking glass and a tremendous crash. Whoever was in our yard had just smashed their face hard enough into the window to shatter it.
We ran up the stairs two steps at a time, skipping the rotted ones out of habit. I turned to look behind me once, and Annie yanked my face back before I could see. The sound of glass breaking echoed behind us as we made it to the bathroom and locked the door. A weak, mewling cry, like that of an infant calling for its mother, filled the hallway, trapped between the walls and entryways.
Annie threw her back against the door, feet jammed up against the bathtub, clutching a knife she had grabbed from the kitchen. I joined her, shoulder to shoulder, and did the same. Slow footsteps started on the stairs, calculated and casual. The crying took on a mocking quality, resembling laughter, arriving in short, shrill bursts of sound followed by high-pitched giggling, and then silence, only to start again a moment later. The first door on the upstairs floor was my bedroom, and we heard the distinct sound of it slamming open.
They were looking for us.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked Annie, not even bothering to brush away the tears that I couldn’t keep from falling. I watched my sister pick herself up off the floor and brace her hands on the door as we heard the sound of a second door slamming open. Mom’s room. The next room on the hallway was the bathroom. Annie pulled me to my feet and handed me the knife. I shook my head and pushed it back to her, terrified of what would happen if I had to use it. Annie shoved me and pressed the knife into my hands, thumb pressing hard enough along the edge to draw blood. I watched a winding road of crimson rivulets cascading down her wrist. In spite of the pain, Annie continued pushing the blade into my hands. Finally, I took it from her.
Something slammed against the wall that Mom’s room shared with the bathroom. A high-pitched howl followed. I held my breath and felt my heart beating frantically in the base of my throat.
“I’m gonna get the phone from my room,” my sister said. I shook my head dramatically in protest. Before I could say a word, Annie clamped a hand over my mouth. I could taste the blood on her hand, salty and sweet. Like birthday cake by the ocean. “Yes. I’m gonna get the phone, and I’m going to call the cops. We’re going to be okay.”
I shook my head again.
“It’s the only way,” Annie insisted. “When I go, I need you to lock the door, and I don’t want you to open it for anything or anyone. Not for me, not for… anyone. Promise me.”
I shook my head, and Annie pressed her hand against my mouth, pushing my teeth against my lips so forcefully it made my eyes water. “Promise me, Em!”
Something smashed in the room next door. Annie brushed the hair from my face and gently tucked it behind my ear. “Promise,” she mouthed, and unlocked the door as slowly as possible, the bolt scraping gently. I watched the curve of her shoulder disappear into the darkened hall, like the moon in eclipse. And then she was gone. I couldn’t move or breathe for a second, and then I slammed the bolt shut just as something bounced off the outside of the door. A high-pitched scream ensued, followed by the handle rattling up and down hard enough to pop a screw loose. I watched it roll toward me on the tiles. And then everything went still.
I sat with my back to the door, holding the knife and wishing I was holding Annie’s hand instead. The silence continued. For a moment, the only sound was that of my breath slowly filling the room.
A voice broke the illusion of solitude.
“Em?” a familiar voice came through the door. Startled, I gripped the knife even more firmly than before. “Honey, what’s going on?”
“Mom?” my voice cracked. “Momma, is that you?” I wrapped my arms around myself to keep from shaking.
“Sweetie, it’s okay, just open the door. It’s okay, just let me in.” The handle rattled again, gentler this time. “Just let me in, it’s all okay.” She banged impatiently on the door, and I took my handle of the bolt.
“Honey, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I missed your birthday. I’m sorry I’m such a terrible mother. Please!” her voice broke, and she started to cry. “Just let me in, baby. I’m so sorry.”
I screwed my eyes shut. She sounded so sad and so lost. I just wanted her to hold me as like she did when I was a kid, when I’d come in with a scraped knee after falling off the swings. Maybe this time she meant it. Perhaps it would all be okay. My hand found its way to the bolt again.
My sister’s voice came through the door, warm and gentle. “Yeah, Emilie, let us in. It’s all okay.”
My hand froze on the bolt, and I tightened my grip on my weapon. Annie never called me by my full name. A hand banged on the door, handle rattling. “Emilie, let us in!” Annie’s voice became low and guttural, followed by the same shrill giggles from before. Mom spoke now, pleading and crying, her voice growing louder and louder. “Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!” she shouted over and over again, punctuated by her fists on the door. I thought about bedtime stories, and all the demons and monsters we pray never crawl out from under our beds.
“That’s not my sister, and you’re not my mother!” I screamed through the door, hands over my head. I climbed into the bathtub, curled into the fetal position, and clutched the knife to my chest. I didn’t know what it was outside that door, but I knew it wasn’t Annie. It wasn’t the voice that scolded me whenever I changed the TV channel, the one that sang me happy birthday, the one that told me I was smart even when I got bad grades, the one that read me stories about princesses that never wake up. It wasn’t human.
Bangs and yells came from downstairs, followed by the footsteps of people running. A low, guttural howl ripped through the house, filling the room until I felt like I was drowning in the sound, and then the door was kicked in. I screamed, covered my eyes, and waited to die.
A moment later arms found me, lifted me from the tub, and carried me from the room. I looked at the outside of the door as I was taken downstairs. Its exterior was covered in long, scraping claw marks, stretching to the floor. I found the hallway covered in the soft, downy remains of torn-up pillows, making it appear as if it had snowed indoors. I watched the tiny feathers drift slowly as men in uniforms checked each of the rooms that looked like they had been ripped apart by something feral.
Outside, police cars and an ambulance waited in our driveway, and there, in the middle of it all, was Annie, bathed in blue and red light and glowing in the dark like a neon angel. I threw myself from the officer’s shoulders and ran to her. Then I held us both together, broken pieces and all, standing under all those constellations we’d concocted. Muffled screaming came from the ambulance, which rocked occasionally. Annie gently turned my head away, smiling so sadly it made my chest ache. I understood.
It turns out there was no demon. No wild animal or bad men were trying to break in. It was just Mom, out of her mind on booze, drugs, and everything in between, coming to the end of a week-long binge. Something had finally broken inside her head, and this time we couldn’t put her back together no matter how hard we tried. Sometimes you fall one last time, and then never get back up.
Annie had seen her rail-thin frame in the garden, blood dribbling from her mouth, track marks bulging on her forearms like unmapped roads, desperate for one more hit, one more fix. She’d searched the kitchen for all the alcohol I’d thrown away, and when she hadn’t found any, she went hunting for the stash hidden in the bathroom. She hadn’t wanted me, just the drugs on the other side of the door. She’d been so high she was able to mimic Annie’s voice nearly perfectly.
The real monsters are the ones that eat you alive slowly, the kind that comes in a bottle or a needle, or at the end of a long list of reasons why you can’t get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes the monsters are the ones that raise you or love you the most. But it’s up to you to let them in.
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