Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The tall grandfather clock bellowed four times through the two-story house, as the county school bus pulled off from the driveway. A young girl named Jenna McLure sat on the carpeted floor of the second level, playing in solitude with each of her stuffed toys outside of her bedroom. Jenna was a joyful and quiet child that belonged to a broken family. Her thick curly locks were of the darkest brown, reaching just below her waist in length. The girl’s wavy bangs just barely grazed over her long brown lashes, casting a shade over her large, almond-colored orbs. Her tanned skin resembled that of a silky fabric, and she was of fairly average size for an eight-year-old female.
The rest of the world seemed nonexistent as she played and laughed, but she secretly longed for someone else to play with. No other child at school or in the neighborhood would even consider playing with Jenna, due to her past. As Jenna and her friends would play with their dolls and stuffed animals, Jenna was persistent on playing haunted house or murder mystery. Whenever she decided to have her friends over for slumber parties, she would tell ghost stories as night fell and scare the other girls to the point of tears. These things frightened the other kids and caused them to avoid her in every way possible. But that didn’t shake Jenna too much, because she was used to being alone, and it wasn’t like her older sister Gabby would play with her.
“No, don’t shoot!” Jenna cried, dramatically, pretending to fire a gun at one of the toys. As if on cue, the stuffed cat fell over on its side, causing Jenna to break into a fit of giggles. “Not so loud, Jenna!” Her grandmother called from downstairs, and the little girl sighed at the end of her laughter, “Sorry, Nana!” Jenna loved her Nana dearly, but she was a very strict woman, who didn’t think little girls her age should play with toys. Even so, her grandmother always took the liberty of caring for the two girls while their mother was away.
Jenna dwelled within a standard house in the suburbs, along with her sister, dog, grandmother, mother, and her mother’s fiancé even came to visit every now and again. Although, she never saw her mother very often, as she only came around every once in a while, which was typically when she wasn’t drinking at her fiancé’s house. The only reason her mother had gotten engaged for the fourth time was because she wanted financial support. Paul, her mother’s fiancé, was a very wealthy man, who happened to own a multimillion-dollar company. Paul was a kind and generous man that treated Jenna and Gabby like they were his own, but possessed an extremely wide history of medical problems.
The familiar resonance of the front door opening and shutting made the walls rattle, and thumping footsteps soon followed. The footfalls ceased when they reached the spot in which Jenna sat. Jenna’s eyes trailed upward to her fourteen-year-old sister’s blank expression. A single backpack strap hung from Gabby’s right shoulder, her hazel eyes matching the dullness of her appearance. Jenna stared into the eye that wasn’t curtained by her ebony hair, then flashed her a toothy grin out of a pure kneejerk reaction. Gabby’s monotone look melted into a scowl, making Jenna frown and slink back from her sibling. Satisfied with the reaction she got, Gabby turned and continued on her way to the bedroom they shared.
Jenna couldn’t help but feel as though she had done something wrong to her sister. But Gabby had no logical reason behind being so cross with Jenna, except that they each held a separate biological father. Because of this fact, Gabby wouldn’t think of Jenna as a real sister, so she certainly wasn’t going to treat her like one.
Things were seldom in Jenna’s favor, but she held on desperately to the remaining happiness she had left, like her soon-to-be stepfather. Jenna’s ninth birthday was in two days, and she couldn’t wait to celebrate it with a party. No persuasion could be made with any of her friends to attend the gathering, but she made the entire household promise to come, so Jenna was content. All she desired was to share her special day with family and toys.
Minutes turned to hours of fiddling with dolls, and Jenna still hadn’t heard from or seen her mother all day. The warm Friday sunset eventually faded over the horizon, jilting the land to be lit with only a bright full moon. The time for sleep drew near, and a tired yawn escaped Jenna’s mouth as she tiptoed into her bedroom. The room was dimmed with a colorful night-light, casting thin shadows onto her sister’s sleeping form not far away. Taking extra precaution not to awaken Gabby or her grandmother across the hall, she soundlessly slid over to her white dresser and pulled forth some pajamas. Once she had slipped into a violet nightgown, she crawled into bed and curled up to her tattered stuffed fox.
Gabby’s bed and Jenna’s bed were parallel to one another, with a white nightstand separating them. Jenna had a large plethora of toys that occupied her bed, but her fox was the overall favorite. Jenna’s mother had given her the little fox as a gift for her sixth birthday, and Jenna hadn’t parted with it since.
It didn’t take much for Jenna to nod off, snoring lightly as crickets sang from outside their bedroom window. The small girl tossed and turned in various arrangements during the night, seeking to expel the strange nightmares. Jenna typically had odd dreams, but this occasion was exceptionally brutal and realistic. Vivid images of her mangled and mutilated family members attacked her subconscious. But what bewildered Jenna the most was her mother’s fiancé, because he didn’t seem to be harmed in any way, but merely sprawled out on the ground, twitching and gasping for reasons unknown. Otherwise, the concept of death had never particularly disturbed her, and it had always come across as interesting.
The next morning, Jenna woke with a start, her lurching into a sitting position on the mattress at the sound of a feminine shriek resonating through the house. Her erratic breathing came to a halt when she noticed the absence of her elder sister in the room, but only a lumpy comforter resided where Gabby once was. Throwing her blankets to the side, Jenna hesitantly emerged from the bedroom and into the hall. “Gabby? Are you there?” She piped up, the words somewhat slurred by her loose tooth.
Her small feet patted against the springy carpeting to delve further into the morning’s events, finally coming to a standstill when she arrived atop of the stairs. She could perceive a commotion of some sort arising from the dining area downstairs, but deafening sirens that screeched in the distance ultimately convinced her to scramble down the staircase. Jenna quickly peered over the stair rail into the kitchen, her eyes immediately beholding the scene before her.
The man that was meant to be her new father was extended along the tile floor, twitching and gasping uncontrollably. Jenna’s mother was pacing from one end of the kitchen to the other, compressing her inky hair into her slim fingers, all the while Gabby was kneeling on the ground, her hands holding Paul’s head in a gentle manner. Jenna couldn’t seal the tears that flowed from her eyes and cascaded down her puffy red cheeks at the sight.
The sirens gave an indication of being closer than before, flashing red lights flooding through the windows at an identical pace. Jenna’s Grandmother immediately bolted toward the front door from another room and hastily yanked it open, allowing doctors and medical assistants to speed into the house, critical determination etched onto each face. Jenna took note of how Paul had ended all movement by now, his face taking on a grayish hue during the time they lifted his body onto a tall gurney. A young brunette woman that wore black medical scrubs approached Paul’s body and removed the stethoscope from around her neck, placing the round end on his chest to inspect his heartbeat. Strangely, things seemed to settle down quite a bit. After much discussion between the grownups, Jenna observed in confusion as they drew a white sheet over his head, probably so he wouldn’t get cold. None of the doctors or nurses acknowledged Jenna’s presence while speaking to her mother in hushed tones, but it didn’t take long for all to file back out and head off from the house, toting away the only dad she had left. Jenna’s mother trailed after them hurriedly, not bothering to give her daughters so much as a passing glance, before slamming the door on her way out. The sirens of the ambulance did not recur.
Jenna furrowed her thin brows and set a fearful gaze on her Nana, who ordered the two sisters to play upstairs until told otherwise. They reluctantly abided their Nana’s orders and trudged up the carpeted stairs, unable to fully grasp the situation. The atmosphere felt tense and awkward to Jenna, her little digits fidgeting nervously, as Gabby remained silent. Gabby sauntered her way into her room, feeling the uncomfortable eyes set on her while plopping herself down on the bed. Jenna followed close by, standing inaudibly beside her sister.
“What happened to Mr. Paul? Mommy and Paul are coming back, right?” Jenna inquired sheepishly, her voice faltering some at the end.
Gabby arose from her position on the mattress, towering over the little girl as an unnecessary bile simmered within and overthrew her other emotions. “Don’t you get it? Mom doesn’t care what happens to Paul, just as long as she gets ownership of his company,” she hissed, striding toward Jenna in an attempt to seem intimidating, “It’s all fun and games to you, isn’t it? Paul isn’t coming back, and I doubt he ever cared about you, anyway. Any guy who has money can take advantage of mom. Besides, I really don’t think he would bother wasting his time on an ignorant, naïve little brat like you! Your mom will never be a mother to me, so don’t you think for a second that I will ever call you a sister!” And with that statement, Gabby jerked her hands forward and rammed her palms into Jenna’s shoulders, knocking the girl clean off her feet. Her arms flew from her sides to catch and hoist her weight on instinct, but the action was proven futile. Jenna’s head made harsh contact with the bottom corner of her white bedframe, producing a sharp cry from her.
Jenna was well aware that Gabby tended to unleash her anger on others, but she had never attacked anyone physically like that. Jenna could only lie on the floor, stupefied by her sister’s endeavor to harm her. Gabby, however, wasn’t fazed in the slightest and stomped out of the room without another word exchanged. Jenna was speechless when more tears proceeded to fall, now accompanied by ones that resembled pain. Small droplets of crimson blossomed where the wood of the frame had lanced Jenna’s skull, so the girl shakily stood from the ground to retrieve a paper towel, bitterly muttering, “I never want another dad, ever again.”
The day dragged on, with no sign of Jenna’s mother or stepfather for hours. Jenna and Gabby were served a few snacks here and there, but breakfast and lunch were disregarded. Once again, the grandfather clock chimed in the house, this instance signaling that of eight o’clock. Jenna felt obligated to steer clear of Gabby, and entertained herself by petting and pampering her toy fox. She couldn’t bring herself to rat Gabby out for the act she committed. Gabby genuinely unnerved Jenna, and Jenna wished greatly for Gabby to like her, so she kept her mouth shut. It was just a little push, as far as Jenna wanted to think.
Jenna’s head snapped up at the creak of the front door opening, and she was up and rushing down the stairs in an instant. She stood eagerly on the bottom step, poking her head around the end of the railing to view her mother and Nana. They both sat at the kitchen table, chatting emotionlessly over a glass of wine. Jenna made up her mind to leave them be and perched herself quietly on the final step, her head hung low. She only overheard them conversing about “financial problems” and “funeral prices” in their discussion, but she eventually caught on to the situation. More tears began to swell in her glossy orbs, to which she quickly wiped away. There was nothing more Jenna yearned to hear, so she sluggishly returned to her room, struggling to keep her bloodshot eyes open along the way.
Gabby was already dozing off, per usual, leaving Jenna to perform her nightly routine in silence. She was pushing herself to the limit in an urge to stay positive. After all, she had a birthday the following day, and she had once promised Paul that she would always keep smiling, no matter the circumstances. So, Jenna did whatever it took to make herself smile again, remembering fondly of the sparkly and multicolored party decorations she had for her birthday. And even if Paul wasn’t there, the rest of her family had given their word, and Jenna’s faith remained with her family on that.
Unfortunately, the nightmares tumbled through Jenna’s head in her slumber yet again, mirroring those of the night previous. But this time, they didn’t trouble Jenna in any form or fashion. The dreams seemed strangely comforting, and it was almost as if she didn’t have to be alone anymore, omitting that she actually was alone. Something didn’t quite feel right, but it made her smile.
The next morning, Jenna didn’t hesitate to jump straight out of bed, already smiling in anticipation. She took one quick glance over at where her sister would’ve been, doing a double-take. Gabby wasn’t where she had left her, but another vacant bed was left over. Shrugging her shoulders, Jenna skipped to her dresser and ripped open the bottom drawer. After sifting through the contents of the compartment for a minute, she pulled out a purple dress for her party. The dress had thin straps at the top, the bottom flowing down to her knees, and a few rows of purple ruffles were aligned vertically on the bottom half. The words “Happy birthday!” were stitched across the chest in big white letters, with a few loose strings fluttering as she moved about. Then, she slid on a pair of flat, charcoal dress shoes, each shoe wearing a little black bow at the tip. Lastly, Jenna brushed the tangles out of her long hair and raced clumsily down the stairs, where she presumed everyone would be waiting.
To Jenna’s surprise, she was only accompanied by an empty living room. Darting her eyes around in puzzlement, she wandered into the kitchen, supposing her family must be waiting in another room. Again, she found a lifeless area of the house. Jenna began to panic and investigated the space for any sign of their location. While she searched, the girl came across a small note that was taped to the fridge, and curiously plucked it from its place. Jenna read the note aloud, “Girls, your mother and I have gone out to eat with one of your mother’s employees, Mike. Be back soon. Sincerely, Nana.” She had difficulty pronouncing a word or two but understood what it meant.
Although, the note didn’t share anything that concerned Gabby’s whereabouts. “Gabby?” Jenna bawled, placing the note on the kitchen counter. “Gabby, are you here?” She asked again, raising her volume. But her inquiry fell on deaf ears, as no response came. Jenna’s eyes fell to the floor. “Maybe she’s at her friend’s house? She’ll probably be back soon,” she assured herself, tugging on the refrigerator door.
There was a vanilla birthday cake from the icebox that Jenna set neatly in its respective place on the table, removing the lid to put nine candlesticks into the saccharine food item. Paul had allowed Jenna the choice of her own cake at the grocery store earlier in the week, along with the purchase of a small present that she wasn’t admitted to open until after they had eaten cake. She gathered up her favorite toys at the table, hung her birthday banner across the dining room wall, set purple flowers along the counters and walls, and a little glitter never hurt anyone. Jenna managed to finish up within half an hour, right about nine o’clock in the morning. With a glimmering purple cone hat strapped to her head, she sat herself down at the kitchen table. Jenna didn’t even want to leave the table until her family got back, so she kicked her heels and patiently awaited their return.
Six times the grandfather clock rang, informing inhabitants that the sun would begin to fall in the sky, but Jenna had not moved from her spot at the kitchen table. No one came home in those nine hours or even took into account of the girl’s birthday. She was deathly quiet, inhumanly motionless, barely blinking her sunken eyes that continuously stared at the white wall in front of her. The clock’s ticking pendulum was the only noise made throughout the subdued house, almost mocking her loneliness. Jenna knew she needed to smile, but she felt numb, like something inside of her had broken. Her eyes flickered down to the chalky paring knife that rested innocently next to a bowl of fruit, her fingers soon crawling forward and grasping it tightly. She then carried out her nearly disregarded promise and smiled from ear to ear.
During the next few hours, Gabby came marching up the back porch from her friend’s house, jamming her key into the lock on the back door. “Hey, Max,” she greeted her dog, petting the fur on his head. However, Max only snapped and snarled at the door in return, instead of jumping and barking happily, as he normally did. Gabby rolled her eyes, wrenching the heavy door open and closing it after her. “Crazy dog,” she mumbled and threw her bag down on the floor.
Right away, she noticed how eerily silent the house was but didn’t think much of it. “Mom? Nana?” Gabby hollered out, recalling her mother’s car that was parked in the driveway. Of course, she knew her sister had to be somewhere nearby. “Jenna!” Plodding over to the stairs, she scanned the different rooms that she passed, ultimately finding no one. “Jenna?” Her voice was lowered as she stepped cautiously up the staircase, skimming her hand over the beige wall. While taking wary strides toward her room, a flimsy object of some sort crunched under Gabby’s foot. Cocking a thick brow, the teenager bent down and lifted a purple party hat from the ground. As she was examining the specks of red that dotted the paper headwear, a small but audible thump originated from behind her wooden bedroom door. Gabby shot a menacing glare at the door, tossing the hat into another direction. “Jenna, I know you’re in there.”
She flung the door open in annoyance, a fragment of hallway light spilling into the unlit room. An awful metallic scent permeated her nostrils when she entered, but she simply dismissed the fact. Gabby fingered the wall on her left to flick the light switch, discovering that someone had stuck countless layers of tape over the switch to keep it off. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she grumbled, stepping off to the side and peeling the tape from the plastic. Suddenly, the bedroom door slammed shut, causing Gabby to nearly leap out of her skin. She could just faintly hear a heavy breathing in front of her, prompting her to take several steps backward. Gabby’s heart began hammering in her chest, her nerves dancing frantically to the beat. “Jenna? Come on, this isn’t funny.” She received no reply from the darkness that surrounded her.
In a rather abrupt manner, the switch to the lights was clicked on without any further warning, triggering Gabby to squint her eyes in the haze of brightness. Once they adjusted to the lighting, Gabby’s eyes widened to the size of her balled fists. Jenna was poised a short distance away, a wide, malevolent grin plastered onto her smooth face, one that seemed luminescent compared to the rest of her dark aspects. Her chocolate mane was matted, scratches covered her limbs, and flakes of dried blood clung to the skin on her cheeks. A fresh crimson substance coated the majority of her legs and dress, while she clenched a stained, glistening kitchen utensil in her right hand. Her other arm cradled a bloodied stuffed fox, who lacked a single button eye with white stuffing protruding from the rips in its fabric.
Jenna’s shoes left scarlet footprints in the tan carpet as she stalked toward her sister. Realization slowly dawned on Gabby, and it took every fiber of her being not to scream when she laid eyes on the room around her. Smeared handprints of red lined the walls, lamps were knocked over, and assorted items were strewn across the floor to insist the obvious signs of a struggle. The intense odor shot uncomfortably icy chills down Gabby’s backside, adding to the below ambient temperature that this specific room held.
“J-Jenna! Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on here, but you better tell me where mom and Nana are, right now!” Gabby demanded, beginning to back away from the shorter girl. Jenna’s smile seemed to increase, and she paused a few feet in front of Gabby. “What’s the matter, sissy? You aren’t smiling,” Jenna cooed, taking another step, “Do you know what happens to people who don’t smile?” Gabby’s face paled significantly, the adrenaline in her system causing her arms to coil in defense, as she set aside her dignity and implored, “No… Please, get away! Come on, Jenna, we’re sisters! This is crazy!” Jenna chuckled through her gritted teeth, a wry smile sculpting her lips. “Oh, is that so? No, I don’t think it is. Your mom will never be a mother to me, so don’t you think for a second that I will ever call you a sister,” she taunted her older sibling, using the reminiscent command in a sing-song tone. Gabby’s feet appeared like they were glued to the floor, a look of unadulterated horror sweeping over her refined features as Jenna continued, “You know, you were right, Gabby — It’s all just fun and games!”
Jenna was small when compared to her sister, but she was nimble and accommodated plenty of energy. Gabby’s screams emanated throughout the house for the duration of the night, haunting echoes sounding as though she were pleading for hours, even if she was lifeless within minutes. The magenta candles on Jenna’s birthday cake were the only source of light in the house, with each of Jenna’s immobile family members and blood-soaked toys gathered around it. Everyone wore radiant party hats, thanks to Jenna, and were thoroughly dressed in red. They all sat at the table in a near pitch-black kitchen, but Jenna was the only one capable of singing her birthday song. When the time came, she couldn’t have undone the bow on Paul’s birthday gift quick enough, revealing a sparkly set of ruby earrings, which she swiftly drove through her unpierced earlobes in the excitement of owning her first pair. The pain and the godawful scent didn’t trouble Jenna in the slightest, given that she was finally alongside her family. And her sizeable grin suggested that she was the happiest she had ever been.
Credit: Molly Jackson
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