Ezra Richter stared at a set of footprints in the snow.
They were medium-sized, one bigger than the other. Ezra wouldn’t have given them a second glance, had he not noticed one thing.
“The steps lead to my property, to the back door of the house. But there are none that lead away. I’ve checked the entire perimeter,” Ezra said and rubbed his hands against the cold. “Have you seen anything like this before?”
“Ezra, it could have easily been one of your kids trying to pull a prank,” Simon, his neighbor, said.
Ezra shook his head.
“Well, what does Petra think of all this?”
“Petra,” Ezra repeated his wife’s name. Even Ezra could hear the edge in his voice, like poking a bruise that was healing, but still fragile. “She hasn’t been interested in anything but the baby, and with Bridget being a first-time mom—”
“Well, it could have been the kids or a passerby. You have a lot of lands and you live near the road, so perhaps someone tried to take a shortcut to the woods.”
Ezra considered this, then nodded.
“Go spend some time with your family and if it happens again, let me know,” Simon said. He smiled at Ezra and walked up the road to his ranch.
Ezra returned to the barn, eager to resume his routine. As he fed the horses, his mind drifted. Could it have been one of the kids? Could it have been Petra, out for an early morning walk?
He’d ask them at dinner, and he was sure precocious, teenage Alby would admit he’d been the culprit and Ezra would feel relieved.
Or perhaps it had been Myna. She’d smile at him with her sheepish grin, her eyes gleaming as she admitted to leaving the footprints. He’d laugh it all away and things would be normal.
Six hours later, they sat down for dinner.
“I never saw any footprints,” Alby said.
“Don’t talk back to your father,” Petra scolded. She glared at Alby over her glass of water.
“It’s all right, Petra,” Ezra said. She turned the same gaze toward him but said nothing.
“What about you, Bridget? Did you see anything last night or this morning?”
“It wasn’t me! I was up late with Willem trying to get him to sleep. He didn’t want to the nipple so I tried a bottle, but he just kept crying and crying, so I tried rocking him. I wasn’t out there, Dad, I swear!”
“Bridget, it’s okay.”
Her eyes were glassy, tears welling at the edges. Ezra smiled and patted her shoulder. She looked down at her hands.
They ate the rest of their dinner in silence. Afterward, Bridget went upstairs to tend to the baby. Alby and Myna went to the living room to finish their homework.
When Ezra told his family about the footprints in the snow, he had not mentioned that the footprints led to their home, but not away from it. Ezra knew he had to tell his wife. But Petra could be erratic, quick to sting. She stood at the sink with her back to him. Ezra sighed and walked to the counter, standing just behind her. The dishes clinked in the sink as she washed them. “Those footprints I mentioned earlier. They lead to the house but… there were none leading away.”
Petra’s hands paused in the sudsy water.
She turned to look at him. “What?”
“I didn’t see anymore on the property,” he said before she could ask.
“Well, what are you going to do? Did you check the rooms? The barn? The attic?”
“I checked all of it.”
He walked toward his wife and embraced her. She pushed him away too soon and turned back to the dishes.
“It’s all going to be okay,” he said. Petra grunted.
Ezra could tell he was not convincing her. He ran a hand over his face, a hand that still seemed dirty no matter how many times he scrubbed. Before he could say anything else, the sound of rushing water stopped. She wiped her hands on her dress and strode to the living room.
“Time for bed, Alby, Myna.”
Three sets of footsteps ascended the stairs. There was no sense in staying up any longer. Tomorrow would be a long day of cleaning the barn and repairing the back fence. Perhaps I’ll bring the fence around the west side of the property, Ezra thought.
He walked into the living room and locked the front door. He turned the lights off as he moved through the home, making sure all the windows were locked. As he finished locking the back door, he looked out the window, where he thought he saw movement near the barn.
His hand shot back to the lock, ready to fling the door open. But there was nothing. The yard was still. He shook his head and walked upstairs, turning off the last set of lights.
Willem woke up with a wail.
“Perhaps he’s teething,” her mother said when Bridget begged for help.
“How do I make him stop?” Bridget asked.
Her mother scoffed. “Sometimes a baby just needs to cry.”
She continued moving. She was making banana bread, and Bridget marveled at how calm and collected her mother always seemed.
Willem was still shrieking, snot and tears covering his nose and mouth, his cheeks red and puffy. He’d gotten snot on her dress. Bridget gagged twice before gaining control.
Her mother looked over her shoulder at her and sighed.
“If you can’t handle a child, you shouldn’t have opened your legs.”
Bridget’s stomach dropped. Her mother pursed her lips and wiped her hands on her apron. She grabbed Willem, and seconds later he was quiet.
Bridget’s eyes were glassy now as she stared at her baby nestled in her mother’s arms. She was never good at anything, not like Alby or Myna. She thought that giving birth, being a good mother, was instinctual. But, like everyone else, Willem preferred the company of others. If she couldn’t do the one thing God put women on this earth to do, what good was she?
“Really, Bridget, it’s okay. You’re just nineteen,” her mother said. “Some women take longer to get used to motherhood.”
She set Willem down in his crib. He looked sleepy, content.
“Why don’t you go to the store for me? Take my car.”
Bridget nodded. Her mother grabbed a grocery list from the refrigerator.
“Be sure to get yourself some ice cream or a cookie, something that will make you feel better.” Her mother winked, and Bridget smiled meekly. She stuffed her feet into a pair of boots and grabbed her coat. She turned toward the key hook. Her mother’s car keys were gone.
“Mom, where are the keys?” Bridget asked.
“On the hook, dear.”
Bridget furrowed her brow.
“They aren’t there, mom.” She tried to keep her composure; she couldn’t allow herself to become frantic.
When she got to the door, her mother scowled.
“Alby!” she called. Seconds later, Alby trudged down the stairs.
“Yes, Mom?” he asked.
“Have you taken my car keys?”
He shook his head.
“Maybe Dad has them?” Bridget offered. Her mother walked around the kitchen. After giving the kitchen a thorough look, their mother turned to them.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Help me find the keys.”
They searched the house. When they found nothing, her mother told Bridget to search the barn. Immediately, her heart beat faster.
“Can’t Alby check the—”
“Just do as I say,” Petra snapped.
Bridget nodded and walked outside.
She’d always been scared by the barn. It felt cold and stark to her, despite Hugo and Maria. She slid open the door and took a cursory look around. Hugo and Maria were in their stalls. They stared at her as she walked in, as though they found her wanting. She peaked in their stalls but found nothing. She walked to the end of the barn, where her father kept the tools and the hay.
Still, there was nothing. Still, she had not found the keys. Bridget walked back to the house. She stepped into the kitchen with a sigh, glad to be back in the warmth of the house. Her mother was on the phone. She twisted the cord around her finger.
“You’re sure you don’t have them, Ezra?” she asked. Her lips set in a thin line. After a while, she hung up the phone. Her mother sighed and walked back to the counter.
“Looks like the keys are lost,” her mother said. “Just take the spare.”
Bridget nodded. She grabbed the keys and walked out the door.
Bridget came home with groceries an hour later. Alby saw something beneath her usual world-weariness.
“What’s eating you, Bridget?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” she said. She strained to reach the top shelf to put away the oats and rice. Alby shook his head and grabbed them from her, then slid them onto the top shelf.
“Liar,” Alby said. Bridget looked into the living room, then back at her brother.
“It’s just, with the keys missing, and the steps in the snow, and…” She was near tears. “Something happened while I was out today.”
“What?” Alby asked.
“The whole time I felt like someone was following me.”
“Yes,” Bridget began. “I went down to the market first. At every turn, there was someone there, just out of the corner of my eye.” Tears spilled down her pale cheeks.
Alby hugged her. He wanted her to stop crying. Once Bridget started, it was likely she wouldn’t stop.
“It’s all going to be okay, Bridget, I swear. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Bridget pulled back. “You promise?”
Alby nodded. Later that night, though, Alby realized how wrong he’d been.
His bedroom faced the barn. He was a light sleeper, so when he heard something that sounded like whimpering, he awoke with a start. He went to the window and looked out onto the yard. A fine layer of snow covered the ground, and more was still falling. Alby didn’t hear the noise again. He was about to go back to bed, thinking he had probably been dreaming, when something caught his eye.
The barn door was open. Perhaps it’s just a trick of the light, he thought. It was more likely that the door was really closed and he’d be foolish to run outside in the cold, looking for ghosts. He pressed his face against the window and squinted.
The snowfall was heavier now. The wind whipped at the trees. Snow blew into the cavernous opening of the barn. His throat went dry. Should he wake his father? Should he go out there himself?
“Christ,” he said. The door was open and there was no way he’d be able to stay inside now. Hugo and Maria were in the barn, and they’d freeze to death. He’d never forgive himself if that happened.
He sighed and shrugged on a coat. He tiptoed down the stairs. He tugged on his boots and walked out into the cold.
His boots crunched against the snow as he made his way to the barn. The yard was nearly dark, except for the light post his father had installed.
Alby grabbed a flashlight anyway. He stood in the opening of the barn, listening for any sound. He heard Hugo’s steady breath from his stall just beside the door. As he walked a little farther into the barn, he stood next to Maria’s stall and was instantly alarmed. Maria was struggling, her breath coming in shallow pants. She whimpered.
There was something else too, something that sounded like whispering. As Alby lifted his flashlight toward Maria’s stall, he saw the top of someone’s head.
He sprinted back to the house and flung open the door. Alby took the stairs two at a time and ran to his parents’ room. He pounded on the door.
His father jerked open the door, his face full of exhausted anger. He must have seen the terror in Alby’s eyes because his face softened.
“What is it?” He asked.
“Something’s happened to Maria,” Alby said.
“I don’t know. I went to the barn because the door was open, and she was on the ground. She sounded like she was in pain.”
He father turned and grabbed his coat from the closet. His mother stood and pulled on a pair of thermals. After his father slipped into his boots, they ran out to the barn. His father flung open Maria’s stall door and gasped.
Maria was on the ground, and her foal was beside her. It was smaller than it should have been.
“Maria wasn’t due to give birth for another four months,” Alby said. His father nodded and ran a hand over the foal’s coat. There was no heartbeat. Maria bled profusely, her eyes cloudy and unfocused.
“Go get towels and more light,” his father said. Alby knew that there was nothing they could do for her, though he still obliged. He wondered if he should tell his father what he saw. But was he even sure about what he’d seen?
“What happened to Maria?” His mother asked. She stood in the doorway to the barn, arms crossed.
“She had her foal. It was so premature, it didn’t stand a chance,” his father said.
They worked through the early morning to save Maria. But after several hours, she’d stopped moving.
After they left the barn, Alby and Ezra went back to sleep. She stayed up and made coffee. Started breakfast. A woman’s job is never done, she thought. She made the batter for pancakes, and her mind wandered. While she’d been helping them with Maria, she found a small vial in the hay beside her body. Most of the substance was gone, and she didn’t recognize its smell.
Afterward, Alby told them that he thought he saw someone in Maria’s stall just before he woke them up. Ezra dismissed it, saying it was crazy, that Maria had just been unlucky and given birth earlier than planned. Petra agreed with Ezra then, but now she wasn’t so sure.
Was it even possible? Had there been someone in the stall with Maria?
“Morning, mother,” Myna chirped. Petra turned to see her youngest daughter take her seat at the table. Petra offered her a quick smile and continued making the pancakes. Willem was crying, which meant Bridget would be joining them, frantic and needing help.
Her eyes burned from exhaustion, and she still felt cold. Alby and Ezra came to the table just as the girls finished their food.
“Hello, girls,” Ezra said. Though he’d slept another hour, he still sounded exhausted.
“Morning, Dad,” Myna and Brigit said. Myna headed up the stairs to get ready for school. Alby was already dressed, though Petra had half a mind to let him stay home for the day. He seemed to be just as exhausted as Ezra, if not more.
They ate in silence, save for Willem’s whimpering as Bridget spoon-fed him.
Petra clutched her coffee cup. She hadn’t eaten much, couldn’t stomach it. She felt queasy like her stomach was full to the brim with acid.
“I’m going into town today,” she said.
“Oh?” Ezra said. He glanced at her from over his newspaper. “You hardly ever go into town.”
It was true, she didn’t. Petra was always more than happy to let Ezra or Bridget run errands. She was about to change her mind when her hand drifted down to her pocket, where the vial sat. This was why she needed to go. She had to find out what the hell had been in the vial, and whether it had anything to do with pushing Maria into labor.
“But mom,” Bridget said. “If you’re gone, what will I do with the baby?”
“Well, you’ll figure it out, of course. I won’t always be here to help. Besides, I know you can do this.” Petra said, doing her best to sound reassuring. Bridget looked near tears again.
Petra retreated upstairs where she took a quick shower and slipped on her warmest clothes. She turned to the mirror and sighed. She looked tired, worn. She looked like a woman well into her fifties, instead of a woman who’d just celebrated her fortieth birthday. She forced a smile and walked down the stairs.
Petra kissed Bridget and Willem and headed for the door. She stepped out of the house and winced. It was a clear, sunny day, but the cold was bitter and unyielding.
Petra locked the door. As she turned toward her car, something brushed against her arm. A lock of long, crimson hair was stuck to the brick facade of their home. She leaned forward and examined it. It was much too vibrant to match the dull, dark red of her own hair. But it was too red to belong to Myna and too light to belong to Bridget, whose hair was a teak-colored brown. Petra scowled as she grabbed the hair and headed to her car, examining the trusses along the way.
She pulled up to the pharmacy. The strand of hair coiled in the seat next to her like a question mark. She pulled the vial from her jacket pocket. It was cold to the touch, and the remaining liquid had almost evaporated.
The door opened with a jingle, and Mr. Strauss looked up as she stepped in.
“Ah, Petra, how are you?” he said. He’d worked at the pharmacy since Petra was a teenager. Back then, he had white-blonde hair that he wore in the style of Clark Gable. Now, she looked at the man, whose hair was a shock-white cloud around his head.
“I wish I could say I was better,” she began. Mr. Strauss lifted a brow. She placed the vial onto the counter top. “I found this in one of my horse’s stall. She gave birth to a foal—”
“Well, she wasn’t due for another four months. The foal died and we had to put her down.”
Mr. Strauss frowned. “I’m so sorry, Petra.”
She nodded. Her cheeks grew hot. “Anyway, I came here to find out what that might be, and if it had anything to do with Maria’s early labor.”
Mr. Strauss picked up the vial and turned it this way and that. “Well, I can certainly tell you what it is but it may take me a while… we’re backed up on our prescriptions now. If you don’t hear from me today, I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.”
Petra’s heart sank. She had hoped for an answer sooner rather than later, but what else could she do?
“All right,” she said. She gave him a tight smile. The door behind him opened and a young woman came out. She was tall and thin with a face pitted with acne. A long scar ran the length of her left cheek, and she had a cleft lip. Her hair was tied back with a red bandanna.
Mr. Strauss looked over his shoulder at her. “Ah, Petra. This is my assistant, Isolde.”
“Nice to meet you,” Petra said. The girl stood stock still, staring at Petra with piercing blue eyes. They were the reproachful eyes of a wolf. Petra looked away.
Isolde didn’t respond to her greeting, even as Mr. Strauss said, “She’s been such a big help. I’m not as young as I used to be, not as fast. She helps me keep this old place running.”
“Well, I should be going. I look forward to hearing from you,” Petra said.
Mr. Strauss nodded. He turned toward Isolde, who was still staring at Petra.
“Isolde, why don’t you go grab us some lunch from the deli?” Mr. Strauss asked. Isolde looked at him and nodded. She walked around the counter and passed Petra. Petra flashed Mr. Strauss one last smile and walked out of the store, behind Isolde.
As they stepped into the sunlight, Petra swore that, beneath Isolde’s red bandanna, was a head full of vibrant red hair.
After a fitful sleep, Myna awoke to find her bedroom door wide open. She scowled at this, as she was always so good about closing her door. Had one of her parents or siblings opened it to look in on her in the middle of the night?
She got out of bed and shrugged on her robe. She shuffled down the hallway. As she did, the floorboards in the attic creaked above her.
Myna stopped and looked up at the attic door. Her heart galloped in her chest. What if there was something there? What if whatever it was jumped out of the attic and attacked her?
The noise stopped.
After a few more seconds of silence, she headed for the stairs. Her foot barely touched the bottom step before she heard the creaking sound again.
Her parents were in the kitchen. Her father read the paper, his hair a mess of unkempt curls. Normally, he was a clean-shaven man. Today, however, it seemed as though his beard might overtake his face.
Her mother was in the kitchen. She stood at the stove making eggs. Her shoulders heaved up and down, as though she were crying.
“Dad,” Myna started. Her voice quivered. She sounded meek, small. Her father looked up at her over his paper. “I think there’s something in the attic.”
“Oh?” he said.
Myna nodded. “I heard a… shuffling sound just now.”
Her father scowled, then looked back at his paper.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, honey.”
“Listen to your father,” her mother said. She turned toward them and set a bowl of scrambled eggs on the table. Her cheeks glistened with tears, and her eyes were rimmed in red.
Myna sat next to her father, dutiful and silent. She played with the hem of her robe as she waited for her siblings to join them.
Willem’s cries were getting louder, which meant that Bridget was coming down the stairs. When she stepped into the kitchen, she had him balanced precariously on her hip. Bridget set Willem in his high chair and took a seat at the table beside him.
“Did anyone hear that noise in the attic last night?” Bridget said. Myna’s eyes widened.
“I didn’t hear anything last night, but I did this morning,” she said. She glanced at her father, who was wiping his face with his hands.
“I’ll not have any more talk of something in the attic,” her father said. “It’s probably a rat or a bird. It’ll die eventually. It’s not something to worry about.”
“But, Father—” Bridget began.
Her father slammed his fists on the table. Myna jumped.
“I said, not another word on this. We will eat breakfast in silence. Then you can resume your chores.”
Tension settled over the table like a shroud. They remained in silence as they ate. Even precocious Alby said nothing and stared at his food. After breakfast, Myna collected their plates and set them in the sink.
“Myna, go help your brother with the hay,” her mother said.
Myna frowned. Though the sun was out and a lot of the snow had melted, it would still be cold outside. But her mother wasn’t one to ask for something twice, and Myna nodded, grabbed her boots, and sat on the stairs. The phone rang, and Myna slowly unlaced her boots, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“Hello?” her mother began. “Oh, yes. Hello, Mr. Strauss.”
Her mother nodded and squinted, as though thinking deeply on what he had to say.
“Oxycodone? What’s it—” Her mother’s eyes widened, and Myna grew alarmed. Her mother gripped the counter. Myna stepped off the stairs and toward the kitchen, thinking she might comfort her mother.
But when her mother noticed Myna standing in the kitchen instead of heading outside, she scowled. She motioned for Myna to go away.
Alby was nearly done by the time she’d trudged her way through the snow. He looked up at her and smiled, wiping his brow. Myna grabbed a shovel from the side wall and began digging up the hay. What was oxycodone? she wondered. Why did Mom look so worried? Did it have anything to do with Maria?
“Hey,” Alby called. Myna looked up, ripped from her reverie. “You’re digging a hole.”
Myna looked down to see she’d shoved all of the hay into the barrel and was now digging through the earth.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. She put the shovel back and took a seat on the log just outside the barn door.
“What’s wrong?” Alby asked.
Myna was silent for a while before speaking. “Do you know what oxycodone is?”
“Well, when I was getting my boots on, Mom got a call from Mr. Strauss, the pharmacist.”
“Yeah?” Alby said.
“So, I guess he told her something about it.”
Alby was thoughtful. “Mom found some kind of vial in Maria’s barn while… the other night.”
Between the two horses, Maria had been her favorite. She hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.
“I saw someone in the bar that night,” Alby said.
Myna’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes. Well, I’m pretty sure there was someone in there with Maria. But by the time I came back with Dad, she was gone,” Alby replied. He gazed out onto the yard. “But you can’t tell Mom and Dad. They’d kill me for scaring you, and with that vial…”
His voice trailed off. He didn’t need to finish his sentence.
Myna’s mind drifted back to Maria, to when she first learned to ride her. She stayed on Maria for hours, and they rode all around the property, stopping at the copse of trees that marked the edge of the forest. Myna looked over there now as if to see her seven-year-old self riding a much smaller Maria.
What she saw now nearly made her fall off the log.
By the copse of trees that lead into the woods stood a girl with a red bandanna.
Myna tapped the side of her brother’s leg. He looked at her and then followed her gaze. Before she knew it, Alby was on his feet, running at full speed toward the woman.
“Alby! Alby!” Myna screamed. She lingered by the log. Should she run after Alby? Should she go tell her parents? Or should she stay and wait for Alby to come back?
Her breath came out as little clouds in the air. She stood and put one foot before the other. Without thinking about it, Myna began to run. Branches and leaves smacked her in the face as she ran deeper into the forest. She nearly tripped over an errant tree root and stubbed her toe on a large rock.
“Alby?” Myna said.
She reached a clearing where Alby stood, motionless. The clearing offered a slight view of her house between the trees.
“Alby?” She called again. “Alby, what—”
He turned to her and held his finger to his lips. He pointed toward the tree directly to her left. Crudely carved into the tree was his name, “Alby.”
Upon further inspection, Myna noticed that the tree beside it had her name carved. A chill ran down her spine as she turned to look at the trees in the clearing. They were all carved with the names of her family.
“What is this?” Myna asked.
“I don’t know,” Alby whispered.
A tree branch snapped in the far corner of the clearing. Myna and Alby turned to see the girl with the red bandanna. Her right eye twisted inward. Her cheeks were covered in acne. She sneered at them and in all of her thirteen years, Myna had never been so scared.
The girl held something behind her back. It was too heavy for her because her right arm slumped from the weight of it.
“Who are you?” Alby shouted.
She looked toward him as though coming out of a daze. She brought the object forward, letting it dangle. It was an ax, and part of the handle was dented. It looked like the same ax her father used to chop wood.
Myna looked at Alby. He stood stock still, all color drained from his face.
“What do we do?” Myna whispered.
The girl took a step toward them.
“Run, Myna, run!” Alby said.
She turned and followed the path back to her home. Her lungs burned, and her legs screamed at her to stop. Navigating through the wood was more difficult this time—Myna tripped over rocks and tree stumps, nearly falling flat on her face.
Finally, she was clear of the woods. The second her feet touched the muddy grass of her backyard she sprinted toward the house. Her father’s truck sat in the driveway now. He was home and would do anything to protect them.
Someone screamed. Myna stopped. It sounded low, guttural. It sounded like Alby. But wasn’t he behind her? He should have caught up to her by now, he’d always been the faster runner.
Myna turned and was now face to face with the girl. This close, Myna saw she was several years older. Her bright-blue dress was covered in blood. She lifted the ax and Myna’s world went black.
When she came to, she was still on the grass. The sun was setting, casting a pink and purple glow about the yard. Her head throbbed and when she touched her temple, her hand came back crimson and glistening. Myna whimpered. A short distance away, she saw two shapes in the grass. She strained to see it, her head and neck throbbed with each movement.
It was Alby and her father. She stifled a scream. She tried to stand, but her legs were too weak. She crawled toward her father and brother.
Alby was on his stomach, his head turned to the side. His clothes were soaked through with blood and his once-vibrant blue eyes were now dull. His mouth hung open. Her father lay beside her brother, his face split in two. His eyes had rolled so far up she could only see the whites of them.
She looked toward the barn and saw the door was open. The outdoor lamp illuminated part of the space. There was something or someone on the ground. She crawled toward the barn, every movement agonizing. Blood dripped down her arm. She reached the barn and saw what was inside.
Myna screamed, a sound so foreign she could hardly believe she was making it.
There was Bridget. She was on her back with her hands above her head. Her legs, stomach, and chest were hacked to ribbons of yellow fabric and skin. Her hair stuck to her face. Her mother lay at the foot of Maria’s empty stall. She lay face up, her hair surrounding her like a halo. Her head hung from her neck by a few bits of skin. Her temple was split.
Myna sat back on her knees, in the dirt, in a puddle of her mother’s blood. Her energy waned, and her vision blurred.
She grabbed her hair and pulled and screamed and cried. She tugged so hard, large clumps came loose in her hands. When she heard the footsteps behind her, Myna had no time to mourn. She didn’t have to guess who it was. Her breath hitched as the ax dug into her side.
She coughed up blood, spitting some on her mother’s disfigured face. She fell forward, her body stretching across her mother. Her head swam, her body ached. The last thing she heard was steps retreating from the barn.
Isolde was born scarred. Her lip was split in two and even after the doctors stitched it together, she always looked like she was sneering. Her right eye pointed inward. As she got older, her cheeks and forehead were covered in acne. She picked at them, she couldn’t help it, and the open wounds scabbed over and scarred. She was born ugly, the women at the orphanage told her, and God saw fit to keep her that way. The women at the orphanage told her she’d been abandoned as a baby, dropped off on their steps with barely a blanket in midwinter.
“It’s because you’re so damn slow,” they said. “No one wants an ugly baby that’s also stupid.”
But Isolde wasn’t stupid, nor was she slow. She was just quiet. Watchful.
One night when she was ten, the ladies at the orphanage made everyone gather into a room to listen to the radio. There was to be a war and soon, all the young men would be drafted. While the women spoke in hushed tones about the horrors to come, Isolde snuck into the records room. She could read well enough, so she searched for her name.
Her file was jammed at the back of the drawer.
That was her name. Richter. The files read that she was given up by “the parent’s own accord.”
She shoved the file back into the cabinet. She ran to her room and cried, hating that the women there were right. Her belly felt full of hot coals. Her eyes stung with tears. After cleaning herself up and brushing her teeth, Isolde lay in bed and vowed to find her family. Surely they’d made a mistake. They hadn’t really wanted to give her away, had they?
When she was fourteen, Isolde ran away from the orphanage. She went into the town and looked for work. She was tired of the rules and the beatings. She wanted real food and clean water.
Isolde took a job at the bakery. She worked there for five months until, one scorching summer day, she heard the bell ring.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Richter,” said Mr. Fielding, the baker, and owner.
She nearly dropped the dough she held in her hands. Could it be? Was it really her mother, inside the shop, so near to her?
She had to know what she looked like. Isolde set down the dough on the counter and peeked through the racks of bread. Her heart thrummed in her chest. She tried to keep quiet, but she felt like her breath was too hard to control. She clamped a hand over her mouth.
Her mother was beautiful. Ivory skin, freckles, wide blue eyes. Her hair was chestnut. She smiled and Isolde’s heart leaped in her chest.
Isolde’s eyes were cloudy with tears. She wanted to run to her. She imagined that her mother would recognize Isolde immediately and fold her in her arms and take her home and-
The sound of the doorbell pulled her out of her daydream. Now Isolde was filled with dread. She couldn’t lose her, not again. Isolde ran out the back door. She turned right toward the street as her mother was turning left, toward the country. Isolde followed her, taking care to stay out of sight.
When they got to the road that led to a large, yellow house, Isolde walked past the lane and into the wooded area by the house. The woods opened to a clearing. From there, Isolde had the perfect view of the house.
A man with graying hair stood outside and chopped wood.
“Father,” Isolde said. She took a step forward. She had to say something, Surely her parents would want to know—
Isolde saw a boy with blonde hair run out of the house, holding the hand of a young girl.
Dad? Isolde thought.
The man smiled and picked up the little girl. He kissed her cheek.
“My sweet girl,” he said.
Isolde stifled a scream. Sweet girl, he said. Sweet. Girl.
Another girl stepped out of the house, this one several years older than Isolde.
“Dad, Mom forgot a few things for dinner. Can you go to the store?”
Her father sighed and nodded.
“Do you have a list of things she needs, Bridget?” He ushered the children inside the house and closed the door.
Isolde sank against a tree and sobbed. She always thought it was that her family couldn’t afford her. But that was a lie. They had given her up because she really was hideous. She was ugly, ugly, ugly.
Her teeth ground together. They’ll pay, she thought. I’ll make them all pay.
Over the next three years, she came to this clearing and watched them.
When she wasn’t watching her family, she was working. She worked at the apothecary now. Every hour she was awake she spent thinking of her family; hating them, loving them, wanting to be like them. She couldn’t have them, so she had to kill them.
The first was Alby. His bones cracked louder and louder with each blow.
She knocked out Myna, her sweet baby sister. She’d be the last to die. She was only thirteen, after all. She deserved some mercy.
Ezra heard Alby’s screams and ran out the door.
“No! My son, no!” he yelled. He knelt to check Alby’s pulse and sobbed.
Isolde seized the opportunity and brought the ax down on his neck. Ezra fell to the ground and rolled over to face her. With a grunt, Isolde slammed the ax into his face, cleaving his nose and forehead in two.
“Don’t move or I’ll shoot!”
Isolde turned. Her mother stood at the door. She pointed a gun at Isolde. Bridget stood behind her mother. She saw her father, brother, sister on the ground and screamed.
Isolde took a step toward Petra. Her mother pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.
Isolde smiled. She’d gotten rid of the bullets days ago.
Isolde gestured toward the barn. The women ran in and huddled together beside the horse stalls. Isolde opened Hugo’s stall. The horse ran from the barn, neighing into the evening.
She turned toward her mother and sister. Isolde’s ax connected with Petra’s neck so hard her mother’s spine snapped. Blood spilled from the wound and onto her hands. She already had some on her dress and on her face, in her hair. She pulled the ax out of her mother’s neck and hit her again in the temple. The body fell to the floor in a heap.
Bridget’s hands were clasped together. She prayed and begged to be spared.
Isolde said nothing as she walked up to her sister and pushed her to the ground. With one foot resting on Bridget’s leg, Isolde brought the ax down until there was no longer the sound of Bridget’s screams, only the squish of the ax connecting with flesh. Isolde stepped inside Hugo’s empty stall, obscuring herself from view. She knew Myna would come. Isolde would be ready.
As the sun came down, the girl entered the barn. Isolde was still as her sister sobbed over Bridget and their mother. Myna knelt beside her mother and cried. She pulled her hair out in clumps. Isolde stepped out of the stall, walked toward her sister, and cleaved at her side. The girl spit up blood onto their mother’s cheek and fell face down.
Isolde pulled her brother’s and father’s bodies, one by one, into the barn. She closed the door and locked it behind her.
She walked into the warmth of the house. She washed her hands. She was starving. A fresh pot of stew sat on the stove. She grabbed a bowl and poured herself a generous portion. Then she walked upstairs and took a bath. She could hear Willem, her nephew, crying as she washed her hair. When she was done, she walked into Bridget’s room. It was more spartan than she thought it would be, but there were plenty of clothes to choose from. She grabbed the warmest dress and undergarments she could find and put them on.
Willem was in a crib beneath the window. The baby’s cries lessened when she stood over him. She picked him up and held him. When he stopped crying, she changed his diaper. She went downstairs and fetched a bottle from the refrigerator. After he was fed, Willem fell into a deep sleep.
Isolde climbed beneath the blankets on Bridget’s bed. She sighed at the warmth. Her own bed, her old bed, was lumpy and her comforter had holes in it.
The next morning, Isolde made coffee. She had some stew. She found a bag and packed some clothes, enough for her and Willem. She grabbed a few bottles and packed food for them. She used her mother’s makeup to at least cover her acne. Isolde grabbed anything she thought would sell.
She pulled her backpack on and bundled up the baby. She stepped out of the house and onto the road, her footprints disappearing in the freshly fallen snow.