The House on the Hill

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

The first time Claudia Hall saw the house, she fell in love.

 

It was a white, Victorian-style home with green shutters and a large bay window. At the foot of the hill was a large oak tree, with old, sturdy branches and petite green leaves.

 

It was a coffee house called Cuppa, but despite the number of people camping outside of the shop on wicker chairs, there was a “For Sale” sign staked into the grass at the bottom of the hill. After ordering a caramel latte, Claudia stood outside and read the notice next to the door announcing the sale.

 

“Friends and neighbors, after 16 wonderful years, the time has come for Cuppa to say goodbye. We simply cannot thank you enough for being loyal to us, and for all the memories we’ve shared with you. We will close on December 6. If you or anyone you know is interested in buying this lovely home, please contact Fiona (Cuppa’s owner) at 770-457-8962. Thank you for all your business over the years.”

 

Claudia pulled out her phone and texted Jamie, fingers working furiously over the screen.

 

“Baby doll, I think I’ve found the house of our dreams.”

 

They drove to the home the next day. Though Jamie was never one to show her feelings, Claudia could see her eyes light up when she saw it. Outside stood Cuppa’s owner, Fiona. She was a short, round woman who wore baggy khaki capris and a bright yellow shirt with a glittery butterfly on the front. Standing next to her was a woman in cherry red, her black bob as sharp as the lines on her skirt suit.  Her name was Colleen Dubois, the real estate agent tasked with selling the cafe.

 

“How did you find out about this place?” Fiona asked. Her voice was gravelly, smoke-filled.

 

Jamie nodded towards Claudia.

 

“Claudia came here for coffee yesterday and fell head over heels for it.”

 

“Oh, how wonderful! I was hoping to get some traction from the letter and the sign out front.” Fiona said as she ushered them into the coffee house, which she shut down specifically for the occasion.

 

“This house was built in 1865 by Isaiah Mosley,” Colleen began. “He was a successful textile maker. After he died, the house passed to his oldest son, Era Mosley.”

 

They walked into the first room on the right. The room was large, the size of a master bedroom. Three bay windows looked out onto the street and the oak tree at the foot of the hill. In the center of the room was a large desk. Piles of papers and books balanced on either side of the desk, which was covered in detritus.

 

They walked out of the office and passed the stairs, into the main section of the cafe. The registers, counter, and pastry cabinets lined the left side of the staircase. Tables, wooden folding chairs, and large, leather wing backs littered the cafe space. Across from the registers, two large windows looked out to the street and beyond that, a church.

 

“Now, Era became successful in his own right, and in 1897, Era married Phebe Pannabecker, whose father was -“

 

“Elias Pannabecker, the painter?” Jamie said.

 

“Why, yes, how did you know?” Colleen asked.

 

“Jamie was an art major, and she teaches at SCAD,” Claudia said. She leaned into her for a second, catching the scent of her orange ginger conditioner.

 

“Yes, well, Era and Phebe moved into this house shortly after marrying,” Colleen continued, oblivious to Claudia’s previous statement. “They lived here for quite some time. Here’s the kitchen.”

 

It was a long room that took up the rear of the house. It was painted a sunny yellow. Drapes hung over the windows that faced out onto a modest garden, and the space beyond that had been reclaimed as a parking lot for the cafe. Claudia mused about what the garden would have looked like before the bulk of it was paved over with asphalt. What could they do with the empty lot? Surely ripping up the pavement would cost a fortune.

 

Fiona ran up the back stairway to the restroom, leaving them to stand with Colleen and make awkward chitchat.

 

“So, how long have you two… lovebirds been together?” Colleen asked.

 

Claudia and Jamie looked at each other. As a same-sex couple in the South, they were used to the occasional weird comment. Sometimes people just didn’t know how to take them.

 

“Four years,” Jamie said. She slid an arm around Claudia’s waist. Colleen smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach her eyes.

 

“Oh, that’s lovely. And you’re engaged? Can I see the ring?”

 

Claudia smiled and held out her hand for Colleen to take. The woman cooed over her ring, a vintage rose gold band with an opal stone in the center.

 

“You’ve got wonderful taste,” Colleen said, looking at Jamie.

 

“Thank you,”

 

“Do you have a date set?”

 

“Yes, we’re planning for May-”

 

The woman looked up as Fiona trotted down the stairs, her face flushed with the effort. Colleen cleared her throat and transitioned from the curious woman to the hawkish real estate agent.

 

“So, are you ready to talk numbers?” Colleen asked.

 

“Wait,” Claudia said. “We haven’t seen the rest of the home.”

 

Fiona and Colleen looked at each other.

 

“There’s not much to see, just an additional bathroom and two other bedrooms,” Fiona said.

 

Jamie crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side.

 

“Well, if you expect us to live here, we’d like to see the rest of the home. I want to know more about this place. I grew up around here, and I remember this place being deserted for a long time before Fiona set up shop. What happened with the Mosleys? Did they move? Why weren’t there any previous owners?”

 

Colleen sighed.

 

“You’re completely right, Ms. Winters. I’ll take you upstairs and we’ll discuss this home’s provenance.”

 

They walked up the tight back staircase, leading them to the darkened hall on the second floor. Directly across from the stairs was the bathroom. It was a modest size, with simple decorations.

 

There was a room at the end of the hall on the left, one beside the bathroom, and one caddy-corner from the bathroom.

 

Jamie felt a bit of unease as they stood before the bathroom. The hallway felt as cold and oppressing as a cave. The women stood there for a long moment, neither Fiona nor Colleen stepping towards the rooms.

 

“And down the stairs, we go,” Colleen said.

 

“Wait,” Jamie said. “What about these rooms? You still haven’t mentioned anything about the previous owners. Ms. Dubois, if you don’t start telling us what happened in this house before Fiona turned it into some hipster café, we’re going to leave.”

 

Claudia shot her fiancé a look of surprise but held her tongue. When Jamie was on the warpath, it was best to get out of the way.

 

Colleen heaved an exasperated sigh.

 

“Look, I like you, Ms. Winters, I really do. I can tell your fiancé really wants to buy this place, and it’s our goal to sell it as soon as possible. But these rooms, the home’s history, it’s best that you just leave well enough alone.”

 

“What kind of shit show are you running?” Jamie questioned. “Either you tell me about this place, or I’ll call your branch manager on our way home and explain to him you’re deliberately withholding information from us. We’ll see how he feels about that.”

 

The look Colleen gave Jamie was full of venom.

 

“Era and Phebe lived in this house until 1912 when they both died. There were no surviving heirs of the Mosley family, so the house went to the state. It sat empty until 2000 when Fiona here took it over. As far as the rooms go, you’re welcome to take a look yourselves. I’ll be downstairs waiting to discuss price, that is if I’ve provided everything to your satisfaction, Ms. Winters.”

 

Colleen walked down the stairs before anyone could respond. Fiona stood on the landing while Claudia and Jamie explored each of the bedrooms on the top floor. The room on the far end of the hall was the master bedroom. It took up most of the left side of the house and was large enough for a bedroom and a sitting room. The room was empty, but the wallpaper was dingy and worn from the elements. Despite her excitement about the house, Claudia couldn’t help the unease she felt in this room. Though there were windows facing the street and the yard, it felt dark, somehow desolate.

 

They moved to the other rooms, which had the same dreary feeling. The one next to the bathroom had a door that seemed to be stuck, and when Jamie opened it they were met with an intensely stale smell.

 

They walked down the main set of stairs and into the living room. Colleen sat at a table checking her phone. She looked up and offered a tight smile. To Claudia, she looked deflated, upset that she might be losing a sale. To Jamie, she looked like a liar who was only upset because she was caught.

 

“So, ladies? Are we ready to discuss price?”

 

Claudia looked at her fiancé, hopeful. She wished she could communicate with her lover mentally because if she could she’d say just relax, this place is great, don’t do anything stupid. But all she could do was squeeze her hand and smile, hoping Jamie knew her non-verbal cues.

 

Jamie looked at Claudia and nodded. She knew what her mild-mannered fiancé was thinking – that she was being too noisy, too brash, that if she didn’t pipe down they’d lose the house of her dreams. It was probably obvious to Colleen and Fiona that she wasn’t thrilled about the place, or about either of them. But Claudia meant the world to her, and so she’d do just about anything to keep the petite blonde happy.

 

“Okay,” Jamie said, putting on a smile that she hoped was friendly. “Let’s chat.”

 

Thirty minutes later they were sitting at a Shoney’s near the SCAD campus. Claudia was brimming with excited energy, and Jamie couldn’t help but smile at her. It was times like this when she really loved Claudia, when she was excitable and without care, talking a mile a minute, her blue eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun.

 

“Well, there’s so much we could do with the house, and it’s not too far from work for me, and it’s an easier commute to campus than what you’re doing now.”

 

Jamie nodded.

 

“What do you think?” Claudia asked. She stretched her arm across the table and Jamie grabbed it, entwining her long fingers with Claudia’s petite hand. She felt Claudia’s nails press lightly into the back of her hand, something she found strangely comforting.

 

“Well, it’s definitely in our price range, but, I don’t know, babe. Didn’t it give you the creeps, being upstairs? And what was up with that real estate agent? She seemed to avoid the top floor.”

 

“Sure, I mean, the rooms haven’t been used in so long. And Colleen was a little weird, but after we make the offer we wouldn’t have to see her or Fiona again. I don’t know, there’s something about this place that feels right.”

 

“But, you have to wonder why they kept trying to avoid telling us the history of the place… I mean…”

 

Jamie looked at Claudia. She could see the longing in her fiancé’s eyes. Claudia was totally in love with the property. Despite her misgivings, Jamie nodded.

 

“Okay. We’ll make an offer.”

 

“Yes! Oh, I’m so happy, baby! This place is going to be so good for us!”

 

She leaned across the table and kissed Jamie, her heart fluttering in her chest as their lips touched.

 

They moved into the house a month and a half later. In that time, Fiona had all of the trappings of the cafe removed, including the signage out front.

 

When moving day came, the women rounded up a few friends to help with the heavy lifting. Jamie’s only request was that they use the room downstairs, which Fiona had used as an office, as their bedroom.

 

“The other rooms are creepy as shit,” she said when Claudia protested. “You wanted the house and we got it. The least you can do is let me choose the room.”

 

Claudia nodded then, not used to the vitriol in Jamie’s voice.

 

Jamie got her wish, but the room wasn’t meant for two people, a queen-sized bed, and their large furniture. Their furniture was so big the closet door wouldn’t open all the way without hitting the nightstand. But it made Jamie happy, so Claudia grinned and bared it.

 

That night as they prepared for bed, Jamie thought of the last thing Fiona told them as she handed over the keys:

 

“Make sure you use earplugs when you sleep. The street around the house can get pretty active, especially on the weekends.”

 

At the time, Jamie scowled at this. She’d never seen the type of activity in this area that would require earplugs, but she remained silent, not wanting to argue. She bought two sets of earplugs. After brushing her teeth, braiding her hair, and kissing Claudia goodnight, Jamie slipped the earplugs in. She soon fell asleep as the silence washed over her.

 

Claudia, however, thought that the earplugs were stupid and that wearing them was unsafe. What if there was a break-in? Or a fire? What if the plugs got stuck in her ear canal?  She stared at them on her nightstand, defiant. I lived in Little Five Points for three years, she thought. I can sleep through any sound this tiny ‘burb will make.

 

Sometime around two, Claudia woke up to the sound of footsteps. She rolled over, thinking that Jamie was up and roaming around, but her fiancé was still there laying on her side, her long, dark hair snaked over her shoulder.

 

These footsteps sounded hurried and heavy. There was a clicking sound with each step, like the sound of a high heel hitting the wood floor. She heard the jiggle of a door handle and held her breath, thinking that any minute whoever was on the other side of the door would come bursting in.

 

But when the door remained closed and she heard another set of footsteps, these ones harder than the last, she sat up, her heart pounding loudly in her chest. Claudia remained still, afraid to move. What if the people on the other side of the door heard her? What if they came in and then took her and Jamie hostage? What if they were killed?

 

She heard muffled voices. The voices rose in timber, but she still couldn’t quite understand them. Out of curiosity or nihilism or both, Claudia pulled back the blankets and tiptoed towards the door. She pressed her ear against the old, faded wood.

 

“I will not stand these accusations, Phebe,” she heard a man say. The heavy footsteps sounded again, ambling down the hallway.

 

“I don’t much care what you cannot stand, Era Mosely. Henrietta McKay said she saw you and some floozy walking in Marietta Square not two days ago.”

 

Claudia scowled. Was she really hearing this? It sounded more like a lover’s spat than a break-in, but she didn’t dare open the door. She was stock-still, afraid that if she made any noise they’d come busting down her door and steal her stuff and beat her and possibly kill her.

 

Claudia heard the footsteps retreat towards the kitchen. She cracked the door open.

 

The woman that walked past her was wearing a long, flowing white gown. The sleeves were billowy and tightened at the wrist, only to extend in frills over her hands. The collar of the dress was high, and more frills extended above it. She wore heeled slippers and her hair was tied into a long side braid. She was pacing back and forth, her arms crossed over her nightgown.

 

“Phebe,” the man started. He stepped before her and cupped her face in his hands. He was still dressed in daytime clothing – a gray suit, a white dress shirt. Dust-covered black boots. Claudia could see what looked like a pocket watch dangle from his vest pocket. His dark hair was parted down the middle and slicked back, and he had a thick, bushy mustache. “Phebe, my darling, you know you’re the only one for me.”

 

Claudia pulled the door open further as Phebe brushed Era’s hand away and walked back towards the kitchen.

 

“But how can I believe you Era? You leave me on my own every day, and don’t I care for the home? Don’t I take care of you?”

 

“Of course, you do.”

 

“But I am not enough, am I?”

 

Claudia could hear the hurt in Phebe’s voice and wanted to reach out to her.

 

Era sighed.

 

“Dammit Phebe, don’t you understand? A man has needs, he has-“

 

“Curse you and your needs!” Phebe spat. She turned towards a large wing back chair.

 

“I’ve given you everything you’ve asked of me, Phebe! I provide you with a home, lavish gowns, jewelry! You want for nothing, and yet you paint me as a cad! You give me anger when I would have love!”

 

There was a table against the side of the staircase, the top covered with glass cups and bottles of liquor. Era grabbed a thin glass decanter and poured the amber liquid into a glass. He took a long draw, then turned back to Phebe.

 

“You will take my anger because it is all I can give you! I want a child Era, but how can I lay with you, knowing where you have been? Knowing that you’ve been with every whore in the state!”

 

Era slapped Phebe across the face. Claudia flinched. She took a step back into her room. What was happening? Was she having a hallucination? A vivid, violent walking dream? She was stirred out of her thoughts by the sound of a thud. She looked into the hallway to see Phebe on the ground.

 

“You’re a coward, Era. You’re a goddamned coward!”

 

“Shut up, damn you! How dare you speak to me this way,” Era spat. “I am your husband, and I deserve your respect.”

 

“You deserve nothing!”

 

He stood over her and tried to grab her arms, but Phebe fought back, clawing and scratching at his arms. Eventually, her right hand connected with his cheek, and Era stopped cold. The couple looked frozen in time, Claudia blinked and rubbed her eyes, still trying to determine what was real.

 

Era’s right fist connected with Phebe’s cheek, knocking her down to the ground. He grabbed her left arm and dragged her across the floor. Phebe shrieked, and the sound echoed through the house.

 

“Era, please!” Phebe screamed.

 

He pulled her up by her arm, and Claudia heard a pop as her arm disconnected from its socket. Phebe was sobbing now, her right hand covering her face while her left arm hung limply, awkwardly at her side.

 

“Shut up!” Era bellowed. He pushed her against the closet wall. There was a sharp bang as Phebe’s head hit the wood. His right hand covered her mouth.

 

Phebe pawed at Era’s face with her good arm. She managed to scratch him across the eye, making Era yelp. He punched her again, this time in the eye. He took several steps back, and the smell of sweat and bourbon filled Claudia’s nostrils.

 

Her breath hitched. She pressed against the wall next to the door, afraid that Era would turn around and exact his violence on her, too. She could hear Phebe whimper and the sound of her sliding down to the ground.

 

Era walked towards her and Claudia peeked around the corner. Era tried to cradle Phebe. He was apologizing, blaming the booze, telling her that if she hadn’t questioned him, none of this would have happened.

 

“Leave me,” Phebe said. She had her left arm cradled in her lap.

 

“But, Phebe,” Era said.

 

“I said leave me!” Phebe said. She spat in Era’s face. That same quiet again, and Claudia knew this time that it was the calm before the storm.

 

Era pushed Phebe on the ground and hit her over and over and over again. Claudia whimpered as she saw the blood, heard Phebe choke on it. Era wrapped his arms around Phebe’s throat and began to squeeze.

 

“No,” Claudia said. She clamped her hand over her mouth.

 

Era stopped and looked up, turning his head slowly towards Claudia. His eyes met hers and she could see the hatred, the rage in his eyes. He turned back towards Phebe and continued to choke her, lifting her head and slamming it on the ground.

 

Phebe’s right arm fell to the ground. Her white nightgown was soaked in her blood.

 

Era stood up and stared down at his wife for several seconds before walking into the kitchen. As she heard his footsteps coming back down the hall she closed the door, locked it, and ran towards the bed.

 

“Jamie! Jamie! Wake up!” She shook her fiancé awake.

 

Jamie rolled over with a grunt and opened her eyes. Once she saw the terror on Claudia’s face she sat up and removed her earplugs.

 

“What’s wrong?” She said. She started at the sound of footsteps outside the door.

 

“What the hell?” Jamie said. She tossed off her blankets and leaped out of bed.

 

“No, no don’t go out there!” Claudia cried. Tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t remember ever being this terrified.

 

Jamie put her hands on the door handle, but before she could unlock it she heard the front door open and shut with a loud thud. Footsteps thudded down the front stairs, and across the grass. The women ran to the window and Jamie cautiously peeled back the curtain. She saw the silhouette of a man walk towards the oak tree, carrying what looked like a rope. He tossed one end over the tree and then repeated the motion. Once he tightened it, he began to climb the tree.

 

Jamie turned and slid into a pair of flip flops.

 

“What are you doing?” Claudia asked. She heard the terror in her own voice, heard how shrill she sounded. All she wanted was for this nightmare to be over.

 

“Some weirdo broke into our house and now he’s trying to kill himself. I have to stop him.”

 

“No, it’s-“

 

“Stay here,” Jamie said. She strode towards the door, unlocked it, and opened it. Before she could take a step outside there was a large cracking sound.

 

Jamie looked at Claudia and they both hurried to the window. The man had jumped from the tree and now his body dangled from the cracked limb, swaying in the breeze.

 

“Oh my God,” Jamie said. She flung open the bedroom door and then the front. Claudia ran into the hall, wondering why Jamie hadn’t noticed Phebe’s brutalized body on the ground. But there was nothing there. No body, no blood. The bar that stood against the staircase was gone. The red wing back chair that Phebe had leaned against was replaced by Jamie’s blue velvet recliner. There was no sign of the violence that had occurred moments ago.

 

Claudia stepped onto the porch, wrapping her arms around her. Jamie was halfway down the hill, staring at the tree that had, only seconds ago, bore the weight of Era’s body.

 

Now, it was empty.

Footprints In The Snow

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

Ezra
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.

 

Bridget
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.

 

Alby
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.”
“Following you?”
“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.
“What?”
“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.

 

Petra
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—”
“Oh, congratulations!”
“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.

 

Myna
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.”
“But, Dad—”
“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?”
“No, why?”
“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
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.
“Isolde Richter.”
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—
“Dad!”
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.

13 Musical Artists You Should Know

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

Music is the great salve for all your writing woes – it can help you get over writer’s block, set the tone for your writing session, and get the creative juices flowing. I know your playlists are probably sacrosanct, but if you’re looking for a little more power, check out these thirteen artists below.

 

Tank and The Bangas – this soul group lead by Tarriona “Tank” Ball, Tank and The Bangas are a New Orleans band that blew up after winning the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk concert. Their music is an eclectic mix of slam poetry, neo-soul, and chill beach vibes. When writing early aughts comedy, pieces with political activism, and YA drama, listen to Tank and The Bangas. Suggested Songs: Self Care, To Be Real, Spaceships, and Ants. 

 

Nightwish – this Finnish symphonic metal band paved the way for Epica and Within Temptation. But there’s something special about Nightwish, and part of that is their ability to keep churning out fantastic tunes after 20 years. For epic world-building, cyberpunk, or magical realism check them out. Suggested songs: Gethsemane, Ghost Love Score, Shudder Before the Beautiful, and The Greatest Show on Earth.

 

Glass Animals – originally from Oxford, Glass Animals has a sound so unique I can only classify it as psychedelic indie with hip hop influences. Their smooth tone is easy to get lost in, which is why their music aids with focus. When your writing modern romance, unreliable narrators, and pithy dialogue, tune in to Glass Animals. Suggested songs: Dreamland, Heatwaves, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and Gooey.

 

Flo Milli – though she’s only 20, Flo Milli raps with the expertise and agency of an MC twice her age. She’s got a unique style that makes her stand out from the crowd, and her flows are empowering. When writing female-led capers, YA set in the big city, or satire Flo Milli is your girl. Suggested songs: May I, Not Friendly, In The Party, and Mean. 

 

Trevor Something – don’t hate on synth-wave, especially since it’s making a comeback. Trevor Something is an anonymous musician who makes dazzling synth songs with catchy lyrics about love, sex, and summer. If you’re working on sci-fi, YA, or an 80’s period piece, Trevor Something is your man. Suggested songs: Fade Away, Summer Lover, All Night, Your Sex is a Dream, and Enjoy the Silence.

 

Childish Gambino – if you’ve watched the shows Community or Atlanta, then you know who Donald Glover is. He’s a brilliant writer both behind the screen and behind the mic, so his music is wonderful to soak up during your creative endeavors. If you’re writing YA, intense family drama, and humorous heroes, check out Childish Gambino. Suggested songs: 3005, Freaks and Geeks, Outside, Redbone, and This Is America.

 

Jidenna – if you’re a fan of Janelle Monáe, then you know her production label, Wondaland. Jidenna is one of many great artists on it, and for good reason. His style is eclectic, and he always cuts a dapper figure in a full-on suit. For writing diverse characters, settings in bustling metropolis’, or romance, Jidenna is your man. Suggested songs: Classic Man, Long Live the Chief, Bambi, Boomerang, and Little Bit More.

 

Empire of the Sun – this Australian duo has been making music for ten years. Their rich electropop sound is just as dazzling as their costumes. With three albums worth of music to get lost in, their music is best for writing fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and magical realism. Suggested songs: Walking on a dream, DNA, We Are the People, On The Way Home, and There’s No Need.

 

Jamiroquai – this British funk band was big in the 90s, and they’ve had a steady following ever since. Perhaps their most notable hit, Virtual Insanity, was released in 1996 and is that iconic video of a guy with a big velvet hat and a shifting room. When writing about dancing, 90s nostalgia, and witty detectives, take a trip with Jamiroquai. Suggested songs: Virtual Insanity, Cosmic Girl, Canned Heat, Space Cowboy, and Cloud 9.

 

Air – this French duo is responsible for the soundtrack of Virgin Suicides and contributed the song “Sexy Boy” to everyone’s favorite teen drama, 10 Things I Hate About You. They have a very eclectic sound, which will go well with magical realism, fantasy, and romance. Suggested songs: Sexy Boy, Highschool Lover, Ce Matin La, Kelly Watch the Stars, and Le Femme d’argent.

 

2Cellos – this Slovenian/Croatian duo has toured with Elton John, toured the world, and established themselves as a musical force. Their cover of Smooth Criminal is what helped gain them recognition, but their talent and harmony with each other has made them a fan favorite. This music is so perfect for writing just about anything, including romantic interludes, dystopian realities, and psychological thrillers. Suggested songs: Orient Express, Thunderstruck, Celloverse, Moon River, and Resistance.

 

Ólafur Arnalds – for those looking for something epic, look no further than Ólafur Arnalds. Each song this Icelander creates is beautiful and perfect for those moments of catharsis. For any emotional powerhouse scene, tragic love story, or slow-burning horror, check Ólafur out. Suggested songs: 3055, Reminiscence, For Now I Am Winter, Reminiscence, and Doria.

 

Anderson .Paak – if you’re in the mood for neo-soul, look no further than Anderson .Paak. His raspy voice and soulful beats feel like a throwback, and the gritty subject matter of his songs makes it all the more binge-able. Anderson .Paak’s music is perfect for writing Southern noir family dramas, 70’s period pieces, and suburban horror. Suggested songs: Brother’s Keeper, Tints, Make It Better, and Lockdown.

 

Who’s your favorite artist to write to? Let me know in the comments below!

Get Into The Groove – Of Writing

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

Last Saturday I finally got to say what I’ve been dreaming of since I was a teenager — I’m a published author. I learned so much while writing To Astera, With Love, both about the writing process and myself. You see, I started this book in 2008 just after my dad passed away.

In 2017, I had a fellow author friend read the draft. She told me it was probably a good idea to go back to the drawing board. Looking back, I realize the original draft was shit — the characters were good, the dialogue was good, but it was such a stream of consciousness piece that there was no tension. In 2018 I took a day to workshop the idea with my mother-in-law. Within 24 hours, I had a complete outline for what would become To Astera, With Love. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of what changed since I’ve already got a blog for that. But I basically learned one of the most important lessons a writer needs to know about themselves — I discovered that I was a plotter, not a pantser. 

As I mentioned, writing the first book in my Witchkind series (yes, Gawd) taught me a lot. However, here are the three most important things I discovered — how to overcome writer’s block, how to maintain a writing schedule and stick to it, and how to actually finish a book. 

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Like I said, I’m a plotter not a pantser. The problem with my first draft is that I had no outline, and so my 19-year-old self just started rambling on the page. I won’t drag myself too much, but I do know that I have no business writing without an outline. EVER. 

My first tip for you to overcome writer’s block is to outline your work. Even if you’ve outlined the whole thing, don’t be afraid to get more granular and outline each subsection. For example, A large part of the book takes place on the road. Before writing it, I charted Mercury and his friends’ journey across the country, selected the cities, and wrote out what would happen in each one. 

Another way to avoid or overcome writer’s block is to create a playlist for your WIP. My playlist, which you can find here, is full of songs from some of California’s finest — E-40, 2Pac, N.W.A, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and more. Each time I listen to it, I feel compelled to write. The songs I’ve chosen are so connected either to a scene (“Straight Outta Compton” helped me write the final confrontation between Mercury and Ellis) or a character (“Money Good” is one of the most emblematic songs for Sloane). 

Inspiration can also come from Pinterest. The Pinterest board I created for helped me envision the areas I was writing about, the tattoos, the four elements, and who I imagined would play each character in the film version of the book. I’m speaking — er, writing this into existence right now — it will be a film someday. Even though we work with words, we’re visual creatures. Having images to think about may help you get into the groove of your WIP. 

Maintaining A Schedule 

I’m not the kind of writer who thinks you should write thousands of words each day to be successful, but maintaining a schedule and minding self-imposed deadlines is essential to finishing your WIP. If you want to take a page from ‘WRIMO and do 50k in 30 days, go for it. Other examples of writing goals are — writing for one hour a day, writing 20k words in 2 months, finishing Act 1 in two weeks, etc. 

Most of the time I’ve been writing, I’ve had a full-time job. I’m an incredibly ambitious bitch, so I often have other projects going on while writing (at one time I was working FT, had a side hustle, was writing this book, and planning a wedding). To ensure I get balance, I set timed goals. Typically 25 minutes to an hour on weekdays, and 2-3 hours on weekends. Then I take breaks, starting at 5 minutes and ending at an hour. By doing this, you’re giving yourself an immediate deadline, and it’s easier to keep a balanced life.

I know a lot of writers who use dedicated writing software. But I like to keep it simple by using Google Docs. I write each section of my book in separate docs, i.e. Act 1 – the Setup, Act 2- the premise, Act 3 – the showdown, etc. That way I can access the sections I’m working on easier whenever I get an epiphany and I’m not in front of my computer. Even just a sentence or two counts as writing time, and you’ll be surprised when those moments add up. 

Finishing a Book

What does it take to cross the finish line with your WIP? Aside from tenacity, you need a great support system, equal parts self-doubt and self-aggrandizement, and a lot of caffeine. It’s important to keep your “why” in mind. Why is it important to put in the work to get your book out there? For me, I wanted to speak on current events in my own way, create a different type of magical world, and bring more Black excellence into the world. Keep your why in mind and it’ll give you the drive to finish your piece. 

Also, it’s important to stay inspired by reading a lot and taking in other content that will inspire you. Some of my biggest influences when writing this book were Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, listening to the podcast The Read, watching Umbrella Academy, and reading articles on The Root

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in the process of writing a good story need not write it from beginning to end. It’s easy to get hung up on writing the ending of your WIP, but you don’t have to save it for last. There are no rules against writing your book in any order you like, from end to beginning, from the middle outward, or somewhere in between. One of the best tricks I use when writing is I write the name of each section on an index card. I keep them shuffled and when I sit down to write I pull a card and start writing that section.

Bringing It Together

Don’t get caught up in the feeling that your first draft must be perfect. At this stage you really are just forming the mold of what will eventually be your finished work. Some of what you write at this stage may stay the same, change, or be totally eliminated. The important thing is to finish so you can carve your piece into a work of art. 

What are your tips for staying inspired, writing frequently, and getting your first draft done? Let me know in the comments below. 

My Favorite Psychological Thrillers

Last updated on: Published by: Amanda Ross 0

When it comes to my own writing, I tend to gravitate toward urban fantasy or horror. Like most American women, though, I love a good psychological thriller. Over the years I’ve often wondered why I gravitate toward these stories with unreliable narrators, flawed-beyond-belief characters, and enough drama to fill an entire season of Real Housewives. There are five books that stick out for me in this genre, and I’ve listed them here. 

Dark Places– Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered. She testified against her brother, Ben, who was convicted and sent to prison for the massacre, which some believe was part of a Satanic ritual. Cut to present day — Libby is broke and alone. The donation money she survived off of has all but run out, so when she gets contacted by a group called the “Kill Club,” she takes a chance and meets with them. They are obsessed with crime and the murder of her family, and of proving Ben’s innocence. They make an offer – go back to the scene of the crime, meet with all the players that evening, and find out what really happened in exchange for a handsome payout. Libby agrees but as she starts to return to the darkest evening in her life, she realizes things aren’t all that they seem. 

This is Gillian’s second book but in my mind, it’s far superior to Sharp Objects and Gone Girl (I know, I know). The prose drips with darkness, the scenery is painted perfectly, and the characters are totally messed up. This book is told through three different characters — Libby, Ben, and their mother, Patty. Each one reveals a little more about their lives leading up to the massacre, and the truth about what really happened will shock you. 

Good Me, Bad Me – Ali Land

Milly’s mother is beautiful. She is charming. She is good with children. She is also a serial killer, and abuses Milly in ways that one cannot imagine. When Milly turns her mother in after she murders another victim, she’s put into witness protection and given a chance at a new life. But she feels the pressure of having to keep her old identity a secret while preparing to be the star witness at her mother’s trial. All the while, her surrogate family life begins to chafe — her surrogate mother is a ghost of a woman who’s barely comfortable with Milly in the home. Her surrogate sister and her school’s Queen Bee, bullies Milly relentlessly. And her surrogate father is also her psychologist, who may have ulterior motives for taking Milly in at all. As the tension escalates, Milly’s true nature shows, making you wonder how much of our makeup is nature and how much is nurture. 

If you like twisted narratives and flawed, unlikeable characters, this book is for you. Not a single person in this book is good — each one is flawed, and it’s just a matter of to what degree. Additionally, it’s rare that we get content about female serial killers, so I found the way that Land writes about this character to be supremely compelling. 

Good As Gone – Amy Gentry

Thirteen-year-old Julie is kidnapped from her own bedroom, with only her younger sister, Jane, as a witness. Her family stands strong amidst the terror of her disappearance and adjusts over the years to her absence. One day the doorbell rings, and Julie’s mother, Anna, is floored to see a woman on the other side claiming to be Julie herself. Anna is all at once thrilled and horrified —Julie says she was abudcted into a human trafficking ring. She’s got scars, she’s dehydrated, and she’s in need of therapy. As Anna and the rest of the family work to reintegrate Julie into their lives, she soon begins to question the woman called Julie’s legitimacy. And when she’s contacted by a private eye, the tension only escalates. 

This book is split between first person and third person narratives. For some, this may make the book difficult to get through. However, each chapter reveals more and more about these women’s story — how Anna and her family dealt with Julie’s loss, and the twisted story of what happened to the woman calling herself Julie. The writing is swift and easy to get through, and the characters are well fleshed out. 

The Favorite Sister – Jessica Knoll

Business owners. Best friends. Enemies. These words describe sisters Brett and Kelly, who co-own a series of Soul Cycle-esque gyms in New York. Kelly, the older sister, is a single mother. She’s the money-minded straight woman to younger sister Brett’s creative bravado. Their relationship is even more strained by the fact that Brett has been thrust into the spotlight on the reality TV show Goal Diggers. In this world, she is the brassy, queer, Rubenesque woman who’s plucky attitude has secured her place as fan favorite. In Kelly’s world, though, she’s a pain in the ass sister who told a lie so big it would ruin both their lives if discovered. When Kelly ends up on Goal Diggers as a new cast member, tensions flare between the sisters, the other cast members, and the show’s producers. Someone gets black out drunk. Someone gets beaten up. And someone ends up dead. 

I devoured this book in a day and a half. Knoll’s writing is exquisite, as she delves into each individual character’s lives and through them makes keen observations about what it’s like to be a woman in this society. If you love Real Housewives-level drama, unreliable narrators, and a book full of mostly unlikeable characters, I highly suggest this. 

Penpal – Dathan Auerbach 

Told in first person by an anonymous narrator, Penpal recounts the narrator’s ordeal of being stalked from the time he was a young child. He recounts several events from his childhood, some of which were clarified by his mother after she finally revealed the truth about the ordeal. In Kindergarten, the narrator was given the assignment to write a letter and tie it to a balloon to send off. At first, he thinks no one has gotten his balloon, as all his classmates have received a letter back. At the end of the year, he receives Poloroid photos in response. Other strange events occur, culminating in the death of the narrator’s friend, Josh, and Josh’s sister. The final reveal of what really happened is enough to send shivers down your spine. 

Penpal was originally written as a series of Reddit stories, then adapted for The NoSleep podcast. I first heard the podcast and was so captivated by the story that I had to get the book. The story at its core is simple, but effective. Who hasn’t been afraid at the thought of someone stalking you? Who hasn’t been surprised to find that some of your childhood memories didn’t unfold exactly the way you thought? If you like thrillers that border on horror, check out Penpal.

I know there are more juicy thrillers out there. Which ones are your favorites? Leave a comment below!