The Wayward Sisters
The three sisters at 710 Wayward Street pedaled in prophecies. Their tidy yellow house had a glass door in the back with springs coiled tight enough to remove stray fingers. The door looked like it should open into the sisters’ backyard, but it hardly ever did. It opened into many other times and places instead.
“Here you go, dear,” Three said, pushing a mirror into the woman’s hand and shooing her out. After the door snapped shut, Three returned to her stool, humming under her breath.
“You should have given her a prophecy,” One reprimanded. She was the oldest, and liked for the others to remember it.
“A spoken one. A guarantee.”
Three polished her glasses. She would have liked One to forget she was the oldest half a millennia ago. “A mirror is a perfectly suitable prophetic device. And you know as well as I do that there’s no guarantee.”
Two yanked the fridge door open. “I’m starving.”
One sniffed. “It’s guaranteed that something will happen.”
“Who ate the last of the cheese?” Two called over her shoulder. She glanced back. “Someone’s coming.”
A man in a gray wool tunic and mud-stained trousers opened the back door. He blinked at the flickering phosphorescent lights.
“Name?” Three said absently. She was still thinking of the words she’d whispered in the shepherd boy’s ear that morning. He seemed like a nice child. It’d be a pity if he actually took her advice.
“Macbeth mac Findlaech.”
At this, the sisters straightened. Three put her spectacles back on.
He’s shorter than I imagined. Two thought.
But handsome, Three mused. I’d like to—
Shut up it’s my turn. One sidled closer to Macbeth, smoothing her skirt over her substantial hips.
“Good evening, ladies.” Macbeth glanced out the window and frowned at the dew-burdened grass. “Er, good morning.”
“Well, hello to you too,” One murmured.
Macbeth politely ignored how close she was standing. “I’d want… I’d like,” he tapped his fingers on the hilt of his sword. “I’m not really sure how this works.”
“You’re going to be King!” One said brightly.
“I… I am?” Macbeth’s handsome brow furrowed deeply at the suggestion. “But Duncan—”
“If you play your cards right.” One ran a plump finger across his bicep. “Don’t you want to be King?”
Macbeth shivered, and a shadow like a serpent crossed his face. “What man wouldn’t?”
“Then all hail Macbeth that shall be king hereafter!” One crowed, and pushed him towards the door. The hinges shrieked, the glass rattled. One stared wistfully after him.
“I still don’t know what I want,” Two told the wilted lettuce in the produce drawer.
Three shook her head. “It may not work. He’s too full of—”
“Milk!” Two grabbed the jug.
“Human kindness,” Three finished. “But he has a wife. If anyone can ruin a man, it’ll be her.”
The lights flickered again as a girl of about six stepped in. She was thin and inconsequential the way children sometimes are in the presence of grown-ups. The sisters didn’t even notice her until she spoke.
One inhaled sharply. Two dropped the milk. Three squinted at the wisp of a child.
The little girl twisted a curl around her finger. “Do you have something to tell me?”
Three pushed her glasses up her nose. “That’s not how this—”
“When the monster comes, find the house entombed in moss,” One blurted out, then clapped her hand to her mouth. The words weren’t her own, and she’d been given no say in whether or not they should come out.
The girl nodded and slipped away. This time, the door didn’t slam.
“Well.” One said. She was not used to being a mouthpiece for something bigger, and she hadn’t enjoyed the experience. Two busied herself with the milk mess. Three chewed her fingernails contemplatively.
“That,” One continued, “was a guarantee.”
Linda knew Tom wouldn’t like the house. He frowned at the newspaper clipping as she spread avocado on his toast, placing it next to his favorite Yale coffee mug. When he made that face—and he made it most of the time when he was home anymore—the scars that stretched from his left eyebrow to his jaw wrinkled over each other like clay worms.
Tom didn’t touch his scars, as if ignoring them might make them disappear. Early in their marriage, Linda had found them endearing. Romantic, even. She was the Christine Daae to his Phantom, and her love made him whole. But sometimes she wondered if the acid might have soaked deeper than his skin. If it was eating away at his heart. She went to church alone now. Smiled at the babies getting baptized, at the way they squirmed when the cold water hit their foreheads. Marveled at how young their parents looked. Wondered if she’d ever really been that young.
She set a fork beside his plate. “Your toast is getting cold.”
“What time’s the appointment?”
“It’s a mansion, Linda.”
“I know.” Linda sat across from him and sipped her tea. She’d let it steep too long, and the bitterness stung her tongue. “I just want to look at it, not make an offer. You don’t even have to come.”
He had to come, of course, that’s what the voice had said. And she knew he would, too. It was one of those tics his mother had told her about. Tell Tom he doesn’t have to do something, or—even better—that he can’t, and he’ll change his mind within the hour.
“You already told her I was coming, didn’t you?”
“She’ll understand if plans change.”
“It’s a waste of an afternoon.”
“I’ll be less than thirty minutes.”
Tom’s jaw twitched. “It’d be nice to be consulted about our plans once in a while.”
Linda didn’t answer. She knew she was far from a perfect wife. She’d pushed Tom away over the years with her clinginess, desperate for a child, desperate for a happiness he couldn’t provide. And she fretted out loud over everything. She’d always called it verbal processing, but after her encounter with the voice, she knew it was really nagging. Her sister had once remarked, somewhat caustically Linda thought, that Tom was a saint for putting up with her. But what others saw as longsuffering, Linda knew was actually a deep, brewing bitterness. And over the years, his little cutting remarks had turned into shouts. Their marriage was close to the breaking point.
The voice had changed everything, but not instantly. Not like an earthquake or a heart attack. Linda doubted Tom had even noticed: one moment she was sitting across from him, mindlessly scrolling through her newsfeed, the next her world had tilted and her heart had burned. Tom had kept chewing his toast and slurping his coffee, unaware that the woman across from him was no longer the one he’d married.
Linda reached her hand across the table and set it on top of her husband’s. He looked up at her, startled. It had been a while since she’d voluntarily touched him.
“Please come,” she said.
He frowned at the clipping again, but he didn’t move his hand away.
“Thirty minutes,” he said.
“There’s an incredible amount of history in this place,” the woman in the pencil skirt said as she led them up the arched staircase. Tom had already forgotten her name. Something irritatingly millennial like Ashley or Amanda. At the moment, he hated everything about her: the incessant click of her heels on the hardwood floor. The way she tapped her business card against her manicured nails. How she avoided looking at the scars on his face, and then blushed when he caught her staring. How his wife Linda hung on her every word, oohing and aahing over the wainscoting in the bathroom and the stone corbels in the library.
“It has that smell,” Linda said breathlessly. “Like old books. Or museums. The smell of history. Doesn’t it, Tom?”
“Hmm.” Tom thought it smelled more like an extravagant monthly energy bill.
“Men don’t always pick up on the vibes,” pencil skirt said in a mock whisper. Tom crushed his hands into fists.
The rational part of his brain knew that he didn’t really hate Ashley—or Avery, maybe it was Avery. What he hated was the fact that they were here, touring a turn-of-the-century mansion, when there was no way in hell that his impotent loins would produce any sons to inherit it. No way in heaven, either. He’d tried praying that direction first, but as the years went by and he’d watched the hopeful spark in his wife’s eyes dim and then vanish, he’d given up. Even if there was a God, Tom was clearly not important enough to merit an audience.
“Two of the previous owners died in this very room.” The agent paused to let the words sink in before she pushed open the door.
That at least sounded interesting. Tom followed her in, and stopped short. A glassy-eyed china doll slouched in a tiny chair. A fraying wicker bassinet leaned against the wall.
“It’s a nursery,” he said. “What do you mean they died in here?”
“A couple, I think.” Avery checked her file. “Let’s see… yes. They were protecting their daughter.”
“Oh,” Linda said, very softly.
“I’m sorry,” Avery looked between the couple. “I thought you wanted… Linda said you were looking for a haunted house, is this not what—”
“No, no.” Linda tugged on the sleeve of her cardigan. “This is exactly what I meant.”
A haunted house? Tom made a mental note to revisit that comment with Linda later. “So what then?” he asked. “The girl lived?”
“Oh, yes. And she went on to become the first school teacher in the village.” The agent beamed at them, as if that anecdote patched up the horror nicely. A Band-Aid on a bullet-hole.
“That’s incredible,” Linda whispered.
“A teacher,” Tom said, the way someone else might say arms dealer or politician.
“Tom,” Linda said, less softly this time.
Tom folded his arms. He prided himself on the temperate view of martyrdom he’d adopted at Yale. Most of the time, self-sacrifice was distasteful. Pointless. Like self-immolation. If he’d had children, they would have grown up to be presidents or UN ambassadors or distinguished doctors. World-changers. People whose lives really mattered.
He gave his wife the little patronizing smile that he’d perfected over ten years of marriage. “Come on Linda, it’s a little over the top.”
The air in the corner of the room shivered. Tom blinked, and shook his head. Too much dust in this ridiculous house. He needed to get Linda out before she got any stupid ideas.
“We’ve seen enough,” he said.
Then the world tilted.
He was in the chair, rocking a newborn. A pain deeper than love winnowing his heart.
He was on his knees, helping the little girl into the crawlspace. A love stronger than life searing his veins.
The crash of a door.
The crack of a gun.
“Oh,” Tom said. So softly that no one but the ghost in the corner heard it.
Sarah Burnsides, age six and a half, recently orphaned and utterly destitute, limped her way up to the moss-choked mansion. Her hair, once a pile of glossy curls tied with satin ribbons, was now matted with twigs and dirt, the ribbons shredded and stained. She could still hear her mother humming as she tied the bows.
My mother’s dead.
The words sounded all wrong, as if they belonged to a different girl, a different life. She hadn’t even cried yet, except briefly when she’d tripped crossing the river. There hadn’t been time, and fear was still crushing her chest. She wasn’t safe. There was a monster hunting her.
A man opened the door before she knocked.
“Oh thank goodness,” he said. Warmth and light flowed from him, enfolding Sarah like a hug. A mass of scars like tree roots covered one side of his face. The Sarah from three days ago might have run from him, but now she thought it was the kindest face she’d ever seen.
My parents are dead, and a man with hollow eyes is chasing me. Sarah tried to force out the words, but her mouth wouldn’t move. She wanted to lie down and cry and sleep and scream and hide and see her parents again. Her whole body shuddered, and in an instant the man had brought her inside and locked the door. He bolted it, too.
“I’m glad you found us,” he said. “I’m Tom, but that doesn’t really matter. Come this way. Please.”
Sarah trailed after him, across the carpeted hallway and into the kitchen. A woman with a dark brown braid over her shoulder was hovering at the stove, waiting. She hurried over as they came in and knelt down.
“You must be Sarah,” she said. “I’m Linda. And I’m so, so sorry, love. I made you some eggs. Are you hungry?”
Sarah’s stomach had shriveled up with only berries and water in it, but it roared awake now. The woman—Linda—helped her onto a stool, then grabbed a tea towel and wrapped it around the pan’s handle. She strained, sighed, and turned to the man. “Can you help me with this? It’s the heaviest one.”
Tom set it on the island. “You should get lighter pans.”
“I like these ones, they’re part of the house’s story.”
“But I have to help you carry them.”
“Maybe that’s the real reason I keep them,” she said with a hint of a smile.
Tom kissed her cheek. “But after—”
“Nothing’s a guarantee until it happens,” Linda whispered, but Sarah heard the tremble in her voice. Linda glanced at the girl and cleared her throat. “Do you want milk, too? I think I have some.”
Sarah shoveled in bite after bite until Linda told her to take it slow and make sure the food stayed down. Tom was watching her with concern. He turned to Linda and spoke in a low voice, but Sarah could still hear him. “She’s too big for the crawlspace.”
“Yes,” Linda said. “It’ll all be alright.”
And something in her voice made Sarah know it was true. She put her head down on the counter, and cried.
The monster with the knives had been following her for three days. He didn’t know how she slipped away in the first place, but she had. He didn’t know why she mattered so much, but she did. He didn’t have to know any of these things. He had a job to do, and the singularity of his purpose excised all unnecessary thinking.
When he crossed the threshold into the moss-covered mansion and opened the door to the nursery, the little girl was in the corner. She was shivering. They often were when he came for them.
But she wasn’t alone.
A man stood in front of her. Scars like serpents slithered up the side of his face. He held a shotgun to his shoulder.
The monster had seen a lot of things in the eyes of the people he killed: fear, anger, desperation, panic. What he’d never seen was the look the scarred man was giving him. The monster hadn’t glanced in a mirror in over ten years, but if he had he would have recognized the expression as resolve. A deep-seated conviction that he was doing exactly what he was meant to do, right when he was meant to do it.
But the monster didn’t look in mirrors. And he didn’t understand the expression. This is a misunderstanding, he decided.
“I’m only here for the girl,” he said politely. “You can put the gun down. I’ll only be a minute.”
“No chance in hell I’ll be doing that,” the scarred man said. “Or heaven.” He looked up, which thoroughly confused the monster. “Sorry,” he apologized to the ceiling. “Old habits.”
The monster decided the scarred man was insane. And insane people were a threat. But he wasn’t the job, and it’d be cleaner if he could just convince him to leave. “I’ll have to kill you, too,” he pointed out.
“I figured. I’ve actually been waiting for you.”
“Really?” This piqued his interest, he hadn’t heard that line before.
“Well, technically we were waiting for the girl. But we knew you’d be close behind.”
We. The monster didn’t see anyone else in the room. Was he referring to his imaginary friend in the rafters? He squinted at the ancient beams, checked the shadows.
“I’m giving you one last chance to stop.”
The monster’s world tilted, but only slightly. He shook his head.
“No thanks.” He threw his first knife almost without looking. It lodged in the scarred man’s chest. Perfectly thrown. Right in the heart. The man crumpled to the ground, a look of contentment on his face. Strange.
The girl whimpered. The monster kicked the shotgun out of the way, and shook his head to clear it. The tilting sensation had unsettled him. The sheer ridiculousness of it. He felt sloppy, disoriented. But the girl was right there, and in a moment, everything would be right. He’d have done his job, once again.
It was the tilt that made him forget that the man had said we. Consequently, he also failed to notice the cast-iron pan, swung from behind with considerable force, until it smashed his skull. And as darkness seeped inwards across his eyes, he saw a woman with a braid take the girl in her arms, and a ghost in the corner shiver, and disappear.