It’s not a coffin, it just looks like one because of the sloped attic someone added on top. A black, trapezoidal cap atop a red brick rowhome. I’m sure the neighbors hate it; it’s the only house in the row who has one.
This is my first time seeing the house in person, and though the previous owners never posted photos of the attic’s interior online, just looking up at it from the sidewalk, its ox-eye window catching the sun, I know: that’s my room. It’s a kind of certainty I’ve felt only once before, a kind that’s almost unsettling in just how settled it all feels. For better or worse, whether I like it or not, this is it. That’s my room. If I were a teenager instead of a wife, I would call dibs on that attic from right out on the street, without ever going inside. Instead, my husband climbs out of the U-Haul, looks up at the house, and says, “This is her,” and I say, “This is who?” and he says, “You know what I mean.”
It isn’t until he opens the door, though, that I do. I really do know what he means.
When you step inside: blond wood floors beneath your feet, milk-colored walls stretching up around you, and some part of you thinks, as if the house were made of white women. I tuck my own white hands under my armpits for safekeeping. I try not to think of Charlotte Perkins or Bertha Mason or Madeline Usher. But what is one to do? You can even see her blood in some places, those sections of exposed brick; it’s hard not to imagine flayed skin.
The blond floorboards flow from room to room, around corners, down the stairs; only Rapunzel has hair this long. And once I climb up to the third floor, into the attic, the top of the house, I’ll find her there, sighing with her gaze out the oxeye window, hoping that the footsteps she’s felt tugging and tingling along her scalp all this time—they might belong to him, her prince.
It’s only me, though.
My husband got to visit her a couple times before, driving up from our apartment two states away, but between work and everything else, this is my first chance to whisper, “Hello, House. I’m Amber, as in trapped in amber.”
I move toward the staircase, following the length of her hair, but, “Here,” my husband says, handing me a box. “This one’s kitchen-bound.”
There’s no time to say anything before he’s off again, fetching more stuff. I guess I can wait a little longer for my in-person tour. It’s not like I’ve been looking forward to it or anything. But my husband’s just that way; once his mind gets set on a path, there’s not much chance of a detour.
Rapunzel the House has a snug little kitchen with quartz countertops that glint like wet teeth. She has a library that hints at hidden rooms, windows everywhere standing tall and narrow as soldiers. You could burn incriminating letters in her stately black fireplace. A stranger could do things in her bedroom; she has a spare. We’ll be adding a sofa soon, a desk, books to jewel the shelves. A rug to warm the floor. Rapunzel must think we’re a pair of birds come to nest in her hair, a twittering bother while she keeps her vigil.
My husband isn’t unlike a bird. He has the generally leaning-forward posture of one, his head round and his dark hair flat atop it; you could call it feathery. It’s starting to thin, but he’ll never shave it. His scalp, all those burn scars. He’d look less like a raven and more like a turkey. Or a vulture. And yes, I love him—I actually do—but the man does peck at things. Pinching at the brick walls to see if they crumb, picking little pills of fabric from my sweaters, asking me during every passing conversation, “Oh really?” “Are you sure?” “Where did you read that?”
My diary thinks his name is Pecker.
Rapunzel is our first house, something we’ve been saving for. I’m a vet and Pecker’s an EMT, the knight in a white ambulance rushing to people’s rescue. He once administered life-saving CPR to an elementary school teacher while I, across town, gawked at a bearded old man dressed all in red like Santa Claus, asking me if he could trade in his cat for a new one: “Do you do that sort of thing here? Or do we just put it down? This one won’t stop pissing everywhere.”
We bought Rapunzel because we’re getting older (Pecker’s words), because she looks like she has a secret passage, because we needed wanted a fresh start, because moving feels more tiresome now than exciting. Packing, unpacking, giveaways, Craigslist, coughing over mouthfuls of dust, confronting the never-worn outfits of people who, in some previous season, we hoped we might become.
“Home sweet home,” my husband says, standing close as I shelve dishes from a box. “Now we’ll never have to move again,” and suddenly that’s all I can think about, never moving again, your muscles gone stiff and dead, your body a broken toy, and just,
“Please,” I say, “I don’t want to think about death right now.”
The forks all sheen and scrape together as I drop them in their mass grave, close the drawer. I glance at the ceiling as if I might see through it to the second-floor bathroom above and beyond, farther, into the top floor, the attic, my room. The room I still haven’t seen. It’ll be round, though I don’t know why I think that. I know it isn’t round from the floorplans and just looking at the exterior. But the thought buzzes there at the front of my brain all the same: it’ll be round as a castle turret.
My husband shakes his head like there’s a studio audience to witness his chagrin. “You’re a real goose sometimes, you know that.”
Sure, me: I’m the goose.
My husband is a funny person. He tells the best-worst little jokes: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “A door.” “A door who?” “You, you crazy woman. I adore you.” He once compared my laugh to flames. He said he meant this as a good thing, but how. Fire terrifies him. (That accident he had as a boy.) Too much laughter makes him antsy, flitting around the room like a bird trapped at the airport. And that’s it, I think. It makes him feel trapped.
I can understand feeling trapped by the house right now, all these boxes everywhere; I grab one. “Taking this up,” I say and leave before he can stop me. I step lightly on the stairs, not wanting to pull her hair too harshly. I continue my climb past the second and third floors, careful not to wake the bedrooms, and then one more short flight, and there it is, here I am, the attic.
Without thinking, I give the door a knock knock. If Pecker was with me, I know he would smile and say, “Who’s there?” But of course the answer is no one. Well, no one but me.
I lick my dry lips. I open the door. And I all but drop the box because “This isn’t it.” This attic isn’t right. This isn’t the right attic.
I step back from the not-attic. From its cold, empty room. A dusty rectangle with a slanted ceiling. Cobwebs. A weird stain on the floor, a forgotten hex key. A room that must look just like the attic but isn’t. An oxeye window that doesn’t feel like a window at all, but like a magnifying glass—and this sudden feeling, this sudden certainty that it’s just narrowed a dark beam on me.
Everything feels suddenly sharper and more fragile. Purple and black and far too bright.
I close the door behind me. I rewind my path on the stairs.
I can’t say it—I’m not allowed to even think it—because if I don’t like the house, I’m fucked. The move is over now. I signed my name. It’s done. This is it. That’s my room.
“Hey, why don’t we use the attic for storage, instead of for my office,” I tell my husband, “at least for right now.” I gesture around at our kingdom of boxes. “Until we figure out permanent places for all this stuff.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable suggestion, but Pecker blinks at me like I slapped him. “Seriously?” He blinks again, sounding like a sad puppy when he says, “Half the reason we bought this house was because of how excited you were about that attic, but now you don’t want to use it?”
The not-attic upstairs feels so far away from the attic I’d been dreaming about, been certain about, it almost feels like I’ve been tricked. Or trapped. Something creaks in the walls, as if they might be listening in, and, “You’re right,” I say, because I can’t keep up this argument without them him figuring out how uncomfortable I am, how very carefully I’m not thinking the word regret.
A year from now, I could quietly mention to him that maybe the neighborhood isn’t quite as fun and walkable as I’d hoped, or that I’ve found a dream job elsewhere, or I could stage a number of break-ins and lament that I just don’t feel safe here anymore. But it’s only been a day.
“Sorry,” I say. “You’re right, hon. I got intimidated by all the unpacking, I guess.”
He laughs a little and says, “You goose,” and just like that, the sad puppy’s gone. Everything’s all right again. Great. Everything’s great.
I drop off boxes in the not-attic one by one. I’ve barred Pecker from coming up here for now—I don’t want it touching him—and at least this particular weirdness he interprets as me being cutely eccentric and proprietary. Seems I like the attic, after all, thank goodness. He’s so relieved.
And by the final box, I’ll admit, things do feel different in the not-attic. Not better, exactly, but more that I’ve been worn down. The move was so exciting, the most energy I’d had in months, and now.
I work up the spirit to open one of the boxes, a small one. A scrap of lined paper sits within, right at the top, her voice in black ink saying: Don’t go inside, sweetheart. Don’t—
I slam the box shut.
I know I didn’t pack that letter. I’m certain of it. I threw it out, didn’t I?
Breathing harshly, I sit down on the floor and it’s possible I just keep sitting there the entire night through.
A bird lands at the not-attic window, a cardinal, poised as a drop of blood upon a lady’s pricked finger, and maybe it’s the same cardinal who lands there now, a week later, checking on me and my growth of boxes, but it’s not the one saying chirp, chirp. That’s my husband leaving the house for some reason. That’s the alarm system he put in.
With him gone, I can finally leave the not-attic, free from his incessant pecking, “How’s it coming along up there?” “Don’t you love it?” “When can I see it?”
I close the not-attic door behind me. The air tastes so different in the hall, even if the hall feels narrower now. The alarm system makes everything feel small.
I didn’t want an alarm, but our also-white neighbors smiled at me like I’d told a joke and said they’d break into the house themselves if we didn’t put one in. They laughed, like this was funny, and you know what? Pecker laughed along with them.
We compromised on a system that makes an alarming sound but doesn’t call the police. Now Rapunzel chirps with this little alarm whenever we open the door, chirp, chirp, chirp, better be quick little birdies, chirp, chirp. She knows when we come and when we go. And I know (I know) it can’t be real, but I swear she chirps differently, more sweetly, for my husband than for me. The way he leans over her doorknob when he fiddles the keys, as if they were sharing secrets and don’t want me to overhear. The keys shift as he pockets them and suddenly they’re the skeleton kind, clanking, long and knuckled.
More than once I’ve caught myself thinking: now I’m the maiden who’s locked in a tower, led by the nose as the witch’s bird squawks at me, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel! And now you say, who’s there?”
I’m a fanciful person, I admit. A Sunday school kid. Drawn in by stories of divine marvels, impossibly old women giving birth and smiling up at the sky with their toothless mouths, holding up their toothless babies, and thanking God for the miracle. Rapunzel must’ve imagined herself as one such a miracle, the old witch who raised her being a crone from the start, never realizing that she’d been traded for a few heads of lettuce. My biological mother was a very young mother and that’s all I know about her.
Sometimes I imagine her as a scared teenager who didn’t know what else to do, how to take care of a baby on her own. Sometimes I imagine wrapping my adult arm about her trembling, high school shoulders, and saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll never ask you for an explanation. Sometimes bad things just happen, and then they get worse.”
A couple things on my adoptive mother: her marriage finger is missing, all the way to the root knuckle, and she never once came to church with me. She needed the hour to herself. But she would fold my blond hair down into a long braid each Sunday morning and give it a tug before she left me at the church. I spent the stained-glass hour imagining she still had a grip on it somehow, that we were tethered together by this rope that grew out of me.
She hanged herself one Sunday while I was gone. Taped a note to the door: Don’t go inside, sweetheart. Don’t worry. Go next door. Tell Mrs. Baskin to call the police. I love—but I went next door, and Mom wasn’t there.
How many doors have I knocked on since, looking for her, and who’s there? It’s either from a joke or a ghost story: who’s there?
But she isn’t what this is about. I know because when Pecker asked me yesterday, using his “careful” voice, “Baby, is this about your mom? I swear, I didn’t think keeping her letter would upset—” I snapped at him, “Baby, not everything I feel is about her.”
I stopped braiding my hair after she died. Or, I stopped until recently, until Rapunzel, this house, where suddenly I can’t help it. I’m braiding my hair all the time. I’m braiding it right now.
Pecker comes through the kitchen where I’m sitting, “Oh, hey hon, I thought you were in the attic,” but then he stops and pigeon-quirks his head at me, at my braid. “I like it,” he says. “How come you never wore your hair like this before?”
His smile widens and my chest aches because I know: he thinks this is a sign. He thinks I’m changing. He thinks I’m getting better.
I tighten my braid, knowing it wasn’t strong enough to hold Mom here, and when Pecker realizes I’m not better, the house didn’t fix things, I know it won’t be strong enough to hold him here, either. And of course suddenly I’m all Rapunzel, looking down at the pile of prince-corpses scattered along my tower’s thorny lawn, all those who came to the rescue only for their hands to sweat, lose their grip, a brain-bashing fall, the end. Her tower, a tombstone. I doubt her final prince had to climb very far, having all those other bodies to stand on. I bet he wasn’t even out of breath, fucking her as soon as he reached the top, the moment he climbed through her window. Rapunzel had twins, didn’t she?
Something that no one, not even Pecker, knows about me: I’ve felt that same unsettling certainty as I felt about Rapunzel’s attic once before, and that certainty was about my sister. The other child of my biological mother. The one I “couldn’t possibly” know about as someone who was adopted out as a baby, and yet, I do. I know. I’m certain.
I’m certain this isn’t about her, either. Even if the house somehow feels like her now. Something that’s supposed to be so wonderful, so close, and yet feels so distant from me.
I’ve always felt my sister’s absence, as if she died instead of me simply never knowing her. It’s no strain to imagine a ghost in this house. Nothing feels calm enough to be fully dead here. Lying next to Pecker in bed, staring into the flayed skin wall, I braid my hair quietly to myself, longer and longer, until I must be dreaming because it’s so long now it’s dangling off the edge of the bed, just waiting for my mother’s hand to tremble up from the shadows and grip it.
I’m fine, really. Most days. No one at my old veterinary clinic seemed to notice anything amiss, but interviewers at all these new ones sure do. It’s been one “we’re going in a different direction” after another, and I get it, there are a lot of directions to take that don’t involve such a grueling climb.
The random crying is new, I’ll admit. I know it freaks out Pecker every time. So far, I’ve managed to keep it out of the interview room at least. He caught me crying in the bathroom last night and said, “Honey, honey,” so gently, his eyes wide like he was afraid of me, “come on, come here. I won’t be any good at it, but what if you let me braid your hair?”
I washed my face and we settled ourselves in the living room.
“You sure you don’t want to go up to the attic?” he asked. “I’ll bet we could see the moon out the window up there.”
“I’m sure,” I said, and sat on the floor so he could use the sofa.
He brushed my hair out gently, his strokes hitching each time I sniffled. “I found your mom’s letter in the trash again,” he said. “Are you sure you want me to leave it there?”
“I threw it away for a reason,” I told him, trying not to sound angry.
“If you’re thinking about her,” and there was his careful voice again, “if you’re feeling the grief more strongly now for some reason, you could tell me. She was your mom. I don’t expect you to ever get over her, no matter how long she’s been gone.”
I sniffled back something horrible and wet. I tried to be as gentle as his brushstrokes when I said, “I know you wish there was an explanation for all this,” I gestured to my tear-pink face, “but sometimes things are just bad.”
He continued brushing and braiding my hair. I couldn’t see his face when he said, “You don’t like it here, do you.”
“It’s just,” but I couldn’t decide what was safe to say. It’s just that it’s been almost two months now and Rapunzel still doesn’t feel like my house. We bought her from so far away. I mean, Pecker visited. He came for her several times. But it isn’t safe to tell him the house isn’t what I expected, not when he helped set those expectations. “It’s me,” I said. “It’s just me, being weird.”
“You aren’t weird,” he said, kissing my temple. “You’re alone.”
Except he didn’t say that last part, because I really am alone up here. Up here in the not-attic where—Pecker was right—I can see the moon hanging in the center of the window’s O, the photo negative of an eye. I touch my braid; it’s the one he made for me last night. Tonight. How did I get here? Sleepwalking?
This is so much worse than weird.
My mother and I lived in the same house our whole life together with no attic, and they always sounded romantically haunted to me. After all, child-me thought, ghosts float. I pictured them trapped up there like stray balloons in a supermarket, bobbing against the ceiling, helplessly drawn to the building’s highest point.
I’ve lived in apartments ever since. Until now. Her. A place I supposedly own—so why does it feel as though she’s trying to take ownership of me?
Funny, I’d never wondered before if maybe some houses hope to be haunted. If maybe it was more Rapunzel’s tower than her mother who felt betrayed and abandoned by her. If maybe that tower would do anything to get her back.
But that’s crazy, of course that’s crazy.
My old therapist’s voice rises up in me, chastising me for the word crazy. Except I like that word. I always have. Sometimes it’s oddly relaxing to think it. I’m crazy.
I laugh and fresh tears rush out of me. I’ve never sleepwalked before. I flex my hand. I could swear someone was just holding it, but it’s only me up here, me and the not-attic, the house’s highest point. (So why does it feel like I’ve been buried?)
I can’t support my own weight anymore. Lying down on the hardwood, her blond hair, it’s all I can do to reach out to the wall beside me, the white wall, white as a white corpse, and feel the coolness of her skin. There’s a small crack here, a crevice beneath the baseboard, like the parting of lips, and I whisper a secret fear into her mouth: “He wants to trade me in, doesn’t he? Why wouldn’t he. I’m defective. I’m Santa’s pissing cat.”
I don’t know what spell they might cast, but I wipe two tears from my cheeks and press them into her cracked lips, sealing the fear inside.
We’re getting older, Pecker said, but what he meant was me, I’m getting old. This is getting old. “This is her,” he said to the house, “This is who?” I replied, because that’s always my line, Who? Who’s there? A door who? “The door’s for you,” he would say, leading me in and locking it behind me. Chirp, chirp, Rapunzel laughs, and from my not-attic window I can see them walking off together into the hot Friday night, my husband and this woman who doesn’t cry all the time, who isn’t afraid of her own home. But she looks just like me, doesn’t she. She could be my twin.
Chirp, chirp, goes Rapunzel. It’s day. Pecker’s home again.
Maybe he followed the song of that chirp, chirp through the city wilds, mesmerized by her voice, needing to possess it for his own. He has the magic code to let himself inside, Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your, and the house does, the house greets him, the house hushes obediently as he enters it.
“Fresh food for a fresh house,” he says as I come downstairs. He’s putting paper-bagged groceries on the table and I’m looking all around but, “What are you looking for?” he asks.
“No one,” I say. He’s alone here. “I didn’t know you were getting groceries. I could’ve gone with you.”
He crooks his head at me. “You did come with me,” he says, but then he smiles a bird’s smile, pointed in the middle like a beak, “or wait, maybe that was my other wife.” He winks. “You two do look a lot alike.”
“Don’t say that,” I snap at him. I can hardly breathe.
“Okay, goose,” he says, wary now. “I was only kidding.”
“Well, it wasn’t funny.”
He frowns loudly, closing his eyes a moment before saying, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
There’s nothing I can say to that, so I say nothing, standing back as he unpacks the groceries, and suddenly, “I’m allergic to strawberries.” He bought three cartons of them, red as blood. Strawberries, when what she needed was a ladder. Her prince came to her again and again, pretending like there was no other way out, no way to take her with him, and where could she go to escape him if she wanted? What is one to do?
“Since when?” he wants to know. “You love strawberries.”
“Since always,” I say, but he’s already listing off times I’ve eaten strawberries right in front of him, Fourth of Julys and baby showers and Margie’s wedding and I can’t breathe. I don’t know who he’s describing but she isn’t me. I’m not her. I’m allergic, I can’t, he can’t, “You can’t keep me here!” I blurt out.
Pecker shoves the strawberries into the trash. His eyes are lit with tears, quiet as he says, “So why are you still here then?”
I storm back upstairs because that’s where he wants me to be, each step a fight with a new knot, a new tangle, a rat’s nest, everything, the whole house, a rat’s nest! Don’t go inside, sweetheart—I kick the not-attic door shut behind me, gulping air. I braid and unbraid my hair, a nun with a rosary. The window is a wheel of light in the dark room, a spyhole at the coffin’s head. I gaze out on the world of the living, and I feel my own death trapped inside me. Part of me can’t help but want to set it free.
Everything is so much worse here, I want to tell him. It’s all just wandering into rooms and telling yourself it’s home. Telling yourself to get over it, this is a happy thing. Except it feels like the house prefers it when I’m alone. The house prefers it when I cry.
The house prefers it when I’m crazy. As if it makes her stronger.
I braid my hair, waiting for him to come get me, check on me, ask me what I want for dinner—he’ll come back, they always come back, that’s a prince’s job—but he doesn’t and they don’t and it’s night now.
I squeeze shut my eyes. I didn’t mean to imagine leaping from the tower, falling from the window, broken and dead on the sidewalk. I love my husband, and he loves me, he still says so. He’s wretchedly gentle with me. I braid my hair tighter, tighter, the tug and tingle of it along my scalp satisfyingly painful, and when my mother’s dead hand cups my cheek, her other hand pulling at my hair, pulling herself up out of the coffin’s darkness, (out of the attic, I realize, breathless, the other attic, but I’m too tired now to reach into it, too tired to do anything), I simply lean into her touch and weep.
These tears, she whispers to me. Her voice rough as a match-strike. These tears, sweetheart.
“I don’t know what to do, Mom.” It’s difficult to speak. “I’m so sad all the time now.”
Are your tears like mine? she asks. Are they magic?
I’m crying too hard to answer, and she doesn’t ask again, only presses her death-softened cheek against mine. She rubs my tears into her face like lotion, great peels of blue-white skin sloughing onto her fingers.
“Mom,” I whisper, and I know this isn’t her. It can’t be. I don’t like it. I wish she would stop. Stop pulling at my hair, stop pulling the tears out of me, pulling the life out of me, this is supposed to be a happy place, a happy time, I’m supposed to be—“Mom, stop.”
The dead woman smiles with lips suddenly no longer chewed and chipped by decay; refleshed. She kisses my cheek and lowers herself back down. Mother’s here, she says. Don’t be afraid.
I want to look out the window some more, remember all the life there still is outside, but I can’t be here anymore, alone in the leaking dark of this other attic, with her.
I curl up against my husband in bed and his body makes a small movement that says he’s asleep. Not dead, I assure myself. Asleep. Not a coffin, a house. Not my mother, a—not my mother. She only looks like one.
“I don’t want to leave you,” I whisper to my sleeping husband. “I don’t want to be this way anymore. I don’t want” that other attic.
I can imagine how Pecker would peck at me for this, the look and the sigh and the tilt of his head, the thud of the axe: “What do you want?”
“To eat,” he says. “You don’t want eggs, you don’t want toast, now you don’t want bacon.”
I enter the moment slowly: here we are in the kitchen, morning is in the window, I’m braiding my hair, and my husband bothers bacon in a pan. He wasn’t there when I woke up, so I found him in the bathroom and hugged him from behind as he peed. I kissed his neck and “I’m sorry,” I told him, “I’m so sorry.” He finished and buckled my arms around him with his own, not letting me go. “I’m sorry too,” he said, and, “I’ll make breakfast.” But as I followed him downstairs, her hair tangled between my toes, silverfish seething through the strands. I thumbed day-markers someone had scraped into the brick. Flattening my palm across the wall, I felt her moving on the other side, a child kicking at a womb. Tears startled out of me at the thought. Tears that sent her into a frenzy. I snatched my hand from the wall.
My husband shakes his head at the stove, saying, “I don’t know what to do, Amber.” And again, more quietly, “I don’t know what to do.”
He’s tired. Of course he’s tired. He’s been climbing this tower for weeks now, months. Has it been more than a year? My eyes ache, they’re so hot. I open my mouth to say, “Please,” or “Sorry,” or “I love you, I don’t know what’s happening,” but instead, “Knock, knock.”
He turns, hissing as grease pops up against his hand. “Someone’s at the door.”
“Who’s there?” I ask.
“Go find out.” He swears at the pan while the bacon shrivels. And it strikes me as brave, him cooking with gas, an open flame. He kisses the tiny burn on his hand and fresh tenderness for him blooms inside me.
It was a Christmas tree fire that taught my husband to fear. A string of lights, something went wrong, and the tree rushed into flames. “Like it wanted to die,” he told me once. “It roared like an animal, like it was trapped.” Perhaps without meaning to, he combed his fingers through his hair, over the rippled landscape of his scalp. “I couldn’t save it. I tried, but I couldn’t save it.”
My bird’s tree was turned to ash and he barely escaped to come to me at my window.
“That’s terrible,” I reply, because it was the house speaking then. It’s Rapunzel who beckons me away from the front door, taking my hand, saying,
“This way. You can’t get there by the visitor’s entrance.”
In the library, she opens a bookcase that’s actually a door. Everything looks like something else here. I mean to say where but instead I ask, “Why are we going?” and I know it’s the right question. The same way I knew the attic was mine. The same way I know that this Rapunzel, this woman, it’s her. My sister.
Rapunzel looks back at me from the bookcase doorway, shadows reaching over her collarbone, her cheek. “Because she knock knocked,” she says. “For both of us.”
Rapunzel, Rapunzel. The joke won’t work without both of us. And there has to be a punchline if I ever want this joke to end.
I touch my braid. I glance over my shoulder. I follow Rapunzel down.
It’s not a rope, my braid. I’m not noosed. Not tied to anything. Though, I realize now, we are climbing it. Lowering ourselves down a dark well with heavy grips that pull all along my scalp. It hurts so badly, my hair tearing under the strain, my skin tenting away from my skull. I remind myself not to cry, but I’m crying anyway, and I can tell that it delights her.
“Do come inside, sweethearts,” the dead woman says, greeting us, her daughters. “Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid.”
We land at the top of the kingdom’s tallest tower, a stone room that’s round and bright as a coin. Bookshelves line the walls, brimming with jewel-colored spines. There is a cauldron, stoppered bottles of things, a wooden desk with parchment and quill. A small bed turned down with a star-patterned quilt. A window in the shape of an eye, and an iron bowl overflowing with strawberries. The dead woman shambles toward us, her neck at an odd angle. I reach for my sister’s hand and she grips my fingers tight.
“Oh, my dear,” the dead woman says, “your cheeks don’t need this polish.” She touches my face, thumbs away my tears to spread them beneath her own eyes.
“You’re not my mother,” I say, and my sister squeezes my hand in warning.
The dead woman squints at me, as though she’s never considered the idea, and replies, “Of course not, sweetheart. I’m your room.”
I can’t stop crying and the dead woman pinches up my tears like rolling pearls, smearing them over herself in a frenzy.
“You should go back without me,” I whisper to my sister. She looks nervous, but at least she isn’t crying. She looks like me but younger. Rosy. Someone I should’ve been. My husband will like her.
“I can’t,” she whispers back. “I’m not myself without you.”
The dead woman grins, holding us with her gaze as she plants a hand on either side of her own head. Arms quivering, her broken neck oiled with my tears, she slowly tilts her head upward, as though adjusting a crooked portrait on the wall. She sighs as the bone pops wetly back into place. Her skin a mottle of rot and rejuvenation. Her tear-slicked fingertips, pink with health, dot her death-blue palms like candleflames. She’s getting stronger all the time.
“Please,” I say. It takes all I have not to curl into my sister’s arms. “I just want to go home.”
“We are home, baby,” my husband says, petting my hair in bed. He holds me tight to let me know he’s here, he loves me, I’m trapped. There’s no new home to buy. No other version of myself to become. It’s done. This is it. My life. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Give it time. It’ll grow on you.”
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick