Every morning at 8:15 I go to work. Sweeping out the front door with the jingle of my keys. Lots of keys. And each one to a door, or a window, or a box that’s been locked for years. I can never open the box. The key turns, but the box does not open. I wonder what secrets it could be holding. Old records. Mothball-scented dresses. Pictures of sad little girls with watery eyes and hair like corn silk. I don’t know. But I wonder.
I work for a card making company. Hobbs Card & Co. makes gift cards. I write the message that go inside said cards. “Hope you get better.” “Happy Birthday!” “I’ll be thinking of you.” Empty messages. Meaningless. They serve the purpose of consoling someone, wishing someone well. Then they get thrown out when the gift roses die.
My office is on the top floor of an ugly building. Small and closed. I like it. It feels like being inside a seashell, and leaves me to brood. In the silence of my office, I wonder about things. Like the contents of a box, or the sound of a child’s cry. I think of heavy, humid rain. Of a dark ocean with silver fish in it. And the sky and trees in it. And at night, the broken yellow moon in it. I think of blood seeping through dark lips like a secret. Sitting at my desk, thinking, in the close-walled, ugly-buildinged silence.
When the day is done, I walk to the wharf and buy coffee from the little shop on the edge of the beach. It looks like a gingerbread house, and swells with the smell of cinnamon. The woman inside smiles warmly at me and pours my coffee. I accept it, pay, and step outside, on the back patio. The coffee is terrible. But I pay no mind. My interest is not with the coffee.
Behind the shop is a grove of trees. Nestled deep into the pines is a house. Faded blue paint and broken windows face the waves. I am familiar with the house. I know that the third stair creaks. I have seen the flowers in the back yard bloom. What I don’t know is who is there. A person is in my house. I see his curly black hair, his faded shoes, the scar across his face. He is fixing a window, replacing the cracked, dusty pane with stained glass. The light reflects brilliantly, flecks of red exploding across the trees. I am suddenly angry. What right has he to go in and change things? Disturbing the secrets? The door is wide open and my ghosts are spilling out.
My coffee is cold. I stand and turn away, going back inside. I nod to the woman behind the counter and leave, my eyes full of secrets, secrets that burn like smoke.
Every morning at 8:15 I go to work. The routine is comforting, like a worn pillowcase when your cold is bad. I come back to my smallish apartment, eat a moderately interesting dinner, and sleep the sleep of the dead.
My job is vaguely entertaining. Office christmas parties with raucous drunken laughter, and fake cheer. I avoid them as much as possible. There’s enough fake cheer in my job. With every “Happy Birthday”, my fake, plastic, perfect smile widens and cracks at the edges.
I have old pictures of myself, smiling my christmas-card smile. My looks are plain. Deep brown hair, curling over my shoulders. Lightish build. Smallish breasts. Mediocre. Except for my eyes. Brilliantly green, the color of seaweed, of dark water, of scales.
There aren’t any pictures of the smile within. My secret smile, with crooked teeth and imperfections. Blazing splashes of color, thoughts about love, death, and choices. Dark lips that whisper bloody secrets. And a house, a history, with the musty old-map smell, the smell of old libraries.
The work day ends, and I find myself again at the coffee shop, sipping a lukewarm cup of shit. He is out again, carrying furniture from a dirty blue truck. I am no longer angry at him. Rather, I am intrigued. I want to see the house again, see where he has put the couch with yellow flowers. Ask him what he thinks of the peonies in the back, or what his name is. Idly, I wonder what he’s done with the stain.
Suddenly, with the grace of a train wreck, I’m standing and walking through the weeds, up the hill and towards the house. I arrive in the yard and stand nervously. He walks out towards the truck and stops, turning towards me. His white teeth flash in a smile, and his hand points towards me, a brown hello.
“Hi.” His voice is warm, like sunlight. His hand is rough, and I notice the fine black hair that leads up from his wrists. I see his long eyelashes, the mess of curls that tangle over his ears. His deep olive skin.
Awkwardly, I realize that I’m still holding my coffee cup.
“Hi.” I grin foolishly back. He smiles again, that flash of white teeth in his brown face.
“Well... if I’m right, that cup is from the coffee shop over there. And if I continue to be right, it tastes terrible.” I nod mutely, distracted by his sweat. It spreads in a fine layer over his stomach and chest muscles, turning him into a shining man. Shining like the stars in his eyes. He turns and walks into the house, and I follow.
“I think I unpacked the sugar. It’s probably in the kitchen. Hold on.” He walks down the hall to the kitchen, and I’m standing in the entryway with my ghosts. There is the scratch on the banister from my doll’s face, when I ran down and scraped her along it. Punishment, of course. There is the faded wallpaper, yellow with grapevines climbing. She used to tell us stories about the grapevines, and what they were hiding. Little imps, intent upon gripping your sleeve as soon as you walked too close to the walls. There are the picture frames, empty eyes with cracked glass. The pictures were burned long ago. I am lost in memories. My eyes are full of old images, of little girls in rotting lace dresses, with cloudy blue eyes and hair like whispers. Of smoke curling up into the sky, and taking the pictures with it. Of a stain spreading, dark and threatening, on the floor. “I don’t know how much this will help you. That coffee is terrible.” He comes back in and startles me, to the point where I drop the coffee cup. The glass shatters, and there is another thick dark stain on the floor. I look up regretfully and he shakes his head.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to have to buy some stain remover anyway. It’ll be no problem to clean up.” He smiles at me, seeming to forget the bag of sugar in his hand. I smile sheepishly back, and look down at my feet, in their sensible shoes. A small drop of coffee has landed on the toe, and is leaving a brown spot. I’ll clean it later, I think to myself.
“This is a really old house.” I look up at him again, as he nods.
“I know. I was surprised it was abandoned. All I had to do was have a deed made up, and it was mine. Lucky turn of events, for an artist who’s got no money.” His laugh rolls from his lips and hits me in waves.
“Would you like a tour of the house?” I nod demurely, and he grins. He turns through a door on the right into what looks like the beginning of a dining room. Strange. This was where the dining room always was. I wonder how people know things like that. Perhaps the rooms tell you what they want to be. I step into the room and look around at the familiar blue walls, faded blue. The hardwood floors. The worn places where the table legs sat. Scratches along the floor from a chair being scraped across. Again, and again. Scrape, scratch, scrape. A yell. It stops. And then it starts again. I am lost in memory.
“Don’t scrape your chair that way. It only scratches the floor.”
“I’ll tell you again and that’s it. Don’t scrape your chair that way.”
Another chair is pushed back.
A cry of pain.
The crack of bone.
The small drops of blood that escape soft lips.
Both chairs pulled back up to the table.
“Now eat your dinner. And don’t you dare scrape your chair again.”
“I think this is where a chair must have been. Are you all right? Do you need some water? I guess that coffee is more lethal than it seems.”
He is standing near me. His hand is on my shoulder. I close my eyes and shake my head, shaking him off.
“I’m fine. Thank you.” His eyes do not believe me, but the rest of him does. He turns away and walks into the next room. It is still the kitchen. The faded yellow wallpaper. Crumbling linoleum. Cracked cabinets and dish shards. The refrigerator is gone.
“I’m going to put tile down in here. I’m thinking about painting it white, making it more modern. What do you think?”
“Not white. Too plain.”
“Are you sure you’re all right? You’re awfully pale. Do you want some water?”
“Not white. A soft cream. Blue tiles. And paint the cabinets blue.”
He looks around, considering.
“You know .. you should really go into interior design. You could make a lot of money that way.
“How do you know I’m not already a pro at that?’
He stops again, considering me this time.
“Because if you were you would have lectured me on the water damage already. And you would have come up with some really expensive design for it.”
He shrugs and looks at me. I shrug back at him, and he leads the way into the next room.
Back through the dining room and across the hallway, and into the next. I am reeling from memories. It is all the same... nothing has changed. This was the old living room. There is the wax stain on the floor in the corner. My right hand twinges slightly in memory of the heat, of the pain. The faded red chair still sits in the corner, next to the bookshelf, with the rip in the seat. I remember the termites. Their nest might still be there, or are they dead as well? I remember their white little bodies swarming through the crack in the seat of the chair, and her wicked smile as she pushed me towards them. I quickly look away.
“I’m getting rid of that chair. It’s unsafe. Looks like termite damage, but why they would eat the chair as opposed to the walls or the floor, I don’t know. There’s no damage to the floor underneath it, and the bookshelf is just fine.”
They were under a spell, I think. Like the rest of us.
“I love this fireplace. Absolutely gorgeous marble.”
I nod in agreement. The char marks are still there from the fire. Another memorial twinge, this time my left leg. The scarred one. We were so proud once we started that fire. We didn’t know she would be so angry. And their smiles .. I look away from the fireplace, also.
He smiles and leads me back out, into the hall.
“There’s another room, but I want to save that one for last, since it’s so gorgeous.”
We walk up the stairs, and I stay away from the rail. Such a long fall, she used to say. Such a shame that one of you will have to go that way one day. And indeed, one of us did.
“Up, children! Up!”
“Mother says to get up! Up girls! Come!”
Thumping feet, she thinks smugly. Not as graceful as they seem. Their feet thump up the stairs.
Reluctantly, they climb out of bed.
The door bursts open and two little children run in, bright flaxen hair shining in the bright sunlight. Softer footsteps outside, in the hall, and the two rowdy little girls immediately stop and become statues, perfect. Silent. Their eerie green eyes look up sweetly as she comes in, all darkness and smoky beauty. The other two girls, tousled, dark haired, and imperfect, rise slowly, waiting for it. They know it is coming, but it’s only a matter of time. And it does indeed come. The familiar stinging cheeks, the harsh mutter of “Up when I tell you.”
The rough hand grips the nightgown of the other little demon, the dark-haired loudmouth. The devil, the succubus, the pretty one. Her young plumpness and dark, reflective eyes, can compete even with the two angelic children. She has her own knowing aura about her. And that is why she must go. Her beauty exceeds even perfection, and that is just not allowed.
“Come little ones, it is time. Let us see how large of a fall the stairs really are.”
The two angels float gracefully out the door, positively glowing with their mother’s affection. The other child, dark-haired and rough, thick, healthy, thumps her way after them, dragging her feet. The procession stops at the top landing of the stairs, and the beauty is lifted up like an offering, and rested on the railing. Dark eyes above her, and dark lips purse, as the eyes take in the dark curls, the shining locks on the little head. The two little angels hide their eyes in respect, but the other watches, watches her sister fall and break on the floor below.
“I finished the stained glass windows in here. I’m looking for a bed... this room seems to be asking for something a little more pricey than what I’ve got. So I guess I’ll be sleeping in a bag for a little while.”
“What’s wrong with that bed, there against the wall?” But I already know.
“There are scratches in the posts... plus, it looks like it could fall apart any moment. I don’t want to nestle down into bed and end up breaking it completely.”
I nod in agreement.
“I have no clue what the scratches on the posts are from. Handcuffs, maybe? They’re circular, so something was wrapped or clipped around the post...”
“Wires.” My wrists sting with the memory.
“Oh... I didn’t consider that. Possibly so.”
He steps over to a door in opposite wall, opening it to reveal a tiny bathroom. I look away. We were never allowed in there unless she took us. And I don’t want to remember her taking us.
“The plumbing seems to be good... so... once I get the water turned back on, I should be able to use this bathroom.”
He grins at me, and I venture a small smile back. We step back out of the bedroom, and he opens a door on the landing. The creaky stairs lead up.
“The attic’s up there... lots of dusty stuff, crates and such. And two beds. I guess someone slept up there once. There’s also this funny little chest that I can’t open. Can’t find a key for it anywhere.”
That’s because I have it, I think.
His eyes flash in excitement, and he rubs his hands together.
“Okay. Now for the best room.”
We walk back down the stairs, and through the living room, to the back. He opens the door and grins, but my eyes are drawn immediately to the floor.
There it is. The stain.
“I have absolutely no clue what this could be from... it looks somewhat like blood, you know? I’m not really sure what it is.”
“Probably. That’s a lot of blood, though. Wonder what it’s from.”
I know that, too.
“This room is so gorgeous. I love it.”
I look up and take in the walls again. Oh, yes, I remember this. We were never allowed to go in here, but I remember it. A fireplace against the opposite wall. Two windows abreast, with rotting lace curtains. And every inch of the wall encrusted with seashells.
Conchs, cowries, clams, oysters, sand dollars, moon snails, whelks, scallops, any seashell you can think of. And the pearls. Millions of them, filling the crevices where seashells wouldn’t fit.
“Is this not absolutely amazing?”
“Well. That’s the house.”
“I guess I’ll be leaving, then.”
“Well... I guess. But could you come back tomorrow, maybe? I think you could maybe help me decide what paint to buy.”
“Sure. I get off work at 4:30.”
“See you then.”
Every morning at 8:15 I go to work. And then after I get off at 4:30, I go to Vincent’s house. The walls are painted now, and we’re buying furniture. He’s asked me to live with him now. I’m thinking about it.
I haven’t told him about the house’s history. He’s tried to get me to go down to the beach but so far I have refused. We haven’t cleaned up the stain. Our new bed is comfortable. We burned the chair. The main hall has a pretty new victorian wallpaper oh the walls. I guess I’ll have to tell him eventually.
It’s 6:00 in the evening and I’m sitting on my new porch, looking out at the waves. Vincent is out swimming, and I’ve lost sight of him. He asked me to go with him again, but I refused. Again. He says he has something to tell me, to show me, something important, and that it must be done by the seashore. I’m curious, but my aversion to the sea overrides my curiosity.
Something catches my eye, out by the surf. Something is crawling up on the sand, out of the water. I catch sight of Vincent’s dark curls, and a flash of brilliant green. I know what it is, and I know now what he wanted to tell me. I suppose I should have known. I lived with two of them.
Vincent is a merman.
“Don’t wear your shoes on the beach. You’ll get sand in them.”
“But mother, I like them.”
“Well if you like them so much, take care of them, and don’t wear them on the beach.”
The little dark-headed girl pouts but removes her shoes, and then laughs and runs across the beach to hug her mother’s leg. Her sister, also dark-haired, possibly even more so, dances about in the waves, dragging the hem of her skirt through the surf. Their mother laughs and tells them to stay there, that she is going to comb the beach for seashells.
They play for about an hour, until their mother comes back. They stop and gravitate towards each other, protectively, for behind their mother walk two little girls, naked. Their skin is pale as a lily’s petal, their flaxen blonde hair thin and straight. They are thin, their sharp little elbows and knees poke out at strange angles. Undertones of green and blue glisten beneath their skin. The two dark girls are avid believers in mermaids, believing every word of the stories their mother told them. They know the two creatures they were looking at.
The two little mermaids join the household, and immediately become favorites. They aren’t loud. They are graceful. They don’t swing their feet when they sat in chairs, or wear shoes on the beach, or step on the hems of their dresses. Looking back, one would realize this was because their dresses always fit, thus making it impossible to step on the hems, but back then it seemed like magic. With every word the two dark children say, every thump they make coming down the stairs, every time they step on the hems of their ill-fitting dresses, they recieve two more slaps than usual, two more harsh words, two more hours locked in the hot attic.
The beautiful dark one doesn’t resent their mother. She knows that she isn’t as good as the two mermaids. She believes that she deserves to be treated as the lesser. Thus with every slap she loves her mother more. Her devotion to the two perfections grows. And when she falls and breaks on the floor of the hallway, she loves her mother the most.
The other one, the plain one, still believes in mermaids. How could you not, when the reason for your pain is caused by the very creatures? But she no longer believes what her mother says about them. She believes that they aren’t as beautiful and kind as they are reputed to be. She thinks that deep down inside they’re evil little girls, who knock burning candles over onto your hands and watch you writhe in pain, and laugh mockingly behind the back of their new mother as she beats you for clumsiness. They taunt you when your wrists are wired to the bedposts, making you run at them and kick at them, thus tightening the wires and falling to the floor. They wait outside the bathroom door as your mother strips you naked and touches your special places, and does painful things to you. They listen to you cry and try not to scream, and they laugh maliciously together, because they are favorites. She knows they are nasty little girls inside.
And when darkness falls over the still waves, the ocean with the silver fish in it, and the sky and trees in it (and at night, the broken yellow moon in it), as the blood is whispered through dark lips like a secret, she thinks about mermaids, and vows never to return to the ocean.
One day, the little dark one can take it no longer. She gets out of bed early and sneaks down to the shell room. She gasps softly as she comes in and sees the shells, but she regains her composure and grabs a fire poker from its resting place beside the fireplace. She waits for hours until she hears her mothers feet pad up to the door, until the door opens, and then she springs up. The poker smashes against her beautiful mother’s forehead, and the dark one watches as her mother falls to the ground. She kisses her mother on the cheek as the bloody secrets are whispered and the stain spreads, and then leaves, dropping the poker next to the body on the ground. She goes up to the bedroom and climbs on the bed, over the sleeping bodies of the mermaids. She wraps her cold little hands around the throat of one and squeezes, ignoring the tiny gills behind the jawbone. The perfection’s eyes open, as well as the mouth, but no sound comes out. The sparkle leaves the brilliant green eyes. She does the same to the other. Then she leaves for good.
Vincent and I live happily. We cleaned the stain, we’ve cleaned the house, and I am pregnant with a little perfection of my own. I know she will look exactly like the two I grew up with. But when she is older she will change. Her hair will become coarse and dark, and curly. She will always love the sea. She may return there one day. I do not know. I no longer go to work at 8:15 every morning; I’ve quit my job. Vincent’s art pays for us, his startling renditions of seashells and of creatures that no one has ever seen before. No human that is. We are happy. We are happy in our house with its ghosts. And I look out at the ocean, with silver fish and gorgeous creatures in it. And the sky, the trees, and the danger in it. And at night, the full round moon, as round as my stomach, my stomach with its little perfect secrets.