Though their sprawling house has many rooms, Dove and Monica have always elected to share the same bedroom. For the life of him, their father can’t see why. And why such a small room?—one buried back in the darkest corner where the occasional spider is known to crawl and endless gray pigeons fuss at the windows, cooing and checking their reflections.
Of course, there’s a good deal their father can’t see or understand. For all his might—and he is mighty; a large man, enormous really, sometimes bigger than the house itself—he has trouble with his eyes such that the world constantly looks smaller and smaller to him, as if it’s pulling away.
His daughters seem generally happy, though, because what do girls ever have to be unhappy about? Certainly not the thick walls built up around them with heavy stone blocks. Certainly not the endless rules and curfews that keep them hemmed in every summer while other girls go to concerts and make out in cars. Certainly not the absent mother who’s been substituted with cooks and maids. Yes, the service is impeccable. And yes, the meals delicious: deep bowls of chowder, heaps of rich lasagna, and flans so delicate that only their soft, girlish mouths can truly appreciate them. But these things are not the same as a mother.
No, what gives the sisters joy is their secret. But I know I can trust you not to tell anyone. They won’t mind if I share it with you. (You see it already, don’t you?) The little knob, just there, sticking out of the floor.
Did you get a load of those shoes? Aren’t they just? They’re Everything. The purple and red especially bring out the pink in Monica’s gums, the candy-ish tint to her teeth. The girls’ shoes are never lost on their father, who watches his credit card statements like he watches everything else: closely and unblinking. Perhaps this is why he can’t ever get prescription lenses powerful enough to refocus his dwindling world. But he isn’t blind. Not yet. The girls know this. They aren’t fools.
The trick is this: the doorknob isn’t always sticking out of the floor. It can be planted anywhere in the room—wall, ceiling, headboard, dresser, window, bookshelf, lampshade. During the day, Dove hides it deep inside the scarlet-ribbon nest of the taxidermied bird on her shelf. A little dove. A little dove with its little brass egg. Then, each night, all they have to do is plant the knob somewhere, and there—a door.
Every night a different door opening to a different place. Once, a jeweled forest. Once, an emerald-sanded beach. Once, a glass mountain. And this time, through their vanity mirror, a deep stone staircase.
They’ve donned their best dresses, their best shoes. Monica’s got her favorite crawling-spider purse tied to her wrist with a black silk string. Dove’s got her dead bird threaded into her hair with a bow. The sisters don’t hold hands, but they both think about it. An excited glance. A deep breath.
“I’m here! Where are you?”
How could they get separated going down the same staircase? It’s all a whorl. The colors, the echo, the cold click of shoes on stone— Dove’s playing tricks on me, Monica thinks. She’s trying to scare me.
Monica is easily frightened. It’s because she’s The Ugly One. The one with death-pale skin and wide, frog-green eyes. After all the movies she’s seen and books she’s read—Monica’s sure she’s the redshirt. The one who’ll be tricked/snatched/killed at the earliest opportunity. Just another meter of character development in Dove’s much grander journey.
Drawing her spider closer, she does the only thing she can do: She keeps going.
As Monica (always) suspects, at least one trap has indeed already been sprung. Their father, you see, really was keeping a close eye on those shoes.
Every night the girls shower, brush teeth, hamper clothes, and closet shoes before he kisses their cheeks, good night, sleep tight, and locks their door behind him. Yet every morning—tatters. Their shoes in tatters. But not this time. He’s going to learn where/how/why they keep leaving him. Everything keeps leaving him.
This is the trap: His brother, an old soldier, recently died, bequeathing him a cloak made of the skins of all his kills. A cloak glinting gold with the fillings of corpses’ teeth, precious molars sewn as buttons into the bloody material. You might think this would make a person stand out, but instead it blurs him until he’s perfectly camouflaged; invisible. For the world, you should know, is stitched with violence. In this way, he moves like a single paisley across a spread of wallpaper, slipping along behind his daughters without a sound.
He follows as close as he can—but it’s dark here. Difficult to see.
A breeze, subtle as the turning of a page. Or did something move past her? Brush by her? Monica clutches her spider close, stroking its legs for comfort. If she keeps moving, she’ll find Dove. She’s sure.
Down, down, down, alone, down, farther down. The bottom. A library.
“Dove?” she whispers. But no. It’s only her and the books and the spider and the darkness.
Apart from the darkness, the library is lovely, romantic even, candlelit, all those jewel-colored volumes. But there’s something wrong about the darkness. Something deep. So deep it almost looks red, the way a heart looks still packed inside an animal’s chest.
Shoulders back, chin up, hands fisted so they won’t tremble—if Dove’s hiding somewhere, waiting to jump out and startle her, she doesn’t want to be caught looking chicken.
She squints at the books but can’t find any titles. One sits already open, out on a lectern, like the school library’s massive dictionary. This isn’t a dictionary, though. It’s a scrapbook. Chunky pages encased in plastic. —Chunky with pieces of her room. Stickers and buttons and bits of string. Sticky notes, a flower pin. Things from off their vanity. Things glued down with blood.
Her heart pounds a looped message: Run. Run. Run. But instead she moves to touch it, imagining herself like Sleeping Beauty, her finger drifting toward the spindle. She hopes it’s a prince and not Dove who saves her.
Don’t. And now it’s a voice inside her gut, somewhere down around her liver. Don’t do it. She’s always listened to her liver before, but now. Now she’s Sleeping Beauty. She’s under a spell. She touches the page, flips to look for an author’s name.
From behind her, “It’s mine.” A voice, flower-soft. “And so are you. My little princess.”
Dove cranes to see between the books to her sister beyond. She feels like she’s at the aquarium, struggling to spot fish as they dart behind rocks and blend with algae. Fish that pretend they can’t hear when she taps at the glass: “Come out, come out!” Except now the fish is her sister, the tank the library, the glass more like a two-way mirror. She’s pounded, shouted, and kicked, but still Monica can’t see or hear her. Or, if she can, she’s pretending not to.
“Fat ugly chicken,” Dove mutters, another impotent kick. She doesn’t mean it. She loves Monica. Hates seeing her afraid. Though it does make some sense. She hates it, it breaks her heart, but she thinks: it makes sense that Monica’s the one in the tank. People flock to see ugliness on display, someplace where it’s safely contained. Where it can’t touch them.
Wrapped in his bloody cloak, their father stands silently with Dove, watching Monica and the womanish-looking thing. Not that he can see any of it too well. Goodbye, glasses! So long, contacts! Now he simply reaches for the binoculars slung around his neck. They’re only a small help. Squinting, squinting. That womanish thing—? Marta?
“Mom?” Monica asks.
“It’s me,” the woman says. The woman who looks wrong, like the red darkness. Like the red darkness wearing a woman-suit. “I’ve been trapped here, trying to reach you.”
It could be Mom. That’s possible. Or something else. That’s possible, too. Monica hugs her spider-purse closer, feels the poke of the gold sewing scissors she keeps inside it, just in case she needs to cut something. Scissors that’d belonged to her mother.
“You’ve done it, baby. You’ve freed me. Let’s go. We’ll leave together. Right now.”
A step back. Another. “Without Dove?”
Mom? Dove thinks. Mom wants to leave without me? Her heart’s a wild horse inside her, rearing back. And here is her moment. She realizes what she’s forgotten: the doorknob in her dress pocket. Why knock when the world’s already unlocked? She could open the bookcase right now!
Fingers sweaty, that horse still rearing and kicking, she fumbles the knob— But it doesn’t go rolling away. A phantom cursing startles Dove backward from where the knob jerks through the air, as if it’s been planted inside a ghost. Scrambling after it, their ticket home, she finally twists it right in midair.
The knob freezes in place. A door opens.
She steps down into her father’s left foot.
Dove can’t imagine how he’s there and invisible, but she knows it’s him. Scratched all along his walls, his favorite phrase: The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. He’s built like a tower, hollow but for haphazard stacks of television sets, all tuned to the same blond news anchor talking over footage of bombs and gore. Dove tries changing the channel, but it’s no use. Everywhere, only, always: guns, war, blond women crossing white legs under short dresses. Flowers smiling you down to endless apocalypses.
Clambering up the TVs, she manages one adjustment: twist-twist, like a telescope’s dial, his eyes in their sockets, twist-twist, until—perfect. In focus at last.
Dove doesn’t think she’ll spend much time with her father after this. The day she lost both her parents. I won’t lose Monica, too.
She sticks the knob into his cheek, ready to leave, but snags on a second thought. Unthreading the dead bird from her hair, something so soft and silent, so unlike everything else inside him, she tucks it up onto the empty shelf between his eyes.
Nervous, Dove reaches to stroke the feathers of a bird that’s no longer there. “Dad, how’d you get here?”
The answer’s so simple, he worries his daughter’s an idiot. “I can go anywhere I want.”
“Then take me to Monica. We have to save her.”
“You saw yourself, she was going to leave you. Your mother can’t leave unless someone remains in her place, you see. There must always be someone left holding the world together.”
So it’s true? Dove thinks, backing away as he removes his cloak and ties it into a makeshift sack. Mother, that’s really you? “How do you know all this?”
He looks around. No squinting necessary. Everything’s right there for the seeing: the doorknob, where they’ve been ruining their shoes, the scraps of their lives that Marta’s managed to snatch, those pathetic, lonely scrapbooks. He’d made everything for her, all these beautiful domains, and this is what she does? She’s let herself go. Boy, that’s for sure. But maybe all isn’t lost: he can see clearly now, and perhaps having company will keep Marta better occupied, even company as ugly as Monica. Without the doorknob, what could they do about it anyway?
Dove tries sneaking away—don’t think she’s given up—but it’s easy to spot her now. Easy to grab the doorknob, to stuff her inside his corpse-skin purse, to find his way back up the stairs. Dove screams, to no avail. “Hush, girl!” He’s tired; it’s been a long night. “Why do you want to stay with your mother, anyway? Always bet on the devil you know.”
Except the devil you know will always be a devil, she thinks, weeping, wishing she could warn Monica: Don’t wait to be saved. No one’s coming. Wishing she had her scissors. The world might be stitched with violence, but it doesn’t take a sword to split a seam. Maybe Monica will realize this. Maybe she’ll save herself. Maybe Marta has her own secrets. Maybe Dove will find a way back to her. Maybe. There’s always hope. That’s why it’s so painful.
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in beautiful Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears in Carve Magazine, Cold Mountain Review, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. Follow her on twitter @meadwriter.
Jenna Bao received her MFA from Art Center College of Design. She has exhibited in Los Angeles, Paris, Osaka and Seoul with works featured on LA18 TV. Her writings have appeared in catalogues and publications, which have been included in LACA, University Arts London Special Collections, Roger Ely Archive, James Lemont Fogg Memorial Library, and FABRIK. Bao currently lives and works in Los Angeles.