Four Years Ago…
THE first time it happened, Maggie found out at school.
She went to the small girl’s bathroom on the southeast side of the building on the second floor. It was the bathroom nobody ever really used unless they were doing something that the school didn’t strictly allow. Maggie once walked in and saw a girl sitting on a sink while another girl pierced her nipple. It was little things like that that kept Maggie coming back just to see what oddity she might witness next. This time, however, she wished that she had visited the larger, more heavily populated bathroom near the commons.
Someone was sobbing in the stall at the end of the row. When the girl heard the bathroom door close behind Maggie, she immediately tried to quiet herself in abrupt little hiccups.
“D-Dawn? Is th-at you?” The enquiry came out in stutters and gasps, but Maggie recognized the voice.
A long pause followed, so long that Maggie started to wonder if Anna ever intended to answer her. Then she heard her say in a small voice, “Maggie?”
The stall door slowly swung open, the hinges grinding and squealing. Annabelle peered around the corner. Every last inch of makeup was running down the distraught girl’s face. Her strawberry blonde hair was disheveled, like she had been nervously running her fingers through it. Her dark blue eyes shined with a continuous stream of tears.
“What’s the matter?” she asked but did not move any closer to Annabelle. Maggie had no desire to get sucked into her high-school drama. Annabelle took a deep, shuddering breath.
“On Monday, I asked Dawn to buy a… a p-pregnancy test for me.” She held up a little white stick clutched in her hand. “I was too sc-ared to use it until now.” And then she dissolved into salty tears all over again.
Maggie’s heart plummeted. Annabelle was pregnant. She couldn’t hide a baby from the Fairchilds, and there was no telling what they would do with it. They might put the child up for adoption or raise it as one of their own, or perhaps the Fairchilds would simply dispose of the baby—and who knew the method the faeries would use to do that? Whatever happened, Maggie couldn’t imagine a scenario in which they allowed Annabelle to keep the child.
“Who’s the father?” she asked even though she already knew. Annabelle didn’t say anything, just looked down at her feet and wrung her hands. “Oh, Anna.” Maggie exhaled slowly through pursed lips.
“What am I going to do?” Annabelle sniffled miserably.
Maggie sighed. “Finding the time and the place to get an anonymous abortion will be tricky.” Anna’s eyes burgeoned into two perfect circles of astonishment and disgust.
“You want me to kill it?!” she spat. Her expression morphed into a glare so potent Maggie actually felt the skin on her face grow hot. “No, I won’t do that! I can’t!”
Frustrated, Maggie frowned. “Well then what are you going to do?” She repeated Annabelle’s query and lobbed it back at her. Just like that, all the venom drained out of the girl. Her entire body slumped, and she slid to the floor.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know.”
They didn’t speak about it again, but gradually Maggie gathered that Annabelle’s plan was to just not tell anybody. In her opinion, no plan was never a good plan. Despite this, Maggie silently acknowledged that Annabelle’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach appeared to work well for the first month or so. She even started eating more regularly without purging it in the toilet five minutes later.
As soon as she began to show, Annabelle started wearing baggier clothes. Maggie watched Leon and the rest of the Fairchild clan to see if they would notice this uncharacteristic change. The youngest ones, Tessa, Charise, and Kane were probably genuinely ignorant of her condition, but the older three and the Fairchild parents had to have taken note. However, Maggie knew from experience that just because the faeries noticed something that didn’t necessarily mean they would do anything about it until an opportune moment presented itself.
In retrospect, Maggie was so caught up in studying the Fairchilds that she missed the first sign of trouble. The hours that Annabelle spent sleeping in her bed became shorter and shorter. Maggie didn’t fully realize that something was amiss until Annabelle spent a whole night reading in bed, running all of their worn clothes through the washer and dryer, and simply pacing around the basement. She was so restless that she also disrupted Maggie’s sleep.
She awoke in the early hours of the morning to see Annabelle walking around and around the basement chewing on her nails. Dark circles ringed her eyes like a raccoon’s. The whites of her eyes were strained and bloodshot, and she whispered unintelligible things to herself under her breath. Maggie watched her apprehensively. This was the third night in a row since she had noticed her insomnia. Maggie didn’t think that Annabelle had slept a wink.
“Anna,” she croaked in a sleep-clogged voice. “At least lie down and try to rest.”
“Can’t you hear it?” she whimpered. She stopped pacing then and turned to Maggie. Her red eyes were exhausted, and she looked scared to even blink. The blue parts of her eyes shined with a feverish, desperate insanity.
Annabelle’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling and then all around the cellar walls. “I can hear him all the time. He never stops talking—he never lets me sleep, Maggie! I don’t like him!”
An eerie feeling swept over Maggie, chilling her to the bone. She felt her heart pick up speed and thump against her ribs. A lump formed in her throat, but she spoke past it in a hushed tone. “You hear someone speaking to you?”
Annabelle ran her fingers through her hair and pulled at it in anguish. “Don’t you hear him, too? No, I guess it’s only me. No one else ever hears it.”
The last part she said more to herself than to Maggie. She stared off into space for a few minutes, and Maggie thought maybe she forgot that she had been talking to someone other than herself. Then her frantic eyes darted back to Maggie.
“He knows what I’m thinking. He knows that I didn’t want this…” she trailed off. Then Annabelle started to shake. She dug her nails into her palms. “I feel like I’m being eaten alive from the inside out!” The poor girl sounded like she was trying to scream and whisper at the same time. “I can feel him wiggling around in my brain like a maggot!”
It was like seeing a fiery car wreck on the side of the road. The scene unfolding before her was terrible beyond words, but Maggie couldn’t look away. The sight of blood dripping from Annabelle’s clenched hands was what finally encouraged her out of bed.
She reached forward, anxiety causing her right hand to automatically pop back into place. Maggie grabbed Annabelle by the wrists and forcibly unclenched her clammy hands. Then she led her over to her bed with the pale pink comforter. As soon as she released Annabelle, she felt her right hand twist painfully and contort once more.
“Sit,” she said gently. “Try to calm down. I’m going to go make you some hot tea, okay?” Annabelle just stared up at her as if she didn’t understand.
Maggie hurried away and ran up the stairs. Skirting the kitchen, she dashed up another flight of stairs only stopping for breath when she reached Rush’s bedroom. She slipped in without knocking and went to the lump under the covers.
“Rush,” she whispered and shook him.
“Yes?” he replied, his voice coming from behind her. Maggie whirled around, and there stood Rush in his pajamas. She looked down at the lump on the bed and threw the covers back. At first glance it looked like Rush, but when she squinted, the figure shimmered and turned into a mannequin not unlike the scarecrow hanging in the cornfield just down the drive.
She raised an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “You made a decoy so that you could answer the call of nature without appearing to have left your bed?” He rocked his head from side to side, vacillating.
“That’s not specifically why I made it, but it serves that purpose, too. So what can I do you for at this lovely hour?”
Maggie resisted the urge to roll her eyes and dropped the issue. “I need a strong sleeping pill,” she said without beating around the bush.
“Like a strongman at the carnival. Preferably something I can slip into a cup of hot tea.”
Rush smirked and said, “I take it Annabelle isn’t adjusting very well to impending motherhood?”
“You could say that.”
His smirk grew wider, and he motioned for Maggie to follow him downstairs. Leading them into the kitchen, he then began to search through the highest cupboards that Maggie and the other House Pets had no prayer of reaching without a stepladder. He stood up on his tiptoes and reached for something way in the back of the cupboard. Rush made a small noise of triumph and retracted his arm.
He held out a glass vial, no longer than Maggie’s index finger, filled with a clear liquid. The label was faded, but she could just barely make out letters in a strange language that she couldn’t read. Rush wiped his finger on the glass and blew on it, sending up a little cloud of dust.
“This has been up there for a while. I kind of forgot about it,” he said and handed the vial to Maggie.
“And this will make her sleep?” In answer, Rush nodded. Maggie regarded the vial with suspicion. “It’s not something like laudanum, is it?”
“Laudanum?” Rush scoffed. “You are so old school. No, it’s a non-habit forming sleeping tincture. Made it myself years ago. Just put a few drops in her tea, and she’ll sleep like the dead.”
“And it won’t do any harm to…” Maggie couldn’t quite bring herself to finish the question.
“The baby?” He finished for her. “No, it will be fine.”
“Will it?” she asked softly. She wasn’t talking about the sleeping tincture anymore. Rush shrugged.
“Honestly, I don’t think my parents will interfere so long as they don’t have to see, hear, or smell the little bundle of joy.”
“She’s going to need help. Some kind of pre-natal care.”
Rush shook his head. “We can’t exactly take her to an ob-gyn. Her kid is half faery. There are bound to be some anomalies. Here’s the deal,” he continued and handed a box of herbal tea to Maggie while she put the kettle on. “I can help you keep an eye on it—in utero, of course. Post birth, the kid is your problem.” Then he added firmly, “I am not a babysitter.”
The mere thought of Rush handling an infant was terrifying in its inherent wrongness. “That went without saying,” she assured him.
After the kettle began to whistle, Rush bid her goodnight and went back upstairs. Maggie steeped Annabelle’s tea, added three drops of the sleeping tincture, and then walked carefully down to the basement. When she returned to their subterranean quarters, she was troubled to see Annabelle pacing again. She had wiped her bloody palms on her baby blue pajama pants, smearing red fingerprints into the material.
“Anna?” Maggie had to repeat her name several times before she caught the other changeling’s attention. She presented her with the mug of tea and guided Annabelle to her bed. “Drink up,” she said and patted her shoulder. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
But Annabelle didn’t appear to feel better the next morning. In fact, she seemed worse. She slept for the rest of the night and halfway through the afternoon, but when she awoke she continued to lie in bed staring at the ceiling, catatonic. It occurred to Maggie in a gut-wrenching revelation that, though she successfully put Annabelle soundly to sleep, she may have inadvertently trapped her inside her nightmares, unable to wake up. Annabelle had just spent the last eight hours held captive in her own deteriorating mind.
She stopped going to school, not that it was strictly necessary. No one had noticed Annabelle’s transformation into a pregnant zombie. She stayed in the basement all day long, only venturing upstairs to eat meals. She cried and begged Leon to come and visit her; it didn’t matter how many times Maggie told her that Leon couldn’t hear her all the way down in the basement. She spent hours obsessively rearranging furniture, shredding their clothing, and attempting to flush random objects down the toilet. But the worst of it was when Annabelle would talk to, argue with, or scream at her unborn child.
Maggie had to escape her. The basement had become toxic. She felt like she was entering a madhouse every time she trudged down that spiral staircase.
She was headed to the library in search of some sliver of peace but became distracted by the sound of the newest House Pet’s strained, mouse-like voice trying to tell Tessa, Charise, and Kane that she wanted their game to be done. With a sigh, Maggie changed direction.
Lela had been a gift for the youngest Fairchild children. Tessa and Charise in particular had been quite jealous of Tilda, who had Maggie, and Leon, who had Annabelle and all of the Pit Fighters. And so Lela had joined the rank of changelings.
She was bubbly and energetic around other humans, but with faeries she was so painfully timid. Lela was incapable of standing up to those three little devils, so Maggie felt reluctantly compelled to do it for her. She popped into Rush’s bedroom and plucked one of the charmed bobbles off his shelf. Something Maggie had discovered was that the faeries didn’t much mind what the changelings did or touched; they were more concerned with the doings of each other. That being said, the older Fairchilds tended to put protective charms on their belongings, which told them if another magical being touched them. Since the changelings did not possess any inherent magic, they didn’t activate the charm.
She took a glass ball from Rush’s room, and then went to rescue Lela. Maggie followed the mischievous noises of the younger children leading her straight to the bedroom that Charise and Tessa shared. Barging in without warning, she tossed the glass ball in their direction before any of them had the chance to start squalling over the intrusion.
Ironically without thought, Charise caught the ball preventing it from making a hard landing on the wood floor. Upon skin contact, the reaction was instantaneous. The glass began to glow and pulse a bright red. Tessa and Kane shot their sister a dirty look.
“Oh dear,” Maggie said flatly. “Looks like you’ve touched something you weren’t supposed to touch. Better run along and hide the evidence. I think I saw Rush walking up here from the training yard.”
Tessa and Charise scrambled to do just that, reserving their final dirty looks for her on their way out. Kane also dashed from the room but probably to get the girls in trouble before they could be rid of the glowing glass ball.
Maggie walked across the room, trod on toys and game pieces, and proffered a helping hand to Lela who was seated on the floor. The girl accepted it gratefully and stood on shaky legs. Maggie wondered how long she had been sitting with them crossed.
“Thanks,” Lela said with a small smile.
“Don’t mention it. Although if you’re really grateful, you could learn to say ‘no’ more often.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said guiltily. “But most of the time, the girls are just so sweet. It’s hard to tell them no.”
“Yes, they’re adorable,” said Maggie with a grimace. Even saying it sarcastically put a sour taste in her mouth. “Like adolescent cockroaches.”
“How is Annabelle?” Lela asked as she dusted off her knees.
Maggie snorted. “Do you refer to Rosemary and her baby? Mad as a hatter.”
Lela winced. “I feel awful for her. It’s like I should be doing something, you know? But I have no clue how to help.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Do you think,” Lela started to say but paused in nervous hesitation. “Would you be super mad if I spent the night in Tessa and Charise’s room again? It’s just… they like slumber parties, and Anna kind of freaks me out at night.”
“Go ahead. If Tilda still enjoyed slumber parties, I would sleep in her room in a heartbeat.”
In the weeks leading up to what Maggie and Rush thought was Annabelle’s due date, the two spent more and more time ensconced in the library. So far, neither of them had been able to ascertain the health of the baby since Annabelle refused to let them get anywhere near her. The only person she might have allowed within a five-foot radius was Leon, but he was the picture of disinterest when it came to the subject of his unborn child. So she and Rush were reduced to relying solely on research. Unfortunately, their research was less than fruitful.
“There has to be one record of a faery-human half breed somewhere!” Maggie threw down the book she had been scanning. “I seriously doubt it’s never happened before.”
“Hold up.” Rush raised a finger for her to be quiet. His finger and the top of his flaxen head were the only parts of his body she could see. The rest of him was obscured by a massive tome that he had somehow managed to balance on his lap. “I definitely have something here.”
He lowered the book slightly. She could now see his brow furrowed in concentration. His eyes swiftly ticked back and forth as his lips moved along with the words on the page. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Apparently, unless you plan for this very, very carefully—we’re talking mega precautions here—these types of pregnancies tend to go awry.”
Maggie gulped. “How awry?” she forced the question past her lips.
“Well, mother dearest usually loses one or two of her marbles—although, are you really crazy if someone actually is talking to you inside your head? Because faeries are much quicker to become self-aware, and the author claims that eating enchanted food speeds up that process. So the kid might actually be talking to her. Oh, and it also says that there can be casualties.”
“Lands alive,” she said and dropped her head into her hands. “Annabelle is going to kill us.”
Rush laughed. “Don’t be dramatic. This is Annabelle we’re talking about. Plus, it says here that it’s either the death of the fetus or the mother. Occasionally both but no innocent bystanders. Although, I suppose there is a first for everything.”
“But if the mother dies, wouldn’t the fetus die, too?” Maggie asked with a frown.
“Not necessarily,” Rush replied, distracted by something else on the page. “These illustrations are very graphic.” He turned his head sideways for a new angle. Maggie sighed.
“So there’s nothing we can do?”
Rush shook his head. He closed the dusty, old book with finality. “It’s too late in the game to take protective measures. Anything that happens now is up to Annabelle and Leon Jr.”
Maggie wasn’t sure how to feel about this news. There was a part of her that was happy she didn’t have to try to stop the fiery train wreck that was Annabelle. But there was something else that was bothering her besides Anna. Rush was being entirely too obliging and supportive, while asking for nothing in return. Altruism was not a trait the Fairchilds were known for exhibiting. He had to be hiding an ulterior motive somewhere.
“Why are you doing this?” Maggie abruptly enquired. “Are you helping Leon? I didn’t think the two of you were particularly close.” He rolled his eyes.
“No, I’m clearly assisting you for the sake of my brother, because he’s obviously so invested in caring for his captive girlfriend and their baby.” Despite being verbally bound to the truth, Rush had an amazing and unrivaled gift for sarcasm. The only reason he could make a contrary statement like that was because of the one little word no at the beginning which negated everything else that followed.
“Fine, so why are you so intent on helping Annabelle? I always got the impression that you thought she was hopeless even before all this.”
“I’m not helping Annabelle,” he said simply. Rush hefted the large tome off his lap and dropped it carelessly on the table between them. The table legs groaned under the weight. “I’m helping you.” He linked his fingers together on top of the book and rested his chin on them, looking at her over the leather binding.
“Okay, but that still begs the question why?”
He gave her a funny look, like he couldn’t decide whether to smile or to frown. “Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe I just like you?”
Rush liked her? Sure they got along all right, and lately he was easier to talk to than Tilda, but they weren’t actually friends. At least that was Maggie’s understanding. Rush occasionally lent her a hand when it suited him, like if she was bothering him while he was trying to sleep or if he could use Maggie to make Leon look silly. She had never known Rush to do anything out of the goodness of his heart, except perhaps that time at the lake, but he was so young, she doubted he remembered it.
“No,” she concluded with a rueful smile, “I don’t buy it. You’re fond of me like somebody is fond of a childhood toy.”
Rush tapped his fingers on the book cover and smirked at her. “Well, you certainly do more thinking than any other toy I’ve ever owned.”
Given all the drama surrounding Annabelle’s pregnancy, Maggie would have thought that there would be just as much, if not more, drama during the actual birth. She almost wished there was, because that would have been normal. Annabelle should have been screaming, and the baby should have been crying. There should have been something to indicate this baby was partially human. That Anna had retained a shred of the girl she used to be. Instead, she gave birth without saying a word to anybody, not even the other House Pets.
Maggie walked down the stairs to the basement with Lela, who steadfastly refused to venture to their quarters anymore unless Maggie was with her. It was completely and utterly quiet for a change.
“Isn’t that good?” Lela asked. “I mean, she could be sleeping. You said she doesn’t do a lot of that anymore.”
They reached the bottom of the staircase and soundlessly approached the heavy curtains that divided their bedroom from the rest of the basement. Maggie took a fistful of the material in her good hand and pulled the curtain back. Annabelle’s bed was in shambles, and most of the sheets were missing, but it was empty as were the other two beds. She turned to Lela and shook her head.
A soft coo broke the silence. Maggie took a step toward the sound, which came from the bathroom. She felt Lela nervously grasp the hem of her shirt as she trailed behind her.
The bathroom in the basement was adjacent to the washer and dryer. There were two solid walls perpendicular to the cement wall of the cellar and the door consisted of a dark, heavy curtain just like their bedroom. Since there was nothing solid to knock on, they had to verbally announce their presence when they wanted to know if the bathroom was occupied.
“Knock, knock,” Maggie said and listened keenly. For a few moments, there was no answer but then a dreamy, gossamer voice said in a singsong tone, “Come in.”
Maggie pushed the curtain aside and felt Lela shuffle closer to peer over her shoulder.
Annabelle sat on the toilet seat. In her arms was a bundle of pink sheets from her bed. Blood stained the cement floor. It was smeared everywhere. The white sink was dyed pink, but there were still some red fingerprints where she hadn’t washed the blood away. Her bedsheets were covered in blood as well, and so was the toilet seat and Annabelle’s daisy yellow nightgown.
“Anna?” Lela squeaked. “Are you okay?” Her eyes settled on the bundle in Annabelle’s arms. “Oh my…” Lela whispered. “Did… did she have the baby?”
“I was wrong,” Annabelle replied, gazing down at the blankets in her arms lovingly. “I was so wrong. He’s beautiful. He’s perfect.”
Something was not right here. Maybe it was all the blood, but a gut instinct was telling Maggie that something had gone terribly wrong. Rush’s words suddenly came back to her about how half-breed pregnancies usually ended in somebody’s death if the proper precautions weren’t taken. Without having seen the child, Maggie knew. It was just too quiet.
“Lela.” She gently pushed the girl out of the bathroom. “Go find something to clean up this mess.” Lela looked once more at the bloody bathroom, then nodded to Maggie and ran upstairs.
Maggie walked into the bathroom, avoiding the large puddle that hadn’t flowed down the drain in the floor. She steadied herself by putting her left hand on the toilet tank and then crouched so she could see the bundle that Annabelle was rocking back and forth.
“I know you’re not supposed to call boys pretty,” Anna said in that same dreamy voice as before, “but that’s the only way I can describe him. He’s so pretty.” She looked at Maggie then. The expression on her face was radiant. For the first time since this debacle began, Maggie realized that in any other circumstance, Annabelle would have made a wonderful mother.
She pulled back the pink blanket so Maggie could have a closer look. The baby was tiny, even though by her and Rush’s estimation, he couldn’t have been premature by more than a week. His skin was an ashy gray, and his lips were blue. The infant was very clearly dead.
Maggie’s throat constricted. She had never seen a dead body before, not outside of a funeral at any rate.
“What’s his name?” she asked with little inflection. She meant to sound comforting, but she was having difficulty suppressing her horror. Annabelle blushed, which was surprising given how much blood was on the floor.
“You know that Disney movie The Aristocats?” Maggie nodded numbly. Annabelle shrugged looking even more sheepish. “I always kind of liked the name Toulouse, although he probably won’t like that name when he’s older.”
The knot in Maggie’s throat tied itself even tighter. She talked about him like he had a future. Did she not know that he was dead? Maggie’s shoulders sagged as she watched Annabelle adoringly stroke her baby’s cheek. She didn’t know—or if she did, then she had decided to believe otherwise.
“You must be exhausted,” Maggie said and placed her hand under her arm. The pressure of someone else’s touch brought Annabelle out of her happy daze. Her head snapped up, and for half a second, she looked at Maggie like she wanted to rip her throat out. Shocked, Maggie let go of her.
“I only thought you and the baby might be more comfortable in your bed,” she explained. It was like someone flipped a switch inside Annabelle’s head. Her poisonous glare vanished replaced by that deliriously happy smile which touched her eyes, shining like stars.
“That’s a good idea,” she agreed. Annabelle yawned, the suggestion of rest only just reminding her that she was weary. She stood on wobbly legs. Unconcerned by the instability, all of her attention remained focused on the baby. Maggie followed close behind her in case she fell.
Annabelle curled up on the mattress with her baby boy cuddled on her chest. Maggie wrapped the pink comforter around them.
“Is she…” Lela stood at the bottom of the staircase with bleach and a bucket of soapy water. She had an unfettered view of the bedroom since Maggie hadn’t pulled the curtain closed. “I mean, is it…?” She gestured to the bundle tucked into Annabelle’s side.
“I think I’m going to be sick!” Lela squeaked and slapped a hand over her mouth. Dropping the bottle of bleach, Lela ran back upstairs in a flash. Maggie sighed. Absolutely typical.
She went over her mental to-do list: clean up the bathroom, since apparently Lela was not going to do it; get a physical assessment of Annabelle just to make sure there were no obvious complications; and last, but definitely not least, dispose of the body.
This was a delicate situation. Annabelle had somehow convinced herself that her son was still alive. Would it be best if Maggie attempted to reason with her after a good night’s sleep? Probably not. Should she take the baby while Annabelle was unconscious? That would most likely end badly too. Both of her options were bleak, but which would do the least amount of emotional damage?
Annabelle did not handle confrontation well. If someone argued with her or told her she was wrong, she became irate and belligerent. Anna would become totally uncooperative and unreasonable, not to mention she still didn’t seem to be back to her usual self. If Maggie took the baby now, then she wouldn’t have to lose an irrational argument and then wrestle the tiny body away from the girl later.
It felt like a dirty, sneaky, underhanded trick. But it was the cleanest way to handle this.
By the time she finished scrubbing down the bathroom and giving Annabelle a superficial examination—she wasn’t a doctor or a midwife, but at least Anna wasn’t bleeding anymore, so that was good—it was well after midnight. The farmhouse was locked up tight by now. Theoretically, she could leave through the front door, but there was no chance of getting back inside that way. Casting her eyes about the basement, Maggie was struck with inspiration.
She went to the washer and climbed on top of it. Maggie made a brief study of the egress window that let moonlight pour into the basement. Cracking her knuckles and flexing her fingers in preparation, Maggie tackled the latch. It had been years since anyone felt they had to open one of the basement windows; it was no wonder the latch was resistant.
Finally, with a cringe-worthy screech that can only be achieved by old rusty metal, the latch slid to the side allowing Maggie to push the window open.
She then hopped off the washer and went to the closet. She was careful to select an item that neither Lela nor Annabelle ever wore. A blue-gray cardigan of hers would do.
Now came the part she had been dreading.
She crept to Annabelle’s bed. The girl was fast asleep for the first time in months. If she woke now, Maggie would lose the courage she had been working up over the last few hours.
Maggie held her breath and pulled back the top of Annabelle’s pink comforter. The infant’s body was still hidden from her sight by the lighter cotton sheet that Anna had stripped from her bed. With a quivering hand, she unwrapped the baby.
Instead of being greeted by healthy, pink newborn skin, his skin was the appalling color of an ashtray. Maggie felt repulsed; she didn’t want to touch him. But she had to be strong—strong for Annabelle, strong for Lela, and strong for herself. It was left to her to follow through with the tough decisions.
So she laid the cardigan at the foot of the bed, plucked the baby from Anna’s arms, and wrapped him in the sweater. She wiped her hands on her nightgown afterward. His small body was cold and sticky. She gave herself one moment of respite and then forced herself back to her macabre task.
With grim determination, Maggie took the baby over to the washer and again climbed on top of it. She passed the little blue-gray bundle through the open window. Maggie’s exit was less graceful. She had to awkwardly hoist herself up one-handed and wiggle and crawl through the window on her belly. Once she was successfully outside, Maggie righted her nightgown and picked up the baby. She checked once more that the window was firmly propped open. Then she made for the woodshed.
It was always iffy whether or not the Fairchilds locked the woodshed, so she crossed her fingers as she tried the door. It opened easily under her touch, and Maggie slipped inside to grab a shovel. She shifted the baby into the crook of her right arm and gripped the yard tool in her good hand.
Then she walked into the woods.
This early May night was a bit too cool to be comfortable, and Maggie found herself wishing she had possessed the forethought to grab a sweater for herself and not just one to cover the dead infant. Otherwise, it was a lovely evening. An owl hooted above her head, June bugs buzzed across her path, and crickets called to each other.
After fifteen minutes of walking, Maggie’s arms were starting to ache. She set the baby at the base of a beech tree and began to dig. Maneuvering the shovel with one hand was not something she could do with much coordination, but since she had wandered off the path, the soil was slightly looser.
She dug for about an hour, and all she had to show for it was a shallow hole. It was a poor excuse for a grave, but it was the best she could do on short notice. She laid the baby in the shallow grave, cardigan and all; she would never be able to wear it again without remembering this night. After Maggie filled in the grave, she took a minute to just breathe. She had seen some wildflowers nearby. It was too dark to see what kind, but she picked them anyway. Maggie laid them on the freshly turned earth.
“Rest in peace, Toulouse.”
It really was a nice name.
Afterward, she walked home. Maggie slithered back through the basement window feet first. Her legs felt weighted as she slogged to the bedroom. Annabelle hadn’t stirred in her absence, and Lela was probably asleep in Tessa and Charise’s room. Maggie’s nightgown was filthy, and she was sure that her boots were tracking mud behind her, but she really couldn’t care less. She had no desire to go back to the bathroom any time soon, and since she was essentially alone, Maggie kicked off her boots by the foot of her bed and stripped down to her underwear.
With a heavy heart, she collapsed onto her bed.
After the birth, everything went back to normal… disturbingly normal, like the last eight and a half months never happened.
The morning after Maggie buried baby Toulouse, Annabelle awoke clutching an empty bundle of bed sheets. Instead of becoming disoriented and confused or distraught by the absence of her newborn son, Annabelle took one look at the bloodied sheets and her ruined nightgown, made a small noise of revulsion in the back of her throat, and started a load of laundry. The only sign that anything significant had happened the day before was Annabelle’s slightly bowlegged gait.
After breakfast, Maggie delicately broached the subject.
“Hey, Anna. How are you feeling?”
She looked at Maggie confused. “Fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Maggie had no clue how to answer that without causing grievous emotional upheaval, so she didn’t even try. She allowed Annabelle to go about her day in blissful ignorance. Every so often, she would pause, and Maggie would see a crack in the casual mask she wore—the mask of denial that seemed impervious to reality—but then she would right the mask and continue doing whatever it was she had been busy with, not showing any symptoms of insight.
And everyone else played along.
None of the Fairchilds made a big production out of Annabelle’s failed pregnancy, and Lela was too frightened of confrontation to bring attention to the fact that their fellow House Pet did not appear to be traumatized at all by the tragic turn of events.
Except she was traumatized, Maggie was sure of it the longer she studied Annabelle. She thought that deep down, Annabelle knew what had happened. However, it was in the girl’s nature to discount major problems until they went away on their own; and if they didn’t go away, then Anna simply turned a blind eye and pretended that the problem no longer existed, and Maggie had enabled her. She had gotten rid of the only evidence that could have contradicted Annabelle’s denial.
The past eight and a half months had been so tiring that Maggie just couldn’t bring herself to fight Annabelle. As much trepidation as she felt over Anna repressing the memories of her pregnancy and baby Toulouse, she didn’t have the will or the energy to go head-to-head with the other changeling. At least the baby fiasco was over. She could at least take comfort in that.
She wasn’t sure why she was surprised to see Annabelle and Leon in the greenhouse about a year later, limbs entangled and exchanging saliva. Maggie supposed she had assumed that Leon’s abandonment during Annabelle’s pregnancy from hell was indisputable proof that he didn’t actually love her. How silly of her to make such an erroneous supposition.
The pair didn’t jump apart even after Maggie made sufficient noise by bumping into a flower pot and a hanging basket. When that didn’t work, she aborted all pretenses and loudly cleared her throat.
Leon lazily parted from Annabelle—and it was definitely Leon who did the parting, not Anna who looked like a moonstruck Barbie doll. Maggie glared at him, anger ready to boil over at the drop of a hat. In response, he smirked at her.
“I do believe the aim of voyeurism,” he said, “is to observe without interrupting.”
“If I wanted to watch people who sucked, then I would buy tickets to the high school’s spring play.”
Leon looked unimpressed by her remark. He extricated himself from Annabelle’s clutches.
“And now the mood is dead.” He sighed dramatically. “Congratulations,” he said, “she’s all yours.” Leon casually brushed Maggie’s shoulder as he exited the greenhouse, something Annabelle noticed. She shot Maggie a jealous glare.
As soon as he was gone, Annabelle rounded on her. “What was that for?”
“Are you kidding?” Maggie couldn’t believe her ears. “He was a complete tool last year, and you took him back?” And calling him a tool was being kind.
Annabelle’s eyes hardened, and she scoffed. She turned her back on Maggie and walked around the wooden table stopping at the blooming peonies.
“I love him,” she said resolutely. “Isn’t that reason enough?”
The urge Maggie felt to roll her eyes was so strong that she thought her eyes might pop out of their sockets. She was also tempted to slap Annabelle, but she fought that urge as well. “Perhaps if he loved you back. Your heart is in the right place even if his isn’t, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even if he did love you, love doesn’t give him a pass for everything he does. For that matter, it doesn’t excuse everything you do either.”
She caught a glimpse of Annabelle’s flushed cheeks through the yucca plants. By the obstinate look on her face, Maggie knew that she wasn’t going to win this argument.
“Oh, so now I’m going to hell. Is that what you’re saying?”
Maggie sighed and then spoke slowly. “No. I just meant that you can do the wrong thing for all the right reasons, but it’s still the wrong thing.”
Anna turned her nose up and strutted toward the greenhouse door. “It’s never wrong to love,” she declared and then marched out of the greenhouse. Maggie suspected she meant to sound profound, but she only succeeded in sounding contrived. It would have been more appropriate if what Annabelle had with Leon was actually love.
Outrage sizzled under Maggie’s skin. After all the things she had done for Annabelle, the ungrateful girl threw it back in her face by returning to Leon.
It happened again not long after their conversation in the greenhouse. Annabelle’s second pregnancy was a similar experience to the first with one key difference. Instead of the fetus turning against Annabelle, the fetus appeared to be turning Annabelle against everyone else, Maggie in particular.
She would wake in the middle of the night to find Annabelle sitting up in bed staring at her. As her pregnancy progressed, she moved to more outlandish and dangerous tactics. Poor Lela was frightened out of the basement after she crawled into her bed, which had been filled with molasses. Lela cried, but mostly because her feelings were hurt.
Shortly after the molasses incident, Annabelle stepped up her game and put dozens of spiders in Maggie’s dresser drawers. Maggie almost put on a sock with a brown recluse hiding inside of it. A shudder wracked her body. Spiders. She hated spiders.
The most unnerving thing was the staring, though. Annabelle didn’t sleep anymore; she just sat on her bed and watched Maggie all night long. Finally, Maggie cracked.
“Why are you staring?” she muttered into her pillow. Annabelle was quiet for a long while.
“She doesn’t trust you,” Anna said eventually. Maggie turned her head so she could see the girl. Annabelle looked unhealthily thin except for her stomach, which protruded grotesquely. Her strawberry blonde hair was stringy, and the whites of her eyes were a tired pink.
“Who doesn’t trust me? The baby?”
“She says you’re going to do anything you can to separate us. It’s true, isn’t it? You’re always trying to steal whatever makes me happy.”
Maggie shook her head. “That’s not true at all, Anna. You’re not thinking clearly.” Annabelle never broke eye contact with her. She didn’t even blink.
“You’re only saying that so I’ll let my guard down.” Her eyes shined feverishly in the dim light of the bedside lamp. “You are not going to hurt us this time, Maggie.” Annabelle whispered.
“Maggie! Maggie! Maggie!” Lela’s panicked whispers interrupted Maggie’s quiet reading in front of the roaring fireplace. It was late November, and winter had hit the countryside hard. It was so frigid that Maggie was tempted to never leave the magical, ever-burning fire in the hearth. Only the terror stricken look on Lela’s face could have persuaded her to abandon the soft recliner.
The other House Pet did not have to say a word of explanation; her reaction spoke volumes. It had happened again.
She hurriedly led Maggie down to the basement. Unlike the first time when everything had been contained in the bathroom, this time there was blood everywhere. There were bloody footprints on the concrete floor, red handprints smeared on the walls, the furnace, and the dryer. Beside the washing machine, bloodied bed sheets were soaking in the basin full of murky water.
“Where is she?” Maggie asked looking around for their roommate.
“She was in the bedroom,” Lela answered in a breathy whisper, evoking the image of a hiding rabbit wondering if the fox was still giving chase. Maggie walked to the heavy curtain that closed off their bedroom while Lela stayed on the steps clutching the handrail for dear life.
The soft light from the bedside lamp almost made their sleeping area feel cozy. Maggie didn’t immediately see Annabelle, but she did see a tiny pink bundle of bed sheets lying on Annabelle’s bed—a pink bundle that was totally still and silent. It appeared as though this baby too was stillborn.
She felt a rush of emotions hit her all at once, but before she had the chance to sort through any of them, something much more physical hit her from behind. Pain blossomed across the back of Maggie’s skull making stars burst in front of her vision, the likes of which she had only seen when she was drowning and beating her own skull in with a rock.
Her knees buckled, and she scrambled away from the source of pain. She held her injured head, applying as much pressure as she could. Something hot and sticky coated her hand where it was pressed to the base of her skull, and the scent of iron reached her nose. Maggie looked up and saw Annabelle standing frozen over her. A glass paperweight—it looked like something from Master Fairchild’s desk—was tightly clasped in her hands, the corner of which was now stained a deep red. Anna appeared shocked and confused by what had just occurred. Maggie held out her bad hand in supplication, the left one still grasping the back of her scalp. Her right hand should have been twisted and mangled, but all of the tendons and crooked bones had popped back into place as soon as the adrenaline rush hit her, ready to defend.
“Annabelle,” Maggie croaked and tried to ignore the way her head was pounding uncomfortably. She knew that even shallow head wounds bled a lot, so the injury could very well be superficial.
“I don’t know why I did that,” said Annabelle, stunned. Maggie struggled to her feet, her gaze darting between the bundle on the bed and the distressed changeling.
She swallowed thickly and asked, “Is that your baby?”
The distraction was perfect. Annabelle dropped the paperweight, apparently forgetting about it, and came to stand by Maggie looking down on the pink bundle of blankets, smiling in the way that only new mothers smile.
“Isn’t she beautiful? I knew she would be.”
Then she carefully lifted the blanket away from the infant’s face like she was opening a gift but wanted to save the wrapping paper without critically damaging it. Maggie’s chest constricted at the sight. This baby was even tinier than little Toulouse. She was premature by almost two months.
“She’s so quiet,” Anna mused, a hint of maternal concern creasing her brow infinitesimally.
“I’m sure that’s normal,” said Maggie, tasting deceit on her lips like vinegar. “Rush never made a sound until he was six years old.” Her assurance caused the worry to flee from Annabelle’s visage. She even laughed a bit.
“Hopefully that means she’ll sleep through the night.”
“Oh, I’m positive she will,” Maggie said sagely and placed her hand gently on the small of Annabelle’s back, urging her to sit. “Why don’t the two of you rest down for a few hours? You must both be tired.”
All of a sudden, Annabelle’s pleasant demeanor spun into something else entirely. Her eyes became wide, and she whirled on Maggie, shoving her away from the bed.
“No!” She breathed heavily, teeth bared. “I can’t do that. They stole him last time! I closed my eyes, and then he was gone!”
Annabelle’s visceral reaction to her suggestion sent Maggie careening into Lela’s dresser, the corner digging sharply into her spine. The jolt also aggravated her head, making it throb insistently. The pain lit a flame under all those emotions that had been bubbling just beneath the surface, and then it all boiled over.
“Stole him? He was dead, Annabelle! Your son was already dead, and I cleaned up your mistake so that you could return to your life fantasizing that nothing happened! And then what did you do? You went straight back to Leon and made the same mistake all over again! And he doesn’t even love you, Anna!” Maggie’s eyes prickled and stung. Her throat was tight and her face felt heated. She wasn’t sure if she said these things to shake some sense into Annabelle or if she just wanted to hurt her.
“He doesn’t love you,” she repeated. “He never has, and he never will.”
The ensuing silence was so absolute that Maggie could practically hear the snow falling as it hit the frozen ground. Her mind went blank, and without any other course of action coming to mind, she ran from the basement.
For three days, Annabelle remained vigilant over her dead baby girl. Maggie scrubbed away the blood, just like she did the first time. Once again she was alone in her cleaning efforts since Lela was dead set against reentering the basement, but this time Maggie couldn’t blame her.
To put it simply, the basement reeked.
Annabelle didn’t seem to notice the smell. She cooed over her baby, and dressed her up like an aberrant doll. Maggie threw up a little in her mouth when she tried to get her dead child to breastfeed. The lack of sleep did nothing to help Annabelle’s altered state of mind, either. She was so paranoid that she barely slept for ten minutes at a time. She refused to go upstairs for meals, so she didn’t eat unless Maggie brought her food downstairs. And she had certainly ceased bathing altogether, which did nothing good for the mélange of scents festering in the cellar.
As soon as the smell began to creep upstairs into the main parts of the house, Maggie knew she had to intervene. Now she wished she hadn’t shot herself in the foot with her previous outburst. She would be lucky if she could convince Annabelle to trust her now.
Maggie waited as long as she possibly could, until the doors and windows had been locked, the lights turned off, and the fire in hearth reduced to embers. Finally, she could wait no longer and trudged down to the basement.
She heard Annabelle before she saw her. The new mother was singing softly in a shaky voice that was obviously unused to carrying a tune.
“Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop.”
Maggie tried to swallow her trepidation, but her mouth was bone dry.
“When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”
She followed the sound of Annabelle’s voice to their bedroom. The stench was overpowering. It was all Maggie could do not to vomit. She pushed the curtain aside and saw Annabelle cradling her decaying child and rocking back and forth.
“When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall.”
Annabelle wasn’t much of a singer, but that wasn’t why Maggie desperately wanted her to stop singing. Anna’s happiness wasn’t real, but for the poor girl’s sake, Maggie wished that it was.
“And down will come baby…”
Her song trailed off as her head began to bob. The lullaby was meant to put the baby to sleep, but it was having the same effect on the drained mother. “You should sleep,” Maggie advised. Annabelle startled, opening her eyes wide in the hopes of keeping them from sliding shut again.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “There’s no one else to protect her. I just can’t.”
“I can watch over the both of you,” Maggie offered. “I won’t allow anyone else to touch you or your daughter.” Three days ago, Anna may have been opposed to the idea, but after just as many nights with little to no rest and constantly on high alert, she was ready to give in.
“You’ll wake me up if anything is wrong?” She eyed Maggie warily as she leaned back against her pillows. Maggie nodded.
“I will keep you safe,” she said softly. Within a minute, Annabelle was fast asleep. Maggie waited a few more minutes to be sure that she would not awaken. She then repeated the same actions that she had done more than a year ago. This time, in the dead of winter, Maggie remembered to put on layers for her own warmth as well as finding something to cover the infant.
The smell was awful, but not worse than the feeling of holding a body that was cold and waxy. She had to put the infant into a pillowcase, because she was worried about losing parts on her way into the woods.
She propped open the basement window and climbed outside. It was freezing—at least twenty degrees Fahrenheit if not colder. Maggie secured her scarf more tightly around her face. She went to the woodshed, but someone had locked it for the night. Oh well. The ground was frozen anyway; she would just dig through the snow with her hands. Then she entered the forest and trudged toward Toulouse’s gravesite.
Soon her mittens were soaked and freezing, so Maggie settled for burying the baby girl under seven inches of snow and piled more on top. She packed it in tightly, hoping that was good enough to discourage any scavenging animals.
“She never named you,” Maggie realized. Releasing a puff of air that lingered as a white mist, she sorted through a mental list of girl’s names. What to name a little girl who never had the chance to live, a baby who left Earth without a word? A foggy memory surfaced of a small, quiet woman with chestnut hair smiling at Maggie before she stepped outside to go borrow a cup of flour from the neighbor.
“Eleanor.” The name hung in the air just like her cold, misty breath. She may not have been able to recall the details of her mother’s face, but Maggie had always hung onto her name. Eleanor.
She bit her lip. Her mother was probably dead now, after so many years. Now baby Eleanor could have her name. It was Maggie’s last connection to her past, and it was time to let it go.
By the time she made it back to the farmhouse, her fingers and toes were numb. Her face stung too, like someone was poking her exposed skin with tiny needles. Maggie bypassed the locked shed and slogged through the snow back to the basement window she had left open.
Only, the window was no longer open.
Maggie blinked in surprise. She crouched down in the snow and felt all along the windowsill in the hopes that maybe the rod that propped it open had just slipped, but no matter how hard she pried, the window would not budge. Someone had turned the latch, locking it.
She jumped up and ran to the second window by their bedroom. Kneeling on the ground, she ignored the way the snow instantly started to melt and seep into her clothes. She used her good hand to shield her eyes which blocked out the moonlight so she could see past her reflection and into the dark basement. Before she left with baby Eleanor, Annabelle had been so exhausted she didn’t even have the energy to cover herself with the bed sheets. Now, somebody had pulled the blankets up to her chin and tucked in the corners. The only person who would have bothered to make Anna more comfortable was Lela.
Sure enough, there was a Lela-shaped lump on her bed with the covers pulled over her head in typical fashion of the self-proclaimed heavy sleeper.
The basement was always chilly even in the summer. Lela must have come downstairs looking for Maggie or some other thing, and then noticed the window was open letting in cold air. She probably closed it and locked it without a second thought. Frankly, it was a miracle that Lela had decided to sleep downstairs for the first time in months.
Maggie banged on the glass, shouting for someone to let her in. Lela didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest by all the noise, and the most Annabelle did was twitch and roll over in her sleep.
This was not good.
When it was clear that neither of the House Pets were going to wake anytime soon—and when Maggie’s fist went numb—she abandoned her efforts at the basement window. She then tried all of the house doors, which were locked, and a few of the windows, also locked. By the time she walked around the entire perimeter of the house, she was starting to get desperate.
Maggie bounded up the porch steps and pounded on the front door. It was useless, though. Either no one could hear her or they simply didn’t care enough to drag themselves out of bed. “Calm down. Don’t panic,” she whispered to herself trying not to hyperventilate. “Think!”
She needed to get out of the cold and wind. She needed shelter. The woodshed! No, that was locked. The crawlspace!
Maggie ran around the side of the house again stopping by the crawlspace under the farmhouse. The entrance was beneath the porch below the kitchen window. Without giving herself too much time to think about what she was doing, Maggie dropped to her hands and knees, held her breath, and crawled underneath the house.
Immediately, she was accosted by a wall of spider webs. Maggie coughed and flailed about, frantically shaking off the silky threads.
“Ugh!” she groaned when she was forced to inhale. The air smelled musty and sour. Maggie slumped against a supporting beam and threw an arm over her nose. It was still cold, but at least she was out of the wind. She could also feel some of the heat from the house above her.
Maggie inhaled shallow breaths, trying not to cry. Crying only made things worse. Across from her, the skeleton of an unfortunate fox stared back at her. She squeezed her eyes shut and avoided looking at the bones for the rest of the night.
In the morning, Tilda let a shivering Maggie inside and ushered her into the kitchen, placing the changeling by the hot oven. “Did you spend the entire night out there?” she asked.
Hearing worry in her daughter’s voice, Madam Fairchild looked up from breakfast cooking on the stove.
“Th-the d-d-door was l-locked,” Maggie stuttered. She gratefully wrapped her freezing fingers around a steaming cup of tea that Tilda set in front of her.
Madam Fairchild clucked her tongue. “The ridiculous situations some humans get themselves into,” she muttered to herself but just loud enough for Maggie to overhear. Turning a fraction to the left toward Maggie, she looked over her shoulder and settled her cold, dark gaze on her. “Do you want to know where the other changeling girls were last night?”
Maggie swallowed and cast her eyes downward.
“They were warm and fast asleep downstairs. Where they should have been.”
Maggie knew well where Lela and Annabelle were last night. Knowing their whereabouts was not the issue. Did Madam Fairchild have any clue what the House Pets had been dealing with these last couple of years? What’s more, she gave no evidence that she cared at all. It seemed that no one truly cared about anyone around here.