oth girls had decided that she was an awful person.
It was an instantaneous agreement established between shifty glances across the living room as both sisters conveyed their absolute distaste.
She had sat by the coffee table, her hair in a ponytail as their father did all the talking. He never used the word “girlfriend” but instead chose terms like “companion” and “friend” that his daughters found insulting.
The girls had gleaned her existence for some time now, happening upon women’s high heels in their father’s bedroom, an additional toothbrush in the medicine cabinet, and new stacks of magazines in the sitting room.
“Someone else is here,” the eldest, Madeline, had said one morning before school. Spooning cereal into their mouths, they heard only the rustle of papers from the study – their father rushing from room to room to prepare for the day.
The towels in the bathroom began changing color. There were some fresh flowers in the kitchen. The house began to smell of perfume.
“Who is she?” the smaller one, Marie, asked her sister at night. Facing one another in their double bed, the one that they had begged their father for when he presented their new room, they exchanged only speculation.
“I think she’s a witch, “ Madeline said, pulling one of her dark braids to one side. She spoke of the many bath salts that now lined the bathtub. The tiny bottles of shampoos and conditioners that sat nestled in a basket on top of the toilet. She had examined them, label-less and clear in her hands, popping open the tops to smells pomegranates and gardenia.
“She makes potions,” she continued, miming the bottles in her hand. Nearly nose-to-nose in the dark, they chatted well into the morning about how she had seduced their father with smells of fruits and flowers.
“She’s here even when we’re here,” Madeline whispered before falling asleep.
They imagined her face as they peered into the mirror, brushing their teeth as they stood barefoot in their nightgowns.
“She’s blonde,” Marie whispered once on a car ride to school. Madeline glanced over quickly, her backpack still slung over her shoulder. Marie leaned forward from her car seat and plucked a single hair from the back of the passenger headrest.
“Throw it away,” her sister urged as she clutched the hair all the way up the school steps.
They made a pact not to mention her to their mother – the other car that sometimes waited for them once the bell rang. Watching her eyes visit and revisit them from the rearview mirror, they decided that she didn’t know anything -- the way she asked them if they had a good weekend with their father. The girls always looked to one another before nodding, their enthusiasm reflecting back towards them from the windshield.
But then there was the sound of the doorbell one Saturday. A woman’s voice in the foyer and their father laughing. Marie had paused in eating her sandwich, lowering both hands to catch sight of a woman by the door.
“She’s blonde,” she said before Madeline spun around.
Within moments both of them had been beckoned into the living room to sit across from her, Jocelyn, her red nails to her knee as she told them both how beautiful they each were.
Their father said that she enjoyed jogging, that she was an excellent cook who liked to read and make things from scratch. Like cookies and birthday cakes.
“Like bath salts?” Madeline interjected.
She nodded slowly after a hesitation and laughed remembering the ones that she had forgotten.
“I’ll make you your own if you like,” she had said.
Marie immediately began to nod.
From then on, Jocelyn appeared and disappeared, sometimes poking her head out of the office or unexpectedly rushing in from the garden. Her presence was always pronounced with a smile as she asked the girls about school. And yet, other weeks, she disappeared for days at a time, her absence lingering with a particular assortment of dainty foods in the refrigerator.
“Where is Jocelyn?” Marie asked one day from the floor of their bedroom. Madeline had paused by the closet as their father’s eyes shifted.
“She’s away working,” he offered. He walked just to the door before turning back. “You miss her already, do you?”
“She didn’t say that.” Madeline folded her arms. “She just asked where she is.”
Within a couple of days, Jocelyn was smiling at their dinner table again, pawing through the newspapers and asking the girls how they slept. They were soundless and barefoot as they reached for the toast in the center of the table, munching as they studied her with big eyes.
“When are you going to make us bath salts?” Marie piped up. Madeline looked at her sharply.
“We can do that this afternoon if you like.” She nodded with a mug in her hand, their father looking over with a smile from the stove.
Later that day, Madeline began to smell those pomegranates, the fragrance seeping into her bedroom from the hall. Sitting up slowly, she heard laughter from the bathroom and the running water of the sink followed by the unique squeal of her younger sister.
Imagining them testing out their various vials, she was pleased that she had feigned sleep when they came to ask her to join them.
“Let her rest,” she had heard Jocelyn whisper as she attempted to shuttle Marie from the room. Madeline had opened exactly one eye to see the two of them shutting her door.
Returning to the bedroom some hours later, Marie leapt onto bed as her sister lowered her book.
“You smell like her,” she said.
Jocelyn began to suggest improvement to the girls’ bedrooms – a new shade of paint, several new lamps, and maybe even a new rug. Their father said that she improved the homes of others for a living, a job that she found very rewarding.
“You girls are a little old for this room,” she said one night while putting them to bed. Her eyes went to ABCs that bordered the walls and the stacks of baby puzzles.
“When was the last time anyone made changes in here?”
Marie spoke up.
“Before mommy left.”
Madeline watched Jocelyn’s face shift, her eyes going to the floor as she turned out the light.
“She didn’t say goodnight to us,” Marie uttered in the dark. “And she didn’t turn on the nightlight.”
Madeline threw the covers from her bed and crouched down by their spinning constellation, the laminated stars instantly circling their ceiling. Within a few minutes, both girls had fallen asleep. But Madeline awoke suddenly some moments later, only to be lulled back to sleep by the gentle spin of the planets.
Sometimes on the way to school, Madeline and Marie would see Jocelyn running. From the backseat of the car, their eyes would go to her, the gazelle-like figure in the distance with the pink headband. Craning towards the window, the girls would see her see them, her determined gaze fracturing as she smiled and waved, their father’s hand usually to the horn.
“What’s she running from?” Marie asked, her head spinning around to see Jocelyn disappear.
Madeline didn’t answer, for she had seen Jocelyn’s hand glisten in a way that it had not the previous day. On her left hand had been a ring, causing Madeline to immediately look to her father in the rearview mirror, her little eyelashes unmoved.
One afternoon, the girls came home from school and discovered new twin beds as well as new bed sheets. Marie’s hands went to them first, touching the bedspread as she described its softness.
“Is yours as soft as mine?” she said, her fingers on the pillowcases.
Madeline approached her new bed slowly before pulling back all the sheets. Crawling into the crevices where the bed met the wall, she wrapped the entire paisley collection into a ball and tossed the heap into the hall.
Marie’s eyes remained wide as her sister removed her shoes and crawled on the bare mattress, her face to the caseless pillows.
“Well, I like mine,” she said into the sudden stillness.
Madeline remained still as she faced the wall, her arms wrapped around her back.
It wasn’t until dinnertime that Jocelyn herself happened upon the sheets in the hall, a dark cotton heap that she stepped over. She entered the darkened room gingerly, lifting Marie from her bed, her limp head falling back across her arm.
She carried her into the living room, the smells of chicken wafting in from the adjacent room. Placing her gently on the sofa, she glanced back at the hall. Marie rolled to one side as Jocelyn returned to the bedroom, leaving the door ajar this time.
As Marie began to slowly awaken, she became aware of a deep and hurried conversation – the type of whispers that ended sharply and hardened into murmurs. She sat up after hearing the voice of her sister rising into an octave that usually broke before tears. Then there was suddenly a loud and unmistakable slap to skin, followed by immediate silence. Jocelyn flew from the room, her eyes welling with tears as she raced back to their father’s bedroom. Jocelyn seemed to not even see Marie as she pulled her hair from her face.
Marie hopped from the sofa and hurried to the bedroom to see Madeline, also in tears, her face red. And then there came the strong smell of the chicken – burning.
Nothing was shared with their father. Marie became aware of this the following day as the four of them ate lunch in silence, their father’s tone rising and falling with enthusiasm for the weekend. Madeline and Jocelyn’s eyes never met as they simultaneously reached for the peanut butter, both hesitating.
Marie nibbled around the crust as Jocelyn finally took the jar first, their father’s story railing right along without much pause. As Jocelyn’s knife clinked to rest on her plate, she placed the jar before Madeline. The little girl glanced up slowly, Jocelyn redirecting her own focus towards their father.
But the moment in which their gaze did meet – a stray flicker of the eyelashes as they briefly acknowledged one another – resulted in Madeline fleeing from the table. Their father paused as her small head made its way around the table, disappearing into the bedroom that still evidenced one sheetless mattress.
When Marie went after her, she rounded the hall expecting to see her sister in tears again. But sitting on the edge of her bed, she appeared so stoic, looking determined at the opposite wall.
“What happened yesterday?” Marie asked.
Madeline looked over, her feet just touching the floor.
“She’s a witch.”
A heavy soundlessness occupied the house for the next couple of days. A dense quiet that went unchipped by the slams of the back door and the sounds of running water. Occasionally, the washing machine would start and the dryer would buzz, but no one would notice.
When Madeline and Marie raced up the driveway to their mother’s car, Marie was still preoccupied with the moment in the bathroom. Checking their faces for smudges, dirt, or other markings that their mother often commented on upon first seeing them, Madeline has simply said one line.
“Don’t tell her about any of this.”
Marie had hesitated and then conceded, collecting her bag from the floor as their father knocked on the door.
Piling into the backseat now, the girls saw their mother spin around to see them before heading off into the Sunday afternoon. Glancing down the driveway, the girls saw their father waving as he took several advances by Jocelyn’s parked car.
That Wednesday, both girls were pulled out of class. As Madeline studied the note in her hand, she turned the office corner to see her sister timidly waving. Behind the glass was their mother, her back to the hall as the school secretary’s mouth went stiff.
As Madeline neared the threshold, she saw her mother suddenly turn, her cheeks wet with tears, a single tissue in her hand as offered by the secretary.
The girls didn’t ask what was wrong but immediately looked at one another, their features fixed as their mother led them out to the car. There were only sniffles as she took the wheel and after several left-hand turns and a single stoplight, both girls recognized the route. Looking to one another, they waited for the smooth right bend that they so often equated with that familiar driveway, the green house on the hill, the first that they had ever known.
They moved quietly down the property, noticing that their mother had not bothered to lock the car – and then that Jocelyn’s car was still there down by the foot of the garage.
Marie would later tell Madeline that her stomach tightened. That she was suddenly frightened for their mother who walked past Jocelyn’s car as if it wasn’t even there.
Madeline was visibly alarmed too as their frail mother moved through the unlocked front door, her voice calling out to their father in such a way that they had not heard in sometime.
He was in the living room, his hands folded in the same way that they had been before their parents separated.
There were a couple of empty glasses on the coffee table, a faint brown liquid tingeing each of them. There were hugs and embraces, their father holding each of them longer than he did otherwise. And as they found a place on the floor cross-legged, that’s when he told them.
Jocelyn had died.
She had gone running yesterday and had collapsed suddenly at the bottom of the hill. Neighbors, having recognized the young woman on her bi-weekly jogs, pounded on his door.
She had died in a hospital, with doctors not letting him go any farther than the waiting room.
“What did she die from?” Marie finally asked.
“Tiny pops in the brain,” he explained, his voice wavering. Their mother nodded, knuckles pressed against her own mouth.
The girls glanced at one another, Madeline’s expression unchanged.
Within a few exhales, their mother recommended that they go to their room. They had grownup things to discuss and would come and get them for lunch soon.
Crawling onto their separate beds they each studied the ceiling for a moment, their eyes blinking again and again over the unmarked white.
After awhile, it was Madeline who spoke first, her voice dulling into a whisper as she said, “we’re free now.”
Koa Beck’s reporting has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Observer, and the Hairpin. Her fiction has been published in Slice, Kalyani Magazine, The Ink and Code, and Apogee Journal. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.