The Sisters ch. 1, far from Innisfree, evening
ED. Note: This is the first chapter of my novella The Sisters, published in 2018. I'll be steadily posting the rest of the book throughout the next month or so. If you'd like a digital copy of the book for yourself, you can get it here.
When the screaming started, the little ones huddled close to Wendy, their grubby faces pressing against her thin chest. She held out her hands and hugged them as best she could, but there were ten of them. There was only so much of her to go around.
“Pay no attention, ladies,” she whispered over and over. She knew what they felt like. She’d once been tiny and scared too.
In the next room over she could hear the sounds of the older girls playing cards and board games, smoking cigarettes, laughing, the types of sounds you’d expect from 40 or so girls staying up late with no adult supervision. For a moment Wendy wished she could be in the big room with them, but she pushed the thought away. Someone had to take care of the little ones. Someone had to teach them not to be afraid.
The John upstairs howled for a long time, until eventually he let out a long and loud squeal, his voice rising until it was almost inaudible, a dog whistle of pain. Then everything was silent. Wendy waited a moment to make sure the Sisters were done, gave the little ones she was holding a quick, hard squeeze, and then let them go. She stood.
“See?” she said, looking in each of their little faces. “Nothing to be afraid of. The Sisters love and protect us. Now go to sleep. You need to get some rest. Tomorrow is your planting.”
She blew out the candles on the window sill, then went to the door and turned out the light, pausing in the doorway.
“Miss Wendy? Have you ever seen the Sisters?” asked a small voice from the gloom.
“No one’s ever seen them…except the Johns,” replied Wendy, though that wasn’t entirely correct. “It’s better that way. If you need anything, I’ll be in the big room. Go to sleep.”
The big room was aptly named. It was a big room that occupied nearly the entire 9th floor of the abandoned hotel the sisterhood had made their home. Wendy stepped carefully among the tight rows of cots and mattresses and potted plants that littered the floor. The air was thick with cigarette and pot smoke, diffusing the candle flames so that the very air seemed alive with an orange beating heart.
“The little ones asleep?” asked Daisy sullenly from a few rows over, a cigarette dangling from her thin lips.
“Not yet,” replied Wendy.
Wendy leaped over a mattress and flopped onto her bed, where Aurora leaned with her back against a radiator, playing solitaire and twirling her hair. Aurora looked up briefly and then frowned back down at her game. Her hair was long and blond and would have been beautiful if she didn’t twirl and twist it all the time until it was frayed at the ends. It was a habit she’d had as long as Wendy had known her, something Aurora had picked up during her long journey from California. Aurora didn’t talk much about those 3 months, only that it wasn’t much fun.
“The Sisters took a long time tonight,” said Aurora without looking up. “It’s been so long between Johns; they probably were savoring things.” She moved a pile, then paused, moved it back. She frowned and considered for a moment. “Or maybe I’m just losing the thread.”
Wendy shrugged, and leaned forward, pointed out a move for Aurora. “Seems like they’re taking longer lately, don’t it?”
Aurora didn’t answer, but asked instead, “You going out tonight?”
“You can’t stay in here forever. Snow White’s been asking about you.” Aurora waited to see if Wendy would respond, and when she didn’t, she added, “You’re so good with the little ones, Wendy, but there’s other work to be done. Planting time is here.”
Wendy looked over at her own plant, a curved orchid that was white with purple stripes.
“It’s been three months, and we have 10 little ones already.”
“If I could do it again I’d pick something prettier…like a hydrangea or something,” said Aurora, looking over at her stubby cactus plant.
Wendy smiled, “But the cactus is so easy to take care of.”
“Yeah,” said Aurora absently, dealing herself a King of Hearts. “I suppose.”
Daisy snuffed out her cigarette and stood up on her mattresses, wobbling a little as the blood rushed from her head into her feet. She pulled down her patent leather skirt a little and straightened her push up bra. Her twiggy legs poked out of her skirt like the two sticks of a Popsicle. She slid her high-heels on and snapped her fingers at a few of the girls sitting around her.
“Who’s going out tonight?” she shouted. “Snow White? How many we need?”
Snow White was laying in her bed in the far corner, with her back turned to the room, reading a book about insects she’d found in a dumpster three days ago. She didn’t look up from her book. She didn’t respond. Her long hair fanned out over her shoulders and hid her face.
“Snow!” shouted Daisy. “Yo! How many we need tonight!?”
Snow White waited a beat and then held up four fingers, flipped a page in the book. Daisy pointed at the girl nearest her.
“Alice, get up! Nala! You’re coming too! Wendy!” shouted Daisy over the noise of the room. “Wendy, time for you to get off your ass and get out there. The Sisters are watching.”
Wendy froze, and stared intently at Aurora’s game of solitaire.
“She’s got the little ones tomorrow for the planting tomorrow,” said Aurora. “Pick someone else.”
“No way. Miss Wendy ain’t left the big room in a week,” said Daisy. “She’s coming tonight.”
“She’s needed tomorrow…” started Aurora, but Snow White had sat up and pushed her dark hair back over her ears. She looked over at Wendy and then at Aurora, her eyes so dark they looked black in the candle light. Her lips were pressed together, purpling the scar stitched across her face. Wendy’s cheeks got red and she stared harder at Aurora’s cards.
“Daisy, watch how you use the Sisters,” said Snow White, never taking her eyes off of Wendy. “They are watching, and not just Sister Wendy. They’re watching all of us.”
Snow White went back to her book, and her hair fell back into place, creating a screen around her face and the book. Wendy stood up and shifted her short skirt, trying to make the thin bit of clothing into enough to cover her legs. She covered her bare stomach with a thin arm, and pushed her hair over her ears.
Aurora grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze, “I’m sorry.”
“Fuck it,” shouted Daisy. “Let’s go.”
The four girls headed to the elevator, Wendy trailing a few feet behind the others. When the doors opened, Wendy hung behind until Daisy grabbed her wrist and pulled her in the car. Before the doors shut, Aurora could see Wendy’s face in the mirrored walls. Her lips were pursed, her eyes closed as though she was praying.
It was November in Detroit. It was bitterly cold, though no snow had fallen yet that year. The girls clacked down the empty sidewalk, Daisy in the lead, her hips moving from side to side, pulling her skirt higher and higher. Alice tried to fix it from behind but Daisy slapped her hand away.
“Leave it alone! I wanna get this over with,” said Daisy. “It’s cold as fuck out here.”
They walked for several blocks away from downtown, until the buildings started to grow smaller and sparser. There were less windows, more boards, more broken glass on the sidewalks. None of the street lights worked, but the moon was full and the sky clear, bathing the black top and sidewalks with a blue pale glow, turning the broken glass into a second sky.
Daisy stopped when she got to a corner that had three empty lots adjacent to one decrepit warehouse. There was only one door to the building that hadn’t been bricked over and it was faded, peeling blue wood. Chains and a padlock kept the doors shut.
“Alright, this is far enough,” said Daisy. “I’ll be here. Alice, you go over to that corner. Nala, you go one block down that way. And Wendy, go sit in that field and fuck off for all I care.”
The girls split up. Wendy headed over to the field, but instead of sitting in it, she loitered on its edges. She didn’t have to do what Daisy said. The sisterhood had no bosses, no authority structure. Wendy didn’t know the word for what they were, but no one was above anyone else, save the Sisters…and Snow White, but that was because Snow White had been around longer than any of the other girls. She was almost 18, almost an adult.
Wendy looked over her shoulder at Daisy smoking a cigarette on the corner and leaning against the building wall, a halo of security light sizzling around her. On the wall behind her someone had tagged the word duckface, which Wendy found amusing. Wendy meandered down the street, hugging herself, shivering, wishing she’d brought cigarettes of her own, or a book, or anything to pass the time. The other girls thought she was afraid to go out at night—which she was, kind of—but she also couldn’t stand the boredom of standing by herself, freezing her ass off, waiting for someone to come along. She was bait and she felt like it, and she hated the feeling. She’d been bait all her life, and though she knew it was for a higher cause, for the salvation of the entire sisterhood, it didn’t feel much different, in the end. She was still waiting on a street corner. She was still bait.
Headlights flashed behind her and she turned to look, but the car rolled passed them all without slowing down. Wendy was embarrassed by the disappointment she felt.
Wendy was born Natasha Allison Hornbrook, and she was 14 when she came to the sisterhood. Sister Ariel had found her in a dumpster with a broken cheekbone and two of her front teeth knocked out, bleeding into the garbage. She’d been unconscious for days and when she’d woken she couldn’t move and her entire body ached so badly all she could do was mewl into her sprawling arms for hours and hours. She didn’t remember much, only the moments before when she’d gone around to the passenger side of the car and she’d heard the driver’s side door open and the man had charged at her. He’d had very bright teeth, very white. She remembered that. And he’d smelled like sweat. It had been the middle of the day on the street. She remembered that. Everything else was darkness.
Aurora had followed Wendy’s crying, thinking it was a cat she could bring back to the sisterhood, but she’d found Wendy instead. She’d pulled her out of the trash and carried her over her shoulders all the way to the hotel. She laid her down on a mattress and she’d made her smoke some pot and gave her aspirin. Wendy slept for three days straight and when she woke she was sore, but felt settled in a way she hadn’t in years. She ate soup and smoked a lot and she never smiled because of her missing teeth.
Aurora was the one who’d suggested the name Wendy and the Sisters had affirmed it at Wendy’s planting.
Three months into Wendy’s stay with the sisterhood, she’d gone out at night, and she’d been on a corner by herself when a car swerved to a stop in front of her. It was dark but she could see the man’s teeth shining in the gloom. She couldn’t breathe. She leaned back against the chain link fence behind her as his lips moved, as he said something to her. She couldn’t understand. She was pinned to the spot, her brain turning over like a dead engine.
Aurora moved in front of her and leaned in the passenger side window.
“You want a two-fer? Pay for one of us, get the other for free?” she said.
The man didn’t answer, just unzipped his pants. He was already hard.
“Hold yer horses,” said Aurora. “Not here. We have a place just down the street. There’s even more girls there. Come on. We’ll take you.”
Aurora turned to look at Wendy and only then did she see how terrified the younger girl looked. Aurora turned to look at the man again and she saw the teeth and she knew. She ducked back in the passenger window.
“You want us or not?”
The man nodded. Aurora opened the door and motioned for Wendy to get in the back. She grabbed the younger girl’s hand as they got in the car and squeezed.
“You can just park here,” said Aurora, motioning to a spot in the empty street in front of the hotel.
The man looked suspiciously at the boarded windows and the faded, tattered awning.
“Here?” he asked.
“It’s private,” said Aurora. “Trust me. There’s lots of girls upstairs. Young ones.”
“She coming too?” asked the man, nodding at Wendy in the rear view mirror.
“Of course she is.”
The three of them made their way into the lobby and onto one of the elevators. Wendy stood on the other side of Aurora, pressed against the elevator wall. She could smell the stink of him. He leered at her, but he didn’t seem to recognize her. There was a vacancy in his eyes. Aurora touched his thigh and stroked his finger to distract him. She smiled at him, all the while putting her body between him and Wendy.
There was a ding and the door opened onto the ninth floor. They could see the big room across the lobby, where 20 girls mingled on their cots and mattresses. The man peeked in and started to get out, but Aurora pressed a hand to his chest, and reached down and grabbed his crotch in her other. She shook her head.
“Not here,” she whispered to him. “The bedrooms are upstairs. We’ll meet you up there with two more girls. No extra charge.”
The edge of the man’s mouth curled, and Aurora rubbed against him through his pants. He nodded, and she turned, pressed the button for the tenth floor. She motioned for Wendy to get out of the elevator, and she hurried out, putting as much distance between herself and the man as she could. Aurora stepped out of the elevator and turned, smiling at the man as the doors closed. Aurora blew him a kiss.
The girls went to the big room and the two of them sat down on Aurora’s bed. She put her arms around Wendy, and she buried her face into Aurora’s tube top.
When the man started to shriek from the floor above, Wendy sobbed and shook and made uncontrollable noises. She emptied herself onto Aurora’s chest, all the while the older girl just stroked her hair and whispered it was going to be alright.
“You don’t have to worry anymore, Wendy,” she said. “The Sisters will protect you.”