“What do I have to give,” Sarah says, “for you to let me out?”
Rachel doesn’t look up from the teacup she is stirring. Spoon: silver. The light through the window: the same. Outside the window there should be something, probably; instead of trying to convince the window that, Sarah keeps looking at Rachel. Rachel keeps looking at her teacup. Her eyelashes – that’s the end of that thought. Her eyelashes.
“Kill Helena,” Rachel says, tapping her spoon neatly against the rim and resting it in its saucer. “Choose me.” She looks at Sarah. “It really is that easy.”
“Bullshit,” Sarah says.
Rachel’s lips purse, slightly. “No,” she says. “I swear it. Blood and bone. If you kill Helena and choose me, you can walk out of that door.”
“Sarah,” she says, before Sarah can answer. “You know she’d be willing.”
Sarah’s heart does a nauseous flip. “Don’t,” she says.
Rachel smiles, just a little bit. “You’ve always been so insistent on the truth before.”
“That’s not the truth,” Sarah says.
“It is,” Rachel says. “Ask her. She’d die for you. You know it. Really, Sarah, this way everyone wins.”
Sarah swallows. In the ensuing silence, Rachel lifts the teacup to her mouth and drinks.
Helena doesn’t even consider the question. “Your teeth,” she says. She doesn’t move, stretched over the couch like a bearskin rug. Her eyes watch the ceiling. “The hurting ones, in the back of your mouth.”
“My wisdom teeth,” Sarah says slowly.
“And if you take those,” Sarah says, voice still slow, heart faster and faster, “you’ll let me out.”
“Out – out the front door.”
“I can leave.”
Helena tilts her head to the side and watches Sarah. “You paid,” she says. “If you want to go outside you can go outside. Rules.”
“Deal,” Sarah says. “D—deal. Take them. Let me the hell out of here, Helena.”
She doesn’t even blink, but Helena is across the room and straddling her lap. The armchair creaks a little but does not protest. “Now,” she says, tipping up Sarah’s chin, pressing her thumbs to the bones of Sarah’s jaw. “You want this now?”
She must be able to feel Sarah’s heartbeat frantic drumming. “Yes,” Sarah says.
Helena studies her. “Okay, Sarah,” she says, and sticks her hand in Sarah’s mouth.
This little parlor didn’t exist this morning, but Sarah still feels guilty about the amount of blood she is coughing onto its honey-shine wood floors. She thinks she’s still making a noise – low animal whine, going on and on and on.
She was screaming, for a while. Then she stopped.
She pauses and then spits more blood onto the floor. She thinks you’re supposed to have gauze for this, maybe. Also: anesthetic.
“Sorry,” Helena says, without sounding particularly like she means it.
Sarah coughs a bit and scrubs the tears from her eyes. “Let’s go,” she says, sitting back up in the armchair. Rather: she tries to say it. Fails to say it. Manages some vowels, a consonant.
Helena, sitting cross-legged on the floor, frowns at her. “No,” she says. “You have to heal. It will be bad out there, if you are bleeding.”
“Now,” Sarah says. She tries to say you promised and there are rules but she can’t say it. Ooaamaaoo, nonsense, meaningless. Her heartbeat bangs around her head like a frantic bird and Sarah understands it. The possibility of a window and she’s banging herself against it until she dies. Helena is the window; her face is patient glass. “No,” she says again.
Sarah spits blood into her hand and holds it out. “Now,” she says. “Helena, please.”
Every time Sarah bleeds she feels like a snake charmer. Helena: cobra-still, eyes wide, pupils huge and focused entirely on the pool of blood-spit in Sarah’s hand. “Out,” Sarah says.
Helena crawls forward and laps it from her hand, delicately. She stands up – at her full height she looms over Sarah, even though she isn’t really that tall. She rolls something around in her mouth – click click – and then spits it out into her hand, considers it.
“Fine,” she says, and closes her hand back around Sarah’s wisdom tooth.
Rachel finds them in the hallway. “What are you doing,” she says to Helena. She looks at Sarah. She looks at Helena again. “What did you do to her.”
Helena spits out another tooth, shows it to Rachel, puts it back in her mouth. Sarah hasn’t seen her swallow one yet; she just keeps spitting them out and putting them back, over and over. If Sarah wasn’t already swallowing so much of her own blood, this would make her nauseous.
Helena says something in a language Sarah doesn’t understand, the syllables of it like a voice played backwards. The slides are wrong, the sudden stops. My ydemo na polyuvannya.
Rachel looks at Sarah, says another slithering collection of sounds. Sarah shakes her head: I’ve got nothing. She swallows more. The two of them speak back and forth and Sarah only catches the occasional word – sova, serdytyy, krov. Her head hurts. She keeps remembering that she doesn’t know how long it’s been or, really, what Kira looks like anymore. She can’t even imagine what she’ll say. I’m sorry, but for what? What is there to be sorry for? If she could figure that out the rest of it would string itself together, a necklace of her own teeth.
“Come,” Helena says. Sarah turns around to watch Rachel as they go. I’m sorry, she thinks, but for what? She doesn’t need to be sorry, this is what she wanted, Rachel always knew it. But if she says sorry maybe Rachel will actually say something true, like: I don’t want you to leave.
Rachel watches them, face completely inscrutable. “Luck,” she says, and then opens a door and walks through it and is gone.
The front hall. The front door. Helena, small, swaddled in layers and layers of dirty old furs. She is humming to herself as she scuffs her feet over the thick carpet, as she turns the handle and opens the door like it’s nothing. To her, it’s nothing. She could do this at any time. She ducks out through the door and she’s gone and Sarah runs for the door like someone will stop her and no one stops her and she’s
outside. The mansion has a front porch, a series of steps that lead up to it. Outside the steps is a forest. The forest. It is every forest Sarah has ever thought to be scared of. The trees loom over her and watch her and hate her and Sarah doesn’t blame them, she feels like she’s drowning. She sits down on the stairs. The air smells like pine when she breathes in through her nose and her heartbeat throbs dully in her jaw. Outside. She is outside.
Helena, a vague shape only discernable by her hair, stops walking as she’s almost to the woods. She turns and looks at Sarah. Sarah staggers to her feet, follows her. Into the dark. Into the woods. She needs a basket, or a trail of breadcrumbs – only she doesn’t need those things, because she is going to. Not from. She is not going from.
“Stay very close,” Helena says, as they breach the treeline. “Do what I tell you. Bad place. Very dark. You smell like blood and everything here likes it. They will eat you up. Do you understand.”
Sarah nods, realizes Helena can’t see it, croaks “Yeah.”
In the distance, something howls. It sounds like toothache. Sarah crowds closer to Helena, out of instinct – better the monster you know, especially when that monster has your tooth-debt rattling around under its tongue. Helena looks at Sarah over her shoulder and smiles, dangerous and sly and horribly sincere.
“Hello,” she says, and turns back around. She leads them through the awful dark of the trees. Picea, picea.
Sarah’s stomach growls. Something thrashes in the bushes. “You should have eaten,” Helena says sadly. Her head jerks up. “Hm. Wait.” And she’s gone.
“Helena?” Sarah says weakly, but Helena is a silver shape ducking through the brush and away. Sarah waits. She slips her hand under her shirt and rakes her nails over her belly, just to try and move the pain out of her head and into a place in her body she can reach. She’s swaying a little on her feet. There’s tea in the house she used to live in. In the cupboard. Red box. You put the kettle on the stove top and pour the water into it. You pour the water into the mug. You wait for the kettle to boil. You turn the stove on. You add sugar to your cup. The kettle boils. You put the box back. You add the teabag to the water—
Helena jumps down out of a tree, holding an owl. It looks like a ghost she can hold in her hands, and then she rips out its heart.
“Here,” she says, holding it out to Sarah. “Eat.”
It’s still beating. The heart, it’s still beating. Sarah leans forward and vomits up her own blood into the leaf litter. Helena makes an upset sound and slings her arm over Sarah’s shoulder, frantically starts pulling her forward. Like this she is holding the desperate thrashing body of the owl in one hand and its writhing heart in the other and there is no safe place for Sarah, none at all. She’s shivering from the horror of it. “Helena,” she says. “Helena,” and Helena keeps jerking them forward and every step makes Sarah’s teeth hurt and Helena didn’t use a tool for it, she just reached into Sarah’s mouth and pulled the teeth out with her fingers, out of Sarah’s gums, just ripped them, the endless vertigo-crush of the woods, Sarah thinks about her bed back at the mansion and is so desperately homesick it sticks in her throat like a bone.
Behind them things scream and thump in the dark, and Sarah hears the wet rasp of something licking, and she thinks of the puddle of blood-vomit she’s left in the leaves and is horrified. Horrified, she’s horrified, her jaw hurts.
They stop. Helena opens her mouth and shoves the heart into it, swallows. Sarah watches with a dull shriek of horror as the meat thumps its way down Helena’s throat. Then it’s gone.
“We should have waited,” Helena says, sounding the most legitimately furious Sarah has ever heard her. She lifts up the owl, which has by now gone still. Its eyes reflect nothing but the dark. “Will you eat.”
“No,” Sarah croaks. Helena growls and shoves the owl-body inside her furs, where it is somehow swallowed. She stares at the dark slick of blood on her hand. “Waste,” she says, frustrated, and starts licking it as she walks forward.
“Helena,” Sarah says. “How long are we going to be walking.”
“You wanted to go outside,” Helena says. “Now we are outside.” She doesn’t look over her shoulder.
“I know,” Sarah says, “but how long—”
“When I find food,” Helena snaps, “then we will go back.”
Sarah stops. “Back?” she says. It comes out too loud, and she says it again, and that’s somehow louder. “Back?”
In the distance: the vague card-shuffling sound of wings erupting from the trees. Helena is too close; she smells like old blood. “Quiet,” she says, and Sarah can see every one of her teeth. She shifts back again.
“Back,” she says. “To the house. Since you are so ready to not be here anymore.”
“No,” Sarah says, “no, I’m not going back, we made a deal.”
Helena’s face goes blank with surprise. Her mouth forms a round o. Then, horror: she laughs, just a small giggle. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, no. You thought you were leaving! Is that what you thought?”
Sarah’s heart thumps its way down her ribs and into her belly. “We made a deal,” she says again, but even when the words come out of her mouth she knows they don’t mean anything. Her knees give, just a bit. She realizes, in one seasick burst, that she’d never really accepted that she was going to get out of here. And now that’s taken from her, before she could even hold it, and once again she has nothing.
“Yes,” Helena has been saying, frowning at Sarah’s sudden flat eyes and trembling legs. “Deal. You wanted to go outside, out in the woods. You paid for it. You think a few babies teeth are enough to send you away from us? No. Is enough for this. Nothing more.”
I should have just killed her, Sarah thinks in a giddy burst. For a moment the world tilts and Sarah becomes a person who could do it. Right now, right here in the woods. Her hands around Helena’s throat. Rachel’s voice rubbing itself up against Sarah like a cat: You know she’d be willing.
“Yeah,” Sarah says. “Guess I should’ve known better.”
Helena’s eyes narrow a bit, like she can’t believe it could be that easy, and then the world wobbles back into place and Helena’s death is, again, impossible. Sarah backs up and leans her weight on a tree, which holds it. She tries to deal with the steady relief she feels at the thought that none of this was real. She closes her eyes.
Something in the distance howls. “Wolves,” Sarah says.
“Family,” Helena says. Sarah opens her eyes again and Helena’s face is full of uncomfortable worry. “You wanted to leave,” she says. “You let me take your bones.”
“Yeah,” Sarah says. The word comes out of her mouth too teary.
Helena huffs out a breath through her nose. Then she steps forward and hugs Sarah, tight, crushing. She stinks of blood and sweat and, below that, soil after rain. The undersides of leaves. She smells like spring and Sarah buries her nose in Helena’s hair and shudders with the urge to start crying and never stop.
“You could be happy here,” Helena whispers into Sarah’s shoulder, and Sarah realizes that Helena is also trying not to cry.
“Please,” Sarah says, sad and desperate. “Helena, please.”
Helena steps back and rubs Sarah’s upper arms, still with that same stormcloud frown. “I have to get food,” she says. “You are wobbly baby with tooth pains. You will die.” She sighs again. “Come. Up.”
“Up?” Sarah says, but before the syllable is out of her mouth Helena has her by the back of her shirt and is pulling her into the tree. Something slithers along the forest floor where they were, overturning leaves, and Sarah wobbles and finds herself on a branch. Helena, perched next to her, looks right – like she’ll become something, like she already is the sort of something that could belong here.
“Listen,” she says. “Listen. Do not go down. You will die. You hear something? Stay stiller. I will come and find you and I will tell you what city is calling. Are you understanding.”
“No,” Sarah says, but it’s too late: Helena is gone. Sarah is left alone with the horrible wrecking pain in her jaw and the constant chiseling of her own heartbeat. She leans back against the trunk. Tea, she thinks. You add the teabag to the water, when it’s hot. How do you heat the water? How do you – how do you heat the water? Did she and Kira live alone? How do you heat the water, when you’re making tea?
She shudders, opens her eyes. Above this branch is another branch and Sarah grabs onto it, pulls herself upwards. When she was young, she used to climb trees like this. In the city where she lived. He’d always fall behind and yell at her, Sarah you’re going too fast, Sarah S won’t like it, and Sarah would climb so far up that no one could possibly yell at her. The sky: blue.
She can’t make it to the top, here – the branches are too thin – but she climbs as high as she can and looks out. The forest below her is an endless dark sea. She keeps thinking that eventually it will stop, and it does not stop. When she twists her neck right she can see the mansion, all lit up. She stares at it. That’s not right, she knows – it’s not that bright inside, it doesn’t glow gold. And yet. There it sits, smug and completely certain that it is a lighthouse in the dark.
“Come down,” calls Helena’s voice from the ground. “Come down now.”
Sarah doesn’t move. Helena’s voice twists into a desperate whine. “Come down,” it calls again. “Come down now. Cities are calling. There are cities calling, come down.”
“What does that mean,” Sarah yells back down.
Sarah realizes all the hairs on her arms are standing up. “What’s my name,” she says slowly.
“It’s not safe to say names in the woods,” comes the answer, chiding and amused. “Everyone knows that. Come down now. I’ll whisper it to you when you’re on the ground. Come down. Cities calling. Come see me.”
“What’s your name.”
“What’s her name.”
“Helena,” says the voice again. “Calling. Calling. Come down. I miss you. You could be happy here.”
“You’re not Helena,” Sarah says, clinging desperately to the trunk. “Where is she. What did you do to her.”
More whining. Something scratches and scratches at the trunk. “I can climb up to get you,” says Helena’s voice. “I can taste you. I can smell your blood from here. Calling. Calling.”
“You can’t come up here,” Sarah says, gambling. The scratching stops. The air is silent before the cup of it fills back up to the brim with wind-sighs and distant howling. Sarah’s muscles relax; she lets go of the trunk.
Something enormous hurls itself at the tree, sending everything swaying; Sarah barely grabs onto a branch in time, and it scrapes her palms open, and she is bleeding, and below the tree something is screaming howling desperate. More things in the woods start howling. Sarah hears bodies moving, and all of them are moving towards her.
“Girl,” screams a voice that isn’t Helena’s voice anymore. “Girl girl girl bleeding girl who left you in the woods who lost you who won’t take care of you I’m hungry I’m lonely come feed me come see me—”
“Meat,” croons another voice, “meat, hungry, so hungry—”
“Mine mine mine she’s mine—”
“Calling, calling, calling, calling, calling—”
The voices go on. They’ll eat Sarah up, they’ll eat her heart, they’ll come get her, they’ll find her, she can’t hide there forever, weak muscles, frail bones – underneath the tree things are screaming, and Sarah hears the wet sharp sound of flesh ripping. She shudders, bites her lip. You pour the teabag in the water. You put the kettle in the oven. God, she thinks, helpless, and puts her memory instead to the last thing Rachel had read aloud. In the pools among the rushes that could barely bathe a star—
(I love you I love you I love you I’m hungry I can smell you stupid girl, terrible girl, can’t hide, can’t win, aren’t you hungry I can hear your stomach I can smell your blood girl girl girl calling calling calling calling—)
We look for sleeping fish—
(Girl girl girl girl calling calling calling you know the places the meat connects, you know the bones, I know the bones, girl girl girl your bones—)
Then the screaming is just screaming, and it goes on and on. Sarah crawls into the dark shameful back of her brain where the mansion has spit out a quiet living room, one couch that isn’t quite big enough for three bodies. The pain echoes through her like a gong and she curls up inside of it and it washes over her, again and again, like waves. We give them unquiet dreams, Rachel says, or something like it. Down below Sarah the screaming stops.
“London,” says Helena’s voice, sounding tired. “That is what is calling.”
There’s a song stuck in Sarah’s head, and when it sings London Calling she realizes that’s what Helena meant. She climbs down the tree, slow and then faster until she’s tumbling. At the bottom of the tree Helena is standing there, surrounded by the collapsed shapes of dark fur bodies. She is frowning, and also bleeding.
“Helena,” Sarah says, and when Helena looks at her Sarah throws herself at her and holds her. Helena’s arms come up around her, instinctive, vice grip. Sarah closes her eyes and breathes in gravedirt and oleander. Spring. Hers. She doesn’t let go.
“They all sounded like you,” she says, voice quiet and small. “Shit, Helena.”
“Family,” Helena says again, just as quiet. She tangles her hand in Sarah’s hair and puts her mouth against Sarah’s throat and somehow – somehow – doesn’t bite down. She makes a noise. “Back now,” she tells Sarah’s carotid.
“Did you kill them,” Sarah says.
“They weren’t very nice to you,” Helena says, and she lets go. She studies the bodies and then grabs the biggest one by the feet, begins to drag it. It is the size of something that is large; it’s bigger than Sarah’s bed, bigger than any of the couches the house has made. Huge. Enormous. Sarah staggers along, keeping so close to Helena she almost bumps into her over and over again.
“Are you mad at me,” Helena says, still in that small voice.
“I don’t know,” Sarah says. The body drags and rustles over the ground. In the patches of light that hit it, Sarah realizes that it is a bear. Then it’s in the shadows, and it’s not a bear. It gives her headaches so she looks away from it and back to Helena. Helena is still the same.
“I thought you wanted to come hunting,” Helena says. “I thought you wanted to see.”
Sarah doesn’t say anything. Sorry, she thinks, again. “Well,” she says. “I saw.”
“You didn’t like it.”
“Your family tried to kill me.”
“I know,” Helena says. “But they talked to you! Some of them don’t know how. Some of them forgot. The words, they aren’t easy. Like they are for you. So. Is good, that they knew them.” She trails off into silence, keeps dragging the body over the ground. Her sister, maybe. Her aunt. Sarah feels sick again and shoves it into the back of her brain.
“Helena,” she says.
“How do you make tea?”
“You heat up the water,” Helena says.
“Then you put in the tea bag.”
“Then you pour in the blood,” Helena says, and they’re at the front door. Helena tugs the corpse up the steps, thump thump. Sarah scrambles ahead of her to open the door, and somehow Helena tugs the body through, and then the three of them are inside and Sarah sits down on the thick pile of the carpet. Then she’s on her back. Oh, she thinks, I’m shaking.
Helena lies down next to her, puts her head on Sarah’s chest. “Hello,” she says. Her body is wrapped around Sarah like mistletoe.
“Helena,” Sarah says.
“That is all I know about tea.”
“If I wanted you to die,” Sarah says, “would you let me do it?”
“Yes,” Helena says, and burrows her head against Sarah’s chest. “Sarah.”
“When I try to eat your heart, will you let me.”
“No,” Sarah says. “I don’t want to die.”
“That wasn’t question,” Helena says drowsily. “Answer to wrong question.”
Behind them, the door closes with a click. “I can hear it,” Helena says, voice still a sleepy bumblebee note. “Your heart.”
(Girl girl girl girl calling calling calling calling—)
“You can listen,” Sarah says.
“Sarah?” Helena says. “I’m hungry.”
“I know,” Sarah says again. Helena whines, small in the back of her throat, and doesn’t move her head. Her hand slithers under Sarah’s shirt and she puts her fingertips precisely to the scratch marks Sarah had left. She doesn’t do anything; the pads of her fingers stay just where they are, too soft to be believed.
A bandage on the heel of Sarah’s hand. A bandage wrapped around Helena’s throat, where the claws dug in. Rachel dressed entirely in white – probably intentional, knowing Rachel.
There is a kitchen, which Sarah has never been to while fully awake. There is a small room off the kitchen that stinks like blood and fecal matter and pain, and that is where Helena drags the body of her kin. She leaves it. Back into the kitchen, which gleams bandage-white. She reaches into her furs and dumps the owl on the counter.
“I was joking,” Rachel says. She reaches out and touches its feathers; her skin is the color of the gold fringe that dapples its wings.
“No you weren’t,” Helena says, and starts pulling out bottles full of dark red. Sarah feels like an intruder, but maybe that’s just the sudden dizziness of her own exhaustion. She leans against the wall, closes her eyes, folds her arms against her chest. Ow, hums her jawbone. Ow, ow, ow. Her teeth are gone and they are hurting. She misses her teeth, but that’s not true: she misses when they were there because they didn’t hurt like this. She misses the absence of pain.
“Poor Sarah,” Rachel says, voice low and soft and wry. “It’s been a night, hasn’t it.” Something in the twist of her voice is sweetly patronizing, like every teacher who ever thought she could do better than this.
“’m fine,” Sarah says, without opening her eyes. “Piss off.”
An exhalation. Neither of them say anything to her; after a while Sarah opens her eyes again to find them bent in towards each other. Rachel’s hand is touching the bandage she put on Helena’s neck, and something is in her eyes that Sarah doesn’t want to see there. She stumbles back a step, presses one hand to the wall for balance and tries to figure out how to navigate the twisting hallways back to her room. There were bottles of blood on the counter. Helena went out into the woods and she brought back an owl for Rachel, and bottles and bottles that she’d filled up with blood.
She can’t find her goddamn room. She hates this house, except for how she doesn’t.
Sarah finds herself slumped in a small side room – a room that would probably be lovely in daylight, a few cozy chairs, windows angled to catch the light. She can smell flowers but doesn’t know what kind they are. Slumped in a chair, she stares at the wall. Every time she closes her eyes she can hear the things in the woods again and, also, her jaw hurts.
Come find me, Sarah thinks, so hard she isn’t surprised when the door opens and Rachel makes her sweeping way into the room. She turns on a light. She perches on the arm of the chair Sarah is curled up in, so that Sarah’s head is brushing against Rachel’s hip.
“Poor Sarah,” Rachel says, again, but the intonation is different.
“You knew,” Sarah says.
“Well,” Rachel says. She puts her hand in Sarah’s hair, tugs until a tangle breaks. It stings. Rachel runs her fingers through that one patch of hair, over and over, until it’s smooth and Sarah is bobbing on the edge of unconsciousness.
“You knew,” she says, because there is something urgent that she can’t quite reach. “You wanted this.”
“Did I?” Rachel says.
“You were right,” Sarah says. “She’d let me.”
Another bright sting, another series of soothing tugs. Sarah on the edge of the water. The pulse of her heartbeat in her gums sends waves rocking up against the shore, over and over again. “I didn’t lie to you,” Rachel says. “I don’t lie to you. You know that.”
Sarah doesn’t say anything.
“If you killed her,” Rachel says. “If you wanted me. I’d let you go. Not into the forest.”
“Don’t,” Sarah says.
“Sarah,” Rachel says. “You should think about why you don’t want that to be true.”
“Don’t,” Sarah says again. “Rachel, please.”
Rachel sighs out through her nose. She murmurs something under her breath in another language Sarah will never speak or understand. “Darling girl,” she says. “You do exhaust me.” Then she stands up before Sarah can say something stupid, like wait. Her dress is so white.
“Turn the light off?” Sarah says. “When you go?”
“Alright,” Rachel says, and she does.