Leigha did not believe in signs. In fact, she believed in very little that she couldn’t see with her own two eyes; she knew how dangerous that kind of belief could be. Instead, she was certain that the middle-of-the-night advertisement for a self-help book was mere coincidence, the algorithm happening upon something potentially useful. She had been up at two in the morning yet again, exhausted and unable to sleep. It had been like this for enough nights in a row that she was starting to imagine noises in the walls. It didn’t matter how many medications or herbal teas she tried. Everything only made her more tired, without also easing her ability to drift off to peace.
Leigha devoured the first self-help book—one about helping others to help yourself—in a day and a half. She ordered two more from the library. It was the book about community that convinced her to print up the flyers. She had added hideous clip art with a list of services she could provide—building wooden furniture, repairing wooden furniture, reducing scratches and blemishes, and restoring iron. She’d learned all of these skills from her aunt, a woman she had not seen in very many years. No one talked about Aunt Shea, and if someone brought her up, they were met first with awkward silence, and second with an offer of pop or tea. The books suggested that Leigha owed her community her skills, that it was the kind thing to do, and she decided to give it a try. She expected maybe one email about a creaky mailbox hinge; instead, she was quickly inundated by all the needs of the people down the road and around the corner.
Leigha would occasionally work on her own home—replacing slats for her rocking chair, fixing the posts of her bed, even putting together a bird house and feeder when she was feeling particularly sentimental. The birdfeeder ended up mostly co-opted by squirrels and chipmunks. She supposed she had no control over who invaded these homes; little would deter the aggressive demands for hospitality and treats. She could only watch helplessly each morning as she ate her slightly sour yogurt parfait. But working on other people’s furniture unlocked something in her—memories, but mostly feelings that she couldn’t quite pin down to any particular moment. And this was how her aunt’s face took residence in her mind’s eye, how she could remember the smell of oak and pine and polish, her hours spent recalling the way her aunt would tell her stories as they worked together.
In the present moment, Leigha was repairing the leg of a barstool, noting that the splintering spindles along the back could probably use some attention. Her most recent memory of her aunt was long enough ago that the haze of early adolescence now clouded over it, but Leigha thought that her mother or grandmother had walked in on some fairy tale Aunt Shea was making up, and that was when she’d started seeing less of her. In the immediate months after, when talking about her aunt had not yet become entirely taboo, Leigha would overhear whispered kitchen conversations about how Shea had lost touch with reality.
A prick of her finger caused Leigha’s mental wanderings to come to a screeching halt as she saw the blood beading on the tender flesh. She cursed under her breath, then checked the barstool to make sure that her blood hadn’t stained it. Satisfied that the thing didn’t look like it had just returned from war, she brought her fingertip as close to her nose as she could. She wasn’t sure if the splinter there was real or some imagined object made out of crossed eyes and the refraction of the light. Leigha did her best to grab the maybe-thing with the tips of her fingernails and tug. She was not certain that she actually did anything productive, but she was certain that if there had been a splinter there once, it was no longer.
Leigha wiped her finger on her jeans, pulled a scrap of cloth from her pocket to wrap it, and kept going. She didn’t know how long it’d been when she looked up and found two large brown eyes staring at her from the threshold. Leigha jumped, a hand to her chest before she even exhaled. The little girl said nothing, just stared. That was when Leigha saw that the back door was open in the kitchen. Leigha opened her mouth to ask something, though she had no idea what to even ask. Before she could come up with anything coherent, the woman who had emailed her for help in the first place walked through the door, phone held to her ear with her shoulder. At the sound of her mother’s voice, the little girl seemed to vanish quicker than a magician at the end of his act. Leigha tried to bury her nose into her work, making a point of not looking like she was listening. This pretend act could only do so much, though; there was nothing but an archway between her and the woman with the overwhelmingly loud voice. Leigha’s only other option would be the obvious and awkward decision to drag the stool into a different room.
“Honest to god, Cheryl, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that child,” the neighbor complained into the phone. She turned on the sink as she spoke. “No, I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She was…”
Leigha did her best to tune it out. She didn’t imagine eavesdropping was in line with the whole self-help kick. Instead, she focused on the motion of the sander in her hand, the strangely satisfying rough sensation as it met the wood it was meant to smooth over. But some kind of clamoring pan in the sink caught Leigha’s attention again. That was when she saw the little girl, half in the refrigerator. The girl took a few steps back, letting the door close as she hauled a nearly full jug of milk across the room. She stood on her toes, inching a bowl off of the counter. The girl was quiet as the proverbial church mouse, and the mother was still very involved in whatever conversation she had going on, and so she didn’t seem to notice.
The girl set the bowl on the floor and unscrewed the milk cap. Leigha couldn’t bring herself to do anything, to change the trajectory of what was happening before her eyes. It was the rule of car crashes—slow motion, but you can’t look away. And besides, Leigha couldn’t remember if her neighbor’s name was Susan or Amanda, and she felt like this lady was one misremembered name away from truly losing her shit. No sooner had the girl picked up the jug than she was saying “I’m okay!” Her mother spun around to see milk puddled nearby.
“Christ on a cronut!” the woman hollered as though the girl were bathing in blood. “What are you doing?!” She flew to the floor, phone still pressed to her ear. “Go clean yourself up!”
“But I have to leave the cream out for the…”
“No more bullshit, Sophia! Go! Now!”
The girl slunk off, and Leigha tried to make herself small in the shadows of the next room. It was a feeling all too familiar to her, the witnessing and the secondhand anxiety and the desire to not be involved. The unpleasant nostalgia nested in her gut. She only stayed until the barstool was fixed enough that she didn’t feel irresponsible for taking her tools and going home. Though the mother had taken the bowl from the floor and crashed it into the sink, spots of milk still puddled where they’d fallen, and Leigha could almost smell the souring before it had even happened.
Two afternoons later, Leigha found herself in the living room of her next-door neighbor’s house. She knew very little about the people who shared her property line. In December they would bring her a tin full of homemade cookies and, occasionally, Leigha would be tasked with answering their kid’s questions about life, the universe, and everything. Leigha did, however, at least know their names this time: Cheryl and Jimmy and Zoe, and they’d just had Grayson a couple of months back. Leigha was working on the iron fixtures of an old butler table. She was happy to find that it wasn’t too badly rusted, which likely would have required removing the fixtures and explaining why she was soaking them in ketchup. Leigha fully anticipated that the explanation would have gotten her strange looks and uncomfortable silence. Mostly they just needed a quick scrub and polish. She had the oppressively heavy tray of the table half-resting on her knees. It was flipped upside-down to get at the underside of the fixtures. The process was pungent even with the lemon and baking soda mixed in to cut back on the vinegar smell, and the kerchief folded over her mouth was too thin to block it out entirely. She was worried that she was starting to get dizzy; once or twice it felt like the room was spinning in her periphery.
Leigha had many reasons to make quick work of this. She wasn’t sure that the self-help books were really working the way they were supposed to, but it would be really awkward running into Cheryl every day if she didn’t at least follow through on this table. Leigha scrubbed the cleansing mixture furiously into the hinges of the tabletop tray, the bristles of the old toothbrush that she used fanning out and splitting apart. All the self-help books had set her up for so far were headaches and fresh callouses. That, and the discomfort of all the time in the world to think about her Aunt Shea, which was not what she would call supportive of her mental health. After setting the brush back into the vinegar-filled Tupperware, Leigha examined her work to confirm that she was done on this side of the table for now. She pulled an old rough cloth from her pocket like a down-on-her-luck magician, patting the scrap of fabric on each hinge, the diligence of her work silencing her thoughts for a time.
“So what?” a voice was saying as the front door opened. “Do they think it was an attempted robbery?”
“I mean, Shannon has that tea set that she’s always going on about in her curio cabinet,” Cheryl replied in the foyer, still out of sight. “That has to be worth at least a couple grand, and that…”
Their voices were overcome by the creaking and subsequent thud of Leigha flipping the tabletop over. She winced, not realizing how unruly the thing would be even as she tried to be careful with it. Two women appeared in the threshold, both looking horrified.
“Oh my god,” Cheryl said. She stood tall in the archway, a commanding elegance in her pleated pants and silk blouse. “Are you okay?”
“What is that smell?” her friend asked. Her manicured fingers pinched her nose just enough to qualify for dramatic effect.
“Cleaner,” Leigha said simply. She had forgotten about the kerchief, lowering it from her nose and mouth. “Really works out the rust.”
The friend laughed, something practiced and lilted and false in the tone of it. “I think it might make my eyebrows fall out, too,” she teased through the gritted teeth of a smile, flashing Cheryl a look.
“Here, I’ll get a window.” Cheryl marched across the old sheet protecting her expensive-looking rug with intense I-run-the-PTA energy.
“Maybe two,” the friend said.
“Should just be the polish now,” Leigha said. “I was thinking I’d do topside first, then go home and grab some lunch while it dries, and then do the bottom?” The only thing that would motivate her to come back would be the fact that it was quieter in her own house than it would be here.
“Sure, sure,” Cheryl said. “Hey.” She leaned far over the couch to open the second window. The wind was erratic and wild, and Leigha wondered if there was a storm on the way. “Is it true that you were working on Shannon’s barstool the other day?”
“Yes?” Leigha said, looking to the friend for any clues as to why Cheryl was asking. The friend, who was scrolling around on her phone, seemed to have forgotten that Leigha was in the room at all.
“Apparently your craftsmanship holds up,” Cheryl said with a meaningful dip of her chin.
“Thank… you?” Leigha tugged the bottoms of her overalls further down her thighs, suddenly uncomfortable even if she couldn’t pinpoint exactly why.
“Literally, all of her other chairs fell apart,” Cheryl said. “Isn’t that wild?” Her eyes were wide and insistent. Cheryl was wearing the expression of someone who had not yet realized that they were part of a cult, and so they were unknowingly attempting to recruit others.
“All of her other chairs?” Leigha yanked her kerchief off of her neck, rubbing her hands on it and then standing. “That can’t be right.”
“The rest of her barstool set, at least,” the friend assured her without even looking up.
“Sounds like she should invest in a better barstool set, then,” Leigha muttered. She watched the scrap of blue in her hands as she folded it twice, slowly. This sounded familiar, somehow, but Leigha couldn’t quite puzzle it together. She had always been bad with riddles.
The friend smirked. “You know, I might have to see if I have anything around that needs fixing.” It was obvious that she’d thought about throwing a wink in there at the end and had thought better of it.
Leigha had to work so hard to smile that, even with her lips pressed shut, she clenched her teeth. She watched both women leave for another room without so much as a goodbye. It made her feel a little bit invisible and forgotten, but it wasn’t like the conversation was particularly sparking joy, either. Leigha stretched her arms and closed her eyes. One of her knees popped, but then she thought she heard something else, too, like the wind hitting something. She checked immediately, her vision blurring a moment. One of the leaves on the plant across the room was bouncing, which was surely the breeze’s doing. She edged down toward the floor as though it might eat her, mostly to save her knees if she could. Leigha rested on her calves, looking to her supplies. The toothbrush was gone from the vinegar mix. The buffing pad and cloth that had just moments ago been next to the tub of polish were gone, too.
Shaking her head, Leigha picked up the cleaner and then the polish. She checked under the tabletop. She checked beneath herself. She checked the pockets of her overalls, even sticking her finger through the places with tears as though proving that she had done a thorough job. The tools had vanished; they were nowhere to be found. And fear wormed its way in, suddenly. Aunt Shea had been forgetful like this, hadn’t she? It had been such a long time, but Leigha could play it in her mind’s eye as clearly as if her aunt were sitting before her, checking her pockets, checking under chairs and sofas, her glasses perched on the curls on top of her head. Leigha could even smell the particular brand of sandpaper that her aunt used most often, a detail she never in a million years thought she would remember. Just as her thoughts turned to where her aunt might be right at that present moment, a small figure appeared in front of her. Leigha jumped on her knees, hand to her heart.
“Good lord,” Leigha gasped before she even got a good look. It was Cheryl’s daughter, Zoe, the girl with a million questions. Her dark brown curls were pulled back from her face by a headband. “Z, you scared the daylights out of me!”
Zoe only shrugged. “What’re you doing?”
“Fixing up the table so it’ll be nice and shiny and new.” Leigha glanced around on the floor superficially, putting on the playact of being alright for the child in the room. “Though I somehow managed to lose half of what I brought with me!” Leigha smiled and shook her head, hoping that somehow this incredibly perceptive little girl wouldn’t catch the panic that was surely shining from her eyes.
Zoe looked skeptical, but that was not unusual. “Did you know that we figured metal out about 5,000 years ago?”
“I… cannot say that I did, no.” Leigha tried not to betray the fact that everything was starting to feel off-kilter. This had only been made worse by Zoe sharing a fun fact rather than asking Leigha to answer a curiosity for her. Leigha’s voice lost the practiced high-pitched gentleness that she usually adopted for the girl. “Do they teach the history of metal in fourth grade?”
“Fifth. Fifth grade.”
“Sorry. Fifth grade.”
“No. That’s what the internet’s for.” She swayed on her feet, heels to toes. “What do you clean the metal with?” she asked, and suddenly Leigha could breathe a little easier at the fulfillment of her expectations.
“Mostly, you want to make sure apple cider vinegar is in there. Otherwise, you can add stuff to try and de-stink it.”
Zoe stuck out her bottom lip and nodded. She glanced down at Leigha’s work through her purple-framed glasses as though approving it. “Can I give you a gift?”
“I—uh—” The lack of transition gave Leigha whiplash. She didn’t want to get paid for her work, but surely this would be a drawing or some model plane that Zoe had built or something like that. “Sure.”
Zoe held out a toy horse. It was made of wood—the body white, the mane, tail, and hooves a light cream color. Leigha took it into her own hand, turning it over and examining it. The trinket looked either brand-new or well-preserved. Leigha could imagine Cheryl carefully curating it from a crafts fair.
“Sweetie, I can’t accept this.” Leigha tried to hold it back out, but Zoe took a step away from her, clasping her hands together over her skirt. “It’s your toy.”
Zoe’s eyes shifted to the windows. Leigha couldn’t quite tell if she was watching for something or listening to see if her mother was nearby. Then the girl spoke. “I want you to have it.” She leaned in closer, her hands tightening their grip on one another. “My parents think that what I’ve been seeing is just dreams, but it’s not. A few kids at school have seen Them, too.”
Zoe shook her head. “No, Them.” Her tongue smacked against the roof of her mouth, and she let out a frustrated little exhale. “I’m not sure what to call them. It’s like that old story about the cobbler with the elves.”
“Oh, sweetie, that’s just a story,” Leigha said. Even as she said it, it felt hollow on her tongue. She knew the power of stories. Stories were what had fractured her family. But what else was she supposed to say? “You shouldn’t worry about it.”
Taking another step back, Zoe’s face crumpled slightly. “You too?”
Leigha bit her lip, checking over Zoe’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s say it’s the elves,” Leigha whispered. She held up the wooden toy that still resided in her hand. “Why this?”
“It’s good luck,” Zoe said, as though that explained everything. She stood up taller, her eyes brighter. It became very clear the effect that being disbelieved had on her. “I know! I’ll help you. What’s missing?”
They tore the first floor of the house apart, but Leigha couldn’t find the supplies anywhere. She decided to just stop at the store and get new ones, since they were easily replaced. On the way, she had written and deleted a text to her mother at least three times, before finally sending one. It was simple, maybe too simple, but she didn’t think any amount of length or any level of complexity was going to change the outcome. Leigha had written What ever happened to Aunt Shea? Her mother left her on read for hours. By the time she got home, after having skipped lunch to run around town, Leigha was so exhausted that she didn’t even remember if she locked the door or not. She dropped everything on the nearest surface, dragged herself into the shower, and then dragged herself into bed.
Leigha woke up with the sun aggressively in her face. She felt like she had a monster hangover. Deciding that a smoothie might be in order, Leigha made her way downstairs. Her supplies and wallet and phone were all on the kitchen table. She could swear something was missing, but she had no idea what it was. It would take a significant amount of tea to figure it out. The stove clock said that it was 8:53, which was much later than she ever slept in. The self-help books had, it seemed, solved her sleeping problem by finally making her too exhausted for the bother of insomnia. She had a crib to build around the block, which would take all day since it wasn’t one of those cheap Ikea deals, but first she needed an enormous breakfast. Leigha grabbed a mug, filled it with water, and then poured it in to the top of her electric kettle. She flicked the button before she realized that she’d left the faucet running.
The noise came first, like a surprise party popper, and the smell that was slightly like burning next. Leigha placed her fingers on the kettle, which was warming up but shouldn’t have been making strange noises or burning anything. She worried, for a moment, that perhaps she was having a stroke, some vague recollection of the burning smell being a bad sign. But she didn’t have the time to consider that, as the water that was still running in the sink lost its pressure, and then started sputtering out so hard that she was being splashed with it. The water turned brown and began to smell of rotten eggs. The kettle and the stove made violent screeching, whirring sounds before turning off altogether.
Leigha watched them for a moment, half convinced that she would blink and open her eyes to an electric fire. When they stayed as they were—reeking of burning, but otherwise harmless—Leigha rushed to the sink to turn off the water, too. She could fix a table or build a crib, but electrical wiring and pipes were decidedly not in her wheelhouse. All she could do was turn everything off in the basement and call in some professionals who wouldn’t kill themselves while solving the problems. The closest she’d ever get to working with anything electrical was the EKG at work, but she was under the impression that cardiovascular techs and electricians were bringing different skillsets to the table.
Leigha turned on her heel, ready to do what needed to be done. The wind caught her ankle, causing her to pause and turn to the back door. While she didn’t remember a whole lot about coming home, she was sure that she had closed the door. But here she was, the next morning, approaching the slightly cracked door like a teenager in a horror movie. The chill ran deeper, something unsettling in the air itself. Leigha tapped the door open all the way. She checked outside—a planter knocked over, but otherwise unscathed. And then she saw what the outside of the door looked like—scratches, near the handle and at the bottom corner. It was like a possum had wanted to break in. But if the door was open… Leigha didn’t want to think about what that meant. She didn’t want to think about any of this. She wanted to call the electrician and the plumber and then leave as quickly as possible. The world felt too slippery and mischievous just then, and she wanted to escape the thoughts that frightened her.
After calling to schedule repairs, Leigha noticed a text waiting for her. It was from her mother, and only said how to deadhead the cosmos. The text sat directly under Shea’s name, absurd in its lack of context. If Leigha had to guess, this was one of those times that her mother had tried navigating her phone without her glasses on, and typed into a message instead of her phone’s browser. Leigha’s mother was very concerned about the way people saw and thought about her, and this vanity expanded well beyond her pharmacy-purchased reading glasses. So much of the family was wrapped up in how things appeared from the outside.
Shaking her head at the hopelessness that was trying to find out answers about her aunt, Leigha decided to go out for breakfast, certain that if she tried to touch any more appliances, sinks, or cabinets in her house, something was going to catch fire. When she descended the concrete steps outside the kitchen door, Leigha tripped and almost went ass-over-teacups into a rose bush that was all thorns. She was willing to write it off as one of those days, but, as she tried to reassemble her dignity by patting down her pants, Leigha’s eye caught a small white object that had been in her path. Leigha had forgotten all about Zoe’s gift from the day before. She felt compelled to tuck the wooden horse into her bag before she continued on her way.
A few hours later, she had started work on the crib. The neighbors had already bought all the necessary lumber pieces prefinished—87 pieces total—so really it was a lot of screws, glues, and fillers. Leigha’s mind zoned out as she worked, wandering not to the painful past but to an empty present. As her hands worked with a knowledge they seemed to possess themselves, the world around her fell to silence.
The room only came back into focus after the crib was nearly finished; Leigha, who was laying on the hardwood floor, reached back toward her bag without getting up, her fingers struggling to coax over the wood filler. The horse decided to clip-clop out onto the floor with it. Leigha stopped reaching, instead glimpsing over at the clouds painted onto the blue walls, air balloons providing escape to soft creatures like teddy bears. She wondered if this was what protecting a child was like: surrounding them in soft pastels, telling gentle lies to ease their views of the world. Leigha glanced at the bars of the crib, which, she noticed, were casting shadows on the hardwood all around her. She thought of the broken furniture, the missing pieces, the strange and rapid decomposition of her own kitchen. Leigha reached, then, not for the filler, but for the toy she had been gifted. She flipped it onto its side and slid it beneath the crib. Good luck, Zoe had said. Then Leigha returned to her work, trying not to think too hard on anything but the construction of something new and hopeful.
It was twilight by the time Leigha left. The neighbors had insisted on having her stay for dinner, and then they spoke about what names they were trying to pick between for the baby and how they’d needed to put in for a daycare application despite the fact that the boy wasn’t due until August. Leigha had to walk home, and she was glad a ride wasn’t offered so that she could enjoy the quiet. She felt the slightest sharpness of pain over her right eye, and she didn’t want to risk it getting any worse. Among other things, migraines ran in her family.
She was passing by the house next to Shannon’s when she saw a kind of blur in the corner of her eye that she would have normally and willfully dismissed. Leigha wanted to focus on what was directly in front of her, always. Things were easier that way, simpler. But this time she turned. And the bush in front of the house had spots of distorted air like waves of heat, followed by a sound like windchimes. The hydrangeas were flying every which way, puffs of pink and blue and purple being ripped from their stems and discarded all over the lawn. Leigha ran up, shouting like she would at a racoon who had gotten into the trash.
The blurs vanished, the sounds and motions stopped, and the family came out. The friend Cheryl had brought home was standing there with a woman and two kids that looked just shy of adolescence. The women were speaking, one of them holding her arm around the other protectively. And then Leigha could feel other eyes on her, other neighbors beginning to come out and stare, and though her head was beginning to hurt so badly that she wasn’t processing sound like she usually did, she got the gist that she was being accused of the damage. Leigha took a step back, catching the panicked gaze of the younger child in front of her, and then she ran home hoping that no one would follow.
Originally, Leigha’s plan was to leave on every light in her house. Then she remembered that she had to flip the circuit breaker and keep it off until the electrician could come by. She had some electric candles that she kept on hand in case of storms and power outages, and a huge battery-powered moon lamp that her brother had gotten her for some birthday or another. The moon sat at her bedside, its light only bringing her a mild comfort. Leigha wasn’t sure what had sent her brain back to can’t let the monsters eat me childhood mode; it might have been her worry about the neighbors and what they might think or say or do, or it might have been whatever had been decimating their flowers and left her to take the blame.
Leigha pulled her blanket up higher, protecting as much of herself as she could manage. She shivered, wishing that she could be asleep already instead of being abandoned in the dark with her thoughts. It was rare that Leigha wished she wasn’t so alone. Usually, she didn’t much mind the solitude. She had her work and her hobbies and her bird feeders and, once a month, dinner with the family.
Then the whispers came. Leigha had been running from the same fear pretty much since she’d started helping her neighbors. She could not knock away the feeling that she was losing grip on reality, that her brain was wired like her aunt’s brain. Maybe that would have been less frightening a thought if she knew what had become of her aunt, though she remained unconvinced. Leigha knew how quickly a person could be converted from a family member to a family secret, how thorough this process could be. The whispers became louder, clearer:
No one respects us anymore.
Once they called on us—
Once they called on us—
Once they called on us to fix their homes.
We were granted our respect.
We have been forgotten.
They have forgotten us—
We shall have our bowl of cream.
We shall be remembered.
Leigha shut her eyes so tight that they hurt, trying to will away the voices, an effort which had no effect at all.
Her grip felt ever more tenuous, slipping and slipping. Leigha could not control any of it—not the whispers, not the ability to sleep, not what anyone thought of her. She could not control who was believed or who was not, and then she thought of the children she’d seen. The girl with the milk who was scolded, Zoe who insisted that she was not dreaming creatures up. Had Leigha rationalized the fact that she herself had destroyed the garden by imagining something was there that wasn’t? Had the neighbors rationalized with the most logical culprit—Leigha—rather than search for the unbelievable?
Growling out a little exhale, Leigha reached over to her side table and fumbled for her phone. She unlocked it, staring at her mother’s text one more time. And then Leigha decided that she was going to go on a little hunt.
It was the next weekend, a Saturday, and she had promised to repair someone’s swing set. Leigha did not show up. In fact, she had forgotten all about it until the family texted her asking where she was. Instead, Leigha had driven for forty-five minutes on the highway, panicking the whole way. Her ears hummed with her worries, her skin buzzing with curiosity. It was a ridiculous idea, the most reckless idea that she’d ever had. And still, she’d managed to drive the whole way, park in front of the small house with the overgrown wildflowers out front, and bring herself to the door. It was only at this point that she froze for a moment, unsure of herself, of any of this. The voices and the blurs hadn’t appeared again. Maybe she was just overworked; maybe it was just stress and bad memories. Leigha had arrived at a point where she didn’t even wholeheartedly believe herself.
The door opened before Leigha could do anything to cause it. The woman who stood there was shorter than her, the roots of her hair bristling with gray, and she held a dark wooden cane in her hand. This woman propped the door open with her elbow, blinking at Leigha. It had been a long time, and all that had gone along with it, but Leigha recognized her. The warm brown eyes now bordered by wrinkles, the stern set to her thin lips.
“Sorry, can I help you?” Shea asked, her voice like sandpaper. It was so wonderful to hear that Leigha had to keep herself from clicking her heels together like she was Fred Astaire.
“Aunt Shea,” Leigha said.
Her aunt’s eyes widened as she weaved back into the house a little. “Kid.” She reached up and curled a hand around Leigha’s shoulder, squeezing tight.
“Can we have some tea?” Leigha asked, her voice barely audible. Her aunt still smelled of unfinished wood. In some ways frozen in time, in others an entirely new person.
When Shea let her in, Leigha’s lungs felt as though they had shrunk. There was one lamp on in the other room, and otherwise darkness. Leigha didn’t remember the ceilings being so low or the front room being so narrow. She found her way to the kitchen to start the tea as Shea set up the living room. Leigha carried the slightly overfull mugs in carefully, afraid she would shatter something. They each sat in their own plaid armchair, Shea tucking her cane into the cushion. At first it was quiet and awkward, generic questions about how things were going eventually moving into neutral questions of work and TV shows. But then, as Shea shifted slightly to set down her empty teacup on a tray next to her, she winced. A hand settled on one of her hips as she muttered under her breath.
“Are you alright?” Leigha asked. She slid halfway off of her seat, knees coiled and ready, before an answer was given.
Shea waved her concerns away. “Oh, I’m fine, kid. I just forgot to take my medication.” She reached out to the orange bottle on her right, opening it and rationing out two white pills.
“I’m sorry,” Leigha said, reluctantly edging back on the chair. She wanted to help, to fix whatever had hurt her aunt, but felt useless in actually doing so. “Did you just have surgery or…?”
Shea laughed one rueful ha. “Not yet.” She settled further back into her chair. “Chronic pain.”
“Oh.” Leigha drank more of her tea with an ungraceful slurp. Her phone buzzed. She checked the new message, from her plumber, confirming the next day’s appointment. And her mother’s text still sat under it in all its unhelpful glory.
“Everything alright?” Shea asked. She picked at the dirt under her nails, something guarded in her downcast expression. “Do you need to go?”
“No, no,” Leigha said. She finally set the tea aside next to her.
The light seemed to shift suddenly, a little brighter but sickly and yellowed, too, the kind of tone of an old photograph. The signs of Shea were everywhere in this room: the deep brown finish of the bookshelves, the fully restored brass fireplace screen, the rocking chair in the far corner that Leigha was certain was handmade. But she saw the mantle full of candles and little pewter statues, and the walls so empty that the green almost began to feel oppressive. There were no pictures, no sign of the family at all, and the sudden awareness of how alone her aunt was, how forgotten, stung in unexpected ways.
“Can I ask you a question?” Leigha said. “You don’t have to answer it, if you don’t want to.” She was already regretting the suggestion of a question, and she hadn’t even posed it yet. One of her fingers bounced against her knee, betraying her nerves.
“Shoot.” Shea fussed with a tear in her jeans, her hands always busy, just like Leigha.
“Why did you disappear?” Leigha asked. It had come out wrong. She was sure that Shea would be angry with her. She hadn’t meant it to sound like she was blaming Shea for any of this. “I mean—”
Shea nodded. “I know what you mean.” She leaned forward, hands clenched together and elbows on her knees. “I told your mother something she didn’t want to hear, and she told me to keep away. I tried sending you presents a few times, but…” Her nose scrunched up and she shook her head.
Apparently, Leigha realized, she would have to take the first step and hope that her aunt didn’t take it the wrong way. Leigha missed being back in her own house by herself, working on furniture, minding her own business. This made her stretch herself in uncomfortable ways.
“Did you… see something?” Leigha asked. Shea’s eyes sparked, but Leigha couldn’t be sure if that was a good thing or bad. She kept going, spurred on only by the power of the knowledge that she’d never forgive herself if she didn’t. “Like, a shadow, or… well, not a shadow exactly, more like…” Leigha’s face twisted up. She thought that she would have an easier time describing them, but she hadn’t exactly had any practice at it, either.
“Them?” Shea offered.
“Yes,” Leigha said, staring evenly at her aunt. The pronoun did nothing to clarify what she’d meant, but they had reached some unspoken understanding.
“Yes,” Shea said, an echo. “I was working on this antique farmhouse and then…”
“Things started breaking?” Leigha felt like this was not her story, or her aunt’s, but one that somehow belonged to both of them in spite of space and time.
“Things started breaking,” she confirmed. “I heard them talking about cream. I had to make a kind of pact with them.” Their voices echoed in Leigha’s ears, memories haunting her. “You know, they can be really helpful little shits, in the right circumstances.” Shea traced the curve of her lower lip for a moment, lost in thought.
“How did you…” Leigha wasn’t sure what question she was trying to form. It felt like it was swirling around inside of her head but she was too tired to pin the thing down.
Shea tilted her head. “What is it?”
Leigha felt like a child again, the way that a person can feel small and warm and uncertain in the presence of someone from their past. In that moment, she could sense the kinship between them deepening, beyond blood. This was the woman who listened so patiently to her between caustic words and staccato laughter. “Didn’t you think you were losing your marbles?”
Shea’s eyes flared for a breath. “More than once, kid,” she said.
Leigha’s face tightened as she nodded. So they were together in that, too. The question, then, came down to which of their instincts were right.
“But anyway,” Shea continued, “your mother and mine both thought I was lying, or… or dangerous.” She emphasized this with an explosive gesture of her hands. “They didn’t want me filling your head with superstitious nonsense, especially because you looked up to me. And honestly? I think I was annoying them, too.”
Leigha wondered, for the first time, if her mother had been jealous of her relationship with Aunt Shea, though, of course, there was no way to know for sure. It wasn’t like her mother would ever admit to it even if it was true. “So…” Leigha’s forehead scrunched up as she tried to think. “So are we detached from the truth of things, or are they?”
Shea shrugged one shoulder and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter much either way,” she said. “There are some basic facts of reality that a person has to believe is true to continue on in the world.” Shea sighed, rolling her neck. “It’s a rare person who’s willing to shift their view of things.” Shea had always enjoyed telling stories, but the way that she’d phrased things just then, even the softened edges of her voice, made her feel like someone new, all of a sudden, someone Leigha hadn’t gotten to know deeply enough the first time. Or, maybe, the woman had just had too much time alone to herself to think, and poetic philosophy ensued.
Leigha wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. She’d seen Them, and heard Them, and seen their handiwork (such as it was). The children had spoken of Them, too. Wasn’t that all evidence enough? And yet it hadn’t been for her mother and grandmother.
The whole thing was ridiculous.
It was impossible.
How did she reconcile the steady-handed, level-headed woman who had shown her how to build and repair with these stories?
How did she reconcile the mother who told her not to fight with her brother with the mother who had cast out her own sister, even—especially—if she thought that she needed help?
It seemed like there was no way to reconcile the absurd observations of the fantastical with any sense of logic or reason. All she was left with was a mess of truths to sort through like tangled wires, fraying and dangerous in places.
“Come,” her aunt said after a long time of quiet. “I can show you an old trick for how to make peace.”
Audrey T. Carroll is a Best of the Net nominee, the editor of Musing the Margins: Essays on Craft (Human/Kind Press, 2020), and the author of Queen of Pentacles (Choose the Sword Press, 2016). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review, CRAFT, Miracle Monocle, So to Speak, and others. She is a bi/queer and disabled/chronically ill writer who serves as a Diversity & Inclusion Editor for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.