This story was inspired by my childhood obsession with Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies books and imagining that if I ate flowers, I could become one of those fairies.
Slipping Petals From Their Skins
By Kristi DeMeester
Carolina smells of viburnum when we bury her. My sister and I stand over the closed casket and pretend the fetid, cloying scent is the death lilies wreathed about the church, but of course we know better. Know if we opened up the box we’d put her in and pried open her mouth, those tiny white flowers would peek out from her throat like lace against her teeth.
One by one, the mourners file past, their hands against our shoulders, our cheeks, and we thank them for coming. Yes, she was a beautiful girl. Yes, we would miss her very much.
Mama is still in the front pew and hasn’t moved since the minister got up and started the prayer, so it’s up to Nettie and me to deal with all of the people who came.
“God will see you through, Mackenzie. Trust in his will,” Pastor Mills says, as he lays a heavy hand on my shoulder, kneading at the muscle there. He means it to be comforting, but I can feel his sympathy already dissolving, a fleeting mask of grief.
When the church finally empties out, I have blisters from the new shoes Mama bought me. Mama still hasn’t moved. She clutches the yellowed handkerchief Daddy left when he passed, but that was a long time ago, when we were just babies. I never knew how to mourn him. I feel bad for Mama, but I only know how to mourn Carolina, and I’m pretty sure Nettie feels the same way. Can’t miss the things you never knew you were supposed to.
Mama’s eyes are dry when we go to her, but they fix on some far away point, and she lets us help her up, our arms wrapped around her waist.
“Let’s go,” I say. Nettie and I balance Mama between us and leave Carolina behind in her cramped, cold box as we make our way to the cemetery behind the church.
In less than an hour, Carolina is in the ground. Nettie and I throw dirt into the hole while the preacher mumbles a prayer, and then the men from the church join together to fill it. A shower of stones to keep our sister buried. I want to tell them it won’t hold her there, but it wouldn’t change anything. Carolina told me.
The preacher’s words finally dry up, and he looks at all of us, all of his lambs, with eyes like a beat dog and tells us to look to God when we are in the dark valley.
It’s dark by the time we get home, the house a smaller shadow among the oak trees planted out front and the deep woods on both sides of the house. Mama goes straight to her bedroom. The lock clicks behind her, and Nettie looks at me.
“Reckon she knows? About Carolina? What really happened, and she’s coming back?”
“Not right now, Nettie. I’m tired. Give it a rest, okay?”
My sister frowns, pulls a strand of raven dark hair in front of her face and sticks the ends into her mouth. “But she’s coming back, right?”
The same old song and dance. The same old question. I’m tired of hearing Nettie ask it.
Outside, the night air beats against the house with frozen fingers; it settles around all the doors and windows, and tries to claw its way inside.
It was Carolina who let in whatever was tapping on the pane outside our bedroom. The windows were cracked to let in the July evening air so we wouldn’t stifle in our beds. It was Carolina who rose and went to the window and saw the beautiful thing moving through the night. Carolina who heard the voices coming from under the ground and followed them into something we could never understand. Four months have passed since the first night Carolina changed, and I still don’t understand. Not completely.
It doesn’t matter how it rattles at the windows or shakes the door, I’m not letting it inside. Even if what it brings is something so beautiful it makes you ache.
“Leave it alone, Nettie.”
“But why would she—”
“I said leave it alone!” I whirl on my sister, my palm itching with the need to crack her across her mulish face, and she scuttles backward, her eyes all scrunched up.
Truth is, I don’t know why Carolina did it either. Why she opened the window and breathed in whatever lingered in the air, why she gobbled up that terrible, beautiful thing until it came leaking out of her in sweetly scented petals and green vines.
At first, it didn’t hurt her. She plucked the profusion of stems and petals from her skin and left them scattered around the house or bunched in vases. Daisies and tulips the color of early spring on the kitchen table, or a single pansy tucked in her hair. Mama never questioned where they came from, and Carolina never let Mama see what was happening to her, and we all giggled whenever Carolina showed us the newest blooming. Three sisters hiding a secret.
She started bleeding in late November. Slick crimson and algae-colored liquid dribbled from her lips when she tried to speak, and there were mornings she couldn’t move.
“It’s sucking everything out of me. Making room for something else,” she said, and I held her hand while she looked up at me with eyes glittering with fever.
I told Mama that Carolina was sick and needed to stay home, and Carolina would wipe her mouth on the inside of her sheets when Mama came in to kiss her goodbye. Two weeks later, she was gone.
Nettie doesn’t talk to me for the rest of the night, and Mama doesn’t come out of her room. Every now and then I can hear her breath hitching, a slight choking sound, and then everything falls quiet again. Four times I walk to her door, put my hand on the doorknob and then take it off. I could go inside and lie to her. Tell her everything is going to be okay. Tell her Carolina is in a better place. But the lies sit bitter on my tongue, and I gulp air and hold it inside of me until I see pinpricks of light dancing at the edges of my vision.
Mama didn’t want everyone coming over to the house after the funeral, bringing casseroles and funeral grits by the pound, and so I make a dinner out of a couple of American cheese slices and some pickle chips I find in the refrigerator. Nettie has retreated to our bedroom. I’m not sure if she’s eaten or not, but she’s twelve years old now and can figure it out for her own damn self.
Carolina was the one who would cook for us on nights when Mama was working late or didn’t want to sit down at the kitchen table and pretend she understood us.
Seventeen and already talented in the kitchen, Carolina had a way of making whatever we had in the pantry match up just right with whatever meat or vegetable was in the fridge, and we wolfed her meals down while they were still too hot and scalded our tongues.
She tried to show me what to do. How to chop and mix and add salt in just the right amounts, but I never caught on, burning more than I ever put on the table.
“It’ll be your turn to take care of Nettie when I leave, Mack. You should know how to cook a little something by now. Jesus tap-dancing Christ, you’re fifteen years old and barely know how to burn toast,” she’d say, and swat at my butt with a kitchen towel.
I pad down the hallway to the only other bedroom besides Mama’s. The bedroom we’ve shared our entire lives.
Carolina’s bed is still tucked in the corner, her CD covers for Nirvana and pictures of the three of us still taped to the wall.
“I don’t want to take her stuff down. I don’t want to put it away. Like she was never here,” Nettie says. She’s buried under her ratty yellow comforter, a stuffed bear tucked beside her.
I pick my way across our bedroom, stepping over piles of clothes and scattered magazines, and sit on her mattress. It sags beneath me, and her body rolls toward mine. She wriggles away so she doesn’t touch me.
“Look, I’m sorry okay? I don’t want to take her stuff down either. It would be…weird.”
She doesn’t move out from under the blanket, and her voice sounds all hollowed out like she’s talking to me from some deep, underground space.
“You think it’ll be tonight? That she’ll come back tonight? It isn’t too soon, right? You don’t think it’s too soon?”
I don’t want to turn and look at the window, at the slatted dark pouring through the blinds, but I do. There’s nothing there. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed. Maybe a little bit of both.
“I don’t know,” I tell Nettie because I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.
The night before her body went cold, Carolina crept into my bed and spooned herself against my back. Her skin was hot, burning with fever, and her breath smelled of metal and something decayed.
“It takes a while to become something beautiful. Time and cold, cold earth.”
I turned to face her, and even in the dark, I could make out the purpled circles under her eyes. “What if you don’t come back?” I asked her, and she kissed my forehead.
“You’ll see. Be sure to leave the window open. Promise me,” she said and extended her pinky.
I wrapped my own around it and promised her. Promised my sister I would help when she came back.
The next morning, she was gone. A violet—all dusk and cream—poked out of the center of her chest. Before Mama came in and saw her, I plucked the bloom from her skin, and crushed it in my palm. Later, I carried the violet out behind the house and buried it as far and as deep as I could.
“Be sure to leave the window open,” Carolina had told me, but the window is closed. I don’t think I’ll be able to open it. Don’t think I’ll be able to keep my promise.
“Can you sleep here? With me? Just for tonight?” Nettie asks and pulls back the covers.
I climb in next to her, and her hair smells like her shampoo. Watermelon. Sweet in a way flowers aren’t.
I’m beginning to drowse when the first sound comes. A scratching somewhere just beyond the walls. Like something trapped outside is trying to get in out of the cold.
Nettie sleeps on, her breathing regular and even, and I hold myself still, tense every muscle so whatever’s at the window can’t see me or feel me moving. Another round of scratching, and then the smell of freesias leaks into the room. Then the smell of lilacs and roses and jasmine and the delicate laced petals of peonies. A smell for summer nights and not the dead of winter.
When the tapping begins, the window rattling in its pane, Nettie starts. Immediately, she
struggles to sit up, to turn to the window, but I wrap an arm around her and hold her down.
“Shhh,” I say, and she thrashes, the bedsheets tangling around our legs.
“Let me up, Mack, or I swear to God, I’ll kick your ass.”
The tapping is louder now, more insistent.
“It’s her,” Nettie says.
I clamp my hand over her mouth, and she bites me, her little teeth sinking into the soft pad of flesh between my thumb and forefinger. I shriek and let her go.
The tapping stops, and Nettie sits up, whipping to face the window. “Why didn’t you leave it open? Why would you do that?” she says.
Before I can grab her she’s out of bed and running for the window. “We don’t know what it is,” I say, but she doesn’t listen.
She presses her face to the glass, her breath a white halo, and stares out into the dark night. “Mack,” she whispers, her voice thick with fear, and I don’t want to go to her, don’t want to see what’s just outside of the window. “Mack, please,” she says again, and my feet swing out, the wood floor freezing, and I make my way to my sister.
“What is she doing?” Nettie says, and I join her at the glass and stare out into the yard.
Carolina is on all fours, her hair pushed forward so it covers her face, and she creeps over the ground. Her hands stretch out before her, the fingers twitching as if she’s teasing out what’s in front of her. As if she can’t see. Dark roots or vines trail behind her, and they too twitch and shift. Once, one of the tendrils plunges into the dirt, and Carolina goes still, but it doesn’t stay submerged, and she resumes her slow movement.
Nettie lifts her hand and brings it to the window as if she’s going to knock. My heart jumps into my throat, but she only presses her palm against the glass.. Her other hand reaches for mine, so I wrap my fingers through hers, and together we watch our sister creep through the yard.
She never looks up at us, but I think she knows we are there. A couple of times she lifts her head in our direction, and Nettie goes stiff against me, but then she swivels back to the dirt, and it’s like all the air has been sucked out of the room and what’s left is the smell of flowers.
We stand in front of the window until the sky turns early morning gray. When the first light hits her, Carolina crawls into the trees, and the fallen leaves and pine straw swallow her up. I want to call to her, to tell her to come back, that I’ll open the window, but Nettie’s hand is still in mine, and I bite down on everything I think I want to say.
“Come on. We have to get ready for school,” I say, and Nettie walks out of the room without looking back.
Mama doesn’t come out of her room while I pour bowls of cereal. We both pretend to eat, moving the soggy flakes around in the chipped, porcelain dishes, and then dump what’s left into the garbage.
When Nettie’s bus pulls up, gravel and dust flying, she trudges toward it. Before she gets on, she looks back at me, and for just a second her eyes look like Carolina’s, and then the doors close, and the bus pulls away.
My own bus is late, and I make my way to the back and sit with my hood up, watching the landscape bleed past me. I fall asleep in first period. Ms. Volman’s playing an audio book for us like she does every day and sitting her lazy ass behind her computer while she types away at some shitty poem she’s writing. Sometimes I wonder how she got this job.
I dream of ranunculus, of verbena, of creeping phlox, and lily of the valley. Dream of Carolina guiding my hand over the identification book she found in the library, the strange syllables heavy on my tongue as we memorized the things growing from her skin. The air poisoned with the sweet, heady smell of her hair and breath, and she lifts her shirt to show me the place where the thorns have come through, the dried blood flecking against pale flesh. There’s blood in her mouth, but she is still talking to me, crimson gore against her teeth as she smiles and tells me it’s so much nicer under the ground.
I wake up when the bell rings with a cold fear in my belly. Drool pools under my cheek, and I wipe my face, gather my books, and hurry to second period. I don’t fall asleep again.
I’m the first one to get home, so I let myself in with the key I keep in my purse. “Mama?” I call out into the quiet house. She doesn’t answer me.
One by one, I tiptoe through the rooms, hold my breath each time I put my foot down, but each room is empty, and the dust sneaks past my lips and into my lungs. I pause outside of her bedroom and press my ear to the door.
At first there is no sound, but then I hear it. The slight hitching of her breath. She’s crying again. I think of knocking, think of going in and wrapping my arms around her, but I’m not sure I would know how to do it, so I head back into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of milk, and carry it into the living room.
When Nettie comes home, she drops her backpack by the door and heads straight to the kitchen. There’s the sound of a cabinet opening and closing, the rush of water running from the tap, and then she comes out of the kitchen and hurries past without a backward glance.
She’s by the window fiddling with the latch when I go into the bedroom.
“What are you doing?” I ask her, and she jumps, turns from the window with guilt smeared across her face.
“Nothing,” she says, but she angles her body away from me so I can’t see what she’s hidden in her hands.
She fights me when I grab at her hands and force them open, but eventually she sags, lets her arms drop to her sides, and what she’s holding clatters to the floor.
A bottle of water and a small, thin saucer. Nettie looks away.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I thought if she was thirsty, she would come to the window.”
“Nettie, you can’t do this. We don’t know what we saw last night. We were tired. A lot of shit’s happened.”
“I know what I saw, and so do you. Did you dream about her today, Mack? Did you dream about her like I did? Because I bet you did. I bet she came to you, too.”
“It doesn’t matter if I did or I didn’t. We don’t know what it is we would be inviting in. Carolina didn’t know, and it messed everything up, Nettie, and now she’s dead, and everything’s fucked, and Mama won’t even come out of her room. We can’t let it in. Even if we think it’s her. We can’t.”
“You told her you wouldn’t leave her. You promised,” Nettie says.
“We can’t,” I say, but the words are dead husks of everything buried deep down inside of me.
Nettie frowns and bends to grab the saucer. She stands and flings it against the far wall where it shatters. “Go to hell, Mack,” she says and runs out of the room.
The front door slams, and I know I won’t see Nettie for the rest of the afternoon. She’ll come home when it’s dark. Until then, I’m stuck in this house with the artifacts of my sister’s life and a mother who’s forgotten how to exist.
I stand in front of Carolina’s bed and trace my fingertips over her lilac-colored quilt. She used to joke that one morning she would wake up and I wouldn’t be able to tell where the petals left off and the quilt began. Nothing more than bone ground down into something lovely and fragrant.
Her dirty laundry is still piled on the floor, her boots still at the foot of her bed, the laces unraveled and spilling over the fake, worn leather. For a moment, I can see her sitting on the edge of the bed, bending over to lace them up, her face bright and smiling.
As quickly as the vision comes, it’s gone, and I’m alone in the room. I pick up the bottle of water and the pieces of saucer I can find and carry them to the kitchen, put what’s left of the saucer in the trash and pour the water down the sink.
I spend the afternoon staring at my math homework, but the numbers blur together, and I can’t focus. Mama never comes out of her room, and the house is heavy with the silence of the dead.
I heat up a can of soup and pick out the noodles. Nettie still hasn’t come home, and I go to the front door, open it, and look out into the yard. The sky is painted with dark purples and girlish pinks. Floral. A bridal bouquet of a sky.
Nettie isn’t in the yard, and I watch the trees. My sister doesn’t emerge from that dark space, so I stand in the doorway until my fingers are numb, as shadows steal into and swallow the oil-slicked colors of the sky.
I close the door but leave it unlocked. Nettie will come back. She has to come back.
I’ve only just closed my eyes when I hear the front door open. I sit up and wait for Nettie to come into the room, but other than the door opening, there are no other sounds. No shuffling footsteps coming down the hallway. Nothing.
“Nettie?” I call out into the void, but no response comes back.
My mouth floods with the taste of something sour, and my heart beats panic against my chest. I walk slowly, pass Mama’s still closed door, like the door to a tomb. Behind the wood, I wonder if Mama has stopped breathing. If her body has gone cold, too.
I pass the empty kitchen and turn to face the living room. Nettie isn’t there, but the curtains are thrown open and moonlight paints the entire room in silver. The couch and the end tables are lit up and glittering. The front door is closed. Whatever I heard steal into the house isn’t here. Not anymore.
I move to the window and lean my forehead against the glass. Out in the yard, two shapes come together and then apart. Vague outlines of two sisters, one whispering into the other’s ear. Nettie. Carolina.
Nettie sees me first. Her mouth lifts into a smile, and she brings her fingers to her lips. Carolina sits behind Nettie, her knees dampened with dew and earth, and she braids Nettie’s hair. Her fingers twitch like spiders through the strands, gardenias growing from her arms, her chest, and she places them in Nettie’s hair, weaves her a night crown filled with white petals and sweet perfume.
They open their mouths, perfect round O’s that circle pearled teeth, but I cannot hear them, cannot hear the words they pass between them, and my heart aches with everything I’ve lost. I reach out to touch their skin, their hair, but there is only the cold glass under my fingers, and I pull my lips back from my teeth. I scream.
Nettie doesn’t look at me again. Carolina never turns to face the window. Mama doesn’t come out of her room. I am alone in this house, and the weight of it presses down, the scent of cherry blossoms thick in the air, and I think I’m drowning inside of it.
I lie down on the floor, close my eyes, and wait for the sound of footsteps against the porch, wait for the sound of the door opening, but it never comes. I count the space between my breaths and force my palms flat. I think again of Carolina, the July night when she first showed me the flowers, how we marveled at the thing she had become. But I had been afraid. Too afraid to follow her into the cold earth.
“I’m still afraid,” I say, and I settle. I wait.
The entire world is coming undone. Everything shifting like gravel beneath my feet, and I flail, my hands beating against the thing shaking me.
“It’s just me, Mack. It’s okay. It’s just me.” Nettie kneels above me, her hair tangled and knotted with leaves and dead flowers.
The room seems to expand and then contract. In and out, I try to breathe but my lungs feel raw as if I spent the night gasping at frozen air. “What did you do?”
Nettie presses her cheek to mine. Her skin is warm and flushed, and I catch the faintest trace of wisteria. I grab her wrist and wrench away so I can see her face.
“What did you do?”
She tugs at the collar of her shirt, pulls it away so I can see the faint purple impressions nesting against her skin.
“I thought it would hurt, but it didn’t. Not even a little bit. And once it’s there, blooming inside of you, everything lights up. Everything is so beautiful. We could all be together again. The way it’s supposed to be,” Nettie says, and I tuck my knees to my chest.
“Mama’s dead you know. Swallowed a big bottle of pills. Not sure what they were, but Carolina told me.”
“I’m not. When was the last time you heard her in there? Moving around or crying or anything at all?”
In the room down the hallway, Mama doesn’t make a sound. I picture her on the bed, cocooned in blankets, her eyes still fixed on that point I’ll never see. I don’t want to go in there, not even to check and see if Nettie’s right.
Nettie stands before me, her skin swirled and dotted with flora. Like a seed buried under the ground rupturing from spring earth. My sisters, blooming.
Carolina was able to keep the flowers hidden from everyone but Nettie and me. Wore long sleeves and pants and got dressed right after she took a shower. Even when she died, there was only that one violet I stole from her. All of the others bled away, were tucked somewhere safe inside of her so her body was smooth and unmarked. A deception wrapped in cold skin, and we kept her secret.
Nettie smooths her hands over the imprints of the petals and smiles. A secret smile. The smile Carolina carried on her lips for months before she drowned inside all of that sweetness.
“It’s so much better this way,” Nettie says and brushes my hair away from my forehead like Mama used to do when I was little and burning up with fever.
She shrugs. “Not really.”
“You won’t be you anymore. You saw what Carolina is now.”
“No. You’re the one who didn’t see.”
I don’t want to find her beautiful. Don’t want to stare like someone bewitched as those pale blooms shift and change under her skin. I’m still afraid, but more than anything, I wish I didn’t want them, too.
“Tonight,” Nettie says and stands. Her feet are bare and streaked ink black with dirt. When she goes, she leaves the front door open, and December wind swirls through the room and catches at my hair.
I don’t go to school the next day. Spend the morning and then the early afternoon in the hallway, my lips pressed against Mama’s door, trying to work up the courage to call out for her or open the door or any goddamned thing other than standing there, but each time I do, my stomach clenches up, and I can’t make myself do it.
I’m not sure where it is Nettie went. I searched the yard for her, shouted her name into the dark spaces hidden in the forest, but nothing answered me, so I went back into the house.
I go into our bedroom and lie down on Carolina’s bed. “I should have opened the window,” I whisper, and my skin burns. I want to be beautiful, too. I don’t want to be the only one left behind.
Carolina never knew where the thing that changed her came from, if it was an angel or a demon or something else. She didn’t have a reason for why all of those terrible, beautiful things found their way inside of her other than she was the one to open the window.
“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked her the night it happened the first time.
“No. Of course not.”
“What if it’s something bad?”
“I don’t care. How can anything so beautiful be bad?”
I was afraid for her. Fearful of the lovely things hiding under her skin, those feather light petals pushing through to make her something else. Something other. And I was angry for a while. Hid her favorite t-shirt and took her toothbrush and swiped it across the toilet seat. Angry because she’d been chosen instead of me, but then she started choking up blood.
I wait for the light to fail, for shadows to slip through the room, and I force myself up, force myself to move, to do anything other than lie there and wait for something to happen.
The front door is open again, and I pause at the threshold, look back at Mama’s room, and then move out into the moonlight.
Carolina and Nettie stand in the middle of the yard, their hands clasped together, flowers erupting from their arms, their chests, their throats. Winding vines grown lush in the winter air and petals of sunshine, blush, violet, and cream twisting over and boring into bare skin.
“There’s nothing left for us here, Mack,” Nettie says, and petals fall from between her lips like the fairytale we used to read when we were girls.
“Nothing,” Carolina says, and her voice is oil slick. The voice of something broken free from meat and bone. Full of light and sweet smells, my sisters smile and their eyes are luminous. Deep and dark as the night sky, and I feel myself leaning toward them.
“Stay here. With me,” I say. I can’t be sure if I’m speaking to Nettie or Carolina or both, and my throat knots.
Carolina comes to me first, her hands cool against my skin, and she presses her mouth to my face, drinks in my tears, and I collapse into her, let her fold me up tight, tight, tight, until I’m nothing. There is only her. This girl filled with flowers and darkness. My sister.
“We can’t stay. Not like this. You know that.”
Nettie kneels beside us. Her face is pale, drawn up as if whatever’s inside of her is eating her up from the inside out. She vomits into the dust, the liquid a profusion of deep green, and her hands clutch at nothing.
“There’s nothing left,” Carolina says and extends her hand. Her skin ripples, the petals contained beneath thinly veiled, and I want to open my mouth, but everything stays frozen while Carolina holds me and Nettie retches in the dirt.
“For so long we’ve been second. Drifting and wondering when something would come along to take away everything that fell apart. A dead daddy and a Mama who looks at her three girls and sees only what she’s lost. So much she lets them go,” Carolina says, and Nettie lifts her head and wipes at lips gone crystalline.
“It’s only us. Always us,” Nettie says.
“And now?” I ask, but I don’t want Carolina to answer. It’s better to not think. To vanish inside the dream.
“And now,” Carolina says and presses her lips to mine. “Say yes, sister. It will always be us. Growing strong.”
Nettie puts her arms around me, and we sit there, together, crumpled against the ground like used up things that have been tossed away, and there is only us, only this unspoken need moving through me like water or fire, and I’m opening my mouth.
I’m opening my mouth, and Carolina breathes into me, honey sweet. Bees buzzing and warm spring air damp against my skin. Sisters bound together by flesh and petals.
I open my eyes. Everything bright. Everything beautiful.
About the Author
Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection forthcoming this year from Apex Publications. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9, Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3 in addition to publications such as Pseudopod, Black Static, The Dark, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com.
About the Narrator
Nika Harper is a writer and performer who spends long, solitary nights on the internet because her brain won’t shut up. She lives in Los Angeles, CA, where she houses her collection of magic wands and an overwhelming stockpile of empty journals. You can check to see if she got any new tattoos recently at ThisisNika.com and chat about horror on Twitter @NikaHarper.