L.L. Madrid is the winner of our 2015 Halloween contest! Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest. You can read our finalists and runners up here.
THE RAT GIRL OF SAINT BRUNO’S
by L.L. Madrid
Sister Mary Elizabeth acts cheerful, but she’s afraid. My nose crinkles. Underneath the mildew, I can smell her fear. She calls me sweetheart and is careful not to look at me. It’s funny; grown-ups try their best not to see, but kids stare, too scared to turn away. Mommy and I follow her down a dark corridor that connects the cathedral to the convent. She’s taking us to see the Mother Superior. My fingernail drags along the wall, scratching the bubbling paper. Mommy pushes my hand away and shakes her head.
Tail slips from its holder and smacks the stone floor. Sister Mary Elizabeth jumps. She’s a flincher. Tail flicks and sways. Flinchers make her want to wrap around ankles and yank. She wags fast and fierce. Mommy gives me that look. She doesn’t understand that Tail hates being tied up, that I can’t always control her. If we were anywhere else, she’d tell me to put Tail away, but today…
Today you’ll regret waking.
Voice is in a foul mood. I’m trying to ignore him, but he lives in my head and he can make me hurt. I did what he said, I kicked and screamed and told Mommy I wouldn’t go…but I can’t control Mommy either. Voice snarls.
I wonder what it’s like to have a quiet mind. I’ve never been alone in mine, but still, I’m lonely. I don’t have anyone besides Mommy and Voice to talk to. I go to school, but no one wants to be near me.
They call me Rat Girl. Though I wear layered skirts that go to the floor to hide Tail, everyone knows. Tail’s always getting free. She grabs, swings, and can kind of cool. I wish Mommy would let me, just once, go to the park and hang from the monkey bars by Tail. I know she’s strong enough. I tested her out on the towel rack and Tail pulled the bar right out of the wall. Mommy was so mad.
Sister Mary Elizabeth doesn’t look at me when she points to a kid-sized chair next to a box of toys. Eyes on the door, she says that it was nice to meet me, her voice sweet in the same fake way medicine is.
Mommy sits in front of the desk. The room is small and the window is long and skinny like in a dungeon. The only wall hanging is a giant crucifix with scary Jesus on it. I don’t mind happy Jesus, but crucifix Jesus with his twisted face, razor ribs, and nailed feet…I just want to go home.
The door opens and Mother Superior, all in black, enters. She is much older than Sister Mary Elizabeth and wears a full habit. Voice growls, hisses, and spits behind my ears.
A giant wooden rosary hangs from Mother Superior’s hip, beads clacking like skeleton bones. Tail twitches. She wants to wrap around the cross and rip all the pieces off.
“Nice to see you again, Mrs. Palmieri.”
Mommy rearranges her hands, hiding the bare finger on the left. “Rose is fine.”
Mother Superior pitches her voice higher. “Hello, Miriam.”
Naked dolls and sticky blocks fill the toy box. I reach for a big headed baby.
“Manners Miri,” Mommy scolds.
Mother Superior’s gray eyes are small and sharp. She’s no flincher.
“Hi.” I pull the doll from the box and place it on my lap. It has a cloth body and fat plastic hands and feet. Mommy and the nun start talking. I try pulling the baby’s head off. It doesn’t budge. I wish I was anywhere else. This room is dark and smells like bleach. I dig in the box some more. There’s a GI Joe who’s missing a leg. It doesn’t matter. Most of these toys are broken. Nobody wants them.
“Have you thought about having the growth removed?”
“The doctors said we’d have to wait until she was older, but she wants to keep it.”
Tail is alive. It would be a mortal sin to let her get cut off. I don’t want to be a murderer.
I move to the floor. It’s hard and cold. I find a Tonka truck and have it run over GI Joe. The baby tries to stop the truck, she’s bigger than it, but she’s just a baby.
“Have you considered exorcism?”
I don’t know what that word means. I slow the truck, paying more attention.
“No. I don’t think so. I mean, how can you exorcise a tail?” Mommy laughs like she does when she’s about to cry. I don’t like it when she cries. Her tears are black like ink.
“The tail is a mere symptom of the demon that’s been with the poor child since birth.”
Are you a demon? I ask, rearranging the toys. Mommy doesn’t like it when I head-talk; she calls it “staring into space”.
Choke her. Bite her. Dig her eyes out.
Did you hear? They want to exercise us. What does that mean?
Kill her. Do it, Rat.
Voice knows I won’t do that. Still, he claws at the back of my eyes and shrieks in a way that makes my tummy feel sick. Trying to ignore him, I take out a second naked baby. Holding both babies by their ankles, I crash their big round heads together. We’ve been here forever. Voice is getting madder and madder. I’m about to beg Mommy to leave when Mother Superior asks, “What about Miriam’s father?”
I hold my breath. Mommy never talks about him. I can feel her looking at me. I drive the truck up a radiator and whisper, “vroom-vroom.”
Daddy couldn’t love a rat.
“Sshh!” I didn’t mean to shush Voice out loud. Mother Superior’s head jerks to look at me.
“He didn’t stick around,” Mommy answers quickly, turning the nun’s attention back.
Mother Superior doesn’t speak, I sneak another look. The lower half of her face cracks into an unpleasant smile, her lips pale and thin like worms.
“Jonny was a drinker. Unemployed. What does he have to do with any of this?”
“You tell me.”
“Are you saying this is some sort of punishment from God?”
“A punishment? From the Lord? No. We’re all to face judgment, that’s certain. But this is not the Lord’s doing.”
“Miriam! Take that tail out of your mouth!” Mommy’s chin quivers. I didn’t realize I was sucking on Tail. Sometimes I sleep with her in, or I’ll sit in my closet and suck on her end when I’m sad or scared. Tail doesn’t have any hair. She’s pink, long, and strong like a whip made of muscle. She tastes salty sweet. I slide Tail out and tuck her underneath my skirt. I bang the baby heads together again.
Slam your head through the wall. Do it.
Don’t like it? End it.
Voice hacks and laughs. He’s always telling me to kill myself. Silence thickens my mind. Sometimes Voice doesn’t talk for days. I’d like the quiet if his absence wasn’t filled with headaches.
“Saint Bruno’s has a small parent-child support group for special cases. It meets the last Saturday of every month.” Mother Superior rises and gives Mommy a card. Mommy kneels beside me and I go still thinking she’s going to hug me. She doesn’t do that much anymore. She reaches under my skirt and ties Tail in place before patting my shoulder.
Mommy sits next to me on the bed. “Say your prayers, Miri.”
“You forgot the night light.”
She sighs and walks over to the wall and flips on the ceramic teddy.
Tonight we’ll see if dreams can kill.
“I don’t want to go to Saint Bruno’s tomorrow.”
“It’s not up for discussion Miriam.”
I pull the covers up high, only the curls of my fingers and the tip of my nose show. It isn’t fair for Voice to punish me when I don’t have a choice.
Here’s a choice, kill Rose or kill yourself. Voice is always awful, but these last days he’s gotten worse. I don’t answer him and a blackness seeps over my chest. Cold crushes me.
“Prayers.” She sits and slides her pinkie near my hand. I clutch it along with the blanket.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” The blackness grows heavier and heavier, colder too. Tail creeps up to peek over the covers. The blackness is at my throat. Tail is sneaking out, I continue to pray. “If I should die–“
“MIRI!” In the glow of the night light, Mommy’s eyes are black pits against bone white, just like a skull. She’s trying to pull away. Tail is wrapped around her wrist, squeezing. Mommy’s nails dig into Tail, it hurts, but Tail doesn’t want to let go. “Please, Miri…you’re scaring me.”
The blackness lifts and I can hear Voice hack-laughing.
Tail loosens and Mommy shakes her off and backs up to the door.
“Sorry Mommy. Tail—I didn’t mean to.”
She’s gripping her wrist, holding it to her heart. She’s looking at me in the way I don’t like.
Heh. Heh. Heh.
“Where did you hear that version of the bedtime prayer?”
“I taught you, May angels watch me through the night and wake me in the morning light. Where did you learn the other way?” She’s still clutching her wrist and is as far away as she can be without leaving my room.
“I don’t know.”
You’ll never leave Saint Bruno’s. Voice is back. A deep growl rumbles through my bones.
“Please don’t make me go.”
“Good night, Miriam.” Mommy shuts the door all the way. She’s mad at me. When she’s happy she leaves the door cracked so a strip of warm light shines from the hall. Tonight she wants me to feel alone.
Snap her neck. Slit your wrists.
I pull the pillow over my face, trying to drown Voice out. I finish my prayers.
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
The staircase to Saint Bruno’s basement is dark and twisted. My stomach knots. I’m afraid of what we’ll find, but at the bottom it looks like Gramma Hockaday’s rumpus room. The walls are wood paneled and the carpet looks like too-dry oatmeal. There aren’t any crucifixes in here, just happy Jesus paintings and one of Mary with her floating heart. There’s a card table set up with cookies—not Oreos but the ones that look like Oreos but aren’t as good—and red Kool-Aid. I hope it’s not sugar-free. I want a not-Oreo, but Sister Mary Elizabeth says I have to wait for the break. Tail slithers out and thwaps her sensible loafers. Sister Mary Elizabeth crosses herself.
Voice hacks and coughs. He’s laughing, but his anger is growing hot inside me. Cold sweat pricks at my hairline; I don’t know who the fear belongs to or if we share it. Tail shudders, excited to be loose. Mommy doesn’t notice, her eyes are busy scanning the room. Mother Superior is talking to a couple with a little boy with pupils slit like a goat’s.
Voice wolf whistles, hurting the insides of my ears. I want to know if the boy has friends, or if the other kids call him Goat Boy. There are two other sets of parents with a kid each, but I can’t tell what’s wrong with them. They’re already sitting in the circle of chairs.
“Are we expecting anyone else?” Sister Mary Elizabeth is the youngest nun I’ve ever seen. I wonder if she’s a nun because she grew up and nobody loved her. She takes a chair from the circle, smiling too-big, all her horsey teeth showing. Mommy is sad. She doesn’t want to be here either. Tail wraps around her waist like it used to when I was littler. Mommy lets it stay for a heartbeat before she tells me we have to sit.
Mother Superior starts the meeting with a prayer asking God to deliver us from secret snares of the enemy. Voice growls, his fury blasting my skull like lava. My throat burns. Sugar-free or not, I wish I could drink the entire pitcher of Kool-Aid. I swallow all the spit in my mouth and try not to focus on Voice.
Mother Superior introduces everyone. Mr. And Mrs. Hollis and their son John Michael—goat eyes. Mr. And Mrs. Goodwin and their daughter, Helena. Helena’s hair is blond and curly like a princess, she doesn’t look up. I wonder what’s wrong with her. The last kid, Shane, flaps his arm like a bird and gurgles.
Scurry away, Rat. The burning is gone. Voice sounds softer. Get out now and I’ll take it easy on you.
Are you scared?
Metal grating metal answers.
Mommy introduces us and I let Tail curl like a snake on my lap. I want the other kids to see, to know that I belong here. Maybe we can be friends. Mommy looks cross. She’s embarrassed because she’s the only grown up here without another grown up. Even the nuns are a pair.
I keep my head down, but I can feel everyone’s eyes on Tail. I let her stretch and slither down the chair leg, wrapping like a vine. Shane’s parents talk first. Disgust oozes from phrases like special class, biting, and possible explosion. Their venom seeps over Shane, who picks his nose unconcerned. They are arranging an exorcism. Mother Superior approves and asks Mommy if she wants to attend, to see firsthand. Helena’s Dad interrupts, bragging it worked miracles for their family. Helena’s mother tugs at a cuticle, pulling the skin until I can smell blood.
“I don’t think that’s right for Miri, for us.” Mommy looks at the door. I pray she’ll grab my hand, and that we’ll just leave. Voice wants her to do that too. It’s strange agreeing with him.
“I understand Miriam has violent tendencies.” Mother Superior’s face clenches like a fist.
Mommy goes stiff. “Miri is a child. Sometimes she acts out.”
“The child strangled you with her tail.”
Mommy starts to cry.
Sister Mary Elizabeth hands her a box of tissues.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.” Tail is coiling, readying to strike.
Do it. Kill them all.
Tears pierce the corners of my eyes. Mr. Hollis is talking now. Someone is watching me. Across the circle, Helena’s head is cocked like a fox’s. Her eyes are solid blue. When she catches me looking, her bowed mouth tugs open into an awful smile. With a blink, Helena’s pupils spill into the blue, oil gushing into the ocean. My head pounds, erupts with the wails of the tortured, screams not pleading for life, but begging to die. Helena smiles bigger, teeth glinting. I can’t move, can’t tear away from those eyes. Like black holes, they hook into mine, ripping through space and time, to the place where stars die.
The edges of my vision tinge red with blood. My heart slams against my chest. It flaps and pounds like a bat trapped between fire and wire. Desperate. Harder. Faster. As my ribs spread and crack open, the shrieks worsen. I want to shove knives into my ears, to make the sound stop. Please stop.
The screams fade under fear’s weight. There is a chiming of a bell, so quiet I now strain to hear.
A stone descending into tar, my stomach sinks. This is an unfamiliar evil. The tinkling laugh turns to a snarl. Gnashing bones and shredding soul flesh rent the air. The world inside me cracks, splinters, and shatters. The shards of what was twitch and rise. They skitter, a thousand insect legs slicking away, pouring from my hands like a stigmata of spiders.
All is quiet.
A fluorescent bulb flares, pops, and goes black. There is a crash followed by gasps and stumbles. Mother Superior lies broken on the floor. One hand froze in mid-claw at her chest, the other gripping the wooden rosary cross. Mr. Hollis calls 911, a finger jammed in his ear. Sister Mary Elizabeth screams and screams. Her arms stretch skyward, a child desperate to be held.
Mommy kneels and slips two fingers beneath the high collar of old nun’s shirt. She removes the fingers and shakes her head. The boy with the goat eyes is sobbing, snot running down his chin. The other boy stands open-mouthed in a puddle of urine. My palms press over my ears, doing nothing to stop the cries. Mommy sits and pulls me to her lap. I wait for Tail to wrap around Mommy’s back, to make me feel safe, but Tail doesn’t move. She’s heavy like an anchor.
A giggle slips through Sister Mary Elizabeth’s screams and my gaze is pulled back across the circle. Helena watches the scene, hands folded in her lap, her feet swinging. She is humming, a self-satisfied ditty. I turn away. It’s easier to watch Mother Superior’s lips, to wait for breath.
The paramedics arrive. They put Mother Superior on a stretcher and cover her with a white sheet. One by one the other families leave. We go last. Sister Mary Elizabeth has stopped screaming. She sits in the empty circle, staring at the bare carpet.
Mommy takes my hand as we exit the church into the bright day’s sun. Tail drags on the pavement.
“Baby, are you okay?”
“Do we have to go back?”
“I want the doctors to cut off the tail.”
“Are you sure?”
I nod. “She died.”
“Mother Superior is in heaven.”
I don’t correct Mommy. Hell is real, but Heaven is pretend.
L.L. Madrid lives and writes in Tucson. She resides with her four-year-old daughter, an antisocial cat, and the occasional scorpion. Her work can be found in places like Literary Orphans and in shoe boxes under her bed.