By Miguel A. Rueda
She had been living alone in the two-story farm house since her father died five years earlier. He’d tripped, and been impaled on the sharp blades of a pair of garden sheers while working in the tool shed behind the house.
“Happy Birthday to me,” she said to the snowflakes falling around her.
“What’s that ma’am?” Sheriff Hills asked.
“Nothing. I was talking to myself. It’s just another in a long string of shitty birthdays.”
“Sorry about that. Look, I don’t mean to rush you, but the weather’s starting to take a turn for the worse. I need to get on the road if I want to make it back before the roads get real bad.” He pointed to Martha’s suitcase; the last of the belongings she’d be taking to the one-bedroom apartment she’d rented in town, and nodded towards her car.
Martha stood the front yard hesitant to leave until she could recall a single happy moment spent on the farm.
She said, “Sir, could you give me one more minute? I want to take a walk around. To make sure I didn’t leave anything. Please?”
He scanned the clouds, then the road now covered in a light coating of white.
“Okay.” said Sheriff Hills. “But make it quick. I’ll give you the time it takes me to burn one cigarette.” He hurried back to his car, hopped into the driver’s seat, and lit one up.
The only tangible plus in the, ’stay’ column of her decision, was that she had never slept anywhere other than the house in which she had been born. The fact that both her parents had died in the backyard, should have been more than enough on the, ‘get the hell out’ side of the ledger.
Although she had the means to afford a smaller place to live, the thought of leaving the property didn’t feel right. Even with everything stacked against her, waiting until the bank forced her out was an easy decision to make. Martha’s job as a night clerk in a local motel barely paid her enough to afford food and the taxes on the land. The orchard’s apple trees, once thriving and the source of the family’s income, had become diseased and stopped producing marketable fruit after her mother died. After her death, her father lost interest in maintaining the trees. He ignored them, allowing them to wither and die.
Martha had found her mother, neck broken, eyes staring up at the window from which she had fallen. Ten years to the day later, she discovered her father’s bloody corpse on the dirt floor of the shed. It seemed to Martha, that all her traumatic life-events occurred on the anniversary of her birth. Despite the house being the only home she had ever known, whenever she tried to remember a single happy moment there, her mind’s eye turned to static.
A colorless memory appeared in her mind.
She was in a grey-white vision of a birthday party with two cakes. She had no idea why. She tried to concentrate on the event. But as she began to focus, the thought, and her will to discover its meaning, disappeared.
Determined to find at least one good memory to take with her from her childhood, she circled the house. Her heavy boots cut twin grooves into the deepening snow. She stopped at the rose-bush her father had planted on the spot his wife had died. Martha looked up at the house, her eyes focused on the windows of the second-floor bedroom in which she was born. The same windows her mother had been cleaning when she fell.
The static returned.
A grey vision of her mother sitting on a windowsill. Her mouth agape, plastic spray bottle of blue liquid in one hand, a cotton rag in the other. Her eyes were focused on Martha.
The fog cleared. The thought forgotten.
Martha turned back towards the yard. In the powder covering everything in a sheet of pure white, something neon-green caught her attention. It lay half buried in the snow near the shed. Having to go near the small structure caused her body to tremble. Whenever she had been judged disobedient by her father, he would lock her inside. Those memories were clear, full of color and sense. They came to mind as if they had happened that same day. Each brought with it the smell of manure and dust from the stored chemicals. The cold of winter, the heat of the summer.
Although Martha’s physical discomfort brought her no mercy from father’s punishment, she felt an inexplicable calm when she was inside. Being inside didn’t frighten her, the thought of being forced there did. She fought back the urge to avoid getting closer to the shed and approached the mysterious object. When she reached it, she saw that is was a rabbit’s-foot key chain holding a single bronze key. She leaned to pick it up.
The moment she touched it, a carnival appeared before her.
She was overwhelmed by a cacophony of music and laughter. Dull and lifeless flashing lights, that should have been bright reds and greens, blinded her. Her parents were there. Martha held her mother’s hand, her father stood with his back towards them. He had a mallet in one hand while he arranged a rubber frog onto a small catapult with the other. With each metallic crash of the hammer onto the lever behind the toy, young Martha’s stomach tightened and her eyes clamped shut in fear. Her mother jerked Martha’s hand and forced her to watch. Her father smiled each time he smashed the hammer down and launched a frog through the air towards a target just out of Martha’s view. After each attempt, her mother would look down and nod, then she would turn to her opposite side and nod again. She couldn’t see what her mother was looking at. Her sight beyond mother’s back, and father’s frantic hammering, were out of focus and too dark to decipher. Her father cheered and Martha’s gaze turned to him. He bent to hand her his prize– a dyed green rabbit’s-foot key chain.
Again her sight in this world returned, and as before, all memory of the vision vanished.
Holding the key chain, she looked towards the shed and saw a small child’s footprints in the fresh snow. The only other tracks were hers, heading back to the house.
Martha called out towards the front of the house, “Sheriff Hills, I need your help. There’s a lost child out here. Please.”
No reply came. Only the ominous silence of the falling snow.
‘I can’t leave a barefoot child to freeze, can I?’ She thought.
Turning back to the shed, she noticed an arc of snow had been pushed away from the door suggesting that it had been recently opened. A rusted lock hung from the latch, a delicate heap of powder sat atop the loop. Just as her father had done with her inside, the shed was locked. Martha said aloud, “Could it be the neighbor’s boys playing a prank on me?” She looked across the open field toward the next house, suspecting that somewhere out in the snowstorm, the brothers that lived there were laughing their fool heads off. Determined to not be the brunt of their joke, she began to step away from the shed.
The sound of a child crying stopped her mid-turn.
Martha’s strength vanished as fear took over her body. She dropped the key chain. She felt a constriction in her gut and with it a heightened sense of urgency. There was a tightening in her shoulders as the hair rose on the back of her neck. Her instinct was akin to the way a prey animal responds at the moment they realize their life is over. Her body, sensing she couldn’t control the outcome, gave up. Her muscles relaxed, nerve endings dulled, and the conscious control of her motor functions ceased.
Trying to rationalize what she had heard, Martha thought, ‘They’re using a radio to make that sound. They don’t want their fun at my expense to end.’
“You’ll be rid of me soon enough!” Martha shouted into the wind as she took another step back towards the house. In the hush of the snow, she heard a small voice.
“Marta, please don’t leave me again.”
Her legs gave out. Kneeling in the slush, her faulty memory finally delivered.
Thirty years ago, there really had been two birthday cakes. One for her, and the other for the only person to ever call her, “Marta.”
She whispered, “Berta.” Her twin sister’s nickname. “How could I have forgotten you?” Pinching her eyes closed, she blocked out the feel of the cold, the sound of the wind, the fear that gripped her. Martha focused on the small voice crying out to her. She concentrated on her sister’s name. “Berta, when did I see you last?”
It was a dark night. Moonless and still. Quiet but for the sound of Berta’s whimpers from the other side of their father as he dragged them both towards the shed. Ahead of them, their mother unlocked the padlock with the key on a novelty key chain won earlier that afternoon. It was the night of their fifth birthday. After the identical cakes, the presents and traditional singing of Happy Birthday with the personalized lyric, “…Dear Martha and Bertha…” Even at this young age Martha had learned not to fight back, to simply surrender and let it happen. Resistance had always made it worse. Marta cried to her sister, “Go limp, Berta. Daddy will be done quicker.” She tried to teach Berta to be compliant. But Berta always fought back, she never gave in.
Martha opened her eyes and turned towards the source of the voice that called out to her. Where there had been one set of tiny footprints leading into the shed, now there were two. She rose and picked up the key chain. The key slid into the lock and it popped open despite its rusted appearance.
“Berta! Oh, Berta, I’m so sorry. I won’t leave you.” Martha dragged the door open and stepped through.
She returned to the monochrome night, thirty years ago.
Standing flaccid near the door, Marta could only watch, helpless to stop their father as he pummeled her twin.The beating ended only after Berta too had become limp. The fight having been permanently squeezed from her small neck.
Martha returned to the present and looked around the inside of the shed. The last place she had seen Berta alive. She saw her father’s old lawnmower and snow-blower, tarnished from years of disuse. Bags of dust-covered fertilizer and soil piled in a far corner. Against the wall to her right was the workbench, above it rows of hooks where her father had hung his tools. In the center of the room, Martha saw Bertha. Face bloody and broken, the purple outline of her father’s hands visible on her crushed throat.
Martha cried, “I’m sorry, Berta. I failed you when we were young. I was a child, there was nothing I could do then, so I wanted to be here for you forever. I kept the house as long as I could, but the bank has taken it. I couldn’t save you from them then, so I took care of Mama and Papa for you as soon as I could.”
A grainy memory flooded her mind of her father’s screams as the points of the clippers pierced his chest. She felt the thick wooden handles vibrate in her hands as his ribs cracked. The same sensation of resistance, and then release repeated as the image of his face, frozen in horror, merged with that of her mother. The soft push she felt when the cold steel pierced his heart, mimicked that of when her mother released the broomstick as she toppled off her perch on the windowsill.
“Berta, I took care of them for both of us.”
Bertha’s head lolled to the side, neck broken in death as it had been in life. Raising her arm, she pointed at the workbench. Sight muddled with tears, Martha walked to the tool-covered wall. She picked a dusty hacksaw off a hook and clamped it, blade up, into the jaws of the vise. Turning her head towards Bertha, she leaned over and placed her neck on the rusty steel. Tiny drops of blood formed along the saw’s teeth as Martha grabbed the vise with both hands, and pulled herself into the blade.
“I will never leave you alone again.”
In a swift sideways motion, Martha tore open her own neck. Blood gushed from the ruptured artery as she collapsed onto the dark floor. As a spreading pool of crimson poured from the gash, Martha reached to her sister. Bertha smiled and took her hand.
* * *
Sheriff Hill had finished his smoke and he followed Martha’s boot-prints, the only visible tracks in the virgin white blanket to the shed.
“We’ve got to leave Miss.” the sheriff called from outside the shed. “I can’t leave you here. Come back later after I’m gone. Nothing personal, just doing my job.”
From inside the locked shed, muffled by the sound of the wind and falling snow, he heard the faint song of two young girls singing, Happy Birthday.
Miguel A. Rueda was born in New York City in the last year of the turbulent 1950s. His fiction has been published under both his given name and the pen name, Wayne Hills. Primarily a writer of horror and Sci-fi, he writes entertainment reviews for Crypticrock.com between crafting new tales of fright and wonder. His Facebook page can be found at, https://www.facebook.com/AuthorWayneHills Or he can be followed on WordPress at, https://waynehillsauthor.wordpress.com.