SISTER’S HAMMER by Cyndi Gacosta
The birds outside her bedroom window warn the other birds to fly far from the house. Something terrible is about to happen. The ants and the roaches sense it, too. They crawl up the wall and squeeze through a tiny crack in the window.
Sister waits for the sign.
The lamp on the nightstand wobbles and tips over the edge. It lands with a soft thud on a pillow she threw on the floor. The books and dolls and other cute trinkets on the shelves all come down. She can hear Ma and Pa rush out of the bedroom, their footsteps racing down to the end of the hall to the baby room where it lives. The creature’s shrill cut through her skull like a chainsaw.
Sister wishes they’d never brought it home. They should’ve left it to rot in whatever field they found it in, but they were desperate, and the Devil smelled it. They want her to call it Brother.
It’s not Brother, she told them. My real brother was born a stone and we buried him next to Gramma and Grandpa.
That earned her a hard slap.
Call him Brother or else, they warned.
What they’ve brought home isn’t human, but that doesn’t matter to them. The family has a son. Finally, a son. He’ll carry the family name and inherit the world. What about me? Won’t I get anything? She asked and she remembers the way they laughed. They told her, you’ll have a name and a house when you marry.
When you marry... the words roll around in her mouth like bitter-sour candy she spits out.
She slips into her warm, fuzzy slippers. As the Big Sister, it’s her duty to feed the not-so little beast in the baby room. It’s got an appetite equivalent to a blue whale. Blue whales eat up to four tons of krill a day. The creature eats four kills a day. It eats and eats, yet its body never grows except for its large misshapen squash-like head.
She puts on a thick warm jacket and earmuffs and mittens. She wraps a scarf around her neck then pokes her head out the door anticipating the storm. The creature’s howls nearly blew their house down once and the neighbourhood like the wolf in the Three Little Pigs story. But to her surprise, the neighbours didn’t march onto their front porch, demanding Ma and Pa to get rid of the creature.
They weren’t enraged at all. Instead, they vomited a long string of compliments to the thing with the kind of cute baby tone. He’s got a strong voice! Oh, yes, he’d make a great leader! Leadership requires a strong voice!
Pa and Ma beamed with pride.
I’ve got a BIG VOICE, too! Sister yelled, but instead of receiving praises and gifts like the creature, she got an ear-clap and a scolding.
She heads toward the kitchen through the living room. Her eyes straight ahead, not daring to glance at the door leading to the basement. Pa calls it the Workshop. He keeps it bolted lock from the outside. That’s where he kept the dogs, cats, birds, and other little critters he’d catch. But the creature’s taste has moved on to bigger things.
She stops. Her ears pique. The hairs on her arms prickle up. Someone is on the other side of the door. She hears them humming. She recognizes the tune. The voice, too. She’s heard it during recess at school. Six girls double jump-roping on the blacktop, singing the song. They were happy. Big toothy smiles that reached up to their eyes. They were six best girlfriends, but now there exist only four.
Sister passes by the two lost girls at school all the time. They smile from the posters taped to the fences with other smiling lost girls. They’re everywhere. Their faces printed out in black and white are pinned onto the cork surface of the noticeboard. Their names are spelled out on the school marquee where underneath it is a mountain of white flowers and teddy bears and candles. She remembers Ma took one of the stuffed toys, a white rabbit. Ma reasoned it was no good leaving the toys outside when the cleaners were going to throw them out anyway.
The humming stops.
“Is someone up there?” a tiny voice asks.
Another cries, “Help us, please!”
Sister stumbles back. Her bones chilled. No one’s there, she tells herself. No one.
She scurries to the kitchen and opens the walk-in freezer. She tightens the scarf and draws the jacket closer. She keeps her eyes to the shelves stocked full of meat wrapped up in saran wrap, but the hanging meat on the hooks at the end of the room swing into her peripheral vision like ghostly apparitions.
They still look like people. She can make out the shape of their heads and shoulders.
They hang upside down as the hooks hold them up a few inches off the floor by the heels. They’ve been drained and skinned.
She grabs a slab of meat off the shelf and rushes to the door.
Locked. Her heart quickens. She pulls on the handle again. The door remains stubborn.
The chains rattle.
A raspy voice calls out for her. Sister! Please help...
She shakes her head. They’re not alive. It’s her morbid imagination. The lights playing a trick on her eyes.
The chains clink again. Footsteps behind her.
Its shadow casts over her.
Sister, please help. Save us. Its cold breath brushes against the back of her neck prickling the skin, raising the little hairs.
“You’re not real,” she whimpers.
We are here.
We can’t rest. Free us.
Our souls are lost. You can end this.
“I don’t know what I can do.”
More chains rattle. More voices join in.
Kill the beast! You free us. You free yourself.
Their voices louder and clearer. But they’re not here, she tells herself again. If they’re not real, then they wouldn’t be there. She dares herself to turn her head a smidge, sneaks a sideway glance. Lidless eyes stare back at her. Cloudy eyes that were once dark brown. Its tongue dangles from its jawless head.
She lets out a shriek, but the sound can’t penetrate the air-tight freezer. She bangs on the door beating the steel surface until her knuckles become purple. The door swings open. She lurches forward and falls over tripping on the slab of meat she grabbed off the shelf. Pa is standing in the kitchen with his black rubber apron and machete.
“Ghosts! Monsters! They’re in the freezer, Pa!” she sobs, pointing to the freezer.
Pa looks in. “There’s nothing.”
“But I saw... I heard them!”
“Stop playing, Girl!” he growls, “Your brother’s been waiting for his breakfast. Your mother won’t be able to keep him calm much longer. You know he doesn’t have patience.”
Sister wipes the tears off and nods. The creature needs to be fed.
Pa picks up the machete and unlocks the door to the Workshop. The odour of the scared things waiting in the basement wafts into the kitchen. She can taste their salty snot and tears, their urine leaking down their inner thighs, and the shit smeared on the walls. The stink lingers for a while even after Pa shuts the door and trudges down the creaky steps. Then, the screams. They puncture through the kitchen floor, clear and sharp like knives.
Sister pulls out a roasting pan from the bottom cabinet. She hums loudly to herself, drowning out the screams. She hulls the chunk of meat onto the pan and loads it into the oven. She cranks up the knob. The light inside switches on and the oven begins to hum along with her, too. The meat glistens as its icy coating starts to thaw.
She looks around the kitchen. Sees no one. Not Ma or Pa.
Psst. It calls out again.
And then it dawns on her. The noise is coming from the oven. The meat’s centre has sunk in, forming a toothless mouth. It tries to smile as if to make attempts to ease her fear. Then, in a bitter voice, it introduces itself as one of the many lost girls. One of the older girls, fatter and lonelier than the others Pa found at a high school.
Sister stumbles back, stunned. “You’re not real!”
Oh? But I’m here. You put me here.
She shakes her head.
“I’m just doing what they need me to do.”
You know what they do, see what they do, and you do what they do. That’s the problem.
“I didn’t kill anybody. I don’t eat anybody; I’m not like that monster.”
You might as well be like the monster, might as well have been the one to have killed us ‘cuz you do what they tell you to do. So many souls are lost in this house, so many of us who are restless and angry and scared.”
“What do you expect me to do? I can’t do anything about it.”
You can end it.
What does your Pa have in the Workshop?
She shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m not allowed down there.”
I couldn’t see anything when I was there. Your Pa kept us in another dark room. But I know he’s got some tools in the Workshop. How do you think he slices us up? Cut us up like a steak dinner for that beast.
“I’ll get in big trouble if I go in Pa’s Workshop. I can’t…”
The meat sighs.
When your Ma and Pa are gone one day, who do you think will be the one to feed the beast? Who’ll kill for the beast? It’ll be you. You’ll be the one to clean up its mess. And you’ll be the one to come up with excuses for it—he’s really a good boy but boys like him got big appetites.
“No, it won’t be.”
You’ll be trapped in this cycle. It’ll keep going round and round.
You know, I could’ve been someone. I could’ve had a future, but I can’t now. I’m dead.
Your Pa killed me, and your brother is going to eat me. How many more of us will have to die to keep it alive?
“No! I won’t let that happen anymore!”
She won’t let it. Not today, not tomorrow.
Then find a way to end it.
The timer dings. No more screams. The house is quiet.
She pulls out the soft dark pink meat. Its mouth gone. She pokes it. The meat is warm on the outside but cold in its core. Raw is tastier. More flavourful. That’s what Ma says the creature wants. Ma’s the only one who can talk to the creature. It hasn’t yet learned how to speak, not even a word.
But nature, Ma said, has a way for him to speak to her. Its vines. Long, long vines branching out from the one large horn on its bulbous forehead. Sister couldn’t hear him say a word, except grunts and cries.
That’s because you need to stop talking and start listening, Ma told her. To live well is to listen to the men of the world. Listen to the father, listen to the brother. When you marry, you listen to your husband, listen to your son.
But Sister doesn’t want to listen to Brother.
Footsteps ascend the creaky basement steps, and Pa emerges from the Workshop sweaty and tired and grumpier. He frowns.
“What did I tell you earlier?” he asks.
“Fix up Brother’s breakfast,” she answers.
“That’s right, and you’re behind schedule. Do better. Come on, get to it.”
Pa wipes the sweat off his face with the back of his hand. “I’m going to shower. Help your mother with the laundry, too.”
He heads toward the bathroom, his boots leaving a faint red trail of boot prints. Once she hears the shower turn on, she dashes to the bathroom and peeks through the crack of the door. The curtains are drawn around the tub with steam beginning to fog the room. Seeing the small heap of clothes on the tiled floor, she grabs Pa’s black pants. Her hands fumble through the pockets, shaking in frantic search for the key. Her clumsy fingers let it slip from its grasp and it drops to the floor. She swoops down to grab it.
“What do you have there?”
Her heart jumps out of her chest.
Ma stands at the end of the hall with her arms crossed in front of the door to the baby room.
“I was just going to take Pa’s clothes to the laundry room,” Sister answers.
Ma narrows her eyes, scrutinizes her from afar. Her gaze falls on the bundle of clothes in Sister’s arms.
“Why do the laundry now? Go get your brother’s breakfast!”
Sister’s stomach growls. She’s hungry, too. But she doesn’t tell Ma. Brother’s breakfast comes first. She nods and drops the clothes, stuffs the key in her pocket and hurries back to the kitchen with Ma, who takes the meat to the baby room. She waits and listens for the right time.
The shower shuts off. The metal rings of the shower curtain slide across the metal pole. She hears the medicine cabinet open, and all the things in it being shuffled around.
Her fingers toy with the key in her pocket. She approaches the door to the Workshop and sticks the key in the socket and turns it. It clicks. She glances over to the baby room. Ma is still inside feeding the beast. Pa is humming to himself and running the faucet.
She opens the door and steps in, closing the door behind her. The stinging smell of bleach strikes her nose. She slaps a hand over her mouth to keep from gagging. All the blood rushes to her ears, heart pounding loud in her chest. Terrified what she’ll find downstairs.
She makes her way down the steps, light pressure on the steps like they’re brittle bones.
She freezes at the slightest squeak. She expects Ma or Pa to barge through the door in a fury and catch her, but they don’t come.
She looks around, surprised to see the tiled floor and walls white as bone and the steel surface of the meat grinder shine like new. She smells another odour mixed in the bleach, its metallic taste sticks to the roof of her mouth.
Is someone out there? I’m so cold. It’s so dark inside. I know you’re there, say something.
The voice of a girl cries through a stainless-steel door on the other end of the room with a large padlock.
“I come to end it,” Sister says, voice quivering. “I—I’m going to free you all.”
How’re you going to end it? The beast is bigger and stronger than you are.
“I think I know what to do.”
She spots Pa’s machete hanging on a hook on the wall alongside a dozen other tools.
Meat cleaver, sledgehammer, and blades of different lengths and sharpness lined up according to size. All clean of blood. All imbued with the screams of their victims.
Take the sledgehammer. It’ll take out the beast in seconds.
Its head is hard like a squash. Smash it.
The lost girl behind the door begins to sob.
“Why are you crying?” Sister asks.
I wish you’d come a little earlier. And I’m so cold. And it’s so dark inside.
The lost girl’s tears leak through the bottom of the door. Thick blood oozes toward Sister’s feet. She reaches for the sledgehammer. The weapon drops from her hand as she struggles to lift it up. More bloody tears flow out in a steady stream. With both hands, she lifts the hammer over her shoulder and bolts for the stairs. The adrenaline rushes through her in waves.
The door flings open and a great shadow blocks the doorway. Pa’s cold, hard gaze falls on the hammer. “What do you plan to do with that, Girl?”
“I—I...” she sputters.
“Give me the hammer!” he growls.
She shakes her head. Not today, not tomorrow. She tightens her grip on the hammer’s long handle. Pa charges down and grabs it with his large calloused hands. She refuses to let go, but Pa’s strength overpowers her, and the weapon is wrenched from her grip. The face of the hammer sends a blow to Pa’s head. He plunges head-first to the bottom of the stairs, his neck bent in an unnatural way with a knob jutting from the side. Sister’s hand flies over her mouth to hold back the scream.
Pa’s wide panicked eyes stare up at her, the life in them dimming like she’d seen the soul of a large dog disappear when he hit it with the truck. It didn’t struggle as he hauled it to the back. When she looked at it through the back window, she saw the soul inside clinging to life and sending a silent and desperate plea for help. The light in its eyes died.
The blood river rises, and the hands of the lost girls reach out and drag him into its depths.
“What’s that noise? What’s going on?”
She hears Ma draw closer to the Workshop, but the sudden burst of the creature’s wailing deters her. She runs up and finds Ma going back into the baby room. Sometimes the creature can be calmed by a song. Ma starts to soothe it with the same song the lost girls hummed. But the creature grows more agitated.
She hears the struggle inside. The choked screams. The desperate clawing at the door.
Then, all becomes quiet again.
She braces herself and opens the door. The smell of rot sits in the air, sticks to her skin and constricts her throat. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, the creature starts to take form, its gigantic head appears like the rising moon over Earth. The creature’s vines sprawl across the walls and ceiling, pulsing like veins. They hang Ma up on the wall and smaller branches of vines pour out from where her eyes and tongue should be.
“Do you want to play a game? Close your eyes, dear Brother, and count to ten.”
Sister picks up the stuffed one-eyed bunny, its seams unravelling. She holds the toy up for it to see, the hammer waiting behind her.
The morning after, the house is quiet. The birds fly in. They chirp and nest in the tree in the backyard garden. The ants march over three mounds of dirt where vines have grown and spread across the yard and up the sides of the house to its roof. As the vines’ growth stops, something blooms on the plant, not one or two, but many around the garden.
They grow eyes and ears. Their mouths, rows of tiny pointed teeth, open wide. Their appetites large. The birds stop singing.