“Ashes, ashes! Ashes, ashes! Ashes!”
Little Serenity’s shrill voice carried, with ease, through the living room and into the narrow kitchen of the two bedroom home. Ed rubbed his wrinkled forehead and added more vodka to the mug of orange juice that sat alongside piles of neglected plates and glasses that lined the countertop.
“We all fall down!”
Ed guzzled the alcohol-infused mixture until it was empty.
Serenity entered the kitchen, arms spread wide. “No, all of us fall. I’m the queen. I command you!” She turned her large light blue eyes to Ed. “Daddy, you too. Fall down!”
“No, no. Not today,” he managed.
Serenity’s foot was this narrow, tiny thing but that day it could’ve been the foot of a velociraptor as she slammed it against the white tile floor. “Fall down!”
Ed’s nose flared. “I’ve had about enough of you, girl.” He pointed to the fragile screen door that separated the kitchen from the neglected back yard. “Out with ya.”
Her arms folded across her stomach in a pout. “Fine. Stupid Daddy.” The words faded as she exited. “Stupid Daddy. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
When Ed’s eyes caught sight of a fresh presentation of chocolate chip size deposits trailed across the floor, he grumbled. “Damn things, back again.” A saucer fell and broke as he reached past a pile of plates to grab the box of rat poison. He shook it just to make sure there’d be enough to kill the sickening invaders.
Serenity hopped around the yard and eventually settled at her mother’s garden. Flowers blooming in spring, well, they’re a sign of new life, Serenity’s mom had told her daughter the prior year while rubbing her growing belly.
Like your baby? Serenity had asked.
But the small girl in her jean overalls and fairy princess shirt had never thought of the intruder as someone to be included. Worse yet, as her mom’s belly got bigger, she could no longer play games. Fall down, Serenity had demanded.
I just can’t, baby.
Soon after that afternoon the young girl’s mom had fallen down, along with her unborn baby brother who her parents were going to name George. Serenity’s mother and George had both fallen down, for good.
Serenity skipped around the square flower box. “Water them, care for them, show them a lot of love, and in early spring they’ll grow with help from sun from above.” Her thin lips curled into a smile as she continued her song. “Sing to them, talk to them, they’re safely in their beds. Then, silently, quietly, rip off their little heads.” Her fingers ripped off the white bloom of a daisy, and a familiar buzz fulfilled her stomach.
The sun that escaped the barrier of trees and branches that lined an old path through the forest caught the girl’s attention. She dropped the dying flower and used her ripped up Sketcher to kick it into the dirt. “Time to go see Maria. She’ll play with me.”
The bumps along the unsure path reminded Serenity of the weary sidewalk outside of her aunt Gerry’s home. Serenity never knew why her mom had decided to send her away, but she was awful glad her dad picked her up just days before her mom fell for the final time.
As she continued through the opening, the trees thickened and imprisoned the sun. Serenity appreciated the darkness as much as she appreciated seeing the mix of purple and black that circled Justine Harrelson’s left eye. The stupid little thing had approached Serenity on the playground, flipping her shiny blonde hair, displaying her marshmallow white teeth, like a hungry lion, a stupid little hungry lion. Weirdo. The girl let out this merciless laugh before continuing. I heard your mom died. Your mom is dead. Your mom is dea–”
Justine didn’t have a chance to do much more after that but scream. Students from all corners of the playground ran toward the chilling cries for help just to witness Serenity’s little hand come up with a fist full of hair before charging back down to the girl’s face. The next time, her hand came up covered in blood. She’d managed to do a number on Justine before a teacher arrived to stop the scene.
Remembering that darkness excited Serenity in a way she’d only known one other time. She took careful steps along the surrounded path until she came upon warm lights that glowed and outlined a mobile home. Serenity grinned and approached the front door.
“Hold on, hold on.” Maria peered out the door. “Oh, it’s you.”
Serenity took note of the rollers.
She motioned for the little girl to come on inside. “I’m not busy, just settin’ my hair.”
Serenity crinkled her nose and ran her fingers through her own short, black hair. “Sitting on it?”
“I put it up in these rollers, here. It stays rolled up for a week. I got it off one of those mailing catalogues. Don’t know if you all see the mail truck comin’ out here.”
Serenity shook her head and took a seat on the couch and swatted away a line of cigarette smoke.
“What are you up to today?” Maria shuffled into the kitchen area and stirred a deep pot before covering it. “I’m making up some stew, here. When I finish, you can take some back for you and your pa. How’s that?”
“Thanks.” Serenity took in a nose-ful of meat and spices she hadn’t noticed when she’d first arrived. “I want to play ashes, ashes, let’s fall down.” Her little eyes flickered and lit brighter than the flame on Maria’s lighter as the woman flicked the spark wheel to light another cigarette.
“Can’t today, button.” She gestured to her head. “Gotta keep these suckers still.”
Serenity huffed. Her face reddened and burned and the fire seared her stomach all the way to the bottoms of her feet. The girl balled her hands into threatening fists as she tried to put out the flames.
“Tell you what. Why don’t you go out and look for frogs in my yard. I seen lots of those things out lately.”
Ed poured more orange juice in the navy mug and filled it the rest of the way with vodka. The powder trail of poison blurred and danced when he studied it. “Dumb little shits,” he grumbled. “That oughta do it.”
It had done it for Laurel and his unborn son. Done it to the point the cops had hauled his ass down to the station until he proved he hadn’t been home the night his wife had poisoned herself. When the dumb fucks released him, they’d said, Darn lucky the little girl didn’t eat them cookies.
Ed had agreed at the time. At least he had his little girl, the porcelain, innocent face with wide almond eyes. He was damn fucking lucky. After a few weeks, he noticed how loud she was. She never shut the hell up, ever. Talk, talk, talk, talk, sing, sing, sing. She was Laurel’s job.
He took another sip; he could’ve put her in that dress. That one dress, the navy one with bright yellow sunflowers and those dirty white saddle shoes. He could’ve polished them up real nice. Paired them with white frill socks from the dime store and a big poof of a hair bow. He could’ve appreciated the little girl, then. Her still, slim body resting, motionless in a shiny, wooden box, her doll-like hands sleeping against her chest. He could’ve cried, kissed her forehead, and said a prayer before sending her to a silent sleep.
The bottle of vodka was empty. Ed reached for the Jim Beam.
A sharp cry caught Serenity’s attention. She walked toward the noise and saw a fragile creature. “Hey there,” she cooed at the baby sparrow. “I guess you lost your mommy.”
She reached for the bird and cupped her hands to cradle it. It sat still, beak opening ever so often to elicit another squeak. She studied its wide, black eyes. A few feathers had started to grow. The thing’s desperate screech irritated Serenity when she tugged at one of the attached feathers. She pressed the top and bottom of its infantile beak together and noticed how its eyes widened with fear. Her stomach twisted and tumbled, so familiar. The thrilling satisfaction nearly doused the fire.
“Here you go.” She sat the little creature on a bed of grass and grabbed a nearby rock. “We all fall down.” Her hum was peaceful as she tossed the stone and watched it crush the infant’s fragile skull.
She hadn’t noticed Maria open the trailer door.
“Over here.” Serenity stood and moved away from the dead bird.
“Soup’s ready. Bring the bowl back.”
“I’ll return it full of cookies just like me and my momma used to make.”
Maria extended the plastic tub to Serenity, purplish-red painted lips stretched into a smile. “I’d like that very much.”
Ed had enjoyed Maria’s soup. It’d been a long time since a woman cooked him a meal. A long time, indeed. And then, to follow it up, Serenity had left him with a plate of cookies before rinsing the tub and returning to their neighbor with a few cookies inside.
Maybe she was doing better than he thought. His hand shook as he reached for the bottle of Wild Turkey and took a drink. “Time to bait those fuckers again,” he mumbled and grabbed the box of rat poison from the table. He shook the container. Had he used that much a couple days ago? Maybe. Hell, he couldn’t remember. Ed bit into a still-warm cookie.
Serenity skipped up the uneven path. Even the trees that lined the walkway seemed lighter that day. She sang her favorite song, the one her mom had taught her. This is our song. It will always be our game. Nothing will ever come between us. But something did.
Liar, Serenity thought. “We all fall down. We all fall down. We all fall down. All fall down.”
I don’t know how he did it, but that sick bastard did it.
That’s what Sherriff McAllister had said when police had finally arrived on scene and found Ed’s body surrounded in an eruption of fluids that ranged from frothy vile around his mouth to moist stools near his waist and feet.
Thank God that little girl didn’t eat any. See if the neighbor lady heard or saw anything.
Maria was nowhere to be found.
Her property sat in silent isolation for days until buzzards started to circle the roof of her trailer. Their never ending honks caught McAllister’s attention. Hours later, they hauled Maria’s body from the residence.
Mc Allister glanced at the sun that danced through the forests’ branches. He thought of the innocent tears that had plagued little Serenity’s face. She is the sunshine in all of this, he’d said. That trash of a father she had. It’s a wonder the little girl is as stable as she is.
The years weren’t kind to Serenity. The trail of death that seemed to stalk her reminded her of the dark, uneven path of her old home. As soon as she reached adulthood, she moved back to that home. She needed familiarity.
And it was while she was clipping a rosebush that a head of light blond hair appeared at the end of that old path. “What you doing?”
Serenity took in the little boy’s cheeks that had not yet shed their baby fat. He was in red shorts and a blue and white stripe top. A strand of hair fell down his forehead and his lips exposed his white teeth when he gave her a chubby smile. She motioned for him to come over and spent the morning explaining all of her flowers to the boy.
“Go home. I go home,” he finally said.
“Did you just move in?”
“Me, sissy, Momma, and Dada. Just move up there.” His chunky finger pointed at the trail.
“That’s so wonderful.” That feeling surfaced in Serenity’s stomach. It tossed and tumbled through her body with freedom. “Run along home, now. Tell your mommy to have coffee ready. I’ll stop by with sugar cookies.” Serenity’s excited grin made the boy chuckle. “You like sugar cookies?”
He nodded his head.
“Okay, run on home. I’ll be over soon. I promise.”
Serenity’s eyes followed the boy as he toddled up the path and disappeared in the clutches of its darkness. Her grin spread wider across her face, she sang, “We all fall down.”
**A Huge Shout Out to Writers Unite for sharing “We All Fall Down” in their writing group! If you haven’t checked them out on Facebook or at their website, please do so by clicking the link!!