When Ellen found her cat, Rusty, had died in his sleep, she buried him in the woods beside a tree, and carved his name into the trunk. Then she sat by his grave site and cried softly, already missing her beloved friend of seventeen years. Rusty was like her – old, fat, tired, rusty. She knew his time would be soon. She didn’t expect it to be that very day.
Ellen walked home to her now empty apartment and made herself a cup of tea. She turned on the news to see famine and corruption, and when it only depressed her more, she turned it off and briefly thought about maybe giving her sister a call, but that would absurd. She and Megan hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years, not since their mother’s funeral. There wasn’t any one solid reason why they stopped talking. They just didn’t like each other. Never did. And their forced relationship only lasted as long as their mother did.
But the death of Rusty suddenly made Ellen lonesome for family. Rusty was all she had and now he was gone. Megan had children. Ellen didn’t know how many at this point, but she had met one of them while he was still a baby. Ellen held him and noticed that he had red hair just like her. He was just darling and he’d be a young man by now. Ellen wondered if he had a wife or children of his own. Did he know about her? Did he ever ask Megan, where is Aunt Ellen? Probably not. Why would her existence matter to him? She hadn’t been a part of his life for twenty-five years. She lacked any significance to him, his mother, and the siblings Ellen could only imagine he had.
Ellen stared vacantly at her photos of Rusty on the piano. She thought maybe playing the piano would make her feel better, but she couldn’t remember the last time she played. Maybe she wouldn’t even remember how to play. Anyway, her hip was hurting quite a bit. She then recalled all the times Rusty would purr on her lap whenever she was in pain. Or he would sit beside her at the piano, and listen as she banged out Chopin and Mozart. He was such a sweet animal. She missed him terribly.
Ellen slept for the rest of the day and all of the next day, until she realized she hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and that her fridge was bare. Ellen counted what was left of her Social Security money and decided she had maybe enough for a week’s worth of food, if she budgeted well. She wandered over to the old grocery store down the street and was greeted by Mr. Chong, who was always very kind to her. Often, if Ellen didn’t have enough money for a few items, he would buy it for her and then he would help her carry the bags home. “No cat food today?” Mr. Chong questioned with his ever so friendly tone.
“Rusty passed away this week.” Ellen informed him.
“Ms. Bryer, I am so sorry,” Mr. Chong said to her with the up most compassion.
“Thank you. He was a good cat.”
“Please, let me carry your bag home for you.”
“No thank you, Mr. Chong. I think I can manage this one bag today.” She smiled and Mr. Chong smiled, and Ellen put the groceries into her cart, and left the store. As she exited, she heard a clinking noise coming from behind her. She turned to see a little girl, no older than the age of seven, shaking a coin within a tin can.
“Spare some change, ma’am?” The little girl choked. Ellen was aghast at the girl’s appearance. She wore only a ragged white dress and no shoes. She was skinny. Too skinny. And gaunt. Her fingers and toes were long and her hair was gone. In some ways, she didn’t look human.
“Where’s your mother, child?” Ellen asked the girl.
“I don’t have a mother.”
“I don’t have a father.” The little girl shook the can again. “Spare some change, ma’am?”
“A child your age should not be on the streets alone. I’m going to call someone to help.” Ellen removed her phone from her purse to dial the police, but her it was completely dead. “I must have forgotten to charge my phone. Oh dear.” She knelt down to the little girl and put her hands on the child’s shoulders. “What is your name, little one?”
“I don’t have a name.”
“Everybody has a name.”
“Maybe you could give me a name?” What a strange request. Ellen had never named a child before. She always believed that if she had a daughter she would name her after her mother.
“Okay, how about Sylvia?” The little girl grinned, bearing her unusually sharp, yellow teeth. “Do you like that name?” Ellen asked. Sylvia nodded. “Well, Sylvia, I can’t just leave you here. It wouldn’t be right. Would you like to come to my house for dinner and there I can charge my phone and give Children’s Services a call.” Sylvia’s grin was wide and joyous and she reached out her hand and Ellen took it in hers and they strolled on home together.
Ellen made roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas for dinner and Sylvia gobbled it all down as if she hadn’t tasted food in years. With what little Ellen was able to afford, she knew how to make a worthy meal, and Sylvia’s appreciation of her cooking was gratifying. After dinner, Ellen took her medication and Sylvia questioned what they were for. “It’s for my pancreatisis,” Ellen told her. “I have to take them with food or I get sick.” Ellen then checked her phone again and saw that it still would not turn on. “This darn thing!” She muttered, “I have never been a fan of anything high tech.” Ellen sighed. “Well, it’s late anyway. I can make up the couch for you to sleep on and we can go over to the police station tomorrow.”
Ellen ran a bath for the girl and scrubbed her delicate skin clean of all the crusted dirt she had been covered in. She gave Sylvia a large t-shirt to sleep in and pulled out plenty of blankets and pillows from the closet for the girl to cozy up in. “Tell me a story,” Sylvia asked Ellen.
“Oh I don’t know any stories,” Ellen said.
“Tell me about the ugly duckling who grows up to be a beautiful swan.”
“Oh yes, that is a good one.”
“Ellen, do you think I’ll be a beautiful swan one day?”
“Yes, I think you’re beautiful now!”
“People are afraid of me. They’re afraid of the way I look.”
“Well, I’m not afraid of you. Everyone is unique and special in their own way.” Ellen kissed the child on the forehead and made sure her blankets were snug. “Goodnight Sylvia,”
“Goodnight Ellen.” But thirty minutes later Sylvia was at Ellen’s bedside. “I couldn’t sleep.” She whimpered in a high pitch voice, and Ellen opened her arms and held the child lovingly.
“You poor dear. You must be so frightened.”
“May I sleep in here with you, Ellen?”
“Of course!” The girl climbed into bed and rested her head on Ellen’s plump breast.
“I want you to be my mother,” She said and this startled the woman.
“Hush child. Go to sleep.” Sylvia pulled the blankets over both of them and slept peacefully throughout the night.
When Ellen could not conceive a child, her husband, Grant left her for a much younger woman. They were quickly married and had twins the following year. She began to drink a lot around this time and her chronic health issues cost her her job at the bank. Ellen became a recluse and shut out the world. She couldn’t bear to run into Grant and his family or sit through another knitting group, while the women discussed their children and looked at her with pity when she’d mention she didn’t have any. “You’ll want to hurry up and have them soon,” one woman had said to her. “The clock’s ticking!” Ellen thought to embarrass the woman by explaining that she was infertile, but what was the point? These women didn’t understand loss and hardship. They had husbands who provided for them, and children who gave them all the meaning and purpose they longed for. Ellen was better off in hiding, far from a world that reminded her only of her regrets and disappointments.
It was hard to find clothes that fit Sylvia. She was tiny and disproportionate, but she enjoyed picking out various baseball caps to cover her bald head. Pinks and purples were her preferred colors, as well as images of Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck. Shoes were uncomfortable for her though. She didn’t like wearing anything on her feet and even after she and Ellen had left the free clothing shop with bags of clothing, Sylvia took off her shoes on the bus to walk barefoot. “Where are we going now?” Asked Sylvia excitedly.
“I thought we might stop at the police station to see if they can help you find a new home.”
“But you’re my new home!” Sylvia protested.
“Sylvia, I’m sixty-two years old and poor. I can’t give you the things you need.”
“You’re all I need!” Sylvia cried, folding her arms defensively. Ellen’s heart ached.
“You may stay with me another day,” she told the girl. “We’ll contact Children’s Services tomorrow.”
“Play me a song!” Sylvia requested, motioning toward the old upright piano back at the house.
“Oh, I haven’t played in years. I don’t think I’d be very good.”
“Well, what would you like to hear?”
“I don’t know. Anything.” Ellen sat at the piano and pondered, then slowly she placed her fingers to the keys and began a piece by Chopin, Nocturne opus 9, number 2. But the melody was choppy and she couldn’t remember the notes.
“Like I said, it’s been a long time,” Ellen apologized, pausing with shame. Sylvia sat down next to her on the piano bench and began to play the piece perfectly. Ellen was astonished and she joined in, playing beside the child in perfect melodic symmetry.
A knock at the door interrupted the two’s playing. Ellen glanced at Sylvia, perplexed, as she did not get many visitors. She opened the door to find Mr. Chong standing with a basket. “Oh dear me, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had company.” The man from the grocery store stated as he noticed the strange looking girl sitting at the piano, her eyes intensely focused on him. “Oh, why yes. Sylvia this is Mr. Chong from the grocery store.”
“Hello Sylvia!” The girl said nothing. Ellen noticed that Mr. Chong had a basket with him. She looked at him with curiosity and Mr. Chong seemed nervous. “My – uh – my neighbor’s cat had kittens a few weeks ago. I thought you might like to welcome a new friend to your home.” He pulled a small brown and orange critter from the basket. It mewed and squeaked and Ellen gasped with surprise and adoration.
“Mr. Chong!” She managed to say, but as she took the tiny kitten into her arms Sylvia flung herself from her seat at the piano and started to scream. “Sylvia? What’s wrong?” The kitten puffed up, growled, scratching Ellen to get free.
“Dear me!” Mr. Chong said, scooping the animal up and placing it inside the basket. Sylvia was in a rage, pushing over the piano bench and knocking books off the shelves. “Sylvia!” Ellen shouted and she grabbed the child by the wrists and pulled her to the floor to keep her from hurting herself.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“Just go!” Ellen demanded, holding the girl whose breathing was heavy and coarse. Mr. Chong looked sadly at the basket and carried it away turned away. Ellen barely noticed his exit, as she rocked and soothed the child.
“Please don’t ever leave me, Mommy!” Sylvia begged and she hugged Ellen, her tiny fingers clinging with desperation.
“I won’t child,” The woman whispered, rocking her back and forth. “I won’t ever leave you.”
“Let’s watch a movie!” Sylvia then suggested cheerfully and she skipped into the living room and turned on the television. “Do we have any popcorn?”
“Yes, I think I have some microwavable popcorn in the cupboards.”
“Goody!” Sylvia said. “I love popcorn!”
Sylvia slept next to Ellen every night now. Even with her smooth scalp and odd features, there was still something so angelic about her when her eyes were closed. “Mommy,” she would say to Ellen, “Do you love me with all your heart?”
“Yes, Baby,” Ellen would reply. “With all my heart.” And Sylvia would cuddle in close to Ellen’s bulging breasts and curl her skinny frame with a gentle smile upon her face.
Dear Ms. Bryer, I am so sorry for causing a disturbance at your home last week. I thought that maybe you would enjoy having another feline, but I did not know about your current guest. Please accept my deepest apologies. Sincerely, Bo.
It was a letter from Mr. Chong slipped into her mailbox. Ellen thought of the kindness he had always shown her and felt guilty that she had not accepted his kindness the day he came over with the adorable animal as a gift. Any other day, she would have gladly taken the critter in, but her attention was on Sylvia at this point. And why shouldn’t it be? Sylvia was a child. An orphan. Her well-being and happiness was presently far more important. But Mr. Chong. He was a good friend.
The letter went up in flames in Ellen’s hands and she gasped to find Sylvia staring at her with a displeasure. “Mommy, I want to go to the playground.” Ellen could not speak. She was too in shock over the burnt ashes that had been Mr. Chong’s letter. “I want you to push me on the swing.”
“Sure Sweetheart. That sounds fine.” Her words stumbled out, but Sylvia smiled and grabbed her coat. As the two headed down the street toward the bus stop, they spotted Mr. Chong carrying boxes into the grocery store. He tilted his hat toward Ellen.
“Mr. Chong, I saw your letter. Thank you so much for the kitten. Now is just not the time.”
“It’s not a problem. I should have asked first.” Mr. Chong bent down toward Sylvia. “And who is this lovely young lady?”
“This is Sylvia. She’s my-” And then Ellen didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “Sylvia, say hello to my friend, Mr. Chong.”
“Please to make your acquaintance, Sylvia.” He extended his hand and Sylvia coldly took a moment before taking his hand in hers. As she squeezed his palm Mr. Chong looked deep into the little girl’s black, demonic eyes. His smile faded and dread came over him. He pulled away and glanced back at the woman who did not seem to know or care that this child seemed inhuman.
“Well, we must be on our way,” Ellen told the man and he nodded without a word, letting the two pass by him.
“Mommy,” Sylvia said to Ellen as they ate sandwiches at the picnic table. “Do you love me more than Mr. Chong loves you?”
“Oh child, don’t be silly. Mr. Chong is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for years.”
“Do you love me more than he loves you?” Ellen thought about it.
“Yes, Dear. I do.” But honestly, Ellen had never considered Bo Chong’s supposed “love” before. He was the grocery store clerk. He was a friend. A part of her life, yes, but not in any romantic way. At least that’s what she had assumed all these years. Ellen had lost her looks after her first marriage fell through, and romance was not something she saw ever happening again. Did Mr. Chong harbor feelings for her that she was unaware of? The idea made Ellen feel fairly light and and warmed. Perhaps it was her turn to have it all. Perhaps she would finally get her chance to have the family she always wanted.
Ellen dug through her closet. All her dresses were matronly and unflattering. There was one somewhat stylish afternoon dress she had hanging, but she hadn’t worn it since her sister’s baby shower in the 90s. She doubted it would still fit. However, once she put it on, she realized it didn’t look so bad. The zipper did not go all the way up, but she had a nice cardigan to disguise this fact. She also had one shade of lipstick. It was a dull peach, but it would have to do.
“You never wear lipstick.” Sylvia stated, as she watched from the doorway.
“I thought I would try something different today,” Ellen told her.
“I like how you looked before.” Ellen’s feelings were hurt, but she did not respond. “Where are you going?”
“Just down the road. We’re low on groceries. I don’t have any money left, but Mr. Chong will probably help us out.”
“He’s going to take you away from me, isn’t he?”
“Child, don’t be silly.” But Sylvia was not being silly. She was frightfully serious and she turned away from Ellen and ran into the TV room to watch her cartoons and squeeze the stuffed elephant Ellen had made of wool for her.
When Ellen arrived at the grocery store, it was mostly empty as it often was. She peered over the counter, but did not see Mr. Chong at his register. “Mr. Chong?” She crept around the corner of the shelves, and saw nothing but aisles filled with cans and produce. “Mr. Chong?” Ellen wandered to the back of the store where the storage was and her voice echoed as she called the clerk’s name again. And as she tripped over boxes in the dark, she was horrified to see Mr. Chong’s body dangling from a rope tied above. His tongue stuck out from the corner of his mouth and his eyeballs were grossly prominent. Ellen screamed and tripped over more boxes and junk strewn across the floor. “Help! Somebody help!” She cried, but the paramedics confirmed his death upon arrival. Mr. Chong had hung himself and Ellen’s dear friend was no more.
What had happened within the few short hours between his demise and when Ellen had last seen and greeted Mr. Chong on the sidewalk? Surely he could not have had a total breakdown in what was such a small chunk of time! And while Ellen admitted she did not know Mr. Chong too intimately, he was a friendly, decent, and joyful man. He had no reason to kill himself. He would never! What for? Did she not consider his feelings soon enough? Did a long-term unrequited love get the best of him? Ellen would never know! And she would never get the chance to know what might have been.
“Don’t cry, Mommy,” Sylvia said. “You still have me.”
“I know, Darling, but I’m still very sad.”
“Let’s play a game! Let’s play Hide and Seek!”
“I don’t feel like playing Hide and Seek right now, Baby. I’m too sad to do anything right now.”
“But you still have me!” Sylvia said firmly,.
“I know Baby, and I’m so very fortunate.” With that, Ellen removed herself to cry in her bedroom in solitude.
At breakfast, Ellen was still grief stricken, but she did not know how to explain her emotions to the young girl. Sylvia seemingly did not understand why Ellen would care about anything that didn’t have something to do with being her mommy. “Mommy, let’s play ‘I Spy’! I’ll go first!” Sylvia announced. “I spy something blue!”
“Is it the sky?” Asked Ellen.
“Is it my apron?” Asked Ellen. Sylvia giggled.
“Is it my tea cup?”
“Yes!” Said Sylvia with cheerful enthusiasm, “your turn!”
“No, Sylvia, we need to talk about you staying here.” Ellen sat down at the table next to the child. “It’s been lovely having you here, but I’m afraid with Mr. Chong gone, I will not have much help affording food. I think it’s time we tell Children’s Services about your situation.”
“But I’m yours!”
“No child, not really.”
“Yes, I am! You said you loved me with all your heart!”
“Then why do you want to get rid of me?”
“I don’t, Sylvia! I want what’s best for you! You need to go to school. You need children your own age to play with.”
“I don’t want to go to school! I want to play always!”
“Children need to be in school.”
“No!” Sylvia threw her dish and it broke into several pieces. She slammed her chair backwards and tore at the window curtains.
“Sylvia, stop this!”
“No! No! No!”
“Sylvia, I can’t do this! I can’t be the one to take care of you like this! I’m not well enough!”
“No! No! No! No!” Ellen looked into the child’s black eyes and for the first time, realized that Sylvia was not an ordinary little girl. It was possible she wasn’t a little girl at all. At this very thought, Ellen felt a twisting pain in her stomach. She rushed to the bathroom and puked up repulsive green bile. Ellen remained puking for what seemed like hours and when she finally seemed to have gotten everything up and out, she managed to crawl into her bed and rest, her body weak and aching from the sickness.
“Poor Mommy,” Sylvia said, throwing a blanket over the old woman’s shivering form. Ellen cried out as if her stomach was being cut up with glass. She was dying. She knew she was dying. This is what dying felt like. And if she didn’t get help, she would most certainly perish in that tiny, isolated apartment. “Here you go, Mommy,” Sylvia said sweetly, offering Ellen a glass of water, which the woman took, but spilled on to the floor.
“Silly Mommy,” Sylvia grinned.
“Please child, I need to go to the hospital.”
“Let’s play a game, Mommy!”
“No Sylvia, no games. I’m very sick!”
“The game is called ‘guess where your medication went’.” Ellen was now convinced. Sylvia was trying to kill her.
“Sylvia, that is not a game. I need those pills to survive! Please bring them to me.”
“No, you promised you would love me forever. But you lied, Mommy!”
“I’m not your fucking mother!” Sylvia frowned and glared at the distraught woman before her. Then she stomped into the living room and turned on her cartoons. Sylvia could hear her giggling at the goofy voice of Sponge Bob and when she pulled herself up to get her phone, she noticed that it was still dead. In fact, she hadn’t used it since before Sylvia came to her. Somehow, Sylvia was preventing her from contacting the outside world. Or maybe it was the outside world that Sylvia didn’t want contacting Ellen. After all, it was her sister who finally had the police bust into Ellen’s residence, only to find her corpse weeks into decay. Megan had been trying to reach Ellen for a while. She wanted to make amends and introduce the woman to her three sons who were curious to know her. Sadly, neither sister would ever get that chance. According to the police, Ellen had died alone in her apartment, from pancreatitis related complications.
“Spare some change, Ma’am?” A little voice spoke quietly as a young woman passed along the street.
“Of course,” the woman replied with immediate concern. She dug into her purse and then stared at the child momentarily. What a lovely, yet strange looking child she was.“What’s your name, little one?” The woman asked.
“I don’t have a name,” the child replied. “Maybe you could give me a name?”
Bio: Deb (Spinster) Eskie is a resident of California and has an M.Ed in creative arts education. With a background in women’s studies, her focus as a writer is to expose the woman’s experience through unsettling tales that highlight the dilemma of sexual repression and oppression. By combining the genres of feminist and horror/science-fiction she aims to not only disturb readers, but deliver a message that is informative and thought provoking.
In 2005 Eskie’s play, Tell Me About Love, was featured in the Provincetown Playwright Festival. She has been featured in various online magazines such as Deadman’s Tome, Bad Moon Rising, and 69 Flavors of Paranoia. Eskie has a number of short stories published by Pill Hill Press, Post-Mortem Press, Scary Tales Publications, Cruentus Libri Press, and many others.