Withering

By: Olivia Betterton

Daisy stretched her toes towards the floor and landed on the hardwood with a quiet thud. She paused for a moment and glanced at her sleeping sisters. Rose was still hogging all of the blankets in their shared bed. Violet, the oldest, was stretched out as wide as her small frame would allow. Lily was curled into a compact ball with all of her blue blankets cascading from her bed like a waterfall.

The dull gray of early winter morning was beginning to swallow the room. Daisy hopped from one discarded clothing item to the next to avoid the chilled floor. When she came to the closet door, she held her breath. It creaked as she pulled it open, but only Violet tossed a hand across her face in response. Once inside the closet, she knelt before the Daisy-sized door that led to their tiny attic.

“Gabe?” she whispered with her lips pressed to the keyhole.

She replaced her lips with her ear and smiled. 

“I’m coming,” she replied as she slipped through the door. 

Daisy pulled the dangling string and a weak yellow light sputtered around the room.

 “Hi,” she said. 

She moved to the back corner, poised on her tip-toes, careful to avoid the floorboards that creaked the loudest. The blankets she had laid out for Gabe to sleep on were nearly stiff from the cold. Daisy shook them out and folded them up. 

“I’ll bring different ones,” she told him, flicking a small moth from one. Daisy heard a creak from the bedroom and dropped the blankets. “I’ll be back,” she told Gabe and reached out to hug him goodbye. 

At breakfast, the stillness of the cold morning had long been lost. 

“Mom! Where’s my doll?” 

“Rose is pulling my hair!” 

“Lily took my coat without asking!” 

“Daisy isn’t talking again.” 

Their mother busied herself at the stove, pretending she couldn’t hear their trivial complaints over the sound of the bacon sizzling in the pan. 

Their father came up behind her and kissed the back of her frizzy, blonde head. She grabbed his hand before he continued towards the door. 

“Please don’t go today,” she murmured in his ear and pressed her lips to his neck. 

“Martha, please. Let’s have a good day,” Richard said, pulling back, “I’ll be home early tonight and grab us a pizza so you don’t have to cook.” 

“We’re having pizza tonight?” Rose asked, her tiny pink nose stuck in the air, “I hate pizza!” 

“Too bad, kiddo,” her dad said as he tousled her hair on his way out, “I love you!” 

“Love you too!” the bustling house shouted back. 

Martha stared at the bacon until it burnt and she had to busy herself making a new batch. 


After breakfast, the house settled into the steady hum of a lazy Saturday. Violet retreated to her room to read whatever trashy magazine she had borrowed from a friend. Lily spent her time trying to be like Violet, though her magazines were still filled with search and find puzzles. Rose was taking scissors to her doll’s curling hair. And Daisy was sitting on the floor of the bathroom with the door locked. 

“I don’t know. Mom doesn’t really talk much anymore,” Daisy said to Gabe. “I saw her in her room the other day brushing her hair. She had a knot in it and she just kept yanking at it until the comb broke. I don’t want her to brush my hair anymore.” 

She looked at herself in the mirror, trying to twist and turn her golden hair into a braid. Her small fingers couldn’t keep hold of the thick strands.

 Daisy shook her head at Gabe’s response, “I don’t really think anyone cares if I don’t talk though. I think they like it.” 

She gave up and let her hair fall in a newly tangled mess down her back. “Daisy? Who are you talking to?” Rose’s whiney voice interrupted them. Daisy didn’t respond.

 “Are you girls hungry?” Martha called from downstairs. “I’m making peanut butter and jelly.” 

“I hate peanut butter and jelly!” Rose yelled back. Martha took a deep breath and suppressed the urge to scream, “Sucks for you,” at her eight-year-old. She started making the sandwiches, taking into consideration the ridiculous requests for “only a little bit of jelly” and “I want peanut butter on the left and jelly on the right” and “no crusts.” 

As she moved to take them to the table, her elbow knocked off a paper plate. She stared at the sandwich lying on the floor for a moment before picking it up and slapping it back on the plate with a quick blow across the dusty crust. 

“Lunch is ready,” she called up the stairs. She stood at the sink rinsing the knives, waiting for the sound of their slow and unenthused footsteps. Not paying attention, she sliced her finger. 

She thought nothing of it as she stuck it under the water. As she watched it run the color of tomato juice she looked back to the knife. She took it off of the drying rack and held it for a moment, watching the teeth wink in the weak winter light from the kitchen window above the sink. Martha pressed it against her palm until the first tooth bit into her skin. 

“Mom?” She dropped the knife in the sink and spun around, “Yes, sweetie?” 

“Can I have some milk?” Daisy asked. She wrapped her hand in a dish towel and turned to the fridge. 

“Mom,” Violet said, hauling Rose behind her, “I found Rose in the attic talking to herself.” Martha begged herself to feel interest, concern, or anything along the lines of maternal. Instead she felt a dull thud beginning in the back of her skull. 

“Sit down. Eat,” Martha said to Violet and Lily. “Now tell me what’s going on, Rose.” Daisy had perked up in her chair at the mention of her attic. She locked eyes with Rose’s beady green ones. 

“I have a friend in the attic. His name is Gabe. I take care of him and he talks to me sometimes when I’m lonely,” Rose said. “Obviously he’s not real,” Violet said from the table. “Yes he is!” Rose retorted. Daisy was seething as she listened to Rose’s lies. Rose was doing what she always did- taking what didn’t belong to her. She wondered how many times Rose must have eavesdropped on her in the attic. 

“You don’t know Gabe!” Daisy screamed. The house went still. Even Rose had to take a moment to recover. She hadn’t expected her lie to have been called out so quickly. 

“Yes I do!” 

Daisy almost fell out of the high bar stool as she charged towards Rose. “Gabe would never talk to you!” she screamed. She punched Rose in the nose as hard as she could and then ran for the stairs. 

“Oh my God,” Violet and Lily let out in a simultaneous breath. Martha scooped up Rose and set her beside the sink. “Let me see. Let me see.” 

Rose was bawling her eyes out and screaming over and over, “She hit me! She hit me!” Martha had to dig through Rose’s dark curls, bouncing around her face with each over exaggerated cry, to find her nose. A small trickle of blood kissed the top of her quivering lips. 

“Go make sure Daisy is okay,” Martha called to Violet and Lily. 

“Maybe after her exorcism,” Violet mumbled and ambled away with her sandwich in hand. 

Martha had sedated Rose by sticking her in front of the television with a wet rag held under her nose. She pressed her fingers to her temples and swallowed three Tylenol on her way upstairs. 

Daisy was in the attic, holding the blankets and crying into them. “Daisy?” 

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please don’t be mad,” Daisy’s words came through blankets, snot, and tears in a garbled mess. 

“I’m not mad,” Martha said. She sat down beside Daisy and pulled her into her lap. She breathed in the soft lavender smell of her golden hair. There was a time when that smell warmed her heart and made butterflies go wild in her stomach. Now it was bitter and made her stomach turn. 

“Who is Gabe?” Daisy lifted her face from the blankets, surprised at the question. 

“He’s my friend. He lives in here. Rose doesn’t know him. He hates Rose.” “Can I meet him?” Daisy stilled. 

She looked up at her mother, unsure about her intentions. “I guess so.” Daisy stood and walked to the back of the attic, ducking under the beams as they became lower. She returned to her mother with her hand outstretched, wrapped around air. 

“This is Gabe. Gabe, this is mom.” 

“Nice to meet you,” she said, reaching her hand out and pretending to shake it. Daisy couldn’t be certain under the pale light, but she wondered why her mother was crying. 

“Dinner!” their father called as the loud creaking of the front door filled the small house. 

Martha peeked around the corner and watched him balancing three pizzas and the mail while he slipped off his boots. The girls were already pounding down the stairs at the sound of his voice. 

“I want the cheese!” 

“Dibs on the garlic butter!”

“Daisy punched me!” 

Richard looked to Martha for confirmation: a necessary ritual when it came to Rose’s tales. She nodded. 

“That true, Daisy?” the father asked, taking a seat beside her. She didn’t respond as she busied herself smoothing out her napkin and adjusting her paper plate. 

Martha shook her head and mouthed, “Later.” 

She handed out pizza slices quickly, desperate for them to be done eating and getting ready for bed. She kept her eyes on Richard, but he kept his eyes on his girls. 

“Can we eat in the living room?” Violet asked. 

“No,” Richard said at the same time Martha said, “Of course.” 

The girls heard the answer they wanted and scrambled into the living room with their plates and cups balanced in precarious positions. They were left alone. Relieved, Martha stood and wrapped her arms around Richard, kissing his cheek. 

“I missed you,” she said. 

He sighed in frustration. “I missed you too,” he said. 

He stood, grabbed his pizza, and headed for the living room. Martha stepped back and stared at the empty table. 


It was long past midnight and the house was in a deep sleep. Martha slipped out of bed and wrapped Richard’s heavy work coat around her and headed upstairs. She crept through the girls’ room, dodging toys and clothing she must have asked them to pick up fifty times that day. She went into the attic and sat down in the corner. 

“Gabe?” she whispered, “How are you doing?” 

She paused and took a deep breath, ignoring the feeling of insanity that was hanging over her head. “Gabe, it’s mommy. I just want you to know that I love you and I am so sorry. I should have kept you. I should have taken care of you. I’m so sorry.” She could hardly breathe as she began to cry. Martha crept back downstairs to find Richard awake. 

“What have you been doing?” he asked, looking annoyed by the tears on her cheeks. “Daisy said that she’s been talking to a little boy in the attic named Gabe. Where in the world did she come up with that name? I know we didn’t tell them what we were thinking of naming him. They didn’t even know I was pregnant.” 

Richard was quiet. 

“Maybe this is what I get. For what I did to him.” 

“Martha, we couldn’t have him. We’ve been through this so many times. He was going to have Down’s Syndrome. We crunched the numbers backwards and forwards. There was no way in hell we could have given that boy anything he needed.” 

“We could have tried.” 

“Look around you, Martha! We’re going to be with our four girls on a street corner by next month! You think that kid would have been better off here?” 

Martha crawled back into bed and rolled over so her back was to him. He moved to wrap his arms around her, but she moved away. 

Richard sighed in frustration, “You have to stop using this guilt as some excuse not to take care of the four you still have. Do you understand me? You’re their mother and you need to act like it.” 

“I’m no mother,” she mumbled into her dampening pillow. Richard turned his back to her. He turned the light out and tried to ignore the new presence he felt in the house.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 5:15 PM

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