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Authors: Linda Ladd

Die Smiling

BOOK: Die Smiling
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Dark Places

Head to Head


Kensington Publishing Corp.

Sisterly Love

One icy December morning the older daughter found out for sure that her mother didn't really love her. She was not even eleven yet when she opened her eyes that day. Light crept through the slat blinds on the dormer window beside her, gray and misty, slithering like ghosts. The attic was freezing this early in the morning, and she shivered and snuggled deeper under the thick quilted blankets.

Oblivious that Christmas day had finally dawned, her little half sister slept peacefully beside her, snoring softly from a stuffy nose. Sissy was eight years old, and everybody agreed that she was the prettiest little thing, so much prettier than her brother or older half sister. Oh, yeah,
dear little Sissy
was beautiful, all right, and it made the older one sick to her stomach the way people fussed over Sissy as if she were something so special. And it happened no matter where Momma took them, Wal-Mart or McDonald's or Pizza Hut, just about anywhere they went was exactly the same. Everybody wanted to reach out and touch Sissy's hair. The older one hated Sissy's stupid silky yellow hair. She hated every single other thing about Sissy, too, especially that little innocent smile that really wasn't innocent at all. Nobody ever seemed to notice it wasn't, except for the older one, and she always did.

The older one turned her back on her
little sister and raised up on one elbow. She reached for the window cord, pulled the blinds up about a foot, and then gazed outside in awe at a winter wonderland. Snow was falling gently, and she watched it spiral down, then suddenly flutter this way and that when the wind swirled. She had watched it last night, too, at bedtime in the glow of the dusk-to-dawn lamp beside the old barn. Sometimes she didn't like so much cold, though, when she remembered the place where she'd lived with Momma and her real daddy, where it had been warm all year long. Now she lived in this colder place, ever since Momma had remarried and had two more children named Sissy and Bubby. No one here had an accent, like the one she'd gotten from her daddy who came from another country, either, and sometimes the other kids made fun of her, so she was trying to get rid of it.

It had snowed nearly every day since school let out for the holidays, and great drifts made her yard look like a giant birthday cake covered with smooth, shiny vanilla icing. She could barely make out the snowman they'd built yesterday. It had a carrot nose and two red apples for eyes, but Momma's pink-checkered apron around its waist was covered with white.

Snow piled on the windowsill, too, and the panes were etched with ice crystals that looked like the white lace Momma tucked around the bottom of Sissy's miniature Christmas tree. The older one turned from the window and looked at the little tree sitting on Sissy's bedside table. Tiny white lights twinkled in the gloomy morning, making the rhinestone tiaras hanging on the branches sparkle like real diamonds. Sissy'd gotten them at baby beauty pageants, eleven crowns in all, and the truth was that Sissy always got first prize, every single time she entered. She got trophies when she won, too, and colorful sashes made out of red and blue and yellow and green satin, but mostly red. Sissy's daddy had built special shelves downstairs in the living room to hold all Sissy's gifts and prizes. Sissy was his favorite, too.

One time, after the older one had screwed up her nerve enough to ask Momma if she could have her own little tree, too, Momma told her she could look at Sissy's tree and quit whining and maybe if she had won some contests when she was a toddler, she'd have some crowns to hang on a tree, too. After that, the older one had crawled underneath the back porch and cried for a long time but real quietly, so no one would hear.

Now, just thinking about that day made her angry all over again. She frowned darkly and leaned close to Sissy's ear, then she whispered through gritted teeth. “I hate you worse than poison, you stupid little thing, and I hate your dumb tree, too, and I hate your hair, and I wish you were as ugly as me.”

Sissy didn't awaken, just burrowed deeper beneath the red-and-green patchwork quilt her Grandma Violet had hand-stitched for Christmas two years ago before she'd had a stroke and died. Strands of Sissy's long blond hair fanned out across the pillow, the exact color as summer sun. The older one picked up a curl and caressed the softness between her thumb and forefinger. Momma said her own hair was too coarse and mousy to be pretty. Nobody had ever asked to touch it, either.

Deep down inside her heart where she kept all her bad thoughts, the familiar rage rose from its low, controlled simmer, black and fast and furious. She grabbed a handful of Sissy's stupid, sunshiny hair and jerked it as hard as she could. Sissy cried out, and the older one smiled at her sister's pain, then tossed off her covers and sprang out of bed. She pulled off Sissy's quilts. “Sissy, c'mon! Santa's been here!”

Sissy bolted upright in bed, shivering and rubbing where her hair had been pulled. She looked around, her big china-blue eyes sleepy, her heart-shaped face confused. She looked beautiful, even all messed up. She'd worn her latest glittery crown to bed last night, the one she'd gotten last week when she'd won the Little Miss Snowflake contest, and she searched under the covers until she found it, then set it back atop her head.

“Sissy! Hurry up, let's see what he brought us!”

Sissy forgot her new prize and jumped out of bed. The hardwood floor felt cold against their bare feet, but neither noticed as they jerked on their fleecy robes and fluffy Disney World house shoes and raced out into the hall. Bounding down the narrow attic stairs to the second floor, they found their three-year-old brother already awake. His pull ups were probably soaking wet because he had lots of accidents at night, but the older one didn't care. She pounded on her Momma's door until her Momma and Stepdaddy opened it, all sleepy-eyed and tousled in matching red-and-blue plaid bathrobes.

Her stepdaddy's name was Russell, and he went to get his son, but the two excited little girls rushed downstairs. They paused at the turn in the staircase and gazed at the scene below in the living room. The big Christmas tree was all lit up, almost reaching the ceiling with its blinking and twinkling colored lights and a big white silk angel on top. In its warm glow, the older one could see the toys Santa had left them—two dolls—new Barbies still in the boxes!—and a bicycle with training wheels, and a baseball bat and glove for Bubby, all propped in a row on the brown couch! And there it was! The Barbie Dream House she'd wanted ever since she'd seen it at Wal-Mart last summer—all put together now and sitting by the fireplace!

She clamored down the rest of the way, Sissy close at her heels, both squealing with delight. Before she could reach the coveted dollhouse, her Momma grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the treasure trove awaiting her in the living room and into the front foyer. She could hear Sissy exclaiming over the Barbies, and Stepdaddy laughing as he carried Bubby downstairs. She tried to pull away to see what they were doing, but Momma held her arm too tightly.

“Now, listen to me, you.”

At Momma's harsh whisper, the older one looked up, quickly filled with cold, hard dread. She knew that tone of voice only too well, when Momma turned a little crazy and her eyes got all black and scary, the one she only used when Stepdaddy wasn't around to hear.

“I couldn't get you anything this year, and I don't want to hear any hateful back talk about it. You know good and well that your cheapskate daddy doesn't send me a damn dime for you since he ran off and left us, and Russell said he's not gonna buy extras for you, not when you have a real daddy with tons of money somewhere.”

The older one was so shocked that she could only stare at her mother.

Momma frowned. “You know how Russell made me quit working down at the Dollar Store. I don't have the money I used to have to spend on you. I only have what he gives me for food and clothes. And you ought to just be grateful that he feeds you and buys you the same kind of nice clothes he does for his own kids.” She glanced into the living room and lowered her voice some more. “It won't be so bad anyway, you just ask Sissy and Bubby if you can play with their stuff. That's just the way it is now. You have to accept things the way they are. Nothing can be done. Life isn't easy, you got to learn that some time.”

Momma's fingers tightened around the older one's forearm. “But you ask 'em nice, you hear, and don't let Russell hear you. And don't start that silly crybaby business, either, I'm warning you. I won't have it, not on Christmas! You aren't gonna ruin Christmas for Russell and the other kids.”

“But I was good. I was good more than Sissy and Bubby! They're the ones that act naughty!”

“Your daddy doesn't love you, or he would've sent me some money for you because I wrote and asked him to. You sure can't fault me there. Russell loves his kids and that's why they got the toys. And your real daddy's the reason you never won any beauty pageants, too. Because you look just like him. It's a shame that you got all those freckles and didn't get my good looks. You best be satisfied that Russell even lets you live here with us. Your daddy sure doesn't want you. He hasn't come to see you since he left us for that slut he's shacked up with now. They're probably gonna have some kids together, and that's who he'll care about. His brats with her'll get plenty of toys for Christmas. Probably yours, too.”

The older one sobbed, and her Momma turned her around and gave her a hard whack on the bottom. “Just look how ungrateful you are. You're lucky Russell doesn't cart you off to that foster home over on the south side, like he threatened.”

Momma shoved her toward the steps. “If you're gonna bawl and carry on, you just get upstairs now, you hear me? Stop it, or you won't get Christmas stuffing and pecan pie for dinner, either.”

But the older one couldn't stop crying, and she ran upstairs and threw herself onto her bed. She pulled the covers up over her head, but she could still hear Sissy's happy laughter floating up the stairs. After a while, though, she crept back downstairs and peeked through the banister.

Sissy and Bubby were still opening presents. Momma and Russell were laughing and hugging them, and she squeezed her cold fingers around the banister railing until her knuckles turned white. And then she knew that she hated them all. She hated Russell and she hated her real daddy, and she hated Momma. But most of all, she hated Sissy because Sissy got her Barbie Dream House. She wished she could kill her, kill her and throw her in the big river that wound through the cattle pastures where Momma and Russell would never find her.

Maybe she would. Maybe she'd think of a way to kill Sissy like they killed people in that movie Russell watched last night. It was called
Nightmare on Elm Street
. She would hide on the steps tonight when he watched another one he'd rented called
Friday the 13th
, because she'd heard him tell Momma that it was even bloodier and scarier than the one on Elm Street. Then she'd know how to kill Sissy. She was bigger than Sissy, stronger and taller, too. She could do it. She could take Sissy off someplace where nobody would see, kill her somehow, and nobody would ever know what happened to her. The idea that she could actually get rid of Sissy forever had never occurred to her before, and it made her smile and feel good and powerful and happy.

She went back upstairs and lay down on her bed, but now she was composed and quiet and still thinking about how she'd kill Sissy. She turned her head when Russell and Sissy came into the room. He was snuggling his dear little Sissy in one arm and carrying the Barbie Dream House in the other. He glanced over to where she lay on the bed, but he just smiled and talked to Sissy as he set up the dollhouse near the heat vent so precious Sissy wouldn't get cold.

Pure hatred lurched up the back of her throat. When Russell left, she waited until he was all the way downstairs, then rose from the bed and closed the door.

“Sissy, I wanna play with the Barbie Dream House. You'll let me, won't you?” She glanced at the door, not wanting Russell or Momma to hear. She had to be careful. Sissy was their favorite, even more than Bubby was, and he was the cutest little boy in the world with all those blond ringlets. She did like Bubby pretty good; she wouldn't kill Bubby because he was the only one she liked in the whole family. Maybe someday when she got older and bigger and smarter, she could kill Momma and Russell, too. But if they found out she was going to kill Sissy, they would send her off to that mean foster home.

Her little sister looked up, eyes so innocent and pretty and blue. There were designs in her eyes that looked like tiny little roses, all the way around in the blue part.

“Daddy said I don't have to let you play with my new toys if I don't want to. They said you tear stuff up and lose stuff, like you did Bubby's teddy bear.”

“I didn't either! You threw it in the garbage can 'cause Bubby broke your tangerine crayon! I saw you!” The older one glanced at the door, wishing she could put her hands around Sissy's throat and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze. But she didn't. She grit her teeth so hard she thought they'd break and felt her fists clenching up, too. “Please, Sissy, please, just for a few minutes.”

The younger one stared at her a moment, and then she smiled that beautiful smile that the Wal-Mart photographer said made her look like a perfect little angel. “I'll let you play with it but you have to let me hit you.”

BOOK: Die Smiling
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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