To clarify, I haven’t seen my younger sister Mara in a little over five years. She was a little over eighteen years old, a few months pregnant, and was determined to keep her baby. I told her exactly what I thought- I thought she was a goddamn idiot and that she either needed to give it up for adoption or I’d drive her to the abortion clinic myself.
We had a screaming fight before she stormed out, saying she was going to stay with her baby’s daddy and that they’d be a happy family together.
Like I said, it’s been five years. Five years and a lot changed. I tried contacting her probably a dozen times, but when she sent me a picture flipping up her middle finger, I got the message. I gave up. If she wanted to live like that, fine by me. She ended up blocking me on Facebook, she cut off both our parents, and I figured I’d never see her again.
When I heard the doorbell I thought that one of my friends stopped by to return a book they’d borrowed a few weeks back, they’d told me they were almost done and that they couldn’t put it down so I expected them to give it back any day now.
I opened the door and there she was. I didn’t even recognize her at first. She’d gotten a lot thinner and had dyed her hair black, but I recognized that cheap tattoo on her hand and the dimple in her right cheek. It was my baby sister.
And clutching her hand was a little girl with rosy cheeks, blonde curls, and my sister’s green eyes.
“Thomas,” Her face broke into a tired smile and she pulled me into a hug. I couldn’t respond. I just froze. She stepped back and smiled even brighter. “Ariel, this is your Uncle Thomas.”
The little girl waved and smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Uncle Thomas,” She said in a chipper tone.
Ariel. Mara’s favorite Disney Princess.
I cleared my throat. “H… hi, Ariel.” I looked up at Mara. “Do… do you want to come inside?”
“I’d really love that, actually.” Mara walked inside. “I can’t stay long, but… oh man, when did you get ripped?” Even her laughter sounded tired.
“Uh, three years ago, I wanted to get in shape, do you want something?” I didn’t even know what to say at this point, in the light it was clear she’d been through some serious shit.
Saying she’d gotten a ‘lot thinner’ is understating it. She looked skeletal, her once vivid eyes were now dull and too large, like they were ready to roll out of her skull. Her fists were all bruised up and she had a black eye that wasn’t quite hidden under thickly applied foundation.
“I’m fine. Really. It’s just been a bad week.” Mara gently pushed Ariel to the couch. “Sit right there, honey, okay?”
I’d never seen such a well behaved five year old in my life. Like a prim little angel, Ariel walked over to the couch and sat, her bare feet dangling a few inches above the floor. I turned back to Mara. “What happened? Where’s Bradley?” Just saying the scumbag’s name made me feel nauseated.
Mara’s gaze dropped to the floor. “He didn’t even see Ariel get born,” She grumbled.
“Oh shit, I’m so sorry,” I rested a hand on her shoulder.
Mara jerked away. “It’s fine!” She yelped before coughing a few times. She wrapped her bony arms around herself. “… It’s fine. I… found someone else to stay with… but I can’t… I can’t stay there… right now. Not right now.”
Oh god, what have you gotten yourself into, sis? “Well, you’re welcome here, Mom and Dad really miss you,” I said.
“Um…” Mara chewed her bottom lip. “… Can you do me a solid? Don’t tell Mom and Dad I was here. Really, it’d be great if you didn’t tell anyone. You work from home, right?”
“Most of the time,” I frowned, “Why?”
“… Can you please watch Ariel for a day?”
I looked at the tiny girl on my couch. My niece. “What will you be doing?”
“Don’t ask me that.” Mara shook her head. “Just… don’t leave the house. Don’t let Ariel near the windows.”
“Are you in danger?”
“Just- promise me. Please.”
At this point, I had two theories about why my sister was wigging out- either she had gotten in an abusive relationship and was on the run… or she had completely lost her mind on drugs and was a nutcase.
Either way, I knew I had to help.
“Sure. She can sleep on the couch, right?” I don’t have kids, I know literally nothing about caring for a kid.
Mara wrapped me in another tight bear hug. “Thank you so much,” She sobbed, nearly crushing my ribs before stepping back. “… I’ll be back tomorrow night, I hope. I love you, Thomas… and I’m sorry. You were right.”
With that, Mara slunk out the door and into the night, like she’d never been there.
This whole time, Ariel sat on the couch, her hands neatly folded on her lap as she kicked her feet back and forth. I coughed a few times before sitting next to her. “Sooo… when’s bed time?” I asked.
Again- I don’t know how to deal with kids.
Ariel giggled, and I saw more bits of my sister in her- the smile, the way her nose wrinkled when she was amused. “You’re funny, Uncle Thomas. Can I color?” She asked.
“I might have some colored pencils and paper somewhere…” Listen, I love that they make coloring books for adults nowadays, and I am completely in on the fad. So in about ten minutes, I had Ariel sitting at my dining room table with some paper and watched as her tiny fist clutched onto a bright pink pencil as she drew a shape that could’ve been a horse or an airplane.
I tried to fill the silence with conversation. That went as well as you’d expect.
“So, what’s your favorite color?”
“Do you go to kindergarten yet?”
“I stay with Mommy. She’s taught me my ABC’s.”
“Do you have a pet?”
“We’re not allowed to.”
“Um, do you like snakes? I have a snake.”
That had her pause. She stopped her scribbles and looked up, her eyes wide. “Wow! You have a pet snake?!” She said with a gasp, her face lit up with delight.
“Yeah, his name’s Popcorn,” Finally, something I could distract her with, “Come on, let’s go see him. He’s in my room.”
Popcorn is a Corn Snake I adopted about a year back, a friend had to move and couldn’t take him with. Since then, he’s been my little buddy. Ariel squealed as I flicked on the light and ran to the other cage in my room. “Mice!” She pointed at the cage of small white mice wriggling around.
“Yeah, those are my other buddies,” I laughed as I walked up to the cage. “Come here, Popcorn…” I carefully lifted him out.
“Are we gonna feed him?”
I turned around to see that Ariel had one of my mice curled up in her hands. “Oh, honey, no,” I laughed, the mouse in question seemed content and it wasn’t like she was dangling it by its tail, “Popcorn already ate recently and uh, those aren’t the mice he eats. Can you put him back in his cage now?”
Ariel shrugged and gently placed the mouse back inside the cage. “Can I see Popcorn now?” She extended her arm expectantly.
“He probably won’t want to crawl on your arm, sweetie.” I knelt down and carefully lifted Popcorn forward. “He’s a bit shy, and-”
Popcorn naturally slid from my hand onto Ariel, twisting around her arm and I swear he never looked more content. My jaw dropped. “Are you a freaking Parseltongue or something?” I said.
“I don’t know what that means. But snakes like me.” Ariel leaned her face forward, slitting her eyes and staring at Popcorn, who flicked his tongue out a few times before slithering forward, crawling around her neck and hanging loosely there. “Father says it’s because they know I’m their friend.”
“Father? I thought your mom said your dad… wasn’t around.”
Ariel looked puzzled before she bust out laughing. “Oh, no no no! Father isn’t my daddy, I don’t have a daddy. Father is all of our father.”
I felt an unpleasant chill go down my spine. “… What… is this Father like?” I asked carefully.
“He’s very kind!” Ariel grinned and nodded her head. “He reads from the Book every morning and makes sure that we all know right from wrong. One of my friends, her daddy is the Father but he’s not my daddy. He wants us all to stick together. Last week, he chose me for something really important!”
“What was that?” I had to know. What the hell had Mara gotten into?
Ariel glanced out the window. “… Well, I’m not supposed to say, but…” Ariel giggled and clapped her hands. “I’m going to be the Daughter!”
What. I had no idea what to say to that. “Really,” I found myself looking out the window as well, almost expecting someone to be there, “And what does that mean?”
“I have no idea!” Ariel removed Popcorn from her neck and handed him back to me. “I’m hungry, I’m gonna get something to eat,” She said before running out of the room.
I settled Popcorn back into his cage and gently ran my finger down his back. “I’m gonna kick Mara’s ass when she gets back,” I grumbled before heading back into the kitchen.
I saw Ariel peering into the freezer. “Do you want pizza rolls, Ariel?” It might’ve been close to midnight but I had no idea when she’d eaten last. “Or chicken strips?”
I heard a crunch and the sound of chewing. “No thank you!” Swallow. “I found something yummy!” Another crunch.
Frowning, I walked up to Ariel. “Honey, you can’t just eat something frozen…” I turned her around and the words died in my mouth.
Ariel was clutching my bag of frozen feeder mice in her hands, her mouth smeared with blood. A small frozen tail was sticking out between her lips. She swallowed and it vanished. “They’re a little cold, could you warm them up?” She handed the bag to me.
What the fuck? “Ariel!” I grabbed a paper towel and wiped off her face. “Jesus Christ, kid, you don’t eat mice!”
“Why not?” Ariel cocked her head to the side. “Popcorn eats mice.”
“Well, you’re not Popcorn, oh fuck, Mara’s gonna kill me…” I groaned and put the feeder mice back on the top shelf, she’d have to dig past the frozen bread to get it. “How about we have some pizza rolls instead?”
Ariel pouted and crossed her arms. “I don’t want pizza rolls,” She grumbled. “Can I go to bed now?”
I ended up just putting Ariel to sleep on the couch. I was done. That was my limit. Children eating fucking frozen mice.
I woke up about midnight to see her standing over the mice cage. The lid had been taken off and her head was cocked to the side. I almost sat up and asked what the hell was she doing when she opened her mouth and something long and thin fell out of her mouth, plopping into the floor of the cage. For a second, I thought she had Popcorn in her mouth, but a glance confirmed that Popcorn was chilling in his cage under his lamp.
Ariel’s tongue slowly felt its way around the cage, slithering about until it touched one of the sleeping mice. I don’t know why they were asleep, they were usually jumping around this time of night. Her tongue slowly wrapped around the mouse and lifted it to her mouth. It hung limply in its grasp until she brought it into her mouth. Then it jerked about and I heard it squeal before she brought her jaws down on it.
That crunch was one of the most horrifying things I’d ever heard.
Humming pleasantly, Ariel skipped out of the room and back to the couch. In just a few minutes I heard her softly snoring.
I didn’t get a wink of sleep the rest of the night.
Ariel’s been a normal kid all day but I can’t shake that image out of my head of her tongue just dragging that mouse to its doom. I counted them to make sure and one was absolutely gone.
But what’s worse is that Mara’s not come back. I’ve tried texting her but apparently her phone number belongs to someone else now. And I swear I’ve seen the same car drive past my house five times today.
I don’t know what to do.
And I’m scared of what I’ll see if I wake up tonight and see Ariel again.