Alice was the first of us to fade away.
The first signs began when winter dawned. Early, before the sun rose, the morning dew solidified into crystals, which crunched like gravel beneath our feet. One by one, we would creep awake, the seven of us, pull on our hoodies and boots, and dart out into the field beyond the manor we called home. We had read of snow, and dreamed of it, but the ice crystals were the closest we had ever gotten to real snow at the time.
We didn’t notice that we were six instead of seven, until Morgan claimed that she won, that she had stomped most of the crystals and it was her footprints that dominated the lawn. She was met with silence as we all turned our gaze towards the manor.
“Alice normally wins,” said Henry. His arms were crossed over his chest, a scowl on his small face.
“I woke up before her today,” Emmeline added. “I could still see the shape of her beneath the covers and a tiny tuft of blond hair.”
Tucker suggested, “Maybe she’s feeling ill.” He had spindly fingers and a long, pointed nose, a skeleton of a boy.
“We should go check on her.” Celeste tugged on the silver locket around her throat. “This isn’t like her. This isn’t like us.”
We found Alice exactly like Emmeline had described. Nothing but the shape of a small, curled body and a feathered array of soft, downy hair. She was so still, as if she was barely breathing. Emmeline was the one to cross the room, the one to take her shoulder, the one to whisper, “Hi, we already smashed all the crystals. You missed it.”
“I won today,” said Morgan. She grinned her ugly smile.
The shape that was Alice rolled over in the bed. Her skin was pale, translucent, porcelain cracked with a spiderweb of veins. “I didn’t want to be near the forest today.” Fragile, her voice was barely more than a whisper. “I don’t feel right.”
“You don’t look right,” responded Tucker, promptly elbowed by Celeste. “Sorry.”
“Please let me be.” Alice dipped back beneath the quilt.
Over the next two weeks, she faded quicker. Skipping meals, wandering the halls. When we could coax her outside, she stood in the doorway, exhaling heavy breaths that never clouded in the cold winter air. Five days before, her shadow did not cling to her heels like it did for the rest of us. Emmeline was the one to point out. “It’s gone.”
Alice looked down and frowned. In the lines of her forehead, there was no redness, no stain of blood. She ran her fingers through her hair, and it came away in clumps of blond. “I think I should go lay down.” Celeste tried to follow her but was greeted only by a door slammed in her face. We didn’t see her until the end.
The night of, six of us watched snow fall for the first time. It fell in blankets, rendering the shrubbery, the trees, the rocks, and the gravel path nothing more than small heaps beneath a white quilt. Shapeless. Serene. Silent.
Far beneath the towers of our home, we saw a shape slip out into the snow. Long, white, blond hair fell down her back, cascading around a flowing nightgown. Alice left no footprints as she trekked out through the lawn, towards the forest that lined the grounds we permitted to roam.
“She’s not wearing shoes.” Henry pointed out. “Her feet are probably cold.” He was the youngest of us and this was still a time when we worried about such mortal things.
We stared like hawks from the windows above as Alice continued to walk. If she showed any hesitation – a glance, a wave, a falter in her step – none of us saw. None of us thought to stop her. To chase after her, call out and say “Alice, what are you doing? Please come home. Please don’t leave. Where are you going? Why would you go?”
None of us did. Even Morgan was silent as Alice reached the tree line. Vines and branches and undergrowth swallowed her whole. We held our breath waiting for a sign, a hint, a sendoff, something to signify that she was gone, forever gone. Glowing beacons of light, strong wind through the trees, sunlight breaking through the storm clouds above. But there was nothing and Alice was just gone.
Then we were six.
We should have held a vigil when instead we held a celebration. In the sprawling dining room of our manor, with a seat left open at the head of the table, we picked at the plates of steak and potatoes and watered-down wine. The Elders swarmed in, dressed in robes of white and gold, and circled around the table. Their ethereal faces smiled and kissed our heads and led us in songs of Alice’s honor. Celeste sang the best of all of us, but that night her voice was flat, empty, still.
On days that weren’t tainted with loss, we would’ve revered the Elders’ company. Beings of light and goodness, they were our chauffeurs, our guides, through our young lives in the manor. Always told us that we were going to be something beyond this, something great, magnificent, transcendent. “Alice, unbound, will be what she always destined to be.”
We tried to celebrate Alice and her ascension into a nebulous greatness, but all we could understand was the empty seat at the table and how Morgan will always crush most of the frozen morning dew.
“You would think all of this would have been swept away by now,” Emmeline nudged a dust bunny of blond hair with the toe of her shoe. “It’s like she kept an entire wig of her hair under here.” She dropped her knees and fished around beneath the sofa.
“She liked this chair a lot. It’s where she always used to read,” Henry pointed out. “There just might be a lot of down there.”
“You’re just saying that because you are bad at the one chore you have to do.” Morgan jabbed her pointed finger right into his chest.
Emmeline stood back up with a fistful of hair. “I know it’s hard to sweep her away, Henry. But we need to move on. Wherever Alice is now, it’s where she is supposed to be. That place isn’t here anymore.” She reached out for Henry’s shoulder. Comforting. Motherly. “I got everything under there now, but you’ll need to do a better job. It is your only chore.”
“I do a good job.” He frowned and pushed Emmeline’s hand away from him. “Just every time I sweep in here, there’s always more of her under there.”
The hair was only the beginning. It continued, these echoes of Alice, long after all the snow had melted, and the spring showers had turned the ground soft. She haunted our hallways as unattached shadows and muddy footprints.
We tried to say we love you; we miss you instead of screaming in fear every time her left behind shadow would block us into our rooms. Hulking, menacing, much more than her slight, mousy frame. We left her notes on the edge of the bed that was once hers, asking her both how it is out there and begging her to fully leave us. Let us heal. Let us mourn. Please, sweet Alice, let us be.
When the summer heat was highest, Celeste asked, “What if she isn’t happy where she is? What if she just wants to come home?”
“Then the rest of her should come back, or none of it at all,” answered Tucker. He pushed his fingers underneath the sharp line of his cheekbones. “I’m starting to hate her.”
“Don’t say that,” she snapped. From her pocket, she pulled a notebook and left another note on the edge of Alice’s bed. Do you want to come home?
In the morning, we found the scrap of paper. Neatly folded exactly where we left it. Crimson red lines were scrawled across what Celeste had written, in a font that was a mockery of Alice’s handwriting. If the rest of me could return, wouldn’t you think I would?
We did not show the Elders the scrap of paper. Instead, we watched it sizzle to nothingness in the hearth and then we took the ashes and buried them in the garden.
Emmeline asked, “Do you think she’s still alive?”
Tucker responded, “Whatever that is, it isn’t life.”
“Do you think the Elders lied to us? Are they hurting her somewhere?” Celeste’s fist was balled around her locket.
Morgan jumped in. “What good would it do for them to lie to us?”
“Does this look like greatness to you?” Emmeline pointed at the overturned flowers, the loose dirt.
“I trust the Elders.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t. Or we should at least be careful.”
“I’m scared,” said Henry. Tucker wrapped his arm around his shoulder, pulled him in close.
From one of the windows above, the amorphous shape of an Elder lingered and stared down upon us. One rickety finger wagged at us. We scattered like mice and never spoke of Alice again.
Autumn took Tucker much faster than winter took Alice. He began to melt. Henry, the first time he watched Tucker try to fit his flesh back into place, shrieked so loud the rest of us expected to find him bloody and dead upon the floor.
He was on the floor, not dead, and across from him was Tucker, skin dripping from his bones. In a ghastly voice, Tucker croaked, “It’s happening again.”
Celeste was the only one who dared to close the distance between us and him. Try as she might, she couldn’t fit his skin back into place. They fell to the floor, ten feet from Henry, and Tucker cried into her arms.
The Elders came to collect him days later. Always angelic, they swarmed around him with kind faces, golden curls, and vibrant skin. Beneath the fabric of their sleeves, there seemed to be another set of joints that curled around Tucker. We could do nothing but stare in mute horror from the doorways as their fingers reached out towards him, brushed against the edges of his skin, and tugged it away in thin threads they balled in their hands as they led him out of the manor.
And into the forest.
When we could pull ourselves away from the windows, we ran to the Elders and, all at once, we spoke.
“Where do we go when we leave here?”
“What is in the forest?”
“What did you do to Tucker?”
“Does it hurt?”
“Please, please, please, I do not want to fade away.”
“Are you going to do that to me too?”
“Why do we still find parts of Alice after she has been gone for so long?”
The Elders and their heavenly faces only smiled at us. In our heads, we heard, “Do not worry my children. We would never lead you astray.” To our rooms we were sent and, separately, we all drifted off into half restful sleep, our dreams as mushy and pliable as the skin that hung from Tucker’s cheeks.
On the anniversary of Alice’s departure, Morgan held an art show. We were barred from the library as she brought dozens of easels and papers and canvases inside. When she was ready, she pushed open the doors. She stood there, arms held out to us, silhouetted against the firelight inside, dressed in a tattered, paint splashed gown. “My final goodbye. A study of loss, departure, and a predestined fate.”
Her art was always beautiful, always poignant, but that night it was also terrifying. Tucker in watered down acrylic, each color upon the canvas running into the next. Alice in watercolor. Her illustrated form is barely visible against a snow dusted forest. The rest of us were painted in oil that still had yet to dry.
One by one, Morgan positioned us in front of our portraits. She floated gently to the front, behind the only easel facing away from the center of the room. “Before the air dries the paint, take your hands and change what you can.”
Without hesitation, Henry dove in with both hands. The rest of us followed suit, but slower. Frowns morphed to smiles. Grimaces of fear to caricatures of joy. A reclamation of agency.
When we finished, we showed each other, how we broke the image that Morgan laid in the oil for us. On canvas, we had all become horrible, smeared messes, but at least we were smiling.
Lastly, Morgan turned her canvas around. Two flat handprints were pressed into the paint, flattening out the textured waves of painted Morgan’s hair and blurring her face into something unrecognizable. Inhuman. She looked down at the colors on her skin and wiped them across her face. “I will be gone tomorrow.”
And she was.
After her, Emmeline. Henry. Emmeline danced until her legs gave out. She took who remained in the house by the hands and twirled us round and round until, the day before, all she could manage was to lay on the floor with her head next ours and whisper about all the styles of dance she never learned. In this life, she mastered ballroom, maybe tap, but nothing more.
All Henry did was hide. No matter, the Elders still found him anyway, buried deep in the cellar downstairs. He screamed on his way out. Thrashed in their arms and left one dripping scarlet gore across the hardwood floor in the foyer.
The manor was a crypt. A home for ghosts. Not people. Not children.
Morgan still haunted the art rooms, her red hair found in paint wells and her fingerprints smeared a kaleidoscope of colors across all the blank canvases. Emmeline’s bouncing footsteps bounded the hallways late at night. Occasionally we could sense her in the living room, a phantom hand on our waists as we would be waltzed around furniture, a hum just barely tickling our ears. There was barely anything left of Henry, save for the wails that spiraled out of his old room.
The house that was once seven became two.
We shared a room after the rest were gone. Celeste sat at the foot of the bed, her head held aloft only by her hands. Her fingertips pushed the soft skin beneath her eyes into wrinkles. “I think I am going next.”
“Remember how I used to sing?”
“How could I forget?”
Celeste opened her mouth and exhaled a wailing breath. “It’s been taken from me.” We leaned into each other. Forehead to neck. Shoulder to shoulder. Knee to knee.
“I miss the sound of your voice.”
“You won’t have to miss it for long. I’m sure it’ll stay behind with the rest of the ghosts.”
“I don’t want that. If I have to hear you sing, I want it to be now, while you’re still here with me.”
“You know as well as I do that that isn’t a possibility anymore. We can’t stop them. Whatever is going to happen to us, it’s already in motion. It’s been in motion.”
“Remember how we used to fight about who would be the Elders’ chosen first? About what we would be once we were completed.”
Celeste laughed into our conjoined locks of hair. “We really were just children.”
“I think we still are.”
She leaned back, but our hands stayed intertwined atop the spot our knees touched. “I am glad to have known you.”
“And I, you.”
Silence lingered in that moment. Celeste’s face was painted in ghastly, flickering shadows as our candles dwindled lower. Darkness took our final night together.
“Does it hurt?”
She murmured a noise, barely audible. Not a yes. Not a no. A noncommittal non-answer, which probably meant it did hurt. Celeste removed her locket and left it sitting on the quilt in between us. “For you. Keep it and remember me. As I am now, not as I will be.”
“Of course. Always.”
She didn’t respond. There was nothing left to say. We spent that night huddled together in the bed, arms and legs wrapped around one another, knowing that in the morning, only one person would be watching from the windows.
I am the last among the echoes. When I try to choke down a spoonful of food, all I taste is sand. I do not remember my name. It might’ve Lily or Lisa or Leah or Leigh. Nicole, Nina, Noelle, Nala. I stare in the mirror in the bathroom, my hands braced on either side of the sink, and I stare into my own eyes and list name after name after name after name.
None of them fit.
I doubt any of them ever did.
Of the lingering echoes, Celeste is the strongest. She was right. Her voice remains behind. Disembodied, she whispers about the stars and the heavy smell of roses and how whenever she lays down to rest, she sleeps in the softest downy blankets. I choose to ignore the other whispers.
When she leaves silence, I tell her how the house has changed after she left. How what was once this grand, lantern lit manor, set against a vibrant forest and sprawling fields of dandelions is now always grey and dark and dead. There is no one left to tend to the gardens or light the lanterns or sweep the floors. I tell her that the echoes remain, but they are decaying too. That Alice’s hair festers into mold and Morgan’s red paint stinks of iron and Tucker’s skin clogs the bathroom sinks and Emmeline’s hands grip like claws that leave searing gashes and Henry never stops screaming. I bury my face in the blankets we shared, and I cry about how I miss her.
I ask her constantly, “Does it hurt?” and her voice sings me a lullaby.
I ask her this when I want to tell her that I cannot taste or smell and sometimes I cannot hear the doors close behind or read the words on the pages of the books in my hands. When the Elders, now bulbous and distended and pale grey, skulk at the edges of the room I’m in. I ask her this when the phantoms of the rest of them pile in tight and close and I cannot breathe between the mold and rust and skin and claws and screams.
The foyer is a cold room. The furniture is dark velvet and overstuffed to the point of stiffness. On the walls hang paintings of oceans, deserts, and jungles thick with trees and birds. When I, younger, ran through this room, out of the doors into the garden to play, I glanced up at these paintings and wondered one day, when it is my turn to go, if I would end up in a place as beautiful as those.
I tell myself she was just a kid, that girl from my memories just running to play with future ghosts. She didn’t know better. Why wouldn’t a child only think of bright, warm things for their future? It’s probably better that she grew up thinking that when she moved on from the manor, from the watchful eye of the Elders, that she would go somewhere equally beautiful. Equally filled with love and light.
I tell myself she was just a kid. But I still hate her.
There are flowers in the vase on the table next to the sofa. I lean over to sniff one, but all I smell is ash.
In my fingers, I roll the chain of Celeste’s locket. I buried the pendant months ago in the garden that was first overturned for the ashes of Alice’s note. The chain didn’t whisper disquieting thoughts at me, so I deemed it safe to keep.
The door behind me creaks open, followed by the shuffling, heavy footfalls of the Elders. Grotesque and dominating, they leer over me, their beautiful, angelic faces now warped, aged, grinning skulls. Hidden beneath their lips are rows and rows of small, angular teeth.
“It is time for you to go beyond now.” One of them says to me. “It is time for you to join the rest of them.”
With Celeste’s necklace balled in my fist, I spit a mouthful of sand into its face.
Clawed hands knot themselves in my hair, my clothes, tighten like vices around my arms and torso. They wrestle me through the front door, out into the crystalline lawn.
It is dawn. Over the treetops, the sun rises, searing away the edges of the stars and the night’s darkness. A gentle orange stains the forest black. Just barely illuminated, standing amidst the undergrowth, are six silhouettes. Though I cannot see their faces, I know they are looking at me. Waiting. Reaching. The boulder of fear that has sat in my stomach since Alice’s departure melts and inhale icy air deep into my chest.
I kick off the hands of the Elders and they let me go. Block the door behind me. There are deep imprints in my skin where they touched me, but if it hurts, I cannot feel it.
I press my fist to my mouth, feel the bitter cold of the metal chain against my lips. Despite the breadth of the frozen field between me and them, I hear them whisper, “Come home.” The morning rays warm my face as I walk into their outstretched arms.
Ashlyn Zilch graduated from the University of Arizona in 2021 with bachelor’s degrees in Creative Writing and Neuroscience and Cognitive Science. She currently lives, works, and writes in Tucson.