Madison, Miranda, Melissa and then Madeline.
No one can deny my parents had a sense of humor. Sometimes, their friends would joke that they wouldn't stop having kids until they were all out of girl names starting with M. To me, the eldest child, it wasn't a funny joke.
Don't get me wrong. I love my sisters, and we still keep in touch, many years after we parted ways. They're the most precious thing in my life. But it wasn't easy having to share a room with two other girls at 7 years old. It wasn't easy living in a tiny two bedroom apartment with five people. So when Mom announced she was pregnant again, I was more than a little furious.
Miranda and Melissa weren't happy either. Miranda was 5 at the time, and even she could understand we weren't in the best conditions to receive a new member to our household. And although Melissa was only 4, she saw our anger and understood she should be angry too, just to take our side.
We cried, we threw tantrums, we insisted we didn't want a new sister. But our efforts were in vain. Mom and Dad acted like we were the perfect family, waiting for a new baby. Then, one night, Mom woke up screaming and they left for the hospital, completely forgetting about us at home.
They were back the next morning. And I immediately felt something was wrong.
- Hey, girls. - Dad gave us his biggest smile, but this wasn't a kind and warm smile. This smile sent a chill through my spine. - Do you want to meet your new sister?
My sisters weren't moving, frozen in their place, so I took a step forward. Mom kneeled down in front of me, holding a little bundle. Once I was close enough, she uncovered the baby's forehead with delicate movements. I stared in horror, covering my mouth with a hand.
- She's... - I managed to mumble. - She's...
- Beautiful, isn't she? - Mom layed a gentle kiss on the baby's forehead. - Her name's Madeline.
- We're going to be so happy. - Dad kneeled besides Mom and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Their smiles widened, but their eyes kept dark and empty. - The happiest family on the world.
For the next weeks, life seemed normal. Only seemed, because my sisters and I could see that there was something wrong. Not only with our parents and their empty smiles, but also with Madeline. Our new sister wasn't normal. She didn't laugh, she didn't cry. When Mom sat her at her eating chair at every meal, she would stay still the entire time, her head falling slightly to the side. Her big, brown eyes focused on us, without blinking.
At night, I could hear my parents' voices singing her lullabies, although she didn't need songs to sleep. At night, she didn't cry like most babies. So their voices carried down the hallway into the room I shared with my sisters. We would lay, unmoving, hearing the sound of their melodies. I could almost imagine them, carrying Madeline around the room. Singing her into an even deeper sleep.
Not once in those weeks they took her out, and not once in those weeks they allowed anyone to see her. The family and friends that showed up on our doorstep were sent away, and we had strict instructions not to bring any friends over. They said only we understood how special our family was.
When Madeline was around a month, things started getting really bad. My sisters and I were getting scared, really scared. In our nightmares, Madeline was there, sitting in her eating chair, her mouth hanging while our mother filled it with spoons of soup. Her eyes were fixated on our own, pulling us closer, forcing us to look.
Eventually, Mom and Dad realized how scared we were. One day, Dad sat us down.
- You're being very bad to your sister, girls. - He said, shaking his head. His empty smile was gone for once, now replaced with a frown. Somehow, it felt even more hollow. - You think she can't feel your hate, but she can. Madeline's a part of this family, and you have to respect her.
- Dad, she's... I can't look at her! - Screamed Melissa.
Dad slapped her across the face. Miranda and I shared a look of disbelief. Our parents had never layed a finger on any of us, ever. If he was hitting her, than things were worse than we thought.
- From now on, you'll start spending more time with your sister. She's sleeping in your room from now on.
Needless to say, none of us had much sleep after that. Everyday we went to school completely exhausted, after spending the night sleeping anywhere but our beds: the couch, the floor, the bathtub. Miranda even spent a night inside a cupboard, and it was the night were she got the longest, most rewarding sleep in that month.
We thought our parents would find out and punish us. But just as they were starting to get suspicious, a man showed up at our doorstep.
I was the one who opened the door, that day. I immediately recognized him as a police officer: blue uniform, serious expression.
- Is this the Johnson residence? - He asked. I nodded. - Can I speak to your parents?
Mom and Dad were there in a matter of seconds, their smiles still carved to their faces.
- Yes? - Their answer came in unison, like they had been rehearsing it. They did that a lot, after Madeline. Acting and talking like they were one person.
- Can you send your child away? Just for a second? - Mom and Dad waved me off, and I made my way into the living room, closing the door behind me. Miranda and Melissa turned their heads in my direction. I just shaked my head. I had no answers.
All I can say is that, after a minute or two, Mom started screaming. Panicked, hysterical screams. My sisters and I rushed to the hall, to see her trying to claw the officer's eyes out. Dad was standing there, frown on his face, ready to do the same. We tried our best to hold her back, wrapping our arms around her tights and pulling her back into the house.
The police officer took a step back, screaming at my Mom about how she was crazy.
After that, Mom and Dad didn't calm down, as we had expected. Their smiles were off, this time for good. They shared a quick look and stormed off, marching down the hallway into our room. They came back with Madeline tight in their arms, and took her back to their room. We heard the door locking behind them.
Were we worried? Sure. But we were also tired.
So we left them to their tantrum and went to sleep. Madeline's crib was still in the middle of the room, but we ignored it. For the first time in what felt like forever, we had a good night's sleep.
For a day or two, my parents didn't leave their room. We didn't knock, we didn't do anything. Truth be told, we didn't know what to do.
Our downstairs neighbor was the one who called the cops. He felt a weird smell coming from our house.
I was there when the police came over and knocked down my parents' door. I saw everything, just before someone pulled me away. My parents, on the bed. An empty bottle of bleach nearby, Madeline laying between them. They hadn't died very long ago, but decomposition had already started. Their skin was green and bloated, and although I looked for their features, their faces were twisted into something I couldn't quite understand.
But what shocked the officers around me was Madeline.
I still wake up from nightmares nowadays, remembering her. The way she would fall to the side whenever Mom sat her besides us on the couch. The way my stomach would swirl whenever she was too close, that sickening smell of rotten flesh. How she would sometimes attract flies, that my parents would shoo away.
I remember that day, when they brought her home. Her rigid members, the purple color of her tiny, baby hands. Her white lips, semi-opened. Her eyes, deep into her skull. Mom and Dad said she looked angelic. I thought the morbid glow of her face made her seem like a wax figure.
When they came to take her, it was even worse. Her face was so purple it was almost black, her skin so tight and dry, as if she was being mummified. She had no features at that point, and whenever our parents forced us to hold her, I would feel her body, so limp and sluggish, watch as parts of her skin disappeared, showing me the meat and muscle that should have been hidden. Sometimes, a maggot or two would start hatching over her body, and I would watch as Mom and Dad gave her baths to keep her clean. They tried so hard to make it seem like she was a normal, healthy baby. It was almost sad.
But the worst were her eyes. Over that month, her big brown eyes slowly liquefied, running down her tiny, bloated cheeks. Her body was always leaking this white liquid, as if she was crying. Begging my parents to put her to rest. Mom cried when she understood that most of her face was gone. And still, she sang to her everynight, with Dad by her side.
The police later said there was no hope for Madeline. She only survived a few hours out of the womb, and many nurses later told the police they had left my parents alone with her to grieve. Only later, once they were gone, they noticed the baby's corpse was gone. Since my parents didn't let their adress behind, it was nearly impossible to find them.
I guess you could say I never met my sister Madeline. Not really.
It's been years since my parents died. Melissa, Miranda and I were raised by some relatives, and once we grew up, we went our separate ways. We got our own houses and jobs, our own families. We still meet for birthdays and holidays. We joke around, we talk. And although we are mostly alone when we talk to each other, I can feel something nearby. Someone.
Miranda's 35th birthday was yesterday, and we met, like always. For a second, I looked over my shoulder, and I could swear I saw a woman standing behind us. A woman in her early 30s, beautiful and full of life. With big brown eyes. When I looked again, she was gone.
I know my sister Madeline never really felt what being alive was. Her life spanned only a few hours, and they weren't exactly happy. And yet, I feel her. When I see a small grave in a cemetery, I think it's her breathing on my neck. When I hear a couple sing to their child, it seems that it's her shoulder brushing against mine.
Only now I realized that maybe my parents were right. Maybe Madeline was part of our family after all.
Maybe she still is.
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