She sat at the head of the table, glowing. (The rest of us sat in shadow. We thought it would have been better to be ghosts.)
She was tall and bony with spider-gray hair on her head, parted in the center. Her eyes were stone black with drooping eyelids, heavily puckered flesh painted deep purple, the eyeshadow caked in the crevices. Otherwise, her face was the color of curdled milk. She wore scarves, silk things bought on vacation and likely as expensive as our rent. She wore a simple silver band on her wrist, but no other jewelry, nothing so garish. The crones adorned themselves simply, as a rejection of the outward appearance of wealth, ornament as vulgarity. (Unlike the rest of us, who sat in the dark, who craved decoration. We scrambled together bits of paper and stones and broken glass from the gutters to tangle up in our hair. But you couldn’t see how pretty our hair was. The lighting was too awful.)
We all stared at her in silence. What else could we do? There was nothing else in the room. Just the table, the shadows, and the twins.
The twins on either side of the crone were symmetrical, but not beautiful; they were tall and white like her, but smoother, excessively so, their flesh tucked back and pinched with silver clips behind their skull. Their long, thin hair draped over their shoulders in a color that didn’t impress itself on the viewer. It could have been hay brown, hay gold, hay beige. They wore scarves too, albeit bought from stores we recognize, stores on the corner and from strip malls. Their wide-set eyes glittered like painted resin, like dolls. They may have been made.
We are all here to make things.
Already, we have made many things, mostly machines. Square and round, small and large. Cubes covered in switches, buttons, lids; spheres with diodes blinking and exposed circuitry. Some machines sang a song, some of them recited the digits of pi, some turned themselves off with a little robot finger. Some ticked like they were about to explode. Our machines sat on the table.
The twins each had a machine, fine-tuned and elaborate. The twin on the right had a sleek black machine, laden with circuits, like a jewelry box, the top adorned with only a single, tiny bulb blinking. The twin on the left had a clear resin machine with the inner workings exposed in and tumbling inside, twinkling but dull. It only reflected. Their fingers clutched their creations (long fingers, we noted, with sharp nails, whereas ours were bitten and scarred from digging around in the rocks for components) and they stared at nothing but the crone and possibly themselves, their reflections cast into the surface of their machines.
The crone herself had a machine; it was simple, shapeless, and glowing. It was constructed from some rare material the crone had stolen from another place while on vacation buying scarves. The material appeared similar to ivory, like it had been cut off of the face of an ancient, weathered animal and scrubbed clean of blood. It glowed white light, as bright as the flare of an incandescent lightbulb the moment before it burst.
It, frankly, wasn’t designed to be looked at, we thought. It hurt our eyes.
It was designed, we thought, to do something to us.
The twins looked at the machine too; we could tell when their dark doll’s eyes fluttered to it. Their eyes round and glittering and slow. No muscles there. Only stone. A soft creak and a clank sounded from their skulls whenever they blinked. (What did our eyes look like, we wondered? In this dark we couldn’t tell.) The crone tightened her grip on her machine while everyone stared at it, entertaining fantasies of snatching it up, kicking open the door to run (maybe screaming) down the hallway outside, passages that might (we dreamed) open up into pastures, night skies, the crash of waves.
We were caught up in our own heads, thinking of running, so we were caught off-guard when the left twin stood up and smashed its machine down on its counterpart’s skull.
Resin shattered. Gears and blood rained on the floor. The right twin collapsed. Fragments of the twin’s skull scattered across the table in broken eggshells.
We were breathless as the twin battered its companion into a pulp, slamming the machine into their body repeatedly, long after the body components had mashed into a pool of seeping liquid and bone rubble. We closed our eyes, but we could still hear it all: the impact, the squish of fluid and rubbery flesh, the twang of warped springs, the screech of gears jammed.
Finally, the twin took its seat. (Now the mono, we thought? What was a twin without its twin?) Quiet returned to the room. The smell of oil and seeping hot bowels permeated. Our grips returned to our own machines, but whether we were pulling them back or pushing them away was a question. Our hold was tenuous. Our minds blank. Our hearts slammed against the cages of our chests as we watched the last twin wrap their arms tightly around their now blood-splattered, dented construction. It ticked softly, the gears inside clicking and mis-aligned from the damage. We might have trembled in fear, but thankfully, no one could see. The shadows were too thick around us to give us away.
The crone gave no indication of having noticed anything had changed.
She picked up her machine and went to work.
Lorna Dickson Keach (she/her) isn’t haunted, but she does read and write about haunted things. Her short fiction has gotten the chance to live with other stories in places like Helen: A Literary Magazine, The Metaworker, and the Green Inferno anthology. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a degree in English, and she tweets @LornaDKeach. More of her work may be found at lornakeach.com.
photo by Isis França (via unsplash)