There had always been something about Ariel, something more than just her beauty, that drew men to her like possums to rotten meat. When she was just a baby, young men and old alike oohed and aahed above her crib; then in grade school, it was the bullies who gave her their lunch money; later still, other women’s husbands made fools of themselves around her. And in Ariel’s old age, cranky old men–who weren’t quite so cranky when she was near–drooled over her at Westlake Nursing Home.
Westlake Nursing Home . . . Ariel’s and my home these past seven years.
We’re old ladies now, my sister and I, but the men still crowd around her like pigs rooting in a trough, she takes from them what she needs, and the horror goes on.
I was almost six the night Ariel was born.
Just after sundown, Daddy came out of the bedroom where Mama had cried and yelled all day long, and shut the door behind him. “Look, Katherine.” He squatted down beside me and folded back a corner of the pink blanket, revealing a rosy-cheeked face framed by wispy, blonde hair. “This here is Ariel, your sister. Ain’t she just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” His eyes were all shiny bright, blue lights peeking out of a field of brown hair and whiskers.
She looked like a plain, ordinary baby to me, nothing to get excited about. But I said what Daddy wanted to hear. “Uh huh.”
The bedroom door opened, and Grandma Eula stuck her head out. Her dark eyes fastened on Daddy. “Thought you was going after the doctor.” Behind the solid, gray wall of grandma’s dress, I heard Mama moaning.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is Mama all right?”
Grandma ignored me. “The bleeding’s getting worse, Matt. I can’t stop it. Give the baby to Katherine, and for God’s sake, go fetch Doc Kent.”
Daddy seemed confused. He looked from the baby to Grandma Eula, then back to the baby.
I held out my arms. “Let me hold her, Daddy.”
“Matt . . . go . . . please,” Grandma said.
Mama groaned real loud.
And finally, Daddy handed over the baby, placing her gently into my arms. “You be careful with her now, Katherine,” he said. “Take good care of her.”
“I will, Daddy. I promise.”
Daddy didn’t come back. His truck ran off the rickety old bridge that crossed Big Eddy Creek and smashed into the shallows below. Busted his head. Mama survived Ariel’s birth but was never the same again. Mostly, she stayed in her room sleeping or staring out the window. She wouldn’t have anything to do with Ariel.
Grandma Eula shut up her little house in town and moved out to our place to see after us. She cooked and cleaned, she fed Mama and brushed her long hair and called her my precious baby, but she pretty much ignored Ariel except to feed her and change her diapers. Sometimes, when I came home from school, Ariel would be alone in her crib in my room, bawling at the top of her lungs, and Grandma Eula would be shut up in Mama’s room, reading to her. So it fell to me to bathe Ariel, change her clothes, and do whatever else needed to be done.
I kept my promise to Daddy. And as she grew, though Ariel was strange and somewhat distant, I did my best to take good care of her. I watched after her, blamed the snubs she received from girls on jealousy, and the lovesick looks she got from boys on her beauty.
Ariel didn’t seem to mind her lack of friends, or Grandma Eula’s neglect. The boys all hung around her, but they weren’t true friends–just admirers. I loved her, though. Probably the only person on the face of the earth that did. And in her own way, I think she loved me back.
And the years passed.
The last week of my senior year in high school I found out what made Ariel different, and it changed the course of my life. Because of her, I could never be a wife, dared not be a mother.
It was a little past suppertime when Mrs. Boatwright let me out at the end of the driveway. I waved goodbye to her and the other girls she’d driven to graduation practice, and turned toward the house. Tommy Gentry’s bondo-splotched pickup was parked in front. My heart ka-thumped.
I held up my left hand, admiring for the umpteenth time the engagement ring he’d slipped on my finger two nights ago. The tiny diamond winked its love. Excitement raced through me, and set me in motion, propelling my feet along the gravel drive toward the boy I loved.
I bounced up the front steps and went inside. The front room lay still and silent. No Tommy. No Ariel. I weaved through the hodgepodge of overstuffed chairs and tables cluttered with knick-knacks crowding the small, dark room, passing by Mama’s closed bedroom door. Grandma Eula’s soft voice leaked through the wooden panel.
I stepped into the kitchen, expecting to find Tommy and Ariel there, hoping to find them there. I didn’t like the idea of him being alone with my sister. Ariel was developing curves, and I’d seen him looking . . .
Three clean plates, along with fresh garden vegetables, cornbread, and thick pork chops, sat on the scarred, wooden tabletop. No Ariel, though. And no Tommy. Anxious butterflies flapped around inside my stomach.
I hurried back into the front room, tapped on Mama’s bedroom door, then eased it open. Grandma Eula looked up from the open book resting on her lap. In the bed, Mama stared up at the ceiling.
“You seen Ariel or Tommy?” I asked.
“Tommy’s here?” Grandma’s brow furrowed.
I nodded my head. “His truck’s here. Have you seen him? Or Ariel?”
Mama’s stick-thin arms waved the air. Her legs thrashed beneath the covers. A small cry gurgled from her open mouth.
“Go away, Katherine,” Grandma Eula said. “You’re upsetting your mother.”
“But . . .”
Grandma lowered her eyes, turned a page, and began to read. She didn’t want to hear about Ariel, didn’t want to acknowledge her existence, especially here, in this room.
I pulled the door to and turned toward the silent house. “Ariel!”
My only answer was Mama’s raspy cry.
I moved through the darkening house, searching every room. And with every door I opened on every empty room, the butterflies in my belly grew more agitated.
They weren’t in the house.
I went out the back door, my eyes scanning the empty yard. “Ariel! Tommy!” Then beyond. My gaze fell on the listing barn squatting amongst a patchwork of grass and weeds and dirt, to its door yawning open on rusty hinges. The black mouth beckoned. I crossed the yard and passed through the gate, scattering the white hens pecking in the dirt. Their disturbed squawks followed me to the barn.
Steel bands encircled my chest as I stepped through the doorway, stepped from sunlight to shadows, from fresh air to the ghostly smell of hay and manure. “Ariel, Tommy, y’all in here?” My voice came out weak and strangled, tied up in knots of anxiety.
I moved deeper into the gloom.
My eyes swept the dim interior littered with rusting plows, rotting harnesses, and other farming implements crumbling away from years of disuse. Here and there, the sun spilled in through holes in the roof, creating golden pools in which dust motes swam in lazy schools.
“Tommy . . . Ariel . . .” Silence shouted back at me.
I took a few more hesitant steps.
And then, a faint rustle, wet and crackly, like rats skittering over damp newspapers. Movement on my right. I turned toward the sound, and not ten feet away I saw them, my sister and my boyfriend, their bodies twined and snarled together, their lips locked in a frenzied kiss.
And I knew who was to blame.
Anger boiled up in my throat and spewed out the one word: “Ariel!” I stalked across the packed-dirt floor and seized her arm. Pulled. “Stop it!” It was like trying to uproot a tree. I shoved against Tommy. A rock wall. I pounded them with my fists, screamed out my hurt. But it was as if the two of them were a stone statue, unmovable and unresponsive. And then, over the sounds of my sobs, I heard sizzling . . . popping. Coming from them.
I staggered back.
Ariel’s hair fanned out from her head, dancing with electricity, a silky, blonde halo framing a scarlet face. Her engorged, purple lips were clamped over Tommy’s mouth, and oh dear Lord, looked like they were sinking into his flesh. And Tommy, he was as white as milk. His body shook and shivered.
Fear joined with the hurt and anger; the trio of emotions flooded my body, giving me the power to shoulder in between and break them apart.
Tommy flopped to the floor. I knelt beside his rigid body. His heels drummed the dirt, his arms twitched, his dark, curly hair swished back and forth, sending up bits of straw and puffs of dust. I grabbed his arms; they were stiff chunks of ice. My hands felt frostbitten, cold to the bone. I jerked them away.
Tommy’s eyes rolled back in his head, revealing the whites. His body relaxed. One last gasp of breath, then his chest stilled.
I heard breathing . . . panting. I looked up at my sister. “What did you do to him?” I hissed.
Ariel’s skin glowed rosy-red, her blue eyes sparkled, her tiny breasts heaved. “N–nothing.” She shook her head. “I didn’t do nothing.”
I lurched to my feet, grabbed Ariel and shook her. “You killed him. You kissed him, or–or something, and now he’s dead.” Under my palms, her skin pulsed with a feverish heat. She was hot and Tommy was cold. So cold. I shook harder. Ariel’s teeth rattled. “What did you do?” I slung her away. Turning my back, I fell to my knees beside Tommy once more. I reached out a trembling hand toward him, but the unnatural cold radiating from his body repulsed me, caused me to draw back. I couldn’t touch him, couldn’t touch the boy I loved. My heart shattered into a million, tiny pieces as edgy and sharp as broken glass, slicing my insides into ribbons of bloody meat.
I put my face in my hands and cried.
I felt a patch of heat on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Katherine.” I didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t know . . .” I looked up into Ariel’s face; confusion played across her flushed features. “I didn’t mean to . . . you know . . . hurt him.”
I shook off her hand and stood up, raking damp hair out of my eyes. “You didn’t just hurt him, you killed him. He’s dead. Tommy’s dead.”
“I just wanted . . . just needed . . .”
“Needed what?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I just did what I needed to do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either.” Her eyes caught mine. “Am I going to get in trouble?”
In my mind, I saw Sheriff Twitty fastening handcuffs on Ariel, saw her face looking out the back glass of his patrol car. “I don’t know.”
And Daddy’s voice in my head: You be careful with her now, Katherine. Take good care of her.
Ariel said, “I didn’t mean to.” And I saw the truth of it in her eyes.
So I took care of her. Like I’d promised Daddy.
I called an ambulance, and it came and picked up Tommy. I told Sheriff Twitty, who arrived on the ambulance’s heels, that Tommy had keeled over in our barn and died. I was with him, just me, when it’d happened. I left Ariel plumb out of it.
And that was the end of it–or so I thought.
“Grandma doesn’t believe you,” Ariel said.
She and I were weeding the garden. Tommy had been in the ground for three days.
I straightened up, a wad of Bermuda grass stringing from my fist. “What?”
Ariel raked the back of her hand across her damp forehead. A smear of dirt replaced the sweat beads. “She doesn’t believe that you were with him. She thinks I killed him.”
“Did she say that?”
Ariel snorted. “You know Grandma never talks to me.”
“Then what makes you think she blames you?” I whacked the dirt beside a tomato plant with my hoe, reached down and pulled up the clump of weeds I’d loosened.
“The way she looks at me.”
“Maybe you’re imagining it. Maybe you’re feeling . . . uh . . . well . . . guilty.”
She chopped at a prickly thistle. “I don’t feel guilty, after all, I didn’t mean to hurt him. It was an accident. I think I kissed him too long, took too much. Next time, I’ll be more careful.”
I stopped hoeing. “Next time? What next time? You can’t be thinking about doing it again.”
I clutched her arm. “Ariel?”
The hoe slipped from her fingers. “I don’t feel so good.” She collapsed to her knees, clutching her belly. And retched.
I hunkered down beside her? “Are you sick? Is it the heat?”
“I don’t know.” She gagged again. And again. Over and over.
I held Ariel’s shoulders, figuring she was about to throw up the eggs and bacon she’d had for breakfast. Then a powerful heave racked her body, and something round and dark spewed out of her mouth and plopped into the dust. The glob quivered as if it were a little ball of gray Jello.
“What in tarnation . . .” I said.
She heaved again, and another golf-ball-size chunk landed beside the first. Another retch and another glob. Three glistening, gray . . . things jiggled in the dirt.
Ariel drew in a shaky breath and rocked back on her heels.
“What are they?” I asked, feeling a little sick myself.
The first glob that’d sailed out of Ariel’s mouth lost its roundness, elongated, and then with a wet pop, broke open. A human-shaped thing no more than six inches tall stood in the goop. Featureless, its body was a gray blank except for radiant red lines that crisscrossed it like fiery trails on ashes.
The second dark blob burst open. Then the third. Two more tiny beings.
“What are they?” I repeated.
My voice must have startled them. The three small creatures ran–I think they had legs–away, up the dirt path between the rows of vegetables, under the barbed-wire fence, and into the yard. The grass ruffled, trailing their passing. And stopped at the house.
I turned to Ariel. She was smiling. Again, I asked, “What are they?”
Her grin widened; her eyes sparkled. “Why, my babies, of course.”
The house burned down that night. Ariel woke me, and we escaped out the bedroom window, but Mama and Grandma Eula didn’t make it out. I asked Ariel about her babies. She said they’d died with Mama and Grandma.
We moved into Grandma’s house in town, and I went to work at the drug store and Ariel continued in school. No more than a year went by, and it happened again: Ariel puked out a baby. Only one. I guess she didn’t “take as much” this time because I didn’t hear about anyone dying.
When the thing busted out of its jiggling, gray shell, it disappeared just like the first three had. Two days later, Janie McPherson was electrocuted. Somehow, her plugged-in hairdryer fell off a shelf and into the bathtub with her. When I heard about it, I recalled how just a few days before Ariel’s last baby was born, she’d come home from school mumbling something about not liking Janie.
Then she didn’t like the Rottweiler our next-door neighbor, Mr. Griffin, had chained up in his backyard; she said it barked too much and kept her awake. A week later the dog tangled up in its chain and choked to death. I didn’t see Ariel spit out any babies that time, but I was sure they were responsible.
And that part of Ariel frightened me. The part that wasn’t altogether human. The part that sucked out people’s souls and used the energy to produce children–of a sort–to do her bidding. I thought about telling someone about her, but who would believe me? No one, that’s who, and Ariel would find out and maybe send her little demons after me.
So I kept my silence when a car crashed or a propane tank exploded or a house burned to the ground. I said nothing down through the years as my backbone collapsed with old age and guilt. And when I’d hear on the news about a plane that had crashed or a bridge that had collapsed, I’d wonder if there were more in the world like Ariel. I’d wonder if there were other little demons at work causing the uncountable tragedies that cursed our planet.
I saw Ariel slipping into Mr. Dougherty’s room a little while ago. She’ll come out in a few minutes looking twenty years younger, and Mr. Dougherty most likely will be dead. Ariel doesn’t take from men very often anymore, but when she does, she usually takes a big, long drink, leaving her chosen one as dead as a doornail.
No one here suspects a thing here. And why should they? Old men die in nursing homes every day.

34 thoughts on “Ariel

  1. I suppose the Ariels do tend to make men die before them. Nursing homes are often peopled by elderly women much more than men. Off course, men also lead more reckless lives and neglect their health.
    I enjoyed the well told story, a bit gruesome but gripping none the less.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As usual, Cathy, an amazing piece of writing. I knew from the second I read that Ariel “drew men to her like possums to rotten meat” it was a story I couldn’t put down. Wow. Great stuff!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! She puts that Devil vacuum cleaner to shame. Reminds me of a date I had once; thought she was going to take my tonsils out. ha ha Just thought I’d start checking out some of the writing you did before we found each other’s blogs. Excellent writing, as usual, Cathy.

    Liked by 1 person

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