Ella’s Roses by Sarah EA Hart
Vast and desolate, the wasteland was beautiful in a lonely sort of way. Dry grass almost seemed to dance in a stiff breeze that whistled through the bare-branched trees. A cracked riverbed ran through the image, begging for moisture. Two emaciated birds circled overhead.
Streaks of yellows and grays and blacks decorated Ella Roseheath’s palette as she put the finishing touches on her painting. She sat back and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a small streak of black paint across her face as she did so.
The sun wasn’t too hot, but it was bright as it shined down on the young artist in her lush, beautiful rose garden. Her favorite place, peaceful and calm. The flowers weren’t in bloom yet, but their bright, brilliant leaves held promise. She put down her paintbrush and stroked a velvety green leaf fondly.
“Hey, Ethan,” she called out as she stood and crossed the back yard toward her twin brother. He turned his head toward her and his assorted facial piercings glinted in the sunlight. She walked up behind him to take a peek at his canvas. The half-finished image, mostly in black and red, looked terrifying. A massive demonic creature with large wings crouching over a small, cowering figure. “What are you painting?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Looks like you know. It’s almost done.”
“It’s just something that was in my head.”
She nodded. Dark things always resided comfortably in Ethan’s head. He didn’t talk about it with many people. Only Ella, and only sometimes. He mostly kept to himself—they both did, really. They were home-schooled, and they didn’t go out in public much. It was just safer that way.
“I’m going to head inside. Are you coming?” she asked.
“I’m going to finish my painting first.” He walked back toward his easel.
“Okay. Mom says it’s supposed to storm this afternoon.”
Ethan paused and blew out a breath of air. “Don’t forget to lock your door.”
“You don’t have to remind me.”
“I know. Still going to. You know Mom will, too.”
“She always does.” Ella looked up at the sky. Troublesome clouds were on the way. With a little wave to her brother, she headed inside the house.
Truthfully, it was more of a medium-sized mansion than a house. Her mother’s family had lived in it for generations. Oil paintings of her great-great-greats hung on the wall going up the main staircase. Ella liked the faint spookiness of the old place, with its three floors plus an attic and a basement. The basement was where her uncle created his artwork. It was always cold down there. The attic was haunted, or at least Ella and Ethan had imagined it to be as children. They were usually not allowed up there anymore, even as teenagers.
She needed to clean her room if there was going to be a thunderstorm. Their house was right near the beach, so the storms could get monstrous, with loud crackles and bright flashes. Heading along the second-floor hallway, she passed paintings of her great-greats and greats, moving closer to her generation. Her door was the last one on the right. The thick slide lock on the top corner of the door was unlocked. Ella opened the door and headed inside.
The room wasn’t terribly messy, but it wasn’t currently safe. She closed her record player and pushed it under the bed, along with her stack of vinyls. A couple of small glass animal figurines were collected and put in a box in the closet. She stuffed her art supplies—colored pencils, some graphite, and the three sketchpads she always had lying around—in the closet as well, and she drew the bolt over the closet door once she put them safely away. Before rolling down the thick, heavy blackout curtains over both of her windows, she took a moment to look outside. She could see Ethan packing up his easel; the sky was turning darker. The storm was coming quicker than anticipated.
Ella stuck her head out of the doorway. “Mom?”
Her mother was already heading toward her room. “I’m coming,” she said, keeping her voice nice and low. “Are you ready? Do you need anything?”
Ella shook her head, making the dark curls bounce all over her shoulders. “No. Is it supposed to be a bad one?”
“I’m afraid so. It shouldn’t linger long, but there’ll be a lot of lightning and wind, according to the forecast.”
“Great,” she muttered.
Her mother carefully reached for her, pulling her into a hug. “I wish I could help.”
“I know, Mom. You always say that.”
“It’s always true.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Ella felt her mother’s arms tense for just a moment. “I’m fine. Just go.”
“All right. I’ll see you… afterward. I’ll have the first aid kit ready just in case. Make sure you lock your door.”
Ella nodded and slid out of her mother’s arms. She stepped back into her room and closed the door. The slide bolt scraped as her mother pulled it across the door from the other side. There was a deadbolt on Ella’s side. She locked that one.
Sometimes she could fall asleep before a storm hit, but this storm seemed to be hurrying toward her as fast as it could. Another low rumble, and Ella felt her heartbeat quicken. It was time for the breathing exercises. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she closed her eyes and breathed in slowly through her nose and out through her mouth, counting to five each time. In… and out. In… and out. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four—
A loud crack of thunder shattered the quiet of the room. Ella’s eyes flew open. Reflecting back at her in the mirror, they were solid black.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Ella? It’s Mom…”
Ella sat up slowly. She was on the floor of her bedroom. Everything hurt.
“What time is it?”
“You’ve been in there for about an hour and a half. The storm’s over.”
Her head was pounding, her throat was raw, and her arms felt like they’d been through a blender. She raised her arms and looked down at them. Deep bite marks and shredded scratches.
“Mom? There’s blood.”
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“Go ahead and unlock the door when you can,” said her mother. “I’ll go get Rela to help you clean up.” Footsteps faded down the hall.
Ella stared at the blood on her arms, then turned her attention to her stinging hands. Deep slices criss-crossed her palms, raw edges of skin mixed with rivulets of blood. She lifted her eyes and looked around the room. What had she forgotten…?
The mirror. Shattered glass lay all over the carpet, and a bloody handprint marked the frame. Damn. She’d liked that mirror. She’d found it on a rare trip into town at an antique store a couple of years ago after she had broken her previous one.
“Hey, kiddo.” Aunt Rela’s soothing voice floated through the door. “Is it okay to come in?”
“I need to unlock the door.” Ella pulled herself off the floor and stumbled over to the door, unlocking the deadbolt. She grasped the doorknob with her bloody hand and it slipped uselessly.
Luckily, her aunt was already unlocking the slide bolt and coming in. Aunt Rela had her long dark hair tied up in a braid and was holding a first aid kit. “Oh, honey, your hands.” She reached out and held Ella’s wrist, turning her hand over to examine it. “And your poor arms. Come on, we’ll get them cleaned and bandaged.” She led Ella over to the bed and they sat together.
“Why don’t the storms affect Ethan or you or Dad the same way they do me?” Ella asked with a little scowl on her face. Her arms ached, and she hated the headache that always came with the blackouts.
“Because we’re not afraid of them,” Aunt Rela said with a sad smile, pulling some wipes out of the med-kit. “I’m going to clean this. It’s going to sting. Remember your breathing.”
In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five.
As the antibacterial wipes bit at the bite marks on her arm, she felt the sting, and the adrenaline rushed through her veins once again, spiky and painful. She let out a dry, rasping gasp.
“Calm, Ella,”Aunt Rela said soothingly as she cleaned the wounds. “Just breathe.”
“I try not to be afraid of storms,” Ella said between deep breaths. “But then this happens, so then I’m more afraid of them, and it’s like a vicious cycle.”
“I can understand that. Certain smells or sounds trigger me, too.”
“Ethan doesn’t go crazy like I do.”
“Your brother and your father can control it a little better than we can.”
“Because we’re women?”
“No. Your grandfather isn’t very in control of it, either. It’s just different with different people. And of course, with you, it’s a little more complicated.”
“Why did Mom and Dad have us? Didn’t they know it would be an awful idea?”
Aunt Rela sighed. She finished cleaning the blood off Ella’s palms and got to work rubbing ointment into the wounds. “Ella, honey. First of all, you and Ethan are wonderful kids, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. You were not an awful idea. Yes, mixing your mother and father’s genetics made things… complicated… but you’re here, and we love you.”
“I wish I weren’t like this.”
“We all have things we don’t like about ourselves.”
“I hate turning into a monster.”
“We’re not monsters, Ella. We just lose control of ourselves.”
“I destroyed my room again.” Ella looked around at the upturned furniture, the shattered mirror, and the scattered clothing and knickknacks. She had also torn some of her artwork off the walls. The canvases had been gouged with something sharp, and the framed picture she’d drawn as a toddler—her first “real artwork”, as her parents proudly called it—lay face-down on the floor.
“I used to destroy my room, too,” said Aunt Rela, smoothing ointment into the last bite wound. “I still do, sometimes.”
“At least the sight of my own blood doesn’t freak me out,” Ella muttered, looking down at her torn arms.
“That’s good. I’d rather you not chew your own arms off.”
“Looks like I tried,” she said, examining one of the bloody bites.
“These bites are pretty nasty,” her aunt agreed. “Let me see your teeth. Have they gone back to normal?” Ella opened her mouth and let her aunt probe her teeth to check for Redcap sharpness. “Yes. They’re human again. Good.” She pulled bandages and gauze out of the med-kit and wrapped Ella’s arms.
“Aunt Rela… can I tell you something? It’s a secret, though. I don’t want you to tell my parents.”
Her aunt paused, giving her a sharp look. “Depends on what it is. I don’t like keeping secrets from them.”
“I know, but it’s driving me crazy. I need to tell someone, and Ethan’s too much of a boy to get it.”
“Okay.” She checked the bandages on Ella’s arms, making sure they were nice and secure, then got to work wrapping the palms next.
“So… you know Ben, the boy who lives on the other side of the woods? His mom owns the bakery downtown?”
“Yes. He seems like a nice kid.”
“He is.” Ella looked down at her mummified arms. “He’s really nice.”
“Uh huh,” Aunt Rela said, raising her eyebrows at her niece. “How nice?”
“Well… he asked me to be his girlfriend.” Ella felt her cheeks grow warm.
“And when have you even had time to talk to this Ben kid?”
“He comes over sometimes, through the woods. He helps me water my roses.” Besides art, Ella’s other passion was taking care of her white Hybrid Tea roses. Her parents had helped her set up the sizable rose garden in the backyard. There were trellises and a little stone bench and everything. The roses would be in bloom in just a few weeks.
“Is that all he does?”
“Well…” Her cheeks burned. “We kissed last week, in the garden. I really like him, Aunt Rela.”
Her aunt finished wrapping her hands and began putting away the medical supplies. “Look, kiddo. I’m happy for you. But you know this is dangerous for him. Does he know…?”
“I told him I was scary. He didn’t believe me.”
“You might need to be a little more descriptive than that.”
“Please don’t tell Mom and Dad yet. You know they’ll forbid me from seeing him. They’ll say I’ll hurt him and I shouldn’t be around him. They’re always keeping me away from people. I’m lonely, Aunt Rela.”
“I know.” She smoothed Ella’s hair back from her face. She was always trying to tame the dark curls. “But they have a point. You need to tell him. And you need to be careful around him.”
“I always have to be careful,” she grumbled. “Everyone has to talk all soft around me. No startling me. I can’t go swimming because the water might be too cold and surprise me. I can’t play sports with anyone because if they get hurt and bleed, I might attack them. I’m not allowed to do anything fun. I just have to sit quietly and stay calm and do my stupid deep breathing. All the time.”
“Tell you what,” Aunt Rela said, sliding off the bed and picking up the first aid kit. “I won’t tell your parents yet. But you need to talk to Ben. And you need to tell your parents. They won’t want you sneaking around with some kid they barely know. Maybe they’ll be happy for you.”
“They’ll ground me forever,” Ella muttered. “They don’t think Ethan or I should ever breathe the same air as another living person. It isn’t fair.”
“I know it’s not, hon. They’re just trying to keep you safe. They worry about you.”
“They’re scared of me.”
“They’re scared for you. There’s a difference.”
“It doesn’t feel any different.”
“—when I’m older?” Ella broke in, making a face at her aunt.
“When you have kids of your own,” Aunt Rela countered firmly.
“How am I ever going to have kids if I can’t even look at another person without my parents going crazy?”
“Talk to them, El. I’ll help you, if you want. I’ve talked to your mom before about how much you two are sheltered. We can work something out, okay? Just be careful in the meantime.”
Ella held up her bandaged arms. “Thanks, Aunt Rela.”
“You’re welcome. And next time, try not to bleed so your mom can help you.” Aunt Rela bumped her shoulder against Ella’s with a little smile before leaving the room.
Ella got off her bed and went to her closet, unlocking the door. She pulled out the dustpan and a brush. With a little sigh, she started sweeping up the broken mirror.
“Are you sure your parents won’t get mad?”
Ben’s eyebrows drew together underneath his floppy brown hair. Ella pulled on his hand, leading him to the small shed at the edge of the Kirby-Roseheath property, about fifty yards back into the woods. “My parents don’t know,” she said with a little grin. A light mist of rain was just beginning to fall, dripping through the trees.
“Yeah, but if they find out—”
“They won’t.” She opened the door and slipped inside with him. She had already tucked away some provisions in the shed: a lantern, a blanket, and a few snacks. The lantern was turned on once she made sure the windows were covered. She spread the blanket on the floor and pulled him down to sit beside her.
“Goldfish?” She offered him the package of cheesy crackers. Ben took them with a little smile.
“You always know what I want.”
“I know.” Ella watched him eat, studying his face. “I know what else you want, too.”
Ben choked on a cracker, coughing a little. “Well… yeah… but only if—”
“I want you, too.”
He abandoned the Goldfish; brown eyes studied her face. “El, are you sure? I don’t want to—I mean, if you want to—but I want to make sure—”
She laughed a little. “You’re cute, Ben. I just said I want to.”
He smiled at her. “Yeah. You did. Yeah. Okay.” He reached out and took her hand, giving her knuckles a light kiss.
“I have to tell you something first. And I don’t want to freak you out, but you have to know.”
He frowned. “Okay…”
She picked at a sliver of wood sticking up off the floorboards. “You know how I said I was scary?”
“You’re not. Not to me.”
“Let me explain what I mean. I’m not exactly… normal.”
“That’s what I like about—”
“Hold on. I need to tell you.” She took a deep breath. “I’m not entirely human.”
He laughed and reached for her, trying to kiss her.
“I’m serious. You know the Folk? Faeries? My mom’s a Redcap. They drink blood.”
“Your mom’s a vampire?”
“It’s a little different. We don’t have to drink blood to survive. But we really like it.”
Ben’s eyes were a touch wary. “You’re one of these Redcaps,” he said. His face showed her he at least wanted to believe her. “You like blood. Are you going to drink my blood?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. It’s just that I also have a genetic condition. It runs on my dad’s side of the family. They all have it. And so do Ethan and I.”
Ben reached up, gently tucking one of her curls behind her ear. “Are you sick?” He looked worried.
“No, not like you’re thinking. It isn’t a disease or anything. It’s a disorder of the adrenaline system. Basically, whenever I get an adrenaline rush… I lose control. Something happens to me, and I don’t remember anything later. I black out.”
“Is that why your arms were all bandaged up the other day? I was worried about you.”
“Yes. I guess sometimes I attack myself. I tear my room apart, too. I’ve gotten better at knowing the triggers. Anything that spikes my adrenaline. Storms, sudden noises… blood.”
“Remind me not to bleed around you.”
“I want to be able to control it. I want to be with you, and not have to worry.”
Ben slid a little closer to her, putting his arm around her shoulders. “I don’t think you’d hurt me, El. I’m not worried.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder and smiled. It felt good to have her secret out. And he was still holding her. He wasn’t afraid of her.
She tilted her head up hesitantly, looking at him for a moment before gently kissing his lips. Ben tightened his arm around her and pulled her closer, returning the kiss. His hand trailed into her wild curls.
Ella got up on her knees in front of Ben. She was practically in his lap. “I really like you, Ben.”
“I like you too, El.” His voice sounded a little breathless and deeper, and she shivered when she heard that tone coming from him. He rose up on his knees and wrapped his arms around her, kissing her again. This time, he pushed open her lips with his tongue and deepened the kiss. She made a little sound in her throat and followed along, mirroring what he was doing.
His hands ran through her hair again, then to her shoulders, and finally started to move down. Ella’s heart began to beat faster. She had made the decision to let this happen, but she was still incredibly nervous. She could feel her body heating up.
Ben’s hands explored her over her clothes. It was something she’d never felt before, and his touches drew another little sound from her throat. She kissed him eagerly, putting her hand against his chest. She could hear the blood pulsing in her veins.
She could hear the blood pulsing in his veins.
They tried to lie down together on the blanket, but Ben rolled them a little too hard and they ended up on the dusty wooden floor instead, laughing. He tried to slide them both back onto the blanket.
“Ouch!” He stopped kissing her and looked down at his hand. “Shit, got a splinter. Sorry. Ignore that. Please keep kissing me.”
Ella took his hand in hers and used her fingernails to gently slide the splinter out of his palm. “I got you,” she said.
“Thanks.” He started to pull his hand away, but Ella tightened her grip on his wrist. “El?” He leaned in to kiss her, and Ella moved her head away from him, still staring at his hand.
One single, tiny drop of blood. One perfect little bubble of welled-up red blood, shivering on his hand, ready to spill with the slightest tilt of his palm.
She pulled his hand to her mouth and slowly ran her tongue across his hand. Ben gave her a look that said he wasn’t sure if that scared him or turned him on. “Hey, are you okay?”
Ella looked up at him, and he yanked his hand away, scooting backward. “El… your eyes. They’re all black.”
Getting up on her knees again, she bent over at the waist and wrapped her arms around her body, hugging herself. Ragged breaths tore at her throat. Her veins screamed with prickly flame, and all she could smell was blood.
Sitting up, she arched her back and threw back her head. An inhuman scream ripped itself through her vocal cords. In the next moment, she was on top of him.
Her head pounded. She felt as though she’d broken her jaw. Even her fingertips pulsed with her heartbeat. What the hell had happened?
Ella sat up. Darkness surrounded her; the lantern was no longer on. She shivered. It was cooler in the shed now that the rain had started pounding on the roof. And she was all wet.
“Ben?” she ventured. Her mouth felt strange; her teeth were still all pointy. She tried some deep breaths, but each breath dragged in a very particular scent… and it wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it was far too appetizing. She felt around for the lantern. Why was everything so wet? Had the roof leaked?
Something hard and plastic touched her fingertips. The lantern. The switch didn’t work, and she realized the batteries had been knocked out. It took her a good minute or so to find them in the darkness. She wiped off the water and put them into the lantern. It turned on.
All she could see was red. Red everywhere.
She screamed and turned around, grabbing for the door. “No, no, no,” she moaned, pushing the door open and falling onto the ground outside. Rain stabbed at her skin. A sudden flash of memory—blood in her mouth. Ella screamed again and got up, staggering toward the house. She tripped several times and fell to the ground. Her stomach churned and burned so badly she could barely move. Bile rose in the back of her throat.
“Mom!” she wailed. “Dad!” As she made it to the backyard, she called out to them again, as loud as she could. Another slip on the wet grass, and she tumbled to the ground.
The back door swung open and her parents came running out, along with her aunt and uncle. Aunt Rela made it to her first. She held up a hand to stop the others from coming closer. “She’s covered in blood.” Her mother and uncle both backed up, and she knew their teeth were turning pointy with the smell of the blood.
“Ella? What happened?” Aunt Rela led her niece over to the stone bench in the rose garden and helped her sit down. “Where were you? We were worried.”
Ella shook her head. Flashes of memory—
Teeth scraping bone.
Ben’s ragged screams.
Eating. Eating. Eating.
“Oh, God!” Ella said, sliding off the bench and falling to her knees beside the nearest rosebush. She bent over and vomited beneath the roses. Her stomach emptied all its contents.
Blood. Chunks of flesh. Bone fragments.
The days turned into weeks. Ella’s roses began to open up and bloom, tall and pure white. She spent most days in the garden now. Fingertips brushed each delicate bud and petal as she breathed in the sweet perfume.
As she neared the stone bench, she sat down to rest for a moment, taking off her gardening gloves and wiping her forehead. The sun burned hotter, reaching its thick fingers toward the little garden and its occupant. That was fine. She wasn’t afraid of the sun.
Aunt Rela walked across the backyard and sat with her. “The roses are looking good, El.” Ella nodded, looking around at the plants.
“Yeah. They’ll all be in full bloom soon.” She loved the time of the year when her white roses lit up the garden, so bright it was sometimes difficult to look at. Ethan had once asked her why she had chosen all white flowers. She’d explained they were like empty canvases, full of promise.
“I should probably get back inside,” Ella said. “Mom said there’s supposed to be a storm later today.”
Aunt Rela gave her a brief side hug, which made her smile a little. Ella stood and picked up her gloves. As she turned back to her aunt, something caught her eye. The rosebush right beside the stone bench was already in full bloom. She hadn’t noticed before.
The blooms weren’t white, though. They should have been white.
She couldn’t breathe. The ground raced up to meet her knees as she sank to the dirt. Aunt Rela spoke, but her voice was distorted and distant, like Ella was underwater. Drowning.
Aunt Rela held the sobbing, screaming mess of a girl, trying to calm her. “Breathe, El, breathe. Come on. It’s okay.” As Ella’s eyes rapidly turned black, she looked over at the roses one more time.
The beautiful blood-red roses.
Sarah EA Hart is an Autistic writer who loves examining the underbelly of society and looking for the cracks of light under which forgotten people flourish. In her “spare” time, she is a behavior analyst who works with autistic children, an avid reader, and a doll collector. She lives in Virginia with her husband and their four cats. You can find her on Instagram and on Facebook. Please also visit her website.