The following is a story from Adam Soto’s collection Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep. Soto is the web editor of American Short Fiction. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a former Michener-Copernicus Foundation Fellow. His debut novel, This Weightless World, was published by Astra House in 2021. He lives with his wife in Austin, Texas, where he is a teacher and a musician.
On the eve of the parade, Hanna Schröder was asked to have the Allerton sisters ready for the party in under an hour. It would be difficult, given the girls’ general recalcitrance and specific disregard for the help, especially those with whom they lacked any consequential rapport. When Hanna appeared in their bedroom and asked that they please wash and clothe themselves, the children called her a stranger and told her to go away.
“I may be unfamiliar, but I’m no stranger,” Hanna said, stepping toward the girls. “I do your laundry every day. We’ve spoken before. You’re Alice, and you’re Rose.”
“I’ve honestly never seen you in my life,” the older one, Alice, said, and Hanna did not advance any further into the room, dark like the father’s library and silky and moody like the mother’s boudoir.
Hanna was nineteen; Alice and Rose nine and seven—but she was disturbed by their coldness just the same. She’d been warned that the girls could be peculiar and cruel but was not prepared to be pronounced invisible. It was a childish notion, Hanna admitted, but the way Alice had delivered her statement—sharp and mannered—carried with it no silliness at all, and this stung. However, unbeknownst to Hanna, Alice wasn’t being silly or cruel—not intentionally, at least. The child wasn’t lying. She was barely exaggerating. The truth was, like the nocturnal creatures that wreaked havoc on their mother’s garden at night, even on the clearest day, the sisters could register only the silhouettes of most people. The woman they sometimes found crying under the wrought-iron trellis of the rose arbor during her breaks was nothing but a pair of trembling shoulders, nameless and faceless and somewhat comical in her composed despair, her only companion a dusky water spigot cast in the shape of a squirrel. Even a helpful voice warning them away from a braid of poison oak or a nest of yellowjackets, when the sisters turned to find its source, would somehow originate from a scratchy mirage, a ghost but not a ghost. But unlike their rodent counterparts, God-given myopia and sensitivity to sunlight could not be blamed for the girls’ poor eyesight.
When the two discovered the old chauffeur laid on his belly in a copse of trees a year ago, they knew the man was in trouble, quite possibly even dead, and yet they simply turned away from him and did not utter a word to anyone about what they’d seen until the chauffeur’s nephew, a boy no older than twelve who worked in the Allertons’ stables, interrupted their breakfast with screams that he’d found his uncle dead in the woods. Worst yet, the nephew thought his uncle quite bloated and a little mean in appearance. Alice, who’d barely looked up from her plate of toast when the boy burst in, calmly replied that she didn’t think so at all, finally breaking the sisters’ silence on the matter.
“I thought he looked rather small and very shocked, like a child,” she said.
Before the nephew or any of the other employees standing around at the time could think of what to say, the cook ushered the boy away and a pair of footmen departed for the woods. The story circulated through the household, and eventually, it became widely agreed amongst the staff that the girls must have something wrong with them, though whether they were evil or deranged remained the question.
Hanna was not present for the event, but she’d heard about it. Watching them carry on with their dolls, she couldn’t help feeling a little like the chauffeur herself, not quite dead but dismissed, which somehow meant something worse. She could not be made to quit so easily, however. Standing her ground in the darkened, silken room, she reminded them of their parents’ party and the import of the following day’s festivities, and they suddenly turned their eyes toward her.
“And I know that you girls have been warned what would happen to you if tonight turns out to be anything short of a complete success,” Hanna said, and without further protest, the girls put down their toys and marched to their bathroom.
The evening’s event, as had been suggested in the invitation, would feature a six-course meal, champagne, dancing, and an opportunity to show one’s own winning, patriotic resolve in tasteful and familiar opulence. Typical of any Allerton affair, there was no reason to believe it would not be well attended. Little had changed over the years amongst this crowd, save for the hats. Joining a world already at war was simply another cause for celebration, and investment.
Until that hurried hour, Hanna, a washer girl, had spent little time inside the main house, but the au pair, Astrid, a robust Swede with degrees in botany and literature, had recently fallen ill, and at risk of contagion was asked to stay away and needed replacing. No one on staff knew for sure where Astrid was being kept. She was missing from her apartment; no doctor had been seen coming or going in the past few days. Like a turnip selected from the market, Hanna was told she would do and had been whisked inside.
James, the girls’ ten-year-old brother and Hanna’s third charge for the evening, though reliably more amenable than his sisters, was quite their equal when it came to dressing up for guests. He hated formal garments’ yet more restrictive qualities. Most days he spent out of doors, regardless of the weather, aping the part of the l’enfant roi and terrorizing the gardener, but James fell in love with Hanna upon discovering her in his bedroom and proceeded to lose every ounce of wildness. To him, her mouth resembled that of an enraptured female saint featured on a funeral card he kept hidden between the pages of a Jules Verne novel beside his bed, and so he allowed himself to be directed without protest as the woman hand selected his attire and did his best to be mannishly self-sufficient when she departed to tend to his little sisters again. Once fully clothed, however, he stomped into his sisters’ dressing room distraught and with shoes untied. The first guests were just arriving. His shirt was misbuttoned, and his bowtie was horribly knotted, but he didn’t look ridiculous at all, Hanna assured him. Attractively helpless, she claimed, like a brooding little artist who simply had more important things to attend to. Her smile revived him, but only momentarily. When she told him she may need a pair of scissors to release him from his bowtie, the boy stiffened. Her nails were soft as shrimp tails after all the boiling water and bluing.
Hanna wore a bland perfume excited by her sweat. It swelled with the smudgy oil odor of her hairline. Wet boughs and greasy baseboards. This too revived James. He looked for his sisters’ mirror to find himself and wavered in his reflection. He had a malformed hand—some impatience in the womb, his mother had been told—and for this he was impatient to grow up, wear leather gloves, and mostly be left alone. Hanna watched him hide his hand in his pocket, concealing it from his reflection.
“You can tell people it happened in the war,” she whispered, and James nearly hugged her.
“You see, our family came over on a great big flower,” Rose explained as she paced and watched the woman re-dress her brother. In their matching emerald dresses, amongst their chalky dolls, taupe quilts, and wilted undergarments strewn about the room, both she and her sister glowed like manure flies.
“Daddy says we created society, the greatest society in the world. Which is why we’re rich and you’re poor,” the girl kept on.
Choking, James tore away from Hanna’s beautiful hands and said, “We came over on a ship called the Mayflower, you dunce,” and, with his good hand, swatted at her for saying such a thing and at Alice for giggling.
Hanna pulled him back and, on one knee, shook her face in his. Releasing him from his bow tie finally, Hanna said, “We all come from boats,” and went after the rest of his shirt buttons.
The Allertons were a Philadelphia steel family. At that very moment, dignitaries from New York, Boston, and London were being dropped in front of their palatial Fairmount Park home from chauffeured cars. The family had tried to stay noncommittal to the war in Europe, even citing a cousin’s standing in a local Quaker house to defend their steel-for-all stance, but the Lusitania had changed just about everything, and by 1918 the United States was engaged in full-fledged military conflict with the Kaiser and Congress was charging treason.
“Let’s see you,” Hanna said, and James, with his shirt corrected, admired his own reflection. He let his bad hand hang at his side this time.
“Now, go make a mess,” she said, and the young man disappeared.
She hissed at the sisters and they, too, departed.
Downstairs, the guests accepted refreshments and showed each other their teeth. Hilda, the woman with whom Hanna had interviewed and who had shown Hanna the ins and outs of the Allerton home, an esoteric mansion with hidden rooms and places to spy from within the walls, gathered coats at the door, nodding politely with an American flag pinned to her gray smock. Hanna adjusted her own as she passed her in the foyer. Nearly every woman who worked for the Allerton household was German; earlier that day, Marin, a cook, in a respite between meals and the evening’s preparations, had nervously painted them each a felt flag to wear on their breast. She had told Hanna Mrs. Allerton had thought she’d done well, even if the stars and stripes were blurry and ill counted. Accepting her pin, Hanna had thanked Marin for her efforts and told her her pins were very handsome. Marin hoped Mrs. Allerton might bring attention to the pins during the event. It was an important expression of solidarity, after all, Marin had said. Hanna had said nothing more. The night prior, depositing a stack of napkins in the kitchen, she had overheard Mr. Allerton tell his wife that it might behoove them to hire Negroes for the event, for appearances’ sake. But Mrs. Allerton had responded with a scandalous story a member of her bridge club had told about fifty dollars in missing linens. This, and only this, had swayed Mr. Allerton’s opinion, and without these suspicions, Hanna knew, she and the rest of the Germans would have been asked to spend the night at home, pins or no pins.
From the foyer, Hanna disappeared through a servant’s door and squeezed herself past a menagerie of vested male servers waiting with hors d’ouevres in the darkened wing. A wall of exposed wire and plumbing scratched at her arms as she hurried along. Summoning bells whirred and tined. In the darkness between and beyond the walls’ mechanics, Hanna detected something or a family of things breathing, a fur-covered lung lifting and falling. She had five minutes and she’d give them to the new washer girl, who, too, had been discharged from her usual duties, to fold the napkins Hanna had washed the day prior. Fifteen or so, a few years younger than herself, Hanna could not recall the girl’s name. Irish, though. After, Hanna would reemerge on the ground floor and tend to the young descendants once again. Being deep inside the house, she’d tried explaining to her father, wasn’t like being inside the hull of a ship, where the ceiling bows with every step overhead and drops its salt. Inside was deeper, farther below, the bottom of the sea. Inside were secret nibbling fish. The place she’d always been from. In the dark, she felt for her pin, adjusted it once more.
Shortly after the last guest left, Mr. Allerton approached Hanna in the drawing room to ask if she knew where the children were. Though she’d have worried if he were drunk, Mr. Allerton did not imbibe. Still, his composure and officiousness, so late in the night, startled Hanna just the same. She had put all three children to bed hours ago and did not know what to make of his question.
“Be that as it may, Ms. Schröder, Mrs. Allerton just went up to check on them and said that none of the children are in their beds,” Mr. Allerton said. “She cannot seem to find them anywhere.”
“I’ll find them immediately, Mr. Allerton,” she said, and headed outside.
The children had given her none of the grief the others had promised. They had eaten, the littlest one had danced, and the night had concluded without any commotion or complication. But when Hanna put James to bed, he had asked after Astrid, clearly worried, and Hanna suspected that he may have gone in search of the au pair.
Moving through the night, starless and without a moon, was like traversing a sea. The darkness a hard body to push against. The rise and fall of the Allerton grounds, the dips and swells of cresting waves. Hanna stumbled more than once as the lights of the household shrank behind her. Not a night bird spoke. Passing the garden, she caught no thieves. Rather, like the world, thick with essential elements everywhere, was still unfinished in certain places, and she had come across one such area. Then, nearing Astrid’s apartment, a tiny, stone bungalow with a view of the Allertons’ swimming and skating pond, she spied a human figure peering into the bungalow’s front window, marking an end to her strange and unaccompanied journey. It turned, spotting her as she approached.
“Ms. Schröder,” it called out in a whisper, and she knew by the measured timidity of its voice that it was James.
“Ms. Schröder, I swear it wasn’t my idea,” James said when she reached him.
“James, what are you doing out here?” Hanna said. “You should be in bed, fast asleep like I left you.”
“I woke up. The party was so loud. I’d had a dream about Astrid. But it wasn’t my idea to come, I swear. I went to see if Alice and Rose were still awake, to ask them if they knew anything about where Astrid had gone, but they weren’t in their beds, so I went out looking for them. I’m telling the truth, please believe me.”
She couldn’t see the look of desperation on James’s face but she could hear it in his voice. He was so little in the light, even smaller in the dark. His hand was back in his pocket.
“Did you find them?” she asked.
“I did, but they ran off.”
“The pond. I told them not to.”
Hanna looked back toward the main house. It was too far to ask the boy to head there alone. His parents would not like to greet him without her by his side.
“Show me,” Hanna said.
She took a step in the direction of the pond, but James did not move.
“They said they saw Astrid,” he said.
“Astrid is here?”
She tried to get a look inside the bungalow herself.
“They said she was leaving.”
“Leaving? Leaving where to?”
“She was packing her suitcases, they said. They saw her through the window.”
“She’s gone, then?”
“They knocked on the door to ask her where she was going. She answered the door and . . .”
The boy turned his shadowed face away from her.
“They said she told them that she was dead. They said she said she’d died and she was going away.”
She heard the child begin to cry.
“If she was dead—” Hanna started.
“Astrid was my friend,” James said, choking as he had in his bow tie. “Astrid was kind to me.”
Hanna heard the cloudy sound of laughter on the water.
“Your sisters,” she said.
She heard the echo of a rock skipping across the water’s face.
“Oh, your sisters are such devils,” she said.
“Is she dead?” James asked, sober suddenly, like his father. “Is Astrid dead?”
“She most certainly is not,” Hanna said, though she had no idea. “Now, let’s get your sisters.”
By the time they reached the pond, the girls had quit skipping rocks and laughing. A cool wind flew across the water, invigorating Hanna’s lungs. She was about to call to them, calmly but sternly and without shouting, when James screamed, “Hurry! Hurry!” Hanna jumped and the girls came rushing.
“James,” Hanna said, “What is the—” but the boy put his partial hand in hers and she fell silent. In the dark, in her mind, she tried to picture what she was holding, the form of another thing. Was it not unlike a bird? More like a mouse?
“Mother fell,” James said, crying again.
“Mother fell?” Rose repeated.
“She’s dead,” James said, and bawled.
“Mother is dead!” Rose wailed.
“Mother is dead?” Alice asked Hanna.
The early parts of James’s fingers gripped at Hanna’s hand.
“I don’t know what any of this could mean,” Hanna said.
“Mother is dead!” Rose screamed again.
“Mother is dead!” James cried.
James tore toward the house, his sisters in tow, Hanna trying to keep pace behind them. The landscape rolled like a wave, but the darkness lessened in the strengthening light of the home. Birds called at them this time. Dogs barked. In the garden, the thieves scurried. Mounting the paving stones of the patio, Hanna could imagine the bones of the girls’ toes dragging the meat of their bare feet, the pads scraping and tearing and bleeding.
Inside, their mother was still in her evening gown. The color of champagne. The cut in the silhouette of a champagne flute. The girls flew to her. Hanna thought they’d tear her to pieces.
“I simply had no idea what any of them were saying,” Hanna said eventually.
“Yes,” Mr. Allerton said. “Perhaps it was a bad dream.”
From Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep by Adam Soto. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House Publishing. Copyright © 2022 by Adam Soto. All rights reserved.