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By Megan Branning
Lila’s parents didn’t know about this room, with its wet stone walls and cobwebs. They didn’t know she’d come down here; they were too busy shouting. Shouting because Katrina had skipped school again, and gone to the bowling alley with that boy they didn’t like.
She couldn’t understand why her sister would want to skip school. Maybe in high school, teachers threw children in an oven and ate them? Maybe they fed them to wolves?
Instead of listening to the argument, Lila had gone into the basement, and slipped through the doorway behind the old wardrobe. A hidden and secret door, which she’d found while exploring when they first moved in here. From this room, she could only hear muffled voices through the floorboards above. Katrina’s high pitched shrieks, their father’s bellows, their mother’s creaky crow caw, as if she’d been yelling forever.
Lila walked around the room, peered into the rusted bucket with dust and rocks in the bottom. Sometimes she played Red Riding Hood and used it as her basket of goodies. Or she pretended to be Cinderella, scrubbing floors while everyone went to the ball.
The yelling grew closer, and someone stomped right above her. Loud enough to wake the dead, as her grandma would say. It had taken Lila a while to realize she didn’t have to go around whispering for fear of waking dead people. They can’t come up from the ground, Katrina had said. All that heavy dirt keeps them in.
Lila pretended to be underground in a graveyard, where everyone had been awoken by the noise above. She went over to the wall, pressed her cheek against the stone.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hello,” said the person in the next grave. It sounded like a boy, no older than her.
“How did you die?” she asked him.
“A wicked witch ate me for supper,” said the boy.
Lila sniffed, proud of herself for catching his lie. “If she ate you, then how could you be buried here?”
“I got the last laugh,” said the boy. “I made her sick and she threw me right up!”
Lila giggled. She went to the wall at the back of the room, farthest from the door.
“Hello?” she said, leaning against it.
“Hello,” said someone. A girl this time.
“How did you die?” asked Lila.
“I was naughty in school,” said the girl. “Teacher threw me down a deep, dark well.”
“If they threw you down a well, then how could you be buried here?” asked Lila.
“I’m still in the well, silly!”
Lila pictured the girl in the well, all jammed in at the bottom, with her legs up the side. She had torn stockings, mud on her skirt, and her open eyes stared, just stared, like she couldn’t really see.
“And how did you die?” asked the girl.
Frightened, Lila backed away. She didn’t want to be dead. She didn’t want to be buried in this grave, next to the girl in the well.
“I’m not dead,” she said. And then she shouted it. “I’m not dead! I’m not dead!” She went on shouting it, and between breaths she could hear footsteps coming down the basement stairs.
“Lila,” called her mother, sounding far away. “Where are you?”
“I’m not deeeead!”
She heard them shuffling around nearby, trying to move the wardrobe. “Are you all right?” asked her mother, voice scratchy from arguing. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” Lila squatted in the middle of the floor, clutching her knees. The grave felt smaller and darker all the time, and she didn’t dare move. It might collapse and drop all that dirt on her. And then the dead people would get in.
“We can’t budge this thing,” said her father. “You have to come out.”
“I want Katrina.”
“I’m here,” said her sister.
“Just Katrina,” said Lila, pulling her arms tighter around her knees. She tried to stop imagining the dead girl, but she couldn’t. And the room’s tiny window seemed to be draining of sunlight.
For a few seconds, no one spoke, and then her mother said, “We’ll be upstairs, then.”
Lila heard more sounds, something bumping against wood. “I can’t fit through here,” said Katrina. “Please come out.”
“It’s dark, Kat. I’m scared.” Just as she said it, the sunlight disappeared. She couldn’t see anything, but she thought she could hear new sounds now, if she listened hard. Bits of dirt falling, pat-patting on the ground.
She wanted to call out to her sister again, but she couldn’t speak, her throat now dry as dust. Around her, the grave crumbled, and the dead people waited.
Katrina’s voice reached her, speaking in a soft rhythm. In their old house, when they’d shared a bedroom, she’d recited this poem to Lila every night before they fell asleep. “Lila Lila, sweet sweet pea. Nicest girl you’ll ever see. Anything she wants to be. She will be it, perfectly.”
Lila stood, drifting toward her sister’s voice, extended arms sweeping the air. Her hand struck wood, and for one gasping second she thought she’d touched a coffin, but then she noticed light peeking in from the side.
“There you are,” said Katrina.
Lila stuck her head out. She could see Katrina’s face in the gap between the wardrobe and the wall, mascara smudged under her eyes.
Katrina grinned. Lila grinned back, and reached out her hand.
“Come on, sweet pea,” said her sister. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Their hands wrapped around each other, and Lila wiggled out into the room. The bulb hanging from the ceiling lit up everything, lit the bikes standing side by side, and the boxes, and the old couch.
The light grew brighter as she moved away from the graveyard, away from girl in the well, and she held her sister’s hand all the way up the stairs.
Megan Branning is a children's librarian and research assistant living in Pittsburgh with her husband and chinchilla. Her fiction has appeared on NPR's "Three Minute Fiction" page and in Monkeybicycle.