When the screaming started the little ones huddled close to Wendy, their grubby faces pressing against her thin chest. She held out her hands and hugged them as best she could, but there were ten of them. There was only so much of her to go around.
“Pay no attention, ladies,” she whispered over and over. She knew what they felt like. She’d once been tiny and scared too.
In the next room over she could hear the sounds of the older girls playing cards and board games, smoking cigarettes, laughing, the types of sounds you’d expect from 40 or so girls staying up late with no adult supervision. For a moment Wendy wished she could be in the big room with them, but she pushed the thought away. Someone had to take care of the little ones. Someone had to teach them not to be afraid.
The John upstairs howled for a long time, until eventually he let out a long and loud squeal, his voice rising until it was almost inaudible, a dog whistle of pain. Then everything was silent. Wendy waited a moment to make sure the Sisters were done, gave the little ones she was holding a quick, hard squeeze, and then let them go. She stood.
“See?” she said, looking in each of their little faces. “Nothing to be afraid of. The Sisters love and protect us. Now go to sleep. You need to get some rest. Tomorrow is your planting.”
She blew out the candles on the window sill, then went to the door and turned out the light, pausing in the doorway.
“Miss Wendy? Have you ever seen the Sisters?” asked a small voice from the gloom.
“No one’s ever seen them…except the Johns,” replied Wendy, though that wasn’t entirely correct. “It’s better that way. If you need anything, I’ll be in the big room. Go to sleep.”
The big room was aptly named. It was a big room that occupied nearly the entire 9th floor of the abandoned hotel the sisterhood had made their home. Wendy stepped carefully among the tight rows of cots and mattresses and potted plants that littered the floor. The air was thick with cigarette and pot smoke, diffusing the candle flames so that the very air seemed alive with an orange beating heart.
“The little ones asleep?” asked Daisy sullenly from a few rows over, a cigarette dangling from her thin lips.
“Not yet,” replied Wendy.
Wendy leaped over a mattress and flopped onto her bed, where Aurora leaned with her back against a radiator, playing solitaire and twirling her hair. Aurora looked up briefly and then frowned back down at her game. Her hair was long and blond and would have been beautiful if she didn’t twirl and twist it all the time until it was frayed at the ends. It was a habit she’d had as long as Wendy had known her, something Aurora had picked up during her long journey from California. Aurora didn’t talk much about those 3 months, only that it wasn’t much fun.
“The Sisters took a long time tonight,” said Aurora without looking up. “It’s been so long between Johns; they probably were savoring things.” She moved a pile, then paused, moved it back. She frowned and considered for a moment. “Or maybe I’m just losing the thread.”
Wendy shrugged, and leaned forward, pointed out a move for Aurora. “Seems like they’re taking longer lately, don’t it?”
Aurora didn’t answer, but asked instead, “You going out tonight?”
“You can’t stay in here forever. Snow White’s been asking about you.” Aurora waited to see if Wendy would respond, and when she didn’t, she added, “You’re so good with the little ones, Wendy, but there’s other work to be done. Planting time is here.”
Wendy looked over at her own plant, a curved orchid that was white with purple stripes.
“It’s been three months, and we have 10 little ones already.”
“If I could do it again I’d pick something prettier…like a hydrangea or something,” said Aurora, looking over at her stubby cactus plant.
Wendy smiled, “But the cactus is so easy to take care of.”
“Yeah,” said Aurora absently, dealing herself a King of Hearts. “I suppose.”
Daisy snuffed out her cigarette and stood up on her mattresses, wobbling a little as the blood rushed from her head into her feet. She pulled down her patent leather skirt a little and straightened her push up bra. Her twiggy legs poked out of her skirt like the two sticks of a Popsicle. She slid her high-heels on and snapped her fingers at a few of the girls sitting around her.
“Who’s going out tonight?” she shouted. “Snow White? How many we need?”
Snow White was laying in her bed in the far corner, with her back turned to the room, reading a book about insects she’d found in a dumpster three days ago. She didn’t look up from her book. She didn’t respond. Her long hair fanned out over her shoulders and hid her face.
“Snow!” shouted Daisy. “Sleeping beauty! How many we need tonight!?”
Snow White waited a beat and then held up four fingers, flipped a page in the book. Daisy pointed at the girl nearest her.
“Alice, get up! Nala! You’re coming too! Wendy!” shouted Daisy over the noise of the room. “Wendy, time for you to get off your ass and get out there. The Sisters are watching.”
Wendy froze, and stared intently at Aurora’s game of solitaire.
“She’s got the little ones tomorrow for the planting tomorrow,” said Aurora. “Pick someone else.”
“No way. Miss Wendy ain’t left the big room in a week,” said Daisy. “She’s coming tonight.”
“She’s needed tomorrow…” started Aurora, but Snow White had sat up and pushed her dark hair back over her ears. She looked over at Wendy and then at Aurora, her eyes so dark they looked black in the candle light. Her lips were pressed together, purpling the scar stitched across her face. Wendy’s cheeks got red and she stared harder at Aurora’s cards.
“Daisy, watch how you use the Sisters,” said Snow White, never taking her eyes off of Wendy. “They are watching, and not just Sister Wendy. They’re watching all of us.”
Snow White went back to her book, and her hair fell back into place, creating a screen around her face and the book. Wendy stood up and shifted her short skirt, trying to make the thin bit of clothing into enough to cover her legs. She covered her bare stomach with a thin arm, and pushed her hair over her ears.
Aurora grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze, “I’m sorry.”
“Fuck it,” shouted Daisy. “Let’s go.”
The four girls headed to the elevator, Wendy trailing a few feet behind the others. When the doors opened, Wendy hung behind until Daisy grabbed her wrist and pulled her in the car. Before the doors shut, Aurora could see Wendy’s face in the mirrored walls. Her lips were pursed, her eyes closed as though she was praying.