Dark, dangerous things happened around the Hollow sisters.
We each had black eyes and hair as white as milk. We each had enchanting four-letter names: Grey, Vivi, Iris. We walked to school together. We ate lunch together. We walked home together. We didn’t have friends, because we didn’t need them. We moved through the corridors like sharks, the other little fish parting around us, whispering behind our backs.
Everyone knew who we were. Everyone had heard our story. Everyone had their own theory about what had happened to us. My sisters used this to their advantage. They were very good at cultivating their own mystery like gardeners, coaxing the heady intrigue that ripened around them into the shape of their choosing. I simply followed in their wake, quiet and studious, always embarrassed by the attention. Strangeness only bred strangeness, and it felt dangerous to tempt fate, to invite in the darkness that seemed already naturally drawn to us.
More than anything else, this is how I knew my eldest sister was different from me: She walked home alone at night, always beautiful, sometimes drunk, frequently in short skirts or low-cut tops. She walked through dark parks and down empty streets and along graffiti-smeared canals where itinerants clustered to drink and do drugs and sleep in piles. She did this without fear. She went to the places and wore the things that—if anything happened to her—would later prompt people to say she was asking for it.
She moved through the world like no other woman I knew.
“What you don’t understand,” she said to me once when I told her how dangerous it was, “is that I am the thing in the dark.”
My backpack, groaning at the seams with books on Python and A-level study guides, cut hot tracks into my shoulders. The rules and structure here made sense. The weirdness that lurked in old, empty houses and the wildwood thickets of ancient heaths found it hard to permeate the monotony of uniforms and fluorescent lighting.
Grey hated being left out, hated us embarking on plans that had not been sanctioned by her in advance. She was a general and we were her small but fiercely loyal army. “If Grey jumped off a bridge, would you?” my mother had asked me once as she splinted my broken pinkie finger. Grey had broken her pinkie hours before, so I had found a hammer in my father’s pottery shed and used it to shatter my own.
It was a question without answer. It was not a question at all.
I didn’t follow my sister. I was my sister. I breathed when she breathed. I blinked when she blinked. I felt pain when she felt pain. If Grey was going to jump off a bridge, I was going to be there with her, holding her hand.
Of course, of course, of course.
She put a finger against the woman’s lips—and that was all it took. The woman closed her eyes at Vivi’s touch, dazed and drunk on the heady smell of my sister’s skin. With her eyes still shut, she opened her mouth and sucked on Vivi’s finger.
I had seen my sisters do this thing before. I had done this thing before too, a couple of times, though the power of it terrified me. The things I could make people do when they were high on me.
My very first kiss had been with Justine Khan in the game of spin the bottle at Jennifer Weir’s sleepover. Her mouth had been soft and her perfume had smelled like lip gloss and vanilla frosting. It was supposed to be a bit of giggling fun, but it lit something inside me. A disco ball in my chest, an insistent hunger somewhere within me that made me want to thread my fingers through her then-short hair and press my hips against hers. It confirmed something about myself that I had suspected for a while. The kiss did something to Justine too—something strange and ugly. She kissed me again and again, hungry and insistent, until I tried to push her away and she forced me down, until she bit my lip so hard it burst and bled, until her fingernails raked claw marks into my arms and I had to start fighting her off, until all the girls who were watching us realized it wasn’t a game anymore and had to wrestle her, keening and frothing at the mouth, off me. The story had twisted over time, so now girls at school said I was the one who bit her; I was the one who wouldn’t let her go; I was the mad witch who’d tried to bite her face off.
It remained the less terrifying of the two kisses I had endured.
Here is a terrible truth I had known for as long as I could remember: I was my mother’s favorite child. I was orderly and docile and quiet, and those traits made it easy for her to like me, to understand me. My sisters were difficult girls: too sexy, too angry, too hard to handle. They wanted too much. They were too willing to put their bodies and lives in the way of the world. In the months and years after Grey and Vivi evaporated from our day-to-day, life was better. I learned to live without my sisters as my constant companions. I became myself. The strangeness that haunted them decreased to a low simmer when they weren’t around.
“You have to be stronger, Iris.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s not like I asked for it! He followed me back here. Why are you angry with me?”
“Because you’re weak. Because you let lesser people push you around. Because you are afraid of how powerful you are and you shrink away from it. Because I won’t always be around to protect you and I know, I know you are capable of protecting yourself, because you’re more like me than you realize.”
“Who the fuck are you?” I asked, because this person was not my sister. Her words were so vile, so wrong—how could they have come from Grey? How could this person who claimed to love me more than anything hurt me so deeply after what she’d seen happen to me? I thought, then, of the broken pinkie finger on my sister’s left hand. On my left hand.
“Does it hurt?” I’d asked her when it happened.
“Yes,” she’d whispered, cradling the swollen bones to her chest. “It hurts so much.”
“How can I make it better?”
She’d looked up at me, her eyes black, her breath coming in sad little drags. “Break your finger too.”
On my way out, Grey snatched up my bruised wrists in her hands. I winced at the layered pain, hurt on hurt. “Use the gifts you have been given,” she said to me. “No one should be able to lay a finger on you. You can bring them to their knees, if that’s what you want. You can make them pay.”
“That isn’t what I want,” I said as I twisted out of her grip, the way Vivi had shown me after one of her Krav Maga classes. “That’s never been what I want. Why can’t you get that? What I want is to be normal.”
You must understand, by now, that you are different. Why are you so beautiful, do you think? So hungry? So able to bend the wills of those around you? You are like the death flowers that grow rampant in your wake: lovely to look at, intoxicating even, but get too close and you will soon learn that there is something rank beneath. That’s what beauty often is, in nature. A warning. A disguise.
“Your sister is a wily one. A trickster. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Agnes reached out to trail a gangrenous fingertip over the scar at my throat. “Do you think there is any terrible thing she wouldn’t do to save you? Any line she wouldn’t cross? Any sacrifice she wouldn’t be willing make?”
“Tell me. Tell me the truth.”
“Your life would be happier if you didn’t know.”
“Knowledge is power.”
“And ignorance is bliss.”
Grey was a tornado in the form of a girl. She took what she wanted and left a trail of destruction in her wake, and I had always admired her for it. It took guts to be a girl in this world and live like that. She did it because she was powerful. She did it because she could.
We were sisters. We felt each other’s pain. We caused each other’s pain. We knew the smell of each other’s morning breath. We made each other cry. We made each other laugh. We got angry, pinched, kicked, screamed at each other. We kissed, on the forehead, nose on nose, butterfly eyelashes swept against cheeks. We wore each other’s clothes. We stole from each other, treasured objects hidden under pillows. We defended each other. We lied to each other. We pretended to be older people, other people. We played dress up. We spied on each other. We possessed each other like shiny things. We loved each other with potent, fervent fury. Animal fury. Monstrous fury.
My sisters. My blood. My skin. What a gruesome bond we shared.
I was not Grey Hollow. I was not Iris Hollow, either.
I was something stranger.
For the first time, I felt the power of what I was coursing through my veins, and it didn’t scare me.
It made me feel . . . alive.