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"A House of Sticks" by Lisa Rodriguez



The first time she heard the baby crying was in the morning. Like a stampede of infant feet, the wails of high-pitched noise overwhelmed the frontal lobe of her brain. The shrill cries bounced off the four walls of her pastel blue bedroom before stopping.


With a start, Julia's eyes opened, and she immediately sat up in bed. Her earlobes throbbed to the rhythm of her pounding heartbeat. She glanced around the room for signs of a baby, babies, or just about anything unusual, but there was nothing. The armchair directly across from her had her silk robe draped over it. The matching tree-sculpted nightstand lamps emanated warm hues, the same as the evening before. Blue and white curtains remained pulled, with the only morning light peeking in from the top.


“A baby.” She laughed at the thought.


Julia threw back the covers and went for her robe, finding her slippers in the process.


Salty bacon with a slight burnt odor floated in from the hallway. Julia rolled her eyes. “Alex,” she said to herself.


“Want a plate?” She heard him say as soon as she shuffled into the kitchen. Her pink, fuzzy slippers tapped the black-and-white checkered floor as she walked.


“You know I can’t stomach that stuff,” she said. She poured her usual cup of black coffee and put two slices of bread in the toaster before plopping down at the newly bought kitchen table from Neiman Marcus.


“You going to the art gallery today?” Her husband asked from his perch on the bar stool. His neatly parted brown hair gleamed with gel, not one strand out of place.


Julia took a long sip of coffee before answering. “Maybe. I need to finish the setup for the fundraiser. They don’t have many volunteers, and it’s been a week since I was there. I guess I’ve been a failure at commitment.” She put her cup down and rubbed her forehead. “But if I get another one of those aches like yesterday, then definitely staying in bed.”


Her husband scoffed. “A little socialization and fresh air would do you good.”


The toast popped up, and she put the bread on a plate. “I don’t know. I really think I should talk to a doctor. The headaches have been going on for some time now and it doesn’t seem to get any better. In fact, I’m finding it harder to complete the simplest tasks.” She relaxed in her seat, her chest feeling suddenly lighter after the vent. “I feel like I can’t do anything right. Something’s wrong.”


“You don’t need to take pills for those types of things. They aren’t good for you.”


“Who said I wanted to take pills? I just want someone to talk to.”


He bobbed his head back and forth in a bird-like fashion. “That’s what I’m here for.”


“But you’re not a trained professional, you’re an accountant who’s at the office from 7 to 7.” She sighed. “I need help.”


“I’m not about to let my wife go see some whack just because she’s a little depressed or whatever and then all our friends find out.” He stood up and dusted his suit off, even though there was no dust. “Let’s face it Jules, that’s what it really is, these headaches of yours. You’re unhappy. Man, I can just hear it now around the office. There goes the guy with the crazy, sad wife. He can’t make partner because he’ll have to tend to her needs.”


“Is it so wrong that I’m feeling unhappy? It’s been a struggle to get out of bed every morning this week, Alex. All I want to do is sleep.” She took a ferocious bite of the toast. “I just don’t feel like myself anymore.”


Alex finished his food and placed his plate in the sink for the maid to clean. “Oh, don’t start that again.” His eyes narrowed. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that. There’s something wrong with me.” He shook his head. “You have a beautiful life and you’re telling me you feel…detached…down? I don’t get it. Sounds like you’re just ungrateful, Jules. Get up, put some makeup on. Go be with your friends. You’ll feel better.”


“I don’t think putting on a fake front would help anything.” She turned, following him with her eyes as he left for the garage. Her back and shoulders tensed. “You men never understand. All you worry about is yourselves while us women worry about fitting into that perfect mold.” Her words hit the wooden door as he slammed it. A moment later the Lex started up.


“Mom.”


Julia spun around to see Sofia standing in front of the table. The sun illuminated her bronze skin and ebony curls. A ring of light from the bay window surrounded the crown of her head.


“Sofia, good morning. Hope you slept well.”


“Yes, it was great. I dreamed of you.”


“Of me? I wish you would dream of something nicer.” Julia winked.


Sofia's eyes, brown in color, stared expressionless. “You were sick and in a hospital.”


“I hope I got better, at least.”


She turned and disappeared into the pantry. “You did. Daddy came to see you.”


Julia chuckled and glanced at her now chilled coffee, raising it to her lips for one last sip. “Was that a dream or more of a nightmare? You came too, right?”


“A dream, of course, because you got better. And yes, I was with you the whole time.” Sofia’s voice was light.


“Sounds boring. I’m sorry the dream had me stuck in a hospital.”


“It’s alright. I forgive you.”


“Forgive me?”


“Yes, for everything.”


As she rubbed her chin, Julia raised her eyes to the pantry and saw her daughter back in the kitchen but with her face distorted and swirling into a void of nothingness.


Julia screamed, dropping her mug. The black liquid splattered everywhere, on the table, the floor, but mostly on the kitchen wall.


“Mom, are you okay?” Sofia rushed to the table with a towel in one hand and a bag of pop tarts in another. Ignoring the mess, Julia clutched her daughter's shoulders. She scanned her fourteen-year-old’s face. It was back to normal.


“I’m fine. I…I just thought I saw something. It was my fault.” She placed her right hand over her temple, letting Sofia dab the coffee. “It’s these headaches. They affect my vision.”


“It’s alright Mom, you just rest.” Sofia ran water over the coffee-filled towel and squeezed it before leaving it on the sink. “I have to catch the bus, but Hannah can clean up when she gets here.” She stopped by Julia to kiss her on the forehead. “Bye Mom. I love you.”


“I love you too,” Julia mumbled, still staring at the pantry where she’d seen the horrible image of her daughter.


“Oh Sofia, wait!” Julia turned to the door, but no one was there. “Damn.” She hadn’t even heard the door close. “My mind is not together.”


If she had enough energy, she would've accompanied her to the bus stop, as she did before. But those days were long gone.


With a sigh, Julia got up and trotted back into the bedroom. She put on a pullover top with high-waisted lounge pants and swept her black hair into a messy ponytail. She figured it would be satisfactory for the gallery, which she thought she should visit before getting kicked off the volunteer list entirely.


Even though the gallery was a block from their house, she didn't want to drive, so Andrew took her in the Porsche.


“12:30, ma’am?” the pepper-haired driver asked when Julia turned to close the car door.


“Let’s make it 11:30. They go to lunch at 12.” She shut the door and walked into the mid-sized gallery with French double doors. Still wearing her sunglasses, her grip tightened around her Birkin bag when she saw Kelly standing at the help desk.


“Jules! I didn’t know you were coming in today. Nice to see you again.” The skinny blonde walked over and gave her a pretend hug. Julia mimicked it back.


“Yes, I was feeling a little better, so thought I’d stop by to see if there was anything I could do to help.”


“Glad you’re doing great now. A lot has changed since you were last here…what was it, a week ago?”


“Thanks.” Julia forced a smile. She took off her sunglasses. “There haven’t ever been many volunteers over the past few months, so I thought you may still need help.”


Kelly’s brow furrowed. “When you just abruptly left that day, we were worried about you. We didn’t know if you were okay or if something happened.”


Julia shuffled her feet. “I wasn’t feeling well and had to leave.”


The woman’s head flinched back. “But you seemed fine that day.”


“Some illnesses hide their symptoms.”


Kelly sighed and smacked her lips. “Luckily, Daria knew a few people willing to give a hand.” She gestured to the woman behind the help desk. “With new volunteers, the gallery will open by the end of the week.” Her arms folded across her chest. “I’ll contact Alex if there are any other opportunities since he’s the one who set it up for you.”


Julia's mouth dropped open. “I guess I failed at being a volunteer too…I’ll just leave.”


Kelly reached out. Rosewater permeated the air, filling the space between them. “Wait. You’re welcome to view the exhibit before you go.” She gave her a half smile. “It’s Gabriela Colón. I believe she’s Puerto Rican, like you? Some captions are in Spanish.”


“I’m half and don’t really speak or read it.”


“Oh, well.” Kelly pursed her lips before turning around to the help desk.


Julia’s nostrils flared while she stared at the back of Kelly’s pin prick of a head. Biting her tongue, she turned to leave but then stopped. There was the sound again. The very distinct noise of a baby’s cry coming from somewhere in the gallery.


“Is anyone else here?” Julia asked Kelly. She knew better than to tell her about the baby.


The woman only acknowledged her with a brief, over the shoulder glance. Her blue eyes widened at the question. “No, why?”


The crying continued, coming from the adjacent room. The high-pitched wails echoed repeatedly.


“Annoying,” Julia whispered. She eyeballed the entrance to the next room but couldn’t see anything. As she glanced back at Kelly, she caught a view of the woman’s smirk before she turned away.


Head down, Julia hurried to the door frame. Her flats gave her an advantage when sneaking into situations. If there was a woman with an upset baby needing some privacy, she didn’t want to bother them.


She halted in the open doorway and looked in. Colorful festive oil-based pieces plastered the cement walls. Images of desert or sea creatures with contorted spines and exaggerated characteristics. Beautiful, yet demented.


Inhaling deeply, she swept her gaze across the room a second time. The works of art were the only thing present. After a moment, she looked at her feet and coughed. Her cheeks emitted a wave of heat. Julia shook her head and began searching for her phone but stopped when the crying started again. This time it was much closer and clearer than before. She jolted upright, and the crying abruptly ceased, silenced by a peculiar thump.


“Mama.”


Julia immediately recognized her daughter standing twenty feet away, wearing a cute dress with heart patterns. The sight of Sofia stepping from behind one of the two load-bearing beams left her frozen. Despite being just one year old, her daughter already had a head full of dark curls and striking dainty features complemented by her large brown eyes.


“Mama.”


Tear tracks covered Julia’s cheeks, flowing in multiple directions. Every part of her body shook. “No,” she whispered. “No!”


The crying resumed, but this time it was twice as loud. She dropped her purse and covered her ears, closing her eyes to block out the noise. With each passing moment, the wailing intensified, reverberating off the gallery walls.


Julia's eyes opened as she looked for her daughter. She was gone. Nothing remained, except for red liquid splattered everywhere.


She uttered a scream icy to the core and sprinted out of the room. Flinging the doors open, she ran down the sidewalk. Every face she saw was her daughter’s. Their synchronized voices echoed, calling out, "Mama, mama," again and again. 


Julia covered her ears and ran as fast as she could. Her legs pumped hard until they burned.

Strands of hair stuck to her moist cheeks. Her chest rose and fell rapidly. She ran until she recognized her house's gate. She was home. Julia paused, leaning on the black iron railing, wiping her eyes as she caught her breath. Birds chirped in the distance.


After digging under the third bush along the hedge, she unlocked the gate with the extra key. She stumbled around the fountain in the front yard and entered the house.


 “Sofia?” Julia called, closing the front door. The house sat quiet but filled with sunlight. “Hannah?”


Silence answered again. A few dust particles danced in the yellow rays shining from under the half-closed blinds. Julia stumbled across the kitchen and into the family room. “Alex?” She was alone with her thoughts.


Then she heard the crying.


“I’m coming baby,” Julia called, pounding the stairs up towards her husband’s study. But when she opened the door, the usual cherry oak shelves and five-pound accounting books were gone. Instead, pink flowered wallpaper lined the walls. A soft shag rug covered the wood floor and piles of stuff animals sat in the corner sporting friendly smiles. The crib stood to the left near the window with a mobile slowly twirling above to the repeated but slightly off-tune of Three Blind Mice.


She didn’t notice Sofia until a few steps inside the nursery. Her daughter was on the floor in a pool of blood. Her small, lifeless body resembled a discarded, broken doll. The blood splatter extended from the floor to the ceiling. Its streaks reached upwards like claw marks from an animal.


Julia opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. She tumbled down and hit the floor. Her knees struck with force, causing a despairing sound to escape her lips. She yanked at herself, her hair, her face. Sticky wetness smeared everywhere. Her hands dipped in crimson. Sofia’s blood.


Pain echoed through the house with a groan. There was a rumble and a shake. The mobile fell. Stuffed animals toppled over one by one. Julia plunged into the darkness as all four walls collapsed.


“And then what happened?”


Julia blinked and stared up at the ceiling of Dr. Taylor’s office. Her eyes came into focus from the hypnosis. She lifted her head from the couch. “And then…and then I, uh, I knew she was dead.”


Dr. James wrote feverishly in her book. “And who killed her?”


Julia's mouth quickly opened and closed. She wiped away a tear as she sat up. "I did," she said, barely audible.


 “I believe our work for today is complete,” the doctor said, closing her book. Her brows drew together. She extended her arm and gently tapped Julia's knee. “You did good. We had a breakthrough. The ability to face what you did and accept it is a step towards healing from psychosis. I want you to remember, though, that you tried to seek help. Unfortunately, so many families overlook symptoms of postpartum depression…until it’s too late. My goal is to stop the underlying notion that mental illness is best left unsaid.” She looked at her hands and then back at Julia. “I have news. Perhaps good. Your husband is here.”


She stood up and helped Julia to her feet. They exited the office and headed down the puke-green linoleum hall to the family waiting room of the Besboony Institute. In the small room, a chill hung low. Groups of people clustered around tables. There was no sunlight. The only illumination came from the fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling.


Julia recognized Alex as the man at the half-moon table to the right.


“Thank you so much, Dr. James,” Alex said, standing up to meet Julia halfway. “It’s good to get the chance to see my wife again.”


“Yes, but I’m sorry our session ran over. You only have seven minutes,” she stated, with a glance at the officer who stood against the wall a few feet away.


“Julia,” Alex said. He hugged her long and hard until she pushed him away. “Please take a seat.” He guided her to his table.


“Alex, what am I doing here?” Julia asked, staring at her husband’s face. It was much more wrinkled than she remembered. She pulled her robe closed.


“Oh, I thought the doctor said you were remembering what happened.” He looked down. His eyes fishing through the emptiness.


“It was something about Sofia. She was…I mean, I—”


“Yes, I am sorry I didn’t listen to you. You tried to tell me you were having trouble.” His dark eyes watered. “I was only concerned about myself. How it would look if I had a wife on medication or even who had to see a psychiatrist? I thought if I just ignored whatever was going on with you, it would fix itself with time. I just didn’t understand mental illness.” He cupped her hands in his. “For a long time, I didn’t forgive you. But those feelings only held me in my own personal jail of torment. Now, I realize it was my fault, too.” A sob escaped, and then another. “I’m sorry for not paying attention when you said you needed help. I should have listened.”


“I forgive you. Sofia would have wanted it that way,” Julia said, wiping Alex’s eyes. She smiled at him. He took her hand and kissed it.


“I’ll come back. I promise.” He glanced at the big red clock in the middle of the family room. Other groups were getting up to leave. He looked back at Julia. His eyes softened. “I have to go.”


“Can’t I come with you?” She got up to follow, but a firm grip from behind pushed her back. It was the officer.


Alex smiled and fixed his eyes on her. “No, you can’t. Even though you needed help and were sick, you still killed Sofia and you must pay for it.”


“Alex…Alex?” she called as he left the room. Her voice, high-pitched, cut through the indistinct murmur like a hot knife.


Julia sprinted to the window and peered out until she saw her husband walking to the parking lot. Both her hands gripped the cold bars. “Alex!” She screamed until her own voice melted away.




Lisa Rodriguez currently lives with her family in Ft. Meade, Maryland. She loves writing flash fiction and short stories. Her works can be found in Cafe Lit, Instant Noodles, and Bright Flash Literary Review. In her free time, she enjoys ghost hunting, Mexican wrestling and loves black coffee with two shots of espresso. 

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