This is the story of how my life came to an end. It’s not that I died, per se; my heart’s still beating, my brain and all other organs still work. But my life was over three years ago, when I, Sadie Cottonwealth, and my friend Isabella Varrasso went to Oklahoma for a three-day weekend. In order to save some money, we stayed at the boarding house where our schoolmate Flanna lived.
It started like any other story: innocently. Izzy and I were – are – friends since we were babies; we met Flanna a year and a half before that weekend, and she’s always been a little weird, but… Who isn’t? Izzy throws up everything she eats. I socialize so easily with strangers that when I was a kid, my mom used to worry about the possibility of me being kidnapped or something. Flanna is from Tulsa, where she lives – lived? – in a very peculiar boarding house.
On the front yard, statues and more statues filled the lawn; statues of characters from children’s cartoons, only huge. One of them was taller than Izzy. And all of them, absolutely all of them, so badly eaten by some kind of black mold that they looked charred.
We arrived on Friday night. We were so tired, it only took us a few minutes to fall asleep after unpacking. It was a calm night, maybe the only calm night we had at that place. On the next morning, I woke up to a knock on the door.
Still groggy, I opened the door to find a pretty little girl. She wasn't older than seven, and had dark curly hair tied into pigtails. Her little hands extended me a small package and she said, in a voice that oddly didn't fit such a tiny girl:
“It’s a welcome gift for your friend!”
And bolted out.
When I came back, Izzy was still asleep. I left the package by her side, on the bedside table; she woke up in a few minutes.
“Little girl left this for you. Says it’s a welcome gift.”
Izzy unwrapped the package to find a ginger plastic doll. There was nothing too extraordinary about it if you didn't know Izzy that well, but I knew why she was startled: my friend’s favorite doll, from her childhood to her preteen years, was exactly like that. Even the green dress, even the braids with white ribbons on the ends. The only thing Izzy’s doll didn't originally have was that red necklace drawn on her plastic skin in permanent marker, which didn't really match the outfit.
“...Probably just a coincidence, Sadie.” Izzy completed my sentence, but I wasn't entirely convinced. “Trish here wasn't the only one of these dolls they sold, after all. This is just a big coincidence.”
Izzy didn't seem entirely sure, either.
We went downstairs for breakfast. At the table, we couldn't find two seats together; I ended up at one end of the table, beside a nice old lady who wouldn't stop talking, and Izzy sat by the little girl from earlier, who seemed determined to make my friend her new big sister.
When we went out to explore the town with Flanna, we exchanged opinions on the people we’d met over breakfast.
“Who’s the girl, Izz?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s Sienna. Her mom died like three years ago, and ever since then we sort of adopted her. But she seems happier talking to you than to any other guest we've had so far.”
“Made friends with the old lady yet?”
Flanna seemed a little uncomfortable at the mention of my breakfast friend.
“Sadie, I think you shouldn't hang out with Mrs. Noeman too much. She’s… They say she’s kind of crazy. I don’t know.”
Then the subject changed, but I thought Flanna was being paranoid. Mrs. Noeman seemed very nice; we talked enthusiastically throughout all breakfast and I made sure to sit by her side at dinner too. She liked animals and children, like me; I told her all about my little brother and my three dogs, and she told me all about the animals she had when she was younger. She’s had it all. Snakes, spiders, lizards, raccoons, chameleons, frogs, all the animals I've always wanted to have.
It was a long, busy day; Izzy, Flanna and I walked around Tulsa until our legs were kind of sore. We ate, saw a movie, and even made plans to watch the musical Oklahoma. It was fun; that day, actually, was the only relatively uneventful one.
After dinner, I said goodbye to Mrs. Noeman with a hug, and Izzy ended up taking Sienna to sleep with us – that’s how much the little one had connected with her. They shared Izzy’s bed, but, when we woke up to a knock on the door, Sienna wasn't in the room.
I answered the door and there she was, with a box from the candy shop around the corner. Sienna came in without a word to me and placed the box on the bed, opening it to reveal half a dozen muffins.
“I brought them for our breakfast in bed!”
She said that staring fixedly at Izzy, who smiled halfheartedly. Back then, Izzy was at a terrible stage of her bulimia; everything she ate came back minutes later. I was kind of used to seeing her run to the bathroom after every meal, although I constantly begged her to stop it. Sienna, on the other hand, had no idea.
Izzy bit into the first chocolate muffin and chewed slowly.
Her expression was sad when she finished off the second one. By the third muffin, I saw she’d already lost herself to Bulimia Mode – which began with her stuffing her face with whatever she found, and ended always the same way. Fingers down the throat, life down the toilet. That is when she didn't refuse to eat for days. But Sienna didn't know what was happening, which is why she rose from the bed and gave Izzy a tight hug.
Sienna didn't know that, when Izzy ran to the shower afterwards, it was only to get rid of the two chocolate muffins and two banana ones.
Or maybe she did, because as soon as Izzy locked the door and turned on the water, the little girl’s face twisted into a grimace and she began to sob loudly. I stayed there, with no idea what to do, and Sienna kept getting angrier; she slammed her little fists on the bed and sobbed through gritted teeth.
I went to her and awkwardly lay my hand in her curly hair.
"Sienna, what’s wrong?”
“It’s too late!” She yelled, yanking my hand away with a hard slap. “It’s too late, Sadie!”
I didn't know how to react, but she kept yelling.
“Get out! Get out! GET OUT! IT’S TOO LATE!”
And she kept on screaming while I reluctantly left the room.
I didn't know what was going on, but I thought it was just Sienna being crazy. After all, she was little, and what Izzy was doing was dangerous, but there was no way the little girl knew exactly how dangerous.
With this thought, I went to talk to Mrs. Noeman in her room. She’d invited me to look at some pictures of her old animals, and I gladly accepted – who wouldn't? Snakes, lizards, spiders. I love those.
Little did I know that making friends with her was the worst mistake I could make, and also the most inevitable one. I mean… Well, maybe not the worst. The worst mistake I made was leaving Izzy and Sienna alone. But I’ll tell you about this soon.
I knocked on the door and Mrs. Noeman answered with a smile. Not the smile I saw at the table, and I should say it gave me a tiny chill; her eyes were… Weird. I think it was because of her pupils, so dilated you could barely see her irises.
“Good morning, dear. Did you sleep okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I entered.
“Sit, sit.” She pointed to a chair on the corner. “You’re a lot like me, Sadie Cottonwealth. A whole lot.” And so she got a big, dusty photo album from one of her shelves. I extended my hands out for the album.
The pictures were really beautiful. The one that impressed me most was an adorable albino king kobra in her viv, all shiny and impressively large. Well, that and a black widow guarding her eggsack. And a tiny blue Brazilian dart frog. Ah, screw it, I liked them all.
“Where are the ones you kept?”
“These are the ones, Sadie. I started with cornsnakes and tarantulas. A chameleon or two. But you know very well that the venomous ones are cuter…”
I smiled and couldn't help agreeing.
“And you had the DWA permit for all of them?”
“Each and every one. But they died eventually, and it was hard to get a permit for the new ones, and… When my husband died, I just stopped keeping them.”
She seemed sad, and I’m... A little tactless.
“Mrs. Noeman… How’d you end up here at the boarding house?”
“Ah, Sadie.” A chuckle. “Another story for another time.”
And so she escorted me away from the chair and to the door and away from the door and to the middle of the aisle, and didn’t leave my side until I was far away from the room.
But my attention was attracted elsewhere when I heard Sienna’s piercing scream cut the air, coming directly from my room. I ran there – nobody else in the entire aisle, not even our neighbors, seemed to have heard anything at all.
When I opened the door, Sienna grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the bathroom; the door was open and what I saw in there made me hold in a scream of my own.
Izzy lay on the shower floor. Both her wrists and both her ankles were bloody, each one crossed by a huge gash. On the floor, a sea of blood. Her face was twisted in a look of sheer pain.
Sienna wouldn't stop sobbing.
“It’s late, it’s late…” She repeated.
“Sienna! Stop that. Get me two more towels in the closet for her wrists.” I ordered, while carefully wrapping Izzy’s ankles in my towel and hers.
After wrapping all the wounds to stop the blood, I tried to feel Izzy’s pulse. A relieved sigh escaped me when I felt a light thumping beneath my fingers; at least she was still alive. Beside us, Sienna kept yelling.
“What happened here, honey?”
“It’s too late… It doesn't matter…”
She wouldn't stop.
I noticed I wouldn't get any information from the girl and that I needed help to take care of Izzy – my Izzy, my poor Izzy, bleeding and naked on the floor. I told Sienna to watch her and talk to her if she woke up, and darted out on the aisles looking for some of the people I’d seen at the table the day before.
The way she was screaming… Someone should have heard her.
I ran and ran, my voice echoing in cries for help. I knocked door to door, no answer. I knocked on Mrs. Noeman’s door, no answer. All the other rooms. Nothing. Room after room after never-ending room.
I ran through corridors, stairs, other corridors. The house was surprisingly big, so big and so agonizingly empty, it seemed like it was just me, Izzy and Sienna in a three-block radius.
“Sadie. Sadie! What happened?”
Relieved, I turned to find Flanna behind me.
“Flanna! Izzy tried to kill herself. Come upstairs with me, please...”
“Another one…” Flanna sighed heavily, while she followed me into my room.
She and I managed (to the sound of Sienna’s quiet sobs; she’d finally stopped yelling) to wrap Izzy in a towel and take her to the car. Flanna drove, I went shotgun, and Izzy lied down in the backseat with her head carefully laid on Sienna’s lap.
When she was calmer, she explained us what had happened.
“I heard her puking in the shower, Sadie.” She sighed. “I knocked on the door to see if everything was okay, and she’d locked it wrong... The door opened and I saw that.”
“You didn't try to move her, did you?”
But I wasn't convinced.
In the hospital, we briefly explained the situation and got sent to the waiting room, while Izzy was wheeled directly to the I.C.U. She’d lost so much blood…
After the adrenaline wore off, I started to cry.
At that time, reader, I was crying about Izzy, my poor Isabella, so unhappy with her life she’d decided to end it in a boarding house shower. My childhood friend. At that time, I prayed for her to stay alive and go back to being my happy, funny, beautiful Isabella.
At that time, reader, I should have been praying for a lot more.
But who could know that?
A long time later, the doctor announced that Izzy was stable, but the picture wasn't pretty. By then, Sienna had already fallen asleep on my lap; Flanna and I sat in a heavy silence.
The doctor suggested we went home, with the promise that the hospital would call if there was anything new. I didn't want to wake Sienna; she’d been through a lot. Instead, Flanna drove and I went in the backseat with her in my lap.
“Flanna… why did Sienna get so desperate even before Izzy tried to…?”
“Her mom died that way. She had eating disorders for many years, then killed herself slitting her own throat in the shower. She was taken to the hospital, but her body was so destroyed by bulimia that she didn't make it. When you mentioned Izzy, I remembered Sienna’s mom right away…”
The situation was beginning to freak me out.
I couldn't stop thinking about my friend all day. Sienna couldn't, either – Flanna had a family thing in the afternoon, so Sienna invited me to see her room. Partly to get distracted, partly to distract Sienna herself, and partly to just make time go by faster, I accepted it.
Reader, now is when the story takes that turn into the macabre side. If you want, you can close the window right now. I recommend it, actually. Close the window, reader. Close it. You don’t want to know what I found in that girl’s room.
This is my final warning.
Close the window.
You didn't? Well, don’t say I didn't warn you.
Sienna’s room had nothing to do with the rooms of any girl that age. It was small and simple, like all others in the house. But the walls were lined with dolls – every single one of them hung by the neck on a string that took up three of the four walls. All of the dolls, with absolutely no exception, were disfigured by blood-red permanent marker, some on the wrists, some on the ankles, some all over. Some were naked, others wore lacey dresses, a few of which were also painted with fake blood drops.
“Every time Mommy tried to kill herself… I came, and took a doll, and did this. She’d try again and I’d kill another dolly.”
And then I remembered the doll she’d given Izzy.
That was no red necklace, it was a slit on her throat. Which is how Sienna’s mother succeeded in killing herself.
“Why… Why did you give that doll to my friend?”
She looked at me with sad little eyes.
“Because it was Mommy who gave me Trish; she was her favorite dolly… Come here.”
And she took me by the hand, downstairs, out the door, down to the backyard. Among some more blackened cartoon character statues, there was a tombstone on the floor. With a name on it.
That name made me bolt back into the house, lock myself in my bedroom and try my hardest to breathe deep and calm down, but all I could do was sob.
Beloved mother, daughter, and friend
I called the hospital, with no clue whatsoever of what to do.
But Sienna’s mom had died three years ago. How…?
“Saint Francis hospital, good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon… I need information about a patient, Isabella Varrasso, who was admitted this morning.”
“Miss, the I.C.U. visiting hour begins in thirty minutes. You can come talk to her doctor, if you want, but I can’t give out any information.”
I hung up, grabbed my purse and ran out the door. I somehow managed to find a cab, which must have broken at least eight traffic laws for an extra fifty bucks, and made it to the hospital in under fifteen minutes.
Izzy’s doctor was a tall, dark-haired Asian man. He noticed my nervousness and thought it was just about my friend’s state, so he tried calming me down.
“Sadie Cottonwealth?” I nodded. “Isabella should be out of the ICU this afternoon. If all goes according to plan, she’ll be released from the hospital tomorrow. Don’t worry, she’s not dying anytime soon.”
That was too much for me.
Izzy was alive, but dead.
And had a daughter. Who didn't exist yet.
I had no idea what to do. I went back to the boarding house, planning to hide in my room; got in, locked the door and threw myself on my bed.
That’s when I noticed the package on top of the pillow, with a sticky note on it. I pulled it – square and heavy – and read the note.
Here are some of the best shots of my animals in action. There are also some of my personal pictures from before I ended up here; I think you’ll understand the story.
S. M. Noeman I opened the package. If anything still made sense, it didn't anymore.
The first photos were visibly the most recent ones. Beautiful. The albino king kobra ready to attack. The dart frog jumping. And then the black widow on...
With the four front paws up, ready to bite.
The arm, which was visibly male, was tied to something.
Out of nothing but stubbornness, I went through the next photos, and it just got progressively worse.
The poisonous snake sinking her teeth in the neck of a man tied to a chair, his face disfigured by an expression of intense pain. A lady, who didn't look much older than me, with – and this was hard for me to believe, too – a dart frog in her mouth. Only its rear legs out. Her eyes were wide open in sheer panic, her hands and feet tied to the chair where she sat.
I won’t describe here the cruelty I had to see in those pictures, reader. I can’t. It’s too terrible. It was photo after gruesome photo of animals biting, poisoning, mutilating people…
One of them was Mrs. Noeman’s husband.
I knew him from somewhere. Looked like my old boyfriend, Kevin, but a few years older.
I also knew it was her husband because, after the worst photos, the normal ones came – among those, Mrs. Noeman’s wedding.
She also looked familiar…
I went from picture to picture, and each time the resemblance between young Mrs. Noeman and someone I knew scared me more.
Until I got to one of them and screamed.
Behind it, she’d written:
Finally meeting my best friend!
It was the photo from when I – I. Sadie Cottonwealth. – went to meet Izzy and her family in Australia.
Me and Izzy.
My hands shaking, I went back to the wedding picture and examined the back. And screamed again.
Me and Kevin.
There was one other paper in the package. It was a name change document, emitted by the Tulsa register office. According to it, Sadie Meredith Cottonwealth-Beliveau became Sadie Meredith Noeman.
I opened my computer, fairly aware of the fact that I could hear my own heartbeats, and googled the name of the boarding house.
The Ryan Albert Flynn House was rebuilt in 2011, two decades after the fire that brought it down. Until now, it remains unexplained. Reopened by Sadie M. Noeman, the boarding house, although officially functioning, remains completely empty since its reconstruction.
I had no choice but to run.
Before I turned the corner, I was still able to hear Mrs. Noeman’s voice, coming from the door where she stood right next to Sienna:
“See you later, sweetie…”
“Give Mommy a kiss for me!” Sienna waved.
Never again have I gone anywhere near the Ryan Albert Flynn house, nor do I intend to. Izzy left the hospital, but occasionally still has her fallbacks. I haven’t told her about Sienna and the grave.
Neither do I know, to these days, who the other guests were. Maybe they’re all connected to my life or Izzy’s, one way or another. Maybe not. Who knows?
And Flanna… I’d rather not know.
But today I went to an exotic pet store, and finally bought my very first cornsnake.