Tell me; do you ever hear the Boy in the Pipes? I do.
He talks to me, tells me his story. Tells me how the Bad Man is coming. He hides in the walls so the Bad Man can’t find him, but he always finds him. The Bad Man always finds the Boy in the Pipes. Every night they wake me up, and I hear the Boy crying from his walls. When I ask him what’s wrong he tells me that the Bad Man is going to find him. He asks me to help him stay away from the Bad Man, but every night my answer is the same.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Hide me from the Bad Man, please!”
“How am I going to do that?”
And then the footsteps would start. They would clunk around on the ceiling above me, heavy steps that labored with the weight of the earth. Footsteps that would echo around the house, and I know that I am not alone. Thud. Thud. Thud. They would stomp around upstairs, and I can hear the water begin to run. Water in the pipes. Boy in the pipes. Sobbing, crying as the Bad Man stomped around upstairs.
And then another set of steps would come from upstairs: little steps, fast steps and sobbing. I can hear them every night, and the heavy footfalls would grow in pace until they’re chasing the Boy around upstairs. Running, screaming, crying from the second floor until a loud THUMP would announce the end.
I would lay in bed, and hear the scraping as something is dragged above me, through the upstairs hallway, with loud, heavy footsteps laboring under added burden. The water would start to run in the bathroom, and slowly the tub will fill up. The splash of something heavy hitting the water always made me cringe.
I’ve never had the courage to go up and watch, but I always believed that the Boy in the Pipes stayed up in that tub, just under the water, and the Bad Man held him under. This happens every night, and right when I think the ordeal is over and I can get back to sleep, the Boy in the Pipes cries from his walls again.
All I could picture was a white room, brightly lit, and me, sitting alone tightly wrapped in a straightjacket. The entire car ride was silent. Looking through the window, I finally saw The Alternative House. I expected it to be bigger. There it was – a small, white, two-story house. It looked to be something out of a horror movie. I pulled myself up and picked up my luggage. I couldn’t block out my siblings’ questions because all I could think about was what was inside this prison. I knocked on the door to my reformatory. A dark-haired lady welcomed me as I entered.
My response may have been assuring but in my gut I felt I couldn’t trust her.
To my surprise I found out that the kids that I met at the Alternative House were just normal, and there was nothing to do with straightjackets at all. There weren’t any bright white-lit side rooms. It was just a regular house with necessary utilities to live and counselors there to help.
While at the Alternative House, I learned that it’s not how you receive help, but how willing you are to accept it. I thought the kids in the house had it so much harder than I did; why should I even be here? I had to have that explained in one of my counseling sessions with Arthur.
He asked me if I thought some particular people with setbacks need help. I answered, “of course”. After asking me the same question about a lot of different people, he asked me “do you know you need help?”. He explained to me that we are all humans and at times everyone needs a little help. That at times there will be obstacles that stand in our way, but it’s how we perceive them that makes us who we are. We can look at them and see the negatives or we could build on them and move forward.
Growing up, I never thought my life was just like everyone else. I didn’t think anything was wrong. I knew my parents loved me, but there was something clearly distressing.
My parents both came to the States from foreign countries with traditional values as if feminism never existed. I wish my mother wouldn’t have relied on my father so much. My father would work countless hours to pay off the bills, and my mother would stay home and take care of me. It was the norm, or so I thought.
It wasn’t until 7th grade I started to apply the information I learned in health class to my life. My father was a drinker, but I didn’t know that was the reason for his behavior at home. I knew not to mess around with my father. If I were to blurt out anything he didn’t like, I would be punished; this seemed normal to me, and my mother would never interfere.
With a concussion and a difficult family situation, I decided to enroll in the Alternative House. I had suffered a concussion earlier that school year and was far from normal. I hadn’t been able to slow down and recover. I wasn’t use to making excuses, and my parents were in no way going to see this one any different. They expected me to produce the same results as if I was fine. As time went on I couldn’t keep up, and I couldn’t explain to them that I wasn’t able to. They took my deprivation as disrespect and tensions rose. As time went on, it was if I was walking on eggshells.
As I walked up to the receptionist’s desk, I saw the faces of my temporary friends. All of their faces lit up as they stared at me. They were filled with excitement, but I was filled with fear. The lady at the front desk handed me a pile of paperwork and showed me to a table. While I filled out paperwork, my soon-to-be-roommate walked by. He assured me, “Man, it’s not that bad; you’ll fit in with us just fine.”
Looking down, I saw each and every one of the seven walk past me. They couldn’t keep from staring, and I couldn’t stop myself from looking up. As I finished up, I could feel it: The goodbye was coming up. I needed to talk to my siblings so I could explain what was happening. I asked the counselor if there were somewhere we would talk. She pointed me to a room down the hall. I took them there. I told them I was going to be okay and to call me whenever something happened. I hugged them goodbye.
“The kids that I met at the Alternative House were just normal, and there was nothing to do with straightjackets at all.”
As we walked back to the desk, I saw my mom. Her look of despair told me more than her words did. I knew this wasn’t going to go well, but I asked to speak with her. It didn’t last long. She talked as if nothing was wrong as if it was my problem and not hers. The talk ended quickly. I couldn’t get anything through to her. Just like my dad her stubbornness shut me out as if I wasn’t even there. She left with my siblings. I was left there dumbfounded.
I turned to see a cluster of smiling faces, but in my head I had never felt more alone. The negatives were evident even though I knew I was there to accept help. No matter how bleak things looked, I told myself I would get out of there better than I was before.
Once I turned in my papers, the lady introduced to all my seven housemates. I can still to this day remember some of their names. Little did I know that their stories would make me not only sympathize with them but question my story.
Later that night, I met my roommate and got a taste of how hard life could be. As I listened to his story, I couldn’t help but empathize. We talked for hours past quiet time, listening to what each other had to say. After a few hours, he decided to call it a night. Although I was exhausted, my mind kept racing all night.
The next morning I got to talk and listen to each of my housemates’ stories. I kept asking myself how in the world I ended up here? I don’t deserve to be with these people? But after some counseling sessions, I was convinced that I did belong and that I did need help. The more I listened, the more anguished I felt. It was as if a knot was ripping through my stomach. I swallowed my pride and accepted the fact I needed help.
While living in the Alternative House, I had to transition to a strict schedule, a schedule that planned everything I did for waking up to sleeping. I thought, “Man, this is so stupid”. It was then I appreciated what it had been like to be free to do whatever I desired. Restricted to a house and being under someone’s supervision became irritating.
Although I had some freedom with some of the people that I was “under-control” of, I couldn’t just shut them out. Ironically, as time went along I found myself getting use to the daily routine. I will always wonder what it would’ve been like to stay longer; after ten days, I was told my father had called to take me out.
I went back to the house I couldn’t call home. It was agonizing and uncomfortable settling back in. I couldn’t talk to my parents nor my sisters about anything.
After over two years outside of the Alternative House, I’ve transitioned back to day-to-day life and have recovered, thankfully. I’ve learned a lot these past two years. I thought I knew what to do, but I didn’t. I had to receive and accept help. I thank God that I didn’t give up and end it because if I had I wouldn’t have this opportunity I have right now. I have learned from my biggest challenge in life so far, and I look forward to taking on what’s ahead.
Groaning, Drew pressed the heel of his palm into his eye socket. A sensation akin to having someone grope around inside his skull had awakened him. With unfocused eyes, he glanced around the room.
The dresser, the drapes, the nightstand—all of it seemed ordinary and exactly as he had expected it to look since he’d moved into his apartment. However, one thing stood out in his mind: that nothing stood out in his mind.
He had no memories of the previous night. Clutching his head, he tried to recall even the slightest detail in vain, and after untangling himself from his bedsheets, he realized that his person was just as blank as his mind.
Glancing around his room, he tried to recall where his clothes had gone, but that memory, too, was missing.
With a grunt, Drew slid his legs over the side of the bed, stretching them until he felt the coldness of the hardwood on his soles. He wrapped an arm around himself as he headed to the bathroom, rubbing his shoulder for warmth as the chilly air assaulted his bare skin. Hardwood transitioned to tile, and he flipped on the light. The illumination revealed a pair of dark brown eyes staring at him from the mirror. The blackness smeared around them made the bags beneath them even darker. He touched his hair—it was mussed and tangled—then his lips. Still sticky with gloss, they were split and bloodied.
Brow creasing, he, again, scrabbled at the darkest recesses of his mind for even a fragment of an explanation, but he found only a murky haze that suffocated his memories, barring them from being dredged to the surface. His fingertips trailed down his neck until a smudge of red caught his eye. Hesitant, he leaned closer to his reflection, tentatively stroking the dried liquid on his skin. Daring to scratch some off, he pulled his hand back to find a ruddy crust beneath his fingernails.
Breath catching in his throat, he took a step back. The distance revealed more red, the splatters painting his chest appearing in the mirror.
“What the fuck?”
A jaunty chiptune sounded from the bedroom, and he leaned into the doorway, peering in the direction of the noise. He knew exactly who was calling; he received the same call daily around the same time. Retrieving his cellphone, he returned to the mirror to answer it, tapping the screen with a trembling finger.
“Hey,” he stammered, fixating again on the rivulets of blood. “What’s up?”
The tearful voice of someone saved in his contacts as “Bae” with two hearts and a kissing emoji replied, “Sammy’s dead.”
“What?” The sobbing in his ear made him freeze. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Uriah whimpered. “I put food in his bowl like I always do, but he never showed up to eat, and I went out looking for him and found him in the backyard.”
His own heart felt heavy with the news despite that the calico cat was never his own. “You don’t have any idea what happened?”
“Well…” Uriah sniffled, taking a deep, quivering breath. “There was this huge dog roaming the neighborhood last night. Honestly, it looked like a wolf. But I-I thought it was gone when I let him out.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, brow knitted tightly.
“I mean, it was still dark out, but he never even leaves the backyard. I thought it was safe.”
“It’s not your fault,” he insisted, voice a soothing coo. “I’ll come down in a little while. Do you want anything to eat?” He decided to shelve the mystery of the bloodstains on his skin and focus, instead, on cleaning it off so he could go visit his grieving boyfriend.
“Okay. Well, I’ll get ready and be there in, like, an hour, okay?” He licked his lips, cringing at the taste of something foul in his mouth.
He leaned close enough to his reflection that he was nearly kissing himself. “Just get some rest, okay?” His tongue traced something foreign, and he pulled back his lip to investigate.
“I’ll try. This just really fucking sucks. I had that cat for nine years.”
Drew was about to offer him more consolations, promise him that he would be there soon, but his every muscle stiffened at what he found in his mouth: a tuft of black and orange fur wedged between his teeth.
Images and sounds flooded his mind, of blood and viscera and the squeals of a helpless animal. He keenly remembered feeling hunger then delight, and excitement as fresh meat rolled across his tongue and into his gullet. The disgust and fear that overwhelmed him made his head swim and breaths shallow. Chills skittered up his spine like tiny spiders as his bulging eyes peered a thousand miles into an imaginary distance.
“Drew?” Uriah’s concerned voice brought him back. “Are you okay?”
“U-Um, yeah, I’m fine,” he blurted, stumbling over his words. “I just remembered I left something in the oven. Gotta go.”
“Drew? What?” he replied, but the other end of the line went dead. Uriah pulled the phone back, gawking at the screen. His puzzled expression remained even after he tucked his phone back into his pocket. A distinct memory surfaced in the forefront of his mind.
One month prior, as the leaves were changing and the air becoming cold, Drew had made him a birthday cake. Or, more accurately, he had tried to make him a birthday cake. He had failed to follow the directions on the box, and the middle of the cake collapsed in the oven. Drew actually asked Uriah for help in salvaging his own birthday cake once he’d arrived for what was supposed to be a surprise party. That was the first time, Drew told him, that he’d ever attempted to bake anything on his own. With the way his trash was always filled with fast-food wrappers, Uriah had no doubt as to the truth of that declaration.
“When does he ever cook?” Uriah mumbled, eyeing the air in front of himself suspiciously as if someone just as befuddled were standing there.
A little over an hour later, there was a knock at the door. Uriah pushed eagerly up from the sofa to answer it. Drew greeted him but was clearly distracted, eyes shifting up and down Uriah’s form. His lack of a skirt and other frilly things clearly betrayed Uriah’s dreary mood, but something else seemed to have Drew disconcerted. As he stepped into Uriah’s apartment, his freckled face lost even more color.
“How’s your day going?” Uriah asked, failing to hide the concern in his voice.
“It’s fine.” Drew offered a few jerky nods, which were vaguely directed toward Uriah, as he moved over to the sofa. However, he didn’t immediately sit. Something beyond the window, in the backyard, caught his attention, and he kept wringing his hands.
“Are you sure?” He padded over and plopped down next to the seat he expected Drew to take. “You look kind of distracted.”
Drew shook his head and sunk into the faux suede cushions. “I’m okay. I’m just… sad about Sammy.”
Uriah might have noticed how guilty Drew sounded if it weren’t for the reaction hearing his beloved pet’s name evoked. He wiped at his eyes and nodded, lips trembling. He felt the cushions shift, and Drew’s arm was around him a second later, pulling him against his side.
“I’m so sorry,” the redhead murmured, genuinely apologetic despite the stiffness in his gesture.
“It’s not your fault.”
Drew fell silent as death, and Uriah squeezed him until his tears dried and he could steady his voice, having swallowed the lump in his throat.
“Do you want something to eat?” he asked, trying to change the subject.
Drew shook his head. “No, um, I’m full. I just ate.” He looked like he wanted to vomit.
“Oh? You said you forgot something in the oven?”
“Yeah.” Drew waved his hands as if trying to fan that topic away from himself.
“What was it?” Uriah pressed, hiding his skepticism behind a familiar curiosity.
“Just a casserole. It was, like, turkey and green beans or something.”
He didn’t know what kind of casserole he’d made?
“Oh. Sounds good.”
Drew nodded, sighing a second later. “Sorry, I should have brought you some food. It’s just been one of those days.” He shook his head.
“I understand. Plus, I said I didn’t want anything anyway.”
After that, the room became unusually quiet. Drew wasn’t talkative to begin with, but they normally found something to chat about. Uriah wasn’t uncomfortable with silence, and found a movie for them to watch instead. Nevertheless, he couldn’t ignore Drew’s lack of interest. It was as if he wasn’t even in the same room, on the same couch.
The idea that Drew would be that upset over Sammy’s death simply wasn’t plausible, especially because he didn’t seem that upset. He was unsettled by something, but it wasn’t loss. It felt like he wanted to tell him something but couldn’t bring himself to speak.
Somehow, he still managed to find Drew’s presence comforting and soon dozed off on his shoulder. When he woke, Drew had shifted so that Uriah’s head was on his lap. Normally, they both snoozed together, but whatever was eating at Drew, Uriah noticed when he woke several hours later, had prevented him from napping.
“What time is it?”
“About 6:30,” Drew replied.
Uriah rubbed his eyes, feeling that he was forgetting something. The werewolf that howled from the old movie on the television reminded him.
“I need to go take pictures of the moon.” For his blog.
“It’s full tonight.”
The air became tense. Drew froze, dead silent for long enough that it would have stood out in Uriah’s mind had it not been so addled by sleep at the time.
“I thought that was last night?”
“Well, it’s technically full for three days in the cycle, but tonight is the actual full moon,” Uriah explained.
Drew’s eyes darted to the window. The sun was beginning to set, painting the sky a warmly-colored farewell. As soon as Uriah was off his lap, he jumped up from the couch, wringing his hands again and fixating on the door. Initially, Uriah didn’t pay him much mind. Drew could be very timid. However, the darker it became, the more Drew seemed to struggle within himself.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. I just think I need to get going now.” He let out a sharp sigh.
“Really? You’re not staying the night?” Uriah’s eyes looked hopeful, almost pleading for Drew to change his mind.
“Well, I have to get up early for work, and I’m sure you don’t want me waking you up.” He side-stepped around the coffee table, Uriah the only thing between him and the door.
However, Uriah moved with him. “I really don’t mind.” It wouldn’t be the first time Drew had slept over when he had work the next morning.
“I didn’t bring any clothes though, so…”
Uriah concealed his disappointment, but it was more overshadowed by concern. Drew moved past him to the door, slipping into his shoes. Uriah tried to glue himself in place, but he turned on his heels with a huff.
“I feel like something’s wrong. Please just talk to me,” he begged.
“Really, nothing’s wrong. I just have some things to do before bed.”
“I can tell you’re lying.”
Drew said nothing, head hanging in shame. He twisted the doorknob, but Uriah caught his hand before he could step outside.
“You know you can tell me anything,” Uriah reminded him, but Drew didn’t turn around. He intended to say next, “I’m worried about you,” but the syllables choked off in his throat. Drew’s fingers became a set of claws, digging into the meat of his palm.
I was walking down a long dark hallway, barefoot. My footsteps squelched wetly. The dim flashlight I held was almost useless.
Slowly, I took one foot in front of the other trying not to let a sound escape my lips. The floors squeaked with every step I took. There seemed to be a figure in the distance, but I couldn’t make out a face, only the shape of what appeared to be a human.
Fear shook my entire body, but I continued towards the dark figure. I walked closer and closer. Suddenly I stopped. I realized what I been stepping in, what made the floors wet, was blood.
I wanted to scream, but couldn’t. The dark figure was much closer now. He looked like a human but had a large mask covering his face. He turned and faced me, it seemed he was insulted by my presence, though he did not say a word.
He turned toward me. In his hands was a long, blood stained sword. He hoisted the sword above his head. . . .
A flash of lightning and roar of thunder woke me up. I shot out of the bed I was laying in.
I was sweating and shaking. All I could see was darkness. I rubbed my eyes. I remembered then, my boyfriend, Jake, and I had rented a hotel room for the night. He was not beside me when I woke up. Jake must have left the room while I dozed off. The little alarm clock beside the bed said in bold red numbers 9:00pm.
I slipped out of the covers and staggered into the bathroom to wash my face. The warm water made me feel a little better. Jake came back into the room as I was drying myself with a hotel towel. He had gone out to rent an X-box and to pick up some food. He decided I needed to play a scary game tonight. Jake loved to see my reactions, but I was really not in the mood.
“Oh come on, you know it’s all fake. And I’ll be right here with you.” I was still hesitant, however, when he handed me the controller.
The game began and it wasn’t really scary, much like a predictable, bad horror movie. At least until one point in the game.…
Without warning it became darker and much more scary than it had been before. The halls to this game resembled that of my dream. The floors were wet and the only thing that made them distinctive from the one in my dream, was that this was water.
“All right… Stop it! I can’t do this anymore!”
“Aww, you’re such a baby! Here, let me play for a while.”
I handed him the controller and he began to play. About an hour later the game seemed to be building up suspense.
Lightning rebounded off the walls, with a loud crack, killing the power. We both turned to the window, then looked up at the dark ceiling.
The only light into our room now was from the thunderstorm.
“This damn cheap hotel, this is the last time I take a suggestion from Michelle.”
“Do you just want to go to bed now?” I asked hoping, praying desperately that he would say yes.
“Nah, I’m not tired at all. Do you want go out for a drink?” He asked casually.
I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I was terrified to leave this room. I stayed silent, then dismissed those horrible thoughts.
“Sure, it’ll be great to get out of this stuffy hotel, and clear my mind with some good beer.”
He and I both laughed, then got up off the floor. He grabbed a flashlight from the drawer nearby. I got up and put a new pair of pants on, grabbed a jacket, and left with Jake at my arm.
I was the first one to exit our room. To my horror my dream was alive, the hotel’s hallway became the hallway of my nightmare. Every detail from my dream was correct, although I hadn’t yet seen a figure at the end of the hallway. To my slight relief the liquid on the floor was not blood…just water leaking in from the ceiling and windows.
A flash of lightning coursed in through the windows and rebounded off the long hallway. It illuminated the floor. I didn’t want to see anything more, so I turned around and stared into the chest of my boyfriend. Suddenly all around us it got colder. I began to shiver.
Jake had paused for a long time waiting at the door, trying to get the flashlight to work. He was banging against walls, tapping it with his hand, or twisting it to try and get it to turn on. When it finally did, I looked up into his face and saw a look of horror.
“Hey, who the hell are you?”
My eyes widened, and I froze “no, no. . . .” I thought.
I didn’t want to, but the way Jake turned his arm made me accidentally look at the figure at the end of the hallway. Once my eyes locked on to it I couldn’t turn away. I was terrified, my breath caught in my throat.
It looked like a man from the chest down, all except his head. Its chest was bare and scarred. He had on some manner of bloody apron. In his hand was a long sword. I tried to keep my consciousness, but could barely see through a haze of panic.
Then unexpectedly, it was gone, and the dim ceiling lights revived throughout the hall.
I relaxed for minute looking at the light, how wonderful the light is. How it can banish evil.
It made me smile, until I felt a seeping liquid at my feet. Then heard a thud. I turned aside painfully slow. Jake lay dying at my feet, his blood flowing across my shoes. In his back a large gash that was spewing blood all over his black jacket. Blood gushed from his mouth, though he tried to breath.
I couldn’t stop the instant tears that overflowed in my eyes. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t even make a sound. The monster reappeared in front of us once again. Slowly walking towards me now, the sword stained with Jake’s blood. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. The dark figure turned and faced me. He hoisted his massive, bloody sword over his head.…
It was a rather disastrous brisk September morning. Georgia had snoozed her alarm one too many times, and suddenly every step felt one step behind. She managed to pull on a button-down shirt and her cleanest pair of slacks in record time before realizing, to her chagrin, that her shirt was inside-out.Her efforts to get back on schedule were entirely fruitless and her attempts at rushing were only making her slower. It took a few tries to get her left shoe on and to get the buttons of her shirt in line.
Georgia’s frown fell deeper when her telephone rang incessantly from the kitchen and she just about lost it when she answered and her mother was on the other side of the line, expecting for a long conversation. She was required to clock into work at 8:30 and at this point, arriving before 9:00 seemed like a dream.
She found herself out of her favorite blueberry Eggo waffles and was forced to shove a couple of slices of lackluster wheat bread into her toaster to retain a semblance of her normal breakfast. Her hands reached to pull out her hair when she caught a whiff of her burning breakfast from across the room. Of course she forgot to adjust the toaster setting, she thought bitterly. In the midst of her sprint to retrieve her burning toast, she forcefully slid across her kitchen’s tile floor into the edge of the counter.
Georgia could already feel a massive bruise forming as she reached over to clutch her throbbing side. Her anger and frustration off the charts now, she kicked a nearby stool over, causing an unfortunate domino effect that upset a stack of her sorted papers in all different directions.
Feeling as if her dignity was in shambles, she dutifully retrieved the papers that were now spread across her kitchen and stuffed them haphazardly into her burgundy briefcase. Georgia resolved to take a quick glance at her watch that she had somehow remembered to strap on in the midst of her morning’s madness and her frown transformed into a downright scowl.
She crunched on her burnt toast and hauled her iota of pride out the door with her briefcase and car keys in tow. There was hope when her car started, but New York City never failed to provide her with dreadful traffic on a day to day basis. Her car crawled down avenue after avenue at a reliable pace of something less than a mile an hour. She figured that at least in the confines of her car, she was safe from some of the outside world’s morning hysteria.
As she approached another momentary standstill, Georgia checked her watch once more to discover she was already ten minutes late. A few more left turns, she thought, hoping her unexpected bad luck wouldn’t push her tardiness past 9:00.
She could see her building in the distance around 8:44 and the nearing proximity triggered her mental search for an adequate excuse. She parallel parked a block away, not willing to risk jamming herself into more traffic. After stepping out of her car, shutting the door, and checking if her efforts to lock the vehicle had done the trick, she raced off in her kitten heels toward the skyscraper that was her workplace.
Georgia had yet to give up on making it to work as early as possible (which she had yet to accept was still plenty late). Suddenly, her heel wedged into a crack in the concrete and snapped clean off, sealing her fate.
It was only a few seconds after this fortunate mishap that she lifted her head up to spot an airplane barreling towards the tower that she had been heading towards. She was frozen now, helpless as the aircraft collided with the building, setting a massive explosion of fire and smoke into motion.
Her briefcase plummeted onto the concrete and its contents floated away towards the chaos before her.
Georgia was still; her first instinct was not to run to her car screaming like the crowd building around her, but to stare thoughtlessly at the machinery that had wedged completely through her office floor. She doesn’t remember when she lowered herself to the concrete but sometime between the loud screams and sirens she woke up again. She found herself clutching her broken heel to her chest, musing about her good fortune.
It sat there on the table, silently mocking him. It knew the power that it held over him. It was an inanimate object, incapable of thought, and yet it knew. And it knew all too well.
The fire caused shadows to begin their nightly dance, and they were drawn to the darkness surrounding him. Shadowy hands reaching for him, pulling on him, clawing at him, hunting for a soul to claim. They would find nothing in him, nothing for them to feed on. His soul was long gone, crushed and trampled into nothingness. They would not feed on him that night, but they would help pull him further into the darkness.
The barmaid took the object that had held his attention and replaced it with another that could judge him. The liquid inside was a cold, bubbling ale, and foam spilled over the lip dripping down onto the table, forming a golden ring. The barmaid had tried to be generous by filling it to the brim, and he hated her for it. Didn’t she see that it caused him pain? That it controlled his mind and made him live through things that one should never live through even once? Did she not see that he could not escape from it? It took over his mind just as easily as the other one had.
Deeper and deeper he was pulled into the darkness of his mind, shadowy tentacles wrapping around his neck and limbs, pulling on him. There would be no escape this time.
Flash after flash the memories surged forward, claiming his mind. He was back in the numerous battles he had fought in the past, fighting just as he had fought all those years ago. Then he was in an inn much like the one his body was currently seated in.
A warm fire, ale, friends, and laughter. That laughter could never again happen, the friends creating it long since claimed by the black mass that called itself Death. He could feel tears fighting for their release, and so trapped as he was, they fell free. The memories became more horrific, he remembered things that he had fought to forget, and saw things that he had prayed to never have to see again.
All danced across his mind now, and there was no stopping them.
How much longer would he have to suffer like this? When would he be able to enjoy a drink in peace? How long had he already suffered? Why was he the one targeted like this?
Amber’s black high-heeled boots clacked on the linoleum floor of the hallway. She took long strides, but walked slowly in an attempt to take longer than needed to reach the coffee cart. She knew that the second her presence was noticed there, she would be hounded by questions from the older ladies. How was college? What major are you again? Are you and that Anderson boy still together? Has your mother seen you yet?
It was purely exhausting, but necessary to endure.
Amber checked her watch. 10:54 am. The service started in six minutes. Thank God. That meant the older ladies would all be trailing into the sanctuary by now, leaving a clearing near the magnificent 20 cup silver percolator Amber’s mother had donated to the church, along with bags upon bags of Starbucks Pike Place Roast.
Pouring the steaming black liquid into a travel mug emblazoned with her university’s initials, Amber steeled herself for the torment she would tolerate over the next hour and a half.
Amber breathed in, and let the breath out slowly, pushing open the enormous doors into the sanctuary. Every head turned her way; all conversation stopped.
Giving a faint smile, Amber took a bulletin from an outstretched hand and staggered over to the pew where her mother was sitting. Sweat trickled down her back, despite the fact that the church had duct-taped over the knob on the thermostat years ago, resulting in an eternal 68 degree atmosphere.
Amber strained to keep her breathing at a normal speed. Her head began to ache behind her ears, the way it did when she used to go running on the path behind the high school during the winter.
She opened the hymnal to a random page, and moved her lips to the rhythm of the song being played, but did not sing. Her eyes blurred as she stared at the page, the characters changing shape as tears moved over her eyes, not yet falling.
She couldn’t cry, not here, not in front of everybody. That would incite the same level of gossip as being absent from church on a Sunday when everyone knew she was visiting home.
Closing her eyes, she willed away the tears. She squared her shoulders, hearing the music, but not listening.
We sat in silence for nearly an hour. The rain was just beginning to let up, though a slate-gray sky kept the atmosphere dark. Beside me Will was stationary in his seat, only breaking the stillness with the flicks of his thumb on the phone in his hand. Vague shapes passed us by behind fogged windows, but we paid them no heed as the bus tumbled along towards our stop.
“Hey—Aaron reply to the text yet?”
Will’s voice nearly startled me. I was beginning to drift off, but quickly straightened myself and gave a shrug. I took out my phone and checked the lock screen, but no notifications were there. “Nope. Probably hasn’t seen it yet.”
“You sent it to him at lunch, though!”
“You’d think he’d have told us what he needed, sending a message like that. Sounded urgent.”
“If it were urgent, he probably would’ve called.” I straightened my arms out in front of me, stretching the weariness from them. “And if it were urgent, he wouldn’t’ve called us.”
Will sighed audibly, but the turn of his head to the front of the bus was all the agreement I needed. There were several more minutes of silence.
“You bring any of those pills, man? I’m starting to get a headache and this ride is lasting forever.”
“Nope. Ran out.”
Will furrowed his brow. “Don’t you think you should get those filled?”
“I will. I’m seeing him tomorrow.”
“Well damn, man, I probably could’ve just slept through this!”
“You’re the reason I ran out so fast.”
Will gave a quiet snort, but let the subject fall. We were beginning to slow, the quiet whine of the brakes announcing the end of our trip. Aaron’s neighborhood was not too much of a walk from the stop we were getting off at, and it seemed like the weather would refrain for the time being as we disembarked.
Only the sound of our footsteps on rain-soaked pavement accompanied us as we walked the sidewalk, punctuated here and there by the hum of a cars engine and the hiss of their tires through puddles in the road. My leg protested almost the whole way to Oak Grove, the enormous bruise on my shin crying out against any activity.
I kept moving, though, and Will did not notice the slight winces that crossed my face with each step.
Aaron’s house was not grandiose to any extent, but it was reasonable enough for his tastes. With two floors and a dull beige paint job, it stood as the clone of several older buildings put up for sale down the street. It was clear that he had not taken a power-washer to the place for a while, as small dots of mold were beginning to pop up here and there between the exterior paneling. Will winced.
“You’d think Sarah would’ve gotten him to clean the place up. It’s not like her to let it get this bad…”
His words faltered under my withering glare, and he brought a hand up to fix his mussed hair. Though it was no longer raining, a low-lying fog had moved in and was beginning to mist our clothes and skin.
“Sorry, I know—”
“You’re fine,” I said.
“Yeah, but I know it wasn’t cool for—”
“You didn’t care then, why should you now?”
“Dude, it was her choice. And you know it wasn’t like that.”
“It’s fine. She probably just hasn’t seen it yet. His problem now.”
Will looked at me for a little while longer, with an infuriating air of what could have been pity. It did not much matter to me at the time, though, as I was not really paying much attention. I climbed my way up the short flight of steps to the house’s porch, waited for Will to get up beside me, and rang the doorbell.
We waited half a minute, growing colder by the second in the misty weather. Will reached out and hit the bell again. We both heard the tone play throughout the house, but received the same response. I turned to watch as Will checked the driveway again, but Aaron’s blue ford was still parked where I remembered it.
“This asshole better be home. I have shit to do today.” Will shivered and replaced his hands in his jacket pockets.
“Maybe he can’t hear us?” I offered, albeit halfheartedly. I punched the doorbell two more times and waited. When once again answered with silence, Will stepped forward and reached for the door’s handle.
“Why’s he leave this stuff unlocked?”
“It’s Aaron,” I said. Once again, this seemed enough for Will as he gave a deprecating shake of his head and pushed the door wide. Inside there was darkness, and a brief moment when my heart sped up and sweat ran colder than the insidious vapor that clung like a damp blanket. Then we stepped in, and turned on the light.
It was a handsome entrance room, with an open archway to the kitchen on the left and living room on the right. Stairs set into the right wall climbed up to the second floor, and in the middle between the stairs and kitchen was a shortcut to the dining room. Aaron’s shoes were piled beside the doormat, with Sarah’s flats beside them. The walls were painted white, darkened here and there by odd shadows and aged blemishes. Will looked at the shoes quizzically before taking his own off and walking into the kitchen. I turned, setting the door’s deadbolt and hanging my jacket on a nearby hook.
“Hey, come check this out!”
Will sounded excited, and despite my leg I moved quickly to investigate. He was no longer in the kitchen, but the dining room. I cast my eyes around to see what he was referring to, and it didn’t take long. One of the chairs was upturned, lying on its back, and the table was slightly crooked, pushed nearly a foot forward on the right side.
I furrowed my brow. “What’s that?”
Will, who had probably looked around a little bit before calling me, narrowed his eyes and cast them around the room and down the hallway. His voice was quiet, his tone suddenly serious. “You think someone broke in here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Shh! Shit, man, what if they’re still in here?”
“We rang the doorbell four times.”
“Where’s Aaron? Where’s Sarah?”
His steely glare was disconcerting, definitely, and I hardened my expression as well. We stayed in that room for several more seconds as the soft sound of rain suddenly began pattering against the roof. A tree branch, blown by the wind, scratched against the nearby window. He seemed at the same time worried for his friend and scared to leave the dining room.
“Maybe they’re upstairs?”
His words, or at least their tone, were almost pitiful to hear. I had never thought of Will as a coward, but this was a side of him I had not seen before. He seemed genuinely frightened at the thought of going up to look for Aaron and Sarah . . . so much for the bravado he always seemed to show. When he finally moved away from the table to venture for the stairs, I turned my eyes back to the dining room one last time. The chair had not moved from last I remembered, and a low-set bench was still knocked to the side of the room.
My shin gave a throb.
Every step we took stairs creaked under our weight as we climbed the stairs, the carpet on the steps doing nothing to muffle our sound. It was growing steadily darker. None of the lights were on. Every picture hanging from the walls seemed to be watching us. I stopped when I reached the top of the staircase, but kept my eyes on Will as he slowly moved on. My heart racing in my chest, my senses clear, I made an effort to stay silent as I crept after him as he reached the end of the hallway and Aaron’s and Sarah’s bedroom.
I didn’t have to look up to see the scene that kept Will motionless, that brought his hand up to his mouth and held back the words struggling to rise to the surface. I did not have to see the two forms lying in utter stillness on the bed, an expression of confusion and fear frozen on their face. All I had to feel was my aching arm, pushed to exertion twice today already, and it snaked under Will’s jaw and locked.
The phone on the bedside table buzzed in reminder of its unread texts. Will’s hands tried wrenching the arm away, growing weaker by the second. I turned my eyes on the woman in the bed as the body fell limp in my arms, and kept squeezing.
The water-slicked asphalt reflected the slate-gray sky above as the bus screeched to a halt in front of me. Its doors opened, and I climbed in, stretching out my arm and wincing at the pain of each step. I laid my head against the cold, fogged window, and closed my eyes.
Red leaves fluttered downward, carried by the wind toward the asphalt of Cherry Street. The newly risen sun barely peeked over the mountains surrounding Appleton, its rays not yet strong enough to break up the morning fog that hung like heavy curtains over the ground.
Mrs. Anderson opened her heavy front door slowly, its hinges creaking with effort. Frigid air streamed through the crack between the door and the jamb, making her bones ache from its icy touch. Quickly, she wrapped her flannel robe tightly around her sagging breasts, refusing entrance to the cold gust.
She clutched her cup of coffee with both hands like a talisman as she made the long descent down her driveway toward her mailbox. One step at a time, she told herself. Cold as it was, it wouldn’t do to fall a quarter of the way to the mailbox. None of her lively yuppie neighbors would be awake at this hour, leaving her utterly without help if she should fall.
Pausing for a moment, Mrs. Anderson took a sip from her mug. The currently lukewarm coffee slid down her throat, offering no reprieve from the temperature. She disappointedly poured the last sip, chock full of coffee grounds, onto the grass that bordered her driveway. The break over, she secured her empty mug within a deep pocket of her robe. She continued on her trek, side stepping down the last section of pavement.
The ground beneath her was finally flat. Mrs. Anderson breathed a sigh of white, steamy relief at arriving safely at her mailbox. Her cheeks wrinkled with her smile as she opened the mailbox to retrieve her news.
She opened the newspaper to listen to the headlines before summoning the effort to climb back to the warmth of her living room.
“ARREST MADE IN RAMPTON JEWELRY THIEVERY,” one newscaster screamed from the paper. “A break was made in the case last week when Detect-,” the newscaster was cut off when Mrs. Anderson flipped to the Lifestyle section, uninterested.
“The Top 5 Pie Recipes You Need This Fall,” the perky voice of a female reporter drew Mrs. Anderson’s interest.
Seeing the picture of the spiced pumpkin pie featured, Mrs. Anderson’s wrinkled smiled returned, her eyes growing wet. The recipe was one of her mother’s, from the early 2000s. She felt the heat emanating from the wooden fireplace of her childhood, so different from the false, gentle warmth brought by her current fireplace screen.
Deeply ensconced in another time, Mrs. Anderson didn’t care one bit that her feet were growing numb, toe after toe.
Sitting in front of the fire, I use my blanket to keep my back warm. The flames tickle the crisp November air, as heat dances across my face. It feels good.
I hear someone crunch the dead leaves behind me, it’s probably Mr. Williams, “Eli, are you coming in?” I look around and see that all the other children have gone inside for the night. The suns almost completely set; I guess the days are getting shorter. “Um listen,” Mr. Williams comes up and stands next to me, “I know you’ve been here for quite some time, I consider you one of my own, I don’t know if that means much but yeah, so umm if you want you can stay out here for awhile, just put out the fire before you come in,”
I nod, and he leaves me alone. If he considers me one of his, then why hasn’t he adopted me? I tug on the ends of my blanket; the snug fit makes me feel safe. Its nice to be alone, I’m never alone. Perhaps that’s a good thing, I don’t like to reminisce when people are around me. I always feel like somehow they know. Like they know what I’m thinking, and they judge me. The only time I can think about what happened that night is when I’m alone.
The sound of breaking glass rattles the floor beneath us.
“Carl what was that?”
“It was probably the furnace, you know how it gets in the winter.”
“Damn it! Carl go do something!”
“Alright,” Daddy gets up from the couch, while Mommy swaddles me in the blanket as if I were still a baby.
“Where are you going?” My mom shushes me.
She lifts me up and cradles me in her arms. The rapid beating of my mothers heart pounds against my ear, a cold sweat breaks out across her skin as she keeps me silent.
“Hey!” I can hear him shout from all the way down stairs, “You there! Who are you?” The sound of the gun being shot makes me cry.
His name is Broden Coulter, and I hate him. He killed my parents. He made me an orphan. He gave me this life.
I ball up my blanket in my fists; I no longer feel the cold. The heat from the fire radiates through the air and into my mind. This damn blanket saved me; it would be easier if I hadn’t been saved.
“I hate you!” I’m not sure if I’m yelling at my blanket or Broden Coulter. Either way I hate them both. The fire roars as a gust of wind fuels its anger. It tempts me. I know what it wants; I know what I want. Calmly I feed the fire my baby blanket.
“Shhhhh. You have to be quiet, Eli.” I hear what she wants from me, but I can’t stop my tears. I keep wailing and wailing like the baby I am. All the while, mommy is running, frantically looking for something. I don’t know what. First she runs into the bathroom but then retreats back to her room. I want to go to my room. I want to sleep. Suddenly she turns and throws the both of us into her closet and closes the door behind us. The darkness makes me cry harder. Mommy pulls down all of the clothes from her rack, and then reaches up to the top and pulls down every soft blanket and bed sheet. She pushes me to the floor and leans me against the wall. I flail out for her. I feel her side and latch on. She doesn’t stop though; mommy keeps moving everything around until they’re all perfectly on top of us. Were on the inside of a cloud, its soft and cozy, but it’s a dark cloud, I can’t see. Mommy’s smothering me against her chest, as I cry. My tears run down my cheeks like a cold rain. I don’t like storm clouds.
“Eli,” she stops for a moment, “You must listen to me. You must be quiet.”
But that noise was so loud!
“Shhhhhhhh” I shake my head in fear as she smothers me, “Shhhhhhh, It’s ok sweetie. It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.”
I feel her tears drop down onto my head. She’s crying to, but she’s being quiet. Maybe we’re playing hide n seek. The floor vibrates, and I can hear footsteps outside.
“You’ll never find us in here Daddy!” I snicker, loving how clever I can be. It helps me stop crying for the moment.
Mommy gasps, and dampens my words with her chest. The door opens moments later. Everything falls silent, even myself. I can’t let Daddy find us too easily can I? Mommy squeezes me tight, I can barely breathe.
The gun goes off.
Something hot lands in my blanket.
Warm liquid floods out of mommy’s chest.
Mommy holds me in her arms.
I can’t stop crying.
Mommy shushes me.
That calms me.
“Eli,” She starts shaking, “Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you Eli.”
The warm liquid stuff is all over my blanket and I.
“I love you.”
Mommy squeezes her arms together, pressing me against her heart.
She keeps squeezing, and doesn’t stop.
With tears in my eyes I realize what I’ve done. My blanket, it’s in the fire! Mommy would be so upset with me. I can’t let it burn up, I can’t!
A dangerous impulse has me jump straight into the bonfire, but I feel nothing. Embers sizzle on my bare feet, and the smoke churns as I inhale the toxic fumes. The flames dance around my body, as I retrieve my charring blanket. I throw the blanket out, as I dive onto the warm grass. We roll across the ground together, extinguishing the flames on both of us. Tears stream down my cheeks like a river. “Mommy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I love you. I love you.”
She walks down the beaten path, with her head hung. The sun hides in the shadows of the great hills behind her back, beginning to warm the cool morning air. Clint stands looking through my transparent walls, trying to watch her approach him. He quickly dusts off his clothes and fixes his hair. It’s been weeks since he’s seen Viola. He’s here so that he can think on his sins. So that he can find a way to change, be the person he wants to be, and the man Viola needs. His blood increases circulation, and his breaths quicken as she nears. I can feel Clint wish I would turn to air, allowing him to run to her arms, but I can also feel his confusion. As much as he wants me to be gone, liberating him, he really only wants to be liberated by Viola’s will, not by his.
She pulls off a thinly strung necklace, and uses the key dangling from it to open my lone door and walk inside me. Clint stands at the ready, his skin trembling over his bones, knee’s shaking he decides to speak, “Hey, I’ve missed you.”
She inspects him head to toe, analyzing his appearance. While he’s done his best to keep himself well groomed, Clint can’t hide the bags under his eyes.
“You look tired.”
“I’m sorry,” panic sets in across his face, “sleeping has been hard.” I’ve watched him curl up at night with his eyes wide open staring out into space. The things he see’s I can only imagine. He sweats in the dark has he relives his haunting memories, and cries himself to sleep. I have to admit, I feel pretty bad for the guy however, I have no idea what he did to land himself here.
“Viola, I’m sorry. I understand that I need to be able to take care of myself if I am to also take care of you. It’s just the sleeping…”
“How so?” Skepticism washes over her face.
“It’s hard to sleep. I find myself lying awake at night, just overcome with regret. I feel weak and pathetic. The reason I can’t sleep is the fact that I’m constantly thinking about you, what I did, how much I love you, and how much I hate myself.” The auburn brunette gazes at the floor unresponsive, while Clint stares at her begging through his exhausted eyes. “Every morning I wake up and look towards the road, hoping to see you making your way here.”
A timid smile forms across her lips, “I hate all of this.”
“So do I,”
“You’re the reason it’s like this,”
“I know,” The smile is gone from her lips, “I am sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t good enough,”
“I understand,” he takes a breathe as he eyes the sun ascending the clear sky, “That’s why I’m here,” taking a moment gesturing to me.
“You’re in this box so that you can change.”
“Exactly, this glass cube allows me to keep myself within the parameters I need to be in, and though that I can change into the man, we both want me to be.”
They stand there for a good while. Viola gazes through me off towards the mountains. I wish I could tell her how much he’s missed her. Or let her see what I’ve seen. Watching a young man cry himself to sleep every night isn’t something one can forget easily. I’ll be damned if he doesn’t love her, and there’s no mistaking it; I have no doubt in saying he regrets what he did.
“Do you think I’ll be able to fix this?” Clint questions.
“That’s something you should know,”
“Well in your opinion, I know my answer.”
She turns and looks at him, “I think you have a shot.”
“You do?” Hope sprinkles his lips into a hesitant smile.
“Yeah, but it’s not happing right now.” The smile is erased and he nods solemnly. “I think it’s best if I go.”
“No, don’t,” the young man trembles.
“Because, Viola I miss you,” he looks into her light brown eyes, “I miss you.”
I can tell she doesn’t know what to say, confused by her brain and heart. Her brain tells her,
“It’s a mistake to even speak with him. People never change.”
But her heart says something different. “Love is a powerful thing and she loves him. It will be hard yes, but anything is possible if you try hard enough.”
“But once a cheater, always a cheater.”
“No, people can change.”
“How can you ever trust him again,” the brain beckons.
“Time, time is the universal healer,” her heart counters.
“But for that, she has to give him time, how can you be so sure she’ll do such a thing?
“Love. It conquers all.”
“I miss you,” Clint repeats for a third time, as tears roll down his stubbly cheeks.
“I,” she takes a second to think everything through, “I miss you too.”
Almost before she’s done speaking he latches onto her and says, “Thank you.”
“Don’t cry okay?”
“Okay, but it’s just so hard not to. I’m still beside myself. I just can’t believe what I’ve done.” He tells her.
“Yeah, well I’m the one who’s been hurt. I’m the one who should be crying.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry sweetie.”
“I shouldn’t be here, Clint. Most girls would have left and never spoken to you again.”
“I know, thank you. You know most guys would have just called it quits. But I’m not giving up on you.”
“Yeah I guess,”
“I love you.”
She pulls away from him. Once again she inspects him, head to toe. Her brain is screaming at her, but her heart beats fast. Doesn’t she still love him? Why did she pull away from him? He loves her! Just look at him, he’s on his knees now fidgeting with his hands, desperately wanting to pull her back to him. He’s smart though, and lets her make her own moves.
“I’m going to be on my way now, alright?” she quizzically awaits his response.
“Okay,” the young man wipes away his tears, “I’m not going to give up.”
She lets a small smile emerge as she turns towards my door.
“Viola,” Clint stands up, and runs over to her, I love you. I love you Viola.”
“I love you too Clint.” She pulls him in for a hug. “You have a shot okay? I’m rooting for you, but you have a long way to go.”
“I know. I know it’s going to take awhile,” he stops and sniffles, I’m rooting for myself as well.”
“Good. You need to believe in yourself if I am to believe in you again. But I need to get going now. You’ll see me again soon.”
“Yes, I promise. Bye.”
She walks through my door and locks it behind her. They steal one last one last look, Clint mouths, “I love you,” and she gives a nod in somber agreement. He watches her walk back up that beaten path with her head still hung. I can’t tell exactly what he’s thinking but I’m certain he’s both sadden her visit, and optimistic. He loves her; I hope he can win her back.
The men on the lawn looked like aliens as Michelle watched them pulling the industrial vacuuming equipment out of their van. She kicked her car door shut behind her as she looked them over- white uniforms all tucked in at the ankles and wrists like they were going into a quarantine zone or a surgery. They had parked in her driveway, behind the black sedan, and she had to park on the road. Wrangling her groceries, she tried not to look too irritated as the workers in white uniforms waved at her despite the fact that, with her arms full of bags, she obviously couldn’t wave back.
The house was one of the only ones situated on their street, small and pale with vinyl siding. It faced north and had three azaleas, two boxwood shrubs that still had the new topsoil piled around their roots near the living room windows, and the two tiny sage plant cuttings from Michelle’s mother that sat next to the sidewalk. All were bordered with diatomaceous earth.
These details, which Michelle hadn’t cared about (or even known) before, were known only to her now because of the problem that her new house had come with a few months ago. She fumbled with her keys for a moment before the door opened in front of her.
“You look angry, Mitch,” Nicole, her girlfriend, informed her as Michelle handed a few of the plastic bags to her. Michelle sighed.
“Yeah, well, the bug guys parked in my spot.”
“Don’t take it personally. We can take your car into town.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just on principle, you know? I just wish people wouldn’t do that.”
As grouchy as she felt, the gentleness in Nicole’s voice made it impossible to get too snippy. They walked into the kitchen together.
“How was the store?”
Michelle shrugged a little. “Some good, some bad. There was a pretty good bread sale, but when I was leaving, some asshole in the parking lot called me a Mexican and told me to go back where I came from.”
“It’s whatever. You know, considering most of Texas was annexed anyway, it wouldn’t even make any sense even if it was true. Besides, he had one of those Ron Paul bumper stickers, so I don’t think any important friendship was lost there.”
She heard Nicole laugh softly at her quips as she pulled out the eggs and margarine from the bag and set them on the counter. Against her better judgment, she found her eyes drawn up to the crawling, shadowy shapes on the window that faced the front yard and the bug men beyond it.
“They’re just ladybugs, baby.”
She looked back at Nicole. She was a dark-skinned, beautiful woman with almond-shaped eyes that always seemed thoughtful and kind, even when she was pissed off. Privately, Michelle thought she was probably way out of her league, if everything was evaluated by what Nicole, in her studious, teacherly way, would call mainstream cultural standards. She was hourglass-shaped and naturally toned, whereas Michelle herself was, as Nicole put it lovingly, “reubenesque.” Sometimes straight men liked to try to hit on her and scoot Michelle off like she was some kind of token fat friend, but Nicole always found a way to shut them down that made her feel a lot less irritated. It happened less since Nicole had cut her hair short, but now there was a wretched minority that tried to get her attention by talking to her about sports. It didn’t matter how much Nicole insisted she was a lesbian, most people selectively ignored it.
“I saw the bug guys outside. How long is it supposed to take?”
“I’m not sure. They said a few hours because of how bad it is. They said they’d be done by tonight.”
“Good. Hopefully this’ll finally get rid of them.”
The ladybugs had been on them like a biblical plague since they had moved into the house. They were on the walls, the floor, in the bed, in the dishes and the pantry. They had put the diatomaceous earth around the house, burned lemon candles, sprayed mint oil, vacuumed up as many as they could, but it never seemed to have an impact. They had moved in over the winter, and at first they had assured themselves that they would leave sooner or later, but now it was getting to be summer and nothing seemed to have changed. They had fussed about it and eventually decided that professional help was the only recourse they had left. The bugs were too much, and their efforts were futile.
“I bet if your mom had heard that guy in the store, she would have flew off the handle.”
“Yeah, and make me look like a freak for being with her. The only time anyone here cares about Shoshone people is for five minutes in seventh grade when they talk about Lewis and Clark.”
She wasn’t really angry. Michelle’s tongue in cheek attitude served her well enough and kept her temper in check (for the most part). Even if the weird racist had genuinely gotten to her, she was too relieved at the prospect of finally getting rid of the bugs to let it spoil her mood. One of her cousins managed the company, and she trusted her employees, as far as bug companies went.
Michelle and Nicole had planned to spend the evening doing something fun together, and to some extent, they succeeded- the early summer weather was very mild, and they went out to dinner and ate outside in a restaurant blessedly free of ladybugs. Michelle told a story about one of the classes she was teaching, how one of her students that played the clarinet was already offered a scholarship despite only being a sophomore. They expected the workers to be done (and gone) by the time they returned, but some hours later, the men were still around, loading the vacuums into the van. When they approached, there was only one worker left outside, a tall man who was sheepishly milling around it. Michelle assumed this must be the manager, since the other two seemed to have taken the chance to avoid conversation.
“What’s up? I thought you were going to be done a while ago,” Nicole asked him as he avoided eye contact.
“Well, I mean, we are done.”
“Are the bugs gone?”
“Honey, I thought you said you were done?”
“Yeah, I’m- I’m sorry. We sucked up the ones we could, but we had some trouble. We could come back again and try it, maybe half off-”
“No, no, nope. If it didn’t work the first time, why would it work the second?” Michelle demanded, and the man’s cheeks turned red. She was embarrassed for him. She knew he was just trying to do his job, but clearly, he wasn’t very good at it.
“Listen,” she began, more compassionately. “I know you boys did the best you could, but really, I think we’re going to keep trying to handle it from here. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. Sorry we couldn’t do more for you.”
“It’s okay,” she said, patting him on the arm. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” he said, and pulled out of the driveway, heading down the road.
Nicole shook her head. They headed back inside.
“This is some shit,” Michelle sighed as they shut the door. Nicole kissed her on the cheek.
“Don’t take it too hard. I’m sure they did their best.”
Michelle shrugged. To her, it seemed like some nerve to screw up what was supposed to be your job and then ask for more money to fuck it up again. That night, while watching TV, they chatted back and forth and pretended like it ‘really did seem a little better,’ and tried to convince themselves that maybe there had been an impact, although they both knew it wasn’t the case. The following morning their conversation was sparse and marked by disheartened silence, and they went back and forth debating solutions, although there wasn’t much that they hadn’t already considered.
As Michelle styled her hair, she heard Nicole from the other room.
“You should call your mom.”
She stared into her reflection’s annoyed dark eyes.
“I don’t really… I’m not sure I feel up to that,” she called back.
“I’m not trying to push you, I’m just saying-”
Michelle turned her head without thinking. She jerked the hair curler away from her jaw as she felt the sudden shock of the heat, and let it clatter into the sink as she examined the cylindrical mark as they darkened on her face. From the bedroom, she heard Nicole talking over her yelp of pain.
“I just think she’d really appreciate it-”
“Christ, Mitch, I fucking burned myself! Can you just cut me some slack for five seconds!?” She yelled, and her girlfriend fell silent.
For a moment, she did too, partially regretting her reaction but knowing, deep down, it was probably justified. She unplugged the curler and put it on the counter to cool off. She heard the sound of Nicole’s shoes on the wood floor and the door shutting behind her, and sighed. She wasn’t sure whether to be angry at her partner or herself. Sure, Nicole could have rushed in and tried to console her, but she could have also not have snapped at her.
From the hallway, she saw Nicole sitting in the loveseat in the living room. She lay out across it with her head craned off the other arm, staring up at the ceiling, her arms crossed across her chest.
“Nicky?” Michelle called, gently.
“There are a hundred bugs on this ceiling,” she responded flatly.
Michelle glanced up at the tiny red shapes ambling across the uneven white plaster and looked away in disgust. She’d never seen ladybugs stick to the ceiling, and it made her think of roaches.
“Nicky, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that.”
Nicole uncrossed her arms and sighed, running a hand over her short hair.
“It’s all right. I’m sorry you got burned.”
“It was my fault. I’m okay,” Michelle assured her. Nicole sat up and turned to face forward on the loveseat as Michelle joined her.
“I’d really like to see her, Nicky.”
“I know, it’s just- you know it’s complicated with my family. I don’t always want to hear about where I came from,” she sighed, running her hand over Nicole’s knee. Nicole scoffed.
This is it. Sophie took a deep breath and unlocked the door to her home for the next year. The hinges creaked loudly, screaming their unwillingness to open. To her surprise, another girl stood barefoot in the middle of the room, as if waiting for her. The other girl was strangely beautiful, with pale smooth skin and long auburn hair held away from her face by a ribbon.
“Are you to live here?, the girl asked, smiling demurely with her head tilted to one side. Sophie slung her backpack onto the ground next to the empty bed.
“Yeah. I guess that makes you my roommate. The RA’s must be a little frazzled today. The one that checked my in said that my roommate hadn’t even arrived yet. My name’s Sophie.”
The other girl smiled and turned away saying, “I am called Analise.” Analise peeked over her shoulder. “Do you need any help unpacking? I’m pretty good at organizing things.” Sophie pulled a laptop out of her bag and set it on the desk. She plugged the charger into the wall first, and then into the laptop.
“That would be cool. I have a little bit in my car right now. My parents are arriving in a few hours with the rest of it.”
After emptying her backpack completely, Sophie stood and turned back to the girl, who, it seemed, hadn’t moved an inch. Awe man, she thought. I’m gonna be stuck with a weirdo.
“I’m gonna go out to my car and get some of my stuff. I’ll be right back.” Analise ran her hands through her long hair. “I suppose I’ll see you soon,” she answered.
Beginning the long trek back to her car, Sophie began to think. At least this girl seemed nice. Yes, she was odd, but there were worse things to be. Besides, there were so many more aspects of college to be excited about.
It seemed like hours before Sophie returned to the large brick building that was her dorm. Arms aching with the effort it took to carry three duffle bags full of clothing, she managed to open her door without dropping anything.
There was someone else in the dorm.
“Hey! You’re Sophie, right? I’m Angela. Looks like we’re gonna be roomies!” Sophie dropped all three bags in the doorway. Puzzled, she backtracked out the door to double-check the room number. Angela frowned and looked down at her copy of the roommate agreement. “You are Sophie, right? Sorry, I just assumed.”
After double and then triple checking the room number, Sophie slowly walked back inside.
“Yeah, I’m Sophie. I’m sorry. I’m just a little confused. There was another girl in here earlier. I thought she was my roommate.”
Angela’s smile made a quick reappearance. “Nope! That’s me. I can’t even tell you how excited I am!” Sophie smiled. Maybe she wouldn’t be stuck with a weirdo after all.
Later that night, after all of the tearful goodbyes had been said, and all the bags had been unpacked, Sophie sat on her bed, wondering. I bet I could look Analise up in the directory, she thought. The girl wasn’t that bad, and Sophie was beginning to feel a little desperate for a friend.
Sophie typed the name “Analise” into the online student directory. Nothing came up. She tried multiple variants of the name, figuring she had spelled it wrong. There were still no results. Hmmm. As a last resort she typed “Analise Radford University” into Google.
Five different news stories came up. She clicked on the first one, its headline reading, “Analise Whitten- you will be missed”. Sophie quickly skimmed the article, and then froze. She could hear her blood pounding in her ears. At the bottom of the article, which was a student-written obituary, was a picture of Analise Whitten.
It was the same girl she had seen hours ago, down to the auburn curls and bare feet.
Avery cranked the window down in her 1994 jeep wrangler. She could hardly contain her excitement as she drove onto the Refaire Bridge. Now this is what summer is supposed to be, she thought to herself. She had a very strong opinion that summer was to be filled with boys, beaches, and tans, yet so far her summer had been anything but that.
Now she was headed down to her grandparent’s old beach house, where she would help out with anything they needed- mainly grocery store trips and repainting the house. They had gotten so old that there was only so much that they could really do by themselves. Normally her aunt took care of her grandparents, but this summer it was her turn. To others in her family this trip seemed like a chore, but not to Avery. She adored her grandparents, and thought that this summer could be one of the last chances she had to spend time with them before heading off to college next summer.
Cruising down Bonneroute Boulevard, she stuck her arm out the open window to feel the breeze. This is perfect, she thought. The sky was the most beautiful blue; however, off to the right on the horizon, a huge storm was brewing. It wasn’t uncommon for storms to brew over Mobile, AL and never make it to the island, but this one looked as if it may.
When she finally reached her grandparents house at the west end of the island, she stepped out of the jeep and stretched. The trip here from Tennessee was long, and loud inside her jeep. Her mom had offered for her to borrow the corolla, but Avery refused. The trip may have permanently hurt her eardrums, but she would never have given up the chance to drive her jeep around on the dunes behind her grandparent’s house. It was something she had been dreaming of doing for years, even before she had bought her jeep.
“Avery? Is that you?”
Both of Avery’s grandparents were standing on their porch, far above her head, screaming her name. Her grandparent’s house was on stilts, like most beach houses, which was one of the main reasons that her grandparents never left it. The stairs were too much of a hassle for their aging hips.
“Yeah! I’m here!” Avery called back up to them, and proceeded to drag her enormous duffle bag across the center console and out the driver’s side door. Although the sun felt great on her back, the humidity was already making Avery sweat bullets. By the time she had lugged her duffle bag all the way up the stairs, she was drenched.
“Come inside, its nice and cold in here. Would you like a coke, honey? We have a few in the fridge already,” Avery’s grandma put her arm around her and hugged her close. She picked up her suitcase while her grandpa held the door open, cold air wafting out of it.
Down at the beach, the water was calm and the sand was deliciously warm. Avery spread out her arms, wanting to feel the warmth on as much of her body as possible. Now this is what she thought summer should be. Thinking of all the possibilities for the rest of her summer made Avery smile, and she sat up to enjoy her view. A group of attractive guys about her age were playing beach volleyball a dozen yards away. They seemed to sense her staring and began playing even more aggressively, each guy trying to outdo the other.
Avery giggled. Boys will be boys, she thought. It made her happy that someone, especially a few someones, wanted her attention. Pulling her beach bag closer to her, Avery searched for her sunscreen. Frustrated, she found nothing. In all of her excitement to head down to the beach, she had forgotten to put it in her pack. Her fair skin would surely burn if she didn’t use sunscreen out here. Huffing, she picked up her beach bag and towel, and turned to head back to the house.
She walked fast, wanting to get back as soon as possible in the hope that the boys would still be playing when she returned. Her flip-flops slung sand against her calves as she made her way out of the sand and onto the street. Although her grandparents’ house wasn’t right on the beach, it was only a street away.
Finally reaching the stairs to the house, Avery took the steps two at a time and dropped her bag and towel right outside the door. “Hey Grandma, I’m just grabbing my sunscreen!” She yelled, searching the kitchen table for the lotion. Out of the corner of her eye, Avery saw her grandma walk inside from the back porch.
“Avery, do you think you could be a doll and head into town to get a few things? I’m afraid we are out of most of the food we’ll need for the next week. Jenny was supposed to go to the market for me, but she had to stay late at work.” Avery’s grandma looked up at her, her knit eyebrows leaving deep creases in her forehead. Even though she wanted nothing more than to return to the beach ASAP, she could never say no to her grandma. After all, it was grocery trips like this one that were the reason that she even had the chance to be down on the island at all.
As her grandma made a list of things that she needed from the grocery store, Avery slipped out of her bathing suit and back into her shorts and t-shirt. Grabbing her purse off of the dresser as she headed back into the kitchen, Avery looked for her flip-flops along the wall next to the front door.
Shuffling toward her, Avery’s grandma thrust out a piece of paper and several twenty- dollar bills along with a set of car keys. “Oh, no grandma, I brought my jeep. I don’t need to borrow a car.” Avery tried to hand back the keys, but her grandma shook her head. “Nonsense. It’s about to storm and your jeep doesn’t even have a roof. I don’t want you to get soaked on the drive back inland. You’d catch a cold.”
It did make more sense to take her grandma’s car, but Avery was still hesitant. Rain or not, she loved driving the jeep. It was pure freedom to have nothing other than a roll cage in between you and the sky; almost as if you could spontaneously lift off of the tarmac and fly up to the heavens. “Okay, Grandma. I’ll take your car.”
The rain was pouring by the time Avery got down to the Oldsmobile. She unlocked the door with her key, and slid onto the old leather seat. She pushed her wet hair off of her forehead and turned the key in the ignition. The world looks so much different when it rains. All of the colors dim and run; nothing seems as well defined as it did before the storm. Avery turned on her headlights in order to see more clearly.
What is it that makes a human being a person? Is it their eyes? Their smile? Their laugh? At what point are they no longer considered a person? Doctor Carter Reynolds pensively watched Avery Walden’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall. He was a friend of the Walden family and had witnessed that girl grow up. He had given her her first stitches. He understood that medically, it seemed less and less likely that Avery would recover.
Doctor Reynolds reviewed Avery Walden’s patient file sheet for the fifth time that day. Doctor Cooper, a doctor new to the hospital, walked into room 229 behind him. “Doctor Reynolds, I think it would be wise to ask the family if they would consider discontinuing life support. Avery has been in a vegetative state for three months now. It doesn’t seem likely that she will ever regain consciousness.” Doctor Carter Reynolds’ dark, heavily lined eyes looked up from his coffee.
“She’s not gone yet. I can feel it.”
Avery cranked the window down in her 1994 jeep wrangler. The movement seemed so familiar, as if she had done it a million times.
The eyes won’t shut up! They’re stupid, I hate them! Why won’t they go away? They look at me through the black night, they pierce me and they speak. I can’t tell what they are saying, but I know they have a message. I hear no words, but I feel their bitter language drip down onto me like a broken facet dripping blood. I beg to walk faster through the dark. The eyes match me step for step. Why won’t they shut up? Continue reading The eyes→
I stormed off through the woods back toward home. I was furious. How did she escape me? I never knew she could perform such a seamless transportation spell. “Semantics,” I thought to myself. “I must find out what she plans for the future. I can do nothing about the past except learn from it.” I moved faster through the maze of trees. My feet barely touched the ground, and I was back on my front porch in just a few minutes. Continue reading Outside of Greentown: Chapter 7→
I ran frantically through the woods, feeling the air temperature around me quickly start to rise. When I reached the edge of the blaze I could barely make out Erlina’s thin black figure. I didn’t bother calling out to her. She was deep into her magic, expanding the widening ring of fire around her and torching anything in its path. Continue reading Outside of Greentown: Chapter 6→
A dark shadow crept from corner to corner in a dimly lit alley. The figure came ever closer, moving quickly. I started to run back toward the street. I could see the light at the end. It was still so far away. I could feel my heart throbbing heavily in my chest, fueled by adrenaline. The air rushed past my ears and kept me from hearing any advancing footsteps. I couldn’t afford to turn around in case she was still following me. Continue reading Outside of Greentown: Chapter 5→