We Need To Be Nice

            “Who gave you these, sweetheart?” her voice quivers at the sight of a hemp doll lying stiffly on the table. The children lower their gazes and do not reply. Fear tickles her throat, but she tries a more stern tone, “Sweetie, what house are these from?”

            Neither child even so much as blinks. Hesitantly, she lifts the doll to her face to analyze the blue dress. It is strangely familiar in a way she cannot explain. There’s also a small envelope, about four inches wide, pinned to the back of the brown doll. Locking eyes on her daughter briefly and taking a deep breath, goose bumps cover her entire body. She reads the name on the envelope aloud.

            “Denise…” she watches her daughter closely. There’s no response. She repeats herself, making it clear that she’s asking a question now, “Denise?”

            Her shaking fingers make a jagged tear in the thick paper, exposing a blood red piece of cardstock. A rotten odor erupts when she parts the envelope to remove the note. She also gags when touching the somewhat damp paper, feeling that it might’ve been wet earlier that day.

            “We were caught being naughty, Charlotte,” her daughter remarks, keeping her hands folded in her lap. Hearing this is shocking because Denise is one of the most obedient little girls at school, and she almost always wins the monthly citizenship award in her class.

            Then her son abruptly stands up and dumps his trick-or-treat bag, revealing a similar doll with a matching card. Even if she doesn’t feel the sting of tears forming, they are undoubtedly streaming from her eyes. With wet cheeks, she manipulates the angle of the card so that she can read it while still watching both children.

            As she’s starting to scan the paper, though, she scolds her daughter for not calling her by the right name. “Don’t call me by my first name unless there’s an emergency.” She waits for her daughter to apologize but Denise doesn’t make a peep.

                       This little girl was caught being naughty,

                       So here’s your chance to make her be nice.

            “Denise, you need to tell me what is happening right now,” she demands, flashing the card for both children to see the message. “I’m not asking anymore. Tell me where you got these dolls!” She glowers at her son too, hoping he might respond after being acknowledged. But he just remains standing with his trick-or-treat bag turned upside down.

This scene is frightening. What could they have possibly done naughty? Her youngest is never disobedient. Her oldest is never defiant. Something is very wrong and it worries her deeply.

            “Somebody needs to tell me what this nonsense is about now, or you’ll both be grounded for a month!” she shouts, although it probably sounds more like a shrill scream. Panic begins settling into her bones, making her tremble. Rigidly, she straightens herself back to her full height.

            “I was naughty, Charlotte,” Denise declares in an empty voice. The sound of it carves a pit in her chest. Towering above them, hands on her hips, she stares her son down instead.

            “Travis Mitchell Bowers, you better start talking. Is this a prank? If this is a prank and you tell me right now, I’ll forgive you for taking it this far, but if you keep playing around like this,” her voice cracks, “then you’ll be grounded until Christmas.”

            They both gawk at her helplessly. Tears form in their eyes but they are not clear. Blood is dripping down their faces and she nearly faints at the sight of it. As the teardrops fall, she notices the card on the table melting, spreading, and dripping on the floor in unison as they cry. A coppery flavor fills hers mouth at the sight.

            “They’re voodoo dolls,” Travis says coldly, “and you’re supposed to make us be nice, Charlotte. We were naughty.”

            Denise chimes in, her childish voice bubbling up and over her lips in an unfamiliar squeal, “We need to be nice.” Her statement quickly evolves into a chant, which Travis joins immediately.

            “We need to be nice.”

            “We need to be nice.”

            “We need to be nice.”

            Dolls and letters in hand, she races away from her children to the sink, their voices growing louder with each repetition.

            “We need to be nice.”

            Fumbling through the junk drawer just to the right of the sink, her vision begins to blur while searching for a lighter. A massive gasp of relief flies from her lungs when she finds one stuck beneath some neglected mailers. One hand traps the dolls in the sink while using the other to get a flame from the lighter.

            Once she sees a spot of fire, she pushes it against hemp dolls from her children’s bags. Unfortunately, before she turns back to talk to her kids, the same scent from the envelope returns, only it is much stronger now. Horror washes over her as she sinks to the floor, hearing their voices over the crackling of their bodies.

            “It hurts to be naughty!”

            “We need to be nice!”

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A Place for Me

I wrote this story for a short story contest hosted by On The Premises recently. The theme for the entries was “community” and writing for this had been difficult for me. There ended up being 202 entries for the first round of judging. The top 10% of stories were chosen to be reviewed for the final judging round – which would have been 21 entries. The story below the line – “A Place for Me” – was one of the top 21 entries reviewed for the Top 10 submissions. Unfortunately, I just barely made the cut. That being said, I still wanted to share with you what I wrote and prove that I’m not missing just because I’ve lost my way. I’m working on original pieces. Without further adieu –


 

“A Place for Me”

Read & Enjoy

 


 

I know that I am breathing simply because I am not actually suffocating, even if my brain is convinced that I am doing precisely that. Each time I make another four inch drop and sink nearer to the ground floor, I feel my hear rate double. The pounding is so loud that is the only thing I can hear besides the actual slamming of it against my chest is the rushing of blood in my head. My vision blurs about halfway through my descent and I practically fall the rest of the way down.

Per the usual, my father has his arms crossed and is clicking his tongue at me. “You’re running late. The dance starts in thirty minutes,” I forgot, but only because I’ve been trying desperately to pretend that I didn’t properly make plans to go. My parents have been begging me to watch after my sister, counting on me to see if she’s up to no good, but I simply cannot. Being around people makes me uncomfortable. The way they smell, the way they talk, and the way they contort their face; it makes me physically nauseous. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Other people might as well be foreign beasts or aliens with the way that they frighten me.

“S-sorry…” I stutter what could have been the beginning of a considerate apology, or another one of my pathetic excuses. Fortunately, my mother comes strolling around the corner with my sister, whom is dressed beautifully in her short black dress and white leather jacket. My sad attempt to show regret for not wanting to go is diminished by the gasp of concern that escapes my mother’s mouth. I hear him start scolding her but I can’t ignore my sister enough to really hear them. She grounds me.

Analise is the opposite of me in nearly every way imaginable. Where I am flat and average, she is curvy and developed. She has my father’s height and my mother’s naturally springy, curly hair. I am short, more like my grandparents, and have my dad’s stick straight brown hair, which I wear short so I don’t have to brush it often. Most days, Analise is the innocent girl next door that has good intentions and a heart big enough to share, much like a hero in any video game. In comparison, I’m just the boring non-playable character that probably has an item for a side quest that has a lame reward for accomplishing it.

I reckon that she’ll be fine at the dance by herself, and I think that’s what scares my parents most. Analise is gorgeous to boot, and not everyone around her means well. If she were my daughter I’d be worried too. My mind gets goes to static as I begin tuning back into the conversation between my parents. I am grateful to hear my mother defending me.

Shaking her head, “Gerald, I don’t think she can do it. We’re asking too much of her.” She’s always been more reasonable about how debilitating social activity can be for me. Appreciation for her fills every empty crevice inside of my chest but the only response I can manage is to cry. That’s how my brain reacts to any sort of input overload, such as an argument about my status as a recluse. Even though my mother is supporting me, my father still denounces the possibility that she’s right. He always does. It makes my crying even worse, my body trembling at the very sound of his breath.

“Mathilda!” He shouts way too sharply. My mother wrinkles her nose in the way that assures him there’ll be consequences if he doesn’t change his tone. Analise and I learned where our limits were when we were in pre-school, and it’s horrifying that he still dares to push her to that point as an adult. “She can’t keep living like this!”

My sister approaches me and then pulls me to the side, placing a hand on my shoulder as she redirects me. In a soothing tone, she coaches me the way she does every day for school. Before we get on the bus she has to hush me into silence, and once more when we get to school because I’ve begun to panic again. Analise doesn’t realize how important she is to my being able to get through school every single day. Without her comforting, I couldn’t make it. I would have quit years ago.

“Ciara is just different, Gerald, and we can’t push her into a social situation. We have to ease her into these things,” she remarks defiantly. She used to struggle with social anxiety too, so she understands why I’m having trouble. My issues are worse than hers ever were when she was my age, I guess, which has my father convinced that I’ll just get over it by the time I graduate high school in the spring. His frustration grows the closer we get to our ceremony in June.

“I don’t care if she’s different! She’ll never survive on her own if she doesn’t get involved with the community! Ciara belongs with her peers – not behind some computer monitor!” he shouts at the tops of his lungs. Rather than anger prickling the edges of his words, it is pure frustration. Though his continual complaining about my social anxiety is grating, I try to remember that he just wants me to be normal.

And he has no idea how badly I wish to be exactly that: normal.

There’s this community, this society, this whole world, full of normal people.

Then there’s me – unambiguously abnormal – and I just don’t belong.

“Dad,” my sister begins. There’s probably more that she says, but her voice becomes distant and my vision darkens. All around me the heavy world melts and solidifies in my gut. The air tastes cold; the earth feels shaky; and my brain evaporates inside of my skull. As I feel the world disintegrating around me, I hear Analise repeat herself more sternly, “Dad!”

Blacking out isn’t unusual for me, especially when I’m being forced out of the house. Any sort of gathering that would provide literally anyone else with ‘a sense of community’ and ‘a sense of togetherness’ just ends up leaving me empty. My father has criticized me constantly for years now, as if I have some control over it, but he never used to say anything in front of me. I wish he still had that discretion, honestly. I’m glad that when I come back to it is to the solitude of bedroom. My eyes adjust to the darkness effortlessly.

In the far left corner, I can see the soft glow of my computer screen, where I spend almost all of my time when I’m home. Sometimes I have nightmares about blacking out and waking to my father unplugging everything. Forget failing, dying, or being cheated on by some short-term boyfriend – being without my games is my greatest fear. I need these black curtains, dual monitors, and consoles. These things give me the motivation I need to continue living.

Logging in is second nature. I type my password and click the icon I want without even glancing at the screen. My left hand reaches out to open a shallow drawer. I keep my headphones there so I never accidentally knock them to the floor. They’re an instrumental part of my gaming experience and I would go crazy without them. The loading screen fades away when I look up to plug my chord into the appropriate port. Just as I do this, a ping erupts in the headset from the messenger program I use with my guild group. This particular tone is unique, assigned to one specific contact, and I know my best friend is online immediately. Instead of tapping a reply on the keyboard, I hit the hotkey to dial out to her automatically. When she speaks, her voice is so rich that I feel the thickness of it wash over my body, “I thought you had to go be a part of the real world tonight. What happened?”

Explaining my worries to her is not necessary. She already knows. All it requires is three simple words, “I blacked out,” and we move on from the topic. An notification message materializes over my inventory menu, a probationary invite to a campaign mission: The Mayflower Maybe. The creator, my best friend, goes by the gamer tag MaybeMay, which is a pun for her real name. I accept the request immediately, but not without harassing her, “Your best mate has to undergo the probationary period?” She laughs at me as I spawn inside of the lobby of her personal server.

Giving life to the joy that erupts from May when she laughs is impossible to accomplish with just words. Hearing her happiness through my headphones is one of the best parts of my day, every single day. I often question why anyone would ever want to be a part of the outside world. There could be someone online living on the other side of the world who could be the most perfect part of their lives.

“As a leader of the people, you must impress my people if you wish to stay,” she details in a voice that reminds me that she’s as much a leader as she is player. I do run my own campaigns, and I have plans to also get a server running so that I can host multiple guilds for my growing players’ circles. I do well in the background, generally, but she’s the ‘front-and-center’ type. MaybeMay just happens to be a more natural leader all around.

Even though I’m new to this particular campaign, many of these players recognize my handle, and they fire off their warm welcomes in the public chat. Seconds barely tick by before the private messages begin filtering to my inbox. Compliments, excitement, compliments, resources for expected behavior, upcoming events, more compliments; and I love knowing that this is my safe place. No matter that I can’t physically see them, they’re as familiar to me as my own family.

Unexpectedly, I hear a knocking at my door and I lurch forward with determination to be quiet. My fingers hurriedly shut off my monitor and hold my breath. My mother is wanting to check on me, I’m sure, and if she knows I’m on the computer she’ll end up telling my dad. If he knows I’m playing my game already, so soon after I’ve passed out, he’ll keep blaming the games for my anxiety. I know that this not true. I really am just that dysfunctional.

MaybeMay’s voice asks me if I’m okay, since I’m just running in circles, and I manage a strangled shush into the microphone. A few more knocks imprison me in this frozen pose, concealing myself from the harsh judgment. How can my father want me to go join the world and be an active member of society with my peers when I can’t even escape his disparagements for having a personal preference?

Once I know I’m in the clear, I apologize solemnly.

“Someone knocked at my door,” I huff, “and I couldn’t tell if it was Dad.”

MaybeMay is protecting my avatar when I turn my screen back on, and there are concerns in the chat that I’ve lost connection. The general tone doesn’t bother me nor does it come off as rude. She assures everyone that there was a personal matter that arose but that I’m confirmed as being back online. To verify, I teleport myself to another player whose just had a low health warning come across the team notifications banner. Usually I’m the healer when I’m not playing as the guild master, and I fall into the routine very easily.

Our campaign mission takes the team four attempts totaling nearly six hours. Weariness settled into my eyes quite a while ago but I don’t know when for sure. Once we’re all done trading our wares and treasures with the merchants, I exit the software and rummage through my emails. MaybeMay lingers online to talk me, despite the reality that it’s even later into the night for her.

Initially, she goes on about some of the small tasks that littered her day, until she hopped on to do her usual work on the server and website. She works from home for some graphic arts company, and only leaves the house a few times a week to do mandatory errands. Her idea of socializing is a LAN party, or some other mass gaming event. I admire that lifestyle and usually remind her at every opportunity that I am jealous. Today, though, I deviate from that pattern.

“Do you think I’m broken?” I shudder at acknowledging my difficulties assimilating to the normal world. More often than not, this reality gets swept beneath some metaphorical rug. Outside of the house, we spread this lie that I’m just extremely shy. Sometimes people try to give me advice – imagine everyone in their underwear, a universal nugget of wisdom, it seems – and other times they just tut their tongue at me. Every so often someone might become bold enough to blame video games or technology. Of course, my father agrees, and his face sinks in confirmation of their theories.

MaybeMay doesn’t reply at first. This startles me because she’s normally doesn’t have to pause to fully consider anything, not even a loaded question such as this one. She attributes her ability to rapidly resolve questions or issues to her gaming, and then she cracks a joke about the people who blame games for a ‘lazier’ generation. I suck in as much air as my lungs can hold just as she replies.

“Yes…” I wasn’t expecting to hear her say that and I’m dazed. I am sure this moment between heartbeats will kill me.

“…but I think we all are broken in our own unique ways. You and I, we’re the same sort of person. Your dad, well, he’s just a different type. His idea of being involved and having a sense of community is really different from yours. Maybe it’s our brains, maybe it’s not, but whatever it is – nobody can say the gaming community is fake any more than they can say that kids at a stupid school dance are fake.” I didn’t think I could ever feel so strongly about a monologue, but this one has me shedding tears of joy. Clarity settles into my mind’s eye. Being different isn’t as bad as my dad makes it seem. MaybeMay gives me the ability to see myself as complete and strong, accepted and appreciated, respected and valid. Everyone should have a friend as loving and as honest as she, but that’s what scares me about the real world beyond my door.

Not everyone is so loving.

Not everyone is so honest.

And not everyone is broken like me.

“I needed that,” my thought escapes effortlessly through my lips. My features relax, and so does my body, as I begin closing all of the windows on my screen. Remaining maximized is my messenger program, silence hanging loosely between MaybeMay and I. Discomfort dares to creep into my thoughts but more than anything I’m just happy to share this sort of moment with her. MaybeMay reminds me a lot of Analise; a sister when my sister is away.

A digital clock next to me shifts into the next hour. Without a doubt it is time for me to go to bed, and so I begin the process of saying good-bye. Once I’m whispering my departure plans, MaybeMay reveals she’s logging off too.

Yet she stops me from ending our call. She insists that there is one last thing to be said before we disconnect and carry on with our lives outside of the game. I hold my breath so that I may drink in every drip of confidence I may derive from it. “A real community is just a group of people that care about the same things together. Tell me that our virtual family isn’t real – I dare you.”

A smile spreads across my face just as the signature sound of a user switching offline dings in my headphones, ears, and body. What I did to deserve her, I may never know, but I won’t question it either. I crawl into my bed knowing that no matter what my dad thinks – what I feel is real, and he can never make it go away.

Tell Me, What Could Possibly Happen?

A raindrop could fall in the eye of an old man picking dandelions from his garden. He could fall backwards and trip on the hoe he forgot to pick up (again). His leg could break in those few seconds. He would have to go the hospital by car with his nervous wife who won’t stop crying, surely.

They would take him back into a room and check his injury. They could find a mass in his leg that is concerning, something he probably had dismissed as a part of his arthritis. They would take a biopsy.

A week later, because of that single second when a raindrop startled a feeble old man, he could receive a call from his oncologist. That old man would be reassured that they caught his leukemia early and it would unlikely that these are the last of his days.

Learning from the Nouveau Riche

Generally speaking, there’s only one thing that can be done when it’s been a bad day. At least, that’s was Helen has always believed. So far this week she’s had six store managers quit, which means that she only has two that haven’t give her a two week notice.

Owning eight premier dress shops has been fantastic. Her rise to success has not been difficult by any stretch of the imagination. Helen found the perfect balance between original dresses, exquisite brands, talented seamstresses, and delightful employees. The formula had been this poised for ten years. Unfortunately, several of her store managers had decided to move on to ‘different horizons.’ It is a very nice way of telling one’s boss that they feel “stalemated” in their jobs. Naturally, these sorts of things do happen. Helen did not question that they would happen so much as she questioned that they all happened to do this in the same week.

“No,” she whispered to herself, “never in the same week.” She threw back another vodka shooter as easily as she blinked. This was something like her third one? Admittedly, she could hold her liquor well. Something that stress drinking can probably do to a person…

That or genetics, she supposes.

The lounge she’s chosen for tonight’s sorrow drowning is a relatively new joint. It’s been around for a couple of years but everyone speaks very so highly of it that it would be easy to fool one into thinking it was a long established business. Public rapport is everything when launching a new start-up, after all. Helen remembers when people would speak of her business so excitedly. Now, they speak of it with high regard as though it had set a standard for all other like companies. Some part of her questions whether this hot spot will ever make it that far….

Since the bartender keeps offering free rounds and meals; “How about another order of martinis for the lovely bachelorettes tonight? Make the most of your last single night, am I right?” He’s cheery and unfazed by the cost of his gift-giving most definitely. It is very quite literally one free thing after the other. It started with the bachelorette party and spread to small gatherings of tired businessmen, to double dates, and so on!

And so on, and so on, and so on – until finally bobbles his way over to Helen. By no she has started to feel a buzz. He asks if she needs anything but she promptly declines, assuring him that she’s had far too much already. He offers her an order of fries instead. He insists that the guys in the kitchen always have a batch of potatoes ready – just in case; “Greasy foods are the best kinds of sober-up foods.”

Helen shakes her head again to assure him that she is fine. It wouldn’t hurt for her to verbally assert that there are other options while she declines; “I can walk down the street and get more fries for half the price. I bet they’d be more fryer grease than potato, too.” For lounge food, everything is actually decently priced, but there are food trucks almost every other block. All of them offer fried delights of some sort. She can get fries just about anywhere so there’s no point in paying six bucks for a basket of fries here when there’s another option for three bucks five minutes out of the way. Helen won’t, but she also can’t because she’s far too frugal.

“Well, what if they’re free? I promise you won’t be charged and you can sober up before you leave tonight.” The bartender must seriously have a problem. Everything for free? Everyone gets something free tonight? Helen can’t support that concept, but that doesn’t mean she won’t take advantage of it.

So she accepts; “But I am willing to bet your boss fires you tomorrow. No business can sustain these sorts of handouts.” Helen vocalizes her opinions with a tiny bit of a slur. Perhaps her lashing out is the result of her anger about her managers leaving. Each store manager seemed to have one thing in common in their exit interview: they wanted to be a part of something bigger. Weddings, school dances, quinceañeras, and business parties – these sorts of things are huge in any person’s life, but they are meaningless in the long run. Some of the managers went are going to not-for-profit organizations as project leaders.

“I raise you a free ginger ale.” The bartender laughs as he sends a message to the kitchen from his mobile P.O.S. device. Helen uses these at her business as well, except they’re a generation or two older. Of course, the lounge is newer than her dress shops. The plan is to get it updated next year as long this year turns a generous profit.

Helen leans into the bar and lets out a howl of laughter; “So are you sleeping with the owner are does he owe you a favor?”

The bartender shrugs and then turns his attention to small group of people that burst very loudly through the entryway. He excuses himself to greet the fresh patrons, explaining that they are regulars that drive several hours to spend the night in town. Helen is impressed by this – for a lounge, the customer loyalty is shockingly astounding. Everyone does seem to know the bartender by name…

…Which makes Helen feel guilty. She hasn’t once asked and he isn’t wearing a nametag for her to check… She hasn’t even tried to commit to memory from the dozens of times she’s heard it uttered that night…

Something like ten minutes or so go by, and in the end a cook from the kitchen hand delivers the French fries with a serving of their “Red Revenge Ketchup.” It is a homemade dipping sauce that it more alike ketchup than barbecue sauce? That’s what the cook says, anyway. Regardless, Helen digs right in and is surprised by how delicious the ketchup actually is once she’s tried it.

By the time she finishes her free dish, the bartender returns with a smile on his face and certain look of amusement; “How about that ginger ale?”

Helen waves a hand at him, “Not until you tell me why you won’t get fired. I simply have to know.” Gossip is something that can’t be avoided where formal events are concerned. Inevitably, the girls buying dresses whisper about other girls at the prom. Bridesmaids share secrets about the bride’s antics before her engagement. The managers always had a great old time having monthly luncheons with Helen and sharing the crazy things they’d heard from customers during the last few weeks.

As such, Helen thirsts to know whatever little amount of gossip she can find. It’s one of her only remaining connections to the ‘common’ world. Every other free minute is invested in her business and drinking away any struggles she faces during the workweek. The bartender is unsurprised by her inquiry.

“I guess you could say I’m sleeping with the owner.” He chuckles as he pulls out a bottle of ginger ale – which apparently is also made in-house. Helen leans back on her stool with a somewhat satisfied feeling in her chest. Sex can motivate people to do ridiculous things. However, there is a certain twinkle in his eye that warns her that he’s not done speaking.

But she manages to piece it all together before he shares it out loud, “Because you are the owner.” Helen gives him a short and quiet applaud for his trickery. Feeling a bit deflated; she is surprised that she didn’t piece this together sooner. More embarrassingly, she still couldn’t put a name to his face in spite of her awareness of his business and its positive reputation.

Carter Hammond, in the flesh he proclaims. They shake hands and Helen details who she is for his reference. Apparently he knows of her and her line of work, stating that the ladies were bragging about the great service they’d received a few weeks ago from the bride-to-be’s dressmaker; “It isn’t the first time I’ve heard of your establishment either. A good many patrons talk about your business. Many have daughters begging to shop at one of your locations. Every young lady deserves to feel like a princess, after all. I am glad that you’re able to give that to them.” This confrontation only furthers her guilt for being less conscious of his relation to the Red Revenge lounge.

Helen covers her shame by announcing that this is precisely why she wanted to have a dress shop to begin with; that when she was young there were very few places she liked to shop from for the annual ball her grandparents used to host at their banquet hall. Saying this aloud brings a level of self-awareness she’d never grasped before in her life – it sounded very entitled, which makes her very uneasy.

Carter comments that her motivations are sincere. It appears that he has no idea that guilt has washed over her mind and continues to compliment her mindfulness of the customer. He even goes on to detail what he believes to be the pitfall of many business owners; “People who grow up on a silver platter forget easily the value in their customers and employees. They become more like numbers than actual people. Unfortunately, without them – their businesses couldn’t even exist. That’s why I give out free stuff daily. It keeps everyone coming back and encourages my customers to buy more while they are here. It’s a positive manipulation of my business. I win – they win – and the economy of small business wins.”

Helen smiles at him nonstop while she pointedly drinks her ginger ale. For a low-key owner, he seems to have found his own ‘perfect balance’ between serious businessman and careless employee. She begins to quiz him how much he can afford to give away before he starts losing money. His only reply is that he doesn’t have enough to give away that would prevent him from making a profit. She is unable to analyze the validity of his statement, but she can only assume that perhaps there are vendors that offer him a profit for distributing their product. That is a very special brand of success that even she has been unable to accomplish outside of local designers that still operate as sole proprietors.

Helen questions if she can, for sure, trust this shared information. Carter Hammond seems to be a respectable man, so on that front she believes that he would not lie to her. Still, as she listens to him continues explaining why he makes these choices – he is almost equally as ignorant to the fundamental business practices of the most successful corporations. Admittedly, the story of his struggle to make a happier living out of something he truly loved is far more than just endearing. Helen admires the people who supported him and helped make his dream a success. Even to this day they continue to give him the support he needs to remain a top contender in his field of business. More and more people want to franchise the Red Revenge brand each week.

He projects that within a few years he won’t have to work in the lounge at all, if he doesn’t want to do so; “But why would I want to abandon my post? The only place I belong is behind a counter serving the people that make my brand so popular?”

Helen calls a cab and waits outside for her ride home. During this time before she makes it to her bed, she can’t help but ponder the possibility that there’s something more that she could be doing with her own business. Even though it is a different field with different trends than a bar lounge, there is a certain similarity in the dedication and loyalty of customers. She already donates dresses that are partially damaged along with any excess sewing supplies that are no longer required. But she can’t help but believe, after speaking with Carter Hammond, that this is simply not enough. What more could she be doing with her own brand?

As she pulls the covers up over her body, still fully clothed and reeking of the French fries she ate for dinner, Helen decides that she will worry more about in the morning. She’ll contact her accountant after breakfast and figure out what kind of money it would require for her to start giving back to the community without bringing any detriment to the company.

For now – she’ll sleep. After all, change doesn’t usually happen overnight.

Unexpected Epiphanies

Tyler walks in the front door after getting home from work, one hand on his phone that is ringing and the other with an expensive leather briefcase swinging wildly as he tries to close the front door. Handsome as he is, anger does not wear well on him. Within seconds, he’s yelling at his personal assistant for questioning why he needs her to cancel appointments.

Earlier this morning, leaked footage of a Henley Bridget production took the media by storm. For the last three hours there’s been nonstop calls from personal representatives and family members, urging Tyler and I to leave the country temporarily on a ‘family vacation’ to stack evidence against the stories circulating.

“Former Governor paid off Pharmacist to switch birth control for placebo!”

            “Retired Governor pays Pharmacist to get teen girl pregnant!”

            “Politician sabotages opponent by getting daughter pregnant!”

            There are at least five or six other girls who are thought to be victims of the leaked footage. They all know that the story isn’t about them. I didn’t watch the footage at first; refuting any claims that this could have been about me. There’s no way someone would do this to me – an honor roll student, spokesperson for abstinence, a Sunday School youth pastor, and aspiring classical musician. For what reason would anyone want to do this to me?

Of course, I eventually had to watch the video. Tyler called to warn me that he was being escorted out of the building because his father ordered him take a month off. Tyler called immediately and begged her to watch the video and tell him the truth – was it Governor Rhine? Afterwards, there was absolutely no question that this was about me. I threw up for ten minutes out of hysteria. Governor Rhines has a very distinct body type in my opinion. Tall, broad shoulders, but lanky in every other respect. It was always his crooked jawline paired with this frame that stood out.

“Just cancel the goddamn appointments, Carlotta!” He screams into the phone as he slams his briefcase against the wall. The slamming wakes Brianna from her nap, but only for a moment. The baby monitor reveals this as her gurgles and whimpers fade after only a second or two. Tyler finally meets me in the kitchen with a frown etched deeply into his features; “What the fuck is happening?”

The thing about Tyler that is truly admirable is that he’s made an effort to be a good boyfriend-turned-fiancé. He cares about my child, Brianna, as though she was his biological daughter; and he treats me with nothing but respect and love. Our relationship is really far from terrible. However, it’s not exactly normal either.

Nobody would know any differently, but our parents arranged our relationship. In exchange for a guaranteed spot in the House, my father agreed to make decisions in favor of his father’s oil company. To help cover up the possibility of bribery, though, my father asked that their son marry me. Having known Tyler my whole life already made it easier to accept my a fate, but it was not a life I’d have chosen for myself. Although, as it turns out, even my pregnancy was a manufactured decision for me. At least we look happy together. We’re good friends, after all, so it isn’t that difficult to actually be happy either. It’s just not a normal, fulfilling relationship.

“I don’t know. I guess there’s a documentary coming out where a bunch of politicians admit to the terrible things they’ve done to remain in office.” Of course Tyler already knows how we got into this situation. Many times we’d been pictured as friends at social events and rallies. We attended school together. There was always a good bond between us, and it’s one of the reasons my father turned to him when I was ‘in need’ of a husband. Even though he was appalled at the arrangement, he has always cared about me and felt that if anyone could give me a good life – it would be him. This leaked video, though, could throw it all into question. The media will do anything to drive a wedge between them to find out if she was the victim of this confession.

That’s why everyone is suggesting a vacation out of the country. If we take time to focus on being a proper family away from the wild rumors of this breaking news, then we might be able to return happier than ever. Then we might be able to persevere through these nasty truths. Tyler wants nothing more than for this to blow over without causing anyone any more stress. I would very much like the same.

But only after I share what’s going on in my mind. It has to be said at, “I never wanted this life. I wanted to put Brianna up for adoption and pretend it was a terrible nightmare. What our parents arranged with us – it is far worse than what Mr. Rhines did to me. Girls get pregnant. Girls make mistakes when they’re young. Those girls don’t get forced into marriage, though. I had to agree or I would have been blackmailed by my father into agreeing.”

Tyler must have suspected that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about our arrangements as my parents may have suggested. He is frequently asking if I am okay… am I happy… do I want a vacation by myself? He always made an effort to ensure my comfort and happiness. For him, this manufactured relationship isn’t really a punishment. One of the first things he shared with her after moving in was that he was kind of excited to see how they would grow together. All his life he was the son of a rich man with high expectations hanging him from a noose. If there were anything Tyler could have in his life – it would be a chance to live a normal life.

For months he has been nothing shy of honest and this is why I have to tell him my other secret. This one will be far more surprising than the first, I’m sure; “I’ve been asked to lead a campaign for sea life against oil companies.”

Fearful of his reaction, I suppose, I begin crying. I should be scared. His family owns several small oilrigs that are frequently being called into question for their disposal methods. Maybe it’s not just that, but the entire situation too. For over a year I’ve been told what to do, when to do it, how to do it. All my life I was a representative of my father’s values. Now that I can make my own choices, I have to wonder if I am making the right ones or not.

“Okay.” Tyler replies, “That’s okay.”

I hear him but it doesn’t really settle in until I’m crumpling onto the floor in tears. Make-up smeared, the only thing I can do that is redeeming is cover my face as my sobs work up from soft and broken moans to loud and constant howls of sorrow. Tyler squats in front of me at some point, adorning his best designer suit, and places both hands on my bent knees; “You are okay, Catherine. We’re okay.”

Still unsure if I believe his acceptence, I mutter something of a refusal through my snot and drool. Tyler doesn’t understand it so he just repeats himself; “The only thing that matters is making our own happiness out of all this. If you want to do the campaign then I will find another career. Just because I was going to stay in the family business doesn’t mean that I have to do it. We’ll make this work because we’re a fantastic team.”

The more I cry, the more he comforts me, as I remain a mess of a girl trying to be a woman on the kitchen floor. Who knows how much time passes before he has to go get Brianna from her nap, but it’s enough for the temperature to change significantly. It is now cold inside the house from all of the open windows. Tyler comes into the kitchen with Brianna in his arms, rocking her as she chews on her favorite letter block.

As I get onto my feet and wipe my face, I feel that maybe I’ve been looking at my situation all wrong this whole time. All of these decisions made for me weren’t the ones I deserved. They were punishments, and I accepted them as punishments. Instead of putting on an act, I think that maybe it’s time to show the people that put me on this path that I’m not weak. I cannot be controlled into silence and obedience.

All they’ve done is give me the resources to make a real difference in the world. Without even realizing it, they’ve given me the best support system in Tyler to do it; “Where should we go?”

Tyler does a great job of ignoring how pathetic I look while he makes a bowl of oatmeal for Brianna’s lunch. In spite of how lean and awkward his body is – he manages to move easily through the motions. Minutes pass sluggishly as he considers all of the options amidst his focus. It doesn’t matter where he wants to go, because they will both need the opportunity to figure everything out. Too often I forgot that, like me, Tyler was raised to remain in family business doing what they wanted for him. He always did as he was told just as I had done. Right now, Tyler is offering to walk away from the security of his family’s wealth for me. When I’m choosing to follow my heart, he’s choosing to follow me.

Too easily I got lost in my self-pity. I forget that Tyler wasn’t struggling with the same things. His life went from the way it had been his entire life to suddenly being engaged with one of his friends. Tyler was told his options were being taken away from him, while I thought I had no other options to be offered. He was told that he had to be a father to a child with whom he had no obligation; while I thought that my lustful behavior landed me with a child I did not want. Tyler lost far more than I did, at least until today – today when I find out that I probably wouldn’t have a daughter if it weren’t for Mr. Rhines.

So no more self-pity! No more self-loathing!

We both gave in to the expectations around us. The difference between him and I, though, is that he came into this situation with a level of positivity. I owe it to Tyler, and Brianna, to turn this around for the better. Not only that, I but I have to prove to myself that I have the strength to prove everyone around me wrong; “Where should our family begin our new life?”

A Fate Worse Than Death

Disclaimer: It’s been awhile readers since I’ve been able to do a proper flash fiction entry! Too long! Today I got my inspiration from doing a random Google search on fantasy prompts. I found one on this website that I was particularly connected to – because, well, I love it when the heroes fail and/or die.

Prompt: Write a story where a chosen hero is supposed to defeat an evil overlord. Then make the hero fail.


 

The air is thick with the smell of death and despair. Those of her people whom haven’t been slaughtered have fled the city. Perhaps they will surrender, perhaps they won’t be extended the opportunity. Unfortunately, she knows that she won’t be alive to see the damage of her overzealous effort to rule her planet neutrally. A planet which never prepares for war is a planet that makes itself an easy target. A planet that believes involvement in intergalactic politics is self-sabotaging is a planet ruled by delusions. This is a lesson she had to learn at the cost of her people that had faith in her reign.

Instead she now stands at a statue erected in the image of her great-great-grandfather who withdrew A’gaar from the Kashi Strip’s alliance. Blood stained fingers paint the desperation that suffocates her presently on the base. She’s been standing with her back to the enemy for too long and within seconds she will surely be murdered for her dissent to align A’gaar with the Sixth Union. What seemed so small of a decision will destroy her home. It has destroyed her home.

“Ka’vaara, Monarch of A’gaar!” Struggling to rise, the frail woman stumbles into the legs of the statue before she can roll and face the commander identifying her. If she is to die then she shall do so with honor and dignity. She will stare down the consequences of her actions, right or wrong, and accept fate with the valor her people would expect. One fist pressed against a harsh wound on her leg and another holding stringy, muddied hair out of her face. The commander approaches her, battle armor covering her face. When she peels it back, revealing her golden scales – Ka’vaara knows that this is no mere commander. This is the creator of the Sixth Union. This is Anyana – a woman with no home; “Ka’vaara, it would appear you chose to die today. Your people must be ashamed.”

Anyana is wrong. They would be proud, even if disappointed in the loss. Independence is worth the risk, but it is easy to be proud when the weight is not on their shoulders. The only one to carry the burden of this disaster is Ka’vaara; “My people will live on in the stories of our resilience and resistance. Once day your worth will run out, and when it does, you will stand no taller than I while they stare you down with defeat surrounding you on all side. I have no shame because the stories of my people will turn your people against you. A’gaar will not belong to you rightfully, and you will never keep it.”

Anyana lifts her gun to Ka’vaara’s face and pushes it’s sleek and short barrel against her cheek. The warm metal softens her features. This is a gun that has been fired many times at many of her people. She revels in the fact that she will die in exactly the same way many of them did, because she is not to be held higher than the people that gave their life for her. In the end, they are all just the people of A’gaar.

“You will suffer a fate worse than the citizens of your feeble planet.” Anyana whispers through her growled laughter. Ka’vaara hears the clicking of the gun repeatedly as she tries to release the laser beam. Rapid button smashing continues to result in nothing. The gun is obviously shut down and nonoperational. Ka’vaara shrieks in rage with each click -piecing together at the sight of two guards, chains rattling in their hands, that there is only one fate worse than death; “You will be the face of my movement, Ka’vaara, and your people will bow down to kiss my heels when I walk by -” She proclaims.

“NEVER!” Never! Never! Never! Never! Ka’vaara spits at the guards approaching her, locking her arms behind her and securing the chains with a brace around her neck. The copper metal rips easily through her soft skin, allowing more blood to flow from her body. In minutes she will black out from the massive trauma; “They will never believe you!” Tears wash her cheeks as she proclaims that this plan is faithless, aimless, desperate. It could never work.

“Killing you will enrage them. I need them to swear their loyalty to me, so I require your persuasive tongue.” Anyana walks confidently towards her, forcing her to see that the war was a battle not of confidence. Growing up all the warriors said: “it is your willpower which makes your powerful!” But it was lies. Confidence does not win wars. Ka’vaara lowers her gaze to the ground feeling the world slowly blur around her. Dripping is faintly evident on her chest.

Anyana is soon leaning into Ka’vaara with hands planted firmly on her hips. For a second, the smell of loss has dissipated and is replaced with something even more foul. If she could identify it, she would, but her mind is quickly losing the internal battle to remain conscious. Anyana smiles before pressing her lips to Ka’vaara’s ear, cackling her latest proclamation; “Your tongue belongs to me and my words will become yours.”

“You lose.”

AA: Anonymous Apologies

Oh, the time that has lapsed since I was able to do a short fiction piece! It pains me to even consider counting the weeks. Regardless of my hiatus – I have finally returned to start posting my flash fiction again – (or short fiction, whichever you prefer, it technically can belong to either category).

My inspiration today comes from Alice’s Writing Tips on Tumblr. You can find the blog here, but I actually used this particular post for this fiction piece. I highly recommending clicking the second hyperlink because the inspiration was actually a picture this time. Check it out – check the blog out – and then please – without further adieu – read my story:


 

Dear Anonymous:

 

I’m sorry.

The project is, was by now, for the seniors to anonymously submit apologies for the mistakes that they had made throughout their high school career. The idea wasn’t completely idiotic – as many of the parents lamented. In spite of their efforts to end the idea – and it was ended as an official school-approved project – the senior class invested every second and dollar they had into making it and distributing it to every single graduating student.

I was the mastermind behind this project. Two or three months ago there was an online poll, because that’s the cool way to handle all things in life these days, and it was asking our senior year mementos. In the past it has just been predictable ideas: letterman jackets and class rings. Each class does something different every single year specific to them. Last year it was a disc with a copy of the senior celebration slideshow. The year before it was a graduation Christmas ornament. A few years ago when my brother graduated they did custom picture frames.

I always thought these senior mementos were cheery. Too cheery, in fact. There was something about them that didn’t feel true to the typical high school experience. When people consider their futures realistically, only a very tiny portion of the people you were close to in high school stick around. That’s a somber truth. I don’t think it or admit it maliciously – but how can we trick ourselves into believing that these high school graduation gifts will make a difference in our lives? They won’t make us remember anything of value. My father’s letterman jacket is in a box in the garage, dusty and mildewed from being a part of a flood. The flood wasn’t even at our house. My grandparents made him take the box when he wouldn’t let them throw it away.

As for my mother, her class ring literally got dropped down the toilet. She was cleaning her old jewelry that was in a nightstand drawer. It was full of unmated earrings, broken bracelets, and accessories that she’d worn once or twice for special occasions. And – you know – her class ring. It was a misfit piece of jewelry that meant nothing to her. And when she dropped it, I remember how she acted as though she didn’t care for it anyway. “Honey, do you think my class ring will wreck the plumbing,” she had called out to my dad. She couldn’t have been concerned about the loss any less. She just didn’t want to pay for a plumber to fetch it.

So when I saw this poll I made the suggestion: a magazine of apologies for mistakes we made so that when we leave we know that we leave on good terms with no unfinished business.

I haven’t the foggiest idea where my mind was when I submitted it. Although, I do remember laughing after I closed my browser. The entire thing was supposed to be a joke. Little did I know… At least I was smart enough to submit it anonymously! Two days later my suggestion was accepted almost unanimously. Everyone seemed to love it, saying that it was clearly brilliant. It was only then that I realized that there was no way this couldn’t have been adored by teenagers too desperate to let go of a life they’ve known for eighteen years – I pieced together that a lot of people had a lot of things that they regretted. They all had something they needed to apologize for after these last four years.

When things started off – everyone was encouraged to submit one letter addressed to nobody in particular but signed with their name. I suppose the idea was so that one person didn’t get a dozen apologies while others received none. Again, I suppose that makes sense. This way they don’t have to track down an apology for every single person in the senior class. Teachers immediately put a halt to it because that would have made the writers of each letter far too vulnerable. I was beyond elated that it was shut down because the last thing teenagers need it proof of who did something regrettable.

That is when the idea came that the letters would be written to an anonymous person and signed by anonymous. There was a submission box in the journalism classroom and the letters were to be submitted in print only! Nothing handwritten could be accepted – so that there was almost literally no way to trace the apologies back to anyone particular. Even though the school couldn’t participate in the creation of this magazine project, the teachers did continue help students control the situation so that it didn’t turn into a disaster.

That’s how I got here, I suppose. I am sorry that I gave anyone this idea. Not everyone can handle the truth, and not everyone can accept an apology. I am worried that apologies are going to be made on things that nobody knew were controlled incidents. I am worried that people are going to write apology letters about things that weren’t problems until the letter was written. Any number of things could go wrong from these apologies. And the thing is, we’re all going to forgive our anonymous writers for their misdeeds.

We are going to forgive someone who might not deserve to be forgiven. We are going to accept these apologies and deem it all to be “okay,” even if it might not be okay at all. I regret everything that will happen as the result of this magazine.

I hope that this is the last entry, by the way. I hope that this is placed at the back of the magazine so that after everyone reads these letters – so that after everyone gets their gossip fill – so that after tears have been shed – I hope that this is the last thing everyone reads because I have one last parting message for you.

None of these apologies matter. They weren’t for you. They were never meant to be for you. People that submitted a letter for this magazine did so only to clear their consciences. I am included in that mess. I regretted my mistakes out of my fear towards growing up and leaving home. Somewhere along the way– without warning – it put in this predicament. The lesson I had to learn – the hard way apparently – is to not regret anything. So please remember after reading each of these disturbing letters that – the only regret you should have is regretting anything at all.

Thank you for the four interesting years that we shared in high school. If we’re lucky, some of us might stay in touch. Otherwise, don’t let it bother you. Don’t linger on it. Don’t let it haunt you later in life. Just let it all go.

And maybe burn this magazine after you frame your high school diploma.

Sincerely,

 

Anonymous.

“America’s Sweetheart” – A Short Story Inspired by Elle King

Author’s Note: Due to the length of this story (27 typed pages), I have deiced to put a “Keep Reading” break after the first section of this story. I very much like it and hope that you will read it in it’s entirety.

America’s Sweetheart

(Lyrics from Elle King’s same titled song)

(A fiction piece adapted by Alixx Black)



Disclaimer: Let it be known that I am gaining no profit from using the lyrics from “America’s Sweetheart” as performed by Elle King and written by Tanner Schneider and Martin Johnson. The inspiration from this story stemmed from the lyrics, and as such I incorporated them into the story with a bold and italicized front with left alignment. I am not claiming credit for these lyrics in any way whatsoever.

 However, all right aligned text is an original piece of fiction



No there ain’t nothing that I gotta prove

You think your words will make me black and blue.

 

The bonfire burns brighter than the sun in this darkness. Or at least that’s what it feels like to her anyway. Everyone has a struggle, but the joy of growing up is learning how to deal with it. For Echo, well, that was just accepting everything at face value. If it had a deeper meaning, then it wasn’t any of her business.

Not even when it came to the hateful comments that some other party guests had for her; “You’re such a tramp. You drink, you fuck, and then you wake up in the bed of some guy’s pick up with no clue what happened that night!” Of course, she complains as a boy offers her another wine cooler. She’s been taking it easy tonight, moving at a much slower pace. The guy must be her boyfriend – or at least someone she likes.

None of these girls know that Echo is in therapy. These people have no idea that she was in the hospital over the summer after a suicide attempt. Of course, that only occurred while she was detoxing from her oxycodone addiction – which her parents had confronted her about after realizing that she was calling in additional prescriptions using her mother’s name. It’s all whatever now because she’s dealing with it, she supposes. Besides, these girls wouldn’t care even if they knew, and to be fair – she wouldn’t care if they tried to explain why they’re so hateful. It all washes out in the end.

Darwinism, right?

“You look so ugly in those boys’ boots and that ragged flannel. You look like a homeless farmhand, or something.” Another girl in the group laughs, or it sounds like a laugh anyway. Echo can’t really tell because she gets a chuckle out of it too. Perhaps it’s because she is tipsy, or perhaps because she’s a loud mouth with sarcasm itching beneath her skin.

Even with the therapy, keeping herself from biting back with these gals was next to impossible…

Continue reading ““America’s Sweetheart” – A Short Story Inspired by Elle King”

The Girl In My Reflection

Contest Host:     Writers Weekly

Contest Title:     24-Hour Story – Fall Segment

Theme:     940 Maximum Word Count; Following this exact scheme “The barren, tan corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold
evening breeze, the only sound louder than the dry, fiery red leaves swirling around her tiny, shivering bare feet. She’d lost her bearings again and she hoped the dinner bell would ring soon. A gray tree with endless arms and fingers, devoid of any remaining foliage, loomed before her. She gazed at the odd markings on the trunk, which appeared to
outline a hand-cut door of sorts. And, as she stared, it opened…”

Placement:     Grab Bag Door Prize (85 Prizes are awarded in each contest, I was listed as 1/35 Grab Bag winners).


Today was another long day at work. Everyday is a long day at work, though. Especially Fridays because it’s almost time for two days off and everyone wants to get to quitting time and crawl into bed. Okay, so only I want to crawl into bed, but I worked two twelve-hour shifts this week. This body has been running on fumes since Tuesday.

Before I can do any sleeping I am going to have to shower. I didn’t this morning, so there are all kinds of product in my hair and on my face. The apartment is small and sort of triangular in the layout. My roommate loves it, unfortunately, so I put up with it for cheap rent. But it never takes long to get from the front door to the bathroom, which is quite nice after work.

Immediately, I turn on the water for some noise while I get everything I need: pajamas, towels, washcloth, and so on. Moving through the motions is incredibly easy in spite of the fact that I can’t feel my face and I can’t think straight because I keep fantasizing about my pillows. To distract myself, I flick on the television sitting atop my dresser for another layer of noise to help me stay awake.

“Help me.”

The words don’t register at first but they are repeated, “Help me,”­ and I turn around to see what is on the television. As it turns out, it’s one of my favorite sci-fi shows. I love this episode because the wife has to save the husband for a change. Laughing under my breath, I return to the bathroom. Mindlessly I push my hands out to check the shower temperature. It’s warmer than I prefer but I won’t mind. I will be able to stand in it.

Quickly I peel away my button up, slacks, socks, and hair tie. As my hair cascades and I shake it out, I swear I see something moving behind me. Hesitantly I turn myself to check Nadia’s door. It’s shut. I then peer through to my room. It’s empty.

“Help me! I am lost.”

That isn’t a line from this episode. I must be getting really tired if I’m hearing things. Distracted, I wipe off steam build up on the mirror. I wasn’t exactly paying attention, so when I see an image instead of my reflection I don’t react. It takes several seconds before I decide that I’m not hallucinating.

A small, frail girl with blonde greasy hair sticking to the tatters of her clothes stands there expressionless. Her eyes are dark and her skin looks to have been stretched over her bones. I know it’s insane to believe this little girl is standing in the middle of a dark, barren field is actually inside of my mirror, but I do. The maternal side of me emerges and takes over. I need to do something; “What happened to you? Are you hurt?”

I drag the towel more harshly down the mirror, hoping for a drier surface to see the child more clearly. As I pull the cloth away, this thick black ooze replaces the water residue. Without hesitation, I begin using my hands to clean the mirror. When the substance covers my arms entirely, I realize it is blood. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t stopped to climb onto the counter.

“They want to kill me. Will you help me?” Soft tendrils of her voice reach beyond the glass barrier between us, and it just consumes me. I hear nothing but her pleas for help. I know I have to save her. I push myself hard against the mirror. At first it doesn’t budge…

…But then it does. My entire right side slides through the glass no differently than reaching down into a pool. I can see the girl, the dead world behind her, and I can see it every bit as plainly as I did before breaking the barrier.

“Take my hand, sweetheart. I can pull you through.” I say to her, using the voice I use to tell my nieces when it’s bedtime. My sister says it is serene and comforting. I wish to be so welcoming now, “Come on, and just take my hand. I will help you.”

She seems uneasy at first, but her frown starts to melt away as she glances cautiously over her shoulder. Naked feet carry her fragile body nearer to me. Feeling as though there is not a single moment to spare I push myself harder again into the mirror, slipping more and more into some other world that has trapped this innocent child.

She is walking but she seems no closer than she was minutes ago, and so I lean out more and more and more until only my feet are left on the other side of the mirror. Once my head is on the other side of the mirror completely, I realize that I’m covered in the tarry blood. Since I’m balancing with one hand I have to use the other that I’ve extended to the girl to clear my face off. In one swift motion I smear away just enough to regain unobstructed sight.

What I see startles me. The girl is not a girl at all but rather a slender black mass. It’s eyes match the child but there is no other resemblance. A scream rises in my throat but I have no opportunity to let it out. Tree roots sprout from the ground and wrap around my neck. My fear is smothered as I just barely hear, “There’s the dinner bell. I’ll be glad to have you.”