Leslie Carved A Jack-O-Lantern.

I want to tell you about my best friend. My ex best friend. Her name’s Leslie, and we’ve known each other since we toddled and drooled, repeating one syllable words in frustration. Leslie was a normal kid. We’d collect lightning bugs in the summer, tell ghost stories in the fall, sing Christmas carols in the winter, and pick flowers in the spring. Once upon a time, the strangest thing about Leslie was her father.

Leslie’s dad used to drink a lot. Everyone on our street knew it. What everyone didn’t know was that he blamed Leslie for her mother’s death. Leslie was alone with her mom when it happened. Her mom had an allergic reaction, and Leslie panicked. Instead of picking up the phone and dialing 911, she just stood there and watched her mother fade away. She was 8 years old, and her dad never forgave her for it.

Before his drinking got to be a problem, my mom would sometimes let me stay the night at Leslie’s. As she helped slip my backpack over my shoulders before I left for the evening, she’d say, “Now, there’s a lot of heartbreak at Leslie’s house. And what does heartbreak do to people, Cameron?”

“It makes them act funny.”

“How so?” she’d ask, eyeing me carefully.

“It makes them say and do things they don’t mean.”

“What sort of things do they say?”

“Hurtful things that don’t feel good to listen to or repeat.”

“Right. And what do you do if this happens?”

“Shut my ears.”

“And if it gets really bad? Or if someone does something bad?”

“Call you, and you’ll come get me.”

“That’s my girl. Now, have fun and be good to Leslie.”

Leslie’s dad had no qualms about shouting cruel things at his daughter in the presence of company, but back then it wasn’t a day-to-day occurrence.

When we turned thirteen, Leslie shifted into this sullen girl whose anger had become an entity all of its own. She’d lash out at any perceived notion of a slight or abandonment. Her behavior drove a wedge between us. A couple months shy of my fourteenth birthday, I started avoiding my childhood best friend altogether. My mom smartened up to her absence and eventually asked about Leslie. I denied that anything had happened between us, but moms always know.

“Why don’t you have Leslie sleepover on your birthday? I know you may think that you can find another Leslie, but best friends aren’t disposable, Cameron. There are many years put into your relationship with her. Do you really want to throw all of that away because she’s having issues? You and I both know her home life’s awful.”

With a guilty conscience, I phoned Leslie and invited her to spend the night on my birthday. We hung out sporadically in the days leading up to the slumber party, but it was kind of awkward, almost like hanging out with a stranger. When the day I turned fourteen arrived, I drifted class to class in a state of constant dread.

At home, my mom stocked the pantry with popcorn, candy bars, and soda. On the counter, she stuck candles into my birthday cake.

“I can cook or order pizza. Your choice, birthday girl.”

“You know what I’m going to pick.”

“Pizza it is. Hey, how have you and Leslie been? Any better?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel like I’m walking into a wall, trying to make things normal.”

“I’m proud of you for fighting for your friendship. At least you can say you made an honest effort.”

The doorbell rang. I felt nervous, like I’d invited the captain of the cheerleading squad to stay the night instead of a girl I’d known pretty much all my life. I fluttered to the front door and pulled it open. Leslie balanced a birthday present and a pumpkin in her arms.

“Happy birthday…again, I mean.” We had two classes together, so she’d already told me happy birthday.

“Thanks,” I said awkwardly and moved aside, so she could squeeze through the door.

We marched into the kitchen, where my mom was on the phone with the pizza place. “Supreme’s good, Cam? Hi, Leslie.”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Hey, Ms. Roche,” Leslie said as she placed her things on the counter. “Supreme, Leslie?” my mom asked. Leslie nodded.

“Uh, I guess we can head upstairs. Mom’ll call us down when the pizza’s here.”

Single file, we climbed the stairs and entered my bedroom.

“I brought the pumpkin for carving later,” Leslie said after a few tense seconds. “Uh, it was a stupid idea. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“No, not stupid at all!” I exclaimed, overcompensating with emotion. “I mean, my birthday’s in October, so it makes perfect sense.”

“I’m sorry, Cameron,” Leslie whispered out of the blue. “I just…my dad…I don’t know.”

Warmth flooded my body. The wall was crumbling. We could make this work again.

“I know, Les. Your dad…he’s a dick. I’m sorry, too. I’m a selfish asshole. You needed me, and I ran for the hills.”

Leslie smiled weakly as she pulled her backpack off. “I’m so happy I came.”

“Me too.”

We spent the next hour gossiping and playing Mario Kart. We laughed and fed off each other’s energy like there was never a lull in our friendship. When the pizza arrived, we raced down the stairs and planted ourselves on the sofa.

While we ate, my aunt and baby cousin arrived. Stuffed to the gills with carbs a little later, everyone encircled me and belted out a severely out of tune version of “Happy Birthday.” Once we’d devoured some cake, my mom passed out my gifts. I ripped each open until none were left, content with the book, video game, and sweater I’d collected.

It was well past my cousin’s bedtime now, and she vocalized this point with loud, unhappy screams. My aunt gathered their things and kissed me goodnight, wishing me happy birthday one more time before she left. Leslie and I helped my mom clean up the mess in the living room. We attempted to help her clean up the kitchen, too, but she shooed us away. “Go have fun – it’s your birthday, for crying out loud.”

Back upstairs, we giggled as I popped Indigo Prophecy into the X-Box. An hour into the game, Leslie’s carefree attitude dissolved into a pensive mood.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, I, uh…well, I forgot to give you your birthday present.”

“Oh. I guess I forgot, too.”

“I’ll be right back.” She scurried out of the room, wearing a worried look.

Why’s she so worried over a birthday present? She knows me better than my own family does; surely she picked out something awesome. Even if she didn’t, who cares? I’ll still appreciate it.

A minute later, Leslie returned, juggling the square box covered in balloon wrapping paper and the pumpkin.

“I wonder how Mom overlooked it,” I said.

“Oh, I moved it before we had cake. I wanted to give it to you when we were alone, so I hid it in the hall closet. But then we got side-tracked with the game, and…” Leslie sniffed and straightened out her slightly curled up lips. Something was off about her. A minute ago she seemed worried, but now she seemed…excited? Why was she acting so weird?

“I want to say a couple things before you open it,” she said as she handed me my present.

I shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”

She drew a deep breath and hugged the pumpkin. “Like I started to say earlier, things have been really bad with my dad lately. Worse than usual.”

I tingled with guilt. How could I have left Leslie to deal on her own?

“He’s been drinking nothing but liquor lately, and he’s started to…do other things. New things.”

A jolt of anger tore through me. “What things? What are you saying, Leslie?”

Leslie’s cheeks reddened. I suddenly felt ill, like I was going to puke.

“I…forget it. It doesn’t matter.”

I gritted my teeth. “You have to tell me. If he’s…hurting you, you have to tell me. We can fix this, I promise – you aren’t alone.”

Leslie leered. “But I was alone. For months.”

I hung my head in shame. “I know.”

Neither of us spoke. My head was reeling. I’d have to tell my mom. Her dad had never gotten physical in any way before. This was where my mom would have to draw the line. She should’ve drawn it long before now, but she’d been scared of what would happen to Leslie if she became a ward of the state.

Leslie’s red face brightened. “It’s your birthday. Let’s just focus on that for now.” How could she say that with the bomb she’d just dropped? “When I got home from school today, I had this idea that I’d create an experience we could share together…just go ahead and open it; I can’t stand the suspense.” She gnawed on her lip and drummed the pumpkin with her fingernails.

“Leslie, I’m not trying to be rude, but this present is kinda the last thing on my mind right now. I know you don’t want to, but we need to tell my m-”

No. I want you to open your gift.” Her eyes flashed angrily.

I sighed. Reluctantly, I peeled away the wrapping paper. Leslie’s leg jiggled in anticipation as she watched me open the box. Inside was something hairy. And wet.

“What – ?” As my brain caught up with my eyes, my body jerked, flinging the box out of my hands. It sailed into the air momentarily before spilling its contents onto the floor.

It took another few seconds for it to register who it was I was seeing. Leslie’s dad’s head lay on the floor, his mutilated face dramatically different. His eyes and nose were gouged out and carved into triangles. His mouth was slit from ear to ear, sawed into jagged flaps of shredded flesh. The top portion of his head had flopped off in the tumble to the floor, leaving a gaping hole in place of his scalp and forehead.

“See? First, I cut the top off. Then, I pulled out all the goopy stuff. Those were the hard parts, the work no one really enjoys doing. But then came the fun part, the actual carving.” Leslie was grinning wildly, her voice oddly giddy. “That’s when it came to me to bring you my surprise. I had this pumpkin out on the doorstep, so I brought it, too, that way we’d both get to carve something on your special day.”

I’d lost the ability to speak. I couldn’t understand what I was hearing, what was happening in my bedroom with the girl I’d known all my life.

“Do you like it, Cam?” she asked. There was a fire in her eyes that was fueled by cruelty.

I clutched at my throat. I couldn’t take my focus off her dad’s head, no matter how disgusted I was. Leslie bent over and picked it up, offering me a close-up view of the interior of his hollow skull. My teeth chattered as I pushed her arms away and ran to the door.

“Cam – wait! You still have to do yours!”

I was gone, though. When I reached my mom, I fainted at her feet.


Leslie’s locked up in a mental institution an hour away. Motivated by guilt, I went to see her once before deciding I’d never go again. The administration almost refused to let me visit, but in the end, begrudgingly allowed it.

She was seated on a couch in front of a TV. She was sedated, I think, because she barely reacted when I stepped into her line of vision.

“Hey, Leslie,” I mumbled. I was afraid to sit next to her, so I remained standing.

She didn’t seem surprised or angry or anything as she blinked at me.

“I j-just…I don’t know. This was a bad idea, nevermind.”

She said nothing mean, happy, or neutral as I began to walk away. Right as I rounded the corner to enter the hallway, I heard her call, “I almost carved you instead. But it was your birthday…”

It Came With The Storm.

Hurricane Matthew traveled to the U.S., reminding me of things I’d rather not think about. My eccentric aunt lives in Louisiana. Back in 2005, she survived Hurricane Katrina. In the days leading up to the storm, I remember begging her to evacuate, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. She was close with her stubborn neighbor who wouldn’t entertain leaving, and she refused to abandon him. That man is now her husband.

We talked briefly a few days after the storm had come, just long enough for her to let me know she was alive. The following night, she called to check in again. It was the strangest conversation, ending in two nerve-fraying sentences.

She didn’t speak of winds, storm surge, and flooding. She breezed over the topic of weather altogether, simply stating, “I’m fine, everything’s fine. I’m fortunate. It’s nothing I can’t handle.” From that point, she rambled about her dog, her neighbor, and being in need of a good hot toddy. Before she hung up, she added, almost as an afterthought, “Oh – and it came. It took six that I know of.” Then she was gone.

I tried to dial her again, but she wouldn’t answer. Frustrated, I slammed my phone down onto the counter. I needed an explanation, but it didn’t look like I was going to get one. I scoured the house until I found the newspaper clipping I’d saved from a couple years back.

“Eleven Dead, One Missing After Record-Setting Tornadoes and Storm,” was the title of the article from the local paper. I nibbled on my thumbnail as I read through it for the hundredth time, eyes magnetically drawn to three names on the list of the dead: Norbert C., Mary H., and Carrie H. The single name on the missing list was Denise J. I omitted their last names for the protection of the town and its people.

Had it happened again? Had my aunt lived through the same terror I’d endured years before? What did that mean for the world? How many other towns were remaining tight-lipped, swallowing the same secret down like bitter medication? How many natural disasters had it visited, cloaking its presence in the chaos and destruction? What was it?

I’d lived through that record-setting storm. It swooped in suddenly and lasted for an entire evening. Tornadoes are eerie phenomenons, and not just because they have the power to kill. There’s something almost supernatural about them. Then again, I’ve had recurring nightmares about them since I was a kid, so that night was like a dark and horrifying dream given the breath of life.

I was gardening when it rolled in. The sky was dark, warning me of the potential for a storm. I only had three more Canna lilies to plant along the fence; I could beat it. I stabbed the earth with my spade, digging another hole. I plopped one of the bulbs into its new home and rested my hands on my thighs.

It was awfully quiet. I whistled, just to lend a sound to the air. No birds sang. No breeze blew. No insects chirped. I was uneasy. I got up off my aching, dirty knees and looked around. Lightning flashed across the ominous sky, lighting up the cotton field across the street from me. Forget the bulbs. It was time to go in and check the weather.

I plodded towards the house, my ears popping like I was on an airplane. I didn’t like the atmosphere. It was too calm. Why was it so God damn quiet?

Goosebumps tightened the skin on my arms. The air felt electric. You’re being paranoid. It’s just a storm, relax. A sound interrupted my thoughts – the tornado siren’s chilling crescendo. Then came another robust noise, like a train passing on the nearby railroad tracks.

I spun on my feet as yet another sound accompanied the shrill siren and deafening rumbling. Cracking. Slapping. Smacking. Thudding. On the far side of the field, trees snapped and splintered as a tornado chewed through the landscape. Thunder clashed, but it was overpowered by the volume of the enormous tornado and its violent spree.

I was transfixed by the awe-inspiring sight of it. It was beautiful and terrifying, and it was headed my way. You can’t stay here. You can’t be here. You have to seek shelter. Go.

My legs quivered. I craned my neck to see if anyone else was outside their house, mystified by this destructive force, but I was the lone audience member. It was at the road now, about to cross diagonally, directly to my house. It was close – too close for comfort. I no longer had the option to scurry into my basement. The only place left for me to go was the shed.

I jogged towards the metal shed, the wind whipping my hair around. At the door, I struggled to tear my gardening gloves off. Finally, my hands were freed, and I was able to pull the door open and slip into my refuge.

I knew the shed wasn’t safe. It was no match for the tornadic fury that was stomping all over my home, but I could think of nothing else to do but cower in the corner and watch through a dingy window. The roof was sucked up and spit out, and the walls caved in.

I don’t know how much time passed…two minutes? Ten? The tornado moved on, seeking something else to chomp on. I was safe, more or less.

The incessant noise continued on down the road for another minute or so before it faded away. The siren cut off a few minutes later. My body vibrated, and my heart pounded. I felt like my limbs weighed a thousand pounds. Outside of the shed, I lowered myself to the ground after a few paces. Thunder snarled as the charcoal-colored sky opened the floodgates, pouring sheets of rain down onto the rubble.


Soaked to the bone by the torrential rain, I floated through what was left of my home, surveying the destruction. My neighbors were out now. Some cried while others quietly digested what had happened. One marched over to ask after me, as my house was the only to suffer a direct hit. I assured him I was OK as he scratched at his head, obviously unsure of what to do or say.

A scream broke out. The good-intentioned neighbor sped back over to the small assembly of townsfolk. It occurred to me that someone may be dead or injured as I lifted my grandmother’s pearls out of a mass of splintered wood.

SHE’S DEAD! OH, GOD, JESUS…HELP ME, SOMEONE!

I was right. Someone was killed. I jerked my head to attention, shoving the necklace into my pocket. Mary was seated on her lawn, the rain slicking her hair against her face and neck. She cradled her girl’s limp body in her arms, rocking back and forth as she announced her tragedy to the swarm of stunned neighbors.

Her house was fully intact. Debris littered the yard, but the house was unscathed…so, what happened to poor Carrie? I got up the courage to walk over to the distressing scene.

IT KILLED HER, MY BABY! MY BABY!” the woman moaned.

“Mary,” said a timid voice. “Honey, let me help you. Let me get you and her out of the rain.” It was Denise, the spinster who lived next door to Mary.

Mary sputtered and nodded. “Yes, I need to get her out of the rain.” Denise nodded at Norbert, who stepped forward and gently lifted the girl into his arms. The whole crowd gasped as the child’s face flopped into view; she had the appearance of an eighty year old woman instead of an eleven year old little girl. Her eyes were sunken in, her nose was clipped off, and trenches of deep wrinkles were etched into her gray skin.

No one spoke as Norbert, Denise, and Mary disappeared into Mary’s house. After they’d gone in, the crowd dispersed, more people openly weeping now. I barely had time to process what I’d seen before a noise like a car window rolled down on the interstate erupted. “Not again!” someone shouted in disbelief. “Get inside!” someone else commanded. I wiped rainwater out of my eyes and gazed out at the dark horizon, where another tornado had materialized.

As the siren belted its warning, I flung Mary’s front door open and rushed inside. I told the others about the second tornado, and we all ventured down into the basement, where a battery-powered lantern cast dim light onto us. Mary settled onto the floor and took her daughter’s body from Norbert. She whimpered quietly as she held the little girl close.

The wind howled ferociously outside; the ceiling shook and the windows rattled, straining against its tremendous force. Denise’s mouth was reduced to a thin line of deep concern as she lowered herself beside Mary. Norbert sat in a corner holding a spare flashlight and staring at his shoes, as I paced the far side of the dank basement.

“Surely it will all be over soon,” Denise said.

“Saw on the news there’d be severe weather all night. Might as well get comfy,” Norbert said.

After a short impregnated silence, Mary whispered, “It’s coming back.”

“We know, honey, but we’re safe down here,” Denise assured her.

“No one’s safe. No where’s safe,” Mary replied.

I shivered. I couldn’t imagine the pain and shock that Mary was feeling, but her behavior was starting to disturb me. She rocked back and forth, back and forth, her dead eyes unseeing in a flash of purple-blue lightning. From somewhere in the room, there came the constant drip drip drip of leaking water.

I resigned to sitting after Norbert switched on the battery-powered AM/FM radio he’d found on top of a box of Christmas decorations. The weather forecast reaffirmed what Norbert had said. The meteorologist told people to stay hunkered down; a rare series of tornadoes and severe storms was hitting the area hard.

I was lost in thoughts of insurance claims, Carrie’s mysterious death, and the curious bout of dangerous weather when I saw that Denise was now mimicking Mary’s rocking. I met the troubled eyes of Norbert, who had noticed it, too.

“It’s coming,” Denise mumbled.

Nonchalantly, I increased the distance between me and the other women.

“What’s that, Denise?” Norbert asked in a soft tones.

She said, ‘it’s coming.’ You’ll feel it, too,” Mary answered.

I bit my lip. I thought about going up to assess the weather, but the storm sounded intense, and I was worried about more tornadoes, so I stayed put. Every so often, I could hear the clatter of debris.

The nasty whispering began right after something big smacked into the side of the house. Denise was in Mary’s ear, lips moving non-stop. Mary was motionless, squeezing her daughter to her chest. Norbert cleared his throat as his eyes bounced between me and the women. “It’s here,” Mary said.

“Uh, Denise?” I called, dismissing Mary altogether. Denise ignored me. “Is everything OK over there?” The whispering stopped. Denise slowly faced forward as she and Mary commenced rocking in unison.

The walls felt like they were closing in. My shoulders tense, I rested my head on the wall behind me and shut my eyes. A few minutes later, Norbert shouted my name.

“What – what is it?” I asked. He pointed at one of the windows of the basement.

“Something was out there,” he said. His thick eyebrows were sharp angles on his forehead.

“What was it?”

“I don’t – I could’ve been seeing things – yes, it must have been my imagination,” he answered, barely managing to convince himself.

My eyes skipped over to Denise and Mary, and my heart lodged itself into my throat. Denise was still rocking, but Mary was frozen. Her eye sockets were hollowed out, leaving empty black holes in place of her watery brown eyes. Her skin was a greenish-gray color, and her pruny lips were split apart in a jovial grin.

I didn’t react as Norbert gasped loudly. “Mary! Denise, what happened?” he yelled. Denise giggled. “It came,” she explained. Then, she got on her hands and knees and crawled right up to Norbert, until her nose was only about an inch away from his. “You’re next,” she told him.

Norbert gently pushed her away and jumped up. “We gotta go! I can’t stay here any longer!” he declared. Denise, stretching catlike on the ground, rolled her head around in circles.

I hopped to my feet. “Norbert, calm down -”

No, you didn’t see what I saw out there! I feel like I’m suffocating – we can make it to my house, I know we can. Please, come with me!”

Denise cackled and flipped onto her back, kicking her legs in the air. “He’s so funny, Mary – isn’t he a hoot?” Mary’s grin seemed to agree.

“OK, let’s go. Uh, D-Denise, are you coming?” I asked. Norbert side-stepped around her writhing body and sneered at me. “No. Not her. She stays,” he said firmly.

“Go, go, go, before it’s back for Norbie. Not me, though, I’ll stay. Yesss, sssir, I’ll keep Mary and her child company. I don’t mind,” Denise said. The light of the lantern flickered, and in the fleeting moment of darkness, the woman’s eyes glowed like a deer in the night.

I darted up the stairs, Norbert trailing close behind. As we ran, Denise called, “I can still get to you at ole Norbie’s, ya know! NO ONE’S SAFE. NOWHERE’S SAFE. You heard the woman!” Maniacal laughter followed us up into the house.

Outside, Norbert’s flashlight swept over downed trees and random objects that had been regurgitated onto the lawn. The rain pelted us as we rushed to his door. We didn’t stop running until we were locked in his basement. .

“What the fuck is going on? Excuse my language,” Norbert asked, panting to catch his breath.

I didn’t answer. I snatched the flashlight from him and shone it at a window across the room. Grinning menacingly on her hands and knees, her neck bent at an impossibly sharp angle, was Denise. I’d seen her eyes glowing in the dark. I screamed.

Faster than she should’ve been able to, she scampered away, her neck remaining locked in that unnatural position. “NORBERT!” I cried out. When I turned the flashlight on him, I quieted. He was standing in the same spot he’d been in when I’d taken the flashlight, only now his skin was gray and folded into ripples of thick wrinkles. It looked like his skin was melting right off his skull. His eyes were shriveled, and his mouth was curled down in an expression of utter misery.


After it got to Norbert, I couldn’t stay in the basement. Stupidly, I rode out the rest of the storm upstairs, my only company a handgun that I’d found in Norbert’s nightstand. In the morning, his house remained standing. I contacted the local police, who, oddly enough, seemed unruffled by what I told them. That’s the last time I’d spoken about it until now. In fact, no one in town talks about that night, other than to say that it was, “One helluva storm. Made history, that one did.”

When the dust settled, a total of 11 dead bodies were found – nine of which were grotesquely aged. Two of the eleven had perished in the storm, but the autopsies of the nine were all inconclusive. Denise was never found. We try to forget, to leave the unknown buried with the victims. It’s our little secret, and we carry it together.

Is our secret really so unique? As Katrina’s death toll rose, I was left wondering how many of those unfortunate people were really killed by the storm. My aunt never would talk about it. It’s fine, though, because I never shared my experience with her, either. I understand. There are some things you want to go on pretending never happened, even when it’s impossible to forget.

Under My Bed.

[This is a revision of a previous story, “Fire.”]

My mother’s gone. My father’s a hollow shell, a fortress so impenetrable that I’ve given up all hopes of ever scaling its walls.

The acrid smoke was what awoke me from my dreamless slumber. I stirred, hacking. I was drowning in a pool of thick gray, the familiarity of my room swallowed by hazy clouds. The fire alarm plastered to the ceiling outside of my room-battery long before drained-witnessed the smoke and flames devour the house in apathy. How many times had Mom insisted Dad change its batteries?

We live with my grandma and grandpa now. Dad sleeps on the plastic-wrapped couch. In the mornings, we stitch together half-hearted small talk over coffee at the kitchen table, but, for the most part, we don’t speak. After Mom was gone, I wondered if I still loved him the same. I still wonder.

Out in the hall, through the fog, I could make out the silhouette of my dad, doubled-over and blindly reaching out. I choked on the suffocating smoke suspended in the air all around us. He gripped my shoulder and applied pressure, gesturing for me to lower myself to the floor. He followed me down, and we began crawling.

Every night, at precisely 1:27 A.M., my bed springs to life with movement, mailing tingles from my toes, delivering them straight to the highest hair on my head. The first time it happened, I yelped and popped off the mattress like a jack-in-the-box, panting as my brain attempted to piece together a logical explanation for the trembling.

Our captor kidnapped the oxygen as we crawled, our only goal now to escape. The tall, savage flames singed my hair as I screwed up my eyes and silently prayed for us to make it to the front door. The heat gnawed at our bodies, begging for a taste of our slick flesh.

A week ago, the vibrating graduated to a violent quaking, an isolated earthquake felt only by my bed. This time, and all the times after, I didn’t bother evacuating; after checking for monsters under my bed, I dug in and rode out the storm.

Glass cracked, portraits melted, and furniture grilled. Black soot spanned over the off-white walls. Lust-filled flames licked sentimental items: the family Bible, my baby book, and photo albums all baked and curled in its scorching heat. The fire roared at me, daring me to plow through it. It jumped at the chance to broil me, to blister my flesh.

Every night, at precisely 1:27 A.M., I turn on the lamp on my nightstand, flop onto my stomach, lower my head to the hardwood floor, and peer at the dusty floor beneath the bed while my lower half bucks as if I’m riding a mechanical bull.

The fire was hottest in the living room. It crackled and popped and hissed as it charred our family space. The skin exposed on me was seared by it. Its ravenous flames encircled us, inviting us to keep it company at its barbecue, to become its meal.

The truth is that Mom hated Dad. Dad’s a firefighter. He spends a lot of his free time with his fire-fighting buddies, even now…especially now. Family has always been an afterthought to the man who fathered me. Mom found solace from her loneliness in Andrew’s bed, fucking and pretending we didn’t exist. I used to lay awake, wondering how late she’d stroll in this time, reeking of sex and his cologne.

I saw him at the grocery store once, Andrew. He was feeling up avocados, applying pressure to them. When he noticed me watching him, he folded into himself and skipped off to another aisle. I tickled the avocados, my fingertips dancing over their dark green skins. His hands had been here, seconds ago, the very tools used in exploration of my mom’s body. I imagined him cupping her breasts and stifled a sudden and severe sob.

Wait! Don’t go! the flames pleaded as they lashed out, whipping my father’s thighs. Dad crumpled to the floor, a rug of sweaty limbs. My head was a balloon, desiring to float up to the ceiling, and there it would stay, until the greedy fire popped it.

“Get rid of it!” Dad cried before Mom had finished speaking.

She’d gathered us together not long before the end, told us she had news. This was the death sentence, the revelation that ultimately severed our family unit with one clean swipe.

“You don’t control me. Not anymore,” was her cool reply.

“You’re killing me,” Dad whimpered.

I was sore with affection for him, but I needed him to fight. This whining man was pathetic and weak, in stark contrast with the father I knew.

I waltzed with my dance partner, the flames. If they’d pledge eternity to me, I thought I’d gift them my body. ‘Need to break out of here.’ I was presented with no other choice but to stand. My dad was a sack of deadweight. That coupled with my incessant coughing was slowing my progression.

He struck her later that day, the day we learned she was expecting. Slapped her across the face, imprinting an angry red mark onto her soft cheek. In her shock, she laughed. Dad wept, apologizing to both of us. His eyes were bright with tears, and strings of slobber dripped out of his twisted mouth. Mom, her face a blank canvas, answered his regret with, “I’m moving out. And I’m filing for divorce.”

Her lips unintentionally curled up when she uttered “divorce.” I sensed the pleasure of that moment seeping out of her. Her body practically hummed with the satisfaction of administering that last fatal blow to him.

I burst out of the war zone into a cloudless night, grasping my dad’s ankles in my aching hands. The sky was heavy with stars like twinkling diamonds. The air was mercy on my burning lungs.

Every. Night. 1:27 A.M.. Upside down, I see nothing. Monsters don’t lurk under beds and in closets; they roost in minds and hearts.

Somehow, I’d made it. Dad was unconscious, but breathing. I fed voraciously of the cool, untainted air. Eyes squeezed shut, I could’ve been at a bonfire instead of outside my burning home. We’d survived.

The investigators informed us that she was consumed in the fire. Dad and I were unaware that Mom had returned home to scoop up some belongings late that night. She was still smoking, even at ten weeks pregnant. She nodded off with a lit cigarette in the recliner and set fire to our lives-only, the fire was burning before it ever touched our home.

Andrew didn’t attend her memorial.

1:27 A.M., last night. Upside down, like a scared child, I noticed something under the bed. I caught a whiff of burning hair as I stood up. With a stomach like a pouch of bubbling acid, I pushed the bed against a wall and dropped to my knees. There were piles of soot before me, rolling hills that formed letters. My rapid breath scattered some of it across the floor. I could read the message clearly all the same:

they lied dad burned me alive

A Stranger’s Blood.

She had a towel wrapped around her head and one hugging her wet body. A cocoon, disguising the beauty of firm, youthful flesh. Eyeliner filled the creases under her bright eyes, an echo of the make-up she’d carefully drawn onto herself the day before.

“Sheila, do you have a tampon?”

My heart raced. Pam was talking to me. Me.

“What?” I mumbled, though I’d heard her loud and clear.

She bent a bare leg away from her body and put a hand on her hip.

“A tampon-do you have one?”

I felt droplets of sweat growing on my upper lip. An ocean was raging in my ears.

“I, uh-no. You can have a pad?” I despised the sound of my weak voice, so childish and intimidated.

She groaned and folded her arms across her chest.

“Yeah, I guess that will be fine.”

As I bent to grab a pad from my purse on the floor, my cheeks burned. I pictured the red mushrooming out from my cheeks and into my neck and ears. Gas did tumbles inside of my stomach. I could stop it, if only I could squeeze my bottom together hard enough…too late. I passed gas. I sat very still, my eyes glued to my computer screen and one pad-offering hand extended towards Pam.

“Uhh,” she moaned in disgust. “Did you just fart?”

I closed my eyes and practiced breathing in through my nose, so slowly, and releasing it through my mouth. The hand suspended in the air trembled. I heard her chuckle as the pad was jerked out of my grasp. Her chuckle became distant, and I braved stealing a peek. She had gone.

I scooped up my purse and dug through it until I found my compact mirror buried on the bottom. I opened it and scanned my face. It was as I suspected; my face and neck were as red as a tomato. I patted my hot cheeks and pinched the bridge of my nose. I flinched-something was smudged onto my fair skin. Smeared dark red paint, where my hand had made contact.

I splayed my fingers, dropping the compact onto the desk, and studied them. All over the hand that had passed the pad to Pam was the mysterious red stuff. My nostrils flared as I sniffed the substance. It smelled metallic, like blood.


I scrubbed my hands in the girls’ bathroom for fifteen minutes straight. The hot, soapy water scalded my skin as I rubbed zealously. Period blood, gross. I twisted the faucet off and examined my hands. Sure that I’d sufficiently cleaned them, I stalked off to get a breath of fresh air.

The sky was overcast, the sun shying away from the mortals on Earth. I hooked a thumb under my purse strap and stared at the ground as I walked. I contemplated on the incident with Pam, analyzing possible outcomes of the mortifying fart.

Maybe she won’t say anything. Maybe she got back to her dorm and realized she’d been sashaying around with period blood on her, and, in her embarrassment, she decided not to mention to her friends that Sheila let one rip.

Something hard collided into my shoulder. I turned my head and saw Pam and her gaggle of girlfriends snickering under an oak tree. Pam raised her chin and grinned cruelly. On the ground beside my feet was a half-eaten apple. I imagined myself picking up the piece of fruit and heaving it back at the girls.

Instead, my lips quivered like jello and tears filled my eyes with the discomfort of a hundred bee-stings. I stuffed my hands in my jacket pocket and propelled myself away from them. They made the obnoxious sound of flatulence with their mouths as I departed. That’s it. I gritted my teeth, changed my direction, and marched up to Pam.

“P-pam, can we talk in private?” In spite of my strong start, my voice wavered, betraying my fear.

She sneered. “Nah, you can say whatever you wanna say right here, fart ass.”

The others cackled.

“F-fine. You know, it was really embarrassing-”

“What? You shitting your pants?”

There was another symphony of laughter. I swallowed.

“It was embarrassing. But, you know what? When you took that pad from me, you got blood on my hand-periodblood! And did I run around telling everyone or making you feel like crap? No! Can we please call a truce?”

Pam squinted incredulously at me. Her friends quieted, their eyes bouncing back and forth between their master and me.

“Jesus, you are a fucking weirdo-I did not get period blood on you. I wash my hands everytime I go to the bathroom, you freak.”

“I-I-”

“Look, I know you wanna be me, and you probably would’ve, like, I don’t know, licked the blood off your hand or something else disgusting if it had been mine-” Her cronies’ voices fused together for another round of laughter. “But I can assure you, it wasn’t my blood.”

“It was probably hers-she probably cuts herself!” another girl cried as she pointed an accusatory finger at me.

My mouth agape, I tucked tail and ran. Hot, bitter tears rolled out of my half-closed eyes.


You’re so weak and pathetic.

I tossed and turned as my roommate snored.

They’re better than you.

I couldn’t shut my inner voice up.

Skinnier, prettier…

I sandwiched my head between two pillows.

You’re an ugly chunk of fat, the trimmings of lard from raw meat.

“Shut up!” I ejaculated.

My roommate rolled over and sat up.

“You have blood on your hand-on your…hand…”

Her eyes were closed. She was talking in her sleep.

“Go back to sleep, Tia,” I whispered.

“I dreamed of you. And blood.”

Tia,” I hissed, the hair on the back of my neck rising, “Go to sleep.

This time, she followed my order and, resting on her back, commenced her snoring.


I watched her out of the corner of my eye the next morning, but Tia acted normal. She appeared deep in thought as she wrote in a notebook on her bed. A few minutes later, she whistled on her way to the shower. Thoughts of Pam wrestled their way to the forefront of my mind, and Tia’s sleeping habits were swept under the rug.

You’ll laugh about this later. You’ll see-give it a couple weeks, and the hyenas will move on from you and pick on some other girl.

I stretched and decided I’d have to leave my room at some point. A trip to the vending machine loomed in my future, so I slid into my robe and silently prayed I wouldn’t have a run-in with Pam and company. As I took a step forward, I kicked something across the floor. It was Tia’s notebook, opened to the first page. Written in bold, black letters was “Dream Journal.”

I picked it up to put it back on her bed and paused. She was surely dreaming last night; maybe that’s what she was writing about this morning. I flipped through the worn notebook until I found the latest entry.

Dreamed about some girls last night. I think they were people I know. They felt familiar, somehow, but I can’t remember. It was all so fuzzy by the time I woke up. I was in my car, at a red light, and this girl was in front of me, on a motorcycle or one of those crotch rocket thingies. She looked back at me and held up a bloody hand. When the light turned green, she rocketed off.

I tried to hit the gas, but my car stalled. I turned the key and the engine roared. I pressed the gas and took off. I passed by the scene of an accident. At least, there were cops and an ambulance. It didn’t look like a car wreck, though.

In the car, there were the dead bodies of several girls. They were sitting up and buckled in, like they were just going for a drive. There was blood spilling out of the open windows and down the sides of the car, and their faces were gone. I could see muscle and tendon, and even bone, but the skin was gone. What does that mean? Am I a psycho, for dreaming such a creepy dream?

I shuddered as I closed the notebook and tossed it onto Tia’s bed. The girls felt familiar…


The swirl of metal rotated out of the way, allowing gravity to snatch my Snickers to the bottom of the vending machine. It wasn’t nutritious, but it was definitely good stress food. I stuck my hand into the bottom and plucked my bounty out.

As I rounded the corner to head back down the hall to my dorm, I heard a strange sound. I stopped and listened. Someone was crying in the girls’ bathroom, a few feet away from me. I tip-toed inside and searched for the source. Pam had her back to the far wall of the restroom, bawling.

“Pam?” I whispered.

She raised her hands. “Help me!”

I plodded over to her.

“Wh-what’s the matter?” I asked.

Pam blinked dramatically. “What’s the matter? Look at all of this blood!

She twirled around like she was a model in a morbid fashion show, showcasing the fall line, Bloody Apparel.

“Wh-what? Pam, there-there’s nothing on you.”


I bolted from the bathroom after Pam hysterically insisted that she had blood all over her, then yelled at me to get away from her. I didn’t know what else to do, so I hurried back to my room to think.

“Are you going to the party tonight?” Tia asked from her bed, her nose stuck in a book.

I wrung my hands. My heart was fluttering.

“What? Tonight is Sunday.”

“Uh, yeah, but it’s spring break, silly, remember? Are you OK?”

She lowered her book.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I don’t know, Tia.”

Tia rolled her head, popping her neck. “Oh, c’mon. It’s the spring break kickoff! We can go together.”

I plopped down into the chair at the computer desk.

“Where?”

Tia lowered her feet from her bed to the floor.

“Chris Carey’s place, off campus. His dad’s going out of town.”

I sniffled. “Yeah, fine.”

Tia squealed. “Be ready by nine!”

She pulled her legs back into the bed and curled up with her novel. I considered checking up on Pam, but as I sat there, I pondered on justice.

If Pam is self-destructing, maybe it’s the universe serving her a bit of karma-pie? Would it really be that mean, if I just left her on her own? That’s what she wants, anyway, to be left alone.

I powered my computer on and logged onto Facebook. Chris Carey’s party was the talk of my newsfeed, from the jockiest jock to the nerdiest nerd. I could use some fun.


I wore my denim skirt with my off the shoulder blouse. I slipped my feet into a pair of maroon flats and lifted my crossbody purse over my head, pulling the strap taut across my chest. Tia bounced on her heels when we met outside of the dorms at nine.

“You look great! I didn’t know you have boobs, Sheila!”

“Thanks,” I muttered as we climbed into her best friend’s car.

“Freedom!” Lisa shouted to the night, jacking up the volume on her radio.

A swift, pulsating techno beat blasted into the car. Tia pumped her fist up and down and smiled at me. Not able to help myself, I mirrored her expression. We were young and free, and the night was just beginning. Tia mouthed something to me from the front seat.

“Huh?” I yelled.

She turned the music down.

“Hey, now!” Lisa protested.

“We can turn it back up in a sec-I forgot to tell Sheila what you told me,” Tia said, turning back to face me. “Oh myGod, guess what Lisa told me before you came down?”

I shrugged. “What? That Tommy Harris is in love with you?”

She shrieked with laughter. “No!”

“But he is,” Lisa agreed.

Whatever. Anyways, no, she was telling me that Pam’s BFF-what’s her name again?”

“Michelle, the blonde giant,” Lisa answered, lighting a cigarette.

“Right, Michelle. Michelle had some kinda breakdown earlier today!”

Lisa passed me her cigarette. I didn’t smoke, but the last thing I wanted was to be on the receiving end of more taunts and jests, so I awkwardly wedged the cigarette in my unpracticed fingers and took a puff, coughing the instant the smoke hit my lungs. Tia lifted the cigarette from me and took a drag.

“Breakdown? Over what? Messing up her manicure?” I asked when my coughing fit subsided.

Lisa laughed her approval.

“She was telling people that she had blood all over her! But there was nothing on her! Crazy, right?”

“Couldn’t have happened to someone more deserving, I say!” Lisa shouted.

I leaned into the gap between the driver and passenger seats.

“So, what happened after she freaked?”

“Nothing. One of her buddies slipped her a Xanax, and she calmed down. I think she’s still going to the party tonight,” Lisa concluded.


Chris Carey’s house stood in dark seclusion off a dirt road on the outskirts of town. Stars speckled the sky, chaperones to the crescent moon hanging there. The nearest house was about a mile back from where the two story party shack was erected. Cars were parked everywhere: in the front yard, along the sides of the house, and even near the backyard, where stretches of tilled earth spread out as far as my eye could see in the dark. Muffled rap music blared from inside the home.

On the porch, a girl was already vomiting over the railing into the bushes below. A sympathetic boy with glasses like the bottom of coke bottles patted her back. After each fountain of gushing puke subsided, the girl sobbed pitifully.

“She can’t handle liquor-I should’ve known, but, it’s a party, you know?” big glasses explained to us as we passed to enter the house.

Inside, the house was crammed full of hot, hormone-raging bodies. Two girls made out in the center of the living room, amid shouts of encouragement; a group of nerdy kids stood in a clump in the dining room right off the living room, eating chips and dip; Pam and her crew of elitists formed a sullen circle of teenage snobbery, rolling their eyes in contempt of the kissing girls. Everyone held a red solo cup or a beer in their hands.

When Pam’s eyes rested on me, she gently shoved the tall blonde nearest to her and cupped a hand over her mouth as she leaned into her ear. I assumed the almost six foot tall blonde was Michelle. I sighed and continued following Lisa to the kitchen. She, Tia, and I grabbed beers and headed back into the noisy living room. Pam and her friends had vacated their spots and were nowhere to be seen.

I sat on the arm of the couch and chatted with Tia until Tommy elbowed his way over, scooped her up in his arms, and walked away with her squirming in his Prince Charming hold. Lisa smirked and shook her head before resuming her conversation with the guy sitting next to her.

I shouldn’t have come. I should’ve known Tia and Lisa would couple off, and I’d wind up just another wallflower in a sea of strangers. Gazing out at all the happy, laughing people, I suddenly felt forlorn and claustrophobic. I wanted to claw my way out of this prison I’d sent myself to, so I hopped off my seat and went out back, grabbing another beer on my way.

It was sparsely populated outside, once I pushed my way off the deck. A tire swing hung from a pecan tree, and I climbed into it, sipping on my beer. The intoxication sneaked up on me-I rarely drink, and the two beers were more than enough to overload my system. I threw the empty bottle down at the base of the tree and swung, giggling giddily as I stared up at the wide open sky. When I got tired of that, I sat down in the grass with my knees against my chest, reclining against the tree trunk.

I wanted another beer, but I didn’t want to venture back inside. I wondered where Pam and her buddies were, wondered about the strange, invisible blood that she and Michelle had sworn was all over them. Maybe they were high on a hallucinogen. I thought about the blood on my hand. I hadn’t imagined that-had I? I definitely hadn’t been high on anything. Is it possible they really saw blood on them?


I’d nodded off. When I opened my eyes, I found that I was alone outside. The flood-light was off, leaving me in total blackness, with the exception of the lit windows of the house. An owl hooted nearby. I lifted my head off of the rough bark of the tree and massaged my sore neck. Oh, God, I hope Tia and Lisa didn’t leave me!

I shot up and started towards the door. From behind me, close to the field, the ground was disturbed by a passing animal; twigs and foliage crunched. I picked up my pace. There was another crunch from the same direction. What if it’s something stalking me, about to attack? I scrambled up the steps to the deck and burst inside the house, slamming the door behind me. The couple of kids congregating next to the alcohol paid me no mind. I lifted the blinds on the window closest to the door and looked out, but I had limited visibility.

“There you are!” Tia exclaimed.

Her cheeks were flushed with drunkenness.

“Here I am,” I said.

“Grab another beer-most everybody has already left, but we survivors are chilling in the living room.” She opened the fridge door and pulled out three beers.

“OK,” I said.

She jabbed a beer at me, and I took it.”C’mon.”

We went to the living room, stepping over a couple kids passed out on the floor with penises drawn on their foreheads.

There were maybe ten people hanging out in the living room, none of which were Pam and her idiots. I sat on the floor next to Tia and Tommy and twisted the cap off my drink, greedily guzzling down beer. I’d lost some of my intoxication and wanted it back. Chris Carey was sitting on the coffee table in the center of the crowd, laughing merrily.

“No, seriously, you guys-The Others was a fucking outstanding scary movie. Horror movies nowadays are all about gore and innards.” Another guy groaned and chucked an accent pillow at Chris, who dodged it with a chuckle. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with blood; I’m just saying that there’s something to be said for general fucking creepiness and a great plot!”

I chugged the rest of my beer, gagging covertly when I swallowed a mouthful of foam at the bottom of the bottle.

“Oh my God-let’s have a séance!” Lisa suggested.

Some girls cheered at this idea.

“Let’s do it!” a freckle-faced girl cried.

Chris got up with a lopsided grin and teetered over to the dining room table.

“I’m so wasted, you guys,” he confessed as he swiped the taper candles from the table.

Everyone laughed as Lisa cleared the coffee table. Chris slammed the candles down and pulled a lighter out of his pocket, lighting each of the four candles.

“We gotta smoke some more of that joint after this,” he said.

Someone murmured in agreement. Tommy nuzzled Tia’s neck, planting a kiss on it.

“Tommy, cut it out,” she giggled.

“I’m gonna…go get another…beer,” I informed her, but my words fell on deaf ears.

I clumsily got to my feet and lumbered to the kitchen for more alcohol.

As I closed the fridge, I heard something clatter behind a door that stood between it and the doorway back into the living room. With my beer in one hand, I opened the door. Stairs led down into a dimly lit basement. Soft, distant music floated up to the kitchen.

“Hello?” I called.

Something stirred below.

“Is everything OK?”

No one answered. I descended the stairs. Fleetwood Mac was playing on a radio somewhere in the room. There were rows of boxes stacked pell-mell along the walls and on the floor. They formed a maze of tall, imposing cardboard. A washer and dryer stood against the wall to the right of me.

“Hello?”

I shrugged and turned to leave. As I did, my bottle of beer slipped out of my grasp and shattered into thick pieces of glass on the floor.

“Shit,” I whispered as I dropped to my knees to clean up my mess.

I was carefully piling shards of glass onto my hand when something big tipped over and crashed to the floor. My head jerked up. A shadow from across the room sank out of my startled view.

“Wh-who’s there?”

I crawled to the end of one row of boxes and peeked around the corner. A box laying on its side spilled old clothes and books out onto the floor. No one was there, so I kept crawling. Left knee…right knee…left knee…right knee…until I was at the end of another haphazard row of musty boxes. I craned my neck and looked around the box closest to me.

In front of metal shelves that were drilled into the wall was the backside of a squatting man. He was dressed in all black. Beside him was Pam, Michelle, and another girl from their close-knit circle of friends. They were sitting up against the wall, their hands folded daintily in their laps. Their hair was still perfectly sculpted, not a curl or strand out of place. I could faintly smell the combination of their perfumes on the stale air. Their dresses and skirts were smoothed out, not one wrinkle disturbing the fabric. Disrupting the sweet, feminine patterns of their clothing were smears and splotches of blood, accentuating ripped fabric.

The girls looked perfect, if only the one accessory most crucial to their looks still adorned their bodies: their beautiful faces. In place of smooth, dewy skin was sinewy facial muscle and exposed bone.

I screamed.

The startled man whipped around. He blinked through the eye-holes of one of the masks of flesh he held stretched against his face and jumped to his feet, dropping the skin-mask in his haste to stand. I pushed off the floor and stood, bracing for the impact of his weight. He charged me, knocking me back down to the floor. The wind was knocked out of me as I toppled onto my back.

His husky body landed on top of me, stealing more of my air. His latched onto my neck and dug his sausage-fingers into my throat. My throat blistered in pain as I struggled to breathe. I coiled an arm around one of his and stared into his determined face, begging him with no words for mercy. His eyes were clouded with blindness to my desperation.

I yanked my other arm out from under him, lifted my sore hand, and plunged the long piece of glass I was still holding from my broken beer bottle into his neck, pushing it in until it was lost in blood, cartilage, and bone. My bloody hand fell to my chest as I watched blood splurt out of his wound. He released his stranglehold on me and gripped his neck in surprise. I coughed for air, my throat throbbing. He tried to form words, but he sounded funny, like he was gargling mouthwash.

He tipped over, rolling onto his back, and contorted his body. I managed to scoot away from him. I slowly breathed in giant lungfuls of oxygen. My dizzy head was swimming, and I fought to remain conscious. He became still, life no longer pumping inside of him. In their lidless sockets, Pam’s eyes stared down at me.

I shrieked until upside-down people flooded my vision. There were gasps, shouts, screams, and questions flying in every direction. Tia clapped a hand over her mouth as her face filled with concern, terror, confusion, and disgust.

I showed her my hand, my bloodied hand.

Dad?” Chris Carey cried in anguish as he crumpled to the floor next to the dead man. “Dad? What did you do to him?

Blood Sisters

I grew up rough and tough. Mommy was a hooker and Daddy was whichever man she’d sunk her claws into at any given time. One of her men told me that she got rid of my brothers and sisters at the clinic. Flabbergasted, I just gawked at him as he chuckled drunkenly.

I ran away a few times, but always moseyed on back home, after the weather or hunger chased me away from the railroad tracks I frequented.

At school, I was the stinky girl, the ugly girl, the girl with the loose mom. All I wanted was to be the girl with a friend.

At the railroad tracks, I dove into all kinds of delinquent activities with the kids of the neighborhood. They’d steal candy bars from the corner store, then lay low at this one big oak tree that was used as a rendezvous point, chewing mouthfuls of chocolate and caramel. I was always the unnoticed one, but if I was acknowledged, I was the invisible girl, the shy girl, the shadow girl. I just wanted to be the girl that belonged.

It was a fucked time all around.

Then one day my mom left. Not unusual; sometimes she went away for awhile. But she never came back this time. I was ecstatic. I had the house to myself. No more school for me, motherfuckers!

It was cool for awhile. Then it was real lonely. I wanted to tell the kids at the tracks that I had a new hangout spot, where no grown-ups would ever bother us, but I was nervous that one of them would open their giant trap and social workers would come and get me. I knew all about social workers. Plenty of kids were snatched from their parents in my neighborhood.

One day, I legged it all the way to the good side of town, where restaurants, department stores, and beautiful parks replaced corner convenient stores, bars, and crackhouses. I was in love. This, surely, was heaven. Why couldn’t I be born to a mom and dad on this side of town? Maybe my mom would wear lovely, pastel-colored dresses, and my dad would wear a suit. And my mom wouldn’t take my brothers and sisters to the clinic, but bring them home, all swaddled up and red-faced. And my dad would be nice, and never drink that repulsive liquor stuff.

Posted up outside of a store that had these beautiful glittery black flats on display in its window, I saw in the reflection beside me a girl my age. She opened and closed her hand in a wave. I spun around, preparing myself for some sort of insult, or for her to upbraid me for being there, but she offered a toothy smile.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey.” My mouth filled up with drool as an inept response to the unsolicited attention.

“I’m Alice.”

“Jane…”

She touched my hair.

“I like that name. You have pretty hair.”

Like a person suffering from Tourette syndrome, I cried out, “You have pretty EVERYTHING!” My cheeks blistered in embarrassment.

She did have pretty everything. Her hair was long and groomed and a light green ribbon tied it back. She wore a dress with butterflies embroidered into it. She appeared to almost shine, she was so clean. I, on the other hand, was grubby and wearing over-sized clothes that were donated for people in need by a church.

She just smiled, cool as a cucumber.

“We should play sometime,” she said as I stepped out of the way of some passerby.

“OK,” I said.

“Get out of the damn way, kid!” a man demanded.

I shuffled closer to the window of the store. I was about to ask Alice when she wanted to play, but she had already faded away into the throngs of people. Feeling let down, I went home.

I’d been asleep for who knows how long when pounding on the front door awoke me. I silently weaved through the living room and pressed an ear to the door, which had grown quiet. A sudden single pound jolted my body like a lightning bolt.

I got scared. I hadn’t thought this alone thing through-there were bad people in my neighborhood. Some of them loitered on the street corners, selling drugs; some trudged around like zombies with bloodshot eyes, talking nonsensical words; others preyed on the weak, the latter attracted to their seductive ways of entrapment. I felt very little in that moment.

I heard a small voice seep through the cracks around the door: “Jane.”

It was Alice! How could she be here? Didn’t she know how dangerous it was to walk around at night? Especially here! I twisted the lock on the knob and stretched on tippy toes to slide the chain out of its metal slot. I opened the door.

No one was there. Was this a game? What was Alice up to?

As I made to go back in, I noticed a small, wooden box on the ground. It had my name engraved into it in elegant, elongated letters. My heart joyously skipped a beat. Alice had left me a gift! I snagged it and hurried back to my bed, excited to open my present. I  lifted the fragile latch. There was a piece of paper and the scent of flowers emanated from it.

Jane:

If you want to be friends, meet me at the railroad tracks

Love, Your Future Blood Sister

Buzzing with delight at the prospect of having a friend of my very own, I changed out of my pajamas and into dark colored clothes. I dug a flashlight out of my closet (stored there for those nights that the electricity was shut off for nonpayment) and set off to meet Alice. I avoided main streets, traveling through dark alleys, until I neared the grassy field that the railroad tracks were stitched through.

I didn’t know exactly where Alice meant for me to meet her, so I went to the oak tree and sat down, leaning against its rough trunk. It was frigid, but I was sweating profusely due to my trek. The later it got, the more I grew afraid that she wasn’t coming or was playing a mean joke on me.

Awhile later, I chastised myself for being fooled by her as I got to my feet, ready to leave and go back home. Then, there was crunching from the other side of the trunk. Now I felt no elation, just fear-what was on the other side?

A face emerged from the right side of the tree trunk, making me jump. It was Alice, if Alice had a gothic twin. This girl’s face was the same, only eerily pale, black-eyed, with stringy locks of disarrayed hair framing it. She sneered and-I swear-snarled.

“A-are you a ghost?”

“Nah.” She brought her body out from its hiding place. She still had the butterfly dress on, but the material was tattered and worn.

“Jane, I want to be your friend. Do you want to be my friend?”

I nodded, even though I was not so sure anymore.

“Give me your hand.”

I followed her direction, scared to tell her no. Her grasp was icy.

She flipped my hand palm up and, as rapid as a hummingbird’s wings, jabbed a needle deep into my flesh. I blanched and exhaled air through my teeth. Next, she stuck the needle into her own palm.

“Put your hand up, like this.” She lifted her hand like she was going to give me a high five. I followed her lead.

She tightly intertwined our fingers, rubbing our wounds against each other. My palm simultaneously tingled and burned. She grinned her toothy smile. The expression was no longer friendly and comforting.

“We’re blood sisters, Jane.”

I gulped my spit down.

“I-have to go.”

Frozen, her grin remained in place and seemed to widen with every passing second.

“Did you-hear me? B-bye, Alice.” I waited for a response for a second before pumping my legs into a mad dash in the direction of home.

The next day, a grim-faced cop knocked at my door. Too frightened to ignore him, I reluctantly pulled the door open a crack.

“Hi, there. Are your parents home?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a school day-why aren’t you there?”

“I-I-I-” I tried to lob an explanation at him, but my mind kept chanting, ‘Social workers, social workers, social workers.’

“I’m here because you haven’t been to school in awhile. I’ll be back-I need to talk to your parents. OK?”

I nodded.

“Are you OK?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” His concerned expression tugged the words out of me-I didn’t want him poking his nose into my business.

“Alright. Goodbye, then.”

I shut the door and put my back against it. My palm pulsated with a dull, aching pain where Alice stuck me with the needle. I shook my head, purging my mind of the memory of the previous night.

I had two present problems that needed solutions: 1. I was very low on food. 2. The police were trying to get in touch with my mom over my truancy. I’d been thoughtless, being absent this much. I should’ve had the foresight to know this would lead to cops at the door.

That was it, I had to go back to school. Attending school would take care of both problems, in a way: maybe it would stave off the police, and I would get fed twice a day. My stomach grumbled and growled at the thought of food. I felt I could punch my mom in the face for a cheeseburger, at this point. I’d eaten yesterday, but only a can of green beans. I’d have to venture back into the sparse pantry and pray I could come up with something else edible.

A stitch hit me in the pit of my stomach and rippled outward. My first thought was that I was going to get sick, but then it came to me: I missed my mom. I actually missed her. I curled up on the couch and cried. I didn’t want to have to solve problems. I wanted her here to take care of them, even if it meant doing so with her unconventional ways and ignoring me when someone with a penis was in the vicinity.

“OPEN THE DOOR, JANE!” Someone shouted from the front yard.

I recognized the voice-it was Troy, one of the train track gang. I jumped off the couch and opened the door, not caring if he picked on me for being a cry baby-I was just glad to have the company. Troy, Megan, and Charlotte were congregated on the welcome mat. The two girls were two grades higher than Troy and me.

“Hi, guys,” I greeted them.

“Let us in,” Megan commanded.

“Where the hell have you been?” Troy asked when we were all gathered in the living room.

“Yeah, you been missing a lot of school-you could end up in juvie for that,” Charlotte said.

“Where’s your mom?” Troy added.

“I know, I know. I’m coming tomorrow. Boy, I’ve missed you guys.”

Megan laughed and rolled her eyes toward Charlotte.

“Who was that?” Troy asked.

“Where?” I asked, craning my neck to look out the window and fervently hoping the cop hadn’t doubled back to interrogate me.

“In your hallway, stupid-I just saw someone. Is your mom home? I heard she fucking left town.” Troy cussed with the awkwardness of someone just learning how.

“No, it’s just me here-and she didn’t leave town.”

“Really? How come I ain’t seen her with her tits hanging out, walking the block lately?” Charlotte chimed in, grabbing her tiny breasts for emphasis.

‘Oh no-I forgot Charlotte lives down the street.’

“Er-”

“She’s lying! Her mom’s gone! I bet she ran off with some big dick in tight pants, too,” Megan said.

“Who you got in your house, you damn freak?” Troy asked.

My head spun with the weight of their accusations and questions.

“No one! No one’s here but me!”

Troy smiled.

“Let’s go see,” he told the others.

Single file, they marched down the hall, me following helplessly at the tail end of the procession. At the end of the hall, I’d left my only doll, a China doll with a crack down her cheek, setting on a table of knick knacks.

“Hello!” Troy called out.

The doll’s face turned, its eyes appearing to be trained on us. Megan screamed out; Charlotte hadn’t seen it happen, so she kept asking what; Troy was speechless and propelled himself through our line, trying to reach the front door.

Before running out of the house, Megan whipped around and said, “Did you do that, you fucking FREAK?! I always knew there was something wrong with you!”

Not bothering to close the door behind her, she hurried out into the light rain that drizzled out of the gray sky, trailing the others. I was panicked to see them go-I certainly had not caused that doll to move, and now I was alone with it.

Soft laughter came from behind me. Alice stood, clutching her stomach as she giggled.

“You did that!”

“Yes, I did. Don’t be angry, they’re asses. I just wanted to scare them. That’s what blood sisters do; they have each other’s backs.”

“You said you weren’t a ghost, so how did you do that with the doll?”

“A magician never reveals her tricks. Want to play?”

I did want to play. My interaction with the train track gang coupled with the visit from the cop left me feeling forlorn. We played hide and seek for hours, until the moon was high in the starless sky.

“I have to go to bed. I got school in the morning.” I yawned.

“School? Why are you going there, because of the cop?”

“How long have you been in the house?” I asked with narrowed eyes.

“Listen, don’t worry about that cop.”

“Well, it’s not just him. I’m almost out of food. I get two free meals at school.”

“Don’t worry about food, either, you worry wart! I’ll take care of you. We’re blood sisters.”

After I brushed my teeth, Alice tucked me into my bed. She kissed my cheek and sang softly to me as my eyelids drooped, and I dropped off to sleep.

“Jaaaane. Jane, wake up, sleepy head-I have something to show you.” Alice’s blurry face filled my tired vision.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“Come find out, silly goose.”

Jane took me into the living room and herded me towards the couch. Seated upright on its faded, cigarette-burned fabric was the cop from yesterday. His head was split jaggedly in half, the contents of it spilling out.

I screamed and screamed as Alice laughed.

“Shh, shut up, Jane! Someone will hear!”

“What have you done?! What have you done?!”

“Don’t be like that! I did it for you! We’re blood sisters! I stole you some breakfast, too.”

I gagged on stomach bile-I needed breakfast like I needed a bullet to the head.

“Alice, I have to get help. You-you can’t do stuff like this!”

“Stop talking nonsense. He was causing you trouble. Now it’s over. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll get rid of him-”

“NO! I have to get an adult!”

Alice’s eyes zoomed maliciously into my sight-she’d stuck her face right in mine, the tip of her nose smashing mine.

“No. You. Aren’t.” The black in her eyes expanded outward, covering more of the white.

I trembled.

“I-I have to, Alice. You killed him.”

She took my neck in her hand and placed pressure on it.

“Stop saying stuff like that. We’re blood sisters, Jane. You can’t rat your blood sister out. I did YOU a favor, you ingrate. So, tell me thank you.”

I sputtered, trying to speak. Her hand relaxed.

After a short coughing fit, I said hoarsely, “Thank you.”

She smiled and backed off, but her eyes remained blacker than they’d been before.

“That’s more like it. I’ll take him away, but I gotta go get some stuff first. Why don’t you get washed up?”

I nodded.

When she had gone, I went to school. I didn’t want to hang around, waiting for her to return, and I didn’t want to be left alone with my thoughts-or the cop’s corpse. Troy didn’t give me any shit. When his eyes accidentally landed on me, his gaze would falter, and he’d quickly find something else to be interested. I guess he and the others thought I had some sort of mystical powers. I walked around in a fog all day, until it was time to go home.

At home after school was dismissed, I flipped the light switch in the living room, but the bulb didn’t turn on. The electricity had been shut off. I thought about my mom and wept in my bedroom, wishing to stay far away from the now empty couch. Footsteps entered my room. It was Alice.

“Why are you crying?”

“I miss my mom.” That was partly to blame for my emotions, but I was also mortified of Alice and had no idea how to get rid of her presence.

“Why don’t you just go to sleep? I’ll sing to you again.”

I flopped over onto my belly, and she sang sweet lullabies as she pet my hair with her murderous hands.

Coming out of an uneasy sleep, my eyelids cracked open-it was still dark out. I could here a noise coming from the kitchen and, snatching my flashlight, went to investigate, curious to see if Alice had gone. As I drew near to the tiny dining area, I saw her crouched over something.

“Alice?”

She ceased moving. Slow and steady, her head turned…and kept turning, until it was twisted backwards atop her body. Blood and viscera painted her lips, cheeks, and chin. She’d been chowing down on something. She snapped her teeth at me, and bloody drool dribbled out of her mouth. Her eyes were consumed in blackness.

Then I saw what she was chowing down on: Megan.

I fell to my knees, my voice failing me.

“What? I was hungry. And she was mean to you. How do you think I got rid of the cop, silly goose?”

Regaining an iota of composure, I fled from the house to a neighbor’s, choosing in those seconds that facing social workers was a far better fate than being Alice’s friend.

Social workers took me into custody the next day, after entering the house to find no electricity, no food, and no parents. I’d held my breath the whole time they were stomping through the house, expecting to here shrill screams of horror when they discovered Megan’s remains. But nothing of the sort happened. Alice had cleaned up.

Alice never came back to me, but she did leave one more box for me when I got into college. The note inside read,

Jane:

Think twice about having kids-I’ll devour them as they sleep peacefully in their cribs. Blood sisters are for life. I’m always watching.

Love, Your Blood Sister

I now teach inner city kids. I am single and haven’t slept with anybody in a long time, out of fear that I’ll get pregnant. I intend on never marrying, sure that Alice will keep her word about my unborn babies. At night, as I lie in bed, I sometimes hear her deceivingly sweet voice, singing a muffled lullaby. She’s never far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pact

I’m not proud of it, but, some years ago, I sold my soul to the Devil.

What you have to understand is that I was battling alcoholism. It was winning and killing me in the process. My family, my friends, my job…all these and more were being butchered by the demon liquor on my back. I’d prayed, oh, yes; I prayed for God to remove this burden from me. Prayed for God to make me normal, make me whole, save me from myself.

God never answered.

Then I uttered those words into the porcelain toilet bowl and changed everything.

If anyone is listening, God, the Devil, whoever-I’m begging-I’ll do anything to lose the desire to drink-anything.

I retched some more, breathing in the sour odor of my own vomit and the stench of toilet water. I went to sleep after this episode, my head heavy and my mind hopeless. When I awoke, it was dark outside. I turned onto my side to check the time on my alarm clock: 9:46 PM. I felt that itch, that sickeningly sweet desire, and I knew I was done for-I was going to get up and have a drink. My only hope was that my boyfriend wasn’t home, of which there was a good chance, since we’d fought earlier in the day.

I pulled the cord on my lamp and sat up. My closet door, to the right of the bed, creaked slightly open.

Sleep well?

I scoffed and looked around expectantly, searching for my boyfriend.

Brandon, where are you?

He is not here. It’s just us.

The voice was low and pleasant, but very condescending. It seemed…oily. I focused on the closet door, right as the gap between it and the door frame increased. The inside of the closet was covered in darkness.

I’m not in the mood for a joke. Get the hell out of the closet-you aren’t funny.

I know you aren’t in a joking mood because you, Sweet, are in the mood for a drink, and drinking is very serious business.

My brow furrowed as I slid out of bed. If it was a fight Brandon wanted, then a fight he’d get.

Don’t take another step. There are things that cannot be unseen, Jellybean.

I froze as a pressure filled my chest up like helium fills a balloon.

Brandon didn’t know about Jellybean. I’d never told him how my estranged father used to call me that when I was a child. My mouth, already dry from the alcohol-induced dehydration my body was experiencing, somehow became drier.

Wh-who-?

The door hinges groaned as the crack grew bigger. I couldn’t make anyone out in the darkness that enveloped the closet.

You called, I am here. Tell me, Angie, do you want to be relieved of your affliction?

Who are you?

Silence.

T-tell me.

Let’s just say I am the whoever option in the request you made earlier.

No, this wasn’t right. He wasn’t being honest. I heard it in his slick voice.

No-no, tell me who you really are.

Alright, Angie. It’s me-I am the Devil. Do you feel better?

No, I squeaked.

Do you want to be normal? Or would you rather I depart? I’m sure Mother is proud that her college-educated daughter has become a drunken whore.

My knees shook so badly that I had to sit down on the edge of the bed.

Perhaps Father would have returned had you given him something worth returning to-

Stop-

No. Not until you say it. Say you want my help.

He was pushy, but the tone of his voice didn’t betray any urgency.

My heart bounced around. My mind raced.

Yes, OK. I want your help.

I couldn’t believe I’d uttered those words. It was like I was outside of myself, watching this surreal scene unfold.

Good. When I leave, you’ll never feel the impulse to drink alcohol again. But you know what I want, right?

Of course-he wanted my soul. It occurred to me that I wasn’t doing too well with its upkeep. I was fairly certain that I’d ripped it into shreds over the course of my alcohol abuse. Would it really be such a bad thing, if I lost ownership?

Yes, take it. Just make me better, please.

A searing pain tore through my skull, ripping through my body until it reached my abdomen. I doubled-over and screeched as it permeated my gut. It seemed to make its exit out of my navel, leaving me reeling.

Oh, God, I murmured.

You know He can’t hear you.

That was the last thing he said to me before going back to…well, wherever. Hell, I suppose? Or maybe to make another deal with some other tortured soul?

I stopped drinking with ease after our arrangement.

Life without a soul isn’t so bad, I suppose. Only…I felt no real moments of joy, of any emotion, over the next few years. I grew accustomed to feigning smiles and laughs, tears and scowls, at the appropriate moments. It was like navigating my way through a thick fog, not completely present, but not entirely gone.

When he returned a little over four years later, I experienced what was as close to an intense emotional response as I could summon in my soulless days.

I was pulling my black pumps on in my room. I was tired-I was dressing for my mother’s funeral, and it had been a particularly exhausting week, having to give such a performance. Alone in my room, I could turn the crying off and stop pretending. Somewhere inside of me was the longing to grieve. I’d loved my mother.

The closet door came ajar.

I straightened up and stared.

Angie, you look delightful.

I continued to stare.

Missing your soul, Jellybean?

As much as I can, I suppose.

He chuckled softly.

What do you want? I demanded.

I want to make a deal.

As I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, there was a knock at my door.

It’s Aunt Dawn-better send her off, or I’ll eat her liver.

Yes? I answered her knock without opening the door.

You OK, Angie?

Yeah, I just need a moment alone, please. I’ll be out shortly.

Yeah, OK.

Go on, I said to the Devil after allowing enough time for my aunt to walk away.

It must be lonely, being without a soul. I imagine one wishes to feel again, to be apart of the world again. Do you want it back?

I smoothed out my dress and thought of my mother. At the end of her life I built nothing but empty memories with her. Then I thought of Brandon. We’d split up years before, due to the change in me. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he detected a difference. Was I to live out the rest of my life like this? Emotionally and socially isolated? Just to end up in hell?

Why would you give it back?

I want to ask for your help. Make no mistake, Angie, you are not special to me. You are one of many in your shoes. I just happened to think of you first.

A small vial rolled out of the closet, making a tinkling sound on the hardwood floor.

All I ask is you take this to the airport in Atlanta and smash it in the bathroom. That’s it.

What is it?

A strain of the flu. Smash it and walk away. I have money for your escape.

A hand gloved in black leather thrust a bag through the space now and tossed it onto the floor next to the vial. The zipper of the bag was open, and in its slit I could see money.

You want me to start an epidemic? And what about me? Wouldn’t I get infected, too?

No, Jellybean. You will be protected. And you still won’t want to hit the bottle.

I swallowed. If I could’ve felt, I would’ve felt great fear and guilt-because I knew I was going to do it.

Alright.

This is binding, Sweet. No backing out.

My soul re-entered me through the same place it had exited: my navel. The hot pain blossomed into my head and halted almost as soon as it started.

Emotion was back and I wept loudly for an hour straight.

I did what he asked. I even spread the liquid in the unlabeled vial onto every handle in that bathroom. Then I left and drank a couple bottles of wine in my hotel room. He’d said I still wouldn’t want to drink, but I was ambushed by this relapse.

The next morning, I awoke with a hangover. I checked out of the hotel, confident that I was protected from the pursuit of law enforcement and government agencies. Still, I wanted to fly under the radar, so I got on the interstate, unsure of where I was going. Later in the evening, as I pulled into a rest stop, I developed a fever and chills. My body felt worn and mangled.

I have the flu. I’ve tried to rest as much as possible, but I don’t think this is going to end well.

The Devil is a liar.

A Talk With Mother

April was dying. She was old and sick with Alzheimer’s. Her children understood that her timer was close to buzzing. They’d already made plans for her funeral, which was relatively painless because they figured she ought to be buried next to their father.

Liz, the youngest of the four, often wondered if that was the right spot for their mother, beside their father. Randy had not been a good father let alone husband. April had loathed him, so it bothered Liz, thinking of her mother spending the rest of time buried next to him.

To this day, the ritual was still ingrained in Liz. Daddy would come home late, stinking of booze, and the race was on. He’d binge drink for the rest of the night, fight with April, get violent with the kids or his wife, and finally pass out. She could still picture his dead eyes-they were so empty when he was on a bender.

Early in the morning he’d rise, quietly dress, and skulk out of the house. The family wouldn’t see him again for a week. Defeated by his beloved liquor, he’d return home and lay up in bed until he was feeling human again.

When he’d fallen sick, April’s hatred for him was more than she could refrain from displaying. A man dying of cancer wasn’t much of a threat anymore, so she stopped being scared. She hated him for not dying sooner. He did die, though, and when Liz attended the viewing, it dawned on her that her father was a complete stranger.

Now it was Mommy who was up to meet the reaper. She didn’t even recognize her children anymore. She was easily confused and scared, and Liz would sometimes cry herself to sleep after one of these emotional episodes.

Sometimes she wasn’t scared, though. Sometimes, she just thought herself thirty years younger.

On one of these occasions, Liz spontaneously asked, “Where’s your husband?”

April rubbed her nose with a wrinkled hand.

“He’s gone,” she snapped.

“Oh? Where did he go?”

The old lady sighed.

“Straight to hell, I s’pose.”

A cold knot formed in Liz’s gut.

“Y-you mean to say, he passed?”

April nodded briskly and barked a laugh.

“Yes, I saw to it that the bastard went.”

The cold knot grew inside of Liz.

“Wh…what do you mean? He died of cancer, right?”

April glared at her daughter with sharp, shrewd eyes.

“He was sick, sure to God, but I helped him go. I thought about hitting him over the head with a hammer, but, Lord help me, I don’t think I could’ve buried him all by myself. Will you fetch me some tea? I’m mighty thirsty.”

In the kitchen, as Liz filled a glass with ice, she thought about how her mother was a complete stranger.