Blood Red Rose

Bianca, my sister says. She says it three times, like the charm in a story. Soft, deliberate.

“I’m awake,” I say, before I even really know if it’s the truth.

Her voice is careful in the dark, like she’s afraid she’ll startle me, breathing the words instead of speaking them. “There’s someone at the door.”

The way she leans over me is careful too, like she’s trying to keep me calm. It’s silly, though. Of the two of us, I’m the one who’s never loud. I’m the one who keeps still and doesn’t make a fuss.

Outside, the night is strangely pale. Snow has collected on all the window ledges and made its way up the glass, shutting us in like a tomb. In the clear space above the little drifts, it just keeps falling.

roses

Then, without warning, the pounding comes again, echoing from downstairs, booming through the front hall.

“Wait here,” she says, taking her cardigan from the back of the desk chair and after a second, the heavy wooden bat.

She leaves, and the whole house is as dark and still as the dead. The power’s been out since this afternoon. After a second, I reach for the Coleman lantern beside the bed and turn it on. Then I throw back the covers and follow her.

The lantern casts a dim circle of light, making shadows in all the corners. At the top of the stairs, I stand and listen.

Her feet are light, almost soundless on the floor runner. Then I hear her voice, loud and ferocious, speaking close to the door. “Who are you and what do you want?”

The answer is muffled, low. A man’s. “Please, my car went off the road. About a half a mile up Ashbury Drive. It’s stuck in the ditch and there’s nothing around. Please, if you don’t let me in, I’ll die out here.”

The door distorts most of the sound, but I can still hear the way his voice catches on the last part. Outside, the snow is falling in huge, silent washes, drifting up the sides of the house. It collects in deep hummocks, heavy, soundless, and by morning, we might be buried completely.

“Coral,” I say, because if we leave him there on the front steps, he’ll freeze. “You have to let him in.” keep reading…

New Villains

When I came back into the auditorium, Troy Brewster was sitting on the edge of the stage, looking like someone had just clipped him on the back of the head with a lacrosse stick.

It wasn’t that remarkable. In truth, Troy always looked kind of like someone had crowned him with something heavy and now all his thoughts and feelings and vague, unarticulated suspicions were spilling out of his cranium. It was kind of his default expression.

“On your feet, tiger,” I said, clapping my hands like I was Coach Klein, calling the C Team players in from the practice field.

thread

Troy raised his head, but didn’t change expression. “You said that they liked me. You said they’d be fighting over themselves to elect me. That I’d be an automatic.”

The way he looked at me was plaintive and the truth is, I did say that, but the other truth is that I lied. I invented this impossible, shining reality from purely imaginary cloth, and I take full responsibility for that. But honestly? It wasn’t even my story.

The real lie had started—oh, years ago—back when Troy was just a mean, ungainly eighth-grader with a growth-spurt, whose main hobbies were breaking people’s glasses and pinching girls in the halls. But he was good at sports and at knocking people down, and so everyone smiled because no one wanted to invite his wrath by not smiling. If fear is love, then yes, they loved him. Because the truth is, love under duress is complicated, and sometimes a lie is not a lie.

Sometimes, with enough attention and enough cultivation, a lie is just another name for that thing you always wished was true. keep reading…

Feathers

One of these days—soon—without word, without warning, I’m going to go up in smoke.

It won’t sputter or smolder. When the blaze finally comes, it will be a conflagration. I’ll explode into flame like a dynamite crate, blackened paper and broken boards going everywhere. One of these days, the weight of the feathers and the silk will be too much. My bones will break like matchsticks, splintering, striking sparks off the edges of my cold steel core.

swan princess

Two times since rehearsals started, the footlights have gone out during the Pas de trois. Back in November, it was raining all the time. The breakers kept shorting, crackling out in a shower of sparks. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but someone had to answer for it. The new director told the stage crew that if it happened again, heads would roll. We could hear her through the door of her office, screaming into her phone. The pitch of her voice was inhumane, and directors are all crazy. They’re supposed to be temperamental, dramatic. This is different. When Madame de Sevigne raises her voice, it’s like a struck bell that won’t stop ringing. You can almost hear the frequency of her stiff, violent rage, buzzing under her skin.

Three of the corps dancers quit in one week, less than a month into the season. The ones who stayed called it insane, leaving the best company in the state, but those three were done with it and even their little-girl dreams of being pretty ballerinas weren’t strong enough to keep them here in the glowering presence of the Madame. They gathered up their lace and ribbons and disappeared, leaving nothing but a few loose hairpins and sequins, a few scattered feathers. keep reading…

The Girls

“There’s something you should know,” he says.

We’re ten miles outside of Rosarita when he says it—too far to walk, too close to bail and head for someplace else.

“I’d rather not,” I tell him.

doll bag

There was a time in my life when the last place you’d ever find me was sitting in the cab of a busted pick-up truck with a strange man. That was before the blood disaster and the chaos though, and in the last six weeks, I’ve done all the things your parents tell you not to. I’ve hitchhiked, shared beds with disreputable boys, petted stray dogs, carried a gun with the safety off, driven on the freeway with no spare tire. I have smoked cigarettes and talked to strangers and crossed without looking both ways.

Behind me, there’s a muffled thump from the bed of the truck, but I don’t ask and I don’t turn around.

*****

We pull up to the little ranch house after dark, tires crunching on gravel. All the lights are on. The front door hangs slightly ajar, and none of it looks good.

I climb down from the cab anyway, keeping my hand in my pocket and my fingers around the bone handle of the stiletto. All the country nonsense about wooden stakes is just that. It doesn’t matter what you jam through their chests as long as it’s sharp.

He jumps up into the bed of the truck, stooping to fold himself under the camper shell. The flatbed is loaded up with canned food and jugs of water and sleeping bags, but the thing he’s after is rolled all the way up against the wall of the cab. In the dark, it looks like a giant lumpy moth cocoon.

I can’t help myself. “What is that?”

He’s breathing hard as he drags the bundle toward the tailgate. “It’s that thing I was telling you about.”

The thing is wrapped in burlap, bunched closed at the top and laced tight with baling wire. It is approximately the size of a person.

When he shoves it onto the tailgate, the glow from the porch light glints off something thin and glittering, fine as a web. The rough fabric of the burlap has been painstakingly woven-through with a network of metallic threads. It looks like silver, which means that it’s probably silver. And facing him there in the gravel driveway, I get it.

After all, the bundle is approximately the size of a person. keep reading…

Half-Way Home

Before it was a mental institution, it was a military site. And before that, it had been some kind of depot or shipping yard. One of those big industrial compounds that’s full of gravel and always smells like diesel or coal.

attic window

By the time I was around to see it though, it was the mental institution—over two hundred acres of pretty white sanity, with the main facility was at one end, taking up a full city block. The rest was a huge expanse of poison-green grass, studded with twenty-five identical halfway houses and a hundred cultivated oak trees.

I didn’t wind up there, if that’s what you’re thinking. At least, not in the normal way, assuming that being institutionalized can ever be called normal. I wasn’t crazy, is what I’m saying. I just went there every week.

The place was pretty much like other mental institutions—or at least, how I imagine they’d be—except for one thing. In the very middle, bordered on all sides by the halfway houses, there was a soccer complex.

It was one of those community-enriching things, some sort of philanthropic effort to give back, but mostly it was just uncomfortable and weird.

Every week, I sat alone on the bus, then filed down onto the grass and stood apart from the other girls, because even though all of our shirts matched, there was something else, something undefined, that made us different. They never stood too close to me.

“Keeks,” they said sometimes, making sympathetic faces and sucking in their cheeks. “You should really come out more. You want to maybe grab a slice after the game?” Because the thing is, they weren’t mean.

Just oblivious enough to somehow always forget that I hated to be called Keeks. That my name was Cassandra. That I would never be normal enough to spend an afternoon at Marlo Brothers Pizza with them.

I brought my homework, because it was easier to scribble formulas for area and gravity than to try and act bright and uncomplicated while the other girls lounged in the shade, laughing behind their hands. I was never self-pitying enough to think that they were laughing at me, and when they called me Wednesday Addams, I even kind of liked it. Better than Keeks, anyway. They were just looking for empty fun, watching the boys who went by in their grass-stained socks and rumpled, sweaty jerseys. I tuned it out.

But I always listened when they told dirty jokes or started talking about the mental institution.

On a cool, golden day in September, Britney Marsh said, “My dad told me that in the 50s, they used to do, like, water-therapy and shock treatments—that a ton of kids died in places just like this.” keep reading…

The Nightmare Collector

Once there was a girl.

Isn’t that the way these things always start?

Once there was a girl who looked just like other girls, who read Sweet Valley High books and drew pictures of unicorns and went to school and played with her sisters. Just like other girls. But there was one thing—isn’t there always one thing?—that made this girl different.

She didn’t dream.

*****

I read in a science magazine once, in eighth grade, that dreaming matters because of the way it engages your brain. Dreams help you solve problems (theoretical math, what to do about that pesky hydraulic leak) and practice skills (skiing, sex) and prepare for survival situations (bears, car accidents, public humiliation).

The only people who don’t dream are ones who’ve had strokes or traumatic brain injuries—people whose dreaming centers aren’t working right. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never received a sharp blow to the head, but that doesn’t change the facts. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember.

That’s not the interesting part, though. Here is where it gets good. Anyone sleeping around me doesn’t dream either.

My dreamlessness is like a black hole, devouring prince-charmings and purple clouds and alien landscapes until there’s nothing left.

*****

My parents started worrying that my sisters would be irreparably damaged by constantly having their dreams sucked out of their heads. So they came up with a solution.

My sisters sleep together, all four of them crammed into one little room, stepping all over each other and sharing beds and dressers and secrets, together with their dreams. I sleep alone, in the slope-ceilinged attic at the top of the house.

My parents were so proud of themselves, like they had done something exceptional, solved a serious problem. They just didn’t know the good part. Continue reading

The Beginner’s Guide to Leaving

First, there are the little things—the all-in-your-head things. You think they matter, but they don’t. If you obsess about them too long, they can make you feel guilty or like a bad person, but they’re just distractions, so let’s get them out of the way.

turret-stairs-L

Don’t think about how hurt he’s going to be, or if your mother will say, “Honey, maybe you could be a little less callous?” or, “Honestly, Georgia! What was wrong with this one?”

Don’t think about it.

You’re thinking about it.

Maybe we should start over.

Once, I was standing in the cafeteria with Elizabeth Knox and she was in a real state, fuming about Skip Swanson because he was having a creamed-corn fight with his friends and almost knocked us down.

She said, “Chivalry is dead.”

She said it like she was announcing the death of Western Civilization, when she really just meant opening car doors or spreading your coat across a puddle. But the truth of it hit home, and I knew that she was right. That no one was going to slay dragons for us.

The first rule is that you have to be sure you’re leaving for the right reasons. You can’t call it quits because of failed chivalry. No one is going to come riding up to your tower and climbing up your hair, and really, who wants that?

The fact that once, when Skip yelled at me in PE to get off my ass and stop acting like a helpless female, Jason Curtz did not sweep in and carry me away on a white horse is not a reason. The fact that once, at a party, Jason called me his little sugar-bunny in front of his friends? I gave him back his letter jacket the next day.

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Dead Ringer v. 3

ghost girl
I. The Waiting Room

They come to the forgetting place when they are too shaken and too damaged to remember. They come when they can’t accept or move on, when they can’t let go.

The living aren’t the only ones who cling to tragedy, grieving for things they can’t change. The dead can be just as mired in the past.

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Dead Ringer v. 2

two girls

The apartment was small, but it was in an excellent location, right in the heart of the Warehouse District and a five-minute walk from the Expo Center. Adeline was only staying for a week or so—just until the trade show was over and all the boutique orders were in. Hopefully, there would be a lot of them. It had been a slow year.

The girl who usually lived in the apartment was a bartender named Daniele. She was away on a month-long trip to Spain and was renting out the place for ridiculously cheap as long as the temporary resident agreed to water her plants.

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Dead Ringer v.1

At first it was little things—how he always wore the watch I’d given him, even though it left a raw spot on his wrist and he’d never worn one before.

dead ringer

I told myself that marriage really does change a person. But I think when people say that, they mean gradual change, like becoming more patient, and not that the person arbitrarily starts liking green beans. They mean little things, not whole personalities.

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