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…

“The Sometimes Mermaid” by Lauren DeStefano

Atticus lived a hundred years, married twice, and loved only one girl. She became more a legend than a girl as the years went on. Her straw-blonde hair took on, in transit from one telling to the next, the pale white of a spirit. Her denim cutoffs and wicked grin became a billowing Victorian petticoat, her soggy daisy crown a shimmering tiara.

Death has a way of glamorizing all things, especially love.

But Atticus never wavered. He remembered his girl exactly as she had been the day she drowned. He remembered the small wet hills of her breasts when she was hoisted from the water, and the seaweed plastered to her arm like a patch sewn over a tear. He remembered the sound of his pocket watch ticking like her heart was in his hand, the last gift she would ever give him.

His youngest grandchild, and the most intuitive, Mary, would sit by his favorite chair in the evenings and struggle with her knitting. “Tell me about the girl you loved,” she would say. She was a romantic creature; it showed in her large, dark eyes. She had a whimsical and restless heart. One day she would be tall. She would be a Queen of Spades, the boys folding before her like unworthy Kings.
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Midnight Crimes

What happens is this. I dream about him, not the first dream of the night, but the second or the third, after I’ve turned over a few times. He is not always the same, but I know it is him anyway. I dream he holds my wrists, his thumbs pressed into my veins, and he squeezes so tightly that I can feel his thumbs on my heart and I wake up because my chest is about to explode.

attic window

My new apartment came to me fully furnished. It was branded as a minimalistic European getaway. The landlord has used this general catch all phrase as an excuse to kit the apartment out with $200 of IKEA furnishings and a single abstract painting. The first afternoon I was there, I spent an hour looking at that painting, because there was nothing else to look at, unless you count the notably sleek knobs on the three kitchenette cabinets. It’s just an orange line over a red line, framed in a thin black plastic frame that says either you’re a cheap college student or a minimalist European genius.

And that night he is in my dreams. The first night, it is the fingers on the wrists, but he comes back the next night, and it’s something different. I had thought I had left him behind at the previous apartment, the previous city. But here he is, and I tell myself I’m asleep, I’m asleep, I’m asleep, even as he hangs me with a dog tie-out in what looks like this new apartment. He pulls one hand over the other, the tether pulled tight over a hook in the ceiling. This hook is how I know I’m dreaming, because I would’ve remembered a hook. It would’ve given me something else beside the painting to look at.

But it feels real as I press my hands to my throat, feeling the skin crush beneath the rope. I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

In the morning, I check my skin for bruises. I won’t admit to anyone that I do this. Like any minimalistic European genius, I have access to Wikipedia, and so I know all of the easily found facts about night terrors and sleep paralysis and panic attacks. I know that my lucid dreaming is a function of this miraculous mass of wrinkly brain inside my skull. But still, I look. I am so very afraid that one morning, I’ll find evidence of these midnight crimes. 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 Thinker

Melli’s voice was the first thing I heard in the morning.

“Billy.” On the phone, Melli sounded less than thrilled. She said, “True or false: we got married last night?”

Above me, my bedroom ceiling was cracked precipitously. One day I would re-plaster it. Once I figured out where to get plaster. Was that the hardware store? Was that the sort of place plaster came from? Maybe I could order it online. I realized I had no idea how much mass a ceiling’s worth of plaster occupied. In my head it was similar to a pint of ice cream, but possibly it was more like an oil drum. I hated paying for shipping.

“Billy!” Melli sounded a bit angrier this time. “Focus! Did you marry me last night?”

Lifting my hand from the mattress, I brought it close enough to my face that the fingers came into focus. A plain gold band rested comfortably on my left ring finger. There was also a smeared stamp on the back of my hand to allow me admission into the larger rides in the county fair.

“It’s possible,” I admitted. “I’m wearing a ring. Are you wearing a ring?”

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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

“Sight” by Elizabeth Scott

Here’s what I need to save a life: coffee.

Regular, hot coffee works fine, but I like mine to be full of syrup and whipped cream and to smell like candy. Edgar would say (under his breath) that it’s because I’m a pain in the ass. But what’s easier to get noticed–someone with an ordinary coffee stain, or someone smelling like peppermint and stained with an impossible to remove blob that only sugary syrup, whipped cream, and coffee can bring?

Besides, my job is hard enough that I figure if I can make someone else’s easier, maybe then one day the universe will pay me back somehow. Maybe it will give Gloria the ability to walk again, or maybe it will make Edgar stop being an ass.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to do things normal people can. Like have dreams that are just that, dreams. Or go outside just because I want to. That would be nice.

I can’t be thinking about any of this now because now I hold my Peppermint Surprise! latte–the name would make me smile, if I smiled when I was at work–and make my way through Union Station.

It’s thirty-seven steps to the door David Lewis will come through, the one by the gate his train from Maryland uses–he takes the MARC line to and from Germantown. His security team is lax because he’s not just loud, but abrasive, and he won’t live in the city, which means all four of his bodyguards have to commute in and out with him, plus live in Germantown too, and if you’ve ever been to Germantown–well, let’s put it this way. It makes DC look positively glittery.

And DC is not even remotely glittery. It has power, and lots of it, but it is not a shiny city. Most of it–past the gloss of the Mall area and Georgetown–isn’t even pretty.
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Spot the Travesty

When the car stopped, Memphis held out his hand to help me out.

The thing is, we’ve never been that sort of friends. Ellie, my best friend, she’s a touching friend. She punches my shoulder and hugs my head. She jostles Dylan when they ride the bus together and holds hands with her sister when they shop. When she first met my mother, they hugged.

But Memphis and I are not that sort of friends. In fact, I’m not sure we are friends at all.

When he held his hand out to me, it took me a long moment to take it. It happened three times, is why it took so long. Once in my head, me reaching out out to grip his palm. Twice in my head, me shaking my chin and getting my own self out of the car. Third time, in reality.

I took his hand. He was wearing his brown t-shirt that shows off his shoulders and the knotted bracelets that show off his arms, and when he took my hand, the bracelets slid down and touched my thumb.

I’ve been the violinist for Spot the Travesty! for three years. That makes them my whole world. What that makes me to Memphis, I’m not sure. What that makes me to the rest of the world is the travesty, easily spotted — a senior high girl in a band made up of twenty-somethings.

When Memphis took my hand, he gripped it like I was drowning, then pulled me out of the car so fast that our bodies were propelled together. It had just begun to rain and so his shirt was speckled darkly. It was light enough that it looked like an intentional pattern on his brown shirt, marbled and flecked like a wild bird’s egg. Behind me, the other car door’s slammed as the rest of the band climbed out.

He was the only one who wanted to add me to the band all those years before. I’d been fourteen, the gangly sister of one of his friends. Back then, in my memories, I’m two people: the amiable girl with violin cricked beneath my chin and the raging beast that stomped her thin brown limbs off to sulk behind the van parked in the driveway. There was nothing in between, back then. I was either a musical prodigy or a pending tantrum. Memphis called me in to play along with one of Travesty’s songs. She brings us up a level, he’d said. She’d make most of our pub gigs illegal, replied Brown, my brother. It had been a fight, then, the first of many, the first about me and gigs and whether that should be a major bridge on the lead guitar or a minor interlude with the keyboard.

Brown told me: do not talk to anybody at gigs. You’re going to get some guy arrested.

Pulled from the car, pulled to Memphis, my ribs pressed into his ribs. We were balanced on the very edge of the curb and I had my violin case in one hand and he kept ahold of my arm in the other so that I didn’t stumble. As rain dusted over my face, so light that it felt very dry instead of very wet, I could feel my heart beat tripping unsteadily, surging and slowing, trying to keep pace with his. His other hand caught my arm, and I felt how tight his fingers were against my skin.

As the only girl member of Spot the Travesty! and often the only sober member to boot, I got hit on a lot. Either guys didn’t realize that I was under eighteen or they didn’t care. But I loved the band, the snarling, simmering, fracturing band, and there was no way I was going to risk getting thrown out of the band because of something so stupid. At first, with the other band members watching me pensively, I shook my head and looked at my feet. The year after that, I added a laugh after the head shake. By this year, I’d learned to toss their numbers jotted on receipts in their faces and plant my hands on my hips. I told them all no. No one was getting in trouble because of me.

When Memphis helped me out of the car, he didn’t let go of my arm. I started past him, but he still had me caught. He turned with me, his face pressed into my shoulder, and I felt the burst of his warm breath through my sleeve, the press of his mouth against the bend of my elbow. Though it was nothing at all, his breath through my sleeve was indecent. It put his mouth on my mouth, his hand curved round the back of my neck, my fingers pressed against his cheekbones. But of course, no, it was just his breath on my sleeve and my face turned away from him, making it nothing at all. I could sense Brown’s gaze on me from the car.

I tell myself, now, it is only a year until I am eighteen. I tell myself, a year is not that long. Just twelve months of gigs, just fifty-two Friday nights, just three-hundred-and-sixty-five two a.m. in the mornings thinking of Memphis and his brown t-shirt. I tell myself that I’ve known him since I was fourteen, the kid sister of his friend, and he doesn’t even see me that way. I tell myself that I am creating something that doesn’t exist.

When the car stopped, Memphis held out his hand to help me out.

The thing is, we’ve never been that kind of friends.

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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“The Horses” by Lucy Christopher

I am running through the trees. Even if the moon wasn’t so full, I’d know the way. I’ve done it countless times on Bessie, trotting noisily through the scrub. Never bare foot though, and never alone.

the black horse by heystrobelight

Never like this.

I’m glancing behind me every third step or so. Can’t help it. But he’s not following. Not yet. It’s fine. These are the words I keep repeating to myself. He’s so big and heavy, I’d hear him if he were here . . . . if he were close. I know this. But I also know that the blow I gave him with the candlestick—hard as I could make it—won’t keep him down for long.

I’m glancing at the ground, jumping the fallen branches and rocky patches. Even so, corners of twigs dive into my heels and flint-rock scrapes the palms of my hands when I stumble. I shove a fist into my mouth, stop the screams. My skin tastes like blood and salt and desperation. But I must be quiet. He mustn’t know where I’ve gone; mustn’t even guess. I try to move like the kangaroos do, on velvet padded paws, jumping with the sway of the trees.

All the same, Bessie will know. Her hooves would pick out this path just as soon as he lets the reins drop.

But would he let the reins drop?

He’d pull a bit into her mouth and yank her head around and kick, hard. He won’t want to trust her.

I stop. Pick a thorn from my foot. As I do, I look around me. I need to be careful now. I’m at the very bottom of the gully, where Gilbert says the spirits live. It’s darker here, and the vegetation is thicker. I used to get lost here until Gilbert told me about the red banksia tree that marks the small pathway that leads directly up to the yard. When I jumped the summer-drained trickle of the creek, several feet back, I was crossing the line of where my father’s property ends. I’m in wild country now; the place nobody owns. If I were to turn right and keep walking, this land would stretch all the way into the mountains and to the desert-land beyond. It’s good that I’m here. My father might not expect it from me.

Be careful of wild country, he told me in the first weeks after we moved, don’t go there alone.

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