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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Urban  ➡  Paranormal

The Dead-Side Girl (sample version)

 

 

 

THE DEAD-SIDE GIRL

 

Copyright © 2016 Dave Riley

All rights reserved.

 

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Cover by Laura Kolvacin

 

Table of Contents

DUST

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

STAIR

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

 

 

 

DUST

 

“When I look at my hands long enough, my blood starts to boil.”

The other girl smeared Molly with a deliberate look. “Hands?”

As they walked, Molly tried to make less obvious—how she struggled through the micro-dunes the dust storm built around her paws. “Stop being contradictory, it’s annoying.”

“So are you.” The other girl’s membranous wings unfurled, cleaving to the sudden gale that battered them. She seemed to relish in the swell of dust that scraped her vulnerable body and caked her pale skin with grey. “Fake it till you make it, right? Pretend to be cool, eventually you just will be.”

“You got that from a movie or something.”

“I never said I didn’t.”

Molly panted with the effort of keeping pace with the other girl’s easy strides. For her, every step took an hour and, lower to the ground as she was, the dust and grit seemed to pile in her lungs. “But what if my problem isn’t whether I’m ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’? What if my problem is I was born with a molecule in the wrong place?”

“Your problem is you’ve got no willpower.”

The sun was a black disc, sealed by foreign object, its corona feeble and muted through the gritty haze. The howl of the storm was somehow sad. Molly sleeked her ears back to ward off the melancholy etching along her bones.

“You know how the guidance counselor asks where you think you’ll be in five years, and since you can’t really be like nowhere, instead you say, college?

“Not really.”

“Then he reminds you that five years is right when you’d graduate college, so what comes next? So, on instinct, you go: being completely honest, Mr. Harris, I have this feeling a meteor’s going to crash land on me any day now, so why worry about it?”

“What do they say then?”

“They call your parents. They turn it into this whole big thing.” Molly thought she saw the lonely shadow of something tremendous, a leviathan, swimming somewhere far ahead. But the dust had a way of playing tricks on you; with a flick of her tail, she tried to brush it off. “Do you ever think maybe there’s a clone of you out there somewhere? Same hair, same face, same weird birthmark, only she’s got spectacular grades, a whole grip of friends, doesn’t smoke cigarettes or waste her life scrolling down social media, maybe she even knows who her real parents are.”

“That sounds like a fairy tale.”

A blurt of indiscriminate anger seized Molly’s veins. She stopped short, grinding her claws into the earth. “So?”

“So I hate fairy tales, how the girls in them just sit around waiting for things to happen. It makes me mad enough to puke.” Though her bare feet never hesitated on the path, other girl glanced behind her, leveling her gaze on the ebony slip tracing its way down Molly’s foreleg.

“You’re bleeding, you know.”

CHAPTER ONE

 

There’s a girl outside of school, leaning against the endless chain-link construction fence across the street where they’re building the new McMansions.

Scott puts the car in park and turns to me. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that you wake up with your alarm, Molly.”

The girl on the fence—messy haircut, white, skin desperately clinging to the last vestiges of a summer tan, punky clothes, sunglasses, too much metal in her face—is eating breakfast, a sandwich or something, out of a paper bag.

Scott clears his throat.

I peel my cheek away from the window and grunt out something like a response, something that says this wouldn’t even be an issue if I weren’t the only Junior at my school without a driver’s license—only, you know, in grunt form.

“Well, give it some thought”—what, did he think that was an apology?—“In the adult world, avoiding the snooze button is the bare minimum for success.”

I stare down at my uniform, smooth my hands over the coarse poly-cotton of my skirt, and pick a wayward piece of fuzz off my tie. “Yeah, I know.”

I act like I’m physically capable of looking him in the eyes while he lectures me. But what I’m really doing is focusing every ounce of my perception over his shoulder and out the driver’s side window, on the blue and white vinyl banner lashed up next to the school gate—St. Mary’s Catholic High Girls Soccer. #1 Six Years Running! Goooo Bobcats!

Scott says some things about how personal responsibility is paramount, I say fewer things about how I understand personal responsibility is probably, like, a super-good trait. I get embarrassed when he meanders into do you really need to spend so much time in the bathroom every morning? territory, and I get out of the car when the discussion seems like it’s over.

…goooo Bobcats…

I peek at the girl while I’m getting my bike from the trunk. It’s cloudy today. She doesn’t really need sunglasses.

I only realize I’m staring when Scott lurches the car forward and nearly tears my bike out of my hands. I grit my teeth and slap my hand down on his stupid car.

He putters off with a wave out the window after I slam the trunk shut, so it’s not like he even notices.

The girl on the fence just watches.

So I watch her back.

I get this chill. My hands tense around my bike’s handlebars. She drops her sandwich onto its paper sack, makes a big show of wiping her hands off onto her jeans, then takes her sunglasses and pulls them down her nose. A grin tugs at the corners of her mouth.

The dream I keep having fires through my head. The back of my neck prickles. My mouth is dry.

She throws me this court jester wink.

My face gets hot. I make like I’m suddenly real interested in the tall row of poplar trees flanking the campus—sure are golden, them trees; that’s October for you, am I right?

A couple seconds later, I get the brains to forage around in my jacket pocket and pull out my snarled-up mass of headphones. That’s way more natural than tree watching.

But, being honest, “budding high school apiarian” is a probably better look than “moron approaching catastrophic meltdown coz she can’t untangle her ear buds from one another.”

Shit, wait. “Apiary” means “bee stuff;” I don’t remember the fancy word for “tree appreciator.”

Good thing she’s not psychic. That would’ve been embarrassing!

…but what if she is?

By the time I get the guts to glance back at her, she’s done with me and back to breakfast.

I crank the music on my phone as loud as it’ll go and slink my ass into the parking lot, trying not to think about what exact quantity of loser I represent.

Nice thing about being late, short line in the cafeteria. Skirting around the popular tables, I keep my headphones in—so I can feign ignorance if they say something shitty (spoiler alert: they do)—make a beeline for the buffet, grab a thing of fries, douse ‘em in ketchup real quick, and scout the room for Susan. She’s so absorbed in her textbook she doesn’t notice me until I drop my tray on the table with a bang.

She stiffens up at the sound like she somehow found space to cram another stick up her ass, sighs when she sees it’s just me, and says, “Molly. Fries? For breakfast?”

I throw myself into my seat and pluck my headphones out of my ears. “What are you, the food police? If I shouldn’t be eating them why do they give them to me?”

“Just get cereal or something like a normal person.”

I’m about to reply when someone jostles me from behind, clonking me forward, over the table. Brenda Sikorski’s haughty-ass cackle bursts out from over my shoulder. “Charlotte! Look what you made me do.”

“Sorry Molly,” Charlotte says, though it’s hard to hear her apology through the freckled hand hiding her grin.

I drag my tie out of its new home, the ketchup container. “It’s fine.”

“Look at her, she’s a mess.” Brenda’s perfectly polished fingernail taps a clack-clack-clack of pending judgment against her lunch tray as she looks me over. “Charlotte, help Molly clean—”

“Brenda.” My skin is tight, splitting around my fingers. “It’s fine.”

“Sure, sure,” Brenda says. “Thanks for being so understanding. See you at practice, Molly!” She stretches out the end of my name until it almost snaps off in her throat, and she’s mincing away with her little running crew before we can respond.

Susan’s already leaned all the way over the table, trying to dab my mess of a tie clean. “I got it,” I say. When she doesn’t back off I give her a rougher-than-necessary shove and grab my own wad of napkins. “I said I got it.”

She puts her hands up in retreat. “Hey, don’t take it out on me.”

“Yeah.” I take a breath. “Yeah, sorry.”

Susan redoes her ponytail with an extra-judgmental snap of elastic. A scowl scrawls across her chipmunk cheeks and she flips a couple pages in her textbook, giving me time to feel bad about snapping at her while I clean my splotchy tie as best I can.

I don’t know why it makes me so mad—Susan gets it. It’s not like nobody gives her shit.

But she doesn’t get it get it. Her regulation blonde hair and near-regulation green eyes (blue is preferable, being a St. Mary’s color and all) inoculates her from my specific brand of bullying. She was born here. She’s white. She didn’t have to fix her weird accent when she was seven because she didn’t learn English in a foreign country. She didn’t have to stop eating like a psycho because she didn’t devour her lunch like the devil was going to steal it. She didn’t have to train herself not to scrunch up with anxiety whenever someone looked at her because, when the other girls learned the term Resting Bitch Face from their older sisters in second grade, they didn’t decide, pretty much instinctually, that RBF (whatever it meant) described her personality to a T.

When I get sick of slumping my shoulders and looking guilty, I check on my phone cats. Hell yes. Look who got visited by Pawdrey Hepburn! My shoulders unwind, tension flowing out of me with the serotonin relief that only cartoon phone games can truly provide.

Eventually Susan decides I’m still worth talking to. Without looking up from her reading, she says, “She’d back off if you stood up to her ever.”

“I’m just biding my time.” I stow my phone—Le Chevalier Gateaux, you’re next. “You know she’s up at, like, five every morning to get that ridiculous blowout of hers done. One of these days she’s going to pass out with the hairdryer on, burn her whole house down, and then my problems are over.”

“Careful Mol. If you start dissing how long she spends in front of the mirror, I’m going to compare your times.”

I tease a bit of my short, choppy hair in front of my face, fake a frown. “What are you talking about? It only takes fifteen minutes to make this look like it takes no time at all.”

Susan snaps her book shut. “I heard her bragging that once she gets her SAT results back she’s applying for early admission at Yale. She’s going to get it, you know she will.”

“Aw, you jealous?”

She cocks an eyebrow. “Not just Brenda, Stacey Kim too.”

“Oh I’m sorry, are you new here? Are you a Susan clone, maybe?” My reprimand comes out so quick I nearly gag on my fries. “Because the real Susan would know we don’t say the Ess-Kay words.”

“Give it up. Stacey Kim barely knows you exist.”

“Yeah, I know.” I sigh. “I just… it still pisses me off how I’ve endured nine years of being ‘the foreigner,’ and Stacey Kim got to be ‘Stacey Kim’ because she’s, like, good at art.”

“And science.”

“Yup, a regular academic mastermind,” I say.

“And she has friends.”

“And she’s better looking, obviously.”

“But you’re taller than her!”

“I’m taller than every girl here.” I sprawl forward across the table and stretch out my arms as far as they’ll go. “Fat load of good that does me.”

Susan purses her lips, raises her eyebrows. “Means you get to eat fries for breakfast while everyone else is starving themselves on yogurt.”

Silver Lining Susan. “Yeah, well, tell that to my boobs—oh wait, you can’t. I never got any.”

“Saves you money on bras!”

“I will literally kill you. I will strangle you with the bra I bought in sixth grade when Brenda told everyone Asians don’t hit puberty until nineteen.” I flick a fry at her as punctuation and Susan shoots a for-real glare between me and the spreading grease stain on her shoulder.

I wave my spattered tie at her. “What? Now we’re twins.”

She grimaces at me in her Susan way and continues with her itinerary like my fry-based assault barely fazed her. “Thought any more about college visits? I’ve got a few lined up during winter break. I thought maybe you could come along.”

“What, winter break? But I already emailed Jess to say we were coming.”

She sits up ramrod straight. “Oh, I—”

“What the hell, Suze. I worked my ass off building that list. The Korean burrito truck, remember? The Know, the Japanese Garden, Voodoo Donuts. You were psyched!”

“Look, it’s fine. We’ll still go to Portland.”

“Whatever, it’s not like she’s gotten back to me yet anyway.” I slump in my chair. “College changes you, man.”

“That’s just Jess being Jess. We’ll still go. We’ll definitely go. But it’s probably worth checking other schools besides PSU while we’re at it, yeah?

“I don’t know. Isn’t it enough I wasted a whole month of Saturdays on that dumb SAT prep course?”

“It’s not a waste! Forget prep courses; my dad’s talking about getting me a tutor. I’m pretty sure he’ll disown me if I don’t make it into at least Brown.”

“As long as it’s not in Bentham-goddamn-New Hampshire, I don’t care where I go. Hell, Kate and Scott would probably be happy if I knew how to pronounce Brown.”

Susan rolls her eyes. “Whatever. You do fine whenever you bother to try. You’re going to nail the AP English exam this year and then—”

“Look, mom, we’ve got like six minutes before homeroom. Can we maybe spend some of it not talking about “the future” for once?”

“Fine.” She busies herself organizing her notebooks for a while before she pipes up again. “By the way, you have American History with the new kid, right?”

“Jason Kline?” I lift my attention away from one of my all-time, top-five best fry sculptures. “Why do you care?”

“Oh, because… I just thought…”

I’m grinning before I have decided to grin. “Damn, Suze, you’re usually obvious with this stuff, but not this obvious. What’s got you all up in him, huh?”

Her cheeks drain down a few shades. “I am not ‘all up in him’; I’m just interested in the new kid.”

“I was the new kid once. You weren’t interested in me until Lacey Stevenson dumped your chili into my lap.”

“That was different!”

“It was different because I don’t have tawny hair or those dreamy dimples. I mean, dimples, am I right?” But even I’m not dense enough to miss how her face twists right up. Emergency, emergency. “H-hey, so, you want to hear something weird?”

“Not really.” She scrunches up her nose in a frustrated wrinkle—what a total front, she’s just as happy as me for the change of subject. “But go ahead.”

“Did you see that, like, girl outside of school?”

“Huh?”

“This girl. Black jacket, short hair, lots of piercings. I saw her on the way in this morning.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

Looking at me. “I dunno, hanging around the construction across from the parking lot. Loitering, I guess?”

Susan just shakes her head. “I swear. Didn’t you say something like this last week during lunch?”

“I did not.” I jab a fry at the sticky remains of my ketchup container. “I said I felt like there was someone watching me, and I told you that in confidence so it’s not fair bringing it up now. Anyway, look: I saw her. It’s not like I was daydreaming; I was getting my bike out of the trunk of Scott’s car.”

“In my experience you don’t usually wake up until fifth period.”

“Gee, thanks.”

She grins.

“Seriously, though.” I run a hand through my hair and sigh. “It’s not just that, every night I’ve been—”

The bell rings and I am saved from relating my stupid, weird dreams—which I can’t even remember anything about except it’s so damn dusty in them that I wake up every morning like I’m suffocating. Even better, I’m saved from explaining why I think my dumb dreams are related to this random hobo girl. I stand up, grabbing my lunch tray. “Er, next time.”

Susan shrugs her backpack onto her shoulders as she stands. “See you in English.”

She trots off to first period, but I keep standing by the trashcan way after I’ve dumped my tray into it. There’s a buzzing in my head when I think about the girl, and the dream, like there’s two live wires on either side of my brain, and if I could just put them together…

The second bell rings. I’m late.

 

***

 

If you really focus on it, the ceiling crack could be just about anything. A spider, a rabbit—harder to see but still plausible—maybe a bird.

Screw fourth period. Fourth period is just what you do before lunch. There shouldn’t even be a fourth period, especially not when your best friend in the whole world spends third period—AP English, tedium central—looking at the board instead of you, even when you chuck your eraser at her and everything.

We’re reading Jude the Obscure. It’s way boring, sure—but actually? I think it’s a good book. It’s super dark, total sad-factory. But I like the parts about Sue’s, like, sex-o-phobia, and I severely, dangerously get what Jude’s about, having had about seventeen whole years to rue my own conception, and birth, and all that stuff.

I keep stealing glances out the window, like “she” might be out there, somewhere, like she’s just waiting for me for me to notice her.

The ceiling crack—water damage, I guess—has always been more relevant to my interests than Mr. Forrester’s look at me, I’m the cool, handsome young teacher making things hip for the kids lectures on American history. It’s also way more interesting than any of the immediately available St. Mary’s fauna: George Howe, football; Linda Brandt, cheerleader, secretly nice to me when Brenda isn’t around; Pete Tully, he’s all right, except for how he always stinks like pot after lunch, but that’s better than how he was back in middle school, when he spent all his time trying to ferret out how, since I’m Japanese and all, I must be, like, a secret anime super fan—hi, low-key stereotyping much?—when the only thing I ever really got into is this completely random comic called Claymore, which more or less objectively kinda sucks; Renee Green, class president, brown-noser; and… Jason Kline.

So this is what we know about Jason Kline: white kid, dirty blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and dimples. He seems good at school; he raises his hand and asks questions about stuff, anyway, which is more than I can say for myself.

Despite all this, he has yet to exhibit an utterly detestable personality. Susan’s into him, for whatever reason, but he doesn’t reflect my “type.”

Er… not that I really have one…

I tap my pencil against the desk as I think. Is he cute? I guess he’s cute. Maybe Susan’s right, I don’t know. I act like I’m keeping my eyes on the board, but when I’m sure nobody’s looking at me, I tilt my head and give Jason another glance.

He’s taking notes. God.

It’s okay. Susan’s an ultra-mega nerd too, and she turned out all right. Don’t write him off just because he pays attention in class.

I blink, realizing the lecture has gone silent. I turn back to the front of the classroom to see what’s up, only to come face-to-face with Mr. Forrester’s fashionable paisley tie. I jerk upright, my pencil clattering to the floor.

“Good morning, Molly.” The class titters as a suave smirk claims his cool-teacher face. “Since you’ve decided you don’t have to pay attention, you must have an exceptional command over the material. Why don’t I take a break while you tell the class a little about the Buffalo Soldiers?”

Forrester’s attention expands like an invisible radius, encouraging every pair of eyes in the room to rack focus on me. The looming silence blooms prickling waves of tension across my skin. I bet the rest of the class, with their own dumb daydreams, wouldn’t know the answer either, but sure, single me out.

I sit up straight and clear my throat. “I guess”—here goes nothing—“after the Civil War… and with the overpopulation of the buffaloes—”

“Indeed,” he says, smile going wry, “there were far, far too many buffaloes.” Two slim fingers push his fancy, thin-rimmed glasses up his nose. The class waits one requisite heartbeat before exploding into laughter.

Cool.

Mr. Forrester strides up the aisle, back to the blackboard. “All right, all right. We’ve got a lot of material to cover if you’re going to be ready for the test on Friday.” Before he returns to the text he pauses. “This stuff is important to know. It’s your country’s history. Now, the Buffalo Soldiers’ inception dates back to 1866. At the time…”

I slink down in my chair and loll my head back, see how the old ceiling crack’s doing. Maybe today it will finally collapse. Maybe the whole ceiling will. If I’m lucky it’ll kill me outright.

It’s nice to dream.

Mr. Forrester’s lecture drones on, until every ounce of tension in the room has been replaced with the usual pure-strain boredom. Around then I feel comfortable enough to peek over at Jason under the guise of picking up my pencil. I stop halfway when I notice that as I’m lifting my eyes to look up at him, he’s already looking back at me. When our eyes meet he breaks into a smile and hands me my pencil.

 

***

 

Even though sports suck, and I avoid going to the actual games as much as I’m humanly able, soccer practice isn’t so bad, especially this late in the season. The air has cooled down, so you don’t get all sweaty and miserable, the fresh-cut grass smell fills your nose, and you start thinking about how maybe the outside world isn’t the literal worst thing in the universe—at least, in this confined, discrete, specifically man-made iteration.

And I wouldn’t state it in my college essay, but there’s something irresistible about the energy of the team. It’s just a scrimmage, there’s nothing riding on it, but everyone runs around, shouting, bouncing off of each other, and tussling for the ball.

They always put me in the goal during practice because I’m tall. Being goalie means less running around, which I appreciate, but you can’t let yourself space out just because the ball’s on the other side of the field. You have to focus.

I, however, am focus-resistant. When I was a kid Scott and Kate took me to a therapist to see if maybe I had the ADHD, but it didn’t stick. Too bad, I would’ve liked a clinical diagnosis, then you get drugs—good drugs, the kind that improve your grades, help you write novels, and stop you from blowing your whole adolescence scrolling Tumblr. Instead, all I got was a rubber stamp that said “Nonspecifically Defective,” and I was on my merry way (sans drugs).

Scrappy-ass Linda Brandt tucks around Brenda Sikorski’s legs. The thwock of her shoe against vinyl echoes crystal clear through the thin night air and everyone on both sides starts shrieking as a tussle for possession breaks out. I stare up into the floodlights until the pure white halogen burns big, purple blotches into my vision. Blind, I close my eyes, and the team’s excitement tickles against my pores. The light humidity seems to squeeze around my skin, it gives me goose bumps—I wouldn’t put that on the college essay either. I roll my fingers against the tension in my knuckles, enjoying the infection of their enthusiasm.

Around this time, the soccer ball wooshes past my head and straight into the goal.

“Sheridan!” Brenda Sikorski says. “Keep your eye on the ball!”

And that’s The Story of Why Molly Sheridan Never Tends Goal During Actual Games.

Brenda flicks her sweaty ponytail and thrusts her chin in the direction of the ball. I get my foot around it, lob it back to her, and commit myself to devoting some nominal amount of focus to the scrimmage. And I do, I totally do, until I notice…

The girl is back.

Holy shit. She’s just out there, sitting in the stands like it’s no big thing.

In a way it’s not a big thing? A couple diehards are always out to watch the division’s winningest girls soccer team. Not as many as boy’s football, sure, but it’s not like she’s the only person watching…

Still, everyone else is someone’s uncle or mom with nothing better to do, or an older sibling with something better to do, but saddled with the crushingly unfair responsibility of driving their lil’ sis, the up-and-coming JV soccer star, home.

Whatever. Point is, people like her don’t just show up at soccer practice. Somewhere on campus Mr. Bill, the security guard, is fingering his flashlight like it’s a revolver.

I bet she thinks she’s so cool. She’s probably got this really smug way of twisting her lips. I would probably try to copy it in the mirror, if I were the copying type.

I jerk myself back to reality just in time to make a dive for Brenda’s second shot on goal, but it sails right past my fingertips and I end up face down in the grass.

“Sheridan, I said keep your eyes on the goddamn ball!”

Brenda commits herself to hands-on-hip glaring for the whole sputtering five seconds it takes me to get back on my feet. I crouch for the ball, chuck it back onto the field, and she’s off and away before I can use the witty retort I had saved up that would’ve definitely shut her trap instead of causing her to burst out laughing and say something kind of racist about me.

I spit the taste of grass out of my mouth—forget it, the outside world still sucks—and try to flag down Susan. “Hey,” I say, jerking my head towards the bleachers. “Hey, look.”

Doesn’t work. You’d have to hit Susan with a car to distract her from a match in progress, even a practice match. I can see the obituary now. “Starting Sweeper, Ivy League-Bound, Tragically Dead After Ignoring Best Friend’s Desperate Cry Of Warning (Town Agrees She Deserved It), continued on p. 27.”

The ball moves back to the other side of the field.

It’s easy to imagine the sort of adventures the girl on the bleachers, comprised wholly of punk-rock attitude and aggressively angsty tattoos—which I mention for their statistical probability, it’s not like I can see any from here—might get involved in.

A spy.

Come on, not very realistic.

Maybe she’s writing a book about the nation’s lamest small towns. Bentham’s got to be in the top ten. Plausible—she’s here to observe the losers in their natural environment.

She shifts in her seat. Afraid she’s noticed my attention, I jerk away, focus on the game. Eyes on the ball, eyes on the ball, eyes on the ball…

Get over yourself. What, you think she’s here to induct you into her secret punk rock spy mission? The last time someone came to take you away from your miserable life you ended up here.

My curiosity gets the better of me and I hazard another look. My eyes drift upward, past heavy boots and black jacket to find her…

Looking back at me.

That’s about when the soccer ball hits.

It gets me right in the face. My neck locks, and I give a literal, actual bleat when my balance jumps two feet to the left and I fall ass-first onto the ground.

“Jesus Christ Sheridan, pay attention!”

My eye squeezes shut against the sting of the impact. I trace my fingers across my face and find a trail of tender welts left by the ball’s stitching. My cheeks are hot. My brain is swimming.

“Girls, girls! Everyone out of the way!” Coach Mathers snaps his fingers in front of me, drawing out a flinch and bringing me halfway back to reality.

“Sheridan?” he asks. “Are you all right?”

I shake my head and immediately regret it when the world lurches upside down. I throw my palms out to balance myself. “I-I’m fine.”

“You need to listen to your captain.” His calloused fingers rope around my elbow and haul me to my feet. “Things like this wouldn’t happen if you weren’t in lala land half the time you’re out on the field.”

Brenda is a human echo chamber. “Yeah, listen to your captain.”

Heat washes over my upper lip. I wipe my hand against my nose and my fingers come back red. A dappled trio of bright splotches, melding into the grass stains, has ruined my white jersey.

“You did that on purpose!” I say. Brenda just raises an eyebrow, and Susan is three ranks back in the crowd, wilting like a dying lily—conflict spikes her anxiety something fierce—so no support there. I turn to Mathers. “Coach, she did it on purpose!”

“Accidents happen. Sikorski, apologize.”

Brenda shrugs. “I’m sorry you’re so slow the ball hit you in the face.”

I lunge.

Brenda’s poise poofs like a cloud of smoke, but before I get in range Mathers hooks a hand around me and reels me back.

“That’s enough.” A tension in the muscles beneath his flab and I go limp. “There will be no fighting on this field. Am I understood?” I keep on shooting eye daggers at Brenda until he grabs me around the shoulders and gives me a jostle. “I said, ‘am I understood?’” I jerk out a nod through the jostling and he grunts. “Good. Now hit the showers. Brandt, you’re in goal.”

Two steps towards the showers and I pause, turn, and look at the bleachers, at the girl, who, like everyone else around her, is quietly observing the last, petulant dregs of our pathetically high school-caliber scuffle. I snort hard against the tickle of blood, pain in my nose shrieks its complaint, and I wince—ow, bad call.

She’s here to gawk at the losers, right? Well, she’s found their queen.

Who knows why I decide to do it? Maybe it’s the adrenaline, or even a concussion.

Do people get concussions from soccer balls? Probably not.

Whatever, doesn’t matter. I’m going to get right up in her face. If it’s got to be in front of the whole team, then fine. It’s her fault this all happened anyway. She can’t… she can’t just sit there and stare at me. You can’t just let people do that.

I barely get two steps out before Mathers grabs me by the arm and yanks me back toward soccer, toward the team, toward my normal, terrible life.

“Forget where the showers are?” He rotates me by the shoulders, turns me around like a lost little lamb. “Get moving.”

When I glance over at the bleachers girl, she’s tapping away at her cell phone. She’s not even looking anymore.

Forget it.

I’ve lost most of my Japanese, that’s what ten years of barely speaking it does, but I can still swear up a storm if I need to.

The orphanage was a breeding ground for that kind of talk, words muttered in secret when the nuns weren’t listening. I had a total knack for it. I was basically a swearing prodigy.

That’s what you do, after getting reprimanded in front of the whole team. You sit on a bench in the locker room with a towel crammed under your bloody nose, you lean forward, you get all tense and coiled up, and you just swear, you swear until there’s nothing left to swear about.

I kick my bag open and get out my phone. I have this number in it. Mieko.

It’s amazing the sort of information older people just put on the Internet: pictures of girls’ nights, their favorite books and movies… and their phone numbers, sometimes. It’s like they’ve never heard of privacy settings.

I wouldn’t actually call her or anything. It just helps to look at it.

“Weird area code. Who’re you calling?”

I leap about a mile out of my skin.

But it’s just Susan.

“Oh, uh…” I shuffle my phone into my bag and bend over to undo the laces on my cleats, like I was actually getting undressed and not being a completely quantifiable loser. “Guess I punched a bunch of numbers in, spacing out.”

She plops down onto the bench opposite me and takes off her shoes. “Coach told me to make sure you weren’t, like, going to kill yourself from embarrassment.”

“Someone’s got a high opinion of soccer practice.” My eyes go wide, I clutch a hand to my chest. “Please don’t yell at me in front of the team, Coach. What will I tell my family? How will I ever live it down?”

“I could say something. If one of the varsity girls got a bloody nose he probably would’ve called an ambulance.”

“It’s cool.” I stand up and start tugging off my shirt. “That’ll just end up getting us both twenty laps.”

“Still, it’s crap,” she says. “You know you don’t have to do that, right?”

I thrash my shoulders to untangle myself, and my shirt comes free. “Huh? Do what?”

“Put your back to the lockers while you change, you psycho.”

I tilt my head, recognize how I’ve jammed myself into the corner of the locker rows. “I didn’t mean to. It’s—”

“Chill out, nobody’s going to make fun of you for it. We’re grown-ass women now. They probably wouldn’t even notice.”

“Easy for you to say.” I put my hand over my shoulder and dip my fingers under the strap of my sports bra. It’s just a tiny rise on my skin, my birthmark. In the mirror it’s almost purple, a blotch of color that runs from my left shoulder blade almost to the middle of my back. It shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s not a big deal, but… “They notice everything.”

“They only notice the stuff you’re sensitive about. They’re like… like pumas, or something.”

“What? Pumas?”

“Jaguars? I don’t know, some big cat that preys on fear. Speaking of which, want to see that movie this weekend? The one about the giant panther—”

“Nope.” I stretch my arms high above my head, tent my fingers, and release a full-body yawn. My back cracks back into place and I do my best to shake out fifteen minutes of tension, with limited results. “You know the rules: no ghosts and no killer animals, especially ones that bite you and stuff. They creep me out.”

“You’re such a baby.”

“I’m a romantic.”

“No, I’m a romantic. You won’t go to anything without an explosion. Jagged bullet wounds are okay, but ghosts are too much.”

“I know what I like and that’s why you like me!” I flop down next to her on the bench, apply an affectionate nudge of my elbow to her ribs, and loop my gym bag with my foot, dragging it close.

“Hey, Mol.”

I look up from getting my shower stuff. “Huh?”

“What was that number about, seriously?”

My phone’s peeking out from the pocket of my bag. I didn’t lock the screen. “It’s nothing. Some girl I used to know, back home.”

“You never talk about that stuff.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You can though.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I fill the time staring at the floor, feeling the heat rise back up in my cheeks, swabbing my nose raw with my towel.

“God, Brenda.” Susan says. “Such an asshole.”

You can always count on Susan to change the subject, once she’s fidgeted enough, and the quietness in the room has reached that perfect, awkward pitch. She’s such a WASP. It’s cute, really.

“Yeah.” Brenda’s an asshole? Might as well call the sun round or the grass green. Instead of giving in to the Two Minute Hate, I ask, “You saw her, right? The girl in the stands?”

Her eyes practically flash, once she’s taken a second to think about it. “So you were right, for once. Don’t let it go to your head. She’s probably one of the freshman’s older sisters, somebody’s ride home.”

Shit. I’m such a moron…

“Woah Mol,” Susan says. “You’re never this nosy, not about anyone.”

I blink. “Huh? So what? I was just curious.”

“Yeah.” She’s grinning ear to ear, all the way to Sunday. “Bi-curious.”

“Seriously? We’re making gay jokes now? You been taking lessons from Lacey behind my back?”

“No, but… I didn’t mean like…” Her face creases up. “You’re my best friend—”

“What? Shut up.”

“No, seriously. Obviously I—”

“Oh my god, shut up! Shut up!” I’m laughing, but I’m not sure if it’s funny-laughing or awkward-laughing, so I grab up my towel, break eye contact, and head for the showers.

“It’s okay Molly!” Susan’s voice chases me down the hall, little jabs of comfort masquerading as jokes. “If you ever need to talk, you know where to find me!”

I close the curtain behind me and wipe my hair out of my face. It’s fine. It’s Susan. She’s… she’s just trying to cheer me up.

I turn on the shower as hot as it’ll go. The water spraying against my nose isn’t exactly comfortable, but the warmth does massage some of the pain away. I wiggle it a little and flinch at the sharp ache. I wipe a finger through the last, little dribble of remaining blood and press it to my lips.

The metallic twang of it kicks against my brain and I grunt out my discomfort to any ghosts or invisible people who might be watching. I reach for my washcloth and try to scrub away the profound discovery that I’m the sort of girl who tastes her own blood in the shower.

The sound of chirpy conversation builds beyond the hiss of the shower. I dry off quickly, hustle into my clothes, pack my bag, and stomp right out of the locker room, fast enough to avoid everything but a couple odd stares. My hair is wet. It’s cold out tonight, but no time to dry it. Maybe it’s not too late. You can still do this. I stride towards the field…

…only to find it empty. She’s long gone, and so’s everyone else. The magic blinks away. All I have to look forward to now is a long bike ride home.

I spin on my heel to head for the parking lot, and throw myself face first into Jason Kline.

CHAPTER TWO

 

“Didn’t see you there,” I say, about six inches from his face.

“Wasn’t watching where I was going.” Looking real deft, with that smile of his. Did I mention the dimples? “So, is everyone here a total douche, or do they just all hate you?”

“It’s a little of both.” I force a chuckle, but it’s dead on arrival. Thank god the nosebleed is under control. I hoist my gym bag and flick the hair out of my eyes. “You saw Brenda’s big show or—?”

“Charlotte Jenkins.”

Figures. Ms. Team Manager probably dashed around the whole school like Paul Revere the second she saw it happen. Word travels fast—double fast when it’s about losers like me. “She included the part where I was about to jump her, right?”

“Totally.” He nods. “Definitely.”

“So,” I ask, “you smoke cigarettes?”

Under the bleachers is the prime spot to do cool, illegal stuff like smoking. Or that’s what the only Senior who ever bothered to learn my name taught me before she graduated off to PSU and took my treasured War on Womyn shirt with her—fair’s fair, she’s the one that drove me and Susan to the concert where I bought it. Jason follows in my wake, ducking and clambering through the struts beneath the bleachers like an old pro, as I lead him to my favorite spot of hard-packed dirt, discarded cigarette butts, and soda bottles.

We sit in the recesses near the mid-field bleachers and I dig my cigarettes out of my pocket. I thumb the pack open, point it towards him with a casual jerk, and a single cigarette pops out, perfectly poised—here you are, m’lady.

He holds a hand up and shakes his head.

What the heck, man, I’ve been practicing that move for months…

Aside from the far-off chattering of a couple soccer girls waiting for their rides, the grounds are mostly quiet. I light my cigarette with my cheapo, neon-pink gas station lighter, clonk my head back against the aluminum of the bleachers, and inhale a long, lazy drag. I let the smoke spill out of my lips and watch it drift through the seats above and into the sky. It’s cold out, but I’ve pulled my knit cap over my wet hair, and, given the alternative? I’ll take hanging out with this new kid over going home any day of the week.

It’s a few back-and-forths about school, sports, how much Certain People Totally Suck before he’s confident enough to gesture for my cigarette.

“So just quit the team,” he says. And I could take lessons from him, how casual his fingers pinch the filter, just a centimeter above mine. My skin tingles at the proximity.

His first drag is cut short. He covers his mouth, coughing fit cutting him off before he can finish his thought.

Newbie.

He hands the cigarette back to me after he gets his body back under control. “Th-that is,” he says, voice straining, “if you hate it so much.”

“Can’t quit. Scott—my dad—says, ‘Molly, athletics and extracurriculars are an essential part of a young adult’s education.’ Besides, he swore on his mom’s grave”—he hadn’t, actually—“that if I make varsity he’ll let me get my driver’s license.”

Technically, the whole soccer mess is my own total fault. 2011, the Woman’s World Cup final, Japan vs. the US. I wasn’t interested, just watching it out of the corner of my eye while I did whatever twelve-year-olds do—read books about wizard cats, I guess—while their parents waste precious Sunday afternoon TV time on sports. USA scored the first goal, blah blah. You believe how long these things are? Like two whole hours, really?

“You call your dad by his first name?”

“He’s not my real dad. In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t exactly fit the local color.”

Then, towards the end of the second half, Japan retaliates. For some reason, ears tingling from the cries of the crowd, I look up at the exact right moment. A flubbed shot by Japan. While like half the US team is scrambling over each other to recover it, this scrappy bitch, Aya Miyama, already there in the absolute perfect position, lofts the ball off of her knee.

“Where are you from, then?”

“They picked me up at the grocery store, in the aisle marked Exotics.”

Calm in a storm moment. She falls into a slide, shot on goal, sinks it effortlessly into the corner of the net. The crowd goes nuts. The announcer, this stuffy British guy, starts shouting loud enough to blow out the TV speakers.

“Seriously, though,” he says.

I offer the cigarette again, but he waves it off, trés polite. “This tiny country. You know, Japan? You probably never heard of it.”

“Lots of Japanese girls named Molly?”

Miyama bursts to her feet, celebrates just by sticking a finger in the air, like it was nothing, like it was a given, like what she did was already done before she did it, and sprinting back across the field into the ecstatic high-fives of her teammates.

“It’s one of my many unique facets.”

“So,” he asks, “how’d you get here, all the way from Japan?”

My toes clenching in mimicry of that kick. Becoming aware of Kate’s tacit notice of my sudden attention. Scowling, looking back to my book—I wasn’t watching, no way. My fingers vibrating with the raucous, momentary joy of the players as they spared half a breath to embrace each other before sprinting back to their positions, game faces on and ready to play…

His eyes focus on me with a simple curiosity. His face is flat, not aggressive, not forceful at all. A familiar tension laces up my gut. I look away for a second, masking my self-consciousness with another drag, give myself time to figure out the on-going greatest riddle of my life: how to answer a sincere question about my adoption without playing it off like a prick.

“Just got picked, that’s all.” Even saying that hunches me forward. I wrap my arms around my legs and stare out through the intersection lines of the dingy metal supports, towards the parking lot. “They don’t usually let American families walk away with their kids.”

Jason gestures for the cigarette. “Why not?”

“What is this, a deposition?” The sputter of an engine builds in the distance. I fix my attention to the sound, scanning the distant rows of cars for the shine of headlights. “There’s exceptions, duh. Like if the lady who wants to adopt you has spent the last few years being a mega-awesome lawyer in Japan or if her dear, dear Aunt Elizabeth happens to be deputy headmistress at the orphanage you grew up in.”

The last five years—almost as long as I’d been alive, at that point—wasting her big-time talents, and her youth, in a medium(-or-less)-time firm in a foreign culture, all to be closer to dear old Aunt Liz, one of the few American nuns attached to the Catholic convent/orphanage I happened to be abandoned in front of on some cold, rainy night.

He gets it better on the second drag. It’s not until he’s puffed out half of it that he bowls over into another coughing fit. “Orphanage?” he asks. “Y-you weren’t, like, in foster care or something?” He sinks his head between his knees and blindly hands the cigarette back to me.

I practically snatch it back from him. “There isn’t really foster care there, because they’re all about, like, your flesh and blood, right? So…” He tilts his head at me. Waits for me to finish. Serious face, no more dimples. My brain takes a stutter step. “Look, there’s all these laws. It’s…”

It’s complicated, and I’ve hardly bothered to explain it to anyone but Susan.

It’s magic, what happened to me. A literal miracle—I mean, practically speaking.

“Hey.” A crease settles across his forehead, “I didn’t mean to make you upset.”

My tongue is too big for my mouth. My jaw is loose. When I flex my fingers, pin-and-needle numbness tickles through them. I roll my head to look at him, ignoring the way my eyes pinch at their corners.

“As if.” I laugh. “So what about you, where are you from? Not Bentham, I can tell that much.”

“Boston,” he says.

“Big city, huh? Cool.” I take a quick upward puff, then twirl the cigarette between my fingers. “Grew up there?”

He shakes his head, face glowing, a hint-y flush in the darkness. “Not exactly…”

Years of Susan’s companionship have turned me into a conversational bloodhound—I can smell a touchy subject a mile away. Moving on, then. “Well anyway, in answer to your question: Japan’s not like here. Some of the kids they’re not even orphans, not technically—their parents just aren’t taking care of them for one reason or another. That’s nuts, right? Since their parents are still alive, they can’t get adopted. They’re basically just waiting out the clock until they’re in their mid-teens and—” I stop myself when I notice he’s staring, shift on my butt, and glance towards the path to the parking lot. “Sorry, I know it’s probably not the most interesting subject.”

“No.” He smiles and the dimples spring back, primed and ready; anxious dimples, shy dimples, bequeath unto me the full measure of your struggles and your triumphs dimples. “I was just listening.”

“Yeah, cool.” I work the toe of my sneaker against a dull green shard of glass embedded in the dirt. The muscles of my calves squeeze beneath the constriction of my skin. Dimples, dimples, dimples. “Lucky me, I didn’t have a mom to hold me back, seeing as how she’s dead, or disappeared, or something.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, anyway.

“Come on man, I was trying to make a joke.” I sigh. Already bored with my impromptu foot archeology, I just do my best to look him in the face. “Anyway, mostly you either grow up in a government home or a religious kinda place—that’s why I’m named Molly, since you asked.”

“So that’s not your real name?”

“Real enough. I’ve been using it since before I could talk.” My fingers rub against the soreness at the tip of my nose. “Long story short, I’m about six when Kate—that’s my mom—happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to pick up lil’ ole me on her way back to the States.”

Actually, it took almost a whole year of paperwork before I was adopted.

“So, are they cool?” he asks. “Your parents?”

“They’re all right. Pretty strict. They’re the kind of people that care a lot about their “image” in the “community.” I flick away a bit of ash, stare at the orange glow of my cigarette in the darkness. “When I was a kid—ten or eleven, maybe—I told them if they really wanted to look generous they should’ve adopted some super impoverished babies, like celebrities do. That got me a slap.” I rest my head back against the bleachers, looking up and counting the few stars I can see through the space between the slats. “But it’s not like Japan’s a third-world country; at the orphanage, we had movie nights.”

He doesn’t say anything after that, and the silence gives me time to think about what a weirdass I’m being. It’s not like I’m not used to running my fat mouth… I mean I don’t…

It’s not usually this easy, is all…

“I just…” I hunch forward so my chin’s resting on my knees and take another drag. “I just never wanted to feel like they chose me because I was convenient, you know?” I clamp down, force out another cheesy laugh. “Sorry, that’s probably, like, some super dense stuff to hear from someone you just met.”

He smirks, like he’s allowed to be in on the joke. “Seems like convenient is the one word nobody in this school would use to describe you.”

“Hey, what do you know?” I give him a sock on the arm and shoot him a grin. Maybe that’s a little too forward, but…

He doesn’t retaliate, only makes a show of rubbing his wounded shoulder. “You have a permit for that lethal weapon?”

My grin softens into a smile. Tension lifts from me like the way you feel when you shuck a bulky winter coat—sliding away easy and quick, but, for a second or two, your shoulders can still feel the specter of its weight. “Speaking of parents: I should go or mine’ll whup my ass.”

I grind my cigarette out under my sneaker and get up, dusting off my jeans. He basically hops to his feet beside me. “I could give you a ride.”

“Nah.” I pull on my gloves, shoulder my gym bag, and zip up my hoodie. I play it cool, like that’s something I’m capable of. “I kinda want to smoke, like, a dozen more cigarettes on the way home before Kate tries to lock me in my room for being out late on a school night.”

Jason frowns.

Something about that isn’t so bad.

I offer my hand for a goodbye shake. I figure it’s a cute, kind of playful way to end things. But when we touch there’s a sudden zap of static electricity between our fingers and I pull back, clutching my hand to my chest.

“Sorry,” he says. He’s looking at me right in my googly eyes, and not doing a very good job of holding back his smirk.

I purse my lips, play it off. “Yeah…”

But there’s something weird in that little zot of energy that ran straight up the edge of my arm, something caught right in the bottom of my brain stem. I can’t help but rub my fingers together. It’s a strange sensation, kind of throbbing.

Meanwhile, Jason is staring at me, because I am standing there like a big, dumb idiot, not saying anything.

“Right, so… take it easy!” I beat a hasty retreat, clambering my way through the bleachers, but pause as I crouch under a crisscrossing section of beams to jiggle my cigarette pack back at him and shout, “Get some of your own to practice on, for next time.”

Jason salutes me with a flick of his fingers, and I wait until he’s out of sight before I let myself burst into a grin. I grin all the way to the parking lot. Hell, I grin all the way to the moon. This must be what Susan feels like—ebullient over nothing more than the joy of existence, like a cartoon bluebird.

I grin right up until I hear, from around the corner of the gym building, a hushed voice say, “Can we quit it, with the wasted time? Another few days in the boonies, I’m gonna go nuts.”

Her. Hobo weirdo. It has to be her.

Her voice is thick. It sounds coarse, the way she chops down on the g at the end of ‘saying,’ the way she slurs her vowels into the consonants on either side. Not a local accent. I press against the brick wall of the building. I can’t hear the other side of the conversation, she must be on the phone.

I quash down my gut—which screams at me to creep forward, to peek around this corner, to confirm this woman, and maybe even confront her—but only just barely.

“But…” She is interrupted, maybe. There’s a pause before she speaks again. “Kitteret or not, she’s a wolf. Might as well stick her in a sack and get it over with.”

Kitteret.

The word bounces around inside my head, like I should know it, like it should mean something. It freezes my whole body and, though I’m sure I don’t gasp or make any other sounds, there’s a quick shuffling around the other side of the wall.

“Gotta go.”

If my feet weren’t stuck to the ground maybe I would jump out and confront her. She’s talking about someone here. Me. This is about me, isn’t it? It has to be. I have no idea why, but it has to.

…doesn’t it?

Kitteret.

My skin is tight all across my body, crushing, twisting. Her boots are stomping away. I don’t know if I can’t breathe or if I’m just too scared to try.

It’s the chill in the air that gets me moving again, whole minutes later, after she’s gone.

The campus is quiet. There are only a handful of cars in the parking lot. It feels completely isolated—desolate—but it’s not really any more deserted than any other Thursday at 7 o’clock.

Three flubbed attempts before I get my bike lock open. I keep scanning the lot, like I could find some leftover hint of her, like some shadowy mote of her presence still lingers in the air.

I stop at this field on the way home, hop the splintery wooden fence, and sprawl out in the grass. I smoke most of those dozen cigarettes I was only joking about at the time.

I’m a wolf? It’s like, what, a code word? A code word for people they want to ‘stick’ in ‘sacks.’

Even though it’s cloudy, you can still see a star here and there. The unkempt grass prickles against my ears and when my cigarettes burn out, I flick them into the rainwater gully next to the fence. I think about how Kate is probably calling me by now, relieved I left my phone in my bag on the other side of the fence. My stomach churns when I focus on any specific moment of today—the girl, Brenda, the zap of Jason’s fingers—so I try to keep my head clear and my mind blank.

I look up at the moon. It’s half full… or half empty? Every time the clouds pass by it’s like it’s winking at me. Wink. Wink. Wink.

It takes a lot of winks before I can force myself to forget.

 

***

 

Dear old mom crowds me up as soon as I open the door, doesn’t even give me time to get my jacket off. “Molly, if you can’t answer your phone then we’re going to take it away.”

Kate’s almost as tall as me, black-haired and eagle-nosed, always really put together. She probably would’ve made a good nanny in a Mary Poppins sort of way, the kind of nanny who tends to energetic, misbehaving children who are well meaning and just need a strong guiding hand. She’s still in her work clothes. Important Lawyer Attire, good for intimidating not just office drones, but your beloved daughter as well.

“I was on my bike.” Hi Kate. How was your day? Cool. Mine was great. I overheard someone talk about abducting me, no big deal. “I didn’t feel it vibrate.”

“You’re almost two hours late for dinner. Is one night a week too much to ask?”

“No, I…” The rest of the house is dark, and the dinner table’s empty. “Wait, if I’m so late, where’s Scott?”

“He had a last-minute appointment.”

“Does he get a lecture for coming home late too?”

“Don’t try to change the subject.” Swing and a miss; no stopping a Kate on the warpath. “You’re not supposed to stay out on school nights. That’s the rule.”

“I’m sick of that rule. I’m not thirteen anymore.”

Kate’s face softens a little. She puts on this frown. “Molly. We only say things like that because we worry about you.”

I’m usually better than this. Kate always wins, but I normally get in one or two good hits before she lawyers me into paste. But my head’s still all clouded. That word, that word…

Kitteret.

“I was at soccer practice! You’re acting like I went on a drug binge.”

“Soccer practice ended two hours ago. I called you six times. Every time this happens I think…”

This is not a fight. Don’t let yourself turn this into a fight.

“Don’t say it!” Or just go ahead and press the issue, idiot. “Every time I’m ten seconds late you hold it over my head that I ran away from home once. One time! Meanwhile, one of you is home late every other night of the week. How is that fair?”

“Molly, stop.” She always does this, repeats my name like it’ll calm me down. “You can’t get defensive every time I say I’m worried about you. Why is it so hard for you to imagine that people would be concerned about your safety?”

“I’m not—” Tension squeezes my heart like a fist, forces me to take a breath.

“You’ve always acted this way, for as long as you’ve been able to talk.”

I grit my teeth. “You can’t say that. You weren’t even there. You can’t use things like that against me, just because you happen to be related to the woman who picked me up off the goddamn doorstep.”

All that stress she’s showing dissipates in an instant. She tries to look like a mom again. Her face is pinched but she’s stopped yelling, even though I haven’t. “You need to call Aunt Liz, you haven’t spoken to her in months.” That’s right, redirect. Kate Tactics 101. “She’s been asking about you, you know.”

Sister Frances, she means; I never got used to thinking of her as Kate’s ‘Aunt Liz.’ The woman who found me; the woman who, in part, raised me, who got Kate and Scott’s eyes on me even though they probably actually wanted a baby, not some barely functional six year old with a chicken-bone tear in her trash-bag brain.

Kitteret. Kitteret. Kitteret.

“I didn’t… I don’t…” Something about her face makes me want to growl at her. Doesn’t she have anything better to do than stare at me? It makes me want to raise my hand and just… just hit her. She opens her mouth, but before she can say anything I stomp my foot down—hard, like I could shake the whole house—and cut her off.

“Molly!” If this were a movie, she’d jerk her hand to her chest in shock. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You! Everything was fine until this happened. I knew you were just waiting to ruin my night, Kate, that’s why I didn’t pick up the phone!”

She’s revving her engine. She’s got a whole lot more shouting to do. And she tries to, but I’m already charging up the stairs. I slam the door to my room behind me, and I hope she can hear it when I hurl my bag against the wall.

I hope she can’t hear it when I throw myself onto the bed and all my angry sounds dissolve into hard sobs against the pillow.

After I came to America I would call Sister Frances on the phone and ask her to speak to me in Japanese. Sister Frances, letting me talk my pidgin Japanese, barely a real language, all the words I learned before they spirited me away; me writing postcards to the girls back home, drawing out the script in clumsy characters, looking up words on the Internet because I was afraid of embarrassing myself by writing down the wrong ones. But I stopped speaking it years ago, except to curse, and I stopped writing postcards too.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to her. It’s just… wouldn’t life be easier, if I could box off those parts of it?

I wouldn’t really have hit her, right?

Scott comes home. They eat dinner, and turn on the TV, and mumble hushed words about their awful daughter, who somehow made it through puberty while never escaping her Terrible Twos.

Maybe nobody told them you don’t have to start with a busted kid. You can get a fresh one, a new one, a Chinese one, or a Russian one, or even someone locally sourced. You can get them before they learn to walk, before they learn to talk back. You can start from scratch and raise them right. You can get them before the abandonment compiles over and over inside their head, before the great, big, lonely world beats their shitty brains into scrambled eggs.

I hear their bedroom door close a couple hours later. My stomach reminds me I haven’t eaten, so I decide to sneak down to the kitchen and heat something up. When I open the door to my room there’s a tray with a plate of lasagna sitting on the floor.

It’s cold, but I’d rather eat it cold.

I’ll tell her about what happened with Brenda. I’ll tell her I didn’t mean it, that it’s been a long week. I’ll tell her about the mystery girl stalking me and it’ll all be okay. And… and…

Yeah, right…

I bury myself in texting Susan, laying out virtual chocolate cakes to tempt the attentions of Le Chevalier Gateaux, browsing my favorite Tumblr tags until I almost believe I’ve forgotten the weirdness of today. By the time I drift off to sleep I’m practically a regular human being again.

Until the dream comes back.

CHAPTER THREE

 

Spend four days waiting for that girl to show up again. Four days not apologizing to Kate. Four days flitting around Jason like a dumb moth—we’re friends now, I guess. Finally get the guts to accept a ride home from him and then it happens.

So, Claymore. I already said it sucked, but in a way, it kind of also actually rules?

It’s about these genetically modified badass medieval warrior ladies who fight demons at the behest of this mysterious (clearly evil) organization. The main character is Clare, and she’s pretty whatever. Well… since all the warriors are clones, really, I guess they’re all “whatever” to some degree or another, but Clare is like queen super whatever.

You’re supposed to like Clare because, even though she’s not the strongest Claymore, she’s got drive, and people who have drive always win in the end. But I don’t know, I was always more about Helen, who’s the only one of the bunch who treats the whole thing like the big joke it is, the only one who recognizes how ridiculous it is that the only time they’re not going around fighting God Monsters is when they spend seven years training in the frozen mountains so they can fight the ultra God Monsters.

I just… like her. I don’t know why exactly, she’s just cool. Like, she’s a real piece of shit, she’s always sneering and going like “ohhh, does our tragic fate make you saaaad? Are you deppresssssed because we have to murder demons and our bodies are mutilated and we’ll never know true love or whatever?” It’s like… I wonder how you do that, confront this whole shitty mess of your existence and suck it up and go “well, life’s gonna be dogshit either way, so I might as well crack wise about it?”

I think… you have to be pretty tough, to go through life like that.

I’m not much of a Helen. If anything, I’m more of a Yuma—you know, the wimpy one with no self-confidence and the total garbage power. Clare can turn into a half-demon murder machine and even Helen has stretchy extendo arms and Yuma’s power is “throws her sword.” Like what the hell. Is that even a power, you know, per se, or is that just something you happen to do?

I posted this picture of Helen smirking in the face of death, gripping the stump of her sliced off arm, just being a general A+ Unkillable Queen on Tumblr and it got twenty three notes, which is pretty huge by my measure, and some people even reblogged it with stuff like #thewife, and #lifegoals, and #bossbitch and I’m like—yeah, exactly! These people know what’s up!

But anything with Clare, or Theresa, or even Priscilla gets like two hundred notes, bare minimum, while maybe one thing gets posted in the Helen tag every six months. Doesn’t that blow? It’s like… you finally find something you’re way into, no questions asked, it’s perfect… and it turns out you’re one of about twelve people on the planet who gives even the tiniest shit?

Super isolating.

We’re heading across the parking lot when a group of them, hanging out around Brenda’s car, starting spewing some hateful crap at me. Jason tries to hold me back through the name calling, but I’m beyond done with this. I bat his hands away and storm for the crowd.

I stomp right up to Brenda and I slam my palm onto her car, beside her head. “You got a problem?”

I don’t do it on purpose.

Kitteret.

Her smile is sweet as imitation sugar. “I don’t know. Do I?”

That gets a titter from the audience. Every fiber of me constricts. Brenda flashes a look that borders on flirting and breaks the staring contest. She raises one hand and makes a big show of looking at her nails.

“Hey, Molly, let’s go.” Jason jostles me a little, by the arm, but he doesn’t dare pull me away.

“Listen to your boyfriend.” Brenda flexes her fingers out to their full extension and continues her meticulous examination of each cuticle.

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

Brenda puts a hand on her hip, raises an eyebrow. She waits.

This is it. Here’s your chance. Get her with something good.

But what do you say to hurt someone who barely recognizes you’re the same species?

In my hesitation, Brenda widens her faux-sweet smile. “Oh, is Molly having trouble keeping up? Maybe we can help her out. Hey”—that façade of hers melts to a sneer in a hot second, she peeks past my shoulder, to her crowd—“does anyone here speak Chinese?”

Maybe it’s because I haven’t heard one of those racial jabs in a while. Maybe it’s because of a week of this shit from her. Maybe it’s because Brenda is everything I hate about this place distilled into one plastic, faker of a girl. Whatever it is…

It’s enough.

I have her under the armpits. She grips me back, around the shoulders. I slam her a couple times against the side of her car—good hits, strong hits—but once she digs her feet in she’s able to shove me away. My hip bangs off the door handle of the car behind me. Stings like hell, but at least I didn’t crash down onto my ass. Breath jerks out in strangled pants. Brenda, just as winded, glares at me three times as hard as she ever has. “You better stop if you know what’s good for you, Sheridan.”

“You’re going to get us in trouble!” One of them—Jill, Olivia, Lacey, who the fuck cares?—sputters out behind me.

Ten years of this. Ten years of behind-the-back teasing, bloody noses, and locker shoves. A full-ass decade of bad thoughts piling up, sticking in every corner of my being, attaching to hidden nooks in my psyche like some leafy bacteria, and the knot in my stomach that twists a little further every day. Because of a mother who loved me only just enough to abandon me. Because of being deposited, all alone, in Bentham, New Hampshire. Because of a school that forced this situation. Because: dammit, when is anyone going to take my side?

Because I’m a wolf.

I grab her up around her face. Brenda grinds her nails into my arms and it hurts, even through my hoodie. I lean into it, twisting her at an awkward angle against her car. Arms and elbows wrestle against my body. She stomps her heel down on my foot and I flinch, letting her go and stumbling back a couple steps before she breaks one of my toes.

“I told you,” she says. She leans against the car, panting, now that she’s forced me to give her some room. “Back off—”

I hit her, and she hits the ground.

She crumples like I cut her puppet strings, sliding down the side of her car and into an awkward seated position on the asphalt, skirt blooming in a broad circle over her spread knees, her legs splayed out to either side.

Her sidekicks back off the second she hits the ground—Jill, Olivia, Lacey Stevenson and her fucking gay jokes like it’s still 20Goddamn09. They’re all staring at me, frozen stiff, like they think I’m coming after them next. They figured Brenda could handle me. Of course she could, she’s been shoving me into lockers and dumping my lunch into the trash since we were kids.

The excitement is hot in my mouth. Blood rushes through my ears, masking the startled noises as the rest of the girls scramble back to life.

I want to kick her.

How am I going to explain this to Kate? How am I going to explain this to the school? Everyone is screaming at me, the shock didn’t last long. Their phones are flashing in my face. They’re taking pictures, but no one dares to get close to me.

Brenda is crying.

I didn’t hit her that hard. I didn’t mean to hit her at all. I only wanted to give her a taste of her own medicine. I only wanted to show them that I’m done taking their shit.

They’re saying I’m going to get expelled, arrested—deported, even. I grip the front of my jacket. I’m sucking in air. My head hurts.

Jason is tugging at my arm, yelling right in my ear. We have to go, we have to go, we have to go. I keep shoving him away. The pressure spreads to my chest like an infection. Skin is tight, like a straitjacket, crushing inward; I’m going to implode.

The posse has backed off to a safe distance, maybe convinced I’ll decide to finish the job.

They’re not completely wrong. I get something… something in Brenda, curled up on the ground, helpless. So real I could practically touch it. I reach for it, raising my arm toward the group, but it shirks away from me. And, even a good five feet away, the gathered girls shrink away too when I motion toward them.

But it’s not toward them—it’s past them. Something is lurking there, sure as if I could see it.

Kitteret.

Jason wrecks it with a sharp tug on my arm. It all rushes out in an instant. Like a rubber band pulled too tight, it snaps and then it’s gone. Back to the real world. Back to Jason, and high school, and the sobbing Brenda.

I let him drag me into his car. He’d beat any racecar driver, how he speeds us away.

The tension is thick in the air, tangible, touchable. It clouds me into a spacey silence. I rest my cheek against the window and watch the trees zip by. The farther we get from the school the less real it becomes. Was that even a fight? It’ll be fine. Slap on the wrist. No big deal.

Jason gets me home before the phone calls from concerned school counselors start rolling in. Kate and Scott aren’t back from work yet, so I get upstairs while the getting upstairs is good. I stare at the dark wall of my bedroom. All night I wait for the downstairs phone to ring. Mr. and Ms. Sheridan, do you know what your monster of a daughter did? It should come as no surprise, I’m sure.

When I check on my phone cats, just to give myself something to do, I’m pissed that Fidel Catstro has visited three times now while I still haven’t caught so much as a glimpse of Le Chevalier Gateaux’s whiskers. You’d understand why I’m mad if you saw him. He’s got this super sweet hat, with a feather in it and everything; I looked it up on the Internet.

My eyes get blurry. I blink until the sides of my face turn cold and wet. I beat my head back against the pillow, but that doesn’t stop it.

It doesn’t last long. It never really does anymore.

But I’m still not tired enough to sleep. I’m swiping my numb fingers across the smooth, brightly lit surface to scatter out more (virtually) expensive chocolate cakes in the hopes of a Le Chevalier Gateaux sighting in the morning when a text from Susan winks down from the top of the screen.

“Are you dating Jason?”

“I don’t think so,” I reply.

“Does he think so?”

“I hope not.”

She asks, or half asks, “Then can I…”

I drop my phone face down on the bed. I stab my headphones into my ears. I blast music as loud it can go, but it can’t blot out the image of Brenda’s face. It’s all smashed-up, and bleeding, and worse and worse every time I blink.

I’m a wolf.

 

 

 

 

STAIR

 

“You know that thing, where you’re in a tall building and press your face against the glass and wonder—”

“Ground hypnosis.”

They paused to catch their breath. Molly craned her neck, looking over the edge of the great, granite stair. She thought, perhaps, the shadow of the leviathan still mutely trailed them, eking its lonely way through the faint trails of city lights flashing up to her across the miles of distance through the hazy curtain of the dust.

“Is that what it’s called?”

The storm blossomed around them, setting Molly’s ivory fur aflutter and flaring the other girl’s short, platinum hair like a banner of war. Molly crouched low on her haunches and dug her claws into the stone. The other girl, whose bare feet and bipedal posture offered none of Molly’s canine surefootedness, flicked the sinews of her wings in micro-adjustment against the sudden squall. She held a pale forearm in front of her face, shielding her leaden red eyes, striated and imperfect, as she spoke. “In French, it’s l’appel du vide.”

“What’s that mean?”

The call of the void.”

“Shit, that’s a good name. Whoever thought that up should get a medal.”

The wind subsided, and the other girl blinked her striated, imperfect eyes against the sting of the dust. “Do they give out medals for that?”

“Don’t you think they should? For the really good ones, I mean.”

Their ascent continued.

From the hidden sun hung a tail of orange fire, like a teardrop, dangling pensively toward what ground must exist, somewhere far below their feet. But the dust occluded everything farther than a few meters, and so, to them, there was only the stair. The idea of heat was distant, and hardly felt.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Woke up with dry mouth.

Kitteret.

I stumble out of bed and go for the window, wanting just to yank it open and clear the dead air out of this stifling room.

I see it.

See her. Right there, barely visible, but sitting at the hedge line at the edge of our yard—the glow of something, maybe a cell phone.

I’m climbing onto the branch outside my window almost before I give myself time to get my jeans on. I scramble down the tree so fast I botch the landing, twist my ankle when I hit the ground.

I charge through my lack of balance. By the time I get my equilibrium back I am almost running, but it’s a small yard, and I can see she’s already gone.

So I stand there, hugging my arms to my chest, staring blankly at the ground. “Idiot,” I say, out loud to make it stick.

But I saw her. I know I did.

I kneel down to inspect the spot where I spotted her, a cubbyhole between two shrubs. It’s something to do—something to convince myself I’m not going nuts.

I run my hands over the hard dirt, like some latent hunter instinct will awaken inside of me. As I’m sweeping through the short grass, a stinging shock assaults me. A yelp blurts out and I snap my hand away, clasping it over my mouth; bursts of condensation puff out from between my fingers. If I wake up the dog next door, his barking will start a whole neighborhood animal chorus, eventually leading Scott and Kate to stumble out of bed and ask what the hell I’m doing outside in the middle of the night with no jacket on.

After a minute of frozen terror I convince myself that Snickers the Labrador is not going to sound the alarm. A sharp gust of wind reminds me that midnight in the fall in New England is not t-shirt weather. I spare the bushes one final glance. No evidence of anything trampled, except my hopes and dreams.

Something grips me just a step or two away from the tree. I press my fingers together. They ache.

I turn around, go back, squat in the dirt one more time—you know, just for funsies—and run my hands cautiously through the grass.

There’s something here. There has to be.

I flinch when something cold and sharp bites my searching fingers again, not a shock, not static electricity. This is something physical. This is something real.

It’s easy to dig up the offender, once I know it’s there: a necklace, a weird sort of symbol, hiding right there in the grass. A metal circle with two sharp lines poking into it at ten and two o’clock. The clasp of its delicate chain is snapped open and snared around the low branch of the hedge. I untangle the fragile loops from the branches, careful not to break them. When it’s loose, I wrap the necklace around my fingers and let it spin back and forth, twisting up the fine links. It’s made of silver, maybe. Not that I can identify silver from anything else, but it’s shiny, and sort of greyish-white in the moonlight

Another burst of wind howls through the yard. A deep shiver compresses me into a hunch. When I recover I find the necklace clutched to my chest.

Kitteret.

I climb the tree and sneak back into my room. I lie in bed for a while, turning the necklace over and over in the palm of my hand. It glistens in the darkness. Hiding myself beneath the covers, the world growing mute, I would swear the metal is hot against my skin.

 

***

 

Ms. Stanz is grey-haired, tense, super old. It’s a good look for a principal. “That we aren’t outright expelling you is a miracle, Ms. Sheridan. We can’t have students walking through the front door with black eyes.”

“Black eyes? I only hit her once. Besides, there’s the whole part where she started—”

“I’m not finished speaking, young lady.” Her eyebrows, thin lines, carefully drawn in black pencil, winch down above her steely eyes. “The school understands there were mitigating circumstances. Likely Brenda does too, as the first we heard of this was when her parents called, frantic at their daughter’s black eye”—emphasis on the singular, thank you very much—“an hour ago. That you are only being suspended is a blessing. If you were wise, you would spend this week reflecting on the myriad of disciplinary problems that brought you here today.”

And that’s a wrap. I got in almost two whole sentences before she cut me off, a good batting average by any delinquent measure.

They sit me in the waiting room while Ms. Stanz’s secretary, Mr. Clay, makes a half-dozen calls to Scott and Kate over the course of the day. I decide to err on the side of caution and avoid pulling out my phone to entertain myself while I wait. Instead, I stare at the swirling orange and yellow patterns in the pilling carpet, older than me but only half as ugly, and listen to their voicemail messages on speakerphone—Hello this is Scott (You’ve reached Kate Sheridan, Esq.) Sorry I can’t come to the phone right now… (If this is an urgent matter, please try my cellphone…[_)_]

Some part of me wants to believe it was all a dream, even as I sit and wait, even after the lecture. Or maybe I haven’t woken up yet. But it hurts when I flex my hand, and there are little scrapes across my knuckles, and when I dip my fingers into my pocket I feel the necklace there, cool, and quiet, and waiting for me.

The sunlight leaks gloomy and grey as the day goes on. With nothing better to do, I watch the lazy afternoon rain through the slats of the blinds, and listen to the creaking windows as the wind gusts aimlessly against the glass.

Mr. Clay sends me to lunch after sixth period winds down, so I don’t have to confront (punch out?) any students in the cafeteria. It takes until I’m standing in front of the lunch line for me to realize how badly the thought of eating makes me sick—that’s irony, right?

I force myself to buy a basket of chicken tenders, since I’m pretty sure I’ll get a whole new lecture if I come back empty-handed. Ms. Hatte is surly as ever as she rings up me up, but I can see the urge to offer me a congratulatory fist-bump bristling across her ruddy face. Who better to understand the triumph of Molly Sheridan over the tyranny of Brenda Sikorski than the long-suffering lunch lady?

I throw her a smile as I pay, so she knows I know she’s thinking what I’m thinking.

The food hits my stomach like a wet brick, sending me right to the toilet. I only puke once, but I sit there sobbing for a solid five minutes—not a personal best.

The rain peters off as the school day ends and Ms. Stanz, eventually accepting my parents won’t be reached, lets me go after detention lets out, as the sun’s starting to set behind dense clouds. They probably can’t hold me longer than that? I don’t know.

I also don’t really know where to go, once it’s done, but not really done, because at some point I have to slink my cowardly ass back home and break the news myself.

But some point is any time but now, so I make my way to the roof.

My shoes echo all the way up the desolate concrete stairwell at the back of the building. I glide my hand along the rail and memorize each inconsistent ridge of flecked paint with my fingertips. I take the steps simple and easy, one at a time, no rush.

The first story goes by quick. The second takes a little longer. At the third landing, I wonder if I’ll ever reach the top at all. But somehow, eventually, the big, rust-red access door is staring me in the face.

The metal handle is heavier than a curse word. I push down, and the door creaks its permission. They never lock it. With the appeal of sexting, and clandestine underage drinking parties, and even streaming video, nobody’s stupid enough to waste their precious, beautiful adolescent years on a grimy rooftop.

I text Susan and Jason to come up and kill time on Tumblr—where you can find endless snapshots of the elusive Le Chevalier Gateaux free of charge. When that gets boring, I kick at the dirty puddles left over from the midday rainstorm, watching the branching lines of murky water spreading out across the slate-colored asphalt as the last bits of sunlight slink away.

It’s cold already, once the sun’s gone, and the night’s only getting started.

Before I know it, I’ve sidled my way over to a corner of the roof. With a real, aching effort, I step one curious foot up on the ledge. Everything feels heavier, this high up, like gravity’s doing its damnedest to claim you, like it’s willing to make you struggle for every inch, like you have to earn it.

It takes a while before I’m bold enough to peek out over the edge. Three stories down, a few little students and tiny teachers mill about. The sounds of their chatter, and the soft opens-and-shuts of car doors are like the whispers of a foreign universe, microscopic, when I am so large.

The whir of the rain-dappled exhaust fans fills my ears. The clouds loom above me like a threat, all puffy and dismal—the saddest batch of cotton candy. I heard once that lightning starts from the ground up. I don’t remember why it’s like that, but isn’t it interesting? If I were a thunderbolt, I could go up there too. Just like that. I’d be gone.

The access door emits a sharp groan, giving me a millisecond to adopt a cool, loitering pose, one that screams I know I’m pushing it, being on school grounds with a suspension, but such is the life of a rebel as I turn to face Jason.

“Hey,” he says, slinking out onto the roof cautious as a meerkat. “You okay?”

“Totally.” I take my foot off the ledge and suppress a cringe, when I notice how his hands hold awkwardly limp at his sides. “Pretty rad up here, right?”

Shy smile. “I’ve seen worse roofs.”

I’m about to spool up my roguish, devil-may-care persona when the access door announces another arrival, this time with a bursting metallic clang as Susan jolts it open, panting, barely bothering to catch her breath as she storms over to us.

“Molly, what the hell.”

Goosebumps burst over my skin, the premonition of a cold sweat grabs me. “Nice to see you too, Suze.”

She fixes me with a Susan-caliber expression. “Why are you on the roof?”

“What?”

I’m blushing, nervous chuckling, the whole deal, expecting her to spill the beans. Susan’s never kept a secret in her life—except one, because I cried, and shook, and wrung my hands, and begged her not to tell my parents about it.

“You know what.”

Susan’s simmering reprimand circles us like a bubble—it becomes a radius, preventing Jason from taking more than a meager step towards us. “Ah, you guys all right?”

“Super fine.” I stuff my hands in my jacket pockets to hide how they’re shaking. “Susan’s just weird about the roof—you know, because she’s a neat freak and all.”

Jason nods, silently permitting my dodge. But each time his eyes flick over to me, my skin stretches a little tauter around my miserable shape.

“Molly,” Susan says, name crossing tongue like a guilty verdict.

I take a step back. “Quit it, okay?”

I hated myself the whole time, wishing I hadn’t told the person I respect most in the whole world why I’d wandered up onto this roof, alone, two years ago, and called her with a terror in my voice so thick it sounded fake. It was embarrassing, crying like that, the kind of snotty, fearful sobbing I thought only happened to wimpy protagonists in thriller movies about serial killer stalkers in underground parking garages.

“Chill.” I shift a feeble, nanosecond glance over at Jason, instructing Susan with my eyes. Shut up. Please just shut up already. “I’m not gonna let you ruin the beginning of my beautiful, compulsory week off with this—”

“Yup, just a nice, week-long vacation,” Susan says, frowny faced, but unexpectedly permitting the change of subject. “Lucky you.”

Relief floods my core, potent as hormones. The unburdened breath spilling out of me forces a manufactured grin across my face. “Yeah. I’ll probably, like, take some time to work on my music. Maybe I’ll write that great American novel I keep hearing about.”

“Hey Mol, be serious for even a single second, will you? If you’d hurt Brenda any worse they might’ve kicked you out of school.”

“Not that she didn’t deserve it,” Jason says.

“You guys suck. Why is this my problem? Nobody’s sending her to juvie for almost breaking my nose with a soccer ball, the psycho.”

“You just need to…” Susan pauses. “Take a second and think, you know? If something like this happens again, you can forget college.”

I scrape my shoe against the ground, avoiding both of their gazes. “That’s assuming I haven’t already.”

“Well, then forget Portland.”

I snap my head up, lock eyes with her. “What, you’re threatening me now, mom? Gonna take away my privileges unless I behave?”

“What else should I do? You’re acting crazy, like this isn’t a big deal; people are saying Brenda needs stitches.”

“I didn’t hit her that hard.”

Her hands squirm inside her jacket pockets. “Just admit it. Just say you overreacted.”

“Overreacted?” My throat tightens. I blink. “To, what? Her calling me Chinese for the ten thousandth time?”

“That’s not what I—”

“—Or to the soccer ball in my fucking face—”

“—Fine, be that way! Forget Portland. Forget the food carts—”

“—Or to the time she body checked me into a locker and I had to sit through third period with a waffle print on my goddamn forehead—”

“—Forget the crazy donut place and the Japanese Garden—”

“—Or, just generally, the decade-long campaign of bullshit I’ve endured at her pleasure for no other reason than I—”

“—And, especially, forget stopping at PSU and getting your shitty fucking punk rock shirt back from shitty fucking Jess!”

This is the part when I storm over, get in her face, and deck her—see, I’ve recently proven how goddamn awesome I am at punching people. Give it to her! Let her have it! She deserves it!

Instead, I slap my hand over my eyes, and let out a terrible, awful sound—like a gross animal, something ugly, caught in a trap.

Susan fidgets for a beat, until she has words to spackle over my silence.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “I didn’t mean that.”

“Yes you did,” I say. “I know you don’t like her, I’m just surprised it took you this long to come out and say it.”

“Jess is whatever. What I don’t like is how you act when you’re around her; she turns you into an asshole.”

I grind my heels into the rooftop. “Well too bad she’s three thousand miles away, huh? Otherwise you could pin this whole Brenda thing on her too. Hell, maybe she’s the reason I came up to this roof in the first place.”

For a breath, I revel in how what I said—up on this roof, Suze, this roof—fractures the tension in her face. But in the vacuum left by her vanishing anger, all that remains is the pained twist of her eyebrows as she scrutinizes me, searching her eyes over my skin, seeking all the ways I am broken.

“Molly, please. I’m your friend. I want to help. I just—I feel like I don’t know what’s going on in your head right now.”

My spine coils, compressing me into a hard ball of empty space. I hug my arms around my chest. “Just go home. Leave me alone already.”

And so, she does. It takes a minute to wrench my head back up and look at her. When I finally do, Susan’s already zipping her jacket, turning to go. Her eyes imply the frown her lips refuse to make. “You need to go home. I’ll drive you, if you want.”

I scuff my foot against the roof, shooing her. “Go on, get.”

She spouts some final tidbit of wisdom, but I don’t listen. When she leaves, some awful sector inside of me is happy that she’s gone.

“What a bitch.”

“Hey, you don’t mean that,” Jason says.

“Yeah, I know…” I root inside my pocket for my cigarettes. “I’ll say sorry when I get home.”

“How long will you stay out tonight?”

“Long as I need to.”

“Good plan.”

“Best one I’ve got.”

He looks at me for a while, even after my words push him away, like he wants to tell me something, or ask me something, or give me something. I look back at him, waiting, until the itch at the end of my nose and the tingling in my throat darts my eyes away. I spike a cigarette out of my pack, but it slips between my fumbling fingers and I watch, almost like slow motion, as gravity claims it. It vaults end over end, landing in a puddle at my feet. The speckled paper soaks up the filthy water like camouflage. I cram the pack back into my pocket.

Every quiet second compiles, and compiles, and compiles on top of the last one, until it’s impossible for either of us to speak. So it’s not that long before he stands and says, “Later, Molly.”

Guess we’re not going to be friends anymore.

I plop myself down onto the roof ledge. After the door slams shut with his leaving, I reach into my pocket for the necklace, but it’s gotten all snarled up around my cigarettes. I yank the whole tangle out, angrily unwind the chain, and chuck the pack over my shoulder with a growl. I don’t even watch as it hurtles to the ground below.

I force myself to pause and take a breath. I loop my fingers through the necklace, lifting my hand and letting it sway back and forth above me, caught between me and the fat moon—it’s growing, I’ve decided. When I flick my wrist the links of the chain twist and tangle, roll against each other, shimmering like a waterfall. My cheeks start to sting, when the cold wind starts blowing against my tears; I blame the crying on the chicken tenders too.

Sports practice’ll be letting out soon, and they’ll lock the doors after that. I don’t exactly need the A+ extra burden of explaining to Scott and Kate why I got myself locked in school after hours on top of everything else.

It’s easier, going down the stairs than going up. Here and there, I take them two or three in a single step, almost vaulting, giving into gravity, giddy with the feeling of weightlessness and speed.

I kill some time searching the bushes outside, hoping to find wherever I chucked my pack. Susan sends me a text. I brush it off the lock screen before my conscious brain can process the words and go back to rooting my hands through the grass in the dark. I ignore it, same as I do when my parents start calling me on repeat. My pack is nowhere to be found.

Crap, there were like seven bucks of smokes left in there.

Easy come, easy go, am I right?

I let the calls go to voicemail until I can’t bear the ringtone anymore. I shut off my phone and pull on my knit hat. I stand, and say to the shadows, “Time to face the music.”

Did they rustle in response?

CHAPTER FIVE

 

I found something in the bathroom when I was twelve. I told myself it—my fabricated life—was over, officially, that day. I braced for impact, knowing, sometime soon, that one of them (Scott or Kate, didn’t matter which) would come into my room, tenderly take my hands in theirs, and tell me they didn’t need me anymore.

They drop the hammer. I’m not allowed to leave the house; phone, computer, TV, all privileges revoked. I’m supposed to sit in my room and think about what I’ve done, but mostly I spend my time pretending to do homework and staring at the necklace.

In my wildest dreams it’s a gang symbol. Maybe this is my ticket to a lucrative life of rebellion and crime.

At this point I’ll be excited if it’s a calling card for a secret book club.

Each night I sit in the dark by the window, keeping a close watch in case the girl decides to return. I dare to believe in something special about myself, something that teachers, and school, and Scott and Kate, even Brenda Sikorski, can’t keep clamped down, something this girl has recognized inside of me. I think stupid things like that all through the night until I pass out and wake up in a puddle of drool, with my knuckles throbbing with how tight I gripped the necklace in my sleep.

I cry a lot. Too much.

“What are you going to study today?” Scott asks during breakfast, looking at me with his dumb grey-green eyes that match his dumb grey suit and his gradually going grey hair.

I am staring at my bowl of cereal so I don’t have to look him in the face. “Precalc.”

“Have you thought at all about what you’ve done?”

“Not really.”

“This isn’t a week off. This is a week to analyze what brought you here.”

Beep-boop, goes the Molly-bot. Analyzing: why do I hit girl? Breet-Breet-Breet.

Answer: pending.

I want to figure out how to give him my side of the story. I want to ask him for my phone back, just for one second, so I can text Susan, and explain that I know I “pulled a Molly,” and how sorry I am about the roof—it being a real sore spot and all—but also, quit talking shit about Jess all the time. We’ll make up real quick, like we always do—except how this time feels nothing like “always”—and once we’re friends again, she can tell Scott how I’m feeling, since she’s good at stuff like that and I’m good at absolutely nothing, except mumbling “Okay,” and cramming a spoonful of rice puffs into my mouth before Scott requires any further speech from me.

Scott doesn’t have time to ask anything more, because he’s going to work again; Kate left an hour ago, off to an important, lawyerly meeting. I am alone, with their faith in my obedience extending only as far as the password lock on the family computer, and the knowledge that this house is a perfect prison, as long as there is nothing even remotely interesting about the outside world—nothing within biking distance, anyway.

I go back to my room. I pay some lip service to my textbooks throughout the day. Mostly, though, I just stare at the necklace.

It’s not like I have any serious interest in jewelry. Aside from earrings, most of the stuff I own is from a time when Kate bought me everything that a younger, prettier Kate would want. While I was developing an interest in leather jackets Kate forced me to endure pleated skirts.

Kitteret.

Yeah, right.

I spent a whole year obsessing over what I’d found in the bathroom. It was all I could do: cry, and tell myself the other shoe would fall any day now. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to do something.

I didn’t make any thoughts about it. I didn’t ascribe any purpose to it. It was a thing. It was a thing I did, but so are plenty of other things. Why should this be any different? Because there was blood?

It’s not so bad, living with Scott and Kate. They can be jerks about certain stuff, but they’re mostly okay. There are kids starving all over the planet, right?

On cue, Kate starts calling for me from downstairs. I blink and try to shake the fuzz out of my brain. I didn’t even notice her come home.

“Molly, you’d better be dressed, we’re going to be late!”

Be late for…

Crap, that’s today?

My parents, not trusting me to rehabilitate at home all night by myself, decided that bringing me to a fire station fundraiser tonight in Boston would be the lesser of two evils. Kate had to truck all the way back from her office in the city to pick me up.

She’s stomping up the stairs. I hide the necklace, quick as I can, and do an excellent job of squashing my finger as I slam the drawer shut. I suppress my pained yowl by cramming the wounded finger into my mouth and biting down.

“Molly, it’s time to go!”

My finger throbs like crazy. I squeeze my eyes to will away the tears. “I’m changing. I’ll be down in a minute!”

I’m sure I’ll catch a load of crap for shouting, but it stalls Kate at the door.

I currently own the following clothes that would be considered acceptable for a night with Boston’s high(-ish) society: two skirts, three blouses, and one A-line dress—still with the cheesy dragonfly brooch that Kate got me for my birthday last year pinned to its Peter Pan collar. I snatch that off and chuck it under the bed—a bit too quick, leaving a minor rip in the fabric.

I wasn’t born a dress person. The only reason I have this one is because Kate took me to the store the day after I’d seen this cheesy romance flick and I thought maybe I should own at least one nice dress, on the off chance that I might, some day, have a reason to go into a fancy restaurant to meet my one, true love.

So I picked out the one that looked the most like the one in the movie. It’s okay, the dress, Kate-approved because it’s “simple and elegant” and Molly-approved because it’s “black.”

“Elegant.” Weird word. It can kind of trick you into thinking you’re something valuable; by association, I mean.

So, fine, we’ll do the dress. I pull it half on and gather up whatever makeup is in arm’s reach. I cross Kate’s path as I dash through the hall, giving her just enough time to hit me with that hawkish stare, like I’m the most disappointing field mouse she ever set eyes on.

“Ten minutes,” she says, “whether you’re ready or not.”

I slam the bathroom door behind me.

The harsh fluorescent light calls attention to the dress’s shortness. It ends just above my knees and it’s sleeveless, basically tailor made to emphasize each individual aspect of my persistent fear that I will remain a flat, gangly thirteen-year-old for the rest of my life. The collar’s low, but modest, so at least it doesn’t show off the cleavage I don’t have. I don’t turn around in the mirror. I already know the back leaves part of my birthmark visible. Why rub it in?

It’s okay. It’s fine. You’re going to be with a bunch of old people. They’re not jaguars, they’re barely even pumas.

I take inventory of my smattering of beauty products: eyeliner, eyeshadow, etc—thank god; no lipstick, but I have lip gloss; foundation, blush—no concealer, but that’s fine. I never got the hang of applying it anyway and, honestly, the freckles are the least embarrassing thing about my face.

Kate’s makeup seminars were her most evident attempt at motherly bonding. Fussy tween that I was, I didn’t listen, and ended up taking remedial lessons from online videos. So I don’t have great fundamentals, but I know enough to avoid the raccoon-eye look. I do my eye shadow a bit on the heavy side—maybe a little thick for a fire department fundraiser—but it contrasts nicely with the color of my skin and the dark browns of my eyes.

I give myself a glance in the full-length mirror on the back of the door, appreciating the stellar job I did on my wing liner, when, without thinking, my gaze wanders to the wide, thin scar just above the inner crease of my elbow, high enough to be hidden by most shirtsleeves.

I yelped so hard when drew the razor across the meaty part of my arm that Scott came rushing in, thinking I had slipped in the tub and broken my neck.

I was only thirteen.

A familiar sting winds its tight circle around my guts.

Kate’s banging at the door.

“Oh my god,” I say. “I’m going as fast as I can!”

My snippiness buys a second of dicey silence.

“Five minutes,” she says. “I’ll be in the car.”

I decide on a jacket to cover the scar. My corduroy one would work, but I lost it over the summer. It’s not nearly cold enough for a winter coat, and besides I can’t wear that inside. So it’s between broadcasting my scar to the world and wearing my St. Mary’s hoodie.

It’s baby blue, which clashes with my dress, and that’s not even mentioning the cartoon bobcat on the breast.

Better for them to think of me as a kid than a cutter, I guess.

Outside, the car horn belts out an anxious series of bleats. I consider stomping down there with the heavy boots I got with Jess at the Salvation Army, but, for once, I decide it’s better if I don’t push my luck. I sling on my only pair of dress shoes, flats, and head for the door.

The necklace pops into my head right before I hit the stairs. I scoot back to my room and retrieve it from my desk drawer. I wrap its silver chain around two fingers and press the emblem into my palm. The coolness of the metal feels good against my skin. It’s soothing, quiet.

Out in the driveway, Kate beats the horn loud enough to raise the dead.

I crush my eyes shut and grip a hand over my forearm.

A body has needs. You eat when you’re hungry. You go to bed when you’re tired. That’s why I had to do what I did—with the razor, I mean. I didn’t know how else to vent the pressure.

 

***

 

Whatever idealized vision I had of fancy parties was shattered the instant Scott and Kate brought me to my first one. I figured it’d be like the movies: ball rooms and crystal chandeliers and glamorous ladies in elegant dresses—hey, it’s that word, the “E” one—adjusting their wrists with exquisite precision and indulging in precisely dainty sips from martini glasses. In reality, they take an auditorium, toss a few multicolored paper streamers around, stuff it with stodgy rich people, slap the words “Annual Firefighter’s Gala” on the front door, and call it a night, with not a single martini or glittery Great Gatsby dress as far as the eye can see.

The food’s usually good though.

“What colleges are you applying to?” asks one of Scott’s business associates, a white-haired, red-faced old dude swimming unidentifiably through the endless sea of white-haired, red-faced old dudes populating the firehouse dinner.

“Oh…” I wind the straps of my purse around my wrist. “Well, I hadn’t really thought about it too much. With all the time studying and everything…”

Kate opens her mouth, like to contradict me, but I cut her off with a steely glare there’s no way the old dude missed. He adjusts his tone to an encouraging gruffness. “Plenty of time to make a decision,” he says. “You’re only a teenager once, no sense wasting it all on books. Think you’ll end up in business, like your father?”

“What? Like, in a suit and tie, waddling around an office and typing on spreadsheets?” I punch my imaginary keyboard in an awkward, flailing way. I can’t hold back the laugh. “Yeah right, I’d die.”

“Molly.” Kate hits the syllables of my name so stern even the old guy shifts a little.

Oops.

He cracks a grin, though. “Don’t tell anyone, but, most days, that’s how I feel.”

Hearing my opinion parroted back at me weirdly deepens my distaste for the conversation. I jerk my thumb towards Kate. “Yeah, tell that to her.”

The humor in my voice wouldn’t stand up to heavy scrutiny.

Kate’s gaze bears down on me. I shift on my feet. “But I’m super thirsty. Let me grab a soda and I’ll come right back.”

“I’ll come with you,” Kate says.

I can’t blame her for following, seeing as how I was going try to scam a few beers from the refreshments and make for the ladies’ room. We’re barely ten feet away when she lassos me still with a hand on my shoulder.

“When we’re seated, you’re going to apologize to him.”

“It looked like he was having fun,” I say. “Maybe he thinks I’m, like, quirky.”

“Molly.” Hand shackling my upper arm. “Your behavior is not quirky.”

“Well, I’m more quirky than I am a businesswoman, that’s for sure.” My gut rumbles, my skin goes taut. I don’t fight it. “I’m not trying to mess anything up. I was just making a joke.”

“You can’t go around saying the first thing that comes into your mind,” Kate says. “You know these people are important to your father. You need to have some tact.”

“I don’t even want to be here, Kate.”

And let here be the Annual Firefighter’s Gala, or Bentham, New Hampshire, or the same house as her, or America, or even the planet Earth, if she wants to take it that way.

“Well, because of what you did to that poor girl, you are here. So straighten up.”

That poor girl? Brenda Sikorski? She’s a scourge, a monster!

I set my lips into a thin line. “I didn’t do anything to her.”

“Don’t hand me that. You should be down on your knees thanking the Sikorskis for not pressing charges against you.”

“The Principal said there were mitigating circumstances…” People are starting to watch, though they’re all doing a real varsity-level job of acting like they’re not. “And this isn’t really the time to be talking about this…”

“We wouldn’t be if you hadn’t forced the issue.”

A shivering rush courses through me, starting at my spine and trickling out into my arms and legs. I can’t focus, not with Kate and the greater Boston philanthropic society looking at me. Not with flashes of Brenda’s messed-up faced still echoing in my mind. A real, official blowup. In front of the firemen, and whatever small-time politicians bothered to show up, and the local businesses, and everything.

“Brenda is a tremendous bitch, okay? It’s her fault this all happened, not mine, and I never would’ve hit her if she and her cronies hadn’t made it their explicit purpose to turn my life into an ongoing category five shit storm. Do you even fucking care about my side of the story?”

“Molly, of course we care, but there’s no excuse for that sort of language.”

“Well you didn’t bother to ask me why it happened,” I say. “You just skipped right to the part about how it was my fault! And now you’re acting like Brenda is some… some defenseless…”

It’s too much. It’s always too much. Scott. Kate. Brenda. Soccer balls, and the tightness in my chest. My whole life. Here. Now. I don’t want it anymore. My guts swell into my throat and I taste bile. My hands grip down hard on the faux leather of my purse. I choke.

Kitteret.

Cracks spring up in the dam I’ve built; all those things I squirreled away. I dip a hand into my purse. I find the silver chain and wrap it around my clumsy fingers.

Scott is hustling through the crowd. I’ve probably ruined his entire night. I’ve possibly ruined many of his subsequent nights. He throws himself into the no-man’s land the crowd has made for us—they keep a healthy distance, but no longer bother to hide their stares.

“What’s going on here?” he asks in a gritty whisper.

Time for Scott to present a united front, as if a wave of his shitty hands could magically dispel the fight already in progress; not tonight, he thinks, not tonight; oh, hello there Mr. Andrews; I didn’t know this dinner came with a show—awkward laugh—have you met my weird, irascible, and utterly Asian daughter? Such hijinks she gets into!

“Ask Kate! Ask your stupid wife!”

“We are not going to do this,” Kate says. “Not here, not right now.”

“That’s what I said one minute ago.” I have to force it out. There’s barely enough flex in the tightness of my throat to let the words pass. “Why didn’t you just ask me what happened? I might’ve told you something, for once!”

Kate is speechless. Molly: 1 Kate: 873 (give or take a few dozen).

Not only Kate, the entire dining room is silent.

Without any further prompting the dam splits itself wide open. I throw my hand up in front of my face and bite down on my palm, hard. I want to draw blood. I can’t think of anything else that could stop the crying.

It doesn’t work.

Scott is holding his hands up. “Let’s just everyone calm down.”

Kate keeps her voice low in a feeble effort to dissuade voyeurs. “You know that your father and I love you very—”

“Then why did you try to replace me?”

The words tumbled out of my mouth without asking for permission. A clamp winches shut around my brain. Tears burn down my cheeks. I didn’t say that. I couldn’t have.

Her face does a hard reset. “What?”

But this car’s already teetering two wheels over the edge of the cliff, and all the terror is in the waiting, so why delay the inevitable? “Five years ago? The pregnancy test? Jesus Christ, Kate, you left it in the fucking wastebasket, right where anyone could find it. I wasn’t enough. You were finally going to get what you deserved, a new kid, your own flesh and blood, fresh from the packaging, not broken.”

Her eyes enlarge to dinner plates. Her skin so pale, and her body so rigid, she looks like marble. Scott insinuates himself, shouldering in between the two of us, protecting his wife from his hellion daughter. “Whatever you saw,” he says. “That’s not what it meant.”

“I know what it meant, Scott. You didn’t want me, and I didn’t want you!”

He reaches one of his hands for me, thick and strong, one of them used to be able to fold almost all the way around both of mine…

“Back off!” I shout.

An instant of pressure explodes against my body, leaving a rippling wave of pinpricks across my skin in its wake. The hall echoes with the shuffling of expensive shoes as not just Scott and Kate, but everyone around us, takes a unison step backwards.

I blink, finding myself to be the only person in the room who stood her ground. Molly Sheridan, eye of the—now very silent—storm.

I…

A slow murmur builds, bounding back and forth across my ears, crackling like TV static. The crowd regains their composure by the millimeter, already sparing furtive glances at each other. I slap my palm to my temple, and when I look up, I see nothing but Kate looking back at me, her dark eyes wide, bleeding hurt. Scott’s hand hovers in the air, reaching out for nothing.

I spin away, aiming myself at the nearest way out—fire escape door, big red LEDs shouting EXIT. It’s over. It has to be over. Right now.

The metal door clangs shut behind. After a few gasps of the cold night air my head begins to clear. I turn, expecting to go right back, only to find it’s a one-way door. I’m locked out. Scott is probably seconds behind me.

As I hurry across the street, I make a half-hearted effort at convincing myself that I’m a super-casual action hero, walking away from an explosion without looking back.

But super-casual action heroes don’t sob openly the moment they break line of sight with their parents.

CHAPTER SIX

 

Once in a while I could convince Susan to take exciting, coffee shop-related forays into Boston, so I kind of know the Financial District, but only so far as I’ve walked through it once or twice. During the day it’s super douchey, bankers and brokers with silk ties, holding expensive coffee and walking at a breakneck pace through dense throngs of similarly attired, similarly impatient, similarly coffeed people.

It’s different at night. The streets are dead. I stop at a crosswalk. I look left, I look right, I look behind me. A block or two away in any given direction is a person, or two, or four, and all I can do is pick the route that leads me through the fewest of them.

The buildings are tall, concrete, various heights, but all the same general boxy shape—bunch of stone obelisks, manufactured from the same mold. They’re generics, built for power, not personality, unmoving in the night. I’m tall, but not as tall as them, and I don’t reflect the shiny, big, waxing moon half as well as their squeegee-shined windows.

I hoped I’d calm down as I got farther away from parental intervention, but now the likelihood of Scott or Kate finding me is basically nil, and my nerves are still razor thin.

I stop at a small park. There’s a pair of cute little iron benches just beyond the entrance, white paint washed in a halo of orange lamplight. The wrought metal is cold against my legs. I shiver, and I check that the zipper on my hoodie is up as far as it’ll go.

It’s the Financial District. There are probably cops all over the place—that’s what cops are there for, right? To help you, I think? I think that’s what they do.

Quit freaking out. You’ll be fine.

I’ve just never been in a big city by myself at night before.

I light a cigarette. The smoke bites at my lungs. I jam the pack back into my purse, only to recoil when I’m stabbed by a couple of angry pinpricks.

I pluck the necklace from my purse, cigarette between my fingers, moving carefully so I don’t flick a load of ash over all my stuff. The mild wind puts a spin into the chain and the stupid thing twists and tangles against itself, glistening in the dim light, oblivious.

I stand. I tense my shoulders. I ball my fists at my side. “Back off!”

The wind whistles through the trees. A shadow creeps across the ground. I look up, watching a thick cloud snare its tendrils around the placid moon.

“Back off!” I shout. “Back off!”

But no pressure comes, no pinpricks. My body is inert.

Drunken giggling pitches through the night. On the other side of the park fence, a grinning couple offers me thumbs up of encouragement as they stumble down the sidewalk. I groan and stare down at my shoes, trying to find a way to melt into the ground and disappear.

A dry voice breaks the silence. “Is everything all right?”

I would probably jump right up to the moon, if I weren’t so sick of being startled.

Her face is smooth, chiseled around the cheekbones, but soft in the nose. She’s pale as ice or crystal, with big, red lips. Her eyebrows are thin, and black, and nestled down low over mascaraed eyes of a color that… that doesn’t quite make sense.

“Sorry to interrupt.” I am mute, so she and her effortless smile keep the conversation going. “I only thought someone should ask why you were so upset.”

She has long, black hair in a simple updo. She’s tall. Taller than me, though that might be due to the serious set of pumps she’s sporting—Louboutins, I bet, Power Business attire. Casual as a movie star, with her hands in the pockets of her Burberry coat, which is wide open, even though it’s practically frigid tonight. Her black dress, way fancier than mine, is threaded with silver patterns, hung as if it were stitched directly to her body. Smearing clumsily at the corners of my eyes, my fingers come away smudged and black. Makeup’s screwed. “No, uh… I don’t… I’m fine.”

“Evidently.” Her hand held out—elegant tilt at the wrist—waiting for something. “Carmilla.”

I go to shake hands, even with the cigarette between my fingers and the necklace laced around my knuckles. The silver chain sways forward like a pendulum when I extend my arm. “Uh, Molly.”

The frog in my throat from all the crying makes my introduction way less James Bond than hers.

Carmilla reaches forward, her eyes on the necklace, conspicuously careful in how she avoids it as she plucks away my cigarette. She raises the butt to her painted lips, takes a long drag.

“You have an interesting taste in jewelry, Molly.” She speaks through a leisurely exhale of smoke, her lazy-cat body language limber and slow. “I wonder… Where did you find something like that?”

My stomach coils.

She offers the cigarette back, but the sticky lipstick stain on the filter kind of kills its appeal, you know? I drop it, stub it out with my shoe and root through my purse for a new one. “Would you believe I found it in my parents’ bushes?”

Keep looking away. It’s easier to talk when you’re not looking directly at her.

“I would,” she says. “It’s an interesting thing, that necklace, an old symbol.”

I am looking at her again, a cigarette between my lips, my lighter held in both hands.

Head so warm. Fuzzy feeling in my brain gives me time to think, mull over why I’m not freaking out. Questions lodge themselves in the back of my mind. Who is she? Why does she act like she knows what I am? Why do I think there’s a what that I am? Sticky sensation—gunk, gross; glue under my fingernail, from mindlessly chipping away at the frayed sticker on the lighter. Everything I want to say, or scream, I can’t.

“It’s been a rough night.” I put the lighter back in my purse, my hands were shaking too much to use it anyway. But it’s not my hands, it’s my whole body. I tuck my hair back and put the cigarette behind my ear. “Maybe we can cut to the chase?”

Her smile broadens, leisure-like. “I imagine a girl like you has her share of rough nights.”

My nails dig under the flip-top of my cigarette pack, fraying the paper. I should run. I should call the cops. Maybe a different Molly could be more assertive. Maybe one that didn’t just burst into tears over a fight with her parents. But this one? Right now?

“You’re starting to creep me out…”

“Take a deep breath. Hold it.”

I comply before I stop to think why I should. My lungs expand hard into my ribs.

Carmilla folds her hands in front of herself, waiting patiently—pleasantly, even. The most natural smile I’ve ever seen. Smooth as a runway model, but the little crease in her homely-round nose keeps her from looking too plastic. Her eyes are the sort of shining red you get from a camera flash. Not a… not a… I shake out my head and keep my breath held. When I look again, her eyes are blue. The color is dizzyingly deep, pale as a crystal glacier, dark as the bottom of the ocean.

Heat rushes to my cheeks. I exhale.

There it was—a second heartbeat inside my chest, just slightly out of time with my own.

“Good,” she says. “Now, will you tell me what happened tonight?”

“I made everyone back off.”

“Everyone but me,” she says. The motion of her eyes draws mine. They tick gently left to right, right to left, pure orbs of some indeterminate color—or, every color, all at once. “Why did you do that?”

“I was scared.”

“No,” she says. “They were scared of you.”

That heartbeat, now that I’ve noticed it, clogs my chest and compresses my lungs. The fogginess inside my head is as comfortable as a quilt.

Her hand laces around my clenched fist, opening my palm, turning it up. I don’t resist. How could I? It takes everything I’ve got just to remember my name.

No bother, she remembers it for me. “You have a hard road ahead, Molly.” She reaches into my purse and finds a pen—no big thing, for a stranger to do that, what’s the bother? She opens it, letting the cap fall where it may. “An ordinary girl might be happy to go back to where she came from tonight, back to warmth, back to family”—her eyes flit to the side, over my shoulder—“but I know you are not an ordinary girl.”

I suppress a shiver, push against the pressure and the chill of the metal nib etching across my palm—but that’s nowhere near as cold as her fingers gripping me, turning me.

Finished writing, Carmilla releases my wrist. “You may have a question or two of your own. In that case—tonight, if you’re feeling courageous, or any other night—that might be a good place to look.”

I grasp for her arm, but she’s already moved away.

“Be patient,” she says.

Quickly, so I don’t seem rude, I glance down at my hand. Pearl Street, it says.

When I look up, she’s gone.

 

***

 

Boston is a maze of crappy, tiny, twisty-turny streets—everybody says it’s because the city, like, literally just built roads wherever the cows decided to walk. It’s nuts. Who does that? Cows, I guess. Cow farmers?

It’s stupid, what I’m doing. 100% Official, No-Doubt Crazy.

Or maybe I’m crazy and I hallucinated the whole thing.

I look at the address on my hand. Pearl Street. Did I hallucinate that part too?

Screw it.

I can’t look for directions because my phone is at home, locked up in Kate’s secret hiding spot, but my here-and-there memory of the street names is enough to keep me on a forward trajectory. So I make it to Pearl Street easily enough.

…after I psyche myself up enough to ask a passing couple which way it is…

I spend the next ten or fifteen minutes of walking trying to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be looking for. It would’ve been nice if mystery lady gave me, you know, an address number to go along with the street name—but I guess that wouldn’t have been, like, mysterious enough. So cool. Anyway, staring at every darkened office building I pass and trying to figure out if it represents the exact specific brand of mystery is a good distraction from the nervy-pukey sensation of having forced myself to talk to strangers in public. Whatever. It should be obvious, right? I should know. It should just jump out at me.

It does just jump out at me.

Tucked away between two pretty nondescript buildings on a pretty nondescript street I find a bar, the writing on the sign above the blacked-out glass doors is so fancy I can hardly read it; some French name, flourished at the end with a neon rose, deadly pink against the weathered brick wall.

So it doesn’t so much jump out at me. But like… come on, how could it be anywhere else?

I scout it out from a safe distance. The building gives off a real gothy vibe, but the crowd, for the most part, dresses like the richy-riches of Scott’s charity dinner (a few decades younger, on average). Among the obviously rich and powerful are a few college types, all doing their best to match the dress code and the demeanor. My outfit will fit in at least as good as theirs.

It’s cold, so I don’t really want to lose my hoodie, but there’s no way I’m passing myself off as the cultural elite while wearing something with a stitched-on mascot. So I tug it off, cram it into my overfull purse as best as it’ll fit. Between that and my smeared makeup, I’m sure I look like a nouveau riche bag lady, but I don’t want to throw it away and have no jacket to wear home.

No one pays me any particular mind as I slip into the line, so it feels like a major waste, expending so much effort on looking casual. The couple in front of me is talking about cars, specifically the car he owns and she adores. They talk about cars the whole time we’re waiting. Is this what people talk about at fancy nightclubs? I thought this was going to be… different? Special? Magical?

This is the place, isn’t it?

The tension in the air is fit to burst, though god knows if anyone can tell but me. None of them act like their body is on edge. None of them act like some bizarre electricity is tickling at the curves of their eyelashes. My heart is rattling inside my chest like a broken steam engine, faster and faster the closer we shuffle to the door.

This has to be the place.

The bouncer’s this scrawny, scarecrow-tall woman with a buzzed head, penguin suit, skinny tie. She’s got a pair of sunglasses perched on her broad nose—it’s nighttime, idiot—probably just so she can look suave lowering them as he inspects each person in the procession before nodding them through. The couple in front of me stops talking about cars and starts doing a really good job of looking like they can’t be bothered to care. She asks them a question, swipes something on her tablet, and lets them through.

I do my best disaffected stoop when it’s my turn for inspection. She looks me over. “Name?”

This is taking longer than it did for the other patrons. The sweat prickles up on my skin. “Molly?”

Her nostrils flare. “Last name?”

I blink more often than I strictly have to; it feels like my brain is shorting out. “Uh, Sheridan.”

She doesn’t even do me the dignity of scrolling down her tablet. “Not on the list.”

I lean back, mimicking the body language of the couple before me, and lower my brows. “I don’t think Carmilla will be very happy with you if you turn me away.”

“If I ever meet a Carmilla, I’m sure she won’t.” I bite the inside of my cheek to shock away the shame as she continues her thought. “We appreciate your interest. Next time, confirm you’re on the list.” A curt laugh peals out from one of the ladies behind me. I skulk away like someone spanked me on the nose with a newspaper.

I glower at the crowd from across the street. There’s no magic here, no mysteries, just a bunch of douchey rich people blabbing about their douchey cars.

Sure do love the taste of them sour grapes.

Maybe Carmilla just psyched me out. Maybe this was all some rich lady’s idea of a joke.

But some part of my body still feels like it’s on fire. And it’s not just nerves. It’s more than nerves. She knew about the necklace. Or, she acted like she did. She knew about me.

Whatever that means.

Kitteret.

The cobblestone alley around back looks like the alley behind every bar in every movie I’ve ever seen. Stray newspapers, a few cases of empty beer bottles, and a green dumpster. The smell’s not so bad—not until I get a whole lungful of it while I’m clambering on top of the dumpster so I can peek through a window.

Here I am standing on a trashcan in the nicest shoes I own, looking through a grimy window, and on the other side of the glass is the definition of opulence: black marble sinks striated with veins of white; spotless mirrors; high ceiling, pristine floor, both of them this checkerboard pattern of black and white.

I lean my weight against the window. It edges open, just a crack.

Well okay then.

Beneath my testing push, the window produces an anxious creak that is definitely heard by not just the bouncer out front, but by every bouncer in the city. I freeze. It’s a good long minute until my curiosity outweighs my fear of angry police officers materializing behind me.

This is way past the point of no return, Mol.

The window is silent as long as I open it slowly. Once I have it completely open I can, little by little, get my upper body through the tight space, though it takes more grunts than I’m comfortable with, and more kicking of my legs than you’d strictly call cool.

The hard part is over. I’m inside—half of me is, anyway—bent forward at the stomach, pivoted against the windowsill. I just have to get one leg up and over and I’ll be through. Doesn’t go easy. My dress isn’t exactly form fitting, but I’m sure as hell wishing for a comfy pair of jeans right now. It takes two tries before I get my knee atop the sill. Everything else should just be a matter of gravity.

As I’m scooting forward, pulling my other leg up, the flat of the sill hooks my knee and I careen inside in an awkward, plummeting spiral. Landing on the hard tile hurts bad, but nowhere near as bad as the embarrassment of a yelp I release when I dash ribs-first against the floor.

Screw gravity.

From this angle I have a clear view under the stalls. They’re all empty. Lucky me.

I kick myself out of the daze and gradually, achingly stand myself up against one of the sinks. I look myself over in the mirror. My makeup is completely blotched, ten times worse than I imagined; no wonder the lady outside wouldn’t take me seriously. I wet a paper towel and deal with the gunky streaks as best I can, but I’m not going to win any awards tonight, except for “Best Emo,” maybe.

Through the bathroom’s thick wooden door, the somber, groaning bass line beckons me through, silky as a present, hard as a promise.

Opening the door and striding out—act as if, Mol, pretend like you belong—I nearly crash face first into an abstract stone sculpture as tall as me, pitted, rectangular blocks fixed together in a strange conglomeration. The two square blocks at the top could be heads facing off, and the long rectangular one stretching the length of space below them suggest a couple embracing—or maybe fighting?

Given the line outside I figured this was a nightclub, like you see in rom-coms: one of those fancy, overwrought places—dark neon lighting, pretentious music, peppy girls in expensive dresses and suave guys in popped polos balancing hyper-color drinks and pretending to be completely uninterested in one another.

No, this is an art gallery. So, woah, never been in one of these before.

But in movies, art galleries are usually brightly lit things. White walls and fancy tables lined with trays of intricately constructed finger food—you know, buffalo mozzarella canapés with olive oil drizzles. Here, the only light comes from somewhere hidden, up in the ceiling tiles, blazing spotlights illuminating installations like the sculpture before me, or splashy paintings of abstract color, and cloaking the rest of the floor in obverse shadows. The heavy bass melody plays like a dirge. People are clustered into small groups, chatting, moving around a little, here and there spending all of two seconds to actually look at the art.

Cutting through a circuitous maze of installations, I find the bar, which emerges from the floor as if it was cut from the same block of marble. Behind it, a broad guy with olive skin and short, curly hair is chatting up a customer.

Pretty sure I’ve earned a drink.

I wait for my turn and try to ignore the hitching pain in my side—whatever happens tonight better be worth the serious bruise I’ll have in the morning.

The bartender shouts above the rumble of the music, “What do you need?”

“I’m—” I clear my throat, amp up my volume a couple decibels, so he can hear me. “I’m looking for someone. Tall, black dress, dark hair.”

He waves a hand toward the gathered crowd, many of whom are tall, black-dressed, and dark-haired.

This is the place, isn’t it?

“How about another girl? Black hair, but short. Leather jacket. Attitude.”

“Listen…” Already throwing his attention towards the next customer.

This has to be the place.

“Wait. I’ve got this thing.” I root through my purse and yank out the necklace. The chain glitters in the light and he practically flinches backward, like I flung piss at him. I retract on instinct, clutching the necklace close to my chest.

“I’ll have a vodka tonic.” The woman beside me levels an imperious set of eyebrows at the bartender. “Her too.”

Even though he scans me over like he’s got an underage drinker-detecting microchip behind his eye, he puts a pair of glasses on the bar.

Give it up for the unexpected assist!

My savior’s Asian, way shorter than me, hair slicked back, minute pockmarks peppering her cheeks like inverse freckles, sporting a brown dress shirt and designer jeans—Diesel, or some other ritzy brand, the kind whose pre-distressed patterns are so perfectly frayed they travel through time and put the lie on every pair of cheap knockoffs I’ve ever bought. Her lip gloss, purple, and big hoop earrings, steel, clash against the ghost-pale color of her skin. She explores the bar with her fingers, tracing its grooves with an unconscious curiosity as she watches the bartender work.

“Thanks,” I say. “I’m not usually—”

She pivots all of ten degrees. Brown eyes rove my face for half a millisecond. My nerve endings seize up; I’m back in the principal’s office. “Don’t mention it.”

I flinch, noticing her hand around my bicep—atta girl squeeze.

The conflicting temperature of her touch is like when the shower faucet hits you so hard you can’t tell if it’s hot or if it’s cold. A pulse of her heartbeat twins with mine. The music rolls thick pressure against the back of my skull.

“And put that away,” she says. “Not that kind of crowd.”

I shove the necklace into the small key pocket on the hip of my dress. Jeez, sorry about offending everyone with my stalker’s shitty taste in jewelry.

The bartender deposits our glasses in front of us, slim, tall ones with thin red straws, capped off with cut limes. Ice cubes clink and glimmer against each other, crystal-clear carbonation bubbling over the rims as he slides them over. The woman picks up hers adroitly, tiny napkin and all, before sliding off to the side. I grab mine and get out of the way before the bartender yells at me.

She pauses in front of a thorny metal sphere woven from corroded copper vines. Suspended from the ceiling by invisible wire, illuminated by a trio of spotlights, it casts bizarre replicas of its shape on the cracked wall behind it.

I practically give myself a head rush, slurping up booze through the cartoonish miniature straw. I’m a third of the way through before the bitter taste catches up with me, forces me clear for air. Tonic water, ugh.

I steal a glance at my partner in crime. Tonic water doesn’t bother her, I bet—though how could you tell, with that granite face of hers?

“Carmilla,” I whisper—secret password? I don’t know. Give me something!

She tilts her head, doesn’t say a word. Staring forward, she calculates the interweaving circuits of vines. The lights accent every bizarre blotch of its corroded barbs, how the blemishes start in this patina of grimy green, and push up into a filthy, corrupted white at the apex of each thorn, like the head of a boil.

I swirl the straw through my drink. So… great. What do I do now, aside from get excited that I got served alcohol at my first real-live bar?

A pressure-hunch claims my shoulders, can’t seem to wriggle them loose. My bicep flexes, testing the outsized memory of her touch. My fingers are thickened and slow. The air seems tangible. If I concentrated hard enough I could snatch up a handful of it. It’s too hot in here. Now that I’m standing still I can sense the tremble in the air, like a subliminal but more persistent version what happened at the dinner. There’s too much energy in this room, too much for a room of people in suits and dresses, standing stock-still and shouting over loud music they aren’t even listening to.

I test the spot where she touched me with two fingers, wondering at the coolness that lingers, layered atop my skin. The squeeze on my skull descends, creaking in my vertebrae, shaking up my lizard brain. It’s everywhere; invisible, but you can’t look away. There’s a pack of girls ten feet from me, the type of girls that Brenda Sikorski will grow up to be, having a good time, chattering on, oblivious. Can’t they feel it? Don’t they know they’re in—

Before my brain catches up I scream out. “No, don’t!”

Sound of shattering as my drink hits the ground, splash of cold against my legs. Everyone in a five-foot radius is staring at me. I grip my purse in front of me like a shield.

I’m jostled from behind. I restrain my outburst to a sudden cringe of my shoulders, and a hop that pulls me away from the hand on my arm. I turn, finding myself just about face-to-face with a well-dressed guy, brown hair, sharp grey suit. His eyes are this deep, inscrutable color.

Red, I swear they’re red.

“Everything all right?” he asks.

“Looking for…”

Maybe I say it just to have something to say—that’s the point of this, right? That’s why I’m here, in this creepy, freaky, utterly normal place.

I look away. Eyes fall on a woman in a dazzling umber dress, holding casual conversation a human paint splatter, its formless skin red and gold, garish beneath the lights.

My breath billows, trapped in my chest, only able to escape in a wheeze; heh-heh-haaah.

Turn back. In front of me, no more man—a squat, hook-nosed gargoyle perched upon a tall pedestal. An extending bead of spittle dribbles from its sad-flesh lips. Droopy and long, they hang from the gargoyle’s face like the saddest aardvark snout.

The gargoyle’s jitter-twitch eyes scan me. Its shoulders are slack, one-hand-in-pocket relaxed [but statues have no pockets], as it waits for me to tie off my dangling participle—looking for… looking for… a what? A who? A you?

I whip my head to look at my quickly-bored-of-me hero—who has really sunk in the role, her interest in me inscrutable, faced with only the back of her head—or what was her head.

Out from the collar of her fancy shirt grows the metal ball, its barbed creeper vines animating in lethargic heartbeat or spasm, curling against one another and testing the limits of their circumference. Speckled motes of green-white corruption bloom and contract in pantomime breath as the thorny sphere observes its mirror image, hanging complacently before her.

Around me, the crowd whispers. Christmas bells tinkle and crunch as my shoes slip through the spilled drink and shattered glass. The red-and-gold splash man glowers eyelessly in my direction. Flash of white, chatter-clack of sound as he turns to his date, a conjoined collection of human-stone blocks, hard suck of air through human teeth as if to inquire “What’s her problem?” and the human-stone shrugging its blocky shoulders as it turns pointedly away, to enjoy a rectangular shriek of flesh and bone mounted in an ironic flower-print frame on a faux-wall.

The air compresses inside my lungs. I can feel their heartbeats: all of them, and his too. They all beat in a tick-tock rhythm, vaguely in sync, all wanting the same thing. Some urgent need for…

Heh-heh-haaah.

I elbow past him and barrel through the Art Monster crowd. I burst into the bathroom and slam my back against the door after it swings shut. I take a deep breath.

Sink. Walls. Floor. Stalls. Regular things. Things you use, things you sit on.

Okay, okay, okay.

I go to the sink and splash some water on my face. It’s cold and it runs down my cheeks and drips off of my nose in little plips. I look in the mirror. It’s me. Normal me.

Except for the radiance burning on my skin, the oval flare of pure white ensconcing my upper arm.

Heh-heh-haah.

A baseball knot asserts its angry presence between my shoulder blades. I clamp down on my wheezing. Breathe, Mol. Do that thing. You know, the thing what were you bring air into your lungs and it keeps you alive or whatever.

A hushed creak of hinges. The scrape of stone against the floor as the gargoyle enters. Scraggly claws wrap around the door, urging it to close slowly, quietly.

Heh-heh-haah.

The door is shut. The gargoyle turns on its perch, facing me.

“Sorry to interrupt…” Thirsty slurp of its slobbery lips. “You said you were looking for your friend?”

I put my back to the sink. “I-I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here.”

The bathroom lighting is soft; doesn’t do it any favors. Its stone skin is liquid pale. Its eyes retain the deep, intangible color of the man’s. Red. They’re definitely red.

Heh-heh-haah.

The lights flicker-click their dissatisfaction. The gargoyle approaches by lifting a corner of its pedestal and lurching clumsily forward. “I could say the same about you, couldn’t I?”

“No, I—”

The marble floor emits a screech of indignity as the pedestal scooches itself towards me, an inch at a time. “The girl you were looking for: black hair, leather jacket, attitude? That’s Claire. She’s not here tonight.”

Its voice is even. It’s easy to listen to. My shoulders unwind. Some part of me, some tiny part, is telling me to run out the door, and I want very badly to obey to it.

“How do you know her?” I say… or, I remember I say it.

With a groan of tired gears, the gargoyle distends its beak. Pasta-slurp noise, the threaded line of his spittle scintillating like a string of pearls. “Nights like this, she’s usually at a different place. Why don’t I take you there? We can go together.”

I can’t think of anything I’d like more.

It’s closer now, almost touching me.

Or was it always there? Hard to remember.

I take its arm.

When did it offer it?

Its eyes are very, very red.

 

***

 

My purse slips from my fingers and hits the ground before I… before I…

Why am I outside?

My back is against the wall. I am choking.

When did we go outside?

He’s in close. His hand is in my hair.

“Stop,” I say.

His lips wake sharp tingles in my neck. Freezing, like they’re stealing the heat right out of me. There’s a light pinch. His teeth intrude. The wash of my blood is scalding hot, burning me through, erasing the chill of the night air.

“Stop,” I say, this time only in my head.

My hand scrabbles up the back of his neck. He tenses his jaw as a warning. I scream, but no sound emerges; his digging teeth have sealed my mouth shut.

I grind my nails down as hard as they’ll go. An indistinctly angry sound spurts out of him. His teeth dislodge and his grip loosens, but only because he needs the space to strike me.

Impact locks the vertebrae in my neck. I crash back into the wall. My blood, his lips, he wipes it away with the back of his hand. He reaches out, to grab me.

I throw my arms in front of my face. He gets a hand around my wrist, and I stumble forward. A meaty crack bursts out of the space between us, a heavy, throbbing punch. He is tumbling away from me. I look down at my hands.

Did I do that?

No, she did; the bleachers girl; Claire.

She shakes out her wrist in a snapping motion. She doesn’t look at me. She looks at him.

Her punch wrenched him away from me, sprawled him out like he was nothing. He’s on all fours now, knees stained with the toxic-yellow, dirty water of alley runoff.

At least he’ll have a hell of a dry-cleaning bill.

My legs turn to jelly. I squeeze my palm against my split-open neck. My knees buckle. I slide down the wall.

Claire takes one hyper-aggressive step forward, but he whips back onto his feet, superman fast, before she can finish the job. She relents, moving sideways, edging her body between him and me. She twists her feet. There has never been a sound as satisfying as the scrape of cobblestone under her boots.

When she exhales it is metered, and she does not move, not for anything. His eyes slit into little lines, and when he bares his teeth in a growl I’m sure I see fangs. Fangs.

He’s a couple feet away. It might be a trick of the light.

He bit through your neck, moron. He’s a goddamn vampire, that’s the only explanation.

Vampires exist.

Claire is shorter than me and, up close, seems younger than I expected. She’s got a soft face, a pug nose, and a deep scar on her left cheek—like a micro-Marianas, deep purple. At this distance, even with the scattering of ear and eyebrow piercings, even with her lower lip curving into a snarl around the thick-gauge piercing at its corner, even with her broad shoulders roiling under her beat-up jacket, she hardly looks dangerous at all.

She flinches forward an inch, feigning a charge. The man—the vampire—buys her bluff and comes at her, rage uncorked, sweeping out angry punches with wild fists. She has her hands open, palms out and up around her chest. Each time he swings she retreats a step and whacks his arm away like he’s a bad puppy.

Bit by bit, it hurts a little less to breathe. I can move if I really force it. My hands go flat against the ground. Hard to ignore the squelch of grime beneath my fingers. I push myself as hard as I can and nearly get up into a squat before I lose it and collapse right back onto my ass.

Another second. Just give yourself another second.

Claire’s strikes are fluid. He flails at her, but she swipes each blow off target, angling her body out of reach and using his momentum to keep him off balance. Judo? It’s usually judo. I bet judo.

But it’s a losing proposition. The backs of her boots hit the wall behind her. No more kung-fu moves, she’s run out of room.

Her body automatically reacts, coiling itself down into a wound spring. When the next blow comes, she’s ready for it. Instead of sweeping it away she parries with both hands. He careens off balance, she hops forward to fill the gap. Hands around the back of his neck, she jerks him right into her headbutt. His scream barely covers the crunch of his cartilage.

She rebounds off of him. He slaps a hand over his face to staunch the black blood that now spills between his clenched fingers (black—his blood is black). He overcompensates, flailing for support, and sprawls out over an overturned garbage can.

Claire snaps around at the waist to look at me. “Get up,” she says, hand out, furtive glances between me and him. Urgent. Ticking-clock-on-the-dynamite urgent. “Now.”

I reach for her, but she snaps away when she sees my eyes go wide.

His fingers snare in her hair and he uses his grip to ricochet her face off of the wall above me. She pinwheels around, tripping out a pirouette over her clunky boots and hitting the ground face first. Her chin clacks against the cobblestone. Blood spills from her bashed nose and down over her chin, crayoning out in deep red lines all over the filthy ground.

“What, you thought it would just be fledges?” His voice creaks like an old wooden door—not suave, not anymore. “You thought they wouldn’t smell you?”

He speaks to me, but he’s looking at the wall, looking at the spattering of Claire’s blood against it. He drags his fingers through the speckled mess, presses those bloodied digits against his extended tongue, tickles the disgusting pink muscle over every drop.

I’ve got a front-row seat to the stars in her eyes. Big, brown eyes, spinning and spinning.

“Get up.” I nudge her shoulder with the toe of my shoe. “Get up.”

The tight lines in the vampire’s cheeks hesitate and relax. A climactic smile spreads a shudder through his body.

He’s moving toward me, stopping only to aim a sharp kick at Claire’s side. She cries out, tries to crawl away, but another kick squashes that notion. I push my numb palms against the brick wall and wriggle myself upright. When his hands go for my body, I pounce.

He’s on me, moving in faster than a breath, thick hand around my neck. Doesn’t bother with the formalities, simply applies a hard pressure—snuffing me out, like a candle.

Like it’s even possible for my heart to beat faster, it does. I can feel his pulse echo in my veins. It’s not a slow thump anymore; it’s a frantic throb that surges through his chest and forces its way into my throat, strangling me worse than his hand.

I don’t want to die! My hands squirm against his grip. I choke. It hurts to blink. He’s moving closer. His face is right there. His fangs. My body is vibrating. Can’t breathe. I squeeze my eyes shut.

Can’tbreathecan’tbreathecan’tbreathe—

A thunderclap resounds through the alley. He’s holding his hand at the wrist like he grabbed a hot pan. It’s… fractured, fingers twisted, bones smashed to bits. No blood, no nothing; it’s just pulped.

I hear him screaming bloody murder over what I—what I?—did to him, but I can’t tear my eyes away from my hands. That prickling feeling spreads across my skin in waves so ferocious I almost retch. I can feel every molecule inside me; they’re all shaking. The sensation consumes all of my attention. The throbbing in my joints sears each time I scrunch my fingers up.

He lurches forward. I duck to the side and barely avoid him crashing into me. I cower, throwing my arms in front of my face.

The attack never comes.

It can’t, not with Claire on his back like a howler monkey. She’s got her legs around his torso, boots dug into his gut. Without a good angle to grab her, he turns and throws himself backwards, battering her between him and the wall of the club. Once. Twice. I swear the building shakes.

Claire doubles down on her grip. A vein strains against his forehead; the muscles of his neck curl like hungry vines. His remaining hand grabs her around the fingers she’s got up in his hair. He goes to slam her again, one final push.

He doesn’t get the chance. Like it’s nothing, like it’s a thing you do, Claire’s teeth are at his throat. She digs in deep and his neck responds with a fleshy pop. The sound that spools out of him is not a powerful one, not a frightening one. Claire’s head furrows down and her teeth reassert their grip. Then, with a snap of her neck, his throat comes apart in a mass of torn flesh and a gout of horrible bile.

Not blood, can’t be.

It’s thick. Like ooze. Black. Viscous. Hardly fluid at all. It splatters against the wall and streams sloppily down in chunky rivulets. He claws futilely at the maw of ragged flesh where once there was a throat. He’s done fighting. He regrets his decision. He wants to go home.

Claire won’t allow it. She doesn’t let go until the thrashing stops, until his body, brain already long dead, no longer has the will to stand. His legs collapse and he crumples to the ground. Claire propels herself off his plummeting corpse. She lands with an easy poise, a ballet dismount.

She spits, hawking out what remains of him like a gristly loogie, and throws a couple kicks into his still body.

Then she stops. There’s a sticky, gurgling sound. She jerks her head to the side, throws her arm against the wall, and proceeds to puke her guts out.

It’s gross, but I can sympathize.

I avert my eyes, only to come face-to-face with the icky mess of supernatural damage. The sticky sap rolls down the wall above me. The stink of death sets off my gag reflex. I can still feel the tingle in my extremities. I look down at my hands. I…“Claire…?” I ask.

Confusion washes over her face, brief; she shakes it off, standing me up and forcing me into motion. I grasp for my purse, but am only able to grab the sleeve of my hoodie sticking out of the flap as Claire yanks me down the alley. I follow, hoodie trailing behind me like a security blanket. I grip it so hard my nails welt my palm right through the fabric.

We burst out into fresh air and foot traffic, back into the real world. Here we look almost like normal people, not ones involved in a supernatural street fight.

Just an ordinary street fight.

Claire wipes off as much blood as she can onto her jacket. Red blood, human blood; it worms its way into the cracks in the leather. I lean against a parked car and catch my breath in uneven gulps. People, regular people, winding their way to and from regular bars, are staring at us.

She has her hand out in traffic. It takes four taxis before one finally pulls over, and maybe he only stopped because he wasn’t looking hard enough. By the time he’s saying “No, no, no,” she’s already thrown me into the back seat. She crams a pair of crumpled bills into the money slot. “I’ll pay for the goddamn car wash, go!”

Sufficiently bribed, he does.

Claire barks some address at him, once we’re moving. She leaves me alone. She’s got better things to do, like dab her T-shirt at her smashed nose, like hunch forward at the waist and swear up a major storm.

I remember her voice from that night in the parking lot. This vague idea of a southern accent, something I’ve only heard on television. She doesn’t drawl or anything, but it’s stamped all over the funny emphasis she puts on the wrong syllables and the way she likes to chop the vowels out of her words, slurring ns and rs on either side of them to fill the space between.

I peer at her, over and over, waiting for the time when I look back and she’s something else, something not human—an animated inkblot, a human diorama, another CG movie Art Monster come to life.

Doesn’t happen, she stays as human as they come, and I doubt any still life could capture the foul fume of that face, the anxiety grip of her scraped-knuckle fingers, the furtive swipe of her hand against her nosebleed, repeated in time and space cycle, an eternal nervous tic, never relieved. I don’t know whether to thank her for saving me, or ask really politely why the hell she was stalking me, or get mad and up in her face about it, or… or…

I take stock of my own wounds. The bleeding has stopped, I think. I’ve got some bruises around the stomach—I know because touching there makes me wince—but I am generally intact. Chin up, Mol, scars give you street cred. Maybe this gaping neck wound is your zip-line to the top of the high school hierarchy.

Wait, do zip-lines go up or just down?

It hurts pretty bad…

I peel my hand away from my neck. I was squeezing around the bites like he got me in the jugular. What a baby; I’m still alive, so his teeth probably missed all the really important bits.

The cab is dark. The radiance has left me. Fingers tent over that spot on my arm, begging for some lingering vestige of the hot-cold aura to return to my skin. A slick sensation. My fingers pull away slowly, breaking the surface tension of some invisible sea, and I observe the streaks of grimy war paint I have inadvertently drawn on my skin.

I bring my hands, stained and wet, in front of my face. I do a double take—in the darkness my blood looks black. Each time we pass a neon sign or a street lamp it turns to red again, but only ever for a fleeting second.

I look for something to wipe with. I’d feel weird about doing it on the seats. I have my hoodie, bundled up at my feet at the bottom of the cab. I’d feel less weird about that than using my dress, like I have this idea that wiping my hands on my dress would somehow dirty it more than rolling around in a disgusting alley already has, like I have to keep it at exactly this level of damage, otherwise when I go home Kate will get mad at me.

If I keep it how it is now—torn at the hem, a wet spot on the ass fumigating the cab with the stench of spilt beer and way worse, and this huge, blotchy bloodstain spiderwebbing down the top—then everything will be fine. No no, no more blood, Molly. Right now, this amount of blood, this is something you and Kate will laugh about when you’re twenty-two and she’s fifty-two, and you’re back from your final semester at college, and you’re having wine together in the kitchen. Kate offered wine because she’s finally acknowledged you as the adult you are, but you would’ve preferred a mojito because that’s what you and your girlfriends drink back at school, and anyway you’ve never gotten over the first time you had wine, when you were fifteen, and it came from a box, and you drank too much of it and spent ten minutes horking into Mrs. Toby’s azalea bush while Susan flailed her arms behind you and babbled about how this was definitely alcohol poisoning, and we should definitely call an ambulance, and oh-my-god we are in so, so, so much trouble.

Not Kate’s wine, though. Kate’s wine doesn’t come from a box, and she pours it into glasses, not plastic cups you snatch from the garage. Kate and Scott own good wine glasses, and tonight’s the night she’s finally decided to use them, so she can get a little tipsy—only enough to get the conversation flowing, she’s not a lush—and rehash old stories with her beloved daughter. ‘Wasn’t that just so funny, Molly? Remember when you came home after cursing me out and embarrassing me, and you stunk like a dumpster full of dead bodies and stale booze, and you were horrifically wounded, and your dress was covered in blood? But just the right amount of blood, the funny amount of blood. Good thing you didn’t wipe your hands on it!’

I clench my fists in front of my face and I swear to god they squelch—no they don’t, I’m such a whiner. I squeeze my eyes shut. This ache of power still surges out from my knuckles. I forgot, for one blissful second, that five minutes ago I detonated like a Molly-nuke, but my body didn’t. My fingertips seize with blasts of invisible lightning, and when I clench them down into a fist they vibrate so quickly it’s like they might explode all at once.

“He did something to me…” Tremble of my voice, reedy words working out of me.

“Not here,” she says.

“I… I saw things.”

Claire slaps a hand around the back of my neck and wrenches me halfway across the cab. Head flick towards the taxi driver. “Not. Here.”

Bolts of pain shoot up my neck and through my jaw. “Fuck, Claire!”

The driver could see it as a girl putting her younger, dumber friend on blast for participating in some risky club-related behavior.

Superficially, that is accurate?

“Who the hell is Claire?” She lets me go, staring at me with a face like a dry sponge. “Why do you keep saying that?”

“I—you are?”

“Shay,” she says, lips tight, the lower one all scrunched up at the corner, around her piercing.

“What’s ‘Shay’?”

“Me.”

Then she releases me, shifts back to her side of the cab, stink eye curtailing any retaliation on my part. She thumps her head back against the headrest, pinched scowl aimed at the ceiling.

I liked you better as a Claire.

The start-and-stop traffic is making my head spin. I slump against the door instead of taking action or asking the important questions. I look down, focusing on my shoes to keep myself from throwing up, and the torn hem of my dress mocks me from my peripheral vision.

 

That’s the end of the sample! If you’d like to see the rest of the story, you can pick it up over at Amazon ! 100% of the proceeds for The Dead-Side Girl go to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and you can find me on social media on twitter and tumblr

Thanks for reading!

Dave


The Dead-Side Girl (sample version)

“When I look at my hands long enough, my blood starts to boil.” There’s something wrong with Molly Sheridan. Seventeen years of being too tall, of having the wrong hair, the wrong face, the wrong skin color. Now they're telling her she's a werewolf, and suddenly it all makes sense. She'll have a pack. She'll finally have somewhere she belongs. Whoops, never mind—turns out she’s the wrong type of werewolf too. Molly is a Kitteret, a rare creature whose traumatic legacy breeds suspicion among her newfound kin. Roused by the strange power lingering in her blood, the voices of the dead rebound inside her head while the touch of the living sets her skin to burning. A concussive violence builds within her. Hurt intermingles with rage and it’s all Molly can do to keep from exploding. Even worse, her contact with a dangerous vampire who offers answers the wolves don't have now threatens to break an unspoken truce. The Dead-Side Girl is a story about isolation and want, about empathy and pain, about forcing people out and letting people in. The Dead-Side Girl is a story about blood, and what blood can do. **** THIS IS THE SAMPLE VERSION of The Dead-Side Girl. If you'd like to read the full book, please check it out over at Amazon! 100% of the proceeds go to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, so you can buy knowing your money goes to a good cause! ****

  • ISBN: 9781370699834
  • Author: Dave Riley
  • Published: 2016-11-22 20:05:12
  • Words: 28081
The Dead-Side Girl (sample version) The Dead-Side Girl (sample version)