Authors: A. E. Rought
Tags: #surgical nightmare, #monstrous love, #high school, #mad scientist, #dark romance, #doomed love
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
John Milton, Paradise Lost (X. 743-5)
By AE Rought
Cold seeps through my jacket while I lean on the wrought iron fence, staring at the rows of headstones parading across the lawn of Memorial Gardens cemetery. Lanes of crushed gravel snake in white paths through the deepening twilight. Moonlight spills down an angel’s robe, collects in a puddle at the foot of a chipped urn, and glances from headstone engravings. At night, when I’m alone, it’s easier to fantasize about who’s buried there.
I drift along the sidewalk skirting the graveyard toward the mausoleums, chain link fence clinking beneath my dragging fingers. I’ve haunted this place, lingering on the border between the living and the dead, wishing for a grave that will never exist. Two yards from the gate, a broken link cuts my finger. Same spot’s been cut three times already. Thank God I had my tetanus shot recently.
Absentmindedly sucking my finger, I wander until I’m even with the tomb farthest from the gate. The bones of some of the area’s wealthiest residents are interred within its gleaming white walls—self-important snobs who even have a wrap-around porch on their mausoleum. Daniel and I used to sit there, cracking inappropriate jokes, facing the trees and drinking the whiskey he stole from his parent’s liquor cabinet.
Echoes of us fill our seats now, Daniel’s long legs whole, not broken, and stretched across the polished stone. One of his hands holds the pint, the other hand curls over my shoulder. My profile is clear, aimed at him, beaming love brighter than the moonlight. Curls muss his nearly black hair and cast his face into shadow. A chill October breeze stirs the trees. Branches clack above my head, brittle as old bones. Goosebumps coat my skin, my pulse jumps. When Daniel’s echo turns to me, his face is broken and bleeding, red shiny trails streaming from the crack in his skull, coursing into his hazel eyes.
My breath escapes in a rush. The same loss tears through me. And here I am again, living the hurt over and over, like constantly ripping off a Band-aid to feel the sting.
Hurting is better than forgetting.
Daniel wouldn’t want me living in this limbo. He would’ve screwed up his face into a comical mask long ago and shooed me away from here. I’m so weak without him. I struggle to keep my chin up, and lose the sudden battle with my tears.
After backhanding moisture from my cheeks, I jam my hands into my pockets and turn from the fence. We’ll never sit together again, and someday I’m going to have to accept it. He would want me to move on, not haunt the graveside his parents will never give his ashes. Heart heavy and somehow empty at the same time, I drift toward home. Fall leaves whisper beneath my steps. Jack-o’-lanterns leer from porches, glowing faces following my every step, as if they see the hollow space in me and find it familiar. The Wendell’s pumpkin is particularly vicious looking, narrow pointy teeth and angular flaming eyes, squatting like a gargoyle on the front step. Jason, a junior at Shelley High like me, really went all out with the carving this year. He’s always had a flair for dark and drama.
The front porch door opens with a screech of hinges. Mrs. Wendell shuffles out, flowered house coat catching the breeze and showing her corpulent, pasty white legs. She gives me a wave and sympathetic smile when she stoops in her housecoat to blow the candle out.
Shrinking deeper into my coat, I keep my eyes forward and hurry toward home. My loss bleeds out a little at a time through the mesh of the Memorial Garden’s fence, but it doesn’t mean I like walking by myself in the dark. I’m skilled at scaring myself with what I think might be watching me. Even now, I feel the weight of a stare on my back. At least, I
I do. Of course, when I was five I’d convinced myself there were monsters, too.
A ring from my pocket shatters the silent laughter of carved pumpkins and tacky plastic Halloween lawn ornaments. Letting out a little groan, I fish out my cell phone, and then squint at the screen.
I click to accept the call, then hold it to my ear and try walking and talking without tripping in the dark. “Hey, Bree, wassup?”
“Loitering is against the law you know.” I can almost hear her eye roll. Bree’s one of the few people who understands why I spend so much time outside of the cemetery.
“Only if I get caught.”
“Well, that’ll never happen. That neighborhood you hang out by is dead quiet.” Okay. So Daniel and I aren’t the only ones to crack inappropriate jokes. The
of a pop can opening punctuates her sentence. “Those people aren’t going to tattle on you.”
“You won’t either.” I hop a pile of leaves on the sidewalk.
“Who am I to breakup your mournfest? Just tell me you’re willing to wear a costume to the dance Saturday and I’ll quit pestering you.” The papery sound of flipping pages comes through the phone. Knowing Bree, she’s paging through the sale flyer for the pop-up Halloween store in downtown. “We can coordinate if you give me enough time.”
Which is exactly why I hadn’t said anything. Bree might be a genius in the costume and makeup department—comes with the territory for a theater major—but she’s not a miracle worker. The longer I hedge, the less time she has to force me into being a Zombie Twin, or Bad Faery Twin, or Whateverelse Twin she’s plotting on subjecting me too. With us both being 5’5”-ish, with blond hair—mine natural, hers what my mom calls Bottle Blonde—and average curves, Bree has a lot to work with in the Twins department.
“I’ll let you know.”
“Dying of anticipation,” she says, dragging out the last word like Frank-N-Furter in
The Rocky Horror Picture
“Can we discuss this tomorrow? I’m walking and talking and can’t hardly see the sidewalk…”
“Say no more.” She takes a swig from her pop, then says, “See ya in the morning, Em.”
Bree may be my best friend, but she will never let me forget my walking, talking, tripping over a fire hydrant incident of last year. To return the favor, I often remind her of her Orange Kool-aid hair dying event.
A branch swings in a sudden breeze and knocks the phone out of my hand. Spitting swear words, I squint at the ground, covered with a layer of gold, browns and red. It didn’t hit the sidewalk—no horrid
followed the fall. My backpack slides to the ground when I bend down, scoping the yard to either side. Then, I see the faint glow of the screen display reflecting from the underside of an oak leaf.
The screen goes dark before I can grab it, and I fumble in the leaf litter through another string of cuss words before wrapping my fingers around the hard plastic case.
Standing, I feel the same heavy stare wash across my face like a warm damp cloth. Prickles crawl over my skin, my scalp tightens, and I’m sure if I could see myself, the blue of my eyes would be swallowed by my pupils. I spin slowly, taking in every inch of Seventh Street and its shadows. Comfortable two-story houses, some with open porches, most with narrow siding and painted trim. Grinning pumpkins, a skeleton in the Miller’s yard, Mrs. Jones’ witch-in-a-tree…
As far as I can tell, I’m alone. The feeling of being watched isn’t easy to shrug. I square my shoulders, tuck my aching loss away where my mom won’t see it, and trudge the last two yards worth of sidewalk to my house.
My trio of jack-o’-lanterns sits on the steps of our two-story, the candlelight welcoming me home. Under the moonlight the house has a morose quality, the dove grey siding and black trim and shutters making it look almost emo. Through the big living room window I can see Mom curled up on the sofa, nose buried in a book. I’m sure Dad’s in the basement, tinkering on some project. Renfield’s sinuous white cat body is curled in the window, crammed behind the loveseat.
Burnt pumpkin stink rises with each lid as I lift them from the jack-o’-lanterns to blow out the candles. Porch boards creak beneath my Converse sneakers when I walk across to the door. Dad’s been forever planning to fix them, but never has. He’d much rather make picture frames and cabinets in his downstairs workshop. Carpentry is his escape, like Mom’s is the next best romance novel on the shelves, and mine used to be my bedroom and the Internet. Hand on the handle, I pause and cast one last look at Seventh Street.
Still vacant, though a presence seems to thicken the shadows.
The door opens onto the smell of bread and pot roast. Gray and black carpet anchors the rooms. White walls, and white trim hold up whiter ceilings. Varying shades of burgundy furniture squat around the room, a conclave of fat, bloody trolls. Mom’s evening show chatters to itself in the wavering light of the TV. She looks up from her novel, a smile softening her brown eyes and deepening the wrinkles around them.
“How was the library?” she asks.
“Silent as the grave.” I pull Renfield into my arms. He squirms, skewers me with a cat glare of discontent at his upside-down position. One gold eye has a black freckle in the iris, like Daniel’s hazel eyes did. Kind of ironic. Other than me, Daniel was Renfield’s favorite person. The cat’s purr matches the rumble of my stomach, finally growling to life under the smell of food. “Any leftovers from dinner?”
“Of course.” Mom scans her page, then points in a general kitchenly direction. “There’s a warm plate in the oven for you.”
At home, with normalcy crashing in, it’s easy to shut out my loneliness and let the reality of the weight of my backpack press against my spine. A heavy backpack equals lots of homework. Trig, Social Studies and an essay on Machiavelli and the Humanist movement are not going to do themselves. Resigning myself to a night of hitting the books, I grab an oven mitt and pull my dinner from the oven.
Instead of settling in the living room and watching Mom read while I ignore the TV, I sit in my normal seat at the dining room table. It’s quieter here, and the faint smell of fresh cut wood from Dad’s latest project drifts up the basement stairs. A wide, dark window gapes across the table from me, a nighttime scene of the side yard and the skeletal trees reaching skyward. The branches jerk back and forth in a sharp wind, a limb cracking and plummeting to the ground—a macabre combination with the scent of wood death curling in my nose.
My cell comes to life, the vibrate setting making the pink thing look like it has legs. It jitters across the table, the screen flashing green. I don’t need to look at the display to know it’s Bree calling again. Shoveling in a forkful of potatoes and gravy, I let the call go to voice mail.
Hopefully I’ll dodge her Zombie Twins bullet tomorrow morning. Homework is on my dance card for tonight, then shower and sleep.
Tuesday morning dawns chilly and dry. Frost glitters on the lawn, delicate and sharp. Crisp air steals through the crack between my window and sill and billows the sheer curtains.
Indian Summer has definitely given up the ghost.
I pull my bare legs from the tangle of sheets and blankets shackling them and immediately regret it. Cold air swishes around me when I fling off the rest of my covers and dash for my walk-in closet. The sweet, fresh smell of Mom’s dryer sheets greet me behind the door, and shadows obscure the familiar shapes of my clothes… perfect for hiding things.
The deep red sweatshirt I’ve worn every night since June leaves residual warmth on my skin when I pull it off. I run my finger along the hood’s edge then, standing in the privacy of my nearly closed closet, I fold it and tuck it away where no one will see. The only soul who knows I have that shirt is gone. Goosebumps razz my skin, stealing the heat left behind. I hop into a pair of jeans, pull on a t-shirt and black zip-up hoodie with splashes of filigree embroidery on it.
Mom has her famous Walking Breakfast Taco, or W.B.T. as I like to call it—crumbled sausage, scrambled eggs and cheese added to a snack bag of corn chips—in one hand, my backpack in the other when I shoot from the stairwell. With a spin-and-grab move I slide into my backpack and grab breakfast. Plastic spoon included.
She smiles, and reminds me I wouldn’t always be in a hurry if I’d just set my alarm. I’ve listened to it so many times all I really hear anymore is “Nag-nag, Emma, nag-nag.”
While I can’t walk and talk on the phone, I have no problem walking and spooning food into my mouth. Maybe eating is mindless, and conversations aren’t if you do them right. Either way, my W.B.T is nothing but a bag and spoon by the time I reach the walk-up window of the Mugz-n-Chugz coffee shop. They installed the Walk-Up on the opposite side of the Drive-Thru for the safety of the students too stubborn to walk inside and order their caffeine fix.
Sunlight beats down, deceptive and taunting, all sharp light and no warmth.
The glare bounces my reflection back from the Walk-Up window, and I take advantage of the moment to run a comb through my hair. Then, on a whim, I pull an eyeliner from my backpack pocket and line my right eye in midnight blue. I have the other started when Tiny, who is
, shoves the window open. He reminds me of the fat Buddha statues, only Tiny’s crammed into a tacky, sweat-stained 50s style uniform shirt.
“Hey, Em,” he says in a voice incongruously high-pitched for his size. “The usual?”
“Okay.” He nods like I asked him a question. “I’ll get you that breve, and let you finish your makeup routine.”
Daniel turned me onto M-n-C’s breve with caramel a month before his fall. We got them every May morning it wasn’t raining. I can see a ghost of him beside me, laughing at my use of the window as a mirror as I hastily line my left eye in the black-blue color Bree says makes my blue eyes “really pop.”
Just then, Tiny pushes the window outward. I catch a reflection of a guy superimposed where Daniel’s echo was a moment before. He wears inky dark jeans, a t-shirt weight hoodie with the hood up, under the kind of battered brown leather jacket that’s scuffed in all the right places. Then the window moves farther and a blare of sunlight burns his reflection. Shocked, I spin to the side, hair whipping out, and expect to see the guy beside me.