Play the Victim

The burning, itch in my throat intensified when I woke up. Cool air shocked my system. Light reflected off of everything, making colors ten times clearer. Vampire sight plus a hangover had landed me in bed for the weekend. But that meant no blood in over 48 hours. That meant starving.

I had thousands of options: drunk sorority girls, hot stay-at-home-moms, my snobby flatmate. Atlanta had no shortage of people.

I rolled out of bed and pulled on jeans. My purple flannel didn’t look too rumpled. Because the apartment was dark, I put my shoes on. Eating in wasn’t an option.

Dazed and walking into the setting sun, I ducked into a dim, eclectic bookstore. A combination of soft rock and indie hummed through the speakers. The smell of weed soaked into my shirt. It was easy to tell the potheads from the lone wolf types.

Picking out a familiar book, I settled in an arm chair across from a girl with long, dark hair piled on one side of her head. Gold earrings encircled her ears. Her white neck bent elegantly over her grimoire. She didn’t notice me. I glanced at her until she caught me. She shifted away.

I flipped through my book a few times. “Eastern mysticism or Western magic?”

She flashed the dark green cover at me. “Eastern. True magic.”

“How many of those spells have worked for you?”

“Enough.” The vein in her neck pulsed.

Time to get her home. “I won’t believe unless I see it.”

“If I showed you, then I’d have to kill you.” Her eyebrows twitched. Her eyes glanced around to check that no one was watching. Then the music stopped. People froze. We were outside of time.

“So magic is real.” My fangs poked out of my gums. Her face paled, but anger twisted her features. When I bit into her neck, the blood burned in my mouth.

“Why the hell would you mess with a witch?”

Anonymous Drowning

I was on my lunch break Wednesday afternoon when I received a call from a random number. It wasn’t the publishing company I had interviewed with. “Who is this?”

Slow violin music sang through the phone. I set my fork down in my salad. “Hello?”

A faucet turned on, and a voice breathed into the phone. “Please call for help.”

This is a prank. I should hang up.

The water stopped. The person climbed into the bathtub. “The water’s warm. It’s going to fill my lungs soon.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“No? You wouldn’t think dying is funny.”

“Do I know you?”

The voice wasn’t familiar. It sounded feminine but deep. “I’m already bleeding.”

Despite the cheerful, coffee shop music in the cafe, my body grew cold. “I’m going to hang up and call 911. Where do you live?”

“If you don’t call them soon, it’ll be too late.”

“Where do you live?”

“Thank you.” The line disconnected.

My hands shook as I set my phone down on the table. My appetite had disappeared. Am I obligated to do something? What would I tell the police? I had ten minutes left for lunch. Not enough time. I deleted the call from my history and told a friend about it later that night. She figured it was a prank. I agreed and switched my phone number the next day.

When the Lifeless Wake

The waxy faces of the lifeless stare up at me as I pass the rows of coffins. No one closes their eyes. No one cleans them. It’s someone’s job, but that person only moves the bodies now. Loved ones don’t visit. Not anymore.

It happened slowly, like everything of great importance. We celebrated the person’s life. Happy music played at funerals. Then people wore bright colors. People smiled. We filled the hole that person left with other things. We threw out their pictures. We threw parties. Then we avoided their bodies to make it easier to move on. Now the bodies rot below the funeral homes. It’s too time consuming to bury them. No one wants to smell them burn.

I’m their only visitor. I pray over them, newly deceased and the decayed. My nose hates me for it. I stare only at the name plates on the sides of the coffins. The eyes of the dead are cursed. If you look into them, death is all you’ll see.

I spend three hours weaving through the crypt. In the dim light, the names blur together. As I approach a short coffin, a rattling breath breaks the quiet. There’s movement. I force myself to look. The child is a whiter shade of pale, but she blinks. Her head lolls to the side. Her blue lips form words.

“Help! Help!” I look behind me for the funeral home director. He can’t hear me.

The girl’s hand grabs my wrist. “Jane,”

“She’s not dead. Call the doctor!”

“No. Please.” The girl tries to sit, but blood trickles from her mouth.

I wipe it away and scoop her up. Her skin is icy. Holding her close, I run for the funeral director. Prayers pour out of me. The funeral director backs away as I near. “Stay away.”

“She’s dying. She needs help.”

“Stay back!”

“How did she get down here? She’s still alive.”

The funeral director holds his battery-powered lantern closer. In the light, the girl is limp. Her chest is still. I feel no pulse. “I don’t understand.”

“Did you look?”

“But she was breathing.”

The funeral director starts to close the door.

“Wait!”

“The dead can’t pass.”

“I’m alive!”

“You’re lost.”

The door shuts and locks. They will never reopen it. They will store the dead elsewhere.

I sit beside the girl’s body and cradle her. She’s already stiff. My hands stroke her hair. Her eyes are empty. I close them. Eventually I’ll also sleep.

And it’s comforting to face mortality and to know the ending of your story. Everyone dies.

Death is a Place

My pulse stopped ten minutes after the car hit mine, head on. No, I didn’t feel it. I was driving. Then I was everywhere. My insides crumpled and my soul spilled out.

No one greeted me. No family. No spirit. I waited until the coroner took me. I followed her. I watched my funeral.

No light shone down, showing me the way. No magical, haunted street markers popped up. Death is a different kind of lonely.

You can’t, not see. You have no eyes to close, no sleep to escape to. It was everything, always until I found it.

Death’s doorstep isn’t hidden; it’s always on the edge of your vision. Mine was the bookstore right beside my coffee shop. Being dead, I went in when they weren’t open and found myself somewhere else.

No, Death isn’t a person. It’s a place. You die. You find it. You stay, move in, get comfy. You control everything, except you can’t leave or sleep or forget.

Staring at the same painting of Edgar Allan Poe is the closest I get to sleep. Not that I need sleep, but it’s something to do. We spend so much time in bed that it’s hard to function without it. Sleep and food.

Is this purgatory?

God, is this about being gay? I kissed a girl once before I died. This punishment hardly seems fair.

God? I acknowledge you. Now will you invite me to your place?

I’m afraid that this is all there is.

God, please don’t let this be all there is.

Words Heard By the Bedside Table

The woman wraps her arms around her fiance’s broad shoulders. “‘Once upon a time there was a girl and a guy. Always one of each. They fall in love, but there’s someone or something between them,'” says most stories.”

He stares at her, lips pressed thin.

She traces a heart across his chest. “We retell the same things over and over again. We like habits and routines and normal. But we fool ourselves. We try to hold our lives stable. Then everything shatters. Death and destruction invade our normal, repetitive lives.”

His finger twists her engagement ring, still on her hand. “So, what do we do?”

“Stop striving for normalcy. Stop pretending that things will stay the same forever.” She puts her ring on the beside table reluctantly.

“Can you do that?”

“No.”

“I’d leave this part out of the wedding vows.”

I’m Sorry

Callie had been missing for 18 hours before it occurred to me that they wouldn’t find her alive. I’d been sitting in the library, staring out the window at the high school football field across the street. No one had seen her since 3 in the afternoon the day before. It was 9 am.

I checked social media again. No news. I texted my brother. He sent me the article. They’d found her body somewhere in the park. It didn’t say where or what happened.

It’s always the boyfriend, right? He took off shortly after the police report was filed. I never liked him.

I couldn’t call Callie a friend. I hadn’t seen her in two years, but we had been in classes together and had studied together a few times.

A text flashed across my phone, the day and time of the memorial service. Of course it was on a Tuesday. Callie and I weren’t that close, and funerals are for the family and friends. I didn’t know them. Was I supposed to go to the memorial?

I didn’t go. Going wouldn’t bring her back.

Meds Don’t Help

The drip, drip, drip of the sink invades my dreams. The medication, four blue pills and two green, turns even good dreams into nightmares of shape, color, and sound. In my dream, orange squares with beady squirrel eyes chase me through my house which coincidentally is full of quicksand. My legs sink. The sand sucks. I’m falling.

My back hits the mattress. Dim moonlight crosses over the unfamiliar, blue bedspread. Someone rolls over in the bed beside me. A man’s nose brushes my shoulder, his blonde hair almost silver in the darkness. I shift away from him. Why is he in my bed?

He looks like he belongs there, but his name escapes me. I’ve probably woken him up before to ask. It’s not worth it tonight.

I grab the small, black photo album on my bedside table. Little pieces of tape label each picture. The first one is me: Andrea Fae Lynn. I’m in a flowing, white wedding dress. My face was younger, and my hair was darker then. The second is the man in my bed: Danny Lynn. He’s in a tuxedo. We’ve been happily married for twenty years. Danny and the kids tell me these things every morning, hoping I will start to remember. It’s working. I’m remembering what they tell me.

The third picture is the kids: Daisy and Ben. Its Daisy holding baby Ben. They’re both grown now I think. Yes, the next picture is of Daisy with a family of her own. I almost remember Daisy’s baby being born, only because it was after my accident.

Danny mumbles beside me. His eyes open a little bit. “Andrea, are you okay?” He lifts a hand to touch my face, but he stops. The air between us buzzes with hesitation. I kiss him. Our lips don’t fit together anymore, but he smiles. “You remembered me.”

Just his face. I don’t remember what I felt for him. Those feelings are locked away somewhere I’ll never be able to reach, but I return his smile anyway.

Research Beyond the Veil

The purple shade of twilight fell over the cemetery. These things always happen in cemeteries or old mansion, but this one was the cemetery on the hill by a high school in the suburbs. Most of the headstones were readable. Only one had a chip in it. The perfect target.

The witch, a local one who usually only dealt in herbs including but not limited to weed, set up her white protection candles. A small pentagram was already dug into the mud with a stick. She sprinkled a salt circle around it. “No such thing as too much protection.”

As the moon rose over her head, she lifted her hands. “Oh wise Moon Goddess, your daughter speaks. Bring down eternal life so that I may do your work.”

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but pearly, silver rain drops fell. The moon tears broke over the witches skin, filling her with energy and youth. Her spider veins faded, and her wrinkles pulled tight. “Thank you, Goddess.”

As the witch packed up her belongings, the sky turned ashy. Not the deep blue of night, but the gray of death. Then a tear formed in the graveyard. The ground beneath her feet split, the crack continuing up a headstone and into the open air. Then the split opened.

They say that beyond is full of eternal misery or wandering souls or darkness or snow. Whatever it is must be terrifying though because it’s rare to see inside and live. But that witch lived. I tracked her down. I’ve tracked them all down. Most of the Seerers are dead. Some are paralyzed or comatose. She wasn’t. When I asked her to tell her story, her tongue twisted and her hands shook, but I saw images. They were fast flashes (nothing distinguishable) and they filled me with pure fear.

Infinity of Holding On

Moonlight casts shadows on the paisley wallpaper. Everything is a different shade of gray in the dark. Down the hall, a grandfather clock strikes midnight. Tingling fills the air, a sign of magic. Charged silence replaces the chimes. My skin prickles. I unfold my hands, letting them fall open in my lap. “Are you here?”

My body shivers and panicked sadness catches in my stomach. My breath comes fast. My lungs tighten. Images flash through my mind, digging into me. I can’t make sense of them. I can’t slow them down.

Please, help, the soft voice whispers in my ear. My body stiffens. The images freeze. It’s like the girl is standing right in front of me, reddish brown hair falling to her hips. She’s young and faded. The longer someone has been dead, the harder it is to see them. She can’t be the one I’m looking for, but she’s here.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” I brace myself as I always do, but it never helps. Pain blots out the room in front of me. The air pulls from my lungs. My heart thumps, bruised and terrified. Fear freezes my brain. As I feel myself twisting around, I see hands reaching for me. They tighten around my throat, and I thrash and scream. No sound comes out. My body releases, giving into death. As my eyes close, I see a familiar square-jawed man, her step-dad. His normally cheery, brown eyes are dark pits of hate. His lips scowl down at me. Then he’s gone. The room rushes back to meet me. Air fills my lungs too fast, giving me a headache. I wrap my arms around myself, taking a moment to breathe. My neck aches from where I scratched myself trying to escape the phantom hands.

The girl watches me, eyes wide. I press my shaking hands between my thighs. “I’m sorry that that happened to you.”

Don’t be. I’m glad I died. Better to die with honor than be exiled and shamed. 

“How long have you been trapped wandering?”

Too long.

“I can set you free.”

What do I have to do?

“Let go.”

The girl’s eyes narrow. How do I do that?

“Don’t carry this with you anymore.”

What does that mean? You talk like that’s easy.

“I know it’s not, but as soon as you let it go, it can’t hurt you anymore.”

It will always hurt me, even if I manage to forget. I will always be dead because of him.

“Just like my sister. She was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.” My voice comes out strong, but inside I’m crumbling.

Did your sister let go? Is she at peace?

“No, and I need to find her.”

Maybe she doesn’t want to be at peace if it means letting go of everything, if it means forgiving.

“But when you wander you’re in pain and you’re alone!”

But you’re you, and you’re fighting. If I let go, I’m letting him win.

“If you stay, you’re letting what he did control you.”

The girl is quiet for a long time. Then she is gone, and I’m no closer to finding my sister.

Missing Letters

Grandpa’s soft, leathery hands cover mine as we sit at the kitchen table. The whole house smells like cigarettes since he picked up smoking again three years ago. The bowl of blue wrapped chocolates on the counter is stale. None of the grand kids come around anymore besides me, and I’m diabetic. Across the room, the clock on the wall ticks down the seconds until I have to leave. Grandpa’s clock reads 5 pm. My phone says it’s 5:18 pm.

My chair scrapes the tile as I stand. “Ready for dinner?”

Grandpa keeps hold of my hands, his eyes staring at the blank TV screen in the living room. I pick up the remote. “Wheel of Fortune?”

His head bobs up and down with slow deliberation. I press the power button. Since Grandma died, he’s never changed the station. I guess he doesn’t want anymore change in his life. He threw a fit the one time I bought him oatmeal cookies instead of oatmeal raisin.

As the TV blares through the house, I grab frozen chicken strips, precooked and cut, from the freezer and throw a few on a cookie sheet. The oven starts to preheat. Grandpa starts to guess aloud the first phrase on the show. The screen reads: H_ _ _ E     _ E _ _ _ E    _HE    C _ _ _.

“‘Before He Cheats’ by Carrie Underwood.” Grandpa takes a sip of his coffee. I made it earlier for him, but he doesn’t eat or drink much unless he’s distracted.

“I think it says, horse before the cart.”

Grandpa glances at me like he forgot I was here. “You think you’re so smart, but I’m telling you, it’s that Underwood song.”

The oven beeps before I can argue. Sliding the chicken in, I relish in the heat pouring from the oven. Grandpa likes it cold in the house, so cold I worry that his feet are blue under his socks but he won’t take his socks off. My phone reads 5:37 pm. I have to leave at six if I’m going to make it to work on time, but I can’t leave the chicken in the oven. Grandpa would let the house burn down, maybe with himself in it.

I set the timer for twenty minutes. Grumbling, Grandpa heaves himself up, grabs the remote, and turns the TV off. “Damn show isn’t good anymore anyways.”

“Do you want me to turn on the news?”

“Nothing good on the news either. Dow is always down. What’s the point.”

I join him at the table and take the remote. “Your dinner will be ready soon.”

Grandpa looks over his shoulder and lowers his voice. “Did Vivian remember to boil the potatoes? She don’t know how to work the microwave.”

My stomach clenches. He doesn’t forget often. I watch the color drain from his face, and he lowers his head into his hands. His shoulders shake. Sobs break the silence and shatter everything inside of me. The timer goes off, but he doesn’t raise his head again.