Rock Bottom

Droplets of water clung to the window screen, suspended in a row like mini planets. The rumbling of thunder from the retreating storm was faint, more of an echo. Outside, yellow police tape marked off the edge of the trees. I couldn’t see her body from my bedroom, but less than a yard away were the tread marks from the gurney. The police found her too late. Hell, maybe the Amber Alert was too late.

Cause of death: Suicide. Not self-induced asphyxiation. Too personal. Don’t want to give other teenagers ideas. But I saw the police carry the rope to the car. It was yellow, the kind you’d use to hang a kid’s swing. It looked ordinary.

We’d graduated high school together only a month ago, survived teenage torment. I hadn’t lived it yet, but somehow real life seemed worse. No safety nets, only rock bottom. We were baby birds jumping out of the nest praying to God we wouldn’t fall. Not hard to imagine how someone would crack under the pressure. If we all die, why endure the struggle?

***

I asked my parents for black-out blinds. I stopped looking out the window, avoided all windows actually. Each day I passed the police tape. The investigation closed quickly. The tape had been abandoned, forgotten. Maybe they left it up as a deterrent, so kids wouldn’t go in the woods. Maybe no one wanted to remove it.

Like Sisters

Image via cherylholt from Pixabay

The dust settled on the pitcher’s mound as the boys cleared the field. The drone of “Good game, good game, good game,” drifted back behind the metal bleachers where two girls squatted over a tube of lipstick. Dirt stuck to the black, marbled exterior of the tube. The older girl popped the lid off, revealing an outrageously red stub. She raised it to the younger girl’s lips.

“What do you have?” The mother’s harsh voice cut through the chatter of boys reuniting with their families.

The older girl held the tube out to her mom. “We want to wear it.”

The mom capped the lipstick and tossed it into the trashcan on the end of the bleachers. “That’s yucky.”

“But why?”

“You could get a disease. You can’t share make-up.”

The girls didn’t have make-up yet, only soda and candy flavored chapstick. “Are they in trouble?” The older girl’s brother snickered.

“Mind your own business.” The younger girl pouted.

The brother’s eyebrows scrunched. “Butt out, Anna.”

“Hey! Be nice.” The mom snapped. “No, they’re not in trouble.”

The older girl stuck her tongue out when the mom wasn’t looking. The brother shoved her and Anna. “Don’t be a baby, Anna.”

Anna’s puppy brown eyes grew wide. “I’m not a baby. You’re only a year older than me.”

“So?”

The older girl pinched her brother’s boney arm. “Leave her alone.”

“You’re not mom.” The brother sneered.

She pinched harder. “No, I’m worse.”

The brother rolled his eyes, but he apologized and rejoined the other boys. Anna hugged the older girl, surprising her. “Thank you,” Anna said. The older girl patted Anna’s head; maybe they would be close friends. Like sisters.

To Survive

Ella Andrews burned it because she had to. She snuck out after most of the girls in her boarding home were asleep. The books felt smooth and thick in her ungloved hands. Though it was the dead of winter, she wanted to touch them as she let them go.

Several blocks down the street stood the grove. The smells of dew and mud mingled with the pages. Knowing the sticks would be too wet to light, Ella had brought her own logs. She only used magic to dry the ground, a circle for the fire. This had to be a human act. It was humans who were driving her to burn the grimoires.

It took time to start the flames. Her hands being numb from cold didn’t help. She wanted to quit, to lock her books away. But that wouldn’t be good enough. If they were hidden, they would eventually be found.

The pages crinkled, folding in on themselves and burning brown to black. Ella couldn’t look away. Spells from her ancestors became lost to memory. She was the only one who knew all of them, the last in her line. And in that moment, she knew they would die with her. It was too dangerous to teach magic to anyone unrelated. Plenty of witches had turned in exchange for amnesty. You couldn’t be too careful.

Ella watched until the fire burned itself out. Then she ground the ashes into the mud and planted flowers on top of them, a few irises. Using an invisibility spell, she made sure no one traced her movements. In bed that night, she could feel the weight of her ancestors’ sorrow pressing on her. But she ignored them. She had done the right thing.

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Nobody’s Home

bus, organized crime

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching other people through their reflection in the glass of the bus is an art. You can’t stare for too long at one time; people can feel your eyes on them. I glance at the suit-wearing man in front of me, a commuter. The left arm of his blazer is faded slightly compared to the right one. Not surprising. He sits on the left side of the bus every day. I know that he’s a man of habit because his tie is out of fashion, too fat at the bottom.

His hair is balding in the back. Does he notice? Does his barber tell him?

I’ve picked him. He might have family; there’s no clear indication. The needle pricks the back of his neck just above his fat roll.

It doesn’t take long. Beads of sweat form on his hairline. When he starts to get up, I put my hand on his shoulder, hold him down. By the time they try to run, they’re too weak to fight.

We get off near the convention center. It’s busy with the right  kind of people, the people who mind their own and stop for no one. Cigarette smoke rolls out of the Tiger Pub. The man moves to go in, but I pull him around into the ally and press his face against the brick wall. “Who do you work for?”

“A design company.” The man doesn’t hesitate. He’s never had to pretend before, never been caught.

“Who do you really work for?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Now he’s getting angry. Fool’s move.

I bring out the knife, blade half serrated. The man’s face pales; his eyes spark with recognition. I’m not fucking around. I hold the knife in his line of sight. “Last chance.”

He whimpers something, starts crying. He’s a small fish. The real ones don’t cry. The real ones don’t talk.

“They’ll kill me.”

No shit. “Yeah, or I will. Your time is limited.”

“They’ll torture me.”

“Tell me what you know and I’ll be quick.”

“Really?”

Funny how death makes us sniveling children. “Cross my heart.”

He trips over the words, rushing to get them out. He works for who I thought. He knows nothing of importance. Wasted attempt, my third this week. There will be hell to pay.

“Do you have a family?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Good.” Less casualties. I end it quick. I keep my promises.

Disaster

subway, disaster

Nine lives hurtle towards their deaths on the subway completely unaware. They are annoyed that the train is so packed. A woman stands in her uncomfortable heels on her commute home from work. She curses the tourists and wishes the couple behind her would shut up. The couple talks about the zoo, the best zoo that they’ve ever been to, and about how they will take their children there once they have kids. The woman hides her disdain in her book; the couple isn’t even engaged.

Across the aisle, a young man watches this unfold. He turns his music off and listens, waiting for the woman to snap. Sitting beside the young man is a dad. He has to get off at the next stop to pick up his daughter. His husband will worry if he’s late. The dad pushes his glasses up his face and readjusts his grip on his brief case. He’s ridden the subway for months now, but he can’t get used to sitting this close to strangers. The smell of bodies packed in stale air makes him sick.

They are almost to the stop. They don’t make it. The newspapers report that the train derailed, but no one can explain why.

The most religious woman on that train, the one with the short, kinky curls, would have said that it was their time. She would’ve sworn that she felt it, something off. She would’ve said that she’s at peace.

I call bullshit. There were three kids on that train: one bringing donuts home for his mom’s birthday and two siblings heading to a baseball game. Why end their lives before they lived?

Maybe it’s the guilt. I was on that train, got off one stop before the problem. One stop. I chose to transfer early. That’s the difference between life and death, one choice. What if I had chosen wrong?

Anyway, the newspapers didn’t disclose the names. That section of track shut down for awhile. All of the trains stopped for 24 hours, more in fear of another problem than in remembrance. It became a thing across the country. These incidents always become things. Things to be dealt with, things to recover from. Problems and lawsuits and carelessness.

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Links and Gaps

time, hypnosis, magic

Some people crave attention, food, love, space, adventure. I crave autonomy. Everyday I wake at the same time. I go to work. I go to the same bar after work (during the week, rail drinks are $3). What’s the point?

Déjà vu is a daily occurrence. It feels like I’m a wind up toy. Someone else winds me up and I repeat the same actions until the cog stops.

I try to do things differently. I tried a new Thai place, but it tasted bland. On a Wednesday night, I went to a downtown club. Don’t tell me that it was a stupid idea to go in the middle of the week cause I already know that. I didn’t meet anyone new, despite my best efforts. I also tried an art class just for a new experience. None of these things stuck. It was too much effort to keep doing them, like I was fighting myself and my routine.

***

Today I’m going to a palm reader. I figured that I could use some magic. As I step into Madam Gaia’s parlor, my body heats up. My armpits sweat. I never sweat when I’m nervous.

Madam Gaia, crystal blue eyes piercing my soul, takes my hand. Her entire forehead furrows. “This is unusual. Please sit.”

Blue silk sheaths the windows of the parlor. In the center of the room stands a wooden table shaped like an hour glass. The armchair on the left is deep purple and Victorian. The one on the right is white wood with a wicker seat. I take the wood chair. Strangely, Madam Gaia’s eyes are the only thing that gives away her fortune teller profession. Her dark hair is straight. She doesn’t wear beads, only a simple blue dress that touches the floor.

I rest my hands palms up on the table, but Madam Gaia does not look down at the lines. She places her own hands on mine. “Have you visited any shaman or spiritual journey people before seeing me?”

I’m not sure what that includes, but I shake my head.

“No fortune tellers? No self-proclaimed witches?”

“No.”

“Have you met any?”

“Not to my knowledge. What’s going on?”

Madam Gaia smiles and my apprehension disappears. “Nothing. We’ll get it sorted out.” Still not looking at my hands, she holds up a finger. “Stare at the tip, please. Good. Now, do you see the grandfather clock behind me?”

How had I not noticed that before? It’s standing to the right of the door, flowers carved all across the top.

“Watch the pendulum.”

Is the metal gold or silver? With every swing, the light hits it differently.

“Sleep.”

***

Madam Gaia’s parlor has cooled significantly since I first walked in. I’m actually cold. Madam Gaia points to my life line and tells me how my life is going to turn around. I feel lighter, but something prickles at my mind. “What happened?”

“What do you mean?” Madam Gaia asks.

“There’s something…I don’t remember.”

“Do you think this room is too bare?”

“What?” The only furniture in the room is the table and two chairs. It does look silly.

“I’m thinking about purchasing an antique grandfather clock.”

I glance around the room. “It would pull everything together and look good beside the window.”

Madam Gaia smiles, and my agitation slips away. It probably wasn’t important.

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Alice in the Wrong Land

rusty key

Green and brown smudges zip by the train windows, but Alice can’t relax. She’s been running for months, avoiding contact with people. She actually can’t remember the last time she had a conversation that moved beyond ordering food or buying a ticket. Most people would’ve gone crazy by now, but once she stops talking it’s difficult to start again.

Alice leans her head against the window, her platinum blonde hair sticking to her sweaty forehead. She turns a rusty key over in her hands. She needs it to open a portal home. The world she’s trapped in is identical to her own, but the other Alice died two years ago. Two years ago, this Alice crashed her car on purpose and lived. The other Alice succeeded.

Mirrors are supposed to be portals to other worlds, so people say. Alice didn’t come through a mirror or step through a wardrobe; she visited a fortune teller.

***

“Pick a card. Any card.” The woman said. Bangles jangled on the woman’s wrists. Beads hung from her neck. The incense made Alice’s head throb.

Alice’s father had suggested the trip. He believed in aura, tarot, and spiritual healing. He thought that Alice needed to lighten up. Alice figured it couldn’t hurt.

She tried to pull a card from the deck, but it resisted. “Does this usually happen?”

The fortune teller’s eyes sparkled. “The cards know you don’t believe. They’re testing you.”

Alice doubted that. She wiggled a card free. Then two more.

The spread was simple: a card for the past, one for the present, and one for the future. Alice didn’t remember the exact cards, but she understood the gist. Her past was fraught with struggle. Her present was the calm before the storm, and the future held a great transformation. Then the fortune teller had let Alice out the back way through the garden, and after the gate closed, Alice realized that it was snowing in July. That was the start of it.

***

The train pulls into  a station and stops to let more passengers on. The sun is setting, flooding the compartments with golden light. Alice has twenty minutes until she’s back to the fortune teller’s. The woman refused to help without the key. Alice didn’t see what was so important about it. It was abandoned in the hollow of a tree.

As Alice slips the key into her pocket, a man notices and walks towards her. She gets up to avoid him, but another man is coming at her from the opposite direction. The first one crosses his arms over his wrinkled tie. “Can I see your key?”

She stares out the window. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Fine. We’ll take it from you,” the second man says.

She considers giving it to them. Instead, she sidesteps back into her compartment and drops the key out the window. She’s tired of running.

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Beautiful Mask

witch, magic

By far the weirdest hallway in the Boarding House for Unusual Witches was the Hall of the Famous. The long hall connected the dormitory and living spaces to the classrooms. Oil paintings of past headmistresses hung on the walls. Busts of famous alumni lined the edges of the red carpet runner. My first day there I knew I’d be among them. I just didn’t know that it would be like this.

I make a face as the sculptor shapes my nose. He sighs again. “Please, keep still.”

It was ridiculous really. I didn’t do anything bust-worthy.

I’d time traveled. Dangerous. I shouldn’t have done it, but I was successful. I saved the library of the boarding school from burning down. Let me clarify, I overheard the plot to burn the library because I had slipped out of bed after hours. I ignored it, thought it was a joke. When the library went up in flames, I broke into the headmistress’s office, shrunk the Wheel of Time (a highly important magical object), stole it, used it to go back in time, and stopped the girl who set the fire by beating her up instead of telling on her.

Yet, seventeen-year-old me gets to stand there having a bust made of my face while the other girl loses her powers. I purse my lips. The sculptor stands up. “I think we need a break.”

If the school wasn’t paying him so much, he would’ve quit.

As the sculptor washes his hands in the art room sink, I step out into the corridor. The girl, Angela, is in the headmistress’s office receiving the enchantments that will suppress her powers. The corridor is empty. Casting an invisibility spell over myself, I hurry to the headmistress’s office up in the West Tower.

The door is sealed. I feel the magic as I reach for the doorknob. I mutter an unlocking spell in vain. The headmistress has doubled security since my break-in. I close my eyes and reach out through the door to Angela’s mind. “Angela, I’m here to save you.” I repeat it over and over.

Then a faint voice whispers back in my head, “How? It’s too late. The headmistress has already started.”

“Help me unlock the door.”

“I don’t have much magic.”

“Just help.” I try the unlocking spell again and I feel the spells falling away. The door swings open.

The headmistress stops mid-spell. “What’s going on here?”

I step into the room. “Angela’s only seventeen. You can’t take her magic away.”

“She almost committed a federal offense. That library contains original books that don’t have copies.”
“I committed multiple offenses: breaking and entering, burglary, meddling with time, assault. Do the ends really justify the means?”
The headmistress smooths her emerald robes. Her mismatched eyes (one blue, one brown) narrow. “Would you like your powers bound as well?”
“I think that Angela should be given a warning, ma’am. I’m sure this has scared her straight.”
“Ends never justify the means, but intention is always important. As courageous and stupid as it was for you to argue on Angela’s behalf, my decision is final. Leave before I have you removed.”
Angela’s pale face and wide eyes try to convince me to stay, but I’m selfish. I didn’t save the library for the sake of knowledge, I saved it because I’d hidden a family heirloom in there hoping that someone would find it. Eventually someone will possess that dangerous crystal. I leave Angela to her fate.
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A Vampire’s Eternity

Sam stood in a capsule like room with three doors; she had to choose where she’d live for all of eternity. She was lucky really, a vampire with the ability to adapt. Most vampires picked the city bustling with humans and parties. Sam loved the lights and the towering buildings. She loved the excitement.

But she also liked the country: the open space, grass rolling for miles, the humidity filling her car as she drove through the countryside with the windows down. But it was boring. Not enough people. Plus, she couldn’t walk down the street and hold her girlfriend’s hand. Sure, they might get looks and snide comments anywhere, but in the country, a whole small town could snub you. Sam wondered where her girlfriend had chosen. Maybe they should’ve talked about it before now.

Then there was the suburbs, not the nauseating 1950’s suburbs with the nosy moms and the bubblegum pop songs. These suburbs were green lawns, lines of trees, ranch houses filled with modern families and couples. Sometimes the neighborhoods had block parties. Sam liked the idea of having a backyard and still being close to stores and bars. It wasn’t the city, but it was something.

She reached for the door to the suburbs, white wood with a gold door knob. Then she noticed a fourth door behind her. It was grey with no handle. She pushed it in. The space beyond it was dark. She stepped inside. Lights flicked on by her feet, illuminating a path. She followed it to the end where a control panel sat. None of the buttons were labeled, so she pushed a random white rectangular one. A 360 degree screen lit up around her. A movie started playing, Sam’s sixteenth birthday party when she had almost kissed that guy. She pushed another button and another memory started playing. Half way through her college graduation memory, a notification popped up on the screen.

“Congratulations! You have chosen to live in your memories.”

The door back to the choosing room was sealed.

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Violations

school, dress code
Image from Pexels

The rules were written on the walls of the middle school in the cafeteria.

Shorts and skirts must be three inches above the knee, not shorter.

No bra straps showing.

No tank tops.

Standard regulation dress code rules written in blue letters across a yellow background, the school colors. I went to middle school here and was back as a substitute. The rules weren’t unreasonable. Middle schools always have the strictest dress codes.

I watched the hallway as students scuttled into the English class that I was teaching. The preppy, polo-wearing choir kids got to class early. The band kids came late. It was standard.

It was May. Everyone passed notes. Everyone wanted to be done. The sunlight streaming through the window by my desk made my eyes tired. I played the Shakespeare movie like I was supposed to and closed the blinds. It didn’t help.

A girl came in late. Her neon yellow bra strap slipped out from under her t-shirt sleeve. I motioned for her to pull it up as she took her seat. As soon as she moved it, it slid again, a tightening issue. I waved her to my desk and wrote out a dress code violation slip.

Ms. ____________________

Time and Date:

Violation:

I set the slip on the corner of my desk. “Fix your strap, please.”

She stared at the piece of paper. “I’m sorry. I’m trying.”

She didn’t seem like a troublemaker. Maybe I should’ve let it go. I handed her a restroom pass. “Try adjusting the strap length.”

Red faced, the girl hurried to the bathroom. When she returned, the strap was where it belonged, hidden.

We paused the movie after Petruchio tamed Kate. I flicked the lights on. “Your teacher will be back next class and you will finish the movie. Your final is on Monday.”

As the kids rushed to the bus, a male teacher stopped the girl from earlier. Her strap had peeked out again in her hurry to go home. He handed her a violation slip. I should’ve stepped in, fought for her. But the delinquent girl crumbled the paper in her hand and went out to the bus.

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