Time Stops

He’d pissed himself again.

Thaddeus felt the familiar wet warmth saturate his diaper, one large enough to fit on a 16-year-old’s body. Perhaps he would feel ashamed if it weren’t the third time it had happened that day. And besides, who did he have to impress? The nurses? His fellow roommates?

His unmoving eyes observed them now, the eight other permanent residents of Miss Barker’s Group Home for Disabled Youth. Four on his left, four on his right. It never changed. It was like a TV show that you’re forced to watch every day, and you can’t change the channel or shut it off. You can’t even close your eyes, or turn your head to look away. Because Thaddeus’s body was literally incapable of performing those tasks. He was incapable of performing anything, such as standing up, saying hello, flexing a muscle, or deciding when to expel his urine, which now soaked his inescapable diaper. He couldn’t even blink on command. He was trapped.

His attention was drawn to Tabitha, who repeatedly rubbed her scalp back and forth across the well-worn headrest of her wheelchair, her eyes constantly looking up at nothing as her jaw twitched. At least she could move. He couldn’t.

Not yet, at least.

He had overheard his diagnosis many times, the words total locked-in syndrome, transferred between doctors and nurses, nurses and his parents. Conversations held right in front of him, information passing strictly from point A to point B, without a single glance cast towards his paralyzed eyes. As if he wasn’t even there.

Miguel, who was sitting directly to Thaddeus’s left, suddenly burst into a fit of laughter, clapping his hands together. If Thaddeus could contort his lips and voluntarily pass air over his vocal cords, he would ask what was so funny. But he couldn’t speak.

Not yet, at least.

His brain was functioning just fine, but the connection between it and his body was severed. Like a lone hiker stuck at the top of a mountain, with no radio contact between him and everyone else on the ground. It had been like this for as long as he could remember.

But he was never able to express his misery or frustration to anyone. Not even his parents. They knew the gears were turning in his head through MRI and CT scans. A picture of a bird would be shown, his brain waves would react. Then, a picture of black-and-white shapes, and a different brain wave reaction followed. Proof that he was aware of his surroundings, and that something was going on upstairs.

Gregory, the most functioning one of the group, slowly turned the pages of a colorful animal book resting in front of him. His jaw remained slack as his eyes scanned over the images, occasionally naming creatures that he recognized out loud. The sound of his voice grated on Thaddeus’s nerves, as it did every day. He wanted to get up and snatch that book from him, to hide it somewhere in the house. But he’d never be able to leave his bed.

Not yet, at least.

Like his parents, and the nurses and the doctors, Thaddeus knew what was wrong with his broken body from an early age. It was evident he would never feed or dress himself, never play games or sing a simple melody. Never ride a bike to school, never drive a car. Never get a job, never buy a house. Never get married, or have children of his own.

Samantha, whose parents were just leaving from a short visit, received a kiss from her mother on the cheek, and a tight, squeezing embrace from her father. Her eyes were glassy, and motionless, like her body. She was new to the house, replacing Joshua, who got moved last week. Samantha was pretty.

His attention shifted to the clock on the wall, knowing that any minute now, the overweight nurse would come in to administer everyone’s medication. The time had almost come, but not yet.

Thaddeus’s caregivers were well aware of his physical limitations, but there was one secret that he kept all to himself. Something that he had known since he was just a baby. Something their MRI and CT scans couldn’t observe. Something that could never be explained, and that he didn’t quite understand himself. But every day it would happen, or rather, he would make it happen, and it was the only thing in his life he ever had control over.

The large nurse burst through the door, right on schedule, holding the medication tray in front of her oversized chest. It was almost his time, but not yet. Too many of his roommates still had him in their peripheral vision. Too many witnesses. They may not be able to tell on him, to describe exactly what went wrong between the second he decided the time had come, and the second that followed, but he didn’t want to scare them.

He had done that in the past, acted when the timing wasn’t right. By its very nature, his secret could not be witnessed by anyone, but the consequences of it could. At first, it confused his parents, and then it frightened them. They couldn’t understand how their baby, silent and motionless and helpless, could change positions within the blink of an eye. How they could be reading a book to their severely handicapped toddler one second, and in the very next hear his body collapse on the other side of the house.

Even when he got it under control, when he picked the perfect moment, they would still look at their son with fear and anxiety, wondering when the next inexplicable incident would occur. It nearly drove them insane. He almost couldn’t blame them for leaving him in this group home.

No, he had to wait until the exact right moment, when the entire room’s attention was on the nurse, and her attention wasn’t on him. It almost came, when her back was turned, and all eyes were on her. The only one not cooperating was that pretty girl, Samantha, whose eyes were still affixed where her parents had been a few minutes ago. But she seemed completely brain-dead, oblivious to the world around her. She wouldn’t notice if the room was going up in flames, much less comprehend the subtle after effects of his secret.

And he couldn’t wait any longer. The time had finally come.

Somewhere, deep inside his trapped mind, Thaddeus flipped an intangible switch. He didn’t know how it got there, or what exactly its purpose was. But he had found it a long time ago, and had used it every day ever since. The walls began to tremor, shaking violently. Only he could see this, only he could feel it. The static image of the room and his roommates before him blurred and blurred, until it was an indecipherable glob of light and color. And then, it all refocused, coming back into view.

The second hand on the clock ticked one last time, and then stopped.

Thaddeus sat up in his bed, and placed his feet on the cold floor.

Everything in the room was frozen. Time was frozen. Nobody moved, no sound was made. For all he knew, the whole world had stopped spinning, just because he made it happen. And for the first time that day, everyone else was motionless, and he was the one walking around.

Thaddeus sat up in his bed, and placed his feet on the cold floor.

The first thing he did was strip down, removing his soiled diaper and getting into a fresh set of clothes. He couldn’t stand the feeling of his privates bathed in urine. He couldn’t stand the smell. He walked his filthy “underpants” to the nearest trash can and tossed them in with ease. Like a lone basketball player shooting hoops in an empty arena.

The next order of business was confiscating that damn animal book from Gregory’s frozen fingers. Thaddeus leaned forward, bringing his face right in front of the dark-haired boy, waving his hand just inches from those motionless eyes. As if Gregory could somehow still see him. As if he hadn’t carried out this bizarre routine everyday he had lived here, each time inciting no response from the helpless mannequins around him.

And as he expected, Gregory’s eyes betrayed nothing. This day was no different than the last. Thaddeus took the battered book, and hid it behind Tabitha, whose headrest-rubbing had finally stopped, along with all her other movement. Putting the book there was a little cruel, as the bewildered Gregory would inevitably blame Tabitha for its disappearance. But Thaddeus couldn’t help but laugh, the sound of his rarely-used voice bouncing around in the otherwise utter silence.

After that, Thaddeus’ little personal window outside of time was wide open. He walked around the halls of the group home, reveling in the sensation of independent mobility. He stopped in the kitchen to raid the cupboards, grabbing cookies and chips to gorge himself on. When your only form of food comes as a paste through a tube into your abdomen, being able to shove tasty snacks in your mouth is an unparalleled experience.

He wanted to take a pudding cup from the fridge, but there was already a nurse there, her ass permanently in the air as she was stuck bent over, reaching for something on the top shelf. If he took the pudding cup, she would definitely notice it disappear when time resumed. Maybe tomorrow.

Before Thaddeus left the kitchen, he splayed his fingers, and brought them down hard on the nurse’s rear end, the loud smack mixing with the sound of his boisterous chuckle. But then his laughing stopped. He stared at her body for a moment longer, realizing he could do much more to her, and she would never know. After all, he was a red-blooded teen boy, wasn’t he? Being completely motionless for the rest of the day, when else in his life would he ever get to gratify himself?

He didn’t linger on this thought for very long, though, because it gave him a sickening feeling. One of guilt and shame. He knew what it felt like, to be paralyzed and helpless while someone violated your body. It had happened to him before, a long time ago. He could never do that to someone else. And so, because of this resolution, he would never be able to satisfy this most primal of desires, to touch the warm skin of a willing and conscious person. Never. He quickly walked out of the kitchen.

He wasn’t sure how much time he had left, because the clock, along with everything else, had stopped. He only had a rough estimate of how many minutes each window held each day. He had guessed maybe twenty-five minutes—or, what felt like twenty-five minutes—to do whatever he wanted, before his body would surrender control as it got sucked back into real time.

He spent the rest of his time rift sitting outside the group home, staring at the suspended cars in the street in front of him, the birds hanging in the air, and a child on the sidewalk, frozen in mid-stride, as if his foot was stuck in the cement. All of them waiting to resume their day, to get back to reality. Where things made sense, and worked like they’re supposed to. When they would be in control again, and he would be helpless.

He gazed at the sun, its heat and brilliance even seeming stale and unmoving. He wished he could feel a breeze roll across his face, or hear a dog barking. Perhaps the sound of someone’s voice, and follow it to its source. To finally talk to someone for once in his life. But none of that happened. He could do anything he wanted, but he would be doing it alone.

Though he probably had a little time left, he walked back into the group home, and returned to his hospital bed. Sometimes twenty-five minutes to himself was too long. But before Thaddeus laid down, he noticed something in his bed. A small piece of paper. He snatched it up, his eyes scrolling across the handwritten text.

Tomorrow, 10:18 A.M.

Thaddeus squinted his eyes, reading it again and again, confusion fogging him. What did that mean? Was this note left for him? No, that’s impossible. Who would leave a note for someone with total locked-in syndrome? And under their ass, no less? It must have been dropped there on accident. Probably by one of the nurses, while they were changing him. Maybe it was a reminder they wrote for themselves, and it had fallen out of their pocket and into his bed. Yes, that must have been it. No one would leave a note for him. That wouldn’t make any sense.

Pushing strange notions from his mind, he crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash, then plopped down in his bed, positioning himself to where he had been right before the clock stopped. The walls began to shake again, the image before him getting blurry. He could feel the control leaving his body. And then, it all refocused, and things started moving again. Time had resumed.

For the rest of that day, and all the next morning, Thaddeus couldn’t get 10:18 A.M. out of his mind. As much as he told himself that the note wasn’t meant for him, he couldn’t help but feel that it was. He laid motionless, propped up in his bed, all of his attention on the clock. Paranoid thoughts teased him, making him wonder if anything would happen when that time came.

But then the hands struck 10:19 A.M. that next day, and nothing had happened. His body was already in a constant state of relaxation, and now his mind could finally join it. His ridiculous, anxious notions amounted to nothing, and things were back to the way they had always been. In fact, everyone’s attention was on the TV screen now, that same damn cartoon playing on it again. It was the perfect time. He reached into his mind, and flipped the invisible switch. The walls shook, and the clock hands stopped at 10:20.

He stood up again, poised to journey through the silent halls of his group home, but something nagged at his mind. Something he couldn’t shake. It induced an eerie feeling of fear and curiosity. He had to know. He slowly craned his neck, his eyes falling onto the bed he had just risen from. It was empty. No note, nothing. He let out a sigh of relief, and dropped his pants to remove his soiled diaper.

And that’s when he saw it, a piece of paper stuck to the back of his pants. His hand trembled as he picked it up, bringing the text to his eyes.

Tomorrow, 10:18 A.M.

His eyes darted around the room, searching in vain for any clues as to how the note got there again, and why it was there. Who had put it there. He looked at it again, realizing it was in the same handwriting as the day before. But he also noticed something else there, something faint. He turned the note over, and found a single letter: S.

He looked around the room again, until his eyes fell onto the pretty new girl, up ahead and to his right. The one who can’t talk or move or even blink.

Samantha.

The note fell from his hand, a horrifying sensation coming over him. It was the odd yet unmistakable feeling that someone knew his astounding secret, and was in that very room with him. How could she possibly know about him? Is she locked-in too, able to witness and comprehend everything around her, including the nuanced evidence of his secret? Had he not been careful enough?

And then a chilling realization hit him, that, beyond knowing his secret, she was actually able to write him a note, and leave it in his bed. Did she possess a similar secret as his?

He slowly laid back down in his bed, keeping his eyes on Samantha. He didn’t move, and he hardly breathed. For the first time in his life, while everyone and everything around him was motionless, so was he. And he stayed that way, until the walls shook, his vision blurred and refocused, and time resumed.

His attention never left Samantha, and she never moved. The hours seemed to crawl at an agonizing pace. He had eagerly awaited the passing of a day before, but this was absolute torture. He didn’t know what would happen at 10:18 A.M. the next day, but he needed to find out.

In time, Thaddeus fell asleep, and awoke the next day, anxiety gripping him, giving the feeling of a knife in his chest. Samantha was still there, still not moving. Yet he knew she was conscious of everything around her, watching the day unfold. Watching him. The minutes ticked away, all the while making him feel as if he were about to explode, until the hands finally reached 10:17 A.M.

One minute left to go.

He was afraid. He didn’t know what to expect, what he should do, or how to prepare himself. In truth, there was no way he could. His only option was to go into the unknown, and hope something horrible wouldn’t happen.

10:18.

He flipped his inner switch, and as the walls shook and his vision blurred and his body gained control over itself, he shut his eyes tight. He wasn’t ready for things to change, for everything he had ever known to be turned upside-down. He wasn’t ready for his universe to implode.

“Hey.”

The voice cut into his ears, making his heart beat faster than he thought possible. His sweaty palms gripped his sheets, his knees shook with tension. This was real, this was happening. He wasn’t the only one like this. He wasn’t alone. But he still wasn’t ready.

He heard the soft steps of a light body come his way, stopping just a few feet in front of him. He could hear her breathing, he could feel her presence, he could smell her. Luckily, the nurse had changed him right before this, so he didn’t reek of piss.

She took another step towards him. “Hey. I’m Samantha.”

Thaddeus finally opened his eyes, the girl’s smiling face filling his vision. She wasn’t frozen, but swayed slightly as she stood. Her hand was extended to him for a shake, a gesture completely foreign to him. No one would expect a vegetable to shake their hand. He stretched out his arm, and placed his hand in hers. He felt overwhelmed by the shared, mutual contact.

He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but realized he had never spoken his name in his life before. Heard it, yes, many times. But never spoken it. He struggled for a moment longer, before simply settling on, “Hey.”

And even saying that felt uncomfortable.

“Not used to talking, friend?” Samantha said, her eyebrow raised. He shook his head. “I understand. But I already know your name. It’s Thaddeus, right?”

He didn’t respond. Of all the things he wanted to know about Samantha, whether or not she knew his name wasn’t one of them. He had a million questions for her, but couldn’t will his voice to ask them. He had no way to express his bewilderment over what was taking place. It was very frustrating. He grimaced, and pointed to the clock. “H-h-how?”

“How is this happening?”

Thaddeus nodded.

“I’m not exactly sure myself. I’ve been able to stop time for as long as I can remember. And I thought I was the only one in the world who could… until I noticed you, last week. One second your right arm was resting on your stomach, and the next it was your left. Pretty impressive for a guy who doesn’t move the other 23 hours and 59 seconds of the day.”

Thaddeus laughed at this, but then quickly silenced himself, wondering if his guffaw sounded weird to the first person other than himself to ever hear it. His face became red. But Samantha laughed too, and grabbed his hand again, pulling him up in his bed. “You’re stuck in that thing the whole rest of the damn day. I’d want to get on my feet if I were you. Follow me to the kitchen.” She passed by the seven other motionless roommates, and weaved around the large nurse, moving toward the hall. Thaddeus quickly followed her, still not sure if all this was actually happening.

“Now, as far as the two of us meeting like this, I had no idea that was going to work. Just thought I’d give it a shot. And sorry for the notes, by the way. I didn’t mean to scare you. Did I scare you?”

“N-n-no,” Thaddeus said, wondering why he lied.

“And sorry if the note was a little vague. I didn’t want to be too obvious, in case one of the nurses happened to read it.” They arrived in the kitchen, and Samantha stopped by the fridge, leaning her back against it, arms crossed. “So, from what I can tell, you can stop time whenever you want, once a day. Right?” He nodded.

“Well, I can do it two times a day, but only at 10:18 A.M. and 10:18 P.M.”

T-two?” Thaddeus asked, completely shocked, and, perhaps a little jealous.

“Relax,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not as great as you’d think. You know how many chances I missed, just because someone happened to be looking my way when the clock struck 10:18? Or I happened to be sleeping?” She sighed as she shook her head again, and opened the refrigerator door. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t waste time complaining about things I can’t change. You want a pudding cup?”

Thaddeus nodded, and she handed one to him, and a plastic spoon from a nearby counter. She began to devour her pudding greedily, offering genuine smiles between bites, but he just stood there, still and silent, watching her. He wondered how she could be so at ease in a situation like this, or how she was able to talk so free and easy. And so much.

“Y-y-y…” he started, wrestling with the words he wanted to say. He imagined his struggling lips and jaw looked ridiculous. He felt embarrassed again. “Y-y-you t-t-t-talk… a-a-a-a-a…”

“I talk a lot?” Samantha guessed, and he nodded again, grinning sheepishly. “And why would a girl who has no one to talk to talk so much?”

“Y-yeah,” he uttered.

She smiled broadly, a hint of mischief on her lips and in her eyes. “I’ll show you.”

She smiled broadly, a hint of mischief on her lips and in her eyes. “I’ll show you.”

She led him back out to the common room, stopping in front of Miguel’s wheelchair. Miguel’s eyes were closed, and Thaddeus wasn’t sure if he had been sleeping when they stopped time, or just happened to be frozen mid-blink. “I got bored a long time ago, and had to find ways to entertain myself. Here, watch this.” She put her thumbs on the kid’s eyelids, pulling them up to open them. She placed her hand on his head, and moved it back and forth, as if he were a doll. Whichever way she posed him, he stayed that way.

Then, she grabbed Miguel’s chin, moving it up and down. “Hi, Thaddeus!” she said in a mock voice, manipulating the kid like a puppet. “My name is Miguel. Do you want to hear a joke?

Thaddeus didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if he liked this or not.

Why wouldn’t the clock cooperate?” she said, syncing her words with the movement of Miguel’s mouth. “Because it was ticked off!” Her fingers pulled the unwilling jaw up and down, making Miguel laugh, then brought his hands to together, mocking the fit of clapping he would often break into.

But it wasn’t Miguel doing this. He had no control or say in the matter, no awareness. It reminded Thaddeus of a few days before, when shameful thoughts crossed his mind, looking at that nurse in the kitchen. And maybe Samantha’s ventriloquist act wasn’t as depraved as those thoughts, but it still didn’t seem right, and Thaddeus couldn’t bring himself to laugh.

Samantha noticed his silent indignation, and stopped laughing herself. “What’s wrong, Thad? Didn’t think the joke was funny?”

He couldn’t answer her. There was no way he would be able to describe his objection, with only his grossly insufficient language skills to convey it. And even if he could explain, doing so might reveal too much about himself. This girl was still a stranger to him. Instead, he took her hands off of Miguel, and rearranged his body so that it was back the way it was before she had manipulated it, ending with closing the boy’s eyes.

“Oh,” Samantha said quietly, her face lowering in shame. “Sorry. I see what you mean. It’s just… It’s just that I got so tired of being alone, ya know? So tired of finally having the ability to move and speak, but no one to interact with.” Thaddeus nodded slowly, beginning to understand the reason for her actions. He had felt this way many times before. “So I made friends for myself. I gave myself some people to talk to, even if it wasn’t really them talking. But I guess that’s kinda messed up.”

Her face became somber, and she started to walk away, but Thaddeus stopped her, grabbing her hand. She looked up at him, and he smiled. “M-m-m-me,” he said.

Her eyes widened, and her lips turned up, mirroring his optimism. She wasn’t alone anymore, and neither was he. After sixteen years of solitude, years filled with bitter feelings and unanswered questions about this strange ability he possessed, he finally had someone to talk to, someone who shared his loneliness and frustration and grief. He wasn’t alone anymore.

The two of them spent the remaining time walking freely around the halls of their group home. He would run, she would chase. She would talk, he would listen. They laughed together at the funny expressions frozen on people’s faces. At times his skin would accidentally brush against hers, and they would stop to smile at each other, giggling at the foreign occurrence.

When their time was nearly over, they both returned to their beds, ready to go back to reality. “Same time tomorrow?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, already feeling more comfortable talking.

“Good. And you’d better not stand me up, buddy. I know where to find you.”

The two shared one last laugh together, before the walls began to shake, the image of the room blurred, and time sucked them back into their beds, their bodies helpless once again. He kept his attention on her the whole day, and the thought that hers was on him gave a warm feeling in his chest. He couldn’t wait until their next meeting.

10:17 P.M. rolled around, and everyone else in the room was asleep, except for Thaddeus and Samantha. He knew she would be stopping the clock for her second time that day, and it ached him that he couldn’t join her. And when the clock struck 10:18, and the second had passed, he noticed a slight change in her position, knowing that in that rift in time she had ruled the group home without him. He wondered where she went, what she ate. And even though he couldn’t laugh, he actually giggled inside at the thought her moving his mouth up and down, making him talk. He wouldn’t have minded.

But he also noticed something else, something very faint, almost impossible to detect. It was a slight warmth on his right cheek, and the tiniest hint of moisture on its skin. He knew what it was: his new friend had given him a secret kiss. And he wanted nothing more than to get up out of his bed, and give her one in return. But he couldn’t.

Not yet, at least.

JosiahJosiah Upton is a twenty-something author from Fort Worth, Texas. Aside from writing, he enjoys composing, playing and recording music, and spending time with his wife and two young boys. He is the author of two unpublished young adult novels, which he believes will someday find their home in the wide-world of books. His website is josiahupton.blogspot.com.

Marley’s Ghost Is Pregnant

No one thought much about Marley returning as a ghost. That sort of thing had happened to loads of families. It was Marley returning and insisting that she was pregnant that caused a stir. A month after she died, she just walked through the front door and into the living room where we were watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and eating our microwavable dinners and announced, “I’m pregnant.” Not, I’m back! or I’m so happy to see everyone again! or Guess who’s not dead?

Marley always liked dramatic entrances and exits.

When I first learned she was dead, I was sitting in my room, staring at the wall, hating her as usual. She hadn’t come home after cheerleading practice, and she was supposed to take me to the art store. I figured she was making out with Wyatt, her latest boyfriend, or had gone shopping with her friends. She often left me behind. So there I was, staring at the wall that adjoined our rooms, happily picturing her as the focus of a horror movie death scene on her bed, when Dad walked in without knocking and asked me to come downstairs. He and Mom had something to tell me.

“Tell me here,” I said, irritated that I had been interrupted yet again and for something Marley related.

It was then that I looked at him and saw how drawn down his face was and how he looked right through me. It was as if he had lost something. He sighed, that deep sigh he can sometimes, and said, “Please, Shawna, come downstairs.”

My mother was sitting at the dining room table, her hair shrouding her face and darkening her white with sunflowers print dress. They didn’t have to say a word. I saw Marley’s purse on the kitchen table, and I just knew. In that moment, I hated Marley more than ever because she always got everything—boys, nice clothes, everything—even this, the one thing that we could never forget. And if I hadn’t been before, I was definitely and instantly the forgotten one.

My dad comforted himself with a glass of whiskey, which he never did, and I stared at the kitchen window as my mother cried to herself. I cried too. Marley is dead, I kept telling myself in my head. Marley is dead. I had to make myself believe it. After a while, my mother moved, and I looked to see what she was doing. She held a steak knife above the fleshy white of her wrist. She was quick about it. Dad darted across the room and got to her before she could slit her other wrist.

“Call 911!” he shouted.

I grabbed the phone, dialed, and as the emergency dispatcher spoke to me and I relayed back to her, I watched Dad restrain Mom. She rested her head on his chest as he tied a tourniquet he’d made from a kitchen towel around her arm. The blood ran across and over the plastic tablecloth, spilling onto the faux tile floor.

We haven’t used the dining room table since.

That’s why we were eating in front of the TV—not because we couldn’t get enough of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—when Marley walked in. She stood there with her mouth open and waited for a response, but no one said anything for a moment. Mom had to be the one to speak first, and we turned to her. She blinked, and then she knocked over her TV dinner and tray as she ran to hug Marley. It was a bit awkward, since ghosts can’t be hugged like the living. It’s more like a pretend hug. I’ve seen a few of those ghost relative reunion shows. When Marley and Mom figured it out, Dad and I joined in. Marley is back. Seeing Mom’s grin, wider and brighter than any time since Marley had died, lifted something up in me. It was hard to hate Marley at that moment.

Over the next few weeks, things were different around the house. Mom and Dad doted on Marley, especially Mom. Marley had always been her favorite. Marley was beautiful—even as a ghost she had a nice complexion—and Mom never saw the sin behind the innocence, I guess, or she chose to ignore it. I called out of work—I was just working enough to save money for college anyway—and Dad took a Ghost Day. We had a big dinner, and Mom cooked a few of Marley’s favorite dishes.

Dinner was good, except when it became awkward. Marley couldn’t really eat anything. She could barely lift a spoon, and I had to teach her how. And then, right smack at the moment that mom brought out the whipped s’mores pie, Dad asked, “So…who’s the father? Is it that guy we buried next to you?”

The necrophilia—does that apply to ghosts?—in the room was hard to ignore. More importantly, though, Dad knew Marley hadn’t been an angel. He’d found her diary after she died. I saw him one evening, tearing page after page, date after date, fling after fling, out from the stitched binding before tossing them singularly into the backyard fire pit. He never let Mom see it, and I never said a word about it.

Marley fainted.

If you’ve never seen a ghost faint, let me put it this way: it’s like dropping a paper napkin that’s been rubbed between your hands for a good ten minutes, only the napkin doesn’t fall to the floor. It floats in the air.

Mom shrieked—cliché—and we rushed Marley to the hospital.

I think we were the only people to ever take a ghost to the hospital. Thankfully, there was this doctor on duty who had spent a good bit of his younger years obsessed with the occult, and he knew a thing or two about ghosts. At least, that’s what he told us. Either way, Marley was released after being diagnosed with post-partum spectral resurrection. And yeah, she was pregnant, though the doctor couldn’t confirm it, so that had created an imbalance of her spectral ectoplasm.

By the time we got back home, there was a media circus lining up and down the sidewalk. Marley’s little secret wasn’t so secret anymore. The world demanded to know more!—or some crap like that. Some people worried what exactly it meant that Marley was pregnant. We hadn’t given much thought to that. She was pregnant. That was a big enough deal without all of the scientists coming round with their radiation detectors, ethereal detectors, and all sorts of probes that looked as if they had been made in the basement of someone who had a wad of wires, electrical tape, and an overly active imagination. No one had a clue what was going on. Neither did we.

No one had a clue what was going on. Neither did we.

A few days went by of total apocalypse lockdown at the house before the media dwindled. A plane had crashed in the next county over, and there were survivors, real breathing survivors who were easily coerced into sharing their shocking tales about the plane’s tail being hacked away mid-flight.

Everything post-Marley’s return was finally quieting down.

Then, Dad came home one afternoon with a device of his own. He’d bought this antique shoe fitting machine made of wood and brass and uranium, and he had Marley stick her feet in it a couple of times until Mom raised hell that it might hurt the baby. Of course, that was part of the issue. We had no way of really knowing she was pregnant. No one had a way of testing if she were pregnant—the ultrasounds all resulted in white static. Marley knew she was pregnant. She could feel it, and she had all of the ectoplasm retching morning sickness to prove it.

“The baby isn’t in my foot anyway, Dad,” Marley said.

Afterwards, Dad wheeled the shoe machine into the garage, and he didn’t bring any other oddities home again. Everyone eventually forgave him; we all knew he was merely trying to be proactive. The fight wasn’t about the gizmos; we all just wanted to know what Marley’s pregnancy meant to us.

I hadn’t thought about how all of it made Marley feel until she woke me one night. She was outside, weeping in tiny weeps as she floated around in flowing, ghostly steps. She never slept. Ghosts don’t sleep. They may disappear for a while here and there—and I guess you could call it sleeping—but when they’ve manifested, they can stay for as long as they’re focused.

Marley, I knew, had something on her mind. When she had been alive and was in the yard at night, she always hid until a boyfriend showed up to whisk her away. That wasn’t the case now. I figured she was distressed over the baby, and wrapped in my blanket, I watched her from my bedroom window for an hour. She mostly just floated around, and for a while, she stuck her hand through the base of a tree before she had enough courage to stick her head in it. Later, she told me that she couldn’t see anything. As long as there was mass to an object’s insides, I guess there was nothing to see. It was later that I realized she’d tried looking inside of herself, at the baby.

As she floated about in the night, I wondered what it was like to see everything through ghost eyes. I knew what it was like to look upon something with resentment and bitterness, but I didn’t think that was the same thing. Did everything look melancholy, gray, or did everything seem like a wish? What did we look like to her?

I made a mental note to ask her in the morning, and as I fell asleep, I had no idea I would forget and never get to ask her.

*     *     *

One afternoon, I came home early from work and found Marley in the kitchen. She was slumped over the island with a pile of vitamins that she’d crafted into a ghost baby mosaic that resembled Casper.

“How does a ghost take prenatal vitamins?” she asked.

“How does a ghost even know she’s pregnant?” I asked. “Maybe it’s just swamp gas.”

We laughed, and she floated over to me for a hug. It gave me the shivers, but she said it was warm for her.

“Don’t be upset,” I said, “but who is the father? I won’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She saw me frown. “Honestly, it could be the coroner for all I know.”

“Umm, ewww.”

She pouted her lips and bent slightly, putting her hands on her knees in her best Betty Boop impression.

“I am that hot, even in death.”

“That’s what got you into this mess, remember? But your complexion,” I said, “it is immaculate.”

She held up her arms and stared at the white limbs. Then, she sighed, which raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Who would really want to be father to a ghost baby?”

“Lots of guys, I imagine. That kid will be total low-maintenance. Think about it. He’ll cost nothing. Just to be safe, you should stock up on empty baby jars.”

Marley laughed at that, and she hugged me again.

“You’re a good sister, Shawna.”

It was the first time we had really bonded since we were kids. Three years separated us, and in those three years were two vastly different people. Marley liked boys, clothes, jewelry, and makeup. I liked boys, but never had any boyfriends that I liked to admit were boyfriends; and I liked to make my own clothes and jewelry. Somewhere in-between all of that separation, though, we were sisters. I had lost her when she died in the car crash. She was texting Wyatt about which movie they should see that night when she went through a red light, veered to miss another car, and crashed straight into the concrete side of an overpass. Now she was back, and as I watched her float into the living room and try to operate the TV remote, I realized for the first time that we would always be sisters.

*     *     *

I was reminded of that fact again the day I left for my first day of college. Marley flipped her hair back over her ears that morning when I walked into the kitchen. There was something mournful about it. I’d seen her do the same thing when she broke up with her boyfriends, even when they were talking on the phone—her preferred mode of communication for breakups.

“Shawna?”

“Marley.”

“Seriously, Shawna, I need you to know something.”

Marley looked around. Mom and dad were trying to load some of my bags into the back of their car, so we were alone.

“I know I wasn’t the best sister to you,” she said. She rubbed her belly. “And I want you to know how I great I think you are, and how great you’ve been about all of this.”

I told her it was OK, that’s what family is about. She nodded her head, then tried to move a glass of milk across the counter.

“What is it, Marley?”

She turned to me, her face paler than before.

“Promise me,” she said, starting to cry, “please, that if anything ever happens to me that you’ll take care of the baby.”

“Nothing will happen to you,” I said. “What could happen to you anyway? You’re dead.”

“Nothing will happen to you,” I said. “What could happen to you anyway? You’re dead.”

“I do have trouble with windy days,” she said, crying as she laughed.

“I’ll just chase after you with a vacuum.”

We hugged, and when Mom came in the room a moment later and saw us, she began crying too. Dad watched all of us for a moment before deciding he should recheck the car’s fluids. Mom kept bawling. It took forever to get out of the kitchen and on the road.

*     *     *

I didn’t go home until Christmas. I was just too busy with work and studying, and at the end of the semester, I was preoccupied with my finals and the breakup with my first acknowledgeable boyfriend—who proved an ample distraction and gave me more attention than anyone back home. His name was Brian, and like me, he was artsy. I’m not sure why we broke up. It was mutual, sort of, and all of the breakup reasons seemed logical at the time. Looking back now, I think it was because we both didn’t know what we were really doing or wanted or whatever. Whatever the cause was, he had his reasons, and I had mine. Marley was there for me for the first time in my life. She talked me through all of the tears for hours at a time. After the tears dried, which had made my exams all the more stressful, I packed the car for the trip home.

Marley said she was big and round now. It was hard to tell in the photos she sent me because she was always a blurred spot, and it didn’t help that mom had never mastered the skill of taking a decent photo—even with auto focus! Dad called Marley his Fat Casper. Mom spent endless hours trying to figure out how to clothe a baby ghost until finally giving up. “‘He’ll just have to be naked!’” Marley quoted Mom as saying. Marley proclaimed that her baby would never be naked. “See-through, maybe, but never naked.”

I was excited to go home. If the doctor was right that the pregnancy was coming along the same as any other pregnancy, then Marley would have the baby during Christmas break. I would be an aunt, our parents grandparents, and Marley, who once made a joke that the day she’d marry and have a baby—as if it were to happen all at once—would be the day before the uncontestable end of the world, was going to be a mother. We had no idea if Marley was having a boy or a girl or the end of the world, and it didn’t matter as long as we were all together.

*     *     *

When I arrived back home, the house was empty, everything the same, except a white ribbed crib with little blue pillows and blankets with stitched on yellow stars. A note with my name was on one of the pillows: We’re at the hospital, Sis. Hurry up.

Marley was in the maternity ward, her legs in that embarrassing delivery position. She smiled when I entered the room.

“About time,” she said.

“How far apart are the contractions?”

“Contractions?” she said with an excruciating wink. “We’re having a full exorcism here.”

Then, she crunched up in pain, and her hands dug into the sheets that were whiter than her. We all held our breath as she wailed. For a moment, I thought we were all dying in Marley’s knuckles. In the back of my head, I had always secretly worried that what some of the people had said might come true, that the birth of a baby ghost would mean the collapse of this dimension into an ethereal one, or that this would be a new beginning with a brighter world changed by this girl who had died while texting her boyfriend about a movie. But I was wrong. It was just Marley who was dying. All over again.

And all that happened after I looked into Marley’s knuckles happened faster than we’ve ever had time to understand:

—Marley pushed one last time

—The doctor yelled for a container, and my mother was there with a mason jar from her purse

—Marley’s hand slipped from mine, and when I turned to her, I saw her floating up, off of the bed, and through the ceiling as though she were the last cold breath cloud of winter

           *     *     *

Marley was gone, and we were still alive. The world hadn’t changed, not beyond our world, our family. Dad hugged Mom, and Mom hugged me. And we all cried towards the ceiling tiles.

When she was gone, the doctor held the jar out towards me. The top was tightly screwed on. Inside was Casper Reynolds floating about, spinning like a miniature tornado.

I take him everywhere.

Fowler photoM.W. Fowler received an M.A. in Writing from Coastal Carolina University. His works have appeared in numerous journals, including Jelly Bucket, Little Fiction, and A cappella Zoo, as well as previously in Lunch Ticket. He is also the author of Ezra Sound: How I Became a Giant and Wayward: scifi stories & poems.

Bloodroot Blooming

When I crested the hill and caught my initial glimpse of Fort Westbrook, I began to feel for the first time that being uprooted from Jacksonville, moved to Virginia, left with my mom, sister, and a new house full of boxes while Dad shipped off to fight pirates—it might not be all bad. Living on a peninsula with an old stone fort sounded like something out of a legend.

Lisa sensed it, too, and hugged her beanie toy, Tuffy, to her chest, swinging her shoulders in excitement. Dad had given us both one of his Navy ribbons before he left, and Lisa had pinned hers to Tuffy’s ear like an earring. It waved erratically as she danced toward the fort.

Watching Lisa’s ribbon, I thought of Dad the night before, kneeling so he could look me in the eyes, his blue uniform overlaid in gold under the porch light. “Be courageous and responsible, Penny. Take care of your mother and sister while I’m gone, okay? You’re my first mate.” In my whole life, he hadn’t been sent to sea for longer than a month—and now he wouldn’t be back for nine months. Nine months of missing ice cream Wednesdays and thrift store expeditions.

I took my ribbon out of my pocket, turned it over once. Rectangular. Green with two vertical orange stripes. I held it up to my nose and inhaled. Mostly it smelled like metal, but a salty metal, like the sea, like Dad. I figured maybe if I took care of the ribbon he wouldn’t be quite so far away, not really, not with a piece of him in my hand.

“D’you suppose there’s a princess at the fort?” Lisa asked, bringing me back to the present.

I rolled my eyes, sliding the ribbon into my pocket. “It’s a fort. Princesses aren’t in forts. Unless she’d been kidnapped, I suppose…”

I trailed off, searching my memory for a legend that might have a similar story. About a month ago, Dad bought Legends and Myths of Cornwall for me from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station Thrift Shop. I couldn’t come up with a legend fast enough, though, and Lisa went on without waiting.

I’ll be the princess, then!” Lisa announced. “I’ll just stay there and wait for a sailor-knight! Or Dad can rescue me!”

“You can’t stay there because Mom wants us back—” I hesitated, unwilling to say “home” for a house we’d only spent a night in that still smelled a lot like cleaner and new paint “—back at the Westbrook house in an hour. Anyway, princesses fight for themselves nowadays.”

Lisa didn’t pay any attention—she normally didn’t, unless I was telling her a story. I hurried to catch up. Small flowers blossomed in the grass, blanketing our approach in snow-white. Puffy clouds floated above in the sky and below in the stiff moat water. The fort walls were stone, with grass growing on sloped hills at the top. We crossed a bridge with two old, fake gaslights to the squat, square entrance. Two small stoplights stood on either side of the doorway, and the red lights looked like eyes as we walked through the mouth.

We wandered around, me looking for any cracks in the walls that might contain forgotten love letters, Lisa impatiently tugging on my hand. Though Lisa groaned, I pulled her inside the fort’s museum. They had displays about Edgar Allan Poe (including a plastic statue), who’d been stationed at the fort, and Jefferson Davis, who’d been imprisoned there, and old maps that showed the star-shaped design, and lots of interesting information besides. I read most of the plaques out to Lisa as I worked across the small room, engrossed. She tugged her hand out of mine and crossed her arms.

Just as I turned to a display called The White Widow, I realized Lisa had become very quiet. I turned. She was gone.

I ran out to the courtyard. No Lisa.

A woman walked along he top of the wall, the only person around. I found steps and took them two at a time, coming to the top just as the woman stopped at the foremost point in the wall. She stared out at the bay.

“Ma’am!” I called, running toward her. The grass under my feet squished from a recent rain. “Excuse me!”

I nearly stopped when she turned toward me. She wore a sundress—the sort with little embroidered holes and an underdress—and the low sun shining through the thin material made her shine. Her hair was a blond so light it seemed nearly white, especially with the frizzy bits illuminated in the sun. She had whitish-gold eyes, the sort I imagined belonged to eagles or blind people.

“Um, have you seen my little sister? She’s this big.” I held my hand to my chest. “Red hair…”

The woman smiled and pointed behind me. I turned and saw a boy sitting in the grass on the sloping wall on the other side of the fort. Beside him—barely visible from here—I could make out the top of Lisa’s head.

“Thank you,” I called over my shoulder as I ran.

I rounded four corners before I got to the other side. A chain link fence guarded the edge of the wall here, though on the other parts there’d been no protection from a fall. Lisa sat closest to me, looking at the harbor and lighthouse. A little shepherd dog stood between her and the boy.

“Lisa!” I came to a stop, panting. “What are you doing?”

“Look, Penny! I made a friend.” Lisa pointed at the dog. “This is Melly.”

“And I’m Jon,” the boy put in, sounding amused.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, hardly looking toward him and grabbing for Lisa’s shoulder. She squirmed away.

“He doesn’t mind! He just moved here, too!”

Jon made a face, his ears reddening. “I moved a month ago,” he explained, like he owned the whole peninsula.

“Well, it’s a good thing that woman saw you,” I told Lisa. “Mom would have my skin if you got lost! Let’s go.”

“He’s got a niece that’s my age because his dad’s real old and his brother’s married and lives in New York,” Lisa continued, oblivious to Jon’s now-purpling ears. I wondered why a boy would confide so much in a little girl who couldn’t keep her mouth shut for a few minutes at a time. I figured he must be lonely, and some of my embarrassment changed to a sense of camaraderie.

“Wait, what woman?” Jon twisted around to look at the fort. I figured his eagerness had to do with distracting Lisa. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know, that—” I turned, too, but no one else was on the walls or in the courtyard. “Well, she was over there.”

“Damn it,” Jon said, shooting a look at me to make sure I’d noticed his adult word. I glared, pressing my lips so tight together my cheeks hurt. He rolled his eyes and flopped onto his back in the grass. I snuck a real look at him for the first time. He made me think of the U.S.S. Constitution I’d visited in Boston after one of Dad’s shorter deployments. There’d been facts about typical sailors in olden days, and one of the facts was that the average sailor had brown hair and gray/blue eyes. My dad had the eyes, but this boy had both. Melly put her paw on his chest, tail wagging.

“Were you waiting for that woman or something?” I asked, curious despite myself. “Who was she?”

“The White Widow.” Jon eyed me and, seeing my uncomprehending look, he smirked. Getting to his feet, he brushed the grass off his pants. The day seemed darker all of a sudden. I glanced at the sky. The clouds had started to gray. “You guys probably don’t know the story, right? Since you just got here.”

“Story?” Lisa asked, perking up.

“No.” I dragged my gaze from the sky and back to Jon. “I haven’t heard it yet.”

Jon started walking toward the farthest point, where the woman stood earlier, and Lisa scrambled after him, distracted by Melly. I followed. Though the day was warm, the wind’s chill cut through my shirt.

“It all happened right here,” Jon said with a dramatic wave of his hand, “way back before the American Revolution. The story goes that the British colonel, the guy in charge of all of it, ran a tight ship—erm, fort. He upheld all the regulations, which included killing folk on the spot if they broke rules—for instance, if they fell asleep on watch. So this guy, he brought his daughter, Wilful—seriously, I’m not making this up—with him to America. She fell in love with one of the officers at the fort.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, my imagination running with all the possibilities. Jon shook his head like that was only the boring part.

“On the night of their marriage, they walked together along the fort walls. Wilful saw the bloodroot bloom, all down there.”

Jon pointed to the fields, then examined our feet and grabbed a flower from the grass, throwing it to me. I caught and turned it over in my hands. The bloom had a yellow center with long white petals, a little bruised from his carelessness, and fit in my palm.

The bloom had a yellow center with long white petals, a little bruised from his carelessness, and fit in my palm.

“She turns to her husband and says something like, ‘Gee, those are pretty.’ And he says, ‘Go ahead home. I’ll be right back.’ So she goes to their quarters. He goes to one of his friends on sentry duty and tells him that he’s going down to pick the flowers for his wife. It can’t wait because bloodroot only blooms about a day or two before it dies. His friend tells him, ‘You’re too tired! Take my post and I’ll go get the flower.’ So the husband takes the watch and waits while his friend climbs down. He pulls his hat over his eyes so no one will notice it’s not the right guy on duty.

“But it’s been a long day, and the husband nods off. The colonel, his father-in-law, comes around inspecting, sees a soldier asleep on duty, takes out his pistol,” Jon mimicked a pistol by putting two fingers together, cocked them at Melly, “and shoots the guy in the head—bang!

Melly flopped over on her back, her little paws quivering. Lisa laughed and got down to rub Melly’s belly. Jon blew on his fingers like a cowboy blowing away smoke. I stared at him, horrified.

“It’s only after he lifts the dead man’s face to the moon that the colonel realizes he’s killed his daughter’s husband. So he turns the gun on himself, finds there’s another shot in the second barrel.” Jon stuck his fingers in his mouth. His head jerked back, his eyes rolled. “Bang,” he said, his head unnaturally tilted. I crossed my arms tightly over my chest.

“And Wilful, when she hears the shots and sees them both dead, well she goes nuts. She runs right off this point here and throws herself into the moat. Breaks her neck on that rock.”

I swallowed, moving so my toes were right at the edge of the wall, and looked down at the water lapping against the fort. Under the cloudy skies, the bay beyond the moat had turned brown and yellow. The rock was flat, gray, on the far bank of the moat. The flower fluttered in my hand as the wind tried to tear it away.

“They say she still wanders the ramparts, looking for a victim to bring to the sea,” Jon whispered near my ear, “when the bloodroots bloom.”

He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed. I screamed, waving my arms frantically to get my balance as I teetered over the edge. Then his hand yanked me back, I fell on my butt in the grass, and Jon nearly collapsed to his knees laughing.

That’s not funny!” I yelled, blinking back angry tears as I got to my feet.

“Yeah!” chimed Lisa, leaving Melly to join me, hands balled on her non-existent hips.

“Oh my god, you should have seen your face!” He clutched his stomach, rocking on his heels.

“That story’s not true! And you’re mean! And we’re leaving.” I grabbed Lisa’s arm and pulled her toward the stairs.

“Whatever you say!” he called after me. “You’re the one who saw her!”

I did not deign to answer, but pulled Lisa to the nearest way out. With my free hand, I dug in my pocket. My dad’s ribbon was still there. He would have known what to do when a boy pretended to shove someone off a wall, would have known why lonely people had to be so mean. I clenched my fist and gripped hard enough that the pins at the back cut my palm.

“What’d Jon tell you?” Lisa asked. “He wasn’t nice. But I liked Melly.”

“Just a story.” My throat hurt and I cleared it. “Weren’t you listening?”

“I couldn’t hear. The wind was too loud.” She looked at me hopefully, wanting the story.

Suddenly I wanted to tell it. I wanted to take out the image of Jon with his fingers in his mouth and put in images of my own, where the characters moved the way I wanted and the story ended the way I commanded. In my version, Wilful’s father and husband had died at sea and she visited the fort now not to haunt it, but to bestow help to those with loved ones who were gone. My story began to remind me of a Cornish legend I’d read, where the wife of a sailor managed to summon his spirit to land by casting items into a fire.

“So when the bloodroot blooms, you can take something precious that belonged to a loved one and cast it into the bay. The White Widow will be summoned to bring that person safely home to you,” I told Lisa.

“Like what?” Lisa asked. “What do you have to throw in?”

I felt in my pocket. “Like… Well, like a ribbon.”

“When does the bloodroot bloom?”

“It was blooming today. That boy”—I didn’t feel he deserved to be addressed by his name—“showed me some.”

Lisa nodded, satisfied.

We came in sight of the three-story townhouse. I didn’t want to call it our townhouse yet, not when it looked just like every other townhouse here and didn’t have any of the bulbs Mom had planted at home that we hadn’t even seen bloom. I held Lisa’s hand as we made our way across our backyard, which was also a parking lot. We could hear Mom shoving stuff around even before we opened the backdoor. I helped Lisa get her shoes off and hung up her jacket.

“Lisa, can you do something really important?” She nodded. I took Dad’s ribbon out of my pocket and turned it over in my hand once. “Take this to our room and put it on the dresser, okay?”

“Okay!” Lisa took my ribbon and ran off. Tuffy was stuffed in her pocket now, just his head peeking out with the ribbon-earring bouncing as she leapt up the stairs. I made my way to our main floor more slowly. Mom was on her knees in the kitchen, putting pots in a cupboard, her curly hair pulled into a tight ponytail. I could see the winding lines of her lightning scar right above the collar of her t-shirt. A voice murmured in the living room, and I edged through the kitchen to get a glimpse of the TV. The Weather Channel played quietly, covering the weekend report. I liked how the weatherman’s voice made the house feel less empty.

“Look.” Lisa had stopped to watch the weather report. Grinning, she pointed at the screen. “It’s going to storm!”

I turned back to the weather. Sure enough, there was an eighty percent chance of thunderstorms. My stomach started doing a sea serpent coil. I could remember when I was really little, before Lisa, when we had a bad hurricane. Hail rained down and the windows broke and Mom went raking leaves in the eye of the storm even though Dad said it wouldn’t make a difference. The clouds rolled in and she got distracted talking to a neighbor. They finally said goodbye, walked separate ways, and I saw Mom and then light and then Mom again, collapsing on the driveway, thunder so loud I went deaf a moment and couldn’t hear myself scream or Dad shouting as he ran and then days afterward in the hospital with all sorts of adults telling me, “Your mom’s lucky. Struck by lightning! Went right through her spine all the way out her heel. Did she show you the scar?” And I’d say, yes, she did. It looked like tree roots, red and dark as blood, growing down from her neck all the way to her third rib.

One of the adults, a well- meaning friend, told Dad, “Hey, at least you don’t have to worry about that! The chances of getting hit again…”

And Dad’d said, “The chances get better after you’re hit once.” And his friend tried to smile and Dad stretched his lips back but didn’t even make a dint in his cheeks and rubbed his eyes and then picked me up and put me on his lap and told me a story about Zeus. Mom always got surprised when I remembered so much, especially since she couldn’t. I wished I could forget.

There you are.” Mom came into the living room. Her flushed cheeks told me I was in for it. She nodded to a clock sitting on the dining room table, waiting to be hung. “What time is it, Penelope?”

I looked down with a sinking feeling. “Four fifteen, ma’am. Sorry… I lost track of time.”

Lisa dashed off as Mom mutely pointed to a box. Biting my lip, I grabbed scissors and started cutting. The packers had put an extra layer of tape on this one. The Weather Channel played in the other room. Storms should hit in the next hour or so. Some hail expected. If you’re in the bay area, be careful… The scissors broke through at last, and my whole arm plunged into the box. Its insides smelled a little like our old house—musty with a tinge of coffee and spices and book pages. When Mom wasn’t looking, I put my head all the way in and inhaled deeply.

We finished an hour later. Wisps of Mom’s red hair made a halo around her pale face as she put the last knick-knack on the bookshelf, a piece of blue rope tied in an Alpine Butterfly knot. It was my favorite knot because it looked sort of like a Celtic trinity knot—one big loop and two twined smaller loops. Instead of giving her flowers, Dad gave her bits of knotted rope when they were dating. “The Alpine Butterfly is very important,” he’d say to me, smiling at my mom, “because it’s the anchor knot.

Mom exhaled slowly, mentioned ordering pizza and sent me to do more unpacking in my room. I left, relieved. I saw her heading toward the sunroom to unpack more.

I pushed open the door to my room, but before it could swing wide it caught on something. Digging my shoulder into the wood, I tried to push harder.

“Don’t come in!” came Lisa’s voice as the door pushed back against me.

“What?” I wedged my foot in the open space and tried to squeeze through the opening.

“Why not?”

“Because!”

I pushed through and stopped in amazement. Our room was a disaster, post-hurricane kind. Boxes lay toppled over, spilling illustrated books and toys and clothes everywhere. I couldn’t step without putting my foot on a pile at least an inch deep. Mom was going to freak.

I swung around to Lisa, cowering behind the door. “What on earth did you do?”

“I lost it!” Big tears rolled down her cheeks. “I lost it!”

“Lost what?”

“Dad’s ribbon—the one he—he gave you.”

Hurricane winds covered my ears, my brain. I was right in front of her before I knew I’d taken a step, screaming, “What do you mean—you lost it?”

“I just wanted to play!” she wailed, pointing at her stuffed animals standing in military formation on the window seat. Tuffy sat in front of them with his ribbon earring. “I wanted to play with it, just one game, and—and—then—I can’t find it anywhere!”

Red coated everything—Lisa’s blotched face, the unpainted walls, the boxes, everything.

“You have your own ribbon! Why didn’t you play with that?”

“I wanted to play with yours!”

Red coated everything—Lisa’s blotched face, the unpainted walls, the boxes, everything.

I wished I was the colonel of the fort and I could shoot her. I wished I was a mermaid and I could drown her.

I raised my hand and the sting cut up my arm as I hit her across the cheek.

Lisa stared at me, her gray eyes wide and wounded, a tear dripping down over the angry welt from my hand. I stared back, breathing hard, my stomach turning inside out.

“Penelope Catherine Smith.” Mom’s voice was low and calm. When I turned, her eyes were scarier than lightning. “Tell me what you just did.”

“Lisa lost Dad’s ribbon—the one he gave me!” I pointed at her, my voice hitching. Lisa started crying even more and shoved past me to grab Tuffy from the window seat before latching onto Mom’s legs. I knew I was lost. Mom always went easy on Lisa. If Dad’s been here, he might have at least given Lisa a spanking. If he’d been here, I wouldn’t have hit Lisa at all. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t mean to!” My vision blurred and I felt the tears run down to my chin. “She just ruins everything! She always messes up my stuff!”

Mom picked up Lisa. “Apologize to your sister.”

I shut my mouth tight, pressing my lips together.

Mom’s eyes became steelier than an aircraft carrier. “All right then. You stay here until you can apologize. And I want you to clean up whatever of this mess is yours. Do you understand?”

“But Lisa—”

“If you had unpacked all of your stuff”—she said it like another s-word I’d heard her use before—“when you were supposed to earlier, it wouldn’t have been in the boxes. And maybe once this mess is cleaned up you’ll find the ribbon. It’s got to be here somewhere.”

She carried Lisa to the door. Lisa lifted her head off Mom’s shoulder and whispered, “I’ll get him back, Penny.”

The door shut firmly and I was alone. I looked at the mess, feeling hopelessly like I’d been assigned one of Psyche’s impossible tasks. My hand still itched from hitting Lisa.

Thunder rumbled over the house about an hour later, when hunger combined with a lonely fear drew me out of my room. Though I had tearfully tried to straighten up my things, I still hadn’t found the ribbon. I moved down the steps one at a time, feeling the wood quake with the echoes of thunder. Back in my real home, my old home, I would have curled my toes to pull at the carpet threads, and felt grounded.

Mom still worked in the sunroom by the sound of it. The rain started, hitting the windows in a small patter-patter-patter. Thunder again. I went to the living room. The Weather Channel had been turned off, and the room felt bigger, colder without the murmuring weatherman.

“Lisa?” I called, checking the dining room, kitchen. I looked down the stairs to the backdoor. My coat hung on its peg with my shoes below, but Lisa’s were gone. The rain pounded louder behind my eyes. The backdoor had been left open a crack.

I ran down and pulled on my boots. I had to go after Lisa. But I couldn’t tell Mom. Not only would she be even more furious with me, she’d be in danger too. What if she got hit again, and Dad wasn’t even here to help? I didn’t want her to go in the storm—even more than I didn’t want to go in the storm.

When I slipped outside, the rain hit me like those waterfalls at nice pools—a weight breaking on my neck and shoulders. My hair clung to my face, and I blinked hard to try to see, still standing on the first step, staring out into the rain, my toes right on the edge of the step’s ledge. Lightning tore across the sky in a wicked smile. The trees waved one way and then another. My heart hammered in my chest, my stomach watermelon hard.

Something—someone—white moved under the flash of the lightning. I only had a glimpse—a woman, gliding along the grass toward the fort. With a yelp, I jumped down the steps and tore across the parking lot. The temperature had dropped, and my hands hurt with cold. Puddles soaked my pants and dripped down over my ankles.

The grass beneath my feet changed to pavement. I raised my eyes enough to get a glimpse of the fort, cloaked in darkness and looming taller than before. I could barely make out the little stoplights, still on red, gleaming at me through the storm, like they knew something I didn’t. The rain receded as I ducked into the entrance. I cupped my hands to my mouth and screamed, “Lisa!”

Lightning streaked down somewhere in the bay, and in its jagged fall to the ground I saw Lisa silhouetted on top of the wall, the light turning her red hair to fire.  I screamed again, but the wind ripped my voice away. Thunder crashed through my head, and I felt the fort wall tremble under my hand.

Taking a deep breath, I plunged from my shelter back into the rain. The stairs were slick with water, and I slipped. I didn’t feel any pain when my knee collided with the edge of one step, or when my palms slid over stone to stop me. I scrambled the rest of the way on all fours. The rain tasted salty, and I thought I might be crying, or maybe it was the sea.

Lisa stood on the point where Wilful fell all those years ago. She held her right hand out, clenched shut, her other hand gripping Tuffy to her side. In another flash of lightning, I thought I saw the woman—but when I blinked Lisa was alone. I ran to her, the mud sliding away from my feet a little with every step. She stood so near the edge—I didn’t know if she realized it, and she couldn’t hear me.

You have to give her something that the sailor loved, I remembered saying. Icy fingers crawled across my neck. Dad loved Lisa way more than all his ribbons. Lisa was more than a small piece of Dad—she was half him. That woman on the wall had noticed Lisa, had smiled— but maybe not kindly after all. Maybe Jon had been right—maybe the White Widow haunted the grounds, wished harm in her grief, hurt the living for pleasure. Maybe the White Widow didn’t want to be lonely any more.

Lisa threw her hand forward, fingers spreading as she released something. Then she pitched, arms flailing, and fell.

No screams were left in me. I paused just long enough to look down. I could see a shadow under the water I thought could be Lisa. She hadn’t learned to swim yet—she still wouldn’t let go of pool edges. I backed a few steps, hardly hearing the storm anymore, too scared to think how scared I was. I ran, jumped.

The water hit me like Dad’s belt—but this all over me, every part, so sharp and stunning the air went out of me and I couldn’t get anything back in. I grabbed blindly, found an arm, and kicked off from the muddy bottom of the moat. My legs hurt from thrashing, my skin burned, my chest shrunk to the size of a pin. Water sloshed in my ears, in my head, and I could hear murmurs like a distant avalanche.

I broke the surface. Sound washed me in a baptism of thunder. I opened my mouth but no air would come in. Kicking furiously, I dragged Lisa through the water to the large rock. She started kicking, too. I pushed her onto the rock. Lisa’s hair clung in limp clumps around her face. I crawled up beside her, my whole body bruised, and curled forward until my forehead scraped the stone.

All at once, air came back. I gasped and coughed, unable to take enough in, too shaken to do more than gasp until I nearly heaved. Lisa dug her head into my shoulder, clinging.

“Are you okay?” I asked when I could speak. “Are you okay? What were you doing?”

“I tried to bring Daddy back,” she whimpered into my neck. “I gave my ribbon to the White Widow moat.” Her voice hitched. “I think I lost Tuffy.”

“It’s all right.” I gripped her arm, her head, feeling her firmness, feeling her shuddering breaths. She smelled like the sea. She smelled like the stale moat water. She smelled a little metallic. “It’s okay.”

She curled closer, shaking in the cold, and I held her. The thunder grew fainter, less frequent. At last I got up. Water lapped at my feet, and something soft brushed the toe of my shoe. Tuffy had washed up beside us. I scooped him out—soaked and drooping—passed him to Lisa. I put my hand on her shoulder.

Together we started walking home.

Hollingsworth photoAlyssa Hollingsworth is a graduate of Berry College currently pursuing her M.A. in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. She has been previously published in Berry Magazine and Fickle Muses, and won third place in the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s Prize in Ethics. Visit her here: http://alyssahollingsworth.com

My Shelf Life

The Bronx is under siege. The smell of sulfur is everywhere. A cherry bomb goes off. And then another. With each mini-bomb, I edge closer to Moises until the noise melts away. But not too close.

“This is crazy,” I say.

Fear is a funny emotion. It can stop you dead in your tracks, all plans squashed before they are fulfilled. Or fear can put you on a path you had no intention in taking. I made a huge mistake reaching out to Moises. No doubt about it. But once I pressed the send button there was no turning back. Actually, pressing the button was easy. It was the seconds following, waiting for his response that made me increasingly aware that I made the wrong choice.

I didn’t even consult Serena and Camille. They would have advised me to play the good girl, but I’m on some dumb rebellion tip. Papi thinks I’m fucking around with a titere, then I’ll fuck a titere. It made complete sense to me at the time but now that I’m actually walking the streets with him, I’m not so sure.

“C’mon,” he says as we find refuge at a bodega.

“C’mon,” he says as we find refuge at a bodega.

He picks out two mangos out of a pile of mostly bruised fruit and two large bottles of water. I have no idea what we’re doing or where we’re going. I step over a crowd setting off bottle rockets and pray that they don’t throw one my way. They don’t but one little boy tosses a firecracker in front of me. The little boy is shirtless, proud even, as he struts towards me again, about to light up another. I glare but his smile is much too wide. We need to get out of this madness.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“It’s not far. Just up the block,” Moises says.

He hasn’t said much since I met him at the other side of the park. Maybe Moises’s silence is his way of trying to figure me out. He stops in front of an apartment building with black iron gates on every window and rusty fire escapes draped with clothes hung to dry. It’s rundown. Pungent smells of curry, fried food and weed permeates the hallway. As we pass by each apartment, I can hear a novela playing loudly on a television, a radio tuned to reggae music, and a couple talking. Or, are they arguing? I can’t tell.

“This is it,” he says.

The door has a Jesus sticker with the words “God Bless this House” written underneath. Like most of the other apartments, the door looks battered, like someone used a ram to try to get in. He swings the door open and I’m greeted with a framed portrait of the Pope, President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. To the right, there’s a long passageway with several doors on each side. To the left, a large gilded mirror leans atop a matching table. A vase brimming with fake flowers sits in the center of the table. The flowers are encrusted with dust. Everything seems old and cheap. Really cheap.

I wait by the entrance. This isn’t what I’m used to. I’m not that bold. I take a deep breath. This is only a dare, I say to myself, an adventure.

“Don’t worry. She’s at a church retreat,” he says. “She won’t be back until late.”

My actions are hitting me hard. An invitation to hang out means chilling at his apartment. Alone. This is how the night will go down. What was that thing Papi said? “Open your legs and you’re just like those other pendejas.” Will I see this thing through? I step inside.

Sweat tickles my neck. The air is stifling. The tiny living room is so cluttered with furniture that there’s barely any room to stand. There are small statues of Jesus, a tiny little pig that might be a piggy bank, and a bunch of wedding souvenirs displayed like trophies. As much as I want to, I don’t touch a thing. Whoever “she” is would notice.

“She likes to collect shit,” he says.

“Your mom?”

“No. I live with my aunt. My Dad is somewhere in Puerto Rico. Mom is out of commission.”

“What do you mean out of commission?’” He pauses. “The last I heard she was smoking crack with some guy. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years.”

“Oh. That would definitely put you out of commission,” I chuckle but there’s nothing to laugh about.

He turns to me.

“So, now that you’ve heard my shiny background, you still want to hang?”

“Why?” I say. “Am I suppose to be scared or something?”

“You’re probably used to hanging out with guys who come from money, two parents, a nice house.”

I shake my head although everything he’s saying is absolutely true. He’s judging. Again. Using that tone of voice I’ve heard before.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“Seventeen.”

“Well, for someone who is a year older, you sure say some dumb, immature crap.”

He tucks his chin in a bit and keeps his gaze fixed on me. I try to hold his stare but quickly surrender, feeling the heat bounce off my cheeks. Things were a lot easier outside when all I had to do was dodge some firecrackers. But now that we are inside, doubt circles around me.

We walk down the corridor and into another room. Unlike the living room, this room is bare, minus a flimsy white sheet covering a solitary mattress on the floor and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Posters of Bob Marley, Malcolm X and a bunch of other old but serious people cover the dingy wall. The room smells of dirty socks.

“Take a seat.”

He removes a stack of books from atop a crate and lights a stick of incense. A small breeze enters the room but not enough to make a difference. I keep my arms and legs crossed. I try not to move at all.

“Do you, um, sleep here?” I ask.

“Yeah.” He sounds a little apologetic. “It’s just a place to crash until I can afford my own.”

“Oh.”

I bite my fingernail. There are so many voices in my head telling me to run. This isn’t for me. Neither is Moises. What must he think of me when the only place he takes me to is his room?

I walk over to a mirror where various snapshots are pressed against the frame. Moises names each person in the picture as if I’ll remember.

“This is my crew, my panas,” he says. “After things went down with my brother, they held me together. They steered me away from some wild shit I was getting down with.”

He’s speaking but all I can think is that he’s standing way too close. This too is a challenge so I stay where I am and nod as he explains how important his friends are to him. How a bunch of suspicious-looking chicks saved his life. He smells of musk and sweat. Can I be like those girls in the picture with their tank tops and cutoffs? They seem to know what to do, unafraid, grins flashing, curves showing. One hand firmly placed on their waist, hips popped to the side. They’re so sure of themselves. But me, all I know is that I’m completely lost here.

A blast from a cherry bomb startles me. This isn’t going to work.

“I’ll be right back,” he says.

He runs out and I hear him opening and slamming doors, rummaging for something. I pray he’s getting ready to leave. Instead, he comes back and tosses me a sleeping bag.

“Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?”

“Trust me.”

I don’t know him from shit but here I am following him up a few flights of stairs. He pulls out another set of keys, opens the door and a cool soft breeze sweeps over us. We’re on the roof. From up here, I can really see the fireworks. It’s as if small communities are communicating through loud bangs and sparkly lights.

“This is awesome,” I say as I peer down at the people on the streets scrambling to get into firework position. We can even see some stars twinkling in the sky.

“No one else is allowed up here. I help the landlord around the building so he gives me access.”

He grabs the sleeping bag and opens it. He cuts open the mangos and we eat while watching the light show. Then he lays on his back, tapping his side for me to join him. I find myself holding my breath, anticipating his next move. My heart is racing. I suck at this. I turn to him and notice a long scratch on his arm.

He grabs the sleeping bag and opens it.

“Where did you get that?” I ask.

“My aunt’s cat.”

He points at a small scar on my hand. “What about you? Where’s that from?”

“I got that when I fell off my bike. I think I was ten.” I point to my knee. “I got this one in Hawaii. I slipped off of a rock. Your turn.”

“I think that’s it,” he says.

“What are you talking about? What about that large scar on the side of your neck.” I run my fingers lightly across it.

He flinches.

I regret being so bold.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

He hesitates. “Naw, it’s cool.”

He takes a sip of water.

“I must have been around eleven. My brother used to time me whenever I would go to the store for him. One time I ran into my friend and started fooling around. When I got back, Orlando told me the next time I took a detour; he would tie me up by my neck. He showed me how he would do it. I was never late after that. Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.”

Moises is trying to be a man about this story, to act as if what his brother did to him was okay but there’s no cause to. It’s only us up here and the popping firecrackers. For the first time all night, I’m the one staring at him and I’m not looking away.

He slowly inches towards me. Very slowly. So close that I feel his breath on my cheek, on my lips, until his lips are on mine and I’m forced to close my eyes.

His lips are soft and tangy from the mango. He guides me back down to the sleeping bag. His hand trails the side of my neck, down to my back and inching its way underneath my blouse.

“I can’t,” I blurt out.

“We can take it slow. I want to be with you and if that means holding hands, I’m cool with that. If it means more, I’m cool with that too. You feel me?”

I’m not supposed to feel anything for Moises. Not this kiss. Not emotions. Not a thing. He’s not part of my summer equation so this moment right now is just a silly act. Moises doesn’t hold anything good for me. He’s just a dare.

I get up and take in his serious face glowing against the flashes of the fireworks. The kiss that tasted like mango still lingers on my lips.

No. Moises is not for me.

LilliamNov2013Lilliam Rivera is a James Kirkwood Literary Prize nominee and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus.net, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Latina magazine. Lilliam is completing a contemporary young adult novel. “My Shelf Life” is an excerpt from that novel.