A Search: Chapter 1

Chapter I

Dylan
Derby, CT – February 2020

Dylan wakes to a pounding in his head. Finally gathering the energy and ambition to open his eyes, he sits up and takes in his surroundings. For a second, he doesn’t know where he is, but panic doesn’t set in; it wouldn’t be the first time he’s waken up in unfamiliar surroundings after spending a night on the floor.

A quick survey of the room, and Dylan knows exactly where he is. A Bob Marley poster above the bed, a black sheet over the window, and a thick mixture of marijuana and alcohol in the air give away his location: Dante’s bedroom. The only thing missing to complete the picture is the seventeen-year-old himself.

Dylan is just about to call out to his friend, but closes his mouth when he hears voices down the hall, at the front door he assumes. One is deep with a slight Italian accent: Dante. Before he hears the second voice, he wonders if some recruiters have come in search of supporters, but then he immediately recognizes Anna-Marie’s soft soprano voice. But the thought of her being here, at Dante’s house, makes him believe he’s delusional.

Before Dylan can move to join his friend and girlfriend in the hall, there is the slamming of a door, and Dante returns to his room and falls on the bed. “What happened last night?” Dante asks.

Still sitting on the floor, Dylan stares up at his friend. “Was she just here?” As soon as the words come out, he realizes he’s already answered this question. “What’d she say?”

Dante shakes his head, reaching for darts on the desk beside his bed. “She just wanted to know if you were here.” He throws a dart at the board across the room. “What’d you do?”

Dylan shakes his head as he rubs his eyes with his palms. “Oh, what didn’t I do?” He reaches for the box, sitting in plain sight, that’s usually hidden beneath Dante’s bed. “She’s probably just pissed about this.”

Throwing another dart, Dante laughs. “Why are you with her? She’s more controlling than your own ma.”

Dylan says nothing about his mother, a wave of sadness washing over him. He loves her despite her being oblivious to anything that goes on in his life. He doesn’t blame her, though, knowing she has enough to worry about with trying to keep the family clothed, sheltered, and fed during this time of political reform, while dealing with an alcoholic husband. About still being with Anna-Marie, all he has to say is, “You wouldn’t understand.”

Dante throws an empty can from his desk at his friend’s head. “Whatever. Don’t try that ‘it’s love’ shit with me. You only slept with her because she was a virgin. But that doesn’t mean you have to marry her.”

The mention of sex triggers something in Dylan’s head, and as his mind races to remember what happened before passing out at Dante’s house, he tunes out the rambling sound of his friend’s voice. He rubs his eyes again, and then runs his hands down his face.

“You need water.”

“No, no. Last night…”

Dante looks at Dylan expectantly. “Yeah?”

Shrugging, Dylan doesn’t look up from the spot on the floor he’s been staring at, and his hands remain still as he presses down on the stained carpet beneath him. “I was already hammered by the time she came over last night. I remember her sitting on my bed. And there was something about sex.”

Dante loses interest at this point, and it’s quite obvious in his tone. “So you fucked her. Big deal. I think we’ve established that you’ve done that before,” he says before pushing himself off his bed. “I’mma get you some water.”

Dylan slowly shakes his head, his eyes still unmoving. “No. We didn’t last night. She was upset or something.”

As Dante leaves his room, he mutters something over his shoulder. Dylan hears none of this as his eyes widen and his focus shifts from the floor to the wall and the muscles in his hands relax.

 

“Oh, you’re already drunk,” Anna-Marie sighs as soon as Dylan opens his bedroom door, the old piece of wood creaking as it moves. “But it’s Friday night, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t be, I guess.” She pushes past him, walks right over the articles of clothing covering the linoleum floor and sits on his bed, crossing her ankles and resting her hands in her lap.

Despite the tingly warmth spreading over his body like rushing water, Dylan sees the worry in his girlfriend’s eyes as she stares at the large bottle of Smirnoff on the dresser beside his bed. “Baby, don’t worry about that,” he says, cutting off her view of the bottle as he sits beside her. “I’m here for you.” He tries to sound sincere, but he doesn’t realize how hard this is when his words reek of alcohol and slur together. When Anna-Marie remains still, he leans in for a kiss, but she looks down and gently pushes on his chest to keep him at arm’s length. “What’s the matter?”

“You’re drunk.” She pauses for a moment, her focus not shifting from a spot on the floor. Dylan follows her gaze before she speaks again. “And I’m pregnant.” Her tone is weak and quiet.

He knows he couldn’t have heard her correctly, and his head snaps back in her direction, but he quickly regrets moving so quickly. She slowly meets his gaze. “What?” he breathes. Anna-Marie closes her eyes and looks back down. He puts his hands on either side of her face. “Look at me,” he demands, but almost as soon as he says it, his mind can’t decide if the words came out or not. Regardless, she opens her eyes slowly.

“Dylan, I’m pregnant.”

When he shakes his head, not only does the world sway with each shake, but Anna-Marie turns her body away from his, adding to the motion blur. She lies on her side, pulling her knees to her chest. “Why am I even bothering to tell you this now?” she mutters under her breath.

Dylan slides off his bed and puts both hands on his wall in an attempt to stabilize himself the spinning world. After a moment, he turns and rests his back against the wall and looks back at the beautiful mess on his bed. She looks comfortable as if she were on her own bed. He presses his hands to his head and wishes he were sober.

When his eyes open again, Anna-Marie is beside him at the door. There’s something else in her eyes now, but he can’t decide what it is at this point in time. He tries to speak, but isn’t sure if anything comes out.

“You won’t remember this in the morning anyway,” she says before leaving.

 

A glass of water in each hand, Dante returns to his room and sits back on his bed. “Here, drink up.” When Dylan doesn’t take the cup, Dante sets both on his desk. “Man, what is wrong with you?”

“Pregnant,” is all he can whisper.

“For real?” Dante asks as his arms fall to his side. When Dylan just barely nods, Dante’s eyes widen. After a moment, his hand rises to his face, and as he stares at nothing, his fingers drum his lips. “That ain’t good, man. Not in this world. Money’s tight, the gov is falling apart.”

Dylan doesn’t even blink, and his tone is as spacey as his gaze. “I know.”

“But you got options. My honest suggestion? Abort it. Tough, I know, but think of that baby’s future. You’re too young. And the country is shit. You don’t want to bring a kid into this. We’re all gonna be hobos soon, fighting each other for a scrap of rotten meat.”

His voice trails off, and he’s quiet for a long moment as his hand rubs the back of his neck. Dylan finally looks up at him. There’s a glimmer of fear in Dante’s eyes, but he pays little attention to it. He pays even less attention to what his friend says about the future state of their country. In his opinion, everyone should grab a drink and a joint and just forget everything.

When Dante speaks again, his voice is distant. “Something has to be done, man…” He shakes his head, and then looks at Dylan. “It’s not the end of the world. You and Anna, you guys can get through it.”

Dylan stands, his head protesting the sudden movement, but before his friend can say another word, Dylan is out the front door and down the street. Despite the short distance between him and Anna-Marie’s house, he decides to take his time. For a mid-February day in Connecticut, it’s relatively warm and he embraces the fresh air.

As he passes a poor excuse for a park, he hears a group of voices calling for support. In the center of a handful of people are the three leading the rally. The female waves her arms animatedly while the taller of the two males hands out pamphlets to the few individuals who seem to care.

“This government is single-handedly taking down our nation,” the young woman calls. “Republican Greshen now, and Democratic Obama before him, have done nothing good for America.”

“We need real change. Not empty promises,” the shorter male continues. His voice is less intimidating than the woman’s despite being louder.

Dylan meets the young woman’s eyes, just a few yards away. She has waist-length black hair and, from what he can see, large light blue eyes. She seems mature, confident; the kind of person who would get whatever she wanted in whatever way she could. As she continues with her speech, her focus shifts to others passing by. “And we start by throwing out the people that are taking our money for themselves. Independent Robert Graham is the answer to get us out of the new depression.”

Dylan’s heard of this independent party that’s running for office, but this is the first he’s seen them. Around him, people mutter their disapproval or concerns, and he wonders if the party will really amount to anything. As he shakes his head and continues on his way, a large man in his twenties beside him starts yelling and Dylan stops again.

“Bitch, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man says, his arms in the air.

The woman seems to take offense, and crosses her arms. “Excuse me?” She takes a step in the direction of the man, but her taller partner, a slim man with short dark brown hair, places a hand on her shoulder. Her other partner, with shoulder-length chestnut hair, watches with a smirk on his face.

“I think you heard me,” the man says. “You stand there spewing bullshit that will never actually amount to anything. I don’t think you even know what your Robert Graham really wants.”

Shaking free of her partner’s grasp, the woman takes another step closer, anger clear in her eyes. “Who the fuck are you to tell me what I do and don’t know?”

“Ryan!” Her partner reaches for her, but she holds out her hand to stop him. “Ryan, please don’t.”

Dylan, shoving his hands in his pockets, watches out of the corner of his eye as a police officer inches closer. Probably just in case, Dylan assumes, but he can’t help but hope things will get interesting.

“You really think this guy’s standardized, government-controlled everything is the answer for America?” the large man continues.

“Robert Graham doesn’t want to control everything!” Ryan raises her arms as if to put the town of Derby on display. “Greshen is ignoring the people. Robert Graham wants to bring the government back to the people. He’s one of us, not a corrupt politician.”

The man shakes his head, taking a step towards Ryan. “This guy is a fraud with a thirst for power!” As he inches closer, someone beside him grabs his shoulder, warning him to not get too close and start something.

He retaliates by shaking the guy off and swinging at him. Dylan immediately steps forward and grabs the man’s fist before it can connect with the guy, who backs away with most of the people. “Woah, calm down,” Dylan tries, but the man doesn’t listen.

“Who the fuck are you?” he yells as he shoves Dylan.

Dylan stands tall and claims his space to avoid falling. “Fighting will prove what, exactly?” The man towers over him, but he doesn’t back down. “If you need violence to prove yourself, you’re a weak man.” Much like his step-father, he thinks.

After a minute of staring Dylan down, the man pushes past him and grumbles something as he sulks away. It takes him a moment to process what had just happened as the adrenaline courses through his body. He isn’t sure what just happened, but he knows he likes it. He looks around, hoping someone else would dare challenge him.

“Look at that,” Ryan says as she walks up to Dylan. He looks over at her, so close to him. She seems to exude confidence as she stands tall, almost in a Wonder Woman pose. “You know, I always say that if violence isn’t solving your answers, you’re not using enough of it,” she laughs.

Dylan smiles but remains silent. She’s so close to him, he can smell her perfume, something feminine without being girly. He shakes his head, walking away, realizing he’s been distracting himself. “Hey, wait,” Ryan calls after him, her alto voice sultry. Before Dylan is too far, she has caught up to him. Grabbing his arm, she stops him. Her hand is warm on his bare skin; once she removes it, he misses her touch.

“We could really use a guy like you. He’s shockingly not the first to try and start a scene,” she laughs as she holds out a hand. “Ryan Graham.”

“Dylan Johnson,” he says, shaking her soft hand. “You want me to join this?” he asks.

She smiles and takes a step closer. “Of course!” She doesn’t try to hide her enthusiasm. “That guy back there? I’m fairly certain you’re the only one who could’ve calmed him.”

Several feet away, her shorter partner shakes his head and turns away. The taller still hands flyers to the thinning crowd.

Dylan knows she’s exaggerating, but the thought of being needed, of having a skill no one else possesses, piques his interest. She must sense this, because she pulls out her phone and hands it to him. “I know you want to join the campaign,” she says, her smile only growing wider.

Slowly, he takes her phone and enters his number, not questioning why she doesn’t hand him a flyer or business card. As he hands the device back, he looks into her eyes—the lightest, most mesmerizing shade of blue he’s ever seen—and convinces himself it’s just for the cause.

She looks around. “I think we’re finished here now thanks to that jackass.” She looks back at Dylan. “But if you’re not busy, come back to the office with my brothers and me.”

Adrenaline still courses through his veins and he almost agrees before remembering Anna-Marie. “Actually, I gotta be somewhere. Text me,” he says as he turns away.

“I absolutely will,” she says, her voice sultry again.

He doesn’t stop walking until he’s at Anna-Marie’s door. When she answers, Dylan can’t decide if she looks comforted or angered by his presence. “Hi,” she mutters sheepishly as she stands to one side, tucking her light brown hair behind an ear. Once he’s standing in the small but clean foyer, she shuts the door behind him.

“Can we talk?”

She shrugs, avoiding eye contact. She seems so small, her arms crossed over her chest and her head down. “So you’re ready now?”

Dylan opens his mouth to apologize, but she turns around and heads up the stairs to her bedroom. He follows quietly, greeting parents in the living room as they pass.

“The door stays open,” her mother calls, her voice cold as always.

Usually, Dylan would give the woman some charming comment about being wise and respectful towards her daughter; now, all he can think is, Too late, Mrs. Thomas.

“Yes, Mom,” Anna-Marie says. Once in her room, she climbs onto her bed and pulls her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around them.

Dylan sits at her desk, afraid to be too close to her. “Are you sure?”

She nods. “I tried three different tests.”

He looks around the room, not sure what to look at, afraid to meet her eyes. He hates being here. The scuff-free light blue walls, the polished hardwood floors covered only by a green plush carpet in the center, the matching white furniture neatly arranged around the room; the cleanness and perfection of her room always makes him as if he’ll leave dirt behind when he leaves.

He knows this isn’t the kind of girl he should be with—or more specifically, he knows he’s not the kind of boy she should be with—but when he looks at her, he wishes that were different. “Have you told your parents yet?”

She shakes her head. “Have you…” she starts, but her voice trails off.

Dylan quickly shakes his head, his step-father’s voice coming to mind. I shudder to think of that boy passing his genes on. Carl had made this comment after his mother found condoms in his room. Condoms that apparently weren’t to be trusted.

Anna-Marie nods, and they sit in silence for a long minute. She taps her fingers on her knees as if playing a tiny piano. Dylan plays with pocket lint.

“What are you going to do?” he finally asks.

She closes her eyes. “I don’t know.”

A few things that Dante said before Dylan left comes to his mind, things he doesn’t realize he had heard until now. “Abortion?” he whispers, staring at the floor.

“I don’t want to kill it.” Her voice is small.

“Adoption?”

She shrugs. “It’s probably best.” She releases the tight grip her arms had made around her legs, and picks at the nail polish on her toenails.

Although Dylan knows they’re too young, a part of him wants to propose the third option, one Dante hadn’t suggested. He doesn’t feel like he has much of a family, with an over-worked mother and an alcoholic step-father. Having this child, with someone like Anna-Marie, might give him something in the world he doesn’t feel like he has now.

Anna-Marie looks up and studies the expression on his face. “You don’t think so?” There’s a glimmer of hope in her voice, and he wonders if she’s already considered the third option.

Should he be honest with her? He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Your parents probably wouldn’t let you keep it anyways.”

“It’s not up to them. It’s up to me and you.”

He looks up at her and they lock eyes. He isn’t sure how he does it, but he feels her gaze in the deepest, most reserved part of his heart, a part he never knew existed until she came into his life. His head still pounds, but the swelling in his heart takes command of his body. He pushes himself out of the chair and takes his hands out of his pockets. Settling beside her, he pulls her into his arms, and breathes in the strawberry scent of her hair as he kisses the top of her head. She wraps her arms around him, and he whispers into her ear. “I love you.” The words rush out before he can stop them, before he realizes what he’s saying.

Her body stills for a moment, then she leans away just enough to look at his face. “What?” she breathes.

He can’t repeat the words as the reality of what they mean is settling into his mind. Loving her means giving her that part of him he just recently discovered; it means that for the first time in his life someone actually means something to him; above all, it means trusting her and giving her a power over him that no one else in the world possesses.

His body stiffens and his arms fall. He knows she’s waiting for him to repeat the words, and if he doesn’t, she’ll believe it’s a mistake. The fact that it wasn’t is what keeps him from being able to say it again.

“I…” he begins, but his voice trails off and he looks away from her.

She sits up, tucking her feet under her and positioning herself in front of him so that he’s looking at her again. “Do you mean it?” Her voice is so soft, so delicate, so soothing, so innocent.

He nods slightly, but she must see something in his eyes, because she gently places a hand on his cheek and kisses him. When they pull away, he watches her, subconsciously waiting. She looks away, and his heart sinks.

“You know how I feel about you. You’ve seen your name all over my notebook, made fun of me for it. But you know how I feel about the drinking and smoking, too. It’s not good for you, and it won’t be good for our baby.” She puts his hand on her stomach, and they both stare at it.

For the slightest moment, he wonders what is inside there. He wonders what it looks like, what sex it is, what it can hear, what it’s doing now. He thinks of this, and it occurs to him that she’s asking him to give up alcohol and marijuana for the baby. Slowly, he looks back into her eyes, and she meets his gaze.

“You won’t stop for me. So, maybe you’ll stop for the baby.”

It’s not the words but the pleading, sad tone of her voice that gets to Dylan. He pulls his hand away. If he didn’t love the girl sitting before him, her sadness wouldn’t hurt so much. And if this baby is going to be half her, then he knows he’ll love it with all his heart. But the thought of giving up something that he feels sustains his life is just as terrifying than the thought of creating a whole new one.

“Dylan, please… I can’t raise it alone if you… if you…”

He rests his hands on hers, curled up in her lap. “I’m not leaving you,” he states weakly, still focused on her previous request.

“I know you won’t, Dylan. Not willingly anyway. But drugs. They do things to people. You could end up in a hospital. Or worse…” her voice trails off at the end.

His hands uncover hers. “You can’t overdose on pot.”

“But alcohol poisoning?” Her voice raises slightly and her back straightens. Her hands press on her knees. “You could die of that. And pot leads to harder drugs. Didn’t you pay attention in Health class?” She stops herself, turns away from him so that her back is against the wall. “No, of course you didn’t. You don’t care about anything. You pretend to. You act all charming and sweet, but it’s just an act. You don’t care about anything but yourself.”

With a deep breath, Dylan looks back into Anna-Marie’s eyes. He doesn’t believe her words; he knows he could care about their child, and he knows there’s only one way for that to happen. His mind made up, he grabs her hands again and pulls her closer to him. Placing his hands on either side of her face, his eyes connect with hers before he leans in for a kiss that will give her the reassurance for which he knows she searches.

Before the kiss turns into anything more, Anna-Marie breaks away and scoots to the edge of her bed. She then swivels her body to face him again. “I need to tell them, don’t I?”

Dylan nods. “Do you want me to leave?”

“You’re already here. Besides, if you’re with me, it might show them that we’re both committed.”

With another deep breath, Dylan follows Anna-Marie back down the stairs and into the living room. Her parents sit on the sectional that takes up most of the space, their eyes focused on whatever is playing on the television. In the back of his mind, he envies the Thomases for still having cable, be it the basic package that it is. So few people can afford such luxuries, especially in such a poor city as Derby. He doesn’t even begin to wonder how adding a baby to the mix would upset their financial status.

Anna-Marie approaches her parents which immediately catches their attention. Dylan braces himself for whatever reaction they might have, but as Anna-Marie delivers the news, a realization washes over him. His girlfriend is pregnant—the word wraps around him and creates a vise that nearly leaves him gasping for air—and he’s just agreed to raise the baby with her.

October 2013

Chapter II »

Assumptions

Mannie takes another quick glance at her phone hidden in her pocket between customers, and internally sighs when she realizes time has hardly passed since the last glance. Still another half hour remains of her evening shift. Why are Sunday nights the slowest? She keeps telling herself the money is worth the time wasted sliding across the scanner the various and diverse products that populate the shelves of Wal-Mart. Still, when a woman places her items on the conveyer, Mannie smiles and greets her as if she’s enthused to be behind the cash register. When the woman stares into space without any acknowledgement to the fact that another human being is attempting friendly interaction with her, Mannie rolls her eyes.

As she slides each item over the scanner, she laughs quietly to herself. At least here she’s doing something productive, which is far less a waste of time than sitting at home, rotting her mind with video games. She bags a can of whipped cream and a jar of cherries, and a smirk shoots across her face. She doesn’t notice the gallons of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, the variety pack of sprinkles, or the birthday banner that the woman also purchases, her mind too wrapped around some bedroom fantasy involving the first two items.

When the customer pays and leaves, still failing to spare even a glance in the cashier’s direction, Mannie is almost joyful when the next customer, a guy probably still too young to buy alcohol, returns her greeting, even if just with a half-hearted smile and a polite nod. Being around the same age, she’s not bothered by his response, knowing it’s one she’s given to cashiers before.

Mannie rings up each item as he places it onto the conveyer, but she hesitates as she reaches for a pack of X-Acto knife blades. She looks up at him, but he just nods. “Yeah, that, too,” he says, as if she’s questioning if this item belongs to him or someone behind him.

She slowly scans the package, looking down as she does so, and places it in the bag. Her focus shifts to his outfit as she reads his total to him. Despite it being a particularly warm September day in Oneonta, New York, he’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Her eyes follow his arms as he pulls out his wallet and swipes his credit card, wondering what lies beneath his sleeves.

She looks back at the register after he swipes his card, but nothing changes on the screen. “It didn’t read. Could you swipe it again?”

“I suppose,” he jokes. She wonders why all customers couldn’t be as easy-going as him.

“Still not reading. I can get a manager over here to type the numbers in manually,” she offers regretfully.

“I’ve got no cash or time limit.”

“Hopefully they don’t take forever…” she sighs, looking over her shoulder toward customer service and fiddling with the thick leather band on her right wrist.

“At least there’s no one in line behind me,” he comments, and she’s almost thankful he’s open to conversation. She hates awkward silences, and she’s burning to ask him questions.

She nods, then again looks at his long sleeves. “It was such a nice day. You must have been warm in that shirt.” As soon as the words come out of her mouth, she realizes how creepy they sound.

He laughs, though, relieving her. “Nah. I’m from Miami. Sixty-five isn’t warm.”

“Oh. That makes sense.” Her tone is less satisfied than she intended, she realizes as her eyes focus on the knife blades in clear view from the top of a plastic bag.

He follows her gaze, then looks back up at her. They lock eyes for a moment, but before either could say anything, the customer service manager arrives.

Each night for the next week, as she goes through her nightly routine, Mannie is reminded of that package of blades and the intriguing customer from Miami. She isn’t sure exactly why he is on her mind as she takes off her leather bracelet and places it beside her alarm clock, but she doesn’t try to understand.

 

The next Sunday, Mannie finds herself once again watching the clock on her phone during the couple minutes between each customer. The second it hits one, she reaches down to switch off her light. As she looks beyond the isle, she sees that guy’s face again, something she never expected. In a store as large as a Wal-Mart that caters to a town with two colleges, the chances of a part-time employee running into the same customer twice aren’t too high.

“Mind staying for another couple minutes? The other few lines open are all full.”

“I don’t mind,” she replies with a smile. She’s almost happy to see him until she looks over the items he places on the conveyer: a box of gauze and a roll of medical tape. If she wasn’t sure about him before, she is now.

“I don’t want to invade privacy or anything…” Her voice trails off at the end, realizing the words are actually coming out of her mouth. She looks up, but he is quietly laughing to himself.

“My roommate attempted cooking while drunk, and ended up with stitches in two fingers. He has a dressing he needs to change every so often.”

Mannie winces and laughs as she reads him his total, but isn’t sure she buys the story. Why it matters to her if the gauze is for his own methods of stress relief or for a roommate that needs to stop drinking, she doesn’t know, nor does she care to.

He hands her a ten dollar bill and smiles. “I have cash this time, just to be safe.”

She returns the smile half-heartedly, and as she opens the register drawer, she glances at him through the corner of her eye. He’s watching her, more importantly, her hands. Anytime people take notice of this area of her body, it makes her nervous. After a minute of silence, something clicked in his mind. Mannie could see it in his eyes when they snapped back to hers.

“What are you doing after you get out of here?” he asks as she hands him his cash.

She looks at him for a brief moment before registering his question. “Waste away in front of a PlayStation.”

“I hear there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts open twenty-four hours somewhere in this town.”

She nods. “The one on Chestnut, by the Hess.”

“Do you like coffee?” When she nods again, he continues. “I’ll meet you there, then.”

Guessing she doesn’t have much of an option in this, Mannie punches out and takes the short five-minute drive from Southside to West End. She pulls into the coffee shop’s parking lot and spots him through the glass, sitting at a table, a large cup in his hand. She orders medium French Vanilla, joins him, and takes the top off the cup to allow the beverage to cool.

“I’m Mannie, by the way. In case you didn’t see the name tag.”

“Connor.” He takes a sip of his coffee. “Are you a local or college student?”

“Local. I live on the street right behind the McDonald’s a few buildings up. I’m guessing you’re a student?” He nods. “SUNY or Hartwick?”

“Hartwick.”

“Wow. What are you studying?”

“Psychology. Just started my junior year.” This worries her a little, always having hated the mind-prodders. Before she can respond, though, he continues. “So, do you always freak out over the things people purchase?”

Her brows pull together, and she cocks her head to one side slightly. “What do you mean?”

“Last week, you seemed to analyze the modeling supplies I got. Today, you obsessed over the medical supplies. Do you have something against hobbies and safety?”

Though Mannie feels accused by his question, she only hears light-hearted curiosity in his voice. “Wait, what modeling supplies?”

“The model car kit, enamel paint, brushes, model cement, X-Acto blades.”

She thinks about his list for a minute, staring at the steam arising from the coffee. She saw the knife blades. How did she miss the other items?

As she ponders over this, he speaks again. “Then, you question the fact that I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, as if you thought I was trying to hide something.”

“No, I was just trying to make conversation…” she says weakly. When she looks up at him, he’s focusing on her hands again, and it makes her put them in her lap beneath the table. “So that’s all you use the blades for?”

Connor nods. “What else would I use them for?” Again, all she hears is curiosity in his tone.

Mannie raises an eyebrow, but then shrugs, trying to think of some other use for the blades. When nothing else comes to mind, she forces herself to laugh. “I don’t know.”

He looks away and doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. When he looks back at her, he smiles. “So tell me about yourself.”

She looks out the window for a second, then back at him. “What about me?”

“What do you like to do?”

“Game.”

He nods, taking this in. “Anything else? Are you a student?”

She shakes her head. “I just graduated high school in June. I decided to take a year off before heading to college. No idea what I want to do with my life yet.”

Connor just continues to nod, which unnerves Mannie. She can’t get over his major, and feels like she’ll leave this coffee shop owing him for a visit.

“Do you live at home?”

“Sort of. It’s the house I grew up in, but it’s just me and my sister now. And her stupid fiancé.”

“Is she older?”

“By eleven years.” She takes a sip of her coffee, then stares at it for a minute before speaking again. “Why all the questions?”

Connor shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just curious about you.”

Her brows pull together again. “Why, though?”

He doesn’t speak for what seems like forever to Mannie. She desperately wishes she could hear what is going on inside his mind, but as she begins to think of his possible thought processes, she decides she probably doesn’t want to.

“Have you heard the quote, ‘A thief believe everyone steals’?”

The words sink into Mannie’s brain, and she just sits in silence, staring out the window at the occasional car going past. The words play over and over again in her mind. What is he trying to imply? Does he think that she’s as curious about him as he is of her? She turns back to Connor, and he’s still watching her. “What are you saying?”

He looks away. “I… I don’t want to invade your privacy, either. But you’re quick to jump to conclusions…”

Mannie is about to ask what conclusions he’s referring to, but it occurs to her. He knew she assumed the knife blades and gauze were both for the same reason. So, does he think she…? “I—” Before finishing her thought, she looks down at her hands, particularly the thick leather bracelet wrapped around her right wrist. She didn’t realize it, but a thin red line is visible beyond the cover of the strap. She looks back up at Connor as she puts her hands in her lap again.

He’s quiet for a brief moment before asking for a pen. She nods and reaches in her purse for one. After handing it over to Connor, she watches him write a number onto a napkin.

“Call me before you do it next time,” he says as he sets the napkin and pen down in front of her.

“Why do you care so much?” she asks, staring at the napkin.

Connor inhales deeply before responding. “I had a friend in high school. Chris Pitts.” As he says the name, Mannie can hear the strain in Connor’s voice, but he continues without hesitation. “He was one of the most talented artists I’ve ever known. Drew with so much detail that you would swear it was a photograph. He was depressed, though. Senior year, just a couple months before graduation, he decided he had had enough. Took some sleeping pills and never woke up.”

Mannie listens to the story, fiddling with her bracelet as her hands rest in her lap. “I’m sorry,” is all she can say.

“It’s what inspired me to study psychology. I figure if I can help at least one person from taking the same path as Chris did, then my life will be worth something.”

She nods slowly, taking the napkin and shoving it into her purse.

“I have to get going. Ten a.m. comes pretty early. But please, call or text if you need anything.”

Connor leaves, but Mannie doesn’t move. He thinks she’s in dire need of help. Maybe he’s the thief who believes everyone steals. By the time she finally heads home, her coffee is cold. When she gets to her room, she sits on her bed and stares at the wooden cigar box she collected from her father years ago before cancer took him away from her. It wasn’t enough that her mother died while giving birth to her. No, life wasn’t complete until it took both parents from her.

As these thoughts envelope her mind, she reaches for the box. The still-strong scent of tobacco and wood wash over her, and if she closes her eyes, she can almost imagine he was sitting right next to her. She remains still for a moment, hoping that maybe her father’s arms will wrap around her and give her the comfort she so desperately needs. Tears welling in her eyes, she takes from the box a pencil sharpener and tiny screw driver without even thinking about it. Once she has the blade in her hand and the bracelet is sitting on her nightstand beside her alarm clock, she stares at the mess she’s been working on for the past few weeks. There’s a similar job currently healing on her ankle, the place she turns to when her wrist can’t take anymore without needing stitches. Her eyes continue up her arm at the faint pink remnants of work done during the past few winters, when the weather permits long-sleeves.

For the first time, the sight of bright red marks crisscrossing on her wrist makes her sick. She drops the sharpener blade back into the cigar box and fishes through her purse for the napkin. With shaking hands, she takes her cell phone and dials the numbers. She’s relieved when he picks up on the second ring.

October 2013

The Car

At sixty-five miles an hour, the drive home took Christina about twenty minutes. The clock read quarter to six; she would actually be home on time for once. Despite the fact that her last class ended at five-thirty, she rarely ever made it off campus before eight. Anything for the students, she always told anyone who commented on her ten-hour days. As a professor of philosophy and ethics, not only did she have papers upon papers to correct, but she was often held up in deep conversations with the more enthusiastic students or in long study sessions with the less receptive ones.

Christina quickly checked her make-up in the rearview mirror while at a stop sign. Tonight was date night with fiancé Drake, and with a three-year-old in the house, these nights were rare. Little Ashlynn would be at his parents’ for the night, so the two would have the house to themselves.

Thinking about the night to come made Christina think about the years gone by. Twenty years ago, she never would have guessed that she’d be a mother, fiancée, or even a professor. She always figured she’d be touring the world and experiencing different cultures. Despite that, she felt satisfied with her life. She had a beautiful daughter, found her soul mate, and secured a steady, well-paying job.

Satisfied with her appearance, Christina checks the road before pressing her foot to the gas pedal. Instead of accelerating, though, the car remained still. Looking down at the gauges on the dashboard, the woman realized that the car wasn’t even on. Wondering when it shut off, Christina turned the keys in the ignition to off, then attempted to restart the car, but to no avail; the car didn’t even crank, and no lights came on. This car is a 2008. I just drove it off the lot yesterday. The battery should not be dead already…

Taking a deep breath to keep herself in check, Christina fished through her purse for her Palm Centro. She pressed the power button to wake it, but like the car, it didn’t respond. It was at fifty percent when I left the office…! She wasn’t one for feeling superstitious, but she couldn’t brush off the feeling that something was off. There was a logical reason as to why both her car and phone were suddenly dead, she just couldn’t think of it at the moment.

Sighing, Christina got out of her car. It was a ten minutes to her house, and she would use the phone there to call AAA for a battery replacement, then she and Drake could have their romantic dinner.

As she walked up the driveway, though, she noticed Drake’s Silverado wasn’t in its spot. Where did he take off to? He knew I was on my way home… She brushed it off as she walked up the stone steps and unlocked the door, figuring that he went to the corner store for something quick.

Once inside the house, she froze. When she left that morning, the place was spotless, as she and Drake usually worked to keep it. However, now, it looked like a bunch of drunken college students lived here. Empty beer cans were scattered around the living room, on the dark cherry side tables, on top of the expensive entertainment center, and around the moss green carpet. Throw pillows decorated the stained floor, and the blanket that usually hung off the back of the sofa was bunched in the corner of the room. A pizza box sat on the granite counter in the kitchen, a fly keeping it company, and dirty dishes piled up on the dining table. The sight of the house was enough to shock Christina, but it was the smell that truly repulsed her.

For a second, she thought she entered the wrong house, despite the fact that her key worked on the door. She peeked her head out the front door to check the numbers on the side of the house, only to find that she was in the correct house. The next thought was that a burglar went through, though it wouldn’t make sense that they would simply dirty the place and leave all the electronics and valuables in place. The only other explanation she could think of was that Drake must have thrown a party for a few of the guys. She wasn’t sure how this kind of mess could accumulate after just one day, or how he got the day off from work, but it was the only logical idea.

She pulled out her PDA smartphone to send a text message to Drake, but remembered her battery was mysteriously dead. Shaking her head, she carefully stepped through the mess, down the hall, which was in decent condition, and into the office to grab her phone charger. She braced herself for whatever mess she would find inside, but was surprised to find it clean, although completely rearranged. There was a new computer on the desk, which looked way too thin to be real, all her textbooks had been removed from the shelf, and there was a new picture next to the monitor.

Intrigued most by the photograph, she picked it up and studied it for a long moment. It was taken at a distance, but she could tell the man in the center of it was Drake. On either side of him were two young girls. At first, the fair-haired brunette to his left looked like Ashlynn, but upon second glance, it made no sense; the girl was at least six or seven, far too old to be her three-year-old daughter. From what Christina could see in the small photo, though, the facial structure was accurate. The girl to Drake’s right looked more Ashlynn’s age, but her hair was darker and her skin was tanner. At the distance the picture was taken, it was hard to really see the face, but Christina knew it wasn’t Ashlynn. Drake himself looked different; his hair was more salt than pepper, the smile didn’t reach his eyes, and the wrinkles that should have just barely etched his face were like caverns in this photo. But her eyes kept moving back to the girls. Drake had no nieces that she knew of, and they looked far too much like him to be distant relatives.

That has to be Ashlynn, she decided, looking at the three-year-old. Her eyes must just have been watery from the smell of the living room and kitchen and she wasn’t seeing properly. But that left the question of the older one. Does he have another daughter that I don’t know about…?

After analyzing it for a few more minutes, Christina set the photograph back onto the desk and continued her search for a charge cord. She couldn’t convince herself that the tan dark-haired girl was Ashlynn. They are nieces that Drake just recently found out about.

There was a cord connected to the monitor, which seemed to be the entirety of the computer, and at first, Christina was thankful. As she tried to plug it into her phone, she was frustrated to find that it didn’t fit. She dug through the desk, looking for the correct cable, but nothing inside the drawers looked familiar. Everything seemed as if she were in a different house.

Finally, in the bottom drawer, she found a bunch of cords and cables, one of which fit her phone. She spent the next five minutes pondering the current situation as her phone charged enough to power on.

The day started just like any other day. Ashlynn woke at seven, and as Christina tended to her, Drake made breakfast and coffee. He left around eight for work, and Christina, by nine to drop Ashlynn off at his parents’ house. Her first class was at ten-thirty, but she arrived at the college an hour early for before-class office hours…

Christina was jolted from her thoughts when she heard the phone on the desk ring. The device, like everything else, was new and sleek. Though she didn’t recognize the number showing up on the caller ID, she answered it.

“Good evening. This is the office of Morgan and Gould, looking for Drake Voronov.”

I am, too, she thought, but her eyes widened as she recognized the name. “Is Drake being sued?”

“Sorry, ma’am. I am not at liberty to discuss this with anyone but Mr. Voronov.”

“He’s not home at the moment. I’m his fiancée, though.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Legally, that doesn’t change anything. Could you please have Mr. Voronov call us tomorrow between the hours of nine and six?”

Christina sighed. “Of course.” As she ended the call and set the phone in its cradle, she picked up her Centro. She pressed and held the power button, but the phone didn’t respond. She flipped it over and removed the battery cover. This thing is only two months old. How can it be having problems already? she silently complained as she slid the battery out, blew on it, and replaced it. She tried the battery button once more, with still the same result.

“Who are you?” a whispered voice asked.

Christina dropped the phone, startled, and immediately turned around to find a doe-eyed girl, five or six in age, standing in the doorway and holding a princess backpack. The woman stared at the child for a minute, trying to place where she’s seen this child before. “I’m Christina. Who are you?” she asked, using the same soft tone she did when speaking to any child.

“Breanne.” The girl was quite for a minute, but Christina could tell she was thinking. “Daddy told me not to talk to strangers.” The girl’s voice was so quiet, Christina almost couldn’t hear her.

Says the child who entered a stranger’s house. “Who is you daddy?” Christina asked.

Breanne pointed toward the computer, but when Christina turned her head, she realized the girl was pointing at the photograph. Christina’s brows furrowed. “Drake?”

The child nodded, and Christina shook her head. She looked back at the photograph, and focused on the younger girl. The tan-skinned, dark-haired child next to Drake was Breanna, without doubt. But was this really Drake’s daughter? She turned back to the child. The woman couldn’t deny the resemblance; she had his eyes, his nose, and his hair. “Who is your mommy?”

“Heather.” Breanne turned her focus to the floor, and Christina stared at her. She was burning with curiosity, but before she could ask another question, Breanne spoke again. “What are you doing in my house?”

“Your house?” Christina immediately regretted using such a harsh tone with an innocent child, but she couldn’t shake the thought of Drake having a child, possibly two, with another woman. She had been with Drake for the past ten years; had he been cheating on her the entire time? She shook her head quickly. “Did your mommy say that this was your house?”

Breanna’s face contorted in apparent confusion. “I live here,” she eventually replied with.

“How long have you lived here?”

The girl brought her hand up to her face, and placed a finger on her lip. “My whole life.”

That’s impossible, Christina thought. “How old are you?”

The child’s face lit up at this question. “I’m five!” she beamed. “That’s five away from ten.”

Well, she’s definitely an accountant’s child, Christina thought. Since Ashlynn was able to talk, Drake had introduced numbers into her life. It was no surprise he did the same with this other child. “Where is your Daddy?”

The child shrugged. “Work?”

“But it’s six o’clock. His office closes at five.” The woman said this more to herself than to the child, who shrugged. “Wait, it’s six o’clock. Why are you just now getting home from school?”

“I go to after-school.”

Christina nodded; it made sense.

“Do you know where Daddy is? He is always here when I get home.”

Christina wasn’t sure what the child meant by this statement. After he got out of work, Drake usually picked up Ashlynn from his parents’ house, or so she thought. Was staying late to correct papers and philosophize with students taking a toll on her marriage? The more she thought about it, the more she realized it would have been very easy for Drake to have a second family.

She shook her head. This didn’t seem like Drake at all; he never once complained about her long hours. Of course he didn’t. It gave him plenty of time for this. She snickered, forcing herself to feel anger rather than pain. Looking back at Breanne, she realized taking it out on this girl would be unfair.

Something clicked in Christina’s head. If Drake is here at six when the girl gets home, then he could easily take her to the mother’s house before she returned home, giving the girl the impression that she actually lived here. “Where do you sleep?”

“You want to see my room?” the girl asked, lighting up again.

This worried Christina, but she nodded regardless. The girl swiveled on her feet and ran down the hall. Ashlynn’s room…? the woman thought as she followed Breanne. Despite how the rest of the house had changed, Christina expected Ashlynn’s room to have remained untouched. Standing in the doorway, though, her mouth fell open. A bunk bed replaced the small toddler one. A dresser sat where the changing table once did, and a second one stood beside the closet where the rocking chair used to be. The only thing that was the same were the lavender walls and beige carpet. Even the curtains were different; instead of bright pink, they were swirled blue.

Christina had to grip the door jamb to keep from collapsing to her knees. Her daughter’s room was gone. How could Drake have done this, moved in his new family without warning? But more importantly, did he expect a three-year-old to sleep on a bunk bed? Breanne was sitting proudly on the bottom bunk, leaving the top for Ashlynn. Or the older girl, Christina remembered.

“Do you have a sister?”

Breanne nodded. “Ashlynn.”

Well, of course. “Do you have an older sister?”

The girl nodded.

“Where is she?”

The girl shrugged now. “I think she went to her friend’s house.”

One less child I have to scream in front of when Drake gets home, Christina thought. At this point, she didn’t even care who would have been witness to that. She was furious; how could Drake have cheated on her for all these years, and then suddenly move them into the house they shared, with no warning? Did he expect her to just get up and leave, knowing that she paid for half the house and half of the furniture inside?

As these thoughts ran through her head, she noticed a calendar on the wall beside the bunk bed. The month, February, was no surprise. But the numbers that came after the month were what blew her mind. This discovery distracting her thoughts, she crossed the room and took a closer look at it before turning to Breanne.

“Why is there a 2014 calendar on your wall?”

“So me and Sissy can see what day it is.”

“But it’s 2007. Why is this a 2014 calendar?” Why was this even printed? she wondered.

The girl looked at Christina, then at the calendar. Again, the woman could tell the girl was deep in thought. Finally, the child stood and pointed to Friday, April 11. “This is today.”

Christina shook her head. “No, it’s Wednesday,” she mumbled to herself, confused. Am I dreaming?

The child’s brows furrowed. “It’s Wednesday?”

Staring at the numbers beside the month name, Christina’s mind began to wander and she missed the girl’s question. If this was a dream, it would surely have made sense. She reaches down to pinch her arm; to her disappointment, she felt real pain.

“What are you doing?” Breanne asked.

Christina shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know. Today is Wednesday, April 11, 2007. I don’t understand why this calendar says 2014, or why you think—”

She immediately shut her mouth as she heard the front door close.

“Daddy?” a voice called.

“Sissy!” Breanne cried as she ran out of the room. “Daddy is gone,” she relayed. Christina could hear the worry in her voice as she once again followed the girl. When she joined the girls in the living room, she again froze; it wasn’t the condition of the living room that startled her this time, instead it was the sheer resemblance between this older girl and Ashlynn. It was as if Christina was looking at a digitally-aged photograph of her daughter.

The girl stared Christina down with the same intensity. “Mommy?” Her voice was barely audible.

The tiny, desperate plea tugged at Christina’s heart, but she didn’t know why. This girl, appearing to be at least ten or eleven, was far too old. As their eyes locked, though, both started to cry. Christina, because despite the lack of logic, things were clicking. If this really was 2014, then Ashlynn would, in fact, be ten years old. Just as there was no denying the fact that Breanne had Drake’s eyes, there was no denying that this older girl was indeed Ashlynn. The tears streamed down her face as she realized about the fact that she somehow missed seven years of her daughter’s life, and her daughter had been without a mother each and every day.

She took the few steps to close the gap between them, and wrapped her arms around her ten-year-old daughter. Though she still didn’t understand how it happened, she was aware of the current situation, even if she didn’t entirely believe it.

Christina watched Breanne as she just stood, a few feet away, watching. The girl looked as if she didn’t know what to do. Ashlynn broke down, sobbing, in her mother’s arms, and Christina pulled the girl closer.

“Where did you go, Mommy?” Ashlynn asked through sobs.

Wishing she knew the answer to the question, Christina opened her mouth to speak, but when she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, she closed it again. Breanne ran to the window and pulled the curtain back to reveal Drake slowly climbing out of his Silverado. Christina couldn’t help but notice how sluggishly the once-agile man moved. He looked ancient, even from this distance, though he was a few years younger than her. Not anymore, she realized. Seven years would make him forty-three now.

When he got to the door, Breanne latched onto him like a leech, wrapping her little arms around him the best that she could. His head down, he leaned over and kissed her hair. Christina could hear the clicking of his bones. The past seven years have not been good to him.

Ashlynn turned her head to watch her father, but she didn’t let go of her mother. Christina guessed it was out of fear of losing her again.

When Drake straightened his body, he noticed her; their eyes locked, and she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. It had only been hours for her, but she knew it had been years for him. She watched as the expressions on his face changed like a fiber-optic light. First was shock, which morphed into either pain or sadness. Next came the anger, but it quickly moved to confusion, then disbelief. He rubbed his eyes, but when he lowered his hands, she was still there. After it all, it was the look of confusion that remained.

“Christina?”

She nodded, but still didn’t move. She wanted to hug him, but she was afraid to touch him. Her disappearance clearly hasn’t been easy for him, and he obviously moved on. Breanna was proof of that, and judging by her age, it didn’t take him long to move on.

“Where have you been?” He took a step closer to her, staring at her. “Why haven’t you aged a day?” he breathed. He sounded as if he didn’t believe she really existed here in this moment.

Christina pulled her brows together in regret. “I wish I knew,” was all she could say to either question.

“Why did you leave?”

She looked away; she hated not having answers, and she was afraid he wouldn’t believe her.

“It’s been seven years, Christina.”

“To the date,” she agreed, still avoiding eye contact. She took a deep breath, and looked back into his eyes. “I don’t know what happened, Drake. I was driving home from school, and when I stopped at the sign at Bedford Street and Harpers Lane, my car stalled. It wouldn’t even crank. I tried to call AAA from my phone, but it was dead. So I walked home and found this,” she says, holding her arms out to put the disastrous state of the house on display.

“When your fiancée of ten years suddenly disappears without a goddamn trace, it’s hard to find the energy to do anything,” he rebutted defensively.

“Drake, I’m sorry,” she says, but then looks down at Breanne. “You found the energy for that, though,” she states quietly, looking back at Drake.

“For the first year, I thought that something happened to you, something bad. I feared the worst.” He paused for a minute. “I spent many nights at the bar. That’s where I met Heather, the mother. At first, all I talked about was you. She had heard what happened. It was all over the news. Everyone was looking for you, trying to track your phone. They said that even if it was off, they’d still be able to get a GPS signal. You’d have to remove the battery for them to not be able to track it. But when they searched literally everywhere and found nothing, I assumed you had figured that out and removed the battery. I thought you didn’t want to be found.”

Christina’s heart felt heavy. “Why would you think that?” she whispered, wondering how Drake could even doubt her love for him. She began to rethink the late nights Monday through Friday.

Drake didn’t answer for a long while. He looked down at his daughters. Breanne still clung to him, while Ashlynn hung to her mother. He patted both heads. “Why don’t you girls go to your room?”

Ashlynn looked up at Christina. “But—” she started.

“I’m not going anywhere, darling girl. Listen to your father,” she interrupted softly.

The child unwillingly let go of her mother, and slumped down the hall with her younger sister.

“When I first met you, you had plans,” Drake explained once the girls were out of sight. He knew they would be at the door, so he kept his voice low. “You wanted to tour Europe, Asia, Africa, South America. You wanted to live life to the fullest, and you didn’t think you could do that with a family. You were studying the different philosophies and cultures of the world, and I could see you had passion for it.”

Christina opened her mouth to interject, but Drake held up his hand. “So when you left, I thought you went to live out your dream. Eventually, I stopped looking for you. If you really wanted to do that, then who was I to stop you?”

She couldn’t decide if the tone of his voice was accusatory or sympathetic; was he blaming her for leaving, or telling her that he wanted her to follow her dreams? “I would never have willingly left neither you nor Ashlynn. I had that dream in college, when I was twenty and naïve. I didn’t realize how fulfilling being a mother and wife could be. I didn’t realize how much I could love another human being until I met you. And I realized that sharing my ideas and knowledge with other naïve twenty-year-olds was far more productive than just wandering the earth aimlessly.”

Drake looked away. “Then where did you go? You couldn’t have just disappeared into thin air.”

Christina shrugged. “Drake, I don’t know. I told you, I was driving home from work and my car stalled at the stop sign.” She looked away. “So where is this Heather now?”

“She’s a nurse. Works nights.” Drake looked around. “She gave up trying to clean. The hospital overworks her, and she’s lost the energy to clean.” He raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I think I drained the life out of her. Though she wasn’t much of a clean freak to begin with, unlike us.”

Christina closed her eyes and breathed deep. He spoke of this woman as if he knew her deeply, which would make sense since he had spent the past six years with her. The thought of Drake spending his life with another woman still killed her, even given what she now knew.

“I know this is no place to raise two small children, but…” His voice trailed off at the end, cutting his sentence short.

Silence fell over them for a long moment, neither knowing what to really say. “Why would Morgan and Gould call you?”

Drake sighed heavily. “I lost my job years ago, and have been working odd jobs here and there. They don’t cover bills, though. Heather’s income isn’t enough either. We were living a cushy life here.”

Christina understood, so she didn’t press any further. She began to wonder if her cell phone would have even been in service if she had gotten it to turn on. It must be so horribly outdated by now, too, she realized.

Another silence fell over them, though much shorter than the last. “Let’s just go get my car out of the middle of the street,” she eventually said, not being able to find anything else to say.

He nodded, and made a quick stop at the girl’s room as Christina waited by the door. “Ash, watch your sister for a minute. We’re going—” he started, but Ashlynn’s voice cried over his.

“Don’t leave again!”

“We’re just going to get Mommy’s car, then we will be right back.” His voice was calm and reassuring. “Fifteen minutes, okay?”

Ashlynn remained silent. Christina hated leaving the girl again, but this was something that needed to be done. Besides, she couldn’t just sit and stare at this mess any longer, knowing this was a mess the man that should have been her husband had made with another woman. How could she just return to this life as if nothing happened?

Drake returned, keys in his hand. Christina followed him to his truck, but before he climbed into the driver’s seat, he grabbed a gas can from the garage. From the way he carried it, Christina could tell it was more than half-full.

“I don’t think I ran out of gas,” she explained as he started his truck. “When I turned the key, the car didn’t make a sound and no lights came on. Plus, the gas tank was well over half a tank when I left campus.”

“Just to be safe,” he said as he pulled out of the driveway and headed towards the aforementioned intersection. He parked his car on the side of the road in front of the car and got out. “I don’t even know why you picked that car,” he muttered as he poured the entirety of the gas can into the car.

“I liked the sporty looks,” she quietly answered as he dug through the small space behind his seat for the jumper cables. He attached them to both vehicles, then climbed back into his truck. He started it as Christina slid into her driver’s seat. Knowing she had to wait a few minutes before starting her car, she stared at the steering wheel. She remembered that Drake had tried to persuade her into buying a different car. “This one just has a bad vibe,” he had said.

But she didn’t believe in metaphysical nonsense like that; it was a car, an inanimate object, and that’s all it was to her. She had to admit that the car was the blackest on the lot, but she loved it for that. She couldn’t understand why Drake hated it.

When she felt like enough time had passed, she started the car. She got out to unhook the cables from her battery and shut the hood, but realized neither vehicle was running. She looked to Drake for an explanation, but he looked just as dumbfounded.

Eyeing the car, he shook his head. “I guess we call AAA, then.”

Christina guessed that his parents still paid for that, which was the only reason he was still a member.

“I told you that car was bad mojo.”

Christina shook her head. She refused to believe in any of that. “It’s not the car. It was probably just a bad battery.” She wondered if that even made sense.

They spent the rest of the walk in silence until they got back to the house. As she followed Drake up the steps, Christina could hear a loud beat coming from the walls. He opened the door, but stopped moving. Music, a sound she could only describe as metal against metal accompanied by the moans and groans of the singer, washed over her, followed by the strong scent of marijuana.

“Dad?” a voiced called from inside the living room. Drake took a couple steps inside, and Christina pushed herself in to see what paralyzed him.

She heard hurried footsteps down the hall, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the sight on the couch: Ashlynn, again many years older than what she was just moments ago. Someone tackled into Drake beside her. She turned her head to look, only to find Breanne, no younger than ten years old.

April 2014

Maria

Something’s not right, Drew thinks as he shoots down a couple more invading enemy soldiers through the character on the television screen. When he hears a young girl scream from outside, the seventeen-year-old presses the pause button on the controller and leaves his game to look out the window.

At first, Drew feels like he is still playing his video game when he sees the scene out his window. “What the hell…?” he breathes as it registers.

He stares at the numerous dead bodies cover the road for as long in either direction as Drew can see, with the organs torn out of the corpses. Hearts, livers, lungs, and intestines are everywhere. Drew can barely identify the mutilated and bloody lumps as bodies; there’d be no way to put names to the faces.

He blinks a couple times, not quite sure what to think of the situation. Not a single living person is to be seen, at least not from Drew’s Main Street apartment a few floors up. Fear is actually the last thing that enters his mind; curiosity drives him down to the street.

Once Drew opens the door at the bottom of the steps, the reality of the tragedy hits him. As he closes the door behind him and takes a step out, the metallic scent of oxygenated red liquid, strong in the air, overcomes him, and he almost cannot move.

Though the cause of this disaster could strike him too, this fact doesn’t cross his mind as Drew heads out and checks a nearby corpse. The blood hasn’t even dried yet, so this didn’t happen that long ago. Then he remembers the scream. Who’d it come from? A victim, a witness, or a possible murderer?

An image of someone doing this with their bare hands pops into his mind, and he has to put his hand on the ground to stop from losing balance. One would have to be completely sick, barbaric, and twisted to do something this morbid. Not to mention the fact that the murderer couldn’t possibly be human.

Drew looks around for any possible cause, or sign of life, but finds nothing. As he walks down Main Street, the scene of a once-lively downtown turned apocalyptic begins to really get to him.

“Is… anyone… alive?” he tries to call out, but all he can do is whisper. He looks into the windows of the stores as he passes them, but finds the same thing: more dead bodies with the organs covering them.

Suddenly, a noise from behind startles Drew, and he turns around quickly, ready to face whatever is there.

“Drew?” a young woman, about the age of sixteen, whispers.

“Alanna Maxson,” Drew somewhat snickers. “What are you do—What happen—How’d you survive?” he stutters, looking for the right question to ask.

“Well, how’d you? I was inside, taking a bath with my headphones on. I just got out, and was gonna find a place to eat at for lunch… Then…” she says, looking around.

“I don’t know how I missed this entire thing happening… I was simply playing some Call of Duty. Then something sort of felt odd, and I heard a little girl scream,” he explains as he walks up to her, carefully stepping his bloody feet around the mutilated bodies.

“Have you seen Jade?” she asks.

He stares at her incredulously. “Look at these bodies. Can you identify any of these faces?” he nearly screams at her.

She shakes her head, saddened, disturbed, and overwhelmed by the situation, and turns around, annoyed by Drew. When she does so, she sees a figure moving around a ways down the street.

She stumbles backwards a little, but Drew is there to keep her steady. “Wha–who is that?” she breathes, unable to raise her voice any higher.

“I’m not quite sure…” Drew replies slowly, stepping around Alanna, his eyes glued to the figure. He then looks around quickly for some sort of weapon, and the first thing he finds is the gun of what he assumes is a dead cop. “Not sure if it’s loaded,” he breathes as he walks close to one of the many buildings lining Main Street.

The figure begins to walk towards Alanna and Drew, and the two duck into the closest door. Alanna leans against the wall between the door and a broken display window and slides down, though there is blood everywhere. She hugs her knees to her chest and looks around what she sees was once a pastry shop. “That must be old Morey,” she sighs as she stares at a body hanging over the counter, its organs covering the counter and floor.

“Well, it looks like they’ll have to rename Morey’s Pastries,” Drew says as he crouches along the wall beneath the window, and peeking over the sill.

“So heartless,” she sighs pitifully.

“Shh,” he says quickly as he leans a little out of the window. “It’s gone…” he breathes after a long minute.

Alanna turns and sticks her head out the hole in the wall and looks in the direction of the figure, but sees nothing now, either. “Creepy.”

Drew hops out of the window, using his free hand to push himself over the sill. “Stay,” he commands quietly as he crouches down.

“Yes sir,” Alanna says sarcastically. “What else am I–Drew!” she whispers excitedly as she turns and runs out the door and crouches next to him.

He looks back and glares at her. “What?” he snaps quietly, slightly annoyed.

She glares back at him. “If you and I survived because we were inside, I wonder. Who else was inside?”

He thinks about this for a minute. “Well, I don’t know. But if that figure is the cause of all this, then I don’t want to make a lot of commotion by gathering all survivors. Just leave them alone for now. At least until I deal with whoever that was.”

Alanna nods in agreement. It kills her, but she sighs, “You’re right… Wait, until you deal with this?”

He turns back around, confused. “Do you want to?”

“No, but what about the police or something?”

He holds out his arms, showing Alanna the scene, not sure if she’s quite registered it yet. “Lanna, do you see anyone else alive?”

She glares at him. “So why not just go out there and join them.”

“Or I could find what’s causing this and stop it before your insides become your outsides.”

“Whatever. You are that stupid,” she sighs, then turns around to go back into the pastry shop as Drew continues toward the place the figure was last seen.

A few minutes later, Drew glances over his shoulder at Alanna as she crawls down the street, and sees Jade. Drew watches as Alanna catches a glimpse of her best friend’s combat boots and nearly screams. He dashes to her side to keep her from falling back into the sea of blood and bodies.

Drew laughs to himself and pats her head, holding her in his arms. “Yeah, I’d be afraid of the freak, too,” he says, eyeing the cause of Alanna’s fright.

Jade, the same age as Alanna, snickers at Drew out of pure hatred. “You’re a friggin’ moron. I really wish you were among the corpses.”

As she stands, Alanna pushes Drew, but he grabs on to the ledge of the pastry shop’s display window to catch himself. “Freak, were you over that way, a ways down, about ten minutes ago?” Drew asks, pointing in the direction of the figure, not fully convinced that was Jade.

She thinks a minute. “No… I came from this way,” she says, gesturing in the opposite direction. “I saw you two aimlessly wandering around and thought I’d come down and be the smart one, since we all know you can’t handle it, Drew.”

He gives her the middle finger as he turns around. “Be the girls you two are, or the girl you pretend to be, Freak, and go hide while I play the part of the attractive hero that saves the day,” he laughs to himself as he heads down the street.

Jade curses under her breath and walks away, Alanna cautiously and reluctantly in tow.

 

While wandering, Drew spots what he thinks is the same figure again down the street about a quarter of a mile. When he sees that it appears to be a young girl with long hair wearing a blood-stained gown of an unidentifiable color, he begins to wonder who the child is. It can’t be the same figure… But the hair and dress are the same length…

Though Drew’s sure the figure saw him, it turns around and walks down an alley. “Hey!” he calls, and begins running after it, the gun he found aimed in its direction. He still doesn’t know if his weapon’s loaded, but it makes him feel more secure having it.

Though his intent was to run after the girl, he barely manages to walk quickly, having to maneuver around the mangled and mutilated bodies, now becoming stiff and giving off a grotesque and sickening scent. He hurries down the alley way he’s sure the girl went down only to find more of ever-present disgust.

“Where’d you go?” he yells. When he receives no answer, he begins searching the alleys around.

“Why does it matter to you?” Jade’s alto voice calls out.

Drew snickers. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Oh, sorry, am I not who you were expecting to find in this wasteland?”

Drew shakes his head. “Where’s Lanna?”

“Like you care.”

“Why does it matter to you?”

Jade glares at Drew. “Back there. Watch out, insanity is thick in the air…”

Drew doesn’t quite understand what she means by this, but he doesn’t stick around to ask. He hurries past Jade, holding back any urges to smack her. When he finally runs into Alanna in the back of an alley way, he’s shocked to see her kneeling in front of something he can’t see yet.

“Lanna, what are you doing?”

“I missed you too?” a petite girl’s voice says, sounding discouraged.

“The hell…?” Drew mumbles as he walks carefully up to Alanna. “What the hell is that thing?” he asks, now seeing a blood-covered child. Her hands are caked in crusted bodily fluid with spots all over her bare legs, arms, and face. He still cannot tell the original color of her stained night gown.

“I’m… not sure…” Alanna whispers, kneeling about a foot in front of the child.

Drew aims his gun at the girl’s head, sure she did all this. “It doesn’t matter.”

Now just hold on, Drew…” Alanna counters, more emotion in her voice now. “You did all this?”

The hopeless, round black eyes of the fragile girl pierce into Drew’s heart, but he refuses to let it get to him. The girl then looks at Alanna and nods.

“Alone?”

The girl again nods. “But I missed you three…” She looks down at her hands, seemingly deep in thought.

“But… You’re so little… How could you have done this?”

Smiling, the child is ecstatic that someone actually cares. Until now, she’s only been greeted with hostility and fear. “She gave me this gift!”

“I’m not sure what she means by this, but she’s got to go, Alanna.” He again raises his gun and aims it at the child’s head, still unsure of the weapon’s loadout, and now unsure if a bullet to the head could even kill her.

The child whimpers and cowers, and as a surprising wave of pity comes over Alanna, she finds she cannot let Drew kill it. She quickly takes a few wide steps to put herself between the two, and wraps her arms around the girl. “Drew, hold on a second…”

“Are you friggin’ out of your mind, woman?” he exclaims, dumbfounded. “This thing is a murderer, and you want me to pity it?”

“Just hold on a second.”

Drew shakes his head, almost tempted to take out Alanna, too. He doesn’t know what’s going on with her, but he doesn’t want the thing to kill him.

“Why did you do that?” the girl asks, her voice still young and gentle.

“Why did you do all this?” Alanna counters softly.

“Because she told me to.”

“Who?”

“My mommy.”

Alanna opens her mouth to speak, but Drew speaks first. “Oh. Her mommy told her to do this. Of course. My mom sends me out on errands to grab some milk and kill hundreds of people all the time… The frig is going on here…?” he mumbles, throwing his hands in the air as he turns away from the two.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out… She’s not an ordinary child.”

Drew lets out a laugh of pure amazement. “Well no shit, brilliant. And what was your first hint? The hundreds of mutilated and disemboweled bodies? Lanna, normal kids don’t single-handedly bring on the apocalypse! She needs to die!”

“No!” the child cries, her voice sounding afraid and innocent, as she buries her face into Alanna’s chest. “Why are they so mad at me?” she asks, looking up at the teen with big, teary, solid-black eyes.

“Sweetie, look what you’ve done… You’ve… killed… so many,” she manages to say.

The child thinks for a minute, looking around at the few bodies in the alley. “You mean… Mommy won’t be happy, either?” She is worried now, and fearful for her life, though she doesn’t understand why. The heartbreaking look on her face gives this away quite well.

Alanna shakes her head as she sees Drew kneel next to her through the corner of her eye. “I don’t think so, honey.”

The girl sighs, tears spilling over her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t know…” she says quietly, then looks up. “What’s gonna happen to me now? Are you gonna kill me?”

Alanna doesn’t say anything, tears forming in her eyes now, too. She looks up at Drew, who’s standing with his arms crossed. “What’s your name?” she asks, stalling. Her voice is barely a whisper.

“Maria.” There’s fear in her voice. The child looks up at Drew, and his heart sinks a little for the girl. He didn’t think it was possible, or right, but he’s beginning to feel sorry for the child. She even has a name.

“She’s innocent…” Alanna mutters. “She didn’t know what she was doing…”

“Alanna…” Drew’s trying to keep a straight head for this.

“I know… She can’t stay here… But killing her is a bit harsh, isn’t it?”

Drew closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He shouldn’t let this get to him, not after the horrific and gory tragedy surrounding them.

“It’s only right, Alanna.”

There is a long pause before the child speaks. “Will it make everything better?” she asks, almost hopeful. Her desire to fix her mistake just tears through Alanna, and she has to look away before the tears start trickling down her cheeks. “But I don’t want to die…” The sadness and innocence in Maria’s voice causes Alanna to completely break down, and she pulls the child into her arms and holds her tight, despite being covered in the blood of thousands of truly innocent people.

Drew has to look away, tears actually welling in his eyes against his will. “Damn it…” he mutters to himself. Damn it, Alanna… You just had to go and complicate this, didn’t you…?

Alanna finally stands, looking straight into Maria’s eyes. “Don’t be sad, Maria… This is the right thing to do. Be brave,” she tries to tell her through her sobs.

The girl swallows hard and inhales deeply, then nods. Staring down at the ground, she stands too, awaiting her fate.

“Goodbye, Maria…” Alanna barely whispers.

Drew closes his eyes and aims, once again, at the child’s head. His hand trembling, he focuses his gaze on the girl and cocks the pistol. Alanna buries her face in Drew’s chest, and as a single tear is shed from the windows leading to his softened soul, he pulls the trigger.

May 2010

The Pianist

The campus lounge is a little more crowded than normal, but it doesn’t bother me. With my headphones in and the volume on my phone set to max, I can tune out the world as I work. I head in and take my usual seat in the corner on a worn leather sofa, pull out my laptop, and look around the room as it boots up.

Someone’s actually at the baby grand. This is a rare occasion; what a shame I’m not even listening. Few people actually are, though. It makes me wonder how good this guy is. Something is off about him, but I guess it’s just his slacks and sneakers; don’t pianists usually wear suits and ties, or at least sweater vests and loafers? I’m curious about his playing, but I really can’t be bothered to take out my headphones. That new age piano shit isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

I didn’t come here to discover local artists, I remember as I look down at my computer. A five page paper about the history of the Internet won’t write itself. I open Word and stare at the blinking cursor, but feeling overwhelmed already, I people-watch again. Nothing exciting enough to distract me is going on, though. Everyone’s just sitting, and it doesn’t look like anyone is talking. Some stare off into space, while others watch the piano. It intrigues me, but I still don’t care enough to listen. The rock music playing in my ears is so hard to break away from.

The lack of excitement in the lounge doesn’t help me procrastinate. Time for some brief research, then. Only brief, since I actually know a thing or two about the Internet.

After about thirty minutes, I again feel the need to distract myself. I look up, and almost can’t believe that still no one is moving. I don’t think anyone has even moved since the last time I looked up. I wonder if the guy notices he’s practically entranced everyone, since his eyes are closed and he seems totally into whatever he’s playing.

Deciding I should probably listen for at least a moment, I take out one of the earbuds blasting music into my ears. Almost instantly, my head is filled with a melody I’ve never heard. It’s so… delicate and intricate that it’s hard to believe it’s coming from the piano.

After several minutes, a new song on my phone begins, and the sudden punch of the drum almost startles me. I then realize I’ve been almost as mesmerized as the others. My eyes sting, and I blink a few times. My phone is at full volume, and this piano isn’t anywhere close to being as loud as that. Yet somehow, this melody has commanded my entire attention and filled my head. I put the earbud back in, and the melody fades from my mind. It leaves a headache in its place.

I look around at all the non-blinking bodies around me, and notice I’m the only one with headphones in. Knowing that this could backfire and leave me looking completely insane, I poke the person sitting at the table closest to me. No reaction. I get up and wave my hand in front of her face. Still nothing. The pianist doesn’t seem to even notice me moving as he continues to plunk away.

I walk up to him next. No one so much as blinks as I move. I stand beside him for a moment, watching him play. The visual isn’t as mesmerizing as the melody, but from the standpoint of someone who couldn’t even play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” his movements seem impressive. I almost don’t want to disturb his playing, but if he stops, maybe everyone will go back to normal. Though I enjoy a good horror-mystery, I realize living in one isn’t as fun or exciting as I imagined.

I clear my throat and cross my arms, waiting for something. “Um, hello?” I say after he doesn’t react. He still doesn’t break from his playing. I poke his arm, but he doesn’t budge, as if he’s a statue. After watching his hands for another minute, I try to slam my palm down onto them, forcing them to stop. He’s like a mechanical statue, moving through the motions as if they were programmed. Trying another tactic, I try pressing a random key on the far left side of the piano, and to my surprise, the key strikes a chord and plays a note. I can just barely hear the low note over my music. I start banging frantically on the keys, but to no avail.

Not only is this guy and his damn music creeping me out, he’s starting to piss me off, too. “What the fuck are you doing?” I scream at him as I try to kick him. As my foot comes into contact with his arm, he doesn’t move, but instead, I feel it reverberate through my foot and leg as if I just slammed down onto concrete.

Really irritated now, I slam my fist onto the side of the piano as I hold my knee. Now my fist aches a little as well, but I realized the piano budged a little. Whatever is going on with the guy, it’s not affecting the instrument. Maybe if I destroy it, the trance will stop.

I sit on the edge of the small platform that raises the piano from the main floor of the lounge, and watch the guy play. I realize, despite I’m not the artsy type, that music is art. As much as it’s negatively affecting everyone here, I almost can’t bring myself to destroy the piano.

Watching his fingers move across the keys almost makes me want to listen again. I can’t explain why, since it’s not my favorite genre. I’d rather keep listening to the guitars, drums, and loud voices playing in my ears. But something in me makes me bring my hands to my ears. My hands shake for a moment as I try to stop myself. Taking out not just one earbud, but both, will allow that melody to take over my mind again. Maybe it wasn’t the music after all, though. I’ll just take the headphones out for a quick second, to make sure it was definitely the music. Almost immediately, I’m glad I did, as the beautiful sound of the piano fills my head and calms me. The pain in my leg and fist subsides almost to euphoria. I sit completely still, watching the piano, as if moving might disturb the flow of this instrumentation.

Suddenly, the pianist stands, and the melody is cut short. I want to hear more, but as I try to say something, I find I cannot move. The guy walks up to me and looks me right in the eye. “It took you a while,” he laughs. I don’t understand what he means, though. “I’ll leave you for last,” he adds as he walks around the tables and couches that occupy the lounge. Just out of my sight, the footsteps stop, and I hear him laugh again. When I see blood spatter onto the wall, a panic wells inside me.

April 2013

Pride or Desire

Mommy is baking cookies for a fundraiser. I watch her, the best that I can, as I peek over the counter. She decorates each cookie by hand, and each one looks more delicious than the last. She gives me a couple cookies to snack on while I watch. When she’s not looking, I take a couple more.

I go over to the table where the finished cookies are, and that’s when I see it: the biggest, prettiest cookie ever made. I ask Mommy if I can have it. She says no, that it’s for a raffle. I try to take it when she’s not looking, but it’s too far for my arms.

I want that cookie. I beg her for it. She says I’ve had too many already. I tell her I want just one more. She says I can have any of the others. I tell her it’s not the same. I want that one. I beg, cry, scream.

Mommy gets mad. She slams her hands onto the counter, then puts the cookie in front of me. It almost breaks.

I cross my arms. She doesn’t really want me to have it, so I won’t take it. But when I take another peek at the cookie, with all its yumminess, I know I really do want it. When she’s not looking, I take the cookie and run.

When I take a bite of it, it doesn’t taste like I expected. I don’t know if it’s better or worse.

January 2014

How to Move Back

One by one, Alex and I carry each of the boxes containing all the things that once made this four-walled structure our home.

Some years or months ago, we left this house, separately. We decided against selling it. Neither was sure if we would return, or if even together. No promises were made as we set off, each on our own road. Separately, we both decided we missed the house.

The building is almost exactly as I remember it, though completely empty now. I can’t decide if someone’s been here since I left, but I don’t know if it matters.

We decide to unpack the kitchen first, since preparing food is a necessity. The first box I pick up contains the pots and pans. As I hold one in my hand, I glance at where they used to be kept before. “Should we put them back in the same cupboard?” I ask Alex.

“They worked there, right? We could reach them easily from the stove.”

I wonder if this is true. “But maybe they’d be better placed in this cupboard,” I suggest.

Alex shrugs. “What’s the point of moving things around? Wouldn’t it just be easier to keep them where they were?”

It’s my turn to shrug. “To keep things interesting?”

February 2014

Dreams

At the end of the day, an uneasy feeling washes over me as I walk up the steps and open the door. But then you’re beside me, and as we hang our coats and take off our shoes, everything feels right again. We attempt dinner as a team, since neither of us really knows how to cook. We turn on the television, but we spend the night talking instead. Or, mostly I talk and you listen. You need not open your mouth, because I know what you’ll say. Sometimes, I save you the trouble and say it for you.

My phone goes off, and that uneasy feeling settles again as I read and reply to the message. During my time with you, I try to avoid contact with the world as much as possible. I set my phone back down, but I stare at the wall for what feels like hours before I finally look at you again. I tell myself once more that I need to stop this.

When sleep finally threatens my eyelids, we head to my room, change our clothes, then fall onto the bed. You wrap your arms around me and snuggle closer, and I can almost catch your scent. If I focus hard enough, I can feel your breaths on my neck, and it sends chills up my spine. I am asleep in minutes, dreaming of everything but you. Those dreams only occur when my eyes are open.

January 2014