Category Archives: Nicole’s Stories

Winning

“Why are you stopping?” Ana asks as I shake her off my back.

“Because …. I can’t … breath,” I manage to huff out. I drop to the grassy patch alongside the track. I take deep breaths in and out, in and out.  “What’s my time?”

“No where near where you need to be,” Ana says. She’s standing beside me. Normally she’s a few inches shorter than me, but from my position, she seems to tower above. “Get up,” she says with just a hint of annoyance.

“I can’t do this,” I say looking up to meet her judgmental gaze. Her pale face is blocked out by the midday sun. I’m glad I can’t see her face – I have a list of people I’ve let down, and I can’t bear to add Ana to that already long list.  But my heart is beating at an alarming rate, I can’t seem to catch my breath, and blisters are forming on top of blisters.   “Seriously, I give up. Just leave me here to die.”

“Destiny Marie Augustine, you get your ass up right this instant! You are not a quitter, you hear me?!” she barks. I hold my hand out to her in the hopes that she’ll take mercy on me and at least help me off the ground.  She helps me up, and before I know it I find myself once again hoisting her up and on my back.

“Ready,” I ask.

“Ready ….. set…. GO!” Ana shouts in my ear. My feet hit the spongy blue track. At first all I can think about is how tired I am and how heavy Ana is. But as I continue to run, I remember just how much I want this. No, not want – need this.

I always thought that breaking a world record would be cool,, but never cool enough to actually go through with it.  But after finding out the local news is holding a contest where one local record setter would win a whopping five thousand dollars. This is it, my one big opportunity. As much as  I want the money for myself, I can’t afford to be that selfish.

When dad took off, he took his bank account with him. We weren’t rich then by any means, but we were comfortable. – a solid roof over our heads, a balanced meal, even if they were frozen, and new clothes every school year. No, me, mom, and my younger brother are so close to the poverty line it actually hurts. Mom takes as many odd jobs as she can, but the money she scrapes up is barely enough to cover a full month’s rent of our rickety old trailer. I bus tables at the greasy spoon, and use my free meal to feed three people. And even little Leo has a daily bus route.  Every penny helps, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough.

That is why I have to win this contest. That five thousand dollars will really help me and my family. Maybe even start a small college fund for Leo.

The paper set strict rules for the contest.  Participants can’t just set out to break any old record. Participants have to break the record for the fastest mile run. But here’s the catch, they have to set the record to the fast piggy back mile run.

The original record was set by two dudes in the United Kingdom. In order to beat these dudes my time had to beat their eleven minutes and eleven second record. While I want this more than anything else I have ever wanted, I am not aiming high. I’m setting out to shave that eleven seconds off, and run the full mile with Ana piggy back in eleven minutes flat.

This is why I now find myself with my one hundred and fifteen pound friend strapped to my back.  As I round the bend, I realize that I am essentially carrying my own body weight.

The finish line is sight. I push myself harder than I ever have before. I cross the line and drop Ana on the ground.

“Time?”

“Eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. Almost there! Come on, let’s go around one more time.”

I shoot her the severest look I can manage. “I can’t. Work,” is all I manage to huff out.  She doesn’t argue, she knows I can’t afford to call out or even go in a minute late. Sergio, my boss, will dock me if I’m late.  Or at least he threatens to. “I still have to shower.”

“You have an hour,” she says stubbornly.  I know she means well, and that she wants this for me just as much as I want this for myself. But Ana just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t fully get how tough it truly is. She doesn’t know what it’s line to eat only one meal a day, or what its like to have to wear her hand me downs. Or to worry constantly if there will be a home to go home to at the end of the day.   “So, you’re just…”

I cut her off. “No, I’m not giving up. I’m just putting this on pause for the day. We’ll be back out here tomorrow morning.”

She doesn’t respond but I see her resignation. “Come on, I buy you a drink at the water fountain,” I say with a laugh.  She slings her arm around my shoulder and we walk to the fountain.

“You can do this, you know?”

“Can I?” I ask sheepishly. As much as I want this, I don’t necessarily believe that I can actually win this. Good things like this don’t happen to people like me.   “I want to believe that I can.”

“Than believe it babe! You got this!” Even though I don’t love drill sergeant Ana, I do love how supportive she is and always has been. And it’s the reason why she pushes me so hard.  “The contest is next week, are you nervous?”

“No, not nervous. Maybe anxious?”

“Why?”

“Because there’s so much riding this. That money is practically spent already.”

“You’ll win.”

“But how can you be so sure?”

“Because I know you. And I know what you’re capable of, even if you don’t.”

“Thanks!” Her vote of confidence helps me believe that I can and will actually do this.

***

“Contestants! To your marks!”

“You ready?” I ask Ana.

“The real question is are you ready?”

“Yeah, I am,” I respond. And it’s in that moment that I realize that it’s true. I have worked hard, and in this past week I have pushed myself to every limit. I have shaved seconds off my time. I just hope it’s enough.

I look at the people scattered around the track. There are people from the newspaper, looking very official with ties and little notebooks in hand. There are the world record’s people, also very official looking with fancy clipboards. There are people I know, like Nathan Snow, captain of my high school’s track team, and his head cheerleader girlfriend, Marsha Taylor. And there are people I don’t know, but they all look very athletic.

I scan the bleachers in the hopes of that maybe, just maybe, mom would be here to cheer me on. I spot Sergio and Loraine – they are holding a sign that says “Go Destiny!” . Seeing my boss and my favorite coworker and that ridiculous sign brings a smile to my face. A row over I spot Leo sitting with Ana’s family. They wave frantically at me. Leo gives me two thumbs up.

“Let’s get the show on the road,” I say looking at Ana.

“Lead the way, champ!”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I say taking my place on the track.

“Listen,” Ana starts, spinning me around. “No matter what happens, whether or not you win that money. I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks. You know, I couldn’t do this without you, right?”

“Don’t get all sappy on me now! You have a record to set, and I have to see that you do.”

“On your mark. Get ready. Go!” the emcee booms into a microphone. I take off, slow and steady making sure my breath and my heart rate are even. As I find my footing I pick up speed.

I’m about half way around and I realize that it’s just me and Anna and Nathan and Marsha.   When I first start this, I made a strict rule that Ana and I would not talk in the midst of running. I need to focus everything to the task at hand. But I break my rule.

“Where … is everyone?” I breath out. I can feel Ana crane around to scope out the scene.

“It looks like some dropped out already. Heh, losers!” she says gleefully.

“And the rest?”

“Slow pokes. It’s just you and Nathan.”

Knowing this only makes me want to run faster, harder. Nathan is on okay guy I guess. I’ve never had any problems with him. In all honesty, he’s an all around nice guy. But right now, he’s my competition. And he’s only doing this for the glory. If we could share the prize I’d give him the glory and take the cash.

“I know we promised not to talk, but Marsha is starting to whine about how uncomfortable she is. You got this Destiny! You’re going to win!”

I run and run for what seems like hours. But before I know it the one mile mark is within reach. Nathan and I are neck and neck … almost. I turn my head just enough to see Marsha squirming and that Nathan’s is having a difficult time keeping his stride.  But he’s an athlete, competition runs in his blood. I know he’s not going to give up, not without a fight.

I bate him by letting up a little, letting him think that I’m just so tired I can’t keep up my pace. He takes the bait with a sly smile – one that says ‘I got this’. But just as he’s thinking that this record-setting is his for the taking, I push myself just a bit harder, close the gap and before I know it, I cross the finish line … first!

I’m so elated and exhausted that I don’t even think about my time. I let Ana down and within a split second she’s jumping, hooting, and hollering. Once again her arms are around my neck. But this time she’s hugging me, and a bit too tightly admittedly.

“Did I win?”

“You came in at ten minutes and fifty-eight seconds! You won!”

“I won?!”

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Problem Solving

“Lemonade,” Ginny, my younger sister says, standing over me. Her wild, red curls block the sun. But just barely. I lean back on my heels, and look up at her round, cherubic face. I wonder how it is even possible that we are related. As opposite as day and night, Gran always says.

“Did you make it?”

“No, the Johnson’s down the street did,” she replies sarcastically. Her hand extended towards me, I watch the cubes of ice clank against the glass. I am thirsty, but not enough to drink Ginny’s lemonade.

“I’ll pass,” I say. Ginny’s lemonade is just a bit too sweet for my liking.

“Suit yourself,” she says as she turns around and back towards the house.

“Hey!” I call after her. She stops, but doesn’t turn around to face me. She knows what’s coming. “Why don’t you stay out her and help me?”

“You want me to help you?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because you never want my help.”

It’s true. Since mom and dad took on a second jobs, and Gran’s health has taken a turn for the worse, I’ve slid into the adult role around the house. It’s not a role I ever wanted, but it’s a role I have dutifully taken on. And admittedly, I’m a bit of a control freak. Ginny is always offering to help – with the dishes, with the grocery shopping – but I always refuse.  Believe me, it’s not because I don’t want her help, it’s because I want her to enjoy the remainder of her childhood.  But Ginny doesn’t see that.

“Here,” I say handing her a hand shovel. “You were always better than digging holes than I was,” I say.

She willingly takes the shovel from me, and kneels beside me. We work in silence, her shoveling and me weeding the pesky sprouts and shoots of grass and dandelions.

“Remember that summer we spent at the beach?”

“Yeah. Remember how every morning mom had to coax you in just to eat breakfast?”

“I was trying to build Cinderella’s castle!”

“It looked more like a cave,” I say and we both laugh in unison.

“It did not!” she says bitterly, throwing a handful of dirt in my direction.

We don’t talk, but I know we are both silently reminiscing about that long-lost summer. The summer that was perfect. Mom and dad actually had quality time to spend with us. Money wasn’t free-flowing, but it wasn’t as tight as it is now. And Gran was a  vibrant woman who was more active than my sister and I combined.

We spent those summer days lounging on the beach, jumping waves, and eating dad’s famous tuna salad sandwiches. Nights we spent around the table playing Uno.

It’s cliché to even think it, but those were the days.  The days when life wasn’t perfect, but it was damn near close.

I weed silently lost in thoughts of the past.

“Ka-tie! Earth to Katie!”

“Huh, what were you saying?”

“What planet were you visiting?”

“What?”

“You were spacing out. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Keep digging. That hole isn’t big enough.”

“How deep does it have to be?”

“Deep enough to plant that tomato plant,” I say pointing to the row of pots I have lined up and waiting to be planted. “Why are you planting so much this year?”

“No reason,” I lie, and Ginny knows it. She always knows when I’m lying.

“Spill it,” she demands.

“It’s nothing really. It’s just … ” I hesitate, not wanting her shoulders to be weighed down by the burden.

“It’s just what?”

Ginny is a lot stronger than she looks – both physically and emotionally. Stronger than I can and ever will be.

“Money is tight Gin, tighter than it usually is. We’re barely making the bills and rent. And food for a family of five is getting more and more difficult,” I say and linger off. I don’t want her to see the full picture. I don’t want her to know that  I overheard mom and dad talking about how they can’t afford groceries this month.  “This is my way of contributing, Gin. It’s the least I could do.”

“You do a lot, though.”

“It’s not nearly enough. And at least this way I actually feel like I’m doing something … anything, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

I lean back on my heels, and stretch my aching shoulders.  I reach over and grab Ginny’s glass that is stationed between us on the hot concrete slab.  I take a sip of her lemonade. It’s as terrible as I expect it to be. But I’m so thirsty I don’t really care. I’m guzzling the sweet liquid when I hear a clink and a clank.

“What’s that?” I ask looking over Ginny’s hunched shoulders.

“Some sort of metal box,” she says uprooting the dirt covered, rusted box.  Ginny turns the box over in her hands. When she’s done, she tries to pry it open. “It’s stuck!”

“It’s not stuck, it’s locked.”

“Same difference,” she says knowing all to well that I hate that saying. “Here.”

She passes me the box. I inspect it, turning it several times over in my hands. I shake it to try to determine what’s on the inside.  “Something’s in there,” I announce, quite obviously.

“Really, Sherlock?”

I swat at Ginny teasingly. “Do you have a hair pin?”

“A what?”

“A hair pin?”

“Do you mean a bobby pin?”

“Don’t get technical.”

“What do I look like, a walking beauty salon?”

“With that hair of yours … who know what’s hiding in there?!”

“Gran has a ton of them,” she says picking herself off the ground. “Come on,” she says walking away towards the house.

The quiet consumes us as we walk in. I remember the days when life and laughter greeted us at the door. Gran is a sleep in her rocker in front of the ancient television set. Mom and Dad are both at work, due home at any moment. I follow Ginny into Gran’s stark white room. So white, in the late day sun, it’s almost blinding.

I walk over to her dresser, and take a good, long look at my dirt streaked face.  I’m tired, and the dark circles around my eyes show it. Wisps of hair have escaped the bun at the top of my head. My lips are chapped.   Not wanting to face myself in the mirror, I start looking at the many photos Gran has circling the mirror. There are pictures of Gran as a young bride, Gramps, now long gone, in his Air Force uniform. There are pictures of my mom at ripe age of five, dressed in her Sunday’s best and her strawberry blonde curls glistening in the sun. Then there are pictures of me and Ginny.

“Forget the bobby pin,” Ginny says. I spin around and in between her fingers dangles a small, gold key.  I snatch it out of her hands and sink down into the plush mauve carpeting. Ginny sits across from me.

I work the key into the rust lock. It takes some work, but after a long, hard moment I slip the key in. With a good twist, I hear the lock pop. Victory! I lift the lid and my jaw hits the ground .. audibly.

“What is it? What’s in the box?!”

“The solution to all of our problems!”

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Ode to A. Hitchcock

Prompt: A story that is 500 words or less.

The best part of the Jersey shore is the annual sand sculpture contest. People flood the beach in the pursuit of handcrafting works of art – art that will eventually be gobbled up by the ever rising sea.

Every year my sister Erica and I stand on the sidelines, speculating. Not this year. This year we’re participating. It doesn’t matter that I hate sand and she has no artistic ability. It doesn’t matter that every sand castle I ever built crumbled in mere seconds. It doesn’t matter that Erica doesn’t want to be here.

The day is overcast, the sand sticking to all the wrong places. For a split second I regret this decision, but with a hot pink bucket and gardening shovel I’m ready.

“What’s the plan Stan,” Erica asks.

I take out a crumpled up sketch, and pass it to her.

“You’re kidding right?! There’s no way in hell we’re sculpting a mermaids.”

“Watch your language,” I say in my mother’s tone.

“Hell isn’t a cuss word. If it was it  wouldn’t be in the Bible.”

I ignore her and begin sculpting. Erica sits back, sunning herself. I stop for a sip of water and to wipe sweat from my brow.

“Whoa!”

“What is it?”

“Look at all those seagulls, there’s about a hundred of them.”

“Don’t exaggerate, there’s like ten.”

Seriously, there are hundreds of the beasts flocking overhead. They make me nervous. I continue on sculpting and shaping the sand, coaxing it to do exactly what I want it to. But the birds continue to flock, swoop, and fly.

I try not to let the birds get to me.  But as the clouds roll in the birds seem to ascend upon the beach, pecking at half eaten sandwiches, squawking at the people. I’m scared. So much so that I hastily gather my stuff and pull my sister up from the sand.

“We’re leaving!”

“What? Why?!  You haven’t even finished.”

“Somethings not right,” I announce. The air is eerily silent, the waves that were crashing simply lap at the shoreline. I turn slowly, and take in the nighmarish scene — seagulls pecking at the people. There’s one tangled in some woman’s hair. I ran. Hands covering my head I pray I wouldn’t call victim to the birds. Erica, with her longer legs is  just ahead, just out of reach. I call to her, but she keeps running farther away.

“Erica wait!” I scream. And as I screamed the largest seagull I have ever seen lands on my sister and it pecks and pecks.

“No, please stop!” I shout.

—-

“Erin! Wake up! Wake up!”

My eyes crack open. “You’re alive!”

“It was just a dream.”

“But the birds –”

“That damn movie! I told you you shouldn’t have watched that.”

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Home

Prompt: A promise made and/or broken.

When my parents died six years ago Poppy was the only family I had left. And at that time, he was barely that. But still, without hesitation, he took me in. And he provided me with, not only the basics, but so much more. Poppy loved me unconditionally right from the very start.

It didn’t matter to him that my existence was news to him. It didn’t matter that we first met the day my parents were being buried in the cold ground. He loved me.

Truth be told,  I didn’t love Poppy. Not at first. I barely knew this man who seemed to have more hair sprouting from his ears rather than from the top of his head. For twelve years, he was a mystery I never dared question. But as days turned into months, and months turned into years I grew to love Poppy. I loved him like I have never, ever loved before. After all, he became the father I never really had the chance to have.

Of course we had our ups and downs. Poppy had a temper and I had a stubborn streak. But we always made it through – and never went to bed angry with one another. Even when life wasn’t great, it was good.

Until the day the doctor told us that Poppy was sick. The world stopped revolving, and as the doctor talked my heart barely beat.

Poppy had early onset dementia – a disease that would eventually strip Poppy of his memories. As time went by, the illness would progress from dementia into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

The doctor talked about the different stages that both Poppy and I would experience. He talked about medications that would, not cure, but would prolong the disease’s progression. He talked and he talked. But the only think I was hearing was the Poppy could, and would probably forget everything and everyone … including me.

I decided then and there that I’d make the most of my time with Poppy. I would do everything in my power to take care of him the way he took care of me when I needed him most. That meant, dropping out of school a few months shy of graduating. That meant putting my life on pause in order to give him the fullest one possible. That meant breaking a promise I swore – to both myself and to him – that I’d keep.

After having found out that he was sick, Poppy sat me down to have a heart to heart. We were sitting in a cracked vinyl booth of our favorite diner. Both of us pushing food around our plates. Poppy’s fish and chips were getting cold, and the cheese on my bacon cheeseburger was starting to harden.

“Kiddo, listen. I know this is a lot to process. And I know the gears in your head are already fast at work thinking about what you can do to make this better. There is nothing to make this better.”

“You don’t know that,” I responded quietly.

“There are things we need to talk about — things I need to say and you need to hear.”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“You don’t have a choice. I’ve never been stern with you Ginny, but I’m putting my foot down.”

“Fine,” I huffed.

“There’s money in an account. There is enough to cover my expenses at the Cherry Blossom nursing home.,” he started, but I stopped him before he went any further.

“Stop talking like this, I’m not putting you in a home.”

“You don’t have a choice in this, I refuse to be a burden.”

“You’re my grandfather, it’s my responsibility to take care of you,” I argued.

“No, it’s my responsibility to take care of you kiddo. And I won’t be able to do that for much longer. When the time comes, I want you to take that money and check me into the home. My name is already on the waiting list.”

He wanted me to promise him, but I refused. He didn’t press the issue, but I knew this wasn’t the end of this discussion.

He continued, “The house is yours, everything in it, and the property it sits on. I’ve already had the deed put in your name.”

“It won’t be much of a home without you,” I said quietly.

“It was never a home until you move in kiddo. But I need you to promise me something.”

“Anything, Poppy,” I said without a hint of hesitation. He could have asked to me knock off the local liquor store, and I would have gladly. I would do anything and everything for this man, and he knew that.

“Promise me that that house will always be your home, always Ginny.”

I couldn’t fathom why he would want me to promise such a thing when he already knew that that house was more than a house that sat upon a pebble driveway. That house was home, and would forever be my home.

“I promise, Pop.”

—-

At the time I swore I could keep such a promise. After all, it wasn’t a difficult one. But after a time, it seemed like with each passing day a little bit of Poppy’s memory slipped. Before long, I faced reality: I couldn’t take care of him any longer.

The first few days after leaving him in that place was hell. I cried until I couldn’t cry any more. But eventually I learned to live on my own in that big empty house that sat upon a pebble driveway. I learned to function like a normal human being – working during the day, visiting Poppy at night.

Money was tight and emotions were high, but I thought I was doing okay. Sure I was a few payments behind  on a bill or two, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I had already handled my worst nightmare. But when the bank sent notice that because of one  too many missed payment, they were foreclosing on the house.

I begged. I pleaded. And I borrowed for anyone who would lend me a dime. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to save me, to save the house, to save the only promise I ever made.

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Fried

Prompt: Write a story inspired by an image of your choice (found online).

summer-sidewalk-hot-enough-to-fry-egg_shutterstock_14073988

“I’m bored,” Callie whined as she folded a torn out magazine page into a fan. “It’s hot. Let’s go inside.”

“You’re always bored, Callie.” I replied absent-mindedly. It’s true, Callie is always bored. Always buzzing from one activity to the next, she has never followed through on anything. Except being my friend — best friend.

“Come on, Lizzie! Let’s do something fun!” She squeals from the lounge chair next to me.  I barely look up from my magazine. Something fun equals me getting in trouble.

“Want to jump in the pool?” I suggest. “We could play Marco Polo.”

“Marco Polo is lame with only two people.”

“We can play UNO.”

“Even lamer than Marco Polo.”

Exhausted from this conversation, I sigh. “Than what would you suggest? And don’t say watching TV.”

“Oh! I know! Let’s play mad science!”

I don’t like the sound of mad science. The last time I played one of Callie’s made up game, we ending up blowing the door of my microwave and breaking my mother’s favorite coffee mug. I was grounded for an entire month. Even worse than being grounded was the fact that I had to take all of my life savings to buy a new microwave.

“I’m not in the mood to blow up the microwave again.”

“We’ll think up a new science experiment! And I promise we won’t blow anything up.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Let’s play a joke on Simon!” She says enthusiastically. Simon, my older brother who’s home from college, hates to be bothered. From August to May he studies furiously. He’s been a straight A student since he came out of the womb. Or at least that’s what I’m told. However, any break or day off he sends furiously gaming.

“You know Simon doesn’t like to be bothered. Besides he’s in the middle of some big quest or something. Dork!”

“Come on Lizzie! Please!”

I don’t want to admit this to her, but playing mad science would be better than what we’re currently doing. She stares me, making that sad puppy dog face that she knows will sucker me into any one of her crazy ideas.

“Let’s play handball,” I suggest. I rule at handball. “My mom just bought me these purple tennis balls!”

“You know I don’t like handball. I have no hand eye coordination. And beside the last time we played you whacked the ball so hard it bounced off the garage door and whacked me smack in the nose. I had two black eyes thanks to you.”

“That was an accident. I still feel terrible about that. I promise I’ll go easy.”

She shakes her head. Callie has never been athletic. Her idea of organized sports is shopping at Macy’s on black Friday. It’s reasons like this that make Callie and I best friends. We’re complete opposites. The only thing we have in common is that we were once the new kids at school.

“What about extreme hop scotch,” I say enthusiastically. Extreme hop scotch was a game that Callie and I invented last summer. Instead of eight boxes we made our board with sixteen. And with each toss of the shooter we didn’t just jump – we created different ways to get to the end of the board. One of the ways was by slapping on a pair of old school roller skates and jumping to the end of the board. It was a good idea until I fell, hard and broke my ankle.

“Yeah, let’s play that again. Maybe this time I’ll break my ankle,” she says sarcastically.

I give up. I wave my white flag of surrender.

“Fine, let’s play made science,” I say. After all, I’m just as bored as she is.   “What’s the plan?”

“Mom was telling me about something her and Aunt Jeanie used to do when they were little,”

“You mean, younger. Both your mom and your Aunt Jeanie are short,” I say with a chuckle.

“Don’t get technical,” she huffs. “Anyways, they used to fry eggs on the sidewalk.”

“That’s impossible Callie. Not to mention a waste of a perfectly good egg!”

“You don’t even like eggs, so what do you care if it’s a waste.”

“It’s not that I don’t like them, I’m allergic.”

“Still, who cares. It’s only a few eggs.”

I don’t know why I give in so easily. “Fine, but we can’t use the eggs in the fridge.”

“Why not?”

“They’re old. Like super old. We were supposed to color them for easter. Instead they were shoved to the back and forgotten about. So, yeah. Rotten eggs on a hot day … yuck!”

“Let’s go to the store. Do you have any money?”

“No, but I know someone who does.”

“Who?” she asks.

“Simon. He leaves money in his pants pockets all the time. Mom hasn’t done laundry yet, so I bet we could scrounge up a few bucks. Maybe even enough for eggs and a slushy.”

We head inside and into the laundry room. At the top of the hamper I spy a few pairs of Simon’s shorts at the top. Score! I reach in and pull out a camo cargo pair. There are many pockets. The more pockets, the more bank. I reach my hand into the first pocket and find only pennies. In the back pocket I find lint and a partially ripped dollar bill.

When the cargo shorts proves fruitless, I move onto the pair of jean shorts. Three of the four pockets have used tissues. I’m thoroughly grossed out. The fourth pocket of the shorts, I reach in and find a ten-dollar bill.

“Victory! Ten bucks – enough for eggs, slushies, and then some.” I announce waving the money in front of Callie’s face.

We walk to the quick mart. The cool air circulating from the overhead vents blasts us as we walk in. The store isn’t the best – it’s kind of dirty, the customers are sketchy, and you have to check the expiration dates on everything – even the water. We wave at Tammy, the check out girl. She’s flipping through one of those books with the half-naked guys on the front cover.

“Hey girls,” she calls from the counter. “Cherry slushy machine is broken, only blue raspberry works.”

We nod in Tammy’s general direction as we make our way to the refrigerated section. We’re scanning the coolers looking for eggs. When we finally find them, we dig out a carton that isn’t expired or doesn’t contain any cracked eggs. We also get a jumbo sized blue raspberry slushy to share, a pack of strawberry pop rocks to pour into said slushy, as much junk food as the remaining five dollars can buy.

Once home, we stand on the sidewalk an egg in each hand.

“Do you think we should use some of that spray oil?”

“For what?” I ask.

“So it doesn’t stick.”

“You’re not going to actually eat this egg, are you?” I say with just a hint of disgust in my voice. She doesn’t answer me. I can see the gears turning in her head. She’s actually considering eating the egg. “Callie, you are not eating the egg. It’s disgusting! Do you know what kind of things happen on the sidewalk?! People’s dirty shoes trample all over it. There are bugs. Animals go to the bathroom on the sidewalk.”

“Okay, I won’t eat it.”

“So what do we do? Just crack the egg on the ground?!”

“Basically.”

We find the perfect spot of concrete – no shade with the hot full sun beating violently down on it. I press the palm of my had to the ground to see just how hot the ground is. Picking it up quickly, the ground feels as if it’s on fire. Squatting down side by side, Callie and I tap the hard white shell against the curb. When a think crack appears, we jam our fingers into the shell, and crack it wide open, and let the gooey egg drop. Standing we take a few steps back to make sure our shadows aren’t blocking the sun.  We stare. We wait. We stare and we wait.

Nothing happens. An army of ants consumes the egg. Before long, all there is a sea of tiny black wriggling insects.

“Well, that’s gross,” Callie says, disappointed.

“I don’t think the ground is hot enough. We need something that will conduct enough heat to get a sizzle.”

“Like what?”

“I know!” I say as I run into the house. “Foil! It’s the perfect conductor.”

With foil down, we crack some more eggs. And still  … nothing but ants.

“This is useless,” I say sitting on the drying grass of my front lawn. “I knew this wasn’t going to work,” I mutter to myself. Calling is still looking at the eggs hoping for the slightest simmer.

“I’ve got it! We need more heat!”

“Duh,” I exclaim.

“No, more than the ground and more than the foil. We need a car!” She runs over to Simon’s beat up Jetta. And before I can stop her, she is cracking an egg onto the car’s hood. I run over, intrigued to see if this is actually going to work. After a few seconds we hear a faint crack, pop, and fizzle.

“Callie, you’re a genius!”

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The Sacrifice

“Vivianna, don’t walk away from me. We’re not through with this discussion.”

“Yes we are Mother. I’m not doing it.”

“This is your rite of passage, Vivianna. Please don’t be difficult.”

“You can’t make me!”

“You know very well I can. I didn’t want to resort to that.”

“So you’re threatening me?”

“I’m not. I’m urging you to do this on you own accord. But I’m begging you, for all of Naroona’s sake, don’t make me force you.”

“Why? Why me?”

“Vivianna, you’re my only heir. The throne of Naroona is destined to be yours but only if you go through with the Awakening, you know that!”

“What if I don’t want to be destined? What if I want to be an average women, born only to bear children and the burden of my husband?”

“You’re better than that. And you know it,” mother spits between clenched teeth. She’s obviously fuming. Steam will shortly stream for her ears.

“You can’t make me, Mother.”

“I can and I will. Don’t test me Vivianna, you have no knowledge as to how far my wrath reaches.”

“But…”

“Don’t test me Vivianna. This discussion is over. Don’t bring it up again. In two nights time, when the moon is full you will sacrifice yourself to Naroona.”

I knew better to push Mother any further. I stop protesting and stare into my mothers cool yet kind turquoise eyes.

“You have a lesson. You don’t want to be late, now run.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said quietly bowing my head.

I scurry off down the stone corridor, and push my way into the third door to my left, the music room. In the middle my golden harp stands tall, towering over my five foot frame. Beside it, Lady Barrow sits waiting. Her lips in a tight straight line. She’s cross. I’ll suffer for my tardiness.

“You’re late.”

“My apologies Lady Barrow. I was discussing…something with my Mother.”

“You were arguing with your mother, that’s what you were doing.”

“You were listening, weren’t you?”

“What if I was?”

“It’s a despicable trait you know,” I say, adding a tone of disdain to my voice.

“So is being late.”

She always had to have the last word. But I’m a pro at this game.

“Eavesdropping is worse than tardiness.”

My lesson is exceptionally painful. When it’s over and I suffered for my tardiness I loiter about the castle I refer to as home. But the stone walls bore me. I move into the garden, the only outside world I know. It’s the only place in all of Naroona that doesn’t expect something from me. It’s the only place I feel most at east, most like myself – a simple girl born into a not so simple life.

I know nothing outside of Naroona, the lone island that makes up the new world. Whatever I know is what I’ve learned from ancient text books and equally ancient tutors.

The island of Naroona was founded some five hundred years ago when the old world – the former United States – came to a surprising end.

According to my text books it was 2012, December 21, 2012 to be exact. Throughout the year news reported the Mayans prediction of the end of the world, but the people’s ignorance was blinding.

The prediction: a series of intergalactic events would occur millions of miles away, ultimately causing a series of catastrophic happenings that would transform the world as people of the twenty-first century knew it. Some probably assumed it was nothing weather patterns would change. That California for the first time in history would have four separate seasons – fall, summer, winter, and spring. And New Jersey would be cast in a perpetual state of unbearable heat. But most thought it was a bunch of nonsense made up by the media outlets to scare the general public.

On December 21, 2012 seven ten point zero magnitude earthquakes simultaneously shook each of the seven continents. The world did not end, but it did in fact change … drastically. Parts of the world crumbled and sunk into the depths of the ocean. Parts of the world shifted, eventually forming one island: Naroona.

But something else happened, something the Mayans didn’t, probably couldn’t, predict. When the land finally shifted, settled into on extremely large island, something spectacular was released. Magic. The new world of Naroona was full of magic. Not just full of magic, but full of magical creatures. Every tree hole was a house for fairies. The waters were filled with selkies and sirens alike. And even dragons soared the airs above.

Even though humans occupied the Southern territory and the magical the Northern, people feared this new world in which they lived. we each had our own, separate territories, people were hesitant. That is, the people who did survive the Mayan Apocalypse. Yes, some were enthralled by this new magic. But most were confused and terrified.

Fingers pointed in every direction searching for someone to blame for the “unnatural” world that they were forced to live. They blamed the government for running the economy down. They blamed the Nazi Germany of the 1940s, saying this was the cosmos way of punishing humans for all their crimes and sins against humanity. They blamed the church for telling them not to believe in what was being called the ultimate rapture, but instead believe in a Christ that was nowhere to be found when the rapture did come.

But eventually humans learned to coexist with these once mythical creatures. And by coexist, it really means they kept to the North of Naroona while we humans kept to the South. Our only shared, common ground was Mount Ca-Vel, the center point of Naroona.

When there was finally some semblance of peace the eldest of each family gathered at the most center point of the newly formed world to discuss everything from the formation of a new government to the newly magical world they were not accustomed to the food supply that would surely dwindle rapidly.

Because details about this meeting didn’t go into any specifics within the pages of my ancient text books my ancient tutors taught from, I’ve learned most about it from my family. It was decided, since so many people ultimately blamed the democratic government for the events that occurred on December twenty-first, they decided on implementing an absolute monarch – one person or family to rule. Whether by pure luck, unabashed stupidity, or sheer magic the citizens of Naroona voted someone from my bloodline. No one really thought that one family, my family that is, could possibly rule an island for over five hundred years.

After ten years of living under the thumb of the same iron-fisted queen – a queen my own mother is ashamed to admit we’re actually related to – the people of Naroona pleaded their case to the island elders. Realize they had outgrown this monarchy approach, the elders set out to Naroona’s highest peak, Mount Ca-Vel, in search of, not only peace, but answers.

It was on Mount Ca-Vel that fate intervened, making the elder’s task a whole lot easier. They claimed a cosmic voice spoke to them, supplying an answer for a question they’ve yet to ask: if not democratic vote, how would a queen be elected?

A task. An answer so apparent and so simple the elders of Naroona overlooked it. It was decreed by this cosmic voice that every woman, on the dawn of their sixteenth birthday, was to hike the trail to Mount Ca-Vel. There they would meet their fate, and be asked to complete one task. If the task was completed up to the fate’s standard, a new queen would prevail.

But here’s the thing about the Awakening: no one knows exactly what’s waiting for them on Mount Ca-Vel. Each fate, each task differs. We go into this archaic ritual blind, only carrying a few items our mothers carefully selected for us based on their own experience.

Hundreds of girls await their fate, their task. All but one fail. It’s one girl out of hundreds. And for me, this means so much more than it does for the other girls. For five hundred years my family has ruled over Naroona, if I don’t complete this task, shame will fall on my family’s royal name. Our legacy lies in my hands.

In a mere forty-eight hours fate will either decree me Naroona’s next queen or will strip my family of its beloved titled, dethrone my very own mother, and shove us into a life of poverty. All of which my family – myself included – fear for.

As much as I fear being left penniless, what I fear most is facing the unknown. Even though generations of women have gone before me, no one can tell me what fate I will face. My own mother will not even what she had to face atop Mount Ca-vel. No matter how much I pester her about it, she will not relent. So, the only option I have left is to refuse, even though I know that my refusal means nothing. In two days I will hike the jagged path that leads to the top most peak of Mount Ca-Vel.

The temperature is swiftly dropping. The willow trees that surround my secluded bench in my beloved garden swish and sway in the chilly breeze. Shivering, I know it’s time to retreat inside.

When I step into my welcoming bedroom I’m shocked to find my mother sitting at my vanity. Her turquoise eyes stare at me through the mirror’s reflection. But unlike the cool eyes from hours before, there’s a softness found within her gaze.

“Sit down Vivianna.”

But my guard is up, still obviously put off from our previous disagreement.

“I’m fine standing,” I say.

She closes her eyes, searching for composure. I push every one of her buttons.

“Please, Vivianna. Please sit?”

I move over to the edge of my down comforter clad bed.

“I don’t want to argue with you. Arguing always proves fruitless.”

“So what do you want Mother?”

“I know this isn’t easy for you. I know because I too went through the very thing you fear. Even though I know you don’t believe me, I know what you’re feeling. It wasn’t easy for me either, you know.”

She pauses. I’m not one hundred percent sure as to where this discussion is going.

“This goes against everything I believe, every ounce of my being. But your are my daughter Vivianna, and I swore the day you were born that I’d do anything in my powers to protect you. You wanted to know what I faced during my own Awakening, well I’ll tell you.”

For the second time in only mere moments I’m shocked. My mother is going against her own principles, her own morals.
I wait. She looks pained. She knows that if anyone finds out what she’s about to do, she could risk losing the thrown, the crown, the life she’s struggled to provide me with. I consider her risk.

“I don’t want to know,” I say quietly, even though, on the inside I’m dying to find out.

“But Vivianna,”

“What difference will it make Mother? My Awakening will not be like yours.”

“I thought it would help.”

“It won’t. It will only make it worse.”

“If that’s how you feel.” She takes it as a stinging slap in the face. I pushed her away. She doesn’t realize I did this for her. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t realize this.

“Here.” She hands me a cloth bundle tied in a golden silk ribbon.

“What is this?”

“Everything I think you will need to get through your impending Awakening.”

I don’t open it. I just hold it there in my lap.

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

“Not now. I don’t want to think of all this right now.”

“I understand.”

She stands up. Walks slowly to the closed-door, and reaches for the knob. She stops, and turns.

“Vivianna, you know if you didn’t have to do this, if the Awakening didn’t matter to me or to Naroona, I wouldn’t force you to do this.” She waits, when I don’t answer she pleads, “Vivianna, please answer me.”

“I know,” I whisper. She turns around and opens the door. She steps out and into the drafty hallway. “Mother!” I call as I run to the open door. She stops and turns her head, just enough to look me in my own turquoise eyes. “I’m sorry about the things I said before. I will graciously step forward, I will graciously accept what ever fate the cosmos deem worthy of me.”

She turns back and kisses me on my cheek. I don’t say anything, and step back into my room.

The bundle beckons me to the bed. I sit across from it, hover my palms just above the golden bow. Carefully I untie the ribbon, unfold the linen, and reveal the secrets the bundle carries: a black cloak, a jagged stone dagger, and a vile full of a think, amber liquid. I’m engrossed with the three items. I have several cloaks, all of which are prettier and sturdier than the one Mother has provided me with. The dagger is ancient, and I wonder if it could really do any damage. The vile sends an uneasy chill up and down my spine.

I tear my mind and my eyes away from the three items, and notice a small piece of paper. It’s fold into four neat square. It’s written on crisp gold cardstock, and sealed with wax. I tear at the seal, hastily opening the letter I’m sure my mother has spent hours writing.
I’m surprised to find that this folded piece of paper doesn’t contain words of encouragement and words of love. Instead there is only one sentence. A mere five words:

“Trust in what you are.”

I don’t know what to make of it. I fold the letter back into four neat squares and try my hardest to stop thinking about it.

That night I sleep restlessly. I toss from one side to the other. My dreams are full of nightmares. Dream after dream I find myself lying on the crumbling edge of Mount Ca-Vel writhing around in sheer and utter agony. I scream out for help, but no one hears me. They’re all miles below waiting to see if I’ve been decreed the new queen. I writhe and wriggle, my back arching and hunching over. From between my shoulder blades two green iridescent wings poke their way through the surface of my skin. They’re terrifying and magnificent all at once.

Just when I begin to hear the faintest voice, I’m pulled out of my dream state and back into the reality of my stone chamber. I wake up dry mouthed and in a cold sweat. Thoroughly shook, I crawl out of bed, move silently out of my room and through the castle corridors. I slip out into the moonlit garden. I slip into the glass gazebo, and lay on the bench. I stare out to the stars and the moon above me, wondering what secrets the night is keeping from me.

“Why aren’t I asleep, Mrs. Moon?”

She doesn’t answer me, she never does. Instead, she shines down above me, and with a gentle breeze lulls me to sleep. I sleep peacefully, near perfectly for the rest of the night, and wake only when the gardener shakes me awake. I sit up slowly, cautiously wondering why and how I got out here. But than I remember the dreams, than I remember the fear that I’m about to face. At at ten p.m. tonight I make my way to Mount Ca-Vel.

By the time I make it to the peak at exactly midnight, I will officially be sixteen years old. I will officially find out what my fate holds.

I spend the day camped out in the safety of my bedroom. When I don’t find comfort in my bedroom I move to the music room where I pluck a few lonely chords on my harp. And still, when that doesn’t easy my nerves I move down to the kitchen and scrounge up any sweets I could find – a candied apple, a few pieces if Turkish delight, a marzipan maple flavored leave, and a handful of fig cookies. But no amount of sweets can make me feel any better. In fact I feel worse. If that;s even possible.

Before I know it, it’s already nine o’clock. My mother sits with me. She strokes my hair as I prepare for my trek. I wear a soft pair of black slacks. snug black turtleneck shirt. When it’s time I let Mother tied the cloak to my neck. She covers my shoulders, and looks me square in the eyes.

“I love you Vivianna!” Her tone is fierce. My eyes well up with tears, but I swat them away. I can’t respond verbally, I nod, and when that isn’t enough I through my arms around her waist, and relinquish my tears against the smooth velvet bodice of her gown.

“Mother, I’m scared.”

“I know, but you are strong.”

“No! I’m not like you.”

“Vivianna, listen!” she raises her voice, takes my face in her palms and raises my turquoise eyes to hers. “Listen to me! Something unbelievable is about to happen to you. You have to believe in yourself, and trust in who – in what – you are.”

I nod and swipe the falling tears from my cheek. A light knock raps upon the door. A maid pokes her head into my room.

“Your Majesty, I’m sorry for the intrusion, but the carriage is here to take Miss Vivianna to Mount Ca-Vel.”

I’m whisked away to the awaiting carriage. My mother follows close behind, when I’m loaded and locked into the carriage I poke my head out the small oval window.

“Goodbye Mother,” I whisper.

“Don’t forget Vivianna, I love you and you are stronger than you know.”

At exactly ten I’m dropped off at the base of Mount Ca-Vel. The maid who’s traveled with me hands me a flickering lantern, along with it the jagged stone dagger.

“The vile! I left the vile,” I say near hysterics.

“Calm down Miss Vivianna, it’s here,” she sais handing me the vile. It’s dangling from a thick, black leather cord. She places it over my head and around my neck. I open the carriage door wanting nothing more to get the task at hand done and over with. When I climb out I look back at the maid who still sits in the carriage.

“Be brave Vivianna.”

Those are the last words I hear as a human.

At exactly midnight – I could tell by Mrs. Moon’s position in the darkened night sky – I crest the peak. I struggle to stand up on my the small ledge. My legs shake with ache. My breath staggers out of my lungs.

It’s cold. My teeth chatter noisily as I stare into the darkness, unsure as to what’s supposed to happen next. I tuck my cold hands into the cloaks pocket. An unfamiliar piece of paper tickles my fingertips. I pull it out, curious. It’s a note, but from who I’m not certain.

I unfold it, and realize that this piece of paper isn’t a note after all, it’s a set of instructions. At first I think it’s from Mother, but that I realize that I don’t recognize the writing at all.

“Vivianna.” My name is quietly carried on the wind. I pull my eyes away from paper and look for the source who called my name. The voice of the cosmos is a lot quieter than I expected

“Who’s there?”

“It is your fate calling.”

I’m not scared. I’m terrified.

“I accept whatever fate I am to face.”

“Read.”

I do as I’m instructed. I look down at the piece of paper in my hands.

“With the stone dagger break the vile and drink the liquid contents,” I read aloud.

I crack open the vile by tapping the crooked edge of the dagger on the thin glass. I down the amber substance, but not quick enough. It’s thick and bitter. My mouth is coated like chalk dust on a blackboard.

Seconds after I down the liquid I drop to my knees. A searing pain shoots throughout my body.

“What’s …. happening … to … me?!” I yelp out in between screams of agony.

“Vivianna, you are destined to be the next Queen of Naroona, but only if you are willing to give up who you are.”

“I’m willing,” I spit out. I can’t take the pain.

“Vivianna,” I hear my name again. But the voice is different. It’s the voice of my mother. “You must sacrifice yourself. You’re human self.”

“I don’t understand?” I try to stand up but I can’t. I don’t myself on all fours, a throbbing pain searing the space between my shoulder blades.

“You must give you your life. You must throw yourself from the rock’s edge.”

I can’t speak. This is not the fate I was expecting. But at the moment flinging myself of Mount Ca-Vel seems better than suffering though the pain.

I slowly stand up, my knees shaking with pain. I shuffle forward a few short feet. My toes hang over the edge.

I can’t believe I’m about to meet my death. But something deep within me knows I will survive this, something deep within me knows I will live.

“I give myself to Naroona,” I yell through the pain and tip my body forward. I fall full speed, the wind whipping through my loose hair. After a few solid seconds the searing pain courses through my body. It pulse from the tips of my toes and throbs all the way to my shoulder blades, where I feel two wings bursting their way out.

I am not longer falling to my death. Instead my newly sprouted wings flap against the wind, lifting me higher and higher. I fly for what seems like hours over mountain ranges and below the clouds.

It’s not until I’m soaring just above a lake that I catch a glimpse of my reflection. I’m so startled, so scared I lose focus and my wings falter. I’m not longer human. Instead I’m a … a dragon. This can’t possibly be.

Shocked and amazed I head back to Mount Ca-Vel in hopes of finding some answers. When I get there the ledge is just how I left it. Cold, dark, and empty. In a few short swoops I’m at the base of Mount Ca-Vel. A Carriage awaits. Still in my dragon form I creep over and peek inside. I find my mother. She peers out at me.

She blinks back tears and emerges from the carriage.

“Vivianna, you’re beautiful.” She extends a hand and cups my long snout in her hand. My skin is silky smooth and the color of pure gold. For the first time in my life I’m tall and slender. My wings flicker in the moonlight, sending a cascade of color over my mothers face.

I know, after looking into my mother’s eyes that I now inhabit two complete bodies, two complete souls: my human soul which will physically rule Naroona and my dragon soul who will spiritually guide my path as queen.

“Vivianna, we are empresses of knowledge – wise beyond our years. Our bodies are temples of strength that could withstand any weapon and any army. You have all the tools you need to rule Naroona.”

“But I sacrificed myself, my human self Mother. How can I possibly inhabit two bodies?”

“Because you willingly sacrificed yourself for your country, for your dragon self, you did not lose your human life, you only gained a dragon life.”

“Can I change forms?” I ask wearily.

“Of course.”

“How?”

“You’ll learn, in time my sweet Vivianna.”

“But,” I start to protest.

“Tonight we fly!” She says shifting into her dragon form. My mother was always beautiful, but to see her like this, like a dragon she’s breathtakingly beautiful. He skin is the color of rubies, her wings are gold. Her eyes, still cool yet kind, are turquoise.

“We fly,” I say as I push-off the ground and shoot upward towards the moon.

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Painting the Roses Red

“I saw who put that note on your car,” Frankie Perez says to me, breaking our sixteen year silence. I look up, not because I’m interested in what he has to say, but mainly to acknowledge that I heard him loud and clear, and that I really don’t care.

“Did you hear me?” he asks.

I stare at him blankly, trying to hide any confusion that may be registering on my face. Why was Frankie Perez speaking to me? Our school’s rebel without a cause spoke to no one, ran with no particular crowd, didn’t give a damn about his good or bad reputation.

“I said, I saw who put that note on your car,” he repeats as if I’m dense, dumb, or deaf.

I shrug, not caring about the note, what it says, or who put it there. I know very well who put that note on my windshield, and I could guess what it said. But Frankie Perez doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know that I don’t care, not anymore. He doesn’t know that promise I made to myself two months ago.

He doesn’t say another word to me, he simply pushes past and makes his way to his desk directly two seats behind. I return to my book, but it’s useless. Whatever focus I have is now gone.

Suddenly all I can think about are the notes. The notes that are currently taking up residence in my glove box, all sixty of them. Soon to be sixty-one. For two months random notes started appearing upon my car’s windshield.

At first I had no clue as to who was leaving them, and why they were harassing me due to the notes were either typed or made up of tiny cut out magazine letters. My only thought was whoever was doing this had way too much time on his or her hands.
But after a while the culprit became very apparent to me. Maybe she was just lazy, but she wanted to be found out. I recognized the writing right away, after all I had at least ten birthday cards filled with the same writing. Birthday cards promising a lifetime of friendship, through thick or thin.

I toss the book I am trying so desperately to read into my open shoulder bag that stands near my feet. I hoist the bag up and over myself, and silently slip out of home room. Though, I really don’t have to slip out quietly. A marching band could precede me and my home room teacher Mr. Jericho wouldn’t notice. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his students whereabouts, it’s just that he is eighty-seven years old and practically deaf.

I walk causally through the empty hallways, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, making my way to the farthest corner of the school, the North quad. Besides housing most of the freshman home rooms, it also houses the world’s grimiest bathroom. That fact would have deterred me from using it, but there was one very important reason why the bathroom that really wasn’t more than a cold, concrete box was my hiding spot. No one ever used it. It was my own private oasis.

I walk in expecting someone to occupy one of the three stalls. As always I’m left alone. I shut and lock the door behind him looking for some privacy

I sit with my back to the door and sigh heavily.

“How did I get here?” I say to no one in particular, obviously. I close my eyes tight against the harsh flourescent lights, and think back to two months previous.

***

I would have never been caught dead in this bathroom. Two months earlier I had friends, friends I cared about and who I thought cared about me. Two months earlier when my life was damn near perfect.

But life isn’t perfect, it’s often ugly and messy. Especially when you superstar basketball player breaks up with you very publicly in the middle of the caf. He said he met someone else, a prep school skank who he “connected” with on levels that me and him just didn’t. In layman’s terms, she put out and I didn’t. I thought my friends would rush to my side, would comfort me, and tell me what a loser he was for dumping such a great gal in such a harsh way.

But they didn’t rush to my side, they didn’t comfort me. When I made my way to our table, they quietly picked up their trays and left me standing there, mascara streaking down my cheeks. I ditched the rest of the day, curled up in bed, and cried myself to sleep.
When I woke up the following day, something had changed. I was over my ex boyfriend, over my ex friends, and over the person I was. I pretended to be someone I wasn’t for way too long.

I didn’t wait around for Kenzie to call. I didn’t wait around for her to tell me get dressed so we could hit the mall for some serious retail therapy. I didn’t wait because deep down I knew she wouldn’t call.

That was the day I stopped caring. Stopped caring about what people thought of me, stopped caring about the things that weren’t worth caring about, stopped caring about the people I once cared so much for. I didn’t care that I wasn’t good enough for their group.
I realized in the midst of tears and anger the night before that my friends really weren’t my friends. The girls I shared secrets with, were people I suddenly couldn’t trust. The girls I thought would always stand by me, were suddenly no where in sight. And why? Beecause I no longer had a cool basketball player boyfriend.

Instead of hitting up the botiques I once longed for, I found a Good Will store. I bought low ride bell bottoms, flannel shirts that would make Kurt Cobain green with envy, a wicked pair of eggplant colored t-strap Doc Marten’s, and tons more. I grabbed from every rack around me.

“Can I donate some clothes?” I asked the woman manning the register? She looked up from the trashy romance novel she was reading, dog-eared the page and looked me over. She judged me instantly, a rich girl rebelling. But this wasn’t a rebellion it was a revolution!

“Honey, look around you! Everything is donated,” she snarled back.

I heaved my findings on the counter, she rang me up. I went back to the dressing room that was really nothing more than a closet covered with a shower curtain I was certain was see through. I changed as quickly as possible, hoping no one would catch a flash of flesh.

On the way I dropped the one hundred-dollar jeans, the polo shirt worth a small country, and the oversized sunglasses I once cherished.

“Donations,” was all I said as I flew out the door, letting the bells chime behind me.

I stopped off at a bakery a few store fronts down from the Good Will. The window boasted a pumpkin spiced donut that I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for anything pumpkin spiced. As I chased the first donut with a tall glass of whole milk the girl behind the counter brought over another donut.

“You look like you could use another,” she said placing the plate down on the wooden table.

I pulled out a few crumpled dollars from the new hoodie I was wearing.

“It’s on the house,” she said, winking, and returning to her station behind the counter.

“Thanks,” I said, but she didn’t turn around, didn’t acknowledge it. As I left the empty bakery I slipped a five in the tip jar.

When I got home that night I cleared out my closet, throwing articles of clothing this way and that, replacing the Lauren polos with Veruca Salt t-shirts and Abercrombie fitted skinny jeans with already broken in black cords. The flip-flops, wedges, and sparkling heels flew out of the closet and into the heap on the floor. They were quickly replaced with second-hand Doc Marten’s, and several black pairs of practically new Chuck Taylors.

This closet full of Good Will clothing represented the girl I was on the inside, the girl who was itching to come out, the girl I finally unleashed. I walked into the bathroom that was connected to my oversized bedroom, picked up a pair of scissors, and began hacking off chunks of hair.

When I walked into school the Monday after my revolution that’s when the stares, the whispers, and the notes started.

***

I must have fallen asleep propped up against the bathroom door. When I wake, the lunch bell is ringing. I’ve missed Chemistry and American History. I pick myself off the floor and unwillingly leave my bathroom sanctuary. I make a bee-line for the North parking lot where my midnight Chevy Malibu is parked.

Once outside I stand in front of my car, staring at the note. It’s written on pastel pink paper. She’s slipping. This note isn’t as clever as all the rest. I slide on top of the car, snatch the note, fold it neatly, and put it in my hoodie pocket. I take out my brown bagged lunch containing a cherry vanilla cola, a granny smith apple, a small container of honey roasted chunky peanut butter, and a Twinkie.
I sit on the hood of my car and eat my lunch, enjoying the silence. The lot is a deserted sea of cars. No one ever eats their lunch out here, mainly because it isn’t allowed. I finish my apple and peanut butter first, purposely saving the Twinkie for last.

“Is this seat taken?” Frankie Perez says suddenly appearing before me and my car. I don’t respond. Instead, I move the crumpled brown bag away from the spot next to me as to indicate he is free to sit if he wants to. He slides smoothly next to me.

“I hate eating in there,” he says attempting to make conversation. I nod in agreement. The cafeteria is gross.

“You know, I left a french fry on the ledge of the chalkboard freshman year. It’s still there.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why’d you do that?”

“As a sort of science experiment. I pride myself on being somewhat of a science wiz, you know.”

“I didn’t know.”

“You never bothered to get to know that is.”

“You never bothered either.”

He pulls a partially smoked cigarette from the folded cuff sleeve of his white v-neck shirt. He takes a puff or two, and then leaned back on his elbow. I take the Twinkie out of the bag, unwrap it, and break it in half. Noticing that Frankie Perez doesn’t have anything to eat, I offer him the broken off half. He takes it and smiles at me.

“What it say this time?”

“See for yourself,” I said taking the carefully folded note from my hoodie pocket.

“Nice flannel lesbo,” he read aloud, handing the note back to me. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly.

“I don’t need your sympathy.”

“I know you don’t.” He looks me square in the eye. “You shouldn’t be treated that way.” He slips off the hood and saunters away. He mutters something inaudible. I ask what he said, but he just keeps on walking, leaving me there confused and unnerved.

I head to lit class after lunch, the only class that is worth my time. Within minutes of the bell ringing I sit in my assigned seat. I’m early, which is unusual for me. But I want to speak to Frankie Perez. Not just want to, but need to. Besides home room this is the only other class he and I share. But he doesn’t show. Not when the bell rings, not even when Mr. Haiber hands back our In Cold Blood essays at the end of class. Any other day this wouldn’t have bothered me. But today, it does.

Frankie Perez is AWOL. I don’t see him, not even a glimpse in the hallway for the rest of the day. When I push and shove my way to my locker, I find yet another note. But this time it’s not cruel, it’s not from her. On a scrap of paper with scribbled science notes on the back, the note reads:

“Call me. 732-171-1711.”

I know who left the note, Frankie Perez. But I don’t know why he left it, or why he wants me to call him, or why he’s even interested in talking to me. I dig around in my bag trying to find my cell phone that is most likely buried at the bottom of the bag. When I fish it out, it’s dead. It usually is. Why bother charging it when no one ever bothers to call.

When I get home I sit myself at one of the bar stools that surrounds the center island. I stare at the phone from my perch. I don’t understand why calling Frankie Perez is so enthralling, yet so nerve wracking. I’ve called guys before, but never a guy like him.
I pick up the receiver and dial. The line on the other end picks up on the second ring, as if someone was sitting by and waiting for the phone to ring.

“Hello,” I said tentatively, not sure who was on the other end of the line.

“Meet me at school, at nine sharp.”

“Frankie Perez?”

“Meet me at nine sharp,” he replies before hanging up.

I’m restless for the rest of the afternoon. I pace my bedroom for hours on end. Why does he want me to meet him? And why at school? Why does Frankie Perez even care about me? At this point I’m not one hundred percent certain I’m even going to meet him.

But hours later I find myself walking to the school. I walk for two very specific reasons. One I’m not entirely sure of what exactly I’m meeting Frankie Perez for. And two, I’m sure whatever it is could lead us both into some trouble. The darkness outside is all-consuming, and it unnerves me. I quicken my pace, cut through a deserted parking lot full of overgrown weeds, take whatever shortcut there is to get to the school. When I get there twenty minutes later, Frankie Perez is waiting for me. I’m several feet away, and can’t make out any features, but I know it’s him.

I approach slowly, in case my instincts of who the shadowed is. I don’t want anyone other than Frankie Perez to know I’m here. When I’m closer, I’m certain it’s him. The beam of light streaming from the lone street light shines on his face, as if illuminating his perfectly sculpted face.

“You came,” he says instead of hello. A thread of shocked woven into his naturally steady voice.

“You said to meet you here at nine, didn’t you?”

“I did. But that doesn’t mean you would actually show.”

“It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t either.”

“You’re a lot braver than people give you credit for, you know that?”

“I do,” I answer nonchalantly.

“Well brave girl, let’s go.”

I don’t ask what we’re up to. I don’t question any of Frankie Perez’s motives, no matter how good or bad they be. I don’t question my own judgement or lack thereof. I just follow, trusting in this boy I’ve only really known for one day.

We stop just outside the gymnasium’s sealed doors. Through the open windows the sounds of ‘rah, rah, sis, boom, bah’ wafts out. I stop in my tracks, frozen with fear. Frankie Perez doesn’t notice I’m not longer at his side.

Through clenched teeth, I whisper “What are we doing here?”

“Do you trust me?”

I stare doe eyed at him, taken aback by his question.

“Do you trust me?” He prods on.

“Y-y-yes.”

“Than do so,” he said turning his back to me, striding to the unlocked door. I quickly trailed him, and when inside the empty hallway, closed the door silently behind me.

“This way,” Frankie Perez says heading towards the janitor’s closet that’s located just feet past the gymnasium door. Frankie Perez knocks three times on the closed-door. From the other side I can hear someone shuffling about in the small room. The door opens and a taller version of Frankie Perez appears before my eyes.

“This is my brother Alex. Here’s the night janitor here.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say extending a hand to shake. He just looks at my pale hand and leaves it hanging there.

“Here,” Alex says shoving a few buckets and a few bottles of some identifiable liquids. “Now get lost before you get me fired.” He turns and closes the door behind him.

“Follow me,” Frankie Perez.

“Not until you tell me what we’re doing here?”

“Painting the roses red,” he replies with a slick smile. Before I have time to question what this actually mean, Frankie continues,”My brother rigged up fish line over and around the gym doors. All we have to do is full the buckets, lift them over the door frames, tie a part of the line to the door handles, and wait and watch.”

“What’s this red stuff?” I ask holding up a label-less bottle.

“Red food dye. It’s harmless if consumed, but will ultimately dye their skin.”

We set to work, I fill one bucket while Frankie fills the other. When both are full of the think red food coloring, I watch Frankie Perez finish knotting and hoisting. From inside the gym, I hear the coach calling it a night. Sneakers screech on the gym floor, shuffling from one point to another. Frankie Perez grabs hold of my hand, and pulls me to a dark spot just around the corner. A spot where we could see but wouldn’t be seen.

We wait for what seems like forever, but in reality is only five minutes. I silently hope and pray that the girls the red dye is meant for walk out first. As luck would have it the Roses walk out first, the three of them, gym bags slung over their shoulders, the arms linked to one anothers. Kenzie, Karman, and Kaycee.

The moment they step through the door, the buckets above topple over to the side, emptying the red, gooey contents on top of their heads. They’re shocked, frozen in the spot they stand in, dripping head to toe with red dye, and screaming. They spit, sputter, and curse. Furious that such a travesty has happened to them. The rest of the cheer squad point and laugh at them. I slap a hand over my mouth in a solid effort to keep my own laughter at bay.

As they begin to wipe away the excess dye I can see their pale skin has a deep red tint to it. Victory is sweet!

Frankie Perez begins to move, but I don’t follow. I too am frozen in this spot, wanting to see this unfold. But I can’t stay rooted there.
I hurry towards Frankie Perez. Together we walk down the dark hallway to the South quads entrance/exit. We slip out the door, and are greeted by the brightness of the parking lot’s street lights.

“Thank You Frankie Perez.”

“You’re welcome Kimberly Johnson.”

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