The Recovery - Danielle Wilkinson (SEA selection)
Utter Innocence - Kamryn Koble (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)
What's the Worth of a Soul? - Chelsea Keen (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)
The World Isn't Ours Anymore - Grace Hartman (High School Creative Writing Contest winner)
As soon as I saw a pair of torn up Converse step through the door, I let out a sigh of relief. Good, they brought in someone young. The young counselors were much easier to deceive; it was the older ones, with more experience, who often saw through my lies. And I couldn’t let that happen today. The young man who came in couldn’t have been much older than 25. He had curly brown hair, light green eyes and a face riddled with blemishes resembling acne scars. In his hand was a clipboard with what had to be holding at least 30 pages. The first page had my name across the top. As we greeted each other I wondered if he told his kindergarten class he wanted to be a rehab counselor when he grew up.
He sat on the couch opposite of me and looked over the first page. “I see you’ve been at the Bright Side Rehabilitation Center for four months.”
I smiled and nodded. Four months too long.
“If you are released today who will pick you up?”
“My social worker, Beth.”
“Cool,” he nodded. “Your counselors say you’ve been sharing more frequently during group therapy, you are never late to any meals or exercise sessions, you completed all of your court assigned community service hours within the first two months and you seem happier and more positive than you did when you were first admitted. Do you feel like you have made progress since being here?”
“Absolutely,” I said smiling. “I realize now what I did was wrong and I have no intentions of making that mistake again.”
“That’s good to hear, Rosabelle,” he said. “We appreciate your determination to get better, even if it wasn’t your choice to be here.” Damn right it wasn’t.
I thanked him politely. He flipped to a new page and skimmed over it. “It says here you were very stubborn during your first few weeks. You argued with doctors, resisted medication and refused to go to group therapy.” I fiddled with the bright green wristband on my left wrist that had the clinic’s cheesy logo written across it: Bright Side Rehabilitation, Where we always look on the bright side! Those were definitely not my best moments, but this place was awful. The food was disgusting and always portioned, the therapists used baby talk during counseling sessions and they took away my phone. They should have been counseling me for a phone addiction instead of a drug addiction because that was seriously the worst part of all of this. Okay, maybe not worse than detox. But I stopped being stubborn because I realized I needed a new strategy if I was ever going to get my phone back and get the hell out of here. So, I played along, did their little group activities, even smiled with teeth. And now I was here, about to be discharged, so it must have worked.
“Do you think your anger during that time was a side effect of your addiction?”
I raised my eyebrows. I really wished everyone would stop calling it an addiction. Everyone craves something whether it be coffee, sugar, exercise or whatever. So, I craved cocaine a little bit. What’s their deal? “No, I think anger is just a side effect of being abandoned at birth.” And getting slapped with a shitty name like Rosabelle. At the very least my birth mother could have left a note explaining why in the hell that name was her first choice.
His face molded into a sympathetic expression. “I’m so sorry. They told me you were in foster care but I didn’t know…”
“It’s okay, really,” I interrupted. I was just trying to deter him away from the addiction thing but I slipped up. Stay in character, you’re smiley, positive Rosa right now, not cynical, bitter Rosa, I chided myself. People always wanted to know more about that part of my life and asked way too many questions about it. And I really didn’t want him to slow down on the release procedure for any reason. I folded my hands in my lap, sat up straight and smiled, “What’s the next question?”
I heaved my duffle bag into the trunk of Beth’s red Toyota before sliding into the passenger seat.
Beth’s dark hair was up in a neat bun and she wore a black dress with a grey blazer. Her skin glowed golden brown in the bright midday sun.
“Look at you,” she exclaimed. “You look wonderful. How do you feel?”
I frowned. “Glad to be alive.” I was happy I didn’t need to pretend anymore.
She rolled her eyes at my exaggeration. “Well, can I hug you? I know how you feel about hugs but it’s been so long.”
“I guess,” I said reluctantly. She pulled me into a hug immediately. My social worker was the one constant in my life of uncertainty and four months was definitely the longest we had gone without seeing each other.
She asked me about my experience in the rehab center and I told her the Cliff notes. It wasn’t something I wanted to relive.
When she finally realized she wasn’t going to get much out of me, she moved on. “Now let me tell you about your new foster parents before we arrive at their house,” I scrunched up my face, “Don’t give me that look Rosa, I think you’ll like this family.” Had she forgotten that she has said that about every family she’s matched me with?
“I’m not interested,” I muttered resting my head against the passenger seat window observing the busy streets of Philadelphia.
Then she began her thirty-second elevator pitch on why they were just perfect for me. “The Turners have been foster parents for over 20 years. They have successfully brought up seven kids including one of their own,” she continued. “They’re excellent at handling…”
“Problem kids?” I guessed.
“I was going to say, kids who have been in the system for a long time,” she corrected. “They understand that you haven’t had it easy.” I rolled my eyes. Why were adults always claiming to understand things they could never really understand?
“Just please give them a chance. They have an adorable little house in Fairhill…”
I shot up from the window. “Beth, you can't be serious.” But her eyes told me she was completely serious. Fairhill was in my old school’s district. “You're actually sending me back to that school? They hate me there!”
“If there was any better option I would have chosen it for you,” she reasoned. “It’s your senior year, they know exactly which classes you need to make up. The school was very generous to let you return, especially after everything that happened last year. You start Monday.” Today was Friday.
“I’m not going back to that stupid school and I’m not living with a stupid family in Fairhill. Families have never worked out for me anyway.”
Her grip tensed on the steering wheel. “You are going back to that school,” she said. “And families never work out for you because you always push them away.”
“I only push them away because they could care less about me. Foster family 5 didn’t give a f-.”
“Language,” she warned. “The Jones’ didn’t believe you were a good fit for them because you didn’t let them care for you. How does running out with your boyfriend in the middle of the night, doing God knows what, let them care. How does not answering phone calls and missing every family dinner let them care? You didn’t want them to care, Rosa.”
I stared at her sharply, she knew she crossed a line. But she continued, “I’m sorry but I’m trying. I really am. But I can’t do all of the work. The family I match you with cannot do all the work. You need to give a little for this to happen. I want you to be a part of a family that cares about you and who you care about too. You just need to be open to that.”
“I don’t need a family Beth,” I said quietly. “I can take care of myself.”
She looked down at my bright green wristband, “Obviously, you can’t.”
I wrapped my fingers around the wristband and tore it off.
We pulled up to a red bricked row house, common around the Philadelphia inner city. Beth took my duffle out of the trunk and handed it to me. Suddenly a couple burst through the door of the house. They looked like there were in their 50s.
They both had dark skin, though the woman was much shorter and had dark ear length hair. She was wearing a long floral dress with an apron over it that appeared to have chocolate stains on it. The man was taller with flecks of grey in his hair, he wore a red cap and a white Phillies jersey. Great, my new foster parents are Jackie Robinson and black Betty Crocker.
“Welcome to our home, Rosabelle,” said Mrs. Turner walking up to me. I cringed at the sound of my full name.
“Everyone calls me Rosa,” I quickly corrected.
“Oh, well that’s a pretty name too,” she said. I extended my arm for a handshake but she pulled me into a tight hug instead. Shit, they’re huggers, I thought as Mr. Turner pulled me into a hug right after Mrs. Turner released me. I glared at Beth over his shoulder. Be nice, she mouthed to me. Mr. Turner released me and took my bag from me, “Let’s go inside.”
The overwhelming smell of chocolate and frosting hit me as we walked into the small house. The kitchen was a mess of bowls, flour and chocolate chips. In the midst of the mess was a plate of chocolate frosted cupcakes. The kitchen meshed into the living room where the TV was on playing highlights of the last Phillies game against the Reds. Lined on the fireplace were pictures of several different kids of all ages and races. There were high school and college graduation photos, sports photos, crummy school photos and some more casual Polaroid photos.
Mrs. Turner quickly grabbed a cupcake from the kitchen, handed it to me and said, “Rosa, we want you to feel like you’re a part of the family. So whatever you need just let us know. We want you to have the most positive experience possible while you’re here.”
I licked the top of my cupcake glancing between the two of them. “That’s nice of you, it really is but I’m almost 18,” I explained. “I’m sorry but I’m not looking for a family. I just need a place to eat and sleep every day after school. So you don’t have to waste your hugs and your sentimental family stuff on me, I don’t need it.” Then I remembered my manners, “Thank you for the cupcake.
The Turners didn’t bother me for the rest of the weekend. They let me eat my meals in my room and watch TV. They didn’t say a word when I walked around the neighborhood for a full hour without telling them where I was going. I figured they must be using the “let them come to you” approach. I’d seen it before. It was almost laughable that they believed it would work on me. Whenever it did look like they were going to start a real conversation with me I pulled out my phone and pretended to text and they would back off. But it was always pretend texting. The yearning I had for my cellphone while in rehab had all but faded. Phones lose their appeal very quickly when you realize you have no one to talk to. The longest interaction I had with the Turners was on Sunday night when they played a game of Scrabble in the living room after dinner. What an old people game. They asked me if I wanted to join, I told them I needed to get some rest before my execution day. And that was that.
Beth had to half drag me through the doors of Frankford High Monday morning. To our surprise, there were policemen waiting on the other side with a large metal detector. Beth and I exchanged glances, she was thinking the same thing as me. This was new. Was it because of me? I wondered.
The police told us to put our belongings on the conveyer belt. We did what they said and passed through the detectors without a problem. There were barely any students in the hall, to my relief, as it was still pretty early. Though the few kids we passed who recognized me did a double take to make sure they were seeing correctly or shot me the type of glare I was expecting to see a lot today.
Beth walked ahead of me leading us towards the principal’s office. This was probably one of the interactions I was dreading the most today. Principal Peterson hated me. I was definitely no stranger to his office, whether it was for use of profanity, ditching class or the occasional disorderly conduct due to intoxication. (It wasn’t my fault foster family 4 kept their liquor on display).
The woman at the front desk led us to his office when we arrived. He looked exactly how I remembered him. Round in every way, face and body. And a bald head perpetually beaded with sweat, at least whenever I was around. He was massaging his shoulder muscles when we walked in. I noticed early sophomore year that he would always do something like that before I entered his office: massage his neck muscles, stretch his arms out, or roll his neck from side to side as if I were a literal pain in his neck. Maybe I was. Maybe I still am.
He flashed me a wide smile and said, “I’m so glad you’re back with us Rosabelle.” Sure you are.
I chose to not play along, “I’m so glad to be back, Principal Peterson. I almost didn’t survive not hearing your corny jokes on the intercom each morning.”
Beth glared at me hard but Principal Peterson maintained his plastic grin. “It’s good to see your sense of humor returned with you as well. I asked you in because I wanted to let you know what I will be expecting from you this year,” said Peterson. “You will need to maintain at least a C average all year long. Missing any classes at all without a physical, hand-written excuse from Beth or your foster parents will result in immediate expulsion. Drug possession or arriving at school high or intoxicated will also result in immediate expulsion. More than three visits to me will also result in immediate expulsion.”
I looked at Beth in disbelief. This was extremely harsh, even for Principal Peterson. “You can’t be serious,” I blurted.
“You’ve been given a gift Rosabelle,” he said. “The gift of a second and last chance. All I’m asking is that you don’t abuse it.”
Nothing about this situation feels like a “gift.” Beth handed me my class schedule once we left the office and gave me a long hug. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours, okay?” she said. “Be the good kid I know you can be.” And then she was gone. It’s time to be brave Rosa, I told myself. But brave Rosa didn’t want to come out today. The last time she came out was in court and she was still recovering. I walked forward regardless, toward first period. I’ll just have to act like her until she decides to show up.
The news that I had returned spread like wildfire. The double takes occurred less and less but the glares increased. Even the freshmen were being told about me. When I went to my locker after first period, I heard a girl whisper to a boy who had the type of baby face only a freshman could have.
“That’s her,” the girl whispered about as quietly as a train whistle.
I tugged on my imaginary dress and curtseyed in their direction, “The one and only.” The boy looked embarrassed that I had overheard, but the girl just gave me a disgusted look.
Second and third period were full of students shooting me the usual glares. But by 4th period, the glares had turned into curses and snickers. This actually ticked me off because we were in calculus and I really liked math. But today, I couldn’t concentrate. When the teacher turned to write on the board, something hit my neck and fell into my chair. A note. I reached for it and opened it up. Through the scraggly writing I made out the words: You should go kill yourself, you’d do everyone a favor. Then there was a stick figure drawing of me with a knife in my neck and blood spurting out. How mature. I balled it up then turned around to see who wrote it. I recognized the three junior boys from the varsity basketball team. Of course it was them.
I was relieved when 4th period ended. I heard a roar of laughter from a group of students in the hall hanging out by the lockers. I recognized a girl with dark skin, short black hair and her signature bright red lipstick. Whitney. As I walked closer I saw Tina, Andres and all the others. The people who used to be my friends.
They all shifted as I approached and their conversation faded to silence.
“Who let this bitch back into Frankford?” hissed Whitney to Tina.
“I don’t know, probably the same person who let you buy that shade of red,” I replied almost automatically. Her eyes narrowed and I immediately regretted it. “Look Whit, I don’t want to fight. I just want to have a peaceful senior year, okay?” I held out my hand. She ignored it.
“You should have thought of that before you decided to go and run yo mouth last year,” she replied. “Don’t come near me again snitch.” She pushed passed me and all of the people who used to be my friends stared at me like I was a traitor and followed after her.
“Thanks a lot for regionals, snitch,” spat Tina as she left.
I caught sight of Andres leaving with the crowd. He always understood me better than anyone. I intercepted him. “Why didn’t you ever text me?”
His dark eyes regarded me coldly. “What you did last year wasn’t cool, Ro,” he said. “That ain’t how we do it here, you know that. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs.”
“I do, I do,” I insisted. But he was already backing away from me, towards Whit, towards the others.
He raised his arms in a large shrug, “I don’t know if I believe that anymore. See ya ‘round, Ro.”
The bell rang signaling lunch. Perfect, I thought. I got validation that everyone in the school did indeed hate me, all before lunch period.
There were more glares and whispers as I walked through the cafeteria. I didn’t even try to look for my ex-friends to sit with. I finally found a lonely table in the corner of the room. I started picking at my salad trying to decide which was worse, cafeteria food or rehab center food. A girl came up to me with her tray full of spaghetti and meatballs. Her pale blonde hair was up in a high ponytail, she wore a red polka dot shirt and matching red rimmed glasses that looked straight from the 50s. Her pink skirt reached all the way to her knees and she wore ankle high socks with her Mary Jane flats. She looked absolutely like a grandma.
"Hi, is anyone sitting here?" She asked in the type of bubbly tone I would expect from someone who dressed the way she did.
"Nope," I answered.
She took that as an invitation and sat beside me. "I'm Pixie Porters," she said holding out her hand. "What's your name?"
I stared at her in disbelief. Was that her real name? I couldn’t believe I finally met someone with a name worse than mine. But more importantly, "You're talking to me?"
She looked around as if she got caught breaking a rule, then leaned closer to me and whispered, "Should I not be?"
I smiled a real smile for the first time today, "I’m Rosa and you must be new."
"Yeah I am, how did you know?"
"If you were here last year, you probably wouldn't be talking to me."
"Why not?” I raised my eyebrows. “Oh right, you would prefer not to tell me." I nodded. She catches on quick.
I decided to change the subject. “I’m just glad it’s my last year here. Hopefully I can be on a beach somewhere far away from this place next year.”
“That sounds really nice,” she said. “It’s my senior year also. I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere beachy next year though; my parents are making me apply to U Penn.”
“Wait, why did you switch schools for your senior year?”
“I have five brothers and sisters and we just moved to the suburbs into a bigger house to make room for my new sister on the way.”
“Wow, five brothers and sisters, I can’t even imagine…” I told her.
“Yeah, it’s a big family but I love them to death.” She suddenly leaned toward me excitedly. “Want to see them?” Before I even answered, she took out her rainbow wallet and started sifting through pictures. “Here they are.” She held up a small photo of her family at the beach. They were all wearing white.
She pointed to the two middle school-aged girls sitting in front of everyone. “These are my sisters, Gypsy and Sage.” She pointed to two boys who looked elementary school-aged “My brothers Rogue and Tiger and baby Starla is on the way. I guess we’ll have to take another photo soon,” she giggled. Her family definitely hit the jackpot of shitty names. And damn, do her parents know the meaning of contraceptive? They were all huddled together on the sand as if they were caught engaging in a big group hug. Pixie was sitting right next to her mom. They looked almost identical: same green eyes, pale hair and wide smile. I wondered which traits I had taken from my mother. I didn’t have many clues to go off since she never left a picture or contact information. But Beth told me the people at the hospital said she was incredibly young and couldn’t have been older than 15. I knew she had to be tall since I stood at about 5’6”. But I could have gotten that from my dad, whom I knew even less about. The most I knew about them were the names written on my birth certificate. My mother had to have my dark skin; maybe she also had my same dark almond shaped eyes, or thick medium length hair, or full lips.
“Are you an only child?” Pixie asked snapping me out of my thoughts.
“I’m a foster kid, actually.”
Her eyes widened, “I am so, so sorry.”
It’s okay.” I said. “If being a foster kid has taught me anything it’s that I’m not special. There are thousands of kids in the same position as me and there will probably be thousands more. It happens all the time.”
She stared at me the way most people did when I said things like that. No one expects that kind of attitude from a foster kid. We’re expected to see ourselves as victims and our situation as unfair. Yeah, it’s pretty unfair but that’s life. And if we always see ourselves as victims, how on earth are we supposed to live?
The bell sounded for fifth period, I gathered my stuff and stood up. “If you want any chance of having a decent reputation at this school, you should probably stay away from me from now on.”
I did my best to avoid gazes while walking to fifth period but I could still feel burning glares on me. I almost ran into a boy by his locker. I looked up briefly to apologize but the words got caught in my throat. I was face to face with Little Jeremiah Johnson. Or more like face to elbow, he wasn’t so little anymore. In the four months I had been away, he must have grown a lot. His normally caramel skin tone had darkened from the summer sun and his large afro had been reduced to a square young-Will Smith-like cut. He looked a lot like his brother now, which sent tremors of pain to my heart. I didn’t expect to see him here but I realized eighth graders grow up and then they go to high school.
"Jeremiah, how are you? How is...he?" I said quietly.
He frowned. "You don't have to act like you give a shit about us, everyone knows you only care about yourself?"
I was taken aback by his hostility. "I care about your brother a lot, you know that."
He slammed his locker and turned to me. "Why did you take the plea deal then?"
I stayed silent. Would he believe me if I told him the truth? Probably not. Jeremiah only saw his brother the basketball star, not his brother the junkie. Drake made sure of that. And who would I be to ruin that? Even if he did only see the illusion.
He shook his head. "Because it’s better to snitch and send someone else’s ass to juvie instead of going yourself, right?" He paused for a moment giving me a chance to respond but I couldn’t find the words. He was the first person today to make me speechless. “Have a good life.” I stood in the hallway motionless as he stomped away from me.
I headed to my locker after the final bell rang, but something was different, there was a huge crowd around it. I pushed through people to get a better look. Written on my locker were the words #snitchbitch. It was written in bright red lipstick. Everyone was laughing and taking pictures of me as well as the locker. I clenched my hands into fists so hard, I felt my nails ripping into my skin. I looked around for Whitney, that color was definitely her shade. She was leaning against the wall a few feet away with the rest of my ex-friends. When our eyes met she gave me a devious smirk. As if things could get any worse, she started chanting.
“Snitch bitch, snitch bitch, snitch bitch!” Tina was the first to chant with her and then everyone else around me joined in, I was furious. My eyes met Andres.’ He looked apologetic but he didn’t say anything, he didn’t even try to defend me. I couldn’t believe it. Teachers began filing out of their classrooms to break up the commotion as an arm looped through mine and tugged me out of the crowd. Pixie. I didn’t fight her, she quickly led us down the hall and pushed on the doors of the girl’s bathroom.
I sunk to the floor and leaned my head against the wall. How could stupid high school students make me feel so small? Pixie wadded up some toilet paper from the first stall, she crouched down and tried to hand it to me. I shook my head.
“It’s okay, there’s no one here if you need to cry,” she said.
“I don’t cry,” I replied.
She didn’t look convinced but she let it go. She rested the toilet paper on the counter and slid down beside me. We sat in silence for a moment.
“I told you to stay away from me,” I said.
“They’re probably going to be mean to you now too.”
“Yeah, probably,” she said calmly.
“Are you really that stupid? Why would you do that to yourself?” the words came out much harsher than I meant for them to.
She pushed up her red glasses that were starting to fall down her nose. “Look, I don’t need a good reputation, but it looks like you need a good friend right now. Why are you fighting me so hard?” Because no one has ever done something like that for me before, because no one in the world is ever nice without wanting something in return.
“Do you really want to be friends with the ‘snitch bitch’?”
“Yeah, because she didn’t make fun of my clothes or my glasses. She let me sit with her at lunch, she was nice.” Pixie was weird, like really weird. She dressed like Sandy from Grease (pre-transformation), she was way too enthusiastic for someone who basically chose a prison as her new school and she never stopped talking.
But this was the first time I realized that maybe she was having as hard of a transition as I was. We were both having issues being accepted. She gave me a small smile and stood up. “But if you don’t want to be my friend, I get it, I guess. I’ll see what I can do about getting that lipstick off your locker.”
“You don’t have to…”
“I want to.”
Dammit. Why’d she have to be such a good person? “Wait,” I said. She stopped at the door. “I guess we can try out this friend thing.” She smiled wide. I couldn’t help but smile back.
When I finally walked out of the bathroom, the halls were all but empty. I had about a billion texts from Beth asking me where I was, I ignored them. I wanted to be by myself a little longer. I passed by the line of lockers to see a janitor scrubbing away the last of the #snitchbitch off of mine.
I kept walking but stopped short when I saw a familiar glass case. There were large basketball trophies, pictures and ribbons. There was a regional championship trophy for every year from 1997 up to 2014. The trophy from last year was missing. I peered closer through the glass. There was a picture of the 2015 team. And then I saw him. Underneath his photo read Drake Johnson. I hadn’t seen him smile in a long time, I missed his dimples. My eyes began to burn with the sensation of tears. The last time I saw him was in the courtroom after giving my testimony. He looked absolutely betrayed. He was the most talented, most handsome, most popular boy I knew with the most promising future in the NBA and I ruined it all for him. I ruined his chances at college basketball, I ruined Frankford’s chances at winning regionals, and I ruined our relationship.
All because I didn’t want to see him blackout again. I didn’t want to end another night debating whether or not to call an ambulance. I didn’t want to hold onto his wrist and feel his pulse beat slower and slower. I didn’t want to see him continue to test his body to the limit, even if it made him feel alive. Even with my cravings I was always more controlled than him, he never knew when to stop. I didn’t want him to die. So I told them about the cocaine and steroids in his basement, I told them the names of all thirteen kids he was selling to including the seven basketball players. I even told them about the thousands of dollars in drug money he was keeping in his car. I pressed my head to the case and let tears trickle down the glass. Drake was the one everyone loved; he was the basketball star; he was the best. I was just the foster kid, the trouble maker, the selfish girl. I was the bitch who snitched.
Beth asked me about school, but I kept silent. I could tell she felt guilty, I wanted to tell her it wasn’t her fault high school kids were awful or that my ex-boyfriend hated me. But I couldn’t speak, my entire body felt heavy, yet empty. She filled the silence with stories about her day at work. I barely listened. Mrs. Turner saw my red eyes when I walked through the door and gasped. “Oh Rosa, what happened?”
Drake Johnson happened. Last year, for some reason, he chose me and then I ruined him. I ruined everything. I thought of how Beth had said I always ruined my chances of having a family. I was starting to believe her.
The Turners couldn’t get any words out of me either I went straight to my room and collapsed on my bed. I buried my head in the pillow. I need a hit. I knew that wasn’t going to happen but I wanted this day to disappear. Since rehab, the cravings were nearly gone but I was afraid that the void it left me with—the void that made me start using in the first place, the void I was feeling now—would never disappear. That's why when I came to Drake the day foster family 4 kicked me out and he offered me my first drag, I took it. “It makes you forget for a while,” he told me. I needed to forget how it felt to be unwanted. But the high would eventually vanish, the void would return and I would inhale again.
Hours passed and around 9 o’clock there was a knock at my door. I dragged myself over to it and cracked it open. There was a plate of baked salmon with vegetables. On the plate were the words “R U OK?” in Scrabble letters. I laughed out loud. It was so dumb, I loved it.
“She laughs!” exclaimed Mrs. Turner from the living room.
I took my plate downstairs and saw them playing a game of Scrabble again. The TV was on showing a baseball game between the Mets and The Braves.
“So, is that a yes?” asked Mr. Turner referring to the words on the plate.
“It’s a ‘getting there,’” I replied honestly. I glanced at the screen, “What’s the score?”
“Mets six, Braves three,” he shook his head. “The Braves were in the lead for a long time. I thought they were finally going to take them.”
“Now you know the Braves are always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” I told him. “Their record sucked last year. You should have been rooting for the Mets.”
He smiled, “Do we have a fan over here?”
I shrugged. “My third foster family loved the Mets. We would drive to New York all the time to watch them play.” But that was before I discovered it was more fun to drink a mix of rum and root beer than to ‘root for the home team.’
“Well then, you are welcome to stay and watch the ninth inning with us,” he said.
“You can also play Scrabble with us if you’d like,” offered Mrs. Turner pointing down to the board game. “There’s still room for one more.”
I set the plate down on the kitchen table and wondered, if it was really possible for someone to be a part of a family they weren’t born into? Was it possible people could actually care for you like you were born to them? I wasn’t really even sure what family was. Was it having five brothers and sisters, color coordinating and taking pictures on the beach? Was it going to Mets games? Eating meals together? Or playing an old game that had absolutely no point? Was it just being together? I had no clue. But there had to be a reason why all seven kids in the Turner’s family photos seemed so happy. There had to be a reason why they stayed. I was suddenly willing to find out.
The image of my fingers closing around the throat of the woman I loved, oil paint smearing from my hands onto her, often caught in my mind. The thought was nearly erotic; snuffing her life in a theatre was the ultimate display of irony, and it intoxicated me like none other. Countless lives were acted out here – it was the perfect stage for the grand finale of my Margaret.
A good hundred years ago while I was still a boy, a theater was built and transformed into a house of life. Passion enveloped every soul, enclosing around them like a shroud on a deceased hero. An electricity met with flesh and bone to transform before an intimate gathering of people privileged enough to witness art personified. When the theatre's inevitable closing came about, as culture changed and the people along with it, I was starkly aware of a piece of my soul departing. I blame that piece for my returning, as that building is my muse. It is brought back to life each time I reintroduce artistry to those sacred rooms, creating with paint and blood and love spoiled.
“James.” Her voice causes my forsaken heart to throttle in my chest. “James, what is this?”
If I cleared the thoughts that make it difficult to focus on the present reality, I could see where her horror is rooted. Seats that were once a rich, plush burgundy were torn and devoured by unworthy creatures and vagrants once ripped up the carpet. A statue that was my first glimpse of the pure female form was tarnished: the symmetrical bends of her flesh clothed in cobwebs. The statue was fondly called Mathilda by the thespians of my day – I named my first daughter after her when the child’s mother died giving birth. Despite the girl dying centuries ago, I still ached for her every once in a while when the nights grew too cold. The way that Margaret’s neck sloped into her shoulder reminded me of that girl, and it was the precise moment I knew she would be next.
Her hands were rubbed raw from scrubbing glasses in scalding water, and I knew immediately that she was embarrassed of it by the way she tucked them into the folds of her dress while speaking. Working in her father's bar was all she knew, tied down to countless younger siblings dependent on her. Despite this, her shoulders never slumped with weariness and her eyes remained bright – she had the joy of a child and the maturity of an adult. I found myself returning night after night, blowing my diminishing stack of coins on mediocre ale to converse with her. Being the first to teach her to read and play the piano was so exhilarating it was as if I was able to experience the exonerating skills again myself.
“James, you know how I worry when you…disappear.” I would have disregarded her worry if it were not for the Irish lilt emerging. As she was a fresh immigrant to London in 1832, Margaret was remarkably good at suppressing the tell-tale signs of her birth after years of being English; however, here it was, making an appearance as her hand touched my arm.
Margaret’s hands were reminiscent of my thirteenth lover’s: pale with almost green veins, paper-thin skin stretched across delicate bones. I was so enamored with the thirteenth’s hands that they were what I painted of her before taking her life, the piece of art still leaned against the proscenium. Margaret’s eyes landed on it, and there was a soft intake of breath – poor dear believes it is she I painted. The thought dragged a dry chuckle from my throat.
“How is one able to disappear when they are inhabiting the place they visit most frequently?” I bit back. It was so much easier to ridicule her when I did not have to face the horror of looking in her eyes. They were a shade of juniper as innocent as ivy spreading over a tree and they haunted me when I tried to sleep. “Never mind that. Go, stand. I will place you.”
Those exhilarating rosebud lips parted as if to protest, but she has learned. Bringing about the ending of her life was overdue – I selfishly kept her around longer than all of the other women, the women captured in paintings she must step over to follow my instructions. In my peripheral, I catch a glimpse of that throat, that throat, and a lump of coal clogs my own. No matter how many times I face the righteous task of relieving a woman of earthly pain and suffering, there is a thrill of sorts that burdens me nonetheless.
“You never shared your work with me prior to now,” she murmured, honeyed voice quieting as she surveys the canvases. “You truly are a genius. But why should I be surprised?” The smile I am offered is a stake plunged in my heart. For a solitary moment I entertained a selfish thought – what if I kept her? What if I allowed her to grow old, watched her from a distance as she married a man deserving of her? It did not take long for me to remind myself why I sought out the loveliest of them all. They deserved better than the godforsaken Earth I endured, and it was a cruel twist of fate that I would fall in love with them. It was purely another cross to bear; it was one that I turned into beauty.
“You know nothing,” was the guttural response, words leaving before I had the chance to weigh them. Her skin, the sheet of marble protecting the bones and essence of an exquisite spirit, is a torment to mix on my palette: crimsons and emeralds and eggshells and creams and vanillas and cornflowers simply do not possesses the pure goodness of this woman.
I sold a portrait of the fourth Catherine I loved in order to buy a canvas worthy of having Margaret’s image breathed onto it. When her silhouette is carved in paint, the scarlet of her hair snagged in my brain, and I sucked on the image of it mixing with the scarlet of her blood as if the thought was candy.
She knew better than to speak to me while I work, the dear. It gave me time to appreciate the exquisiteness of her one last time, how much I will miss her when I have nothing but the painting. The memories never take long to fade into worthlessness. The fire and ice imbedded in her would be better quenched by a man who loves her rather than a world who will only forsake her. I cherish Margaret too much to let that happen.
These portraits used to take hours, but as my skill and dedication to committing these women to memory rose, time transformed into liquid to be used purely at my disposal and whim. “May I see?”
For a moment I forgot I should be enjoying my last hour with the woman I whom was irrevocably enamored with, when my cursed voice spoke again, almost against my will.
“In a moment, love.” My steps toward her are slow and deliberate, the hold on the canvas fragile lest I betray the wet paint and her image. “Do you trust me, Margaret?”
I could not be certain what catches her off guard, my words or my hand wrapping around her throat. “Of course I trust you; you are the breath in my lungs.”
She was not the only one able to be startled that day. Occasionally it slipped my mind that I was not the only being cursed with the ability to love another. “Margaret, know that I do this because I love you. Perhaps if God takes pity on me, I shall see you on the other side.”
There was perhaps no greater beauty than the purple prints on her throat, signs of my selflessness and her utter innocence – saved by the sacrifice of mine.
Ducking my head against the cold, I dart across the street in spite of the blaring horn of an automobile attempting to drive past. “I haven’t managed to die yet, you’re in luck,” I inform Molly with a grin. Her arm is tucked through mine, a mere desire for physical intimacy disguised as warding off frigid temperatures.
“You’re too good to die, James,” she croons after a peel of laughter, the sound echoing over the stomps that knock snow off our boots. “And not before I am finally able to see the infamous apartment of yours.”
“All in good time, all in good time.” I pat her hands before our fingers entertwine once again. I know she will be pleased by the books devouring the surfaces, the modern appliances and pristine furniture. She is a scholar, an independent woman caught in a whirlwind of changing times. I do not tell her I once courted in an era where ankles aroused and no respectable woman was seen with her hair down – Molly’s knees and hair that brushed her shoulders were quite alright with me.
Her reaction does not disappoint, until her eyes catch on the one archaic item in my visible possession: an age-worn painting of a woman with scarlet hair and the sickness of love on her face. An Irish woman, one who still terrorizes my dreams as she brushes the bruises on her throat, sadness for nothing but my soul in her features.
“You must’ve paid good money for this,” Molly murmurs, tucking a strand of copper hair behind her ear. I never presented myself as an artist – it did not fit what she was looking for in a partner and as the world improved, I felt less need to save those women. It did not hurt that as time moved on, they also grew less innocent. It was purely a pleasure hobby then, an irreplaceable thrill and reminder of more wholesome times. “It’s truly beautiful, even if I don’t have much taste for art.”
It takes me no more than a moment. “Why don’t I take you to the theatre tonight?”
She holds a towel to her cut hand, watching the red seep into the soft white through the dark room. Her dull expression is illuminated only by the lit candles on the floor in a circular pattern. The room reeks from the awful smelling candles and sigil drawn in her own blood on the floor. Though the thing that stinks the most was the mixture burning in a bowl inside the center of the large symbol. Words of Latin slip past her lips as she closes her eyes, a language she doesn’t completely comprehend roll off her tongue. Her voice trembles as she speaks, but her tone stays firm till the last word is said. She pauses, waiting in the silence. Holding the towel as much as her breath, she opens her eyes to…
To absolutely nothing.
She sighs, frustrated and disappointed, and turns away from the mess. Another failure. Carelessly, she tosses the bloody towel to her clothes basket in the corner of the room. It misses by foot, but she doesn’t care enough to pick it up.
“How messy,” a voice of lavender and sin comments from behind her. She jerks back around to find a finely dressed man propped gracefully on her unmade bed. He’s sitting with his legs crossed fashionably with his hands supporting him up on each side of his frame. The man isn’t looking to her, instead his gaze is flickering around her dark room. For the first time in a long time, the girl feels self-conscious under his judgement.
“It worked?” She whispers, staring wide-eyed at the very proof that it did before her.
“Either that or I’m a serial killer who snuck into your room.” The monster in disguise of man muses, but then frowns in thought. “Actually, the latter would be safer.”
She doesn’t step forward, but is too scared to step back. Taking a deep breath, she tries to steel her nerves the best she can. “I want to make a deal.” She says, trying to sound confident.
The Devil smiles and it sends shivers down the girl’s spine and goosebumps prickle her skin. “Of course you do. Why else would call me? To swap cake recipes?” He sits straighter, entwining his fingers in his lap. “Now,” he begins, “our deal?”
“I don’t need to play a fiddle do I?” The girl asks, cocking her head to a degree.
“Cute,” he sneers behind his smile. Shaking his head, “I just need an agreement and a handshake.”
“And my soul,” she adds when he doesn’t.
He nods. “And your soul.”
“You get to live your apple pie life with your little wish and when it’s all said and done I get my payment for my services. Simple and sweet.” His lips curl into a grin that reminds the girl of a viper coiling around it’s prey and sinking its poisonous fangs into the small rodent’s flesh. “But,” he lifts his finger, chuckling as if he’s making a joke, “No refunds.”
She gulps, but nods in understanding. She has already weighed her options and consequences beforehand. She knows what she’s doing.
“Okay.” She quivers and comes closer. “My wish is…”
“Money? Power? Vengeance? The world’s knowledge at your fingertips?” The Devil guesses, brow raised. “I’ve heard it all before.”
“A friend. I want a friend.” She finishes, looking at the demon before her with hope. She stretches out her hand for him to take.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore.” Even if it means selling her soul on a dotted line.
Lucifer levels her with a look in his eyes that she can’t place, all traces of dark humor gone from his features. He peers at her silently, his impassive stare with the intensity of hellfire and utter madness. She feels such a look strike straight to her very soul he wishes to claim. Calmly, before she can change her mind, he grasps her hand in a firm grip. His touch is cold as death. It makes her gasps, her shuddering breath escaping her lips.
“You will not.” His soft voice booms in the quiet room like thunder, the earth could tremble with it. “You will not any longer.” He promises, leaning in towards her. She does not move as he continues the last of his words.
“I will make sure of it.”
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
My eyes slitted open as the alarm clock in my head registered that I was awake and shut off. I groaned. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of my bed quite yet, and I was content just laying there, staring at the incredibly blue sky with its wispy cirrus clouds lazily floating past. My ceiling was computerized to show what I liked, and it felt nice to feel like I wasn’t in the world I was in for a little while.
But then reality hit me. I had to get out of bed. Brush my teeth and eat my breakfast. Do all the things that sculpted the human race as it is today.
Be prompt, be happy, and let the machines do their jobs. The three staple qualities every human needed to survive and thrive in this world of ours.
Except, in a lot of ways, the world wasn’t ours anymore.
I had been told my whole life that I could be anything I wanted to be. That I could do anything I wanted to do. But I knew they were lying. I said I wanted to be a doctor? They told me there was a machine for that. An astronaut? Covered. A teacher? No more school, hypnotic-style learning through images. I didn’t have to cook for myself, I didn’t have to clean up or worry if I had locked the door or turned off the light. Heck, a machine had delivered me into the world, and a machine had wrapped me up, and a machine had taught me how to ride a bike and brush my teeth. My parents? They were only there to love me, to support me, but not to take care of me. They got all of the good parts of parenting, but skipped all the messy parts.
But, despite my slight resentment towards them, I still loved my parents. I just hated the machines.
So I rolled out of bed, ignoring the floating platform with a brush laying on it. As I opened the door to leave, I heard it whirring to life and knew it would follow me until I ran the brush through my hair.
A sudden onslaught of unexplainable rage took over me as I looked at it. I didn’t want to be controlled by these things. I shouldn’t be controlled by these things. They weren’t living. It wasn’t natural. It hovered there, staring at me with its little red sensor light, picking up on my DNA inscripted sensory receiver. They made each bot that humans could possibly have use for specially designed for a single person, to pick up on only the signals their inscriptor gave out. My inscriptor was implanted in me at birth, kind of like the alarm clock I wake up to every day, except a little more personal. Each person had one, and each person’s was in the same place; because in this new and improved world, the government, overrun by the influence of the scientists, wanted us to believe that there were no secrets they would keep from us. And everybody believed that. There was no reason to be curious. There was no reason to want to know something because everything that was useful to know is transmitted through a bot’s control center. There was no reason for deep thinking and trying to figure out the great mysteries of the world, no reason anymore for a Galileo. No need for an Aristotle or a Socrates. But I was different. I didn’t believe that there were “no secrets” in the relationship between the government and us. I wasn’t blind.
Anyways, the inscriptor was implanted where everyone else’s is, right in the center of our left palm. I’ve stared at it often, wondering what it would be like to not have machines do everything for me. I wanted to learn how to take care of myself. But these creations, like the one bobbing ever so slightly in the air in front of me, refused to let me live a life on my own.
“Go away.” My mumble was just short of a growl, and I repeated my statement over and over again, each time growing louder, each time growing more vicious. My hands itched and clenched at my sides, my anger provoking my body into a state of frenzied need to hit something. I glared murderously at the thing, just levitating there, calmly, because it had no feeling. I didn’t want it anymore.
So I grabbed the stupid thing and chucked it across the room before slamming the door shut. It didn’t make as much of a statement as I wanted it to though, because of the pressurized airlock that shut the door automatically. I could hear a small tapping sound as the brush robot tried to follow me as I shook my head before walking away.
They were everywhere. Doing my laundry, making my breakfast, vacuuming my floor, delivering my coffee. I walked into a room where some of them were, and they all continued performing their duties, even though they had picked up my sensory signals.
There were voices in my head. Robots. The machines were talking to me. But they couldn’t, they didn’t have mouths, they didn’t have brains.
A sweat broke out all over my body, and I felt all the air exit my body, leaving me feeling dizzy and panicked. They weren’t talking. They were just doing the things they were programed to do. But there it was again. A little tiny voice.
Tap, tap, tap. Let me out, you need to brush your hair. Tap, tap, tap. Let me out, you need to brush your hair.
I twirled around the room, the walls tilting this way and that, furniture and air and machines swirling together in some sort of anarchy.
Vroom, vroom, there goes the vacuum!
Black coffee, for his black soul.
All this dirty laundry, all this dirty laundry.
Yummy breakfast wakes you up!
All of the tiny, mechanical voices swirled in my head, and my lungs started burning. My world tilted and I heard screaming. Screaming. Pain in my hand. I looked down to find myself tearing at the inscriptor. Screaming at no one to get it out of me. Then it all went black.
A stereotypical scientist stood at the plexiglass, staring with a thoughtful expression at the simulation machine inside. Another scientist came up beside her, looking at the spot her eyes were fixed on.
“Second time this week he’s tried to rip his inscriptor out of his own hand. He’s not ready. Humans aren’t ready. We have to wean them off of their own dependence slowly. But we can’t do this prematurely, or it won’t work. If Kevin can’t take it for even an hour,” the second scientist said, nodding to the man screaming soundlessly on the machine,” we can’t expect anyone to.” The first scientist said nothing, she just let out a non-descript ‘hm,’ and walked away.
The second scientist bit his lip and flipped up the plexiglass case to turn the machine off. As soon as he did, Kevin stopped struggling. He was asleep again. They’d take him out and try to wean him off of his dependence some more over the next few months before testing him again. This was how it worked here now. He knew how restless the company was to turn the situation in the simulation into reality, minus the whole losing your mind and trying to tear the skin off your own hand incident.
The scientist sighed, silently wishing Kevin luck in life before turning off the lights and walking away.
It was only in the dark that you could see the red light glowing dimly from the center of his left palm.