1. RAMONA DROWNING by Julie Murphy

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        The heat clung to my skin like a bad memory as salt water lapped against my ankles. Even here, on the beach in the early morning hours, summer would not be forgotten. The moon hung in the sky, chasing the horizon, as the sun crept along the waterfront.

        I dropped my shoes in the sand and stepped further out into the ocean until the water skimmed the hem of my dress. I’d said goodbye to Lillie just moments ago. Right about now her family would be packing up their station wagon to go back home to their landlocked city and their every day life. It would be like every other summer and every other girl. Lillie would leave. But unlike the others, she didn’t offer empty promises to call, text, and email, because Lillie never made promises she couldn’t keep. She had a whole life outside of this little town. One I didn’t fit into.

        But I’d be here. The same Ramona I’d always been. Just as much a town attraction as the canoe rentals. Ramona: your one stop summer fling.

        The water pulled at my dress as I went deeper and deeper until I was waist-deep with my skirt splayed out like a tablecloth. The water was familiar to me, like a vice that knew you’d be back.

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  2. THE SHELF, by E.K. Johnston

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    Your eyes are white when you are born – the colour of the foam at the tips of the crashing waves that have sung lullabies to your kin for generations – and your mother weeps to see them, because she knows then that you are lost.

    You do not remember this, of course.

    Only, your sisters tell you, over and over and over, until you hate them, and your mother, and the sea. She says it’s better this way, your mother does. She feeds you and clothes you, but she is never gentle with your scraped knees like she is when your sisters come in from the yard crying and bloody. You are more a thing than a child; a smoked fish that can be left on a shelf without fear of rot until you are needed for use.

    You only know you are lonely because they pity you for being alone.

    Your deepest secret is also a lie. You do not hate the ocean: you love it. Despite its mockery of you and the way your sisters tell you again and again that it will be your doom, you cannot stop from watching it, from learning its moods. From admiring its power. You never say it, even though you don’t know exactly why. Instead you watch your mother as she looks out at the blue horizon and cries. You listen as your sisters run, shrieking, from the cold stretch of the broken waves on the sandy beach, ever daring one another to step closer.

    They never dare you.

    It never occurs to you to dare yourself. Instead you watch. You decide you like the winter ocean best, the one that is angry and grey. You imagine that if you go deep enough, the water does not care what season it is on the shore: it is only cold and colder, and dark. The winter ocean is the true one. It does not conceal its fury with a reflected sunny sky.

    Your mother had a brother.

    Once.

    You only know this because one time she called you by another boy’s name. You didn’t ask her to explain, but your sisters did, peppering her with questions until she slapped the nearest one. That’s when you knew that the sea had him, though you did not know how. Your mother is afraid of the sea, and afraid of you, and so she slaps you when the fear is big enough to swallow her whole. She is never that fearful of your sisters. You never ask; you don’t have to. You can hear his name ever after, whenever her hand flies at your face.

    It doesn’t happen very often, though, once you are older. Somehow, her fear has passed.

    It’s winter when it happens, and the chill of the sea creeping through the walls of the house, narrow fingers finding cracks for the wind and the spray. Your sisters huddle around the stove with their coats on, and don’t let you come too close. You sit across the room, a scarf around your neck, hiding the narrow slits you woke up with the morning that the weather turned so cold. The air in the house feels thicker, resting on your tongue and tickling your throat. You think it is because it’s been so long since any of you could go outside.

    You’re wrong about that.

    It never made any sense to you, the sand. Your sisters held shells up to their ears and heard the ocean, but when you stood on the sand, it was like a thousand whispers in your head. If you tried to find a shell of your own, your mother would stop you, and so you gave up. It was just another thing your sisters had that you did not. You wore shoes on the beach, and the whispers stopped. Now, though there is snow in the air and ice stacking up on the shore, and you are in the house, the whispers have come back.

    You want, so very badly, to know what it is they say.

    You sleep with the window open. You don’t care that the wall might freeze. You don’t care that your sisters screech when they see it, complaining that you will kill them all with cold. You don’t care that your mother turns white – the sick kind, not the snowy kind – and pulls her shawl over her head. You only want to hear the waves, louder and louder, until you cannot hear anything else.

    But you can hear something else. You always could.

    The first time you put a toe in the sea, it is spring and you have put your scarf away forever. The slits on your neck flare, and for the first time in months, you breathe like the air is clear. When you get back to the house, your mother has barred the door, and does not let you in until the sun has set and you have sat on the step for hours.

    It is the last time you go home.

    She does not stop you. She does not even try. She gave you up the moment she saw you with your eyes open. If she loved you, it was only for the first few moments of your life. She has saved everything for your sisters. She has not taken, but she has never given, either.

    When you stand in the sea to your knees, you know how to find your way home.

    It’s easy after that. You swim like one born to it, and born to it you were.

    You plunge under the rolling swells, and ride the breaking waves close to shore, but you never touch dry sand again. With your feet under water, the whispers become a song, and you know that you can follow them whenever you wish. Your sisters watch you leave, the song tells you, but you do not look back.

    The waves close over your head and you breathe deep for the first time in your life.

    You walk for miles in the pale light. You do not float and you do not drown. Your gills make it easy, once you learn the trick of shifting how you think about your breath. You walk until you reach the edge, and when you look down into the dark, you know that this, this, this, is your home.

    It isn’t. That’s just what they told you so that you would go.

    ________________

    Many thanks to lheanan for the GIF!

     

  3. MORGEN by Bethany Hagen

    We breathe once a year.  Some of us climb onto the rocks, some of us merely float offshore.  Some of us swim up the rivers, wondering at the landscapes, green and carved with black ribbons of asphalt, landscapes different from what they were at the beginning.

    The beginning of what?

    I don’t know.

    Some of us say that there was a time when the water was warm and shallow, but all I remember is mist.  Mist, gray and cold, with gelid waves and jagged black rocks.

    But under the water…

    We have tried to take the men there, down where time catches in the current like seaweed, where dark paths unfurl through the depths.  Down down and there is a place, where air and water are the same, where we can swim up to different shores, studded with apple trees, freckled with oak groves, where our cousins dance and play music and eat.

    Down down down.

    The men all died.  All of them, before we could take them through, their eyes widening, limbs jerking as their bodies fought the water. hold on, we would say.almost to the path.  please.

    But they couldn’t hear us in the deep.  They went still and drifting all at once, and the only noise they heard as they died was the pulse pounding in their ears.

    Once I found my sisters gathered around a man, handsome and young (as they all were), his tuxedo shirt starkly white against the darkness around him.  A silver lighter and a matching cigarette case drifted by his shoulder, the tide gently robbing his corpse before someone on the shore could.  His eyes were open, and they were the bluest blue, blue like a southern sea.  The water around him tasted of imminent war, of gunmetal, of expensive cocktails.  I would have kissed him.  I would have twined my arms around his neck and told him not to fear.  I would have taken him to a place where the only cares were dancing and feasting.

    no more, I said to my sisters.

    but can we be blamed for wanting a friend? one of my sisters had asked. a warm friend to take to our cousins?

    no more, I repeated.

    they could change the men.  so that they could live like us.  They swarmed around me, limbs pale in the water, hair floating like clouds.

    and who would ever want that? I asked.

    Perhaps they were tired of it too.  They stopped.  And without the men, many stopped going to the surface at all.  Many of us still went, but more rarely, until we only broke our head above the waves once a year.

    Down down down we stayed.

    *************************************

    It is almost summer when I surface.  I taste it on the air, warmth and life and the memory of ancient fires kindled so long ago.  The first day of May.  I taste something else on the air; there’s a tang of boredom, of cheap boots and even cheaper shampoo, of makeup too heavily worn.  My eyes focus in the light, and I see her.

    She’s sitting on a rock, eyes pinned to the horizon, looking for dolphins maybe or simply letting her thoughts unspool eastward.  She’s pretty, in a morose sort of way, blonde hair streaked with purple, gray eyes smudged black.

    She sees me.  She sees me seeing her.  Her face unfolds from shock to confusion to something I haven’t seen in so long a time—belief.  

    She stands on the rock, and before I can call out, she dives right in, even though the water is nearly freezing.  She swims right up to me, and it’s then I see how her body is banded with flat muscles, the kind that you only get from doing one thing.

    She’s a swimmer.

    When she reaches me, I taste it.  It’s faint, barely there, but it’s distinct.  Chlorine.  Sweat.  And stronger: disappointment.  Aimlessness.

    “You’re not human,” she says, treading water.  Her words are flat and broad.  She’s from somewhere else.  A memory surfaces, a name that she wouldn’t recognize, a place so vast and far away that I’ve only been there once in my long life.

    “and you’re not from here,” I say.  My voice rasps, husky and low.  It’s been decades since I’ve used it above water.

    “I’m staying with my aunt.  I’m supposed to figure out what I want to do with my life.”  Her words are bitter; they are not her words.  I know right away that they are her parents’.

    “a life is not something you do something with.  life is for living.”

    “Not to my parents.  I was supposed to be a swimmer,” she says.  “They spent years and thousands of dollars so that I could go to the Olympics one day.  My entire life has been about competitive swimming.  But after I didn’t make the final cut, I realized I didn’t want to do it any more.  Maybe I hadn’t wanted to do it for a long time.  So I quit.  My parents are not happy.”

    “what’s your name?”

    “Madison.”  But she’s not a Madison, not truly.  It was a name given by parents who wanted success or normativity or popularity for their girl.  Deep inside, she has a truer name.  A name with strength and singularity and depth.

    “have you decided what do you want to do with your life, madison?”

    She thought for a moment.  “I want to love swimming again.  I want to swim.”

    “but not the way they want you to swim.”

    “No.  Not that way.”

    I am intrigued by her.  Most people have gawked at the sight of me.  Men became infatuated instantly.  But not Madison.  Instead, she treads water effortlessly next to me, meets my stare, tells me her story.  It’s in this moment that I fall in love with her smudged gray eyes.

    She reaches out and touches my cheek, her hand so very warm.  “You look like you are my age.  You are naked in the Irish Sea.  What is your name, naked sea girl?”

    Underwater, my name has undulations and echoes that give it meaning, that tell my story.  Not the eldest but still the strongest; not ageless, but not answerable to this world’s time.  Above water: “morgen.”

    She tries it out.  “Morgen.  What are you, Morgen?”

    I know that she has heard words that approximate what I am, that get at some of the truth but not all of it.  I do not say mermaid, for I have no tail.  I do not say water spirit, because I am just as corporeal as she is.  I do not say nymph, because I care not for rivers and lakes but only the sea.

    Instead, I say, “i am a swimmer.”

    She touches my face again.  “Show me.”

    The legends have it wrong.  They make it sound as if we seduce people to their deaths, call them into the water with our songs and our bodies.  But the truth is that we are the ones who are seduced.  We are the ones who fall in love.  Sometimes it’s a young sailor, brave-faced and broad-chested.  Sometimes it’s a fisherman, stoic and hard-working and sea-loving.  And sometimes it’s an ex-swimmer with purple streaks in her hair.

    no more, I had told my sisters eighty years ago.  There would be no more death because we couldn’t stop ourselves from falling in love.

    I tell myself none of those men were swimmers.  None of those men were strong enough.  It will be different this time.  It will.  It has to be.

    So I ask, “how long can you hold your breath?”

    And her face splits into a smile.  “As long as it takes.”

     

  4. WAKE UP, ROSE by Natalie C. Parker

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                Rose stood at the window watching mist rise from the valley beneath the Briar Wood. Behind her, the gray-blue light of dawn gleamed off the mirror at the foot of her bed. The bone sewing needle resting on top, both uncharacteristically bloodless.

                “The sun is nearly risen,” Rose said, pressing the tips of bruised fingers against dirty glass. Grandfather left them that way to prevent Rose from accidentally catching sight of her reflection should she wake before the spell was fixed again. She should fix the spell now. It was dangerous to stand so close to reflective surfaces at this hour.

                But somewhere within the Briar Wood was the pond that had claimed her mother’s life. Grandfather had his reasons for keeping Rose away, but Grandfather was gone.

                Rose dragged her fingers across the pane leaving four clear tracks in the grime. She brought her face perilously close to them and whispered, “Wake up, Rose.”

    - - -

                “Wake up, Rose,” Grandfather said. “The sun is nearly risen.”

                He sat next to his granddaughter’s bed, a mirror in his lap and a sewing needle pressed between his fingertips. Glass and bone caught the blue-gray light of dawn and drew longing and dread from Rose like breath.

                Grandfather extended a hand and when Rose hesitated raised his heavy eyebrows dispassionately. Rose folded her frustration away and gave over her hand. With practiced movements, Grandfather selected her index finger, still pink and healing from the last time, and stuck it with the bone needle. The sting was too familiar a thing for tears.

                Blood chased the needle, rising from her fingertip like the sun. When the drop was full, Grandfather guided her hand over the mirror and with a small shake, her blood fell against the glass.

                Rose knew she shouldn’t, but still she hoped her Grandfather would tip the mirror just enough that she might catch a glimpse of herself – the curve of her chin, the folds of her ear, or perhaps the line of her hair against her forehead, any bit of her would satisfy. But Grandfather was too deft. He swept the mirror away and immediately crouched near the fireplace. His knees creaked as much as the old wooden floor, but he insisted she was too young, too reckless to perform this task on her own. Rose watched as he smeared the drop of her blood across the glass then smashed the mirror to pieces.

                For just a moment, the pieces of shattered glass clouded to full black. Then they cleared to reflect the glowing embers of last night’s fire and the stray pinks and golds of dawn.

                But no matter how Rose turned them, they would not reveal her face. No surface in the house would. Not now that the spell was sealed for another day. Tomorrow they would do it all again.

                It was the only way they knew to contain her curse.

    - - -

                She turned to the bed where the needle and mirror sat. Her fingertips ached at the sight.

                No more spells, she thought and with that she snapped the needle in two and shattered the mirror into the fireplace. Each piece reflected the soft glow of embers, winking against the floor like cat eyes.

    - - -

                When Rose was old enough to understand notions as complex as curses and beauty and revenge, Grandfather explained that she had inherited her curse from her mother, who had refused one too many men. As punishment for causing so much heartbreak, a curse was given to her such that should she ever catch sight of herself she would fall deeply in love with her own reflection.

                “But why should that be a curse?” Rose would ask. “Why shouldn’t she love herself?”

                “Because,” Grandfather explained, “it is better to give more love than you receive, and loving yourself is the most selfish thing a person can do.”

                For one wicked moment, Rose thought she would like to be selfish long enough to discover the color of her eyes.

                Grandfather continued to explain in his measured way, always on the brink of betraying something more of himself in the cadence of his voice. He spoke of how her mother had stopped for a drink by the pond at the edge of the Briar Wood and how there she caught her reflection and feel instantly in love.

                “So she fell in love with the one person who was incapable of loving anything but herself. It was a just punishment.” Here Grandfather’s eyes seemed to lose the thread of Rose and see only the wrongs of her mother.

                “It seems cruel,” Rose spoke, searching for some sign of her Grandfather’s compassion.

                “Cruel is what she did after. Cruel is taking up with a man you know you will never love. Cruel is letting him hope,” he finished with bitterness.

                “That’s how I came to be,” Rose said, her gaze settling on a portrait of her mother and father. They both looked haunted and hollow; her mother by a love she could never satisfy and her father by the love he’d never had to begin with.

                They were not beautiful, Rose knew that, but she could see the places beauty had once lived in both of them and wondered if there were such places in herself.

                “That is how you came to suffer under the same weight,” Grandfather said, keeping his gaze away from the portrait. “And why you must never leave this place.”

    - - -

                With haste, Rose slid into her boots, unbound her hair, and raced across the valley toward the Briar Wood. The air was sharp and cool and her heart beat hot inside her chest. All her life she’d lived under the promise of danger, but now she was racing toward it.

                And it felt good.

    - - -

                The cottage was big enough for two, but with each passing day, it seemed to shrink and Rose spent more and more of her time in the fields. So long as she didn’t stray as far as the Briar Wood, Grandfather didn’t object. There was a part of her that wished he would. It would feel good to have something to struggle against that wasn’t as amorphous as her curse.

                Rose wandered with the wind, seeking reflections of herself in the world around her. This time of year, her skin was a shade darker than autumn grasses, her hair something lighter than rain-soaked earth, the tip of her nose rounded like an acorn. In the spring, she’d find herself in other ways. In the straw of a bird’s nest or the shape of oak leaves.

                It was a quiet, secluded valley, welcoming few strangers but those delivering what little Rose and Grandfather required to live. No news from the world beyond the wood ever reached Rose’s ears, but though she didn’t know much of the nearest villages and towns, they knew of the cursed girl who lived in the valley of the Briar Wood. And around the time of her sixteenth birthday, they began to seek her out: young men eager to dispel the curse and win her hand and favor.

                This is how Rose learned that it was not her beauty but her curse that made her an object of desire.

                One after another, the young men came and it was always the same.

                “Sweet, resplendent Rose,” they would say, one hand pressed to their hearts, the other gripping a sword or bow or dagger. “I have come to rescue you from this curse and marry you.”

                At first, Rose would give them a smile, but over time she discovered her smiles became weary.  “There is no need to break the curse,” she would tell them. “I manage it quite well. It’s easier than you might think.”

                And here their bravado would falter. “But a curse should be defeated. Broken.”

                And she would answer, “And if I would like to keep my curse? It was a gift from my mother, of course. Would you marry me with my curse?”

                The answer was always no.

                Until the day a woman appeared at the edge of the Briar Wood. She was tall and weathered with silk-thin wrinkles around her dark eyes and hair like storm clouds. She wore leather armor over strong arms and carried a sack over her shoulder so Rose nearly dismissed her as a merchant, but the woman came directly to her and smiled.

                “You are Rose of the Briar Wood,” she said and there was a gentleness to her voice went to the very heart of Rose.

                “Who are you?” Rose asked.

                “A friend,” replied the woman. “I hope.”

                “Are you a witch? Have – have you come to dispel my curse?” Rose asked. It had never occurred to her that a woman might try, but perhaps she had been foolish in her assumptions. Grandfather was a wealthy man. He had much more to offer than her hand in marriage.

                But the woman only shook her head and with her smile still on her face, she asked, “How do you know you are cursed?”

    - - -

                She didn’t hesitate when she reached the edge of the valley. She ran as though her feet knew where to land and where to run. Trees towered above her, birds called from every direction, and the briars for which the wood was named sprawled across the forest floor. Everything around her seemed to cry out for more – more sunlight, more song, more space.

                Rose wanted more. She wanted more than her cottage, more than her needles, more than her curse. 

    - - -

                “Wake up, Rose,” Grandfather said. “The sun is nearly risen.”

                He sat by her bed with mirror and needle, grayer now than he’d been the day before. How many times had they done this? How much of his life had he spent safeguarding the world for her? Questions filled her mind like dandelion seed.

                “Grandfather,” Rose said before offering her hand. “How do you know mother passed the curse to me?”

                Grandfather sat back as though she’d pricked him with a needle. “It isn’t a question worth asking if the answer might destroy you.”

                “But Grandfather,” she pressed, knowing it was the question and not the answer that would eventually grind her into dust.

                “It isn’t worth asking,” he repeated and this time his fingers tightened on the mirror until Rose heard a small crack.

                But Rose was not afraid. She said, “Grandfather, I am old enough now to manage this on my own. Give me the needle.”

                Beneath his beard, there was an emotion that caused his jaw to clench. Grief or pride or something else that looked like reluctance and submission all at once. He nodded and passed the needle to her small fingers so that she might fix the spell on her own.

                The next morning, Grandfather didn’t appear by her bed at dawn. There was only the mirror and needle. Rose pricked her own finger and smashed the mirror into the fireplace all without letting her eyes betray her by seeking a reflection. After, she joined Grandfather at the breakfast table for eggs and bitter tea. It went this way for many mornings until one day, Grandfather did not come for his eggs.

                Rose found him still in bed, his chest unmoving beneath the tangle of his beard.

                “Grandfather,” she said, and her tears warmed her cheeks and chilled her heart. “Now, I am alone. Who will I love now if not you?”

                But Grandfather had no more answers for her questions and for a moment Rose was wicked and thought her Grandfather a very selfish man for taking so much with him.

    - - -

                The pond lay in the lee of the wood, surrounded by white and yellow daffodils. It was still and clear and inviting.

                Rose drew a deep breath. Here were the question and answer laid out before her. With another breath, Rose stepped into the sunlight and leaned over the flat pool.

                It took a moment for her eyes to recognize the shape of her face, but once they did, she couldn’t fathom looking away. She was beautiful. She knew this not because of her Grandfather’s fear, her suitor’s desperation, or her parents’ heartbreak, but because the girl in the pond smiled up at her.

                “You are not a curse,” she said, her lips hovering just above the water.

                The girl in the pond had eyes as grey as the dawn and lips as ruddy as cardinal feathers, she had round cheeks and a long nose, but it was the way she smiled that captivated Rose.

                “And neither are you,” the girl in the water said.

                “I love you,” they said together.

                And then Rose dipped her head and pressed her lips to the girl in the water. 

     
  5. hanginggardenstories:

    Amber is up on Monday, and after that we’re starting our 4th cycle of GIFtion. We’ve decided that this time we’re picking a theme and the theme is WATER. 

    So! Lend us your GIFs! Your water GIFs to be specific. Your favorite water GIFs to be even more specific. Inspire us! Entertain us! Challenge us! We’re perfectly capable of picking on our own, but we think it’s more fun if you help us out.

    Whaddya say? GIF us below?

    Don’t forget to give us your GIFs pleaseandthankyou!

     
  6. Tiger Lily

    Listing toward unknown depths

    Rollicking with the storm

    The Revenge dared, undaunted

    To Barbados

    She was strapped to a post, arms twisted behind

    Hair plastered to her cheeks

    Ankles shackled by the grip of

    The bos’n

    The line had slipped out his hands, and he was

    Sliding by, cry eaten by the wind

    When grasped at the kicking flash

    Of skin

    The sea paused, her screaming silenced

    Their eyes the eye of the storm

    Prisoner and seaman roles forgotten

    At once

    Two, entangled in ratlines

    Beneath a creaking, moaning mast

    “Please.” His voice that of one knowing his fate;

    He’d lost

    The sea attacked the rig, its waves

    Boarding axes, grappling hooks, bayonets

    Pushing him to her mast, reaching out with

    His hand

    But he was stolen by a whipping line

    Hidden in foam and spray

    The last word on his lips—a flower—

    Her name

    The waves eased, their trespasser usurped

    Bowsprit and flying jib

    Hanging loose, broken limbs of

    The Revenge

    It limped, it crawled, it rowed

    Stern unbroken, mainsail intact

    Prisoners yet trussed and gagged

    To Barbados

    She was on the docks in the sun

    Hair tumbling down her salt-stained back,

    Sold to a man in tricorn hat who hid one arm in

    His vest

    “Please.” Her voice that of one knowing her fate;

    She’d lost the fight

    He grunted and tossed the coin, took her off the block,

    Her master

    He dragged her one-armed, away and away

    Past hungry men and snapping dogs

    Up a narrow, steep trail and stopped at

    A garden

    She rooted herself on the grass,

    Eyes cast around at the blossomed vines

    And he untied her wrists, brought her hand to

    His lips

    “Tiger Lily.” A gruff cry from his throat.

    The bos’n, the man from the rig—

    Eyes the power of a storm—he

    Kissed her

     
  7. Amber is up on Monday, and after that we’re starting our 4th cycle of GIFtion. We’ve decided that this time we’re picking a theme and the theme is WATER. 

    So! Lend us your GIFs! Your water GIFs to be specific. Your favorite water GIFs to be even more specific. Inspire us! Entertain us! Challenge us! We’re perfectly capable of picking on our own, but we think it’s more fun if you help us out.

    Whaddya say? GIF us below?

     

  8.  

  9. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Annie Cardi

    image

    I decided Duncan had to die when we were juniors, when he was announced as captain of the Highlands High hockey team, but I didn’t tell my boyfriend Mack that until the following year, at the beginning of hockey season. We’d been drinking in the parking lot after I picked him up from hockey practice one night, and I let it slip that Duncan was a total douchebag meathead who could barely skate, let alone lead the team to the state championship. Mack looked at me like I just told him I thought it would be easier to play hockey without the ice.

    “Duncan’s fine,” he said.

    “Sure,” I said. “He’s fine. He’s bad on assists and takes way to many wild shots, but he’s fine. Dumb as a bag of rocks, but fine. But Highland High isn’t just a fine hockey team. I just think it’s gonna be kind of sad when he can’t take you guys to championships for your senior year. I mean, it’s your last chance, right?”

    He took a sip of Grain Belt. “I guess.”

    "I mean, you do what you can, I guess. The guys really look up to you. But you can only do so much with Duncan as captain, you know?”

    Another sip. “I guess he does fuck around a lot during practice. And he doesn’t know any of the JV guys, and they’re gonna be the ones who take over eventually.”

    “And you are always looking out for those guys. I just…” I sigh like this is something that’s hard for me to say and has been building up for a while. “I just don’t know why they didn’t make you captain instead.”

    We threw some bottles at the back of the hockey rink to watch them explode, and I noticed Mack was throwing them a little harder than usual. He chucked the last bottle against the cement and I cheered when it shattered into a dozen shining pieces.

    ~*~ 

    He was killing it in the next few games—seven goals, twelve assists, and skating like he was being chased by the devil. In the stands, the other girls eyed me with a combination of respect and jealousy, which made me happier than if I’d gotten those goals myself.

    I met Mack outside the locker room after the game against Lakeville and threw my arms around him, even though he still smelled like sweat and ammonia. “You did great, baby!”

    “Dude.” Duncan came out of the locker room and slapped Mack on the shoulder. “You are on fire! We are so gonna crush the Penguins next week.” He turned back to the locker room. “Some frosh, get my bag and bring it to my car!” Of course, a couple of freshman players immediately ran back into the locker room to find it.

    “Great game, Duncan,” I said, all smiles.

    “Thanks, Betsy. Let me tell you, between me and your boy Mack, we’re gonna go all the way. We’re gonna take the championship back from Bloomfield.” He hit Mack in the shoulder and backed away to the exit, where a freshman was standing with his gear bag. “You know it, muthafucker! See you guys at Trish’s for the afterparty?”

    Mack shrugged, which Duncan took to mean yes. We could hear Duncan peal out of the parking lot in his fucking new Land Rover. None of the cops ever pulled him over because they knew he was the captain of the Highlanders and have of them used to be Highlanders. Duncan also never got carded at the liquor store, even when he was wearing his fucking letterman jacket, and he never had to turn in homework and got free shit all the time. It wasn’t that I hated Duncan personally, but his dad was a fucking orthodontist, so why did he get all this shit for free? He was probably going to get a free ride to college, too, even while people like me had to bust their asses to get perfect grades (or at least bust their asses to cheat off the right people and steal old tests) so we could maybe get the fuck out of this nowhere town.

    But I didn’t tell Mack that. Instead I said “To Trish’s!” like the enthusiastic hockey girlfriend people thought I was.

    In the parking lot, the Berg sisters were standing around Mack’s car. They weren’t all the same age, but the way they all dressed in the same fake goth-y clothes and dye their hair black made it hard to remember which one was which. They were all looking at Mack.

    “Good game, captain,” one said.

    “Good job, captain,” said another.

    “Way to go, captain,” said the third.

    Mack paled a little. I looked between him and the sisters, expecting to see some charge of electricity flowing between them. Usually I don’t like other girls talking to my boyfriend like they have a secret, but I knew something was happening here and I wanted to hear more.

    “4-0, right?” the first one asked.

    He nodded.

    “Aye aye, captain,” the last one said and they all laughed.

    “Move along, you weirdos,” I snarled, and they walked toward the edge of the parking lot, still laughing.

    In the car, Mack’s hands were shaking over the steering wheel and before I even asked he said, “They told me we were going to win. Yesterday, when I was leaving the cafeteria after lunch, they were in the hall and told me.”

    “Of course you were going to win,” I said. “You’re on fire.”

    “They knew the score, and that I’d get three goals and one assist, and that Duncan would miss a shot in the first period and not get to take another for the rest of the game. They said they’d done some Ouija-whatever and seen it. At first I thought they were just high or whatever, but they were right.”

    I felt a charge run through my body, like I was a live wire and waiting for someone reach out. “I’ll drive,” I said.

     ~*~ 

    We didn’t go to Trish’s party. Instead we went back to my place and raided my dad’s liquor cabinet. He was either working the night shift at the factory or with some drunk-ass buddies at a bar, so I knew we wouldn’t be interrupted. I made us each a rum and coke, Mack’s favorite drink even though he pretends he’s all into whiskey.

    “How could they know?” He took a swig of his drink. “That was way too accurate to just fucking know.”

    “Don’t freak out,” I said.

    “They called me captain.”

    I took a sip. “I know. The Berg sisters are weird, baby, but maybe they’re onto something. I’ve always said you should totally be captain. You deserve to be captain.”

    “Yeah, but Duncan’s captain.”

    I shrugged. “What if he wasn’t captain?”

    Mack raised an eyebrow at me. “Babe, if he wasn’t captain he wouldn’t be captain and I’d probably be captain.”

    “See?” I said. “Without him, you’d be captain. And hockey’s a tough sport. Guys work hard, play hard. Accidents happen all the time.”

    I could practically hear all the gears in his head clicking as he put it together. “Are you saying—”

    “I’m saying no one would be all that surprised if Duncan had an accident. Before the next game.” I held his gaze hard so he knew this wasn’t us just fucking around or throwing bottles against the side of the hockey rink. This was us and this was for real and this was forever. “If you get a sports scholarship and I’m at the top of our class, we get into college and we get the fuck out of here and we get to live it up for the rest of our senior year. People would be falling over each other just to give you stuff—booze, gifts, money. You’d never have to do homework again. Why should Duncan have any of that instead of us?”

    He stared into his rum and coke like it was some magic cauldron that would give him all the answers and everything he wanted.

    “Tell me you don’t want this,” I said.

    He held up his glance. “Let’s do it.”

    We clinked glasses. “Fuck yes,” I said. We drank heartily, jumped on my bed whooping and cheering and daring anyone to mess with us. Life was about to get great. Mack was on fire and I was burning.

     ~*~ 

    The next post-game party was at my house. It wasn’t even hard to arrange; all I had to say was ‘my dad’s barely ever home’ and everyone was instantly getting kegs and setting up a beer pong table. Duncan talked about how wasted he was going to get after the game. It was perfect. It would look like an accident.

    The only problem was that Mack was getting nervous. He cornered me in my bedroom just as cars were starting to pull into the driveway.

    “Seriously, Bets, I don’t know what we were thinking,” he told me. “Let’s just forget it.”

    He must have expected me to smile and nod and say, yes, babe, you are so right, what a great joke that was, let’s go do a keg stand, go Highlanders! I was done with that.

    “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. “You’re backing out now? Just when everything is working out perfectly and we could everything we’ve ever wanted?”

    “Babe—”

    “No,” I said. “Don’t give me that shit. You don’t go out there and win the game and then come tell me no I’m scared. Don’t be a fucking pussy, Mack. Not with me.”

    He looked around my room like he might find something to help him, but it was all mine. “If we get caught—”

    “We’re not going to get caught.” I held his gaze. “You do what I tell you, and no one’s going to know anything.”

    He nodded and I smiled and we kissed and finally it was all about to happen.

      ~*~ 

    Duncan was true to his word and got completely shit-faced at the party. He shotgunned two beers at once and then made a couple of freshman try to do the same, laughing with his mouth wide open when they were gagging and coughing on it. When he tried to lead everyone in the Highland High school song, he jumped up on my coffee table and it collapsed underneath him.

    “Whoa, sorry about that, Betsy,” he said once he got up. “Shoddy Walmart craftsmanship.”

    “Right,” I said.

    “Hey.” His face came really close to mine. I could see the sweat at his temples, how acne spread across his forehead. He tugged on a lock of my hair. “Do the curtains match the drapes?”

    I thought about stabbing him with a bottle opener right then and there, but even I couldn’t disguise that as an accident. “Oh Duncan,” I laughed, “you’re hilarious. A bunch of us are gonna climb up on the roof. You can climb up from the back porch. You should come.”

    “Yeah, cool,” he said. “Let’s go.”

    “I’ve just gotta grab Mack.”

    Which I did. I pulled Mack into my bedroom like we were going to go hook up, but he could climb through my window and onto the roof, where two JV players were already passed out. I heard thumping footsteps on the roof and a whoop and the shattering of a beer bottle on the cement patio below.

    “Showtime,” I said.

    He swung through my bedroom window and onto the room. We’d done it together before, when we were freshman and it was the last days of summer and we starred at the stars and felt like anything was possible. Now I knew that anything was only possible if you make it that way.

    More thumping footsteps overhead. Hushed voices. More footsteps. A dull cry and the thud of a body hitting the pavement below, skull first. Voices from inside the house going out onto the patio, wondering what happened.

    Mack swung back through my window. “It’s done,” he said. “He fell.”

    “You pushed him,” I said.

    He nodded. “I pushed him.”

    In the yard, people were standing over Duncan’s body and shouting “Call an ambulance!” and “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I put on my best concerned face so we could join them.

      ~*~ 

    I answered all of the police’s questions—was he drinking, where did you get the alcohol, who else was with him, etc. They knew what hockey parties were like because they’d been to a bunch when they were our age, so they weren’t surprised about the drinking and looked at me sympathetically when I said I didn’t know how the party got so out of control, I’d only invited a few people over to hang out. I cried. I was always good at crying.

    The news called it an accident. There were reports about binge drinking, about how the hockey team was grieving but would go on playing in Duncan’s name. “He would have wanted us to keep going, to win,” Mack, who was named captain at the next practice, told one of the local reporters.

    Things were different now, just like I told Mack they would be. People offered to let us copy their homework. They moved out of our way in the hall, didn’t say anything when we skipped class, gave us the good table in the cafeteria. Gifts showed up in Mack’s locker and on his doorstep. People were being supportive because of what we went through, because of what Mack was now. He was a leader and he had to have the support of the community behind him. It had all worked out like we planned.

    Except I saw Duncan’s parents at the memorial service. I remembered them from games, but it was different to see them crying and holding each other like they might break apart otherwise. Once during the service, Duncan’s mom looked across the room and her eyes rested on me and she looked so sad and hateful all at once, I was sure she knew what happened.

    She looked away but I kept feeling her eyes on me. Even later, even days after, I still felt it.

      ~*~ 

    Mack started seeing ghosts. Or at least that’s what he said. “I couldn’t sleep so I snuck into the rink to get some early ice time. I saw him in the stands.”

    “You’re tired,” I told him. “This is what your brain does when it’s tired.”

    “It’s not the first time. It’s like he’s always in the corner of my eye and when I turn he’s gone.”

    “Better ghosts than regrets,” I said. “Stop freaking out. In a couple of months you’ll win championships and forget any of this ever happened.”

    But he started missing shots, losing the puck, looking lost on the ice. People felt bad for him, thought they understood. “He’s up against a lot,” they said. “Poor kid.”

    After the Highlanders lost their first game, I went to meet Mack outside of the locker room and ended up running into Mack’s mom. For a second I thought it was one of Mack’s ghosts but I remembered she wasn’t dead; it was just that I’d felt her eyes following me for days.

    “Excuse me,” I said and rushed by before she could say anything. She watched me go, I knew it.

    It was an accident. Her son was drunk and on a roof. Accidents happened all the time. What did she expect from me?

    But there was still a blood stain on our cement patio. My dad and I washed and washed and washed it but the shadow of it was still there. It was like she saw the stain on me.

    This wasn’t what I’d planned. I had to do something.

    I had to see the weird Berg sisters.

     ~*~  

    I found them smoking behind the library, staying out of the sun to maintain their pale goth pallor. They didn’t seem surprised to see me.

    “How did you know?”

    “Know what?” one said.

    “What should we know?” said another.

    “We’re just a bunch of weird bitch sisters,” said the last.

    They blowed their smoke at my face and for a second I saw it all again—Duncan falling, the blood seeping into the patio, the red-and-blue flash of police cars, Duncan’s mom’s face staring at me over and over and over again.

    Even if I got out of this town, I’d never escape that.

      ~*~ 

    I started getting up in the middle of the night to wash the stain on the back patio. Every night I scrubbed and scrubbed until my hands were raw and red and bleeding. But the stain kept getting bigger. It had leached through the cement and the grass below it and the earth below that.

    One night my dad found me. “Betsy,” he said, “Come on. You gotta come inside.”

    I kept scrubbing. “I need to clean it just a little more. It’s almost gone. I need it gone.”

    His hand rested on my back and I nearly jumped at the touch. “We’ll replace the cement. Come on, just try to get some sleep. It’s gonna be okay.”

    Even if we replaced the cement tile, the blood would still be soaked through underneath and have spread through the earth and no matter where I went it would always be there, waiting for me, I could never leave it behind.

    “It’s okay,” he said, and I didn’t tell him how wrong he was.

     

  10. THE OATH, by Elle Cosimano

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    I’m probably going to hell for this, but I can’t help myself. I pull the boy behind me and look both ways down the darkened street. I don’t know which car is his just like I don’t know his name or where he goes to school or his favorite color — and I don’t care. We could climb inside any one of the cars along the curb, as long as we’re alone.

    He’s staring at a red Beretta. It’s parked under a streetlight and I hesitate a half-second before dragging him toward it. We scramble into the front seats, and then we’re staring out the dashboard, beading with sweat and waiting to catch our breaths. We’re alone, I tell myself. No one saw us. I’m ninety minutes from home. No one could possibly know I’m here.

    He leans in, pauses, his lips a breath away from mine and his hand beside my knee, like he’s asking permission. And it kills me a little, because he can’t possibly know what he’s asking for. He looks in my eyes and holds them, probably waiting for them to drift closed in anticipation of a kiss.

    But I never – NEVER — close my eyes.

    “You didn’t tell me your –”

    I climb over the gearshift into his lap and kiss him hard. I don’t want him to know anything about me, in case I’m right this time. In case he’s still around tomorrow and decides to come looking for me.

    The steering wheel is digging into my back and we kiss until we can hardly breathe. The air in the car is hot, the windows fogging us in a cramped cocoon. We’re alone. I can’t see the street anymore and I don’t dare wipe the glass.

    His lips graze the skin behind my ear and his fingers dig into the seams of my jeans. I press my hips into his, wondering how much we might get away with in here. He moans, a soft urgent sound that gets lost in the spill of my hair. His breath is warm and ragged.  The fog on the windows is thickening white and my eyes begin to drift shut.

    And then I hear it.

    A quiet snap and pop.

    It begins slowly. Then the crackling speeds up, like I’ve stepped too far out on a frozen lake and it’s splintering all around me. 

    My eyes fly open and I turn to the window. The fog is turning to frost, hardening in jagged patterns across the glass. I pull the boy to me, wrap my arms around him and bury his face in my hair, like maybe I can hide him. Or save him. His shallow exhale curls cold around my neck as a sheen of ice consumes the car. Frost creeps over the dashboard, across the windows, around the backseats. 

    I’ve gone too far. It’s too late to turn back.

    Peter’s found me.

    My breath crystalizes in short, panicked puffs. The boy’s skin grows cold where he clings to me and he shudders. I push him away, searching his face in the dim light of the car. His lips are blue, his eyes wide and terrified as the whites begin to fill with red. He begins shaking, racked with tremors big enough to rattle us both. I scramble backwards, but I’m stuck between his thrashing body and the wheel and his fingernails dig into me like a drowning man, and no matter how hard I push away from him, I will never forget the look on his face.

    Suddenly, his chin slumps against his chest and his breath falls quiet. The air is thick and cold at the same time, and silent as falling snow.

    Until the boy twitches…

    And I’m clutched by a terrible and certain fear. 

    He comes to life slowly, rolling his shoulders like he’s pulling on a coat. His head jerks upright, and his blood-black eyes blink and find me pressed against the dashboard. I stifle a scream. I couldn’t tell you what color the boy’s eyes had been, but I know these are not his. They are horrible and familiar and I would recognize them anywhere. I will never escape them.

    I scramble for the door handle. The locks snap shut.

    “You’ve been a bad girl, Lita.” The boy’s purple lips peel back in an unnatural smile, like someone else is wearing his skin. His rigid, cold fingers trace a clumsy pattern over my lower back, chilling my blood. “We had a deal.”

    “That was a long time ago!” Tears spill down my cheeks, hot with frustration. “We were just kids. We didn’t know what we were agreeing to!”

    The boy’s body shakes with laughter. He laughs and laughs, but doesn’t breathe. The wrongness of it echoes from some dead, unfeeling place inside him.

    “Please don’t do this.” I try to sound contrite, but instead I come off angry and demanding, and it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s already too late.

    The boy’s nose begins to bleed. Bruises are blooming under his skin. He leans in. His lips are cold and close and coppery with death. They twitch with a fabricated smile and for a moment, I think he might try to kiss me. I scramble sideways into the passenger seat, pressing as far back as I can against the door. A trickle of blood dribbles from his ear. His head turns to me, his movements awkward and stilted and slow, a marionette of a dead boy.

    “You made me a promise,” Peter says through a twisted smile. “I will not let you break it.”

    The boy’s chin snaps hard and lightning fast while his shoulders remain still. There’s a sickening crack, and his head falls to rest at an odd angle against his shoulder. Blood drips from the boy’s ears and nose, falling in slow spatters against his shirt. The temperature in the car warms, my cocoon melting down the face of the windows.

    I fumble with the lock with trembling hands and fall on my knees onto the pavement. I pull my phone from my pocket, wipe my eyes, and hit Rose’s number on speed dial.

    “I need a ride,” I say when she answers. “Bring the tarp.”

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