Summary: 
Something is wrong. Some say it’s happening due to all the dark things we read but only a few know about it. It’s here and like a silent epidemic, it is spreading throughout the globe with its shadowy fingers. It can and will get anyone. This is just 19-year-old Aubrey Golding’s tragic story. She might have been the girl you knew at college, the clumsy, lovesick one who has sex she ends up regretting, sometimes a little too much to drink, and a few blemishes she hides behind her blond hair. But something frightening is underway. It’s not the strange town where sipping tea and tiptoeing around mansions are the norm. But it could be the weird things that follows her, the sleep disturbances, amongst other phenomena. As things start to grow increasingly chilling, Aubrey is left to wonder what will happen to her. For mature audiences.

WRITE STORY HERE

SOMETHING: A novel

Brittany Decker

 

All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without prior consent of the publisher

Text copyright © by Brittany Decker 2015

Find her on Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr

 

Something is wrong. Some say it’s happening due to all the dark things we read but only a few know about it. It’s here and like a silent epidemic, it is spreading throughout the globe with its shadowy fingers. It can and will get anyone. This is just 19-year-old Aubrey Golding’s tragic story. She might have been the girl you knew at college, the clumsy, lovesick one who has sex she ends up regretting, sometimes a little too much to drink, and a few blemishes she hides behind her blond hair. But something frightening is underway. It’s not the strange town where sipping tea and tiptoeing around mansions are the norm. But it could be the weird things that follows her, the sleep disturbances, amongst other phenomena. As things start to grow increasingly chilling, Aubrey is left to wonder what will happen to her.

For mature audiences.

 

Quirky, scary, and incredibly visual. Just mesmerizing. Decker is the new queen bee of horror.” Charlene Philips

 

Lonely and sick with an addiction to chocolate, Aubrey is one interesting character to read.” Tyler Mole

 

“I sense the start of a blockbuster series. Tons of Japanese influences. I loved everything. Myths and mansions and scary things to keep you up at night. 5 out of 5 stars.”  Toronto Writes

  

“A masterpiece. Decker’s dark and humorous writing style entertains you with every word.” Literary Row

 

“Only once in a while does a book capture your heart like this one.  It’s like being a child all over again and reading your first favorite book.” Books for December Weather

 

“Beautifully and bravely written. HUGE risks are taken here.” Kerli Patterson

 

“One of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read.” Roy Duran

 

“Creepiest thing I’ve read this year.” Tamara Gormely

 

CONTENTS

BEFOREHAND PART I:
Mr. Hamada’s Attic

BEFOREHAND PART II:
Poor Nikolaevna

–1–

–2–

–3–

–4–

–5–

–6–

–7–

–8–

–9–

–10–

–11–

–12–

–13–

–14–

–15–

–16–

 

BEFOREHAND PART I:

Mr. Hamada’s Attic

Tōno, Japan

It was a bright day. Among the rustic, mystical landscapes of Tōno, sat Mr. Hamada’s squat, thatched-roof house. Yumiko Hamada was slumped on the couch with her boyfriend, humming a Katy Perry pop tune from her iPod when she first heard the harsh knocking. It came from the front door. Something was not right. She was still in her school uniform, Susumu playing with the hem of her pleated skirt with his balmy hands. Her Hello Kitty knapsack was dropped carelessly on the bamboo floor next to the kotatsu. She pulled her earphones out. Her eyes wondered nervously around, but she didn’t move to get the door. Something was brewing...

Not far in the kitchen was Shinju, the elderly housekeeper. She paused her work of making egg sauce in a battered steel pan to see who was knocking.

The house was so small that everything intersected with the kitchen—the front door, the stairs to Mr. Hamada’s attic flat, the living room where Yumiko and her boyfriend was, and the toilet. When Shinju opened the door, three young men casually stepped inside. Kiyoshi looked like a cadaverous little boy, but he was the eldest and the leader. His eyes were dark and narrow, and his coarse straight hair was dyed a washed-out amber. He held a compact leather bag that carried coins and banknotes. The rest looked to him for direction. Shinju gave them a frosty nod. “Hamada-san!” she yelled grumpily with her thin, shrivelled lips pointed toward the staircase. Mr. Hamada! She had a booming voice that could have waked dragons and conjured spirits.

Seconds later, a miserable-looking man made his way grudgingly downstairs. His stomach jutted out like a boulder, and the oil coming from the pores of his face was so much that Shinju could have scraped it off and fried fish with it.

The three young men tried to appear warm in nature, but that soon ceased. Not only was Mr. Hamada refusing to smile or greet them kindly, but the odor of the home was one that would take a great deal of getting used to. It was like someone had infused the scent of fish, shit, egg and urine all together and sprayed it like perfume into house. The toilet was right by the kitchen, and the boys thought someone must have just used it or stuffed a dead animal in it. The pong of fish was the most prominent. It took Hachirou, the tallest of the three, back to the time when the rude girls in his neighborhood were harassing him, and one of them forced his face jokingly to the crotch of another. Now this girl, according to the gossip, had not seen a bath in ages, and he teared up that day like he almost did now just remembering it. It was unrighteous!

Yumiko and her boyfriend straightened up and made some decent room between each other from the moment the boss’ name was yelled. Her father glared at them nonetheless. “Dete ike! Kaere, omae!” shouted Mr. Hamada. Out! Go home boy! Susumu obeyed at once, stumbling and nearly bouncing into a visitor in his haste. “Bakayaro!” You idiot boy!

Yumiko quickly occupied herself with homework from the Hello Kitty bag before she became the next target.

Mr. Hamada frowned at the three visitors though he knew what they came for. He seemed like a loopy and mean creature. But because of his head, how it was bald in the middle, an old woman in a neighboring village once said he was a wise man. She exclaimed, “See how Mr. Hamada’s head is bald right down the middle, parted like the Red Sea when Moses stuck his rod into it?! He knows many things!”

There was no railing along the stairs to the loft. You would have to lean on the wall on the other side for some stability, like Shinju always did with her lopsided hip. There was only Mr. Hamada’s room up there anyway, and he hardly allowed anyone to as much as peep inside. Today was a special occasion though. The house was falling apart, and he needed to make some money from the strangers. “Watashi ni shitagatte!” he said roughly. Follow me!

The boys stepped up the stairway after the man, their eyes sliding to Yumiko who was a source of beauty in the little, rough dwelling. They stopped at the top, Yumiko still somewhat in view. Mr. Hamada was fidgeting with some keys before getting one of them to work. Behind his door, there was a hodgepodge of furniture. The only thing that made you think it was Mr. Hamada’s place of rest and not just a chaotic storage room was a set of gray pyjamas on a futon where the sheets were crumpled. The windows were grimy, and the scent of burning incense sticks was absorbed into everything; a much better smell than the one downstairs.

At the feet of a rotting portable wardrobe sat a wooden bowl filled with dry, brown pig blood. There were two other similar wardrobes. Although they were all in a nasty state, the boys looked at the wardrobes as if they were bags of silver and gold. Kiyoshi walked excitedly to get a closer look at one of the wardrobes, accidentally shifting a nearby barrel with his hip. At this time both of Mr. Hamada’s cloudy, yellowing eyes moved slowly to look at him. It was the way they moved that was most disturbing…

66 seconds later Yumiko and Shinju were yelling loud enough for the whole Prefecture to hear them. A donkey-sized barracuda was sliding and flopping down the attic steps. It shook the entire beam, if not the entire house. Knocking its ugly head into the wall and steps, it drew its own blood. At last it slid slimily off the final step and shot off, smashing into the front door so hard it flipped over on its other side and ended up dead. Upstairs in Mr. Hamada’s room, there was no one, but Kiyoshi’s leather yen bag was on the floor and the ugly wardrobes he and his crew wanted to purchase were wide open and empty. It was as if the men had all disintegrated into nothing.

People miles and miles and seas away learned about this weird story. It became a riddle. Yumiko was sent to live with a relative in a danchi and the barracuda was cut open. Nothing made sense. If the fish couldn’t have swallowed the four men, then what exactly happened that day in Mr. Hamada’s attic? Now and then an english-speaking person on the other side of the world would discover the story, and Japan would become an even greater mystery and the bad rap barracudas had would strengthen.

 

BEFOREHAND PART II:

Poor Nikolaevna

Toronto, Canada

Christine King and her eldest son sat across from the very poised Katherine Richmond. Katherine was 30-something with light brown hair that went bone-straight to her shoulders, except for the short, sharply cut front bangs. She picked up the ringing phone. Puckering her chili pepper lips, she spoke loudly as though the person on the other end was deaf. “YES!!! Exchange students don’t have to trade a home with another person.” The blue of her eyes reflected the calculator that they briefly shifted to before mirroring the surface of her desk again. “Go to our website and apply if you would like to be a host house.” Her impatience mounting, the fingers not holding the phone wiggled like creepy spider legs. Tick-tick-tick. She looked fearfully at the clock. Time seemed to move painfully slow in the office. Sometimes coming to a standstill. She couldn’t wait to get home to her husband. “No, your child doesn’t have to go to Germany…,” she grated, “and Germany isn’t the only place on the program, and I just told you that you don’t have to trade... Just go to the website. It’s all there. Okay. Good. Have a great day yourself.”

Dropping the call, she blew out a huge steamy breath and drank from her extra large Tim Hortons cup. It was sitting there for a while now. The coffee had gone cool and most of the good stuff was settled at the bottom.

Eyeing Katherine, Talan King raked through his blond, fashionably hobo hair that all the girls loved. He would never cut it. He followed Katherine’s every move and she pretended not to notice. She must have seemed so elegant and intelligent to him with her perfectly done hair and that razor-sharp, vanilla dress suit. She put the coffee cup down for a moment. “It’s a thousand per student, no tax reductions,” she informed the Kings.

Christine twitched giddily in her seat, looking at Talan beside her from under her old spectacles. She tried to hide a smile. Talan became embarrassed. He looked uncomfortable. They would get two students. His mom just showed how financially strapped they were as apparently a one-time payment of two grand was enough to make her act like an excited fool winning the lottery. He wanted to tell Katherine that they were not doing this for the money. That it was for the experience, for the cosmopolitan in them. But whatever.

****

On a Thursday afternoon, Talan left the house alone. It was the fifth of May and so the young man was heading off to the major mall on his side of town. It was the pickup spot for the international students who were going to be temporarily living in the particular area. He took his mother’s red minivan and drove over 80 miles per hour. He was very excited.

The herd of girls and boys at the side of the mall, ages thirteen to eighteen, had just flown into the country from different places around the world. You could see the spark of adventure and the adrenaline of facing the unknown on their little faces. When he parked the car, Talan pinned back his sandy hair behind his ears, looking out into the crowd, wondering which two of the foreigners were destined for his house. He took the sheet of paper that boldly said Christine King, and placed it up high as he walked towards the crowd. Two young ladies who seemed acquainted headed to him after one of them pointed his way. One of the supervisors, a bouncy, round little Filipino lad, eyed Talan’s paper to make sure it was the one that the company created. When he saw it was legit, he scratched something down on a sheet of paper pinned to a clipboard, and forgot about the girls.

Talan tried to restrain a grin. He thought the two girls that were loading themselves into the back seats - while he loaded their items into the trunk - were unbelievably beautiful! Well, one—the one with the emerald eyes and rich auburn hair that dropped in waves to her ribs. Her front bangs were blunt but soft at the top of her round face. From head to toe, she was so perfectly crafted to him, he saw her as a true vision of pure femininity.

The other was rather bland in comparison, he thought. Her champagne-colored hair was cut off at the base of her neck, and it was messy, and her skin was oily. And with her septum piercing, she reminded Talan of just another girl he befriended unromantically back in high school.

As soon as he settled back before the steering wheel, he popped out his cellular phone and texted a close buddy: “Dude, I want to bang one of my sisters. You have to see this chick. I’ll talk to you later though. Gotta drive. Almost home with them.”

Passing through the city, Talan glanced in the rear-view mirror at his “pretend sisters” for a month. “So what are your names again? Sorry.” He really couldn’t focus on anything besides the stunning lady. If his mother were there in the car and not at home preparing the ladies’ first dinner in Canada, she would have thought that she had never seen his dull, nonchalant taupe eyes shine brighter. Women loved Talan, but Talan was shallow and very picky.

“Nikolaevna,” answered the one he desired. When her accent rolled off into the air, there was no doubt she was Russian—unless you aren't knowledgeable in those kinds of things. And not to mention: that name.

“Mégane,” answered the unnoticed one in French tongue, her pearl-blue eyes nailed to the passing sceneries outside as if startled, mesmerized. They looked extremely vivid next to the dark makeup that surrounded them. “I’m from France,” she added.

Nikolaevna grinned at Mégane. The two had only just met at the airport when they were told they were going to the same house. “I’m from Omsk, a city in Russia,” said Nikolaevna to Talan although her eyes remained on Mégane. Mégane beamed back at her for a moment but wasn’t thinking nice things.

Talan swallowed as he tried to stamp the first name into his memory. Hmm... Let’s see… So he knew it started with an N... He had to ask her again and then again what it was they called her because Nikolaevna was a big, long, scary word to him. He felt like his head was cracking in half just from the thinking. Then finally he got it and when he did, the circumstances made the name Nikolaevna a much prettier name than the name “Megan” which he had always loved. “So Miss Russia and Miss France, huh?” he remarked and the girls were pleased to see his pretty smile flash in the rear-view mirror. Most of the way home he met Nikolaevna’s eyes in the mirror as much as he could afford without crashing.

Nikolaevna stirred uncomfortably in her seat. She kept on shying away from the mirror, just to look back again in guarded curiosity. The girl beside her noticed the two silently communicating and grew slightly jealous.

Talan turned on the radio. The Russian girl looked at her friend happily. Mégane noticed the gesture but ignored it, turning her head to peer outside some more. When Talan finally chose a station, some sort of country rock swept over the car. Then She Hates Me by Puddle of Mudd. “Do you girls like?” he asked.

“Nice, yes!” cried Nikolaevna through the noise. Placing a hand on his seat, she leaned forward, drawing closer to him just in case he spoke some more. She also wanted to chitchat herself even if her english was not the best. She kind of liked what she saw. “You’re the son of King?”

“Yes,” answered Talan. “Oh, put on your seatbelt, please,” he added. The demanding tone he used was a mistake. It was a result of constantly having to deal with a little brother. He had to be the man of the house for his widowed mother. So he did not mean to offend the foreign girl, but she appeared frightened, pulled back from his seat, and obeyed right away. He smiled in the mirror to make her see that he wasn’t upset. “It’s just safer, right?”

Nikolaevna sunk and said a sheepish, “Yeah...” She kept her eyes away from him now.

Other than the music, the ride to Christine King’s detached townhouse was then quiet. Mégane loved it.

 

The house was warm and smelled of a savory meal. On the formica table in the kitchen, there was hot mutton loaf waiting with a giant bowl of salad, and a tray of baked potatoes that were steaming with their unpeeled skins crisped, cracking and brown. When she heard the people arrive, the single mother of two waltzed keenly to the door. She greeted the girls each with a hug and an air kiss. “Welcome home!”

Scott, Talan’s thirteen-year-old little brother, fell a shy spectator by the stairs. It was usually just the two of them and their mother in the small house.

The King brothers hauled the girls’ belongings up to the guest room they were going to share. There was a bunk bed in it. The girls, both from wealthy families, and dressing in designer jeans and jewellery, saw that there would be some major getting accustomed to do. After they privately socialized in their new room, they went down to dinner.

Grinning, Christine took a jug of fruit punch out of the fridge and added it to the table. The chairs they were sitting on had some questionable stains before Talan refurbished them yesterday with a bright peach cloth by hand. Christine thought they now added the vibrancy the stuffy kitchen needed. But she had to spray them down with Febreze in her attempt to hide the scent of tobacco. Talan was an on-and-off chain smoker and did not listen to her sometimes when she told him to keep the “unhealthy activity” outside—not like she didn’t smoke herself.

The girls ate very little, slicing off a really thin piece of the foods before they hesitantly ingested them. They shredded down even the pieces of lettuce in their salads, cutting them apart with their knives and forks as if they were servings of sturdy steak. Nikolaevna was more the one without the appetite. Christine, with her cropped, hard-working-mommy hair and puffy eyelids, noticed that Mégane only started her fooling around once she saw Nikolaevna’s style.

 

Throughout the girls’ month-long stay with the Kings they attended a school and made many friends quickly, most people just awfully curious about foreigners. A lot of boys took Nikolaevna out and pleaded to be her boyfriend, but she was adamant about being faithful to the young man she left back in the city of Omsk.

Though he was also taken aback by the Russian beauty, Talan’s little brother, Scott, got more attached to Mégane who was very playful towards him. Unlike Nikolaevna, Mégane Boutin was not afraid to act silly. She was eighteen like Nikolaevna, five years Scott’s senior but she screamed, chortled, and played tickling games with him, the two rolling around like little pigs on the tobacco scented cream carpet in Christine’s living room. She accompanied him out for ice-cream, laughing when the chilly treat smudged messily around her mouth and dripped down her chin. Some afternoons and nights when Nikolaevna got dolled up and went out with friends from the school or Talan, Boutin would stay at the house and watch a bootleg movie online with Scott and his best friend Dallas. The three would goof around, eat pizza, drink soda, and play card games.

Nikolaevna Alexandrov was always busy turning down boys, including Talan, though something about Talan made her lean toward him more. Was it the fact that she was living with him, and he made her butter pancakes in the mornings and gave her fun, free English lessons? It could as well be that he showed her around the city, gleaming as a knowledgeable and protective young man. She also admired his passion to be a big-time movie producer one day and flirted with the idea of him giving her the starring role in one of his films. She came from wealth. But money couldn’t buy fame and ambition.

One day, while Talan filmed her in the hallway, she stuck out her tongue brashly at the camera. Talan was amazed. He brought the equipment down, filming the floor unintentionally, and looked at her with his mouth hanging open. That was just about the raciest thing he had ever seen Ms. Alexandrov do. She covered her face with her hands, turned rosy and giggled. Later that day, while Boutin showered, he opened the door to the guest room without knocking. He drank Woodforde’s Wherry right out of the bottle as he watched Nikolaevna. She pretended he wasn’t there. She had just been in the shower, right before Mégane, and was only dressed in a pink, lacy g-string. But her long hair fell over her nipples as she sat bent over on the bottom bed, rubbing her legs down with Johnson’s baby oil. Talan was disappointed and cleared his throat, gesturing for her to pull the auburn tresses away so he could see her better. She continued to ignore him and added more oil to her already smooth and shining legs—way more oil than necessary. Her limbs became soaked with oil. Talan opened his mouth to speak. “I think you’ve got them cov—”

Someone was coming. The footsteps sounded too light to be the sturdy ones of his mother. It was definitely Scott. It didn’t matter who it was anyway. No one was going to catch him in his wrongful, perverted act! He should be ashamed of himself! He reclosed the door quickly, and headed to his own room in a flash, spilling some Woodforde’s Wherry on the way. The carpet soaked it up.

Returning the favor, Nikolaevna caught him naked in the shower the following day. She just opened the bathroom door, went right in, and pulled the curtains away. Talan gasped in utter shock. She saw his little pink buttocks but at least he was proud of his healthy loaf of bread. He sprayed her with the hosed shower head. She screamed and ran out dripping wet, slamming the bathroom door behind her. Scott met her right then—just as she closed the door. Her face, like his, turned bright in color. She brushed wet strands of hair from her eyes and went as indifferently as she possibly could into her room, but she was shaking, her heart racing. Dinner that night with the Kings was a hushed occasion except for the rambling of Boutin and Mrs. King. The two talkers occasionally fell silent however, wondering why on earth everyone else was so quiet.

****

The Kings were catholic, and so they went to this thing called mass. Mrs. King wanted to introduce both girls to it, but on the day that she was to bring them to the ceremony, Nikolaevna complained of a stomach ache. Mrs. King, who counted money gingerly, was even willing to spend something on the girls; she had planned on taking them out to eat at a friend’s halal restaurant after the ceremony. Talan would just have to pay for his brother and himself. For Mrs. King, everything was planned. She was strictly organized. It was going to be a religious day out with the girls and her boys but before they got out the door, Alexandrov squinted in pain. “Can... I stay home?” she asked. She placed a hand over her stomach. “It’s not getting better.” Talan was disappointed. He wanted her to be with them. Now he wanted to stay home with her.

Mrs. King went about answering Alexandrov. “Yes. And you don’t have to ask, honey. If you’re not up to it, that’s fine. Instead of eating at the restaurant, after mass we’ll bring lunch here.”

“Thanks much.”

“I’ll stay home with her,” volunteered Talan. Scott and Mégane Boutin wanted to roll their eyes with disgust.

“No. You have to go to mass,” ordered his mom. “You haven’t been to it in a while.”

“But she shouldn’t be home alone. She’s not feeling well. I’ll look after her.”

Mrs. King didn’t know half of it, but she looked suspiciously at her son, saying, “I’m sure you would,” sarcastically. “Anyways, let’s go before we’re late.”

Talan wanted to argue but since they were in the presence of the girls, he chose to let his mother win this battle.

Nikolaevna’s round face sagged. She was hoping Talan would stay home too but sensing that Mama had won she turned from everybody and made her way up the stairs. Inside the room she splayed across the bottom mattress on her belly and sighed. She listened to the sounds of everyone leaving without her.

Sometime later, after falling into a nap, Nikolaevna woke and rose on the bed. The side of her face that she slept on was moist from sweat, and lined pink from a fold in the pillowcase. She stood when she saw that the room door was wide open. Hadn’t she closed it?

Gingerly she approached the open door. She journeyed down the hallway. Then stopped. A sound. She heard a sound, like footsteps and bed springs, all coming from Talan’s room. He must have stayed back to be with her, she thought, becoming excited all throughout the five foot, three inches of her body. With all the boys falling at her feet, even back in Russia, she had grown accustomed to always having a boyfriend figure at her disposal and wasn’t used to not having one to snuggle up with for so long. It was a bit over three weeks now that she had to live without a cuddle buddy. She could only socialize with her boyfriend through phone and video streaming and it left her feeling rather strange and single. Maybe today she would give into Talan King. He was so different from her current beau who acted far older than his age, but it had been a long while since she had let herself fall into the hands of the kind of guy Talan King was. Masculine, hands-on, a guys guy. It was almost too delightful, the thought of her doing so again. How would he feel against her? How would he touch her? She had to grip herself as she walked to his room. The anticipation was more than she could bear.

She paused. A thought came to her: to surprise Talan and allow him to see her willingness, she must go back to her room and strip down to her underwear and return! Cheeks flushed pink, she tiptoed anxiously back to the guest room...

The underwear was beige with the exception of a tiny black silk bow at the center of the padded bra and the panties. Looking like a Victoria’s Secret model, she crept out again into the hallway. She went down the path that turned into Talan’s bedroom.

But it wasn’t Talan who awaited her there.

The room seemed lifeless once she opened the door and went inside. She sat awkwardly on the bed, wondering if her “loose” behaviour was such a good idea after all. Talan could have been attracted to her conservative quality. She touched her pouty lips nervously. “Talan?” she called. With a worried expression, she got up and headed to the door like a bullet. She wanted to put back on her skirt and blouse. And now, now, now. Something wasn’t right.

About three hours later, Mrs. King, Scott, Boutin, and Talan entered the house. Inside was graveyard quiet. Talan had two heavy bags of take-out in his hands. He brought them to the table. His brother and exchange student sister helped him set the table with the purchased goods and needed tableware. Mrs. King helped for a bit before excusing herself. “I’m going to go get Nikolaevna. I know you guys are hungry, but it would be nice if you don’t start without us.” Almost as soon as she had left them to collect Alexandrov, Mrs. King reappeared. But she was trembling and her skin was as pale and as unwholesome as spoiling skimmed milk. She was without the girl and lurched to the table where the others sat, lacking expression as she moved.

“Mom, are you okay?!” cried Talan. “Scott, call the ambulance!” Mrs. King’s concerned older son rushed to her just in time to catch her collapsing body. She went to her knees, weeping in his arms. “Mom, what is it?” he pleaded hoarsely. He had never seen his mother this vulnerable since his father overdosed and killed himself.

Obediently, Scott took off to call the ambulance as soon as he was told to. Only Mégane remained around the table. Her pearl-blues quivered as she thought of not only Mrs. King, but more importantly: what the woman had seen upstairs to make her behave like she did. Mégane’s head felt like it was swelling and her heart felt as if it would explode inside her when she got a disturbing epiphany. Moments later, Talan got it too. The two looked towards each other, pearl-blue eyes to taupe eyes.

The young man tried desperately to lift his mother, but she wasn’t helping and her laxed, dead-weight body proved too heavy for him. He soon gave up and went about laying her gently on the ground. She was speechless. The skin on her forehead looked a bit translucent and was wet with cold sweat. It didn’t look good. Mégane dashed to the living room. In her return to the dramatic scene, she placed a cushion that she had snatched from one of the couches under the woman’s head.

Scott came back. “They are on their way,” he announced shakily. “Hold on, mom.” He crouched down and smoothed back her fair hair repetitively. Soon he was sobbing, for his mother was neither speaking nor moving, but looking up, disoriented, into his face as if she was cursed by a spell of Alzheimer’s or consumed by a stroke.

Then...., “Don’t worry about me..,” she uttered unexpectedly. She removed her spectacles. Her eyes left her young son’s face which was hovering over her and aimed at her eldest son. “Talan, we are in so much trouble...”

Scott hushed, wiping the brackish water from his soft face that barely showed his propinquity to manhood. Still crouching over his mother, he gasped, turning his gaze upwards and looking stunned out into the thin air. He got the epiphany as well. He straightened. Mégane Boutin and the two King brothers gathered in a tight bundle that moved inch by inch towards the front of the house where the stairway began.

“No, don’t go up there!” howled Christine who was suddenly able to sit up with the help of her shaky elbows. “Scott, Talan, come back here right now! Mégane! Mégane you are to listen to me too!”

The woman’s warnings fell upon disobedient ears. The three youngsters hesitantly made their way up the steps, the two oldest in front, the youngest cringing behind, clinging onto Boutin’s sheer sweater. Approximately three minutes later there was a loud screeching. It sounded like it came from more than 3 individuals, as the strain on the throats shredded the sounds into different volumes and textures. It sounded like darkness.

The darkness echoed out into the household, touching the windows, seeping into the carpets and upholstery, and even Christine, who was still sitting on the floor, screamed and cried into her paled palms as if she had just seen what was left of Nikolaevna for the first time again. The cries of her children distressed her. She knew what mental torment they had to be going through. Shocking visuals came back to her, unwanted and barging through her mind like a stampede of angry demons.

Poor Nikolaevna. Her nude body was on its back on Talan’s bed. The sheets were soaked to the deepest cherry. Under the pert breasts, the body was opened up along the center of the torso. She was like a dissected lab rat, organs pulled out, intestines and pancreas bundled up and looking like a tangled line of raw pork wieners. Her tongue hung out long and loose like a thirsty dog’s and was nailed to the hard, flat bone area between her throat and breasts. And the emerald eyes which Talan had once been trapped in, like so many boys before, were missing from their sockets.

Nikolaevna was Nikolaevna no more.

In the bathroom the exchange students shared, while the house was being combed by forensic investigators, Nikolaevna’s leopard-print handbag was right there on the vanity. Amongst makeup, a few tampon sticks, and a few other girly things, there was a green perfect-bound notebook in the handbag. The notebook had a few handwritten entries, a bit funny to read though as english was not the girl’s first language.

 

Tuesday, May 10

The teach say Mégane the other exchange girl and I write here in English so get us practice. My English is almost good so no problem. Family I will translate for you. The teach said not to worry. He won’t look at the words in here if we private and don’t like so we can be free of topic we write. We can write our hearts. Dear family and Love, I miss you. I am okay though. I live with boy Talan and his Mother Christine and young brother Scott. The surnames are King. I live too with other international student like me named Megane. She is from beautiful France. They all are so kind to me, I no fear. Canada is good. People here just like we think. They are so nice! I make so many friends already I can’t even say. They joke around and say my North American name is Nicole Alexander. I let them call me Nicole as it easier for them. You should hear them struggle with Nikolaevna. Xaxaxa! Canada people are nice but some not so nice at school. It is usual acts of school children any country. Don’t fear they nice to me but there is girl of Canada, just like them, and they pick on her. Aubrey, she in my class, they mature but pick on her like little children. Even some boys who are suppose to be gentlemen do too. I am so sad for girl. I smile at her but her mind trust that I am rude too.

 

Thursday, May 12

I buy e-reader called Kobo at bookstore called Chapters. I get coffee from starbucks. They have it joined to bookstore, inside bookstore. Friend help me set up Kobo at her house. I had to use email. Kobo let me read book on it as I walk around. I can hold a complete library on it. I buy lots of books. Hardly any good ones in Russian I find, but I buy lots of English ones, lots of them. There are books about black like in Russia. The demons! Olga you will like books when you learn to speak better English. Or they may translate. They have romance in them but black black black. I read many at the same time. I miss you guys so much. I can’t wait to squeeze and kiss. My stomach hurts. Many foods here no like me. I go use toilet! So much boys after me and don’t know of my belly troubles! Xaxaxa! Karp, no worry, I like you much more. Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss!

 

Tuesday, May 17

I take bus by myself! The smaller King boy Scott say I try Mcgriddle from McDonalds shop. I got it and eat on bus. It was so good in the starting but an old man hear my accent when I talk on cell phone and sat beside me. He say “You’re not from around here are you?” I say he’s right. My stomach felt sick. Not because of his oldness, but his top eyelids poked out like umbrellas! I’ve never seen that! Mommy it ruined my taste for food and I felt vomit. He needs surgery of plastic! My mc griddle unfinished in hands. I did not eat any more. I don’t want to be rude but my mind say please old man, get away from me! I excuse friend from phone. Old man saw my Kobo stick out from bag. He ask to see what I read. I showed him list of books. He looked at covers hard through glasses. He said nice e reader but the books are not so nice. He shake head and say no no too scary and bad spirits will come for all who read such things for long because they soul accepts the bad stuff. He say soul when read, listen, or watch stuff of darkness feeds darkness love and darkness, demons, comes and can then touch. I ask him if he believe in ghosts, zombie, vampir, monsters, and fallen angels and he say all are not real but ghost and Satan’s children yes but no beautiful face and nice wings and he call them serpent demons, ugly hideus beasts. He say body big to devour you in one chew, horns grow out of head, tongue slither out like snake, nails long to tear flesh. He say nothing romantic sweet about them either. He say nothing good come down here to earth and socialize or touch us, just bad things. I shake head and told him no he lie because my mommy is spiritualist in Omsk and he laugh. He say those so call spirits of our dead loved ones coming to visit we see are actually evil, all good stay lock away, waiting. I say but mother saw things like her father placing birthday cake on bedside table for her to eat on birthday and he say that was not her father but a demon in the form of him, trying to fool her. Tears came in my eyes and he say no. He rub my back and I think “NO! Old man, get away! He say he sorry and disgusted that innocent young girls like me believe nonsense and believe there is love in darkness. I told him I don’t believe romance in darkness. He said it doesn’t matter I should not read because more I read the more I allow darkness, like demons from hell, and evil spirits to get closer to me and even touch me. He still rub my back. He touch my hair, my neck and I think yuck, old man, you’re the demon! He say I beautiful and should find beautiful stories to read. He say Water for Elfats, I not sure. I look up. Maybe I spell wrong, I don’t know. When I leave bus I give homeless man on Toronto street the rest of my mcgriddle.

 

Wednesday, May 18

I sad for cute girl name Aubrey I told you about before. They pushed her onto the grass today. The girls. Boys laughed. Aubrey wear mini skirt so underwear showed. She looked like crying but no one cared. They left her on ground. I followed her to tell her I be friend and sorry for their wrong. She fix clothes and run away from me. I run after her. She cry so much behind some bushes where there is this fence. She hide. I stay by. I try to talk to her. I feel so sad for girl. She walked alone over fields of school. I follow to get her to hear my words. She shake head to me and say sorry Nikolaevna, I don’t feel to talk, not to be impolite. She nice when speak to me for first time. She said my name without struggle. I let her go. I let her be but then I shout to her there was something like shadow following behind. Black shadow. Mommy you talk to people of their dead people so maybe you pass down skill to me. I know what I saw! I thought it was my contacts how they make my eyes dry and burn, bleary sometimes but I saw it I know I not blind! I ran to cute girl and warned her of shadow and to come have some prayer with me. She look at me and think I am strange girl I know. Her face showed her thoughts. She think I am so strange now. So I stopped talking and went with friend who ask me why I was talking to her. Mommy the shadow scared me. I had it in mind all day. I could not fall asleep fast at night. I look bad in morning. Boys still talked to me I don’t know why! I drank many coffee of cups! Mommy I miss you. Daddy, Olga, Marlen, Tit, and love Karp, you all in mind also.

 

Monday, May 23

Every day shadow coming closer to me from girl’s back. I tell it to leave me please Aubrey’s shadow, I am not person to follow. You are not my shadow but Aubrey’s! Mommy I miss you.

 

Thursday, May 26

I don’t think shadow likes that I see it. Mommy I miss you.

 

Friday, May 27

Mommy I miss you.

 

1

Postman….

Toronto, Canada

A little more than a year later…

One of the few concepts that really stuck with Aubrey was the Law of Attraction. It’s when the universe reacts to you based on the thought frequencies you put out there. But she had no energy in her to go figure out for herself if the theory had any truth. So was this sour day her fault because she was often pessimistic, negative, and attracted bad things to her, she would never know. Aubrey just wanted to melt into the seat. She felt naked. Likely to be gobbled up.

Aubrey was having a moment. That moment when you see your ex and you don’t look good and did not shower because you were too lazy. She could feel her skin getting paler, her hands getting moist, and that stress sweat coming on under her arms. Total fear. Insecurity at its greatest level... Why did she have to live in this same town as he? Why couldn’t they just exist in different time zones or time periods so she would never have to go through the stress of facing him again.

Their eyes crossed paths and his resplendent face turned rose-colored. He had to sit beside her because there was no more room and he did not feel like standing with the delicate art piece in his hand. A paper mache lady torso. Still wet. The bus hummed down the street, under a bridge. Aubrey flicked her pale, lank hair over her shoulders, trying not to dwell on the fact that he had used another girl’s body for reference. Trying not to notice how cute and neat the torso was, with perfect little boobs, and that the girl was probably prettier than her by far. She felt so obsolete. She was Dolly Parton singing Jolene. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don’t take him just because you can.

This was cruel. This was a Shakespearean tragedy. Once upon a time her sadness about Zane was truly pervasive. She couldn’t escape it. It was kind of like metastasis breasts cancer. And just as deadly too. Then her good friend Cyril Leet, in the way of “good” friends, not “best” friends, harangued her out of the Zane spell so violently she knew she had to change somehow back to a normal functioning person who ate, showered, and didn’t sequester herself in her bedroom. Cyril suffered no fools and Cyril’s terror was palpable. It made Aubrey at last wonder if she  shouldn’t be terrified then for herself. Things changed after that.

She was surprised that she could as much as breathe with him so close to her. The novel still wasn’t making any sense to her though and it was starting to shake with her nervous energy—all this while he remained so close. Zane McCurry. He still looked the same. Ashton Kutcher in Dude Where’s My Car? Aubrey panicked. She believed her lack of makeup and random selection in clothing (washed out shirt and tights that were so last season) today made her look just awful and wondered if she at least smelled okay. Was her zits standing out? She needed to know! After he nodded and gave a somewhat terrified smile, Zane pretended that he didn’t know her.

She tried to mentally shrug it off. That was fine, she thought, just another once-upon-a-time friend who wanted her out of the way. More specifically, The Man of her Dreams and the second boy she had ever said “I love you,” to. But it ended in disaster, just like the first time. Worse. Without a doubt, Aubrey was the best candidate to write a book called How to Lose a Guy Swiftly. Maybe she could add to the FOR DUMMIES series. Scaring Men FOR DUMMIES.

FOR DUMMIES. “Making everything easier.”

Zane McCurry was always so sweet to everyone but the last thing he said to Aubrey was “suck it,” and not in that good kind of way, but in that way meaning: leave me the hell alone! Because. Well. She wouldn’t. After all, she was Aubrey Golding, the somewhat beautiful but damaged creature. The one who had this innate power to push people away, especially those she longed for in her life. She kind of figured they would go naturally so sometimes (just sometimes) she never held back from doing things that would sabotage the relationship. Set it on fire. She swore she must have been chemically imbalanced when Zane told her he needed to end things for the sake of his own sanity. Who in their right mind texts a guy “waaaaa” (the crying sound infants make) for eight consecutive days?? She cringed just remembering how stupid and weak she was with Zane, how often she would embarrass herself in trying to win his attention. All those desperate messages now filling his junk mail. His block zone. Even with telling him that she loved him—it was random and came out days after he started ignoring her.

Aubrey did not know what really happened. Maybe she just wasn’t pretty enough? Maybe she was cursed? Delusional? Or maybe it was her personality that he could not stand. Aubrey’s self-esteem was so low it was nonexistent. She thought of everything bad about her and magnified it by a thousand. Aubrey was not diagnosed by a professional but after browsing the web obsessively, she came up with at least four different personality disorders that she was “convinced” she had. She hated herself and sometimes wished she just got ran over by a bus.

The story in her hands was an interesting horror/fantasy hybrid novel with raving reviews from Forbes and The New York Times, but not even an overdose of ritalin could have kept her focused on the pages. It was almost her time to get off the bus anyway. Zane went first, without saying goodbye, something that caused her great Jesus-on-the-cross type of pain. He just walked on, without a single word, as if she meant nothing. Aubrey placed the book down on her lap to watch him leave, desperately missing those times when he was all about her. Like when he wrote her name on the yellow sticky note and drew a heart around it (even though she had asked him “What does that mean?” and he had responded with “It means I wrote your name and drew a heart around it”). Like those times he kissed her under the twinkling little stars as if she was the only girl in the world, and looked at her with those dreamy brown eyes that said everything she wanted to hear that he would never tell her. For once she had felt beautiful, whole and now it was the complete opposite. He leaving had reconfirmed why her dad had handed her down to her grandparents, why she was picked on by other students in high school—she just was not good enough. Now, sometimes she barely could stand to look at herself in the mirror.

Zane had felt like her only hope, the silver lining when he asked her if she was okay one gloomy lunch break. She was fighting to get over him. Now and then good memories blow-torched her skin inch by inch. His face haunted her, his voice, his name. Her gut twisted and she almost bit her lip off as he continued to walk away, noticing how his ass was so perfect like that good piece of steak on the glossy restaurant menu you know you have no money to buy. Tears rolled down her face. So sad. So sad.

She dropped out of the social spectrum, lost her job at Target and picked up solo drinking when he broke up with her, became almost defective. Kind of like a vegetable. She wanted to kill herself. She got sick physically and mentally. Deteriorated. She remembered thinking so much about her and Zane, and all the “Aubrey blunders” she had done to ruin things, thinking so much that it had felt as though her head was being bashed in. She remembered crying so much, that it was like she was dying and how inside of her there was nothing to be felt but pain. She was a big bundle of pain. About 6 thousand thoughts go through the human brain each day, and she could remember 5 thousand of those being related to Zane McCurry. Zane McCurry when she woke up, when she ate, placed on her makeup (especially when she placed on her makeup), when she went out. Zane McCurry when she went to bed. All there was, was him. Even breathing was torture. She wanted him to come back to show her she wasn’t that bad. And to her he was the most perfect thing. There would never be another Zane. She was sure she would die unable to like anyone again. She hated admitting it, but she was obsessed with him. That was the main reason he left her. He never knew what to expect with her. She was too much. It scared him. If she was erratic enough to threaten to hurt herself, text him at all hours of the day about every topic imaginable, who is to say she was not crazy enough to hurt him? He was not going to risk any chances, thank you very much.

The transit continued down the road then took a corner. Zane used to be in three of her classes. Unfortunately, so did the two girls she saw at the next stop up ahead—her stop. Just her ill luck. Maggie and Carla. Aubrey stood in a heartbeat and beelined to the middle door. Hurry. She stared hopelessly at the back of a young mother who was struggling with a weighty baby bag and a sleeping toddler. The bus stopped. With their laser eyes, they spotted Aubrey as soon as they got inside from the front door. “Oh look!” one spat. It was Maggie with her massive head of shiny, lush ringlets.

“It’s pizza-face!” finished Carla. They were such best friends that it was like they were morphing into one person. Both were short, big-mouthed and had blond to brown ombre hair. On instagram they always hashtagged their pictures blonds-have-more-fun but Aubrey, though naturally blond, couldn’t say the same. Maggie used to be her friend. But from the time she met Carla, she became trouble. Aubrey flinched and slid a step down through the door after the mother and toddler. At least she was outside now. She speed-walked to the blue collar neighborhood where she lived with her grandparents.

She got into the semi-bungalow, wanting nothing more than to get to her chocolates. Her little room was littered with wrappers and empty cases. She fished under the bed and pulled out a shoebox of treats. One by one, she began to eat them like a hungry madwoman.

There she goes... That’s it... She felt better already.

Drinking was not always the solution to Aubrey. Like alcohol is to an alcoholic, chocolate was to Aubrey. Whenever her grandparents told her to stop before she got really, really sick, she complained that she couldn’t help it. She didn’t care about all the zits, headaches and stomach aches it gave her anymore. Her skin was a mess, red blemishes everywhere, but she just couldn’t stop her addiction from taking over.

She blamed it on the strange experience of losing her mother.

She was almost eight years old when Deborah Golding took her outside for one last time. The store was nearby so they decided to walk to it, get some fresh air, though it was cold and icy. They were almost there when Aubrey saw a schoolmate. She wanted to say hello and talk about dolls, so Deborah left her with the friend to go across the road to the shop alone. Deborah wanted to get the ingredients to make her special hot cocoa. Aubrey could still remember the way Deborah walked back to her over the road in her high-heeled boots and fancy, fur-trimmed coat and mitts. But she was struck down by a skidding car. Of course, Aubrey couldn’t believe it and as the chaos of sirens and horrified voices grew around her, she became disconnected. There was a fog of disconnect. She wasn’t able to see anything but the little balls that escaped from Deborah’s shopping bag upon the hit. They were chocolate balls wrapped in golden foil, the semisweet, organic kind that Deborah always got to make her signature rich hot chocolate. One rolled right to the tip of Aubrey’s shoe and she picked it up. It was all she had left of her mother. And ever since that day, she has been consuming chocolate at immoral rates. Of lately she would throw back wine and vodka, and now and then a bottle of beer, but she was devoted to chocolate.

Aubrey gasped as she thought about the sight of her mother at the open casket funeral, wearing a lilac-white dress, but looking more like a blown-up clay doll than the person she used to call mom. The memory came back so vividly, so bright, it ached her eyes. She sighed, knowing she needed some release. She got the idea to text Kagan and Cyril when she remembered her cell phone was no longer working after taking three cycles in the washing machine.

Frowning, she ran downstairs to the laptop. She got online to check her email and saw that there was a new message from Jack, this new guy she met on a dating website. She liked him. She covered her mouth excitedly and clicked to open the email. Maybe he was going to finally ask her out on a real date?! But instead of the message she was hoping for he wrote, Come jack me off??

“Ugh!” Aubrey stood and slammed down the top of the laptop. “Absolute rubbish! Are you kidding me!” It was like she could never get guys to take her seriously. “Am I not worth anything!” she screamed at the living room.

“Trying to take a nap here!” yelled her grandfather from upstairs. His and Candice’s room was the first one off the landing. His name was Roman.

At four o’clock she made a mess in the kitchen preparing shepherds pie, sausage, salad, and boiled corn for her grandparents. While she let the sausage sizzle some more and started to set the table, she spoke with Cyril over the house phone. “Cyril, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I don’t seem like a slut, do I?” They were talking about Jack’s “cocky” message.

There was a slight hesitation. “I’m sure it’s not you,” said Cyril in her pinched, squeaky voice. “It’s him. You know he sounds like one of those guys that put quantity first before everything. He’ll take any deal.”

“Oh…” Aubrey giggled uncomfortably. “That does not make me feel any better.” Aubrey loved her friend but sometimes Cyril could be too foreword.

“What I mean is he isn’t boyfriend material at this time,” added Cyril.

“It could just be me. I know it is. Awe man, I wish Zane would just talk to me. At leasts he cared about other things besides you know….

“Come on. You need to stop worrying about Zane. You mention him every day. Why do you like torturing yourself?”

“I don’t know,” Aubrey said tiredly.

After the conversation with Cyril ended she took the sausages off the stove and returned to her grandparents laptop, slurping a red bull. She sat cross-legged on her bed, getting ready to communicate with her “online friends.” Friends she had never met face-to-face. She signed into the messenger program she always used. Gregg Freeny’s profile was lit, meaning he was available to chat. Knowing Gregg, it was Aubrey’s guess that he probably just had his phone synced to the program. She started to send him messages.

Aubrey: Hey, what are you doing?

Gregg: Wanking.

Aubrey: huh?

Gregg: Miranda and I got into an argument and she stormed out to her sister’s place out of town. So I’m taking matters into my own hands. Get it?

Aubrey: Oh. Oh gosh. Awe don’t hold your sausage hostage.

Gregg: LOL.

Aubrey: So are you working tonight?

Gregg: Yeah. Sucks. Anyway I’ll talk to you later. Your kind of stopping my flow.

Aubrey: Oh. SORRY. Alright. Wank away.

Aubrey sighed, biting her lip, when suddenly a newspaper-gray, sickly face popped up on the screen. As she jumped up off the bed and let out a scream, the screen went completely black and there was that sound the laptop always made when the entire system was shutting down. Then Aubrey swung around fast to face behind her because she had heard a disembodied voice. Like someone had spoken right into her ear. She didn’t make out what the voice had said, just that it was male and gravelly. She blinked, holding her head thinking she was if going crazy.

Later, after eating, she stretched with some yoga she learned off YouTube, took a hot shower, and continued reading the horror/fantasy novel until she felt sleepy. She was sitting on her bed with her back against the headboard, a pillow tucked between for support and comfort. Her eyelids started to droop. Finally she closed the book and got up from the bed to turn off the light. But she gasped and quickly turned it back on. Then off, then on, then off, then on...

The shape of a person with a bull’s head kept on appearing in the dark. There it was when the light would go off, standing right before her, horns looming in the darkness. But it was gone as soon as she flicked the light back on. There, not there. There, not there... So she decided it was best to sleep in the light with a teddy bear tucked under her arm.

Sometime later her grandmother opened the door, thinking Aubrey had fallen asleep forgetting the light. Smiling lovingly at her dearest grandchild, Candice reached out a liver-spotted hand to turn off the light. She closed the door, not noticing the strange horned creature sitting by Aubrey’s sleeping body, hunching over her like a dark, insidious cloud.  

 

A cool breeze rushed upon the night-blackened street just about the very same time the strange postman knocked on the front door of the semi-bungalow. TAP, TAP, TAP…

“Hey!” Old Roman came out in his pyjamas and reached for the doorknob. “Hello?” he said uneasily when he opened the door to see nothing more than the dark, vacant street staring back at him. The person, whoever it was, was gone. He was about to close the door worriedly when he noticed a fat brown envelope on the ground. Open-mouthed, he glanced around. What is this? Where was the postman? Why would a small package like this be delivered to his door and not his mailbox? And what would be delivered by hand at these hours? Did they finally win the lottery and this was some new way of being informed? He should talk to Aubrey. She’ll know. Sweating, he picked it up and closed the door quickly. He switched on the light.

It got even weirder: it was addressed to Aubrey. Roman squinted and turned the envelope over to examine its other side. It was rare that Aubrey got mail unless it was a bank statement or something of the sort.

This was peculiar. It was a personal mail that had the name Dan Golding on its seal. Roman dizzied. “Mr. Golding?” Curiosity suddenly overwhelmed him. “Is this a prank?” Roman opened the door again, but this time fast, and this time he called out, “Mr. Golding?” He was very, very confused.

Upstairs under her Swiss cotton sheet, one of Aubrey’s feet twitched.

Her grandfather was confused because after Deborah’s death over nine years ago, Aubrey’s father grew very detached from her and eventually shipped her to the semi-bungalow when she was ten like some unwanted cargo. He never said a word to her since, and now all of a sudden he was choosing to. What was the meaning of this?

Anyway, if you were to ask Aubrey if she wished she had been shipped off to her grandparents from the moment her mother died she would have said Yes, even though she wanted her dad to love her. You see, after Deborah became Dead Deborah, Dan hired this boney, stern-faced woman who acted like some sort of mean victorian governess of the house, scolding Aubrey about everything. The woman was cruel. Her name was Grace. She didn’t fit for such a sweet name. And though Aubrey never met her daughter, Joanne, Grace always compared her to her, from everything down to the shade of their blond hair. Joanne was always better. Grace belittled Aubrey down to nothing, and was part of the cause of Aubrey’s anxiety. If Aubrey did the littlest thing, such as stir the milk in her hot tea too loudly, Grace would yell at her, “Mix the tea without the spoon hitting the sides!” Probably the only thing that that woman did right was to invite Samantha Bacherman to the house regularly, to be Aubrey’s playmate and learning partner. But it started with Aubrey almost tumbling down the stairs and breaking her neck…

They were both eight at the time. The helper fixed up Aubrey and sent her down to meet this “new buddy” of hers. She was eager initially, going down the snaking path, but hesitated when she had a bit more to go until the landing. She was looking down at the lobby, desiring to turn and run back upstairs. It was a little dark-haired girl. Something about Samantha frightened her. Samantha’s eyes were hazel. At first glance of them, Aubrey lost her balance and blacked out.

Samantha Bacherman lived alongside Aubrey much like an adopted sister, only going back to Grishamm’s Children Group Home on the weekends. As the days went by, Aubrey in time forgot about her Samantha phobia because of the unexpected friendship. The two just about became best friends—bonded closely over Grace constantly pushing them around, and perhaps the pink and yellow dollhouse.

Grace got mad at them sometimes for just making noise when they laughed like children were supposed to, and sentenced them to their rooms. Sometimes Aubrey could hear Samantha screaming from her room. She never knew what Grace did to her, but covered her ears, afraid of Samantha’s scream. Most times the fun didn’t stop with a sentence to the room however, as they both had a French window that led to a balcony. There the pallid balustrades overlooked the river and woods beyond it. Their rooms were so close together that they could stand on their balconies and talk, the scent of wild roses getting caught in Aubrey’s cotton-light hair, Samantha’s long dark strands blowing up brilliantly like floating Coca-Cola, spilled from the bottle.

Roman scratched his grey, balding head. “Talk about random... Dan Golding? Really?”

Showered with curiosity, the old man went about opening the envelope. However, it did say Aubrey’s name and so he eventually behaved himself before he tore it open completely. He drew the door shut, his OCD making him ensure he had really closed it, twice, and when he didn’t feel satisfied, he tested it a third time. He shuffled by the tray of muffins left uncovered and outside the fridge. “Candice always does this,” he grumbled about his wife. “I hope those mice don’t come sniffing.” He was very concerned about his Candice. It’s not like he loathed old age, but Candice had started knitting clothes and forgetting things. He headed up the staircase. Again temptation came, and he paused to look at the envelope once more while at his granddaughter’s door.

Reluctantly he stuffed it through the narrow space at the bottom of the door.

The foot twitched again.

Aubrey woke up.

 

2

Chill…

 

Aubrey was dreaming about fighting away this pressure she felt on her neck when she was sure she heard something. She reached over a pillow to turn on the lamp then forced herself up and got off the bed. A crushed block of chocolate that was trapped in her hair, fell to the ground. She staggered lazily through the mess all around to the door and turned on the light. “What?” Aubrey wondered aloud to herself when she saw the envelope.

She bent to pick it up. Her pale eyebrows knitted together as she scanned it. She felt like a druggie hallucinating. For now, she placed it on the top of her chest of drawers. It had Dan Golding on it. That couldn’t be right. She must still be sleeping or something. She headed to the puny bathroom she shared with her grandparents. She was homey in a flannel vest top that matched her ringed, light-blue irises, and silken baggy shorts.

The toilet flushed. The faucet turned on, and shortly after, off.

When Aubrey gazed up into the looking glass over the sink, she saw the same little girl she had been in her dreams about home back in her old town, just a stretched, worn-out version. Some of her zits were so serious she put a prescription antibiotic gel on them. With all the chocolate she ate on a daily basis you would think Aubrey was a plump little one. To be honest she wasn’t really skinny either, but a lazy-looking sort of slender.

Briefly running the water again, she splashed her pimpled face when she got it ice-cold. She was cautious about staring at mirrors for too long. Back three weeks ago she started seeing a girl who had no features but for these empty, black holes for eyes. The creepiest part was that the girl seemed to be staring back at her from the mirror, like a twisted reflection. It’s amazing what your imagination can do. She remembered this woman from a talk show, how she had stitches from bursting a door open with her hip after seeing an apparition in her backyard. The woman said she was trying to find the keys to her house when she saw a man crouched down like an ape in the dark of night. He headed towards her, rocking side to side, his huge eyes glowing. They were not normal eyes. They were literally light bulbs. He peered at her through them.

Just from remembering this, Aubrey started to feel as though someone was there with her in the bathroom. Her own reflection started to scare her. It was like she was looking at a stranger, long blond strands flopped over her face. Eyes that just didn’t look at her right. Or perhaps they just didn’t look right themselves. Two weird eyes, just there looking back at her. And she didn’t want to see the scary girl again. “No,” she said, turning away from the mirror.

Back in her room, she got the courage to open the envelope. Inside was a strange anytime train ticket. It was black and white and had the words Grishamm’s Finest and a picture of a steam engine on it. She also found a check of four thousand dollars inside the envelope, a colorful pamphlet exclaiming The Town of Grishamm, and a white, folded piece of paper. That check of four grand…. She had never seen so much money in one place before. Tears in her eyes, Aubrey unfolded the paper. A tremor in her right hand, hot blood under her cheeks, she read, ignoring the wraith-like thing standing in the shadowed corner of her room. Or maybe that’s because she did not notice it.

Dear Aubrey,

Please forgive me for being such a bad father. I wish there was some way I can make it up to you. Can you maybe come and visit me before the summer break ends? Please? I would do anything to see you again. Please at least think about it. Also, don’t pack much, you will get a new wardrobe that is suitable for Grishamm.

Sincerely yours,

Dan Golding

There was a tension churning beneath the surface. She felt her skin crawl but lacked the clarity to understand why. Tears forgotten, Aubrey blinked twice. “Okay… random much,” she drawled. Her tone was bland but a rush of mixed feelings crammed themselves inside her. She needed a drink. There was too many feelings. Ambivalence. Great, fierce ambivalence. She was about to explode. She had always hoped… just a bit… that her father would remember even her existence. So this was in a way uplifting. On the other side of the coin, she was angry that he had waited so long. A little lump developed in her throat as if yesterday’s blue gumball had come up whole, and she could have sworn she had chewed it, and later swallowed it by accident. Maybe the money Dan sent was meant for shopping but she planned to save it for school, as who knew when next her long-lost father would give her money. There was a stressed part of her that knew she would end up splurging and wasting the money. Her grandparents, Candice in particular, did not want a penny from Dan. They were too proud and bitter. So there weren’t any lawyers involved to help Aubrey get child support over the years and now that she was classified as an adult, Dan legally did not have to give her anything.

With a sigh she focused to stop all bad thoughts in their tracks. She went back to the washroom and again started the pipe under the mirror. Cupping her palms under the running water she drank what must have been a glassful. Thoughts, and more thoughts. What would she do about the letter? Could she just put it down and pretend she had no knowledge of it? No, she had to face it.

Wasn’t it the greatest thing that had happened to her in a long time? What would be her decision? Surely she didn’t want to spend the rest of her summer hiding inside the semi-bungalow. Then again, it would be the most awkward of situations going to see her father after so long. Would they even get along?

Aubrey felt the urge to grab the half-eaten Cookies ‘n’ Creme bar on her side table to comfort her. The box of truffles on the ground also tried to seduce her, as well as the giant chocolate-nut block nearby that was leaning drunkenly on a R.L. Stine novel.

Wildcards could give her migraines and sweaty palms, but on the other hand she could die of boredom in the house.

She didn’t want to, as she already brushed her teeth, but she jumped into her bed, wrapped up, and grabbed the Hershey bar. She ate it desperately, feeding her microscopic cavities, until she fell asleep. Finding a decision for that letter was too much of a difficult task to do in the middle of the night anyway.

At about thirty past seven in the morning, Aubrey woke and hauled herself to the bathroom, her hair a mass of destruction. She freshened up then returned to her room to pull on a pair of skinny jeans and a fashionably loose tank top that had a pocket on both sides. A white polka dot on black design was painted on her fingernails like it was on her toenails. She dabbed on some light makeup in a technique she learnt from a style book, that gave the impression of springtime, light rain, frosting and sunny fields of corn. Her pimples looked faded, her lips had a bright, wet sheen, and her eyes looked as alive as the Caribbean Sea.

She carried the family laptop, that had the tendency of overheating, to her bed. Powering it up she went to straighten her already straight, thin hair in the bathroom. When she was finished she went to her Gmail and saw that James Telling had left her a message. She had forgotten all about him. On purpose. He was terrible. Use to be one of the boys who bullied her relentlessly in high school. Now all of a sudden he wanted to be friends with her. Aubrey read his new message with caution. “Hey Aubrey, what’s up? How are you doing? I miss you. Are you still working at Target? Cause I never see you. Did you get fired? :(”

She laughed at the sadface emoji he made. Pftt. As if he cared. Sighing, she waited a few minutes before the words came to her. “Nothing is up… And I’m bored.... Bored and frustrated. Yeah I got fired but it is okay. I need the break. And why do you miss me? Miss picking on me? :(”

She finished that off with her own sadface and hit send. His response came back quick. “Of course not. I miss you because of the new page we’ve turned. Let’s have fun again. ;)”

Now there was a winky face at the end. Before she knew it she was chewing on her lip and playing with strands of her hair. Lust and desire. Then she caught herself. “Ugh! That should have never happened,” she said aloud. She had tried erasing that day from her mind, because it was just not like her. It was just so weird anyway. Her and James? Can’t be true. She had convinced herself it never happened and now he was effortlessly wheeling her in once again. Against all reason and Good Girl instincts she wrote back, “When is this happening?”

Aubrey just refreshed the page once and there it was, his reply: “Today.” She asked about the time he would be coming but waited long for a response. After 15 minutes of waiting, with no answer from James, she gave up and signed off the system. She looked into her stuffy, cardboard-smelling closet for something prettier to wear.

Changed into a garden dress, with curls now in her hair, and more gloss on her lips, Aubrey took Dan’s letter and a small clear bag of chocolate squares downstairs to the breakfast table. The chocolate squares had bits of nougat in them. They became her favorite chocolate since about two weeks ago when Roman had given her a big box of them he had found at the door. He thinks it’s a gift from some food manufacturing company that he must have worked for in the past. He wasn’t sure of their origin, but for Aubrey it was good chocolate all the same. As she sat nibbling on one of the squares, she tasted a strange toxic sweetness on her lips. Then it was gone and she forgot about it and snacked some more on the chocolate, reading her father’s words over and over. If you are what you eat, she guessed she’d be sweet. Really sweet.

“Oh Kagan called sometime last week,” said her grandfather, coming downstairs. “I forgot to mention it to you.” Kagan was one of her dearest friends. Her grandparents loved him to bits.

Still in her nightgown, Candice came to start a lemon poppy seed muffin batter. She was a proud pensioner, and loved to perform homely things like baking, with all her free time. Roman loved to work outside the home though. He would not retire until he just about shut down. He was still in his nightwear too but would soon ditch to go to work where he organized cereal boxes at a factory. He looked at Aubrey analytically, wondering whether to question her about the envelope. Then he looked away. After some time, he spoke, but it was for another purpose.

“Tuna sandwich?”

“Yes,” said both women at once. They always had that—a tuna sandwich. And they always had herbal tea too, so he made that as well.

After finishing breakfast, Aubrey took out the recycling bag. Tenth graders from the public school down the road strolled by smelling strongly of burnt tobacco. She cringed back from them, hating the smell. If they got any nearer she would gladly use pepper spray.

Next a couple ambled by, hands joined, eyes glowing. The sting of envy was great. Guys only broke her heart, and left her lovesick and feeling lonelier than before. The sky was bright but at the same time she saw giant gray storm clouds. They were intimidating and moving slowly. Premeditating. Plotting. It was like a sign because she gazed down the road and who did she see? Her heart and breathing quickened. James Telling was jumping out his black BMW. Spoiled, his parents probably bought it. He was in his last year of high school and she was a sophomore when the friction started. As best she could, Aubrey succeeded at blotting out the high school James Telling that use to pick on her with the hot athlete girls like Emily Knapp and Karianne Sorensen. But she started to perspire at the sight of him approaching and felt slightly retarded. On pins and needles she dug for words to greet him with.

He got within earshot. After swallowing she burst what she naturally was thinking, “The hell. So early?” She wanted to tell him to leave but felt a certain inferiority in his presence. He was clean cut in a way Zane was not, with a hearty constitution that made you think of an organized, family oriented upbringing, with a mom always cooking and cleaning, beds always neat. Dad always coming home right on the dot, the same thing always sure to happen. Aubrey was shameful to think so, but found he looked so delicious, in the manner a healthy meal is when you are starving. Was she starving? Her fingers curled into defensive fists as she absorbed his perfectly combed almost black hair, his powder-blue shirt that hugged his washboard abs and broad shoulders and made his steely eyes greener.

“It’s good to start your day off good,” was his explanation, his voice slightly reassuring. It made her grin a bit even though she was feeling stupid and cornered.

“You’re crazy,” she said, winded and out of breath. “My grandparents aren’t even napping yet!” If she had known he was on his way she would have quickly gulped down an alcoholic drink to loosen her grip on this underlying tension that made her afraid of men. Their bodies. Their ways. The only man who didn’t possess this threat was Roman and perhaps Kagan because he was gay and often had this kindred fear himself.  

James held up a white book. A Light in the Attic. Shel Silverstein’s book of poems and drawings.

“What’s that for?” asked Aubrey, confused out of her mind.

“We’ll just tell them we’re reading!” he said delightedly.

“Their old but they’re not stupid you know…. They’re not simple.”

“But I have a believable face.” The more he talked, the more he took the edge off.

Aubrey stared at him. “You really don’t.” She was lightening up. Just a little, not completely. Never completely.

“Are you really not going to let me in?” he asked, his tone full of trickery. He already knew the answer of course.

Biting her lip, she gave in and led him inside the house, her nerves becoming jangled. Her grandparents were both downstairs sitting before the TV watching The Price is Right. When they saw James they livened and flashed a puzzled smile to each other then to Aubrey. “Oh we are just going to read,” she said all bubbly, awash with shame, James beside her waving the book and trying to do his cutest, most grandparent-friendly smile.

“Oh!” said Candice, giggling, almost ashamed that she didn’t think of that to begin with. Peace was settling within her again. She slapped Roman’s leg. “Such sweet kids.”

“Oh is that Kagan?” asked Roman. He was without his glasses, which he was now reaching for over on the frosted glass of the Italian coffee table. Aubrey quickly led James upstairs before he could put it on.

As they were stepping up onto the upstairs landing, James smacked her butt squarely with the book. She jumped but walked on without looking back, determined to get into the room first. A few steps away from the door he caught her, not really off guard, wrapping his arms around her ribs from behind. He smelled like Tide and aftershave and maybe a lavender bath soak. He was prepared. “I love your dress,” he whispered into her neck before pecking her there, down to her shoulders. Aubrey felt herself easing into the tepid kisses, like sipping Cognac and allowing it to carry her across the bridge from here to a liquid, warm, lighter place.  She felt less inhibited. James was a magician. Her mind strayed to wonder about the other women but she quickly shut down the thought. James was not to be possessed but enjoyed. She turned her head to kiss him and he bit gently into her cheek. She reached out for the doorknob and missed two times, three times. One of his hands was already under her dress, teasing her in circles over her panties.

He pushed his tongue into her mouth, her breasts smarting pleasurably as he crushed them in his hands. Her gasping was a husky, erotic sound. Small breasts are more sensitive. Still groping one he got the door open for her, hustled her in, then closed it behind them. He started removing his shirt and her breathing heightened. Last time they were together it was dim and he still had his top on, so she could not believe her eyes now. Long, lean 6-pack. He was built like Captain America, troublingly beautiful with the promise of sex. Rough, wild sex. And then... Then there was her. It messed with her head. Gave her a complex. Suddenly she felt like a pimply white blob. A thing. Her insecurity climbed through the roof.

She felt her heart bursting out her chest. After he stepped out of his jeans he sort of looked at her like: your turn. But there he went again. Like a gentle magician, he touched her face softly, knowing the assurance was needed. Her cheeks turned pink. Awkwardly, she wiggled out of the garden dress and plopped on her stomach across the sun-lit bed. A lopsided, penile grin appeared on James’s face. Leaning into her butt, he unhooked the bra, and pulled it off, instantly feeling under her for nipples. They went soft in his warm hands. He came down beside her and she twisted around so he could put one in his mouth. She loved the feeling of his rough tongue, his greedy lips, his tugging teeth. It got her squirming under him, fingers tangling in his neat hair. Her eyes shut tightly, she threw her head back. Then she rolled on top of him and licked him up and down, leaving wet streaks over his nipples, his navel, all the way down, precautions thrown aside. Totally animalistic. She was going show him. And he went crazy. He grew in her hands, her mouth. His cock was solid. He tasted warm and salty. Like soup. She stopped suddenly, cruel smirk on her face. With him confused and now with a half-flaccid, also confused dick, she pulled back up his briefs.

But it was only the prologue. She soon relaxed into him, facing him. They locked lips tenderly like an infatuated, fresh couple with their legs wrapped together, his bulging briefs up against her frilly panties. “I love your eyes,” he said dotingly in between the long wet kiss. So sweet, she might have thought if she had not just sucked his cock. Right now he was a bundle of satisfaction. It softened him.

He touched her hair and looked at her face in adoration. He could have fooled anyone. She squeezed an arm between them to rub his erection, feeling his heat penetrate her skin. She was already hot and wet by time he yanked her undies aside and started to fill her deeply with himself. Skin flushed, blotched, her eyes rolled back in intervals and her lips parted, letting out hot, sultry breaths.

He felt so wonderful inside her, stretching her, slamming into her until everything went misty. “Harder,” she dared him. He didn’t back down. It felt especially good because it was James, who she always had a twisted crush on, even when he was mean. Around 20 minutes in, he wanted anal sex, and unable to say no to him, because who he was, and who she felt she was, she stuffed her face into the bedding, making her butt face him. She pointed to the plastic bottle of cooking oil on her bedside table. He grabbed it. Pulling the underwear down from around her legs, he choreographed everything, showing her exactly how he wanted her to stick her ass in the air. As it went on, she tried to ignore the discomfort, set her mind free, then she tried to turn it into something she liked. She was going to enjoy it, she told herself, but then something else was on her mind. An inner voice stated the obvious; he does not even like you. She imagined Zane looking down on her from a high, untouchable place in disgust. So cheap, he was saying with revolt. No morals. No values. So gross. Blah. He gagged then he vanished.

As soon as James left she started bawling. She felt ugly, worthless and angry at herself. She wanted to destroy everything in sight. Cyril was not answering when she dialled her number over and over to have someone to vent to. So she left a choked up message, shattered and teary-eyed. “Cyril… I d-did it again. I’m so stupid. No one loves me. I just feel like I’ll never be good enough. Please call me back as soon as possible. Good bye.” She knew that when Cyril - no-screwing-around, man-hating Cyril - got the message, the feminist, mamma bear in her would be furious. Aubrey could already hear her screaming. It is your fault! Why can’t you be strong! Suppose he gave you herpes, crabs, chlamydia! HPV! Why can’t you listen to me for once! You’re becoming a slut! I don’t even know you anymore!

Aubrey wished she could just be bright and strong like Cyril? Why did loosing Zane make her end up being the opposite? She had this nervous impending doom, that she’d lose Cyril as a friend to this. And Cyril was the closest human being to her outside of her grandparents. It was of public opinion that Aubrey Golding was the smartest one of all her friends, with the most promising future. She knew what people thought: good, decent girl with the sage face, raised by her grandparents, humble and sweet, would put her bullies to shame, yada yada yada... but what she saw in the mirror right now disgusted her.

Fact was she was not perfect. Right now she hated her room mirror. She thought she looked nothing more than a weak, low-life woman on edge, with dark circles under her eyes. Weak. Very weak when it came to boys. Men were the cause of all pain. She searched for her liquid medicine of choice, the giant bottle of sparkling wine hidden deep in her closet. The cork flew off dangerously like a space shuttle, denting the ceiling. Champagne spewed everywhere and soaked the dress on the floor and her bare chest. She placed the squirting bottle to her mouth and downed three servings. Thinking, thinking, always thinking. After eight burps she downed two more servings, some draining from her nose.

She wanted to stay in bed the whole day to plan her death, but couldn’t. James’s cum was still all over her stomach. Gulping down more wine, she headed to the bathroom.

The shower was long and hot. Steamy. Cleansing. Dove soap and a rough washrag. But she started to feel woozy. She fell over the side of the tub trying to get out. The fall jerked her up and she remembered the letter. Oh my God, really, what would be her decision? She dressed in a vintage-inspired slip dress. Trying to get through the day quickly she swallowed bottle-cap shots of el Jimador tequila, tracing them with a white jumbo freezie.  In between thinking about the letter she cried on her bed, saying “Zane” over and over again. Not a sound was in the house so she assumed her old folks were either out walking, at a neighbours, or napping.

Aubrey stumbled out her room and stumbled downstairs. She took a little jug of chocolate Häagen-Dazs ice-cream from the freezer, a silver spoon from the drawer, and shuffled back to her room, knocking into walls as she went along. Then sat cross-legged on her bed, crying, “I’m so fat,” as she indulged in spoon after spoon after spoon of the freezer-burned ice cream. “I’m so fat. Oh my god, I’m so f-f-fat.” She swallowed her tears with the ice cream.

Though going to Grishamm to visit her dad would perhaps make her summer more memorable (and help take her mind off Zane), she was scared of leaving the house. She felt safe, if not happy, in this simple life, though it seemed like her horizons would never expand and that was a bit distressing. She had completed her secondary school education and all that she seemed to have wrung from it was the diploma. She really did not have any sense of identity, of direction. At least Cyril knew she wanted to be a psychologist or actress/singer or lotto winner. But she, Aubrey, had not a clue of what she wanted to do with her life. Could she possibly be cooped up in this dull townhouse forever? Her handful of friends would eventually find her useless, (as Aubrey rarely opted to go out with them) and if her grandparents – the only relatives she was close with – die, all she would have is some little place filled up with lemon poppy seed muffins, tuna sandwiches, and herbal tea.

Aubrey had to dismiss that depressing thought just as soon as it came. She didn’t want to fall into a pit of depression. No. None of that again, at least for a while. She depended on chocolate like an alcoholic his liquor, so whenever she was to get depressed there was always a great chance of the old folks going upstairs one day to find her lifeless legs sticking out from under a mountainous pile of empty chocolate boxes and wrappers in her room. Whichever investigator clears the rubbish away, he or she would discover a startling sight: eyes dead but wide open, and mouth stuffed with assorted cocoa confections. There would be crumbs and smudges of chocolate, wafers, nuts, and nougat all over her face. Aubrey could see it now on the headlines: Girl Dies of Chocolate Overdose. She jerked her head as if to shake off the dark thoughts like hailstones that had fallen on her.

Roman left for work after giving her a big hug and giving Candice’s cheek a kiss.

Throughout the day, Dan’s invitation pestered Aubrey. She was being indecisive and thinking too hard, she knew. She knew because her head was starting to hurt so much she had to take an advil. It would be good to just leave the whole thing alone for now and go back to it when she felt better, but no answer was just as bad as being tugged different ways. From her perspective, the day took on a perplexing haze and she started to feel raw and moody. So when Candice started demanding her to begin applying to universities she ended up nearly biting her own lip off in irritation.

At 6:12 p.m Roman returned. It was “Fun Night.” Candice pecked his lips and made some hot cocoa for everyone while Aubrey got the games ready. Roman took out some graham crackers. A typical Wednesday night, it was. The three did word search races and played checkers. Aubrey’s grandfather’s eyebrows twitched and knitted together whenever he studied the positions on the checkerboard. He took winning seriously. Candice was the total opposite, yet ironically she won most of the time. Roman always grumbled “Cheater,” though they could never catch her doing anything. Later they all cuddled up to watch a romantic thriller using Netflix. But it was a very distracted Fun Night for Aubrey and Roman who both had Dan’s mail in their thoughts.

Roman was on his fourth graham cracker during the movie when he couldn’t take it anymore. He put down the bowl and turned to his granddaughter. “Aubrey, about that mail you got from Dan… That was rather strange, wasn’t it?”

Aubrey knew one of them would eventually bring it up as one of them must have seen the envelope for it to have been pushed under her door. So this didn’t take her by surprise, and she only paused and blinked before she responded, “Yep, it was really strange.”

“Dan who?” asked Candice intensely. She hadn’t a clue about the envelope.

“Sorry, Love. I didn’t want to bring it up until Aubrey wanted to. I found an envelope addressed to her from Dan Golding last night at the door.”

Candice covered her mouth in awe, looking at Roman. “At the door?”

“It came at the door?” asked Aubrey who didn’t know of this. Normally letter-size mail go to their mailbox.

“Yeah. I found that funny too,” said Roman. “I’m wondering if it was a prank. What did it say?”

Aubrey stiffened. “He asked for me to visit him this summer. He still lives in Grishamm.”

“Yeah?” Roman paused the movie and Candice started to think really hard. They both had their eyes turned to Aubrey, staring intensely, pining for more information. Aubrey was so happy that she wasn’t sitting in the middle of the couch for this Fun Night. She would feel so confined and stifled.

“I don’t know what to do,” she sighed. “I can’t believe he’s even writing me. What would you guys do?”

“You shouldn’t go,” said Candice, her voice hardening. “Let me go to Grishamm. I’ll slap that man across the face. How dare he after all these years!”

Aubrey flinched.

“He wasn’t the best father, I agree,” said Roman, “but we should support her if she wants to go. It’s been a long time. I bet she wouldn’t mind checking her old town out too.”

Aubrey got the last chocolate nougat square out of the clear bag she had opened that day and placed it in her mouth. She stared into space, chewing. “I’m not sure I could ever find it in me to forgive him, but for some reason... I do want to go to Grishamm.” Aubrey blinked and returned her eyes to her grandparents.  

At bedtime, when Fun Night was over, she sat cross-legged on the floor in her bedroom. She wore the same flannel top and silken shorts assemble, and had a pen and a notebook in her hands. She never really thought of the book as a diary or a journal. It simply was a way to save ideas, thoughts, and stuff that mattered to her whether big or small. A notebook. For the moment, she wanted to write down her feelings and plans regarding Grishamm and her father, and how it all started with that curious letter from him. But while trying to find a new page to begin the entry, she discovered that a page had been ripped out. How did that happen? Aubrey was concerned and nauseated. Someone had gone through her book. It wasn’t like she was writing about erotic adventures or killing people but she was a very private person. She would be embarrassed even if it were just one of her grandparents who had fooled around with her written thoughts. Aubrey steamed. The sight of something that belonged to her damaged deliberately by someone else’s hands... the mystery.... the feeling of violation—everything about the missing page disturbed her.

Could it be an outsider? She never tore pages out of books, and it was not like her grandparents to go rummaging through her things. The mice sure couldn’t have done it either. But then again, she knew she was bordering schizophrenia if she was going to believe that an intruder came and found a piece of paper from her dollar store notebook valuable. This kind of robbery wouldn’t even happen to high profile professionals, who had at least a few people who would like to pick their brains.

She read the pages before and after the missing one. It was a difficult task to remember what was there, sandwiched between. She came to the conclusion however, that the “stolen paper” had a list of things she would like to obtain in the future, like a drivers license, the black Lady Gaga perfume and body wash set, some posters of her favourite anime characters and a tiny heart tattoo. Oh and also a giant room full of chocolate would be nice. That would be her splurge thing if she became rich, like how MJ bought Neverland and Jay-Z apparently bought Beyonce an island, and Adele bought herself a castle. A big giant room of like every chocolate imaginable would be her big-ticket item.

Now back to the notebook mystery. Things always had a logical explanation, right? And this was supposed to be simple. She and her grandparents were the only people who would be in her room. But should she tell her grandparents that she noticed what one of them had done when she didn’t honestly feel that they had anything to do with it? Or accept that maybe she forgot she had done the page-tearing even though she knew she didn’t?

She didn’t feel like writing anything now. This was just too weird.

Just before turning off the lights to call it a night, she pushed the curtains aside. Peering out into the dark street she suddenly felt a chill. But there was no wind. She brought the curtains back together at once. Some eerie thoughts ran through her mind. You see, looking out towards the night she thought of other peering eyes, but with sick minds behind them, that could be looking at her at that very moment. Through the window they could have seen her clearly, as her room with its light on, was like a burning candle in the darkness.

 

3

Train...

 

About two weeks after that one of a kind Fun Night, on an early Friday morning, Aubrey grasped the handles of one of Roman’s old suitcases, going down the staircase. She dressed in a tight pastel-pink shirt and charcoal, slim-fit denim pants. New from the store Forever 21. She felt cool in the black, faux leather jacket she wore over the top. Roman had warned her about the approaching downpour so she had an umbrella on her.

Like she had worried about, she splurged the 4 grand she got from Dan on clothes, booze, books, makeup, celebrity perfumes (Britney, Gaga, Nicki) and more clothes. She blamed her friends Martha, Annie and Molly for not keeping her on the right track and adding to the problem. The three party girls were overly excited when Aubrey told them about the money and racked up a $873.92 tab at My Apartment, this hot Toronto nightclub, and she had to pay for everything. It included the beers, Jägerbombs, Dirty Martinis, and the Sex on the Beaches for the beefy European college boys the girls (not including Aubrey) were flirting and making out with and later banging. Cyril was elated she didn’t come. As if she didn’t drink enough at the club, Aubrey had liquor stashed behind her clothes in the suitcase. She saw it as security needed for facing the big bad world.

Aubrey’s brain still sloshed from all the partying. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she saw Candice and Roman in the kitchen, preparing food for her travel. She felt like to dry-heave and was aware of the tiny blood vessels erupting on her cheeks from the heavy partying and heavy stressing afterward. Candice and Roman paused to focus solely on her. Candice was drinking from an enormous goblet of wine, something she never usually did. The way they stared after her made Aubrey get a pain in her heart, for they looked at her as if they would never see her again.

And they wouldn’t.

“I’m not going off to war,” she laughed, trying to lighten the atmosphere. This was the first time since she started living with them that she would be gone for so long. She was a part of the scene in the humble house. It wouldn’t be the same without her. Roman went to hug her. She breathed deeply. The old man gave her a good squeeze. They acted like she was still a little girl and they were her two overprotective parents who couldn’t help themselves. She didn’t even speak to Dan about her planned reunion with him; they did. The plan that Roman made with her estranged father via the phone, was for her to spend only a week with him. Dan wanted her for a bit longer but Candice had seized the phone from Roman and told the man that he was pushing it.

“So we’ve called Dan again to confirm,” said Roman, sighing as he released Aubrey from his arms. “I hope you enjoy your time there.”

Aubrey kissed Roman’s cheek. “Don’t worry about me. I’m worried about what you guys are going to do without me here.” She giggled. Roman smiled.

“You’re the most special thing we’ve got,” said Candice. Aubrey blinked cloudily as she watched Candice open a plastic shopping bag to stuff it with food for her journey. Candice placed in an airtight container of basmati rice and stewed beans, then added an apple and a yellowing banana. A plastic container of chopped lettuce and sliced radish drizzled with dressing also went in there, as did a whole grain muffin, protected in a tiny resealable bowl. Candice made sure to include a fork wrapped in a cloth napkin. “Remember to take your vitamins,” she said, concern in her voice. “You’ll get your drinks on the road, right? You’ve got enough money on you?”

“Yeah,” said Aubrey. She put the suitcase down and helped her grandmother tie the loaded plastic bag. Then she gave her a kiss on the cheek. Candice returned one and sniffled. Roman sighed.

“I am going to really miss you, my little Bri Bri,” said Candice. “Come back in one piece.” There was a tear in her eye. “And no matter what, don’t let anything or anyone take away your sparkle.” Overcome by emotion, she grabbed Aubrey’s face and planted a loving kiss on her forehead.

“One whole piece!” added Aubrey enthusiastically. She was trying to pacify her grandparents, but she felt shaky herself.

“So you make sure you call us now. And right when you arrive there so we know you made it safely!” Candice chuckled. “We’ll stay up all night if we have to.”

Aubrey was smirking. “You are going to fall asleep by ten o’clock like you always do, even on New Year’s Eve.”

Roman chortled. Then he appeared troubled. “The cab is here, I bet. Hurry out, Aubrey.” He shoved forty dollars into her hand. Aubrey hugged her old folks once more before picking up her luggage. Roman nodded solemnly. Candice had a woeful smile.

With that, Aubrey went strolling through the entrance door with her cloth bag over her shoulder and the suitcase bouncing at her thigh. Though her strides seemed confident, inside Aubrey could not fathom “Aubrey Golding” leaving the semi-bungalow behind. It was almost amusing as it was scary. She got into the back of the cab that Roman called, resting the suitcase at her feet, and the bags on the unoccupied space beside her. The driver was an Indian man who wore a turban. He had a long beard and when he spoke, it was clear that punjabi was his first language. “Hello, how are you?” he asked politely.

Aubrey made a friendly face. “Fine, thank you. How are you?”

He spoke really fast. “Good. Thanks. Okay. So Grishamm Station? You can tell me where it is? Give me idea?” He gestured to his GPS system. “I punch in.”

“One sec.” Aubrey fingered inside her cloth bag. She got out the envelope Dan had sent her, and took out the pamphlet to show the driver. She gave it to him. On the back was a little map. He studied it for a moment before pushing some buttons on his satellite navigation system. He looked like he was thinking about something that puzzled him. Then his expression brightened, and his face drew up. “Grishamm!” he said in an enlightened way. “I’ve heard about that place. Oh yes. It was on CNN and some other news programs.”

Aubrey’s eyebrows were suddenly not on the same level. News? “It was?”

He pumped the gas. They started propelling to the station. It was located just outside the city of Toronto. It was an old establishment and the only place that had a direct route to and from the town of Grishamm. Before reading the pamphlet herself, Aubrey never remembered just how prestigious and isolated the rural Ontario town was. She didn’t remember what it looked like. Even her dreams of it were a blur. The only scenery she could remember well was the one when she was leaving Grishamm behind—the quiet countryside she and the chauffeur had to pass for hours before finally reaching the bustle of the city. At times the green growth was so much that it seemed to be closing in on them.

They arrived safely at the station. The wooden building looked more like an oversized bungalow than anything else. “Are you sure this is the place?” asked Aubrey worriedly.

“Yes. This is the address I see here.” Aubrey’s breathing became a difficult task. There, the station sat alone, uninviting. Was she the only one going to Grishamm today? Her mind danced through all sorts of ideas. Was there even anyone in Grishamm? Was it some ghost town?

She looked timidly at the driver, handing him the fare. “Thank you,” she said half-heartedly before venturing outside the vehicle.

There were only three cars in the parking lot. Train tracks ran east and west at the back of the building. The entrance door was ancient oak and she felt so weak when she went to haul it open. She struggled, almost dropping her things. There appeared to be no one else inside apart from her and this receptionist behind a booth. The lady was fair and heavyset, dark-haired and wearing bright red lipstick and a mini pillbox hat with a birdcage veil. She had a cellular phone in her hands and looked as if she was text messaging.

The roof beams were exposed to add character. There was a homey sitting area, centered by a rustic jade coffee table. A real wood-burning fireplace was the backdrop, the stonework mantel expanding into the wall. Aubrey thought it was a charming little place. It had a bookstore and a snack shop; Aubrey saw the signs. The only thing that wasn’t so charming was the fact that the receptionist looked towards her, smiling sympathetically as she said, “You missed the train three minutes ago.”

“What?” Aubrey wasn’t trying to be dramatic but she felt as if she would collapse to the floor. She looked down at her wristwatch. It was three minutes past eight a.m. That meant the train had arrived right on the dot, and took off almost as soon as it stopped. Aubrey felt bitter but relieved at the same time. Another train would come, right? At least she could use the extra time to think the decision over, as once she got on the train, there would be no turning back. So she felt bitter but relieved. But then the receptionist spoke again - “It’s a four hour wait for the next” - and she just felt bitter.

Aubrey considered going back home—about a half hour away. She’d return to the station, maybe... Or she could just stick it out. Or not. Maybe it was a sign to stay in Toronto. Thoughts, thoughts. It felt like there was a hive of bees in her head. Somewhere in there was Zane, and the thought telling her she will never get over him. It was getting out of hand. She started to feel like she really needed medicine. Part of the reason she “forgot” her cellphone in the washing machine was that she would stop calling and texting Zane. Around the time he left her, she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown which ensued in her disability to stop texting the man. Of course the alcohol she used to self-medicate impaired her judgment. If he thought she was crazy before, he knew she was off the rails then. The things she wrote to him blows her mind when thinking back now that she has a clearer perspective.

Things like:

“I’m going to go outside in the dark and I hope I get raped and killed.”

“I want to blow my head off.”

“Kill me please, just kill me.”

“I’m so ugly, no one loves me.”

“I will drink myself to death if you don’t text me back at least once by 9:30.”

“I have the blade over my wrist.”

“I hate you, just love me.”

Detaching from the effects of the alcohol and the focus on the inner hopelessness she always felt startled her awake, back into reality. In the moments of clarity she found a new enemy: panic. Not sadness this time but panic as she was left wondering what on earth had she done to herself and to him in her times of darkness. She would never even think to hurt Zane but what harm had she caused him emotionally? It made her sad for him and pissed off at herself. Aubrey felt major guilt about squeezing her darkness into his life. She was fortunate and grateful she was not slapped with a restraining order. Aubrey hated reminding herself of how twisted she acted. She would rather leave it and pretend nothing ever happened. Blot it out. The shame and regret was unbearable. It was painful to dwell on. It was like twisting the pointy tip of a stiletto heel into her groin each time she remembered. Twist, twist. Twist, twist. Now some girls may fancy that but not Aubrey.

Right now she just wanted to know what she was going to do about this train ride. Enough with dredging up memories about Zane before she lost it again, and she was far away from her comfort zone so there was no telling on what may happen. She had enough food to last her the whole day. She had an e-reader to entertain her with spooky books, and there of course was a toilet around the place. If she got thirsty she could get something to drink from the snack shop. There was something she had to do first before she settled though. She looked around. There was no payphone. She didn’t have a cell so she went up to the receptionist booth and asked, “May I use the phone?”

“Sure!” The lady put the cord phone where Aubrey could reach it.

“Thank you.”

“Yeah!”

Golding dialed her grandparents. She told them she missed the first arrival so she would get to Grishamm later than planned. They voiced concern but there was not much anyone could do. She made it clear she was going. Roman told her that he would tell Dan to tell the chauffeur to be ready at the later time. The call ended with both ends talking sweet words of love and Aubrey answering yes that she would call the moment she arrived at Dan’s.

Aubrey wanted to go to the snack shop. She looked confounded about whether or not she should take her belongings with her, so the receptionist said, “Don’t worry, I’ll watch them.”

“Thank you.”

Aubrey only carried her cloth bag as it had her wallet. The young man in the snack shop interested her. He wore a bowtie and his short strawberry blond hair was slicked back neatly and parted at the side. He looked so respectable. Aubrey didn’t eat breakfast so she was very happy when she saw that there were hot beverages in the snack shop. You had to get it yourself. She collected a paper cup and went to the machine that had a poor Cappuccino label on it. The words were smudged, the paper was damp, and the tape that held it up was weakening, making it lopsided. Nonetheless, Golding could smell the charming aroma of the cappuccino as it streamed into her cup. And that made her mouth water. It was the lovely French vanilla flavor. She didn’t have to taste it to know.

From there she went to the bookshop. She already owned the latest scary book of the new epic paranormal series on her e-reader but she just had to touch it in physical form. The cashier was a young man, and like the young man before, he was also clean-cut and dressy. He stood up and looked away from his Apple laptop when she came. He was wearing a bowtie and a pork pie hat and was pale and skinny. It looked like he was also wearing lip gloss. Aubrey stared at him hard. She wanted to ask him so badly why they were all dressed like that but her habit of reticence got the better of her. Huh? said the expression on his face because she went away without a word though she had been staring at him.

She sat by the sleeping fireplace, reading her e-book. There were occasional breaks to use the restroom, to go into her suitcase and grab a chocolate bar, and breaks just to wonder up at the clock or the receptionist. The receptionist seemed interested in gawking at her. She gawked at Aubrey while she munched on baby carrots from a Tupperware container. It spooked Aubrey—her startlingly red, chewing lips, her very bright, freaky green eyes.

Golding’s wristwatch said 11:50 a.m.—ten minutes before the time she assumed the train would arrive. She stood up and dropped the accumulated empty wrappers - that were once chocolate bars - in the nearby garbage bin. She thought she would go to Grisham for sure as she picked up her belongings. She headed towards the receptionist, showing her anytime train ticket. The fair woman looked up at her with puzzlement written across her face. “It’s almost twelve,” expressed Aubrey. “Where should I go?”

“Oh. Um.” The woman appeared anxious.

“You told me a train was coming in four hours,” said Aubrey.

The woman bit her bottom lip. “I was trying to remember what I told you. I’m so sorry! What I meant to say was, the train will take four hours to get to Grishamm and then—”

“Four more hours to get back?” interrupted Aubrey. Frustration kicked in. Now she knew why the receptionist kept on looking at her. Of course, the woman was wondering whether she needed to say something or not.

“Are you sure that’s not what I told you?” asked the deep crimson lips guiltily.

“Either way, you could have mentioned something to me during those four hours,” grumbled Aubrey, wanting to punch a wall.

“I’m sorry,” admitted the woman.

“It’s okay,” sighed Aubrey when the receptionist’s fat face suddenly looked like a scolded child’s. Aubrey smiled ruefully before she returned to her seat. She went back to the receptionist after a moment to use the phone again. Roman couldn’t believe that she was going to wait four more hours, and Candice was busy with her hands full of flour, baking something as usual. The call ended with Roman saying that he would talk to Dan again about the time that the chauffeur should come for her at the receiving station.

The receptionist had been departing every now and then from her booth but Aubrey never paid attention until now. Therefore, it came as a surprise to Aubrey that the chubby lady wore an outfit that looked as if it was designed for a little girl. The bottom half of the jumper dress was shaped like a bell with many petticoats, and the short sleeves of the shirt underneath were puffy. She wore shoes that looked like classic Mary Janes, but with tall, bulky heels. For the first time, Aubrey noticed her jaw-length dark hair was in sausage curls all around, like an antique doll’s. The woman’s style in general was one which Aubrey remembered seeing before, watching a documentary on Japanese street fashion. It was the kind of style where different pieces had to come together to make it complete—the proper hairdo, makeup, headwear, skirt, top or dress, and footwear, that were all in some way similar, all in some way....dollish, Victorian, Rococo…

After some moments of deep thinking, Aubrey exclaimed, “Lolita!” lifting up a finger as if to demonstrate the light bulb turning on in her head. “Yeah…, that’s what it’s called…,” she sighed.

The receptionist came back with a box of glazed donuts from the snack shop. Aubrey eyed her as she sat at her desk, opening the box guiltily. It seemed like the baby carrot diet wasn’t working out too well. It must be a boring job anyway, so Aubrey could imagine her losing all restraints and buying donuts too, chocolate ones. The lady tried to wipe the glaze from her mouth after taking a giant bite of the pastry, smearing lipstick over her cheek in the process. Again, like in the bookshop, Aubrey felt the urge to speak, but couldn’t get the words out. The lady would just have to learn about the makeup malfunction on her own.

The basmati rice with stewed beans was cold but tasty. Aubrey ate a plum-size portion of it. She also ate some of the salad and then did more reading. Ten to four came around surprisingly quick. She saw it on her wristwatch. Hastily, she purchased a bottle of vitamin water from the snack shop and went to the receptionist with her black and white anytime ticket. Swallowing the final bit of the six donuts, the woman tore off a piece of the ticket and gave what was left to Aubrey. She also stamped Aubrey’s hand. She pointed towards the double door in the back that Aubrey had always been curious about. “Go through there to meet the train,” she said, a grin spreading across her face.

Golding heard the sound of the entrance door opening behind her and was tempted to spin around but didn’t, feeling she’d look like one of those annoying nosy people she hated. Instead, she smiled at the receptionist and said, “Thanks. Goodbye. Oh and there’s makeup smudged on your face. And a bit of shine from those donuts too. Bye.”

Behind the double door was a cheaply tiled floor leading to a barred off platform. There was no one there but Aubrey. She could hear her breath echo. Then there was the growing, deep rattling sound of the train approaching. She started to walk towards the platform where a low metal fence made a division between you and the tracks. The double door behind her opened, she heard the sound. Whoever it was, was heading her way, and going at a speed that blatantly said they were onto cutting her off or knocking her over. Tap, tap, tap, tap; it was someone in heels.

A female near her fifties, with a child that reached her hip, was in front of Aubrey before she could blink twice. The child whined. “You can sleep on the train, April,” said the woman soothingly. The two wore bell-shaped dresses and a cropped hooded cloak like the Little Red Riding Hood, except theirs were a matching dark gray.

There was someone else. The person was behind Aubrey and she couldn’t help but turning to see who. It was another woman, pale as the moon. Younger-looking. She had on glittering purple shadow over her eyes and a dry burgundy lip stain. Brown accented her cheeks for a strong blush against her really fair skin. Her dark-brown wavy hair was in childish pigtails although she seemed to be thirty-something. Her dolly dress was black and full of strings and bustle. Pleasantly, she grinned at Aubrey who returned the warmth. She didn’t seem to know the hooded pair but when the other woman eyed her she nodded and opened her mouth to speak. “Did you see that strange person?” Her voice was very pretty, light and clear.

“No,” answered the other woman, furrowing her brow.

“Did you?” she then asked Aubrey.

Golding shook her head. “No. I didn’t.”

“What strange person?” wondered the hooded woman.

“This person.

The hooded woman laughed bewilderedly. “We are the only ones here I believe.”

“It was here,” continued the woman. “I know I saw it. Long black hair. Strangely tall but I could not tell if it was a man or woman. ”

“No idea,” said the other woman. April coughed within her clutch.

A dark steam engine with the words Grishamm’s Finest engraved on its round bulky face, dragged out in front of the four. The ride to Grishamm had come at last, 4:00 on the dot. This time Aubrey would not miss it. A pallid man, wearing a long jacket and a train driver’s stiff peak cap, came through a door at the top portion of the train. He had a Frenchman face, and he lit and sucked a cigarette. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, he unlocked the gate. Aubrey held her breath as she passed him, following behind the hooded pair into the carriage. The brunette followed after her, pulling a large royal blue suitcase that had wheels. Inside the train smelled damp and looked dull as though with despair. The carpet made it somewhat cosy, as did the cushioned seats that all faced one way like the ones in a school bus. There was sufficient walking space in the middle. Everything was blue, gray and brown.

On the platform the man crushed the cigarette under his shoes before boarding the train as well. He pulled the carriage door shut, coughed a mucus crackling cough and disappeared through a door, heading back to his work up front. The hooded woman turned around to take a load of Aubrey. She had blood-red hair and a birdlike face. The child turned her head to see Aubrey too. Her face was covered with brown freckles, her shaggy hair dry and light brown. The eyes of this girl were sleepy and very dark within the train, like little balls of black peppercorn. Aubrey smiled at the child, but the woman grimaced and held it near. Aubrey felt cold; it was shocking, a grown woman being frosty to her like that. The woman opened the door opposite to the one the train operator used. Aubrey glowered at her back. “All the better for me TOO, Gray Riding Hood,” she said under her breath. The woman was soon out of sight with the child.

“I’m Lisa,” said the brunette.

“Aubrey,” said the nineteen-year-old. Once again they both smiled at each other.

Aubrey fixed her tiny luggage on the overhead rack. It had a side so items wouldn’t slip off. She took her seat with only her cloth bag. The seat was by the window and she looked out the glass. Lisa soon left her too, going into an upper section of the train. Aubrey sort of loved it, her quiet, lonely carriage. It fitted her: quiet and lonely.

The train started to move.

Knowing she was going further and further away from Candice and Roman each time she saw a new area of outside sweep by, Aubrey eventually turned her head from the glass. She was even scared about moving far away from Zane. She started missing him badly. Wished she could just call him. He would have helped her get through the trip. His memories were relentless. Sadness crept over. She heaved and cried heavily into her palms. She started to get the collywobbles. What was going to happen to her all alone in Grishamm? Her throat was heavy. Her head was down. She sank into the seat, whimpering, holding the cloth bag as if it were a teddy bear. Shortly, she dug inside and pulled out a treat.

Sucking on a square of the chocolates that had the nougat bits in them, she closed her wet eyes and tried to be okay. The day was starting to lose its glow. With her eyes still closed, she heard a familiar sound. It made her feel warm and fuzzy. The sound, it was strong but soft; these were the times when her mother wrapped them up together in a blanket—the times when Aubrey thought God, horribly upset at mankind, sat on his throne with a wooden stick in each hand, playing his drums. Aubrey managed to turn her head back to the window again and gently open her jaded blue eyes. It was just as she imagined. The tears of the leaden cotton balls in the sky started to appear on the glass. As the clouds’ whimpering turned into a bawl, Aubrey started to hear the tears even more. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Her heavy eyes darted as one with the movements of the translucent liquid dancing about the pane. Sometimes the wind blew them in a way that made it seem as though they were alive, creeping across the glass like long fingers, both elegant and eerie, trying to get inside to her. However, Aubrey relaxed further. Rain could always place her to sleep. There is something about recognizing that the world is so much bigger than you are, and just as alive, that is so relaxing. Aubrey imagined it is what a baby feels when gently rocked in the loving arms of a parent. Then there is something so sad about the rain. So in a whispery voice, she sang to the dark cotton balls from where it came, the song, The Clouds, by Cynthia Gray.

 

Gently falling rain, falling from the sky,

Streaming down like tear-drops, tear-drops from on high.

Clouds, oh won't you tell us what those tears are for?

Do you weep for something, something we've ignored?

Could it be that from your lofty post so high above

You have seen how little we have given of our love?

Do you see the lonely, weary, troubled and the poor?

Have you seen the fighting and the war?

Clouds, there must be some way to make your crying cease.

Share with us the secret of happiness and peace.

Do you mean to say that each of us can play a part?

With each spark of love we light, a flame of love may start.

Reaching all around us, giving hope to those we know;

This, you say, will help true peace to grow?

Clouds, though you are parting, your point you've made quite clear.

Peace will never happen unless we start it here.

 

It was a song she learned in her elementary school’s music class. The kooky teacher required the class to sing it as a choir for the year’s spring concert. Aubrey was one of the only kids that had neither parents in attendance as one was dead and the other was a no-show.

Towards the end of her singing Aubrey was about to close her eyes to sneak in a little sleep, when through the sheeting rain on the window, she saw something very strange. She was certain, most certain, that she had seen it correctly. It was weird, like a tall dark figure, running alongside the train. It caused her to snap out of her tranquility at once.

Aubrey took a lungful of air, and looked intensely through the rain showered window. She blinked and looked, blinked and looked. Whatever it was wasn’t there anymore.

She told herself it was all in her head. Sometimes we see things when we are tired. Besides, who would be stupid enough to try and keep up with a train, and in this weather and darkness? The funny thing however, was the fact that Aubrey wasn’t so sure that it was a person at all.

That was not good. She tried to dismiss the thoughts coming. “Those horror movies I’m watching,” she uttered to herself. She didn’t feel like sleeping anymore, but watched for a long while as vibrant streets turned into townhouses, townhouses turned into quiet farmhouses on picturesque countrysides, and the farmhouses into isolated cottages. The cottages then became never-ending rural landscapes. There were residences, but few. Then the rain started to ease, and the train started to slow down, but when it did, Aubrey’s heartbeat began to accelerate.

It was quite black outside when the train stopped. Aubrey saw through the window that it was just drizzling now, and that they were in a remote, leafy place. Taking a deep breath, she took her luggage off the rack. She didn’t feel too good. Her head hurt and she was struggling to breathe. Gray Riding Hood and Gray Riding Hood Junior sped past her to get to the door. The driver came and opened it up by hand again. Aubrey could see a wet, dark street running horizontally. Both of its ends curved out of sight. Behind it was soaking vegetation. Aubrey stepped out of the train right after the hooded pair. The leaves and grass all around were wet, shiny and shaded in the night.

Aubrey took in the scenery with fear on her face. The soaked gravel squished and sloshed like mud under her Wellingtons. With an uproar of sounds that lingered after it was gone, the train left. Aubrey glanced around. Someone was missing.

“Where’s that other lady?” said the hooded woman with a startled expression.

“I don’t know,” gushed Aubrey bewilderedly.

“She must have fallen asleep on the train!” cried the woman.

To the right, down the road, Aubrey saw a green post reading Grishamm in white. A cab approached in the distance from behind it on the further lane. It came in line with Aubrey and the two others. The strange hooded woman jogged towards it with the child. Aubrey briskly followed but then quitted. Should she hop in? Or is Dan’s person coming? She hated the way simple decisions like this gave her anxiety. In truth, she was getting paranoid about the showing up of Dan’s chauffeur. She wondered if one would really come in time to get her.

The lady opened the back passenger door, got the child and herself inside the vehicle, and slammed it shut loudly. She did the whole thing with incredible haste as if to shut Aubrey out. Aubrey was stunned. The driver was another bearded Indian man but with a top hat instead of a turban. He looked out through his foggy window to stare worriedly at the startled-face teenager blinking rain away that fell from her lashes like tears. But the woman bent forward to speak something into his ear, and with a nod he reversed, made a U-turn, and drove off.

Aubrey’s mouth dropped open. And just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, the woman looked back at her through the rear window with an evil grin lit across her face, half shaded by the hood. What a witch! Angered, Aubrey gave her the notorious middle finger and was happy when she saw that the evil grin turned into a shocked expression.

Well…, what did this mean now? Did she have to start walking to find the nearest phone or would there be another driver?

The trees across the road swayed in the wind like they did in ghost stories. Aubrey looked back at the train tracks. She remembered that mysterious dark figure. Maybe that running thing is nearby? She hoped that she was just being silly and delusional. She trembled in the chill, wishing she had worn a thicker jacket, a winter coat even. She looked at her wristwatch. It was 8:33 p.m. She couldn’t believe it. It was night and there was the paranoid Aubrey Golding, standing alone outside, vulnerable, and shaking in her boots. The rain seemed to be picking up again. She heard thunder. She didn’t want to place the suitcase down on the wet, dirty ground, but she had to. As time passed it was getting uncomfortable for her to hold and she needed to get the umbrella quickly from the cloth bag before she got a full cold shower. It was transparent and polka dotted and she made it open up over her head. She was already wet. She stomped her boots, sloshing the mucky gravel under her. Her suitcase was still on the ground, her cloth bag was soaked. She whined like a child. Especially without a cell phone, it was a miserable situation. The whine echoed up into the night sky, something she regretted, clenching her jaw and moving her eyes about frantically hoping nothing and no one had heard her.

Creating much hope, a sleek black luxury sedan approached from the right. It passed Aubrey a bit, scaring and devastating her, but did a speedy U-turn, stopping sharply right in front of her. It was a chauffeur, she realized. Dan must have sent him for her! Aubrey was so relieved that she was near sobbing as she ran towards the vehicle. A dark, foggy window went down. “Are you okay, Sweetie?” said a deep, friendly voice. Aubrey could see a pair of big round eyes. They were the kind that always looked sleepy, hazel in color, and fixed in an angular dark face. “Do you need any help?”

The voice was so friendly and outside was so dark, wet and cold, that the usually observant Aubrey didn’t notice that the eyes were also chilling. She just wanted to get inside. “I’ve got it,” she insisted. She placed the suitcase on top of the car so she could have free hands to close the umbrella. When she was finished, she grabbed the suitcase and got inside with her wet self and belongings.  

Inside the warm car, Aubrey wanted to let out a grateful cry but she didn’t want the man to think she was an idiot. So she just focused on breathing and tried to keep calm. One corner of the man’s lips curled up. “Were you scared?”

“Yes,” she breathed, trying not to cry.

“Well, now I’m here, Sweetie.” The man wore a sophisticated service hat that had a small shiny peak. Maybe he was in his late twenties or early thirties. Aubrey stared at him—what she could from her sitting position at least, until she realized that he was returning the favor from the rear-view mirror. “You can call me Brendon!” he exploded. “Where are we going?”

Aubrey thought that his question inferred that he wasn’t sent by Dan. Another sedan pulling up at the tracks made her think so even more. She giggled nervously, her heart quivering at his sudden outburst. “Um, okay, um.” Fidgety, she dug into her cloth bag, unsure of whether to stay with Brendon or get to the other vehicle as soon as she could before it drove off. What was the right thing to do in this situation? Brendon was so sweet to her—a bit creepy, but sweet. When she found the little crumpled piece of paper where Roman had written Dan’s address, she passed it to him. It was as damp as her cold hands Brendon noticed.

Aubrey felt nervous. Actually, she was on the brink of a panic attack. If she let him drive her, would that mean she would make Dan pay for two chauffeurs? She felt like she needed to say something urgently, but her mouth wouldn’t move.

Brendon turned the light on to see the address better. “Thank you!” he said. Soon he turned it off but kept the paper. The car started moving through the rain. It went up the dark slippery road enclosed by lush greenery. Worriedly Aubrey looked back at the other sedan.

“Are you visiting a relative?” asked the man.

“How did you know?”

“Well, you don’t seem like a Grishammer.”

“I used to be. I left when I was small. I got kicked out,” she joked. “But what do you mean I don’t seem like a Grishammer?”

“You’ll see...”

Golding got out her vitamin water bottle. She drank while staring into space. During the first part of the journey, she stared from the raindrops dancing on the window to Brendon’s neck, and from Brendon’s neck to the wet woodlands outside. The rain stopped again. They started passing gigantic beautiful homes surrounded by undergrowth and tall haunting trees. From what she could tell through the darkness, the homes were all mansions or close to being one. Aubrey was dazzled. Thrilled, she wondered what Dan’s house was going to be like. She knew it was large, but had forgotten the details.

It was close to being pitch-black outside when they traveled down a really narrow road. There were no streetlamps and the day was ending rapidly. Sometime later, Aubrey straightened up energetically from her sagging position. They were approaching life. They were still on the long, narrow road, but in the distance she could see a variety of tiny lights that appeared to be a swarm of fireflies. The closer the car got, the more the fireflies melted into being lights pouring from or between buildings. Other vehicles went in and out of a road that turned into the illuminated area. Soon Brendon and Aubrey were one of those going in.

“This is the heart of Grishamm—the downtown,” informed Brendon. He glanced at Aubrey’s amazed expression in the rear-view mirror and it made him snicker. His informative words, however, were just about as noticeable as a speck of dust floating in the air. Aubrey had all her attention elsewhere, jaw hanging like a broken ceiling door.

People cluttered the streets, so she knew the nightlife was big in Grishamm—something she didn’t expect in such a small rural town. But that was not all. Everyone wore a peculiar fashion. Aubrey thought she was on a movie set. She searched for the cameramen and the directors. “What’s going on? Do they really dress like this?”

“They certainly do!” answered Brendon. “Didn’t you learn about Grishamm on the news?”

“Grishamm has changed,” stated Aubrey with twinkling eyes.

There was entertaining Lolita fashion on every woman, Lolita of all kinds. There was the Gothic Lolita, the dark ones that looked as if they were made for a funeral, and the Classic Lolita, tame enough for church. There was the Sweet Lolita that reminded you of cupcakes and candy, Punk that had stripes, mesh, and bright, eccentric and electrifying colors or deep serious ones, and Aristocrat that had people wearing long jackets, towering top hats, eye patches, and holding canes. Faces were covered with makeup, and some waists were made small by corsets, some freakishly so. The men weren’t wearing dresses or skirts, but they dressed in coordination with the interesting fashion. They wore things like cotton trousers, suspenders, elaborate hats, dress shoes or boots, and some had on bowties and hats like the guy Aubrey saw cashiering in the bookstore. Others simply looked as if they were going to start cross-dressing.

Aubrey had seen the way the other train passengers, the receptionist, and the guys in the shops dressed, but never would have imagined that this was what she was coming to. Nothing was familiar. Grishamm, her old town, was a completely new world. She looked at Brendon’s sleepy eyes in the rear-view mirror and asked, “Is all of Grishamm like this?”

“Uh-huh,” replied Brendon. That meant yes. “What do you think? Can you get used to this?”

“Well I’m only staying for about a week, but yes. I think this is so amazing. I wish I brought a camera.”

“Would you wear Lolita like the other girls?”

“Yes, if I can get one for cheap, I would.”

Brendon laughed.

The place was noisy with music from cars and buildings, people talking and horns honking. Wheels and feet traversed the pavement, crunching over its wet, loose gravel. The cafes, restaurants, workshops, pubs and stores, were so cutely and intricately designed you could simply snap a picture of one and make it a postal card. Many places were still open. There was so much for one mind to take in that it was overwhelming for Aubrey, but in a good way. She could not rest her eyes on one thing. They darted all over, sometimes causing her head to move this way or that way very swiftly, as if she were a vigilant cat. Sometimes the scenery even made her cover her mouth in astonishment.

“Know anyone here that’s your age?” asked Brendon.

“No.” Aubrey folded her lips under. She didn’t want to think about making friends. It was too scary. Why did Brendon have to go there?

“Good luck. Try sounding smart always, if you want to make any. These youngsters here are hot scholars with miraculous brains. The only good thing is that they are all like-minded; once you’ve got one figured out, you should be good with the rest of them.”

“Gee, well thanks for the heads up. I appreciate it.” Aubrey felt sick to her stomach.

They passed a boutique that had many excited-looking women going in and out of it—the ones coming out holding big shopping bags of clothes. Through the show window, Aubrey could see countless racks of Lolita, a backdrop to the row of mannequins modeling them just beyond the glass. She also noticed that the sign on the building said Tree Nuts, and thought that was a funny name for a clothing store.

Cars ahead slowed them down when they came in front of a dark building with flashing neon symbols crowning it. The building looked like a piece of old Vegas. “This is a typical theatre during the day,” started Brendon. “At night however, it becomes a burlesque show place.”

Aubrey looked in deep curiosity towards the place with her mouth slightly open. Two sets of butt cheeks wiggled towards the entrance door, wearing barely-there-underwear, and fishnet stockings so tight that the flesh bulked out through the holes. Sinking back into her seat, Aubrey blushed and looked away. Brendon did not laugh and take note of her shyness, as of course the man’s eyes were by now well occupied.

Gradually they moved out of the downtown area and into a quieter district. The area would have been pitch-black if it weren’t for some windows that glowed with inner light and a few dimming streetlamps.

Then there was a sign saying Crest Dale Avenue.

They were now in a neighborhood where ample countryside separated the large and often three-stories-high houses. The houses had balconies, wraparound porches, high arching, and greatly slanting roofs, and multiple chimneys.

Then at the top of a slope, Aubrey saw it—The house on the hill. Her eyes opened wide. Its great figure was further away than all of the other houses, but you could still make out the rising land which it lodged on, and its pointy, asymmetrical roofing and Gothic structure. It was something big for her to see it because it was the odd place where she and Samantha ran off to, twice, on their supervised walks with Grace.

The first time when they went to the house on the hill, they had seen an enchanting stone well in the backyard. Amazed, they wanted to slip through the black, wrought iron fence surrounding the yard so they could get a closer look. That’s when they heard voices coming from the well as if it was talking to them. Frightened, they ran all the way home.

The second time they went to the house on the hill, they peered through the fence at what looked like a girl and her little brother, dancing with their fingers sewn together near the well. They had these beautiful brown eyes, shaped up wispy, dark and clever, just like a cat’s, and a beauty that made Aubrey stare in wonder. She and Samantha came to the conclusion that it was their voices that they heard the first time—perhaps they were talking nearby. It wasn’t until Grace got extremely angry with them for running off on their walks and forced them to kneel on rice grains that the girls decided to say goodbye to the house on the hill for good.

Aubrey sighed as she remembered all of this.

There was the much anticipated dead-end and she refocused on her destination. As they further approached it her excitement left and the collywobbles returned. There at the bottom of the road was the grand riverside home, 6 Crest Dale Avenue.

 

4

 

Mansion…

 

“Okay. Thank you, Brendon,” said Aubrey hesitantly as she closed the car door with all her things in hand. Her eyes wandered through the dark at the large three-story house. Cool wind from the river running close beside it on the right licked her face.

“You take care now,” said the low, cordial voice. Did she really want to part with it? It was the only soothing thing she’d experienced since starting her journey.

Aubrey gave a final glance of farewell to Brendon and then started to walk. She went uneasily up the manicured lawn on a rising path that sliced through it. She felt Brendon’s eyes on her. In a way that made her feel safe. It was dark but she saw the outline of the gardens wrapping around the house, cutting on the left side where she made out the garage to be, considering the shape of a car plus a faint memory. She stole up the broad, brick front steps, holding her breath as the double door ahead grew closer.

She swallowed; one door opened silently before she could even knock or ring the bell! In her dizzy gaze of anxiety, she thought she was hallucinating. It was dark in the house, so she couldn’t really see who opened the door, yet she was sure that there was a short stubby thing in the doorway.

“Take care, Miss Golding!” shouted the driver.

Aubrey shivered. “Oh!—” She swung around. Some things caught her attention. Before she could let any words come from her mouth, the black luxury sedan drove off. It was so strange—she couldn’t recall giving the driver her name or money. Would a bill come to Dan’s mailbox eventually? How did it work?

“Come. In.” Aubrey gasped and turned back to the short person at once. It was only a bit taller than half her height and spoke in the grouchiest fashion. “Come in! We don’t have all night!”

“Okay, okay! Sorry!” Nervously Aubrey stepped inside the unlit house. The figure backed away to give her some room. “I—I didn’t give him any money.”

“Shhh! Remove your shoes...”

Aubrey was on a mat. The figure went to close and lock the door behind her, making it completely pitch-black. Now Aubrey could not see or hear anything.

There came a click, and with it light emanated from a lamp held by two tiny fat hands. Aubrey’s vision was distorted for a moment. When it refocused, she saw an oatmeal-complexioned, stout little woman in front of her with short, spiky but very soft-looking hair. The woman’s high, prominent cheeks were round and smooth like the ones of a baby. Then she had these bored, tired-looking mean eyes and hardly any lips. She was somewhat frightening in the dark there with only the orange ball of light glowing on her face. “I’m Harleen,” the lips moved.

“Harleen?”

“Early event tomorrow…”

“Oka—”

“All sleeps,” interjected the woman in a high-pitched operatic tone much different than the one she had used prior. It declared the end of the conversation.

Aubrey tittered like a fool, her lashes fluttering rapidly like the wings of a startled bat trapped within a cage. The strange woman turned with the lamp and some darkness swallowed up Aubrey. Quickly Golding put down her things to take off the boots. She saw the round, orange light turn and rise, and after pulling off the Wellingtons, she picked her things back up and scrambled forward to follow it.

Golding was spooked out but amused by the housekeeper. She was fast, that little thing. Her dumpy legs took her up the winding stairs like a ghost, swiftly with no apparent noise from her footfall. It was as if her feet weren’t touching the steps at all. Aubrey’s footfall, however, tipped and tapped, and the crinkling of her plastic bag added even more noise. She didn’t like that. She felt so visible and gritted her teeth.

Some distance up the stairs she saw the supple folded arms, the humble clothing, the deep soulful eyes in that gentle fair face, the.... mysterious smile. It was the Mona Lisa. Not the original, touched by Da Vinci himself, but a perfect replica, there hung on the wall, heavily framed. It bottled every bit of the subject’s spirit no doubt, and Aubrey winced at the sudden unexpectedness of her appearance, like a manifestation out of thin air.

But Aubrey did recall Mona Lisa always being there when she lived in the house. It was in fact the history she had with it that made the reunion so stirring. Her piano teacher, Mrs. Costa, was the one who brought up the theory of essence and contracting characteristics from inanimate objects. Aubrey remembered the spooky way Mrs. Costa made her feel about Mona Lisa. Spurred on by Mrs. Costa, Aubrey always thought that Dan’s constant playing of the song Mona Lisa, Nat King Cole’s version, along with her constant passing by the picture itself, had somehow caused the essence of the painting to seep into her soul and become a part of her. Is it a smile of sadness or happiness? people wonder. Some say it could even be one of evil, or perhaps all three. Aubrey imagined the multiple personality aura of Mona Lisa lurking in the cracks of her mind, heart and soul, coming out every now and then, and whichever way it pleased. Because Mrs. Costa said so and Mrs. Costa knew everything. Growing up at times the aura spoke for her, giving onlookers the sweet taste of butterscotch, ginger, cinnamon and sugar combined; a farrago of an innocent little girl. Other times it chose to burn observing tongues, leaving the scorched with a bitter after taste, like the time she bit her mom’s party planner because the woman had hugged her too tightly, squealing “So cute!” However, like Mona Lisa’s faint smile, supple folded arms and humble clothing, Aubrey knew there was a sure meekness about her that she couldn’t help, because Mrs. Costa pointed that out too. Like later, long after Mrs. Costa, when those people pushed her around at school. She was infuriated but she never once raised a hand to fight back. She would look at them sometimes like they did nothing. And when that mentally ill boy in fifth grade P.E groped her, she acted like a lifeless doll, and when that girl named Juliette Whitehurst spat on her because she caught her first in man hunt, she pretended it was a breath of air.

She wished she could have stayed and looked longer, but she only had a moment to marvel at Mona, for when Harleen moved on, the lamplight took her away with it. In passing, Aubrey turned to the wall to look where she estimated the painting had appeared, even to see or feel a bit of frame. But she missed Mona, perhaps by one step too much, or one step too short. She moved on quickly before she lost Miss Harleen and her lamp.

At the landing they turned into a long hallway. After passing a series of closed doors and openings that led elsewhere, they endured another flight of stairs. This one was narrow and straight, not winding like the last. The walls around were tight. Aubrey thought a claustrophobic would easily go into shock going up these stairs.

At the top they commenced right. A few more steps, they came to a door. Through the dense sheet of night, Aubrey saw that just a little further down, the hall opened up on the right. She instantly remembered that there was a sitting room when you took that turn. It was the first thing you’d see. It was where Grace slept during her reign as governess.

There was a door just beyond the door that they stood in front of. It was opposite to the opening. Aubrey remembered it was the bathroom that she and Samantha Bacherman shared. The door down from the bathroom escorted you to the room in which Samantha stayed. To advance would bring you to another bed chamber. Aubrey remembered it was reserved for guests but mostly it stayed empty. Its door wasn’t to the side but faced out into the corridor. Beside it to the right was a small narrow staircase that led to the major attic. Aubrey’s heart warmed. She couldn’t see totally, but it was all coming back to her. The door she and the strange woman were before, she knew showed the way to her old room.

Anticipation drove her crazy but she waited patiently in silence as Harleen searched for the right key on a big ring of dozens of them. Finally, the woman found the key she was looking for, a rusty old thing. She placed it inside the knob, turned it, and there was a click. With her keys, the titch disappeared, and so did the light. Aubrey was alone.

She turned the now unlocked knob and pushed the door open. She placed her suitcase and bags on the floor inside and closed the door. The darkness made her blind. Patting the wall nearby, in search for the light switch, she found it easily as if it was just yesterday she had been in her room. Her eyes burned and her sight was imprecise as she tried to adapt to the lighting change. At last, there was her old room in front of her.

The gumball appeared in her throat again. She blinked.

The reunion with the room brought on a warm, sappy sentiment. It was much bigger than she remembered—a result of living in a cubicle she fathomed. The furniture were all wooden, gigantic and bulky: the cabinet, broad dresser with its lovely attached mirror, the princess-sized bed, blanketed in thick lush coverings and looking like an icing cake, and the really large chest in front of it on the floor, right behind the footboard.

To the right side of the room was a varnished dark brown door with a golden knob. Aubrey opened it. It was the bathroom there. She turned on the light. She recognized the shower and freestanding tub. All around her was polished in every inch. Even the toilet sparkled. One door leading out of the bathroom was the way to Samantha’s old room. The other door led out into the hallway. Aubrey tried the one to Samantha’s room but it was locked. She was greatly disappointed; she really wanted to take a peek.

Back inside her bedroom, she saw there was a door in the wall near the bed. It was something she certainly recognized, and at its sight she grew sad with the years she had missed with it, yet jubilant for the reunion at hand. She placed her hands over the knob, turning and pulling it gently but eagerly. After switching the light on, she stepped through the opening. She was in her old walk-in closet, big enough to be the room back at her grandparents. It was where Deborah and she wrapped up together whenever it rained and thundered, pretending to hide from the big bad storm. Her eyes watered. In the corner was a box of toys, the pink and yellow dollhouse sticking out at the top. She and Samantha played in the closet too.

She left the closet and stared at the French window. Through the ornate, opaque glass, she could see nothing but darkness and the soft milky glow of moonlight. She smiled and opened one door. Instantly outside clothed her in its cool air. The air was fresher and cooler than the one in Toronto. She went forward and twisted to shut the door so that no more nippy air could voyage inside the bedroom.

It was dark but the moon was big from the balcony, really big. Aubrey positioned her forearms on the balustrade and felt its absence of heat, and the creeping ivy that entangled it in its leafy vines. She sucked in the air. It was pure, fresh and familiar. She had missed it for nearly a decade. Looking over to her right, she saw the other balcony, dark and really frightening without the sun and Samantha. It brought on a lonely feeling. Then it occurred to her that she was always lonely. She did what sounded like a whispery, wheezing giggle, but she was sobbing. It didn’t last long. She always tried to be strong. She missed Zane. She missed even the carefree, often times drunken dalliance she had with a handful of guys because she missed having someone to talk to. Having the idea of having someone. Why did she have to kill the chances she had with her neediness. She had emotional resilience for everything but men. A boy could be texting or emailing her paragraphs and essays about his life every day, showing acute interest, and one day he forgets to message her before the five o’clock mark and she turns into another breed of woman entirely. She goes from fun, chill gal, to a neurotic, overly doting mother figure, giving the boy an uneasy feeling as if she would grind him up, all his little bones, and snort him like cocaine. Then strange things would start to happen, that strange way she looked at him the other day that he can’t quite shake, or a comment like naming a pet after him, or something of the sort that leave him to wonder if she would no sooner be happier to skin and wear him like Versace.

The river, Aubrey was certain she could hear it. It was welcoming her with its lullaby trickle. She could see the waters moving horizontally, some of its surface glistening white under the porcelain moon. Even as a child she loved to read. And the balcony was one of her favorite places to do just that, drink a cup of something nice, and unwind. It overlooked not only the river and the wooden bridge going over it, but a wild meadow and the wilder woods beyond it.

Aubrey listened keenly. Something about the chanting of the river, the whistling of the wind and the faint rustling of the leaves and plants all around as they swayed in it, added up to a mysterious musical sensation. It was as if Aubrey was listening to a classical instrumental performance right there on the balcony. It was a familiar composition however, for she had listened to it time after time as a child growing up at the house. Yet it was not hackneyed. It was a composition so sweet, so skillfully tuned, that only nature in its most angelic form could give birth to it. No human hands could produce such swift yet delicate and enchanting waves of harmony. The texture, the melody, was not of man.

Oh dear! She almost forgot!

It was already half past ten. Aubrey went to call her grandparents on the cordless phone in the room. “Good! Good!” verbalized her grandfather. He was lulled and happy when she told him she had arrived safely. As it turned out, Candice was fast asleep just as Aubrey expected. Roman was rather intrigued when she told him how everyone wore Lolita fashion. She described it to him and how everything looked so spectacular. He laughed and told her to try and get some pictures.

Above anything, he was glad to hear her voice. “I miss you already,” he told her.

“I miss you guys already as well,” she told him, and she tried not to cry and scare him. He didn’t sound too pleased already when she told him that Dan was sleeping so a grumpy housekeeper had to settle her in. Roman suggested she should call before too late tomorrow so they could talk about her first full day there and so she could also talk to Candice. At the end of the conversation, they both expressed love for each other in their own way and Aubrey felt the force of missing him tugging at her. She didn’t want to let her grandfather go, but she knew he was tired.

Aubrey didn’t bother to take out her possessions from the suitcase, but her toothbrush and body sponge. And one small bottle of liquor to rest on the dresser. She sauntered to the bathroom with the toothbrush and sponge. After brushing her teeth, she went to shower, burning her skin and then trembling cold as she struggled to balance the water temperature. It was awhile before she got acquainted with the valve’s tricky handle.

 

5

Attic Window….

 

Aubrey clothed in plain tights and a slack t-shirt. She started to entertain herself with her e-reader. She wanted the reading to help her fall asleep, a soft glow of white from the lamp lighting up the screen. As she was beginning a new chapter, she noticed that the bed felt extremely soft under her, and had to investigate. A foam covering was over the mattress. She read some more, but distracted again by her – what felt like brand new surroundings – she got up and brought the room light into effect. The reading was not making her sleepy at all as she had hoped. She looked some more under the coverings again. It was a double mattress that she lay atop. She looked in the mysterious chest behind the footboard. It was as hollow as can be. She looked under the bed: dust bunnies. In the cabinet: a flashlight. In the corner of the room: a small cluttered desk.

The little table supported a kettle, a mug, a spoon, a saucer, an instant coffee jar, a powdered, non-dairy creamer one, sugar packets, and some small boxes. They caught her attention. She sat on the chair in front of the desk to read the print on them. There was green tea, orange pekoe, regular Earl Grey….and hot cocoa!

After staring at the water inside for a long time to make sure it was not stagnant, she turned on the kettle. Before it started to scream, she lifted the kettle off the power base. She filled the teacup with the boiling water then emptied a pouch of hot chocolate powder into it and stirred. She found herself salivating while she did that and tasted some of the beverage before it cooled—something Grace would have slapped her on the hand for, shouting, “Do you want to scorch your throat little girl?!” Aubrey giggled to herself at the thought.

Before half of her drink was done, she had enough. She left the mug there on the desk and turned off the light. With the flashlight she found in the cabinet, she headed out into the hallway on careful toes. It was time to explore. She felt adventurous. She felt like a new, special her, like nothing could touch her, like the fun in her life was finally activating.

She could see minuscule fragments floating in the stream of light from the flashlight. They made her press her lips tightly together and restrict the flow of oxygen into her nostrils. Then she realized she could only do so for so long, so she stopped. She went to the opening along the wall. She was correct in her suspicions. The sitting room was there down the passage, facing the opening with its door wide open. It dimly shined silver because of moonlight seeping through a window somewhere inside and Aubrey could see the vague shapes of furniture. There seemed to be a coffee table and some armchairs.

She moved the beam of light over the claustrophobic stairs, lowering herself to the second floor. Slowly she stepped her way down. Whenever she heard the wooden floorboards squeak under her, she bit her bottom lip and contracted her brows.

Just the way she felt Harleen took her, she made her way through the multiple hallways. The journey could easily lose and bamboozle someone.

The second floor, she remembered, had always been the housekeepers’ quarters. It also contained a study and some other things that she could not quite remember. Sure that she was getting closer to the grand stairway, Aubrey saw something low, but long and wide, running by her in full speed. She nearly screamed but caught herself. It was the middle of the night. People were sleeping. So she just jumped back and gasped. “It’s just a house pet, it’s just a house pet,” she repeated to herself. Aubrey didn’t even fancy animals, but it was better that than some ghost or monster, her other conclusions, being the paranoid being that she was.

She came upon the main stairway. With the flashlight, she saw that the steps were wooden with a scroll of carpet running down the middle. Creeping downwards, she brought the light over the wall. Hello Mona Lisa. Bye Mona Lisa.

Further down, she flashed the light to the other side. She aimed it high and noticed her mother’s quilt that once was pinned up on the wall was no longer there. She felt a subtle sadness. Someone had removed it. When she reached the curving end, she moved around the focus of the illumination and saw the marble tiles of the foyer. Along the walls of the foyer were dark doors leading to the unknown.

She finished the stairs. Near the bottom she found and turned on a dull wall lamp. She noticed there was a faint light coming from a small room near the entrance of the house. It drew her to it like a magnet. The adventure of going behind those dark doors would have to wait. When she entered the small room she saw a beautiful black cast iron gas fireplace that stood on its own. It was flickering orange and yellow. It was summer, but in Canada sometimes summers got chilly, depending on where you are. Inside the room was also a familiar scene: a table by a window with two armchairs around it. Aubrey inflated. She felt a blooming inside her and had to hold back tears. It was the same mahogany table that she and her mother use to sit around. The thickly cushioned armchairs were the same ones they sat on too. They sojourned there for hot cocoa or tea, biscuits and jam. Aubrey went close to the table and touched it. She inhaled its sweet lacquered wood and for a moment was back in the armchairs with her mother again, sipping organic hot cocoa spiked with cinnamon from a warm bone china that was far too big for her little hands.

Eventually she crept out of the room when the nostalgia became too overbearing.

On second view, she saw that the lobby had a bookshelf, a table for chess with fauteuil chairs around it, a fat loveseat and an old 80’s writing desk. The layout didn’t seem familiar. Aubrey remembered a freer space, maybe with some plants and a piano. The change brought on that same subtle feeling of sadness again. But what did she anticipate? Mother did not live here anymore, and it had been nine years. It was not the same house. In a little pause of motion, she observed something she did not notice before in her anxious haste upon arriving. One thing for sure that remained the same was the smell of the house. Homes tend to have distinct smells that stayed with them. She could certainly remember as a child, always smelling a faint, sweet and rusty aroma in the big house. It smelled warm and comfortable, like there was constantly fresh honey-drizzled porridge heating on a stovetop, and seasoned wood burning in a fireplace. The gumball formed up in Aubrey’s throat yet again, and she felt the sensation someone must feel if an ant were to run down his or her cheek. Promptly, she wiped the tear away and denied any sentiment she was experiencing for the place. It would not open up its arms to her; she was a stranger, an outcast once banished from it. Why should she let it manipulate her heart like this?

Aubrey suddenly felt cold, as if the furnace had chipped out the same moment a draft slipped through an opened window somewhere and swept over the household. She entered the library through one of the dark doors. This particular door was all alone by itself at the side of the room opposite the bottom of the stairs. She planned to slither through it, her old library, but when she saw the tall shapes of the shelves in the dark like monsters, she returned to the lobby with much speed. Something did not feel right anymore. The smell was familiar, but perhaps this house was far different from what it was when she was smaller. It was like something had left, and in its place something else had grown large and dark, like a wart, where fresh youthful skin was once.

Aubrey went through another one of the dark doors and waved around the flashlight. It was a hallway. She walked sluggishly, coming across a tall French Empire Portico clock, an oil painting of an African landscape, a towering statue of some sort of exotic animal, and some other things she would expect to find in an art museum. The house was more luxurious than she knew it to be.

She met the main living room. It had a bigger fireplace than the room in the front—masonry this time. Instead of the simple light furniture that she recalled, the flashlight took her across heavy-looking, varnished and gold-trimmed items. There was even a dangling chandelier so ostentatious it looked like it was a blown up piece of iced-out jewellery. The room, it was crowded with things, anything you could think of: scones, statuary, glass, bronzes, commodes, porcelain, china, consoles, mirrors, and more! Wherever Golding brought her flashlight, there was something to dazzle her. They were all antique and very random as if Dan had gone on some crazed journey across the world, seeking out decor pieces from different collections.

When she left the living room, she found the kitchen. On a dining table was a needle lace circle of cloth with a tall glass container placed in the middle. The container held a thick amber-colored substance. Curious, she removed the cover and sniffed. Her nose wrinkled as the deep, velvety sweetness, mixed with the burning, heavy whiff of alcohol came rushing up her nostrils. Whisky… She poured out a bit in the thumb-sized glass she found nearby on the tabletop, and sipped it clean. Apart from the sugarcane, she tasted the soft tones of barley, wheat, corn, and the very oak barrel in which the whisky aged and got its color. Every drop warmed her stomach, and made heavy, her eye sockets. She could have curled up on the floor right there under the table and slept.

Needing some water, she scanned the cupboards for a cup. Upon spotting a suitable one, she filled it with tap water and gulped down everything. Placing the cup in the sink, she shivered. That woman on the train... Lisa. What happened to her? And that person she said she saw... Long black hair... Tall…

Far in the kitchen there was a green door. It led outside, this Aubrey knew. One good look at it and she was stepping over the threshold. Luckily there was no alarm, for about the time Aubrey considered alarms, she was already outside on the grassy riverbank, staring at the gently streaming water. For a while she just stood there in the night. Then she spotted strips of something floating oddly in the river, looking like snake skin. She scurried onto the wooden bridge to get a better glimpse, leaning over the rail as the mysterious things went under, then away, continuing right. She spun around to watch them leave. They were torn strips of fabric, maybe satin, cotton, velvet and lace. A spasm rippled up her spine. What was this about? And of course, as she tended to do, Aubrey thought of the worst, gasping. Was there a crime committed close by? Was there a corpse in the river somewhere, like in those horror movies?! She thought about the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Turning to make a run for it back to the house, she was stopped, her blood running cold. A strange feeling rooted her in place. Some senses brought her eyes upwards to one of the attic windows of the house. She could not see anyone there but she stared at the pane in the distance with a gut feeling that from that particular window, someone was watching her. Dreadfully, someone slightly moved the curtains aside to look out; Aubrey was right! And as soon as the person – whoever it was – saw that she stared right back at them, the curtains flopped quickly into place again. Still looking up, uneasily Aubrey walked back inside the house and closed the kitchen door. Who was watching her? She was beyond terrified.

Wanting to just lock herself in her room, Aubrey tried to go up the curling stairs in short time. So not to make a scene, she stepped as lightly as possible. She went through the maze of walls with doors, grinding her teeth, and at last she made it to the simple staircase that elevated you to the third floor. But before she could make it to the second step, she heard light footsteps approaching from above her. She turned off the flashlight instantly. The narrow space was so dark she was certain no one could see her. She squinted because the night was really thick, but she was sure her eyes weren’t fooling her. She was seeing a wide silhouette—wide enough to match Harleen, but not short enough. Indolently the figure crept down closer to her, the staircase cracking noisily under it as if it would crumble to bits.

Aubrey choked on her breath.

It froze, seeming to have heard her.

Breaking the stillness, the figure raised one of its hands in the darkness. With one very strong and serious voice, it preached out to the heavens something that sounded as if it was taken right out of the Bible. “Ask and it shall be given to you! Seek and you shall find!” The silhouette was commanding and articulate with its powerfully spoken words. Listening closely, Aubrey realized it was the husky voice of an elderly woman.

The figure turned and found its way back up the stairs completely. It then dragged itself away, back to where it came from. Something told Aubrey that the old woman didn’t see her at all, and that maybe this sort of thing was some kind of ritual, like the morning cock-a-doodle-doing of a rooster. But she could have been wrong…

As soon as Golding felt that the woman was gone for good, she finished the flight and got to her room. Behind the closed door, she freed a big sigh of relief. Who was that anyway? Aubrey wondered, scatterbrained. She had always remembered Dan saying that his parents were not a part of his life. So was it an old maid?

Miss Golding made sure she locked the room door. She was so shaken from the peeping attic person, from the old woman, and so tired, that she didn’t even bother to grab some chocolate from her suitcase. She just wanted to jump in bed and wrap up straight away after turning off the light. Then mysteriously.... walking over to the bed in the darkness.... Aubrey was certain, most certain, she was hearing a heavy breathing.

The eyes in her head grew round.

The young lady leaped into the air to get onto the mattress, creating a big WHUMP that would have startled poor Samantha Bacherman awake if she were still in the room next door, or wake Dead Deborah from her eternal sleep if she was buried in the backyard. Hastily, Aubrey brought the covers over her head, and in fear of what she might experience next, forced herself to sleep.

Sometime later in her sleep, Aubrey thought she was either in hell or going crazy. She had the sense she was not alone. Something was resting next to her, its big head by her chest. A man creature. He faced her on the bed, but was so low down that his nose was between her breasts. She heard him snoring but knew, viscerally, his eyes were open. No matter how hard she tried, she could not move. She was looking down at him, realizing she was helpless. The man looked like he could be her father and an alien all in one, his features smudged like a person on camera or in a photo who had special effects used to disguise him.

Aubrey started feeling the creature’s nose pushing up against her. Trying to get up was like launching forward with a whale strapped to your back. She couldn’t even get herself to call weakly for help. With strenuous effort, she focused on breaking free from the demented sleep. She knew the term sleep paralysis but right now things felt so real she was sure she would die if she did not wake up fast. First she concentrated on getting the smallest toe and finger to work. She wiggled them, trying to pump life and consciousness into the sleeping lump of her body. Her head lifted from the pillow in a flash of movement and she was free from the paralysis, but as soon as she relaxed, her head merely dropping to the pillow, she was back, trapped again with the creature. She was glued to to bed like a squashed insect under someone’s shoe. So she closed her eyes and prayed, not wanting to witness any more of the scary thing resting insidiously with her, watching her out of its featureless face. In her head she was screaming as she tried to ignore the jarring sensation of being touched all over. When the ordeal was over, she twisted and turned in her sleep and sat up and dropped back down without knowing.

 

Scary things in scary places…

Children with no smiles in a kitchen of knives

A cow with mad cow disease in the barn next door

A stranger outside your house on a rainy night

An angry cat in a dark unfinished basement

A suspicious sound coming from the basement

Someone wheezing in an ICU of a dim hospital

An evil nurse by your deathbed

Thoughts in the brain of a deeply depressed individual

A rabid rat in the space under your stairway

A strange figure at the foot of your bed

 

Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb

Mary had a little lamb, his heart was black as coal

It crept into her room one day, room one day, room one day

He crept into her room one day

And ate her fucking soul.

 

6

Story….

 

Aubrey felt something warm and leathery stroking her face as if it were the soft fur coat of a kitty. “Do you want to hear a story?” asked a croaky voice. It was the old woman. There was the smell of tobacco and a sour stench in the air accompanying her words. Aubrey could not respond. Her mouth was frozen, her whole body paralyze in its state of half-sleep. And if she could respond it wouldn’t have been a yes or a no, in any case, it would have been a scream, because she was in complete horror and prayed that she was only dreaming or hallucinating like before. Then the voice spoke again: “It’s called Black Widow, Black Widow.” Just why couldn’t she wake up?

 

Do you want to hear a story? It’s called Black Widow, Black Widow. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Oh, where do I begin? There once was this maid as blond as Goldilocks; her name was Lynn. Lynn had a son who always had to tag along with her from house to house as she did her housekeeping duties. He always begged for his mother’s attention but Lynn was forever busy with work, and if she was not busy with work, she was busy reading frantically through her dusty, old and chunky spell books. She would promise him a game of snakes and ladder that he pleaded for, but the days would always come to an end, and the promise broken. She would tell him she’d pick up a sweet on her way back from an outside errand, and when she came back she never once had anything for him. She’d say in a carefree manner, “Oh... I forgot. Next time.’’

Lynn found a job at Bobby Hayles house when the boy was almost sixteen and she was forty-three. Mr. Hayles was a wealthy man, had a beautiful wife named Karen, two children named Jay and Yolanda, who were twelve and fourteen, and two maids apart from Lynn. He liked Lynn so much, however, that he provided her stay in a spacious room on the third floor with her son, instead of making her have to bunk it out with the other women in the cellar. Lynn was the best when it came to the cleaning, cooking, children, and the running of errands. Quite frankly, Lynn was the best in everything! And she made sure she did the witchery nonsense behind closed doors. Up there in the third level room, she had a more private space than she ever had to do her doings. It was lovely.

Her son was convinced that his mother had gone mad. She would kick him out the room when she was doing what she said to be “something dangerous,” or “something you wouldn’t understand.” At times, the boy and the two other maids would place their ears to the door. They would hear her raising her voice, saying at the top of her lungs what sounded like gibberish, before she sensed they were there and came outside swinging a heavy book at their heads.

One day the boy, now sixteen, found work with an older friend that provided him a place to stay at his house—took him in as a father though he was young himself—round about twenty-eight. And so Lynn’s boy told her, with tears in his eyes, “Goodbye”. He didn’t like the idea of living away from his mother, whom he loved very much, but knew he was only breaking his own heart more and more everyday he endured her neglect. Lynn didn’t so much as wince at his farewell. She was rather happy that now she could do what she pleased in her free time without him nagging.

With Lynn continuing her mysterious ways, there came a time when the other maids started to gossip heavily behind her back. They said things like: “That Lynn is a lunatic, crazy, just crazy.” Things stirred up even more when they noticed her building objects out of these special wooden beams and planks that she bought. It was very insane how she chanted over each piece. “Should we tell Mr. Hayles?” the maids would wonder to each other. Scared that she would lose her job, Lynn left her spell books behind for awhile to focus on her work around the house.

Lynn and the lady of the house had molded into good friends. Therefore, it was heartbreaking when over the course of a few short years, Lynn saw Karen’s and Bobby’s relationship go downhill. Bobby eventually divorced his wife and found a new, younger one. Aisha. Even more of a disgrace to Karen, was the fact that Jay and Yolanda, who were now sixteen and eighteen, preferred to stay with rich daddy who could spoil them with all the things they wanted, rather than boring, loving mother, who lived under the limits of the money rich daddy provided her with the divorce. With Aisha, Bobby had three children: Mark-Matthews, Mary-Nina, and Michileeka—each nine months apart. With her friend Karen out of the picture, Lynn went back to her chunky old books for comfort.

Then one day, something actually came to be as a result of her hocus-pocus. But you know it wasn’t what she wanted, no, not at all; she had a big spider on her case. She would have just smashed it like she normally did, only it was a black widow, and not just any black widow, but one from the other world—the hidden domain. Appalled, she grabbed the nearest jar she could find, swallowed her fear and managed to capture it. Thinking she was safe, she turned her back to the jar, only to hear a loud crack, then a smash. When she spun around, in shock she saw a naked, feral-looking girl, with great dark spiraling hair and skin like the palest alabaster. The girl stood barefoot in a tiny scrap of shards that once was Lynn’s cleaned jam jar. Her feet were perfect and bloody.

Not long after, the girl was clothed in one of Lynn’s maid uniforms. She sat drinking tea with Lynn in the room. She assured Lynn she would go back to her home soon. She said she was twenty-five, though she looked barely sixteen. She said her name was Theresa. Theresa Everson.

Theresa had gorgeous eyes, the color of the black tea she had to settle for when it turned out Lynn didn’t have any goji berry tea, her favourite. But then on another look they appeared to be just brown. They were the shape of almonds, laid on their sides with the narrowest points facing outwards, and slightly upturned. They were smooth and ageless, eyes that would make any face beautiful—the most beautiful ones Lynn had ever seen. But then, they were wild. Perhaps that’s what made them so striking. Still they were frightening. Just having them glance at her made the pores in Lynn’s armpits burst with sweat, and she feared that the girl couldn’t be trusted.

She was nervous leaving the wild girl in her room to go down stairs and tend to the Hayles children and the house with the other maids, but she had no choice. The girl wasn’t ready to leave.

While she placed the three young Hayles children to bed that night, Lynn saw that the wild eyes were spying. Theresa came out of hiding, clasped her hands as she looked hungrily at the sleeping children, and said, “Aw... how precious. I want one!”

Through a window, Lynn saw that Mr. and Mrs. Hayles were rolling into the driveway in their volkswagen, so she hurried Theresa back to her room and went down to see them. But by the time she got out the door, she had to curse, for Theresa was on her knees before Mr. and Mrs. Hayles. “I am very good with children,” she was saying. “Please let me stay here and work for you! I have nowhere else! PLEASE!”

When Mr. and Mrs. Hayles looked up at Lynn, who was cursing the whole alphabet in her head, she managed to grasp some sanity again. She said she had no idea where “this vagrant” came from, even though the vagrant was wearing her clothes.

The beautiful Mrs. Hayles seemed to see the creepiness seeping right off the girl, but Mr. Hayles, blasted by her beauty, told the girl: “You know… I was actually considering one more maid.”

There was a new housekeeper in the Hayles big house. There was also a new atmosphere, one of fear, hostility. Theresa was trouble, everyone knew right when they saw those eyes, but Mr. Hayles. He didn’t care that she rough-handled the babies, and disobeyed the elderly maids, giving them more work to do as she didn’t help or even clean up after her messy self. He didn’t care even when she used his wife’s clothes, perfume, and jewellery, most of the time destroying everything she touched. While the other maids and Mrs. Hayles were dying inside, Mr. Hayles laughed and thought that she was just being playful.

Lynn fretted everyday over her big leathery books, trying to find the right words to say to make Theresa vanish. She spent many sleepless nights stressing and reading over lines, red-eyed. Sometimes she saw Theresa with Mr. Hayles, dallying around, sneaking off into rooms. Though the girl looked like she was a naive teenager, Mr. Hayles seemed possessed when he looked at her, like he was taken over by something. And eventually the sixth Hayles child was born.

“That Mrs. Hayles… pushing those children out as if there was no tomorrow,” the townsfolk would say. Therefore, the sixth Hayles child would have been a normal phenomenon if only the eyes of this newest member didn’t strikingly resemble the eyes of the young wild maid, except they weren’t so wild thanks to the softening effect of Mr. Hayles’ genes. Mrs. Hayles named him John-Luke. The baby was plump, healthy, and couldn’t be more adorable. Mrs. Hayles, though betrayed, fell in love with him more than she ever did with any other child. She never left him out of her sight, didn’t want any of the maids, especially Theresa, to touch him. When the rumors about the illicit love affair that took place in the Hayles big house spread like wildfire, Mrs. Hayles kept her head high and acted like everything was okay. She even brought the baby to a blessing ceremony at the town’s church one morning, ignoring the gasping and murmurs of things you would never expect to come out of a churchgoer’s mouth as she walked up to the altar.

Theresa grew mad at Mrs. Hayles because she wouldn’t allow her time with John-Luke. Lord knows if it weren’t for Lynn’s threats, Mrs. Hayles would have probably been killed sooner. When Mrs. Hayles wasn’t looking, when she was showering, sleeping, or gardening, Lynn also snuck John-Luke to Theresa’s arms, easing the wild maid’s anger temporarily. Although she wasn’t very graceful at handling it, the baby loved Theresa, and Lynn sometimes wondered if the little thing could feel she was his real mother. Soon the only thing that the shamed Mrs. Hayles could do to stop the boy from screaming was to hand him over to the wild hands of Theresa. Rejected, Aisha gave up wanting John-Luke all to herself and had five more children with Mr. Hayles: Gabriella, Solomon, then triplets Stacey-Anna, Adrianna, and Sara-Bob.

John-Luke was raised as a Hayles. Theresa was to be kicked out of the house, fired, if she ever told him she was his real mother warned Mr. Hayles. It was the least he could do on Aisha’s behalf. And as the child grew older, there was always a family picnic, portrait day, a wedding or party, or some other event to attend with his siblings and “parents,” that Theresa wasn’t allowed to go to. Mr. Hayles, guilty, would allow any maid but Theresa to go with them on their family outings, always leaving at least one of them home with the wild lady of course. She was like a child herself—destroying, misusing, and misplacing things. Theresa could have fled with John-Luke right away if she wanted to, but she was fearful of many things, including Lynn at the time, as the witchcraft woman seemed to know a lot about her kind. In a way, Theresa was trapped in the house. She couldn’t see herself bringing John-Luke with her, back to where she came from, and she couldn’t bring herself to leave him just yet. There was this whole other aspect to it. She wouldn’t go anywhere without John-Luke. She wouldn’t dare abandon him.

When John-Luke came home from outings, Theresa would always want to make up for the time she missed with him. She loved to play with the boy like they were two children. And when she ran off to the park with him, unaware folks would assume they were just that, children, brother and sister, playing together. She was very blessed with youth. It was like she never aged a day since she busted from Lynn’s empty jam jar.

The year John-Luke turned nine was the craziest one of all. Theresa was extremely obsessed with her son. It started out with her begging Mr. Hayles to have a play area built for them. Feeling bad for how he treated her, and once again possessed by her beauty, the man obeyed. She was then able to run off alone with John-Luke for hours. But this wasn’t enough for her. She was still jealous of the Hayles, how they all got time with John-Luke that she didn’t. So her wild mind came across a “better” plan.

John-Luke felt a strong connection to Theresa, even though he knew she was “just one of his maids.” He just couldn’t help feeling a stronger love towards her over his father, his siblings, and even Mrs. Hayles, his “mother.” He was intelligent enough now to see how Theresa’s and his eyes looked much alike and this made him grow even closer to her. If nothing else, he saw this as a special thing they shared. He would listen to her, even when she told him to do things like: “Place the dead roach in mommy’s yogurt” or “Pull the head off the doll,” (one that belonged to his sister, Mary-Nina). He listened every time. They were best friends. And so, on that day when Theresa wanted to set her “better” plan to work, John-Luke listened as he usually did. She said, “Come my Johnny-Luke, help Theresa stir the pot of stew; we are going to put something lovely in there for mommy, daddy, and the siblings too.”

And when the little boy gleamed up into his own eyes, he asked, “What will it do?”

No startled maid was there, but Lynn, now in her sixties, to see the sight of the wild Theresa whispering into the boy’s ear, and the boy, in return, smiling, pouring things into the bubbling stew on the stovetop and stirring it about. When the cook came back, he did not suspect a thing; he did not hear the muffled cries of Lynn – the witness – whom Theresa had seen out of the corner of a cruel eye. He gave way to the butler, who with the help of the other maids, had the table set, the food laid, and the Hayles called for dinner. Then, one by one, heads went down into their plates around the long dining table. Even the triplets collapsed in their highchairs.

Theresa called emergency right away and placed up a beautiful facade. When all arrived, police, ambulance, cook, butler, and the maids, bundled together wondering what the cause of all this was. Of course the first suspect was the cook. But Theresa managed to somehow fool them all into believing there could only be one answer—the missing maid. Adding more oomph to her claim was the fact that they noticed that not only was this maid (who she said to be malevolent) missing, but there was also a missing Hayles child who wasn’t a part of the deceased bunch around the table.

While the police headed urgently up the stairs in hopes of saving the boy from the “evil maid” before it was too late, Lynn, in the master room closet, was unbounded by John-Luke and handed a bottle of something. John-Luke then fled from her. It was all part of the plan.

Theresa anticipated that Lynn would go running after John-Luke impulsively and right into the viewpoint of the officers. And that was what Lynn did—almost did, to be exact. Sprinting forward after the little boy, Lynn noticed from a distance that there were sergeants moving about the hallways with their weapons out, and chanting things that amounted to Come out, come out, wherever you are. So she gave up and let the little boy flee. He went running into the arms of one of the officers. Lynn wasn’t stupid. She saw what was going on. She was being framed. And so before John-Luke could point to her and scream: “Over there! She tried to kill me!” she was hurrying to her treasured place. She ran as fast as her stiff old legs could carry her. The officers, she felt their breaths tickling her neck, and she was so scared. That’s why she couldn’t believe that through the treasured place she made it safely to somewhere else, just in time. She thought she was toast.

The detectives, civilians, you name it, have searched and searched high and low for that old woman. They have for years now, but still to this very day they remain empty-handed. It was as if the maid had disappeared like a spray of perfume mist into the air, never to be seen again.

And that is the story of Black Widow, Black Widow. Take it for what you want, little one. It’s more real than you could ever imagine, though some just brush it off as one of the myths about The House on the Hill….

 

Sun crept through the silk canary yellow curtains. Aubrey’s eyes were still closed. They moved under the lids. Was that a dream? That was a dream! She remembered everything... And her tummy... She felt so hungry. And still kind of tired. Aubrey sighed. Resting on her side, she opened her eyes and got a view of her surroundings. It was morning time... Bright sunshine. She stretched across the bed, breathing in and out deeply. She felt grateful to see morning—another day. Especially after the sleep paralysis. Nights aren’t as good as mornings. But she was very anxious. After a few minutes of just looking around on her back, she rose up and sat cross-legged. She knew she was going to reunite with Dan soon. Her head was hurting a little.

She got up to use the bathroom. Peeing, she looked at her wristwatch. It was 2:24 p.m. Her mouth became lax. She couldn’t believe it. It felt as though she just went to bed. And she wanted to make the best impression. She was concerned Dan might think she’s lazy for sleeping into the day like this. But she knew she went to bed at two in the morning or something, and that she probably didn’t sleep well because of the creepy imaginations and dreams. She rubbed her aching temples. Should she ask for Tylenol or Advil, whichever one they had? And maybe a gallon of black strong coffee would be nice. But who was she kidding, she preferred her coffee with cream.

Aubrey was cranky about the time. She frowned as she brushed her teeth. She should have gone to sleep as soon as she arrived. She felt so out of routine. Her stomach growled and growled. She went into the plastic bag her grandmother had prepared for her. Sitting at the desk, she ate the leftover basmati rice and stewed beans along with the whole grain muffin.

She knew it couldn’t possibly be reality, but she couldn’t help thinking about the story the old woman had told her in the “dream.” One of the myths about the house on the hill? Like the house on the hill down the road?! She turned on the kettle, wiggling her nose. Her eyes moved around thoughtfully. That breathing she heard last night... Maybe it was her own, but she was just too tired to recognize it? When the water started to really heat up, and the kettle was making a faint scream sound, she heard a knock on the room door. Her heart began to beat fast and she got immensely uncomfortable. Timidly, she went to open the door after swallowing some brown liquor.

A young blue-eyed woman wearing a French maid Lolita smiled at her. Her auburn hair was in a ballerina bun and she had front bangs. Aubrey thought she was very pretty and winced in her attempt to smile back, feeling foolish already. “Hello, Aubrey,” said the woman. “I’m Stephanie, one of the housekeepers.” Stephanie, what a fitting name! Stephanie sounded cute and sweet; this woman appeared so.

“Hello, good morning—I mean afternoon.

Stephanie breathed a chuckle. “It’s okay.” She understood right away that Aubrey was a very unsure individual. But she knew that if anyone should be nervous it should be Dan or her or one of the other housekeepers. Aubrey seemed nice, but Stephanie couldn’t help but look guiltily at her. “How was your sleep last night? I just want to tell you sorry on behalf of everyone. That old woman is so close to being kicked out of here. We’re SO sorry.”

“What happened?”

“You didn’t see or hear anyone in your room last night?”

Aubrey’s eyes widened. “What?” She thought it was all in her head.

“Sorry. I don’t mean to scare you. She wouldn’t hurt you but it’s just that I caught her in your room last night—or you can call it morning. I thought you knew. You were still sleeping, weren’t you,” she said as more of a statement rather than question.

“I thought that was a dream,” said Aubrey with unconcealed disgust.

The housekeeper put a palm over her mouth. “I’m so sorry. Dan gave her a scolding, I promise. And she won’t do it again. Lock your door though.”

“I remember locking my door.”

“Make sure it’s locked properly. I can show you. But Ping won’t do it again. I promise. She’s just a little bit gone up there if you know what I mean.”

“Ping? That’s her name? Ping?

Stephanie laughed. “She told us that’s her name. So we were like: OK.” Stephanie laughed some more.

Aubrey tried to smile. “You know what? She told me a story.”

“Really..? That’s what she was doing, wasn’t she. What was it about?” Stephanie giggled.

“It was about a house on a hill—a load of crap really. Um, it was called Black Widow, Black Widow.”

The housekeeper chuckled. “Yeah, don’t listen to her. Forget about her. Anyways, I’m glad you’re okay. You should be hungry though. We have some breakfast and lunch downstairs for you. I can warm it and bring it up if you’d like. Maybe you want to eat first and get comfortable before you see Dan? He’ll understand.”

“I had something already—travel food leftovers. Tell Dan I’ll be right down. I am so sorry! I went to sleep very late last night! Well—I went to sleep in the morning at around two.”

“Don’t be sorry! We figured you were making up for the sleep you missed. It’s your old house. I would be excited too.”

Aubrey blinked.

Stephanie swallowed.

“And who is this old woman?” asked Aubrey out of the blue.

“The storyteller?” giggled Stephanie. Aubrey thought she seemed nervous.

“Yeah, Ping,” laughed Aubrey artificially. That old woman better stay away from her.

“Mr. Golding, I think, found her somewhere on the streets. She doesn’t have any family to look after her, so he took her in.” A pause. “But I mean, I told him this isn’t a nursing home. Haha.” Stephanie looked slightly like she wanted to take that back just incase Aubrey didn’t get her sense of humor. But she saw Aubrey contain a smile.

“Oh. Okay,” said Aubrey.

“But you don’t have to worry about her. So we’ll see you downstairs sometime soon?”

“Yeah I’ll be down.”

“Perfect.” The housekeeper gave a superficial grin and was off.

Aubrey proceeded with making her instant coffee. When she was done she rested it on the bedside table then picked it up to start sipping once she was comfortably cross-legged on the mattress. She hated this situation already. Coming into her room as she slept? Really?! How rude! Aubrey was most hysterical. That old woman is insane and the insane are dangerous! And Idiot Stephanie is acting like it’s no big deal when she could have killed Aubrey! Jesus Christ! Aubrey knew now she had to make sure she locked her door properly. She had to always double check. But was there anything real about that story Ping told? Does the boy and his wild mother exist? Samantha and Aubrey... The two children they saw dancing… John-Luke and his mother Theresa? NO. That would be too creepy.

Aubrey grimaced; she forgot to put cream into the coffee.

The old woman’s sneaky actions vexed her. What vexed her too was the burdensome need to know whether or not this Ping was in fact talking about the house on the hill down the road. It’s not like she was about to research anything, but Aubrey also wanted to know if the other parts of the story (the parts that weren’t magical) were true. Because if they were, it would mean a mass murder took place in Grishamm, and pretty close to where she grew up and stay now. And it might also mean... John-Luke and Theresa... were the two children she and Samantha Bacherman saw playing in the backyard.

How mysterious...

 

7

Suspicions…

 

Even though she had told the woman that she was fine, Stephanie still brought a tray of something up for her. Aubrey was dressed in a mini purple frock with a black zip sweater thrown over it when she opened the door for the housekeeper. It was a tray of fruit and sandwiches. There was a large glass of water added. Stephanie was beaming. When Aubrey let her in, she placed the tray on the desk.

“If you ever need anything, you can call me or Barbara on the second floor,” said Stephanie as Golding watched her genteel walk back to the door. Stephanie swiveled and caught the girl staring, Aubrey looking away and then back coyly. She gave Aubrey a sweet expression before dismissing herself.

Aubrey ate two pieces of fruit by the desk. She chewed considerably fast; she was envisioning how her reunion with Dan downstairs would go. Too full to take another slice of strawberry, she left the tray and neatened her pale hair in the bathroom. She left it swept to the side. Dry and dead and blond. She put liquid foundation all around her tired blue eyes to cover the dark circles but left the rest of her face untouched since it was raw and spotted with pimples. She needed to do one more thing now, before she went to see Dan. She needed to call her grandparents. Roman picked up. “Aubrey?”

“Yes, Granddad, it’s me.”

“How are you?”

“I haven’t seen my dad yet.”

“What are you saying to me?!”

Aubrey giggled. “No. He’s not ignoring me again. I went to bed at two in the morning and I just got up basically. He’s downstairs waiting for me.”

“Oh!” Roman giggled too.

“I’m so scared, Grandpa. I’m so nervous.”

“Just be yourself.”

“Of course you’re going to say that. But I don’t know how. And you know what happened last night?—or this morning I mean.”

“What?”

“A crazy old woman, who Dan has living here, snuck into my room while I was sleeping!”

“What are you saying to me?!”

“Yes Grandpa!”

“How could Dan let that happen?!”

“It’s so crazy. But yeah, let me talk to Candice now because I think I should go down to see him soon. It’s rude of me to keep him waiting like this. I’ll call you guys later though.”

“Okay, Love. Here she is.”

Aubrey told her grandmother everything she told Roman, starting from what she experienced yesterday. Candice knew about yesterday’s story, thanks to Roman. It was today’s story that she focused on, both she and Roman. Aubrey sighed as the conversation with her grandmother kept being interrupted by a Dan and Ping discussion Candice had to have with Roman. They sounded like they were already ready for Aubrey to come home. Aubrey had to repetitively explain to them how fine she was. When they cooled down, Candice told her to take some pictures, just like Roman had requested, before she comes back. “I will, Grandma,” assured Aubrey.

“I want to see those Lolitas, and how Dan looks now too.”

Aubrey made a sound of amusement. “I’ll try.”

“Okay. Love you, darling.”

“Love you too, Grandma. I miss you!”

“Miss you too.”

After Aubrey was through with the phone, she knew that it was finally time to reunite with her father, no matter how scary it was going to be. She felt her palms get sweaty as she made her way down the hallway. Hyperventilation was knocking at her door, saying, Hello miss, may I come in? as she travelled the narrow stairs. It got more demanding to breathe when she came upon the main stairway. She made it to the entrance hall, was about to use the door that led to the showy living room where she suspected Dan waited, when she halted.

It was a surreal moment. She didn’t notice him before, but there he was on an armchair, reading beside the little bookshelf in the foyer. He had aged gracefully. He had a few inconsequential fine lines on the skin of his face. His hair was still ash blond and lush, except for the subtle appearances of silver. His gray eyes sparkled green through a pair of neat rectangle spectacles, and he looked as vibrant and as ready as the new day. Dan appeared friendlier than she remembered, than she had imagined, especially when he disregarded the newspaper in his hands and smiled at her.

She was taken aback and didn’t know what to do. He still maintained the neat moustache that made him seem wise and perhaps studious, but all in all, Dan Golding seemed approachable, not like the monstrous, boxy-faced child neglecter that she had drawn out in her head.

He got up tall, broad in the chest, and slender in his sweater vest and gray-brown trousers. “Is that my little Aubrey?! Who is this woman?!”

Aubrey blushed, covering her mouth with both hands.

“You are so grown up,” followed Dan. “I can hardly believe that’s you. Is this a dream? Come here!”

Harleen popped out of one of the doors. She pushed this equipment that consisted of handles where filthy towels hung, a large bucket on wheels with a mop plopped in it, and some other stuff. It was the type of equipment you would see school janitors pushing down the hallways after school. She took the mop out of the murky water as Aubrey nestled in Dan’s warm arms, and started to polish the tiles. Everything Harleen did was lifeless though graceful somehow. She made no sound and looked at ease in as much as she looked like she dragged the mop over the floor lazily.

While Aubrey eased away from Dan’s chest, she was sure that she saw the woman whispering something to herself. Dan continued to stare at his offspring though he spoke of the newcomer to the scene. “You’ve met Harleen. I hope she treated you well. Sorry that I couldn’t be there to welcome you when you first arrived. There was an early event this morning.”

“Yes. She told me about that.”

“Poor Sylvia,” said the grouchy, deep-voiced Harleen, most unemotionally. She did not take an eye off her work.

Aubrey fixed both eyes onto her father in bewildered amusement. “Sylvia?” The faint wave in her voice suggested laughter.

Harleen stilled. “It’s not very funny,” informed her eerie voice, “it was her funeral this morning.”

Dan looked irritated. Aubrey didn’t know what made her skin crawl more; the voice or what it had said.

“Lovely, Harleen!” said Dan sarcastically.

“Who was Sylvia?” whispered Aubrey.

Dan seemed to hesitate, but then a glance at his housekeeper made him decide to disclose the information to the little inquirer. “She was one of our maids.” He might as well.

Aubrey blinked.

“But anyways,” said Dan, “how was your sleep? Was everything okay? And I’m so sorry about Ping. Stephanie spoke to you, right?”

“Oh don’t worry. Yes, I met Stephanie. She’s so nice.” A lot was there for Aubrey to ponder. Did Sylvia die in this house? Did a death take place here?

“Stephanie is lovely. So what do you think about Grishamm now?”

“Oh my gosh. Wow was all I was saying last night as the driver took me through downtown. The clothes, everything... It’s so amazing.”

“Aren’t you glad you came?”

Aubrey blushed and grinned as she nodded.

“Did you see the library?” wondered Dan. “I made sure to get new books for you. But some of them you might still remember from when you were living here.”

Humble contentment crowned Aubrey’s face.

“Or do you not love reading so much anymore?” he mused. “Any special boy..?”

Aubrey knitted her brows, shaking her head. “No,” she said almost gaspingly. “I still love reading.”

Dan cackled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. So, you don’t have a boyfriend?”

Aubrey’s heart palpitated. “I don’t,” she said irritably, though not intending to.

“Alright, alright,” said Dan amusedly with his palms held up to show his surrender. He finally dropped the investigation.

It was a sensitive topic. Aubrey was scarred by love. There were brand new negatives against Dan for pushing the subject, but she liked the new Dan a lot. She grinned. “I’m going to check the library out. I haven’t as yet.”

“Oh I thought you were about to say you were going home!” said Dan playfully as Aubrey walked towards the library’s double door.

Aubrey glanced over her shoulder and bounced her eyebrows up once, smiling. “Shall I?” Her hands connected with the handles and she was about to pull…

“Um, could I actually have you for a moment more?”

Aubrey turned fully to him. She clenched her jaw. What did he want? She needed to recoup somewhere private. Her heart was about to burst out of her chest.

“I don’t want to run you over,” said Dan, “but there’s another person who’d like to meet you. Two actually, but one isn’t here yet. She went out with a friend.”

“Okay,” said Aubrey with worry on her face. Her voice had quivered. She felt the need to swallow, as if her throat was closing up.

Dan frowned. “Don’t look so nervous. Is this too much for you? Come here...”

Aubrey started to move back towards Dan. Dan has remarried, she thought with fear. She should have thought of this and stayed home. Now she had to be social with this lady and whoever she came with too. Her daughter is the other person, Aubrey just knew it.

When she was by him, Dan put his hand on her shoulder and guided her through a door, then down a hallway. She felt wobbly and like she was going to be incredibly self-conscious. Dan’s wife was probably very young and pretty. Would he do that? What does she look like?

Dan led Aubrey into a turn and walked some more with her until they stationed in front of a door. When Dan pulled it open, Aubrey finally met the beautiful…

GRACE?!

It was Grace. Grace Hamilton. Now the last name came back to Aubrey. Her knees buckled under her, and her heart, she thought it had dropped into her stomach. She remembered the liquor she had brought along with her in the suitcase. She needed some right now. It was an emergency.

“WOO!” cried Grace as Dan caught and stabled Aubrey before she fell completely to the ground. Grace had a great laugh. “Hello, Aubrey! Did I do that?! Oh God, I’m not that scary am I?”

Hellfire! It was like the devil himself had spoken. Aubrey’s guts burned within her, and her slight headache developed into a migraine. The moment was so embarrassing it could have taken her life in its strike. Dan felt so awful. He was almost as embarrassed for Aubrey as she was for herself and said nothing as he watched her try to regain her posture, grace, and any remaining dignity beside him. “Hello,” she uttered at last to Grace, trying to play it off with a chuckle.

Grace was not deceived and looked on in humor.

Tears formed behind Aubrey’s eyes but she clung to them. She wouldn’t be humiliated further by bawling like a baby because the “Wicked Witch” had come back from the grave. She stared Grace straight in the face. “What are you doing here?” Wait, did she really just say that?

Grace’s face livened. “I beg your pardon? I’m here just for you!” More sarcasm?

“No. Please. I didn’t mean it like that,” said Aubrey out of breath. “It’s just such a surprise.”

Grace, with her brown hair shaped up like a beehive, had aged, but it was not as much as you would assume eight years would do to someone. She stopped on her sewing machine and stood revealing the rest of her black lacy Lolita that climbed all the way up to her chin where the fabric shot out like flower petals. Her face was harsher with the makeup she wore. She did not need it, but what was most bizarre was the cone shape of her waist, made by long periods of tight-lacing. It was shocking. Aubrey remembered that Grace was hauntingly distinct but she did not recall all the details, or perhaps the woman just took to the new Grishamm way too much. Aubrey thought of all Grace’s organs being squashed together, and for a moment it pleased, tenderly, her sadistic side.

Grace’s neck was long and thin, like the handle of an elegant drinking glass. She had sharp, stern eyes, and a board-stiffness about her—made partially with the help of the corset. Mrs. Hamilton had the kind of impression of dark, aged wine: strong and deep in a manner that those appreciative of only lighter things like Stephanie perhaps, or champagne, would have found too intense. But like the lingering crispness and slight sweetness that is left on your tongue by the fermented grape juice, she had an appeal. Lopsided on her head was a veil hat, and on her hands, gloves made from the same lacy material of her dress.

“Grace and I got married,” confessed Dan.

“Oh wow,” said Aubrey as Grace gave her a frail hug. “Congratulations.”

Grace stepped back and eyed Aubrey pitifully. “Thank you. It happened some time after you left. Joanne will be here soon,” she added. “Maybe you guys will get along. She’s twenty-one. How old are you again, Aubrey?”

“I’m nineteen,” Aubrey gulped. Did Grace mean Joanne, her daughter?

“Of course they’ll get along,” said Dan.

Grace flashed a hand as if to dismiss her husband’s words. “They are girls, Dan. You know how it is with us felines. Well I know what it was like growing up, being a girl. And even now, as an adult, some things stay the same. Aubrey, what day and month were you born on?”

“November the sixth,” said Aubrey, thinking about what that had to do with anything. Then she remembered the horoscopes, the signs and their meanings in that pseudoscience and was prepared to laugh at any assumptions Grace would make. You tell them your birthday and suddenly they think they have you all figured out.

Grace frivolously sucked up a breath of air before exclaiming, “A Scorpio! We better watch out with this one, Dan! You know what they say about Scorpios... Hot-tempered, romantic, and... NYMPHOS!” Grace opened her eyes wide when she said that last part.

Aubrey tittered. “What’s that?”

Grace giggled. “A nympho?”

“A beautiful woman!” said Dan hastily. “Grace, don’t embarrass my daughter, please.”

Grace grinned at Aubrey. “Dan, you and Deborah made a beautiful girl huh?”

Dan laughed, feeling shy for Aubrey. He understood how she felt like a twin. “Of course we did.”

It was odd. Grace seemed, a moment ago, to be free of most of the villainous spirit that had possessed her, but when Dan gave that response, it was like Grace wasn’t expecting him to agree. Maybe she didn’t really think that Aubrey was beautiful, or maybe it was just the possibility of her husband reminiscing about his first wife that bothered her, but Aubrey felt like Grace did not like Dan’s response at all. She saw Grace beam, but she also thought she saw a nasty grimace behind the friendly display of teeth.

The room they had found Grace in was interesting. There were different pieces of fabrics and sewing equipment everywhere. There were rough sketches of clothes, stacks of untouched fabrics, needles, thread and yarn. It was a miniature fashion warehouse. At the back of the room, Aubrey saw a long rack of Lolita dresses. Was Grace a designer? But anyway how could Dan marry her? That was when Aubrey remembered the first day that Grace Hamilton came to the riverside home. The sparkle she saw in Dan’s eyes when Grace folded her arms and ordered all the chairs in the living room to be re-stuffed. Talk about taking initiative. It was unmistakable, the draw he had to her from the very beginning. Dan Golding had never had a challenging woman before. No disrespect, but Deborah was something like a footstool in comparison—God bless her soul.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” said Dan to Aubrey, breaking the sudden silence that was caught up between the three. “Come with me,” he told her, leading her out the door. He closed it behind him and brought her down the corridor.

For a moment, Dan touched the temples of his head dramatically. Then he released a sigh, held her cold hands, and began the semi lie that he had been practicing over and over. “Aubrey,” he said, “please forgive me. I never built any sort of real relationship with you. Deborah did all the parenting. And when she was gone, I had no clue how to start being a parent. I want you to know that I am extremely sorry for every second I have ever missed with you. I want you to know – even if you don’t believe it – that I love you. I have always loved you. I just didn’t know how. Please give me a chance now. I know, I know, it may seem ridiculous how I am suddenly doing all this. I know I could never erase the past, but please, could we be friends, Aubrey? Could we be father and daughter?” His eyes glossed up, he swallowed, and Aubrey felt that he must have meant every word.

But did he?

He still had her icy hands in his thermos-warm ones. Aubrey pursed her lips and looked away from him. “We can,” she whispered, trying tremendously hard not to cry right in front of this stranger. He was still that. The two hugged for a long while, Aubrey barely breathing.

“Alright,” said Dan. “I’ll allow you to see the library now. And we are going to do some fun things during your stay here, just the two of us. But That One should be here soon to keep your company. Brace yourself for Joanne!” Dan squeezed Aubrey’s shoulders and guffawed.

“Is she anything like her mother?” asked Aubrey with her eyes wide open.

“Would that be a good or a bad thing?”

Aubrey couldn’t answer that truthfully without feeling naughty. She just shrugged and levered the edges of her mouth upwards, blushing. When Dan finally left her to be, she looked down to the floor wondering what the hell just happened?

Aubrey moved up the stairs in a haze. She didn’t really see the steps. In her room she gulped down a Mars bar like a shot of brandy and took a swig of dry gin that made her want to vomit. She needed to soothe herself before she went downstairs again, now to reunite with the library and await Joanne. God only knows wherever that girl would pop up in the huge house.

Inside the library, Aubrey drifted to one of the overstuffed and worn armchairs. It was in front of a wooden coffee table that was incredibly stained with cup rings. She sat down to get a feel of the place before picking a book, to reconnect with her old library. A few minutes found her just sitting there, trying to still her heart and her mind, rubbing her icy hands together, trying to get blood to flow through them properly. It wasn’t the reconnection she expected with her library. Before, all she had to worry about was Dan and her. Now there was Grace and Joanne in the mix, situated in front of her positive thoughts like two sharks she must try to dodge somehow.

Maybe she should just tell Dan that she had to go back home. Make up a story... Her grandparents need her unexpectedly... Candice had a heart attack... She’ll just talk to them first to get them in on the trick. They would understand. They would understand that she needed to come home before she had a heart attack of her own. A very real one. Aubrey sighed. She looked around. The comforting sweet musty smell of the books, the adventures awaiting you in each one—a library was such a beautiful thing to her.

While admiring the peaceful ambience, Aubrey was disturbed suddenly. There were no footsteps to at least warn her, for the carpets muffled them, but Dan appeared from behind her. He glanced her way, smiled, then walked into an aisle that was on her direct right. He bent and took out a folder from a bottom division of one of the gigantic shelves. Something made Aubrey narrow her eyes at him. Something told her, he was just there to watch her, see what she was doing. She watched him curiously as he faced her to open the folder and look at its contents, finding both actions unnecessary. He pulled out a loose sheet of paper. His eyes scanned over it measurably. Did he know that she was questioning his sincerity?

Aubrey’s blue eyes enlarged. A pair of delicate hands rested themselves on her father’s shoulders. They were certainly not Grace’s hands. They moved over him in a therapeutic way. “Danny,” sang a voice sweetly. Dan’s eyes unfastened from the page. He turned around to face a beaming Stephanie. Aubrey looked in disbelief from the back of Dan’s head to the half of the housekeeper’s face that she could see. Stephanie crossed her arms and tightened her eyes. “You didn’t even touch the coffee I made for you.”

“Ah, Stephanie... My coffee, I forgot about it.” Mr. Golding’s voice was loving but cautious.

Now Stephanie looked at him compassionately. “I know... You’ve got your daughter here and—”

“And actually she’s right behind me,” interjected Dan, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. He performed a short, nervous giddy sound.

Stephanie seemed embarrassed. She vanished from the library instantly. Shortly, after scanning over some more papers, Dan settled the folder back on the shelf and dispatched himself from the library as well. He did so without even the slightest farewell glance at his daughter. Was he embarrassed too? Or guilty about something? The whole scenario left Aubrey musing, contemplating. Knitting her brows, she moved her eyes around, folding her lips under then making a smacking sound as she parted and joined them. “That’s... interesting.”

She could have stayed pondering over everything from the house on the hill to Joanne, but Aubrey Golding, a proper booklover, was in a library, and you know what that means, don’t you? In reasonable time, a high pile of books formed up on the coffee table in front of her. Between readings, she enjoyed tea and pastry that Stephanie brought to her. The blueberry jelly in the center of the donuts was so yummy that she didn’t pay attention to the fact that someone, or something, was watching her closely, panting like a desperate street beggar for something to eat. And it wasn’t for the donut in her hand.

She was reading mostly Carrie, though she had already read the Stephen King book ages ago. Oh she would have loved to finish it up like a chocolate bar of raisins and nuts, but Stephanie came over to her with some news that drew her powerfully from the pages.

“Joanne is in the chief living room. She and a friend would love to meet you over some tea.” Stephanie strolled off.

Aubrey placed down the book undecidedly, sighed and stood. Turning to the direction of the exit, she spotted something that nailed her to the floor. There, in the triangular gap created by a leaning Jane Austen book, was one half of a dark sunglasses, the eye behind it most likely staring at her. The person shifted. The body was wide. The hair on the head was a wig, jet-black and silky, a short bob with a fringe. Aubrey saw that it was the elderly woman lurking behind there. Fuming, she soared out of the library. Could somebody please tell that old hag to stay away from her?!!!

It was the old lady indeed, but the old lady had just come...

 

Aubrey looked tensely through the French window of the main living room like a creep. She saw two girls sitting up straight in the loveseat, with a teacup and a saucer in their hands. Both were lavishly clothed in Lolita mixed between Classical and Sweet, and folded their legs just so to compliment the femininity of the garments. Even though it is not a real Lolita characteristic, both wore a lot of makeup just like it seemed every woman, whether young or old, did in Grishamm: heavy eye shadow, fake lashes, thick lipstick, blush, concealer, marked on eyebrows. On the left, with a round, lacy headdress was obviously Joanne, thought Aubrey. Her hair was up like her mother’s, but in a pincushion bun and it was blue. Yes, blue hair. Baby blue. Easter egg blue. Also, bones showed more under the girl on the left’s skin, for a stiffer, more “Grace Hamilton” look, than the fuller, curvier friend. That friend’s hair, in a half bonnet, was soft pink and straightened to the shoulders, teased for a slight kinky and thick look—the kind of thing your fingertips tingled at the sight to touch. The girl looked much friendlier.

Aubrey sighed. Okay... it’s going to be okay. She will act sophisticated and clever, not like the idiot she was when she saw Grace. She pushed open the door confidently – Okay, she got this – but as soon as the two girls ceased their chitchat and two sets of blue eager eyes looked up at her, she forgot the very name Dead Deborah had named her with.

The curvy friend placed her saucer and cup on the glass coffee table that was before her. She curtsied then walked around it on her rocking horse shoes, and came before the frightened girl. Taking one of Aubrey’s sweaty hands in one of her white gloved ones, she smiled, and in that same moment Aubrey knew she had been wrong. Behind the girl’s soft upturning lips, she saw the grimace, heard the hiss. In her silent pale eyes, she saw the glaring malevolence, and in the shake of her hand, she felt the ill energy. This girl, though not at all in any physical way, reflected her mother. Why this girl was Joanne.

“Well hello, Aubrey! I’m Joanne!” she articulated. Her teeth were perfectly white and square. She had dimples. Aubrey’s heart pounded. This girl was really pretty and she felt so small and meaningless.

“So nice to meet you, finally,” said Aubrey, hoping she sounded genuine. She was impressed with herself, surprised that her voice didn’t crack in half like a little thin square cracker.

Stephanie came about. “Aubrey dear, the ladies are having Earl Grey with milk and sugar. What would you like?”

“The same. Thank you, Stephanie.” Actually Aubrey could have used a stiff drink.

“Come sit,” offered Joanne, returning to her seat where she retrieved her teacup from the table.

Aubrey sat on the armchair on Joanne’s right. It faced the wall, unlike the loveseat that faced the television set. She felt unstable, but she knew that she was getting there. Soon, if she just didn’t overthink the situation, she would be talking to Joanne like it was nothing at all. A portly cinnamon-orange Persian cat that she thought was going to have a heart attack any second, walked up beside Joanne’s leg and started to rub and purr. Joanne looked down. “Aw... baby…” Joanne placed her tea aside once again and picked up the round thing. It had a large body for its small head and four stubby little legs. Joanne cradled it like an infant and started to scratch its belly gently. The creature’s paws paddled the air. “This is Rebecca Persian,” said Joanne, smiling at the lazy-looking thing.

Aubrey wasn’t too fond of cats. The mere sight of the cat annoyed her. The toy motorcycle that it seemed to have swallowed irritated her too. The name was the cherry on the pie. Rebecca Persian? Aubrey wanted to kill it just for that or at least poke its fat belly with a stick or something. Its greenish brown eyes looked curiously at her as it stretched jollily in its mommy’s lap. Aubrey remembered the flash of black she saw last night. Looking at the cat’s size, she couldn’t imagine it being what she had seen. Though it was fat, it was a small animal, and Aubrey wanted to ask Joanne if they had any other pets.

Both girls stared silently at Ms. Golding in thought. Could this thing be their new friend?

Stephanie returned, now with a cup of sweet, milky tea. Aubrey took it, lowering it on her lap immediately, just in case her nervous hands rattled it and made blatant her discomfort.

Adding on the last name was a thing that Grishammers had the tendency to do. “I’m Rochelle Kunt,” said the friend, fluttering her heavy fake lashes. “How is it in Toronto, Aubrey Golding? I hear that’s where you’re from.”

Aubrey looked up from the cat abruptly.

“It’s with a K,” informed Rochelle. “How is Toronto?”

Still petting Rebecca Persian’s belly, Joanne, though her body was turned to Aubrey, glanced at her friend when she spoke again to the newcomer. Aubrey’s fingers twitched around the saucer. “It’s great,” she replied with a smile, not intending to be curt. She really wanted the furry, obviously over-pampered thing to stop looking at her. It was actually making her more nervous than she needed to be—an extra set of feline eyes to gleam at her. Though it was just a cat, Aubrey felt it judged her every movement.

“I bet it must be more fun than Grishamm,” said Rochelle.

Aubrey frowned. “I don’t really get out much. To be honest, Grishamm seems better.”

Joanne looked Golding up and down, from head to toe. When she came back up to Aubrey’s eyes, she nodded slightly, pouting her lips in mock pity. Aubrey jittered. She felt as if this girl had seen right through her, and understood that she was a loser and had no social life. Worse, it seemed to have amused her.

“You like it here,” said Rochelle. “That’s good. But why don’t you get out much?” Rochelle took a sip of her black tea. “That’s definitely not a good thing for a young lady.”

Aubrey thought of a reasonable excuse. “Well, I’m helping—”

“Creepy-crawly, creepy-crawly!” cried Joanne, observing the wall behind her. Rebecca Persian leaped out of her arms before she bounced off the sofa. She startled even her friend with her scream. Standing, she faced the wall cringing. Her hands were in tight fists and were positioned over her mouth and chin as if she was about to block a punch.

Harleen entered the room in utter speed. She held a paper napkin strategically and headed to the wall area where the girl stared at in horror. Sticking her tongue out the corner of her mouth, she propped her tiny self up on the seat. With the napkin, she took up the helpless little eight legged insect. She sauntered off, quitting the room with the spider that she seemed to have squashed within the napkin. Joanne sat again, picking up her teacup and saucer now that the cat was gone. She sighed. Shortly after, a toilet somewhere was flushed.

“As you were saying, Aubrey,” said Rochelle, annoyed with her friend.

“I help my grandparents with their shop a lot,” she lied. After the recession there was no shop anymore. “So I’m kept really busy.” The only things that kept Aubrey busy was chocolate consumption, book reading, and being depressed.

“Oh,” said Rochelle glumly.

Joanne chose to speak. “Your grandparents don’t give you any free time? That’s sad.” She was mock-pitying again, thought Aubrey.

Aubrey gasped imprudently. “Well it’s kind of my choice. It’s fun. Plus I get paid.” She added a chuckle, hoping someone would join her, but no one did. “Anyways…”

Joanne blinked and sipped her tea.

Rochelle blinked and sipped her tea.

Aubrey blinked and dribbled her tea. She wiped at her wet chin quickly.

“Since you’re here,” said Rochelle, “and finally away from that stifling shop, you are definitely going to come out with Joanne and me. It’s time to let go. Yolo.”

“If you guys want me to,” said Aubrey, blushing.

“Hang with us? Aw, of course we do! She’s so cute, Joanne!”

“Uh-huh, very cute...” Joanne finished her tea, looking as if she was in pain. “How old are you?” she suddenly asked.

“I’m nineteen,” replied Aubrey.

“She’s young still,” said Joanne.

Rochelle glared at Joanne as if she was an imbecile. “She’s about our age!”

Aubrey stared downwards. That painful feeling of not being accepted rose over her like a black tidal wave. “I don’t have to come with you guys... if Joanne doesn’t want me to.”

Hamilton seemed to have seen something more when she looked at Aubrey then and not just a new girl sitting there. “You wear your heart on your sleeve,” she remarked disapprovingly. “I did not say I didn’t want you to come. But thanks for making it super awkward now. If you think I’m so mean, maybe you shouldn’t come...” Joanne shrugged. She glanced at the floor before looking up at Aubrey again, but through her lashes. Aubrey felt awful. Could she not ruin things all the time with searing perfection?

Rochelle’s eyebrows were raised high in her forehead. “Um! You guys can talk about that! But remember, we are all grown women here. Thanks!” Kunt rose up from her seat.

“Some of us,” stated Joanne feebly, standing as well.

Rochelle’s eyes widened. “Joanne?”

Joanne glared at her friend. “Rochelle, stop annoying the hell out of me.”

“Okay, calm down, just a little, please?”

Tartly Hamilton removed herself from the room. Rochelle followed after her without viewing Aubrey again. You see, Rochelle was very humiliated for all three of them. Aubrey heard her roaring, “We are grown women!” down the hallway.

Aubrey put her tea on the coffee table. Time and time again something like this happened to her during her school days and she always kept quiet. But this time it would be different. “This is not happening again,” she said. She would defend herself this time! She waltzed out of the living room and took to the steps behind the girls like a mad bull on steroids.

Joanne and Rochelle heard the sound of something angrily approaching and placed on the brakes to check it out. Joanne grew fearful; the girl looked like she wanted to rip the skin from her face. Joanne was one gradation ahead of Rochelle who seemed like she was preparing to stop a fistfight, or at least stop her friend from getting murdered. Rochelle braced herself with one palm wrapped firmly around the rail and the other up flat against the wall. The only way Aubrey was getting through was under her arm.

Aubrey came to a screeching halt at the bottom of the stairs, closing the gap between her eyebrows. “I just wanted to talk to Joanne,” she explained.

Rochelle stared after her questioningly.

“Like a grown woman,” added Aubrey.

Rochelle laughed nervously. She went behind Joanne but she was not leaving.

Aubrey seemed too determined, pathetically so. “Joanne, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

Joanne was astonished that the girl came rushing just to say that. She felt bad now. Heat surged to her face. “I know. I’m sorry,” she said.

Aubrey warmed. “Can we put this behind us?”

Hamilton felt Aubrey was perfect, but something about this blonde didn’t weave well together. Something tainted this new girl somehow. Joanne wasn’t pleased with herself for saying, “I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends,” but she said it clearly.

Golding was beyond flustered. What, did she have Stay Away stamped on her forehead? “Why?” asked Aubrey, most taken aback. She remembered being disliked before, a lot actually, but hardly anyone over the age of twelve had made the point so readily and with no good reason. Where was her chance?

Joanne played shy. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely.

Aubrey couldn’t let it not hurt her. She thought about herself. What was wrong with her? First her peers hate on her, second her boyfriend leaves her, and some foreign student who sees a shadow about her without warning does not come back to school, and now again someone can’t stand her. She felt like the gumball was back in her throat, but she wasn’t going to choke up and succumb as usual. “Joanne, you don’t even know me. Do you really want to play that cliché evil stepsister game? I’m not Cinderella or Ella Enchanted!”

Joanne and Rochelle laughed but was floored, absolutely floored. They looked at each other in disbelief. “Who is this buffoon in my house?” asked Joanne. Then she turned back to Aubrey. “Games are for little children, Aubrey. Of course you’re not Cinderella! Pfft! You are so rude. How dare you talk to me like that. And I bet you don’t realize your rudeness. You think its everyone else don’t you? Maybe you are just oddly socially adjusted and you don’t even realize it. Bye. Thank you.” Aubrey’s eyes watered. Nothing stung more than that. Joanne looked away and as she did she made a V with her index and middle finger pointing upwards while the rest crouched into the palm. A peace sign. When she was through with that, she turned and started to finish her journey up the stairs with Rochelle.

Aubrey followed. “You were rude to me in the beginning, Joanne. Remember that.” When they all reached the top of the staircase, Dan was there in the hallway, sipping from a large mug. He appeared darkly enthralling but he had a look of displeasure on his face.

“Is there a problem, Joanne?” he asked sharply.

“No,” said his stepdaughter without hesitation.

Rochelle’s eyes dropped to the ground.

Dan had a fickle unfriendliness about him. Aubrey picked this up but was pleased that it wasn’t directed towards her. He glanced at Rochelle coldly as he spoke to Joanne. “Is Aubrey going out with you two tonight?”

“Yes,” answered Joanne, fake smiling. Just like everyone else in the house, she thought it was very odd and suspicious how this all came out of the blue, Dan wanting Aubrey in his life, but knew that Dan wanted her to be very respectful and kind to his “sweet little angel,” who he just happened to remember after shutting her out for almost a decade.

“Lovely. But I can’t seem to find the Lolita outfit that your mother made for her. Jo, do you have any idea where it could be?” Dan stared suspiciously at his stepdaughter. He always thought she was an evil bitch.

There came a nail-biting shriek from the left somewhere down the hallway. It was the scream of a young lady. Everyone turned their heads to the direction it flew from. “Stephanie?!” trumpeted Dan. He sighed and took a mouthful of lukewarm coffee. “She always does this.”

Aubrey blinked.

“There’s always something wrong with her stuff: ants in her shampoo, cockroaches in her dresser, sticky things in her hair…” Dan pointed his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head to display his frustration. Aubrey thought he was such a drama queen and smirked. “I bet it’s Ping again,” he continued. “I don’t know why that old woman won’t leave her alone.”

A rather pale female in her late forties, with all of her silvery blond hair in roller sets, came forth from the right of the hallway. She looked frail. She yawned, placing up a thin translucent hand. “I’ll go look at it,” she said. Lethargically en route for the area where the cry had sprung, her slippers dragged noisily under her. It sounded like they were saying: Shh shh shh shh…

“Thanks, Barbara,” said Dan to the woman’s slouching back that was clothed in a silky pajama shirt. He was relieved that he didn’t have to go hear the venting this time. Further down the hallway, Barbara’s dreary figure took a corner and was no longer in sight.

Joanne batted her eyelids. “Come on Kunt. We need to start getting ready from now.” She met eyes with Dan then looked at Aubrey. “And you too, Aubrey. You can borrow one of my outfits if you want. I’ll even give you one.”

A little voice told Aubrey that her Lolita was floating down the river somewhere.

“Why are you so eager to give her one of your things when one was made especially for her?” asked Dan. “Is it because something happened to it that we don’t know about? What happened to that Lolita, Joanne?”

Joanne became tight-lipped. “Why are you accusing me?!”

Mr. Golding scanned her face heavily. “I was only asking.”

Joanne spat a look of distaste at her stepfather and heaved Rochelle away with her. “Get ready, Aubrey!” she called as she stomped down the hall. “We are going to leave soon!”

Dan’s eyes trailed her before taking in the sullen image of Aubrey. “Was she obnoxious to you?” He drank from the mug as he waited for a response.

“Oh it’s okay, Dan. She’s trying her best.”

Dan showed he was cross. “She treated you badly?”

“NO. She didn’t do anything to me.” Aubrey wasn’t sure why she wanting to protect Joanne but she wasn’t sure why Dan was getting so upset either. It was like he had something personally against her. People dislike people all the time. It was a fact of life. “Joanne is good,” she added.

Dan was not fooled. He sighed, drained his mug, and put it on the lamp table. “We are going to take a quick drive out, just you and I. We are going to get you another outfit. At least this time you’ll be able to pick it out.” Aubrey wanted to tell him that it was okay, that she would just simply wear her own stuff, or maybe take Joanne up on the offer, but it didn’t look like she could argue with the man right now. He was already descending the stairs. “Come on,” he coached her along. “I have no problem buying you things.”

Aubrey bit her lip gently. It was so unsettling how he constantly seemed to be aware of what she was thinking. “You’re my daughter,” he added. “And besides, all the girls are going to be wearing Lolita. Don’t you want to fit in?” Dan looked up at Aubrey as if he expected her to actually answer that.

Aubrey nodded.

He smirked, returning his gaze to the steps. “You know, you take after your mother.”

Mr. Golding drove his daughter in his silver Mercedes-Benz—one of the three vehicles he owned. They went down the street, past the alienated house on the hill, and through some of the downtown. During the short trip, Dan spoke mainly while Aubrey said things like: “Cool,” “Oh I see,” and “Really?” trying painfully to sound like she cared. You see, Dan talked mostly about Grace. He told Aubrey things about her and her shop called Tree Nuts. He told Aubrey how Grace has assistants, and that they take the clothing samples she makes at home to a workshop. And in the workshop they make replicas and finally ship them to her boutique.

Stopping, they parked in front of a store that was familiar to Aubrey. The big bright sign said Tree Nuts just like Aubrey expected. She was unhappy. She did not want to shop at Grace’s store. “We passed a store called Loluu,” she said. Could we check that one out instead?”

Mr. Golding cocked his head to the side to glance at her. “No problem...”

In Loluu a lady with jet-black straight hair, fair skin and small exotic eyes, rounded the checkout counter grinning at them. She wore a sophisticated dark blue Lolita with a vintage veil hat. The veil covered half of her face mysteriously with a tint of black. After bouncing her way over to them on very uncomfortable-looking stilettos, she said, “Hello, I’m Masuyo. Can I help you guys with anything?”

“Yes,” answered Dan. “We need a Lolita outfit; quickly too.”

“Everything..? Like the hand wear, shoes.., the head piece?”

“Yes. A good set.”

Aubrey swallowed. She felt unworthy for this treatment from Dan though she knew it was just him being fatherly. It was awkward for her how he was a father and a stranger all in one. In addition, something was off. It was probably the whole Joanne and Grace situation but she didn’t quite feel the connection she had hoped to have with him. Those two Hamiltons ruined everything, she thought, especially Joanne.

Masuyo placed a finger on her chin and warped her mouth to one side of her round face. For a few seconds she eyed Dan’s daughter from head to toe quietly, then: “We’ve got the perfect thing for you!”

After asking for her customer’s dress size, Masuyo moved dynamically over racks, searching through Lolita of all sorts. She questioned Aubrey how often she wore Lolita and when Golding told her that it was her first time, Masuyo put forth a little “Hmm,” through folded lips. Her eyes then became remarkably focused, as if she was looking for the ultimate dress for a greenhorn, and she moved over the clothing so quickly it almost looked violent. She wasn’t just any store worker, thought Aubrey. She was a master at her craft! Masuyo at last decided upon a garment. But it was a one-piece Lolita dress that was not her customer’s cup of tea. Sure it had a neat design that the customer admired, nothing flashy, just a bow and some bustle in the back and puffed short shoulders, but the color reminded Aubrey of vomit. And she did not want to be reminded of that since she was already nauseous.

Handing Aubrey the dress, Masuyo searched some shelves, asking her “What is your shoe size?” Following the selection of a sparkly-blue shoe with black finishes, Masuyo found a matching giant bow that could be pinned to Aubrey’s hair. Lastly she picked out a blue clutch that was just as sparkly. “These will work divinely together.” Masuyo gave Aubrey the gatherings. “Especially on you,” she supplemented. “Go try them on.” Masuyo flashed her teeth at Dan.

In the changing room, Aubrey slipped the things on as rapidly as she could. When she got out, the woman and Dan glowed. She eyed the mirror to see what they were admiring. The dress did fall well on her. The vibrant blue pieces and the dull swamp-green of the dress complemented each other.

Proud, Masuyo came and stood behind her, gazing into the looking glass as well. It was an artist adoring her work. But Masuyo’s face went troubled for a moment. She fixed the bow on Aubrey’s head, clipping it neatly to the side, just a bit closer to the long side bangs than it was before. Her proud face reappeared. “You see how the subtle oyster tint of the dress brings out the purple tones in your face?” she then asked Aubrey. And her face cracked in a smile as if it was a comment she knew the girl would like.

Dan’s features tightened. Huh? What was she talking about?

Aubrey went closer to the mirror with a worried expression. She held her face. Oh my God! Where?! What purple tones?!

 

8

Killer…

 

One hand was on the steering wheel and the other was placing a large pink marshmallow into his mouth. The whole bag was sitting in his daughter’s lap. He grabbed another one from it, a green one, and chewed the two thick pieces of candy audibly. “Man, I don’t know why I love this stuff so much,” he said with his voice muffled and his cheek fat. “I thought you would have wanted chocolate.”

“I still love chocolate,” confessed Aubrey through her own stuffed mouth. “But I have enough of it with me already.”

“Hey, do you want me to take you to your mother’s funeral while you’re here?” asked Dan, on to the next topic.

“Did she die again?” laughed Aubrey, scanning her father.

Dan went blank for a moment before he caught the dark joke. He chuckled lightly at his own lapse of intellect. “Sorry, I meant grave.”

“I was actually thinking about that. I don’t know...”

“Will it be too heavy?”

“Yeah, for this time it might. Maybe next time when I come, we should. How does that sound?”

A line of seconds ticked by wherein Dan remained completely silent. Aubrey was getting used to her father now but she fell perturbed at how he wasn’t responding to her question. When she least expected it, he said, “Yeah, next time… This time we should just have fun.”

He took so long to speak that he just should have kept quiet. Aubrey tensed up and stared straight ahead weirdly. She didn’t feel he was being genuine and wondered if this was the strange intuition she felt when she had received his letter. She sort of reasoned with herself that he did not really want her to come back. She was devastated. Not only did he take too long to respond but he had this cold, frighten look in his eyes.

Dan realized how bizarre he was behaving from her perspective. Quickly he smiled at her and reached out to hold the hand closest to him. He wanted her to feel accepted, but he couldn’t help asking, “Why are your hands so cold?” He pretended to laugh. “It’s like you’re not even alive. Zero body heat, girl!”

“I don’t know,” said Aubrey truthfully with a tremor of embarrassment. She fixed to take her palm away as fast as possible, but Dan squeezed it reassuringly.

When Dan’s Mercedes-Benz approached the riverside home, a chauffeur van could be seen on the road in front of the house. Aubrey had taken off the outfit that Masuyo organized for her so she wasn’t ready to leave with Joanne and Rochelle just yet. She was worried about that. She and Dan had already killed some time and before in the house Joanne had mentioned that she would be going soon. How long had she been kept waiting? Dan’s car eased up the sloping driveway. In the back of the dark vehicle, Aubrey could see the heads of her stepsister and her friend moving around. Joanne, always one to shy away from swearwords, lowered the window on her side to broadcast, “Hurry the fudgesicle up!”

It was all the same to Mr. Golding. Dan hissed as he terminated the engine before the garage. “You make sure you take your sweet time,” he instructed Aubrey. “Don’t let her boss you around. And tell me if she does anything. Do you have a cell phone?”

“No.” Aubrey opened the door to do what Joanne ordered, ignoring the advice of her father. She didn’t quite know what it was about the girl that made her sweat, but she feared to upset her further. Perhaps deep down inside she wanted her friendship. She ran into the house with the big shopping bag that had Loluu on it.

Dan fished into his pants pocket as he made his way to the door... He had a call to make.

In the powder room Aubrey stripped herself from the original setup and covered in the new things. Her Toronto clothes were still warm from her body temperature when she left them behind beside the toilet with the now empty shopping bag, to run out to the van. The night did not even start and she was already sweating in her Lolita. Once in the vehicle, she let out a big sigh.

“That dress isn’t from Tree Nuts,” said Joanne. She sat on the other side of Rochelle. She sounded betrayed more than anything. “Why would Dan bring you somewhere else?”

“I asked him to take me to this other place I saw,” admitted Aubrey.

“You didn’t like Tree Nuts?” wondered Joanne.

“I’m allergic,” Aubrey joked. Both of the other girls tried not to laugh; that was a good one. “I’m joking,” she added. “It’s not that. I just wanted to explore this other place.”

“That’s okay, I guess,” said Joanne. “It’s not like you ‘meant to offend me,’ right?”

“Right, because I wouldn’t want to do that. And I’m sorry about everything that happened in the house. Could we please put it all behind us?”

“We are starting over,” said Rochelle, trying to nudge her friend out of the hostility. The driver pressed the gas and there was nothing but steady silence.

Then they went by the house on the hill…

In her deep interest and fascination about the Gothic home, Aubrey couldn’t help but ask, “Are there any myths about the house there on the hill?”

Rochelle peered at her with utter blankness before nodding icily.

Aubrey became cautious. “Oh because Ping told me about one,” she said with a less excited, pretend voice. “She said it was one but I don’t know if it’s true.”

“Well no myths are really true. That’s why they are myths,” schooled Rochelle. “They are unfounded and false notions.”

Aubrey sighed with a simple smile. “I meant I don’t know if she made that one up herself or—”

“Yeah I know what you meant,” giggled Rochelle. “What did Ping tell you?”

Joanne tried to listen inconspicuously.

Golding stayed quiet briefly, making sure she knew what she was going to say before she opened her mouth. “She told me a myth called Black Widow, Black Widow. And it was about a large family living in the house on the hill. They all died though, except one, because of an evil maid that poisoned them, I think. The one that remained alive was John-Luke, one of the little boys. The maid did not poison him because he was her son. Oh and the maid came from out of nowhere. Well this magic trick of one of the other maids went wrong and she appeared. She was a black widow first but transformed into a young woman. And John-Luke is her son with Mr. Hayles, the father of all those other children that died. He died too. And his wife that he cheated on with the black widow girl. And everyone blames the family wipeout on the maid that accidentally conjured up the black widow girl but it was actually the black widow girl who did it. The good maid made it to some secret place of hers in the end so no one was able to arrest her. But they are still looking for her.” Aubrey ran out of breath. She thought she covered everything at least and was proud of herself.

“Wow,” said Rochelle amusedly, trying to take everything in. “That’s what she told you? That’s an interesting one. There are many types like that, not necessarily called Black Widow, Black Widow, or having anything to do with spells and stuff, but similar.”

“What do people think happened for real? What the general consensus?”

“Kind of the same thing you just said but with the real killer switched, and without the black widow part, obviously.” Aubrey laughed with Rochelle. “I can’t believe Ping went into your room last night!” Rochelle went on. Joanne was trying hard not to let Aubrey hear her snickering about that.

“I know!” cried Aubrey. “You heard about that?! That’s when she told me that story! I thought it was a dream!”

Rochelle and Joanne held each other, gasping with their faces all wrinkled up and shining. The two made blissful, jovial sounds.

“It’s not funny!” cried Aubrey light-heartedly, her amusement becoming audible as well. “That freaked me out!” The three blossomed noisily in the humor. However, it was short-lived with Aubrey asking, “But how long ago was this whole incident anyway?”

Rochelle lost her tongue.

“The family wipeout,” pushed Aubrey. “Was it really poison?”

Laughing merrily while talking about murder—Aubrey thought that’s what made the elephant in the room. She had no idea that it was the fact that the business of John-Luke and Theresa was not a topic Grishammers longed to talk about openly with a stranger.

It wasn’t a conversation that she wanted to encourage any further, but since Rochelle could not stand seeming rude, she answered Aubrey. “It took place like ten years ago.”

Aubrey was surprised. “That’s it? Does anyone live there now?”

Rochelle nodded.

“Who?” Aubrey naturally wondered.

The Eversons—John-Luke and Theresa,” said Rochelle as if Aubrey should have already known that.

Joanne soon got her friend talking to her about a different matter, one that didn’t include Aubrey. The girls spoke faintly and continuously to each other. It wasn’t any secretive stuff, just casual things like mutual friends, Rochelle’s new boyfriend, Grant Philips, future plans, and nearer plans that had to do with the next few days. In that time Aubrey got to be alone with her thoughts. She racked her brain. Ten years ago she was here. The incident happened the year before she left when she and Samantha were nine. She met Samantha when she was eight. They spent about two years together. They went on walks a lot. Did they really see John-Luke and Theresa? There in the backyard? But those children looked like they weren’t too far apart in age. That couldn’t have been a mother and her son. That’s so weird. It had to be just two of Mr. Hayles’s children. But Aubrey saw the eyes! Almond-shaped, they were, and brown that acted interchangeably with black, just like Ping explained them. And the girl did look wild now that Aubrey thought about it. But maybe she saw wrong. Because that girl looked like she was twelve or something. Or maybe Aubrey just can’t really remember what the two children looked like. Maybe it’s too long ago for her photographic memory. Ping suggested the boy was nine the year the Hayles were wiped out. That means he’s only nineteen now, if Ping’s right. But Aubrey had felt much bigger than that boy, when she was spying there with Samantha. He looked like he was six. Aubrey was certain she was bigger than that little boy. Could he have been nine? Did Samantha and Aubrey see those two just before the mass murder of the others? This was positively creepy.

The driver dropped them off on a bustling, bright street corner of the downtown. Aubrey grew excited when they stepped out in the cool night, illuminated with incandescent street lamps, vehicle headlights, and building lights and colorful, glorious fashion. She couldn’t believe that she was actually now standing in it, a part of the scenery, and not just looking out at it. The nightlife was young and eager. The streets filled up with men and women, all dressed very interestingly. Some men sported fancy Hollywood jackets and some just wore suspenders over dress shirts. Some dressed in boots that Aubrey thought were feminine, and some—long colorful socks with short trousers that made her giggle, or jeans that were really tight. Some wore berets, pork pie hats, and some wore hats like the one you’d see on Abraham Lincoln. She even saw one wearing a kilt!

The women—some had on the usual classic Lolita with short, hooded capes as their headpiece and to defend them from the chilly summer night. Other headpieces came in the form of knitted hats, cloche hats, the popular mini top hats, or headbands that had a skull, crown, or giant bow attached to them. But sometimes even a scarf wrapped around the head like a Muslim would do. Aubrey marveled at all the Sweet Lolita she saw that made her think of babies, pastries, candies and dolls. She also marveled at the darker styles which she found attention-grabbing—the ripped stockings, the stripes of fun primary colors, the creepy head garments. There were also feathery hats with veils, and one that Aubrey really liked was this mini top hat that had skulls bunched together as a band around the crown section.

Aubrey, who was on the innermost side of the sidewalk, got a better view of the shops and restaurants they passed. She saw closely the lacy wood trimmings around the windows, the rises and sinks in the rough stone fortifications and the grooves and patterns in the wooden parts. Most of the buildings reminded her of gingerbread houses. Golding looked from time to time through a restaurant show window at the people sipping tea from delicate cups, most artfully. The men, they would take chairs out and open doors for the women. Women would cover their mouths when they laughed.

Now and then, on the streets or in a shop, something would catch Aubrey’s attention: a woman’s garment having a great amount of bustle, a man’s hat that was too tall, a girl’s waist so inhumanly small, an eyelash so long and thick, so doll-like, and a face so covered with makeup that the person almost looked like a clown. But Aubrey could only play spectator half-heartedly. She stared at Joanne’s friend to get her attention. When Rochelle eyed her back, she dived in headfirst with her queries. “Does anyone have any sort of idea why the old maid did what she did to the Hayles family? Did they do anything to her? Or was she just psychotic?” Aubrey chuckled, trying to be funny.

They stopped at a building. On the door it had a hanging sign that said: Oven Stove. “Psychotic,” answered Rochelle snappily.

Oven Stove—it was the most asymmetrical public building that Aubrey had ever seen. The neatly red bricked roof had an eave that came down almost to the ground on one side and the door was in a corner rather than the middle because that was where this prominent chimney wedged. It was the oddest thing about the building—the chimney. It looked like a tall, hard, lumpy rectangle made out of stones. Like any chimney, it stood taller than the rest of the building, but its length was shown quirkily from the ground up instead of just poking out of the roof. The long stonework body was covered with leafless, willowy dark vines. Overall, Oven Stove seemed like it was a house in a fairytale, owned by dwarves or tiny elves. The three even had to duck while entering, as the door was rather low.

They were able to straighten their spines once inside. Aubrey was surprised when she entered, that there were a lot of people conversing and eating around tables of food. It was a full running restaurant. She followed nervously behind Joanne and Rochelle as they slithered closely between seats, dodging waiters and waitresses. They went up to a table where three guys and four girls sat staring at them ecstatically and making comments of salutation. A girl amongst the group had shoulder-length, dark brown hair that was styled with bangs. At first glance of the brunette, Aubrey got a little jolt of excitement. She thought it was Samantha. It wasn’t. The girl didn’t even have hazel eyes; they were brown. And at closer look Aubrey could see a light reddish color at the roots of her hair. Rochelle and Joanne took a seat around the table, Rochelle smiling at Aubrey, waving her hand in gesture for the nervous-looking girl to follow.

“I’m Craig Del Duca,” said a stocky guy that was groomed and polished to the teeth. He showed Aubrey the free seat beside him. His shirt looked tight over his rounded tummy.

Aubrey sat down, feigning a spirit of sunshine. “Me Aubrey,” she stammered stupidly. “I mean!”

“You’re Aubrey,” said Craig with an empathetic nod.

Everyone laughed, especially Joanne, overdoing it.

“Yeah..,” sighed Golding.

“I’m Patricia Ryan,” said a very dark girl, grinning. Dark chocolate, mused Aubrey. She had flipped out, big spritzed hair that made her look a hell of a character. Bold red lipstick colored her full lips.

“Natalie Greene, hello,” spoke a girl whose bronzy skin reminded Aubrey of the caramel seen in the center of some chocolate bars. She was so thin Aubrey thought she was nearly two-dimensional.

“I’m Shelby Lamb,” said the girl who she thought was Samantha. Her powdered on rosy cheeks reminded Aubrey of a strawberry swirled white chocolate truffle she ate one day. Oh no! Aubrey was beginning to think of chocolate too much. It was the anxiety. She needed something to make her feel comfortable in this uneasy situation. She tapped her feet trying to conquer the urge to run out of the restaurant and buy herself a bag full of chocolate then find a shadowed corner somewhere to sit down and consume it.

Aubrey thought the next girl was so beautiful that it made her eyes sting. Black liquorice hair and olive skin, she had that Kardashian look. Chocolate-brown eyes. “And I am Macy Rivetti,” she said. There might have been tension between her and the other girls, Aubrey was already picking up. She had a corset-topped Lolita made out of red latex and the ultimate bad girl pout. She had sexy down pat. Mastered it. “And this is my lovely boyfriend, Stevie Murray,” she gushed about a handsome Jewish guy next to her who just smiled and waved. He had dark features just like his girl, but his looks were more on the modest side. Aubrey smelled the scent of an investment banker, accountant or computer programmer. The scent of a family feud surrounding his choice of woman, and why can’t he pick someone decent who fits in with the family, doesn’t he know the high expectations? He seemed so well kept and mild mannered, clothes steamed and ironed, mom’s kiss still lingering on his cheek.

“Last but not least, I’m Blair Riley,” said this brown-haired young man, his quirky nasal voice triumphant. It was a thin, reedy voice that was perhaps compatible with an overly intellectual shrimpy man, but not a hunk like Blair Riley. Aubrey found it funny. Off-putting at first. But this incongruous combination was what made Blair special, maybe even more attractive. He appeared comfortable with his surroundings, gentle and laid-back. A seamless conversationalist. Joanne sat snugly beside his strong build. His haircut was childlike like Zane’s, reflected Aubrey, coming down over his forehead and flipping out at the sides. It’s smooth, dark shine reminded Golding of creamy milk chocolate. She just wanted to play in it.

But then a little thought entered Golding’s mind, taking her away from chocolate for a second. It was that people always mentioned their surname. Maybe it was just a programmed Grishamm thing?? She wanted to ask about it, but her stubborn lips would not budge.

The waitress came around. Everyone ordered tea but Golding asked for hot cocoa.

“So how do you like it here so far, Aubrey?!” asked Blair. “I know it must be very different for you! Like culture shock, I imagine! I love Toronto, but here is not there!”

He was intimidating to Aubrey. She felt like such a geek. Was too used to being just with herself in her room. She began her flow of thought, hoping for the best. “Yeah, it’s nothing like Toronto. It’s so... I am having fun.” Aubrey hoped no one noticed how her voice wobbled and that she couldn’t even get through the second sentence. It felt as though her tongue was numb. She felt more neurotic than ever, like how she was when she was just starting to fall hard for Zane and being in his presence was more scary than pleasing.

Joanne paid her notice. “Blair is my boyfriend,” she said, smiling proudly.

Blair nodded. “I’m the lucky guy!” he exclaimed sarcastically.

They all chortled but Joanne who rolled her eyes and beamed, back-handing his chest. Aubrey was faking her chuckle as she was still too nervous to even laugh, but of course she did find Blair’s comment to be amusing—very amusing indeed. To balance it out, Blair pulled Joanne’s head closer with his arm around her neck and kissed her cheek.

A different waitress came to put tiny teacups, saucers and spoons down on the table. She poured hot cocoa in Aubrey’s cup and left the others empty. The first waitress then came back, bearing a large transparent teapot and a teakettle. When she rested the teapot down on the table, Aubrey saw an interesting plant centered in it. And when she poured in the hot water from the kettle, the pressure from the steaming water opened up the plant as if it was blooming right before their eyes.

Everyone poured their own tea from the pot. It seemed like an adventure, but Aubrey wasn’t jealous. Her little cup was filled with delicious hot cocoa. It appeared as if someone had just melted a chocolate bar and given it to her in a cup with cream shaped like a heart on the top. The hot cocoa was rich in flavor, but not too sweet, and thick and velvety in texture. The others seem to not mind her, talking animatedly amongst each other, so she settled back into her seat and savored her dark drink, relished it.

She heard Joanne keep suggesting they all go back to Blair’s house to “have some real drinks.” Blair started to talk to Aubrey again. “Aubrey,” he said with his strange voice. It made her jerk out of her relaxation, placing the cup of cocoa down at once. “We’ve all agreed that we should let you go through the rite of passage of being in this group. My specialty.”

Aubrey felt heat rising to her head. “Okay..?” she said bewilderedly. What could this possibly be about now? While Aubrey was brooding she must have missed hearing something because everyone was sighing Joanne’s name, and Joanne was complaining that she was “just kidding.”

“I do a lot of drawings and paintings,” continued Blair to Aubrey. “We were thinking I could maybe do a sketch of you at my place tonight. It would be a welcome gift from all of us.”

“Oh wow,” said Aubrey clumsily. She felt inarticulate and confused but very flattered. “Thank you.”

“You’ll love it,” said Shelby. “He’s such a good artist.”

Aubrey noticed that everyone was reading her with a strange zeal in their eyes. She grew feverish and thought for a second that it was all a prank until she noticed Joanne wasn’t looking at her like the rest were. Joanne didn’t seem happy, just disturbed. Aubrey felt that it couldn’t be a prank then. If it were, Joanne would certainly play along. Maybe Joanne was just jealous. Aubrey felt bad but it must mean that she was getting something good. “Okay. So we are going now?” she asked.

Blair eyed his friends, getting up. “Let’s let the waitress know then. China will have something for us at my house.”

Before the group left the building, the girls used the ladies’ room. Aubrey tried to understand what was going on as they babbled in and out the stalls, one screaming if anyone had spare tampons—Patricia with her long dangling earrings. Aubrey was still trying to wrap her head around the idea of her being sketched randomly like this. And it supposedly being a gift, a rite of passage. She was a bit scared to go to Blair’s house with the others, to tell the truth. They were all strangers to her—every single one of them. Even Joanne. Should she trust them? Again she thought it might be a prank as she rinsed soap off her hands. Macy Rivetti was glancing at her oddly every now and then with Shelby. Aubrey started wondering if China was a code.

The complete group of ten jammed the sidewalk. Annoyed people walked by fast, desperate to get in front of them. They headed to a dark parking lot and got into Blair’s red minivan. But Macy and her boyfriend went to another vehicle. Blair and Craig sat at the front of his red minivan and the girls went to the back. Aubrey was lucky to have gotten a window seat way at the back and to be away from Joanne who sat in front of her in the middle part of the vehicle. Pink-haired Joanne looked miserable, especially when she took notice of Aubrey.

Blair started the car and they took off. Everyone was talking about something, everyone but Aubrey and Joanne. Aubrey noticed that her step sister was tight-lipped and it didn’t sit well with her. She felt guilty. She leaned forward so she could be at Joanne’s ear. “Hey,” she whispered. “Are you okay? I don’t have to accept “this gift”.”

Joanne was too moody to talk. Trying to shield her emotions, she shrugged off Aubrey’s breath as if it was a disgusting bug. But she was transparent. Aubrey knew that she was being ignored because Joanne was sad, sulking. Joanne was not okay. Aubrey also knew that she was responsible to some extent, and felt really lousy about it. “Okay...,” she sighed, pulling back into her seat.

Blair’s house was much more modern than most of the houses in the area. It was symmetric, really wide, with an utilitarian air, its outer wall made of some sort of smooth stone that looked like cement. There were bright, blinding white lights around it that Blair told Aubrey were powered from the sun’s energy. They were on throughout the entire night like an extra measure of security. Inside was high-ceilinged and shiny hard surfaces of marble, chrome, and glass all around. Everything was sleek and reflective, even the leather of the seats.  An ash blond man loped down the spectacular granite stairway in a loose wifebeater and teeny-weeny shorts that made him look funny. It was Blair’s father. He greeted Aubrey warmly and called the housekeeper to get them something to eat. The housekeeper’s name was China. Aubrey’s tension was eradicated. It was not a code name after all. China was a black lady with a nice cool brown sugar color, and a pleasing Jamaican accent.

Blair’s roomy living room looked and smell like Ivory soap, ceilings high enough to fly a jet, edges lined with wide cream crown molding. He showed Aubrey his portfolio of sketches and his portfolio of paintings. In his portfolio of sketches, he had images of nude, curvaceous women sipping from martini glasses, lavish buildings, rolling outdoor landscapes, bridges over rivers, men in studious positions, tropical animals, and still lifes like his mother’s fruit baskets and teacups. Joanne kept eyeing the shimmering mini bar that was scintillating because of all the light fixtures. She was bored, almost snoring when China served them all bowls of chicken noodle soup around the supper table. “Boo!” she yelled. “Where is the booze?” While her friends sipped at their soup, she sneaked off to the minibar, chandelier at top, mirrors lining the wall behind, and got busy opening a bottle of Hpnotiq. It was distracting to Blair but when he shed light on it, everyone ended up following Joanne’s lead.

Aubrey was happy to join too, but she was shy and more respectful, biting her lips and sipping at a vodka-soda Macy made for her. The rest were like ants all over sugar, making mixes and shots from virtually every fancy glass bottle they could find. They emptied the expensive vodka bottle. Blair nearly lost it. To calm his nerves, he had a glass of vodka and tonic himself, on the rocks, then red wine. Macy was demanding to make all the drinks, because she was “the best bartender in Grishamm!” “Make me another screwdriver, babe,” said Stevie to her, winking at Craig. The drinks were making him more outspoken indeed. He and the boys exchanged laughs about Macy. On a chrome barstool Joanne looked like she was about to have a nervous breakdown since she was not the center of attention. She was hiccuping and slurring sluggishly. She looked like she would start singing “I wanna be loved by you.” And Aubrey even heard her say to her glass of shiraz, “No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Ernest Lehman said so.”

“Blair!” she then belted. “You look like you want to stick your penis in her.” She meant Macy. Rochelle ran to her and tried to cover her mouth. Joanne kept slapping her hand away.

“What on earth are you talking about?” said Blair, then decided to ignore her. “I’m gonna draw you now, could you stand by the wall there?” he said to Aubrey, trying to separate from the crazy group to get things rolling. He was pointing. Aubrey placed her drink down and positioned as he wanted. He told her to turn her leg out slightly, and she did that as well. He finally got his art materials together, sat on a chair, and began to transfer her onto one of the big sheets of paper in his sketch book. A couple times his legs drummed and his brows twitched as he tried to perfect his work.

It was gratifying but extremely awkward. Aubrey was embarrassed enough at the flattery but to feel a boozed up Joanne glaring at her, the girl’s anger almost tangible, made Aubrey want to grit her teeth. In a grisly tone, Joanne asked for a Bloody Mary. But what she looked like she wanted was a Bloody Macy or a Bloody Aubrey. “Joanne, I can’t make that,” said Macy. “Not all the stuff are here.”

The bar was nearby, so everyone could watch while they drank. Shelby and Patricia were getting really loud and flirtatious with Craig. They merged topics into each other and started to ramble incoherently. Then Macy got into a fight with her boyfriend, but it seemed one-sided and exhausted He was mute, red-eyed and somnolent from drinking, and she was screaming at him with a manicured finger in his face.

Blair and Aubrey tried hard to stay focused in their bubble of artist and subject. At times Rochelle and Natalie and someone would come over to look at the work in progress, but it was never Joanne. She refused to look. She was trying hard to get Blair and the others to notice her mood, huffing and puffing, stirring in her seat, but they ignored it. She held her head in her hands. Then all of a sudden she started giggling and could not stop. “Let’s face it, Macy you’re an evil whore. You’re only with Stevie because you can boss him around.”

Macy slammed her drink down, spilling it over the bar. “Excuse me? Joanne I will stab you to death!” She went storming up to Joanne, dangerously close.

“Get the hell out of my face!” screamed Joanne, shoving her. “Don’t try me, I’m not your boyfriend!”

“Don’t touch me! You are out of your mind! Crack head!”

“Crack head?! You’re dressed like a whore! Who goes to tea with their friends as if they work in a brothel!”

“Well you’re overweight! And maybe you should stop drinking and embarrassing Blair all the time!” Aubrey felt bad for her step sister but had to keep a straight face for Blair’s drawing.

“Don’t let me get started about YOUR reputation, Penis Breath.” Blair smacked his forehead but then continued to work on his art. Joanne had always ran her mouth, she will continue to run her mouth, and she was still running her mouth. “Stevie you should be careful! But don’t take it from me, right, because I’m just being hyperbolic!”

Patricia and Shelby, straight through to Natalie, Craig and Rochelle, acted as if they were just casually watching a movie and Stevie went to calm Macy down, his voice low and soothing. And as for Joanne, she kept on giggling.

Meanwhile Blair finished up his artwork, the feud between the girls rolling off his back. With a ruler, he separated the paper carefully from the book and gave it to Aubrey in a plastic protective covering. Everyone, with the exception of Joanne, stood around her (even the ones who were wobbly) beholding the drawing in admiration, and voicing praises. Aubrey bobbed her head, agreeing.

Macy and Stevie were the first ones to take a taxi home, followed by Patricia and Shelby. Blair drove the rest back to the parking lot near Oven Stove, where everyone could get their own ride home the rest of the way. The chauffeur was there waiting for Joanne, Rochelle and Aubrey. Joanne had called him stammering just before they left her boyfriend’s house. She kissed Blair goodbye, a long kiss she initiated. He acted desensitized and maybe even scornful, but maybe Aubrey was just imagining. She knew some guys can’t stand their woman drunk. Like Zane. Ugh. She hated how everything reverted back to Zane...

The rigidity created by Joanne, now confined in a smaller space, made for a quiet car ride the whole way back, aside from one ill at ease moment when Rochelle nervously asked, “I’m not sleeping over tonight again, right?” And then when Joanne started to dry-heave. The driver pulled over immediately on the side of the road for her to vomit. She started bawling as she spewed. The spasms jerked her back and forth. Rochelle did the best she could by rubbing her back and holding her hair. Aubrey sat way back with guilt, feeling like she was the catalyst to Joanne’s downward spiral tonight.

At the house, Aubrey followed behind Joanne upstairs. She wanted to apologize but Joanne would not look at her. Grant Phillips had come to collect the blue-haired Rochelle and had driven off with her. Inside her room, Golding saw that one of the housekeepers had placed the stuff that she left in the downstairs guest washroom, on her bed. Recalling what Dan said about Ping’s mean pranks on Stephanie, she tested the shower gel for ants before she showered that night. When she was through, she went downstairs in tights and a nightshirt for some water but to really mull over the gift that she carried in hand. The house was dark and quiet like the first time she arrived, so she flicked on some lights as she went along. People were sleeping.

Aubrey turned on the kitchen light and laid the picture on the table. While she sat and drank a glass of water, she looked over the drawing more thoroughly than she had at Blair’s. The picture was really strange to her. It looked like her but it didn’t. The girl was beautiful. She had lashes like the petals around a sunflower. She had smooth flat eyebrows that made her look sad, but delicate, and a cute pebble of a nose. Her pouty lips looked like they kissed towards the artist, and her cheeks were still babyish. Aubrey knew she had the sad face and the flyaway hair the girl in the picture had, knew she wore the same Lolita she wore, but the pretty features that she had, she didn’t see on herself. Her own lashes were shorter she was sure, her nose more real-looking, and her cheeks, sunken in.

Aubrey felt her cheeks.

Joanne suddenly appeared through the kitchen entryway. She was wearing nothing but a short slip dress, revealing much of her shapely, nude figure underneath its thin fabric. Her breasts poked through like two large weapons, Aubrey thought, and she tried not to look at her.

Hamilton got herself a glass of water just like Aubrey did and mysteriously sat around the table, directly across from the girl. Her face, now without any makeup, seemed very young and gloomy. After a small sip of water, she smiled at Aubrey and looked towards the sketch. “Let me see it?” she raved delightfully even though they both knew she was only acting. Impatient for an answer, she extended a hand and captured the sketch. Before Aubrey could say anything, she was taking it out its plastic covering.

Golding knew very well that Joanne could see it perfectly with the covering and felt irritated. “That’s for protection,” she stated restlessly.

“Oh....,” said Joanne, eyeing the picture as if it were a long lost ancient masterpiece. Then she showed her perfect squared teeth and dimples to Aubrey.

Not expecting that, Aubrey automatically beamed back though her heart drummed. At last she burst, “Give me back the sketching!”

“Be nice, be patient, Aubrey Golding,” said Joanne in a voice that was neither mean nor nice, and with that, the thumb and index finger of both her hands slid to the top center of the foolscap where they, just as Aubrey imagined, met and parted again with a tearing sound. And yes, though Aubrey could hardly believe it at first, despite her anticipation, her sketch was ripping in half right before her eyes, all the way through, jaggedly down the middle.

“Joanne!” cried Aubrey. “The hell!”

“Shhh! Keep your voice down Pizza Face.”

Aubrey was stricken. Pizza Face? Those words evoked anger and pain, was one of the worst things anyone could call her. It brought her back to highschool; those cruel bullies. Humiliation. Lots of it. She had flashbacks of the name on her locker, written with red permanent marker, a slice of pizza drawn right beside. She remembered the Pizza Face notes left on her desk, boys waving pizza slices at her with their snark grins, sometimes calling loudly from across the cafeteria, “HEY, AUBREY! WANT SOME PIZZA?!” Even though she loved pizza she recalled how she would never dare eat it at school, could never have it for lunch. And then that female teacher who wanted to see her after class, not to talk about how she was sorry about the bullies, but about products Aubrey could use for her skin. Her skin had significantly cleared up since high school, but she still had bouts of adult acne. She had about four pimples on her face at the present moment and barely remembered them until now. She was so flustered she did not know what to say to Joanne but, “I’m telling Dan.”

Something about that gave Joanne pause for thought. “No,” she said, a plea for mercy in her voice. She placed the two torn pieces neatly over the plastic covering and gently slid the whole thing back in front of an infuriated Aubrey. “Don’t, Aubrey. You were so mean to me with everyone tonight,” she said as if she was biting back tears. “Don’t involve Dan.” Anger abruptly strengthened her again. “Why would you even do that? You’re not twelve.” She stared at Aubrey for long, waiting for a response. When none came, she did her peace symbol and was gone from the kitchen. All Aubrey could remember was Pizza Face.

That night, even after lying on her bed eating a chocolate turtle, Aubrey couldn’t sleep. The rage she had for Joanne was like hot coals in the palms. And oh it burned. She needed to rid it. She felt the need to do something about Joanne. She threw down the chocolate and clenched her hair like a maniac. Too many people had already gotten away with treating her poorly! Too many people!

As quietly as a mouse, she opened her room door. The house was a sinister shade and more soundless than it had ever been. Everyone was sleeping, she thought. The only source of light came from her door as she tiptoed towards Joanne’s room, a scissors in her hand. She had found it on the desk in her room. A faint silver moonlight from the window in the sitting room was there also—the sitting room where something was out of place but Aubrey didn’t notice, even as she passed by the junction. Aubrey thought of Mona Lisa when she placed her free hand on the knob of Joanne’s door. Some say it could even be a smile of evil...

The door was open.

Aubrey was surprised; she thought that at least the door would have stopped her, but the thing swung open as smoothly as if it had been rubbed down with butter. Didn’t Joanne know about the old lady? Didn’t she know about… About, Aubrey? In the dark Miss Golding walked in a zombie-like fashion to the queen bed that had a long lump printing out from under its lavender spread. Aubrey, blank with fear, driven by anger, put the scissors to the sleeping Joanne’s neck. How lovely she looked, so vulnerable lying there, with her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open, and her brain so unaware. Aubrey raised both eyebrows. As if she was already dead...

Golding pressed down the scissors...

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t even clip a piece of pink hair. She went on her way back to her room feeling bland. Pity. Nothing exciting happened. The night was still the same, she thought, with her the loser and Joanne winning, and she was a tad bit disappointed. But then again she was thankful that the sanity she had left had saved her from harming the girl and from getting locked away in a prison cell. She was only having fun in any case. Of course she wouldn’t have harmed Joanne Hamilton! Right? She understood why the girl did what she did, with her huffing and puffing like that and no one caring, with Blair and his stupid sketch. “Stupid boys,” she muttered.

It was while Aubrey was thinking “poor Joanne” and passing the intersection when she felt something was not right and became still. She kept her head straight but her eyes were searching every inch they could. My God, how didn’t she realize that before?! That through the corner of her eyes she saw there was someone in the sitting room! She turned her head without delay, hoping to see that she was just fooling herself. And behold! There was Grace, sitting in the sitting room! She was on an armchair that squarely faced the open doorway, holding a teacup on a saucer to her lap. A blank expression was painted on her face. Her back was upright. Her mouth was tight. Oh, and one more thing…

SHE WAS STARING RIGHT AT AUBREY!

Golding sliced through the air like an arrow, penetrated her room, slamming and locking the door hastily, and leaped into her bed. And for the second time in a row, she forced herself to sleep.

****

Aubrey felt pressure on her body. A pressure that made it hard to breathe. It started on her neck, then transferred to her stomach. Then it was on her neck and her stomach. It was not her first time experiencing this, but no matter how many times it happened, she still believed there was someone or something scary over her. She felt crippled and asphyxiated. Aubrey struggled to breathe, certain she would die. Then she heard people having conversations, then little critter sounds like insects in her ears. Moments later a sick, wheezing voice was telling her something she could not understand. Then a woman was crying. A long, croaky, dragged out sound as if she was dying. It got increasingly louder and louder, until it hurt and Aubrey couldn’t take it anymore and tried to wake herself. The effort drained her. She did the little trick of concentrating on jerking her toes and fingers and woke for a moment but slipped back under the trance before she could sit up. A man was making sounds now. Then there was a shift in the voice. It went from human-sounding to something else. It stood up all the little hairs on Aubrey’s body. It sounded like the devil. And when she thought it couldn’t get any worse a creature with a mouth that took up its entire face was facing her on the pillow. The mouth was a big black hole. She was screaming for someone to save her but no one could hear her. She couldn’t even hear her. Aubrey wanted to rip her hair out. Painfully she strained to move. She looked down and someone was between her legs. He buried his head in her crotch. Was it John-Luke? His face was blurred out. She felt pressure on her groin as if the person was really there. It was sexual. And she grew more and more terrified as the unknown thing rubbed his warped face on her inner thighs. The sensation got stranger as if he was about to go inside her. Aubrey could not believe it. It could not possibly be. Inside her mind there was a tornado. The person was burrowing headfirst into her like an animal into soil, going deep inside. Still she could not move. She could feel it, like a reverse pregnancy. It filled her. She was expanding and expanding. She felt her belly become tight and rounded and uncomfortable, her skin tearing, and yet she knew it was still growing. Then insects. She felt insects swarming inside of her. Eating, festering, rotting. Then she exploded.

 

9

The well…

 

“BE SOBER-MINDED; BE WATCHFUL. YOUR ADVERSARY, THE DEVIL, PROWLS AROUND LIKE A ROARING LION, SEEKING SOMEONE TO DEVOUR!”

It was half past six a.m. Aubrey woke up, disturbed out of a beautiful, dreadful sleep. If one could even call it sleep. She reached over for the brown liquor. That noise she just heard was definitely not the sound of nice morning birds chirping to celebrate the new day. She sat up fully to take a proper gulp of the Scotch. She yawned, stretched, and shook her head slowly in annoyance. Of course... That belting that just woke her up came from the old lady.

She opened the door and peeped out. The old woman was at the top of the staircase. It was Aubrey’s first time seeing her clearly although Ping had on a lot of things that covered her. She was wearing the same black wig that was silky and jaw-short with full bangs. She held a megaphone in one of her hands, the fingers covered with exotic violet encrusted rings, and in the other hand, like the model, classical old lady, she held a cane to support her. It was made of pine and leathered steel. To go with her lavish hand jewellery Ping also wore many bulky, colorful necklaces. A large bug-eyed pair of sunglasses shielded her eyes, and a long black hooded cape came over her narrow lace and velvet purple dress at the back. Makeup made her lips this same deep amethyst.

Stephanie, who heard the noise, came up the claustrophobic stairs, facing Ping somberly. The young housekeeper slipped her way around the old woman to go behind her on the flat where she, still in her nightgown and satin sleeping cap, became visible to Aubrey who remained staring out her bedroom door. Stephanie started to guide Ping away from the staircase, down the hallway opposite to Aubrey. She had her hands on the woman’s shoulders saying, “Come on. Let’s go back to your room.” When she spotted Aubrey she smiled and said, “She loves dressing up.” Seeing Stephanie was distracted, Ping lifted the megaphone and swung it backwards to whack her right on the nose. There was a great thump and Stephanie yelled, “OUCH!” Crying, she released Ping to hold her nose, blood streaming through a gap created by two fingers.

The old woman sauntered off with her cane, tactlessly humming London Bridge Is Falling Down. Aubrey wanted to ask poor Stephanie if there was anything she could do for her, but when she tore her eyes away from the rude old woman, the housekeeper had already stolen downstairs. “That has got to hurt,” said Aubrey to herself as she pulled her head inside her room and set the door into its frame. In her black tights she moved along lazily to the bathroom. She was a light sleeper and wasn’t the type to fall back asleep once woken unless she was really tired or still partially sleeping like the other day when Ping told her the story of Black Widow, Black Widow. It was now minutes to seven and she would usually be awake by eight back home anyway, so she wasn’t planning to return to slumber.

After the bathroom, she went to put on a summery red dress. As soon as she did there was a rapping at the door. She got it to see the flaxen Barbara clad in a black and white French maid outfit. “Heard you were up. What do you eat for breakfast? We have some oatmeal porridge and french toast with jam freshly prepared if you’d like.”

“I’m fine for now. I’ll grab something later. How’s Stephanie?”

“So you’re not hungry right now? Okay. Oh, Stephanie is… has her nose broken.”

Aubrey kind of expected that.

“The house nurse is looking after it in the basement,” continued Barbara.

Aubrey blinked.

“Anyways,” said the other woman, “come down when you’re ready, I guess. It’s on the table in the kitchen.” She fled off down the hallway, down the stairs.

Wrapped in a blanket, Aubrey sat on the metallic bench on the balcony connected to the room, drinking coffee. She was scared to go downstairs to face Grace after last night. She also thought of Joanne. What would she think of Aubrey now if Grace warned that she saw her heading to the direction of her bedroom? Joanne might think she was a creep or something of the sort. And the scissors—did Grace see it? She couldn’t have, could she? If she had, she would have gone after her in that instant, right?

The summer morning’s lukewarm air allowed Aubrey to forget everything for some easing moments. She placed her cup on the outdoor table beside her that matched the bench and stood to go to the balustrade. Aubrey smiled. She heard nature’s music again. She was heading back inside when she saw a chocolate bar – Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Creme on the outdoor table. She didn’t recall seeing it there at first or putting it there at all. She thought it must be one of hers anyway, and sat on the bench again to finish her coffee and eat it. Some people might find it disgusting to eat something like that so early in the morning, but for Aubrey there was no wrong time of day when it came to eating chocolate.

There was yet another knock on the door when Aubrey came through the French window. She made to open it, placing the drained cup and empty wrapper down on the dresser top. It was Barbara again. She held up a clear plastic bag containing a yellow Lolita dress, a black velvety headband, and black knee-high socks. In her other hand she held out a pair of bulky, high-heeled, round-toed shoes. “Mr. Golding would like to see these on you,” she said.

Aubrey accepted the things, fretting. The Lolita in the bag seemed puffier than the vomit-green one yesterday, but that wasn’t the problem. “Tell him I said thanks,” she requested, smiling though she was sinking inside at the thought of going downstairs. When Barbara left her, she undressed and slid on her new Lolita assortment. She liked what she saw in the mirror but got out the last bag of her chocolate blocks to soothe her, the ones with the nougat bits that Roman had gotten. She placed block after block into her mouth as she stooped the levels of the house. Her cloth bag was over her shoulder.

There was no Dan to be found, not in the foyer, not in the library or the living rooms. No one for that matter; even the housekeepers seemed to have disappeared. The door to the basement was locked.

Aubrey found herself pondering through a very foreign hallway. There was a spark of familiarity—she could feel it, but it was just a little pebble under many boulders of anxiety and discovery. She must have not visited this section much as a child.

And no one was around. When she took corners there were no other footsteps but her own. When she knocked on the doors there was no one behind them to answer. The house was void of life but Aubrey’s, so it seemed, until she heard a squeaking sound like metal rubbing together. She was peeping from behind a wall when she saw what it was. A metal gated elevator; it had just completed its touchdown with Ping inside, a large cigar in hand, white cloud floating out between her deep-purple lips. Aubrey noticed how most of the fat in her face appeared to have been drained, giving her head a skeletal look though she was a fairly overweight in the lower portions. Ping fixed the cigar in her mouth and opened the gate with the hand that didn’t hold the cane. Aubrey was oblivious as to what she was looking at through her dark lenses, and that bothered her significantly. Ping could have been staring at her for all she knew. Hence Golding started to walk again, desiring to get to the kitchen. There she went outside through the green door to see if anyone was at the side of the house, and to get away from that untrustworthy granny.

Walking outside, she couldn’t help but pause to take the day in, how beautiful it was with the grass tall and green and the sky baby-blue with white puffs of clouds floating across it like boats at sail. In the bright sunlight Aubrey could now see that the vines not only crept over the banisters, but some reached all the way straight up to the roof, making a leafy green carpet over its surface.

Aubrey went on to lean over the wooden bridge’s rail where she could see her vibrating reflection in the sparkling, moving water...

A satisfying amount of nature digested, she was able to refocus on searching for Dan or someone to tell her where he might be. However, not only was the side area bare of people, but when Aubrey got around to the backyard, she saw there was nothing but an abandoned, rusty old swing set before great woodlands. She would give up the search now.

Returning to the green door, she hoped that Ping was upstairs in her room now and wouldn’t come out to bother her. She guessed that she just had to wait for Dan or someone to show up. She reached for the doorknob of the green door but felt distracted. She looked back. It was the bridge. She was experiencing a whim... Fighting her instincts, she got inside and took a bite of the french toast that Barbara left on the small kitchen table. But soon she reopened the green door.

Little gray rabbits were hopping about on the bank as Aubrey made her way over the bridge, chewing one of the chocolate nougat blocks. She returned the plastic pouch of chocolate blocks to the cloth bag over her shoulders. About the time she finished the Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Creme bar that she found on the balcony, or maybe it was when she finished eating the first chocolate block for the day, she felt the urge to do something. However, she couldn’t quite put a finger on it until she stared at the wooden bridge moments ago and got that darn whim.

She was leaving the house behind. Ahead of the bridge, she crossed the meadow. Then she started the dirt path. Under the shade of the trees everything went gloomy. Through here was where Grace took the walks with Samantha and her, Aubrey remembered clearly as she made her way through the woods. During the walk the pathway split into two. The right will take us back home, and the left is forbidden, she remembered instantly. She and Samantha always ran ahead of Grace, and twice they detoured and took the left turn. She remembered it led to that house on the hill! And so, after a huge gulp of air, left was what Aubrey took. Soon she was out of the woods. In the literal sense, that is. As in poetic sense, she was very much still in it. Especially now.

She froze for a moment.

She wasn’t at the side of Dan’s great house on the riverbank, but she was on a meadow that led to a bridge again, only this time it was a stone bridge. It was a handsome one, with blooming vines creeping through the cracks. Beyond it there was another grassy field. It rose up high, and on top of it stood a Queen Anne home, with crafty trimming, its rear facing Aubrey. It was four stories tall instead of three like her father’s house, the fourth floor made of rooms projecting from the rest below. To both sides, where the land lowered, there were stretches of evergreen woods. If you fought your way through either side of the tall, prickly growth, you would find a road. It could round you back to Dan’s riverside home, provided you turn left. Adventurous couples loved to use the stone bridge and the surrounding areas for private strolls.

A flurry of memories came over Aubrey. They made the moment she saw the house on the hill this close and at this angle, surreal. She stationed on the bridge with her eyes glued to the house. Some time drained like sand from the upper half of an hourglass with Aubrey like that. Then something triggered her eyes to move away from the house—a fox emerging from the right evergreen stretch. It spotted her and crouched for a moment, before quickly vanishing over a spot where the land lowered perhaps into a ditch. Aubrey shivered and returned her gaze to The House on the Hill.

The dark house had many chimneys, many styles of roofing, and windows that came right out and had their own little roofs, making the residence look like many different small houses, all stacked together into a giant one. A thrill shot through Aubrey. She couldn’t understand it but it sent her galumphing and laughing up the hill, feeling like she was running hand in hand with her childhood best friend, Samantha, once again. Halfway up the slope however, her run turned into a jog, then her jog to a walk. The delirium fizzled now that she was closer to the lofty black metalwork that enclosed the backyard.

Aubrey blinked. Her legs stopped moving. Lining the outside of the fence was unruly shrubbery, spotted with blue roses. A blue butterfly rose up from one and carried itself away. What was she thinking? This house was cursed with a horrible past. She should turn back right now, she knew. But of course it was too tempting and her bulky high-heels started to move again. She gripped the bars, looking through. There, surrounded by reaching grass and countless fluffy, white dandelion heads, was the stone well. The state of the yard – though enchanting with the tips of the dead weeds blowing off and floating up like fairies – was wild and not one bit like the neatly mowed lawn that Aubrey remembered. She didn’t think Mr. Hayles would have allowed the place to get this way. Maybe she did come here with Samantha before the notorious crime after all.

The dandelions grew so wild that some were escaping the large bed of the backyard and growing in the soils outside the fence. She plucked one from the ground to blow the white fluff with her mouth. It broke loose, twirled, and carried off in the wind. She rummaged into her cloth bag. Her fingers carried a chocolate block to her parted lips. As the treat melted in her chops, she tilted her head to the side and stared vacantly at the well. She felt the need to go and take a look inside of it, and went squeezing through two hard bars with her formal yellow Lolita. Her walk towards the well was slow and she was not taking note that about three feet beyond it was the back of the creepy house that had many windows for one to look out of. And that it had a sliding door to the backyard that was blocked out with vertical blinds from the inside. She didn’t even notice that those blinds shook a little, as if they had just been touched by someone. Her paranoia and rooster-like alertness had fled magically.

Lying on the damp soil inside the well, was a pair of wine bottles and a filthy mattress. They were roughly eight feet down. An eroded ladder was set perpendicularly from the bottom of the pit to the brim. The moony teenager subtly veered away from the opening. Methodically. Then, biting her bottom lip, she lifted a foot over the edge, securing it on the third rung down. Steadily she maneuvered herself away from the light, away from the circle of open space that provided it. At last, as she hoped to, she reached the bottom of the well without falling into it like Alice through the rabbit hole. However, she stood facing the ladder, contemplating if she should just simply climb back up. Braving up again she sighed and turned around. There was a metallic door staring at her on the other side of the well... She touched the doorknob... It was careless, she knew. Reckless. But she twisted the doorknob. It clicked open.

She was in a long corridor now, lit orange by bare bulbs up top, and lined with urns and black and white portraits on either side. Her eyebrows drew closer together as she thought hard. Rochelle said they weren’t the ones who killed Mr. and Mrs. Hayles and their eleven children, but did Aubrey actually think that if she ran into John-Luke and Theresa, they would smile hello and offer her a cup of tea? That all three of them would become best friends, sitting, drinking champagne, and toasting to oddness? Aubrey pondered over that for a moment. Without further ado, she began the expedition down the underground channel, listening out carefully for any footfalls above or behind her.

She saw that the portraits were of children, and realized that each urn probably contained the ashes of the person displayed in the picture it was under. This made her feel like vomiting and there was a heaviness inside her. Some of the children looked like they weren’t even four years good, like the triplet girls: Stacey-Anna, Sara-Bob, and Adrianna Hayles. A name was impressed on the bottom of every frame. Aubrey scanned each picture and read each name as she went by. Apart from the triplets there was Gabriella Hayles, Solomon Hayles, Mary-Nina Hayles, Michileeka Hayles, Mark-Matthew Hayles, and the oldest two: Jay and Yolanda Hayles. Then there were two adults at the end, the woman: Aisha Hayles, and the man: Bobby Hayles. Hayles, Hayles, Hayles…

At the bottom of the tunnel there was nowhere left to go other than this door that was closed and likely risky to enter. This was where she would stop, she was sure, but before she could turn around, something dangling between her and the door caught her eyes. It was a string. She gaped upwards. It was hanging from a handle on a little door in the ceiling. With prudence, she tugged on it lightly to see if the door would budge a bit.

It did more than that.

The little door flew open and a rope ladder lunged out, smacking Aubrey in the face before tangling around her body. She fought to disentangle herself immediately, fright making her face a proper mess. Freed from the rope, she strained her ears for any sounds that could mean someone approaching. She held her chest, trying to calm down.

Aubrey was feeling as safe as an undetected spy, which meant not too safe, when nothing but silence showed itself. She cast upwards to the shadowy space. What could be up there? She ate the last chocolate block as she thought about it. She didn’t find it wise, but she clambered up the rope ladder with her heels, shakily, swinging hard into the walls. She nearly took Mr. Hayles off the wall and had to stop in mid-climb to fix him. Determined, she made it to the top in one piece and was now in a dark storeroom full of occupied cardboard boxes and other junk. Boxes were even piled high in front of the only real door in the room. When Aubrey saw white light gleaming through the cracks, she knew she was somewhere on the main floor of the house. It was natural light. There had to be some large windows not too far away.

It occurred to Aubrey that she was noticing darkness hovering over her. She tipped her head back. It was another ceiling access, but one with its door dislodged so it appeared as if there was just a shaded square above. She created a platform with two of the sturdiest boxes she could locate. Cautiously, she stepped up and placed her arms through the cavity. She felt a damp flat wooden surface surrounding the opening. Bending her elbows she lugged her weight, wriggling. She was now in a narrow room that wouldn’t permit her to straighten. It was low. She could see that the space ended a few feet behind her, but it stretched on far ahead. The light coming through the cracks in the damp board under her led the way as she groveled forward to see just how far the room went. Fortunately nobody was behind her, for they would have seen her childish polka dotted underwear, and Aubrey would have been very embarrassed. Through the cracks she saw the different rooms she passed over, and became uncomfortably aware of the softness of the board underneath her as she came over a library. She was ensnared that she could see the very top of the giant oak shelves, but her dear nose. The moldy smell of the rotten wood was not pleasant at all, but quite the opposite.

She crept above a living room and decided to idle a bit. There was a large masonry fireplace, a table for two, two chesterfield armchairs and a broad sofa, a piano, a widescreen television, glass cabinets filled with antiques, and layers of intricately designed persian rugs on the hardwood. In one corner there was a chest that was in need of some serious dusting. A dusty-blue British Shorthair jumped idly on the arm of the sofa and started to rub the back of one of its short ears with a paw. Aubrey saw the apparatus hands in a round wall clock hit 10:00 a.m.

A young man with dark uneven hair pointing down into his squinty eyes came into view. Aubrey found his brown hair totally emo. Matter of fact she found everything about him totally emo. She wrinkled her nose but couldn’t help looking. He wore a hooded, slim-fitting pullover. Aubrey searched frantically for the biggest crack in the board. Quickly she lay flat on her stomach with her head turned to one side, her cheek pressed, and an avid blue eye goggling through.

The boy sat on the sofa where the armrest made a makeshift daybed for the cat—a position to the upper left from where Aubrey hovered, so she was better able to see his face. And when she did, Miss Golding didn’t know whether to melt into a pool of lust or turn green with envy. She sat up to stuff a fist into her mouth, because perhaps she just wanted to scream. The man had to either be an angel or the devil himself in powerful disguise, to look the way he did. He was the kind of beauty that would tempt and make envious both males and females. He had a defined masculinity about him, yet he maintained this particular feminine elegance, even in his hoodie.

One of the first things Aubrey noticed was the dark brown eyes, almond-shaped and glistening like glass against a pitch-black sky. They were framed by long lashes and intensified by these sharply-edged killer eyebrows. Those eyes dominated his entire face, like bitter cocoa on your tongue so you can hardly taste the chopped fruit that went along with it. She marveled next at his pale skin that was matte, flawless, and as tight and as smooth as a drum top over his neatly structured features. On one corner of his delicate lower lip, he wore two tiny piercings; silver studs. “Spider bites” Aubrey knew the alternative community called them.

For some time he stared emptily into space, looking like a mannequin, until he turned his face to the armrest where the cat was still relaxing. He smiled and uttered, “Marybeth,” softly, rubbing under her chin with a finger. The little animal closed its amber eyes and lifted its head, purring loudly, and for a moment, though put off by the mere sight of it, Aubrey wished she was the cat.

Aubrey did not recognize herself! She felt as though she had drunk a whole carton of beer and was not able to control her emotions, her perspective. She tried to snap out of it. She had found certain people attractive before, like Zane, but never in her life had she found someone so prepossessing without knowing them. She felt almost victimized by it. There was something wrong with this situation. He’s not all that, she struggled to convince herself. There was always something cold about looking too good anyway, media-generated, unfeeling, but Aubrey could not shake her lust. And then he started to seem warm. Like something harmonious. Like something you wanted to hug all day long. She placed her face back to the board and seeing how calm the cat was, was about to smile and think that maybe the little house pets weren’t so bad after all, when the thing opened its glowing eyes and stared straight up to the ceiling, seeming to have spotted her. So nosy. She feared it was giving her away. The creature licked its whiskers, moving its little round head side to side like a snake, as if it was trying to make out what it was looking at.

A woman with dark and lengthy corkscrew curls entered the room. Aubrey was stunned. She found her very attractive, but most stirring of all, she felt she knew who it was. Theresa... The woman gave John-Luke a hefty teacup, saying, “Dandelion.” Her voice was breathy and brittle, as if she was about to cry, but honeyed, as if you shouldn’t trust her. Aubrey was instantly very wary of her. For some time the woman watched John-Luke with her stygian, feral eyes as he sipped away, before choosing to speak again. “You have a perfect opportunity now.”

“Are you retarded?” he questioned, his voice more boyish than he looked and full of expression. Settling his nerves, he went on, but now with a much kinder tone as if he knew he had hurt her. “Give it some time. It’s smarter that way.”

Marybeth..,” sang the woman sweetly. She petted the cat on the head, ignoring John-Luke’s attitude.

Then she departed.

Alone again, John-Luke swam off mutely into his thoughts. The only motion he made was when he enjoyed his tea, and when he pushed Marybeth so she was out of the way as he put the cup on the side table. Then like Theresa before him, he left the room.

Aubrey vibrated, blinked, cringed, and finally sighed. It was time to head back.

On palms and knees she returned to the opening over the storage room and eased herself through, landing gently on the boxes. Next she opened the door in the floor and crawled down the rope ladder. In the hallway she rolled up the ladder and threw it upwards while jumping to push the little door close at the same time. She was pleased that it closed without too much noise. Blood pulsing hotly, she raced through the corridor with light steps, out the door to the well, up the rusty ladder, and through the iron bars of the fence. Starting down the hill, she began laughing. She couldn’t believe what she just did, the people she just saw. She thought she was officially a daredevil. That gave her a funny, satisfying sensation. She felt clever.

Heading closer and closer to the stone bridge, Aubrey was stopped in her tracks. A brunette guy was getting very smoochy with a lady on the bridge. It was passionate. It was very liberated as if they had been holding back for far too long. The man leaned into his companion, her back against the gray rocks. As she swathe his neck with her arms, a bracelet with sapphire gems shimmered in the sunlight around her wrist. Aubrey saw it. Something about it was special. However, that was beside the point. Aubrey felt sort of queer just standing there watching them. She wasn’t sure what to do. She certainly didn’t want to walk up there and listen to their lips or ruin their “precious” moment. She felt queer, and then she just felt plain shocked. It was Blair and Shelby, she realized. Blair, Joanne’s boyfriend, and Shelby, one of Joanne’s friends she met at Oven Stove. The one she mistook for Samantha until she saw the color of her roots. Aubrey turned around and decided to get back to the riverside home the other way—through the evergreens.

She went to the lower left surrounding area of the house on the hill, wondering if she should tell Joanne about the scandal. Aubrey soon decided it was none of her business. Joanne hated her. If she told her, it might backfire. Joanne might think she smoked crystal meth and made it up, or created the story to start drama. Briskly, she padded through the tall growth just where the land started to mount. So she was on a slant. When she cleared the pine trees, she just had to walk across a patch of scraggly grass to get to the road. There she swerved left. After some ambling, she was standing in front of Dan’s home once again. Finally she could breathe. The front scenery was even more terrific in the daylight, the showy heads of the orange tiger lillies in the garden, the ivy and moss that travelled the house’s exterior, the river glittering like millions of crystal shards to the side. She heaved in some oxygen before heading inside.

In the entrance hall sat a woman of late forties that stunned Aubrey with her absence of color. Though she wore a bright yellow cardigan over a floral-print dress, she had a faded aura about her. It was perhaps the waning of the brown of her eyes, or the dwindling of the peach in her skin to an ill skimmed milk color. Or the toffee of her hair, in chignon style, to silver-blond. When Aubrey noticed the woman’s pure-white sneakers, she dreaded it was the result of basement living, as that’s where Barbara had suggested the nurse to be. The woman stared wintrily after Aubrey as she sat stroking Rebecca Persian. Her displeased expression was unintentional. “Your Dan’s daughter?” she asked before long, her voice a simple feminine wisp, sort of like whipped cream Aubrey thought.

“Yes. Hello. Are you the nurse?”

A sparkle came to the woman’s face and she nodded the exact time the doorbell rang. She fetched the knapsack at her feet, kissed Rebecca’s head, and stood. “Tell Dan my son came to pick me up. I’ll be back Friday morning.”

“Okay.”

To get where she was going, the nurse overtook Golding. Under the skin of her calves was a visible network of veins. A tall, boyish man greeted her with a tight hug and a wet one on the cheek. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, one might say.

Aubrey mounted the stairs. She had forgotten about Blair and Shelby and was just thinking of John-Luke again. He brought on a strange mix of excitement that she hadn’t felt before. She was almost woozy ascending the steps, smiling and rubbing her eyes. Rebecca’s fat body plumped up after her curiously. Aubrey was still a new, interesting creature to it.

When Golding got to her room, shutting a meowing Rebecca out, she sat crossed-legged on the bed, John-Luke in the brain, not just his beauty, but something surpassing it. She was sickening for something...

Like always, there came the sound of knuckles on the door. Barbara brought her a jug of iced water packed with cucumber slices. She placed it on the bedside table, and put a empty glass next to it. Aubrey appreciated it but a part of her felt grumpy. Where was Dan? Why wasn’t he taking her out today or talking to her? A few hours elapsed with her just reading on the bed or out on the balcony. She also spoke to her grandparents via the room phone, lying to them about the state of her mood.

The day was going by quickly. She read more sluggishly than ever. Eyes tired. Brain mushed. She was absentminded and had to reread paragraphs sometimes ten to twenty times. What was wrecking her sharpness? Barbara kept her stomach strong with milky tea and sweet-and-sour tofu jacketed in softened, translucent rice wrappers, but where in the world was Dan? Rain came down and stroked the windows and rooftops. Bored, she took a nap.

* * *

Hungary, Budapest

Avery’s eyes were cornflower-blue in the dim of the stuffy cube-shaped room. Her father’s secret chamber. Overhead faux candles in a chandelier casted a yellow tone that pooled over the paneled walls of mahogany. As her father, Carl, sat down around the conference table with the anxious older man, she made their tea with her back facing them. They were drinking peppermint for the occasion, peppermint that soothes. She used a tray to bring the teacups with her to the table. Bence helped himself to the sugar cubes in the center of the table, stirring it in the tea that Avery placed before him. His nervous state did not go unnoticed. Avery could almost taste it as she pulled the digestive biscuits from the cubby. This greying man had confided in her father before about his researches and findings, but never ever had he been so eager. As soon as she joined them around the table, he placed a large sheet of paper out before them. When he spread it open all the way, they saw it was a curious map of the world. It was a map that startled both Carl and his daughter to the core. They squinted at it as if a bit of dust had flown into their eyes and their visitor used the moment to begin speaking. He spoke in Hungarian. “I just printed it out from the machine not too long ago,” he said.

Carl’s mouth stiffened. Avery’s chapped lips parted.

Despite the terrifying circumstance, Bence was pleased to see that he was worth their time. “As you can see,” he continued, “it’s growing and now it’s happening almost anywhere there is soil to step on. I never knew it would get so great in the Americas but I guess we’ve underestimated it. Guys, what I see here is not good...”

Carl blinked and sipped his tea.

Avery blinked and sipped her tea.

Carl and his daughter were dumbfounded, gobsmacked. There, on the map, tiny dark objects the shape of a bull’s horn, were scattered everywhere. “I’m not having any children,” declared Avery.

Bence half shrugged. “Well you can’t prevent everything.”

“Oh I can prevent that.”

* * *

There was another knock at the door. Aubrey parted sourly from her sheets and answered it with her eye sockets puffy, her intellect clouded, and her body weak.

“Dinner is served,” informed Barbara. “They are all waiting on you downstairs in the dining room.”

Aubrey brightened instantly. She was expected to go downstairs to eat with all of them?! “Okay,” she forced herself to say. “I’ll be down soon.”

The housekeeper left her.

Aubrey closed the door. Her palms started to get clammy. Was Grace going to bring up what happened last night? Did she already tell Dan and Joanne what she saw? What exactly did she see? What does she think Aubrey was up to? Are they discussing her even at this moment? Aubrey bit off a piece of an Oh Henry! bar before she could make her way downstairs. She purposely made no attempt to rush though she was keen about getting this dinner over with.

She went through the door in the lobby where a hardwood hall led her to the double door of the grand dining room. Through the panes she saw Dan, Grace, Ping still in her wig and shades, and Joanne and Rochelle. They all sat around a long table. Aubrey stiffened. She felt like the man made of tin from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that one children’s tale that always creeped her out. It was the eerie way it mirrored real life, the way everything seemed so fake and people in power, just how real is all their charms and what really are their intentions? To protect or to control and destroy? What really lies behind the walls we see? The Wizard only agrees to help whoever manages to reach him at the end of the deadly yellow brick road if they defeat the Wicked Witch of the West, which placed the characters lives in grave danger. And after all wasn’t he just an ordinary simple man in the end, hiding under this great big illusion of a powerful force that could grant your deepest desire? With the green glasses they were forced to wear by his guards, Dorothy and her friends saw him separately as different things. Dorothy saw him as a giant head, Scarecrow saw a beautiful woman, Tin Woodman saw a terrible beast and the Cowardly Lion saw a ball of fire. In the end they realized they travelled the yellow brick road for nothing but to be thankful for their old simple life the way it was before all the madness. It’s no wonder they snagged the Wonderful from the title in the 1939 film adaption, thought Aubrey. Then she suddenly felt she was onto something, like an investigator about to uncover a crucial piece of evidence or catch the right suspect. Her eyes felt suddenly open, she was wide awake now, but she heard Dan clearing his throat from behind the glass double door and forget what it was that was bugging her.

“Thanks for joining us, Aubrey,” said Dan pleasantly when he saw her entering. “How was your day?” Everyone was just as watchful as he. She stumbled into the room looking out of place and out of touch, mindless.

“Great,” she responded with no real emotion while choosing the free seat at the end. It was two seats from Ping and right across from Dan. Coming back to her senses Aubrey eyed Grace fearfully as she settled her buttocks onto the cushion. The woman was sitting right next to Dan. She was dressed in lacy black again, and staring at Aubrey with her wine-colored lips curled into a dark smile. There was a genuine spark of amusement in Grace’s eyes that made the teenager very uncomfortable. What on earth was she thinking?

“Doesn’t the dress look beautiful on her?” asked Dan, glimpsing Grace as he lifted his glass. He emptied some of the white wine into his mouth.

“Mmmhmm..,” exerted Grace, nodding and displaying synthetic kindness.

A sobered up Joanne turned from her conversation with Rochelle and smiled at Aubrey, saying, “Yes, my old dress.”

“Oh, it couldn’t fit you anymore?” uttered Aubrey, feeling nothing inside. She hit her stepsister so hard with the words it was nearly manslaughter. The thing was, Aubrey was almost sure she meant to only think it, and not actually say it. “I apologize! I didn’t mean for it to come out like that!” Aubrey’s head pounded. Ping was laughing passionately, smacking the table, but Grace tsked, and her daughter and Rochelle looked amazed. Dan, indifferent, though he did take a huge gulp of his chardonnay.

With her nose all bandaged up, Stephanie helped Barbara serve the dinner, personally placing down Aubrey’s plate of steak, asparagus, potatoes, and boiled sweet carrots. While Aubrey picked up a stalk of asparagus, she wondered for the eleventh time why Dan had married Grace. The woman Deborah was and the woman Grace is are as different as night and day. The physicality is one thing—Dan practically jumped from a soft, sweet, supple pear, to a tree branch, Aubrey mused. Then there was the personality factor. Deborah’s beauty was also skin deep. She had a heart of gold. She was calm and full of - and here is the irony - “grace.” While Deborah would close her eyes and smell the aroma of a cup of tea, Grace would bring the rim up to her pointy nose to see if something had floated in it. And if she were to smell it, it was to more test if it had been tampered with than anything. Funny, she did it right then around the dinner table, only this time it was with her glass of white wine. She bored her eyes into the cup, shook the liquid then after a final sniff she chanced her first sip.

“We never saw you this morning, so we went out without you and Grace did a little something for you,” announced Dan.

“Well,” said Grace, “there’s going to be an extravagant tea party this weekend at the town’s blue hall. It’s this thing we do here in Grishamm annually, where prestigious individuals from all around town come together to have a fabulous time drinking tea, eating cupcakes, and of course showing off their finest Lolita outfits. For anyone under the age of 25 to attend, however, they will have to pass the town’s Everything Tea Party course and have some connections. I could instantly get you a guaranteed space because I’m part of the Tea Party Committee, but it would not be right if you didn’t get your training, you know…”

“Of course,” Aubrey said, mystified, not sure what to think of all this.

“That being said, I signed you up for the course this week. It’s at this little location downtown. You need to be there seven-thirty sharp to nine o’clock each day, starting tomorrow.”

Aubrey frowned and wanted to smash something. A vase on Grace’s cone head. This was overwhelming. “Okay,” she said, her voice barely hiding the displeasure. Isn’t this a bit much to ask a visitor? She allowed Stephanie to refill her empty wineglass, sighing deeply. Stephanie had to open a third bottle eventually for the wine-loving group, this time a different variety. The used up chardonnay is notable for food pairing all around the world, and sauvignon blanc, which Stephanie was unscrewing at the moment, is hailed the boyfriend stealer.

Grace and Joanne glanced at each other before Grace spoke again to Aubrey. “We can withdraw your enrolment before tomorrow if you’d like, but the tea party is foremost in the whole “Grishamm” experience. You don’t want your enrolment withdrawn, do you?”

How passive aggressive. How cunning. Aubrey shook her head and said a faintish “No.” Did she even have a choice? It was like they were bullying her into it.

Dan felt it wasn’t appropriate to force Aubrey to do the course, but he couldn’t persuade Grace when it came to these sorts of things. Besides, Aubrey getting outside every day to attend class could work perfectly with the task he had to fulfill...

The main course eaten, Barbara and Stephanie started to serve little cut-glass bowls of vanilla bean ice-cream topped with frozen blueberries. Stephanie was passing Ping with two bowls in her hands for Joanne and Rochelle when she tripped and fell over the old woman’s outstretched foot. When she struck the floor, Ping laughed wholeheartedly. “Sorry-so-sorry, didn’t realize you were coming there,” she said.

“PING!” barked Dan.

“What?! I said sorry! Is sorry not enough these days? What horrible times we’re in!”

Barbara aided the young dumbfounded housekeeper with lifting from the floor and went with her through the double door. Not long afterward, Harleen turned up to clean the mess. Soon Barbara returned with two new bowls filled with ice-cream and blueberries, and Rochelle and Joanne finally got their desserts.

Rochelle and Joanne had already moved on to something else. “Wow, that’s so rude,” said Rochelle looking at Joanne’s phone.

“What’s the matter, Joanne?” pressed Grace, becoming all mother-like with a flash.

“Blair told her he is in love with someone else and that they should just be friends.”

“Shut up!” cussed Joanne. She glanced at Aubrey, shamefaced.

“Sorry!” cried Rochelle, covering her mouth.

Aubrey contemplated whether or not she should tell Joanne who this “someone else” was, but she decided to stick with her original plan of keeping out of it. Besides, what did she owe Joanne anyway? Instead she said, “Who cares, he sounds like Squidward anyway.” She was trying to be encouraging but everyone at the table just looked stunned, and then Ping started to guffaw again.

“Did he really say that, Jo?” wondered Grace bitterly. “I really thought he was a good guy. What a disappointment.” She shook her head measurably, showing just how “disappointed” she was.

Aubrey beckoned Barbara for a third glass of wine while Joanne nodded, pouting her lip, her eyes growing wet. Heavy beads of salty water trickled down her face.

“What a stupid boy,” continued Grace, trying to soothe her child. “Don’t even waste your tears. ...his loss.”

Joanne dismissed herself from the table, Rochelle following her like a loyal servant.

Dan drained his wineglass. “The class..,” he said, giving attention to his daughter. “I can get you a ride there and back everyday but you know it’s a nice little walk.” In truth it was more than a “nice little walk.” It was a real hassle, a workout, but Dan wanted Aubrey to travel on her own. He needed Aubrey to walk actually. He hope it was not too obvious. It would just work better for the plan. Make her more vulnerable. He had nothing to do with it, was the middle man, but he just didn’t want to have to confront those people again, if you could even call them people. The night before he was praying, “Sweet Lord above, please make the child walk.”

“How long of a walk is it?” queried Aubrey. She was thinking of juicing every ounce from the “Grishamm experience.” Who knew, maybe walking would be enjoyable. Healthy. It is said a 20 minute walk in nature is good for lifting your serotonin levels, keeping you happy. And with Zane in her thoughts, heaven knew she needed that kind of therapy.

“It’s, ah… about 30 minutes walking,” stated Dan as offhandedly as possible. He was trying to make 30 minutes sound like a nice, easy stroll. “We have some beautiful, comfortable low shoes for you that will go well with Lolita. Oh and also today Grace picked up a nice Classic Lolita for you to wear on your first day tomorrow. It’s black and dark-brown and very pretty, for a very pretty girl!”

“Okay,” responded Aubrey, flushing. Dan was so charming that she didn’t moan that 30 minutes was a stretch and a half, and completely inconsiderate of Dan. At least if she added it up together, 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back, it would make an hour, the advised amount of body activity you should do each day. This was starting to sound not too bad afterall, she supposed.

Grace bowed her chin at Aubrey. “And it’s from that Loluu place that I hear you’re so fond of,” she said in regards to the Classic Lolita she bought for Aubrey.

“Ehh..hee...” Aubrey grinned guiltily. She steered away from the subject matter. “Yes, Dan, when that driver dropped me here from the station, you know I never paid and he just drove off.”

It was not the money part, but something about that caught her father off-guard. Dan laughed, beads of sweat bursting out of the pores in his head. “I-I, I sent him for you. The payment was already made.”

“Oh… well that’s strange. He didn’t know anything about where I was heading. Actually it gets stranger. He knew nothing about me, but he knew my name. But hey, maybe I forgot I gave him my name, I don’t know…” Aubrey shrugged, scooping up some ice-cream.

“Y-yeah, and maybe the dispatcher cleared up all the details to him but—”

“But the place of drop off...”

Dan beamed. “There you go!”

Aubrey chewed on a blueberry.

Dan patted his forehead with a napkin. “Barbara! More wine please!”

 

****

By the time Aubrey made it up the stairs she had ingested five glasses of sauvignon blanc. She figured it must had been a strong type and a type not suited to her body chemistry either because all of a sudden she was feeling quite dizzy, and seeing flashes of black like she would pass out any second and not wake up for two days. This faintish feeling came on with the absence of tiredness. She wanted to stay up more but her body was going down, down, down. She staggered droopy-eyed into her room, wishing she had been more polite than to finish a whole bottle of wine by herself. Why had she done it? She was so humiliated by her actions, with a deep underlying angst about looking weak and unrefined. It was in her sleep that she saw an anthropomorphic snake. The body was long, black and scaly except for the top that was a pale torso of a woman with dark flowy hair and a Vietnam face. The creature was in the air, swimming around just under the ceiling as if in water. Her breast were bare, the human form stopping at the waist where it was all slithering and black from there on. The woman was wailing like a banshee. The weird sound was what startled Aubrey at first from her sound state of sleep and triggered her to look up. That’s when she saw the floating thing and realized she was now only half sleeping. Like before, she could not control anything but her eyes. The woman-thing was so scary, Aubrey just wanted to zip herself open like a bag and crawl into her skin.

 

10

Dark figure….

 

Monday…

It was six o’clock on the dot when Aubrey stepped outside through the front door. She was in her new black and brown Lolita. She had just escaped having to hear the old woman’s morning speech by a mere minute. Ping, dressed up like always in her tinted spectacles, false hair, cape, and jewellery, ran to the top of the main staircase with her cane (though not really using it), heard Stephanie (who got up early to make Aubrey tea and fish fritters) say, “See you later, Aubrey,” and scooped up the air with a clenched fist. “Damn it!” she sneered.

It was so early, the sun was barely awake. Little birds beckoning it with their chirps was the only present sound. Aubrey stood in front of the outside steps, gazing out to the sky and sucking in some fresh air. She shivered. Dan had told her in very simple terms how to get to the building where the tea party course would take place, yet Aubrey was still quite nervous she’d get lost. “Alright..,” she sighed to herself, preparing to end her motionless state. She downed the gentle decline to the road, examining the small piece of paper she had with her father’s handwriting on it.

After processing what was written again, she stuck the paper firmly into her cloth bag. Okay. So it’s 10 Doris Street. She thought of the inscribed guide, exactly as Dan wrote it in his red ink. Go straight down the road, turn right to get out of the avenue, then turn left on Main at the quiet 3-way intersection and keep going straight to reach Downtown. When you enter downtown, make a turn onto Doris Street. That street will take you to the place. On the right side of the road you will see a long, vertical brownstone building, number 33. “33 Doris street,” said Aubrey confidently, speeding up the journey, the cloth bag on her shoulder containing a pack of Nestlé smarties, a mars bar, and a pen and a notebook that Dan had asked Barbara to give her last night from their storage unit.

It seemed a decent day to come. Aubrey tried to have a great time as she strolled along, enjoying the silence, raising her nose to smell the sweet fragrance in the flowered trees she moved under, smiling at a squirrel struggling to eat a fallen wild green apple, and running away from a giant bumblebee. The house on the hill, she paid it a viewing in passing, enchanted, wondering if she had really gone in it yesterday. How awesome was that.

The downtown was lifeless, quiet. Aubrey passed a few closed restaurants and boutiques showcasing Lolita fashion through their vast windows. She could not believe this was the same town she was raised in. Everything was so different—the shops, the streets, and what’s with this obsession for blown up doll clothes? Aubrey chuckled and popped a smartie into her mouth.

In the end, she reached 33 Doris Street, a quaint little construction, shooting up narrowly. Inside was cool with air conditioning. The lobby - a boring corporate place with a brown and leathery sitting area - had a receptionist booth in the midst of low-grade portable dividers. The dividers built numerous cubicles, all of which seemed empty. The booth had magazines with faces of academic, tired-looking people, piled so high on top of its glass surface that you could hardly see the short blonde behind it. She had her bangs pinned down to the sides with small bow barrettes. They matched her red and black Lolita. It said Cassandra on her name badge.

Cassandra bared her teeth benevolently. “Hi. Everything Tea Party class is down the corridor on your right and up the staircase. You just go down that hallway upstairs to the very last room.”

“Okay, thanks,” said Aubrey.

“You’re very welcome! Enjoy your first class!”

The stairs made sounds and seemed to wobble too. It smelt stale—just as bad as the area in John-Luke’s ceiling room, or worse, and gave the kind of sensation as though you would fall right through. The dismal, long hallway at the top was no different. Its wooden floorboard was noisy and reeking of mould, as if there was a flood sometime ago. To make matters worse, the air conditioner seemed to not be working so well in this particular section of the building. Aubrey wondered just how ancient the building was. 80? 100 years old?

All the doors that Aubrey went by had a professional silver number nailed to them, except for the last one at the bottom. It had a carving of a rat’s head on it with a hook coming out at the top. Nothing was hung there. The teacher had neglected the hanging of her number. Nervously, Aubrey pushed the door inwards, wincing under its menacing creak.

Aubrey was the first student to arrive. She stared at the room, horizontal to where she stood. It began on her right where there was a chalkboard on the wall and a teacher’s desk loaded with textbooks. In between the chalkboard and the desk there was a door in the wall, looking like it led to some kind of storage room. Orange light leaked through the skinny space between it and the ground.

“Oh, good, someone’s here!” said a silvery voice. Aubrey never noticed before, but a petite woman stood in front of her. Taylor Lajeunesse. The woman appeared disoriented, like she was reeling from a mix up of chemicals. And she was. Her skin was deeply tanned and her hair, golden. She would have stood out if she wasn’t in the capricious town of Grishamm. She wore an ankle-skimming dress that was three sizes too big, though perhaps that was her point. Her legs were snug in brown stitchery stockings and buckle flats. The golden hair on her head was parted in the middle, and fixed in two braided buns to each side, making her resemble Minnie Mouse. She placed up a finger: “Just a second! I will get Madam Brown!” With that the strange person disappeared off into the mysterious door at the front of the room.

Aubrey blinked, tarrying by the entrance. It didn’t look like your normal classroom. There were four square tables that were decorated with red tablecloths and a single vase of fake flowers in the middle. It was like someone was preparing for a fancy dinner. Each table had four seats around it.

“Don’t ask me stupid questions! You know what to do!” snapped a miserable, posh voice from behind the strange door. Aubrey wondered if pompous Grace would pop out from around there.

The mousy person reappeared, obviously rattled from the scolding. Aubrey thought this Madam Brown was mean, but she wouldn’t understand. Taylor was a child of one of Mrs. Brown’s friends. She was trying to come off her diet of methamphetamines, painkillers, and this funny green bush, and should have been very appreciative that Madam offered her a job as her assistant. In fact, Madam didn’t even need an assistant. She created the job just so she could give Taylor something responsible to do and guard her. “You have to sign here, please,” mumbled Taylor to Aubrey, holding up a clipboard and a pen. “...beside your name.”

Aubrey took the materials, did what she was told, and handed them back to the scatterbrained girl. Taylor then went to rest her butt on a tattered, cushioned chair that was by the teacher’s table next to a lovelier one. Apart from the mound of textbooks, a rodent cage with a tea towel thrown over it was perched atop of the desk.

Aubrey took a seat around a square table that was near the thickly-draped windows. It was at the front of the room, but she didn’t mind. She sighed, biting into a Mars bar. Minutes later students were rolling in, all of them at least eighteen years old (the minimum age to attend the town’s Grand Hall Tea Party) and some a bit older, all the way up to 24. Flashes of different types of Lolita, trousers, bowties, shoes, hair accessories, hats and suspenders, flashed by Aubrey. Grishamm being a small town, most of the students knew and spoke to each other excitedly, rushing to tables so that they could sit beside their friends and not be left out. One blonde with a long face ran determinedly in her dress and platforms to sit around a table at a back table. But as soon as she sat down a dark-skinned boy next to her screamed, “That’s saved for Martin!” The girl released a big, shameful sigh, rolling her eyes, and became one of the last three standing around and looking disappointedly at Aubrey. Aubrey the stranger whom they had no choice but to sit beside. They made their way slowly over to her.

Golding soon found herself seated with the long-faced blonde, this black boy with a shadow-shade shave, and another pale damsel, only she had curly, chestnut hair. They all whispered to each other, glancing at Aubrey until, like the rest of the class, their attention was fastened to the entrance of the room.

“MARTIN!” cried two guys in harmony.

Swallowed by a straightened volume of brown, blond-streaked hair was a little plum-shaped head that looked like it had been compressed. Sharon Martin had an unusually chubby face for a twenty-something, and it was creasy like an infant’s. Her skin was deeply tanned, a natural trait being of mixed race. And her eyes were dark-green. Her squashed-looking face reminded Aubrey of a Cabbage Patch Doll. However, the girl had a well-developed, womanly figure, and wore a really short Lolita to show off her lustrous limbs. She took her reserved seat, basking in the praise of her character by everyone.

A scrawny brunette woman, wearing a crimson Lolita that wasn’t inflated with petticoats, glided through the mysterious door at the top of the room. She moved majestically, nose towards the ceiling, hands up as if she was about to direct a musical orchestra. Aubrey thought she looked pathetic and snickered, placing a blue smartie into her mouth.

Madam Brown was nearly fifty. Her brown hair was pinned back tidily into a bun. She stood, front and center, before the classroom, smiling customarily, and placing her hands behind her. Though she was smiling, one look at her stern, no-nonsense face, the students hushed their nattering. “Thank you very much!” she gushed, most flattered. Entitled. “I am Madam Brown, your teacher, and this is Taylor. She’s going to help me.” She was pointing at the reticent woman who looked up at the class embarrassedly as if the lights were literally turned on over her. But you never know what she could be seeing anyway. No pun intended. She had one hand in the cage on the table – the towel had been removed –, feeding a greedy rat a bit of wholegrain bread. “Ooh, and that’s Mr. Marley,” continued Madam. “I got that rat hook you see out there made after him. It adds a special touch to the place, don’t you think?”

The students giggled. Aubrey, nervous, just smiled.

“Welcome to the Everything Tea Party class!” Madam carried on. “We use to have this class in one of the rooms of the Grand Blue Hall, until last year’s amateurs like you almost tore the whole place down. Now we have to make due in this rat-hole.” Madam looked at the stripping floorboard beneath her heels as she said to the rodent, “No offense, Mr. Marley. Now you know I didn’t mean sophisticated rats like you.” And you could tell Madam really meant what she said. Students were shaking, trying to smother laughter, but some couldn’t help it and snorted out loudly.

“Taylor,” said Madam, “you’ve made them all sign beside their names?”

Taylor looked at Mrs. Brown as if she had turned with a POOF! into some horrendous mythical creature. “Oh, they came in so fast I—”

“Well do so now.” Taylor brought the clipboard erratically around the room, then returned to the front and handed it to her master. “Okay, let’s see who’s who,” said Madam. She went about taking the attendance, calling out each pupil’s name. Whenever a student answered her: “Here, Miss,” or something of the sort, she would look towards the speaker. She went down the list in alphabetical order, according to the last names.

Aubrey was called. “Here,” she said.

The teacher looked up from the clipboard as she always did, but this time she had a curious expression on her face and said, “Oh! I think we’ve got a Grishamm novice! A Grishamm novice! Am I right?!” Not a single neck failed to twist to see Aubrey answer. Golding, already uncomfortable, became sweaty when she heard a spurt of twittering that was unquestionably based on her. She couldn’t even think clearly to respond to the teacher’s query but only looked at her as if she was that mythical creature that Taylor saw.  “O—kay!” piped Madam, looking away from the girl. When she finished the list she said, “Okay, all come up and grab a book from my desk.... AND DON’T KNOCK OVER THAT RAT CAGE!

The students were aggressively heading to her desk. They were taking Brown’s first words of demand literally. Literally grabbing books from off her desk as if they were hot patties. Aubrey, who wasn’t so rowdy, got knocked this way and that until, finally, she with another timid-looking girl were one of the last to get a book, and ended up with the older, worn ones that even had yet to be discovered tea and coffee stains on their pages.

The book, Everything Tea Party, was written by a person named Katsumi Shinozawa. Madam Brown went over all the chapters briefly, standing with her own copy. During her yapping, Aubrey stuffed her face with Smarties, nervously making sure that no one was looking when her hand would suddenly go up to her mouth. At her table, though she picked up that her three tablemates just met, they all spoke kindly amongst themselves, leaving her out.

Through with the overview, Madam closed the book and placed it back on her desk. “Know that it is very crucial for you to pass this course, not with fifty, not with sixty, but with at least a seventy percent grade. That’s the only way to get an invite to The Grand Hall Tea Party! But even if you get a good grade there’s a chance you won’t get in this year, or even next year, due to space. Study hard just the same! You need to take the book home with you and make it your very best friend for the rest of this week! Take good care of it! Marks will be deducted for any damages and payments will have to be made if any books are lost, or if the damages are too severe. As we only have a few days, each day come prepared to learn something new. It’s fast like everything else. Drink some coffee if you have to. Class dismissed.” People started getting up. “Ooh, and Sharon Martin, two to three inches above the knees only please!” The girl with the shortest Lolita grimaced.

Aubrey got trapped in the herd of students going down the narrow, frail hallway and staircase. She wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole building collapsed. Finally, after using the washroom there in 10 Doris Street, she got what she was longing for since the class started; she was outside the foreign construction, heading back to Dan’s. She should have relished the air and exercise, but she envied the students who drove past her in their fancy cars.

Ambling along the shops, Aubrey wasn’t having a blast like she did in the beginning. It wasn’t mainly the passing cars, or the extinguishing of the early morning sereneness that turned her mood sour. Aubrey was sure about that. It was just that, from she came through the exit doors of 10 Doris Street, she felt faintly uneasy. Fighting to strut merrily like a clueless airhead, and cut out the ridiculous paranoia, Aubrey suddenly understood what was going on. She understood that she wasn’t just feeling the usual anxiousness that embraced her every day. She realized that it wasn’t the natural thing that could be taken care of with pills and therapy or chocolate or a good bunch of people who cared about her. No, the uneasiness, it wasn’t innocent at all. It wasn’t typical. There was something following her. In fact, each time she took a corner, there was this tall, dark figure behind, taking it with her.

Though there were some moving cars on the streets, and people on the sidewalks, Aubrey felt concerned for her safety. Flustered, she marched off the correct path accidentally. Wait, where was she to go? Which way was it again? She streaked down a street named Nerby Lane. Then she dashed into one called Bowmers. She ended up hating that decision of hers as it was less busy there. Panic. Oh God! Oh God! She fixed to find her way back on track, but never faltered her brisk pace. She did not want to slow down by even looking around. She didn’t have to anyway; she could sense that the individual was still trailing her, and now even more atrocious, it was speed-walking as well. With this realization, Aubrey cried out “Oh my God!” and started to run.

The dark figure now ran too.

It was unbelievable, the dread she felt. She knew the predator’s change in pace as she would know if someone pressed a hot iron pitchfork against her buttocks. Unbearable fear took over and she just couldn’t take it anymore. Her legs froze and all she could do in her panic was turn around to at least face it, whoever or whatever it was.

As if it was indeed her shadow, the figure stopped moving also....

The first thing she saw was blood, lots of it, pouring dark from its gaping mouth and long-fingered hands. Then hair—covering the length of the long, willowy neck. Straight, silky, side-parted hair, the shade of the darkest night. It was swaying in the wind. The next thing was the attire. It was outlandish even for Grishamm. What category did this person fit into? And wasn’t it hot? Heat-drawing black covered its slender, tall frame from shoulder blade to toe. The pants were denim, snug, with chains hanging from the waist. The shirt was the only thing that wasn’t utterly black (it was azure and trendily printed). The shoes was Converse All Star, and quite leathery was the jacket. Now one shoulder of this jacket was loudly dramatized with crow-black feathers. It was like the individual was trying to have one wing. A portion of the pallid, oval face was curtained by the dark hair, leaving only one of the big icy-blue eyes completely uncovered. The cheeks were full but the brows were so narrow and so sharply arched that though the face was cute, it also appeared cruel. It was pretty much an anime character.

The figure was towering, but it had such youth to it that Aubrey wasn’t sure if it was a girl or a young man. It could have been a boy—the chest seemed flat, and from the way it stood with its feet apart, hands to the side and slightly raised away from the hips, it appeared as if it wanted to be powerful, masculine. Yet it could easily just have been a girl. Its shape was straight but delicate enough, and even more delicate was the face, regardless of its diabolical display. Aubrey wasn’t sure either – well from the distance away it stood – that there was anything between its legs. The midnight hair blew in the wind, some swirling around its face. It flicked it away with a feminine twitch of its head and Aubrey thought she had come to a final conclusion, but then, in the most manly way its little mouth smirked.

Dan’s daughter didn’t mean to gawk rudely but she did. “What the...” She spun around and started to work the muscles in her legs hard. She saw she was going someplace entirely different to the correct course she was to take to make it back to Dan’s, but she wouldn’t stop. She felt it following her and heard a strong roar similar to the exact one of an elephant.

On an empty street, somewhere out of the downtown, her run turned into a jog and her jog turned into a panting walk. She held a sweaty palm to her chest. A burning pain was inside her. It felt as if she would go into cardiac arrest, but she couldn’t feel the hot iron pitchfork anymore. It was lifted from her. She viewed the areas behind her. It truly had disappeared. She saw no one. She stilled to cool down her lungs since it seemed she could now. She held her hips, breathing heavily. Her face looked funny. It looked as if she was stunned by a bright light. Whoever it was, he or she was gone but Aubrey was tired now, and lost. Where was she to go? She felt disoriented.

She was on a quiet road. Behind her were three alleys – the one she came from she didn’t even know – and to her left was a stunning pasture. She could see a catwalk beyond it. She’ll just have to crossover, and if she took a path pointing left, she suspected it will take her to Dan’s home. Dan’s home was somewhere behind her, she knew. She might only be getting herself more disoriented, but she didn’t want to take her chances turning back and running into that thing. She was too scared.

Aubrey started across the field. Visible to her eyes was a farmhouse: she might or might not be on private property. That jolted her to move faster, despite the exhaustion. As she entered the shaded catwalk at the end, a bit of tension flew away but a gust of air swept past her as if something fast had just galloped by. Moving and moving, her breathing once became difficult and she steadied and stared at the slim route ahead. It was sheltered by green, full-bodied trees on either side. The rest of the walk included doubtfully choosing turns to take and cringing whenever she stepped onto a poor snail’s shell. There was a time too that she allowed a caterpillar to crawl down her finger, but she wagged it off in fright when she remembered that someone once told her: “The hairy ones are poisonous.”

As if reaching heaven, Aubrey released a huge sigh of gratefulness. At the end of the walkway she saw a familiar street. She ran through the opening that was surrounded by pine trees. Succeeding a brief patch of grass, she landed on Crest Dale Avenue. Dan’s riverside home was just down the road. In her gladness about getting to it, Aubrey didn’t linger to glance even once at The House on The Hill.

She would feel safe once she was inside. Her old house, how more wonderful it was to her now. Yet walking up the steps towards the double door entrance, she knitted her brows as if something was disturbing. There was a small, black present box on the landing, wrapped in a red, coarse-textured ribbon that was made into a bow at the top. The box was flat and square. Slipped under the ribbon was a little note. Aubrey snatched the gift up. She read the note: I love you. But sometimes jealousy works magic, sorry. “Blair’s apology to Joanne,” assumed Aubrey. “Should I give her?” She shook and sniffed the box. No smell came through. Aubrey thought it could be a necklace or some earrings, or maybe even.... chocolate. In curiosity, she unraveled the ribbon and lifted the lid. There was a tray of four truffles! A cookies and cream truffle, a coconut and milk chocolate truffle, a dark fudge, mint and cinnamon truffle, and when Aubrey, who could no longer hold back from temptation, bit into one and red thick stuff started oozing down her chin, she realized there was even one with a cherry center! With the rest of the pellet in her mouth, she fixed everything back neatly but stuffed it into her cloth bag. She was keeping it. Joanne deserved better than Blair anyway, she thought, trying to lessen the guilt. Anyone could have seen she was up to no good by the way she discreetly opened the front door before soaring upstairs.

Closing the bedroom door behind her, she dropped the cloth bag to the ground. The last bit of the truffle’s chocolate melted on her tongue and she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nostrils. She felt the urge to do something. She couldn’t understand it though, for the feeling had just come on so unexpectedly and so strongly. It was familiar. She unpacked the heavy tea party textbook from the cloth bag, and with just the gift box in there, she escaped the room.

Just as Aubrey was about to down the claustrophobic stairs, something on the floor caught her attention: a magnifying glass on the landing. She picked it up and looked through. Everything was supersized: the scratch on her doorknob, the loopy patterns in the wood, the dust in the air and on the floor, the pimple on Joanne’s chin...

Aubrey embarrassedly placed the magnifying glass back on the floor where she found it, grinning dementedly at Joanne. Her step-sister wore the face of someone who had just smelt something foul. She walked past Aubrey to get down the staircase. Aubrey, still beaming stiffly, gave her turned back the V sign that she seemed to love. Peace.

In her black and brown dress and polished flats, Aubrey ran through the woods towards the stone bridge, and from the bridge she ran up the hill. In the gloomy ceiling room she got down on her hands and knees and started to maneuver herself as quietly as possible, looking through the spaces of the moldy boards to see if she could spot John-Luke anywhere. Under her, the wood moaned as if it would loosen. This was while she passed over the library again. It made her nauseous, but not hesitant. Something was pulling her. She reached the living room, and there he was again.

He sat lovely on the same sofa spot, drinking tea and reading a paperback novel, Marybeth on the floor, rubbing herself vigorously on his foot. Aubrey, again, looked with yearning at his face. His dark eyes went gliding over the pages, amazing her, delighting her with each move. He was dressier today in a suit and tie, but he still wore his studded lip piercing.

There was a squeak, and in came Theresa through the door with a dusty-orange Persian cat cradled like a baby in her arms. “Here she is,” she said looking sternly at John-Luke.

A tanned damsel with straight, very feathery and textured, snowy-blond hair entered the room after John-Luke’s mother. As soon as the newcomer saw John-Luke her drawn on eyebrows rose, creasing her forehead. “John-Luke Hayles...”

John-Luke took a quick sip of his tea before placing the cup down on the tiny table next to the couch. He got to his feet and beamed. “Oh it’s actually Everson now. Hello, princess.”

Aubrey’s heart burned as if matches had set it afire. It was all due to the mere fact that John-Luke Everson had acknowledged someone outside of Theresa, and it wasn’t her! If anything, she wanted John-Luke to be as reclusive as possible. She wanted him to stay here. She wanted him all for herself like a rare butterfly captured forever under glass.

“John-Luke Everson,” revised the young lady. “By the way, your house is amazing. I’ve always wondered what it would look like in here.”

“Thanks. Alicia Schaller, why don’t you have a seat,” John-Luke proffered, taking a seat around this table for two and gesturing towards the chair across from him. He was now sitting directly below Aubrey.

“What tea would you like, Miss?” asked Theresa hospitably.

“Ah… Green tea. Thanks, Theresa-a-ah... Mrs. Ms. Everson,” answered the young lady clumsily as she took her seat. She brushed hair out her face with two colorful acrylic fingernails. “How was your day?” she asked John-Luke, Theresa leaving. Her lips were the same glossless tone of the rest of her brown sugar cream face. They puckered as the honey-brown, green-flecked eyes above them locked into John-Luke’s. They seemed to grow bigger and bigger in her face like the ones of an anxious little kitten.

It was in a lifeless voice, but John-Luke answered her. “Okay… yours?”

“Okay…” She mimicked his dead tone, trying to get a laugh out of him, but John-Luke gave a face to show that maybe she did not humor him. She read the face and placed her paws underneath the table, moving uncomfortably in her seat.

“You’re so different,” said John-Luke, smirking.

“Oh thank you!” She was not quite sure what he meant or if it was good or bad, but she was so grateful to be in his company.

After gawking at her as if she had uttered something absurd, John-Luke said, “Who knows about this?”

The girl got serious then. Her expression changed from la-la-land to mobster business. “I swear nobody does. As excited as I was, I managed to keep my lips sealed, and I promise, no one will ever know. I’m just so happy to spend some time with you.”

“OK. Thank you.”

“John-Luke, what... what made you pluck me out of the flowerbed? You could have anybody.”

“Ah-ha! The flowerbed?! That’s cute. I’ve never heard it like that before. You’re so sweet. Thanks. But you could have anybody too. I’m no more special than you.”

Alicia giggled. “You say all the right things.”

“I try my best. But Alicia, I really meant what I said.” He folded his lips under to hide a smile as he studied the woman’s flattered expression.

Theresa came back with the cup of tea for Alicia, and a basket stacked with garlic cheese bread to put in the center of the table by a bowl of tomato sauce. As they ate and smiled occasionally at each other in between sips of tea and pinches of talk and bread, Aubrey went into her cloth bag and took out another truffle. Consuming it, she looked away glumly from the two below. She didn’t like the feeling she felt watching the woman there with him, and irritated, Aubrey actually left the house on the hill because of it.

“Aubrey!” cried Dan happily as she entered the riverside house through the green kitchen door. “How was your first day of class?”

Caught unprepared, Aubrey had to catch her breath before she enthused, “Hey Dan! It was okay.”

“Great. Well, I just have to go to a meeting. This is my good friend Bryan Row. You probably won’t recognize him but he was around when you were little.” Dan was currently on vacation but aside from self-employed businesses, he worked for the government. He specialized in accounting and economy analyzing. It was a lot but he loved it and even on vacation he was a workhorse.

A black man who was clearly older than Dan, had eyes set on Aubrey. She didn’t see him there at first. He almost blended into the kitchen. “Hello,” he said charmingly. Then he turned back to his friend and started to speak before Aubrey had an opportunity to respond. He had his birth name altered. He sounded Nigerian. “I just spoke with Victoria and her husband. They sound interested.”

“Okay, well let’s go. I’ll see you later, Aubrey.”

“Okay, sure... Bye.”

****

Aubrey sat in her room drinking hot cocoa that she made right there by the desk. She read quickly through a chapter of Everything Tea Party as she savored it. Before she knew it, the sky outside was darkening, the day turning into night. She called her grandparents and spoke to them at length. They were okay.

For dinner, Dan took her out alone to a Chinese buffet located downtown. Aubrey was delighted, thinking Mr. Golding was making strides to get to know her better. They sat around a small table eating, sushi, fried rice, steamed broccoli, lobster, and sweet-and-sour chicken. She questioned him about his work and Dan shared with her that apart from the work he always did with the government, he was a distributor for this multi-level marketing company that sold everything from distilled spirits and cosmetic products to organic herbal remedies, and even health improving corsets.

Their waiter, a short, skinny old Chinese man, came up to them grinning, his little eyes getting smaller. With a strident, overjoyed voice he quacked, “What can I get you guys to drink?!”

“Two Strawberry Daiquiris,” answered Dan. Aubrey had told him that it was her favorite cocktail after a Dirty Martini and he wanted to try it.

“You’re serious that you’ve never tried it?” said Aubrey.

“Never.”

Taking Aubrey and Dan’s attention away from the waiter was the appearance of a large cockroach, crawling on the wall behind him. When the little man saw the startled expressions on their faces, he turned around and swatted the insect dead with his bare hand middle. Then he swung back to face them, wiping the guts on his black trousers. He smiled merrily and exclaimed, “So two strawberry daiquiris?! Okay! On their way!” and strutted off, leaving Mr. Golding and his daughter frozen in horror, their mouths open as if they were trying to catch flies.

When dinner came to an end, with father and daughter praying for their health, Dan took Aubrey to a store to get a fresh Lolita for tomorrow. Then they drove home. Delaying in the driveway at the house, Dan put a white envelope in Lorissa’s hand. “There’s some money,” he said. “If it runs out, tell me. While you’re here you probably want to have some cash for yourself, huh?”

“Um, it’s o—”

“No, no, no. Don’t say anything.”

Aubrey felt something tender sprouting inside of her. “Thanks, Dad.”

Dan’s heart went numb. Dad? He wasn’t expecting that. In fact he truly didn’t want it. It only made the task that he had to complete even harder. But then again, he would never soften. It was either her or his life. And he had things left to do in this world.

****

Nature’s musical orchestra was playing again when Aubrey stood on the balcony meditating before she called it a day. It was only when she lay down that Golding remembered the stalker. With goose bumps creeping from her tailbone to the nape of her neck, she wondered if it was the thing she saw running alongside the train.

 

11

What lies beneath….

 

Tuesday…

Aubrey’s eyes were just about to open when she felt the presence of someone and went rigid, tightening them in their shut position. A voice spoke right into her ear, the warmth of the breath leaving its moisture. “Aubrey? Aubrey, can you hear me? Aubrey?”

Aubrey opened her eyes. “PING, GET AWAY!” she cried, sitting up and scanning around her with her shoulder rubbing the ear that had been spoken into. She slapped at that ear too. That mouth-to-ear sensation was so irritating, she could have pulled the ear right off. Ping, she gives so much trouble! But it didn’t make any sense. No one was there. It couldn’t have been a dream though. Aubrey was puzzled. She was certain she not only felt the breath, but she smelt it. Aubrey also heard, lucidly, Ping’s husky voice.

The young lady got out of bed and checked the door. It was locked! After a few minutes of deep thinking – sitting by the heating kettle, holding her head like a person in distress – Aubrey told herself it was simply one of those things. One of those... at the point of waking up dreams. Those types always felt more real. Sometimes you even wet the bed, dreaming that you’re swimming or something. Yes, that had happened to Aubrey before.

The kettle screamed.

Just like the old lady’s breath, the air was warm and moist outside. The dull sky foreshadowed rain—doughy banks of gray clouds moving by. Aubrey still found pleasure drinking her green tea on the balcony, listening to the organic classical music. She smiled, and completely forgot about the old woman. The crisp clean taste of the tea was just as soothing as outside itself.

Back in her room, now freshened and dressed, Aubrey grinned and twirled, looking at herself in the mirror. She loved her new Lolita. It was blue-based, and the veil from the mini top hat came down over her face just like she remembered Masuyo’s doing. She felt worthy of what she wasn’t quite sure, but worthy. Therefore, today Aubrey decided to wear the mascara and the dark-purple lipstick she got yesterday at the store with Dan. Strong-statement makeup was always a sign of her being in good spirits. Though she dreaded another day of feeling like an outcast in class, she was happy to have fun with her appearance. She was going to be walking again but she wore high heels. She looked at them in the mirror as she held out the sides of her dress like she was about to curtsy. Her face had broke out in acne but what use was there caring?

Coming out her room with the cloth bag over her shoulder, Aubrey lost balance over something and plummeted to the ground on her palms and knees. She straightened out, looking tetchily at the ground in front of her room door. There was a gray shadow there, or on a closer look, a book with a colorful cloth bookmark coming out of it. And not any usual book either. It was thick, leathery, and when she picked it up, she was shocked that it was also really heavy. The words on the tome were quite withered on its blotchy face, so she opened the book to see the title.

The Hidden Domain, by Ralph Barnes

Baffled as to what a book as such could be doing outside her door, she flipped to the first page and started to read.

 

Introduction

There is a place where there are gnomes, kappas, goblins, Ju Ju Whop Whops, trolls and other folklore creatures. You might not have recognized a few that were just mentioned if you are only familiar with certain mythologies. But for the creatures that you do know, most exist similarly to the way they have been described in main-world explanations. Only these things aren’t as nice and friendly like the ones we read or hear about in children’s tales, or even some meant for adults. If the truth be told, these creatures are actually wicked. There is no sweet little mermaid, or kind, loving fairy godmother. There is no faithful beast, ghost, witch or monster. But that’s what they want us to believe, don’t they? Places you soundly to sleep, doesn’t it? Now in this place I talk of, there are also demons. Not like vampires or mutant villains conjured up in comics. Demons. Real Demons that walk the grounds sucking the life out of the beings that The Creator had once blown breath into to make living (you might know who this is). There are Spirits within this world, just as bad. There are also man-sized frogs and pigs, and other such animals. They dress up and go to work, marry, have kids, and talk human language. They are amongst other ghoulish creatures in this place that are considered Monsters.

This place is remarkably multicultural and there are many languages spoken but it is generally bilingual (English and Japanese).—

 

And that is where Aubrey stopped. “I bet this is Ping’s,” she pronounced lowly to herself. “Just like that magnifying glass. She wants to annoy people, leaving her stuff scattered around.” Aubrey walked down the passageway and easily placed the book in front of Ping’s door. Forgetting it and its owner that she had correctly guessed, she made her way down the stairs.

After two of Barbara’s large blueberry pancakes, she went outside under the heavy, gray sky. She pranced fitly down the avenue, through the downtown, and was one of the first ones in class again. She didn’t mean to appear sprightly and elated but that tall, creepy person who followed after her the other day had crossed her mind. She just wanted to move down the streets and be indoors with a snap.

The lights were out inside the classroom and the curtains were drawn together. Scarce sunlight poured through their thick fabric. The class was extremely gloomy. The students all arrived questioning it just like Aubrey, and Sharon’s Lolita was still very short. Taylor sat on the ugly chair reserved for her around the boss’ desk, feeding Mr. Marley a grape. She was ready to get productive, even with her blazed, frantic eyes, but as for the teacher, she was not quite so ready. Madam Brown was gossiping on the classroom’s cordless phone in the storage room which was left ajar.

The pupils took the opportunity to socialize, some leaving from their seats to get to their friends. With her tablemates ignoring her again, Aubrey wished she had remembered to bring some chocolate with her. There was nothing to comfort her. She had to just watch in silence, the loud communications all around her, the laughs, the smiles, and hugs that it seemed she could never be a part of. Compassion was such a natural and recyclable resource yet her portion was always scant.

When Madam noticed the chaos, she ended her conversation swiftly and made her way out the closet. “Hello! Hello! Everyone back to their seats and shut it please!”

People began settling down. The room was near silent when Casey Palmer, a blond-haired nerdy boy who wasn’t paying attention, continued to speak out loud to the people around his table, “—and I can’t believe Jamie showed me her cabbage!”

Every head turned, amused, in his direction.

Madam Brown, with a shocked expression on her face cried out, “Boy, what on earth are you yapping about?!”

Seeing he was the center of attention, the boy took the opportunity to try and act clever, smiled at the teacher, and opened his mouth to talk proudly, though unfortunately for the lad, the message just didn’t come out right. “I was just telling these people how it’s important to eat your greens, Miss.”

Everyone but Madam erupted with laughter. Even Aubrey and Taylor, and soon the boy caught on, the proud smirk disappearing from his face. He clapped his hands over his mouth, turning a high pink hue.

Madam Brown was speechless and did not know how to react. When she recomposed herself she smoothed out her skirt needlessly and said, “Okay, now I would appreciate some light, Taylor. Today you guys will be learning the tea party dance. “Taylor? Lights please...”

“Madam... I’m afraid the lights are... Out?” struggled Taylor.

“Commonsense please, commonsense,” said Madam pointing to the heavy drapes covering the windows.

“Oh!” Taylor bounded to the curtains. She started to tug on them from one side to the other. It all was so plenty and heavy that she had trouble finding the separation. Though when she found it, she would have been better off still lost, because she pulled on that fabric end so hard that the already strained bars that held the whole thing up broke away from their support. With a suspicious ruckus, Taylor was on the floor covered with curtains, fighting to get free from under them like a clumsy, scrappy little kitten.

“Very well, very well,” said Madam sarcastically, giving Taylor’s moving figure – the poor girl still trying to find her way out – the I want to hurt you stare. She did a single clap with her hands, holding them there. “Well, at least we have some light!”

Madam asked that everyone help to squeeze the tables and chairs to the back of the room, so that they could have some space for the tea party dance lesson. When all was done, Madam Brown’s lashes went into a fit of blinking. “Okay, I will be teaching you the Grishamm tea party dance. Make sure you have enough space to at least stretch one of your arms out to the side without touching anybody. You will need to focus. I only have time to take serious questions at the end so really try to concentrate.”

The students had to place out both hands in front of them at one point as if they were dancing with someone. Aubrey – though she felt silly with her hands extended before her, and was stumbling over her own feet trying to keep up with Madam – was glad they learnt this way. At least she wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment that no one wanted to be her dance partner now that they had invisible ones.

When the dance was over the tables and chairs were immediately put back in place. Madam smiled stiffly, “Very good,” she lied. “Are there any questions?” After tending to the raised hands, going through some moves again to answer the questions, Madam told everyone to take notes, and went with the cordless phone back into the closet.

The students all started to talk to each other again, this time quietly, and with just the people around their tables. They did not want to see what happens when Madam Brown got upset twice in one day. Aubrey, still left out, tried to think about something that she could smile at, squeezing her cloth bag like a teddy bear, wishing the class was over. That’s when she felt the present box inside, and remembered that it was still in the bag, with a truffle she had saved. Without fully taking the box out of the bag she opened it and saw the cookies and cream truffle. It was one of her favorite flavors of chocolate, so she had saved it for last. She placed it into her mouth quickly with glee. The long-faced girl, the shadow-shaved head guy, and the girl with the curly chestnut-colored hair, all glanced at her through the corners of their eyes. But Golding was so caught up with the taste and feel of the chocolate that she couldn’t have cared less.

Then suddenly all she could think of was John-Luke, and without thinking she blurted out, “Does anyone know about John-Luke Everson?”

Her tablemates turned a critical eye upon her. “Who doesn’t?” asked the curly-haired girl rhetorically.

“The girls in this town are secretly obsessed with him,” whispered the guy, trying to tenderize their approach.

The whole room went still and quiet. Everyone thought they heard the name John-Luke Everson said out loud. This bleached-hair girl, sitting at the front on the other side of the room, loudly whispered to Aubrey. “Did you just say John-Luke Everson? Because...., wow...”

“I’m Romaine Douglass by the way,” said shadow-shave boy, trying to change the topic.

“Oh, I’m Erika Sullivan,” said the curly-haired girl.

“Umm… yeah, I think she already knows our names from the attendance..,” started the long-faced blonde. “But don’t leave me out. I’m Agnes Baranski. It’s Aubrey, right?”

Now that the chocolate had melted away in her mouth, Aubrey wondered why she had spoken. Wasn’t there supposed to be some connection with the brain and the tongue, some kind of signal? But either way, she nodded “Mmmhmm...,” agreeing with Agnes about her name, and then added, “Golding.”

Her tablemates chuckled.

The class looked back and forth from the outspoken blonde to Aubrey’s table, speechlessly. The girls in the room were uncomfortable. They were caught between intense excitement at the sound of John-Luke’s name and fear of what might happen if they mentioned it in public. It was taboo to talk about John-Luke or Theresa so openly. People in the town believed the mother and son were tainted with evil even though they felt certain that the pair never committed the family massacre. There was just something about the way they looked, the way they isolated themselves, and the fact that they were even associated with the mass murdered family and their killer, that was very eerie. Grishammers are skeptics but also very superstitious. So if you were a Grishammer you would feel to keep quiet whenever you heard their names in public, unless you were brave and didn’t care, or off your knockers like the fair-headed girl. Danielle Shapiro sank somewhat in her seat, regretting having spoken.

The ice started to break however, and Sharon Martin, who was always confident in any case, took advantage of the moment. “John-Luke is not human,” she said, throwing her long mulatto hair over her shoulders, almost like she was fanning herself. “He’s simply... too gorgeous. I think he’s a vampire.” People laughed, and though there were many cases of immense anxiety, soon just about everyone in the classroom was talking about John-Luke Everson.

One girl said: “My friend and I went up to him one day. My friend told him he was so beautiful. I tried to tell her not to but she did. Anyways, he just smiled and walked away. Yeah..., I think he’s nice-looking, but he’s so cold and strange.”

“Strangely too sexy,” countered another.

“His impeccable looks overshadow his oddness,” added Sharon Martin.

“I’d let him chop my head off if he wanted to,” sang Danielle Shapiro in support.

“He can bite my neck any day!” cried someone else.

Finally the jealous, strongly heterosexual boys – because there were some who would surely turn the other way for him – couldn’t take it anymore. Instead of continuing to grimace and make comments amongst each other, they joined the open conversation.

“He’s a murderer!”

“He’s gay; give it up girls!”

“He’s a freak!”

“A bastard!”

“That John-Luke is a fruit!” exclaimed a black young man sitting near Sharon. It was Kyle Gordon—the boy who barred Agnes from Martin’s seat on the first day of class.

“No he is not! And hey, those words are derogatory!” cried Agnes who frequently tried to get Kyle’s attention. Then somehow she thought it was a good idea to get up and walk all the way over to his table to smack him on the back of the head saying, “Shut up, Kyle Gordon!”

Everyone laughed, but Kyle and Agnes who stood in front of him, trying to look superior.

Sharon decided to side with Agnes. “Be careful, Kyle. Guys, be nice. You might offend someone. And I hear of stories where men would go to woo him all the time, but he’s not interested in them.”

“Well then, he’s not interested in anyone,” said Kyle, still rubbing his head. He smirked at Agnes. “Your chances just went further down Baranski, because you could have at least made a gender change, seeing you’re that taken by John-Luke. It would have been a great look for you, with that cucumber head you have.”

Many of the students gasped. Sharon and Aubrey included. Some snickered, but most just watched, waiting to see what would happen next. What would the girl say to defend herself? Turns out: nothing! Agnes, who couldn’t believe the rudeness and embarrassment sent upon her, went back wordlessly to her seat in shame, and what no one knew, a broken heart. She wanted to say she wasn’t desperate for John-Luke, she wanted to defend her looks, tell Kyle how disappointed she was with him, but she physically couldn’t say a word. As the class continued to debate and speculate on John-Luke, Aubrey felt kind of giddy inside. All this commotion, it was her doing. Then she saw what no one else saw, as everyone was too busy with voicing their opinion on John-Luke. Madam Brown was at the front waving her hands in the air with rage. It wasn’t until Taylor tripped over her own two feet, flew into the teacher’s desk, pushing the thing which made this awful screeching sound when it dragged across the floor, that people noticed Madam at the front. Everyone instantly fell silent.

“TAYLOR!”

The clumsy woman, holding her aching abdomen that caught the table edge, and luckily not the pointed corner, looked up from her belly towards Madam in bright apprehension.

Madam giggled. “Are you okay? That was the first productive thing you’ve done all morning.” Surprisingly her voice was calm, but when she turned to the pupils, it was a whole different story. “Talking and talking. Do you guys even have any idea what time it is? You guys were supposed to be out of here twenty minutes ago! Go! Go before I say something I don’t want to!”

Everyone exited the room as fast as they could. Madam went to release some steam in the storage, taking out a bag of potato chips from a box. Taylor followed her to see if there was any snack she could get, and to see what she could do. Madam looked like she might not stand to teach another day. About to run off, Romaine smacked Aubrey’s shoulder playfully, saying, “Your fault!”

“Hey!” laughed Aubrey.

“I saw you walking the other day. Would you like a ride?”

Aubrey, taken by surprise said a quick, “Oh it’s okay,” that she certainly did not mean.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright... See you tomorrow.”

“Bye...”

Aubrey stood painfully in silence, wondering if she should run to tell Romaine that she changed her mind. After all, there was a possibility of her being followed again, or something much worse. What if this time the stalker caught up to her? Aubrey hadn’t even been doing her exercises, so she wasn’t too confident in her stamina. Her throat grew dry. She wished she had a cellular phone to call Dan. She didn’t bring any change with her so she couldn’t use the payphones and she didn’t have the guts to ask someone for fifty cents. It did occur to her that maybe she could just buy something to get some change but didn’t plan to act upon it.

She was just about to leave with these two other slow folks, the only ones left in classroom apart from her, when they all stopped and gasped. Beside the desk, on the ground was the rat cage, turned over on its side, wood shavings all over the place. But more importantly, Mr. Marley, Madam’s dear pet, had taken a fall. He looked perfectly fine, biting a cage wire, but surely Madam would still—

Madam re-emerged from the closet, crunching a dill pickle chip with her teeth.

The three girls made a run for it.

“TAYLOR!!!!!!!”

 

Walking home, Aubrey thought about John-Luke and how he was with that girl. She wondered if she was really feeling jealous. It was incredible—after all the hours and minutes that had passed since she last went down the well, she still couldn’t rid that nagging feeling she felt when she saw John-Luke with that young snowy-blond lady. Jealousy couldn’t feel like this, could it? But this was ridiculous. If she was jealous it would mean she had feelings for him, and that would be just like saying pigs can fly. She was sure that after Zane, she could never like anyone remotely like that ever again. She didn’t even know John-Luke enough. She just could not like John-Luke. No, not possible. Nope. But somewhere deep down Aubrey know herself enough to realize she was wrong. For whenever she started rambling on about something in her head this way she was more than likely to be making up stories, inventing defence mechanisms. Soon enough, Aubrey thought maybe one day pigs will really grow feathery wings and take off into the sky, never to become barbeque ribs again. She at last admitted to herself that she did indeed fancy John-Luke, and no, she didn’t want to be his friend, she wanted more than that.

Suddenly she felt lonely beyond the general concept of loneliness. It was a soul, searching for another. It then occurred to her the many couples around, passing her on the sidewalk where they walked hand in hand, or dining or shopping together in the buildings. Trying to not let it affect her, Aubrey started to ramble on again, but aloud. “Their happiness—it’s all a delusion. You can’t be so happy with another human being. Just like the tree outside or the shoes on your feet—it might all just be an illusion. Like that man over there. He forks some food and places it to the lady’s mouth romantically. Sure they look happy, but behind closed doors he might be beating the crap out of her. Maybe that’s why she wears such a heavy choker necklace—to hide the bruises. The talking, the laughing, the eye contact, the smiles—it’s all just a beautiful painting made to fool you. I’m not missing out. It’s fake.” Aubrey walked satisfied for some time, until she realized, “Or maybe I long for it all to be, as I may never be painted in that beautiful picture...”

She speed-walked, hoping to spot somewhere she could get chocolate, shaking and bursting out in perspiration. She needed chocolate and she needed it right then. As if it could get any worse, she got horribly distracted at the sight beyond a show window. There was a couple kissing over two steaming cups. At their table for two, they couldn’t notice anything but each other. They couldn’t notice that their hot cocoa was getting cold, that a half a foot away some creepy girl was watching them through the window. Both of the creepy girl’s hands were pressed up against the glass, a tear rolling down her cheek, mascara leaving its dark inky trail. Aubrey was so saturated in distraught, that she didn’t remember how to feel embarrassed, even when she saw her reflection, even when passersby glanced at her like she was the a runaway from a psych ward. Her face now had three black streaks, and she had to sniffle because her nose started to tickle and run. She pulled a napkin from her bag, used it, and continued walking.

There was a convenience store. Aubrey went in eagerly. Inside she lagged to take a deep breath and blink for a moment before she grabbed up a plastic shopping basket. She briskly walked towards the shelves. Looking like a woman on a mission, Aubrey whispered to herself as she moved by shelf after shelf. “Chocolates, chocolates, where are you chocolates...” Three shelves down she found them. Tossing nearly any kind of chocolate she saw into her bin, she appeared as if she were in a race to see who could collect the most chocolates and the ref had just blown the start whistle. She didn’t even notice the curious eyes of two other customers or the store clerk craning his neck to watch her. In the end she had enough chocolate to last her three months..., well if she wasn’t a chocolate addict. “Fifty-seven dollars and ninety-two cents,” said the clerk after scanning everything. Aubrey, who couldn’t believe it, looked towards the machine.

$57.92

After a moment of silence, Aubrey went into her cloth bag for the envelope of money, took out the needed bills, and handed them to the guy.

Eating a large Cadbury Fruit & Nut, she made her way home with her cloth bag blown up and rounded with the plastic bag full of just-bought treats. She ate the chocolate really fast. Then she took out another of the same type. She didn’t need to enjoy them as she needed them for medication. She was finishing the last square when she exchanged a far glance with the house on the hill. It felt like it was looking down at her. She looked at it numbly, the candy wrapper slipping out of her hold and getting caught in the wind.

She moved onward. Going up the front steps of Dan’s house, in her attempt to not crush something there, she narrowly lost her balance. But she prevailed. And oh was she happy. She saw it was another gift box with a note. The box was black with a blood-colored band, just like the last one. Licking some chocolate residue from the corner of her lip, she claimed the box and read the note.

I’ll try once more, sorry.

Aubrey giggled. Pfft. Did Blair honestly think he could win Joanne back if he kept on sending her gifts? Again Aubrey giggled.

Upon shaking the box, she realized that it was probably chocolates again. She still had a bitter heart for Joanne, plus it was chocolate, so she placed it in her cloth bag before she swung one of the doors. “Welcome home, Aubrey,” said Barbara, finishing down the bending steps. Balancing steadily in each hand was an empty teacup on its matching saucer.

Golding didn’t notice that she got the woman’s name wrong when she nervously gushed, “Barbra!”

“How did class go?”

“Just fine…”

“That’s a full bag you got there on you.”

“Yeah…”

Without one more word, Aubrey mounted the stairs, leaving a suspicious Barbara at the bottom with the empty teacups. For some time Barbara just listened to Aubrey’s hurried footsteps fading, until she remembered she was heading to the kitchen to place the things in her hands in the dishwasher and start lunch. “Oh!” she gasped, and began crossing the lobby.

In her room Aubrey remembered how lovely the truffles were the last time and wondered if Blair had bought those exact ones again for Joanne. If they were the same, she couldn’t wait to get her hands on them. So she placed the bag on the bed and took out the gift box, loosening the ribbon instantly. The gift inside was the same as the one before. In less than no time she munched away all four truffles while sitting on her bed. She felt much better now than she did walking home, astonishingly so, as if the healing powers of these particular chocolates were much stronger than the Cadbury. She unearthed the empty box of yesterday’s truffles from the cloth bag, gathered it with the new box, and threw them both – with their notes tucked inside – under the bed. She then got to moving down the main stairs and headed dreamily through the green kitchen door. She felt, once again, to do something.

On the wooden bridge, Joanne and her friends Rochelle and Natalie looked over the edge at their reflections, talking. The three girls all wore lightly colored, frilly Lolita outfits, and each held a fragile parasol—for more of an accessory than a necessity; the sun wasn’t awful. When Aubrey surpassed them, bound for the dirt pathway, all three heads budged to look curiously underneath their umbrellas. “Aubrey...,” cooed Rochelle. However, Miss Golding didn’t so much as blink their way. She was on a mission and completely detached from anything outside of it. Blankly, she just stared straight ahead, her feet moving rapidly underneath her.

On the journey, Aubrey saw three reindeers. They were siblings; they all looked young. While the two bigger ones were alert and staring at Aubrey from deep within the bushes, their little sister just paid attention to her snack, trying to pull some scrubby grass from the dirt. It warmed Aubrey’s heart so much that she halted just to look. However, the protective stance of the brothers made her nervous and she soon moved on.

Utah, America (the last stop outside of Aubrey…..)

* * *

Utah, America

The band of pretend Mormons and pretend Jehovah witnesses scattered, going in pairs to people’s doors. They needed to spread the message. The horn pattern is here. And it’s hunting at an alarming rate. They had to warn people, but as secretly as possible. Determination, commitment, and fear were carved on their faces as they walked about the streets. Evil does not ignore those who try to interfere with it. “We need to protect the children,” preached the young white man to the first individual he and his partner, Gerry, went to that day. They were formally dressed, making the dark Afro-American woman self-conscious in her worn nightgown, with her hair in disarray, and her girls hanging low due to a nonexistent bra. They sat with her at the kitchen table, their King James version Bible opened up beside a plate her fried dumplings. “The devil could be anyone you know,” continued the young man. “His followers can be found amongst our neighbours, our teachers, our doctors, our government, the people we think we know.”

“What is this horn pattern foolishness you talk of?” said the lady, not buying what they were selling.

The young man stared into her eyes. “You will find out.”

His friend Gerry chimed in to help him, speaking as if he was on stage at a pageant. “Horn Pattern. A noun. Horn Pattern: The demonic interference with an animal or a human being that either ends with a life and/or soul stolen, or that creature being suctioned to the hidden domain.

“What in God’s name!” The woman jumped up off her seat and lifted her hands. “Get the hell out of my house!”

 

* * *

Staring at the rear of the house from the stone bridge, Aubrey wasn’t quite sure why she wanted to do this another time, but eventually she allowed her feet to carry her off again towards the dark, old and spooky building, that was rotten with a horrible past, filled with the ashes of the dead. Aubrey didn’t think of any of these details though as she slipped through the black, metallic fence, nor did she think there was something wrong with the way Marybeth looked at her through a second floor window, then disappeared. Because she didn’t see the cat. Aubrey couldn’t regard a thing; she was set on heading down that well to see John-Luke again. Lost in her daze she could hardly see clearly as she made her way down the rusty old ladder. And when she entered the hallway of ashes and portraits, her vision was completely blurred over by the thoughts of her keen intention. Yet she went smoothly down the passageway and pulled the string for the rope ladder, moving out of the way just in time for it to fall and smack the ground instead of her. Sooner than expected, she saw that she was crawling in the decaying ceiling room. She rolled upon the library and then progressed to the living room.

As if he was waiting on her arrival to appear, John-Luke brought himself inside the room just then. His dark-brown hair must had been wet because it flipped out defiantly just past his ear. He wore skinny black jeans, a powder blue, pinstriped dress shirt and frosty-white suspenders that sparkled. He was so polished, so scrubbed, he glowed. He sat around the same table he did yesterday with Alicia Schaller, tapping his fingers on the top as he stared hollowly at the chair across from him. Aubrey smiled and made a cheek squish against the timber to look through a fissure. She couldn’t believe how much commotion a person who didn’t even socialize with many people could cause. And she couldn’t believe that she was actually there again, just a few feet away from that very person.

Gorgeous, wild-eyed Theresa opened the door. She held it open for a dark-skinned girl who had fluffy hair caught in one to the back of her head. Smiling mischievously at John-Luke who mirrored the expression, Theresa exited the room, closing the door slowly. Her wild dark eyes glimmered like marbles when they revolve under light before she disappeared completely. She was gone but she left her haunting behind and Aubrey trembled.

“Belinda William!” started John-Luke most theatrically. “You look so beautiful! Nice to see you! Come and have a seat!” It all sounded phony.

The girl wore a pale-rose Lolita outfit with ivy finishes. Her dark eyes glowed and her face lit up widely with teeth. “Thank you. You look as you usually do, which is stunning.” Still grinning, she took her seat gracefully with effort under the nerves. After a content sigh, she spoke. “John-Luke... Why did you want me here with you today?”

“I could... show you... if you be patient. You just arrived.” There was an haughty air in the way he spoke, like he was looking down over his nose. Like he was far better than everyone.

“I know. Sorry, I just... I-I didn’t expect – ever – to be on a date with John-Luke Everson. Do you know there are girls who would die to take my place?”

John-Luke crooked his lip at Belinda before glancing away as he said, “Yeah, I know a few…” He laughed. He obviously was not kidding. Both Belinda and Aubrey shivered at the sound of his arrogant laughter. And when he placed his eyes back squarely on Belinda, they shivered once more.

“John-Luke…,” said Belinda in an uncomfortable, whining tone, as if he was doing something to her with just his stare.

John-Luke raised his eyebrows a quarter of an inch to respond.

Aubrey blinked.

It wasn’t too original, or in her nature but Belinda whispered, “It’s like you’re looking right through me...,” her eyes flickering as if she was fighting back an awful wave of sleepiness.

“Gosh, get a hold of yourself,” demanded the boy.

Belinda dithered and tittered. She went back to normal, getting level-headed as he had suggested, but the chagrin forced her eyes to her lap where she fiddled edgily with the flap of her shimmering ivy clutch. The door squeaked and there was Theresa coming in with two steaming plates of pasta on a gilded tray. She placed a plate and a napkin that wrapped a fork and knife like a burrito in front of Belinda, then did the same for her son. With that through, she aimed at Belinda, her manner forthcoming. “What would you like to drink? Tea..., wine..., sparkling water, champ—?”

“Oh the sparkling water, thank you,” said Belinda.

“I would like the same as my date here,” said John-Luke, and Theresa nodded delightfully, too delightfully in fact, and disappeared.

Belinda looked at her plate. “Yummy,” she said playfully.

John-Luke chuckled synthetically and fork-stabbed his heap of noodles dressed in lobster sauce and melted cheddar.

Belinda touched a noodle onto her tongue precisely, hoping to seem lady-like.

John-Luke wedged his utensil of thickly gathered noodles into his mouth and chewed away without the slightest restrain or tact.

The door swung open again and Theresa carried in two large wine glasses of cold, clear, bubbly liquid, the glasses covered with tiny round droplets of condensation. After administering the drinks, Theresa gave life to the electric piano in the corner. Voiceless music, complex and romantic, filled the air as she showed herself the door. Merrily the guest absorbed her sparkling water, lending a narrow-eyed suggestive look to her companion. John-Luke reciprocated, stuffing his mouth with some more food, flirting with his eyes. He giggled. “Would it be strange if we dance?”

“Right now?” asked the girl, resting her purse on the table.

“Okay.” John-Luke swallowed some of his drink. He stood and took Belinda’s hand, ushering her closer to the piano. He embraced her. He spun her around and drew her close. He dipped her, Belinda doing something that sounded like a scream and a laugh all in one. They started to move bit by bit, John-Luke whispering so low into Belinda’s ear, that Golding couldn’t hear a thing. But she could definitely feel something—the sting of jealousy in her core! It wasn’t until Belinda gave John-Luke a “MUAH” on the cheek that Aubrey just couldn’t take anymore. She quaked in sadness. Stumbling down the hill, nearly falling, she spoke firmly to herself. “I’m never going back.”

She made it to Dan’s bridge. The girls were gone. Back in the house, she dawdled on the second floor. She decided to give it a look around. There were three different bedrooms that belonged to the maids, two bathrooms, a humble cinema, and a workout division. For some eccentric reason, in a hallway was a line of maid portraits on the wall. Aubrey snorted. In each picture the subject wore Lolita and was sitting down outside on a tree stump. There was Harleen—vertebrae straight and face deadpan, Barbara—body a bit to the side, mouth wearing a subtle smile, and Stephanie— beaming as though she had just won something with her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Then there was a young Hispanic woman with flowing, undulant brown hair and a beautiful dimple-revealing grin. Aubrey peered at the picture, whispering to herself, “This must be Sylvia…”

Harleen appeared by Aubrey with a small, tied plastic bag. She opened her mouth, leaving it open blankly for some time as she traced the design in the wallpaper with her eyes and index finger. Then at last she said, “Yeah, that’s Sylvia Hurtado... Didn’t have a chance, poor girl... Stephanie’s next.” She got going, leaving Aubrey dazed.

Aubrey rambled on, going nowhere in particular. Then there was Barbara. Peeping through the woman’s cracked door, Aubrey saw her sitting stretched on her bed while lost in a book. Aubrey knew there was something bothering her why she stared at the housekeeper so, but it didn’t clear itself up to her yet. She was speechless until Barbara’s questioning blue eyes met her confounded ones and she felt she had no choice but to open her mouth, regardless of what might come out. “Oh. Ah. Barbra.”

“Aubrey! There you are! Can I help you?” Barbara reluctantly sat the book on the lamp table and shifted to sit with her legs hanging off the bed.

The nineteen-year-old realized now what she wanted to say. The thing was, she didn’t know how to say it. “Um...”

Barbara blinked impatiently.

Aubrey stood there looking dumb.

Barbara smiled faintly, fueling inside about the wasted time.

Aubrey swallowed. “Can I come in?” Maybe this was a good way to broach the subject. Have it be like a little girl talk.

Barbara’s face fought to continue being pleasant as it said, “Certainly. Come sit. Let’s talk.” Why did Aubrey have to come and disturb her now? Louis was just about to make love to Helena, she just knew it! Barbara copped a wistful look at the paperback before swinging a bright false smile to the girl who was now sitting nervously beside her. Barbara spanked her own lap and said, “So....” It was a sweeter way of saying chop-chop!

“I know it’s none of my business, but why does Ping hate Stephanie so much?”

Barbara stirred a bit. “Ping.... tends to.... make up these scenarios in her head... like Stephanie is somehow trying to steal Dan away from Grace, which is ridiculous.” Barbara chuckled. “The girl is flirtatious but she doesn’t mean anything, especially when she knows Grace would kick her butt straight out the front door.”

Aubrey couldn’t completely agree with Barbara on that. She looked down and said, “Oh...” She remembered the incident in the library when Stephanie rubbed Dan’s shoulders and tried to charm him. It was evident that Barbara was right about her being flirtatious, though Aubrey wasn’t quite sure if Grace has this power to fire Stephanie. As far as she could tell, her father would have been fine with Stephanie all over him if it weren’t for her sitting there while it was happening. Stephanie must certainly be a treat for him that he wouldn’t want Grace interfering with.

Aubrey was sort of correct in her thinking. Grace had seen her fair share of Dan and Stephanie acting like two teenagers in a park, and has sensed some infidelity coming on. But she didn’t dare mention it. Maybe if she just denied it all, she could still hold on to her ego. Plus she is very square and in truth she’d rather have Dan be spontaneous with Stephanie than with her, even though it bruised her heart. She had the power to do whatever she wanted around the house and with regards to the housekeepers but she didn’t have any strength to bring herself to admit her third husband was yet another straying spouse. When she got defensive with the first two it oozed its way to hostility, tiptoed towards more dishonesty, leaped to aggression, and then ended, splat out on the floor, in divorce. And now a rigid woman in her forties, Grace didn’t feel for husband-hunting anymore.

“That’s pretty much it...,” said Barbara, regarding her half-truth answer.

“Totally...” Aubrey nodded. Facade, facade…

Barbara iced over with thoughts...

“Well, nice talking to you Barbra,” said Aubrey. She smiled, got up and swiftly headed out the door.

Barbara’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t believe me?” she said under her breath. “And it’s Bar-BA-ra for heaven’s sake! Oh! Louis and Helena! Ah-ha-ha-ha!”

Aubrey got inside her room. She released a restless breath of air as she wondered what she should do next. She leafed through the tea party textbook. Her back to the headboard, she read three chapters in between eating homemade chicken sub sandwiches and drinking ice tea, all delivered to her by Stephanie. Dan came to the door to see if she was okay. “Yes; just studying,” she said with a morsel of resentment. Then Barbara, sent by Dan, invited her down for an early meal with the rest of the house before dinner, but she said: “Still full of subs.”

At something to four, she got bored of her location and planned to drop two floors to read one more chapter. She stepped from her doorway into the hall. Intense chatter passed through Joanne’s door. “We have to call everyone,” said Joanne’s voice. “I wish Natalie was still here!”

“Girl time!” cried a voice that sounded like it belonged to Rochelle.

“She could help.”

“What do you mean? I could help.”

“I know! You are! But you’re like me. Since she loves doing them, Natalie is the best at phone invites. I hate doing them. You wanna do them?”

“It’s your house,” replied Rochelle fast to excuse her way out the task.

“You suck.”

“I love you too. What time do you think Natalie is coming back?”

“Like the same time when everyone is supposed to be here, invited already. Whatever—I’m doing it then...”

On the ground floor, Aubrey went through the glass double door to the head living room—the place she had met those two blabbers upstairs. Instead of sitting around the coffee table, she sat on a chair at the small dining table that was located in the far side of the room with this cabinet storing chinaware. Her eyes kept on slipping up to a wall clock – whose ticking annoyed and distracted her – while she tried to read. At one point, going in tune with the annoying ticking were these footfalls, sounding like a bunch of sharp heels approaching. The French window opened up and in came Grace with two other women following behind her, reminding Aubrey of the tale where there was a stick, a bird, and a hog, or perhaps she just made up that tale when she placed eyes upon the three. The women sat around the coffee table. The petite one with red hair – who seemed very familiar to Aubrey – fanned her face with a Japanese folding fan—her face that looked much like a bird’s, with these small razor-sharp eyes for spotting prey and this large aquiline nose for a beak. Aubrey squinted. Where have she seen her before?

“Goodness, sometimes I miss winter!” said the woman. “It looks like it’s about to rain, but it’s as hot as a sauna.

“Stephanie?!” called Grace.

Stephanie appeared in an instant, both hands modestly cupped in front of her.

“Can you turn on the fan?” ordered Grace.

Stephanie went to the wall near the doors and flicked up a switch. Suddenly, a gigantic wooden thing overhead that looked like a bed-sized flower, started spinning. Aubrey expected it to start jerking and making noises, and possibly fall off onto someone’s head, but it spun smoothly.

“That’s better now,” said the bird-faced woman, closing her fan and tucking it into her suede handbag.

“The weather is funny now-a-days,” said the heavyset one. “Just the other day I had the fireplace on.”

“Us too!” voiced Grace. “It felt like a cool spring. At least now summer is acting like summer. But ladies, it’s four o’clock so you know what that means!”

All raved, “Teatime!” Before Stephanie could escape, Grace lifted her arrogant bony fingers. “Stephanie, three sencha cherry rose please, biscuits and jam.”

The round woman rocked coyly, saying to Grace, “And do you have any more of those cookies from the last time? The ones with the white chocolate and the nuts..?”

“Oh and some macadamia cookies for Lady Amber,” Grace finished, looking at Stephanie.

Some color came into Amber’s cheeks. She wondered why Grace had to say her name in the request.

“What about that diet you said you were on?” asked the other woman.

“Oh Fareyn, come on, give me some slack here. My daughter watches me like a hawk in the house. This is my only chance for a treat.”

Fareyn Babbi narrowed her eyes, saying, “Hmm...,” looking much like the hawk Amber Sousa was talking about.

In no time Stephanie returned with a tray of all Grace had requested. Turning her eyes back to the book, Aubrey found it hard to concentrate on reading there in the corner, near women sipping tea and babbling on about anything. Who wouldn’t have? Soon all she wanted to do was eavesdrop anyway. Pretending to read, hiding her face in the pages, Aubrey chuckled under her breath whenever they said something ridiculous—which was quite often. Not noticing she was there, it seemed all these women talked about was other women. Oh she doesn’t have this, and oh she needs to stop that, and have you seen the way her husband treats her. Different women, different problems; it appeared as though the three were the luckiest women in all Grishamm. They laughed at the misfortune of others, heartlessly, or maybe just to fend off their own secret hurting—a common trait of the miserable. With a raised brow Aubrey wondered why Grace didn’t talk about her own husband not being interested in her anymore instead of Marcia Walker’s awful makeup at the dinner the three attended last week.

Still listening and chuckling, Aubrey was beginning to get rather comfortable and wished she could get some popcorn for the show. But she was taken out of that spirit when Fareyn said, “I was with my niece, April, coming back from Toronto the other day, when I saw this odd person, dressed in those awful trendy clothes with her hair all stringy and tangled up like those troublesome weeds—the ones that give people difficulty rooting out of their gardens. What you call them, dandelions?”

Aubrey could not move. What she wanted to really do was cover her face with the book. Grace looked her way. “I know what you mean,” she said darkly with a suggestion of laughter. “Some people think they are flowers, but I think they are just plain old weeds. Simple.”

“...and I thought to myself,” continued Fareyn, “where does this person think she’s going!? Definitely NOT Grishamm.”

Grace, who was still looking at Aubrey, caught her friends’ attention and they followed her gaze to see what she was so distracted by. Aubrey promptly acted as if she was reading all along. She heard Fareyn gasp. “And isn’t that?—Oh dear...

Not able to handle another second of the awkwardness, Aubrey picked up the book and shot out the living room. Grace, who knew she was there from start to finish, smiled. The woman was looking for a way to get more privacy for her girlfriends and her, and Fareyn unknowingly did all the dirty work. “That’s okay,” Grace guaranteed the redhead, sencha cherry rose to the mouth.

Outside her bedroom door, Aubrey could hear the laughter of girls from Joanne’s place. She must have never noticed earlier when another one of her stepsister’s friends entered the house, for now she was sure that there was an extra girl. It was Rochelle, Joanne, and someone else. She hid herself in her room before they came out and saw her there. If she listened hard enough, she could hear them relocating to the attic. Shortly, there was the melody of the doorbell, and the following commotion indicated that the threesome were leaving the attic, passing her room, and going downstairs.

Before long, Golding’s room door opened evenly. The girl looked nosily towards the entryway beside Joanne’s door. The Attic. Impulsively, lost in the vastness of her curiosity, she was going up the steps. It was much narrower than the claustrophobic one and much darker too. At the top, she pushed a little square surface. It flipped open.

She poked her head through. She was looking into a room that was crowded with comforters, air mattresses, pillows, sleeping bags, unopened bags of chips, containers of candy, and a large, lidded cooler. Aubrey couldn’t see but the cooler was filled with ice and cans of cream soda. The girls were preparing for a sleepover—a slumber party. Aubrey got fully inside the attic. She picked up a sealed plastic bowl of opaque half pink, half blue, mildly sour gummy worms. She smelled the container, closing her eyes to enjoy the sugary smell of the candy, which was her favorite after chocolate. But it still wasn’t anything comparable to chocolate and she placed it down and went to look over a bunch of DVDs scattered on the floor in front of a large television set. There was a whole bunch of romantic comedies, each a synonym of the other.

Aubrey noticed a window and bounded to it. Her suspicions were correct. The window looked out to the bridge. It was Joanne or Rochelle - most likely Joanne - that she saw looking out through the window at her on her first night back in Grishamm. Aubrey remembered the fabrics floating down the river and shook her head in disgust.

Then it occurred to Aubrey that something was wrong. Footfalls were present on the stairs to the attic.

That couldn’t be good.

What would Joanne think if she found her up there? Knowing that time was of the essence, without hesitating Aubrey ran to the paneled sliding closet, opened it, dashed inside, and slid the door as quietly as she could. She could see through the shutters. The trapdoor was open; Joanne, Rochelle, Shelby, Patricia, and Natalie, along with two other girls, came out of it in that order, like groundhogs out of a hole. They were clad in pyjamas of various soft colors, like baby blue, pig pink, and pastel yellow. Joanne had on boxer shorts and a cap sleeve shirt. During some brief conversations, Aubrey learned that the two unfamiliar girls were Sandeep Mahil and Marietta Guiao.

The cell phone in Joanne’s hand started to play its ringtone. “It’s Sharon,” said Joanne, looking at the screen. Her girlfriends all eyed her and each other pryingly. Aubrey, in the closet, observed them deep in thought as she remembered the Sharon she knew of in her Everything Tea Party class. Could it be that Sharon?

After the third ring Joanne answered, “Hello?” The girls fell silent, listening eagerly to the fuzzy, whispery sounds coming from the phone at Joanne’s ear. They couldn’t hear one word clearly. “Yeah, it’s....,” said Joanne. “Just-ah.... just bring yourself and a toothbrush. The sleeping things, movies, and food are all here. Most of the girls are already here...” Joanne waited for Sharon to finish yapping before she spoke again. “It’s Natalie Greene, Rochelle Kunt, Shelby Lamb, Patricia Ryan, Sandeep Mahil, Marietta Guiao... ...Cecelia McAllister and Olivia Smallridge are supposed to show..., oh and Sa— pardon? Yes, Marietta is here...”

Marietta’s waxed eyebrows came together bitterly. Perra!

“Yeah. Okay, see you soon. Bye, Sharon.” Joanne pressed the “off” button on the phone and let out the breath that she had been holding in since the girl called.

“What did she say about me?” tested Marietta.

“Nothing, just she didn’t sound too happy about you being here.”

“Why are you even friends with her? She’s such a bitch. You shouldn’t have invited her,” Marietta whined. Pudrete en el infierno, Puta!

“I know. She even talks badly about you,” added Shelby to Joanne, her plucked brows raised high in her forehead.

“She talks about everybody,” snapped Joanne. “Who doesn’t?” She dropped her gaze to the floor, wishing she didn’t mention that last part. The eyes of all the ladies squirmed around at each other. “If she tries anything smart, I’m not afraid to kick her out,” continued Joanne, trying to sound tough. “It’s my house.” She shrugged her shoulders carelessly but recoiled inside. She knew her friends were seeing right through her. She was a glasshouse. She knew they saw that Sharon intimidated her, and that still she really wanted her to come just so she would feel cool; maybe some of Sharon’s coolness would rub off on her.

“Or we can just do something to her while she’s sleeping,” giggled Patricia. Everyone joined in. As they all went on about Sharon, her annoying laugh, the way she walks, and what she does with boys, all Aubrey could think of besides yep, it’s definitely the Sharon from class, was when she would get a chance to escape the confinement. Not only was she in a small, stuffy closet, but she was stuck with a bunch of damsels who had a mean side. Aubrey was sure she felt as though a hare would feel, hiding away from a pack of hyenas. It evoked painful memories of high school.

There was a shout of: “Girls, the pizza!” at the attic door.

Joanne jogged over to hold it open as Rochelle came to her aid and took two large flat square boxes, one on top of the other, from Barbara’s hands. “Thanks Barbs!” said Joanne. “Let’s wait for the others to come before we start eating,” she suggested while taking the boxes from Rochelle. She carried them some way then bent to place them on her air mattress.

The girls each found a spot where they would sleep and relaxed, chatting, nibbling chips and candy, and sipping from soda cans as if they were cups of tea, Aubrey growing more scared and irritated as each second passed. “So how are things with you and Blair?” asked Sandeep, smiling sympathetically at Joanne.

“He still isn’t talking to me...,” said Joanne collectedly. “I think we’re really done. I swear..., when I find out who this girl is that’s involved with him behind my back, I’m going to make her want to catch the next train out of Grishamm.”

Aubrey looked at Shelby to see if she would flinch but the girl remained perfectly calm and dynamically said, “Let’s all sneak over to John-Luke Everson’s house tonight and like ring the doorbell.” She felt comfortable talking about the guy with her close friends, or maybe, like Aubrey thought, she was just aiming to change the subject.

“I bet Sharon would love to do that,” said Joanne, bouncing her immaculate brows up and down at Rochelle.

“Me too!” exclaimed Natalie. “Imagine if he answers?! But we have to watch out for his creepy mother-slash-maid, Theresa.”

“I know!” burst Joanne. “And I swear she’s like a witch or something. She never ages. She’s so beautiful.”

“I know!” cried Marietta. “She probably has a cauldron stirring up over there, but I wouldn’t mind being friends with her! Maybe she can maintain our youth too!”

“She’s...,” uttered Rochelle insecurely. “Do you think she and John-Luke...?”

“You’re so gross, Rochelle Kunt!” screamed Joanne. “Shut up!” She did a dramatic shiver.

“Well she’s the only girl he seems to spend most of his time with,” said Shelby. “And she’s hot. You never know these days...” The girl covered her mouth, grinning.

“Oh is it true that Sharon got her Grand Hall Tea Party permit taken away?” asked Sandeep.

Patricia nodded enthusiastically.

“Oh-my-God!” started Joanne. “Did she?! We’re so lucky that my mom can always get us in. How long ago was this? No wonder she asked me if my mom could possibly squeeze in another person. I never knew who she was talking about so I told her no. Does that mean she’s retaking the course then?!” Joanne was ecstatic at any calamity Sharon had to endure; she was so jealous of that girl. Even if she had known that it was Sharon, in fact, who needed to be squeezed in, she would have still said no.

“She has to take the course again if she wants to go to the tea party this year,” informed Patricia. “But you should know all about that. Your mom’s on the committee.”

“Maybe she’s in this week’s class with my evil stepsister.”

“How did she get the permit taken away?” asked Shelby.

“She was found intoxicated with boys near the tuck shop by Madam Andrews going to get a box of milk,” explained Patricia lavishly. They all couldn’t help but laugh at that.

“Hello everyone!” exploded Sharon, popping out unexpectedly from the ground. It was the Sharon that Aubrey anticipated. Sharon Martin.

“Sharon!” cried everyone separately but almost synchronically. They cried her name with fishy theatrical glee, but she didn’t suspect a thing. Most were happy to see her in fact, but considering they were just badmouthing her, it was sort of an awkward situation.

“Oh, I still have my toothbrush!” yapped Sharon, holding up a teeth scrubber in its red sanitary case. “Ha-ha. I forgot to put it in the bathroom on my way here!” She disappeared.

Marietta grimaced.

During the seconds it took for Sharon to place her toothbrush on the bathroom counter and come back, the girls whispered fervently to each other and so quietly that not even Aubrey in the closet could hear. When Sharon returned the room went so mute that she tensed in distrust, walking to the free sleeping bag near Shelby. All the inflatable beds were taken. She shook her hair over her shoulders, pursed her lips, and squatted to a cross-legged form. “So, are there any males coming?” she asked, penetrating the silence with unforced audacity.

“No, there are no males coming,” replied Joanne amusedly. “But we could sneak to John-Luke’s.”

Sharon snorted but with a poker-face. Then she went on talking about all sorts of things relating to boys and female enemies, and it seemed, though she was easy to insult when she wasn’t around, when she was around no one could take their respectful eyes off of her. There were always two or more people to add on to everything she said, and she was never disagreed with, everyone wanting to get a chance to speak to the queen. And any joke she made, even if it was as dry as asphalt outside when it doesn’t rain, everyone erupted with laughter—yes, Joanne too, but it came at a cost...

Joanne would suck up to Sharon like the other girls, but there was an unmistakable tension between them. The glances they exchanged—it was almost like a silent war between them was going on. And it was to see who could get the most attention from the group. It was easy to say that Sharon was winning at the moment, just like most of the other times. Sharon and Joanne – as even Aubrey supposed by just watching the group of ladies talk – were the two alpha females within their peers. The rest were just minions, peasants under their authority. The two had more in common than anyone else, yet it was this very fact that stirred conflict. Their similarity posed too much of a threat to each other, causing rivalry when all they truly wanted to be was each other’s genuine friend, Joanne even more so however. Everyone knew Sharon was the stronger, more influential one.

After awhile, Aubrey who sought for an escape wasn’t really paying much attention to the girls. But she knew three others – dressed also in pyjamas - found their way into the attic, making Joanne ejaculate, “Everyone is here!” It frightened Aubrey more, knowing the room was even more filled with them (the hyenas) now. Frustrated, she sank to her buttocks, her knees bent and right under her chin. She bowed her head and hoped that they all find something to do outside the attic soon before she died of boredom or hunger or fixation. Medieval torture.

The girls chitchatted, gossiped meanly about others, and talked egotistically about their own personal lives. It was so cliché, and Aubrey who had eavesdropped on Grace and her friends earlier, had enough for one day. The only things that provoked her to look up from the dull floor between her legs were the words: “Undies time!” which she heard someone jollily proclaim. What did that mean? Through the panels she saw the girls shedding to their fruity-colored bras and panties. They proceeded with overdone exchanges of compliments on each other’s lingerie—through routine.

Aubrey cursed the second she thought it was a good idea to hide inside the wretched closet. She felt so silly. She reflected. It would have been better for her to just accept the judgment of the few girls finding her in the attic, than the judgment of a big group of them finding her hiding in the closet while they were nearly naked. She was now extremely adamant about keeping quiet. Too bad she saw a centipede crawling on the wall centimeters from her face, making her cower right into a box. Rochelle wanted everyone’s undivided attention. “Shh!” she said, holding her paws out to the sides.

“What?” asked Sharon whose conversation was interrupted.

Aubrey held her breath, covering her mouth with both palms.

“Didn’t you all hear that?” queried Rochelle.

“What?” asked Joanne passionately.

Terrorized, Aubrey saw through the slits, one of Rochelle’s hands go up and curl into a fist, the index finger pointing directly towards her behind the closet.

Everyone became uneasy and stared at the storage. “Stop it!” cried Sharon.

“Guys, my house is completely pest free,” Joanne stated, getting to her feet and rolling her eyeballs peevishly. She was about to make her way to the closet in her purple and yellow underwear when one of the latecomers, a sandy-haired gal with aquamarine and clementine color on her eyelids, said, “Wait...” in such a way that made her reconsider her plan of action and pivot. It was Olivia Smallridge. “You could let it out!” she warned.

“Something probably just fell,” assured Joanne. She sighed and turned back to face the closet again. She dragged the door sideways....

A moment later, every single girl’s face in the attic was distorted with fear and they were all screaming at the top of their lungs—even Aubrey.

So lightheaded, Aubrey at first saw a flock of floating black spots, and when they cleared, many mystified faces, including Joanne’s, though her face was mixed with anger. And it didn’t help that Grace’s daughter’s face was closer too, even though she had jumped back a distance in her fright. “Hi. Sorry,” simpered Aubrey.

“Okay, I’m not even going to ask you why you’re in the closet,” said Joanne steadily as she looked at the ceiling, not knowing how to react.

“Is that Aubrey Golding in the closet?” queried Sharon in shock and amusement. “I had no idea you guys knew each other. Hey Aubrey, you scared us!”

“Yeah, she’s my stepsister,” grieved Joanne. “She’s here for the week.”

Aubrey felt as if her whole body had morphed into stone. All she could do was look up at Joanne with big, scared eyes like a cornered mouse.

“What, were you in there the whole time?” sought Joanne.

Wetness came to Aubrey’s eyes. “I...”

“How did she get in here? I didn’t see her get in here,” ranted Marietta, sounding spooked out. Almost everybody started to exude similar things—everyone but an Joanne (who just stood there looking down at Aubrey), Sharon and one other.

“Did you want to join us?” Sharon insinuated.

“Are you serious?” griped Joanne’s resentful lips. “This Peeping Tom is getting out of here so quick.”

Aubrey wanted to defend herself but her lips couldn’t move this time. She felt that the closet and stupid Undies Time had framed her as a pervert for sure, and that there was just no way out but the door. Drowning in shame, she awkwardly got to her feet, aiming to make her exit. She couldn’t wait to get out. She couldn’t wait to confide in her pillow, and to never see these people again. Yet before she knew it, she was solid, looking dreamily into the center of the underwear collage. She was staring at a pale wrist, jeweled with a sapphire bangle—the same one she had seen on the girl who was with Blair Riley on the stone bridge. Miss Golding’s mouth opened in awe, and her eyes trickled up the girl’s body like a meandering droplet rewinding its slow, staggering movement down a wall. She saw an ivory stomach and then bouncy, dark-brown locks coming down over a bosom propped high in a green and pink brassiere. Finally she was looking into these big eyes, the color of autumn leaves, neither green nor brown nor gold, but all three, a vibrant hazel.....

The brunette glanced down at her bracelet; the place where she saw the strange girl first stare. When she returned her eyes to Aubrey, she placed a finger gently to her lips as if to say: shhh... There were two possible reasons for the demand of silence, Aubrey knew. It was either she didn’t want Aubrey to let everyone know that it was she who was with Blair, or she didn’t want anyone to know she used to be best friends with Aubrey, the creep, the Peeping Tom. The girl put down her finger, but continued to stare back at Golding.

“EWW! Aubrey, why are you looking at her like that?!” stormed Joanne. “Honestly, just leave!” Everyone, but the two girls who were lost in wonder, chuckled uneasily. Aubrey, coming to her senses, looked away to finish parting with the attic, Samantha Bacherman still staring after her.

Aubrey felt like her insides were twisting and knotting together. Walking cheerlessly to meet her room, she heard a sudden click! She lagged to cast over her shoulder, hoping it was her used-to-be friend. “I’ve got it!” Harleen shouted from the contradicting side. It was the happiest Aubrey had ever seen the woman, and so she watched her intently. Harleen flew past her and went to the corner on the left side of Joanne’s room door, and with a gloved hand, picked up a small instrument. In her passing, Aubrey nearly vomited, for what was in Harleen’s hand was a rattrap with its prey freshly and perfectly killed by the snapping down of its neck. The long tail dangled in the air as the housekeeper walked along. Aubrey thought she saw it even move on its own once. She cringed and vanished eagerly into her room.

Aubrey snatched the plastic bag of chocolate she bought and sank backwards onto the bed. Lying there, she ate bar after bar robotically, peeling off the wrappers as if they were banana skin. Erelong, she was called down for the day’s final meal. She ate dinner quietly with Dan and his wife—Dan wondering why she wasn’t upstairs with the other girls, eating pizza and having fun. Then she went to brush her teeth, floss, and have a shower.

Rinsing the foam from her body, she heard the sound of thunder, or as she used to think—God playing his drums. So far the day’s events had left her feeling empty and yet heavy with sadness, so much so that for the time being, she didn’t care about anything anymore. That’s why when this unusual idea popped in her head, Aubrey went for it. The feet with the polka dotted toes, the polish now fading, stepped dripping wet out of the shower and made their way over the cool ceramic surface of the bathroom. They tiptoed across the floorboard of the bedroom, and then went over the threshold of the French window, onto the balcony.

It was lackluster outside like a large room with one small window, the air still warm and moist. Aubrey looked up to the dull, gray sky that seemed as sad as she was.

The drums stopped.

It went dead silent.

The world was lifeless, and for a moment it was as though not even a blade of grass yielded to the wind. The young woman’s tired eyes reflected the ominous mass of clouds that they were locked to. Through the vast stillness, she felt something coming, and saw a single, translucent teardrop reaching down towards her from the firmament. It fell with a splash on her face and stimulated the flesh there. Suddenly, many of its kind came crashing down, the largest teardrops Aubrey had ever seen. It took whatever remaining bath foam from her body, but most importantly, it washed off a layer of despondency. With a slight smile, her eyes closed and her arms opened wide, Aubrey embraced the shower. Then, like a loud cymbal had been hit, lightning struck, electrocuting the sky, and great thunders rolled, tumbling over each other again and again. Aubrey screamed, running back inside, her naked butt in tow.

She toweled and blow-dried. She dressed in tights and nightshirt. The leaden, humid day fell into a chilly, dark rainy night.

Aubrey found it hard to sleep. She had just so much on her mind. What she thought of gave her enormous anxiety. She thought of her future, her happiness, the course, the upcoming tea party, Dan, Grace, Joanne, Samantha, her grandparents, and once again her future... Miserable, she turned over and over on the bed, trying to sink into peaceful numbness, the place where she didn’t care about anything—a mentality of whatever happens, happens. But Insomnia, the Grim Reaper of sleep wasn’t going to let up so easily. Aubrey finally realized that she had only one hope of sleeping—reading while munching on a chocolate bar.

She got up and enveloped herself in a sheet from the bed. She claimed the cordless, vintage alarm clock that sat on her side table. It was set for 5:30 a.m. She fished three Kit Kats from her bag of chocolates. As furtively as she could, she slithered through the sleeping house to the library. The library was dark and as muted as the rest of the house. But when she turned on the lights, the books came to life. After she chose one (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) she moved – hearing thunder and the steady fall of rain – between the large shelves. She went beyond seats, searching for the perfect spot where she could read, eat her candy bars, and hopefully get some shuteye.

Far in the library, in an aisle created by two shelves, there was a large armchair that could be reclined. Beside it was an oil lamp on a small, round oak table. Aubrey perched her alarm clock beside the lamp and eased onto the chair. From where she sat she could see a lofty, dark window in the wall to her right. It was uncovered unlike the rest of windows. Cutting her reading, Aubrey stared through the rain spattered pane, at the blackness underneath the moon—a white-gray circle of light. She wished she could pull down the screen that was rolled up like a scroll at the top. It would require the hooking stick, but who knew where the maids hid it? Aubrey knew how clearly someone was able to see you at night through a bare window if you had your light on, and how much harder it was to see them. This bothered her. Should she go through the trouble of finding another perfect spot to sit?

Aubrey didn’t know of this as she was so deep into the gigantic room, but someone swung the library door—Harleen. The housekeeper pressed down the light switches, believing she had forgotten about them earlier. Her actions caused the library to go completely dark, but for the area where Aubrey sat near the exposed window. It was still dark but moonlight made its way through the glass, highlighting the spots it touched. Miss Golding jumped, thinking the power had just gone off. Her heart raced frightfully at the irony of it happening when she decided to come down to the library alone. Slowly, she sat back into her chair, unthinkingly reopening Haddon’s book and stuffing the last of the chocolate bars into her mouth. Her body was trying to calm itself.

When she settled, she saw that the moonlight casted perfectly over the bared pages. She could continue reading if she’d like without even making use of the lamp. And now that the light overhead was off, she was able to better see outside and saw the piece of the garden lining the house there amongst the darkness. She read and read. Eventually the words started to blur and her eyelids began to feel heavy, as if she had taken another shot of that whisky in Dan’s kitchen. Her head tilted to one side. She was satisfied. This was just as she had planned. She brought the open book to her chest, feeling her hands slide down until they and the novel sat on her lap. Shortly afterwards her eyes closed, she saw black, and her consciousness slipped away.

The rain ended.

An unusually cold wind swooped by the riverside home.

 

Aubrey didn’t know what time it was. She didn’t try looking at the clock—she didn’t think of that. She just focused on the uncovered window, still showing that it was night. How long had she been down for? Maybe it was ten minutes, or an hour, she didn’t know, nor did she know the reason why she had awoken.

There came a tap.

Aubrey adjusted her slumped posture. She continued to peer out the window, only this time with wide, scared eyes. It was one of those moments you always imagined happening to you, but never really believed it would. It was one of those moments of such intense horror, that it seemed strange that you weren’t in a movie theatre, watching it happen to an actor rather than having to actually deal with it yourself. So frightening, it was almost impossible that Aubrey could see a pale hand tap one of its long, glittery-black fingernails against the pane, and then disappear behind the wall.

Aubrey was unable to breathe, much less logically think. Holding on tightly to the book in her lap, she glinted from the dark library premises around her to the window repetitively, trying to think of what she should do. Then in one of her glances back to the window, she nearly screamed. She could see black feathers and straight black strands of hair floating up from behind the wall mystically in the night breeze. Then, all of a sudden, whatever it was, was peeping out from behind the barrier with its frosty eyes staring straight at her. Not knowing what to do, Aubrey stared back, the frigid eyes seeming to look directly into her soul. It felt so deadly to stay put, yet Aubrey found it difficult to look away. She clenched her damp palms around the edges of the hardback.

At last, her will turned into action and she denied the creature’s eyes and sprang to her feet. She squeezed the book into her chest as the blanket around her made its way to the floor. About to scoot, she saw through her peripheral vision that the thing used the wall to conceal itself again. It was timely to run now, but the fact that whatever-it-was was lurking craftily somewhere, more than likely thinking of her and perhaps making a plan of attack, created a solid statue out of Aubrey. All she could do was look in panic to the obscurity surrounding her.

But.... it reappeared. It was now glaring at her with menacing, beautiful eyes. Aubrey was sure she saw it out the corner of an eye and looked directly at the window, but It hid swiftly again, fooling her.

But then she shrieked.

Outside the glass its tall, slender body appeared wholly, midnight hair curtaining the face, hiding partially one cool-blue eye. Gathered black feathers cascaded from one shoulder of the very long, high-black latex jacket that looked like a narrow gown the way it was zipped all the way up from the bottom. Apart from the feathery burst on one side, a rounded, hard surface helmeted the shoulders like bulletproof exterior pads. Fear rendered Aubrey’s feet immobile and useless. One icy eye hid and reappeared behind the black corn-silk-hair that came weakly to life in the wind. It was the person who stalked her on the streets, Aubrey knew it. It was closer to her now than it was then, but the lack of distance didn’t solve the mystery of its gender despite all the effeminate attributes. It was one way with its undefined figure, its pouty lips, and its fleshy cheeks, but the other with its steeliness, its dominating posture, and the cuts of the outfit.

That didn’t matter now anyway. Aubrey’s mouth unfastened because in a flash one of its feet, clad in a crisp, studded, chained and buckled black high-heeled boot, was inside on the sill as if the rain-washed pane wasn’t really there, but just a misconception. Aubrey mumbled something nonsensical like, “Humbla bubblela,” struggling for oxygen with the book now crushed harder into her chest. She retracted and stumbled back onto the lounger. Of all forms of breaking-and-entering, this was the least expected.

With its entire body now contained by the library, the creature’s once sprouting smirk fell drastically into a glare of abomination. Aubrey gripped the chair’s wings as she inched up on her tippy toes, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time falling to the floor. It stalked towards her, taking its time with a haunting flow of movement. It held up an arm and dropped it smoothly. The girl sank, melting into her seat as if she had been manipulated. It came directly in front of her, closer than an arm’s length away. Aubrey’s throat tightened and tears streamed down from her unblinking eyes. The creature, with its androgynous beauty, was so seamless that it appeared to be a digital creation. Lightly, as if it was a puppet piece delicately pulled by string, a fair hand rose up once more. On one of the fingers, Aubrey saw a peculiar ring. The face of the ring was long, iron-silver, and was a one-dimensional, blunt diamond shape, coming up almost to the fingernail and going as low as beyond the knuckle. Welded in were snakes snarled with vines, except in the center. In the center there was a star made of two triangles—one upside down and fixed into the other so that the star was also seven shapes—a hexagon with six baby triangles around it. Each shape was a cut of black diamond which reflected the moonlight. In a way the sallow light liquefied it, giving Aubrey the impression that she was peering deeply into the ocean under a starry sky.

The hand finally did what it meant to do in its rising; it held her face, the creature arching above her, midnight hair slipping over its white face, but scattered enough so that both big blue eyes were fairly visible. The creature’s hair, Aubrey saw it was much longer at the back, something she didn’t realize initially. And what she felt when its hand touched her is almost indescribable—like a wave of tranquility had just floated from it into her though she was more afraid than ever, gaping into the mesmerizing face. It was the feeling of accepting death. Once you’ve accepted death, there’s really nothing left to fear. Aubrey smiled softly, and blinked away a tear that fell sluggishly from the outer corner of her left eye. Her face in its possession, its frosty eyes studied her. Then abruptly they widened, the same time its lips parted, as if it had been stabbed in the back with a dagger. Terrorizing Dan’s daughter to pieces, the pupils in the giant ice-blue eyes grew smaller then left their round shape and formed into a sharp line. It was the eyes of a serpent. The creature lowered more to a ferociously neurotic Aubrey, a hand travelling to her neck, the skin on its face becoming more visibly flawless. She noticed the balminess of its palm, the aroma of its breath, like vodka, fresh tomatoes, and ice. And its mouth went by her neck, right under the ear, tickling the skin there in its process of breathing. And in the end it spoke. It spoke, it did, but in a voice that made Blair, Romaine, John-Luke, and Kyle Gordon all sound like twelve-year-old girls. “Do you want to experience the best feeling in this world?” it said. “It will only cost you one thing.”

12

The third girl….

 

Wednesday...

Aubrey disabled the ringing alarm clock that was vibrating so hard, it nearly tottered from the lamp table. She considered what happened last night a dream as she looked out the bare library window and saw the young day. She was glad night was over, stretched and yawned, and forced herself out of the makeshift bed. When it spoke to her, it sounded male. She took that as a sign that maybe it was. But then again, how could she know for certain? It was still only a dream. The odd thing was, the dream was fiercely vivid. Nothing like it had ever visited her unconscious mind while she slept before.

Aubrey stiffened—a voice came from someplace.

“For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death! James one, ver—”

Forgetting Haddon’s hardback, the vintage clock, the Kit Kat wrappers, and the bedspread, Aubrey spanked to the exit. Damn that granny! The library literally spat her out.

She used the bathroom linked to her bedroom, prepared for the day, and enjoyed a bowl of Lucky Charms. After, it was outside time. “Geez, what a realistic dream,” she reflected, walking down the road. “I even imagined what he or she looks like up close, though I only ever saw it from afar.” The fresh air seeped through her willing nostrils. When she came to the building for class, she was actually disappointed that she would be parted from Mother Nature.

Aubrey drew attention immediately when she simply opened the rat hook door. How delicious, it wasn’t just the usual glances someone would get when they entered a room. What was this? Was she, Aubrey Golding, making friends? The John-Luke conversation the other day had really planted the seed.

“Hey Aubrey!” shouted Erika.

“Aubrey!” followed Agnes

“Golding!” finished Romaine.

Aubrey sat down on her seat around the square table, smiled and waved bashfully to her tablemates. A three-tiered cake with colorful fondant baked up inside her; it felt like the first time she was genuinely appreciated by peers since ten thousand B.C. She simmered down, however, when she saw Sharon – her Lolita still short – entering the classroom. The girl looked sympathetically her way, saying, “I would have given you a lift,” while she made music with a small set of keys on a ring.

Aubrey smiled, not knowing what better to do. She was embarrassed that Sharon should even see her. She must think so little of her after last night.

“You talk to her?” asked Agnes incredulously when Sharon was gone to her seat.

“She was at my stepsister’s slumber party last night,” replied Aubrey.

“And who is that?” said Romaine, looking as interested as a gossiping girl.

“Joanne Hami—.”

“I knew it!” cried Erika. “From I heard “Golding”, I knew it! You’re Mr. Golding’s real daughter. Wow. I had a feeling.”

“Joanne Hamilton is your step-sister?” said Romaine. “My prayer is with you.” He was shaking his head gently and trying not to burst out with laughter regardless of the pity in his eyes. Agnes seemed to have seconded that but in a more reserved way, eyeing the table as if someone had just died.

“Guys, it’s not that bad,” said Aubrey. And when she saw the questioning faces of her tablemates, she confessed, “Okay, she’s not so nice.”

“She’s no good,” said Agnes disgustedly. “She thinks she’s so desirable.” Agnes rolled her eyes acidly. She didn’t explain that most of this deep-seated dislike for Joanne stemmed from Joanne dating her darling Kyle Gordon once upon a time, and this other boy, Peru. “I like her mom’s clothing though,” she added colorfully. But then it took a dark turn: “Though I can see she’s the reason her daughter is such a cartoon character. The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.”

“In looks it did,” imposed Romaine. Aubrey didn’t argue against that. Joanne was breathtaking.

“Today we will talk about tea party dress code!” announced Madam, leaving the closet. “When the Grand Hall Tea Party first began it was all about the Sweet Lolita. Now there are still young ladies that will only wear that, but tea party fashion in Grishamm has evolved and it’s about the flashiness of your Lolita now rather than the style; the flashier, the better.” Madam went on to the anatomy of a Lolita, the invention, the history, while people started to take notes. Then she discussed the accessories. “Girls, you must bring an accessory to the tea party, whether it is a purse, a doll, a teddy bear, a beautiful teacup of your own, some flowers, or a quilt!” When you thought she was finished, Madam still yapped on and on about different things relating to tea party dress code. On and on.

On and on.

BING... Taylor pulled the metallic rodent cage door open. She didn’t really like rats, but Madam asked her to look after it while she was teaching and she guessed letting it out for a pet once in a while was a part of that job.

The nonstop talking made Madam’s mouth dry. She took a break from her lecture and went to look for something on her desk. Whatever it was wasn’t in sight. “Taylor,” she said, “could you go out to the car and get my water bottle?” She sighed. “The ice must be all melted by now.”

“Huh?” was Taylor’s response as she took her eyes away from the rat in her hands. In that very moment, Mr. Marley bit into one of her fingers. “YOW!” Taylor blared, letting go of the rat that fell to the floor on its back. It scrambled to its feet, alarmed, and ran off impulsively into the classroom.

Tiny high-pitched sounds (coming from both males and females) scattered across the span of the classroom. Mixed in were the noises of furniture being jerked as some people jumped onto their seats, though most, like Aubrey, just lifted their feet. “How dare you!” Madam squalled at Taylor as she watched her little monster go. Then she insisted on slandering Taylor with, “You animal killer!” Subsequent, she and Taylor bustled about frantically trying to catch Mr. Marley.

****

Erika rubbed tightly beside Aubrey on everybody’s way down the narrow hallway after class. “Hey, Aubrey, would you like to go out for brunch with us tomorrow? Romaine will take us right after class.”

Golding fixed to hold back the feeling of gladness from emerging on her face. “Okay,” she said coolly.

She would have said yes this time, but since Romaine Douglass didn’t directly offer again, Aubrey allowed Erika to move beyond her. Her tablemates, all loaded in Douglass’s car, watched at a complete loss as the girl walked by the vehicle. Romaine’s mouth opened. “Should I have spelled it out for her?”

****

“Large double-double,” responded Aubrey to the Mediterranean-looking cashier girl at this coffee shop. Placing the money into the girl’s hands, Aubrey couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. Back home she was always with Roman and Candice whenever she went for coffee. Homesickness buttered her with its chilly paste.

She went to sit around a table by the show window. She enjoyed the coffee, looking outside at the livening downtown. There was a candy store down the road. She thought of it. She wouldn’t buy chocolate as she already had enough of that, but did those gummy worms she saw yesterday at the slumber party ever made her feel for some colorful rubbery little things, or maybe those hard ones. When there was nothing left to swallow, Aubrey threw the paper cup in the waste bin and made her way outside the café.

She pushed open the glass door of the candy store. Inside was an edible rainbow. There were many tall rows of very bright colorful items with cartoony pictures of unnaturally colored animals or insects on the packages. There were also large glass scoop-up-yourself centers, lined together—a sugar buffet, the perfect place to start growing a rotten tooth. Aubrey scooped up a bag of worms, a bag of sour gumballs, and one of some hard, chewy keys. She sealed them with the provided twist-ties. Turning merrily into an aisle to see what next she could find, Aubrey saw a dangling gummy worm slowly being lowered into a mouth. It was It, lofty and slight, wearing shady colors as it always did – an opened chinchilla-collared, cable-knit jacket and skinny jeans – and it looked at her amusedly from the corner of its frosty eyes as it finished dropping the candy into its mouth. Aubrey disappeared about that same time....

....Golding spoke to herself as she speed-walked down the big passageway made by a row of shelves on either side. She was aiming for the cash registering center ahead. Just get in line, she thought. It won’t be able to do anything. I’m safe.

She was nearing a short line when she was restrained. A pallid hand wrapped tightly around her wrist. Gravity snitched the bags of candy from her clutch. Without a word, Aubrey struggled to get free, not noticing the ring. Finally she got away, but in that very instant, friction found itself between the skin of her wrist and one of the creature’s long, sharp fingernails, causing a pale line to form across her forearm the same time there was a disturbing sound of something tearing. It took its chilling eyes from the girl running off, (nearly bumping into someone and twisting her ankle) and looked in horror at its culprit hand. Its little mouth fell open.

There were onlookers as the girl ran amok down the sidewalks of the quiet, early downtown. Aubrey moaned, squeezing her scratched limb, warm blood now seeping through the cut, but she never stopped running. Thanks to the adrenalin, she didn’t rest until she was near her street. Finally in the riverside house, miss Golding leaned against the mirrored coat closet at the door. She closed her eyes and started to pant, holding onto her hurt arm as she melted down to the floor. Sitting on her butt, with her eyes tightly shut and her hands now covering her face, she sobbed, “I have to leave this town... I have to leave this town...” After she let out a big wail, Aubrey impulsively removed her hands from her face and opened her eyes wide, falling quiet. She recalled seeing yet another present box on the front steps!

Reopening the front door, Aubrey didn’t see the crowd forming behind her when she bent to pick up the box, but she heard and sensed it. She placed the box into her cloth bag that was still over her shoulders before straightening and turning around. She tried to appear casual though her face was damp and her eyes were wet and –now– guilty.

There was Barbara and Stephanie, just beyond the closet, then Joanne, Rochelle, Patricia and Shelby, who were still in their pyjamas, huddled on the steps near the bottom of the great stairway. While everyone wore a concerned expression, Joanne’s face was brimming with something else, something much stronger—she had made an accusation.

And the interrogation began:

“What happened!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Aubrey!”

Everyone was talking at the same time and Aubrey was so distracted that she didn’t have a clue of who spoke what, but said, “Nothing, I’m okay.” She zoomed up stairs past the girls with her tear-streaked, but happy face. She was happy about the new present box of course.

Just about the same time she entered her room, closing the door behind her, Samantha Bacherman came out of the bathroom and looked from left to right before sneakily heading to the attic with one eye blinking rapidly—a nerve or habitual problem. No one, not even her, really knew what it was.

Aubrey sat on her bed and before taking out the present box from the cloth bag like she so urgently wanted to, she stared at the phone, wondering if she should call the cops on the stalker. It was getting out of hand. She looked at her injury, left the bag on the bed and took up the handset. It buzzed in her ear, her fingers floating over the numbers. But before even pressing one button, she clipped the receiver back down into the charger. She was second guessing. She sighed, quavered, and held her head. Something didn’t feel right about calling the cops, something she couldn’t place a finger on. Maybe this person just wanted to be her friend? No. It wasn’t that at all. Wanting to think about something else, something more “innocent”, she went to the cloth bag on the bed and got out the present box. The note read this time:

Okay, let me try something different.

“Come on Blair! She’s so over you. Get a clue.” Aubrey chuckled evilly as she pulled the gritty ribbon and took the lid off the box. What did he mean by different, anyway? She looked down at the candy inside the box in wonder. It was the same chocolate truffles like the kinds he sent Joanne twice before.

She sat on her bed. Chewing on the last truffle, she noticed how it felt almost like a set routine now to go over to the house on the hill right after she stopped home. So she didn’t need to think twice about it. She was about to flee the riverside home to do her sneaky house invasion once again (despite all her jealous, angry thoughts about not going back) when she opened her room door and saw Barbara with a First Aid Kit. Barbara sat Aubrey down on the bed with the kit opened beside her. Carefully, she cleaned the narrow wound with alcohol, rubbed some dark, smelly healing ointment over it, and wrapped the area in a bandage. Aubrey didn’t complain but watched the process gratefully, though she was itching to see John-Luke. Everything was so silent until Barbara closed the kit and collided eyes with her employer’s daughter. “How did this happen to you?”

Golding explored her mind for a less controversial event than the actuality. “I...”

“The truth, Aubrey...”

“I wasn’t going to lie!” snapped Aubrey quickly, lying. Why would the lady expect her to lie? She cooled and lied again. “I rubbed it against one of those... those... you know—those rough bricked walls.”

Barbara tucked her head in much like a turtle would do. “Why?” she asked with a lot of attitude and amusement at the ridiculousness. Then she recalled walking closely past a masonry wall and nearly rubbing the skin over her knuckles right off and said, “Oh, I see...,” saving Aubrey from a mini panic attack. “So, do you... Are you okay and happy here?”

“Yeah,” slurred Aubrey.

On Barbara’s way out, Aubrey followed her. Outside the door stood a very worried-looking Dan who walked off quickly, pretending as though he was just going by. Barbara became his shadow. Though the mature woman didn’t know why he was so curious, she would tell him the news about the conversation that just happened in Aubrey’s room. A good little servant. Aubrey didn’t pick up on anything.

She made her way down the well and in a little while her nosy eye peered through a crack over John-Luke in his living room once again. Aubrey was certain that she didn’t like John-Luke. She was only spying on him to pass time, she decided. John-Luke seemed as though his mind was muddling in thought. He sat there, back deep into the couch, hands in lap, a fresh cup of tea releasing heat on the side table. Dusty-gray-blue Marybeth purred at his feet.

Theresa entered the room with a small cordless radio. The skin on her face was oily but for the lips that looked very chapped, colorless, as though she were suffering from an incredible thirst. She laughed nervously. “Listen to what’s going on.” She placed the radio on the side table beside John-Luke.

A crisp, masculine voice: “Yes. Yes. I completely understand the worry of these parents as Grishamm young ladies don’t just disappear without telling anyone, plus both parents say they are close with their daughters. But on the other hand they have to accept that the police are acting on it as they see fit.”

A woman’s bold, professional voice: “‘They aren’t friends,’ a mutual friend of the two girls told reporters. That’s why it’s strange how both girls didn’t come home last night. It couldn’t be that they made a plan of disappearing together. So far, none of these girls’ friends or relatives have said they’ve seen or heard from the suddenly vanished girls.”

John-Luke stood and clicked the radio to silence. “They are talking about Alicia and Belinda?” His dark eyes widened at Theresa.

“I saw their parents standing up together with posters in their hands this morning, if that helps. Yes, John-Luke, they’re talking about Alicia and Belinda. What will headquarters do? They already think that the Nikolaevna case was us.”

“Shush! They don’t think that was us! I already told you what they found out it was, Mom. But this is different. Remember how I told you that I felt Lynn was around?”

Aubrey blinked. Everything seemed wrong here. Alicia and Belinda, are they okay? And why did she think that she just heard the name Nikolaevna come from Theresa’s mouth? She continued to watch, beyond mystified. What happened to Alicia and Belinda?

Theresa left the room with the radio.

John-Luke was by himself now. He sat and sipped at his tea. “There is this girl...,” he sighed. Using his tongue, from the inside of his mouth he played with the stud piercings on the corner of his bottom lip. “I don’t know what to do with her...,” he continued, “this third girl that I am going to have down here with me.... I wanted her to be my first date, my only girl, but she has to be so stubborn.” He rolled his eyes acidly and made to set his tea down.

Then Aubrey thought, Am I hallucinating or did John-Luke just place down his teacup and look directly up to the ceiling?

Then: Am I hallucinating or is John-Luke really looking straight through the holes at me? Hmmm... How strange....

Miss Golding started to crawl like she had never crawled before.

John-Luke spanked through the door of the living room.

There was not enough space to get up on her feet and run. Her mind was hollering in any case and she could only think of moving viciously on her knees. But Aubrey’s harsh maneuvering over the moldy ceiling board was like writing hard and panicky on a thin piece of paper. You could only expect that there will be a time when the paper would tear.

And so there was.

Aubrey fell right through the rotten wood, a loud cracking in-sync with a screech sharp enough to pierce eardrums. The screeching, it penetrated the air like a wild animal released from captivity, and it was all from Aubrey Golding’s throat. Falling horizontally into the library, she slammed down on a shelf top, letting out a flabbergasted yelp that interjected the screech—the wild animal, just on the brink of freedom, shot dead. Her eyes were watery. She felt as if someone had just kicked her hard in the stomach, dust and woodchips from the busted ceiling above, coming down like rain.

The oak shelf was wide enough for her to perch onto for a few seconds, while it rocked side to side, threatening to topple. It was over six feet high. She was so scared she couldn’t even scream. All she could do was pin up those brows of hers and choke for air, her throat parching. She was on the end shelf, the gigantic library doors just a few feet away. On one side, the only thing between the shelf that she was on and the door was lounging furniture on top of a sizeable Indian rug. And on the other side there were more shelves.

Unless she kept on balancing, rocking the shelf perfectly forever, making sure that no uneven weight was pushed for long onto one side, Aubrey was taking the thing down with her. She knew that when the shelf struck the ground, it would crush the arm and leg clinging to that particular side, and she had a feeling her brain would probably be out on the floor too. And she also had a feeling she was hearing grunting sounds that didn’t come from her. A young man was grappling to hold the shelf firmly. Aubrey fell.

 

Their bodies lay on the floor. He did try to catch her, but her weight, poured down heavily by powerful gravity, brought him face-to-face with a battle that he could not win. A brassy taste was in his mouth and his teeth were covered with red. Something inside him had ruptured, and his head felt like a well-used soccer ball. Only God knows how he found strength to throw her off him. She was conscious when she saw him jump up and commence to drag her by her feet, both their frenzied eyes connecting for an instant as her body dashingly cleaned the floor. This position didn’t seem good to Aubrey at all. Assaulting him, she squirmed to her feet and lurched hotfoot into the jungle of shelves, not taking note that something was wrong with the books.

Though she felt like her legs would go out from under her at any second, she kept on running through the shelves, with no intention of stopping, her arms outstretched in front of her like a person lost in the dark. She searched for an exit. There was a door. It was a narrow, risky-looking thing, but she leaped towards it with hope. It led her into a dire, monotonous hallway. Without lagging to wonder which side to undertake, she chanced left. She was on the ground floor was all she knew, and hoped to dear God, if there was a dear God at this point, that she was heading to some exit door of the goddamn house. She was so overburdened with fright, she couldn’t think correctly. The floor had literally been swept out from under her, and her whole body was in pain. Her brain felt as if it had been shaken up from the fall, and she was in a foreign place. There was no time to waste on feeling sorry for herself however, and so she kept on going without a wince of pain or a squeak of cry.

With great anxiety, she switched the running to speed-walking so that she could focus and minimize the noise she made. The tension showed on her face as she moved rapidly down walled in spaces and through various open concept divisions, a statue there, a figurine cabinet here. She wasn’t giving any particular thing close attention. She just knew that the surroundings were old and riddled with a bloodthirsty history. And in some way everything looked scary to her, as if they were the original backsplashes to every nightmare. Then, when she used the left turn at the end of this corridor, Aubrey found Theresa.

In the woman’s hands was a teacup on its saucer. She glared statically at Aubrey with her hazardous eyes for a peaceful fleeting of time, before dropping the things to the floor and charging at her. Gravity sent the hot liquid splashing out and everything shattering. Theresa howled like a madwoman, like a savage, flesh-eating beast. Aubrey cried out in sheer terror, as she should, and bolted back to where she just recently abandoned. She took a sharp, desperate corner that showed her to a staircase. Like a bullet, she shot upwards, feeling pain course through her overworked, bruised legs. Clearing the steps, she was now on the third floor.

Aubrey entered the third room down. Her hands shaking, she screwed the little metal lock in the knob with much effort. She knew the lock may only help her for so long though, so she surveyed the area, deliberating the next move, her lips trembling. It was a bedroom that she was in—an unwelcoming sleeping chamber, with old dusty furniture and hangings of cobwebs everywhere. The pillows on the bed were deflated and there were cold, unexploited collectable dolls neatly seated or standing on the flat surface of a large dressing table. Aubrey knew she was in one of the murdered Hayles children’s room, which only added to the horror.

She struggled with her breathing—a hand gracing her neck, a hand gracing her stomach. A tear escaped her eyes. She felt this was the end. But as soon as she heard the violent twisting of the knob, she got back her will to fight. She saw that there was a door to escort you from the room another way. She advanced to open it immediately.

She was in a small lightless bathroom. She closed and locked its access, and continued out another. The room she was now inside also looked like it belonged to a child, a little boy this time from the toy trucks she saw cluttering the floor. There was a ball, its air was almost completely gone, and it was sagging. The room looked like it had been abandoned too, filled with cobwebs just like the last one.

The door to that room creaked open gently into a hallway, with Aubrey nervously poking her head out, glinting side to side. When she saw there was no one in sight, she scuttled left down the passage. But in less than no time, there was a sound like footfalls approaching, so she entered another room snappily.

This sleeping chamber was much different than the prior two. Though it was still as gloomy as the others without a window to at least provide natural light, it was clean, dust-free. Secondly, it had a king-sized bed, spread freshly with thick sheets, and finished with many beautiful, lavishly colored Arabian pillows. There was a masculine feel to the furniture and objects, making Aubrey wonder if it was John-Luke’s room. She tiptoed around. On one of the bedside tables something caught her attention. Aubrey picked up the necklace. She never saw anything like it before...

It was simple yet so powerful, that for a moment Aubrey felt safe, as if swallowed up by some fantasy world just by staring at it. It was a golden circle of metal with three hooded faces engraved in it, about the size of a toonie. The hoods came down over the eyes, but from the lower facial expressions, and from the position of the heads themselves, you could speculate that they were lying down— asleep or maybe dead. The one on the far right had sweeping hair and lay on her side facing the one in the middle. The one in the middle also had sweeping hair but Aubrey felt it wasn’t female because of the boyish jaw. The face on the far left, it had no hair flowing down from under the hood and so Aubrey considered it a boy in spite of the undefined jaw line. A thick, black string was pulled through a hole that was at the top center of the three heads. It was knotted where its ends met to make it capable of hanging around the neck.

Aubrey sat down the necklace abruptly. There was a flapping sound and her eyes and thoughts were drawn away from the unique body ornament to a corner of the room where it was especially dark. She could only see the outline of something hanging in the air. And when she stared really hard, she saw that it was a birdcage, confining what looked like a looming oversized crow. It was nerve-jangling, chiefly with its toxic stare, sharp beak and dangerous-looking claws. With eyes on the creature, Aubrey backed away little by little, the animal watching her as if it would burst out and have her for lunch at any given time.

“CAW! CAW!” it cried without warning, jumping and spreading its wings!

 

Aubrey cowered tearfully behind a cabinet that blocked the corner of this preserved drawing room. Her teeth were still chattering because of the ghastly bird, and simply, everything. She’d rather be back in high school getting flung around by those brutes. Aubrey glanced out unseeingly at the Mackintosh chairs and the monumental organ. Her mind was in a forest, trying to dissect its way out—technically out of the house. If she only knew which hallways to take, which stairs; after all, she could only play hide-and-go-seek-tag with these people for so long. It was only a matter of time before they found her, and who knows what would be next after that. After what felt like forever, she decided it was time to move again since no one seemed to be coming. She wondered if maybe they assumed that she was already out of the house. Softly, she tiptoed across the hardwood, gaining on the shut outlet to the corridor.

About to twist the knob, something dark flew out from behind a large flowerpot holding a dead tree. It got hold around Aubrey’s calf before she could even see what it was, and sunk its little sharp fangs into her flesh. Aubrey complained loudly, swinging around to see a slender, black shorthaired cat sprint off. Sure that her outburst tipped John-Luke and Theresa, she was on her return to the hiding spot behind the cabinet. Lingering by the source of refuge she finally noticed there was a means of entry outside the one that led to the hall. A little door in the wall. It brought her to a tight unlit study, where there was a desk with postal stickers, pens, envelopes, and vellum. She felt the vellum when she placed her hand on the desk to support her achy body. She knew the material from anywhere. Roman always used it. She found sanctuary under the desk, not quite sure that if someone entered the study and turned on the light, it would be such a good hiding spot in the end, but it was the quickest solution.

That unnecessary cat bite was one more pain to the collection. She groaned faintly, feeling like the evil witch, Ursula, from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, when the pack of animals ganged up on her. It was dire that she got out of The House on the Hill, and soon. The clock was ticking. She forced herself to muster up the courage to move again.

She was in a long, carpeted corridor—her heart pounding like a crazy techno beat in one of those boisterous nightclubs. There was a sight of railing at the end, an auspicious glint. Looking over the balcony she saw what she had hoped for, for so long; a means to escape. There was the entrance door down there. She would just have to go down the long staircase first to get to it. The situation brought her great promise but great fear and doubt at the same time. There was such a grisly risk that someone would see her. Should she run down, or go down quietly? Oh God, someone could already be watching her! And waiting for her on either side of the landing!

Following a deep suck of breath, Aubrey took her time over the stairs, one steady, timid step after the other. Her feet felt stiff and brittle. The entrance door grew closer and closer, but somehow Aubrey felt as though she was walking to her doom. Tears rolled down her cheeks that were as cold as could be. “Please God, please God...,” she whispered through her trembling lips. “Please...”

Deviant. Frightening. And unmerciful. John-Luke appeared at the left side of the landing. He was all cleaned up. He placed his hands on the railing end and stared upwards at her. She momentarily came to a standstill before continuing her slow pace down the staircase. Aubrey just couldn’t run anymore. She wanted to however—anything for her life, but her heart felt like it was expanding beyond its bounds, which made the function of her no more. It was easier and in a way less frightening to just surrender calmly to her predators at this time. What did she really have to live for anyway? She had that rage of energy, that natural prey’s will to flee from danger immediately. She had it inside of her body when she saw him, and indeed her spirit did run away, but her heart was weak now. All she found nerve to do was take her chances moving composedly to get outside. Casting downwards at him, she realized it was either that this young man was going to let her go or not. It was all up to him. On the contrary, Aubrey couldn’t help but ask herself, What the hell am I doing?

Unemotionally, John-Luke kept his gaze on her. He knew his snide mother was coming. He met Aubrey’s tortured eyes before bringing his scrutiny to her thin but subtle, bloodied knees, coming shakily down the stairs like a ragdoll, haggard from too much child’s play. He wondered what she was doing himself. When she reached the final step, she paused and looked to her side, up from the rim of his prosaic t-shirt to the dark collars of his jacket that was standing upwards like the devil at your door. Ultimately she viewed his face that made her shudder with its opposition to normal. It was a computerized face like the one of the androgynous beauty that stalked her, and involuntarily she began to grit her teeth as if she longed to shatter her jaw. She looked away from him and completed the final step. Her feet on the landing, she turned her back to him. As she inched nearer and nearer to her freedom, she huffed and puffed through her nostrils in panic, assuming he would simply grab her now.

His eyes were weighing on her as she unlocked the door and left it open on her exit. “I wrote you those notes,” she heard him say, pronouncing each word as clearly as shallow, gentle fresh water streams.

They rattled Aubrey’s every bone.

She didn’t know what was going on. She had heard the words, yes, but went into a mist of confusion. She started the front steps, not knowing what to think, how to react. It wasn’t until she reached the bottom of the steps that she started to run. She ran around the house to take the shortcut path she usually took. Trampling the slope, she tripped over her own legs, and fell. And there went Aubrey Golding, screaming and collecting grass blades and pollens in her already dusty and woodchip-decorated hair, as she rolled towards the stone bridge on her side like a barrel.

John-Luke folded his arms, watching her from the top of his hill as she got up drunkenly and made her way over the bridge to disappear into the woods. Turning towards an upset Theresa who was now at his side, he mumbled darkly, “Don’t worry, Mom. We did just right. She doesn’t know it, but she’s closer to her end than ever before.” He sighed rather complacently.

He couldn’t have said it better.

****

Aubrey got through the green kitchen door. She made her way to her room without bumping into anyone or whimpering out loud. Panting inside her bed chamber, butt on the floor and leaning against a wall, Aubrey felt like she had taken about several years off her life. Now that she had time to think about anything other than running and hiding, she felt the real pain her body was in, and it came rushing and strong. She saw that the bandage over her scratch from earlier had been torn off. There were fresh cuts and bruises all over her body. She could feel them under the fabrics of her clothes, and there were even some on her fingers. Getting up, she limped to her bed, her face distorted with stress and hurting. Lying under the sheets she fell asleep, but woke up after fifteen minutes. Her mind was too cluttered.

Standing in front of the room mirror, she ate an Oh Henry! bar from the bag she got the other day. She did not want to accept all that she heard while peering through the ceiling board or what she thought John-Luke said about the notes. Were they really for her? Was this “girl” that he talked about while he sipped his tea, her? John-Luke didn’t even know her. Did she just knock her head really hard and got delusional?

It would be some time before the wounds heal. The only way to divert the inevitable attention she was going get from people in the house and at class if they saw them, was to wear certain clothing. After showering and washing her hair, all while saying, “Ow-ow-ow” she changed into the same ensemble that she wore on the first day back to Grishamm. Normal clothes. The only difference was the jacket. The jacket she wore now was really thin, transparent, but not enough to reveal the flaws, and made from mohair, the sleeves stretchy and capable of being pulled over sore fingers. She got downstairs with her cloth bag, the envelope of Dan’s kind charity inside. In the foyer she asked Harleen, who was wiping down surfaces with vinegar, “Where’s Dan?” She then went to the basement where Harleen said he would be, and called out, “Dan?”

He manifested from behind a wall, his clothes dishevelled. Stephanie must have been around. “Aubrey..,” he said, crafting a look of contentment. Then, noticing her attire, he exclaimed, “You’re not wearing a Lolita!?” His light expression soon fled and Dan started to look worried. “You’re not thinking of leaving, are you?”

“No-no,” replied Aubrey, though that would be a good idea. “I’m thinking of getting another Lolita and was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking me. I’ll go to Tree Nuts this time.”

“Stop. You’ll go to wherever you feel like. I will give you a ride, no problem...” Dan felt relieved beyond words that she wasn’t about leaving. And he’d do anything to keep it that way. Pretty soon he won’t have to deal with her anyway.

She tried not to let him see her cringe in agony every two seconds as he walked behind her up the basement stairs and outside to the car. He started speaking while he reversed out the driveway. “How was your morning? You went on your walk after class again?”

“Y-yeah,” she stammered. It didn’t occur to her that he noticed she went on “walks.” “I love the sceneries—much different from what’s in the belly of Toronto where I am. It’s just cars and buildings all the time.”

“I’m glad that you’re enjoying yourself...”

“Yeah... Hey, so how did this Lolita thing come to be? How did the town change so much?” Aubrey asked these things as they passed the house on the hill. Still shaken by what happened, she didn’t dare to look, but only sensed the dark shape there at the top of the land rise.

Dan worked to answer her big question. “I thought you would know. It was featured in popular publications. Grishamm is turning into an attraction.”

“I didn’t know. Please, tell me all about it.”

“To make a long story short, there’s this woman named Katsumi Shinozawa... She came to the town just after you left. She was a fashion icon here with her short kimonos that looked like baby doll dresses. And she had her face painted up like a geisha. She didn’t care.”

“Really?” wondered Aubrey. So cool! So Lady Gaga-like! Aubrey loooooved Lady Gaga. She looked at Dan excitedly, which signalled him to carry on.

“Yes. She got a lot of attention. Made like several Lolita boutiques all over town in a matter of months. Let’s just say, they got a lot of customers.”

“So that’s how?”queried Aubrey, unsatisfied.

“Well, one day she hosted a small tea party at her house. Word got out about it, and how it was done and everyone wanted to be invited to her next one. She was “the popular girl in school.” In the meantime, everyone started to do tea parties themselves, trying to make them as close to the way they heard Katsumi Shinozawa’s was.” Aubrey giggled at the absurdity. “Yeah,” said Dan, ignoring her amusement, “and seeing the great influence Katsumi had, the town’s council gave her a position in the hall to host a public tea party if she wanted to—you know, gave her the keys to the town and everything.”

“So, this—”

“The public tea party was such a huge success, that she started to do one every year.”

“So she then created her own etiquette course?” asked Aubrey.

“Yeah, she managed to get you young people interested in the course, especially when it became a necessity to get into the Hall Tea Party—if you are under the age of twenty-five... And so – you know – the rest is history...” There was silence. Then Aubrey opened her mouth.

“That’s so big...”

Very big... She was named as one of Ontario’s most influential people.” They stopped at Touchstone Lollipop this time round. “This is one of Shinozawa’s boutiques as well as Loluu. There really is no competition between her and Grace. Shinozawa has about eleven different boutiques all over town now. She’s like Tim Hortons—she’s everywhere. But Grace has many people who shop at her one store. A lot of people think she’s good at her quality and designs. That’s part of the reason why Madam Shinozawa gave her VIP access to the tea party every year. Grace is one of the few whose boutique never went into bankruptcy.... Um..., Aubrey, would you mind if I go do something quick and come back?”

“No, not at all, take your time actually,” replied Aubrey who was getting out of the car. She slammed the door shut.

“Wait, Aubrey, you don’t look too right I was noticing. You sure? Wait a minute... are you in pain?” Dan was looking through the car window with interrogating eyes.

Aubrey used the little wit she had promptly, finding something she was certain to throw any man off. “Everything is okay. It’s just the monthly thing, you know, like period pains...? Menstrual cycle...?”

“Okie -dokie! You have fun!”

Inside the bright store, Aubrey searched for long-sleeved outfits and opaque stockings and gloves. She ended up getting three sets of Lolita outfits, all with lengthy sleeves and pantyhose and gloves that you could not see clearly through.

That night, Dan, in consideration of Aubrey’s occurring “menstrual cycle,” sent Stephanie to bring soup to her room. Aubrey ate at the desk. When she was finished she sat on her bed, clothed for night-time. She looked up from Katsumi’s tea party book that she was studying, John-Luke infecting her psyche. Theresa was there too. Are they behind the missing girls? What did they do with them? Why didn’t he come after me when he had the chance? Did he and his mother realize I was spying on them all along? Does he like me? What are they going to do about me now? Are the truffle notes the notes he was talking about? Is the stubborn girl he was talking about, me? Am I imagining things? Am I crazy? Was it a knock to the head or is it too much sugar intake? Is it my isolation from people that has made me crazy? After all we are social beings... Please God, I’m too young for this!

Later she lay on her bed in darkness, staring at the ceiling. She was unable to sleep and imagined she could hear the river’s lullaby seeping through the doors, for fun and comfort. Then she tried other things. Everything. Warm milk, a slice of bread, whisky, reading and chocolate (in her room and not the library this time!), but they were all in vain. She just couldn’t sleep. All the constant thoughts dancing around in her mind were giving her an anxiety headache. She sighed, wanting to just put the John-Luke situation to rest. It was getting on her last nerve—the way she was obsessively thinking of him.

Alright, I’m putting an end to this! she thought. It’s all just a huge coincidence. They are not killers. John-Luke was talking to Theresa when he mentioned that note thing—I turned my back and she came up to him, that’s it... And he was talking about someone else when he talked about the stubborn girl. Aubrey’s mouth freed a small expulsion of air. That’s it, she couldn’t take it anymore! She sat up in bed and turned on the side lamp. She got to her knees, wincing, and looked underneath the bed. It was where she had thrown just about all her junk. She took the notes out of the boxes. With them gathered in her hands, she sat back on the bed, her feet hanging off. She read the notes slowly one by one from first to last:

I love you. But sometimes jealousy works magic, sorry— This was on the second day that she snuck in. He was with Alicia.

I’ll try once more, sorry— This was the third day she snuck in and he was with Belinda...

Okay, let me try something different— This was today. He didn’t have a girl over. He said he wanted this third girl to be his only girl. That she’s stubborn? He looked up at Aubrey...

Aubrey frowned. This did not make sense. How did these notes relate to her? Are there just other notes she did not know about? The first note said love. John-Luke couldn’t love her. He doesn’t know her. It said sorry too. Why would he be saying sorry to her? And what jealousy?

Aubrey growled. She crumpled the notes together like waste and chucked them back underneath the bed. After turning off the lamp she lay down again, still confused, mind boggled, and now raging with frustration. She wasn’t any closer to figuring out this puzzle. Yet drifting off, something struck her and made her whole body literally jump as if she had been zapped by energy. Her heart was pumping like an overworked piece of machinery; she was tired; it was pure autopilot; she didn’t want to forget her thought— have it swallowed up by the exhaustion. She turned back on the lamplight hastily and went under her bed again. She grabbed up the compressed notes and separated one. She smoothed it out. Holding it in her hands, she began rubbing her fingers into the material. How couldn’t she have noticed before?! Aubrey sat staring shocked at the note, not the words, but the material.

It was vellum.

The young lady’s mind was worn. She saw the discovery as a dominant puzzle piece but had no idea where to fit it in right now. Her mind went blank. She was still under duress, but somehow made the excitement, the discovery, slip from her tight grip and fall by the wayside where it floated gently in the backdrop of her mind. In the front focal point, was the fact that she needed to sleep, not only to figure out what to make of the discovery, but as there was another class to attend in the morning. The pillow, it was calling her with its delicate, bewitching voice.

It was just moments later when she drifted off again and caught a couple hours of shuteye before the alarm rang.

 

13

Monotonous sky….

 

Thursday...

The alarm rang. Aubrey, programmed through habit, turned it off without thinking. She was in the alpha state, the point between sleep and waking, where your unconscious mind talks to your conscious mind, unscrambles all your thoughts and lays them out neatly before you. This process often gives you answers to your hard pondering questions, and means of solutions to your problems. The accuracy varies.

The first thing that Aubrey thought of is a boy named John-Luke Everson. He was the one who wrote those letters and not Blair, unless vellum is a common letter writing material in Grishamm. But why would he find reason to write and send her those letters, and with chocolate? Who was she to him? It made no sense! Wait... The gifts started to come after she began to spy on him. Maybe he caught her on that first day, and maybe he thought he could trick her into thinking that he liked her? So she ends up missing just like those other girls? Aubrey, still in alpha state, lying flat on her back, started to weep. Even if he was going to hurt her, she’d give up anything for John-Luke, even Zane. She felt like she was under a spell and started to cry more in her sleep. It was all too much for her to handle.

After a moment Aubrey’s eyes opened wide. She woke completely, shocked to life at her telling thoughts. She hurriedly tried to blanket herself with the sheet of numbness she had always used to protect her from being vulnerable to any intense human emotion. But fire burned it off just as quickly. And there was that intense human emotion, as passionate as a ripened mango, bleeding out its sweet juices, staring her dead in the face. Why it came on without being watered and nourished, didn’t make sense to Aubrey, but it was the feeling of being in love.

Why she felt that way for John-Luke, there was no logic behind it. Virtually, the only thing he was to her was beautiful—something that didn’t matter to her so much either. It was just something lovely to look at for a moment before it passes on with age or destruction (or a bad attitude), something that will decay and be eaten underground by insects, or turned into ashes. Trying to push the strange man to the side, Aubrey thought about what she had to do today. That’s when getting out of bed she realized how disgusting, absolutely disgusting, she felt—like a zombie getting out of its grave. “Only one more class after this,” she said aloud, trying to keep tranquil. “Then I can go to that Grand Hall Tea Party, maybe without Grace’s help. Then home.” Oh how little she knew...

The pains had worsened, she didn’t know how it was possible, but they were greater than before. It was a combination of the after-effect syndrome and lack of sleep. Her neck was cricked, her shoulders felt strained. Even the nerves under her eyebrows hurt, and she felt like she had a migraine—the anxiety headache had obviously grown from infant to adult overnight. Then there was the unbearable soreness of her legs and abdomen, and a sharp jolt of pain in her lower back if she was to move the wrong way. It was as though she had done a bunch of hardcore workouts totally the wrong way.

From inside her room, the bathroom door was unable to open.

After her private accusation, Joanne saw nothing but red when it came to Aubrey Golding. And so she made sure she didn’t unlock the door when she last used the bathroom. It was so that Aubrey would have to go through the trouble of leaving her room to get to it. Aubrey figured that this was done intentionally. She moaned and groaned as she hobbled out into the hallway still in her nightwear, her hair a wild nest.

She heard someone coming heavily, mission-set, and looked. It was Ping in her shaded glasses and wig. With a paw in the air she cried, “Wait!” through her purple-covered lips.

“Ping, this isn’t the time,” said Aubrey miserably as she stepped one foot into the bathroom.

Ping walked closer to the annoyed teenager, Aubrey noticing how she was not using that cane in her possession properly. “Aubrey, please. Listen to me.”

A heated Stephanie with her nose still in a bandage, appeared then from behind the old woman. “I’m going to discuss this with Dan! Didn’t he have a strict talk with you last night?!” she barked.

“You don’t even know what it was about you fool! Keep out of my business or I’ll break that pretty nose a second time!”

Stephanie crossed her arms and glared ruthlessly at Ping. Like she, quite frankly, wanted to kill her.

“You have lost your mind, straightly,” taunted Ping before neglecting the housekeeper to fix on the teenager through her shades. It sent chills up and down Aubrey’s spine. Ping spoke slow and artistically. “And the hopeless romantic meets the heartless romantic...” After a long anxious stare, she spun around. She shoved Stephanie to the side in making her way off and out of sight.

Brushing her teeth, the blond feral mass atop moving, Aubrey thought that the old woman really seemed passionate and sincere about what she was saying. She felt slightly sorry for her. Hopefully whatever mental disorder the old lady had, she won’t be getting any of it when she was old herself.

With her hair now tamed, and her body dressed in an injury-covering, dark-red Lolita set with black gloves and stockings, Aubrey sat at the little dining table in the kitchen. She drank the coffee and ate the bacon and egg sandwich which Stephanie made for her. Fat Rebecca was licking a big toe through her stocking with her tiny rough tongue.

“You look horrible. Don’t go,” said Stephanie, sitting across from Aubrey, drinking a cup of coffee herself.

“The tea party,” Aubrey said obsessively.

“Are you sure it’s just your period? Don’t worry, Grace will get you entry to the tea party.”

Aubrey considered that for a second, then: “I can’t just quit now. All that studying would have been for nothing.”

“It’s just some certificate or something,” divulged the maid. “It won’t change your life.”

Aubrey shrugged and felt pain. “Ouch.”

“Aubrey, you have to see the doctor if suddenly you’re feeling pain all over your body. That doesn’t sound like something normal. It’s definitely not because of your period— unless you’re one of those cursed girls like my friend Leah Penny. Christ she could die when she’s on hers, screaming and rolling off beds. I’m calling the nurse to come over.”

No Stephanie. I just didn’t sleep well. I’ll tough it out. No big deal.” Already feeling ratty, Aubrey was in no mood for a pigheaded brand of Stephanie. She looked at the housekeeper devilishly from behind her indifferent mask. She was grumpy and somewhat ill-natured today. The housekeeper was talking way too much for her liking.

Stephanie sighed, going into her pocket and taking out a small bottle of something. “Don’t tell Dan. He’ll get upset because it’s not organic.” She chuckled and handed the item to Aubrey. “Hold on.” Stephanie filled a glass of water. “Here. And I’ll call you a cab.”

Aubrey swallowed the painkiller, drinking every drop of water to wash it down. She rubbed her temples while Stephanie phoned the taxi. Even if she was feeling healthy, Aubrey was sure she would have called the cab herself or asked Dan to drive her. Why, weren’t there three people out there that didn’t sit well with her named John-Luke, Theresa, and It?

****

10 Doris Street. They pulled up to it in short time, the bearded Indian man submitting a small yellow form to Aubrey. Mr. Golding would pay for the ride through his taxi service account. Having had Stephanie to explain how everything worked beforehand, Aubrey filled out the form, using the account code that was scribbled in black pen ink on the back of her palm. She returned the paper to the driver, and got from the car to head to the second last class of the week. She remembered the scheduled brunch with her tablemates. Today was the day.

Today was the day…

Because she had slowed a bit this morning, with the whole alpha state thing, and eating and socializing with Stephanie, and taking half-hearted steps as she was in pain, she was not the first in class, but the last, despite the cab ride. The class was filled with students chatting lowly but passionately to each other, a deep, desperate rumble. Taylor was at her corner of the teacher’s table, sitting on her insignificant chair and staring hollowly at Mr. Marley’s towel-covered cage. Madam, she was locked up in the closet, her voice a showy song. She was on the phone having a laborious, but grave conversation.

There was a peculiar feeling in the classroom today, omitting the fact that the show table across from the teacher’s desk on the other side of the front of the room had teacups, saucers, teapots, and three heating kettles that weren’t there before. The peculiar feeling was tension, and from the moment Aubrey walked into the room, it struck her instantly like an ugly off note in a symphony—similar to what happened at her school’s spring concert two years ago. She remembered it was poor Angela Coleman, the nervous clarinet player. Anyway, she knew it was nothing about her, Aubrey, that made the atmosphere so. No one was even aware that she had entered the room, not Sharon, not even her tablemates. Aubrey felt the collywobbles. What’s going on?

“Hi,” she said, all embracing, as she sat coyly around her table, noticing that, like all the other tables, there was a tiny bowl of sugar in the middle beside the vase of fake flowers. Still, the sugar bowl seemed relatively insignificant to what the mood in the classroom was about. Her eyes moved around the table at the three different faces. She stopped at Romaine’s.

The look in Romaine’s eyes as he exchanged glances with the latecomer was that he understood that she was ignorant to the hot topic. “Aubrey, you won’t believe it...,” he started graspingly.

Aubrey’s heart moved outside its normal pace, fright and worry altering her face. She listened feverishly. Her ears, they were keen.

“These girls named Alicia Schaller and Belinda William, were found dead at three this morning—on the rock bridge in Crest Dale Av,” Romaine well-versed, more excitedly than sadly. “Their bodies were side by side in a sitting position!”

Erika nodded, dabbing her fingers under her eyes. “I knew them both,” she managed to say, but in a voice of pain.

“You do know where the rock bridge is, right?” continued Romaine.

“Who would have killed them?” wondered Agnes fearfully. “Isn’t that where you live?” She was looking at Aubrey.

Aubrey swallowed, glancing around. She noticed that the whole class was talking about the same thing. Rock bridge, was what Romaine had said. He must have meant the overpass that took you to the house on the hill? Romaine’s implication was made clearer when Aubrey heard John-Luke’s name in a few conversations around the room. It was said more with light, quiet wonder, and mischievous stirring up, than with hard accusation. Aubrey, however, was making hard accusations in her mind, and felt as guilty as if she committed the crime herself.

“It was said that not one scratch seemed to be on their bodies, but they had somehow rapidly decayed with insects crawling out of ‘em,” said Romaine with his eyes glowing.

Erika glared at Romaine, still tending her wet eyes with her fingertips. His insensitive tone pecked like a vulture at her every nerve.

Aubrey knew the right thing to do was say something if you could help bring justice for the victims and their families. The fact that she saw Alicia and Belinda with him, society’s creep, and not too long before they were assumed missing then found dead on the bridge near his home, was more than enough reason to make him a suspect. However, what Aubrey wanted was to make him only her suspect. She didn’t want to get him into trouble. She felt possessive. She would not allow them to take her John-Luke away, for him to sit and rot in a cell. “Let’s pray for their family,” she said gravely and absentmindedly. Though her tone was weighty, there was this lack of care in it that even chilled Romaine.

Her tablemates looked thoughtfully at her.

The water was done boiling, and the three stainless steel, electronic kettles turned off automatically with a CLICK one after the other, three in a row. Aubrey fingered the inside of her cloth bag for those chocolate turtles she was sure she had packed this morning.

Madam Brown burst through the closet door, compelling everyone to hush and give her their full attention. “I know that you are all very shaken by this unsightly event, but we have to carry on now.” She went and sat on her throne. “Taylor, the teabags are in the teapots, now pour in the water please,” she said in a prissy voice. “Do I have to tell you everything?”

Taylor got off her tattered chair immediately and went about doing what she was told, avoiding eye contact with the students who felt as embarrassed for her as she did for herself. With hot water now in the teapots, getting flavored from the little square bags filled with dried fruit and plant leaves, Taylor went swiftly to each table, handing everyone a spoon. She smiled bashfully at Aubrey when she handed her a spoon, just like she did when she came nervously with Golding’s tea on saucer. She never smiled, even slightly, for anybody else. There is this natural connection between outcasts. Just as sheepish, Aubrey returned the pleasant face each time. She was very worried however, about her little nervous friend’s handing out of the tea. You see, Taylor’s hands were so shaky that the teacups clattered on their saucers, spilling out tiny droplets, but tea all the same, and causing Madam to stiffen in her seat as she read a novel, trying to ignore the clumsiness that was taking place in her classroom.

Not wanting to make her blood pressure go up any further, Madam caught and swallowed the rage. She would certainly use it for some other time that was for sure. Then it happened; that time came, sooner than Madam had anticipated. Taylor brought a tray consisting four tea servings with her to a table. It was the last table she had to serve—the back table where Sharon and her friends sat. It started out smoothly, well, as smoothly as Taylor could possibly do, where she places the tray on the table, then one-by-one handed out a cup to each of the four students. There were the little drippings coming out over the rims. Everything was not excellent, but at least okay— until the very last teacup. It was about to be placed in front of the boisterous Kyle Gordon, when upon realizing it was the final effort she had to make, Taylor got a bone-jerking swell of excitement, anxiety and fear. Make the last one your best! they say with bright voices. Don’t come this far to make a mistake now! And so you can only imagine what happened... The saucer, its teacup, and the tea inside, ended up on the floor, a wet and broken mess. Everyone, including Kyle, gasped like frightened girls.

Taylor!” Madam nearly slammed her hands down on the table.

The assistant, who had her back facing the teacher, cringed and wished she didn’t have to turn around. On her turning she said a mousy, “Sorry!”

“You will be jobless if you keep this up, Taylor!” The miserable woman then gave orders to Agnes to fetch another cup for Kyle while Taylor cleaned up after herself. Agnes was more than enchanted to do so as it was Kyle Gordon, the boy that her heart warmed for even though he had made fun of her. On that same note, she felt very faulty because she wanted nothing more than to impress him, wondering if she looked cute and such as she walked towards him. And she wondered if she smelled sweet, and if her streaky, rippling blond hair shone beautifully when she went close to him to place down his tea. He thanked her with a smile that was delicate for a boy of his manner, and she cheekily lifted her brows trying not to beam, and turned quickly from him. She released a breath, glad that she managed to not make a fool out of herself when, as if in the spirit of the inept flow of happenings, the tip of one of her shoes rubbed against the floor, sending her running forwards. “What curse is going on in this classroom?!” cried Madam at the sight.

Many, especially Gordon, were shaking and snorting, trying not to sound too obvious that they were drowning in laughter. Agnes’s teeth pressed against themselves as she fought to find her balance. She sat down dizzily in her seat, keeping her eyes to herself. Her tablemates, including Aubrey, were in agony trying to suppress their amusement. In fact, tears flooded in Erika’s eyes, and when Agnes looked at her, she busted out “Belinda!” foolishly, spilling out little spoonfuls of laughter until it was impossible to contain the rest. And so it all came out, Aubrey and Romaine - who were already struggling - finding more reason to laugh and uncontrollably joining her. Agnes covered her ever reddening face, laughing too.

Madam, who had many years of practice when it came to keeping down impulses, just widened her eyes and pursed her lips. “Now I hope you guys aren’t touching your tea,” she said. Crossing her eyes cuttingly over the assistant, she got her own cup of tea. And from around her desk she went about teaching everyone the “well-mannered” way of mixing sugar into their tea and sipping from their cups with their pinkies stylishly up. People’s thoughts…

This is so stupid...

Ridiculous...

What the f—

Now let’s not finish that particular one now, shall we.

Joanne would agree.

Next, Madam took a sprinkled vanilla cupcake from the box on her desk and walked to the front center. She started to show everyone what she said to be the graceful, mess-free way of eating a cupcake. First she slowly peeled down the paper cup in the section where she would begin. Baring much of her teeth, so not to let any icing get around her mouth, she bit into the soft pastry.

During the bite, she tilted her head slightly backwards, breaking the cupcake away with her teeth rather than slicing it down—which she said would result in icing on the nose. A bit smeared her lips however, but unfazed she licked it off quickly, saying, “It’s not bad if you get a bit on your lips. Just lick it off like so. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t get further.” She scoffed the rest, holding a hand under her chin and the cupcake to catch the crumbs that she said to “sprinkle cautiously onto your plate when you’re done.” With that coming to a close, she only had one more thing to say to the jealous students who had their mouths watering, and it was, “Miss Sharon Martin, perhaps you have difficulty hearing... Come to class tomorrow with that Lolita still short and for you there will be no Grand Hall Tea Party this year, sorry.”

Sharon, at the back of the room, looked as stunned as the rest of the room. “Someone needs to get laid?” she said to her table under her breath. But they weren’t the only ones who heard it...

To say that Madam Brown was seeing red would have been an understatement. She was seeing all sorts of things: sticks, bricks, pistols, knives, and Sharon’s little round head. The woman’s lips pressed down into a dooming line, and her cold dark eyes glued to Sharon’s steady green ones.

Martin swallowed, blinked, but showed no fear.

The students, upon Madam’s command, started to pile their used saucers and tea-stained cups into a plastic, mushroom-colored bin on the front show table. Taylor went about collecting the spoons and sugar bowls. Before she dismissed the students, Madam, sitting on her throne, spoke of the last class which was tomorrow—exam day. “Be prepared to stay longer than usual! There will be no breaks for anything unless you’re about to wet your pants. So eat a lasting breakfast and perhaps load up on the coffee. It curbs the appetite.” Madam cackled. Then she realized how her dear rat’s cage was still covered. She stood up and rounded her desk to it. “Awe, Mr. Marley, no one turned on the lights for you.” And she pulled off the towel and saw quite a sight.

Taylor stood up, everyone gathering around to see what was going on. Aubrey was one of the first to see. It looked like Mr. Marley was as stiff as a rock! This became even more apparent when Madam started poking it with a ruler while she tearlessly cried, “Mr. Marley? Mr. Marley?” People tried not to laugh. Broken, Madam made her way back to her seat. She had that rat for over three years now and it had replaced her Humpty Dumpty husband, whom through the years she had grown annoyed of—except for the money part.

Even though Mr. Marley kind of resembled the man, she found having it there rustling merrily by her side, somehow fulfilling. She loved it dearly, and now it was gone. Upset, she looked to none other than her friend’s daughter. “When you dropped it something must have happened! The poor thing probably had internal bleeding all this time!”

Taylor looked lost, standing there with her fingers interlocked and under her chin.

When class was dismissed, Kyle Gordon and his guy friend turned at the closed classroom door and bowed at the rat hook in mock honor of Mr. Marley. They laughed, Sharon and another girl joining them.

“Well today was exciting,” said Romaine as he walked with Aubrey, Erika and Agnes to his car. He caught sight of Erika’s glaring and added, “With the exclusion of the news about Belinda and Alicia.” Actually that was kind of the best part to him. Talk about entertainment. Okay that was really atrocious thinking. But, um... Yeah… He couldn’t help it.

“Yeah I know,” said Agnes. “Misses Brown is so hysterical and I love every moment of it. But can you believe it, I almost—”

“You almost fell!” erupted Erika. “You were like running, like running.

All three of Aubrey’s tablemates laughed, but she couldn’t. While the rest continued to socialize, Aubrey fell out of touch. She was walking beside them, but was in her own world. What was she going to do with regards to John-Luke? There was no doubt in her mind that she would keep her mouth shut for him, but how was she going to move forward? There was still something eating at her. Did John-Luke mean the words in his letter or not? It seemed too ridiculous a thing to even consider, but she couldn’t help wondering and hoping it was so, that John-Luke Everson might have something special floating in his heart whenever he thought of her. She smiled half optimistically and half bewilderedly. Maybe it was love at first sight? Aubrey knew she was being crazy. She sat beside Agnes in the vehicle while Erika sat upfront with Romaine. She was with her newfound friends and she didn’t even realize it until Romaine said, “Golding, why are you so quiet?”

She surfaced. “Oh! Sorry, just thinking.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” jumped in Agnes. “Is it Belinda and Alicia? I hope the news didn’t scare you.”

Aubrey sighed, smiling sweetly. “No, I’m not scared.”

Inside the toasty restaurant, they sat by a show window, cars in the parking on the other side of the glass. Aubrey sipped tartly at the Perry that Romaine ordered for her. She figured since she couldn’t find those damn turtles, she had to settle down with something else. It didn’t work. There was way too much sugar in the drink, and that wasn’t the same as having too much sugar in chocolate. And as for the pears, if it was actually pears in there, they tasted as if they might have been decomposed and bug infected.

“So what is it that Golding is going to wear for the tea party?” asked Erika, watching Aubrey push her cup aside.

“Not sure,” Aubrey replied while Romaine, who sat directly across from her, sniffed at the abandoned drink, then went to try it.

“Do you at least know if it’s going to be a Sweet Lolita, or....?”

“It’s what most girls wear for tea parties,” said Agnes proudly, “because it’s sweet just like the cupcakes and cookies they’re going to be eating,” she continued while Romaine held his throat with a look of disgust disfiguring his face. “The one that I’m going to wear is kind of sweet. It’s soft pink and baby-blue, and has a little ball gown feel to it with the draping around the bottom, just like on Belle’s dress when she was dancing with the Beast. You should see it.”

“I’ve seen Beauty and the Beast,” responded Aubrey.

“No, I mean my dress.”

“Really?” Aubrey was flustered. “I guess I should get one like that, if it’s what—” she started to ramble.

“Or you don’t have to,” said Erika. “Like mine is classic. It’s in between. A lot of people won’t be wearing Sweet anymore.” Erika tilted her head sideways before concluding, “You know, you shouldn’t be a clone,” meaning well.

“Sure – yeah - that’s - true I – guess so,” stammered Aubrey, who in fact wished she were a clone. Clones fit in, the different don’t. She sighed and looked out the window. She felt strange and scatterbrained and hated being Aubrey Golding, just hated it so. It didn’t help either that while looking out the window she saw a tall androgynous person whom she did not miss at all. It seemed to have missed her though, staring at her, observing every move. It was there, a lone figure in the wind, far away in the parking lot, under the monotonous sky. With its hands to its sides, eyes probing and venomous, it was like it couldn’t wait for her to get outside.

Aubrey looked away quickly to Agnes beside her, panting like a tired, thirsty dog.

“Aubrey?” said Agnes, eyeing the girl hard just like Romaine and Erika.

“Is it still looking?” was all Aubrey cared to say. She tried to find her breath.

The tablemates all turned their heads in different directions.

“I’m talking about out the window! Is that thing still looking at me?!” Aubrey’s tone was fierce but her volume was a terrified whisper.

“Wow, who is that? Is that a guy or a woman?” asked Erika, mesmerized. The two others stared out at the tall dark figure just the same as Erika, but while Erika could manage to talk, they couldn’t.

“It has been stalking me since I’ve gotten here,” whined Aubrey, still whispering. “What should I do?” She looked pleadingly at Romaine when she spoke this last part; he was the man of the group.

Romaine Douglass, realizing what was expected of a man, realizing his role as “damsel protector,” etched a look of bravery onto his face. He was going in for the rescue. “Stalking, I see... Are you certain?”

Golding perked up. “Yes! It grabbed me in a store—gave me this.” She removed a fancy black glove and everyone stared mortified at the long, raw line on her skin. “See,” she said in a quavering voice, “with its fingernail...” Aubrey still couldn’t bring her eyes to look back out the window.

“Yeah, see, it’s a girl,” said Romaine, looking at a worried Erika beside him.

Agnes’s brows came together. “Why is she dressed like that?” It had feathers bursting from its jacket again. Its shirt inside was white with black horizontal stripes and its pants were deep-purple skinny jeans. “Hold on,” said Agnes. “Are you sure it’s a girl?”

From the time that Aubrey had recognized it, it did not blink, did not flinch, but just stood there in front of the cars, watching her. It did not care that the others were gawking at it now. It remained focused on Golding and Golding alone.

Agnes Baranski spoke again, but now with a low, somber, concerned voice. “Aubrey, oh my God, it won’t take its eyes off you.” Then in her voice, though it was still low, there was a note of panic. “Aubrey... it’s waiting on you.” Baranski’s golden-brown eyes connected with Aubrey’s horrified blue ones—Aubrey now fearful to even angle her head fractionally in sense to the window.

“Excuse me, Erika,” said Mr. Douglass firmly. The curly haired girl who wore a giant bow in her hair today got up and made the boy pass. She rejoined the girls. The three all watched him intensely – Aubrey now capable of looking out – as he walked confidently towards the statue-still figure, its icy eyes playing peek-a-boo behind the midnight hair that was swaying in the breeze.

Romaine bit his lips. He was stunned, bravery fading into bashful lust and fear when he saw how magnificent it was— almost more magnificent than any girl he’d ever seen, as he was sure now that it was a girl, because only girls, as he thought, could look like that. The inner ends of Romaine’s eyebrows turned upwards. His heart raced and his lips parted.

Aubrey peered out unsurely through the glass as Romaine ambled closer to the stalker. The stalker’s frosty eyes unglued from her only when the boy was just a few feet away from it. It folded its arms and smiled warmly at Romaine. It gave the boy a few more steps until it, still smiling, lifted a hand out of the folded position to show something to him.

The girls couldn’t see what that thing was. The two outside were some yards away from where they sat in the restaurant, and Romaine’s back that faced them blocked off some of their view of the strange person.

Aubrey found herself trembling when suddenly her knight and shining armour turned into a mouse fleeing from a cat, though the cat stood still and watched it smugly. It did not exchange one word with Romaine, but what it showed the boy spoke volumes. It was one of those things, that when you look at it, it gives you a certain knowledge, a certain fear that is inexplicable, incomprehensible. When Romaine got back inside the restaurant, he made his way to the table with no intention of sitting and panted, “Come Erika, Agnes. Aubrey, goodbye.”

Frightened, the girls got up—uninvited Aubrey made sure she was not left behind. “What happened?!” they all cried together, jogging on their heels to keep up with the speeding boy.

“Erika and Agnes, I’ll see if I can explain it to you guys later.”

“Romaine!” shrieked Aubrey, warm salty tears bursting out of her eyes. She grabbed on desperately to his arm, locking him down with both of hers. “What’s going on?” she demanded to know in a severe but quiet voice. “Romaine, what’s going on?”

“Two cokes, a Perry, and an ice tea. The rest of the order we can’t wait on but I’ll pay for it anyways,” was all Romaine said to the door hostess as he took out some bills from his jacket pocket. It was like Aubrey was invisible there on his arm.

The hostess, a short carrot-topped girl, was confused on so many levels. When she took more than three seconds, trying mentally to register everything, impatient Romaine shoved all the bills in her hands, overpaying. Mr. Douglass then had time to try to dislodge Ms. Golding from his arm. He fought with her all the way to his car, the lofty figure still rooted to its spot, watching them, mostly Aubrey, as she held on to the boy for her dear life. They got to the boy’s black auto and finally enough was enough. Livid with fear and irritation, Romaine screamed a vicious “OFF!”

Stunned, Aubrey listened, immediately recoiling from him, her face wet with tears. “Why won’t you just tell me...?” she sobbed.

Erika and Agnes shrank as they watched her heartbrokenly. They were scared for her and felt very hurt for her too. It all really struck them roughly, but were they ever thankful that they weren’t the ones being left behind. They looked upon Mr. Douglass who had calmed down and wondered if he could at least give Aubrey an explanation, providing them one too as they were just as lost.

“Aubrey...,” began Romaine, “I’m sorry, but we can’t hang out with you anymore.” The boy’s eyes did a swift flicker towards the stalker a few yards right adjacent away from them.

“What do you mean?” inquired Aubrey. “What did I do?”

“Romaine, this is so stupid,” said Agnes. “What could that person possibly tell you to make you act like this? Maybe she, or he, is lying.”

Agnes brought up a good point but Romaine ignored her comment and kept his attention on Aubrey. He stared her dead straight in the face, coldly as if he was nothing but an open-eyed corpse. He went into the car, got Aubrey’s bag, and held it out to her dangling as if it was dirty laundry that he’d like himself to be far away from. She took it, watching in visible distraught as Erika and Agnes got into the vehicle and slammed their doors shut. As soon as he was in too, Douglass pressed down a button quickly. It gave a certain clicking sound, declaring the four doors of his car were all locked, declaring Aubrey was NOT going to enter the vehicle.

Aubrey blinked, her blood, like the two other girls, running cold. Invisible vines seemed as though they had emerged from the concrete pavement and climbed up over her whole body, holding her in their tight grip. She could not move, she could not breathe, but stared blankly through the blur of her tears at the black car driving off without her. Erelong, the vines proved to be temporary. Though in severe pain, the young lady then ran.

She was running to get home for what seemed like the hundredth time, violently through parked cars. She felt like a whipped, galloping racehorse. She did not spare a second or a millisecond to look back when it only takes one blink for a sharp fingernail to pierce through the flesh of her throat, or for a bullet to slide itself smoothly through her warm brain.

From the parking lot she went off through the recession in this fence into a bushy area. And when a black shoe fell off as she made her way through the grounds, it stayed off, and when her cloth bag was dropped, it stayed left behind. She continued running. Then there was something there—a stone protruding out from the damp soil, and she was falling, and... THUD!

She fell.

On her stomach, she stayed down scared for quite some time, longer than she had planned. The vines of fear got their filthy paws around her again. She must have been there, as still as a frozen cube of something, for about fifteen minutes when suddenly her shoe and cloth bag magically appeared beside her on the ground, as if they had fallen out of the sky. She looked up and became clamorous.

She hushed.

A young fair man dressed in jeans and suspenders bent down and helped her off the ground. “What are you hiding from?” he asked her laughing, still holding her hands. “There is no one out here but me and my girl, just taking a stroll. When we found your stuff we thought we were going to have to report a dead body.” He gave her a funny leaned-head look. “That would have been the third girl for today,” he joked.

Aubrey looked around and saw a young red-haired woman with a punkish Lolita. She was folding her arms with a meek yet pert smile on her face. A girl is always tousled, even just a tad bit, when her boyfriend holds another girl’s hands, regardless of the situation. Embarrassed, Golding returned her eyes to the boy, chuckled, and took back her hands from his. “You didn’t see anyone tall wearing all black?” she asked.

“Well when we were leaving the restaurant we saw a strange person. Randa and I were trying to guess whether it’s a—”

“Girl or a boy—yeah, that’s the person. It wasn’t coming after me was it?”

“It? No. Why would it?” laughed the guy.

Aubrey released some breath heavily. “Can you give me a ride home? Please?”

“Sure,” said the lad enthusiastically, even though he and his girlfriend were just about to have some fun out here.

After placing back on her shoe and snatching her bag from the ground, Aubrey followed the couple over the stubby wild growth, her face tearstained and showing signs of agony and her clothes grubby. There were many thoughts within the couple’s minds, but they really did want to be polite.

Becoming aware of herself, Aubrey wiped her face and brushed off her clothes. Her face and attire were by no means any cleaner now, but it was an effort. The car that they led her to was red, shiny and small, though expensive-looking. In the driver seat the boy exchanged worried glances with his girlfriend before turning to Aubrey at the back. “I apologize. I’m Aaron Smith. What’s your name?”

“No I’m sorry. I’m the one getting the ride. I’m Aubrey Golding.”

“It’s okay,” laughed Aaron “Where are we going?”

“Crest Dale Avenue, number six. It’s not too far aw—”

“That’s where those girls were found... Crest Dale Avenue... right there on the bridge where those creeps live.” Aaron sounded mad. He wasn’t afraid of neither John-Luke nor Theresa, and didn’t pay attention to his girlfriend looking at him sternly. She was surely afraid of them and the fact that Aubrey lived so close didn’t help.

She fluttered her lashes and looked over at Aubrey inconspicuously.

“Yes.... that’s where I live,” said Aubrey to Aaron. “Those girls..., did you know them?”

“Not personally, but my guy was dating one of them. Alicia. Heard she was a sweetheart. Oh man, Kevin is messed up now.”

“Sorry to hear…,”said Aubrey but all she thought was that Alicia was a cheater!

It was quiet after that. And when they drove by the dark, Gothic house far away in the distance, it was still quiet, only all three heads turned to get a glimpse.

“Lovely house,” said the girlfriend when they arrived at the riverside home.

“Thank you,” said Aubrey coyly, chuckling. “And thanks guys, so much.” She opened the car door to get herself and her cloth bag out.

“No problem,” said Aaron through the window. “You keep safe, okay? And don’t go near the bridge by The House on the Hill. I believe they blocked off the area anyways.”

Aubrey laughed, acting appalled as she said, “Oh I won’t.”

The couple smiled and waved at the girl, the girlfriend looking especially happy as she said, “Bye!” Wasn’t she glad that was over.

There was no gift box at the door today. How curious.... Did she come too late to get it? Did someone else take it up? Or did John-Luke - if it was even John-Luke - decide to stop giving them? Argh! She was so confused in this world!

Inside the house, Aubrey went to the powder room to rinse her face. There were even other things to puzzle over. She tried not to think about it though—What Romaine did to her. For if she did, there would be more tears, and she was tired of crying.

At that very moment, Romaine Douglass was scrambling to find the right words to say to Erika and Agnes. He tried to explain everything to the two girls, but it was vague and scattered as he wasn’t so certain himself. “The ring, the ring...,” he kept on saying.

About two and a half hours later when the clock on the wall made its way from eleven-thirty-something a.m. to minutes past two p.m., Aubrey sat looking dully at the computer screen in the study. Her hands wrapped around her fifth cup of hot cocoa. She finished the beverage and sighed, placing the mug down for good. She rubbed her eyes. They were squeaky. She sat back, looking up thoughtfully with her fingers intertwined on her lap.

Barbara pulled the door ajar and stuck in her silvery blond head. “There you are! Dan wants to know if you’re okay. Did you have anything to eat?”

“I’m okay. Tell him hi. I’m not hungry.”

“He wants you to go with him to the movies tonight.”

“I’m not up for it,” said Aubrey forlornly. “Tell him period pains—he’ll understand.”

Barbara was gone.

Aubrey frowned. She wanted to go back home to the people who were always nice to her. Her old folks were always the sweetest. That’s when Aubrey realized she felt bad for the way she had been treating Ping. Perhaps Ping was just lonely like she was. Perhaps the woman just needed a friend to talk to. Aubrey felt incredible guilt and left the study to go look for the woman. She would give her the time of day to socialize with her, and tell her whatever she wanted, even if it was ridiculous. Everyone just wants to be heard.

At Ping’s door she took a deep breath then knocked. When there came no answer, she did the process again. On the last knock, the door slowly creaked open by itself. Surprised, Aubrey went to pull it shut but missed the knob by an inch when the door kept on opening ‘til it opened all the way. Curious, she stepped in. “Ping?” she called nervously.

Ping’s room was cluttered with all sorts of old furniture and quaint collections. She was apparently a hoarder, but a neat one. The space was crammed but not messy. There was a book cabinet filled with many old leatherbacks—a great number of them tomes. A few were Bibles. Then there was an ironing board here, a dressing table there, a standing mirror here, and a study desk there. Ping’s bed was gigantic and made of mahogany. Two packed suitcases helped to surround it along with a radio, a TV, a mini fridge and a chest on the ground at its footboard. Ping’s room was warm, meaningful chaos.

Aubrey walked in a little bit, taking note of the smoking pipes and the big brown cigar sticks lined out on the dresser beside perfume and lotion bottles. Passing the bed, she saw that the chest at the footboard was different than most she had seen. She ran her fingertips over it and paused where there was a slight recession in the smoothness of the wood. She looked at it closer. Wisteria was carved into the surface. She felt it was insignificant and moved on. She pulled down a ringlet of a porcelain doll’s chocolate-brown hair and watched it bounce back up when she released it.

“Aubrey, get out!” It was Barbara. Ashamed, Aubrey rubbed against the woman to squeeze out of the room, and hurried into her own room. There on the bed was a present box, the ribbon and note removed, but sitting beside it. Aubrey could hardly breathe, but she picked up the note and read what it said.

Where is my Thank You?

Someone cleared their throat theoretically. Aubrey looked behind her.

CLAP! She released the note, her smacked face jerking to one side. “I saw the others under your bed! I knew this all had something to do with you!” screamed Joanne in the startled girl’s face.

“What?!” cried Aubrey. “I’m not seeing Blair, if that’s what you’re thinking! I don’t like him!”

“I have to admit, I thought so initially myself, but then Blair would never like you like that. He just has a soft spot for drawing weird-looking things. Now I realize what is going on. And Aubrey Golding, why didn’t you tell me he wrote me notes and sent me chocolates?!”

“WHAT?!”

“No wonder he’s out there telling everyone that I’m so ungrateful!”

“This isn’t making sense!”

“Stop trying to look innocent! He was only trying to make me jealous as he admitted in the first note! I know that’s why he told me he was in love with another girl! He probably thought I would try to give him more attention in the relationship! Now you have to hide this from me!”

“Are you sure he wrote you the n—?!”

“Shut up! You made me look like I didn’t care about our relationship anymore! You cost me my boyfriend! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!”

“JO—!” Aubrey swallowed. “Joanne, did he tell you he wrote the notes himself?!”

“Well it’s kind of obvious you puff head!” Joanne pointed to a littered spot on the floor. “There are the notes, there are the gift boxes, and they were sent to THIS ADDRESS! You go figure!”

“But did you ever think they could have been sent for someone else, from someone else?”

“LIKE WHO, FROM WHO?!”

Aubrey hushed. Blinked. Then there was a shy, “Sent for me, from John-Luke Everson?” It was more a wonder, a question, than a statement.

Joanne was speechless. She started to laugh obnoxiously. “You know..., you certainly are funny, I’ll give you that. But Blair will be invited over for dinner tonight, and the truth will come out.” Joanne pursed her lips and retrieved all the notes and boxes, stuffing them into the retro trapezoid bag over her shoulder. She then pushed Aubrey onto the bed for good measure and waltzed away. Aubrey could hear her chortling, “I can’t believe she said that! This is the joke of the century!” as she made her way down the passage.

Lying there bewildered on the bed, Aubrey found herself wondering if Joanne could be right. Was the joke on her? Did she make up everything in her head? It’s not like it would be the first time. She was quite delusional when it came to Zane, part of the reason he left her for good. She wasn’t looking forward to dinner that was for sure. But time passed briskly after that. She tried to avoid taking notice of this matter as she read Shinozawa’s book. Eventually someone was tapping the door. It was Barbara. It was something past five and dinner, along with whatever else came with it, awaited Aubrey downstairs.

Aubrey sat across from a quiet, still costumed Ping at the end of the table. Grace, Dan, Blair, Rochelle and Joanne, all watched silently as she settled into her seat before her lamb meal. Dan swallowed. “We often forget, but here goes... Eyes shut everyone. Lord,” said Mr. Golding to begin his prayer. While he continued, slow and passionately - “we thank you so much for everything you have done for us...” - Aubrey, Blair and Joanne were peeping out nervously through one opened eye. When Joanne and Aubrey’s sneaky, wandering eyes caught one another, both girls snappily snapped them back closed. “Let the food be of healthy nourishment to our bodies,” finished Dan. “In your precious name, amen...”

“Blair, I would like to thank you for coming on such short notice,” said Grace with an upset glance at Aubrey.

“Yes, no problem. You know no matter what, we are like family,” responded Blair, forking up a juicy lamb chop. “Aubrey, it’s good to see you again. You’re leaving soon, right?”

“Hi. Yes.” Was she wrong or not?

Reaching for her glass of red wine, Grace came into the conversation. “Yes,” she started, agreeing spitefully with Blair that no matter what he was always like family. “That’s why I didn’t understand how you could possibly treat Joanne like that. But I hear there is some misunderstanding.” Grace watched the boy hard as she drank deeply.

Ping chewed absentmindedly on her food with her head down, facing the plate.

Blair made an expression of sadness. “I apologize for the way I went about things. I wish I could turn back time so I could tell Joanne in person—rather than through text, but...” He paused, looking distortedly at Grace. “Sorry Mrs. Golding, are you sure this is the proper time and place to be discussing this?”

Grace nodded. “Don’t worry. Everyone here knows about it and that’s why we’ve invited you here, to clear the air, especially for Aubrey as she seems to have something against my daughter and won’t admit to her wrongdoings.” Dan looked at Grace with eyes showing pity for Aubrey.

“I’m sorry,” began Blair intensely, “but I am missing a lot of things here. What air needs to be cleared? Aubrey? Huh? Clear what air?”

Joanne knitted her brows.

Grace knitted her brows.

Rochelle knitted her brows.

Then finally, Dan knitted his brows.

“Blair,” started Joanne, “the gifts with notes that you sent me—Aubrey took and hid them. She stole them. Now just tell her yourself that you’re the one who sent them. She’s in denial. And you won’t believe who she thinks mailed them, and for HER! HAH!”

“Slow down, slow down!” Blair dropped his fork and knife in his plate and held up his hands, palms on display in confusion and wonder. “What gifts with notes? I didn’t send anything. W-what notes?”

Joanne’s face went troubled. Could she be the wrong one? Worriedly, she went into her bag and took out all the tiny notes, smoothed the vellum out as best as she could, and handed them to the bemused boy across from her.

He took them as though he had never seen those pieces of material before but was highly interested. After reading the fourth and final one, a smirk lit his face. Face smug, his eyes moved from the notes to Joanne. “Why would I write you these?” he asked amusedly. “No, sorry, I’ve never seen these pieces of paper.” Blair stared at the notes for a moment, quite intrigued. “Anyways, yeah, I’ve never seen them before.” Aubrey was filled with glee.

“What’s going on?” Blair asked her as she struggled to hide a smile.

She shrugged.

The boy handed back the notes to Joanne who accepted them with tears in her eyes. “Who are the notes for then?” she asked hysterically. She turned to Rochelle beside her, and hid her face in the girl’s arm.

Her friend touched her lovingly. “It’s okay, Jo,” she said.

Blair sighed. “Sorry, Joanne.” He looked to Grace. “Sorry...”

Grace swallowed painfully. “Aubrey, am I ever so sorry...”

“But really, who sent those gifts then, and for whom?” inputted Dan.

The man was certainly a good actor.

Joanne stopped crying then, and brought her wet face away from Rochelle’s shoulder. Her makeup was everywhere and she still looked forlorn and red-eyed, but she cried out joyfully, “You will never believe it! It’s a story! Go on! Tell them, Aubrey!” The girl laughed and laughed and laughed.

Everyone, including Ping, looked towards Aubrey eagerly.

At first Aubrey just stared back shyly and speechlessly at the table of people. Then a ripple of joy came over her from deep within and she forgot how to be self-conscious for a few seconds, embraced the moment, and shrilled, “John-Luke Everson sent them for me!”

That instant, Dan’s specially done orange pekoe was shot out of his mouth—not at the thing she said, but at the way she said it. As for his wife, Blair, and Rochelle, it was pure shock and humour, and Joanne got a great stir from it once again. Blair fell chortling on the floor, Grace nearly knocked over her glass, veins bursting through her neck, and Rochelle, oh she was now as hysterical as her friend was when let down by Blair, but with laughter. Joanne laughed just as much as she did when she first heard “the joke” and actually more now that there were people to join her. All were merry, chuckling, cackling, guffawing, and snorting with an inner tickling that warmed their hearts and poked at their kidneys, even Dan who knew Aubrey had only spoken the truth. For the thought of feeble Aubrey with the John-Luke Everson was laughable, quite laughable. So everyone was letting out nonsensical sounds of humour, everyone, except for Aubrey of course....

And Ping.

After dinner, when everyone was going off to do their own thing, Joanne placed all the boxes and notes in Aubrey’s hands, saying, “Here, if it makes you feel better.” She chuckled and walked with Rochelle out the dining room door. They all came to the conclusion that perhaps the presents were just sent to the wrong location.

“It was a good laugh though,” said Blair as he left through the front door, looking at Aubrey who started up the twirling staircase, the humiliating boxes and notes in her hands. She would bring them to her room. She truly believed now, that if it was not Blair, it was definitely John-Luke who sent them, and for her, no matter what anyone else wanted to believe.

In the hallway off the claustrophobic stairs, she saw Rochelle and Joanne heading up the attic steps and rolled her eyes at them tartly. She went into her room. One of the four truffles in the new box was missing—the cookies and cream one. Joanne had it. Who else would have taken it? Aubrey was bitter about that. She ate the rest slowly along with other chocolates while she did some final studying. The exam was tomorrow. She couldn’t concentrate much however, thinking of John-Luke, the stalker and her tablemates, but mostly John-Luke. Her mind glanced over Samantha too.

She wondered if John-Luke would send her another gift, if he meant each word in the notes, if she should see him tomorrow....

That night she slept deeply, for she was tired from all the physical and mental torment. Normally alerted at any sudden loud noise, she even slept soundly through a roaring wind that just about made the dwelling walls tremble, and shook the windowpanes in their frames.

 

14

Shiver….

 

Friday...

In alpha state Aubrey thought about the stalker. Next time she sees him or her, she will not run. She will go up to it and introduce herself. Maybe it’s nice. Maybe she is making up this evil-stalker, monster thing in her mind, and maybe it just didn’t communicate properly with Romaine. Or maybe Romaine just wanted to find a way to get rid of her. A personal issue. The stalker might be the confused one. It might think she is someone it met before or should go to. When Aubrey goes up to it today, she will bring it closure. She will be nice.

Aubrey disabled the ringing alarm clock with her eyes partially shut. She went back to lying down. She thought of John-Luke now. She couldn’t wait to go over to see him today after class. The notes must be real. He saw her and somehow it was love at first sight, that’s it. She knew there was a great chance of him turning his back on her just like many have, but there’s no chance unless you take it. And as for her heart… You can’t break what’s already broken… She will talk to John-Luke today. She will.

“‘DON’T LUST FOR THEIR BEAUTY. DON’T LET THEIR COYNESS SEDUCE YOU,’ PROVERBS SEVEN, VERSE TWENTY-FIVE!”

It was Ping again, at the staircase with her megaphone.

Aubrey opened her eyes completely. She sat up. “Yes, Ping, we all know you love to read your Bible.” She looked at the same black pair of gloves that she had worn yesterday. She had hand-washed them half asleep last night and they were hanging dry and crisp over the edge of an opened drawer. Before she placed them on with the rest of her Lolita outfit, she showered as she had not done so last night due to tiredness after studying. She, once again, successfully hid all the cuts, bruises, and scrapes. After brushing her teeth along with other bathroom stuff, and straightening her crimped hair, she made her way down the narrow stairway with her cloth bag. It was the final day of class. Aubrey was overly happy about that and was just worried about passing with flying colors, like the good ol’ Super Student she always was.

Finishing the grand stairway, she heard the exchanges of wet kisses. “Goodbye, Christopher,” said the nurse as she gave her son one final hug. “Call me.”

“I will. Love you, Mom.”

“Love you.”

The nurse closed the door dismally on the long-limbed young man walking down the front steps. She picked up Rebecca Persian who came to greet her. She nuzzled the fat cat then padded to the basement with it.

Sitting at the small kitchen table, Aubrey only ate a little bit of her cereal and left it there to get soggy. One of the housekeepers would come around and pick it up. She had already called the cab for herself and swiftly headed out the door. She wanted to get to class early so she could squeeze in some last minute studying.

Passing the house on the hill in the cab, Aubrey beamed up at it this time. She was coming. Just hold on John-Luke.

Aubrey entered the classroom, the first student. There were two metal fold up chairs beside each table for four. Then the usual, Madam was on the phone in the closet, and Taylor was on her ugly seat, except there was no Mr. Marley on the table before her. The teacher’s assistant gave Aubrey a reserved smile, with a bit of sadness in it. This was the final class. She did not know whether or not she’d see Aubrey again.

“How are you?” asked Aubrey, taking her seat.

Taylor was surprised that she was spoken to. “I’m good. How are you, Aubrey Golding?” She pronounced the name with special air.

“Not too bad,” replied Aubrey, grinning as she opened the course book. And that was the end of their little conversation—short and sweet.

The rest of students started to appear, one by one, two by two, a set of three. Aubrey’s tablemates arrived all together, taking their seats. They sat talking as if there was no one else but them at the table.

Madam came from the closet, placing the phone into the charger on her desk. “Taylor, the box,” she said, eyeing proudly an entering Sharon Martin who wore something she considered appropriate at last.

“Ah, everyone, please put the books in the - um - in the box,” ordered Taylor, putting a cardboard box on the ground.

During the hustle and bustle of the book returning, eight young adults, an even blend of men and women wearing matching burgundy jackets over their Lolita or trousers, came in stiff-faced with clipboards and pens in their paws. They didn’t look much older than the students.

“The judges are here!” exclaimed Brown. “Perfect—two for each table!”

The judges started to disintegrate. The pair that sat beside Aubrey’s table on the folding chairs, was comprised of a boy and a girl, the boy very dark-skinned and stocky, and the girl Indian and wiry; a toothpick really. The jacket swallowed her up like the sea.

When everyone returned their Shinozawa book, Madam went through the exam structure. “You will first have to do an essay on tea party, based on everything you learned from the book! It should be at least one page and no more than three! You will have up to forty minutes to do that. The judges are students from the committee. They will watch you all closely to make sure you aren’t cheating when you do the question sheet. After that, you will be judged on your tea party table etiquette, then your performance of the tea party dance!”

Taylor finished handing out lined papers to everyone. They all sat scratching pen or pencil over paper. Without one word written on the paper before her, Aubrey spied around, finding it hard to focus. Then the stocky boy burned her with his eyes and she wrote her name and the date.

Bored, the judges nattered with each other and consumed the tea and pastries that Brown and Taylor supplied. After the 40 minutes, when everyone had to be done with their essays, Taylor, with the help of some judges, started to hand out steaming teacups and saucers, miniature milk pitchers, sugar bowls and vanilla cupcakes. When everyone was served, the judges watched closely as they mixed the sugar and milk into their tea. The students tried to go about things the way they remembered seeing Madam do it. They stirred in a back and forth manner instead of in circles, trying to do so without spilling or touching the sides of the cup too hard and becoming noisy. The judges surveyed everyone sipping tea and biting neatly into their cupcakes as they scribbled on their clipboard papers with fancy golden pens. A bit of icing licked onto Aubrey’s nose but she wiped it off before the skinny girl and the stocky boy could notice, as the pair were more concerned with Romaine who was choking on a piece of cake that had gone down the wrong way.

There was the dancing segment left to do. All the tables and chairs were moved to the back. Each student had to partner up with someone from their table. Erika promptly exclaimed, “Romaine’s mine!” leaving Agnes no choice but to stand beside Aubrey, acting as if she didn’t mind.

If you were a girl, the tea party dance began with a bow. Bowing, your legs should cross, and the hems of your Lolita should be held out to the sides. Both Aubrey and Agnes did this first step, no one volunteering to assume the role of the man. Then it was positioning together time, and that’s when they ran into problems. Both had their hands on the other’s shoulders, as no one wanted to hold onto the waist. Seeing the judges’ faces, Aubrey twisted her nose and tartly took the man’s part. She had to take the lead.

The dance wasn’t so special; really it was as bland and simple as plain rice. There was the side step, hold for boom-tick-tick, and then you go back to the middle and do the same thing for the opposite side. Then there was the changing of angles, and the twirling of the girl. In taking the lead, Aubrey at first did the side boom-tick-tick just a wee bit faster than Agnes who went faltering along. When the tables and seats were placed back in order, the judges got up— stiffer than when they first came in, from sitting too long. They handed in their final reports to Madam, on her desk, and departed from the classroom. The students sat around restlessly.

Madam rose from her throne and went to the front center. “Alright, now the ones who get the right grades, you have a chance to receive your golden invitation! They should have it mailed off to your door by six tonight! Okay? We are done! See some of you, or should I say... a few of you, tomorrow at the Grand Hall Tea Party!”

“WOOO!” Everyone was stoked. The students started to leave. Aubrey, walking to the door with the crowd, smiled sincerely and waved at Taylor who returned the gesture. It was certainly the last time they’d see each other…

Walking home, Golding looked everywhere: north, east, south, west, but couldn’t spot any tall, skinny, feathery being anywhere. She even purposely slowed her pace, and sometimes even stopped and waited at the corners of streets for It to show up. It became apparent that conversing with the strange individual was out of the question today when she reached Crest Dale Avenue and there still was no sight of the androgynous beauty.

She had John-Luke to look forward to at least, she thought as she glanced up at his house in passing. He was so much on her mind, she didn’t remember that she should take pictures for her grandparents before she left Grishamm.

She reached the front door of the riverside home. There was no sign of a gift box. She was slightly disappointed, a portion of her shriveling like a plant deprived of sunlight. But then again, she remembered she was not the only one on the watch for them anymore.

She climbed the floors. “Joanne?” she called trepidatiously at her stepsister’s room door. She did this two more times.

“What is it?” hissed Joanne, coming down the attic steps beside Aubrey instead of out her room door. Surprised, Aubrey turned to face her.

“Did you see another gift box?”

Joanne looked thoughtful, trying to register what her step-sister had just asked, then said, “Ah, no...” It was sincere enough, a natural statement with no apparent thought behind it. Aubrey would have accepted it if it hadn’t been the only day when John-Luke didn’t send a gift.

“That’s strange,” she thought aloud. “Are you sure?”

Joanne did a nod with one brow crooked up before returning to the attic.

In her room, on the bed, Aubrey looked at the last note—the one from yesterday.

Where is my Thank You?

She thought hard and started speaking to herself. “I didn’t go see him yesterday. Maybe he’s finished sending me things, and is now waiting for my response, my thank you.” But now she was soooooo scared. What if she makes a fool of herself? And... What if... Aubrey didn’t want to bring herself to ponder once more about what she thought in general of the Eversons. What lingered there in the back of her mind was the danger, but she skipped over that thought as if it were just a chapter in a book that she chose not to read. She went into the bathroom to freshen up.

After brushing her teeth and showering, she slipped back on the gloves and the Lolita she had worn that day. But instead of using the same headband, she clipped in a mini top hat to the side of her head. It was one of the edgier ones that she bought. She wore it because it was a special occasion, and perhaps John-Luke would like it. It was black with little white skeleton heads around it—similar to a hat on one of the passersby that she spotted. To go with the hat, she put on 6-inch heels that were bought just for it—they each had a skull at the front. And to spice up the look, she put some dark makeup on. By the time she was done, with her deep-red Lolita, dark makeup, and skeleton heads, she looked like the perfect paradigm of the Gothic Lolita.

She liked what she saw in the mirror, but she wasn’t confident. Aubrey’s hands were turning icy, as well as her feet. Was she really getting prepared to see John-Luke Everson?—THE, John-Luke Everson? She wanted a piece of chocolate at that moment but she had already brushed her teeth, and if there was one person she would muster chocolate restraint for, it was John-Luke. And she would let him do anything to her. She’d go on all fours for him.

It didn’t really worry her, but she didn’t understand how she could dote on an individual so much, and so randomly. It was almost as if she were truly under a spell...  She went out the room door, cloth bag over her shoulder like always. She made her way to the main floor and entered the library. If not chocolate, then she would have to settle down with some light reading. She scanned the shelves. When she reunited with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which one of the housekeepers restocked, instead of staying in the library to read, she found herself walking dazedly about the house with the book open in her hands. Her eyes were down but she wasn’t really reading. She never felt this kind of anxiety before, much more without the aid of cocoa, and it was making her gaga! Brainsick.

Aubrey wasn’t really focusing on where she was going. That’s why it came as a surprise to her when she lowered the book in her hand and saw that she was not only on the third floor (which she got to by walking blindly into an elevator), but was in front of a stairway to an unfamiliar attic. She looked around tentatively before entering. It was charming and small inside. The walls were paneled at the bottom half and covered in fleur-de-lis wallpaper at the top half, wainscoting style. There was a shuttered closet similar to the one in the main attic, a chaise lounge under a window—an alpaca blanket thrown over it. Beside the seat were three wooden boxes for storage. It was three of them, and they were piled in a way that they looked like a stocky upside-down T. Through the window over the chaise lounge was a fetching view of the woods in the backyard behind the rusty swing-set, and further you could see the house on the hill. Aubrey wrapped herself in the abandoned alpaca blanket and sat down, eyes outside.

“Aubrey?” said Dan’s voice through the attic door.

Aubrey aimed goggle-eyed at the door. She was surprised to hear Dan’s voice, and that he would have thought to go looking for her in the little attic. “Yes, father?”

“Would you like to go for a drive with me? We can pick up some Marble Slab. It’s really tasty.”

“Ah. Yeah, sure.... That’s ice-cream, right?”

“Yes, Marble Slab Creamery. They are the best. Want to get an ice cream cake? Just for me and you? Our secret?”

“Chocolate?”

“If it’s with peanut butter!”

Aubrey waltz jollily to the door of the room where Dan waited in the darkness. A hand reached out to squeeze the nape of her neck and she momentarily reeled backwards to look up at him. She moved down the attic steps behind Dan. But then she remembered John-Luke. How could she forget? Her following steps behind Dan were very reluctant. Inside she was searching for a way to get out of the situation. Could the menstrual pains suddenly strike again? It wasn’t good to eat ice-cream on your period, was it?

At the top of the stairs to the second floor, Dan swiveled to her, fetching something out of the inner pocket of his jacket. He seemed to wonder at her as he pulled out something. Wonder at how she was all dolled up. “You look beautiful. Were you going somewhere?”

She nodded shyly. “Yep.” She was almost shaking to go to the house on the hill and finally come face-to-face with John-Luke. “A friend from class invited me over for tea,” she lied. “But I will see to that after our ice-cream break.” She smiled warmly at him.

When he held his hand out from the pocket, Aubrey saw that he had a cream envelope with a golden sticker holding down the flap. “It came early. A mail boy dropped this off for you,” he said.

Aubrey accepted the envelope with the organ in her chest beating fast. Could it be from John-Luke? On the front in elegant silver, computerized script, it read:

To: Aubrey Golding

From: The Tea Party Committee

Grinning, Aubrey glinted at Dan then back to the envelope. She pulled off the sticker. Inside the envelope was a card. The card itself was golden with a silver design of a teacup on a saucer. When she opened it there was a white floral decoration bordering the same style of font that was used on the face of the envelope. Only it said a different message:

Dear Aubrey Golding, with the grade of 95% on your essay, 88% on your table manners, and 75% on your tea party dance, it is our pleasure to invite you to this year’s Grand Hall Tea Party! Your number is: 6570891. Please dress in your best attire!

Aubrey got butterflies. She felt very wonderful and grateful. She slipped the card back into the envelope and placed it into her cloth bag, grinning ear to ear. Her father pinched her chin.

“Congrats...,” said Dan.

Aubrey and Dan made their way down the stairs, then down a corridor, then down another flight of stairs—the one of the main stairway. When they reached the winding section, Dan sank a hand into one of his outer jacket pockets and fished out the car key. At the entrance, he pulled one of the doors open, Aubrey behind him, and just as they made it off the front steps, a frightening gust of icy breeze came out of nowhere and slapped them in the face.

A gigantic mistake had occurred.

Both father and daughter sprinted back up the steps, Dan following now behind Aubrey, and flew inside the house. Dan slammed the door shut, panting with both palms held up against it as if it would fly open. He was genuinely perplexed, gasping as he asked, “What the hell was that?”

Mr. Golding’s eyelashes and brows were dusted with frost, and Aubrey, who pressed her back against the mirrored coat closet, stood holding her heart, nose and cheeks numbed with cold, eyes watering. “I don’t know,” she answered, trembling. Dan shot her a kooky glance as if to say he hadn’t meant for her to answer. Then all of a sudden, they heard hail coming down like stone on the house.

Grace, Joanne, Barbara, Stephanie, and even Miss-to-Herself Harleen, started rushing down the main stairs excitedly. “Do you guys see what’s going on outside?!” cried Joanne.

The nurse came swiftly from the basement door with her pasty face heated to a pink raw color. “Goodness me, what’s going on?!”

They were all ready to go to the front room where Dead Deborah’s mahogany table was, to look out the window together, when there was a mysterious thud. It was muffled by the walls and the distance, but something told all that if they were nearer, it would have been really loud and startling. Something had taken place. “The third floor!” exclaimed Stephanie who was behind everyone who stood on the stairs. Soon she was the one in front when she turned and started to bolt upwards, everyone following behind her.

There was a rumbling in the old house as its inhabitants - the owner, his wife, his stepdaughter, his daughter, and even his maids and nurse - all ran like children at play up the twirling stairway (Mona Lisa was knocked to one side), down the hallways, and up the narrow stairway to the third floor. Stephanie was the first one to make it to Ping’s door which was wide open, and when she ran inside, everybody heard a horrifying scream.

Quickly, they all made it inside with Stephanie.

The young housekeeper was all wobbly. She had her hands over her mouth.

Lying on the floor was Ping, as stiff and as dead as Mr. Marley, with her arms extended in the air, her mouth wide open, and her wig and shades still on. Almost as worrisome, but not quite—the window was open, breeze howling inside with some hail like a tornado. Dan ran to pull the window down. Though Stephanie was traumatized, she was snorting and snickering behind her covered mouth. After all of the harassment, she had grown cold to her.

“She’s as dead as dead,” said the nurse, shielding the body with a bedspread. The shape of the hands held outstretched under the candlewick sheet made for a freakish sight and the blond downy hair on Joanne’s neck stood up.

Dan looked nervous. How could an open window freeze someone to death? And so quickly? He felt as though there was an animal inside his belly, trying to come out. Stephanie took him to the nearest toilet for him to vomit into.

Through the windowpane, the rest all saw that the hail was ceasing and in its place were big, wet flakes of snow, coming down gently like a giant’s dandruff. Grace started to analyse the room woozily as if the day was just a dream. Joanne and Aubrey couldn’t stop looking at the covered body, the snow outside the window, and each other in astonishment. The nurse’s teeth rattled in harmony with Barbara’s. All was shaken down to the bone marrow, except for Harleen. Harleen, a woman that had, in her lifetime, seen the strangest things, and had no patience for hysterical behavior, simply raised her eyebrows. She nearly closed her eyes cavalierly as she did so, as if to say oh well, then she tightened her lips and quitted the room; the excitement was over. Winter had come early and unexpectedly, and Ping was dead—the end of that story. She got it.

Like people tend to do in times of strangeness and when things drop from the sky, Grace, Joanne, Barbara, Stephanie and the nurse and Dan all sat around the living room drinking hot cocoa and playing card and board games. They watched the news to discover – more curiously – from the weatherman, that the snow was taking place only in the town of Grishamm. In between games and the news, Grace and Joanne spoke to their friends frenziedly on their cellular phones. Meanwhile, Harleen was upstairs in her room on the second floor, drinking cold beer and doing word puzzles, and Aubrey was in the little attic space on the chaise lounge, looking blindly outside at the gray sky and falling snow, with a chocolate turtle in her mouth.

Her mind was troubled. With Ping’s death, there was a feeling that something was being overlooked. There was something staring her down in plain sight. Then John-Luke’s presence in her mind undermined everything. Originally, when she first saw him, he lurked in the corners like Samantha, like the stalker, but now he made a home; where her brain was like an apple, he was the core, with the roughage and dark little seeds. A few minutes like that went by, until her eyes removed themselves from her thoughts and refocused outside. She pouted, huffed and puffed, and pouted. The beautiful day, filled with hope that she could see John-Luke had turned a whole 180 degrees to a wet, cold, laden outdoors, and Aubrey was very upset. “Tomorrow is another day, I guess,” she confided to herself. “Hopefully things will brighten up out there.” Then she thought worriedly that maybe it was all just too good to be true, her hanging with the spectacular John-Luke. Maybe tonight she’d die in her sleep.

As she looked out at the white fluffy snow falling down in the night and dancing in the wind, she envisioned his face on the cold glass, even taking a finger to touch it. It was hard and cold, and where her finger had gone, she left a smudge on his face. Soon he disappeared but Aubrey continued to stare into the dark snow land, seeing the woods of the backyard and John-Luke’s house in the distance. It was far enough that she could hold it between two fingers.

A slow, romantic song came to her, the lyrics flowing out passionately from between her lips as if she had sung it before:

Sinister... why are you so beautiful?

Notice how... the worst things in life are those that we crave!?

Oh, oh…., just like fame and candy….

Sinister, why do you have to be so cold?

I’m freezing up, but I can’t complain!

It’s just that love has blinded me

Instead of running away, I’m begging you to stay, with me

Sinister..., you make our hearts ache for you

Our hearts, pain for you...

Cause you’re so irresistible!—Oh I can’t take it

Sinister

Just like a vampire in the night! A werewolf howling in the moonlight!

Dark and lovely—somehow you have held me captive, completely mystified!

My sinister…

 

She fell deeply asleep.