I roll onto my back with heaving breaths.
Hana stands up, but doesn’t take her eyes off me. “I’ve never seen anyone react like that to the glass before.”
“I was drowning. You’ve never seen anyone drown in water?” I pull my knees toward my chest and lean up to hug them, coughing as I do. She looks away from me, and a pink flush grazes her cheek.
“Am I the first person you’ve ever brought into your world?” My voice is hushed at first, but she doesn’t respond. Her eyes seem occupied by some other bullshit somewhere else. “Jesus Christ, you could have killed me!” I stand up and put my hand up to my head, ready to attack the sopping wet mane, but my hair isn’t wet. “Why isn’t my hair wet?”
“Because the glass isn’t water. It’s still glass, but it’s a faster moving liquid than normal glass, so it doesn’t make our hair wet. I can still breathe in it, but I function differently than you do. I thought you’d be fine.”
I probably should have been fine, like a totally normal person would have been fine, but these panic attacks just kind of come from nowhere. I’m not sure if I should tell Hana that, though, so I just shrug instead. I look back to where we just made our entrance into this world. I thought I’d see the same ancient mirror, but instead, it’s a smooth flowing waterfall, but not like Victoria Falls or anything. There’s a small river above it, but the water that comes down drops to nowhere it seems.
“Weird.” I touch the water gently, hoping not to jam my fingers again, but it acts just like I expect water to. “Why can I touch it when we’re here?”
“You don’t need a guide to leave the world,” she says. My eye brows raise.
“But you can’t get into your mirror without me,” she says quickly.
“Oh, okay.” I turn back around to see the new place we are in. Mostly, there are trees. Just like a shit-ton of trees and green except for a dirt path that cuts right down the middle from the portal we just walked through. “Are we in Washington?”
She shakes her head. “No, this is the first step to enter into Glass.” Her hands wave over the ground above us, like a welcoming gesture. I’m still unimpressed. I mean, we’ve got trees in my world.
“All right, show me what’s so special about this place.”
Scarlet Cardino works in Sales for a large plastics firm, so she spends forty hours a week bored out of her mind. Consequently, she can pay bills and has ample income for her favorite hobby.
Serial killer is an over-used title. Scarlet thinks of herself more as a scientist exploring an unethical frontier. All the data she collects is safely stored in a small notebook stored in her motorcycle at her aunt’s cousin’s best friend’s estranged, dead mother’s house. It’s a terribly convenient location.
Although, fate had little to do with it.
The daughter rents the house out to a retired hermit she found on craigslist—also dead—but if the checks keep coming, no one seems to care.
Anyway, enough history, let’s get on with it.
This is the story of experiment forty-four, who cut Scarlet off on the freeway and must now pay her debt to society.
The ocean line expands before me, pulsating, tugging at my memories.
Sofi holds my hand, and Gloria stands rigid at my side. She looks over at me.
“I know this place,” she says.
I nod. “This was my favorite beach. We came here when we were girls.”
“Ah, we used to race to see how far we could swim. You were such a good swimmer for being so little.”
Her words feel like a wasp sting to my gut. “My parents brought me here when I was young–every summer–until…” I snap my mouth closed.
“Haize? Why are we here?”
There’s salt water running down my face, then. The stones in my chest multiply, but the pressure built behind my eyes for nearly twenty years rejoices. Relief and heartbreak–how these feelings are so deeply intertwined.
“Teddy’s here.” My voice is barely audible above the crashing waves.
“How do you know?” Sofi asks.
“This is where I left him.”
Gloria doesn’t speak. Sofi unclasps her hand from mine and wraps it tight around my waist. She’s young, but in that moment, I watch her childhood fade. She won’t remember Glass after today–none of us will. I can only pray that we remember each other.
There was a low murmur in the trees that night. I should have known then she was coming.
The sun had begun to set, and darkness hummed in the east with the wind. Crickets chimed as I stood on my porch, ringing like alarms. The trees in my neighborhood seemed to whisper her name is they danced around me.
Angeline, Angeline, Angeline.
Their warning gave me pause at the front door, tousling my hair, desperate to hail my attention.
But I pretended not to speak their language. “Everything is fine,” I said, slamming the front door behind me.
CHAPTER ONE–August 2, 2007
November “Milly” Ray crouches underneath the front window of her gray stucco house. Her chest heaves under the sharp California sun.
A man’s deep voice yells from the open window above her, “Where are you?”
Milly covers her mouth to quiet her breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
She doesn’t dare move her feet, even though tall, dead grass pokes at her legs and butt. She slicks sweat away from her forehead and keeps her eyes forward, willing the red Jeep with the curly-haired boy to appear.
The stucco wall to digs into her back. Hurry up, Charlie, she thinks.
A beaded bracelet hangs loosely on her wrist, and Milly clutches one of its beads between her fingertips that are slowly turning white.
Above her, her father, Jonah, mumbles to himself; his voice is hard but the words are strung together like a bracelet, indistinguishable from one to the other.
Milly’s fingers stroke the different textured beads threaded together on her wrist until she feels the bead she’s looking for. Her eyes lock onto a square, blue bead. Inhale. She looks across the street, searching for similar objects—the neighbor’s hose box across. Exhale. A garage door. Inhale. A window. Exhale. She looks down the street, but Charlie’s car is still no where to be seen. Inhale. She sees other houses, all the same two-story, gray-colored stucco as hers. At the far end, ten houses down and a good half mile, the cul-de-sac seems to form around one house that sticks out among the rest: a deep blue, two-story home with horizontal boards and a wrap around porch—Charlie’s house. Exhale.
The front door slams open.
“Crap,” Milly says. She jolts up and starts running down the street. The sun pricks at her skin and beads of sweat bubble from her forehead. The dry air sucks the moisture from her mouth. After passing five houses, Milly’s eyes flick back to her house. But Jonah is nowhere in sight. She slows down, careful to avoid the uneven slabs and cracks in the pavement.
Suddenly, a red Jeep blows through a stop sign at end of the street.
“Finally,” she says and flops onto the grass of a neighboring house, hiding in the shade of a canyon oak tree.
The Jeep slows in front of her until it putters to a stop and a plum of smoke rises from the exhaust.
Milly goes to it and yanks the door open. “You’re late, Charlie. Again,” she says.
Charlie offers her full-tooth smile. “So sorry, princess, practice took forever.” Milly rolls her eyes.
He looks her up and down. “Why were you walking?”
“I just needed some air.”
“It’s 104 degrees.”
His eyes narrow and gaze in the direction of her house. “Is Jonah home?”
Again, she shrugs. “Move your crap, so I can sit down.”
“Sorry,” Charlie says as he grabs a half-drank gallon of water from the passenger seat and throws it into the back seat. It lands on top of his wrestling bag. Milly plops into the seat, and maneuvers her feet away from the graveyard of Red Bull on the floor. The seatbelt clicks as Charlie slams the engine into gear. Milly cranks the AC, and rests back, listening to the Van Halen CD booming from the Jeep’s speakers.
Charlie, Milly’s best friend since childhood, is tall and lean—built for wrestling. He has brown eyes and milk chocolate skin. His face is oval-shaped with sharp cheekbones and a smile that could melt the hardest heart—he’s easily one of the more attractive guys at their high school, but to Milly, he’s like a little brother.
Charlie speeds out of the neighborhood past a blur of cream houses and trees and brown yards, slowing the Jeep only enough to roll through stop signs before speeding past other houses. They drive out of the track-home neighborhoods and near the half-million dollar homes where Charlie slows a little, so Milly can drool a little over her dream houses, until they reach a small strip of land and then a trailer home park. He slams back on the accelerator. Eventually, they reach more track-homes that are newer than Milly’s house and those homes unfold onto a small shopping center with a Chinese food restaurant, an ice cream parlor—Milly’s favorite, Stater Bros. Grocery store, and a small liquor market—Jonah’s favorite.
As she and Charlie drive past Beaumont High School, Milly’s stomach flips. She takes a deep breath, only exhaling when they turn onto Cherry Valley Blvd and the school is out of sight. Cherry Valley Blvd slices through rolling hills of yellow grass that seemingly go on for miles.
Eventually, Charlie turns the radio down, and Van Halen fades away. He looks over at Milly but can’t catch her eye.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” she says.
“Of course. If he was that bad, you should have called me,” he asks.
Milly shakes her head. “Like you’d answer?” she teases.
“I would have!”
“You don’t let anything get in the way of practice.”
“You are more important than wrestling.”
Milly smiles. “It’s not that big of deal. I’ve avoided him most of the morning.”
After a while Charlie asks, “Are you okay?”
Milly plays with the bracelet on her wrist, rolling a circular bead over and over again, counting under her breath. One tire, two tires, three, four, five. “I already know what you’re thinking. I’m fine.”
“You always say that.”
“Because it’s always true, Charlie. I’ve lasted this long. Another year isn’t going to kill me.”
Charlie takes a deep breath. “You sure?”
“Yes.” Her eyes fixate on the road, away from Charlie’s gaze.
Charlie’s mouth opens to say something else, but he quickly shuts it again. Milly straightens her back and puts on a smile. “Would you just calm down? Stop worrying about me.”
“I won’t let this go.”
“Just give it a rest. I can’t handle another lecture this summer.”
Charlie focuses back on the road, taking a deep breath. It doesn’t matter how much this bothers her. Eventually, she’ll listen, he thinks.
“Maybe if you moved with your aunt, you’ll have to go to another school. But at least that way you won’t have to face everyone after last year…”
“Drop it, Charlie. I’m not moving, and I’m not running away from anything or anyone. Last year is no one’s business: including yours. You promised.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“No one’ll remember what happened last year anyway,” she says. The pitch of her voice rises. “I’m sure a lot of things happened over the summer for everyone; they won’t even care about me anymore.”
The car is silent. They pull off the freeway. Palm trees spring up every few blocks, and front yard after front yard sports brown lawns.
It feels like a boulder sits in Charlie’s stomach—he shouldn’t have pushed it. Everything changed last year, even Milly and Charlie’s friendship. She won’t admit it, but Charlie knows she thinks about last year a lot. She shifts in her chair and plays with that stupid bracelet, rubbing it like a genie that can fix all her problems. He slows at a red light. The only noise comes from the traffic of the overpass and the incessant click-click-click of his blinker. He can’t stand it anymore.
“There’s got to be somewhere—someone—better.”
“We’ve been over this a thousand times; there is no one else who wants me and no one I want. I know it doesn’t make sense to you, but that’s home to me—”
“God knows why,” he says while rolling his eyes. She glares at him. “Sorry,” he says quickly as he pulls off the freeway.
“This is my senior year, and I’m not going anywhere. I feel really good about it, and nothing that happened last year is going to stop me from having a good year. Just drop it, okay?”
“All right, all right,” he says.
The car slows to a stop. There’s a long cement gate that encloses a green park, filled with tall cypress trees that cast shadows across the entire park.
There’s an oxidized metal sign hanging from the gate: Hillside Memorial Park. Open six AM to dusk. Milly takes a few deep breaths and exits the car.
If you missed part one, catch it here. Otherwise, here you go:
“Leave that poor woman alone.”
“As president of the HOA, it is my job to care about our neighbors.” “That’s just your excuse to be nosey.”
“Bite your tongue. I just want to help.”
Emily made a rather large and embarrassing scene last year when Tristan left her for the local school teacher, who was twenty-two. She threw his stuff everywhere, screaming and cursing left and right. She kept saying something about how she never should have come here and how she hated him and wished she never left California and how she would never make this mistake again. They were only married for six years. Eric and I have been married for twenty- three, and sometimes I wish he’d leave me for another woman.
Eric doesn’t say anything else, and I don’t wait for him to speak. I already have my coat and gloves on. I open the door and step into the sharp air. It’s getting so cold, breathing hurts. I wrap my scarf around my nose to warm the air. I clutch my arms to my chest, trying to keep out the cold. As the light fades and the street lights turn on, each passing minute seems to drive the temperature further south. I reach the curb before Emily’s house and stop a few feet before her garden.
I watch her focused eyes and steady arm move quickly between weed and plant. I watch the way she deftly clips, pulls, and hacks at the garden’s plants. The result is stunning. The garden starts at the curb and goes back six feet into the yard. Every few feet, a new plant erupts from ground. A stone path separates the two sections evenly and leads to the house. The front row of flowers is a maze of marigolds and the next row is full of small pink and red roses. White lilies line the stone path and end a few feet before the house.
“Your garden is beautiful,” I finally say.
She jumps with a start. Her eyes meet mine and narrow. Her lips form a flat line. She looks back at the ground, and her arm whacks the weeds harder. I wonder if it’s me she imagines in the dirt.
“Thank you,” she says, so quiet I almost miss it.
“You’re welcome. How do you keep them in bloom so long?”
“Meticulous pruning,” she says, and her eyes flick up. She snips the head off of a small rose bud.
“Oh,” I say. A cold breeze slithers up my coat. I move my back foot closer to the house and wrap myself tighter in my coat. “It’s so cold outside. Aren’t you freezing?”
She wears a long sleeve shirt covered in mud and small moth holes. Her pants are worn and muddy, as well. Her skin is red and small patches look nearly frost bitten. “You look it,” I say.
“You know, Mrs. Robins down the street uses these plastic bags to keep her flowers from dying in the cold. You put this bag thingy over the flowers. It works like a miniature,” I pause. “You know I can never quite remember the name,” I laugh, but it sounds forced. I hope Emily doesn’t notice.
“Greenhouse,” she says.
“Oh, yeah! That’s the one. Well, anyway, I’m sure if you talk to her, she’ll show you how to keep those beautiful plants alive all winter long.”
“I won’t be here much longer.”
“Oh? What do you mean?” I try to stifle the excitement in my voice, but it’s hard.
“I mean, I won’t be here during the winter. I’m going back to California. I couldn’t care less to live through another winter here.”
I don’t say anything, but the knot in my stomach loosens slightly. I repress a sigh of relief.
“I’m just getting the yard ready to sell,” she says.
I look at the garden, but my eyes wander to the house behind it. The brown paint is peeling slightly. The panel walls are loose in areas and completely missing in others. Not to mention, there are several small holes in the roof. “What about the rest of it?”
She glares at me, and my face turns pink and hot.
“I don’t have time to fix the rest of it. I don’t care about it much either. We bought it as a fixer upper, so I don’t mind selling it that way.” She doesn’t say her husband’s name, but we both know that’s who she means when she says “we.”
“Oh,” is all I can say. I wait a few more seconds, but she stops looking at me and resumes the work on her garden. “I’m sorry to see you go. I know we’ll all miss—“
I stand at the kitchen sink, elbow deep in soapy water. I mindlessly caress the water for any signs of leftover dishes from dinner. It’s still early, though. In the west, the sun shines just above purple mountain peaks. Usually, I like to have dinner made and finished before the sun sets, so I can sit on the porch and enjoy tea and cookies.
I won’t be sitting on the porch tonight, though. Across the street, my neighbor, Emily Hale, hunches over rose shrubs and marigolds in her yard. Her head bobs among the different plants, inspecting and analyzing each before she hacks away at weeds and unruly vines. Occasionally, she gets up and stands behind the shrubs, which still have some blossoms despite the coming winter, to admire or criticize her work; then, it’s back to hacking. I creep down a little at the sink when she stands up, so she won’t see me watching her.
I can’t take my eyes off her. I have never seen a face as strange as hers. She has a long, pointed nose and black eyes surrounded by the wrinkles of crow’s feet. Emily’s jet-black hair once fell to the middle of her back, which made her pale face appear striking. A few weeks ago, though, she hacked her hair to pieces and left only an inch or two that now look like mangy feathers. There’s a furrow so deep in her brow line that even across the street, I can visibly see it. She’s ten years younger than I am. She looks so much older than thirty-three.
There aren’t any laugh lines around her mouth. It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen her smile.
My fingers brush past the edge of one of my favorite porcelain plates. “Gotcha,” I say to myself. I clean the last dish and drain the sink water.
I reach the living room and lean on the door frame. My husband watches the local evening news on his 52 inch flat screen television. He sits on my favorite plush blue sofa. Under each elbow is a pink and white embroidered pillow. I narrow my eyes at him.
“Eric, elbows off my pillows,” I say.
His forehead wrinkles and his lip puckers. “Jesus, Maggie. What’s the point of having these things if I can’t ever use ‘em?” My nose crinkles at him, and I waddle over to the couch and pluck one of the pillows from under his arms.
He glares at me and puts all of his body weight on the remaining pillow. “Please,” I beg. “You know how important they are to me.”
“Everything is important to you.” His lip snarls, and he refocuses his attention on the news.
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
He doesn’t look at me. His reply comes from the side of his mouth as if answering my question isn’t worth all of his effort. “I’m tired of not being able to touch anything in my house.”
I roll my eyes and sit on the couch. I think of Emily across the street. “She’s lucky her husband isn’t around to ruin all her prized possessions,” I mumble.
He turns the TV off and looks at me. “What was that, darling?” He says with a sarcastic scowl.
“Nothing. I was just thinking about Emily. You can keep watching television if you want.”
“Thank you for the permission, but if you’re sitting here, I know you’re gonna interrupt it anyway. What were you sayin’?”
“I was just thinking about our neighbor. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her smile. I just wonder about her, especially after she hacked off all her beautiful hair.”
“It looks sexy.”
My eyes widen. “Well, I think it looks atrocious.” I say it like a challenge, daring him to argue with me.
“She’s in shock.”
“She’s losing it,” I say.
“Give her a break. She’s had a hard year, Margaret.”
“I know. The ladies in town are concerned.”
“I’m sure you’re all very concerned.” His eyes roll.
I ignore his comment. “It’s been a year since Tristan left her. She’s had plenty of time to move on and get on with her life. Now is not the time to hack your hair to bits and be rolling in dirt all evening. She should be meeting other men, falling in love again.”
Eric laughs, and it takes me off guard. “What?” I ask.
“If I dragged ya away from your home and all the people you love and then left ya for a younger woman, it would take ya years to recover.”
“So you do listen to the neighborhood gossip,” I say and smile. He shakes his head.
“I talked to her.”
“When?” My eyes go wide again.
I don’t say anything.
“She didn’t even get to go to her daddy’s funeral a couple years ago because Tristen said they couldn’t afford it.”
“I heard she didn’t get along with her father.”
“If ya asked, you’d know she loved her father. His death crushed her.”
“She didn’t act crushed. She just pouted all around the neighborhood.”
“Probably ‘cause she couldn’t go to California. She doesn’t have anyone left.”
“No one?” I ask.
He nods. “Ya may want her to leave, but she’s got nowhere to go.”
Again, I don’t respond. I call my mother every week, even to this day. I still see my big sister a few times a year. I can’t imagine not having anyone.
I straighten myself. “I know it’s been hard for her, but that’s still no excuse for her behavior lately. Just last week, someone saw her in the grocery store and tried to say hi, and she didn’t respond. Who does that? And someone else saw her yelling on the phone, swearing up a storm. She’s very rude.”
Eric shakes his head and turns the television back on.
I stand up, and as I stomp back to the window to resume watching Emily, the wood flooring whimpers under my weight. The skyline lingers in orange, pink, and the lightest of blues. I try to take it all in, but Emily is hard to ignore. Her angry scowl distracts me from the beautiful Midwest sunset. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for thirty-eight years, and I won’t let some bitter woman ruin this place for me. If I can talk some sense into her, maybe she can learn to act normal. I march towards the front door.
“Maggie, where are you going?” My husband calls. The television volume turns down. “I’m just going to talk to Emily. I’m worried,” I yell to the living room.
“You aren’t worried.”
“No, I really am!” I am worried, I tell myself. The better she’s doing, the better the neighborhood does. I’m sure I can help out. She just needs someone to listen.
The car slows to a stop. Milly looks out and sees a long cement gate that encloses a green park, filled with tall cypress trees that cast shadows across the entire park. She takes a few deep breaths and exits the car. The hot summer sun pricks at her skin, and a stale breeze tugs at her cloths and hair.
She looks at the oxidized metal sign:
Hillside Memorial Park.
Open six AM to dusk.
A small breeze catches Milly’s hair as she lays out a white sheet from her bedroom to sit on. Scattered around, tall cypress and eucalyptus trees tower above her head, and although it’s midday, a shadow falls across the large park. Streams of light glow from the tops of the soaring trees and shoot to the ground like stars falling across the sky. Some of the rays fall on Milly’s face. She takes in a deep breath to steady her breathing as she and Charlie sit down. To her, this is home and she can’t imagine going anywhere that might take her away.
Milly reaches over the cotton sheet into a pink Easter basket, pulling Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches out. She place one in front of herself and passes the other to Charlie, but doesn’t take a bite; rather, she looks at a tombstone in the lawn next to her.
Elaine Milly Ray
Beloved Wife and Mother
August 2nd, 1969 – November 1st, 1999
Milly tried to write a letter to her mother earlier in the day about last year, but it was too hard. Instead,she told her mother about what she and Charlie had done over the summer, even the impromptu road trip up the coast to San Francisco. At the very bottom of the letter, she wrote, “Here’s to my last year of Hell and another great year in Heaven for you. I’m going to make this one the best of all. God help me,” as a pit formed in the bottom of her stomach.
“Hey, Char?” she calls, handing the newest letter to her best friend.
Charlie reaches out and grasps the sealed letter, marked Mom’s Birthday 2007 in his hands.
“With the others, please? And did you bring 2004’s letter?”
“Yeah. Here.” After shoving the first letter in his pocket, Charlie hands Milly an old, folded piece of paper. She opens it slowly, cautiously, like the words on the page would fall off and spill onto the ground if she moves too quickly, and reads:
Dear Mom, 8/2/04
I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday and tell you how much I love you. I miss you so much. I’m doing alright. I’m going to be a freshman! I’m so nervous. Charlie says it’ll be fine, but he doesn’t know anything about high school. I still don’t have boobs yet. When did you get boobs? Jonah makes fun of me all the time… He’s lucky that I don’t make fun of him for having them. We still don’t get along. He still drinks, but I guess I’m not surprised anymore.
Today, Charlie surprised me and came over. His grandma drove us to your grave, and we had an old fashioned picnic. It was really nice to talk to you again. I think Charlie misses you just as much I do. We’re gonna visit you every year on your birthday. I love you, Mom. See you next year.
“Will you ever want the rest of those letters back?” Charlie asks. Milly folds the letter and thinks.
Elaine died of cancer sixteen days before Milly’s tenth birthday. Before she died, she gave Milly a box of letters: one written for every birthday Elaine would miss (until Milly was the age of twenty-five), a letter for all nine of her previous birthdays, and letters marking important moments in Milly’s life—first boyfriend, becoming a woman, high school, college, getting married, first baby, etc.
Milly tried to read all the letters right after her mom died, but most of the letters were complicated and hard for her to understand. It made her more angry and confused. Her mom was gone and she would have to face the fact that she was alone with Jonah. He tried to throw away the letters at one point, when Milly was eleven. Ever since then, she’s kept all of the letters she was given or wrote to her mother with Charlie.
“You ask me that every year,” she laughs.
“I’m just waiting for the day you want them back.”
“That won’t be for a long time,” she says.
If you missed part one, go here.
She smiles again. Jaime’s phone starts ringing in his pocket.
“It looks like I need to get going.” He thrusts Arra through the door. She hits Binglie with a thud, but the small woman doesn’t move an inch. Arra turns back toward Jaime, but Binglie wraps an arm around Arra’s waist while the other hand grasps the file. Jaime gestures toward Binglie’s arms. “Do whatever you want with that.” It isn’t clear if he means the file or Arra. He throws Arra’s trash bag past Binglie and into the house.
“See you soon, Jaime.” Arra looks up.
Jaime laughs. “If you’re so certain, I suppose I will.” He starts to descend the stairs.
A small black blur crosses his neck and hides behind his collar.
“Jaime!” Arra’s voice is high-pitched but hoarse, like she hasn’t spoken in months.
He turns on his heel and glares at her.
“Eight,” Arra says.
He takes the stairs two at a time and wraps a massive hand around Arra’s throat. “What did you say to me?”
Her face begins to swell slightly, but her only response is a small smile. Jaime lets her go. Jaime and Binglie’s eyes meet. “I hope to see you soon… With this one obedient.”
“Drive safe,” Arra says.
He makes a deep guttural growl. He turns away, as Binglie yanks Arra inside and slams the door.
“I wanted to watch him leave,” she says.
“How does it feel to want, my dear?” Binglie pushes Arra through the living room. There’s a thin layer of dust on the top levels of cabinets and bookshelves and the prints of paintings lining the walls, otherwise, the house is spotless. Fresh lines of a vacuum mark the floors and arch around the furniture. The colors on the couch shine bright and crisp and unused. Arra scans the room harder. Spider webs hide in the cracks between some of the furniture. There’s a fire place in the center of the farthest wall, but ash doesn’t line the bottom like Arra’s previous parents’ home.
I come from my hiding spot and latch a thin, almost transparent rope to Arra’s back. She notices my appearance behind her and smiles.
“This place is so neat, Binglie” she says.
“When I speak to you, call me Mrs. Choice. Otherwise, don’t speak.”
“I don’t like it here. I’m glad my friends came.”
Binglie chuckles. “You have no friends here.”
Binglie leads Arra through the living room to the study in the back of the house. Bookshelves line the wall, but cob webs and dust cover nearly every shelf. A gold lamp illuminates the room in a dull yellow. A middle-aged man sits behind the desk, studying paperwork. He looks up when Binglie raps at the door. “Bron,” she says.
Bron rolls his eyes. “Thank you, dear. I can see that. What is her name?”
“Arra,” says Arra.
Bron stands and walks over to Arra. His eyes scan the little girl up and down. The left corner of his mouth pulls up. “She’s a confident little thing, isn’t she?”
Arra nods. Bron kneels down, so his eyes are level with hers. His fingers wrap around her mouth and dig into her cheeks.
“Don’t be.” He looks at Binglie. “How long until she’s eighteen?
“Nine years,” she says.
He sighs. “That won’t do.”
“I won’t be here that long,” Arra says.
Bron moans. “Make her stop.”
Binglie nods. She grabs the back of Arra’s shirt and pulls up, catching under her armpits. Suddenly, she’s two feet off the ground. She tries kicking Mrs. Choice, but her new mother just moves her out of kicking reach. Arra gives up and just hangs there, staring at Binglie.
“She’s our last,” he says.
“I know. We’ll take care of it before then.”
“Then why take her in?”
“Her story’s incredibly interesting.”
Bron raises an eyebrow. “What is her story, then?”
“All of her last foster families have died of things like heart attacks, organ failure, blood clots–seemingly normal, but when you add the multitude of dead.”
His voice rises like a child asking for candy. “That’s a lot of death surrounding one little girl. All of them, you say?” He’s smile widens.
“Yes,” Arra pipes up.
To be continued…
In the mountains of San Bernardino, just behind Resting Grace Cemetery, there’s a building unseen by patrons of the grave and citizens of the curious. It stands hidden behind rows of thick pines and forgotten loved ones. Polk Home for Disadvantaged Children houses the most vile rejects of the Foster Care system, including its caretakers—Bron and Binglie Choice. Mr. and Mrs. Choice care for their way-ward children with as much love and kindness as rabid lions.
Being the sole survivor of “The San Bernardino Orphanage Massacre,” I believe my story carries the most accuracy among the swirling and outrageous rumors. Permitted, I’d like to set the record straight. My name is Cane the Great, and this is the story of Arra Needers.
I sit at the window sill, anxiously awaiting Arra’s arrival. A man I presume to be the newest social worker assigned to the young girl he currently drags toward the building. His buzz cut contrasts his clean, silver suit that bulges over his muscles.
At barely 4’11 and seventy-eight pounds, Arra appears unthreatening, yet Jaime’s tan hand remains steady, even when they reach the door. She clenches a black trash bag, which carries all her belongings. I tried to convince her to steal a backpack or something from one of her old families’ houses, but she always refuses. “Stealing is bad,” she says. After everything that’s happened in her life, stealing seems a petty issue; she’s firm in her naïve views of good and bad, however.
Jaime’s strong arm pokes the door bell. The low ringing bell sounds more like a bad omen than an alert to the arrival of guests.
“Don’t get any ideas, girl. This is the end for you,” I hear him say—his deep voice echoing through the door.
Arra’s eyes flick up, and a small smile pulls over her white teeth. Her hair twists down her back in tight braids, and her dark brown eyes scan the building in front of her. I know this building well. I’ve been here for quite some time—watching and learning everything I can to assist Arra’s transition.
The afternoon light casts dark shadows across the stone building. Every window is lined with bars, making escape impossible except through the back door or front door. Footsteps stomp toward the living room. I rush behind the curtain.
“Who is it?” A woman’s voice echoes.
“Jaime Villa,” the man says. “I have your newest daughter.”
The woman cackles—it comes from deep in her throat and explodes out of her mouth like thunder. The door swings open.
The little girl stands close enough that I can hear her heaving breathing. My heart yearns to comfort her, but I stay hidden for fear of being found by my newest hosts.
“Jaime, always a pleasure,” says the woman, whose name easily escapes my mind. I peek out from the curtain, just a little. The woman’s light green eyes look like slashes on her thin face. There isn’t a pore or freckle in sight, but a light dusting of make-up. Brown hair flows from her head like a waterfall to her slender waist.
“It’s been too long, Binglie,” says Jaime. Ah, that’s her ridiculous name.
The woman smiles, and Arra’s mouth falls open. There are no curves in Binglie’s teeth, only sharp shark-like teeth.
“It’ll be longer. The old man doesn’t want any more children.”
Jaime’s head cocks. “I thought this was his favorite business.”
“It’s mostly mine, but it pays the bills. When I see you again, it’ll be the usual—one child less.” Her eyes finally move from Jaime to Arra.
“Speaking of, who’s this?”
“Arra Needers,” he says. He hands her a file that he kept tucked under his free arm. “That’s everything you’ll need to know.”
Binglie looks through it, speed-reading each page. “Interesting.”
“I told you that you’d want her.”
She smiles again.