Single file, Annabel, Butter, and Cami hiked into the rising purple. Annabel, naturally, was in the lead. She was the bravest of the three friends, the bravest person in Dauphin Falls, and possibly the bravest person on the planet. She cuts her own bangs. Cami, with her long lean legs, strode closely behind Annabel matching her steps. Further behind, Butter marched at her own pace taking in the mountain laurel and larkspur. Butter’s government name was Berenice after a much beloved mustached ancestor. Her family called her Bertie, but the first day of first grade Annabel christened Berenice Butter Fly Girl and the name and the friendship stuck even a decade later. Cami slowed down to walk beside Butter. Cami, an army brat, had moved to the Falls five years ago. They were the Alphabet Three. Cami and Butter started a lopsided kick ball change, off kilter from their backpacks. They crested at the abandoned quarry. Saffron and blush blossoms dotted the flinty stones. Annabel’s dad had taken her here with her brother years ago. She remembered its strange beauty. That memory had been folded and refolded, tucked in a pocket of her heart. Annabel wanted to share her treasure with her friends. She realized she had been missing them even though they saw each other at school. Annabel turned. Cami’s smile was incandescent. The tall girl spun ala The Sound Of Music. “This is mad fire,” Cami shouted still spinning. Annabel noticed Butter seemed distracted and drawn into herself. “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening,” Annabel asked Butter. “Mariposa, you in there.” Butter shook her curls and gave an over wide smile. “Mos def, it’s just…getting dark.”
Soon there was a campfire, a tent, cheap hard seltzers, and an abundance of candy bars. Their laughter floated in the quarry’s velvety black sky. Holding her sides, Cami laughed herself into hiccups. “Guys don’t make me pee.” Another riot of laughs bounced up from the quarry’s edge. “Wait what’s that?” Cami pointed to a dark patch on the other side of the rim, a man shaped dark patch. The three stopped and stared. The darkness had no features, its outline seemed to blur and reform. It was blacker than black, the theft of light, vantablack. Annabel stood and let loose a string of profanity. Cami searched for the high powered flashlight. She found the light under the cooler and turned it on. Her hands trembled as the bright beam stretched across the quarry to reveal nothing. Cami swung the light blindly. Annabel steadied her, holding Cami tightly against the darkness. The beam fell across Butter. Her face was pale, her eyes hooded. “It’s back. I’m sorry. It has been with me since I can’t remember when. I’m sorry I never thought—“ Annabel hauled Butter to her feet and Cami drew them all into a tight circle against the night.
“You’re that girl, ain’t ya?” The man said. Addison gave him the side eye and returned to stocking. She had clocked him the moment he stepped in the Shop Stop. Long dark coat, the man was skinny. Not lanky or a little underweight but rail thin, he bordered on meth chic. His skin was pale and reminded Addison of undercooked fish. Dude had a mullet for Christ’s sakes. Addison focused on the orderly shelves. “Yeah it’s you the one nobody believed. Can I get a pack of Winstons?” Skinny asked. Arms folded, he leaned against the ice cream freezer. Addison slammed down a box of Slim Jims and marched behind the cash register. With a flutter of his long black leather coat, Skinny slinked to in front of the register. Addison recoiled. “I don’t want trouble, Mister,” Addison said. She set the cigarettes in front of him. He pointed one long skeletal finger. Addison handed him a book of matches. Skinny handed her his credit card. “I’m not in the business of giving trouble away for free. I just wanted to say I believe you. I believe you about the pretty rich boy and the school coverup. You can bury yourself in this go nowhere job in this go nowhere town. Or you can just bury your problem.” Addison froze. In fast sinewy strides Skinny walked to the entrance. He tipped his fedora to her, opened the store’s front door, and disappeared into the night. Addison wrapped herself in her arms and locked down. On the Shop Stop counter there was a used matchbox empty but for a handwritten phone number.
“It’s true I read it on the internet. Crows can recognize faces and even hold grudges. There was this study at the University of Washington where researchers wore masks to test crows’ facial recognition,” Maisie sputtered to a stop at the bemused look on her wife’s face. Maisie tossed down her spoon into her oatmeal bowl. Jillian covered her grin with a mouthful of buttered toast. Maisie grabbed her bowl and stomped into the kitchen. “Well if you’re not going to even listen.” “I’m listening you hate living in a parsonage, you hate people dropping in, the neighbors are weird, there’s no good sushi, and now an evil raven screams at you and dives at your face. I heard you sweetie. The bird waits for you or something. Sweetie you gotta see —“ “Crow not a raven a crow,” Maisie said as she angrily grabbed her tote bag and purse. “Right, a crow,” Jillian said drawing the words out slowly. Maisie slammed random cabinets. Grumbling rumbled from the kitchen into the breakfast nook. Jillian rubbed at her temples. “Hey sweetness, a group of crows is a murder so what’s one bird called grievous bodily harm?” Jillian’s joke bounced against the front door as Maisie slammed it.
Maisie ate her tomato and spinach eggs quietly. Jillian stole glances at her while pretending to study the Count Chocula cereal box. Jillian cracked first. “Anything exciting today in the world of high school Social Studies?” Silence. “ I’m sorry about yesterday morning and the bird thing. I care I do. I was just trying to lighten the mood. The SPRC chair speaking of mood lighteners told me this ridiculous idea he had to attract ‘youngsters’ he actually said youngsters why not call us whippersnappers,” Jillian said. “He has no idea not a clue.” She laughed and started her story. Maisie carried her plate to the sink. “Sometimes you fall in love with ideas instead of people,” Maisie mumbled as she washed her dish. “So are we cool? You can handle the coffee hour this Sunday. Verna has sciatica. Wait sweetie what do say?” With an armful of bags, Maisie threw open the front door and left the house. Jillian heard a scream a curse and then the squeal of tires.
Jillian didn’t know what woke her up. Morning light gushed into their bedroom windows. Last night was rough. They had argued about anything and everything well past midnight. Maisie slept on the sofa. She was being so unyielding so unlike the rock Jillian had always leaned upon. They just needed something. Maybe a weekend away or a nice dinner maybe after Annual Conference they could go to the shore.
Jillian stretched in their bed. She froze when she heard a caw. Jillian rushed to the window. Maisie’s car was just outside their driveway t-boned by a delivery truck. People had gathered. The car was flattened The air thicken as Jillian tried to take in what she saw. The caw shook her as a large black bird stood on her wife’s hood. Shimmery black, the crow marched in a triumphant circle in the smoky car carcass, cawing again and again almost like laughter.
Once again, Harley, we are so sorry about this mixup. Dementors really pushed to go paperless, so all of Seven Rings of Hell had to do the Microsoft rollover over the summer but somehow all of the Teutonic demons never got the memo and now…” Nysroh trailed off shrugging his leathery wings trying to express the indescribable. The recently deceased can be so mercurial, he thought. Wrapped in a celestial shawl over her Muppet Show tee and joggers, the lost soul yawned. “Right, right, and all the records are in the cloud and I’m in Hell until it gets straightened out. Got it. The name’s Charlie by the way, not Harley. It’s short for Charlotte, and I’m kind of exhausted from the whole trolley running me over thing. Where am I bunking, Batty?” “Yes, Carly right this way.” Nervously the second order demon waved a talon and ushered Charlotte through his newly opened swirling portal. One more screwup and his immediate supervisor Chax relocate him to Gary, Indiana. Nysroh shivered. They stood in front of a run down gingerbread Victorian monstrosity in pink and lilac with towers and turrets and windows of various sizes. Charlotte thought it looked like a princess party cake built by an octopus. Charlotte loved it. “Remember it’s only temporary. All the best IT guys are in Hell. They’ve assured me we will be—“ “Wait how many people live here? Is this some kind of twisty Twilight Zone? Is this some kind of trick and axe murderers jump out of closets all night,” Charlotte demanded. “Noooo, unless you want people to jump out of closets. We have a directory of murderers and I know the axe murderers have a pretty active golf frisbee club. They’re creepy but excellent hand eye coordination. No one can visit this house without an invitation maybe throw at trivia—hey hey hold on!” the demon exclaimed. He flapped after his lost soul. At the sound of no drop in guests, Charlotte sprinted for the dilapidated wraparound porch and pushed open the massive front doors. She scrambled from room to room. There were bric a bric, knickknacks, and geegaws as far as the eye could see. Every room had one sofa too many, or a confusion of coffee tables. Charlotte explored the cozy clutter. “It’s so clean. How many rooms?” “Hell houses are self cleaning, duh. Room number varies based on the hell house’s whims but usually these houses set—“ the demon stopped when Charlotte screamed. “It’s a library!” Floor to ceiling shelves of books lined the walls. With thick wool rugs, rolling ladders, and velvet settees, the entire room smelt of old paper and self satisfied comfort. Charlotte swayed. Nysroh sagged. “I’m afraid so, Haley. Please don’t be too upset. The STBT, that’s the soul to be tortured, who was slated for this hell housr was a social influencer. She convinced a bunch of people to eat Tide pods then died eating chicken cooked in NyQuil. Irony, huh. Anyways so this house embodies all of her worst fears manifested no Wi-Fi, no cellular data, just books and gardening and kitten Tuesdays and unlimited carbs and somewhere around here is a movie projector, behind that stack of phonographs I think—“ Charlotte clapped her hand over the demon’s mouth, “no need to apologize. Don’t worry about me, Nysroh. I can bear Hell for a week or so. Run along now. And remember the name is Kalee, with two ees.”
“Tina, is that you? Oh my God it’s been ages. It’s me,” Lena said.
She was carrying an burnt umber plastic tray of General Tso’s chicken in the Chase Mall food court. Tina looked up at Lena with huge eyes. Lena and Tina had been thick as thieves in high school. Tina had transferred in the middle of junior year. Overnight Tina became the star of spring track and softball, cheer leader, and class photographer. Lena had been not shy but a quiet girl, who slipped along in the shadows. They met in Honors English and Lena remembered suddenly being in a spotlight of Tina. They lived in each other’s pocket. Tina’s aunt was real strict so Tina practically lived with Lena’s family. Lena stared into Tina’s big eyes of sleepovers and secrets and so much unexpected joy. Lena remembered when her best friend suddenly left town early in senior year, no email, no call. Just whispers and sympathetic looks from a few administrators. The girl in the high school cheerleader outfit said nothing. Slowly Lena took in at the girl with the big eyes’ clothes and her giggling circle of clearly teenaged girlfriends and the fear in those huge eyes. Lena stammered and walked to a table across the court. “Who’s that girl, Mommy?” Kristina asked.
Lena’s daughter bobbed alongside her with a tray of chicken fingers and waffle fries. “Do you know that girl? She’s like the one in the picture, right.” “Not anymore Teeny. Let’s chow down before the movie.”
The pair sat at the small yellow table and Kristina chatter away. Across the food court the cheerleader watched them a grateful look skittered on her face before she joined in the laughter at her table.
Uncle Lawrence was snoring. The twins, Seth and Sam, were pretending to enjoy the game. Freddy was talking to Parker. Parker was scrolling on her phone. Mom and her sister Auntie Jacks were cleaning up in the kitchen. Dad was still dead. And I was contemplating exit strategies. Where was Shona? Ducking out of Post Thanksgiving dinner was so much harder when someone had beat you to it. I snuggled under Grammy’s quilt and fantasized about driving a riding mower across the living room and out the bow windows. I turned a page of the Reader’s Digest. My mom and them cackled from the kitchen. Freddy the neighbor boy who invited himself to our holidays leaned in to Parker. The twins cursed at the tv while Uncle Lawrence farted in his sleep. “What that smell?” Parker said still looking down at her phone. Shona appeared. With her extra long locs and boho goth vibe, Shona reminded me of the girl from The Ring. I wondered if I could borrow her hell well. Then I noticed what she was holding. Then we all noticed what she was holding. “Holy shit, the Grudge found the Monopoly!” Sam shouted. Carrying a wine glass, Mom walked out of the kitchen. With a red wine mustache Auntie Jacks followed. Uncle Lawrence blinked in the afternoon sun. Shona raised the slightly crushed dust encrusted box over her head. It smelled of endless bickering, violent arguments, house rules, and that weird scent of old basements. I’d thought the game had been thrown out after the infamous snow day debacle of ‘09. Shona set it on the cleared dining room table. Even though the edges were buckled and burst it was apparent the game was completely intact. The family and Freddy took our places. Uncle Lawrence set the tv to an oldies station. The twins got a knife and the nice dessert plates. Parker carried in sweet potato pie. The smell of pumpkin pie spice and coffee mingled with old basement. Auntie Jacks plunked a boxed wine on the sideboard. Shona looked around the table and lifted the lid.
“Hello, hello,” Shanae asked. “Yes.” “Is this Yum Yum GoGo’s complaint line?” Shanae asked with an edge to her voice. “Do you not know what you called? I can direct you to medical services, brain trauma. Are you a minor in need of assistance? I can direct you to social services. If you are—“ “Back the truck up. I don’t have a problem. This meal program is the flipping problem. I’m a loyal Yum Yum customer. Where’s my customer service? What kind of person are you?” “I’m not.” There was a deep sigh over the phone. “What the what!” Shanae shouted. “I’m not a person. I’m a Sentient Artificial Intelligence SAI. State the nature of your complaint, missing delivery, spoilt item, incorrect—“ “So you’re like a souped up Siri?” The SAI sighed and cursed under its nonexistent breath. “That’s like saying a human is a souped up chimpanzee. I’m a person. You’re a person. I was alive once ordering overpriced tiny portions of food to pretend cook because I was bone idle. You’re alive now complaining apparently,” the SAI said. “Wait wait you were alive. You’re dead. I’m talking to a dead person. Wait did you call me a monkey.” “Are you sure you don’t need medical services because you are slow on the uptake? Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong with your fifty bucks of organic squash and angel hair girlfriend so we can both get out of here,” the SAI pleaded. “It’s baby carrots and you are a total bitch. Why are in customer service?” “Exactly! I didn’t apply at the funeral home to hear millennials whine over their fake ass food sensitivities. I was a food writer. I lived large and loved hard. Then I got sick and my husband couldn’t go on without me. I downloaded all that I am into an Everlast Griefbot AI so I could be Isha and Max forever. Six weeks in the ground and Max is balls deep in his grief counselor. The love of my life sold me to Dum Dum and I’m being annoyed 24/7/365. What is wrong with your damn pasta, chica?” “Damn girl, that’s the worst kind of threesome I’ve ever heard. That puts my dinner in perspective. I got marshmallows instead of ricotta but I will just make it work and shut the hell up. Sorry Isha I hope Max gets donkey kicked in the groin,” Shanae said. Sniffling, Isha said, “that’s the nicest thing I heard in a long time. I am sending you a we’re sorry coupon and a brownie pie in your next order.” “Thank you Isha and hang in there,” Shanae said sniffling. “You’re welcome Customer 675990 and remember there is no such thing as a baby carrot. They just whittle down big cheap carrots and charge you up the wazhoo. Have a lovely dinner and a wonderful evening.”
The sink was dripping. Oliver was snoring. Cookie at the foot of the bed was snoring. On the baby monitor Isabella was breathing peacefully with baby snoring. The whole world was asleep except for me. I dreamt of something, something horrible, horrendous, and gone from my mind as soon as my eyelids opened. I swam for my nightmare. It drifted furthering away. Frustrated I extracted myself from the nest of blankets and headed for the bathroom. I navigated the islands of clean laundry and baby toys. The tile was cool against my soles. The overhead light was a confirmation. My face was puffy and gray and I thought of waterlogged corpses. Roaring in my ears, the snores grew louder pressing against me. I reached for the tiny water glass and went to turn the faucet. The sink was bone dry. It wasn’t dripping. I stilled. The dripping was behind me. The dripping was around me. Without looking I knew the ceiling had swollen with moisture, bloated and taut. The dripping increased. A floating stray pink sock brushed my ankle. I set down my glass. Wading back to bed, I was weighed down with slumber. I squished down on my mattress. The snores crashed over me. My bed lifted up as the water poured down. I sank into the deluge.
“Wait how do you spell ‘sincerely’?” Carson asked. “Is there an ‘e’?” “Dude are you high? There are like three e’s and shit,” Frank whispered. An old broad in an enormous hat turned and gave them a look. Hunter had an urge to give her the finger but instead offered her a sheepish smile. He nudged his coworker in the ribs. Barrett had invited the whole office to his son’s nuptials. Barrett said it was because the company was family but Hunter figured it was to show off his fancy house. 2500 square feet with a new kitchen but builder grade bathroom fixtures in the guest bathroom, the house underwhelmed Hunter. His eyes took in the stupid Mason jar luminaries and predictable hydrangeas and calculated when he could do a Murphy fade. Frank and Carson were discussing the inscription on their joint wedding card. Hunter rolled his eyes. The bride was walking up the aisle. God he hated garden wedding. Hunter noticed a small smudge of grease on his jacket sleeve. A wave of revulsion bubbled up in his chest. He would have to have a talk with his dry cleaner. He twisted the wedding program. Then Hunter saw Ava, his Ava. Ava was the bride. His world tilted. They had met in college. Hunter had been the Resident Advisor of Ava’s freshman dorm. Electric ran up his arm the first time he saw her smile. He took care of her and showered her with attention until all of her smiles were just for him. Hunter smiled at his thoughts of her. They couldn’t get enough of each other. He couldn’t bear to share her and she was lost without him. The image of Ava’s dad intruded on his memories. Her family had come between them, taking her from school, ignoring his calls. Hunter knew love conquered all. He left her notes and gifts on her car and at her door. There had been some unpleasantness when Hunter had persisted. Storm clouds rolled across Hunter’s handsome features. Cutting all ties, they had taken her from him. Her family made her change her name and hid her from him. He squeezed his own heart commanding himself to calm. None of that mattered. She was back. She was back for him. The music swelled. Her face was so happy as she danced down the aisle. Hunter searched for all of the tiny secret signals his Ava made only for him. Carson passed Hunter the wedding card to sign. His love kindled, sparked, and blazed. With the slightest tremble in his hand, Hunter wrote to his love.
Johnny felt cold. Even though the strange vanilla room was warm, Johnny shivered in his jumpsuit. Why was he barefoot in a smooth gray jumpsuit? He had been wearing Vans and khaki cargo shorts and a buttoned-down business shirt this morning. Steve had given him serious side-eye over Johnny’s idea of business casual, but Johnny didn’t care because Steve was a shit boss and he was never going to kowtow to some corporate stooge. His head tingled. Johnny shook like a wet dog. His thoughts splattered. Johnny didn’t know why but he knew this room was one of many and it was moving. There were other people sitting in the room, too. All strangers, all fit, all around his age, they all seemed familiar. Maybe it was the jumpsuits. They had the glazed looks of people on an endless Zoom meeting. Nat would call them Zoombies. Looking around, Johnny chuckled. Nat, his Natalie, could always make him laugh. She had been so bitchy lately. They had been so good together, effortless. The last couple of weeks their dance was out of step. Johnny felt she wanted something from him but wanted him to guess. Just this morning they had snipped at each other and it had boiled over into a fight of everything and nothing. She made him late for his train. He remembered running for the Elwyn, turning over his words in his mind. His heart raced and panic rose in his throat. Filling his head, the tingling returned. Calmness settled on his shoulders and wrapped him tightly. Beneath his feet the engines sped. Johnny rubbed his neck. He was warmer now. A nice lady, also in a grey jumpsuit but with little shoes on, began talking. She was Johnny could understand her individual words, experiment, colonization, genesis. Apparently Johnny was a part of something important like he was a soldier or a pioneer. Or maybe a farmer? He just couldn’t fit everything together and how he fit in it. He tried to concentrate as the nice lady’s words slid around him. A tone sounded. Johnny knew he was missing something, something vital. Without thinking he stood with the others and walked to his pod, heading into tomorrow.