“Sit still! I can’t do my job if you keep shaking,” I said, generously applying the first layer of silicon adhesive on her chest, framing the perfect stab wounds.
May whined again, after she refused to tie her hair back even though it would’ve made this way easier for me to do. She said I was going to ruin hours of blow-drying her fiery red locks. I rolled my eyes at her, and I called her out for being a drama queen.
“Well, you’re the horror queen. I can’t believe you watch horror movies to fall asleep. You’re weird.”
“No, you’re soft and boring! Horror movies are poorly directed most of the time, and I already know what they’re portraying isn’t real. Am I supposed to act surprised right after they literally prepare me for the scare by playing suspenseful music?” I grumbled, satirically.
“You called The Conjuring, ‘a flop for being a haunted house tour with knockoff jump scares from the Ellen show.’”
I laughed at perhaps my best burst of humor. “Where’s the lie? It’s unoriginal, which makes it not scary. Scary is unprecedented—never-before-seen terror. I would’ve done a better job directing it than that dweeb, and I don’t know the first thing about filmmaking.”
“Yeah, okay, Taylor. Regardless, please make this the best costume you’ve ever made! I’m going to be so dead that they’ll never forget my costume!”
Nobody ever did, but for all the wrong reasons.
May West inhaled competition and exhaled victory. She competed in everything against everyone, ranging from decathlons to the National Merit Scholarship, and of course, the yearly best costume vote at her brother’s frat party.
May’s older brother Avan is a junior in college and one of the organizers of his frat’s Halloween bash, so he managed to squeeze us in.
Last Halloween, she wore Katniss Everdeen’s dress from Catching Fire, with hand-embroidered orange and red LED lights.
“You cannot move, or else your favorite shirt’s not going to make it. I have to apply liquid makeup and the coagulated blood on your chest and back to make this work.”
“But why?” She stretched the why longer than I expected, whining like an impatient kindergartener.
“Well, I don’t know, you usually bleed when you get stabbed.” I replied deadpan, sarcasm crawling back into my speech, settling comfortably on the tip of my tongue where it belongs. It baffled me, how, at times, she didn’t act so sharp for such a smart girl. “I promise not to mess up your shirt if you promise not to mess up my focus!”
Halloween’s about stepping out of your comfort zone and making your insulin levels skyrocket—which is why I dressed up as a hippie—the most cliché costume in the history of Halloween costumes, mainly because I didn’t care about dressing up to impress other people like she did.
The stench of cheap beer and amateur remixes ricocheted off the paper-thin walls. May was flirting with one of the brothers, and I was awkwardly dancing behind her until she asked me to come up with her to the bathroom to fix her knives’ placement before they announce the winner. I happily complied, keeping extra spirit gum in my purse like one of final three on FX’s Face Off. I trailed behind her like a bride’s veil, ready to put my skills to use.
“Enjoying the party?”
“I could think of better ways to spend my Saturday night, but it’s okay so far.”
“You should go out more! Putting makeup on your old Bratz dolls and having a can of whipped cream for dinner is not healthy!” I playfully flicked her cheek with the tip of the makeup brush I used to apply her foundation.
“Neither is drinking four glasses of beer, but you’re doing it anyway!”
“Touché, Reef, touché.”
I put the knives in, slowly, making sure to apply makeup over them and put tape around the edges for safety measures. I remembered her sitting still without a single complaint or haste movement. It was a satisfying feeling.
Never in a million years did I think that calling out my best friend for drinking too much would be the last thing I ever said to her—my best friend that I shared every moment with since pre-k. The best part was, I was blamed for what followed next…
“I want to get some fresh air! Call me when they’re starting to announce the winner. Ugh, no, who am I kidding? I’m going to be outside with Owen. Don’t follow me,” she winked and left the bathroom.
I rubbed the makeup off my hands on my legs and jumped to the hard-hitting club favorites once I returned to the dance floor. I pretended to enjoy the company of drunk guys and girls in their early twenties in a smelly basement until Avan’s friend grabbed the mic and started to announce the three best costumes. The prizes were green t-shirts with the fraternity’s name on them. May won, as I expected after orchestrating her win in the first place for days. She would’ve given me her t-shirt and enjoyed the attention by itself, but she didn’t. She never got that chance.
I kept calling her until my phone app froze. I went outside to look for her, scouring the dry bushes, going through the crowd around the backyard inflatable pool, and looking for Avan to help me find her. I had no luck.
I went back into the house, my head swirling from playing a partygoer for a night, so I headed upstairs and locked myself in the same bathroom I was in. I wanted to wait for May until she called me back. My wait for answers didn’t last much longer.
She was in the tub, in the costume I made her, eyes closed and shoes on.
“Great. I’m going to have to drag you back home this time too,” I puffed, irritated, shaking her hand and lightly tapping her face with both my hands. She didn’t respond.
“May, I swear to God, if this is one of your sick pranks, I’m going to leave you here.”
I turned her over, feeling her body weight limply take a toll on my arms. I pulled my hand out from under her back to see my skin sporting a crimson, viscous substance.
The last time she passed out at a party, Rachel Kearn and I had to carry her to a cab, and she threw up on Rachel’s Hawaiian dress.
I saw Rachel at the party that night. She and May had been inseparable until May started ditching her to hang out with me.
“You really put a lot of effort into this. Bravo, you saw me bring a spare bottle of fake blood with me in the car. Happy Halloween, West. Now, can you please pull yourself together so we can leave?! You won the contest! We can go now!” I snapped at her for making me handle her hangovers again. She had always acted like an arrogant brat when she wanted to get her way. She put my Bratz dolls to shame when she was under the influence. I was sick and tired her antics dragging me to parties and strange places on a whim, having me clean up her mess so she could be her parents’ trophy girl.
I called Avan directly out of worry, but he wouldn’t pick up. Her entire family had a genetic aversion to answering phone calls.
Then, her prank’s palpability dwindled away into thin air like the smell of alcohol and weed escaping through the bathroom window, mixing with the cold air outside.
Just like that, she started bleeding, for real. Actual blood was coming out of the fake stab wound I installed with my own hands, permanently marking me with death.
The police came as soon as an overzealous sophomore couple barged into the bathroom and saw me trembling over her. They called the cops on me, and I was already at the station before the party ended.
It all happened so fast. All I remember was going to court groggy and nauseous from the flashbacks and pleading ‘not guilty’ when the prosecution badgered me with false claims, with shackles on my hands and barbed wires in my mind. They said that I was on a hallucinogen from an edible I found at the party, and I unintentionally put in real knives from their kitchen instead of fake ones. They said there was never an ‘Owen’ at the party. I looked around the courtroom, past my parents wallowing behind me and May’s parents pretending they’d never met me before with disgusted stares. Rachel Kearns held a smug smile, and an older man seated three rows behind her seemed unbothered by the entire trial, sending a text on his flip phone at the end of the trial.
The shorter, more aggressive lawyer, said that I called Avan using May’s phone. His less savvy partner handed the judge Rachel Kearn’s alibi after I told them I was certain she was framing me, trying to get back at me for stealing her best friend. My lawyer ended up dropping the whole wrongfully accused skit after the prosecution introduced more evidence, and that’s how I ended up taking the plea deal.
A lawyer showed me a still while I was called to the stand. It was taken from one of the brothers’ Instagram Live showing me and May heading upstairs, and I had two visibly sharp kitchen knives hanging out of my clutch.
They said a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me. They said I was, ‘disoriented’, under heavy drug-induced influence, and I had ulterior motives for agreeing to go with her to this party and doing her costume after we had a fallout last Halloween.
I don’t think calling May ‘self-absorbed’ for investing hundreds of dollars on a Halloween costume counts as a fallout. The prosecution stoned me in front of my parents and hers, expecting me to agree to their school girl lies. My brain thudded from having to prove my innocence, alone. My parents left mid-trial, overwhelmed by having incriminating evidence thrown in their faces and hearing audible gasps from the jury every ten minutes.
May was my best friend. I’m going to be in an orange jumpsuit for eternity because I wanted to help her win a silly competition. I wouldn’t have planned Halloween night with her so far in advance if I had other plans in mind. I don’t think I did, anyway. My memory of that night is blurred yet peaceful. I don’t remember being angry or her resisting my help. But that’s just memory. What good is memory if it’s one-sided? What good is memory if there are people around you showing you something entirely contradictory to your self-awareness, your consciousness, and your instincts?
What I remembered no longer mattered, not even to me.
Maybe I was a pawn in a thirsty revenge plot Rachel Kearns managed to cook up, or maybe I was the center of a town conspiracy I never asked to be a part of. Or maybe I had reached a breaking point where some sort of jealousy I harbored over the years threw me into a moment of weakness, and I reacted accordingly.
I wished so many times for a third party to come forward and tell me something that validated my gut feeling, but that never happened. Maybe it will, in five or ten years, when some TV program shows interest in investigating my case for higher ratings, and they might come across my long lost overturned conviction.
Most of all, I wished for my memory. I wished for the missing pieces in the puzzle, for the time where I reached out and grabbed an edible, for the time I picked up real knives instead of fake ones, for the time I committed the crime...
What I truly wanted was my memory, not my innocence. I wanted to have a clear-cut answer when I asked myself in that courtroom: “Did I kill my best friend?”
I’d like to remember that I didn’t, but I don’t.
What good is memory when it’s replaced by evidence and arguments telling you what happened, but feelings within you arise telling you otherwise?
A conviction isn’t closure. Memory is.
Memory is truth. It is real and tangible and heartfelt, and it’s the only parameter capable of setting me free.
But it’s missing, and as long as I don’t have it, I will never be free from asking myself that question and feeling entirely powerless within the bounds of my consciousness when I do.
Harmony Jones and Mateo Jones are practically the same person. They have the same family name, the same dark brown eyes and golden chestnut hair, the same love of sugar cookies, and the same hatred towards Step Brothers. Harmony thinks Will Ferrell is overrated, and Mateo thought the drum kit scene was plain stupid. They bonded over their mutual dislike of popular movies. They’re underdogs themselves at school, so they’re always rooting for low-budget films with quality acting. Harmony and Mateo are often mistaken for twins, but that assumption is entirely false. Although they look and act the same, they don’t feel the same way about each other. Or at least, that’s what Harmony thought. She was so wrong.
“Don’t make me call the nurse! You gotta take your meds,” Mateo urged, handing her the little measuring cup filled with orange liquid.
“It tastes like death. No thanks.”
Shivers ran through Mateo’s spine at the word. It was loaded with pain and suffering and fear, his fear of losing Harmony, one way or the other.
She didn’t know it, but she had been on his mind since they decorated the sidewalk at school with orange and pink chalk. He wanted to tell her when they made hand turkeys in kindergarten, when his father got into a car crash and she squeezed his hand so hard in the taxi on their way to the hospital from game night at her place, and when her date John Denver stood her up at junior prom and he got to dance with her instead. His dad recovered from his broken rib, but Harmony never recovered from losing to Mateo playing pictionary by one point.
“I need you to stay positive, okay? And part of that is believing that treatment will make you better.”
“You’re delusional, Mateo,” No, I’m in love, he thought. “Stage four is conclusive. I’d rather not live a lie for the rest of what’s left of my life. I’ll drink the plague-flavored syrup if you promise to talk about something else.”
Mateo shrugged. He hated his uselessness—standing by idly when his best friend, shrieking in pain, held on so tight to the nurse’s hand till it bruised, and he couldn’t do anything about it. He hated that he was too afraid to tell her how he felt about her and how he always will, no matter what happens.
She was everything to him, and he couldn’t bear to lose her—as a friend or as a part of the world.
“You know, if we ever got married in a hypothetical universe where we had actual feelings for each other, we’d be the Jones’ squared!” Harmony laughed. Dating Mateo had never occurred to her. He was too familiar to risk falling for. She never thought about him like that, but she never rejected the idea either. It never crossed her mind.
Mateo held an introspective stare for the longest time when Harmony uttered the words ‘actual feelings.’ Did she really not feel a single spec of love towards him? Was he so undesirable because he badgered her over choosing Star Trek over Star Wars? Harmony’s seemingly light joke took a toll on Mateo, and he froze the second she finished her sentenced.
He searched his mind for the right thing to say, if anything, before it’s too late. Keeping this secret gave him a sense of security. He didn’t have to face reality, and he avoided rejection by doing so.
I’m taking too long to respond, Mateo realized, biting on his inner cheek to buy himself some time.
He contemplated two scenarios. In the first one, he’d profess his love with a good old trip down memory lane. In the second one, he’d tell her how he feels with three intense words.
But his better judgement failed him when Harmony snapped her fingers in his face to bring him back to reality.
“Er, um, this is cool. I mean, you’re cool,”
Nope, that’s not it, chief, Mateo scolded himself. “No, that’s not what I meant. Are we cool?”
“What? Why wouldn’t we be? Are you okay?” Harmony said, looking at him with a concerned expression.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll start over. You’re the coolest girl I know, and you’re the only girl that I can’t act cool around. You wreck my mental balance. My head gets foggy around you—”
“Gee, thanks! I think that’s what you should’ve went with on my birthday card instead of a pug eating a rainbow cupcake.”
“I’m trying to tell you that I love you, in a non-platonic way. Like, the opposite of platonic, but not in a dirty disrespectful kind of way. I value you more than anything. I respect you even when you totally cheated in Scrabble on Friday. Yeah, I saw you take out a T from your sock. My point is, I’ve always wanted to tell you, but I was too afraid to hear what you have to say. I still am, so don’t say anything,” Mateo let out a nervous laugh to ease his anxiousness. It didn’t.
Harmony answered faster than he anticipated she would. “Look, I don’t want any Fault in Our Stars melodrama in my life. I think I’m way past my sappy freshman year phase. I don’t know why you’re doing this to yourself, Mateo. Go love someone that’s sticking around! Why are you wasting your energy on a soon-to-be dead girl? Do me a favor, and start thinking about someone else.” Harmony never intended to sound spiteful, but she was so hurt from accepting her own mortality and misleading someone she cared about. She blamed herself for not interrupting Mateo more often when he said something starting with, ‘When you get out…’
“You really put the Harm in Harmony, hun?” He scoffed.
“You’re right. I did. I harmed you by entertaining your false hopes, and I harmed my parents by dragging them into suffering and debt.” Her speech began to slow down from her trying to contain her tears from falling. She wasn’t angry at him. She was angry at herself.
Mateo inhaled deeply. “That’s not what I meant. You harm yourself by blaming everything that’s happening on you. You have a right to feel things other than pain! Tell me how you feel, and I’m going to be okay with whatever it is. And you should be too.”
She held his hand with the same force she did on the taxi ride across Seattle's suburbs to this very hospital, eight years ago. She took a deep, hopeful breath and said:
“I feel loved, and I choose love.”
Once upon a time, a few wars and wonders ago, was a small town with big problems, located in the outskirts of the English countryside, near modern-day Devon. This old town had a monopoly for every trade, and even so, business was slow. It had luscious grassy meadows who hummed against the temperate gusts of the fall wind, but this greenery failed to spare farmers another mortgage.
Hendunn was a sad town. There was no point in denying it. Its economy suffered after an outbreak of smallpox crippled its people. The surviving folks were left in low spirits, with mournful eyes and exhausted bodies. Despite the cure for this peril becoming available around the time it reached Hendunn, the damage had been done.
Lives were lost, and a loss is just another word for an ending.
But that’s not what Ann Axel thought. At only thirteen years of age, Ann had come a long way. She took care of her seven year old brother Sullivan after her mother fell ill with smallpox and had to spend her last days in the guest house with a nurse on her bedside. Her father had the weight of the world on his shoulders, having to work long hours as a clerk to support his family after his wife’s death. The hardships Ann’s family faced only reinforced her optimism instead of shattering it. She believed that something could be done to save her family from losing their home, and her town from ceasing to be one. She knew that even the most vigilant diseases, much like the one her mother suffered from, had a cure. No matter how many lives were lost and years it took for the cure to be found, it would come to be. Ann was confident that a solution to her problems existed, but she didn’t know how she would find it.
“Would you mind helping out Mr. Price pick berries in the field this afternoon? I can’t go because I need to visit the bank,” Ann’s father asked.
“I can’t, father. I must finish some school work. Can’t somebody else do it?”
“Very well then, I’ll let him know. I still need you to buy us two loaves of bread and a bag of potatoes from the market,” her father said, placing the cloth pouch in her small hand.
Ann shrugged and walked down to Thayer Street where the farmer’s market is located on Sundays.
As she skipped along the cobblestone road greeting familiar faces along the way, she noticed a new addition to the long line of vendors. Right next to the toy maker’s stand facing the butcher’s shop was an ancient woman, with unkempt charcoal hair dipped in silver markers of wisdom. She was selling antiques, from handcrafted wooden music boxes to porcelain tea sets. Eyeing the knickknacks on display at close proximity, she was captivated by a mahogany red pen with a golden cap, a fountain pen that seemed to be made for important people to write important things.
As she stretched her arm to grab it, the old woman swatted her hand away. Frightened by this brash dismissal, Ann retreated, her honey eyes flickering with shock like a flame. “You ought to ask for permission first, young lady. Such a valuable thing must be dealt with care, don’t you think?”
Ann nodded, muttering an apology to the stranger. “Years into running this business you’d think someone would express interest in this fine object, but no one ever has.”
“I like to journal.”
The woman stared at Ann with scrutiny, placing the pen back into its gold-plated case. “I believe you’d make a great owner, as long as you use it responsibly.”
“But I can’t afford it,” the young girl sighed.
“Consider it a gift. Like I said, use it responsibly,” the old woman reiterated in a warning tone.
Once Ann returned home to drop off the groceries at dusk, she thought about what the woman said to her.
“I mustn't squander all the ink, I suppose,” she thought to herself, pulling out a paper to write down her innermost thoughts.
Journaling allowed the young girl to bring her inner monologues to life, escaping reality.
Her pen hit the paper, and that’s when it all began.
Today was a rather eventful day. In the afternoon, a woman gifted me a fine pen. I hope I’ll get the chance to repay her one day.
I miss father. I rarely see him when he’s not at work. I wish the investors at his bank would cash in their gold, so he could spend more time with Sullivan and me.
The next morning, Ann prepared herself and her brother to go to school, but her father had other exciting plans.
“Children, I want you both to come to work with me to work today. I got a call from one of our investors saying that he wants to trade in his gold for shares, and I would like us to celebrate at lunch.”
“Could it be? Was this my doing?” Ann thought. To convince herself, she ran to her room to write an absurd request.
I wish we could ride in a private coach to the bank.
That was exactly what happened.
It was a lightbulb moment for Ann, who realized that the pen was, in fact, enchanted.
Shocked and satisfied, Ann returned home with the intent of writing up solutions to the village’s qualms.
I wish the crops would grow, and the boutiques would reopen.
“Ann! Sully! We must leave the house at once! There’s a raging storm taking out everything in its way!” her father screamed.
Something wasn’t right. Ann just wrote the town’s revival.
She couldn’t believe her own eyes.
The woman who gave her the pen stood outside with a dangerously disapproving glare.
“You humans, always relying on magic to solve your problems when you could easily do so yourselves! Sure, farmers may need to replough their lands, and little girls may need to pick some berries, but loss is no excuse for laziness. And sometimes, all you need is a fresh start.”