Val practically fell out of the dusty yellow school bus, and padded sluggishly up the paved driveway that led to his family’s old but well- maintained Craftsman-style house. Despite the moderately remote location, all the houses in this neighborhood were designed to clearly demonstrate the decidedly ‘upper-class’ status of the families within them, often including a long, steep private drive that separated the lavish buildings from the common roads, and from each other.
After an unusually arduous day at school, during which Val had endured no less than three midterm exams and one extremely challenging physical health class (running the dreaded mile immediately after lunch left Val’s stomach cramped and sore, even all these hours later), the driveway was an unwelcome final lap. All Val wanted to do at the end of this day was to escape his stiff private school uniform, grab a bowl of cookie-dough ice cream from the freezer, and plop down in front of the 72-inch plasma screen television for an evening of mindless cartoons.
As soon as Val opened the front door, he was met with the flushed face of his little sister Gwen, who, upon seeing him, made an announcement.
“We’re going CAMPING!” before stumbling excitedly on her chubby toddler legs up the main staircase to the second floor and out of sight. Val stood frozen in the doorway, bleary-eyed and confused at this sudden exclamation, until his locked knees shook loose and he slowly approached the kitchen. He heard a cacophony of clanking and shuffling feet. As he turned the corner into the strangely dark kitchen, he was met with the presence of both his mother and father, the latter of whom was in the process of packing up what seemed like the entire contents of the refrigerator into a collection of coolers. Val’s mother stood hunched in the corner over a small portable radio that Val had never known they had. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her jaw was tightly clenched, judging by the tense bumps marring the back corners of her usually soft, slender cheeks.
Upon hearing the click of the light switch being flicked back and forth, in Val’s attempt to illuminate the gloomy room, his father swiftly straightened up and turned around. He held a bundle of carrots in one hand, and two small jars of grape and strawberry jelly squeezed between the meaty fingers of the other.
“Ah, sorry kiddo- lights have been out here for a little over an hour- apparently statewide.” His face had the same flush that had colored Gwen’s, but where hers was full of blissful excitement, his seemed full of rising heat. This was a man who has been running around for the better part of an hour trying to save the perishables from succumbing to the growing warmth of a non-functional refrigerator.
“Gotta get all this food into these coolers we had in the basement- and wouldn’t you know it when I was down there I found this handy little portable radio so we can listen in on the news to stay updated!” There was something panicky in his eyes that put Val on edge.
“Is it that bad, Dad? Even with a storm or something I thought this stuff usually was fixed up in a day or two.” Val’s eyes flicked doubtfully to the window, observing the clear, blue sky outside. No storm in sight.
His father seemed to not know what to say, and peered over at his mother who had, upon Val’s arrival, quickly switched off the little radio and had arranged her face with a soft smile.
“Don’t worry about it sweetie,” she said, walking over and pulling him into a tight welcome-home hug. “It might be a couple days but your dad’s just a little concerned because we just did all this grocery shopping yesterday and he doesn’t want the food to go to waste, that’s all. I’m sure it’s just a little… glitch, but we will be up and running soon.” As she said this, her eyes met her husbands, and she raised her eyebrows at him as if to encourage him to say something to their slightly bewildered son.
“Yeah kiddo, no worries at all-" his father said, finally snapping back into the moment. "But seeing as we have no power, we thought it could be fun for us to all go camp out in the yard tonight! Back to basics, no technology, no TV, just us and the stars and a big fire- and maybe we can try to get through some of this grub before it goes bad. A king's dinner, whaddaya think about THAT?”
With an expectant smile, he waited for a response from Val, who had just realized he was not going to be able to carry out his TV-and-ice-cream plans tonight. Val sighed, too tired to complain.
“Alright. I’ll go change and get my stuff.”
The two adults’ eyes followed the form of their barely-teenage son shuffling away in the direction of his room. As their smiles twitched out of existence, the shadows curtaining the unusually dark kitchen seemed to grow longer.
In his almost-fifteen years of life in this quiet, affluent neighborhood, Val could not recall a single time that he or his family had ever been camping. Sure, they frequently stayed in their lakeside cabin during the warm summer months, kayaking and swimming on their own private beach by day, playing games and accidentally burning marshmallows over melted chocolate by night, but that was as rough as they ever wanted to play it- they were an indulgent lot, used to pampering and comfort. Something like camping almost felt beneath them- did they even own a tent? Val was not sure.
Despite his exhaustion, Val felt a slight twinge of excitement at the thought of something that was, for him, new and adventurous. Who knew how long the power would be out? They might not have school for a couple days- that meant a few days of relaxing outside, no responsibilities, no homework. Ideally, he would spend this time playing video games or watching TV, but he had a natural affinity for the outdoors- albeit, the outdoor environments typically provided to him were always well curated and heavily connected to indoor power sources or lights and music-playing amenities. Despite a lack of those luxuries however, this could be fun, he decided- good-natured as he was. If his parents had provided him with anything, they had instilled in him a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness to new experiences, despite the lack of opportunities to experience them.
By the time Val had collected a sleeping bag, pillow, extra blanket, flashlight, a small stack of comics for late-night reading, and had brought them out to the backyard, Gwen and their father had already gotten a giant tent (apparently an impulse-buy from years ago, collecting dust in the attic until now) mostly set up. It even had a mesh roof, so they would be able to see the stars when laying down inside. It was tall enough to stand in- in fact, it looked big enough for at least eight people, if not more. Gwen excitedly ran up to Val, still at the same level of childish exhilaration as when she had greeted him barely thirty minutes earlier, and jumped into his arms, forcing him to drop all of his things in the moment to catch her small frame in a big bear hug.
“Val, Val, Val! We get to sleep outside today! Daddy got us a circus tent! We get to make s’mores and a big big fire!” She shrieked, hopping off of him and running back to the small pile of dry chopped lumber stacked neatly along the back wall of the standalone garage. Rousing all the strength her tiny arms could muster, she lifted up a log the size of her body, wavering slightly, and toddled over to the middle of the backyard, dropping it unceremoniously and immediately running back to grab another one to repeat the procedure.
Val chucked and rolled his eyes, and bent down to reassemble his dropped belongings. He was growing more excited too, and eagerly helped his father finish the tent, set up all the sleeping bags inside, and stack some kindling under the haphazard pile of wood that Gwen had laboriously collected.
“Go big or go home tonight, I guess.” smirked their father, as he allowed his youngest to stockpile as many logs as her heart desired. An odd, blank fog seemed to creep into his eyes just after he said this, and he stopped and stared off into the distance, suddenly hunching slightly as if struck with a stomach pain, losing himself in the darkening sky.
Disquieted by this sudden change in his father’s demeanor, Val awkwardly stood by the large tent, not knowing how to respond. Thankfully at that moment, his mother slid open the back door, her arms full of board-games, cards, candy, marshmallows, the works- everything a couple of kids needed for a fun family night under the stars.
“Honey, come help me with these!” she called, gesturing towards Val with her fancily pedicured toes. He obeyed, jogging over to her and catching some of the game boxes as they were about to slip from her grasp. He noticed she had the tiny radio hooked to the belt loop in her jeans, a thin pair of earbuds connected to the input jack.
Snapping out of his reverie, his father accompanied Val to and from the house, collecting more gear for the night, making tall, fully-loaded sandwiches by candlelight as the sun drooped over the horizon, collecting pillows for a plush fort inside their colossal tent. They ignited what turned out to be at least a 7-foot high bonfire in the middle of their perfectly manicured yard- Val wondered if his parents realized how badly burned the grass would be, come morning, as they had no fire pit to speak of. They didn’t seem to be interested in dwelling on that minor fact- both adults seemed intent on giving their children a night full of anything they wanted, leaving all responsibilities to be addressed in the morning.
The rest of the city seemed so far away from their bright patch of levity, as it had succumbed to an unusual inky blackness that extended out over the horizon.
All night, Val’s mother had one earbud lodged firmly in her left ear, connecting her to the little radio that stayed on at her hip. Every now and then, Val would look over to see her eyes grow wide, her lips tighten into a thin line, before she would consciously take a deep breath and re-enter whatever conversation was going on around her. He wanted to ask her what was wrong, but he didn’t want to ruin the evening- this was the best night he had ever had with his family. He was sure they would all talk about it in the morning. She seemed intent on not letting on whatever was being whispered in her ear, and Val didn’t want to push.
So, the night went on. The small family of four enjoyed their first authentic night together under the stars, playing round after round of immersive board games, trying their hands at cooking over the fire and eating to their heart’s content. In the early hours just after midnight, a heavy weight settled over young Gwen’s eyelids- she usually never stayed up past 9 pm. The quiet chirping of the crickets lulled Val to the edges of sleep as well. Though as a young teenager, and had often laid under the covers in his bed on school nights, a handheld video-game console lighting up his focused face until the wee hours of the morning, the night’s unprecedented activities truly exhausted him.
By 1:30 in the morning, the children had drifted off to sleep with their bellies full, their cheeks sore from smiling, their bodies warm and comfortable, not a care in the world. Knowing this, the two parents quietly tucked in their two children, kissed them both gently on their foreheads, zipped up the tent, and walked outside. Passing the last bright embers of their once-towering bonfire, arm-in arm to the far end of the yard, they made sure to be out of potential earshot of their sleeping brood. This corner of the yard happened to have sparser trees blocking their sight, and from the vantage point from their home on top of the hill, they had a mostly unobstructed view here from the outskirts, into the more developed part of the main city. Though it was a few miles away, they could vaguely see the dark shapes of the skyscrapers, and many small lights speckled throughout the gridded roadways and buildings. On any other night, these lights could be assumed to be streetlights, indoor lights shining out from apartment windows, or the headlights of cars. Tonight, however, with the power out in their city and beyond, the silent couple knew these lights had to be fires- not bonfires, as theirs had been, but uncontrolled, quickly spreading flames that were growing as they watched. From specks of light, they grew to rising, smoking columns. The blooming inferno was accompanied by faraway screams.
“How long do we have?” asked the father.
“I’d say less than thirty minutes.” responded the mother, quietly. “Every station that was still running said it’s coming fast… the ones that were still transmitting anyway. I heard at least three in the area go silent this last hour.”
They heard a loud boom echo somewhere off in the distance… and the sound of an alarm wailed along after it. It was accompanied by faraway screams. Still quiet, though- still far enough away not to wake the children.
“We gave them a good night,” said the father. “…and a good life.” His voice cracked.
The mother didn’t respond, but a tear trickled down her thin face, and she rested her head gently on her husband’s shoulder.
Knowing that their children were sleeping their remaining hours away without a care in the world, and had spent their last day on earth cared for, happy, fed, so well-loved, the two adults watched over the hill. They watched as the city they once knew, yet were separated from by money, property lines, and private roads, was consumed- slowly at first, then all at once.
The steam swirling up from the mug of fresh coffee in my hands slowly condensed on the tip of my nose as I held the rim of the cup just to my chin, not yet willing to risk a sip at the risk of burning my tongue. A burnt tongue was not a death sentence, but it would definitely mar the sweetness of Granny Clarice’s special holiday cookies. I’d have to wait for my much-needed caffeine hit, as I would wait for those notoriously decadent cookies. Good things come with time.
Waking up at the crack of dawn, I spent the entire morning making what little space I had more homey; dusting every long-ignored nook and cranny, rearranging the old, rustic furniture in a more comfortable configuration, lighting vanilla candles to spread a warm aura around the small cabin… I could not remember the last time I had had visitors, and it showed. A little attention went a long way, though, and I arrived at 11 am with a general sense of pride contentedness at the modest home I had created in anticipation of my loved one’s arrival.
Finally able to take a long drink from my cooling mug, I padded around the small kitchen until I reached the window above the sink that looked out upon the snow-covered front yard; it had come down late last night, I think, blanketing the world as far as the eye could see in a clean, peaceful cover, allowing only the suggestion of the bushes and boulders underneath. I strained my eyes to see beyond the front gate- everyone had said they would be here around 11:15 am, in time to gather and have lunch. These holiday meal schedules were always a little confusing, what with having dinner around 2 pm and drinking the afternoon away, but who was I to complain? Having anyone here for any reason, under any circumstances, would be a relief.
It had been so long since anyone had come to see me that I couldn’t even remember the last time I had seen the gate opened by another person. Even the fellow who delivered my groceries would simply leave the brown bags at the very edge of the constantly closed gate- at least, I think it was a fellow. My memory failed me as I worked to recall the person I saw outside regularly- a flash of red hair was all I could muster.
It’s not that I didn’t want company- in fact, I craved it- yet I could never hold it in my grasp. I’d make a phone call to invite a friend over for tea, and they’d fail to answer. The internet out in this area was often so unreliable that trying to wait for my social media accounts to load so I could message someone, or at least observe signs of life out in the world, was so mind-numbingly slow that I’d quickly give up. Something in me knew that I had been alone much longer than I could guess, and that inkling constantly rubbed some frayed edge inside me. Had it been a month? Two? Perhaps it had been a year.
A familiar yet unnamed panic rose up in my gut- humans aren’t meant to be alone this long, are they? I held my breath as I looked around and saw the marks that solitude had taken on my life. The alarmingly deep groove in the floor, leading from the living room to the kitchen, where I had undoubtedly paced for hours. The yellowed, folded pages of overly-handled books that couldn’t have come out more than a few years ago. The rust on the front doorknob… had I really left it unopened for so long it had rusted over? How did I get my groceries inside?
A sudden rapping at my front door jolted me out of my disturbing reverie- they were here! I hastily placed the mug on the nearest flat surface, and ran to throw open the wooden door, a smile relieving my face of its previously somber frown.
As my hand prepared to turn the knob, to open the only barrier between me and the snowy expanse outside, it was met with surprising resistance- the knob wouldn’t turn even a little, as though the icy tundra outside had solidified it in its locked state. I felt the blood rush out of my face, as my one gateway into the outside world sealed itself against me.
After stiffening in surprise for a moment, I reactivated my effort to get the door open- the knob wouldn’t even jiggle, as though… as though it never had the capability to. Even pulling at it didn’t shake the doorframe as one would expect- had my door been painted shut? My mind’s eye conjured up images of faceless tricksters coming into my home while I slept, pouring cement into the cracks around the door, replacing my doorknob with a dummy that would never open.
No. No, that’s ridiculous. I shook my head and redoubled my efforts on the doorknob- it had to open, and even if I couldn’t get it loose from the inside maybe my family could help me! I could hear their voices! The relief of even hearing their murmurs through the wooden barrier was a welcome feeling.
“- thought she’d hear us, this place isn’t that big.” “ Yes but you know how she is, probably has her nose in a book as usual.” that had to be Granny Clarice- my chest swelled in relief and love at hearing her voice.
“Hey, hey!” I spoke loudly, my voice crackling from disuse, “I uh, can’t seem to open the door, could you try? It might be frozen from the outside.”
I listened, waiting for a reply.
“It’s freezing out here, where is she? She told us to be here at this time. Has she stepped out?” “ This is so typical. She probably forgot and went somewhere. Are you surprised? Her head has never been on straight.”
"She knows we are coming, this is ridiculous.”
The panic that I had managed to quell earlier bubbled up again, this time forming into rushed words spilling from my lips- “I’m here! What are you- can’t you hear me?” I released the doorknob, slamming one open hand on the unrelenting surface in front of me, “Open the door, I know you can hear, it’s stuck, please, try and open it!” I hit the door over and over, sure that it would get their attention. Why couldn’t they hear me?
Turning my head to place my ear against the door, I caught the end of a sentence- “-waste of time, she never has us over and the one time we come, she’s not home. Let’s just go, I wasn’t looking forward to spending the afternoon with her anyway- we can have tea at mine. Paul just made a lovely roast, for him and his friends, I am sure we can get in on it.”
I stood there in disbelief, head leaning against the door in defeat- was that it? They didn’t even try to get in. How on earth had they stood there, not hearing my shouts or my pounding? Though their unkind words about me hurt, the confusion drowned out any offence I might have taken. They gave up so quickly. Why did they give up on me in such a rushed manner, despite almost no effort to get inside?
The shock and confusion suddenly felt heavy with static, and my limbs sparked to life- my hands, previously braced flat on the closed door, started shaking. My vision blurred, both with newly sprung tears and with that dark, shimmering halo that comes when something inside one’s mind snaps. I pivoted on the spot, and swiftly picked up my still-warm mug of coffee that I had hastily discarded on a newly dusted bookshelf.
The porcelain handle was only in my grasp for a moment before I had flung the mug and its contents against the nearest frosty window- it shattered on the thick, undamaged window panes, splashing white shards and black droplets all over the reading nook. Next, I picked up a fire poker and stabbed it into the thin crack between the unmoving door and its frame, manically shoving it back and forth, feeling a nail or two break off in my effort to pry the door open. It did not budge even a little. I grasped the useless poker in a white-hot grip, ignoring the sore, raw spots where my right middle and ring fingernails had been.
My eyes wide and my heart racing, I revisited the window- I had to break it, I had to get outside, nearer to my family who couldn’t have reached their cars yet. A heavy crystal vase above my fireplace caught my eye first, and I hastily picked it up above my head to build momentum and shove it through the window- I could see their shapes outside, they weren’t gone yet. I leaned sharply back to swing down, and as the vase connected with the target, I was shaken to see that it was met with surprising resistance- as thought the window panes weren’t glass, but some indestructible synthetic material. The vase bounced back in my hands, taking my upper body with it in an unceremonial arc that landed us both on the floor. Sitting up in my hazy state, I didn’t pause to try again. And again. And again. And again. And-
The sixth time the vase connected with the seemingly unbreakable window, the crystal shattered in my hands, leaving them grasping stiffly at long, sharp fragments that cut into the soft skin of my palms. Even as I dropped them with a cry of pain, some stuck into my hands at odd angles, bringing up scarlet blood that ran down my forearms in rivulets.
This gave me only a moment of pause, the sight of my bleeding hands only mildly plucking at any sense of self-preservation I could register. At that point, something broke inside me- in tandem with the vase, the frayed edge inside me ignited, and like a wild animal caught in a cage, I lost all control.
I became a whirlwind of grasping hands and kicking feet- grabbing haphazardly at anything with any reasonable weight, trying to break a window as a means of escape, kicking the door repeatedly, to the point that I could hear the delicate bones in my feet start to crack. The shards in my hands were driven deeper, and joined by shards of other breakable objects in my home- one made its way down to my left wrist, being driven down by every other object I picked up.
The strikes to my windows and door stopped being confined to action by my hands and feet and eventually I was using my elbows, my hips, my shoulders, my head- I could no longer see through the haze of pain and confusion and rage, and I was physically blind to the now torrential streams of blood exiting my major arteries, to the slow cave in of my own skull at the mercy of the unbreakable interior of my cabin. I just needed to get out. I needed to see another human being. I needed to know I was not alone. I needed to get out. I need it, human touch- how long had I been here? How old was I? Why couldn’t I remember his face, the person who brought my groceries?
As my broken body gave out, finally crumpling to the floor in front of my undamaged, perpetually shut front door, the brittle, translucent thought floated through my swiftly darkening mind’s eye, that I had been alone far longer than I could have ever guessed, and that this forced solitude must be the work of something evil and inhuman. With that, the world faded.
“Alright, send in cleanup and put her in the machine. Set it for three hours- damage is severe today. Reset the vase, too- it created good injuries”
“Fuck man, does that happen every time?
“Nah sometimes she finds the pills we planted in her desk drawer, or she falls and hits her head, or something less crazy. Hell of a first day, huh?”
“Yeah… seriously. And this is every day for seventeen years, so far?”
“Yup! Easiest job in the world, once you get used to the cleanup. But I mean, we just get to hang out and watch this bitch do her thing all day till the show starts- I dunno, it’s like a movie, but we are getting paid.”
“Don’t you… feel bad?”
“Well, for... uh, for her?”
“Get this straight in your brain dude. She is not a little innocent lady, and we aren’t torturing her for fun. You know what she did, right?”
“Yeah I just-”
“You know she kept those kids isolated for years at a time- they couldn’t even talk to each other if they were there together.”
“Yes I get it man, I’m not saying-”
“She invited their families over to her house, while they were locked in her basement. She made friends with the parents of the kids she abducted, and had fucking dinner with them while their children were drugged and tied up and awake in her basement.”
“...yeah, sorry, I understand. Sorry, first day and everything.”
“Our punishments fit the crime. A year for every kid- they felt exactly what she is feeling, probably even something worse- we don’t even know everything she did to them, they were that fucked up when we found them. Don’t forget that.”
“She’s getting what she deserves.”
“...don’t call me sir, newbie. And send in the cleaning crew.”
At First Sight
I saw her from across the room and I knew immediately that I was in love.
How many times had I heard people around me talk about love at first sight? Sure, it was a time-honored cliche but I never thought it could apply to me. Countless times I watched from the sidelines as my friends and family, one by one, found this type of connection that seemed to consistently avoid me. Not until the moment I saw her did I realize I had allowed myself to settle into the hopeless assumption that not another living soul would ever be able to fill the growing void in my heart.
But she awoke something in me. Something I had tried to find in other people but had always failed to uncover. Of course I had been on dates and hooked up with women before, but as soon as I tried to get to really know them, to delve into the most private parts of them, I'd be met with cold disinterest. As hard as I tried to put myself out there, I was repeatedly met with rottenness disguised by a pretty face. I had always just assumed there was something wrong with me, to warrant the hard lack of responsiveness I faced. I tried to be gentle- never pushy, never mean. I worked hard to be polite and kind, to put a smile on the face of whoever I was with, to call forth a chuckle or a good natured conversation. To no avail. I had come to the conclusion that they were all the same- cold, disinterested, stiff and empty.
She was different though. Her eyes had light in them, her fresh face blushed at my glance. Was she smiling at me? I could tell she was a warm, lighthearted person by the soft crinkles at the edges of her eyes. She was beautiful, and she was looking right at me.
As much as I tried to push away the base instincts that attraction brought up in me, I couldn't help but allow my eyes to linger over her curves, covered in the thinnest white fabric. It was as if she knew exactly what I liked, and had dressed up for me. Maybe she had seen me with one of my dates before, and wore something similar to them to get my attention. Regardless of how she had known, I decided, it had worked- I wanted her in every way.
I had to go to her. This was probably not the right time or place- after all, we were at work, but I didn't care. Under the light hum of the blue overhead lamps, I confidently walked over and settled my hand on her cheek, brushing away a wisp of light brown hair.
"Hello. I'm so sorry to come up to you like this, but you've stolen my heart."
I swiftly removed the white sheet covering her body, which I noticed was still warm. She was extremely fresh, time of death probably no more than an hour or so ago.
I lifted up a scalpel in my other hand, and brought it down on the exposed skin of her sternum.
"Now I'd like to have yours."
I love her.
I love her so so so much, I want to spend every waking moment with her. Even when she is angry and doesn’t accept my kisses and swats me away, I love her. Even when she is gone for hours on end, the house growing dark and the creaks and groans of the old floorboards keeping me awake, I never blame her when she finally arrives, a stink of something sharp on her breath, her eyes closing before she can provide any attention to me. She sometimes falls asleep without remembering I haven’t eaten since yesterday, the container holding my food far out of my reach. Despite this, I know she will feed me tomorrow, maybe a little extra because she feels bad for her forgetfulness.
When I was a baby, she tells me, I was very very bad. I went to the bathroom inside, even though she had shown me again and again where to go outside. Sometimes, I’d fall asleep in her oh so comfortable bed- so soft and warm compared to mine on the floor- and it would get stinky from me- maybe because I don’t get a bath more than once a month- and she would get mad and lock me in the cage. Once, she bought a big fancy necklace for me, but it hurt sometimes when I got too loud so I stopped talking altogether. I still wear it but I’m careful to be very very quiet.
I used to have a friend here, and he was a little older than me and had been with her longer. He told me that he knows she used to have another companion before him, but he had never met them- he just knew she did because of the pictures around the house, and because sometimes we would find their hair in the corners of the couch. I wonder what happened to this other one? My friend said she is lonely, and keeps us for company, and gets another when the previous one gets too old. She uses the older one to train the younger one, as she did with us- my friend was the one who made sure I knew that she gets happy when we lick her feet and act silly and playful- keeping her happy is very important. It is the most important thing. If she gets upset, we don’t get fed. If she get’s upset, we are yelled at and hurt. We sometimes don’t get to go outside for days when she is too sad. I adore her and would never want to let her be sad.
My friend didn’t love her as much as I do though- one time, he said we are treated like dogs. Maybe worse than dogs. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never met a dog, but I think I've seen one in one of the picture books my friend gave me. I have a feeling Mommy would love one though.
So there I was, absolutely soaring in this once-in-a-lifetime high. Everything good I had going for me, or had to look forward to was laid out before me in my minds eye- my triumphs, my loves, the endless potential inside me to finally change my life for the better. And then my fall was over, and I hit the ground.