Flash Fiction by Emily Deibler
It’d gotten cold again, and after Linda joined her, Rachel studied.
She was doing something. Being someone. She was giving up, becoming what other people needed, what her adoptive parents wanted. She kept her unsafe thoughts in the journal. The swirling eyes and teeth. At night, she stuffed the journal under the mattress, and it stayed there like a secret lover’s gift. Not that she ever had a secret lover to serenade her in iambic pentameter while she was trying to sleep. Probably better that way.
When she went in the bathroom to change out her pad, she saw the pink stains, and her vision went green-gold. She fumbled, grasping the shower curtain and falling.
Rapid knocking on the door. Linda. It was about that time living with someone when she recognized how people knocked or how their footsteps landed. “Rach—Rachel, what is it?”
“Are you okay? Did you hit your head?”
“No, I just . . . saw the blood on my panties.”
“It’s—it’s normal. It’ll be okay.”
Rachel stood and quickly pulled the gown over her head. “I can’t see blood.” She stared at the door. “You can come in.”
Linda did, looking her over with sad, half-lidded eyes. “Why?”
“Why can you come in?”
“Why can’t you see blood?”
Rachel lowered her head. “It makes me remember.” Made her remember what happened four months ago.
After a long pause, Linda set a hand on her shoulder. “All right, just don’t look. I can get you new clothes, if anything’s stained. I can burn—anything you need.” That was how they would help each other: destruction. “It looks like everything’s fine.”
Rachel wanted to laugh. “It’s too late. It’s coming for me.”
Linda frowned. “What is coming for you?”
She couldn’t say the truth. Couldn’t let either of them know because they wouldn’t believe her.
She burst out of the bathroom, bumping past Linda. “Nothing.”
Linda followed. “Rachel, what is it?”
Marcus, on the couch with his yarn, stood.
Rachel stopped, caught between them.
“Rach, what is it?” Linda said with desperation. “Please, look at me, I want to help. You know you can—”
“I can’t.” Rachel stared at her feet, heat bubbling up her throat.
Marcus’ brown loafers came close. “Rachel . . .”
Seeing a green glint on his glasses, she lurched away like he burned her, looking at him with wild eyes. She saw the hurt spreading across his face, the split between them no matter what he did. In a month, in a year, would she actually go up instead of being okay one day and sick in bed the next? What would it take for the memories and fear to end? She wondered what would happen when she died, what purpose she’d serve. There could be Heaven, and she’d see Mama and Papa again, and maybe they’d be the same.
Rachel fell on the carpet, curling her arms around her knees and rocking with the fire to her back. She saw Linda’s purple slippers and Marcus’ loafers.
“The dreams,” she said.
Linda replied, but Rachel only heard the roaring in her ears. The Thing-of-the-Woods. Coming for her. Ready to eat her. Have her inside it.
She couldn’t breathe.
“I can’t stop thinking . . .” She choked on her own spit, snot pouring out her right nostril. “I was nothing to them. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Kneeling too, Linda scooted close, only a little. Marcus continued standing. If he wasn’t breathing, the slow rise and fall of his chest, she would think he was a ghost.
“Who?” Linda asked.
Rachel shut her eyes. Who do you think?
“Everyone.” She rubbed her closed eyes so hard she saw white. “My teachers, the social workers, my foster parents, my brothers . . .”
Marcus said, “They were wrong.” He made it sound so easy.
“Can everyone be wrong?” Rachel squeaked. “Can the whole world be wrong?”
“We don’t think you’re nothing,” Linda whispered. “Don’t we count?”
They couldn’t count because they would eventually turn on her. Unless she acted like she should. They could deny it all they wanted, but all they were doing was whittling her down, like everyone else did. Making her give in, or die.
Giving in—God, she was tired. It sounded better and better every single day. Sleep sounded a whole lot easier if she were dead. She could be strong, as a girl with her face was always told to be. But people didn’t help strong girls, give them little touches and kind words because they could handle themselves, their hearts were iron. They were too noisy, too angry, too much. The only way for her to find her voice was to lose it; it was inevitable. Lose her voice and claim a new home, rather than be tied to her old memories, her old city. Lose Mama and Papa as the only good things she had in life. As weird as it sounded, an odd comfort came from that. With each failed new home, she never felt like she betrayed Mama and Papa.
“You’re here,” Linda said. She reached out and took Rachel’s hands. “See? This is real.”
“I still feel . . .” Rachel wet her lips and looked to the ceiling, blinking the dampness back. She wanted to yank her hands away like she would’ve the first week she was here.
She was tired of fighting. Tired of being . . .
“Alone?” said Marcus.
A hot tear fell down her cheek. “There’s this piece of me that was . . . I don’t know, taken? It was taken, and everything looks different, and only I can see what that’s like. I hate—I hate so many things. I’m so angry, and I don’t want to be.”
“And is that what you need,” Linda asked, thumb rubbing against Rachel’s, “for someone to understand?”
“I need that piece back.”
“You can’t get it back,” Marcus said. Rachel snapped her head up. “If you keep looking for your past self, you’ll only stay miserable.”
Rachel gaped, more tears coming. “Why would you . . .” Asshole. He was an asshole. How could he say that?
“He’s right,” Linda said gravely, and Rachel watched her in shock. “You—every loss changes you. You don’t grow stronger or weaker with every single one. It’s not that predictable. You change. Any strength is already there, forced out. And you learn to cope with a new reality. That doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to feel whole, mind you. But if you keep looking to the past, keep trying to bring it back, you—you can’t. It’s gone. That person you were is gone, but . . .” Linda extended a hand. “That doesn’t mean the Rachel here with us is less.”
It hurt more than everything else happening to her body. She forgot her small cramps, and it became hard to breathe. Mama and Papa died again. Blood on the tiles, the killer with gun in shaking hand, eyes glinting green when he noticed Rachel watching under the table. And he ran. Ran from what he did, ran from seeing who he left behind in that river of blood. On the tiles Rachel had crawled and waddled on. Right there, on that night, the tiles chilled her tummy through her yellow llama pajamas. The Emperor’s New Groove was a thing then, and Rachel had loved rabbits, and what were llamas but long-necked rabbits? She’d prance in front of her stuffed animals and go yikes, yikes, yikes.
As absurd as it was, Rachel knew her parents were dead. She saw it.
But it never sank in that they’d never come back. Literally, yeah, they were gone, but she tried to recreate them in teachers, in foster parents. Even here, she considered how similar Linda’s hair was to Mama’s, how Marcus’ more timid mannerisms reminded her of Papa at home.
Rachel crawled closer to Linda and buried her head against her shoulder, letting herself cry. At first, she tried to keep herself composed, even with a few tears, but then it hit her again.
Mama and Papa were gone, forever. Maybe forever forever, since she didn’t know if what she believed since she could believe in anything was true. That had been another conciliation, Heaven. Any lost opportunities, birthdays her parents missed, they could make it up for an eternity in Heaven. She had thought . . .
She started to scream, and they fell orange-yellow on the green rug. Linda put a hand on her head, which made Rachel flinch, recalling how Mike had touched her there before he hurt her. Linda hesitated.
“It’s okay,” Rachel said, barely understanding her own words.
Linda’s other hand hovered before settling lightly between Rachel's shoulder blades, only to pull away. “I . . . are you sure . . .”
Rachel flung her arms around Linda, pulling her close, feeling her spine on her fingers, her heart beating against Rachel’s cheek. Marcus, quiet as one of the forest ghosts, patted her shoulder from behind, but made no moves otherwise. They stayed there as the tinny patter of freezing rain hitting the roof swarmed the room.
And she felt safe, a feeling she hadn’t had since she was little.
“You should be angry,” he murmured, fingers heavy on her.
A native of North Georgia, Emily Deibler is a published poet and author. Her short story “Deer in December” was published in TL;DR Press’ Halloween 2018 Horror collection, NOPE. She has also published her poems “Turkey Hunting,” “Patty,” “Samantha,” and “Daughters of the Sun.” Her debut novel, Dove Keeper, came out in October 2018. She can be found on Twitter at @emilydeibler. She is a regular contributor to Marías at Sampaguitas.