Maureenow
I'm a poet and the author of the novels How to Be Manly, The Arrow, and The Ghost Daughter.
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R.I.P. Skinny

R.I.P Skinny

Chapter One

This was my brain on drugs: I wondered whose hands were on the steering wheel. I moved my fingers to see if they were mine.

The point of the party was to escape thinking about the night before. Yet despite the lines we banged and the shots we drank, I forgot nothing. The shame only expanded, pressing against my ribcage like an infected inner organ.

I drove and my best friend Erik snored. Calling him my best friend sounded great to everyone but me. People liked us together. We were fun at parties and we were a novelty. A straight girl and a straight guy calling each other best friends didn’t happen at Oakdale High School unless the two were friends with benefits. We definitely had no benefits. Erik and Anne Sanders hooked up almost as soon as he started at our school.

As for me, I was an acquired taste that nobody felt like acquiring.

Whether I was satisfied with the fact or not, Erik was my best friend. I would get him home safe. The road was snaking side to side in the headlights, but I was determined. I hunched over the wheel. If he was awake Erik would have clowned me for driving like an old woman.

This is what I remember happening next:

A dude wearing a hood rose from the asphalt like he was made of smoke. I swerved to the shoulder where a bunch of fallen wooden crates were stacked on the highway shoulder like a pile of broken bones.

Broken bones was my last thought before I hit them. Hard pillows blasted out of the dashboard as we flipped. The windshield exploded and we flew through space in the smashing and crashing of metal and glass.

We landed upright. The car rocked a little bit as if it was thinking about one last flip before finally taking a rest.

“You okay, man?” I asked once I caught my breath. My hands were still on the steering wheel as if I had any control whatsoever.

He didn’t answer.

My neck killed me when I turned to see that Erik’s eyes were closed and his head rested at a wrong angle. He’d been too high to fasten his seatbelt and I’d been too high to do it for him.

I undid my own, the strap whipping back. The engine hissed and I worried about a fire starting. I brushed the glass windshield pebbles from Erik’s shirt. I was sober enough to be able to tell that if he was still alive, pulling him clear of the car would kill him.

I settled back in my seat. If the engine blew, Erik and I would die in flames together. In my aching foggy brain I hoped we would.

A siren wailed.

I brushed the hair from his forehead. “I love you, Erik,” I said.

Above the ragged beat of my own heart, I thought I heard somebody laughing.

###

Callie. Callie Gil.

A doctor calling my name tugged me from darkness. A light flashed in my eyes. Something beeped. A hospital.

A plastic brace encircled my neck. Maybe I was paralyzed. Doctors moved around me, poking me, ripping my shirt. My boobs were flashing everybody but I didn’t care. I didn’t really feel like I was part of the scene so much. The doctors were doing fine without my help. I closed my eyes and a deep beautiful nothing pool sucked me back down.

###

I woke again, blinking under the fluorescent ceiling lights. My first thought was to wonder what was happening to Erik. Whatever it was, the whole thing was my fault. My own blame was the one sure thing I knew for a fact.

Erik and I had agreed to go for total annihilation before we’d even banged our first lines. 

We had a bad secret squirming between us and we just wanted to kill our guilt over what we’d done. We wanted the shitty feelings dead.

“Erik?” I called. No one answered. I was in the room alone.

Alone except for the tall man who leaned against the wall almost out of my sight line. A sweatshirt hood shadowed his head and face. Maybe the guy was in the wrong room by mistake. Maybe he was a pervert there for a peek at the girl strapped to a board with her shirt ripped in pieces. Or maybe he didn’t exist and it was just the alcohol and Oxy playing tricks on my brain still.

I bit my lower lip until it bled. Erik had been covered in glass, his head cocked to the side and his chin lifted like he was a broken puppet. There had been something wrong with Erik’s neck. A long panicked alarm rang from across the hall.

“Erik!” I called again. A woman I couldn’t see barked orders as the footsteps thundered from the hall to the other room. I tried to sit up but my forehead, wrists, and thighs were strapped. Pain shot down my spine and zinged through my arms and legs as I pushed against the restraints.

Tears streamed down the sides of my head. It had to be Erik in trouble. My best friend and the only guy I ever loved was dying and it was all because of me.

In the corner, the hooded man lifted his arm in a slow, strange way. I struggled to turn my head to look at him straight on but I couldn’t do it.

Staying in the periphery, the man extended his finger as if to accuse me. He had to be a hallucination except that I really didn’t think I was high anymore. I was, however, maybe going to puke. My head hurt. My whole body ached.

The man’s finger uncurled unnaturally long like it was a party blower from a kid’s birthday.

“Hell no,” I said.

He whispered to me from inside his hood. I thrashed on the board, moving like a fish on a line. I yelled for someone to help me.

A cart rattled into the room across the hall. There was a buzzing and a shout for everybody to clear. Was Erik’s heart stopping?

The hooded man chuckled in a voice so deep the sound rumbled in my bones. He approached me with leisure, his finger leading the way. I yelled again for help, but the man did not seem worried that anyone would interrupt his purpose.

He probed my side where the doctors tore my shirt and exposed my skin to the air. The cold fingertip buried into the space between my ribs. I sucked in short breaths, straining to move away from the long weird finger. The bony tip dug into my skin. It broke through my rib cage. The bones moved apart in popping bursts of bright blue pain. He broke through my ribs from the side and pressed that long finger into the muscle of my heart.

My body stiffened in pain. I arched against the board. The monitors attached to me shrieked frantic warnings. The hooded man stepped aside as the doctors jumbled in.

He pantomimed a gun with long white fingers.

Aimed at me.

Pulled the trigger.

###

Twitter rumors spread that my best friend and we died on arrival. R.I.P. Erik and Callie.

#RestInPeace

#ErikCal4Life

#R.I.P. Skinny. Erik’s nickname was natural for a kid who was six feet tall and could fit through two slats in a fence sideways.

People were dumb. They believed the hype. Neither of us died in the wreck I caused driving drunk and high. The doctors saved me from the freak seizure that stopped my heart.

Other doctors in the other room shoved breathing tubes down Erik’s throat. His brain wasn’t damaged but the nerves of his neck were severed at C-7 and everything below his waist was a ghost town.

Erik and I both lived.

There was no resting and there was no peace.

Chapter Two

I lay awake my first night in the state Juvenile Detention Center. A cry fluttered in my mouth like a moth in a net. I did not let it out.

The week before I studied everything I could find about JD. Basically I got an online PhD on how to get through ten months of lockup without getting the shit kicked out of me. I didn’t know if the information was any good yet, but it was all I had.

First off, it was important not to seem weak to the other girls.

Problem was, I’d never felt weaker in my life.

Online wisdom suggested that in prison it was best to be forgettable. I meant to keep as invisible as possible. I meant to be so under the radar that nobody knew me enough to forget me in the first place.

To be honest, most of the tips for surviving in Juvenile Detention weren’t so different from the things I did to get along in the real world: Don’t be eager to make friends but don’t make enemies either. Be chill but don’t be anybody’s punk.

Never snitch.

Nights were supposed to be the worst. A person’s mind could just start rolling and never shut off. I lay in the dark and went over the tricks to not going crazy. For example, it was important to not think about the fact that the door to my room locked on the outside.

It was also ideal not to cry. If it was impossible not to cry then at least keep it quiet.

Last but not least, thinking about what I’d done to get to JD would make the time I spent there last forever. I had to put my crime out of my mind.

The only problem was that the image of Erik bleeding, covered in glass and looking dead played in a movie behind my eyes whenever I closed them. Unless I figured a way to sleep with my eyes open, I’d be thinking and dreaming about what I’d done to Erik every single night of my life.

Something rustled in the air vent.

“Hey, do you hear that?” I asked the huddled lump in the next bed. Gia was her name.

“Just be cool,” Gia said.

She was giving good advice. I knew this but there was something in the vent and my breath was speeding up like I was running. Anxiety attacks were a new habit I’d picked up since the wreck. People at school would laugh like crazy if they could see how nervous I was now. They were used to Callie Gil being a tough bitch. I was sarcastic and hilarious. I had been very careful since before middle school that nobody could ever say they saw me sweat.

Claws scratched against thin metal.

It could have been the wind as it roared through the valley and whistled through the cracks in the walls. Most likely it was a rat. The Central Juvenile Detention Center for 

Girls was a crumbling building in the middle of a huge empty field off the highway. There had to be a ton of rats.

I made myself still as a dead person. If I was already dead then nothing could get me.

I closed my eyes. Pieces of glass like diamond pebbles sparkled on Erik’s chest. His chin pointed up, his mouth was slack. How many times had I stared at those lips when he was talking, wishing so bad that he would just kiss me?

From a deep place in the air vent someone was laughing. My brain flipped in their gymnastics of denial. It was kids in another room. It was a guard playing a prank. It was a trick in my brain caused by a summer spent snorting Oxycontin through the nose.

“One two, buckle your shoe.” The voice crackled like fire, laughing at his own joke.

I tightened the blanket around myself as though it could protect me. My mouth felt like it was full of paste.

My eyes burned as I stared at the vent two feet off the floor just near where my head would be if I dared to lay it down.

“Seven, eight, get your neck on straight.”

I was stressed and hearing things. Or maybe a guard was watching television and the vent caught the sound. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with me.

My brain did cartwheels of nope. Somersaults of this-can’t-be-happening.

The vent banged as though something inside was trying to come out.

“Callieeee,” the crackling man crooned. “I waaant yooou.”

The pajama pants issued me that day by the state of California warmed and just as quickly cooled as I wet them.

Chapter Three

Our slippers whispered across the floor as we shuffled into group therapy in a straight line. We took our seats in creaking folding chairs.

Every other day the other girls in my block and me had to get in a circle and talk about our feelings In JD there were girls who loved this part of the day. They never stopped talking about their feelings. There was the girl who talked with her arms wound around her body as if she were holding a wild animal in her ribcage. There was the girl who talked while staring at the floor. There was the girl who talked while staring at the ceiling.

Whatever their style, almost everybody talked.

I saw my cousin get shot. He died at my feet.

A friend from my old crew broke into my house and held a gun to my little sister’s head.

My mother beat me with an extension cord. A wooden spoon. A hammer.

My stepfather did worse. You don’t want to know what he did.

During the first few group sessions I made the mistake of thinking that the stories were a bunch of lies. I never said so aloud, but there was no way they could be true. Nobody’s life was that bad.

Now I sat rubbing my hands together and listened without a shred of doubt. The stories didn’t seem crazy anymore. They weren’t even that interesting. I never said this either, but the thing about the stories that impressed me the most was that the girls telling them survived. Yeah, they were in JD. Not great. But I had to admire the fact that they were still alive when it seemed like the whole world wanted them dead.

It was my cellmate’s turn to talk. Gia’s story was just flat out frustrating. She’d been in the backseat of her cousin’s car, headed to a house party. On the way, they took a detour to shoot a guy in a rival gang in a drive-by. Gia wasn’t a validated gang member, which meant nobody told her anything about the plans for the night. She had no idea what was going down but it didn’t matter. Under new anti-gang laws, Gia faced twenty-five to life. In two years, she was heading to adult prison.

“By the time I get out, I’ll be forty,” she said.

I examined the lines on my palms to avoid looking at Gia’s face. Forty was my parents’ age. A lifetime in prison was impossible to imagine for a girl like Gia. She was never going to be able to have kids. She loved to read and she liked things in the cell to be extremely neat. She wasn’t a murderer. She didn’t even do the thing that landed her in lock-up. 

Meanwhile, the best person I knew was paralyzed for life because of me and the judge only gave me one year. I wouldn’t have blamed Gia for hating me for the fact I was going to get out by the next Christmas.

She didn’t hate me, though. We weren’t friends, but she never acted mad. I rubbed my hands together and wondered if I would have been as cool as Gia was if our stories were the other way around. Probably not. I’d probably be too jealous to be cool.

I liked the swishing sound my palms made. The habit kept me calm when I was stressed. I didn’t notice at first that the room had gone quiet. When I lifted my eyes, everybody was looking at me.

“What about you, Callie?” Counselor Dave asked. “Do you have anything you want to say?”

Dave was younger than the guards and over half the other girls had a crush on him. I could admit that he was much more of a human being than the other adults running the show. He had no sense of humor about himself, though. I could tell that he thought was was making a real difference in young lives working in that place and it made me want to punch him in the face. And as for me talking in group, that just wasn’t going to happen.

“I’ve got nothing,” I said. “Seriously. I’m just an asshole.”

“Nobody believes that, Callie Dave shook his head.

A big girl named Lily raised her hand.

“I believe it,” Lily said. This comment earned her laughs. Lily looked around the room, a half smile on her round face. My dad would have said she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I steered clear of Lily, though. Everybody did. You don’t have to be sharp to be able to do some damage.

“You all are laughing,” Lily said. “But none of you are talking about the man with the hood and I know at least some of you have heard him even if you haven’t seen him.”

“Let’s not change the subject,” Dave said.

“No, let’s,” I said. I sat up, my hands still for once.

“Mr. Hood’s always there,” Lily said, warming to her audience. “He sees everything you did to get here. If you done a bad thing, he knows all about it. He’s like Santa Claus only Satan Claus. Do you feel me? I hear him at night.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Shut the fuck up, Callie.” A harsh whisper from Gia. “Don’t get her started.”

Lily leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked like a football player getting ready to charge center field. “Oh now the asshole got something to say. You hear what the Hooded Man has to say to you, bitch? You hear him through the vents?”

Everyone else in the room seemed to fade away. “I hear him every night, ” I said.

“There is no escape from Mr. Hood,” Lily said.

“I saw him too.” For the first time I was not alone with the fear. So, I wasn’t crazy or hallucinating. I hadn’t broken my brain permanently with pills and alcohol. The thing haunting me even had a name. “He tried to kill me.”

“Mr. Hood can’t kill you.” Lily shook her finger at me. She acted like she was an expert on the subject and I needed to be schooled.

“He did try to kill me,” I said, still aware of the shadow of the shooting pain where my ribs had been broken.

“But you’re still alive though,” Lily said. “I see you there. Breathing.”

Dave waved his arms for attention like he was trying to land a plane that was out of control. I rubbed at my chest. My heart ached where the icy finger had pressed in.

“The doctors saved me,” I said. “But the hooded man wanted me dead.”

“You can die. You can want to die. Mr. Hood can’t kill you, though.” Lily said.

“What do you mean?” Lily was talking in riddles when what I needed were facts. I needed information that I could use. If the hooded man was real, then I could make him go away if only I knew how.

“Let’s talk about what this story symbolizes for you,” Dave said, interrupting. “What’s it trying to say to you?”

Lily and I both turned to look at our poor, dumb counselor.

“Seriously, ladies,” Dave sounded like a kid. “This is actually cool, nothing to be afraid of. You’re talking about your own sub-conscious. You know this, right? There isn’t an actual boogeyman talking to you through the vents.”

“Not the boogeyman,” I said.

“Boogeyman is a different thing.” Lily nodded at me as if I were suddenly her co-expert.

“Mr. Hood then,” Dave said. “A Satan Claus or whatever.”

Lily turned back to me. “Just because he can’t kill you don’t mean he’s not coming for you.”

“What can he do?” I asked. I kept expecting for the others to shut the conversation down with calls of bullshit. But this was not business as usual. The group sat straight as rods, tense and listening. Even the guards standing along the walls were paying attention.

Lily shook out her shoulders like she was getting ready to lift a weight.

“Mr. Hood can’t kill you, but he can make you wish you were dead.”

“How?”

Lily leaned forward. “He can hurt you so bad that you give him your soul yourself and then thank him for taking it.”

At this, the other girls finally erupted. Gia crossed herself over and over. Chairs scraped against the floor and a couple of the girls rushed Huey and started waling on her and pulling her hair. She ducked her head and windmilled her enormous fists, clocking someone in the jaw. Another girl hugged herself, moaning “Hell naw, Hell naw.”

Dave jumped out of the fray, clinging to the door and banging on it to be let out. A couple of us took a knee and froze in place like we were supposed to during a fight.

I got down in time to avoid a face full of the pepper spray a guard blasted in the room. My eyes were burned almost blind anyway, my nose a running mess. I would never get used to the pepper spray.

“See what you did,” Gia said later in the cell, a wet paper towel over her eyes. “You got Lily riled up and crazy.”

“Do you know what she was talking about?” I blew my nose but it didn’t help. My nose and eyes would never stop running. “Have you ever heard his voice? Have you ever seen Mr. Hood?”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Gia lay on her back in bed, the heels of her hands pressing into the wet paper on her face. “Everybody’s got a story about this and that. I’ll tell you what, 

Lily isn’t right in the head.”

“Maybe she’s not right, but she’s not lying,” I said. I clung to this piece of truth as if would save my life in a flood.

Gia didn’t answer for a while. Finally she sighed like she was the kind of tired ten years straight of sleeping couldn’t help. “Not lying exactly, but she doesn’t know everything she thinks he does.”

“Like what? What was she wrong about?”

Gia waved her hand over her face. “You should never talk about what you were talking about in there. Talking about the man with the hood makes him come around more. And by the way, you should quit drawing him too. The more you do that shit, the more you bring him to life.”

Blindfolded by the towel, Gia crossed herself in an elaborate dance of hand to forehead, lips, heart, shoulders, back to heart and lips. She did it again for good measure. Gia made me wish I had a ritual or charm to feel better. All I had was drawing, and Gia was right about the subject of my sketches. Almost every page was filled with a man in a hood. I wore my pencils flat from shading in the black where the face should have been.

Later in the night when our noses stop flowing, we fell asleep. I woke to the deep voice chuckling in the vents. It could have been the wind from outside rattling the old building. It could have been kids in another cell. My brain was exhausted from trying to do flips to avoid what I knew was true. I was haunted by something bad that was trying to get me.

I lay still in the bed, my ears tuned to every noise coming from the vent. It was a tangled knot of voices, static going in and out. Then one line came out clear as if from a song by an old-timey singer, deep and full of a slow, bubbling joy.

Shame on you. Shame on youuuuu.

I pulled the scratchy wool blanket around my ears.

I had never given my life much thought. Before the wreck I never thought about my life or my soul as something to worry about losing.

I worried now.

###

Close to my release date, a letter from Erik came in the mail. It was folded into thirds inside a long envelope. Dave asked if I wanted him there while I opened it.

“Who says I’m opening it?” I asked. I didn’t want to talk about Erik with Dave. I tucked the letter into the waistband of my drawstring pants.

After lunch, Gia and I sat in our room waiting for yard time. Gia’s book order had just come in from the library so she was reading. All I could see was the cover hiding her face. 

It was a romance with a guy on the front wearing a kilt. The only noise was the flipping of pages.

I ran my thumb along the top of the envelope, slit neatly by a mailroom guard. Our mail was never private. The guards were probably laughing at me at that moment for getting a letter from a boy who hated me. Because he had to hate me. Nothing else made sense.

I wasn’t allowed to talk to Erik at all leading up to my court date and trial. My lawyer was a friend of my dad’s and he said it was forbidden for me to talk to Erik or anyone else 

who had been at Mark’s party the night of the wreck. By the time I got that letter it had been over a year since I’d seen him.

I wondered if Erik was able to type the letter himself or if a nurse had to do it for him. I imagined what the nurse would say when Erik told her what to write to the girl who ruined him:

How many times do you really need to tell this Callie person that you hate her and that you wish she was the one who was paralyze? You say you want me to write Fuck You ten thousand times?!

“Open it already,” Gia didn’t bother looking up. “Damn, girl. It’s just a letter.”

It was not just a letter. The letter was a grenade and reading it would pull out the pin and blow me to pieces.

“I can see who it’s from,” Gia said. “It’s from the dude you paralyzed. So open the letter. Just do it.”

It was funny that even though we’d lived together almost a year, Gia only knew Erik as the dude I paralyzed. Even she didn’t know how much I loved him.

She did know some things about me, though. I didn’t share much in group, but over the months together Gia and I talked sometimes when the nights went on forever. I guessed she knew as much about me as anybody.

I unfolded the paper, grateful for Gia bossing me around from across the room. It was better than being alone. I tensed my shoulders, trying to ready for whatever Erik had to say. I deserved my his hate. I deserved ten thousand pages of Fuck You.

I scanned the page.

It wasn’t a hate letter.

Cal, if you are blaming yourself for this, don’t. We were both going for total annihilation that night, and we both know why. What happened to me was not your fault.

Relief bum rushed shame and loneliness inside me so fast I fell back against the wall. For a sweet minute a sharp ray of hope sliced me right open. Erik forgave me. Maybe everything would be okay. The letter shook in my fingers. I read it again.

We were both going for total annihilation.

Shame curled its way back in to my gut like smoke from burning oil. Erik’s forgiveness did not change the fact that he was never going to walk again.

My friend’s words could also not change what happened the night before the wreck. No amount of forgiveness between the two of us could make right what we’d done together.

The letter slipped from my hands. A draft from the vent blew it under the bed.

“Bitch, you dropped it,” Gia said, always a neat freak. Anything out of place gave her anxiety.

“Yeah, all right.” I got down and reached for the paper under the bed.

Another hand shot from the dark. Hard fingers grabbed my wrist. I yanked my arm back and scrambled across the floor.

“What the fuck?” Gia drew her legs up. “Was there a rat?”

I flew to the door, pounded on it with both fists. I heard myself hollering and told myself to stop. It was a bad idea to attract attention. The whole time at the JDC I had mostly managed to stay quiet. Under the radar.

I begged myself to stay quiet but I couldn’t listen, not even to myself.

Ice pierced my wrist bones. I heard myself yelling as if from somewhere else.

The guards pushed me down. They restrained me with a zip tie. They ordered me to stop yelling. I ordered me to stop.

Ice encircled my wrist tighter than the zip ties ever would and I couldn’t stop.

There was a pinch on my arm from a needle.

I sank into a druggy fuzz, my own voice no longer loud enough to drown the sound of deep hollow singing echoing through the hall.

Shame on youuuuuuu.

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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by Maureenow in portal Trident Media Group
R.I.P. Skinny

R.I.P Skinny

Chapter One

This was my brain on drugs: I wondered whose hands were on the steering wheel. I moved my fingers to see if they were mine.

The point of the party was to escape thinking about the night before. Yet despite the lines we banged and the shots we drank, I forgot nothing. The shame only expanded, pressing against my ribcage like an infected inner organ.

I drove and my best friend Erik snored. Calling him my best friend sounded great to everyone but me. People liked us together. We were fun at parties and we were a novelty. A straight girl and a straight guy calling each other best friends didn’t happen at Oakdale High School unless the two were friends with benefits. We definitely had no benefits. Erik and Anne Sanders hooked up almost as soon as he started at our school.

As for me, I was an acquired taste that nobody felt like acquiring.

Whether I was satisfied with the fact or not, Erik was my best friend. I would get him home safe. The road was snaking side to side in the headlights, but I was determined. I hunched over the wheel. If he was awake Erik would have clowned me for driving like an old woman.

This is what I remember happening next:

A dude wearing a hood rose from the asphalt like he was made of smoke. I swerved to the shoulder where a bunch of fallen wooden crates were stacked on the highway shoulder like a pile of broken bones.

Broken bones was my last thought before I hit them. Hard pillows blasted out of the dashboard as we flipped. The windshield exploded and we flew through space in the smashing and crashing of metal and glass.

We landed upright. The car rocked a little bit as if it was thinking about one last flip before finally taking a rest.

“You okay, man?” I asked once I caught my breath. My hands were still on the steering wheel as if I had any control whatsoever.

He didn’t answer.

My neck killed me when I turned to see that Erik’s eyes were closed and his head rested at a wrong angle. He’d been too high to fasten his seatbelt and I’d been too high to do it for him.

I undid my own, the strap whipping back. The engine hissed and I worried about a fire starting. I brushed the glass windshield pebbles from Erik’s shirt. I was sober enough to be able to tell that if he was still alive, pulling him clear of the car would kill him.

I settled back in my seat. If the engine blew, Erik and I would die in flames together. In my aching foggy brain I hoped we would.

A siren wailed.

I brushed the hair from his forehead. “I love you, Erik,” I said.

Above the ragged beat of my own heart, I thought I heard somebody laughing.

###

Callie. Callie Gil.

A doctor calling my name tugged me from darkness. A light flashed in my eyes. Something beeped. A hospital.

A plastic brace encircled my neck. Maybe I was paralyzed. Doctors moved around me, poking me, ripping my shirt. My boobs were flashing everybody but I didn’t care. I didn’t really feel like I was part of the scene so much. The doctors were doing fine without my help. I closed my eyes and a deep beautiful nothing pool sucked me back down.

###

I woke again, blinking under the fluorescent ceiling lights. My first thought was to wonder what was happening to Erik. Whatever it was, the whole thing was my fault. My own blame was the one sure thing I knew for a fact.

Erik and I had agreed to go for total annihilation before we’d even banged our first lines. 

We had a bad secret squirming between us and we just wanted to kill our guilt over what we’d done. We wanted the shitty feelings dead.

“Erik?” I called. No one answered. I was in the room alone.

Alone except for the tall man who leaned against the wall almost out of my sight line. A sweatshirt hood shadowed his head and face. Maybe the guy was in the wrong room by mistake. Maybe he was a pervert there for a peek at the girl strapped to a board with her shirt ripped in pieces. Or maybe he didn’t exist and it was just the alcohol and Oxy playing tricks on my brain still.

I bit my lower lip until it bled. Erik had been covered in glass, his head cocked to the side and his chin lifted like he was a broken puppet. There had been something wrong with Erik’s neck. A long panicked alarm rang from across the hall.

“Erik!” I called again. A woman I couldn’t see barked orders as the footsteps thundered from the hall to the other room. I tried to sit up but my forehead, wrists, and thighs were strapped. Pain shot down my spine and zinged through my arms and legs as I pushed against the restraints.

Tears streamed down the sides of my head. It had to be Erik in trouble. My best friend and the only guy I ever loved was dying and it was all because of me.

In the corner, the hooded man lifted his arm in a slow, strange way. I struggled to turn my head to look at him straight on but I couldn’t do it.

Staying in the periphery, the man extended his finger as if to accuse me. He had to be a hallucination except that I really didn’t think I was high anymore. I was, however, maybe going to puke. My head hurt. My whole body ached.

The man’s finger uncurled unnaturally long like it was a party blower from a kid’s birthday.

“Hell no,” I said.

He whispered to me from inside his hood. I thrashed on the board, moving like a fish on a line. I yelled for someone to help me.

A cart rattled into the room across the hall. There was a buzzing and a shout for everybody to clear. Was Erik’s heart stopping?

The hooded man chuckled in a voice so deep the sound rumbled in my bones. He approached me with leisure, his finger leading the way. I yelled again for help, but the man did not seem worried that anyone would interrupt his purpose.

He probed my side where the doctors tore my shirt and exposed my skin to the air. The cold fingertip buried into the space between my ribs. I sucked in short breaths, straining to move away from the long weird finger. The bony tip dug into my skin. It broke through my rib cage. The bones moved apart in popping bursts of bright blue pain. He broke through my ribs from the side and pressed that long finger into the muscle of my heart.

My body stiffened in pain. I arched against the board. The monitors attached to me shrieked frantic warnings. The hooded man stepped aside as the doctors jumbled in.

He pantomimed a gun with long white fingers.

Aimed at me.

Pulled the trigger.

###

Twitter rumors spread that my best friend and we died on arrival. R.I.P. Erik and Callie.

#RestInPeace

#ErikCal4Life

#R.I.P. Skinny. Erik’s nickname was natural for a kid who was six feet tall and could fit through two slats in a fence sideways.

People were dumb. They believed the hype. Neither of us died in the wreck I caused driving drunk and high. The doctors saved me from the freak seizure that stopped my heart.

Other doctors in the other room shoved breathing tubes down Erik’s throat. His brain wasn’t damaged but the nerves of his neck were severed at C-7 and everything below his waist was a ghost town.

Erik and I both lived.

There was no resting and there was no peace.


Chapter Two

I lay awake my first night in the state Juvenile Detention Center. A cry fluttered in my mouth like a moth in a net. I did not let it out.

The week before I studied everything I could find about JD. Basically I got an online PhD on how to get through ten months of lockup without getting the shit kicked out of me. I didn’t know if the information was any good yet, but it was all I had.

First off, it was important not to seem weak to the other girls.

Problem was, I’d never felt weaker in my life.

Online wisdom suggested that in prison it was best to be forgettable. I meant to keep as invisible as possible. I meant to be so under the radar that nobody knew me enough to forget me in the first place.

To be honest, most of the tips for surviving in Juvenile Detention weren’t so different from the things I did to get along in the real world: Don’t be eager to make friends but don’t make enemies either. Be chill but don’t be anybody’s punk.

Never snitch.

Nights were supposed to be the worst. A person’s mind could just start rolling and never shut off. I lay in the dark and went over the tricks to not going crazy. For example, it was important to not think about the fact that the door to my room locked on the outside.

It was also ideal not to cry. If it was impossible not to cry then at least keep it quiet.

Last but not least, thinking about what I’d done to get to JD would make the time I spent there last forever. I had to put my crime out of my mind.

The only problem was that the image of Erik bleeding, covered in glass and looking dead played in a movie behind my eyes whenever I closed them. Unless I figured a way to sleep with my eyes open, I’d be thinking and dreaming about what I’d done to Erik every single night of my life.

Something rustled in the air vent.

“Hey, do you hear that?” I asked the huddled lump in the next bed. Gia was her name.

“Just be cool,” Gia said.

She was giving good advice. I knew this but there was something in the vent and my breath was speeding up like I was running. Anxiety attacks were a new habit I’d picked up since the wreck. People at school would laugh like crazy if they could see how nervous I was now. They were used to Callie Gil being a tough bitch. I was sarcastic and hilarious. I had been very careful since before middle school that nobody could ever say they saw me sweat.

Claws scratched against thin metal.

It could have been the wind as it roared through the valley and whistled through the cracks in the walls. Most likely it was a rat. The Central Juvenile Detention Center for 
Girls was a crumbling building in the middle of a huge empty field off the highway. There had to be a ton of rats.

I made myself still as a dead person. If I was already dead then nothing could get me.

I closed my eyes. Pieces of glass like diamond pebbles sparkled on Erik’s chest. His chin pointed up, his mouth was slack. How many times had I stared at those lips when he was talking, wishing so bad that he would just kiss me?

From a deep place in the air vent someone was laughing. My brain flipped in their gymnastics of denial. It was kids in another room. It was a guard playing a prank. It was a trick in my brain caused by a summer spent snorting Oxycontin through the nose.

“One two, buckle your shoe.” The voice crackled like fire, laughing at his own joke.

I tightened the blanket around myself as though it could protect me. My mouth felt like it was full of paste.

My eyes burned as I stared at the vent two feet off the floor just near where my head would be if I dared to lay it down.

“Seven, eight, get your neck on straight.”

I was stressed and hearing things. Or maybe a guard was watching television and the vent caught the sound. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with me.

My brain did cartwheels of nope. Somersaults of this-can’t-be-happening.

The vent banged as though something inside was trying to come out.

“Callieeee,” the crackling man crooned. “I waaant yooou.”

The pajama pants issued me that day by the state of California warmed and just as quickly cooled as I wet them.

Chapter Three

Our slippers whispered across the floor as we shuffled into group therapy in a straight line. We took our seats in creaking folding chairs.

Every other day the other girls in my block and me had to get in a circle and talk about our feelings In JD there were girls who loved this part of the day. They never stopped talking about their feelings. There was the girl who talked with her arms wound around her body as if she were holding a wild animal in her ribcage. There was the girl who talked while staring at the floor. There was the girl who talked while staring at the ceiling.

Whatever their style, almost everybody talked.

I saw my cousin get shot. He died at my feet.

A friend from my old crew broke into my house and held a gun to my little sister’s head.

My mother beat me with an extension cord. A wooden spoon. A hammer.

My stepfather did worse. You don’t want to know what he did.

During the first few group sessions I made the mistake of thinking that the stories were a bunch of lies. I never said so aloud, but there was no way they could be true. Nobody’s life was that bad.

Now I sat rubbing my hands together and listened without a shred of doubt. The stories didn’t seem crazy anymore. They weren’t even that interesting. I never said this either, but the thing about the stories that impressed me the most was that the girls telling them survived. Yeah, they were in JD. Not great. But I had to admire the fact that they were still alive when it seemed like the whole world wanted them dead.

It was my cellmate’s turn to talk. Gia’s story was just flat out frustrating. She’d been in the backseat of her cousin’s car, headed to a house party. On the way, they took a detour to shoot a guy in a rival gang in a drive-by. Gia wasn’t a validated gang member, which meant nobody told her anything about the plans for the night. She had no idea what was going down but it didn’t matter. Under new anti-gang laws, Gia faced twenty-five to life. In two years, she was heading to adult prison.

“By the time I get out, I’ll be forty,” she said.

I examined the lines on my palms to avoid looking at Gia’s face. Forty was my parents’ age. A lifetime in prison was impossible to imagine for a girl like Gia. She was never going to be able to have kids. She loved to read and she liked things in the cell to be extremely neat. She wasn’t a murderer. She didn’t even do the thing that landed her in lock-up. 

Meanwhile, the best person I knew was paralyzed for life because of me and the judge only gave me one year. I wouldn’t have blamed Gia for hating me for the fact I was going to get out by the next Christmas.

She didn’t hate me, though. We weren’t friends, but she never acted mad. I rubbed my hands together and wondered if I would have been as cool as Gia was if our stories were the other way around. Probably not. I’d probably be too jealous to be cool.

I liked the swishing sound my palms made. The habit kept me calm when I was stressed. I didn’t notice at first that the room had gone quiet. When I lifted my eyes, everybody was looking at me.

“What about you, Callie?” Counselor Dave asked. “Do you have anything you want to say?”

Dave was younger than the guards and over half the other girls had a crush on him. I could admit that he was much more of a human being than the other adults running the show. He had no sense of humor about himself, though. I could tell that he thought was was making a real difference in young lives working in that place and it made me want to punch him in the face. And as for me talking in group, that just wasn’t going to happen.

“I’ve got nothing,” I said. “Seriously. I’m just an asshole.”

“Nobody believes that, Callie Dave shook his head.

A big girl named Lily raised her hand.

“I believe it,” Lily said. This comment earned her laughs. Lily looked around the room, a half smile on her round face. My dad would have said she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I steered clear of Lily, though. Everybody did. You don’t have to be sharp to be able to do some damage.

“You all are laughing,” Lily said. “But none of you are talking about the man with the hood and I know at least some of you have heard him even if you haven’t seen him.”

“Let’s not change the subject,” Dave said.

“No, let’s,” I said. I sat up, my hands still for once.

“Mr. Hood’s always there,” Lily said, warming to her audience. “He sees everything you did to get here. If you done a bad thing, he knows all about it. He’s like Santa Claus only Satan Claus. Do you feel me? I hear him at night.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Shut the fuck up, Callie.” A harsh whisper from Gia. “Don’t get her started.”

Lily leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked like a football player getting ready to charge center field. “Oh now the asshole got something to say. You hear what the Hooded Man has to say to you, bitch? You hear him through the vents?”

Everyone else in the room seemed to fade away. “I hear him every night, ” I said.

“There is no escape from Mr. Hood,” Lily said.

“I saw him too.” For the first time I was not alone with the fear. So, I wasn’t crazy or hallucinating. I hadn’t broken my brain permanently with pills and alcohol. The thing haunting me even had a name. “He tried to kill me.”

“Mr. Hood can’t kill you.” Lily shook her finger at me. She acted like she was an expert on the subject and I needed to be schooled.

“He did try to kill me,” I said, still aware of the shadow of the shooting pain where my ribs had been broken.

“But you’re still alive though,” Lily said. “I see you there. Breathing.”

Dave waved his arms for attention like he was trying to land a plane that was out of control. I rubbed at my chest. My heart ached where the icy finger had pressed in.

“The doctors saved me,” I said. “But the hooded man wanted me dead.”

“You can die. You can want to die. Mr. Hood can’t kill you, though.” Lily said.

“What do you mean?” Lily was talking in riddles when what I needed were facts. I needed information that I could use. If the hooded man was real, then I could make him go away if only I knew how.

“Let’s talk about what this story symbolizes for you,” Dave said, interrupting. “What’s it trying to say to you?”

Lily and I both turned to look at our poor, dumb counselor.

“Seriously, ladies,” Dave sounded like a kid. “This is actually cool, nothing to be afraid of. You’re talking about your own sub-conscious. You know this, right? There isn’t an actual boogeyman talking to you through the vents.”

“Not the boogeyman,” I said.

“Boogeyman is a different thing.” Lily nodded at me as if I were suddenly her co-expert.

“Mr. Hood then,” Dave said. “A Satan Claus or whatever.”

Lily turned back to me. “Just because he can’t kill you don’t mean he’s not coming for you.”

“What can he do?” I asked. I kept expecting for the others to shut the conversation down with calls of bullshit. But this was not business as usual. The group sat straight as rods, tense and listening. Even the guards standing along the walls were paying attention.

Lily shook out her shoulders like she was getting ready to lift a weight.

“Mr. Hood can’t kill you, but he can make you wish you were dead.”

“How?”

Lily leaned forward. “He can hurt you so bad that you give him your soul yourself and then thank him for taking it.”

At this, the other girls finally erupted. Gia crossed herself over and over. Chairs scraped against the floor and a couple of the girls rushed Huey and started waling on her and pulling her hair. She ducked her head and windmilled her enormous fists, clocking someone in the jaw. Another girl hugged herself, moaning “Hell naw, Hell naw.”

Dave jumped out of the fray, clinging to the door and banging on it to be let out. A couple of us took a knee and froze in place like we were supposed to during a fight.

I got down in time to avoid a face full of the pepper spray a guard blasted in the room. My eyes were burned almost blind anyway, my nose a running mess. I would never get used to the pepper spray.

“See what you did,” Gia said later in the cell, a wet paper towel over her eyes. “You got Lily riled up and crazy.”

“Do you know what she was talking about?” I blew my nose but it didn’t help. My nose and eyes would never stop running. “Have you ever heard his voice? Have you ever seen Mr. Hood?”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Gia lay on her back in bed, the heels of her hands pressing into the wet paper on her face. “Everybody’s got a story about this and that. I’ll tell you what, 
Lily isn’t right in the head.”

“Maybe she’s not right, but she’s not lying,” I said. I clung to this piece of truth as if would save my life in a flood.

Gia didn’t answer for a while. Finally she sighed like she was the kind of tired ten years straight of sleeping couldn’t help. “Not lying exactly, but she doesn’t know everything she thinks he does.”

“Like what? What was she wrong about?”

Gia waved her hand over her face. “You should never talk about what you were talking about in there. Talking about the man with the hood makes him come around more. And by the way, you should quit drawing him too. The more you do that shit, the more you bring him to life.”

Blindfolded by the towel, Gia crossed herself in an elaborate dance of hand to forehead, lips, heart, shoulders, back to heart and lips. She did it again for good measure. Gia made me wish I had a ritual or charm to feel better. All I had was drawing, and Gia was right about the subject of my sketches. Almost every page was filled with a man in a hood. I wore my pencils flat from shading in the black where the face should have been.

Later in the night when our noses stop flowing, we fell asleep. I woke to the deep voice chuckling in the vents. It could have been the wind from outside rattling the old building. It could have been kids in another cell. My brain was exhausted from trying to do flips to avoid what I knew was true. I was haunted by something bad that was trying to get me.

I lay still in the bed, my ears tuned to every noise coming from the vent. It was a tangled knot of voices, static going in and out. Then one line came out clear as if from a song by an old-timey singer, deep and full of a slow, bubbling joy.

Shame on you. Shame on youuuuu.

I pulled the scratchy wool blanket around my ears.

I had never given my life much thought. Before the wreck I never thought about my life or my soul as something to worry about losing.

I worried now.

###

Close to my release date, a letter from Erik came in the mail. It was folded into thirds inside a long envelope. Dave asked if I wanted him there while I opened it.

“Who says I’m opening it?” I asked. I didn’t want to talk about Erik with Dave. I tucked the letter into the waistband of my drawstring pants.

After lunch, Gia and I sat in our room waiting for yard time. Gia’s book order had just come in from the library so she was reading. All I could see was the cover hiding her face. 

It was a romance with a guy on the front wearing a kilt. The only noise was the flipping of pages.

I ran my thumb along the top of the envelope, slit neatly by a mailroom guard. Our mail was never private. The guards were probably laughing at me at that moment for getting a letter from a boy who hated me. Because he had to hate me. Nothing else made sense.

I wasn’t allowed to talk to Erik at all leading up to my court date and trial. My lawyer was a friend of my dad’s and he said it was forbidden for me to talk to Erik or anyone else 
who had been at Mark’s party the night of the wreck. By the time I got that letter it had been over a year since I’d seen him.

I wondered if Erik was able to type the letter himself or if a nurse had to do it for him. I imagined what the nurse would say when Erik told her what to write to the girl who ruined him:

How many times do you really need to tell this Callie person that you hate her and that you wish she was the one who was paralyze? You say you want me to write Fuck You ten thousand times?!

“Open it already,” Gia didn’t bother looking up. “Damn, girl. It’s just a letter.”

It was not just a letter. The letter was a grenade and reading it would pull out the pin and blow me to pieces.

“I can see who it’s from,” Gia said. “It’s from the dude you paralyzed. So open the letter. Just do it.”

It was funny that even though we’d lived together almost a year, Gia only knew Erik as the dude I paralyzed. Even she didn’t know how much I loved him.

She did know some things about me, though. I didn’t share much in group, but over the months together Gia and I talked sometimes when the nights went on forever. I guessed she knew as much about me as anybody.

I unfolded the paper, grateful for Gia bossing me around from across the room. It was better than being alone. I tensed my shoulders, trying to ready for whatever Erik had to say. I deserved my his hate. I deserved ten thousand pages of Fuck You.

I scanned the page.

It wasn’t a hate letter.

Cal, if you are blaming yourself for this, don’t. We were both going for total annihilation that night, and we both know why. What happened to me was not your fault.

Relief bum rushed shame and loneliness inside me so fast I fell back against the wall. For a sweet minute a sharp ray of hope sliced me right open. Erik forgave me. Maybe everything would be okay. The letter shook in my fingers. I read it again.

We were both going for total annihilation.

Shame curled its way back in to my gut like smoke from burning oil. Erik’s forgiveness did not change the fact that he was never going to walk again.

My friend’s words could also not change what happened the night before the wreck. No amount of forgiveness between the two of us could make right what we’d done together.

The letter slipped from my hands. A draft from the vent blew it under the bed.

“Bitch, you dropped it,” Gia said, always a neat freak. Anything out of place gave her anxiety.

“Yeah, all right.” I got down and reached for the paper under the bed.

Another hand shot from the dark. Hard fingers grabbed my wrist. I yanked my arm back and scrambled across the floor.

“What the fuck?” Gia drew her legs up. “Was there a rat?”

I flew to the door, pounded on it with both fists. I heard myself hollering and told myself to stop. It was a bad idea to attract attention. The whole time at the JDC I had mostly managed to stay quiet. Under the radar.

I begged myself to stay quiet but I couldn’t listen, not even to myself.

Ice pierced my wrist bones. I heard myself yelling as if from somewhere else.

The guards pushed me down. They restrained me with a zip tie. They ordered me to stop yelling. I ordered me to stop.

Ice encircled my wrist tighter than the zip ties ever would and I couldn’t stop.

There was a pinch on my arm from a needle.

I sank into a druggy fuzz, my own voice no longer loud enough to drown the sound of deep hollow singing echoing through the hall.
Shame on youuuuuuu.


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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Maureenow in portal Simon & Schuster

The Randoms

Chapter One

Riana did not want to burn her project down but she had no choice. She burned her art for love.

There were places on Riana’s bird skeleton sculpture where the glue dripped on the balsa wood in long wormy blisters that were ugly and hidden. Some secrets were for the artist alone. An observer’s eye would be drawn to the bird’s flawless body and her outstretched neck. Her beautiful wings.

Riana wished there was another way but fire was the only solution she could think of in a hurry.

In the hall a locker rang with the kick of a girl’s heavy boot. There was no time for regret. Maybe a fire in the steel sink of a high school art room was a fitting end to a 3D model of a Phoenix anyway. Not all art was supposed to last. The Advanced Painting and Media teacher Mrs. Rose had shown a video just that day of Buddhist monks who spent months creating Mandalas out of colored sand only to sweep them away with brooms as soon as they finished.

Yet when Riana held a lighter to the tip of a wing she felt as if she herself were burning. Her finger on the plastic tab shook and her stomach tightened at the smell of smoke. How cruel it was to lose so many hours of work to fire.

A ring of flames grew until they licked the bird’s spine and engulfed the entire piece. In the last moments of the Phoenix’s existence the wings lifted in the heat of the clean yellow blaze. She traced her fingers along the cabled scars on her forearm where her sleeve pulled away to expose them.

“Poor bird,” she said. “I know just how you feel.”

The fire alarm sounded in short blasts.

Shouts and footsteps echoed through the old building. Riana ran to the door’s window to the hall to find that Joan and the boy she was hurting were gone. The fight was interrupted. Mission accomplished.

Behind her the fire sounded like a swarm of ants chewing paper. She turned as the last of the Phoenix collapsed. The burning was over.

Except that it wasn’t.

Above the pile of ashes, flames leapt over the watercolor paintings tacked to the wall. Riana hurried to the sink and yanked on the faucet. She threw scoops of water at the student artwork with her hands but the fire acted like it didn’t notice, climbing the paintings like a living, greedy thing.

Mrs. Rose rushed in yelling and Riana was never so glad to see a teacher in her entire life. The woman clutched a red fire extinguisher and sprayed the fire until it was dead and the wall and counter dripped with foam. She dropped the canister with a clang and turned on Riana with wide and ferocious eyes.

“To the office.” She pointed a finger to the door. “Now.”

Damn, Riana thought. Not again.

Chapter Two

Rebekah loved the different words for the thing she loved to do.

For example, she loved the word piracy. Rebekah was a pirate and no one suspected because she moved like a ghost ship among the living. She was unseen. Invisible. She took what she wanted and no one noticed until the beloved thing and she were long gone.

Shoplifter. What a powerful thing to be able to lift an entire shop.

Stealing. Her most favorite word. Stealing sounded like steel which was a material forged in fire. Steel was impervious to abuse. Steel didn’t feel. Steel was stainless.

Rebekah loved to steal.

In Coalton High School’s main office, Joy Austin splayed her hand so that the other girls could admire her new diamond ring.

“Is it real?” One asked.

Joy shrugged with one shoulder, a tiny smile playing on her glossed lips. Rebekah knew that her friend wasn’t playing coy. She was honestly clueless. Rebekah did know the value of things and even under the fluorescent ceiling lights the diamond winked as only the real deal would.

A fire alarm shattered the circle. They never pulled fire drills after school so that meant that the alarm was not a drill. Somewhere in the school there was a fire was as real as the diamond that Joy Austin wore in a ring that was much too big for her. Rebekah knew exactly who had given her friend a present meant for a grown woman. Maybe he had 

forgotten that Joy was only sixteen years old.

In the second of elbows and breathless barks of laughter before everyone moved towards the door, Rebekah’s fingers feathered Joy’s and just like that the ring was hers.

As Rebekah joined the parade of after-school stragglers leaving the building, the words for what she was sounded in her ears in time with the fire alarm’s emergency pealing.

Pirate.

Lifter.

Stealer.

Thief.

Chapter Three

The fact that Jake’s eyes were watering made Joan want to hurt him worse. Rage bloomed in her jaw and crackled between her teeth. If people understood how much their fear pissed her off they would try better to hide it.

Jake threatened to hit her back but she knew he was too chicken shit to follow through. 

She so wished he would. To be able to get in a fight would feel like sudden freedom after a long time in jail.

Joan hammered Jake in the nose with the heel of her hand. His head smashed into the locker and left a dent in the metal. He hunched over, cupping his fingers over his bleeding face. She stepped backwards while he struggled for breath and emailed the pictures they had just been discussing to herself from his phone.

There was a rumor that it was Joan’s fault that the basketball team’s star lost out on his scholarship the year before because she’d broken his leg in retaliation for the pics he’d had on his phone of her drunk and naked. It wasn’t true. There were no pictures. Joan was never drunk and she sure as hell was never naked. The kid had broken his own leg in a drunken fall down the stairs at his house by himself. But she let the rumor stand. She even fanned the gossip mill’s flames by not denying anything to anybody. She liked being hated. Her psychology teacher said once in a lecture that hatred was a secondary emotion to fear and even more than being hated Joan loved being feared.

“Please.” Jake’s voice broke like a tweener’s. “Please don’t do anything. We were just fooling around, right? I mean, Joy was into it.”

“She didn’t look into it to me, Jacob.” Joan had scrolled through. She knew exactly what photos he had on his phone, including one selfie he’d taken where his face was clearly visible alongside the main attraction which was Joy unconscious with her shirt pulled to her chin. Someone had scrawled the word slut across her belly in black marker.

The picture was more than enough to ruin any chance Jake had at a football scholarship. This time she would deserve the blame for crushing a boy’s college dreams, if he didn’t do as she said.

They stood at Jake’s locker outside the art rooms. She was barely tall enough to be able to bite him on the neck standing on her tiptoes and she was about half his weight. Yet here they were nonetheless. A tiny mouse terrifying a gangly and gutless elephant.

Joan’s secret was violence. She struck hard and she struck quick. She would do the worst thing possible with zero wind up until her victim shivered and bled against a cold locker begging for mercy.

“Please don’t hit me again,” Jake said. “What do you want?”

“I want you and your friends to quit taking unconscious girl porn you sad pathetic asshole.”

He swallowed hard. “It isn’t my idea. It’s---“

“I really don’t care,” she said. “Make it not happen.”

He wasn’t lying. She knew whose idea it was to play this nasty game that wouldn’t die, humiliating one girl after another since summer. The pics were the brainchild of Adam Turner, a guy in her class that everybody worshipped for some bizarre reason. At first Joan didn’t care about what was happening. Girls in her class kept going to parties and drinking with Adam and his friends. What the hell did they think was going to happen?

But now Joan did care. The latest target of the joke was Joy Austin who was a friend of Rebekah Linwood’s. Joan didn’t talk to Rebekah much anymore but they’d been best friends in eighth grade and she didn’t want her to be next in line. Besides, Joan didn’t know how much more she could take of the boys snickering into their phones during class. She couldn’t stand bullies.

When she found Jake, stole his phone and maybe broke his nose, Joan knew exactly what she was doing. There was a method to her ass-kicking madness. Joan targeted Jake because he was Adam’s best friend and she knew that Adam would stage the pictures as long as his minions told him it was funny. He would only quit when his friends stopped thinking he was cool for hurting girls because what guys like Adam wanted more than anything was to be the center of attention. Without an audience there would be no point.

“Please leave me alone,” Jake said. “Can I have my phone back? We’ll quit taking the pictures. I promise.”

Joan had made her point. She knew that. But once unleashed, the itch for more violence marched under her skin like a bad army. Her fists curled.

The sudden blow of the fire alarm made her jump. Jake ducked and ran, leaving a line of bloody stars spotting the tile floor in his wake. She dropped his phone and crunched it under her boot because fire or not she was dying for something to smash.

That was when she noticed the smoke billowing out of the art room. Mrs. Rose hurtled down the hall and slammed open the door. Joan backed away as the teacher yelled at someone inside. There was the hissing of a fire extinguisher. From far away, sirens.

Joan followed Jake’s blood trail to the exit.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by Maureenow in portal Simon & Schuster
The Randoms

Chapter One

Riana did not want to burn her project down but she had no choice. She burned her art for love.

There were places on Riana’s bird skeleton sculpture where the glue dripped on the balsa wood in long wormy blisters that were ugly and hidden. Some secrets were for the artist alone. An observer’s eye would be drawn to the bird’s flawless body and her outstretched neck. Her beautiful wings.

Riana wished there was another way but fire was the only solution she could think of in a hurry.

In the hall a locker rang with the kick of a girl’s heavy boot. There was no time for regret. Maybe a fire in the steel sink of a high school art room was a fitting end to a 3D model of a Phoenix anyway. Not all art was supposed to last. The Advanced Painting and Media teacher Mrs. Rose had shown a video just that day of Buddhist monks who spent months creating Mandalas out of colored sand only to sweep them away with brooms as soon as they finished.

Yet when Riana held a lighter to the tip of a wing she felt as if she herself were burning. Her finger on the plastic tab shook and her stomach tightened at the smell of smoke. How cruel it was to lose so many hours of work to fire.

A ring of flames grew until they licked the bird’s spine and engulfed the entire piece. In the last moments of the Phoenix’s existence the wings lifted in the heat of the clean yellow blaze. She traced her fingers along the cabled scars on her forearm where her sleeve pulled away to expose them.

“Poor bird,” she said. “I know just how you feel.”

The fire alarm sounded in short blasts.

Shouts and footsteps echoed through the old building. Riana ran to the door’s window to the hall to find that Joan and the boy she was hurting were gone. The fight was interrupted. Mission accomplished.

Behind her the fire sounded like a swarm of ants chewing paper. She turned as the last of the Phoenix collapsed. The burning was over.

Except that it wasn’t.

Above the pile of ashes, flames leapt over the watercolor paintings tacked to the wall. Riana hurried to the sink and yanked on the faucet. She threw scoops of water at the student artwork with her hands but the fire acted like it didn’t notice, climbing the paintings like a living, greedy thing.

Mrs. Rose rushed in yelling and Riana was never so glad to see a teacher in her entire life. The woman clutched a red fire extinguisher and sprayed the fire until it was dead and the wall and counter dripped with foam. She dropped the canister with a clang and turned on Riana with wide and ferocious eyes.

“To the office.” She pointed a finger to the door. “Now.”

Damn, Riana thought. Not again.

Chapter Two

Rebekah loved the different words for the thing she loved to do.

For example, she loved the word piracy. Rebekah was a pirate and no one suspected because she moved like a ghost ship among the living. She was unseen. Invisible. She took what she wanted and no one noticed until the beloved thing and she were long gone.

Shoplifter. What a powerful thing to be able to lift an entire shop.

Stealing. Her most favorite word. Stealing sounded like steel which was a material forged in fire. Steel was impervious to abuse. Steel didn’t feel. Steel was stainless.

Rebekah loved to steal.

In Coalton High School’s main office, Joy Austin splayed her hand so that the other girls could admire her new diamond ring.

“Is it real?” One asked.

Joy shrugged with one shoulder, a tiny smile playing on her glossed lips. Rebekah knew that her friend wasn’t playing coy. She was honestly clueless. Rebekah did know the value of things and even under the fluorescent ceiling lights the diamond winked as only the real deal would.

A fire alarm shattered the circle. They never pulled fire drills after school so that meant that the alarm was not a drill. Somewhere in the school there was a fire was as real as the diamond that Joy Austin wore in a ring that was much too big for her. Rebekah knew exactly who had given her friend a present meant for a grown woman. Maybe he had 
forgotten that Joy was only sixteen years old.

In the second of elbows and breathless barks of laughter before everyone moved towards the door, Rebekah’s fingers feathered Joy’s and just like that the ring was hers.

As Rebekah joined the parade of after-school stragglers leaving the building, the words for what she was sounded in her ears in time with the fire alarm’s emergency pealing.

Pirate.
Lifter.
Stealer.
Thief.


Chapter Three

The fact that Jake’s eyes were watering made Joan want to hurt him worse. Rage bloomed in her jaw and crackled between her teeth. If people understood how much their fear pissed her off they would try better to hide it.

Jake threatened to hit her back but she knew he was too chicken shit to follow through. 
She so wished he would. To be able to get in a fight would feel like sudden freedom after a long time in jail.

Joan hammered Jake in the nose with the heel of her hand. His head smashed into the locker and left a dent in the metal. He hunched over, cupping his fingers over his bleeding face. She stepped backwards while he struggled for breath and emailed the pictures they had just been discussing to herself from his phone.

There was a rumor that it was Joan’s fault that the basketball team’s star lost out on his scholarship the year before because she’d broken his leg in retaliation for the pics he’d had on his phone of her drunk and naked. It wasn’t true. There were no pictures. Joan was never drunk and she sure as hell was never naked. The kid had broken his own leg in a drunken fall down the stairs at his house by himself. But she let the rumor stand. She even fanned the gossip mill’s flames by not denying anything to anybody. She liked being hated. Her psychology teacher said once in a lecture that hatred was a secondary emotion to fear and even more than being hated Joan loved being feared.

“Please.” Jake’s voice broke like a tweener’s. “Please don’t do anything. We were just fooling around, right? I mean, Joy was into it.”

“She didn’t look into it to me, Jacob.” Joan had scrolled through. She knew exactly what photos he had on his phone, including one selfie he’d taken where his face was clearly visible alongside the main attraction which was Joy unconscious with her shirt pulled to her chin. Someone had scrawled the word slut across her belly in black marker.
The picture was more than enough to ruin any chance Jake had at a football scholarship. This time she would deserve the blame for crushing a boy’s college dreams, if he didn’t do as she said.

They stood at Jake’s locker outside the art rooms. She was barely tall enough to be able to bite him on the neck standing on her tiptoes and she was about half his weight. Yet here they were nonetheless. A tiny mouse terrifying a gangly and gutless elephant.
Joan’s secret was violence. She struck hard and she struck quick. She would do the worst thing possible with zero wind up until her victim shivered and bled against a cold locker begging for mercy.

“Please don’t hit me again,” Jake said. “What do you want?”

“I want you and your friends to quit taking unconscious girl porn you sad pathetic asshole.”

He swallowed hard. “It isn’t my idea. It’s---“

“I really don’t care,” she said. “Make it not happen.”

He wasn’t lying. She knew whose idea it was to play this nasty game that wouldn’t die, humiliating one girl after another since summer. The pics were the brainchild of Adam Turner, a guy in her class that everybody worshipped for some bizarre reason. At first Joan didn’t care about what was happening. Girls in her class kept going to parties and drinking with Adam and his friends. What the hell did they think was going to happen?
But now Joan did care. The latest target of the joke was Joy Austin who was a friend of Rebekah Linwood’s. Joan didn’t talk to Rebekah much anymore but they’d been best friends in eighth grade and she didn’t want her to be next in line. Besides, Joan didn’t know how much more she could take of the boys snickering into their phones during class. She couldn’t stand bullies.

When she found Jake, stole his phone and maybe broke his nose, Joan knew exactly what she was doing. There was a method to her ass-kicking madness. Joan targeted Jake because he was Adam’s best friend and she knew that Adam would stage the pictures as long as his minions told him it was funny. He would only quit when his friends stopped thinking he was cool for hurting girls because what guys like Adam wanted more than anything was to be the center of attention. Without an audience there would be no point.

“Please leave me alone,” Jake said. “Can I have my phone back? We’ll quit taking the pictures. I promise.”

Joan had made her point. She knew that. But once unleashed, the itch for more violence marched under her skin like a bad army. Her fists curled.

The sudden blow of the fire alarm made her jump. Jake ducked and ran, leaving a line of bloody stars spotting the tile floor in his wake. She dropped his phone and crunched it under her boot because fire or not she was dying for something to smash.

That was when she noticed the smoke billowing out of the art room. Mrs. Rose hurtled down the hall and slammed open the door. Joan backed away as the teacher yelled at someone inside. There was the hissing of a fire extinguisher. From far away, sirens.

Joan followed Jake’s blood trail to the exit.

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We are a literary agency seeking fresh talent. In 200 words or more, demonstrate your writing talent. We will be in touch with any and all promising participants throughout the rest of this quarter.
Written by Maureenow

R.I.P. Skinny

     The new kid from under the tree at lunch was in the bowl, practicing flips on his board. He caught air and slapped down before joining the others gliding back and forth around each other like planets in separate orbits. Sometimes a board would slip out or a trick would go wrong in a jumble of elbows and skidding wheels. The tall kid with the white blonde hair never fell. He moved like water, his face perfectly serene.

     When the streetlights came on I knew my mother would be making dinner. My father would be waxing his car in the driveway with one pissed off eye down the street looking for me to come home. To delay the scene with my parents I watched the skaters for a while, drawing in my sketchbook until the crowd thinned out and I felt like entering the bowl myself. I had intended to practice kick flips but changed my mind so I wouldn’t scrub in front of the new kid. I skated through, letting my mind go blank and clean.

     Across the bowl Erik did a 180 kick flip with serious air and landed with perfect balance. In a rush of blind courage I tried the same and fell hard. I brushed my pants like it didn’t hurt. Another kid laughed but Erik slid over and kicked up his board.

     “Dude, you’re so close. Put your back foot more on the edge. You’ve got this.”

     I hadn’t meant to try again. I’d meant to slink home and face whatever was going on there rather than look like an idiot at the skate park. But Erik smiled in a way that made me want to get back on my board.

     I fell again, harder this time. Erik laughed but not in a mean way.

     “Open your shoulders. Your heart chakra, man.”

     “My heart chakra,” I repeated. “What the hell.”

     But Erik wasn’t laughing now. “The board wants what you want. One more time.”

I don’t know why I decided to trust him, this kid who moved like water on his wheels. But I did. I put my foot back close to the edge, pushed forward and then stopped thinking. I kicked, opened my upper body like he said and landed facing the other way without a wobble.

     “The board wants what I want,” I said. I couldn’t believe I’d made the trick. “That’s funny.”

     “Funny but true,” Erik said. “You proved it.”

     We skated together until the moon rose and our empty stomachs drove us home. Before I left, I ripped out the drawing I'd been making of Erik on his board and handed it over.

     “You did this,” Erik said. A statement. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not.

     “Yeah. Whatever. You can keep it.”

     “This is so cool,” he said. “I can’t believe you’re giving it to me.”

     “No big deal,” I said. I headed across the grass towards my own neighborhood, feeling light and okay.

     By the time I got home, my dad was already beer mellowed and in a good mood.

     “You’re going to negotiate for extra credit first thing Monday,” was all he said as we sat to the table. My mom was too glad to have everyone home for dinner to be mad at me for being late or for anything else either.

     From that first night, Erik made everything better without even trying.

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We are a literary agency seeking fresh talent. In 200 words or more, demonstrate your writing talent. We will be in touch with any and all promising participants throughout the rest of this quarter.
Written by Maureenow
R.I.P. Skinny
     The new kid from under the tree at lunch was in the bowl, practicing flips on his board. He caught air and slapped down before joining the others gliding back and forth around each other like planets in separate orbits. Sometimes a board would slip out or a trick would go wrong in a jumble of elbows and skidding wheels. The tall kid with the white blonde hair never fell. He moved like water, his face perfectly serene.
     When the streetlights came on I knew my mother would be making dinner. My father would be waxing his car in the driveway with one pissed off eye down the street looking for me to come home. To delay the scene with my parents I watched the skaters for a while, drawing in my sketchbook until the crowd thinned out and I felt like entering the bowl myself. I had intended to practice kick flips but changed my mind so I wouldn’t scrub in front of the new kid. I skated through, letting my mind go blank and clean.
     Across the bowl Erik did a 180 kick flip with serious air and landed with perfect balance. In a rush of blind courage I tried the same and fell hard. I brushed my pants like it didn’t hurt. Another kid laughed but Erik slid over and kicked up his board.
     “Dude, you’re so close. Put your back foot more on the edge. You’ve got this.”
     I hadn’t meant to try again. I’d meant to slink home and face whatever was going on there rather than look like an idiot at the skate park. But Erik smiled in a way that made me want to get back on my board.
     I fell again, harder this time. Erik laughed but not in a mean way.
     “Open your shoulders. Your heart chakra, man.”
     “My heart chakra,” I repeated. “What the hell.”
     But Erik wasn’t laughing now. “The board wants what you want. One more time.”
I don’t know why I decided to trust him, this kid who moved like water on his wheels. But I did. I put my foot back close to the edge, pushed forward and then stopped thinking. I kicked, opened my upper body like he said and landed facing the other way without a wobble.
     “The board wants what I want,” I said. I couldn’t believe I’d made the trick. “That’s funny.”
     “Funny but true,” Erik said. “You proved it.”
     We skated together until the moon rose and our empty stomachs drove us home. Before I left, I ripped out the drawing I'd been making of Erik on his board and handed it over.
     “You did this,” Erik said. A statement. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not.
     “Yeah. Whatever. You can keep it.”
     “This is so cool,” he said. “I can’t believe you’re giving it to me.”
     “No big deal,” I said. I headed across the grass towards my own neighborhood, feeling light and okay.
     By the time I got home, my dad was already beer mellowed and in a good mood.
     “You’re going to negotiate for extra credit first thing Monday,” was all he said as we sat to the table. My mom was too glad to have everyone home for dinner to be mad at me for being late or for anything else either.
     From that first night, Erik made everything better without even trying.
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Written by Maureenow

R.I.P. Skinny

     The new kid from under the tree at lunch was in the bowl, practicing flips on his board. He caught air and slapped down before joining the others gliding back and forth around each other like planets in separate orbits. Sometimes a board would slip out or a trick would go wrong in a jumble of elbows and skidding wheels. The tall kid with the white blonde hair never fell. He moved like water, his face perfectly serene.

     When the streetlights came on I knew my mother would be making dinner. My father would be waxing his car in the driveway with one pissed off eye down the street looking for me to come home. To delay the scene with my parents I watched the skaters for a while, drawing in my sketchbook until the crowd thinned out and I felt like entering the bowl myself. I had intended to practice kick flips but changed my mind so I wouldn’t scrub in front of the new kid. I skated through, letting my mind go blank and clean.

     Across the bowl Erik did a 180 kick flip with serious air and landed with perfect balance. In a rush of blind courage I tried the same and fell hard. I brushed my pants like it didn’t hurt. Another kid laughed but Erik slid over and kicked up his board.

     “Dude, you’re so close. Put your back foot more on the edge. You’ve got this.”

     I hadn’t meant to try again. I’d meant to slink home and face whatever was going on there rather than look like an idiot at the skate park. But Erik smiled in a way that made me want to get back on my board.

     I fell again, harder this time. Erik laughed but not in a mean way.

     “Open your shoulders. Your heart chakra, man.”

     “My heart chakra,” I repeated. “What the hell.”

     But Erik wasn’t laughing now. “The board wants what you want. One more time.”

     I don’t know why I decided to trust him, this kid who moved like water on his wheels. But I did. I put my foot back close to the edge, pushed forward and then stopped thinking. I kicked, opened my upper body like he said and landed facing the other way without a wobble.

     “The board wants what I want,” I said. I couldn’t believe I’d made the trick. “That’s funny.”

     “Funny but true,” Erik said. “You proved it.”

     We skated together until the moon rose and our empty stomachs drove us home. Before I left, I ripped out the drawing I'd been making of Erik on his board and handed it over.

     “You did this,” Erik said. A statement. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not.

     “Yeah. Whatever. You can keep it.”

     “This is so cool,” he said. “I can’t believe you’re giving it to me.”

     “No big deal,” I said. I headed across the grass towards my own neighborhood, feeling light and okay.

     By the time I got home, my dad was already beer mellowed and in a good mood.

     “You’re going to negotiate for extra credit first thing Monday,” was all he said as we sat to the table. My mom was too glad to have everyone home for dinner to be mad at me for being late or for anything else either.

     From that first night, Erik made everything better without even trying.

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Written by Maureenow
R.I.P. Skinny
     The new kid from under the tree at lunch was in the bowl, practicing flips on his board. He caught air and slapped down before joining the others gliding back and forth around each other like planets in separate orbits. Sometimes a board would slip out or a trick would go wrong in a jumble of elbows and skidding wheels. The tall kid with the white blonde hair never fell. He moved like water, his face perfectly serene.
     When the streetlights came on I knew my mother would be making dinner. My father would be waxing his car in the driveway with one pissed off eye down the street looking for me to come home. To delay the scene with my parents I watched the skaters for a while, drawing in my sketchbook until the crowd thinned out and I felt like entering the bowl myself. I had intended to practice kick flips but changed my mind so I wouldn’t scrub in front of the new kid. I skated through, letting my mind go blank and clean.
     Across the bowl Erik did a 180 kick flip with serious air and landed with perfect balance. In a rush of blind courage I tried the same and fell hard. I brushed my pants like it didn’t hurt. Another kid laughed but Erik slid over and kicked up his board.
     “Dude, you’re so close. Put your back foot more on the edge. You’ve got this.”
     I hadn’t meant to try again. I’d meant to slink home and face whatever was going on there rather than look like an idiot at the skate park. But Erik smiled in a way that made me want to get back on my board.
     I fell again, harder this time. Erik laughed but not in a mean way.
     “Open your shoulders. Your heart chakra, man.”
     “My heart chakra,” I repeated. “What the hell.”
     But Erik wasn’t laughing now. “The board wants what you want. One more time.”
     I don’t know why I decided to trust him, this kid who moved like water on his wheels. But I did. I put my foot back close to the edge, pushed forward and then stopped thinking. I kicked, opened my upper body like he said and landed facing the other way without a wobble.
     “The board wants what I want,” I said. I couldn’t believe I’d made the trick. “That’s funny.”
     “Funny but true,” Erik said. “You proved it.”
     We skated together until the moon rose and our empty stomachs drove us home. Before I left, I ripped out the drawing I'd been making of Erik on his board and handed it over.
     “You did this,” Erik said. A statement. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not.
     “Yeah. Whatever. You can keep it.”
     “This is so cool,” he said. “I can’t believe you’re giving it to me.”
     “No big deal,” I said. I headed across the grass towards my own neighborhood, feeling light and okay.
     By the time I got home, my dad was already beer mellowed and in a good mood.
     “You’re going to negotiate for extra credit first thing Monday,” was all he said as we sat to the table. My mom was too glad to have everyone home for dinner to be mad at me for being late or for anything else either.
     From that first night, Erik made everything better without even trying.
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