Page 11

 A.G. Howard

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I lace my fingers through hers, trying to ground her. “You’re freaking me out. Who are you talking about?”
“He’ll come for you. He’ll step through your dreams. Or the looking glass . . . stay away from the glass, Allie! Do you understand?”
“Mirrors?” I ask, incredulous. “You want me to stay away from mirrors?”
She scrambles to her feet, and I struggle to balance on my crutch. “Broken glass severs more than skin. It will sever your identity.”
As if on cue, Jeb’s bandana slips from my knee, revealing the bloody bandage. A tiny yelp leaps from her mouth. There’s no tongue cluck to warn me before she lunges. My back slams against the ground.The air is pushed from my lungs and pain bursts between my shoulder blades.
Alison straddles me, peeling off my gloves as tears stream down her cheeks. “He made me hurt you!” She sobs. “I won’t let it happen again!”
I’ve heard her say those words before, and in an instant, I’m back in that place and time. A five-year-old child—innocent, oblivious— watching as a spring storm gathered outside the screen door. The scent of rain and wet dirt rolled over me, making my mouth water. Right against my nose, a moth landed on the screen, the size of a crow with a luminous body and wings like black satin. I squealed and it took flight, hovering, teasing me, asking me to play.
Lightning flashed, a flood of light. Mommy always told me it wasn’t safe to go outside when it’s storming . . . but the moth fluttered, beautiful, taunting, promising it would be all right. I piled up some books to reach the lock on the latch and tumbled outside to dance with the bug in the flower beds, mud squishing between my toes. Mommy’s scream made me look up. She sprinted toward us with a set of pruning shears.
“Off with your head!” she yelled, and snipped every flower where the moth perched, cutting the petals from their stems.
I followed, hypnotized by her energy as rain pelted us and lightning torched the sky. I thought she was dancing and flung my arms in the air behind her. Then I tripped over my feet. White petals were bleeding on the ground. Daddy came running out of the house. I told him we needed Band-Aids for the daffodils. He gasped at the sight of me. I was too young to understand that flowers don’t bleed.
Somehow I’d gotten into the line of fire, and the pruning shears sliced my skin—from my palms to my wrists. The doctor said I didn’t feel the pain because of shock. That was the last time Alison lived at home, and the last time I called her Mommy.
A clap of thunder snatches me back to the present. My heart hammers against my sternum. I’d forgotten about the moth. That bug was my secret pet as a child and the catalyst for my scars. No wonder its photograph seemed familiar to me. No wonder it made Alison so crazy to see it again.
She wails, holding my bare palms up to the dim light. “I’m so, so sorry! He used me, and I failed you. You’re meant for so much more than this. We all are.”
She rolls off me and digs up the carnations. Dirt crumbles from the stems as she stands. “He can’t have her! You tell him that . . .” Alison squeezes the petals into a clump between her fists, as if trying to strangle them. Then she tosses the tattered blossoms aside and stumbles over to the gazing globe, trying to shove it off its base. When it won’t budge, she pounds the ball with her fists.
I grab her elbows, worried she’ll hurt herself. “Please stop,” I plead.
“Do you hear me?” she shouts at the silver globe, jerking out of my hold. “You can’t have her!” Something moves in the reflection, a blur of a shadow. But on second glance, it’s only Alison’s image staring back, yelling so hard the veins in her neck bulge.
What happens next is like a dream. The clouds swirl overhead. Rain starts pounding down. I watch through the downpour as—in slow motion—the wind whips her braid around her neck.
A hacking cough shakes her throat and she doubles over, fingers clenched around the braid to loosen it.
“Alison!” I leap toward her. It barely registers that my ankle no longer hurts.
Alison falls to the muddying earth, gasping for breath. The rain falls harder, as if someone’s pelting pebbles at us. Her dirt-caked fingernails gouge at the platinum cord strangling her. In her desperation, she rips some skin from her neck. Blood rises along the welts. Her eyeballs bulge, snapping from side to side as she struggles to inhale. Her house shoes slap against the muddy ground.
“Alyssssss,” she hisses, unable to talk.
I’m crying so hard, I can’t see my fingers as I wrestle against the braid. Lightning strikes in the distance . . . once . . . twice . . . then the plaited cords tighten around my fingers and tangle me up, a pressure so intense, I fear my knuckles will snap. My fingers pop into place against my will and squeeze her neck.
Something is trying to make me kill my mom!
Nausea, hot and vicious, rips through my stomach.
“No . . .” The more I struggle to free both of us, the more deeply
interlocked we become. My yarn dreadlocks cling to my neck like a wet mop. Rain and tears bleed into my eye shadow, and black droplets smudge Alison’s dirty apron. “Let go!” I shout at her hair.
“Stop . . . Allie . . .” Her plea is hollow and hissing, like air escaping a tire.
The braid squeezes my fingers again.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, sobbing. “I’m not trying to hurt you . . .”
Thunder rolls through my bones, the taunting laugh of some dark demon. No matter how hard I pull, the strands embed me deeper and tighten around her neck. Her hands go limp. She turns blue, eyes lolling up until the irises disappear.
“Somebody help! ” The scream strains my lungs.
The gardeners come running. Two sets of meaty hands curl around me from behind, and just like that, the braid releases.
Alison sucks in a deep, raspy breath, filling her lungs and coughing. I go limp as one of the gardeners holds me up.
Nurse Jenkins hovers into view, syringe in hand. Dad’s right behind and I slump into his arms.
“I d-d-didn’t,” I stutter. “I wouldn’t, not ever . . .”
“I know.” Dad hugs me. “You were trying to keep her from hurting herself.” His embrace makes my sopping clothes stick to my skin.
“But it wasn’t Alison,” I murmur.
“Of course not,” Dad whispers against my head. “It wasn’t her. Your mom hasn’t been herself for years.”