By Chris Bedell
I descended the staircase the following morning while the smell of burnt toast wafted through the air, and stung my nose. I scurried to the kitchen, fighting the urge to scream. Horatio placed a plate of eggs and toast down on the table. Making breakfast for a kid was a normal thing, which meant Horatio couldn’t be counted on to do that. The only question was why he did it. He never showed me any kindness since I met him.
I forced a smile. “Thank you. It means so much.”
He hovered to the side of the chair, gesticulating at me to sit. “Don’t you want to eat the food I made? It’ll get cold soon. And my apologies about the burnt toast! But it’s the thought that counts, right?”
I sat down in the chair, staring at the food. It seemed safe enough to eat since he decapitated Mom, and probably would have made more elaborate plans if he wanted to kill me.
Yeah. There was no way he poisoned my food, which meant it was safe to say I was overreacting.
Horatio patted my back, sending chills up my spine while my blood fired through my veins faster. “Relax, darling. Your food isn’t poisoned because you’d know if I wanted to kill you.”
It was as if he read my mind. He did have a point even if I hated him since arsenic would show up on an autopsy. Autopsy? I shouldn’t have used that word because I would have been referred to the guidance counselor’s office if I said that at school.
Swallowing the lump in my throat was necessary since I didn’t have a choice. I grabbed one of the pieces of toast, shoving it into my mouth without even bother putting jam or butter on it. I had to get out of the dining room ASAP.
My teeth chomped down on the bread, devouring it within a few more seconds before my eyes widened. “You can take your hand off my back now.”
He drew in a breath. “My apologies. I didn’t realize my hand was still there.”
Please. He knew his hand was there because he was cold and calculating, meaning everything was a chess game to him.
It brought up another point worth considering. I needed to keep my feelings about Horatio below the surface since I couldn’t let him find out I knew the truth. I would play the game like Horatio did. It would be my advantage, and he wouldn’t know what hit him. The situation also went back to a saying Mr. Tanner said when he quoted a famous world leader. War was a game that was best played with a smile. Sure. My situation with Horatio might not have been the classic definition of war. That was true. But psychological warfare was war adjacent. Besides, Horatio would have decimated me if he knew I was onto him. Wow. There I went again. Using another big word because being smart was one of the few things I could hold onto.
Another thought popped into my head. I had no choice but to tell Chace and Steven the truth. I couldn’t let another day go by now that Horatio touched me (even if it hadn’t been below the waist). It was still creepy of him. The two of us didn’t have that kind of bond, and we never would. I was fine with that because I wanted him out of my life ASAP.
I grabbed the other piece of toast, finishing it even faster than the first piece. I then took my fork to my plate, shoving the eggs into my mouth. I reached for the glass of orange juice to the left before getting up a moment later. I gulped down the whole glass, not even flinching at the explosion of citrus across my tongue. I craned my head, realizing he was gone. I couldn’t say I was surprised since that articulated the main idea about monsters. They were as good at exits as they were at entrances, which was maddening. Although I didn’t have time to think about the problem.
Having a sleepover would be nice since I would invite Steven and Chace without even asking Horatio’s permission because the child/authority dynamic disintegrated a long time ago between the two of us.
My teeth poked my lip. Telling Chace and Steven the truth wasn’t too risky. I was sure they would want to know even if Steven did have his occasional reservations.
I yanked my backpack over my shoulder before heading out of the house while the image of the shed still remained etched in my mind. I had no doubt that would give me the answers I wanted. It was another question if I was ready for answers because a person couldn’t unlearn something after learning it. Unless of course a person got amnesia. However, I was pretty sure that wouldn’t happen to me.
The bus pulled up to the school curb sometime later, and I grinned after spotting Steven and Chace approaching the front entrance.
I waved my arms at them. “Hi, guys! Wait up!”
They turned around, moving their arms at me. I caught up to them in no time.
We entered the school, walking at the same pace.
“There’s something I wanted to ask the two of you,” I said while making eye contact with both of them.
Steven folded his arms together. “And what would that be?”
Several beads of sweat tumbled down my face. “I was wondering if you guys would want to come over for a sleepover tomorrow night. You’ll have to ask your parents, but it could be fun. Besides, I need to talk you guys about a problem.”
Funny I should emphasize how Steven and Chace needed parental permission. Because I once again couldn’t deny my hypocrisy. But I wasn’t like Horatio, though, which meant I wasn’t a terrible person.
And no. Ignoring my hypocrisy was only a minor issue of semantics. It wouldn’t make a difference in the long run because I would never want to intentionally hurt someone.
Steven rolled his eyes. “Is this about Horatio? I thought things were going better.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. Anyway, what do you say?”
Steven and Chace nodded their heads at the same time. Okay. Good to know something could go right in my life for once.
We turned left, stopping at Chace’s locker while he did his combination before fumbling through his things. He grabbed his stuff even faster than I ate breakfast, which begged the question if everything was okay with him. I almost slapped myself in the head because I didn’t have time to worry about Chace. He was a great friend, but there were only so many problems I could deal with at once. My head could even be compared to a volcano. The lava would seep to the surface and wreak havoc like my problems.
I also had to make sure that Chace and Steven didn’t get caught in the crossfire because they were my friends, and I wouldn’t let Horatio use them like he used Mom. People weren’t dolls. They had real feelings.
It was a pretty selfish reason to kill someone because he should have robbed a bank if he needed more money. The only thing more confusing than taking out the life insurance policy was why he hadn’t made some grand exit. He stayed around. I would give him one thing; he put on a great façade. But he didn’t know I saw right through it since my wits would be my salvation.
Julian made another “cameo” in Social Studies today. Although I couldn’t deny that he intrigued me no matter how annoying he was.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was, and I almost jumped to the ceiling.
Mr. Tanner stopped in the middle of his lecture, staring me right in the face. “Everything okay, Esme?”
I coughed into the sleeve of my pea coat. “Yeah. Sorry. I got caught up in the lecture.”
His face lit up. It must have been Christmas morning. “This is the model student, class. You should all look at Esme. Any student could take notes. But not her! She allows the lecture to boil in her mind and absorbs it on levels we can’t even imagine. Good job, Esme.”
Laughing was necessary when he returned to his lecture since he was an even bigger idiot than I realized. I still liked him, though. He never gave students a hard time and let them hand in late homework without deducting points and even gave those same students extra credit when they didn’t deserve it. Mr. Tanner was also known for his partner tests. Steven, Chace, and I always worked together on the group tests since he allowed for groups as big as four students. Not every teacher allowed for group tests, though, proving he was something else. That was why it irritated me when people texted in class or said mean things behind his back. It had nothing to do with casting judgment because there was a right way to treat someone. Although it would behoove him to clean his glasses. Not that he would see everything in front of him. I was once shocked one time when he dropped his glasses on the floor right in front of me, causing me to realize how dirty they were.
Julian cackled from his seat on the front desk. “Boy! Your teacher is an idiot!”
I placed my hand over my head. This was not happening.
“But I don’t care about your idiot teacher, Esme. I wanted to warn you about something. You can’t tell Steven and Chace the truth. It’s too dangerous.” His body dissipated across the air, and he was gone before I had a chance to talk back.
There was nothing wrong with telling Steven and Chace the truth. It wasn’t like I wanted them to risk their lives for me. I just wanted people to talk to since I couldn’t keep my feelings about Horatio shoved inside me any longer. The rest of the world needed to learn of my contempt for Horatio. At least Steven and Chace that was. The rest of the world could wait.
The sleepover arrived in no time, and it was the only thing I had to look forward to this weekend.
And we were now plopped down on the floor, snacking on chips and diet soda.
Chace grabbed his cup, chugging down some of his soda. “Should we tell any ghost stories?”
A scorching sensation formed in my throat. “That’s okay. I already have enough monsters in my life.”
Steven shot me a gaze. “What did you want to tell us?”
I counted to 20 under my breath, fighting back the tears. It wasn’t even about being mad or sad. Horror just made me cry for some reason. “I think Horatio killed my mom.”
Chace remained silent while Steven snickered.
I arched an eyebrow. “I’m serious, Steven. I saw an envelope on the counter regarding some life insurance policy. He must have taken a life insurance policy out on my mom. I’m sure of it.”
Steven hung his head a little lower. “Oh. I had no idea. I shouldn’t have mocked you.”
Okay. Good to know Steven was capable of apologizing. It was more than could be said for Horatio. In fact, Steven’s “correction” was pretty impressive since most kids didn’t under self-actualization. Sure. Steven hadn’t used the world self-actualized. But that didn’t matter since he just needed to know he did the right thing.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I have other things to deal with. But I need you guys to help me. You don’t know how awful it is to live with him.”
The muscles around Chace’s lips tightened. “Yeah, of course. Steven and I would do anything for you. You know that.”
Steven bobbed his head at me. “Chace is right. You turned to the right people for help.”
I flexed a grin. “Thanks. That means more to me than you’ll ever know.”
We fell asleep hours later, and I slept on my bed while Steven and Chace were on their air mattresses.
Something fell down on my head, making a splashing sound. I opened my eyes, tracing the spot on my head where I was hit. Dots of red stained my fingers, and I turned to the wall. It was still bleeding, and I didn’t know why Steven and Chace didn’t say anything about it. Either they didn’t know about it, or they were too afraid. Not that I blamed them.
The Rabbit was back now, and he wagged his finger in my direction. “You made a big mistake, Esme. You shouldn’t have told Steven and Chace the truth. What were you thinking?”
I locked my arms together, pressing them against my chest. “I don’t care. I didn’t have a choice.”
“We’ll see about that.” His teeth chomped down on the carrot.
Julian was gone as soon as he arrived.
The squeaking of feet against the wooden floor hallway echoed.
Footsteps meant only one thing. Horatio must have been spying on me. This was unbelievable since Horatio wasn’t just a murderer; he was also a creep. I buried my head on the pillow face down so it would be easier for me to pretend to be asleep if he peeked into my bedroom.
The door creaked open a jar, making me almost scream. It also didn’t help that the lights were out. Because I couldn’t lie. At least not to myself. I was one of those people who always feared the dark despite how lighting was the least of my problems.
One thing became clear: Horatio was a problem I couldn’t ignore. That was the only thing I was 100 percent sure of, as everything else was more complicated. I wouldn’t think about Horatio’s depravity anymore till morning, though, because going to bed was my only priority. Sleep was essential since every advantage over Horatio was welcomed.