By A. Morgan-Penn
A prickle of fear runs down my spine as I comb through the knotted ends of my hair. It’s gonna happen tonight. I flatten the front of my floral dress, hands sliding down my waist before flaring out at my hips.
Womanly. The word arrests my mind. Grown-up. Something Gretchen will never be.
My eyes flit to the open bathroom door and back to the veiled mirror above the sink. It won’t hurt to take a peek. I need to know what I’m working with, after all.
I tip-toe across the cold, tile floor and nudge the door closed. I stare back at the mirror, heart battering against my ribs like it’s trying to escape. It’s trying to get away, too.
“Be nice, Gretchen,” I say, tugging down the black veil. Another shiver creeps down my spine, settling into a tingle just above the small of my back. I inch toward the mirror, moving as if my reflection is some skittish animal I’m looking to tame. I’m almost there, almost able to see her… When a barrage of knocks assaults my ears.
I toss the veil back over the bathroom mirror and fly downstairs, my bare feet pounding against the hardwood like a racehorse. A sliver of golden hair and tan skin dances behind the kitchen curtains as he raps on the backdoor.
My tummy feels warm and full of butterflies as I invite him in. A puff of warm air blows in with him, giving me a taste of the sweltering heat he’s just spent the last hour walking through.
A ring of sweat collars his shirt, and my eyes rove over to the frayed ends where his sleeves used to be. Strands of dirty-blond hair peek out from his armpits, and I remember that I forgot to shave this morning. Maybe I could dart back up to the bathroom and—
“Can I get some water or something?” Kurt asks, wiping his face with the bottom of his black shirt.
“Sure thing!” I run to the cupboard and pull out a tall crystal glass before running it under the tap.
“Thanks.” He gulps it down in about three swallows, his adam’s apple bobbing as he does so. Kurt doesn’t wait for me to fill it back up, instead going to the sink and filling it himself. He only knocks back half the second glass before setting it on the counter.
My face flushes when he turns to me, his lips still wet with water and his hair plastered to his face and neck. Pretty, I think as our eyes meet. I hope he thinks the same of me.
He’s got sharp eyes, hooded under the weight of his brow and half-obscured by his cheeks, giving him a chronically tired look. Like he’s either just woken up or just stopped crying. That’s probably why everyone thinks he so mean.
“Sorry about your grandma,” he says, as if the words themselves confuse him. Like he’s thinking, what the hell am I apologizing for? I didn’t do anything.
“It’s all right. I mean, it was a long-time coming. So… not really a surprise.” My voice sounds different. Affected. As if I’m putting it on.
Kurt nods, licking the salt from his lips and leaning back against the counter. His arms are more toned and his presence more dominating than I remember. He just takes up more space. Though instead of being repelled by this new development, I find myself that much more attracted to him.
I step closer, and I see his eyes investigating me as well, noting all the small, but perceptible changes I’ve accrued in the last three months. Different bra that makes my breasts just a little more noticeable. Hint of lipstick on the curve of my smile— a smile I spent a week perfecting. Eyes framed with dark lashes and lined lids. And the thin, cotton dress pinned around my rounded hips.
He looks away, hand digging into his pocket. “I know you couldn’t really do anything for your 18th birthday, but…” He pulls a necklace from his pocket, dangling it from his fingers as if he’s never held one before. “I got you this.”
I cradle the silver locket in my hands, chest swelling with pride. “I love it!” I say, though, I more so love the fact he thought to get me anything at all. The fact he bought it for me and me alone.
“It’s nothing, really,” he answers, relinquishing the silver chain into my hands. I glance up to find a dusting of red across his cheeks as he averts his eyes from the whole scene.
“Thank you.” I wrap my arms around him, and it feels like I’m hugging a furnace. He smells like sweat and grass and motor oil.
I pull away and ball the necklace up in my palm. Look how much he loves me, I want to say, but I keep my mouth shut as he turns toward the sink. He glares down at the tap, like he’s debating whether to get another drink.
“Hey,” he says, head jerking upward to meet my gaze. “Can I go to the bathroom? I gotta piss.”
I nod and point to the stairs. “Yeah, down the hall and to the right, upstairs. I can show you—”
He brushes past me. “Nah, it’s all right. Thanks.” He pounds up the stairs with one hand on the railing and the other by the front of his pants. I wait until I hear the bathroom door click shut to speak.
“He’s mine, Gretchen.” I hold out the locket. “Look! He even got me this. You can’t have him, all right.”
It’s still gonna happen tonight. There’s no stopping it.
Warmth radiates through my chest and up to my head, lighting my face on fire. I reach for the half-empty glass he left on the counter, nearly knocking it over before my fingers tangle around the cool crystal.
I bring it to my mouth, positioning it exactly where his lips had been, and I drink. We’ve kissed a few times already, but always as goodbye. Never the long, passionate ones you see in movies. Just a simple parting of lips out in the summer heat. Always a little sticky and uncomfortable.
I press my thighs together, catching the beads of sweat forming between them. I could count the times he’s kissed me or touched me or just really looked at me on my hands. He’s not like other boys I’ve seen. He doesn’t paw at me or beg for attention or tease. Instead, he treats me like I’m a venomous animal. Like he’s intrigued and slightly afraid.
Good, I think. I am something to be feared.
I pass the antique floor-length mirror on my way up the stairs. The mirror cuts an intimidating figure with its face draped in heavy, red cloth. It almost looks sinister, sitting there in the corner by the landing like a veiled watcher.
Gretchen’s gnarled stump peaks out from an uncovered corner at the bottom of the mirror, her skin just as pale as it was a decade ago. She doesn’t try to copy me in that way, at least.
I’m waiting for him at the top of the stairs when he emerges, his thumbs looped around the front of his distressed jeans. It looks like he took time to wash his face and style his hair while he was in there.
“You missed a spot.” I smile, plucking a shredded clover leaf from behind his ear.
He smiles back, a puff of air exiting his nose as his shoulders slacken. I lean in, but he pulls away.
“What’s with all mirrors,” he asks, gesturing to the bathroom and then to the hallway mirror just outside granny’s bedroom. “Why are they all covered up?”
“Just a thing my family does whenever someone dies in the house. We have to cover the mirrors and open the windows for a few days, so the spirit doesn’t get stuck.”
My mind snags on the question, raising the hair on the back of my neck. “It’s just a silly old tradition. To help the dead move on so they don’t haunt you, I guess.”
“And you and your folks believe in that stuff?”
I shrug, shaking the goosebumps from my flesh. “My grandma did, and I guess mom went a little overboard since she died on my birthday.”
“It is a little freaky, I guess.”
“Oh?” I inch forward until the ends of our feet touch. “Does it scare you? Being all alone here with me?”
He smiles. “Does it scare you to be alone with me?”
“No,” I say, stepping on top of his shoes and peering up at him through my lashes. “Being alone doesn’t scare me at all.”
I’m never alone.
I glance over my shoulder, half expecting to find Gretchen crawling up the stairs. Stay away, I tell her.
“What was that just now?” He says, looking down my sight line before settling back on me. “What were you looking at?”
I shake my head, curling my lips upward until they dig into my cheeks. “Just thought I heard something is all. It’s fine.”
His eyes dart over the railing and downstairs. “Do you think it’s your parents? Could they be here?”
“No.” I run my hand down his bicep, taking measure of the solid heat and throbbing pulse beneath his skin. “It’s fine. They won’t be back until tomorrow evening.”
Kurt nods, though I can tell he isn’t sold on the idea. I pull him closer to me and lean into his ear. “Let’s just go to my room, okay?”
Gretchen won’t be able to bother us there.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask, peeling back my hand-embroidered bedspread. Granny loved to stitch anything she could get her hands on. Her embroidery hoop sits in the corner of my room, a half-finished handkerchief still stretched across it. My birthday present.
“Do you?” he replies as he slips out of his boots.
“Sometimes. Old houses always feel haunted, even if they really aren’t. Like creaking floors and rattling vents and all that. Just making sure you won’t freak out if you hear something go bump in the night.”
He leans against the doorway, arms crossed and eyes focused on me. “Bumps in the night don’t scare me. I hear plenty of those at home.”
“I’m not talking about firecrackers or next door neighbors. I swear, it’ll sound just like someone’s stomping down the hall or whispering outside the door. So if you hear any of that, just ignore it. It’s nothing.”
Like clockwork, the air conditioner kicks on and cool air vibrates through the vents. Kurt flinches at the sudden hum thundering through the house.
“See?” I laugh and he glares back. For a second, I think I’ve upset him, but then I see the telltale dimples dug into his cheeks.
“You weren’t lying.” He smirks, ambling to the bed. I feel it dip under his weight and wonder what it’ll be like to fall asleep next to him. Sweaty, I think and tug down another layer of sheets.
I crawl across the bed, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and slumping into his back, pressing my face deep into the damp collar of his shirt. It must tickle, because he jerks and pulls me to his side to plant a kiss on my cheek. I turn my head and catch his lips on my mouth, dragging him on top of me.
My hands slip under his shirt, trailing up the taut muscles of his stomach. I know his body won’t be this tightly wound forever. He’ll get older and fatter, with a pouching stomach and receding hairline. But I’ll get older too. Older and fatter and uglier. And that’s what will make it so special. That we’ll stay together despite the changes. That, even if she tries, Gretchen could never imitate us in all our ugly beauty.
“Are you sure?” he asks, squeezing where my hips meet my waist.
“I want to make you mine.”
His arms tangle around me like warm tree roots, pulling me close so that my body melds into his. We fit together, like needle and thread. I nuzzle back into his embrace, his hot breath tickling the back of my neck.
He twitches, arms tightening around me and legs flexing until his ankles pop. Is he dreaming? I turn to check if his eyes are still closed, but I can’t see anything in the low light. Just the straight angle of his jaw and a few glinting hairs.
I’m about to fall back to sleep when a thud echoes up the stairs. My pulse quickens, and my eyes shoot toward the door.
He must have gotten up in the night, I think. Forgotten to close it.
Another thud rings out. A floorboard popping in and out of place as someone jumps on the swollen slat of wood.
“Stay away, Gretchen,” I whisper through clenched teeth. “You can’t have him.”
The thuds continue, dragging up the stairs as her nails gnaw into the floor. She pulls herself up slowly, her body thudding against each step.
“Gretchen,” I whisper again, and Kurt squeezes the air out of my chest, his body twitching against mine. At least he’s still sleeping.
She sputters once she reaches the top of the stairs, hacking out a low laugh as she drags herself down the hall. I hear her skin scrape against the old wood, splinters digging deep into her putrid wound-beds.
Her breaths come out in rattling growls, hissing through the air like a crackling fire. She crawls to my door, peeking out from behind the white frame.
She smiles, revealing a pock-marked imitation of my face behind her greasy black hair.
I won’t share him with you.
She shakes her head and points a gnarled finger at Kurt.
“He’s mine,” I rasp out.
She shakes her head again, limping through the doorway and sidling up beside the bed.
“Want…” she wheezes, the word catching in her throat like an eye on a hook.
“No,” I whisper, a tear rolling down my cheek as she climbs onto the bed. I cannot move. Cannot breathe as she slides on top of me. She smells of iron and dust, like an old attic smothered in blood.
Moonlight glints off her yellow teeth as she bends to lick Kurt’s neck, kissing along his jaw, just as I did hours before. Kurt stirs in his sleep, twisting around me as Gretchen tries to recreate the love Kurt and I made.
I always hated sharing with her. Even when we were little. Even before we were born. I took half her arm in the womb, leaving her only an indelicate stump to putter around with. Sometimes I wish I had gobbled her up entirely. Would have saved everyone a whole lot of trouble if I had.
I didn’t mean to hurt her when I pushed her down the stairs. Didn’t mean to watch her bleed out as she writhed around on her broken legs. Didn’t mean to lie about how she fell or how long I waited to tell… I didn’t even mean to leave the downstairs mirror uncovered as life eked out of her.
I just didn’t want to share my toys with her that day. I just never thought I’d have to keep sharing with her even after she died.
About the author: A. Morgan-Penn is a horror author with a taste for macabre romance. If you’d like to seek out more of her horror stories, you can find her work in the October issue of Crow Toes Quarterly. Her twitter is @AMorganPenn.
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