The Lonely Road

Oatman, AZ

The desert seems more barren in this area than in the previous. Jack is in the back seat looking out at the ocean of sand passing by at speed, my wife sits passenger, silent as well.

It wasn’t always like this. We all used to be a family of chatty best friends. My son would be bouncing around in his safety seat, and my wife would turn around and play along with him. My daughter would be humming in the back seat to some tune she found on YouTube. It was always perfect.

Not everything lasts forever. Not traditions and certainly not life. Not long after her fifth birthday, the doctors diagnosed Liliana with lung cancer. Within a year, she passed away.

Although any type of cancer can attack anyone, my daughter’s lung disease wasn’t abnormal. Well, it was, but it wasn’t just a random occurrence of cancer. It resulted from my smoking habit. I never gave a second thought as to how dangerous it could be to smoke in the car with my children in the back seat, even with the windows open. My stupidity was my daughters end.

My wife, Kelly, looks at me and then at the gauge cluster. She says, “You better fill up before we get stranded out here.”

She’s right. Plus, I’m incredibly tired. I need to get something to wake me up if I plan to drive through the night. So, I nod in agreement, and she doesn’t say anything further. We aren’t a catty couple. She doesn’t nag and I don’t pick fights.

Ahead, the road appears fluid, a river through this Egyptian-like desert. To the right of the lemon-lime horizon is a small gas station. The giant sign twisting languidly at the top of a long pole had once presented the name of the station. Years of weather and neglect caused one side to break apart and reveal the lamps inside. The other still had the name, but it had faded to a light pink logo that I couldn’t read.

Pulling into the station, we transition from tarmac to gravel. Small pebbles kick up and tick inside the wheel well. I stop at the first pump on the right, and the hot desert wind carries a cloud of dust past us. For a moment, it twists into a dirt devil, and then dissipates as quickly as it appeared.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell them. They know I’m coming back, but I feel like I have to say something. I want to interact with them because we all need it. Silence is a killer. Perhaps it won’t actually kill anyone, but it will destroy relationship, and I needed to break that silence to make sure that they’ll be okay while I’m gone. To let them know that I’m here for them, and that I will always return.

The inside of the station is much cleaner than the outside. A quick glance through the door behind the attendant reveals that he lives here. My guess is that he originally didn’t want to drive every day, so when he bought this station, he decided to move into it.

“Twenty, please,” I say as I hand him a fifty note. “Can I also get one of those energy drinks in the cold case back there?”

“Yes, sir,” the man replies.

As I wait for him to start the pump and make change, I walk back and grab one of the cherry flavored drinks. Returning, I spy something to my left. My eyes dart over there, but I see nothing more than a rack full of flavored jerky.

I thought it was my daughter. This isn’t unusual, though. I’m used to keeping an eye on her in my peripheral, as one must do with children of any age with so many creeps in this world. Even now that she’s gone, I still see her everywhere.

“Son, are you okay?”

I meet the old man’s lazy blue eyes, and smile weak and thin. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

With my change and drink in hand, I return to the car and start pumping the fuel. As the LED screen indicates that I’m nearing the end of my twenty-dollar credit, I hear for the first time in months my son screech with laughter. It warms my heart so much that I almost drop the pump and cry with joy. Thankfully, I’m able to maintain composure as I kneel down to see what has him so excited.

My wife is gone from the car. I don’t know exactly where she went. I don’t recall hearing her exit the car. My brow furrows, and I turn my attention to Jack.

He has his mother’s deep brown eyes that are reminiscent of crystal rather than mud. The light allows the small golden flecks in those pools of joy to twinkle with life. He looks away from me, and laughs again. I’m not sure what enamors him so, and although I want to study him for a moment to figure it out, the pump handle clanks hard letting me know it finished.

I get back in the car, and my wife is sitting in the passenger seat again. However, this time she’s facing the back seat, playing with Jack.

She says, “The bathrooms here are so clean. I expected to walk into some kind of CDC death trap, but I have to hand it to the guy, he really knows how to scrub.”

She hasn’t shown this much affection or attention to either of us in a long time, so I don’t respond. I know I’m still broken even if she has suddenly become okay, and I don’t want my dour mood to sour hers. So, I remain quiet as I pull out of the station.

Jack continues to play. Kelly lightly claps her hands and urges him on. I glance over at her, and I want to caress her skin, to feel her warmth, but I know I don’t deserve to touch her. Instead, I look in the rear view mirror to steal a glimpse of my son, and I see my daughter sitting next to him.

Slamming on the breaks causes me to lose control of the vehicle for a moment. I wrestle it back into a straight line on the road, and then I stop the Chevy entirely. I try to turn around and look at my daughter, but the seat belt stops me. I fight hard with it, and finally release the latch. I look back, and see her sitting there as alive as ever.

While Jack has his mother’s eyes, Liliana has mine. They’re azure, but warm. The light haloes from her blonde hair and filters through the fuzzy peach hair on her cheek. She looks scared because of my reaction.

Kelly says between panicked breaths, “What the heck was that?”

I shake my head, unable to speak.

“Babe, are you okay?”

My heart pounds in my chest, and I step out of the car. With my hands on my head, I try to control my breathing. I look out into that hot abyss. A lizard skitters from one dead bush to another. A fly buzzes near a pile of coyote droppings; it lands for a moment and then takes flight again.

I know this can’t be real, but it’s too vivid to be a dream. It has to be a reality, but then, how is my daughter alive? I don’t know, and because I figure that it can’t be real, I fear turning around because I worry she won’t be there.

Eventually, I gain the courage to turn, and gasp in horror. The car sits overturned in the embankment, fluid dripping from the hood. It takes me a minute to process what I’m seeing, and then I run to the car.

“Kelly!” I scream, and I fall to my knees to look through the window.

It is there I find my wife crumpled in the passenger seat. In the back, my son lays silent, still hanging in the safety seat. I search for my daughter, who is supposed to be in the car. She isn’t there. However, someone else is in the car. Me. I sit there with blood all over my face, teeth smashed, and eyes bulging and staring through the cracked windshield.

I look anywhere but there and find my daughter standing a short distance away from the wreckage. She smiles warmly, and beckons me with her hand. Her mannerism isn’t that of a child but of someone with finer motor skills. She smiles again, and I go to her. When I arrive, I find Kelly standing next to her with little Jack sleeping peacefully in her arms.

War of the Cupcakes

Below is my official entry into round 1 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. In this contest, they give us a genre, a subject, and a character to write about. The challenge, usually, is that we must use these things in the story (to what degree appears to be subjective per whatever judge reads our work).

My Group: 51
Genre: Comedy
Subject: Artificial Intelligence
Character: An Executive Assistant

Synopsis of story: Many people died on January 29, 2015, and anyone who survived that horrible day called it The Dawn of the Pastries. They survived only to face a worse nightmare, one people would later come to know as the War of the Cupcakes.

War of the Cupcakes

If you had known me before the end of the human era, you wouldn’t guess I was only a quiet executive assistant. You wouldn’t guess that I set appointments, ordered coffee, or helped my boss harass employees about remembering to put covers on their TPS reports. You wouldn’t think any of that.

What you might think, on first glance, is that this girl was military. I have seventeen scars, three of which take residence on my face. I hadn’t smiled in five years. However, if I did show my grin, which only happened when I needed to keep the rattle of the mini-gun from shattering my teeth, then you’d see that there were four missing pearls from my mouth. My muscles aren’t large, but they’re well defined. I no longer set appointments because I set battles. I long ago ceased to order coffee, and ordered hits. I no longer bugged employees about unnecessary reports, but instead killed cupcakes.

My name is Alyssa James, and I was the leader of the human resistance. The people elected me to that position because of my unique knowledge of sweets. Long before the war, I had dreamed of owning a bakery, and had even won awards for my baked goods in local competitions. As a result, when the cupcakes showed up during a baking event, I responded with the precision of an assassin and dispatched them by using warm milk. Softened and rendered harmless, I conquered those sweet beasts. From then on, they needed someone to look to, and so I became the resistance leader. I was their hope. I was promise of a better future.

On October 15, 2021, five years after the pastry revolution, I had one last battle. A battle to end the war and bring humanity the future I had always promised.

As the sun kissed the western waters and set the horizon aflame with varying degrees of tangerine and periwinkle, soft clouds floated languidly in the sky alongside threads of smoke highlighted by the recent fires. The air, now thick with the stench of charred sugar and soured milk, grew heavier as we approached the concrete canal leading to the bunker in which the mother of all cakes resided. The system we all knew as Grub-Sugarwrath.

We were resilient, but unease befell us as we looked upon that entrance because we were only four strong. The rest of our ranks fought far enough away to keep the enemy occupied. I only had a small team to complete this mission, but it was the best damn team I could have asked for.

To my right was Christa Cameron, a tech engineer with the knowledge to take Grub’s artificial intelligence systems offline. She was the one who discovered that the nanotechnology inside the batter ran from a single central location. Therefore, it seemed best to bring her along.

Standing next to her was Adrien Voorhees, our demolition expert, and to my left, was our infantryman Jack “The Gnasher” Jordan. He got his nickname because he loved to eat the cakes he killed. Revenge does strange things to men, and while most people lost their taste for cake, Jack only grew hungrier as his rage rose like leavened bread.

I turned away from the dying light, and looked at my crew. They watched as if waiting for me to say something. I cleared my throat and gave them the best damn speech I could give, “So, uh, when I was a little girl, I used to stay after class and help the lunch ladies clean the cafeteria. One day, after cleaning the tables and sweeping, I grabbed the mop and wheeled the bucket to the center of the room. The lunch lady, a large busty woman who reminded me of Mrs. Butterworth, snatched the mop from my hand and stared down at me. You know what she said?”

Jack inspected the barrel of his weapon while slowly chewing his gum. The others stared intently waiting for me to say something meaningful. Maybe even brilliant.

“She told me, ‘You ain’t allowed to mop here.’ ”

“I said, ‘Why? I always help out.’ ”

“She said, and I shit you not, ‘You might slip, fall, an’ get die.’ ”

Jack was now looking up at me, one eyebrow tugged north. The other two didn’t make eye contact with me. I couldn’t blame them. I had no idea what any of that had to do with our mission. I may have been their leader, but I never claimed I was any good at giving speeches. This was especially true when I was under pressure from nervousness, which has never been kind to me.

“So, okay,” I said, and scratched the back of my head. “Just don’t do anything stupid, or you might get killed. This is our only chance.”

Nailed it, I thought, as they nodded in agreement.

I continued, “All right. Let’s get this done.”

The approach to the door was quiet. I suspected it was too quiet, but not in the way that heroes in movies suddenly get a bad feeling when things are too silent. First, I’m no hero. I’m a regular woman who did what needed to be done. Second, the distant thunder of explosions from the battle boomed and we could hear the shouts as our valiant brothers and sisters fought hard to protect their loved ones from the cupcakes. To say it was loud would be an understatement. It was actually quiet in the way that there was no movement. No sentries keeping watch. Nothing.

Jack and I stood watch over the area as Christa worked her techno-magic on the door. A moment later, a metal clank signaled that she’d succeeded, and we cautiously entered the tunnel.

As Jack readied his gun, a modified flamethrower that projected boiling-hot milk, he said, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

He wasn’t alone. I don’t think any of us felt safe, and now that we were in the master’s den, it seemed we were tempting fate to lead us to everlasting sleep.

The tunnel was deep and dark, so we couldn’t see anything at great length. The width spanned twenty, maybe thirty, feet. The ground was wet and slippery, and the air had a musty, sweet malodor tainting it. The walls appeared to have some sort of crystal layer forming on them, which I guessed was sugar. In areas where the cupcakes nested and duplicated, it was typical to see those types of formations on surfaces.

As we traversed that murky tunnel, Adrian said, “Tell me again how all this is supposed to work? I don’t really get how this is gonna end the war.”

He had a pleasant velvety voice that was easy to listen to, and even harder to ignore. I said, “Christa?”

“It’s just a theory, but…”

Adrian said, “Whoa, wait. We’re here on a theory?”

I said, “Yeah, a damn good one. Now shut it and let her finish.”

Christa took a deep breath. “Okay, so, you all know how the first batch of cupcakes were made right? Hostess was trying some new nanotechnology that was supposed to collect data from people and help them build the best treat the world had ever tasted, but instead it brought the pastries to life. What I hope to do is hack the main computer that controls all the nanotechnology and shut the cupcakes down for good.”

Adrian said, “I’ll admit, that does sound like a pretty good plan.”

“You bet it does,” I said. “Okay, guys, we’re here.”

Illuminating the door with my flashlight, the writing indicated we’d reached Hostess’s secret laboratory they cleverly named after their acclaimed Twinkie.

This was the location where it all started. Standing before it, I felt the sudden weight of the mission crushing me. If we died there, if we failed, then humanity would likely never get another chance. Our mission was secret, and therefore, no one knew about it. We made no effort to document anything, either. If there was one thing we learned in our time of war, it was that you could never trust people to resist the temptation of baked goods. A person’s own folly can lead to ruin, and we didn’t want to take any chances. Not with so much on the line.

I said, “Ready?”

Jack said, “Yep, let’s get this over with.”

I turned the door handle just as an access gate behind us exploded open. We whipped around, and watched as cupcakes poured into the tunnel. They rolled over each other, bouncing and tumbling. The sound they made was distinct as if produced by babbling babies with their tongues hanging out. Indeed, if you looked at them long enough, you’d see a mouth-like hole stretched across the corrugated wrapper, and a small, flat, and maroon piece of toffee flopping around that opening as if they in fact had a working tongue.

Their initial lack of sound surprised me. It was as if they quieted to hide their approach, which was unusual given their often-careless, robotic behavior.

Jack started spraying the cupcakes with hot milk. Some dissolved, but even more replaced them. We had expected resistance, but we didn’t expect so much. It was as if they knew we were coming.

I said, “We gotta run for it!”

Christa kicked some of them away from her and growled through clenched teeth, “Where?”

“Deeper,” I said, “our best bet is to find our way to Grub-Sugarwrath’s central system and barricade ourselves in.”

Adrien said, “Doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

I watched a thousand more cupcakes flood into the tunnel. “Only choice we’ve got.”

Adrien was the first through the door, ever the gentleman. Christa followed close behind, and I told Jack to head on through. He refused, arguing that since he was the only one with a milk gun, he had a duty to hold them off until everyone was safe. I couldn’t argue with him, so I fled through the door. A moment later, the babbling cupcakes were too much, and overpowered him. As their pink acid-like icing smeared across and melted his tormented face, I took one last sorrowful look and slammed the door.

The team wanted to go back, but I couldn’t let them. We went to that place for a reason, and we all knew the dangers. We had hoped nothing would happen to us, that the mission would be as short and sweet as all the others we’d completed together, but nothing can ever be perfect or last forever. We were fools to think otherwise.

With Jack’s demise heavy on our hearts, we pressed on through the complex. We passed several doors and vents, but nothing attacked us. When we finally reached the giant room housing Grub-Sugarwrath, the artificial intelligence system, we realized we were far more unprepared than we originally thought.

According to the old blueprints we consulted before the mission, the computer was at the center of the room. However, as we looked into that place, we couldn’t know for sure anymore. Tall glassy walls rose from the floor and reached toward the ceiling. They appeared to be made of the same material as the crystals in the tunnel, but they had a pearlescent sheen.

As the familiar babbling sound rose outside the door, Adrien said, “What are we gonna do?”

We had intended to use Christa to hack the system and shut it down, but that was no longer an option. I chuffed, “Fuck it. Let’s blow the whole room. You got enough on you?”

Adrian said, “Enough to level the whole complex, but—”

I interrupted, “No, ‘buts’, man. Let’s end this. Set the charges around in a circle. Make sure the concussive force is directed toward the center of the room.”

“Got it,” he said, and started working.

“Christa, I need you to find us a way out of here,” I said, but she appeared to be lost in fear. “Christa?”

I crossed the room and grabbed her by the shoulders. She seemed to look right through me, and so I slapped her.

She rubbed her cheek. “Ugh, bitch.”

My face turned hot. “I just… I thought, you know…”

“You don’t just smack someone across the face. Ow, man, that really hurt.”

“Sorry, I just needed to you to find us a way out of here.”

“I know, jeez. Just, stay over there and let me figure it out. And keep your paws to yourself.”

“Sorry.”

She glowered at me, and then tapped away on her computer. After a short while, Adrian announced that he completed setting the bombs.

As the noise grew increasingly louder outside the door, Christa said, “Found a way out!”

I said, “You lead!”

Christa squeezed through a gap between the wall and the crystal structure, carefully stepping over one of the bombs. Adrian followed her, and I tried, but got stuck. It was a moment where I wished I hadn’t been a nervous eater. Strong as I was, defined in the muscles I might have been, skinny in the booty I was not.

Christa and Adrian snared my arms as the door crashed open. Babbling cupcakes rolled into the room, and I felt the small of my back tighten with fear. Oh, how I wished I had butter or oil to help squeeze me through that gap. Fortunately, I didn’t need either. They managed to pull me through just as dozens of cupcakes encroached on me. I wouldn’t be their buttercream snack that day.

Following Christa after that wasn’t so difficult. The hardest part was staying ahead of the cupcakes. They weren’t round but they were definitely fast, and they exploded from every orifice in the building through which they could fit.

Christa said, “Over there! Through that pipe.”

As I looked at the horde behind us I said, “Are you sure?”

She jumped into the pipe, slid down, and said, “No choice!”

We followed her. I feared we’d end up in a room full of hungry cupcakes; or worse, in the vats below that stored their acidic buttercream topping, but it dumped us out into the parking lot at the back of the building.

We ran hard and fast, moving far enough to be safe from the blast. We guessed the debris wouldn’t travel that far, but we wanted to play it safe. We turned toward the building, and Adrian offered me the trigger. I waved it away, knowing he’d enjoy it more than I ever could.

With a smile on his face, he blew the building. It was powerful, even a little beautiful. The dark sky lit for the first time with hope as the pastries that followed us through the pipe fell silent, unmoving, and dead. It was finally over. Our war with the cupcakes was won.

The Evil Within the Beholder

You sat in the kitchen with thick, sticky gloves of blood coating your hands. You wondered how it had come to this, how you could let everything get so out of control. It was only 13 hours ago that your life was normal, and then the box showed up on your doorstep, changing your life forever.

Sitting there, you felt madness creep up on you as you tried to make sense of everything. It was just a box or perhaps it wasn’t. At that point, you couldn’t be sure. All you knew was how it looked and felt. It had a deep maroon exterior like that of a full-bodied wine. It felt soft and skin-like, and the body of it vibrated, sometimes violently but most often just a subtle, constant shiver.

You looked up, and drew in a deep breath. The light filtered through the window, illuminating the small motes of dust and feathery filaments floating languidly in and out of those golden bars. The sun pressed against the wall, acting as a spotlight to the filigree of blood splattered upon the paint. Dripping from the ornamental violence, were long lines that seemed to represent the slow death of the man lying on the floor.

It wasn’t just any man dead on that once cream but now deep red carpet. He was your husband. He was the man you adored and never once felt ill toward. His smile was the thing that brightened your day and his soft, rhythmic breaths were the things that sent you packing to visit the sandman every night. He was understanding. A protector. A lover. Such a blessing in your life that there was no mortal by which you could convey your emotions.

Now, he was dead. And the thing moved. The box. You watched it from your peripheral, and it writhed as if excited by what you’d done. Your vision quickly darted away from his matted and bloody blonde hair to catch the box moving, but it remained still. You felt only the soft vibrations through the table.

The sirens called from afar. They grew closer and closer, but you didn’t care. If you had not felt like you’d done all this, as if none of it was your fault, you might have tried to run. That wasn’t the case. This was you. You knew within your heart of hearts that this was something you would never do, and yet, you were convinced that you did. Not convinced. You were sure that you did it. That you wanted it, as if you’d desired to kill him all along.

And the box moved.

And you looked.

And it stopped.

And the sirens grew louder.

You brought your trembling hands to your face, and pressed the cold sticky blood to your skin. You didn’t care that it was your husband’s blood; you just wanted to be close to him. Feel some part of him one more time. You thought how crazy it sounded, but you missed him. You couldn’t shed a tear for something had stopped you, but you cried. You wept internal tears of memories that bled deep into your soul. Still you could not feel guilt.

And still it moved.

And still it stopped.

The sirens bled into the scream of rubber against the tarmac. Sudden human screaming at your door confused you because you couldn’t understand what they said, but you knew why they were there. You remained seated, waiting for them to arrive and take you away from this place. You needed to rid yourself of this darkness, rid your heart of the death in this house. Soon, the police granted themselves access through the front and back doors, and conferred your desire to leave.

And it moved.

And you looked back.

And it stopped.

For now, but soon it would start again.

The officer took you to the car and stuffed you into the back seat while I, the Detective who captured you, stepped into the room. I thought for a moment that something on the table moved. Was it the box? That strange green box?

I picked it up, and it felt velvety, like the petals of a lush flower. It felt warm. It vibrated.

And it whispered.

And I listened.

The Ghost of a Murder Past (Part II)

Read Part I here.

Lacey looked through the frosted window as needles of rain tapped against the glass. The world beyond was a wet wonderland of glistening reflections of a city continuously moving into the future. For Lacey, however, it reflected the past, too, for her sister Beth stood out there in that cold dank world.

She often saw her sister, and this night was no different. Tonight, Beth wore Lacey’s lucky blue jeans. The cream blouse she wore under it all was her own. The neckline was torn and hanging from her shoulder, and spots of blood mottled it in all the places that Chris had stabbed her.

“Why are you still wearing my pants?” Lacey asked, but Beth didn’t answer. She never answered anything Lacey asked. She just remained silent, smiling, and staring. Always staring.

Lacey sighed, exhausted that Beth still hung around after all this time. Watching her sister, she brought her steaming tea to her lips and sipped the hot brew. She held it in her mouth, allowing her tongue to bath for a moment, and then she swallowed. She smiled as the warm feeling spread through her chest.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Knowing that the sound wasn’t the rain’s symphony upon the window, she looked around the room. The tapping was hollow with a subtle baritone flavor to it.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

She leaned down and put her mug onto the nearby glass coffee table, and her sister’s worried face stared up at her.

Lacey looked toward the kitchen. She could have sworn the sound came from over there, but unfortunately, all the lights were off. She saw nothing more than dark shadows and the soft green glow of the clock floating over the range.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

No, it wasn’t coming from the kitchen. She whipped around toward her bedroom, and slowly crept toward the open door. The room beyond was even darker than the kitchen as if all light ceased to exist beyond the threshold.

Beth watched her sister from the glassware and mirrors as Lacey crossed the living room. Beth smiled occasionally, sometimes she frowned. Beth always had animated features, always able to convey exactly how she felt without a single word. When Lacey looked at her sister, she saw worry. She saw fear. She saw something in Beth’s eyes she hadn’t seen since she first appeared to her the night after she was murdered.

Lacey stopped when she reached the door. She peered into the darkness, and watched a shadow dart across the room.

“Who’s in there?” She said, “I have a gun!”

She did, but it was in the nightstand next to her bed. At least she hoped it was still in there because she hadn’t moved it since she visited the man that killed her sister.

Lacey back up just far enough to snatch an angular piece of art made of chromed iron from the table next to her couch. She’d picked it up on a whim while at the local flea market while looking for handcrafted goods. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting about it, but she had an affinity for things with highly reflective surfaces, and this one, with its rigid and polished exterior, was amazing.

Now, it had another purpose, though. More than just a mirror with which she could see her sister, it was a weapon for fighting off her intruder.

As she entered the room, Beth followed her. She tried to turn the light on, but it didn’t work. After toggling the switch a couple more times, she moved to the window and yanked the cord. The blinds shot up with a loud stutter, and the light from the street lamp poured into the room.

The closet door was ajar, and she saw nothing in there but clothes and shoes. The nightstands remained untouched, and the bed was without wrinkles. Everything on her desk appeared where she left them, and no one hid underneath it. If it wasn’t for Beth stamping her foot and urging lacey to leave, she might have thought no one was there after all.

She frowned and looked at Beth who was standing in the long mirror by the closet. Her sister frowned back, and was no longer wearing Lacey’s pants or jacket. Instead, she’d changed into Lacey’s light-blue teddy and white lace undershorts.

“Why do you always wear my clothes?” Lacy asked, and then watched someone materialize from the shadows behind her in the mirror.

Lacy started to turn, but she wasn’t quick enough. The man grabbed her and threw her to the ground. The man turned her over, and she looked up at her attacker.

It was Chris. Maybe it didn’t look like him anymore, but she was certain it was him. He had unnaturally straight, white teeth behind his sneer. Only one of his eyes moved, the other remained slack, staring at nothing. His lips looked melted, partly healed and partly scarred from the burns caused by the gun she shoved in his mouth.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” she said.

He leaned close to her, and as he spoke with his dark, raspy voice, she felt the hot stickiness of his breath against her ear. “You thought you could kill me, bitch?”

Lacey closed her eyes, bucked hard, but couldn’t fight him. He was too strong. “What do you want?”

“You,” he said. “I miss your sister. The way she felt. You being her twin, you probably feel just as good. Of course, after what you did to me, I won’t let you off as easy.”

She was about scream to alert her neighbor, but he suddenly let go of her. He flew across the room, and crashed hard against a long mirror. An invisible force held him against the glass, and two hands coated in a tar-like substance slipped through the surface of the mirror. The glass rippled as if it was made of water, and they snared him.

Lacey scrambled back along the floor as the hands pulled him into the mirror. He screamed as if in pain, and a moment later he was inside. He looked around the reflected version of the room, and as he approached the glass, someone suddenly appeared in the room with him.

The woman was small, thin, and nude. She didn’t have any sort of pigment Lacey had ever seen before. Her skin was as black as the sky on a starless night. It was as if she was a shadow, only she wasn’t because she had blonde hair that seemed to have a soft phosphorescent glow in the moonlight.

“Beth?” Lacey said as the woman stepped toward the man.

He retreated until he pressed against the wall with nowhere to go. He said, “Stay away!”

Lacey thought she heard a laugh echo through the room, and the Chris’s shirt ripped open. The sweat on his bared chest glistened as deep fissures appeared in his skin. They were two inches long, and blood poured out of them as if they went in deep. Finally, a long slit traced across his neck, cutting deeper and deeper until his head barely clung to the existing meat.

The woman standing in the mirror turned as Chris’s body crumpled to the ground. The light illuminated the woman’s face, and it was Beth.

Lacey approached the mirror and placed her hand on the glass. Beth did the same, almost as if a perfect reflection of lacey. The surface felt warm. They smiled at each other, and then Lacey wept.

She didn’t know how it was possible, but Chris had survived her revenge attack. He’d come back to do to Lacey what he did to Beth, but her sister had somehow come back to save her life. She wondered if Beth knew this whole time that he was still alive, and that’s why she’d appeared to her.

Lacey blinked the blurring tears from her eyes, and Beth was gone. Chris was gone. Only Lacey stood in the room with one hand on the cold mirror.