Cemetery Dance Online Exclusive Fiction
“The Hands That Hold, the Lies That Bind”
Damien Angelica Walters
The thorn breaks through Callie’s skin, rising from her left shoulder like a small, jagged periscope. There’s no pain, no blood, only a strange sensation creeping the length of her spine. The barb, about the length and width of a fingernail, is a shade darker than her skin, its shape a tiny shark’s fin, the skin around it slightly ridged.
She covers her mouth, holding in a laugh because it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all. She takes a deep breath, stares at the posters—the Avengers and Star Wars—on her bedroom wall for a long time, then at her shoulder again. The thorn’s still there. This time she does let out a laugh because it’s ridiculous. Lots of weird things happen when you’re twelve—pimples, breasts, boys snapping your bra strap in class, your dad leaving and moving to the opposite side of the country—but thorns aren’t one of them. At least they’re not supposed to be.
Her laugh stutters to a halt. She has a thorn. In her shoulder. Call Mia, she thinks. But two months ago when Callie got her period in Ms. Llewellyn’s class, Mia told everyone. More than half the girls in seventh grade—including Mia—already had theirs. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, and Callie still doesn’t understand why Mia did it; they’ve been best friends since preschool. This, though? This puts her in freak territory.
The tip of the thorn is bone hard and sharp and probably would’ve cut through the strap of her tank top if it emerged beneath it instead of next to it. The shivery feel in her spine returns. She bares her teeth, growls softly, then shakes her head. Growling? That makes her an even bigger freak. Tears burn in her eyes, and she squeezes her lids shut to try and hold them in. This can’t be happening.
Callie’s gaze snaps wide-eyed to the doorway. Her mom’s face goes still and sheds its color. Instinctively, Callie covers the thorn with a cupped palm, but it’s too late.
“No,” her mom says, her face dropping its mask, turning all flint-hard eyes and twisted lips. “Don’t touch it.” She moves so fast that Callie steps back until her legs hit the edge of the mattress, panic flooding her mouth. She wants to get away from those eyes, that mouth, but there’s nowhere to go.
Her mom’s face shifts again to something with slightly less menace. “Okay. We’ll take care of this. Everything will be fine,” she says, her eyes darting around the room. Then she nods, as though in answer to some silent question, and grabs Callie’s upper arm, fingers digging in hard.
“Mom, let go, that hurts.” She can’t remember the last time, if ever, her mom touched her this way, or even with anything other than a brief hug. Even before Dad left.
“Be quiet and come with me.”
In the bathroom, her mother lets go and points to the toilet. “Sit.”
“Why?” Callie says, rubbing her upper arm.
“Because I said so.” Her mom’s eyes are fire, her mouth a whip.
“What if I don’t want—”
Callie closes the lid and sits, knees pressed together, mouth dry, while her mom rummages in the medicine cabinet and pulls out antibiotic ointment, an adhesive bandage, and tweezers.
“What are you going to do?” Callie asks.
“What needs to be done.”
Callie covers the thorn again.
“I said don’t touch it!”
The tears return, and Callie’s heart races so fast she’s afraid it will leap from her chest. “What is it? And why are you—”
“I said be quiet,” her mom says between clenched teeth.
“Not until you tell me—”
“Enough! It has to come out. This isn’t debatable. It has to come out now before it can take root.”
Sorrow glitters in her mother’s eyes, too, and that isn’t new—she’s been crying almost every day since Dad left—but these are different somehow. “Take root? What do you mean?”
Her mom presses the back of her hand to her mouth, but Callie hears a sob trying to escape, a strange, animalistic sound. The hardness flashes in her eyes again.
“Mom, I’m scared,” Callie says. “Did I do something wrong?”
The harsh edges fall from her mother’s face as quickly as her hand falls. “No, no, nothing like that. The, the, it has to come out, that’s all. Everything will be fine. I promise.” She brushes hair from her forehead and takes up the tweezers.
“I can do it,” Callie says.
“No. I’ll take care of it.”
But her mom pauses, her fingers trembling, the tweezers a few inches above Callie’s shoulder. Silence hangs heavy and thick. Then her mom starts humming, a strange rhythmic sound that makes the hairs on the back of her neck rise.
She doesn’t respond. Puts tweezers to thorn. Callie glances away. It feels as though her mom’s pulling something out from deep inside, and it burns both fire and ice. Callie tries to hold in a cry. Tries and fails. Her mom hums louder, but Callie hears something else, something she can’t define. A voice, yet not a voice, and it’s not coming from her mom. Then it’s gone, and the only things she’s aware of are an ache in her shoulder and a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. Eyes glassy, her mom squeezes a pearl of antibiotic ointment over the now bleeding wound and affixes the bandage before Callie can get a closer look. “Thankfully, it was a small one. It shouldn’t even leave a scar,” she says with a smile so artificially bright and cheery that Callie recoils.
Her mother seemingly pays no attention. Callie reaches for the thorn, now discarded on the edge of the sink, the wider end speckled with blood, but her mom gets to it first. Their gazes lock and hold. Again, the false smile.
“What is it?” Callie whispers.
“It’s nothing. We don’t need to talk about it. Everything’s fine now.”
“It isn’t nothing. It was inside me, and I don’t even know—”
“No one, not even Mia, can know about this.” She grabs Callie’s arm again, gives it a small shake. “Do you understand?”
“Do. You. Understand?” Her fingers dig in deeper with each word.
Callie nods. “Will it happen again?”
Her mom flinches but leaves the bathroom without answering, taking the thorn with her. Callie rubs her arm, where her mom’s grip left bright red fingermarks, and then her shoulder. She nudges the bathroom door shut with her foot and peels one end of the bandage free. The wound, already beginning to scab, looks normal, as far as scratches go. What scares her more than the unanswered questions, the strange anger, or what she thinks she heard, is that her mom was upset and angry, but she wasn’t surprised. Not completely.
Callie taps her pencil on the kitchen table. Her homework is long finished, leftovers warmed and eaten. Working late, her mom’s text message said. Callie wanted to talk to her this morning, but she was already gone when Callie woke up. As if that wasn’t suspicious at all.
She runs her index finger across the bandage. What if another thorn pops out? What if it happens in school? What’s she supposed to do, run out of class before anyone notices? Right.
She’s already looked online. She found a couple of books with the words girl and thorn in their titles, including one she already has—and it has nothing to do with random thorns popping out of anyone’s skin—and a bunch of tattoo pictures. She didn’t really expect to find anything saying hey, here’s what you do when thorns start growing out of your skin, but it would’ve been nice to find something.
If her dad were still here, she knows she could talk to him about it. He wouldn’t brush her off or treat her like a little kid (or pretend a thorn was nothing major, nothing to talk about); he never did. Chest aching, she rests her head on the table, thumbing the edge of her open sketch pad. She misses the way he hugged her at night before bed, the way they’d sit next to each other on the sofa reading. She misses hearing his voice, misses hearing him call her punkin. She doesn’t miss the fights he had with her mom, or the way he worked late a lot, and maybe he didn’t talk to her as much when things got really bad, but that wasn’t her fault. You don’t divorce your kids. You don’t.
She cocks her head closer to the wound. Listens. After a few minutes, she makes a face. What was she expecting anyway? Whatever she thought she heard was probably her imagination. She pulls off the bandage. Digs her thumbnail in and hisses in pain as she scrapes off the scab. No matter what her mom said, she wants a scar. There should be a scar.
When her mom finally comes home, she’s wearing her I-had-a-bad-day-at-the-office-and-hate-everyone face, and her eyes are still wearing the hard, flinty veil, so Callie keeps her mouth shut. Even though she worked late, her mom’s makeup is perfect and her clothes aren’t wrinkled. She’s all high cheekbones, sharp comma collarbones, and fair hair.
Callie’s round-cheeked, soft and dark, her eyes a touch too far apart, her mouth a little too wide. Maybe not ugly, but not pretty, not like her mom. She doesn’t really resemble her dad either. One time he joked that she was the mailman’s child, and her mom got mad and didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day. Callie thought it was funny but knew better than to say so.
Hi, Dad, it’s me, Callie. Um, school’s going good I guess. I hope your new job is too. Is it really warm there? Do you get to go and swim in the ocean? Probably not because you’re so busy with work, but I would if I were there, even if I were super busy. Anyway, I wanted to say I love you and I miss you. Call me back soon, okay?
Callie sleeps late on Saturday morning, and when she goes downstairs, her mom’s outside, still in her pajamas and robe, smoking a cigarette, something she only does when she’s really stressed.
She exhales a plume of smoke before she turns around. “What?”
“Can we talk about the, the…” Callie lifts her shoulder, tips her chin in its direction.
Her mom shakes her head. “No.”
“That’s what you said last night and the night before, and the night before that you wouldn’t even talk to me. Why can’t we talk about it?”
“It’s gone, isn’t it? Go inside, Callie. There are waffles in the freezer.”
“But I thought I heard—”
She turns away but not before Callie sees her face twist into the angry mask. Callie stomps inside. All she wants is to know what’s going on. Why can’t her mom tell her the truth? She digs under the bandage again, not even wincing when she peels off what’s left of the scab.
The wound leaves a small scar. Callie wears tank tops and keeps her hair in a ponytail, but if her mom notices the mark, she doesn’t say a word. Not that she’s said much of anything at all lately.
The house is way too quiet with only the two of them, as though her dad packed all the conversation in his suitcases and tucked the laughter and smiles in carefully taped boxes. Callie told her mom that once; she pursed her lips and said it was better than all the arguments. But Callie would rather have all the fighting in the world than the empty space where her dad should be.
Mia’s mom brings them glasses of apple juice and grilled cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off. When she leaves the bedroom, Callie and Mia both roll their eyes, but it doesn’t stop them from eating or drinking.
Mia flops on her stomach, crumbs sticking to her lower lip. “Did you see Vivica today?”
“Her cousin pierced her cartilage, here.” Mia points at the top curve of her ear. “Her mom apparently had a fit and grounded her for forever, but she let her keep the earring in. Isn’t that dumb?”
Callie shrugs. “It’s Vivica’s ear. If she likes it…”
“My mom would kill me. Yours would kill you, too. Hey, what’s this?” She pulls a sheet of paper out of Callie’s math book. “Did you draw it?”
“Yeah, but it’s nothing really.” Callie says, pinching the inside of her cheek between her teeth. The drawing shows a girl with thorns on her shoulders and arms. Thorns big enough to impale someone with.
Mia outlines the figure on the paper with her finger. “She’s cool. Is she a superhero or a villain? Are those things part of her costume or part of her?”
“I don’t know. She’s just something I made up.”
“She looks bad-ass, like Black Widow, only better. You should totally draw more. Maybe make a real comic with her.”
“Whatever. Can I have it back? I need to get home.”
“But it’s early.”
Callie tucks the drawing in her book. “Yeah, but I told my mom I’d do some laundry before she got home.” She keeps her eyes downcast so Mia won’t see the lie within.
“Better boring than my mom pissed off,” Callie says.
She takes her time walking home, not that it matters. Mia only lives two streets away. Callie passes a bunch of little kids playing on a front lawn, their mothers watching from the porch. On her street, Will Brecht is riding his bikes in lazy figure eights from sidewalk to driveway. He’s her age, but he goes to private school. Their dads were friends, but their moms, not so much.
Her phone buzzes and as she’s pulling it out of her pocket, it slips and tumbles into the grass. Insects dance on her spine, and the tip of a thorn emerges on the inside of her wrist.
“Oh,” she whispers. “Oh, no.”
It doesn’t hurt, but it’s bigger than the first one—half the length of her thumb and nearly as wide—and it looks sharper, too. The creeping sensation grows stronger, radiating out to her shoulder blades.
“Callie, you okay?”
She blinks in the sunlight, hears a low sound coming from deep in her throat. Will is on his bike in front of her, his face screwed up in confused amusement.
She blinks again and shivers. “Just dropped my phone.”
Will bikes away, casting several glances over his shoulder that she pretends not to see, and she forces herself not to run. Once safely inside her house, she drops both phone and backpack on the kitchen floor and half-sits, half-falls, into a chair, shaking. Pinching the thorn between finger and thumb, she gives it a tug. Hisses in a breath. A tiny drop of blood appears at one corner, but the thorn stays put.
Freak, freak, freak, she thinks. But another part of her, a secret voice deep inside, says, no, not a freak. Something else. Something different. She barks a laugh. Right. She texts her mom: It happened again. Will Brecht almost saw it. Now will you talk to me?
I’ll be home as soon as I can, comes the reply. Stay inside until then.
What does she think Callie’s going to do? Run around showing it off?
When her mom rushes in and sees the thorn, her face turns inscrutable. (At least it’s not angry.) Callie has the tweezers, a bandage, and the ointment already on the table. Good little soldiers awaiting their mission.
Her mom starts humming. This time, Callie watches the whole thing. Her mom doesn’t yank the thorn out straight, but bends it a little to the side, pulling hard enough that her knuckles turn white. Callie swallows the pain and hears the not-voice again. It’s as quiet as the echo of a whisper, but it’s definitely not her imagination. As soon as the thorn is completely out, it falls silent.
“Mom, what is that? What’s wrong with me?”
Her mom exhales sharply, wipes away the blood, and applies ointment. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” she says, but the words sound as though she’s choking on them.
“Yes there is. I have thorns. I’d call that something super wrong. Am I sick? Dying?”
“No, you’re not sick.” She puts on the bandage. Scoops up the paper tabs and the thorn. “And you’re not dying. It’s not like that.”
“So what is it then? I’m not a kid anymore, and I have a right to know.”
“All you need to know is that they have to come out, and that eventually they’ll stop.”
“I don’t know. A few years maybe.”
Callie snorts, knowing her mom hates it when she does. “So I’m supposed to what, not worry about it for a few years? Not say anything? I mean I can’t ask anybody else, right?”
Her mom grabs her arm, even tighter than she did the first night. “You can’t say anything to anyone. Do you understand me?”
Callie yanks her arm away. Stands so fast the chair clatters to the floor. “Right. Say nothing, and what if it happens when I’m in school or with Mia? Say nothing? Be a good girl and run home to Mommy? I bet Dad would talk to me about it. I bet he’d tell me the truth.”
Her mom makes a sound that’s half-sob, half-laugh, and Callie races upstairs, slamming her bedroom door shut behind her, frustration snot-thick in her throat. She stays in her room the rest of the night, ignoring her mom when she calls her for dinner. Funny how she doesn’t call a second time.
When the second wound begins to heal, Callie scratches it open so it will scar too. “Hello?” she whispers when blood starts to flow, but the only thing she hears is the wet scritch of the scab tearing free.
Callie’s in Mr. Andersen’s English class when the third thorn emerges, just below her navel. Spine still shivery, she reaches beneath her t-shirt, pretending to scratch. The thorn feels smaller than the others, but it’s still razor-sharp. A sound creeps into her throat; she shoves it down before it can escape. She should ask to be excused and call her mom, but she doesn’t. No one can see the thorn where it is, plus she has a science test after lunch. Her mother’s face swims to the surface; she pushes it away. Fear traces a cold spiral on the nape of her neck, but it doesn’t feel terrible. Not exactly.
When she gets home, her mom texts that she has to work late. Once she does get home, Callie thinks about telling her, but when she opens her mouth the only thing that comes out is a short, clipped, “Hello.”
Hi, Dad. It’s me, Callie. I, um, I know you’re busy with work and stuff, but maybe you can call me when you’re not so busy? I miss you a lot. A whole lot.
One day turns into two; two turns into three. The thorn doesn’t grow any larger, doesn’t change color, doesn’t do anything except force her to sleep on her side instead of her stomach. She’s careful to wear loose-fitting t-shirts and lower slung jeans. Careful, too, not to touch her abdomen when her mom’s around.
On the fourth day, Saturday, her mom’s sitting at the kitchen table, hands curved around a coffee mug. On the placemat are tweezers, a bandage, ointment. Callie pretends not to see them, but her heart beats heavy and her palms go damp. She opens the refrigerator, takes out the orange juice.
“Where is it?” her mom asks, her voice soft.
“What?” Callie says over her shoulder, as she pulls out a glass.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Callie. Where is it? I know it’s somewhere. I can see it in your eyes. I can—”
“Don’t do this. Where is it?”
Callie pinches her lower lip between her teeth, turns around, and lifts her shirt.
“Yesterday.” Callie keeps her face as still as possible.
“I don’t know. After dinner sometime.”
“I was here after dinner. Why didn’t you say something?”
“This isn’t a game, Callie. You have no idea what could happen.”
“How could I since you won’t tell me?”
Her mom’s mouth goes all lemon pucker, but she doesn’t say anything, just picks up the tweezers with shaking hands. “No, don’t sit down, stand there and hold still.”
Callie crosses her arms, glaring at her mother as she kneels.
“What were you thinking? I told you they had to come out.”
It’s Callie’s turn not to answer, but it’s a short-lived victory. Her mom hums and the tweezers tug, the pain bright and sharp. Callie squirms, biting back a yelp. The voice, if it is a voice, whispers something low and unintelligible.
“Hold still a minute more. There.”
The end of the thorn glistens with Callie’s blood and something that resembles an eyelash thin tail. Her mom’s gaze darkens. “Are you sure it was last night?”
“Yes Mom, it was last night.” Callie punctuates her words with a roll of the eyes. “So will you tell me now what’s really going on?”
Her mom wraps the thorn in a napkin and tucks it in her pocket. Covers the wound with the ointment and bandage. “No. You’re too young.”
“Right. But I’m not too young to have it happen. It isn’t fair not to tell me, it isn’t fair for you to be all pissed off about it when I don’t even know what’s wrong.”
“We are not having this discussion. I’ve told you everything you need to know.”
“You’ve told me nothing.”
“And that’s all you need to know.”
“I heard it.”
“You heard nothing.”
“Right. Sure. If Dad were here—”
“Well, he isn’t. He left us.”
“No, he left you, Mom.”
“Oh, honey. He left us both.” Her mom looks as though she wants to say something else, but she closes her mouth, shakes her head.
“He’s busy, that’s all! He’ll call me once he isn’t. I know he will.”
Her mom reaches out, but Callie moves before she can make contact. She storms from the kitchen and stomps up the stairs as hard as she can. Her dad did not leave her. She wasn’t the one who argued with him all the time. She wasn’t the problem.
When the final bell rings at school, the hallways become a river choked with broken branches. Callie pushes through the crowd to her locker with Mia at her heels.
“Are you okay?” Mia asks.
“Don’t know. You seem different, that’s all.”
“I don’t know. Just different.”
Callie makes a sound low in her throat. “So helpful.”
“Sor-ry,” Mia says.
Callie touches her abdomen, tracing a finger over the ridge of bandage below her shirt. “It’s just stupid stuff with my mother.”
“Want to come over and do homework?”
“Sure.” Callie almost hopes a thorn shows up for Mia to see; then her mom will have to tell her the truth. But she thinks of the kids at school, what they’d say, what they’d do, and pulls a face.
Her mom’s still at work when she gets home. Surprise, surprise. In the bathroom, she puts her nose close to the mirror. Thinks of Mia’s words. Same old face in the mirror, though. Same Callie. And she isn’t sure if she’s hoping to see something different or not.
Instead of finishing her English homework, she draws another girl with thorns and uses a red pen to add drops of blood. When her mom finally comes home, she hides the picture in her underwear drawer.
All night, she catches her mom looking at her. Not regular looking, but looking too long and too hard, and every time, Callie fights the urge to run and check the mirror again. She ends up retreating to her bedroom and runs her hands along her arms and legs and torso. Nothing out of place. Nothing different. No thorns.
Callie tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep. She kicks off the sheets. Flops on her stomach. Her mom’s television is still on, which wouldn’t be a big deal if she shut Callie’s bedroom door after peeking in on her. (Callie could’ve told her to shut it, but she was pretending to be asleep.)
She climbs out of bed and pauses at the door to listen. It isn’t the television. It’s her mom. She creeps down the hall, careful to avoid the spot near the bathroom where the wood creaks. Her mom’s door is open a tiny crack because the latch broke a month ago and Callie’s dad’s the one who always fixed stuff. Her mom’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing away from the door, a small box open beside her.
“Leave her alone,” she says. “Please.”
A voice says something in return, too low for Callie to hear the words, but she recognizes the voice.
“You can’t. She’s all I have. She doesn’t deserve this. Please let her go, let us both go.”
Another response Callie can’t hear. Her mom drops something into the box, closes the lid, and she gets up, box in hand. Callie retreats to her room, her arms all over goosebumps and anger threading through her veins.
Why does the voice want her? What does it want? And why won’t her mom tell her the truth?
After school, Callie drops her backpack on the kitchen table and heads to her mom’s bedroom. There used to be a framed picture of Callie and her dad on the dresser, and another one of her parents together, both wearing wide smiles, but the pictures are gone now, only dusty lines showing they’d ever been there at all.
One by one, she opens the drawers, checking underneath the clothes and in the corners, being as careful as possible not to mess anything up. There’s nothing under the bed but storage boxes full of winter clothes. She finds things in her mom’s nightstand she’d rather not see and almost leaves the room, her cheeks flaming.
One side of the closet contains her mom’s clothes; the other, only white plastic hangers. An empty suitcase, winter boots, and a box of old photographs of her mom as a child sit on the top shelf. She huffs out a breath and crosses her arms, tapping the nearest shoe box with her toes and dislodging the top, revealing not shoes but more old photos. The box next to it holds shoes, as does the one next to that. But in the far corner, almost buried by the hems of hanging dresses, she finds another box of photos and hidden under the pictures, a small wooden box that rattles when she shakes it.
Inside, resting on the bottom, are the thorns. But there are too many, way too many. No voice, though. Only a brittle, whispery sound as the thorns slide over and around each other.
She scoots out of the closet and dumps the thorns on the floor. They’re all varying sizes and shades, all sharp. There’s a wet shimmer on the bottom edge of one, and her finger comes away streaked with red. She’s pretty sure it’s blood, but no way she’s going to taste it to check.
It isn’t one of her thorns, of that she’s sure. Hers are a different color. Only one, the one from her abdomen, has the little tail and her stomach twinges. She takes the thorn that came from her wrist, easy to tell because it’s so big, and lowers it to her skin, lining the edges with the scar.
A shiver traces a figure eight down her spine, and the scar opens, with neither blood nor vein within but a vast darkness. The space between the almost-connection wavers; the voice drifts into the air. A lullaby, a promise of something else. The sensation in her back intensifies, hot and cold at the same time, a touch shy of pleasure, a whisper from pain. The voice gathers weight, its presence in the air a strong perfume, and then it whispers her name.
She cries out and pulls the thorn free. For one long moment, it won’t come loose, tethered by an invisible force, and for an even longer moment, she doesn’t want it to. Then the force gives way, as though severed with a blade. She rocks on her heels, and her skin closes, the scar exactly as it was. Heart pounding, she uses one of her mom’s scarves to sweep all the thorns into the box.
Did all the other thorns come from her mom? If so, she has to know what they mean. And why would she keep them if they were so bad? Callie rubs her wrist, then yanks her hand away, afraid her skin will open again and swallow her up.
Hi, Dad. It’s Callie again. I guess, I guess call me back when you can? I really miss you. Oh, and there’s something really important I want to talk to you about. Mom won’t tell me anything, and I know you will, even if you don’t really know. Just call me, okay? Please?
Callie’s washing her hair when her fingers find the thorn in her scalp. Her hands drop to her sides, and she stands still beneath the spray. She last washed her hair two days ago, and this morning when she brushed it, the bristles caught on what she thought was a tangle. Has the thorn been there the whole time? She rinses the rest of the shampoo without touching her hair, and pads to her mom’s room clad only in a towel, tweezers in hand.
“I have another one.”
Her mom’s mouth works, but nothing comes out. She nods, scrubs her face with her hands. “Let me have the tweezers.”
“Not until you tell me what they are.”
“Callie, it’s late and you have school tomorrow. We don’t have time for this.”
“It isn’t that late.”
“Maybe this weekend…”
“Right, and I’m supposed to believe that?”
“Tell me what they are, what they mean! Just tell me this one time, and I won’t ask again!”
Her mom’s shoulders slump. “They don’t mean anything,” she says in a dull voice.
“I don’t believe you. If that was true, then you wouldn’t be so upset.”
“I’ll tell you this much,” her mom says in a quiet mouse-whisker voice. “If we leave them in, they’ll change you. They’ll destroy you. Please, no more questions tonight. Let me take it out and have done with it.”
Callie bites the inside of her cheek hard enough to draw blood, but she keeps her mouth shut while her mom parts her hair.
“We won’t be able to put a bandage on it, but it’s a small one so it should be okay.”
Humming tunelessly, her mom yanks out the thorn, and the voice whispers one word: Liar. Her mom’s mouth tightens for a brief moment and her cheeks turn pink, but she says nothing. Nothing at all.
The letter from her mom to her dad is marked Return to Sender. Callie traces her dad’s name on the envelope, knowing she shouldn’t open it, but her mom won’t know if she throws it in the trash afterward. She carries the letter to her room; shuts and locks the door.
For the record, Callie still doesn’t know the truth. She wouldn’t be trying to call you if she did. If I’d known this was the way things would end up, I would’ve told her from the beginning that you were her stepfather.
I know I said I didn’t want you involved in her life, but I was angry. We both said a lot of hurtful things. I never thought you’d take off and move away.
What you’re doing is cruel. She loves you. You’re the only father she’s ever had.
Callie rocks back and forth on her bed, holding the letter to her chest. It can’t be true. It can’t be. He is her dad. He’s always been her dad. Her mom’s lying, like she is about the thorns. Sobbing, she calls her dad, but he doesn’t answer—he’s busy with his stupid job and she hates hates hates it—and she’s crying too hard to leave a message.
She wipes her eyes, shreds the letter into bits, and races into her mom’s room. Returns to her room, thorn pinched between thumb and index finger, and shuts and locks her door again. Holds the thorn above the scar on her wrist until the space between wavers and her skin opens.
“Tell me what you are. Tell me the truth,” she whispers into the darkness. “Please.”
On Friday nights, Callie’s mom always drinks two glasses of wine. Callie pulls the stopper from the half-empty bottle in the fridge and pours in the sleeping pills she pilfered from the medicine cabinet at Mia’s house and crushed with a meat tenderizer. She only took two pills; she doesn’t want to hurt her mom, just make sure she goes to sleep, and she doesn’t know how quickly they work. In the movies they work in an instant, so her mom might never get to the second glass.
After dinner, her mom pours a glass before she dons her pajamas and curls on the sofa with a book. Callie sits on the other end, her own book in hand, sneaking peeks from the corner of her eye. When the glass is nearly empty, Callie extends a hand. “I’m going to make popcorn. Want me to refill your glass?”
“Yes, thank you.” Her mom’s voice sounds sleepy, but Callie can’t tell if it’s regular sleepy or not.
Callie puts the popcorn in the microwave and opens the fridge. Some of the pill dust has settled to the bottom of the wine bottle, and Callie shakes it until it’s all mixed up again. Still awake, her mom takes a sip when Callie gives her the glass, makes a small face, but takes a second sip a few minutes later.
When the glass is still two-thirds full, her mom touches a hand to her forehead, darts a look, all creased brow and heavy lids, at Callie. Callie tosses popcorn in her mouth, tries to pretend it’s an ordinary night.
“Callie? What…” her mom says, her words slurred.
Her eyelids flutter shut. Callie tosses the bowl of popcorn on the table and runs upstairs. When she returns, her mom is still asleep, her mouth slightly open. Callie’s hands shake as she lifts her mom’s pajama top. There, on the skin of her abdomen, almost hidden by the faint tracery of stretch marks, are tiny scars. The voice told the truth.
She takes a thorn from the box and holds it above her mother’s skin, moving it slowly from side to side. One of the scars open, revealing the same darkness Callie saw in her own. She hesitates a moment and the voice says, “Don’t worry.”
Her mom’s eyes open. She tries to lift one hand, but it flops back down. “Callie? What are you doing?”
Callie sets the thorn in place, grabs another. “They said you’d be okay. They said if I did this, they’d leave me alone.”
“No, oh, no,” her mom says, her words tangled and thick. “They only tell you what they want you to hear. Listen to me…” Her head lolls against the sofa cushion, and a soft moan slips from her lips even as her eyes close once more. Callie continues to return each thorn to its proper place. When the box is empty, her mom moans again, louder this time, and her mouth works. “You have to, to take them out before…”
Callie bites the side of her finger. Watches. The air fills with a low hum punctuated with small cracks. Her mom’s body twitches. Her eyelids snap open and inside them, neither iris nor pupil, only an oily, moving darkness. The thorns begin to grow, twisting into knots as they extend into vines, and Callie scrambles off the couch, her heart racing. This isn’t right. This isn’t what the voice said would happen. She grabs for her mom, almost touches her, but the vines split once, twice, three times, waving in the air as though caught in a breeze and pushing her hand away.
They wrap around her mother’s limbs and torso with the sound of sandpaper on stone, and it doesn’t take long before her mother is completely covered. And still the vines twist and grow.
“Mom!” Callie shrieks. “Make it stop!”
She didn’t know. Her mom has to believe that. She didn’t know. She tries to grab the vines, but they slither from her grasp. The tips melt into the air, creating a dark outline, like a doorway to somewhere else. Her mom’s hand breaks free from the brambles, and their fingertips touch.
“Hold on, Mom. I—”
Callie hears a cry, a muffled hurry, and the vines make one last twist. The black rushes in, Callie’s ears pop, and then her mom is gone. The black hangs in the air, then it vanishes, too.
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry, so sorry. Come back, Mom, okay? I want you to come back.”
She sinks to the floor, tears coursing down her cheeks. No. Everything will be fine. She’ll fix it. She’ll make it right. She holds a thorn against her wrist.
“You have to giv***e her back,” she says. “Please, I want my mom.”
But the scar remains shut, the voice silent.
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Damien Angelica Walters’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume One, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and Apex Magazine. She was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award for Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of short fiction, was released in 2015 from Apex Publications; Paper Tigers, a novel, is forthcoming in 2016 from Dark House Press.
Writing as Damien Walters Grintalis, her short fiction appeared in magazines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and Interzone, and a novel, Ink, was released in December 2012 by Samhain Publishing.
She’s also a freelance editor and, until the magazine’s closing in 2013, she was an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning speculative fiction magazine, Electric Velocipede. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls.