THE WAITING DARK

Chapter One: The Unspoken

         One of the worst things about having a famous dead mom is looking like her.
I tug my baseball cap over my hair and tuck a few black wisps under the brim, but it’s useless. The boobs my body gave me for my sixteenth birthday look even bigger in the warped glass of the gas station’s bathroom mirror. No amount of adjusting my oversized gray sweatshirt is going to hide them.
         Crap.
         I wrinkle my nose and my reflection crumples like an empty gum wrapper. Most girls get excited when stuff like this happens, but I didn’t have boobs the day Mom died. My chest might as well be a blinking neon sign advertising the fact she’s been gone for three years.
         And that she's been haunting us for just as many.
         I yank the hat off and chuck it at the overflowing garbage bin. Dad’s not going to like it. People leave us alone when I pass for a boy, and Dad loves being left alone. But the more I . . . develop, the more I look like my dead-but-not-quite-departed-yet mother. We can hide from fame, but I can’t hide from my own body.
         The bathroom door groans as I heave it open. Rain slides along my collarbone like a wet finger. Oregon was supposed to be warmer than Alaska. Dad promised. But the wet sank into my bones when we arrived this morning, and I'm basically a human ice floe now.
         The gas station diner is one of those kitschy retro places with red vinyl seats and chrome fixtures. There’s half a motorcycle mounted on one of the walls, and a jukebox croons a fifties ballad I don’t recognize. I do a little shimmy across the black-and-white checkered linoleum and join Dad in the corner booth, breathing in the bizarre aroma of spicy Indian food, and the subtler but just as pungent scent of frying bacon.
         Dad eyeballs me across the sticky table, his watery-blue gaze boring into me like one of those carnival mind readers who claim they can see into your soul. I flick a chunk of dried-up hash brown at him, hoping he can't. Dad gets super upset when he finds out I’ve been thinking about Mom.
         One of his blond eyebrows climbs up his freckle-spackled forehead. “Starting a food fight won't get you off the hook, Mags. Why'd you ditch the hat? People are ten times more likely to realize it’s us now.”
         What I say: “The gig's up, Daddio. I'm not a flat-chested twig anymore.”
         What I want to say: “Mags sounds like the name of an arthritic old dog. The name is Magdalena. Why don’t you try using it for a change?”
         But I know the answer even though we've never talked about it. I know who named me.
         Dad's face gets that twisty, nauseated look that crops up whenever he remembers I'm not his pretending-to-be-a-boy little girl anymore. Our waiter sidles up to the table before he can chew me out properly.
         And what can I get for you?” the guy asks, juggling one of those plastic gray dish bins on his hip with one hand and trying to fish a notepad out of his waistband with the other. “The daily special is our famous butter chicken with basmati rice and homemade naan.”
         I bite back a laugh, because he's got yellow rubber gloves that go halfway up his dark brown arms, and his black hair is mashed beneath a fluorescent pink hairnet. There’s a certain swagger to him even though he can’t be much older than me, and I get the feeling it would take a lot more than a hairnet to embarrass the guy.
         “Thought I smelled that,” I reply. “Not exactly your average diner food.”
         He waggles his eyebrows, then leans down and whispers, “We're not your average diner.”
         Dad snorts and flips through his menu, even though we both know what he’s having.
         “Kamal!” a woman barks from the kitchen. “What have I said about flirting with the customers?”
         The guy straightens crazy fast, but he waves his hand at the kitchen dismissively and calls out,          “I wouldn't have to use these tactics if you didn't cook so much chicken, Amma. If I don’t turn on the charm, we’re going to have leftovers for weeks!”
         Dad places his usual order of pancakes and chicken fingers. It's his ritual. His tiny island of sameness in the chaotic ocean of our nomadic lifestyle. I go for the butter chicken, and my taste buds do an anticipatory happy dance. Dad’s addiction to diner food doesn’t usually allow for this kind of variety.
         Chicken, pancakes, and more chicken,” Kamal repeats. He taps a yellow-gloved finger against the edge of the table. “There's a joke in there somewhere.”
         Dad practically rips the menu out of my hand and shoves it at Kamal. I give Dad my best what-the-hell look as our waiter ambles off.
         “I didn't like how he was looking at you,” Dad mutters.
         I snort. “Come on. I haven’t showered in two days. I reek almost as much as the bathrooms here.” I comb my fingers through my greasy hair, grimacing. “And it’s not like we stay anywhere long enough for me to get into trouble anyway. But tell you what. If he ‘accidentally’ grabs me instead of my dishes, you can beat him up in the parking lot later.”
         I make sarcastic air quotes, and Dad’s expression goes from “unimpressed” to “freaked” in less than a second.
         “Don’t,” he whispers.
         I don’t bother asking why. He only looks like that when I remind him of Mom.
         Few things terrify him more.
         I try not to, but I hate him a little every time he lets his terror show. Looking like Mom doesn’t mean I’ll turn into her. I tell myself that a lot. But it gets harder and harder to believe with fear shooting out Dad’s eyes like superhero laser beams.
         I pick more dried hash brown off the table. Silvery metallic flecks are trapped in the black Formica, like bugs frozen in amber.
         “Sorry,” Dad says.
         I want to believe he’s apologizing for the real thing between us, but he’ll never say it out loud. He’ll never admit that his teenage daughter scares the hell out of him.
         I know all this moving has been hard,” he adds. “But maybe you getting older isn’t the worst thing. Maybe people won’t recognize you this time. Maybe we can stay here for a while.”
         What I say: “That’s a lot of maybes.”
         What I want to say: “I’ll move every freakin’ week if you’ll stop acting like I'm a line of computer code you can’t figure out and treat me like your daughter again.”
         Some old guy in a stained apron brings us our food and disappears before I can say “Thank you.” The butter chicken is nothing like the imitation crap they sell in grocery stores. I inhale it as Dad and I chat about the new apartment, my new school, and our new everything.
         I’ll be starting school mid-semester, as per usual, but I don’t even know how to feel nervous anymore. It’s probably like being a tightrope walker. You should be freaked out that you’re up so high even the safety net could kill you if you land wrong, but it’s your normal. High is normal. Danger is normal.
         Or maybe “this is normal” is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can stop being scared all the time.
         “I need some air,” I tell Dad after I finish eating.
         He pauses in the middle of dipping a chicken finger in his syrup. Gross.
         “Good idea. Stretch your legs. It’s at least another fifteen minutes to Cornelius.”
         He doesn’t tell me to be careful like he used to. It’s one of those assumed things now. Reminding me to be careful would be like reminding me to breathe. I pause on the edge of the booth’s curving seat.
         “Wanna make some New Neighbor Bets on the way there?”
         He grins. “Only if I get Smelly Cooking from the Apartment Next Door.”
         I mutter a curse that earns me an eyebrow raise; Dad’s eyebrows have been getting a massive workout since I hit puberty. “Fine.” I climb to my feet. “But I get Neighbor Who Dumps Our Wet Laundry on the Floor.”
         Dad chuckles, and it’s all I can do not to tackle hug him and beg for a different kind of “normal” for us. But it’s not fair to ask for the impossible, so I give him a mock salute and make my way to the diner’s side entrance. The glass door is smudged with the fingerprints of little kids who probably had too much syrup on their pancakes—and one who definitely had jam. I don’t know why, but the tiny handprints make me sad.
         Even though I brace myself, the cold damp of outside slaps me across the face. I chafe my upper arms as the door swings shut with the screechy whine of hinges craving oil.
         “Horrible, isn’t it?”
         I turn to see our waiter leaning against the side of the diner. He’s ditched the gloves and hairnet, but he’s got at least three layers on, including a puffy black coat that makes him look like a burnt marshmallow. A car plows through the parking lot, sending a spray of mist in our direction. I use the side of my hand like a squeegee to scrape the moisture off my face.
         “Never understood the concept of water torture before today,” I reply, wiping my hand on the front of my sweatshirt to dry it.
         Kamal doesn’t respond, just tilts his head to get a better view of me. “You look familiar.”
         I fight the spike of adrenaline rushing through me, giving me the jolt I need to either take off running or pummel this guy so hard his concussion will prevent him from putting two and two together.
         I opt for my favorite misdirect instead. Violence is my nemesis.
         “Of course I do.” I let out a carefully rehearsed sigh. “I’m the girl from that YouTube video that went viral a few months ago. ‘Teen Girl Proposes to Fire Hydrant after Dental Surgery.’ You’re not going to take my picture, are you?” I inject a note of pleading into my voice.
         It’s obvious Kamal’s not buying it.
         “That’s one heck of a cover story,” he replies. “The Internet’s full of anesthesia videos. I bet you get a lot of traction with that.”
         He pushes off from the wall and walks toward me, hands shoved into his pockets. It’s not exactly a threatening posture, but my anxiety kicks into high gear and my body gets all twitchy. I honestly don’t know if I’m going to run, kick the guy in the groin, or stand there frozen in place like a moron.
         Lucky for him, Kamal stops before he gets too close and my inner moron wins out.
         “You really are her, aren’t you? Little Lena. Bloody Mary’s daughter.”
I don’t know what bothers me more, the name the press gave me or the name they gave Mom, but I happily give in to the anger lashing through my gut. Anger’s easy. Anger makes me stronger—not “little” at all.
         “Piss off,” I tell him.
         He pulls his hands out of his pockets and holds them up in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not a celebrity-stalking sicko. Promise.”
         Behind him, beyond the protective shelter of the diner’s roof, the rain picks up speed, each drop slamming into the cracked asphalt of the parking lot like a tiny sledgehammer. I have no clue why, but I believe him. Not that it makes a difference. Dad’ll be pulling the truck up to the curb any minute, and I’ll never see this guy again.
         But he sees me. He knows my real name. And he’s not taking a picture with his phone or backing away like I’ve got a disease he might catch. I dial down my wariness level, but I keep my metaphorical fingers on the knob.
         “Not sure what to say,” I finally reply. “Congrats on not being a jerk?”
         “Oh, I’m a jerk. Just not about celebrities.” His lips twitch at the corners and he shoves his hands into his pockets again, rocking back on his heels. “I’m super talented, so I might become one someday. I’m trying to bank up some good karma.”
         I vaguely recall karma having some sort of religious significance, so I don’t tell him he’s an idiot if he believes in the stuff. People almost never get what they deserve, and the world’s full of proof.
         “Look, I appreciate you not freaking out—it gets old—but I didn’t exactly love the media’s whole ‘poor Little Lena’ angle, okay? If I decide I want pity, I’ll help them make a more accurate made-for-TV movie next time. It’s Lena. Just Lena.” I slump against the wall of the diner, cross my arms over my chest, and give Kamal one of my best I’m-not-my-mom-but-I-could-probably-still-hurt-you scowls.
          “Yeah. I can see why pity wouldn’t be at the top of your wish list.” He pauses. “Bet I can guess what is though. What you want more than anything in the world.”
         No one’s ever tried to guess that. No one’s ever cared. And it’s creepy as hell that some rando in a gas station diner wants to. “Good luck with that.”
         “If I guess right, you give me your phone number. Deal?” He twinkles his eyes at me. I’m starting to wonder if he’s got some sort of mental health issue.
         No sane person would hit on the daughter of a serial killer.
         “I thought you weren’t a celebrity stalker.” I lean so hard against the diner wall it feels like I’m holding it up. It’s hard to know what to think of Kamal. There’s a flirtatious undercurrent to this conversation, but he’s already sold me his Amma’s chicken.
         “Oh, I’m not,” he replies. “But if I do become famous, it’d be nice to have a friend who’s been through it.”
         “A friend?”
         I give him a skeptical looking over, trying to unnerve him the way he’s unnerving me. But he doesn’t shy away. We even make unblinking eye contact for a grand total of four seconds.
         “Yeah.” He smiles. “Because that’s my guess. Top of your wish list. Someone who’ll get to know the real you and not just see you as Little Lena.”
         He’s close. He’s so damn close. But I don’t think there’s a real me to get to know anymore. Dad’s the only other person who knows the police missed one when they tallied up Mom’s victims. Finding out what she was killed me, and I’m pretty much a zombie now—still a person, but not.
         What I want to say: “My mom is a psychotic reaper type who killed people so she could harvest their soul-magic. Still wanna be friends?”
         Yeah. The serial killer label barely scratches Mom’s surface.
         What I actually say: Nothing.
         With perfect timing, Dad pulls our small moving truck up to the edge of the sidewalk. He scowls down at Kamal like he caught him copping a feel. Emotionally speaking, he kind of did.
Kamal doesn’t even glance in Dad’s direction. “I guessed right, didn’t I?”
         His voice is soft, and there’s something more in it that I can’t put a name to. I rattle off my number super-fast—because he’s not wrong—but it’s a wasted effort. People like me don’t get to have friends. Little Lena doesn’t get to have that kind of normal. I keep telling myself I’m not her anymore, but Little Lena haunts me as much as Mom does.
         It’s only seven steps from the curb to the passenger door of the truck, but I still have to navigate a minefield of parking lot puddles to get there. Staring at puddles is easier than looking back at Kamal and the smug grin he’s probably wearing, and climbing into my seat is easier than thinking about who’s sitting in the bucket seat behind it.
         She found us. She always does.
         Dad’s knuckles whiten on the steering wheel. Some guys would be thrilled to have their wife return from the grave—Dad, not so much.
         I let myself look at her for three whole seconds while I snap my seatbelt into place. She doesn’t need one, on account of being dead and all. Not to mention the whole black-and-white and kinda-sorta-transparent thing she has going on. She looks like a fading character from an old-fashioned TV show, the kind where the mom cleaned house all day in her dress and pearls and solved miniature catastrophes with a soothing voice and cheesy advice.
         Mom dresses like those moms, in a 50s style dress made of white eyelet fabric, and with a set of pearls snugged against her throat. Pretty sure those TV moms didn’t murder people in the attic though.
         Bet the ratings would have gone up if they had.
         “Hi, Mom,” I whisper.
         Dad stiffens, and he was already sitting ramrod straight to begin with. He thinks talking to her encourages her, like she’s a byproduct of our collective imagination or something. But she’s not. We both know she’s not.
         “You won’t be safe here either,” she tells us in a rustling-paper kind of voice.
         If we couldn’t see her sad eyes filling the rearview mirror, it would sound like a threat. Mom’s eyes have been sad for three whole years now. People call her Bloody Mary, but Teary Mary would fit better.
         “Let me teach you,” she adds, her voice like fine-grain sandpaper rubbing against wood now.
         I lean over the smuck-coated console between me and Dad and bash the power button on the radio. Wordlessly, Dad turns up the volume. Teamwork. We have it. Mom’s voice dwindles into whispers the way it always does when we get loud. Mom’s magic doesn’t work without sound, and we’ve learned it’s easier if we just drown her out.
         Magic. She brings it up every damn day. Tells me I’m not safe. Tells me I need to learn. She wants to teach me to do what she did. Take lives. Steal magic. Protect myself with it. But there’s no way in hell I’m following in her bloodstained footsteps. 
         Not for all the power in the world. 

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