Beginnings are fragile. A mundane Tuesday encounter could become a collision point for a spiral of events: a love story, a car accident, or a genocide. They’re a birthplace for the beautiful or the violent crash of the horrible. For that, beginnings are sacred.
When I first met John, he invited me to an intimate party. It was in a barn on the edge of Indiana with dim lights, loud music, and three girls in matching gingham dresses. They were kind enough to pour me a glass of punch. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” Alana had joked. Her voice was raspy: half-natural and half a result of cigarettes. It was an honest voice, devoid of a siren’s beckon.
In the years before that moment, I had felt so alone. With the expectation that tonight would feel no different, I chugged the drink and ran through a list of excuses to leave. In the middle of my decisions, Claire plucked a piece of hay from my hair. She combed through it with her calloused fingers, parting the sections into braids to match her hairstyle. “Stay here with us,” she murmured. “John is a good man.” Our eyes met. She could see the parasitic loneliness hollowing me down. She saw it, and she understood it.
So, I stayed.
I shared a room with three girls who would fill the walls with cigarette smoke until midnight crawled around. That night I had curled half-drunk into the bottom bunk below a pretty brunette named Kennedy. There was an argument souring the mood, but I wasn’t sober enough to care.
“All we have is cheese and ranch in the fridge. If it wasn’t for John’s impulsive spendings, we could actually eat,” Alana complained.
“You’re just an ungrateful, washed-up whore,” someone said. It sounded like Claire.
I stirred, opening my mouth to ease the tension, but the girls had already gone silent.
The idyllic property had two buildings: a barn for the animals and a tiny red-roof house for us. While John solely inhabited the master’s suite, the girls and I shared a room downstairs. We wore matching light blue gingham dresses. I was giddy when John gifted me mine. It was tangible proof that I belonged–I was wanted. In return, I gave him my financial accounts. We had no use for money. There was shelter, food, and water provided to us. Stripping ourselves of human possessions, John had said, was a return to a fundamental and lost human life.
He spoke reproachfully of it every Sunday evening, meticulously timing his sermon against the backdrop of an Indiana sunset. We would watch the colors mix, fading behind the fields as John shared his truth. He preached about good things: living in purity, stripping away the toxicity of the modern world to become the holiest version of ourselves.
“It took me years to find,” he said. “My little brother was murdered seven years ago, and I thought I would never find my Higher Self. Yet here I am, before you as the best version of myself possible.” John was the only person we knew who’d ascended that spiritual level. We followed his orders with little hesitation. If he wanted us to dance naked in the rain, we would do so for the sake of enlightenment. Our Higher Selves. There was no greater joy than claiming transcendence. Though, most people never had the privilege.
To John, I stripped myself bare. I told the story of my pregnant mother at twenty, a year older than myself, stumbling home to find my father’s splattered brains on her carpet. There was a gun and a poorly written suicide note. She burned the note in the fireplace and took the gun to the police. And the carpet? He tilted his head. She kept it still, I sighed. There was a bloodstain the size of a watermelon where mama had meticulously dragged a coffee table over. She would cry, and cry, and cry. But, she wouldn’t get rid of it. I was the second stain she couldn’t get rid of. A permanent, living reminder of what she had lost.
“I can tell you had a fragile relationship with your mother,” John said.
“She blamed me for his death. Mama thought that a kid would be enough for him to stay, and she had pinned her expectations on me,” I shrugged.
John brushed a strand of my hair behind my ear. He smiled earnestly as if he understood me. That smile. It was all I ever wanted. “You will always belong here.”
It was the perfect thing to say.
I was massaging my bruised knees, a torrent watercolor of faded purple-blue on both legs. Against the grass, the color scheme resembled the Earth from space. I’d been smearing aloe goo over it in the kitchen until it became too intolerable to ignore: Claire’s moans piercing through the paper-thin walls. Collectively, we scurried outside to sit in peace.
“I’d rather hear pigs,” Alana yelled. For once, I agreed with her crude statements.
“What’s it like no longer being John’s favorite?” Kennedy smirked.
“You’re just mad because John doesn’t think you’re pretty as he used to,” she said.
“At least I’m not fat and mean.”
“I could still tear you to shreds, beauty queen,” Alana said.
Kennedy glowered. I had heard muddled rumors of Kennedy’s beauty pageant history. She had won countless crowns only to be forcefully removed after her family discovered her eating disorder. “I would’ve respected you more if you said you got disqualified for putting razors in your competitors’ lipsticks,” Alana had said once.
They were similar in nature, which was an easy explanation for their quick agitation towards another. Though, there were nuances from red and orange. Alana was snarky. Kennedy was superficial. Alana could torch cities with little remorse. Kennedy would shrink and bail. One was all bark, but the other one could bite.
Alana paused, pulling a cigarette from her bra. Speaking more to herself than us, she said, “Sometimes, I can hear my Higher Self buried underneath this chaos. It’s full of bitterness and vengeance. Most people like Claire are at their purest when they’re healing. I’m purest when I’m unhappy. It’s my natural state of being; bitterness is comfortable when it’s all you’ve known. This is my Higher Self. I’m enlightened, girlies.” Kennedy rolled her eyes, but I was quiet for a moment.
It was optimistic to assume that the best versions of people would always be good. There were people like Alana who thrived in misery simply out of familiarity. The wreckage was constant and consistent. Ironically, that became stability. It was a flawed ideology rooted in pessimism. Yet, it had crossed my mind multiple times. What if I was one of those unfortunate people? Each attempt to drown those worries were short-lived. Eventually, they would resurface in my mind like a toy sailboat, bobbing on the surface of bathwater.
Alana grinned. Was there a sliver of happiness in accepting that the best version of yourself was misery manifested? I asked her, and she shrugged. “Do you think serial killers deserve self-love?”
Kennedy scoffed, “Ugly people don’t deserve to love themselves.”
“No,” I said, “if you intentionally kill without remorse, you don’t deserve to feel acceptance of any kind.”
“Maybe, but murderers aren’t seeking acceptance from society. They aren’t consumed with societal acceptance because it’s unattainable. As you said, they don’t deserve it. My theory is that serial killers love themselves more than anyone. Why? Because once you’re able to truly love yourself despite all the despicable crimes you committed, you’ve transcended. You’re your Higher Self.” Her teeth glinted like canines. She wiped her dirty hands on her dress, brown streaking the soft gingham print. I winced, knowing how much John would disapprove.
“Alana darling, you haven’t found your Higher Self. You’re still the same rambling trash bag you’ve always been. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here,” Kennedy said.
They resumed their usual bickering, and I refused to be roped into it. Trodding through the grass, I escaped to the barn in search of solitude. It was March, I thought to myself. The ferns I had bought weeks prior to my departure would have wilted by now–or thriving–away from my blackening presence.
Inside the barn, Claire was dumping feed into the plastic bins for the animals. I took a seat on a haystack after she waved away my assistance. Sweat unpleasantly beaded her rosy face, and I actively pushed the intrusive image from my mind.
“You always seem sad,” she remarked, sitting down next to me. “When I met you the first night at the welcoming party, I thought: this girl always looks like she’s on the brink of tears.”
“I believe that. First impressions can be misleading, but sometimes they’re right,” I said. She gestured for me to turn around. I did. Her fingers slid the elastic ties from my braids as she unfurled them like a secret. “How did you meet John?” I said.
“John finds you,” Claire said.
“How did he?”
“Well, I was twenty-three, living out of a suitcase by 7th St. He offered me a place to stay, and I took it. This barn belonged to his brother before he passed away…I think he found it lonely.”
“What about Kennedy and Alana?”
“Alana was the first one here. She knew John before all of us. It doesn’t mean she knows him best despite what she believes.” She tightened my braid, almost pulling at my scalp.“Kennedy was one of those lost small-town beauty queens. She stumbled here, claiming how broken her life was, and John took her in because she was pretty, white, and anorexic. She ate less, less of a hassle for us, you know.”
As her fingers weaved through my hair, Claire started to sing. It was an old worship song from the boys and girls’ choir. I hummed along. Our off-key, mangled voices blended into an almost angelic howl. As we belted out the last note, my voice cracked. The air shook from her laughter. I leaned my head against her shoulder, comforted by the rhythmic vibrations of her chest.
John moved like a force of nature with a charisma, capable of softening entire rooms. When we were alone, he had hard eyes like boulders on the sea’s edge. A necklace adorned his throat, a broken steel cross, with jagged ends gently resting against his skin. It dangled above me.
It was part of the enlightenment process.
When we finished, I wrapped myself in his soft sheets. Like all things in his room, it was of utmost quality, probably imported from a French linen shop. I felt like the cheapest thing in the room–a Sunday whore dredged from a church’s sewage.
There was no spark of deeper understanding like he had promised. I was still the same aching soul, chained by old ghosts. Blinking rapidly, I suppressed my disappointment by focusing on the curtains. Burgundy red with a hue of embarrassment and an undertone of shame. Burgundy red. Burgundy red.
“You’re special.” He touched my shoulder lightly.
I flinched but politely said, “Thank you, sir.”
Then, I got dressed and left.
During John’s Sunday session, my attention flickered in and out like a strained lightbulb. Meanwhile, Claire was enthralled, peering at him with a Reinassance idolization; Michaelangelo’s greatest creation was speaking.
Love didn’t exist, only worship.
Mama had done the same. She had glorified my father to that saintly status, tacking Mary down a peg to make space for him: the blood-stained suicidal martyr. I couldn’t love the myth of him; I had never truly loved anything with my entire being, much less a man. I had told her this one night, and she had screamed the windows to shards. At some point, it’s easier to believe the lie that you’ve built than detangle the truth from thorns.
I placed my palm over Claire’s. We heard her sneaking off to fill that space in John’s bed that we all shared. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we would hand-wash his sheets. We would hang it out to dry on the clotheslines, snatching it from the cats when it fluttered in the breeze. The rest of the tasks were divided: Kennedy fed the animals, I cleaned the barn, Alana milked the cows, and Claire cooked. The routine was comforting. We were a family.
A growing one. I was the first to discover the pregnancy test. Walking into the barn, I had accidentally tripped on a loose floorboard. I peeled it back, avoiding the nail glistening like a bullet, to find the test. It was relatively new, with no signs of scratches or dust, but two stark lines running down. It clattered from my fingers.
Unexpectedly, Claire showed no outward sign of elation, but perhaps a growing aversion to smoking: she swatted Kennedy’s clouds from her face. Though, she would occasionally spend the night upstairs in John’s room. It was one of those nights that Alana crawled from her bunk. She shuffled in the dark. We ignored her at first until she groaned in a loud, guttural cry for attention.
“What?” Kennedy snapped.
“Claire is going to kill me.” In the dark, Alana’s face pantomimed concern like a puppet’s: creased brows, puckered lips, and downturned eyes. There was something dishonest about the forcefulness as if she was feigning worry versus actually feeling it. Calculation laced the girl like arsenic in a summer wine.
“I don’t care. Go to sleep,” Kennedy said.
Alana was silent.
In the morning, I followed the smell of breakfast (mixed with last night’s spaghetti sauce) to the kitchen. Claire hummed, absorbed in the domestic bliss of her kitchen routine.
The space itself was bare and run-down. On the fridge were loose alphabet magnets and a shopping list we added to when John went on grocery runs. The table and chairs were mismatched, collected from different dumpsters. The roaches that would scamper across the scratched wooden floor was part of the eclectic charm.
I poured myself a glass of water from the tap. “Claire.”
“Are you going to stay here forever?”
She cocked her head, “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Did you ever want to do anything else, be somewhere other than here?”
“You’ve had to imagine somewhere other than here…ambitions, goals, a job,” I said, “maybe a place that’s truly your own.”
The butter knife, in her hand, winked at me. “This place is my own. Becoming your Higher Self isn’t instantaneous. It’s a lifetime worth of work. We’re blessed here under this pocket of sunshine. We have leadership, a family, a home.”
“I didn’t mean to disrespect you,” I said. My cheeks flamed with embarrassment as I attempted to backtrack. “Of course, I love it here. I feel like I belong–I’m happy to finally find a place to fit in. I was just blabbering.” Claire ignored me and focused on slashing the toast diagonally. The knife sighed, grateful to cut something other than the tension. Awkwardly, I sought to find a remedy for the shift in mood. Claire had never directed animosity towards me before. The other girls, yes. Never me. “I figured with the pregnancy and all, you might have a change in mind…the ba–”
“I’m not pregnant.” Claire’s wary expression demanded an explanation. With identical confused expressions, I found myself speechless. “What made you think I was?”
I awkwardly shrugged, sputtering some nonsense under my breath about assumptions. Claire didn’t bother to follow me after I swiftly exited. Despite my inclination to skip breakfast, it was an established ritual like all things. Once, Kennedy made the poor decision of staying in bed. Her cramps, she had said through gritted teeth, were excruciating. It was as if someone reached into her stomach, twisted her organs into a bow, and sealed her back up. We had warned her, but she refused. John had whistled cheerfully that morning when he saw Claire made blueberry pancakes. Then, he noticed the empty chair. I told him, and he stormed into Kennedy’s room, ripping the tattered blankets from her bed. It flailed in the air for a moment before floating dramatically at our feet. With all its holes, the blanket looked more like a slice of swiss cheese. Take away her lunch and dinner for three days, he ordered Claire. She obediently nodded. To us, he said nothing. In that little leeway, we snuck scraps to Kennedy in soggy napkins after our own meals. Claire, I learned, refused to compromise against John’s rules.
I set the table. We listened to swallowtails, grasshoppers, and the sound of cheap utensils clinking. When the rest of our family trickled through the door, Claire scowled at John. Her discontent remained unnoticed until she forcefully stabbed her egg yolk. It bled like sunshine, and she played with it with furrowed brows.
“What’s the matter?” John said.
She shrugged. “I’m not hungry.”
Alana had whispered something in Kennedy’s ear. The former beauty queen giggled. I tensed, catching the corner of Claire’s mouth tighten at this exchange. She slammed her fork down on her plate, creating a brash and unpleasant clattering. “It’s been brought to my attention that one of you is pregnant.”
I put my hand on her shoulder, “Claire, calm down. I don’t think this is appropriate.”
“Yeah, I am.”
We swiveled our head to Alana’s nonchalant statement. Brushing back a strand of her hair, she leaned back in her chair with a poorly suppressed smirk. Downplaying the news only irritated Claire further. She’d rather Alana throw fistfuls of sand in her face than act insouciant.
“Congratulations.” John’s face glowed as he took in the news. He rose, taking Alana’s palms in his. Their foreheads touched, and their eyes held such an intensity that it felt like an intrusion to watch. Claire seethed with envy; her outburst had backfired. Alana’s smile widened. It was bright enough to reflect in the brown of his eyes, melting his dark irises into honey. “This baby will be a prophet,” he said. The words trembled with heavy power–I could feel it in the room and down to the etches of my bones–it was a rattling, divine power.
When I was fifteen, we moved from Florida to Indiana. There was a poorly ventilated, small shack of a house my grandmother passed down to us when she died. Mama didn’t care. She wanted to leave Miami. When we packed the truck, she dragged the rolled-up carpet with us. Biting my lip, I pleaded with her to leave it. It was in the past. How would we start anew if we went around carrying old baggage? She had slapped me across the cheek, leaving a stinging mark. “I hope the entirety of your life is going to be as miserable as mine.”
Two years later, we were driving down the road. I had forgotten why, but mama was screaming at me again. I turned my head to the window, counting every street sign we passed. On the thirty-seven street sign, a car slammed into ours. My eardrums popped. For a moment, I wondered if my hearing had been damaged. Mama was completely silent. She was slumped in the driver’s seat, head against a ballooned airbag, blood soaking into the leather seats. There was a loud whirl. A squeak of tires against the road. The other car had bolted in panicked guilt.
I opened the door and walked home.
This was her problem.
I had been home for three hours when I received the phone call. I picked up the landline, chewing a piece of bubblegum. In my time, I had been blowing bubbles in front of the television. “Hello?”
“Is this the Astor residence?”
“I’m calling from East Indiana Hospital to inform you that Calliope Astor is currently in critical condition. We’re afraid she’s going to pass away tonight. The chances of her surviving are extremely slim. She received severe head trau-”
I hung up and went back to watching The Simpsons.
The next day, mama passed away.
I would never know if it was a mere accident or a calculated suicide.
John had demanded a party, and we were happy to comply. The girls and I decorated the trees with discount holiday lights until they glimmered like fireflies in the summer. I had propped up a shaky-legged plastic table, arranging the snacks and alcohol (lemonade for Alana) to accentuate Claire’s special cream cake. It was a vibrant centerpiece with its pastel frosting. Ever since the news broke, she had pushed everyone away but John. In an attempt to ask how she was, Claire rolled past me like a violent wind, her shoulder slamming against mine. Naturally, I was hurt but empathized with her disappointment. We all had expected her to scowl through the entire party, but she had mustered enough enthusiasm to dance. For tonight, the old Claire was back. She moved to the music like a kite, swaying and spinning to the music. Kennedy and I joined her until our cheeks flushed, and we collapsed breathlessly on the air, gasping for air.
We heard Alana belting along to Springsteen: Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull/And cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull. John threw his arm around her in a gentle chokehold. Unfazed, Alana continued singing.
“She seems happy,” I said.
Alana was never happy. We exchanged a look of unspoken doubt until another song started. Claire yelled for us, and we jolted to the music like crazed nymphs. We were possessed by the chorus. Everything I needed–I finally had. In that golden-lit moment, euphoria consumed me. My Higher Self emerged, stitching together the preexisting wounds of my sinewed, broken soul. So rarely had I felt unadulterated happiness, maybe once or twice before. Yet, I felt it now, and I could hardly fathom letting it go.
When the swell of the music died, John cleared his throat, gesturing for us to gather around him in a circle. He fiddled with his necklace, running a finger down the jagged edges in contemplation before declaring, “I’ve always loved each of you in your special way. I’m grateful for your devotion to spiritual development. Most people don’t want to become better–seek the best version of themselves because they’re comfortable in their wreckage. Not you girls. For that, I’m proud of you.” He paused dramatically before continuing, “You might not know that I first hired Alana as farm help when my brother passed away. She was freshly out of prison at nineteen and completely lost. Fast-forward to today, and she’s nearly her Higher Self. There is no better joy than spiritual progress. Fittingly, Alana’s carrying my son. He will be a prophet with the Universe’s blessing coursing through him. Unlike the rest of us, he does not need soul-searching. He will be born into this world as his Higher Self. He’s a celestial being descended to this Earth for a purpose: spread enlightenment to the rest of the world.”
I shivered with anticipation. Kennedy and I exchanged excited glances, thrilled at the momentous occasion. We were lucky enough to be alive at such an epoch. Beaming, we paid our congratulations to Alana, kissing her cheek. Claire’s jaw clenched, but she maintained a respectful demeanor.
“Let’s have cake,” she suggested. When Claire took the knife, she lifted her chin to her blade’s reflection. It was a silent homage. Her lips moved in a silent recitation as she measured out the slices. A slice perfectly between the lavender and pink frosting–for Alana, she said specifically. The rest of the pieces were cut with less care, almost slanted in its laziness. It was an odd contrast, I thought.
“Say, John,” Alana suddenly, “will you switch plates with me? The color lavender makes me nauseous.”
John obliged, seeing nothing wrong with the request. He took a large bite of his new cake, decorating the corner of his mouth in purple frosting. Claire paled. She turned into a statue. Alana winked cleverly.
No one spoke as John two-thirds of the cake disappeared. He was oblivious of Claire’s little party prank. As was Kennedy, who was blissfully absorbed in another world, humming along to Fleetwood Mac. I averted my eyes, unable to verbalize the horror that confronted me. I was on the brink of screaming to him, but I didn’t. The minute the truth slipped from my lips, Claire would be evicted, thrown out to the side of the road like an old gum wrapper. That would be the best of circumstances. The other involved a gruesome death that Claire, as much as I despised her in that moment, did not deserve. Alana side-eyed me, calculating my silence with no alarm. Her Cheshire cat grin widened. Considering I had the power to ruin her, she showed little concern, almost daring me to tell him. She was confident in my cowardice.
“John,” Alana said, “the girls and I will be in the house. We must retrieve a gift for you.”
For the first time, we didn’t wait for a response. I dragged a bewildered Kennedy with me without daring to look back. My heart rattled in my ribcage as I locked the door behind us. The room was spinning. Dim yellow light illuminated our faces, contorting us into demons. Claire paced back and forth like Newton’s cradle in motion, trying to exorcise the guilt out of her. The heaviness of the crime was settling. Even Alana had stopped smirking. Pushing her whole body weight against the door, she gravely squinted out of the peephole.
“We killed him,” Claire said.
“No, you killed him,” Alana corrected. “You are the murderer–the rest of us are innocent.”
I shook my head, “We didn’t stop it.”
“We didn’t know,” Claire said.
“But we did,” I said, wiping my sweaty palms on the gingham print, half expecting a red blood print.
She fumed, “Alana, you don’t even care that John’s dying.”
“I know if that was me out there, you’d be ecstatic,” Alana snorted.
“If you knew, why’d you let it happen?” I said.
Alana pursed her lips, “ My baby is more important than any man. John doesn’t care about this monster he’s trying to raise–not his child. My baby deserves a chance, and I’m going to give it one.”
Kennedy blinked in confusion before processing the pieces. Sudden realization broke upon her face, as she desperately shoved Alana, fighting to open the door. The effort was partly successful until Alana dug her nails into the bump of Kennedy’s shoulder. She threw the girl to the floor like a paper doll. “He will kill all of us if he finds out. We’ll be buried in shallow graves like chickens.”
“I will kill you,” I spat at Claire. “You can’t be happy for anyone, huh? What’s it like living in a perpetual state of jealousy? This is supposed to be our place.” She recoiled, unaccustomed to my viciousness. Never had I shown a sign of contempt towards her. She was pacing in circles trying to find a shred of redemption in this mess.
“I didn’t feed it to him,” she sobbed. “Alana did.”
“Who started this, Claire?”
“Alana, you’re not innocent either. You knew exactly what you were doing,” I said, “how did you even know?”
“I saw her adding some rat poisoning in the frosting…girls, he’s moving,” Alana said, squinting through the peephole. “He’s still alive.”
“Should we call the hospital?” Kennedy said.
We whipped our heads to Alana in simultaneous disbelief. “You shouldn’t. He’s not a good man. Never was, never has been. When John offered me a job when I left prison, he was a lot more upfront then. None of this mysticism crap. He told me that people like us would never find salvation. Instead, we would fill our entire lives with meaningless drugs and people to fill up that gaping space. We’re here to fill up that empty space. That’s all. He didn’t want us to leave, so he made up all those lies about ‘finding ourselves.’ For God’s sake, do you truly believe a man like John found himself?”
Claire stopped pacing. “You barely knew him then. He’s a good person who cares about us. I love him, and you’ve always been–”
“Then go save him.” Alana unlocked the door, inviting the frigid air in. Goosebumps ran down my arm. It had hardly been this chilly twenty minutes ago when we had been serenading the stars. The warmth of the celebration had slipped away, lost like an ancient artifact. “As you do, remember the time he made you sleep outside during winter. When you got a fever, who insisted that you still spend the night outside? Think about the black eye John gave you when you mixed up salt and sugar. Think about the fact that this baby–I didn’t even want this baby, but if I showed one sign that I was nothing short of ecstatic–consider how he would’ve reacted. God, look at what we’re wearing. We don’t get to choose what clothes to wear. Clothes. It’s him exercising his control over us. After all of that, how can you still think he’s a good person?”
“He is,” whispered Claire. She stumbled down the porch steps, gripping onto the railing for some form of stability. Like a lost duckling, Kennedy hesitantly followed Claire out the door.
Alana didn’t bother to stop them. She sighed as if it was what she expected. She was right about most things. Especially John. You could strip the things he did, flay them with an onion peeler, but the intention was never pure. It wasn’t an epiphany. Somewhere inside, I had subconsciously justified his actions for the sake of conformity.
Alana stood in the doorway, watching Claire and Kennedy move to his aid with empty eyes. There was no sadness. No anger. Instead, dull acceptance. I’m purest when I’m unhappy. It’s my natural state of being; bitterness is comfortable when it’s all you’ve known. This is my Higher Self.
I touched her arm, a small gesture of warmth before following the girls down to John.
In my hand, was a small bouquet of daisies that I dropped at mama’s grave. I could hear her shrieking in Hell, furious that she wasn’t buried next to my father. In my head, I did my best to explain to her that I couldn’t bring her cadaver to Florida. She would have to make do in Indiana.
Once, it would’ve been satisfying revenge. It seemed pointless now. What was the point of fighting with someone when they couldn’t argue back?
Mama, I kept the carpet, I wanted to say. It was sitting in the new house with the darkened bloodstain like a wine splotch. During my midnight bathroom trips, it would stare at me. It took me ages, but I finally understood it.
Sometimes, we don’t deserve to forget.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” a man said. He was three graves over, finely dressed in a business suit, biting his lip as if he was genuinely apologetic.
“Thank you,” I said, rubbing away a noticeable brown smear on mama’s headstone with my sleeve. He noticed and kindly offered me a handkerchief from his chest pocket. I protested, refusing to dirty the fabric, but eventually gave in to his insistence. “Why are you here?” I asked.
He shrugged sheepishly, “My little brother. It’s been years, but I miss him.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“My mother. Calliope Astor,” I gestured to the inscription, “car accident five months ago.”
He gently laid the silky handkerchief next to my flowers. The blue fabric was tainted with soil. “For Calliope.”
I shook my head, picking it up to him, “No, you don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said again.
He outstretched his hand, “I’m John.”
“Genesis Astor,” I shook his hand, “it’s nice to meet you.”
“Yes sir, it means ‘in the beginning.’ My mama named me that after my father died. When someone dies, someone else is born. It’s a relentless, apathetic cycle. She found it heartbreaking, I guess.”
John touched my shoulder, holding my gaze with those sterling eyes. I felt butterflies crawl from cocoons, unfurling, and slamming their wings against the walls of my stomach. “Listen, I’m having an intimate party Tuesday night if you’re interested. There’s a couple of girls I’d like you to meet.”
“I’ll briefly stop by,” I said, feeling as if I owed him a favor for his kindness.
That evening, I walked down those rural country roads, overgrown with invasive weeds and emerald trees. There was a chill in the air as if mama’s ghost was beside me. In the distance, I saw a homely little farm with green-yellow grass. It looked warm. Safe.
Yoko Zhu is an aspiring journalist from Atlanta, GA. Her work has appeared in Sunbow Zine, 22 Under 22 by Flexible Press, and JUST POETRY!! Yoko is the author of a children’s book called Matcha the Mooneater. In her free time, she composes short stories and poems.