There was a time that a high of forty in December was something for small talk. You’d walk into work or school and people would smile and say “Nice out, isn’t it?” But now, there was an unease with a winter that was never winter. Teachers filed into school with weak smiles, taking no comfort in the omnipresent warmth. Once in a while someone was dim enough to remark on how they liked the weather. And yet in Upstate New York, two weeks before Christmas break, there had not been even a single snowflake. As the students filed into Wysteria Prep in nothing but their uniform-blazers, girls still in skirts and boys with their sleeves rolled up, the teachers couldn’t even take comfort in chastising them for their weather inappropriate dress. It was as appropriate for December as it was for mid-may.
The children filed in, beautiful young people, fit to be movie stars really. The teachers always talked behind their backs the way teachers do. Not one of these children had ever tasted McDonalds or anything that wasn’t certified organic. That and all the product they used, from proactive to botox, kept them looking flawless. Some had even had their baby fat sucked out. If mom and dad could afford it, right? After all, rich is the new pretty but you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
Classical Literature, a course taught in high school and offered by a local college, began at 8 am. In the front row was a girl who seemed as though she would be beautiful no matter what school she went to, blonde hair and dark eyes, and always a touch of mascara. Lucy was usually quiet in class, until someone said something asinine and then she always had some witty comment. She lived in the house—well, mansion—on the hill so to speak. No one here lived within walking distance from another house, they were all estates that had to be driven onto like resorts. Hers was one of the most expensive, from money to money. Her family pretended it belonged to them, but it probably didn’t. This was America after all and money stays in companies not families.
The day began with Hamlet and ended with Mrs. Mott in study hall. By the end of it, Lucy was tired of her peers, tired of learning, and tired of living. She chalked it up to adolescent dramatics.
It wasn’t until 11pm when Lucy got a craving for Chinese Food on a Friday night, before a weekend of garden parties and Photo Ops. It was a perfectly Lucy thing to do, and she took her mother’s car, not her own, because she knew it could cause a fight.
So there she was, forty five seconds after 11:06, speeding down the road because her house was so damn big. And then it happened, snow. The first snow of the year, soft and pure and so cold you could see the snowflakes like little sequins. Lucy stopped for a moment to look at them, and the moment was all it took. The car came speeding down the road, crashing and going from a beautiful specimen of Italian engineering to a hunk of metal with an almost-dead girl inside it.
Lucy with her untouched beauty, tired heart, and all-too sharp mind was twisted beyond recognition, but she wanted to live. You see, survival isn’t software, it’s hardware. Her heart beat, her body desperately trying to stitch itself together a million miles too slow. Hormones rushed into her blood, adrenaline that did her no good spilled like wine on the pavement and over twisted metal. The Paramedics arrived in minutes but it might as well have been hours.
She was rushed to the hospital, it was nearly midnight now, because you see…that heart was pumping, and a pumping heart means life, no matter what quality, and life means hospital. They put her on a slab and they consulted the head ER surgeon, Dr. Eden. She did what she always does, went to see the patient with her favorite nurse at her side.
“We came too late.” The doctor said to the nurse.
“I saw it,” The nurse replied, her long black hair coiled up like a braided crown. “She is ours.”
“Well did you ever see her…” The doctor trailed off because they both knew how that sentence ended.
“No…not…per say…but perhaps it’s something you do, something you pull out of your grimoire.” The nurse suggested.
“We’ve been over this…there’s only one way to stop it…she dies tonight unless we take…but you see we don’t even know her and if we do this, we’ll be responsible for her!”
“It’s worth the risk,” The nurse insisted, “She is worth the risk.”
“Alright.” The doctor said, taking a deep breath. “We take the risk.”
The nurse smiled, baring her sharp teeth, “Excellent.”
When Lucy awoke, she was untouched. There were no injuries, not even whiplash. She found herself disappointed. After all, if the damage to her did not match the damage to the car, she’d get more than a fight at home. Still there was something off about the world, as though someone had moved everything over an inch and she was still adjusting.
A nurse entered the room, she was tall and thin, with long black braids that fell past her hips. She didn’t look real, more like someone you’d see on TV or in an ad. But there she was, standing in front of Lucy like a picture. “Hello, Lucy, right?”
Lucy wet her lips, suddenly feeling under dressed. She’d never had this sort of reaction to meeting someone before. The nurse sat on the bed, “I’m Melisande.”
“Melisande.” Lucy repeated, feeling like Tarzan talking to Jane.
“Yes, and something very special has happened tonight.” Melisande smiled, “You see, things have changed for you tonight.”
“Uh huh,” Lucy nodded, then the meaning of her words hit her. “Wait, what?”
“Look at your clothes, Lucy.” Melisande said, gesturing to Lucy’s attire. She looked down. Her jeans and shirt were shredded and stiff with something dark and red she suspected was blood.
“What…what happened?” She demanded.
“That’s not all,” Melisande said coolly, “There’s something wrong isn’t there?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy frowned, still examining her clothes. “Is this some sort of joke? It’s…well it’s cruel.”
“There’s no joke,” Melisande continued, “What’s missing, Lucy?”
“I don’t understand, how could my clothes…but I don’t have any cuts or anything.” She looked down into the ripped fabric. Seeing her own white breasts behind a slightly disfigured black bra.
“I’ve brought you some new clothes.” Melisande placed a neat pile of clothes on the bed before standing up, “I’ll leave you to change.”
“Um…did someone call my parents?” Lucy looked up, forgetting her clothes for a moment. It didn’t occur to her that it was odd for a nurse to take such an interest in a patient. This nurse was oddly trustworthy, and Lucy could already see herself following the woman into battle.
“Yes, I believe they’ve both come to collect you.” The nurse smiled and stood up. “I’ll go let them know you’re awake.”
“Oh, okay.” Lucy nodded as dread pooled in her stomach. She took a few deep breaths. It would be better to get it over with, right? Like ripping off a bandaid. Except that she knew it would never end, she’d never be forgiven. The nurse was already gone by the time she collected herself. She decided it would be better to hide her ruined clothes and changed into the ones the nurse had left on her bed.
Her parents took their time coming in, looking perfectly suitable when they entered the room, and then twisting grotesquely the moment the door shut behind them. Her father was clearly enraged. “What the hell happened?” He demanded.
“I…I was driving and I just…” Lucy tried to remember the crash.
“You had to take your mother’s car!” He shouted, “You selfish...do you know how much that car costs!” Considering that it wasn’t even the latest model in their garage Lucy could guess that it whatever the cost it wasn’t going to break the bank. She clenched her jaw and let him continue. “Do you at least know why you crashed?!”
“I…I just went a little too fast in the snow I guess,” She couldn’t admit that she had been undone by something as small as a snow flake.
“You guess, you guess!” He shouted. Lucy hoped that the hospital had some sort of sound proofing. Everyone would be able to hear them.
“It was an accident…I didn’t mean to crash.” She said, trying to ameliorate him.
“Oh! Well, if it was an accident then,” Her father threw his hands in the air, “You have got to learn from your mistakes otherwise you will make them over and over again!”
“James,” Her mother said, crossing her arms, “Everyone can hear you.”
“You shut up!” He turned to his wife, “Why wasn’t your car locked? Why did you let this idiot have your keys?”
“I always lock my car,” Lucy’s mother protested, “She must have taken the keys from my room!”
“Oh yeah, you’re perfect!” He continued to shout, voice breaking with anger, “You never do anything wrong! Both of you!”
“Can we go?” Lucy looked down at her hands, her hair falling over her face and hiding the tears that were threatening to overtake her.
“You don’t talk to me like that!” Her father turned back to her, “You piece of shit! What do we keep you for? Really? What are you useful for other than costing me money?!” He waited, and got no response. “Answer me!”
“I just want to go home.” She said finally, tears flowing freely now. Anger threatened to poison her. After all, she may have gotten into an accident, but he wouldn’t even listen to her.
“Well you can say good bye to your driving privileges!” He shouted. “Your mother can drive you to school and pick you up! If you want to hang out with your friends you have to get a ride from them!” Lucy didn’t ever use her car to hang out with friends, so she didn’t see a problem with that punishment so much. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, can we go home now?” She asked, desperate to just leave this public area.
“Fine! Let’s go home!” He turned around and walked out of the room. Lucy dried her tears, trying to compose herself. Her mother didn’t even turn around to check if she was following. She hurried after them, to the car they’d taken in the parking garage. For a long time there was silence. Lucy realized she was starving, but dared not ask for anything right now. Still, it was as though her father could hear her thoughts. “I mean, really, what are you useful for?” He demanded, “Why should we bring you to Hawaii? You clearly don’t deserve to come!”
Lucy wasn’t really looking forward to any trip that require her to be in close quarters with anyone in her family, “I’ll stay if you want me to.”
“Oh, of course,” Her father continued, “So you can burn down the house and destroy everything!”
“It’s not like I’d be alone…” Lucy referred to the staff.
“So we’re going to pay for a full staff for just you?” They were going to pay for it anyway. “Because the princess can’t keep her room clean or cook her own food?”
“You don’t have to keep the staff just for me,” She suggested.
“Yeah, and then you’ll just burn down the house,” Her father rolled his eyes, “You can’t do anything!”
This litany continued all the way home. Her father moved on to her lack of motivation in school, her inability to keep organized, and the fact that she offered nothing to the family. She wasn’t sure how to correct herself, with a 4.0 average, a full cleaning staff, and the fact that she was only seventeen years old. But what was the point in fighting him?
When she got home she went to her room and let her emotions flow out of her in the form of tears and sobs. Not for the first time, Lucy envisioned dying. How would her parents feel when they found her? How hurt would they be? How destroyed, when they saw their daughter laying in a pool of her own blood? Would they understand then? Would they feel guilty?
Lucy shed her borrowed clothes and took a box cutter out from under her bed. The blade had a familiar feeling and she looked down at her thigh. It was the only place she could reasonably cut as everything else was too exposed. She still told herself that this was just a last resort, just a way to take the immediate anxiety away. She wasn’t like those pathetic children that cut themselves just to feel better. She was numbing the mental pain with physical pain. It was real, scientific even. And if one of her parents found out…well then…wouldn’t they see what they’d done?
But as she looked at her thigh, she frowned. The previous cuts were gone, even the little scars that had roped along her leg were gone. She took the blade to her skin and pressed it in but felt nothing. Once again she remembered how off the world felt, like this was some sort of dream. Maybe she was just too tired, maybe she should just go to sleep. She crawled into bed, not wanting to get dressed.
The wrongness was even stronger in the dark. She took long, deep breaths and tried to lose herself. She could sleep off anything, any pain, any sadness, even if she had bad dreams. Still, she had to fall into it first, and it was becoming more and more difficult to drift off. Even counting her breaths like sheep wasn’t working, and she kept having the deep urge to check her phone for the time. It was impossible to tell when she actually fell asleep, but it came later than she would have liked.
All was not well when Lucy awoke, although a note on her bedside table told her that her Parents would be attending functions without her today, so she could at least be free of them. She felt a hunger so strong it made her knees weak as she stretched and got out of bed. It wasn’t even 10 o’clock, meaning she hadn’t even slept a full seven hours. Something suggested she’d been awoken by this hunger, unlike anything she’d ever felt.
She went downstairs and found a lukewarm breakfast already waiting for her in the dining room. Normally, Lucy would have gone straight for the waffles but the sight of bacon and sausage made her mouth water. She ate so quickly, the maid on duty for the day walked out of the room in embarrassment. Still, Lucy’s hunger was not sated. And she craved meat, Canadian bacon and ham and sausage and hamburgers and steak and…she’d never felt so carnivorous in her entire life.
Well what was the point of being rich if you were always hungry? It was all protein right? She ordered all her cravings from local restaurants, much to the insult of the home’s personal chef, who was typically quite annoyed with Lucy’s penchant for fast food. Before she knew it, she had an array to choose from, like a soiree of dead domesticated animals. She slowly consumed everything in front of her, from ribs to wings to fried chicken. And yet still there was a dull ache in the pit of her stomach. Everything still felt…wrong. She hadn’t yet adjusted to the wrongness of the world after her accident. Lucy wondered if this was PTSD or some sort of anxiety disorder. But then…that didn’t feel right either.
She climbed into bed again, trying to think of something to do to get her mind off the…well offness of everything. She started with her homework, something she usually avoided until the last minute. In this situation, however, she felt it required just enough mental faculties to keep her completely occupied. She opened her laptop and began reading through the assignments. No one assigned paper homework anymore, and for that she was grateful.
She began with math, her worst enemy. She lost herself in statistics long enough to develop a throbbing headache, only adding to her physical discomfort. Of course, completion of an assignment warranted a snack break, and she was more than ready to eat something again, still craving meat. This time she let her personal chef grill up a steak, and as usual he made it very rare. The red meat seemed to satisfy her more than ever and she was tempted to lick the juices off the plate. The side of French fries and steamed vegetables were left untouched, as she just couldn’t bring herself to put the things in her mouth. They smelled oddly green, and she wondered if something might be wrong with them.
Going back to complete the rest of her assignments, Lucy soon found herself distracted with googling her symptoms. She decided the “offness” was just some sort of odd anxiety, and added that to hunger and lack of sleep. She only found information on anxiety disorders. Somehow that didn’t seem quite right, but she figured that if she did have an anxiety disorder that might be exactly what she’d think. But honestly what did she have to complain about? How could she be anxious? She couldn’t count her blessings with all the stars in the sky. Lucy decided to push all thoughts of mental illness away and return to her homework.
It was still difficult to concentrate, especially with the hunger only growing. Her parents came home in the late afternoon but went to their rooms respectively. Lucy called for another steak for dinner and ignored the looks from the maid as she brought it up. The nearly raw meat was intensely satisfying, and the hunger, if not destroyed, was dulled. She decided to go to bed early, rather than see her parents again, and fell into another fitful sleep.
She couldn’t be excused from her family’s social life for a second time, and would have to attend the parties on Sunday. She was awakened by the maid who had already laid out a red party dress for the company’s holiday party. Lucy would be shown around like a prize trophy, the heir to the throne, the princess of finance. Her father was merely the majority holder of the stock, not the man who ran the company. It was one of several that her family had acquired seemingly through no Merritt of their own. They didn’t run companies, they just paid CEOs to take care of it for them.
She lazily dressed, knowing her mother would find fault with any outfit she chose anyway. The red dress made her look paler than ever and her legs were only covered by a thin veil of black nylon, meaning she’d be freezing if they took a step outside. Even her shoes were veritable death traps in red, and she was tempted to find flats. She decided that a broken neck and possible paralysis was preferable to the fights that would ensue if she didn’t do as she was told.
Lucy put on some make up, golden eyeshadow, black mascara, red lipstick. She felt pretty confident in her holiday look, but knew that, as she had chosen it, it would be all wrong. Sure enough when she joined her family…
“You look like a whore.” Her father said, taking one look at her. “Now we’re going to be late because you can’t even do your own make up!”
Her mother rolled her eyes and came over, smearing make remover over her face with little or no warning. Lucy sat still as she was handed the products she was expected to use, all nudes as “whore” was apparently the look she’d been going for earlier.
She tried not to cry as her father tapped his foot and complained that they were going to be late. Her mother whispered harshly in her ear, “Didn’t I tell you to go light on the make up? Look at what you’ve done! Now he’s angry!”
Lucy tried to remind herself that it was just make up, and that it wasn’t a big deal. There was no reason to get upset. If only such reminders ever worked. She climbed into the very back seat of the car. Most of the families she knew had drivers. Not her father, he liked to drive himself. Lucy cried silently in the back seat as he began to talk about how she’d destroyed the car again. By now she was an expert at catching the tears without letting them melt her make up.
She stayed behind a moment in the car, checking one last time in her compact to make sure her make up was okay. It felt unfair to her that her father could be so cruel and rude to her and then she would be expected to act like a perfect child at a party. The holidays were especially difficult with so many corporate parties to appear at. This was some sort of tech company and almost everyone was under thirty despite the fact that they were millionaires. Lucy stepped into the room, looking like a Disney Channel star and felt for once that she wasn’t the only person in her age group. Everyone was wearing kitchy Christmas-gear—ugly sweaters, antlers, santa hats. No one had on nice clothes except for a few girls who also wore dramatic holiday make up. One girl had gone so far as to paint a glittering line of Christmas lights on the wings of her eyeliner.
She wandered away from her parents almost immediately, a dull ache in her stomach telling her that she needed food again. It was a breakfast buffet due to the early hour. Everything was ridiculously Christmas with reindeer pancakes and Santa-shaped muffins. Lucy skipped them all and loaded her plate with sausages and eggs. She wandered off to one of the open desks to eat, trying to avoid stuffing her face as she began to eat as though she’d never tasted food.
The rest of the day continued as such, with three more parties to go to where she was paraded around like the Prince in Cinderella who needed to find a bride. She saw a few of her schoolmates at some of the parties, but said nothing to them, not wanting to expend the effort. Lucy for the most part remained separated from her parents, unable to perpetuate the lie of their happy family.
At each party she grew gradually hungrier, and the meat seemed far more appealing than anything else. She even went so far as to pluck the chicken out of her soup at lunch and have two steaks at dinner. Her mother was eyeing her both times but the gnawing hunger in her gut demanded satisfaction. At the same time the meat seemed tasteless. She wondered if the companies had decided to go cheaper on the food until she saw one of the caterer’s logos representing a four star restaurant. It wasn’t until she tasted her second bloody steak that she savored the flavor, a sort of musky metallic taste she had never noticed before.
The last event was a cocktail party. She was only allowed to go because her parents didn’t feel like sending her home. It was some sort of tech company that had just launched a new line of fitness trackers. Each guest had a little bag with one in them. Unlike the other parties that had taken place in office buildings, this one was in someone’s house, and clearly just for adults. It had none of the dignified small talk and all of the shameful dallying. She was pretty sure she recognized a local politician from the news about his sex scandal. Oh well, that’s what smart phones were for.
She found an empty room, an empty bathroom to be precise, and locked herself in. There was one more downstairs so hopefully the guests wouldn’t be stuck. Lucy yawned and investigated her party-bag to pass the time. She was used to only a few hours of sleep, as most teenagers are, but she was beginning to feel the hours drain her. For the first time she wondered if the car accident had had a deeper effect on her than she’d thought.
There’s something wrong isn’t there? That’s what the Nurse had said, Melisande. Lucy held the picture of the woman in her mind, tall, thin, with long black braids like ebony ropes.
Lucy put the fitness tracker on her wrist. It was stylish, looking more like a watch than a tracker, and began taking some basic measurements. For the pedometer, of course, it wanted to measure her stride, so she humored the little thing and walked ten paces across the bathroom. Then it tried to measure her pulse, but after four tries, the little monitor line remained flat resulting in an error message.
At first Lucy was disappointed, surely the device was simply broken. A morbid part of her thought well maybe I’m dead then. And that’s when she remembered the car accident. The bloody clothes, her sudden appetite, and the offness.
What is missing, Lucy?
She pressed her fingers to her neck. Nothing. She tried her wrist. Nothing. She tried the other pulse points, under her breast, against her groin. She looked at herself in the mirror and it became far too clear what exactly was missing.
Her pulse had disappeared.