Dead in Its Grave
Fleur got up from her seat on the bleachers as the metallic echo of her name rang out over the football field. She hated the feeling of everyone’s attention on her while she walked over to the podium, shuffling her feet to avoid tripping on her obnoxiously blue graduation gown.
She took the diploma from the principal and shook his offered hand, trying not to grimace at the sweaty grip. It was a brutal afternoon, already past 100 degrees, and there was nothing to shade them.
The audience bleachers were just as exposed to the merciless sun, and when Fleur sat back down, she noticed sweat glistening on all those distant faces. The principal continued calling names, voice soon turning into a drone that was easy to ignore, and Fleur scanned over the spectators in boredom until she found her family.
Her mom cried into a fistful of tissues. Her dad kept checking his watch. Alice wore that one pleasant expression she always used to hide her true feelings, and Alice’s husband looked like he wanted to die.
Fleur couldn’t blame him, and the first thing she did after the ceremony was finally—finally—over was to rip off her cap and get off the bleachers as quickly as possible. She wanted shade. She wanted water. She wanted to be away from all these stupid people.
As soon as she made it off the field, her mother swept her up into a hug. “Honey, we’re so proud of you! Put your cap back on so we can take photos.”
“I don’t want any.” Then Fleur began pulling off her gown.
“Just a few. It’s your highschool graduation. Even if you don’t want to take them now, in a few years you’ll wish you had.” Her mom must have noticed the lack of change in her expression, because she quickly added, “If not with us, then how about with friends?”
“Mom, I have no friends. Can we go?”
Her father spoke up while checking the time again. “Denise, the ceremony went over. We need to go if we want to make that dinner reservation.”
“I know, but she needs to take at least one.”
Fleur scratched at the back of her neck where her hair stuck to her sweaty skin, her irritation growing while her mother glanced around. She hadn’t exaggerated about not having friends. It had been that way for over five years, and that was just fine by her. In another few seconds, her father would grow too impatient at the idea of missing an appointment, even a small one like going out to a restaurant, and urge her mother along. If she just held her tongue and waited, there wouldn’t be yet another family argument.
She was a little surprised that Alice hadn’t said anything. Her sister always acted as the peacemaker at times like this. When she glanced over, she found Alice talking quietly with Colton while wiping sweat from the back of her neck. He was the only one in their group who looked unaffected by the heat, not even wearing sunglasses.
Just then, her mother exclaimed and turned back to her. “Look, there’s Hayley. Why not take one with her?”
Fleur felt her hand freeze mid-scratch. She didn’t want to turn and follow her mother’s gaze. She didn’t want to see Hayley or her fake smile. “No,” she said, unable to keep the anger out of her voice.
“Fleur.” Her mother’s tone also changed. “You were best friends for years. I know you went your different ways, but is a photo really too much?”
Now her cheeks felt hot, and she knew it wasn’t from sunburn. “Yeah, because I don’t want to do it.”
Before the lecture could begin, Alice spoke. “We’re all tired from the heat. Maybe we should wait to take pictures until we’ve cooled down again.”
“And after eating,” said her father, checking his watch again. When her mother gave him a frustrated glance, he added, “Everyone and their extended family will go out to dinner to celebrate, just like us. If we miss this reservation, we won’t get a table at any place tonight.”
“All right. Just one with all of us then. It’ll take only seconds.”
“Not with this family,” muttered her father, who had a similar aversion to the camera as Fleur.
“Tom…” said her mother, in a voice that all but ordered, Back me up on this.
Then Colton spoke for the first time since he and Alice had arrived, drawing everyone’s attention. “She’s hot and needs water. We’ll be in the truck.”
Fleur wasn’t surprised he wanted to leave; he was the only person she knew who hated social events more than she did. But when she glanced at Alice again, she noticed her sister really did look pale behind her sunglasses, her pleasant expression clearly strained. Colton watched her carefully while leading her away, his hand light against the small of her back.
That left just the three of them. When her mother sighed, Fleur understood it as a sign of defeat. On the way to their own car, she snuck a grateful look toward her sister for taking her side. Alice already seemed recovered enough to smile back, but any chance to talk about it with her didn’t materialize until the next day.
It was the same as usual. Every Saturday, Fleur worked at a dog rescue place located halfway between home and her sister’s house. A few times a month, Alice would pick her up and she’d stay for dinner. Fleur’s mom called it “bonding time.”
Fleur called it “being left the hell alone.”
Alice never pried into her life and never started up conversations for the sake of filling dead air. She never even asked Fleur how she was doing. Instead, she offered the two rarest things possible: the chance for Fleur to be silent and left to her own devices, and the ability to talk without it being turned against her under the guise of “fixing” her life.
And the food was always great. Today it was Fleur’s favorite type of cookie—shortbread dipped in chocolate. She worked through a stack of them while watching Alice roll out pasta dough by hand. “It looks easier to buy the dried stuff in the box.”
“It is, but I don’t mind. I like cooking.”
The caustic comment on the tip of her tongue faded to nothing. It was instinct at this point, a way to get people to stop talking to her, but she felt like an asshole whenever she used one on her sister. It was just different, like it might really hurt her.
Instead, Fleur shoved the rest of the cookie into her mouth and sighed. “Mom’s still mad at me for yesterday. She keeps saying I’ll regret not having photos of my personal milestones. That I should be proud of these moments. The same shit she told me back on my eighteenth birthday. When I tell her I don’t care, she thinks it’s because I have low self-esteem. When I tell her I want to be alone, she thinks I’m hiding something from her and Dad. It’s like her brain takes what I say and translates it into an item on her checklist of every teenage problem she’s ever heard about.”
Her sister glanced up while spreading more flour over the counter in a simple acknowledgement that she was listening. It was more reassuring than any pat platitude, but Fleur’s fingers still tapped against her mug of coffee. There was a trapped feeling in her chest that had existed for years. It was like a hydra, with its many heads branching out as specific fears, anger, and confusion. Whenever all of them tangled together, she felt like her heart was about to explode.
She spat out the next words just to get their taste out of her mouth. “If she can’t hear me when I say I just want to play video games for awhile, then why should I tell her about something that actually hurts?”
“Like Hayley?” said Alice, her voice quiet.
“Yeah.” Her sister was the only one who knew a little bit about what had happened. “Thanks for helping me out yesterday. Are you okay? You really did look sick.”
“I’m fine. I just felt dizzy from the heat.”
Her sister sounded sincere, and Fleur believed she was, but she also knew there could be a lot more to it that Alice wouldn’t bring up unless directly asked. The dizziness might have had something to do with how she was in touch with things most people never realized existed. An entire supernatural world hid in the shadows of what Fleur thought of as reality, and Alice was part of it.
Fleur had glimpsed its danger one night and sure as hell didn’t want a second peek. Instead, the memories were buried in the back of her mind like everything else that had fucked up her life. She wasn’t sure what it said about her that, as terrifying as her experience had been, it was by far the easiest one to ignore. Maybe because everything she had known, believed, and trusted had already been shattered. Things were a lot easier to face when the heart already knew how badly it could be fucked over.
Suddenly uncomfortable, she moved away from the counter and wandered through the small living room. It was rustic in the truest sense, with little more than a fireplace, a couch with a lot of quilts and blankets, and a few shelves full of books. There was no sign of a TV or computer, and the wooden furniture had the rugged beauty of handmade work.
There was a record player and a milk crate full of albums. She flipped through them idly, finding a lot of 70s and 80s metal. The kind of bands that someone’s biker grandpa would still listen to. She had thought they belonged to Colton until a few months ago, when Alice mentioned that Love it to Death was the first record she’d ever bought.
Fleur glanced over at her sister again, looking like a perfect modern housewife with her pulled-back hair and neat apron. Like she should have been in a gleaming steel kitchen in a house somewhere in suburbia. Flour dusted her hands and arms while she cut the dough into sections with easy, practiced movements, but even so, it didn’t make her look messy. Instead, she seemed in her element with her crate full of outdated music and her tiny house and her homemade pasta.
She looked so calm, so at peace with herself, that Fleur found herself asking, “Alice? How did you… know what would make you happy?”
Her sister looked up, alert to the change in her voice. “I didn’t. And I made a lot of mistakes finding out.”
When Fleur grimaced, her sister wiped the flour from her hands and came over. “What’s really biting at you?”
Looking down at her sister still felt so odd, even though it was something Fleur had done since her final growth spurt at fourteen. “It’s nothing. I’m just tired of fighting over everything with Mom. That cruise can’t come fast enough.”
It was mainly why she had quit her job at the dog sanctuary instead of working through the summer. Her parents were taking an around-the-world cruise for their 20th anniversary, leaving her to three months of being by herself before college and its dorm life started.
Three months of eating whatever she wanted, sleeping in as long as she wanted, and not having to talk to anyone. She still couldn’t believe it was happening. It seemed too good to be true.
The thought was enough to keep her mood from flatlining at the sound of her mom’s car pulling into the gravel driveway. By that time, she had helped Alice collect the pasta from the drying rack, grated the cheese for the sauce, and chopped up the guanciale. Now she was back by the record player, which was also the furthest spot from the door.
“It’s me, girls! How’s everything going? It smells amazing in here.”
Fleur muttered something noncommittal while reading the back of an album cover, not looking up when she heard her mother sigh at finding her in the living room instead of with Alice in the kitchen.
“How about I help you with the salad, sweetheart? Fleur, do you want to help?”
“No,” said Fleur, because she knew it would be an opening into more comments and suggestions she didn’t want to hear.
Before her mother could say anything, another vehicle pulled into the driveway. Fleur didn’t look up for it either, but from the rumble of the diesel engine, she knew it had to be Colton. She didn’t mind Alice’s husband so much, not compared to most people. He never tried talking to her, and she reciprocated that… for the most part. Sometimes it was hard not to give him shit just to see what would get him to actually respond.
Despite her disinterest, she couldn’t help watching when he walked past the living room and into the kitchen. Alice’s face lit up at the mere sight of him, and she stopped adding a final sprinkle of cheese on the pasta to briefly kiss him.
Then there was a strange pain behind Fleur’s ribs. She knew one of the consequences of hating people and staying away from them meant being alone for everything. It was fine most of the time, but there were moments like now, where she would catch someone coming alive just because the right person walked into the room, and feel a stinging in response.
The meal was great. Fleur never got to eat so much eggs, meat, and cheese in one sitting at home. She had three helpings, ignoring the salad.
“Sweetheart, push your hair back from your face. It’ll get in your food.”
Fleur muttered something wordless and kept eating. She kept her gaze on her plate, constantly shoving the strands of pasta in her mouth to give herself a reason not to join in on the conversation, one-sided as it was. She remained aware enough of the others to realize Alice hadn’t spoken up either, and for her fork to freeze in shock when Colton asked a question.
“When’s the cruise?”
Fleur almost laughed at how reluctant the words sounded, but her mother didn’t even notice, her voice instead brightening. “Four days. I think we’ll be ready by then. Well, we’ll have to be, won’t we? Tom and I both had the last of our inoculations yesterday, and the new luggage set arrived this morning.”
As her mother rambled on, Fleur glanced up at Colton, still in disbelief that he had said anything. She saw immediately that his attention was on Alice, not her mother. Her sister stared at her plate of untouched food, looking sick but managing a stiff smile.
Fleur thought about saying something to her but then resisted. If Colton was talking, then he was obviously covering for her. Alice probably didn’t want anyone to know she wasn’t feeling well. Fleur could sympathize, and didn’t look up again when Colton continued to keep her mom’s attention diverted.
Instead, she kept eating and didn’t speak until dinner was over and they were in the car and leaving, Alice and Colton mere silhouettes in the doorway of their house.
“Well,” her mother said. “That was a nice time, wasn’t it?”
“How did your last day at the sanctuary go?”
“Fine.” Maybe it was all the carbs that affected her usual standard of replying with as few words as possible, but she found herself admitting, “I’ll miss the dogs.”
“Missy would love to keep you on. I’ve been talking with her about it. There’s no reason to quit your job so soon. It’s still months until you can move into the dorms.”
When Fleur shrugged, already regretting mentioning anything, her mother sighed and added, “I’m worried that you’ll spend this entire summer pulling away from everything. Without your job and school, there won’t be anything to keep you to a steady routine. Especially since your father and I will be away on the cruise.”
“It’ll be fine. I want a break before the next eight years.” She knew getting into the veterinary program would be a rough battle; it was world-renowned and not many students were accepted. But she also knew she could grind harder and better than all the others to reach her goal. And also unlike the others, she didn’t have a life to get in the way.
“Sweetie, it’s not like college is prison. You’ll have plenty of chances to have fun. If anything, most parents worry about their kids having too much fun. I just don’t want you continuing a bad pattern.”
“Bad pattern?” repeated Fleur, genuinely baffled. “A pattern of what?”
“Withdrawing from people and things you used to love.”
Fleur glanced at the nearest highway sign and realized there was still half an hour of sitting through this. “Are you still mad about Hayley?”
“I’m not mad. I’m concerned. And yes, Hayley is one example. There’s also quitting your job at the rescue place, barely talking during family get-togethers, never going out if you can help it…” Her mother’s fingers lifted from the steering wheel to tick off each point. “I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this even goes back to when you stopped caring about horses.”
Fleur drew in a deep breath, feeling her pulse start to pound in her head. “The psychiatrist said that was from the trauma of being kicked off and lost in the forest for a night.”
“She also said that behavioral therapy can help you overcome that, but you didn’t want to do it.”
The urge to scream felt like a lightning bolt of heat in her throat. Anger never won an argument, but sometimes she wanted to yell to get the words to just stop. What good was therapy if she couldn’t be honest about that night? Or why she still avoided horses?
Sure, Doctor, I have a problem. I got put into a cage by bloodsoaked witches, real witches, and saw them torturing some of the other people they kidnapped. They were going to kill me. They were going to eat me. I only escaped because my sister turned into a wolf and tracked down my scent. Yes, werewolves exist, too.
And even when I thought it was all over, I was wrong. That night changed me somehow, and even though I can’t tell how, horses can. They’re terrified of me in the same way they were terrified of the witches… dogs still tolerate me, but only cats really like me now. Aren’t those the classic familiar for a witch?
If she told the truth, she’d be put on so many pills that she’d be unable to remember her own name. As far as she was concerned, the truth would never come out. It was dead in its grave, and so was her dream of working with horses. It took everything she had to keep the venom out of her next words. “I can deal with it, Mom. Why can’t you?”