A Midnight for Dying
The driver glanced in the rearview mirror at the woman in the backseat of his cab. Mascara was running down her cheeks, hair tangled from the
rain. She smelled of wet wool and vodka and was slurring her way through a story.
"And when I came home everything was gone. Television - coffee table - even my electric toothbrush. Gone! I mean, who breaks in and steals your damn toothbrush? I called the police. They came out to the house. It was this whole scene."
The woman grew quiet for a moment, wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "And that's when they found the note."
The night rain started beating down harder on the taxi cab. The driver cranked up the windshield wipers. They thumped and squeaked loud against the glass as the cab made a turn. Stacie, the drunk woman in the backseat, held on to the door handle to keep from falling over. "Shoulda seen the look on the policeman's face who found the note - when he had to tell me I hadn't been robbed - but that my husband left me."
The cab driver nodded sympathetically and Stacie started to cry again.
See. This cab driver understands me - he's a good listener. Paul never listened.
Stacie leaned forward to read the driver's name off the identification tag mounted on the back of the seat. "Awudu. Am I saying that right? Awudu?"
The driver nodded and Stacie continued, "So Paul's been gone a few months. I won't lie, Awudu, it sucks. I've never been alone - not in my entire life. Always had a boyfriend in high school and college - always been with somebody. And living in an empty house without Paul, I just can't get used to it. But guess what? He calls this morning - says he wants to meet me tonight for drinks. And I'm thinking, okay, this is it. Tonight's when he's finally gonna say he's sorry - that he needs me back - wants to come home. "
Stacie kept rambling, barely taking a breath. "I was freaking out all day about what to wear. Tried on a hundred outfits. Finally went with these jeans - Paul always used to say they made my butt look good. So, I get to the bar first. I'm all nervous - want this to go right - it's gotta go right. I have a couple of drinks to try to chill out. And then Paul walks in, still in his suit from work. And he looks so hot I wanna jump him right there. We start drinking and laughing just like we used to and it feels like 'us' again. When it's time to go - we're out in the parking lot - I can't help myself. I kiss him and it's so nice and good and before I know it I'm in the backseat of his car with my jeans around my ankles and we're going at it - I mean really going at it. Right after Paul's, you know, finished - that's when he breaks the news. He's been seeing someone else for the past year - wants to marry her."
It was just the sound of the windshield wipers thumping against the glass for several long moments. And then Stacie erupted, "I wanna understand men, Awudu! I wanna know what they want - tell me what you fucking want!"
Awudu jumped, startled by the outburst.
"No - don't answer that." Stacie's sobs dissolved into laughter and Awudu knew instinctively to stop nodding. Stacie kept laughing, trying to make sense of how her life had completely fallen apart mere days before her thirtieth birthday.
The cab cruised down the rainy streets of a pleasant little neighborhood. Awudu glanced at the clock on the dash. 11:37 p.m. This would be his last fare for the night.
Awudu was relieved to finally pull up to his passenger's house. Relieved too that he was paid forty dollars when the fare was only seventeen. But most of all, he was relieved that he didn't speak English and hadn't understood a single word that the crazy American lady had just said.
Fighting the effects of six lemon drop martinis and five-inch heels, Stacie weaved across her muddy front yard. She opened her purse, searching around for her keys, only to remember she'd lost them earlier that night. After Paul broke the news that he was in love with someone else, Stacie went running hysterically from the car and accidentally dropped her purse. The contents of her life scattered all over the wet sidewalk. Lipstick. I.D. Cell phone. Stacie had scrambled to retrieve her things but not before a rushing stream of rain swept up her keys and carried them down a gutter.
Now she stood in her front yard, drenching wet, locked out of her own house. A headache pounded behind Stacie's eyes as the events of the disastrous night started to catch up with her.
My head - it's gonna explode. I've gotta take some Advil. No. Those other pills - the ones I got from the dentist.
A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the gray stones Stacie had used to landscape the garden. She crouched down and tried to pull one loose. The stone was heavy, at least ten pounds. It finally detached from the soil, leaving a deep imprint in the earth as several disturbed nightcrawlers writhed around in the falling rain.
Stacie lugged the stone to the front steps, her eyes fixed on the windowpanes that ran along the door. She lurched forward and slammed the stone against the glass. The window shattered. The stone tumbled into the house and rolled across the beige rug, leaving a trail of mud in its wake. Stacie reached through the broken window and unlocked the door.
The house was dark. Stacie didn't bother with the lights, instead she guided herself toward the kitchen by touch and accidentally bumped into a framed wedding portrait of her and Paul that she still couldn't bear to take down. Smiling couple. Happy day. 'Til death do us part.
Stacie stepped into the kitchen, threw open a cabinet, rummaged around and finally found an orange pharmacy vial of Vicodin. She'd gotten these pills last year after gum surgery and there was still half of a bottle left. A few of these babies would make everything better.
Stacie popped two of the pills in her mouth, washing them down with a sip of water straight from the tap. She closed her eyes, waiting for the pills to kick in, but snippets of the evening invaded her mind; Paul's mouth on hers - clothes slipping off - bare flesh on the cold leather car seat - Paul's voice whispering, "I thought you knew this was goodbye" - high heels running through the rain - a purse falling to the ground -
Stacie's eyes snapped open, trying to push away the images. She glanced over to see the vial of pills sitting there on the counter and now couldn't remember if she'd taken any. She shook a few into her hand and swallowed them dry.
He can love me again - j ust have to give him space. What'd he always used to say - that I drowned him in my sea of need. Gotta change that - gotta be less needy.
A hopeful idea popped into Stacie's head. She would text Paul and beg him for a do-over of the whole night. The two of them should have a real talk. They'd go into couples therapy. All of this could be worked out if only they tried harder.
Stacie pulled out her cell and started typing this exact sentiment to Paul, but her fingers weren't cooperating with her thoughts. The words on the screen were coming out all wrong. She slammed the useless phone against the counter and grasped her pounding head.
Where are those damn pills? I keep forgetting to take them.
Stacie grabbed the vial. Tried to shake out a few, but to her shock, there was nothing left. She stared blankly into the empty container.
This was half full. How many did I take - all of them? Jesus H. - have I been popping all these pills and not even remembering?!
Everything was starting to feel fuzzy and jumbled. Stacie could barely recall how she got into the kitchen or why she was soaking wet. She just wanted to lie down and close her eyes.
Stacie stumbled through the shadows toward the living room sofa. She heard a crunching sound and looked down, confused as to why she was stepping through broken glass.
What the hell happened here?
Stacie noticed that the world had become very quiet. The storm outside was distant and muffled, as if a giant blanket had fallen from the sky and was draped over the house. In the silence, Stacie could now hear the blood flowing through her heart... and it was slowing down. Panic gripped her entire body as she reached her hand to her chest but couldn't find her own heartbeat.
Oh God. The pills - took too many - drank too much. They're gonna find me. Dead! Paul will think I offed myself because of him. No - I can't die! Not tonight.
Stacie had to go get help. Now. She saw the shining porch light of the rental house across the street. A woman had moved in a few weeks ago with her two daughters. Stacie had only met the family once when she welcomed them to the neighborhood with a plate of Costco brownies that she pretended to have baked herself. The woman and her daughters were quiet, kept to themselves. Stacie prayed that the woman was home and would drive her to the hospital.
Stacie staggered out the front door into the rain. It was really coming down, drenching her instantly. She kicked off her heels, bare feet moving across the grass toward the neighbor's house.
Her body felt like both stone and rubber. Each step a battle. One foot. And then another.
Go - damn it! Don't stop!
Stacie got half way across her yard and collapsed to her knees. Strands of wet hair stuck to her face as she started crawling - muddy hands trying to drag her body forward - her eyes fixed on that porch light across the street. Stacie's elbows gave way next and she fell flat onto her stomach. Face pressed against the soaked ground.
A boy's voice suddenly called out, "What're you waiting for? Come on!"
Stacie looked up to find that she was standing on a long wooden pier. Her little brother was floating in the lake as the hot sun beat down on this perfect summer day.
"It's not cold, Stacie!" he called again. "Jump!"
A smile crept across Stacie's face and she started to run down the length of the pier, moving faster and faster toward the edge that divided water from sky.
Sitting on the floor of her bedroom, Mae studied the casting stones that were spread out in front of her. It was a good casting. The "moon" and "yew tree" stones were closest to her. That was a positive sign, indications that wisdom and strength would be present if a difficult decision should arise. The one with the two crossed arrows, the "war" stone, was further away; troubles are ahead, but they were not insurmountable. The "snake" stone was harder to read. It was always the one that concerned Mae the most. The snake meant there would be a move away from her present environment; a journey, or possibly just a change. The stone had fallen on one of the outer points of the star diagram; a presence hovering on the fringes of her life. Mae would have to keep an eye on that symbol in the days ahead. If the "snake" stone started to move closer to her in future castings, then she would allow herself to worry. Mae placed the stones into a velvet bag. She was putting the items back into the depths of her closet when she heard the sound of a car door slamming. Mae glanced at the clock. 11:37 p.m. She parted the bedroom curtains and saw her neighbor stumbling out of a cab. It was clear the woman was drunk.
What is her name again? Sarah?
The neighbor was now lugging a stone toward the front door, smashing it through a window. Mae abruptly dropped the curtain. She didn't want to know anything more. Mae never got involved in their lives. It was the first rule, the most important rule of them all.
Mae headed upstairs to check on her girls. Light spilled out from under the door of Liesel's room. Mae softly knocked and peeked in to see that her older daughter was still awake in bed.
"Can't sleep?" Mae asked.
Liesel nodded, not saying anything. Mae pressed a little more. "You okay?"
Liesel shrugged, "Feel like I'm coming down with something."
Mae crossed the room and felt her daughter's forehead. She was warmer than usual. "I'll whip something up for you," said Mae, starting to leave the room.
"Are you sure? It'll only take a few minutes."
"I'm sure. Look, people get sick, you know?"
Mae nodded and understood immediately. Her daughter wanted to be sick, just like "normal" people. She didn't want her mom to "take care of it" the way she always did. Liesel longed to have the same experiences of other kids her age, good or bad.
Mae lingered before leaving the room, taking in the sight of her daughter, how she was becoming such a pretty young woman. "Just let me know if you need anything."
She closed the door and stood there in the upstairs hallway. These moments were hard for her. Mae knew that Liesel had a crush on a boy at school, and that's all it would ever be. A silent crush. There would be no dates or football games. No prom. None of the things that seventeen-year-old girls got to do.
The three of them would be moving on soon. That was their life. Different towns. Different names. Don't get too close to anyone. Mae told herself over and over that this was the only way. It was for their safety. The Finders wouldn't rest until they had located her and the girls, and Mae would always have to be one step ahead.
A cold sensation suddenly ran through Mae's body and her eyes shot to Dana's bedroom door.
Mae opened the door to find her younger daughter standing in the shadows of her bedroom, her finger pointing out the window. Dana was thirteen, but had always been a serious, brooding child. The angry music. The black clothes. Mae knew she would never outgrow this nature of feeling dark on the inside. Her youngest daughter was just like her.
"What is it?" Mae whispered.
Dana kept looking out the window. "That woman out there..."
Mae went to the window and saw a shape lying in the lawn of the house across the street. In the dark of the rain, it looked like a sack of trash, but a quick flash of lightning revealed a human form, collapsed on the ground.
What is her name? Sandy? Something like that. It'll come to me. Why is her name so important? Oh yes, Stacie. Her name is Stacie.
Dana broke the silence, "She's not moving."
Mae didn't like what she was feeling, but she had to follow her own rules. The rules kept them safe and could never be broken. Dana turned away from the window and looked at her mom, "We have to help."
"She's in trouble."
Mae's tone was firm. "It could draw attention to us."
Dana turned back to the rain streaked window. The woman across the street still hadn't moved, and Dana feared the worst. A rare instance of emotion filled her eyes, "Mom, she brought us brownies."
Mae looked at her daughter's innocent face, wondering what cruel lesson she would be teaching her if she chose to do nothing in this moment.
Mae took a breath, already regretting her decision.
Mae and her daughters ran across the street through the downpour and made their way to Stacie's side. Mae turned Stacie's body over. The woman's lips were blue, and she didn't seem to be breathing. Mae touched the side of Stacie's neck and felt the faintest pulse.
"Is she dead?" asked Liesel, unsettled by the the slight smile on the woman's face.
Mae didn't answer. Her mind was racing. "Liesel, we'll carry the body. Dana - unlock the greenhouse. Hurry!" The greenhouse was one of the main reasons Mae had chosen the rental place. It was tucked away in a corner of the large backyard, a private spot where she could do her "work." The girls were forbidden to go in there. That would all change tonight.
Mae and Liesel carried Stacie's limp wet body into the greenhouse and placed her on one of the work tables. Mae quickly instructed Dana to bring her the various sealed jars stored among the gardening supplies. The girls watched as their mother stripped away Stacie's wet clothes and began to make fast work of the powders and liquids within the colored glass containers.
Mae sprinkled strange patterns of a dark dust down the length of Stacie's bare body. She opened another jar and smeared thick globs of something that looked like vile honey over Stacie's half-opened eyes. Five candles were lit and arranged around Stacie - at the head, hands and feet. Mae placed a small antique mirror on Stacie's chest and then positioned Stacie's hands to make it look as if she was holding it. Everything was ready except for one final element. "Dana, bring me one of the rabbits."
The girls had rabbits as pets throughout their childhood. Sometimes Mae had told her daughters that one of the animals had died during the night. Dana and Liesel had never thought anything of it, but tonight, witnessing their mother's "work" for the first time, it was all making much more sense.
Dana trembled. "Why - what're you going to do?"
"Now! There's no time."
Dana hurried outside to a small covered hutch. She removed one of the rabbits, placed it protectively inside her wet coat and headed back inside the greenhouse. Mae took the animal and instructed the girls to look away, but neither one of them obeyed. They stared with a sick fascination as their mother whispered quietly to the rabbit and then snapped its neck. A knife glinted in Mae's hand as she swiftly sliced into the rabbit's soft belly. Mae dipped her fingers into the animal and painted another strange pattern on Stacie's forehead in blood.
Stacie hadn't moved at all. Her body looked strange now, naked on the gardening table, covered with arcane symbols. Liesel reached out and touched the woman's skin. "Mom, she feels cold."
Mae swallowed. Trying to remain calm. "Girls, I need us to join hands. I'm going to say some words. They're not going to make sense, but just repeat the sounds back. Say whatever I say. Got it?" The girls nodded and joined hands with their mother as they stood around Stacie's body.
Mae closed her eyes and started speaking. The words sounded ancient, as if from some forgotten language. The girls repeated everything back as they heard it.
A chill ran through Liesel as she kept looking at Stacie's half-opened eyes. The woman was staring out toward some faraway place. They were not the eyes of the living.
"Mom - "
"Keep saying the words!"
"- but she's dead!"
"Just say the words or the spell won't work!" Mae's voice got louder, her chant rising above the ferocious rain that pounded against the glass ceiling of the greenhouse. She gripped her daughters' hands tight. Their candlelit faces seemed to hover in the darkness.
And then, something began to happen to the mirror on Stacie's chest. The glass slowly turned black, as if it was becoming a hole in Stacie's body. A slithering shape was moving in the dark reflection, trying to crawl out of the dead woman. The candles flickered. Liesel gasped, watching as Stacie's dead eyes blinked. The entire greenhouse rattled, a clap of thunder shaking the heavens. But there was another sound, almost impossible to hear over the deafening rumble.
Someone was screaming.
Stacie's eyes snapped open as she took in a deep gasp of air. She found herself lying in her bed, wearing her favorite flannel pajamas, the early morning sun streaming through the curtains. She rolled over and jumped at the sight of someone sitting at the foot of her bed - the neighbor woman who lived across the street.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you," said Mae. She was intently studying Stacie, watching all of her movements. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Stacie pushed herself up. Confused. "I was having this dream..."
Mae hid her mounting concern as Stacie turned to look out the window. "I was at the pier with my brother, Dougie. It was so nice, just floating on the water with him. That's how we spent every summer before he died."
Stacie shook away the dream and turned to Mae, "I'm sorry, but I have no idea how I ended up in my bed. Or what you're doing in my house."
Mae handed her a cup of tea. Stacie took a long sip, the drink warming her body.
"What do you remember about last night?" asked Mae.
Stacie shrugged. "Cab dropped me off but I had lost my keys. Didn't know how to get into the house. I broke the window with a rock. And then..." Stacie tried to recall the rest of the night, but it was totally blank.
"... and then I found you passed out in your front yard. Must have had too much to drink," said Mae, finishing her sentence. Mae took a quiet breath, relieved that Stacie had no memory of what had happened in the greenhouse.
"God. I'm so embarrassed."
"It's alright. I can keep a secret."
They exchanged a smile and Stacie finished off the cup of tea. "I've been a bad neighbor. You moved in almost a month ago and I don't even remember your name."
Mae got up, "I'll let you rest." She headed out of the room, but stopped in the doorway. There was something else she needed to say, but didn't even know where to begin. How do you tell someone that they're never going to be the same again?
"Thanks for looking out for me," said Stacie.
Mae simply nodded and left the room.
As Stacie cleaned the mud off the beige rug in the downstairs hallway, she noticed the crooked wedding portrait. She approached the framed photograph, realizing that during their whole relationship she'd never allowed Paul to see her mad. Even when he left, Stacie swallowed any ugly feelings in an attempt to make him love her again. But now a buried anger started rising in her when she thought about what Paul had done. All the lies. The betrayal. Stacie just stood there, staring at that frozen moment of pretend wedding perfection, her anger giving way to an intense rage.
She wanted to hit him. She wanted to feel her fists smashing into his face over and over again. She wanted to make him bleed. Stacie erupted, screaming from the depths of her soul when suddenly there was a popping sound. The glass over the portrait had broken, a spider web crack appearing over Paul's face.
Stacie snapped out of her fury, staring at the shattered glass.
Okay. That was... freaky.
Stacie abruptly decided she wanted all reminders of Paul gone. She yanked the portrait off the wall and headed straight out to the garbage cans in the driveway. As she dumped the picture into the trash, a sense of calm came over her. Everything seemed okay. And for some reason, she didn't feel quite so alone in the world.
But there was something else stirring in her that she had never really felt before. It was a feeling of power.
Alone in the kitchen, Mae cooked breakfast. It had been a long night and the girls would be hungry when they woke up. Mae was setting the table when her daughters finally came into the kitchen.
"Is she okay?" Dana asked.
"She's fine," Mae replied. "Now - how about some breakfast?"
The girls just stood there. A thousand questions running through their minds.
"That woman. She was dead. And now she's not," said Liesel.
Mae stirred her cup of coffee, not responding.
"We did something bad to her, didn't we?" Liesel demanded.
"We saved her life, Liesel."
"Is she going to be different?" asked Dana.
Mae took a breath. She couldn't lie. "Yes. She's going to be... very different. We'll need to keep an eye on her."
They all fell silent and it was only then that Mae remembered the casting she had rolled the night before. The appearance of the snake stone moving in closer. She finally had clarity on the reading. A change was coming. The fate of her family was now forever intertwined with this stranger across the street.
It was foretold.