Writing on Wednesday: A Bit of What I’ve Been Working On

Here’s a sneak peek at a project I’ve been working on called “Blood and Other Matter” Let me know what you think:

Hours after my mom left for work, I still hadn’t finished studying. Homework didn’t usually take that long, but I’d been really distracted tonight. It took me a while to figure out I was listening for the sound of Josh’s entitlement-mobile bringing Tess home. My books sprawled across the table, open to the pertinent pages and weighed down with pens, sticky notes, and whatever else I could find to keep the pages down. Not that I could remember a single thing I’d read.

Stupid, I thought, giving up on my AP History essay on the evolution of labor laws after the Triangle Shirt-Waste Fire and checking my watch. Way too early for the eclipse. I headed to the back porch anyway, turning off all the lights as I walked through the house and grabbing the telescope, binoculars, and an assortment of snacks. Might as well get comfortable. One major benefit to living in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere was a lack of light pollution. We didn’t even have streetlights.

Binoculars in hand, I laid back on the splitting cushion covering my lawn chair. Telescopes were great and all, but the field of view was limited. I found the giant rectangle of twinkling stars in the Pegasus Constellation and moved my binoculars southwest until they landed on the bright blur of an oval that was the Andromeda Galaxy.

I grinned, shifting to the telescope. There was something deeply satisfying about this celestial scavenger hunt. I enjoyed piecing together the puzzle of the constellations to find the big picture then zooming in on a thousand year old flicker of light to find the devil in the details.

Fascinating as the night sky was, I had a ton of time to kill. As the minutes ticked into hours, the cushion beneath my back felt ever softer and more inviting. My eyelids drooped. The binoculars clattered to the deck as I bolted upright, heart slamming in my chest. Had I drifted off? I glanced upward and saw a red shadow covering the moon. I’d missed half the show.

My hair prickled on the back of my neck. Stiffening, I fought down the irrational idea that someone, something stood behind me breathing down my neck. A sound caught my ear, something between a hushed breath and a sob. I spun around. Nothing, I was alone on the wooden porch.

“Derrick?” The wind whispered my name in voiceless desperation. Derrick!

Needles of white hot pain slammed through my skull with so much force I hit the deck with a strangled cry. The voice, it wasn’t in the wind it was inside of me. Pain washed over me in waves then just as quickly faded. I crouched on the splintered boards breathing hard, cradling my head in my hands.

“—the hell?” I muttered. What was I doing hunched over on the porch? I stood, surprised to find I was shaking. Above me a crescent of white broke free of the moon’s shadow. I’d missed the eclipse. Dampness drew my hand up to wipe my nose, and I started at the sight of blood glimmering darkly on my fingers. “Did I just have a stroke?”

The doorbell rang. What time was it? I glanced at the phone, still fuzzy with confusion. Just after midnight. Who would be—Mom. Had something happened to Mom?

I rushed into the house and nearly tripping over the threshold in my haste. In a matter of seconds I was at the front door, fumbling with the latch and fighting back the memory of two deputies standing at my door. And suddenly I was right back in that moment when everything changed. My mother’s wail and the thud of her falling to the floor echoed through my head on repeat. Only this time I wasn’t too numb to understand what was happening.

You’re the man of the house now, our pastor told me at the funeral. Who the fuck puts that kind of pressure on a seven year old? I gained the presence of mind to glance through the peephole, but there were no deputies on my front stoop. Just a slim girl, whose very shadow I would always recognize no matter how dark the night.

“Tess?” I flung open the door unable to keep the aggravation out of my voice. First she’d ditched me for Josh Worthington, then she’d nearly given me a fucking heart attack knocking on my door and bringing back all that–The sarcastic greeting I had prepped fled from the tip of my tongue and left me speechless.

She was covered in blood.

Covered in blood. That expression gets tossed around a lot, but I’d never really considered what it looked like. Her clothes were red and matted to her body, her face, arms and legs were slathered in red flakes, like skin that got sunburned and peeled into those clumps you could brush off. Most of the gore was dry, but some wet patches glistened in the porch light.

She wasn’t wearing shoes.

“Der,” she sobbed. “Please.” Her voice sounded distant somehow, like she was speaking from somewhere far away. “I couldn’t get in my house.”

That snapped me out of it. “Come inside, quick.” I pulled her through the doorway, shocked brain registering the way her clothes squished under my palm. Bits of dried matter flaked off of her and onto my entryway. “What happened? Are you hurt? Hang on, I’ll call Mom.”

“No!” She clutched at my shirt with clawed hands. “You can’t call anyone. It’s not…” She swallowed hard. “It’s not mine.”

“Then whose is it?” Since when were her nails that long? What did that mater? Why did I keep noticing all these stupid details like they could possibly matter while puddles of gore dripped on my floor. Could one person produce all of this? I glanced out to the street, confirming what I already knew. No car. “Tess, was there a wreck? Did Josh’s car–”

She shook her head, clinging to me with an anguished moan. “They just kept screaming. I didn’t mean to do it, but they just kept screaming.”

I slammed the door and locked it, surprised when my hand left a wet print on the gleaming white paint. “Didn’t mean to do what, Tess! Who was screaming? Your mom?” My gaze turned to her house but all of the lights were off and her mom’s car wasn’t in the driveway.

“No. Oh God, Derrick! I tried to stop it.” She wrapped her arms around me, trembling like an autumn leaf, red and cracked and frail. “I tried, Derrick, you have to believe me. You have to help me.”

“I believe you,” I assured her, holding her tight. God, she was shaking. Her breath came in sharp, panicked gasps, tickling my neck in the same spot I felt my pulse pounding. “And I’m trying to help you, but you have to let me call somebody.”

“No!” She flinched away like I’d struck her. “You can’t, Derrick. Promise me, please!”

“Why not!” I demanded, in frustration, then took a breath and tried a calmer approach. “You’re hurt.”

“It’s not mine!”

The blood? “Then clearly someone else is hurt. Just…tell me what happened and we’ll figure out where to go from there. Start with the bonfire.”

She went rigid in my arms at the word bonfire and I drew back in confusion. “Tess? Is that it? Did something happen at the bonfire?” She couldn’t have come from the bonfire. It was too far away. She couldn’t have walked all the way from Bankhead Forest. Not at night. Not barefoot. Could she? “Tess!” I grabbed her shoulders. “Come on! What happened? Who was screaming?”

A feverish light gleamed in her eyes. “Everyone,” she whispered.

A chill went up my spine when her lips split into a blood-soaked grin. “Tessa?” My voice turned hesitant as the girl I knew better than anyone in the whole world transformed into something I didn’t recognize. Her expression, that smile, those eyes: the only way I could describe it was gleeful malevolence. I fought the urge to push her away from my house and lock the door. That was ridiculous, this was Tess!

In a flash her expression morphed from glee to terror. “No, no, no, no!” She moaned, pushing away from me, voice stuttering and quaking in fear. “I couldn’t help it. I didn’t mean to. I can’t–” Tess clutched at her head, fingers hooked into claws like she was in pain. Her eyes met mine, wide with terror. “Help me,” she gasped, before she collapsed, eyes fluttering closed.

Grimacing at the overwhelming smell of salt and copper, I caught her on impulse. “Tess!” What was I supposed to do? Call 911? Not until I got some answers. I looked around, trying to figure out what to do, where to set her down, but she was so slick in my arms anywhere I put her would–why didn’t she want me to call anyone? Had she done something? Hurt someone? My mind flashed to that maniacal grin as I considered something worse. Could Tess kill someone?

Never. I took a deep breath and considered what I knew. This was Tess. The girl who used to cry after every class trip to the library because she loved animals and still hadn’t caught on that every animal in every book written for children dies. Tess, who would cross the street and come to my house if she saw a cockroach. There wasn’t a violent bone in her body.

She’s in shock. The smart thing to do would be to tell my mom. Tess probably needed medical attention and–

Her voice echoed in my head. It’s my fault. All my fault. I didn’t mean to.

I froze. Move, do something! But I just couldn’t seem to commit myself to an action. If I did call Mom, would Tess say something incriminating to Mom’s deputies? They didn’t know her as well as I did. Her grin flashed into my head and my throat went dry. What if she did do something?

But what if she was in shock? Josh, and anyone else who’d ridden with him could be bleeding out right now while I stood here like an idiot.

Wait. If she was in shock, then she could actually be hurt. I rushed into the bathroom and laid her in the tub, yanking the first aid kit from underneath the countertop, just in case, and set to work searching for an open wound.

There’s no way she’d still be alive if she lost this much blood. My fingers probed at her skin as though a wound big enough to be responsible for this much bleeding could be subtle. Arteries? No, any of the major arteries wouldve bled out before knocked on the door. I didn’t even find a paper cut. Unless…I swallowed hard and pulled her weird, new, dress-like thing over her head. What was this thing, anyway? And um…wow, why wasn’t she wearing anything else under it?

Okay, back on task. I couldn’t find a wound that could explain all the blood. My hands shook as I draped a towel over Tess’ middle; normally I’d sell my soul to see her naked, but there was nothing even remotely sexy about this situation.

I turned on the faucet, grabbed a towel, and washed the gore off of her. Time passed in a weird haze as I spent what felt like hours scrubbing the dried, hardened crust off her skin. Scrub, rinse, repeat until the sanguine water ran clear. My mind fell into some kind of dumbfounded stupor as I focused on the task with an almost clinical dispassion. If I didn’t think about what I was doing this was easy.

I kept expecting Tess to wake up and tell me this whole thing was just some stupid prank. Maybe one of those TV shows. “What would you do? Well, Derrick here would not call 911 when a girl covered in blood passed out on his porch. Care to explain that logic?”

She’d asked me not to.

Maybe I was the one who needed to wake up. What if I was dreaming?

If this is a dream, when you wake up, tell Mom you need some serious therapy. In the meantime, get under her nails.

I scraped the congealed gunk free from beneath her fingernails. That…was flesh. My stomach lurched, and the fog in my brain fled with a burst of adrenaline as her bloodstained lips and fingernails took on a new light. She’d fought. Tess had used her teeth and nails and she struggled against….what? But I hadn’t found any sign of bruising. No cuts, no scrapes. Nothing to indicate that whatever she’d fought against struck back.

“What happened, Tess? Please, please just wake up.” I begged. What am I doing? I sat back on my heels, hands shaking as I dropped the marred washcloth, abandoning her fingernails. She should be in a hospital, the logical side of my brain argued. She’s unconscious. That alone warrants a 911 call.

Her pulse was steady, her breathing even. If she got worse at all, I’d call 911, but otherwise…I covered my face with my hands. What had I done? Could I get in trouble for not calling the police? What would that go down as? Tampering with evidence? Aiding and abetting? Who the hell knew?

Say you were in shock. That you weren’t thinking at all. You’re on honor roll, your mom’s a public figure. Theyll believe you. I looked to Tess. I’d heard what people said about her when they didn’t think I was listening. The assumptions people made because of her mother, the way she looked, because she was poor, because she missed a ton of school, because of her grades, the list of strikes against her was miles long. If something had happened at that bonfire, and any student there was to blame, the Josh Worthington’s of the world would walk scot-free. The news had proven that time and time again. Girls like Tess made great scapegoats.

No, I wasn’t calling the cops until I found out exactly what happened. Some part of my brain resisted that plan enough to know it didn’t make sense. That this was a bad idea. But I couldn’t acknowledge it. This was too much. I’d been pulled from sleep into some kind of crazy nightmare. Something horrific had happened to my best friend and I was sitting in a bathroom that looked like a crime scene straight out of Dexter. My brain couldn’t handle logic. Couldn’t listen to the voice screaming in my head that she might be hurt in a way I wasn’t qualified to diagnose. That she might not wake up if I didn’t get her help right now. Or that she might not be the only person who was hurt.

Instead I followed instructions. Like there was a list being rattled off in my brain of how to make all of this disappear. I finished scrubbing beneath her nails, then everywhere else. When I was sure she was clean, that not a speck of blood remained on her body, I bleached everything in the bathroom, stripped out of my clothes and scrubbed myself down. Check. Check. Check. Moving on autopilot, I tossed everything cloth I’d interacted with into the wash and finished off the bottle of bleach and hydrogen peroxide.

I almost threw her dress into the washing machine then thought better of it and stuffed the garment into a plastic bag and tied it off. We might need it later for evidence. Of what?

Instead of giving into the temptation of thinking, I moved on to the next item on the list.   Finish cleaning the bathroom. After scrubbing the bathtub with hydrogen peroxide, I plugged the drain and poured half a bottle of bleach into the basin, then filled it with water and let it sit while I mopped the floors with what was left.

I took bleach wipes to the bathroom counters, even though I didn’t think I’d touched them, then got Tess and me dressed. Once she was tucked into the bed, I went through the house and the front porch.

Bone weary and more than a little sick from fumes, I walked back into the house and opened every window and turned on every fan. The house still wasn’t forensic proof, but it was enough to fool mom. I pulled the plug in the bath and checked on the clothes. White as snow. I’d have to close all the windows later and throw the clothes in the dryer. Not to mention replacing all the cleaning stuff I’d used before mom realized her once a year “subscribe and save” one click buy hadn’t lasted as long as it should have. But for now, I could rest.

Exhausted and numb, I sat on the chair next to my bed and studied Tess. Her chest rose and fell, so at least she was breathing, even if her face was way too pale.

You did good.

I was too exhausted to care that I didn’t recognize that voice as my own.

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