FIGHT Appetizer

Check back next week for a Fight pre-order announcement! Here’s chapter one for a little taste of what’s to come:

  1. EMMA gets a shock

My eyes fly open from the surge of adrenaline.

It takes a petrified half second to figure out the culprit is my alarm, blasting a song at its highest possible volume. The bluegrass twang flows through my ears and I groan. Like every morning, it is right on schedule; and like every morning, I forget that the explosion of (ironically) chipper tunes is coming.
This is good. This is my plan, to be shaken awake by music I hate. Better to associate the looming misery with a negative vibe.

I tense and prepare, contracting muscles that I hadn’t known existed before this ordeal.

One, two, three.

Silent counts to the rhythm of the banjo’s backbeat, and yet … nothing.

Time for test two.

My fingers release the death grip they have on my sheets. I sit up slowly. Getting out of bed is a delicate process; it must be done with the utmost of care. Gently swinging my legs over the side, touching my feet to the hardwood floor, and shifting my weight to my toes are all potential time bombs followed by more cringing, more counting, and more waiting.

Again, nothing. I sigh and tiptoe across my room – still bracing for pain at any second – when my body locks in response to the single knock on my bedroom door.

“Emma –” my father begins before clearing his throat unnecessarily, a nervous tick from decades of business presentations.

It’s his only nervous habit. He commands respect (and fear) with a permanent frown and perfect enunciation of every word in the English language. I imagine him on the other side of the door right now, brushing lint off of a two thousand dollar suit.

He raises his voice to compete with my horrid music. “Why must this always be so loud?!”

I don’t know what to say, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t wait for an answer.

“Your mother and I are leaving for work. See you tonight.”

He and I both know this last part isn’t true. My parents spend every evening schmoozing with higher ups from their company at some swanky bar in Washington, D.C. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes they go straight to dinner with coworkers. I don’t know why they bother with the charade of false promises anymore. They aren’t fooling anyone.

Right as I decide against saying goodbye, his shoes echo down the hallway. Small talk just isn’t done in my family. We are expected to be self-healing, emotionless, and verbal only for informational purposes.

I listen until the echo fades away. A mere whisper would echo in this house. It is a dark, empty shell where three people sleep at night. And to ensure it stays dark, one of the few rules my parents established is that curtains are to be drawn at all times. Doors to all rooms also have to remain shut unless exiting or entering (“to prevent a draft”).

This was ingrained in me from early on. I’d thought nothing of it until I started hanging out at friends’ houses. It didn’t take long to realize how much my home differs from others, where light and openness are encouraged. There is no smiling here. There are no family portraits or knickknacks of any kind, and there are certainly no silly souvenirs from the lack of vacations we’ve taken together. Foreign art and rock sculptures reside here. I live in a museum.

No, my parents would never stoop so low as to partake in any activity resulting in a smiling snapshot. Phone calls and meetings come first and foremost. The faint clacking of computer keys from behind their closed office door (known as the master bedroom in most houses) was my childhood lullaby. This is the way of life at the Briar house. As if further proof of this is even needed, most rooms still house unpacked boxes from the move. I was five then. I’m sixteen now.

The whir of my parents’ car fades down the street, and my anxiety-riddled body relaxes enough to let me turn the radio off – but not before I inspect it to ensure the alarm is preset for tomorrow. Then I walk back to my original destination: the full length mirror secured behind my door. When I catch sight of myself, I freeze. This is by far the weirdest part of my day. No matter how many times I do it, I never get used to it. Confusion from what I’m becoming, fear of not knowing what to do about it, and hope that it will just go away … every emotion hits me when I face that mirror.

Before giving myself any real time to think about it, I pull my ratty sleep shirt over my head and twirl around to examine my back in the mirror. I frown as I scan over what I know I will see … what I’ve stared at for countless hours over the past six months. They are just there, plain as day, greeting me in my reflection as if they’ve always been as much a part of me as my hands, my hair, my eyes.

An uncomfortable chill sweeps through me as I think back to when it all began….

I woke up that late December morning certain I’d been stabbed.

When my fragile logic told me this was impossible, that there was no blood anywhere to prove it, the wild screams filling my room turned into screeches. I couldn’t have stopped if my life depended on it – and with pain slicing into my back like heated butcher knives, I thought I’d soon be dead anyway.

Somehow on that horrid day, I ended up on my bedroom floor. My bedroom, normally a messy, music filled sanctuary from the silent pretentiousness of the rest of my house, was where I experienced pain beyond my worst nightmares that morning. I remember glimpses of the ceiling and floor through blackouts; I think I was having convulsions. In retrospect, calling an ambulance should’ve been my first choice. But that didn’t even cross my mind. All I wanted was to make the pain go away. I’d never suffered anything that made me realize just how alive I was and how dead I wanted to be.

A vague resemblance of my hallway pops into my head here. I know I made it into my tub and turned the cold water on. I held onto the edge tightly, thinking I might faint from the pain and drown. I’d sorta hoped to at least break an arm or leg – anything that would take some attention away from the angry flames licking down my back.

Things moved in slow motion from this point forward. Pain shot through strangely uniform lines in brilliant ribbons of never ending fire, pulsating heat. Steam rose off of the water around me. For one unique moment, I was in awe of how I was dying. My own body was going to cook itself alive. That had to be some sort of first in the world. Then I must’ve come to my senses, because I made that awful screech again and was suddenly out of the tub. That’s one image I’ll never forget, looking back at the boiling bathwater.

Something told me I had to examine the source of the pain. I had to see what was going on back there. Soaking wet and terrified, I wiped the condensation off of the bathroom mirror and looked at the back of my sleep shirt. It was completely charred. My mother would’ve been thrilled; finally, an excuse to throw away the “poor people sleepwear” she hated so much.

My hands were shaking so violently that it took a few tries to peel the remains of my shirt off. I don’t know how long it took to muster the courage to look back at that mirror. When I did, my reflection made absolutely no sense.

Noticeable against my hot, red skin were two thin, blue lines on my shoulder blades. They mirrored one another almost poetically, curving like reverse parentheses. Surely they couldn’t have caused all this misery. They weren’t red like wounds. They weren’t purple like bruises. They were a breathtaking shade of blue: a submissive baby blue. A psychotic laugh bubbled up from somewhere inside me, and all I remember after that is slipping on the bathroom floor and cursing myself for leaving the water running in the tub.

That was the first time I’d done what I now do every morning – check on my progress as a freak. I never thought back then that I’d still be doing it now.

I refused to look at my back for a while. I pretended the lines weren’t there and tried to keep the pain to myself. I guess I figured if I did this, my body would get the message and the bizarre lines would disappear. But with each new wave of daily torment, I came to learn that they would not be ignored. They fed off of my pain and grew. Slowly spreading like a nasty virus, slowly darkening like a fungus, they were now dark blue streaks scraping down the entirety of my back.

I despise them.

I tear myself away from the mirror, pull on clothes from a pile on my floor, rake my fingers through my hair a couple of times to untangle it, and slide on some sandals. Right as I’m walking out the door, my cell phone starts vibrating its way across my nightstand. Amber’s name pops up on the screen.

“Yeah?”

“Emma? Good, you’re up! I’ve got news.”

“What’s up?”

“First of all, how are you feeling today?”

This is a normal question for Amber to ask. Since the pain makes me bail on everyone and everything, I’ve had to come up with excuses. According to my lack of creativity, I’ve had a bunch of migraines, couple of flus, and a sprained ankle. My best friend has noticed.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“I swear, I’ve never met anyone with worse luck than you. Poor thing. We should go to a psychic or something, make sure you’re not cursed –”

“Amber. Focus.”

“Right. Sorry. Okay, so I talked to Matt, who talked to Dan, who talked to Ashley so that I didn’t have to – since you know how she can be – whose dad, as you know, is the DJ for that boring radio station … and he was able to score us all tickets to the Battle of the Bands next week!”

“Oh. Really?”  I rub my tired eyes.

“Yep! Do you wanna go?”

You can’t keep canceling. I sigh. “Sure.”

“Awesome! I’ll give you details when I get them. Can’t wait!” she squeals.

“Yeah, it should be … interesting.”

“Yep! So what’re you doing today? Do you wanna hang out?”

“I’m actually heading over to the shelter, if you want to join me.”

She giggles. “I’ll pass, Emma-the-heroic-volunteer. Have a good one!”

Click.

My day has suddenly soured.

 

One of the few advantages of having parents whose lives revolve around work is that they tend to show love in monetary ways – like the brand new cell phone I was just talking on (they give me one every six months to “keep up with the trends”), or the sixteenth birthday present sitting in our driveway. I throw a cursory glance at my new SUV as I walk past it. Sure, it’s a nice car. I just don’t feel right driving it. I want to take a path other than my parents. Money and detachment is taken. It’s their thing. I want to do my thing. I’m not sure what that is yet, but it’s important I do it.

I arrive at the animal shelter a half hour early. Everyone except for the distracted receptionist is out at the moment, but a quick flip through the owners’ – the Coopers’ – assignment book lists dog walking as my job for the day. I grab the bundle of leashes from the storage room and go to each kennel labeled for walking privileges.

Being here melts my problems into little insignificant nothings. I’m needed here. From the soft whimpers of the animals to the unquestioning trust they give me, the docile eyes that fix upon me day after day … I am able to forget here, to smile here, and to pass my wretched time here.

I clip the leashes to the dogs’ generic collars and the five of them and I stumble out the back door. We head to our usual route: a loop of my neighborhood followed by a stroll through the park and ending with a double back to the shelter. It’s a beautiful June day in Ashburn, Virginia. The dogs pant happily to a random tune I find myself whistling (grossly enough, I think it’s bluegrass). I know I’m not wearing the right shoes for it – my old sandals have no traction – but the dogs’ upbeat energy encourages me to raise the stakes. I pick up the pace to a run.

Maybe because the day’s been normal so far, I should’ve known better. Maybe the lack of usual morning pain should’ve been a clue. One second, I’m running down the sidewalk. The next, jagged blades carve through my back.

Defense mechanisms kick in. I close my eyes and grit my teeth. I try to space out my breathing. The only thing I forget to do is stop running. It is in this way, face knotted up in pain and surrounded by my swarm of canines, that I crash into an electric fence. My body flies backward and shakes violently. I hear the dogs whimper as I fall, a million different scenarios flashing through my mind … all of them involving blood, broken bones, and death.

Only I never land.

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