by Merna Shehata
It is quiet outside. Only a few cars pass by every now and then, and a few raindrops slide down the leaves of the peach tree in the backyard – they are the aftermath of a storm. She lies on the couch, exhausted from the day’s events. One arm is on her forehead and the other falls all the way down to the ground. She feels the cool air circulating around the house as she lies there, regretting her decisions and actions, dreading the consequences, hoping it was all a dream. She remembers the screams, her own screams, as she raised the axe above her head and swung it down. Her eyes open wide. She remembers the whispers that came after, threatening to come back. A shiver passes through every inch of her body. She remembers the shadows surrounding her, the moonlight fading rapidly, until she could only see darkness. A gasp escapes out of her mouth and she jumps up. Beads of sweat cover her face as her heart races at the speed of light. She could’ve never imagined her life leading to this point. How did she stoop so slow?
It was only this morning that she was preparing for her sister’s birthday. She organized everything, made a list, even, with all the supplies she needed to make this a successful birthday. How did everything escalate so quickly? Her eyes slowly make their way across the room to the banner that says, “Happy Birthday, Riley!” This morning it hung high with bright colors; Riley’s name was outlined in yellow, her favorite color. In the darkness, however, the yellow looks dim and gloomy, greenish or maybe even red. No, it will never be the same; everything has changed now, and there is nothing she will be able to do about it.
She begins to notice the changes around her: the rips on the banner, the broken glass, Riley’s torn dress. It won’t be long before they find the body; she knows that she should clean up the mess and hide the evidence, but she doesn’t. She sits and waits, almost as if she is paralyzed, terrified of her actions more than of the consequences. As time passes by, flashbacks begin, reminding her of how she led Riley into the woods, promising her a special gift for her birthday. They had heard of how these woods were cursed all the time when they were children, but they never gave much thought to it. The memories flood her head, and vividly remind her of the crazy emotions that took over her senses and controlled her body. They remind her of Riley’s perplexed face as she watched her twitch and quiver towards the axe laid on the pile of wood, innocently thinking that her dear sister would never hurt her, patiently waiting for her mystery present. She begins to feel heavy and she sits up, trying to shake the sleep off, avoiding another nightmare. Her eyelids betray her as they steadily move closer to each other and she loses consciousness.
The aroma of something rotten wakes her up. As her eyes struggle to open, she realizes that she can't see anything. Is this the consequence? Maybe she can live blind after all. Those are her thoughts before she sees something glimmer in the dark. She gets up and carefully makes her way towards the glimmer. She hears a crunch under her feet and pain starts to travel up her body. By the time she figures out that she has stepped in the broken glass, there is a puddle of thick red under her foot. Suddenly, a bright light flashes by and reflects over the million pieces of glass. Her heart stops beating until she realizes that it was nothing more than a car passing by. She catches something else glimmer out of the corner of her eye. Is that…? No, it can't be, she buried Riley below the peach tree. She moves closer towards the smell this time, hoping to deny her suspicions. The whispers begin when the second car passes by. Riley? The third travels by. You look stunning in that dress! The fourth car drives by. It’s shimmering like glass. The last car flies by. Can you spin for me?
She finds Riley hung like a chandelier in her shimmering dress. Horrified, she watches as the red spreads and takes over the bright yellow. She runs to the window and opens the blinds. The peach tree looks untouched, undisturbed. She turns back to look at the ceiling only to find the body gone. She freezes in place while her eyes scan the room wildly – where did she go? She abruptly turns back to the window to find Riley staring at her with hollow eyes and bony cheeks. A smile spreads freakishly across Riley’s face as her head turns sideways. Sharp glass shoots out of Riley’s dress in every direction as she spins for her sister. Her roaring scream was the last thing the neighborhood heard before she went missing.
* winner of the third Highpoint Scary Short Story contest, Halloween 2020
The Blue-Eyed Beauty*
by Nina Jasanoff
Black rows and rows of dreary and despairing faces gathered around the great stone in the center. It was raining – not raining really, but drizzling – and at the center of the commotion stood a lady, tall and pale, with dark hair and bright blue eyes. She was frowning and a tear rolled down her cheek, though she didn’t look upset in the least. She stood there with her head held high, looking straight ahead and frowning obediently. All draped in black, from the little hat on her magnificent head to the tips of her delicate toes, she struck quite a figure as she stood there in the drizzle of that cold day.
After the ceremony, she walked away with poise down the gravel path leading away from the cemetery. A hand touched her shoulder from behind, and she turned with a smile that came so easily and naturally to her lips. It looked real, but if one looked close enough, one would see that it was entirely false. She had never smiled a day in her life, not once, and she had been taught by the best.
The offender of her internal calm was an old woman, wrinkled and hunched over. The years had very clearly left their mark on this dame’s features, and she held out her shaking hand to the younger girl. “I am so sorry for your loss, my child. Your father was a great man.”
“Thank you.” She was polite about it, and her musical British voice held none of the falseness she knew it had. “I loved him very much.”
The old lady smiled and nodded appreciatively, and excused herself, hobbling away. With her exit, another person came, this time a young man, and stood by the girl’s side. Seeming to sense his presence, she held up her hand to him to stop walking abruptly. He took the hand, gloved in black lace, and kissed it. Disgustedly, she drew away and shook herself slightly.
“Heath, who is that old lady?”
“Mrs. Leonora Hatchet, Alice.”
“I am not ‘Alice’ to you or to anyone, now that Father has died.” She had turned on him and was glaring menacingly up at him with her stern and cold blue eyes.
“You are my stepsister, I have every right to call you Alice.”
“No. Now that Papa is gone, you shall cut all ties with me on such a personal level and call me Ms. Adair.”
“I mean it, Mr. Glass.” She stepped back and turned on her heel, continuing to walk away from the cemetery.
“Alice, wait.” He had paused to watch her go, for she was quite a sight to behold, and ran to catch up with her.
“I shan’t speak to you any longer if you call me that.”
“Alice – I mean, Ms. Adair – don’t be silly about this.”
“Me, silly. I should think not.” The cold indifference of her first pronouncement mellowed in comparison to the vehement way she uttered the second.
She continued to march away and her companion stopped and watched her go, shaking his head in awe.
A week later had the very same girl in the very same garb at the very same place in the very same weather. It would seem that everyone in her life was dying off. First had been her mother, unexpectedly three months hence, then her uncle a fortnight later, her father next, and now her aunt. Her only remaining relative was Mr. Glass, and she pondered his existence as she stood over the grave of the newly deceased.
That night, there was a knock on the door of her apartment. She bade her loyal maid answer the door, and her visitor ambled in. She was unsurprised to find herself with Mr. Glass.
“Oh, do come and sit, sir.” She motioned with her hand as she stood to greet him.
“I’m not playing games with you anymore, Alice. Tell me why this is all happening?”
“What?” Her face betrayed genuine surprise that her whole person lacked otherwise.
“I know it isn’t a coincidence that your family members are all dropping dead. It can’t be.”
“I shouldn’t see why not. My mother, father, aunt, and uncle were all roughly the same age, give or take, and that should be enough to quiet the matter.”
“They all died mysteriously – some doctors think poison, others think suicide, but many suspect murder.”
“I shouldn’t think why.” She was standing now, with all her grace and poise by the window gazing out at the Victorian streets, busy with people and bustling with noise.
He got up from his seat in one of the armchairs and went to stand beside her. “I’m not stupid, Alice.”
“Frankly, I am rather inclined to think you are.” She addressed him with the cold hard stare to which she had grown accustomed.
“I’m not kidding, Alice.” He grabbed her well-formed chin and lifted it forcefully to look at his face.
“Leave me be,” she sneered. He let go and threw her to the ground; “Ah!” she cried, crumpling in a heap.
“Tell you what? I don’t know what you want.” She looked genuinely frightened, though inside she felt nothing still.
“You know very well what, tell me outright that you murdered your family.” His gray eyes flashed. “Admit it. To my face.” He gazed at her intensely and intently, picking out every cold and lovely minute feature.
She arose and shook out her dress, “No. I didn’t do it and I won’t say anything. I know better.” She tried to walk away from the window where they both stood but he grabbed her arm and pushed her to him, grabbing her chin once more, and giving her mouth a passionate kiss.
“No.” She said it, but he could see her guard was falling.
“Tell me.” He was now kissing her neck gently, waiting for her to crack.
And suddenly, he fell to his knees behind her, and his eyes bugged out as he held the hilt of the sword she had driven clean through him. She stiffened and regained that cold composure she had never really lost.
“Matilda, clean up the mess.”
“Yes, miss.” The maid scurried into the room, “What shall I tell the papers this time, miss?”
The young lady bedecked in elegant black paused, framed in the doorway. “I’m feeling… suicide.” She gave a wicked sneer and touched her tongue to the top of her teeth, walking out of the room with a laugh.
She walked to The Savoy for tea alone, and sat by the window in her usual seat. As she elegantly sipped her tea and paid her check, she spotted something. It was a figure, almost translucent, and it was staring at her from outside the window. Then, it was joined by four other figures all staring at her shocked face. She put down her teacup and got up from her seat, leaving.
She walked down some streets and over the bridge. She looked down, the Thames gleamed and swirled beneath her feet. She stared at it intently for some minutes, then, taking a deep breath, she jumped.
Now this lady, Alice Adair – or the blue-eyed beauty, as she was more widely known – killed five people in her career as a murderess. Five people: first her mother, who had just come into some wealth from a relative; then her uncle, who had sorted the money with his own in one account; then her father, who had suspected her; then her aunt, who was now in control of all that money. She had done all of this placidly, without flinching, and had even killed her stepbrother, Heath Glass, in the same heartless way. But in the end, what pushed her over the edge was a ghost in a shop window. A ghost of her haunted past: the people she had killed and the price she would now pay, forever entombed in the swirling, murky waters of the Thames, a river famed for swallowing its victims whole. Murderers, conquerors, and innocence itself.
She hadn’t been able to bear that fate. As she’d jumped, she had taken a small pistol out of her purse, put it to her head, and fired.
* runner-up in the third Highpoint Scary Short Story contest, Halloween 2020
To My River and Your Dearest Children
by George Yi
Dear River, dear children:
How are you? It’s been a long time, a long time since I last heard from you, a long time since I sat by the banks, with my trousers rolled up to my ankles, and my feet soaked as your gentle waves pat against the back of my heels, wiggling my toes like the buoys in the distance, always bobbing up and down, up and down, up, down, up again, and down again. How I miss those times! How I miss those days after days, months after months, years after years, times and times again. How I came to you with bare feet, bare hands, and a bare mind, knowing you were there to anchor my distraught spirit, knowing you were there to soothe my troubled soul. How I miss those ferry rides across you, those glistening rays of moonlight peeking through the shadows of this Earth. How I miss the patterns of your waves changing as the wind also gave new life to the flag that hung upon the flagpole which jingled harmoniously like chimes on the porch of my old house. How you were always miraculously perceptible of your passenger’s quality. How it was bound to be a new beginning each time I stepped on board, each time the horn sounded, each time after the dockman waved his goodbyes. How every day was an adventure with you, my River, even when I didn’t want it to be. How I even miss the hot humid July days, how I traveled from corner to corner, passing by crowds after crowds, through the sprinklers on people’s front lawns, the haggling shouts in the marketplace, housewives’ chatters around the same old subject at the coffee tables, reeking of complacency and cliche, how I battled and conquered all of them, just so I could come and feel you. Yet time, the cruelest of all evils, kept on going, the hands of its clock going round and round, undisturbed by my forlorn endeavors, unmoved by my despairing despair. Time disambiguates, they say, and after all those days and nights with you and by you, my River, I finally stumbled upon this truth; even after all this time, I, still, am ashamed to face you, my friend, and to return the eternal memories that were once washed ashore, the same memories that now floats adrift in this air, homeless, hopeless. River, how I wish you could be my present and my future as you were my past.
Every day as the sun rose on the orient, came the morning fishermen casting their lucks, and every evening as the sun set on the occident, gone were the evening fishermen who had casted their lucks, some left with buckets full, some left without goodbyes. All this time, you gave, willingly, but asked nothing in return. Every day, I crossed the bridge above you to the other side of the city and came back, some days riding the taxi cabs, some days riding the buses, other days riding shotgun in my father’s Buick, as the day’s story was left behind, all its laughters, all its excitement, all its weariness and doubts, unrecalled the moment the vehicle began its ascend, up the spiral interchange toward the suspension bridge that stood its ground for decades amidst the thunderstorms, the monsoons, and the ubiquitous indifference from the commuters underneath as they shrugged and sighed and tapped on their accelerators. Every day, I watched the pylons disappear in the rearview mirror. Every day, the pylons tried to utter their protest to their occupied onlookers. Every day, the pylons, bearing their cryptic resemblance to the letter “H,” said to their onlookers, “Help,” or “Holler,” as if anyone could ever truly understand.
In those days I hastily traveled. In those days, the gloomy skies were indeed gloomy, and the meaningless conversations from the sidewalks indeed meaningless. In those days, the stars hung high in the heavens, hiding their unforeseen presence from you. In those days, the smokestacks emitted their incurable breaths to suffocate the dwellers underneath the same dome. In those days, I forgot to greet you, my dearest friend. In those days, I stopped holding my chin in my palms, my forehead against the window sill while I cruised by. In those days, I betrayed you. In those days, I missed you. But those days… They were some days.
Sometimes, those days turned out to become years. Sometimes, it was one unsleepable night in bed. Sometimes, those days turned into a lifetime of waiting and forgetting. Sometimes, it was a knock on the door, but no one was there. Sometimes, it was a dream to the future, where I’d never come back. Sometimes, it was a looping rewind of the song that sang, “End over end, neither left or right / straight through the heart of them, righteous up rights / Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.” But every time something changes. Everytime I wish that there’d be some other time. Every time there was another time. Perhaps there was no such thing as sometimes. Perhaps when I boarded the ferry, the old captain was no longer there. Instead, his chief mate had taken over. Perhaps I found that the person who rode along with me had passed away. Perhaps the old dock man with his long white beard, who used to wave us goodbyes, had resigned and been replaced by the youngster who checked our tickets silently, no “goodbyes,” no “have a good day,” no nothing. Perhaps they stopped allowing us to go out onto the deck during the evenings. Perhaps the entire ride had to be shut down because bridges had been built, and no one ever rode them again, ever. Perhaps everything did and will change. Perhaps I had to start crossing the bridge again. The one assuring thing is, though, that I know that the spiral interchange up ahead would take me somewhere.
Dear River, I have one thing and one thing only to ask. I implore you, River, you who have bred all lives, all of us, all your children, please bury me in your stretched arms one day, to integrate my existence into yours.
Promise me, River, one day when my essence is truly depleted, when my history, my legend, and my story becomes even unworthy to be brought up in folklore tales, one day when I’m blown away in ashes, perhaps take me as one millionth of yourself, as you continuously wind through our joint lives. River, promise that you’ll carry me, all the time as your mystical power stretches out to the surface to keep us afloat, even as it did when we paddled against the swift currents in canoes; even as it did when the steam engines rumbled when the ocean liners sailed off; even as it still did when we took our leaps of faith from the bridges above, diving head down, hoping that you would forget, hoping that our memories would be eternally submerged at the bottom, where your constant swirls would mingle our existence with the rocks, the sand, and the rest of the forgotten lineages that once made up the history told on the cave walls at the foothills, that once had us tread on the path which no one wondered where it begins and where it ends.
But I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the night of the full moon and the clear navy sky, the fresh air that filled my lungs with the smell of lavender, the smell of freshly mowed lawn, the smell of pumpkin spice, the smell of overindulgence of candies on Halloween night, the smell of hot brewed cider with cinnamon sticks, the smell of manila pages in comic books, the smell of chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven, the smell of the swallowed mint toothpaste, the smell of laundry linen lingering on my pajamas, the smell of childhood… I’ll never forget the way the moonlight became strips of silver, strips of solemnity, entwining each other until they became but a smudge in the corner of my eye, only they weren’t. Instead, tears were then falling onto the wooden deck. I knelt down and tried to wipe them away, but nothing could help. Finally, I turned around and discovered that the last strip of silver had then disappeared underneath those railings in the back as well as those bright orange vests tied onto them. Somehow, every element in this picture seemed peculiarly fitting for such a moody and troublesome night on my River.
The Notes A Heart Writes
by Rachel Miller
Sometimes, I like to write notes. They’re short. Small. A few scratches of pencil on paper that falls behind my desk or under the sheets in my bed. They don’t mean much, but within the faint indents and behind the inconsequential words, something deeper hides.
Small scraps of paper filling my pockets, I wander down halls and corridors. I see friends, standing together and laughing. Right now, I could take out a pencil, write down a few words and move on. But, I have time tonight, as I do most nights, and the pencil and paper don’t leave my pockets and I don’t move on down the darkened corridors.
Spring and summer pass and as September starts, notes start to replace words I wish I’d said, people I wish I’d seen, and things I wish I’d done. They fall out of my pockets wherever I go and cling to my ankles and stick to the bottom of my shoes as I walk. I pass friends in hallways, talking and laughing, but all the words that come out of me are from my notes and I keep walking.
I walk further down the hallway, then up and up to the second, third, fourth floors, notes following me in a long trail behind me. When I reach a room and I sit down, I read my books, do my work, all the while writing notes between algebra and citations.
People glance at these notes, but they don’t see them like I do. They see them as excuses. Their cries for the work to end, the books to burn, to live life as it comes instead of constantly searching for the future falls on deaf ears. Instead, they tell me to keep working. That this is when it counts. The books, the calculators they gesture to, those are what “counts”, not some silly notes.
At home, I pass my family and notes drop off of my shoes and onto the carpeting. That autumn, as events occur, fun is shared, and bonds are strengthened, notes begin to fill the places I once stood.
As autumn turns to winter, the notes begin to stick to my skin as I walk. They’ve reached my shins now and, as I pick up my pencils and books, I can see them out of the corner of my eye, shifting up my legs all the while.
I don’t really control them anymore, and instead, they’ve begun to write themselves, filling in blank spaces between lines with forgotten hopes, crushed dreams, and broken promises. I glance at them every now and then between glances away from a keyboard and its computer.
It’s getting harder to walk now, with them growing on their own. They’ve grown in the wrong ways and for hours, even days at a time, their sticky backs cling to the tiled surfaces of hallways, leaving me trapped in place as time seems to move on without me.
As winter trudges on, I begin to fear that one day, I’ll be stuck. Covered in notes that have crept up my body as I locked myself away, replacing words, actions, and emotions with silly slips of pink and yellow paper.
I wrote what I wished I could do if I had the time, the opportunity, the ability. If I could tear myself away from my future and focus on the now. If I could live life like it’s meant to be.
But, I wrote those words for a reason. There’s a reason they went unsaid, un-acted, un-lived. Who says I want to focus on the now? If others wanted me to focus on the now? Really, the now really doesn’t seem to matter. Right now, the only thing that seems like it matters is the future.
But, as the notes consume me, I must confess. Sometimes, late at night, between the notes covering my mouth, I wonder aloud, “will I even have a future?”
teach me to take something ugly:
blood bone fat—
and make it beautiful.
I will take your children
and turn them into blood-streaked light.
—except now they will never be able
to sing my own children to sleep
with deep, swirling echoes and
a primal beauty that will inspire belief again
in the creatures of lore.
They said to call it
the right whale as in
right to hunt, because it did not know
to fight for its home
once men deemed the coast ours
with their sweat-slicked harpoons.
never mind its right to live.
I want my daughter to grow up
not with baleen corsets but with
that light in her eyes
as we stood on the beach, silent,
the glistening tail sinking back into the ocean.
Salt in her hair, sand scratching my throat,
as she asked me if the whale would come back.
What would it come back to?
It is not enough to stop hunting—
and leave nets of rope and oil and waste
floating like poison.
Six hundred left—
She has found more seashells in a day
than there are right whales in the world.
But she does not want the seashells.
– Cynthia Lu, 2019
a scarlet fire sparks at the brim of my iris
laced maple leaves, a sulfuric virus
frenzies of hues catch flame by flame
bouncing off a sunlit dreary-eyed dame
frozen gummies shiver at my touch
off-beat wind cracks as clogs of the dutch
gooey flesh numbs the weary, natured souls
skies' icy, pierced dome unearth musty, flickering coals
– Sanya Malhotra, 2018
Congratulations to Sanya for winning a Gold Key award in the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition last year!
by Mackenzie Brown
I couldn’t hear him. I remember running frantically through brambles and mud, getting dirty and bloody but crying so hard that I didn't notice at first. I remember screaming his name, “Alex! Alex! It’s Franny! Where are you?!” And I remember tripping over something. And my breath catching in my throat. And being too afraid to get up and look back. He was so small. I thought it was a log or maybe a big rock but not an animal because it wasn't moving. I pushed myself up, shaking, vision blurry and arms trembling. Then I stood there, looking into the distance, the sun shining down, grass and leaves glistening from the rain last night like street lights fading in and out as the forest canopy blew in the wind. And for a quick moment, very far away, I thought I saw a flash of yellow reflecting off the top of his little blonde mop of hair. And a shiver passed through me as I blinked and tried to steady my gaze where he had been but was no longer. When I finally turned my head just enough to see out of the corner of my eye, all I remember was the hunter green of his raincoat and the blue of his shark rain boots and the yellow of his hair, flat on the ground.
The police came to ask us questions about why he would have gone out so late on his own. And about when we had last seen him. They said I should be glad I did not turn around and see his condition. They said I wouldn't have recognized my own brother. And it makes me feel, even now, like maybe I should have, like maybe I owed it to him because I didn't stop him from going in the first place. I feel like it was my fault he died.
For nights I lay awake, unable to shut my eyes because I could see his little body face down in the dirt and his hair matted and wet and I would jolt up, screaming. But eventually the dreams went away and for a month or two long after it happened I could get to sleep for a few hours at a time without the guilt eating me awake. That was, until the night I stopped dreaming and I started seeing. Seeing things that were real but felt like dreams.
I woke up in the middle of the night, something I had become used to. To cope I just stare into my ceiling and lay there until my eyelids become heavy. I try not to think about anything at all. But I felt it, the sickness swelling in me, and the furious tears stinging in my eyes. Then the flashes came. Yellow hair. Blue boots. Green coat. Yellow hair. Blue boots. Green coat. Wouldn't even recognize him. My own brother. Didn't want to see his condition. Yellow hair. Blue boots. Green coat. I could see him, the forest eating him up. I had nightmares like this before but this was different. My eyes were wide open and the tears were streaming all around my face and I was trembling because I was awake. But I was seeing him. And then I heard him.
“I kept yelling for you, Franny, but you ran right past me. You pushed me. And I fell. You didn't help me, Franny. Why? Did I do something wrong?” He was standing at the foot of my bed, eyes teary, yellow hair gleaming in the moonlight from my open window. “NO!” I shrieked and shot up and reached out for him. “NO! It was me! It was all my fault, I’m sorry!” But right before I could wrap my arms around him he was gone.
I looked down at the edge of my bed and he had collapsed onto the floor face down, and there was rain coming from nowhere and he was all wet and he was sinking into the floor. I cried out again. My parents burst into my room.
That’s how they found me, “in shock.” Staring at the ceiling lying in my bed but shrieking through closed lips and crying desperately. They said I was having a fit of violent tremors. And it never stopped. I would see the yellow hair, the blue boots, the green coat then suddenly I would be gasping for air, screeching as loud as I could with my mouth shut tight and writhing. They said it was a sleep disorder but I was not asleep. And I was not lying still. I was running through the drenched forest calling out for him and seeing him right in front of me then behind a nearby tree then sinking into the forest floor then behind me. And I was always too late.
* winner of the first Highpoint Scary Short Story contest, Halloween 2018