• Pure Fiction: 2 Tales of Horror and Dread

    A pregnant woman's hopes for a new beginning turns tragic, while a child's murderous past continues to haunt her.
    by Summit Books .
  • Pure Fiction: 2 Tales of Horror and Dread
  • The following excerpts can be found in the new book All That Darkness Allows, a great collection from Summit Books for anyone into horror stories.

     
    FIRE TREE by Weng Cahiles

    We’ll take it,” I found myself saying after scanning the house, my mind already racing with design ideas. The wooden floors and white walls looked like the perfect canvas for the home John and I had in mind. The bookshelves would dominate the living room. The couch would make a comfy nook by the large windows. Decor and picture frames would hang like dainty earrings on the wall. This is what we needed—a space to call our own instead of the space John asked for when I learned of his affair with a student. 

    John asked for a second chance and I immediately thought that everything should be brand new. We needed a clean slate. He agreed to my plan without hesitation, grateful that I wasn’t making it too hard for him. He left the house hunting to me. Happiness was what I felt when I entered the bungalow. The sizable yard was inviting, the brown gate had a big number 3 etched rather proudly at the top, and the stone walls were entirely covered with ivy. A fire tree near the gate framed the entrance perfectly, a touch of red in the scenery. 

    Rebecca, the real estate agent, wouldn’t stop talking to me about the house.  “You’ll love it! I can already imagine you sitting in the garden on Sundays as you watch your kid run around. Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” 

    The pregnancy wasn’t planned. The shock of the affair left us desperate to fill the gaping hole in our relationship with the presence of a child. That maybe if we weren’t good at the role of husband and wife, we could be better as mother and father. Here we were, six months into our new roles, assuming positions in the dots allotted for us in the stage play of our new life.

    When we arrived, two women were waiting for us by the gate. The older one appeared to be in her 60s, wearing a black blouse too big for her small frame. Her skirt seemed to sweep the floor. I assumed that the other woman, who looked just five years older than me but more tired, was the owner. 

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    “Alice, this is Andrea Florendo, the owner of the house,” Rebecca said. 

    “Good afternoon. I can’t wait to see the entire house. It looks lovely from the outside.” She didn’t say anything, just smiled a very curious smile and then pointed to my tummy.  

    “How far along are you?” she asked. 

    “Just three more months to go, which is why I am rushing to move. I don’t want to live in our little apartment once the baby is born.” 

    “Perfect. You’ll love it here. This is Anita, the home’s caretaker. She’s been here since I was a baby. She knows this home better than I do. She’ll give you a tour of the house. I’ll just stay here. I get tired too easily. You can ask me your questions after the tour.” 

    We checked all the rooms, exploring the first and second floors, looking into the kitchen, taking a peek at the bathrooms, admiring the bedrooms, and checking out the backyard. Andrea was outside by the fire tree, looking up at it, her mouth moving slowly as if she were in a trance. We just stood there, watching her. 

    Anita went outside to get her. Andrea took Anita’s hand and held it with her eyes closed. She was fighting back tears as Anita touched her right shoulder. Anita gestured towards us and they both walked back inside. 

    “I’m sorry about that,” Andrea said. “I have not been feeling well the past few months. Have you ever waited for something so long that it just consumes you?” 

    “I’ve been waiting to see my baby. It’s all I could think of lately.” 

    “That is a beautiful kind of waiting. The kind of waiting I did terrified me. But it’s okay now because you are here,” she said with a sad smile. We stood there for a few minutes, quietly respecting her feelings. 

    The tinkling of silverware broke the silence as Anita prepared coffee. As I was waiting for it to cool down, I looked towards the direction of the big window facing the yard. A low cabinet was lined with several photos. I went up to take a closer look. I picked the one that had the most people in it. The photo was from a children’s party, judging from the candle on the cake. Behind the birthday cake was a boy with a party hat, white shirt smeared with red stain. On his left were four children, all looking to blow the candle the same time he did. At the little boy’s side was Andrea Florendo, younger and with longer hair. 

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    In the photo, Mrs. Florendo was the only one who wasn’t looking at the camera. Everyone else was aware of the celebration happening, gesturing towards the photographer or pooled around the celebrant. Except Mrs. Florendo, who was staring at something to the right side of the photo, a look of fear immortalized on her face. 

    “That was taken during Jack’s third birthday,” Andrea explained. “He looks so happy there. I remember telling him not to wear that white shirt because he’d get spaghetti sauce all over it. He cried because it was his favorite. What kind of mother would I be if I let my only son cry during his birthday? I remember washing that shirt myself after the party.” 

    “How old is he now?” I asked. 

    “He’s five now.” 

    “I hope you don’t mind me asking this, but what are you looking at in this photo? You look scared.” 

    “I just saw someone I was afraid would come to his birthday.” 

    “An uninvited guest?” 

    “Not really. He was going to come even if I didn’t want him to. I knew I would be seeing him, but that didn’t make the sight of him any less alarming. But enough of that. What do you think of the house? I guess you could never find another house of this kind for the price I am selling it for. I just want to get this over with so I could be with my son.” 

    “I told Rebecca that I liked it very much and my husband would like it as well,” I replied. “I guess we’re buying it.” 

    “Are you sure?” 

    “Yes.” 

    Andrea looked at Anita and nodded. 

    “Sit down,” Andrea said. “I have to tell you something, but only if you are sure that you want this house. You cannot change your mind after you hear what I have to tell you.” 

    I kept silent and felt the baby kick in anticipation. 

    “This home comes with a story which you will have to keep with you as long as you are here. The story I will tell you will seal the deal. You must understand that after I tell you the story and you decide that you don’t want this place, you cannot undo it. The story is a kind of lock. You cannot open it because the key is with me.” 

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    I nodded, hypnotized. We all sat down by the dining table, except for Anita who stood behind Andrea. Rebecca was the unwilling participant, wide-eyed in her confusion. 

    In our circle, the story unfolded, the four of us hearing the horror in different ways: some in remembrance, the others in expectance. As she told the story, there was silence. All that could be heard was the voice of a mother desperate to finally let out a secret. 

     

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    THE INVITE by Marla Miniano 

    We have good days and bad days, my mother and I. Today was good, mostly. She made chicken noodle soup for lunch and in the afternoon we baked a blueberry pie while she taught me that song about the four and twenty blackbirds. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king? She laughed when I did, brushing the hair off my face, her hands smelling like sugar and patience and milk. My mother’s laughter is elusive, a prize I’ve always felt I had to win.

    I pull the blanket up to my chin, smiling at my mother perched at the foot of my bed. Today was good, mostly, all warm broth and silly songs and freshly picked fruit, and we’ve managed to make it to bedtime. I tell myself that it wouldn’t hurt to try:

    “Can Fiona come over tomorrow?” I ask.

    And just like that, it is no longer a good day. My mother’s pale face clouds with anger, her eyes flashing, her mouth settling into a tight, menacing line.

    “I know it’s not a good time,” I rush to continue. “But I’ll help you clean the house from top to bottom and maybe you don’t even need to serve snacks and if you want we can even stay in the front yard and play and you won’t even know we’re here, I promise. It’ll be okay.” I say all of this in one swift breath, before I can lose my nerve.

    A beat, in which my mother refuses to give me an answer. “Or maybe I can go to her house,” I add as a last resort, knowing I’ve already lost the battle.

    “You’re not going anywhere,” she snaps at me, switching my bedside lamp on. My room seems colder all at once, and when she leaves I will switch off the lamp, turn the lights back on, and drift off to sleep soaked in brightness. “It’s time for bed. Ms. Sally will be here early in the morning.”

    Ms. Sally visits on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from eight to eleven in the morning. Before I met her I didn’t know there were people who were paid to help other people make sense of their sadness. Grief counselor, a nurse at the hospital whispered to me a few days after the accident. For you and your mother. But my mother does not want to talk to Ms. Sally on Tuesdays and Thursdays, choosing that time instead to lock herself up in her room, emerging at exactly 10:55 AM to watch us pack up, her eyes glassy, one hand resting absent-mindedly on her hip.

    I haven’t told Ms. Sally about Fiona. Maybe I should. She keeps asking questions about me, about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, and I’m not always sure how to answer her. Maybe it would help if we talk about other things.

    “Hey,” she says, her face lighting up. “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Friday. You should do something fun.”

    “Well, I’ve been wanting to hang out with Fiona, but I’m not allowed to.”

    “Who’s Fiona?” Ms. Sally asks. “And why doesn’t your mother like her?”

    “She’s my friend,” I reply. My only friend, I almost add. “She’s okay, she’s just a bit…different, I guess.” 

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    “Different how?” 

    I am about to answer when my mother appears in the doorway of her room. I glance at the clock -- 10:55 AM, right on schedule. She clears her throat. Ms. Sally closes her notebook, today’s page still blank, and starts gathering her papers. Her plastic jug of water is still full, her pale pink dress still immaculate. I wanted to tell her about Fiona, about her porcelain skin and crimson lips and tight pigtail braids and rose-scented perfume, about the purple windbreaker she always wears no matter how hot out it is, about her tranquil laugh that still manages to permeate the silence I’ve built around myself since the accident. Ms. Sally gives me a look that says, Be patient. We’ll do better next time. 

    She drives away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and smoke. Out of the corner of my eye I see Fiona emerge from the bushes in her purple windbreaker, her face red from the heat of the midday sun.

    “Who was that?” she asks.

    “What are you doing here?” I ask at the same time.

    I answer first. “That was Ms. Sally, my…math tutor.”

    She nods, and for a split-second I see something flicker across her face -- annoyance? suspicion?—but the moment passes and she smiles at me, seeming satisfied. “I’m picking you up,” she says. “We’re going to my house, remember?”

    “I can’t,” I say, not looking at her. “My mother won’t let me.”

    “You haven’t even been to my house,” she says. “Ever. Not once.” It sounds like a threat, or an accusation, or both.

    “I know. I’m sorry.”

    “Let me talk to your mother,” she insists. “All my other friends will be there. You need to meet people. I know you don’t hang out with anyone else and that’s just—”

    “No,” I cut her off. “That’s a terrible idea.”

    “—sad. Come on. You’ll like my friends. They’re really nice.”

    “No,” I say again, louder, harsher than I intended. “I don’t want her to get mad,” I add in a softer voice. I don’t want it to be a bad day. Fiona sighs. “Okay,” she says, studying my face the way Ms. Sally does sometimes, as if trying to find answers. “I’ll be back next week? We’ll try again.” She turns and leaves, and it is just me and my mother again in this house that never stops reverberating with things left unsaid, the looming hours crowding above and around us like a thick canopy of trees. The faint smell of roses hangs in the air. We’ll try again. We’ll do better next time.

    “I’m so sorry I’m late,” Ms. Sally says, out of breath, on her next visit. Raindrops run down her face, dripping onto her neck.

    “No, it’s okay,” I say. “I’m just glad you’re here.” And then I burst into tears.

    She pulls me into her arms, stroking my back, and when we pull apart we are both drenched and shivering. “Has it been that bad?” she asks. “It’s been bad,” I tell her. “Really bad.” We both glance at my mother’s bedroom door, steadfast in its impermeability, like someone standing straight with arms crossed tight across his chest. “She went out for a glass of water on Sunday morning, but she’s been locked in there most of the time,” I continue. “She hasn’t said a single word to me. And she hasn’t eaten anything. I’m so worried about her.”

    “We don’t have much,” I say. Thunder roars outside, making us both jump. I smile. “But we do have flour. Eggs. Sugar. Chocolate chips…” “Cookies are my absolute favorite,” Ms. Sally says, smiling, too. Her eyes sparkle with excitement, a stark contrast to the gloomy skies, the torrential rain, my mother’s door that refuses to open. My father would have liked her. 

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    By nighttime, the rain still hasn’t let up. Ms. Sally peers out the window, her brows furrowed. Her car faces us, a rust-colored question mark: Should we stay or should we go?

    I don’t want her to leave. “Why don’t you spend the night here?” I say tentatively. “It doesn’t seem safe to drive in this weather.”

    She studies me, brows still furrowed. “You might be right,” she finally says, and inside I do a happy dance. “Are you sure it’s okay? Your mother—”

    “My mother won’t even leave her room,” I cut in. We both know this is true.

    I haul sheets, pillows, and a comforter from the upstairs closet, sniffing them surreptitiously to make sure they don’t smell like mothballs or old perfume. Together we transform the couch into a comfortable, inviting bed, and Ms. Sally kicks off her loafers and gratefully sinks into it. I sit on the floor by her feet, resting my chin on one knee.

    “This feels just like the sleepovers I used to have with my friends,” she says. “When was your last sleepover with your friends?” “Actually,” I hesitate. “I haven’t really hung out with anyone since the accident. Except Fiona, but she’s not allowed to stay here and I’m not allowed to go to her house.” I bite my lip. “She’s my only friend.”

    “Listen to me,” Ms. Sally says, fixing her gaze on me, her tone urgent but kind. “You’ll make new friends. You will. You have to believe that.”

    “But none of the other kids like me,” I mutter under my breath. “They think I’m the daughter of a murderer.” 

    Grab a copy of All That Darkness Allows, P250, now available in bookstores. For more information, follow Summit Books on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. 

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    THE INVITE by Marla Miniano 
    We have good days and bad days, my mother and I. Today was good, mostly. She made chicken noodle soup for lunch and in the afternoon we baked a blueberry pie while she taught me that song about the four and twenty blackbirds. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king? She laughed when I did, brushing the hair off my face, her hands smelling like sugar and patience and milk. My mother’s laughter is elusive, a prize I’ve always felt I had to win. 
    I pull the blanket up to my chin, smiling at my mother perched at the foot of my bed. Today was good, mostly, all warm broth and silly songs and freshly picked fruit, and we’ve managed to make it to bedtime. I tell myself that it wouldn’t hurt to try: 
    “Can Fiona come over tomorrow?” I ask. 
    And just like that, it is no longer a good day. My mother’s pale face clouds with anger, her eyes flashing, her mouth settling into a tight, menacing line. 
    “I know it’s not a good time,” I rush to continue. “But I’ll help you clean the house from top to bottom and maybe you don’t even need to serve snacks and if you want we can even stay in the front yard and play and you won’t even know we’re here, I promise. It’ll be okay.” I say all of this in one swift breath, before I can lose my nerve. 
    A beat, in which my mother refuses to give me an answer. “Or maybe I can go to her house,” I add as a last resort, knowing I’ve already lost the battle. 
    “You’re not going anywhere,” she snaps at me, switching my bedside lamp on. My room seems colder all at once, and when she leaves I will switch off the lamp, turn the lights back on, and drift off to sleep soaked in brightness. “It’s time for bed. Ms. Sally will be here early in the morning.” 
    She turns off the lights without saying good night. The door shakes on its hinges as she slams it behind her, the floorboards creaking and moaning in response like a disgruntled old man who is too weak, too weary to fight. 
    I wake up tired, like I always do. The lights are off, warm sunshine streaming in through my window. I think about my mother coming into my room in the middle of the night to check on me, carefully switching the lights off as she leaves, and almost smile. We have good days and bad days, my mother and I. 
    Every morning I hope for the former. 
    The house is quiet, like it always is. Downstairs my mother is sitting at our small wooden table for two, spreading butter on thick slices of toast, the bread knife making a soft, scraping sound that barely fills the kitchen. Her stark black hair falls over the right side of her face, temporarily covering the cuts that will never fully heal and the scars that will never completely fade, and from where I stand she looks ethereal, beautiful even in the ratty ivory dressing gown she has worn every day since the accident. 
    She pushes the plate stacked with toast toward me. I take a piece and bite into it, feeling the melted butter slide down my throat. 
    “Did you sleep well?” she asks. I nod, not wanting her to worry. 
    The doorbell rings, piercing the silence we have grown accustomed to. We both jump out of our seats. “I’ll get it,” I say, running to the door. 
    Ms. Sally visits on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from eight to eleven in the morning. Before I met her I didn’t know there were people who were paid to help other people make sense of their sadness. Grief counselor, a nurse at the hospital whispered to me a few days after the accident. For you and your mother. But my mother does not want to talk to Ms. Sally on Tuesdays and Thursdays, choosing that time instead to lock herself up in her room, emerging at exactly 10:55 AM to watch us pack up, her eyes glassy, one hand resting absent-mindedly on her hip. I always secretly hope she would ask Ms. Sally to have lunch with us, to save her a seat at the dining table and scoop heaping servings of rice and stew onto her plate while we talk about calmer, happier things. But the invitation never comes. 
    Ms. Sally’s hair is always in a loose bun, and she wears vintage floral button-down dresses, tan sandals, no makeup. She has a slender waist and tiny handwriting that curves to the left, and when she sits on the floor she makes sure to tuck her skirt beneath her legs. She strikes me as dedicated and competent, yet gentle and compassionate, and though she has years of practice ahead of her, I imagine her sitting behind a mahogany desk in her own office someday, successful and famous. Her potential for greatness is palpable, and I often wonder whether or not I deserve to have someone like her in my life, or at least in my house on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 
    She beams at me from the front porch, carrying a stack of brown envelopes and a plastic jug of water. I lead her to the living room. The floor hasn’t been swept in days, and I look at Ms. Sally’s immaculate, pale pink dress and frantically try to brush the dust and stray hair strands off the floor with my fingers. 
    “Stop,” she says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “There’s no need for that.” I can’t tell if she feels sorry for me. I don’t want her to. 
    We sit on the floor and talk about things we’ve talked about in our previous sessions, things that didn’t make me feel anything the first time I heard them but are slowly starting to wrap themselves around me like a fleece blanket, like a loved one’s sturdy arms. The word ‘bereavement’ comes from an ancient German word that means ‘to rob’ or ‘to seize by violence.’ There are Four Tasks of Mourning according to William Worden: accepting the loss, experiencing the pain of grief, adjusting to life without the deceased, and moving on while maintaining a connection to the deceased. 
    It’s not your fault that you’re sad. It’s not your fault that you’re angry. 
    It’s not your fault. 
    The word ‘bereavement’ comes from an ancient German word that means ‘to rob’ or ‘to seize by violence.’ That is exactly how it feels to have someone’s life snatched away from you. 
    Your grief is normal. 
    It’s not your fault. 
    I haven’t told Ms. Sally about Fiona. Maybe I should. She keeps asking questions about me, about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, and I’m not always sure how to answer her. Maybe it would help if we talk about other things. 
    Today I haven’t given Ms. Sally anything new to work with; I know this because she hasn’t written anything in her leather-bound notebook since she got here. Her pen is poised above the page that remains blank except for the date underlined twice, waiting for something, anything worth jotting down. “Hey,” she says, her face lighting up. “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Friday. You should do something fun.” 
    “Well, I’ve been wanting to hang out with Fiona, but I’m not allowed to.” 
    “Who’s Fiona?” Ms. Sally asks. “And why doesn’t your mother like her?”
    “She’s my friend,” I reply. My only friend, I almost add. “She’s okay, she’s just a bit…different, I guess.” 
    “Different how?” 
    I am about to answer when my mother appears in the doorway of her room. I glance at the clock -- 10:55 AM, right on schedule. She clears her throat. Ms. Sally closes her notebook, today’s page still blank, and starts gathering her papers. Her plastic jug of water is still full, her pale pink dress still immaculate. I wanted to tell her about Fiona, about her porcelain skin and crimson lips and tight pigtail braids and rose-scented perfume, about the purple windbreaker she always wears no matter how hot out it is, about her tranquil laugh that still manages to permeate the silence I’ve built around myself since the accident. Ms. Sally gives me a look that says, Be patient. We’ll do better next time. 
    Usually Miss Sally waves a cheerful goodbye and heads out the front door on her own, but today I decide to walk her to her car. It is old and the rust paint is faded and chipped, and there are bugs on her windshield. It occurs to me that I do not know where she lives, and yet it seems inappropriate to ask. There is no ring on her finger; I can only hope that she is going home to a happy family, a cozy bed, maybe a small, fluffy dog who would start wagging its tail when her car’s headlights appear in the distance. Somehow it pains me to think she may be spending all her nights alone in a cramped rented apartment in a seedy part of town, then waking up in the morning to make too much coffee for herself, pouring the excess down the drain because who else is going to drink it? 
    She drives away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and smoke. Out of the corner of my eye I see Fiona emerge from the bushes in her purple windbreaker, her face red from the heat of the midday sun. 
    “Who was that?” she asks. 
    “What are you doing here?” I ask at the same time. 
    I answer first. “That was Ms. Sally, my…math tutor.” 
    She nods, and for a split-second I see something flicker across her face -- annoyance? suspicion?—but the moment passes and she smiles at me, seeming satisfied. “I’m picking you up,” she says. “We’re going to my house, remember?” 
    “I can’t,” I say, not looking at her. “My mother won’t let me.” 
    “You haven’t even been to my house,” she says. “Ever. Not once.” It sounds like a threat, or an accusation, or both. 
    “I know. I’m sorry.” 
    “Let me talk to your mother,” she insists. “All my other friends will be there. You need to meet people. I know you don’t hang out with anyone else and that’s just—” 
    “No,” I cut her off. “That’s a terrible idea.” 
    “—sad. Come on. You’ll like my friends. They’re really nice.” 
    “No,” I say again, louder, harsher than I intended. “I don’t want her to get mad,” I add in a softer voice. I don’t want it to be a bad day. Fiona sighs. “Okay,” she says, studying my face the way Ms. Sally does sometimes, as if trying to find answers. “I’ll be back next week? We’ll try again.” She turns and leaves, and it is just me and my mother again in this house that never stops reverberating with things left unsaid, the looming hours crowding above and around us like a thick canopy of trees. The faint smell of roses hangs in the air. We’ll try again. We’ll do better next time. 
    My mother and I don’t speak the whole weekend. I eat the leftover chicken noodle soup, leaving two ladles’ worth out at a time to thaw, because I don’t know where the microwaveable containers are and I know better than to knock on her door and ask. On Sunday evening I scrape the bottom of the pot and remember the blueberry pie. Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye. I crouch in front of the refrigerator, the kitchen illuminated by its dim glow, and stick a fork into the days-old pie. The blueberries sting my tongue, the crust crumbling, falling apart instantly inside my mouth. 
    The severe taste of blueberries lingers as I lie in bed with the lights on, waiting for sleep to come. Two more midnights and Ms. Sally will be here again. Maybe she can stay for lunch this time, or maybe we can take her car and head out. Somewhere nice, where a waiter will pull out our chairs for us and place napkins on our laps with a flourish. Maybe my mother won’t even mind. I feel exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing, I hum to myself as I close my eyes. 
    Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king, someone sings softly in response. A familiar giggle, and then the lights are switched off. I think about getting up to check if my mother is hungry—there is nothing in the fridge but pie—but convince myself I must be dreaming. My mother only sings on good days after all.
    When my father was alive, thunderstorms meant we could stay in bed all day, building pillow forts and slurping marshmallows off mugs of hot chocolate. He didn’t know how to bake, but he conspired with me in stealing cookie dough off the mustard yellow mixing bowl when my mother wasn’t looking, always a playful gleam in his eye. My mother always found out when he kissed her, because his mouth would taste like cookie dough and his smug smile would give too much away. She kissed him back anyway, and though I would cover my eyes and scream in pretend disgust, an equally smug smile would tug at the corners of my lips. 
    Now I pace back and forth in the living room, wondering if Ms. Sally is still going to show up. At half-past eight, her car pulls into the driveway, screeching to a halt. I fumble with the locks on the front door when I see her sprinting toward the house, wishing I could’ve brought an umbrella out to her. By the time she stomps her feet on the welcome mat, her hair is wet and her powder blue dress is soaked through, revealing a lacy camisole underneath and curves that she usually keeps concealed. I try not to stare. 
    “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says, out of breath. Raindrops run down her face, dripping onto her neck. 
    “No, it’s okay,” I say. “I’m just glad you’re here.” And then I burst into tears. 
    She pulls me into her arms, stroking my back, and when we pull apart we are both drenched and shivering. “Has it been that bad?” she asks. “It’s been bad,” I tell her. “Really bad.” We both glance at my mother’s bedroom door, steadfast in its impermeability, like someone standing straight with arms crossed tight across his chest. “She went out for a glass of water on Sunday morning, but she’s been locked in there most of the time,” I continue. “She hasn’t said a single word to me. And she hasn’t eaten anything. I’m so worried about her.” 
    Ms. Sally places a hand on my shoulder. “How about we whip something up in the kitchen? Something she won’t be able to resist?” 
    “We don’t have much,” I say. Thunder roars outside, making us both jump. I smile. “But we do have flour. Eggs. Sugar. Chocolate chips…” “Cookies are my absolute favorite,” Ms. Sally says, smiling, too. Her eyes sparkle with excitement, a stark contrast to the gloomy skies, the torrential rain, my mother’s door that refuses to open. My father would have liked her. 
    I knock on my mother’s door tentatively. One knock, two knocks, three. We hear the pounding of heavy, furious footsteps, and then the knob clicks and the door creaks open a few inches. Light tries to seep into her dark, cold room. Behind me, holding a plate of freshly baked cookies, Ms. Sally gasps audibly. She’s never seen my mother’s face up close—the livid scars, the tangled nest of pitch-black hair, lips and skin as pale as paper, those burning bloodshot eyes. 
    “What do you want,” she hisses at us. 
    “We just, uh, we were…” I stammer. 
    “We baked cookies,” Ms. Sally pipes up, her voice a notch smaller and higher than it usually is. “Chocolate chip. We were thinking you’d want some.”
    “I don’t fucking care what you think,” she spits out. The door slams in our faces, the sharp, unforgiving thud echoing through the house. By nighttime, the rain still hasn’t let up. Ms. Sally peers out the window, her brows furrowed. Her car faces us, a rust-colored question mark: Should we stay or should we go? 
    I don’t want her to leave. “Why don’t you spend the night here?” I say tentatively. “It doesn’t seem safe to drive in this weather.” 
    She studies me, brows still furrowed. “You might be right,” she finally says, and inside I do a happy dance. “Are you sure it’s okay? Your mother—” 
    “My mother won’t even leave her room,” I cut in. We both know this is true. 
    I haul sheets, pillows, and a comforter from the upstairs closet, sniffing them surreptitiously to make sure they don’t smell like mothballs or old perfume. Together we transform the couch into a comfortable, inviting bed, and Ms. Sally kicks off her loafers and gratefully sinks into it. I sit on the floor by her feet, resting my chin on one knee. 
    “This feels just like the sleepovers I used to have with my friends,” she says. “When was your last sleepover with your friends?” “Actually,” I hesitate. “I haven’t really hung out with anyone since the accident. Except Fiona, but she’s not allowed to stay here and I’m not allowed to go to her house.” I bite my lip. “She’s my only friend.” 
    “Listen to me,” Ms. Sally says, fixing her gaze on me, her tone urgent but kind. “You’ll make new friends. You will. You have to believe that.” 
    “But none of the other kids like me,” I mutter under my breath. “They think I’m the daughter of a murderer.” 
    She looks stunned, almost frightened, and yet she’s heard this all before, of course. She knows the story like the back of her hand: A rainy night like this one. My mother and father in a huge fight. My father at the wheel, my mother screaming at him. My father swerving, losing control, crashing the car into a school bus. Our Lady of Grace Elementary. A bridge, an overflowing ditch, jagged rocks. Both drivers dead. Seven children dead, too. 
    “And maybe I am,” I whisper, before bolting to my bedroom. The word ‘bereavement’ comes from an ancient German word that means ‘to rob’ or ‘to seize by violence.’ This time, I turn off the lights and let the darkness lull me to sleep. 
    I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of clicking. My bedroom is still dark, but in the faint light coming from the hallway I can make out a familiar silhouette. Fiona stands near the doorway, humming. Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. 
    “Your light switch is busted,” she tells me, sounding angry, as if this were my fault. Click, click, click. Still darkness. 
    I sit up, rubbing my eyes. “Fiona? How did you get in here?” 
    She laughs—a cold, ominous laugh that sends shivers traveling down my spine. I’ve never heard her laugh like that. “I invited myself in,” she says. “Considering you’d rather have your stupid math tutor over than me, your only friend. She left without even saying goodbye to your mother, by the way. So rude.”
    My heart leaps to my throat. “She left? Did my mother make her?” I jump out of bed and race down the stairs to see an empty couch and my mother standing in the middle of the living room, her eyes wild with rage and alarm. 
    “Why did you let her go?” I shout at her, my face mere inches from hers. “There’s a storm out; she shouldn’t be driving! Do you really want one more person to die?” 
    She lifts a hand and slaps me, hard. “I told you not to let her in.” “She’s been coming over for months,” I say, my voice trembling. “She likes me. She takes care of me when you can’t.” 
    “Not Ms. Sally,” my mother says. “Her.” She points at the staircase, on top of which Fiona stands in a white button-down shirt and a plaid skirt, watching us. Her purple windbreaker is draped over one arm. “I’m doing you a favor,” Fiona tells my mother, walking over to us. “That math tutor wants to steal your daughter from you. From us. We can’t let her do that.” As she comes closer I notice the red stains on her shirt, the patch that reads Our Lady of Grace Elementary. 
    The doorbell rings, and an enormous grin descends on Fiona’s face. She yanks the front door open to reveal a group of girls wearing the same white button-down shirt and plaid skirt, the same knee-high white socks and black Mary Janes. The same vacant stares. 
    “Oh, and you didn’t want to come over to my house to meet my friends, so I hope you don’t mind that I invited them here instead,” she says gleefully. “All six of them.” 
    She opens the door wider and ushers them in. 
    My mother grabs my hand and squeezes it. I feel her soft, warm palm against mine, the same palm that crashed into my cheek just a few seconds ago. She squeezes my hand again and looks at me, and in her eyes I think I catch a flicker of repentance. Hope. Her hair is pushed back from her face and I can see all her scars mapped out clearly, count them one by one. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day. I shut my eyes tight and squeeze back.
    ---
    GOING DOWN by Kara Ortiga 
    I got a curious e-mail from Kia late Tuesday evening. She was inviting me to meet up with her so that she could tell me a story that I might be interested in pursuing since I’m a writer with a knack for covering the absurd. She said that something weird had happened to her and she wanted to share it with me. When I probed for more details, she hesitated, and said it was best if we met in person. 
    Kia was an ex-girlfriend from college. She broke it off because she had caught me making out with her roommate, Amanda (yes, my bad) in their dorm room, and she hadn’t spoken a word to me since. That was more than five years ago. So this—her shooting me an e-mail to ask if I was interested in doing a story—was really quite odd.  
    She said she was up in Baguio, staying in the city for a stopover before an adventure to conquer Mt. Pulag. She wanted me to meet her there as soon as I could catch a bus. 
    Something was definitely up. She hadn’t spoken to me in years, and now she wanted me to go all the way north to see her. I figured this was the sort of weird material that could make for a great story. I admit, I was curious—and not just about her story. 
    I wondered what Kia was up to now, what she looked like, how she had been after all these years. I wondered if her light freckles still came out under the sun, or if she was still a nervous wreck about small things. It was an incredibly weird request on her part, but I convinced myself it was worth it anyway. I would really be pissed off if this were just another networking ploy. 
    Just a few minutes after our e-mail exchange, I found myself headed to the Cubao bus station, booking a ticket for Baguio. 
    I decided to set up our rendezvous at one of the neighborhood cafés—a quiet space nestled inside a cozy village that could serve not just a mean coffee, but also a decent drink. I had arrived in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, at around 5 AM, and she agreed to meet up at once. I was nursing a black arabica and almost fell asleep from fatigue as I waited for her, until I saw a frail figure walking towards me. She looked gaunt, with dark, heavy rings around her eyes, but her mestiza beauty was still ravishing. It was Kia. I was excited to talk to her again. She smiled at me, we hugged, and then she sat across the table. 
    “Thanks for coming all the way here, Fran,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you were really going to come up.” 
    “Well, only you know how to spark my curiosity.” 
    Her demeanor seemed to have changed since we dated. She looked more soft-spoken, her spirit somber. She sat in silence and looked at me with her light brown eyes. 
    “Your e-mail sounded urgent. Are you okay?” I asked. 
    She looked out the café window. “I’m not sure, actually. I just had no one else to call and I really wanted to see you. It was a long shot.” She smiled and I smiled back. I forgot that Kia was seeing a therapist while we were dating. She used to get ridiculous anxiety attacks and she had a problem sharing her feelings with other people. I was chuffed that she had chosen me to unburden her story. 
    “You look a bit tired,” I said. 
    “Well, I’m a bit shaken up,” she answered, rubbing her arms to warm them from the cold. 
    I wanted to ask her so many things—where she was working now, was she seeing anyone, why the bizarre reunion—but I decided to save them for later. “Glad to hear you’re okay,” I said, reaching over to her. “Tell me, what’s up?” 
    And then Kia began to tell me a story that was, as she had disclosed, quite strange. 
    It all began last Saturday night, when she woke up in her hotel room covered in cold sweat. It took her a while to remember where she was: at the Pine Woods Hotel—a gloomy space inspired by Art Deco architecture, erected along a major highway. It was the type of place that overdid the interiors: massive glass chandeliers in every room, plush carpets, animal heads hung on the walls like trophies, and old leather chairs reeking of dust. Her room was no better—stuffy and musty. Before she fell asleep, she ordered some room service for dinner and ate it while watching a rerun of Transformers. But somehow, somewhere in between, she says, she must’ve fallen asleep. Because next thing she knew, she was awoken from a bad dream, heavily breathing, and sweating like crazy, so much so that her sheets were drenched. 
    “What was your dream about?” 
    “I don’t remember, but that’s not important,” she told me. 
    She remembered that the dream was hard to shake off. “When I woke up, it was raining so hard outside, and the place just felt so eerie, you know?” 
    I nodded. 
    “So then I sit up, and I find out that the Transformers movie hadn’t even started yet,” she said, and then she paused. 
    I waited for her to continue. “I had only been asleep for less than five minutes,” she said. 
    I was confused. 
    “A nap?” I suggested.
    “It was five minutes,” she said, her eyes growing bigger. “How could I have had that horrible dream, finished my dinner, woke up in my bed drenched in sweat, the weather going from pleasant to rabid rainfall—and not remember any of it—all under five minutes?” 
    It bothered her. She implied that this was an odd occurrence, without suggesting any reason, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Maybe it was her that was a little bit off. Maybe she had mistaken the amount of time she was asleep. Maybe the Transformers movie wasn’t a good gauge for time. Maybe she just didn’t remember finishing her dinner. Or maybe rainfall really does happen that fast. 
    “Okay,” I said. “So what happened next?” 
    She said that she went to the bathroom to wash up, and was ready to call housekeeping to have the sheets changed, but when she turned the faucet on, the water was dark brown, almost a murky black, that smelled absolutely vile. 
    “It stank like rotting food. It never cleared up even when I let the water run. I was so freaked out, so I tried to make a call to the lobby, but when I picked up the phone there was no dial tone. It was just the sound of silence—just like white noise.” 
    “That’s weird,” I said. 
    “And then I decided to just try to go to bed. My bus for Pulag was leaving at 2 AM anyway, all I had to do was suck it up,” she said. 
    “So did you?” I asked. 
    “I tried,” she said, shaking her head. “I jumped under the blankets and tried to go to sleep. I left the TV on because I thought the sound would help me fall asleep. Eventually, I managed to do that. But I had another bad dream, and I woke up again, super sweaty, and this time, the room was completely pitch dark.” 
    “Brownout?” I asked. 
    “That’s what I thought. I checked my phone for the time and it was 12 midnight.” 
    At this point, Kia said she tried to switch on the lights, but nothing was working. The TV wouldn’t turn on. So she decided to leave her room and head downstairs to check what was up. But as soon as she stepped out of the hallway, she said she saw that all the lights in the hallway were still turned on. 
    “Weird,” I said again. “So it was just your room then?” 
    “It was just my room. I wanted to go down. I slipped into my hotel slippers and waited for the elevator. And while I was waiting for the elevator—it took forever—I remember feeling this very cold draft on the back of my neck,” she continued, gesturing towards her nape. 
    I finished the last few sips of my coffee and ordered another one, and then lit my first cigarette of the day. As she was telling me the story, I suddenly had a crazy flashback of how Kia used to be when we were dating. How could I forget that she had the tendency to be like this? She would call me up, crying, hysterical, asking me to come over to her place for company. I would drive to her house to console her about small things, like failing an exam, or dealing with a dead pet fish. I suddenly wasn’t so surprised that she was acting this way—but here I was again, getting sucked into one of her neurotic tall tales. Maybe this time, she just really had no one else to talk to. As far as I knew, she didn’t have many friends. 
    “There was already this other guy there,” she said, continuing her story. “He was a youngish type, with a hoodie and a pair of headphones on. He was maybe around 21?” she guessed. “And so I went in the elevator. And again, it took forever, and it stopped on the 10th floor. This couple in their mid-30s hopped on, with a daughter around four years old, all of them dressed in their pajamas. The elevator stopped on another floor again, where this girl with dark red lips and knee-high boots and a fur coat got on, too.” 
    “Okay…” I said, tapping my fingers impatiently. 
    Then she looked me straight in the eye. 
    “And then, out of nowhere, the light in the elevator flickered,” she said. “And then there was a loud bang. The elevator stopped moving, and we could hear its mechanism making loud cranking noises. Suddenly, it felt like we were free falling, as if the cables had given up! Our bodies were flying and we were thrashing inside the elevator. It happened so fast! I remember hitting the walls, like I was inside a washing machine. The little girl was screaming the whole time, and her mom was hugging her tight.” 
    “Are you serious?” I asked, suddenly alarmed. “Are you okay?” I looked at Kia’s arms and noticed that there was a smattering of light bruises on them. How could I have not seen that a while ago? 
    “When it finally stopped, we were all in shock,” she said. “The light stopped flickering and we were all on the floor trying to catch our breaths. And the elevator was completely still. The girl with the fur coat was like, ‘What the fuck was that? What the fuck?’ She just kept panicking and cursing and she was hyperventilating. The guy with the earphones kept fiddling with the buttons on the side of the door. We all started screaming. We all kept yelling and banging at the door, ‘HELP US, HELP US, WE’RE STUCK IN HERE! HELP!’” 
    I reached for Kia’s hands. 
    “We pushed the emergency button, but nothing was happening. The girl in the fur coat was on her cellphone, trying to get a signal. The mom held her daughter closely, rocking her, saying, ‘It’s okay na, anak. Don’t cry na. Finished na.’” 
    Kia said they panicked and yelled for help for what she felt was about 30 minutes. Then the two guys tried to pry the doors open. But when they got it open, all they saw was a cement wall, with a giant red X spray painted on it. They looked for other possible openings, but there were none. After two hours inside the elevator, they all began to lose hope. 
    “The little girl started vomiting,” she said, “and her mother was saying she had a spiking fever.” Kia remembered feeling her chest tighten, as if she were running out of oxygen, the elevator feeling smaller and smaller. 
    “And then what happened?” I asked.
    “And then I passed out. I just blacked out. I don’t know what happened next. I just woke up and saw all of them seated on the floor around me, staring blankly into space. Defeated.” 
    At this point of the story, Kia’s tone changed. “Do you know what I realized at that moment?” she said, looking up at me, as she leaned in closer to my face. “I just remembered why the hotel wasn’t so popular with the tourists.” 
    When she said this, the realization came to me as well. How could I have not pieced this together earlier? The Pine Woods hotel was built on the same land as the Hiddleston Terraces Hotel. 
    The Hiddleston Terraces was one of the most prominent structures in Baguio City in the ’80s, boasting a unique design that resembled the rice terraces, its rooms’ balconies overlooking a huge garden. Inside, the lobby was spacious and grand, stretching all the way up to the roof. It was a beautiful architectural piece and a favorite among tourists. But in 1990, when a massive earthquake shook most of Luzon, the Hiddleston Hotel came crashing down, pinning around 80 staff members and guests under its rubble. 
    Only a handful of survivors made it out. Some of them were trapped for a total of 14 days. In the news, one of the survivors recalled being pinned down and hearing the screams of the other people trapped around him. As the days passed, he said, the screams would lessen. He passed in and out of consciousness occasionally, and would count down the time every day. 
    After the Hiddleston Hotel was excavated, Pine Woods was built on the same land, hoping that the people could move on from the past and try to rebuild their lives. 
    Suddenly, Kia’s story was becoming more and more interesting. I always knew that she had the propensity to be a bit melodramatic, but at least this story had ties to the city’s tragic history. Maybe this wasn’t just one of her breakdowns after all. 
    “So what do you think?” she asked. “Do you have a story?” I thought about it. “How did you guys get out?” I wondered. She let out a sigh. “We just waited it out. I think we were there for five hours total. We already gave up, sure that we wouldn’t make it. We started praying. And then, the intercom started making sounds. At first just static noise, and then a muffled, ‘Hello.’ We all jumped to our feet and started crying and hugging each other. I was so happy to feel the fresh air from outside coming in as they pried the doors open. I ran outside and the people there, the staff, they started hugging me. I kept crying and crying. I was so tired, exhausted, and hungry. I was just so overwhelmed with everything. And then a doctor came and checked to see if I was okay.” 
    “So did they tell you why the elevator broke?” I asked. 
    She fiddled with her fingers. “That was the weird part,” she said. “They didn’t even know that the elevator was working. Out of the four elevators in the Hiddleston Hotel, only three were functional for many years. They never bothered to fix the last one, because they had no money, and the guests who came in and out were so few anyway. That’s why they didn’t think there was anyone stuck in the elevator until the CCTV cameras from each of our floors saw us walking into it.” 
    She was upset, obviously. I reached over to calm her down and hold her hand as tears began to well up in her eyes. 
    “I’m sorry to hear that, Kia,” I said, thinking that I would probably not want to step into an elevator for some time. I finished my last cigarette and told her I would check it out. I reassured her that I would drop by Pine Woods the next day to interview some people and see for myself. 
    We hugged each other goodbye and she gripped my hand. 
    “Thanks, Fran,” she said. “It was nice to see you again.” 
    I hopped into a cab and headed back to my hotel room, my mind struggling to decipher which parts of Kia’s story were true, and which ones might have been spun from her imagination. 
    The next day, I packed my things, and took a cab to head over to Pine Woods. I figured, as a journalist, the story might work better if I actually checked into the hotel. 
    From the outside, Pine Woods looked drab and dated, Kia’s description of the place completely on the nose. An unenthused bellboy at the entrance invited me in and directed me to the front desk, where I was met by another weary man, unshaven and with an oily forehead, who looked five minutes away from quitting his job. 
    “How may I help you, sir?” he asked in a deadpan tone. 
    “Yes, I am looking to check in.” 
    “Name please?” 
    “Fran Montenegros.” 
    He typed some things on an archaic computer for a very long time, before eventually grabbing some keys from a cupboard at the back. “You can check in at room 1404,” he explained. “Breakfast is served every day from 6 AM to 11 AM and the buffet table can be found at the third floor.” 
    I paused. 
    “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?” 
    I decided not to waste any time. 
    “Yes, actually, there is. I believe that there was an incident here last Saturday? A group got trapped in an unused elevator? An incident…of people getting stuck in your elevator,” I clarified, aware of how ridiculous I sounded and regretting not believing my gut instinct that Kia was overreacting. 
    “Um, no, sir, there was no such incident here po,” he said, a little bit more irritated at me now. 
    “But you have an elevator here that doesn’t work right,” I asked desperately. 
    He paused for a second. “Yes, sir.” 
    “So last Saturday, a group of people got st—” 
    “Sir, that elevator is not being used,” he said, interrupting me. 
    “Yes, I know that but there were people stuck there…” 
    “No, sir,” he said, interrupting me again. “We don’t use it, sir. It isn’t working.”
    Suddenly I was confused. Maybe Kia thought they were stuck for hours, but it must’ve only been five minutes? I struggled to think about what to do next. 
    “Did you have a guest named Kia De Jesus who checked in here last Saturday?” 
    The receptionist, clearly annoyed, started typing on his computer. He looked up at me with disdain after every few clicks, and then finally, his expression changed. His eyebrows furrowed. 
    “Yes, sir…she checked-in on…Saturday and was supposed to check out Sunday, but…” 
    He picked up the phone. 
    “Hello, Nards, pa-check naman if si room 1402 ay nandiyan pa rin sa kwarto niya? Hindi, kasi dapat Sunday pa siya nag-check out, pero hindi naman siya nagcheck out pa.  Basta pasukin mo ’yong kwarto, i-check mo nga.” 
    He waited. We waited. 
    “Wala? Andiyan pa rin mga gamit niya? Lahat?” he asked, his voice trailing off. 
    “I am a technician sent here by your boss to check the broken elevator,” I said, lying through my teeth. “Can we please have the doors opened now?” 
    Twenty-five technicians and mechanics were called to help pull the broken elevator to the ground floor by manually working its pulleys to ease the cart down. It took four people to pry its doors open and wedge it apart. Finally, when the doors opened, a stench emanated from inside. Six dead bodies were found on the elevator floor: a couple with a four-year-old girl, a college student on vacation, a businesswoman from Manila, and Kia, wearing the Beatles shirt I had given her. The CCTV cameras revealed that they had stepped into the nonfunctional elevator at midnight on Saturday, and that they were stuck inside for days with no water or food or oxygen.  
    The hotel staff asked me how I knew. I wasn’t sure where to begin.
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