Tuesday, October 31, 2017

They'll Never Cheer Again preview (Chapters 1-3)


 
TEN YEARS AGO
A brutal hazing incident leaves a freshman cheerleader hospitalized in a coma. In response, Casper Falls High School disbands both the football and cheerleading teams.

For a decade, the football field is quiet.


PRESENT DAY
The school board has voted to bring back the football team and its cheerleaders.

Ann Howard's twin sister, Lauren, is one of those new cheerleaders. While Ann deals with the challenges of being an openly transgender teen in a closed-minded small town, her sister's place on the squad and some of Lauren's new friends threaten the previously rock-solid relationship between the siblings.

Meanwhile, a murderous force has awoken, intent on vengeance and driven by a single powerful mantra: They Will Never Cheer Again.







Chapter 1

He closes the door behind him, gently pressing with his shoulder until the soft click, although there's no risk of waking the young woman in the bed behind him. She and he are alone at this hour, as they are every night. Alone except for the two sterile corridors of rooms outside with the other sedated, sleeping mentals within. He is the only staff on duty. George Bell. He's the overnight nurse at the Casper Falls Extended Mental Care Facility.

George rounds the end of the bed, his fingers trailing over the sheets covering the young woman's form. Over her left knee and up her leg and along the contours of her torso. He stops when he's standing even with her head, leans down and places a gentle kiss upon her forehead. "And how are we tonight, darling?"

Her soft breath is the only reply. Slight movement of eyes behind her closed lids. Blond hair is spread across one half of the pillow. The round curves of her breasts rise slightly, fall again.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," says George. He puts a hand out, gently cups the soft skin of her cheek, rubs a rough thumb over silken lips. "Thanks for asking, darling." His hand lingers a moment, feeling the warm skin under his own.

Sighing, George turns and sits himself down in the chair beside the bed. He twists in the seat to lift up the window a few inches, letting in the fresh air from without. The outside air is just barely warmer than that within the room. Yellow light from a pair of lamps in the empty parking lot shines bright enough to turn the nightsky starless. A soft rustling breeze passes through the trees.

George reaches into the pocket at his right hip, withdraws a crumpled nearly-empty pack of Marlboro Lights. He shakes one free. Turning towards the sleeping woman, he says, "You don't mind, do you?" and holds the slightly-bent cigarette up for inspection. Two or three heartbeats pass before he sticks the filtered end between his lips. A moment later, with the flame from his lighter brilliant in his eyes, he puffs the thing into life.

He sits in the cloud of smoke, listens to the distant sound of a car engine moving away on a nearby street, the light rustling leaves of another breeze, and feels the fresh breath of the night on his stubbled cheek. Beside him, the young woman's chest rises and falls, keeping time. He smokes his cigarette and sits in the shadowed, still room. Smoke fills the grey spaces between shafts of yellow outside-light that illuminate the darkness within.

For the length of a cigarette they remain like this: he, sitting, silent and contemplative, neglectful of his duties and protocol as the lone night nurse on duty; she, lying upon the bed, tucked beneath two thin sheets, unmoving, unresponsive, awake or asleep or both at once, it's difficult to say. The light from the parking lot outside splashes over the pale sheets, sketches out the shape of the woman underneath.

At last he drops the spent cigarette into a paper coffee cup with a swallow of cold joe still there in the bottom, hears the satisfying sizzle of the butt finding the liquid. He sets the cup aside.

"What do you say we watch some tv," he says, rising from the chair. Three steps take him to the far wall. He reaches up to power on the television. A woman's voice mid-sentence, corny music, and the images of a happy family appear on the screen. Fine print flashes on the bottom half of what is an advertisement warning of possible side effects, recommended dosage, and other directions for consumption. Ask your doctor. Or your night nurse, he thinks. He'll make you all better.

George returns to the young woman's side, pulls back a portion of the sheet. The pale skin of her left leg shines where the light from outside finds it. The smooth flesh disappears beneath the bottom edge of her hospital gown and the sheet beyond. He places his hand on the softness of her shin, moves his palm over the bump of her knee, and across the smooth surface of her thigh. His fingers bunch the hospital gown an inch or two higher.

There's a faint puddle of color on the sheets by her feet where the light from the television comes to rest. George turns his attention back to that screen of flashing images. His hand remains on the woman's exposed left leg, gently caressing. There's a face on the television screen now, a female news anchor seated behind her desk, clothed in red—not as pretty as the young woman right there beside him, but alive and speaking.

"In local news, this coming Saturday night marks the return of the Casper Falls High School football team to the field, as they host Conneaut Cathedral in the opening game of the season for both schools. It will be the first game for the Casper Falls Foragers in a decade, since both the football team and the cheerleading squad were disbanded in the aftermath of a hazing incident ten years ago. That incident saw one freshman cheerleader become the victim of a terrible and violent sexual and physical assault, with injuries so severe—"

George's hand slides over soft skin. "That's you they're talking about, darling," he murmurs.

"—remains in private care to this day. But local parents and school officials believed that the time was right to bring back the high school's football team, as well as its cheerleading squad."

A muscle in the bedridden woman's jaw twitches, although George's eyes remain fixed on the television and he doesn't notice.

On the screen, a local mother says, "Of course it was terrible, but I don't see why we should continue to punish our kids today for something that happened ten years ago."

And a bearded school board member filmed standing before the high school, his face somber, adds, "What happened was tragic, and it was terrible. But that's in the past. We need to think of our children attending Casper Falls High right now. And we on the school board felt they deserved a chance to participate in these extra-curriculars. Football and cheerleading are practically synonymous with American high school."

On the bed, the young woman's eyes are open now. Pale blue and unmoving, she seems to look up at the paneled ceiling of the small room with silent, unbroken interest.

Now the television is showing video of the Casper Falls High School football team practicing, recorded earlier: boys in thick pads and helmets crashing into one another, running and tackling, whistles sounding from offscreen, and coaches shouting instructions while gesturing with clipboards. And then the scene switches to a group of seven girls in the red and white colors of the Casper Falls Foragers, skirted and kicking, swinging pompoms in practiced arcs, jumping and tumbling, feminine voices calling out in unison memorized cheers.

The woman on the bed is staring at the ceiling as George's hand moves up her thigh and slides underneath the hospital gown, fingertips feeling the soft cotton fabric of her underwear.

"These seven girls," says the female news anchor on the television, while the images shown are of bouncing cheerleaders in their red and white uniforms, "are the first to cheer on the Foragers in a decade. Saturday, while the boys are battling the team from Conneaut on the football field, these seven excited teens will be performing their routines on the sidelines, hoping to cheer their team on to victory."

George stops his hand suddenly, fingers just beginning to curl under the elastic waistband of the woman's underwear, sensing an unfamiliar tensing of the body on the bed. He glances towards the pillow, sees the eyes open and staring up at the ceiling.

"Ah, you're awake, darling." He leans forward over the woman, brings his lips to hers. He feels the warm breath from her nostrils, trembling out of her. Breaking their lips' embrace, George leans away, studies the pale face beneath him. The open eyes stare upwards, unmoving. Unaware, he thinks. As always.

He pulls the sheet back, revealing the slight body underneath clad in a gray and blue hospital gown. His hand has pushed the bottom edge of the gown up near her waist, and her underwear and lean pale legs are completely uncovered.

From the television: "We're just happy to have a chance to cheer on our football team." George turns his head. A lanky blonde teen, skinny and thin, smiles with a hint of nervous energy towards the camera.

"We're all excited," says a dark-skinned girl, red and white ribbons tying up her thick black hair. "Let's go, Foragers!" A wide, pretty smile.

"These girls have worked their butts off," says the team's coach, a handsome middle-aged woman with fire-red hair. Another cut to video of the girls cartwheeling and kicking.

"Is that what you used to do, darling?" George asks, eyes remaining fixed on the television screen.

The red-haired coach is still talking. "Casper Falls High School has a cheerleading team again and I'm so happy. I think it's great."

"I wouldn't mind seeing you," George says, starting to turn his head, "in that cute little uniform of yo—"

The sheet wraps around his throat, choking off the end of his sentence.

His hands go to his neck, fingers try desperately to get underneath the sheet that is tightening around his throat, cutting off his breath. He makes frantic gasping choking noises.

He twists, falls onto the bed, across the bare legs of the woman.

She's sitting up. Her eyes are cold, blank pools. Her arms and shoulders shake with the tremendous force with which she is pulling taut the two ends of the sheet wrapped around his neck. Twisting and drawing it tighter.

"Never. Again." She hisses through clenched teeth, although her face remains unnaturally calm and flat. Her eyes are emotionless ice.

George makes hacking choking wordless pleas. One hand shoots out, grabs under the woman's chin, roughly forces back her head. Her grip doesn't lessen. He pounds her legs with his other hand, bringing fist and forearm down again and again onto shins, thighs. His fingers grab at the disordered covers, open and close, useless frantic tensing fists.

The shadows seem to close in around the edges of his vision. Stars begin to explode in his head.

He writhes and twists and fights.

Her grip never slackens. She makes no sign that she feels his blows, ignores the hand under her jaw pushing her head backwards and the fingers clawing at her chin.

"Never again," she says, a cold whisper that sounds as though it has traveled through the dead vacuum of space to arrive from a decade in the past.

George stops struggling. Slips limply into the beyond, across pale bare legs.

"It's a feel-good story," says the male anchor on the television screen, smiling at his colleague seated beside him. "Glad to see those kids getting a chance to play football again."

"Absolutely," agrees the female anchor. "Casper Falls plays Conneaut Cathedral on Saturday night."

"And the cheerleading team, too," says the man. "They'll be there."

"Yes, they will. Cheering on the boys."

"Alright, well, when we come back . . ."

And the young woman is sitting up in bed in her gray and blue hospital gown, her fingers still white-knuckled, gripping the sheet around George Bell's throat. A distant motorcycle engine growls somewhere through the night, and the lingering cigarette smoke makes the air in the room look as though its flowing like illuminated underwater currents.

Her eyes are open and focused towards the television.

She speaks again and her voice is an unwelcome memory spoken aloud, like frost on the grass in spring, which threatens all the fresh new growth of budding life. Her words are a whispered, remembered promise to herself:

"They will never cheer again."




Chapter 2

Ann Howard is standing in the lavender-scented upstairs bathroom of her home, examining the line of her jaw in the mirror above the sink. Checking out the angles and shape. Is there any difference yet? She can't really decide. Frowning, she pokes at a fresh zit that has appeared on her cheek and sees that the polish on her nail is beginning to peel. Her skin is terrible, she decides, and being bathed in the harsh glare of the uncovered bulb above the mirror doesn't help—it showcases all the tiny imperfections. She tilts her head back and feels with her fingertips the unwelcome shape of her masculine throat poking out like a vociferous traitor.

She fusses with her dirty blonde hair—it's almost dark enough to consider brown—pulls back the shoulder-length lob. Ann purses her lips at her reflection and turns her head slightly from side to side, checking out the contours of her cheekbones. Sighing, she lets her hair fall back again, framing either side of her face.

The white tanktop she is wearing reveals pale shoulders and prominent clavicles and only the subtle hint of breasts beginning to swell beneath. She smooths the shirt over her flat belly and looks down at her pale skinny legs poking out from the bottom of plaid boxer shorts. Her always-cold feet are safe and snug within thick black socks which come up just over the bumps of her ankles.

Outside the bathroom, from the hallway, she can hear the sound of her sister's voice. Talking on the phone again, thinks Ann. Popular Lauren is popular.

She exhales with audible frustration through her nostrils.

Returning her attention to the mirror, Ann brings her hands up to her budding breasts, tries to judge whether they've grown any larger in the last several weeks. A few months ago, she didn't even have breasts to speak of.

Lauren appears in the doorway, and Ann turns to her sister. "I think the hormones are working. My boobs are definitely bigger."

"Of course they are, Annie." Lauren is wearing lime green workout shorts and a white T-shirt with their high school name and mascot on the front—the Casper Falls Foragers. The toenails of her bare feet are painted a dark red, and her toes are unconsciously gripping and releasing the thick beige carpet in the hallway. She's holding her laptop. "It's Mom," she says. "Come talk."

Lauren leans against the doorframe and holds the laptop up so that Ann can see their mother's face on the screen. Mom is smiling and waving.

"Hi, Mom," says Ann, walking over to stand beside Lauren.

"There's my girls," says their mother, grinning. "You two getting on okay?"

"We're fine, Mom," answers Ann. "What about you and Dad?" Behind their mother, Ann can make out the generic decor of a standard hotel room.

"We're good, honey. You're father said to say hello. He's downstairs with a couple old buddies. Catching up."

Ann nods. Their parents are in Texas for the funeral of an old friend from their distant high school days.

"I just wanted to check in with you two," Mom continues. "The viewing is tomorrow evening, and the service is first thing Saturday morning. We'll be on a plane and heading back to you by one o'clock or so. Back in time to get to the game and cheer you on, Lauren."

"Mom," says Ann, "she's not playing, she's just a cheerleader. She doesn't need anyone cheering her on. That's literally her job."

"Oh, hush," says Mom. Lauren, leaning on the doorframe beside Ann, sticks out her pink tongue.

"Whatever," Ann says, returning the gesture towards her sister.

"You two are eating okay? You're getting to school on time?"

"We're fine, Mom," Lauren assures her. The two sisters share a look.

"I miss you both bunches."

"We'll see you in two days, Mom. Geez," says Ann.

"I'm allowed to miss my two little ladies."

Ann and Lauren chat with their mother's image on the laptop for a few more minutes, and then she wishes the two sisters a good night. "Behave. We'll be home Saturday evening. Stay out of trouble."

"Aww, but Mom," says Ann. "We love trouble."

Mom holds up a warning finger and the two sisters laugh as their mother's face warms into a smile. "Bye bye."

The video disappears, and Lauren snaps the laptop shut, holds it against her chest and looks at her younger sister. Ann, the younger sibling by a whole nine minutes, crosses her arms over her chest and meets Lauren's eyes. "What?"

"What?" says her sister back. They stare at one another for a moment until Lauren makes a noise by blowing air out the side of her mouth, and pushes herself away from the doorframe and disappears down the hallway to the right.

Ann pokes her head out, watches her sister walk towards her room at the top of the staircase. Opposite Lauren's bedroom door, a railing marks the edge of the second floor landing, and looks out over the front room on the ground floor down below. "Pretty sure that stay out of trouble means don't throw a party for your cheerleader friends," she calls out to Lauren.

Her sister stops and turns around. "I thought we loved trouble." Then she sighs and drops her head, spilling hair to either side of her face. Lauren's hair is naturally darker than Ann's, but she colors it light blonde, which you can tell from the visible roots. "It's just gonna be a few people, Annie. I know you don't really get along with a couple of them."

"I don't like any of them, Laur."

"You like me." Ann purses her lips, shifts her weight between her feet, grinds her teeth. Lauren says, "I mean, you do, don't you?"

"Obviously," Ann snaps. "It's just—"

"I know," says Lauren, coming back to her sister. She wraps Ann in an embrace. "I'll talk to them."

"You don't know." Ann trembles with anger and pain and uncountable doubts. But she doesn't move from her sister's warm arms, and slowly she relaxes against Lauren's body. "I'm sorry," she says. Because Lauren does know. She understands as much as anybody, as much as anyone could, the years of confusion and then depression, the doctors and therapists and the attempts to medicate, and now at last the hormone treatment and the finally-out-in-the-open transitioning. Lauren's been there the entire time, supporting Ann even if she didn't always fully understand what her younger sibling was going through. But always there for her.

So Ann clings to Lauren, and the sisters stand there in the upstairs hallway for a long moment together.

"But don't talk to them," says Ann, at last, pushing away. "That just makes it even more awkward."

"They're my friends, Annie," Lauren says tenderly. "Mostly." She holds Ann's face, a hand on either cheek, and smiles.

Ann makes a pouty face, but bites her tongue to avoid saying anything mean. She doesn't care about any of them—they aren't her friends—and consequently she tries not to care what they think. She just wishes they'd ignore her the way she tries so hard to ignore them. "It doesn't matter."

"Okay," says Lauren. "I won't say anything if you don't want me to. But I won't stand by if someone gets out of line with you either."

"I can take care of myself, Laur."

"I know you can, sis." Lauren grins. "Now get your boobs out of my face, so I can get ready for bed."





Chapter 3

Paul Malone wakes to the sound of glass shattering. Immediately alert, his eyes scan the shadows as the familiar shapes of the master bedroom coalesce into hard reality. The thumping of his heart reminds him of the sound that has woken him, and his racing mind tries to sort out where a dream might have ended and reality taken over. Long silent seconds stretch out, and Paul begins to doubt whether the shattering glass was in fact real. He is exhaling slowly, beginning to relax once more, when a further clatter and bang from somewhere in the house downstairs jolts him full awake. The back door into the kitchen being opened?

The digital clock on the nightstand reads 3:58 in big red numbers. Paul lies still, straining to listen, and hears several more soft knocks and bangs. Definitely from downstairs, definitely in the house.

Pushing aside the covers, Paul sits up. His eyes go the bedside nightstand, the top of which is bare besides the digital clock. An image of his cell phone, sitting on the kitchen counter and plugged into the wall, charging, flashes in his mind, and he curses himself.

He looks around the dark bedroom, making up his mind. He's not going to wait up here in bed while someone rummages through the house, and anyway it's very likely, Paul decides, that they will come up the stairs eventually and steal into the sanctity of the bedroom. Candace is there beside him, a warm wide shape underneath the covers, now beginning to stir awake from Paul's movement.

Paul leans close to his waking wife's head, whispers, "I think there's someone in the house, Candy."

"Hmm?"

"Stay here."

"Paul?" She's half-awake, but she's understood. One hand has shot out and is gripping Paul's right arm.

"Stay here," he says again. "Be quiet."

He swings his legs off the bed, stands gingerly as the floor gives a quiet creak beneath his feet. His knees make a similar protest.

"Not a sound," he tells his wife, who is propped up now on one elbow, staring, and Paul can see the wide white eyes quivering. He makes a sign for silence with his index finger over his lips, and then he's standing, creeping across the room to the door. Looking around for an object, something solid, something to use as a weapon in case, as he fears, there is someone downstairs in the house. And even as his eyes settle on the over-50's softball championship trophy on the top of the dresser, he is thinking of the possibility that whoever is down there might be armed with a gun and willing to use it.

Shaking away that thought, Paul grabs the heavy trophy, gripping it by the golden baseball player frozen into a batting crouch, and hefts the makeshift weapon so that the white marble base is primed to strike. His eyes return to the bed where Candace watches fearfully, a hand holding the covers up to her face. Whatever the intruder downstairs intends, Paul must confront them down there, away from his wife.

He nods towards Candace in a manner he hopes is encouraging, not sure she can even see him in the gloom of the room, and reaches out and slowly turns the handle of the bedroom door. Creeping through into the hallway, Paul closes the door silently behind him, holding the handle tight until he feels, rather than hears the click.

On bare feet, he moves quietly along the hallway. At the top of the stairs, he pauses, listens. There's no sound from downstairs. Only the pounding of his heart in his chest beneath the thin pajama shirt, so forceful that it seems it must be loud enough to alert the intruder. Paul's breath is stopped by a lump in his throat that he is unable to swallow.

He places a bare foot on the top step.

Takes the next, and the one after.

Twice, one of the stairs underneath Paul's feet cries out a creaking announcement of his presence and he winces, pauses. Licks dry lips. Listens.

Finally, he's at the bottom of the stairs and scanning through the shapes of the darkened living room. Some light from the closest streetlamp outside filters in through the thin curtains over the front window, enough to reveal the furniture in the center of the room—couch and matching chairs arranged around a low coffee table—facing the television cabinet, the rows of books lining the length of that wall behind the cabinet, and the wood paneling of the other walls.

The room appears silent, still, and undisturbed.

Paul moves step by soft, steady step across the hardwood floor, padding towards the archway into the kitchen. Readies the raised trophy to strike.

Peeks around the corner.

A tremor passes through his chest as his heart skips a beat.

A figure is standing in the shadows of the kitchen, unmoving. A slight figure if the intruder is a man—narrow shoulders and surely no more than a few inches over five feet tall—and facing away from Paul, he decides, judging by the thick head of hair, which covers the neck and reaches the upper back.

Emboldened by the diminutive nature of the intruder and the strange motionless demeanor, Paul calls out, "Who are you?" He clears his throat, and adds, "I've got a weapon, I'm warning you."

His voice, at first, seems to have no impact whatsoever upon the shadowed intruder. Then, slowly, the figure begins to turn towards Paul, a movement that starts with the head coming around and then spreads to include the shoulders and then the trunk of the body, and lastly the hips and finally the figure is facing him, though its features remain lost in shadow.

Nonetheless, Paul nearly staggers back a step. Amazingly, the revealed shape of the silent figure suggests a young woman.

"Who are you?"

No response.

Several seconds pass with Paul straining to remain calm, and then the intruder steps forward haltingly. Another staggering step closer.

Paul's hand, seemingly of its own volition, goes to the light switch on the wall, and just as uncomprehending recognition is beginning to flare in his mind, the overhead light bursts to life.

The young woman stands before Paul, intimately familiar, clad in a blue and grey hospital-style dressing gown. Tangled blonde hair falls across her thin shoulders. Open eyes, unnervingly empty, look out from a haunted blank face. The face of—

"Melody?"

—the daughter he lost years ago, who right now should be lying in that care facility, oblivious and unresponsive to the world around her, where she's been ever since . . . since . . . She should be there, not here. There—not standing facing Paul in the middle of the night down here in the kitchen.

He's still holding the softball trophy primed beside his head with a shaking hand.

"Mel?" he says. "Melody?"

Sure that it's her, Paul staggers back. The trophy drops to the floor with a flat thud. He steadies himself with a hand on the archway. The other hand goes to his chest.

Finding his breath, he bellows, "Candace! Come down here!"



* * *



Candace Malone is downstairs in the living room, near the archway to the kitchen. She's alternating holding her daughter's face, one hand on either cheek, blessing God and saying, "I can't believe it—it's a miracle!" and taking a step back, looking over the unresponsive young woman, stepping forward again and then embracing the other against her large body, breathlessly exclaiming, "Melody, my baby, it's really you!"

To Paul Malone, standing close by with crossed arms, the joy of the reunion is dulled by the fact that there is something obviously wrong. Their daughter, Melody, is here in their home, which by itself is cause for concern considering she appears to be dressed only in a nightgown from the care facility. Not even shoes. The soles of her bare feet are nearly black, suggesting she has been walking around outside, perhaps all the way to the house. Not to mention the matter of the busted window on the back door, the glass shards on the floor.

"How did you get here?" Paul asks.

And despite the fact that Melody has managed to somehow show up here at the house, she's not said a word; and although she moved from the kitchen to the living room under her own power, she looks lost and lethargic. And her eyes. There's no life in her; her eyes are just as Paul remembers them from the care facility. He shivers, recalling those memories of a decade ago, which are now being forced back upon him by the unexpected arrival of his daughter.

"Oh, my baby!" says Candace, and she looks over Melody's shoulder to find Paul, and tears of happiness wet her red cheeks. "Won't you say something?"

Rather than speak, Melody steps away from her large mother, walks robotically around the couch and chairs, and stops before the television. She bends close, holds her face near the screen and pokes with a finger, as if expecting a button.

"What is it, baby?" asks Candace, sniffling and watching her daughter.

Melody makes no reply, continues her close examination of the television.

"There's no power button up there," says Paul. "You need to use this." He holds up the remote control for the television, and presses the Power button. The picture flashes into life, reveals a kitchen studio. A chubby chef with salt-and-pepper hair, a red apron stretched over his round belly, is explaining chicken cordon bleu to a vaguely familiar female celebrity.

"It's a new tv," Paul tells Melody, "not the one you remember. We got this one a few years back."

Melody looks back over her shoulder, and the expression on her face is not one of understanding or even recognition that it is her father who has just spoken—more as if drawn by the sound itself, like an animal seeking out the source of a stimuli rather than its meaning, she's only studying the physical makeup of the world around her, responding automatically to his voice.

"Is there something on tv you want to show us?" asks Candace. She holds the two halves of the blue robe over her thin nightgown closed against her thick bosom, grasping the fabric just beneath her meaty throat.

The chef and celebrity on the television screen are discussing the raw chicken breasts on the counter in front of them.

But Melody's eyes seem to have found something to focus on across the room, and she begins walking, her bare feet scraping along the hardwood, until she's standing almost with her nose pressed against the framed collection of family photos hanging on the wall. She stands still, lost in some unknowable contemplation of the pictures behind the glass, a disheveled young woman with skinny pale legs sticking out from the blue and grey hospital gown that hangs from her narrow shoulders, her pale blond hair messed and knotted and falling onto her shoulders and upper back.

Paul asks again, "Melody, how did you get here? Can you hear me?"

Candace has come to stand beside her daughter and she's looking at the same framed collection of photos that Melody is, and she peeks at Melody's face, at the staring blue eyes, and then back to the pictures on the wall where Candace now sees the one that has caught Melody's attention in particular. It's a photo of a smiling Melody as a bright, blond teen wearing her Casper Falls cheerleading uniform, the pleated skirt and the red and white top with the school name and mascot on the chest, and she's holding her pompoms, and she's standing between a slimmer, youthful Candace and a handsome, smiling Paul, and they are all three of them standing there together as a family on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the high school gymnasium in a past that seems so far away it could be another lifetime.

Candace smiles and puts a hand on her daughter's near shoulder. "I still have it, baby. Upstairs in your old room. Do you wanna see?"

Melody turns her head and stares at her mother as if she's maybe understood something Candace or Paul has said for the first time, and Candace sniffles, and her smile grows, and she gently takes ahold of Melody's upper arm and begins to lead the young woman towards the stairs. "Come on, baby. Let's go take a look."

Paul, standing in the archway to the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest, watching, is grateful to see a flicker of understanding in Melody, but nevertheless, he says, "I'm going to call the care facility, Candy." His wife and daughter pass in front of him, Candace smiling with pleasure and Melody with a blank expression, and together they take the first step up.

On the television, the celebrity woman is telling the chef, "I've always wanted to make this dish, but just assumed it was too difficult."

"Honey," says Paul, "where's the number?"

"Right on the fridge, dear," she says absently, guiding Melody up the stairs one step at a time.

"I'm going to call the care facility," Paul says again.

The two women continue their slow climb.



* * *



Candace, breathing heavy from the climb up the stairs, leads her daughter into the room that had been hers. It's the same as it was the final time that Melody slept there, although the bed has been made and the room has been straightened and kept neat and Candace dusts the surfaces from time to time. But otherwise it is unchanged. The same posters on the wall. The same trinkets on the shelves.

Melody stops in the center of the room, her head rotating slowly as she scans the room with her blank stare. Candace scoots past her daughter, saying, "Excuse me, baby," and slides opens the closet. The revealed space is packed with boxes and plastic see-through containers piled up on the floor and numerous articles of clothing above on hangars. She begins picking through the hanging clothes, sliding hangars aside. Melody's eyes, meanwhile, fall upon the vertical mirror standing against the wall; within it, she is a strange, pale stick-figure in a grey and blue gown.

Candace, grunting, reaches for one of the hangars, withdraws the selected item, and holds it up for inspection. It is Melody's cheerleading uniform, looking ridiculously tiny against the girth of her mother. "Melody, baby, see? Here it is."

Slowly, Melody's head brings her eyes around to the sound of Candace's voice. A spasm of recognition flashes across the young woman's face.

Carrying the outfit, Candace waddles forward and lays the garment down onto the neatly-made bed. "Look at that," she says. "Oh, you were so pretty when you wore it, Melody." The mother looks upon the cheerleading uniform and is seeing ten years into the past. "So excited to be on the team. So happy." She turns her head towards her daughter. "Maybe you want to put it on? Is that why you've come home? Oh, my baby, you're back. It's a miracle." She reaches out and puts an arm over Melody's shoulders, pulls her close. The daughter's eyes remain focused on the red and white outfit laid out on the bed, even as her head is jarred from side to side by Candace's motherly sideways embrace.

Paul's shouted voice, calling from downstairs: "There's no answer." Then, something further, too muffled to be understood.

Candace shouts back, "What's that, Paul?" Melody flinches at the loud voice near her head.

Again, Paul's reply is too muffled to make out. Something about another number.

"What?" Candace sighs, exasperated, and waddles past Melody and out into the hall. She pauses at the top of the stairs.

"—that number!"

"Are you in the den, Paul? I can barely hear you."

Candace is leaning most of her weight against the uppermost portion of the staircase railing, panting, and her right foot is on the top step, and her left is on the landing itself. "Paul?"

"I'm looking for the doctor's number," he hollers back. "Doctor what's-his-name."

"Fitzpatrick," calls Candace. "It's—"

Two small hands, with more force than would seem possible for the slight frame of Melody Malone to generate, bury themselves in the soft flesh of Candace's back, propelling the large woman forward into the air above the steps and then down. Thundering, tumbling, to land with a series of sickening thuds, and then sudden silence.

Limbs twisted beneath her bulky frame at horrible angles, Candace Malone lies sprawled across the final two steps and the hardwood floor of the living room.

In the den, which is around the corner from the living room, down a short hall and three steps, Paul jumps. "Christ! What the hell was that, Candy? Are you alright?" No answer. "Candace?" His eyes return to the desk, now strewn with papers and notes that he's pulled from the many drawers during his fruitless search. "Goddamnit, I can't find that number."

He turns and begins to head back to the living room. "For that doctor. I can't remember his damned name. Candace?"

Up the three steps, into the short hall. As he nears the corner he can see a dark shape at the base of the stairs up to the second floor. Recognizes the color and look of the robe his wife is wearing. Begins to run. "Candy! Honey!" Reaches her side. "My God, no! Candace!"

Paul looks frantically around. He can't think, can't remember anything that he was just doing or that he needs to do besides call someone. An ambulance. Christ, he thinks, stricken. Help! My wife!

Call someone! 9-1-1!

He pats the pocket on his pajama bottoms, strikes his phone tucked inside the left one, pulls it out and frantically fumbles to turn it on. Drops it clattering to the floor.

On the television, the apron-clad chef says to his celebrity guest, "Let's grab this out of the oven. Careful, it's hot."

In the kitchen, unseen by Paul, and unmoved by his cries, is Melody. Dirty bare feet on the linoleum floor hold up her slight frame at the kitchen counter. Skinny, feminine fingers, the nails of which have been painted with red polish by one of the day-shift nurses at the Casper Falls Extended Mental Care Facility, close around the handle of the largest of the kitchen knives sticking out from the wooden block. The blade slides free.

Paul manages to pick his phone up, thumbs in the wrong passcode to unlock it once, two times, in his rush. He wails in frustration, tears rolling over his cheeks. He's not a doctor, but Candace hasn't moved at all or made a sound, and she's bent in ways that are terrifying to him.

Dirty bare feet step across the threshold where linoleum and hardwood floor meet beneath the archway.

Paul tries see if his wife is breathing—he's afraid to touch her body—but he can't stop shaking or remain still long enough to tell, and as he thumbs in his passcode wrong again, he squeezes his eyes tightly shut as if he might hold back the tears within. He cries out in strangled agony.

The chef on the television is telling the celebrity host, "Now you wanna be very careful when you do this—"

Paul's head is yanked back; a handful of his thinning gray hair is gripped roughly by fingers with nails painted red. He grunts, eyes snap wide open, surprised.

"—hold it just like that," says the tv chef, "and we wanna slice right across. Nice and fast. There you go. Good."



* * *



Sometime later, she is standing alone at the foot of the bed and looking down at the cheerleading uniform laid out there. Her right hand relaxes and the knife falls forgotten onto the carpet by her bare feet. The eight-inch blade still wet with blood.

In a single motion, she pulls the blue and grey hospital gown from the bottom up over her head and discards this onto the carpet too. She hooks both thumbs into the waistband of her underwear and slides them down her pale legs. They fall to the carpet, pool around her dirty feet.

She reaches out, picks up the red bottoms that go with the cheerleading uniform, underneath the skirt. Moves the fabric between her fingers, feeling the sensation on her skin. Her eyes are wide open, but seeing only memories of ten years past.

Look at my baby, says her mother, gushing pride. Steps back to admire her daughter, the cheerleader, in her red and white uniform. So pretty, she says. My beautiful baby.

Eventually, she is wearing the whole outfit. The Casper Falls Foragers cheerleading uniform that she wore a decade ago. She crosses the room, digs through the bottom of the open closet until she finds the red and white pompoms, which complete the ensemble.

Arms dangling at her sides, a pompom in each hand, she stands and stares for a long while at her reflection in the upright mirror. She remembers—the other cheerleaders egging her on, the aggressive noise of the party, that dark room and the closed door and the faces of the boys, and then the beginning of the nightmares. She remembers everything. Sees it all in her mind, as though there are tiny scenes from the movie of her life playing out on the reflective surface of the mirror.

She watches it all, trembling, until there is only her again in the glass.

Her feet are soiled and bare.

She looks down, wiggles her toes.



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