Maxie squeezed her eyes shut and open again, stretching her arms to touch her headboard as the world shifted into focus.
“Maxie!” Her mother yelled, “Hurry up! School starts in a half-hour, you’re gonna be late!”
She threw her blankets off of herself, scrambling to her feet to find any clothes she could scrounge together off the floor. As she went searching for a suitably clean pair of jeans, she wondered what could have gotten into her. She’d been going to bed at the same time each night, but she’d been waking up later and later each day. Growth spurt, she figured, and shook her head, now on the hunt for a t-shirt.
She bounced down the stairs, head snapping between the kitchen and the door. Did she have time for at least a piece of toast?
“What clothes are those?” Her mother asked, squinting her eyes as she looked up from the tabloid magazine she was reading.
“Hm?” Maxie glanced down at herself, also unsure of what she had grabbed in her haste. “I’ve had these clothes for ages, Mom. You bought me this shirt, remember?” She pointed to the design.
“They seem big on you.” She furrowed her brow, “Are you eating right?” “I won’t be if you don’t let me make some toast before I go.”
Her mother shook her head and sighed, waving her hand at Maxie dismissively. “Hurry up, I don’t want any more calls from your counselor about your attendance.”
“You won’t!” Maxie promised, halfway into the kitchen.
True to her word, Maxie arrived at the bus stop in time to catch a nearly departed bus, toast half eaten in hand.
She fell into her seat, pulling her backpack into her lap. She went back to chewing on her toast and looked down at the day's outfit. Were they big? They seemed like they always had. Her mother must have just been paranoid. She looked closer at her shirt, inspecting the threads as though they might tell her the answer. She dropped it, shifting her attention back to her toast. There’s no reason to think anything might be amiss.
School went as per usual. Sights and sounds that seemed like just another large sensory smear across her day. On her bus back home, she fell into her seat much as she had this morning. Her head bowed to fall into her hands as a wave of exhaustion fell over her.
An impact of bone on bone, a sharp elbow to her shoulder blade.
“Ow! What the fuck?” She jumped up and spun around, catching a standing bar above to steady herself. Her muscles tensed like a spring.
Julie waved at her. “Hello? At least you can hear me now, God, you’d think you were some sort of zombie.” An awkward attempt at a lighthearted laugh, Julie glanced around at her fellow passengers.
Maxie followed suit, turning her head to meet the rows of onlookers who had turned to witness the scene they had heard unfold. She made eye contact with one nervous young man, who snapped his head away to break her gaze immediately, as though he could now hide his staring. A few other passengers followed suit.
“What’s going on back there?” The bus driver yelled, meeting Maxie’s gaze with a nasty glare through the rearview mirror before turning his eyes back to the road.
“Nothing!” Maxie choked out, scurrying back to her seat. She thought she caught a couple of giggles from the crowd. She turned to Julie and hushed accusingly, “What the hell was that all about? You think you’re funny or something?”
Julie replied in her best attempt at a stage whisper, “I didn’t think you would freak out like that! I’d been saying your name for ages, I even poked you a few times. I mean c'mon, you sat right next to me and you didn’t even say hi! You were the one ignoring me.” She went to demonstrate with her pointer finger before Maxie shoved her hand away.
Maxie hesitated, suddenly disoriented. She had sat down right here, right? And she hadn’t noticed Julie? She glanced around where she was, neglecting to answer Julie.
“Maxie!” Julie grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “What is up with you? Are you high or something?”
“What?” Maxie recoiled, pulling her arms close to herself. “No, I’m not on anything! I’m just tired, Jesus, leave me alone.”
Julie huffed, offended, and turned inward as well. It was a quiet bus ride for them, but their silence was thick with insult and offense.
Maxie didn’t turn to say goodbye when her stop came, she just grabbed her bag and left.
She shoved her key in the locked door, pushing it open with more force than might have been necessary. She made her way up the stairs, throwing her bag onto the floor as she collapsed onto her bed. The joint thud of both of them felt loud in the empty house.
Her eyelashes felt weighted with lead, and before she could realize it she was swept off into sleep.
She blinked her eyes open and shifted her head, too lazy to fully pick herself up. “Hm?”
Her mother scoffed, throwing her hands in the air. “‘Hm?’ I’ve been calling your name! Have you been sleeping all day? You haven’t even started dinner.”
Maxie blinked again, bringing herself to rest on her elbows.
“Hello? Are you even listening to me? God, I work all day and this is the thanks I get?” She turned out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Maxie furrowed her brow, had she really fallen asleep? That can’t be, she’d already got what- twelve hours of sleep last night? No, that would be crazy. She drew herself up to sit on her legs. Maxie crawled over to her bedside window and lightly touched the curtains. She slowly pulled them back, before dropping them. It really was dark outside, it must’ve been at least 7:00pm. That had to be right, 7:00pm, because Mom was home; Mom doesn’t come home until late.
With great effort, Maxie got out of bed, pushing herself up with the aid of the wall. She blinked again and shook her head to clear the fog in her head. She ran a hand through her hair before it got caught in a knot, what a pain. She adjusted her pants, feeling cloddish in them. Had they always been so low-waisted?
She stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen. Her mother stood at the countertop with her back to Maxie, cutting up some kind of vegetable, with a kettle on the stovetop.
Without turning her back, “I’m sorry Maxie, I shouldn’t have raised my voice at you. Have you been sleeping alright? It’s not like you to just fall asleep with your clothes on. I’ll make dinner tonight, okay? How does that sound?” She turned to face Maxie, knife still in hand.
A wave of shock ricocheted through her body, and the knife clattered to the ground, making sharp bursts of light against the walls and ceiling.
“Fuck!” Her mother yelled, jumping back.
Maxie stood there, confused.
Her mother looked from the knife and back to Maxie, arms hesitant at her sides.
“Sorry, sorry- I just-” Maxie shook herself as if to separate the tangled mat of her thoughts.
“Are you okay?” Her mother sprang into action to grab Maxie herself. “You’re fine,” she whispered, “You’re fine.” She pulled her into a hug, resting her chin on the crown of Maxie’s head. “Sorry honey, you just startled me,” she giggled. “Y’know, I thought for a second you might be someone else.”
“You thought I was someone else?” Maxie spoke muffled into her mother’s sweater, arms folded into her mother’s torso.
She giggled again into Maxie’s hair, squeezing her tight.
The tea kettle let out a shrill whistle to express its distaste for its recent neglect.
Maxie’s mom extricated herself from their embrace, rushing over to turn the stovetop off. “Get me some mugs, will you Maxie?” She gestured vaguely, “The ones in the cabinet by the sink.”
Maxie nodded, shuffling over to the sink. She wrapped her hand around the knob and tugged. She tugged again, met only with stubborn refusal. She readjusted her hand, eyebrows furrowing slightly in frustration, and tugged again, once more greeted with the unfriendly absence of even a creak.
“Maxie? Everything okay?”
“Yeah, the door’s not opening. Did it rain last night?”
She looked confused, “No, I don’t think so. Let me try.” She scooted Maxie away with her hand, and Maxie complied. She reached over to take the knob, pulling it open in one easy movement. “You must’ve loosened it or something,” She said, shaking her head. She pulled two mugs out, setting them down gently on the counter. “What sorta tea do you want?”
“Um, green tea?”
Her mother stared at her expectantly, shifting her head to motion to the spice cabinet.
She motioned more purposefully this time.
Maxie blinked again.
Her mother broke the dead air, “Are you gonna go grab the tea?”
“Oh! Right,” Maxie turned to the spice cabinet. She reached for the handle, making sure to grip it as tightly as she could. She pulled once, and then a second time.
“Are you feeling okay, sweetpea?” Her mother grabbed her shoulders, turning her around to face her. She held the back of her hand to Maxie’s forehead. She frowned, “You don’t feel warm.”
Maxie pulled herself away from her, “Yeah Mom, I’m fine, it’s just these stupid doors.”
She looked unconvinced, but let it go, releasing Maxie as well. She reached over her silently, plucking the door open with ease, and pulled the bottle off the top shelf. She spun the cap off with her thumb, using her other hand to pull open the utensil drawer and take out a spoon. Setting them both on the counter she turned to take the lid off of the quickly cooling kettle. She swung back around to the counter, digging a heaping spoonful from the bottle. She carried it back to the kettle, with her hand held under it to catch any escaping leaves, before tilting it gently into the pot. She covered it again with the lid in one emphatic click.
Maxie leaned back against the counter, knocking over one of the empty mugs. “Oops,” She twisted her torso to reach it, picking it up to set it in its proper place.
Her mother turned back to look at Maxie, frowning once more. She stepped forward and lifted her hand as if to touch her forehead again, but stopped herself. She took a deep breath in, “Maybe you should… head back to sleep. If you’re not feeling good, you probably need it.”
Maxie nodded slowly, her head felt like an iron flail on her shoulders, held together only by rusty links in need of oiling.
“Yeah, I think that’s what you need.” She completed her maneuver, she smiled gently, and lightly touched Maxie’s cheek instead of her forehead. She turned and reached back to grab the kettle, filling the mugs. She handed Maxie her’s, “Here you go, sweetpea. Now go,” She made a shooing motion with her hands, “I’ll wake you up when dinner’s ready.”
Right, Maxie remembered, dinner. Hadn’t that been why she’d gone downstairs? Though she certainly didn’t feel very hungry. On the contrary, the thought of eating anything filled her with a vague sense of nausea.
She stumbled back up the stairs, leaning heavily on the wooden banister. Her feet dragged across the carpeted hallway. Her jeans slipped down past her hips, she grabbed the waistband and dragged them too down the corridor. She pushed her door open, not walking towards so much as falling face-first into her bed. She exhaled heavily, and sleep pulled her under before she could draw in another breath.
Maxie could have been awake, but with a face too heavy to open her eyes it was difficult to tell. It was like a great boulder had fallen atop her while she wasn’t looking, an immovable weight pressed against her torso. She tried to inhale but found she could not take in more than a teaspoon's worth of air. Panic surged through her, settling beneath her tongue and the deep recesses of a chest too inert to cope with. She shifted her hands and elbows to her sides, meaning to push herself up against whatever sat heavily on her torpid body. Even to pull her hands down from up by the headboard was momentous, and to fully push herself up was beginning to feel unfeasible. To take in any air at all began to be a Sisyphean task, it felt as if her trachea was being crushed more and more with every passing second. A fresh wave of panic ran through her, her mouth further thickening with bile, which spilled out past her lips to pool against her duvet.
She gasped, a wet gulp punctuated with a gag as she choked on the mucus coating her throat. She tried her prop herself up using her elbow forearms but was met with the weak crepitations of joints unable to support her weight. She fell back into her bed, the force of it squeezing out any remnants of air still held in her lungs. She let out another noise, less a gasp so much as a grating, inarticulate sob, as her ribs creaked and crunched with the pressure. Any attempt to shift her legs was met with a great burning pain up to wrap around her knees and pierce through the sockets of her hips.
“Maxie?” Her mother called, concern tainting the color of her voice. “Was that you?”
Maxie continued to wrestle for just another infinitesimal breath, spit smearing across her face. She let out another grotty gurgle of pain. Her arms had fallen loosely against the bed, and her legs had long ceased any attempt at movement. Her terror felt as though it was slowly leaking out from her chest, flowing into her limp limbs before reaching the tips of her fingers and toes to spill out onto the sheets. A thick fuzzy mold grew in its place, swelling within her stomach and stretching its appendages through all her hollow space.
“Maxie?” Her mother called again, louder this time. The floorboards at the bottom of the stairs creaked with her weight. “Maxie? Are you okay? Maxie?” The steps squeaked as she quickly advanced.
She ran down the hallway, the slams of footsteps producing muffled reverberations in the walls, all lost to Maxie. Her heart rose to sit thick in her throat as she found the already-opened door and turned the corner to peek inside.
A sudden, piercing, blood-curdling scream filled her ears, if anyone but her were capable she would be unsure of who or what could have produced it.
It was little more than a skeleton, a hollowed-out husk in the desert. The skin clung like shrinkwrap to sharp peaks of bone, almost lost in the vast sea of a t-shirt and jeans. Only the right half of the head was visible. The eye socket was deep and shadowed, but the teeth caught the dim light of a bedside lamp from behind thin lips. A spider-like hand rested by the skull, tendons popping with each twitch of a finger.
Fig Burnett-Cavoto is a high school junior on the West Coast. He often spends his spare time reading, looking at cool bugs, overspending at shopping malls, and anything else that doesn’t require getting his homework done on time. He totally recommends a betta fish as a great beginner pet to anyone who needs one. This is his first publication.