Audio Fiction • Listen / Read
Jordan’s new best friend has a cruel surprise in store for her on their shared birthday, not suspecting the wicked scheme could lead to a paranormal disaster.
Featuring the song “Happy Birthday to You”
written by Patty and Mildred J. Hill
and performed by James Hudson
Featured as a Showcase Selection in the 2020 PodTales Festival
by William J. Meyer
A land of shadow and fog. Blue shadow. Pink fog.
She crouched in the blue shadow and watched the pink fog.
She was hiding from dinosaurs.
Not true dinosaurs, mind you, but herky-jerky ones. Lumbering, tail-dragging. Always angry. Always hungry. Rubbery. Smelled funny. Eyes afire. Mouths agape.
She captured the oldest known bird, snatched it out of the air with her teeth, clutched it tightly in both hands as it squawked its last.
Not that she could pronounce it.
But she liked the taste.
She huddled low under its airplane wings with its nosecone of a head dangling over her shoulder. She wore the nasty carcass as proof of her stalwart courage, even as she hid from the larger predators.
She squinted into the fog. Its fluff rolled near.
The pink fog was pink like candy hearts. Candy hearts inscribed with white, powdery, cupid words promising clumsy affection and bad puns.
She frowned. Squinted. Someone— was laughing.
Was it dinosaurs. Could dinosaurs laugh.
A second and a third chortle joined the first.
There was something scathing, perhaps insidious about those har-de-har-hars. They were all around her, now. There! A fourth and a fifth. Dino-mirth was not gregarious. She did not like it.
The cackles closed in— from every direction.
She knew if she wanted to survive the night, she had better open her eyes.
The toys on the shelves ceased shaking.
An empty Sunkist bottle rolled to a stop.
Jordan lay on the sleeping bag, surrounded by her friends, her very best friends.
The girls slept in the romper room, separated by boundaries not drawn on maps, but defined by the arrangement of their sleeping bags.
Jordan looked up. In the dark she met the upside-down glossy gaze of George Michael. They shared a quiet moment. She closed her left eye, and opened it again. She closed her right. She pretended he was dancing. Left, right. Left, right.
Jordan got up on her elbows. She looked around at the sleeping bags frosted by moonlight.
There was Cynthia of the golden hair. Meghan of the pierced ears. Sara of the designer glasses. Patricia of the it’s-not-Halloween-but-I’m-going-to-wear-a-cat-nose-and-whiskers-anyway.
And Clarissa. Perfect, perfect Clarissa.
Since everyone was breathing so darn heavy, Jordan rightly guessed they were merely pretending to be asleep.
Jordan laid back down. She folded her hands under her neck. She closed her eyes.
The dinosaurs laughed again.
But now she wasn’t sleeping.
Jordan opened her eyes.
The five little girls were on hand and knee, staring down at Jordan in a semi-circle.
Jordan looked at her friends. From face to face to face to face to face. Her very best friends.
"Good morning?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.
The girls giggled in unison, like a hydra high on nitrous oxide.
"It's three a.m., silly!" hissed one of the serpent-heads.
“Not morning!” snickered another.
Jordan rubbed her eyes again.
Because she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
The balloons, the helium balloons, the cake, the chocolate cake, the gifts, the gifts wrapped by parents and not the attending children— all impressed with the birthday girl's name— all of it lay before Jordan, arrayed as though for her birthday, and everyone simply got the name wrong.
In fact, it was Jordan's birthday, too.
But her mother couldn't afford balloons, a waist-high cake, or a new pony hidden in the barn with a narrow plastic funnel strapped on its head with an elastic band so her daughter could pretend it was a unicorn.
Emma drove Jordan home from the grocery store in her pick-up truck. They bounced along the country road. A glass star swung from the rearview mirror. Light ricocheted off its convex facets and mottled mother and daughter. The star dappled their cheeks with rainbow freckles.
Jordan sat far to the right and played with her toy dinosaurs on the seat between her and Emma.
“10-11 in progress,” said the crackly voice on the radio.
“Dog chase,” mother and daughter said in unison.
“So, Jordan,” smiled Emma. “Want a birthday party? Saturday? Hmmm? How ’bout it?”
Jordan did not look up from the triceratops devouring the stegosaurus. There were no herbivores here.
“Hmmm?” asked Emma, confused.
They pulled into their driveway.
Jordan stole a glance at the lake through the gaggle of trees. The water glistened between the leaves.
She turned to the string of blue and red lights lining the top of their motorhome. Jordan scratched her head. “Why don’t you ever take down the lights?” she asked.
“Because this way— it’s always Christmas,” answered Emma with a grin.
“People think we’re weird,” said Jordan under her breath.
“Well, we are weird,” answered Emma.
She parked the pick-up and left the keys in the ignition.
Jordan sat with a bowl of cereal, pushing her spoon in circles through the milk and the honey flakes.
Emma opened a cupboard and put away the groceries.
“I said no,” Jordan repeated, adding a brisk, “Thank you.”
“But Sweetie, why not?”
“Grrraahh,” grumbled Jordan. “I said don’t call me that.”
“I forgot,” Emma shrugged. She cleared her throat. “But Raptor-Face, why not? We could have it right here.”
Jordan smiled. She lifted her head. She glanced around the piles of unfolded laundry, the school books tumbling in three directions, and the tower of empty pizza boxes with membranes of cheese clinging to the underside of their floppy lids.
Jordan’s smile retreated. “Naw, that’s all right,” she said.
Emma folded up the paper grocery bags and put them in a drawer. “Aw, don’t worry about the money.” She rubbed the short-cropped hair at the base of her neck as she leaned back against the counter. “If you’re worried about the money,” she added.
“I said no!” Jordan slammed her fist down. Milk splashed and cereal spilled. She cringed, lifting her eyes up to her mother, careful to keep her look hooded under her brow.
Emma sighed. “But, Raptor-Face, you never bring any of your friends home. And this way, they could all be here at once.”
“I don’t have any friends,” mumbled Jordan, and of course that wasn’t strictly true.
“Jordan—“ said Emma.
Her daughter interrupted. “It’s Clarissa’s birthday on Saturday.”
“Her birthday— is the same as yours?”
Jordan nodded slowly. “And she invited me and it’s a sleep-over and everything.”
Emma stood up straight. “Oh, but that’s wonderful! See, you have friends.” She grabbed a washcloth and took a step toward the dripping milk. A beep stopped her. “One sec,” she said.
Emma turned around and walked past the curtain at the back of the motorhome. “Sweetie,” she called from the other side, “Stay in the house! Do your homework! Back in twenty!”
“It’s summer!” shouted Jordan.
A low rumble rattled the dishes in the cupboards. The whole place shook.
Jordan called back, “And I said don’t call me th—“
She saw her half-empty bowl dance away from her. She darted to catch it, but was too late. It shimmied off the table and fell on the floor.
Jordan wore her hand-me-down Easter dress and stood at the top of the stairs. Below her— an indoor fountain, three tables of sweets, a sea of balloons, a ginormous cake, and, behind the cake, a metropolis built of gifts.
She pretended it was all for her.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Clarissa’s younger brother spun in a wide circle at the base of the stairs, riding his bigwheel and licking a chocolate-vanilla-swirl ice cream cone. The top scoop fell off as he passed the center of the stairs. He kept riding.
A tawny puppy came skidding to a stop and mopped up the ice cream. When it was finished it glared up at Jordan, tail wagging, head shaking. The big orange bow wrapped around its collar looked like a giant mutant monarch butterfly struggling for lift-off.
Jordan grinned at the puppy.
"Thanks for coming!" said Clarissa, suddenly beside Jordan, her smile as bright as the crystal chandelier hanging over them.
"Thank you for inviting me," mumbled Jordan. She could hardly breathe, sensing the ascending flock of the other girls.
They approached the mighty stair styled like an oyster and walked slowly up its steps. But instead of flapping wings lifting them to great heights, they spoke in a flutter of non-sequiturs.
When the words stopped, Jordan found herself surrounded.
The patter and clink of their abundant pendants fell silent. Their necks proudly displayed the spoils of some charm war— gem, candy, and nautical. They were all smiling. All dressed impeccably. All crowned the royalty of imaginary kingdoms.
"Of course," said Clarissa, drawing Jordan's attention back to her. "We're all your very best friends now." She started to introduce all the girls with a toss of her gloved hand, but Jordan cut her off.
"I know all your names," Jordan said in a rush— and it was true. “Cynthia. Meghan. Sara. Patricia.“ Her head bobbed up and down as she looked at each in turn.
The girls beamed and canted their heads back, the sonic reverberation of their names as warm as any spotlight.
All six girls descended the stairs, Clarissa at the head of their loose chevron, and the many charms tinkled once more.
As they reached the gift table, Jordan said to Clarissa, “I brought you this.”
She handed over a small box wrapped in newspaper.
Clarissa never looked at the box, but instantly tossed it onto the gift table, where it disappeared into the gap between two other presents. The next largest box, judging by its size, could have been a toy oven.
"C'mon then!" Clarissa took Jordan's hand, and all the girls ran off through the stalactite streamers and the balloons, the helium balloons, and then Jordan stared in disbelief at the string quartet lodged in the corner as they struggled through their version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
Tossing a glance back at the birthday cake, Jordan heard her stomach growl. But when she looked down at her creamy dress flopping around her— she lost her appetite— for she discovered a brown stain spreading out beneath her arm.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you," Emma sang from the other room.
Jordan fidgeted at the small, lopsided table.
Emma appeared from behind the curtain holding a small plate with a single chocolate cupcake. Eleven candles were wedged into the thick frosting. The cupcake strained against its paper limits.
“Why is your hair like that?” asked Jordan.
“Hmmm? Oh, ha, well, last night, some wise-acre turned off the Christmas lights and I couldn’t see where I was going, hit a tree. How ‘bout that?”
Jordan ducked low.
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Emma laughed softly.
Jordan watched the bouquet of candles melt into the frosting.
"Quick, blow 'em out!" Emma shouted.
“Ma! I’ll be late! Clarissa is waiting! I told you I didn’t want a party—“
“Aw come now, it’s just you and me. You call this a party?” Emma laughed again. “Blow out the candles, quick!”
Jordan spat a little too much, but the candles did indeed go out. She immediately grabbed at the blue, pink, and white wax to spread the liquid on her fingers so she could peel it off later.
"Wait now, wait now, let me," cautioned Emma, "we have to save them." She gingerly collected the smoking candles and inhaled their pleasant fragrance. “Open it.” She nodded at the small box wrapped in newspaper.
Jordan peeled away two taped corners and wiggled the cover off.
“What the heck is it?” Jordan asked. “A goat?”
“Very funny,” Emma said, tasting the chocolate on the candle bottoms. “They said her name is Maple Stirrup.”
Jordan looked the toy horse over but did not touch it.
A third of her mane was gone. Crooked grin. Missing one of her green hooves. Her left ear— cracked.
“They?” asked Jordan.
“The folks running the rummage sale,” Emma answered. “Like maple syrup, they said, but stirrup, you see, because— she’s a horse.” Emma finished cleaning the candles and locked them in a ziplock bag.
“Yeah Mom I get it,” said Jordan. “Groooannn.”
“No, not ‘groan.’ She’s Strawberry Shortcake’s horse,” Emma said with a flourish, as if to establish the toy’s pedigree.
“But I don’t even haaaaavvvve Strawberry Shortcake!” said Jordan. She shut the lid of the box and pressed the tape down again. “I’m gonna be late!”
“But your cake!”
“I’ll eat in the truck,” Jordan replied. She snagged the cupcake in one hand and ran out the door.
Jordan gasped. Something bobbed toward her head. She flinched.
The balloons, the helium balloons, well, they floated directly above Jordan and aggregated like vultures.
She followed the strings of the balloons to find grins behind them, like imprisoned Cheshire cats.
The girls broke out of their semi-circle at three a.m., silly, and clustered together on the other side of the room. They sat on their knees and surrounded something in the dark. They snickered and snorted as flashlights clicked on, beams erratic, scintillating rays swinging to and fro, revealing the sneers of Pizzazz and the Misfits on the wall by the door.
The girls’ rustling made Jordan uneasy. She preferred a laughing tyrannosaurus. Jordan peeled herself from her sleeping bag and crawled toward the other girls.
Flashlights illuminated Clarissa from below as the birthday girl tore through wrapping paper in a frenzy.
"I thought you were opening them tomorrow," whispered Jordan.
"Shhhh," said one of the girls.
Jordan could not recognize most of the gifts. Most of the gifts caught the light and sparkled in response. Most of the gifts would be forgotten in a month.
"Is that everything?" wondered Clarissa. "Harumph!"
"Here's something!" said another girl, digging deep into the compost of shredded paper and discarded ribbons. She handed a small box to Clarissa. It was sealed in newspaper. An ad for glazed ham.
"Is it from the gardener?" asked one of the girls.
"Or that bratty chef's kid?" asked another.
Clarissa ravaged the box with razored fingernails. The box popped open. And Maple Stirrup fell out.
The clutch of search beams found their mark in unison. All flashlights turned on Maple Stirrup, pinning her to the floor with their harsh beams.
The toy stared up at Jordan in accusation, its eyes wide in horror.
With blatant disgust, Clarissa picked Maple Stirrup up by a single hoof.
Cackles went 'round.
"But it's not even new," Clarissa protested.
"I think it fell out of the garbage," suggested someone.
Clarissa turned and discovered Jordan watching.
“Oh, hello,” said Clarissa, her voice jolly but empty, as if she had never met Jordan before. “It says ‘To Jordan’ but I suppose you meant ‘From Jordan.’ Well, since you gave me a present, I have one for you.”
Clarissa stood and went to her make-up table. She brought back a small, elegant hand mirror. The frame was shaped like the curly waves of the sea. The handle, like the tail of a mermaid. She offered it to Jordan.
“For you,” said Clarissa.
Jordan accepted the hand mirror. “Thank you,” she stammered, confused.
“No, not the mirror,” said Clarissa. “Go on. Look.”
The other girls turned off their flashlights.
They snickered in the dark.
Jordan lifted the mirror. Her thumb grazed a small button on the handle. They could hear the ocean.
Clarissa aimed her flashlight at Jordan’s face.
Jordan blinked. She saw her reflection.
A capital "L" and a capital "O."
Jordan ran a sweaty hand over her forehead. She looked down at her fingers, now smeared red and black. She smelled those fingers, unable to stop herself. She discovered a pleasant union of cherry and licorice.
Jordan’s face contorted. Her vision blurred through tears. A low rumble filled the room. An empty pop bottle spun across the floor. A framed photo of Clarissa swung off the wall. Shelves shook. Toys fell. Ocean waves thundered.
And the mirror in Jordan’s hand shattered.
The other girls shrieked.
Jordan dropped the mirror and sprinted out of the room.
One by one the five girls peeked their heads out the door in Jordan’s wake as she ran into the bathroom half-way down the hall.
A small radio sitting on the counter had been left on, its volume low. Its gargle of static reported a cold and empty night.
Jordan stretched to reach the wide, steamed mirror above the radio— perhaps someone had recently showered. She swept her right hand across the glass to partially reveal her own murky reflection.
Jordan picked at the chocolate between her teeth, using the sun visor’s small mirror to choose her targets. The mirror was fixed in place with duct tape.
The pick-up truck bounced down the road under the flittering shadows of the leaves. A bale of hay slid around in the back.
“Ow!” said Jordan.
“Sorry,” said Emma. She adjusted a small knob on the radio.
“We have a 10-56 at the Dairy Queen on—“ said a crackly voice.
“Intoxi—“ Emma started to say, but her daughter wasn’t playing along. She sighed. “Excited to meet new friends?” Emma asked.
“Can’t we listen to real radio,” said Jordan.
“You know driving time is not music time,” said Emma.
Jordan mumbled to herself, “She blinded me, yeah yeah, science, dee dee, doo doo, by owl ohh gee.”
A tractor pulled onto the road ahead of them.
“Oh no!” cried Jordan. “Now it will take forever!”
“Slightly less than forever,” suggested Emma.
“Can’t you go around?”
“What, into the field?”
“This is awful!” Jordan crossed her arms, forgetting the cupcake.
The tractor sputtered.
“Then let’s go over!” said Jordan.
“Settle down, young lady,” said Emma. "So. I'll pick you up first thing in the morning? Then we'll go to that matinee you wanted to see. Cheap seats! Special birthday movie for my special birthday girl! Day late, don’t hold it against me!” Emma smiled.
“10-54 on County Road G and—“ said the crackle.
“Cow on the—“ said Emma.
“—on the road,” completed Jordan, half-heartedly. “But Mom, Clarissa's Mom is taking all of us to the movies tomorrow.” She added, in a whisper. “So I can’t go with you.”
"Oh,” said Emma. “A different movie, though, right? Not Beaglejuice? That’s for us.”
"It's not Beaglejuice, you’re doing that on purpose.”
The tractor pulled off the road.
“Yay!” cried Jordan, sitting up straight. She looked at the glass star, a little game she played, counting each time the light sprayed into her eyes. “Anyways,” she said, “yeah, that is the movie we're all going to see."
"Oh. But- But-“ Emma stammered. “You asked me to—"
“All right,” said Emma. “All right. No biggie.” She leaned into the driver’s side door, resting her elbow on the armrest, staring at the narrow road ahead.
They found the unmarked driveway.
The pick-up truck pulled up to the house on the hill. Emma gazed at the maze of pine trees that led along a circuitous route culminating at the pebbled shore of a dark lake.
"Woah," she said. "Is all this theirs?"
"Bye, Mom," said Jordan, flicking her seatbelt. She pushed open her door.
"No hug?" begged Emma.
"Noooo, not an awkward side-hug," Jordan whined.
But it was too late, and her mother already had an arm around her daughter and pulled Jordan against her and Jordan's cheek pressed into her mother's right breast and Jordan pouted. She wriggled free, sliding down on the seat and under her mother’s arm and slinked right out of the truck and onto the ground.
"You're probably right," called Emma through the open door. "Side-hugs, no good."
Jordan turned in dread to see her mother unclasp her seatbelt and hop out of the truck.
Before she could flee, Jordan was lifted up, high into the air with a full frontal hug— for all the world to see.
Jordan craned her neck, scanning the windows of the house on the hill, searching for witnesses. A lone gardener stopped clipping a hedge, gave her a look— and resumed his work.
The crackly voice in the truck said, “10-50 Old Highway 41 and County Highway VV— 10-52, ambulance needed—“
“—car accident—“ mumbled Emma. "See you tomorrow.” She dropped Jordan and scurried back into the truck.
Jordan watched the truck peel out, spitting gravel. After a brief rumble, the passenger-side door closed during the turn.
Jordan squinted, turned away, and jaunted up the long alabaster stair.
A capital "S" and a capital "E."
The letters were written on her forehead twice— once in black and then again in red, and the red was just inside the black.
Jordan realized the girls actually had time to write their decree twice before she awoke from their maniacal dinosaur laughter.
She stifled a gag.
Jordan lifted her hand to wipe more of the mirror, and so confirm the remaining letter, but then the bathroom door burst open.
Jordan turned to see a stone-hewn collage of her friends, her very best friends, arranged like a Mount Rushmore of lesser-known presidents. Aged nine through eleven.
The rigid monument managed to point, and some presidents even doubled-over, falling into histrionic jeers.
Jordan dove at the stony faces to force her way through, but Clarissa's mother appeared, her brow furrowed, her lips curled. The disapproving adult sneer spread like an oil spill. Clarissa’s mother wore a towel wrapped around her head and a bathrobe with pearls along the cuffs.
"Ah, now they'll get it!" Jordan thought in triumph. She aimed an index finger at her forehead and cried out, "Look. What. They. Did!"
Clarissa's mother bent low. Clarissa's mother wanted to use the little girl's name for emphasis, but she was darned if she could remember it. Clarissa's mother thrust her grasp toward the monument and snagged the nearest tiny hand.
Jordan trembled in anticipation of her vindication.
"Stop your belly-aching!" Clarissa's mother yelled. She thrust the captured hand into Jordan's astonished view.
Clarissa's mother turned the hand over like a pancake. Clarissa's mother showed Jordan the back of the hand— and what was, probably, supposed to be a panda.
The probable panda was scrawled in purple marker.
Jordan sniffed. The probable purple panda was grape.
Clarissa's mother bellowed again, "Look! They did it to all the girls!"
And at once the other girls displayed the backs of their hands in succession like the unfolding plumage of a peacock. There, in various fruit and candy smells, proud commissioned artworks worthy of inclusion in any primitive cave painting.
"But—" Jordan stammered, pointing again to her forehead. “But!”
"Go back to sleep!" cried Clarissa's mother, tossing the tiny hand away. "All of you!"
Jordan caught a glimpse of Maple Stirrup, dangling upside-down by the hoof in Clarissa’s spindly and tenuous grip.
Jordan blew air out her nose.
Jordan snatched the toy.
Jordan fled down the dark hallway.
“Hey! That’s mine!” cried Clarissa.
The other girls chanted. "Run Jordan! Run Jordan! Run Jordan!"
Jordan fled down the staircase and skipped the last step. She hopped onto the first floor. She found herself in the kitchen and flung open the sliding door. Scampering down the porch and across the backyard, Jordan made a beeline for the maze of pine trees growing behind the barn. Its front and rear doors were wide open. Jordan dashed into the barn past its many stalls.
Clarissa tackled her from behind.
Jordan crashed into the dirt.
Maple Stirrup flew up and away.
“Uhhghh!” groaned Jordan, the wind knocked out of her. She could not move, except for her head.
Clarissa sat on her.
Something over them whinnied.
Jordan looked up, out the side of her left eye.
A unicorn stared down at her in the moonlight. It shook its mane. Apparently the birthday pony had been forgotten. It still wore its faux horn. The cone slipped to the side at an awkward angle.
Jordan struggled to stand, but Clarissa pushed her shoulders down.
Jordan thought it creepy Clarissa was not speaking. No taunt. No insult. Like when a kitten catches a sparrow and is confused what to do next.
“Why?” asked Jordan through her teeth. “Why?” she whimpered.
Snot ran down her lip.
A low rumble filled the barn. The stalls shook. The unicorn stamped. The rafters creaked.
Jordan clenched her hands in the straw and the dirt.
Fighting it. Fighting it.
Her hands gnarled and her breath quickened.
The unicorn’s stall flew open. The pony ran out. Clarissa yelped and rolled away.
Jordan scrambled to her feet. She ran out the back of the barn. She heard the trampling of hooves behind her. Faster, faster. Down the hill she ran. In the semi-darkness she heard boards beneath her. She jumped and climbed through the ruin of a collapsed silo.
There was a whiny and a cry.
But she was too scared to look back.
Jordan ran headlong into the forest. Soon the sway of the pines and the strong fragrance of the needles slowed her flight to an amble. She searched the maze for an exit, failing to navigate its thick, gray-olive darkness. She was lost.
Morning approached. But it would be some time before the sun brought a new day and with it an easier escape.
Jordan spun in a tight circle. The trees danced in an ever-widening swirl. Tiny red and blue beads appeared, flung fast into motion trails. Jordan stopped spinning and caught her balance. She walked toward the distant glow, finding an opening between two large pines. Jordan followed the alternating lights. She reached the lake and its pebbled shore.
Out of breath and exhausted, Jordan shuffled over to the lap of water. She knelt down.
Jordan watched the wobbly reflection of the graffiti on her face. She lifted her head. Across the lake in the distance she spied an unmistakable string of blue and red.
Although it was mid-summer here, there it was forever Christmas.
Jordan had never realized how close her and Clarissa lived to one another. How many times had Jordan stood on that shore, unknowingly looking to this very spot where she now knelt? How many times had her expectations warped the pebbles on this shore into nuggets of gold, gold discarded by the dentists and the lawyers on this side of the lake? Discarded because their buckets for the nuggets were full and, gosh, they had to dump those nuggets somewhere, and even the lake could not hold them, so the shoreline must collect the overflow.
Jordan sighed. She took a handful.
The pebbles were just that— pebbles. And from them came no shine. Jordan dropped the pebbles and stepped into the lake— she was bound and determined to take the shortest route home.
She felt drowsy. Her eyes half-closed. She wiped the snot from her nose.
The lake was soon up to her knees. The silt dispersed around her feet. Her thin nightgown distended, filling with water around her. She thought maybe her next step would lift her up onto the plane of the lake, so she raised her leg high and moved in slow-motion, as if to give the surface tension fair warning of her well-meaning, though desperate, intention.
She put her foot down.
Emma found Jordan curled up asleep in the bed of the pickup truck. She stood beside the truck bed, smoothing back Jordan’s hair. “Good morning, Sunshine.”
Jordan stretched her legs. “Hrrhhmmmnnnhm,” she said.
“I have a question,” said Emma. “Justa simple, normal, every-day type question.”
“What are you doing sleeping in the back of the pick-up?”
“Couldn’t— make it— to the— house.”
“I see,” said Emma. “But weren’t you girls going to the movies today?”
“The movie place— burned down.”
“Ohhh. The movie place burned down.” Emma pushed strands of hair out of Jordan’s eyes. She licked her thumb and moved to wipe Jordan’s forehead. “What’s this?”
“NO!” shouted Jordan, flinching. She relaxed. She said in a small voice, “It belongs there.”
Emma retracted her hand. She watched Jordan’s bottom lip quiver.
“You can cry,” said Emma. If you want to. It’s— ok.”
“No it isn’t. They hate me. I’m not going to cry for them.”
“No one hates you, my sweet.”
“Yes they do.”
“Why would they hate you?”
“Because—“ Jordan sat up. She thrust her face forward. She pointed at her forehead with both hands. “I’m a loser!”
Jordan remembered the first two letters in the hand-held mirror, the next two in the bathroom, and the wavy reproduction of the whole word in the lake. Only now did she understand that her friends, her very best friends, had written the letters backwards. They had written them backwards so she could read them in a reflection.
“How clever,” she admitted.
But then Jordan caught sight of her mother's gentle smile.
“They would have done the same to any girl. Their cruelty isn’t about you, Jordan. It’s about them. And it’s about how much they have to learn.”
And as Emma followed the cherry and licorice contours, the letters were no more, washed clean by a sparkle in her eye and an imperfect but hopeful grin. And yes, the spit on her thumb.
But also, something else, something Jordan could not name, but she didn't need to name it really— not everything good has a name.
Emma took her jacket off and wrapped it around Jordan. “Let’s take a quick hop over there. I’ll talk to Clarissa’s mom.”
“Mom, nooooo!” cried Jordan in a panic.
“Well, for one thing, we have to snag Aunt Sylvia’s dress.”
Jordan hung her head.
Emma turned the key in the ignition.
“10-78,” said the crackly voice.
Emma looked over at Jordan.
The voice continued, “Missing child at the Schroeder property. Daughter Clarissa, age 11.”
“Do you know what happened?” Emma asked Jordan.
Jordan shook her head. “She chased me. Tackled me. In their barn. I ran. Rocks and things, behind the barn. Then, the lake.”
“The lake? Listen carefully, Jordan. If you had the power to find Clarissa, and to help her, if she needed it, would you? You can be honest.”
Jordan crinkled her mouth. “Honest?” she asked, skeptical.
Jordan lowered her gaze to the pterodactyl on the seat beside her. She stroked its plastic wings and shrugged.
“Well, while you think about it— the lake, the pines, and the old silo are the first places we’ll look, in that order.”
“But she was mean,” said Jordan.
“Yes, she was,” Emma replied. She watched her daughter pet the pterodactyl. “Jordan, in your life, you’ll have many chances to help people you don’t know. Folks you don’t know if they’re mean to people or nice to people, or what. But I think maybe helping them has one thing in common as hurting them, in this one way: it’s about who you are. Not if the person deserves it. That we don’t judge. That’s not for us. We just help.”
Emma put the truck into gear and it bounced onto the road.
Clarissa wasn’t in the lake. Not in the pine forest. They found her at the bottom of the old broken silo, its boarded up floor ruptured— now a splintered maw leading to an empty belly.
“There she is,” said Emma, looking down into the dark. “See her breathing?”
“I think so,” answered Jordan. “We can tell her momma or the police.” She threw a glance across the rubble and through the barn toward the cop car parked in the driveway.
“But she could be hurt on the inside,” said Emma. “And it might take them too long to get down there and up again.”
Jordan looked from the cop car to her mother and then down to Clarissa.
Emma asked gently, “What should we do, Jordan?”
Jordan clenched her mouth. She slowly lifted her right palm over the ruptured boards. Her hand shook.
Emma squeezed Jordan’s shoulder. She whispered, “It’s about thirty feet. You’ll be fine. I’m here if you need me.” Emma rubbed the back of Jordan’s neck. “Now. Jordan. A single. Deep. Breath.”
Jordan shut her eyes. Inhaled. Stopped shaking. Exhaled.
A low rumble shook the loose stones of the silo. Pebbles flopped on the boards.
Earth began to rise.
“Good,” whispered Emma, throwing a look at the cop car. “Now, think of Clarissa. Center your mind. Between her and the ground. And— lift!”
Crumbles of rock and fits of straw and sprays of dirt lifted up out of the hole— but no Clarissa.
The rumble wavered.
“I can’t,” said Jordan, opening red, teary eyes.
Emma said, resolute, “Yes, you can— Raptor-Face!”
Jordan smiled. She relaxed. Looked down into the darkness. She turned her hand over, as if scooping it under Clarissa.
The air crackled.
Jordan lifted her arm.
Clarissa floated up out of the hole.
On the ride back home Jordan thought about what she had done. When her mother wasn’t looking, she pinched herself. Pretty hard, too.
After parking their truck they walked toward their motorhome.
"Let's get you dressed," said Emma. She stopped in her tracks. "Oh, shoot. We’ll have to go back for Aunt Sylvia's dress. I totally forgot all about it.”
"Maybe," Jordan fidgeted. “Later? We don’t want to miss the matinee, you and me." She looked up at her mother with bashful eyes. “Beaglejuice?”
"I thought the movie theatre burned down," her mother snorted.
"I think— maybe— it didn’t,” answered Jordan.
"Oh is that right?" Emma laughed.
“Yes, my love?”
“So, uh, now that we both— uh—“ Jordan waved her hand up and down. “Will I go with you?”
“No, not yet. You will need practice. Secret practice. It’ll be fun, but it must be secret. The greatest secret. Then, later, we will go out together, but only for a short time.”
“Well. As the days pass, and the seasons change, my power will fade. And you will go out alone.”
“The days will never stop. The seasons will always change. One morning, I will wake up— and I will no longer be able to fly. Or— do any of it.”
“But— but won’t you be sad that day?”
Emma turned away. Found herself looking up to the clouds. She thought about passing through them— and their delicate mist tickling her nose. Looking down on verdant farms, spongy tree-tops, and, at night, coasting among the stars.
She answered. “Yes.”
Emma took Jordan’s hand and smiled. “But— happy for you. Because it’s only natural. As I diminish, you will grow.”
“Then I will grow as slowly as I can,” said Jordan.
Emma wiped the corner of one eye. “Here. I saw her lying in the barn.”
Emma opened her hand and revealed Maple Stirrup.
A third of her mane was missing. She had a frightening, crooked grin. Was missing a hoof. One of her ears was cracked and would probably fall off in a week or two.
Jordan smiled. She whispered, “Awesome.”
The sun was coming up. Jordan glanced back at the lake but couldn't see the other side, for the water reflected the sunrise, and it bloomed, blinding her. Behind her, she heard her mother enter their motorhome. Jordan turned away from the lake and ran onto the grass. Following a soft rumble and a small gesture, Maple Stirrup galloped high through the air.
“Neee eh eh hee!”
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