Bone Maiden

The devil's got my secret.
He swore he'd never tell.
I left it for safe-keeping.
I'll pick it up in hell.


2. Chapter Two

I was thirteen years old when I left my home in central Florida to live with my aunt and uncle in North Carolina. Even though I’d been born there and spent most of my life there, Florida was my home. I missed my house with the window seat and my view of the swampy lake. I missed the thunderstorms and unexpected trips to Disneyworld. Most of all, I missed my parents.

North Carolina just never felt right. The house was too big. The Spanish moss that covered the trees in the backyard cast dark shadows on my room. The town was unfamiliar and strange.

My home was Theresa Collier.

When we were kids, she lived with her family on a farm a mile away from my grandparents’ house. We went to elementary school together, but we never had the same classes and never met. When my grandparents died, my aunt and uncle took the house, and my parents carried me off to Florida, where they met their ends too.

Theresa Collier was the most wonderful person I’d ever met. She was light and bubbly and pretty and everything I ever wanted to be. When I first moved back, she had too many friends to pay any attention to me, and I was too deep in my own grief to pay any to her.

But then a summer rainstorm brought her into my life, as well as ended the lives of her parents. And just like me, she was an orphan. She moved away from her little farmhouse but became my friend the moment she set foot in our grief counseling class.

Theresa was the only person who ever made me feel like healing was possible. She was everything I ever loved about summer. Everything that Florida had been for me. I’d spent so much time locked up in that dark house, and Theresa came in with her floral dresses and bouncy brown curls. She made me feel alive again. Even when her parents were gone, she was always so full of life.

But she was broken just like I was, and that was why we connected the way we did. That day in our counseling class she walked in with tearstained eyes and a trembling lip. I was the only other girl her age, so she came to me. She sat beside me, and in the middle of our counselor’s grief sermon, when I heard her sniffling at my side, I reached out to hold her hand.

We understood each other. Losing both parents at the same time does something to a person. Especially that young. We thought differently than other people, so we found solace in each other for that reason. She clung to me for understanding, and I clung to her for warmth.

I loved my aunt and uncle and even my weird cousin. But even they didn’t feel like my family. Just like North Carolina never felt like home. Until Theresa came into my life.

We made a pact once. A year after the death of her parents. She hitched a ride to my house in the middle of the night and threw pebbles at my bedroom window like we were in a movie. She was shaking and in tears. I ran out into the yard to meet her. Then the two of us walked to her old farmhouse. We couldn’t get into the house because it was boarded up, but we got into the barn and sat in the loft to talk about her parents. She held my hand as she made me a promise that I would never leave her. Not for boys or college. Not even for death, she said. She promised me the same.

Theresa got a boyfriend a year later. I never met him, but I heard about all the wonderful things he did. She called me when they met on spring break. He was our age, but already in college. According to her, he was gorgeous, funny, rich, and everything Theresa ever wanted. She talked about him nonstop for months before they even started dating. Then she talked about him nonstop afterward too.

Even though I never met him, I loved him. She seemed so happy when she talked about him. She brought a light back into my life, but he’d done that for her. And so I wanted to meet him, but he lived out of town. I didn’t know why, but she kept him from me. I never even got to see a picture.

I met him one day at the end of December. We were a week away from going back to school after the holidays. I hadn’t heard from Theresa in two days. I wasn’t used to her ignoring me, but I figured she was angry with me. We had an argument, and she was upset about having to spend another holiday without her parents. I understood that pain, and I was wrong to assume that people grieved the same way I did. Alone.

I was in my bedroom. The trees in the yard left a gloomy haze over my bedroom window. The curtains were drawn, but the sky was dark, and my room was chilly. I was buried in a thick sweater as I got ready to work my shift at the restaurant my aunt and uncle owned.

I had a cellphone, but no one ever called me. Just Theresa. And she rarely called for anything. She only texted. My aunt and uncle got me the phone to keep me updated on work schedules, or to find me when I left the house. And my cousin sometimes spammed me with ghost stories he found on the internet. But my aunt was already at the restaurant, and my uncle was on his way to pick me up. My cousin tended to disappear for weeks at a time, so I didn’t expect my phone to buzz.

I was busy digging through my dresser for my work shirt. The buzz of my phone in the silence made me jump from fright. The phone was lying on the edge of my nightstand, plugged in to charge. I tossed the shirt onto my bed and picked it up. I figured it was Theresa, ready to yell at me after taking a few days to cool off. But the number was unknown.

“Is this Bax?” the text said. That was what Theresa called me. My family, teachers, and everyone else called me Ava. But Theresa said I didn’t look like an Ava, and that was one of the things I loved about her. I never felt like much like an Ava. I identified with Bax more than Ava.

“Who wants to know?” I replied. I tossed the phone down and reached for my shirt so I could change it.

Instead of answering the question with another text, my phone began to ring. I considered ignoring it because I didn’t know who it was, and I didn’t talk to anyone else. But my curiosity got the best of me, so I answered it and brought it to my ear.

“Hello?” I could hear him breathing before he spoke. It took him a long time to talk, and I gave him that time. I didn’t know who he was, but he sounded distressed. My heart began to pound as I imagined all the horrible things that could have happened.

“Bax,” the unfamiliar voice finally said, choking out my name as if he was struggling to breathe. “This is Gabriel. Do you know who I am?” It took me a moment to place the name. Theresa always called her boyfriend Gabe.

“Theresa’s boyfriend?” He made another choking sound before answering.

“Yes.” Then my heart dropped, and I sat down on my bed. I didn’t know why he’d be calling me. But I didn’t like the way his voice sounded so panicked and afraid. I took a deep breath.

“What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I just—you need to come down here. It’s Theresa. I don’t know what happened. The cops are here. They’re saying it looks like a suicide, but….”

“But what?” I cried. I leaned on my legs and prayed that he wasn’t saying what I was hearing.

“Just come down here.”

“Where are you?”

“The barn.”

“Oh God.” I shut the phone off and shoved it into my pocket. I abandoned the work shirt and darted out of my room. I didn’t even bother to find my shoes. When I was a kid, my mom used to get mad at me for never wearing any shoes. But I didn’t think of it as I headed toward the end of the street.

The road to Theresa’s barn was several streets away from my house. It was paved until it met the field, where it stretched for a whole mile until ending at her home and the barn. I could make out the lonely buildings at the end of the mile. But I skidded to a halt at the mouth of the road and waited for an ambulance to pass. The sirens weren’t on, but the lights were.

I waited for it to leave the road, but my heart already felt heavy. Once it passed onto the residential streets, I took off down the road at a run.

Theresa and I used to have PE together. We would chug along behind our class, laughing and joking around and hoping it ended quickly. We always complained about the distance every time we walked the road to the barn. But I didn’t seem to notice it anymore. I reached it faster than I ever had before.

The dirt driveway at the end of the road was littered with cars. I recognized Theresa’s grandma’s car parked by the barn, but most of them were police cars. I hurried to the barn doors, but they were blocked off, and I couldn’t see inside. I could hear someone crying.

A boy was standing on the porch out front of the house. He was pacing back and forth across the deck. His eyes were red, and his hands were trembling. It was a chilly day, and he was wearing a thicker coat than needed. But his collar was upturned, giving him an impression of wealth. I made a b-line toward him.

“What happened?” I demanded. His baby blue eyes met mine. They were darkened with tears.

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head quickly. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Just tell me!” I sobbed as I stood on the step below him. He turned away from me and sniffled.

“She hasn’t called me in a few days. I was worried. Her grandparents said she wasn’t home. So I had a hunch that she might have come here. You know—where she lived with her parents. But—but….”

“But what?”

“I found her—in the barn—she was—she was hanging.” I let out a strangled sob and sunk to my knees. I wrapped my arms around my head.

“No. No. No. She wouldn’t do that.”

“I don’t know, Bax.”

“She wouldn’t do that to me!” I shouted, and then I began to cry. “She promised. We made a pact. She wouldn’t.” He sniffed again.

“She promised me too.”

“You don’t understand. She said she’d never hurt me like this. We made a pact. She promised. She can’t be gone. Please don’t tell me that she’s gone?”

“I’m so sorry.” I continued to cry, and he dropped down to the porch beside me. He sniffed back tears as he fought to breathe through the heaviness in his chest. “There’s something—there’s something else.” My head jerked back up and focused on him.

“Tell me.” He looked at me. I could make out every feature Theresa explained to me. He had wide blue eyes, styled brown hair, a straight nose, and curved lips that weren’t meant to look so sad. “Please?” I begged. He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand and looked toward the boarded up front door.

“The police said it was just blood—but it didn’t look like blood,” he told me. There was a sharp pain in the pit of my stomach. I instinctively rubbed my palm across the ache.

“What was it?”

“It was like—tar,” he said, looking down at me. “Black tar. It was coming out of her….”

“Her eyes, her nose, and her mouth.”

He studied me then. He must have already figured out who I was when he saw me running down the road. He either guessed or maybe she’d shown him pictures of me. Even though she’d never shown me any of him.

“How did you know that?” he asked with a calmer tone. I hesitated to answer.

“Because I’ve seen it before.” I leaped off of the porch and made a run for the dirt road so I could go back home and be alone.

“Wait, Bax!” he shouted, chasing after me. His hand wrapped around my arm and spun me back around until I was facing him. “What do you mean you’ve seen it before? When?” I shook my head and bit my lip in an attempt to fight back the tears.

“Didn’t she tell you?” I asked. “My mom. The police told me the same thing. They said it was just internal bleeding. It was just blood, Gabriel. Let me go.”

“Blood,” he repeated slowly as if trying to convince himself of a lie. But he let go of my arm, and I broke free of him. I turned toward the road and ran.

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