By Jan M. Flynn
My hand pauses over the bowl full of pills. They look like evil clown candy: striped capsules, blue lozenges, yellow balls, white discs. Four pairs of eyes stare at me.
“Cory, you don’t have to.” Kate leans toward me, half-whispering, her yeasty beer breath and flowery perfume making my head feel weird.
“Take at least two, that’s the dare,” says Craig. “Either that or tell the truth. C’mon, ten more seconds. Final choice.”
What am I even doing here? I’m not part of Craig’s crew, or anybody else’s, not since my old school, before Mom and Dad split and Mom got sick, and life started to suck. Apart from Kate, hardly anyone ever even looks at me, let alone says hi; it’s like I’m invisible. I’ve kind of gotten used to it.
When Kate texted me this afternoon — Craig wants u at GB c u there 2nite — I figured it was a mistake or maybe a joke. But then Kate called, like not even ten minutes later.
“Are you coming? You have to come,” she said. Like it’s some big important thing.
“I thought GB means ‘goodbye.’”
“Ohmigod, duh, no, the green barn! Craig asked me to ask you.”
“Craig? For real?” I hate the sound of my voice when it turns high and nervous like that.
And that’s all it takes. Here I am, hanging out in the abandoned barn with Kate and Craig and Dylan and Rashid, gripping a bottle of beer, while Mom is home, in bed, alone except for her little ceramic owl. I don’t even think she knows I’m gone.
Just five of us in the barn; not much of a party. Why aren’t there more people? I’d ask, if I knew it wouldn’t make me sound stupid.
The green barn, huge and halfway fallen down, is part of the old Whitfield property. Nobody lives in the main house now, but the surrounding fence is studded with No Trespassing signs. Craig says the cops hardly ever drive by.
My hand hovers over the bowl of pills. It’s like I can hear everyone else waiting and the seconds ticking by. I’m not exactly used to being the center of attention. Yesterday, sixth period English, was the first time Craig ever spoke to me, the first time he’s ever seemed to notice I’m alive.
All year I’ve sneaked looks at him from under my bangs. He sits in there in English, like nothing in the world bothers him or ever has, his long legs stretched in front of him, sweeping his hair out of his eyes, his lips in kind of a half-smile. Before class, from my safe perch on the library steps at lunch, I watch him in the main quad in the center of his friends, laughing in that way that lights up his blue eyes. He’ll put an arm around Jeannie or Rachel or Kate — Craig doesn’t have a girlfriend exactly, more like a harem — and they head off to the parking lot to drive somewhere off campus for pizza or who knows what. When he shows up in class later, it’s like I can breathe again.
Yesterday in English, Mrs. Jacobsen asked me to read my essay aloud. “I’ve given you all several rubrics for a successful personal-experience essay,” she told the class, “But I think it will be more powerful to hear one from one of your own classmates.” My cheeks got all hot and I’m sure I turned red, but what was I supposed to do? Mrs. Jacobsen wants me to talk to the school counselor, and I keep giving her excuses why I don’t. I couldn’t say no to her now, in front of everyone. So I stood at my desk and read out loud, keeping my eyes on the page.
I got to the end and the room was totally quiet. When I looked up, Mrs. J was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Some of the kids around her were brushing at their faces with their hands. Others just stared at the floor.
“Cory, I think I can speak for the whole class when I say thank you for your courage in articulating what it’s like for you as your mother battles cancer,” said Mrs. Jacobsen. Someone in a corner of the room began clapping, and I thought maybe they were just being a jerk, but Mrs. J didn’t stop them, and then everybody was applauding. I sat down, kind of wishing Mom could see but even more wishing I could disappear.
When the bell rang and I picked up my book bag, Craig was standing just outside the door. Looking at me, with those blue eyes.
“I mean, that is rough,” he said. “Having to give your mom all those meds, all that, like, responsibility.” I couldn’t believe he’d been waiting for me, just to say that.
“Um, well,” I said. “I’m pretty much the only one who’s around to do it, most of the time.” God, I sounded so pathetic.
And then Craig said, “You’re really strong.” My mouth dried up and my knees felt like they might not hold me up anymore and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Craig just kept smiling at me. People walking by in the hall were looking at us.
So I blurted, “It’s amazing the way you play guitar.” Which was a lame thing to say but maybe he’d have liked hearing it. Not that I’ll ever know. Dylan and Rashid came by right then, high-fiving Craig and falling all over each other to get his attention like they always do. The warning bell for seventh period rang and off they all went, and it was like my invisibility cloak wrapped itself around me again. It was almost comforting.
Now, with my hand over the bowl of pills, everyone watches to see what I’ll do. My invisibility is stripped away. Truth or Dare. A stupid game, except when Craig’s leading it.
“He says we need to ‘raise the stakes,' whatever that means,” Kate told me when she gave me a ride to the barn. “Craig is really into, like, intensity. The first time the dare was to swallow a live worm, and Dylan totally did. Last week Rashid was supposed to break into the old main house, but he chose Truth instead. He had to tell something he was ashamed of from his past. He said he wet the bed until he was, like, eleven. And you know what? Craig high-fived him. He is so weird sometimes.” Kate stopped gushing for a second, maybe catching her breath. “So, did you bring them?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said. I had the plastic vial jammed with orange and pink tablets shoved into the front pocket of my jeans, jabbing into my hip. Xeloda, Phenergan, Mom’s cancer meds. The Killer and the Stiller. Xeloda, fifteen dollars a pill, supposed to kill the tumor cells, and the Phenergan to take the edge off her nausea. A hot, sour bubble rose from my stomach at the thought and I had to swallow hard.
The last text Kate sent before she picked me up said Craig sez every1 bring pills prescript not OTC or stay home. I’ve heard about pharma parties, but I didn’t think they were still a thing, or that anybody I know does stuff like that. But I spend all my time either in class or taking care of Mom. What do I know?
Kate parked her car in the last block where there’s still houses before the fields and empty lots start, and we walked through the dark to the gate in the Whitfield fence. Craig, Dylan and Rashid were waiting for us; Dylan held the gap in the chain link open while the rest of us climbed through. We scrambled through grass and weeds to the barn, a lopsided hulk rising into the night. Craig grabbed the latch to the sliding door and hauled on it, looking at us like he was pulling open a curtain on a stage. The way he did it made me hold my breath.
“Enter, adventurers,” he said, and his smile caught the light from the lantern he’d placed on the ground.
I took a step forward, and a shape zoomed out of the barn. I froze, just long enough to catch a glimpse of a rounded head between outstretched wings, pale in the lantern light and as silent as a ghost. Kate squealed; Rashid and Dylan both swore.
“Relax,” said Craig, and laughed. “That’s the barn owl. Seeing him is an omen.”
Inside the barn, we gathered in the lantern’s weak circle of light. Dylan passed around bottles of Coors while Craig collected all the meds — everyone brought something — and dumped them into a small bowl. He swirled the pills with his hand.
“I offer you tonight’s dare, our own special trail mix,” Craig said, his voice dramatic like he was recording a podcast. “Who knows where the trail will lead? The chosen one will reveal their truth or take a trip down that mysterious path.” His words poured into my ears like syrup, muffling the voice inside me that kept saying, don’t.
Craig drained the last of his beer bottle and put it on its side on the dusty floor. “And now we choose,” he said, and gave the bottle a twist with his long fingers.
The bottle wobbled and spun, grating on the dusty floor. Everyone shut up, even Craig, and my inner voice rose: seriously, Spin the Bottle? Leave, go home. If you start walking now you can get back before Mom wakes up.
My heart hammered. I was halfway to standing up and leaving when the bottle came to a stop. Right in front of me.
“You’re chosen, Cory,” said Craig, his podcaster voice back on, his eyes boring into me.
Kate laughed, but a fake, nervous-sounding laugh. “Hey, c’mon Craig,” she said, “It’s her first time here, right?”
I felt a puff of hope. Maybe there was a way out of this without Craig realizing what a loser I am after all. But he kept looking at me, pinning me down with those eyes.
“Cory knows what she’s doing,” he said. His voice smooth, like I could feel it running over my skin.
No, Cory really does not, said my inner voice.
Craig was all business then. “So, Cory, Truth,” he said. “What’s the absolute worst thing you’ve ever done?”
My stomach turned upside down.
“Or take the Dare,” said Craig. “Grab a sample of our trail mix and see what happens. Minimum of two pills; we’ll let you off easy.”
“Seriously? The worst thing Cory’s ever done is, like, use the wrong heading on her homework,” Kate said. Her laugh died into the silence.
Now everyone is watching, waiting.
“Last call: Truth or Dare?” says Craig.
I think about the worst thing I ever did. I think about earlier tonight, grinding up an extra sleeping pill and mixing it with Mom’s apple sauce, almost the only thing she’ll still eat, just so I can sneak out and impress Craig. I think about watching her eyes flutter closed and her breathing slow down, maybe too slow, while I fill an empty pill bottle with doses of Killer and Stiller. I think about her little ceramic owl on her bedside table, the one from on our only trip to Cabo right after her diagnosis. I saw it in a souvenir shop and thought it was cute, so I used up my pesos on it and gave it to her. She called it her spirit guide and gave it a name: Usher. I’m not even kidding. It’s always with her now, like it’s some kind of totem, even when she leaves the house, which kind of weirds me out. I think about how it watches me, its glazed yellow eyes staring out of its heart-shaped face, as I steal the pills my mom needs to stay alive.
But stealing the pills isn’t the worst thing I’ve done.
The worst thing is wanting my mom to die.
At least, part of me does. I’m not up to battling Mom’s cancer. It’s already beaten me. I’m tired of her weakness and pain, tired of monitoring meds and changing sheets and making the meals and running errands and staying cheerful and being who Mom calls “my warrior princess”.
Even uglier: if Mom dies, my dad and his wife will let me come stay with them, for good. They’ll have to. I’ll live with them and their kids in the big house in L.A. I’ll make friends and go to games and parties and do exciting, normal teenage stuff. And maybe Craig will come to LA to check out the music scene, maybe I can show him around and introduce him to my cool new friends.
It’s probably all a sad fantasy. But I’ve risked what’s left of my beautiful, sweet, sick Mom’s life for it. Whatever’s coming to me, I deserve it.
“Dare,” I say. Kate inhales.
My fingers close around a handful of pills. Looking at the assortment in my palm, I spot three Xeloda in the mix. That means nausea for sure, and who knows what else. Good. My eyes lock onto Craig’s as I toss the pills into my mouth and wash them down with a long pull from my bottle.
“Whoa, Cory, what the hell?” Dylan laughs, spouting beer spray.
Craig’s expression changes. He slides his arm around my shoulder and gives me a squeeze.
“That’s my girl,” he says.
I’m light suddenly, like my blood is full of bubbles, like my heart is dancing. I lean into Craig’s arm. “OK, so who’s next?” I ask.
“Oh, sweetheart, that’s not how it works,” says Craig. “The rest of us just sit back and drink beer. Nobody explained that part?”
My stomach takes another flip. It can’t be the pills already, can it? Craig’s arm slips away from my shoulder. He picks up his guitar and starts playing. Rashid and Dylan join in, with Kate singing along in her husky voice.
I sit on the floor, legs splayed out, watching them, on the outside of the circle again. My mouth is dry; I reach for another beer and drink it, fast.
I let my head nod to my chest, my hair curtaining my face. The music washes over me. A soft warmth builds in my center and flows into my arms, my legs, my face. My lips go numb and my breathing slows down. Then it gets slower. I sense my brain’s request for more air, but from a distance. Should I be worried?
Where’s the nausea? At least that would anchor me. This is worse. I’m hollow, an empty skin hovering somewhere just off the ground. Are Craig and the others still playing and singing or am I dreaming it? The sounds distort and the dim light wavers. Am I drifting higher? I need to touch down.
I shake my head, blinking my eyes. The space below me spins, the scenes in the green barn lurching past me: Rashid laughing as Dylan clutches his middle and heaves vomit onto the dirt floor; a stack of old, rotting hay bales; a corner where Craig and Kate are wrapped up in each other, mouths locked together. I don’t feel my breath at all.
The spinning is faster, more powerful. Something comes loose in the middle of my skull. I see one of the wooden posts as it spins by me and reach out to grab it. I clutch at it, steadying myself. The spinning slows as I wrap my arms and legs around the post. I press my face against its splintery side, grateful to rest.
A ragged, whispery shriek jolts me awake. I scrunch my gritty eyes, thinking I must have dreamed the sound. The lantern has gone out but beams of gray light drift through the gaps in the barn’s siding. It’s either really late or really early. I’m still up here, clinging to the post; how could I have slept like this?
“Hello?” I call. I crane my neck to look below me. I don’t see any sign of Craig or Kate or the others. Did they leave me here?
Another whispery shriek, and I clutch the post tighter, looking for where the weird sound is coming from. My eyes must have adjusted to the dim light in the barn because when I peer up into a corner, I see it. There, where what’s left of the roof meets the wall, is a feathery shape. I remember the owl flying out of the barn last night. Its yellow eyes stare from its heart-shaped face, straight at me.
I give a little, scared puff of laughter. “Look who it is,” I say. “Hey, Usher.”
The barn owl opens its beak and screeches a third time, shutting me up. I need to get down, get out of here, go home. What if Mom wakes up early and I’m not there?
I look down, checking if I can drop to the ground without breaking anything. I can see the barn floor, but I can’t see my own feet. I can’t feel my heartbeat or my breathing or anything, and I look for my hands, my arms, legs, any part of my own body, and I don’t see them. Everything in the barn is there, its sagging walls, the rickety loft, the rotting hay bales.
Everything, except for me.
I squeeze my eyes shut, but it doesn’t make any difference. I bang my head against the post; if this is a nightmare I want to wake up, but all I feel is a distant, muted thud. I hear the barn owl screech again, and a scream builds inside me but stays there like it’s trapped. I wish I could cry, but I can’t draw enough breath for a sob.
Something soft brushes my face and I open my eyes. The owl flies past, circling me, coming so close its wingtips graze my skin. I can feel you, I think with relief. The owl settles on a splintered roof beam nearby and swivels its head to stare at me. In its mask of a face is a question.
Something about the owl’s look tilts my panic into something past fear. It’s like I feel myself surrender to whatever’s going on.
You’re right, I think as I look at the owl. No point in hanging on. I release my grip. I drift upwards.
It feels natural, this floating. The owl lifts silently from its perch. I follow it up to and then through the rotting roof. I’m not flying, exactly; with the owl guiding me I just sort of arrive places, like the owl or maybe my own mind draws me to them. There’s a swoop of purple sky, a few stars, then I hover in Kate’s upstairs room and see Kate curled around a pillow on her pink canopy bed, sobbing. Then I’m in a fancy living room, where a policeman with a notebook stands before Craig, who looks smaller and pale, his lips quivering as he tries to speak. A tall, thin woman with tense fingers, Craig’s mom, perches on the edge of a chair.
The owl leads me to a hospital corridor. My mom leans against a wall near the nurse’s station, her eyes huge and shadowed. I can’t hear her, but I can see her free hand making frantic gestures while she talks into her phone. In the next instant I’m on the other end of the line: my dad stands in his corner office, rigid as a statue, his face blank. His chest rises and falls, too fast.
The hospital again, this time to a curtained-off bay. A body on the gurney, surrounded by machines and monitors, a tube disappearing into its throat. The owl perches on my shoulder now and I can feel its claws on my shoulder.
But I can also feel the tube. That’s me, I realize. The tube snakes down my throat, reaching right into my center, searching, scooping, hollowing. I look terrible.
I really do. My face looks like the lumps of wet clay in the art room, my hair is stuck to my forehead, my colorless lips are slack around the tube. Other tubes run from my arms to machines and bags of liquid stuck on poles. Monitors beep and glow. I want to cry again.
The owl nestles against my cheek for a moment, and I look beyond the gurney, beyond my body, and I can see way past it, right through the wall to what’s beyond. There’s a field, wide open, flowers growing everywhere, gorgeous colors, and I’m standing there, sunshine pouring over me like warm honey and everything fits, everything feels just right, like this is how it should feel to exist, like this is how it should have felt all along.
A thin, high sound comes from one of the machines. I’m pulled back toward the gurney, the owl perched on my shoulder, his claws poking me.
“Clear!” yells one of the people in scrubs.
It’s like the time I was little and a goat at the petting zoo butted me in the chest, hard. “No,” I try to say, but I’m being dragged backwards fast, like somebody’s reeling in a cable tied to my waist, and I can’t get any breath. I still see the field, but I’m not standing in it anymore.
Now I float over the gurney, right above my body, looking down at it like it's a dress I’ve grown out of and can’t believe I ever wore. The calm of the field shatters into a swell of confusion.
A woman wearing scrubs and a hairnet steps forward, aiming a pair of paddles at my chest. “Clear!” she yells again.
The blow to my center this is time stronger, harsher. I try to get back to the field, away from the pain, but it’s like I’m being pulled apart. Panic surges through me.
“Usher? What do I do?” I ask, whimpering, but I don’t see the owl or feel his claws now. The people surrounding my body stare at the monitors, waiting.
There’s a commotion at the foot of the hospital bay. The curtains skid apart on their track and there’s my mom, trying to get past the scrub people to my gurney, a nurse grasping her arms to steer her back into the hallway.
“Cory!” Mom tries to yell, but her voice is hoarse from crying and she’s weak from struggling with the nurse. Her voice is breathy, ragged, a screech. Another nurse joins the first one and they murmur to her like they’re talking to a freaked-out little kid. Mom’s hands flail: she drops something on the floor as they pull her back, back behind the curtain. I’ve never seen her fight so hard.
“What do I do?” I cry again. My voice rattles in my head but doesn’t penetrate the air in the room.
There’s a crunch and a skittering sound on the floor at the foot of the gurney; someone kicks something aside. My attention focuses on it like a laser: it’s the little ceramic owl. I almost want to laugh.
But the paddles are descending toward my body again, my body so full of mistakes and pain, and the field shimmers beyond this terrible room, where Usher lies upended on the vinyl floor, his curve of a tail crushed, his glazed yellow eyes staring up at me, answering my question with another question.
I have a choice to make. And there is no more time.
About the Creator
Jan M Flynn
I write speculative short fiction, historical novels, upper-middle grade fantasy: pretty much whatever stalks me until I write it. Represented by Helen Adams of Zimmermann Literary Agency, NYC. Words fueled by coffee, mellowed by wine.
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