Click here to listen to an audio recording of this story, read by Colby Halterman!
This story is a runner-up in the 2021 Halloween Contest.
I looked up from my Romeo and Juliet annotations. My lips pursed and wiggled around, irritated. “Now I have mixed feelings.”
“About what?” Dad asked from beside me, his eyes on the road.
“This Queen Mab. She’s…complicated.”
“The best characters are complicated.”
“Yes, I know! But she’s–” I waved my hands around in front of me. My fingers arched so my hands made mini claws. “She’s not what I wanted her to be, I guess. Now I’m not so sure she’d be a good fairy godmother for a future offspring of mine. Mab would have been such a badass middle name, too!”
He chuckled. “You don’t need to worry about any of that yet, Miss Freshmen.”
“Obviously,” I said in my best Snape impersonation, which was a pretty bad impersonation. “Because now I have to think of a whole new fairy godmother and middle name!”
“You don’t even have a partner yet…right?”
I waved a dismissive hand. “Details.”
I looked back down at my homework packet, full of more Shakespeare and a few discussion questions I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I could do them after CrossFit, I decided. “Do you know who’s programming the workout today?”
“It’s Mike’s week.”
“Oh no.” I scrunched up my nose. He always focused too heavily on one muscle group and made us so sore the next day.
Dad parked in their driveway, which was slightly elevated from the rest of the neighborhood’s road. The garage door was open for us, so I slipped out of the car, grabbing my water bottle and change of clothes.
I left Dad and Mike to discuss board games, beer, disc golf, and all of the other things they normally talked about. I skipped up the stairs in the back of the garage and opened the door leading to their living room. Finding the first floor bathroom, I took off my jean shorts and long-sleeved blue shirt. I came back out to the garage in my cool exercise garments.
The workout on the white board didn’t look too bad for the strength portion. Front squats 5×5 was doable–it was the EMOM that involved wall-sits, running, and box jumps that I was worried about.
In between my second and third set of front squats, I sprawled on the mushy purple matt. My FitBit said my heart rate was at eighty-two and dropping, which meant I probably wasn’t pushing myself hard enough, but I could still feel my heartbeat in my face and chest. I moved my gaze to the ceiling, but the naked lightbulb made me look at one of the walls instead. They had never been properly painted so they were covered with white spots…and now red dots when I blinked. I had probably damaged my retinas a little by looking at the lightbulb, but a little eye damage had never hurt anyone. It kind of looked cool, actually, like little flaming fireflies I could still see when I closed my eyes.
“Poppy!” Dad called. “Your turn, c’mon. Max reps for the last set.”
“Six or seven good ones,” Mike said.
I got seven, and then they both started teasing me, accusing me of sandbagging. “You could have gotten eight.” “Too easy.”
I rolled my eyes and they laughed. “Alright, I’m going to start at wall-sits,” I said, choosing my station. Mike set the timer for forty seconds on, twenty seconds off. Then hell began.
Towards the end, I was doing box-jumps, and I was falling behind. I had chosen ten reps as a goal for this station, and the timer was ticking down. My legs were shaking, and I was losing form on my hip thrust to get my feet on top of the box. I steeled myself and worked to increase my pace so I could reach my goal. On rep nine I missed. My right shin collided with the top of the box, and my leg exploded in sharp pain.
I stopped myself from crying out. This had happened before, but before I hadn’t hit the box as hard. This time, blood was coming from the scrape, and it was coming ridiculously fast. The word gushing comes to mind. I cringed and looked away from it.
The timer went off, and Mike collapsed onto one of the matts. Dad came in from running and did the same. I went around the box, careful to angle myself so they didn’t see the blood. I acted like I was just going to grab a tissue, which I was. I turned from them and wiped the tissue against my shin, knowing full well they were too exhausted to wonder why I wasn’t blowing my nose with the tissue I had gone to grab.
Completely forgetting my Red Cross Baby-Sitter training, I continued to wipe the blood up my leg instead of applying a steady pressure. That made it look a lot worse than it was.
They got up for our cool down walk, and I kept to myself behind them where they couldn’t see. The blood was coming out too quickly for me to wipe all of it in time while I was walking. That caused some blood stains on my white sock and one of my new baby-blue shoes, but I didn’t particularly mind that because it would wash out of the sock and give the shoe more character.
By the time we had gone back to the garage to get our things, I had given up on keeping them from noticing I’d messed up on the box jumps and hurt myself. I wasn’t entirely sure why I had tried to keep it from them in the first place. It was probably a pride thing.
Mike saw it first, and he reminded me to apply pressure. I felt stupid for not thinking of it sooner. Dad gave me a well-intentioned lector on the correct form for box jumps. I nodded and smile-grimaced. Like me, if he couldn’t fix a problem, he focused on making sure it didn’t happen again. “Yeah,” I said. “I know. I’ll be more careful next time.”
Once the bleeding had slowed, I went inside to get changed back into my red v-neck shirt and jean shorts. Afterward, Dad and I walked to the car. “My legs feel hollow,” Dad grunted.
“I can’t even think of food right now.”
I sat in the passenger seat, taking Dad’s phone and placing an online order for two spicy chicken quesadillas and a bucket of totz. I let my mind wander as Dad began to drive. “What about Titania?” I asked. “That would be a cool middle name, right?”
I noticed an interesting tree out the car window. The world slid past us, but I focused on it, and that seemed to keep it from moving out of view. It appeared to be pretty healthy. Lively green leaves adorned most of its branches despite it being almost the middle of autumn. However, all of the leaves that weren’t green were close to the trunk, and they were all red and shriveled.
I took my phone out and zoomed in for a photo. That’s when I noticed a little cobweb nest in one of its right branches. I took a few pictures, surprisingly none of which happened to be blurry, and then I googled what kind of bug makes those cobweb nests. The top website said it was probably caterpillars or mites.
I turned on the shower, the spice from the quesadilla still tickling my tongue. A tap on my phone screen started the girl in red song “we fell in love in october.” I was hoping I could manifest that kind of love story beginning before the month ended. I swayed to the gentle tune while the water picked up heat, scorching the sweat off of me. The dried blood around my scrape disappeared under my washcloth. “You will be my girl, my girl, my girl. You will be my girl,” I whisper-sung with the song.
Once I finished up, I wrapped my shark towel tightly around my too-long hair and put some Indian-style yoga pants on, leaving my upper half bare. I went to open my bedroom door, and I saw a crinkled red leaf wedged in between the bottom of the door and the floor. I pulled it out, eyebrows furrowed. I held the leaf with one hand, and the other, seemingly of its own accord, reached for my golden door handle. And my hand turned it.
Inside my bedroom, where my mother’s old rocking chair used to be, was the tree. This time, though, it had been horizontally stretched so that the trunk was wider and the branches on the side were longer. The nest had also grown. Reality warped, and a thin foot came through the nest, as if it were not made of cobwebs but rather the substance between worlds. A slender, toned leg slowly formed its way out of nothing through the nest. The leg kept coming and coming, and soon I could see that it was too long to be human, to be right.
Another came down beside it. I could see the ends of its dress, made of a cloth so red it was almost more of a hot pink. And then there were hips and a waist out of 1800s political cartoons making fun of women for their usage of corsets. The waist was probably only fourteen inches in its circumference.
I couldn’t move anything but my eyelids. They had the ability to widen and keep widening until it felt like they were showing the area around my eyeballs under the skin. Breasts that would have been comically large if I wasn’t terrified came through next. At their tips, they were pointed so sharpy I thought them capable of cutting flesh. The overripe, over-mature nature of its hips and breasts gave a sense of ancientness to it, despite the youth radiating around it like a too-thick perfume.
Lastly came the head. Its nose was aristocratic in intention, but it too was incorrectly proportioned, as were its giant eyes and nigh microscopic ears. Its red hair was made of waves too long and wide to be natural; it flowed out from it like a silk cape. Though everything about it screamed monster, I could feel my lips opening, the reaction to a wild sensation. This thing was attractive. My body told me to be both jealous and admiring. A sudden, overwhelming surge of self-consciousness hit me because I was half-naked in front of its beauty. My eyes welled with tears, and for the first time in years, I cried in front of another being. “No, no, please!” I meant to wail at the top of my lungs. It came out as a weak whine. I gained control over my neck only to shake it back and forth, back and forth. The world was meant to reset, to correct if I did it fast enough. But the thing was still there, and it was closing in. Its lips parted. The voice that came out sounded like what a car-on-car collision would sound like if it were pleasing to the ear. “Perhaps Titania would have let you keep your spine, child.”