Hedge

1) JESSE (Boston)

His parents died today, he thought.

The flickering stage lights were the reason why Jesse wore shades during his band’s show. The Gibson guitar felt heavier than usual, and he found himself skipping parts of his own lyrics. But the crowd was jumping and cheering all the same. He had played at Paradise Rock Club over thirty times since he moved to Boston, and this was probably one of his poorest performances. He looked over to the back of the pub where his girlfriend Toni was sitting cross-legged on a high stool. The dark covered her face. She could be smiling, or she could be reading him like a book like she always did.

Often, she would know his problems before he even had a chance to tell her, or she would know them before he did. He wished he could skip to the last song and then leave through the backdoor. Instead, he let the setlist drag.

His mind wandered into the past in Connecticut, where he last saw his family. Life was good until both his parents started working full-time. When they enrolled him in a boarding school for boys, he was ten years old. His younger sister Lara was almost five at the time and would later be bound for the girl school in Wallingford. Family gatherings only occurred during the holidays, and the estrangement would grow over time. It got worse at fifteen when Jesse decided to drop out of boarding school and move to Boston with his best friend Brad to start that band. Since music was the only subject Jesse ever excelled in, he got a diploma in Music Performance. Despite their disappointment about Jesse’s decision, his parents never forced any contact after he left. However, since he stopped talking to them, Lara stopped talking to him, even after ensuring that he would never abandon her. A handful of his letters and emails had remained unanswered. And never did it occur to him to go see her in Wallingford.

He threw a brief glance at Brad, who was always covered in sweat on the drums. During his guitar solos, he would often head over to Brad and head-bang, but he didn’t do it that night.

Since Toni was a local visitor to the club, she didn’t need a pass anymore to access any unauthorized backstage areas. He could hear her firm steps in the hallway while he was packing up the rest of his music gear at the backdoor. He was ready for any accusation and complaint that she would fire at him, but in fact, she was crying.

“Oh, Jesse!” she threw her arms around him. “Why didn’t you tell me anything? How were you even able to perform? What the fuck?!”

Brad slowly appeared from around the corner with the look in his face saying that he had been fucking Toni.

“Jesse? Talk to me,” she sobbed. “Your parents are dead!”

He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so dissociated from everyone. Brad didn’t look guilty at all for making Jesse’s problems worse than they really were.

“I just found out before the show. What did you expect me to do?” Jesse said.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I want to be alone.”

Jesse adjusted the straps of his guitar bag, picked up his amp and his set of pedals. No one bothered to open the exit door for him until a pub employee headed out for a smoke.

He smelled alcohol in Toni’s breath, which meant that she was not driving. It was probably not the first time Brad would drive her home. When he finished loading the car, his phone vibrated. Toni wouldn’t text him when he was only a few footsteps away. He was surprised she didn’t follow him out. Of course, Brad was there, and Brad knew him well enough to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do.

Before he started the car, he grabbed for his phone and saw a text message from Lara. It was the first time, in five years, that she spoke to him.

“Don’t come,” it said. The screen went black. He hit the home button again.

“Don’t come.” These words illuminated on the screen, growing bolder as he looked closer.

It went dark again. Jesse leaned back and stared straight ahead with a deep sigh. About twelve feet in front of him were tall, dark hedges swaying back and forth. Then the wind began sweeping the dry autumn leaves from the ground. He noticed how terribly pruned the hedges were; they weren’t growing closely together either and looked creepy at night. The wind picked up, and the hedges swayed heavily westward. He thought of home. His parents had a hedge maze. Nothing in their former garden ever swayed except for the red oak tree.

The echo of drunken laughter caught him off guard. In the rear-view mirror, he saw his other band members offering weed to local fans, but they were having a hard time lighting their joints in the wind. He wanted to leave before they spotted him. Looking ahead again, he noticed a tall, dark figure shaking unnaturally. It looked like an upright standing animal shaking off.

*

Jesse was hunting for Easter eggs with Lara, even though he’d told her that he was too old for that shit. Lara would take every opportunity to get Jesse to enter the maze with her because she was too scared of it and never knew the way out. Jesse hated mazes but had studied that one well enough to know the exits.

“OK, Lara. Here’s the map. This time, you’re leading me,” Jesse said as both were standing at the maze entrance.

“I don’t know how to read that!”

She scratched her head.

“How about you LOOK at it?”

“You’re mean,” she said.

“Come on, little sis. You can do it!  I’ll be right behind you.”

He couldn’t have made it any easier for her. Aside from the map, he had placed the eggs to lead towards the exit. She didn’t need breadcrumbs, chalk or anything. The maze had two ways out, and he’d mapped out the easier way for her.

She soon found her first egg, which she put in her basket. It made Jesse proud to see that she was using the map before deciding which direction she would go. So far, she hadn’t asked for help; instead, she was too impatient for the eggs. He followed her closely until he noticed a blot of blood on the side of the path. Lara was already ahead of him when he was hovering over the blot to investigate it. The bottom part of the hedge was stained with blood too. The urge to touch it projected the image of a dark hole in his mind. But that image crumbled away when he heard Lara scream.

“Lara!”

She was two eggs ahead of him. The next egg was precisely where he had put it, but Lara wasn’t there, so he went back and checked a few dead ends.

“Lara, talk to me!”

The other way out was tricky, as it was an optical illusion. At first glance, it would strike you as a dead end, unless you approached it all the way and saw the narrow passageway. Through there, he found Lara lying on the ground. Her face and wavy blond hair were covered in blood. The egg basket was still around her forearm.

“Oh my God, Lara!” He shook her a few times. She didn’t respond. He slapped her lightly on the cheek, covering his palm with blood.

Her big green eyes opened wide as she gasped for air.

“What happened to you, Lara?”

“Are my eggs ok?” He helped her sit up and checked for head wounds while she was looking at each of her eggs.

“Where are you bleeding?” He didn’t see any injuries, neither did she appear to be hurt.

“What are you talking about? I’m not bleeding.”

“Then, what is this?” He held up both his palms, but her eyes narrowed in disbelief.

“You’re acting weird, Jesse.”

She got up and pointed at the hedge. He looked and saw a huge circular bloodstain in the hedge, soaked and dripping at the bottom.

“I ran against the hedge and fell,” she said, “I’m sorry I didn’t follow the map.”

He looked at his six-year-old sister’s blood-smeared face, surprised that he could figure out a smile at all. Her high cheekbones were pressing upward, narrowing her lively green.

“Can we go find the rest of the eggs?” she said.

*

Brad was knocking against the car window. Jesse looked back at the hedges, and they were still. He started the car and turned on the headlights. No one had bothered taking care of those hedges that were growing all sorts of directions. Brad knocked again and called out Jesse’s name.

He rolled down the window and stared at him.

“There are a lot of things I’m not going to say,” Brad said. “But walking out on your girlfriend like that is not cool, man.”

“Well, you seem to have her well under control,” Jesse said with a grin as he rolled the window back up.

“Jesse!”

He pulled out of the parking lot and headed home. According to the weather forecast, there would be snow on Thanksgiving weekend.

2) LARA (Wallingford)

Lara was in principle Margaret Kelly’s office, along with teacher Ms. Collins. They work closely together in terms of rules, class structure, students’ progress and who was worth the effort. Kelly was sitting at her desk across from Lara, with hands clasped. Ms. Collins was standing straight next to Kelly like a bodyguard.

“Is there anything we can do for you, Lara?” Kelly said.

“Can I stay here during Thanksgiving?”

Kelly unfolded her hands. “But, we’ve already contacted your brother Jesse.”

“He left our family years ago,” Lara said and stared at Kelly’s paper-knife on the desk. The knife was pointing at Kelly’s heart.

“Lara.” Kelly moved closer to the table and reached out for Lara’s arm since her hands were dug under her legs. “Your brother loves you very much. Whatever dispute you have going on—don’t you think it has to stop?”

“So, I can’t stay?”

Kelly looked at Ms. Collins and then removed her hand.

“No.” Kelly sounded firm. The sympathy in her voice had slipped.

“Listen, Lara, I know it’s not easy, but we want you to give your brother a chance. He’s doing really well. He started teaching music in Boston; he has an apartment…”

“I don’t know how that’s possible. He dropped out of boarding school at my age.”

“Well, there are people who work hard for a living.”

“What will happen to my parents’ house in New Haven?” Lara said. Talking to Kelly was almost like talking to the police or a family lawyer. With Jesse being the oldest, he would have been the first to learn about everything.

“I’m not sure, Lara. But you should talk to him.”

“I could just take the bus home.”

Kelly sighed. And Lara imagined grabbing the paper-knife, jumping the table and stabbing Kelly repeatedly in the back of her neck.

In her dorm room, she pulled out a small tote from under her bed. She searched through all loose sheets of paper and notebooks and then found a paper bag with all Jesse’s letters. She opened one after the other, skipping the letters’ details, only looking for a phone number. She deleted his number a long time ago. Surprisingly, he never texted her or called; instead, he wrote her letters and emails – the old-fashioned way. She’d been deleting his emails. Next, she signed into her Gmail and searched for Jesse’s emails in the trash. There was a total of ten emails. In the last five years, he wrote her happy birthday messages every year, and the rest were random emails. The most recent one was from seven months ago. He visited a farm outside Boston, which had a corn maze. He said finding her in that would be a nightmare. The P.S. note included his new cell phone number. She didn’t understand why his tone was so brotherly as if he had never abandoned her and the family. She began to scratch her head hard until she noticed blood under her nails.

*

Lara was nine and a half when Jesse was a moody pubescent to whom the answer ‘No’ was a threat to his ego. He didn’t ask for much, except for seeing his friends more during holiday breaks and some money to get an electric guitar for his upcoming 15th birthday. He had already saved some money from working a mini job at the grocery store. If it hadn’t been the studies, he would’ve taken on more work hours. Mom and dad – both lawyers in New York City – were already unhappy that Jesse had chosen music for his major instead of political science and economics. So much to navigating his path towards law. Jesse was also taking English and would give her all the books that he’d read.

In the fall, she would be attending the boarding school for girls in Wallingford, so they’d be close to each other, and she’d feel less lonely. Unlike Jesse, she was actually looking forward to leaving home since she had no friends in New Haven. Being homeschooled didn’t leave her any choice but to stay at home all the time. Before bed, she would help her parents file their legal paperwork. Sometimes they would tell her about a case, as long as it wasn’t about homicides. But homicides were all she cared to know about. There were sleepless nights where she overheard her parents talk about domestic murders, mafia-related shootings and stabbings. She even had vivid dreams about those cases.

On the night of Good Friday, Lara woke up to the sound of the wind. The tips of the twigs were tapping against her window. That stupid oak tree, she thought. She felt cold. The duvet had disappeared; it was on neither side of the bed. The solar-operated lamp post in the backyard only lit small parts of her bedroom, mainly the wall against which she was sleeping. The foot of her bed remained dark as well as the door and closet. From under her pillow, she reached for her pocket LED flashlight. On all fours, she crawled to the foot of her bed and then held the light to the ground where she saw her duvet. When reaching out for it, she noticed a movement from underneath and retreated. Whatever it was, it appeared to be small. When she looked again, she saw her cat Amber on the top of the covers.

“Amber, what are you doing in my room?”

Amber jumped into Lara’s lap and rubbed her body against her. “I thought you liked Jesse the best.”

When petting her cat, she sensed another presence in the room. Amber stiffened her rear legs and threw a direct stare at the back of the room. Her hackles were up. Jesse once told her that was Amber’s way of showing goosebumps.

The darkness pushed a cylindrical cardboard container off the tea table. All her puzzle pieces fell out and hit the floor. The tea table was merely six feet away from the end of the bed. She didn’t notice that Amber had already broken free from her embrace and had retreated to her pillow, hissing and still staring into the dark. It smelled like rotten wood from under the ground. 

Something was very close. Lara’s eyes were still fixed in the dark when she was reaching out for the flashlight. The goosebumps on her forearms were bigger than ever. The sound of deep breathing began to fill her room, but it wasn’t hers. She’d been holding her breath for the last minute.

There were now whispers in every corner of the room, but it was one and the same voice – deep and ominous, slowly getting louder.

It seemed to be saying, “I’m here for you. I’m here for you.”

Lara’s body froze as the darkness was approaching, covering the remaining lit areas in her room, now reaching the center of her bed. She moved back, pressing her back against her pillows.

“I’m here for you.”

Before she could let out a scream, the darkness had already devoured her.

Amber was in her arms when she entered Jesse’s room late at night. His desk lamp and TV were on. He was asleep in the chair with the Xbox controller in his hands. She gave him a gentle nudge with her foot to wake him. As soon as he stirred, Amber jumped onto his lap.

“What time is it?” he said.

“Jesse,” she said, looking down. “I had a very bad dream.”

“What about?”

“I killed mom and dad.”

“What?” he threw Amber off his lap and leaned forward.

Lara started scratching her head with all her fingers. The sound of it was freaking Jesse out.

“Oh my God, stop that!” He grabbed her arms and pulled them down. “It sounds like you’re scratching open flesh!”

She felt like crying.

“I’m sorry, Lara.” He patted her arm gently. “If you ever do it in front of people, they’ll think you have fleas.”

Usually, she would grin when he made jokes, but she didn’t feel like it. Amber was rubbing her body against Jesse’s leg, purring, but Jesse wasn’t paying attention to that. She liked how he would pay her full attention, mostly when she was in distress – nobody else would care.

“So, what happened exactly in your dream?”

She was pulling at her onesie and looked down. Wasn’t she too old to do that? When she was younger, she would go into his room at night looking for comfort. He didn’t know how badly she was coping in his absence from home. Something told her to stay strong and show her brother that she was ok and not scared.

“Were you listening to mom and dad talking about their cases again?” he said.

Jesse knew her too well. Though, one thing he didn’t know was that she was secretly reading the homicide files. They included gory photographs of beheaded victims and autopsies.

“Do you remember Easter a few years ago, Jesse? We were in the maze.”

She saw how his eyes widened. Amber continued purring.

“I remember running against a hedge, and then I had blood all over my face and hair.”

He looked like he wanted to say something, if not, stop her from continuing the story or remembering that event. But he also seemed curious about it.

“The hedge was…open,” Lara said, “I walked in, saw mom and dad, and I killed them. I stabbed…”

“Ok, ok,” Jesse stopped her, gripping her upper arms tightly. He looked at her.

“Lara,” he said, “You just had a very bad dream, ok?”

She wanted to believe him.

“That day in the maze–-I was with you. You were reading the map so well, running so fast—I couldn’t keep up with you. Such a dummy for running against the hedge, though.” He laughed.

She wanted to laugh too, but she couldn’t.

“You can stay here if you want,” Jesse said and gestured to his bed. She knew the conversation was over and didn’t hesitate to go under his covers while he continued his game.

“Lara,” he said while killing some monsters in his game, “please don’t let mom and dad plan your future.”

3) JESSE

Jesse was reading the New York Times in the car, waiting at the gas station parking lot a few miles outside Manchester. There was another thirty-five miles yet before reaching Wallingford. He couldn’t believe all the press calls that he’d received so far and calls from realtors that wanted to sell his parents’ house for him. He ignored them and blocked each number he didn’t recognize.

A political scandal was in the headlines now. The news on his parents’ murder had been moved to page 5. Their client – a U.S-Mexican drug lord – was the prime suspect. But after winning that case, there was no motive why he would’ve killed his parents. The FBI was investigating whether any of the client’s enemies were involved. However, the forensics team suspected the killing in New York was utterly unrelated to the court case or drug lords.

His parents were renting an apartment in New York to stay close to work and rarely went home to New Haven during that case. Gardeners were taking care of the yard, and cleaners came to the house every other week.

He had no desire to go further southwest. The idea was to take his sister to Boston. But she’d insisted on going home; otherwise, she didn’t want to see him.

He watched Brad and Toni come out of the shop with bottled water, energy drinks, nuts and other snacks. Whether it was right or wrong to bring them along, he wasn’t sure. At least he and Brad were boys of Connecticut, but Toni was a pure Bostontonian. She hated New York and the metropolitan areas, but doing it for Jesse was an exception. When she sat down next to him in the passenger seat, he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Brad was in the backseat hammering down his energy drink.

“Are you ok, babe?” she asked Jesse.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting Lara.” She smiled.

“I thought it might be a good idea to have people around her.”

He hoped that Toni could help out with any girl issues that Lara might have. She was a teenager after all and would probably not confide in him as much anymore.

When they drove past the Welcome to Wallingford sign, he felt a chill down his spine. He’d left that place five years ago and never returned until now. Brad felt the same way.

“This is eerie, man,” Brad said. “Let’s get your sis and leave.”

Jesse felt nauseated. To access the school, he had to enter a narrow private street that was hedged with high cedar and poplar trees. The November wind was shaking the yellow poplar leaves off like you were emptying the stuffing of a feather pillow. Behind the rustling of the leaves, he heard a deep breathing sound. He hadn’t heard it in years.

The girls’ boarding school was a right turn, whereas the boys’ school was straight on, another half a mile north. They arrived at the gate that was already opening up for them.

The girls’ school was just as big as the boys’ one – a three-storey Victorian mansion made of red bricks. The steeply pitched roofs were grimy gray, and some of the upper floors were laden with ugly vergeboards. He counted over twenty windows on the front alone. Then he spotted his little sister sitting on those concrete stoops by the entrance of the school. She was propping her cheek with her palm, looking moody.

As he parked the car, he told the others to give him a few minutes. The sun was out, and the wind had died down a little. He couldn’t help but feel like a stranger looking at a stranger. She had changed—like everyone would when they became teenagers. Her hair was very long and dyed wine-red; the wavy blond was no more. The sharp black eyeliner took away all the innocence that he once knew. He walked up a few steps and smiled at his sister.

“Hey.”

“You’re late,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Who are they?” she gestured at the car.

“They’re friends. I hope you don’t mind if they spend Thanksgiving with us. Brad—you remember…”

“So, you’re going to have parties at the house…”

“What? No! Lara, listen…,” he said. “I know you hate my guts, but give me a chance, ok?”

“It took our parents’ death for you to come and see me…”

“Don’t do this.”

She began scratching her head hard but stopped when she thought she had the right words to retort, but she didn’t.

Jesse continued, “Yes, coming back here wasn’t easy for me. I don’t have good memories, but I came back for you. There was no day I wasn’t thinking about you, Lara. You were just starting school. Some things you have to experience and figure out for yourself. That’s when I left at your age.”

She rolled her eyes, adjusted her backpack and said, “Just take me home.” She walked towards the car.

“Is that all your stuff? Where’s Mrs. Kelly? Didn’t she want to speak with me?”

“She’s gone.”

4) TONI

Toni felt like she should be sitting in the backseat so that Lara could talk to her brother, but it didn’t look like Lara was interested. That boarding school seemed like a terrible place, not to mention small towns in general. The vibe was the opposite of Boston—soul-sucking and claustrophobic. Her parents weren’t happy that she was spending Thanksgiving away from home. But she was convinced that Jesse needed her. Lara reminded her of herself when she was young and rebellious, not to mention gorgeous. Though, she and Jesse had no facial similarities, except for their jawline perhaps, defined and easily stretched into a smile, if they wanted. Smiles didn’t seem to occur much in their family.

“Do you want a snack, Lara?” Toni said.

“No,” Lara mumbled, her eyes glued at her phone.

Jesse rolled his eyes at Toni, either indicating a sorry or suggesting that it was a mistake talking to her. She’d known him for two years now, you would think she knew him well.

“Hey, Brad,” Lara said. “Got any weed?”

“Lara!” Jesse snapped at the rear-view mirror.

“What? Like you didn’t smoke weed at my age.”

Toni caught a grin on Brad’s face, who was sitting behind Jesse.

“I’ll ask you again later,” Lara said to Brad quietly.

Jesse drove into a beautiful cul-de-sac stacked with red oak trees on the side of the street, forming a circle. They swayed lightly, shaking off more leaves onto the ground, which was already covered in shiny red. She thought of the bed of rose petals with which Jesse surprised her on Valentine’s Day. Behind the tree branches, she spotted a few houses. No doubt those were big family houses with an infinity of a backyard each. He pulled into a single parking space in front of a black iron gate with ornamental designs. The tree branches were hanging low, blocking most of the view.

Lara was the first to get out of the car, nothing was new to her obviously. She pulled out some vintage cast iron key from her backpack and approached the gate.

“We’ve changed the lock!”

Toni saw Jesse pull out a similar key from under the seat, which he dropped instantly, shaking his head to Lara’s comment.

“Hey,” Toni said, “relax.”

He kissed her. The kiss had probably given her more comfort than him, she thought. It gave her the security that she was wanted there.

When they turned to check on Brad, they noticed that he was already walking through the gate with Lara.

“Dick. He knows that she has a crush on him.”

“And Brad certainly likes the attention,” Toni said.

Jesse led her through the gate into the front yard where she saw a huge modern farmhouse; two storeys, rectangular with side gable end roofs. The exterior was white and looked like it was repainted every year. And the porch was possibly a wrap-around.

“Wow, this is where you grew up?” Toni said.

“Yup.”

It caught her off guard that he would choose to live in a closet apartment in Boston over here, and then she remembered the family estrangement. She wondered if he regretted not having the chance to resolve any issues with his parents.

They kept walking towards the house until Jesse suddenly froze, staring at the wall of hedges behind the house. His lips went pale when she checked his face.

“Babe, what’s wrong?”

He shut his eyes tightly, took a deep breath and slowly exhaled.

“I’m feeling nauseous.”

She threw her arm around him, and they continued walking. On the right-hand side of the house, she noticed a tall red oak tree—the branches brushing gently against the roof.

Brad and Lara were sitting comfortably on the porch at the back of the house, smoking a joint. Jesse didn’t even bother playing the big brother anymore. He wanted to go inside. Toni felt Jesse’s stress and wished she could do more to help; instead, she watched him search aimlessly for the patio key. It wasn’t under the doormat or the flowerpot, not to mention the trim of the door.

Lara was jangling a set of house keys in her hand.

“You’ve been away for too long!” she giggled. “We don’t hide keys outside anymore.”

Jesse grabbed the keys and slid the door open almost instantly. Without thinking about Toni, he just closed it behind him.

“Hey, Lara,” Toni said. “Show your brother some respect, will you?”

Instead of responding to her, she sucked at the doob and stared at the hedge maze entrance. Toni raised her eyebrows at Brad, who was already high before they picked up Lara.

“Yes, Lara,” he said. “Be nice to your bro; otherwise, that’s your last doob!”

Toni shook her head and entered the house. She stepped on the dark hardwood flooring and looked to her right where the living room was – a big circular dining table was in front of her, followed by an open space kitchen on the left. Jesse was leaning against the island, resting his elbows on it. Standing by his side with her hand on his shoulder, she saw a glass of scotch on the counter.

She pressed her forehead against his temple while caressing his hair. “Give it some time.”

5) LARA

Lara was lying awake in bed, waiting. The night was windy, but the twigs were no 

longer tapping against her window. It had taken her parents almost five years to ask the 

gardeners to saw off that entire branch.

There it was—the deep breathing. She sat up and looked at the dark corners of her room.

“Finally,” she said. “About fucking time.”

The darkness crept up, covering the end of her bed, reaching her in no time. Her limbs, back and neck, stiffened up and stretched until they cracked. Her flat body began to float.

The door to the dimly lit guestroom opened. Lara entered quietly. Her hair was covering up her breasts, some period blood painted a line down her leg. Brad was lying topless on his back, holding a couple of drumsticks in his left hand. The right one was dug under the fleece blanket, which was covering up his lower body. He was snoring a little. She could tell that he was fantasizing about her, but discontinued, thinking that it was wrong. As she approached the bed, she lifted her fingers at the floor lamp. Her fingers motioned downward to dim the light. Like a snake, she crawled under the blanket from where Brad’s feet were. He let out a stoned giggle in his sleep. There wasn’t much Lara had to do to get Brad in the mood. As soon as she had Brad’s dick in her throat, he woke up groaning.

“Holy fuck.”

It must have felt so good because he didn’t check who it was during the first few minutes. Lara put her fingers between her legs to cover them with blood. She painted an X on his belly. She then dropped the blanket and continued her handjob. Brad’s face was covered in cold sweat. She smelt guilt and fear, so she crouched down and leaned over, looking him in the eyes.

“Lara, don’t…” he said.

“When I was ten, I started masturbating. Often, I would think about you.”

His shallow breathing indicated that he was trying not to come, but she could tell that he was close.

“I’m still a virgin, by the way,” she said. “I’m saving myself for someone. But I need at least something of you inside of me.”

She went back to giving head.

*

She was sitting on the stairs, listening to Jesse and their parents argue in the living room. The only person who raised his voice was Jesse, whereas the parents talked firmly and calmly. If you needed so much patience as a lawyer, how could she ever become one? Perhaps the question was, did she want to become a lawyer? She pressed her knees against her chest with her doll sitting close beside her.

“I want emancipation!” Jesse shouted.

“You’re not sixteen yet,” dad said.

“Well, Brad and I will go live with his uncle in Boston.”

“All right then,” said mom. “So, you’re saying you want to drop out of school and ruin your chances of going to college?”

“No. I want to go to a public school like every normal kid. Who the hell still goes to boarding schools? And don’t tell me it’s because you’re working in New York half the time. If we were a proper family, we would all move to New York.”

“We can’t give up this house, Jesse,” dad said.

“Why? Because it’s worth millions? What kind of house is this when hardly anyone lives in it? All it does is give Lara agoraphobia and nightmares.”

“What did you say?” mom asked.

Jesse sighed. There was a long silence. But before Jesse continued, Lara unknowingly elbowed her doll, which fell down a couple of stairs. The first person she saw at the bottom of the stairs was Jesse.

Jesse was in the bedroom with her, tucking her in. He looked distressed like he didn’t know how to explain something to her. There was no point in explaining. From what she could tell the other night, he didn’t hear her out; instead, he told their parents that she had nightmares. Now he wanted to abandon her and the family. How much of her brother was still left in this person?

“Lara,” he said.

“When are you leaving?” She avoided his eyes.

“On Tuesday.”

“This means I won’t see you when I go to Wallingford this fall?”

“No.”

“Can I go to Boston with you?”

“No.”

It was worth asking, she thought. She finally looked at Jesse, but he was looking at the window.

“There are things that you have to experience for yourself, Lara.”

Since her brother didn’t want her, she was forced to stay with her parents until further notice. Their parents didn’t even do anything to stop Jesse. They agreed to make Brad’s uncle Jesse’s guardian until he was eighteen. There was no word of disownment, just silence. On the day of his departure, she refused to say goodbye.

“I’ll always be there for you, Lara, ok?” he said through the door.

How did you decide whether or not to cry when you didn’t know if you were angry or sad? Something told her to be angry.

“You’ll be back,” she whispered.

She woke up from a long nap in Jesse’s bed. Mom would wash the beddings the next day and probably clear the room out. There was nothing wrong, wanting to remember the comfort of having a brother. Through his window, she saw the clear evening sky. Jesse’s room began to breathe for the first time. She closed her eyes and remained under the covers, then placed her right hand between her legs. Her breathing was in sync with the room. As the dark approached, she opened her mouth a little.

6) JESSE

Jesse woke up to white walls showing the shadow of his night lamp. There used to be a huge Megadeth poster on that side of his room. His parents had thrown away everything that he didn’t take. Even his bed had been upgraded from a double to a queen-size bed. It felt like another guest room in the house. Toni was still sleeping. No wonder, it was only five a.m. – dark and cold.

In his sweater and sweatpants, he quietly stepped out to go to the bathroom. The corridor was cold, he felt a draft. There were drops of blood on the toilet seat. He grabbed several layers of toilet paper and wiped it off. Afterwards, he went to see where the draft came from. From the side of the stairs, he saw that the backdoor was open. As he rushed down to close it, he slipped on something that looked like blood. Before he had a chance to look, a male scream caught him off guard. It came from outside. The floodlight switches were hidden behind the curtains—two switches; one set was attached to the house, the other one was on a pole at the end of the maze. The backyard lit up like a sports field.

“Brad! Is that you?” He stepped out. The cold suddenly struck him instantly. The sole of his sock was wet and crimson. A groan came from inside the maze, but before he ran, he noticed Toni at the door.

“Jesse! What’s going on?”

“Call the ambulance. Now!”

It had been many years, but he still knew the maze inside out. He saw himself running to look for Lara, who didn’t follow the Easter eggs’ map. The passageway wasn’t well-trimmed, as if someone was growing it shut. Squeezing his slender body through, he stepped on a headless corpse wearing A Perfect Circle t-shirt that belonged to Brad. Blood was still squirting from the jugular veins. The hedge in front of him had a big hole with blood dripping down on the sides. And inside that hole was Lara, naked, fucking a shadow figure wearing Brad’s severed head. It was the same figure that he saw in a hedge in Boston. It smelled like rotten wood from under the ground.

“Hi, big bro,” Lara said and lifted a finger, gesturing for him to come closer. “I want to show you something.”

He didn’t move, and yet she managed to reach out for him and drag him inside that hole. His eyes opened to his parents’ condo in New York. They were sitting arm in arm on the couch, celebrating with white wine the win of their drug lord case.

“I wish our kids were here,” his mother said.

“Me too. Jesse was right. We should’ve all moved here as a family.”

“Honey, you know that wasn’t possible. The house…”

“Yes, I know,” he said.

During the silence, he saw tears in his mother’s eyes. Dad squeezed her shoulder and leaned his head against hers.

“Jesse made the right decision. He’s safe,” Dad said.

“What did we do to Lara?” she sobbed. “What is it going to do to her?”

Jesse watched as young Lara walked from the dark corner towards the couch. She carried the basket of eggs in her left arm and held a kitchen knife in her right hand. When Jesse stepped forward to face his parents, she disappeared behind the couch. They looked up at him, stunned. Before he could say a word, Lara had begun stabbing her mother through the couch—so many times and so deep, the blood was oozing through her white blouse. His dad turned to face Lara, who instantly stabbed him in the neck.

Jesse was unable to hear his own scream and fell on his knees, covering up his eyes. Flashing images of him carrying baby Lara and his parents buying him his first Halloween costume—they were once happy.

“Mom and dad sold my soul for prosperity,” Lara said.

He removed his shaky hands from his face and looked into the eyes of a fallen child – his sister. She squatted down and smiled genuinely. That very smile he’d wanted to see when he saw her on the stoops in Wallingford. He looked at her black shirt and black denim jeans, her hair neatly tied back. So much prettier without all that make-up. They were still inside the hedge; the thick, woody bushes around them were dripping blood onto the ground. 

Her hand lifted to touch his cheek.

“When you left, I had no one,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Lara,” he sobbed.

She kissed his forehead.

“I knew you’d come back, though. I need you more than anything, Jesse.”

Their faces were close; he saw her eyes water up like they always used to—about every trivial thing.

“But I’m afraid,” she said, “it’s jealous of you. And the only way I can keep you is to do this.”

Tears were now running down her cheeks as she rammed the knife into his stomach.

“We can be a family again,” she whimpered.

He imagined all the moments in the last five years where she had needed him and cried for help, but he didn’t stick around to listen.

His hands covered her right one, which was still holding the knife. The grip tightened as he made her pull it out. He groaned.

“Not like this, Lara,” he said and turned the bloody knife downward.

He leaned his dizzy head on her shoulder blade, trying to keep his body upright. She gently stroked the back of his head until he took control of her right hand and turned the knife towards her, thrusting it into her chest.

The bushes emitted a scream that sounded like him and Lara screaming against the fan when they were kids. The soundwave triggered a tremor inside the hole. The bushes around him were shaking blood on him. Lara’s green eyes turned black. When Jesse let go of her, she fell to her side.

The darkness was approaching him rapidly, as above, so below the hole. He closed his eyes.

Then, something grabbed him by the armpits and dragged him out of the hole. His consciousness was escaping him.

“Jesse!”

He opened his eyes to see Toni one more time. It was snowing.

*

A slap in the face woke him up, but it took a while for his vision to adjust.

“Jesse! Jesse! You’re alive!”

Lara threw her tiny body on him, wrapping him around her arms.

“Get off me, please?”

He sat his body up and looked at his tiny hands. Lara was young; her wavy blond hair was reflecting the sunlight just like he remembered.

“Why do you have blood all over your face?” she said.

“What?”

He instantly touched his face and looked at his hands but saw nothing.

“The hedge is bleeding too,” she said, pointing at it.

Jesse saw nothing but a clean, well-trimmed hedge. Lara raised an eyebrow at him and wiped on his face with a handkerchief.

“Lara,” he said, “you’re going to be ok.”

He held her tight, ignoring the deep irregular breathing that was coming from the hedge. 

 

 

By Paula C. Deckard (2020) ©

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