Girl-Shaped and Glowing

Submitted into Contest #134 in response to: End your story with a character looking out on a new horizon.... view prompt

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Fiction Suspense

I have lived in the same town my whole life, and my whole death too. 

It’s the kind of place that you live to be somewhere while being nowhere, so I couldn’t tell you where I am, not really. 

I could say something about the span of the crescent valley, scooping through hills of cold earth where I’ve come to travel with an audience of sheep. Trodding alongside icy rivers and jumping streams, floating up rocky slopes and alongside mountains. The larger rams will let me ride on their backs and sometimes I fall asleep there for hours, waking up blinking frost from my lashes, surrounded by swaths of forest completely new. Soft flanks engulf me at night, pillow-like, and we rest huddled in one cosmic sort-of family. 

I exist within the bounds of a local folktale, unreal in the way that mortals like to dismiss unexplainable phenomena.  As if the world is theirs to have, to know. 

Tonight there’s a noise. Kind of a grating rumble. The herd is all worked up about it, which means I’m worked up about it too. Against my will the cavity of my chest tightens, my mind buzzing with unease. I am a pool of energy, their fear funneling into me like currents of biting frigidity. A familiar anxiety, the kind that churns deep in your stomach and makes it hard to think about anything else. 

I’m trying to think about anything else.

There, headlights. 

A pair of them on the hill at the edge of the field, bright and unflinching eyes that cut through the void of night. The car must be new, with lights a brilliant, clear white instead of a cloudy, muted yellow. These are not the shepherds, come to wean lambs or harvest wool. 

This happens sometimes.

They bring lots of different offerings. I’m not sure where it started, this idea that I required something. I’m not sure why it keeps changing. 

For years it was personal items of what I assumed to be deep value. A decades-old watch, the back face scratched and metal stained nearly black with fingerprints. Necklaces were common, bold draping things adorned with milky gemstones and aging silver. A brassy locket that clicked open to reveal a fuzzy black and white photo, a stone-faced Victorian woman posed neatly inside. I think that one had been an antique store purchase, but I accepted it anyway. I enjoy the illusion as much as the rest of them.

I have no place for such items, so I would set them around the necks of sheep and buckle them to ram horns, the jewelry glinting like dwarf stars in a billowing white sky. Once there was a stuffed rabbit, its ears long and fraying, stomach bloated and soft with age. Its fur was thin, pilling around the arms and legs from where it had been pulled close and held. I mimicked this motion, pushing my thumbs into the dents under its arms. Tried to remember what it was to love as a child. 

I was sad to leave it, its button black eyes appearing to grow wet with shimmering moonlight as I watched it grow distant on a shrinking patch of grass-bare earth. 

You lose lots of things in a herd.

More recently they bring food for the animals. I’m grateful for the shift, apples and carrots age more gracefully than shards of antiques in a field. Though a little less entertaining, I know it’s never been about me in the first place. 

Two car doors slam, one after the other, and two human silhouettes appear on the tall horizon a hundred feet away. One is shorter than the other, and they stand talking for a moment. The herd waits, beady black eyes watching, glowing from the headlights. Eventually, the shorter one of them breaks away to drift down the incline, padding through dew-soaked clover and grass for a minute. 

Then it’s just us.

Over the fleecy back of a sheep, I can discern once she’s closer that it’s a young woman. She stands about 10 feet away, more of a ghostly presence than I in a flowing white prairie dress. An oversized Carhartt jacket hangs off of her shoulders, likely belonging to her taller companion. I wonder if they love each other. I wonder if she’s cold. 

The chill of autumn is just beginning to shift into frigid winter nights. The sky is nearly cloudless, save for swaths of gray fog that haunt the sloping forest behind us. The air is a blue-black gradient of dark, dropping into the deep greens of lush earth. I think all of these things. Quiet. There was a time I was human too, speaking vowels and syllables that rolled your jaw and wet your tongue. I lost the privilege of words a long time ago. Now I speak a phantom tongue, all prickling skin and unblinking gazes. Now I make people afraid.

“Isabella?” 

I am frozen.

“Isabella… Borosky?”

Her gentle voice projects the words like a hopeful question. Like an old friend calling me home. 

Everyone knows the power of a name. 

It’s why pregnant mothers scour books and poems. It’s why years later, memories of a young, lustful infatuation manifest. It’s why as a spirit degrades, names are the first to go.

“If you’re out there, I just… I brought this for you.” She holds up a white plastic bag with a straight arm jutted in front of her, translucent edges fluttering in the wind. It’s pulled taut with the crescent shapes of cut fruit. The sheep tremble a step backward, my mind shivering with their unease. I pour a bit of myself into soothing them.

People don’t usually take the time to cut fruit for us. People don’t ever use that name.

The figure she came with paces on the hill. 

The herd, having overcome their apprehension of the rustling plastic, begin a hesitant trek forward. A hundred hooves find sharp footing through the grass, forcing me closer with them. No! I curse, ridiculous single-minded sheep, and immediately vow an apology. I cannot be angry with them. But the environment has already sensed my malevolence, my shift in energy accommodated by the breeze. It picks up the lacy hem of her dress and blows her curling dark hair in long gusts around her face. 

She staggers back a step, caught off guard, mouth open in a surprised O. But she stays put, digging her heels in the way you might fight a wave pulling your ankles out to sea. 

The wind has reached the top of the hill, the bold contrast of a person and a truck still idling. My gaze flits between them. She is so close now, I can see the dark crease in between her eyebrows. I want to fit a thumb in the dent it makes. Doesn’t it scare you to be alone? I want to whisper.

She empties the plastic bag, crouching to scatter apple slices in an arc in front of the sheep. 

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, “They found your body, I thought you might want to know.”

My body. 

I am invisible by default, so I push swells of my fractured energy into making one. A body. There was a time I could conjure a proper form, something almost tangible for the world to balk at. I was younger then, shy, and kept to myself. Now, the most I can manage is the glowing idea of a girl, my edges patchy and hard to pin down. Now I am just a little bit less every day. 

Maybe this is what ghosts are for. Dispersing our energy in haunted bursts among the living until even the memory of who you could have been has dissolved. Death is something so abrupt, maybe even the universe has trouble reckoning with it, the desertion of monstrous existence.

“Isabella?”

When I was a child my parents took me to the zoo. We melted through crowds of strangers trodding across hot concrete while I took baby-sized bites out of a frosty PB&J from the cooler. My face was sticky with it, the bread dissolving between my fingers when we reached the lion exhibit.

I tried my best to squeeze to the front, I was a small thing then, trading my mother's clammy hand for the cool iron of the balcony railing. 

The female lion padded lazily across her enclosure, the sunlight highlighting taut muscles rippling under thick, smooth skin. She eyed the gathered crowd with a familiar indifference, so many of us every day. Murmuring in anticipation and awe, perched. Waiting. 

So badly I wanted to be her, exhilarating other humans by mere presence. A creature revered by way of fear, of fascination. Something other. There is a unique freedom in mystery.

But a body is not power. The audience sighed as she collapsed onto a rock in the corner of her exhibit. She was resting, and had to. My corpse has been rotting for years and yet here I am, orbiting the same acreage. Rotationally grazing while my bones grow bleached and brittle.

Power is this thing that others make you. An identity crafted by those that fear you, revere you. A girl in gray leggings that cling to her scabbed knees and strawberry jam on her face is nothing. Something vaguely girl-shaped and maybe glowing in a sheep field is a seething gash, an open wound to your amygdala. In this way, I am other, something incomprehensible.

My body…

Almost a laugh, almost a scream, but ultimately just wind.

Her eyes widen in fervorous exhilaration, something excited and feral swimming in them. She feels me then, sees me, with an anxious inhale of breath. Mistaking my outburst for excitement, she ventures a step closer.

“I- We need to leave town, and I think you might be able to help us.”

No one leaves. 

The thought comes instantaneously, a learned response. And then it surrounds us, a whispery sigh that can only belong to myself. 

This town, this place.

No one leaves.

I’m surprised I haven’t dissolved yet, holding a form long enough to be perceived is usually so draining. Yet this girl supplies such riotous energy, words flow in the air around us, charged with urgency. 

“My mother did.” 

Confusion rattles my senses, something like angst or heartache. Something painfully human. It’s been so long since I was seen or heard by anything other than a four-legged mammal, it sends a shock through my core.

The sheep have held their heads down in concentration as they plucked apple slices from the soil with their velvet-soft lips, but now lift them in unison to stare vacant hollows at this girl. The headlights are still too bright, creating a glowing mass out of my herd, out of her white prairie dress, and now we are all ghosts in the field. Yet I am the most alive as a breath escapes my phantom lungs because I ache so deeply. Her ache, I realize.

“Please,” she says, goosebumps rising on her exposed wrists because maybe this is an exchange. Maybe I’m making her feel something too.

Don’t you know by now? What makes you stay?

I think these things. Quiet.

There is no freedom here, not for anyone. Not in a place that needs you, feeds you, becomes you, and eats you. 

Yet without hope, there is nothing bigger than what we have. I myself am the consequence of an overactive imagination, without it, my wandering ceases. There is only the cold wind of night and the harsh light of day.

“We can free you too. Please.” Her eyes water like the deep pools of stuffed-rabbit eyes. Ethereal and pleading. Her skin looks velvet soft. “Someone has to try.”

I can’t explain this feeling. There is something wrong here, always has been. Something that traps and pulls and holds. Something that coerces doubt into your ear once darkness falls, creaking your bedroom door shut. This is a town that cares about you, hides you, grows over and around you. Anything to keep you. Yet in this moment I feel drawn to a gleam that has nothing to do with headlights or rippling fabric or wool. Something bright, warm, and burning that blazes into the bitter slush of my serene emptiness. It hurts like living. 

She is a dangerous thing.

The truck rumbles to life, a mechanical pulse that tremors down the hill and across the air. Sheep are skittish creatures, they retreat back towards the treeline, anxious to be behind the cover of thick briar and bushes. The girl bunches the plastic bag anxiously between her fists as I wait with her, for her, too far to touch but too close to ignore the growing challenge. How?

The truck revs with shuddering ambition, a reminder, and a warning.

“We have a plan,” she reveals, “I’ll be back tomorrow. Please.” Hesitates, waiting for a nod or a wail, anything to indicate understanding, but I can give her nothing. Then she turns her back to me and chases her shadow up the hill because worse than the fear of the unknown is the fear of being left behind.

I watch her go with something that is not indifference.

A car door slams, and then they are disappearing somewhere undoubtedly within town limits.

I wander over to the herd, they greet me with quiet affection and the steady sounds of chewing. Inside me, there is the tranquil appreciation as always, but deeper is a searing ember that was not there before. A kindled flare that holds a light to the barren desolation of my home, illuminating the emptiness there. Something that shrinks the realm of my wandering into a vacuum of space so harshly that I make a choice.

The herd and I will wait for her because maybe they will make it out in the end.

Or maybe they will silently suffocate, rotting in the womb of their childhood like the rest of us.

Either way, when morning comes, I will be ready.

February 18, 2022 19:22

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3 comments

Astra Henris
22:08 Mar 02, 2022

I love the way you write, some of those sentences really pulled me in, as well as the title. I'm not entirely sure what the story is about, but fantastic writing style!

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Charlie Murphy
18:29 Feb 28, 2022

I don't fully understand it either but great job!

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Felice Noelle
23:45 Feb 26, 2022

Audrey: I was drawn in by the first sentence. I have read through it two times already and don't fully understand it yet, but I love it. You wield words in ways that move me. You used them to skillfully create an atmosphere without really describing it. I will read it again and again until I get it, but in the meantime, I loved your story. There is much to unpack. Thanks for writing this. Maureen

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