1 comment

Crime Coming of Age Urban Fantasy

This story contains themes or mentions of sexual violence.

He comes to her room after Charmed. At 9 PM, the grungy theme song floats up the stairs on a candela of liquid crystal light emitting from the new flat screen, the most expensive thing in the house. We’re not allowed to watch Charmed because it promotes witchcraft and demon worship. Neither can his wife. Only he can, because God told him to “study the lies of the secular world”. You know how that goes. Alyssa Milano says her final line, soft guitar outro, then the stairs are creaking under his weight, the smells of Man–starch, aftershave, whiskey–diffusing through the upper floor like poison gas.

My sister is only nine. The first time it happened, I couldn’t believe what my senses were telling me. The tinnitus in my ears became a blaring car alarm as I strained to listen and not hear at the same time. I told myself he was just checking on her, making sure she’d brushed her teeth and said her bedtime prayers. But deep down, I knew better. I just didn’t want it to be true, because this house–similar to Halliwell Manor, but a Queen Anne instead of a Victorian, and canary yellow instead of pink–is still better than our previous foster home, with its peeling wallpaper and pest problems, its cheese sandwiches with the slices still wrapped in plastic. Here, we have central heating and air, and the plumbing actually works in the winter. Here, I don’t get smacked with a fly swatter every time I make a mistake.

But I do wish I’d acted sooner. The next morning, Gracie was a shell. She wouldn’t take her eyes off her stack of Bisquick pancakes. I pointed out a murmuration of starlings outside the window, their dark adagio against a canvas of pure white clouds. She wouldn’t even lift her head. “That’s a good omen,” said the reverend, happy as a pig in shit. “I can feel it. God has tremendous things in store for us this year.”

“Hallelujah,” said Mrs. Harper, a knockoff Joyce Meyer who never addresses us directly. She speaks only to him. “Kenneth, are our stay-over guests aware that if they want their laundry done, they’ll need to actually put it in the hampers for me to collect?”

“I’ll be sure to let them know, hon,” he answered, without so much as a glance in our direction.

Tonight is going to end differently. Tonight I am prepared. I hear him enter Gracie’s room, the soft objection of the bed as he sits on it. She doesn’t make a sound, but I feel her terror radiating through the door. The handle of the butcher knife I stole from the kitchen grows slick in my grasp. I exit the closet. The reverend is leaned over her using one hand for support, forming a bridge over her small body. The gleam of his Rolex is extra sinister in the night light. “Let me show you…” he rasps.

I raise the knife, heart racing at a thousand miles-per-hour.


I jam it into the base of the reverend’s neck. At the same instant, Gracie shrieks “STOP!” at the top of her lungs, loud enough to rattle the crucifix on the wall.

And then everything does stop.

The knife handle juts out from the man’s spinal junction, but there’s no blood. No spasm or grunt of shock. Even his Rolex has ceased its ticking. My heart screams inside my chest, disbelieving its own ability to continue pumping in this sudden vacuum. Gracie slides out of bed and smooths out her pajamas, eyes locked on the reverend’s distorted expression. “W-What?” I stammer. It’s all I can manage to get out.

“Shouldn’ta done that, Jordie,” she says quietly. In the reflection of the blade, she is almost thin enough to disappear.

“He was going to hurt you again.”

For a moment I think she might cry, but then she sews her mouth into a tight line and marches to her boudoir to begin stuffing her Powerpuff Girls backpack with clothes. “Get your stuff. Pack warm. We’re leaving.”

I’m not used to taking orders from my baby sister. But that was before I knew she could freeze time.


We find Mrs. Harper in the living room bathed in the washed-out colors of an episode of 48 Hours, which makes her look haunted. She’s pointing the remote at the TV, thumb on the Volume Up button.

“Take her upstairs to my room,” Gracie tells me. I scoop up the old lady by her armpits. She’s stiff as a corpse, which makes the going a little easier, although I nearly drop her twice on the way up the stairs. In Gracie’s room, she straightens Mrs. Harper’s legs out so she’s able to stand on her own. Then pries the remote out of her hand, bends her wrist, and slides her grip over the handle of the knife. “You knew what he was,” she says in a low voice, probing the woman’s empty gaze. “You knew, and you did nothing.”

We trundle out of the house into the snow, the flakes hanging suspended in the air. “Where are we going, Gracie?” I ask as we walk past the driveway, our boots crunching on the ice. “Why don’t we just take the reverend’s station wagon?” I just got my learner’s permit two weeks ago.

“Won’t work. Look around. We’re the only ones not stuck.” Through the neighbor’s window, I see a kid about to pummel his bent-over brother with a couch cushion. At the end of the lane, the streetlight stays yellow, a delivery truck trapped turning left at the intersection.

“Have you done this before?”

“Just once. At Mom’s funeral.” As we make our way along Van Winkle Boulevard to the overpass, she tells me the story. How her grief became a firestorm of rage when Dad didn’t show up, and the social workers came, instead. How the priest’s eulogy–impersonal and brief, filled with platitudes of God’s grace and the heavenly kingdom–made her want to dissolve. How she thought if there was any actual decency in the world, it would just stop for a second and give her a break. And then, to her astonishment, it did. As she stared, she realized nothing else was moving. Nothing except a monarch butterfly, which landed on Mom’s casket and gently fanned its wings in a non-existent breeze.

“So you’re able to bring someone with you. First the butterfly, now me.”

“I guess so.”

“How did you make it start again?” I ask, leery of the cars lining the highway. What if they all suddenly spring back into motion and flatten us?

Gracie shrugs. “I didn't. After a couple minutes, things just went back to normal on their own. Kinda figured it musta been a daydream or something, but now…”

We don’t saying anything for awhile and concentrate on our trek. The wind may not be blowing, but it’s still cold as hell out. My extremities go numb, and Grace’s cheeks and nose turn Normal Rockwell pink. We walk a solid three miles to the city center. On the back streets, after passing the bail bondsman office, I realize what our destination is: the county jail.

“Gracie, no…”

She ignores me and marches up the stone staircase to the entrance. She’s going in there with or without me. Just like our mom; once she’s put her mind to something, it’s as good as done. I follow her, wondering when our roles got flipped around. It should be her that’s nipping at my heels.

Predictably, the metal detector doesn’t beep as we pass through it. Aside from the scanner, the jail has yet to be modernized, so all Gracie has to do is snag a set a keys off the hip of the nearest C.O. and use it (after a painstakingly long trial-and-error) to gain access to the general holding area. It’s hexagonal with three stories, an open-air dining hall in the center. The inmates are in bed for the night and most of the cell lights are out. “Hey,” I whisper, trying to get her to slow down. “This is nuts!”

She seems to know exactly where she’s going. Up two flights of stairs to the top level, past a C.O. on patrol, to the third-to-last cell on the block. It belongs to our dad. He’s using a glow stick to read a novel: The Girl, The Gold Watch, and Everything by John D. MacDonald. “Help me push it open,” she says, after locating the key that fits.

“I don’t think this a good idea.”

She fixes her cold gray eyes on me. I’m twice her size, but she makes me feel minuscule. “If you care so much, why’d you wait until the second night, Jordie?” When I don’t have a good answer, she continues, “You didn’t think it was real. You probably don’t think this is real, either. But it is. It’s not a dream. This is happening, and I’m the one making it happen. So help me get this open so I can see Dad.”

Reluctantly, I do what she says. The cell door squeals in protest. Gracie slips inside and approaches the bed. For a long while, she just stares at the old timer, and I start to wonder if she’s frozen herself by accident. His shaved head and five o’clock shadow. His tribal neck tattoo. I stand at the ready in the event he comes back to life and tries to grab her. “Why’d you have kids if you didn’t want us?” she asks him, and in the dark of the cell, I hear a sob well up out of her chest. “That’s the worst thing you coulda done! Tricked someone into thinking you loved them when you didn’t!” She reaches up and slaps the book out of Dad’s hands. Then, to my horror, she crawls up onto the bed to lay beside him, lifting his left arm to place around her shoulders.

“Gracie…please…” She cries into Dad’s chest. Quietly, but since it’s the only sound in the entire universe, I can hear every sniffle and heave, can feel the stitch of thread that holds her together go flimsy and weak. The question she asked scratches at my brain. Why'd you wait until the second night, Jordie? As I stare into the cell, watching her cozy up to a monster, I find myself wondering the same thing. If she can stop time, why did she wait? “Okay, that’s enough. Let’s go. We need to get out of here before your magic spell or whatever wears off.”

“You don’t get it, do you? What we did with Missus Harper buys us some time, but it won’t last forever. They’ll come for us. And when they catch us, this is where you’re gonna end up. In here. With him.”

“Then you’ll just break me out again. C’mon, Gracie. I’m serious. We need to go.”

She rubs at her eyes with the ridge of her hand. Gives a big sigh, as though she hasn’t slept properly in ages. I nearly shout an expletive when she slides her hand up under Dad’s uniform. But then she yanks hard, and I hear a light snapping sound, and she withdraws a locker key attached to a necklace. Something he must’ve managed to smuggle in. “Bye, Daddy…” she whispers into his ear. “Try to be a better person, okay?”

And then we’re off.


The city is at her mercy. The police, the port authority, the army–nothing but idle pieces on a chess board, helpless against the vagaries of a creature not even five feet tall. We storm through downtown, weaving through traffic and ducking under pigeons and stepping over sleeping dogs. “I’m really glad you’re with me this time,” she says, holding my hand in hers, slender and cold even with mittens on. We pop into a donut shop to warm up and grab a quick bite to eat. Bathed in neon lights and munching on a Boston Creme, my sister looks herself again, and for a moment I allow myself to breathe. It’s too much for someone her age. It’s too much for anyone.

Finally, we arrive at the subway station. Gracie finds locker G22, as inscribed on the key. It’s blocked by an absurdly tall custodian with mop and bucket; she gives me the go-ahead to deal with him. I try to shove him out of the way, but he won’t budge. I’m forced to kick the back of his knees, intending to drop him; instead, he sprawls forward over the bucket, capsizing it and spilling dirty water everywhere, and mashing his face into the concrete. “Shit.”

Gracie opens the locker. Inside is a brown leather duffel bag. She unzips it and withdraws a stack of fifty-dollar bills, which she tucks into the custodian’s back pocket. “For your troubles.” Sensing my surprise, she smiles up at me, eyes shiny with a sugar rush of a different sort. “Now we have everything we need.” She leads me to the nearest subway car, its door halfway shut. Thankfully, the station isn’t overly crowded at this time of night, so I don’t have to manhandle anyone else to get on board. I take up a position by a pole and Gracie drops the bag at my feet.

“Tell me the truth now, okay?” I say, doing my best to keep my voice level. “How do you know so much? The location of Dad’s cell. The key on his necklace. The fact there’d be all this cash waiting for us?” My sister takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, her chest shuddering. She grins at me as fresh tears leak onto her cheeks, then steps out of the train back onto the platform. “W-What are you doing?”

“I lied before. When I said my first freeze only lasted a few minutes. It lasted a week and a half.” I try to let go of the pole, but my hand is stuck. I can’t move. Can’t blink. The only thing I can do is breathe. No! I scream in my mind. Why won’t my mouth cooperate? My sister’s tears cease abruptly as she looks off in the direction of the street. Towards her next mission, whatever that is. When she glances back at me, there is someone else in her stead. Someone older, tougher, meaner. “Seems like I’m getting better at it. Don’t be mad, Jordie. It’s better this way. You’ll try too hard to protect me, and you’ll get hurt, or killed, or locked up, or worse. Don’t worry about me. I don’t need money like you do. I’m gonna be fine.”

I beg a God I’ve never believed in to let her hear my thoughts. Don’t do this, Gracie! Please! You’re all I’ve got left!

She smiles at me. The bittersweet smile of a long goodbye. “Take care of yourself, brother.”

A loud DING sounds and ushers in the return of the world. The train doors hiss shut. I hear passengers coughing and chatting on the phone. The engine rumbles, wind resumes gusting through the tunnel, and then we’re moving, sluicing our way forward through time and leaving my little sister behind.

I’m freed from the paralysis. I rush to the doors. Pound on their windows. Shout incoherently. I’m sure I’m not making any sense, just a long stream of noise. Then the train is swallowed up by the tunnel, and Gracie disappears from view. I collapse into a seat and bury my face in my hands. She’s out of her damn mind if she thinks I’m going to leave the city without her.

“Everything goin’ be okay, young man,” says an elderly woman across the aisle. “God works in mysterious ways.” I peek at her through my fingers. She’s eyeballing the duffel bag. Gracie failed to zip it up all the way. One of the bundles is sticking out, the left half of Ulysses S. Grant’s portrait visible in the car’s halogen glare.

“Yeah,” I say bitterly. “As long as he gets his cut.” I think I prefer the world when it’s frozen. Like our own personal snow globe. I nudge the bundle back where it belongs and zip up the bag. I have to protect it now, the way I would if it were Gracie. I don’t have any special powers like she does. Which means I have to do whatever it takes to protect the things I love. Including myself.

Maybe she’s right.

Maybe it is better this way.

January 23, 2024 17:49

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

1 comment

Allan Bernal
18:18 Feb 01, 2024

Pretty chilling story, well written too!


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.