(photo by Sara B.)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Sarah Diemer
I can hear her in the dark.
I stop, shaking, breathing, the bucket of water pulling at my arm, weighing me down, down. I drop the bucket; water sloshes over the side, coating my boot, my leg. I’m soaked, freezing.
I heard a voice.
The barn is dark, the only light at the front flickering because of the storm. Down the roll of standing stalls, the horses rest, back legs cocked, sides heaving with the occasional sigh. The closest horse, Pixie, glances back over her golden shoulder, blinking long-lashed eyes at me and her bucket of water that I’ve almost spilled. I grasp the bucket’s handle with shaking hands, bring it into the stall, drop it between the slats in her manger, and place my fingers along her palomino fur now, running my hand over and over her sleekness again.
The barn’s always been one of my favorite places, from when I was the tiniest kid tumbling over bales in the mow to even now…a senior, acutely aware of the fact that I’ll be leaving this place, the way I’ve always known this place, when I go to the dorm this fall. I keep pushing that out of my head, though, how I can’t take Prince with me, how much I’ll miss everyone, horses and humans alike. I try not to think about it like that, but I just was, was just lost in thought, stumbling through the barn, trying not to cry, because Prince gave me his patented “horse kiss” that I taught him when I was eleven, and…
And then I heard a voice.
My parents took a trip to town to pick up Chinese food because they’re awesome, and it was my turn to bed everyone down for the night. I’m never afraid here, because there’s no reason to be afraid, but…
I stiffen, clear my throat, and Pixie jumps beside me, sensing my anxiety. I try to calm my thoughts, my racing heartbeat, as I ease out of the stall, walk down the broad hallway.
“Hello? Mom?” I call, and the words shake. It wasn’t Mom’s voice, but maybe it was distorted. There’s hell to pay out in that storm tonight, and the wind beats against the barn doors loudly. It could have been Mom…
I pick up the pitchfork, and Leila, behind me, jumps in her stall, the other horses peering around at me, pricking up their heads and noses, shifting uneasily.
The horses snort and whicker now, Jarden going so far as to back up, pulling his head against the tie over and over while snorting and nosing his face toward the sky. “It’s okay, guys,” I whisper, and I walk down the barn hall toward the direction of the voice.
It almost sounded like… I breathe out, sag against the wall for a moment, close my eyes. Yes. It’s the truth—I can admit it to myself, but just here, just in the quiet.
It almost sounded like Emily.
A movement, down the barn aisle, and I jump, but it’s only a mouse, darting into Prince’s stall, deftly moving beneath his feet to leap into the manger. I’m freaking myself out. I’m ridiculous; that’s what Dad would call it. Ridiculous.
I lean the pitchfork against the wall, clear my throat, walk the rest of the way down the hall. There’s no one there, of course. I continue to bed down the horses, give out grain and hay, change the waters and scrub out the buckets, and there’s no other sound than their soft sighs and movements, calmer now that I’m calmer.
But when I shut off the far light, leaving the back one glowing, when I open the barn door, I breathe out in a huff, and everything feels weightless, suspended.
In the barnyard is a figure, a shape. Motionless. White as the moon as the lightning arches across the sky. Like a horror movie, I can’t make out features. It’s just…there. White. Like a ghost.
I slam the door shut, lock it from the inside, back up as the handle rattles—from the storm? Is someone stupid playing a prank? That must be it. Some asshole from my class.
But I know they wouldn’t do that. Not after what happened last winter…
I close my eyes, and I hear it again:
Pleading, almost. Quiet and soft, like she used to say my name.
I duck into Prince’s stall, bury my face in his mane, like I did day after day, week after week, after it happened. I put my arms around his neck and I sob into his fur, because he’s used to this. Because he was the only strength left to me after Emily—
God. I can’t even think it, can I?
She committed suicide. After that.
I asked myself over and over and over again, after…that—why? It was my fault, obviously, I thought for weeks. It took a lot of people telling me differently before I stopped believing it. It wasn’t my fault, my mother told me when I lay in bed, staring at the wall. Emily needed help, and she hadn’t gotten it, and what I did or didn’t do had nothing to do with…that.
She needed help. She needed people to tell her she was normal. She needed a fucking school to tell her she wasn’t essentially evil. She needed friends who didn’t pick on her, people who would shut up about the gay thing, about the fat thing, about…everything.
“You’re lucky,” she’d tell me sometimes, kissing my cheek softly, mouth hot. I knew why she said it. Her dad hated her after she told him, and my parents… They were good about it. Better than I could have hoped.
I feel so sick with guilt for a long moment, I’m staggering.
It’s not my fault that Emily died.
It’s not my fault that my parents were good to me.
It’s not my fault that I survived. That I’m here. That I’m alive.
Then why does it feel that way?
I wanted to save her. It’s stupid, you know? I wanted to ride in—a knight in shining armor on a horse named Prince—and whisk her out of that stinking apartment, out of those poisoned school hallways, out of a life that hurt her over and over and over again until she felt like there was no soft place in the world for her.
I loved her so much. And I never told her that.
It’s not my fault that I didn’t tell her that.
I jerk, and Prince does, too. I peer out of the stall, clutching a handful of Prince’s mane, and then I duck back, pressing my legs against the manger. Something drifts down the hall while the light stutters, flickering, an arch of lightning again lancing across the sky, followed immediately by heart-piercing thunder that makes the ground vibrate, that makes Prince toss his head.
The light goes out.
“Steady, boy… C’mon, there’s a good boy,” I whisper, more out of habit than anything as Prince rears up and doesn’t get very far, the tie jerking him back to the ground. I feel his motions, pat his shoulder with a hand, and he stills a little. I can almost see his ears prick up in the dark.
A hand threads its way into mine.
It’s me. Please don’t be afraid.
Tears slide down my cheeks, and I’m shaking so hard my teeth clack together. “What’s going on?” I manage. “Who are you?” I try to press back against the stall, but there’s nowhere else to go. The darkness is absolute.
Molly, please. It’s me. It’s Emily, baby.
Tears pour down, and I shake my head over and over and over again. I want to hurt whoever is doing this to me, whoever is so fucked up in the head that they think this is funny, a joke…
The light flashes on, wan and little, illuminating just a bit.
Just enough to see her.
I stare. I don’t know what to do. Emily is dead. I saw her. She looked so peaceful laying in the stupid fucking box, and I sobbed so hard when I saw her that I had to leave, had to go to the bathroom and sit down in a stall and sob until I couldn’t breathe, and…
“This is impossible,” is what I say, staring into her strange, translucent eyes, but she shakes her head, hair floating away from her face. She’s see-through.
But she’s Emily.
“What’s happening?” I whisper as the light flickers.
She cocks her head, then leans forward. A breath of cold is against my face, and she kisses me. I almost don’t feel it, like a brush of fabric over my mouth, but it’s there, if barely discernible.
There are no words; I can’t speak. And she presses her forehead to mine. There’s a soft coolness then that warms a little. Her eyes shine as she reaches out, brushes her hand over Prince’s flank. She loved him, too. I remember the first time she was on a horse, Prince, how I led her around on a lead rope because she was afraid, and Prince took care of her, and I took care of her, and I wanted to do that for the rest of my life, take care of her…
Stop, she whispers, leaning forward, brushing her mouth over mine again. I stop, swallowing the sob.
I’m going to the crossroads, she says, spreading her hands, helpless. I needed to stop and say goodbye, because I didn’t… She trails off. I reach out then, try to put my fingers around her arm, but they move through her, like water.
“This isn’t closure…” I tell her, choking on the word. “I couldn’t save you. I wanted to…”
No. You couldn’t save me, she repeats, shaking her head, face to the side as she considers that word, “save.” But I loved you. You made my life beautiful. Thank you for that.
I want to hold onto something. I want to keep the world from spinning.
I’m meeting her. At the crossroads. She’s waiting for me, she whispers, the words all around me. Another paper-soft brush of lips against my mouth, and then she’s gone out of the stall, down the hallway, lingering for a long moment as she glances back to me.
Through the door.
My heart’s pounding too fast to think. I run to the door, fling it open, see a figure drifting through the barnyard and gone. The crossroads? The closest crossroads is down the road…
I don’t think. I run back to Prince’s stall where he’s tossing his head, unclip him, lead him down the barn hallway in a reckless trot, threading a lead rope over his nose like a bozel which Prince has never used before, and I’m up on him bareback, and we’re tearing over the muddy barnyard, out onto the side of the road as the storm roars overhead and around us, drowning out the sound of his cantering hooves, as he prances down the side of the road almost sideways, ears slicked back, angry at this intrusion on his nice, calm evening.
Ahead, I see a white shape move through the darkness.
There. The crossroads.
I pull down, hard, on the lead rope in my hands, and Prince miraculously slows until he’s standing on the side of the road, the freezing rain pouring down on both of us.
And in the middle of the crossroads, the two roads diverging, the stop sign with its bullet holes (because our neighbors are stupid) banging against its post in the wind…Emily’s there. Standing. White and sentinel.
There’s another figure there. I peer through the gloom and the rain at the hooded figure, and a chill passes over me as I urge Prince forward.
“Emily, wait—please!” I call out, but even as she turns, the hooded figure steps forward, touches her, and then…
I groan out, an all-animal sound, crumpling over on Prince’s back, curling up as if I’ve been punched in the gut, my breath gone, my heartbeat slowed, slowed, as the hooded figure moves toward me. I can’t make out anything other than its hood, its darkness in the greater dark of the night.
Do you know who I am? it asks, a crackling voice, as broken as the lightning. I shake my head, breathe out, and it cackles a little, a sound that makes the hair on the back of my neck rise. No one does anymore. Then it reaches up a gnarled, clawed hand that pats my leg twice. She’s good with me, girl.
Prince calms as this stranger reaches out and runs a finger over his neck. She could have become a Phasma, you know, she whispers, then. You saved her from that. That should please you.
Phasma. A ghost?
The figure walks back to the center of the crossroads, turns to face me again.
She left you something under your bed.
I dismount Prince, lead him all the way back home, as if in a dream. I rub him down, take away his water for a good long while, lean against the side of his stall until my parents come home, check on me in the barn. I don’t eat dinner, climb up to my room, instead.
I dreamed everything. Things have been so hard, since…since…
I kneel down at the edge of my bed, reach my fingers under, into the dust there. They brush against a scrap of paper.
A note. Emily hadn’t left a note. But this is her writing, the sharp tops of the letters, the press of pen against paper.
I love you, Molly.
I stay very still on the floor, note cradled to my chest, closing my eyes, breathing out slowly, softly.
That should please you, the hooded being had said.
It will never be enough. Never.
But in that sad, dark night, I curl up into my bed, close my eyes and see her smiling face, the way she looked at me, only me.
It’s not enough, but for a heartbeat, it’s something.
If you liked “Phasma,” you can now enjoy entire months’ worth of stories in the Project Unicorn short story collections on your eReader, and support the project at the same time!
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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