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My mother has a pair of silver nail scissors. They are sharp and pointed, longer than most scissors one might use to cut one’s nails, like misappropriated sewing scissors. The ends of the blades are spotted with dots of rust. They smell like blood, like the corner of the kitchen counter after my father has cooked a steak and let the juices run off the cutting board. Copper and salt. The first time I decide to run away I take the scissors, which I find on the top shelf of my mother’s bathroom cabinet, and a tiny blue suitcase meant to contain a miniature ceramic tea set. I don’t think I will need the tea set. When I tell my mother I am going to run away, she ruffles my hair absently with her left hand while the fingers of her right hand continue to tap against her keyboard, pressing her latest novel into being. “Alright, sweetheart,” she says, “just be home in time for dinner.”
I let myself out the back door. The hinges are so broken that getting out involves lifting the whole door just enough to force my child-body through the tiny crack I have created. This is hard work that inevitably entails getting a splinter, or worse, getting my fingers stuck between the door and the wall. This time, when I feel the sharp sliver of wood entering my palm, I stop and stare, fascinated by the ribbon of blood running through my life line and down my wrist, where it disappears into my sleeve. Tears spring to my eyes. I blink them away and pull the splinter out with my teeth. It’s a large fragment. It comes out all in one piece, like a tooth.
Outside the sky is gray. Sunlight filters weakly through the clouds and down onto my upturned face. Grasping the leather handle of the suitcase in my uninjured hand, I slowly make my way through the rusty car parts and old furniture littering the backyard and into the cover of the forest. The air under the trees is cooler than in the yard, more dense somehow, filled with the musky scent of late summer. I can hear the faint hum of cicadas perched in the trees, their thick bodies pulsing with the screams they will emit come nightfall. I am not afraid of the forest. I come here often, in the daytime, sometimes with my father, who knows how to collect sap from the trees and turn it into syrup. I can taste that shocking sweetness, the softness of the sap as it drips from my father’s spile and into my bucket.
The path I take is a deer path, just wide enough for my sneaker feet. The trees stretch over my child-head like long, thin fingers, their limbs interlocking in a wicker-basket canopy of shiny green leaves. In my head, I name the ones I know: maple, birch, pine, and elm. Along the way are depressions in the earth, places where deer have curled up together and spent the night. Sometimes little piles of their droppings. As I get closer to the lake, the mossy scent of the forest mixes with a sweet, sour smell that makes my nose wrinkle. I step carefully over a line of silky white mushrooms, their shiny caps swaying almost imperceptibly.
The lake is quiet and still, a shiny half-moon burned into the tall grass of the clearing. My footsteps sink into the muddy bank. Cold mudwater drenches my socks and slips through the cracks in my white sneakers. My mother would be angry, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to go home. Not this time. At the water’s edge, something shiny and silver catches my eye. A charm bracelet, nearly buried in muck. I pull it out and rinse it in the water, counting the charms that rise to the surface. A soccer ball, a ballet slipper, a star engraved with the initials L.S.A. “Someone must miss this,” I think.
I open the suitcase. Inside I have packed everything I need: an extra pair of underwear, a long piece of red yarn from my mother’s knitting basket, an apple, a lighter. And, of course, my mother’s nail scissors. The cut on my hand stings. My palm is caked with dried rust-blood. Tentatively, I press my hand to the surface of the murky water and watch as a tiny tendril of red spirals out and down, blending with the silt until it disappears. My palm is clean. The buzzing in the trees increases in volume. The lake seems to gleam a little brighter in the afternoon light. A bright beam of sunlight breaks through the clouds and skips over the water, dazzling my eyes. A burst of water spouts from the surface of the lake, splattering me with thick, cool droplets. I squint, seeing black spots dancing in a field of dazzling white. When my vision clears, the surface is smooth once again. But I am not alone.
I turn and wade back through the tall grass to the line of small white mushrooms, grasping my mother’s red yarn in my fist. Kneeling in the weeds, I gently wrap the yarn around the stalk of a particularly fat mushroom, tying a knot the way I do my shoelaces. When I wrap the strand around my ankle, I pull experimentally. It holds. Now there is no chance I will fall into the lake. Tethered, I make my way back to the water’s edge. A cloud of gnats swarms on the surface of the water, but none of their buzzing approaches me. I look down into the water. It’s clearer now, the silt swirling away in a lazy eddy to reveal the greenery and pebbles underneath. I can’t see my reflection. Only the gray sky is reflected in the water, a faint buttress of cloud drawn where my head should be.
But then there is a face in the water, in the clear place where my blood used to be. Two eyes like tennis balls stare up at me, the irises jet-black and enormous. A pale face, round as my own, with a sharp red mouth and shiny yellow teeth. As I watch, the face seems to blur, its eyes and nose refracting like shards of broken glass until I am staring at myself. My eyes widen in shock. So do the eyes of the water-me. Her lips are blue with cold, her small eyes bloodshot. She shivers, her small arms tangled in the weeds. Her hair is cropped short, her head nearly bald and speckled with sand. I take my mother’s nail scissors from my suitcase and begin to cut. My hair falls in chunks from the arms of the scissors and into the lake, where it seems to melt into water-me. When I am finished, my reflection wears my hair like a crown. She smiles wet gums, her teeth mossy and yellow.
My father has a story about the creatures who live in this lake. He says that long ago, when the world was new, the queen of the fairies lived here, in our forest, and this clearing is where she brought her lovers. My mother doesn’t like this story. Whenever my father tells it, my mother rolls her eyes and covers my ears with her hands, squeezing my head tightly on either side, like she’s trying to keep the demons out. But I like the story. I like to imagine that my parents came here, that my mother used to be the queen of the fairies before she became the woman who does my laundry and makes me peanut butter sandwiches.
I fall to my knees beside the lake’s edge and lean forward, right over my reflection, holding myself up as I tilt further and further over until my nose is almost touching the surface of the water. My reflection stares back, no longer smiling. Is it my imagination, or can I see a different face under my own, the thin red line of a mouth, the enormous eyes? My torso tips too far forward and suddenly, without warning, my upper body is plunged into the freezing water. I am floating on my back, my eyes unseeing. Around me I feel pulsating heat. I hear the insistent thumping of a drum, a thick, wet sound. I try to reach above the surface of the water, to grab hold of the string still wrapped around my ankle, but my arms are tangled in the weeds. I open my mouth to scream, but all that comes out is a string of bubbles that float up to the surface and disappear.
Above me, my reflection examines her new body with covetous eyes, a greedy expression on her—my—face. There’s a strange sort of distortion to her, as if she’s wearing a mask. When she opens her mouth, I see those rotting teeth. She leans over me, grinning. “Thank you for the body, little one,” she says. Her eyes are strange, feral, filled with lichen. “I’ll take good care of it, I promise.” In her hand, I can just see the glint of my mother’s silver nail scissors. Slowly, deliberately, she pulls the red thread up out of the water, and I see that it wraps around both of our ankles. An umbilical chord, wet and bloody. My reflection smiles. The mouth of the silver scissors finds the thread.
Suddenly, I’m standing on the bank of the lake again, soaking wet and shivering. My hair floats in uneven chunks on the surface of the lake, but there’s no reflection in the water. It’s getting dark. I have to get home. My mother will be angry, my father will scold me in his gentle, tired voice. I shouldn’t have run away.
This time, when my feet find the thread of the deer path, I am afraid of the forest. The air around me hangs like a damp curtain, clinging to my skin with soggy fingers. My feet make a squelching sound with every step, and my breath comes out as a wheeze. Even the trees seem less friendly. I’m afraid of the creatures lurking behind the trees, in the deep shadows that seem to grow as I walk, chasing me home. By the time I reach the edge of the backyard, I’m almost running. It’s then that I feel the emptiness of my uninjured palm. I left the silver nail scissors by the edge of the lake, still buried in the muck.
There’s a light on in the kitchen. My mother will be chopping vegetables. My father will be sitting at the kitchen table, loosening his tie and scrubbing his hand over his evening stubble. They’ll exclaim over my haircut, scold me for my muddy clothes. There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. It’s even more difficult to open the back door with a cut on my palm, but I manage it. I squeeze myself through the tiny crack into the hall, leaving smears of mud on the handle and the doorjamb. My mother will make me clean it tomorrow. I leave my filthy sneakers next to the door.
In the kitchen, my mother is sitting alone at the table, her back to me, still typing her novel. Is it her novel? As I get closer to her laptop screen, I realize that she has a document open. Her fingers are moving over the keyboard, each tap as loud as a gunshot. Tap. Tap. Tap. But the page is blank. A trickle of ice runs down my spine. “Mom?” I say, my voice trembling. My mother turns, her long brown hair brushing her chair. Her face is a puddle of melted wax, her eyes enormous and dark. Her mouth is a glistening red line. As I back up into the hallway, a scream rising in my throat, she opens her mouth and unspools a long red thread from between her broken teeth.
Brenna Macaray (@brennalane.art) is an artist originally from Los Angeles, CA. She's currently working on illustrating a children’s book as well as finishing up her creative writing thesis in poetry at Amherst College. She loves houseplants, fashion history, and weird 1970s horror films.
Leah Folpe (@leahfolpe) is a somewhat junior studying English, Theater & Dance, and French at Amherst College. Leah is interested in speculative fiction, fabulism, and writing mean tweets. Leah recently directed a virtual production of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” and is currently acting in Daniel Rendon’s senior thesis, “I Met God and The Devil in an Uber.”