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(IT’S NOT LIKE CLAIRE DIDN’T BRING IT ON HERSELF) by Jennifer Fliss

The indigo sky informed all of them that it would soon be time. That the children as clowns and superheroes and princesses would be stuffed full of Reese’s and candy corn and rolling in their little beds positively asphyxiated with the sugar. The teenagers were dressed in threadbare tie dye t-shirts, fringed leather vests. Claire wore bellbottoms and a crop top. She had been about to pull on a long-sleeved shirt. (Ben said don’t.)

Doris’s house was not what you’d expect. A rambler, off-white brick and something that was not brick but just as ugly. The numbers, 10220, hung off nails and threatened to drop and then who would find her then?

It had been raining all week. Moisture clung to the blades of grass and ghost-fingered branches clasped above their heads, as if in prayer. Here the leaves and the apples had fallen early. 

Above them, hundreds of crows sang their murderous song. Two blocks away, Eve Lake. If it were summer they would hear the warble of frogs and have their skin lanced by mosquitoes. Late night picnickers would be enjoying the ever sun. Today they could feel the future phantom of winter. Claire chewed her lips and picked at her fingernails. 

Doris lived with her grandson Jake. Jake flicked his retainer in and out on his tongue and wore a leather duster that he said had been his father’s. (His grandmother told him this lie because he wouldn’t wear a jacket otherwise.)

“I don’t know if I really want to do this,” Claire said. 

The crows fell silent. Across from Doris’s house, an automated eight-foot witch cackled. Marcus started humming and Ben added a low growly beatbox. The trio had been stand outs in The One Notes, the school a capella group. Claire added a high note. 

“Shut up,” Ben said. 

Every year, a senior is selected as lead. (Everyone said Jake was coming out of his shell and weren’t they all so glad about that!?)

A gust of wind unfurled off the lake. A shrill bird.

“The fuck was that?” Ben said.

“An owl, what do you think?” Marcus said and slung the burlap bag over his shoulder. (It was not an owl.) The bag was already heavy. They shuffled along the driveway toward the house.

Shiny wrapped candy waited in a bowl under the stuttering porch light. A shower was running and there was singing. (Jake was an excellent singer, but most people didn’t know that.)

Ben’s father had started The One Notes thirty years earlier. 

At the front door, Marcus reached for a candy bar but Ben slapped his arm back. 

“Dude, they’re Hundred Grands. We hit the Halloween lottery,” Marcus said.

Claire wheezed and tried to control her breath, as if you could do such a thing, control the thing that keeps you alive. She thought about the kiss she and Ben shared earlier that day. Under the bleachers at lunch, stealing a smoke, like always. But when she said fuck, it’s cold, Ben leaned over, locked his lips on hers, and exhaled the nicotine directly into her throat. She sputtered and he put one hand up her shirt in an instant, the other still held onto his burning cigarette. When she finally got enough air to cough, he pushed her back. Slut. He laughed and Claire was unsure what had changed. The soft parts of her mouth still burned.

They had wandered back to the cafeteria and he said he was looking forward to the auditions for the lead that afternoon. 

That evening, on the dark side of the sun on Halloween by a lake, the teenagers stood with a bulky burlap bag at their feet. 

“Do it,” Ben said. Marcus rang the doorbell and they fled toward the lake.

No one came to the door. Claire was alone. She didn’t see where Ben and Marcus had gone but she had a straight view of Doris’s door. She thought she saw movement. Her breath grew tight. She heard the creak of the door.

It was Jake, hair wet, slicked back, towel at his waist. Bare chest like snow in the night. He looked up and down the street (don’t they always?) and only after a moment registered the bag. He nudged it. 

Doris appeared over his shoulder. “What is it Jakey?”

“A bag.” 

“Should we open it?” She didn’t make a move to do so. “Is this from one of your friends?” (No.)

“You should’ve told them to come in,” Doris said and went back into the house. She always wished Jake brought friends home. Jake stood for a long while. Remembering a time before all this. A time when he didn’t wear the not-previously-his father’s coat. (Yes, he knew.) 

Jake undid the knot. Pulled at it to open the top. As he did, it frayed as if time moved forward. The bag released an over-ripe peach smell and he pulled back the edges to reveal a tangle of long damp hair. 

It was Claire. Claire in a bag and her blond brown wet hair and a red candy bar wrapper in her grip. Her eyes were closed. 

Claire was always so kind to him, saying bless you when he sneezed, smiling close-mouthed at him in the hall. Once she offered to get him a ditto from the teacher so he didn’t have to get up from his desk.

Was she breathing? He opened the bag, laying her legs and arms beside her body gently. Her limbs still pliant; no rigor mortis, at least. She was topless and he covered her breasts with the burlap. 

Over the lake, the crows took off, hundreds of black smears in the sky. Two figures were running. Then the crows dove. Down, down, pulling at the hair of one figure, then the other, and then all Jake could see was one dark mass and he brought Claire inside. 

The house was hot. His grandmother always had the heat on at 85, her collection of salt and pepper shakers covered on every surface. Stifling. He felt trapped, but wouldn’t ever leave. 

Claire’s chest rose though her eyes remained closed. 

We all are. (Trapped, that is.)

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