“So, do you like them?” Riley asks, beaming with pride over the stellar gift she’s gotten me for my birthday. Reece, Riley’s twin brother and my boyfriend, just sits back grinning. Of the two of them, he’s always less showy – never expectant of accolades like his sister.
I stare down at my custom Converses in awe, with their black paisley inner layer and red striped tongue. The skull head laces just add to their perfect design. They are everything I wanted and nothing I could ever justify buying for myself.
“I love them! Thank you so much, you guys.”
Riley hugs me quickly around the shoulders before hopping off the back of Reece’s truck where we sit. Reece simply squeezes my hand with a pleased smile on his face. Both actions are big efforts for the Pinkerton twins; they’re not ones for public displays of affection. In fact, to most people they appear standoffish. I’d been confused by their persistence to not come in physical contact with people myself when I’d first met them, but it all made sense when I’d found out they were shape shifters.
Reece explained that, “Every touch with another person or animal imprints their make-up on our soul, storing a million different characterizations in us,” which could become overwhelming for them to hold their own shape at times if they didn’t “use” the traits they’d picked up by touch.
For the most part they could shift on demand to anything they’d come in contact with, but if their library of faces grew too large, shifts could occur unexpectedly. Sometimes they spend a whole day shifting on purpose just to exhaust their collection of faces and make room for new ones. These kinds of days are always trouble.
There’s something empowering about taking on another being’s skin. Cloaked as someone else, they partake in all sorts of mischief – playing pranks on people, stealing things, all manner of questionable behavior. Reece says part of being a shape shifter is learning to tame the natural evilness within them, to appease the urge in less destructive ways so they don’t go around murdering people.
Most shape shifters don’t bother themselves with curbing the evil desire, but the Pinkerton twins aren’t like most shape shifters, or so they say. I’ve never met other shape shifters, never even knew they existed until I met them. So they’ve stolen a few things and scared the crap out of a couple of people – these things weren’t life threatening and I should be happy they’re able to withhold the natural urge to be far more criminal.
I swing my legs back and forth off the back of Reece’s truck and take in my new shoes, knowing they were probably stolen too, but I tell myself to forget it. In their attempt to do something good for me, they’d done something bad. I guess they canceled each other out.
With Riley dancing around the parking lot eager for our night of celebration to begin, Reece slides off the truck and extends his hand to help me down. I jump off, my yellow plaid skirt flying up and ballooning around me as I hit the ground. Reece makes a face like he enjoyed the show of panties. My face burns red.
“Where to first, Birthday Girl?” Riley asks, ready to lead the way.
I’m still shocked we are actually here, at the Harvest Fair, where hoards of people will be brushing against us with every step we take. Usually this kind of place is out of the question for the Pinkerton twins so I was terribly surprised when they suggested it, knowing I really wanted to go, but would never ask myself.
“Um… the Scrambler, then candy apples?”
“Sounds good,” Reece says, and I start towards the fair’s entrance with them on either side of me.
The Harvest Fair is an annual tradition of our tiny town. It’s really quite outdated and geared more towards small kids and older folks interested in the baked goods, but I’ve been coming since I was little and so it’s sort of my tradition as much as it’s the towns. This is the first year I’ll be attending without my parents, which is probably another reason Reece and Riley offered to take me. The loss of my parents has been a big deal this year, naturally.
We pay our entrance fee at a booth in desperate need of a paint job. I remember it used to be pumpkin and mustard, harvest colors, but the paint has peeled away in so many places it’s mostly just rotting wood now. The same is true for most of the concession stands and game booths, but I sort of love its aged appearance. The rides are in no better shape, but instead of wood peeking through the paint, it’s rust. Clowns with only partial faces decorate the doors of the Scrambler and I find myself remembering the first time I was finally tall enough to ride it with my dad as I climb in.
Wedged between Reece and Riley, the ride starts and immediately picks up speed, spinning us around and around as the ride itself spins in a giant circle. I can’t stop the smile stretching into my cheeks; I love the way the wind whips through my hair. I try not to completely squish Riley, who’s chosen the inside seat, but gravity takes control, pressing Reece into me and us into Riley. I’m shocked at their laughter, they’re enjoying such complete contact far more than I could have expected. Maybe it’s just for the sake of me, which makes my heart flutter that they’d put themselves in such a predicament just to make me happy.
When the ride finishes, we stumble out of the cart all a little wobbly trying to get our bearings right again. Riley’s laughing at how dizzy we are. Suddenly, I feel certain that everything about this night will be perfect and I’m grateful.
Over the next two hours we eat copious amounts of fair junk food, including the candy apples I’d requested when we first got here. Reece wins me a tacky purple star-shaped necklace that I put on right away, and a giant blue bear so big, that even with my arm around his neck, his furry tail nearly drags in the dirt and fallen leaves. Riley’s inability to win a game has made her frustrated and eager to return to the rides.
Carting a giant bear with me makes us bump into so many more people as we make our way to the Ferris Wheel. A boy with bad acne running the ride promises to hold onto him while we climb on board.
After a slow, easy ride to the top, Riley announces with a disappointed sigh, “This is officially the most boring thing here.” Her face rests pitifully on her crossed arms over the side of the cart.
I happen to agree, but it is a nice break to let our food settle. I yearn to cuddle up against Reece, but I don’t want to touch him more than necessary so I just lean back and stare at the open sky. Stars clutter the darkness, not a cloud in sight, promising a tomorrow as beautiful as today and it makes me smile.
As we round towards the ground again, Riley’s bounding out of the cart before it even fully comes to a halt. Reece is a little more patient, but I can tell he was bored with it as well. “Where to next, Kelsey?” he asks with a tired smile on his face.
Riley answers for me, already tunneling through the crowd, “the Gravitron!”
I thank the ride attendant for guarding my blue bear and drag him roughly through the crowd after them. In my haste, I run face first into the chest of a bearded man in brown flannel. I step back to look up at him, to say a quick sorry, but he stares at me with daggers in his eyes and I cringe at the sight of him. His shoulder width seems to blot out the crowd ahead of me, like a wall dividing me from everyone else. And he doesn’t move, he just leers at me.
I take another step backwards and mumble, “My apologies,” ready to race back through the crowd to find my friends, but he takes a step towards me, his lips twitching with disgusting desire. My head twists from side to side, looking for help, but people scatter by us unaware, completely in their own funfair world.
My heart starts racing towards my throat as panic seizes me. For every step I take backwards, he takes another towards me, never letting the short distance between us grow. I drop the blue bear on the ground, ready to bolt in the opposite direction when suddenly Riley appears, bumping into the tower of a man in front of me so hard he actually budges.
“Excuse me,” she shouts, with every bit of attitude her voice can inflect. And now Reece is at my side, lacing his fingers through mine, and I can breathe again.
Riley folds her arms across her chest, peacocking with more bravado than I know she really has. “Can we help you?” she sneers. The man’s eyes dart between the three of us and he knows he’s lost this match. Finally he leaves us, but not before spitting on the ground at our feet and taking one last long look at me. It makes me shiver in the worst of ways.
Reece tugs me away from the sea of people that surround us and says, “Come on, Birthday Girl, back to celebrating.” I can’t help but glance back over my shoulder at the man’s fading form drifting through the crowd.
Nudging me, Riley says, “You have got to learn a poker face, Kels. Seriously. Guys like that live for the thrill of instilling fear in someone and you basically handed it to him. You’re the easiest prey around when you cower instantly like that. Creepers have radar for that sort of thing, you know.”
I don’t let her know that she’s hurt my feelings. Maybe because I know she’s right and I’m grateful she came to the rescue.
I wasn’t always this much of a chicken. Or at least I don’t think I was. The way I was before my parents’ death is foggy to me. Their murder left me scared in a way I couldn’t fathom before, in shock, immobile, when faced with intense situations now. I know I need to work on it, but the wound still feels so fresh.
Before I realize it, Reece is handing my blue bear to another ride attendant and we’re boarding the Gravitron. Riley seems so excited her cheeks can hardly contain her smile. This snaps me out of my temporary funk.
We press ourselves against the vinyl padded walls and wait for the ride to begin. Reece winks at me just as the door closes us all in and I brace myself for the jolting spin.
The Gravitron turns in vicious circles, so fast it’s hard to even see the faces of the other passengers. I try to steal glances at Riley and Reece, but they’re just a blur in a rotating room of neon lights and hideous pop music.
When it winds to a stop I’m even dizzier than I was after the Scrambler. I suspect Riley and Reece are too as they peel me off the padded wall, but they’re laughing too hard to seem like they care.
We stumble out of the Gravitron like drunken people and rest against the railing of the ride to let our legs readjust to standing still, plotting our next plan of action.
“I vote the Funhouse,” Riley says.
“Eh, I was saving that for last.”
She just shrugs.
Reece suggests, “How about the Kamikaze,” and Riley seems to like that idea so we head in that direction.
We ride all the rides the fair has to offer, some even twice and an hour later we’re finally dragging our feet to the Funhouse.
Inside we blunder through hallways with uneven, undulating floors, rooms with giant foam posts staggered like a maze, black rooms only illuminated by a single white strobe light where sudden bursts of air shoot at you from all directions, tunnels that force you to crawl through large hunks of damp sponge blocks, a pit full of colorful plastic balls that feels impossible to swim though, and then a black lit room of mirrors. And not just regular mirrors, but mirrors that make you look tall and skinny, mirrors that make you look short and portly, mirrors that only distort your face into something like a characterized version of yourself. So many different mirrors, your eyes play tricks on you.
The entire time we’ve been in the Funhouse, it’s just been the three of us. We can hear a group of kids ahead of us and we’ve made sure not to race through it so we can enjoy it alone. So it startles me when I see a stranger slip behind me in the reflection of a mirror.
I spin on my heels, my heart racing for my throat again, and face the stranger. Eye to eye, the unknown girl with white blonde hair that looks purple under the black lights grabs my shoulders and pops a gum bubble in my face. “Boo!” she says and snickers manically when I shirk away. Her laugh echoes in the room like a witch’s cackle. I want to run, but my feet hold me hostage.
And suddenly, right before my eyes, the girl’s face blurs, breaks its form, and drifts into something else, something more familiar. Riley.
She’s still laughing, probably at her prank and the anger that must be radiating from me like a tangible thing. I shove her, hard, so angry she would do this to me after the run in with the bearded guy in brown flannel. That she’d do this to me on my birthday. “You’re a jerk!” I scream, but she seems completely unfazed by my actions. Her laughter ricochets off the mirrors, making me feel trapped and embarrassed.
Reece finally shuts her up, scolding her for her behavior. “What’s the big deal?” she says, “It was just a joke.”
He mumbles something sternly to her and she scoffs, crossing her arms over her chest like a defiant child. “Whatever,” she says, rolling her eyes at me like this is my fault.
We all stare at each other for a moment before she finally storms away, out of the room, bumping into me roughly as she exits. “Happy Birthday,” she quips. “I’m going home,” she adds to no one in particular.
Other people have entered the mirrored room. We’ve created a scene and they watch us with gaping expressions. My embarrassment peaks and I just want to go home too.
Reece seems to read my mind. He nods apologetically to the other people in the room and ushers me out the same way Riley exited, apparently down a tall, steep slide. Riley is nowhere to be found when we reach the bottom.
I straighten out my skirt as I stand up from the slide, making way for the next riders, and kick my new shoes in the dirt angrily. I know I’m being just as childish as Riley now, but I can’t seem to stop myself.
Reece wraps his arm around my waist and whispers in my ear, “Try not to be so upset about it. I doubt she meant to do it at first, I know I’ve been struggling to hold my form for the past hour now. It was probably an accident, but your reaction fed her desire and she couldn’t help herself after that.”
I sigh heavily. So I guess it is my fault. I’m the reason they’re being overwhelmed with faces. I’m the one who egged her natural side on by freaking out. This night I loved so much is terribly tainted now. I wonder if we would have all just been better off staying home and watching a movie.
Taking in my sour expression, Reece retrieves my blue bear from the Funhouse attendant and hands it to me with a bright smile. “Don’t be so sad, Kels, it’s your birthday. Birthdays aren’t meant to be sad.”
I suck up my warring emotions and force a smile into my lips. He kisses me then, lightly at first, testing the water, and then a little firmer, savoring the flavor of me. His fingers slip between mine as our kiss comes to an end, and his eyes remain closed for a moment.
At first I think he’s just relishing in it, but his chin ripples from shaven to hairy. I see his jaw clench and his hand tightens in mine, and I realize he’s stifling a shift. I try to let go of him, not make it worse than it already is by touching him, but he doesn’t let me. He takes a long, deep breath, his chin becoming his again, and finally opens his eyes, blue the way they should be.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumble, but he silences me with a finger to my lips before I can let guilt pour out of my mouth.
“Anything else you want to do before we head home?” he asks, charming and sweet like he’s not struggling against his nature.
I simply shake my head and let him lead me back to the truck. The blue bear’s bottom drags in the dirt and I just don’t care anymore.
In the truck, we drive in silence. I press my face up against the cold window and wish this night hadn’t gone from perfect to disaster so quickly. I know wishing won’t change things, but I do it anyway.
When we get to my house, Reece leans across the seat to give me another kiss, lingering long enough to suck on my bottom lip before pulling away. “Please don’t dwell on one off moment when this whole night was so fun.”
Hopeful he means it, I ask, “You enjoyed it?”
He chuckles just a bit, “Of course I did! Just your happiness alone was contagious, but it was nice to do something so traditional. Riley and I don’t have a lot of experiences like that, being in large groups of fun. It was pretty awesome.”
A real smile returns to my face as I’m freed of the guilt I’m carrying. He pulls me in for a hug and I can feel his own smile against my neck. “Thank you,” I whisper. For everything, I want to say, but I’m afraid I’ll start crying if I say too much.
He waits for me to reach my porch before he drives away. I struggle with the keys for a second, my giant blue bear getting in the way of holding the screen door open to unlock the main door.
When I’m finally inside, I flick on all the lights. It’s wasteful of electricity, I know, but it’s become a habit since my parents’ deaths. Somehow I’ve convinced myself that bad things can’t happen when the lights are on.
I drop the blue bear off in my bedroom and make my way back towards the front door to lock up. A figure at the bottom of the driveway catches my eye.
The bearded man in brown flannel from the fair.
Instantly the pleasant feeling Reece left me with is washed away and replaced with blazing hot panic. I fumble with the screen door lock as the man approaches my porch. The lock will not click into place.
I abandon the screen door as he grabs a hold of the other side. The corners of his lips twist into a sinister smile as he seeks entry. I slam the main door as the other comes open. But I am small in comparison to him, and his weight against the door makes it impossible to close it enough to lock it. I struggle there, applying as much pressure to it as I can, but he meets me push for push.
When his fingers curl around the gap between the door and its frame, I give it one last shove in hopes of jamming them in the door. Pain like that would buy me time. Time to fully shut the door, time to lock it, time to call for help. But again, he’s stronger than me, and with his foot firmly planted in the threshold he barges into the foyer, the door banging into the wall with a loud thud.
I stumble backwards over my own feet, almost landing on my backside, but some will, some unrecognizable determination within me, thrusts my hands up in time to catch the corner of the hallway wall to pull myself upright again.
My gut tells me to bolt left for my bedroom, to lock myself inside and wait for help. But my brain says turn right, straight into the kitchen. And my brain wins.
I don’t have much lead, and the bearded man laughs wickedly assuming he has me trapped now that he’s inside my house; his to play with however he pleases. I’m not sure I’m even breathing as my new sneakers squeak across the ceramic tiled floor. I skid to a stop against the counter, ripping drawers open looking for something, anything that might be of use to me.
He enters the kitchen with his hands rubbing together thoughtfully, a creepy smirk still etched across his face. I don’t want to imagine the evil ideas developing in his mind. I’ve got to think fast.
A flash of silver to my left, near the kitchen sink, gleams in the corner of my eye. I abandon the drawers and lunge for it just as he reaches me. I’m cornered, my back to counters, with no way of slipping by him now.
But in my hand I hold a butcher knife and I don’t think twice about using it on him immediately, before he even realizes I’m not as defenseless as he thinks. I slash at his arms to keep him at bay, slicing through his flannel shirt and breaking the skin. It’s not enough to stop his momentum. He laughs at my feeble attempts to hurt him. He’s apparently not scared of a knife.
I will make you scared of me, I think. I jab the knife straight into his gut. He howls and doubles over in pain and I lose my grip on my weapon. It’s not enough to take him down, though, so before he can recover, I grab another knife from the knife block and stab it sideways into his exposed neck.
He grabs my hips now, holding onto me to keep himself from falling. I think he tries to say something, but I can’t make it out. I withdraw the knife and slam it in again. Again and again. Sticky, blackened blood taints my skin and pools on the floor around him when he finally crumbles to the ground.
The knife slips from my fingers and clangs on the ground harshly in a kitchen now void of sound. A huff of air escapes my mouth as I stare down at the mess of my kitchen in disbelief. Drawers jut out from their compartments; a throw rug is bunched up against the base of the cabinets, slowly collecting blood as it seeps towards it. The man lays unmoving, a knife still protruding from his gut, his neck leaking from jagged holes.
My arms and legs shake, still pumped full of unused adrenaline. A swelling of pride takes root in my stomach and worms its way into my heart. It beats faster, amazed at my show of bravery. It’s immediately overshadowed by my regret at not being as courageous for my parents. Where was this hidden strength then?
I nudge the man with my foot just to make sure he’s dead. With as much blood as there is on the floor, I can’t imagine him surviving. But I’ve seen enough horror movies to not be the dumb girl who just assumes. His slackened limbs jiggle back at me. There is no rise and fall of his chest.
Finally letting relief wash through me, I shove my hands into the sink and scrub them raw suddenly desperate to clean his remnants off of me. Water runs in a swirl of red and white foam down the drain and a million worries flood my mind.
I killed a man.
True, it was self-defense, but what happens now?
Carefully stepping past the body on the floor, I slip out of my now ruined Converses and escape the murder scene in clean bare feet. I pace the living room, fraught with indecision. I steal glances at the kitchen floor each time I pass it and jump when my cell phone rings. It startles me so much, in the dead silence of my house, that my heart feels like it might burst from my chest.
It’s Reece. “Hello,” I answer wearily.
“Hey, Riley didn’t happen to stop by there, did she?” he asks casually, totally unaware of the horror that exists on this side of the line.
I hardly hear the question and tears stream down my cheeks. “Can you come over here please?”
He must sense my disposition; hear the sniffling of my tears. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
My body is shaking so badly now, I can’t even answer him. The phone falls from my grasp and I sink to the ground Indian-style, gaping at the dead man on the floor. It’s all hitting me now, my emotions careening out of control.
I killed a man.
By the time Reece comes through the front door, I’ve found that comfortable numb place, but I’m still in the same position, staring blankly at the kitchen.
He enters slowly, taking notice of things I hadn’t like the hole the doorknob pounded into the wall, the shattered glass in the foyer from a fallen vase, things that show signs of a struggle. When he spots me, he hurries to my side, pulling me up from the ground by my armpits and engulfing me in an embrace.
“Oh my God, Kelsey! Are you all right? What happened here?”
And it must be then that his eyes fix on the kitchen because he releases me, his jaw gaping open in utter shock.
I cross my arms over my chest and drum my fingers nervously on my bicep. I swallow the lump forming in my throat. “He must have followed me home. He tried to attack me.”
It takes a minute for Reece to move. Maybe he’s never seen a dead person before. Maybe he’s appalled that his girlfriend could do something so gruesome, whether it was deserved or not. I can’t tell what’s going on in his head and it’s killing me.
Finally he steps into the kitchen, not concerning himself with avoiding the pool of blood. He twists the man’s body to his side and jerks up his shirt. I step closer and start to ask him why he’s touching a dead body at all, but then I see what he’s looking for. Just above the ribcage, a tiny black blotch that’s familiar to me. A birthmark just like Reece’s.
A wail erupts from him as he collapses on top of the bearded man in brown flannel. He pounds his fists against him, crying, “No!” Any sense of pride I had over defending myself vanishes.
I didn’t kill a man.
I killed my best friend, in another’s skin.