Neighbors : Chapter One

“Megan,” I said softly, my eyes still shut. “Have you started yet?” My question floated between us like a feather, lightly falling through the thick, dusty air before resting alongside my bare feet. My knees trembled, whether because of cold or nerves I didn’t know. The world outside was quiet, most people still asleep in their warm beds, and the quiet was maddening. I could hear the scuttle of tiny paws in the corners of the attic, and the rustle of wings nesting in the eaves. I could hear Megan’s slow and steady breathing, the slight whistle as she blew each exhale through her chapped, puckered lips.

“Megan,” I said again when she didn’t answer. “What’s happening?” Her breathing shuddered for a moment before she replied.

“Nothing is happening yet, Sam,” she said quietly, sounding somewhat annoyed. “You need to be patient. Like I told you, this takes time and a lot of concentration. Now please, be quiet.” Her rhythmic breathing resumed and I heard the crackle of her knuckles as she flexed her fingers.

“Okay,” I whispered. “Sorry.” I shifted my weight from leg to leg and settled back into place, my eyes still shut.

I stood that way for another hour, counting the seconds and minutes in my head. The world around us started to wake up and soon I could hear the sounds of a busy weekday morning. Car horns bleated as drivers hurried through the intersection two houses down, and children screeched and laughed as they made their way to the bus stop. My arms began to feel like lead and my feet throbbed dully with my heartbeat. I was restless. But then, something happened.

Megan gently pressed a cold fingertip to my forehead, and then her other hand laid across my chest. She spoke in a guttural whisper, too low for me to comprehend. There was a fleeting pinch in the middle of my back, like a shock of static electricity, and the heaviness in my limbs dissipated. I opened my mouth to speak but Megan’s voice filled the void before I could make a sound.

“Attenrobendum eos, ad consiendrum, ad ligandum eos, potiter et solvendum, et ad, congregontum eos, coram me.” Each word pounded my body like a drumbeat and the air I pulled into my lungs felt inadequate. She repeated it again, louder this time. Her voice was deep and strong, very unlike her usual melodic singsong.

“Attenrobendum eos, ad consiendrum, ad ligandum eos, potiter et solvendum, et ad, congregontum eos, coram me.”

Open your eyes, said a voice both familiar and strange, like one I hadn’t heard since I was very small. As it spoke, Megan removed her hands from me and I heard her take a few steps backward. Open your eyes, said The Voice again.

With effort, I opened my eyes. The scene in front of me swam slowly into focus. It was bright, the morning sunlight filtering in through the dirty windows giving the ramshackle altar a warm, cozy glow. Megan stood behind it, her head bowed and her hands raised. In her palms now were colored crystals and a freshly smoldering bundle of herbs. The smoke was swirling and turbulent, and a yellow-tinged cloud drifted up into the rafters.

Something didn’t look right. I squinted and blinked rapidly, thinking the smoke had clouded my vision, but still couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. After a moment, Megan raised her head and looked at me. That’s when I realized what was different; I was taller. Last night we had stood eye-to-eye as she walked me through the plan and now Megan was looking up at me. My eyes shot to the floor, expecting to see a platform suddenly, magically, risen from the floorboards that explained my new vantage point.

But there was no box, and no platform. In fact, there was nothing at all. I was floating in midair, suspended a foot above the sigil Megan had painstakingly painted the night before. My bare feet were flat, as if the air was solid underneath them, but as I trembled I felt the firmness slip and crumble away. I wobbled and my arms windmilled like a cartoon. I began to cry. My eyes and nose stung as the hot tears fell down my cheeks. This wasn’t supposed to be real, I thought frantically.

“Megan,” I sobbed. “What’s-” I choked out before The Voice interrupted my panic.

Stop crying, it said coldly. I sucked in a deep, shuddering breath and bit my lip to keep from crying again.

Good, it replied. Now, step down. It pushed me, a nudge from inside my mind, and my feet felt the air below like I was searching for a step on a dark staircase. I fumbled my way back to the ground, falling heavily onto the scratched floorboards. My knees and palms were scraped when I stood up, but I felt no pain. My body felt foreign to me. I was a visitor inside my own home.

Megan looked directly at me now, her eyes wide and cold as she slowly came out from behind the altar. Her lace shawl had fallen off one of her shoulders and was dragging through the dirt but she seemed not to notice. She stretched a shaking hand toward me and I reached for her, but she stopped just outside of my grasp and began tracing a pattern in the air.

I stared, disbelievingly, as she drew sigil after sigil in front of me. I could see them. Like the shimmering heat waves radiating off sun-soaked blacktop, I could see the sweeping lines coming from her fingertips. They hung before us just for a moment before fading away into the morning light. Each new sigil sent a wave of warmth washing over me, and I felt something stir contentedly in the hollow of my belly. A low, gentle hum filled my ears and grew louder as Megan continued her spell work.

Then, the last sigil was drawn and a final, white-hot wave slid across my skin. I was reminded of the wax coating done at automatic car washes and glanced down at my hands, half-expecting to see a blistered, lacquered sheen. Still skin, I thought with manic relief. The humming quieted and disappeared and I felt a burning tingle in my fingers and toes like when you step into a hot shower on a cold morning. But I felt at home in my body again, and the panic I’d been fighting to control just moments before was gone. In its place was a fuzzy okay and numbness, like I was waking up from an exceptionally bad dream that I couldn’t particularly remember.

Megan peered at me, examining her work, before stepping backward.

“There,” she said, seemingly more to herself than to me. “I think we’ve done it.” She looked at my face now, her eyes once again the friendly soft brown I knew them to be. “How do you feel?”

“I don’t know,” I began thickly. My jaw felt heavy and rusted and I struggled to manipulate my tongue to make words. “Weird. But okay,” I added. “What the hell just happened? I thought you were joking-”

“Are you in any pain?” she asked briskly, interrupting me to press her cool palms to my cheeks and forehead. “Do you feel nauseated?”

“No, no nausea, but I wouldn’t say no to an aspirin right now,” I said. I flexed my hands and bent my knees, testing my joints and muscles. I was stiff and sore, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t felt before. “I feel like I need to stretch and sleep for a day and a half. But seriously, Megan, what the hell was-”

“Good,” she said sweetly, cutting me off once again. “Well, we’re done up here for now if you wanted to go take a nap. I just have to clean up a little and I’ll be right down.” She took me by the shoulders and gently steered me toward the trapdoor.

“Okay…” I said slowly. “See you in a bit, I guess.”

As I stepped off the ladder in the hallway below, the last thing I saw before it retracted and the door snapped shut above me was Megan’s face, shockingly white against the dark attic ceiling. She looked concerned, maybe even a little afraid. I paused for a moment, looking up at the trapdoor, before resigning myself to the nap Megan had suggested. The tiredness settling into my bones was cold and leaden, and I wanted nothing more than to bury myself in the fluffy coverings of my bed.

From the very instant I sank onto my mattress, I fell asleep. It felt like minutes, but when I finally opened my eyes again the light peeking around my curtains had changed from warm morning sunshine to cool streetlights. I sat up and peered blearily around the room, rubbing the crustiness of hard sleep out of the corners of my eyes.

Things looked normal. In the far corner sat my thrift-store armchair piled high with laundry and spare blankets. The closet doors were shut but the hems of my longer dresses poked out along the bottom. Next to the bed was my vintage vanity, the top scattered with yesterday’s makeup palettes and hair ties. The strings of twinkle lights I had draped across my bookcases and wrapped around my bed frame gave the room a quiet, fairy tale feel and I was reminded of young-adult movies where there’s a manic pixie dream girl waiting to save the fumbling, socially awkward male lead.

The stories are a dime a dozen, yet I can’t help but to love them. A secretly handsome young man, perhaps branded “weird” and “geeky” by his conventional peers, falls into a pit of despair for one reason or another. For 45 minutes we watch his spiral and cringe, but then suddenly she appears. In the coffee shop, the comic book store, the subway. Under the streetlight at his local bus stop. Underneath a crazy mop of brightly colored hair and layers of eclectic fashion choices, she’s stunning. With a funky you-wouldn’t-know-them playlist blasting in her headphones, she smiles at the protagonist. And BOOM! His world, quite literally, gets turned upside down and he spends the rest of the movie chasing her. Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. Maybe she has roller skates or a skateboard or a funny little European car. She slips in and out of his life, leaving him with cryptic but insightful tidbits of advice. In the end, she saves him. Usually from himself. And for some reason, her bedroom always has twinkle lights.

I laid back down for awhile and let the room swim in and out of focus as I dozed lightly. I felt hungover; every so often the room would pitch and spin so I’d close my eyes and wait for the world to stabilize. Eventually I felt not-so-terrible, and I decided to go find Megan. As I yawned and stretched, my back clicked and cracked like bubble wrap. It was cold outside the cocoon of blankets, and I shivered while I searched the laundry pile for my bathrobe, shoved my arms into it, and stepped into my favorite pair of house shoes. With a final glance around the room, I padded out into the hall and pulled the door shut behind me.

The house was dark, and my slippers made no noise on the carpeted stairs as I made my way down to the kitchen. I stopped on the landing and pulled back the window curtain to peek outside. The traffic was still flowing smoothly through our busy intersection and a couple was walking their dog across the street. It must not be that late, I thought. Good, I can order a pizza or something. With each step I took, my stomach rumbled louder and louder. I was famished. Remembering a delivery coupon I had tucked under a fridge magnet, I dropped the curtain and headed toward the kitchen.

Megan sat at our tiny breakfast table, wrapped in her own bathrobe with a half-empty mug in her hand and her lavender hair piled high in a messy bun. She’d only clicked on the single light over the sink, and the shadows across the room were long and deep. A glossy celebrity gossip magazine sat splayed open in front of her and she was musing over an article on British royals when I shuffled in.

“Hey,” I said quietly. She glanced up at me and smiled.

“Hey back, ” she said. “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine, I think. I feel a little hungover but it’s bearable.”

“Glad to hear it. I didn’t think you’d ever wake up. I came in to check on you a few hours ago and you were open-mouth snoring so I decided to leave you be,” she said with a laugh.

“That explains the sore throat then,” I replied.

“Sounds like you need a hot toddy. Here,” she said, standing up and offering me her seat. “Sit down and let me fix one up for you.”

I settled into the chair as she pulled a mug off the wall and rummaged in the liquor cabinet for the near-empty bottle of bourbon. Neither of us said anything as she filled the kettle and lit the stove, and we continued in content silence as she squeezed honey and splashed lemon juice into the now-steaming mug.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, swirling a spoon in the drink before setting it down in front of me. “I have some leftovers from my lunch if you want them. I got takeout from that Indian place around the corner. You know, the new one next to the laundromat.”

“Yeah, actually,” I said. “That sounds great, thanks.”

“No big deal,” she said with a shrug and turned to the fridge.

A loud electronic ping erupted from the table just then and startled me. I flipped Megan’s magazine shut and found her phone underneath, screen lit up with an incoming notification from an unknown number.

Is she awake yet?

I didn’t mean to read it. It appeared and disappeared before I even realized what I was seeing. But I had seen it; someone was asking about me. Instantly, cold dread filled my stomach and I wrapped my hands tighter around my drink.

“Oh, will you hand me that?” Megan asked, her back still to me as she dumped cold chicken tikka masala onto a plate. She stuck out her hand as she popped the plate into the microwave.

“Sure,” I said in what I hoped was a neutral tone. “Here you go.” I stood up and reached across the table to place her phone in her outstretched hand.

“Thanks,” she mumbled as she quickly thumbed the screen to life. She paused for a moment as her eyes scrolled the notification, a fork poised motionlessly in her right hand, before she tapped the screen a few times. A loud rock song started playing and she groaned.

“Jack sent me a link to their new track. What do you think?” We listened to the song, which sounded a bit too much like bad ’80s hair metal for my liking, for another minute before she stopped the playback and tapped out a reply message.

“I think I’ll just tell him that I love it, but that I need to hear it live to truly feel the song. He loves that kind of crap feedback,” she said, rolling her eyes. Jack and Megan had one of the most dramatic and tumultuous relationships, and his ever-evolving band was the source of a lot of their best fights. She scrolled her thumb across the screen a few more times before tapping it back to black and tucking it into a pocket of her robe.

The microwave beeped and Megan, her hand wrapped in a tea towel, pulled out the steaming plate and slid it across the table to me.

“Here you go,” she said. “Now that you’re awake I’m gonna go jump in the shower. I thought about taking one while you were sleeping but I didn’t want to risk not hearing you if you needed something. You didn’t look so hot earlier and my Mom-Instincts came out,” she said with a cheery laugh.

“I trust that you’ll be able to not choke or have a stroke or something while I’m gone, right?” Her eyes twinkled in the single-bulb light and I couldn’t help but return her smile.

“Yes, Mom,” I said sarcastically. “I promise I won’t die in the next twenty minutes.”

“Make it forty-five,” she said. “I need to deep condition this mop before it all falls out.” She gestured toward her frizzy pastel curls and laughed.

“Remind me to never do an at-home bleach job again, okay? I’m gonna go bald if I try that again,” she said over her shoulder as she walked out of the room.

I watched her disappear around the corner before turning back to the plate of food waiting in front of me. I pushed around a few bites, uncovering and piling up all the best-looking pieces of chicken, before shoveling forkfuls into my mouth. I ate wildly, and rivulets of sauce dripped off my chin and fell onto my robe’s lapels. In just a few short minutes, the plate was empty and I was chasing the last bits of sauce with a piece of crusty bread I tore off the loaf sitting on the counter.

I sat back in the chair and smacked my lips, feeling like the gluttonous king in storybooks, before dumping my plate in the sink and wiping the congealing, sticky sauce from my face and clothes with a wet washcloth. Satisfied, I started to turn away, but I was stopped dead in my tracks.

More, rumbled the Voice, as a painful devouring gurgle of new hunger erupted inside me. I gasped and pitched forward against the sink, my hands clutching the porcelain edges until my knuckles turned purple and white.

More, It demanded again. Panicked tears leaked down my face as I fumbled toward the fridge and opened the door. I pulled an apple from the crisper drawer and tore into it. Four bites later and I threw the core into the sink and, still hungry, pulled a plastic container full of pad thai onto the counter. I ate it cold, and with my fingers, barely allowing myself a breath between mouthfuls. As I stuffed the last bite between my teeth, another painful rumble of hunger bellowed out from my belly.

More. A bag of tortilla chips sat on the counter next to the breadbox and I emptied a jar of salsa con queso into the bag and shook it around before plunging my hand in and bringing messy handfuls to my eagerly waiting mouth. I finished the chips in mere moments, and tipped my head back to drink the remnants at the bottom of the bag like soup. Salsa covered my arms to the elbows and dripped down my front, but I couldn’t stop.

More. Helplessly, I reached back into the fridge and emptied the shelves. Leftovers, blocks of cheese, ground beef that Megan had browned to keep it from spoiling, jars of pickles, condiments, a carton of milk, and a gallon of sweet tea. Like a wild animal, I tore through it all and washed it down with gulps of tea and milk. When I finished those, I flung open the cupboards and fished out over a dozen cans of ravioli, soup, and fruit. I drained them all, and still searched for more.

I cried openly now. My stomach had long since overstretched its capacity, but I still felt so hungry. I had never felt so hungry in all my life. I knew intrinsically that there wasn’t enough room in my entire body for the food it would take to satiate this hunger. I was either going to die of hunger or I was going to split my insides apart at the seams.

I had just twisted the lid off a 48oz jar of peanut butter jar when Megan appeared in the doorway, her wet hair twisted up into a clip and a gray mud mask slathered across her face. She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me, hunched among the pile of emptied containers on the floor of the kitchen, my stomach poking out underneath my shirt was distended and discolored.

“What’s going on,” she asked. Her voice was calm but her face betrayed her panic.

“HELP ME,” I screamed. “YOU DID THIS TO ME! HELP ME GODDAMNIT, HELP ME!”

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