Chapter 1: Blood-Red Dress

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Chapter 1: Blood-Red Dress

“You’re coming back to school next semester, right?” Jenny asked, her knock-off designer purse bumping uncomfortably against my leg as she walked beside me.

I was at the mall with her and Anna. Anna insisted she did her best shopping when she wasn’t tugging her hat and mitts on and off between stores, so we trekked out to this place, just as we had ever since we all started hanging out in ninth grade – only these days it was more of a festering reminder of the girl I had been, and would never be again. Still, I’d let myself be talked into it, because Bruce had been complaining that I was holing myself up in our apartment too much. I would’ve used the “have an essay to write” excuse, but the last time I’d trotted it out, he’d called the tutor he’d hired to catch me up to the rest of my class, and made him completely restructure my days. “Mildred’s recovery is our number-one priority,” I’d overheard him saying. “And part of that process demands that she has time to go out, socialize and reintegrate herself, so find a way to accomplish what you need to accomplish without all the busywork, okay?”

So now, here I was, fighting the tidal wave of Black Friday shoppers, pretending to be human and that I still care about human things, like school and Christmas shopping, and sucking at all of it.

“Yeah, February,” I said, wondering if my fake cheerfulness would be read as sarcasm. Life back in New York was constricting, like a shirt that had shrunk in the wash, and cramming myself in only raised the risk of it bursting at the seams and sending buttons shooting all over the room. Or at least that’s how human-me would have described it. This me – sorcerer-me – wasn’t talking about it to anyone.

Jenny prattled on about school, launching into an upbeat laundry list of the classes she’d chosen for the following semester, during which she dropped several thinly veiled hints that I should select some of the same ones. I feigned interest, nodding in all the right places. Just like I’d practiced.

The spectre of school hung over me, a poltergeist whose cruelties had yet to manifest. There’d be more questions, more taunts; it was inevitable. You lose all anonymity when you disappear for eight months. And I couldn’t even blame the people who thought my amnesia story was a total scam, because it was. Bruce and Ephraim just figured that was the best way to keep the human authorities from looking too deeply and, to their credit, it worked.

I’d healed my scars and had special, coloured contacts fitted before we'd showed up at a Pennsylvania police station with our carefully concocted tale; to human eyes, I appeared healthy and unharmed, if not particularly happy. No need to fake that bit. While the destruction of the cabin in Nevada and my kidnapping were crimes, there was no evidence any subsequent ones had occurred or that I was still in danger (we’d chosen a cop shop far enough from Mike’s motel that there was no chance they’d connect us to that too), so my case went cold quickly and media interest in my re-emergence waned soon after. The comments on the online articles about my disappearance suggested that most people thought I’d run away, got tangled up in drugs or prostitution or something equally unsavoury, and somehow managed to do this to myself – and that maybe whatever happened at the cabin was even something I’d orchestrated.

“Here,” Anna said suddenly, grabbing our hands and dragging us across the aisle into a video game store. In the time I’d been gone, she’d met Scott and forgotten all about the gorgeous, but ever-unattainable Henry. According to her, it’d played out just like something in a smutty romance novel: the two of them had hooked up at the pool where she’d worked concessions over the summer and he was a lifeguard. "With the pecs of Adonis," she'd swooned. Now, all that time she used to spend at my house, she spent at his. If there was any remaining doubt that she was in love, this sealed it, I couldn’t think of anything else that would make her step one foot into a gaming store – ever.

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