Introducing the author of Darkling, this week's guest, KM. Rice!
In 3000 words or less, write a story about a girl that has been forced to live with her odd aunt and uncle. What secrets does she discover and how does she escape?
By K.M. Rice
Leila had expected the time with her aunt and uncle to pass slowly while her parents were away on a cruise. After all, Marietta was significantly older than Leila’s mother, and as such, visiting the home she shared with her husband, Benjamin, often felt like paying respects to grandparents. What Leila hadn’t expected, however, was that the doilies on the backs of the armchairs and cantaloupe-smelling kitchen hid a deep, dark secret.
“Pass the salt, please, Benjamin,” Marietta said at the breakfast table one fine summer morning in mid-July. Leila chewed her scrambled eggs cautiously, having learned from experience that her uncle’s shaking hands often left behind pieces of the shell.
As if his wife’s request had just reminded him of the presence of the seasoning, Benjamin grunted as he grabbed the shaker and attempted to salt his eggs. Yet, true to form, his hand shook so much that Leila wondered if his breakfast was even palatable by the time he was done.
Marietta glared and swiped the shaker from him, her penciled-in eyebrows furrowing. Leila pretended she hadn’t seen at thing. At fifteen, she was usually good at negotiating other people’s moods, but her aunt and uncle’s constant bickering made her feel awkward, as if they’d forgotten she was in the room.
“This is great,” she offered with a small smile. “Much better than FrootLoops.”
“It’s too salty,” Benjamin griped.
Marietta sneered at him before giving the salt a good shake, sending it spraying into his face. Benjamin gasped and leaned back in his chair so far that it fell over, causing both his wife and niece to bark in surprise. Being the most agile of the three, Leila scrambled to her feet first and hastily knelt to help her uncle back up, the floorboards squeaking below her.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“That witch,” Benjamin hissed as Leila took his hand. Marietta merely continued to eat her breakfast as if she hadn’t just caused her husband to narrowly miss a concussion. “She knows I hate it when she does that.”
“You mean it happens often?” Leila asked as she hauled her uncle up by the forearm, the tip of her sneaker pressing down against a weak board.
“He deserved it,” Marietta mumbled. “It’s his fault that we’re in this mess to begin with.”
“What mess?” Leila straightened her uncle’s chair and felt the toe of her shoe sink again. Testing the board with more weight, she realized that it wasn’t just weak, but loose. Like the kinds of loose floorboards that hid sacks of gold in castles and magical medallions in palaces.
“Something wrong with your foot, dear?” Marietta asked.
Leila met her eye and found her aunt fixing her with a peculiar gaze. It was enough to make the girl slide her foot off the board. “My shoelace got stuck,” she lied before she could even figure out why she had the compulsion to do so.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Benjamin whined. “My eggs are covered in salt!”
“That’s not from me, that’s from – oh, never mind, you dunderhead!”
Leila was hesitant to resume her seat between the two of them who were locked in a silent staring contest. With her uncle’s bulbous eyes and her aunt’s upturned nose, it was quite the sight to see. In fact, looking at her now, Leila saw very little family resemblance between her mother and the woman at her side. Marietta’s hair was fiery red (albeit dyed) and her features were sharp and delicate. She was an odd sight when paired with Benjamin, who from most angles looked like he was melting.
Once the dishes were cleared and her aunt and uncle had left the kitchen, Leila eyed the floor. What could the two be hiding under there? Marietta had wanted to divert her attention, surely, so it must be something. Kneeling beside the loose board, Leila attempted to catch the end with her fingernails to pull it loose, but it only gave so much. She would have to get a crowbar or something else to use as leverage. If only she had… wait. What was that splash of color?
Barely visible on the side of the board was what appeared to be hand-painted writing. Vibrant letters in all shades of the rainbow peeked out at her from the dull oak. If she could pull it up farther, she could read what they said.
Startled, Leila shoved the board back into place then hurried into the living room to answer her uncle’s shout. “Yes?”
“We’re heading down to the senior center for our water colors class. Grab your permit and you can drive.”
Leila’s face split into a grin. Forgetting the board, she dashed upstairs and headed back down with her wallet and learner’s permit.
The senior center was only five blocks away, but Leila felt very adult as she parked and turned off the engine. A senior citizen’s watercolors class wasn’t exactly her idea of an afternoon well-spent, but she didn’t have any friends who lived near her aunt and uncle, anyway.
Once in class, Marietta and Benjamin decided they liked each other again and began teasing and elbowing each other as they painted. Leila couldn’t decide what to paint, so she watched her aunt’s hands bring to life the colorful curves of flowers. At first she thought Benjamin had picked the same subject, but instead, his alleged flowers took on squiggly legs and antennae. Bugs.
Biting her lip, Leila turned her paper this way and that until she decided what to paint. Drawing upon her memory of what she had seen, she dipped her brush first in the red, then in the blue, pink, and yellow as she mimicked the writing she had glimpsed on the side of the floorboard.
“All right, class,” the instructor cheerily addressed the audience after their hour and a half was up. “Time to finish. Why don’t you share your paintings with each other?”
Leila glanced around the room. Half of the participants ignored the instructor and continued to paint, while several more were asleep and the remaining few looked as if they were shocked to suddenly discover their whereabouts.
“Roses, what a surprise,” Benjamin chuckled as he looked over his wife’s watercolor.
“About as original as yours,” Marietta quipped with a wink. “How about you, squirt?” she asked Leila.
Leila slowly held up her painting.
Benjamin narrowed his bulbous eyes. “Are those worms?”
“They’re letters,” Leila corrected. She kept her eyes on her aunt’s face, gauging her reaction.
The red-headed woman merely adjusted her glasses and peered at the painting before arching a brow. “Letters, huh? Don’t look like any letters I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re only half finished,” Leila pressed.
Marietta sniffed and looked away, admiring her own art instead. Leila peered at her work as a chorus of oohs and ahhs rose around her as several of the other participants shared their paintings with each other.
On the drive home, Leila’s aunt and uncle were so busy arguing over how to best get back to the house that neither noticed Leila’s near-silence. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe the board she had found was just recycled from a painted structure. After all, Marietta hadn’t even reacted to her watercolor.
The three ate at a local diner that night, and when they returned to the house, Leila realized that she’d left her artwork in the car. Benjamin spotted her coming down the stairs. “Looking for a midnight snack?”
“I’ll be right back!” Leila chirped as she headed outside and to the driveway. Opening the car, she spotted two drawings instead of three. Furrowing her brow, she snatched them up to find Marietta’s flowers and Benjamin’s bugs. After looking under the seats and by the console, she gave up and headed back inside.
“Loose something?” Marietta asked.
“My painting,” Leila said, handing the two surviving pieces over to her aunt. “It’s gone.”
“Hmm,” Marietta said without a hint of surprise. “Must’ve blown out the window.” The older woman shuffled the paintings and carried them out of room. Leila knew when she was being dismissed, and was filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiety over having, apparently, struck a nerve.
So, her aunt had gotten rid of her painting, had she? Two could play this game.
Leila decided to wait until the couple went to bed before she would try to once again discover what was under the floorboards. The problem was, they both had a habit of falling asleep in front of the TV until the wee hours of the morning when one or the other’s snoring would inevitably awake them and they’d shuffle off to their room. As the TV blared downstairs, Leila laid awake in bed. By midnight, she was convinced that her aunt was actually a witch and the writing on the board was a protective spell. Breaking such a magical seal could cause her to become cursed, but Leila was willing to risk it.
In an attempt to hurry along her aunt and uncle’s bedtime process, she first got up and listened for a lull in the conversation on the crime drama then flushed the toilet, hoping the noise would stir one of the two. Nothing happened. Pursing her lips, Leila tried again, this time faking a stumble down the stairs, stomping the whole way. Benjamin twitched but that was it.
Realizing that the TV was making enough noise to mask any sounds that she would create in the kitchen, Leila gave up on trying to shoo the couple to bed and instead grabbed a hammer and headed for the floorboard. Wedging the end of the hammer claw into gap between the loose board and the others, she hesitated.
This could be it, she thought. My last breath as a human. For all I know, I’m about to be turned into a toad.
Toads weren’t so bad. In fact, she’d always thought they were kinda cute. And so, she gripped the handle of the hammer and yanked.
The board squeaked and gave a little, once again revealing part of the colorful writing. Waiting and listening to make sure she hadn’t disturbed her aunt and uncle, she yanked again, prying loose even more of the board. She could now clearly see the writing and furrowed her brow as she read. Sharp be spine and wet be slime, it read.
Repositioning the hammer, Leila gave another yank and pried the board free. Wincing at the squeak, she trained her ears on the other room for movement, but there was none. Rotating the board in her hands, she read the continuation of the writing.
With this ball, you are mine until whensoever you wish to end your time.
“I guess that rhymes,” she muttered, her knuckles white against the wood. A ball? Could it be a golden ball like in the fairy tale about the princess and the frog? Or possibly a ball of golden yarn like in the story of Rumplestiltskin?
Gently setting the enchanted board aside, Leila peered into the hole… and saw nothing. Deciding that it must be too dark, she tugged a lamp off of the mail table and set it on the floor beside her before switching it on. In the rush of light, she was able to see the dirt beneath the house, and nestled amongst it, a brown ball!
Grinning, Leila snatched it up, surprised by how light it was and the amount of dirt and plant matter that had stuck to it, as if it had been beneath the house for a very long time. Picking the debris off, she frowned as it began to crumble in her hand. Just then, the lights switched on. With a gasp, she looked over her shoulder, the crumbled ball in her hands, to spot her aunt and uncle glaring at her from the doorway.
“I can explain,” Leila sputtered. “I heard a rat and –”
“I said we should’ve just told her,” Benjamin griped. “Said it from the start, I did.”
“Hush, you dunderhead,” Marietta snipped.
“Told me what?” Leila asked.
“Do you have any idea what you’re holding?” Marietta asked. Leila looked down at the flaking plant matter in her hands and shook her head. “That’s a ball of horse poo.”
“What?” Leila hissed, flinging the substance from her. “Why the heck would you have horse poo buried under a floorboard?”
Sighing, Benjamin shuffled into the room. “Take a seat. I’ll make us some tea.”
“And wash your hands,” Marietta added.
Baffled, Leila did as she was told. Ten minutes later, the three of them sat at the kitchen table with steaming mugs before them. No one spoke.
“Sooo…” Leila ventured.
“You ever hear of the Salem Witch Trials? Or seen Wizard of Oz or Hocus Pocus?” Marietta asked.
Leila nodded, her eyes growing wide. “So you are a witch.”
“Oh, hell no,” Benjamin said with a chuckle. “One of those brazen bitches did this to us.”
Leila leaned back in her chair a little, both from what her uncle had just said and from the fact that he swore.
“Back in 89, I was young and lonely,” Marietta began. “Until your uncle came along. I had thick skin, you know. He was the first person I ever really felt.”
Benjamin gazed at his wife lovingly and rested his hand on hers. “And you were so beautiful, with those red flowers on your head.”
Leila tensed. If her uncle felt loose enough to swear, who knew what else would come out of his mouth next and their story was growing personal.
“You loved those flowers, so much.”
“They were delicious.”
Leila furrowed her brow and looked between them. “Wait, you ate them? Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”
“Sweetheart, I was different back then,” Benjamin explained. “Oh so very different.”
“How were you—”
“He was a slug,” Marietta stated. “And I was a cactus. We were so in love that when a witch happened by and asked if we’d like to be of the same species, he agreed. We just didn’t know that we’d be stuck as, well, you know, hot dogs with legs.”
There was so much wrong with what had just come out of her aunt’s mouth that Leila didn’t know where to begin, and all that came out was “Hot dog with legs?”
“Humans,” Benjamin clarified. “We’d thought she’d make us both cacti, or slugs.”
“But….” Leila dug her hands into her hair. “What do you mean a witch just ‘happened along’?”
“Happening along is what they’re good at,” Benjamin said. “Keep your eyes peeled for one happening along by you one day.”
“That ball of horse poo was chosen because it is symbolic of the strength of our love: it feeds both the plant and the terrestrial gastropod mollusk.”
Leila arched a brow. “An alien?”
“Slug, dear. That means slug.”
“It’s why she punishes me with salt,” Benjamin explained. It doesn’t hurt me anymore, but it’s a fear that’s hard to ever really shake…”
“And your red hair…” Leila whispered, going unintentionally cross-eyed until she shook herself out of it. “Why don’t you like being humans?”
“It’s exhausting,” Benjamin groaned. “So much talking and walking and doing.”
“Not enough being still and just, well, letting yourself and everything around you be,” Marietta added.
Leila pursed her lips and nodded thoughtfully. “Does my mom know?”
“You really think she’d believe us if we told her?”
“Then where does she think you came from?”
Marietta sighed. “An orphanage.”
Leila looked down at her mug. “And the horse poop?”
Her aunt and uncle exchanged a nervous glance. Leila furrowed her brow.
“You probably shouldn’t have touched that,” Marietta offered. “It was supposed to turn us back when we were desperately done as people, but –”
There was a loud poof and a puff of purple smoke. In the chair where Leila had sat was now a rainbow-colored worm.
The two senior citizens leaned over the table to peer at their niece’s new shape.
“Ah, the hell with it!” Benjamin declared before snatching up what was left of the horse poo and popping it into his mouth. Marietta did the same. Two poofs of purple smoke later, and a worm and slug were crawling on a cactus, and Leila and her aunt and uncle were never seen again.
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