Barrel of Monkeys

It’s possible to die from embarrassment. This is true. His mom said it wasn’t, but she lied, like, a lot–about the crusts on bread being the healthiest part, about the monster not being under the bed, about his face getting stuck like that, and more things than he cared to count.

Wait. Did this mean… Santa Claus…?

No. Adults would never lie about that. Santa Claus and God and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. These were too important. Such falsehoods would be blasphemy.

Trevor shook his head. Focus. He needed his full attention on the task ahead if he wanted to see another Christmas. He darted across the lawn and flattened himself against a wall on the side of the tiny house. Moments later, his sister joined him. He whispered harshly, “What are you doing here?”

“Helping you!” she whispered back.

“I don’t need help!”

“Mommy will kill me if you don’t come home today.”

“Anna,” he explained, “if she catches us, she’ll eat us both!”

“Mommy?”

“No, you dummy!”

Anna gasped. Maybe, now that he used a forbidden word, she’d appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“The witch,” he explained. “She’ll eat us both.”

“You’re bigger,” she reminded him. “She’ll be too full, and I’ll get away.”

“You’re slower,” he retorted.”

“What if you get scared to death?”

He’d considered this already, when he’d made the decision to come here. It was no contest. If he died of fright, he’d just fall over, his hair standing on end. If he died of humiliation, all the blood rushing to his head would make it explode, necessitating a closed-coffin funeral. His parents would be extra sad then. It was bad enough he was risking everything just being here.

“If you think you’re going to die,” Anna asked, “then why are you here?”

“You’re too little to get it,” Trevor explained. “Scott double-dared me to do this.”

“So?”

“It was a double. Dare. If I don’t do this, my life is over. Or worse, I’ll be embarrassed to death.” He concluded, “Anna, we both don’t have to die here.”

Across the street, Scott impatiently shrugged and tapped his digital watch. Trevor’s dad wouldn’t let him get a watch of his own because he wasn’t old enough, so he didn’t know how long he had before he had to get to school. Probably not long. His logic was simple: if he investigated the witch in the morning, she’d probably be asleep. Still, this didn’t give him long to talk himself into it.

He sighed. It was now or never. With Anna behind him, he rounded the corner, between the flower bed and the front of the house. The one thing he didn’t get was the garden. Why would a witch grow plants? Maybe it was a disguise. It was pointless, though. Everybody knew a witch lived here, and if everybody knew it, it must be true.

It took about fourteen excruciating steps to reach the front door, and from there, another two to the poster window he figured belonged to the living room. He scooted over so that Anna could peek inside too. And what they saw was… disappointing. There was a TV, a sofa, a bookshelf, some paintings, and, in the background, a kitchen. Where was the cauldron? The broom? The jars full of nightmarish items for spells? The cat? How was he supposed to tell Scott that everything was so normal? Maybe it was another disguise. Just in case, he pressed his ear against the glass, and Anna followed suit.

Her eyes widened in fear. “Did you hear that?”

He didn’t reply. It was so awful, he had to keep listening. From deep inside the house came a low groan.

“What was that?” Anna whispered.

Trevor put his finger to his lips.

The groan repeated, more clearly this time. It didn’t seem to be getting closer–just louder. By the third time, he realized it belonged to a man. A man in pain.

Anna figured it out at the same time. “We should go!”

He again put his finger to his lips. Was someone being tortured? He turned to Scott, who was mouthing something urgently. Trevor shrugged and pointed to the window.

Anna gasped. “There’s someone else in there!”

“What?” He listened again to the sound of a high-pitched moan. It was a woman. There were two people being tortured! The man groaned and the woman moaned, over and over, faster and faster.

And then the woman yelped, “Oh, God!”

Anna grabbed Trevor’s arm. “We have to do something!”

“We can’t!” he hissed. “We’re just kids!”

“Oh, God!” cried the woman.

“We have to call someone!” Anna squealed. “The police!”

“Oh! God!”

Trevor could barely hear himself think. “We don’t have a phone!”

Oh! God!

“Trevor!” Anna scolded.

“Oh, God, I’m coming!”

The couple inside were on their own. The witch was coming, and Trevor and Anna weren’t sticking around. Squealing, they fled for their lives.

Trevor risked a look back, and behind them, Scott was hunched over, cracking up. However, when the door to the witch’s house began to open, his hysterical laughter became hysterical fear.

***

With her left hand, Rafaela clutched her robe closed, and with her right, she pushed her chaotic, black-and-graying curls out of her face. Three children, whom she assumed were the ones screaming a second ago, were running down the street, much faster than she thought their little legs could carry them.

From the bedroom, her boyfriend asked, “What the hell was that about?”

She frowned and closed the door. “Damned if I know.”

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The Fiction of the Fix

Gina spooned the gooey mixture of underbaked batter and runny icing onto a saucer and attempted to shape it into something resembling cake. Unlike her fellow work-study food-service employees, she respected the importance of presentation in dining. Even the past semester and a half of shoveling such wads of sugar couldn’t break her of that.

On the other side of the glass, a student huffed, tapped his feet, and reached out his hand. She passed him the dish, and he dropped it onto his tray, alongside a plate loaded with piles of yellowish beige corn, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes–not a vitamin or protein in sight. She’d learned early on that unsolicited nutritional tips tended to be met with scorn and inexplicable rage, so she just set her jaw and hoped for his sake he’d change his ways before the onset of type-2 diabetes.

As he scooted away, she flashed a smile as empty as the carbohydrates in his meal and called after him, “Have a nice day! Looking forward to seeing you again real soon!”

The next person in line pointed at an item and asked, “What’s that?”

“Grapes, sliced bananas, and assorted melons suspended in a sweetened gelatinous substance,” she replied without looking up.

“Sounds yummy.”

“It’s ghastly,” she confessed.

The customer snapped her fingers, and Gina finally decided to see who it was. “Rafaela?”

Her cousin smirked. “You have a shocking amount of dignity for someone with a plastic bag covering their hair.”

“Dignity is all I have at the moment,” Gina replied before examining the contents of her lunch: fried chicken coated in a glistening sheen of canola oil, a mixture of anemic carrots and peas the color of olives, and the aforementioned mashed potatoes.

“Don’t judge me,” Rafaela growled.

“Only students are allowed here,” Gina informed her.

“I totally pass as a student!”

“At your age?”

“That hurts,” she pouted.

“I thought you needed an ID to get past the door.”

“You thought right.” Rafaela slapped a card on the counter. “It’s a good thing I have one.”

Gina picked it up and turned it over. “This is the three of clubs.”

She took it back. “It’s whatever I want it to be. The spell even works on credit card readers. Cool, right? I got the idea from a TV show. You get BBC here?”

“Technically that’s theft, Raffi.”

She rolled her eyes guiltily. “I’m pretty good at rationalizing it,” she said.

Hey!” yelled the student behind her.

I’m deciding!” Rafaela yelled back.

Just pick something!

I have a sensitive palate!” She turned back to Gina. “Anyway, I need to talk to you, ASAP.”

“Observe: I am working.”

“Can’t you take a break?”

“I. Am. Working.”

“Surely anybody here is qualified to sling this shit.”

“You’re being rude,” Gina told her.

“And you’re being as sensitive as my pallet,” Rafaela snorted. “Okay, I’m assuming there’s a franchise coffee joint somewhere in the student union. I’ll meet you there when you’re done.”

Come on!” whined the next guy in line.

Chill out!” Rafaela barked. “You’re young! You got all the time in the world!

I got class!

If you had any class whatsoever, you’d be patient!” She admitted to her cousin, “He’s right, I should probably pick something. What kind of pudding is that?”

“Either vanilla or banana,” she replied. “I can’t discern which.” She filled a small bowl and handed it over. “It’s unlikely you will be able to either.”

Rafaela grinned. “Don’t ever change, Gee.”

An hour later, Gina became a coed once more and joined her cousin, who was sipping on a blended an iced pumpkin-spiced chai mocha latte while objectifying the torsos of passing frat boys.

“What’s this urgent business?” asked Gina.

Rafaela unfolded an enormous sheet of paper. “I’ve scried up a matter of mild supernatural significance just off campus, and I think you should look into it.”

Gina told her, “This is a map of Doha, Qatar.”

Rafaela blushed and folded it back up. “That wouldn’t be helpful, would it?” She pulled out the right one and tapped her finger on a street corner in a posh housing development near the football stadium. “Nothing major, I’m betting,” she said. “Probably just a poltergeist or possession.”

“When do you wish to investigate?”

Rafaela’s shoulders fell. “Not us; you and your goofy friends.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Gee,” she sighed, “I need to leave.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m bored,” she replied. “There’s nothing to do here except hang out with college students at least five years younger than me, and when you say that out loud, it’s really gross.”

“At the risk of insulting you again,” Gina said, “your level of maturity is a greater match for theirs than mine. In fact, your experience with both their world and mine acts as a bridge between us. I’ve never been more comfortable here than I’ve been since you accompanied–“

“Shut up!” Rafaela snapped. “You are such a teenager! This awkwardness and confusion you’re feeling? It’s the surest sign you belong here. Every student at this school is as self-conscious as you are–class presidents, jocks, sorority sisters… Every. Single. Student. Besides, anyone I talked to–and I talk to a lot of people–think you’re the most together person they’ve seen. Aloof, but together. Your friends adore the shit out of you. Why do you think they tried to summon a ghost in the library last week? To impress you.”

“They failed to do so.”

“No, they didn’t.”

“No,” Gina breathed, “they didn’t.”

“Anyway,” Rafaela continued, “it’s better for the both of us if I take off. And since I’m the slip-out-the-back-when-no-one’s-looking type, I’m going to throw my shit in my van and slip out the back when no one’s looking.”

As her cousin stood up, Gina said, “I don’t want you to go.”

Rafaela bit her lip. “Please don’t, Gee. You’re killing me.”

“I’m so lost.”

“No, you’re not.” She kissed her on the cheek. “You know exactly where you are.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do,” Rafaela told her as she strode off. But just before she reached the exit, she turned around and scurried back. “And don’t tell Susan I slept with her brother.”

Gina sputtered, “You engaged in sexual relations with Gerard?”

She shrugged. “I travel from town to town, righting wrongs. Him being a virgin? Totally wrong. Okay, I’m leaving for real this time.”

Rafaela wasn’t even gone for a full minute before Gina lost the fight with the grin that threatened to consume her face.

Sweep the Leg

“Yo,” Susan concluded, “I don’t think that’s her.”

“Who else would it be?” asked Jin.

“Don’t know,” she replied. “Does that urban legend say the ghost of Abby Winston likes to stand around in a toga, carrying a torch like some deceased Statue of Liberty?”

“Toga?” he muttered. “I thought that was an old-timey nightgown.”

“I’m pretty sure old-school nightgowns had sleeves.”

Jin snorted, “So now you’re an expert in Reconstruction-era sleepwear?”

“Vic, baby,” Susan begged the blond-haired, blue-eyed Midwestern masterpiece standing next to her, “this was your idea. What do you think this is about?”

Victor grunted. While Jin and his lover had been bickering about the identity of the pale girl they’d summoned and trapped inside a circle of chalk and candles, he’d been carefully studying her. Through black, glistening hair, she’d been studying them back.

According to rumor, Abigail Winston died in 1902 of pneumonia in the library her father had bought and paid for. Over the generations and to this day, friends of friends of students at this college claimed to have seen her spirit wandering the stacks, lantern in hand.

This girl was most certainly dead. Her skin had faded to an empty gray, her flowing dress–or nightgown or toga, whatever–had taken on the green of moss, and the eye he could see was dark and sunken, shrouded in the harsh light of the flames above and below her. So there was that.

On the other hand, that wasn’t a lantern she was carrying.

“I’m inclined to agree with you,” he replied after some thought. “That don’t look like some rich girl who died before her time.”

“Then what the hell is it?” asked Jin.

Victor shrugged.

Susan glared at Jin. “You’re the one with the superpowers,” she reminded him, “you figure it out.” She then turned her attention to her boyfriend. “I think it’s totally cool that Gina’s showing you how to do hoodoo, but if you do shit like this again next time she leaves town…” She pointed up and down her torso. “… you are never seeing this again. Ya dig?”

He nodded.

Jin belted out a song.

I know not what you are,
Or whether you have traveled far.
To illuminate our humble college.
Can you gift us your knowledge?

With the shadow of her eye, the girl glared.

“I got nothing,” Jin confessed, “but a general sense of pissiness.”

“Never mind what I said, baby,” Susan told Victor. “You’re cut off, irregardless.”

“It’s okay,” Victor assured them. “She can’t hurt us as long as she stays in the circle.”

Jin slapped his face in his palm. “You do realize you probably jinxed us.”

Sure enough, with the sucking sound of a foot freeing itself from thick mud–as opposed to the tile they all stood on–the girl took one step out of the chalk outline, knocking over every candle in her path.

“I got this,” Jin announced before serenading her.

Superpowers activate!
Danger I exterminate!
I’m Jin, the music master,
And you are a disaster!

She waved her torch in front of his face.

“What?” he responded. “What do you mean they’re not real? I’ve been seeing them all my life! Am I crazy? Holy shit I’m crazy!” He collapsed to his knees, eyes open wide and watering. “I saved her… from myself? Oh my God I tried to suffocate my own mom! I didn’t know! I’m sorry!”

The girl turned, pointed a finger at Susan, and whispered, “Soon.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Victor declared and lunged between them. What he got for his bravery was an eyeful of torch.

When he blinked away the spots, he saw his high school sweetheart, but older. Behind her scrambled a laughing boy he loved with all his heart. Through them, he saw a desert that stripped away his pride and his very name.

A voice he recognized broke through all of this, saying, “Victor, my disappointment in you is matched only by the virtuosity of your failure.”

A voice he didn’t recognize purred, “Hellooooo, gorgeous!”

A pair of hands gripped his shoulders and shook him until the visions parted like a curtain, revealing sour face of his mentor, Gina. He kind of wanted the hallucinations back. “I advised you against spellcraft in my absence for a reason, Victor.”

His head whipped around the room in a panic. “Susan!”

“Susan is unharmed,” Gina told him. “She’s assisting Jin.”

He sighed.

“Are you functional?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Then listen closely,” she said slowly and clearly. “If you had been heeding my instructions, you would have recalled that research is essential to the process. And if you had done this research, you would have discovered that Rutherford Walton, the patron of this library, bore two sons and no daughter. The haunting you sought is a complete fabrication.

“Additionally, you also would have recalled the importance of leaving no gaps in the circle, no matter how miniscule.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Your apology means little if you intend to repeat this error.”

“I won’t,” he replied.

“Splendid. Now, if you’ll wait here, I must scold your partner in romance and monumental fuck-ups.”

Victor focused on the rescuer who had arrived with Gina–a woman clad in orange and green, topped off with ludicrously bouncy black-and-silver curls. She retreated from the menace of the girl slowly marching toward her, yet she grinned and bounced like a playful puppy.

“… an amazing year, I tell you!” she’d been babbling. “I mean, a kamaitachi and melon heads–which are a lot more menacing than their name implies, I assure you–and now you!”

Who?” whispered the girl.

“Sorry,” she laughed. “Manners. I’m Rafaela. Torres. Rafaela Torres. And you are… Wow… Although I’m curious: you can look like just about any female in the world, and you pick J-horror. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a good look for you, but still, why did you choose this?”

How?

“I don’t know,” Rafaela replied. “I think it was an accident. Either way, the circle is broken. You can leave now.”

Why?

“Your mistress isn’t here anymore,” Rafaela told her. “She hasn’t been in a long time. She’s home, waiting for you to light her way.”

No.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?”

Yes.

“Fine,” Rafaela said, just before sidestepping, ducking into a crouch, and kicking her ankles. By the time the girl landed on her back, Rafaela had sprung to her feet, planting one on her fist, which still held tightly onto the torch.

“Holy shit!” yelped Susan.

“Huh,” agreed Victor.

“Dang,” breathed Jin.

“That was indeed impressive,” admitted Gina.

“Thanksh!” Rafaela mumbled while plucking the cap of off a dry-erase marker with her teeth. She scribbled something onto the girl’s arm, recapped the marker, and shouted to the heavens, “Hecate, recuperar o teu servo partir desta terra estranha!”

The girl gurgled for a minute before her body crumbled into wet soil, her hair and toga into algae, and her torch into ash. All of these quickly dissolved into smoke.

That settled, Rafaela clapped her hands and asked the room, “Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned a lampad?”

“I thought a lampad was a fish,” Jin said.

Gina groaned.

Rafaela’s eyes widened. “She appeared to you as a fish? That’s wild! I didn’t know she could look like different things to different people! I saw a creepy, gross dead girl! How did she look to everyone else?”

Gina groaned louder. “He thinks you said lamprey.”

“Oh.” Rafaela needed a minute to let this detail soak in. “Let me rephrase that: Which one of you clumsy, adorable little children summoned an ancient Greek underworld nymph who serves the three-headed goddess of crossroads and the moon?”

Victor exchanged a glance with Susan and Jin.

Rafaela rolled her eyes. “Don’t all raise your hands at once.”

Shibusa

“You probably can’t tell just by looking at me,” said Rafaela, “but I’m kind of an expert on mental health institutions.”

The diaphanous, yet sturdy form of a hospital orderly in front of her did not speak; it just crept forward, pretending not to be a threat.

“It’s subtle, to be sure,” she explained, “but your scrubs and badge are from the twenty-first century. The Ridges Asylum closed in 1993, so this means you’re not an actual resident. Am I right?”

The specter’s next steps were bolder.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she continued, “and neither am I. Why don’t we just go our separate ways and pretend this never happened?”

It crouched and spread its arms like an American football player.

She flinched. “Look, if your purpose is to spook me, then well done. You found my sore spot, okay. Bravo.” Rafaela could not overstate the truth of this. Since she’d arrived at the shuttered Athens Mental Health Institute, she’d comforted the disoriented, frightened ghosts of the cemetery outside, confronted the murderers exiled to graves on the far side of nearby creek, and strolled casually through the dark rooms in the basement where secretive, questionable treatments had been inflicted upon the ill. And yet it wasn’t until she crossed into Ward N. 20 that it occurred to her to be afraid. “So, if it’s okay with you,” she concluded, “I’m just going to run away now.”

Apparently, this wasn’t okay, because it lunged.

Sidestepping, she admitted, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” While it recovered its balance, she fled, muttering the word Crap! every time her feet hit the floor. After charging up all of the staircases until she ran out of them, she ducked through a random door to catch her breath.

“Be cool, dude,” she panted. “You punched a wendigo once. You out-riddled a troll. This is just an imaginary dumbass in comfortable shoes.”

“Do you habitually speak of yourself in the third person,” asked someone else in the room, “or do you have an invisible accomplice you’re addressing?”

Fuck!” shrieked Rafaela. As soon as her heart restarted, she added, “I don’t care if you’re a ghost or not! You do not do that to a girl!”

“I’m not a ghost,” the voice replied.

Rafaela scanned the floor, which was decorated with the vague imprint of a human’s body. “Were you the shadowy figure watching me from this window earlier tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Is your name Margaret Schilling?”

“No.”

“Then I hate to be the one to tell you this, Margaret,” Rafaela said sadly, “but you passed away in 1978, and it’s two thousand…” She frowned. “Why would you tell me you’re not Margaret Schilling?”

Black hair, smug eyes, crimson lips, crisp jeans, and the most stylish of blouses drifted into the moonlight. The lean, delicate young woman rested a hand on her impatiently cocked hip and replied, “Because my name is Regina de Costa, though many have taken to calling me Gina, despite my protestations.”

Rafaela squeaked, “What the hell?”

Gina is the diminutive of Regina,” she explained condescendingly, “a fact that should be obvious.”

“Gee?”

Gina’s pride fell from her face like an imploding building. “Raffi?”

“What are you doing here?”

It took some time for Gina to process this. “I sought a ghost,” she said. “Apparently I’ve found one.”

Rafaela shrugged. “They are everywhere around here.”

“I was referring to you.”

“I’m not dead,” she told her. “Yet. As far as I know.”

“I’m speaking metaphorically,” Gina replied, “as a commentary on your sudden, unexplained absence from my life.”

“Gee,” she sighed, “that was almost ten years ago. I was eighteen; you were eleven. Seems like a long time to be pissed off.”

“My grudge exists in proportion to the challenges I faced without your correspondence,” Gina told her. “I don’t think you’re aware of how much your guidance sustained me during my tenure at the school in the cave.”

“Are you serious?” Rafaela snorted. “You honestly believe I don’t know what that place is like?”

“What I’m saying is that your experience was similar enough to mine that I expected, at the least, a modicum of empathy.”

With a deep breath, Rafaela asked, “Did Aunt Helena ever tell you why my parents resigned from the corporation?”

“Mother never spoke of it,” she replied.

“The school broke me, Regina.” Rafaela forced herself to remain calm. “I made it three years; that’s it. Not even halfway. I was hospitalized until I was fourteen. I guess I just didn’t have the stomach for it.”

“Why was this never brought to my attention?”

“Why would it be?” Rafaela asked. “You were a toddler.”

“I mean, afterwards,” she clarified. “When I was old enough?”

“A Torres had never dropped out before,” Rafaela told her. “Period. Imagine how much sympathy Grandfather had for me.”

Gina curled her lip without a word and nodded.

“I needed help, and there aren’t a lot of options available for dropouts, so Mom and Dad said ‘Screw it’ and left. I started writing you when you were old enough to go to school, because I didn’t want you to be alone.” She shrugged. “Frankly, I’m surprised my letters got through. I’m kind of an embarrassment.”

“I’m sorry,” whispered Gina.

Rafaela cleared her throat. “‘So what brings you here?’ asked Raffi, changing the subject.” She waited for Gina’s gaze return to the present before continuing, “Did Aunt Helena send you?”

“Mother and I haven’t exchanged words in months,” she replied.

Rafaela blinked. “That’s unexpected.”

“No one is more surprised than I.”

“I’ll be blunt:” Rafaela told her; “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Is that so?”

“When you set aside hormones, mental illness, and counter-culture,” she confessed, “I stopped writing because I thought you were kind of conformy.”

Conformy isn’t a word.”

“What can I say?” Rafaela grinned. “I’m a rebel. Linguistically even.”

She watched Gina fight back a smile. “Your wardrobe confirms this,” she said.

Rafaela glanced down at her trademark yellow blouse, green tie, and orange sweater vest. “It’s my look, man!”

“Indeed.” Gina smirked. “I have to inquire about the state of your hair.”

Fingering a silver lock, Rafaela said, “I flunked out of school, remember?

“I wasn’t aware this was a consequence.”

“You never told me what you’re doing here, Gee.”

Gina lowered her gaze to the shape on the floor. “Decades ago, Margaret Schilling left the safety of the institution below for this room. She froze to death in this room, naked and alone.

“Last summer, I abandoned the comfort and consistency of home in the name of curiosity. Of late, I’ve been questioning the wisdom of my choice. I sought out the only one I feel might sympathize with my plight.”

“You know what?” asked Rafaela. “I have a better idea.”

“And that is?”

“On the other side of this door, I’m being stalked by something in the form of something else I can’t deal with,” she informed her. “If you can get me out of this building–which, as a graduate of the school in the cave, I’m positive you can–then you can share this bag of weed I’m carrying and talk to an actual living being about your identity crisis.”

“I’ve never consumed cannabis,” Gina confessed.

“You don’t know what you’re missing. So let’s stop wasting time; you have some baking to do.”

“I assume baking is a euphemism for–”

Rafaela smiled at her cousin. “You are such a square, Gee.”

Rapture of the Deep

As she stood at the mouth of the cave, Helena Torres de Costa handed a lit torch to her seven-year-old daughter. The next words she spoke would be the last Regina would hear from her mother until after her fourteenth birthday, so they needed to be chosen very, very carefully.

“Count the days,” Helena told her. “Count every single day.”

Regina nodded and took her first steps toward her future. No one would tell her what awaited her below, save that it would transform her into a real woman and a real witch.

After an immeasurably long descent down through a tunnel, she emerged suddenly into a small, dry grotto. It quickly became apparent that this was only a small nook in a cavern so expansive it may as well have been infinite. She set forward to explore, but had to stop when she discovered her little grotto was set off from the rest of the cavern by a chasm of indeterminate depth. Without looking, she guessed that the tunnel that had brought her here had probably vanished.

A gust of wind extinguished the torch, but the darkness didn’t last. A bluish light without any discernable source melted away the shadows, gently illuminating her and her surroundings. While investigating the slick, irregular walls, she came upon a blanket and pillow, an empty grimoire, a fountain pen, and a pair of thick books that taught philosophy and physics via a combination of primary sources and annotations–subjects that can be easily be absorbed into the elasticity of a young mind.

The light faded, but again, the darkness didn’t last. It was replaced this time by a red glow that seeped out of the chasm, pulsing in time with the breaths she took. It reminded her of how her journey and the excitement of discovery had utterly exhausted her. She crawled inside the blanket and rested comfortably, waking up to blue light, and a tray of cheese, bread, and fruit.

After breakfast, she sat down with the books and began to read, but not before using the pen and grimoire to note, “Day One.”

Years ago, Rafaela Torres, child of Nestor Torres and Sofia Barros, hadn’t thought to count the days. She’d simply tried to study with the blue light and sleep with the red glow, but usually failed at both. Meals came three times per day; lunch and dinner were always proceeded by the light dimming, and breakfast–along with the occasional change of clothes–waited when red faded to blue. One day, she’d opened her eyes early to witness an arm slinking out of the thick shadows bearing a tray. She’d slept even worse after that.

Twice a day, between meals, the blue light tightened into a ball and revealed a crevice in the wall, just perfect for climbing. The ball would float upward, beckoning, almost playfully, for the girl to follow. It led her to a tunnel large enough to stand and stretch in, and would then retreat at a brisk pace–about the speed of a light jog for a child. After a certain number of kilometers the tunnel opened up into the alcove from which she came.

The light’s speed held constant, regardless of the speed of the girl who followed. If she couldn’t keep up, she ran the risk of drowning in pitch-blackness. If she stopped altogether, she would hear the sound of heavy footsteps behind her and feel hot, moist breath on the back of her neck.

Regina let this happen once. After that, she paced or outran the ball, even as it quickened over time to match the growth of her legs.

Rafaela had let this happen often. At first, the footsteps had inspired her to move faster. Later, though, she’d held back on purpose, craving the humidity and fear the footsteps brought, taking in the solace and the company.

One day, she’d choked back her pounding heart and turned to say hello, and she never felt its presence again. That was the last time in the cave she ever spoke aloud.

Over time, philosophy and physics gave way to more nuanced subjects like biology, chemistry, natural symbolism, folk zoology, and quantum mechanics–to name but a few. Meals and clothing came with props and equipment to perform experiments based on the written word.

Regina never failed to impress herself with her physical and mental fitness, but she wondered where these self-guided lessons were going. And, as her notations approached “Day Four Hundred,” it became evident that no other human being would come along to explain it to her.

However, before the frustration of this could take hold, she woke to an envelope addressed to:

The School in the Cave
Attn: Regina

Inside was a short letter from Uncle Nestor’s daughter, Rafaela. She’d never met her cousin, but the note congratulated her on a year at the school, filled her in on the comings and goings of their family, and encouraged her to write back. Beside the breakfast tray was a sheet of paper for just that purpose. She introduced herself with a quick note and left it with the dishes to be taken away.

Every ten days, fresh mail from her cousin arrived, describing the world outside. Sometimes there were even pictures. The gossip among Rafaela’s friends and details about technology and fashion filled Regina’s head while she chased the ball of light down the tunnel and would occasionally distract her from her studies. Eventually the letters took longer and longer to arrive, before stopping completely. This was upsetting at first, but she still enjoyed rereading and rereading the old ones until she’d memorized them.

More days passed, followed by even more. Regina read and wrote; she climbed and ran; she became a woman with as much dignity as one could muster while all by herself. She’d long ago accepted her life as it was now.

Years before, Rafaela read and read over countless cycles of blues and reds, until the words melted, and she tore the pages out of the books and threw them into the chasm. She would crush her eyes shut through every long night so she wouldn’t have to see again the thing that brought the food she hardly touched and the clothing she never bothered to wear anymore. When she’d first arrived, announced her name to the entire world and giggled when the cavern repeated it back to her, but she could no longer remember the last time she’d done that.

She hated herself for not eating or sleeping. She hated herself for fearing the thing that brought the food. She hated herself for banishing the footsteps in the tunnel. She hated herself for failing at being a Torres. She hated herself for ever coming here.

Her own body had started to betray her, and because of her education, she anticipated and dreaded the hair and the swelling and the bleeding coming soon. And nothing in any of those books would tell her why she tingled so uncomfortably at the memory of hot breath on her neck.

And so, finally, one night, she stood at the edge of the chasm for minutes that could have been hours. She inhaled, flooding the room with the brightest of reds; exhaled, drowning it in the darkest of shadows; and stepped into it.

She tumbled out of a rock outcropping and rolled, naked and confused, into a mountainous forest. After adjusting her eyes to moonlight she hadn’t seen in so long, she relied on her education in basic geography and meteorology to guide her to a stream, which guided her to a road, which guided her to a small Spanish village, which guided her to a phone.

She awoke in a bed to a vision of her mother and father holding her hands, smiling, and just a little older. She accepted that they were real, although she had no reason to.

“We’re so happy to see you again,” Nestor Torres sniffed with joy and relief. “We’ve missed you.”

“We’re so very, very proud of you,” whispered Sofia Barros Torres.

Years later, on Day Two Thousand, Five Hundred Fifty-seven, Regina closed her eyes, pleased with her accomplishments, as she had been for nearly every day as long as she could remember.

She awoke in a bed to a vision of her mother and father holding her hands, smiling, and just a little older. She accepted that they were real, although she had no reason to.

“We’re so happy to see you again,” Lucio Marcos de Costa sniffed with joy and relief. “We’ve missed you.”

“We’re so very, very proud of you,” whispered Helena Torres de Costa.

That morning, Regina’s mother–as had Rafaela’s daughter years before–mourned the girl she’d sent into that cave so long ago.