Small town life can be rough. Sometimes, you feel downright cut off from the rest of the world. The smallest rumors rocket from the loudest throats and get caught in even the most unwilling of ears. Neighbors all know your every thought, Summers feel like forever, and everything got that unwashed stink of something familiar; everything seems endless.

Simple life can be good if simple’s all you aim for. Momma always said I aimed high; I was an overachiever. Smart girl gonna go somewhere with her big brain. But every time she say that, every time she pay mind to my future, I saw the twinge of pain hidden deep behind her proud eyes like moss on a night river. Under every word that shone bright on her face, I heard the truth; I’m dark. Momma was blessed with creamy almond skin, but daddy passed his color onto me. We was the kinda dark that don’t hold no light, the kinda dark that no matter how far we come, we always gonna be dark. Daddy passed when I was a lil thing, only eight years. Now I only see his face in shadows.

I came up early; started high school when I was just past thirteen. Momma called me her little flower, her sweet soft daisy. Before then, she taught me from home. Said it was best a mother pass down to her kin the knowledge she’d need for the world. But when she got a factory job and didn’t have no more time for me, she gave me to the city.

“Why you so black?”

I kept my eyes on my notebook, trying to block out the words, but they caught up around my heels like hungry dogs on a bone.

“Cheryl-Lynn, let her be – she ain’t done nothin’ to you.”

“Jus’ wanna know why she so dark ‘sall.”

I traced the words on my paper like I’d done a hundred times before, ignoring and wishing her away hard as I could. After a tick, she turned and walked away, her lil group hot on her heels. Beneath a curtain of fresh tears, I glanced up and watched her hips sway, miniskirt perched just right, and her honey-colored hair bouncing against her back. Always the same questions. Why you so black? You get dipped in oil and they forget ‘bout you? Your momma lay heavy with the night itself? Always the same smirk, the same accusatory glare down her pixie-straight nose like I done something and need to answer for it. Always the same words I was used to hearing, but that didn’t stop them from hurting. Something somewhere deep in me tipped over.

“Bitch,” I muttered, mostly under my breath.

It was like I’d screamed it ten times right in her face, spittle cresting on her brow. She whipped around, honey hair caught in a turbine, and was on me faster’n I could breathe out another word. She gripped my collar like it was her best boy’s hand and shook me like I was something to dry.

“The fuck you say you fat-lipped bitch?” she screamed, heat rising off her skin in spades.

I sat with my quiet, knowing any other words’d just make thing worse.

She raised a hand to strike and I flinched, expect a rain of blows. Instead, our principal, a round white woman with great ruddy cheeks, came rushing from the back of the hall and caught her hand.

“GIRLS!” she cried, indignant. “There will be absolutely no fighting in my school.”

Cheryl-Lynn tore her hands away and piped up. “But Ms. Beaker, she––”

“I don’t want to hear it. Both of you, detention after school. Now get to class this instant or I’ll tack on another day.” She spun and marched down the hall, pale yellow pantsuit crinkling with every exaggerated movement.

Cheryl-Lynn’s gaze followed her until she disappeared from sight, then locked in on me with a hunter’s lust. Stepping closer to my face til I could see the flare of hate burning clear in her eyes, she grabbed my pinky finger and twisted quick. I yelped, jumping away from her. She stared for another moment, then let a smile creep ‘cross her face that set a cube of ice between each notch in my spine. She stepped away, mouthing the words “you’re fuckin’ dead”, and disappeared into the waiting fold of her clan.

I was copying my third set of lines, singing a soft tune inside my head, when something hit the back of it. Glancing behind me, I saw Cheryl-Lynn hiding a snicker behind her palm, cherry red nails dipped into the curve of her cheek. Her friend Grace sat next to her, looking worried but playing cool. Cheryl-Lynn snapped her gum, something the teacher seemed to not notice or just ignored, and rolled her eyes before returning to her own lines. I looked on the ground behind my chair and saw a crumpled up piece of paper. Hesitantly, I grabbed it and dropped it on my desk. I didn’t want to open it; she probably spit in it or something. Curiosity got the best of me. I unrolled it and laid it open flat on the desk. All the air in the room seemed to leap in my throat at that very moment.

In blue pen, she’d drawn my death out in tender loving detail. I swung from a tree, stripped bare to my birthsuit and painted with blood and guts from my tore open body. My intestine hung low, almost touching the ground, and big bold X’s marked out my eyes. Hands shaking, the fires of hate started burning up my stomach walls. I almost didn’t hear when the teacher called out to me.

“Kara!” the voice finally broke through my haze. I jumped with a start.

“Yes Ms. Taff?”

“If you can’t pay enough attention to your lines, I can find you something more interesting to do.’

I looked down at the paper in front of me and crumpled it back up, sticking it in my dress pocket.

“Sorry, Ms.”

As I finished writing my twenty third line and bled into the twenty fourth, I heard a swell of giggles break out behind me. I ignored them, along with the creeping fear pricking deep at my neck.

Autumn was breaking cool against the last legs of Summer, and I let the breeze lick hungry at my face. It’d been a hot season; the kind where you find dogs panting in the dust of the street with nobody come to claim them. I decided to take the long way home. Dazzled by bright colors in the last throes of day, I wasn’t paying attention to the path in front of me. Like a song from a nightmare, Cheryl-Lynn’s cold, dry voice crept out from the brush.

“Aw, lookit what we got here.”

I stopped dead in my tracks, eyes snapping up to meet hers. About ten yards ahead she stood with her hands behind her back, Grace perched nervously off to the side.

“The hell you want?” I said, urging bravery to my voice even as it trembled.

“Lookit that – darkie’s got an attitude problem.” She glanced at Grace. “Think we can help her tighten that up?”

Grace looked at me for a tick, then back to Cheryl-Lynn. “C’mon, she scared enough, let’s just go.”

I looked from face to face, unsure of what to do. “I’m jus’ goin’ home, let me be and I won’t bother you no more.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” she said, stepping forward and pulling the rope from behind her back. I took off running as fast as my legs could carry.

Over rocks and logs, I jumped quick as a jackrabbit, heart pounding in my ears like a drum. I could hear her barking like a hound at my back, snarling for her kill. As I rounded a corner in the path, I got caught up on an exposed root and stumbled a touch, almost falling over. In that moment, Cheryl-Lynn closed the distance between us, grabbed me by the shoulders, and threw me headfirst into the nearest tree. The sound of my head cracking against its solid trunk rang throughout the forest like a sick bell. I landed on the ground at its base in a heap, stars prancing in my vision, and she kicked me square in the stomach. Rods of hurt bounced off every inch of my insides.

She pushed me onto my back with her foot and let the length of rope drop onto my face. She’d already fastened the noose; its thick knot hit me in the eye, forcing it shut with a burst of pain.

I tried to back up against the tree and push myself up but only earned a throbbing jolt of daggers in my arm from where it’d connected. All I could do was stare up at her through a hazy cloud. Looking past her triumphant face, past Grace’s worry-stricken one, I saw faint light filtering through dense treetops and realized we’d run into the part of the woods adults always forbade us from entering. The air seemed to dance between the exposed patches of the waning sun like heat licking off a baked blacktop.

“Why? Why’re you doin’ this? I ain’t done nothin’ to you but exist.”

“Jus’ it; you exist. All a darkie like you gotta do is exist and this world gone to shit.”

“I ain’t done nothi -” I began to cry, but she landed a swift blow to my stomach, pitching me forward.

She knelt down, balancing on the balls of her feet, and put a hand under my chin. Raising it, she smiled sweet as sugar. “Jus’ wanna brighten the world up a bit ‘sall.”

Unable to move, I sat there, tears streaming down my face in a hot river as she closed the noose around my neck. It felt rough, the rope worn and frayed from years of use. She couldn’t have looked happier. Grace just stared on, meek and useless in the background.

Without another word, Cheryl-Lynn stood up, threw the rope up over a branch, and began hoisting me to my feet. The knot tightened and my neck became stiff, cutting off more air with every slight tug. I began to flail, but she conjured a knife from her pocket and held it out.

“Move much more and I’ll hafta fuckin’ gut you.”

Tears staining my dress, I grasped the rope as good as I could and stood there on my tippie-toes, putting as much finger between it and my skin as I could muster. She stood there, devils dancing on her flesh, but she paid them no mind. I was nothing but a shadow to her; nothing but a period at the end of a sentence she’d been reading far too long.

As my vision began to go dark, the world seeping away in a monochrome palette of whites and greys, I saw something move in the trees beyond her head. My eyes, bloated and watery, snapped up and locked on one cluster of leaves in particular. My consciousness was fading fast, but when the leaves parted, I knew it wasn’t just the wind. Just as I was losing the last of my sight, the world given to a black cluster, the rope gave way and I was on the ground sucking air in heaving gulps. A scream pierced through the veil of darkness around me and brought me back to life. It was Grace, gripping the sides of her face like it was trying to escape. I looked around from my place in the dirt, trying to make sense of my surroundings, and realized Cheryl-Lynn was no longer in front of me; she was above.

I scrambled up and got my legs under me, ignoring me the burning pain all around. Flailing and kicking like a fox in a trap, she was hovering five feet off the ground, black leather shoes dangling just over my head. She grasped and tore at her throat, but something had her tight; I could see the indents in her skin like somebody was gripping it and squeezing hard. Grace seemed to finally gather her wits and burst forward with a shout, trying desperately to grab her friend from the unseen assailant. She was met with a formless blow and rocketed back into a tree, skull cracking against the wood and the sound of bone crunching hard as her neck snapped in two.

Staring on in rapt wonder, i watched as Cheryl-Lynn’s face turned a pretty shade of mottled blue and her attempts got weaker. Her hands, once writhing tigers in a cage, now fluttered uselessly like grounded birds. Cheryl-Lynn’s eyes, bugged out and glassy, looked down to me, pleading, begging. Then, they got X’d out. Large black wounds opened up over them like paper shredding, and even through the invisible vice around her throat I could hear her screaming. It sounded like frantic, garbled static. Her body convulsed, seeming to throb all at once like every vein in it was working overtime. In one swift motion, her clothes came tearing off, exposing soft, lily-white flesh to the gentle air of the forest.

It was just like her drawing. Enraptured, I knew what was coming next. I stepped forward and raised my face up high, smiling bright as I could to welcome the coming rain. As if taking my cue, her stomach throbbed once, twice, and then ruptured like it held a tiny grenade, sending a spray of blood down upon me and coating the shag carpet of leaves beneath me in a fine sheen.

Unfurling like a snake ready to strike, her guts came pouring out of her and formed into a pile around my feet. Her body was now a ragged mess of beautiful, violent colors. Coming to life, her intestines picked up and began running through the air like they was on a track, coiling around her limbs and over her skin, savoring every inch. They looped around her throat and I saw the indents disappear. Wrapping around the branch that she’d tried to put me up on, the slimy coil tied itself off in a pretty little knot, and suddenly, it was done.

I looked around, realizing the forest had gone stock still and silent. The air hummed with their deaths and I could feel the heat shimmering around me, pushing out the natural cool of the night. Reaching out a hand, I saw and felt nothing. However, after a few inches of searching, it met something warm, solid, and pulsing with life, and I felt it close around my fingers in an inviting embrace.

Beckoned by the closing light, Cheryl-Lynn’s ruined corpse swung with a marionette’s twisted grace, still painting the brush below it in pretty little patterns. Somewhere deep in the forest, a stream bubbled softly, water running thick and black as the night began to swallow us up.