Daria gripped the edge of the interrogation table, hot tears rushing down her angular cheeks. The heat of the lamp burned her skin.

“I told you, I don’t know what James did. Oh, God, how many times to I have to tell you?” she said through gritted teeth. “I don’t know what happened to that girl, okay—and I don’t think he does either. Come on, James? My James?”

The police officer twirled the pen in his hand and sighed. “Mrs. Cooper, eyewitnesses saw your brother drag a girl away. They said she’s dead, we don’t know where she is. Her name’s Cassidy McClark. Have you heard of her?”

Her eyes scanned the documents the officer had slid to her, the picture, the data.

“No, I’ve never seen this girl. Neither has James. She doesn’t even live in Kansas! What kind of bullshit is this?!” She wiped the tears from her face and jammed her finger on the paper, pointing at a specific line. “He was in Fredericksburg? No, he wasn’t even in Virginia. His flight was to Nashville.”

Daria paused, remembering that she’d screenshotted a picture of his ticket. She dug out her phone from her Macy’s purse and fumbled over her password, missing it three times before unlocking it.

“Look,” she said, shoving the phone in his face. “This is the flight, he sent me a picture of it.”

The detective looked at his watch. “Mrs. Cooper, we found a bus ticket to Fredericksburg in his coat pocket. We also found traces of her DNA under his fingernails and a knife with her blood on it. He has scratches all over his body and her blood all over him. Your brother committed this crime, we’re not here to argue that. We want to know where Cassidy McClark is. Do you have any clue?”

She sniffled in disbelief. “That’s such a messy crime. He’s so smart, he wouldn’t commit this messy of a crime.”

“You’re not wrong, but there’s evidence. Do you know where Cassidy is?”

Daria trembled, shaking her head no. Her fingers tracing the glossy photo of the bloody dagger.

“Can—can I talk to him?”

***

James always had impeccable skin—clear, bright, and lively. His smile outshined the sun and his outfits ignited fires. His eyes were tree-trunk brown. Now, he stared at Daria, scratches on his face and neck, dirt in his hair, and blood on his shirt. Cassidy McClark’s blood.

“Beja,” he croaked, the only word he’d ever said to her. To Daria, beja meant sister.

“You didn’t do it,” Daria whispered. “I know you. You never…never would do this.”

His eyes were glazed over and frozen, stuck on something behind her. When she looked back, she saw nothing but empty tables and stiff guards.

She touched his hand through the semicircle opening between them. “What happened, James?”

Daria searched his eyes, the primary way she communicated with her brother. He had never spoken a clear word before, only communicating through hand gestures, secret codes, and his own languages. James glanced down at the desk, his shoulders shaking.

“James, talk to me.” She clutched his hand; aware he wouldn’t use sign language. “Give me some sort of sign.”

His pupils flitted up, the light flecks of hazel swimming in them darkening. James scratched the back of her hand with his index finger three times, slow and gentle. Daria gulped, knowing exactly what he meant.

Help.

“With what?” she whispered. “What happened yesterday?”

He nodded and flipped her hand over, drawing two circles on her palm.

Too much.

“Too much information?”

Yes.

Daria pursed her lips in frustration. How could she help him if he gave her nothing to work with? Help? What could she do with help?

Then, he tapped his index finger and thumb together like pinchers. She furrowed her brow, recognizing the signal but not comprehending it.

***

She paced around her room, pinching her fingers together like a lunatic. She felt her husband’s eyes dig into her back as he sipped his steaming morning coffee. Daria’s hands quivered, half from exhaustion, half from panic.

That signal—it was stored deep in her memory, but there. She could almost touch it, but every time she nearly grasped it, the meaning slipped out of her fingers like flour, making a colossal mess around her.

Her house was a wreck. She had dug up old journals and diaries, scribbling on pieces of torn paper. Nothing called that memory back, and with each second, she sensed it drifting further away.

“Dar, calm down,” Tom tried to say. “You’re not gonna remember while you’re this frantic.”

“My brother’s relying on me.” She flipped through her third journal, this time filled with legible, middle-schooler handwriting. It had a bedazzled exterior with her first initial emblazoned in sequins. She grumbled, finding none of the answers she searched for.

“What if that’s just something he does?” Tom offered. “We all do things when we’re anxious. It doesn’t mean it’s a signal.”

“No.” She was certain it meant something. “I remember seeing him do it before. He’s used that to communicate, but I just can’t get it.”

Her husband set his coffee down on the coaster, pulling up another foldable chair next to her desk.

“Maybe there’s other memories. Your mom took a lot of videos of your childhood. Maybe some pictures-”

Her eyes shot open.

“Say that again,” she said.

“What? Pictures?”

“Yes!” She snaps her finger and presses her fist to her mouth. “Picture…picture—he sent me pictures!” Daria scrambled to her phone and opened the photo album he sent.

Tom leaned over her shoulder. “That’s…a lot of pictures.”

She scrolled through the dozens of photos, all of them in locations he’d been. The bridge, the freshwater stream, the mall, the airport, and many more. She flicked past each picture, searching for similarities. It was unlike James to send a hundred pictures, especially for a small trip to Nashville.

They nearly scrolled past a picture of a line of scribbles etched in the sidewalk, something a toddler would draw. Nonetheless, it caught her attention. The picture knocked her back to her childhood of messy pictograms and secret languages. The caption tugged her lips into a smile.

Remember the old days.

James’s difficulty speaking didn’t hinder their relationship as children, it strengthened it. Instead of a youth filled with bickering and sibling banter, James and Daria created a dozen codes and secret languages to communicate.

This was one of them.

She swiped one of the journals from her desk, recalling seeing the symbols in them. The leather cover glistened under the heavy lamplight, smooth and detailed, but to her dismay, it was a different code.

“Animals,” she muttered, patting the desk to trigger her memory. Animals…what can animals mean?”

 Tom said all their names, first an owl followed by an ant, a plant, a turkey, rat, and an eel.

“Owl for…o?” she questions. “Or is it a number? Like how many letters in it means the number.”

“Why’d you guys have so many codes?” Tom rubbed the back of his neck. “Try both.”

Daria tried the numbers before resorting to her first letter organization pattern. O for owl, a for ant, p for plant, t for turkey, r for rat, and an e for eel.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she despaired. “Oaptre? What the hell is oaptre?

Tom’s eyes are narrowed on the paper. “So, with this code of yours, would you guys just draw two owls for o?”

“No, of course not.” She fished out one of her journals. “Look, in our food language, we put double letters together. Like for fella, that we put a shallot instead of two lasagnas.” Tom raised his eyebrow in confusion, so Daria continued her explanation. “Shallot has two ll’s, so it’s our double L cause lasagna only has one L…”

Understanding dawned in his eyes.

“Well…what if one of these has a double letter? I mean, it should follow the same rules. Eel has a double ee. It makes sense in the context of the code. Oaptree. Maybe a place?”

“Maybe we got the p wrong,” Daria murmured. “It sounds like Oaktree.”

The picture after was a basketball court, and the one before was another code, this time one in the journals. Daria refused to believe in coincidences as she smashed the separate images together, forming a combined identity for all of them.

17386 Oaktree Court

***

James had a gnarly black eye when Daria saw him next. She’d paid the fee and waited in line to have a word with her twenty-year-old brother. His hands went insane as he communicated through sign language. Daria struggled to keep up with his pace.

“They will be after you if you look.” She read his fidgety hand codes under her breath. “All the pictures are real. Man inside the…wait, slow down and do that again. Oh, okay, the man inside the airplane is here right now…watching us.”

“Does he know sign language?” Daria asked in response.

Not that well, but he will know, he signed, just keep smiling and laughing.

She nodded and did that, creating a diversion for their subtle conversation.

His eyes flitted back and forth. The address is right. The person who lives there did the murder. They have the girl, now.

***

Daria and Tom drove downtown to the old neighborhood of Bersher Hills, riddled with cracked houses and cheap rent. Despite Tom’s overwhelming doubts on the mission, Daria said that she was going whether he came or not. She knew her brother, and he didn’t do things unintentionally. That code held secrets; secrets vital to his freedom.

“I know it’s not him,” Daria said, swerving down the road, urging her card forward with a hard press on the accelerator. Tom braced himself on the dashboard.

“Yea, hun, I know, but can we go a bit slower? It’s a residential area.”

She looked at the back through her front mirror. “I wanna get out of here as fast as possible.”

 Her eyes grazed the broken address labels on the houses. When they passed 17386, she cut through the road and slid into an empty space, parking her car and yanking the key out.

“Come on,” she said, unbuckling her seat belt.

Tom reached out to her, his touch lingering on her hand for a second.

“Why don’t we just tell the police?”

“He said they know, Tom, that they’re part of it.”

He sighed, clicking the seatbelt button and sliding out of the car. Tom sulked out with eyes wide as bowling pins at the crumbling house. Dirt-crusted cement reminded Daria of a mud bath. The rotting wood peeled off the structure. Trash was messily thrown into the black garbage bin, which had stains running down its exterior. As the couple approached, the scent of wet dog mopped the air, riling up the food Daria had previously eaten.

“It sure smells like rotting bodies,” he muttered, crinkling his nose.

They walked up the steps, slow and steady like an elderly couple, shoulders tense and legs wobbly. The house held a mystery to it, like an enchantment that’d suck them in and trap it within their bounds. Daria nearly considered turning back, but the memory of her brother with stitches by his eye flashed through her brain.

She had to get him out.

“Let’s go.” She continued up the steps, cringing as they whined under her. If she applied any more pressure, it’d crack and suck her into the abyss of whatever lied under this house of horrors.

Daria’s heart raced as the house barked at her, dogs yipping through the frame. She squeezed Tom’s hand; her eyes were glued on the blacked-out windows.

She covered her face as Tom blasted the door, leaving sharps of sharp wood sprinkled all over the crusty cement. The smell of the house weakened her knees at the first whiff—a dusty, coffin-like residence crawling with dog waste and rancid food. Yet, the house enticed her. She found her feet making their way past the door stop and into the home. Her gaze brushed over the stained, tan carpet couch. A rug puked animal fur and glitter onto the floor. The once white grout was a gnarly shade of brown. The door creaked behind them.

“Hey, Tom, don’t close the door.”

His heavy breathing filled the silence.

“I didn’t.”

Daria snapped her head back, still as an ice sculpture when she saw the shut door. Tom stared at it, his hands in the air, free of contact.

“H-how?”

Daria bolted towards the exit and yanked on the handle, but it didn’t budge. It was like someone put a charm on it, locking it in perfect motionlessness, unwilling to open even to the most desperate of pleaders.

“Shit!” she blurted. Her fist slammed against the door, shaking the entire house off its foundation. Her stomach curdled as the house tilted. An illusion, it seemed, a trick on her senses.

“MOVE OUT OF THE WAY!”

The large spear barely missed her head as it twisted and pierced into the wood. A flicker of hope brightened up her eyes before the zaniest thing happened.

The wood curled into itself and spit the spear out like chewed gum. The weapon whooshed past us and broke through the panels beside the staircase.

“Your brother set us up!” Tom cried. His hands gripped his head. The room swirled round and round, giving Daria a searing headache, but unlike the door, she couldn’t chuck it out.

“No! He would never do that!”

Tom snickered; his head tucked into his chest. “Well, look where we are, Daria!”

She refused to believe her brother knew about the deception. Daria prided herself over her proactive mindset and her optimism, her ability to push past adversity. This was all a game, a fun house of sorts. Anyone with half a brain could escape a fun house.

 “Look for a trap door! Or a ladder. Maybe we can get out a window!”

Tom punched a wall, leaving a crater in his wake. She didn’t question his methods. If that anchored him to sanity, she didn’t mind.

Daria felt her mind get fuzzy and her fingers prickle like pop rocks. The rug waved at her in a rainbow of colors, glimmering its carpet teeth that hadn’t been brushed in years.   

She reached out for her husband, a boat in the sea of confusion, but the more she drifted through the waves of this hallucination, the more disoriented the room grew. Her heart thrummed underneath her ribcage…thrum, thrum, thrum, a catchy song she found herself humming to.

Daria had never been on such a high. Her fingers drifted in the air, plucking imaginary petals off blossoming peonies. A smile fluttered onto her gentle face, innocent and sweet like the tea cakes her mother made years ago.

And all Daria wanted was to drift away, to sleep and never wake up, to silence her voice once and for all, let the shattered mirror of her reflection mend itself together—

“DARIA!”

Her husbands high pitched screech cut her ecstasy, leaving her shaken on the floor. A blush rushed to her cheeks as she scrambled up. She collected herself and smoothed her hair, but her husband was no where to be found.

Then, screams of her name, a calling, a plea. Screams that smelt like burnt toast and oozing blood—coming from the red door across from the TV in the living room.

But she couldn’t move. She stood there and listened and watched. It grew so loud; her ears forgot how to hear, and her eyes fogged up with tears.

The only thing that moved were her fingers, which buried themselves into the fat of her thighs. Blood pooled from the open slit separating the door form the floor, and deep within, someone had torn her husband to shreds.

Sadness didn’t overcome Daria. Sadness was for those who had lost. Instead, anger ripped through her. She hadn’t lost Tom. He’d been stolen from her.

So, Daria honored his wish, not feeling the icy tears burrowing their way into her heart. There was a dialing telephone on the kitchen counter, approximately twenty steps from the carnage.

She made her way there, one step at a time, holding her guts together though they wanted to explode with vomit. Her husband typically smelled like the seashore, but now he was fish, gutted and split open for the masses to gawk at. She couldn’t handle the smell. It hammered into her sensory receptors like a plastic surgeon.

Her hand wrapped around the vintage telephone. She lifted it to her ear, breath hot on the speaker, and jammed the keys with the only number she knew by memory.

911.

Three rings—three rings and the line cut, a static buzz that rang in her ear, a cruel song, mocking her for her stupidity. What had her brother known about this house? Why didn’t she ask more questions or for help? Why didn’t she tell the police or find bail money?

“Why are you crying, beja?”

It was an unfamiliar voice, yet one she knew. A word only he used, so familiar, but the syrupy, mystical way he cooed them unsettled her. Beja—sister. She prayed the delusion away.

But it didn’t go away. When Daria turned, her worst nightmare gleaned at her.

James Cooper, her dear, nonverbal brother, spoke at her like he’d spoken his entire life.

She gritted her teeth and dug out a knife from the kitchen cabinets. It glimmered under the flickering overhead lights. His horrendous, scratchy laugh scraped against the walls of her ears.

“What did you do with my BROTHER?!” She hurled towards him, swiping the knife into the illusion’s chest cavity. Instead of stabbing her way through him, she collapsed, panting and swearing.

His large footsteps echoed around the room when he walked to her, the touch of what felt like magic bristling over her skin, making her hairs stand on edge.

“But I am him.”

“But—but James is in jail…you’re supposed to be in jail. And James can’t talk.”

“The James Cooper you know is dead. He is with me. He is me.”James ran his finger over the staircase railing. “Have you ever heard of magic, beja? Sinister magic?”

She gulped. “What did you do with my brother?!”

His eyes glimmered. “I made him new, gave him a voice, a purpose. He gave me what I needed. A body.”

Tears brewed in her eyes. “Where-where am I? Where’s my husband?! What are you gonna do to me?!-”

He backed her into a corner. “You’ll be one with the magic,” he sung. “You’ll be truly free.”

“Magic…magic is like starships! It’s in Harry Potter and sci-fi movies, but it’s not real.” She clawed at her throat, breaking into a sweat.

His scratchy chuckle bounced off the walls again, this time closing in on her. Her lungs contracted, giving her no room to breathe. An invisible pressure clutched her throat, constricting her airway. Her brother’s lips opened again—she still couldn’t fathom him speaking. Clouds packed in her brain, making everything a blur. She felt her life flee her body, flock into the air and frolic to the heavens. But something pulled, keeping her from paradise, locking her down. Something she couldn’t escape.

Daria only heard one thing before she died.

“Dear Daria, there’s one difference between magic and starships. Starships don’t exist.”

How did you like that short story? If you liked it, please leave a like and comment what you thought about the piece. Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog to get more content like this!

-Riya M. Cyriac

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