KJ Holliday has been actively self-publishing stories for over a decade. During that time, she's gathered a modest following that she i nteracts with on her website, blog, and Instagram. She recently signed contracts with Inkspell Publishing, and has two books scheduled to be released in early 2021.
FIVE YEARS OLD
“It’s easy. See, I’ll show you. You take your laces like this, and you loop it like that…”
Anita O’Connell was walking down the cramped hallway of her home, a basket of dirty laundry on her hip, and a profound uncertainty about whether she’d be able to wash the mountain of her family’s laundry by the end of the day. A family of four, especially a family with two little girls, seemed to produce an endless supply of dirty clothes, sometimes to the point where it seemed impossible to keep up with it all. Still, even with the monumental list of housework that needed to be done, she found curiosity welling up inside of her as she overheard her youngest daughter emphatically narrating how to tie a pair of shoes.
She peeked around the corner of her daughter’s room, curiosity spiking as she listened to the five-year old’s angelic voice. The tiny girl sat in the middle of her bedroom floor, surrounded by a semi-circle of dolls and stuffed animals. Sun peeked through the open window, casting filtered rays across where her daughter sat. Dust danced through the beams in squiggling wisps. The scene was picturesque, ideal, set as though someone had meticulously crafted it just for her. The only thing that caused concern was that where someone should have sat, patiently watching as Katie explained how to tie the laces of her shoe, there was only emptiness.
The tinkling bells of Katie’s voice continued as she spoke to the room around her. “It kind of looks like a bunny. See?” the little girl quipped, pushing her hands holding the laces out for inspection.
Anita let her eyes bounce to each of the corners of the room. She and her husband Mike had owned the Riddle Register, their small town’s local newspaper, for nearly a decade, and by that time, she was well accustomed to following her instincts. To improve the quality of the paper, they had both taken investigative training. That training, coupled with the protectiveness she felt for her daughters, caused her to push her head farther into the room, eyes scanning from corner to corner.
There was nothing out of the ordinary. The closet door was wide open, forgotten. From where she stood, she had a clear view into each of the hidden places in her daughter’s room. Her older daughter Polly was at a friend’s birthday party. There weren’t many children in the neighborhood Katie could have invited over, and with that in mind, she could safely say that she was correct in her initial assessment that Katie was alone. There was no one else in the room. No one her daughter could be talking to except the mess of toys and the warmth from the sun.
Once her inspection was done, calm washed over Anita. She adjusted the awkward weight balanced on her hip and focused back in on her daughter’s blonde curls. “Honey, who are you talking to?”
Katie’s head turned, her large green eyes jumping to her mother in surprise. Her small hands stalled over the faded white canvas of her sneakers. “My friend, Mommy,” she answered simply before turning her attention back to the task at hand and continued to narrate the correct way to tie a shoe.
A little laughed puffed from her lips. She shook her head and continued her path towards the laundry room. She had just enough time to start a load of laundry before Mike got home. Which meant she needed to start dinner. With that in mind, she left the thoughts of her daughter behind her. Content to let her enjoy the whimsy of her youth.
“I think Katie has a new friend,” Anita said later that evening as she sat across the dinner table from her husband. He had gotten home later than usual that night, and she had long since put Katie and Polly to bed. The girls had protested when Anita sternly instructed them to brush their teeth and change into their pajamas; but they were five and seven, they complained about everything from what they wore to the lack of chocolate in their regular milk.
Michael wasn’t fazed by his wife’s statement. His hand didn’t falter as it sawed his steak into pieces. “Oh yeah?” he murmured through the mouth full of food.
Anita wrinkled her nose at her husband’s lack of manners, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she laced her fingers together on the table top. She had eaten with the girls earlier that evening, so the place in front of her was markedly empty. She didn’t need to sit and watch her husband eat, but he’d been so busy lately working late hours, following up leads on a string of burglaries that she thought it was important to take the time to share about their day when they had the chance.
“One of the neighbor kids?” Mike continued, picking up his beer bottle. The red label with white lilting script mocked her as he took a drugging swig. It wasn’t his first of the night, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last before he stumbled upstairs and fell into the pillows. When she didn’t reply, he finally stopped long enough to give her a questioning glance.
“An imaginary one,” she clarified with a breezy drawl.
A little laugh tumbled from his lips as he speared a forkful of potatoes and shoveled it into his mouth. “Yeah? What’s her name then?”
“She calls him JJ.”
SIX YEARS OLD
They were screaming again.
Their voices echoed off the walls of the house, reverberating through the wood, through the cloth, through the stone. It ricocheted into the deepest, darkest, forgotten corners where no one could hide from them. Outside, the shrill voices were muffled by the insulation, masking the inner turmoil mounting inside of the pristinely landscaped colonial home, but there was no escaping it within its four walls. Katie’s mother’s voice was so piercing when she yelled it could perforate through skin - straight to the bone. It was all they did anymore: yelled, fought, screamed. He was half convinced they didn’t really know what they were fighting about anymore. They fought simply to fight. They fought so they could revel in projecting their own misery onto each other with no remorse for who else it might affect.
Jason (JJ) Turner sat crossed-legged on the edge of Katie’s bed. A heavy patchwork quilt was wrapped around her tiny shoulders, her blonde hair peeked out from the folds of the blanket, and her ruddy face was cut with tears. He could barely see the ears of her favorite teddy bear clasped tightly in her arms. It was the white one. The one with the bell in its tail. The one she had got as a Christmas gift from her grandparents when she was four. The one she always grabbed when she was upset. He hated it when Katie cried. He hated that her parents couldn’t think about their two daughters enough to hide their fights.
The night was warm. Summer was still in full swing, and the heat that had risen throughout the day still lingered on the second floor. Despite the palpable warmth, Katie pulled the blanket tighter around herself as she attempted to hold herself together. They’d been put to bed with a quick kiss and a ‘goodnight’ by Anita nearly half an hour earlier, but Jason knew that she wouldn’t be sleeping anytime soon. He didn’t blame her. Who could sleep with all of that yelling?
Jason watched her, watched as the tears spilled over her eyelashes and onto her pale cheeks. Every time the fight would reach an elevated pitch and their voices would swell, she would flinch as though it was a physical blow. He knew Katie loved her parents. She wanted them to be happy. She wanted all of them to be happy. Together. That was all. Was that too much to ask?
“It’s okay, Katie. They’ll stop soon,” Jason reassured her as he adjusted his legs so that one hung over the side. It didn’t reach the ground. At six, he wasn’t tall enough, yet he found himself pointing his toe to try and reach the extra few inches to the floorboards. He couldn’t.
She didn’t answer him, simply let out a miserable sniffle and laid her cheek against the top of her bear’s head. He’d do anything to take her away from here, from them. Katie didn’t deserve this. She didn’t deserve to have her heart broken time and time again. She pushed a fistful of hair out of her eyes as she looked at him, trying, and failing, to give him a watery smile.
The screaming grew louder. “WELL, MAYBE WE WEREN’T MEANT TO BE TOGETHER, MIKE!”
The sobs of her mother were punctuated by the unmistakable sound of shattering glass.
She buried her face into white fur, tears coming faster as her body began to rock back and forth. Jason moved forward, sinking onto his knees, his hands inches away from where her legs were crossed.
“It’ll be okay, Katie,” he promised her. “Someday, all of this is going to be over. Someday, we’re going to go somewhere that they can’t get us.”
Her small voice whispered into the night, unheard by all except the crickets chirping incredulously outside her window and him. A sad melody mixed with cracking tears. “You promise?”
SEVEN YEARS OLD
The wind whispered lightly through the trees. Birds chorused sweetly amongst the branches, composing a medley that would forever play in his mind. The sickeningly sweet smell of sap hung in the air as he ran as fast as he possibly could, chasing the blonde girl before him.
“You can’t catch me. You can’t catch me!” she taunted, her blonde hair like a beacon weaving in and out of the tree line in front of him.
She didn’t stop running while she laughed, even when she slowed to try and catch sight of him. She didn’t know that he’d run to the side, arching his way around to cut her off. She was predictable and always took the path that led to the park. By the time she turned the corner, he’d already be there. Within moments, he darted from behind the left bank of trees, nearly running into her, stopping her in her tracks.
“GOT YOU!” he proclaimed proudly.
Katie laughed, her tiny lungs surging with the unspent energy of youth. “Only this time, JJ. Next time you won’t.”
He rolled his eyes as he turned and looked through the trees toward Katie’s house. “You say that every time, Katie, but I always catch you.”
NINE YEARS OLD
She sat on the swing, her pigtails bouncing behind her as she pumped her legs back and forth, trying her best to get higher. “They think something’s wrong with me,” she said as she continued to push the ropes, and her legs, harder.
Jason’s heart clenched a little as he watched her. He worried about Katie. She was brash sometimes, reckless when it came to possible danger. It was easy to get caught up with her enthusiasm. At nine years old, and a nine-year-old boy to boot, why wouldn’t he want to get caught in his friend’s mischief? That’s the point of being a kid! But sometimes, sometimes Katie took it too far and got hurt. He never got hurt, never felt pain. Not the way other kids did. When Katie got hurt she cried, and he hated it when she cried.
“Why on earth would they think that?”
“Because of you,” she answered, but her words got lost in the moment.
She had reached the top of the rope’s allowance, and the swing started to bounce when she reached her peak. She was smiling so brightly that he stopped himself from warning her the way he wanted to. She didn’t get to be happy that often, not since her parents had gotten divorced. When he could, when it was harmless, he did his best to let her have fun.
Then, she let go.
He watched her fly through the air in slow motion. Panic bloomed within him as she hit the ground and rolled, her limbs flailing and her blonde curls spiraling across the thick grass. He was on his feet and scrambling after her before she’d come to a complete stop. “Katie!” His voice was shrill as his knees struck the hard ground beside her.
The fall didn’t seem to faze her. Instead, with a goofy grin and grass-stained knees, she propped herself up on her elbows, rolling her eyes. “I’m fine you big baby.”
“You need to be more careful. You could hurt yourself.”
She scoffed, giving him an unamused look before flopping back down on the grass. His gaze followed hers until he was staring up at the brilliant blue of the sky. He followed her lead, maneuvering his body to lay on his back, his head resting next to hers, his hands folded over his chest.
“It’s because of you,” she repeated softly. Her voice was sad. He angled his head to see the frown tugging on her lips.
Confusion spiked through him. “What is?”
“That they think something’s wrong with me. I overheard Mom talking to Dad on the phone yesterday. I’m ‘too old to still have an imaginary friend,’ they want to have me checked out.”
He could feel the look of absolute incredulity that pulled his features at her words. Katie was the most normal person he had ever met. Not that he’d met many people, he couldn’t, but he’d seen enough of others to know certain things. Andy Korr, the next door neighbor was annoying, Polly was too convinced of her own importance to care about anything that didn’t directly affect her. Katie liked sunshine, and mashed potatoes, and reading. If that wasn’t normal, then he didn’t know what was.
“They’re the crazy ones.” He turned his head to once again inspect the clouds in the sky. If he screwed his eyes up really tightly, one almost looked like a rabbit. Katie would like that. He almost pointed it out.
She sat up quickly, derailing his idea. “I know you’re real. I just don’t understand why I’m the only one who can see you?”
There it was. The very thing he’d wondered himself countless times.
He shrugged a little, doing his best to keep how he felt hidden. “Because that’s just the way it works.”
He hadn’t been given much information the day he was brought to Katie. Being five years old, he didn’t remember much about that day, or about the primly dressed woman who had explained things to him. He tried to remember lots of things. Things like what the woman had said, what her name was, where they had come from, even what his life was like before he became Katie’s companion. All he knew was that it was his job to be the tiny blonde’s friend. He was supposed to be her reprieve from her tumultuous life, her confidant. Only hers. No one else would ever see or hear him. No one else would believe he existed.
Over the four years that he had been with her, he had learned very little about the way things were. Without someone to ask, every bit of information he gleaned was the result of trial and error. He couldn’t move anything, he couldn’t touch anyone, and when she wasn’t thinking about him, she couldn’t see him. But he was there. He was always there. Sometimes, he was able to read books. He didn’t know why that was, they just appeared to him, and he was grateful for that. He liked reading and found that the more he read, the more he wanted to read.
Katie gave him another sad smile. “The other kids at school call me crazy.”
Irritation prickled at the underside of his skin as he fought the urge to curl his hands into fists. He had often thought about why he was brought to Katie, why she needed a companion in the first place. Sometimes, when they were joking around, she’d even wondered the same thing out loud. He’d never tell her, but he’d figured out what brought him to her. It had taken him a long time to realize the reason, and he knew that if he brought it up it would simply make things worse. The reason that Katie needed a companion was that Katie was sad. She was lonely, and she needed someone to be on her side because no one else in her life was. She needed him, and he was all too happy to be there for her.
It still amazed him that she didn’t have any other friends. In his opinion, she was remarkable. She was the best at writing poetry, she could sing really, really well, and had one of the nicest laughs in the world. Most of all, Katie was unbelievably kind. She wouldn’t hurt a butterfly, and he could attest to that with every level of conviction that he had. He had seen it! He’d seen her save a butterfly’s life from a horrible boy in the park who was joking about stepping on it.
“The other kids at your school are idiots,” he muttered sourly, shaking his head.
She looked hesitant, unsure, and he hated it. “Maybe I should stop talking about you. I can tell them I don’t see you anymore. It’ll be our secret.”
A wave of uneasiness clawed at him from the inside. He didn’t like that idea. He didn’t like that idea at all. He didn’t know why the prospect of Katie pretending that she didn’t see him set his nerves on edge, but if it was what she wanted, then he’d go along with it.
He faked a smile, one that made an answering grin bloom across her face. “Sure. Sounds okay to me.”
ELEVEN YEARS OLD
“I hate Mrs. Carson! She is the absolute worst teacher! She made me write ‘I will not talk out of turn in class’ a hundred times today! It was only because I stood up for Emma when she told her that she couldn’t go to the bathroom. It isn’t fair.”
She sat underneath one of the massive trees behind her house. The leaves were wilting in their final hours, transforming into brilliant yellows and oranges. It wouldn’t be long before they fell from their branches to the grass below.
As time passed, the place they had chased each other in their youth had become their safe haven. Katie couldn’t be seen talking to herself, or him, so when she had the chance, she would escape here. A place where it would be just the two of them and they wouldn’t have to worry about well-meaning parents and uninformed judgment.
Jason loved these moments.
“It’s a part of growing up. You’re eleven now. Your teacher is supposed to help you reign in some of your stubbornness.”
“I am NOT stubborn, JJ.”
His eyes met hers from his perch in the tree directly above her, his expression showing every bit of his belief in her protestations. It amounted to about none. “Really?”
He watched with amusement as she dusted off an imaginary bit of dirt from the skirt of her sundress, primly lifting her nose in the air. “Really.”
“And how many times have I asked you to stop calling me JJ?”
Katie crossed her arms with a huff. “Oh please, you really aren’t going to use that as an example are you?! Jason sounds so stuffy, JJ sounds like my friend.”
“Whether or not YOU like it is not the point, it’s the fact that I asked you to use my real name and you still refuse that makes you stubborn.”
She threw her hands up in exasperation, but she shot him a look that betrayed her amusement. “Fine! I’ll call you Jason. Are you happy now?”
Despite what she said, he was completely convinced she’d continue to call him whatever she liked. He gave her a small, affectionate smile. “Very.” With the matter closed, he deftly changed the subject. “What are you reading nowadays?”
“Romeo and Juliet.”
He scrunched his nose.
Katie seemed incensed by his reaction. “Typical.”
“What, because I don’t think two thirteen year old kids should kill themselves over each other?” He tossed his hands out to the side.
“No, it’s typical. Like every other boy, you fixate on the tragic ending without recognizing the story that brought them there.”
Jason’s mouth hitched up in an amused grin. “Really, Katie? Are you really comparing me to other boys?”
Her expression softened at his quip, at the reminder of their situation, as strange as it was. “Why not? You act enough like one.”
He rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help feeling pleased. He liked that, despite everything, he was still somewhat normal, at least in her eyes.
He waited a beat, then two before he continued. “I suppose you fancy yourself as Juliet.”
She gave him a little laugh before she pulled her legs into her chest, tucking them under her chin. “I don’t fancy myself anything.”
He didn’t like the sad sound of her voice. He reached out, plucking a leaf from the tree and placing it behind his ear. “I’ve changed my mind. I think I fancy you as Juliet.”
“You better be careful. I might be stubborn enough to insist you call me that from now on.”
He tensed his features into a painful expression, clasping his hand over his chest in mock agony. With enough theatrical acclaim that even Shakespeare would be impressed, he wailed, “Her words! They pierce!”
They laughed then, hard enough for him to feel the pressure in his sides as tears rolled down her cheeks. When the chuckles subsided, a comfortable silence settled as they simply sat there simply reveling in it.
“I still hate Mrs. Carson,” she pouted.
He couldn’t help the answering laugh that bubbled up. “I hope for the sake of everyone else, you don’t have any daughters.”
This time Katie, scoffed in mock offense before scrambling for a pine cone and launching it at him. I didn’t hit him. They never did.
THIRTEEN YEARS OLD
Time seemed to go slower after that. With each year that passed, Katie’s time with him grew more and more scarce. It was always precious when she’d look over her shoulder and give him that smile that could rival the sun. He looked on in contentment. He watched each day pass as she became more confident, more beautiful. As a thirteen year old boy, he’d be blind not to notice.
Katie had always been his best friend.
Katie had always been his.
She turned thirteen without thinking about him. He watched on as an invisible bystander as she unwrapped her presents, one after another, with the patented Anita O’Connell approved amount of excitement: a present at a time, the wrapping paper folded neatly and placed to the side. It wasn’t until she opened her last present, a highly coveted pair of shoes she’d been eyeing for ages, that she lost her composure. She squealed excitedly as she clasped them to her chest in delight and her mother looked on with pursed lips. He had never been more proud of her outburst.
As the party began to wind down, and the other girls left for home, he followed Katie and Polly as she carried the armful of presents up to her room. They scattered them on the bed, no care as to where they landed. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes as she unscrewed an atrocious shade of pink nail polish and began sloppily painting her toes.
It was going to be a long night of girl talk and noxious fumes, so he figure he’d ignore the entire affair by finding his book and settling into the chair in the corner. He brought his hand up to scratch his face when his gaze went right through it. He staggered back in horror.
It was faint, barely noticeable, but he could see through his hand.
He shook his head, then his hand, trying and failing to restore it back to the way it was supposed to be. He hoped it was like a Polaroid picture and if he shook it, it’d develop faster. It didn’t. He grabbed his hand, fear racing through him as he stared at Katie who was still blissfully oblivious to his presence.
Good god. He was disappearing.
FOURTEEN YEARS OLD
Jason Turner did not like Rose Blanchard.
It wasn’t because she was considered classically pretty, or that her family had a lot of money, or that she seemed to make the town of Riddle bend to her every whim simply by the crook of her finger. No, if he were being honest with himself, and he was (there was no else he could be honest with), he hated Rose Blanchard because she was Katie’s best friend.
Rose had moved to town a few days after Katie’s last birthday. At first, Jason didn’t really think anything about it until the brunette caught Andy Korr’s attention one day during football practice. He knew because Katie spent that night crying into her pillow. The realization that Katie had a crush on Andy was like a punch to the gut. She’d never said anything to anyone about it, not even to the silence of her room at night. Jason had spent nearly every day following her around, making sure she was okay, watching her pretty smiles and bouncing ponytail. How had he not noticed when Katie’s gaze strayed to Andy and held for longer than it should have? Or the significance of the funny little laugh she’d been doing over the last couple of months whenever he was around?
Once Andy and Rose officially became an item, and Katie had mended the pieces of her broken heart, the two girls struck up an unlikely friendship. They laughed together, schemed together, and played together. They did each other’s hair and makeup. They talked about boys and school. They called each other Kay and Roe. It was all entirely inconsequential girly stuff that Jason couldn’t care a whit about. He didn’t care about any of those things, except for one:
Rose Blanchard had seemingly come along and took the place that Jason had claimed as his years prior.
Without knowledge, and without trying, she had given Katie someone to confide in, someone to hug when she was sad, someone to laugh with. Which was more than he had ever been able to give.
It made him jealous.
It made him sad.
As time went on, more often than he liked to admit, he would imagine what it would be like if he were real. He would have warned Katie when she tried to sneak out that her mother was going to catch her, that she’d get grounded for a month, and that Rose was a bad influence. When Riddle’s resident mean girl, Ginger Weller, had been teasing Katie about whatever she deemed Katie’s flaw to be that week, he’d give her a hug and tell her everything would be okay. He’d tell her that boys like Andy Korr were worth as much as a ratty old sock and that she could do way better than some brainless jock who couldn’t see what was right in front of him.
They would watch movies, and sit close on the couch, sharing popcorn and secrets. Just like old times, just like they had when she could see him.
That’s exactly how it would be. If he were real.
FIFTEEN YEARS OLD
He sat in the clearing behind the O’Connell’s house. He found himself coming here more and more often lately. He still walked with Katie, and watched over her like he was supposed to, but it wasn’t all the time anymore. She hadn’t seen him, or needed him in ages, and there were only so many prom committee meetings and cheerleading practices a teenage boy could endure.
The only extracurricular activity she participated in that Jason found any interest was her work on the school paper. The minute she walked into the abandoned office of the Green and Gold, she went from average All-American teenager to a hard-hitting Editor, Reporter, Investigator, and Photographer. It took a little while, but once she’d managed to work out the kinks of printing and distribution, she ran the paper seamlessly. He loved watching her work: the way she gnawed on the wood of her pencil until it was nearly unrecognizable, the way she would read and reread her sentences out loud until they sounded just right.
With her penchant for poetry and her talent for journalism, he thought that she might be planning to follow in her parents’ footsteps and turn it into a profession. She was definitely positioning herself for a career in print. Whatever that might be, he had no doubt she would be brilliant. The thought of hard-hitting investigator Katie O’Connell made him smile.
Even with her responsibilities mounting, and the moments she got to relax dwindling, Jason found himself increasingly needing time to himself. It wasn’t just the drain of watching her participate in dozens of clubs and afterschool activities. It was that she only managed to get five hours of sleep a night (if she was lucky). It was her mother obsessively counting the calories on her plate at every meal. It was watching her friends continually disregard her opinion like she didn’t have a voice. It was having to watch her wilt like a cut flower that had been left in the sun too long, and not being able to do a thing about it.
He searched for solitude from the reality that the most important person in his sorry excuse for an existence was oblivious to him.
He went to the place they’d once deemed ‘theirs’ what seemed like a lifetime ago. It should have made him feel sad or empty. But it didn’t. It had been so long since they’d been here together that he should just consider it his place now.
No, he fought firmly, this was theirs. It would always be theirs.
He looked to his left, to the spot at the bottom of the tree trunk that belonged to Katie. He could almost picture her with her pretty hair pulled back, eyes dancing as she teased him.
With a blink, the vision of her dissolved and the clearing dimmed. It was funny how the world around him darkened without her in it.
He heaved a shaky sigh, fingering the frayed edges of the book in his hand. The tattered cover with worn purple letters glared up at him. Romeo & Juliet. He gave the spot beneath the tree one more wistful glance before edging his finger in between the pages and opening it to the dog eared page.
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
SIXTEEN YEARS OLD
Something was wrong with Katie, and she’d been acting peculiar nearly all day.
From the moment she’d stepped out of the bathroom that morning, he’d known something wasn’t right. He steadfastly remained by her side as the day passed. He followed next to her tentatively, eyes trained on her face, cataloging the tightness of her mouth, the quick darting of her eyes, the irregularity of her breathing. It was terrifying, the way her expression was both vacant and overwhelmed at the same time.
The countless people she passed on the streets and in the hallways didn’t seem to see anything wrong. Rose breezed past Katie’s locker without a single word. Andy had tossed her a greeting, but hadn’t bothered to stick around to see if she replied. It was like she was just as invisible he was to everyone around her.
He wanted to yell, to grab someone and shake them as he screamed, “Can’t you see something’s wrong? Somebody ask her. Smile at her. See her. Somebody. Anybody!” But no one would hear his desperate pleas, and the day went on in a horrifying example of modern empathy, or lack thereof. Katie was quiet, withdrawn. It was so different from her normal bubbly enthusiasm; and because she was quiet, the world, and the people in it, ignored her. It wasn’t until cheerleading practice that everything came to a head.
They were doing a full run of their routine before the football game the next night. Rose stood before the formation of girls, counting loudly, snapping her fingers as they moved through their choreography again, and again, and again. Jason sat on the bottom bleacher, elbows on his knees, hands crossed over one another. His eyes were fixed on Katie’s face. Even her usually overly expressive eyes were blank. She was literally just going through the motions. An empty shell with pom poms.
It scared the hell out of him.
Rose stopped the routine with an echoing stomp of her expensive tennis shoes on the polished hardwood. “NO. NO. NO. This is awful. If you guys can’t figure out how to stay on beat, then we won’t even be doing a routine tomorrow.” A few girls grumbled, clearly exhausted from the continuous repetition. Rose shot them a venomous glare. “Again,” she spat. There was an answering chorus of protests. “I SAID AGAIN!”
Even though she was Katie’s best friend, Rose Blanchard needed to take a long walk off a short pier.
The girls listlessly shuffled into position. After a harshly punctuated countdown, they went through the routine again, each perfectly timed movement executed one after another. He thought he’d watched them so many times that he could probably stand in for one of the girls and no one would be the wiser. Their hips rocked, pom poms bounced, and somersaults were completed with ease. When they were done, Katie’s cheeks were flushed, her hands curled into fists on her hips, and her chest was heaving slightly.
There was still no emotion on her face.
“That’s enough. We’re done. Tomorrow you better bring it. It’s the biggest game of the season, and we need to be on point.”
The girls broke, each proffering a heavy sigh of relief before making their way to their bags. Katie silently brought up the rear of the group, waiting while the others cleared out before delicately plucking the strap of the navy gym bag at his feet and lifting it over her shoulder.
“Katie, wait up,” Rose called, jogging across the gym towards them. Jason stood, positioning himself directly behind Katie’s right shoulder. It was a position that clearly said anything that was said to Katie would be said to both of them. Or it would have been, if she could see him.
“What’s up, Roe?” Katie said, her voice flat.
“Are you okay? You were off today. Like really off.”
Oh, you’ve noticed. Well done. Give the girl a cookie.
Katie stuttered, and he found himself furrowing his brow at her loss for words. She never stuttered. She had always been able to think of something to say. “N….no. Everything's fine.”
“Are you sure? Tomorrow’s really important, and I know you have a lot going on. Maybe you should take a break from the squad for a little while.”
Fury rose within him at the no-so-subtle suggestion.
“Are you kicking me off the team?” Katie ground out through gritted teeth. He’d never seen her face so dark, he’d never heard her voice so harsh.
“No. I’m just saying that if you are doing too much, you should take a break.”
The words were nice, full of misplaced faux friendliness that might’ve suggested Rose was only looking out for Katie’s best interest. But the delivery made it evident that Katie’s need for a break was secondary to Rose’s own agenda.
How dare she, he seethed. How dare she.
“Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine.”
She didn’t wait around for Rose to reply, possibly to stress her point again and convince Katie to simply agree. She adjusted the strap on her shoulder and walked swiftly out of the gym. He followed with a final sharp glare at Rose.
When she hit the hallway, her pace increased, her feet clipping so quickly along the tile that he had to jog lightly to keep up with her. By the time she turned the corner, she had broken into a run, and he pushed himself to fall into step behind her. She flew through the door of the Green and Gold, forcefully shutting it behind her. The wood panel passed through his body, but he didn’t feel it. He never felt anything.
Her breaths were coming in gasps and it took him a minute to realize that there were tears streaming down her cheeks. He took a step forward, and she moved back, away, as though she saw him in front of her and ran from the extension of his hand. Her hip hit the corner of a desk and she toppled to the ground with a loud slap of skin against vinyl. Her body racked with tears and she grappled with the floor, scooting her body back again and again, until her back was sandwiched into the far corner of the room with her knees pulled into her chest.
He moved forward, helpless, kneeling before her destitute figure in solidarity. He spoke even though his words fell on deaf ears.
“It’s okay Katie. Please don’t cry. You’re going to do great tomorrow. I know it. I’m here. It’s okay. We are going to make it through this.”
He wished she could hear him. He would have given anything in the world to comfort her. He prayed. He prayed to whatever was out there: God, Buddha, to the lady that had brought him to her. Just this one time, just this once, let her hear him.
She continued to let the cries wave through her body, and he felt an answering pain in his chest. Desperation to take her pain away increased every moment that she didn’t calm.
“Come on, Katie. Breathe. Please breathe. You know I hate it when you cry.”
But his words did nothing. Nothing at all except bring tears to his own eyes.
She brought her palms out through her hiccuping cries, wrists up, hands shaking. Weakly, she uncurled her fingers. The sight of blood smeared against alabaster nearly stopped his heart. He held his breath as he looked at the welling blood, the rust stains crusted under fingernails, the half-moon wounds stabbed into perfectly pure skin.
Tears flowed freely now. His voice choked with his emotion, his despair, his failure.
He’d failed her.
“Oh god, Katie no.”
SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD
It had been four years, nine months, and sixteen days since Katie had last seen him. Had last thought of him. Had last wanted him around.
He looked on feeling weak, despondent, because each year that passed made him less and less visible. He was fading away. He was fading away because she was forgetting him and he was powerless to stop it. All he could do was look on in agony.
Agony. He could not think of a better word to describe it.
Katie had grown more and more beautiful with every day that passed. Each morning, without fail, she would emerge from the bathroom and his chest would ignite. Fire would lick through his veins, and an overwhelming pressure would settle between his lungs. With her blonde hair groomed away from her face, her brilliantly expressive green eyes, the curves of her lips, the slope of her body, she was stunning. In his mind, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She was a thousand times more beautiful than any old Rose Blanchard. She was pretty in a quiet way; a way that he thought only he was meant to notice. It was easy for him to accept that, somehow, in the course of his seventeen years, he had fallen in love with her. Perhaps he had always loved her, even before he knew what love really was.
He kept his eyes on her hands. She normally kept them hidden beneath long sleeve shirts and sweaters; but at night, when she was asleep on her side with fingers lax, he could see the scars. He breathed easier when they were faded. His heart ached when they were fresh. It was proof of the weight of her suppressed feelings, carved directly into her skin. It was an escape, a way to assert a semblance of control back over her life, a coping mechanism. He should have been able to recognize one. After all, wasn’t that what he was meant to do?
With seventeen came new firsts. She got her first car, her first cell phone, and much to Jason’s disdain, her first boyfriend. Needless to say, Jason hated him.
As a jacked-up jock with an overly adorned letterman’s jacket and a complete lack of brain cells, he was the most pompous, arrogant, smarmy jerk Jason had ever seen. At first, when Rose had offhandedly mentioned that Caleb was asking about Katie, he didn’t think much of it. A few days later, he watched the two of them walk down the hall hand in hand. Jason shook his head in disbelief before muttering, “Really, Katie? Really? He doesn’t even know that the Titanic was a real life event and not just a movie.”
Caleb Matthews was nothing but an empty head with slicked-back hair, an ignorant chortle, and roaming hands. He didn’t deserve Katie. Not in a thousand years would he ever come close to deserving her, and Jason had been so entirely disgusted that he could barely even look at the two of them together without wanting to vomit.
He hated that Caleb got to hold her hand. Hated that he was her first kiss.
It had been four months since they had become official, and Katie was getting back home later and later each night. Jason didn’t follow her anymore when she went out, because most of the time it was with him. His eyes flicked to the alarm clock next to her bed, taking note of the time – 9:37 – thirty seven minutes past her curfew. Katie had better hurry or her mother would wake every household in town trying to figure out where her daughter was. The red analog number flicked to 9:38. The door burst open.
She flew into the bedroom, slamming the door closed behind her and flinging herself onto her bed. He stood immediately, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as he tried to disassemble the scene. Muffled sobs immediately filled the room and he felt his shoulders droop. Something must have happened. He should have gone with her. Then, at the very least, he would have known. Not that it mattered. There was nothing he could have done about it anyway.
She cried, and he felt every heavy shake of her body. Her pain was his pain. It always had been.
He sunk to the floor, leaning back against her dresser, his head in his hands. Silently, impossibly, he tried to will some of his strength to her, to offer every bit of his energy for comfort. He pressed the palms of his fading hands into his eyes and he listened to her muffled cries.
It happened like lightning, like the hottest spike of electricity igniting over his skin. All at once, he knew. It had been so long that he had forgotten what it felt like. He was stumbling to his feet in a second, eyes wide, voice uncertain. “Katie?”
She lifted her head from her pillow, her eyes met his. The sweetest taste of relief he had ever felt coursed through him. It felt like he had finally come home. He looked at his hands to finally find them solid again. He spoke again, his voice cracking, “Katie?”
He willed his legs to work, and with jagged steps, he moved forward until he was dropping down next to her on the bed. He memorized every plane of her face, every freckle in her eyes, the way her lips parted ever so slightly as she looked up at him. He wanted to remember every moment of this, every moment of what it felt like when she saw him.
She shook her head, watery eyes clouded with confusion. “I fell asleep.”
“No. You aren’t asleep, it’s me. You finally remembered.”
She wiped the backs of her hands over the tears marring her cheeks. “I forgot about you. I haven’t thought about you in…”
He didn’t answer, he couldn’t. His throat swelled heavily. “It’s been a long time,” he said carefully.
She sniffed but didn’t say a word.
“What happened?” he questioned softly.
A fresh wave of tears spilled over, making wet, crooked paths down her irritated skin. She broke with a whispered gasp. “I thought he loved me.”
She told him everything: how Caleb had cheated on her, how he had humiliated her by drunkenly making out with Ginger in front of everyone at Rose’s birthday party. She cried, her face pressed into her pillow, her blanket tugged tightly around her, just like when she was a little girl. It reminded him of when he would sit with her and promise that everything would be alright, and that he’d take her far away from here someday. He was filled with anger and relief. Sadness and contentment. Anger at Caleb, relief they were no longer together, sadness at her pain, contentment that she remembered him.
How anyone could think to want another person after having Katie baffled him. She was iridescent. She was perfect in all the ways she wasn’t perfect.
Jason had always known that he loved her, but until that moment, he hadn’t known how much. He loved her enough to hate his fate. He hated the fact that he couldn’t pull her into his arms, hated it more than all the Calebs and Roses of the world combined.
He soothed her the best he could, with his words, with his voice. “If I were out there, Katie, he never would have hurt you. I wouldn’t have let him. He’s just a boy. A stupid boy from a small-town who has nothing but mediocrity ahead of him. He could never be enough for you anyway. You’re going to leave this place and everyone in it behind. You’re going to conquer the world. You deserve more than this. You deserve everything.”
He meant it. He meant every word. He loved her.
“I wish you were real. You would be the perfect guy.”
I would. I would for you. I’d do anything for you.
“You believe me, don’t you?” He waited, watching. He was always watching. She gave him a small nod - Yes.
Then she said the one thing he’d been waiting to hear his entire life: “I love you, JJ.”
Tears pricked behind his eyes, an all too familiar pressure when it came to her, when it came to thinking about how they’d never be together. They were star-crossed lovers, separated by more than just feuds and misunderstanding, but actual planes of existence. In his opinion, it was a tragedy infinitely more heartbreaking than any old Romeo and Juliet.
“I love you too, Juliet.”
He had never meant any words more.
He talked to her until she dozed, telling her about all the beautiful places he wanted her to visit. Talked about the books he thought she’d like to read. He talked to her until her breaths became even and her world faded to slumber.
He reached out, his hand hovering over her cheek. Slowly lowering it, he prayed to feel something, anything.
He felt nothing but air.
EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD
She’d done it.
He knew she could; he’d never had a single doubt. Graduation day invigorated the townspeople of Riddle with a resounding new energy. The sun was shining, the breeze gentle and serene. It was the perfect day. The long-awaited day. The day that led to the rest of Katie’s life. The girl herself was practically vibrating with nervous excitement as she made her way to the stage.
Top of her class, valedictorian, cheerleader, and chair of the Riddle events committee, Kaitlyn O’Connell was the whole package. He watched with a beaming smile as she walked across the stage and accepted her diploma.
That’s my girl, he thought.
After that night in her room, he began to fade the very next day. Maybe she didn’t remember it, him. Maybe she had really believed it was a dream. Every night since she had told him that she loved him, that she’d remember, he had hoped she’d see him again. But she didn’t. He continued to fade, and she continued to thrive.
Katie took center stage, giving a little wave to the photographer and the place that her mother sat teary-eyed, hands clasped in front of her mouth.
A crack jolted up his spine and his eyes snapped to hers.
She blinked a few times, like she didn’t really understand what she was seeing. Then, all at once, she understood. She gave him the smallest of smiles, a smile that was meant for him and him alone.
She knew he was there for her.
He’d always be there for her.
The grin that split his face was all-consuming, but it was short-lived.
Everything became too intense, too loud, the ground began to shake and Katie walked away, off the stage, towards her seat.
Didn’t she feel it?
It felt like the apocalypse, like the end of the world. He screamed but knew that no one heard him. He kept screaming nonetheless.
And then there was nothing but white
He blinked against the light. It was too bright, too much. His eyes opened in slits, his head pounding as the world began to once again come into focus.
Suddenly the pain, the discomfort, ended and all he felt was numb.
His eyes met a familiar face. A primly bespectacled woman that he had not seen in thirteen years.
She sat behind a neatly organized desk, hands folded primly, one on top of the other. He was seated across from her, arms balancing along the white leather of the armchair. It was uncomfortable, and the way she looked at him, it was like she knew it and didn’t even care. Save the two of them and the desk, the room was empty, just four blank, white walls.
“Well done, Mr. Turner. You’ve completed your assignment wonderfully.”
He stared, trying to grasp some semblance of his sanity. “My assignment?”
“Yes. You’ve stayed with Kaitlyn until she’s forgotten you. You’ve done your job as her companion. You’re fully dissolved now.”
Katie. Where was Katie? Was she okay?
“What? No, she hasn’t forgotten me. We just saw each other? She saw me just a second ago.” His left hand came up and motioned behind him.
The woman smiled, but it wasn’t a real smile; it had all of the mechanics of a smile, but on the face of the woman before him, it looked more like a grimace. There was no emotion there: no happiness, no Joy. “I assure you, Mr. Turner, that isn’t true.”
Fury rose within him. He pushed himself to his feet, his eyes bouncing around the room for an exit. There were no doors, only walls. He only saw an endless expanse of white. He turned, and turned, and turned.
“This is ridiculous. How do I get out of here?”
“And go where?” the woman asked sharply.
“Back,” he spat, tossing her a look as malevolent as the tone of his voice.
She gave him an unreadable look, leaning back and folding her fingers together in her lap. “There is no going back, Mr. Turner.” Her voice sounded hollow, and he couldn’t stop the panic that welled up in his throat.
“What are you talking about?”
“From now on, you will reside here with the rest of The Forgotten.”
Here? Where the hell was here?
She stood, motioning for him to come forward. He didn’t move a muscle, simply stared at her expectantly, waiting for her to clarify.
She motioned again and he took a hesitant step forward. He couldn’t shake the feeling roiling within him. Something wasn’t right here. Something was very seriously wrong. A door inexplicably appeared before him and the woman turned him towards it. He went, begrudgingly. When it opened, there were thousands of people. They were all varying ages, races, heights, sexes. There were thousands of people neatly organized in long metal tables. The only thing they had in common was that they were all wearing the same clothes: a white t-shirt and blue jeans. The same clothes he’d worn his entire life.
They were all different, but they were all the same.
What was this place?
“You didn’t think you were the only one, did you?”