Flicker by Kate Jonez

The rusty school bell on the back of the house chimed like her mom had good news or an important announcement. But she didn't. Hope's mom never did say anything that made a difference. Every time she pulled the rope she always followed up with something completely ordinary. Hope looked up from her drawing and turned toward the sound. Her mother seemed miniature like a plastic doll version of herself. From where Hope sat, in the crook of her favorite climbing tree at the edge of Dalloway Woods, her mother didn't have all that much authority over her. She thought she did. She pretended she did. But she didn't. "Hope, you stay close to your sister if you're going to play down there," Hope's mom called from the back porch. She held her hand up to shade her eyes, more to signal that she was looking than to block the sun. Her mom did things like that. It was part of her act. "What's she going to do if I don't?" Hope whispered to the squirrel perched on a branch by her head. "Is she going to run down the hill and jump over the creek?" The squirrel chattered, then skittered away. Hope laughed at the idea of her mother chasing after her. She laughed at the thought of her plump mother in her fancy sweater with the glittery autumn leaves on it jumping at all. "Hope," her mother called out. "Do you hear me?" "Okay, I will," Leaves rustled somewhere at the edge of the path that lead deeper into the woods. It could have been an animal making the noise. But it wasn't. Animals didn't giggle. Animals didn't smoke cigarettes. Faith wasn't hiding anything from her. "Faith?" their mom shouted down the hill. The leaves rustled more. "Faith, answer me," she yelled as she took two steps into the yard. "What," Faith called out in the bored and slightly irritated tone she'd started using ever since she met Charlotte, her new best friend. "You keep an eye on Hope." Leaves rustled. "Tell her to go screw herself." Charlotte whispered in her know-it-all voice.

"Answer me Faith. You keep Hope close to you down there. Do you hear me?" The girl's mom cupped her hand to her ear to show that she was listening. "Faith." "Alright," Faith yelled out. "Jeez, I will." Hope watched as her plastic doll mother turned and walked into the house. She was probably going to make pumpkin cookies or something. Her mother thought that baking made everything okay. Well, it didn't. Faith was turning bad and cookies weren't going to fix it. Her mother should have come up with a better plan than that. Hope leaned back in the crook of the tree. With the eraser end of her pencil she rubbed out a mistake in her drawing. Now the sky looked just right. The picture of her house looked just right. She sketched in her father, and made him smile like he still lived in the house. Then, she drew in her mother and herself. "Hey," Faith said. "You've got to come with us." "No I don't. You're twelve-years-olds you don't need me to babysit you." Hope pretended to look at her drawing, but she could see Faith in her extra short shorts, the ones Mom never let her wear. She probably snuck out with them under her jeans. "Little third grader punk. You gonna let a six-year-old talk to you like that?" Charlotte sneered. "My brother J.C. says if you let 'em get away with it once, they'll do it every time." Hope peered over the top of her drawing pad. Charlotte with the extra-wide space between her eyes and big flaring nostrils looked just like a pig. "I'm eight, dumb-head, when you're in third grade you're eight." Hope stuck out her tongue. "Come on." Faith lowered her voice and made it scratchy so she'd sound more like Charlotte. "Mom said." Lately, just like Charlotte, Faith started tying her shirts in a knot so it showed off her stomach and made her look like she had boobs. She thought she looked good. She didn't. But she didn't look as stupid as Charlotte. "Do you want me to come smoke cigarettes with you?" Hope pulled her legs up in the tree. "I know that's what you're doing. I can smell it." "Shut up," Faith snapped. "You don't know anything." That's what Faith thought. But she was wrong. Hope knew plenty. "Leave her there, already." Charlotte grabbed Faith's arm. "Your mom will never know, and J.C. is going to be mad if we don't show up like we said we would." "I can't. She'll tell." Faith put her hands on her hips and glared at Hope. "She always tells." "Is that right?" Charlotte bent down and grabbed a rock. She squinted at Hope as she aimed. "She's a rat?" She flung the rock. "I hate rats." Hope ducked and the rock zinged past her ear. "Yeah, well, I hate big fat turds who can't even throw." She tucked her head down and poised her pencil over her pad. "I wish you would go away, forever." "Come on, we want to go," Faith insisted. Hope stared at her drawing. "You just want to make googly eyes at that pimple face doofus, J.C. I'm not going anywhere." "Ain't that some shit," Charlotte said as she hopped up and clutched the branch Hope sat on.

She reached up and grabbed Hope yanking her off of her perch. "Mom!" Hope yelled as she fell to the ground with a thud. Her mom didn't hear. She was inside, probably baking her useless cookies. Charlotte heaved herself on top of Hope and clamped her hand over her mouth. Hope thrashed from side to side as she tried to sink her teeth into Charlotte's sweaty hand. A muddy, salty taste mixed with her spit. She gagged. Faith just stood there. She wasn't the same Faith who used to turn up the music and laugh and make lots of noise so they couldn't hear when bad things were happening in the house. Charlotte repositioned herself so she sat on Hope's stomach. She pulled her hand away from Hope's mouth and scooped up a handful of moss. "You even think about yelling and I'll make you eat this. A beetle, clinging onto the moss, waved its antennae at Hope. "Get off me." Hope squirmed under her. She spat, trying to get rid of the horrible taste of Charlotte. "I wish you would disappear." Charlotte's arms, pink everywhere they weren't freckled, held her down. She smelled like the laundry in the hamper on an especially hot day. "Wishes don't come true," Charlotte laughed as Hope squirmed and fought. She breathed her cigarette and pukey-sweet Skittles breath in Hope's face. "You'd know that if you weren't a such a punk little kid." "They do too. I can prove it, but I'll never tell you." Hope clamped her mouth shut. "What do you mean, you can prove it?" Faith took a step closer and looked down at her sister. Hope stared up at Faith who stared right back with her shirt tied up in a knot so it looked like she had boobs even though she didn't. She stared at stupid Faith in her stupid clothes with her stupid cigarette breath. She wasn't turning bad, she was already there. "She asked you a question." Charlotte brought her hand with the moss closer to Hope's face. The beetle's shimmery green eye winked at Hope. "Answer me," Faith said, "or we'll never let you up. Isn't that right Charlotte? "You gotta make her talk." Charlotte smirked. "If you tell her something, you gotta make sure she does it. That's what J.C. says. She grabbed the collar of Hope's T shirt and twisted it until Hope's neck turned pink. "What proof you got that wishes come true?" A drop of Charlotte's sweat splashed on Hope's neck. Hope kept her mouth shut tight. Charlotte turned her head toward Faith. Faith blinked and nodded and tilted her head like she was having a fit. "You should," Charlotte said, then she blinked and nodded back in their secret code. "Go on, do it. I'm holding her." Charlotte's eyes glittered with excitement as though being mean was her favorite thing. Faith reared back as she prepared to throw a kick. "Don't you even dare kick me, Faith Marie. Don't you even dare or you'll be in big trouble," Hope blurted out.

"Punk kid." Charlotte crushed the moss, bug and all, into Hope's mouth. Faith's eyes grew wide. She lurched forward but then stopped herself. Instead of helping, she laughed in the gurgly way that Charlotte did. Hope stared into her sister's eyes. Faith didn't do anything at all. Tears welled up in Hope's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. The moss filled up her mouth and pressed on the back of her throat. A crawly feeling, like the bug moving around, shook her. She gagged and choked. The smell of green sludge, like from the lawn mower bag, filled up her whole head. She flailed and pounded her fists on Charlotte. Charlotte crammed the moss farther in Hope's mouth. Faith laughed her gurgly laugh as she watched. "Take it out," she said finally and pulled Charlotte's hand away. "I bet she'll tell us now." Hope spat and sputtered and gagged as Charlotte scrambled to her feet and yanked Hope up with her. "Don't try nothing funny, like running off to tell." Charlotte balled up her fist. "I hate you." Hope choked out the words. She leaned over and spat and spat. The slimy green taste wouldn't go away. "You're going to be really sorry." "I hate you more." Faith sneered. "I hate everything about you and our crappy house. And if you even think of telling on me, you're the one who's going to be sorry." Hope stopped brushing the leaves and pine needles from her clothes and stood up straight. Faith never said anything like that before. Hope always said whatever she thought, she was the one with the fiery temper. Faith never did. Hope had a bad feeling like the bug got all the way to her stomach. She glanced at her drawing pad. The pages were bent and the spiral wire was crushed. The picture of her house was crumpled and smeared with dirt. "What proof you got that wishes come true," Charlotte demanded. She raised up her fist like she was going to throw a punch. "You better start talking. And you better tell me how I get mine." Hope narrowed her eyes and scowled. She spat out a piece of moss. Slowly she breathed in. The whole world smelled foul like green sludge and dirt. "You've got to follow me and do what I say." Hope said in a calm voice even though she felt like screaming and running away. Charlotte frowned. Faith shifted her eyes to check her friend's mood. Stupid Faith only pretended to be tough. She only had Charlotte for a friend because she was afraid of everything. She didn't really like her. It was an act. Charlotte clenched her fists tight. "I think she's a liar." "Am not." Hope sputtered. "I know it's true because in my dream a squirrel told me where I should go and what I should do if I want my wish to come true." "Liar." Charlotte curled up her lip and squinted at Hope. She clenched her fists. "Dreams aren't for real. "I know," Hope replied, "I thought that too, but then when I went to the place it was exactly like it was in the dream. That's how I know it's magic. It's for real magic."

Charlotte's curled up lip transformed into an 'O.' Her fists unclenched. Stupid Charlotte. If she knew everything about dreams she wouldn't be just standing there like that. Stupid Charlotte doesn't even know what questions to ask. "Mom would never let you go way out in the woods," Faith said. "Mom doesn't know everything, does she?" Hope replied with a knowing smirk. Faith's fingers fidgeted with the knot in her shirt. She looked at the ground. "You want a wish or not?" Hope ducked under a low hanging branch and led the way down the path into the woods. Charlotte and Faith followed her as she turned left, then right, left, then right again. The girls followed her deeper and deeper into the woods. Every chance she got she led them through brambles or patches of poison ivy. She laughed to herself when branches and scrub scratched and poked their bare legs and exposed stomachs. "You don't even know where you're going," Charlotte said with a petulant tone in her voice. Hope glanced back over her shoulder. Sweat dripped down the older girl's face and dirt smeared her cheeks. Hope let a branch snap back. It whacked Charlotte in the chest. "Yes I do." "Watch it," Charlotte commanded as she swatted the branch away. "We went pretty far." Faith looked back at the trail. "Do you know how to get back?" "Are you scared?" Hope asked. Motes of dust and fluttering gnats glittered in the last rays of light filtering through the canopy of leaves. "It's just a bunch of trees." "No, I'm not scared." Faith's eyes looked wary in spite of her words."But it's going to get dark soon. Maybe we should go back." "You can do what you want. But I'm going to get my wish." Hope said. She glanced up at the blackened hulk of an old tree that loomed over her head. As she stared at the bumps and knots on its gnarled bark, it transfigured into a grandfatherly face with bushy brows and jowled cheeks. "We're almost there, anyway." She smiled at the old grandfather face in the tree. Leaves shimmied as an owl screeched and flew away. Charlotte and Faith's heads snapped around. In the fading light, the knot in the grandfather tree looked just like it winked. Hope winked back. "We have to think of the wish now," she said, "and follow the owl for twenty steps." Faith closed her eyes. Hope could tell she was wishing, but she couldn't guess what for. Probably something stupid. Something that Charlotte would like. Charlotte scrunched up her pig face as she thought of her wish. She looked like she was picking an especially big scab. "You coming or not?" Hope said as she turned in the direction the owl flew. She marched down the overgrown path. "One... two... three..." Charlotte grabbed Faith's arm. They hurried to catch up to Hope. "I wish J.C. was here," Charlotte said. "He'd know if this is for real." "Yeah," Faith agreed. "I wish we had a flashlight or something." She looked up through the

twisted arms of the tree into a violet patch of sky. "Idiot." Charlotte punched Faith's arm. "You better watch your mouth," she warned. "You just said you wished for a flashlight. You're going to waste your wish on something dumb like that." "Ouch." Faith rubbed her arm. Charlotte sneered at her. "You're supposed to be thinking about your wish not about how scared of the dark you are." "I'm not scared." Faith made her voice deep like Charlotte's. She swiped at her cheek and wiped away a tear. She smoothed her hair and pretended that was what she was doing all along. Faith always did like to have a flashlight. The flashlight was what made ghost stories fun in the backyard tent. A flashlight was what she used to look under the bed when Hope was sure something was hiding under there. Charlotte was just mean. A flashlight was a smart thing to wish for. Hope considered using her wish to get rid of Charlotte, then things would be like they used to be. "Ten... eleven... twelve." Hope counted each step. "What do you have to do to get the wish?" Charlotte asked. "You've got to whisper it in the wizard's ear and then you kiss him." "Eww. I'm not kissing an old man." "Me either," Faith agreed. "Then your wish won't come true." Hope took exaggerated steps. "You don't have to kiss him like you love him or anything. You have to kiss him on the cheek like you do at a funeral. That's all. Fourteen... fifteen... sixteen." Hope marched down the path. "You'd kiss pimple-face J.C. though wouldn't you Faith?" Hope glanced over her shoulder to watch Faith's reaction. "What does that ever get you?" "Shut up, idiot." Faith's cheeks flushed pink. Hope laughed to herself. Faith could never keep a secret. You could always see the truth on her face. "Eighteen... nineteen... twenty." Hope planted her feet on the ground and waited for Faith and Charlotte to catch up. A flickering light broke through the trees. Wind chimes tinkled. Somewhere up ahead an owl hooted. The sound echoed and echoed and echoed. "I know what I'm going to wish for. I want... " "Can't tell or it won't come true," Hope cut Charlotte off. She put her finger to her lips. She reached out her hand and pulled back a branch. Golden light from a tin lantern glittered all around a little shack cobbled together from bits of wood and scraps of metal. Little sock dolls, wrapped up with strings and torn rags, hung from hooks where plants would normally be. An old man rocked back and forth, back and forth. His rickety rocker creaked. He gazed calmly in their direction, like he was waiting. Like he was waiting — for them. Faith's eyes grew big and round like she'd seen a ghost and was too scared to run. "I been here before, me and J.C.," Charlotte announced in a raspy whisper. Hope turned a suspicious glare on Charlotte. "Why didn't you say so?"

"Who is he?" Faith asked with a tremble in her voice. "Old crippled man," Charlotte said with authority. She no longer bothered to whisper. "Me and J.C. came here once on a dare, on Halloween. Old dude didn't have no candy or nothing, so J.C. and me, we smashed all his pumpkins. Shoulda burnt the place down, that's what J.C. said." Hope's mouth fell open. "You did what?" "Smashed up his pumpkins." Charlotte laughed her gurgly laugh. "Old bastard sitting out here all by himself with Halloween pumpkins. Crazy, is what that is. That's what J.C. says." Faith giggled when Charlotte looked at her. Faith didn't think that was funny. She wouldn't think something like that was funny. It was an act. She was just trying to be tough like Charlotte. Hope didn't care anymore what Faith did. Stupid Faith. If she wanted to be like someone, she should have picked someone better than Charlotte. "Come on." Hope stepped between two trees and into the clearing. "I want my wish. I'm not scared." Faith gasped and took a step back. Charlotte grabbed her arm. But for once she didn't say anything. For once. The old man, his mottled scalp peeking through wisps of white hair, stared out at them with milky white eyes. At his feet sat two pumpkins with their guts spilled all over the porch. His rocking chair creaked like the rusty hinges on the door to the root cellar back at home. "Is that you, Hope?" The old man's voice sounded much stronger than his body looked. As he spoke the owl hooted and flew out of the trees. It swooped through the air and perched on the back of the old man's chair. "Yes," Hope called out. "It's me. I came back, like I said I would." The old man chuckled. "You brought your sister and her friend?" "Yes I did," Hope called out. "She told him we were coming." Charlotte whispered to Faith. Her face scrunched up into a knot. Faith's eyes had grown even bigger and rounder. She looked like she might wet herself, if she hadn't already. The old man held his arms open wide. His long yellow fingernails curled under making his hands look as gnarled as the branches of the old tree in the woods. "Come whisper in my ear, then." The old man leaned forward in his chair and closed his eyes. The owl balanced perfectly on the back of the chair like he knew what the old man was going to do before he did it. The creaking of the rocking chair stopped. Silence rose up and spread out around the old man like swamp gas. He flicked open his milky white eyes and curled his lips into a smile. A single locust chirped. Faith gasped. Charlotte clutched her arm. Hope sprinted across the clearing. Her sneakers crunched through the dry grass. The old wood of the rickety steps groaned and wailed as Hope stepped up onto the porch. "Hope, dear, Hope." The old man reached out with his gnarled hand. The old man's hand felt warm and comforting somehow, like being under a quilt on a cold

night. Faith and Charlotte lingered at the edge of the clearing. Even in the dim light from the tin lantern Hope could tell Faith was trembling. Charlotte didn't look all that brave any more either. She clung to Faith's arm like Faith was going to protect her or something. If Faith wasn't going to protect her own sister, she sure wasn't going to protect anyone else. Hope was glad they were scared. "Come on, unless you're too afraid," Hope called out. The girls drew closer and closer to the porch. Faith tried to hang back, but Charlotte pulled her along. Stupid Charlotte. The old man held his arms out to the girls just like he'd done with Hope. "Come on up." Charlotte and Faith inched closer. Charlotte gripped Faith's hand so tight that it made Faith wince. Together they mounted the stairs. The old boards wailed as if the weight of the girls caused them actual pain. Faith's cheeks looked pale like they did when she had the flu. Charlotte, in the dim light with her face all scrunched up, looked more like a pig than ever before. The old man gestured for the girls to stand by his side. They inched closer and closer until they stood one on each side of his rocking chair. He reached up and took Charlotte's hand, then Faith's. His long yellow fingernails wrapped around them. Faith's hand flinched like she was going to pull away. But she didn't. Hope leaned down and opened her mouth to whisper into the old man's ear. She let the ideas worm around in her head until they were exactly right. Light from the tin lantern glinted off of twisted metal shaped into animals. Chicken feet bound up in cord swayed from ribbons. Jars of bark and roots and things that could have been eyeballs, sparkled from their shelf in the corner. The smell of pumpkin wafted up around her. It smelled just like her own kitchen when her mother made pumpkin cookies, only this time the pumpkins weren't for something so useless as that. Hope squeezed her eyes shut and whispered in the old man's ear. "Are you thinking of your wish?" the old man asked. The owl turned its head and stared into Hope's eyes. It blinked once, twice, three times. Hope clenched her teeth. "Yes," she murmured. She stood frozen in place. The wish filled up her head. She wanted it more than anything, ever. "You've given this some thought?" he asked as he turned his blank eyes toward her. The owl twisted his head to look at her too. The bird blinked. "Yes," Hope replied. She was more sure than she had ever been. "Alright then." The old man placed a finger on his cheek. Hope kissed him. His cheek was warm just like his hand. She was sure he was going to be cold like the body at a funeral. But he wasn't. Lights flared. A crack as loud as any thunder clap Hope had ever heard smashed through the night. The air crackled. The ground trembled. A billow of smoke rose up around Charlotte and Faith. Hope's heart pounded in her chest as loud as the thunder. The old man held on to Charlotte and Faith even though they squirmed and struggled to get away. Hope was glad that they finally knew what that felt like.

Charlotte squealed. Her beady pig eyes were as wide as they could go. She wasn't so tough anymore. Her mouth, a big blubbery 'O', trembled as she cried out. Tears streamed down her muddy cheek as she pulled and jerked. Her skin bubbled and crinkled just like pumpkin cookies in the oven. Bits of her peeled away and splatted onto the porch. Faith trembled and shuddered. She didn't struggle to free herself nearly as hard as Charlotte. Her eyes, glassy like the stuffed deer in the den, stared at Hope. Hope stared right back. She didn't feel bad for her. She didn't even flinch. Faith didn't save her when she had the chance. Yellow slimy strings tangled around Faith's legs and crawled up her bare stomach. They wound around and around her tighter and tighter until the slimy yellow stuff engulfed her. Faith opened her mouth as wide as she could. She shrieked but no sound came out. Charlotte's howls pummeled Hope's ears. Hope didn't move, not one inch, as bits and pieces of Charlotte plopped on the porch. Soon there would be nothing left. Faith squeezed and compressed by the slimy strings, seemed to be growing smaller as every second passed. Flat slippery seeds popped out of her ears and spewed from her mouth like vomit when she tried to scream. Billows of smoke, pungent with pumpkin, rose up around them. Charlotte's voice was as harsh and gravelly as she could want it to be, as the smoke engulfed her. Her screams grew so hoarse they became indistinguishable from the whir and buzz of the locusts. Faith's eyes glittered and pleaded for help. The smoke swallowed her up. Finally, the smoke was all Hope could see. The woods grew quiet. The insect buzz died away. The rocking chair creaked as if the old man stood up. The smoke drifted up and away until light from the tin lantern once again lit up the little porch in the middle of the woods. Pumpkins, one next to the other on the ledge of the porch, glowed and flickered with eerie yellow light. The old man leaned over and scooped up the pumpkin tops. He plopped them in to place. "You got your wish." Hope didn't smile. She stared at the eye slits in the pumpkins and the angry carved mouths. They frowned at her. She didn't feel as happy as she thought she would. She didn't cry, but she didn't feel happy either. She should have wished to be happy about it. But she hadn't – too late for that now. "I know that friend of your sister," the old man said as leaned on his cane and gazed at the pumpkins on the ledge. "Charlotte said she has been here before. She said she smashed your pumpkins." "Ah yes, I remember," the old man chuckled. "She shouldn't have done that." "She's bad," Hope agreed. "Probably right about that." The old man bobbed his head. "Is your sister bad too?" Hope bit her lip. "It doesn't matter if it's an act. If you do something bad, it's still bad." "The follower's in this world are the baddest of the bad, to my way of thinking." ″Yeah,″ Hope nodded. "I guess that makes sense."

"But you've got your wish now. Is it what you wanted?" "Wishes never do make you happy, do they?" Hope looked up at him. The stoop of his old back brought his blank eyes much closer to her than she expected. It felt like he could look at her thoughts. "You are a wise one," the old man chuckled. "It's late now, your mamma's going to be wondering where you are. "She'll be upset that Faith is gone." Hope wondered if her mother would think about baking cookies to make this all better too. "But you thought that through already didn't you." The old man patted her shoulder. Hope nodded. "She knew what was happening to Faith, even if she acted like she didn't. She should have come up with a plan." The old man held out his cane to her. "You can make it last forever if you want." Hope took the cane from him. She stared into the flickering light of the pumpkins. "I don't remember which one is which." She looked from one to the other of the pumpkins. "One's as bad as the other." Hope raised the cane up over her head. She hesitated and lowered the cane. "I can't do it. Maybe someday I'll come here and wish her back again. Maybe in a while Faith will be better." The old man nodded. He leaned forward and offered his cheek. "You go on home now." Hope kissed him. He still felt as warm as ever. She took his hand and squeezed it. "You watch after Faith, okay?" The old man smiled as Hope clambered down the steps, sprinted across the clearing, and disappeared into the dark woods. He waited a few moments longer until the branches stopped twitching and no leaves rustled at all. The old man raised his cane and brought it down on first one then the other of the pumpkins. They shattered and splattered to the ground. The lights flickered out. "Bad is bad, no changing that."

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