We were thrilled to shake a story out of YA thriller writer Emily Ross! Here, as a YARN exclusive, is her short fiction debut. Among other excellent reviews, YA Interrobang says that in her “stunning debut, Emily Ross sweeps the 1960s and everything that came with it, exploring the turbulent era and domestic abuse.” Here is a taste of her prodigious talent!
The Girl from the Moon
By Emily Ross
Morgan comes over so late even the stars are nodding off. As I watch for him through the window, it feels like the blinking blue IHOP sign across the street is hypnotizing me. It’s surprising how many people go out for pancakes after midnight.
I sit at the kitchen table and doodle a girl in a backless gown on a scrap of paper. Folds and tiny bows slip like dreams from the tip of my pencil. It’s a relief when he finally clomps up the stairs. Mom has a rehearsal, and she warned me she might not come home until morning. I’m okay with pouring my own Cheerios into a bowl, thank you very much. But I don’t like sleeping in our house alone.
Morgan knocks softly, the way he always does, and I let him in. When I tell him Mom isn’t here he scoops me up into his arms, presses his lips into my neck and says, “Good.”
I take the leftover chocolate cake out of the fridge. There’s nothing else worth eating except for cold pizza. Mom was probably saving the cake for her boyfriend Jimmy. He likes it when she has a treat ready for him when he comes over after work. But he’s just another guy who will leave Mom crying. Morgan and I share a piece. It’s chilled and not too sweet, just the way I like it.
I shovel some in my mouth, swallow, and say, “Where were you?”
Morgan frowns, digging his fork into the bittersweet frosting. “Rehearsal ran late.” His cheeks look like they’re on fire and his red brown hair falls in a wave across his forehead. He has the lead, of course. He’s tall and buff with gold-flecked eyes that could melt your heart. He says when he acts it’s like he becomes someone else, but at the same time he’s more himself. Mom thinks he has real talent, and she would know. She could have been on Broadway if she hadn’t gotten knocked up with me. She always tells me that she would never trade me for her career. But honestly, I’m not so sure. Some nights, when she gets home late from waiting tables at The Starlight and thinks I’m asleep, I come down to the kitchen for a snack and see her pouring a tall glass of bourbon from the bottle she hides in the cabinet above the stove.
“So how’s the show going?” I ask. I wanted to volunteer to make costumes like I did last year, but now that I work a few nights a week with Mom, I don’t have time. It feels like I’m missing out on everything while I wipe other people’s crumbs off tables.
He presses his thumbs together. “You know, the usual. Susan is a drama queen, emoting all over the universe, but not really knowing how to act. Mr. O’Connell is always annoyed about one thing or another. Nothing is working. But it will come together. It always does.”
“Yeah.” I hook my little finger in his. I’m wearing this peach semi-sheer shirt, and a new Vicky Secret bra that I stole from Mom. I lean forward so he can get a better look. I’m feeling all swoony and hot and I need Morgan to hold me.
But all he does is stare at his phone instead of my boobs. Tonight they’re not working their magic on him. I lean back and sigh.
He types something into his phone.
“Who are you texting?”
“Susan.” He scratches the red-gold stubble on his chin. “She’s having a party after the dress rehearsal on Friday. You should come.”
“You mean it?” I try to hold his gaze in mine but his eyes shift away.
“Yeah.” His lips are so full and soft it’s like everything he says should be a whisper.
I can’t tell if his invitation means he’s taking me as his date. I’ve never gone anywhere with him as his girl. I guess he’s not ready to admit we’re more than friends, though I wish he would. We’ve known each other ever since the days when our moms took turns babysitting us, and we’d snuggle up in our pjs watching scary movies, feeling safe because we were together. His mom was a dancer before she got fat. Now she teaches kids at Tapping Toes. Still, there was a time when she was someone special—an artist like Morgan and me. He says we we’re different from all those other people who are afraid to color outside the lines of their sad little lives.
At least, he used to. Since he got the lead in the play sometimes he acts like he barely knows me at school.
I ask if he’ll pick me up.
He scrapes the last of the cake from the plate. “That might be hard. We’ll be coming straight from rehearsal. Meet me there.”
I force a smile. “Cool. I’ll take the bus. There must be a bus, right?” He nods. I can’t wait to see the expression on the faces of his new friends, especially Susan’s, when they see us together.
I carry the plate over to the sink and give it a good rinse. He stands in front of the fridge, hands on his hips, takes out a beer, and drinks from the bottle. Mom doesn’t like it when my friends drink in the house but, hey, she isn’t here. Now his tongue will taste of beer. I don’t like that, but I would never tell him. He turns round to face me and I say, “Sleepy?”
“Sure am, ma’am.” He smacks my butt, and then follows me upstairs.
Before climbing into bed, I glance at the black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe I keep in a silver frame on the rickety nightstand. One of Mom’s exes gave it to me when I was a little girl. He said I looked like Marilyn. That I had the same white blond curls, the same sleepy eyes that she had. He said I looked like I was dreaming of things I shouldn’t be dreaming of.
He never said things like this to Mom. Usually he just complained about supper being late, or there not being cold beer in the fridge. He was kind of a jerk. But the picture of Marilyn still makes me feel special. I’ve watched all of her movies. Sometimes I even feel a little bit like her and hear her soft breathy voice in mine—almost as if she’s a part of me. It’s hard for me to understand why a movie star who was the sexiest woman in the world killed herself. Mom thinks it was an accidental overdose, or that the mafia or the Kennedys had something to do with it. Mom thinks a lot of things.
When her boyfriends get into bed with me, they smell like sour sweat and beer, and their bellies hang over their belts like bread dough. I hold myself still, hoping to become invisible, but they always find me. With Morgan it’s different. When he stares at me his eyes are full of love. I exist in them, a tiny reflection that goes into his brain upside down and comes back out right side up.
Now though, his eyes are half shut with sleep. He pushes my shirt up and buries his face in my chest. I lie there watching the blue light from the IHOP sign flash in the window.
The next day I go to a thrift shop called Yesterday’s Dreams to get a dress for the party. I used to come here to look for costumes. Right now, it’s all I can afford for everyday stuff. I prefer clothes with a history anyway, fashion that never goes out of style. A brass bell that hangs on a curved hook tinkles when I walk inside. The cashier wearing a vintage cardigan embroidered with tiny pearls sits at the counter reading. No one else is in the store, and it takes a moment to get used to the suffocating silence.
If people knew I got my clothes from here they would laugh at me. Actually, they probably do know, and just don’t say anything. I don’t care. Searching through the bins of clothes is like going on a treasure hunt. I have the good fortune to live on the wrong side of a nice town. Rich people tire of their clothes quickly.
I spot it almost immediately: an amazing white leather jacket, hanging on a rack at the back of the store. It’s butter-soft, with white leather roses sewn down the sleeves. I can tell it was once expensive, but now it’s only twenty dollars, probably because of the yellow stain on the front. It hugs me perfectly when I slip it on. The cashier rests her hands gently on my shoulders as we both look in the mirror. Then she pulls a blue silk scarf from a basket and drapes it around my neck so it covers the stain. As I turn from side to side I feel elegant and glamorous.
“Almost there. Wait here,” the cashier says, and practically skips to the back of the store. A moment later she returns with a white halter-top dress to wear with the jacket. It reminds me of the dress Marilyn wore in the movie The Seven Year Itch, the one where she stood over a grate and the wind blew her skirt up all around her like a storm.
The dress is perfect but it will take all of my money to buy it along with the jacket. The cashier looks at me expectantly. I smooth a leather petal between my fingers. I’m supposed to help out with groceries. Mom will be pissed but I can’t wait to see the expression on Morgan’s face when he sees me in this dress and jacket. I push all the crumpled bills from my wallet across the counter.
The bus huffs and wheezes itself into a small nervous breakdown, a mile from Susan’s house. In the white dress and jacket, with my blond curls and paper-pale skin, I don’t look like Marilyn. I look like a girl from the moon. There’s no sidewalk, so I walk in the dirt at the edge of the road. Susan’s neighborhood of mansions hidden behind high hedges is so different from my street with its tiny houses all jammed together. I feel the sparkle in my eyes and the darkness behind them and extend my arms, pretending I’m on a razor thin tightrope between two worlds—hers and mine. One misstep and I will fall.
A weeping willow trails its delicate branches in the pond near the end of her long driveway. I pause by the water, hoping to soak up its tranquility, but I feel like a jar full of butterflies. The last time I was here was for her twelfth birthday party. I made the mistake of picking one of the white blossoms from a bush in her front yard. Susan screamed that I wasn’t allowed to pick them, even though the bush was as tall as a tree and littered with more flowers than I’d ever seen in one place. As she shouted at me, I felt like I’d done something terribly wrong. This time I know better than to touch her precious flowers.
The front door to her huge house is open, so I walk right in. A dark song fills the hall with its bruised melody. People are dancing in front of the fireplace in the living room. I don’t see her parents anywhere, but I’ve heard they retreat to a little apartment in the attic when Susan has parties and pretend they don’t know anyone is drinking. As long as no one drives they’re fine with whatever goes on. They even let kids sleep in the floor. I run my finger along the thick brushstrokes of seascape on the wall. It probably cost a ton but it’s kind of dull with the typical lighthouse and waves frothing with foam.
I drift through the dancers looking for Morgan. Someone offers me wine in a red plastic cup. Blood of his blood, I think. As I raise it to my lips, I feel like a sacred being in a sacred place illumined by love. The wine is sour but warms my throat. Before I realize it I’m dancing with someone I don’t even know, cup in hand. But though my dress feels like a costume, I didn’t come here to lose myself. I came here to finally be myself, with Morgan.
I climb the spiral staircase that descends in easy curves into the living room, and find him on the upstairs landing. He’s deep in conversation with some guy I’ve seen coming out of the auditorium with him after rehearsals. Morgan gives me a chin nod. He looks good in his tight jeans, purple shirt, leather vest, and black high tops. I wonder if he dressed up special for me the way I did for him.
“Hey there, Eve,” he says, and turns back to his friend. My stomach sinks. He didn’t even notice what I’m wearing.
The bathroom door across the hall opens. Susan walks out, followed by the reek of lemon perfume, and the giggles of the girls crowded around the mirror behind her. I’ve never done my makeup in front of the bathroom mirror with friends. She grazes her hand along Morgan’s cheek and whispers something to him I can’t hear. My chest tightens. I hate how she acts like she owns him when I’m standing right beside her.
“Love your jacket, Eve,” she says. Her loose maroon tank top and black leggings make me feel over-dressed. I wipe the sweat from my brow with the blue scarf. As she sweeps her long brown hair from one shoulder to the other, her eyes fall on the stain.
I pull the jacket off. “Is there some place I can hang this up?”
She leans on Morgan like she can’t stand up straight without him and says, “Steve will show you.”
I wait for Morgan to acknowledge that we’re together. He must know how uncomfortable I am here, but he turns to Steve and says, “Give her the grand tour.”
I barely listen as Steve introduces himself a little too eagerly. He’s short and wearing a gray fedora. His eyes zero in on my boobs. I can’t believe Morgan is sending me off with him when this was supposed to be our night. I run my hands over my dress, worrying I’ve made a huge mistake.
“Morgan told me all about you,” Steve says as we walk down the long hall.
When he opens the first door we surprise two kids making out. Behind the next door some guy is smoking a joint. He offers us some but we go on. In the next bedroom a girl is crying. Steve shuts the door quickly. I feel like I’m in one of those dreams in which you keep finding rooms in your house you never knew existed.
When we get to the last of the many bedrooms, I throw my jacket on top of the others piled on the bed. A tasteful flower print spread peeks out beneath them. Purple satin pillows are stacked against the padded headboard. I press my palms on the windowsill and look out at the gossamer moon. The thought of my room—the blinking blue sign, the calendar from a Chinese restaurant on the wall, the photo of Marilyn, the dirty laundry all over the floor—is embarrassing.
Steve comes up behind me and runs his finger between my shoulder blades.
I turn around. “Are you in the play, too?”
“Yeah. I’m a gangsta, baby.”
I frown. That explains the fedora. His hand slides under my dress strap, and I stiffen. The furtive way he tugs at it makes me sick. Does he think he doesn’t have to ask?
“Wait…” I start to say but he jams his tongue into my mouth in the awkward way that boys who don’t know how to kiss do. As I try to wriggle free he shoves me down on top of the jackets and sweaters, and rips my dress off my shoulders. He squeezes my boobs so tight it hurts. He’s just like mom’s boyfriends.
I bite his hand.
“Bitch,” he shouts. I elbow him hard in the chest, spring off the bed, and sprint to the door. As I head out he says, “What’s wrong with you? Morgan said you’d do it with anyone.”
Tears catch in my throat. I run through the crowds of kids with their red cups, wanting to shout what is wrong with you to each of them, but it’s like I’m swallowing water and can’t speak. I hate their smug smiles, the way they don’t know and will never know what it’s like to be me. When I reach Susan’s black granite and steel kitchen, I push aside the sliding glass door, and race outside.
Susan’s backyard slopes down to a crabapple tree with a swing hanging from a thick branch. I run my hand along the rough rope, remembering that birthday party, my first and last chance to be with all the good little girls. The swing is really just a splintery board, but I sit down anyways and then kick off the ground. I pump my legs through air that smells of green apples. I glimpse a few misshapen ones dangling in the moonlight. My skirt billows up around me as I go higher and higher, wishing I could disappear into the night sky.
Then I see it: Morgan down below, standing on the patio with Susan, hand in hand, a couple. How can that be? He kisses her lightly on the cheek. She kisses him back with all the confidence of someone who has never been afraid to exist.
Seeing them together makes me feel like I have no right to be alive. Undo yourself, I think. Step into oblivion. Reject, eject, negate. But I do exist and I have to give Morgan another chance to see who I really am. I slow down, slide off the swing, and pluck an apple from the tree. It reminds me of the polished green stone in a necklace Mom gave me. She said it was called serpentine. I bite into it with a thundering crunch as I walk toward them, my whole mouth puckering from the sourness.
As I step onto the patio, Morgan gives me a surprised glance and lets go of Susan’s hand. Her eyes widen.
“Hey,” he says in his soft vague way, as if he has no idea what he has done.
I don’t smile.
He asks if something’s wrong.
“You’ve hardly talked to me tonight.” My voice comes out in a squeaky whisper.
“I looked all over for you.” He lets out a long sigh like I’m the one who messed up. “I figured you were having fun with Steve.”
“Fun with Steve?” I stare straight at Morgan and say, “He’s an animal.” I want to tell him more but Susan will spread it all over school.
Her eyes go to the apple in my hand. “Evie, those aren’t meant for eating.” Her laughter cuts into me like sharp bits of glass, but I don’t show the hurt.
“Don’t want to mess up your fun, you two,” I say. As I turn to go I toss the half-eaten apple behind me a little too hard, too high. It hits her in the face.
“Christ.” She glares at me. “You’ve always been such a slut.”
I keep on walking through the wet grass. It’s going to be a long way home, but I don’t care. The one thing I don’t want to do is cry. Screw them all I think. Especially Morgan.
As I walk by the bush with the white flowers I tear one off and stick it behind my ear. After a minute I come to the pond at the end of the driveway. The surface is smooth and black with the hushed shine of the moon in the middle. I sit down on the damp ground near the edge, draw my dress over knees and hug them tight. The world is as still as a painting. I imagine walking in the water until the darkness closes over me, and grasp one of the thin limbs of the weeping willow like I’m holding its hand.
I had a dream about Marilyn once. She was standing in my bedroom, stark naked and whipping her long tangled blond hair this way and that as she wailed and screamed, completely out of control. I woke disturbed that someone who was so famous, so loved by everyone, could be so sad. From the other room I heard Mom crying.
I take the blossom from my ear and scatter the petals on the pond. Someday I’d like to make a dress like that blossom, a dress that floats on the darkness, something noble, something beautiful and torn and all mine.
My name sounds soft and light as a butterfly with black violet wings. I turn. Morgan stands slightly uphill from me. He walks closer, arms swinging by his sides, his musk scent barely perceptible on the night air. Even in the dim light I can see the high color in his cheeks and sense the lazy way he assumes I’ll always be there.
He slings my leather jacket from his shoulder and says, “You forgot this.”
I run my hand over the white roses. Some of the petals are curled inward from the heat. They will never lie flat again.
“Susan can be a bitch. Don’t listen to her,” he says.
“She’s your bitch.” I put the jacket on.
He shakes his head. “No, you’re my girl.” He smiles, no doubt imagining things will go back to the way they were, but there’s a catch in my throat and a sour taste in my mouth.
“I’m not,” I say.
He laces his fingers in mine. “Sure you are.”
I let go of his hand and summon all my courage. “How could you tell Steve that I’d do it with anyone?”
He looks down at his black high tops. “That’s just how guys talk to each other. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does too mean something.” I’m gasping I’m so upset. “I can’t believe you think of me that way.”
“I don’t.” He pushes a curl from my forehead. “There’s so much more to you than Susan. She’s such a fake but you’re beautiful and real and you don’t even know it.” He touches a leather rose on my sleeve like he’s seeing it for the first time. “Is this new?”
I nod, feeling the sweet ache I always feel around him. His gold-flecked eyes take me in from head to toe and he says, “You look special tonight.”
A ghost-like softness drifts through me. Marilyn. A person will haunt you if you let them. They’ll swirl in your mind and for a second you’ll forget who you are. But sometimes they show you the way to find yourself.
“I am special,” I say, and walk away.
Emily Ross is the author of the YA thriller, “Half in Love with Death” (Merit Press 2015), which was named a finalist for best YA novel in the International Thriller Writers Organization’s 2016 Thriller Awards. Emily received a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist award in fiction for “Half in Love with Death”, and is an editor and contributor at Dead Darlings. She lives in Quincy Massachusetts with her husband, Dave, and her elusive cat, Beau. Find out more at www.emilyrosswrites.com.