Flash Fiction – The Beast

creepy-cabin

Jake stared at the dead body on the other side of the room. Pale moonlight filtered through one grimy window of the cabin as he stood petrified in the doorway. A curiosity burned in him, but his feet refused to move.

“Jake, I think we should leave.”

His friend Pete stood at his side, practically shaking with fear but equally unable to tear his gaze from the corpse. Pete’s cowardice rekindled Jake’s bravery, and he slowly started across the cabin’s single room. The floorboards moaned underfoot—or maybe that was Pete’s whimpering as he reluctantly followed Jake toward the body. Nothing impeded their progress across the open space. Only a single chair, a small wooden table, and a crudely carved baby crib slouched in one corner near a cold, dark fireplace. Jake quickly swept his flashlight beam around the room, then refocused it on the object of his morbid fascination.

Three things about the dead man’s face stood out to Jake. First, and perhaps most alarming, a pentagram was carved in the center of the man’s forehead. Second, rather than a final rictus of terror or even the slack, lifeless expression of death, the face seemed peaceful, a smile stretched across the bluish lips as the dull eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Third, Jake recognized him. “I’ve seen this guy before.”

“That’s nice,” Pete hissed. “Can we please get out of here?”

Jake ignored his friend. “On the news,” he muttered. “He’s a serial killer, or a cannibal, or both. Cops have been looking for him for years.” He knelt beside the body, curiosity definitively trumping terror. “I wonder how he died.”

“Who cares?” Pete whined. “Maybe he choked on a bone or something. Good riddance.”

Taking a few more seconds to contemplate the dead man, Jake stood and surveyed the dimly lit space. A thin book lying on the table caught his eye. “A journal?” he remarked as he lifted the leather-bound book. The pages felt strange in his fingers—thick and stiff like card stock but translucent like tissue paper. And each page was filled with strange hand-written symbols. To Jake they resembled letters with pieces removed, words and sentences incomplete in the sense that only half the lines of each letter had been written. He struggled to make sense of the gibberish, but it proved incomprehensible.

Without warning, flames erupted from the charred scraps of wood in the fireplace. Jake and Pete both jumped back reflexively, feeling the sudden blast of heat from a fire much too large and angry for the meager kindling that had birthed it. Jake’s glare snapped to Pete. “Did you just light that?” he asked angrily.

“No way!” Pete yelped.

“Well, there’s no one else here—“

Jake’s protest died in his throat as both boys came to the same terrifying realization. Slowly, they turned around to check on the corpse behind them—

The body was gone.

“Where’d he go?” Pete cried, eyes flicking anxiously around the room.

Jake’s stare fell back to the book in his hands. In the light from the fireplace’s inferno, he saw now that the symbols had been scrawled in red ink. At least he hoped it was ink. He let go of the translucent page he held between thumb and forefinger, watching the symbols on it align with those on the pages underneath. Together, the disjointed markings on adjacent pages formed words, a phrase written over and over again on every page in the journal: THE BEAST WILL BE REBORN.

Jake snapped the book shut in his hand, belatedly noticing the pentagram carved haphazardly on the front cover. “Okay,” he whispered, “we can go now.”

Pete whimpered next to him, unmoving. Jake glanced at his friend, whose wide eyes were directed up at the ceiling. Jake looked up as well—and his heart froze in his chest. An enormous form clung to the wood beams there, directly above the spot where the missing corpse had been. Yellow reptilian eyes stared down at the boys. The thing slowly peeled away from the ceiling, dropping with an earthshaking thud to the cabin’s floorboards. It crouched on powerful hind legs that ended in cloven hooves, eying Jake and Pete hungrily. A long forked tongue lashed out of a snout part lupine and part crocodilian. Waves of greasy, matted fur lined long front limbs rippling with muscles and ending in razor-sharp talons. Above the yellow slits of snake’s eyes, thick curved horns protruded from a forehead that bore a glowing pentagram.

Jake took an almost involuntary step back as the thing leered at them. With blinding speed the hulking beast suddenly twisted its body sharply, and a meters-long tail whipped around, smacking the foul journal out of Jake’s hands. Then it slowly stood up, stooping menacingly as its head brushed the ceiling. With angry huffs of breath it started forward, the cabin’s floorboards groaning in protest. Pete and Jake silently backed away and scooted to the side, as if moving out of the thing’s direct line of sight would make it lose interest in them.

Impossibly, it worked. The massive beast continued toward the fireplace, not them, closing the distance in a few giant strides. They watched in horror as it stopped and craned its head over the crib, opening its grotesque maw and releasing a stream of thick red liquid into the infant bed. Then, slowly backing away from the wooden cradle, it turned its attention back to the boys, bring its front limbs down to the floor and resting on its haunches. It loomed ominously for a terrifying handful of seconds, and then, drawing an impossibly large breath, it roared, the bellow like nothing Pete and Jake had ever heard before. A wolf’s howl, a lion’s snarl, a train horn, a dynamite explosion, a volcano eruption, all rolled into a deafening blast that sent the boys reeling back against the wall, squeezing their eyes shut in terror.

When they opened their eyes again, the beast regarded them indifferently as a wave of fire swept across its body, consuming the thing in the blink of an eye. A mountain of ash fell to the floor, marking the spot where the beast had sat.

Jake and Pete stood frozen with their backs to the wall for a long while. Only the strange sounds of a baby fussing snapped them out of their paralysis. They glanced at each other, Pete whispering, “No way,” before they crept back to the fireplace.

The crib, which Jake was sure had been empty upon their arrival at the cabin, was not filled with blood as he had expected. There was not a red stain to be found anywhere. Instead, inside lay a baby, a seemingly perfectly content infant smiling up at him, blissfully ignorant of the livid welts in the shape of an inverted, five-pointed star on its forehead. Pete peered fearfully into the crib, gasping at the sight waiting for him. “What do we do?” he whispered.

Jake hesitated. The baby locked eyes with him and blinked twice, a flash of reptilian yellow slits taunting him. “We get the hell out of here,” Jake replied.

***

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds involved choosing one of several “story seeds.” The options were:

1.) A child is born under mysterious circumstances.

2.) A dead body goes missing.

3.) A mysterious journal is found.

4.) An accident occurs that may be no accident.

5.) An impossible animal appears.

Inspiration struck, and I decided to incorporate all five story seeds into the above supernatural horror story, titled, “The Beast.”

 

Flash Fiction – Unwanted Guests

For this week’s Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge, which must start with someone at the door, I’m sharing a scene from a WIP of mine. If you like what you read here, please check out Ties That Bind. I’ll periodically post digestible portions of the story. Thanks for reading!

***

Unwanted Guests

Doran raised a massive fist and pounded three times on the door. Julia didn’t hear an immediate response, and was surprised that Doran was patient enough to refrain from knocking again right away. Eventually, someone fumbled through several locks on the other side of the door, and it opened a couple of inches, restricted by a chain still fastened across the gap. A short, thin man peered out at Doran from within. “Yeah?” he spat, clearly eager to close the door again.

Doran glared down at him in disgust. “Marcus Espinoza?” he rumbled.

“Who wants to know?” the man countered, his voice laced with practiced toughness.

“I’m here about the job.” The words seeped through Doran’s gritted teeth. Perhaps not obvious to Marcus, Julia knew that the larger man was losing his patience very quickly.

Marcus rolled his bloodshot eyes, giving no indication he would open his door further. “Look, I told the last guy to tell Jimmy it takes time to do this right. You wanna get caught slicing into ATM systems with shitty hacks, fine, that’s your problem. You come to me to get the job done, I’m gonna take my time with the code, make sure it’s bug-free and undetectable—“

Doran cut him off by slamming his hand against the door and making Marcus jump despite himself. “Not that job.”

Marcus actually grew more annoyed. “Oh Christ, you’re here about the project for the feds? Listen, I took the pathetic amount of money they offered, I lost clients because I had no time to work on anything else—what more do you bastards want from me—“

Doran assaulted the door again, a single blow slamming on the surface with enough force to snap the chain on the other side. The door swung wildly inward, sending Marcus reeling back. Doran crossed the living room in a blur, physically forcing Marcus against the far wall and pinning him there with a forearm across the top of his chest, just below his neck.

A female voice interrupted the commotion. “Marcus, what the hell is going on—“

From her vantage point in the hallway, Julia spotted a young woman emerging from another room inside Marcus’ apartment. Not entirely unattractive, she stood just inside the living room in her underwear, her ears and nose bearing numerous piercings, her dyed-black hair badly highlighted, and her eyes marred by smeared cheap makeup. Doran’s eye darted to her. “Get out!” he shouted.

The woman screamed, bolting for the door and snatching a purse from a sunken, dirty couch on the way. “No, no, no, baby, don’t leave!” Marcus called to her. “It’s all a misunderstanding, I swear! Just gimme ten minutes—“

Marcus’ guest paid no attention as she tore out of the apartment. Passing Julia without a glance, she hurried half-naked down the hall toward the flickering “EXIT” sign at the far end. Marcus groaned emphatically. “Thanks a lot, man,” he berated Doran, as if in a position to criticize. “You just scared off the best lay I had in months—“

Doran impatiently slammed an open hand against the wall directly beside Marcus’ head. The smaller man finally stopped talking, flinching at the sudden noise. Julia was amazed he had spoken as much as he had while trapped between the wall and Doran’s forearm. She would have been scared speechless if Doran had introduced himself to her like this. People had different coping mechanisms, she guessed.

“Shut the door,” Doran growled at her over his shoulder. Without hesitation, she entered the apartment and closed the door behind her. Once she had fastened a few of the locks, Doran returned his attention to Marcus. “Start talking!”

Marcus blinked. “About what? I don’t know who you are or who you’re with. You a cop? A fed? A moneyman?”

“I’m not with anyone,” Doran spat back. “I’m your worst nightmare if you don’t start telling me about the ‘project for the feds’.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said coolly, despite having introduced the topic himself seconds earlier.

In a flurry of motion, Doran produced a gun from inside his overcoat and jammed the barrel under Marcus’ chin. The sight of the weapon gave Julia cause to consider leaving the apartment again. Marcus simply let out a bark of nervous laughter. “Come on, you think this is the first time I’ve had a gun in my face—“

Still glaring at Marcus, Doran suddenly swung the gun to the side and squeezed the trigger. The silenced weapon spat a bullet into an expensive-looking computer monitor mounted on an adjacent wall, shattering the screen and burrowing into the plaster beyond. Marcus had no backtalk now.

Doran loomed closer. “Having you working with me will make my job easier,” he rumbled disdainfully, “but I don’t need you. Now are you going to talk?”

Marcus relaxed a bit under Doran’s arm—an arm thicker than his neck. “Christ, all right,” he relented in exasperation. When Doran didn’t immediately release his hold on the smaller man, Marcus glared accusingly at his attacker. “Can I fucking sit down?”

They stared each other down for a moment longer until Doran grudgingly let Marcus go. Slowly, keeping an incredulous eye on the old soldier, Marcus crossed to his couch, making a show of throwing himself onto the faded cushions and propping his feet on the low table in front of him. His resentful gaze briefly lingered on Doran before he finally acknowledged his other visitor. “I’m sorry, where are my manners?” he asked sarcastically. “I didn’t get your name. I’m Marcus.”

Julia hesitantly glanced at Doran, who slowly paced the room, gun still in hand. He simply looked away in disgust. “Julia,” she replied.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Marcus replied. He glanced back at Doran. “Nightmare, right?”

“Good,” Doran growled, “you remembered.”

“Hard to forget the guy who destroyed your three-thousand-dollar monitor,” he sighed casually, stretching his arms across the back of the couch. “What is it, exactly, you want to know?”

Getting to know all about me (Part 2)

You might have noticed elsewhere on this site that I claimed the title of biological scientist. That falls under the “fact” half of this site. I am, indeed, a practicing molecular developmental biologist. I’ve got my paperwork and everything; it’s hanging in a swanky frame in my home office, right next to my SO’s (we met in graduate school).

“But… but you’re a writer!” you might say. “How did a creative type wind up in a lab coat and latex gloves, doing science experiments for a living?”

To which I reply: scientists are creative types!  Lots of scientists I know are passionate about their interests beyond science. My graduate school classmates included musicians, writers, cooks, philosophers, performers, public speakers, bloggers, podcasters (is that a thing?), and painters. Scientists come in all kinds of flavors. I’ll get into the creativity required for the actual job a bit further down. As for how I chose the science route? Well, gather round – it’s story time.

As a child I was always curious about how things work. One of my favorite children’s books was The Big Book of Real Trains (by Elizabeth Cameron and George Zaffo), which contained a cutaway schematic of a steam locomotive. I loved poring over that diagram, identifying all the parts and puzzling over how they all worked together to make the train move. I’ve popped open an empty cassette player just to watch what happens inside when I pressed “play.” Little ten-year-old me even took it upon himself to fix the conveyor belt of a broken toy car playset, examining all the moving parts to figure out why it wasn’t working right.

This interest in the inner workings of things took on a life of its own when it ran head-first into school science classes. Biology, chemistry, physics – I ate this stuff up, constantly hungry to learn more about how the natural world behaves. Biology quickly jumped out in front, though, especially when it zoomed down into the microscopic (and sub-microscopic!) world of cells, DNA, genes, and proteins. A mysterious code written into two meters (6.5 feet for you non-metric types) of DNA, crammed into nearly every cell in our bodies, dictating the way we develop and how we work? And we’re starting to figure out how to change it ourselves? That’s like, straight-up science fiction sprung off the page and into real life. Or at least that’s how it felt for an adolescent nerd. I wanted in.

At the beginning of high school I assumed that a passion for biology would lead to a career as a physician of some sort, but a chance invitation to a summer program for biological research introduced me to an entirely new career prospect. For three summers during college I worked in a neurobiology laboratory, learning not just certain details of how our spinal cords develop but the fundamental process of how to properly conduct scientific research. Those cumulative six months set me on the path to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology and truly begin my research career.

At this point you might be thinking, “Well, that’s nice, I guess, but what does this have to do with writing?” A lot, actually. A research career involves a ton of writing, and not just the thesis at the end of graduate school. Scientists need to be able to communicate, effectively and convincingly, their findings and conclusions to the scientific community and the public, for numerous reasons and in a variety of formats. Primary research articles, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, are a staple of the career (“publish or perish”). Beyond articles, though? Concise summaries of findings for conferences. Research plans for funding opportunity applications. Experimental strategy justifications for institutional and federal oversight agencies. Review articles summarizing pertinent findings in a given field of study. Non-technical descriptions of our work and our findings for the general public. And the list goes on. My labmates and I constantly critique drafts of each other’s work, helping to revise, reorganize, and distill our thoughts and words much like writing groups for fiction. And though the content and vocabulary are very different from even science fiction, the general rules – e.g. spelling, grammar, clarity, balancing brevity and impact – still apply.

And personally, I find that fiction and fact can be similarly rewarding to write. Both are like puzzles – looking for just the right words, shifting ideas and phrases around, kneading and massaging and hammering until the pieces fall into place and make a nice coherent picture. I’ve even noticed that when I have a significant amount of fact-writing to do, it seems to spark a desire in me to crank up my fiction output at the same time. They sort of reinforce each other and synergize to make me write write write.

Wow, I think I’ve rambled enough for one post. As a reward to everyone who made it all the way to the end, I will now plug two books by a scientist-author whose work needs no plugging from me. If you’re curious about what it is I actually study, or what general biological concepts set my motor whirring, I highly recommend Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll, a molecular geneticist at the University of Wisconsin. The former delves into the mechanisms of genetic change, adaptation, and the variations on themes found over and over again in the body plans of living things. The latter is a more historical account of building the fossil record and solving the mysteries of species diversity. These books are meant for the general public, so please don’t shy away if you feel you’re not a science type!

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next installment, in which I discuss what I feel are the three biggest influences on my writing.

Flash Fiction – The Writing on the Wall

nyc-skyline

“Bledsoe, where are you?”

Her partner’s voice boomed through her car’s speakers. “I got the text, I’m en route. Did you call him?”

“Yeah. No answer, went right to voicemail. The nut turned his phone off.”

“That’s one possibility,” Bledsoe remarked. “What’s the intersection again?”

“Putnam and Lewis.”

“Right, lovely. I’ll see you there.”

Garcia pushed the gas pedal harder, hearing the engine growl as her cruiser surged forward. She didn’t relish the idea of extracting more information from their contact, but as crazy as he seemed, the little conspiracy theorist had actually proven useful. This could be the break they needed to crack a case that had been dogging them for months. She took one last glance at the text they’d received from Donovan minutes ago. “Figured out where the next one will be. Come by ASAP.” Then she hit the accelerator even harder, sending her cruiser flying down Atlantic.

At Lewis she pulled a hard left, cutting her siren for the last several blocks north. No reason to draw attention to herself in this part of the city. The hairs on the back of her neck had stood on end for the entire duration of her and Bledsoe’s first visit to Donovan’s neighborhood. And she could tell, by the absence of his usual bluster and bravado, that Bledsoe didn’t like it there either. Now, as she pulled to a stop a few tenements down from Donovan’s, she breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of her partner’s SUV already parked on the street. At least she wouldn’t have to wait for him. Why did that little rat have to live way the hell out here? And why did he have to text them at one in the morning? Absently patting the gun holstered beneath her left arm, she stepped out of her car, breathing deeply as Bledsoe joined her. “You ready?” he asked.

“Let’s get this over with.”

They walked up to the door of Donovan’s home, already hearing a drunken argument between the middle-aged couple who lived in the ground floor rooms. Garcia knocked loudly, and the voices died down as angry footsteps grew closer. A chain jangled and a deadbolt slipped aside, then the door swung inward and a bleary-eyed woman with smeared mascara glared at the detectives. “Oh, you two again,” she groaned, words slurred. “I don’t know if he’s home or not.”

“A pleasure to see you too, ma’am,” Garcia said. “Do you mind if we check?”

The woman rudely gestured up the staircase behind her, retreating without another word. Bledsoe closed the front door and followed Garcia up the stairs, the couple resuming their argument. The place reeked of cat piss, and the steps creaked and groaned angrily. Grateful for making it to the second floor without the staircase collapsing beneath them, Garcia knocked on Donovan’s door. No answer. Knocked again. Silence. She glanced over her shoulder at Bledsoe, who nodded in agreement, then tried the doorknob.

It turned.

She stepped cautiously inside the dark apartment, now smelling stale coffee and cigarette smoke. “Donovan?” she called. “Detectives Garcia and Bledsoe. Are you here?”

Still nothing. A dim desk lamp illuminated Donovan’s cluttered work table across the room. Garcia headed straight toward it as Bledsoe began a casual sweep of the room’s perimeter, both of them stepping over and around stacks of books and boxes of cassette tapes. The apartment was in the same state as the last time they were here: a hoarder’s paradise. She couldn’t tell whether anything was out of place; only Donovan would know exactly where everything was supposed to be. “This is interesting,” she said, looking at the wall above the desk where several pictures hung. Well, more like letter-sized printouts displaying images of Manhattan landmarks, nailed haphazardly to the drywall. “Wasn’t here last time. A new project of his, or did he take up photography?”

“I don’t even wanna know,” Bledsoe said from across the room.

Garcia chuckled mirthlessly. She focused on the desk and its contents: a stained, empty mug, an ashtray full of ground-out butts, notebooks and newspaper clippings stained with coffee rings and splashes… and a note, scribbled in Donovan’s narrow, hurried hand. “Headed out already. Check my map and meet me there.”

Map? What map? Garcia stared at the note for a moment, then spun around, taking in the enormity of their new task. How the hell would they be able to find a map in this pig sty? “Shit,” she muttered.

“Find anything?”

She snatched the note from the desk and turned to her partner. “He took off. Says he’s on his way to the next scene.”

Bledsoe blinked in disbelief. “On his own? Well… where?”

“I don’t know! He says to check his map.”

“What the…” Bledsoe began, then flung his arms hopelessly in the air.

“I know, just… start looking, I guess.”

Her partner groaned and bent to inspect a pile of books. She turned back to the desk, rubbing the back of her neck as she stared absently at the photos on the wall… The photos… One just above the desktop depicted the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center. Off to the right, the Brooklyn Bridge. Higher up, the Empire State Building. Higher still, Columbus Circle. Lincoln Center. The Guggenheim. All in the proper locations on the island. “Bledsoe!”

He rushed to her side at the desk. “What do you have?”

“Our map,” she breathed.

He examined the pictures for a moment, his frown deepening. “I get the landmarks, but what about these other ones here, they’re just buildings, nothing important…”

He trailed off, grasping their meaning even as Garcia nodded. “These are all the sites of the other murders,” she replied quietly.

“And he put all this up since the last time we were here?” Bledsoe asked. “I don’t like this at all. Where’s the next one?”

“I’m guessing here,” she said, pointing to a sheet of paper with a handwritten address instead of a picture.

***

Saint Mark’s was already teeming with cop cars when they arrived. “Looks like we’re too late,” Bledsoe muttered as he and Garcia marched toward the crime scene. They both flashed their badges as a uniformed officer stepped into their path. “What do we have?” Bledsoe asked.

“Double homicide,” the officer said. “Both victims Caucasian, one male, one female. Female’s throat was slit, male suffered a large-caliber cranial gunshot wound. Knife and gun both found at the scene. Forensics are on their way.” He held a blood-spattered envelope out to Garcia. “This is for you.”

Garcia stared at the cop before taking the envelope from him. Her hands shook badly, but she could make out her and Bledsoe’s names on it. She gingerly opened it and found a single scrap of paper inside, bearing words written in the same hand as the note in Donovan’s apartment. “Officer,” she called hoarsely as the cop walked away. “Not a double homicide. Murder-suicide.”

The cop nodded. Bledsoe frowned at her. “What’s it say?”

She couldn’t speak, so she held the note out to her partner. He took it and read Donovan’s last words: “I’m sorry, detectives. It was me all along.”

***

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds: write a ~1,000-word story that involves a map. That’s the only condition.

Fiction interlude!

In which my self-introduction is waylaid by a genuine writing sample! Backstory: I’m a big fan of Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds (check it out some time; it’s great for laughs and brutally honest advice and observations on writing, society, and child-rearing, to name a few subjects). Roughly every Friday he posts flash-fiction prompts for his blog subscribers to participate in. This week’s prompt: “It starts with a bang.” My contribution is below; it will also be archived in my “Fiction” section at some point in the near future. Enjoy!

***

Bang.

He stared at his reflection in the mirror, looking at the aftermath of his actions. So callous, so gut-wrenching, he thought as his hand shook, the cold metal around his fingers gradually warming to his touch. Breath ragged, heart pounding. Destroying something that had been a part of him for years. True, in the beginning he’d suffered a lot of insults and abuse. But what started out as stubbornly emulating his idols had slowly turned into a matter of pride. He liked it. It was a statement. Granted, when he’d first made the decision all those years ago, he was too young and inexperienced to know what it was a statement for. Over time, it had simply become part of his self-identity. To just dispose of it, like refuse, seemed… cruel. Heartless. Yet here he was, watching his reflection hold bits of his youth, his formative years, in his hand like clumps of weeds he’d ripped from the ground. Letting his eyes fall from the mirror, he held his fist out to the side, numbly opening his hand and dropping the victims of his crime into a half-full wastebasket next to the sink.

The carnage was horribly mesmerizing, like seeing the aftermath of a car wreck on a highway. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t look away. A shiver ran down his spine, sparking a wave of panic. What had he done? How could he have thought this was a good idea? What if this changed him, destroyed some crucial aspect of himself, turned him into someone he never wanted to be? He should just stop the torture now, abide the damage he’d already caused and save himself from more grief. Step away from the sink… back out of the room… try to drive the image in the mirror out of his mind.

But no. He’d gone too far to back out now. His only option was to finish what he had started. Complete the transformation, and hope that the physical change didn’t penetrate more deeply, didn’t fundamentally alter the core of his being. His only consolation was a single thought, looping in his mind. It’s not forever, it’s not forever…

He lifted his gaze back to his own image before him, and suddenly something about it seemed different. A new sensation washed over him, and a laugh rose unbidden from his belly. A part of him wanted to suppress the reaction, deny that any part of his plight was humorous. But a chuckle bubbled from his throat. Quiet at first, a closed-mouth snort, a low rumble of amusement, but it opened the floodgate and the laugh grew louder. He looked like her. And he started to see what he would look like if he kept going, finished the job. His cheeks flushed with equal parts embarrassment and mirth, and, keeping his eyes on his reflection, he leaned away from the mirror and called through the open door. “Hey, Jenny… Jenny, come here.”

A distant sigh from another room. Footsteps approaching. “What do you want? I’m trying to finish my homework—“

His sister appeared in the doorway, her annoyed expression quickly transitioning to pure shock before she burst into hysterics. “Oh my god! You gave yourself bangs!”

“It’s a work in progress,” he countered, trying to sound indignant despite the grin on his face.

Once her laughter subsided, Jenny stood shoulder to shoulder with him as they peered into the mirror together. “You look like me,” she said, playfully body-checking his image out of the frame.

“Yeah, only a head taller,” he added as he regained his balance.

“Do you want some help with the rest of it?” He held out the scissors to her handle-first. “I never thought I’d see the day,” she said as she set to work cutting his hair. “Didn’t think you’d ever want to get rid of it.”

He sighed as heavily as he could without moving as she worked the blades near his head. “I may have had a small panic attack when I started. But I can’t just look good on paper anymore,” he said. “Gotta look good in person too. First impressions, right?”

She abruptly stopped cutting. “That’s not why you’re doing this, is it?” she asked, meeting his eyes in the mirror.

“I know what you’re gonna say, but yeah, that’s part of it. More than that, though, I think it was just time for a change.”

“To go along with the other changes? Graduation, job interview… might as well get them all out of the way at once, I guess.” She resumed her work with the scissors, taking all the length off and leaving him with a roughly hewn mop of short hair. She reached up and tousled it, smiling. “And Mom and Dad are gonna flip when they get home.”

He ran a hand through his newly short locks, then frowned at the clippings stuck to his fingers. “Seriously. They’ve been after me to cut it off for years. They’re not gonna shut up about it.”

“Well, you’re gonna look great once you get it shaped and styled. And long or short, you’ll knock ’em dead on Monday. You’re a shoo-in for that job.”

“Thanks.”

Jenny rinsed her hands off in the sink, but caught him inspecting himself in the mirror as she dried off. Pausing, she grabbed a strand of hair that had missed the wastebasket. “How about I put this in a baggie for you to keep?”

He shook his head, grinning. “Get out of here,” he said, pushing her toward the doorway.