The Things That Kill by Joshua Flores

A Modern Adaptation of Anne Sexton's Snow White

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The words rang in her ears, a siren that couldn’t be silenced. It pierced her, a sound that dragged her into insanity. It beckoned night and day, digging her deeper and deeper into the darkness of her own mind, her own heart.

My beautiful girl. My world. I can’t bear to think of leaving you.

Amanda had looked to her late husband, tears in her eyes. She held his hand and looked down at the sickly man taking his last breaths with a sense of pride flooding her body. But as she followed his eyes, she gripped his hand until blood blossomed. At that moment she was glad he was dying. The slow beeping of his heartbeat filling her lungs with hope.

Bianca. He was talking to the girl, the pasty white terror that sucked his life away more than the dreaded cancer. Her smile fooled so many, seemingly delicate and unphased. But deep down, she knew she was beautiful, and she took no mercy on Amanda, pointing it out each and every damn day of her life.

Amanda poured herself a cup of coffee, staring out the window that gave a clear view of the nearby street. The cars whistled by, blurring past her vision as they drove. She imagined Bianca, her stepdaughter, running across the black asphalt, a pickup truck just seconds behind. She could smell the blood that would pool. She could hear the screeches of the girl as she realized her little game was over. She could feel the thud as she plummeted into the ground, her body broken and bruised. You wouldn’t look so beautiful with a broken neck, now would you, Bianca!?

She remembered when Eric would go off to work and she would hold the little girl’s hand, pretending to be the loving stepmother she should have been. She would take her to that very street, challenging her to a secret game. She made the girl promise never to tell about their little secret. Bianca, the pure little idiot that she was, nodded. She would have done anything Amanda asked of her. Count the cars. One. Two. Three. And then you go. Mama won’t let the cars hit you. Run across. Prove to me how much you love me. Prove how special you really are. And then she would, each time, running across. She was never hit. Amanda hated herself more and more each time they played. If she believed in prayer, she would have prayed for Bianca to die spectacularly, for God to give her what she deserved, a chance to be important, valued. Maybe then Amanda would be beautiful to Eric. Maybe his last words could be for her. But as long as Bianca was alive, Amanda knew she could never have that happy ending. Often times you have to get a little blood on your hands to get what you want in this cold world. You have to be willing to do the things that hurt, the things that kill.

That had been years ago, when Bianca was only a little girl. She could still see that little girl running in her mind, her black hair whipping in the wind. Bianca looked the same, just a bit taller and much more resistant; she was no longer Amanda’s to control. The memories still haunted her. But part of her felt a longing for those moments, for the thrill they gave her. It was both a source of longing and disgust.

Her phone buzzed, another email from Bianca’s school about some dance. She would have to pick out a dress with her, watch her try on each one that looked beautiful on her, ones that she couldn’t dream of fitting in. Bianca’s life was a constant reminder of what Amanda didn’t have, of the life that was stolen from her.

As she turned it off, the blank screen bore her reflection, a shimmery, distorted version of herself. Amanda could see the wrinkles across her forehead, the sagging skin around her neck that no cream or moisturizer could cure, the yellowing of her teeth, and the grey hairs that stuck out near her roots. She wanted to crack the screen, erase the truth from her vision. Couldn’t she look like her profile picture did, the one she used from ten years ago, the beautiful, younger, more successful Amanda? That woman disappeared more and more with each laugh line, each wrinkle taking away the woman she once was.

***

Bianca had a game of her own. She knew what people thought of her, the way teachers would look admiringly at her when she walked through the halls of her school, the ways the boys looked her up and down, their jaws slack in awe, and especially the way her father had seen her. She was always his beautiful girl. And that was exactly how she liked it. She thrived off of the praise; it’s what kept her blood pumping, kept her sane. Her stepmother’s envy made it all the better.

The weak are always the first to go. They underestimate the small, the innocent. They keep them in a box, assuming they can’t break out, overpower them. Bianca was small; she may have looked innocent, but she was anything but weak.

Running across the street was a weak attempt at control. She appeased Amanda. It was a way to keep her false sense of security alive, keeping the embers burning in the pit of her chest that still had glimmers of hope. She would soon stamp out that fire, leaving that woman smoldering in her own demise. She licked her lips, thinking of her burning, her flesh withering, the hag melting away like she had tried to do with her mother’s position in their home. She would never forgive Amanda for the way she tried to replace her mother. She would pay for her sins. That much Bianca was sure of.

Bianca walked down the stairs, flicking open and closed the zippo in her hand. She loved the warmth of the fire as it kissed her skin, bringing color to her cheeks, life into her soul. She had always loved the fear it struck in Amanda, the way her eyes would widen, her hands suddenly fidgety, the sucking of the bottom of her lip. Bianca could smell the fear in the air; it resembled the artificial violet smell in her stepmother’s perfume.

“You’re going to start a fire. Put the damn thing away. You know I hate you playing with fire.”

Bianca flashed a wicked grin, flicking the flame on and off, on and off, on and off. Amanda bit her lip, as if she was fighting the urge to scream, curse at her. But the truth was, her suffering and resentment only fueled Bianca. If only Amanda knew she was digging her own grave, shovel in hand, a clump of loose soil by her side.

“Maybe you’re deaf or just plain stupid, but I said put it down!”

Bianca froze. Who was this woman? Amanda was conniving, and often dangerous, but never had she burst out in such a way. It left a tinge of unease in Bianca. She almost felt the urge to cry. She balled her fists, digging her nails into her skin until she no longer felt the tears welling.

“Let’s get this over with,” Amanda spit out like a curse.

***

She hung the dress up and ran her fingers down the fabric, imagining herself walking down the banister in it, the praise she would have received if her parents could have afforded such a luxury when she was young. All she ever got were her mother’s awful hand-me-downs, ones with moth holes that she had to strategically conceal, just as she continued to do with the blemishes on her face. She refused to reveal any signs of weakness, any areas left unprotected. Maybe that was why she felt so tired all the time, her pride dragging her, no, pushing her down, down into her grave.

***

Bianca watched Amanda, standing there in her room as if she had the right to invade her like this. She thought about screaming or causing a scene, yet she remained calm, steadying herself against the wall alongside her, waiting, plotting. She flicked the lighter open and closed, open and closed, the fire stoking the fire that rose inside of her. As she passed by the hall mirror, one could see the tiny flames dancing in her eyes if they looked closely.

***

Just as she did every night, Amanda sipped the final drop out of the wine bottle she had been nursing the entire evening; she no longer bothered with a glass. What was the point when she knew one glass was never enough? She could never feel anything sober. It was as if her husband’s death had taken her joy as well, stolen her only reasons for living. When the nights became too much, she pulled out old family albums and ignited the photographs, one after the other, watching small Bianca’s face wither and burn. She only felt remorse when she burned her finger trying to stamp out the fire in the hearth, hearing the taunting voice of her stepdaughter. Whenever she felt doubts about herself or the woman she was, like that evening, she heard Bianca’s voice, the shrill little scream of a monster. Don’t play with fire if you don’t want to get burned.

***

She slipped on the dress, pulling it over her thin shoulders, taking one last glance at herself in the full-length mirror in her room, feeling satisfied. She untied her hair from the bun on top of her head, letting the long, black hair spill over her shoulders. The boy outside would think she was pretty. He would take her to the dance, show her a good time, and make her out to be the girl she always wanted to be. Bianca would seem kind, if only she could manage a way to make it real, slip it on easily like the dress she had just plucked from the closet. But she knew she couldn’t remove the darkness that she bore on her skin, a black tattoo wrapping around her body. She could mask it with a few plastered smiles and touch of makeup, but nothing gave her the same satisfaction of inflicting pain. She knew she hadn’t inherited it from her parents, but she must have learned to be this way somewhere, possibly from Amanda. Can one be born evil or does it grow like a cancer, increasing in size until there’s nothing left, no organ, piece of flesh untouched?

Bianca walked down the stairs and past her stepmother. Amanda didn’t try to take photos of her, like the other mom’s did; she just sipped her wine and scowled, her age even more apparent than ever. There was one final glance as she walked out the front door, the two women throwing glances that could kill. Neither said goodbye. The only sound was the slam of the door as Bianca left. The furious silence was louder than any word either one of them could have said.

***

She walked to the limo, taking the boy’s hand. The plan was set; she could almost smell the smoke in the air. A twinge of excitement radiated through her body. As she walked away from the house, she didn’t shed a tear for the memories that would go up in flames or the lingering scent of her father’s cologne that clung to the walls. She couldn’t help but smile. Her heart beat quickly. Bianca finally knew what it meant to be free, free of the past, free of her suffering. Her date led her into the darkness of the limo, shutting the door. The plan was set. There was no going back for Bianca.

***

Amanda looked out the window and imagined what Bianca was doing, she could practically see her dancing in that yellow dress, laughing, buzzed and young. Oh, what she would give for just a second of that bliss. But at times like these, she often had to close her eyes, the only way to stop her mind from wandering too far, from getting too lost in the reality that only existed within the confines of her mind, the only world she really ever wanted to live in. Eric was alive, she wasn’t depressed, and she never scowled when she looked at her own reflection. And best of all, Bianca had died in a freak car accident; someone said she ran across the busy intersection—god only knows why. She closed her eyes and pulled the blanket tighter, allowing herself to drift, to feel absolutely nothing.

***

She watched her, sleeping, the wine soaking in, numbing her senses. Amanda had fallen into her trap; Bianca almost felt a twinge of sorrow for the woman. She hadn’t asked to break open a family, scar Bianca like she had. But sometimes you have to pay for your sins, whether you meant to commit them or not.

The flames illuminated her face against the darkness. The cool metal danced in her fingers. She could imagine Amanda yelling at her for playing with the lighter, but this time, there would be no screams… at least until she caught fire, of course. Then she would be sorry, sorry for everything. And then Bianca dissolved into the night. Her house may have been engulfed in flames, burning plank by plank, but she had always felt accustomed to the dark anyways. It beckoned her, calling her home.

 

Joshua Flores currently lives in Tustin, CA, and attends Arnold O. Beckman High School. When he is not busy doing homework or cramming for math tests, he can be found dreaming up ideas for his book, obsessing over YA fiction, attending book signings, or discovering new and exciting places in LA. He is currently an editor for the Entertainment section of The Beckman Chronicle and a contributing editor for the blog Food, Fitness and Fiction. Follow him on Instagram and on the blog Food, Fitness and Fiction to hear more about anything book related.

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