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Five hours later

    Gasping for breath, Elena scrambled up the exterior of the playground fort, frantically grabbing for every available handhold across the wooden edifice and scuffing her new sneakers into every foothold she could cram them in. She hauled herself up over the railing and dropped heavily into that uppermost section featuring the long plastic spiral slide, the fort’s tower.

    This is... so much fun!? Elena thought, feeling a little bewildered as she struggled to draw in lungfuls of chilly Autumn air.

    If someone had told her earlier that she would be covered in sweat and panting with exertion from playing a game of tag with children, Elena wouldn’t have believed a word of it. They’d been playing for hours and hours now, though, and it was already getting dark out. Her hands felt raw from clambering around the playground, she had splinters in the side of her arm she’d yet to pluck out, and her elbows were scratched up from a tumble she’d taken across the mulch. She didn’t even want to think about what she’d done to her nice white shoes.

    Their game began in an incredibly lopsided five-against-one, with Elena roped into joining all of the little cousins to oppose Tabitha’s purported ‘dominance’ of the game. To win, Tabitha had to tag out their entire team—with the caveat of not allowing those she’d tagged to in turn tag her, which reset the round, forcing Tabitha to start tagging them out all over again.

    The tables turned back and forth as the day progressed. Each game—with the exception of one particularly unfortunate instance—began with Elena’s team hurriedly dispersing in every direction to put as much distance as possible between them and Tabitha. Then, one by one they would form back up into a hunting party to pursue Tabby as they were each tagged out.

    No two rounds played out alike, and the dynamic within each round could and often did change in a heartbeat. If you hadn’t been tagged, you were frantically fleeing Tabitha’s approach, and if you’d already been tagged, you were racing after her to try to catch her before she tagged the rest of the group. Sometimes, Elena and the four boys formed a cohesive group, other times they split up with an every-kid-for-themself attitude. Many of the rounds ended with Elena leading the tagged-out pursuers in close coordination to defend the last remaining untagged cousin from Tabitha.

    The first two rounds had both been shocking losses, with Tabitha dispatching all four cousins and Elena in a handful of minutes. Although she could hardly believe she was starting to take a game of playground tag seriously, Elena felt her competitive spirit rise to match the circumstances and she started giving it her all. In the third round, Elena coaxed and cajoled the boys into attempting some semblance of a strategy—clustering up together for mutual support.

    If we all stick real close together, one of us can just tag her back right away, Elena remembered, shaking her head in disbelief at her own naiveté. Yeah, right.

    Tabitha had lunged fearlessly into their midst, tagging each of the boys with a healthy shove that sent them sprawling back out of retaliatory range. Weaving and ducking past clumsily outstretched arms, the fiery-haired girl struck them out with practiced precision, and it was the shortest round ever. Their entire group of five was overturned in a handful of seconds.

    That wasn’t to say Elena didn’t have fun—there was something incredibly uninhibited about this whole experience, a refreshing simplicity to today that she wouldn’t have ever imagined, and didn’t think she could recreate. The four cousins hadn’t spoken a word to her when she was just Elena, an outgoing but somewhat unknown quantity here to babysit them with Tabitha, this total outsider. As an aloof older teen, she in turn hadn’t really had any particular interest in them, either. Once they started playing, however, their different perceived roles fell out of relevance and were quickly forgotten.

    The boys—she recognized them individually as Sam, Nick, Aiden, and Joshua, now—were young enough that they weren’t boys, weren’t this complicated different gender dynamic she was forced to be aware of. In playing alongside each other, they somehow ceased to be part of the social rhetoric that dictated how Elena acted and how she treated them, and something about it all was incredibly straightforward and liberating. They were just all kids having fun together—except Tabitha, of course. Tabitha was some kind of monster.

    Tabitha... Elena immediately grew alert. The idea of Tabitha had been imbued with several new flavors throughout the course of the day, and the name rolled back and forth over her tongue unspoken, something she couldn’t quite adjust to.

    Am I ever gonna be able to see her like I used to again? Hunkering herself down into a crouch, Elena turned to peek through the wooden bars of the fort at the chaos below. Aiden was dashing frantically by in the waning October light, but she wasn’t sure if he was in pursuit or retreat. One of the three newcomers to the game, a taller neighborhood boy who the boys were calling Kenny, ran past as well.

    Whatever else she thought the girl was in Marine Science or in the school library, this seemingly shy and reserved classmate of hers was the undisputed apex predator on this playground. The previously unassuming redhead became an unstoppable juggernaut, an invincible tyrant whose shock and awe blitzes regularly sent all four cousins scattering with yelped shrieks and panicked laughter. The very sight of Tabitha’s agile figure darting about the playground after them—or worse, closing in instead on her—filled Elena with a thrilling sense of fear. Although their team of five did win several games, victories were few and far between enough that every win felt like an enormous accomplishment.

    Throughout the game, Elena had witnessed Tabitha perform incredible feats of acrobatics. The girl was fast, and had no qualms committing herself to hand-springs, diving lunges or running slides to tag someone out or avoid pursuit. She was fearless in both scaling up the playground equipment, and then jumping off of them as the situation demanded, and wasn’t shy about rolling across the mulch as she scrambled back up to her feet to avoid a tag.

    The different terrain was used to full effect against her opponents—the animal-shaped rocker seats and park benches she could leap over and clear entirely, a feat impossible for the much younger boys to imitate. At a full sprint, Tabby would grab the posts of the playground fort or the swingset bars to sharply swing her entire body in a new direction, while those chasing after were forced to patter to a skidding stop in the mulch to bleed off momentum.

    Elena’s long legs enabled her to outpace Tabitha briefly in the open spaces—but in the fenced enclosure of the playground, there really wasn’t anywhere for her to go. Instead they endlessly traversed the trifecta of grounds between the fort itself, a giant tree that shaded the area, and the detached set of monkey bars. The cousins constantly gravitated towards the playground fort, ready to make a quick escape on one of the slides or at one of the series of riser exits the moment Tabitha began to capture the fort. After all, she could only cut off one of them at a time. Usually, anyways.

    Elena was just in the middle of determining her preferred getaway route from the fort... when she noticed her mother’s silvery-white minivan parked in front of playground.

    Oh my God! Alarmed, Elena abruptly stood up, struggling to shift mental tracks back to normalcy. They’d been playing for—how many hours, now? It was dark already, and not heading back to call had been an uncharacteristic and irresponsible lapse on her part. Her mother had obviously checked in at Tabitha’s grandma’s place when she was worried, and then been directed here. When Elena saw Tabitha run up the risers towards her position, she felt torn between the game mindset and this sudden return to reality.

    “My Mom’s here,” Elena blurted out with a grin, holding up her hands.

    “Yeah. She’s been watching for a while,” Tabitha revealed, and the petite redhead continued her ruthless advance. “At the bench over by the tree.”

    “...Oh,” Elena was embarrassed not to have noticed.

    It felt like a standoff showdown atop the fort, and each of the teenage girls eyed each other warily under the unspoken agreement of one last tag. There was only the stretch of the clatter bridge and a small landing of risers between them. The spiral slide was just beside Elena, but its exit down below was practically facing the fort where Tabitha stood, and it would only be a short hop down for Tabitha to catch her. That felt… anticlimactic.

    In a moment of inspired courage, Elena shot Tabitha a grin and vaulted over the railing of the fort tower and dropped—almost eight feet all the way to the ground. She landed gracelessly on her hands and feet, but it felt heroic, adventurous, and the surprise she got from Tabitha, the surprise she felt herself was the sort of satisfaction she couldn’t get from a roller coaster at Six Flags. That an innocuous game of tag would so easily eclipse their big summer trip as a personal experience for her was exhilarating, and Elena had to chuckle to herself as Tabitha landed beside her.

    “Good game?” Elena laughed, brushing off her palms.

    “Yeah,” Tabitha nodded with a wry smile. “Good game.”

    Letting the cousins and other assorted neighborhood children continue to run amok for a moment, the two girls crossed over to the bench where Mrs. Seelbaugh was waiting.

    “You girls look like you’ve been having fun!” Elena’s mother remarked, giving them both a curious look.

    “Sorry, Mom. Totally lost track of time,” Elena admitted sheepishly, working to reconcile herself with the more mature Elena of earlier today, the one who didn’t play on playgrounds like a child. She could tell her mother was thrilled that she’d had such a good time, ready to inundate her with questions about what had happened as soon as they were alone together.

    “No worries! Hakuna matata,” Mrs. Seelbaugh laughed. “I got to talking about those lovely thrift store blouse designs with Tabitha’s grammy for longer than I intended, myself. Are you girls ready for me to take you home? I can give the boys a lift down the street so they don’t have to walk.”

    “That’d be great, Mrs. Seelbaugh,” Tabitha said. “Thank you.”

    “Oh, I meant to ask you earlier, Tabitha,” Mrs. Seelbaugh said, rising up off the bench and stretching. “It’s been on my mind since this morning, the resemblance is so crazy—by any chance is your mother’s maiden name Shannon Delain?”

    Tabitha’s smile seemed to go rigid at hearing the name.

    “Yes, Ma’am,” Tabitha finally answered in a quiet voice. “That’s my mother. She’s Shannon Moore, now.”

    “I thought for sure she must be!” Mrs. Seelbaugh exclaimed in excitement. “We were good friends, we went to Springton High together! Where has she been all these years—did your family just move back to the area? I can’t wait to tell the other moms, we all still talk about her! Is she home, do you think—”

    “I’m sorry, Mrs. Seelbaugh,” Tabitha winced. “She’s home, but… you can’t see her.”

    “Oh—I’m so sorry, just listen to me going on,” Elena’s mother apologized in a fluster. “Did something happen, is everything alright?”

    “If she saw you now…” Tabitha said with some difficulty, “it would fundamentally break her.”

    “What?” Mrs. Seelbaugh froze. “Break her?”

    “I’m thirteen,” Tabitha explained, glancing at the bewildered Elena beside her. “I turn fourteen in December. From that timetable alone, you should be able to tell that something went terribly wrong with Shannon Delain’s... big plans, her dream.”

    “Oh, honey,” Mrs. Seelbaugh gave her an apologetic wince. “I wouldn’t say wrong, I just wondered if—”

    “Everything that could go wrong for her all those years ago, did go wrong,” Tabitha interrupted with finality.

   What? Elena blinked in surprise at the sudden and unexpected direction the conversation had taken.

   “Starting with me,” Tabitha explained in a quiet voice. She looked down and brushed the edge of her sneaker across an errant tuft of mulch. “You picked me up from the Lower Park, so you’ve seen how… well, you’ve seen where we are now. It’s so much worse than you think, and… I don’t think she’s in a state where she can stand to be seen by you, not now. Maybe not for a long time. I’m sorry.”

    “Oh my word,” Mrs. Seelbaugh looked taken aback. “I’m so sorry, I don’t mean to make anything difficult, or, or cause any problems. Can you just tell your mom that I remember her? That I’d love to get together and catch up sometime, whenever she’s comfortable with that? Would that be alright?”

   Mom knows Tabby’s Mom, and something real bad happened? Watching the entire exchange with increasing unease, Elena turned from her mother’s anxious expression to Tabitha’s frown in confusion.

    “I’ll tell her that you asked about her,” Tabitha decided, letting out a slow breath and giving them a helpless shrug. “But, I don’t think it will go over well. We’re hardly on speaking terms anymore.”


    They dropped off the boys with their grandmother, and then drove Tabitha over to Sunset Estates, awkwardly seeing her off in front of a worn-down, dilapidated mobile home. Mrs. Seelbaugh finally pulled their silvery-white minivan up the hill and parked at the gas station overlooking Tabitha’s neighborhood. They’d never filled their tank here—her father remarked that the gasoline quality here was awful—yet another black mark signifying that difference in social status that set this area of town apart from the rest of Springton.

    The casual questions and light-hearted small talk had given way to an uncomfortable silence once Tabitha left, and Elena looked at her mother with concern. They weren’t stopped here for gas, and it didn’t look like Mrs. Seelbaugh was going to run into the attached convenience store and buy anything, either.

    “Mom?” Elena asked. “Everything okay?”

    “I don’t know!” Mrs. Seelbaugh gave her daughter an exasperated laugh, shaking her head. “I really don’t know.”

    “Is it the thing with Tabitha’s mom?” Elena prodded.

    “Yeah,” Her mother seemed at a loss for words, looking off somewhere into the darkness outside. Moths and other assorted little insects were flicking about beneath the overhead lights of the gas station in a frenzied swarm.

    “Shannon Delain was… well, the gals and I, we still talk about her all the time, even after all these years. Shannon Delain. I had no idea she was right here in town! No idea that she...” Mrs. Seelbaugh tried to explain. “Cindy, Melissa and I, we were some of the cool kids, but Shannon was the real popular one, in this whole different league.

    “She was going places, was gonna be someone, move out to Hollywood and… y’know, be someone, and everybody knew it. But, we never heard a thing. Cindy was always so sure she was gonna pop up in a movie, or a TV show, or a magazine somewhere. Then there’s Melissa, insisting Shannon must’ve found a rich husband somewhere, became a—you know, the Malibu trophy wife. Hah.”

    “What did you think happened to her?” Elena asked, only interested in the opinion that mattered.

    “Modeling for advertisements. Maybe little parts for commercials?” Mrs. Seelbaugh mused. “She was so pretty. I always thought it’d be neat to find her in something, to be able to say, look, that’s Shannon Delain—we went to school together.”

   That would be cool, Elena agreed, picturing an older version of Tabitha, starring in some sort of big action movie blockbuster.

    “But, she’s been here all along, I suppose,” Mrs. Seelbaugh realized, her expression falling. “All these years. Shannon Delain—it was like she was the one to strive for, the one who dared to dream big. All these years feeling like we were chasing after her tailfeathers, and it’s like… it’s like…”

    Her mother struggled to find the right words.

    “Like she must’ve fallen right out of the sky the very moment she was out of sight. All of us still lookin’ up after her all this time, when instead she was really… um. She’s really been down there. In the last place we’d ever look.”

    They both stared down the hill. Sporadic streetlights revealed cramped rows of battered mobile homes where the lowest-income families eked out a difficult existence. The glow of passing headlights from the busy street just beyond demarcated the distant boundary of the trailer park, a residential area bordered on all sides by commercial zones of questionable property value.

    There was an ABC liquor store next door, and then the Springton Auto-Repair Center. A strip of small, rundown offices, containing a tax specialist, an orthodontist, and a small law firm. Another gas station, a smaller one. The old American Fidelity Bank and Trust, which had been boarded up for the last two years, shared a parking lot with a rather seedy-looking Hardee’s. The surroundings painted a very different perspective than the suburb the Seelbaughs lived in, which was picturesque by comparison.

    “Are you gonna call Aunt Cindy and them tonight, about this?” Elena asked. “Have a girls night?”

    “I really want to, but… no, no—it’s already so late,” Mrs. Seelbaugh worried her lip, glancing at the digital numbers of the clock on the dash. “Don’t even know what I want to say, just yet. I can reign in your Aunt Cindy, but Mrs. Melissa was always… a teensy bit jealous of Shannon. So, she’d be just dying to come over here and see sometime, stir up some kind of drama.”

    “Was it—is it that bad?” Elena’s eyes widened at the thought. “I don’t wanna make problems for Tabitha.”

    “Sounds like you’re good friends already,” Mrs. Seelbaugh’s troubled look fell away, and she beamed with pride for her daughter. “Guess we’re just gonna havta keep the whole story between me and you, then, this time. You know what that means!”

    “Two glasses of wine?” Elena guessed with a hopeful grin. “I’ve gotta tell you all about tag with Tabitha.”

    “Just one glass for you, I think,” Mrs. Seelbaugh let out a laugh, shifting the vehicle out of park and checking her mirrors. “I’m really glad you had fun today, Kiddo. But, after this kind of news, I feel like I’m gonna need three or four.”


    Mr. Moore was pacing back and forth through the narrow trailer hallway with the telephone handset pressed to his ear when Tabitha came home. He greeted her with a forced smile and a nod, still listening to the tinny voice of the speaker on the other end of the line. She wasn’t sure who he might be conferring with this late, but she thought she caught the name Daniel Moore, so it surely had something to do with the recent incident.

    Removing her dirty shoes in their small linoleum entranceway, she wearily stepped over into their living room. There Mrs. Moore sat, Illuminated only by the glow of their television set, bloated bulk situated in her usual spot upon the sofa. Her mother registered her presence with an annoyed glare for a moment, before turning back to the TV with indifference. There was no do you realize how late it is, or where on God’s green Earth have you been, not anymore.

    “My friend’s mother took us out to the park,” Tabitha hesitantly broached the subject. “She asked about you.”

    “Oh, now it’s any of my business what all you get up to,” Mrs. Moore scoffed, shooting her daughter another dirty look. “Tabby, if you’re not gonna listen to a damned thing I say anyhow, don’t go makin’ anything seem like—”

    “Allow me to correct myself,” Tabitha interrupted, gritting her teeth. “She didn’t ask about you in the capacity of you being my mother. Mrs. Seelbaugh asked if you were formerly Shannon Delain, whom she’d gone to school with. I was told the resemblance was striking.”

    Mrs. Moore seemed to show no reaction to that, but Tabitha could tell that though the corpulent woman continued to vacantly stare in that direction, her eyes weren’t quite fixed on the TV, anymore. No longer expecting a response, Tabitha decided to continue.

    “I told her that you were indisposed, and would not be able to meet her,” Tabitha reported. “Was that what I should’ve told her?”

    Her mother reacted to that, snapping around to face her with a look in her eyes. Tabitha wasn’t sure what she saw there—anxiety, fear, and maybe a little bit of hate. Maybe a lot. There was a haunted look dancing in the depths of those pale green eyes, and for the first time Tabitha had a real sense of how trapped her mother felt, trapped in this life she didn’t want, with this daughter she couldn’t deal with, in that fat body she couldn’t escape from, the limp red hair framing that perpetual scowl.

    The suffocating feeling she saw in her mother’s expression was so painfully familiar to Tabitha that she wavered on her feet, wanting nothing more than to immediately leave. She didn’t want to be in this situation, didn’t want to even try to finish this conversation, felt like she never should have brought it up. Didn’t want her mother to look at her like—

    “Tabitha—sit down,” Mrs. Moore asked, breaking eye contact. “We need to… we have to talk. Please.”

    The urge to flee intensified, but Tabitha found herself instead mechanically moving to sit in her father’s chair across from the sofa. It felt like a talk was treading dangerous new ground, and she didn’t see any possible positive outcomes to this conversation. From the moment she relegated herself to a seat across from her mother, wasn’t she setting herself up for another fruitless and destructive confrontation? She had no idea where else a talk could even take them now, but she didn’t imagine it would be anywhere she remotely wanted to explore.

    To her surprise, Mrs. Moore first heaved forward in her seat, reaching down and lifting the upholstered skirting panel of the sofa front below her. Where normally they would slide out their tray of VHS tapes from beneath—Mrs. Moore instead withdrew that familiar blue album. Tabitha watched on in growing horror as her mother hefted the scrapbook of photos in her hands, as if feeling the terrible weight of the bright and beautiful dreams within. Dreams that would never come to fruition.

    It felt surreal seeing her mother, of all people, take that thing out from wherever she’d had it hidden away. It was in so many ways the Moore household taboo, the most sensitive contraband she should never be caught peeking at, worse in some ways than that nudie magazine of her father’s she would discover in the bathroom years from now.

    “You know what this is,” Mrs. Moore said in a gruff voice, gripping the album in both hands. “You’ve seen what’s inside.”

    “Yes,” Tabitha answered, feeling herself tense up.

   Beauty pageant photos. Modeling pictures. An impossibly gorgeous young woman with a brilliant, confident smile who somehow or other turned into YOU, Tabitha clenched her teeth, remembering all those many years ago when she’d flipped through the pages of that scrapbook in shock and stunned disbelief.

   But, then I came along, and I took all of that away from you. You didn’t hate me for that last time, at least. This time, though... when I lost the weight and started making the effort, you started seeing yourself again in me—that’s what really broke you, isn’t it?

    “I know what you must think about me,” Mrs. Moore began. “I realize. But, I don’t want you thinking that you were a mistake, Honey. Because… you weren’t. You were a blessing.”

    “...Was I?” Tabitha’s eyebrows shot up. She fought to keep from a dozen different snide remarks before one finally won out and slipped past her lips. “Forgive me Mother, but you don’t seem very blessed.”

    “No, I don’t,” Mrs. Moore agreed, her hands tightening on the album until the blue jacket began to twist in her hands. “But, there are… things. Things that didn’t get—that would never be put in this album. That you don’t know. I’m just afraid that you’ve… jumped to conclusions.”

    “You didn’t give up your dream because of me?” Tabitha asked, feeling her heart leap into her throat at so abruptly voicing the question. “B-because of having me?”

    “No,” Mrs. Moore’s red-rimmed eyes met her gaze with more conviction than Tabitha had expected. “No, I didn’t.”

   You... didn’t? In disbelief, Tabitha opened her mouth, but closed it again just as quickly. She didn’t know how to respond to that.

    “I was going to be a model, and an actress,” Mrs. Moore explained, rubbing a thumb along the edge of the album but not daring to open it. “Flew out to Los Angeles, did photoshoots and videos for… stupid little things. Toothpaste. Deodorant ads, hah—not even perfume, competition was too crazy for perfume. Bit parts in a few sitcoms, even if they were just one appearance and a single spoken line. When I finally passed an audition for an acting role, a real role, it was for the movie Lucas. It was going to be my big debut.”

   Lucas? Tabitha’s mind was reeling, searching through her sixty years of memories for the title and drawing a complete blank. Whatever the movie was, it hadn’t made any noticeable waves or cultural impact in her last lifetime that she was aware of.

    “I had the role for Maggie,” Mrs. Moore remembered with a small laugh, as if she could scarcely believe it herself. “I would’ve kissed Charlie Sheen. Instead, I ran away. I ran away, and wound up here. I had you, I became… this.”

    “You ran away... and then had me?” Tabitha asked for clarification. From her mother’s phrasing, she couldn’t tell whether the two events were related to one another or not.

    “Yes,” Mrs. Moore nodded sadly. “I disappeared. Broke contract and ran away, two months into filming. They had us out in Lake Ellyn Park, Illinois for shooting. Just some five hours away from here. I called Alan—he was the only one I could trust—and he drove me back to Springton, without ever asking why. Bawled my eyes out the whole trip.

    “My parents covered the penalty fee, they were… furious. Didn’t understand, thought I was just… I don’t know what they thought, but I couldn’t tell them the truth. My agent with Fox Studios... wasn’t happy, I wouldn’t even speak with her. Kerri Green took the role of Maggie in the end, was nominated Exceptional Performance by a Young Actress in a Feature Film. It was a good role.”

    “Wait—couldn’t tell your parents what truth?” Tabitha asked with trepidation. “What happened?”

    “Things,” Mrs. Moore said with difficulty, shaking her head. “I… I can’t tell you, either, I won’t. The whole industry, acting, modeling, show business, it’s all filthy, Tabitha. It’s all filthy, and it was making me filthy.”

    “...What?” Alarmed, Tabitha bolted upright from her seat. “Are you saying—is, um, what you’re saying—is Dad not my real Dad?!”

    “No! No!” Mrs. Moore hushed her with a startled glare. “No. There was… there were things, but not that. Absolutely not that. There were things that I’m not going to ever be able to explain to you, and they’re things that I’m ashamed of, but never that. I thought I was strong enough, that I’d do anything to be a movie star, whatever it took. I’m not. Thank the Lord up in Heaven, I’m not.”

    Shocked, Tabitha felt herself numbly fall back down onto the cushion of the chair. Astonishment, revulsion, and finally—anger, white-hot anger rolled through her consciousness in waves as she struggled to grasp the implications of what her mother was now revealing.

   Mom was the victim of… something terrible? Tabitha didn’t want to believe it because it was awful, but also wanted it to be true, if only it meant her mother didn’t blame her for ruining her life. That previous assumption would be almost silly, then, and although she wasn’t sure it exactly excused their current difficulties, her mother’s overblown oppositional stance to every effort she made—

    “Your father, he’s an honest man,” Mrs. Moore went on. “A simple, honest man, and he’s… what I needed, after all of that. I didn’t give up on my dream, the dream, it... it wasn’t what I thought it was. It was wrong. God help me, I know I’ve been bitter all this time, especially since you’ve gone and grown up so fast. I’m sorry, for that. I haven’t been a good mother to you. You didn’t ruin my life, Tabitha.”

    “You need to, to come forward with all of that,” Tabitha blurted out, her mind still racing. “With everything. Everything that happened. Whatever they did to you. To the police. To the media. Someone. Explain what—”

    “They know, Tabitha,” Mrs. Moore shook her head, anguished tears appearing in her eyes. “Everyone who’s a part of it knows. I wasn’t even the only one that—that things happened to, on that set. They’re all either in on it, or, or they don’t care, or they can’t do anything—you don’t come out and talk about it. They’ll bury you in whatever dirt they can find. There’s always dirt. On everyone.”

    “I don’t care!” Tabitha exclaimed in indignation. “You have to try. What about the next poor girl who doesn’t know any better, what’s going to keep her from—”

    “Tabitha, stop!” Mrs. Moore sobbed. “They all knew. I knew, I just didn’t care, thought that I could… that I could make it work anyways. I’m just as fucking guilty as any of them. God just gave me the strength to step away—and stay away. He brought me back here, and he gave me you.”

    A handful of rebuttals choked in her throat, and Tabitha’s thoughts whirled, trying to keep up. The #metoo movement exposing predatory filmmakers and producers was still decades away, she realized. The film industry in the eighties would’ve been the figurative dark ages for that sort of behavior, a terrible place for naive young Shannon Delain. Regulatory framework built up to protect young actresses like that from sexual abuse wouldn’t even be put into place until after—

    “None of this is anything I ever wanted to tell you,” Mrs. Moore cut through Tabitha’s thoughts with a bitter laugh, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’m ashamed of it all. It’s just… when I started to see what all of this with you has been about, it just tore me up inside, Tabby.

    “Losing all of that weight so fast, tryin’ so hard to be pretty, to look just like I did, back then… do you understand why you wantin’ to be an actress would do this to me? Why it would make things like this, between us?”

    “I… what?” Tabitha mumbled out dumbly, staring at her mother in a daze. What?

    “Well, I’m through fighting you on it, I suppose,” Mrs. Moore tossed the blue album to the carpet in defeat, wiping moisture from her eyes with the backs of her hands. “I can’t, anymore. I just can’t.”

    “If this is what you’ve set yourself on, what you and that Grandma Laurie have decided—I’m going to help keep you safe,” She continued. “I can teach you more about acting, about the industry than she ever could, and I can at least… I can keep you safe from all of the nonsense. I will keep you safe. I’ll teach you everything, if you’ll just let me.”

   When did I EVER want to be an actress?! Tabitha found herself confused and caught totally flatfooted by the sheer scope of apparent misunderstanding between them. I...I just want to write my Goblin Princess books! To adopt Julia, when I’m old enough. And to never, ever be the old me again! I never once thought about—

    “Well?” Mrs. Moore sniffled, anxiously searching Tabitha’s features for a reaction. “S-say something, Tabitha.”

   This is the Mom I always wanted, Tabitha’s heart fell at the realization. The Shannon Moore who’d really CONNECT with me on something, stand TOGETHER with me, instead of standing in my way. The fantasy dreamland Mom who’d have a place in the rest of my life.

   But—I don’t care about acting or modeling bullshit at all! I can already see her breaking, turning even further away. It’s just. I’m sorry Mom, but I have my writing. I have my own plans for my life, and I can’t just... Tabitha bit her lip with indecision. She watched her mother’s expression falter, saw that last sliver of hope disappear from her eyes, replaced now with more tears.

   Fuck. All too suddenly, it felt like she was strangling a possibility that she couldn’t afford to ever let die. Fuck it. You only live once or twice, right?

    “Okay,” Tabitha decided, steeling her nerves. “Teach me.”

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A note from FortySixtyFour

   Meant to have the August post ready for you guys back on the first of the month, but wrapping up one of the AnimeCon sidestories really cut into my time. Any votes you can send our way for Top Web Fiction are greatly appreciated!


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FortySixtyFour

Bio: Avid reader, reluctant writer.

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