“—There we go, think that did the trick,” a nonplussed voice from out of nowhere remarked.

    Tabitha jolted back to awareness with her sinuses screaming, and caught a blurry glimpse of a hand holding a white paper capsule covered with tiny black text. Her brain wasted no time connecting the overpowering ammonia inhalant in the air to the idea of smelling salts, and being roused back to consciousness in such a manner was a lot more unpleasant than she’d have ever imagined. There were three faces crowded around wherever she was lying, it was way too bright, and she felt completely exhausted, too tired to even dream about sitting up.

    “...Tabitha?” A woman asked.

    Tabitha tried to blink the bright blur into defined shapes and shift her position—her body felt stiff and heavily-laden, and her head felt strangely detached, seemingly anchored to reality only by a terrible aching pain that radiated out from the side of her temple. The woman spoke again, but Tabitha’s attention was bleary and wandering. All she could make out was that the voice was choked with emotion, and not someone she immediately recognized, which added to the strangeness of her situation.

    “Tabby?” Hannah asked in a meek voice. “Hello to Tabitha?”

    She knew that voice for sure, and it was coming from the smaller face, closer down to the horizon of muddled shapes that she was beginning to realize was her body on a hospital bed. I’m back. I’m BACK. Only knew Hannah in ONE lifetime, and it’s the life I wanted—the life I WANT, the one I was wishing for. Thank you, thank you thank you thank you...

    “Hannah...?” Tabitha managed out.

    Her own words came out as more of a breathless sigh than audible speech, and Tabitha wondered if anyone would be able to hear her. There simply wasn’t any strength in her diaphragm she could intone into her words to project them at any volume. The sheer effort of speaking was so impossibly taxing that it made her feel like she needed to black out and rest all over again.

    “She just said ‘Hannah,’” the woman exclaimed. “Hannah—that’s my daughter right here’s name! Tabitha recognized—”

    “Quiet please, quiet, let’s not overwhelm the girl,” the male voice admonished her. “Miss Tabitha, we’ve contacted your parents, and they’re on their way here right now. Would it be alright if I asked you a few questions?”

    “Hurts,” Tabitha croaked in her tiny voice. She wasn’t against answering questions, but her head was splitting and this seemed like a crucial thing to convey to them as quickly as she could.

    “Yes, I’d expect so,” the doctor murmured. “We took you off of—well, we’ll get some morphine in your IV in just a moment. You’re a very, very lucky girl—you’ve been legally dead for two days, now. You’ll have a very interesting certificate of death to show off. Can you describe your current pain for me on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest?”

    “Six,” Tabitha replied in a low murmur, fighting to keep her eyes open. “On it’s way to… seven.”

    “Six, on it’s way to seven,” the doctor repeated. “Good, good. We’ll get that taken care of for you. Do you know where you are?”

    In light of her recent—and confusing—experiences, that felt like a hell of a loaded question. Tabitha blinked with difficulty again, fighting to glare through the haze of exhaustion and eyeball her surroundings. She realized Hannah was holding her hand in a tight little grip, and it filled her with comfort. Tabitha tried to squeeze back, but there didn’t seem to be much strength in her right hand. Or anywhere.

    “...Springton General,” Tabitha finally answered.

    “That’s—yes, you’re in a hospital, Springton General Hospital,” The doctor nodded, seeming pleased with the measure of her faculties. “Can you tell me the last thing you remember?”

    Dangling in the darkness from Hannah’s voice. Smashing my head into the back of 2045’s MRI prototype in the University of Louisville Hospital. Escaping a series of memories and or nightmares via F-22, the Lockheed Martin single-seat, twin-engine, all-weather stealth tactical fighter aircraft of my dreams. Those awful girls, chasing me through the endless parking lot. I remember talking with Julie, and she felt so REAL. So real… There was—there was another timeline that started. Fuck, I think that WAS real, but my brain bleeding or some sort of damage… DISCONNECTED me? I timed out? Brain bleed. Brain bleed, because Erica Taylor—

    “Violence,” Tabitha mumbled, deciding to tactfully keep some things to herself. “Violence and pain.”

    “Violence and pain,” The doctor echoed, seeming a little taken aback. “If you could describe—”

    “Seven now,” Tabitha interrupted to report, squeezing her eyes shut and furrowing her brow. “...Eight, soon.”

    “Alrighty, everything else can certainly wait,” the doctor relented. “Giving you some morphine now. You’re going to feel very, very drowsy, but you shouldn’t be feeling any pain. Oh, and—welcome back.”

    He wasn’t kidding about the feeling—almost instantly, Tabitha felt like the sharp agony in her head was stifled beneath blanket after blanket of smothering cottony tiredness that completely buried her senses. Her waking thought processes slowed to a sluggish, exhausted crawl, sinking into a soporific muddle-headedness that made her surreal dreams from before seem to have been in vivid clarity by contrast. The following conversations occurring right by her bedside seemed to travel enormous distances to reach the semi-aware part of her mind in broken, disjointed sentences, and when the words arrived at all, they did so in a droning, nearly incomprehensible murmur.

    “————————————procedures for———”

    “———right to alert us as quickly as you———parents here by her side when she———— ither medical miracle, or misdiagnosis. They’re going to run another battery of tests to——”

    “———indication of—————?”


    “——don’t want to———— ketchup and pickle only, please! Thank y———”


    “———ssible that the instruments we have available here weren’t sensitive enough to detect brain activity below a certain threshold. There’s never been———ell them she was awake and alert, she managed to say a few words. Yes, yes, we———can’t tell anything else until———”

    “————visitors, until there’s———”


    “—stop that. Hannah Honey, give her some space. She needs to rest—”


    “———know what else we can say. Up until this case, this was unprecedented, there was no———”

    “——bitha?!—————hear me?”

    “——Tabitha baby? Tabby, can you hear me? We’re all———”

    Mrs. Moore wrung the handrail spanning the side of Tabitha’s hospital bed in a death grip. Her eyes were still red-rimmed, her lips were pressed into a thin line, and her figure was noticeably thinner than it had been just the week before. Emotionally, mentally, and physically, she felt about as hollowed out as any one person could be. She’d had no appetite since it happened, and she’d spent several insensate days sobbing and screaming herself to the point of weakness and dehydration. Her husband hadn’t fared much better, seeming to age several decades in those several days and speaking only in clipped, terse sentences.

    Hearing that Tabitha had inexplicably woken up—woken up from being legally brain dead, was more than she could comprehend right now, and she was still terrified to believe there was any hope, that it might actually be true. Mrs. Moore was empty of everything else and still reeling—she wanted them to force Tabitha awake again just so that she could confirm it with her own eyes, and she also couldn’t bear to. She felt her heart breaking at the pain and suffering her daughter was going through.

    “Are you gonna be okay?” Mrs. Macintire asked, giving her a look of concern.

    “Soon as I can hear her speak again,” Mrs. Moore nodded quickly, tears erupting out of nowhere to stream down her face again. “As soon as I can see her awake again, alive again. Then I’ll be great. Perfect. Everything will be...”

    “I know exactly what you mean,” Mrs. Macintire patted her hand. “This whole thing terrifies me. I was sitting right there in the chair and didn’t realize a thing. If Hannah hadn’t happened to notice something was wrong, that Tabitha was having a nightmare—hell, if this brain activity deal was all a misdiagnosis, some sort of goddamned malpractice fucking fuckup...”

    “I don’t care,” Mrs. Moore blurted out, sniffling and trying to stop her breath from hitching up. “If I can see her again—if we can get her back, I don’t care about anything else. I’ll care later. I’ll be, I’ll be furious later. Right now I just, I just—”

    “She is back,” Mrs. Macintire reassured her with a comforting hug. “They diagnosed her as brain dead and instead she wakes up and starts talking! Everything’s going to be fine, with a little bit of time. Someone up there’s still looking out for Tabitha, and He’ll make sure she pulls through this.”

    “You’re right—you’re, you’re right,” Mrs. Moore nodded, wiping distractedly at her tears.

    With Sandra’s husband Officer Macintire transferred to Springton General for his recovery and Tabitha admitted to the adjacent wing, Mrs. Macintire and her seven-year-old daughter had been spending almost all of their free time here visiting in the rooms of either one or the other patients. The harmful what-ifs thinking about what would have happened if Tabitha had stirred near consciousness and no one had been there to see... were horrifying to consider. They’d taken her off life support because there’d supposedly been absolutely no chance of recovery. Mrs. Moore wasn’t feeling the rage and anger about it yet, but it was certainly weighing more on her mind each passing moment.

    Alan Moore stood off to the side, simply staring with a vacant expression. He’d been bottling up all of the pain of losing Tabitha internally and had been pushed well past the point of shutting down—Mrs. Moore felt ashamed that she’d been in no position to help him through it. They’d both just been completely struck dumb and absolutely lost—how do any parents anywhere cope with loss of this magnitude? They’d missed the Monday expulsion hearing, which came and went with little fanfare—only Chris Thompson was expelled, with the other girls each being released from their suspensions to return to school for a period of ‘academic probation.’

    Mrs. Moore couldn’t really bring herself to care about any of the bastards.

    High school bullying had passed well under the local news station’s radar, but assault and battery at a Halloween party that left a pretty teenage girl in a vegetative state did not, and when Channel Seven began connecting the dots they quickly seemed to realize there was quite a story to run. Tabitha’s involvement in the Springton South Main Shooting allowed them to dredge up old footage again, and several of the district schools pulled their entire student bodies out of class for a lecture on teen violence and the implementation of new zero-tolerance anti-bullying measures in the student code of conduct.

    Democratic Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton released a statement expressing his regret and condolences, touting Bill Clinton’s recent First Annual Report on School Safety—a study commissioned between the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education—as well as reiterating last year’s talking points regarding the school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky. Between the political expediency of using the incident as another topic in support of Clinton’s School Safety Report and Tabitha Moore’s favored hometown hero status with the Springton Police… Channel Seven had the local communities at large worked up into a frothing rage at what had happened to Tabitha.

    Erica Taylor herself wasn’t expelled—the teen was instead transferred, to a Juvenile Detention Center all the way over in Breathitt County—unanimously expedited away from the increasingly hostile Springton crowd to await her court date. People were angry, and a deluge of supportive phone calls and letters arrived at the Moore household, each fielded and dealt with by Grandma Laurie, who provisionally crowded both herself and the boys into the small trailer day by day to keep an eye on her son and daughter-in-law.

    Elena’s father, representing the offices of Seelbaugh and Straub, offered his counsel and insisted that with the current circumstances, any and all charges they decided to press were guaranteed to stick. Mrs. Moore had been trying not to think about it—her thoughts wandered into dangerous ideas of murderous revenge whenever she didn’t clamp down on them tightly enough. She knew she should appreciate the assistance and attention of so many well-wishing strangers, but she felt nothing, nothing but loss and grief and disbelief.

   Tabitha CAN’T ever leave us. She—she can’t. SHE CAN’T, Mrs. Moore thought, squeezing the hospital bed’s handrail until she was clutching the bar in a white-knuckled grip.

    Her lovely daughter’s head was still wrapped in bandages, and the only indication that she’d ever returned to them at all was that she would now shift slightly in her sleep, gently cant her head to one side as much as the neck brace allowed. Tabitha looked small and frail, a tiny waif of a girl that barely filled out the hospital gown. They’d cut away the broken cast on her left hand without bothering to replace or splint it, leaving the ugly old yellowing bruises on full display. Though supposedly not brain dead now, Mrs. Moore stood solemn vigil, watching her with wet eyes. She wouldn’t sit down or relax until she’d seen her wake up for herself.

   You’re not even fourteen yet, Mrs. Moore began to cry again. Your birthday’s next month—you were about to miss your birthday, Tabby. You can’t miss your birthday. Fourteen years—there’s so much lost time, and I haven’t even started making it all up to you properly.

    “‘Lena? Honey?” Mrs. Seelbaugh’s voice called through the bedroom door. “Are you alright? I thought I heard glass breaking.”

    “You did,” Elena bit out. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

    The fourteen-year-old blonde hugged herself as she cast a hollow stare past the wreckage of her once-tidy room. She’d had a bit of an episode, and after crying and screaming into her pillow behind the locked door for several hours, Elena had decided to… redecorate. Posters had all been ripped into papery shreds as she clawed them off of her walls, and she’d crumpled the cut-out magazine sections and old middle-school artwork that had been taped up. Picture frames had been knocked down, she’d torn and thrown every book on her bookshelf, and the little decorative glass angel that normally caught the light on her windowsill had been hurled against the far wall.

    “Elena?” Mrs. Seelbaugh prompted again. “Can I… come in?”

    “I want to be alone for a while,” Elena replied in a flat voice, slowly scratching her fingernails down her arms.

    “Okay,” Mrs. Seelbaugh replied. “I’m… I’m always here for you. Whenever you need me.”

    “Yeah,” Elena said without emotion.

    When she heard her mother reluctantly step back away from her door and leave, Elena slowly exhaled. Her eyes hurt. Her room was a total disaster, without even safe carpet space to step anywhere after she’d finished toppling everything off of her dresser, desk, and shelving unit. Worst of all, she didn’t understand why she’d done any of it, why the sudden impulse to destroy had suddenly taken hold and refused to let go.

   It’s not, like, a TANTRUM or anything, Elena glanced around with disinterest and disgust at the trashed remains of a room she’d once been proud of. It… it just… I don’t know?

    Frowning to herself, the teen wasn’t sure she could actually rationalize her actions to her parents. Elena had absolutely thrown tantrums before—even as recently as the previous school year, back when she’d still been friends with Carrie. Looking back on it now, tantrums seemed so childish. No, this today didn’t felt anything like a tantrum. It felt like madness, horror, it made her insides sick and her mind turn cold, detached, and bitter.

    Screaming hadn’t helped, it just made her throat sore. Punching her pillow and mattress was futile. Something about her bedroom itself had suddenly become absolutely abhorrent to her. The room had been too Elena, and each of the tastefully-chosen decorations throughout the room, every poster that had been picked out because of how it reflected her tastes, every picture of herself smiling with friends or family became a repulsive monument to insipid teenage vanity. Without any warning, all at once and in an overwhelmingly drastic way, Elena hated all of it.

    All of it needed to be destroyed.

    She didn’t feel better after the fact, though. Everything still felt wrong, everything still needed fixed, but she wasn’t sure what that entailed, or what that could even mean anymore. Raking her fingernails down her arms one last time, a brilliant idea came to her—inspiration. She stomped and kicked through the mess on her floor, smashing a plastic case filled with her old school supplies beneath her shoe. Crouching down over it, Elena carelessly scattered the purple plastic shards with her fingertips and picked through broken crayons in search of—there you are.

    Her good pair of scissors.

   I can cut off all my hair! Elena decided with glee. That will—that will help. It will. It will. It needs to go. The old Elena needs to fucking—

    “Elena!” Her mother’s voice called from across the house. “Mrs. Williams just called— something’s happened with Tabitha at the hospital. Can you hurry and get dressed to go?”

   No. No no no no no no, Elena felt her throat constrict. See Tabitha? No, I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

    She flung the pair of scissors back into the pile junk pulled out of her desk drawer as if they had bitten her hand, and then backpedaled unsteadily across the mess strewn about her room. Elena slipped on one of the dozens of Zoobooks that had spilled off of her lowest bookshelf and stumbled into the corner.

   Tabitha. Something happened. She’s… she’s dead, isn’t she? Elena quaked in dread, clutching at her face as the tears returned.

    I. I killed her. It’s my fault I killed her I told her it was SAFE and convinced her to go EVEN THOUGH SHE DIDN’T EVEN WANT TO GO and now she’s— she’s. She’s dead. All because of me, all because I THOUGHT I FUCKING KNEW BEST. All because I thought getting closer to Matthew and us all having better standing at FUCKING HIGH SCHOOL was more important than her being absolutely fucking safe and away from everything. I—I can’t. I can’t. I CAN’T.

    Elena wasn’t aware of how many minutes had passed as she’d curled up in the corner and sobbed into her hands, but the next thing she knew, comforting arms were around her, and her mother was there. She flinched back in surprise at first, but Mrs. Seelbaugh wouldn’t let herself be pushed away, instead kneeling in the junk strewn across the carpet and hugging her tight.

   Right. Right. Doorknob has that line bit in the middle of it, that you can unlock from the other side with a screwdriver. I should have, should have moved the dresser. Barricaded. She knows what I did, though. Why would she even BOTHER to—?

    “We’re going to get through this, ‘Lena,” Mrs. Seelbaugh insisted. “We can do this. I don’t know that I made any sense of what Mrs. Williams was saying, but Tabitha hasn’t passed away. Okay? Not just yet. She is… she is maybe doing a little better than she was, and I think we should go and see. What do you think?”

    “Mom, it’s my fault—”

    “No. No,” her mother disagreed. “No, Elena, Honey, listen to me. I know how this all must feel, but this is all on that Erica Taylor girl. She attacked Tabitha. Not you. When you try to take all the culpability for what happened and put it on yourself, you’re taking blame off of Erica Taylor. Is that what you want? Do you want her to have any less blame for what she did?”

    “...No,” Elena said through gritted teeth. She still didn’t agree with her mother, but she didn’t have the energy to fight her right here on this—her Dad was a capable attorney, and he had yet to ever win an argument against his wife.

   You don’t understand. You just don’t understand. Mom, you always understand and get everything, but this time you just DON’T. You don’t understand. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.

    The urge and inspiration to create something beautiful, something mesmerizing, seemed to thrum through Alicia’s fingertips, but every time she put her pencil to the paper, nothing appeared on the blank space. Not so much as a scribble was conjured into being; lately her ability to create seemed to be completely stopped up. Sometimes, she would stare in frustration at the empty sheet for minutes on end, other days she would put the page away and rifle through her previous drawings in vexation. Today, she threw her pencil across the classroom.

   Okay. Okay, I can’t deal, Alicia rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. I need to… to find SOMEONE to talk to. Probably. About all of this.

    A few heads turned, and Mr. Morrison gave her a questioning glance, but Alicia had already slumped back down in her seat, cradling her face in her hands. She hadn’t shed a single tear since they all thought they’d lost Tabitha, but the urge to cry persisted just behind her eyes, lingering there, taunting her with an emotional release that just wouldn’t come out. It felt like she needed to bawl, to cry and scream and cause a fit, but the most she could manage to force out was a few ragged breaths. The sobs were still stuck, as if hung up on something deep down in her throat.

    I can’t talk to Elena about this. Not now, Alicia decided. Maybe I could NEVER talk to her about this…

    Elena hadn’t been present at school since Tabitha had been attacked. Well, the blonde was physically present; Elena attended classes, and her body occupied space within the campus grounds. But, she wasn’t there. Elena had checked out, there was no Elena spark in her at the moment, just an Elena-shaped teenage girl with a vacant expression and monosyllabic responses. Tabitha had become close with Elena, and it was normal for Elena to grieve like she was. Alicia’s relationship with Tabitha was turning out to have been a lot more hopelessly complicated.

   I... maybe have a big crush on Tabitha, Alicia struggled to admit to herself. Some... I don’t know, some weird level of attraction. Affection? I don’t think it’s SEXUAL or anything like that. Probably. She’s just—there’s just something special about her to me. Irreplaceable. COMPLETELY irreplaceable, and...

    She’d been fighting to suppress some strange, unbidden feelings for a while now—but given the circumstances, it was just impossible for Alicia not to totally fixate on Tabitha. Her red-haired friend was possibly, even probably a goddamned time-traveller from the future! In that light, every little thing the lovely teen did demanded Alicia’s complete attention. Enormous implications could possibly be gleaned from any trivial little slip of the tongue when hanging out with Tabitha. For weeks and weeks, Alicia had told herself that this was all these feelings were. Interest. Because Tabitha might really be from the future.

    But, there was more—so much more.

    Tabitha was beautiful. She had a beauty that seemed to start on the inside and bloom outwards into her actual appearance, some incredible, intangible thing that shone from deep within. Artistically speaking, Tabitha had without any doubt become Alicia’s muse in every way. The Tabitha in motion photo she’d snapped was her current masterpiece. Drawings of Tabitha’s different expressions now populated Alicia’s artbook, crowding out anything else she wanted to draw. The old guilty practice scribblings of bare breasts stashed behind her bed frame had been replaced with sketch after sketch of naked shoulders and the slender lines of a lovely neck—all distinctly Tabitha.

   That doesn’t make me a LESBO, though, Alicia scowled to herself. Right? Like, no way. I didn’t want to BE with her, or like, DO THINGS with her. Except maybe try kissing her. Okay... that’s… yeah. That’s pretty gay, I guess. Fuck!

    Alicia didn’t want to be gay, though. Having weird, fluttery warm feelings of nascent attraction for another girl—who happened to also be her best friend and in fact one of her only friends—was an awful experience. The guilt and self-doubt was compounded by the attack during the Halloween party, and it felt like her already squeezed and constrained emotions clamped down so hard that she was a smooshed mess on the inside. The only reason she was functioning any little bit better than Elena was because she’d been putting up a false front regarding Tabitha for some time now. That made her feel awful, too.

    “Princess… everyone hates me,” Clarissa confided. “I think I hate them back?”

    The limited edition Beanie Baby gazed down upon the teen from her glass case with her usual wisdom and grace, and Clarissa tried to imagine what the purple Bear was trying to tell her. The rows and rows of the other Beanie Babies that filled the wooden curio above her bed seemed to be judging her, and Clarissa couldn’t bear to look at them right now. She could only trust her Princess Diana Bear right now.

    “If they weren’t my real friends, then that means I wasn’t a real friend to them, either,” Clarissa said, staring up into Princess’ solemn dark plastic eyes. “Right?”

    The expulsion hearing had gone well for Clarissa. The threat of being held back a year turned out to be posturing on the school board’s part, and everyone was released from their suspensions with a stern warning about their behavior. Everyone with the exception of Chris Thompson—but, he’d actually physically attacked another student on school grounds. Of course he would get expelled. Erica Taylor wasn’t mentioned at all, and when questioned about it, her Dad had put on a grim face and said that Erica Taylor was being dealt with by people much higher up than some shitty school board meeting. After the stress and terror of being held back turned out to be a slap on the wrist and a scolding, Clarissa had returned to school that very Tuesday almost giddy with relief.

    Everything had already changed, though.

    The friendships she’d made previously were nowhere to be found—the other girls seemed amused that Clarissa would dare to talk to them, after what she’d done. They laughed at her, snubbed her, quickly outed her as the cruel bully who’d stolen that poor Tabitha girl’s notebook and gotten caught. As if they all hadn’t talked about doing it, as if they hadn’t helped goad her into doing it. Clarissa watched in indignant disbelief as each of her friendships was tested for the very first time, and each of them, every single one, failed.

    “Yeah,” Clarissa chuckled, lowering her eyes away from Princess Diana Bear. “Right. I hate ‘em. Stupid, it was all—it’s all so stupid.”

    “Mom?” Tabitha asked in a weak voice, cracking her eyes open.

    “I’m here,” Mrs. Moore jolted up from the seat at the side of the small room and rushed to her side. “I’m here, Sweetie. I’m right here.”

    Lifting up her right hand—it felt heavy and sluggish—Tabitha immediately felt her mother take it firmly in her hands. It was still a struggle to see, but it was difficult to tell if it was because the small room was too dimly lit or too bright. Impossibly, it seemed to be both at the same time. Mrs. Moore’s faintly smiling face was lined with worry as Tabitha looked up at her in a bit of a daze, and despite the circumstances it was the first time she was really struck with how her mother still had that glimmer of her gorgeous old self within her.

    “I love you, Mom,” Tabitha croaked out.

    She was back where she belonged. This was the mother she was never, ever going to let go of, and although the delusions of that surreal fever dream were beginning to dilute and subside into faded almost-memories, Tabitha’s resolve remained firm. I’m not going to let you go. I’m going to save you. I mean it.

    “I love you too, Sweetie,” Mrs. Moore whispered. “I love you too. So much. We thought we’d lost you. They said—they said you were gone. God gave us a miracle, he brought you back to us. You’re a miracle, Tabby Sweetie.”

    “Then,” Tabitha said slowly, “let’s go to church. Sometime.”

    “You want to go to church?” Mrs. Moore asked in surprise. “We can do that, we can start going to church.”

    “Really?” Tabitha blinked.

    “Of course, really,” Mrs. Moore promised. “If you want us to go to church, then we’re all going to church. Every Sunday.”

    “I figure,” Tabitha breathed, “that, it can’t hurt. Right?”

    “You’re right, you’re absolutely right,” Mrs. Moore said quickly, trying to smile. “I don’t know why we weren’t going. He’s—He’s been so good to us. We’ll find a good church to go to.”

    “Elena’s family. Presbyterian,” Tabitha said. “But, ‘Licia and the Williams’—Methodist.”

    Speaking in complete sentences somehow seemed like a huge hurdle, and whatever soup of morphine they were feeding into her IV had Tabitha feel like she was right on the cusp of falling back asleep at any moment. It was incredibly tiresome, but even through the fog of painkillers the side of her head felt raw, as if they’d sheared off part of her skull to access the bleed on her brain.

   No, not a bleed on my brain, Tabitha told herself. Not for sure. That was just something from my dream. Probably. I’ll need to ask what actually happened here sometime soon. Get everything straight.

    “Presbyterian and Methodist?” Mrs. Moore repeated. “We’ll go to whichever one you want. We can try them both. Elena, Alicia, the Williams—everyone’s been in to see you. Hannah stops in every day and holds your hand. You woke up for a bit, tried to say something to Elena, but we couldn’t figure out what it was before you were out again. You just went out like a light.”

    “I—” Tabitha frowned, furrowing her brow. “Sorry. Don’t remember.”

    “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Her mother quickly reassured her. “You can talk to everyone when you’re feeling a little better. Everyone just had to rush back when we got word that you were making a recovery. It really is a miracle, Tabitha. You were so close to—well. It’s Heaven-sent, that He gave you back to us. I love you so much, Tabitha. I didn’t know what I was ever going to do without you. Frightens me even imagining it. I, I just couldn’t—”

    “I’m here,” Tabitha promised, attempting to squeeze Mrs. Moore’s hand with her own. “Can’t leave. Too much to do.”

    “Can’t leave—too much to do?” Mrs. Moore repeated, wiping at her eyes. “Oh, Sweetie. I love you.”

    “Love you, Mom,” Tabitha mumbled as she drifted back into unconsciousness.

    “Nothing here, either?” Mrs. Seelbaugh failed to hide her disappointment. “Nothing?”

    The Sandboro Mall was once again the first place her mother thought of to try to cheer Elena up, some small comfort or semblance of normalcy to interrupt the strange gloom her daughter had fallen into. Instead, each of their familiar shopping haunts filled her with disgust and self-loathing, and Elena glared across the racks of flannel and plaid in distaste and crossed her arms at the rows of distressed jeans on mannequin displays.

    “Can I just… walk around on my own a bit?” Elena asked.

    “Of course you can!” Mrs. Seelbaugh quickly dug into her purse. “Do you want some twenties, or—”

    “I don’t need to buy anything,” Elena shook her head, trying not to get annoyed. She knew her mother was doing anything and everything to help, she knew her Mom cared, just right now with her mood... every little thing was an aggravation that seemed to get under her skin. Elena needed some distance for a little while. From a lot of things. “Just want to go around on my own.”

    “Of course—I understand completely,” Mrs. Seelbaugh acknowledged with a slightly pained expression. “I was getting hungry anyways! I’ll just grab a pretzel and sit at the bench by the fountain at the intersection there. Will you be—um, will you please try not to go too far down the way? Please? Just the stores in sight of the fountain. Or, you cou—”

    “I won’t go far,” Elena promised, stepping in to give her mother the hug she knew the woman needed—her Mom was positively radiating worry and concern. “Thanks, Mom.”

    For the next thirty minutes, Elena threaded her way through the aisles and racks of the nearby stores with a listless expression, examining the wares with detachment as she fought to distance herself from the Elena of before. The jewelry store held less interest for her than ever before, the shop filled with purses, wallets, and watches bored her, and looking at shoes seemed too old Elena. The Waldenbooks held promise and she knew there was escape somewhere in the hundreds of books arrayed on those shelves, but a pair of cheery teenage girls were babbling and gossiping there and the compulsion to leave overtook her.

    Having no other stores left to explore and with her mother sneaking awkward glances in her direction from the bench by the fountain, Elena trudged reluctantly into the place she didn’t belong—the Sandboro Mall’s Hot Topic. The despondent blonde almost scowled and walked right back out again— the displays right in the entrance were all South Park merchandise and wrestling paraphernalia; black shirts with nWo or Austin 3:16 on them. Glancing around at the walls she saw band tees for Korn, Sublime, and No Doubt, also all on black shirts.

   Why is everything BLACK, though? Elena thought to herself, already turning to leave.

    “Yeah, can I help you?” the punkish young woman behind the counter asked with annoyance.

    The girl looked completely absurd— her hair was a garish shade of neon green and arrayed to taper into six-inch spikes that jutted out from her scalp in every direction. Between the spikes her roots were growing in a dull, ashy and damaged color. The Hot Topic employee was glaring daggers at her through eyeliner drawn on so heavily that Elena couldn’t help but think of it as Halloween makeup, and both her lip and brow sported piercings.

    Beside the employee behind the counter was a much older man—perhaps her dad’s age, who wore a leather vest over a sleeveless band shirt and had tattoos running down both arms.

    “Hah, don’t mind her!” The older man barked out in a surprisingly cordial voice. “What can we help ya find, Little Miss?”

    “Um,” Elena tried not to stare. “I don’t know. I’m. I don’t know, I’m looking for… a new me?”

    “A new you?” The man seemed to light up. “You’ve come to the right place!”

    “No you haven’t,” The punk girl disagreed in a deadpan monotone that reminded Elena of the MTV Daria cartoon. “A new you isn’t something one buys or puts a price tag on. Mr. Gary’s just trying to make a sale. Mindless consumerism is everything that’s wrong with—”

    “Pardon my employee Ziggy here—she gets a little confused,” The man said with a good-natured chuckle. “I’m sure we have something here that’ll be just what you need.”

    Elena couldn’t help but stare at the punk girl’s nametag, which did indeed read ‘Ziggy.’ Figuring she didn’t have anything to lose, she let out a slow breath and decided to lay her cards on the table.

    “I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just… don’t want to be me anymore. I don’t like who I was, and I want to… distance myself from it, as much as possible?” Elena mumbled out in embarrassment, gesturing across the dark apparel on display. “I just. Don’t know if all of this is me, either.”

    “You’re right at that age where you need to figure out your identity,” The man—apparently Mr. Gary—nodded, stepping out from the central counter kiosk. “Went through it all myself, we all do. The best advice anyone can give you is that real change comes from within.”

    “Don’t listen to him,” Ziggy muttered under her breath. “He’ll use any bumper sticker sophism to try to sell you something.”

    “Ziggy, please,” Mr. Gary rolled his eyes. “Go look busy or something, will ya? Anyways, as I was saying—real change comes from within. Now, what does that mean, exactly? For other people, I couldn’t tell ya. But, for me, that always meant music.”

    “Oh,” Elena said, glancing around the aisles. “You sell music?”

    “We do sell a bit of music,” Mr. Gary admitted, looking up across the wall of band tees on display. “Wouldn’t recommend buying anything blind, though. Not at these prices, hah! Won’t even suggest any bands for ya—my tastes are pretty rooted in the time period I grew up in, and… well, discovering the music that moves you is part of your own personal journey.”

    “Wait, you’re looking for music?” Ziggy’s affected apathy disappeared. “I can recommend you some—”

    “Oh, now you want to sell something?!” Mr. Gary waved her off. “Get outta here with your garage-band punko garbage.”

    “Are you looking for music?” Ziggy ignored her boss to fixate on Elena. “What do you listen to now?”

    “I... don’t know. Normal stuff from on the radio?” Elena shrugged. Staring at the punk girl’s giant green spikes, the sudden impulse to reveal something swept over her. “I was actually thinking about cutting my hair real short, finding a, um. Totally different look. I... don’t really know what I’m going to do.”

    “Well, definitely don’t cut off all your hair,” Mr. Gary snorted. “You have great—”

    “You should shave it all off,” Ziggy disagreed with enthusiasm. “Or buzz most of it off, and then put the rest up in a mohawk, or spikes. My girlfriend Monique did my hair, I can write down her number for—”

    “Whoa there, slow down Ziggy,” Mr. Gary laughed. “If she ends up hating it, she can’t exactly put it all back right away, you know?”

   “Ugh,” Ziggy let out a long-suffering sigh and rolled her eyes. “You just don’t get it, and you’ll never understand. Don’t you have old man stuff to do? Corporate sellout paperwork or something in the back?”

    “Tell ya what,” Mr. Gary this time ignored Ziggy, opening up a plexiglass display case and tossing a small container over to Elena. “For you; on the house.”

   “Oh, and now you’re GIVING AWAY product?” Ziggy slapped both hands on the counter. “Oh, so yeah it’s fine when you do it, but the second I even want to discount a—”

    “Ziggy, stuff it—it’s my store, I do what I want,” Mr. Gary shot back. “Besides, it’s more like an investment. If she ends up liking it, she’ll want stuff to go with the new look, right? Pretty young girl decks herself out in Hot Topic merchandise, then she’s a walking billboard for us to all her friends and admirers. Opens up a whole new market.”

    “Whatever,” Ziggy growled with obvious distaste. “You’re not even my real dad. You disgust me.”

    “Go take your smoke break, get outta here,” Mr. Gary waved the employee off and turned back towards Elena. “You go to school here in Sandboro? West Martin?”

    “Um. Springton,” Elena mumbled as she turned the little tub she’d been gifted over in her hands—it read Manic Panic, and purported itself to be semi-permanent black hair dye.

    Dying her blonde hair black seemed… great, like it would present a whole different Elena in the mirror. Exactly what she needed. She’d never thought of herself drawn to the subculture until this moment, but now the pull felt strong. Carrie and so many of the Springton High girls continued to wrap themselves in the preppie pop princess aesthetic anyways, adding appeal to the urge to redefine herself from blonde to black.

   Maybe… this is what I need?

    “I’m going to dye my hair,” Elena announced, taking the small tub of Manic Panic she’d been hiding and planting it on the dinner table.

    “Elena…” Mr. Seelbaugh gave the hair dye a dismissive glance and then shot his daughter an incredulous look. “No. No, absolutely not. You’re not dying your hair.”

    Mrs. Seelbaugh pursed her lips into a frown, staring at the Manic Panic as if she’d been afraid it—or something like it—would make an appearance soon.

    “I’m either dying my hair black... or I’m cutting it all off,” Elena revealed her ultimatum, taking the pair of scissors she’d nervously balanced across her lap and putting it on the table next to the tub of dye.

    The effect it had on her parents wasn’t dramatic like she’d hoped. Instead, her Dad seemed disappointed, and was shooting his wife a look of consternation. He didn’t seem to be taking her seriously, and that immediately put Elena on edge. If he made any sort of eye roll or joke or funny remark right now, she would be very, very upset.

    “What, have we been spoiling her too much?” Mr. Seelbaugh barked out a stiff laugh. “Does she think that—”

   “Mister Seelbaugh—I’d like to speak to my client in privacy for a moment, please,” Mrs. Seelbaugh interrupted, folding her hands in front of her on the table.

    It was an old family inside-joke, delivered now with little humor. Mr. Seelbaugh looked exasperated as he rose up out of his seat, and sent Elena a look that suggested he wasn’t going to budge on the topic of her appearance. The mother and daughter sat in silence for a few long, tense moments after he’d left the room.

    “Talk to me,” Mrs. Seelbaugh murmured. “What’s going on, Elena?”

    “I… want to dye my hair,” Elena said. “Black.”

    “Black. That’s a big change,” Mrs. Seelbaugh pointed out, gently taking the tub of hair dye so that she could examine its label.

    “I want a big change,” Elena said. “I need a big change.”

    Elena watched her mother read and reread the instructions on the semi-permanent hair dye in silence for several long minutes, fighting the urge to fidget or speak up again.

    “Are you going to need a new wardrobe?” Mrs. Seelbaugh asked.

    “I don’t know,” Elena replied with a small shrug. “I guess eventually. Not, like, right away or anything. I just—”

    “I’ll help you dye your hair,” Mrs. Seelbaugh decided. “But. No tattoos, no cigarettes, no marijuana. Whatsoever. You’re still going with us to church every week. If you want piercings, or, or things like that, you need to discuss it with me first.”

    “I… I don’t do drugs,” Elena blurted out. “At all. Ever. Not interested.”

    “Alcohol?” Mrs. Seelbaugh challenged.

    “Only with you,” Elena said. “Whenever we have glasses of wine.”

    “Okay,” Mrs. Seelbaugh seemed to relax slightly and let out a slow breath. “Okay, good. No drugs of any kind, no needles. I want to know who you hang out with from now on, especially if any of them are drinking, or smoking, or anything like that. No pills. No huffing paint, or sniffing glue or any of that sort of stuff to get stoned or get high. Still no swearing. No wearing clown makeup.”

   “Clown makeup?” Elena’s eyebrows rose in disbelief. “Mom—”

    “I don’t make this stuff up!” Mrs. Seelbaugh held up her hands in defense. “Melissa’s son David, he’s all into the Insane Clown Posse or PCP or whatever it is with the clown makeup. Marijuana, too, he always smells like shit.”

    “Mom, I just…” Elena’s shoulders slumped. “I’m not turning into a bad kid or whatever. I just, I never. I’ve never hated myself before. And, it hurts. I can’t keep being the same Elena. It makes me feel sick. I want to change. The guy at the Hot Topic gave this to me for free, and said I should try listening to different kinds of music. I am, I’m going to try that.”

    “Oh. Oh, Honey…” Mrs. Seelbaugh’s eyes watered. “What happened with Tabitha, the Halloween party—none of that was your fault. You know that. We’ve talked about this. We’ve talked and talked about this. Nothing that happened there—”

    “Okay. Okay,” Elena snapped out. “I do know that. I know that. But what I feel is that it was my fault. And what I feel hasn’t changed—isn’t going to change. And it makes me hate me, makes me feel sick. Okay?”

    Elena had been bracing herself for serious resistance from her parents, had worked out arguments and counter-arguments along with her ultimatum well in advance. What she hadn’t prepared herself for, however, was her mother bursting into tears across from her at the dinner table.

    “Mom…” Elena began.

    “Honey?” Mr. Seelbaugh hurried back over into the room at the sound of his wife crying. “What in the—”

    “Oh, piss off!” Mrs. Seelbaugh sniffled, wiping her face on her sleeve. “I’m going to help dye Elena’s hair, because she’s got to reinvent herself! After that, her and I are going shopping. Shopping for everything. If I hear even one word out of you, questioning any of her choices about any of it, then I’m dying my goddamned hair black with her! Okay?!”

    “Yeah, I, uh—no, everything’s fine,” Mr. Seelbaugh carefully backed out of the room. “I just—I’ll just—”

   “Piss off!” Mrs. Seelbaugh sobbed. “Just—go piss off!”

    “How’re ya feelin’ today, Sweetheart?” Mr. Moore asked, glancing over the moment Tabitha woke up.

    “Better,” Tabitha said, trying to sit up. “Much better.”

    “Whoa whoa whoa,” Mr. Moore leapt to his feet in alarm and hurried to gently press her back down onto her pillow. “Not so fast, you needta be takin’ it easy still.”

    “Okay,” Tabitha relented, letting her father carefully tuck her back in. “Sorry.”

    “Nothin’ to be sorry for,” Mr. Moore reassured her. “I know you’re gettin’ antsy. Just a few more weeks, they said.”

    “I know,” Tabitha nodded. “Really want to be out of here before my birthday.”

    “We’ll see, Sweetie,” Mr. Moore said. “You just focus on getting better.”

    “Too much time to think, not enough time to do,” Tabitha gave him a wry smile. “Trying to be patient.”

    “Well, you are a patient right now, so—good,” Mr. Moore wise-cracked. “You’ve thought about what you want to do once you're out and about?”

    “Ice cream,” Tabitha answered without hesitation. “I want to go out with you and Mom into Louisville somewhere and have ice cream.”

    “Ice cream?” Mr. Moore said in mock-surprise. “What ever happened to your vegan or vegetarian nutritional diet or whatever?”

   “Vegan—?!” Tabitha giggled. “Dad. We had chicken all the time.”

    “Chicken’s not vegan?” Mr. Moore’s cocked an eyebrow in surprise, but she couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.

    “You might be thinking pescetarians—they can include fish in their diet, but not other meat,” Tabitha laughed, trying to twist and stretch her limbs.

    “Presybterians, okay. I’ll remember that,” Mr. Moore chuckled. “So which one of ‘ems are the ones who eat chicken but are still eating healthy?”

    “Us, I guess. Poor people?” Tabitha shrugged. “Frozen chicken breast is really cheap, pound for pound.”

    “Tabitha… we’re not poor,” Mr. Moore said after a long, difficult moment of silence. “Or, well, you’re not poor. There’s a fair few cash settlements coming our way in a bit, we’re gonna get a college fund set up for you.”

    “Don’t,” Tabitha blurted out, struggling to sit up all over again. “Please—don’t. Dad, I’m not going to college.”

    “You need to get yourself a good education,” Mr. Moore refused firmly, pressing her shoulder back down onto the hospital bed. “We want you to—”

    “I’m being one hundred percent, deadly serious—I’m not going to college,” Tabitha insisted, clamping her good hand around his wrist. “Listen to me, please. I’m not going. Please please please, don’t do anything rash like put any of the settlements into a college fund.”

    “Honey, you don’t underst—” Her father sighed. “Why don’t we wait and talk about it again when you’re feeling better?”

    “No, I do understand,” Tabitha said. “I know more about rising tuition costs than anyone alive, I know what I need to learn to do what I want to do, and putting all that money and more importantly time into a degree won’t help me at all. It will, in fact, significantly hurt my future. Please please please, trust me on this?”

    “Honey…” Mr. Moore frowned. “What brought all this about? Thought for sure you’d be all on board with the college and university thing.”

    “I appreciate your thoughts,” Tabitha gave his wrist a squeeze. “But, I’d like it even more if we maintained a dialogue and regularly communicated about anything and everything pertaining to my future.”

    “There it is. There you go again,” Mr. Moore booped her on the nose. “Your Momma told me to watch out for you to start talkin’ like that again.”

    “Daaaad,” Tabitha growled, swiping at his finger and missing. “I’m so serious—don’t put the settlements into a fund, and don’t put them into a savings account. We’re going to need all that money. And soon.”

    “Oh my God—Elena?!” Alicia mouthed in surprise. “You dyed your hair?”

    “Yeah,” Elena admitted, looking back at her with an unreadable blank expression.

    It was probably the most words they'd exchanged at once since Halloween. With no small amount of trepidation, Alicia awkwardly approached her former friend, who she'd spotted sitting way off by herself away from all of the other students disembarking from their busses and milling about the common areas before first bell. Alicia's recent epiphanies regarding her personal Tabitha situation had her feeling more nervous, self-conscious, and guilty to be around Elena than she'd ever been before—she still remembered what Elena had said back then, about not caring much for gays.

    “Well… can I see?” Alicia gestured impatiently at the hood of the dark Nightmare Before Christmas hoodie her friend had apparently started wearing. “What brought this on?”

    With uncharacteristically stiff body language, Elena drew back the hood and stared at the ground, allowing her friend to inspect her new look.Self-conscious? Since when is ELENA ever self-conscious?

    “Elena?” Alicia repeated. “What brought this on?”

    “It’s...” Elena muttered, glancing up for a moment before casting her gaze downwards again. “You know.”

    “Because of what happened?” Alicia asked.

    Elena responded only with a mute nod, and the now raven-haired teen hurried to put the hood of her sweatshirt back up.

    “It looks good,” Alicia said, trying to sound supportive.

    In all honesty, it did look great on Elena, but Alicia couldn’t help but find it completely unsettling. The sudden change in style seemed too abrupt, and Alicia couldn’t help but feel a little hurt by the apparent distance appearing between them.

   Did… our little JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS thing break up? Alicia wondered to herself with a sinking feeling. She like, just completely changed character. Melody Valentine suddenly switches to being Sabrina the teenage Witch out of nowhere. Okay, not OUT OF NOWHERE, I guess. Just. I mean, I don’t HATE IT, I just wish… I’d been in the know? I guess we haven’t really been talking much at all since…

    “Um,” Alicia tried not to fidget. “We’re still friends... right?”

    Elena shrugged, and Alicia learned for the first time that such a nonchalant expression can harm someone just as much, or more, than biting words or glares of hatred.

    “Uh,” Alicia felt stunned enough to rock back on her heels. “Okay. That hurts.”

    “No, no,” Elena looked conflicted. “I mean. Why would you want to be friends with me?”

    “Oh, okay—so you’re just being stupid,” Alicia retorted with a scowl, lunging in to wrap Elena up in a hug. “Fuck. Not cool, ‘Lena. Don’t ever do that to me. We are friends. Okay?”

    “Okay,” Elena sniffled.

    “No, not ‘okay,’—geez, what is it with you two?” Alicia squeezed Elena as hard as she could. “No ‘thank you’ or ‘okay.’ You say, ‘yeah, we’re friends.’ That’s how this works. Duh.”

    “Sorry,” Elena squeaked out in a tiny voice, finally returning her hug. “I’ve been a shitty friend.”

    “Shut the fuck up,” Alicia felt herself start to smile. “No, you haven’t. I’ve been a shitty friend. Things have been bad, and. I was just a little—I didn't know if. I was, you know, surprised. Almost didn’t recognize you now that you’ve gone all Lydia Deetz on me. I do still look for you every morning, you know… I just. Thought you needed some space. You closed up.”

    “Lydia Deetz?” Elena asked.

    “From Beetlejuice. You know,” Alicia released her friend and leaned back to take a closer look at Elena’s features. “Lydia Deetz. ‘My whole life is a darkroom. One big. Dark. Room.’ Actually—why aren’t you wearing any makeup?”

    “Um,” Elena shrugged. “Tried a little. Didn’t like it.”

    “Can I give you some eyeliner?” Alicia asked. “Just wanna try and see how it looks. Promise I’ll be fast, we have like, five, six-ish minutes before first bell?”

    “I guess,” Elena said. “Whatever.”

    “Are you gonna be alright?” Alicia wondered out loud. “Ugh, stupid question. I mean; you’re on this whole different… everything, now. Whole different dynamic. Tabby gets us into crazy hijinks, I’m supposed to be the snarky artistic weirdo girl. You were gonna be the one with social savvy I guess, who like, could talk to people and had that in with the popular crowd. Now, you have this sudden goth makeover.”

    “What would—” Elena frowned, making a frustrated face at Alicia for a moment before turning her eyes back towards the ground. “What would you do if your art hurt someone? Really hurt someone, someone that you care about? How would you react then?”

    “Your having... social savvy or whatever isn’t what got Tabitha hurt,” Alicia refuted in a firm voice. “Elena—”

    “I made her go,” Elena gave another of her expressive shrugs. “She didn’t want to. I made her go. She shouldn’t have been there at all. It’s my fault.”

    “No. No. No,” Alicia shook her head, unapologetically beginning to rummage through Elena’s backpack. “Stuff was going on. Things. Between Tabitha and Erica. It’s complicated and Tabitha has a big secret that makes it all weird and I think I probably need to talk to you about my own stupid secret that makes it all even more fucked up and where even is your little makeup bag thingie? Elena did you even bring it today?!”

    “Big secret?” Elena asked, staring at Alicia. “Sorry. Outside pocket. New makeup case.”

    “Your stuff’s all gonna get smashed if you leave it in the outside pock—oh, it’s in a little tin, now. This is cool, I like this one. All the little skulls—awesome. Hot Topic?”

    “Alicia,” Elena warned in a grave voice. “...what secret?”

A note from FortySixtyFour

   1998 Hot Topic!

   There's a ton of different POVs I wanted to explore here, but this section already started creeping over nine thousand words and became my new longest chapter. So, I decided to only include the essentials for right now. Expect to touch bases with some of the other characters a little later on to see how they've handled everything.

    Top Web Fiction link to vote, for those inclined to do so. Rates and reviews here always appreciated! Royal Road mods have swept some of my fraudulent half stars and my score's been jumping around like crazy lately.

   Oh, everyone please respond to any and all comments encouraging me to actually write LitRPG will lennyfaces: ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

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Bio: Avid reader, reluctant writer.

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