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Crunch

Crunch


Estimated reading time — 7 minutes

As Tabitha stalked down the sidewalk on her way home, she scanned her path intently. Not only was she diligently avoiding stepping on the cracks in the concrete – her older brother, Tommy, had told her several times that would bring bad luck – but she was on the lookout.
It was October, and the chill of fall lingered in the air. Fall was Tabitha’s favorite season for one reason: the leaves. She couldn’t quite bring herself to care about the colors the leaves turned, much to the frustration of her mother when she had taken Tabitha and Tommy to Maine to look at the trees. No, it was the crunch of leaves that she loved.

Every fall, she savored the walk home from school, surveying the path, brown eyes glinting intently, looking for the perfect dried leaf that would satisfyingly crackle when the weight of her slightly chubby body crashed down upon it. She had been hopeful she would find the perfect leaf today but found herself bitterly disappointed. The rain had begun to fall from the sky before school had let out, starting in a light sprinkle that had permitted cautious optimism, then building to a constant drizzle that soon crushed it.

Tabitha felt her disappointment grow, tears pricking her eyes. She knew it didn’t really matter if she found a leaf, but it was the only thing she looked forward to today after the mean kids made fun of her. Her only consolation was that Tommy had stayed home sick today, so he wasn’t here to watch her cry and call her a baby.

The tears mingled with the rain, rolling down her face in a salty mixture. She trudged through the ever-growing puddles, weaving back and forth across the sidewalk to avoid the deepest parts.

As Tabitha turned the corner onto her street, she felt the drizzle turn to downpour, quickly dousing her curly blonde hair. She pulled her backpack from her back, holding it over her head in a desperate measure to avoid being soaked. She broke into a jog, headed towards the house she spent her whole life in. Distracted, she neglected to notice as her right foot slapped upon a thin, barely perceivable, winding crack in the concrete.

She finally found herself on the porch, mostly covered by the tattered overhang. She quickly turned her soaked backpack and unzipped the smallest pocket, rummaging through the contents that had been haphazardly and unceremoniously shoved into the backpack over the school year, searching for the familiar feel of the smooth, metal key.

Her fingers finally landed upon it – it had been hiding in the folds of the left corner – and she pulled it from the pocket, then attempted to dry it on her nearly soaked jeans. She inserted it into the lock and turned it, noticing with some confusion that she had not felt the familiar click that signaled the door was unlocked.

She felt her eyebrows draw together with concern. Mom always locked the door when she left for work and ensured Tommy and Tabitha understood they needed to do the same.
Tabitha felt a shiver race through her as the wind began to pick up. She felt her unease growing, the hairs on her arms standing up. She heard Tommy’s voice, recently beginning to shift from the high-pitched voice she had known her whole life to the deeper tones of the stranger that he was becoming, insisting that she stop being such a baby. She took a deep breath, hoping to calm her racing heart, and pushed the door open.

All the lights were off. Her stomach bubbled nervously as she carefully stepped through the doorway, quickly closing and locking the door behind her. Another shudder wracked her body as she was hit by the air conditioning. She forced herself to leave the safety of the door and slowly began to creep down the hall.

She reached the opening that led to the kitchen and slowly peaked around the frame, surprised by the cry that immediately erupted from within her. She quickly tried to stifle it, but it was too late. Her mother, who had been sitting at the kitchen table in complete darkness turned with abnormally jerky movements to face her. Tabitha noticed that she was clutching a singular item: the small, handheld mirror with a cracked plastic rim that normally resided in the bottom drawer of the bathroom the three of them shared. She seemed to be staring at her reflection, but Tabitha was unsure how she could see herself in it; the surface of the mirror had been strewn full of thin cracks spanning the entirety of the mirror, rendering it unusable.

Tabitha took another step forward, flinching as she stepped on a creaky board. Her mother stood, her limp, wavy hair swirling around her face. Tabitha involuntarily drew back as her gaze finally met her mother’s, noticing a strange, manic light in her eyes. Her mother broke into a wide smile, and Tabitha briefly thought that it seemed that she had far too many teeth to fit in her mouth. They seemed to be pushing each other out of the way, each bidding to be the first to bite.

“Hi, honey,” her mother started, barely moving her mouth, lips still stretched tight what had morphed from an unnerving smile to closer to a grimace. Tabitha felt a wave of nausea crash over her, and her momentary terror was displaced as she tried to control her stomach.
“Hi, Mommy,” she answered.

Her mother’s grin stretched even wider. Tabitha forced her body to relax as another shiver rolled down her spine, hoping if she pretended everything was okay, her mother would too.
“Tommy is sick,” her mother said. Her gaze, which had been piercing through Tabitha, shifted to a spot over Tabitha’s right shoulder, where it stayed. She nodded several times as if attempting to convince herself as much as Tabitha.

“You should go check on him,” her mother murmured. Her voice had a strange, hollow quality that scared Tabitha even more than her mother’s stare.

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“Okay, Mommy. I’ll be right back,” Tabitha whispered. She didn’t want to go check on her brother, nor did she want to quickly return to her mother. In fact, the only thing she wanted to do was run out of the house as quickly as she could, but a part of her knew that had ceased to be an option the moment she had set foot in the house.

Tabitha retreated from the kitchen and advanced down the hallway in quick paces, daring to only shoot one quick glance behind her at her mother, who had sat back at the kitchen table, seemingly enthralled once more by the cracked mirror, grasping the blue handle tightly enough in both hands that the entire mirror shook.

Tommy’s room lay at the end of the hallway, draped in a darker shadow than the rest of the house. Tabitha felt prickles run down her back as she continued walking, suddenly sure that her mother had somehow slipped from the kitchen without her noticing and was now stalking her down the hallway. She quickly turned around and, for one fleeting moment, thought she saw something fade into the shadow of the hall behind her. Terror raced through her, and a part of her screamed so loudly at her to run that she almost bolted for the front door. Instead, she stood, frozen, helpless to do anything but feel her heartbeat pulsing throughout her entire body.

Tabitha was not sure how much time passed while she stared at the shadow, waiting for some sign that she could continue down the hall. She stood, breathing heavily, until she felt her heart return to a more normal rate and realized she could move again. She wiped her upper lip and forehead, removing sweat she didn’t notice was there until it began to drip down her face, and tried to work out the stiffness that had so suddenly set upon her.
She closed her eyes for a moment, steeling herself, then turned and continued down the hall. The door to Tommy’s room was cracked slightly open, yet another sign something was wrong. Ever since Tommy turned 11, he insisted that he be given “privacy” in his room, which meant that he always kept the door shut.

Tabitha took a deep breath, let it out, and pushed the door open. What she saw would have prompted a blood-curdling scream if she had any air left. She tried to pull in another breath, attempting to fill her lungs so the entire world could hear her scream but discovered she could not quite remember how to breathe. Instead, she produced a kind of strangled wheeze that only succeeded in drawing her brother’s gaze.

Tabitha finally remembered how to breathe and filled her starved lungs with more air than they had ever held. She let out a scream, feeling her voice crack but not quite able to hear the sound. Instead, all she could hear was an empty whooshing sound that seemed to fill her entire brain. Her eyes darted across the room, taking in the horror of the scene.

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Nausea once again rose, this time successfully overwhelming her. Tabitha felt the burn of acid in her throat as her lunch forced its way back up her esophagus, bending over and forcing her eyes shut, desperately trying to forget what she had seen.

The sheets on her brother’s bed were roughly shoved to the floor, leaving her brother’s naked body exposed. Bindings held his wrists and ankles to the bed posts, and he was bleeding from where the rough rope raked across his skin. Broken glass surrounded him on the bed, and his entire body was nearly enveloped in thin slices, leaving his tattered skin barely clinging to his body.

But none of this was the worst part of what Tabitha had seen. She could have accepted her brother’s desecrated body, covered in blood from head to toe, glistening with the light refracted from the glass. What she couldn’t accept was the fact that her brother made eye contact with her. He was still conscious, still alive, and in his eyes, Tabitha saw that Tommy was beyond fear, beyond pain, beyond any known emotion. Tommy now had eyes painted red from burst blood vessels, hair matted with a thick mixture of blood and sweat, and tears forging crooked paths down his cheeks. But, worst of all, Tabitha could read in his gaze that Tommy was no longer scared of death. Instead, he welcomed it. He was praying for it.
She heard Tommy grunt once, then again. Tabitha straightened, wiping the last traces of vomit from her mouth, tears once again marching down her face, blurring her vision. Tommy’s gaze had shifted from hers and landed on a spot above her right shoulder, and Tabitha turned to see what had grabbed his attention.

Tabitha was greeted with the image of her mother, standing directly behind her, smile still plastered on her face, eyes covered with a glassy sheen, with a shard of glass that was so large that it must have come from the full-length mirror in her mother’s bedroom. She tried to raise her hands above her head, desperately searching for some protection, but she was too late. She heard Tommy let out a muffled scream. The last thing she saw before she squeezed her eyes closed tightly was the fear on her face reflected from the mirror her mother had tucked into the waistband of her tattered jeans, the cracks now obscuring Tabitha’s terrified face.

For a moment, just one beautiful moment, Tabitha not only heard but felt the crunch of a perfect fall leaf that had spent the day sunning, just waiting to be stepped on. For one beautiful moment, Tabitha was simply a leaf, frozen in time as she fell to the ground. Then, Tabitha was no more.

Credit: Emily Mich

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