My school had the prettiest courtyard in town. People jogged, walked their dogs, or simply sat on a bench with their books or phones. I loved hanging out there after school, loved how it inspired me to write. My classmates thought it was weird. You shouldn’t hang out at school after school, they’d said. Only freaks do that.
I should’ve listened to them, for I was now surrounded by freaks.
These weren’t the usual freaks though. They didn’t have weird body piercings, ugly haircuts or black hoodies with skulls emblazoned on them. They were desirable freaks. Beautiful freaks. Girls so gorgeous, yet so unapproachable, that you couldn’t help but wince if you so much as tried to talk to them.
They were talking to me, and I wish they weren’t.
Dawn Knight sat next to me, facing me, her knees bent over her chest, a humorless smile on her face. She was always pallid and frail, but up close she looked… dead. As dead as an actual corpse. Her under eye circles were so pronounced, her skin so ashen, that she resembled a zombie or something. She did this whenever she came near me. She would alter her appearance, and suddenly her silver-blond hair became brassy and brittle; her rosy cheeks lost its splendor; and her aquamarine eyes became dull and lifeless. The purplish blue under-eye circles made things worse. One second you saw them, the next second they were gone. She loved to frighten me. It made her boring days just a tiny bit brighter.
“You seem tense today,” she said. She had a refined voice, faint and breathy, like a demure debutante in a Jane Austen-inspired movie.
I took a deep breath and fought the urge to shiver.
“I like it here,” she said conversationally, her eyes skimming through the park. “It relaxes me. The air smells of dry leaves. I’ve always loved the autumn season.” She turned to me. “You like coming here too, don’t you? You feel less alone when you’re surrounded by people, even when they’re nothing but a bunch of strangers.”
I tucked my hair behind my ear, said nothing. Stared straight ahead.
Dawn let out a low, throaty laugh that made my hair stand on end. “I know everything about you. I know that you’re a foster child, and that your ‘parents’ ”—she made the quotation marks with her bony fingers—“don’t care about you. They only want the pension they get for having you. We can hear every thought in your brain, girl. You can’t hide from us.”
By “we” and “us,” she must have meant Raven Black and Autumn Summers. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead in spite of the crisp October chill.
Dawn heaved out a frustrated breath. “Look, if you’re not going to talk then I’m—”
“What do you want from me?” I blurted out, privately cursing myself.
She said nothing for a few moments, holding my gaze as she considered my statement. I tore my eyes from her, not wanting to see her appearance alter from bad to worse to macabre.
“I just want to talk,” said Dawn, her tone as warm as ice. “I want us to have some lattes and just… chill. Get to know you better.”
“I thought you knew everything about me.”
“Oh I do,” she countered. “But talking kills time. That’s what I have too much of—time.”
“You look so pale,” I said, almost surprising myself. “So… lifeless.”
“I looked this way on my deathbed, just before I…” She looked away for a few moments. “Before the three stitched frogs jumped into my window and turned me into this.”
My throat went dry. “What?”
Amiable chat drifted from neighboring benches. A bored-looking man in a business suit sauntered by, his eyes on his phone. A woman hurried past us, pushing a stroller with a sleeping baby in it. More people wandered about—tapping on their phones, drinking coffee—acting as if everything was normal. But I wasn’t interested in normalcy anymore, not after what I’d just heard.
Dawn sat up on the bench, bent her knees more. “Ninety years ago, back in the early twenties, three frogs leapt from outside my open window, jumping into my bed. One had its eyes stitched shut, the other its mouth, and the third one had its front legs tied together. I was on the brink of death, and it was difficult for me to breathe. Consumption would do that to you. Imagine how much worse it was for me to breathe as I watched those three frogs morph into a human being. I blinked once, and the frog with the stitched eyes had human eyes. I blinked twice, and the one with the stitched mouth now had human lips. A third blink of an eye, and the third frog had human limbs. Before I knew it, the frogs were gone, and a person sat in front of me, on the bed, naked, and then… Then I was this.” She dropped her gaze to her knees. “Anyway, I don’t have to look all sickly anymore, but I get a kick out of shocking people with my appearance. I feed on it.”
I was so stunned by her story of the three stitched frogs that it took me a moment to answer. “You… feed on it?”
“Yes, the same way a vampire feeds on human blood. People’s emotions revive me. They fill me up like nothing else can. And no, I’m not a vampire. Vampires aren’t real, in case you’re wondering. At least I don’t think they are.”
“You feed on people’s angst and emotions?”
“Yes,” she said. “We all do it. It’s our thing.”
Dawn smiled. “Oh, you know. Raven Black and—”
“Raven Black,” I said, more to myself than to Dawn. “What a weird name.”
“It’s made up, isn’t it?”
She laughed. “Of course it’s made up. How many people do you know with a name like that? And my name isn’t Dawn Knight either.”
“And I guess Autumn Summers is out of the question.”
I swung my legs, kicking up dirt from the ground. “Either you guys are actors, or you’re strippers—”
“Are you saying we have stripper names?”
“Or you’re the most creative people I’ve ever met.”
“So you don’t believe us?”
“Not a word.”
“Then how do you explain our mind-reading?”
I shrugged. “You’re… psychic?”
She laughed. “Being a psychic is more believable?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but someone cut me off.
“I come bearing gifts!”
Raven and Autumn emerged from a large group of passersby, their hands full of lattes and pastries. Raven strode over to me, regarding me with a smile that didn’t quite reach her dark eyes. Long, blue-black hair framed her heart-shaped face. She was beautiful—sexy, alluring. Otherworldly.
“Your caramel latte,” she said, handing me my hot drink. “I love caramel lattes too. We already have something in common.”
I pressed sweaty palms hard against my cup, almost bending it. I’d never wanted to be invisible as much as I did now. Maybe if I showed them how boring I was—how irrelevant and uninteresting—then they would leave me alone. They would go back to being the unapproachable girls from school.
“No chance of that happening,” Raven said, as if reading my mind. “You’re by no means uninteresting. On the contrary. You fascinate us. And besides, you know who we are, and now you’ll have to hang out with us.”
Autumn bit into a blueberry muffin and passed one over to Raven. Then she moved the bag over to me, offering me a muffin, but I shook my head. Shrugging, she perched on an empty bench facing ours, bending one long leg over the other. She pulled a small notepad and a ballpoint pen out of a vintage-looking handbag and began to write, tucking a chestnut-colored curl behind her ear.
Raven rolled her eyes at Autumn as she sashayed over to us. “She’s always writing on that thing,” she said to me, indicating Autumn’s notepad. “She’s a writer, just like you. And she doesn’t talk much. You two have a lot in common.” A small smile played about her lips. “More so than you think.”
She sat next to me, her body facing me, legs stretched out on the bench. I stared at my cup, my stomach churning all over again. I was now sandwiched between Raven and Dawn.
“So,” Raven said, smiling, “it’s not so bad, is it, sitting on a bench with two dead girls?” She smirked at my now bloodless complexion.
“We’re not dead,” Dawn protested, glaring at Raven. “We’re as alive as she is.” She turned to me. “But, unlike you, we’re immortal, and we’re also…” Her voice trailed off, a puzzled expression passing over her face.
“We’re also dead inside,” Raven finished for her. “We feel nothing. It’s like we’re numb or something. We also have certain powers.”
“What kind of powers?” I heard myself ask. They might be faking this whole thing to freak me out, but it was still interesting. I might even write about it later.
Dawn smiled as if she knew what I was thinking.
“What sort of powers?” I repeated.
“Superhuman powers,” Raven said, leaning over me toward Dawn. She tore a piece of Dawn’s muffin and shoved it into her mouth. Dawn tried to slap Raven’s hand away, but Raven moved away fast.
“Superhuman powers,” I mused. “Like what?”
Raven chewed thoughtfully, frowning. “Well, we feed from human—”
“Emotion. Got it. Dawn already told me.”
Raven smiled. “We also read minds, and we can control everything around us.” A wicked look flickered across her face. “We’re puppeteers, and our minds are our strings.”
I gulped on my latte, burning my tongue.
“We already did it with you earlier at school. We clouded your mind, changed your perception of things, erased time and memory. You were on your way to English class, but we stopped you. You stood frozen in the hallway for five solid hours and no one ever noticed. Then we willed you to resume your run, this time to your History class. You didn’t even know what happened.”
I almost dropped my cup. So that’s how I lost five hours of my life? That’s why I couldn’t remember. They’d hypnotized me!
“We do it all the time,” Dawn said, obviously reading my mind. “Life is not the way you see it, but how we make you see it. You see what we want you to see. Never assume that everything is normal, not when we’re around.”
I might have laughed if I wasn’t so terrified. “I was in homeroom this morning, and I suddenly felt the urge to find out more about you guys—”
“I did that,” Raven said cheerfully. “Wanted you to come to us. You were curious about us anyway, why not go all the way?”
“Everyone at school is curious about you.”
“True, but no one is worth our time. You are.”
She considered this for a moment. “You just are.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, sighing wearily. “Do you… morph into things?”
She smiled an enigmatic smile but said nothing.
Her black eyes darkened all the more. “We might. That’s how we convert people.”
I stole a glance at Dawn. Her grin didn’t reach her dead eyes.
“Are you looking to… convert me?”
“We wouldn’t tell you even if we were,” Raven said sharply.
“Better not go there,” Dawn added. “Ignorance is bliss. A cliché, but still true.”
I made no further enquiries.
A set of footsteps made me jump. A young woman was walking her dog. She smiled at us and moved on. I smiled back, not knowing why. I just wanted the world to be normal again. Where everything was gray and dull. And real. Dead people—or whatever they were—did not walk around us, controlling other people’s minds. It simply wasn’t possible.
Dawn said, “I know it’s difficult to believe us, but it’s all true.”
“How did it happen?” I said, dazed. “I mean, how did you become a… whatever you are?”
Raven’s voice became eerily hollow. “Black magic. Or at least we assume it was black magic. To be honest, I’m not even sure what we are.”
“You’re going to have to go directly to the source on that one,” Dawn added. “To the very first of our kind.”
“Is that person… here?” I looked around me, my gaze landing on Autumn. “Is it… her?”
“No,” Dawn said. “It’s none of us. That person could be anyone. Even we don’t know who it is. We are truly alone in this world.”
I sank in my seat. “Why are you telling me all of this?”
Dawn shrugged. “We’ve been hiding in the shadows for a long time. We thought we’d share our burden with someone other than ourselves.”
I gave her a disbelieving look. “You’re doing this because you’re lonely?”
Raven tilted her head, her face solemn. “Is that so hard to believe? I thought you would understand. You know what it’s like to be… unseen.”
“How many—” I paused, swallowed hard, and tried again. “How many of you are out there?”
Dawn’s bluish lips stretched into a smile. “There are more of us than you think.”
“Are there more of you at school?”
Autumn’s head shot up, glanced at me. Then she resumed her writing.
Dawn opened her mouth to say something, but closed it when Raven shot her a warning look. “Best if you don’t know,” Raven said, sighing. “Although I don’t see the point in hiding it from you. We’ll cloud your mind and make you forget everything if we have to. No biggie.” She winked at me. “Perhaps we already have, huh?”
I hugged myself and tried not to think about what she’d just said. “If you could control everything and everyone around you, and you don’t want to be lonely, then why aren’t you more popular in school? I don’t think you’d even have to cloud people’s minds in order to be popular. They all worship you. Want to get to know you.”
Raven shook her head. “Been there, done that.”
“Too easy,” Dawn added. “I’d rather be aloof and mysterious. Makes it more challenging.”
“Makes what more challenging?” I asked.
Dawn rewarded me with a grin, but said nothing more. Autumn looked up from her notepad again. Our eyes met, and I swore I saw pain in her eyes. I also saw something I never thought I’d see: kindness. She seemed more human than the other two. More… compassionate. Was that the reason why she hadn’t spoken at all?
“Careful,” Dawn warned. “Don’t let her nice-girl act fool you. She’s not what she seems.”
I was about to ask what she’d meant by that, but Dawn beat me to it.
“Ask no questions, get no clouded mind.”
My mouth went dry.
Raven turned to me. “You were going to write about us, weren’t you?”
I felt my eyes and face burn and I had to drop my gaze to my coffee cup. Someone’s phone chimed from a distance, and I was faintly aware of the rising level of people at the park. If I screamed, would they hear me? Or would these freaks—these beautiful monsters—cloud their minds?
“Beautiful monsters,” Dawn said, laughing a little. “I like that.”
She had read my thoughts. These girls were real. They had to be.
“Well?” Raven prodded, one eyebrow raised.
“I—” I closed my eyes and said nothing more.
She laughed. “Don’t worry about it. That was us too.”
“That’s how we maneuvered this whole thing,” Dawn added.
“How very determined of you,” I said dryly. I crossed my arms in my chest, feeling like an idiot. Here I thought I’d found my muses—girls so fascinating they had to be in one of my stories. I thought I’d write about three lovable misfits, outcasts by choice. Real life turned out to be super stranger than fiction.
Raven smiled. “You wouldn’t have been able to come up with this story in a million years.”
I toyed with my coffee cup, kicking the dry leaves on the ground with the tip of my shoes. “And here I thought I could.”
“Like your Twenty Under Twenty story?” Raven asked. “Oh, that’s right. They turned you down.”
I bit my bottom lip.
“Pretty impressive though,” Raven went on. “At least your story went into consideration.”
“You must be an amazing writer,” Dawn added. The irony in her voice was like a dagger through my chest. “Only amazing writers are considered for the Twenty Under Twenty contest, right Autumn?”
Autumn didn’t answer, but I could tell that she was upset.
“It’s a tough act to follow,” said Dawn. “I could see why you were desperate enough to want to write about us.”
“Want some new material?” Raven asked. “Want to know how I became this way?”
My head shot up at that. Caught myself before I answered.
Raven sighed, staring into the distance. “I remember that night like it was yesterday. It was 1893. My family and I were riding home in our carriage. We’d been to the theater. It was a lovely evening. Then, out of nowhere, I was pushed out of the carriage. I don’t know who pushed me. Couldn’t be my parents. They loved me. I ran through the woods, frightened and alone, when suddenly I heard a little girl’s cry.” She shuddered. “The little girl was five-year-old me. She was staring at me, her arms stretched out. I was shocked, petrified, but… compelled. I had to go and see if it was true. I mean—it was the five-year-old version of me! Then she wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was”—she let out a breath—“Anyway, then I became this.”
“What happened in between?”
“You’d have to live through it in order to understand.” She gave me a meaningful look.
A sudden jolt of fear seized me. Why was I still here? Why hadn’t I run as far away from these freaks as possible? Were they controlling me right now? Had they clouded my mind?
“I—I should get going,” I said, my voice dry.
Raven grinned. “Okay. See you soon.”
I shot her a strange look. What? That’s it? You’re not going to try to stop me?
Perturbed, I grabbed my bag and coffee and bolted. Dawn called out my name, but I ignored her. I wanted to forget this day ever happened. Perhaps I could cloud my own mind.
My steps faltered. Autumn appeared right in front of me as if by magic. But it hadn’t been magic. She had clouded my mind, if only for a few seconds.
I began to move again, faster this time. She followed me.
“So you do speak.”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Just making sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine. Now go away.”
“You need all the guidance you can get. There are far greater things going on around you. More than you think—”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“—and I thought I should guide you through them.”
I stopped walking. “Guide me through what?”
“Through this. There’s no going back now.”
“I think I like you better when you’re not talking.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“What do you care?” I spat. “You and your friends are having fun at my expense. You pretend to read minds and act like you’re vampires—”
“We’re not vampires.”
“—or whatever you think you are, just to scare me.”
“We’re not trying to scare you.”
“Whatever, I’m done.”
I turned northward. My house was almost three miles away from school. I took the bus everyday, but I didn’t want to stick around and wait. I’d walk to the moon if it meant escaping this freak.
Autumn slung her arm over my shoulders.
I jumped. “What are you doing?”
“I want to make sure you’re all right,” she said. “And to welcome you to our clique.”
My heart skipped a disturbed beat. “What?”
A car sped toward us. We were in the middle of the street. Had no idea how I got there.
The lights turned green. I wanted to run off, but I couldn’t.
Heart speeding, I turned to Autumn Summers, but she wasn’t there anymore.
There was something on the ground next to me—a ragdoll. I reached for it, examined it.
The doll’s eyes were stitched shut. It had chestnut-brown curls and long legs, just like Autumn Summers.
Just like me.
And then I heard a car speed directly toward me.
And that’s how I became a Beautiful Monster.
© Mini Febus 2017