They started with the old mahogany table where my grandfather used to sit, playing Solitaire. There was a big hole in the middle of the basement after the table was gone. That thing weighed a ton. I know because I tried moving it before. But it only took four beefcakes to haul it into the truck.
The table left behind four circles where the legs had been. Four unblemished spots in the flooring. I stood in the middle of it, feeling the absence of its weight in the ground, like when someone gets up from the seat on the bus after sitting there for practically the whole journey.
“Puffer hates the new house. She’s not coming with us because she hates it.”
This was the fifth time that day I’d said that. While Mom had muttered, “Good,” the previous few times, now she didn’t even bother pretending to pay attention anymore, just went about checking to see if we’d left anything out from the packing. I was a hindrance to her now, a shadow in the corner of her eye.
I headed out to the backyard, where Puffer was sitting on the wooden swing, legs dangling. I don’t think I’d ever get used to how tiny she was. Or how pretty her raven hair looked when it fell over her dark wide eyes. She was more graceful than I could ever dream of being.
I joined her on the swing and sank my chin into my hands, elbowed perched on my knees. “I hate this.”
“You’ll grow to like it.” Her voice rang out, sweet and clear, like a field of lavender. “Your kind is adaptable. They change themselves to suit their environment. Soon, you’ll forget I ever existed.”
“Never. I’ll never forget you, Puffer. ” I stuck my chin out, daring her to disagree.
She only gave me a smile that couldn’t reach her eyes.
“Why can’t you come with us, Puffer? I don’t understand.” I was being stubborn, asking the same question over and over, but to hell with it.
Puffer entertained me more than Mom did. “I told you, love. I’m bound to this tree. Where this tree is, there I’ll be. I can’t leave even if I want to.”
I hopped off the swing to survey the tree. It didn’t look any different from the last time I checked. Just a big old tree with a canopy that spanned across half the backyard. It had a huge blackened hole in the middle of the trunk, like someone had burned it away. Nothing lay in there but dirt and insects. Sometimes, Puffer would peer out from it, her pale face illuminated by the moonlight, just to kick me out of my skin.
She now blew on my ear, making several loose strands of my hair dance. Her breath was cold, as always. “We can run away.”
This wasn’t the first time she’d suggested that. A cold trail slithered down my back that had nothing to do with Puffer’s breath. It didn’t make sense. I had never really feared Puffer. She had been my friend since my father died. If anyone could fear Puffer (apart from Mom), they’d have to be a big pansy. She was about the most harmless person I’d ever known.
That’s what I told myself, even as Puffer trailed a thin cold finger down my cheek. Her dark gaze held on to mine as a sliver of smile crept across her face.
“Think about it, Katie. We could stay together forever. Didn’t you say you don’t want to leave me? I’m offering you an alternative. We could even find your father. You told me he’d love me. We could live together, always.”
“What about Mom?”
She shrugged, setting loose a tumble of soft locks down her pale shoulders. “She’ll join us soon enough.”
“But how can we run? You said it yourself – you’re tied to this tree.”
“I’ve showed you how. Remember that dream you had?”
When Puffer first told me she could make me dream of her, I’d assumed she meant it figuratively. It wasn’t until I saw her in my dreams for three nights running that I began to understand what she meant.
In my dreams, she had showed things. Like how she had been tied to the tree, blood pouring from the wound in her chest, staining her dress like juice had dribbled down her front. She’d lain there like a bloodied faery, staring up at the sky until she no longer saw it. In my dreams, she showed me how she crept around the edges of a person, dark eyes gleaming, until she slipped into them, became a part of them. In my dreams, she showed me how the people she entered slit their wrists and waited to die.
I couldn’t do anything about the shudder that ripped through me. My voice tore out of my throat. “You want me to kill myself?”
Her lips thinned into a curve. “How else did you think we could be together? You’re twelve, Katie. Learn something already.”
“When you said I could join you, I thought you meant sit here with you until Mom caved in. Or find a way to release you from this tree. Not …”
She stared into my face, smirking. “Scared, Katie? It’s just blood, you know.”
I bit on my trembling lower lip. “Why can’t you come into me? I could take you away.”
“Do you want me to?”
I nodded. “I do.” The words made me feel more certain than I had been.
She zipped to the other side of me and perched her head on my shoulder. “If I become a part of you, you won’t be just Katie. You’ll be Katie-and-Puffer.”
“Are you sure?”
I nodded again.
“Now?” Her eyes were wider than before.
I turned to glance at Mom, still scurrying around the house while talking to one of the movers. Tufts of hair had freed themselves from her ponytail. She wouldn’t know – she wouldn’t care – if I wasn’t just Katie anymore.
“Just do it,” I told Puffer.
Puffer’s grin was the widest I had ever seen it.
A blink, and she was gone. Only a trail of smoke danced around me, like an elusive dragonfly. It collected itself into a mass of dark grey cloud, then pulled apart into a scattered, patterned web. Came together, pulled apart. Came together, pulled apart. All that time it whirled around me, silent and calculating.
It took me a while to realize she had entered me. She slid into every crevice of me like she knew her way around. I didn’t feel any heavier, but charged, like energy was crackling through me, spinning around my head, in my chest, right down to my toes.
This is lovely.
Now I had to get used to not seeing Puffer around, but hearing her in my head. I could hear her sighing happily as I stared down at myself, checking if I remained the same.
I looked around, went through the back doors, back into the empty basement. Everything remained the same, but I wasn’t. I was Katie-and-Puffer now, and I didn’t have to shed any blood to make that compromise.
My reflection in the basement mirror confirmed that I was still Katie, in the flesh. My eyes were darker than before, wider too, like Puffer’s. They flashed with doubled vitality.
But if Mom noticed anything different about me, she didn’t say anything. Instead, she sighed. “Katie, look at you. What a mess you are. And didn’t I ask you to pack? I have a million things to do today. Can’t you make me worry less about you?”
A mess? Was that all she saw when she looked at me?
I saw my reflection in the penknife that lay atop the carton of paraphernalia. My eyes were dark, wild, like my hair. It wasn’t a mess; I thought it was beautiful. The real ugliness lay in the things around. It seeped into me, crawled under my skin, a tumor that took root and grew. It carved lines in my mother’s face, twisted her features.
I didn’t think. All I heard was the voice in my head.
We deserve more than this.
The blade was cold to the touch.