(This is the first bit of fiction featuring characters from my Sleepwalkers setting. Of course, it focuses on the main character of Abigail. I wanted to quickly sketch out what it was like for her at school and at home, and how the pressures of being bullied by her schoolmates and father while a mother with her own shit going on would affect her. One of the things I’ve learned — and experienced — is that going through life with not one safe space to retreat to will mess you up, and the emotions that come from that will manifest in weird ways if you don’t know how to deal with them or don’t have an outlet.
At the same time, I don’t want to present Abigail as a “poor little match girl”. It’s a tricky balance to strike, properly painting an awful experience without feeling like you’re being manipulative or ham-fisted about it. I don’t feel like I’m quite there, but this is a pendulum shift away from the more lyrical and fantasy-oriented looks I’ve had of Abigail until now. 1422 words.)
Abigail imagined herself getting into a fight with Debbie Wizer the entire bus ride home. She stood up at a stop sign and came out swinging until Debbie went down, and then she’d sit on her and just start punching. The other kids, excited with the thrill of adrenaline and bloodlust, rose in their seats and started cheering. For some reason, the bus started rolling again while all of this was going on.
The cheering would die down slowly when everyone realized that Debbie wasn’t fighting back. Abigail kept on punching, watching from some place in the back of her own head as Debbie’s head rocked one way, then the other. She felt the impact of her knuckles on skin. She watched in fascination as blood started to appear, as if by magic. Each punch took Debbie’s face farther away from her typical cultivated perfection. Bruises popped instantly. Her face swelled and darkened. Her lips grew chapped and bloodied.
The children on the bus went quiet, but no one thought to stop her. She kept going. Soon the only sounds were her grunts and the blow of her fists on increasingly tenderized meat. When the bus came to her house, she stood up, shook the blood and skin off her fists, and walked out. She made sure to thank the driver.
Abby shifted in her seat, and felt her nails digging into her palms. Debbie was right behind her, talking to Eliza Vintner about some stupid gossip. It would be so easy. All she had to do was turn around, grab a fistful of hair in one hand and start wailing away with the other. Eliza would scream and try to stop her, but she was pretty sure she could shrug her off. It would happen so fast. No one would know what to do. And she was pretty sure no one would make fun of her again, knowing that she could snap at any moment, knowing she could rain down a storm of violence unheard of in Solar Hills High. They would never mess with her again.
The bus stopped. The driver called. “Abigail Carter,” she said, as if she were reading the name off of an especially boring manifest. Abby looked out of her window. She saw her house staring back at her.
She got up to go, and an unexpected shame washed over her. She had been passive for another day. She had invited abuse to be heaped upon her. She could feel the eyes of the school bus on her as she gathered her books and her backpack and rose to go.
“Bye, Abbi-fail.” She heard a giggle from the seat behind her. She wasn’t sure if it was Eliza or Debbie, and she couldn’t turn around to make sure. Either she would go into some sort of rage-fueled frenzy, or she would break down crying right there.
The sun was warm and bright on her skin when she stepped onto the sidewalk. She heard “Abbi-fail” echo in her brain, even over the rising hum of the bus as it went on. She stared at her house. The only consolation it offered was the chance to be alone in her own misery for a few hours.
She clutched her books to her chest, felt the weight of her backpack across her shoulders, and walked up to her front door. Her house might have been nice once, but years of neglect had given it a slightly run-down appearance. The wood on the stairs had warped through countless rainstorms, her yard had developed bare patches of earth surrounded by yellow, stressed grass. Her mother had added bricks between the sidewalk and the yard as something of a border, but those hadn’t spruced it up as much as she wanted. Abby took the stairs two at a time, looked at the few wooden chairs strewn about the porch, and went inside.
The air was cooler indoors, but tinged with stale cigarette smoke. Abby found her mother sitting in front of the TV in the living room, taking long drags from something with menthol and sipping from a glass that probably wasn’t apple juice. An open bottle was on an end table next to her.
“Hi Mom.” Abby glanced to the TV. Two women were rising from their chairs on a stage to fight; a bald, burly security guard appeared from nowhere to break them up.
“Hey, sweety.” Her mother’s voice was tired, drowsy. But the affection was there. “How’re you doing?”
Abby crossed the distance between the living room door and the couch. She leaned over to kiss her mom on the forehead. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just a lot of homework, so I’m going to get to it. When is dad coming home for dinner?”
The woman on the couch turned to look up with glassy eyes. Abby was startled by an expression she couldn’t read. “It’s payday, honey. Your father’s not going to be home until late.”
“Oh.” Abby felt her stomach drop. She would be staying in her room tonight. “You want me to go ahead and make dinner for myself?”
Her mother nodded.
“You want me to make something for you?”
“I’m fine, sweety.” She set her glass down and grabbed the bottle. The sharp smell of alcohol filled the air as she emptied it and set it down. She lifted the glass and took a long drink, then finished with a pull from her cigarette. Her eyes never left the television. “I’m just fine.”
Fifteen minutes later, Abby locked herself into her room with a plate of hot dogs and potato chips. She felt a pressure in her stomach and chest that needed to come out somehow. There was all of this…stuff that she didn’t know what to do with. If she left it to her body to decide, she stabbed things with scissors, or punched the wall, or thumped her head against her desk. She cried or pinched herself. Sometimes she would just sit and shut down, lose hours staring at nothing. When she was done, she felt weird, like she had done something she knew wasn’t normal. But what else was she going to do? She couldn’t find a proper place for whatever she was feeling, so any release of the pressure would have to be enough.
Right now, she felt like she didn’t have the energy to do anything. So she dumped her food and books on her computer table, sloughed off her backpack and collapsed onto her bed. It took her a few minutes to register the noise coming from her closet, the sound of something bumping around, then being dragged.
“Hey kiddo,” a voice said at last. “Tough day, huh?”
Abby turned to see the Gnome standing there. He was a short fellow, maybe two or three feet tall, with skin that looked like baked dirt. His hair was white and expertly styled underneath a small, pointed red hat, and he had impressive facial hair. His eyes were huge and blue, the color of sapphire, and right now they stared at her. She read concern on his face. He was impatient.
“I just want to sleep for a while,” she heard herself say. The Gnome grabbed her hand in both of his and pulled.
“I know you do, but…listen, I’m sorry you had a bad day, but I need you to get up and help me finish packing. We need to get out of here.”
The urgency in his voice stirred something within her. She propped herself on an elbow. “What?”
“You know how bad paydays are, don’t you? Well, this is going to be worse than most. And you shouldn’t be here for it, OK?” He let go of her, then hopped off the suitcase he had been standing on.
She looked at her closet. Half of her clothes were off the rack. She suspected they had been stuffed into the huge, lime green piece of luggage next to her bed. “What, you want me to leave? I…I can’t do that. I just can’t leave Mom.”
The Gnome stepped forward, and put both of his hands on her knee. “Honey, it’s too late for your Mom. But it’s not too late for you. Not if you leave now. Let’s go.”
Abby felt like she was about to burst. She knew this was crazy, of course it was. But even worse, she knew this was right. She had to go. She couldn’t be here when daddy got home.