The sun’s heat beat across her face. Thick, sticky blood coated her hands.
With the bitter, metallic taste of gore dancing on her tongue, Daphne ran her palms down her body and reveled in the sensation. It was life itself on her hands.
She loomed over the mangled corpse, licking her lips and hungry for more of the warm, raw flesh.
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Her claws dug greedily into a meaty arm. She yanked back, freeing the flesh with a spurt of red. The hot blood flowed from the fresh wound. It burbled and bubbled, pooling at her bare feet.
The blood swelled to her knees, to her hips, to her waist. Daphne waded through the viscous fluid, desperate to get away. She let out a yelp as it turned to waves.
The tide raged and dragged her under. Her head broke the surface long enough for her to suck in one final frantic breath of air before plunging back into the deep, eternal darkness beneath the crimson waves.
Daphne sat bolt upright, tossing off the thin sheet that covered her in her sleep. Her racing heart caught in her throat, taut with panic.
She checked her hands for blood. Nothing.
She wiped her sleeve over her mouth. None there either.
The knowledge that no one had died didn’t quiet her panic. There were new horrors to handle.
Whose daybed was this?
Where was she?
Daphne leaned over the couch-back of the daybed and peered out the large window, the only one in the room. She remembered walking through that gravel parking lot late last night, carrying heavy bags up to a second floor apartment. She recalled creeping into that bedroom where her new roommate had already been sleeping soundly.
A noise of displeasure rumbled in Daphne’s throat. She knew where she was: six grueling hours away from her New Jersey home, at her cousins’ apartment in Massachusetts. Jordan and Gaetana Baines, twenty-two and fourteen respectively, shared the four-room apartment. They had lived alone since Auntie Lorraine went to prison earlier in the year.
On the actual bed, Tana slept soundly, splayed out on her stomach. The sheets were askew, revealing Tana’s long bare legs and tiny feet half covered by slouching, patterned socks. A mop of jaggedly cut pale red-blonde hair filled the pillow.
Daphne took large gulps of cool air to help shake off the lingering bloodied nightmare. She reached down to her shoulder bag, unzipped the side pocket, and plucked out her medication. Tiny Green Pill to calm the psychosis. Round Orange to stall the depression. Yellow Oval to cheer on the other two. And a fat lot of good any of them did.
She swallowed the pills dry, regretted it, and laid back on the daybed to stare at the pockmarked ceiling.
So this was morning in Massachusetts. It looked about the same as New Jersey.
Daphne still wasn’t sure why her mom had agreed to send her there, especially with Jordan as the only adult in the house. Maybe desperation really did get the better of her?
Whatever the reasons, Mrs. Shanahan’s decision seemed final enough. Daphne knew she didn’t have to love the apartment. Because, with its sallow humidity-stained walls and ancient throw rugs masking the bubbling vinyl flooring, the place still beat juvie.
Daphne grabbed for her phone and access to the rest of the world. She typed a message to her partners-in-crime. If anyone responded, it would be a shock.
On Sunday, Daphne had learned about Candy’s elaborations to their fight. The stitches in her lip and tongue became gaping wounds caused by biting and scratching. The ugly rumors and freak show had already started. Daphne was almost happy not to be in town for it.
Soon no one from Kingsdale, New Jersey would ever think kindly of Daphne Shanahan, or wonder where she was, or why she’d been sent away in the first place.
When she sent the message, the phone beeped. Daphne tried calling someone to confirm her suspicions.
Yup. Mom had disconnected the service.
Fine. Forget it.
With an exasperated sigh, Daphne crept the few feet to the bedroom door, which led directly into the low-lit kitchen. The last thing she had eaten was a greasy dollar menu bacon-cheeseburger when Jordan picked her up from the train station. It was time for something healthier and filling.
In the kitchen, Daphne found her new warden.
Jordan sat at the table, sipping a Dunkin Donuts coffee. With her short, wavy ginger-colored hair disheveled and her eyes dark with exhaustion, Daphne wondered if Jordan had slept since they arrived home. She hadn’t even changed out of the black slacks and band tee Daphne first saw her in.
Daphne gestured to the fridge. “Do you mind if I…?”
“Sit down for a sec,” Jordan said, “I want to set some rules while Tana’s still asleep.”
Daphne hesitated. She wanted a glass of juice to have something to sip on and distract her.
The look in Jordan’s eyes made her think better of waiting, and she obeyed. Daphne sat in one of the rolling office chairs that, she noted, certainly didn’t match the sturdy old oak table that filled most of the room.
Jordan spoke, quiet and steady.
“I hope you understand at this point,” she said, “that there are no strikes left to screw up, okay? Any violence from you is intolerable. Then it’s back to Jersey.”
And right into a reformatory, Daphne thought.
“You need to pitch in around the house, too. Three people means more mess, but more hands to help clean up. I also saw you didn’t bring much,” Jordan continued. “You’ll probably need to wash what you brought every couple of days.”
Daphne thought about all the frivolous belongings that had eaten valuable room in her bags. Her cheeks burned red with embarrassment.
What had she been thinking? This wasn’t a summer vacation; this might be forever! This second floor hole-in-the-wall was where she lived now. That sleeping girl ten feet away was her roommate.
She couldn’t believe her mother had sent her to live like this. She’d never shared a playroom before, forget a bedroom!
What if she couldn’t live up to Jordan’s rules? What if Tana was ungodly irritating, prying into her life every five seconds?
Worse, what if one of her cousins started to guess what was wrong? Given the tight quarters and new stress, Daphne might lose control of her other side one night. Someone could end up seriously hurt.
Daphne’s stomach churned in revulsion. She regretted eating that burger so late.
Jordan was still talking. Daphne didn’t know what she had missed.
“It’s not urgent,” Jordan said, “but you should consider a summer job. The extra cash and the routine would do you good.”
Daphne nodded, but her dark eyes stared through her cousin.
As she saw Daphne’s face, pale and frightened, Jordan said, “I never would have offered this place if I wasn’t making enough to cover the basics. I mean, before Ma landed in jail, she set aside a little every month. I think she figured someday something might happen, you know? Our family history and all that.”
Carefully, Daphne shifted an arm to press against her stomach. She did not feel good at all.
Jordan, oblivious, continued talking. “This is a big adjustment for all of us; I get that. But I hope this can be a fresh start. You can be whoever you want to be. That’s what my home is for.
“Our home,” Jordan said, correcting herself. She reached stiffly across the kitchen table to touch Daphne’s hand.
Daphne shifted in her seat. Her stomach lurched in response to the contact.
Jordan retracted her hand.
She forced a weak smile and said, “Tana’ll probably sleep till noon at this rate. I’m going to get some shut eye.”
She stood from the table and placed her empty coffee cup by the sink.
Jordan crossed the open kitchen into the living room and lingered outside her bedroom door. With her head bowed, wavy red hair shadowed her dark eyes.
Daphne heard a sharp breath escape her cousin. Jordan said in a low grumble of a voice, “I know what it’s like, okay?”
Daphne’s heart raced, which didn’t help the nausea. She stood and took a step towards Jordan. What was she trying to say?
Hopeful, she asked, “You do?”
Jordan stayed staring at the doorknob. She opened her mouth to speak then frowned.
“I’ve had my share of trouble. It’s really tough being a… well… you know.” Jordan paused. She shifted her weight and fidgeted with the knob.
Daphne took another step. Yes? A what? Say it!
Jordan’s eyes met Daphne’s. She said, “Being a teenager. It feels like no one could ever understand what you’re going through.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Daphne crumpled against the archway to the living room. A stab of embarrassment overpowered the disappointment. The whole cocktail of emotions stirred her darker self, as though someone had run a hand the wrong way up her spine.
Daphne reminded herself that no one could understand. She was dangerous and crazy. She had the prescriptions and her mom had the therapy bills to prove it.
“Anyway,” Jordan said as she turned the doorknob. “I wanted you to know we’re not so different.”
But we’re not the same either, Daphne thought sadly.
Once Jordan shut her bedroom door, Daphne hurried to the bathroom. She threw the lock and bent over the smooth sink, steadying her nerves.
She glanced at the mirror and gasped. If she wasn’t in control of her thoughts, she would have thought the Other Daphne had tried pushing her way to the surface.
Her red-brown hair looked limp and her dark brown eyes seemed sunken into their sockets. Her skin was so ghostly pale that Daphne could see long-forgotten freckles standing out awkwardly across her nose and cheeks.
Daphne sighed, crawled down next to the toilet, and made a mental note to swear off bacon cheeseburgers for a while.
When she felt better, Daphne quietly slipped back into Tana’s bedroom.
She needed space. Air. She wasn’t going to get that stuck inside all morning.
Noiselessly, Daphne slipped back into Tana’s room and changed into presentable daywear. She had almost finished lacing her sneakers when a noise of discomfort came from among the bed sheets.
Tana stretched, blinking back the light from her eyes. She yawned, her mouth open too wide for what Daphne expected from the petite girl. She glanced at her bedside desk and the time on her phone.
Tana spoke with a voice filled with the gravel of sleep. “Morning. We’re cousins, right?”
“Yeah. Daphne.” She shoved her wallet into her pants pocket, trying to move f aster and get out of the way.
“I remember. We met when your dad died. I’m Tana.” She swung her legs out of bed. A deflated argyle sock hugged one foot. Daphne spotted the other one poking out from between the sheets.
Tana smiled. “Going for a walk around town? Want some company?”
Daphne almost said, Thanks, but I’m a loner, I’m bad news. You should keep away.
Then Daphne remembered they needed to live together in the same cramped box of a bedroom. This was Tana’s life she was in, complete with lacey trimmed curtains, multicolored braided throw rugs and… and…
Daphne stepped in close to examine the glossy pictures on the wall around the doorway. The Other Daphne stretched in her mind, intrigued as much as she was.
“What kind of cats are these?”
Tana pushed up onto her knees, bright eyes shining with delight as she pointed to explain.
“This little one’s an ocelot. The all-black ones with the super faint spots are melanistic jaguars. And the rest are mountain lions. Cougars. Pumas. Whatever you want to call them. It’s the same cat.”
Daphne’s eye caught on one cat in a snow-filled forest, torn from a nature magazine. She ran a thumb over the glossy picture as though petting the real animal.
The cat’s tawny coat had a red sheen to it. Cream-colored fur spilled along its strong jaw and throat in stark contrast with the darker edges of its muzzle and black tipped ears. It was truly stunning.
Her darker side purred.
Daphne turned from the collage to take in the room with fresh eyes. Behind Tana, she saw the glass eyes of curious cat plushies peeking out from between the pillows.
Daphne said, “You really like cats.”
“Sure. Among other things.” Tana laughed and plopped back onto her comforter. Daphne had thought the blanket had a zebra’s pattern, but now realized it imitated a white tiger’s fur.
Tana rolled onto her side to stare with wide hazel eyes at Daphne. “Let’s get out of here,” she said as she bounced off the bed to gather clothes. “You didn’t eat lunch yet, right? My treat. What do you want?”
Daphne blinked hard. “Anything that isn’t burgers.”
Tana gave her a hard look but smiled anyway.
“Cool. Let me leave a note for Jordy.” Tana rolled her eyes and said, “She thinks she’s the mom these days.”
Daphne chuckled. “I noticed.”
While Tana stripped off her remaining sock and dug around for her sandals, Daphne wondered about her cousin. She was not at all like her sister. If Jordan was in charge of the ward, Daphne knew who to ask about stealing the keys to smoke in the bathroom.
Daphne stepped out into the kitchen to let Tana change.
She leaned against the fridge and contemplated the over-abundance of cat paraphernalia in the bedroom. Daphne felt it too much of a coincidence that Tana obsessed over bigger cats more than she did.
Tana was around the age she had been when she first met the Other Daphne, too.
Maybe the petite strawberry-blonde had secret Rage Monster issues. Someday soon, Tana could find curved claws pushing through where green painted fingernails used to be. Maybe she would wake up living with a cousin she hardly knew, a dozen half-remembered fistfights trailing behind her.
Daphne could help Tana through the changes. It didn’t have to be painful and confusing.
The idea of being there for someone comforted her. She smiled to herself as Tana emerged, dressed in a tattered vintage yellow shirt and black jean shorts with a studded belt. Her socks were paisley now and came up to her knees.
Daphne felt weirdly underdressed but tromped down the apartment’s back staircase after Tana anyway.
They marched toward Main Street.
As her cousin launched into vivid descriptions of the local eats, Daphne saw how content Tana was to be out and doing things with a new person. Her life wasn’t a deadly balancing act to control two halves of her own mind. She simply existed.
It was something Daphne wasn’t able to do any more.
Daphne’s heart panged with guilt. She took it all back. She wouldn’t wish what she was going through on anyone.