WAKING

By Jenna Reback

Mermade Stories
MERMADE STORIES

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A teenage girl with anterograde amnesia finds herself accused of murder.

Art by Emily Flake

DAY 01

“Emma,” Mom says, “We need to talk.” I’m poking at my soggy cereal, a headache buzzing behind my eyes. It’s the first day of winter break, and Mom and Dad woke me up at the crack of dawn. Daisy’s still asleep, which is how I already knew I was in trouble.

Pia’s party last night was epic. The kind of party that will live on in Jackson High School lore long after we’ve graduated from college. I barely remember anything after my third shot, and I have no idea how I got home.

I brace myself for a lecture about the dangers of underage drinking: arrest, injury, God forbid death, and anyway, colleges have rescinded acceptances for less. My parents are sure that if it weren’t for the corrupting influence of my best friend Pia, I would spend Saturday nights at home, curled up with All the President’s Men or Bad Blood or Catch and Kill. It never occurs to them to blame Graham. Or me.

As Mom starts talking about Pia’s party, I’m barely listening. Until she says something that makes my heart rise to my throat. I’m sure I’ve misheard her, so I ask her to repeat it. She does.

Mom says Pia’s party wasn’t last night. It was two months ago.

Pia’s house is at the top of a hill. During her party, I fell from the steep driveway into the ravine right beside it. I was concussed for a week. I stayed in the hospital for six. Now I have something called anterograde amnesia.

My brain can’t form new memories.

All at once, the kitchen snaps into focus around me. I see how tired my parents look. How old. I run a hand through my hair, my nervous habit, and feel that it’s longer than it should be. The sunshine streaming in through the window is far too bright for December, and the ache behind my eyes radiates through my skull.

I hear the pained cry before I realize it’s coming from me. My dad closes the window. My mom pours me a cup of coffee, which I’ve never been allowed to have. They move with practiced urgency, and I realize they’ve done this before.

We sit quietly in the dark until my migraine subsides. Dad tells me these episodes are less and less frequent; they used to happen several times a day. A wisp of thought appears before me, and my mind grabs for it: I’m glad I don’t remember that.

But of course, that’s not true. I want to remember.

This can’t be real.

Now my Dad starts talking. They’ve clearly divided up their parts in this speech, as if they’re pitching a potential new client for the little ad agency they co-own. But their voices are flat, their glazed eyes not meeting mine.

I wonder if I look as different to them as they look to me.

Dad says physical therapy helps. Light therapy too, whatever that is, and something called naturopathy. I no longer eat red meat, gluten, dairy, or refined sugar. I take herbs, supplements, and pharmaceutical medication from a prestigious clinical trial.

Slowly but surely, it’s all working. It’s not just that my migraines aren’t as bad. When I first awoke from my concussion, I couldn’t remember anything from two months before my fall. Now, I’m starting to remember things, even from the night of Pia’s party.

I realize my dad is right. I can summon snatches of loud music and laughter, shots with Pia, making out with Graham under the mistletoe. And —

“Lara was at that party.”

Mom crumples. Dad clenches his jaw.

“I told you she was out to get me, and neither of you believed me. And now — ”

Dad stands and storms out of the room. Mom winces her eyes closed and says I got accepted to Duke Journalism School. As long as I stick to my treatment plan and normal daily routine from before my accident, I’ll be able to start there this autumn. Just like I always wanted. And things are better at school. “No one bothers you anymore.”

“What Lara did was way beyond bothering me.” Lara is the head cheerleader at Jackson High. The police have never been able to prove she was the one who trashed the student newspaper office, slashed my tires, posted lies about me all over social media. But she was. “She did this to me, didn’t she?”

Mom presses her lips into a tight little line. “Focus on getting better. Forget about Lara.”

My medications are all different shapes and colors. Every hour I’m set to take something: A red circle. Two beige oblongs. A white rectangle. I worry about the pills in my hands as Daisy drives us to school.

Before my fall, Daisy’s uniform was baggy plaid shirts and shapeless cargo pants. Now, she’s wearing high-waisted jeans, flashy jewelry, a crop top that our parents are apparently fine with.

“How’s Graham?” I ask. He’s texted me a kissy face during breakfast. Pia sent me a picture of Steve Buscemi.

“You’re still together. He’s going to UNC in the fall, right next door. It’s exactly like you wanted.”

I don’t say anything, but she knows I’m grateful.

At school, people watch me out of the corners of their eyes. My locker is decorated with paper hearts and well wishes, as though I’m dead. Daisy and Pia chat too loudly and laugh too hard to make up for the weirdness. I find myself holding my breath. Studying every poster taped up in the hallway, every detail of who got a new hairstyle and what cliques have changed and who looks happy to see me, which is almost no one.

I used to be popular, or at least popular adjacent. I didn’t fit in with Lara and the other cheerleaders. Too nerdy. But my boyfriend Graham is the outgoing football team quarterback, and Lara’s boyfriend Beau is the star wide receiver. Graham isn’t good enough to play at the next level. But Beau is. He got three scholarship offers from SEC schools. And thanks to my reporting in the Jackson Gazette, he could have lost them all. Of course he didn’t. But his name is a national punchline now, shorthand for the farce of being a so-called student-athlete.

And I, who dared to attack a high school football player in East Tennessee?

“Bitch,” hisses Celine as she breezes by. Celine is the Gazette sportswriter, the cheerleader wannabe who has made hating me her personal cause along with Lara. Lara barely acknowledges Celine, but it doesn’t stop Celine from trying.

I look away, and in that split second Daisy has shoved Celine to the ground and is kicking her in the stomach. Celine screams. I scream. I grab for Daisy, but Pia holds me back. A bystander grabs Daisy’s hair. She whirls around like an MMA fighter and punches them.

“Stop,” Graham yells, shoving through the crowd. As Daisy freezes to look at him, hands pull Celine to her feet.

“Murderer,” Celine howls as she’s whisked down the corridor.

Graham wraps me in his arms, offering reassurances. I can’t make out his words. I watch my little sister, vibrating with rage, storm past another locker decorated with far more hearts and well-wishes than mine. In the center is a big paper heart with the words, We love you, Lara.

Celine’s cry echoes in my mind: Murderer.

But Celine wasn’t yelling at Daisy.

She was yelling at me.

DAY 02

Deepthroat.

As I brush my teeth, I see the word scrawled on my hand. I don’t remember writing it there, but that’s not surprising. Pia’s party was crazy. I think I’m still drunk.

I keep my copy of All the President’s Men on the bookshelf in my bedroom. But when I pick it up, I realize it’s hollow. Inside is a prepaid phone I’ve never seen before.

There’s almost nothing in it: no apps, no contacts. Only one text, which it looks like I sent myself.

The text says that Lara is missing. She was last seen at Pia’s party, which was not last night but two months ago. That same night, I fell and lost my ability to retain new memories. I see my long hair in the mirror.

I panic. I cry. And then, fighting back the rising ache behind my eyes, I keep reading.

Local news says Lara was wearing a red dress, white platform sneakers, and the red hair ribbon all the cheerleaders have.

I grab my regular phone and flick through all the photos and videos of Pia’s party I can find on social media. Most of them are the blurry, useless stuff you’d expect: people cheering as someone does a keg stand, thudding bass and swaying bodies.

But one photo sticks with me. It’s from Graham’s Finsta. In the foreground, Graham and I pose with wide, drunk grins. In the background, Pia appears to be talking seriously to Lara. Beau lurks behind them. Daisy stands awkwardly in the corner, watching nervously.

It’s the last thing anyone posted from the party that night. That I can find, at least.

Inside the cover of my hollow book, I’ve written a note to myself:

3 possible things happened at Pia’s party.

  1. You coincidentally fell at the exact same time Lara disappeared.
  2. Lara pushed you, then ran away.
  3. Someone pushed you, then kidnapped or hurt Lara.

I look up to see Mom standing in the doorway with a police detective. Two months after Lara’s disappearance, they’re talking to everyone who was at Pia’s party again. If there’s anything new that I remember, even the smallest detail, it might help.

The detective looks muddled and impossibly far away, distorted by the pain clouding my eyes. But the expression on Mom’s face is clear: a warning. So I don’t mention how Lara tortured me after my article about Beau came out. They already know. I don’t ask who’s investigating my fall either. The answer to that question is clear: just me.

Instead, I share what I can remember of Pia’s party. That I don’t recall Lara at all.

Mom thanks the detective for his time. He ignores her cue to leave and asks me what Daisy confronted Lara about that night. Head ringing and desperate to defend my sister, I don’t realize the trap being laid until it’s too late.

“Daisy didn’t confront Lara,” I say, remembering Graham’s photo. “It was Lara and Pia.”

DAY 03

Emma, it’s Emma. We’re a suspect now.

Not that my parents tell me. According to the notes on my burner phone, they give me the same speech every morning almost word for word. They believe in miracles and authority figures and that somehow, things always work out in the end. I wasn’t like them, even before my accident. I’m sure they’ve decided what happened yesterday was a good thing, because it means that my memory is coming back.

They’re choosing to ignore what even I, reeling and with no memory, can see clearly: The detective thinks I’m a liar.

I don’t tell my parents I’m scared. If I do, they’ll find my burner phone and take it away. After my reporting on Beau, they wanted me to resign from being editor-in-chief of the Gazette. They’re proud of me, but it makes them uncomfortable that I’m always picking things apart. Always trying to catch the lie, find the secret, drag the hidden truth into the light.

But now the story is me.

I spend the morning at the hospital. In the pool, I stretch my neck and arms, my spine shuddering when I bend too far. Practicing somersaults, my feet kicking up into the air as the water rushes past my face, I feel a faint, absurd twinge of something like joy. I remember my baptism almost a decade ago, the rush of being reborn in Christ. I’ve never been a believer, but the look of pride on my parents’ faces then made me feel closer to a higher power than I ever had before.

Now, I’m being reborn again. Cleansed by water, forged by fire.

After physical therapy, I shower and follow a nurse to the neurology wing. There, I lay in a tube as country music plays, willing myself to imagine I’m alone in the mountains under an endless rolling sky.

When I emerge, the neurologist makes small talk before asking if I was happy before my accident. If she recalls correctly, I was being bullied. It sounds like I might have been stressed or sad. I ask why she’s asking, and the neurologist takes my hands.

“Emma, honey, your brain scans look totally normal.”

DAY 04

Emma, it’s Emma. No one wants to help us.

At school, Celine is aggressively trying to be my friend. She’ll tell me that the backup quarterback and his girlfriend broke up, when yesterday she said they’re going to prom tomorrow. She’ll mention that we’re reading Beowulf in English class when I know from my burner phone that we’re reading Canterbury Tales.

Another trap. But this time, I don’t fall for it.

When I finally ask Celine what she thinks happened to Lara, Celine takes out her phone and shines the flashlight in my eyes. The shock of pain makes me lose my balance.

“That’s for you and your sister,” Celine says as I struggle to my feet. “Let’s be honest, Emma. You could never pull off a murder alone.”

I run to the bathroom, wet a paper towel, and press it to my neck. I wait for the throbbing in my skull to subside.

Then I take a deep breath and go back out into the hall. Back to digging.

Beau tells me to keep his girlfriend’s name out of my mouth or he’ll put a fist through my face like he should have done months ago, back when I pretended to be his friend.

Pia says Lara told her that she was cheating on Beau with some college guy, who came to the party later. Daisy agrees. I know this isn’t true — every single person I’ve seen in the videos of the party goes to our high school — but I don’t say so. When I ask if they’re worried about being suspected themselves, they just stare at me like it’s never occurred to them.

Watching them together, I see how perfectly my sister’s new style mirrors my best friend’s. It’s not just Daisy’s new clothes or new haircut, or even the new jewelry that looks far more expensive than she or I could afford. It’s how Daisy and Pia finish each other’s sentences. How a random word will trigger peals of laughter, a reference to an inside joke I was there for the formation of but forgot the next day. When they think I’m not looking, Daisy’s hand brushes Pia’s.

“Daisy,” I tell her on the way home from school, “anyone but her.”

“We’re in love.”

“You know how she is with dating. The second she gets bored of you–”

“Emma, I would do literally anything to make you stop micromanaging my entire life.”

Graham, meanwhile, is constantly glued to his phone. From what my notes tell me, this is how he is now. He says he’s texting football guys, but he won’t let me see. I gather my courage and ask if he’s cheating.

“I’m not,” he answers. “I’ve never lied to you.”

There’s nothing I can say back to that. I wrote my article about Beau in secret, partly to avoid putting my boyfriend in the impossible position of having to choose between his teammate and me. But the article wasn’t really about Beau. It was about the superintendent who pressured teachers to give Beau passing grades even though he was barely literate, just so he could keep playing on the football team.

If anything, I exposed Beau as both a victim and a beneficiary of a broken education system. He’ll still graduate on time and attend college for free with multiple endorsement deals, while I, the presumptive valedictorian, rack up student debt. Graham never believed either Beau or Lara was my anonymous harasser–not just because they aren’t smart enough, but because the whole school hated me then. Especially after my article won an award. It could have been anyone.

Still, Graham always stood up for me. Yet when I bring up Lara, he tells me to stop.

“What if they never find her? Do you want me to show up at college with people whispering I’m a murderer?”

Graham just looks past me.

“Do you want to break up with me?”

“No,” Graham says, and I see the tears in his eyes. “Emma, I love you.”

DAY 05

Emma, it’s Emma. Anterograde amnesia has no cure.

The irony doesn’t escape me. I, an award-winning journalist, interviewed everyone I know to try to solve the mystery of where Lara is instead of doing the obvious thing first: a basic internet search about my own condition.

Maybe, at some level, I knew what I would find.

After I did, everything else fell apart. I discovered that the so-called medication I take is just over-the-counter sugar pills and herbs, some scammer naturopath exploiting my parent’s bottomless well of hope. My physical therapy is real; my body is improving, but my brain is broken beyond repair.

Or else, as the neurologist thinks, this is all just me making things up for attention.

If only.

I’m not going to Duke this fall. I’m not going anywhere. I will stay here in this town as everything about my life, even my own face in the mirror, slowly becomes unrecognizable.

Everyone who loves me has lied to me.

And everyone who hates me thinks I killed Lara.

DAY 06

Emma, it’s Emma. You can’t stop now.

I cut first period and go to the Gazette office. My log-in still works, and in the shared drive, I find a folder called LARA INVESTIGATION. In it is Lara’s not-yet-published senior portrait. Copies of Lara’s last social media posts: her new puppy playing with a toy, she and Beau in matching ugly Christmas sweaters.

And the draft of an article by Celine.

….I’ve spent countless hours with Lara since Emma’s story about Beau broke, some during the times that Lara was allegedly bullying her. Lara was frightened and confused by Emma’s accusations.

Shortly before she went missing, Lara came to me with a theory: Emma was orchestrating the harassment against herself. I was skeptical but intrigued. After all, Emma hadn’t yet been accepted to her fancy journalism school. Her attack piece on Beau might have won her an award from some committee in New York, but here at Jackson, it made her rightfully reviled.

Any normal person would have let this roll off their back. Ride out the year, head off to Duke, and never look back. But not Emma. Emma has a pathological need to look like the hero.

And the best way to do that? Play the victim.

I’ve constructed a timeline of all the alleged incidents that occurred in the weeks leading up to Lara’s disappearance, from the online threats to the destruction of property. You can see it below. Based on this, it’s only possible to reach one conclusion: Lara was right.

And if Emma was lying about the bullying, what else is she lying about?

My hand is shaking as I email the file to myself, then drag the original into the trash. Celine appears in the doorway. I freeze, bracing for her to scream or charge at me. Instead, she takes out her cell phone and records.

“Celine, this isn’t an article. It’s speculation, opinion and lies.”

She just smiles and keeps recording.

DAY 07

Emma, it’s Emma. We made a big mistake.

I’m still trying to process my memory loss when my parents rush into my room, and I barely put my phone away in time. Mom is crying. Dad is ghostly pale. They’re both talking at me, each yelling to be heard over the other, and I can’t understand what’s going on until Daisy pushes between them and hands me her phone.

On it is an email. To all of Jackson High School, from me.

Subject line: I killed Lara Tsai.

Celine had a backup copy of her article, which she had already sent to the police. Of course she did. Another trap I walked right into.

The police walk me through the timeline Celine has laid out. I tell them Celine is a shoddy journalist whose work always had to be heavily edited, usually by me. How she always hated me, even before my article on Beau came out. How both these claims can be verified by others on the newspaper staff.

What I don’t say is that I read Celine’s article too. I read it last night, which I don’t remember, but I took notes. Checked it against my social media, and Lara’s. Then I read it again this morning.

I don’t remember much from the weeks leading up to Pia’s party and my fall. But shadows of memory have started flickering in my mind: me, ripping papers in the Gazette office. Me, crouched next to my car with a knife.

I think Celine might be right. And the more the policemen talk, the clearer it becomes that they think so too.

My stomach twists. My palms are slick with sweat. I turned eighteen right before Christmas.

Why would I do something so stupid?

Now the policemen are talking about the email I sent to the entire school. They’re telling me I can confess now, and the rumpled, half-asleep man who is my court-appointed public defender and who I met right before walking in here, says I don’t have to say anything.

But I do. Because I’m better than this. Better than these mouth-breathing cops, better than this small-town lawyer who smells like booze, better than this shitty little town where some ignorant hick becomes a god because he can catch a ball and run.

I show the police that “my” confession says Lara’s body is “buried” under the oak tree behind Pia’s parents’ shed. I tell them that as an award-winning journalist, I’d never make that kind of an error.

And Pia’s parents don’t have a shed.

On the car ride home, Dad says I must have had some kind of mental break because of stress. He says he’s temporarily taking away my phone, and I breathe in gratitude for my burner.

Mom silently cries.

DAY 08

Emma, it’s Emma. Someone is setting us up.

At breakfast, my parents explain that I have anterograde amnesia but am expected to make a full recovery. For now, I’m doing school at home. I expect Mom’s dark-ringed eyes to cloud with tears, but they don’t. This is just one more horrible thing for her to adjust to on top of all the others.

Daisy, too, is unreadable. My notes to myself tell me she and Pia are dating, and that I told Daisy Pia would drop her the second she got bored. Daisy heads out to school without hugging me.

As soon as our parents leave for work, I go straight into her room.

I don’t know what makes me do it. I’m desperate, yes, but I also know now that I’m the kind of person who will do anything. In the back of her sock drawer, I find bands of cash. Bags of pills.

A single red hair ribbon, like all the cheerleaders wear.

I could stop looking now. I don’t.

In the back of Daisy’s closet, I find a pair of dirt-crusted white sneakers, far too small for my sister’s feet.

I cry until no more tears come. Then, like I always do, I make a plan.

I walk three miles. I’m careful. I take side streets and approach Celine’s house from the back. Then I take the plastic bag that contains Lara’s shoes and hair ribbon and dump it into a bush in Celine’s back yard.

You wouldn’t look here unless you knew to. This stuff could have been here for months.

I expect to feel bad, but I don’t.

As I turned to leave, my burner phone rings. My blood runs cold. I didn’t think anyone had this number.

“Emma,” Daisy’s voice says, “you see those woods down the street? Meet me there.”

Daisy isn’t alone. Pia is there too. So is Graham. And so is Beau.

The truth comes out in a jumble. Lara had come to Pia’s party to confront me about framing her for the harassment. Beau thought it was a bad idea, but he was pissed at me and wanted to see me get mine. He couldn’t risk coming at me himself without jeopardizing his football career. So Lara had volunteered to do it.

Wanting to calm her nerves before the showdown, Lara bought a pill from Pia. She wasn’t supposed to mix it with alcohol, but she did. Beau realized Lara was too messed up to do anything, much less talk to me. She wouldn’t listen to him. Pia tried to mitigate their conflict, which only succeeded in driving Lara towards me. Daisy tried to intervene, but I, drunk out of my mind, agreed to talk to Lara outside.

Graham decided to leave and was just trying to get home early. He didn’t know yet that I was the architect of my own bullying campaign, but he was tired of pretending he wasn’t conflicted about my story on Beau. He alone wasn’t drunk, just angry and distracted, and he didn’t see Lara or me in the driveway until it was too late.

I stepped out of the way in time, falling into the ravine.

As for Lara, Daisy pushed her in front of Graham’s car. She hadn’t wanted to kill Lara, just hurt her the way she thought Lara hurt me. It was a snap decision.

Beau liked Lara, but he loved his future more. He’d already survived one scandal, and he couldn’t bear another. He dumped her dead body in the woods.

“I will do anything for you, Emma,” Daisy says. “Even when you’re wrong. Just like you do for me. Pia and I got closer because I started dealing with her to help pay for your medical stuff.”

“You framed me for murder.”

“You tried to frame Celine,” Beau growls, stepping imposingly towards me. “And you framed Lara.”

Daisy puts a warning hand on his arm. “Emma,” she pleads, “you told us to do this. Last time.”

Daisy takes out her phone and plays a video. In it, all five of us stand in this same clearing. I’m begging them to let me take the blame for Lara’s death. I was the one who started everything. And besides, I have no future. But Daisy does.

We’ll frame me, I watch myself say, but in a way that no one could possibly believe it. We can’t be sure I won’t go public next time. I could be mad at you guys, and…

Past me can’t even finish that sentence, so I start a new one. I’ll give Daisy my email password. If I get too close to figuring this out again, send an email that makes me look crazy. The police will be thrown. And we’ll give me a burner phone that you can track. That way, you’ll be able to stop me before I try anything.

In the now that is the second time around for everyone else but a completely new reality for me, I force myself to look Beau hard in the face. “Lara was your girlfriend.”

“Goddammit Emma, I can’t make her un-dead. None of us can do any good here but you.”

They take Lara’s stuff from Celine’s backyard. Even Daisy says Celine doesn’t deserve a murder charge, and I don’t argue. It’s not up to me.

They’re going to leave Lara’s stuff somewhere else. Just in case I try to discover the truth again, I can find a fake clue. The one thing we all agree on is that I’ll never stop digging.

If this is the rest of my life, at least I’ll keep myself busy.

I promise to delete everything on my burner phone tonight. Start again from zero. When I get close to the truth again, Daisy will send another email from my account. I’ll already be the girl who cried wolf.

And Lara’s disappearance will remain solved.

Alone in my bedroom, I close my eyes.

DAY 09

I wake up to the sound of my phone ringing. Eyes shut, I fumble for my phone on the nightstand and grab only air.

The ringing is coming from across the room. From my bookshelf.

By the time I’ve opened my hollow copy of Deepthroat and found the burner phone inside, the ringing has stopped. I don’t recognize the number.

At first, the phone seems to have nothing in it. No apps, no contacts. But then, I see a note. Emma, this is Emma. We’re not supposed to know this, but we’re covering up a murder.

Suddenly, two texts come through in rapid succession from the number that just called. The words swim in front of my eyes, and I stare until they crystalize into horrible meaning.

Emma, it’s Lara. I’m alive.

Help me. You’re the only one who can.

Fuck.

***

JENNA REBACK is a television writer in Los Angeles.

For all inquiries, email info@hellomermade.com

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Mermade Stories
MERMADE STORIES

Mermade Stories is a publication of original short stories showcasing some of the brilliant writers we are working with.