Edition 9: Born Again by Nu Yang
Horror is about making the reader uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, whether it is with the sledgehammer of shock, or the subtle descriptive form that creeps the reader out as the narrative progresses. Nu Yang does the latter very well indeed, and we are pleased to have her return to SQ Mag in this story about a supernatural event that is closely tied with one of the most tumultuous events in US history in this century. GH
The note came on a Monday.
Dear Mr. Fisher,
I would like to meet with you sometime this week to discuss Maribel’s behavior in class. Please contact me at the school at your earliest convenience.
Sincerely, Mrs. Allen
When Ryan asked his daughter what her fifth grade teacher wanted to speak about, Maribel shrugged. “I think it might be about this history report I did.” She was huddled over her homework at the dining table. “She told me to see her after class when I turned it in.”
“What did she tell you?” Ryan asked.
“Just that she didn’t like what I wrote.” Maribel chewed on her bottom lip. Her green eyes stayed downcast.
Ryan leaned against the kitchen counter. “Do you have the report with you?”
“No, Mrs. Allen kept it.”
He folded the note and put his hands on his hips. “Okay, tell your teacher I’ll meet with her tomorrow after school when I come pick you up.”
Maribel lifted her head. “Am I in trouble?”
He sighed and moved to her, placing a gentle hand on top of her curly red hair. “No, you’re not in trouble.”
“Because I did the assignment right.”
“So, what did you have to write about?”
“We had to pick an event that happened in the last twenty years and write about how it impacted us. I picked 9/11.”
Ryan lifted his brows at her selection, but it wasn’t that unusual for him. The anniversary was a week away, and Maribel had been born ten months after the terrorist attacks. She had grown up in a world that always knew about 9/11; of course, there would be an impact on her. But what exactly did she write in that report that would have caused this meeting with her teacher?
Ryan wasn’t used to doing these things: carpooling with the soccer moms, making sure Maribel had lunch money, and certainly not meeting with her teachers. Lisa had done these things right up to the moment she had asked Ryan for a divorce last year. Now his ex-wife was living with her boyfriend, Shawn, on the other side of town and the only time she had to worry about Maribel was on the weekends.
He left work early to make it to the meeting on time. The company’s website redesign would have to wait. As he approached the front double-doors of Kennedy Middle School, he had to maneuver around the mobs of kids, eager to end their school day. Boys and girls half his size nearly knocked him over with their swinging bookbags. Lockers slammed shut. A group of girls giggled past him talking about Justin’s new song. Whether it was Bieber or Timberlake, he wasn’t sure.
He smiled at the sight of Maribel standing outside her classroom door. She fiddled with the strap of her messenger bag hanging from her shoulder.
“Hey, it’s just a meeting,” he said.
“I’m not in trouble, right?” she asked again. “I don’t want to miss the game on Saturday. Coach said I could start this time.”
He narrowed his eyes and wondered again what she had written in that report. “Wait outside and I’ll be right out.”
“Okay.” She frowned and set her bag on the floor.
Ryan entered the classroom. Nostalgia hit him as he remembered shooting spitballs at Vanessa Gregson while his fifth grade teacher’s back was turned. He only did it to get Vanessa’s attention because he didn’t want to admit he had a big crush on her. Somehow it had worked because the following year, they ended up going out, which meant holding hands and making out in her parents’ basement for three whole months.
The black chalkboards had been replaced by dry erase boards and markers, and instead of encyclopedia sets lined up against the walls, there were four desktop computers. One thing still remained the same—the smell of mothballs and tuna fish sandwiches. A teacher’s smell.
“Mr. Fisher, nice to meet you.” Mrs. Allen looked like she was in her fifties. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a tight bun and despite the late August weather outside, she wore a navy wool blazer and skirt. She smiled, showing off the crow’s feet around her blue eyes. “Please sit down.”
He glanced at the tiny desk behind him, unsure how he was going to fit his thirty-five-year-old ass in that chair without breaking it.
“Here.” Mrs. Allen offered him the chair behind her desk. “I’ll stand.”
“Thanks.” He sat and folded his hands on his lap. Her desk was filled with student papers and one photo frame of a little girl with a red bow in her blonde hair.
“That’s my granddaughter Danielle,” Mrs. Allen said. “She just turned two.”
Mrs. Allen chuckled. “Looks can be deceiving. I’m afraid she’s entered the terrible twos stage.”
He smiled at the joke, but his stomach was still in knots for being called to this meeting. He felt like he was in the spotlight, not Maribel.
Her lips formed a straight line. “Mr. Fisher, I gave Maribel and the rest of her classmates an assignment last week to write about an important historical event that has impacted their lives.”
“Yes, Maribel told me.”
“So you know she wrote about 9/11 then.” Mrs. Allen picked up a stack of papers on her desk and handed him one. “See for yourself.”
He pursed his lips together as he took the paper from her. Who did this teacher think she was, causing Maribel to worry like this just for doing her assignment?
The paper had been typed out on white computer paper. One sheet. Ten lines.
The people are screaming.
The people are crying.
I fly with mechanical wings.
Two towers in my sight.
It will rain soon.
Fire and ash.
Never forget me.
Don’t forget me.
The ride home was quiet. Mrs. Allen had let Ryan take Maribel’s assignment home with him. “I hope you speak with her about this, Mr. Fisher,” she had said. “As you can see, it was very disturbing for me to read.”
When Ryan parked the car in the driveway, neither he nor Maribel moved. He shut off the engine and breathed in deep. Where should he start?
Maribel spoke first. “It was just a stupid poem, Dad.”
“You know you can talk to me about anything, right, sweetie? If you have any questions about anything—I know there’s a lot of stuff going on about 9/11 right now—just ask me anything and I’ll do my best to answer.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“So, you don’t have any questions?”
“No.” She chewed on her lip again. A nervous tic she had picked up from Lisa. It was something his ex-wife used to do all the time when she used to tell him she had to work late again when she was really with Shawn.
Ryan let out a breath. He didn’t want to worry Maribel any longer. “Wanna order pizza for dinner?”
She grinned. “Can we get ham and pineapple?”
“Sure, and we’ll even get cheese sticks.”
“Yes!” She clasped her hands together and leaned over to peck his cheek. “Thanks, Dad.”
He watched Maribel bounce out of the car. Meanwhile, her poem lingered in his pocket and in his mind.
Like any American on Sept. 11, 2001, Ryan remembered where he was that day. He had just moved to Toledo from Akron and settled with his new bride, Lisa, in their first apartment. He had just clocked in at work and sat down behind his computer before the entire office erupted in chaos with the news: America had been attacked. He immediately called Lisa at home. She told him she was watching the entire thing happen on television.
“Come home, Ryan,” she said.
They spent the rest of the day holding each other on the couch as every TV station replayed the terrifying images over and over. Planes. Falling people. Towers collapsing. Fire. Dust clouds. Tears. Pain. Grief.
Ryan and Lisa made love that night, clinging to each other in a hopeless and broken world. They received good news a couple weeks later; Lisa was pregnant. In that moment, he vowed he would always protect his child.
Ryan remembered that promise as he met with Lisa for lunch the next day. She worked as an account executive for a technology firm near his office building. When they were married, they used to grab a bite to eat together on their lunch breaks until she claimed she was getting “swamped” with work. He found out later that meant meeting her co-worker, Shawn, at the Holiday Inn for a quickie.
Lisa was already waiting for him inside the sandwich shop. She shared Maribel’s wavy red hair and emerald eyes. Her nose and cheeks were dusted with freckles. Once upon a time, he knew the exact number of freckles on her ivory face.
“You’re late,” she said.
“You know how work can get,” he said, smoothing out the crease in his khakis. “I was swamped.”
She crossed her arms. “Are we here to eat or fight, Ryan?”
“Neither.” He leaned back in his chair. “I had an interesting meeting with Maribel’s teacher yesterday.”
“She got in trouble for writing a poem.” Ryan removed the folded paper from his front pocket and slid it over to her.
Lisa’s eyes widened as she read each line. “What is this?”
“According to Maribel, it represents a historical event that has impacted her. In this case, it’s 9/11.”
“Jesus, Ryan, what are you doing to our daughter? I told you to keep her away from the television especially with all this anniversary shit that’s on.”
“Maribel hates TV, you know that.” He gestured to the poem. “Honestly, I have no idea where this even came from. I tried to get her to talk to me, but she won’t open up.”
“Of course she won’t.”
“What does that mean?”
“Like you would even listen to her.”
“Oh, damn it, Lisa—”
“See what I mean?”
He silenced himself, knowing he would regret whatever came out of his mouth next.
“Well, maybe she’s still intrigued with planes,” Lisa said.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t remember how she used to always draw planes? Or how she used to sleep with that toy plane my dad got for her birthday?”
“The one with the broken wing?”
“Yeah, and when we threw it out, she couldn’t sleep for days.”
They shared a smile, but it was only fleeting as Ryan realized how much had changed since they had become new parents.
“I think I put those pictures in storage in the attic,” Lisa said. “I was going to put them in a scrapbook, but…”
You decided to leave us and move in with your lover?
Ryan was thankful when his cell phone rang. Any moment now, he would have said out loud what he really thought.
“Mr. Fisher, this is Nurse Wilcox from Maribel’s school,” said the woman’s voice on the other line.
Ryan’s chest tightened. “Is Maribel okay?”
Lisa sat up at the question.
“She’s been vomiting all morning,” the nurse said. “I’m afraid she might have the flu, but you should probably pick her up as soon as you can.”
“I’ll be right there.” He hung up and stood.
“What’s wrong?” Lisa asked.
Lisa chewed on her bottom lip. “I should get back to work, but you’ll take care of it, won’t you?”
He picked up the poem and stuffed it back into his pocket. “I always do.”
Ryan spent the rest of the day in urgent care. Afterward, the doctor told him Maribel had a case of food poisoning and to take her home for plenty of rest and to drink lots of fluids.
“Maybe it was the pizza,” she mumbled into her pillow as she crawled under her blanket.
It didn’t make sense to Ryan. Maribel’s favorite toppings had always been ham and pineapple and they had ordered the pizza from their usual place.
Once Maribel was asleep, he climbed the stairs to the attic. Fuzzy yellow light washed over the room, revealing Maribel’s crib, cardboard boxes filled with baby clothes, his old video game consoles he had to give up once he became a father, and hidden in a back far corner were the belongings Lisa had left behind.
He rummaged through some of the cardboard boxes. One was filled with Lisa’s college textbooks and a couple of pregnancy books. Another was filled with old picture frames of her sorority sisters. When he caught a glimpse of the younger Lisa—the one he had fallen in love with all those years ago—it made his heart ache.
He reached for a third box. Bingo. Lisa’s forgotten scrapbook project. Stickers. Colored paper. Glitter pens. He found Maribel’s drawings buried under a pile of red ribbon. Lisa was right. Their daughter had some kind of fascination with planes. Each drawing had a plane in the background, the sky, on the ground. As he flipped through the pages, his stomach churned at what else started to appear. Two towers.
A scream erupted from downstairs. He dropped the drawings and raced to his daughter’s bedroom. Maribel sat up in bed, tears running down her flushed face. She clutched her blanket and gasped for air.
“Shh…” Ryan embraced her. “It’s alright.”
Maribel wiped her eyes and pulled away. “It was just a bad dream.” She sniffed. “I’m okay.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head and sank back down into the mattress. “It was nothing.”
Ryan hesitated before asking, “Was it the Pilot?”
Maribel’s silence told him yes.
The Pilot started appearing in Maribel’s dreams when she was around seven years old. He would come and go, but each time she dreamed about her boogeyman, she woke crying, begging to sleep in her parents’ bed. After a while, she said she didn’t want to do that anymore; she was ten years old now. She couldn’t run to her mom and dad every time she had a bad dream.
“Maybe it will help if you tell me about your dream.” He patted her arm. “My mom used to say if you share your dreams with others, it invites the Sandman to help kids dream good dreams.”
“The Sandman isn’t real,” Maribel said, rolling her eyes.
“And neither is the Pilot.”
She twisted her fingers together. “I was reading my poem to the Pilot. We were standing in a burning building, and he wouldn’t let me leave until I finished reading it. But he kept making me repeat it, so each time I read it, the fire got hotter, and I could feel my skin burning.”
Ryan’s chest tightened. He wanted to protect his daughter in every aspect, even in her nightmares. He gathered her in her arms again. This time, she allowed him.
“Can I sleep with you tonight, Dad?” she asked.
He squeezed her tight. “Of course.”
Another note arrived the following Monday.
Dear Mr. Fisher,
I would like to meet with you sometime this week to discuss Maribel’s behavior in class…
Now, Ryan was sitting in Mrs. Allen’s classroom again. The teacher reclined against a student’s desk and gave him a stern look as he sat behind her desk.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
Mrs. Allen crossed her arms across a wool blazer. She must have a closet full of them. His skin started to itch just thinking about it.
“The problem is Maribel has stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance in class,” she said.
“What do you mean?” His gaze moved to the red, white, and blue flag hanging on the back wall.
“I mean, she refuses to stand and recite the pledge with the rest of the classroom.”
Ryan rubbed his chin. “Okay, I’ll talk to her about that.”
“I don’t believe you are aware of the situation, Mr. Fisher. Your daughter’s behavior is disrupting the class.”
“Yeah, well, maybe her feet hurt or something. Did you ever think about that?”
Mrs. Allen folded her hands together. “I understand this might be hard for you to hear, but Maribel’s poem and now her refusal to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance raises some questions for me.” She softened her voice. “I know divorce is hard for any young child—”
“Are you saying I’m not doing a good job?” Ryan rose from his seat. “That somehow I’m messing up my kid?”
“I never said that—”
“Listen, Mrs. Allen, I appreciate your concern, but Maribel is fine.” He waved a hand across the classroom. “Maybe you should start worrying about some other kid, okay?”
“I only ask that you sit down with Maribel and listen, Mr. Fisher, really listen to what she has to say.”
His shoulders slumped. Maybe Lisa and Mrs. Allen had a point. Maybe he didn’t want to listen to Maribel because he didn’t know what he would say in return.
Ryan shuffled through Maribel’s drawings. He studied each scene, each plane, each tower, then compared it to what he saw on his television screen. With 9/11 a few days away, it was hard to escape from the images of that day. Had Maribel become fascinated with it? Is that why she drew planes and towers and dreamed about a boogeyman named the Pilot?
The front door opened and Maribel scrambled inside the living room, dressed in her soccer uniform. “Dad, I scored two goals at practice today!” Her grin faded when she saw the TV news. “I’m going to my room now.”
“Maribel, come here.” Ryan set the drawings down on the coffee table.
She groaned. “Did you go talk to Mrs. Allen again? Am I trouble?”
“No, you’re not in trouble. I just want to talk.”
She dragged her feet to join him on the couch.
Ryan cleared his throat. How was he going to start this conversation?
“Where did you get these?” Maribel asked, picking up her drawings.
“In the attic. Your mom was saving them.”
“Get rid of them.” She tore the pictures in two. “They’re horrible and ugly and stupid and—”
“Maribel!” Ryan grabbed her hands. “Stop it.”
Her eyes watered as she tossed the pieces to the carpet.
“Baby.” He hugged her and realized she was shaking. “What is it? Tell me. Please, tell me.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. “You won’t believe me.”
He stroked her soft hair. “Of course, I will.”
She pulled back and took in a deep breath. “The Pilot made me draw those pictures.”
His fear had come true—he didn’t know how to respond.
“See? You don’t believe me,” she said, recoiling from him.
“No, baby, I do. It’s just that—I told you, the Pilot isn’t real.”
She crossed her arms. “He is.”
“Did he also tell you not to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance in class?” he asked.
Maribel dug her soccer cleats into the carpet. “He said if I did, he would leave my dreams.”
“Leave your dreams?”
“Yeah, and come into the real world where you and Mom live.”
The room started to shrink. Ryan inhaled and chose his next question wisely. “Do you talk to the Pilot a lot in your dreams?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I talk to him like I’m talking to you right now, but he talks funny. I can still understand him though.” She picked up the remote and turned up the volume. “He talks like them.”
Ryan’s gaze moved to the TV as a Middle Eastern reporter spoke into the camera. He shivered at what he heard. The Pilot spoke Arabic.
Ryan met Lisa for lunch again. This time, Lisa didn’t look as annoyed as she waited for him inside the sandwich shop.
“Thanks for meeting me,” he said.
“You sounded worried.” She folded her arms on the table. “Is it about Maribel?”
“Yeah.” He scratched his jaw. “She’s dreaming about the Pilot again.”
Lisa’s brows knitted. “I thought she had outgrown that.”
“I think the dreams are connected with her behavior in school. The poem about 9/11. The planes. Refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. It all ties together.”
“How?” Lisa asked.
“I think the Pilot is real like Maribel says, but he’s more like a spirit, a very bad spirit.”
Lisa tilted her head. “Do you hear yourself, Ryan? You’re saying our daughter is being haunted by a ghost.”
He didn’t blink. “Yeah, I know.”
She put up her hands in surrender. “Now I know where Maribel gets her imagination.”
“I’m serious, Lisa. You don’t see Maribel at home. She’s terrified—absolutely terrified—to go to bed alone. She understands Arabic—”
Lisa’s green eyes bulged. “What?”
“The Pilot speaks Arabic to her in her dreams.”
She stood, shaking her head. “I don’t have time for this nonsense, Ryan. If this is how you’re raising Maribel, maybe I should call my lawyer.”
He grabbed her wrist. “Hear me out, Lisa, listen, please, just listen. That’s what I did with Maribel and I’m just telling you what I heard.”
She sighed and sank back into her chair.
“I want to take Maribel to talk to someone,” he said.
“You mean like a shrink?”
“More like a hypnotist.”
Lisa rubbed her temples. “You can’t be serious.”
“You want her to stop being afraid of the Pilot, don’t you?”
“I want her stop being afraid, period.”
“Then, come with me tomorrow.” He took hold of her wrist again, this time, gently. “Please, we both need you there.”
She looked down at his hand on her. “Okay.”
“Close your eyes, Maribel.”
Dr. Perry, the hypnotist, had been recommended by Ryan’s co-worker who said he had helped her find repressed memories of child abuse and helped her forgive her father and move on. Dr. Perry reminded Ryan of Santa Claus with his burly frame, white hair, fluffy beard and wire-framed glasses. Hopefully Maribel saw the resemblance too.
In Dr. Perry’s office, Ryan and Lisa sat across from their daughter as she followed his instructions. Ryan held in his breath as the doctor continued speaking softly.
“Listen to my voice, Maribel, and only my voice. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Imagine a happy place. A safe place. Only you know about this place. Are you there?”
“Yes, I’m in bed with my mom and dad.”
Ryan shared an uneasy look with Lisa. They may no longer love each other, but they still loved Maribel.
“If you get scared, go there, do you understand?” Dr. Perry said.
“Now, tell me about the Pilot.” His calm tone shifted to stern as though he was disciplining Maribel.
She tensed, silent.
Lisa took Ryan’s hand into hers. He squeezed her palm in return.
“Maribel, tell me about the Pilot,” Dr. Perry repeated.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” she said.
Dr. Perry leaned forward. “Why not?”
“He says he’ll leave my dreams and come into the real world where my mom and dad are.”
Ryan’s breathing hitched as Lisa tightened her hold of him.
“And you don’t want that to happen, Maribel?” Dr. Perry said.
“No because he’ll hurt them. He hurt a lot of other people before.”
Maribel’s voice softened. “Before I was born.”
Dr. Perry glanced over at Ryan and Lisa. “And when were you born, Maribel?”
“April 16, 2002.”
Ryan remembered that day well. The tears he cried when he first heard Maribel’s wails as she entered the world. Cutting her umbilical cord. Holding his tiny daughter in his arms. Knowing that Maribel had been conceived on 9/11, the darkest day in recent history, made him see his newborn daughter as a miracle.
“Why does the Pilot live in your dreams?” Dr. Perry asked.
“I don’t want him to hurt people.”
“So, if he leaves your dreams, he will hurt people here in the real world?”
Maribel let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes, I already told you that.”
Dr. Perry scribbled something down in his notepad. “I want you to keep talking about the Pilot.”
She hesitated. “No.”
“Listen to my voice, Maribel, and only voice. Are you listening?”
“Tell me about the Pilot.” He clapped his hands together and Maribel straightened her back as though an alarm had sounded.
Her face twisted. “The people are screaming. The people are crying. I fly with mechanical wings.”
Dr. Perry’s eyes narrowed with confusion, but Ryan recognized the poem. Lisa gasped with him.
“Two towers in my sight. It will rain soon. Fire and ash,” Maribel continued. “Never forget me. Don’t forget me. Remember.” She became silent. Her hands gripped her armrests.
Ryan’s heart hammered in his chest. He reached out for his daughter, whose eyes were still closed. “Maribel, baby—”
She shouted, this time, in another language. Feverish Arabic rushed through her lips.
“Maribel!” Lisa cried out.
Ryan jumped to his feet.
“Stay back!” Dr. Perry rose with him. “Maribel, go to your safe place right now. Listen to my voice. Go to your safe place.”
Ryan ignored the doctor’s command and knelt in front of Maribel as she continued to spew Arabic. Her eyes squeezed shut. Blood trickled from her nostrils. What was happening to her?
“Maribel, baby, open your eyes,” he said, stroking her hair. “Baby, open your eyes for daddy.”
Her eyes flew open. They did not belong to his daughter.
Nu Yang resides in Southern California, although she is a Midwest girl at heart. She is the associate editor with a publishing company as well as the assistant editor with New Myths, an online speculative magazine. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies. Nu is a 2006 graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and a June 2009 graduate of the Writing Popular Fiction Master’s program at Seton Hill University. When she’s not writing, she sings karaoke, watches too much television, and daydreams about demon hunters, supernatural monsters, and the occasional love story.
Previous work by Nu Yang in SQ Mag: Duet (Issue 2)