By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: They called in the crew in the middle of the night.
Celeste pressed her knees together until her kneecaps ached and the muscles in her inner thighs stretched taut to the point of pain. Her father, hand on his hips, paced, a scowl fixed on his face. Every six or seven steps, he’d stop and turn in her direction as if to say something. Every time he checked himself and just kept pacing.
“I’m sorry, Pops,” she said in a quiet voice for what felt like the hundredth time. “I didn’t mean for it to go this far.”
“You weren’t thinking, Celeste,” he said, his voice as tight as her muscles. “When are you going to learn that you can’t just react. You have to think through your actions. You’re fourteen, for god’s sakes, not four.”
Heat rushed into her cheeks yet again. The situation wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Lucinda wasn’t supposed to…to…
She and her father both looked in the direction of the speaker. Pops had called in the cleaning crew in the middle of the night. The man standing in front of them held a mop parallel to the floor, the head still glowing an ugly red. The red of Lucinda’s blood.
She screwed her eyes tight.
“What is it, Cal?”
“I think we’re almost done here, sir, but the girl was strong. It’s been a…challenge to make sure all traces of her are gone.”
“Are you saying someone could still come back and figure out that Celeste—”
“I’m saying,” the man interrupted in a soft voice, “that this will be a little harder than…previous situations.”
Celeste opened her eyes, and they went straight to the mophead. The light caught the blood on it, but she knew what made it gleam was the magic Lucinda had. Used to have. Now all of that magic was gone, along with Lucinda, and Celeste’s entire plan had fallen apart. She didn’t have any extra magic; she didn’t have anything.
“Do what you have to do,” Pops said now, crossing his arms. “I’ll take care of the visits in the morning.”
“I want to come,” Celeste said, jumping to her feet. “I want to help.”
“But Lucinda’s family is going to wonder where she is, what happened to her. Someone has to tell them something, even if it’s a made-up story about why she’s—”
“Haven’t you lied enough already?” her father thundered, rounding on her. “You lied to me about why you needed to come into the lab. You lied about who you were going to be with today, and you lied about telling those not necessary about what we do here. In case you haven’t figured it out, Celeste, lies only bring pain and hurt and make things worse.”
She shrank back. Her father had always been the one to fix everything. Why couldn’t he see that she could help with that too now? She was old enough.
“I didn’t mean to bring Lucinda here,” she said in a small voice. “I only wanted to make something that would… I don’t know. Scare her a little.”
“You managed to do that.”
Celeste turned in the direction of the voice, wincing as she did. Lucinda still lay on the table where Celeste had strapped her down for their “experiment.” Someone—maybe a crew member—had untied the straps and helped bandage Lucinda up, but her color didn’t look so great.
“You scared me for sure,” Lucinda went on, “and you better believe I’m not going to mess with you again, Celeste. Or talk to you or even let my friends or our classmates talk to you. I’m definitely going to get the word out you’re not someone who can be one of us.”
Despite her father glaring back and forth between her and Lucinda, Celeste’s pulse picked up speed.
“This is why I did it, Pops,” she said, her breathing becoming a little shallow. “Do you see how mean and hateful she is?”
“Maybe she’s just reacting, Celeste.”
Her gaze zipped back to him. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” he said through a sigh, “that I think your little experiments are done. It means that somewhere along the way, you got the mistaken impression that you can get friends by forcing them to like you. Or forcing them to pay attention, at any rate. And it’s got to stop.”
She clenched her jaw for a moment. “You’re saying this is all my fault.”
“I’m saying that you need to unlearn some things. You need a break from all of this.”
“Your mother and I have talked about this several times,” he said, letting his gaze go to the cleaning crew. “We think you need a change of pace. A fresh start.”
To Lucinda it would look like he was just making sure the crew did their jobs, but Celeste got the distinct feeling her father didn’t want to meet her eyes.
“So, what, you’re going to send me to some fancy-pants boarding school?” she said. “This isn’t the 1950s, Pops. We don’t live in a black-and-white movie.”
He turned toward her and looked her straight in the eye.
“That’s what you don’t seem to get, Celeste,” he said. “This isn’t the movies where I’m going to swoop in and fix your problems for you every single time. At some point, you’ve got to learn things for yourself.”
She tried to stare him down, but after a few moments her gaze broke away and she hated herself for it.
“The car’s waiting for you,” he said. “Go home. Your mother’s packed some things. After that, you’ll take the car to the airport.”
Celeste wanted to throw back some smart remark, something that sounded grown up and put together. She couldn’t come up with anything. Instead, she stomped toward the door of the lab. At the last minute, she turned back for a single look at the scene.
I’ll go to your damn boarding school, Pops, but you better believe that I’m never coming back.
With that promise cementing her heart, she left.