Her eyes glaze over, her chest shakes with laughter, she falls onto her back and her fingers rake against the glaring white ground.
It was 2008.
It was a while ago when Ari first met her best friends.
She was five.
So it would have been 2006, right?
Yeah. Ten years ago she was five. Ten years ago was 2006.
So it was 2006 when Ari first met her best friends.
She spent all her time with them, running around the neighborhood, getting into trouble, yelling at everyone who crossed their bloody path, laughing.
She was six the first time her mom told her she couldn’t hang out with them anymore.
“You’re getting too old,” she had said.
Who gets too old to hang out with their friends?
Ari spent time with them anyway. She just conveniently forgot to mention it to her mom.
Her friends snuck in through her second-story bedroom window. They spent the night, but never went to sleep.
No matter how tired she was, they wouldn’t let Ari sleep either.
She was seven when she decided she didn’t want to be best friends with them anymore.
They were getting mean.
One of them, Rhamni, met Ari with a bright smile.
Her teeth weren’t white.
They weren’t teeth.
Dripping like ink. Staining her plump limps. Melded against her rotting gums. Where her teeth were, small stumps of blackened goop sat.
Rhamni didn’t seem to mind. She still talked and laughed the same.
Ari got over the new makeover fast.
She was in her later months of being seven when Rhamni first got angry.
They were all riding their bikes down Ari’s street when one of the other mom’s stopped them. She stood in front of Ari’s bike and held one hand out while the other rested on her hip.
“Ari Stephens,” she’d said, accusingly.
They all climbed off their respective bikes and looked up at Ms. Whats-her-face.
“If I’m not mistaken, you are grounded. I suggest you return home right now, young lady.”
Ari lowered her eyes, ashamed.
Rhamni got mad.
She turned to Ari and opened her mouth, showing every rotten bit of black goo and sludge sloshing back and forth like furious waves.
Rhamni turned back to the lady and erupted in a deafening hiss, a sound like a mix of steel grating against metal and baby’s scream. It was a new sound, one that poked your skin, hooking into your eardrum and yanking it away.
The lady stared at Ari, eyes wide with shock, as Rhamni screeched.
Then Rhamni jumped up, wrapped her arms around the lady’s neck, and sunk her decaying, dripping, black teeth into the lady’s face.
“It wasn’t me! It was Rhamni! Rhamni did it!” Ari had cried when her mom punished her after.
The lady told Ari’s mom that she did it.
Rhamni just said ‘you’re welcome’, smiling that terrifying, dripping smile, while Ari sat in the corner of her room.
She was 10 when mom first sent her to the hospital.
It wasn’t even her who did it. It was Bia.
Bia had met her in their secret playhouse, saying she did a good thing.
The room was dark and in a place where Mom would never find it. Ari could barely see when Bia walked in.
Her fingertips were warm, wet, when they touched Ari’s face in a silent greeting.
The wetness soon dried, tightening her skin in an uncomfortable way.
Ari examined Bia’s fingers. The tips were torn wide, jagged edges of skin peeled back, dripping hot, dark, curious blood down her hands, painting her arms in pretty twirling patterns.
“It’s blood for you,” she told Ari.
“Thank you,” Ari said, pulling her friend into a tight hug.
She did a good thing. She said the bright bones in her fingers had told her to do it. Sneak into the mean boys house and finish it.
The blood came after that.
Bia never washed the blood off. Her fingers were soon made of the red substance, much like Rhamni’s black teeth.
At fourteen the “final straw”, as Ari’s mom called it, happened.
Haden was the quietest of their friend group, but his voice was the loudest to Ari.
And he smelled.
Like milk that had gone bad, weeks old litter box, decomposing algae, sweaty feet, and a burnt pie, all wrapped into one pungnet.
The smell is made up of a million small leeches, sucking onto his skin and holding on. They slide along, climbing up his grey skin and suck the blood dry, slowly turning him into a living, breathing, bloodless, dead creature. He tugs at the leeches, popping one off his skin, leaving behind a small pin pricked circle of raised stone-like skin. He drops the mephitic leech into his mouth. The deep squish, crunch from biting down on the leech fills the air and soon his breath is laced with the putrid smell.
Ari grew used to the smell. Even enjoyed it.
He may have been quiet, but every whisper he breathed into Ari’s ear, she held dear.
“Yell at her. She betrayed you.” “Scream until you pass out.” “Cry. Cry more.” “Hit him with your knuckles.” “Bite her face.”
“I will collect what you do. What you, Rhamni, and Bia do will come back to me,” Haden said, “And I will love every gift you bring me. I will cherish them. They can live in my box with the others.”
The doctors didn’t believe Ari when she told them about her friends.
“They’re just voices in your head.”