molasses to drown in
By Basmala Zyada
This is an excerpt from a novel I’ve been working on called To The Grave. It follows Isolde, a woman haunted by the ghost of the boy she killed, and Helena, the silent observer.
It was a strange thing to belong to something, and for you to belong to it in return. It felt to Helena both like suffocating and floating, freefalling and drowning. She held onto it tightly, uncertain of the reliability of this newfound feeling.
They’d left her room empty for Helena to decorate how she wanted, her foster mother Mrs. Smith explained, a sunshine grin on her lips as Helena stood dumbfounded in the doorway. After so many years, a clean slate: just over this threshold. Fists clenched, Helena vowed she wouldn’t squander this new chance she’d been given.
So she tried. She tried her hardest. She spent nights hunched over her desk until her assignments came back with perfect scores. She dialed back everything that could’ve made her strange among her peers, a smiling image of carefully crafted perfection. Gradually, with a “hello” here and a familiar “morning!” there, she slowly became another familiar face in her high school’s backdrop, no longer the new girl who flinched a little too quickly at loud noises and sudden gestures.
The pieces of an ordinary life were all falling into place. But a niggling worry still sat at the back of Helena’s mind. All her life, she’d known what to expect. Torment and abandonment were nothing if not reliable. But this, what was this? Would this belonging, this contradictory feeling, prove fleeting? What if it slipped between her fingers like water, and beyond her grasp?
She didn’t know. But she supposed the only thing left to do was to cling to it as tightly as she could.
Isolde’s eyes were black and shifty. Meeting them felt like staring into molasses.
Helena tried not to be wary of Isolde, her partner for their geography project; she knew better than anyone that looks could be deceiving. But there was something off about Isolde, something she couldn’t shake even as she smiled brightly and read over the project sheet. She couldn’t shake it: it was those eyes.
Isolde was sharp: tall stature, elegant fingers at the ends of long arms, prominent cupid’s bow, carved cheekbones, arched brows enhancing sunken undereyes. Her words were minced, voice low and used sparingly. She could pin you in place with her gaze alone.
But it wasn’t just that. Those eyes felt familiar to Helena, like a cold, unwelcome alternate version of her past self had come to say hello.
Helena didn’t miss the bruises coloring Isolde’s neck either, covered with foundation but still visible to Helena’s knowing eye. She averted her gaze and pretended she saw nothing.
On the way home from school, the sun shone pleasantly, the air smelling of the last breath of spring before summer began in earnest, and so Helena took the long way home on her bike to savor the warm breeze. Out of the corner of her eye, she recognized long, black hair and a hurried, loping gait; it was Isolde.
Helena could never explain to herself why she did what she did next. Maybe it was simple curiosity, maybe pity. But she hopped off her bike and followed Isolde.
Isolde came to a stop behind the old McGregor house, locked up by relatives after the old man died. She hopped over a broken section of the fence, disappearing out of view. Helena leaned her bike against the side of the house, tiptoed forward, and peeked over.
Isolde was crouched down, her hair obscuring her face. At her feet was a cardboard box, half-covered with a dirty blanket; from inside the box came increasingly agitated mews. Isolde reached into her bag, pulled out a little plastic box that she set inside. Next, she filled the rounded lid of the box with water from her own bottle and set that inside, too. The mews died out as the cats inside became occupied with their food and a small smile softened the sharp edges of Isolde’s face.
Suddenly, Helena felt foolish and small, like she was watching over something not meant for her eyes. She retreated quickly, only to bump loudly—conspicuously—into her bike.
“Well, screw you, too,” she whispered to the traitorous bike. She slowly turned to see Isolde coming to investigate the crash, and met those fierce eyes as anger burned in them.
At that moment, Isolde was a wild predator baring its teeth, fury in her clenched jaw as she stepped closer to Helena, making her back up instinctively. Before she could think it through, Helena righted her bike and ran with it, hopping back on and biking back home, far from Isolde and the fear those disquieting eyes awakened in her.
But as she biked further and further from McGregor’s house, she remembered the desperation in Isolde’s molasses eyes, the tremble in her hands. It made Helena wonder which of them was really the cornered prey.
This story started out as something I wrote two years ago, a short story about a woman visiting a graveyard to see the ghost of the man she killed. And this year, I realized how much potential this premise had and so I decided to expand it into a longer story. And from there, these characters were born: Isolde, a lonely woman driven by the desire to possess, and Helena, the silent witness to Isolde’s devolution. I was so excited to explore their characters, excited to dive into a new perspective, and a kind of story that I wasn’t used to writing. This excerpt is the first thing I wrote in this expanded version and what I used to begin learning about these new characters.
Basmala Zyada is an Egyptian-born high school senior (with a terrible case of senioritis) and a Girls Write Now mentee. She is a lover of naps, ridiculous earrings, true crime shows, and big houseplants. She can usually be found procrastinating, reading, making bad financial decisions at a thrift store, and over-analyzing her favorite shows. Although her favorite genre is fantasy, she is a sucker for writing romantic short stories and the occasional psychological thriller.