The Thing About Perfection
Autumn (Halloween) 2019
She was sure she hadn't walked this path before, and yet—that same gnarled, twisted tree root protruded from the dirt. The dark, diseased oak tree with its flaky, peeling bark. Even the wind seemed to sing the same wailing tune. She was going in circles.
Her digital watch flashed 11:47. It would be dark soon. It would be too late, soon.
What seemed hauntingly beautiful mere minutes ago had taken a turn for the grotesque. She was growing desperate, breaking into a run, breathing harsh and piercing in the stillness of the air. Tonight—it needed to be tonight.
Branches seemed to reach towards her. One lashed out at her face, dragging talons across her skin and breaking it open in a sudden sting.
The toe of her black sneakers caught on something—rock, root, she would never find out—and the ground reared up to meet her.
Consciousness returned in a groggy daze with a dash of pain splicing her cheek.
She groaned. Pushed up with her right arm into a sitting position on the cold, rotten-leaf ground. The autumn musk was particularly heavy down here, cloying in her nose. She rubbed her eyes, feeling the grit of dirt on her face, and blinked up into the sky.
There was a house. It looked like something out of a postcard, some cozy cottage home tiled with burgundy reds and woolly grays. Silver chimes hung from the porch, and a tinkling melody filled the air; dark and sweet simultaneously.
She stood up on shaky legs. Her steps were coltish like a newborn baby deer.
Old wooden stairs creaked beneath her shoes. The door was stained with chipping lacquer. The Welcome mat was faded and gray.
Ten seconds. Silence save for the rustling of the leaves. Once more: the door clicked, then slowly swung open.
A woman stood by the doorway. She was dressed in a red-and-white checkered apron and a nightgown. Her hair fell down in thick, gleaming curls. Her eyes were completely black.
She gasped and blinked and they were gone. In their place, bright blue irises surrounded by clear white sclera peered at her inquisitively.
The woman smiled. “What’s wrong, dear?”
“I—I thought—” She stammered, shook her head. Raised her hand to rub at her eyes. “Nothing. Nevermind.”
“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” the woman said. “Come on in, love. I’ll fix you up right as rain.”
“No, that’s okay,” she protested. “I just need some directions, that’s all.”
The woman tilted her head. “Oh, but you look simply exhausted.”
She was exhausted, now that she mentioned it. Her eyes drooped. Her shoulders slumped. A yawn tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“Come on in,” the woman repeated. “Just for a few minutes. Get some rest before you leave, hm?”
She opened her mouth to protest again when her thoughts suddenly halted, flinched, swirled into a blur of dazed confusion. From the haze, an image floated into her head: a big, soft bed, swaddled by blankets. She really was so very tired.
The woman opened the door fully and stepped aside to give her a full view of the entrance hall, where a soft orange glow seemed to emanate.
Words formed without her command. “Okay,” she mumbled. “Just a few minutes.”
The woman broke into a huge smile. “The guest room’s just upstairs, I’ll lead you there.”
A heady scent surrounded her the instant she entered the house; crisp apples and cinnamon cider. She looked around and saw dozens of flickering candles mounted on the wall. Decor lined the tables with mini acorns and cones. The walls were inscribed with a swirling pattern that seemed to glow golden in the candlelight, pulsing with every breath she drew.
“This is . . .” She struggled for words. “This is—” (Beautiful. Astonishing. Everything she had dreamt and more.)
The light curled inside her, warming her from the inside out. In a daze, she was lead up the stairs, down the hall, through a tall door.
The guest room came in the form of a large room painted periwinkle, curtains drawn, leaving the space in a soft, damp darkness. Aided by a gentle push, she was guided to the bed— just as big and soft as she had imagined. She sunk into the mattress, bliss surging a sleepy smile on her face.
“Thanks,” she remembered her manners enough to murmur.
“You’re very welcome, dear,” a responding whisper came. She felt a hand brush through her hair, pushing her bangs from her forehead; there came with it a soft singing voice, something oddly familiar, remembrance flitting away when she drew close like a nervous butterfly. She was asleep before she could pin it down.
She roused to a warm palm against her cheek and a careful whisper in her ear. “Wake up, dear.”
She opened her eyes to the woman again, eyes the bluest of blue. Her hair smelled like a pine tree. “I made breakfast,” she said softly.
She looked at her, then sat up and looked around at a pale, baby-blue bedroom. Sunshine streamed through the curtains. Birds sang.
A jolt of sunken confusion crossed her. “This isn’t . . .”
“Don’t worry,” the woman soothed, the hand on her cheek coming up to smooth her hair. “It’s alright, love. Everything is going to be just fine, just you see.” Swiftly, she smiled. “Now, come on down. I made breakfast.”
She blinked. A sudden cloud had overtaken her thoughts and she shook her head, hoping to clear it. What had she— something about time—
She blinked again. She was sitting at a huge wooden table that shined amber in the light. A plate sat in front of her, towered to the brim with the most perfect pancakes she had ever seen, stacked golden and fluffy and dripping with syrup.
A fork and knife lay by the side. She picked them up and cut into the stack; dark shiny chocolate oozed out. She took a forkful into her mouth and her eyes fluttered shut. Sticky syrup and sauce ran down her chin.
“I’ve always wanted to try these,” she blurted through a muffled mouth, too eager to wait.
The woman’s eyes were twinkling with joy. “I’m glad you like them.”
She was halfway through her plate before she realized the woman wasn’t eating. She stopped chewing (with reluctance) and looked at her. “You’re not having any?”
The woman shook her head and smiled again. “I’m alright, love.”
The smell of the pancakes wafted towards her again. All of a sudden, she was ravenous. Forgetting her concerns, she bent down over her plate and dug in.
When she finished, the woman took her plate over to the sink.
“Tell me, love,” the woman called out, a crisp lemony scent drifting from the kitchen as she scrubbed. “How are you feeling?” She chewed, swallowed, her last bite. “Happy,” she answered quickly.
The woman turned off the tap. When she turned towards her, she was beaming. “Is that so?”
She nodded. “Happier than I’ve ever been.”
The woman tittered. For an instant, she seemed to almost flicker. “That’s phenomenal, dear. What do you say—how are you feeling about squash soup for lunch?”
The woman dried her hands and stood in front of the sink. It was a deep, square sink with a removable head. (A sudden, piercing flash of thought. The sink she had at home was small, round, and the tap too close to the far end so that the back of her hands grazed up against it every time she washed them.)
“That’s . . . That’s perfect.” All of a sudden, her throat felt tight and sandpaper-dry.
The woman seemed too taken to notice. She clapped her hands together and smiled that brilliant smile yet again. “Perfect.”
She smiled back, looking into eyes too blue to be true. Her gaze shifted behind to the walls of the kitchen, where the scribbles of light seemed to have gone brighter, almost blinding, flashing with every beat of her heart. She had run out of time.
A tremor snaked down her spine. Suddenly, she was cold.
“Funny thing about perfection,” she said. “There’s always a catch.”
She pried her way through the fuzzy veil of soft, buzzing comfort that had coated her mind, reaching for the memorized words that seemed eons away and yanking it close. A sharp pain filled her in the form of a blazing headache. She ignored it, and began to recite in a steady voice well-practised, well-used Latin.
The woman’s eyes rolled back in her head as she began to wail.
No. The word resonated through the house. The inscriptions flashed red and seemed to slither, lashing out violently. Candle flame leaped and licked the ceilings, casting wildly flickering shadows that writhed on the walls. Through all of this, she only spoke. She could not hear her words.
The woman sunk to her knees. Thick black smoke seeped from her pores.
No, no, please.
She spoke her last phrase. It emitted one final, mourning shriek, thrashing violently, before crumpling smaller, smaller so. It could not speak, but its grief rang clear as a bell through the house. Smoke poured out, thicker and thicker then, so heavy she could not see it; and with the plumes, she felt its pain. Confusion riddled with anger, hurt, betrayal, and beneath it, a loneliness so desperate and a bitterness so black she staggered under its weight.
She coughed. It dug itself into her throat, clawing its way through her chest, blinding, suffocating—
Her face was pressed harshly into the forest floor. Rotten leaves filled her mouth.
She choked and turned her face to the side. Her breaths came in wheezes as she clutched her stomach. Curling up, she began to shake, spitting up stems and dirt.
When she finally stood up, tremors ran uncontrollably down her legs and her spine. Her face was inexplicably wet, trailing warm and salty down her cheeks. Tingles crawled along her skull like hundreds of ants. A side effect—she had read all about them. (She had read all about it.)
She brushed dirt off her shirt and surveyed her surroundings. Above, the moon glinted a skinny silver crescent, barely seen. Pale, streaky clouds rolled through an ink-black sky. The trees made their hasty retreat, branches carefully tucked in, keeping their distance this time.
She recognized this path. All she needed was to follow it along, and she would reach the main road.
Her digital watch blinked 11:51. Where the branch had gotten her, her cheek stung with a fresh-cut pain. She touched it carefully, and then wiped her face on her sleeve.
The children should be waking, soon. The ones it took before her.
It never wished to hurt them. She recalled the desolate, boundless loneliness she had felt in those black plumes of smoke. It just wanted company. The children must’ve been ecstatic, too. Blissed-out, living their lives of ecstasy in its own little world, none the wiser of their true condition here (dead, listless eyes; pulse so faint it was barely there). Whatever they wanted. To them (to it), it was perfect.
It had tried so hard for her. Her mother still struck an endless pain in her heart, resonating without rest, as sharp and deadly as the day she had died. It had mimicked her appearance perfectly, not a hair out of place.
But her mother had made her plain porridge for breakfast every morning. Her mother kept her up all night with hours of overtime work in their tiny single home, lighted by one flickering candle. Her mother had a shitty sink.
The wind picked up, slowly. It ruffled her hair and blew her bangs from her face, and whistled in her ears a dark, sweet melody.
Funny thing about perfection, she thought, and made her way out of the forest.
A junior in Waterloo, Ontario, Michelle Ma is a proud Canadian. She loves baking and writing, and has been doggedly trying to get back into reading actual, paper books. Despite her chronic case of overambition and a Planck-length attention span, when it comes to stories, she always finishes what she starts.