MARIA STEN

ACTRESS · WRITER · PRODUCER.

Filtering by Tag: short stories

THE AFTER

A bright morning sun peaks out from behind cotton candy clouds, shining down upon the quaint little Main Street of Maypearl, Texas, welcoming shoppers and workers to another day. It’s a busy day for Maypearl. Cars and trucks are already finding their way to the slated parking slots that run along both sides of the street. Bells ding at frequent intervals as people mill in and out of the small shops. There’s Mrs. Adams with her little Andy on one hip and a brimming grocery bag on the other. There’s Mr. McDonald, both hands wrapped around a stack of presents. And on the bench outside Mickey’s Diner, Mr. and Mrs. Avery are enjoying their morning coffee in the sun. They wave as Patty and Dave, the Johnson twins, chase each other down the elevated sidewalk, and Lily Johnson huffs along behind them, yelling at them to slow down. Mr. and Mrs. Avery smile to each other, then each take a bite of their sugar-dusted doughnuts and chase it with a sip of coffee. They move in perfect synchrony, accomplished from fifty-something years of loving each other. They nod at the tall, handsome Dr. James McCully as he tips his hat to them before heading into Mickey's.

“Katie, come on honey, we gotta go home and get the turkey started!”

Little Katie McCully stands across the street, smiling after Dr. James McCully as he walks into the diner, cause that's her Daddy. And she loves how everyone seems to love her Daddy as much as she loves her Daddy. Then she turns her attention to Mr. and Mrs. Avery with curious fascination. For a seven-year-old, she seems oddly present in the world. Attentive. Inquisitive. She’s wearing her red boots and her red Christmas hat today, identically matched to her mom Anna, who’s currently holding the door to Maypearl Grocers, waiting. Katie finally peels her eyes off the cute old couple and follows her mom into the store. With her long silk hair and magical green eyes, Anna McCully is the gal everyone thought would run off to New York or Los Angeles to be a model or something else fancy as soon as she turned eighteen, but instead, she married her high school beau James, who is now Maypearl’s finest pediatrician. They way they always stare into each other’s eyes like no one else is around makes it clear they both think they got the long end of the stick.
As Anna and Katie make their way down the Frozen Foods aisle, of which every available inch has been decorated with pine and ornaments, they look like the perfect American Christmas postcard.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, but in Maypearl, once you hit Halloween, it’s all one long holiday celebration.

“Mom, how do old people love?”

“They love just like all other people, honey. They’re people.”

“Can we get doughnuts from Mickey’s on the way home?”

“Daddy’s picking some up for tomorrow.”

“Can I play the Santa before we leave?”

“If you help me with the groceries. You know where the milk is.”

“Yes!”

Katie runs off towards the milk. Anna smiles and opens a freezer door, searching for the perfect turkey to prepare for her family.

Katie darts out of Maypearl Grocers and down the sidewalk where a mechanical Santa has been stationed for general merriment. She puts a quarter in the slot in his hand, presses the button.

Ho ho ho! Have a jolly Christmas!

Katie watches in pure glee, as the merry trills of a glockenspiel ring out of the Santa. Anna catches up, clutching a champion of turkeys in her arms. Mom and daughter nod their heads to Santa’s tune, none of them noticing the young man walking into Maypearl Grocers behind them. No one greets him, which is odd because in Maypearl, everyone knows everyone.

Santa’s tune stops.

“One more,” Katie begs.

“Turkey time, honey. Come on, let’s find Dad.”

Katie pouts for a second, then turns towards her mom. There’s not really much to complain about when the day is beautiful and a feast is about to be prepared at home. They turn towards the little steps that descend to the parking slots, when suddenly—

POW.

Anna whirls towards the Maypearl Grocers entrance as a shot rings out from inside the store. All of Main Street seems to freeze for one fleeting second. Then—

POW. POW. POW.

Hell breaks loose.

People scream, running into the street, towards their cars and trucks. Bags, presents and grocery items fly and scatter across the pavement. Mr. Avery grabs his Mrs. Avery and dives towards safety behind the doors of Mickey’s Diner. The Johnson mom catches her twins and they hurdle back towards their truck. Anna drops the turkey, snatches Katie by the arm—

“Katie, run!”

They hurry towards the end of Main Street, just as the Young Man who no one seems to know exits the grocery store, an AR-15 tucked under his right arm, hints of blood spattered across his clothes. His eyes seem distant. Like he’s in a haze. Like he's not really there. He lifts his rifle again, pointing it to the street…

RATAT RATATATA—

A lead salute spreads across Main Street, slaying seven of the fleeing Maypearlers, including Momma Johnson. 

Patty and Dave Johnson stop and look back, expecting Momma right behind them. Instead, she lies there on the ground. The twins’ gut-wrenching wails pierce the air before another gun salute deafens everything.

Police sirens sound now, approaching rapidly. The police is never far away in Maypearl. Matter of fact, they most likely heard the shots from the police station down the way.

Meanwhile, Mr. McDonald has reached his truck. He scrambles into it, opens his glove compartment, pulls out his Glock 19, loads it and dives back into the street—

PAP PAP PAP PAP—

He aims towards the Young Man, but misses. The Young Man - the Subject - whirls on Mr. McDonald and reciprocates with a heavy round from his deadly rifle. Mr. McDonald drops instantly, blood soaking through his shirt like crimson ink explosions.

But this is Texas, and in Texas, everybody’s got a gun…

POW!

Theodore Whitfield, the young widower from the farm up Cherry Hill Lane out east, is standing in the street, two steady hands on a Smith & Weston revolver pointed at the Subject. Or rather, the place the Subject stood. Now he’s on the ground. Dead.

But suddenly, Theodore's expression changes. His eyes become hazy, like they’ve been glazed over. Beads of sweat creep down beneath the rim of his cowboy hat and he's got such a funny look in his eyes. His mind no longer his own. No longer really present.

“What’s going on with ya, Theo?”

Theo turns—

POW!

And almost per reflex, fires straight at Sergeant Larry who has jumped out of his haphazardly parked cruiser, gun drawn. As Sergeant Larry crumbles to the ground, Theodore snaps back to reality for a second, eyes clear and full of surprise. He stumbles backwards in shock—

“Larry! Jesus almighty…”

He approaches Sergeant Larry’s body—

POPPOPPOP—

And he’s hit. Clutching his shoulder. Where the hell did that even come from? His expression shifts again, back to milky obscurity as he squeezes his revolver… 

Theodore fires in one direction, then another, and another. A bullet splinters the side mirror of a green Highlander, just above Anna’s head where her and Katie have crouched down in hiding. Shards of glass rain down over them as they sit there huddled together, mayhem unfolding around them.

When the second MPPD cruiser screeches to a halt behind Sergeant Larry’s car, Main Street has become a small battlefield. Bodies lay sprawled on the pavement, shots blast out every half second, then a semi-automatic salute, then another round of a revolver. People becoming simple bodies by the second.

James rushes out of Mickey’s Diner, losing his hat and brown full-rims in the process.

“Katie! Anna, where are you?!”

He yells into the street, flinching at every sound of a bullet. Katie yells from beneath her mom—

“Daddy!”

Anna peaks out from their hiding place—

“James! Over here!”

James races to his family. He’s about halfway across the street, when a stray bullet cuts him down—

Katie shrieks. Anna is too shocked to fully react. There goes her love. Her life. Her everything. In the blink of an eye, it’s all gone.

There’s a lull. A few seconds of heavy silence. Something comes over Anna. She has something more important to focus on. She turns to Katie—

“Hey. Listen to me. You’re gonna get on my back and you’re gonna squeeze like you’ve never squeezed before, baby, you got it?”

Katie is nearly paralyzed with fear. 

“Daddy… I want Daddy.”

Her Christmas hat is gone, glass shards are sprinkled throughout her tangled hair, glittering like crystals whenever the sun catches them. Big round tears are carving little dirt streams down her smudgy cheeks.

“Katie baby, you gotta do this. You can do this. Nod yes for me.”

Katie nods, still crying. She scrambles unto her mother’s back like a bear cub clinging to its safety zone. Anna hoists her up behind her, grabs the edge of the elevated sidewalk, pushes herself up and bolts down the sidewalk, eyes set on the little red Prius at the other end of the street.

There seems no limit to what a mother is capable of to protect her child. As gunshots ring out again from who knows what direction, destroying store windows, windshields, Christmas decorations and lives, Anna sprints away. She's almost at the end of the street now. Katie holds on for dear life as Anna takes the stairs in one leap and dives across the street towards the red Prius. They reach it. She swings Katie off her back, squeezing her against the car, covering her with her own body while she fumbles for the car keys—

POPPOP.

For two long seconds, the world stops. 

Then, slowly, Anna slides down in front of her daughter, first to her knees, then to her side, and then… She keels over on the ground. Blood pools from the back of her head. Katie stands frozen against the car, staring at her mother. 

Then, on instinct, Katie looks up. A man stands there, right in front of her, gun still raised. Now pointed down at Katie herself.

Katie doesn’t move. She can’t. She just stares at the man. He’s got such a funny look in his eye. It’s there again, that milky glaze. He stares back down at her, but his glare is emotionless. Empty. It’s like he doesn’t see her. Suddenly, he screams at the top of his lungs in pure and vicious anger and cocks his gun—

POP.

Then everything goes black.

Blood suddenly spatters in every direction as the gunman takes three quick bullets to his throat. He buckles like a deer. There’s no telling who ended his life. It could have been anyone.

A little ways up Main Street, Maypearlers are still running, shooting, being gunned down left and right. The entire MP Police Department is here, even the fire department, but all is pandemonium. Mayhem has become madness. God only knows what they’re fighting for. That look in their eyes. Their screams. They’ve become mindless husks consumed with aggression and destruction, but no one's had time to register that. Or if they did, they're most likely dead by now. 
Another gunman stops in front of the Santa machine and pops Santa Claus straight in the heart. The glockenspiel trills out again as the gunfire slowly recedes.

Groceries, Christmas decorations and gift-wrapped presents are sprawled between bodies of men, women, children, police officers and the elderly. There is more silence than shots now. Everyone is dead. In less than an hour, the Main Street of Maypearl, Texas has turned into a graveyard. 

At last, only one gunman is left alive. He stands at the far end of Main Street in a sprawl of blood and bodies, firing his gun blindly into thin air.

And yet… Another man hobbles out from behind the bullet-riddled remains of a parked car. He’s a uniformed cop. Officer Avery is the youngest of the Avery sons, young and capable, bright blue eyes, and a fatal thigh wound gushing bright red. He limps towards the middle of the street and squares off against the last lone gunman. The gunman aims, but before he can fire, Officer Avery raises his gun—

POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP. 

The gunman thumps to the ground.

It’s quiet. Just the glockenspiel’s sounds of Christmas from Santa up the street. 

The music stops. There’s nothing but silence. It takes another moment, then Avery hobbles and trips and finally collapses too. His body lands on the pavement, across from little Katie’s. 

And Katie… Little Katie McCully lies there next to her mother, eyes closed. Her small dimpled face is flat and still, her mouth slightly open as if in mild amazement, and there’s one single gunshot wound to her forehead.

An unearthly quiet descends. An entire city blown into oblivion. How will anyone ever be able to explain what happened here?

Then, Katie blinks. A moment. She blinks again. The world forcing itself into place, willing itself back into existence. Another blink, then slowly, she opens her eyes. The face of young Avery rests on the asphalt right in front of her. His eyes are open. Is he still alive? He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t move. His face is numb, his blue eyes frozen in some perplexed bewilderment, asking silent questions. What just happened?

Slowly, like a zombie, Katie sits up. Gingerly, she touches her forehead, wiping the blood away. There’s just… a dent. No entry wound. It seems by some miracle, the bullet has simply ricocheted off her forehead.

Katie sits there in the madness, trying to breathe, trying to remember how to be human. Her small feet and their little red boots folded under her. Her light little windbreaker jostled off one shoulder. As she puts her hand down to support herself, it lands in a pool of crimson blood. 

She staggers to her feet and looks down at her mother, as if willing Anna to open her eyes, to get back up. To smile again. To wink in that playful way she does whenever she’s about to make Daddy laugh. 

But Anna doesn’t get back up. And Daddy will never laugh again.

At last, Katie peels her eyes away from her mother and makes her way through the sea of bodies, a small shadow of life, floating through a mass of abandoned nothing, until she reaches the Santa. His permanent cheerful smile bears down on her, like he’s grinning at some silent joke that only he knows the punchline to. Katie puts her bloody hand to Santa’s heart, touching the dent where he was shot. She pushes him. There’s mechanical crackling—

Ho ho ho! Have a jolly Christmas!

She curls her hand up into a tiny fist and punches Santa in the chest. Hard.

Ho ho ho! Have a jolly Christmas!

Katie slumps down next to him and just stares out over Main Street, seeing nothing quite clearly. She hugs her small legs tight into her body, rests her chin on her knees. Below, her red boots glisten wet from the sea of blood they’ve waded through. 

A crimson trickle runs down her forehead and into the corner of her eye.

Ho ho ho! Have a jolly Christmas!

Katie simply sits here. What all is there to do? Who are you supposed to be now? How can you begin again, after all this?

Katie closes her eyes…

What was a small town of laughter and love is now a town of ghosts. Another speck on the vast southern plains of beautiful America. Another abandoned facade that one day, curious souls will flock to and ask themselves, who lived here? What were they like? Were they happy? 

Here rests the ghosts of all the things we wanted to do. The ghosts of everything we wish we could take back. The ghosts of a world we spent our whole lives building, and only a fleeting speck of a moment destructing. What is left now? What do you hold on to? Why do you survive?

Why did you survive?

A woman was sitting in her empty living room, cross-legged, eyes closed, slowly breathing in, slowly breathing out. Her perfectly fitted white yoga clothes enhanced the Dhyana Mudra meditation form of her hands. She was in her thirties. Her hair was black, tucked in to a long braid that fell neatly down the length of her spine. Even in neutral, subtle dimples lined both sides of her face and a small dent decorated the center of her forehead.

Long time, no see, Katie.

She sat here, immobile, perched on a white pillow inside a circle of candles in the middle of a huge room: A massive open floorpan of a one-story home where all the walls must have been taken out. Single lightbulbs hung in perfect rows, spaced evenly through the room. There was barely any furniture here. It was sleek and white. Overly minimalistic. Everything positioned in perfect angles. 

A soft gong vibrated through the space and finally, Katie opened her eyes. She got up, left the pillow and candles as they were. They probably always stood like this, waiting for a soul to seek its nurture here.

Katie walked through the wide space, towards the kitchen, unlocked a kitchen drawer and took out her cell phone. She powered it on, then grabbed a mug from a bleach-white cupboard and placed it into the little dent in the refrigerator. Pushed in. As water streaked into the mug, Katie’s mind seemed to drift. Her eyes seemed to be getting just a little bit hazy. She pushed the mug in harder now, against the lever, her fingers turning white. Much harder than at all necessary. Where did you just go, Katie?

The phone ding-ed abruptly, jolting Katie back to time and place and clarity. She took a breath, steadying herself. The phone ding-ed again. And again, and again. A spell of bright bells, reminiscent of old tunes from other times, as message after message crowded their way unto her airwaves.

She brought the mug over to the pricey Espresso machine, dumped the water at the top and placed the mug underneath. Pressed the button. Another deep breath. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Release.
Katie tapped the speaker button on her phone, staring at the steaming hot green tea pouring into the mug as voice mails announced themselves—

Katie McCully, this is Kevin Henry again from the New York Times, just calling to—

Katie tapped the screen without looking—

Hi Katie, this is Jenna Huntington from Extreme Magazine—“

Tapped it again—

Mick Chatsfield from CNN here, Katie, as this 30th anniversary of the Maypearl Massacre approaches, we’d really love to sit with you for an exclusive. This will be a great opportunity for you to finally tell your story. And as for compensation

Tap—

Silence. But there were several more messages, surely this couldn’t be it? No, the line was open because suddenly, a man’s raspy voice crackled through the speaker: 

It’s happening again.” 

Katie’s head snapped to the phone. The voice continued: 

Could be your brain is bulletproof, could be it ain’t. I take it you don’t care to find out. Meet me at the Old Mill. Midnight. Tonight. Don’t be late... And don’t bring a fucking gun.

Silence. Katie stared at her phone. She jumped as the tea machine beeped ready. Ignored it. Then she tapped her phone again:

It’s happening again. Could be your brain is bulletproof, could be it ain’t. I take it you don’t care to find out. Meet me at the Old Mill. Midnight. Tonight. Don’t be late... And don’t bring a fucking gun.

She kept staring. Alarmed. Bewildered. Who was this? And how did he… know

Tap.

It’s happening again. Could be your brain is bulletproof, could be it ain’t. I take it you don’t care to find out. Meet me at the Old Mill. Midnight. Tonight. Don’t be late... And don’t bring a fucking gun.

How did he know her secret?

The thought never left Katie’s mind as she drove the 300 miles from Elk City back down south. Back to wide open plains of grass and dirt and mud. To giant oak trees towering over the town like ancient sentinels, here before there was a town named Maypearl, here after it had faded and died and people spoke in hushed voices and sped up their trucks as they passed this place. Back to Ground Zero. Back to the place where everything disappeared and something else emerged from the small town of ghosts.

It was dark out when Katie arrived, but no warm lights shone from the windows of the old farms nestled near the outskirts of the town, the way they used to, beaconing Maypearlers home from long drives. Everything was black now.

Hold your breath and count to three,” Katie thought to herself as her car bobbed over the first, then the second and the third speed bump that signaled the beginning of the town.

WELCOME TO MAYPEARL. 

The sign stood where it always had, near the driveway of the Johnson family’s home which was now no more than a shadowy outline of brick and wood.

Katie passed it, taking the curve to the right, knowing what would be next.

Main Street. 

She slowed as she drove up. It was just like she remembered and had since tried so hard to forget. Absent only was the mangled bloody bodies that were sprawled across the pavement the last time she was here. Nothing else had changed. It stood as it always had, straight and small, the shops and their awnings, the elevated sidewalks. It was hard to imagine that what had happened here 30 years ago wasn’t just a dream, maybe. A bad nightmare that Anna would come to sing away soon, then put on the small star shaped light in the corner of the bedroom to keep away the dark. Hard to imagine, but for the fact that Maypearl was dead. There was nothing. No sounds. No lights. No families. A ghost town.

Katie passed through Main Street and continued up the hill towards the four-way intersection by the big elm. Then a left on Cherry Hill Lane, past Theodore Whitfield’s old farm that loomed somewhere behind unkept shrubbery, nestled in a wild poppy field, and at last, the pavement turned to dirt and the road narrowed to an overgrown wheel track that rose before disappearing in a clearing in front of Katie’s destination: Dean’s Mill. It had once been a popular place for rebellious teenagers to drink beer and shoot off fireworks on the weekends, for young couples to lose themselves to one another, and always, of course, the rumors of more sinister things happening at Dean’s Mill were to be whispered about in the streets of Maypearl. But everyone just called it the Old Mill, since it had been old and ruined long before anyone could figure out what it had been built for. Everyone who had ever lived in Maypearl.

Katie pulled up in front of the dark ruin, turned off her headlights, stopped the engine and listened. There was nothing in the shadows.

What the hell am I doing here?” she thought. Had she been crazy to follow the directions of the strange man’s voice mail? But she hadn’t been able to resist. It had been almost like a compulsion. As if she’d spent the last 30 years waiting for a sign from someone. Someone who knew Maypearl and would lead her back. Here.

She stepped out of the car. A breeze whispered through the leaves and tickled her neck, causing a shiver to run down her spine. Katie tucked her jacket in around her. Without fail, Thanksgiving Day in Maypearl always offered that cool air announcing that winter had arrived. She stepped towards the dark doorway of the mill, looking at her watch. It was midnight exactly. She waited.

“Hello?”

No answer. Just another whisper in the leaves. She hesitated. Then took a breath and stepped through the stone archway—

“Little Katie McCully, my does time fly.”

Katie whirled to the sound of the voice. But there was nothing to see.

“Who are you?”

It took another moment, then a man stepped out from behind her parked car, as if he had moved there silently, with the wind. He was in his 50s, with grey stubble and a patchwork of lines decorating his face. He had a sinewy look to him, like he’d been living off plants and nuts for most of his life. But his bright blue eyes looked so… familiar, Katie thought, as they were staring at her. Boring into her, taking her in.

“Who are you?”

She asked again. The man smiled.

“I wasn’t sure you’d recognize me. Had a little bet with myself.”

“Who are you?”

Katie felt her anger rising. She took a deep breath. Counted: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Release. The man smiled again, watching her.

“You’re practicing. Good.”

Katie said nothing now. Finally, the man stepped closer. As he moved, she noticed a pronounced limp in his step.

“I remember the day you got lost in the meadow behind Whitfield’s. You were just sitting there in the middle of the field, hugging your knees. You probably don’t remember, you were just a few years old I think. But I was the one who found you, you know. Brought you back to your—“

“I remember.”

Yes. It clicked now. All coming back in waves, flooding her. It showed on her face. The man looked at her with slight amazement.

“Good memory. So I take it you know—“

“I know that's not the last time we saw each other. Officer Avery.”

“It’s Cal.”

“Last time I saw you, you were dead. Cal.”

Officer Avery — Cal — suddenly laughed.

“Last time I saw you, you took a bullet to the brain. But it seems you kept that little detail to yourself. Isn’t life just peculiar?”

So that was how he knew her secret. The secret she swore she’d never tell a single soul.

“What do you want?”

“What do I want? Oh, it ain’t nothing like that, Miss McCully. It’s what I don’t want.”

Katie frowned. She felt disoriented. Out of her comfort zone. Cornered. 

This isn’t good for me.

“You’re supposed to be dead.”

Katie blurted it out. Cal nodded, affirming.

“Two is company.”

Katie took another breath.

“So what is it you don’t want? Why are we here?”

“We’re here because it’s happening again. It’s started already, and this time, it’s spreading. And it needs to be stopped… I know you feel it too.”

Katie looked at him, unsettled. He knew. She knew. She had felt it. Something in the pit of her stomach that, when she was in duress, when she wasn't concentrating, she could feel the brunt of, trying to take hold. She would always push it away, but she could feel how it could so very easily take hold. And consume someone. And she had seen it happen. Thirty years ago.

“You’re a cop. Why don’t you report it?”

“Well see, therein lies just the problem. Everybody knows you, Katie McCully. But me… Everyone thinks I’m dead. And I’d very much like to keep it that way.”

As the last two living Maypearlers stood there in front of the towering shadow of the ruined Mill, faced off in the dark, sizing up their own mortality, a wild piercing scream wailed through the trees from somewhere closer to town. Cal and Katie both snapped their heads to the direction of the sound. A bone chilling wail that seemed to never end, to increase and intensify before fading away as suddenly as it had come.

"It's them," Cal said. "The desperates."

Katie’s head spun and she dropped to her knees, feeling sick, willing her breath back to normal. Cal looked at her. He seemed out of it too, but more like he had had this experience before. He closed his eyes, took a breath. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Release. Then he limped towards her and extended his hand. Waiting.

"They flock here. They feel its power here."

“It’s just a bad dream.”

She looked 7-years-old again when she said it. Cal’s eyes were sympathetic now.

“The worst nightmare you can have is the one that’s real.”

Then Katie held her breath too. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Release. Then she looked up at him and took his hand.