Jelly watched the shadow orbs bounce around the room. They transformed her perceptions, changing the soft lighting and filtering it into a pale glimmer. She helped her mother paint the room a soft pink last summer. The pink resembled maroon in the half-light.
It looks like blood, she thought to herself.
The orbs continued their clumsy dance. Her bedroom resembled a life-sized lava lamp. She knew she should be afraid, but she wasn't.
It had grown familiar long ago.
She turned up the Lady Gaga playing on her IPod, laid back, and smiled.
"Momma got run over by a reindeer," Jelly would reply to any idiot dumb enough to ask about her mother. In reality, she had succumbed to cancer. For Jelly, however, the why didn't matter so much. All that really mattered was the finality of it.
At times she had felt sorry for Momma, seeing her pain as her cells degraded and her body wasted away. At other times she did not care so much that Momma had hurt. At least Momma had been there. In pain or not, Momma survived and was willing to hold Jelly's hand while she described her pre-pubescent soap opera tragedies. Momma would nod and smile and stroke her hand.
Aunt Grace had said it had been for the best, but Aunt Grace was a poop-for-brains, as Daddy would say. Except Daddy usually said that other word.
It was the night after the funeral that the shadow orbs had first appeared. Jelly was terrified. She screamed into the night for her mother, having forgotten that Momma had passed on.
Her father came in place of her mother. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he asked what was wrong.
Jelly told him, but as the words came out, even at her young age, she felt ridiculous. The orbs bobbled through her room, soaking up the light of her Princess Barbie night light. It was clear her father couldn't see the dark bubbles.
Jelly had called Daddy in a few nights after that before she accepted he never would see them. The orbs – whatever they were – were hers and hers alone. A vision she could share with no one.
Over the years, she discovered they seemed to like music, or at least when she listened to music. Even while wearing the ear buds from her pink IPod, when no living soul other than her could hear the songs streaming through the wires, the bubbles seemed to be in tune. They pulsated, varying between differing shades of grey and black, soaking up the light in different frequencies.
The therapist asked her about the bubbles. Jelly felt anger towards her father for betraying this secret. She would never talk about the orbs to her therapist, she decided. He creeped her out, and the only emotions she dared to share with the bespectacled weirdo were imagined. Her reality was her secret. Besides, her fantasies and daydreams were realistic enough. The therapist never questioned her honesty.
Whenever the bubbles came up during their sessions, Jelly shifted the discussion. She would talk about the confusion caused by her budding sexuality. She fabricated stories of pillow fights with girlfriends that went too far. Her therapist didn't seem to mind. In fact, he always forgot all about the bubbles. He would blush and dab the sweat away from his forehead.
Night after night she looked up to the ceiling, listening to music, awaiting their arrival.
They bounced and danced for her. They soaked up the light. They vibrated and hummed. Sometimes she imagined words and symbols. Jelly felt the bubbles communicate, but meaning eluded her.
Accustomed to their presence, she grew bold. Listening to a mix tape of gothic dance music her friend Shanna had given her – mostly a collection of remixed Cure and Evanescence songs – the orbs grew around her.
Eyes wide and with a feeling she could not describe, almost a hunger, she reached out her hand.
The orb enveloped her flesh and caressed it. The orbs closed in around her. Invisible fingers stroked through hair. Nonexistent legs wrapped around her. She sucked in a deep draught of air as her lungs tightened. Something held her tight in a bear hug. She held her breath as an orb descended over her head. Inside looking out, everything wavered. Her hair billowed around her head as if she were underwater.
The grip around her, holding her down, relented. The urge to breathe took hold, and she relaxed. She sucked in a breath of…
Suddenly, the bubbles were gone. She was on her hands and knees, coughing, gasping for air. She knew what a fish out of water must feel like.
She purged out a thick puddle of black goo. It bounced and jiggled on the floor like Jell-O spilled from a mold. She shivered. Her body convulsed. She rolled around and felt the texture of the carpet pressing against her bare skin.
"Jelly? You okay in there honey?" she heard her father call from the other side of the door. His voice was muffled by the wood and the distance between them.
She tried to reply that she was fine, but couldn't gasp in enough air to say anything.
She attempted to breathe in but the air felt too thick to enter her lungs. She thrashed and crawled on the floor. Using a dresser, she managed to pull herself upright.
Looking back at her in the mirror was someone she did not recognize.
"Jelly, babe, I'm coming in!"
Thud after thud sounded out as the door shook in its frame.
Jelly was only dimly aware of the rattling door. She was transfixed by her reflection. After the initial shock, she was able to see herself in that stranger's face. Her face had aged fifteen years since she last saw it.
Her hair hung sticky and wet around her. The face was covered with wrinkles. Deep frown lines marred her lower face. She was bruised and battered. A tourniquet was tied around her arm, and a half-plunged syringe stuck out of a vein. She looked into her eyes. They were lined by wrinkles. The pupils looking back at her were black holes on a bloodshot canvas. She was naked and withered. Loose skin hung from her skinny frame in places. Smallish breasts drooped over an exposed ribcage.
The door crashed open and a man she did not recognize entered. He was tall and lanky. Blond dreadlocks hung around a yellowed and acne-covered face. The man's build was nearly as withered as hers.
"Jelly? Baby? You okay?"
Jelly felt the man rush up and embrace her as she fell.
She saw the orbs again and smiled. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she felt her heartbeat shudder. Death embraced her with the stranger.
*Originally appeared in Sand: A Journal of Strange Tales, Issue #2, Fall/Winter 2008.