Hell Sat and Bantered
by Allison Mulder
I. A CHIDED FLIRT
I glimpsed my name on a crumpled note in the front hall trash can, just as I was headed
out the door. I uncurled the blue Post-it's edges, flattening it against the little table where our
landline used to live.
Maybe don't go out tonight.
And Mom had signed it with a trio of tiny stars, like she always did, before wadding up
the note and throwing it away, like she often did.
I dallied in the doorway, then called to Mom. "What's this?"
She was painting more stars on the ceiling where the front hall met the kitchen, perched
atop a ladder, intent as Michelangelo as she flecked white paint across a field of deep blue. Her
usual sunglasses were pushed up on her head, and her eyes were far away again--cloudy with
that silent, proud, wisdom of foresight vibe that always rolled off her in waves. I searched them
for portents, omens. Hints.
Then I snapped my fingers at her. "Hey! Mom!"
Gram poked her head in from the living room, scowling. "Honey, take a break from
doodling all over my dream house and talk to your daughter, would you? I'm working." She
retreated, and the clicking of her beads resumed as Mom roused herself to look down at me.
I held up the crumpled note. "Something you need to tell me about tonight?"
"Nothing important," Mom said.
I leaned against the front door. "Normal nothing important, where nothing big happens?
Or an oracle nothing important, where you're just not going to tell me?"
"We all have to make our own choices," Gram called from the other room, implying the
note's disposal may have been her suggestion in the first place.
"You mean I'm about to make a bad choice tonight," I said, crossing my arms. "And
you're both just going to watch."
I tried, for the millionth time, to summon up some vision of whatever future they were
seeing. I'd had inklings before, often--scattered little epiphanies popping up ever since I learned
to walk and make decisions for myself.
But that was nothing compared to Mom and Gram's visions, and they wouldn't even tell
me how it all worked.
"Ignore the note," Mom said. "I just worried for a minute that you were going to have too
much fun tonight, when the time might be better served filling out more job applications, getting
in touch with your alma mater's career services center . . ."
"Mom," I groaned. "I know--"
". . . and then I remembered you're going to a movie marathon at some geek bar," Mom
said. "And I'm not even sure they serve too much fun there, so I threw the note away. Just normal
Sometimes it was hard to tell if the women in my family were actually oracles, or just
very accurate pessimists. They usually amounted to about the same thing.
"Great," I said. "Well, now I'm late, and I promised a friend a ride, so I'm gonna go.
Mom watched from the living room window--inscrutable sunglasses back in place, one
eyebrow arched above them--as I pulled out of the driveway.
As it turned out, the geeky bar did serve "too much fun," especially if you had a point to
make against your cryptic, stupidly secretive seer of a mother.
So when Mae ditched me to make out with an overzealous cosplayer, and some guy
approached me during the break between movies two and three, I went ahead and sat down with
him near the shelves of obscure board games and fatigued videogame consoles.
Dating never went well for me. Even my scattered epiphanies often gave a good sense of
how a relationship would go, and everything was more discouraging when the end was always in
sight. But I was nothing if not persistent. And after all, the one streak of optimism in our
household came when Mom named me.
"Faith Riddle? Like Voldemort?" The delight on the guy's face was why I came to all
these things, even for franchises I'd never seen and didn't care about. Anything to draw in more
nerds I'd never met before. For one dazzling instant post-introduction, I was an unexpected gift,
instead of the predictable (predictive) downer of the group.
The guy grabbed a napkin from the middle of the table and a pen from the pocket of his
jeans. "Full name. Right now."
People played this game, too. They tried to Tom-Marvolo me out of hiding, looking in
rearranged letters for any magic that clung to me when it was in my last name the whole time.
"Faith C. Riddle," I said. "Just C." Gram's idea, Mom claimed. An awful pun: Faith sees
"Ed," the guy said. "I'd filch art." He wrote the sentence down on the napkin next to the
other anagrams, and I laughed as I caught on. "My name really is Ed, though. Edmund Peter
Peabody--I know. My parents' first bonding moment was over the Narnia books."
But Ed didn't look like a king. More like he could grow up to be Gandalf, something wise
in the set of his face, some quirk that missed the mark on handsome but landed somewhere
around . . . pleasant.
And either he was good at anagrams or just highly motivated, because three minutes later
he added Date? Chil Frid.? to the bottom of the list, and it was such a good effort that I scrawled
my phone number underneath it.
I anagrammed his name too. The silliest, most cheerful anagrams I could find.
Ad ended puberty mope
Debuted, rapped, money.
I ignored whatever worse words I saw. We skipped the last movie in the marathon to
make out in the back of his car until Mae came looking for me.
As I drove her home, she took in my grin and raised her eyebrows, even though she
shouldn't have judged with streaks of someone else's costume make-up smeared across her cheek.
"Glad you came along?"
"Yeah." And I meant it. "I met a nice boy--"
"I saw." She giggled.
"--with a stupid name," I went on, tapping the steering wheel. My head was still fuzzy,
even though it felt like ages since I'd finished my last drink. About ten percent of my focus was
all I could lend to the conversation. "Edmund Peter Peabody."
I laughed, but Mae's smile dropped away, her mouth parting.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing." She shrugged, grimacing. "I just think I've heard that name before. Not sure.
It's fine. Glad you had fun."
"I did have fun," I said, turning onto Mae's street.
Not too much fun. Just the right amount.
II. DITCHED FLAIR
The vision came quick. Not so much a snapshot as the credit reel on a horror movie. No
pictures, just lingering unsettlement and thoughts scrolling past too rapidly for me to process. I
got the gist. A bad end coming. So that was that.
Until Ed wouldn't let me leave his car after what I'd thought was our last date. He
wouldn't let go of my hands, tears streaming down his face as he pleaded. "You're wrong. You
say you can't see it ending well, but I can."
"Ed." I leaned away from him, straining to see the lights in my house, looking for Mom or
Gram's silhouette at the window covered in Mom's starry window-clings.
"I see it so clearly." His nails dug into my hands. "We date a few more years. I propose at
the bar where we met with some sappy shtick I stole off the internet. We get married, we have
two kids, Tamika and Cecil, and we'll be helicopter parents, but nerdy. We're talking Tolkien
audiobooks in the crib instead of Mozart." He brought my hands to his lips and kissed them,
never breaking eye contact with me. "Please, Faith, please, you can't just give up on us. We just
Ed was an optimist. A full-blown, desperate, it'll-all-work-out optimist.
And I wanted to be.
And I didn't know for sure that these feelings were prophetic. Didn't everyone get
premonitions sometimes? Usually just bullshit superstitions or nerves screaming over nothing.
And I was so tired of turning off movies before the previews even ended.
"Ok," I said. "You're right. We can just see how it goes."
His face lit up like when he first heard my name, radiant with the gift of me.
So I leaned against his shoulder, and he wiped his eyes on his shirt collar, and I sniffled
once, not really crying but close, just because he'd been.
"Tamika and Cecil, huh?" I sighed. "Alright. Keep talking. What awesome job am I
finally gonna find with my overwhelmingly versatile English degree?"
He put his arm around me and squeezed, still beaming. "Easy. You won't need a job,
because I'm gonna take care of us."
I maintained the smile. Allowed myself a little eye roll. "You mean with your philosophy
"Of course!" He kept talking, laying out the kind of plans people spun when they couldn't
see hints of the coming reality.
And I forced myself to keep smiling, fingers fiddling with the door latch to let myself out
of the car, wondering how long I had to wait to be polite.
III. RID LAD I FETCH
The first time Ed came over for dinner, Mom and Gram wouldn't even look at him.
Mom skipped setting his place at the table--no plate, no glass, no glance in his direction.
The rudeness bored a hole through my stomach, but Ed just watched my mom move
around the kitchen, a wrinkle between his brows.
"Is she . . ." He scratched his furrowed eyebrow as if that had a meaning, and frowned at
my blank stare. He whispered, "blind?"
She always kept the dark sunglasses on when anyone outside the family was around.
People shrugged off that eccentricity more easily than the oracle gaze half the stories actually got
right--the vacant stare onto other horizons, the uncanny edge to her expressions, reactions to
things only she saw. Gram had it too, but only sometimes, and people tended to forgive it as a
sign of aging.
But skipping Ed's place setting was not Mom's far-off future gaze. This was deliberate
and petty, literal ignorance--ignoring him, refusing to make a place for him.
"I guess Ed can just eat off a napkin then, huh?" I said. "With his fingers."
Mom settled the casserole dish onto the table and slid into her seat.
"Forgot the rolls," Gram commented, innocently enough that she and Mom either planned
this exchange ahead of time, or they were operating on that weird, predictive wavelength they
shared--the one they always said I'd understand when I got older. Older than being a recent
college graduate, apparently.
"The rolls were going to burn anyway," Mom said. For the first time, her head turned
directly toward Ed. "Ignoring them just saves time and effort."
"You know what?" I extricated my fingers from Ed's grip and shoved my chair back from
the table. "I'll get Ed's plate. Don't even worry about it, Mom."
He rallied while I opened the cabinet doors. "So . . . I like the ceiling constellations. And
that beadwork hanging in the living room. Pretty good-looking tree. Handmade?"
And Gram didn't say a word, even though she was proud as hell of her bead trees and the
matching embroideries and all the other crap she sold in her online store. Gram could make a
good-looking tree from lawn clippings pasted to a pane of glass, and sell it for fifty bucks.
Anyone else, she'd have been pushing order forms at him by dessert.
But when Mom and Gram decided not to talk, they stuck by it.
It was just like how we never had real conversations about our family's prophetic senses.
They never told me any rules, never unveiled any British magic school. They never talked about
their visions outright. They jotted notes, then threw them in the trash.
When I was a kid they planned a trip to Delphi. They might have been planning it since
before I was born. They finally booked the hotel, bought the tickets, and found me a sitter so they
could explore the navel of the world and maybe surrounding areas, like the world's abdominals or
appendix or something. But when the day came, they never left the couch. They canceled the
sitter, the hotel rooms. They watched the news, passing a tissue box back and forth, wiping their
eyes until the confirmation came that what would have been their plane had crashed.
I was so mad at them that day. I'd been watching a lot of superhero movies, and I knew
they knew what would happen, and I knew they should've at least tried to stop it.
But that was the clearest instance I could remember of them outright predicting
something, not just positing vague worst-case scenarios like, "You wait to mow the lawn, and it'll
storm later," or "He can go ahead and invest there, but I wouldn't risk it," or "Maybe don't go out
Most often, I knew something bad was coming by what Mom and Gram didn't say. And
they didn't say a word directly to Ed the entire time he was in our house.
"Did you tell them?" he asked as I walked him out to the porch. He jammed his fists into
his pockets, jaw tight. "Did you tell them you tried to break up with me once? They think you're
just killing time, is that why?"
"It's not that," I said. At least, I never told them.
"Well I'm not going anywhere!" He yelled it at my front door, and I flinched.
He grabbed at the wind chimes Gram gave Mom for Christmas a few years ago--silvery
stars dangling from the branches of a spindly tree--and tugged hard, warping the wire branches
and ripping the charms loose.
Stars clattered and sang against the porch's boards, bouncing off my shoes, and curtains at
the window fluttered as someone inside stepped away.
I waited for the front door to open, for someone to yell at Ed, or at least help me calm him
down. But nobody came.
When I got back inside later, Gram sat in her chair across from the TV, eyes far-off like
Mom's, but still hard as glass, hard as the green beads she strung unto fragile wires.
"It won't end well, will it?" I asked.
Gram pursed her lips. "All the ends are bad if you follow them far enough." She eased
herself out of her chair, and started toward her bedroom. "Just be careful as you can."
Pessimism. Prophecy. Was there really a difference?
I went to do the dishes so I wouldn't have to think about it, saving Ed's plate for last like it
would disappear if I left it on the table long enough.
IV. A RIFTED CHILD
Most of the time, things were fine.
Good, even. Ed was funny, and fun to be with, and we were happy being together. Things
were great, as long as we stayed happy being together.
He didn't shout or throw things or snidely insult anyone, as long as I acted as happy as he
was. Only rarely did he steal my phone, or hide my shoes, or "misplace" his keys after blocking
my car in his driveway. Little things that happened so out of nowhere I never saw them coming.
But the longer I spent with Ed, the more often other visions came. And clarity was
growing. The credit reel was slowing down. Scrolling back, into a montage of bad moments. I
didn't have the whole picture yet, but I didn't think I wanted it.
"I just want out," I complained to Mae over coffee, head in my hands. "He's nice usually,
but he's clingy like an alien parasite--like if I tear away he's going to rip my skin off."
"Gross." Mae stared into her coffee mug, nose wrinkled. "I did wonder, when you started
going out with him. I think a friend of a friend knows his ex. She complained about the same
kind of stuff, and it took her like a year to cut him loose. I think she moved, actually."
I spread my hands, bugging my eyes. "And you never told me this?"
"I didn't know for sure," Mae said, quiet. "Sorry. You seemed happy, and I didn't want a
rumor to ruin it for you."
I was happy, at first.
After that conversation--and after the visions picked up--flashes of unease infiltrated
every date, every time our lips touched, every time he texted me another freaking anagram
because apparently that was our couple thing now.
Hi carded flit.
Chart if idled.
Dither if clad. (followed up by or unclad haha)
I anagrammed his name, too.
Pumped red, bayoneted.
Dupe boded repayment.
Open dumped, betrayed.
I sent them to him, all the worst ones, but I guess he just accepted it as my morbid streak.
On the six-month anniversary I would've successfully forgotten if Ed hadn't reminded me,
hours after I got home from our dinner date, the premonitions solidified as I rinsed shampoo from
Blood in a sink. A lot of blood. Crusty scab on my head. And some fact I remembered
from a movie or a show: head wounds always bled a lot.
I turned off the water. Bound my hair up in a towel. Sat on my bedroom floor with my
phone in my lap.
Every little epiphany I'd had--every distant possibility, every flickering eventuality--said
this would end badly. For both of us, but especially me. I had to end it. Direct. I just had to be
I crafted the text carefully, concise but brutal, no room for doubt.
Ed. It's been six months. I still don't see it working. We should stop going out. For real
I wavered over an I'm sorry for a full minute before deciding against it. A break-up by
text, on an anniversary, with no niceties. He'd have to accept that it was over.
And then I'd just . . . avoid him. Forever.
Thirty seconds after I pressed send, he called me. He called me over and over, and I
ignored it every time. Then the texts came through, their contents shouted onto my screen in
previews even without me opening them. I ignored those too, until the one that said I'll kill
myself without you.
I snatched up the phone and stabbed the dial button, shouting before I was even sure he
picked up. "Are you screwing with me? Do you know how many people in my family have--?"
"You think I'd joke about this?" The words were snot-soaked, tear-laden, ugly things, and
I wanted to throw my phone across the room. He was talking, begging, sobbing into my ear,
threatening all the things he'd do to himself, to me, to himself, and it was all hot noise in my ear.
It was all things he'd never actually do . . .
But then another vision came. Even bloodier than the one from before. And
another--sitting in my room with all the lights off. Headlights outside. A ghostly "I know you're
home, Faith." Flames, and smoke curling among the stars on our ceiling. I couldn't tell how big
the blaze was.
"Don't do anything." I bit the words off, one by one. "We can meet tomorrow. We can
But Ed kept talking, kept talking, kept promising and threatening and promising again,
and the whole time the credit reel kept playing, skipping, juddering, landing on all the worst case
scenarios I could imagine.
He talked for two hours straight before letting me end the call.
And I sobbed against my kneecaps for another hour before I realized Gram was standing
in my doorway, her face blotchy and pinched.
"I thought if I was direct," I managed.
She pressed her lips thin, closing her eyes. "Do you know why our family started
I'd never heard Gram or anyone else in the family tell an actual riddle, but I shook my
"Because people shoot messengers." She eased herself down on my bedroom floor.
Mom appeared in the doorway, sunglasses pushed to the top of her head, pinning back
bangs that flapped wild like she'd been pacing. White paint dappled her cheek. For the first time
in a long time, her eyes were focused entirely on me, a hundred percent.
"You will get through this," she said. "We will find an action to take."
"We let me get into this," I said, jerking the offered tissue box from Gram's hand. "You
couldn't just tell me? You couldn't just throw up a few more red flags that first night?"
I ripped a tissue from the box, dragging out half of the stack with it.
I pressed the whole wad to my eyes. "You couldn't just tell me how to see this coming?"
"We need to make our own mistakes when we're young," Mom whispered. "Or else we'd
all make the same choices, and we'd never find anything better."
"This route is a bad one," Gram said. "This time, it's bad. But we think your life's settled
enough for you to start your loop."
Blowing my nose into the tissues made my ears pop, made strange words sound even
stranger. "My what?"
Mom sat beside me, folding her legs under herself neatly. "These premonitions don't
come from nowhere." She pulled the tissues from my grip and clasped my hands in hers. "You're
going to go warn yourself now."
"Warn myself." A different kind of vision was seeping into my thoughts. Not
"We'll help you tonight," Mom said. "Eventually, it'll be second nature. Like a live
"Start by thinking of branches on a tree," Gram said.
"Arms on a galaxy," Mom corrected.
"A film reel," I said.
Gram snorted. "No, they don't work like this at all. Have you even seen a film reel?"
Not in person. But I'd seen the effect used in movies, in animations. Dozens of film strips
playing at the same time, their lengths lined up in rows, or crisscrossing, or overlapping or
And I saw them in my mind's eye all the time. I saw them now, a million fragile strands of
film somehow unfurling from the same reel, curling in on themselves so the ends brushed the
beginnings. Some strands hung in fragile tangles, and in the center of the bird's-nest mess, a
thicker, tightly bound column extended off into the distance, wound up in all the others.
"If a film reel is what she sees, then it's a film reel," Mom said to Gram impatiently.
"Faith. What do you see?"
A light shone through the sepia-toned mess, illuminating frames of different lives I could
have led, flashing by so fast they animated. I focused on one far-off length of film, past the
woven-together skein, to one of the strands farthest from my own. "A Faith Riddle somewhere
else. One who sees all the happy futures. One with everything going right for her."
"Alright," Gram said. Sad. "A film reel, then."
"And you couldn't show me this any earlier?" I asked, clenching Mom's hands in mine.
"In some arms of the galaxy, we do," Mom said. Her voice cracked. "In this one, we
didn't think you were ready yet. Because . . ." She stopped.
"Because we aren't on the main stem," I said, hollow. My tears dried up. I was too angry
for them. "Because we get all the bad ends. Because if things don't happen to me this way, I can't
warn the other Faiths, and somewhere else I'm screwed." I yanked my hands out of Mom's, with
one sharp rasp of laughter. "So whatever warning I send, that won't help me, here, now."
Mom and Gram didn't talk. Just sat on my bedroom floor, looking tired. Mom pushed her
sunglasses back down over her face.
I grabbed her hands again and closed my eyes. The films kept playing. Fates better than
this, but worse ones too. Fates where Mom and Gram got on the plane to Delphi, fates where the
constant worst-case scenarios ground me down to nothing, me or Gram, or Mom. Fates where I
died before I even made it out of high school, and fates where I worked dead-end jobs until I died
cold and younger than people are supposed to.
And then the better fates. Better dates. White dresses, and kids with my eyes. Publishing
deals, or passports, or paradises I'd never thought to imagine, or all of the above crammed on one
single, fragile strand. But I never followed those strands to their ends.
All the ends were bad if you followed them far enough.
"Fine," I said. "Fine. What do I do?"
V. CHILD, RID FATE
For once, Mom and Gram talked about it. Our gift, our curse, our warnings to ourselves.
And I listened and learned as the clock crept toward morning.
Mom and Gram helped me line up all the rough edges of my memories, and I cobbled
together my warning.
I wrapped up the rage, the fear, the trapped feelings of my rawest Ed moments, and I
flattened them into a montage. The first flickering scenes of many.
Then Mom and Gram helped me bend time back to our beginning in the bar, before I ever
had a hint of what was coming. The anagrams on a napkin, the exchange of names. His lit-up
face. Like I was a gift he could grab for himself.
Don't do this. I willed the Faith from back then to understand more than I had. Stay away
Film loops were wrapped in my fist, spooling up my arm, hanging back behind me, bad
ends flickering and skipping like livewires but still visible. More comprehendible than any of the
little epiphanies I'd only glimpsed. I strung a batch between the past Faith's fingers, tying them in
a big, ridiculous, floppy bow, too big to ignore if she could've seen it. I think her smile turned
brittle. But I could've imagined it. I felt like I was imagining all of this. But.
"Good girl," Mom said, nearer my ear than I expected. Because she and Gram could see
this past unfolding too, their branches and constellations bound up with all my movies. Far-off,
Mom squeezed my hands. Started to guide me out of the loop.
I froze in the frame of the memory when Ed laughed at some joke that I'd made, and he
drew gazes. Other girls, glancing, blatantly checking him out from across the room. Heat prickled
in my stomach.
Ed did have a nice laugh.
He seemed nice enough, at first.
Nice enough for his ex to put up with him for a year. Nice enough that Mae decided he
wasn't worth warning me about. Nice enough that Mom and Gram had let me leave the house
despite their visions.
If I were some girl in that bar--I was some girl in that bar--I'd have appreciated a
I lifted an armful of shimmering film, both technicolor bright spots and their shifts to
black-and-white dark days. I looped them around Ed's neck, and pulled them tight, taut, tough.
He didn't cough, didn't choke, but he didn't have to. This wasn't for him. It was for everyone he
crossed paths with.
I double-knotted the tangles, puffed them up until they were big and unwieldy, swaying
like one big, sepia-tinged red flag around Ed's head.
But could other people sense it? Even if it was just a sick, off feeling in the pit of their
stomach. That much would be enough.
I watched until the tail of one dangling strand brushed the nearest glancing girl's cheek.
Her brows snapped down, and she looked away from Ed. Sipped her drink like she was scouring
a bad taste from her mouth. I grinned.
Only then did I let myself come out of the loop, back to my bedroom floor, my hands still
in Mom's. A laugh bubbled up, unstoppable, and I doubled over, shaking with triumph.
Mom fiddled with her sunglasses, frowning. "I don't think we're supposed to--"
"Well." Gram brushed her palms off on her knees. "We'll just see how it turns out."
"Hey," I said, trying to cut off my laughter. "Let's go somewhere."
"Go?" Mom repeated. "Go where? The police?"
"No, somewhere," I said, straightening. "Delphi, frick, I don't know. Let's just leave town.
Ghost out of Ed's life and jump onto some other route, because no way I'm settling for this one."
"Leave town," Gram repeated. She flattened her palm against the hardwood floor. Mom
looked up at the ceiling--my room was where she'd started painting stars, before I was ever born.
"If we're a bad end anyway," I said, "I want to be that bad end."
Even now I could feel the film strips peeling away from each other, diverging again and
There was the one where I stayed, and everything went wrong--the one some future bad-end Faiths were warning me about. The one where I stayed, and everything turned out . . . mostly
fine. The one where Mom and Gram refused, and I took off on my own.
And this one:
"Ok," Gram said.
She and I started packing, and Mom went to find our dusty suitcases.
My blood rushed hot, and scared, and proud.
We were going to leave before we ever got to the bad ends I'd seen. We'd be careening
toward something else--probably wandering broke in a foreign country or having to deal with
whatever mess from home caught up to us.
But we'd keep seeing, and sending back warnings, and searching for the best bad ends we
could find. The possibilities in the bad, like all the possibilities in letters.
Even if all the ends are bad . . .
All the ends are bad . . .
Ban a sheltered lad . . .
Enthralled, abased . . .
A sad hell bantered . . .