My sister and I lock arms and sit knuckle-nosed on our porch, our legs splayed wide across the crooked wooden stairs, sunning our band-aid spattered knees. It’s a quiet day, the sun is shining high through hazy blue clouds mixed with intermittent rain. It’s one of those days where the weather is experiencing mood swings, switching back and forth between bleary-eyed, hangover tears to warm hand-holding sunshine. My grandma, forever telling lickety-split nightmares before lights-out legends, calls it a foxes’ wedding. Why foxes choose midday to marry in dingy old Parkchester, causing meteorological haywire, I guess we’ll never know, but I imagine that maybe everywhere else is booked till April. My sister and I are B to the O to the R to the E to the D that spells BORED, rocking back and forth in the true blue woe of the pre-teen doldrums. She has spent the larger part of the morning biting her fingers to keep from picking at her scabs. My sister is seven to my eleven, but for seven she isn’t so bad. She and I toss a baseball back and forth in front of the crooked, craggy teeth of our neighbor’s chicken wire fence, taking care each step to avoid the broken glass serving as booby traps in the dry yellowed grass. She’s lost her front teeth so when she smiles she looks like a funny little comic strip caricature. She’s at that age where she’s all gangly vibrating limbs, her hair permanently cow-licked upward in the front, and she’s been looking wide-eyed surprised ever since she sacrificed half an eyebrow to the stovetop in a misguided game of double double dog dare ya. Even her voice is high and cartoony, the sound of an animated pinball pinging back and forth, hitting the high notes inside an arcade.

Even baseballs have their expiration date and the task of tossing the ball back and forth becomes a fun sponge, and I really start to sink into the heavy-boots daydream doldrums. So we return to sitting with our legs kicked out, brushing flies away from our shiny red cola cans, listening to distant roiling thunder and wondering whether this weather will make up its mind and the storm will break, or if we can safely bike down to the corner store to sneak Bazooka gum and Tootsie Pops into our lean jean pockets.

We’re just starting to play the forbidden double double dog dare ya when the neighborhood trouble crew rolls up on jingling scooters and pedal-to-the-metal tricked out bikes. As soon as they see us their smirks are stretched ear to ear and their tires pop up in circus displays of old school ability. They shout “SICK TRICK!” and one of their friends hobbles up and down, awkwardly balancing on the bars of his bike, monkey arms holding on tight as his legs balloon above. They glance over at us, whisper something snide that sounds like snakes hissing, and reflexively I flip them off, knocking back some Coca Cola for sugar super-strength. For an eleven year old I’m tough as nails, tougher than tough. No boy ever scared me. Tommy, my neighbor, hangs back as they swagger up the craggy cement sidewalk towards us. He’s still got a black eye from the last time he tried to tango with me, do-se-do, mano a mano. I toss my head back and spit on the ground, and tie my black hair back up into a high ponytail, ready for fight or flight. My sister climbs up to perch on the step above me, simulating a false sense of height, her knobby knees knocking together nervously and her teeth chattering out a staccato beat.

Erik walks up first. He kicks our mailbox and his gaggle of goons laugh like hyenas behind him. He’s got blue eyes and white blonde eyebrows, pale skin, rail-thin legs, and a face that got stuck perpetually mean-mugging. He looks almost translucent under his dirt smudged cheeks and a bright red baseball cap. If I blow hard enough I wonder if he’ll come apart, scattered to the wind like dandelion fluff. Still, he’s got a malicious mouth on him and I feel the hair on my neck start to bristle.

“What are you nerds up to?”

“Nuthin.” I feel my sister’s breath on my back. I cross my arms and spread my legs wide across our wooden steps, blocking their entrance. “What’s it to you?”

“Look at this tough kid.” He spits on the ground, crossing his arms. One of his friends picks up a half broken bottle in the grass and chucks it onto the sidewalk, and the hyena howls start up again. “She’s shakin’ in her boots.”

“These look like boots to you?” I kick my sneaker sharp into his shin. I considered aiming for his crotch but I’m feeling generous today, and I have his collection of goons to worry about as well as my sniffling little sister. The storm rumbles up above.

Erik rubs his shin, but the goons have gone loopy over this, muttering about his tarnished masculinity, destroyed by one sharp kick from my sunny girl-legs. My sister grabs my shoulders to prevent me from executing the classic detention dilettante duck, ramming my head hard into his chest and knocking the wind out of him so I can watch his bubbling bobblehead go blue.

“What do you baby brats want?” I stand with my hands on my hips, mimicking my grandma’s listen-up-kids posturing. “Cause if you don’t get off my lawn you’re about to become dead-meat dogs.”

Erik thinks I like him, deluded by brain-dead wishful thinking, and now he’s leaning against the flimsy wooden awning holding up our sagging roof. I don’t like him. I think his buckteeth and translucent skin make him look like a wide-eyed, white-bellied fish lain on its back. My gramma says boys tease you when they like you, but I’ve never been one to be crushed by a crush. If anything I like Ronny. He’s standing to the side, kicking his foot against a crushed can, dark hair falling into his freckled face. Occasionally he looks up, kicking his foot and then quickly looking away, avoiding my eyes. He makes my stomach feel fuzzy, like a shaken up can of Coca Cola.

I spaced out, staring starry-eyed at Ronny, and my attention returns to find my cartoon sister telling Erik about our game of double double dog dare ya. She tells Erik I ate a worm. I flush, glancing at Ronny, ignoring Erik’s hyena laugh and pulling my sister sharply back onto the porch.

“Laugh all you want,” I say, jamming my thumb in my chest. “I ain’t no chicken. No lily-livered fool like the likes of you, plebian!” On weekends my dad comes over and reads me Shakespeare’s monologues. I like him cause he has the best insults.

“We saw you two lame-brained brunettes looking skyward all dull eyed.” Erik flexes his non-existent muscles. “And I said hey. I bet they haven’t heard.”

I bite my lip but I can’t resist. “Heard what?”

Erik slowly turns round, his white alien face pinkish with barely contained excitement. He slides his red cap around so the brim is tilted to the back and leans in real close, little drops of spittle landing on my pursed lips. His breath smells like sour milk and there’s cookie crumbs dusting his chin. The other boys are whispering loudly behind us, talking so close they’re practically licking the inside of each other’s ears.

“I bet you’ve never even heard of Burnt Sugarland.”

I roll my eyes in big Ferris wheel fun circles. “And? What the hell is Burnt Sugarland?” I’m glad my gramma isn’t hearing me talk like this because I don’t want to have to pull weeds in her garden this weekend if she grounds me. “Sounds like a cartoon candy store.”

“Oh, its no colorful candy-land walk in the park you nimble-numble knobhead. Nobody comes back from Burnt Sugarland. They go in, they don’t come out. That abandoned movie theatre over off Grave Street. Haunted as shit. Got ghosts up the wazoo kazoo. Only a true-blue braveheart can spend a night there, and be part of the bicycle gang.”

I know the place he’s talking about, and I have this sudden sinking feeling in my stomach. Dark and gloomy no matter the weather, covered with thorny brine branches. I don’t bike past it much cause it gives me shuddering shakes, the heebie-jeebies. Like déjà vu, there’s something too familiar about Burnt Sugarland, something that puts my teeth on edge and fills my brain with bubbly unease. Couple years ago, driving on a field trip that passed the southern outskirts of the city, the rough patch of Parkchester where my homestead resides, our bus took a detour down a rugged, rocky off-road and ended up parked by an accusatory NO TRESSPASSERS sign for a good fifteen minutes. Our bus driver rubbed his bald patch into a worried shine and rotated a crumpled-up map round and round in “I don’t need to ask for directions” determination. The bus was hot and humid and beads of sweat formed above my brow, so my little sister and I alternated the blue ice packs in our lunch boxes from left to right arm pit. I glanced outside the window past the chain link fence blocking our path, unable to clearly make out what lay behind nature’s shower curtain that was forbidden to us lunch-munching school kids. I squinted hard and hopped up onto the vinyl seat now slippery with sweat and saw bright red letters in the distance. I didn’t know then that they spelled out Burnt Sugarland, originally intended to read Burnton Sugarland ‘fore the hands of time wore the rusty screws loose and started rearranging metal and bricks to Mother Nature’s artistic preference. All I could clearly see was a hollow black window, and an interior with worn red and gold wallpaper. Right before a bead of salty sweat slipped into my eyes I swore I saw a white hand rise to the edge of the broken window. Before I could wipe my eyes clean the bus had roared to life and we had rocketed back to civilization and the clean cool interior of Parkchester Elementary. Grandma says there aren’t ghosts anyways, that the real ghosts are regrets inside the living. And they’re not real, according to dad. He gets this distant look on his face when he talks about ghosts, the same look he gets when he talks about mom. He’s an atheist, but gramma says he’s a pessimist. I’m not sure I know what either of those things really means.

I feel the guttural grips of girl-rage taking hold of my body. Erik’s slow smile stretches from ear to ear. He knows he has me, cornered, quartered and unable to counter offer. Sometimes a situation like this is a snowball rolling down a mountain. The avalanche is inevitable once enough momentum is built up.

The sky booms loudly above us and the first drops of rain make their declaration on the sidewalk with loud splats. I step forward and a drop lands on my cheek and slides down to my chin. I wipe it off in frustration, not wanting any of these doped dudes to mistake it for crying. The last time I cried was two weeks ago when I slipped down the stairs, and I’m trying to beat my month-long record of willing water back into my eyes.

“I. Ain’t. Afraid. Of nuthin.” The sky is now softly weeping, and the drops are staining everyone’s shirts with dark polka dots.

“Then prove it, scaredy cat.” Erik hops onto his bike, rolling out of our craggy-toothed gate onto the slick asphalt of the street. The danger boy squad follows suit, circling like mad Technicolor boy vultures.

“Whatever.”

Erik weaves his front tire in the air, preparing to jet away speed-demon style, but he at long last issues the official challenge, and his hammer strikes the last nail deep into my coffin:

“You think you’re a bad bad kid? Well you’ve never been to Burnt Sugarland, so how would you know?”

Ronny shoots me one last encouraging glance of nervous admiration, but he too hops on his bike to join the loony-tunes. The storm above cracks like a raw wet egg. As they pedal off curly-cackling, the thunder finally slams its hands together with a loud clap. The sound reverberates through my body and I feel electricity run up and down my arms, my skin pebbled with bumpy gooseflesh. Before my sister says a word I’m walking to the back shed behind our house, eyes all wily-coyote, huffing and puffing my way through the tall grass with sudden crazy kid adrenaline.

My bike is wiry and beautiful, though rust has eaten away at the paint and poked holes in its cherry red skin. My hands run over it lovingly. Maybe it’s my imagination but she seems alive today, bucking with excitement, whispering, Let’s ride ride ride.

“Shh, girl,” I whisper, pulling her up to a standing position, straightening out the metal mesh basket in the front and pressing my hands on the tires to check their pressure. One squeeze lets me know she’s running a little flat, but I’ve forgotten where the pump is and I can’t really do it without my dad’s help. I swing my legs over, rev my hands vroom vroom on the handlebars and am prepared to kick off with wild abandon when I look up into those big blue anime eyes.

My sister has her arms crossed. She has given in and picked off one of the scabs on her left knee, and a trail of red is dripping down her calf, staining her white socks.

“Move,” I say, and push my bike over the gravel towards freedom and the open road but she remains steadfast, staring me down with stubborn kid diligence.

“Don’t,” she moans. I push her to the side and she grabs my sleeve, putting on her deepest pout, all fish-faced motherly concern. “Grammy will ground you.”

She’s young, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand a girl’s reputation, doesn’t see how important it is that I rub Erik Schroeder’s face in the dirt with my go-getter girl success. I rip my arm away from her and ruffle her golden brown kid curls, and as she pushes her hair back out of her eyes I make my Houdini getaway down the block.

With the wind in my hair I barely notice the big splashes of water dotting my cheeks. I use one hand to zip up my sweatshirt and pull my hood down over my head. Then I go speed-demon pedal-to-the-metal-baby and dive down the hill, heading deeper Southside. The streets are changing color and start to shine bright like mirror metal, reflecting passing car lights in bright flashes of color. The further Southside I get, the ground turns topsy-turvy. The asphalt is doing the crickle-crackle mamba as nature reclaims its surface. Green shoots crawl up and with superman kryptonite-proof strength tear manmade stone apart. By the time I get to the dusty red road it’s turned into mahogany mud soup. I make the mistake of braking too late, and my tires slide out from under me, sending me sky-high airborne. I try to wipe the dirt away from my scuffed-up knees but I forget the sludge covering my hands and end up with a mud mask all over my legs. I stand, a little bobble-headed but no worse for wear.

The gate is locked with a chain but it’s loose, an invitation for beanpoles like me to slide through. I leave my bike in the brush, not bothering to lock it because what knob-nose thieves would come here, looking for ghosts?

I slip inside, wriggling my body through the rusted metal bars. At first I only see the shadowed silhouette of the building through the leafy arms of overgrowth, a dark specter looming in the distance. But as I step onto the asphalt I’m greeted by the bright red letters shouting BURNT SUGARLAND and I know that I’ve arrived. The whole parking lot is still, and the rain has slowed to a soft pulsing murmur. This place is too quiet, and I long to hear a car honk or the rumble of a passing train, even the hyena laughter of the danger-boy squad. I’m aching for anything to break the silence, the background noise of other humans wrapping me up like a warm blanket, whispering You’re not alone. My sister makes me check under her bed every night for monsters, and I find myself glancing back and forth, side to side, unable to shake the feeling I’m being watched. I see the empty window, where I thought I saw—

“It’s just your imagination,” I whisper in my toughest dad-voice. “Keep it together, kid.” But the memory of the white hand at the window sends a shiver down my spine.

I pull out my flashlight from my backpack and flick it on and off, checking the batteries. It’s not dark enough yet for it to make much of a difference, but the shadows are growing long and the overcast sky is turning a deeper gray.

I walk through the parking lot toward the bright red letters, trying to outrun my adrenaline rush of first-day school nerves. As I approach the dilapidated entrance I pass rusted, half-collapsed kid rides my sister would go golly google-eyed over, since we rarely go to the playground unless our dad is in town. There is a loud thunderclap above, and I jump, my body shooting upward like a party popper.

I turn towards the tall entryway. The whole place is littered with DO NOT ENTER signs, but I can tell the doors have been opened because the handles are missing, and the paper sealing them shut ripped and peeling. In gold cases shielded with broken glass there are faded movie posters, advertising films I’ve never heard of. The brick surrounding the entrance was once brightly painted in blues, golds, and reds, but the time has stripped it away to reveal a plain gray and brown skin underneath. It reminds me of my mom washing off her makeup at night, the glamorous disguise of a stranger transforming once again to the soft, smiling face I recognize. This place isn’t so bad. It’s just a building. Like a dead scarecrow standing in an empty field, it’s a skeleton; the bones of its purpose exposed, naked in front of me. I pull hard, opening the door unintentionally fast, and it swings back on its hinges, light as a feather.

“Holy hell,” I whisper, and I’m torn between relief my gramma isn’t around to hear me curse, to desperately wishing she was, so she could carry me out of here and ground me for life. The inside of the building is a sharp contrast, vibrant in warmth and vitality. If the exterior is a faded skeleton, crumbling away, the interior is a bright pulsing heart, full of red and gold light. As I step forward the door swings shut sharply behind me. I release my champion girl-grip on my flashlight and slip the now useless torch into my sweatshirt pocket.

The smell of something sweet and acrid, the fresh scent of candy and butter, hits my nose and has my stomach aching. Soft tinny music fills the expanse of the lobby, lined with fake plastic plants surrounding red cushioned stools that circle small gilded tables. The tanned faces in photos of blonde movie stars eye me with suspicion as I take my first steps on the plush carpet. My kid eyes are drawn into the sugary sweetness, following a giant illuminated arrow flashing FRESH TREATS. The concession stand is crackling with life, and hot golden kernels spout out in puffs of pure white, falling gracefully into a large metal basin. Cherry wands and colorfully whirled hard candies sparkle in glass jars in rainbow rows lining the shelves. Cotton candy tufts hang above the candy counter, which displays every kind of chocolate confection a kid could dream up. I press my face against the glass, drool dribbling down my chin.

This is the abandoned Burnt Sugarland, seemingly alive and full of vigor? I swivel my head round the room, trying to figure out if this is some elaborate prank designed by the danger-boy squad meant to lull a go- getter girl into la la land. The candy stench has my head spinning but my instincts are still buzzing that I’m about to be made a king’s fool, or perhaps suffer a fate far worse.

I’m reminded of fairy tales, the kind my grammy tells me, her lights-out-legends. If you’re ever lured under the hill to the monolithic magic land, you’re not supposed to eat anything they offer you, because no bat-eyed beauty holding sweet treats means you well. Everything in fairyland is dusted with pixie dust; a drug that will leave you head-ached and baked, returned to Earthland 100 years in the future, totally tits up. So even though I’m trembling with kid joy at the sight of my candy-land dreams come true, I bite my lip hard and turn away from the syrupy sweet Sugarland.

There is a long staircase on my right, ballroom beauty style, the kind that Cinderella would leave a glass slipper on. My lil sis would go ga-ga over it since the railings are perfectly smooth, ideal for a super slide. I wipe the saliva from my chin and take the stairs one at a time, feeling stone-sinking dread since I know this is the hallway with the hollow window, and the haunted white hand.

By the time I reach the top stair my legs are shaking. I’m unable to control my giddy girl nerves. Beside the window there’s the shredded remains of a silk red curtain, gently billowing in the breeze, but I almost tumble backwards, convinced I’ve seen a red-dressed ghost woman. I slap my cheeks, trying to bring my rattled brain to attention.

There’s no tinny music on this floor, but across from the shattered window there are wide red doors, the sounds of canned TV laughter, and children singing. The rest of the hall is quiet, and as I pass several open doorways I see the remains of dilapidated theatres, filled with decrepit red velvet seats now covered in dust and moth- eaten. The ceilings have worn away, and unplanned skylights shine like spotlights, pinpoints of light projected onto the vestiges of an off-white tattered movie screen.

I swallow the lump in my throat, stifle the loud banging of my raucous over-eager heart, and continue towards the tall red doors. My hand trembles as I touch the gold handle, sweat running down the lines of my dirty palms. I push hard, anticipating the weight of the imposing doors, but both swing wide open at my touch. Steam pours out onto the carpet, tendrils circling around my sneakers and obscuring my girl legs. I stumble inside, tripping over my feet; the red doors slam shut.

I quickly turn and pull the handles, but the doors refuse to give. The music is overwhelmingly loud and rhythmic. I feel buoyed up by the giggle-gaggle of children and tinkling bells. I slowly turn to face the screen. Through the smoky haze there are colorful lights flashing, the projector screening a wild rainbow dance of illumination that makes my eyes well up and my nose itch. I sneeze, tearing my eyes away from the glimmer-glow display to look at the faces in the audience, each sitting separately in their red velvet seats. The woman nearest to me is old, her eyes closed but her white teeth stretched wide in total bliss. Cobwebs cover her eyelids and I can see a thin layer of dust coating her arms and legs, the space below her body shiny and pristine-clean by comparison. Her clothes are strange, juvenile for a 70-year-old woman, a bright red jumper with pink striped stockings. They look shrunken on her frail body. Everyone else in the theatre is dressed in a similarly weird fashion, as if they were all on their way to a bizarro world costume party, adults disguised in kid clothes. They all sleep still, peacefully, with smiles stretched across their dusty faces.

I walk down the aisle and I whisper, “Hello?” No one responds. I muster up the courage and say, almost shouting, “Hello!”

The old woman stirs, opening one eyelid. Her smile falters and she looks at me with concern.

“Mom?”

I shake my head no. “Excuse me, miss, but . . . what are you doing here?”

She shrugs, turning back to the bright flashes of light on the screen. “It’s so pretty. Everything here is so pretty, and perfect.”

A spider crawls out from her gray pigtails, so I smack it off, stomping hard on the vinyl floor. The woman doesn’t seem to notice, her eyes slipping closed, her breath fading to a soft gentle snore.

“Hey!” I grab her arm, trying to shake her into consciousness, but she remains fast in dreamland.

“HEY!” I scream, wringing her shoulders in my tiny hands, but her body slumps to the side, her tongue lolling out.

“Shhhh.” A man behind her in dusty glasses and a faded blue baseball cap struggles to a sitting position. “Don’t look at the screen.”

His voice is slurred, like he’s had “one too many,” like my dad coming home late after a night shift.

I climb up over the velvet seat. “This woman needs help. She’s all fuzzed up.”

“What year is it?”

I can’t help it; I give a nervous girl giggle. Even under these strange circumstances I’m wondering why this knob-head nitwit is asking me a duh-doy question.

“It’s 2015.”

“Oh god. Oh god, help me,” he groans, attempting to lift his arm, but it falls back on the armrest. I crawl closer but he shakes his head.

“It’s no . . . use. You have to go.” His eyes roll back and he returns to the chorus of the ZZZ.

Out of the blue pocket of his strange kid shorts I see a wallet. I’m not a snoop but under the present circumstances it seems necessary to play one. I pull it loose from his pocket. He remains still, no longer aware of the world around him, a blissful smile stretched from ear to ear.

I flip the wallet open and coins fall out, rolling down the aisle. There’s not much inside, save for a school ID which reads: Malcolm Collins, Grade 7, Parkchester Middle Grade 1982.

I look at the faded photo: a young freckle-faced boy with thick black-rimmed glasses and a light blue baseball cap. I do a double-take back to the middle aged man in sleepy bliss, wearing the same strange kid uniform in the ID photo. I drop the wallet like a hot potato and stumble backwards, slipping on the dusted vinyl floors and falling back into one of the welcoming red velvet seats. Dust blooms up around me as I settle into the deep cushion. I struggle to stand but my sunny girl legs have turned to jelly, and my arms feel heavy, weighted like iron blocks. Unwillingly I try to force my eyes away from the bright colored wonderland on the flashing screen but soon I’m overcome by the glittery lightshow, the warmth of the chair, the sickly sweet stench of warm bubbling sugar lulling me to la la land. I’m giggling like a giddy schoolgirl; my voice joining the chorus of kid laughter and tinkling bells. My eyes are sliding slowly closed even as every part of me screams in resistance, my fingers twitching an SOS on the armrest.

I wake up and my sister is pulling on my arm, dragging me up the aisle towards the red light of the emergency exit. There are claw marks on her arms and I realize I’m screaming. She smacks my face hard and I stop, unable to fully stand, totally dependent on her trembling kid body to carry me out to safety. Our exit from Burnt Sugarland is fuzzy in my mind, but I remember lying on the asphalt as big drops of rain smacked onto my cheeks, waking my dulled senses. I feel a deep dark sadness, an ache that makes me salivate, the desire to return to the theatre, to continue watching the beautiful lights I saw on screen. But my sister sees that dreamy look in my eyes and she smacks me again, wrestling me to the ground.

We’re past the chain link fence and I feel the sensation of gut-wrenching sadness lift and I’m panting in the dirt, my sister standing above with her hand raised, prepared to smack me into sanity as many times as it takes.

“It’s okay,” I say. I pick her up, hugging her hard. She’s so tough. She’s a real go-getter girl. She’s the toughest kid I know. “Ya dumb kid. You saved me ya dumb kid.” Dad’s always doing that. He’ll say I love you but then he’ll call you dumb, or ugly, or stupid. Affection is measured and ladled in careful amounts, with enough bitterness to hide the real depth of sweetness and sugar in every mouthful. My sister helps me walk down the dusty dirt path, and she perches on the back of the bike as I peddle us home, away from Burnt Sugarland to grandma’s stew.

Sophia Zdon’s “Burnt Sugarland” won first prize in 2015 in the Third Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Sophia is no stranger to awards: her personal essay, “Of Bones and Breath” won third prize in 2013; and her poem, “Enlightened,” won third prize in 2014. Sophia is a senior majoring in Illustration, and currently resides in Brooklyn. She is an expert at navigating metro transit.