Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller

Alicia Free: 23 - 25

Alicia could never swim.

 

It was something her father hated, but he hadn’t combated. He was afraid to go near the water himself. Judith loved it. They went to the beach and he’d sit back with her, staring out at the other family members as they splashed and screamed with glee.

 

“If only they knew what was in there,” he said once, pulling his feet through the sand. She thought about him sometimes, when the pain was barely enough to allow it.

 

Even after months of floating in the dark abyss, Alicia felt herself trying. Trying to breathe, trying to see, trying to adapt. She felt herself struggling against the thick seaweed, waving in the water. She tried more than she ever had in her adult existence.

 

There were times when fluorescent swirls surrounded her, the shadows glowing in their tiny forms. They looked like jellyfish. They floated down to find new bodies, unaware of the woman that was alive and suffering.

 

Everything is dark, please let me die, please!

 

For only a moment, she’d noticed how many others there were. Like humanoid nightlights, they all shone in the dark, fluorescent blues and reds. Once she was in place, that was it. She could only see the thick, razor-sharp tentacle that attached to her right eye, and then nothing. The pressure burst her eardrums, but they always grew back. Her eyes struggled, sometimes they would swell, but they always opened.

 

The darkness was unbearable. The emotional pain that Alicia felt in Mae’s body all became a distant memory as the months went on. This was not disappointment, anguish, existential questioning. Nothing emotional could survive in this new agony. It filtered through her skin, replacing her own blood and bone, and it never stopped.

 

She found herself reaching out for Yenna often, trying to pull from the seaweeds, trying to move her lips. Yenna haunted her. Yenna’s fear, the way her body shivered with goosebumps. Her gag, her lips turning blue with cold. The more she thought about her, the more Yenna was sickly and gaunt when it happened. The more Yenna was bleeding, cut to shreds by betrayal, screaming into her gag. Alicia couldn’t remember what was true. Was the baby in her womb, or did Yenna give birth to it out of fear? Had she given birth on that boat?

 

The words turned into froth in her head, all fizzing and scratching at her sanity. Did the monsters snatch the screaming baby, dragging a screaming Yenna down with them? Did she hurt that screaming baby, stupid mongrel that she was? Did she hurt an innocent baby? A baby that would’ve been loved and cherished, that she could’ve helped to love, did Alicia actually do that? That writhing baby…

 

It screamed so loud sometimes, but maybe that was the pressure. The water. The pressure sounded like screams or whistles sometimes, after all. She wondered what Yenna’s screams sounded like. She’d never gotten to hear her scream, or see her cry in joy, or experience the real woman. The one that wasn’t trying to teach her things. The one that wasn’t trying to save the last piece of her family. The one that wasn’t trying to give her love and affection. What a time to consider that she was so important to Yenna because she was the last Free left. Alicia was the last of the family that took her in and loved her, and here she’d betrayed her in the end.

 

The shock of the brine pool was the worst. At times her body would convulse with such severity that she’d wave. The waves matched the seaweed holding her down; her muscles grew taut and scrunched up in shock.

 

Time passed. Alicia couldn’t tell how long. Every second felt like another bundle of eternities. Every time she died, snatched from her body, her very life suctioning through what felt like tiny holes in her skin and flesh, she felt fresh pain take over. When she returned, it was all new. Her bones crushed and eardrums burst and she was drowning again. It felt like the first time. Alicia was going somewhere, but she always came back.

 

Drowned Alicia. Destroyed Alicia. Dying Alicia.

 

And then she was standing in a room.

 

It was a simple room with white walls and a white floor, and she was staring at a woman in the reflection of a vanity. Alicia stumbled, squinting in the light, but the pain never reached her eyes. She couldn’t feel anything, not even her own body. The woman patted her face with powder, folding a thick bottom lip over her teeth to better reach the skin above her chin. It took a moment, and then she gasped. She turned in surprise, taking in Alicia.

 

“I’m … I’m not … what happened?” Alicia could breathe. Her body looked normal, alive, Mae’s regal posture coated in beautiful black fabric. The woman stared at her, eyes wide, the pad stiff in her hand.

 

“Yenna? I was with-” Alicia couldn’t remember how long it’d been since she last saw Yenna. She couldn’t think of anything but her face, the fear stuck in her pupils, the belly. That baby, that baby writhing in her-

 

“No, you have me mistaken,” the woman finally offered, still stunned. “Yenna’s one of my babies. I’m Cora. What are you doing here? You can’t be a human, but-” The woman rose, alarmed, and Alicia remembered. The thick brown hair, bumped and curled. The pretty flowers dotting through it. She’d seen this woman perform before, her last performance ever, and watched her father weep at hearing she was missing. Yenna had dedicated her life to finding this woman, to rescuing her.

 

“Granny?” Cora stared at her for a moment, her body tight with mistrust. Unsure of what to do, Alicia stood straighter, tilting her neck up like Mae used to do. As silly as the gesture felt, Cora gasped.

 

“Yes, you delight! Oh, I’m so surprised you remember me. Mae? You’re one of Harold’s human girls, correct? The oldest surviving one?” Alicia nodded, excited despite herself, and then shook her head no. Cora’s excitement edged with suspicion. “I felt you when they pulled you down here. There’s no way you’re human, not if you found your way in here alone. I was expecting the pretty one. How did you even survive the way down?” Alicia gulped back a long whine of protest. Mae was gorgeous. What a thing to say to someone standing in front of you? Cora adjusted her clothes, running her hands along her sides, and kept her eyes pinned to her granddaughter’s face.

 

“I see you’re cursed with more legs than torso like the rest of the women in our family. We’re all gangly. It’s been so long since anyone’s seen me. Please excuse my appearance if it isn’t suitable. I can only do so much here, and it feels false to make myself more petite.” The long woman smiled, a shy smile that somehow filled Alicia with hope. Despite her reservations, Cora had a model’s body that Alicia envied even in her confusion.

 

She’s so brown! The brown of Cora was slightly lighter than Alicia, but accompanied by strong undertones. The skin on her body seemed to glow gold with natural highlights. Even her hair was a deeper chestnut than Alicia could comprehend. It was in those flawless strands that she realized that none of it was real. The room, Cora, even her very own shaking hands.

 

I’m not dreaming, but this isn’t real.

 

Cora was classy. Every movement she made was familiar, and the body Alicia occupied responded with recognition. Mae had always adored Cora the most, trying to stretch her body to match her long, upright posture. Spending hours mimicking her deep voice. Cora gave Alicia a flower for her hair once, a simple flower, and Mae cried herself to sleep.

 

“She hates everybody but Alicia. I’m older! Everything is about Alicia!”

 

Alicia still felt her body convulsing in the water somehow,but it switched off and on like a beacon. The thought of the heavy water seemed to pull her back into it, blinding her. Cora watched her eyes turn blood red, then dim.

 

“How distasteful. You’re not quite here. Let me help. Hold still, please. I’m not strong enough to do this at the moment.” Alicia felt her weight shifting in the water, and then nothing. A kinder gravity surrounded her, holding her firm to the ground, but the pressure was gone. Tears welled up in Alicia’s eyes and she sank to her knees, gasping.

 

The room was changing around them. The more normal and whole she felt, the less the room filled out. A small dressing closet blurred and then vanished, exposing more white wall. A table with magazines fizzled out of existence. Cora’s elaborate vanity shrunk down a bit, transforming to a simple mirror with bulbs. As they stood, everything disappeared until the two of them stood alone with the vanity. A small gasp escaped her grandmother, and she wobbled.

 

Alicia didn’t care. It was so bright. Cora was so beautiful.

 

“Ugh. This is taking a lot out of me. I’m not used to two people being here, not anymore.”

 

“You saved me! You…”

 

“Not quite, Mae. You’re still wherever you are out in the real world. We both are, unfortunately. This is just a little escape room I keep for myself. A private thing, usually. And yet, here you are.” Cora sat down at her downgraded vanity and started to powder her face again.

 

“I’m not Mae. I’m Alicia.”

 

“Oh! It’s been so long, I hardly remember you human girls. You have to forgive me, I only have eyes for my own kind. Humans never sat right with me, least of all after Eon Tech pulled their little stunt. Your family was okay. Judith I could do without, but the rest of you were darlings. You’re obviously a Devil. I didn’t know Harold produced two.”

 

“No. Only one. I… I’m Alicia. The one with the black gloves. I killed Mae. I… I took her body.” Cora scoffed but kept powdering her face and a long, thick burst of laughter filled the room.

 

“Oh, you’re a gem! Killed Mae? Humans die. It’s all they seem to be good at. Don’t go around caring about their life spans. They won’t do the same for you, I learned that the hard way.” She sighed, patting around her lips. “So Harold listened after all? Your sister was your Latch? Is she permanent, or can you transfer out?”

 

“I don’t know what that means.”

 

“Can you make multiple Latches?”

 

“I- I’ve never tried?”

 

“Ugh, what has your father been doing? This is what I was telling Yenna. He’s so concerned with protecting that human, he doesn’t have time to think about his duty as a Devil. Do you consume latches? Do they become you? Do they multiply? What happens when you take a body? Does it turn into you, does it die, do you become it? Hello?” The irritation in her voice startled Alicia, but she stood firm.

 

“I said I don’t know.”

 

“And you’re underwater? Now?” Alicia nodded, and Cora let out a sad whistle.

 

“Your father should be protecting you, I can’t believe it. Are all the men in my life failures? Does your blood react to anything? Metal, organics?”

 

“I-“

 

“You definitely multiply. Both of your pupils are enlarge. You’re exactly what that big thing and his favorite pet are looking for. They’ll feast on you forever! He’s supposed to protect you, I didn’t raise a coward. I’m already down here, there was no need for another sacrifice.” Alicia turned and traced the walls, wondering if there was a way out. It wouldn’t matter. She’d sit in that room gladly, even if it was her and Cora for the rest of eternity, rather than return to that ocean. If it meant she didn’t have to feel the shock of that salt, the vicious crunch of the pressure, she would do anything.

 

Cora continued to mock her, rolling her hair around a curling iron. There was no plug, outlet, or heat. “Killed Mae? What a strange girl. Did Harold teach you nothing about yourself? You’re so upset about something so small. Oh, if your mother would’ve allowed me in your life, I would’ve taught you so much. That rat…

 

“She’s dead. Don’t speak about her that way.” Cora paused.

 

“Dead? Hm. Well, I guess dreams can come true! Yenna would be happy to hear that. Wait, did Yenna kill her? She’s been threatening to long enough.” Cora turned to look at Alicia, a small smile on her face.

 

“No. Yenna didn’t kill her.”

 

“Listen, calm down. Would it make you feel any better to know that I’m on my twelfth body? That I’ve been alive as long as I have because of the uselessness of humans? They’re there to be used, Alicia, nothing more. It’s a hierarchy. Don’t you dare feel bad about something you can’t control. Your mother kept me from you and your sisters. She ignored me when I said you needed a Latch, that we were in trouble. We could’ve solved that years ago. You could’ve done your time here and Latched out by now! She’s better off out of service.” Cora fluffed her hair. The flowers were slowly disappearing, and they both watched. Cora’s muted concern frightened Alicia.

“Oh, boy. Can’t even hold on to the damn hair decor, I’m so weak these days. You know, speaking of things I can’t hold onto … Harold. Is he … okay? I know he was angry with me, but I’d like to think he wouldn’t let anything happen to you unless he couldn’t stop it.” Afraid to anger the woman, Alicia didn’t answer. Cora nodded, understanding, and struggled to maintain her composure.

 

“My baby. The boys are always so fragile, aren’t they? Harold could beat the skin off a Shadow, but couldn’t save himself. Of course, he wouldn’t just let you end up down here, what was I thinking. My strongman, we used to call him that. I bet he fought to the very end. I’m sorry I doubted him.” Cora’s head tilted up over and over, and Alicia realized she was trying not to cry.

 

“We were attacked-“

 

“I don’t want to know, beautiful. Keep it, please. Bury it. I don’t care if it kills you, don’t let it kill me. Oh, Yenna promised she’d protect him from himself. He had to marry that woman, he just had to. He’s too stubborn, he’d never make it. We agreed. What is she doing, then? Do you know? Did she move to Lauryn finally, or is she still out saving little human girls?”

 

Cora turned to face her granddaughter, quiet anger stiffening her back. It was a marvel, the way Cora carried herself. She displayed the same solid posture and expression no matter what she was saying. You had to read her emotions in the shaking of her voice, or the small bites to her bottom lip, or the tilt of her head.

 

“Yenna is here as well. We were trying to rescue you.” This time, Cora’s face went blank.

 

She cared about Yenna more.

 

“Ah. Rescue? It’s her damned fault I’m down here. So you’re all fools. Amazing.” Cora suddenly grabbed her head, groaning. Alicia watched water pour into the room from nowhere, devouring both of their feet. She stumbled back, arms held out. The walls transformed into thick black water, opening up. She was staring into the ocean, the depths lit by millions of fluorescent veins. She saw what she thought was the monster the giant eye belonged to, the one that had such tiny tentacles.

 

The ones down there were much bigger.

 

Alicia couldn’t move. It wasn’t just the seaweed that she could feel crawling up her legs, tight around her arms, slipping into cracks in her skin, entering her bloodstream. It was the sight of that monster. The size of it, the pulses of blue and yellow shining through the darkness. The pulses of color illuminating the thousands of bodies surrounding it, all held down with more seaweed. It went on forever, a sprawling estate of bodies.

 

Strangely, she found the parts she could make out on the monster to be masculine. That was the only word she could use to describe the mix of tentacles, the bulge of muscles, the sharpness in some of the strange body parts. What looked like a giant human leg stretched into oblivion. The bulk of it was invisible to her behind its size, but it looked like it was sitting. Seaweed and more gigantic tentacles wrapped around everything. The feet were impossible to see, swallowed by the black distance.

 

“It doesn’t even know we’re there, did you know that? Once we’re down here, the only way it knows we’re there is by how hungry it gets. Or if the Second in Command checks. And she does sometimes.” The room moved forward like an undersea vehicle, and Alicia was staring at herself. Mae. At the body she’d inherited.

 

Oh, what had she done to it?

 

Alicia took in the bulging skin, the crumpled way it shivered under the seaweed clutching it. Only one foot was in what looked like an underwater lake at the bottom. Her head was crushed in, but she did still have one of her eyes. It was a big fluorescent bulb, bulging out hideously. A long fleshy tube covered her right eye, slow suction pulsing through it every few seconds. She watched herself wake up, struggle to breathe, and drown twice before she could even blink. Cora sighed.

 

“Two true immortals. Stuck down here for eternity. What a curse.” They watched her, and Cora moved closer to Alicia, tilting her head. “How odd. You’re aware. You’re moving.”

 

“I… I thought I was inside the brine. The shock…”

 

“There’d be no helping you if you were there. Look down.” Alicia did, and the regret that filled her could’ve taken up the entire sea. Faces, mouths wrenched open in pain, stared up at her, illuminated in the glow of the monster’s veins. It was a sea of faces going in every direction, as far as she could see. They watched a small jellyfish swim over the open mouth of one and lightly tap the forehead. It shifted into black goop and slid into the empty eye sockets, and then the body was floating up.

 

“They have to have Devils. Humans can’t even make it down here without being crushed.”

 

“Are they alive?” Cora laughed, still watching Alicia’s body struggle.

 

“Alive. What a word! Are either of us really alive down here? They’re empty. I don’t know, honestly. Maybe there’s some salvaging them, but as far as I’ve seen, the Shadows take them and use them. Sometimes they bring them back. Sometimes they keep them and only bring them back for repairs, like a car or a radio. You’re moving!” Cora touched the wall of water, awe shutting her mouth. Alicia thought about Yenna, searching for her face.

 

Don’t you dare mention how she got here to this vengeful woman.

 

Cora gasped, pulling her hand back. Alicia felt her body buckle, and then she was out of the room and back underwater. Back in her mangled body. Too aware to escape the pain.

 

“Ugh. This is so tiring. I’m sorry, beautiful. I had to let you go.”

 

She tried to close her available eye, sucking in breath after breath.

 

“When I’m stronger, I’ll help. It’s a shame to be here without a sandbox.” Alicia would wake, hearing Cora’s voice, but couldn’t move. The seaweed only grew tighter, and whenever she died there was a wave of relief, a vivid pull of color and sound. She’d open her eyes in a new life, and in a moment she’d realize she was still underwater. Being sucked dry by the monster. By the time she understood what was happening she’d be transferred back into herself.

 

Over and over.

 

“You don’t get used to it. Trust me. I’ve been here long enough to know.”

 

A long time must’ve passed. Alicia couldn’t tell.

 

“Do you want a break?” Alicia couldn’t answer, a blur of white pain searing through her body. Somehow, it was getting worse. She sucked in another dying gulp of water. Then she was standing at a wooden table, sunlight streaming into a small country kitchen. Alicia stared at the sunlight, too grateful for it to look around at anything else. There was a soft tapping sound below her, and there sat Cora, a white bowl in front of her full of sweet potatoes.

 

“Sit. I’m too weak to make anything interesting at the moment. I hope this is okay.” Cora pointed at a seat, carefully slicing the potato. She slid the bowl over to her granddaughter, grimacing in exhaustion, and then a small knife.

 

“I have a question, Alicia.”

 

Alicia sat down, heaviness filling her. She couldn’t get her mind out of the water this time. It’d been too long, and her own body felt weightless and filled all at once. She imagined water spilling into her mouth, feeling it in her throat, and the country sink disappeared, only to flicker back. Cora groaned in exhaustion but didn’t complain.

 

“What do you need?”

 

“I spend time watching you. I’ve noticed how you make Latches. How they’re using you. You consume your Latch, but you also multiply. Almost like a Hybrid, but not exactly. You do it with no contact. I’ve never seen anything like it, honestly. It’s something unique to you. Another defect, I’m sure, like Yenna’s heatwaves.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes in exhaustion, and then continued.

 

“At times, they’re having you pull entire groups of people from land to turn into bodies, or eat. I’ve counted close to three hundred people in a month.” Cora gave Alicia a friendly smile. She continued to smile even when it wasn’t returned.

 

“This is hard, but can you remember being anyone else? Can you remember being somewhere else once you died? Being a new person?”

 

Alicia thought, and of course she could. There was a man in the grocery store, once. There’d been the mist of the water that sprayed out over the vegetables. He’d dropped his groceries, petrified. A white-haired man comforted him and-

 

Then there was the woman walking alone on the road, she remembered being her. She was supposed to get home to help her husband decorate for a party. A white-haired man walked up and asked her how she was, and then…

 

And then she was Alicia again. She always came back to the ocean.

 

“When you’re someone else, who is with you?”

 

“Mr. David. Harold, Eric, whoever he is.” Cora stopped peeling.

 

“Harold? And Eric? Free? Did David … did that Hybrid consume my husband and son?”

 

“Yes.” The grace of the women wavered, her face blurring. There was a moment where she could’ve been frozen in time, absolutely frozen, and then the room returned to normal. Alicia could feel Cora’s strain to keep the details together.

 

“Of course. Why wouldn’t he? Of course. And here I’ve been cursing my husband for abandoning me all these years. Of course, he would do that.” Cora went back to peeling, a bright smile tacked over her anguish, but the potatoes disappeared and reappeared. “How do you know David?”

 

“He was after Yenna. He told me he knew where you were, and… and he wanted to bring Yenna here, too.”

 

“And she’s here, right?” Cora seemed to think, closing her eyes to concentrate. The room tilted. Alicia gripped the sides of the table.

“No! No, she’s probably not. She-” Before Alicia could finish, Yenna was standing at the foot of the table, her eyes wide and completely red. They watched as she choked, body stiff as stone, hands pinned down to her sides. Cora dropped the knife.

 

“Can you see us, baby,” she muttered, but Yenna didn’t move. She was completely naked, her red hair long and trailing behind her. Black veins snaked across her stomach, but the baby moved. It moved. Yenna finally opened her mouth.

 

“Ma-“

 

“Oh, my poor child-” Before Cora could act, Yenna disappeared, the spot where she’d stood completely black. Her outline remained as Alicia tried her best to stop shaking, to crawl out of her own throat, to breathe. The lights flickered, and the darkness withered away, sinking into the ground and disappearing.

 

It moved, it moved, it moved, it moved…

 

“Well. There’s our answer.” Cora sat, eyes wide but hands steady. She waited until the bowl of potatoes popped back in front of her, and then she picked up the next one.

 

“She’s a body. But she’s still in there. We agree on that?”

 

Alicia nodded, but her mind wandered to the ocean water washing up against the kitchen window.

 

Cora shivered a little. “I see she decided to have a baby after all. Great timing.” The sink disappeared and never came back, and Cora’s potato wouldn’t peel. They sat in the blinking reality until Alicia sobbed. Finally, Cora’s hands shook too hard to pretend to peel the potato, and she stopped to steady herself.

 

“Alicia. You have to try your best to stay awake when you transfer out next time. I know you can do it. I need you to give David a message for me, okay? Get me out of here. Get me out of here. I want to go home. Stay in your right mind the next time you go to land and ask him what’s taking so long. I want him to save me already. I don’t care if he consumed my whole family, I don’t care what the hell happened. Tell him to save me.”

 

“Save you? What about me? What about Yenna?”

 

“Love, I can get you out of here if he gets me out. I can’t do anything down here. And… I can’t take it anymore. I’ve been here for years, Alicia. Years! I need you to do this, and I’ll do more than I can to get you out next. I can’t do anything from the brine pool.” Alicia let that information sink in, and she felt the weight of the water crushing into her. She only had a foot in the brine pool. Just a foot. Here, sitting in front of her, was a woman stuck in the worst place on Earth.

 

Cora in the brine pool. Alicia twitching in the seaweed. Yenna with the black veins snaked across her moving belly. It moved. It moved, it moved, it moved. There were four of them down there.

 

“He can’t save all of us?” Cora pushed her tongue against her cheek, holding back something. Anger, malice, maybe even a laugh. There was an ugly groan, and a soggy woman with broken ankles fell from the ceiling. Every inch of skin on her was graying and puffed from water, and wet sounds squelched from everywhere when she moved, sucking in a deep breath on the floor.

 

“Oh, I don’t know. Mother, what do you think? Can he save all of us?” The woman reached toward them, slime oozing from her arm, and disappeared in a wet pop. Alicia jerked out of her chair, screaming. A man fell forward from the wall, mouth wrenched open, eyes rolled up so far she couldn’t see anything but veins.

 

“Daddy? Can he get us all out?” More bodies filled the room, all bogged down with soggy skin. They all writhed in agony, grabbing at Alicia’s feet, struggling to breathe. The floor cracked as another body fell. Thirty, forty, more and more and more crowded her. Some were so bloated they couldn’t move, stuck staring at her legs.

 

“What do you all think? Great Aunt Lisa? Uncle Anthony? Granddaddy?”

 

“Stop! STOP!”

 

“Can he get all of us out of here?” Cora was screaming, cutting into her own fingers. “Tell him to get me out of here, Alicia! Tell him to get ME. I can’t take it!” Alicia closed her eyes and screamed, her voice filling her body. The air shifted. Still screaming, she opened her eyes to find everyone gone. Cora was at the table, blank-faced, cutting the potato again.

 

“Shut up. They don’t need us now that they have you, Alicia. That’s the hard truth of it. None of us can do what you can. It’s your turn anyway, it’s your damned turn. You have to make the sacrifice, a good person would do that! I’ll come back for you. Help me out of here first and I’ll drain the entire ocean for you.”

 

But Alicia wanted out, too. She eyed the small knife on the table, watched her grandmother’s hands peeling the potatoes. What would she do with a bunch of fake peeled sweet potatoes? There was a chance she could escape, could go back to hating her normal life, and this woman wanted her to use it to save her? With Cora gone, would Alicia be able to escape the insanity at all, given the reprieve of the little rooms? Or would she be stuck in the reality of the ocean?

 

Black water pulsed from the sink, and the stiff way Cora ignored it drained Alicia.

 

Get me out of here, get me out of here, get me OUT OF HERE!

 

Alicia grabbed the knife Cora left for her. She took a deep breath, fear and hope running through her, and stabbed it into her throat. She jammed it in over and over, spraying blood and then black water out of the wound, sobbing. Cora paused in anger, licking her lips.

 

“You’re giving me a mess to clear up, Alicia. We’re going through the same thing, except I have to concentrate to keep us here. Can I have a moment’s peace?” The black water thickened and poured over the potatoes, knocking the knife out of Cora’s hand. She smashed her fist into the table in anger, and it shattered straight down the middle. More black water pulsed through it.

 

“That’s… ugh. I’m going to let you go for now. Think about what I said. You’d be saving us all in the long run. You stay down here and they won’t have a reason to come after me. It has to be you.”

 

“No! Please-” And again, Alicia learned to regret everything she decided, and she woke up drowning.

 

Mr. David held Alicia’s hand, and when they walked by a shop window, she saw she was an elderly woman. He rubbed her papery skin soothingly, avoiding her gaze. The way he held her arm, hooked with his own, she had trouble pulling away. Even to look at him she had to slow down, tapping his shoulder.

 

“It’s fine, ma’am. We’ll be to the water in no time.”

 

“David?” Mr. David stopped, eyeing her.

 

“Harold? Daddy? Any- anybody? Are you… where are we?”

 

“Alicia?” She nodded, and the papery skin filtered to a smooth brown. She felt her nails getting longer, her legs lengthening.

 

“Stop. We’re not to The Mouth yet. It’s too early to change back.” Just as quickly as the awareness had come over her, it washed away. She smiled at the young man.

 

“Weren’t you taking me fishing?” Around a look of disappointment, Mr. David smiled and nodded.

 

“Let’s get to the boat. You don’t want to keep them waiting.”

“I’m much stronger, now. It’s focusing all its energy on you. Are you ready to behave?” Alicia could see again. She was in a small neighborhood, a dirt road leading to a blurry distance on either side of her. The houses were simple blue craftsmans, each with a small garden. There was a man on the porch in front of her, a rifle cradled in his lap. The next house was the same, and the man sitting on that porch was an exact copy of the previous one. In fact, every house was the same copy, each with its own irritable, gun-toting old dark-skinned man. Alicia sat still for as long as possible, trying to remember something. She couldn’t figure out what it was, but it stuck in her head like a blade, edging down her neck.

 

“Do you want to live now? I can help you get out. If you changed your mind, Alicia, I would understand.” Shaking her head, Alicia motioned to one of the small blue houses, feeling Cora standing next to her.

 

“Is this where you used to live? It looks familiar.”

 

“Yes. It’s easier to pull from memories instead of making new locations. I lived in the house behind us with Yenna and Harold. Eric as well before he ran off. I miss it. I miss them.” Cora squeezed Alicia’s shoulder, waiting for her to stand. The dirt rustled a little, floating off into the air.

 

“That’s an impressive detail.”

 

“Like I said. It only cares about you.” The house behind them was different from the others. It was big, three stories with a double-decker porch. A moody lamp shone next to the thick wooden front door, swinging in a breeze that couldn’t seem to reach their hair. The trees didn’t rustle either, but the sound of rustling leaves found them somehow. Her grandmother smiled a genuine smile and led the way inside.

 

There were elaborate paper decorations everywhere. It was easier to spot what was present than to look for what Cora couldn’t find the strength to create. The same man with the rifle on the porches outside sat in the living room, drinking thick red gunk from a mason jar. He barely glanced up when Alicia and Cora walked by, his papery brown skin glistening in the glow of the candles set up around him. Cora slipped into the room and grabbed a newspaper, blowing him a small kiss. They continued down the hall with no acknowledgment from the man.

 

She could hear the rustle of their fabrics, but not the sound of their shoes clicking against the ground.

 

“I want to apologize to you. Maybe I came off a little harsh last time. I won’t be down here to keep you company for long, and I regret ever asking you to talk to David. It’ll only make it hard once I leave.”

 

“What do you mean?” This time, Alicia couldn’t breathe at all. Cora stood taking in deep breaths, a slight smile on her lips.

 

“David has been helping me! We haven’t been successful, but I’m sure we’ll get there. He’s bringing your Latches so close that I was able to grab hold of him, especially now that Eric and Harold are in there. The fool doesn’t want to face what he’s done to my family, but if they’re in him, I know I can appeal to Eric at least. He’s strong, bullheaded. I’ll be out very soon at this rate.”

 

“How? How are you getting out?”

 

Cora smirked. “I jumped into one of your new Latches! It’s that simple! If I catch them while they’re still on the beach, I can take it from you. I’ve even gotten to see the sun again! The real sun! So … just keep doing what you’re doing! If I can completely take over one, I’ll be out.” She laughed, and they sat down on a luxurious red and black couch.

 

She pulled the newspaper open, hiding behind it. Cora had on beautiful hairpins, all her thick hair tied up on top of her head. The silk of her nightgown looked soft, the blue of it startling. Alicia wore old ugly sneakers and a formless tan canvas dress. She could feel the fabric of the couch, but the scent of it was lost.

 

She’s doing it on purpose, now.

 

“When are you coming back for me, Granny? How will you get me and Yenna out?” Cora raised an eyebrow, going through the obituaries.

 

“I haven’t thought that far ahead. Don’t worry, I will.” A sob stuck in Alicia’s mouth.

 

“Swear to me.” Cora sucked her teeth, folding the paper down to better glare at Alicia.

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Alicia, we have a mutually beneficial relationship. I’m going to escape the Brine Pool. No one’s ever done it. Not one Devil. But you’re stronger than me. And with your help as a distraction, I think we can make that happen. I’ll come back for you, I mean it. But I’ve been here too long. And even if I don’t, hypothetically, someone else would.”

 

“Who would help me? Everyone I love is here.” Cora smiled and rubbed her face.

 

“You won’t like what I’m going to say, but… It’s not my concern. My concern is getting out of here. The way I feel on the outside will determine how quickly I can get you. Consider it a sacrifice. It was going to be you anyway, you know that don’t you? We were preparing. It should’ve been you, and only you.” Alicia took that in, startled.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Either way, I’m not supposed to be down here. Yenna got me into this situation by saving someone. A little girl. All we had to deal with before she saved that little girl was Eon Tech. I told her to take her trip to Anity, have fun, and come back. She had to get involved. If anyone’s to blame, she is. Be mad at her.” The way Cora sighed, Alicia could feel the number of times she’d said those words to herself.

 

“Cora, please, I need reassurance. That’s all I’m asking for. I’m helping you, you said it yourself. You couldn’t get out without me! I need you to promise me.”

 

“That’s unfortunate. I’m tired. We’re going to have to call it a night.”

 

“No…wait. Don’t do this! I’m sorr-“

 

She was in another latch. She could tell before she even moved.

 

The sun hurt, even with her eyes closed, but she was hungry for it. It heated her skin, pulled her from the depths of herself. She felt like she was cooking, the sound of the boat treading the water rustling her awake. When her eyes finally opened the sun beamed into them, but she didn’t close them. She leaned forward, taking in the wall of blue sky around her, and then she was staring at herself.

 

Alicia sat in a boat, staring at the old Alicia. Next to that Alicia was Mae, and next to her was Alicia, and next to her was…

 

She was surrounded by Alicia or Mae. When she felt confident enough, she counted. Seven different versions of herself, all staring straight ahead, all bewildered or dazed. They wore different outfits but all had long hair down to their torsos, wild and thick. Mr. David sat in the middle, staring down at the boat floor, ripping his teeth into an apple. Misery floated from him in an invisible cloud.

 

“Daddy?” He looked up, and the shock on his face stirred her awake. She did her best to sit up further, but the bikini bottoms she wore slipped down uncomfortably. She slid with them.

 

“Where am I?”

 

“Close to the Mouth, unfortunately. End of the line. Can you actually see me?” She nodded, staring down at her hands.

 

“Are these all… are they all me?” Still shocked, he nodded.

 

“You’re quite the powerful Devil. I knew you were special, but I never would’ve thought.” He didn’t offer any more information, and Alicia felt her brain fogging. Confusion filled her.

 

Where’s the baby?

 

“They’re the old me? And the new me?”

 

“You turn them into you somehow. Different versions of you. And I bring them here for them to attach to-” She was losing it all, her mind slipping. Grabbing his arm, she stared into his eyes, tears sliding down her face.

 

“Cora… she’ll abandon me…please save me, Daddy. I changed my mind. Ple-” And then she was back in the water, sucking in deep swallows of black.

 

The next time Alicia woke up in Cora’s little world, she sat still on the dirt road, hugging her knees. Cora came out to meet her. The long woman stood next to her granddaughter, a small amount of shame weighing her down. Alicia could feel it. She could feel everything. There was too much air, too much night, too many sounds.

 

The baby, where’s the baby? There’s veins and there’s a gag. No, the gag wasn’t there. Where’s the gag?

 

“You can’t sit out here all night.” Alicia didn’t speak. Her chest heaved up and down. For a second, she could feel the water spilling into it, feel the life suctioned from her, feel herself becoming someone else. It was happening again! She was someone else!

 

My name is Kevin, I’m Kevin… I’m drowning, someone help me! They didn’t put air this time, Cora didn’t put the air in, I’m going to suffocate! It’s too dark, it’s too dark, the baby…

 

“Oh my. You’re losing your mind.” Wherever Alicia looked, wherever she breathed, she felt the bodies she’d been in breathing as well. Moving around in her head. I have a son somewhere… no, that was a Latch. One of the Latches. Do I have a son? Is it the baby? Was there a gag? She saw herself on a boat full of different versions of herself, even a child version, saw herself transforming from Kevin to Alicia, saw…

 

Alicia looked around, eyes wide.

 

Where did I come from? Am I a Latch, or am I in Cora’s world? Is Cora a Latch? Who is she?

 

Cora sat beside her and a few streetlights blinked on, pulling a drained sigh from her. “Should I even bother pulling you in here for breaks? You’re nearly gone. There might be some peace in the insanity.” She watched the man with the rifle, the different copies of him moving at the same time to tip his hat.

 

“You see that old fool? I loved him once. Back when he was Eric. Just Eric. I hear he looks better now.” She stroked Alicia’s hair. “We had Harold. And then Yenna came along, soaked and crying on my porch, and I took her in. And we were happy right up until we weren’t. It’s always like that.” She bit her lip, still stroking Alicia’s hair, and ignored her trembling.

 

“You’re so young. That used to mean something to me. Yenna was young when she showed up, too. Harold was so excited to have a ‘sibling’. I just couldn’t believe another true immortal Devil found us like that. Of all the family lines, the only other immortal one, right here on my doorstep.” She looked back, and there was a tiny Yenna, knocking at the door, sobbing. She saw it open, and Yenna dropped to her knees.

 

“Please, miss, my family! They’re hurt, they’re all hurt. I don’t know what to do, miss…”

 

They disappeared and the porch light swung.

 

“We were all so happy for so many years. Maybe it was Harold marrying Judith, knowing her people worked at Eon that stopped it. A human girl, can you believe that? What could she do for him but die early?” Cora bit her lip, holding an anger that wouldn’t stop transforming in her.

 

“I don’t know. It all crumbled so slow, I can’t even tell you where the first crack was. There’s always something trying to get in. Always.” Cora sat with Alicia a long time, watching her shake and mumble to herself. The lights went off one by one, but they sat there until Cora couldn’t hold out any longer.

 

“I was the last one. And then Harold. Yenna. You. There aren’t any immortals left. We’re all here sucking down water. I’m so sorry to pass this bad luck down to you, Alicia. I wish I was strong enough to keep it to myself.”

Mr. David ate a pear this time, watching Alicia, and she realized she was on land.

 

Another Latch? This one feels different…

 

Deep sand surrounded her, sifting over her dry feet, and she looked out at the horizon as it caressed the ocean. They were at the shore in Anity, the one facing the Mouth. Yenna brought her there once, only once. Their hotel was burned. They had to run from the Shadows that followed them home for months after.

 

I remember things. Yenna. The baby-

 

The gruff man yanked her up by her arm, making sure she was steady on her feet before he let her go. A big straw hat sat over his head, but she could see his face. He looked tired, exhausted, and every bite he took from the pear was too aggressive.

 

“I decided to keep you a little longer, see if you woke up again. You mentioned Cora last time. What were you going to say?” Alicia couldn’t feel the sun on her skin. She couldn’t feel herself breathing.

 

This is better.

 

“Why can’t I feel anything?”

 

“What did Cora say?” She considered lying, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Not after all she’d done. If anyone deserved freedom, it was Cora.

 

“She said you’re going to rescue her. Because I’m down there. The monster doesn’t need her or Yenna or anyone else anymore. She said you’ll get them now.”

 

“Rescue them? Not you?”

 

“No. Not me. Not even Yenna, actually. She specifically said her. She said she could get me and everyone else out if you help her.” A heavy pause sat between them, and if she tried hard enough she could grab it, roll it between her fingers. There was so much in that pause that neither of them said, but she could feel it growing thicker and thicker, blocking out her words. A numbness trickled through her.

 

Ashamed, weak, and guilty, Alicia whispered, “But I can’t stay there, Daddy. I can’t.” They stared out over the sea. Mr. David nodded to himself. Shame filled her, and somehow the shame was in four different places. She looked behind her. There was a wagon of bodies, all slowly turning into Alicia, all stunned and staring at the sky.

 

It’s madness. I can’t.

 

“What happens if I leave? If I just stay in this body and leave?” He chuckled, picking a spot of sand off of his colorful shirt. He plucked the straw hat off of his head and put it on Alicia’s, gripping her shoulder affectionately.

 

“You do it every time. The body’s brain dissolves. It’s not a real Latch until it’s closer to you in that water, and then you take it over completely, and they eat it. By the time it’s fully transformed, it’s gunk.” They stared at the stunned people getting darker in the sun, their legs lengthening, all piled up in the wagon. She nodded, sad.

 

“And then what?”

 

“You keep regenerating down there, as far as I understand it. You become a few new people every time you drown, and they become a few new people. You’re like a virus. The smallest amount was sixty in one go. Some are on land, and I go gather them up if they don’t make their way back here on their own. It’s scary.” He bit into the pear, juice running down his chin.

 

“Your human Latches even last longer, like a Devil would for any of the rest of us. When they die they make around four or five more themselves. Some of them get as far as becoming either you or Mae. I can’t look at them. It’s … scary.”

 

They kept getting stuck. There was something he wanted to say, something pulling at his teeth. He bit into the pear until there wasn’t enough left to chomp down on. When the thing was gone he placed the seeds in the sand, digging another one from a bag sitting behind them. He was kinder to this one.

 

“It wasn’t your turn. I don’t care what Cora says. It was supposed to be Yenna’s kid. It’s not fair when you think about it. Yenna deciding she doesn’t want kids, me having to take on the role of producing an immortal. Then what? She- she went ahead and tried to have one anyway. The only reason it went to you was because … well. Who can blame her, though? We can’t be expected to keep on like this. It’s barbaric …” He trailed off.

 

“Daddy?”

 

“You wanted to die, correct? Maybe it’s for the best. I could get them out, you could serve the time. If you stay, maybe we never have to do this again. Maybe you should stay.”

 

“This isn’t death!”

 

“How do you know?” That stopped her, and she whimpered, dropping to the ground. Mr. David let out a low grumble, bending down to pull her back up.

 

“Cora’s been telling us for years that one of us would have to give up a kid. For our species, blah blah blah. I know I’m the reason it’s been taking more than usual. David is the reason, I mean. I-” Stopping himself, he bit into the apple. “It’s barbaric.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“You know you were always my baby, Alicia. I never wanted you there in the first place. I have a friend. She’s figuring out a plan. Don’t worry, and don’t mention it to Cora. I’m getting all of you. But if I don’t get anyone else, I’m getting you.”

 

Cora didn’t pull Alicia into her world for a long time. She wondered if her grandmother somehow knew, if she understood what Alicia wanted. The monster gave her no time to stew over it, no breaks between her painful deaths. There was no teleporting into other bodies, into her Latches, nothing. And she didn’t forget herself.

 

It felt different.

 

The next time she woke up as a Latch, a woman was standing next to Mr. David on the beach. The woman was small, her short but full black hair blowing in the wind. The weight of her pity made Alicia hold out her hand.

 

I’m on land. I’m Alicia Free. Cora’s going to leave me.

 

“You’re aware!” Mr. David yelled, pulling a straw hat off of his head. Alicia thought about it.

 

“A little.”

 

The small woman grabbed Alicia’s hand, staring up into her eyes.

 

I’m standing up. I was already standing up.

 

They were on a different section of the beach, this one dotted with small trees. The sand was rougher here, clear rocks sparkling in the sun around them.

 

“Honey. Do you remember meeting me the last time?”

 

There was a last time?

 

Alicia tried to shake her head but found herself weaker than usual. “No,” she whispered. As far as she knew, she’d never seen the woman.

 

“That’s fine. I need you to do me a favor, okay?”

 

“Okay?”

 

“Stop breathing.” Alicia did, but she still felt breaths going into her chest. She tried again, holding her breath dramatically. Somewhere far away her chest was still jerking, filling with water. The woman stared, somehow convincing. Alicia tried again, and then again, and after the third time she was confident she’d stopped.

 

It felt … different.

 

“Good. Now listen to me carefully. I’m Autumn, and I’m going to get you and Yenna away from that long-legged beast. And away from the monster, too.” Mr. David tensed behind her, but she ignored him, still staring deep into Alicia’s eyes.

 

I’m naked. I can feel the wind on me now. It feels like I’m really here.

 

“There’s a beach house over there, do you see it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Remember that beach house. That’s where you’ll be when you get out. That’s where you’ll be when you escape. And you will escape, honey, because Autumn’s going to help you. Autumn is going to save you, and she’s going to save Yenna, and she’s going to save the baby. Can you keep that in your head?” Alicia stared at the modern house, taking in the sleek black fixtures. The house was trimmed with bright red, every corner or tip blazing in the sun.

 

“Autumn’s going to save me. That’s where I’ll be.”

 

“There’s not much holding you down, did you know that? Seaweed, maybe the shock of the brine pool. The seaweed links into your veins, and that’s the hardest part. If you struggle, you may be able to loosen it up enough to escape. Most of them can’t move, but you told me you can. Do you remember saying that to me last time?”

 

“Is it that easy?”

 

“No,” Autumn said. “I know it’s hard to be aware down there. But I need you to remember, and stay aware, do you understand?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Alicia? This is my eighth time meeting you. I know I’ll see you a ninth. Breathe.” Water filled her lungs, and Alicia gulped in agony, surrounded by the pitch black and fluorescent veins. But she remembered the house. She remembered the petite woman, her big light eyes, her hair blowing in the wind.

 

“Stop breathing.” Alicia stopped, holding her breath. She realized she could see inside the tentacle attached to her face. She jerked her foot out of the brine pool as she drowned, and the shock slowly abated.

 

“Alicia? Breathe.”

 

Black roof, red trimming, beach house! As Alicia died, the slick insides of the tentacle rolled, sucking a fluorescent blue liquid from her face. She watched it roll into the long throat, shivering.

 

Beach… house…

 

When she woke up on the beach the next time, Cora’s dead body lay next to her. Autumn took Cora’s pulse, pushed on her chest, breathed into her mouth. She kept going until her own face flushed red, desperate to wake her.

 

“It’s no use, David. She’s not strong enough. We can’t keep wasting the time.”

 

“Just try. Please. If there’s even a chance-” They finally noticed Alicia staring at them.

 

“You awake, girl? Is it you?”

 

Alicia tried to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t move. She could only think.

 

“We can’t get both of you. David can’t even find Yenna, she’s nowhere. The Leviathan must have her. She got her.” Autumn whispered. Her body stiffened and she pulled back, struggling to compose herself. “I destroyed your entire family!”

 

“Stop whining.” Mr. David bit down into an apple, rolling his eyes. “It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. We keep trying with Alicia and Cora, and we can come back for Yenna. Maybe she needs a different body. We’ll find a Devil.”

 

Autumn huffed and stood, her trench coat waving in the wind. She pointed to the beach house almost in fury, glaring at Alicia. “Where is that?” The words stuck in her head, caught on the hook of a million thoughts, and then finally crawled out of her throat.

 

“It’s where … I’ll be.”

 

“When?”

 

“When you get me out.”

 

When Alicia woke up underwater in her own body, she heard words. It was talking.

 

The garbled noise sunk to her soul, snapping at her, and then she yanked her hands upward. The seaweed burned, ripping from her veins. There was a rush of water, and she pulled her pelvis up. Little by little, the seaweed tore from her, and then there was still more.

 

The big tentacle on her eye gripped tighter. Alicia was healing. Through her swollen eye, she saw tiny blue lights floating in the sea of black. More and more blinked on, brighter than any light she’d ever seen. As it ripped through the dark, she started to see a silhouette of a woman in all the black. The woman’s veins blinked on one by one, spreading quickly. All fluorescent blue, all like cracks in the silhouette’s skin.

 

When it was close enough, not even the thought of the red house could keep Alicia calm. It had a writhing belly, a moving belly with blue veins, and she knew she would never get Yenna back.

 

The monster kept talking, its voice filling her with garbled noise, and then she floated toward death again.

 

Alicia woke up in another Latch, and Autumn was in her face, saying goodbye. She couldn’t remember getting there, but she blinked down at the woman, sucking in a deep breath.

 

“This is my fortieth time meeting you, Alicia. I know there will be a forty-first.” Autumn’s hair was longer. She wore a light jacket, her legs exposed in a pair of shorts. They were going through seasons. Time was passing.

 

They’ll be old by the time I get out.

 

“No. I’m awake. Now.” Autumn bit her lip.

 

“You’ve been coming less and less. At least aware. Look.” Autumn pointed out to her side, and Alicia turned to look. What she’d expected was more bodies. And they were there. Alicia Free hadn’t expected to see hundreds of her original body, all trying to inch forward into the water, dehydrated and dying. Some were still, face down in the sand. They spanned the entire length of the beach, faces down, pushing and pulling themselves forward.

 

Alicia the failure. Alicia the forgotten. Alicia the dead girl.

 

Silent, she watched until it felt like lava was pouring into her neck, spilling from her skull.

 

“Where’s my father?”

 

“I haven’t seen him in months, not unless he’s taking your bodies out to the monster. There are so many that he can’t collect them, but they end up here no matter what. Cora died on us one too many times. Plus, I don’t think seeing a hundred versions of your daughters crawling on a beach is healthy. They were all the other body yesterday.”

 

“You’re the girl Yenna saved, aren’t you? The human from Anity?” A wind howled by them. Autumn stared out toward the Mouth, emotionless.

 

“Cora never liked me. She wanted Yenna to let me die. Yenna refused. Even my mother gave up on me before they killed her. Every little chance these Shadows get to save themselves, they take it. They take everything. ” Autumn took a deep breath, grabbing Alicia’s hands.

 

“Don’t let them fool you. This isn’t even close to your fault, honey. The Shadows were dying out before they got you. Even back when Yenna saved me, they were dying out. You’re the best thing that happened to them. They’ve been dying for years because of David and his toxic blood …” She stopped suddenly, staring at Alicia’s sullen face.

 

“How long have you gone without transferring back to that body? Have you ever made it back to the Mouth when David is transporting you?”

 

“Yes. Once.” She thought about the boat, staring at herself and Mae and…

 

“You… I can’t believe I didn’t think of it! Hit them the same way twice. They won’t swallow David again, but they swallow you all the time! Alicia! You need a coat!”

 

Pulled back into her grandmother’s world, Alicia tried to keep her face blank. Cora was devastated, and her anger was literal ash in the air. Trying not to look excited was a chore for Alicia, who couldn’t pull her head out of Autumn’s words.

 

“We were trying. Did you know that?” The street was well lit by a starry night sky. Every tree rustled, some bending and snapping, then flying off into the distance. The houses were different now, each one unique. Alicia wondered if there were more streets filled with more houses.

 

She’s so strong all of a sudden.

 

“I have a feeling that you’re going to leave me down here. I’d find you and burn you alive for the rest of eternity, but I have a feeling.” The ash in the air thickened, dark gray blobs falling heavily to the ground. “You’re going to leave me and Yenna here to soak up water and get soggy and bloated. They can’t get me out. I’m trapped. He doesn’t even come around anymore, I had to look at that disgusting human the last time I almost made it.” Cora was too regal to cry. Her long legs flew forward, her dress flew back, and she wheezed anger through her teeth.

 

“I didn’t want anything to do with that damned girl. You’re all fools. All of you. I said humans would destroy us. I said it. We have a duty to our species, do they think I wanted you down here? No, but it was your damned turn. David went when it was his turn! Screwed us up, sure, but he went without whining about it. I’m not supposed to be down here! I’m not-“

 

“Granny?” She stopped finally, but the ash thickened once more. Alicia stared at Cora through the muck. It took all the courage in her to smile.

 

“I won’t abandon you. Not for humans, not for anyone else. I’ll get you out.”

 

“So you are leaving. I figured. Selfish rat.” Cora’s defeat hardened under the ash. Alicia waited to be sent back into the water, to feel her lungs fill, but it didn’t happen.

 

“Why am I selfish for not wanting to be here?”

 

“We prepped you for this. You were born for this.”

 

“I don’t remember being prepped for anything.”

 

“Of course you don’t, you were a child. We didn’t get to finish, by the time you were old enough Yenna’d …” Cora thought to herself, staring up at the ash. None of it touched her black slacks or her tight ponytail. There was a clean circle around her, the ash piling up like a ridge at the edge of it.

 

“Sleep in another house tonight, rat. The red one.” The street lights buzzed brighter and Alicia saw the red house, four houses down. “Goodnight, Alicia.” Bewildered, Alicia watched her grandmother disappear into her big home. The ash didn’t clear up.

 

Can I actually sleep here?

 

She walked over to the red house, nervous. It was smaller than the others with a heart-shaped peephole. There was a small white fence that wrapped around it. The crawlspace smelled of the cleaner her mother used to use, and the awnings held false icicles.

 

Alicia knew the house so well she could’ve rebuilt it from splinters.

 

The moment her knuckles tapped the door it swung open. Her mother stared at her, hands gloved, dressed brightly but pulling her shoes off. Sara and Mary ran behind her, their laughter filling the darkness of the night. Alicia was stunned as she stared at her mother, whole, intact.

 

“Move, girl!” Judith whispered hurriedly, roughly pushing Alicia to the side. Her body felt so small. When she looked down she was young, maybe even a child. Behind her was Cora, but she wasn’t the same Cora in the world. It was the old Cora. The one she remembered from her youth, the one with the fancy dresses that smelled like smoke. Her grandmother gave a polite nod to Judith, not bothering to speak, and moved to walk inside. She tapped Alicia’s shoulder as she walked in, head always high, back always straight.

 

“Cora!” Judith sang, straining enthusiasm. Cora walked over to their table, doing her best to look warm and inviting. Judith gave Alicia a sour look.

 

“Put your damn gloves back on, now. We have company.”

 

“Yes, Momma,” She felt herself say. When Alicia looked back, the sky was bright, but thick clouds roiled over each other. It looked like snow. Cora’s neighborhood was gone. Standing at the gate was Mae Free, the real Mae Free, dressed in her best Sunday clothes. She rushed over, a pair of black gloves in her hands, and shoved them at her sister.

 

“You knew Momma was gonna say that! I told you not to take them off. Don’t get in trouble, I hate it.” Alicia pulled them on quickly, blushing. Sara ran between them and tripped over the door frame, screaming in pain when her jaw collided with the sidewalk.

 

“They’re a bit loud, aren’t they?” Cora asked, scrunching her face up. Judith ignored her and continued searching through cabinets.

 

“Sara, stay inside! Mae, Alicia, go get your daddy from the store. Tell him his momma is here to see him. Do you eat, Cora? Like … snacks and such?” There was a long offended pause, and then Cora let out a slow laugh.

 

“Of course. Even animals eat. Tea is fine.” Cora glanced at Alicia from the door and instantly brightened, blowing a kiss. Mae glowered.

 

“Come on, let’s go get Daddy.” Mae grabbed Alicia’s hand and pulled her back out the gate, leaving Sara screaming in the doorway. Their neighborhood was much more city than Cora’s old one. The sidewalk cracked and bulged at points, and Alicia couldn’t tell if they’d been like that in real life. Everything felt so real, she could even feel the cold brewing in her lungs, a sickness getting started. Mae rubbed her hands together through her gloves, groaning at the weather.

 

“I hate it here. Can’t wait to move again. Granny is so beautiful, I bet she never has to stay in one place. She just snaps her fingers and a man pops up and takes her around the world. Hey! I wanted to ask you something.”

 

“Sure.” Again, she blushed. Mae squeezed her shoulder, giving her a warm look.

 

“Do you think Daddy’s gonna kill you?” Afraid to stop, Alicia slowed down. Mae kept her pace, letting her breath blow out in thick circles.

 

“No. Why would he kill me?” Harold had always been nice as far as Alicia could tell.

 

“I caught Momma and Daddy arguing about how you was supposed to do something. But Momma said the other girls died doing it, and Daddy said he didn’t care. That you knew what you had to do. So I wanted to ask. I heard they kill Granny all the time at Uncle Thomas’s job because she’s a demon, like for experiments and stuff.”

 

“Devil, not a demon.”

 

“Whatever. She’s like you and Daddy. I wish I was, too.” They hadn’t done the test yet, but everyone knew. Everyone could see it in her teeth, in her hair that had to be cut every two days. They all knew.

 

“If he tries, I’m gone stop him, so don’t worry. I won’t let anybody hurt you.” Alicia remembered feeling like Mae could stop him. She could stop anyone.

 

“Daddy won’t hurt me.”

 

“I guess we’ll see. If you want me to protect you, I will. I mean it. I know why Momma makes you wear those gloves. Shame on her. You’re not the black sheep, though. Not on my watch.” They stopped in front of the gas station, and Mae leaned in close to her. She kissed her forehead.

 

“You’re beautiful, okay? No matter what Momma says, or what color those gloves are, I said it so it’s true. Ain’t it?”

 

“I don’t know,” Mae popped her head with one of the black gloves, laughing.

 

“I said ain’t it!”

 

“Yes!” Alicia laughed a little, always blushing. Harold burst from the store, walking his wide walk, smacking on gum, ignoring a trailing woman. Harold was slick and attractive, but he was always masculine. Alicia looked up at him and understood her hesitation over men in an instant. His sure eyes landed on her, so far up he could’ve had his own clouds. He flashed clean white teeth, letting the sharp side raise up a bit. They never had enough money to get them filed down completely, so he had half a mouth full of razors.

 

This is what I grew up with. Who could compete?

 

“Look at my babies standing out here stylin’ in the SNOW! OW!” He rushed over and picked Alicia up easily, resting her on his shoulder. His lotto tickets fell to the ground and Mae picked them up without being told.

 

“Daddy, Granny’s here. Momma wants Alicia to put the gloves on again.” Harold snorted, arm folded over Alicia’s legs. How could her heart be so full, how could it? Alicia waited for the air to turn back to ash, but the snow that started falling was white and clean. It dotted the ground, sticking.

 

“Girl, keep your gloves on when there’s company. You want to keep that woman happy, okay? As long as possible. When we’re out, we’re out.”

 

“You shouldn’t talk about people like that, Daddy. Casually, I mean,” Mae gasped. Harold pulled Mae’s ponytail loose, sticking his tongue out at her.

 

“Why you care what I call anybody? You got the pretty name.” She blushed, laughing.

 

“Yes, but you have to say Momma and Alicia. Not the woman and the girl. It’s disrespectful.”

 

“Well. If you knew what I knew, it wouldn’t matter.” They got back to the house, and Harold stopped to let Alicia get down. He prepared himself, spitting his gum into the bushes. Mae waited patiently with her hands in front of her, but Alicia never wanted to go back in.

 

When they walked inside, both women were flustered. Cora had her hands held tightly behind her back, eyes wide. Judith stopped mid-step, hand in the air, and Sara and Mary cried quietly in the corner.

 

“Harold. There was a woman in my yard yesterday,” Cora said, calm as the falling snow, eyes locked on Judith. “Her body was soggy. It’s time you did the test.”

 

“My last two babies DIED from your damn test. I don’t care about some damn sea monster, I don’t care about your ancient traditions, you’re not touching her. That’s it.” Alicia’s father nodded to Cora. Mae watched with as much confusion as she had.

 

“Oh, please. You don’t even like her. You make her wear those gloves for a reason. Even you know that she’s not like you. Just because Harold decided he needed a live-in nurse doesn’t mean you get to change his duties. He knew what would happen if he had kids.”

 

“You don’t know what I like! I dress my daughters the way I wanna dress them. This is insane, you can’t keep doing this! Can’t you try to find a real solution? Why don’t you ask those scientists at Eon to help you instead of giving that beast another century to live-“

 

Cora struggled to compose herself, but her anger bloomed over. Everyone stopped, scared of her vicious expression and quiet words. “Do you think we like having to do this? Don’t you think I want a normal life for my family? What are you going to do with a Devil to raise, you can’t even figure out what to feed me as a guest.” Judith opened her mouth and closed it. Cora smiled sweetly and turned to her son, venom in every word.

 

Harold, she has to have a Latch. Soon.”

 

Momma,” he mocked back, “Yenna was supposed to have the child.”

 

“And here you are with four. I told you to wait. I told you to see if maybe we could find another one, if maybe we weren’t the last. Now, it won’t be long. You don’t want to lose her completely, and I want my grandchild to have a fighting chance. Get over yourself and give her the test, and prepare her properly so she won’t suffer. Right?”

 

“Yes. I know, Momma.” The whining in his voice wasn’t new, but there was a sharp edge to it. Judith stomped into their bedroom, slamming the door in anger. Cora turned to stare at Alicia, a sweet perfume of love flowing from her.

 

“What a beautiful girl. You have a big job to do, did you know that? I’m proud of you already.” She walked over and pulled Alicia’s gloves off, stroking the girl’s small hands. “Take these hideous things off. And don’t you worry. You won’t be the first to do it, and you won’t be the last.”

 

Harold tucked Alicia in, giving her a messy forehead kiss, ignoring her chaotic laughter. Sara showed him the cut on her chin, crawling over her sister. They shared a bed, but Mae had to share one with Mary, and everyone knew Mary wet the bed. So she had no complaints.

 

“That’s too bad, little one. Now we gotta cut the whole dang jaw off.” She screeched, and Harold put his finger to his lip.

 

“Don’t get Momma upset. I already gotta hear about Granny coming over, I don’t wanna hear about nothin’ else.”

 

“I like it when Granny comes over,” Alicia mumbled, and he brushed her hair out of her face.

 

“You should, girl. I don’t know how much longer she’s gonna be allowed to come here, but we’ll go see her ourselves, okay? Let me see your teeth.” Alicia opened her mouth and Harold smiled, excitement pushing his lips together.

 

“Sharp. Right, Sara? They’re sharp.” Her sister looked, gasped, and ducked under the covers. Alicia closed her mouth in shame.

 

“Don’t look like that.” He bared his own teeth, and she marveled at how sharp the side ones were. “You’re gonna be like me and your Granny. And you know what that means?”

 

“It means my world is small.”

 

“It’s tiny, girl. All your enemies live next to you. They sleep with you.” He glanced over at Sara, who drifted to sleep. “They look like you and talk like you. The world is so small, you see one person and they’re actually another. You build your own community, and it’s actually just you.” He paused, eyes misting.

 

“A lot of tough things are about to happen, okay? But they’re damn near as old as time, and you can’t be afraid. I would be honored to be in your position right now. And it won’t be forever. Not if we do what we need to do. It’s just hard to convince myself to let it happen.”

 

“Okay, Daddy.” Alicia watched Cora step into the doorway, hands folded, eyes locked on her son. She stepped back when he turned to walk out the door, and suddenly he froze in place. It was the real Cora. The present Cora, the one running the little dream world.

 

“This is my memory,” Alicia asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“You control my memories in here?”

 

“Consider it a copy. I thought you could do it as well, but this little tool might’ve skipped you. You’re talented enough, you don’t need anything else.” She looked uncomfortable in front of Harold, trying not to look at him, glancing around with a lump in her throat. Alicia wondered if there was anything beyond what she could see and remember, but didn’t ask.

 

“What did you talk about with my mother that day?” She wanted to be an adult again. The small way her voice stumbled from her mouth irritated her.

 

“I wanted you to come with me to do the test, but she refused. So I told her Harold would make you do the test anyway, and if she kept getting on my nerves we’d practice on her. We never found a way to agree to disagree.”

 

“Why was it so important that I was drowned?” Cora smiled.

 

“It’s a kindness to you and your species. Of course, Harold never told you this. He didn’t get the chance. I guess it’s up to me … like everything else.” The long woman stretched in the doorway, sighing.

 

“So. You have people with Devil Syndrome, and you have Devils. Some of us use those terms interchangeably. It makes us feel more normal, more accepted. But Devils are usually immortal, and ‘People with Devil Syndrome’ miss out on that little trait. There’s a third category that only fits with Devils, and it’s true immortal Devils that create Latches. Latches are backup bodies, to put it simply. Understand so far?” Alicia nodded.

 

“Down here in the water with us are generations and generations of true immortal devils that can create Latches. Historically, the Shadows left Devils alone if we gave them a meal that would last, at least once a century. They ate humans any other time, and fish, and all types of things. A healthy mix. Back then, one a century was more than enough, and there were enough bloodlines to give one sacrifice per Leviathan.”

 

“Leviathan?”

 

“Sorry. There are two kinds of Shadows: Leviathans and Feeders. There’s a lot to cover there, so I’ll keep it simple. The Leviathans are the issue; they keep growing and growing as long as they eat, and they eventually starve once they get too big. They could easily wipe us out, but we had an understanding. For the survival of both of our species, we were kind to each other, and we suffered as equally as we could manage. One true immortal Devil per Leviathan helped them keep their appetites down, and they grew at a normal pace. They established a way to feed the rest of the Shadows from one Leviathan, where the big one breaks food down that lasts longer for the Feeders. One Latch-producing Devil can feed one Leviathan for centuries. And there’s no loss if it’s done right.”

 

“No loss? That Devil is stuck forever-“

 

“No, no, no. That’s what your Latch is for. The only loss is the human chosen as a Latch, but who cares about them? The sacrifice has to have a Latch to transfer into once they’re taken and their body is destroyed. That’s how it’s always worked. We give up one per bloodline – it used to be a child – but the child only suffers a few years or so before their body dissolves. Let me show you.”

 

The far wall split down the center, then opened like a set of doors. Outside was a small child floating in a square block of dark water, right in the middle of the street. Seaweed crawled up her legs and wrapped tight all the way up to her mouth. She wriggled in agony, then stopped, the seaweed dipping into her skin, pumping blue liquid through it.

 

“We’re immortal, sure. But everything dies somehow. After a long enough time, the body breaks down. You can only hope that your body is weaker, that it’ll break down sooner. The blue gunk goes back into the Leviathan, and it, in turn, provides the Feeders with sustenance. They can’t survive without this energy from the Leviathan.” The child began to shiver, her long hair dissolving around her. The blue liquid shone through her veins and skin until it broke through, her flesh creeping out of the light. Then she melted into a ball of black gunk and blended into the seaweed. Alicia realized she was sucking in deep breaths, her small body curled under the covers. Cora patted her head.

 

“When the child is destroyed, it takes over the Latch and continues its life. No harm done.” The water disappeared and was replaced by a small boy. He looked up, shocked, and his eyes rolled into his head. They watched as he struggled to breathe, crying out.

 

“I hear it’s not the most pleasant process for the human.” The boy fell forward in agony, clawing at his skin. It went on for a few minutes, and then he sat up, staring at his hands. The confusion on his face was familiar. Alicia felt it every time she woke up in a Latch, suddenly someone and somewhere new.

 

“So. Every century, each Leviathan gets one true immortal Devil, and that Devil makes it a bunch of food. But life is funny. And after a while, things started to speed up for the Shadows, but slow down for the Devils. We were seeing True Immortals who could make Latches being born less and less. Eventually, they were only ever produced by two specific bloodlines.”

 

“Ours and Yenna’s.”

 

“Correct. There are plenty of immortals left and being born, but most can’t make Latches. There were abnormalities from … inter-species mixing, you could call it. Feeders learned how to take bodies and come to land for food so they didn’t rely so much on Leviathans. They go back every now and then and stock up, but they can last a long time in-between. They started lives on land. Lots of Shadows seem to like to date their food instead of eat it.” She was disgusted by the idea, sticking her tongue out childishly. Alicia wondered how she never noticed the pompousness of her grandmother.

 

“Some Devils started to develop odd malformations in place of the ability to make Latches. Our bloodline is rife with them. Blood reacting with specific materials, for instance, and making broken latches. Unfinished, nonhuman ones. My mother could turn clay into tiny replicas of herself that walked and talked. I can do a few interesting things with organic beings, as well.

 

“Here, look at that.” A giant appeared in place of the confused child outside, blocking most of the street. It was as tall as the house. It looked like a large man wrapped in tentacles, the face obscured by two giant knees. It had a tentacle wrapped around the front of its leg, pulling itself into a tight ball.

 

“That’s the big one. When it was a small one, of course. The others starved as their food ran out, every last one of them. It is the only functioning Leviathan left, and it happened to be the strongest. Well, this is what I assume it looks like. It’s been alive longer than anyone I know personally, and probably most of our ancestors. This one has an abnormality that allowed it to survive when the others grew too big. It can eat very little and produce a lot of energy-“

 

“The last functioning Leviathan?” The woman from the woods popped up next to the Shadow, her hair pulling up the tiny lights. She floated, eyes empty and pointed down at the grass.

 

“This one is also a Leviathan, but she doesn’t grow. Thankfully. As time went on, Devils developed better practices. We try not to send children, though as the Feeders became more aggressive, many are taken. We do the test to see if you can make Latches with a blood burst, thus qualifying you to leave your body and survive. We prepare. The sacrifice is never taken lightly. Usually we wait until the Devil has lived a full life in case anything goes wrong. If we feel like they’ll be taken before they can reach adulthood anyway, we make sure a Latch is in place. You needed yours so early that you didn’t even get to live a hint of a life. Things haven’t been fair for some time. No one should be down here right now but you, and a few of your ancestors.

 

“You were supposed to be given to the monster when you turned 35. When it destroyed your body you would just transfer into a Latch and live out your eternal life as you saw fit. It would have enough to leave us alone for a few more centuries. But David ruined that seamless process. You should ask him to tell you that story. He was the last scheduled sacrifice before you, and he almost wiped out the Feeder Shadows. There were three other Leviathans that he killed.”

 

“Mr. David did that? How?”

 

“Ask him about it. It’s an impressive story. It definitely caught my attention when he was trying to use it to woo me away from my husband.” She blushed, the first time Alicia had ever seen her do it.

 

“Either way. It’s weak, and it’s dying, and it’s eating all of us. They even use us for throwaway bodies now, which is scary enough on its own. It’s taking everybody, immortal or not. Even immortals from previous generations that were spared because of the sacrifice, even the human children of Devils. We tried to appease them with Devils with abnormalities. Especially if they could be masked as Latch making. Devils that volunteered to save the rest of us. It evened things out for a bit, but they dissolve quicker. Their Latches aren’t alive, and they’re useless. I can’t make multiple Latches, so it skipped me, but I would’ve come if I’d been able to. I can do the sandbox thing, but it’s a specialty for our bloodline. Kind of an … evolutionary pain pill for the sacrificed. We used to only send Devils who could sandbox as a courtesy. Makes it easier to live the years out until you transfer into a new body.”

 

Alicia marveled at that.

 

“I can’t do the sandbox thing. Doesn’t that mean I’m not supposed to be here, either?” Cora shrugged, staring at Harold.

 

“That was your father’s mistake. It was only supposed to be one of Yenna’s children or one of Harold’s children. The Shadows were restless before, and they get worse and worse the longer we wait. They’ve spent the last ten years snatching every Devil they could find, even non-immortals. We needed to either give them the real thing, or give them a replacement, and it was Harold and Yenna’s turn to figure it out. Whoever had kids first was the ‘winner.'” Alicia sat up in the bed, taking care not to hit Sara.

 

“Harold was defiant about everything. He didn’t want to participate, even if it saved the lives of every other bloodline. Yenna agreed, going on and on about how she’d never have children. I didn’t mind. It would mean the end of our bloodlines but, you know what? Why set these kids up to drown forever, or dissolve in the sea? We’re born stronger and stronger. There are Devils that have been here over fifty years, still leftover from a long-dead Leviathan. We’re not breaking down properly.

 

“Want to know something hopeful, though? There used to be so many Leviathans that you couldn’t get near the water. They’d eat anything that got close. But there are only two left now, and the female doesn’t seem to grow, so it might be their time. We might just have to wait them out. I don’t know if she even has a body of her own to grow in, honestly, and I don’t think her kids can survive long enough to bring them back. But we have a lot in common with those two remaining monsters.” Alicia put her hand on Cora, glancing out at the two mock shadows floating.

 

“Like what? Being tall?”

 

“Ha ha. No, being the last of a species, you lonely fool. Yenna’s family, the Teroys, were a long line of immortals. Our family is as well. There are no other families producing our particular type of Devil as far as I’ve seen. For the last eight centuries, the sacrifices have always come from one of our lines. It just got to a point where they dwindled. Latches weren’t made properly, some Devils were lost forever. The Shadows took one too many bodies, never returning them. This little ecosystem you see down here is the dying breath of a species as old as time. It’s also the death of our families, and then probably the rest of the Devils.

 

“You should get some rest. I’ll keep you here for a while. David won’t give up on me, I know it. When you get out of here, remember that you and those beasts have more in common than anyone in the world. They are the last two surviving Leviathans. The Teroys and Frees are the last two lines of immortal Devils. And once we’re gone, Alicia, that’s that.”

 

Alicia slept, and it felt like real sleep. When she woke up, she had an appreciation for her pompous, mean-spirited Granny that she’d never shake. Cora didn’t revisit her in the house. Alicia was left to get up and brush her teeth in the bathroom with Sara. She took a seat at their kitchen table, awe filling her.

 

This was something she hadn’t known she needed. To watch her mother cook breakfast, singing and smiling. To watch her father kiss Judith tenderly, to watch the kids wake up one by one. Mae lifted her arms in the air and stretched backward, exposing her flat stomach. Something so simple would’ve made Alicia jealous as a child. She watched them all for as long as she could.

 

They weren’t useless, and she was wrong to ever think that father thought so. Harold wanted to save them all. He cared about them. She could see it in the way he took them all in as often as possible. Sweeping the room for them, always needing to know where they were. They would only live in that house for another year, but they wouldn’t do the test there. He’d hesitated.

 

Harold was stuck between his species and his family. Alicia was starting to understand.

 

A voice boomed through the room. They all froze in place, smiles and laughs acting as the punctuation to the entire experience.

 

“I’m sorry, beautiful. I have to let you go. This might be the last time we speak. And then I guess I’m on my own again.”

 

“I- Granny. I’m sure they can find a way to save us both. It doesn’t have to end with us. I won’t let it. I promise.”

 

“I’m desperate enough to take your word for it. Don’t forget me here. Please. Make them help me, don’t leave me forever.” Alicia stood at the table, taking in her sisters and mother and father, and she closed her eyes.

 

“I’ll see you again, Granny.”

 

Alicia woke up in her own body, drowning, and she felt everything like it was the first time. The rocks filling her chest; the anguish. And again, all she could think was, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Please forgive me.”

 

Some time passed, and Alicia felt herself pulling into another Latch. She held onto her mind, gripped with her fingers as if it would help. When she opened her eyes, she didn’t have to remember who she was. She didn’t even have to figure out who her Latch was, or remember Autumn, or stare at Mr. David. She looked at them, hands touching the side of a boat, and she was just Alicia in a different body.

 

Autumn stood on the dock, sweat beading along her forehead. A light rain fell, but none of them noticed it. Mr. David climbed onto the boat, wheezing.

 

“You awake?”

 

“Yes.” She coughed, her voice the squeaky whine of the human she’d consumed. Even though she felt like herself, her arms were a light brown, much shorter than her real body. Autumn waved her hand for Alicia’s attention.

 

“When Yenna saved me, she gave me a poison called a coat. It’s Hybrid blood mixed with-“

 

“Autumn. Don’t.” Mr. David looked embarrassed, ashamed, and tired. He held a black ball in his fist, arm rattling with pain. Black blood spilled from his right side into the boat, the gunk bubbling out of a split from his waist to his armpit. He was shirtless, but the ripped shirt sat crumpled near Autumn, a long machete stabbed in the middle of it.

 

“Sorry, honey. You have to eat that.” Alicia took the black ball without question, but Mr. David grabbed her hand.

 

“Listen. We’re doing this now. I don’t know if it’ll work, but if it doesn’t, I don’t think we’ll ever have another chance.”

 

“Will you die?” He struggled through a chuckle.

 

“No. I never do. But you might end up stuck. All of you. And I don’t think the Leviathan will forgive me.”

 

“It won’t go wrong, she won’t be stuck, stop being a baby.” Autumn leaned over to move his hand and pushed the gunk toward Alicia. It smelled and looked corrosive.

 

“You know pain already, don’t you? This is gonna burn you alive from the inside out, honey. It’s gonna feel like an apocalypse in your stomach, and I know from experience. But use that pain and stay awake. You have to stay in this Latch all the way back to the Mouth, and you have to hold this coat in your mouth until then. Do you understand? The human you’re in will survive the drowning process if you hold that. The Leviathan needs to break that body down for this to work. Don’t open your mouth, do you understand?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“This is it, Alicia. This is all there is. You have to survive the boat trip, stay aware, and die again. When you wake up in your own body, KICK. Do you-“

 

Alicia tapped the side of the boat.

 

“Get me out of there.” She swallowed the ball whole, smiling, but lost her smile just as quick. As Mr. David tied her mouth, first with a cloth gag and then wrapping duct tape all the way around, the acid in her stomach could’ve been flowing in reverse.

 

Autumn never lied to her.

 

The trip consisted of Alicia writhing in agony, trying to stay out of the growing pool of Mr. David’s blood. She had to keep kicking him to keep him from passing out.

 

How the hell is he going to save me if he’s blacked out in his own damn blood?

 

He barely held on to his anger as he steered the boat, gritting his teeth every time she kicked him. “You and that human are going to end up eaten alive by sharks before you can get to the fucking Mouth, you touch me one more fucking time.” Alicia shrank back, holding her stomach. She could feel it spreading out, feel it spreading places that didn’t even have nerve endings, and it was all hot. Fire wasn’t hot enough to describe it.

 

Alicia struggled through the pain when it reached her lungs, breathing from her nose like a dying animal. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine walking along the beach, seeing the beach house. She imagined Cora and Yenna waving to her, all free. All alive and happy, none of them traumatized. She imagined sanity. Sunlight. Love.

 

Her belly shrank in and she doubled over, choking.

 

When they arrived, the eye was closed. There was pitch black water for miles and miles, the little edge a constant stream of frothy waves. Mr. David stared at the horizon, barely breathing, his wound leaking slower. He stumbled over to Alicia, dropping next to her, and held her for a moment.

 

“I’ve failed a lot, girl. We all have. But you’re not like me. You never have been.” He thought for a moment, misery crossing his face. “I love you. You get down there.”

 

A long black tentacle broke the surface of the water, feeling along the boat. Mr. David struggled up, pushing her over to the side. The tentacle didn’t move. The sun fell slowly, the black of the water an unending abyss. She stood as straight as possible. After a moment she felt a black ball form in her throat, the gunk meeting around her cheeks, and nodded.

 

There was the pull. It wanted her back in her body, it wanted her to abandon the Latch and come back. Her arms were getting longer. Dark patches broke through her skin. She stared down and tried to imagine the sandbox, tried to reach to Cora.

 

Goodbye, Granny.

 

“I’ll see you soon, girl,” Mr. David grunted, and he kicked her off the side. Alicia fell forward into the water. This time she didn’t laugh. The cold washed over her, covering her body in waves. The black tentacles wrapped around her midsection. They yanked her only a little. Then they yanked her so hard she had to grip her teeth to keep from crying out under the tape.

 

The water rushed by, blue turning to dark blue, dark blue turning to black. She felt her body squeezing in and still held her teeth together. The whistle ringing through her head, her eardrums screaming, it all meant nothing.

 

She waited until the pain was so great, she couldn’t stop it. Until she was so far underwater that nothing existed but the pressure. And then she laughed behind her mouth ties, the pain eradicating her. It was a glorious death.

 

It wasn’t instant. Alicia opened her eye and she was staring at a wall of blue swirls interrupted by black water. The color burst from the sea of bodies, and then it was all black again. Alicia felt herself dying but held on, remembering where she was.

 

You’re in your own body! Kick, you idiot!

 

She wiggled, then pulled, then kicked her legs. The seaweed shrank back, yanking from her veins. All around her, the seaweed burst into color, then crumbled black and useless, releasing their captives. She continued until she could move her leg back and forth, too weak from drowning to try.

 

There was a monstrous rumble, and suddenly the tentacle sucked deeply at her face. The eye it was around burst, and she screamed, yanking her arms up. Bodies floated by, rubbing against her, detaching from their seaweed. Alicia felt herself dying and tried to hold on, tried to hold her breath.

 

Another rumble went through the ocean, and the tentacle detached. Alicia was floating! She couldn’t move, couldn’t kick her legs, but it didn’t matter. She was floating too fast. Her body siphoned through a tiny hole into death, the water wheezing by her. The pain in her chest blossomed into something unbearable.

 

This is it, this is it, this is-

 

Something in her chest exploded, and her head filled with white light. When she awoke, she was choking into the night air, her nails digging into Mr. David’s back, her legs swinging onto the boat. She kept trying to scream, tearing into his skin, spitting out powdered blood. She couldn’t see out of her right eye, couldn’t even feel that part of her face. But for the first time in two years, she felt the air on her skin, the real air! The moon shone above them, resting on her soggy hands and feet, and she choked so long that Mr. David had to hold her still to calm her down.

 

“You- God, you look…” He pulled his hands back in horror, the feel of her skin running across his face in levels of disgust. She didn’t care. She could feel everything!

 

The water around them sloshed violently, the boat tipping back and forth. A hand smacked against the side. Yenna pulled herself up, long hair red trailing behind her into the Mouth as if it was caught in a drain. She struggled to pull forward, anger sending her fingers through the side of the boat.

 

“You’re not planning on… leaving… you’re going to… doom us all… you selfish…” Alicia tried to grab her, to pull her on board, but Mr. David stopped her, groaning at the effort.

 

“Get her off this boat, David! I thought you cared so much about your… species? You’ll kill us. You’ll starve us. What have you done?” The black gunk bubbled on the bottom of the boat and Alicia finally got it.

 

Yenna is gone. It’s only the monster now. Only the Leviathan.

 

“I’m sorry,” He mumbled to the boat floor. “I’m sure you’d understand if you had any family left.”

 

“My family… is in that water… they’ll starve. We help each other! We always-” Her head yanked back, and the boat leaned over with her. Bloated bodies popped to the surface around her, hundreds of them floating around. She let out an agonized cry, pulling on the hair. It disappeared faster into the Mouth. The giant’s eye finally opened, panicked, and Alicia felt her heart stop beating.

 

“You do this, David, and it’s over. It’s all over. We’ll be gone, David! Please! You poisoned us again! Again, David!”

 

“You’ve been greedy. This isn’t my fault.”

 

“You killed so many of us with this toxic shit you call blood! You killed us! This is your fault! Alicia, please! We need you! I didn’t even know it was your turn, please, you can’t do this. We can’t wait for the next one! We’ll die out! Please! We-” A black tentacle wrapped around her neck, pulling her, and they watched her struggle against it.

 

“No! We need her! Let me go! WE NEED HER! We’ll die! We’ll die!” It pulled her back, swallowing her down, and Mr. David struggled against the growing waves. The boat trudged forward, mowing through bodies. They were being pulled back under by the smaller black tentacles. Alicia fell forward, her skin soaking up the black gunk, and passed out.

 

 

When Alicia came to, she was in Mr. David’s arms. He carried her to shore, black gunk pouring out of his back and neck, and dumped her unceremoniously in the sand.

 

It was real. It was all real. Her real self, mangled and suctioned. She looked down at her naked body and her hands were scarred and ripped. Patches of blood zig-zagged everywhere, covering her like stripes. More formed before her eyes, snaking through every wound. Mr. David sat pale and limp, and as the color returned to her eye, she marveled at the difference.

 

He was hurt badly. The white dreads shone like the sun, blotches of black cutting through them. Alicia was too busy staring in awe at the light of the moon to notice. It reflected off of the ocean, so much brighter than she remembered, but so much more beautiful.

 

Alicia passed out again, but this time she passed out slow, taking in the moonlight.

 

As if she’d enjoyed her freedom too much, the next time Alicia woke up, she was back in Cora’s world on that dirt road. Mr. David stood next to her, shocked still, and Cora stood in front of them.

 

The three of them faced each other, and this time there were no details. The houses were gone, Eric vanished from the porches, even the big house was non-existent. Instead, thick black water surrounded them. Alicia could see the outlines of people floating to freedom, their veins glowing blue. More were being pulled back down. Seaweed wrapped around countless more Devils, all wriggling and struggling. Mr. David looked around in disgust, too many other emotions playing across his face and body to read.

 

“You saved her! Congratulations. When are you coming back for me?” Cora said the words with no emotion, but they rocketed through her body, a single scared gasp following each. The way Cora tried to compose herself, moving her hair slightly, blinking a lot, it all stuck with her. She tried to stare at anything else, but her head raised to meet Cora no matter where she looked. For the first time, Alicia remembered that this was Cora’s world.

 

“We tried everything, Cora. We can’t get you out. And… and we can’t try again. Not for a long time-” Mr. David started, his voice was heavy.

 

“I wanted to hear it from you. I just knew it. I knew it! You ruin my marriage. You consume my husband, my child. You leave me here to soak, blubbering around like some-“

 

“I’m sorry, Granny. I’m so sorry.” Alicia stared at the basic dirt road, ashamed, but she didn’t hesitate. There was a long silence, and she didn’t dare look up. Again, she felt her head pulling up to meet Cora’s gaze all on its own.

 

“Shut up, girl. Don’t speak again.” She turned back to Mr. David, pleading. “I’ll be stuck here! It’s been years, I’ve been here years! It’s agony, please reconsider-“

 

“I won’t. I’m not coming back until it’s safe. It’ll be a while, but I will come back. I promise. I’ll get you out of here, and I’ll make sure no one ever hurts you again. I don’t care if I have to destroy the entire planet, I’ll get you out.” Alicia nodded in agreement, punctuating Mr. David’s words. Cora’s breath still rocketed in and out of her chest, her eyes wrenched open in panic.

 

She’s shocked. How could she be shocked?

 

“Eric? Eric! Can you hear me in there? I can’t stay here, please! I’m… I’m in the brine pool. Eric, it’s too painful, I don’t even die. I can’t! You promised you’d protect me!” Much to Alicia’s horror, Cora’s eyes welled with tears. She didn’t cry outright. Her sobs tucked into her, only soft gasps escaping, and she held her hands in front of her stomach like a shield. She looked like a long child, her cheeks puffing out, slow tears dripping from her chin.

 

Just be angry. Be irrational. Be mean. Please.

 

For a moment, moved by Cora’s restraint and withheld fear, Alicia filled with regret. Then Cora swallowed her fear and turned to Alicia, ravenous anger held entirely in her eyes, her simulated body tight with pride. Cora’s words stunk with animosity, but she got through them.

 

“Alicia. I regret forging a path for you to be born. I regret everything about you. But you are my family, and I will… I will not sit around crying about you abandoning me. Never forget this decision you made. If you leave me here, you are pathetic and weak and undeserving of even the smallest amount of love. If you don’t get me out of here, I’ll destroy you-” She choked, leaning forward, eyes glued to her granddaughter’s shivering face.

 

“Granny, you can’t hate me, you even said! You- you knew I was leaving, you- I don’t mean…” Cora turned abruptly to Mr. David, cutting Alicia off.

 

“How is it that you’ve failed me as every man you’ve been in my life? I always believe in you. I know the real you, the original you. I know David. I watched you destroy my entire life in the name of love, and you still failed me. Now you’ve consumed my son, my Harold, and here you are failing me again. Who else could you fail me as?” Mr. David nearly fell backward. He tried to grab Cora’s hand but it twitched, twisting into a painful, ugly stump.

 

“Goodbye. I hope the two of you find peace someday. I hope you remember me down here suffering, all for you.”

 

They watched Cora shrivel, her eyes glossing over and turning white. Her mouth wrenched open in an ugly scream. Her body clenched, seaweed traveling around her legs and arms until she was held in place. Alicia tried to grab her, tried to pull her, but Cora slowly dissolved. The little road cracked down the middle, and Mr. David let out a painful growl of regret. His hands dug into the sides of his head.

 

“You won’t be here forever. I promised I’d get you. I meant it. I don’t care who I am, Cora, I’ll keep my promises to you someday! I won’t let them keep you here, Momma!” His words garbled, and different voices escaped him, all wrenched in agony.

 

“Momma, please forgive me! I promise I’ll get you out! Cora! I forgave you for David, I did, you have to forgive me for this! She’s a child compared to you! You can’t be angry with me for saving my own granddaughter! PLEASE!” The water filled the road, running up Alicia’s knees. Mr. David trudged forward, trying to grab every dissolving piece.

 

“Cora! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’ll get you out!” All pleading with the dissolving woman, the voices melded back into one.

 

The water poured in from both sides, and Alicia was awake on the beach again. In the real world, finally free.

 

 

“You’re a petulant coward. Anyone who knows you is worse for it.” Mr. David grunted to himself, falling heavily on his butt, growling through pain. Black gunk pulsed from his side and sizzled against the sand.

 

“I’m back. I’m out. I’m alive again,” Alicia marveled, traveling her hands over her damaged skin. Mr. David scoffed. She stood, naked, and took a few wobbly steps away from him.

 

“Wait. Autumn will be here soon.” A pile of bloody towels sat under Alicia, and she plopped back on them. There was a water bottle. She gulped as much water as her body could hold. When she ran her hand over her face, her fingers dipped deep into her head, a giant hole in place of her right eye and temple.

 

Alicia stared out into the distance, and it was like seeing for the first time. The colors of it all, they vibrated.

 

“Will you hate me now, Daddy?”

 

“No. We tried our best.” Alicia moved her hair in front of her body, suddenly aware of her nakedness, but Mr. David handed her a long shirt. She pulled it on gratefully. She started to ask him why he hadn’t left them both and moved on, then decided against it.

 

“You’re still bleeding?” Black gunk pulsed from his side. He waved her away.

 

“Had to keep them from capsizing the boat somehow, so I kept ripping it open. Autumn’s idea. Hurts like hell.”

 

Alicia steadied herself. Emotion filled her, threatening to sink her back deep into the ground, but she was free. It clashed viciously with her hatred of herself.

 

“You know… I knew you’d make it out. There was something about you, even back then in that hallway. You’re not like Cora. You’re not even like Yenna. I saw you and I thought, well, this little hardheaded girl could take over the entire world if she wanted.” Alicia sat up on her knees, holding in a groan of pain, and watched him. He didn’t look as physically hurt as he sounded, at least not in his expression. There was an agony she could recognize in him, though.

 

He’s sorry and nothing can fix it.

 

“I kept Yenna’s apartment. Why don’t you go back there after you’ve healed? Live out your life that you didn’t even want in style?” Alicia made a spiral in the sand, enjoying the burn of it against her wounds.

 

“I betrayed another person. It just keeps going. This must be what I’m meant to do,” she whispered. Mr. David chuckled, and for once she was glad to hear it.

 

“Everyone will tell you that you betrayed them. Cora is your elder. She’s not your child, she’s not even your mother. Why should you stay and suffer while she goes?”

 

“Sacrifice. You sacrifice for the ones you love. It was my turn. She’s been there for so long-“

 

“It was my turn once. Do we just keep passing the sacrifices around? Who does it stop with? All the sacrifices we made, all those centuries. They still died out, and we still died out.” The thought of Cora twisted up in pain and horror, mangled in shock in the ocean, brought pain to her. But it couldn’t ruin this moment. Alicia let out a breath and refused to be bothered with it. With any of it.

 

She felt a throbbing pain in her face, and she touched the hole again. This time it came back covered in fluorescent blue gunk. Thick veins crawled over her nose and mouth, monstrous, and she sucked in agony at the feeling of them throbbing and bulging. Further out in the ocean, standing as if on a ledge, the fake Yenna stood and watched them. Every strand of her hair was floating up, tiny bulbs flickering on one after another. Alicia could feel the beast’s anger from her place on the shore, and she reveled in it.

 

“That’s the other Leviathan, right? The small one?”

 

“Yeah. Looks like she’s all settled into Yenna. We won’t be getting her out.” Alicia moved back a bit, panicking, but Mr. David grunted. “Don’t worry, she’ll never attack you. You could be in her face and she wouldn’t. It’s the Feeders you worry about.” He didn’t explain why, and Alicia didn’t ask.

 

“But the big one?”

 

“Don’t worry about him, either. It’s too big to move with any urgency. And everything is built around it, it’d kill its own people. They’re designed to feed their species, not move. It won’t get up unless it has to.” Alicia watched, fascinated. The monster dove back underwater, an ugly wail filling the air.

 

“I don’t know how you plan on living now, girl. I’ll tell you my philosophy in life, and then you do what you want with it. Feel bad, or feel alive, or feel destined for death, I don’t care.”

 

“Okay. I’m listening.”

 

“Pick a thing. Devote yourself to it. I don’t care if it’s keeping your sock drawer organized. Devote yourself to attaining that thing, and don’t deviate. Everything you do should lead you to that thing. And when you accomplish it, pick another thing. Don’t deviate. The end. You can wander around wanting to die forever if you want. Can’t tell you what your thing is. But it’s a waste of time when there’s so much else to live for, to complain about.”

 

Alicia sucked in his words, letting them cure her. Don’t deviate. Don’t deviate. Don’t deviate.

 

Right there, next to her father, grandfather, and whoever else lived inside the man, Alicia picked her thing. She told him, taking in his shocked expression, but she held on to it. Thinking about all those bodies down there, struggling, seaweed pushing into their glowing veins, she doubled down on the thing. Staring out at the ocean, she let her decision permeate.

 

Autumn trudged over, a small wagon of supplies behind her.

 

“You’re awake! Hopefully for good this time.” She passed Mr. David a big bottle of gin, and he laughed a heartier laugh than Alicia had ever heard from him. Alicia reached for it and Autumn tsked.

 

“You have a hole in your face. Sit yo’ ass down and relax, honey. You’ll both be out again soon and I have to figure out how to get you back to the house.” They sat, drinking and watching the night, and Alicia wasn’t sorry for just a little while.

 

“I knew we would get Yenna out. I owe her that much. I can’t believe it didn’t work,” Autumn whispered, the words heavy, but Alicia ignored her. She blocked off the sorrow.

 

Yenna was gone. Cora was gone. They were all gone, and she was still Alicia. Mae was gone, Harold, Judith, everyone was gone, but here was Alicia Free. Surviving despite even herself. The one who wanted to die. The one who was always the least impressive, the most useless. The one who wore the black gloves all her life, right up until she wore white. Alicia nodded to the white-haired beast, her savior, her mentor. She gave another nod to Autumn, the strange woman who had instilled so much faith in her.

 

Alicia was destined for her thing. And she would never deviate again.

Chapter 10: Husk

NOAH

Chaunce was a light little fluffball, but I couldn’t even see an inch of her in the black cocoon. She felt heavy on my chest, her snores doubling her weight somehow. The dark was absolute, but I’d never been afraid of that type of thing. Not even as deep and as unnatural as the Shadows and Hybrids made it seem.

 

“Chaunce?” I whispered, and she wriggled peacefully. I had no instincts. Autumn would’ve sung to me probably, and boom, everything would be okay. She would’ve held my hand and told me a story about the doctor, or the savior, or the girl.

 

She would’ve come into your room drunk and told you your father was a hostage.

 

I tried to listen for any noise, any commotion. Something was out there. Somehow the wall was so solid that I couldn’t hear anything, but the floor would thud and thump every now and then. It hadn’t been that long. There was still time for them all to kill each other. For me to crawl out and see Astor enraged, driven to madness again, dark spots on the wall shaped like real humans.

 

We’d had to be so careful around her for so long. Her children had no idea. I bet they felt great to show her what they could do, all those abilities. Look, Mom! We’re amazing! Watch us do something cool, oh we’re such dorks, we do all these cool things! We can help Auntie Noah! I felt sour about it. Everyone else had the opportunity to tell her the truth, to show her who they actually were. I lied, and I scurried around, and I talked her down from murderous rages. Shit, I had to sit in a little cocoon, saved by a kid I tried to murder, and feel like the worst person alive. I never got any thanks. No one ever knew they were in danger to thank me!

 

Nobody was ever who they said they were. You just had to watch and wait. The kids probably thought they were showing her something amazing. They were proving themselves to her.

You can’t do that with Astor. You just can’t.

 

There was another thud on the floor and then a long wail pierced our little sound barrier. I closed my eyes and thought about anything else. Astor walking around my room touching my things. Astor standing in front of me and Autumn, eyes bored, trying to nod her way through our welcome. Alicia tapping my shoulder and handing me a cigarette, face twisted into a smile.

 

“What type of teenager doesn’t have a vice? Don’t tell me you want to live forever?”

 

Autumn slipping me a cyanide pill right before her big speech, begging me to take it without the coat. “Die, you waste of time.” Drunk at the edge of my bed for the millionth time, no makeup, stockings balled up in her hands.

 

“Just die.”

 

Nobody, and I mean nobody, was ever who they said they were. Astor was no different, but I loved her anyway.

 

Years ago, after Autumn and I had our serious talk in my bed, I started finding her dead body in random places. It always looked like she’d choked to death, clawing at her throat, eyes rolled in the back of her head.

 

The first time scared me so bad that I fell down the stairs. I screamed, covering my head before my arms smashed into the marble floor at the bottom. Each step felt like getting smashed directly on the bone by a hammer, my skin and flesh barely blocking anything. It was only from halfway down. I laid on the floor and cursed whoever invented stairs that weren’t made out of pillows. When I looked over to see Autumn’s twisted body on the hard marble, up close and still, I couldn’t scream for the life of me.

 

“Momma…” I choked, actually choked, on my cry for help. I struggled to my feet and started to run back upstairs. Lou walked down in a bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a towel. Hun, the girl looked like I was on the verge of bothering her before I even opened my mouth.

 

“Louetta, she’s dead! She- she’s dead, she fell I think.” My legs kept giving out, and I nearly pulled her towel down with me. Lou sucked her teeth.

 

“You’ll mess up my hair! Damn. She’s probably practicing for the tank or whatever, shut up!” She kept going, pulling the towel off anyway, and hey, her hair did look nice. She leaned over Autumn, the towel covering her fingers, and dug into her mouth. A big glob of black gunk eased out, slick with spit. I could smell it from upstairs. Sighing, Lou left the towel and the gunk on the floor.

 

She disappeared into the kitchen and I heard her wash her hands. I just watched, hoping Autumn would get up. She didn’t move, didn’t even gag. When my sister came back she had a glass of juice and a bored expression. Her loud sips unnerved me somehow.

 

Lou!”

 

“She’s not dead, ugh, calm down. Sweetie, she does it all the time on the other side of the house. Daddy must’ve said no to something, or maybe he got annoyed and put her over here. Or maybe she’s just getting ready for that thing she has to do, I don’t know. Give her a second, she’ll wake up.” We waited, and I held my breath. Even with the story about the girl, the one she’d told me about the girl in Anity, I didn’t trust that black blob to save her. The way she twisted up, it couldn’t.

 

Autumn sucked in a deep breath, jerking upwards, her eyes popping open. Lou patted my shoulder. The smile on her face was smug enough to smother me. I watched as Autumn coughed up a tiny black replica of her lung, shivering, spitting into her hand over and over.

 

“Okay, I see. You need stomach acid to make a coat. She’s just making another batch.”

 

How do you know about that? I wondered, but I didn’t want to sound stupid. Autumn looked upstairs at us, face red, body shivering, and tried a pretty smile. We were beyond the days of her cartwheeling in front of the mailbox. I felt a sinking feeling watching her down there.

 

“Noah. If there was a way I could protect you from the fate of your sisters, but it would make me a monster… would you forgive me?”

 

It wasn’t cartwheeling, no. But when it came down to me and Lou, Autumn always wanted attention. It would only get worse, and the monster she mentioned would only get bolder.

 

 

Things progressed quickly in the wrong direction, and maybe it was an age thing. Maybe it was because I left the house more often. I don’t know what set it off, but everything I learned in the short time I’d been a real person unraveled.

 

I was working at the Compound when they brought Osh in. I told Lou about him at home, letting her powder my face, and she was instantly interested.

 

“Wait, like, how ugly are we talking?”

 

“Dude is a monster,” I said, mimicking Lou’s word choices. There was no one at school that would talk to me long enough to leave an impression. I listened to Lou like AI and soaked everything up, adapting a ‘dude’ or a ‘bitch’ or a ‘sweetie’ left and right. I snatched some things from Autumn as well. At school, I just cowered in the hall, then in class, then in the bathroom for lunch, etc. There was nothing to pick up but Shaken Kid Syndrome. There wasn’t any bullying, I just didn’t exist to anyone.

 

It was being in the house, but worse.

 

“So is he working with Bylas and that girl?”

 

“I didn’t get all that, but it seemed like he was gonna work with me.” Lou patted her beauty blender along my face, concentrating. When my door opened I figured it was Autumn, but it was my father who cleared his throat. The blender hit the front of my shirt when Lou stood up in shock.

 

My daddy stood there for a while, his face red, and looked around the room. Am I allowed to kick him out? Can I tell him to close the door? He’d never actually visited us without a specific reason, and maybe he had one. Whatever it was stuck in him. He opened his mouth, closed it, then cleared his throat again.

 

“Louella, I-”

 

“Louetta,” Lou said with a polite smile, waiting for him to finish. The red on his face deepened and spread down to his neck, his small eyes closing in embarrassment.

 

“I’m sorry. Can I speak with you in private, Louetta?” She nodded, hiding her surprise in a hair flip. When she walked forward he stopped her, blushing harder.

 

“I’m sorry … I’m sorry. I meant you. The other one. Reese.”

 

“Noah?” Lou asked, and she raised her eyebrows at me. I started to stand up but he moved forward, filling out the door.

 

“No I … not Noah. I want to speak with Reese.” He leaned over, too close to my face, and touched my hair. I moved his hand as gently as I could. “The one with the red hair. I know what the hell I’m talking about.”

 

“Su- sure, Daddy.” Lou held my shoulder and the fear in her leaked right into me. You never notice how big someone is until they’re towering over you. The giant was wider and taller and just trumping us in every physical department. Daddy let out a frustrated growl and stomped his foot down like a toddler.

 

“Nevermind! Why am I even trying? Where’s your sister?” We both stared.

 

“Which one-”

 

“YOUR FUCKING ONLY OTHER SISTER! ARE YOU ALL STUPID?” I jumped up and grabbed Lou, pulling her back towards my window. He didn’t move any further into the room, catching himself, but I backed us all the way up anyway. We heard Autumn’s voice in the hallway, firm and cheerful as usual, but he ignored her. He glared at me standing in front of Lou like a shield.

 

“I’m not the bad guy! Why are you afraid of me?”

 

“Lawrence,” Autumn said louder, and I thought he would hit her when he turned around. They spoke in angry whispers until he stomped off down the hall. Lou cried softly behind me, holding on to my shoulders, bent down with her face pressed against my back.

 

Autumn glanced into the room.

 

“Relax.” She was dressed up, and I realized my father had been as well. Maybe he’s drunk? I breathed when I saw her, relieved, but Lou shot up, sucking down a sob.

 

“You think this is okay? Do you actually think this is okay? Huh?”

 

“Are you hurt?”

 

“What does that matter? We’re terrified,” Lou screamed, gripping my shoulders harder.

 

“Terrified isn’t hurt.” The blank, uninterested way she said it struck me as odd. Since when was terrified okay? Since when was she above defending us for any little thing? Lou pushed around me, pointing at Autumn and trying her best to look menacing.

 

“You’d better do something, you’d better start doing something! Or I’ll tell Bylas to kill him! I’ll tell Yenna, or- or Tracia, I don’t care who. You better do something!”

 

Who the hell is Tracia?

 

Autumn didn’t react. I expected her to calm and comfort Lou, but she stared at us. After a long moment her face scrunched up, and she roared. It was a laugh straight from the belly, damn near a guffaw, and it was definitely an ‘at you’ laugh.

 

“Okay, honey! You can’t even get Bylas to pay attention to you. Be a woman, do the honors. Kill the bastard yourself.” She laughed to herself all the way back down the hall, her heels clicking loudly. Lou walked around me and fell onto my bed, sobbing. I just stood there, shocked.

 

I’d never seen her act like that before. It wasn’t that long after our talk, and I hadn’t been expecting an instant change. Her behavior towards Lou would get worse and worse. We could hear Autumn laughing all the wall across, and it didn’t stop until I slammed my door shut.

 

My introduction to Astor, and to my own background, was messy.

 

A few months after my mother knelt beside my bed with her heavy decision, Mr. David showed up at my house. It was after 11 pm, the sky full of stars and clouds, and my daddy wasn’t happy. He wasn’t shy about showing it. He stood with his arm wrapped around the door, his body blocking the inside of the house like some type of rock monster. It was another one of those times where he looked big and imposing.

 

Mr. David stood outside, but he let his foot swing around in the doorway. I didn’t think my dad had the nerve to close it. I was staring at a rock and a hard place having a conversation, and hun, it wasn’t friendly.

 

“It’s late. What do you need?” My father stood a long time before he even said that, the outline of anger highlighting the mass of his body. Mr. David chuckled.

 

“Not you. Where’s Autumn?” My father cleared his throat, leaning his head down to hide his eyes. There was some sort of bewildered panic in them, and maybe this was his version of jealousy. He looked grumpy.

 

“Autumn is working. You and your friend Yenna had an eventful week. Some of us have to deal with the downfall of your success.” Mr. David chuckled again, rubbing his neck.

 

Your friend more than mine, last time I checked. Unless you kind folks are releasing me?” My dad fixed his face quickly, glancing over at me. I was in the living room, notepad in my hand. Writing down lecture notes. I pretended to fiddle with his audio recorder.

 

Mr. David continued, “I’m not here to steal Autumn. There’s always time for that later, Red. I wanted to have a little chat about the kid you might be fostering.” My father looked surprised, and then angry.

 

“I already said I needed more time to think. Autumn has already voiced her protest all over the house in the usual way. Was this your idea? Wrecking her mental health again? Putting my daughters in danger?” Mr. David shrugged, glancing over at me.

 

“Just your daughters? You have your own daughters left, Lawrence? Next you’ll tell me you still have that old fiance of yours hidden somewhere.” There was a long enough pause to make me fumble over the recorder. Mr. David smiled, winking. My father wasn’t reacting, but his frozen position in the door was all hurt. It was like the words punctured him, leaving him stuck waiting for the air to finish going out of him. There was no sound until his hand squeezed the door frame.

 

It took a moment, and then Mr. David’s smile waivered. My father just stood there, his breathing slow and steady, and finally Mr. David looked ashamed.

 

“That was uncalled for, I shouldn’t have said it,” Mr. David whispered, pinching the bridge of his nose. His voice tried to return to its bored and husky tone. The shame in it wasn’t supposed to be noticeable. “It’s your fault the girl is homeless, isn’t it? Someone was helping Jamie with his little sea project.” My father’s neck, arms, and face turned bright red. He was still stunned in place, but he at least opened his mouth to talk. It closed after a minute, and Mr. David finally looked genuinely sorry.

 

What the hell was that?

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“Hope you didn’t cash the check for the kids is all I’ll say …” He stopped himself, closing his eyes in frustration. “I’m just being difficult, Lawrence. I’m not judging you. I know it’s hard with everything you’ve had to give up. You-” There was a huff, and then my dad finally moved out of the door. When they went downstairs to find my mom, my dad moving like he’d been completely drained, I ran upstairs and across the house. I bounced around my room in excitement.

 

It’s happening! She’s coming!

 

I watched out the window for hours waiting for Mr. David to leave. When he finally sauntered to the gate, no car in sight, I burst into shrieks of joy. I waited until I thought my father was asleep to sneak into Lou’s room and shake her awake.

 

“What? I have school in the morning, fuck, leave me alone.” Something in her voice bothered me, so I flicked on the light and got a better look. Before she could cover her face with her hair, I got a glimpse at her wet cheeks. The pillow was soaked under her, and everything from her arms to her neck drowned in bright red. It always happened when she cried.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” She pushed herself up and fixed her hair, shame reddening her face even more. “Noah. Be honest with me. Am I attractive? Would you date me if you weren’t like, my sister? Like, if you were a guy?”

 

If I was Bylas…

 

“Hun, you’re the prettiest girl in the world. Who has hair like you? Lips like you? Who gets dressed like you? You think boys and girls stare at you because you’re ugly? You’re gorgeous!” The warmth of her smile ran through her face, highlighting different spots before it settled on her lips. She fluffed her hair out and did a little pose on her bed.

 

“Better than that Devil girl? You mean that?”

 

Hunnnn! You’re a bombshell, I wish I looked half as good as you do at your worst. Bylas acts so stupid because you’re too pretty, he gets nervous. But look, sleep in my bed. I need to see Momma. Daddy’s definitely gonna check tonight, he already saw me downstairs.”

 

“Oh, okay. Be back before morning. If I get a whooping because of you, I’m throwing you out the window.” She rolled out of bed and slumped out of her room, a small smile on her face.

 

It was late. They’d been talking for hours, deep into the night, and the only sounds from outside were crickets. I was getting too big to hide under certain things, but was still small enough to move around in silence. I’d taken to sneaking at certain times of the day so I could rely on speed over stealth.

 

Downstairs, the lab door was open. Shrill and ugly screaming tore out of the basement. I slowed down, crouching and hiding behind the couch. I tried to hear better, tried to listen, but all I could hear were sobs and choking.

 

What should I do, shoot, shoot, shoot, what should I do?

 

Tiana walked by, glancing at the door. I expected her to keep walking, but she stopped, steadying herself. She looked around.

 

A weapon. Duh! Of course! Find something.

 

There was no doubt that the high screams were coming from my mom. I slid from behind the couch and Tiana jumped.

 

“What’s he doing to her?”

 

“I don’t know. This is new. I’ve never- He’s never hit her before, Noah. I don’t know!” Daynah stormed by us, a long kitchen knife in her hand, and we rushed behind her into the basement. At the last minute, Tiana ran back upstairs, terrified.

 

Daynah grabbed my hand so I wouldn’t do the same, but I would never.

 

Autumn was on the floor, thick black liquid covering her. She was soaked in it, black dripping down her face, glass stuck in her hair. My father grabbed handfuls of vials off of her shelf and smashed them, turning to throw them at her, kicking into them. Thinking of the years she’d spent building that blood up, my heart sank. I rushed over to protect her and she screamed, sucking in horrified breaths.

 

“DON’T TOUCH ME! DON’T TOUCH ME! IT’S DAVID’S! IT’S UNDILUTED! STAY AWAY!” I jumped back.

 

“Mom, oh no!” Daynah whimpered. The smell of the blood hit me and I gagged. It dripped off of her like tar, splattering against the ground.

 

“Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare take her side! Why is that white-haired piece of shit coming to my house? Why is he winking at my daughter? Are you FUCKING him again?”

 

“No- No! I- I’m terrified of him, Lawrence, I wouldn’t! Please-” My dad threw another vial in front of her and she gagged.

 

“Do you see how much of his fucking BLOOD she has? Huh? How many fucking vials is that? You should’ve STAYED with him, you could’ve drawn his blood forever. I didn’t want to deal with these issues! I made the best of it! I didn’t want to marry you! I’m not sick! And now what? Bring MORE sickness into my house? More? Am I supposed to be stuck here doing this SHIT forever? I WANT TO GO HOME!” He ripped a paper from his pocket, almost breaking it in half.

 

“What is she asking you here, huh? Ready for what? Ready for WHAT? You said you hadn’t heard from Alicia in years. You said you were done with her. Who sent this letter then, huh? You have that monster in my door taunting me in front of my child! You want her to hate me, you want her to blame me for all of this. Why?”

 

“She- she won’t kn- know ab- ab- ab-”

 

“Do you know what that girl IS, Lou? Huh? Did she tell you about the PEOPLE Alicia’s daughter killed on the street? Did she tell you how that boy helped kill his guardians?” He ripped another vial from the freezer, smashing it on the floor.

 

“I’m not Lou, you idiot. I’m NOAH!”

 

“NOAH, LOU, REESE, WHO CARES? YOU ALL DIE! THERE’S ALWAYS MORE! AM I SUPPOSED TO REMEMBER ALL OF YOU?” He smashed more vials, screaming girl names at the top of his lungs.

 

“INGRID, ASTLEY, JANA, AMANDA, TIANA, RIDLEY, GLORIA, SARIAH, ON AND ON AND FUCKING ON!” I felt my size right then. Small. Tiny. Scared. Daynah was longer, but she was still just a skinny girl. I wanted Astley. I wanted Astley to come home and kick his ass. She could do it, I knew she could. He didn’t act like that when she was there.

           

“Lawrence. Please. Let me go … and wash this … off. Please. Before it’s too late. Please.” The black gunk seeped into her skin. I rushed upstairs, tripping up every other step, nearly falling back down. There was a bucket in the corner, and I filled it, listening to him yell. When I got back, my father was still breathing heavy, but he’d sat down in the door of the freezer. He glared at her, barely pulling in air around his rage. I poured the water over her head and arms, and she gave me a thankful look. Daynah grabbed the bucket from me and ran over to the lab sink.

 

“Tell them about the monster you invited into our house,” my dad huffed, barely enough energy left. “Tell them! Tell them about the FOSTER FAMILY Astor just got done BURNING to DEATH! Tell them about that criminal David is fostering that you’re letting WORK at The Compound! Tell them about the fucking boy Osh buried alive for her, or the one he beat to death with his bare hands. Tell them what happened when Mr. David tried to get her from the foster home? They’re brainwashed just like you are! She trained them to hate everyone Yenna works with. They’ll kill us!”

 

Daynah stepped forward, trembling. “Dad. It doesn’t matter. It’s fine.”

 

“Don’t call me Dad. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of all this pretending. You don’t call me that. My real kids can call me that, but I don’t want to hear that from you fucking husks.” Daynah snapped up. Autumn spit blood out of her mouth, whining, but Daynah held the bucket in her hands. Frozen.

 

“I accept you, Autumn. I accept you, and I married you even though I thought it was sick. I still think it’s sick, but I did it. I lost everything to save you. And I get blamed for everything, and you prance around telling stories and fucking our lives up. I had a life before this madness. A family I loved. Do these girls know what you’re really doing with them? Huh? Why don’t you make them hate you, too, so I don’t have to take the brunt of it? I lost everything for you. Everything. You’re mine because I gave you everything! NOT DAVID’S, not the husks, MINE and YOUR GIRLS! Or you talk to your- your Hybrid and you convince them to let me go home. You let me go home, and you deal with the consequences yourself.” He turned to me, damn near whimpering.

“She’s been trying to block me from selling Reese for years, but I never would’ve. I- I would’ve considered, sure, but I wouldn’t go through with it. You’re my baby, Reese. No- Noah. Noah, I mean. I protected you from her. I PROTECT you! You should be proud to call me Dad. Do you want to know what happened, Noah? Do you want to know why your mother can’t be alone with you? Do you want to hear about Alicia, and the failsafes, and-”

 

“Lawrence.” Something in my mother’s voice stopped him, and his face instantly softened. He put his hand on his forehead, embarrassed. Autumn shook, staring wide-eyed at the ground, hair matted to the sides of her face.

 

“I’ll tell you, Noah. Lawrence, you don’t have to tell her. I’ll tell her.”

 

“I wasn’t… I wasn’t going to,” he muttered. “I got carried away. I’m sorry. Just … David at the door, he just- I do love you now. I learned to love you. You don’t have to feel unloved. I mean that.” Daynah poured more water over Autumn’s head and arms. Then she threw the bucket down, cracking it, and stormed upstairs. Autumn sat there on her knees, soaked and shivering. I wanted to cry at her humiliation, at the way her eyes squeezed shut and she sobbed.

 

I expected my mother to ask me if I wanted to hear a story. To wipe her face and get up, calm, and tell me whatever truth there was. She didn’t. Her mouth opened, and she started to talk, but she closed it. She looked up at me, ashamed, and then shrank back on the floor. There were no more screams. Now she just sobbed, hugging herself.

 

It’s hard to explain how quickly things started changing. There was no buffer. Once my mother said the name Astor, once Lawrence mentioned Alicia, once she told me to play dumb, it was like a veil burned away. It was like a light switch, and even the mere thought of Astor destroyed everyone’s will to lie to me.

 

Or to themselves.

 

Autumn was dealing with something, and that was clear at all times. It was especially clear in the gap between when she brought up Astor, and when Astor actually arrived.

 

After the screaming fit from my dad, I started waking up to Autumn beside my bed every night. Most times she sat on her knees on the floor, head resting on her arms. My dad didn’t come to get her. Nobody came to sit with us and make sure I stayed protected from whatever she was going to do. She wouldn’t speak sometimes, watching me, running her hands through my hair. I finally got weirded out enough to ask her what she wanted.

 

Autumn was uncharacteristically red in the face, head wobbling a bit, and every time she tried to get up, she wobbled back down. It was the night of some award ceremony, some big scientific peace prize. I’d gotten praise from teachers at school for having such a brilliant mother. For coming from such an accomplished family. She didn’t tell me anything about it. She hadn’t taken off her jewelry but her stockings sat balled up in her hand.

 

“Your father keeps kissing me. It’s disgusting. He’s supposed to be my husband, not my lover. I hate him touching me.” I, about three weeks from being a 14-year-old at the time, nodded as if I understood.

 

“Do you want to sleep in here?” She smiled, nodding so slightly that I almost didn’t catch it. I moved over so she could join me under the covers. I pet her hair until she completely relaxed, almost snoring.

 

“Thank you, Reese.” The name stuck in my ears like needles. It really drove through me, right to my brain. I almost couldn’t comprehend it.

 

“Momma? I’m Noah.”

 

“My Noah. My own Noah. Nobody can take you from me. Of course, you’re not Reese. I’m so sorry, I’ve been drinking.” She leaned up and kissed my forehead, but it felt cold and false. “You’re almost to that age, Noah. Everything will change, you won’t be so sweet and understanding. Lou already outgrew me. It’s not the same anymore. She’s too feminine, too shallow, too stupid. She’s so worried about that boy. Astley outgrew me a long time ago, out there murdering and- and- whatever else Tracia has her doing.” She huffed, squeezing me. “You all outgrow me.”

 

            Tracia. There it goes again.

 

I opened my mouth to ask about Tracia, then closed it.

 

“I’ll never be too old for you,” I whispered, trying not to let my voice shake. She let her nails dig into my back, pulling me closer.

 

“It’s all design, honey. You will. It’s design. You have to let them grow if you love them, but they don’t love you if you let them grow. It’s design, it’s design, it’s design.” We were quiet while I tried to understand her. The sound of her heart felt like it was coming from me, and for a moment I wondered.

 

Autumn pinched my back. “What would you do to save me? Would you do anything? Are you like your sisters, whimpering and scampering to find peace, or are you like my Yenna? Would you kill for me?” I stopped listening to her heartbeat, trying to see her better in the dark.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Not that Yenna. That imposter. That creature. The real Yenna, the real thing, the Devil. I know she’s still in there somewhere. She even still smells like her, even after the water. I remember how she smelled, how she smiled. It’s still her. The real Yenna started an entire war to save me, did you know that? She started a war on land and in the sea. Just to rescue me, some little nothing in Anity. Who could ever love me like that? Yenna destroyed for me. But would she love me? No, no one can do that for long. She said I was just a vapid child, that I had to get over it. I would’ve saved her, honey, I wouldn’t have let that happen to her body. To her child. She didn’t deserve-” She sucked in a deep breath, gripping my hand.

 

Try not to think about what you deserve, right? Alicia, the profound. She always thought she was so smart. She always thinks she is. Lord, she might be, she really might be. Didn’t she trick me into this nightmare? The bitch.”

 

“Mom-” She slid her hand over my mouth and pressed her chin against my forehead.

 

“They keep saving me. So much debt. Lawrence saved me and he didn’t even love me. Would you save me, Noah? Even though you don’t love me?” A light went on in the hallway and we both held our breath. Lou stumbled into the door, steadied herself, then kept going to her room. I knew it was her from the loud “Fucking hell,” that rang out, and Autumn sighed in disappointment.

 

“Everyone wants to date. Everyone wants to fall for someone. Everyone wants to get married. Who cares?” I pulled her hand away from my mouth, sucking in a deep breath. She smelled new, sharp. She didn’t feel like my mother, didn’t feel like the Autumn I knew and loved.

 

“Why did you marry him, Momma? You don’t like him. Nobody likes him.” She sighed,  the smell thick on her breath. It took forever for her to wrench one eye open and look at me in the dim room, the light from the hall making her ghoulish.

 

“He didn’t want to marry me. He just wanted to save my life, they all just wanted to save me. I owe everyone so much, I just keep having to give and give. Do you want to hear a story? About a boring man who was forced to marry a teenager?”

 

“Not really.” She popped my head.

 

“There was some idiot girl one time, and she was in love with an older woman. The woman was so powerful, no one could stop her. She started an entire war between two ally countries for the girl, she really did-”

 

“Why don’t you just say it was you? I already get it. The stories are always about you.”

 

“I don’t want to be me. I never want to be me. I’m a stupid woman who can’t fend for herself, someone always saves me. Don’t outgrow my stories, Noah. Please shut up and listen.” She rocked backward a little, and I moved to help her lean over the side of the bed in case she threw up. The ceiling was the most important thing in the room to her suddenly. She traced the outline of the ceiling light with her limp fingers. The entirety of her body felt like a soaked pillow.

 

“The girl … I was standing outside in downtown Chastain one day, homeless and scared, when I heard it. Someone said Cora Free was performing that night, and that it was free of charge. A birthday show. I killed the man I’d been forced to marry just like my mother and Yenna told me to, and now I was stuck in Virginia Steeps. I didn’t know anyone here, honey, and it was scary. First time in my life in a different country and I was homeless.

 

“I was able to get in contact with my mother by a stranger’s phone after wandering the streets for almost a month. Terrible things could’ve happened, but I stayed safe somehow. My mother told me to find that woman that saved my life in the first place, the one that gave her the Hybrid blood. Yenna, obviously. The real Yenna. Back before she got consumed.

 

“It was hard. My mother had an idea of where Yenna might live, but she didn’t know the address, and she didn’t have a phone number. She told me that the woman’s foster mother was a jazz singer named Cora Free. Honey, Cora was loved in Virginia Steeps. Hearing her name again from that stranger was like the divines stepping in.

 

“So, I stalked the club that Cora was supposed to perform at, staying in Chastain for the night. I’ve always hated the city, even in Anity. This was a long time ago. There weren’t as many buildings, but it was still thick with people. I was able to sneak in; being small had its perks. Cora was so beautiful, and she had the loveliest singing voice. You should’ve seen her perform, the way she worked that crowd. There was this little number where she pulled her dress up higher and higher depending on if random men in the audience could guess her age. The closer they got, the higher she raised her skirts. It was a riot. She looked so caring and nurturing. After the show, I snuck backstage to her dressing room to speak with her.”

 

I pulled my mom back up, pulling the blanket up to her face. She nuzzled into it.

 

“Okay? What did Cora say?”

 

“It was terrible. She was hostile almost immediately. She didn’t want any more attention, and she didn’t want to deal with people like me. That’s what she kept saying. ‘People like you.’ When I was older and wiser, I realized that she was a Devil, and she didn’t want to deal with humans. That’s not uncommon.

 

“Either way, I had no other options. I pleaded until I was blue in the face, and she finally relented. At this point in time, she was doing ‘voluntary’ experiments with Eon Tech, and she put me in contact with them. I wondered for a long time why Yenna didn’t show up to help. Why she wasn’t there. It turned out she was still in Anity, still on her vacation.

 

“When I got home, things were fine for a while, and the Shadows had no idea I was back. It felt like no one cared that my husband was dead, which was surprising after what originally happened. We rebuilt our lives. My mother struggled with my father being in jail, but we made the best of it. I had eight brothers to help around the house. It was as peaceful as my life would ever be again.

 

“One day, someone pounded on our door, and then we heard this wet sliding noise. It was Yenna, and she was hurt badly, and there was so much screaming outside. So much water and thunder and fire. Yenna told my mother that she was too hurt to save us both, but that the Shadows were after me. Honey, I was confused. My mother knew a little more, but I didn’t get it. They still wanted revenge for the man I’d married and killed.

 

“Turns out, tada! The creep that married me, that tried to hurt me, he wasn’t just a Shadow. He wasn’t just some inhuman thing. He was the only child that the Second in Command, that creature, was able to produce on her own, that lived. I’d murdered someone important to the survival of an entire species. It was interesting – the man my father killed wasn’t her kid, he was her brother. I learned a lot about how Shadows handle bodies. They were going to drain me and use me as a body, that was all he wanted me for.  He wasn’t trying to kiss me on our wedding night. He was trying to empty me. My luck was just that bad.

 

“The Second in Command wanted me as repayment. The Shadows attacked my city in Anity, and hundreds of people died. All my brothers were slaughtered. You should’ve seen them snatching people and drowning them, throwing them through the air, dissolving them. The smell, the sounds, everything … it was …” Autumn sobbed, and she pushed me away when I tried to comfort her.

 

“Momma-”

 

“Yenna held me in a closet while the Shadows killed my mother. They melted her limb by limb, taunting her. I got to listen to her screaming for them to just take me. To just find me and kill me instead. Yenna covered my ears after a while, she was so disgusted at my mother’s weakness. One of the Shadows found us, and Yenna killed him so quickly and quietly that the others never found out. And while wounded! She was so amazing. We escaped while the Second in Command went through other houses, slaughtering everyone. We made our way back to Virginia Steeps. I… I loved her from that day forward. I think about her all the time, even now.

 

“But she couldn’t keep me. She took me to Eon Tech and dropped me off, refusing to let them see her at all. Dropped off on a doorstep like mail, or milk. I was heartbroken, but not angry. I understood what happened when people got close to me or tried to protect me. Eon Tech took good care of me, but my being there caused great political strain. Oh, honey, the Dictator in Anity was furious. The Shadows wouldn’t calm down, I’d disobeyed her and brought a ton of grief twice. Here she was trying to create a diplomatic strategy with sea monsters, and I’d destroyed it. They were so close to war. They wanted me to come back and die like my mother. I was more afraid of the dictator than the creature, honestly. There were stories of how wonderful she was, but there were also stories about how vicious and vile she could be to her enemies. I still don’t know what happened to my father.

 

“A scientist at Eon Tech… figured out a plan to free me from Anity. He was the eldest son of the Dictator, and he … he still had some power, even though he was trying to run away. He was trying to live a new life. His plan was simple, but it worked. He didn’t want to marry me, he’d expected someone else to carry out the plan, but he was the only one important enough. He already had a family that he loved. But Yenna showed up one last time to convince him, and it wasn’t pretty at all. The woman he was with was badly hurt, but they stayed together for years. He couldn’t leave while there were still girls, not really, so he-”

 

I shot up.

 

“Wait … are we talking about Dad? How did marrying him save you? Is he like… a hostage? Is he still a hostage?” Reality finally hit her and she sprang up, too, wide eyes on me.

 

“It’s a story. Don’t be stupid.”

 

“It’s a story about you. Is that true?” She cleared her throat, lifting herself on her heels. The door opened, and my dad stood there with his tired eyes squeezed together like his head hurt.

 

“What are you doing in here?” Autumn looked at my dad, rolled her eyes, and saw herself out. I sat up in my bed, staring at him in shock. He gave me a slight nod, not friendly or unfriendly, and shut the door.

 

Fear doesn’t describe what was building in me. I stayed in my room more and more, sometimes even hiding in my closet when the doorknob turned. There was a shift, an entire shift, and I couldn’t trust any of them.

 

I knew I wasn’t supposed to make it out of that house alive. I knew I wasn’t supposed to make it out of anywhere alive. I was Noah. I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere.

 

Or are you Reese? Why do they keep calling me Reese?

 

Something bad was going to happen to me. I could feel it in my bones, and the feeling sunk in further and further every time I took a breath.

 

Music blasted from Lou’s room, and I smelled the somehow comfortable smell of her hair burning. I crawled out of the closet and snuck next door, tip-toeing through the hallway. When I opened the door Lou was dancing around, singing into a steaming curling iron. She paused every few seconds to curl another section of long black hair.

 

“Oh,” she said when she saw me, talking around a hairpin squeezed between her lips. “Here, curl my hair for me, sweetie.” She sat down and I started, not bothering to voice my acceptance. This was how it was when she was going out with Bylas. We were close when we saw each other, but we barely saw each other.

 

“Lou. Why do you think they separate us from the rest of them? Have you ever asked?” Lou rolled her eyes.

 

“Who cares? It’s not like that anymore.” She kept dancing and I grabbed her, holding her still. I yelled over the music, but she couldn’t hear me. It took another five minutes for her to turn it down.

 

“I said isn’t it, though? We’re still on this side of the house. There are a million empty rooms over there. Daddy doesn’t even bother to learn which of us is which. We look completely different.”

 

Lou stared at me in the vanity mirror for a while, concerned. “Do you really not get it? You know about all those Devils and Shadows, but you don’t pay attention to anything else they’ve been doing?” It was odd hearing her say those words. Lou didn’t know about any of that. I felt like she didn’t, anyway.

 

“Tell me.”

 

“It doesn’t matter to me. I used to care a lot, especially when I first started talking to our ‘sisters’. I used to sit at the table with them and we’d all eat, and it was like a play. That’s the only way to describe it. When I went to their rooms, they didn’t have anything personal. Not really. Like, posters or books. I don’t know how to explain it. Like, Momma and Astley always have these stories about them once they die or get sold, but I never see them leave the house otherwise. You might not notice that because you’re over here all the time, but they don’t go to school or anything. She told me how amazing Amanda was when they killed her, but then we went to Anity to spread her ashes, and like … that’s not what we did.”

 

Lou thought for a moment, taking in my face and hair in the mirror. “Whatever’s gonna happen to us is saved just for us. It has to be worse than being sold or even eaten. Do you really want to find out, Noah? Astley left, but I bet they find her. Do you want to find out what they’re going to do to us, or do you want to get the hell out of here?” It stopped me a little. I finished curling her hair and pulled it up into a ponytail. There was no humor in her expression.

 

“I don’t know. If we don’t know what’s going to happen, how do we escape it?”

 

“It doesn’t matter what happens if we’re not here. We get away from Autumn and Lawrence. That’s it. There’s literally no other way.”

 

“Astley already tried that, and you’re saying she won’t make it. Why is it different for us?”

 

“She tried to run. Momma keeps talking about how she went away to school. I call bullshit. I’m not saying we run. I’m saying we find someone they’re afraid of and stick with them. Bylas is weird and annoying, but I make sure he thinks he’s the most amazing boy on the planet. I’ll do that for the rest of my life if I have to. He knows the right person. You get it?” She mocked slicking her hair back and tapped an imaginary bun, winking.

 

“I don’t think Yenna has better plans, honestly.”

 

“What about Momma’s old friend, Alicia? They’re afraid of her, too. Even Yenna’s afraid of her.”

 

“I don’t know. How am I supposed to find her?None of this helps.”

 

“So. Stay here, sweetie. Turn my music and lights off for me.” Lou kissed my forehead and swept out of the room.

 

There was too much truth in what she said. I couldn’t figure out how to accept it. I still wanted to be wrong. Autumn wasn’t the one I needed to escape, she was the victim here. She watched her daughters die, watched them get sold off. How could she be the bad guy?

 

I was a good liar back then. Probably nowhere near what I would become, but I considered myself convincing. It never occurred to me that Autumn was better. It never occured to me that even her friends were better.

 

I sat in my closet, listening to my door open and close all night. Wondering which monster was looking for me, and then drifting off to sleep.

 

 

Autumn was famous. It wasn’t as apparent before I could leave the house, but when teachers saw me with her, they gasped. When some students saw me, especially the nerdy ones, they whispered. And even still, nobody bothered to talk to me when I was alone.

 

Osh started attending my school, but he was some sort of genius. We were pretty much the same age, but he was at least two grades ahead of me. I only saw him at lunch. He was too busy sulking around, sad about Astor, and if he was there for lunch at all he stayed in his classroom.

 

It was almost worse than the four months I spent alone in that house. At least I had notes from Autumn then. That same boredom and apathy crept in, following me through halls. In the bathrooms sometimes, scared to sit alone surrounded by my peers, I stared in the mirror. I made myself throw up. I turned on all the faucets and stuffed the pipes with toilet tissue. If there were bookbags left in the class, I lit them on fire in the woods behind the school, watching other people’s possessions burn.

 

I wanted to sit in the sun and stare at the sky, maybe read a never-ending action adventure for the rest of my life. I thought about staying at home. Would they even notice if I stopped going to school?

 

When is my supposed ‘forever friend’ getting here?

 

One night, Autumn was getting ready to speak at another award ceremony. I could hear her walking back and forth in the hall, mumbling to herself, preparing to talk to me. She stopped by the door to my kitchen before she headed out.

 

“You look beautiful,” I said, and I meant it. She always wore plain dresses, usually black or some solid color. Her simple gold earrings swung, little teardrops hanging from her ears. Even her heels were modest, a pretty red for extra pop. It was Autumn that made her outfits, her smile that stood out, her walk that was so alluring.

 

I didn’t want to run from her. I wished she wouldn’t make me run.

 

“Thank you. I hate these awards, but they’re better than the openings. They’re always so self-congratulatory. You don’t need an award ceremony and a speech to open a bookstore or an aquarium.” She looked like she wanted to say something. I ignored her, digging around the fridge for the jelly. I placed that down and grabbed the bread from my cabinet.

 

“Speaking of the Aquarium opening. Do you want to come later this week? To hear my speech?”

 

“By myself? I don’t know how to get anywhere but school and home. Do I have a car?” She frowned, running her tongue across her teeth.

 

“We should teach you to drive. I’ll ask your father to take you. Would that be fine?”

 

“Yeah. I’m excited! I bet you’re great at it.” She still stood there, watching me put the bread slices on the counter.

 

“Are we okay, honey? You don’t come see me anymore. Not even with anyone else. Did I do something?”

 

“No. I just-” I wondered if I should ask. Why would she tell me anything?

 

“Just what?” There was just a pinch of malice under her concerned expression.

 

“What happened to that boy? The one Yenna brought in?” I chickened out, tired of holding the words in my chest. Her expression said that this question wasn’t much better. Her eye sockets were tested beyond belief when her eyes widened, then widened some more, then squinted.

 

“He’s awake. With everything going on with Bylas, I think their mother wants a backup.”

 

“Backup for what?” She looked around, smiling, testing her cheekbones.

 

“I have to get to the ceremony. I hate these things-”

 

“Just say one thing to me. Tell me one thing. Please. I just want to feel like I know one thing.” I talked to the bread, but I rested my hands on the counter. Autumn tapped her fingers against it, clicking her teeth.

 

Leviathan. That’s all. One word.” She smiled and patted my head. “One word for your pretty little brain.”

 

“Am I a husk?” She looked surprised, leaving her hand on my head. I moved it.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Daddy called Daynah a husk, and- and he said he didn’t want husks calling him Dad. Wh- where’s Astley? Am I Reese, like a clone or something? What did you do when you were in Anity? Who is Tracia? It’s not just one word for my pretty little brain. You owe me paragraphs and sentences. You owe me books.”

 

She blinked, but I couldn’t tell what she felt.

 

“What about Daddy? Is he your hostage? Is he a prisoner?”

 

“You want to know? Are you sure?” She watched me, intense, and I didn’t hesitate.

 

“Yes.” Autumn nodded, watching me put my sandwich together. She took it, turned, and left. I listened to her head out, chewing my fucking sandwich, not bothering to get annoyed. What was the point? What was the point in caring about anything? I put more bread on the counter, biting my lip too hard, and tried to keep from screaming. Flat footsteps stomped down the stairs after hers went up. I wanted to become the bread, to somehow transform into any inanimate object.

 

Now they won’t leave me alone.

 

My dad appeared in the doorway, a stupid smile on his face. It almost looked human.

 

“I agreed to let the Free girl stay here. Why don’t you help me draw her blood? We can’t have her at the Compound. We can do it here, where you’ll both be comfortable. She’ll need it done often, and maybe it’ll help if you learn to do it yourself. It’s for her condition.”

 

“Okay?”

 

He hugged me, stiff and awkward and so damn weird.

 

“I…” He rubbed his neck until it was dark red. “Autumn is having a speech at the Chastain Aquarium opening soon. Someone is going to drive you to the speech for me. He’ll be here at 3 pm on Sunday, so be ready. If you want to take a detour, you can. I’m giving you permission. Whether you tell your mother or not is up to you.”

 

“Did she like, just tell you that she wanted me to go to that?” He gave me an exasperated hand wave, lowering his voice.

 

“On the way up the stairs, she said she needed me to give you a ride to her speech later this week. I’m telling you that someone else will take you, and you should take a detour with them.”

 

I watched him carefully. The man was sweating, really trying to hurry through to his point.

 

“It might be good to take a detour, Noah… I mean, Louella. Louetta? Reese… ” He paused, squinting. He stared at my hair for a while, then my eyes. “Noah. A woman might talk to you. It took a lot of work for me to get in touch with this woman. I- I might have put myself in danger for you. Please remember that I did this when she tells you the truth, okay? Be smart about what she says. She is loyal to your mother, and she might not seem like it, but she is willing to lie. But she promised me she would tell you everything.”

 

“So is she going to lie or not? Are you kidding?” He squeezed my shoulder and rushed away. I tried to follow after him but couldn’t even move my body.

 

I had to get out of there.

 

 

I woke up to Lou staring at me, a tense look on her face. She held her hand out, breathing hard.

 

“You asked me what’s going on. Do you really want to know?” Lou asked, and her face told me I didn’t. I pressed on anyway.

 

“Duh. Why wouldn’t I? Please, I knew you knew something, tell me!” She nodded, contemplating her next actions. A look of frustration crossed her face, then defeat.

 

“Come on. I’ll show you then. They’re out somewhere.” Lou pulled her hair into a tight ponytail and pulled me through the room, then the hall. We walked through the big door, down the stairs, and all the way down to Autumn’s lab. Lou didn’t try to hide, she didn’t sneak, she didn’t do anything. It was quiet, but I sweat at the thought of someone walking out and catching us in Autumn’s lab.

 

She opened Autumn’s blood freezer and pointed to a small square cut into the ground.

 

“I was sneaking around the other day. Sometimes I stand in here and go through all the labels. It’s amazing how many people have given her their blood. If that’s even the case.” Lou hesitated, looking at the little square. “I won’t like, I’ve been looking for something in this damn house since we came back from Anity. Something Tracia told me about, but I thought she was full of shit-“

 

“Who is Tracia?”

 

Lou sucked her teeth. “Listen! I’ve been looking and looking and couldn’t find it. And then I noticed this was different from the rest of the floor, and I pulled it up.” She motioned for me to try. There was a little space for fingers, just a small dip in the ground, and I pushed my hand under. It was metal, heavy as hell, and it took all my strength to raise it and push it up and open. Lou didn’t help at all, just watched me struggle to get the door up. A wave of fresh air, chemical-fresh, hit me. It was a medical-grade fresh.

 

Blue lights lined a set of wood stairs all the way down into complete darkness.

 

“Go ahead,” she whispered. I hesitated.

 

“What’s down there?”

 

“Just go.”

 

I stepped in, ducking under the floor. There were lights lining the ceiling, but they were all dimmed. At the bottom, a small lightswitch sat on the wall next to another line of fluorescent blue. I flicked it on. It looked normal in the little section I was in. A bunch of metal stainless steel shelves lined the walls. I turned the corner into the big center room and stopped.

 

The air knocked out of me.

 

“Keep going,” Lou said, and I realized she was still at the top of the steps. I walked in further, mouth open. There was a long mirror that lined the entire wall, and in it I could see all the girls.

 

All the girls. At least over 30 girls in neat rows. I took a second to count and came back with 42.

 

They were sitting on their knees on the ground, hands in their laps. Each one had their head down, hair flung forward, except the six in the front. There were rows of them, around seven rows of six girls each. Each row was a different shade of light-skinned teen, all the way down to the last one that matched Autumn’s caramel color. The first row was as light as my father, their skin red and blotchy like his got sometimes. Each girl in the front row had a different hairstyle, but the rest just matched the front girl of their respective line.

 

I walked over to them, mouth still open, and a row was plump and dainty like Tiana. One row was lined with long and regal girls like Daynah, same signature hairstyle, same birthmark. A lot of them were only familiar in certain features. My mother’s nose, my father’s lips, my mother’s eyes, but weren’t any sisters I recognized. They all looked normal, like a bunch of girls knelt down to pray.

 

“Hey, Daynah!” Lou called, and the entire row looked up at me, some of them arching up off the floor.

 

“Hm?” They all said, and I screamed so loud I heard the hatch close upstairs. I panicked, turning around, smashing into the wall. The girls all made the sound again, one of them moving to stand, and I screamed again. And again.

 

“Noah?” The Tiana’s all said at the same time.

 

The Daynah’s looked up, annoyed. “Can you calm down?”

 

 I screamed again, slipping to the floor. Two more looked up. They were both a long gone sister that I couldn’t remember until she smiled, confused, trying to comfort me.

 

Amanda. Amanda, Amanda, that’s Amanda.

 

“Sorry to bot- bother- bother- you. Sorry.” I said. They all nodded and got back into their positions, staring at the floor.

 

“Stop screaming so much,” the Daynahs said, annoyed. I nodded and backed away, hitting a shelf. I flicked the light off and crawled back up the steps, shocked quiet, and then I let out another scream. One of the Tianas stood behind me, hand on the railing, confused.

 

“It’s dark. I hate the dark. Where are you going?”

 

Lou finally opened the door and stepped down on the first step.

 

“Shut up, you idiot! They just got home. Do you want her to come down here and do this shit to us?” I scrambled up the stairs, my eyes tearing up, everything so blurry that I ran into Lou again. She leaned into the hatch and smiled.

 

“Teetee, go ahead and go back to sleep, okay? It’s not time for school yet.” Tiana nodded, smiling sweetly, and walked back over to the rows of girls. Lou closed the hatch silently, then dragged me away from the lab and planted me at the kitchen table, going back to make sure everything was in place.

 

“Are those… are they?” Lou kept her face straight and grabbed my hand, pulling me back through the hallway. Autumn stood in the big door, back to us. We slowed down, and at the last minute we ducked into my dad’s office.

 

“Just let her look for us for a minute. We’ll be in here a while. She seems to think you can fit in every fucking small crack in the room.” I finally closed my mouth.

 

“What are they?”

 

“Husks. That’s what she told me, anyway. She caught me. I thought she was going to empty my brain or something, she looked so angry. I don’t think she likes me now. She said I outgrew her. She’s been acting so fucking weird these last few weeks.” Lou let out a long breath. Autumn screeched in frustration across the hall. Lou’s music echoed through the hallway, and then we heard a loud bang in the foyer. The music faltered, then fizzled out.

 

“She’s throwing my stuff now.” Lou laughed a little, the darkness emphasizing the defeat in her face. She looked drained. Tired. I held her tight, shivering.

 

“Are they-”

 

“They’re your sisters. I found Tiana, Daynah, all of them. I bet there are usually more. I didn’t find me or you, though. Or Astley, and I looked really hard.”

 

“May- maybe Astley is dead.” She rolled her eyes.

 

“Of course she is. I bet she’s been dead for months. I bet Momma makes those weird dolls and replaces them. Like aliens or something. It’s not just those, they’re all like, monsters. Bylas showed me this thing where he can like, take over humans. Like, he melts and takes over their body. Into a fucking liquid, Noah, like … he’s like oil. I tried to run away and like, I got all the way to Lostine and then a bunch of fucking guys grabbed me and knocked me out. I woke up in my room. They’re all a bunch of monsters, Noah. We have to get out of here.” There was another crash, and this time Autumn stormed by the door, growling to herself. Lou trembled.

 

“We’ll get out. We’ll definitely get out. We can’t leave Astley, though. Even if there’s a chance she’s alive.” She nodded, closing her eyes at another crash.

 

We were in the office until my dad walked in, switching on the lights, sifting through papers in one hand with a coffee in the other. He didn’t notice us cuddled up by his door. We both watched him, wide-eyed, until he sat at his desk, taking a sip of his drink. We stayed like that until he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. It looked like he would sigh himself into the ceiling when another loud crash came from the foyer.

 

“Just fucking kill them, already.” He muttered, and when I gasped he looked up. We all froze.

 

“Autumn, they’re in here,” he said casually, but his face turned tomato red, and his fingers went back to the bridge of his nose. Autumn’s heels clicked all the wall down the hallway, and each one could’ve been going through my heart. She poked her head in, sweating, eyes huge, but smiling. The smile was pure chaos.

 

“Girls! Come on now, let your father work. Sorry, Lawrence.” He looked at her as if she was crazy. When we shuffled out of the room, we saw Lou’s clothes and electronics scattered everywhere. Even her mattress was flipped over the banister. Autumn shrugged, blushing.

 

“I don’t know what happened. It’s so bizarre. Clean this up, Lou, okay? Come on Noah, let’s go make something to eat. Lou can listen out for us from the hall.” She gave me a sweet smile and headed down the stairs ahead of me. Lou just stood there, staring after her, nothing but hate in her eyes.

 

I stared after my mother, my stomach twisting into a tight knot, but we made something to eat. There was no way in hell I was going to argue. She watched me the entire time, and I knew she knew something was wrong. I tried my best.

 

“You’re all outgrowing me,” she mumbled.

 

“Never,” I tried, but it was a whisper. Autumn straightened her dress. She shook out her hair. I made her a sandwich first, handing it to her.

 

“How’d you get so good at making these,” she asked, biting deep into it. She stared at me as she chewed.

 

The doorbell rang and we listened to a voice, a familiar voice, and Lou’s excited scream. I rushed over but Autumn blocked my path.

 

“Never? Do you trust me?” I nodded, trying to hear the commotion out in the hall. Lou’s voice got smaller and smaller, walking up the stairs.

 

Who is that?

 

“I’ll answer all of your questions tomorrow. I mean it. Just… stay with me a while. Let’s cook.” Autumn looked deflated, sad, and beaten. I nodded, giving her the best smile I could. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the Tiana copy standing at the bottom of the stairs, staring up at me, confused.

 

The next day, as if conjured, Astley finally came home.

 

Astley walked in the door with one bag. She’d been gone for months, and she came back with one lonely rolling suitcase. She opened the front door with her key, pushing in with odd aggression. She stood there for a moment, staring at the foyer floor. It was all glacier slow. Her movements were delicate and deliberate, her face twisting in discomfort.

 

Shock isn’t the word, hun, I was delighted. I was standing in the good kitchen, spreading peanut butter over bread (again), and the jar dropped to the floor when I saw her. I shrieked so loud that we heard the door open on the top floor, and my mother leaned over to banister to look down at us. It took her no time to breeze down the stairs.

 

I’d been cautious with her all day, trying to come up with an exit strategy.

 

Lou’s story about running away popped into my head, but I didn’t let it stop me from being happy. We all came together in the foyer, me excited and jittery, Astley’s expression lost on me. I’d never seen anything like it. It was slight confusion mixed with anger, and then discomfort. Her long body bent awkwardly.

 

She looked out of place.

 

“You’re back!”

 

“Of course, I am. Of course, I am. You think your mother would ever let me get away from this hellhole?” Her voice came out husky with anger. I looked over to Autumn and raised an eyebrow. She was pure glamour. Her hair swooped up on her head, tied up in an intricate braid, she had on a silk robe covered in ornate flowers. Tiny light blue slippers covered her feet.

 

She looked out of place, too.

 

“Astley, I’m so glad you’re home! I need to talk to you-”

 

“You sent them to get me. No one knew I was in Lauryn but you. No one. They killed almost everyone there. They went from room to room and mutilated them. The only person that escaped was my girlfriend. Why would anyone care about her but you?” Autumn rolled her eyes.

 

“Did you want them to kill her?” Like the night with Lou, Autumn’s voice was flat. Her face blank. I tried to step in and say something but Astley put her hand on my shoulder, leaning into our mother’s face, unafraid.

 

“No. I didn’t want them to kill anyone. Because I’m not insane.”

 

“I hadn’t heard from you in months. I worried. You were supposed to be in Anity-”

 

“Right. I’m grown. I moved.”

 

“You didn’t tell me where. Is it that hard to keep me informed?”

 

“It’s not your business, is it? It’s not Eon Tech’s business. You missed me suffering here with you and your toys that much?” Autumn glanced up the stairs, looking at the big dividing door, and tsked a little. When she looked back at us, she only let her eyes fall on me for a second. There was a quick, almost hidden panic in there.

 

“Noah, why don’t you go upstairs? You have school tomorrow.” It was the middle of the day on a Saturday, and my confusion only seemed to build the panic in her eyes.

 

Astley stepped forward, her hand steady on my shoulder, still watching Autumn. “One of them talked to me while she killed my friends. She talked so much, Momma. Why don’t you tell me the truth?” Autumn steadied herself, holding her silk nightgown closed.

 

“What truth? You lived with me all these years. What truth do I need to explain?”

 

“Lived with you. Right. When was I born? Hm? When were Daynah and Tiana born? Did you give birth to us? You’ve got a great body for the mother of over 40 kids!” Lawrence stepped into the hall, staring down at us from overhead. Autumn gave another quick glance. He gave me a sorry look and started walking down the stairs.

 

“Thirteen kids.” I corrected, trying to stop her. Don’t let her know you know, not now! You’ll screw us all up. She didn’t get the message. Astley grimaced.

 

“I’m sorry, we’re both wrong! Three kids, over 40 husks.”

 

Autumn pulled bobby pin after bobby pin from her updo. It fell, teasing her shoulders. Everything felt wrong, especially my mother. This wasn’t the woman that smelled like a good time and did cartwheels to make me laugh when I was a child. This wasn’t the one that left notes for me so I wouldn’t be lonely. I saw Autumn with her jaw clenched in anger, her eyes slowly squinting, and it felt like it wasn’t her.

 

She shook her hair down, eyes locked on Astley, and motioned toward me.

 

“Why don’t you shut up and walk your sister to her room, honey? Since when were you so interested in genetics?”

 

“Since you sent goons after me. Since you asked them to kill all my friends. Since you dragged me back here from an entirely different continent! I got away. You pretended you wanted that-”

 

“I never said that. Never. When have I ever told you that? When? I want you all here with me, you know that. Is that wrong? I’m your mother!” Autumn moved closer, licking her lips. Astley didn’t back down. “You’re lucky I didn’t have them kill you, too. And you all are so eager to spoil Noah for me, aren’t you? What’s the point of me behaving if you’re all going to drive her to suicide anyway? If she knew what the world had in store for her, how do you think she’d react?” Astley finally stepped back, rubbing the back of her neck. Frazzled and confused, she tried to keep her anger up. She glanced over at me constantly.

 

“Now. We heard you the first time. Shut up and put your things away.” The way they gulped each other up, eyes locked, made me feel non-existent. I did my best not to breathe. Shut up, Astley!

 

“There you go. That’s how you talk about your babies. That’s how you love them. Hey, little baby Noah? Remember that trip we went on when you were a kid? When we left you here? I learned a lot about your mother while I was in Anity. I learned even more about your father. Did you know she’s a war criminal? Did you know people are looking for you and Lawrence over there-”

 

“Shut. Up.” Autumn let her robe fall open. Astley blushed, smashing her eyes shut, and turned away.

 

“S- sorry I looked, Mrs. Bishop,” she stammered, and Autumn just pulled her robe closed and nodded, glancing at me.

 

That’s weird?

 

Astley shook her head, rage filling her again. “Noah. Little baby! Did- did you know that you’re fucked? Did you know that you’re absolutely FUCKED?” Every breath that went into Astley’s lungs blew through the room. I stared, so confused my stomach hurt.

 

“Astley, please just tell me everything, I don’t get it, I’m scared.” I was crying, and it felt pathetic, but their screaming and anger hit me harder than I could take. Autumn’s stories never covered any of that. Never. Astley faltered at my tears a bit, glancing at my mother, then stood upright, defiant.

 

“You’re gonna wake up one day and regret you didn’t run away when you had the chance! Pick someone, pick anyone, and get out of here. Shit, go with the dead kid! Jukel or whatever. Lou can stick with Bylas, and you two can marry those boys and live a semi-normal life. You-” Autumn moved quickly. Before I could stop her she punched Astley in the face, the pins wedged between her fingers. The move stunned me, but she didn’t stop. Her anger pushed her fist into Astley over and over, and by the time I grabbed her, it was dripping with blood. Astley shrieked, pushing backward, covering her face. I let go, trying to back away, but Autumn’s eyes transferred to me, angry.

 

“Astley is tired. Go upstairs and let us talk.”

 

“This is how you treat one of your real girls, right! I’m not just a fucking body, you’re not supposed to hurt me. Right?! You want everyone to believe you would never hurt us but you MURDERED REESE!” She gripped her cheek and slid backward when Autumn walked over to her. “You helped Alicia conceive that girl that’s coming! You even named her after me! Tell her everything! We’re all here to be what your little girlfriend needs-” Autumn turned around and grabbed my face. She pushed me backward, chasing me until I ran up the stairs, screeching. Astley’s whimpers followed me, but I stopped halfway up. I wasn’t going to stand for it.

 

She’s not going to sit here and abuse my sister, I’ll kill her and Lawrence!

 

I tried to step back down but a big light hand grabbed my shoulder.

 

“Please let her get this out of her system.” I yanked my arm away from my father, turning to look at his sorry face.

 

“Help your daughter! We’re not punching bags! We’re-”

 

“They’re not even- ugh. Fine.” He walked around me, and both Astley and Autumn shut up when he got behind them. Just like that, it was over. He pulled Astley to her feet, helping her over to her bag.

 

“If you’re going to hit her, I might as well sell her,” He said, barely putting any energy behind his words. “You have to calm down.”

 

“I’m not a bad person! I won’t stand for being called a bad person by a goddamn body!”

 

“This doesn’t help, Autumn. Can we just-”

 

“You’re not REAL either, Astley. SURPRISE! You’re not one of my real girls, so you don’t have to worry about it.” They were silent, and Astley’s mouth dropped open. I stood there, stunned, my own hand to my mouth, tears pouring from my eyes. It felt like my heart was ripping in two.

 

No… poor Astley…

 

“Mom, that’s not true. I’m not like the… that’s a lie. You’re lying again. Stop lying to us!” Astley deflated. She was scared. Autumn clawed at my dad, screaming.

 

“You’re a dead body that I fixed, just like those Shadows! You were mine. I loved you and I couldn’t let you go! I’m not a bad person! I’m not a bad person!” Autumn stopped, glancing up at me, then fell to her knees. “I loved you all. I should be able to make as many of you as I want without getting rid of any. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I shouldn’t have to-”

 

“There’s not enough room. There will never be enough room. It’s nonsensical.” My dad looked annoyed, glancing up at me.

 

Stop looking at me. Help your daughter!

 

I watched Astley crumble to the floor, mouth still open, hands wrapped around her stomach. It was disgusting. I couldn’t think of anything to say to make it better.

 

“Don’t cry, honey, you wanted me to tell you. Now I told you. I brought you back, and you have the nerve to want to get away from me? None of you know what I’m going through! And this is how you treat me? In front of my Noah?” She pointed up at me, arm stiff.

 

Lou walked into the hall, leaning against the rail, and looked down in confusion. I walked up to join her, speechless, but she didn’t seem surprised. She wiped my face.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Astley’s a husk, she died! She’s dead … it’s like you thought.” Lou sighed, nodding. She grabbed me into a hug.

 

“Astley told me. It’s…” She paused, staring down at our screaming family members. “I’m sorry, real quick. What are they yelling about?”

 

“Astley just got home, Momma sent someone after her!” Lou gave me a confused look, moving away so she could see over the banister.

 

“You’re all going to ruin it,” Autumn screamed. “You’re going to ruin it. She’s the only one left. She’s the only one left who still loves me, don’t ruin it! Get away from her! You can’t hate me, you can’t hate me!”

 

“Dad, is that true? Is Lou a husk, too,” Astley asked. He ignored her, staring up at the ceiling.

 

“What the fuck?” Lou whispered. I grabbed her into a hug but she moved away. “What the actual fuck?”

 

“You were my baby, Astley. My best friend. I didn’t want to let you go. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” Autumn shrank down and it was the lab all over again. Sobbing and crying and holding herself. My dad hugged Astley and she sobbed. They were all sobbing, whining into their hands. Except for my dad, who looked one eye roll away from his head falling off. I stared at them, not sure what to say.

 

“I can’t believe this shit,” Lou said, staring at me. “I can’t BELIEVE this shit.” They all looked up at her, then continued on as if she wasn’t there.

 

“Uh, yeah, you’re- you’re right, Lou,” Astley said, pushing my dad away and glancing at Autumn in panic. “I can’t believe that, either! If Noah’s real, too, why does he keep calling her Reese? Didn’t Reese die? He can’t even be bothered to remember my real name. I don’t think you’ve ever had a baby out of your own body in your life.” Autumn’s eyes went wide. She tried to stand up, hand over her heart.

 

“He just gets confused! Reese died so long ago, but he loved her! He-”

 

“We’re all husks, aren’t we? All of us. It doesn’t matter if we’re sold, it doesn’t matter if we’re hurt, none of it matters. You just make a new one to play with.”

 

“Noah’s real,” my dad said, giving Lou a bored expression. “Lou’s a husk, though. I’m sure of it. But I wouldn’t know any better.” He huffed, rolling his eyes back to the ceiling. “I don’t pay enough attention.” Autumn sprang up, smiling, wiping her face.

 

“I’m not a fucking husk!” Lou cursed. Autumn froze, but my dad laughed a little. Astley looked panicked, moving her hands around awkwardly.

 

“No, it’s fine,” Autumn continued, her voice slow and shaky. “Lou’s going to abandon me, but she’s real. I wish she wasn’t. She’s not as innocent and wonderful as my Noah. But I care about you all. You’re my daughters, husk or human.” They stopped, and Autumn turned to look at me, misty-eyed.

 

It was quiet, and then Lou took a deep breath. She held her forehead, mumbling to herself.

 

“Momma,” she started, moving her hand to her hip. “You don’t have to do stuff like this. It would be great, actually, if you didn’t do stuff like this. This is worse than the cyanide thing. It’s worse.”

 

“I don’t know what you mean.”

 

“This is terrible to do to her.  It’s terrible to do to me.  This is not how you talk to us. We already had this talk yesterday. Me, you, Astley and Dad. We had this talk last night, and now I have to see you putting on a play for Noah? Why didn’t you just tell her? Stop it.” Her words came out slow, and her eyes squeezed closed. “You’re all disgusting. Are you kidding me? Who is that in Astley? Who is it? Because I know it’s not her, and it better not be Bylas.”

 

“You’re ruining your mother’s scene, Lou. She needs to do this to grieve,” Daddy said, bored.

 

“This is disgusting. You’re ridiculous,” Lou spat, glaring down. They all looked up, Autumn’s eyes squinting in annoyance. “Is it Bylas? Who is it?” It took awhile, but Astley squeezed her lips together, nodding her head.

 

“Sorry, Lou. She asked me. It sounded like fun. Sorry.”

 

What the hell is going on?

 

Lou stomped down the stairs, irate. “Get out of her. Get OUT of her, you idiot! Are you fucking kidding me? Are you for real?” I tried to make sense of her words, wiping my face, but I couldn’t. It felt like a sledgehammer had gone through my chest, but Lou’s reaction brought me back to reality. Autumn groaned, wiping her face.

 

“So now you’re too old for drama? You used to love this. What makes me ridiculous, oh great Louetta? I can’t put on a show for anyone but you? You stole my chance to show her the husks.”

 

“I am not a child anymore, and she’s 14, and scared, and hiding in closets! Just tell her! Astley watched everyone she cared about get murdered. You would put her through this, after all she went through? For your grief?”

 

You got to find out about the husks in person, by seeing it, and then you spoiled it for her. It’s not fair that she never gets to experience things, I wanted her to experience it. It wouldn’t have made any difference if you hadn’t said something! She would’ve still known the answers to her questions, just in a more interesting way!” They talked in aggressive but reasonable tones.

 

No one was screaming. I was so used to them screaming that it scared me.

 

“You’re acting? This was all an act?”

 

“Yes, they’re acting! We sat down after Astley got home yesterday, and Astley told us what happened. And Momma admitted the stuff about her being a husk, and the ones downstairs, and a ton of other stuff. It’s true or whatever, but they’re acting it out for you because your mother is a psycho!”

 

“Momma? How often do you do this to me?” Every word cracked, but I couldn’t stop it.

 

Lou cut in again, loud enough so I could hear her over the echo in the hall. “They used to do this to me all the time. Amanda and Astley especially. Their little dinner theater shows. Daddy doesn’t care about any of this, he wants to get it over with so they’ll stop whining. Stop it. This is so stupid. It’s insulting! Did you make him do this? Bylas, did you want to do this?” Astley stood still, staring straight ahead, looking tired. She looked so tired.

 

“I only want to keep the peace, Lou. Of course, I didn’t want to do this. I mean, I didn’t know it was this serious.” I watched in awe as Astley vomited up blue gunk, coughing and spitting. It sifted out of her pores, her nose, even her eyes. It bubbled into a tall teenage boy. When he reformed next to her, holding his hand over his privates, blushing, it was Bylas. My dad took off his shirt and handed it to him.

 

“Are we done with this now? Can I go upstairs? I have a lecture in the morning.”

 

Astley burst into sobs, sucking in deep breaths. She fell to the floor, shaking in fear, or maybe anger, or pain, I didn’t know. I had no idea what anything was.

 

“Get me out of here, get me out of here,” Astley whined, leaning forward, holding her head. Even still, she said the words between her teeth, eyes darting around frantically. The empty way she said it was nothing like the anger from earlier. It was dead. Hopeless. Lou turned to me, face scrunched up, throwing her hands in the air.

 

“This is your momma! This is your momma’s elaborate way of keeping you from dying of boredom. How could you live without this? A bunch of copies in the basement isn’t enough, no, we need theater! Astley came home yesterday. You took her pain and-.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Autumn yelled. “Astley was going to tell her anyway. She was going to make me look like the bad guy! All she did was whine and cry yesterday.”

 

“Exciting? By faking some scene? For something this important? This is her life.”

 

“Are you really one of those husks, Astley? Am I really the only one who isn’t?” They didn’t hear me. I sucked in a sob, holding my stomach. “ARE YOU HUSKS? ARE YOU REAL?” Astley stared straight ahead. Lou stopped talking, biting her lip and staring at the ground. It was Bylas who answered me.

 

“I’m surprised you didn’t know that. That’s messed up. I thought you knew. Why else would they be selling them, though?”

 

“He sells the normal ones. That’s how they died,” Lou corrected.

 

“I mean, they’re normal, they just … they weren’t born like you were. I just see it as them not being human. It’s not a big deal.”

 

“But you said there were three living kids,” I tried. “You said-”

 

“There were three, and before that there were four, and so on. Now there’s not. Daddy is as terrible as he seems. He just can’t remember our names.” Lou smiled. “It’s only me and you. Momma told us everything yesterday.” I knelt down, still holding the banister, trying not to throw up.

 

“It would’ve been more convincing if you cooperated,” Autumn scolded Astley. “Bylas is a terrible actor. He was too nervous!” She moved forward, hands clasped together, an exaggerated pout on her face. Everyone around her looked tired. Worn out. Autumn in the middle, standing down there under the light of the chandelier, it was truly like a play. Like the curtain was falling behind her, everyone frozen, and she was getting ready for her big ending monologue. Her hair wild, eyes wide and innocent, I couldn’t look at her.

 

I have to get out of here.

 

“I hope that answers your questions from the other day, Noah. You and Lou are the only humans left. All your sisters are husks. They have pieces of our DNA, but I make most of them. Reese was your father’s child from a previous relationship, but she’s dead. Astley is back, because I won’t let her go. I am a wanted woman in Anity, and you girls and Lawrence are why. Lawrence is stuck with me here, and if he tries to return to Anity, Mr. David will kill him and his fiance. Ex-fiance now, I assume?” My daddy sighed.

 

“None of it is ideal. None of it. But you don’t know what happened. You don’t understand what happened. I won’t be able to keep you forever, but I have the possibility of keeping one of them someday. I just keep making them in preparation for when you and Lou really have to… expire. I’ll be lonely without you.” She was still acting. I could feel it in the awkwardness of everyone else. She was still delivering the truth, if it was that, to me. The word expire sent a chill down my entire body, but I couldn’t even shiver. I couldn’t move.

 

“I love them like they’re my daughters, and they’re alive. They feel pain, they love, they cry. You’ve seen them. I meant all of it, Noah. Don’t discount it because of the method of delivery. You would’ve loved this when you were younger! Don’t be mad at me, it’s… I know you don’t get much excitement. That’s all. I promise. And when Astor comes, you won’t have to worry. She’s real, and she’s mine, and she’s yours until you expire.”

 

“This is disgusting. It’s our lives.” Lou whispered again, and now she looked defeated. I had the crazy thought that maybe they were acting that out as well, but how would I know? How would I know anything?

 

“No, actually.” Autumn laughed. Lawrence looked away, an apology somewhere in his body. Even Bylas looked unnerved and ashamed. “It’s not her life. And it’s not your lives. They’re my lives. I own them. I paid heavy prices in my own life for you all. That’s the point. If any of you decide to run off and leave me again, or tell her anything I didn’t get to tell her first, Noah will get to see your deaths acted out with dead bodies and pulley strings.”

 

The energy hit me and I shook like I was in the middle of the ocean, naked, stranded with nowhere to go. I crawled toward my room, blocking out her voice. I couldn’t make it to the door, couldn’t get to my hallway. When I looked back down my mother was hugging a zoned out Astley, face buried in her shirt. My daddy walked up and carried me the rest of the way to my room, tucking me in like a child. For the first time in years, he locked the door between us, and I was stuck on my side all by myself.

 

 

 

I left. I didn’t even pack anything, just snuck out the door that night and walked off. I kept walking toward the sounds of the city, the lights from the giant fancy street lamps guiding me. It didn’t take long for me to become completely lost. I had no idea how to get anywhere on my own. I couldn’t recognize the street names, I didn’t understand how to retrace my steps. Our neighborhood was huge, all the houses spread far apart, and I was the only soul out walking.

 

It was comforting at first, being alone outside of that house. Not having anyone’s hand on my shoulder, not having someone watching me. And then it turned terrifying, the size of the world crushing down on me from the stars. I tried to turn around, but the big houses with their giant yards were confusing. The noises from the city were so far away, I wondered if we lived in a bubble.

 

One of the houses I approached sat bordered by a massive wrought iron fence. I walked along it while I tried to figure out where I was. The house was huge, and giant lights blazed down from the roof. The feeling of them on my skin was odd, almost like they didn’t exist at all, but I had to squint to try to look up at them. I tried to move away from the gate, then moved back, afraid I’d get hit by a car.

 

When I finally reached the front gate, a girl was sitting on the inside with her back against it, her short black hair dangling in front of her. She had her arms wrapped around her knees, curled into a ball. I almost ran when she looked up, terrified out of my mind. I took a step back, then another, then started to turn. The lights blinded me again and I turned back.

 

“Noah?” I stopped,squinting to see her better. It was cold, and I hadn’t brought a jacket, but it only hit me when my teeth chattered that I should’ve. The girl sprung to her feet and scrambled up the gate like an actual animal, gripping the bars effortlessly, and I stepped back again, really ready to run this time. After a moment I saw a peek of her white eye, her sharp teeth, and calmed down. She bounced against the concrete on her toes, watching me.

 

“Davey?” She laughed a little, taking in my shivering arms.

 

“What are you doing out here? It’s like three in the morning. Aren’t you like, trapped in a watchtower around this time of night?” I don’t know what it was. It wasn’t even a funny joke, and it wasn’t all that malicious. I didn’t even like Davey. But I felt my lip tremble, and then my vision blurred with tears. Davey fell over herself to apologize, rushing over to me.

 

“Hey, shit, kid, relax! I’m not judging you! Shit, I’m basically a watchtower chick, too!” She wrapped her arms around me. Every part of her was warm, maybe even hot, and I settled against her without thinking about it. Davey wasn’t tall, wasn’t short, wasn’t big or small. For the most part, she kept the bad eye covered with a big swoop of hair. If it wasn’t for the sharp teeth, you probably wouldn’t notice she wasn’t human. She rested her head on top of mine.

 

“I have to get out of that house,” I mumbled.

 

“Oh yeah? I always thought Autumn was a saint. Can’t believe anyone wants to get out of a house that big. You have somewhere you’d rather be?”

 

“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

 

There was an awkward pause while she tried to formulate some thought floating in her head. “Your old man … he doesn’t do anything funny like … um…”

 

“No.” She nodded,letting out a sigh of relief. I almost asked her if she’d ever been through that, then thought better of it. I couldn’t hear her heart beating, but I didn’t ask why. She pulled me down and we sat on the concrete in front of the gate, my head curled up in her lap. She took her jacket off and laid it on top of me.

 

I only knew Davey a little. I saw her at work, mostly on her way to the basement or on the way out. It wasn’t a secret that she had to be hidden, and when she was out in the open they made her as inconspicuous as possible. Bylas followed her around like a dog, like a literal drooling dog. I knew her because of my sister crying, and the long way Lou sat looking out of windows. Sitting with my head in her lap, breathing the oddly comforting smells coming from her, I hated and appreciated her at the same time.

 

“Never would’ve thought I’d be comforting your smart ass. You’re not exactly the nicest person to interact with.”

 

“Same.” I wondered if anyone was looking for me. Maybe the police would come and act out a scene of them pretending to save me. Then Autumn could hop out of nowhere with a chorus line. Maybe they’d just take me down to the ocean and throw me in instead. “Want to go on a vacation little baby bitch?”

 

Davey started rubbing my hair, and before I knew it, I was falling asleep. She bounced her legs until I shifted.

 

“Don’t fall asleep out here. Not on this road. Bad way to learn a lesson about hungry monsters.”

 

“What do you mean?” She pointed up at the lights.

 

“This time of night, they can see Mr. D’s hair a mile away. You probably don’t know about Marked Devils or whatever. My eye doesn’t help. But either way, don’t fall asleep, you’ll make me tired. I gotta hit the lights when By gets here or he’ll sizzle. And I’m on guard duty as it is, Mr. D would kill me if he found us asleep. Talk to me. It’s always boring when By’s gone.”

 

“Where is he?” I knew where he was, but I wondered how much they told each other. Did she know he was walking around in someone else’s body? Did she know they could do that?

 

“Eh. Working. Something with your fam, I think. I couldn’t go tonight. Got a little squeamish. It’s been like that since they picked me up, to be honest. I’m not a fan of most of it. It’ll take some getting used to, I guess.”

 

“What do you do?” She thought about it, tapping a silent beat on my shoulder.

 

“I don’t know, really. Hurt people?”

 

“My sisters?”

 

“Nah. Devils and Shadows and shit. There’s not much else to it, I just can’t figure out what anyone did wrong. The way we put people out, it’s just ugly.” We both thought about it.

 

“You’re a good fighter?” Davey wasn’t super muscular, and didn’t look too tough, honestly.

 

“Something like that. They’re teaching me more. I used to have to fight when I was homeless, Chastain is a cesspool. So it’s not a huge deal. I just wish I could ask more questions. Like, I don’t know. I’m wondering what the big goal is. Like, what’s Mr. D’s deal? You try to kill me, then like, recruit me, and then tell me I can’t go anywhere without you. And then I’m out capturing people, or murdering them. There’s this unspoken thing in the air all the time. Like, okay, go to the basement. Hey Davey, hey By, go to the basement! We’re done for the day, get down to the basement! They don’t say I can’t go anywhere else, but it’s implied. But I was out there before. I’ve been out there all my life, never had an issue with it until they came along. I can’t say that, though. Don’t want to sound ungrateful to Mr. D.”

 

“Do they lock you in when you’re not working with them? Is this his house?” I snuggled closer to her, enjoying her hands in my hair.

 

“Kinda. I saw the inside a few times when everyone is gone. Can’t keep me out of shit. Mr. D lives somewhere else, though, with that Osh kid. This is a front for the Shadows after him. Gotta be careful on the inside, might get your head blown off by a trap or something. Basement is safe, and it’s pretty big. Got all the shit we need to stay sane, maybe a little more. But … I don’t know. I’d love to walk away from this street and just keep going. Hate locks.”

 

“I’m locked in a lot, too. They keep me separate from my sisters.”

 

“Yeah. I heard about that.” Davey was quiet, and when I adjusted to look at her, her good eye was locked on something down the road. I pulled the hair over her white eye up. She watched whatever was out there like a cat, that white eye getting bigger and bigger.

 

It was strange to look at. The iris itself was bigger than the rest of the pupil, and it was so white that it stood out in front of her eyeball.

 

“It gets brighter sometimes,” she mumbled. “Mr. D gives me eye drops when I’m on guard duty. Who knows what’s in them. Hey, your mom’s looking for you. She’s in pajamas. And one slipper. Looks a mess.” I ignored her, dropping her hair and laying back down. She pulled it up herself.

 

“Is anybody going to save us,” I muttered.

 

“Me and you?”

 

“Sure. And Lou. Bylas. Osh, if he needs it.”

 

“Probably not. I think they’re trying to save themselves. Scrambling to figure out how to use us to fix their issues. We have to do the same thing, you know? Fucking rescue ourselves.” I nodded. Davey kept her eye on Autumn, her breathing slowing.

 

“Hey. The girl that’s moving in with you. I heard them talk about it. Is it really … I mean, you know. My sister?” I thought about it.

 

“She’s that lady Alicia’s kid. The one everyone’s afraid of. So if that’s your mom, then yes.” I could finally hear Davey’s heartbeat. Her nails dug into my shoulder until I moved her hand.

 

“Wow,” A goofy laugh bubbled out of her throat. “All those years of like … wondering. And she’ll be right up the street. Walking distance. I won’t, like, you know … I wouldn’t. You know. Bother her. Mr. D already said I can’t speak to her. But like, she’ll be right there. Do you think Alicia will come visit her?”

 

“I doubt it. You can’t see her? Why?”

 

“You know. The whole eye thin-” A light shone over my eyelids. Davey hissed in pain, covering her white eye with her hair, buckling until I had to squeeze from her legs. I helped her cover it until she calmed down. The lights on the roof blinked off and I couldn’t see for a moment. It felt like the darkness swallowed me.

 

“Hey, Mr. D. Nice way to blind me,” Davey said, lifting me up. I moved over, stretching.

 

“Thanks, Davey,” I said. When I stood up, I looked for my mother, finding nothing. Davey glanced in that direction, too, searching for her. Mr. David finally settled into my view, and his face twisted in annoyance. His locs were so shiny that they lit the little pathway.

 

“What are you doing out here?”

 

“They’re all crazy. They’re insane. I don’t want to be there when the big thing happens, whatever’s supposed to happen to me, so I’m leaving. That’s it.” Davey patted my shoulder, giving me a cautious smile, and jumped back over the gate.

 

“They all off,” a boy asked, and Davey yelled yes. Bylas stood as far back as possible, avoiding eye contact, staring in the opposite direction.

 

“Come on,” Mr. David barked. “I heard about it. This is no place for someone as small as you to get lost, though. We’re not the only creatures that walk these roads. Bylas, go on in.”

 

“Hey, I-” Bylas started. He looked down at the ground. “I know you hate me right now. I’m sorry. They said I need to practice, anyway. I swear I wouldn’t have done that if I knew-”

 

“She’s insane,” I said, pulling Davey’s jacket tight around me. “We can’t stay there.”

 

“That stuff I said about running off with the dead kid? I know that’s what Autumn calls him. She didn’t tell me to say that. I meant that.” He looked up, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down crazily. “Your mother is the smartest person I ever met. I’m bonded to this body, it’s like I was born in it. She woke up Jukel, even. He’s not able to leave my Mom’s apartment yet, but he’s up. She’s a genius.

 

“But look, what she’s doing is terrible. My mom is terrible, too. Jukel is alone like you. I’m not allowed to see him, he doesn’t go anywhere. I’m worried. I know my mom is weird, and like… not human. But I want this for him, not her,” He was rambling, and when Mr. David tried to stop him he kept going.

 

“You don’t have to get purchased, and you don’t even have to marry him, but I want someone to help him. Talk to him. Be his friend or something. I don’t know. Like, give him a chance once he’s able to function a little better, everyone just keeps forgetting about him! I’ll get Lou out of there, I promise. It would be cool of you like, if you got Jukel away from my mom. We gotta help each other.”

 

“Sure, By.” He looked genuinely relieved, a big smile breaking across his face. Unlike Davey, he opened the gate with a key, giving me another smile before he disappeared into the darkness.

 

I’m getting away from all of you.

 

Mr. David walked me all the way home, hand on my back. In the end, I hadn’t even left my neighborhood.

 

“I’m not going to survive this,” I said to myself. Mr. David laughed.

 

“Well, no, not if you can’t find your way out of a residential neighborhood with six houses.”

 

“What did I do to deserve this? I didn’t hurt anyone. I can’t go back in there. Maybe I should just keep walking until I evaporate. You see what’s happening! Why can’t you help me? I could live in the basement with them-”

 

“Autumn is an issue you’ll never shake. She has friends everywhere, and none of them are above chaos. Pretend nothing happened. They’ll all do the same, I guarantee it. Humor it …” He stopped, laughing again, and patted my head. “Her. Behave, Noah. It’ll only be a little while longer, understand? Alicia’s girl will change everything.” I sighed, nodding.

 

“So I’ve heard. Where is she? She could’ve helped them with their play.” He stopped me before I walked back up my driveway. Four different curtains swung shut.

 

“I’m taking you to the ‘Aquarium’ Sunday. And then it won’t be long. We know Autumn, and we know what she wants. And we have an alternate choice for you if you wait. Got it?” I nodded, finally awake, and took in his shining white hair.

 

“Got it.”

 

 

 

Mr. David was absolutely right. They acted as if nothing happened.

 

I sat in my closet for most of the next day, still scared. It dawned on me that if I wasn’t going to run away, and I wasn’t going to kill them all in their sleep, I might as well take Mr. David’s advice. Why was I torturing myself?

 

So I decided to pretend nothing happened, but it didn’t matter. Nobody came through the door, not even Lou. I was by myself again.

 

On Sunday, everyone was gone by the time I woke up. There was a note on my dresser, Autumn’s handwriting prominent, but I crumpled it up. I dressed and waited at the front door, and Mr. David pulled up twenty minutes late.

 

“Are we still taking a detour?” I said into the window. He chuckled, raising an eyebrow.

 

“I would hope so, or you could’ve slept in. Come on.” Too nervous to complain about his lateness, I climbed into the tiny car. His body could barely fit, the top of his head scraping the ceiling, his arm pressed against the door. Osh grunted in the backseat. I almost jumped out of my skin.

 

“Eyebrows? Why are you going to my momma’s speech?”

 

“I’m getting dropped off at home,” He said, giving me a polite smile. There was a tense look on his face, but he always kind of looked like that. He stared out the window, unfriendlier than usual. I turned around and tried not to be afraid. Why my dad thought I wanted to ride in a car to an unknown destination with two certified psychos was beyond me, but I shut up.

 

We drove right by the Chastain Aquarium, and it was a little unnerving to see how packed it was. People loved Autumn. They showed up to hear her speak, to listen to what she had to say about any given topic. I imagined her onstage in her simple outfit, winning smile dazzling the audience. Did they know she went home to a hostage for a husband, and fake girls? Did they know she had a teen trapped, threatening her with ‘expiration’? Would they still love her if they knew?

 

I imagined her on stage, laughing to the crowd, “I told the little bitch that she was human, but she’s actually an orca! We have her tank all cleaned and ready! You’ve all been great, thanks for coming. Johnny, release the poison gas.”

 

We slowed down. Mr. David turned down an empty road, and a massive brick building loomed ahead of us. A sign read ‘Chastain Group Home’, and it wasn’t old or run down. You could feel that the place was abandoned more than you could tell from the maintained yard, the clean gravel, or the recently washed windows. There were no cars in the parking lot, and not a soul on the property. We pulled up to the open gate.

 

“Someone in there needs to talk to you.” I looked at Mr. David like he’d spit in my face.

 

“Alone? Is Osh coming with me?”

 

“No. I’m going to drop him off while you talk.”

 

“That’s not happening. I’m not going in there by myself.” I crossed my arms over my chest and sat back. He laughed, as always, cutting the ignition.

 

“Do you want to know the truth, or not?” I tried to protest again, but couldn’t. Of course, I did. Osh unbuckled his seat belt and pulled himself forward, tapping my shoulder.

 

“Hey. Mr. D, can I say something?”

 

“Sure.” Mr. David got out, shutting the door softly behind him. I tried to pull my heart out of my throat, surveying the big building.

 

“We don’t know each other well. I mean, we’re not best friends or anything.” I knew Osh well enough. I was around him more than anyone else, probably, since we worked together.

 

“Yeah? And?”

 

“I don’t want to assume you’ll do this for me, but I wanted to ask. If the person in there is Astor, I need you to tell her something for me.” I turned to him, gasping.

 

“Oh! Of course, it is! I’m an idiot!”

 

“Listen. Tell her I forgive her if she wants to get out of here. She doesn’t have to stay. Okay?” He lowered his head, bracing himself. “But I miss her. Tell her I think about her all the time. If she wants to come back, I wouldn’t complain. Tell her I said that.” He sat back, pulling his seat belt over himself.

 

“Wow, you’re an actual pussy,” I laughed, and his face fell. I climbed out, sighing to myself.

 

It was exciting, thinking about seeing her. I’d put a lot of my hope into that moment. It all came sparking back, and I gave Mr. David a little wave as I started to walk through the big gate.

 

“Hey,” He said, leaning onto the top of the car. “If Alicia starts to get angry for any reason, come back out. Before she reaches for that leg.”

 

“Alicia? Wait, really?” He climbed into the car. Osh watched me from the window, and his expression looked like worry.

 

No, he’s not worried. They wouldn’t drop you off here if there was something to worry about. Just go.

 

 

I watched them drive away. What was I supposed to do if she reached for her leg? Jump out of a window? Hide? When I turned and walked inside, struggling on the wood doors, I figured I’d do just that. I was still small. I could fit anywhere I put my mind to, and there were a million hiding places.

 

The group home was nothing like my school, and it was nothing like my home. Simple wood lined the ceilings and floors, with light blue paint between. I wandered around, peeking into a little office. Everything was clean enough. It didn’t seem like it needed to be abandoned, and my panic grew the further I walked. There was a door, and behind the door was a hallway lined with rooms on each side.

 

A woman stood in the middle of the hall, her back turned to me, a long leg dramatically placed out to her side, hands on her hips. Her heels were thin and super long, so thin that I looked around for a pair of flats or sandals. My mother would’ve brought something practical to walk in if she wore those.

 

The way her dress parted showed off the long machete attached to her garter, buried away in a sheath. Three other garters held it in place. Under each were containers of lighter fluid going all around her leg. It took a long time for me to convince myself to move. The back of her felt wrong, almost too sharp for the rest of the hallway. Alicia would always make me afraid, make me reconsider, and the first time was the worst. I wanted to back away, run out the building, and just keep going.

 

But if anyone can save you, wouldn’t it be her?

 

I stepped forward, and she finally turned.

 

Yeesh. She was beautiful, but of course she was. It felt like when I saw Astley for the first time, trying to decide if she was a goddess or a person. Alicia took me in for a moment, letting her eyes stop on each section of my body. The closer I got, the more she was scary instead of beautiful, right up until she was terrifying. Two gigantic black pupils stared at me, only a tiny circle of brown wrapping around each. Her pupils were huge, extremely focused, and empty.

 

Like an animal.

 

“You’re light.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You’re severely light-skinned. You’re also short. Tiny. You could have a growth spurt, I suppose, but I was expecting you to be more imposing. Your mother made it seem like you’d grown into a suitable continuation for Astor.”

 

“Sorry?” Alicia didn’t smile, and when she lifted her hand to shake mine I had to rush the rest of the way over. She let her nails dig into my skin, staring at my arm like she was trying to merge with it.

 

“You bruise easily. And you’re sloppy.” Her hand traveled up to my hair and she pulled it all the way up, letting it rest between her fingers. My loose ponytail seemed to bother her, but she only grimaced.

 

“There’s that infamous Anity red hair, though. I guess that’s all you need to please Autumn. Why did your father want me to speak with you, girl?”

 

“I- I think to…”

 

“Don’t stutter. Take your time and think about what you want to say.” She waited while I swallowed down a ton of fear.

 

“I think he wanted you to tell me about my sisters. And … what happened to them. Why Autumn has me isolated.”

 

“I asked for you to be isolated so your mother wouldn’t slaughter you. There’s one easy answer.”

 

“You asked? Why… wh- why?” She grabbed my shoulder, leaning my face up until I could see hers. Her pupils were completely black, somehow blacker than I could comprehend, a small ring of brown iris encircling them. I gasped a little, and she squeezed my face until I gasped louder. There was a cluster of painful-looking fat veins going from the side of her right eye over to somewhere under her blunt cut bang. It scared me worse than the rest of her face

 

“Stop stammering.” I nodded, sucking air into my nose. She let me go, leaving her near-claws hanging in the air. I formed the sentence in my head, scared to look back at her face.

 

“Why did you want me to be isolated? My dad said you would tell me the truth.”

 

“Ah. I’m curious. Has Autumn told you anything about why you were born? My plans or hers?”

 

“No.” She sucked her teeth.

 

“Shame on her.” Alicia turned and started walking, tapping her fingers along the wall as she went. I followed as close as I could without tripping into her. “How old are you now, Noah?” The click of the skyscraper’s shoes against the floor hit me like a hammer. Every few seconds my own sneakers would squeak back.

 

The building was strange. There was a sort of ringing in my head, and the further we walked, the louder it became. The light blue walls, all shiny with recent paint, started getting lighter and lighter. By the time we reached the end of the hall, everything was gray. It felt like we’d entered a black and white photo.

 

“14.” She sighed, putting her arm on my head like a headrest. I didn’t move it.

 

“That makes Louetta what … 18?”

 

“17. She’ll be 18 soon.”

 

“Shame.”

 

We turned a corner and I knew something was wrong right away. I could feel the air going into my lungs, actually feel my lungs expanding. The further we moved into the building, the more my body felt aware of itself. The color drained from everything right in front of my eyes. Like paper burning, everything creeping to varying degrees of grey.

 

It was a struggle to hear Alicia, but she tapped my head continuously, keeping me aware.

 

“In a day or two, Astor will arrive at your home. I want you to see something before you ask me any of your personal questions, and then I have a warning. Is that understood?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“How do you feel?” I felt my head spinning, but I wrapped my arm around her hip. I couldn’t think straight.

 

“I’m… going to pass out, I think.” She laughed and stopped, turning me around.

 

“Here. Look at the hairs on your arm.” I looked, and every arm hair was fizzing away. Pulling up, turning white, and dissolving. I worried about the hair on my head, and when she showed me a strand it was bleaching straight up toward her finger. Alicia pulled a small red cube from nowhere and handed it to me. It was thick, but I could feel liquid sloshing around inside.

 

“Chew this gum. It should help. Autumn’s your mother, so I’m sure you’ve ingested blood before. Knowingly or otherwise.” I chewed it quickly. The color in my hair returned after a moment, but the hairs on my arm were gone.

 

Fun fact: They never grew back. Ever.

 

Alicia gave me another piece of gum while we walked. “Swallow the first one and chew that one. Don’t worry, it’s not rubber. It will dissolve.” As everything else lost its color, she stayed vibrant. Her purple dress, all fabric and length, slowly turned black, but her skin and hair were fine.

 

“What’s going on,” I squeaked. She stopped at a door, running her hand over it. The oil in her fingerprints spread out, then vanished. I could feel a suction, a strange pulling, coming from the gap between the door and the floor.

 

“Astor tends to panic. It’s a bad habit. I don’t know where it comes from, the girl is surrounded by monsters that won’t let anyone hurt a hair on her head. But it happens. And when she panics enough, things like this happen.” When she kicked open the door, and I closed my eyes instinctively. Whatever was in there was groaning, sucking in air continuously. The noise itched my throat. I trembled and held on to Alicia, trying not to breathe in the too heavy air.

 

“Open your eyes. Keep chewing the gum.” When I finally did, I couldn’t close them. We were looking into a dark dorm room. Black liquid sprayed against an entire wall, spread out as if someone sprayed it on with a paint gun. Bits of leather and gum dotted the liquid. It took me a second to recognize the leather as skin, the gum as muscle, and even longer to see faces in them. Every wall in the room was covered with the scraps of skin, tiny flecks of organs, and flattened gore. I leaned in and saw teeth stuck into the ceiling, some attached to bits of jaw.

 

The wheezing noise came from the room itself.

 

“There are six girls in this room,” she said, somber. “All of their body parts are in there, they’re just hard to make out in such small portions.” I tried to find all the eyes, all the teeth, through the spray of gray and black blood. I tried to make any of it make sense for a human body.

 

“I wanted you to see this, Noah, because I don’t think anyone else in that house is mentally stable enough to understand the horror of it. You’ve survived them, somehow. I consider you strong.”

 

“I- I-” My mouth dried, and Alicia passed me another piece of gum. I couldn’t swallow, but I stuffed it in my mouth. The bones in my face felt like they were whispering to me. Every second we stood in the doorway, the walls seemed to crawl forward, to inch around the colorless blood, to warp.

 

“Your daughter did this?”

 

“It’s important that you understand my warning. Astor is a serious girl. She can take all the physical pain in the world, that’s all fine. But if you scare her the wrong way, if she feels cornered or helpless, issues come up. Osh understood this, and maybe he can give you some pointers. You have to be careful to know how Astor feels and to keep her from feeling too much. Do you understand?”

 

I couldn’t nod. I tried to make the half lower jaw in the corner somehow match up with the full upper jaw crushed into the wall above it.

 

“These poor girls felt the need to approach her about her eating habits. It’s a sensitive subject for anyone! The blast traveled under the door after it obliterated them.” She pointed down, following a patch of completely bleached floor. It led further down the hall.

 

“Swallow that gum. We can’t go any further unless you have more of it in your system. You’ll evaporate.” Alicia smirked, turning to walk, but I stalled.

 

“No, no, no. I can’t do this. Please, just take me with you.” I almost fell forward, but the bleached ground scared me. I tried to back up but Alicia grabbed me, expressionless.

 

“Eat the gum.”

 

“Please, just take me away with you, wherever you’re going. I can’t do this, I don’t want to deal with this!”

 

“Take you where, child? Do you think you’d be better off with me? I’m not Autumn or Lawrence. I’m not David. I don’t fool myself into thinking I’m stable enough to care for a child. I never planned on having Osh and Astor forever, not after all the pain I’ve endured with my children. They wouldn’t survive me. You wouldn’t survive me. There is nothing in my path but destruction, and coming with me means choosing death. Do you want to die?”

 

“No. No!” She seemed surprised.

 

“Really? After all you’ve been through? Not even a little?”

 

“I want to be okay. I just want to be okay.” I couldn’t cry. Not even a single tear would push over my lids, and even the snot wouldn’t form. Whatever was in the air stalled all the moisture in me.

 

“You’ll be a great influence on Astor, though I’m afraid it’ll be wasted in the end,” She said, smiling warmly. I chewed the gum, still growing frantic, and we moved forward.

 

“Alicia, is there something worse down there?” She smiled. White spots popped up around her dress, spreading out and devouring the black. I looked down at my own clothes and they were already pitch black. Now white bled into the front, creeping around my stomach.

 

“Here. Chew another piece.” I grabbed it and chewed, and this one burst, spraying the worst tasting liquid into my mouth. It burned for a moment, then settled, drying against the roof of my mouth.

 

“So. As far as I can tell, the blast traveled from that door down there to that wall.” Her voice deepened, the baritone spreading each word further and further out. I looked ahead and couldn’t see anything but white light. It was like looking at a giant sheet of glossy paper.

“We can’t go that far. It stops itself. I still haven’t figured that part out yet, but I’ve seen it go close to a mile and then just stop. After a while, it disappears. It completely obliterates anything living in its path that doesn’t have her blood. What color is it to you?”

 

“White.” She nodded.

 

“Good. Same for me. It may stay that way for you, though it might turn yellow after you’ve eaten enough gum. Do you know what a Latch is?”

 

“No. Not really.” I’d heard the term before, but couldn’t remember what it fully meant.

 

“A Latch is a backup body. To a certain extent. A backup brain for a Devil to transfer into if their body is destroyed. Some of us can’t make them, some can make more, some can make less. There are different types, but I don’t have time to explain it. The information that concerns you is simple. If you ingest a person with Devil Syndrome’s blood over time, you can become a Habitual Latch. The transformation is never fully complete, but you get most of the perks. If Astor is going to live with you, you HAVE to have her blood. In case of this.”

 

“My mom gave me Hybrid blood before. Will that react to it?”

 

“No, you’ll be fine, girl. And you won’t need that anymore, stay away from the disgusting gunk. Astor can’t be poisoned, and neither can you if you Latch to her.” The fear started to drain out of me.

 

“Will I be invincible?”

 

“Not unless you complete the process. But we’ll talk about that another time. It’s getting cold.” The temperature was dropping so fast, I almost didn’t realize. The wall started to dim, the light fizzing as it burned out. A long, ugly gurgle came from my mouth as it got darker and darker, and then Alicia grabbed me. She held me to her and ran, heels clicking, pressing my face into her chest until I stopped gurgling. It felt like my stomach was crawling out of my throat, strangling me.

 

When she put me down we were back in the normal part of the hall. The comfort of the light from the windows filling me with hope like never before. I gurgled one more time, then bent over, sucking in air. Alicia patted my back.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think about it. You can’t be there when it dies. It’ll kill you.” She gave me more gum, and more time, pulling my hair into a tighter ponytail. Alicia straightened my t-shirt, tsked at my empty earlobes, and inspected my teeth.

 

“I bet everyone’s afraid of her,” I mumbled when I could talk again, still chewing the gum. “Do you think my parents will be afraid of her?”

“Do you feel powerless?” Alicia moved her hand over her leg, but I didn’t run. There was no reason to hide. She pulled out one of the containers of lighter fluid.

 

“Yeah. All the time.”

 

“You can’t worry about what the world will give you, or what it will do to you. Find joy. Astor will need you, and everything is an exchange. For the protection and power she’ll afford you, you should help her live a good life while she can. You should help yourself live a good life. Whatever good means to you. Autumn tried her best with what she was given, but it ate her alive. You have someone to help you, Noah. You girls have to protect your peace at all costs.”

 

She pulled her arm back and threw the container as far as she could. As soon as it reached the greying section of the hallway, it burst into flames. The fireball continued, but all the color drained out of it before it could reach the end of the hall, and then it extinguished. She sucked her teeth.

 

“Do you want to ask your questions now? It might be hard in a moment.”

 

“Yes. Please. Tell me about my mom.” Alicia cracked her neck, sighing. I watched her throw another container, really putting her arm into it. This one burst and lost its color the same way.

 

“I don’t have time to tell you your mother’s life story. Ask me something specific.”

 

I grabbed the third container from her. “You have a lighter or something?” She nodded and pulled a match from a small section on her garter. I looked around for some paper. We found some in the office and tossed as much paper as we could in front of the black and white area, then I doused it in the lighter fluid.

 

“Am I a husk?” I asked, voice low.

 

“What is a husk?”

 

“The- I mean-” Suddenly I felt stupid. I had no idea what was real, what was fake, what was just a show Autumn put on for me. “The bodies that my mom makes.” Alicia nodded, comprehending. My stomach twisted a little, disappointment settling into me. “I’m one of them?”

 

“Oh, no! No, no, no. You were born naturally. You’re a boring little human.”

 

“What about Louetta?”

 

“Boring little human. Of course, she’s natural.” She motioned for me to light the match. I held on to it.

 

“Astley?”

 

“Husk, if that’s the word you’re using. Astley is the first ‘husk’ your mother created, but she’s not exactly like the bulk ones. She was born, she died, and your mother bonded a Shadow to her body. It’s not the original girl, but her personality as you know it belongs to the Astley you grew up with. You never met the real girl. The same goes for the rest of them. Astley was a treasure, I miss her dearly. I had so much hope for her, and I filled her head with it. I didn’t expect her to die. I mean that truly.” I let that sink in, watching Alicia’s face contort at the thought of my original sister. She motioned for me to light the match again, but I stood still.

 

“Do you know the new Astley?”

 

“Yes. She’s one of the few Shadows I like. It seems Astley is always a treasure, no matter who occupies her.” She paused, thinking. “There’s a process Autumn uses for her children that’s a little different. For all anyone else can see, they’re normal. They don’t have any abilities like a Shadow. They’re as human as a reanimated person can get, but they’re not the same as before.” Her eyes widened, focused on the match, waiting.

 

“Oh.” For some reason, that news made it worse. I moved to light the match.

 

“Her first natural-born girls were Ridley, Astley, Ella, Daynah and Ramona. The husks are all variations of them.” I stopped. Alicia gave me an aggravated huff.

 

“What about Amanda? Or the others? Ingrid? Tiana?”

 

“You don’t know these things? I wondered why Lawrence wanted me to speak with you. Tell me what you know, girl, let’s get this over with.” I lit the fire, then told her everything from their trip to Anity, to the notes, to the play. We watched the fire ignite, put itself out as soon as it hit the hall, then ignite itself again over and over.

 

Alicia let my words sit in the air for a moment.

 

“What a world she’s built for herself. Plays and stories and countless daughters. I never would’ve thought she would lose herself so badly.” Alicia handed me another match, and I placed it on one side of our igniting paper mountain. She lit the other side. It finally seemed to stick, burning color back into the hall. We backed up and watched.

 

“How did she end up like that? Is any of what she said true?”

 

“Everything is true to a point, it’s just missing some things. Autumn had Yenna’s number when she came here, but Yenna wouldn’t answer after the first call. She avoided her. So Autumn had to find Cora, and then Cora took her to Eon Tech. But she tried very hard to get in touch with Yenna, and was crushed when she refused to help. Autumn tried to kill herself, and it moved everyone to action, and that was the start of a very bad habit.

 

“Everything else sounds right until you get to your father and Tracia.”

 

“Who is she?” I asked, getting excited. “The dictator, right? In Anity?”

 

“Lawrence is the son of Tracia Bishop, the dictator over Anity. You’re her grandchild, and she’s been trying to start a war over you for years. Before it was a war over you, it was a war over Lou. Before Lou, Astley. Etc, etc, all the way back to Lawrence himself. The woman thirsts for war.”

 

I tried to comprehend that. I really did, but I just couldn’t find a way to. Alicia took a deep breath, unbothered by the smoke, and turned to walk the halls. I followed behind her.

 

“A lot of this is before my time, but there’s a peace treaty in place between Anity, Virginia Steeps, and a place called Lauryn. Every time your mother took a breath, Tracia claimed it broke the treaty. If she gave birth, it broke the treaty. If one of her children died, it broke the treaty. Constant nonsense. Autumn never had time to grieve, or process anything. The only thing that shut Tracia up even for a second was the marriage to Lawrence. Otherwise, we would be at war.”

 

“Is my dad a hostage?” She rolled her eyes. We stepped into an office and Alicia poured more lighter fluid everywhere, stabbing her heel into a desk to reach the wall. I grabbed another canister from her garter to help. We soaked the room, then moved to the next one.

 

This would be easier with a giant can of gasoline.

 

Finally, Alicia answered me. “No, and if he is a hostage, then so is your mother. Autumn had the same amount of choice in the matter. She didn’t want to marry him, she didn’t want to have a family with him. I don’t think she ever had the chance to decide if she wanted children someday. Tracia wanted Autumn dead to stay on the good side of the Shadows she loved so much. The Creature was persistent, unfortunately. But it’s not Autumn’s fault. She was a child. If Tracia hadn’t insisted that Autumn be extradited and executed, the poor girl could’ve gone on with her life without any help from Lawrence. He could’ve gone on with his.”

 

I stopped to think about my next question. Alicia looked a little bored with the topic, spraying lighter fluid over a bulletin board.

 

“Why’d they get married?”

 

“Ugh, that’s such a long story. I have another building to burn after this.”

 

“I can help.”

 

“I have something else for you to do.” We grabbed more paper, and then we walked around the building burning curtains and beds. She let me pick a side and light fires in every room. I took the time to think about what she’d said. Daynah was the oldest at the moment, but was that always the case? Did Autumn swap them around? There was another wall of blood at the end of the hall I chose, and I lit a bunch of papers in the hall and turned around. We met back by the first fire. It hadn’t broken the grey area yet.

 

Alicia cracked her neck and continued.

 

“You know the story about the Shadows attacking already. The dictator is human, and a proud human at that, but she wanted to become close with the Shadows for leverage. Who can wage war with you if you have a Leviathan on your side? Never mind the fact the thing can’t move. She wanted to look powerful. Autumn won’t say a bad word about her, but the woman allows all types of deplorable behavior in Anity. She’s a nightmare.”

 

“Do you live in Anity now?” She gave me a vicious look, and I made a mental note not to ask personal questions. The less I asked, the more she talked, but we kept having long breaks where we just piled onto the fire. Smoke crawled over the ceiling, the flames invisible inside the rooms. I walked down a hall to see a giant wall of fire, spreading faster than I could run, but Alicia grabbed me. We moved toward the back door. I watched her body language, waiting for her to loosen up, and then I continued.

 

“What’s a Leviathan?” Again, she ignored me, continuing her previous thought.

 

“What the dictator couldn’t say was that she wanted the smaller leviathan, the Second in Command, to be happy. She wanted it appeased. After the attack on that city, she had to blame it on something. Most humans don’t know anything Shadows, Devils, Hybrids, all that nonsense. They definitely didn’t know their great leader was doing the bidding of some sea monster. So she couldn’t let them find out that the big idiot killed all those people. She chose to blame it on Autumn. Autumn was blasted all over the news as some 15-year-old spy, she was a terrorist. They made it seem like she’d led a rebellion against Anity for Virginia Steeps. The people turned on the poor girl, not understanding Shadows enough to smell the lies. They wanted blood. Tracia just wanted to give Autumn to the Second in Command and be done with it. They still play broadcasts calling for Autumn’s capture and execution, if you can believe it.”

 

We came across a series of giant windows in the back. The backyard was completely white. There was a wrought-iron gate, and even that was white, specks of black paint remaining. The charred remains of animals dotted the bleached grass. It all looked like a line drawing. Alicia sighed, looking at her bottle of lighter fluid in disdain.

 

“Lawrence, for all his faults, didn’t like his mother’s behavior. He was a scientist at Eon Tech in Chastain, living a lowkey life. He’d denounced his mother and moved on. He had a fiance and a nice house and two children. He hadn’t wanted to get married until he met that woman; for the life of me, I can’t remember her name. Again, this was before my time. Anity has strict customs with marriage, and it’s seen as a sacred act. He made the mistake of revealing his identity for Autumn’s sake, saying he could pardon her. Eon Tech decided he could do even more than that. Whoever he chose for a wife would be given automatic amnesty, and Tracia wouldn’t dare harm a member of her own family.”

 

“Why did they care so much? About my mom?” Alicia grumbled, and I could almost feel her deciding whether she would answer or not.

 

“They didn’t. Yenna did. The real Yenna, not that Creature. And Yenna promised them she would be more forthcoming with information and help if they helped out. That was something she’d never done before. She didn’t keep her word, but they gained a brilliant ally in Autumn.”

 

We walked toward the backdoor until Alicia hesitated, staring down at me. She handed me a handful of gum, but we still turned and headed back to the front. The flames lapped out of the doors now, the smoke so thick I couldn’t see the ceiling.

 

“It was surprising. Autumn was 15, orphaned, and had little to no guidance outside of Eon Tech and Yenna. She didn’t know Lawrence, didn’t even want to. She begged to be allowed to find her own way, actually. Lawrence refused the marriage idea. Yenna grew tired of dealing with the situation. She had to get forceful with Lawrence; his fiance was used as an example of what happens when humans argue back. Yenna was lovely, but she was vicious at times. The poor woman was in a vegetative state for years.”

 

“How old was he?” I struggled not to stutter around a cough growing in my chest.

 

“26. They signed a peace treaty, roping Lauryn in for a separate conflict. Autumn was given Lawrence’s older child as an assurance that he wouldn’t abandon her. That would be Reese, another girl with Anity red hair.” She rolled a strand of my hair around her finger absently. “Autumn was wonderful to her. When she rescued David and me, she was still caring for Reese. We found out later that she wasn’t her mother, but she never mentioned it.” I sucked in a breath in surprise, coughing out a ton of smoke, and Alicia pulled me to her. She waved her hand in my face, clearing smoke, and I worried her long nails would rip my skin by accident. None of the smoke or flames bothered her. We could’ve been standing in a park.

 

“His fiance and his younger daughter … what was her name … Kensy! Kensy stayed with him. He didn’t actually even speak to Autumn after the wedding until she was in her 20’s. His fiance left him and took Kensy, as far as I know, and he decided to make the best of it and move on with Autumn.” She paused at this, thinking, but didn’t elaborate.

 

“He adored her when they met, but there was always a cloud. And imagine having to win your wife from another man?” She laughed, smoke puffing from her lungs.

 

Could you cough or something?

 

“Autumn and David were together by then. It was awkward. David didn’t want to give her up. Then Autumn decided she should try to make the marriage work. Being with one person is easier than being with a man with six people in his head, I assume. She still helped us with our goals. But remember, Lawrence went back. He never had to. So don’t pity him.”

 

Alicia didn’t elaborate on their goals, and I hadn’t mentioned I knew anythin about them. I figured it’d be smart of me to let her talk instead of asking.

 

It felt like the front door was miles away, and the heat was starting to get to me. I wobbled a little, almost falling, but Alicia pulled me up, walking faster.

 

“They’ve been together ever since. Lawrence never blamed Autumn for the marriage. She was too young for blame. They had Ridley. I can’t tell you much about the political tensions, but it seemed their little plan worked. Things have been tense for a long time, sure. Autumn has refused to let Tracia meet any of their natural-born children other than Louetta, with good reason. I have a bit of suspicion about some of the natural ones that are supposed to be dead.” Again, she paused, looking down at me.

 

“What kind of sus-“

 

“But Anity hasn’t attacked, and we haven’t incited anything. Your mother was able to build a small life with Lawrence, but she was never able to escape Tracia or the Creature’s wrath. They just won’t let it go.”

 

We stopped at the original colorless hallway, peering down. The fire finally sped through, the entire hall bursting with color. Alicia started walking back toward the front doors. I followed. Another coughing fit hit me. Alicia ignored it completely this time, her head nearly hidden by the smoke. It blew from the back of the building, the sides, everywhere. I tried to move faster.

 

“The Shadows… still… wanted them?”

 

“Of course. The monster fell out with Anity, and Tracia didn’t get her Leviathan. She … well, I should be honest,” she sighed, and she looked a little ashamed. “Your parents did escape for a time. Lawrence and Autumn built their little family, and they were fine until I came back into their life many years after she rescued me from … a situation. A long time, actually, maybe a decade or so, maybe more. There was a period of time when the monster was trying to conceive, to produce a new Leviathan. They were trying to move to land. I killed any children she successfully made. She warned me to stop, but I was focused. It was a mistake. Yenna started killing my children, and she never stopped. I tried to save one after an altercation with her, and Autumn was the only one I knew who could help. It didn’t work. And Yenna found her.”

 

“Why didn’t you kill Bylas?” I asked. She kept walking but stiffened a little.

 

“The little goon with David? Why would I kill him?” Every ounce of energy in my body went to keeping my face blank.

 

What a stupid question, damn, I’m dying in here! It’s not my fault, I can’t think. I tried to pull in another breath of air and fell to the ground. Alicia didn’t move to pick me up.

 

“Oh, he just helps… Yenna, that’s all. So I wondered…”

 

“I’m not killing Yenna’s cohorts right now. Or even Yenna. We have a sort of peace treaty of our own. While we deal with a bigger issue. What a stupid question to ask me of all people.” I could see Alicia going over my words in her head. The longer she thought, the angrier she seemed to get.

 

“Why would you ask that? Are you that dense?” I tried to change the subject. There was an explosion behind us that did it for me. We finally reached the doors, and they let in a wave of fresh air, fueling the fires. I found myself gasping for it. I tumbled down the brick stairs, crying out, but Alicia walked normally. Her thin heel stepped next to my face, but she still didn’t help me up.

 

I pushed myself up, shaking, and spit in the opposite direction.

 

She side-eyed me while I huffed and heaved, moving out of the way of the billowing smoke. When I could finally breathe again, we moved down to the gate. She wiped at the sweat on my face, handing me a big canvas bag of gum.

 

“Keep those for later. And maybe learn to keep your mouth shut about what you know and don’t know.” There was a shift in the air. I’d irritated her somehow.

 

” Anyway, Autumn had four more natural daughters when the monster followed me to her. They were all by Lawrence, and they also raised Reese. Yenna found them and consumed their eldest, Ridley.”

 

“Yenna melted them all?” I said.

 

“Did I say that?”

 

“No. Sorry.” Alicia looked around for Mr. David, her mood sinking deeper and deeper. I spit again, and when I turned her big pupils were blazing into me, wide and unblinking, head tilted like a cat.

 

Holy crap. I really pissed her off.

 

“Yenna consumed Ridley and emptied Ella and Astley. Wait … was it Astley?” She thought for a moment. “Either way. Your mother … kept their bodies. And she became good at binding Shadows in her work outside of Eon Tech. Both she and Lawrence continued to work there even after the issues with Anity. And, well. She filled her daughters with the Shadows. I guess husk is accurate for the later girls. But at least 8 were naturally-born by that point, and one wasn’t hers. She kept Reese. I can’t remember all of them for the life of me, maybe there were more. Who knows.”

 

Alicia turned away when we heard a car driving up. The flames billowed behind us, another explosion rocketing through the building.

 

“Lawrence decided to try and be proactive, to maybe spare himself and Autumn any pain. The Shadows were relentless after they found them. Even Autumn thought that it would be better to find an alternative solution. She agreed to help the Second in Command, now Yenna, and her little Feeders adjust to land. Which I warned her against. But it gave them peace of mind, and less empty bodies for Autumn to fill. Unfortunately, Shadows are all about survival, and if they know you can help, they’ll want help.”

 

Mr. David finally pulled up, and Alicia took her time opening the gate. I bent over to throw up, heaving. She stopped to let me, nodding to Mr. David.

 

“Binding Shadows and helping them adapt turned into finding ways that Yenna could produce bodies for them. Lawrence showed her the process Autumn used for their original daughters. Of course, The Creature loved it, and she offered to pay for the girls they made. They were ‘sturdier’. They’re not human, but they’re not Devils or Shadows, and they bind permanently. They don’t rot, they don’t bloat in the water, they’re perfect for Shadow bodies. If they don’t work out, they’re eaten or used for whatever experiment some lunatic has in mind.

 

“Autumn had a basement full of them, all of them different versions of her original daughters. These were more copies, and they were sort of composites. They had new faces. Lawrence sold the extras to Yenna, who had begun to think of Autumn as a boon instead of someone to torture. You know, he’s still Tracia’s son, and she’s gotten back into the Shadow’s good graces. They need her more than she needs them. So they step carefully, and they don’t anger Lawrence. I have a suspicion that he’s communicating with Tracia again. Casually. I think part of him always wanted her to stop making the girls, and he thought this would hurt her enough to abandon it. He hated it. I can’t blame him, but it was how she decided to cope.” I stood up, weak, and waved for her to continue. She stared at me.

 

“Why didn’t… Yenna… kill them?”

 

The Creature had some personal issues, and she needed Autumn’s help.” She didn’t elaborate.

 

I took a second to clear my throat, and we started toward the car again.

 

“Why is my dad still there if he doesn’t want to be there?” She smiled.

 

“Don’t let his behavior fool you. Lawrence loves Autumn. I’ve heard it’s hard not to if you knew her before all the trauma rotted her brain. He wants Autumn to get better. During their trip to Anity, I came across them. I had to help with a small situation that arose when Tracia met Louetta. She wanted to keep her, and I couldn’t have that. We… disagreed a bit.” The smirk on Alicia’s face didn’t sit well with me. Mr. David jumped out and opened the door for her.

 

“But selling us doesn’t make my mom happy. He’s not afraid she won’t leave him, or kill herself or something?”

 

“I’m not him, so I don’t know. Maybe he thinks he can force her home to Anity if there are no children left. Or that The Creature would have no use for them once their daughters are gone, and they could just bind the Shadows in Anity. There’s another reason The Creature didn’t risk just taking them from them. Autumn ingested cyanide plenty of times, and without Autumn there is no binding. There’s also the killing, and that’s the part no one wants to talk about. Yenna is as afraid of that as the rest of us.” I watched her slide in the car. Something stopped me. I didn’t want it to be over. I wasn’t satisfied with her answers. Mr. David opened the door for me, but I stood still.

 

“She didn’t want to sell them?”

 

“Autumn didn’t think they were just ‘husks’. And she didn’t think they should have to live out whatever horrors Yenna had planned for them. Daynah was killed randomly a long time ago. Some ‘accident’. Autumn feared they were going to start murdering her children for the empty bodies. So she’d kill them herself instead, using methods that she considered humane. I’m afraid I may have influenced her a bit in that department, and it’s a hard instinct to break.” Mr. David walked back around the car, but Alicia didn’t seem to notice I wasn’t in. Her long legs still sat against the asphalt, and she tilted her head while she talked.

 

She likes telling stories.

 

“Autumn started overproducing the husks. She’d make an initial husk, and then she’d make composites. And she’d make a lot. I think at one point I visited and Autumn had nearly thirty girls. All with unique names and personalities. My gosh, the woman could pull a million girl names out of the air. When Lawrence sold them to The Creature, they disappeared. Autumn said she had no idea where they went. He found a mass grave in their backyard.

 

“The rest of her natural children were dying suddenly. I kept an eye on them while The Creature was around, and she wasn’t doing it. It was Autumn. There was a long gap where she wouldn’t engage with anyone, wouldn’t even look at people. She sunk deep into depression. Your mother is aging. She has David’s blood, sure. But that can only do so much, and she’s been avoiding it. I don’t think she wants him to consume her again, partially or otherwise. I worried even then that Autumn was losing her mind. That no one was helping her deal with her grief. Lawrence insisted she was fine. I pushed hard for him to protect his girls, and he tried.” She stopped, staring up at the sky. I didn’t push her this time.

 

“We going?” Mr. David called, trying and failing to hide his impatience, and she pulled her legs in the car. I couldn’t move. I wasn’t satisfied, not even a little.

 

“I want to hear why I’m isolated,” I said, crossing my arms.

 

Alicia smirked. “I told you why.”

 

“I want to know the whole story.” She rocked her foot a little, thinking.

 

“I guess I can do that. When my needs evolved, I approached Autumn about using one of the empty bodies. The ones that didn’t make it through her little process. I even offered to pay, and we made a plan. She deviated from it.” She didn’t elaborate on the plan.

 

“She decided she wanted to give birth to you two and keep you for herself. Lawrence had to step in for me. I didn’t want to be a monster to her, but I needed to move forward with the plans. Astley was supposed to be involved, but she’d grown too much, and then she was killed. I gave up, leaving Autumn to her happiness, but Lawrence didn’t want any more children. He approached me to continue with the transaction.

 

“He tried to sell Louetta to me when she was born, secretly. I paid for the house you live in now. Autumn found out and threw the poor girl off the roof, and it’s only because of Astley catching her that she’s alive at all. I got scared, and I told Lawrence I’d go elsewhere if she was going to keep it up. I asked that Louetta be isolated. Oh, it was terrible. Autumn was crushed. But she would only kill the girl.

 

“I convinced her to keep Louetta and give me the next child, which she decided would be her last. No more husks, no more children.” Alicia grimaced.

 

“Except when you were born, you had red hair. It was instant. Even with all the money I’d spent, I couldn’t convince Autumn that you weren’t some sign for her. You were the only one of her children with red hair. You were supposed to be hers, she was supposed to raise you. We’d had a deal. I didn’t care about your damn hair color. Autumn took cyanide as per usual, but I didn’t care. She did it five more times. I told her it would be more convincing if she didn’t get up, and she poisoned another natural daughter instead. I finally relented.”

 

“Why did you want me? Please answer.” Both she and Mr. David turned to look at me. I moved closer to the car, afraid they’d pull off.

 

“Insistent!” Here, she stopped and watched her hands. This wasn’t a question about Autumn alone. It was about her. It was about her own plans, and things she obviously didn’t want anyone to know. I tried to look pathetic, but then decided it wouldn’t work. So I stood with my head high, still wanting to cough. I tried to look down at her, to make her smaller. She let out a small laugh and nodded to me.

“Do you know how to keep a secret?”

 

“Yeah. Of course.”

 

“Do you really? Or will you just run off and get yourself killed?” I didn’t know how to respond to that. Mr. David revved the engine, but I stood my ground. Alicia finally shrugged.

 

“I specifically wanted you for Astor, with Osh there to protect you both. I want you to be hers.” She staggered a little, then decided she’d said enough about it. “Autumn wouldn’t even let me see you. I had another moment of clarity and left her to enjoy your existence, figuring I could revisit the subject later. I worried, still. Lawrence had no desire to raise you, or even have you in the home. I was paying for your care, and so I asked that you be separated as well. At that point, it looked like Autumn had murdered six of her natural-born children, all in the name of sparing them. I didn’t want to take the risk.

 

“Lawrence promised that she would never be alone with you or Louetta, but I found her out in the city with Louetta strapped to her chest all the time. She looked happy, so I didn’t bother her, but I was more insistent with you. He continued to sell the girls, and he probably will down to the last one. I think he needs help with his own grief. They’re two rotting minds that could’ve been brilliant, and everyone just watches them fall.”

 

Including you.

 

I wanted to ask so badly why Alicia didn’t help. Why did she fuel that fire? Why didn’t Mr. David take the kids? Why were they all okay with watching my parents fall deeper and deeper into insanity, and then watching them drive me there as well? It hit me that Alicia didn’t care about any of them. She didn’t care about me. I thought about Osh, and how nervous he always was, how zoned out he could get.

We weren’t children. We were pills, adhesive strips, and weapons.

 

They shouldn’t be raising us, she’s right. I bet Astor has it just as bad.

 

Mr. David sighed impatiently. Alicia gave him an address, reciting it slowly. I didn’t get in.

 

“Did I answer all your questions?” She asked, turning slightly.

 

“Yes. I think.” I couldn’t bring myself to get in. I stood with my back to the building as it burned, the smoke billowing in the air, and I just stared at the two of them. They didn’t pretend to feel any shame. I didn’t think they felt anything at all.

 

“Noah, you’re a capable young girl. Maybe you could help me with something? I want you to introduce yourself to Astor. See if you can convince her to stop murdering all these poor innocent people.” I thought to myself, biting my lip.

 

“Why did my mom say I’m going to expire?” Alicia laughed and pointed at my car door. I got in, eyeing the way Mr. David reddened at the question.

 

“That’s uncomfortable, but a good question. No one else has the balls to tell you, I assume. What do you think, David? Should I tell her?” Mr. David shrugged, and Alicia laughed a nervous laugh. It was loud and heavy, unnatural.

 

“Autumn is not romantically available for your father, or David, or anyone else. She has dedicated her life to bringing Yenna Teroy back from the grips of the Shadows. She’s tried so many ways, and it’s one of the only reasons she allows The Creature to enter certain spaces. Underestimating that woman is such a mistake. Hair samples, skin samples, she takes everything she can. It’s annoying. I want my friend back, I loved her, I wish nothing more than for Yenna to wake up one day as herself. But the monster has been in her for decades. There’s nothing left to hope for there.” Alicia paused, still finding her words. We all waited while she chewed her tongue, and her nervousness made me panic.

 

“She created the husks for this purpose, before she needed them to replace her daughters. To practice creating an artificial Latch. To be able to force the process. None of us know whether or not Yenna could make Latches, she never really said. But Autumn is determined to pull the real Yenna from the body and put her somewhere else. Do you see where I’m going with this?” I swallowed. Mr. David started the car, still avoiding my gaze.

 

“Okay. She’s going to replace me with Yenna.”

 

“Oh no, there’s more than that. I managed to get the truth out of her recently when I brought up asking you to be Astor’s Latch. She claimed you’d already said no. She claimed you wanted to give your life for her cause, and so did Louetta. She admitted that she wanted you two to live good lives, good boring lives, but that she had the end of your lives in mind. Before everything goes wrong, she said. Before things get too hard for you, and you outgrow her. 19 was a good age. It’s right before things go to shit. It was unlike her, I admit. Maybe she’s finally gone insane. It’s part of the reason I agreed to speak with you, or even humor Lawrence. It might be time to step in a bit.” Alicia waited, listening to me breathe.

 

“She’s going to try to transfer the real Yenna into you. She’s been trying to do this for years on the husks, first the empty ones and then the functional ones. Trying to create artificial Latches. As far as I know, she’s only tried it on one human child. On Reese. You both had that Anity red hair, remember?”

 

“Yes,” I whispered. The car felt like it was getting smaller. I held on to the seat and calmed myself while she talked, not wanting to give her any more of my tears or panic. Not wanting to give Mr. David anything. He started driving and did his best to ignore us.

 

Alicia continued, “I was surprised and disappointed. She’d loved Reese, I didn’t understand why she’d take that risk. The furthest she got was making the girl partially immortal. Reese couldn’t die, somehow, but she wasn’t Yenna. But you know scientists and their ugly curiosity. Maybe it was environmental! Maybe the problem was that Reese wasn’t in the same dire condition as the real Yenna. There’s a deep spot of ocean near Anity where Autumn practices. It’s not the Mouth, not nearly like it, but it’s a safer alternative. She had David bring Reese there and put her under, even though she wasn’t dead.” She gave Mr. David an ugly look, but he stared ahead while he drove.

 

“They weighed her down and let her drown there while Autumn tried to complete the transformation.” Alicia looked a little sick, but I couldn’t tell if that was just me. Maybe I was just sick. Maybe I was the sick one.

 

“When I found out, I went there myself and released her. The poor girl rotted from the inside, and who knows how long it’d been since she’d let this life go, but she looked tortured. How shocked was I to find other girls down there? I have no idea if they are natural-born or husks, I can’t keep track of your mother’s children. There was one natural-born girl that I recognized named Ingrid, but she was picked clean and dead. I couldn’t detach the remaining girls, they were fused to their binds. They didn’t look aware.”

 

“Your mother decided that maybe even those conditions were wrong. Maybe you needed to be pulled into the Mouth, the real Mouth. There’s a section that’s abandoned, a piece that belonged to a long-dead Leviathan. Anyone can get there with the proper equipment. Autumn has a few husks there already, but they’re not you. They’re not alive, and natural-born. They’re not human.”

 

“Can you please help me?” I whispered. Alicia sighed.

 

“I have been. You’re isolated not only so Autumn won’t kill you, but so Autumn won’t prep you. Hybrid blood can do a number on your insides, but it also acts as a preservative. Remember that whenever she has you swallow cyanide, or use her special little coats. It never comes out clean. There’s always something left behind.

 

“And now she’s agreed to take in Astor, but I’m no idiot. She doesn’t plan on letting you become Astor’s Latch. She wants Astor to help make you immortal so you can survive being pulled into the Mouth, and then being kept there. And then she’ll try to complete the transformation. Maybe you’ll stay longer, it depends on how long it takes for you to become Yenna.” Alicia watched me through the rearview mirror while I processed the news. I opened my mouth, then closed it. I tried again.

 

“But your daughter will be there. You can’t just leave us-“

 

“Astor is capable. Autumn would never get the chance. And good news: my daughter would never give a soul the chance to harm you if you endear yourself to her. And you’ll find quite quickly that I’ve built more than just Osh to protect her, and you by proxy. I can’t say the same for Louetta, and I regret not helping there.”

 

I held my breath. “How is she going to do it?”

 

“Hm. I must admit, I was surprised by all of this, and I’m not speaking from a deep place of knowledge. It’s not like Autumn, not the Autumn I know. As far as I can tell, first she’ll try it on you since you’re ideal physically, and if that doesn’t work, Louetta goes as well. It was only supposed to be Louetta at first, but you had to be born with all that red hair. I don’t think she plans on letting either of you die from the rotten organs like Reese, even when it doesn’t work. And it won’t. You can’t force a Latching like that.”

 

“I don’t-” She turned all the way around to look at me, her giant pupils catching the light from outside, and all my words sifted back into my head.

 

“My alternate ending for you is to follow my original plan. You can be tortured in the name of becoming Yenna. Or you can have a small chance at a normal life with the possibility of becoming Astor. Once you turn 19, there is no Noah.”

We climbed out of the car in front of a pretty suburban house. The same buzzing was in the air, this time the actual air outside, and Alicia was nervous.

 

“She’s in there. I just don’t know where her light is, David. I don’t want to risk you running into it. Drive around a little and make sure it’s safe.” He nodded and pulled off. We stood there, surveying the yard. This was another house that Astor had destroyed. Alicia felt around her legs for another bottle of lighter fluid, then sighed.

 

“They all think I’m on the run from Yenna.” She said casually, tilting the fluid from side to side.

 

“You’re not?” She didn’t answer.

 

“They think I threw my daughter away.”

 

“Davey? She would be really happy to hear you say you didn’t.” Alicia nodded, comprehending, and smiled a little.

 

Davey. One of David’s goons. He even renamed her. I figured it was her. She looks like … the old me.” Alicia stared off into the distance.

 

“Sometimes, girl, nobody needs to know what you’re up to. Why you’re doing something. Telling them only gives them time to build doubt in you. Sometimes you have to trust yourself to carry out a thing without telling the world about it. I think you’ll all be surprised when you see what I do.” Mr. David walked up, scratching his hair, nervous. I saw the car parked up the street.

 

There was a slight buzz of devastation in me, but I couldn’t reach it. I stood there with them, these people who couldn’t save me, and stared at the door. In the house was Astor. In the house was my alternative.

 

There is no Noah.

 

“Where was she when you found her?” He asked, and Alicia held back anger that we could still feel anyway.

 

“Well, I followed her after you lost her the second time and she was back at the group home. She had a hissy fit, and now she’s here. Every time I try to talk to her, she has a fit and kills everyone, so I’m leaving her alone. I think the owners of this home have already been taken care of.” The place was smoldering, heat waves rising from the roof, but there was no smoke.

 

Mr. David puffed his cheeks out, giving her a deep shrug. He said unashamed, “I’m not going in there.”

 

“How courageous of you. Should I send the child instead?” She gave me another piece of gum.

 

She was going to send me anyway, huh? Why does it matter if I don’t exist?

 

They both looked at me, waiting.

 

“I guess I can go in. What if she obliterates me?”

 

“Oh, she wouldn’t,” Alicia sang, only smiling a little. “Chew the gum. And if she does do something, find someplace dark. Very dark. Get her word that she’ll go to live with you. That’s all I need. Astor is good for her word.” I nodded, smacking on the gum and putting another in my mouth. When I walked forward my clothes started getting hot. I stopped at the door. I took a chance and touched the knob, and it was cool. The door pushed open easily.

 

“Goodbye, Noah. Remember our talk.” I turned and Alicia was waving. I turned back without returning it.

 

Inside, the house was fine. Nothing was damaged or burned. I moved forward as slow as possible, not touching anything. The closer I got to the kitchen, the more I felt the spit dry in my mouth. I closed my eyes, calming myself down. There was no turning back.

 

The buzzing turned into a long groan, and then everything was silent.

 

“Hey. Uh, Astor or whatever,” I called, moving as lightly as possible. There was no answer. “Can you do me a favor and not obliterate me? You’re supposed to move in with me soon. It would be awkward.” There was another groan in the kitchen. When I turned the corner a dark-skinned girl with thick hair down to her knees stood in front of the sink. Her hands shook as she ran water over them, the water evaporating as soon as it touched her skin. She cursed, arms vibrating. Finally, she turned, head held up high. Astor stared at me, unblinking, but didn’t move. She looked wild, her lips chapped and her clothes filthy, but she looked aware.

 

I’d expected big pupils like her mom. Maybe even the weird scar on the side of her face. But Astor was just a scared teenager with a lot of hair.

 

“Hi. I’m Noah. Don’t kill me.”

 

“Is my mother here?” Her voice was slow, thick, and deliberate. I thought about my answer for a long time.

 

“No. It’s just me.” She nodded, and the intensity sifted out of the air. “Are you afraid of your mom or something?”

 

“No. I just don’t want to talk to her right now. I’m disappointed.” Astor looked worried, glancing down at her clothes. “I apologize. This is a bad impression to make. I’m not usually so grimy. I would never disrespect your home like this. I really do want to find a home, things just go wrong. I hate- I hate being out here.” I’d expected her to be forceful and angry, but I didn’t let it throw me off.

 

“Well. It looks like you’ve been dealing with a few things. I won’t hold it against you.” Astor straightened her blouse. Her hands ran down her pants, smoothing them as much as she could. She had on a pearl bracelet, and she closed her eyes in frustration when she realized it was covered in charred blood.

 

Alicia might as well be here picking over her. They train us so well.

 

“I apologize.”

 

I pulled my hair out of my band and held it out for her. She didn’t move. “It’s okay. As long as you’re really coming, it’s okay. You can walk around spitting blood at the walls if you want to, hun, as long as you really come.” She winced.

 

“I’m not some disgusting monster.” I felt the room heating up again.

 

“Of course not. I’m just saying you can do whatever you want.”

 

“Why? You don’t know me, why do you want me to live with you so badly?” Again, I weighed my options. Astor looked as vulnerable as she could in her current state.

 

“My family is the most messed up family on the planet. I didn’t know my name until I was five.” I paused, feeling myself blush. “I have a lot of sisters, but I never see them. I’m isolated on my side of the house. I only started going to school because my dad thinks I tried to kill myself. I’ve never been anywhere. I’m so lonely I could … evaporate.” We both looked at the sink. Astor considered my words, pursing her lips.

 

“This is the family I’m supposed to live with?”

 

“Yeah. I don’t even get to eat dinner with them, or go anywhere by myself, or do anything. I have no idea how to handle myself. But that’s okay, hun! Because you’re going to protect me. That’s why I want you to live with me. And I’m going to take care of you, and- and treat you like you’re not a ticking bomb.” She looked embarrassed all of a sudden, grabbing a strand of her hair.

 

“And look, Osh said he misses you! And that he thinks you’re beautiful and your hair is cool.” She blushed. I couldn’t remember what he’d actually said, but it seemed to work a little.

 

“I can’t protect anyone. They die. They all just die.”

 

“Well, you better learn! You better figure it out. I’ve been waiting for you for weeks, and you’re my only hope in the entire world.” I felt myself crying, but I kept going, clasping my hands together. “You’re the last hope I have. The last one ever. I’m going to leave here and watch my momma give a speech, and then I get to go home and sit in isolation. You’re going to break all of that. I know it. Or you can incinerate me, or do whatever the hell it is you’re doing, because I’m done. I’m not leaving unless you promise you’re coming to live with me.” She lost some of her steam, furrowing her brows.

 

“You’re just here to try and talk me out of running again.”

 

“Oh, hun. I don’t think I could talk you out of anything. I’m asking you. I’m begging you. Are you coming?” I smacked the gum mercilessly, trying to distract myself from all the breaks in my voice.

 

“Yes. I’ll … yes. I’d be glad to.”

 

“Good! That’s all I wanted. You can finish up whatever you’re doing, hun, I don’t even want to know. Just show up. I’m trusting you.” I turned to leave, but she made a noise. “What?”

 

“We should shake hands. It’s polite.” I laughed a little, nervous and hot. The same hands that evaporated running water reached out to me. The groaning noise returned, filling the kitchen, cracking out of the walls. She waited for me to move forward, and while I weighed my options the wallpaper started to shift. I felt my eyes drying out.

 

Try again, bitch.

 

I walked over through the wriggling air and shook her hand, staring her straight in the eyes. Somehow, her hand wasn’t hot. It was just the shaky hand of another nervous girl.

 

“I’m not afraid. You’re going to save me, and I’m going to save you. Show up.” I left, and when I got outside I felt sweat pouring off of my face. Alicia was gone, but Mr. David was still parked up the street, waiting for me. I let the air cool me until I could breathe again, then walked to his car.

 

“That’s it?” He asked, leaning over to open the door. I got in and nodded. My bag of gum sat on the backseat.

 

“That’s it.”

 

He gave me a long laugh, this one right from his stomach, and patted my head like he was cleaning a dirty pillow. I stopped him.

 

“Well. Let’s see what happens.”

Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller