Chapter 11: The Ballad of Autumn Pt. 3 - The Creature

NOAH DILL - 14

There’s so much that happens in life. So much that presents itself as truth, and so much that can expose those truths as fantasy. When I was a stupid 14-year-old, the person who looked and sounded the strongest was the one with the truth. It was just how my brain worked. Leaving Astor, watching the home smoke behind us, everything I’d heard was the truth like no one else wanted to tell me. You couldn’t convince me otherwise.

 

And, you know, whatever. I felt a little wiser, at least. I felt like I could prepare. Despite the absolute walking pile of trash that I thought Alicia was, I appreciated her.

 

After that visit with Alicia, Mr. David drove me to the Chastain Aquarium. We didn’t speak for most of the ride, and I just watched the water roll beside us with so little emotion that I was afraid I’d died. There was a spot out there that would hold my writhing body. Somewhere out in that water, I’d struggle against chains, my only company Lou and my other dead sisters that had failed my mother before. The image stained into my skull, becoming a part of me.

 

I didn’t even get a chance to adjust my feelings for Autumn before the next thing happened. I didn’t even get a chance to let Alicia’s words sink in.

 

Mr. David coughed, hands gripping tighter on the steering wheel. He turned red when he saw me looking at him in the rearview mirror.  I had the feeling he’d rather be anywhere else than sitting with me behind him, stewing over Alicia’s words.

 

“What are you,” I whispered. He moved his hand to the volume button on the radio, then thought better of it.

 

“Same as you. At least I was at one point.”

 

“Then, what am I?” He chuckled, and hun, I wanted with everything in my body to put my hand through the back of his head. Push something out of him, whether it be a brain or wires or whatever made up his body.

 

A deep, husky woman’s voice filled the car.

 

“I could help you, you know. If you help me. Send Osh. Tell him I need him, and his father needs him. He has to-” I jerked forward, looking around for the source of the voice. A soggy, ugly cough ripped through Mr. David, but he steadied himself and kept driving. His face froze in the mirror, utterly mortified.

 

What the entire fuck?

 

“What was that,” I asked, still leaned forward, still staring at him in the mirror.

 

Mr. David never answered me, just parked outside of the aquarium. He hopped out too quick for me to say anything else. I looked in the front seat, tested the volume button. It couldn’t have come from anywhere but him.

 

When I finally got out, he walked far ahead of me into the building. I wanted to ask more questions. Maybe if I just kept everyone talking, I could make some sense of something.

 

Bylas stood out front, a gas mask over his face. His clothes were tighter than usual, damn near fit to his skin. I realized he was wearing a swimsuit when I got closer. It should’ve been a big clue as to what was about to come, but I was so overwhelmed already that I just walked up. Casual. Mock friendly.

 

Oblivious.

 

“What the hell is that,” I asked, still trying to find my voice somewhere deep in my stomach. Bylas didn’t respond, shrugging, but I could practically feel him blush behind the gas mask.

 

“Lou know you’re out here being a goon?” He shrugged again and set up a big sign that said AT CAPACITY. I imagined the number of people that building would need to be full, and reality sunk in. Just for some stupid aquarium opening, Autumn had attracted hundreds of people. Just to hear her speak. Just to see her cut some ribbon.

 

They really love that crazy bitch.

 

We walked in, and the reception area was empty. Mr. David gently made his way around, giving out commands.

 

“Did you check on him yet?” Bylas nodded.

 

“He’s not up. I don’t think there’s anything wrong; he’s just… asleep.”

 

“Go get the Fixer.” He waved his hand, pointing down a hall. Bylas hesitated, turning to look, then turned back. They were too aware of me watching them, of me listening. I tried to look casual.

 

“Davey has it,” he said, the words stuck behind the mask.

 

“Did I ask you that? Did I ask that?” Mr. David poked his finger into the eye of the mask until Bylas turned and hurried down the hall. I stared after him, then watched Mr. David peek around corners. He moved weird, shielding his face from me.

 

Don’t tell me he actually feels bad?

 

The gigantic lobby swallowed me, all the curves and arches of the ceiling too distant from anything I’d ever seen. I’d never been to an event, but I imagined it was usually more populated. There was no one behind the counter, no sounds coming from the hall. A large rattle came from behind me, and when I turned, Osh was closing up the big doors. He smiled shyly and walked over, neat but somehow always scruffy looking. I didn’t bother asking him what they were doing. He didn’t know. We were the innocent ones. For now, we were protected little projects.

 

“How’d it go? Was it Alicia or Astor,” Osh asked, glancing around curiously.

 

“At the group home? Alicia.” He wriggled his mouth around a little.

 

“Did she ask about me at all?”

 

“Nope. We had a normal afternoon. We burned down a building. She told me I’m going to drown in the ocean forever.” Out of everyone in my life up until that point, I don’t think anyone ever took anything I said seriously. Osh’s eyes popped open, and he turned me a little to see my face better.

 

“Drown forever? Are you sure she didn’t mean Astor? You’re not… you’re not like Astor, right? Do you have Devil Syndrome?” I couldn’t get my lips to open. Osh waited, each second pulling his face deeper into concern. “Do they cut your hair and nails or something? You don’t look like-”

 

“No, I’m human. That’s just what she said. We talked about my future. That’s it.”

 

“She hurt you?” He surveyed my body. I looked down at my dirty hands and laughed.

 

“No. Not like- not like that. Maybe a little, like, in my head or whatever. Nothing I’m not used to.” Mr. David walked up and started giving us directions, but Osh didn’t even move. The giant man stopped after a second, a nervous laugh bellowing in his throat, a little louder than his usual chuckle. Osh ignored him completely, still watching me.

 

“Nothing you’re not used to? What do you mean?” Mr. David’s giant hand clamped down on Osh’s shoulder.

 

“She’s fine. Just a little frazzled. You know how it is talking to Alicia-”

 

“Are you okay? Do you need help? Is it your father?” Osh wouldn’t let up. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I heard Bylas walking over. Davey was walking over. I wanted them to leave us alone. There was so much I wanted to tell him right then, just everything that had ever happened to me, but there were so many people around. Alicia’s little goon, Mr. David’s little goons, Autumn’s little goons. Who could I talk in front of without putting him in danger? Even the voice in the car was trying to find him. Everyone wanted to ‘talk’ to us.

 

“Son, what’s your problem?” Mr. David tried to get his attention, but Osh didn’t move, and all the friendliness drained from the man. Bylas moved closer, rubbing the back of his neck.

 

Osh is in the same boat as me.

 

Keeping my voice low, I laughed.

 

“No, I’m fine! I don’t need help right now. Ask me later, okay? Pr- promise you’ll ask me later.” He nodded. After a second, he turned to look up at Mr. David as if snapping out of a trance. Davey watched him with a blank expression, rubbing her hands together.

 

“Osh, stay out here. Don’t move from that spot. I don’t care if the building catches on fire, do you understand?” Mr. David gently put his hand on my back, urging me forward. I turned to watch Osh, to see the way he focused on me, the small encouraging smile he gave me. Alicia’s word meant a lot to me right then, even as angry as I was with her, as much as I hated her. Here was proof that she wasn’t fucking around.

 

Nobody was going to hurt me with Osh there.

 

We walked through the massive building. It was beautiful. There were giant walls of water, all filled with fish and sea life that I’d never seen. It was beautiful right up until I imagined myself in there, held down with chains, screaming out bubbles, clawing at myself. I imagined the fish picking off my skin, eating me. What would I look like underwater? Would my hair float around me like blood? Would my tears mix in with the water, pulsing out wastefully?

 

We turned a corner, coming to a grand hall, and the ground was lumpy. I tripped forward before I could think, swinging on Mr. David’s arm. A face sped toward me, mouth open. He covered my mouth before I could scream.

 

“David?” My mother’s voice echoed through the hall.

 

“Harold, for now. But call me whatever you’d like.” Autumn’s sigh floated over the bodies, over the line of bodies. Bylas and Davey walked around us, dragging people to the middle, lining them up. Hundreds of people on top of each other, next to each other. They were all dressed in fancy suits and dresses. I noticed Astley on the ground in front of a temporary stage, twisted up in pain, and Mr. David had to cover my mouth again.

 

“Let her go. Let her scream if she needs to. She’s not used to barbarism. It’s a good thing.” Autumn stepped down the stairs of the stage, her heels clicking slowly. The face she wore was the one she worked with, the one that concentrated. The one that didn’t enjoy what was going on, but would do a good job anyway.

 

“I wanted you to participate,” she muttered. She stepped down and leaned over Astley, pulling a blue latex glove onto her hand. “Lawrence can’t even be bothered to drop you off. Was it okay riding with Mr. David?”

 

“What is this? What happened?”

 

Autumn pulled Astley’s mouth open and removed black gunk from deep in her throat. Astley’s fingers clenched, and she jerked, a glob of vomit pulsing over her lips and cheek.

 

“I think she’s allergic or something,” she whispered. “It always bothers her stomach.” She wandered around, checking pulses.

 

“Mom…”

 

“Yenna demands bodies. Yenna demands I help her little Feeders bind to those bodies, that I get them on land. Yenna demands and demands and demands.” She stopped, looking me up and down, and it was only then that I thought of all the soot and fire. No excuse presented itself to me, so I just shut up. Her eyes surveyed my clothes.

 

“You took so long to get here, I didn’t even need to give you the Coat. Is everything okay? Are you burning things again?” One of the bodies moved closer to the entrance, crawling forward, and I watched Bylas walk over and wrap his fingers around the man’s throat. The guy struggled, but he put his foot on his stomach and clenched. We both watched until the struggling stopped. Bylas stood as if it meant nothing, as if none of it meant anything, and moved on to the next person.

 

My mom sighed heavily. “I know you feel differently about me, honey. And that’s fine. But you want the truth. You want to see what I’m really like, and know what you’re dealing with. I won’t hide anything from you anymore. I told you, what I’m going to do for you will make me a monster-”

 

“You’ve been doing these things already. You’ve been hurting people already.” Davey pulled a woman’s dress down, covering her underwear, then drove her foot through her skull. Her body waved a little, and she held her mouth, watching the person twitch under her foot. I thought she would fold in two.

 

“Hey,” Mr. David warned. She nodded, apologizing under her breath. This was the work she hated. This was what made her so uncomfortable. It was hard, but she cleared her face and kept going, eyes wide. There was hesitation sometimes, but she kept going.

 

It was harder to see, but Bylas hesitated, too. He made small noises, pausing before he attacked. He didn’t know where to put his hands sometimes. There was no hesitation with Mr. David. None. The way he killed the unconscious people was precise and almost bored.

 

“Hurting people? You think so?” My mother observed me while I surveyed the room. “Is that what you think? That this is part of who I am?”

 

“It isn’t? You’re not going to sacri-”

 

“The girl is probably shocked by all this.” Mr. David rushed over, planting a hand on my shoulder. Autumn’s eyes widened. He moved, quick, walking away to help Bylas. She kept watching the place where his hand had been until I adjusted my shirt.

 

“I go through great pains to make sure they don’t feel what we do to them. You should see the state they’re in if Yenna reaches them first. It doesn’t always work, but I’m kind, at least.” A woman grunted in pain in the background, and then quieted at the sound of a snap.

 

“Fine. Answer a question for me, Momma. If I said I wanted to go and live in Anity after all, would you let me go? Or was that something you said because you knew I’d never leave you? Can I actually leave?” Astley coughed, veins thickening across her face, and pushed herself up. We watched her while my mother thought of an answer. It hit me that Autumn was always watching people, taking them in. People were careful about how she watched them, how she was reacting to them, what she was remembering.

 

They all know she’s crazy.

 

“No. You can’t leave.”

 

“You’ll kill me?”

 

“No.” Autumn kept taking things, kept digging into pockets. I almost joined in, feeling awkward.

 

“You’ll follow me?” She sighed, finally stopping to look at me.

 

“If you leave, I won’t kill you. I never hurt Lou. I never hurt Astley. Anity isn’t a place you want to be, not being related to me. You wouldn’t survive it. I can’t stop what happens. Do I look like I have any control?”

 

“You killed your children.” I wanted her to look surprised, but she just locked her jaw, glaring at me.

 

“You sound like you think you know something. Yes. Sure, I did that. I hate myself every day for it.”

 

“But, you’d also kill me?”

 

“Yenna would kill you. Lawrence, maybe. His family.” Her teeth grit behind the words. She went back to digging in pockets. I didn’t believe Yenna would kill me, or even my dad, but I didn’t say that.

 

“No. I’m only talking about you, Autumn.” She laughed a little, running a gloved hand over her hair.

 

“I just want you to have a normal life as long as you can. That’s all. I want you to be happy and regular and live a normal life. An exciting life. Don’t have kids. Don’t get married. Be alive! Travel, eat exotic foods, do whatever you want. I want you to be aimless.”

 

“What if I don’t want that?” She ignored me, walking over to another body. She checked the man’s pulse, a sour expression crossing her face.

 

“Bylas! How many of them are alive?”

 

“A lot.” She huffed in annoyance. Davey’d disappeared back out to the front. I wondered if she was talking to Osh, reassuring him that they were just showing me the fish. Just giving me a tour. 

 

“Why are you wasting your time doing that when you have that damn Devil here? Tell her to kill them all. Don’t be messy; we have to keep the bodies for Yenna. She’s not happy with me as it is, we need to do this right.” He nodded and disappeared back to the front. Autumn idled, staring up at the ceiling. Tired. The bags under her eyes threatened to fall off her face if they got any heavier.

 

“You and Astor. Boring, happy lives until… until. There’s something I want you to see. I think maybe it’ll prove that I’m not your enemy. Maybe. It’s the worst, and you’ll hate me, but I can’t stop that. I’m not going to waste time trying to stop that anymore.”

 

“What could be worse than this?” She bit her lip.

 

“David. I think you should take Osh home. I have something to do.”

 

“Like what?” He didn’t move, and Autumn sighed.

 

“Are you going to beat me up in front of my daughter?” He started speaking, turned red, then chuckled.

 

“I’ll drop him off. Behave yourself, please.” Mr. David patted her shoulder and walked back out front to join Bylas and Davey. We stood in the middle of a sea of bodies, talking as if it were the most natural thing on Earth. Astley stood, holding her stomach in pain. She tried to move and fell back to the ground.

 

“You talked to someone about me, obviously. Who was it,” Autumn asked casually. She pretended not to care enough to make eye contact.

 

“That’s my personal business.” She looked down at her hand, letting it tremble with a blank face.

 

“You’re getting so grown. Personal business? What an adult thing to say.” My heart beat like crazy, but I held my head high.

 

“Well, go ahead, grown girl. Tell me. I want to know what lies I’m up against.”

 

“No.”

 

“Tell me something, honey.” The way she stood there staring at me, the small way her lips curled up at the corners, it burned. It burned worse than the fire at the group home. It stung more than the hairs burning off of my legs. She didn’t believe that I knew anything. She didn’t believe I could navigate the world enough to learn something she didn’t know. 

 

It was pure fire.

 

“You’re going to drown me and Lou. When we turn 19. To- to bring Yenna back, because you’re in love with her. You’re- you’re going to torture your own daughters because you’re disgusting!” It might have been stupid. It might have been unwise. I just couldn’t look at her stupid face with her stupid, calm eyes.

 

Autumn didn’t react, but she felt annoyed. She ran her nails over her stomach and sighed.

 

“Well, that would be disgusting, wouldn’t it? You think I’m planning on putting the real Yenna in you, and then what? I date my daughter?” I blinked back tears, and then shock, and then I just stood there.

 

“I bring her back as you, and what? I date a child? And what about her, she just forgives me for giving her body to a monster?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“And you believed all of that?”

 

“Was it true?” Autumn rolled her eyes and knelt to check on Astley. I tried not to feel anything, especially not confused.

 

She’s tricking you. She’s a liar.

 

“Honey, how can anyone tell you my intentions when I’m the only one who knows? I have a lot of secrets. I tell a lot of lies. Do you think this informant of yours knows me better than I do? Is it that easy to get you hyped up?”

 

Bylas and Davey made their way back to us. Autumn helped him take off his gas mask, gentle. She ruffled Davey’s hair a little. They both looked happy to engage with her, both way more relaxed than they’d been with Mr. David. She took them in for a while, pride swelling in her.

 

“Are you two okay,” she asked, but neither of them nodded. Davey let out a long moan, buckling a little, and Autumn pulled her up.

 

“What did I tell you? Don’t let them see any sign of weakness. Do you understand?”

 

“It’s hard. I don’t know, there are so many,” Davey swept her hand over the room. There were a lot of them. Most were completely out of it, staring with imprinted confusion at the floor or ceiling. Some had their eyes closed, almost peaceful. The rest were mangled by the two, or struggling to move. Autumn shrugged.

 

“We’ve done worse. We’ll do worse! Just survive it for now.” Autumn turned back to Bylas. He gave her a tight smile, then a more casual one.

 

“Your mother isn’t happy, is she?”

 

“She never is. She’s getting worse, though, I guess. I think… she’s talking about teaching you a lesson or whatever. If you don’t do the thing soon.” They were all silent, thinking about what lessons Yenna could possibly teach my mother. It was odd watching them. The way they treated each other was so different than it’d been when Mr. David was there.

 

“We have Osh, now. I’m sure it’ll be over soon. Davey, I’m sorry, but you have to kill these people. We need the bodies.”

 

“I know,” Davey breathed.

 

“But… save some of them for my brother, okay,” Bylas said to the floor. Again, they all nodded.

 

Autumn let her eyes sweep over the bodies, and then she stopped on me. She stared wide-eyed until I felt my entire body flush red, and then she stared some more.

 

“I think we should show Noah the tanks.” They both moved like someone knocked the wind out of them. While they writhed, Astley finally got up, coughing loudly. She held her head like it would break in pieces if she let it go. Autumn slapped her shoulder.

 

“Welcome back, honey! The little monsters are gonna take care of the work for us. We’re gonna show Noah the tanks. She thinks I’m going to drown her and Lou to bring Yenna back so we can run off together. That I’m going to put the real Yenna in her body.”

 

“That’s stupid,” Astley spit onto the floor.

 

Bylas shook his head. “Please, don’t show her my brother. Not… not Jukel, she’ll never accept him if she sees him like this. Please?” Autumn nodded.

 

“It’s okay, Bylas. It’s not like anyone has a choice in what happens. She’s practically grown. I’m sure it won’t change her opinion of him.” Bylas didn’t look happy, but he turned and walked off to get started.

 

She looked to Astley, raising her eyebrow.

 

“Sure. Yeah, let’s… let’s get that over with. I’m okay with it.” I felt my stomach tighten as they all braced themselves, shaking their hands out, stretching. Autumn stared up at the ceiling until Astley was composed and ready, and when they started moving, I just stood there.

 

“Go ahead,” Davey whispered behind me. “You won’t feel better, but at least you’ll know how bad it’s gonna get.”

...

The Aquarium was the biggest building I’d ever been in, and I felt swallowed. We walked back through hall after hall, the walls lined with fish. It got darker the further back we went, the tanks above us, to the sides of us, and eventually even below us.

 

“This is a long walk, honey,” Autumn groaned, stretching. Astley gave a small, preoccupied laugh.

 

I wanted to know why she wasn’t angry with my mother anymore. There was something worse than the dolls, and finding out my sisters were husks, and they were walking me right to it.

 

When we went beyond a certain point, the water turned so dark it was like being surrounded by night. We headed through a lone door at the end of a hall. It led down steps, and the stairwell was lit just like Autumn’s secret basement. Fluorescent blue shone deep into our skin, Autumn’s hair bouncing in front of me. I started to feel scared, and then I was terrified.

 

Astley’s face worried me. The way it kept getting grimmer and grimmer, haunted by the lights, and then she walked faster so I couldn’t see her.

 

We finally made it to a set of double doors, and Autumn turned to face us. She struggled with something.

 

“Louetta can’t know about this. It would only scare her, and she’s closer to ending up in this hall than you are. Be tactful.” Astley ran her hand up and down my back, but the hard way she moved scared me more.

 

“What’s back there?”

 

“I don’t want to be theatrical this time. You should just see for yourself.” Autumn moved to open the door, but Astley made a noise. She turned me, holding my shoulders.

 

“I wouldn’t lie to you. If it comes out of my mouth, it’s true, do you understand?”

 

“Oh- okay. Okay.”

 

“I’ve never lied to you, have I?” I shook my head, thinking hard. Autumn opened the doors, but Astley kept me facing her. I could hear crying down the hall, soft and pathetic sobs. Tired sobs.

 

Autumn walked ahead.

 

“This is it. You can’t take this back. It’s so much better not to know this shit. If you want to go back upstairs, I’ll take you. I don’t care what she wants.”

 

“I already know what’s going to happen. In the water. She’s going to drown Lou and me.” She shook her head, frustration building in her grip.

 

“Listen. It’s…” I pulled away from her.

 

“I want to know. Stop stalling.” Astley gave me a final look of desperation, then wiped her hands on her jeans. She shrugged, motioning for me to move forward into the blue glow.

 

There were fluorescent lights on either side of the thick glass tanks, and large fluorescent ceiling lights going down the middle. Everything illuminated in the blue glow. The tanks stretched on forever, and ever, each section of tanks getting darker and darker until the back was just a black wall. I walked, my hands shaking, and Astley followed.

...

Jellyfish surrounded us. There were so many in the tanks that there was barely room to move in some. They were mostly small, but every now and then, massive blobs swam by, their bodies bigger than both me and Astley combined. I shivered, watching them move closer to the glass as we walked.

 

“They’re following us,” I said stupidly, but Astley didn’t respond. The tanks were from floor to ceiling, and as we moved slowly forward, even the ceiling opened up to glass and water. I stared up, hurting my neck. More jellyfish, big and small, followed behind us.  After a while, they moved beyond us, swallowing the entire hall in reflected blobs of light. They followed Autumn eagerly, creating a wave of blob shadows that crawled all over her. Astley pushed me along when I tried to stop.

 

The lights were gone. The only illumination came from the jellyfish, I realized.

 

A teenage boy sobbed further ahead of us. The lights around him were red instead of blue, but the same swirling shadows covered the small area he was in. It looked like his skin was fused to the glass, maybe burned onto it, but I couldn’t tell. I tried to stop walking.

 

“Is he okay,” I choked. Astley pushed me forward without a word. The boy looked older than me. His body curled up, back pressed against the glass, but whenever he leaned forward his skin stretched painfully. He was sitting on his butt, his knees pulled to his face, and his sobs softened against his jeans. With every sob he wrapped his arms tighter around his legs, and the stretched and burned skin pulsed.

 

“Mom… we should skip this. It’s too much for one day,” Astley said, and my mother paused. I tried to look up again, but Astley held my head in place. Autumn stared down at the boy.

 

“You’re right.”

 

“We need to cover your eyes for a moment,” Astley slid her hands over my eyes, guiding me. A loud rumble ran through the hall, and then a tapping noise.

 

“It’s Bylas.” I could hear her tapping back, and then we kept going. My legs gave out, but Astley pulled me up, pushing me forward.

 

We walked a while longer, and then Autumn pulled Astley’s hands from my eyes. She gave me a comforting look, holding my head straight. She was bathed in the same red light, one of her pupils filled with it. I wanted to go back finally.

 

“Alicia was the one who told me. I know about- about you- drowning us. It’s true! I already know about it!” I couldn’t say anything else; the fear was so thick in my throat. I tried to move my head, but Astley held me still.

 

“You couldn’t have talked to Alicia. Whoever you talked to didn’t tell you the whole story. Do you want to know it?”

 

“No! You’re a liar, I just want… to…” I suddenly couldn’t move. My head burst with pain, and Autumn caught me before I fell to the ground. She kissed my cheek.

 

“How’s your memory, honey? Do you remember the day I asked you if you would hate me if I became a monster to save you? Do you remember it clearly?”

 

“Of course,” I breathed. She smoothed my hair.

 

“Yes, of course. So, that day was really important for me. It meant a lot. I had to make a big decision, and I made it. You helped me make it. Lou asked me not to, if you can believe it. But you helped me do what I needed to do. You were stronger than all of us.” I watched Autumn as she spoke, watched the bland way the words poured out of her mouth, and I almost guessed. I felt like I knew what she was about to say.

 

“The company I work for is almost as bad as Yenna. I’m used to things being complicated. If I ask for help, it’s like asking a genie. They’ll give it to me, but I probably won’t like what they come up with. They own a lot of buildings here in Chastain.” Autumn backed up, staring into the tank. Astley held me still.

 

“So when I needed somewhere to practice, I asked if I could use this space. The spot I used for Reese was too far. And it never worked, anyway. I needed something new.” She was quiet.

 

“I was being literal when I asked you if… if you would forgive me for turning into a monster. I never thought you’d see me like this. It was stupid. I should’ve known someone would end up forcing my hand.”

 

“Mom, I don’t want to. I want to go back upstairs, it’s fine!”

 

“Just look. I’ll explain, but just look first.”

 

Astley finally let me turn, and at first, I didn’t see anything. It was just a wall of black water. Slowly, the red lights fell from above like swirls of food coloring. More and more fell until I could see dark black hair floating, swirling in place. More light circled down, and I could see big, panicked eyes, bubbles bursting from a mouth. I could see her. And hun, they could’ve caved my throat in with a hammer. They could’ve been stomping me to death. Every bit of my body felt sore, pained.

 

I stepped back, and then I stepped back again, and then Astley had to grab me so I wouldn’t run. I tried hard not to look at her. I tried my best not to see the bloated skin and the frantic way she pulled against the chains on her ankles.

 

“I’ve been practicing a long time,” Autumn whispered. “I knew they’d make me use more of you girls if I didn’t come up with a solution; if I didn’t find a different way to get results. So, I did. You’re the last ones, what was I supposed to do? I can’t let them take you.” I stared at the swirling red in the black wall of water, and then small lights blinked on. Sitting in the middle was my mother. My real mother. I knew it was her as soon as I saw her eyes.

 

This was where the cartwheeling woman went.

 

Autumn writhed in the tank, screaming viciously, pieces of her neck and arms picked away. She begged, curling forward, her stomach muscles tight from doing it so much. She was just a tiny woman trapped in a tank, drowning.

 

“We got a hold of someone very special, and finally had a way to force Yenna to make a Latch. But it doesn’t seem to work very long on the husks. We needed a human to test it out on. I thought, if I could figure it out on myself, that would be best. Then I wouldn’t need to use either of you. I did use some of my newer husks, despite Yenna’s whining, but it never sticks. It won’t work without the body being destroyed, and she won’t let us touch it. I have to find another way.”

 

She wasn’t alone. Waves of red hair floated around, and after a time I could make out more bodies. Taller, longer bodies. Tons and tons of Yennas floating dead in the water, some only half transformed. There were torsos, floating legs, arms, strands of hair.

 

“I keep getting close. They transform, and then they die. They all die. I’ve tried it on land, and it works even less. Here, I actually got her to survive for ten whole minutes. She talked once, if you can believe it. From my own body, she spoke, and then she transferred out into a husk and died. She goes back into her real body after that, and then the creature is at my door screaming.” Autumn let out a heavy sigh, leaning against the glass.

 

My real mother’s eyes lit up, bright red in the water, and then she stopped moving. We waited, and then she spit out a burst of blood, all of it rushing from her throat, and started drowning all over again.

 

“If I get it, she’ll leave you alone. I think the creature plans on killing me no matter what. It’s been too long. She’s had too much fun torturing me. I think the plan has always been to kill me, ever since I murdered her son.” We watched the real Autumn plead in the water. Pain etched in every curve and crevice of her body.

 

“That’s your mother. Your stupid, cursed mother,” She said, laughing slowly. Astley sucked in a deep breath and walked back towards the boy, shaking the image out of her head. I just stared and stared and stared.

 

“She sacrificed hard for you, honey. For you and your sisters. Remember that.” I thought back to that night with her at my bed. To how much she’d changed. To how distant she felt to the Autumn I’d grown up with. To her laughing at Lou, all the chaos, all the work she was doing for Yenna, finding her body in the hall, to all of it.

 

My mother, the one that loved me and sacrificed for me, had become a completely different person. I hadn’t noticed. This woman that did everything for me was in a tank drowning, and I’d been convinced so easily that she was trying to hurt me. That she was my enemy.

 

“Who are you,” I breathed. She smiled, hugging me tight. The real Autumn made a sorry face, grimacing through more pain, and screamed again.

 

“Well. I’m your momma, to a certain extent. She made me using Mr. David’s little fungus trick. I’m a sort of copy of the Autumn he took over when she was younger. You can tell if you look in right places. He always leaves stains.” She rolled the hem of her dress up, and white spots littered her thighs.

 

“I’m her in a sense. She was sure the body would just die, but it didn’t. It’s working! That’s good news! The creature was so pleased, she agreed to let us work in peace. It’s why she doesn’t come around anymore. This body I’m in hasn’t died, it hasn’t rotted. There’s hope.”

 

A calm washed over me the more she talked. I felt a deep sense of failure.

 

“She’s alive? How…”

 

“There’s a woman named Cora… Well, I doubt you’ll understand just yet. I don’t want to overwhelm you. If we can get the real Yenna out of the creature and into your momma’s body, you’re safe. That’s the part that matters. Alicia couldn’t know that, could she?” She waited while I processed it. I put my hands on the glass, hoping she could see me through the dark water. Hoping she knew I loved her.

 

The Autumn that did cartwheels for me when she checked the mail. Just another captive. Just another body. We were all just bodies.

 

“You- you don’t want me to- to- get Yenna back so- because- you love- her?”

 

“Oh, honey. What do any of us need with love? I’m the only momma you have left. There’s no chance that woman is getting out of there alive, and even if she does, that means we’ll all be dead.  But don’t you worry. I love you as much as she did with the last breath she took before she went in the tank.”

...

I didn’t remember going up the stairs or walking out of the backroom. Autumn was chasing after me, running, but I didn’t remember any of it. I was upstairs, Bylas was trying to stop me, I was outside. I just kept walking, and then Mr. David picked me up.

 

It was all exaggerated. This husk had taken my mother’s love for me and turned it into something wicked and warped. She didn’t understand my mother even if she was a copy. She wasn’t doing a good job.

 

You just couldn’t replicate my mother.

 

Autumn looked sad, but not surprised. They walked me back inside with all the bodies, all the bodies that would be new Shadows eventually, that would be filled with one of the hundreds of thousands of jellyfish. I tried to pull away again, but Mr. David held me.

 

“Will you give me a chance to prove myself to you?” Autumn surveyed the bodies, allowing herself small glimpses at me and nothing else. I didn’t want to give her anything.

 

All I wanted was to escape. All I wanted was to save my mother, to save Lou.

 

All I wanted was to get away.

...

Another day went by. I’d gone back to hiding in my closet, more empty than afraid. Every second that went by was another second my mother was drowning. Every moment was another moment my mother was scared and alone in a dark tank, drowning, dying.

 

I didn’t speak to Lou, not even to tell her about the tanks. She didn’t try to make me. I woke up to her singing to me outside of the closet, her head pressed against it. It was some stupid song about things being okay, about us being okay — what a lie. I cried, but I never opened the door. It took hours before she finally got up, gave me a loud air kiss, and disappeared back into the house.

 

Later that day, we stood in the foyer and waited for Astor. You could’ve parted the stress like the sea, hun, it surrounded us. The last time Autumn’s children had all been lined up, all dolled up to show off, I’d been a small child. She’d been smiling at me, excited to see me, ready to introduce me to all the girls she’d had.

 

She’d been herself.

 

I couldn’t remember how many there had been, or what their names were. Which ones were real. All I remembered was the lines of girls, all the various versions of my mother and father.

 

Now it was just me, Louetta, ‘Tiana,’ ‘Daynah,’ ‘Astley,’ and ‘Autumn.’

 

Autumn cracked her neck. She wasn’t eager to look inviting, and maybe she wasn’t even focusing on the room. Lou picked at her nails. Tiana and Daynah talked amongst themselves, and their sharp whispers were more annoyed than excited. Astley pinched my neck, giving me a small smirk, but there was nothing behind it. Whatever we’d once been, we were all something else now, and Astor’s arrival only mattered to me.

 

“I haven’t seen her in a long time,” Astley whispered, straightening her blouse.

 

“You know her?”

 

“And Alicia. Well. She might not remember me much. It’s good that she’s coming.” She left it at that, twirling a piece of her hair.

 

The door finally opened, and I wanted doves to fly in. I wanted there to be fanfare. But there wasn’t. Astor walked in behind Lawrence, listening intently to whatever he was going on about. This girl could’ve been someone else entirely than the one that I met buzzing in that kitchen, hair everywhere, cursing under her breath. She was the very embodiment of classy, her shoulders damn near two feet behind her, eyes politely taking everything in.

 

Astor had on expensive slacks. Her hair was slicked back and curved into a fat, neat braid that swung behind her. The bitch’s eyebrows could cut you, hun, she put threading to shame. When she moved forward it was with a sureness that said she’d been in the building, she’d been in every building, and she was just waiting for a bell boy to come and escort her to the penthouse.

 

All she had with her was a small purse, too small for anything but her identification and maybe money. Pearls shone in her ears.

 

Autumn melted. It was all internal. I could feel it in front of me, all of her love pouring into Astor, every bit of her transferring over to this uncomplicated girl. I wanted Astor to meet the real Autumn, to feel what real love was like. Lou turned red, grabbing my hand, and we waited for whatever was going to come.

 

“Like we needed more reasons to be forgotten,” she spat, and Astor looked up. She kept her hands in front of her stomach and walked over to us slowly, bypassing my eager ‘mother.’

 

“Who could forget you? Louetta, right?” Lou stepped back, but Astor just tilted her head to the side. I don’t know, it didn’t feel threatening to me, but Lou sucked her teeth. She gave me a look, waiting for me to return it, but I was too excited. I didn’t want to run Astor off.

 

The hurt on my sister’s face would heal, I figured.

 

It felt like Lou broke into pieces of glass, but I threw my arms around Astor. I hugged her tight and sobbed into her shoulder, barely able to breathe. When I finally broke away, Lou was walking up the stairs, sagging as if she’d already been left out in the rain. I didn’t bother looking after her. There was nothing to worry about anymore.

 

Nobody was going to forget us. Nobody was going to put us in a fucking tank. Not with Astor there.

 

I knew it the minute she walked through the door.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Things were still terrible, and the worst things would happen with Astor there. They would happen unapologetically, viciously, and loudly. Lou understood more than I did that Astor was just another one of us. Astor was just another adhesive strip trapped in the country with us, and we weren’t getting a savior. We were getting a fellow captive.

 

But damn if I didn’t feel free for an afternoon.

NOAH DILL - PRESENT

“Noah.” The voice was low, gruff. I pulled Chaunce closer to me and tried to ignore it. We’d been trapped in the black cocoon long enough for me to hate myself for all my actions, and I didn’t need to be reminded of them. The voice coughed and came back lighter, higher.

 

“Hey! Auntie? Please tell me you’re okay in there!” A tiny tap vibrated through the black mass. I tried to ignore him, but he just kept tapping and calling my name. Chaunce wriggled.

 

“I’m sorry, Moose.” I whispered. He coughed again, and I could see a tiny light coming through the darkness. A hole appeared, and then it got bigger, and we could see the outline of his face.

 

“It’s okay, Auntie Noah. I’m not mad at you anymore.” The shame that came out of me was just a small squeak, but I tried my best to ignore it. Pieces of the black wall cracked, coming down around us. For a moment, I still couldn’t see through the dust, and then I gasped.

 

Behind the counter that I’d worked at with Osh for most of my teenage years, there was a red spiral. It was a spiral of blood, bone, and bodily fluids that went from the floor to the ceiling. It was somehow neat; the parts of the body laid out symmetrically. The spiral was perfect. Like a rune. Like a message.

 

The same scene I saw with Alicia that day when I was young, the same spiral of blood and bones and flesh, greeted me in sight and smell. I knew Astor was not okay.

 

And whoever she’d taken her anger out on wasn’t okay, either.

 

“Who is that,” I whispered.

 

There were scraps of skin and scalp in the middle, and I knew who it was before Moose refused to answer, blushing, and staring down at the ground.

 

“I’m sorry. I’m not mad anymore. I’m sorry this happened to… him.” The rest of the room was chaotic. I couldn’t take my eyes off the scalp in the middle of the spiral. I saw more hair. Burned and shredded clothes. It looked like a bomb had gone off.

 

“Did you and Astrid do this?”

 

No! We just stunned everybody. I- I don’t know what this is.” Moose was bloody. His nose flowed freely over his shirt, the black mess reaching his shoes. It was like he’d fallen into an oil drum. He looked more like a little boy than he ever had, his eyes wide and scared. The smell of it reached me, and I gagged, but I tried to act like it was the dust. The poor kid looked humiliated and scared enough.

 

How had we ever passed ourselves off as normal? How’d we manage to fake our way through life as functional people? How?

 

A thought occurred to me while I looked over him — a terrible thought.

 

“Where’d it go,” I snapped.

 

“What?”

 

“The light. From your mom. Is it…” I looked around, gripping a snoring Chaunce. There was another black wall blocking the stairwell that Osh tumbled down.

 

“I don’t know. She told me to make sure it was dark around you and Dad.” The floor and walls were nearly charred, everything an ugly gray or charred black. I handed Chaunce to Moose, pulling her tiny hands off of me when they gripped tighter. She yawned and rolled her head around, wrenching open her big mouth. 

 

“Yuck!” She yelled, taking in the wall. I wished she was still mute. I reached for my cigarettes, cursed when I pulled out the regular pack I’d been given. I tried to remember when I’d last smoked Astor’s blood.

 

Shit, if I don’t have enough of her blood in my system to survive this by now, there isn’t a way to.

 

“Go outside,” I said, walking toward the back room. Moose tried to follow but shrieked when his clothes started turning white. He turned around quickly, hugging Chaunce to him as he fled to the front door.

 

There was a sobbing sound coming from somewhere. I crept forward, watching the walls warp, and hoped to see signs of Yenna somewhere. Hoped to see her blasted body against a wall. There was nothing there but destroyed building. Through my father’s lab, out to the back, the door swung soundlessly on a single hinge. All the windows were burned black, but outside there was a clear path of destruction, every car in the parking lot bleached, every tire popped. Even the sky looked bland and lifeless, the clouds barely moving.

 

“Aun- No- Ah!” The distorted, warped sound of my name being called reached me somehow. It hit me slow and thick. I turned and walked back to the front, feeling the moisture being sucked from my eyes. Moose stood at the door, and it looked like he’d dropped Chaunce in his shock. She sat on her butt, staring at whatever had him frozen in place.

 

“I told you to go outside!”

 

“I can’t.” He said. I walked closer and looked out the door.

 

Up until a certain point, everything was normal. Strands of long red hair scattered in front of the building, all with tiny lights blinking on and off. Dried blood footsteps went all the way up the block to the main road, and then there was just a thick wall of black. A solid wall of black, so black we couldn’t see through it. The wall went on for miles in both directions, except for the spots where the Shadows ambled forward. They were always darker than the darkness.

 

I pulled out my phone and called Juke. I called him over and over. I called Astor. I called Osh, stupidly, trying not to wet my phone with the tears. Chaunce stared at the black wall in awe, a smile spreading across her face.

 

“It’s talking to me,” Moose said, equally in awe. I dropped the phone and shrank to my knees, sobbing, and despite myself, I hated him all over again.

 

“I really wish you’d eaten those pancakes, you little shit.” I wondered where Autumn was. Where Osh was. Where were the people who usually saved me, the ones who could come up with plans that worked? Where were the people who kept that black mass out of my life for so long?

 

“Moose. Hun. Find that machete you had. And break down that fucking black shit blocking the basement. We need your dad now.”

 

Just thinking about Osh seeing that black wall, knowing how hard he worked to save his wife, it hurt worse than anything.

OSH SNOW - PRESENT

The smell of blood filled my nose, and I knew it wasn’t mine. Dirt filled my mouth. Maybe I was finally buried alive. Shit, maybe someone finally returned the favor for all the shit I’d done when I was a kid.

 

I spit, but nothing but air came out.

 

“Wake up. I’m having trouble pulling you in here completely. It’s the oddest thing.” The voice made my stomach clench, but there was no point in pretending not to hear it. She’d just make me open my eyes. She’d force me to do it, just like always. I blinked, shaking the glare of a streetlamp out of my head, and pushed myself up. I was on an asphalt road, my face scraping against the ground. No blood, but I figured that was out in the real world.

 

There, in the sandbox, Cora knelt, holding my hand. She looked a little unnerved.

 

“What on earth could you imbeciles be doing out there? What on earth?” She felt her face, letting her hands pause on each part. “I can’t reach myself. I can’t reach my body.”

 

I sat up and stared at the dark sky for a while. There were no stars, just a cloudy sky.

 

You’d think all those years would be enough, that it would be enough to change Astor’s mind or to do what I needed to do. That it would be enough to escape Alicia, to save the people I promised to protect. How do you do that when new people have to be saved all the time?

 

I’m always deciding between someone and their baby.

 

Cora stood, letting go of my hand in frustration. We were in an affluent neighborhood, lavish houses surrounding us. I looked around the cul-de-sac, not recognizing it. Something she’d stolen from someone else’s memory, probably. The sandbox was draining into white in the distance, a slow creeping blaze eating everything in its path.

 

Every detail was intricate, almost better than real life. The smell of some distant cookout wafted in the air, and Cora was dressed for summer. Here was a woman trapped in fiction, building, and building on it. And there was a wall of light coming to eat her up.

 

Eat us up.

 

“What did you do, Osh?” I shrugged. Somewhere near my real body was Bylas. I could hear him struggling to breathe. Or maybe that was Jori.

 

Or Astrid.

 

Cora moved back, eyes locked on the creeping light. “Maybe I should thank you? I haven’t been surprised in here for a long time. Not since I met your sweet girl. Will that thing kill us? Will it kill me for good this time? Before you idiots get to save me?” We watched in silence. It was slow. It crept forward with no urgency like everything else in my life.

 

“I don’t know. Can you even die in here?”

 

“I-” she faltered. I felt the look of shock and grief on her face weighing me down, and I hoped she wouldn’t cry. It was all I needed. If this beast started crying, this beast that only ever expressed anger and jealousy, I’d consider the entire thing a loss. If it was that bad, what was the point in even trying anymore?

 

“That’s from your wife, isn’t it? My great-granddaughter?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What the hell is happening to our bloodline? What the hell is that?” There was a buzzing noise, and a section of one of the homes it was passing over crumbled and sucked into the white. Cora grimaced, grabbing her chest.

 

“Bizarre. Bizarre. You didn’t kill that boy, did you? You couldn’t have.”

 

“I had something else to take care of.”

 

“Something more important than saving me?” I nodded, laying back down.

 

“Yeah. Not everyone sits around worrying about you all the time.”

 

“I’m so surprised. You used to be easier to convince, at least when it came to people you care about. To destroying Alicia.” I nodded, thinking of Lou crying in the rain. I thought about Bylas and his missing limbs, trying to help him stand up, trying not to feel like the worst person on the planet while Davey screamed.

 

Osh, the handy little monster helper.

 

“I haven’t changed much. I’m… sorry I didn’t get you out of here. I did try. Probably doesn’t feel like it, but I did.” She stood and tossed her hair to the side, her long dress rustling in the breeze. For a stupid moment, I stared at her feet and realized I’d never really looked at her. I’d examined her torso a few times, the one stuffed in the metal box, but it almost didn’t feel like her.

 

Cora was too proud to sit in her little fictional world as a damsel, split in two and trapped. She presented herself as young, but not as young as most women would. Here, she had control of her entire appearance, and she decided to be in her late 30’s, maybe early 40’s. You could see the grace of age in her shoulders, the small way she held her hands to emphasize femininity. I never appreciated her, and maybe I never would, but Cora was interesting.

 

The light crept forward. I heard a noise in the real world, somewhere far off in my real head, but Cora turned to face me again. I stopped worrying about the real world for a moment. She was going to ask me for something.

 

“You know what? I want you to tell me the truth for once before we perish. You lied to me the last time, didn’t you? Fake memories?”

 

“Yeah. Of course. You knew I would.” She sat next to me, excited curiosity covering her face.

 

“What’d you lie about? I’m always amazed at how great you are at it. No one else would dare.”

 

“Just a few things smashed together. A few things omitted. Some things added.”

 

“Did Alicia ask you to do it?” I didn’t answer. She held the sides of my face and sighed.

 

“Would you let me see, for once? You’re not going to kill that kid. You’re going to leave me just like everyone else. The least you could do is let me see what happened to you. I want to know how we got here, what you were doing while I was suffering in that basement.”

 

“It’s a long story.” She motioned toward the slow creeping light. I finally chuckled, pulling my hands under my head.

 

“Alicia didn’t kill my mother. I killed my mother. I-“

 

“Let me see it for myself.”

 

“Alicia… abandoned me. I did a lot of stupid shit for her attention. She didn’t even care-“

 

“Osh-“

 

“I did my best to change Astor’s mind, but they wouldn’t even let me see her. They kept pushing her on Juke-” I stopped myself finally. Cora stared off at the approaching light, tired, and nodded.

 

“I understand, Osh. You had a lot of responsibility put on you as a child. Make this make sense for me before we’re obliterated. Show me the things that matter the most, okay? I’m exhausted. Can you show me?”

 

“I still have something to do. I’m not supposed to tell you shit.” She laughed a little.

 

“You’re still going to go through with this? You never stop surprising me. But none of that matters. I won’t interrupt. Just show me.”

 

I had something I wanted to see. Something I’d been thinking about more and more, something I needed to relive. I nodded to Cora and, for once, cleared my head. I didn’t block anything out.

 

Just like everything else, it was something I was supposed to do.

OSH SNOW - 14

Our house in Chastain sat empty in front of me. I couldn’t breathe.

 

That was normal. Most of the time, I couldn’t figure out how to get the air in my lungs, or how to get it out once it was in there. The more I stood outside our house, the house I grew up in, the house I’d done everything in, the less I understood the concept of breathing. In and out, somehow, and you live.

 

The house wasn’t massive or anything. You could see my room from the front, Jamie’s room from the side. Janna’s face was blasted against a wall in the hallway, and if I got in the tree in front of the house, I could probably see it. It was only part of her face, but I didn’t know if that made a difference. If I’d be able to tell. She tried the in and out thing, too, and it just came out as gurgles and wet noises. Mine wasn’t the same.

 

Alicia liked fabrics, and the porch had flowing, deep purple curtains with gold trim going around the entire front. Jamie went on and on about how much it rained out here, how we needed a particular type of curtain, but Alicia just nodded until he shut up.

 

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

 

He changed them every time there was even a speckle of mold, probably twice a month. I helped him a lot, wondering what the point was.

 

“The curtains we need aren’t even expensive,” he’d whine under his breath, but he’d smile at me anyway. “Guess we can call it a team-building exercise!” I would stand under him and hold up the new curtains. He just tossed the old ones on the ground until we were done. We did it like clockwork, and after a while, it didn’t seem like a big deal. It was just something we had to do to make Alicia happy.

 

The mold crawling up the fabric now was thick and clumped, some of it hiding in crevices or folds. It was busy stiffening the curtains in the wind that blew, wet as always. I bent over a little, trying to make more room for air, but nothing went in. I just stayed that way, watching the curtains, and then the wind started blowing harder, and then I was shaking. There was a line of blood running down one of the windows that probably nobody else realized was blood.

 

The first time I went, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing there. It just felt like I needed to go, and then it felt like I needed to stay a while. Maybe Astor would come back and meet me. I went out there once a week and stared at the moldy curtains. I couldn’t touch them, not without folding in half. I just looked at them for a while.

 

If I stood far back enough, I could imagine Alicia walking out the doors, head straight and high, and Astor behind her. I always had to get the car ready for them. I’d been driving Alicia to the store since I was ten because she was never sober enough to operate a car, and Jamie was always at work. Janna didn’t know how to drive.

 

I sat out front and kind of wished someone would see me. We never knew the neighbors, though. And we never knew any other family or friends.

 

The curtains blew in the wind, and I just sat there awhile.

...

Alicia needed me to do something, and then we killed my family, and then I was supposed to move on. It sunk in more and more as I got used to my new surroundings. She said she wasn’t coming back, but I didn’t believe her. There’d been other times when she lied to see what I would do, and I figured she was back to her old antics.

 

There were no introductions. Things just started, and they ended, and I had to figure out where I was on the timeline.

 

After Jamie and Janna were dead, I was with Mr. David. It wasn’t a smooth transition. I missed hearing Alicia when she was happy. It was so few and far between that I waited for it like chapter beginnings, like markers for new phases in my life. When she was happy, she was vibrant and loving and complementary, and you knew something would change. You’d catch her singing sometimes, her husky voice low but familiar. As much as she wanted me to think she hated Jamie, sometimes you could hear them enjoying each other through the wall if you listened enough.

 

Or sometimes they were just too loud, and it was gross.

 

I missed waking up and holding a pillow over my head to block them out. I missed Astor climbing in my bed, sticking her tongue out in disgust, and pulling another pillow over her head, mimicking me like she was my annoying little sister and not my future wife. I missed Alicia being radiant on those days, getting up, and watching Janna make breakfast. When Alicia was happy, everyone was relaxed, and we didn’t have to worry about anything.

 

Happy Alicia was beautiful.

 

But I missed Astor’s unsure faces more. I missed her asking me what things were in her school books and listening like I was the smartest person on the planet. Even over Jamie, even over Alicia. Astor listened to me like I was the only person who knew what the world was really like. I approached our conversations like guides, and she stared at me with so much earnest appreciation that I felt otherworldly. I was an alien brought down to earth to mold this Devil into a regular human.

 

None of that could last, though. The day would go on, and Alicia would look at us, and maybe I reminded her of my dad. Maybe Astor reminded her of someone else, or maybe she just remembered her other little girl. We couldn’t escape the name ‘Erin’ in that house, couldn’t go to sleep without at least one story about what Alicia lost. Her eyes would gloss over, and she would go through a range of emotions, and then she was the scary woman again.

 

Then we were talking about the creature, and how I had to help her.

 

Then we were talking about what we were supposed to do, what we couldn’t deviate from, what had to happen.  Then Alicia was telling me all about the creature, and what it was like, and what it would do. She reminded me whenever I smiled too big, or laughed too hard, or tried too much.

 

“You’d better pay attention, Osh. The creature will know you’re stupid if you act that way.”

...

I know abuse.

 

Maybe I don’t always know it by name, but I know it. I know faces turning red, eyes darting to the side, awkward smiles, and glances to the floor. I know how abuse makes you familiar with every detail in a room: every door, every exit, every crack in a window. You avoid enough glances, and you’ll memorize an entire house without meaning to. I know the railing in the hall of our old house more than I know my own face. I know the back of Astor’s neck, bent forward but somehow still stiff, the rest of her shaking from some form of rage, from some kind of toxic mothering.

 

“You have a closet full of glamor, and you come down here dressed like the local office girl? Go to bed.”

 

It’d been a while, and I still hadn’t seen Astor. I went to work at the Compound every day after school. Sometimes I even went on the weekends if they had an unusual burst of clients. Noah only came in a few days a week at first. She was terrible with the clients, barely concealed her distaste for me, but you could tell she liked being out of the house.

 

Maybe I didn’t know why, but I could look at Noah and see something there. Mr. David told me about strict curfews, all the girls in her house having to be accounted for at all times, etc. He made it seem like Astor was about to enter a girl’s home or something. But I’d met Dr. Bishop. I worked with him too much not to notice his quirks and squints. When I helped him in the blood lab, he always seemed oddly annoyed at every little thing. Just the thought of that house full of girls and Lawrence walking around there, squinting, licking his lips. I never trusted it.

 

He was too big, Noah was too small. She shrank when he walked by the counter. I didn’t trust it.

 

Noah was always too nervous, and every movement she made punctuated it. The self-deprecating jokes, the thick way her attitude shielded her from any and everything. She went home, she went to school, she came back. That was it. You didn’t see Noah take a walk. You never saw Noah go to the store for lunch or sit outside on her phone. She sat with her little gel pens and drew her name over and over in a notebook. Even that felt like a symptom. She was so obsessed with herself.

 

When you’re abused, who do you know the most?

 

I know abuse, and that first time I saw Bylas was a defining moment in my life. Maybe it was a bit more special than I admitted. Maybe I recognized something ugly following after him the minute his head ducked in that door, but the way he led it around impressed me. Maybe a little abused kid saw someone who could help him learn to fight for himself, and Noah, and for Astor.

 

He walked in, but he was almost as tall as the door, so he put his hand on it and ducked down. I was talking to Dr. Bishop, close to the basement stairwell, but alarms went off in my head. Watch this person, Osh. Bylas nodded to Lawrence, laughed when the nod wasn’t returned and made his way over to us.

 

It was like watching someone wading through water. Parting the air and moving through it. Bylas navigated, he didn’t walk. Time didn’t affect him the way it did everyone else. He had a labored way of moving, a sloth ambling forward, but he had a precise way of looking at you. Right through all that boredom, his eyes would cut to you, and then it was like you burst into light. You were all he could see for all you knew.

 

That first time, Bylas locked his eyes on me and did that smile thing he does, the one where he sort of pulls his lips up and then goes ahead and pulls them all the way, almost tired, almost annoyed to do so. My abuse radar broke. I couldn’t imagine anyone hurting him, not this guy, not him, but all I saw were scars on his face. Marks on his hands.

 

Mr. David had marks all over his hands, too, and when I asked about them, he smiled. “Men get hurt.” That was it.

 

Davey pulled my head back, walked by me. She stopped short, eyes locked on my face, but recovered quickly. I kept my face blank while she talked, ignoring Alicia’s voice in my head telling me to pay attention.

 

Davey said, “Aw, let the kid down, Bishop. Look at those eyebrows! I bet he could transport a ton of Devils in there.” She was trying to place me, going over my features again and again. I looked down.

 

I know you’ll do what’s right, Osh.

 

Bylas knocked Alicia’s words out of my head before I could react to them. He was engulfing.

 

“I’m Bylas. Mr. David told me about you. Do your best.” We shook hands and his engulfed mine.

 

“I’m top of my class. I can handle whatever’s down in that basement.” When he knelt, I studied the scars on his face. There were so many, and he looked so somber.

 

“Just, you know. You shouldn’t be here yet. It’s pretty ugly out there. You look like a normal kid. You should cherish that.”

 

“I watched my family die. I can handle whatever’s down there.” He smiled, and some of his teeth were sharp. They were nowhere near Davey’s monster teeth, but some of them curved in.

 

“Yeah. My dad’s a sea monster, kid. Shit gets a little worse than a death in the family.”

 

That was our first conversation, and the others were few and far between. Bylas just kept getting cooler and cooler the longer I knew him. He wasn’t as quiet as he looked. Not even a little. You could mention the most obscure thing around him, and he’d go off on some long monologue about how he felt and what’d he’d do. I saw him at least once a week when he stopped by with Mr. David and Davey, always leaning like he was too tired, always giving me that slow smile.

 

Bylas was my alternate universe.

 

Whenever he came to work, he patted the same spot over his head on the door like a ritual. The minute I saw him duck down in the door frame to the Compound, every single time, I fixed my shirt. Checked my collar for blood like I do when I’m too nervous. I’d turn to check Astor’s hair, make sure her earrings were in right, but she wasn’t ever there. He’d wink or laugh and head straight down to the basement. Nothing wrong could happen around someone so sure.

 

Bylas gave me something of my own to care about. Looking up to someone wasn’t like the constant bodyguard duty I was used to executing. Even later, when we weren’t so close, I let Bylas take the damage, got to see how he reacted to things, got to let his decisions lead my life. I didn’t have to consider whether any given situation called for a conversation or a shotgun. Even before I joined him, before I started working, watching the skinny monster taught me how to be more than just Alicia’s puppet. Bylas was slow to move, to react, to even breathe sometimes, and I let his demeanor change my decision making.

 

Bylas didn’t care, so why should I?

 

Bylas didn’t worry, so I let a lot of people live.

 

Bylas didn’t argue, so I shut a lot of other people up quicker than they’d expected. He was the type of person to walk by you, flashing sharp teeth, and tell you his dad was a sea monster. No explanation, no justification. Sure, his dad was a sea monster! Did he look like he had the energy to lie?

 

You just took it. It was all so smooth.

 

I didn’t get much information about Bylas’ background. He just existed in the small moments I saw him on his way down to the basement of the Compound. It’s embarrassing how much I tried to run into him, but it was like they disappeared from existence once they went through that basement door.

 

Davey stared at me from the bottom of the steps sometimes, blank-faced, anxious. She’d stand there until Bylas opened the basement door, tapping her shoulder, snapping her out of her trance.

 

Bylas was my alternate universe, and Davey was the worst outcome in the one I was trapped in.

...

Alicia taught me that I had to be invisible at school. I was supposed to blend in, excel, and stay unnoticed until I found the creature. A kid stopped me in the hall one day, and I had to stop myself from running. Aside from the teachers, no one knew me.

 

“Are you stupid? Do you know what happens to Astor if those beasts find out who you are?”

 

The boy gave me a bored nod, picking at his braces.

 

“Ay, your brother comes to school when he wants to, huh? Never seen somebody absent so much.” I looked at him cautiously. He was too much of a normal kid, and I didn’t trust it. No one I met was regular. His skin wasn’t moist, and his pupils weren’t significant. There wasn’t much hair on his head.

 

“My brother?”

 

“Ain’t By yo’ brother? I thought he said that, man, my bad.”

 

“No, yeah! That’s my big brother. Yeah! I thought you said something else.” I felt stupid, but my heart beat like crazy, thick, and loud in my ears. The kid smiled, laughing nervously. I hated the way his braces glistened.

 

“Yeah, well, give this to him. I took notes for Mr. Jamison’s test like he asked. Tell that idiot to come to school more. Somebody might snatch his girl up, he keep fuckin’ around.” He handed me a folder. I held it like a coveted award, like I’d just received acknowledgment for a lifetime of personal work. The boy’s words traveled just under my joy, itching.

 

“I mean, I’ll tell him, but maybe watch your mouth a little.” He laughed at me, raising an eyebrow.

 

“You gone do something about it?” I thought for a moment, glancing around the empty hallway. The sound of my knuckles cracking blocked out every other sound, every other sight, and I focused on him.

 

“Maybe.”

...

Our house in Chastain sat empty behind me. There were thick woods between me and it, the shovel in my hand glinting in the sun creeping in through the leaves. I could feel the curtains blowing on the front porch, even without seeing them.

 

It was the middle of the school day, and one of the few times I skipped class. I thought about what I would say the entire way there, from the minute I wrapped my arms around the boy’s neck to the moment I slid his body through the woods behind the house. Alicia liked having easy ways to escape, and the woods went on for miles and miles. There was a highway on the other side, and I’d almost died trying to avoid people after us three different times. There wasn’t a good stopping point once you picked up speed.

 

It took a while to find my old shovel, the one Alicia got me for my tenth birthday, but there was a good spot right next to it where the ground wasn’t as compact. There was already a hole I’d started there, and it just needed maybe two more feet. I tried to think of the best way to introduce the folder to Bylas as I dug, wiping sweat from my face.

 

Hey, big bro! This kid gave me this work to give to you. You should come to school more, haha!

 

Bylas, I have your work for you. Be more responsible.

 

Hey, Bylas, you gotta make it to class more. Do you need help studying? I’m smarter than the idiot you have doing your work.

 

The boy whimpered and started to push himself up, an ugly bruise wrapping around his neck and chest. I smashed the edge of the shovel into the back of his head, trying to keep it light. I didn’t want him to die before he got in the ground. It took me around an hour to dig the hole to a place I thought would work. I imagined Bylas taking the folder, smirking, asking me how I got it.

 

Oh, you know. I was looking out for you.

 

I kicked the boy into the hole and hurried to cover him up. He wiggled a little before he disappeared under the mound of dirt, his fingers grasping weakly. I watched him struggle, then kept shoveling. I stopped every few minutes and stared down into the hole, imagining him breathing in the dirt. Struggling to pull the air in, confused and weak down there. Worse than I was. Imagining him worse than I was helped me breathe a little better.

 

Only a little.

 

When I looked up at the sky, it was getting dark, so I patted the earth as best I could and walked back toward the house.

 

I didn’t want to be too late, but I sat on the road outside the house for a little while. I watched the curtains. The mold spread higher and higher, some of it wrapping around the back. They blew stiff in the wind, barely moving. I tried to remember what they’d looked like the last time I saw them, but all I saw was mold.

 

This time I could breathe easy, but it was always like that. It was always easier to breathe when someone else couldn’t.

...

The notes were trash, so I went over them and added more on a separate sheet of paper, getting as detailed as possible. I threw the original folder out. For the second time that day, I got dressed, picking an outfit I thought made me look smart but cool. Then I changed into something that made me look a little older, maybe a little more sure of myself. Bylas didn’t strike me as the type to judge someone by their clothing, but Alicia taught me a long time ago that your clothes can decide things. I put on cologne.

 

There was a noise in the kitchen. Mr. David was out. He never stayed in the apartment during the day, and some days I didn’t see him at all until he came in covered in blood, wheezing. I came home from school or the old house daily, and he’d never been there during the week.

 

I walked out into the hallway, gritting my teeth. A long body stood in front of the refrigerator in the kitchen, illuminated in the light. It moved slowly, almost delicately, touching everything with steady fingers.

 

Bylas?

 

I almost choked to death, scrambling back upstairs to get the schoolwork. He hadn’t moved by the time I came back down. I looked around for Astor, wondering if she was wearing the red blouse I liked, the one that even Alicia liked, then scolded myself. I checked my collar for blood.

 

Clean. Calm down.

 

He had this way of standing that almost looked painful, like his height didn’t suit him. Like he was half that size and just trying to stretch up inside his body to meet his head.

 

“You ain’t usually home this time of day,” he said simply, turning a carton of milk in his hand.

 

“Oh yeah, no, ha, later than you think! I mean, I uh, school stuff, homework. No, uh, homework or… this kid said he had notes.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“For you. Notes for you. I have them. From the kid. I fixed them.” I wanted to dissolve into the floor, but I was at least steady physically. Bylas bent down to sift through the vegetables.

 

“I never feel full. It’s like I have to eat a million times just to be satisfied. It’s agonizing.” One of his dreads fell out of his top bun, and I stopped myself before I could walk over to put it back in.

 

The fuck are you thinking? Calm down.

 

“My mother has so much food. It’s all random; she doesn’t know how to shop. I like the shit Mr. D buys better.” He whispered every word, yawning through most of the sentence.

 

“Oh, I’m sure you’re cool. She’s cool. Uh, it’s cool, I mean. Not your mother, she’s not an it, I meant like, the situation is cool. I mean, you, too, you know, you and your mom and the… situation.” He finally turned around, holding sandwich meat and cheese. I rushed to get him the bread and a butterknife. Like usual, he was underwater, slow, and cumbersome all the way to the seat. He squinted at my hands for a while before he took the items, and I wondered if he needed glasses.

 

“Thanks, man. You like school so far?”

 

“Yeah. It’s great! I’m in your grade. From being skipped ahead. From studying.” He squinted again.

 

“Yeah. Mr. D said you read a lot.” Bylas went back to the fridge and pulled out the mayonnaise.

 

“I wish you were in your right grade, though. Noah needs somebody with her. She doesn’t know how to do shit. And she’s… I don’t know. I think she’s lonely.”

 

“Well, my gi… Astor’s there now,” I stammered.

 

“Oh yeah? Yeah, she’s probably going to school eventually. That’s wassup. Davey’s excited she’s here, won’t shut up about her.”

 

“Why?” He didn’t answer me, sitting down like he’d been walking for years. I sat down, too, but held on to my question. I took pride in the fact that I was stockier than Bylas, at least muscle-wise. He wasn’t scrawny or anything, but he was nowhere near as muscular as I was. He winced and squinted a lot, spreading the mayonnaise slowly.

 

Is he in pain?

 

He stopped spreading for a moment, looking up at me. “Hey, you have a class with Lou, right?”

 

“Lou?”

 

“Louetta. My fiance. One of Noah’s sisters.”

 

“Fiance? How old are you?” Bylas shrugged and went back to making his sandwich. He finished one and started a second one.

 

“Seventeen. Eighteen soon. Is it weird to have a fiance? When do people usually get married?” I stopped. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not be human, even with the sea monster comment. His hair was long, but not long enough to be a Devil. I surveyed his face. He didn’t look like the people that used to come after Astor. The slight hint of moisture was missing, his skin was intact, his eyes were bright, and his pupils were normal-sized.

 

But he’s hungry all the time, right? Plus the way he moves…

 

I couldn’t tell, and it bothered me.

 

“Nah, people get married when they want, I think.” How was I supposed to know? Alicia and Jamie were married for business reasons, as far as I could tell. Alicia said I couldn’t marry Astor until she was eighteen, and if I touched her a minute before she’d cut my hands off. I knew I was going to marry Astor, and I’d wondered a lot if she even wanted that. How did you know if a girl wanted to be with you if you’d technically been with her your whole life?

 

“I don’t want to marry her,” he said. The words soured over his face for a moment, then he cleared his throat and went back to making the sandwiches. He was on the third one.

 

“Why are you doing it, then?”

 

“Why?”

 

“Yeah. Why marry her if you don’t want to?” Bylas struggled over my words for a second, letting out a small laugh.

 

“Just… you get it. My uncle died… and you know. My mother and father or whatever, they… they said.”

 

“They’re making you because your uncle died? What does that have to do with you getting married? Does your fiance know that?”

 

“No, somebody has to take his… It’s weird. They won’t eat if someone isn’t out there, they’ll all die. I just…” His face sank, and he put everything down, leaning forward onto his hands. I waited. When I reached for one of the sandwiches, he jerked up, grabbing it. He moved it to the side and started another one. He continued talking as if the exchange never happened.

 

“Ay, my brother’s starting school soon. Maybe Noah and Astor can look out for him and you kinda check in on them? We gotta start protecting each other. Before they throw us away completely.” He stared down at the sandwich, but suddenly looked up at me, giving me a warm nod. It was hard to say, but I wondered if I could get Astor to do anything. I still hadn’t seen her since the police station that night. But I was scared I upset him. I didn’t want him to think I had no control over my life.

 

We’re the same. We’re both confused about the same stuff.

 

“Right! Nah, right, they’ll look out for him.” Bylas nodded and got up.

 

“Right. Don’t let anybody fuck with Noah. I know ya’ll hang out a lot. She’s my brother’s girl, or she will be, so keep her single. You don’t fuck with her, either.”

 

“Ha! No, Astor’s my girlfriend, anyway. Or fiance. One day. That’s funny, though, that you said that. The boy at school thought I was your brother.” Bylas blinked at me.

 

“He’s an idiot. You don’t look anything like us.”

...

Our house in Chastain sat empty in front of me. I couldn’t breathe.

 

As long as I could remember, the lot across the street was empty. Janna said she used to live there with my father, Rick.

 

“It was our place first. Our neighborhood,” Janna laughed sadly. “I didn’t even get to enjoy being married for long. Alicia moved across this street, in this house we live in now, and I’d see her watching me. She knocked on my door once to ask for something, and the next thing I know, she was coming over all the time. Making me food and drinks, being friendly. You have to watch what people feed you, sometimes.”

 

“Did she poison you,” I asked. Janna stopped smiling.

 

“You could call this poison, I guess.” She didn’t say much else about anything important. I walked around the abandoned yard a lot when I thought I could get away with it, and I sat and watched the house now that anyone who could get mad at me was gone.

 

There were dirt mounds that were probably older than me. I sat on one, pulling my legs up to my chest, and watched the place that used to hold me — the wooden door with the gold handle, the excess that defined Alicia, the accents and colors. The mold was crawling up the curtains, taking over everything.

 

I tried to think of it as something else, but it was just mold.

 

“Osh, I have something important for you to do. Can I trust you to do it?”

 

A lot of times, Alicia would start talking. She’d sit next to me, sober for a moment, and ask me if she could trust me. Could she confide in me? I never knew what to say, and I always thought about Janna’s warning.

 

“Osh, I want to tell you about Erin. Would that okay?” The way she waited, calm and friendly, struck me as false. I played with the bottom of my pants, thinking.

 

“I guess.”

 

“What a sweet boy. You would never know what a brute your father was. Erin was my daughter, and then your father took her from me. He snatched her from my arms, and he hurt me.” She waited for me to take that in.

 

“I thought he was a good guy?”

 

“He was. But there was a creature that was after me, and it confused him. I forgave him before I killed him, but I wasn’t able to get Erin back. She’s in danger. And you’re the only person that can help me.” She let her hair down. I didn’t interrupt, knowing there was more.

 

“I need to get her back. I need to get her somewhere safe. To do that, I need to trick the creature. I need you to become a friend to it. Can you do that for me?”

 

“I don’t know yet.” She smiled, venom dancing between her teeth.

 

“It’s your choice. Please let me know when you’re ready. I need your help, Osh. No one else understands. If you help me, I’ll stay with you forever. I’ll love you forever.”

 

Alicia sat on that porch sometimes when I went and sat on the dirt mounds. Some memory of her. A long dark woman who always made sure she left the house looking like someone’s queen, someone’s master. A woman who never wore shorts, who wore heeled slippers, who always wanted everyone to know she was capable.

 

So many memories of Alicia. I could drown in her.

 

“If I can walk in these, I can do anything, can’t I,” She laughed on one particularly good night, kicking her heel into the air. Jamie scoffed.

 

“Looking good isn’t the same as being strong.” And Alicia drank the comment away all night.

 

Whenever I saw her staring at me from the porch, wordless, head high, I knew she wasn’t there. It was easier to spot than anything else in my head.

 

No matter what anyone said, Alicia wasn’t coming back for me. She wasn’t coming back, and she would never love me forever.

...

“When am I going to see Astor?” I asked Mr. David, but he just kept cleaning the living room. He turned up the power on the vacuum, gliding it over the carpet. I followed as close as I could without irritating him. I walked around and interrupted whenever he turned it off. Whenever I knew he could hear me, I asked another question.

 

“Sir?” He straightened the pillows on the couch, humming to himself. I followed him into the kitchen, ignoring the blood on the walls until it disappeared back into my head, and he started washing the dishes.

 

Sir…” Each dish was dried almost lovingly, the paper towel roaming every inch. The longer he ignored me, the more my throat closed. The more my chest tightened.

 

“Has Alicia called? Sir?” Mr. David chuckled, biting deep into an apple and falling back on the couch. He turned the television on, adjusting his big shirt with the cartoon pineapples all over it. 

 

“She’s not going to, Osh. You need to move on.” I sat down harder than I meant to, crossing my legs over my books. It took too much energy to move off of them, so I just sat there staring at the television.

 

“You’re keeping us away from each other on purpose. You want Astor to forget me so you can do terrible things to her. You want me to move on so I won’t protect her.” Mr. David leaned forward and tapped my forehead with the remote.

 

“Don’t let anyone tell you my intentions, Osh. You know me better than they do. You know me well.” I didn’t mention that no one said that, that I didn’t need anyone to say it.

 

Mr. David cleared his throat, placing the apple on the coffee table.

 

“You must miss your mother. Maybe you should spend some time with a friend of mine. Autumn. She’s not a psychiatrist, but she could use someone to talk to as well. You could help each other. She’ll be working at the Compound more often to help with some issues she’s having. Would it be okay if I brought that up with her?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

He flipped to the news, and a somber-faced newswoman was talking about bad weather. The rain whipped around her hair soundlessly.

 

“Why do you call it the Compound,” I asked, watching the woman shiver. I thought I heard him chuckle. Two newscasters talked about things that would never matter to me, about topics that would never affect my life. I wasn’t ever going to be normal enough to understand the things they went through.

 

“Autumn’s a character.” We watched the news in silence, and then the somber-faced woman was back. A photo of a boy around my age appeared in the corner of the screen. His braces shining in a bright smile, he looked so much different than he had that day. I felt the air going into my lungs, sharp and painful. Mr. David unmuted it, and I ignored his eyes burning into my back.

 

…authorities are saying the boys vary in age and location, with eight confirmed missing so far. Joseph Reed was last seen leaving fifth period at Ellyn Charter High School, and his parents are sure he never made it home. Jennifer County Public School System is considering a curfew for both middle and high school students in Chastain and Lostine. If anyone has any information, please call-“

 

“What do you mean she’s a character?” He turned the sound off, rubbing his eyes.

 

“It’s hard to explain. She’s dramatic. If she can’t make her point one way, she makes it another.” We watched the woman ramble on for a little while longer, the sound of my own breathing filling my head. I held my breath, but the sound continued, hard gasps struggling through dirt until Mr. David scared me with a loud laugh.

 

“A curfew? They’re considering a curfew!”

 

“Why is that funny?” I asked, wringing my hands. He let his face fall, every ounce of friendliness gone, and gave me a look. I stared back.

 

“You should know, boy. Is a curfew going to dig them up?”

...

There was a noise coming from my closet. I laid in bed, staring, but couldn’t move. It didn’t sound familiar at first, and then I heard it dripping, splattering against the floor. The noise gurgled around a throat, hawking, then turned into a low, moist grumble.

 

“Mom… I have school. I need to sleep.” The grumble turned into a gag, and then a loud splatter. My body jerked up when a voice tore from the closet, clear and agonized.

 

“Don’t make him do this! You don’t have to do-”

 

It stopped, and then the low grumble started over. I covered my head with the pillow, squeezing until there was no room for the sound to get through.

 

When I finally drifted off to sleep, she still bothered me. I stood in the hallway of our house and watched Janna’s skull shatter over and over again, pieces of her sticking to the wall. Astor was watching me, Alicia was watching me, and then it was just those empty pupils staring. It was like her pupils were draining every semblance of life from my body. All the colors, all the moisture, all the oxygen, everything was floating away to wherever she was hiding.

 

I snapped awake, choking, but it was no use. Alicia was there in my waking life, covered in blood, watching me. I saw her face in the walls of my room at night sometimes, saw her watching me from the windows. I heard screaming when I saw her face, but it was never her. It was never her voice.

 

Why would she ever need to scream when there are innocent people to do it for her?

 

I started sleeping in the living room. That worked better. Mr. David would walk into the house covered in real blood, and sometimes he would notice me. He’d chuckle and turn off the light. He usually didn’t see me on the couch though, too out of it to understand his surroundings. A couple of times, I got to watch him stand in the little entryway to the apartment and drool, heaving anger out of himself from somewhere. The drool turned black if he did it long enough.

 

“Idiot Hybrid! Let me go. Let me go, you promised it wouldn’t be forever. Are you going to be that monster’s lackey for the rest of your pathetic, waste of a life? Haven’t you done enough in your miserable existence? Let that pathetic human die and rescue me! I don’t want to be in here!” He’d shiver until the words stopped coming from his mouth, until the drooling stopped, and then he’d limp up the stairs.

 

He’s not a Devil. He lied. I don’t know what he is, but he’s not like them.

 

If I was there watching this beast drool blood, what was Astor doing at that house with those girls? If Janna wouldn’t leave me alone, was Jamie bothering her? Did she think about her father’s death?

 

Astor is okay. Don’t worry. She won’t think about it. You told her not to.

 

I told her not to, and Astor listened. She listened too much sometimes. Alicia wouldn’t let her go to school at first because she never wanted to lie. Teachers would ask her if she wanted to go to lunch and she’d say,

 

“I don’t need to. I don’t eat.”

 

We couldn’t have scrutiny, Alicia said. It was the thing I knew the most. When I got the highest score on the LAAMP exam, the biggest exam in the state, Astor visited me at school with a bouquet of roses. Jamie stood behind her, blushing.

 

“She insisted. I told her boys liked stuff like watches or tools, but she said you deserve something beautiful.” I laughed and patted her head.

 

“It’s okay, Astor. I like watches, but this is nice, too.”

 

They had an assembly for me, and my name was in the paper. At the assembly, Jamie and Astor stared on with so much love and pride that I thought I would burst. They gave me a certificate and a medal, and they even broadcast it on the local public access channel. Jamie took us out to eat, and my mom snuck by. It was one of the first times I saw Astor smile a real smile.

 

Her smile meant something. Everyone else smiles all the time; they spend all day doing it. Astor’s smile was rare. It felt like I’d really won, like I was a 10-year-old who found the key to life itself.

 

And then Alicia woke us all up the next morning, covered in blood, and screamed that I was an idiot. There were bodies in the yard, real humans that were mangled and destroyed. Janna was downstairs with a head wound, out of it.

 

“Imagine my surprise when fanatics attacked me in my own yard! Did you think about what would happen? An assembly? Do you WANT someone to come and take her from me, too? Do you want someone to take you? Do you understand what ‘in hiding’ means, you idiots?”

 

Jamie tried to reason that I shouldn’t have to hide with Astor. I should be allowed to participate in life.

 

“He’s… normal. Let him achieve things. How do we know when someone’s watching? We can’t spend forever dodging your enemies, Alicia!” And she scoffed.

 

“He’ll achieve what Astor achieves, and he’ll miss out when she misses out.”

 

I was old enough not to hate Astor for that. There was no way to beat her up about it more than she beat herself up, anyway. She sat at the bottom of the stairs with her hand shivering over her heart, and I knew her head was going to hurt later, but I didn’t want it to. She didn’t do anything wrong.

 

She was terrified of doing the wrong thing. She worried.

 

You told her not to worry. She listens.

...

“Fu- fucking fuc- fucking idiot Hybrid! Let me OUT! Please!” Mr. David wheezed to himself in the foyer. I was dressed under the blanket, waiting. He’d given me a big smile and a chuckle when he’d left out. It was 3 AM, and he was soaked, covered in sweat or water, or maybe blood. His hand shook on the door frame, and he heaved, black drool pouring out his mouth.

 

I almost jumped when he answered himself in a different voice. It was still a male voice, but much smoother. Higher.

 

“Cora, please. He’s working. Shut up. Driving him insane won’t help; everyone else has tried. Shut UP!” He shook his head, more drool seething out. A woman’s voice replied, wet with snot and spit.

 

“Tell that little human wench to move faster. Tell her to kill everyone on the planet if she has to. You were supposed to save me. This is worse than the ocean! It’s WORSE, David. How could you lie to me again? Am I supposed to keep putting that human before myself? Ple-” He coughed up a glob and shivered for a moment, leaning his head on his arm. The doorframe whined and he pushed up, holding in another cough.

 

“Boy?” He whispered. I closed my eyes. He watched me for a second, then chuckled.

 

“The nightmares stop eventually. So I’ve heard.” The sound of his feet coming toward me made my heart speed up, but I didn’t move. He rustled my hair lovingly, and then he moved on to the kitchen. Every utensil he picked up shook, every sound he made vibrated, and then he was talking to himself again. By the time he finally went upstairs, the woman’s voice had called him every insult it could think of with varying levels of hatred and begging.

 

I didn’t trust him, but I was too scared to do anything about it just then.

...

The next day, Bylas grabbed my shoulder in the hallway. I knew it was him before I even turned around, and I did everything I could to stop my heart from beating. He gave me a friendly smile when I looked up at him, maybe too warm to be real. It looked pasted to his face.

 

“Hey. You’ll do me a quick favor?”

 

“Yeah! Of course. Anything. Not anything, you know, haha, just… yeah. What is it?” Bylas handed me a shiny pink bag, the name LOU etched in glitter at the top, ETTA at the bottom. It was see-through, the light from the hall window blazing through to show notebooks, pens, and a slim box of tampons.

 

“You’ll bring this to my girl for me? She’s mad. I don’t feel like dealing with it.” I grabbed it eagerly, nodding.

 

“Sure! What class-“

 

“She in the same science class as you, I think. Mr. Ellison, right?”

 

“Yeah! Yeah, because I studied. I got skipped, I mean. I mean, it’s from studying.” He nodded patiently while I fumbled through the words.

 

“Cool. Make sure it gets to her.” He started walking, and I followed after him gleefully, holding the bag over my shoulder. I tried to match his lazy glide but had trouble, so I just walked normally instead. We were halfway down the hall before he held his arm out, stopping me.

 

“That’s it. I don’t need anything else.” I stood there for a minute, stunned, then turned and rushed off. I held on to the bag all through first and second period, ignoring the stares it got me. I couldn’t wait to meet her.

 

Louetta, my future big sister.

 

Who could be interesting enough to date someone like him? I’d seen couples before, and there was no rhyme or reason to them. She could be anybody, look like anything, sound like anything. Was she pretty much an older Noah? Had she ever stopped by The Compound?

 

I couldn’t remember, and the closer I got to fourth period, the more my nerves flared across my face and neck. I walked into the classroom pretty much blind and tried to remember who was who. Nerves kept my head in my books most of the time, and I’d never paid attention during roll call. If someone looked like they could pose a threat, I watched them, but that was it.

 

The bell rang. Everyone sat at a desk, only two missing their owners. I started digging through the bag. There was a notebook with her name written on it, and when I flipped through, all I saw were drawings of boxes. Each page had more and more boxes, some cubes, until there was nothing but a jumbled mess of squares. On the very last page was a message in pretty handwriting:

 

If this doll is somehow misplaced, return it to Autumn Bishop. Nobody else wants it.

 

There was an address underneath. I copied it into my textbook and replaced the notebook. Class was about to start, but the two seats were still empty.

 

“Is that my bag?” The voice was girly, but not in a childish way. It was lazy, slow and casual, a slight lisp trailing after the’s’. The bag lifted from my shoulder, and I saw pink and black nails hooked through the strap, matte, all of them rounded. She tapped my cheek with her other hand, only a little playful.

 

Shit.

 

Lou walked by, sweeping her hair in my face, and she smelled like someone’s mother. Her shirt fit tight against her back, her high-waisted skirt curving with every step she made. It barely went beyond her thighs. When she turned around, she winked, her lashes full enough to be fake. A couple of girls glared at her. A couple of boys licked their lips. She ignored them all, staring at me.

 

“Bylas asked me. To bring it, I mean. He asked me to bring it to you.”

 

“Oh. I bet he needed to meet his shark. Can’t fuck around with your girlfriend’s pink bag on your shoulder, can you?” She sat down in one of the empty seats up front, and for a minute, I wondered how I’d never noticed her. Was I that lost in my head? There were a few rows between us, but I could see her clearly if I leaned a little.

 

Lou turned to say something to me, waving to get my attention, but the boy sitting next to her yanked her face roughly.

 

“Wow, you out here flirting with other dudes now, Lou? What would By say?”

 

“Mind your business.” She snatched her face from his hand, disgusted. Long red marks traveled over her jaw.

 

“Just sayin’, you said you couldn’t talk to no dudes because By was crazy. So, what, that’s a bitch back there?” I loosened my jaw a little, looking down at my textbook. The words jumbled together. They tilted towards me, blurring.

 

“Fuck off!  I don’t have to explain shit to you. I already deal with enough.” When I looked back up, she was trying to turn back toward the front. The boy knocked her bag off the desk, snickering.

 

“Don’t worry. I heard about ya’ll Bishop hoes, anyway. I’ll hit your sister up later.” She blushed, pulling her hair up into a ponytail. Before I could stop myself, I got up and walked over. She waved me away when I tried to pick the bag up, close to tears.

 

“I’m used to it. Just sit down.” I stared at the boy as he talked to the girl sitting on the other side of him, cracking my knuckles.

 

She sat stiff and quiet the entire period, not daring to look up.

 

“It’s not just Erin, Osh. I have a few people you need to find.”

...

Our house in Chastain sat behind me, and this boy wouldn’t stop screaming. He was hyperventilating in the hole, his skin dirty, nails clawing against the walls. It didn’t matter how much dirt I poured on him; he wouldn’t calm down.

 

“I’M SORRY! I SAID I WAS-” I dumped another pile of dirt over his face and jammed the shovel straight down, smashing the bridge of his nose. He gargled blood, falling back, sucking down wet dirt and tears.

 

“I’ll tell those Bishop hoes you said so.”

 

I buried him, but by the end, I doubled over from the pain in my chest. He screamed right until his head was covered, right until he couldn’t move his body anymore. There was no peace in it. I couldn’t breathe. He was too frantic. It just made me feel like my chest was full of dirt, like I was suffocating even worse than I’d been before he went under.

 

For a second, there was a glint of red in the distance, just the faintest glimmer of color, but it retreated into the woods.

...

That night, I studied. I waited until Mr. David bounced down the stairs, a big smile nearly closing his eyes, and waved goodbye to me. I pretended to be too into my books to respond. He chuckled, shaking his head affectionately, and walked out the door. Alicia’s voice filled my head.

 

Pay attention. I need you to know when to act. Don’t deviate.

 

The nights were getting colder. I’d slipped my coat under the coffee table earlier, ready to spring into action as soon as Mr. David stumbled out. It took a second for me to get it on, my hands fumbling over the buttons on the slim peacoat.

 

Something is going to happen. The thought was instinctual, it was just a feeling, but it was right. I checked for The Bishop’s address in my phone, put it into my GPS, and headed out.

 

The back door squeaked when you opened it, and I moved it slowly, holding my breath. Devils could hear. Someone could cough three doors down, and Alicia would wince like you were driving a hammer through her skull.

 

“Alicia, you don’t have to…”

 

Mr. David walked slow. It took awhile for me to get around the big building block, but once I came out on the other side, he was still making his way up to the bus stop. I tried not to be too apparent in my hiding. There were lots of trees in our neighborhood, and I hid behind anything big enough to block me out. He waited at the bus stop, hands in his pockets, the moon rising to meet him. It looked like he was whistling. I panicked when he stopped. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and had a long, slow conversation. By the time he hung up, he squeezed the phone like a vice.

 

For a moment, he stood there stunned, head tilted toward the sky. Then he walked back down to the apartment. I rushed to the entrance of the apartment complex and waited.

 

There was a chance he would leave back out, and I didn’t want him to run into me. It took twenty minutes for him to drive by, and he turned and drove so slowly down the street that I had to stay in the bushes by the bus stop until he disappeared around the corner.

 

The bus pulled up, and I got on, greeting the driver.

 

“Hey! You look good, youngin’!” He laughed to himself. I gave him a polite smile.

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

“You be careful out here. Them boys keep goin’ missin’. They ain’t do that curfew, but you might wanna mind yourself regardless.”

 

“I’m going straight to a friend’s house, sir.” He nodded his approval, and I moved to one of the front seats. Two older women gave me appreciative smiles. I ran my hand over my fade and tried to stare out the window.

 

What was I going to say to Astor when I got there? Would she be home? It was late enough that she might be asleep, but it was a house full of girls. They probably stayed up talking all night, or watched movies. Did they make her watch scary movies? She got scared so easily, and I hoped they at least went easy on her.

 

I got off at the stop closest to the address, thanking the driver again.

 

I strolled with my hands in my pockets, going by Mr. David’s real house, wondering what went on there. I pulled that address out of his wallet one night while he was having a fit in his room. It made no sense to me that we lived in a small apartment when he had a property that took up an entire block. The neighborhood was the same one The Bishop house was in, and the houses spread so far out that there wasn’t room for many. His car was nowhere to be found, but Davey sat outside the wrought iron gate, holding her head in frustration.

 

Can’t get away from her.

 

There was another way around, but I’d already come so close. I considered just walking up casually, trying to think of what I would say. She looked up. Before I could say anything, she sucked in a panicked breath. The closer I walked, the harder her fear shook her body.

 

“Is everyone gonna kick my ass now?” She pushed herself away from me. “I know it’s easier if I do it. I can’t fucking do it! Not in the house with her. I won’t hurt her!”

 

Instinctively, I stopped and put my hands out in front of me, trying to look harmless.

 

“Do what?”

 

“Devils are bad enough. Now I’m supposed to kill those poor basement dolls? It’s enough. It’s too much.” I felt a strange urge to comfort her, but when I moved to sit down, she sprang up. She jumped the enormous gate as if it was a picket fence.

 

“I’m gonna kill one of you s- someday, you keep putting your ha- hands on me. I-“

 

“I would never. Stop for a second!” I held my hands up, moving back so she could see me. “I would never hurt you. I have no idea what’s going on. I promise.” Davey gulped, kicking the gate.

 

“Sorry, kid. Of course, you don’t. Look, none of this shit is what it seems. None of it. By wants to look tough. I shouldn’t have left him there, but I can’t do it. I really can’t do it. And he can’t do that shit by himself.”

 

“I get that. What is he doing? Maybe he needs help?” Davey faltered. She patted her head on one of the iron bars, frustrated. I didn’t know what I said, and I wanted to keep going to the house.

 

“Yeah, kid. No use in dodging the inevitable. Yeah, sure, fuck it. Go see if you can help out.” She disappeared through the yard before I could say anything else.

 

“Alicia sent me here to help you,” I whispered anyway.

 

I walked the rest of the way, blowing my breath out in small bursts.

 

The house was massive. You could see it almost two blocks away, looming in the dark. Astor’s house – this was where Astor lived, where she was supposed to adjust. This was where she was supposed to learn how the real world worked outside of our thin ice house. This was where she’d learn to live outside of Alicia.

 

Outside of me.

 

There was a car in the big circular driveway beyond the gate. I recognized Mr. David’s shoe sticking out, planting on the ground, and ducked through the gate. Mr. David sat motionless in the car. I tried to stay hidden behind the bushes, moving along toward the back of the house. When he finally opened the door all the way, he smashed his other foot down, and then I heard the screaming.

 

It was faint. I perked up, listening.

 

Is it coming from underground?

 

I walked forward, surprised, following the noises. He went inside, not bothering to close the doors to the car or the house. The minute the front door opened, the screams burst through, vicious enough to leave marks. I stopped and couldn’t move.

 

Does Astor scream like that? I’ve never heard her scream out loud.

 

No!” A voice cried out behind me, and I spun around. A small woman ran straight into me, her scream thudding into my chest, her forehead smashing into my lip and jaw. She fell backward, knocked out, her hair fanned out in the grass. The top of her neck bulged in the bruised shape of a hand. Blood slowly dripped onto her leg, and I realized it was pouring from my lip. I held my mouth, not knowing what to do.

 

Another girl darted across the front yard, her hair swinging behind her, body barely covered in a small t-shirt, and then Bylas stepped out of the front door.

 

It wasn’t like when he walked into the Compound. No, it was all too fast. He lifted the shotgun and blew the girl’s back through her chest. She flew forward, head and shoulders flying back, and hit the gate noisily. When she slid down, it was lifeless, empty, and without meaning. Bylas stood and stared at her for a moment, shellshocked.

 

I grabbed the girl that ran into me and dragged her around the back, picking her up when the grass turned into a concrete patio. I tried to shake her awake.

 

“Don’t kill them, don’t kill them, I PROMISED THEY WOULDN’T GET HURT! I PROMISED!” More screams came from inside the house, trapped behind a glass patio door. The woman’s voice was shrill and terrified. I almost dropped the girl I was carrying. I placed her in a shed out back, hoping no one would find her.

 

The usual Chastain rain started, always heavy and thick, always out of nowhere. I stood a moment and listened to it splashing against the concrete. Alicia’s strained voice rose above the pattering, her anger absolute.

 

You have enough to worry about as it is. I don’t want you saving anyone but the people I named, Osh. Listen to me…

 

I popped the lock on the patio door. It led to a big, open kitchen. The screaming sounded muffled, all coming from the same place underneath me. I eyed the open basement door, and when I got closer, Mr. David’s big voice boomed up the stairwell.

 

“Autumn… stop this. I don’t want to lose you here today-” Another male voice boomed over his, angry.

 

“Don’t call her Autumn. I have to find out that this HUSK is masquerading as my wife-“

 

“Which wife? Don’t you have a spare?” There was a long pause.

 

The second man rambled angrily, his voice going higher and lower. It sounded thick with tears, but he pressed through the words anyway.

 

“Don’t taunt me. Don’t you fucking dare taunt me. You, you’re a copy? When did this happen? Why wasn’t I informed? If Autumn is dead, this is over. It’s over. Who’s in charge here, me or you? I want to speak to Yenna. I want to know why I’m surrounded by these empty shells instead of my family-“

 

“You keep walking up on me, and you’ll find out, Red…” A bunch of scrambling covered the voices, and then another girl burst from the basement door, her face bloody. I grabbed her before she could run out to Bylas. I put my finger to my lips and tried to hold her to me. She screamed anyway.

 

“Listen, stop, I’m not-” She hit me in the throat and sent her elbow into my nose. I caught her the second time and slammed her onto the hardwood floor, dragging her around a kitchen island. She fought. Her nails dug deep into my arms, sliding back towards her, but I pressed my foot against her throat until she stopped, gasping for air.

 

“I’m not trying to hurt you! Stop!”

 

The back door opened wider, long red fingernails curving in, but the person stopped and turned.

 

“Bylas. Kill them for fuck’s sake; don’t just stand there. They’re too noisy.” I pulled the girl up, dragging her back to a closet door. It opened to a small food cabinet. We stood as still as possible, hoping the woman hadn’t noticed us fighting. Heels clicked against the ground. I held the girl’s mouth closed, too nervous to close the door, and we waited while she walked by.

 

All the screaming stopped.

 

A shadow grew across the wall, arching up to the ceiling as the person walked. They were long. Tall. The shadow moved by us, and the girl held her breath. A giant round mass stuck out on the back of the shadow’s head. We waited for it to disappear down the stairs, then the girl wrestled away from me.

 

“There’s a boy outside shooting people,” I managed, and she froze. “What’s going on? Where’s Astor?” She shook her head frantically, sucking in deep breaths.

 

“I’m not Astor. I- I don’t know who that is. My mother let us come out of the room. We do that sometimes. It doesn’t hurt anyone. Daddy was so mad, and then- then he found out about what Momma is.”

 

“What is she?” She ignored me, continuing.

 

“The other man came down, screaming at us. They- they grabbed her, and they’re yelling at her. They’re going to kill her; we have to help! Please, I just need to find help!” She smoothed her shirt, and it reminded me of everyone I loved. If I could just get her out to the shed, maybe I could help them escape in the morning.

 

“Okay. Okay, just… I don’t know what’s going on, but just stay with me. I won’t let anyone hurt you if you stay near me.”

 

“We need to go back downstairs-“

 

“No, it’s not safe.”

 

“Are you listening? They’re going to kill her!”

 

“If you go back down there, they’re going to kill you, right? I promise I’ll do what I can if you just leave it to me. Let me get you outside-“

 

“No. I’m not leaving her.” She opened the door and hurried out, grabbing a knife from the sink. My heart sunk. She was courageous and beautiful, and capable. Alicia would call her capable.

 

I heard a shotgun cock and rushed out of the cabinet to get in front of her.

 

Bylas held the shotgun over his shoulder, biting his lip. His hair was down for once, and it trailed his back, stopping below his waist. He sucked his teeth when he recognized me.

 

“Don’t save them, man. It just makes it harder on Autumn. They’re gonna kill all of them anyway, might as well get it over with.” Confused, I moved the girl closer to me. She wrapped her arm around my stomach and ducked to block herself from Bylas’ view.

 

“What do you mean? Why are you killing women? You don’t kill the women unless Alicia says it’s okay, you just knock them out. You only kill the boys!” I saw Janna’s face as soon as the words left my mouth, and then I realized how crazy I sounded, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. There was nothing to replace it. Bylas’ face dropped. He moved closer, slow like he was dealing with a bomb.

 

“Hey, it’s cool, kid. This isn’t whatever you’re used to. Relax.” He looked down at my balled-up fists and pulled the shotgun down, raising an eyebrow. Alicia’s voice boomed in my head.

 

Kill him before he kills you, Osh. You have responsibilities. Kill him now.

 

“Just relax.” I held her hand. Part of me felt like I was tearing in two. Relax? Did I listen to him, or did I listen to Alicia? Was I supposed to do something specific? I didn’t want to offend him. I started moving to the door, and the girl moved with me. He rolled his eyes.

 

“You’re being annoying. I just want to get this shit over with.” I pulled her behind me faster. Loud footsteps trudged up the stairs, and then a small woman burst through the door so quickly that her feet left the ground. A jumble of words poured out of her as she flew forward, reaching for anything. Mr. David was close behind her, and I’d never seen anyone so angry.

 

“SHE ALREADY HAD THEM DOWN THERE! I DIDN’T MAKE THEM! PLEASE!”

 

She scrambled, grabbing Bylas, trying to pull herself away from Mr. David. His fingers dug deep into her back, drawing blood, and he yanked her to him, enraged. She yelped as she flew back down the steps, smashing noisily into the wall at the bottom.

 

“Fuck! Don’t kill her, Mr. D,” Bylas shouted, and he actually sounded worried. I started to speak, but a tiny gasp caught all of our attention. We all turned, staring deeper into the house.

 

Noah appeared around the corner, wide-eyed. I was distracted by her giant pink t-shirt for a moment. Her hair was wrapped, bobby pins neat and in place.

 

Astor used to do that for Alicia. I bet Astor did that.

 

“What the hell is going on?” More screams rang out downstairs. When Noah tried to get around him, Bylas raised the shotgun, then put it back down in confusion. I grabbed her, pulling her behind me with what must’ve been one of her sisters.

 

Relax. I wouldn’t hurt her. That was an accident. There are too many fucking girls here; I’m getting confused. You all look the fucking same. Calm down. We all just need to calm down!” Bylas was screaming, his hands shaking against the gun.

 

Mr. David watched me, but he wasn’t himself. The whites of his eyes were barely visible around pitch-black pupils. Something clicked on his face, and he gave me a sweet smile.

 

“You’re Osh, aren’t you? She finally sent you.” A woman’s voice. He spoke to me in the woman’s voice, astonished. Mr. David gave me a dainty curtsey, head high on his neck, and I couldn’t help but think of Alicia.

 

“Come see me soon?”

 

I opened my mouth to reply, but Lawrence rushed up the stairs and smashed his fist into Mr. David’s jaw. They broke out into a heavy scuffle, the size of them destroying everything they touched. Noah squeaked behind me, pulling my shirt until I choked.

 

“Now you’re bringing my real daughter into this. Are you happy? Are you all happy with yourselves?” The girl from the cabinet shook me, pointing at the door.

 

“We have to go down there!” For a moment, I didn’t know what to do. Even as he fought, Mr. David watched me, enraged and frothing. Bylas held the shotgun over his shoulder again, eyes on me. They were all staring, waiting for me to make a move, but I couldn’t tell where the danger was. Would Mr. David hurt us? Would Bylas shotgun me to death? Was I going to get Noah and the girl killed?

 

“We need… to get back… down there… with them… before Yenna kills her…” Mr. David somehow managed to get the words out around all the frothing.

 

Dr. Bishop stood up straight, shaking his hands out to his sides.

 

“Why does it matter? I’m sure you can just make another one under my nose. I’m the one in charge here. Don’t forget it again. Go find the husk that escaped,” Lawrence muttered. He rolled his eyes and headed back downstairs. Mr. David moved toward me, black drool bubbling over his lip.

 

“Ay. Leave him, Mr. D. Snap- snap out of it.” Bylas patted my foster father with the shotgun. They exchanged a look, ragged, and moist breaths filling the room. Mr. David finally shrugged and headed outside. He didn’t even look at the girl behind me.

 

“I’ll do it myself,” she muttered. She pushed around me and ran downstairs. Noah tried to follow, frantic, but Bylas grabbed her by the arm.

 

“Relax.”

 

“GET OFF ME!” She swung at him, but Bylas sidestepped her. He pushed her back toward the main house.

 

“Go back to your room.”

 

“Pussy! You’re a coward. You’re the most pathetic person I’ve ever met.”

 

“That’s fine. Go upstairs.” She sucked in a sob, turning to me.

 

“Osh, you’re the only one here that’s not a fucking monster. Please help me. I’m begging you, please!” I waited for Bylas to say something. He just shrugged.

 

“I’m going downstairs,” I managed. He sucked his teeth.

 

“You want to get involved? Go ahead. I’m not gonna coddle you. Here, come on.” Bylas put the shotgun on the counter and yanked me to the door. He pulled Noah halfway down the steps, holding her too hard.

 

“Hey-“

 

“Shut up and listen. You wanna run down there and get killed? Fine. At least listen in first. They’re not gonna tell you shit just because you ask. Learn to listen when they don’t know you’re there.” Noah held her breath, calming. She leaned against me, and we all listened.

 

Downstairs, a woman sobbed. 

 

“How can I work if you all keep attacking me? Why bring me here if you were just going to do this?” Noah mouthed ‘Autumn.’

 

We listened to the sound of heels clicking against the floor. There was a sharp yelp.

 

“Working? Let me see your work. You’ve had years. All I see are more and more husks. Now I have to get calls in the middle of the night about your secret stash of daughters? Are you going insane? Was this a bad idea? Give me some answers here, or I’ll crush your head,” the other woman taunted. Bylas looked embarrassed, and then he mouthed, “Yenna.”

 

“No! I’m working-“

 

“You haven’t even gotten the basics together. We could’ve just stuck with the real Autumn if you were going to pick up where she left off. Why isn’t this bitch out of me yet?” The way she cursed was awkward, like she wasn’t used to it. We listened to her click around some more before Autumn’s voice burst back into the conversation.

 

“Because it doesn’t work like that! It DOESN’T work like that, I keep telling you, I keep- I keep trying! I can’t-” There was a loud crunch, and she stopped abruptly. “Stop killing them. Stop-

 

“Oh, but it needs to work, Autumn. I’m destroying this body,” Yenna cooed, still clicking around the room. “It’s tearing at the scalp. The belly keeps distending. It looks awful in the mornings, just awful. Look at my hands-” They were silent for a moment.

 

“I woke up this morning and couldn’t control my fingers,” Yenna continued. “They clawed at me. The body stops me from eating sometimes. Do you understand me? I’m starving. She’s still in here. I want her out before she manages to take over.”

 

“It’s her fucking body, of course, she’s clawing at you! What do you want me to do? Cora’s the only one who can- who can do what- Why don’t you just let her destroy the body so she can transfer out naturally? Then- then just get a new body! Then we don’t have to go through any of this…ugh.” Autumn stopped talking, sucking in a frustrated sob.

 

“I won’t risk it. You think you’re smart enough to trick me into killing myself? Get this Devil out of me. Stop making these shells. Are those my people you’re pulling into them?”

 

“They’re damaged ones; you would just kill them anyway!” There was another loud crash, and Autumn yelped.

 

“You say you’re trying? You’re practicing? Then this route is a failure. It worked when you tried it on yourself, didn’t it? How’d she do this, anyway?” The curiosity in Yenna’s voice was almost taunting.

 

“David. He consumed me a long time ago. I’m just an exact copy of who I was then. I’ve been trapped in him. So if you want that, you’d need David to consume you first. And you’d just make a copy. There’d be two of you.”

 

“That’s not happening,” Yenna scoffed.

 

“Exactly. So- so it wouldn’t work-“

 

“Use Noah or Lou. We need more human tests.” Noah sucked in a breath beside me, and Bylas put his hand over her mouth. I watched her face as her mother talked.

 

“No, no, no. I have the husks, and they’re better and better. They’re better, Yenna, they- they completely bind. You’ve seen it! The husks down here are different. I don’t use them in experiments. That’s fine, I’ll admit that,” Autumn stopped, struggling to breathe. “I promised I’d take care of them and her human girls. My other human girls. I promised. You can’t just use them for this. After all she’s sacrificed, it’s not right.”

 

They were silent for a moment.

 

“When did you make this switch,” Dr. Bishop asked, and I’d almost forgotten he was down there. Yenna laughed.

 

“Oh, don’t be angry, Lawrence. It was your wife’s idea,” Yenna laughed again, this time letting it flow freely. 

 

“I wasn’t informed. I wasn’t even paid. Did you do it with any of the girls? Louella? Reese?”

 

“I think your daughter’s name is Louetta, and Reese is dead, Lawrence. You should think about getting help, maybe a therapist or something,” Yenna said. “We used her first, remember?”

 

“Noah, I mean. The red head.” He sounded a little deflated but tried to keep the bass in his voice.

 

“As far as I know, they’re still human. I’d be angry if you used them without my knowledge. I paid good money for them.”

 

“Not for Noah. You haven’t paid anything for Noah,” Lawrence grumbled. I grabbed Noah’s hand and let her shake against me. He didn’t say anything else about her. Yenna started clicking against the floor again, and Autumn whimpered.

 

She must be close to her.

 

“Let’s be reasonable, Autumn. What about the other thing with Cora? Has she been transferred into a Latch yet? Is she ready to feed my family… get your hand off me, Lawrence.” Yenna stopped short, sucking her teeth, and Lawrence spoke up, bored, and flat.

 

“We can discuss Cora in private. I’m working on that separately with David. My wife… the real Autumn doesn’t have the stomach for it, so I’d rather she didn’t know the details.”

 

“I don’t care what she has the stomach for,” Yenna scoffed. “The husks are not working. Use your living daughters, as you promised. Why do I have to keep my promises if you won’t keep yours?”

 

“Nobody promised you that,” Lawrence said. There was another crunch, more scrambling, and for a split second, a girl appeared at the bottom of the steps, frantic. Before she could move toward us, her head crushed into the wall, a giant black tentacle pushing it deeper and deeper in. Bylas and Noah nearly slid down the stairs in shock, but I sat there. It wasn’t the girl from the cabinet. Autumn cried out, distraught.

 

“Stop killing them, please!”

 

“You see that tentacle? I haven’t been able to do that in a long time, Autumn. I don’t WANT to be able to access these parts of me. I have Feeders to do this ugly work! The body is falling apart. Use those girls.” The crushed girl fell limp, and this time all three of us backed up, Bylas barely holding in his scared breathing.

 

Noah’s mother spoke so low that I had to struggle to hear her over all three of our hearts.

 

“No, no, no,” Autumn whispered. “You- you said I could try fi- first, you said so. I’m trying. I’m in two places, even. Drowning, and I’m getting bodies for you, and I’m working. The girls shouldn’t have to do this. They’re not old enough-“

 

Yenna sucked in a long yawn. “Louetta will be out of school soon, won’t she? She’s had a wonderful life as far as I can tell. Bylas isn’t any closer to marrying her. I think he’s lost interest, and I want my money’s worth. We can get a couple of years in before you need to try Noah. If she works, I’ll find someone else for Jukel.” There was a thick silence. Noah shook next to me, backing up, but Bylas held her still. Her mother’s quiet, drained voice finally broke through.

 

“I’ll kill them before I let that happen. I promised I would, and I will. I’ll kill them tonight if I have to. I’ll burn us all alive, and you won’t even be able to use the bodies.” Autumn’s voice kept shifting in and out, and then she was choking.

 

“Yes, you and your mercy killings. You really are an exact copy. Lawrence, if she kills herself, you know what happens.”

 

“She won’t,” Lawrence said.

 

“Good. Now, where are the rest of these husks you’re pretending to practice on? Hmm? Down here?” Yenna’s voice and heels traveled across the room. The sound of scared girls moving out of the way filled the air, and one by one they choked and sputtered out.

 

“Open the damn door. I want to see them. I bet they’re all pretty and intact. I bet you haven’t even tried to turn them into Latches.”

 

“Beat me to death if you want,” Autumn said. “I’m not showing you anything else.” The final tone in her voice was cut short by another gasp. The wind knocked out of her, and I was willing to bet it was by the tentacle. 

 

“How many do you have?” There was a sharp shriek, and then lots of whimpering. I had to grab Noah to keep her from running down. Bylas pulled us back, and we slowly started moving towards the top of the stairs, still listening.

 

“Ridiculous. Get that door open and kill them all, Lawrence. They’re useless. We agreed. Transfer this damn Devil out of me and prepare Cora for the feeding. It’s been long enough.”

.

 

“No. My wife will be back, won’t she,” Dr. Bishop finally spoke up with intention.

 

“That depends,” Yenna responded, and she sounded further in the basement.

 

“She will be back, or we’re all going to talk with Eon Tech. And she needs the girls for her grieving. It’s hard to make her work when she’s distraught. I’m ready for this to be over, too, but I’m not going to torture anyone. I’m not Eric.”

 

Noah’s mother spoke up again, frantic. “They’re my daughters. You can’t ju- just kill them. I promised-“

 

“You have two natural girls and three of the permanent husks left. That’s all you need to practice. The next time I have to come to you like this, I’m killing the real girls myself. What’s the point if you won’t help me, anyway? And then you’re going into David. Not in the tank, not in another husk, back into David. You can rot in there with Cora for all I care. Lawrence, are you sure you’re close with Cora? Can I count on you?”

 

“We’ll talk about it later.”

 

“I’m trying to be polite,” Yenna reasoned, softening. “It’s just getting out of hand. I want the girls to be with my sons, I really do. And I understand Eon Tech’s position on it, but we need to move to land sooner than later. I know they would make wonderful mothers to the children they get to keep. But I can’t keep letting this go by unpunished. You know how stubborn your wife is.”

 

“Yes. I know,” Lawrence replied.

 

“I’m tired of sharing this body with that Devil. Get her out, Autumn,” she said sweetly. “Do you understand me?”

 

It was Lawrence that answered, and he didn’t sound as friendly. For once, he seemed venomous and angry, and even a little capable.

 

“We understand. I want to remind you not to come here. It was part of your agreement with Eon Tech. If you have any other concerns, please go there.”

 

“Don’t give me a reason to stop by, and I won’t. I’m sure you have lots of secret things you don’t want me stumbling upon. Let’s keep it professional.” Yenna ended with that, her heels clicking back toward us. We scrambled back up the steps and Bylas rushed us to the cabinet. We watched their shadows on the wall as she stopped to talk to him, sighing in frustration.

 

“Lawrence will hesitate. I need you to make sure they’re all dead. There are already quite a few at their little lab that they think I don’t know about. They can practice on those.”

 

“Okay, Mom.”

 

“Make it ugly. I’ve been dealing with this human, however she presents herself, for a long time. She needs to see that you’re serious, or she’ll find every loophole in the book. I want her to know what will happen if she doesn’t succeed. Don’t give her any options to stall. Do you understand?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Have you decided about Louetta?” Bylas was silent, and his mother gave another annoyed huff. Her heels clicked away.

 

There were more heavy footsteps. Someone stomped up the stairs and out the patio, and I figured it was Lawrence. Bylas tapped on the closet before he walked out. We didn’t move. Noah shook heavily, her tiny body barely managing to stand upright.

 

“I’m scared to see her. I know she isn’t the real person, not really, but somehow she’s still my mom. I just keep listening to all these liars. She at least told me the truth.” I pulled her close to me. “Even Alicia lied to me. Why did she lie to me?”

 

I didn’t answer, but I wanted to laugh. The feeling crawled through my head, and I imagined the last boy I’d buried screaming, ruining it for me, sucking in too much dirt.

 

“You should go back upstairs. I’ll take care of her.”

 

“You promise? Don’t… don’t let anyone else hurt her. I’m sick of it. And- and don’t get hurt.” She still didn’t move. The sound of soft sobs filled the air, floating up from the lab. 

 

“Is Astor upstairs?” Noah shook her head, but she didn’t elaborate.

 

“Go to bed. I’ll take care of it.” After another few minutes, Noah pushed off of me and headed back. I walked down the steps as slow as possible, listening. The sobs grew louder.

 

“Momma!” The girl from earlier, the one that hid in the closet with me, rushed around me. I couldn’t tell where she’d been hiding. A small woman sat in the middle of the floor, covered in so many bruises I couldn’t tell what her skin color was. She shivered, a knife in her hand, her eyes big around the swelling.

 

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. The girl hugged her tight. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want this to happen again.” She spotted me, her face falling in confusion.

 

“You’re Osh?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Alicia’s?” I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I didn’t.

 

“Oh, honey, you look just like your father.” She looked around, pulling herself up with her daughter’s help. “You could be his twin. You could’ve been a copy of him, honey, I wish you knew how much you look like that man.” They limped around while she pulled open drawers, searching for something.

 

“Please. They’ll melt them, or they’ll- they’ll beat them to death. They’ll use them for experiments. They’ll hurt them. It’s my fault; it’s my fault.” She shifted through every drawer in the lab, one after one, frantic. I tried to back up, but she finally turned, a gigantic needle in her hand. She pointed to another one in the drawer.

 

“Please. I owe those girls dignified deaths. I made a promise to myself… to Autumn before she went under. I know you don’t understand, but just trust me. You have to help me. I can’t let them take them. I can’t!”

 

“Ma’am, I don’t know how I could help.”

 

“I heard about what Alicia made you do. I know what you did. You can save these girls from that pain. Don’t you wish you could’ve done this for your mother?! Put her out of her misery before Alicia got to her?”

 

She limped to her little trap door and struggled to open the lock. I grabbed the needle, not sure what to do with it.

 

“It only takes a tiny amount. Just a little. This should be enough for all of them. They can’t be here,” she said, and this time she sucked in a small breath. “They can’t be here anymore.”

 

“Ma’am?” Autumn smiled a big, chaotic smile and cupped my chin.

 

Only help the people I name, Osh. Are you listening?

 

“I want to apologize to you in advance. I’m using your trauma for my own needs. There are too many for me to… there’s too many for me to handle alone.” Her words sunk in for me. I looked at the needle.

 

“I can’t.” Her eyes never left me. They were huge, getting wider by the second, and I felt like I could see the entire universe burning out there. Alicia used to tell me that you can tell someone who is beyond saving by how empty their eyes are when they’re sad. When they’re scared, or angry, or feeling any emotion. Autumn’s eyes swarmed with feeling.

 

Everyone will need help. You can’t help them all. Don’t deviate! Only help the people I name.

 

“The way Janna died? I don’t want that. If they have to go, I need to be the one to do it. Do you understand? You’re the only one who understands that. Alicia gave you a choice, didn’t she? She let you decide? And you chose to kill her yourself. You understand it, Osh.” Autumn turned, talking to herself. She pulled up the little door and headed down. I waited for something. Who knows what, but I waited. I just stood there, ignoring the girl as she pushed her way after her mother.

...

The sub-basement felt like an evil scientist’s lab from movies I used to watch with Astor and Jamie. He was obsessed with horror, but Astor always ended up too afraid to sleep. We’d cuddle together in front of the television, watching evil doctors inject liquids into unsuspecting victims, and I’d always have to pull her head up to look.

 

“It’s not even real. Don’t be a baby.”

 

Autumn stopped me in a small closet before the main room. I could hear laughing and talking inside. It sounded like the cafeteria at school, and the realization that there were so many girls down there rocked me.

 

“They’re not used to seeing boys, so be tactful. Let me tell them what’s going to happen.” We headed through the open double doors to a giant room filled with teenage girls.

 

They all wore plain ponytails; all had flowers pinned to their plain black shirts. And they were all beautiful, which stopped me in my tracks.

 

These are the girls they keep calling husks? How?

 

I expected them to be zombies or some other type of monster. A cluster sat close to the door, laid on pillows, chatting with their arms behind their heads. Some were laughing loudly by a fridge in the back, huddled around a tablet, watching something. I heard a different language booming from a television in the corner, and a few girls were watching an art tutorial and sketching.

 

They were normal teenage girls, all of them doing something different. Each of them had their own personality, some somber and brooding, some gregarious. There were some odd things, sure. None of them were darker than caramel, a detail Alicia would’ve commented on and scoffed at. A lot of them had the same few faces, but some were unique. They were all attractive, so much so that I had to stop myself from blushing.

 

They were laughing and talking, sitting cross-legged, or leaned against the wall. Socializing. Autumn worried for nothing. None of them looked up at me. None of them stopped what they were doing to stare.

 

Are these really husks?

 

There were a lot of them. It didn’t seem like they could hear the commotion from upstairs. It was a lab, and a big open one at that, but it felt more like a community center. A few doors in the back seemed to lead deeper into the sub-basement, maybe to beds and actual bedrooms.

 

I walked up to one of the girls on the pillows, curious. She turned and stared at me, her face scrunched up in annoyance. Somehow, she had Noah’s attitude. I waved my hand in her face.

 

“What are you doing,” she asked, and I jumped. Autumn moved me to the side.

 

In the big, well-lit room, Autumn stood at the front of them. A long mirror stretching across the wall made her seem like a dance instructor. She waited.

 

One by one, they noticed her. They took in her expression. Like a wave, they stood, they lined up, and they knew something I didn’t. Deep sorrow crowded the room.

 

Autumn had the most trouble. With a loud inhale, she snapped her fingers. They all looked up. It wasn’t seamless. They shuffled and shifted. One sighed loudly. They were real girls, real live girls.

 

“I know I promised you all the world. And you deserve it. You’ve done so much in such a short time. Not just for the people using you for their own gain. For me. For yourselves. You-” She stopped, grabbing her throat.

 

“What is happening?” The girl from earlier muttered. A few girls noticed the blood on her face, the bruises on her arms and neck. They started whispering. I grabbed her hand.

 

“She’s going to kill you.”

 

“Every one of you has filled me with so much joy. No one in the world can say they’ve done so much. I promised you’d get a chance to live away from this stuffy basement, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to deliver that. I said this might happen, but… it’s time to go.” Silence. The struggled way she held her body made me want to stand next to her, to be there in case she fell.

 

The girls started whimpering. They cried.

 

One of the girls stood out of line in the back, and she was different. While the other girls went into a quiet panic, she just stood there glaring.

 

“I don’t want to leave! I’m not ready!” One girl yelled, and the rest of them went nuts. Panic filled the room like a poison, thickening the air.

 

Autumn stood and listened to them, head high. She let big tears roll down her face and just listened. The sorrow hit me harder than I’d expected. I heard Janna in all of them. Saw Alicia with her head held just as high, holding the sledgehammer, explaining that she knew what they’d done — saying how hurt she was.

 

“How could you do that to us? Is it that horrible here? Couldn’t you just wait for her to come back?”

 

I saw my mother backing away, looking to Jamie for help. Saw Jamie give me that look of shame.

 

“I’m sorry, Osh. I didn’t want to hurt you. I just wanted to get out of here. You know as well as I do that she isn’t coming back. We all know that.”

 

In front of me, the girls looked to Noah’s mother for their next emotions, but she just cried. I tried to hold myself together, but pain ripped through my legs. My own mother, she begged and begged and begged just like the girls.

 

Begging never helped. It never helped.

 

“I don’t want to die!” One of the girls wept, and Autumn nearly buckled.

 

“I’m sorry. I know. I’m so sorry. If I don’t, they’ll- they’ll- they’ll mutilate you. I’ve seen what happens. I’ve seen it. It won’t just be marriage or assignments or whatever nonsense they have. They’ll melt you, or experiment, or… It doesn’t matter who takes you. You’ll suffer. It’ll be the same, no matter what.” There was a loud sob, and Autumn rushed over to hug the girl who did it. They all swarmed, hugging her, crying. None of them tried to escape or fight. The woman in the far back didn’t move, standing still and staring at herself angrily in the mirror.

 

They understood. It was a big difference from what I’d done. Janna didn’t understand.

 

Autumn snapped her fingers, and they all got back in line, faces forward, emotion waving them. Their tears fell while they stood.

 

Autumn wiped her face and picked up the large needle from the counter. She nodded at me, pointing at the other one.

 

“Please help me. Please. We have to incinerate them when we’re done, or he’ll sell them, and they’ll be bodies. They’ll be food. I don’t want that. I won’t make any more, I promise. Just help me.”

 

“No.”

 

“It’s painless! They won’t feel anything.”

 

“No. I said no.” She nodded. She kept nodding as she walked to the first one.

 

“I won’t make you, but you understand. You understand. This is why I needed your help. You know this feeling. This is not a shotgun. You can redeem yourself.”

 

The needle went smooth into one of the girl’s necks, and she sucked in a deep breath, staring at herself in the mirror. Autumn caught her when she fell, cradled her. She rocked back and forth on the floor with her, singing, and watched the life go out of her eyes. The girl stared up at the ceiling but didn’t look hurt. She looked peaceful.

 

“It’s painless, Osh. Please.”

 

They just stood there. Shaking, shivering, and crying, they looked at Autumn like they forgave her already. When she got to them, they didn’t struggle. Each girl got the same treatment, and by the twentieth girl, Autumn’s face bloated with tears. Slob clung to her chin. She handled them so delicately, and with so much care. She treated them so much better than I treated my mother and mentor.

 

Janna barely had any blood left by the time I shot her in the face.

 

The girl from the closet still held my hand. The one I couldn’t save. The one that wouldn’t listen. I turned my full attention to her; my eyes were blurring badly.

 

“You were right, I guess,” she whispered. I picked the needle up. I rolled it around my hands.

 

Like before, she smoothed her shirt. She shook her hair out of her face. I waited until she looked ready, then moved in front of her. We listened as the girls whimpered around us.

 

“You should’ve escaped,” I said. She nodded, laughing a little, wiping her eyes. “What’s your name?”

 

“My name is Astrid. We’re not supposed to get hurt. I don’t understand… I didn’t think… I didn’t think this would happen for some reason. She always said it might, but you just never take that type of thing seriously. I couldn’t leave her.” She sounded like she was still processing it, and I wanted to wait. I wanted to give her a moment to understand it, to get it.

 

We listened to the girls gasping and falling, to the crying and whimpering, and she still gave me a small smile. She nodded to the needle and tilted her head so I could reach her neck.

 

“You’ll die.”

 

“Right. Do what you need to. It’s not your fault. You tried to save me.” She cupped my face in her hand, wiping my tears. “You’re a good kid. I’m glad you’re the last person I’ll see.”

 

I pushed the needle into her neck while she held my face, trying not to shake.

 

“Your mother loves you. You have so much courage to come back here for her. I think you’re amazing. You deserve peace.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say as she fell forward onto me, so I just held her. She let out the same little gasp and I fell to the floor with her, holding her tight. I stared into her eyes until her hand weakened on my face, and then she was gone. It was too quick. I wanted her to breathe, to try to fight it.

 

It wasn’t like Janna. It wasn’t half her face twisted in an ugly grimace of pain. Her mouth slightly open, she looked like she was stuck on a sentence in her head. Like she was trying to think of something to say.

 

It wasn’t like Janna. It was worse.

 

I couldn’t move. Their mother moved frantically around me, trying her best to give each girl the attention they deserved. I sobbed, my chest hurting, but I couldn’t get up. There were so many girls left, she needed help, but I couldn’t move my eyes from Astrid.

 

We heard loud footsteps, and Autumn whimpered, trying to move faster. The girls ran behind her, all terrified.

 

Lawrence walked in. He took in the line of dead girls on the floor. He watched his wife inject another girl, watched the girl die in her arms. He glared at me, then looked up in surprise at something behind me.

 

“Ramona?”

 

The woman in the back finally spoke up.

 

“Wow. You finally got a name right, Daddy.”

...

“I wondered where Autumn was keeping her dolls. She has an entire second lab down here? What a husband I must be. I never noticed it.” Lawrence’s voice was soft, maybe a little worried. He kept sweeping his eyes over the dead girls, all of them some variation of him. Autumn cleared her throat.

 

“It’s like she wants to be stuck doing this forever. She’s still making more. We had an agreement.”

 

He turned to the woman in the back, Ramona, and let out a sigh of exasperation. The way his face contorted, he must’ve felt some sort of connection to her, some type of love. None of that emotion stayed for the other girls.

 

“Are you real? Are you actually her?” Ramona looked down.

 

“We’re all real.”

 

“No, we’re not. Are you a human? An actual person? One of my actual daughters?” Ramona didn’t answer, just stared at her mother.

 

“You are, aren’t you? I have another living, breathing daughter, and you’re down here raising dolls. Have you been down here the entire time? Since the sale?”

 

“Someone has to teach them how to live,” she reasoned. “It was better than going off to get eaten. Would you rather that?”

 

“What about Amanda? Or- or Reese? Are they alive?” Lawrence stepped forward, casually pulling his foot over one of the bodies. Autumn clenched at the sight.

 

“Why do you care about girls you sold off-” Ramona started, but he kept moving closer to her, and she faltered.

 

“I never sold Reese! Never.” He talked in huffs, barely able to compose himself. I kissed Astrid’s forehead, giving her one last look, and let her down gently. By the time I managed to get up, Lawrence had Ramona backed into a corner, his hands balled into fists. Autumn continued killing the girls quietly. There were less than ten left.

 

“Dr. Bishop,” I warned.

 

“You’re telling me some of you are still alive? The real ones? Some of you are still around?”

 

“Dr. Bishop.”

 

“Ingrid? What about Ingrid? Or Etta? Why don’t I know about this?” He turned and moved around me quickly, grabbing Autumn’s hand. He snatched the needle and threw it against the wall.

 

“Why don’t I know about this? Who else is alive? Astley? Is that a husk, or is she my daughter? Is that why you’re so close to her? Who else?” Autumn let her swollen face turn to stone.

 

“It’s a mystery, honey.” He slapped her hard, and I lost consciousness for a moment. When I opened my eyes, Ramona and Autumn were holding me back. The girls ran around us, scrambling up the stairs. I was too angry to yell after them, to warn them about Bylas. Lawrence backed up, ashamed, but he didn’t back down.

 

“If you knew what was going on here, you wouldn’t take their side. I thought my daughter was dead all this time. I thought-“

 

“You’re the one that sold me to die.” Ramona gripped me harder, gritting her teeth. “You don’t get to celebrate my life or get mad about anything. You don’t get to know who’s dead or alive because of the work WE did to save ourselves.”

 

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and started texting someone. Autumn’s breathing tore in and out of her body.

 

“Don’t sell them. Don’t. Please, you can’t. Just let me kill them, she said they had to die anyway, please-” Autumn rushed over to the needle and held it to her own throat, but he just sighed.

 

“I hate that I have to deal with you. I hate it. This is the side of Autumn you want to emulate? Hm? Show them the Autumn that copes like an adult – the one that outlived her entire family. The one that had governments nearly WARRING over her. This childish woman you’re trying to pass off as my wife is insufferable.” He moved to the line of bodies and took a picture with his phone, shaking his head to himself. Before she could move, he snatched the needle out of her hand again and tossed it into the sink. Ramona backed up.

 

I seethed, but I let my rage travel through me until I felt calm. Lawrence eyed me nervously.

 

“I’m taking them with me,” Ramona muttered.

 

“Who?”

 

“Lou and Astley. And… and Noah.”

 

“Your mother needs Astley for her grieving when she comes back. What makes you think I’d let you take my real daughters? If I’m stuck here, so are they.”

 

“Oh, I’ve tried this, honey.” Autumn laughed bitterly. “Autumn… she tried to let them go. Ask him to tell you about his real girls, how they drug Astley up the street, and she fought, and they beat the shit out of her. They-“

 

“Right. The question is, did they kill her,” Lawrence asked, sullen. “Is she dead?” Autumn stopped, glaring at him.  He cracked his neck and moved to the door, suddenly bored and calm.

 

“Right. Rant on, Autumn. I don’t want to hear anything else about this.” He stopped, gripping the bridge of his nose, and turned to leave. Mr. David walked down, looking around curiously, and whistled when he saw the room. Bylas followed close behind, wiping blood off his shirt.

 

“There’s a lot of them, Mr. D.” He pulled the shotgun down and aimed it at Ramona, but Autumn moved in the way. Mr. David went to move her.

 

“She’s a human,” I whispered. Bylas gave a skeptical ‘tsk.’

 

“Don’t hurt her. Just take the other bodies,” Lawrence demanded. Autumn shrieked and tried to stop them, stepping in the way, grabbing onto them. They ignored her like she was a mosquito or a bug. After a while, she just stood in place, staring at the wall.

 

“You’re all against me. You’re all against me; you all want me tortured. I didn’t do anything.” Bylas’ hands shook as he gathered up as many girls as he could, avoiding Autumn. I walked over and pulled her into a hug, hiding the scene from her as they carted the bodies out. When I looked around, Ramona was gone, but Autumn didn’t mention it. We just stood there.

 

When Mr. David picked up Astrid, I pulled Autumn down to the floor and gripped her tighter.

 

After a long time, she spoke gently into my shirt. “Do you know about Yenna?”

 

“Not exactly, ma’am.”

 

“What a liar. I’m sure Alicia told you all about her. I’m sure that’s the only reason you’re here. You can’t deny Alicia her dedication. She’s stronger than I’ve ever been.”

 

“You’re strong, ma’am. I’ve never seen strength like this.”

 

“That Yenna is a Shadow. A Leviathan. She took that body from a friend of mine. The monster needs to separate from the… the real Yenna. So I have to do it. I have to figure it out, or she’ll kill all of them. All my girls. I can’t figure it out. It’s not the way they work. You can’t just make it happen. There are so many rules and circumstances that have to align. Devils don’t work like that. And- and when I run, David does the thing again. It’s terrifying. And- and if the girls run, they die.”

 

“What does that mean for Astor?” Autumn laughed a little, curling closer to me. The house was silent. I tried to listen for the rain, but all I could hear was the slow whir of an air conditioner.

 

“What a question. You already know the answer, Osh. You and Astor, you don’t even exist in the same world as we do. None of this means anything for you. Whatever Alicia has you doing here is so far out of my hands, I can’t understand it. But thank you for this. Regardless of what happens, thank you.” I thought about the faces of her daughters, of all of those girls dying in a row, of Astrid gasping.

 

They meant more to me than she would ever understand. We had more in common than she’d ever want to know.

...

I went upstairs, ready to head home. Autumn was shivering, and I grabbed her coat off the back of one of the kitchen chairs. I wouldn’t leave her like that.

 

There was a faint scream from above. I dropped the coat, growling until my throat vibrated. I’d had enough. I walked up the stairs, following the sound of loud talking until I came to a set of double doors. When I opened them, Noah stood in front of her father, shrinking back in fear, but talking loudly in anger. He advanced on her.

 

“You’re a disgusting sack of shit!”

 

“Excuse me,” he growled, raising a red eyebrow. All his anger from earlier was still there, still stewing around in him.

 

“You’re making her worse. You’re making her worse for no reason. What would it have hurt to let her incinerate them?”

 

“It’s a waste of money.”

 

“Don’t you have enough money from your dictator mother? Don’t you have enough? Why are you doing this?” He glared at her, disinterested.

 

“She’s not even your actual mother! Did you know that? I helped you learn the truth, and now you’re cursing at me? Are you all ungrateful? Your mother-“

 

“You helped me learn a bunch of fucking LIES! I don’t care who she is, she needs HELP! I need help! Not some vengeful idiot trying to make me think he’s a fucking HOSTAGE!” She smacked his cup off the desk and they both watched the coffee leak down to the baseboard. The anger went out of her and was immediately replaced with fear. Whatever anger he’d been holding in crawled red over his face. He stood, and she backed up until I hit the wall.

 

I’m glad I made that extra hole.

 

I walked in and stood between them. Noah gripped my arms softly, leaning her head against my back.

 

I’m human, but I’ve been fighting Shadows and beasts all my life. I’ve been killing all my life. Lawrence was a simple little human, and I could smell the innocence on him. He could sell his daughters. He could hit his wife. He could loom over women, but he was a simple man. He’d never watch his mother try to speak to him with half her jaw blown through her skull. He’d never have to look in the mirror and hear words and commands in his head, telling him to pay attention, telling him to do things, telling him to be ready.

 

We were both human, but we were not the same. He backed down, face getting even redder.

 

“Sir,” I said, letting my eyes blaze into him.

 

Lawrence cleared his throat, keeping his eyes on me but addressing Noah. “You’re really defending her? Knowing what’s going to happen to you? Knowing the things she’s done?”

 

“We need help.” Noah whispered.

 

“Sir,” I said, looking down at my knuckles. They were scarred, bloody. His own were clean and smooth — a man of science who hadn’t even put in enough work to have marks.

 

Men get hurt.

 

I cracked each knuckle. “I don’t care what you’ve done to the other women in your life. If I see you advancing on one of these girls again, I’ll take it personally.”

 

“Alicia wouldn’t like to hear you saying that-“

 

Alicia would’ve split you in half already. Alicia is the one that told me to protect them. I’m not telling you again, sir.” Lawrence sat down fast. Noah sucked in a deep breath, scared, exhilarated, and happy.

 

I took her hand gently and walked her back down to her mother, and we put the coat on her. She’d managed to make it to her living room couch, curled up on the pillows. Mr. David walked back in the door without knocking, gave them an apologetic nod, and motioned for me to leave.

 

“I’ll try my best to make sure they’re used wisely, Autumn. Osh. Why don’t you take the bus home? I’m sure they need some space.”

 

“I’m not leaving them with Dr. Bishop.” Mr. David’s face contorted, but I stayed put.  Autumn barely raised her hand, giving me a weak smile, and motioned for me to get up.

 

“Go on ahead, honey. You don’t argue with him. There’s no reason to learn another hard truth. You’ve had enough for the night.” I nodded politely and walked out the door without another word, avoiding Mr. David’s glare.

 

Alicia taught me over and over that you listen to women when they warn you about men.

...

Dead girls lined the street all the way up to the bus stop. I turned to see a light flashing every few minutes, just a massive surge of light, but I didn’t get involved. Davey was nowhere to be found when I walked by the large house.

 

At the stop, Bylas was already waiting, the shotgun gone. I didn’t speak to him. He’d tied his hair back up, changed his bloody shirt to a clean wrinkled one, and couldn’t sit still. Every few minutes, he’d look back toward the chaos, craning his neck for a better view. I figured he was looking for Mr. David.

 

“Davey came out. She hates doing this shit,” he mentioned. I didn’t respond.

 

The bus pulled up, and I got on, stuffing money into the machine.

 

“Hey! It’s you again,” the driver said, and I nodded to him. I’d need to take care of him eventually. It was never a good thing when people got used to seeing me.

 

Bylas stalled.

 

“Hey, I don’t… uh… I don’t have anything,” he whispered, patting his pockets. I walked back and put another dollar in, nodding to the bus driver again. He glanced down at my shirt and then focused all of his attention in front of him.

 

Bylas was uncertain and shaky all the way to the back, plopping down next to me when the bus jerked to motion. I pulled the window open. I realized I was dirty; my shirt had blood stains on it; my mouth was probably swollen from the girl running into me. Then I remembered her and panicked.

 

You did enough. You can’t help what happened.

 

“You saved a few of them,” Bylas marveled, looking around the seats and ceiling.

 

“Why didn’t you?” He licked his lips and leaned forward, back to his slow and steady movements. I wasn’t sure how I felt.

 

“You know, I don’t think you got what was going on tonight. How bad that could’ve gotten. How close we all are to chaos all the time.” The bus rumbled on, and Bylas looked nervous when we the heat kicked up. He wasn’t used to the noises. After a moment, he calmed down, laughing nervously.

 

“Astor’s in that house, Osh. Davey’s up the street. Do you realize what just happened? My momma was there.”

 

“If it was that big a deal, they’re idiots for keeping everybody so close. Chastain isn’t the only place n the world.” Bylas sucked his teeth.

 

“No, but everything they need is here. My momma-“

 

“Who is your mother?” He laughed again, this time in frustration.

 

“We used to go to the Compound together when I was younger. She smelled Davey once. It was like blood hitting the water near a shark, man. She lost it. But they do all this shit to hide what Davey is now, the contacts and the perfume and shit. It’s so good, sometimes Davey can come with us to the docks, and nobody fucking realizes she’s a Devil.” I stared out the window, watching Chastain go by.

 

He’s pretending. He can’t be that stupid.

 

“Who is your mother?”

 

“They should file her teeth down, too, though. Then nobody would ever notice.”

 

I was done asking questions. None of them wanted to tell me anything, and all that meant was that Astor and I were in danger. Bylas continued as if I’d never even spoken, staring out the window.

 

“But Astor isn’t ready for that yet. What if my momma realized she was there? I know it makes sense to keep everybody close. It makes sense to like, keep an eye out. But what are they thinking? Why risk it?” He waited for me to join in, to complain, to feel frustrated.

 

The bus stopped, and a couple got on, laughing. The man and woman sat close to the front, talking amongst themselves.

 

“Who is Davey to Astor,” I muttered. Bylas cleared his throat, leaning his head back on the seat.

 

“It’s not important. She’s been waiting for this for a long time, though. She-“

 

“Is she Erin?” He stopped short. I allowed him a second to compose himself, but I didn’t need his response. The pause was enough.

 

Be sure, Osh. Don’t move a finger for her until you’re sure.

 

“I don’t know who that is.”

 

“What happens if you don’t marry Noah’s sister?” Bylas scratched his neck. I could feel his mood shift, and for a moment, I cared again.

 

“All these fucking questions. What’s it like being able to say, fuck it, and leave whenever you want? What’s it like being everyone’s golden boy? What’s it like getting the star treatment?” He shifted uncomfortably. I turned to look at him. Bylas was staring at the couple ahead of us, and when I looked, I almost jumped. They were completely silent, staring intensely at him, mouths nearly agape.

 

“What’s it like to be so fucking normal you can just decide to go off and live your boring ass life and die old? Not having anyone to answer to?”

 

“I have someone to answer to,” I whispered.

 

“Oh yeah? Who?” It was my turn to ignore him, but he was too busy watching the couple to notice.

 

“Your mother, Yenna. She’s a Shadow, right? Is Autumn?” He looked confused.

 

“No. Far as I know, Autumn’s human. I mean, they did the whole shit with the copy, but she’s not one of my people. She’s just… a copy.” The two up front somehow stared harder. The guy got up and took a step toward us, his entire body trembling. I sighed.

 

“I hate when they do this,” Bylas groaned. “This is why I can’t go any fucking where. This is why.” I watched the man struggled forward, then jumped up.

 

“Your king or whatever says you need to get off at the next stop! He commands it,” I yelled, pointing at the door. Bylas scoffed. The woman pulled the cord, and sure enough, when the bus stopped, they left.

 

We both burst out laughing, incredulous. Bylas slapped his knee, squeezing his eyes and falling over.

 

“Holy shit! They really did it! I can’t believe I’ve never tried that shit!” I tried to look cool, turning to look out the window, but I swelled with pride the longer he laughed. “Fucking, wait, how did you know- holy shit!”

 

I let him laugh a little longer, let him get louder and louder, then answered his previous question. I knew he wouldn’t understand, but I wanted someone to know.

 

“I answer to Alicia. I love her more than anyone on the planet, even when I don’t want to. Even though I know she doesn’t care about Astor or me, I love her. I’d do anything for her, but she’s never loved me back. She only loves Erin and Cora. That’s it.” He kept laughing, and I kept going, emotion clogging my chest.

 

“I’m on a suicide mission. So is Astor. It doesn’t matter what you all do. It doesn’t matter what changes, who is real or fake.  I’m going to die doing what Alicia wants me to do. When I do anything else, I feel like I’m going to suffocate, but it’s not the time for me to die yet. I can’t die until Astor completes her part of the plan, and I will never leave her here with you monsters.” I looked down at his hands. He was still laughing too hard to hear me.

 

“Maybe they’re not stupid. Maybe Yenna knows about Davey, and maybe Alicia knows about you. Maybe you’re the dumb one. Maybe they know everything they need to know.” Bylas nodded, pretending he heard me.

 

“Could be, man.”

 

“Mr. David wanted you to make sure I came home.” He laughed.

 

“Yeah. You’re right. Shit, I don’t know how to ride the bus. You know it wasn’t my choice. I complained a little bit, but, you know, you’re not bad.” Bylas mushed my hair, pushing my head back and forth, and smiled a real smile. He kept laughing all the way to the apartments, and I could’ve split in half from joy. Even knowing what he was, what he would and wouldn’t do, I felt like the coolest person on the planet when he sat next to me.

 

The creature knows me, Osh, and I know it.

...

Mr. David waited for me at the apartment. Bylas held my arm the entire way down the hill as if I’d run off. I let him, hoping my rapid heartbeat didn’t make me seem weird. When he saw Mr. David, he finally let go, patting my back.

 

“See you at school,” he said, and then he disappeared behind me. Fresh anger took over me when I saw this man, this supposed Devil, another adult who failed me. I walked inside, and Mr. David’s annoying chuckle pierced the bubble I was in.

 

“Who told you to do any of that, boy? Autumn can handle herself, trust me. She has a responsibility-“

 

“What do any of you know about responsibility? You hurt women. You hurt women who love you on purpose.” I struggled to the couch and sat down. “Why didn’t Alicia just let Jamie kill me if she was going to abandon me to someone like you? When is she coming back? I don’t want to look at someone as- as cowardly as you! You’re a monster! You can’t control yourself!” He stood in the doorway, stammering wordlessly. I wondered how he had feelings to hurt, how he had pride at all.

 

“I’m sorry you had to see that. You would’ve eventually. It’s… what I am.”

 

“I don’t care about the voices. You didn’t even try to help Autumn. Men get hurt, don’t they? What are you?”

 

“We’ve been trapped in this a long time. Somebody has to make hard decisions to get us out. I’m just the one who does it.”

 

“I want to see Astor. I don’t care about any of you. I want Astor. Tell Alicia to get me. Tell her to take me home. I don’t want to do this anymore. None of you deserve us.” Mr. David shrugged, struggling against his anger.

 

“She’s never coming to get you, Osh. Your family is dead. That’s it.” He disappeared upstairs, and all night I could hear faint sounds of him arguing with himself.

 

I slept in the shower that night, waking up to freezing water over and over. I couldn’t make myself move. If Jamie were alive, he’d take me out in his boat. He’d let me identify fish while we sailed, ignoring the sky getting dark. He’d try to talk me out of carrying out Alicia’s mission for the millionth time, try to knock her words out of my head.

 

“Let Alicia scream for awhile. Sometimes it’s nice not to have any responsibilities. Just enjoy the water. You don’t have to give your entire life to her.”

 

“I’m okay with it,” I would reply, and he’d look so sad I would watch him. I’d make sure he didn’t jump overboard.

 

“You shouldn’t be, Osh. None of us should.”

 

I imagined myself in the ocean, sinking to the bottom, the water slowly turning to blood, Astor holding on to me, scared. Both of us sinking and waiting for Alicia to save us.

...

...

They wouldn’t let me see her. Months went by and I couldn’t see her, couldn’t talk to her. Noah couldn’t go outside to talk on the phone, Bylas and Davey went straight to the basement, Astrid tilted her head for the needle, the girls all lined up in the basement, nobody had any heart. We went back to work as if nothing happened. Mr. David left every night and came back drooling, sobbing.

 

Davey kept trying to talk to me, then changing her mind.

 

I got a little too in my head one day at work. It felt like blood covered my shirt, sticking the fabric to my skin. Noah kept clicking her pen against the counter, bored. The shotgun tapped against the wall, over and over, me trying to build up the nerve to pull the trigger. I kept tapping the damn thing. Tap. Tap. Tap. 

 

Alicia is waiting for you to pull the trigger, you said you would, just do it or the thing with Astor will happen again, pull it you fucking coward, save Astor, do the fucking thing she asked, do it…

 

My mother begged Alicia, not bothering to talk to me, but she looked at me. I tapped the shotgun against the wall, nervous. Noah stopped clicking, but the shotgun kept tapping the wall, I just kept tapping it. I couldn’t pull the trigger. How useless was I to Astor if I couldn’t do this one thing? Janna was just my mother, she barely mattered, Astor was watching her father die, I just needed to get it over with.

 

Noah paused. I stared at her hand on the pen, and the noise wouldn’t stop. She wasn’t moving it. It was the shotgun. The shotgun is tapping against the wall, stop it…

 

I sucked in a deep breath, and my mother did the same somewhere in my head, the gurgle too deep in her chest for her to survive. No, no, you can’t live with half a face.

 

Mr. David showed up, pushing through the front door to The Compound, eyeing me. His expression was too worried, too worried for anyone in my memories. It helped me wake up a little. He wasn’t there when Alicia raised the sledgehammer that day, so I wasn’t really there. I was in the office at The Compound. It was just all mixed up. Everything was better, the boy with the braces was in the ground in the backyard with all the other boys, Astrid didn’t understand why she was dying, but I didn’t hurt her.

 

“My name is Astrid…”

 

Noah wasn’t there when my mom died. It was just me and Alicia and Astor. It was just Jamie in the corner, and that THWAP sound from the sledgehammer coming down again, and my mother pleading with Alicia. Mr. David walked around the counter and put his hand on my shoulder without saying anything. It didn’t feel like I looked crazy, but Noah turned and looked at me, then got up to leave. I clutched myself harder, struggling under Mr. David’s hand, and then I was crying. Astor was staring at me from somewhere. I could feel it; she needed me to tell her what to feel.

 

She has to be thinking about it. She needs me to help her calm down, how can she calm down out there by herself? I’m supposed to keep her calm, she’ll feel bad if she hurts someone again, she can’t deal with it like I can, just pull the fucking trigger…

 

“Sir… S- Sir, when do- I just… I have to see- Astor… is she okay? Is she okay? I’m starting to think you- you all lied and- and she’s hurt and- and-“

 

Dr. Bishop towered over the counter. “Is he going to be a problem here? We have clients.”

 

Mr. David knelt down, blocking me from Dr. Bishop. I tried to breathe again, but this time nothing but blood filled my lungs. I was bleeding, it was thicker than the air, and if I died, no one would be there to protect Astor! Who would protect her? We were surrounded by creatures and monsters, and they would eat her eventually. They were going to eat her.

 

“Can I tell you a secret about your little girlfriend, Osh?”

 

I shook Alicia’s voice out of my head and tried to breathe again. There was dried blood everywhere. My hands were covered in it, Mr. David’s face stained with it, it stained the walls, it was all over the floor, it was thick, it was Astor’s, only she bled like that. Mr. David spoke, but half his mouth was blown off, and he stared at me with those sad eyes, and you couldn’t fucking survive with half a face.

 

Stop looking so fucking sad all the time!

 

I looked up, and there was Alicia’s silhouette in the window, standing there, sledgehammer over her shoulder. Astor was somewhere. Maybe she couldn’t take it either. Maybe she couldn’t fucking take it. I was supposed to keep her calm, I had to keep her calm! She needed me. Nobody understood how much she needed me.

 

“Astor is fine-“

 

“She- she- I… you need to let me see her, or- or- I won’t- the people after her- the- there’s a lot, and the crazy people, they’ll cut off her head, they’ll eat her, they- they- they- come after her- I’m suffocating…” He moved all of a sudden, and a small hand replaced his. The smell of oranges filled my nose. My vision blurred, but when I turned, I saw a caramel woman kneeling, her smile breaking through my tears.

 

“We’re not supposed to get hurt…”

 

“You’ll see her! She asks about you all the time, honey. She’s right at home with me, and she’s flourishing. You’ll be so proud.” I opened my mouth, but a strangled noise came out. The woman pulled me into a hug, tight enough to squeeze all the frustration out of me.

 

The creature will hug you, love you, try to get you to love it back…

 

“Please let me see her, ma’am, please. I’ll do an- any- anything.”

 

“She’s adjusting. That’s all. You both need to adjust. You want her to be able to take care of herself, don’t you?” I jerked back, but she held on to me.

 

“No! I can take care of her! She’s not supposed to do things by herself, she’ll panic. No, I don’t want her to worry!”

 

“Oh, honey, she won’t worry! The girl is in a mansion. Do you remember the mansion? My house? It was beautiful, wasn’t it?”

 

“Astor’s not superficial. She won’t like that, ma’am, she’s not like that. That’s too big, too- too big, she’ll panic…

 

“Do you want to come to my house again? See the rest of it? That might help.” I nodded into her shoulder, feeling like a baby. It was the woman that had to kill her daughters, but she didn’t want to. She didn’t hurt them like Alicia. She cared more than that. Astor was in her house, and if she took me there, I’d finally know Astor was okay. The blood wasn’t really there. It hit me that it wasn’t there, that I was fine. I was okay, too.

 

“Ex- excuse my behavior, ma’am.” She laughed and wiped my face.

 

“I listened to my mother die a terrible death right in the same room as me, right in a closet. If the door had been opened even a little more, I probably would’ve died with her. I know trauma, and I would never judge you for it. The tears come, the shakes come, sometimes the air doesn’t. You’ll be fine.” She grabbed my bag and stood, motioning to Dr. Bishop.

 

“We’ll be back.”

 

“He’s not going anywhere near my house.” He moved forward, but Mr. David whistled.

 

“You have clients, Red. Grown men shouldn’t skip out on work.”

 

“But, your little deviant can?”

 

“He’s too young for the basement, right? That’s not a grown man.” They stared each other down, and I imagined dumping a shovel of dirt onto Lawrence’s face. He pointed at me without looking.

 

“I said no. I don’t want that psychopath near my daughters. Being here with Reese is bad enough.” Mr. David chuckled, giving Autumn a look, but she just sighed.

 

“Right, Noah is enough. Fine. He needs some air. If it’s okay with you, I’m escorting him outside.” She grabbed my hand and led me away.

 

“I’m Autumn, not Dr. Bishop, got that? Can you remember anything right now? You’ll be fine, honey.” It felt like she was illuminated. Her tone was so firm but careful and considerate. There was none of the huskiness of Alicia in there, none of the squeakings of my mother. I gripped her hand tight.

 

The creature looks and acts like you, but it’s so many other people. Don’t be fooled.

 

I caught a glimpse of Noah, and she was blank, staring directly at her mother and nothing else. She watched us all the way out the door with that blank expression.

...

Davey waited for me outside after work. I watched her bounce in place for a moment, listening to her coach herself through some imaginary conversation.

 

“It’s just, you know, I wanted you to know that you meant a lot to me. And I’m a fucking monster. Ugh.” She let out a loud laugh to no one, shaking her head in disbelief.

 

When I walked by she grabbed my shoulder, turning me.

 

“A fellow psychopath!”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Oh, fuck off, kid. You’re insane! You belong in the basement with us. I’ve been counting the days ’til they toss your ass in there.” I felt my cheeks turn red and nodded, not sure what to say to punctuate my agreement. I was getting tired of people insulting me. Her eye was always covered, and I wanted to see what it looked like, but I knew not to touch women without permission. I knew not to ask about things they didn’t offer up. She bit her lip, and her teeth were sharp.

 

She wasn’t like Astor. The mark was in her eye, not her blood. She was just a baby, Osh. That damned eye was such a giveaway. You couldn’t hide her in pitch-black darkness. It was bound to happen.

 

“Why are you working here,” she asked, bouncing. She never stood still.

 

“Mr. David said I should.” Davey laughed, shaking her head, and I almost caught a glimpse of her eye.

 

“Yeah, Mr. D and all his fun suggestions. I know he was the one behind it. I’m asking why he wanted you here with us. You’re not on lockdown, right? You can get up and go whenever?”

 

“I don’t know. I’m sure someone checks on me.” We stood and watched the cars ride across the parking lot. The Compound was slightly hidden on a backstreet, and the only cars that came all the way over were looking specifically for the Bishops.

 

“Do they draw blood all day,” I asked. Davey laughed.

 

“They have an entire block of real labs somewhere in Chastain. An entire block, I mean that. Pediatricians and primary care doctors and all that shit. Who gives a shit what they pretend to do? You know what they really do. The shit with the Shadows. The pretty girls Autumn keeps having, the ones Lawrence lets people cut up.” I thought of Astrid, and my breath caught in my throat.

 

“Not all of them. You know. I don’t know if Autumn knows what happens to them once we take them to the Compound basement. Kinda feel bad for the bird sometimes.”

 

“Is that what you do-“

 

“You’ll see eventually. I got a feeling you’re here to do something By wouldn’t do.” Like always, sadness crossed her face. She tried to laugh again.

 

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure they’re… in need of someone with your history.” Again, we let the silence comfort us. There was slight wetness in the air. It was always there, always lurking in the sky and molding the curtains. Hitting the concrete patio.

 

“Fuck, no point in beating around the bush forever. Haven’t gotten my ass kicked by Mr. D in a while, now’s as good a time as any. Come on, kid. Let’s go see her.”

 

“Who?” It’d taken long enough to calm me down that I felt almost catatonic. Half the day was gone. Davey sighed, patting my back too hard.

 

“Your girlfriend, or so you told By. You want to see what she’s up to, right? I was watching you from the basement door earlier. Surprised Mr. D didn’t put you through the wall for whining, but maybe that’s just for us.”

 

“He hits you?” She snuck a look behind her, surveying the building, then grabbed my hand and darted forward. I kept pace. Davey was too quick, almost inhuman, and I had to remind myself that she was a Devil. We kept running until we were nearly a mile away, the rain finally smacking against our jackets. She took in everything we passed, her eyes landing on purses, on strollers, on windows, everything. When we were far enough, she gave me a second to breathe, shaking her hair like a dog.

 

“I don’t get out much. Excuse me if I look like a kid. I mean, I grew up out here, but it’s been awhile. You start to forget how real everything looks off of a computer screen, or around all the adrenaline from hurting innocent people.” I didn’t think there was a right thing to say, so I didn’t say anything. We walked slowly, both of us lost in thought.

 

“Those people at the Aquarium that day. Are they all dead?”

 

“Oh, you saw that? Ha, you’re slick. Yeah, we took care of them. We do that a lot. We’re Autumn’s little adopted family. She always brings us in to take care of shit she doesn’t want to do. Shit Yenna makes her do. I think it’s easier for her to hurt those people instead of her daughters. We’re her little monsters, you know?” There was no bitterness in her voice.

 

“She’s a good person?” Davey swallowed. She patted my shoulder, turning her head to watch a woman climbing up a wobbly ladder to adjust a sign. We stopped.

 

“What type of idiot gets on a ladder in the rain?”

 

“Is Autumn a good-“

 

“Nah. You don’t know any good people, Osh. Not adults, anyway. You know desperate people, or scared people. Never good. Remember that when they try to make you choose between them.” The woman stumbled a bit, the ladder pulling backwards, and Davey rushed over to help her. I didn’t move.

 

“Oh, gosh, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the woman screamed, struggling down. She pulled Davey into a hug.

 

“Yeah, okay. Don’t be an idiot next time. Go ahead. I’ll hold it steady.” Only slightly offended, the woman climbed back up to fix the sign.

 

“Do you remember me,” Davey asked quietly, holding the ladder steady. The woman finished her task, climbing down shakily.

 

“From when?” We continued on our journey, Davey walking with her hands clenched behind her back. I wanted to hurry up.

 

“You were younger, obviously. You were at the train station with… with Astor, I think. And Astor’s mom.” She glanced down at the ground. I gave her a long look, keeping my face blank.

 

“I can’t remember a lot of the small parts of stuff with Alicia.” She nodded slowly, smiling a little.

 

“Alicia. Yeah. Her. You were there with her, and she saw me and freaked out.” I shrugged. The rain picked up, but we both ignored it.

 

“She freaked out a lot.” Davey kept trying to open her mouth to say something. She kept trying to bring something up. I ignored her and watched the rain, imagining the curtains in the wind at the old house again. The mold getting worse and worse.

 

“We’re stalling. Let’s get you to her.” We took a shortcut between the buildings, and Davey me through alley after alley. She knew her way around the city. We came out near a small chunk of trees, and on the other side, we reached the neighborhood.

 

“Chastain’s small if you hit the alleys,” she shrugged.

 

We could see the Bishop’s mansion from three blocks away, but we were on the backside of it. They didn’t live that far from the Compound. We decided to wrap around the front to avoid hopping the large gate, which was nothing to Davey but impossible for me. We had to walk by Mr. David’s house. Davey didn’t look over at all, walking on her heels, whistling.

 

“I know it enough,” she whispered. “It’s better than the Compound, honestly. At least Mr. D has good food. Careful getting too close. Might get sucked in. I hear nobody leaves once they get you comfortable.”

 

“You’re out here now.” She nodded.

 

“Yeah. I’m just a little minion, Osh. Never forget that. I don’t go anywhere I’m not supposed to.”

 

When we sauntered into the circular driveway, I tried not to look surprised. I’d been there the one time, but it’d been pretty late. The house was crazy to look at in the light. I always thought of Alicia as lavish, but all that money went to clothes and furniture and alcohol. The Bishop’s lived that life. Their house was as big as the school I went to, split in half with a little bridge connecting the two buildings. You couldn’t see the whole thing without walking along the property.

 

Davey slowly came to a halt, rocking back and forth on her heels. She waited for me to stop gawking at the house before she spoke, a defeated huff under every word.

 

“I’m not allowed so close to where she is, so you’re on your own.”

 

“Why do you care so much about her?”

 

“Like Autumn always says: mystery of the world, honey. I don’t think Astor’s here, though. I can usually tell.” Davey moved her hair out of the way, and it was the first time I saw her damaged eye up close. It didn’t look blind, but it was super white, whiter than the actual whites of her eyes. I wondered if that was the contact Bylas mentioned. She looked around, turned, and looked some more, then sighed.

 

“Yeah. She’s not here. The dolls are definitely sulking around, though. I hear boys like them.” She patted my shoulder and started to leave. Almost as if her body wouldn’t let her go forward, she stopped. “Hey. Alicia raised you, right? You grew up in her house?”

 

I didn’t answer.

 

“What was she like?” The sound of a shotgun filled the air, but I didn’t move. I waited to see if Davey heard it. She hadn’t, so I assumed it wasn’t real. 

 

Don’t talk to her about me. I want to meet her myself when it’s all over.

 

I gave Davey a big smile, bowing a little. “Thanks for bringing me out here. I appreciate you.”

 

She nodded, taking the hint.

 

“Hey. I just wanted to say that you’re like… you’re like a little brother to me. I’d do anything to protect you and Astor. Don’t ask me why. But you’re like family, and if you need anything, just let me know.” I grimaced. I watched her fill with a sense of relief at having said it, a sense of unloading.

 

“That’s stupid. You don’t look anything like me.”

...

The Bishop’s house was too big. Astor would get lost in there or have a panic attack in one of the halls where no one could help her.

 

Isn’t it better if no one’s around when it happens?

 

Thick woods sat behind their house. It wasn’t directly behind, more like close-by, but the trees went on forever. It was denser than the woods behind my old house. I imagined it would be easy to drag bodies out there if you picked the right time of day.

 

A wrought iron fence ran the length of the property, and I followed it to the backyard. There were a few girls out there talking. Just beyond them was the shed I’d put the girl in, but it sat open and clear — part of me sunk in disappointment. I hadn’t managed to save any of them.

 

You don’t know that. She figured it out, probably.

 

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just kept walking over, feeling my face and chest burning. One looked up, and she could’ve been an animal. I mean a different species of pretty. Two more looked up, and I wanted to run.

 

I’d seen them die already. It hurt even to look.

 

In the basement that day, I’d seen two of their faces over and over again. Two of the girls looked unique, but the other two were repeated in that basement over and over. I struggled over my words, imagining them dead and lined up, trying to deal with them sitting in front of me. Alive. Annoyed.

 

“You left the gate open,” I said stupidly. One of the unique ones got up, and she was the darkest out of them. Her body was draped in a pretty silk robe, her bare stomach showing through the gap. When she moved to pull the tie tighter, I saw how long her fingers were, how shaped her nails were. She raised a sculpted eyebrow, and I wanted to throw up, I was so damn nervous. I’d never seen anyone so effortlessly beautiful.

 

And then there was one with her head down, sprawled out on the grass, ignoring me.

 

“So, you just walked in,” the tall one asked, sucking her teeth. 

 

“I mean… I’m sorry. I wanted to- to see where Astor lived. She’s my… she’s important to me. I’m Osh.” I held my hand out, trying for an eager smile. It trembled. The girl took me in for a moment, then nodded in recognition.

 

“Ah! I’m Astley.” My heart dropped, but I kept my face still. She didn’t move, holding her hand out until I took it.

 

“Astley. I’m supposed to-” she tilted her head, smiling bigger.

 

“We’ll talk about that some other time.” I nodded.

 

Do you think I’d waste her? She was supposed to be mine, anyway. I even gave her a similar name, are you kidding?

 

I didn’t like the thought of her being in the same house as Astor. She was too skinny, too tall, too regal. Would Astor feel overshadowed with this girl in the house? There was a pretty plump one sitting in the grass blushing, and she nearly knocked me over when she smiled.

 

“I’m Tiana! Nice to meet you.” Her voice was sweet and song-like, and I wondered if my face would burst from all the blood. Astley motioned for the next one to speak, but she just glared at me from her lawn chair. This girl wasn’t as beautiful as the other tall one, but she still had one of the best faces I’d ever seen. It contorted into a disgusted snarl.

 

“This is private property. Who do you think you are, barging in here-“

 

“That’s Daynah. She likes to bitch, just ignore her.” I nodded to Astley, trying not to look at the angry girl. Daynah was older than the rest of them, definitely out of school. There was one more on the ground, lying in the grass on her stomach. She surveyed her nails, rolling her eyes up to look at me.

 

Louetta.

 

Lou’s expression sunk into me. The way she barely emitted enough energy to glance up, to meet my eyes, it itched through my skin. This girl that I’d been staring at every school day since I’d given her that bag, she didn’t even look like she recognized me. This girl who I’d had an entire conversation with, she went back to picking her nails.

 

“Lou, don’t be rude,” Astley laughed, but she smiled with pride.

 

“You work with Noah, right,” Lou managed. She reminded me of Bylas immediately, the slow way they moved complimenting each other in my head.

 

“Yeah. You- I’ve seen you around school sometimes, right? With Bylas?” They all stiffened at the name. She sighed and pushed herself up.

 

“Sure, I’ve been known to chat up a monster or two. You’re Astor’s boyfriend?” I could see up her dress when she sat up, but she didn’t move to cover herself. I blushed and looked away.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“How would she feel about you standing here blushing all over us, sweetie? I bet she’d hate it. I’m Lou if you can remember that.”

 

“Why wouldn’t I be able to remember that?” The gate squeaked behind me, and I turned to see Mr. David and Autumn walking over. I turned back, and the girls were all in motion, folding their chairs and heading to the house. Astley gave me a look.

 

“I just wanted to come here. So I could see-“

 

“Yeah. We heard you the first time.” Astley smirked at Lou, and they laughed. Lou pushed herself up, pulling her skirt farther down than she needed to, eyeing her mother.

 

“I’m glad we’re allowed to meet people now. Something must have changed. Or maybe you’re not going to be around long enough to talk about it? Maybe you’re another little sacrifice? How do they feel about all of us getting so comfy with each other?” I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept looking back and forth between Lou and Tiana. They were my favorites. They were softer, shorter.

 

“You like dolls?” Lou asked, and Daynah huffed. She eyed her mother as she went through the patio door.

 

“No.”

 

“Ah. Astor’s no doll, huh? I bet you wish she was. She’s too grown up. I bet she’s the only girl in Chastain who wears pearls. Can’t wait to see how she does at school with the other kids.” A knot formed in my stomach.

 

“Are you bullying her?” Tiana turned red, looking to Lou in worry.

 

“Bullying? You think we could bully your pitbull? No, I don’t bother with the bitch. She’s too good for us soft dolls-“

 

“Shouldn’t you be doing something else, Louetta?” Autumn’s voice was sharp, but not unkind. It was more like a question she’d asked too much. Lou bit her lip but didn’t back down.

 

“Oh, just introducing myself to your employee. Politely. Without mentioning too many details, like you asked.” Autumn stood next to me, hands balled into fists but otherwise normal. She gave Lou a sour glance. Astley stared down at the ground in a way I recognized, in a way I’d done in front of Alicia a million times. Daynah came back and led Tiana to the back door. Lou didn’t move, hands on her hips, head leaned back.

 

“You’re getting bold,” Autumn smiled. “Can you swim, honey?” Lou lost her smile and held her head up.

 

“Oh, don’t do that for my benefit, honey. It’s getting late, Osh, you really shouldn’t be here. Let’s eat. I’m sure you’ve seen enough of the house to feel better.” I turned to look at Lou as I was ushered back to the front, and she blew me a kiss.

 

“Be careful. No big ideas, sacrifice.”

 

Autumn’s hand tightened on my shirt. Davey was gone, no trace of her left behind. I turned to look at the girls one more time but saw something red move in the woods near their house. It disappeared quickly, but never quick enough.

...

Autumn smiled too big. She watched me eat, eyes trying too hard to be kind.

 

“Okay. So this is our first little therapy session. Well, I guess you could call it the second, all things considered. This one is for both of our benefit and not just me babbling like a baby into your coat.” She looked embarrassed, but brushed her hair out of her face and kept smiling. I hated the massive size of her eyes, how she stared at everything, and just let them get bigger and bigger.

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Just say whatever’s on your mind. I’m not sure how much help I’ll be to you, honestly. You’ve seen the amount of control I have over my life. Over what my daughters think of me.” She paused, taking a sip of her lemonade. We were in a small pizzeria called Little Johnny’s, and she’d ordered without asking what I wanted. I sipped on my soda, mimicking her. It was pretty busy, but we had a booth in the back with a little privacy.

 

“I’m sure you’ll do fine, ma’am.” We both faltered over our drinks, smiling politely.

 

“You will, too. Why don’t we talk about Alicia? I’m sure-“

 

“No, thank you.”

 

“She’s a big part of your life, isn’t she? I’m sure you want to-“

 

“No.” Her eyes somehow got wider, and she let her smile drain off of her face, only poison left behind.

 

“I don’t even know if I like you that much, honey, despite what you’ve done to help me. You’re a bit soulless.” There was a malicious edge to her voice. The waiter stopped by with our food. I chewed my chicken sandwich, ignoring her insult, but kept eye contact.

 

“How long did Alicia prepare you to kill your mother? Or did she have to prepare you at all?” I took another sip of my drink, swallowing too early. She continued without pausing.

 

“Have you ever hurt someone you cared about-“

 

“Why do you call it the Compound? Ma’am?” She winced.

 

“It’s named after your foster father, after a certain aspect of him. I was close to him when we opened it, and I wanted a way to thank him. It’s literal.” With a fake smile, she shook some of her hair out of her face.

 

A mixture? Or making something worse?

 

“Are you from Chastain, Osh?”

 

“Yes, ma’am. Are you?”

 

“No, no. I’m not even from Virginia Steeps. I’m from Anity. The red hair missed me, but all my brothers had it. My father had it, as well. Do you know anyone from Anity? Maybe someone who’s there now?” I returned her fake smile and stared down at my sandwich. Davey said there was something unpleasant that they probably wanted me to do, and I wondered if I should ask.

 

“How many people have you killed, Osh?”

 

“Does Dr. Bishop hit you all the time, ma’am? Do you want me to kill him?” She paused, confused.

 

“Kill him? I think about that sometimes. It’s not my call to make. Some part of me owes him too much.”

 

“You could owe him nothing. Dead people don’t collect debts. Ma’am.” At this, Autumn shuffled around in her purse, a small smile on her face. She pulled out a photo and handed it to me. It was a wide photo of her and a ton of girls, all of them smiling stiff smiles.

 

“Are these the girls that died?” She shook her head too quickly, sending one of her earrings flying toward me. I slid it back to her.

 

“Those were my natural daughters. They liked a lot of things: sports, science fiction, all types of activities. We didn’t leave the house much.”

 

“Natural?” She didn’t clarify. I waited for her to put her earring back in and fluff out her hair before I continued.

 

“What are their names?” I leaned the photo so she could point them out. She swallowed, frozen.

 

“That’s not important.”

 

I knew a few of them. I pointed them out myself, naming them out loud. Astley, Daynah, Tiana. I didn’t say Ramona, but I saw her there, as well, and hoped she was okay. The air changed a little, something like anger drifting from Autumn’s side of the table.

 

“What a smart boy. Alicia really taught you to read people, didn’t she? Of course, I would enjoy you saying that.”

 

“Do you think everyone is trying to trick you when they’re nice to you?”

 

“Don’t you?” I shrugged, still staring at her in the photo. Autumn stood in front of the girls with so much pride and love that I felt it sinking into my hand. Somehow, she was prettier in the photo — a regular type of cute. The Autumn in front of me wasn’t a great copy. Her eyes were a little too big, and when she expressed any emotion, it looked like they would hop off her face. The Autumn in the photo was even and calculated.

 

I preferred Alicia to either Autumn. She was manipulative, but not calculating. When Alicia felt anything, you knew. There was no guessing.

 

“You seem like a good mother-“

 

“You really care about Astor, don’t you?” I nodded, biting into my sandwich, feeling irritation build in me. “Why? Why bother caring about that Devil?”

 

“Because I’m supposed to.”

 

“Ah, now we’re getting to the good part! You’re not here for Astor. You’re here for Alicia. Why is that? What does Alicia have you doing, Osh?” The sounds of her hand shuffling through her purse grated on me. She wanted to seem aimless. Harmless. She wanted me to eat my food and tell her things she wasn’t supposed to know.

 

“If Alicia wanted you to know that, she would’ve told you. Ma’am.” We thought to ourselves. The sound of people eating around us made me comfortable. It made me think of Jamie and Janna sneaking Astor and me out to eat. Of Janna encouraging Astor to eat a pizza, to enjoy the taste of it. Of Astor saying she loved them and that she was happier than she’d ever been. I imagined Jamie’s face suddenly falling, going blank, and him asking for the check.

 

How long did they know they were going to try to sacrifice her?

 

Autumn tapped on the table. “I see the way you look at Bylas. Are you gay?”

 

“I don’t think so.” She smirked.

 

“Well, if you ever figure it out, I’d love you forever if you stole him away from us. Maybe run off with him, shack up somewhere far away from Lou and Astor. Leave me alone with my girls. Or – and this is just going off your suggestion – You could kill him. That would work as well.” I looked up finally, really taking in her hideous eyes.

 

“Astor’s not yours. And that’s a terrible thing to say, ma’am.”

 

“A part of me really cares about those monsters for some reason. Do you know what happens to Lou when he marries her? Or what a Leviathan is, how you ‘activate’ one? Do any of you little idiots know?”

 

“Do I know what happens?” I held back a scoff. “Excuse me, ma’am, but that’s a stupid question. How am I supposed to know? Wouldn’t it be easier just to tell me, or tell us?”

 

“Maybe. But then what? You leave, the little monsters leave. And then I worked so hard to save myself, to save the people I love, for nothing.” I was silent, but she moved on.

 

“The way they made me is interesting. I haven’t learned the same humility and calm that the current Autumn has. David first ‘consumed’ me when I was just starting to lose my daughters to Yenna. So I have a fresh hatred that I’m trying to deal with,” she rolled her big eyes to the side.

 

“I even remember the real Yenna a little better. I used to look up to Bylas’ mother when she was alive. Yenna Teroy. She was… well. Can we be honest with each other here, Osh? I’m so used to sugar-coating things to making them palatable for my children or husband or anyone else. This is supposed to be our therapy, right?”

 

“Please be honest with me, ma’am.” Her hands wrung together, twisting a napkin, and she took another sip of the lemonade.

 

“She beat me with a stiletto heel, once, because I wouldn’t marry Lawrence. I don’t tell many people about that. I always talk about how much he didn’t want to do it. But I didn’t either. And she destroyed his life, but you should’ve seen the things she did to me when I said no or when I dared to say anything at all. A 15-year-old girl being beaten and threatened! And I loved her anyway. It’s amazing what love can survive if you’re lonely or damaged or young enough.” She watched me close, and I finally understood.

 

She knows. I heard a loud tap but tried my best to block it out.

 

“I’m oversharing. You have a certain brutality about you, so I figured you’d be okay with hearing it.”

 

“I’m sorry she did that-“

 

“My Yenna stuck her fingers down my throat and drug me through downtown Chastain on my ‘wedding day.’ I still didn’t want to do it then but, honey, you can bet I got my ass up there with that man after that. She sat in the audience and just stared at me the entire time, just glared. So many people came out to see this man get married to a child. It’s not common here.” She took a deep breath.

 

“I cried the entire time. I was young and alone. I was being forced to marry what I thought was an old man. And I had a stupid crush on an abusive Devil.” She stared out the window.

 

Why do they all love talking about their lives so much?

 

“Do you want me to kill her?” My head was spinning, and it was the only thing I could think to say. She scoffed.

 

“It’s easy to abuse people who have no one else but you, isn’t it?” The sounds of the other eaters covered my shame for a second, but I wanted to speak. My voice was lost somewhere.

 

“I keep wondering about you. How far have you gone to please Alicia? Astor has remarkable scars. Alicia didn’t do that to the girl, did she? She likes her things to be presentable. And I knew Jamie and Janna well enough to say they didn’t do it.” I nodded, biting my lip, but tried not to think.

 

But we were kids, and I hated her at first, and Alicia wouldn’t pay attention unless I made her mad, and she was so stupid, she just did everything I said, and I’m sorry…

 

“How far did you go?” I jerked up, shocked.

 

“Not- nothing like that! I hit her sometimes! When we were little, it wasn’t- I never touched her inappropriately!”

 

“There’s a crack in the girl’s skull. I’d say that’s inappropriate.” I tried to sip more soda but choked, the air trapped between the drink and my lungs. She waited while I calmed down.

 

“Do you understand why I won’t let you see her?”

 

Yes. Yes, ma’am.” I tried to swallow but couldn’t. My head spun. Autumn stayed still, calm, holding her hand out to me, but I didn’t take it. She waited until I stopped trying to breathe to continue.

 

“The real Yenna was a monster even before the creature took her. No one talks about it.”

 

“That’s not me-“

 

“Alicia talked to me about her all the time, too. Before you were even born, your mother was in your shoes. Traumatized. Having panic attacks. Trying to kill herself.” I slammed my hands on the table, the words finally thrusting from me.

 

“Alicia isn’t my mother! She’s not my damn mother!”

 

“No, of course not. You killed your mother for Alicia, you little obsessed monster. And now you’re doing some secret thing for her, and I want to know what it is.” My heart felt like it was twisting in my chest, but I sat down and ate my sandwich. I kept eating until I felt like I’d calmed down enough to speak, at least enough to get the words around the dirt in my chest.

 

“I bet you do. You don’t like any of us, do you? You just want us to think you do so we can help you kill your damn daughters, and- and husband, and-”  Autumn pulled another picture out of her bag. It was Alicia. She was holding a little baby, a tiny dark baby, and they were both crying.

 

“A mean and terrible person made her take this picture before she ‘lost’ that baby-“

 

“I don’t CARE about-“

 

“He wanted her to keep it to remember what she was supposed to do. What would happen if she didn’t. She screamed until he locked her in his basement. When I opened the door the next day, she’d clawed a hole in it. Her fingernails were gone. She was obsessed with getting her back. You mean to tell me she didn’t send you here for her? You think I’m stupid?” The photo flipped around her fingers, the rest of the story trapped in her mind somewhere. We glared at each other.

 

I didn’t care about Alicia. I didn’t care about Erin. I didn’t care about any of them.

 

“You look so much like your father. I bet she hated it. Having to be reminded of the man that snatched her child away. He beat her bloody before he left, too. I bet you didn’t know that.” I looked up, then regretted giving her the satisfaction. She smirked, and smirked, and smirked.

 

Liar. He didn’t hit women.” We were quiet again, and then she put the photo back in her bag. She didn’t seem ashamed. I felt tears coming down my face, and then I sobbed, and then I wanted to die. She waited until I sobbed again to continue.

 

“Have you met Rick?”

 

“He’s dead. She killed him.” Autumn raised an eyebrow, smirking harder.

 

“Rick’s dead? Well, I guess that’s one way to put it. Alicia is easily embarrassed. She’s not a liar, but she says questionable things when she feels uninformed or weak. She hates admitting when she doesn’t know something. Has David mentioned him?”

 

“No. Ma’am.” I had trouble hearing her over the blood rushing through my ears.

 

“Interesting.” She drummed her fingers on the table, the smirk turning into a full smile. “The point is, Osh, you aren’t the only one dealing with trauma. It would help you more to help us and abandon Alicia.”

 

“What do you mean?” She laughed, patting my head.

 

“You will never be the strongest person in the room again. There will never be an opportunity for you to terrorize another young girl.”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?! What do you want?”

 

“I need a favor from you, little traumatized boy.” My chest finally tightened enough for me to lean forward in pain. She waited.

 

“I’m supposed to do something for Yenna. But I can’t. I just can’t.” She paused. “And Bylas can’t. Davey can’t. We’re all just circling the drain waiting for the worst person to come forward and get it over with. And I think you’re the worst person I’ve ever met.”

 

“Why can’t Mr. David do it?” She looked surprised.

 

“No. She’s important to him. He won’t do it. He’s already done more than he was comfortable with, I’m not listening to him blubber on about doing anything else. I haven’t been as much of a failure as I’ve let on. Alicia’s grandmother is the closest I’ve come to completing Yenna’s mission and saving my daughters. Saving myself, I guess. Not that succeeding wouldn’t open up a whole other can of worms, but still.”

 

“What do you need me to do?” She sighed, suddenly bored with me. I tried to stop my hands from shaking.

 

“It might be, Osh, that I got it as far as transferring her out of the body she was in without destroying it. So she’s not dead; obviously, she can’t die. But she hasn’t transferred into a Latch just yet. It might be that I have a few ideas on how to get her into a new body, and if I can make that work, I can make it work for Yenna. But I can’t test it.”

 

I realized while I listened to her talk that they knew a lot. They knew that I knew a lot, at least. They offered me no explanation as to who anyone was, what they were referring to. They said names like I was just supposed to get them.

 

I did get them. But it unnerved me that they expected me to.

 

“The process is gruesome, and Cora is powerful. We can’t get what we need out of her because the little monsters aren’t monstrous enough. They can’t stay out of their heads long enough to get through to her physically. She made me relive my mother’s death, and then Yenna beating me, and so much more. She pulls you into this part of your head that you can’t reach, and she immobilizes you.”

 

Frustration crossed her entire body, and then she looked tired.

 

“Once we get her into a Latch, it dies, and then she’s right back where she came from in Mr. David. She won’t give us a chance to finish. It’s impossible.”

 

Dirt filled my lungs. It weighed me down heavier and heavier as Autumn talked, and Alicia’s words threatened to drown her out. I squinted, trying my best to listen.

 

“It might be that we need your help, your type of ugly emptiness, for something vital.”

 

“I’m not empty.” She tilted her head, poking her lips out mockingly.

 

“Oh, no? Is ‘filled with rage’ more accurate? Did you do those terrible things to Astor because you’re filled with joy?”

 

I let out a strangled noise. Who knows where it came from, but it hurt to let out, and it hurt worse when she let it calm her. She leaned forward, grabbing my hand.

 

“We need your emptiness, honey. I need that woman torn to shreds so I can get on with my work. Hacked to bits while she’s alive in a Latch, before the body breaks down. I need her trapped in the transformation so she can’t take a step back.”

 

There was so much satisfaction in the air. The look on Autumn’s face said she was happy to bring me to tears, even after bringing me back from the edge. Even after I helped her. I felt an ugly numbness creeping over me.

 

This is what you were waiting for, Osh. Please make me proud.

 

She looked at the photo of her daughters and stiffened. “Do you really want to know their names?”

...

My 15th birthday came the next month without fanfare. For the first time in months, I felt the weight of my losses sitting in my stomach. Alicia always made a cake for my birthday. She always made everyone sing happy birthday. It was the one time she was guaranteed to be joyful, and happy, and she wasn’t even around to do it.

 

I kept the day to myself, and the only people in the world who knew were miles away, buried in graves, or kept away from me or somewhere stalking innocent people.

 

To keep my mind off of it, I thought about Lou at home in her big house. Imagined her painting rounded nails in her room, lying on her stomach, kicking her feet around in the air. Imagined her pulling her hair up real slow, tying it in a knot. She had a fresh look about her all the time, just clean, spotless. I imagined her cutting her eyebrows in the mirror like Alicia used to do, plucking little hairs, digging into her skin. Turning around and smirking at me.

 

Boy, what are you looking at? Go get ready to sing happy birthday.

 

Lou was red as hell. She probably turned redder when she laughed, sitting around with all those damn sisters, all of them giggling and talking. Did they get to be normal most of the time? Her room was probably lined in gold. I imagined them in that big mansion walking around in towels, talking about me. The needle gliding into Astrid’s neck, her gasping and falling, dying. Daynah asking if I could really bench press over 200lbs already. Tiana giggling and turning red, imagining me working out. Pretending they didn’t like me in person but going on and on about me.

 

Let’s be honest, man, they’re probably talking about Bylas.

 

I tried my best to find the sisters around school. Lou and Noah were the only ones I ever saw, but Daynah picked Lou up sometimes. She was a type of pretty that sat in your stomach, but she always had an attitude. Astrid was around sometimes, tilting her head up, waiting for me to put the needle in her neck, dying quietly. Tiana was never anywhere, but I couldn’t stop imagining her soft arms brushing up against mine, her sweet voice filling my ears. I saw Astley drop Noah off at the Compound once, and when I waved, she grimaced and peeled off in the car.

 

I need to talk to her eventually.

 

I didn’t know where the Bishop girls pulled their attitudes, but man, they could melt paint with glares alone. You couldn’t get close to them, not even in your head. It didn’t feel believable.

 

Lou was all of them combined into something impossible. She wasn’t Astor, could never be Astor, but she wasn’t anyone else. Dudes would walk up to her and start talking, and she’d look at her nails until they got irritated and walked away. People were mean to her. They ignored Noah for the most part, but Lou got a barrage of ugly comments from girls and taunting from boys. It always stopped when Bylas came around, but he rarely did.

 

I felt a way about that, but I tried not to.

 

Every now and then, I’d catch a glimpse of her neck in class, of her head tilted forward, and I couldn’t stop staring.

 

“We’re not supposed to get hurt…”

 

On my birthday, Astley waited outside in a different car than the usual one she drove. I watched from the school doors, ignoring everyone walking around me to get to the parking lot. She nodded when she saw me, but put all her attention on Lou when she walked out from the other side. I watched them for a while. It looked like bad news, maybe, so I tried not to be too nosy. A guy walked up to me and stood, a stupid grin spread across his face.

 

“Oh, you got a thing for the Bishop hoes?” I stiffened.

 

“Why do people call them that?”

 

“You know. They fuck anybody. By pimps that bitch Lou out, I heard.” We watched them talking, and Lou got into the car. She didn’t look happy. I tried to read their lips but couldn’t. Astley stared at me for a while before she got into the driver’s seat.

 

“Oh, you seen one of them fucking somebody? You seen Lou doing that?” The guy gave me a nervous laugh. I turned completely to him, waiting.

 

“Nah, I mean, people talk. I’m just saying-”

 

“That’s crazy. You go around talking about my sisters like that? But you don’t have any proof?” He closed his mouth. I let him walk away.

 

It was my birthday, and I didn’t feel like hurting anyone. But I was going to.

...

Our house in Chastain sat in front of me, and I couldn’t breathe.

 

This time, I went inside, being careful not to touch the curtains. There was blood everywhere, spatters and handprints and pools. I walked up the steps and sat at the top. Our house was in an excellent spot for sunlight, and the way it poured in from the high windows bathed the stairs.

 

I stared at the scratches on the walls and imagined Astor trying her best to breathe, scared and scrambling for me, struggling to get up the steps, trying to make it to me so I could calm her down for the millionth time. I closed my eyes and could hear her tiny feet sliding on every step, her lungs heaving as she fell forward, pulling herself up to me.

 

“Osh! I’m drowning! I’m drowning! I’m drowning!”

 

My hand balled into a fist, and I tried to remember what I’d said. I tried to let the same annoyed feeling crawl up my skin in red blotches. She always needed help. I always had to help her.

 

“You ugly idiot.” No, it wasn’t that. I’d stopped saying that to her when she stopped reacting to it.

 

“So what? You can’t even die.” That seemed more accurate. I lifted my foot and mimicked pushing her back down the stairs, imagined the sole of my shoe connecting with her face. The squeak she let out when she fell backward sounded so real. Imagined the impossible way Alicia flew up and grabbed her as if she’d materialized out of thin air. Imagined the way my mother started screaming for her to leave me alone before she’d even advanced on me, and then the fear in my stomach when Alicia yanked the machete out and jumped three steps at a time after me.

 

I retraced my steps, ducking down, smashing into the wall. There was a patched up hole where Alicia stabbed the machete in, and then Jamie carted her off.

 

“He’s sorry! Relax! They’re kids!”

 

“You put your worthless foot on my daughter again, and I’ll-” And Jamie covered her mouth and pulled her into the room. I walked back to the top of the stairs and looked down at Astor, still pressed against the wall, and felt the same shame at how distant and numb she looked. I felt the same guilt as I remembered her straightening her blouse, shaking out her hair, and giving me a small smile.

 

“Sorry to bother you. I shouldn’t panic.”

 

“No, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I don’t know why I did that.” I said, but there was nothing but blood and our old furniture and the sound of me suffocating. I struggled down the stairs, heaving my way to the backdoor, pushing through the line of Autumn’s daughters, ignoring the girl and her name and her sad eyes.

 

Stop looking so sad all the time!

 

Outside I waited a moment, watching Astor try her best to crawl away from me and the claw hammer in my hand without getting more blood on her shirt, and I wished I wasn’t always so thirsty for Alicia’s attention. I wished I didn’t feel so good when Alicia grabbed the hammer from me, her dark hair flying up around us, and popped me in the throat. It was such a light punishment for something so serious. Jamie looked on from the window, and I wondered if she would’ve done more if he wasn’t there to stop her all the time.

 

“The next time you decide to hurt her, remember that no one else cares about you. I damn sure don’t.” All the joy from the attention fizzled away just like that, and they disappeared.

 

I shook my head and walked into the woods.

...

Out back, I pushed the shovel deep into the ground, and even I was impressed with how much dirt came back. It felt like I was getting better at something. Astor used to measure the dirt mound with a ruler when we were kids to see how much I got with each pull of the shovel. The guy from earlier lay twisted up next to the small hole, and it’d take a while to get it where I needed it. He wasn’t dead yet. He’d die underground like everybody I buried.

 

There was an empty hole a little further up that I was saving for Lawrence. I didn’t want to waste it on the kid.

 

“Are you busy?” A sweet voice filled the air. My hands froze, wrapped around the shovel handle, but I didn’t turn. We were deep in the woods behind my old house. I’d never been disturbed there.

 

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

 

“I asked if you were busy.” A woman stepped out from behind a tree, and the first thing I noticed was the glint of the sun off of her red hair. She had her hands behind her back. I tilted my head up to see her face better, gripping the shovel.

 

“You’re Osh?” I gripped the shovel tighter.

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Eric told me about you. You’re his foster child, yes?”

 

“Do you mean Mr. David, ma’am?”

 

“Yes. That’s what he calls himself. That’s who I mean.” She examined me. I leaned the shovel down into the dirt, keeping my eye on her.

 

There was something unnatural about her body, something odd about the way she moved. Maybe she was a little too long or a little too cheerful. She was out in the dirt with thin stiletto heels and a tailored white pants suit, and I knew from Alicia that you didn’t walk in the dirt with heels that thin. Her bun was too big to be adequately supported by her neck, maybe. The skin of her fingers blended almost seamlessly with her fingernails. I couldn’t define exactly what it was, but the woman wasn’t normal.

 

Devil.

 

“I’m glad he has someone to mentor. It keeps him from losing control. I know Bylas isn’t always welcoming. You seem very polite.”

 

“Thank you, ma’am.” She walked around me, pupils tiny, and I knew she wasn’t a Devil. She was the complete opposite of Alicia with her giant pupils.

 

“Who are you burying today?”

 

“I’m not burying anyone.” She knelt over the guy and tapped his forehead.

 

“Oh? Is he in my imagination?” I didn’t answer. Tiny lights started floating around them, and it took me a while to realize they were attached to strands of her hair. I counted thirty of them, but it seemed like she could turn any strand into a light.

 

“I’m not sure, ma’am. I was just walking by.”

 

“So you don’t need him? Maybe I could have him?”

 

“I’m not sure what you mean.” One of the lights flashed, and the guy let out a loud yelp, eyes popping open. A deep line of blood ripped from one of his feet to his forehead, and then it turned black, smoking. His body folded into itself like a paper being crumpled.

 

“I get hungry. It’s hard for me to find food on my own. I haven’t adjusted as much as my children and people have to general eating. And I can’t just kill anyone. This body stops me sometimes.” The guy completely folded, his bones crunching loudly until he was a small ball of flesh. He got smaller and smaller. The tiny ball turned into black liquid and suctioned into the light. When she stood, sighing in satisfaction, there was nothing but wet dirt left behind.

 

I didn’t move.

 

“My name is Yenna. Bylas is my son. You know who that is, don’t you?” I nodded eagerly, standing up straighter. The shadow on the wall with the mass, the voice in the basement. The red glint in the woods.

 

The creature.

 

“Yes, ma’am. We’re good friends.”

 

“Of course. I want to help you, Osh, in any way I can. I can even help you get rid of these bodies you keep making if you’d like. Just bring them to Chastain Pier. I’ll meet you. I’ll take them for you. And I’ll reward you for your efforts.” I stared at the spot where the boy had been, heart thumping. She waved her hand in my face.

 

“Mr. David told you I would be here?” She smiled.

 

“Oh, I don’t think he’d be pleased to know I was talking to you. Let’s keep it a secret for now.” I shifted uncomfortably, looking at the useless hole I’d made. How was I going to breathe if I didn’t bury the boy alive?

 

“If it wasn’t him, who was it?” Yenna stared far through the woods. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was growing, getting longer and longer.

 

“Someone did. Does it matter?”

 

She sauntered off, satisfied with herself, and I wondered for the millionth time how Alicia always knew what was going to happen, what people were going to do.

 

The creature will come to you once you’ve proven you’re a monster. Don’t deviate, Osh. Do what you need to do to stand out.

 

She was always right.

...

It was my birthday, and I wanted to see Astor. I wanted to apologize to her for when we were younger, to tell her she didn’t need to talk to Autumn about it. I wasn’t ever going to hurt her again.

 

But I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I sat on the bus and watched the world go by, not sure where I could go. Stop after stop after stop. I finally decided to go and see Bylas. The empty ache in my chest wanted to be celebrated, just a little. I didn’t think he would know it was my birthday, but I didn’t mind telling him. If Davey was there, we could all go somewhere. I’d cover for them.

 

I got off the bus in Chastain, excited. I felt better just thinking about it. To my surprise, the two were outside of the house, leaned against the fence, barely lit by a streetlamp. I headed over to them, trying to make noise, but they somehow didn’t hear me.

 

“You seeing your doll tonight?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“There’s a lot more shit to do here, you know?”

 

Bylas leaned closer to Davey, and maybe it was in my head, but he smelled her. She laughed a little, sticking her tongue close to his face. I didn’t stop walking.

 

He finally noticed me and backed up as if I’d thrown something. They both stared in shock, Bylas blushing a deep purple, Davey wiping at her shirt like she could get rid of him.

 

“Hey, Bylas! By… Bylas! You two look comfortable. I mean, not comfortable, normal. Like, you look good.” I cleared my throat, trying to smile. Davey fixed her shirt, hiding her face with her hair.

 

“It’s my birth-“

 

“So what? Can I help you or something? You gonna follow me around everywhere? What do you want, a birthday kiss? I’m good! Leave me the fuck alone,” Bylas yelled, balling his fists. I balked a little. Davey poked him, rough.

 

“Hey! You’re lucky anyone wants to follow your stank ass around. Don’t yell at him.” He glared at me a moment longer, then turned and pinched her cheek. She gave me an awkward wave.

 

“Sorry, By. I’m heading in. Have fun with the doll.” Davey grabbed the gate, climbing up like an animal, laughing. Bylas stared after her but didn’t move.

 

My body felt empty. It wasn’t even that big a deal. Not really. But my muscles could’ve dried up and cracked into a million pieces, filling me with dust.

 

Bylas realized I was still standing there and sucked his teeth. He scratched the back of his head.

 

“I really can’t do shit. I can’t do shit.”

 

I started talking, but nothing came out. I wanted to say it was my birthday. That it would be cool if we could get together like Alicia used to do, make a cake. Sing a song like Janna used to do. Maybe we could all go somewhere. Alicia always let me go somewhere on my birthday, even if she was mad or there were too many people out. It was the only time she didn’t make us hide.

 

We have to celebrate sometime. I understand that. Stay quiet, and if anyone notices Astor, we leave.

 

Even Alicia made sure I got one day out of the year. It would be cool if Bylas and Davey would come with me to the movies, or the park, or something.

 

Maybe I could go home, and Jamie and Janna would be there, waiting.  They’d be there with Astor and Alicia, all of them happy to see me. Smiling and cheering that I finally made it back. Maybe I’d just gotten confused and wandered away, and I would go home and make them all proud.

 

Maybe we could get pizza. Astor loved pizza. Maybe Janna could sneak us out to the pier again, and we could watch the water. Jamie had the workers at the pier shoot fireworks one year, and I was so surprised that I cried. I had a special visitor that year, one I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I cried more.

 

Maybe I understood they were never coming back. I wasn’t going to see Astor. Alicia was gone forever. Jamie and Janna were dead. Maybe I just wished Bylas could be my brother. Just for my birthday. Just for a minute.

 

He grimaced, still staring after Davey.

 

“Don’t come out here like this. It’s annoying. I’m not hanging out with you because I want to, I only do it when they make me. Nobody told me I needed to do this shit today.”

 

“Sorry.” He shrugged, catching his tone, but didn’t soften his expression.

 

“You’re fucking nuts! Do I look like I want to look after you?”

 

“Sorry. I’m sorry.” Bylas groaned, scratching his head harder.

 

“Look, don’t look up to me. I’ll be leaving soon, anyway. Can’t stall much longer. I’m not like you, Osh. This body, this voice, all this shit is temporary. I’ll be with my family soon. Literally in the fucking ocean, like… you don’t get it. Go the fuck on and be normal somewhere!”

 

And I stared after him when he walked off to the Bishop’s house. I watched him until I couldn’t see him anymore, until the darkness swallowed him.

 

Wasn’t he like me?

 

What made him think I wasn’t going to end up in the ocean, too?

...

The pain in my chest was unbearable, but it eased as the bus rumbled on.

 

I got back that night to a box outside of Mr. David’s door. It was a plain blue box with a little note taped to the front. When I opened it, sitting alone on the couch with my textbooks open on the coffee table, an expensive watch and a note fell out. Gold lined the face of it, but there were no numbers. Four different gears clicked forward, each made of a different precious metal. I whistled, sitting up, eagerly putting it on my wrist.

 

I read the note and had to squint when my vision went blurry. I pulled my shirt up to my face and pressed it against my eyes, and before I could stop myself, I was sobbing.

 

Happy birthday. I stole this from Noah’s father. This is a man’s watch, and here you are, more of a man with every passing second. But I wonder if there are even seconds anymore.

 

No, how could there be? Not a second goes by without you. I am trapped in time.

Astor Free (Snow)

 

Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller

Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller