Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller

Chapter 12: What You Deserve

Osh Snow

15

Astor’s note shivered in my hand, and then the room was moving. 

 

The letters crawled around the paper, her neat handwriting looping round itself. My fingers clenched, but it wouldn’t crumple. Every inch of me stuck in place. It felt like an eternity before a sound rose from my lungs, sliding up the back of my neck and entering my brain.

 

Osh? Do you think she can hear me?” I stared at the note, and somehow the voice came from it. The voice was different than any other sound, drifting through me instead of around me. It echoed off the walls, circled back down to sink into the note, bled into my fingers, and traveled up my hands. I waited a moment, then shook my head, filling with understanding.

 

30. I’m Osh. I’m 30. I’m in the sandbox. I’m bleeding to death again.

 

“Right. Seems to be your favorite activity lately. At least you have your skin this time. I can’t believe things turned out like this, but maybe it’s just as well. Can you stall? We’re trying to get you out, but I just barely woke up. The coats were a little too strong this time, I think.” My hands started to shake, but I couldn’t tell if it was fear. There was a small sigh, and somewhere out in the real world, a hand caressed my face. The dissolution of dimensions waved around me. 

 

“Don’t stress yourself; keep doing what you’re doing, and let me work my magic. I can’t tell if you have the best luck or the worst. Kill you once, you come back twice.”

 

I tried hard to respond, digging into my head. Cora’ll know everything at this point. Where should I stop?

 

“Stop? No need. We’re almost done, I promise, so keep her busy. Keep her THERE with YOU. We’ve never had a better failsafe than this, have we? Just let her have this little field trip. She deserves to know. I think you have company in there, so it shouldn’t be hard. Let someone else deal with her snooping for once. We love and appreciate you beyond measure, honey.”

 

The voice disappeared, whispers floating through the wall, and then I was staring at a blank note. I shook it, looking around. The note blurred. I shook it harder, trying not to look suspicious. The harder I shivered, the worse the words and paper smeared until the blur traveled up my arm and spread across my clothes. Scared breaths forced out of me until I felt Cora standing there, literally materialized from nothing. Something about her was different. Darker energy surrounded her, and when she moved closer, I couldn’t see her iris, only black pupils.

 

“How is one person so annoying? What are you doing?” Cora’s curious face knelt in front of me, and she grabbed my arm before I could answer. The skin on her hands shifted.

 

“Sorry. I got distracted. Pulled out. I can’t read the words on this.” She giggled, pressing her nails into my arm, but nothing happened. 

 

“Oh yeah? Or are you lying? Is all of this just made up again? Gods, tell me some of it is. I’m getting close to panicking at all the new information. There’s no way you all could’ve hidden this from me for so long.” 

 

Before I could answer, the floor dipped under my feet like liquid, some sinkhole in my brain, and I fell in. I tried to grab the couch, but it tilted, sending me sideways, flipping me out of the hole. I grabbed cushions, shrieking, but they pulled off and disappeared into the hole, and I stumbled toward the kitchen. The entire room turned. My head smashed against the fridge. I waited for the taste of blood to fill my mouth, but I couldn’t feel my body. 

 

Cora just stood there, still hunched over, looking around in confusion. She snapped her fingers at me until I stopped scrambling, barely holding in whimpers of fear. The tilting didn’t bother her. Her feet stayed on the ground as if she was surfing, furry slippers barely moving. 

 

“Why are we spinning, Osh?”

 

“I don’t know! Stop it!” 

 

“You’re not doing this? It’s not one of your little memory tricks?” She stood up straight, examining the walls. The unnatural way her skin shifted made me nauseous. 

 

It’s never been like this before.

 

“Don’t panic; it’s not important. I’m sure it has something to do with that white beam of death out there. Things aren’t exactly normal.” There was a hint of worry in her voice, but I was too busy sliding back across the room to say anything about it. “It’s like I’m standing somewhere that doesn’t exist. All of these memories feel blocked or congested. You’re not lying here? You haven’t been lying to me at all?”

 

“NO!” I screamed, and for once, I wasn’t. For once, I was letting her see everything as it was for me. It felt good, almost therapeutic, to relive some of it. Mostly, it was agony. 

 

The room tilted sharply again, and I squeezed my fingers around the front doorknob, my feet dangling under me. 

 

“Let’s continue, then. Try to keep your story straight.” I looked at her, nodded, and then couldn’t move. Cora looked around, leaning her head. Her skin shifted to normal, sinking as if the air suctioned out of it. 

 

“Maybe we should move forward a bit. We’ve gone through an entire year without interruption. I’m so surprised.” Emotion piled on her face while she searched for the right words to say to me. “I didn’t know you went through that horror with those girls. Or any of this. I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m sure it wouldn’t matter. I wish you would’ve let me see these things earlier. Maybe I could’ve helped, Osh. I know you don’t think much of me, but I would’ve wanted to help.”

 

“It’s fine. You couldn’t help even if you wanted. You’ll see why.”

 

Cora nodded, somewhat vindicated, and stared at a spot on the floor. It bloomed into a hole and then spread open. We were looking down at the heads of a group of people. I recognized Alicia immediately, and then Autumn. I tried to think about something else, but the room just rocked again. She knelt, clicking her teeth, panic creeping back into her face.

 

“Well. This memory isn’t one of yours. I don’t think it is, at least. How strange.” Cora sat down on the couch, rubbing her temples, and stared at the group of people. They talked, animated. A young girl sat on the sofa next to Autumn, biting her lip. I finally realized what I was looking at and almost gasped.

 

Alicia. Jamie, Janna, Rick. Autumn and Astley.

 

It wasn’t my memory. I wasn’t even born yet. 

 

Cora stared for a while, the room tilting as her worry grew. I couldn’t move, but my voice found its way out of me anyway. 

 

“We should just go in order. You don’t have to find anything. I’m not hiding! Some important stuff is coming up!”

 

“There’s something off here,” Cora mumbled. She gave me a nervous glance, then straightened up. “I want to see what this is.”

 

“Wait, it’s not important!” 

 

“Oh, Osh, don’t backtrack! We’re friends now! We’re honest with each other. I want to know what that is. What are they meeting about? Don’t you want me to know?” It took a while for me to stop struggling, to stop fighting the inevitable. Even with the blessing to let her see it, I was too used to hiding everything. I’d been hiding everything for so long. 

 

Was it really okay to show her now?

 

“Why don’t you wait here for me,” she suggested. “We’ll pick up where we left off. I have to follow this thought; I’m dying to know what I’m looking at!” Before I could protest, she stepped into the hole. The room turned upright, and I collapsed, gasping. The hole in the floor gurgled closed, my textbooks moved back to the coffee table, and my feet planted on the ground. I walked backward, and when I sat down, the cushions were back in place. I looked back down at the note, tears brimming my eyes, and hoped Astor could hear me somewhere. 

 

It’s not just you. We’re both trapped in time.

?

30?

My suit jacket was too small. Alicia bit her tongue in anger, trying to stretch it over my chest, and then stopped to compose herself. She yanked it off, replaced it with another jacket, realized that one was even smaller, and growled in rage. It was adorable, so I let her. The way her swollen belly jerked around worried me a bit, but I figured she knew what she was doing. Ol’ girl wouldn’t hurt the baby on purpose.

 

“Your idiot friend owes me $500 for these damned things,” she continued to growl, aiming all her anger at the buttons. Huffing, she glanced up at me, confused. “Did your imbecile friend even get you fitted? Did they fit you, Rick? Will you speak for once? Can you hear me, dammit?” She yanked again, and I shrieked to get her to let go, crossing my arms in front of myself like a kid. 

 

“They did! Ouch!”

 

“Liar! You look like a busted grape, you atrocity.”

 

“It’s fine, Alicia. Don’t kill the man,” Jamie said from out in the hall, composed as usual. I pushed my hands in my pockets. She yanked on the jacket again, letting out one last growl, but hearing Jamie’s voice always calmed Alicia down. She stood up straight, heels scraping against the tile.

 

“My friend is important to me, Rick! She’s done so much for me. Do you want to make her think I’m sloppy? That I’ve slipped into a revolting lifestyle all of these years? That I’m filthy?”

 

“What does my suit jacket have to do with your level of cleanliness?” I have a bad habit of speaking to the ground, but no one seemed to mind. It’s just a thing, really. Eye contact always makes me nervous, makes me feel like people are reading me. I busy myself, hide my hands, whatever I need to do. If my hands aren’t in my pockets, they’re on the back of my head. I gave Alicia a small smile, then a little chuckle when her hands clenched into fists. 

 

“I’ll never get out of this situation if-” she suddenly stopped, glaring at the door. Jamie stood with his hair in a lopsided afro, his t-shirt old and faded. He pulled on the suit jacket, and it damn near squeaked at the elbows, barely reaching his wrists. You could hear anger traveling through Alicia’s veins, and then she sighed.

 

“You’re all embarrassing. Every single one of you. I lose actual value and worth from your existence.”

 

“It’s fine! I’ve never seen you so worried,” Jamie laughed, patting her head. He snuck a bewildered expression at me. “This is an old friend, right? She’ll understand, sometimes suit jackets don’t fit.”

 

You just don’t understand making a good impression, do you? We’re both judgemental! It matters!”

 

Alicia herded us downstairs, then doubled back to force Janna out of her room. Janna was never an issue. If Alicia had any problems with my timid wife, she kept them to herself, which wasn’t exactly fair.

 

“You okay, sweetheart?” she cooed, a tone near lust dripping over the banisters. “The men, where did we find them? They’re beasts. You look wonderful. How do you get your hair so curly, my gosh, you’re a siren!” I heard Janna laugh, just a small laugh, and reminded myself that I wasn’t supposed to think nasty thoughts about the two. They told me every ten minutes. 

 

“Come on, beast,” I muttered, and Jamie laughed out loud. 

 

Something was in the air. We were a little more high-strung than usual, and it wasn’t just Alicia’s nervousness. Who wasn’t nervous before a home birth? If I had to pop a kid out of me in a dark basement, I’d be on edge, too.

 

It’d been a good solid decade of friendship between us, and now we were about to deal with the big thing – the past Alicia never wanted to tell us, the stuff she said we didn’t need to know about ‘for our safety.’ It was easy to pretend that knowing Alicia didn’t mean getting sucked into her drama. It was easier when we had no idea what that drama was. All I had to work with were the few times Alicia was visibly drunk, and her waving her finger at me, winking, saying things like, “You all keep making me happy, and I’ll actually have to be sad when this is over.” Scared the shit out of me, honestly. Jamie said it was just her personality to be threatening. It had something to do with people with Devil Syndrome and how they protected themselves. I get it, I guess. 

 

Shit, I grew up with Jamie. Devil Syndrome came with plenty of enemies, but we were good as long as we kept to certain areas. You gotta hand it to folks and their ability to overreact. Tell them you’re sick, show off your sharp teeth and weird nails, and suddenly you have an issue with religious folks. Tell them you’re sick, say that you’re hard to kill, and the scientists are drooling over you. Jamie kept quiet and didn’t let it change his life mostly, and I respected that. The whole not eating thing was cool, the hair thing was awesome, so who was I to complain about it?

 

Even Jamie’s mom was cool and collected, never had anything bad to say about anybody. They have all these little customs, I guess. It’s not like you’d think, not just a sickness or whatever. They build entire communities around it, trying to keep separate from everyone else out there. You go anywhere beyond Lostine, Chastain, and Rex, and you’re looking for a problem with the weirdos, so it makes sense. 

 

I never expected him to be with someone like Alicia. Shit, I had no idea what to think when Janna first started bringing her around. Well, somebody started bringing her around. We really can’t tell who did it first. Maybe it was me? I met her at some party, and I thought she would take my head off when I said I didn’t want to go home with her. Stunning woman, literally dripping with sexual energy and power, but something about her just didn’t sit right with me. And then maybe three weeks later Janna started bringing her around, and she’s been ‘with us’ ever since. 

 

I think that’s how it happened. Sometimes it bothers me that I don’t remember for sure. 

 

Alicia grew on me a bit, and it was great looking at her if you avoided most of her eye area, but she was too bossy. Too emotional. Jamie and Janna just did whatever the hell she said. It only bothered me a little because it never got too out of control. Bossy women command things, it’s just how it is. 

 

But here we were with Alicia about to give birth and all of us wearing suits to meet one of her friends for the first time. I was nervous about holding my best friend’s baby, about being there when he became an actual dad. I tapped Jamie’s shoulder, pouting. 

 

“Who is this midwife friend? You know her?”

 

He shrugged. “Nah, not personally. You know Alicia. She never talks about her life before we met. I’ve heard about her here and there, though. Kind of a big name in the science community. I think I heard she lost a child recently, though.” We were silent for a moment. I couldn’t imagine, so I didn’t try. 

 

“Damn. That’s rough. This is gonna sound bad, but like … not one she was helping to deliver, right? That’s not a good sign. Might need to go on to the hospital after all.”

 

“Not that I know of. I guess I should ask?” Before he could, Alicia appeared in the doorway, eyes wide. As always, she landed on me instead of her husband. 

 

“How can you talk so much with your jacket squeezing the life out of you? Change it, Rick. I’m begging you!” 

 

“Nah, I’m good. Your friend will live.” She growled again, storming away. We could hear heels smashing into the ground all the way to the front room.

 

“She’s mean, man. Get your wife.”

 

“Give her a break. She’s about to give birth. And you know I like that shit. You want the mean girls on your side,” Jamie laughed. “It’s always better being their friend than their enemy.”

 

Alicia needs a lot of attention, a lot of work, but she’s worth it. Jamie’s worth it in general. I’d accept anyone he brought home, dude’s just that solid. Even in high school, the shy Devil never showed an interest in dating or spending time with other people. All he ever did was study the ocean, talk about fish and wildlife, try to figure out why things were the way they were. The dude used to sit up at night while I was trying to sleep and read until I woke up tired in the morning, wondering if he ever laid the hell down. 

 

“You don’t think it’s fascinating?”

 

“Nah, man, I think it’s keeping me up.” My mom didn’t play about Jamie. If he got hurt, that was my ass, but I would’ve looked out for him anyway. He had a smart mouth to go with the smart brain and this flippant way of talking shit that just made people want to kill him. I’d have to stop whatever I was doing to help, and he’d just let me. I was out there fighting and protecting him, and he just put his head in a book and sat down. You can’t get more oblivious and laid back than Jamie Lincoln. 

 

His mother was always sick, so I just felt the need to protect him. It’s a little bit of guilt, too, I guess. I love all my family to death, but we used to look for people like Jamie at night. My dad was somewhat famous for ‘Devil Hunting’ back in our hometown, had a whole crew and everything. They used to call us Fanatics, and I still don’t know what that means on a grand scale. Wasn’t the greatest upbringing. Rex was a lot worse back then, and my mom never liked going out and finding people with Devil Syndrome. She didn’t want to hurt anyone. 

 

“It’s not helping anything,” she used to say, pulling blankets over me in another compound. We set them up around the city before we went on expeditions. My dad was a mean dude, man, and he would just laugh when she said shit like that. 

 

“Who’s trying to help? I want them dead.” 

 

She did her best to change his mind, and she at least got him to get us a house. We went from staying in camps around Rex, cleaning guns and shooting innocent people in the back, to living in a nice suburban neighborhood. They started to leave me at home at night more often, and I appreciated it. Hard to get the image of burning bodies and terrified children out of my head, though. My parents kept a lot of their reasoning from me. I can’t tell you why we were after them, what they’d done, just that they went out every night with a big group and tracked them down. 

 

There was a room in our basement with a bunch of heads on the wall—real scary shit. My dad had meetings down there, and then they would leave out. Every victim had a lot of hair. Sharp teeth. All that beastly shit. The hair would hang down from the walls like curtains.

 

My mom had enough one day, really had enough, packed all our stuff and put it by the front door. She lost her nerve, though. Dad convinced her to come out with them, to make her own decision, and said he’d leave if she really wanted to get out of ‘the life.’ I went with them for the last run. We caught Jamie and his family coming back from a trip to the grocery store in a town called Landon. Someone else in the group took the damn skull off his dad’s head, quick and messy, and Jamie just stopped. Didn’t move again. My mom saw Jamie, and whatever it is that that dude has over people, it softened her. He just makes you want to protect him. It’s still like that, so imagine him as a little kid standing in front of his mom, damn near bored.

 

“I’m done. I don’t want to do it,” my mom sobbed.

 

“You’re not thinking straight!” my dad growled, and he aimed at Jamie with his big ass shotgun. The whole thing is so surreal to think about now.

 

This little guy just stood with his dad bleeding to death next to him, stood in front of his mother with his chest out. His mother was the type of woman you see in those old ‘keep your wife in the kitchen’ propaganda videos. Dainty, pretty, well-dressed. She tried to grab him and run, and my father let out a shot, blew the entire left side of her waist away. She’s gracious and loving, and she forgave us for it the minute I stepped between her and my father. 

 

“Don’t! Don’t get hurt!” She really yelled that while she was dying on the ground, blood and pain grating through every word. I still feel that shit in my chest.

 

“What’s your name, miss?”

 

“Keila. Please, don’t die for me. Help my son …” And I told her it was okay and to sit back. 

 

I made a big speech that moved no one but my mom. Seriously, that’s what did it. I can’t remember exactly, it was something like, ARE WE THE REAL MONSTERS or some shit. My dad told the rest of the group to go ahead, and they did. He asked my mother who she was gonna side with. To make her decision right there, he would respect it. 

 

“I don’t want to kill anyone else.” And he said, bet, and left. Never saw him again. They never really explained to me why we had to kill these sick people. Jamie was too young to tell me, and he never mentioned it as an adult. 

 

All of Keila’s blood turned to powder. It’s part of their sickness, part of what makes them different. I know that much, at least. We helped Jamie’s mom up, took her to a hospital (they wouldn’t admit her), and then tried to take them home. The entire place was burned to the ground, every damn house in the neighborhood. All their family was dead except Jamie’s little sister, Yvette. She cried the entire time, screaming for her father, but Keila didn’t shed a tear. 

 

All Keila said was, “It happens, little bears. You know it happens.” 

 

My mother wasn’t having it. We took them in, and they raised us together, and I’ve been best friends with Jamie since. Even when he won’t shut the hell up about fish and boats, I’m right there listening to every word. He never talks about his family or why he didn’t care when they all died. They never explain anything, honestly. My mother knew, though, and she told me it wasn’t important.

 

“We either love them, or we don’t.”

 

When Alicia started hanging out with us, I told her that story, and she was shocked silent. She waited until Janna went to the bathroom and turned to me in the little bar, eyes wide like a kid.

 

You saved them? Why?”

What do you mean, why? What sense does it make to kill people because they’re sick?” She had to close her mouth to hide the shock. 

 

And then you all moved together? To protect each other?” I nodded, watching her face change. 

 

“Yeah. Janna lived across the street, and all of our moms just clicked. It was like a little commune, honestly. We took care of each other. We don’t see Yvette as much, she married some rich guy and moved away, but the three of us kept it going.”

 

“So you went to the same schools, and you moved to the same neighborhood as adults, and that’s it? You’ll protect each other for the rest of your lives?” 

 

Yeah. It’s not as weird as it sounds.” 

 

“What if someone comes after Jamie? Would you fight for him?

 

Absolutely.” Alicia thought about that a bit, tipping her glass but not drinking the wine. 

 

“What about me? Now that he loves me?” The way she worded it sat wrong with me, but I patted her back. 

 

“You’re ours, now, girl.” She clicked her teeth, still bewildered, and then gave me a proud smile. 

 

“That’s such a good idea, Rick. I’m so glad to be part of this little group.” And she was one of us. The minute Jamie decided to be with her, she was part of our group, and I’d protect her with my life. There wasn’t much need, though. Alicia barely went anywhere. She rarely stepped outside the house without us. At their wedding, she refused to speak to any of Jamie’s family for too long. They treated her like royalty, though, and I still don’t understand it. 

 

“It’s a cultural thing,” Keila said, beaming at her. “Just know that she’s a rare find. I’m so proud of Jamie! You’ll have to be careful, but this is amazing. If he has a child with her, that means we’ll be … our bloodline, it will …” And she flushed too hard even to speak. Alicia wore a big, ugly veil over her scar, and the most dramatic dress ever made. Flamboyant and sulky as usual.

 

Yvette was there with her daughter, Sammie. It was our first time seeing her in a long time, and I was happy to know that she was okay. Obviously, my mother was there, and Janna’s mom and dad were there, but that was it. It was a small ceremony, but man, we all had a good time. Even Alicia had a good time once I told her to relax. 

 

“Whatever you’re running from, it’s never met someone like me. Let loose, girl.” That was almost ten years ago, and we’d all become incredibly close. Janna never really had any friends outside of us, so the level of happiness Alicia brought her meant a lot to me. 

 

Ten years. And now Alicia was finally having that baby Jamie’s mother wanted so bad, and I had a weird feeling about it. Who knows if it was the suit jackets or the way Jamie wouldn’t shut up about his new kid, or even just the kid itself. The entire pregnancy was a nightmare with lots of bloody bedsheets, the baby moving like a damn toddler, and Alicia screaming in pain all the time.

 

Maybe it goes back further than that. I keep seeing Keila at that wedding, staring at Alicia like she was the biggest blessing ever created. I just can’t figure out why Jamie’s mother was so excited at the prospect of joining ‘bloodlines’ with her, and it’s been in the back of my head a long time.

 

Alicia smoothed shaky hands over her dress a million times, avoiding eye contact. 

 

“You good, Alicia? Is this something you need to do alone?” When she looked up, I swear her scar was worse. She looked ancient, her eyes morphing into pits that suctioned me down into some emotion I couldn’t figure out. We stared at each other a while, and then she swallowed and gave me a small nod.

 

“You all have been wonderful. I don’t know how to begin to express that.”

 

“We’re gonna keep being wonderful,” I said, concerned with the depressing edge to her words. She swallowed again, waving me away.

 

“I’m sure I’ll have a lot of alone time after we all talk.” The doorbell rang before I could ask what she meant, but she pulled me into a tight hug, burying her face in my neck. “Please. Get that for me, Rick. And just remember that I will always love you all for what you’ve done for me. No matter what is said and done, I cherish you deeply. I never get the chance to say that.” She pulled away and sulked up to find Janna. 

 

Something wasn’t right, man, and I had to get myself together to move from that spot. I know a problem when I see it. I wondered how Jamie would feel if his wife declared she wanted a divorce or if the kid was someone else’s. Every scenario I came up with was worse and worse, so I just went to open the door.

 

Alicia’s friend was tiny. Boy, she was small. Had big eyes that ate up most of her face, and then everything in the room, and then your soul probably. A girl stood with her, almost double her height, and I had to really try to make her being the mother make sense. 

 

“You must be Rick,” the friend said to me, reaching out, nails glossed but colorless. The way her blouse moved, the cuffs oversized and folded at her elbows, was like water. Every bit of fabric on her body, from the expertly-fitted black slacks to the two silk feathers swinging on her ears, looked like it came into existence four seconds before we met. Her eyes traveled to my suit jacket, my black t-shirt underneath, and the way her lips squeezed into a tight, ill-humored line said it all. I blushed without meaning to. 

 

“Nice to meet you. You’re Autumn?”

 

“Yes. And this is my daughter, Astley.” Astley was skinny and pimple-faced. Before I could speak, she turned beet red and clasped her hands together, giving me a small curtsy. The nervousness poured off of her so thick, you could gag on it.

 

“Gotta love those A names, huh?” Autumn didn’t smile but nodded politely. I moved out of the way so they could come in, kicking myself. Of course, Alicia knew her snotty friends better than I did. 

 

I should’ve let them fit me for the damn suit jacket.

 

“I’m surprised Alicia didn’t meet me at the door herself,” the small woman said, running her eyes over every inch of my home. I tried not to get annoyed.  

 

“She wanted to wow you with her ability to pick the correct dress size. I’m supposed to tell you that neither me, my wife, or my best friend are representations of Alicia Free. Ol’ girl was adamant that you know that she is better than this suit jacket.” Autumn laughed a cute little genuine chuckle, and I patted myself on the back. 

 

I ushered them to Janna’s lavish couches, still wondering why I had to pay nearly $6000 for people’s asses to rub against ‘pristine’ fabric, as the ladies put it. Every time they wanted to buy something for the house or their bodies, my hairline receded.

 

“You have a lovely home,” Astley proclaimed, then blushed and looked away. 

 

“That made my day, Astley, thank you. You wouldn’t believe how much I paid for this furniture, and you’re the only one smart enough to compliment me. You’re very polite.” She looked genuinely pleased, giggling to her mother, but Autumn cut her eyes at me. The gold around her neck could blind a blind bat. Even her hair looked expensive, like the stylist used a flat iron made of chiseled marble to get the curls just right. I thought about excusing myself and going to bury my warped body in the backyard like the trash I was, but Alicia finally swept down the stairs, pulling Janna along with her. 

 

You could call Alicia Free whatever the hell you want. Call her emotional, call her damaged, call her scar grotesque, whatever. Nobody carried themselves the way she did. Nobody swallowed all the air in the room just by pulling their face muscles around, nobody bled grace into a scene like that woman. Janna wasn’t the same type of beautiful, excuse me for saying that about my baby, but she had the same kind of pull about her. They swept down the stairs and into the living room, and it was all I could do to not whistle. Even with the big ass belly and my wife’s visible depression, they took over everything. Janna was the only woman that could pull a whistle out of me before Alicia started coming around. 

 

Jamie trudged his bum ass down behind them, holding his gut in under that too-tight jacket. 

 

“Autumn. Autumn.” Alicia froze, opened her mouth again, and then couldn’t seem to say anything else. Autumn rushed her, grabbed the sides of her face, stared into her eyes, and it looked like a child staring up at their mother. Alicia pulled away before the crying started, holding a hand over her heart. Janna pushed her lips together, shrugging at me, and I looked at the floor to keep from laughing. 

 

“Part of me is angry at you, honey. Boiling mad. You waited until the last minute to tell me about this pregnancy. I almost forgot the promise I made, honestly. I actually allowed myself to enjoy my life for a while! Imagine! Are we seriously doing this? Are we going to give up everything and-” 

 

“I trust you to keep your word, Autumn. It wasn’t appropriate to tell you until I was sure I wanted to go through with it. I didn’t want you to count down the remaining time with your daughter; everyone knows how dramatic you can be. Just remember, I’m not taking her from you. It’s just a precaution. We’ll probably never need her fully, but it has to be done.” At that, Alicia gave Astley a big smile, and she got a nervous one in return. I tried not to look like I was listening, but maybe my expression gave me away a little. 

 

Are they adopting Astley? Jamie didn’t say anything about that. 

 

Autumn gave her a gracious look, but not a pleasant one. “Well, I spent all night crying and convincing myself to go through with it, so that might have been smart. If you gave me nine months, maybe she’d be across the planet by now, and I’d stop returning your calls. It definitely sounds like you think your life is more important than ours, but what else is new? Either way, I’m happy to deliver your baby for you.” They both stiffened, silence beating between them, and then tried to play it off. 

 

Clearing her throat, Autumn tried again with less anger. “Sorry. Just a little sad to be pulled back to reality. Anyway, I can’t believe you ever had another baby after Ayenna. The way that poor thing died-” Alicia’s eyes widened. She cupped Autumn’s face, clearing her throat. I wondered if Jamie caught that. As far as I knew, this was Alicia’s first baby. He blushed a little, and damn, I felt terrible for the poor guy. Then I thought about how hard it must be to lose a child, and if I’d ever bring it up myself, and I felt worse for Alicia.

 

Janna stood there staring a hole into Alicia while she talked, running her hand along her collarbone, and I reminded myself not to think nasty thoughts about them. 

 

“This is my husband, Jamie. And this is my good friend, Janna Snow.” 

 

“Janna,” Autumn said, and she shook her hand politely. She paused, eyes traveling up my wife’s arm, taking in all of her face. Alicia glanced at me nervously. “You’re warm, honey. Are you sick?” 

 

“Oh, no,” Janna laughed, blushing. “I wouldn’t be around a pregnant woman if I were sick, I promise. I’ve been running hot lately in general, can’t explain it.” 

 

Autumn nodded, losing the smile entirely, and I was starting to think she didn’t want to be here. “Yes, Alicia has a way of doing that to people. Some would say she’s done it to too many people. Jamie, I’m sure she made you take her last name. She’s always been a bully.” Jamie sucked his teeth behind them, and I thought Alicia’s head would revolve and come off and beat him to death in mid-air. 

 

They talked for a while, leaving me with the kid. She was nervous, wringing her hands. 

 

“You okay,” I asked, watching her fingers roll a little button on the $6000 couch. 

 

“Yeah. Just worried. You know. Because of the stuff.” Astley struck me as too morose for however old she was, too sad. I nodded.

 

“Gotta hate the stuff.” The group finally made its way over to the couches, the fucking $6000 couches, and I felt my wallet cry when they all sat down. 

 

Things got awkward fast, and I’m not sure why. Autumn opened her mouth to speak, but Alicia put her hand up. 

 

“It might be best to be careful.” They glared at each other for maybe a full five minutes, doing their best not to speak. It wasn’t friendly, not even a little. It wasn’t nerves or an old friend not knowing what to say to a new friend. Jamie even tapped Alicia jokingly, waving a hand in her face, but she didn’t move an inch. Janna gulped a little, giving a small laugh. They were stone. I couldn’t even tell if they were breathing.

 

“Alicia,” Janna said. 

 

“Y’all pranking us this early in the day or what? Stop it.” Alicia blinked finally, her big pupils rolling toward me. Autumn let out a small breath, shaking her hair. The rest of us laughed tensely.

 

“Was that good enough, honey? I still don’t know exactly how to do it. You’ll have to explain it to me. No point in screwing things up after all this time. I don’t want that damned tyrant on me, not for a second.” 

 

“Maybe. Don’t say the C name, and we should be fine. Don’t say anyone’s name outside of this room. Astley, Autumn, Alicia. Jamie, Janna.” I had the oddest moment of delusion. The way she cut me out damn near sent me into some deep self-reflection. 

 

Do I exist?

 

“That’s easy enough. Any of your granny’s sympathizers here?” Autumn said the word with so much contempt, I almost protested. The confusion in me was turning to anger.

 

Alicia shook her head, avoiding my stare markedly. “Other than me? No. They don’t know anything to sympathize with.”

 

“That’s impossible. Don’t your friends know about the failsafe, at least? None of them could be pulled in the sand-“

 

“Autumn! Don’t!” Autumn froze. Thoughts rolled across her face, and then she shrugged.

 

“How else do I describe it? The playground?”

 

“Too close, but we’ll have to run with it. We should have enough cover here with the failsafe I’ve built over time. I hate doing this; it’s so annoying. I wish the old hag would let up even a little. You know, you make one mistake, and the Shadows are filling the backyard. It’s bizarre. And, again, I’m the only sympathizer here. I wish you would cut her some slack. It’s not like she wants to be where she is.” 

 

Autumn nodded, cursing herself. “I would sooner leave your grandmother trapped in a small cave in the ocean to be fed on by fish and algae.” 

 

Alicia cleared her throat and turned to Astley, giving her a warm smile. “I hear you went on a little trip for us. Did you enjoy Anity? I hope it wasn’t too much of a culture shock?”

 

“I loved it! It was just like my mom said. It would be cool to go without having to hide, Ms. Free-“

 

Mrs.,” Jamie said awkwardly, laughing a little. 

 

Alicia barely glanced at him, encouraging Astley to continue. “Did you meet the others?” 

 

“Yeah. They taught me some fighting stuff. I’m excited to go back.”

 

“We’re all excited to go back eventually,” Autumn said. “Virginia Steeps is a hellhole. We need to be careful, though. There can’t be any more mistakes. You’re my hero at this point, Alicia. I have no idea how you managed to stay under the radar so long! I’m on edge every time I open the door, honey, there’s no telling when they’ll start the bullshit up again.”

 

Janna made a face, and I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt delusional. They positioned their bodies toward each other, chatting warmly, but it was the oddest thing. Like we weren’t there. 

 

“How has the pregnancy been? Can you be sure the baby has the syndrome? The rare version of it? You sounded certain, but how do you know?” Jamie perked up at the sound of that, happy, glancing at me with a proud face. I didn’t return it. He didn’t get that something wasn’t right, but he never does. Janna looked like she would cry if we continued too much longer.

 

“This is different,” Alicia said, rubbing her belly. “I can barely keep enough food in my system. I feel like my insides are a scratching post. I’m either giving birth to a cat or a Devil.” Jamie laughed again, trying to bring any type of attention to one of us. Autumn finally turned, looking down at his jacket with distaste.

 

“Are you sure you want to talk in front of your friends? We could discuss this after the birth.”

 

“You’re worrying me a little,” Alicia said to her hands. “I missed you so much, but you don’t seem happy to see me. Are things still going that bad? I’m living such a normal life now, I almost forgot what we were doing. Almost didn’t want to go back to it. It’s never been this good, you know that. I want it to go on forever, and I’m sure you do, too, but we can’t deviate. Right? No, we can’t. We shouldn’t.”

 

Autumn gave a thoughtful pause, then tried to calm Alicia with a fake smile. “No, I don’t think that’s an option. I wish I could say I missed you as much. It’s easier for you to let everything go, but I’m having trouble with it. I have a big family, even bigger than when we last spoke. Lawrence is coming around, and he’s an actual good husband, he’s less depressed these days. He’s invested in turning Ella into some little junior scientist. I’ve been correcting Reese less and less when she calls me Mom. It’s nothing like I’ve ever had, but it’s close to a peace I can imagine. It’s all I’ve ever been allowed to want. Simplicity. Normalcy. Anything short of anguish.” They took turns looking nervous, then laughing, then being on the verge of tears. 

 

“Please. Autumn, don’t leave me waiting. You don’t have to be specific, but there’s obviously an issue that’s come up since we last spoke. I figured you’d be hesitant about me using Astley, but I have a feeling it’s more than that. Is it nothing, or is it something?” 

 

Autumn barely articulated her response. You had to be someone with Devil Syndrome to hear it, but I read her lips. “Something. A few somethings.”

 

Alicia thought for a moment, mainly landing on me. I waved, smiling a tiny smile, then immediately regretted it. 

 

“Well. Surely, it’s not as bad as it could be? Is Lawrence still in contact with his mother?”

 

“You’re sure no one sympathizes with your grandmother here,” Autumn asked, closing her eyes in grief.

 

“None of these people know about her! The entire situation is a failsafe, I’m not an amateur.” Alicia sat forward, leaning to emphasize something to her friend. It didn’t feel casual. 

 

“I don’t believe you. What about your grandfather, have you seen him lately? Does he know where you are?”

 

“No one knows where I am but you.” 

 

“No, that’s wrong. Eon Tech knows where you are. You seem to have a big mouth somewhere around you. I found a small amount of information in a file they’re building.” She glanced at me, every hint at friendliness drained from her face. “You’re sure there’s no way for this to find its way into the playground?” 

 

Alicia sucked her teeth. “No one here would tell a soul about me. I’m careful. I haven’t told them anything they don’t need to know. Just say what you need to say-“

 

“Ridley’s dead.” The wind left Alicia so quickly that she doubled over.

 

“Your eldest? No! But I thought my grandfather was protecting you?”

 

Autumn rolled her eyes. “If he could decide who he is at any moment, maybe he would. It was at home, anyway. There was a noise in my kitchen. I sent Lawrence down to see what was going on. He didn’t come back up. So I woke Ridley and Daynah, and we went down together. I didn’t think there was anything dangerous. You know how Lawrence is with bugs or rodents, so I figured we had a job to do. 

 

“We reached the kitchen, and Lawrence was talking to someone. I saw her hair first. Stupid, stupid, stupid me, I got so excited, honey. I could’ve flown over to them. Big red bun, slim body, you know. Things have been so good, I just assumed that maybe she was back. That would be the icing on the cake, to know that she was okay.” She paused, gripping the $6000 couch. Alicia sat straight, her face blank, and any pretense of a pleasant visit was over. 

 

“I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Alicia. I’m sorry. Every time you’ve said she was following you or fighting you, I just thought you were losing it. There’s no way I could believe what you said, and there I was staring at a tall redhead, right in my damn kitchen. I thought it was the real her. I thought she’d escaped on her own, come to find me. Just like when I was young. Coming to rescue me from another situation. The woman looked at me, and it was the same eyes, the same smile, everything.”

 

“How long ago? When did this happen?” 

 

“I wasn’t thinking. I thought it was my Yenna.” Autumn leaned her head back, ashamed. “I rushed over and hugged her. Those hair lights pulled out, and then, boom. She didn’t even speak, just dissolved Ridley. Ate her, I guess, right in front of all of us. We watched my baby disintegrate like boiling water. I saw her organs. I saw my baby’s organs.” The words were grotesque, but Autumn’s face never changed. Astley had a harder time. 

 

“She did speak, Momma. She said, ‘Don’t touch me.'”

 

“Of course. How could I forget.” 

 

A stunned silence filled Alicia, and then a gag forced its way out of her throat, and she let all the pressure out in a low huff. I stood, not sure what to do. It was like she vomited air, hunched over her swollen belly. Janna whimpered a little, terrified, but I couldn’t think of what to say. Jamie stared wide-eyed at the floor; we all just couldn’t figure out what to do. When she finally finished, every part of her body shook.

 

“How did she find you? I told you to quit Eon. How are we supposed to run if you keep that damned job-“

 

“As if I could quit! They’re the only thing between me and extradition to Anity! They’re the only reason I’m still alive! And don’t blame me. I’m guessing they’ve been watching my family since Ayenna. Since you brought her to my house.” Autumn’s eyes squinted just a little. Alicia gagged again.

 

“That was so long ago! That was so long ago, Autumn, you’re kidding me! We would’ve seen them by now, they’re not subtle. The Feeders haven’t even attacked me, not in a decade! Someone would’ve said something-“

 

“They’re not watching us like that. You have a snitch around you, sure, but there’s something else. The reason we need the failsafe?” 

 

“What?” Alicia’s face went blank with confusion. 

 

“They’re using … fuck it. They’re using Cora.” Alicia stopped again, breathless, and let out a sorry groan. Jamie finally couldn’t take it and rushed over, checking her belly and head. She held his hands, shaking. 

 

“What a sorry excuse for a grandmother. What an ugly woman. Why is she still angry? Why would she help them?”

 

“I don’t think she’s doing it on purpose. You know that barbed beast, she thinks she’s so damn smart. But they have someone using her sandbox and pulling information. They have someone spying on us with our own damn memories. The Creature wasn’t just chatting with Lawrence. He looked out of it. I don’t think he knew where he was at all, and he didn’t know until hours later. Said he was getting something to drink, and then suddenly, the house looked odd. Like he was in a dream. Lawrence said he remembered our conversation with you about Ridley learning to fight, that he felt like he was reliving it right in the kitchen. He admitted that it’s not the first time it’s happened, and the last time he walked through a memory of you buying our house. It felt like the focus of the memory was on the address, like he skipped through to find that.” 

 

“Even with the failsafe? How could The Creature do that? What do you mean?”

 

“The damn failsafe is probably the only reason they don’t know more. Our enemies have a cute little collection of memories, I think. Lawrence said they also knew where Yenna’s old apartment was and where my mother’s house in Anity was. They have Cora, which explains Yenna’s apartment, but she didn’t know my old address. There’s no way she would know where that house was. Only one person knows that, and I have to ask you an awkward question, and you need to tell me the truth.” Alicia grabbed her belly again, avoiding eye contact.

 

“No.”

 

“Yes. You said you hadn’t seen the real Yenna since she drowned. You said she’s gone. Is that true? Not even once? Not even in the sandbox when you were underwater, not anywhere?” At this, Astley perked up but tried to look disinterested. Alicia didn’t respond. “I need to know. You’re putting my life at risk. You’re putting my kids at risk. That creature will follow me into my grave, but you’re the one digging the damned thing. Have you seen the original Yenna at all since she drowned?”

 

Like a kid in trouble, Alicia shrugged. “It’s possible.”

 

“Have you spoken to her?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“So, yes.” Autumn let out an agonized laugh, gripping her hair. “Yes, you’ve known all this time she was alive! You knew they could pull her memories, didn’t you? That’s why we have the failsafe! You knew she could find us!”

 

“No, I don’t know anything, I’m just-“

 

“You knew! You knew, and you let me have a family and walk around with my head in the clouds like an idiot. You let me think we were safe!”

 

“Our lives have to go on. We can’t sit around worrying about what will happen. You deserve the family you want, Autumn. You’ve been in this mess longer than I have. If you thought there would be danger, you’d keep walking around in a daze just waiting to die-“

 

“You let me have so many fucking kids! They’re going to kill them all! They’re going to torture them! They’re-“

 

“Calm down, that won’t happen! I didn’t say-” Autumn sprung up, venomous anger seething through her tiny body. I thought her fist was going to go through Alicia’s skull.

 

“Thank you for being honest, Alicia. I could throttle you, but thanks. Thanks! Here’s a harder question, and you’d better answer me, honey, you better tell the truth. You’d better answer. Can the real Yenna sandbox? Can she make her own sandbox? Has she ever pulled you in? Is that CREATURE walking around in a Devil that can SANDBOX?” Alicia sprung up this time, walking to the kitchen, but Autumn jumped up and followed her. “Is she stronger than Cora? Can she remember more? Can her sandbox do more than Cora’s? ANSWER ME!”

 

“Of course, she’s stronger than Cora, but she’s dead. I misspoke earlier; she’s unquestionably dead. Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Then she knows everything you know, and they know everything she knows! They know about Anity; she knows what’s going on with Tracia! She knows about the Hybrid blood; she knows about Lawrence’s siblings! We have to deal with The Creature! We have to deal with Cora, too. I know you made a promise, but we have to deal with her, Alicia. We can’t live like this!”

 

“She’s not doing it on purpose-“

 

Autumn grabbed Alicia’s arms, gripping too tight, and full-on started screaming at her. Opened her mouth and screamed. I jumped up, ready to pull her off, but Alicia’s face stopped me. Like a person waking up out of a coma. 

 

“Don’t give me that shit! That fucking LEVIATHAN knows everything about us that Yenna knows! She knows what you know, and probably what Eric and David and Harold knew, as well! Eon Tech, the treaty, all of it! That’s why it’s so easy for her to track me down, remember where Lawrence’s fiance lived, and remember where to find us all. It knows everything! You get to live here in this new life and leave my children to suffer! You get to escape here with these-” Autumn stopped suddenly, eyes widening. 

 

“Can they … can they see us? Here? Is there a way for them to see us now? Are they looking at me? Are- are they spying on us?” Alicia read her expression, ignoring the rest of us standing around them, helpless.

 

“Sandboxing doesn’t work like that. They can’t take everything, and they only get an imprint at the point of entry. That’s all it is, just a copy of your memories. I lie all the time to keep it at bay, but without being in front of me, they can’t make a copy of my head, yours, or anyone’s. Do you understand? Calm down. And even if they did, it’s easily confused. There’s a system it goes through to skim through all your millions of thoughts and experiences. There are too many similar names standing in this room. They can’t pull the memory without knowing about it.”

 

“Is that why I have to use those names for my girls? The list you gave me?”

 

“Yes! I’m careful. I’ve birthed so many Ridleys and Astleys and Ellas, they wouldn’t know which kid belongs to me or you or any other person I’ve met. I’m protecting you, too! I care about you, don’t act as if I’m some moron!” 

 

Autumn nodded, thinking. Her hands lowered. “That’s … that’s smart. I wondered why you were so insistent. It has to be David that they’re pulling most of the information from, don’t you think? We should’ve never involved him. That was a fatal mistake. He knows too much about our plans, and now they all do. Is the real Yenna angry? Is she helping them, or is she stuck?” Again, Alicia grabbed her stomach and didn’t move. “You saw her, and she was angry. She’s angry with us! I knew she would hate me, I knew it-“

 

“She’s gone.”

 

“You’re lying! You’re guilty, and you’re lying, for some reason. I’m trying to help you, Alicia. I gave so much of myself to help you, the least you can do is be honest with me! Is she after us, too? How fucked are we in all of this?”

 

“I wouldn’t put it past her, but she’s gone, so it doesn’t matter. Yenna was already a monster before she was taken, you know that. If she has an issue, it’s because of her own actions.”

 

“Yes, a monster and a true immortal, wasn’t she? There’s no way she died. Why do you think it’s so easy to pass off that lie?”

 

“I don’t care what she was. She’s dead, stop asking me stupid questions.” The growl that came from Alicia immediately calmed Autumn down, and she backed up, hands in the air. Jamie hugged his wife, moving her back, but we could’ve been in an active volcano the way Autumn kept backing up. Alicia gritted her teeth and growled a long time before anyone spoke. 

 

Autumn wasn’t afraid. She was cautious but still angry, too. She stepped closer and said, “You have to stop killing The Creature’s kids, and then maybe they’ll leave us alone for a while. They don’t know your bigger plan. All of this shit against me is pure revenge at this point, from too many sides. Let the Leviathans repopulate. Who cares? As you said, we need to enjoy our lives-” 

 

“I’ll kill everything that comes out of that body as long as she possesses it. It’s not up for discussion.”

 

“Alicia. She’s not targeting you anymore. You’re here living it up in your little fantasy world, and she’s hurting everyone else. She’s-“

 

“I. Will. Kill. Everything. She. Births.” 

 

Astley stepped forward, holding her head down. “Momma, tell her about the new baby. She’ll listen, then!” Autumn shushed her but nodded. 

 

“I’m pregnant. It’s early, but I’m pregnant. I’m going to have- to have another baby, and I can’t do this. I can’t handle this anymore. Do you understand? I want to enjoy my babies, Alicia. I can’t-“

 

“Nobody told you to have another one. As long as we stick to the plan with Astley, I don’t care how many you have.”

 

“Do you care about anyone else? The Creature wants me to help her find bodies! She wants me to work on them! Eon Tech is- is suggesting that I do it for my safety! Don’t I deserve some fucking peace?”

 

They finally stopped talking, and Autumn’s eyes almost popped out of her head when she turned and saw us watching. I rubbed my throat, hating the eye contact but not able to look away.

 

“Y’all gonna tell us what the fuck is going on? Now?” 

 

“Why don’t you tell them, Alicia? It’ll be hard to discuss this otherwise. And they need to learn how to beat the sandboxes. Like it or not, they’re immersed in this now.” 

 

Alicia took a deep breath, frowning through it, and turned to us. To me, Janna and Jamie. To her best friends for over a decade. She tried to start talking, couldn’t, and turned back to Autumn. 

 

“We should discuss Astley sometime soon.”

 

“Not until you tell your friends what’s going on. I’m not helping you do anything else until you tell them. You’ll have to find another Latch for your kid if you wait too long, I might change my mind.” With that, Autumn grabbed Astley’s hand, and they walked off, surveying the house like they were in a museum. I waited. I waited for Alicia to turn and tell us what was happening, to fill us in, but I didn’t really need to hear it. 

 

She betrayed us, somehow. That was obvious.

 

Alicia clapped her hands together and smiled. “I’m glad to have known you all! You’re everything anyone could want. As best friends, as a husband, as annoying neighbors. These houses, all the clothes, and dinner parties, all the life we’ve lived. Even my pregnancy, it’s never been this beautiful. You’ll never understand how much you mean to me. I’ve never had so much normalcy in my life. You make me feel like …” She paused, head high. 

 

“Tell me nice things before I make you hate me. I want to remember why you liked me at all.”

 

“Alicia, I’m not sure I have anything nice to say right now. I’m confused, but I’m not stupid,” I said, and Janna moved behind me. “What is going on?” 

 

“You’ll hate me. This will be the end of an era.” Her nervous laughter bothered me. The way she tried to sound small and scared bothered me. All of it bothered me.

 

“There’s nothing you could do to make me hate you,” Jamie said, wrapping his arms over her belly. “You can’t think that. We all make mistakes. Even the way I met Rick, he was making a mistake. Look how much he grew.” He gave me a sour look, and maybe that’s the first time he ever used the way we met against me. 

 

“Jamie, I don’t know, man. This shit doesn’t sound like a simple mistake. I don’t know everything they were talking about, but a lot is going on.” It took a moment for me to hear beyond the swelling of blood in my ears, the ugly thumping in my heart, and then it got worse. The way Jamie held Alicia was like he was protecting her from the world, and all I could think was that we needed the protection. Janna stepped around me, gave me an apologetic kiss on the cheek, and went to comfort her best friend. I watched them, but Alicia watched me. I couldn’t figure out her expression, just that it wasn’t triumphant. It wasn’t mockery. It was a look that said she wanted to talk to me but wouldn’t in front of them. 

 

I turned and rushed to the door, still unsure what I was feeling, just trying to get away from the need to punch a pregnant woman in the face. Autumn jumped out, grabbing my arm, and pushed me the rest of the way outside.

 

“Your wife is going to lose her mind.” Autumn pulled me away from the porch, and I had to yank away from her to get her attention.

 

“Get off me. What the fuck does that mean?” 

 

“Do you know what I do?”

 

“Lady, I don’t know shit about-“

 

“I work with Devils for different aspects of their daily lives. Pregnancy, Latching, nutrition, all of those things. It’s for a company called Eon Tech. Has she talked about it?”

 

“Lady-“

 

“I can tell a bad Latch just by looking at their face. Alicia doesn’t know how to Latch properly. She never had to learn. Habitual Latching is a hard thing to do, and you have to be careful, or you’ll only create a braindead Latch. Your wife won’t die, but she’ll be brain dead soon if you don’t switch course.”

 

“Switch WHAT course? What the fuck does that mean?” Autumn nodded, something confirmed for her, and she made me straighten up, placing her hand gently on my chest.

 

“I’m sorry to say this, especially to a stranger. But Alicia’s going to get you all killed—every one of you and everyone you know. And none of us can abandon her now. If your wife leaves, she’s going to get sick and die. It’s too late to stop the process. The best we can do is try to work with Alicia to figure out a plan. Someone you all know is telling her enemies about us, and that makes it impossible to navigate. I’m sorry this happened to you. You seem like good people-“

 

“I’m trying to process the shit you just said. I don’t know what the hell you’re all talking about. I can’t make them do anything!”

 

“Listen, please! Just stop speaking. Alicia did a terrible thing to you. A horrifying thing. You shouldn’t be forced to do this without knowing what you’re getting into. But you’re here now, and there’s no getting out. I’ve seen a lot in my years at work. Your wife is buried in the Habitual Latch process. I don’t know what’s going on with your friend, Jamie, but he might be as well. You know what a Latch is, right? Do you?”

 

The world crashed down on me. I didn’t know what Latch meant. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but I felt the word sitting under her hand on my chest. “Gimme the simple definition.”

 

“A backup body for a person with Devil Syndrome. A parasitic relationship.” 

 

Janna staring at Alicia, running her fingers over her collarbone. Janna following Alicia everywhere she went, up, down, and around. A parasitic relationship. “What about me?”

 

“You seem fine, but be careful. Watch your food, though I guess it might be too late.”

 

Paying attention costs nothing, but I have an issue with it, apparently.

 

Three weeks before Jamie announced he would be a dad, I kissed my wife, and she called me Alicia. It wasn’t a small thing, either. I was damn near down her throat, pulling her on top of me on the couch, and she moaned when I nipped her chin. She rolled forward, pulled her head back, and sucked the name down her throat, wrapping an arm around my head. 

 

“Weird way to say Rick,” I laughed. It didn’t bother me as much as it turned me on. Every inch of her skin was scorched red. It felt like she was getting hotter and hotter the more time went on. 

 

“Sorry. I can’t get her out of my mind,” she moaned, but we kept going like nothing happened. Shit, it was probably better than it’s ever been. I let her say Alicia as much as she wanted until we were tearing each other’s clothes off, moving from the couch to the floor. She kept sliding toward the door, pulling me with her, and I worried she was going to open it and yell for the woman to come and watch.

 

“What would we name a kid,” she asked me after, back pressed against the front door. I shrugged, pulling my pants up. 

 

“I always liked Osh. My dad was O’Shea. It would be-“

 

“Why not an ‘Al’ name? Or a ‘Ja’ name. Something closer to one of us?” I laughed a little.

 

“My name starts with an R. I’m ‘one of us’ last time I checked.” She just nodded, staring at the window. 

 

“Yeah, but Alicia says it’s important that our names blend in. Not yours, but ours.” I had no idea what the hell she was talking about, and I didn’t want to seem ditsy, so I just nodded and went about my day. It felt like nonsense before, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

 

Call me stupid, but that wasn’t it. That wasn’t even the half of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about the day we had this little dinner party, and I was in the kitchen washing dishes, and Alicia sauntered in to talk to me, playing with the skinny straps of her dress. Janna wore the same dress that night, both stunning in gold silk that went down to their ankles. They wore their hair the same way, with the blunt cut bangs and the loose curls going down their backs.

 

The more I thought about it, the more it all made sense. 

 

Alicia had a habit of only speaking to me. There could be a table full of people, everyone laughing and partying, and she would seek me out. On plenty of occasions, she started conversations when I was too busy to think about what she was saying. That night, I was more concerned with Jamie getting a break from hosting duties. He was tired all the time, even falling asleep at work, and I worried he would get lost at sea if he kept messing around.

 

Alicia leaned on the counter, twirling a glass of wine in her hand.

 

“You never eat with us. Why?”

 

Eh. I’m not a fan of meat, you know that. You always cook a bunch of animals. Hope you don’t mind, I just ordered takeout.” She laughed, sipping her drink. 

 

“You’re insulting my cooking, I think.”

 

“Never. I hear great things about it. Janna falls in love with you every time she eats at your house.” The way she laughed was odd, but I just joined her. Everything Alicia made had meat in it. Damn near rare meat, bloody and tender. My mother raised me vegetarian. I wouldn’t touch the stuff. I’d seen enough dead bodies to stay away from it either way.

 

You’re so strong. It’s ridiculous to have you in here washing dishes. What a waste of potential.” One of her nails tapped my bare shoulder. 

 

“It’s cool. Who’s supposed to do it? Janna? I’m not that type of dude.” Alicia rolled her eyes, tipping her glass to her mouth. 

 

“What do you think of Janna?”

 

“My wife? Are you asking me what I think about the woman I married?” Alicia smirked, watching my hands swirl around the dishes.

 

“Yes. That’s what I’m asking. What’s so interesting there?”

 

“I obviously love her. She’s pure, I guess. Doesn’t cause trouble, doesn’t bother anyone. I’m still trying to get her out of her shell.” 

 

“I bet you’re bored, though. We all need a little chaos sometimes.” I just shrugged, putting the plate on the dishrack. “You’re in here washing dishes. We could go out and have some fun instead.”

 

“Jamie looked tired, so we should probably wait. He’s off next week.” 

 

“We can let him sleep.”

 

“Oh? Nah, I don’t think he’d want us out alone. No offense. It’s not appropriate.” 

 

She tsked, swallowing the rest of her drink and placing the glass in front of me to wash. “We’ll have time for ourselves soon enough, I guess.” She gave me a look and walked back into the other room. I laughed a little, wondering if Jamie was fucking her right, and just went back to doing what I was doing. Wandering eyes happen, and we were around each other enough. I figured she’d get over it.

 

It was all so small, so tiny, but I wish I would’ve noticed. I wish I would’ve thought about it at all.

 

There was another time, way before that, where Yvette came to visit. We were having another dinner party, always at Alicia’s request, and that time she and Janna wore white. They were becoming inseparable even then, but it wasn’t evenly matched, somehow. Alicia led, Janna followed. 

 

Yvette pulled me to the side, watching them. It felt like she was choosing her words carefully, and she interrupted me while I was trying to compliment her suit. 

 

“No way Jamie pulled her,” she said, chewing her lip. “No way. There’s something off here. I’ve been thinking about it since the wedding. There’s absolutely no way, Rick.”

 

“That’s a bad way to talk about your brother.” It took a lot to push the offense down, but her words bothered me. She shook her head, pointing. 

 

“You wouldn’t get it. She’s not like us. She’s a True Imm … We have Devil Syndrome. She’s a Devil. It’s all the same thing, but like, it’s hard to explain. She’s a different brand, like … shit, it’s hard to explain. It’s like … it’s like the difference between a national brand and the generic version. We have babies with them, sure, but it’s all business. I’ve never seen an actual Devil give this much attention to someone like Jamie, and I’ve never seen one marry a person with Devil Syndrome. Never, never, never. I don’t trust her.” I didn’t get it, but I shrugged and tried to walk away. Yvette was always negative. 

 

“Listen, Rick! Why would she want Jamie? Look at him-“

 

“Look, we can’t all marry some rich dude and run away from the family we’re ashamed of. If you don’t like Jamie, keep it to yourself. He’d throw himself off a building if he heard you saying this!”

 

“She’s like a legend to us. We don’t talk about some things, but she freed many elders from a bad situation and reunited a bunch of families. You are looking at a woman who could have any person on the planet, and she picked my brother. She is a different species compared to us, Rick. I love Jamie. I’m saying it doesn’t make sense. There are dark things that go on in our community that you don’t know about. Be careful.” 

 

“What was the situation? What are you saying?”

 

“I can’t talk to you about it. You wouldn’t get it. It’s a cultural thing. Just watch out for my brother and yourself. That’s what I’m saying.” Yvette, just as angry as I was, went back to the table and sat down. Maybe I almost got it then. I watched Alicia make her way to Yvette, watched her sit down and start talking, and my old friend was immediately intimidated. She blushed, looked down at her hands, did all those things that were entirely out of character. 

 

Alicia cooed at her, rubbed a finger along her ear. She was openly flirty. When Yvette pulled back even a little, Alicia picked up a spoon and fed her whatever meat-laden dish she’d prepared for the dinner. And then she fed her more. By the end of the night, Yvette had plates wrapped up to take home with her. She came to every dinner party after that, and she never complained to me again.

 

Looking at them, I could see what Yvette was saying. She looked like a normal woman having a conversation, but Alicia looked like an animal tenderizing its food. My dad used to call himself an alpha male, all that idiocy. It was the ramblings of a power-hungry bastard, but he stood out from everyone who ran with us. That’s what Alicia reminded me of. Shit, she was closer in attitude and presence to him and me than she was to anyone else in the room. They could’ve been pale blurs compared to us.

 

She stood out no matter what she did, and all the Jamies and Jannas and Yvettes of the world just blended into her, just folded under her image. 

 

It should’ve been obvious. Even meeting Autumn cleared it up for me. There was a certain caliber of human she involved herself with, a certain caliber of Devil Syndrome sufferers, a specific type that made sense for her. There was never a way that Alicia took my friends seriously as anything but victims. 

 

 It hit me when I got across the street that I’d just left my own house. I stood on the porch a second, trying to make sense of anything. There was no way I was turning around, not even to kick them out. I couldn’t find my voice. 

 

Alicia called me, and she wouldn’t stop calling until I turned my damn phone off. When I opened Jamie’s door, I found his house phone ringing, pressed the talk button, then left it in the bathroom. The silence hit me odd, digging into my nerves. Jamie had the house before they were married, and I never really looked at the difference between back then and when Alicia got there.

 

If my house was extravagant, Jamie’s was the pinnacle of luxury. Alicia wanted gold trim, she wanted fancy fabric curtains, she wanted a ton of things that Jamie had to work harder even to pretend to afford. It wasn’t a big deal to him, and it wasn’t a big deal to me most of the time. Now I stood and looked at their custom hardwood floors, looked at the big bay window, and I wanted to throw up. 

 

A leech. A parasite. 

 

Walking around their house, I looked for anything strange, something that would tell me about the woman that pretended to care about my friends for a full decade. There was barely any sign of Jamie, no signs that he shared the space with her. It wasn’t like he had style, so it never bothered me before, but now I felt disgusted when I saw all her things. Maybe the outside of the house made it look like a simple family lived there, but indoors belonged to a fucking wealthy matriarch. 

 

Where did Alicia work? Where did her family come from, where did they live? 

 

Even my house was decorated to suit Alicia’s tastes. What the hell did Janna, a research assistant at the local college, need with $6000 couches? I sat on the floor, trying to clear my head, and then Janna burst in like a crazed maniac, hand gripping her phone so tight I thought it would explode into a ball of fire. I got up and started pacing, wondering what to do next.

 

Pack all your shit. Take Janna and go. If Jamie wants to stay, you can’t stop him.

 

She followed me around the living room, waiting for me to offer my full attention. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Autumn’s face looking up at me like I was some poor kid she helped out of a puddle. Like she hated when Alicia did these types of things. Like it was small. 

 

“You’re being a disgusting bitch,” Janna spat. It surprised me enough to stop my pacing.

 

“How?”

 

“You hurt her feelings so bad that she didn’t even want to induce labor tonight! We’re waiting until tomorrow. I was so excited! You ruined it!” I tried to grab her, but she jumped away from me, walking over the couch to the kitchen. 

 

“You’re kidding, right? She’s been poisoning you. You’re not thinking straight, none of you are. We have to get away from here. I’m getting a hotel, and we’re going tonight. Just for a minute.”

 

“We’re not going anywhere. Not me, not Jamie, and not you. She’ll be devastated if you leave her! You mean the world to-“

 

You’re my wife. Jamie’s my best friend. Alicia doesn’t mean anything to me-” She threw the phone as hard as she could at the window. It shattered, setting off the house alarm. I couldn’t even afford to be stunned, so I grabbed her before she could throw anything else. My wife of eight years swung at me, kicking her feet when I picked her off the ground and tried to cradle her. I threw her down on the couch, dodging a massive piece of glass that she threw in anger. 

 

“What are you doing, Janna-“

 

“She wants you there! You’re going! You’re going to help us deliver her fucking baby! You love her, and you’re going to help!” She picked up another piece of glass and pressed it to her throat, pushing it deep enough to draw a burst of blood. The look in her eyes, man, she wasn’t even there, not really. It was like a recording screaming at me. I nodded, kneeling onto the ground, hands out in surrender. I’d never seen my wife that angry, that chaotic, that insane. Janna never raised her voice; she blended into the background and held your hand like a child. 

 

“Whatever you want. Just calm down. I promise I’ll be there for you and Jamie. I mean it.”

 

“AND ALICIA! WE’RE GOING TO BE THERE FOR ALICIA AND THE BABY! YOU’RE GOING TO HELP HER RAISE THAT BABY!” The pupils in her eyes expanded, and all I saw was Alicia. They shrank slowly, and the energy drained out with them.

 

“Fine. Yes. Whatever you want.” She dropped the glass, crying, sucking down sobs, and reached out for me. I stayed where I was.

 

“Alicia’s not feeling well, so she should stay at our house tonight, OK? I don’t want her walking across the street in her condition. She can sleep in our room, and we’ll sleep here. It’ll be amazing, Rick, I promise. We’ll go tomorrow, and we’ll get started, and Alicia will be so happy to see you. She’ll be so happy!” Janna blew me a kiss, holding a hand over her wound, and walked out like everything was normal.

 

I gulped and stayed on the ground. What could I say? I let a parasite sneak in and steal everyone I loved. 

 

The next hour or so, I cleaned up the glass. I cut off the alarm. I picked the broken blinds off the floor, rolled them in my arms, and vacuumed. It took a while to convince myself to do it, but then I called Yvette. I called her and sunk into my best friend’s couch, and before I could even say anything, she asked, “Is the baby here? Does Alicia still need Sammie to come over and help, or did her friend show up?” 

 

“Why would Sammie need to help? She doesn’t know how to deliver a baby. Why would you let your daughter come to help?” Yvette was quiet for a minute, and then she gave me a low sigh. 

 

“Alicia said her friend might not show up, so she needed a backup there. You know. Alicia’s part of the group, as you said.” 

 

“I said that to her. I never said that to you, Yvette. I never said that to you.” I hung up, still holding the broom in my hand, and I sat like that the rest of the night.

 

They belonged to her.

 

It was three in the morning, and someone was standing in Jamie’s yard. 

 

Hard to explain how I knew, but I did. It took every ounce of strength in my body to lift my head off the couch and try to see out the window. I could feel it in the back of my head, some low whistle going through the air. Janna stirred in her sleep, fist wrapped around my shirt to keep me from moving. I had to fight all night to keep her off me and stop her from touching me. It didn’t feel like my wife trying to be sexy, to put on lingerie, to dance for me. It was all Alicia trying to apologize to me and me alone. 

 

The person in the yard wasn’t going to knock. I went to the window and looked out, but it was too dark to see anything but white hair. The locs could’ve been floating, some of them blocked by a massive body.

 

“A friend of mine was here earlier,” he said, and the locs moved just a little closer. “Maybe she’s still here now.”

 

“Fuck off, man. Get out my yard before I beat your ass.” I leaned out the window, ready. After the day I had, I was good to beat some stranger close to death. I tried to be loving and gentle like my mother, but I was mostly my father. 

 

The man smiled, the white of his teeth blazing through the dark, and then about ten more sets of teeth smiled around him. I hadn’t noticed just how black it was outside, how I couldn’t see my hands in front of me, couldn’t see the moon, couldn’t even make out my house across the street. I stepped back, and it felt like the black moved with me, stopping at the window like a wall. 

 

What the fuck is going on?

 

A low static rumble filled the yard, sliding over the window and into the house, followed by a bunch of rustling. More smiles popped up around the man. More white eyes stared at me in the darkness, their pupils drowned out. I held my breath, not sure how I felt about fighting anymore. 

 

“I followed a friend here earlier. Pretty, spunky little woman. Maybe she’s still here?” He said again, and I thought I heard a laugh. I shrugged, sitting back on the couch, finally scared. Janna curled up against the pillow, sighing peacefully.

 

“Nobody here. Just my family. Nobody else here.”

 

“Someone I know is here. Can’t be who I think it is, though. There’s no way she’s been hiding this close.” He sniffed the air, and for a moment, the eyes disappeared. I thought of hunting those families when I was younger, thought of all the hiding Alicia was doing. Maybe this was what we were actually up against. Maybe my dad snuffed out men like this.

 

“I already told you. Nobody’s here. If you and your floating eyes have a problem, I’m glad to deal with it.” My gun was in my upstairs closet, but everyone has to go sometime. I got up and leaned back out the window, doing my best to stare at a walking pile of hair, eyes, and teeth. He squinted, then gave me a booming laugh. 

 

“You’re just her type! Why don’t I come back at a better time? It’s rude to be out here this late.”

 

“Yeah. It is.” The eyes blinked off one by one, small hisses following each, and then I could see again. He was a stocky man with white locs trailing his back. I watched him walk away with my heart filling every limb, too much adrenaline running through me. 

 

By the time he was gone, the moon could’ve been the sun. It was that bright.

 

When I woke up in the morning, Janna sat in front of the door, head pressed against it like a cat. 

 

“Her water broke.” 

 

I ignored her, went upstairs, and took a shower. I used as much of Alicia’s expensive soap as possible, pouring the rest down the drain. I took out an extra toothbrush and brushed my teeth, emptying a bunch of mouthwash over her clothes hamper. Then I went to the kitchen and made breakfast, careful only to use unopened containers, searching for holes or signs of alterations. We weren’t eating anyone else’s food, not even fast food, take out, random barbecues we passed on the road, nothing. I wasn’t letting my little group eat a thing that I didn’t make. 

 

A loud yelp came from the front room, and I ran in to see Janna doubled over, holding her belly. There was a small bandage over the cut on her throat. She was fully dressed, ready to leave.

 

“What’s wrong now? What happened?”

 

“Wear something comfortable! We don’t have to induce anymore, her water broke.” 

 

“Whose water broke?”

 

“Alicia … I can feel it. The contractions are so strong. It’s time!”

 

They needed my basement to do the birth, and the reasoning was that we had the mother-in-law suite. There was working plumbing down there, two separate rooms, and a fridge. It made sense to make sure Alicia had everything she needed. We wouldn’t have to walk her back up the stairs; she could relax until she healed enough to move around freely with the baby. Jamie and I’d spent the last few weeks preparing it, painting it a color she liked, setting up a little nursery. I couldn’t imagine sitting around upstairs knowing a parasite was lurking in my basement, but I tried not to think about it. I booked a hotel with room for the three of us, just in case I could convince them to get ghost with me, and then I kept cooking breakfast. 

 

Janna wouldn’t shut up about it, wouldn’t stop crawling toward the door with her ass in the air like a fucking animal. I sat her at the table and made her eat, watching the fast way she shoved the food in her mouth. How long had my wife been acting that weird? 

 

Why hadn’t I noticed until Autumn said something?

 

When she finished, I finally walked her back across the street, holding a spinach burrito. Jamie sat out front, a tiny hat in his hands, tapping his foot aimlessly on the ground. The man looked rough. He looked like someone’s crazy uncle. Janna rushed inside, excited, but I sat down next to him and gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze. 

 

We watched dark clouds roll through the sky without speaking. I had no idea how under my best friend was. Maybe he’d shout me down like Yvette and Janna, if he’d scream at me, but I had to say something. I had to say anything.

 

“You hungry?” I handed him the burrito, and he took it. He started rolling the tiny hat around it aimlessly. Gently, I took it back. “Just be cool until she gives birth. I’ll get you and the baby out of here, man,” I whispered to him. He nodded his thanks, eyes bloodshot. I took the tiny hat and gripped him into a hug.

 

Please. Get us out of here.” Man, the hope that filled me was crazy, but I didn’t react. I stood, eating the burrito, and pulled him up with me. 

 

“Let’s get the baby then.”

 

When we went downstairs, I wondered if I’d be able to keep that promise. The massive wooden tub sat in the middle of the floor. Alicia lay in the center of it, water up to her breasts, a bikini top covering them. She leaned her head back and watched me walk over to Janna. There was a good amount of space to walk. A couch sat against the far wall, and a bunch of rugs and towels surrounded the tub. We did a decent job getting the place together for the parasite’s comfort.

 

“You came back,” Autumn said absently, walking out from the back room. She had on tiny black scrubs, a mask over her mouth and nose. All that glamorous hair piled up in a ponytail on top of her head. She knelt by the tub, dipping her hands in to adjust Alicia’s belly. Alicia watched me the entire time, pained, and deep in concentration. 

 

I didn’t bother saying anything to Janna. She stared wide-eyed at the tub, excitement smoldering through her.

 

“Did I have a choice?” 

 

“I’m sure you did. You don’t seem Latched. If you wanted, you could leave your wife and friend.” Her tone was different than the day before. She wasn’t sympathetic, or angry, or anything but blank and focused. I sat next to Janna on the small sofa, watching Jamie pace around the room. 

 

“I’m just here for my family. Get the baby out of her.”

 

Alicia sucked in a deep breath, grabbing Autumn’s shoulder. 

 

“What’s it feel like, honey? Talk to me.”

 

“The damned thing is holding on to me with- with her na- nails.” Despite the exhausted look on his face, Jamie rushed to the other side, inviting Alicia to wrap her arms around him. She did, letting out a low groan, digging her nails into his back. They stayed that way too long, the water slowly transforming into a red bath. 

 

“Dammit, Autumn, I’m going to die-“

 

“No, it’s OK, just relax. Let’s keep the Blood Bursts to a minimum.” Autumn dug into the tub, sweat beading along her forehead. I looked beside me, and Janna fell limp, her head rolling over the couch. She let out a wheeze, grabbing my hand. 

 

“A man came to find you this morning, short stuff. White-haired guy.” Autumn froze, hands deep in the tub.

 

“Oh yeah? Did you speak to him?”

 

“Not really. Told his ass to get out of my yard.” 

 

“That was smart, I think. Thank you. I appreciate that. If he comes back, keep it up. Try not to engage with him long enough to be remembered.” Astley walked down the stairs, nervous. She waved a small hello to me, and I nodded back. Autumn snapped at her when she got too close, so she sat next to me on the couch.

 

“Is it gonna hurt?” the kid mumbled. 

 

“She’s having a baby, of course, honey-“

 

“No. I mean. Me. Is the baby gonna hurt me when we do the stuff?” 

 

“Oh, no, not at all. You won’t do anything drastic today. We’ll take some of the baby’s blood and leave it at that. You just need to be here.” 

 

Alicia screamed, and Jamie grit his teeth. I heard skin and fabric ripping.

 

Autumn rolled her eyes. “Oh, honey, you’ve done this a million times. Push her out already.” Alicia sucked in breaths and whimpers, kicking water out of the tub, arching forward and backward, and then she relaxed. Autumn didn’t move. After a moment, we all realized she was staring in horror at something. I got up despite myself, trying to see in the pool of red.

 

“That’s … that’s not normal.” The bath bubbled. It literally started boiling around Alicia, the water rising and foaming. Autumn threw herself back, shrieking, arms smoking, and I had to grab Janna to stop her from running over. 

 

“Let’s go,” I said, pulling her to the stairs. She yanked away from me and doubled back. “Janna, fuck this. I don’t care what happens, let’s go. Now.” 

 

“It’s OK! She’s not hurt. I’d be able to tell,” Janna said, eyes wide. Jamie whimpered, digging through the water for the baby, ignoring the steam rising into his face. When he pulled her up, I vomited. I bent over and threw up until my back hurt. 

 

There was a giant hole where one of the baby’s eyes should’ve been, going straight back through her head. You could see through to her brain, all the way through. Alicia held her arms out in shock for a moment, gasping, and then holding her breath, mouth open in horror. I hate her. I hate everything about her, but my heart broke, and I rushed forward, moving Autumn out of the way. 

 

“She’s not dead,” I yelled. “It’s OK! She’s fine! Hey, Astley, get- get the towel for me. She’s OK!” Astley’s eyes rolled up, and she fell back, passed out on the floor. Jamie dropped the poor baby into the water and crawled back to the wall, covering his mouth. Autumn was frozen, horrified. I pulled myself together and moved as close to the tub as possible, grabbing Alicia’s face.

 

“It’s OK, relax. Look at me! She’s OK; I looked right at her.” I tried to remember what was supposed to happen next. Something about the placenta or the cord. “Let me cut the cord, OK?” The boiling slowed down, but the air was drying around us. It felt like my skin was sucking through a keyhole. I grabbed the baby and reached around the frothy water, trying to find the umbilical cord. Autumn snapped awake and moved forward, pulling tiny scissors from her pocket, cutting the pitch-black flesh. The baby coughed, and I cleared her airway. A long whine came out of her throat, chasing my fingers. 

 

“Rick-” Alicia tried, and then she choked on her grief. I held the baby, cradling her. 

 

“No, don’t do that. Don’t worry. She’s OK. I have her, OK?” Alicia nodded, mouth still open. “Look, she’s breathing. Listen.” We were quiet, and the baby made little sucking noises, gasping for air. She let out another wail, and then she cried her tiny little brown head off. The girl had so much hair that it trailed down her neck. Alicia finally closed her mouth, but she didn’t reach for the kid. 

 

“What do I do, Rick?”

 

“Just rest for a bit. I got her, girl! Y’all rest.” Autumn tapped me, and she had a towel in her hand. I wiped the baby as gently as possible. “Am I supposed to do anything else? Does the baby need anything?” 

 

“There’s no way she’s going to live,” Autumn said lightly. Jamie sobbed in the corner, pulling his legs into himself. I couldn’t look at Janna. 

 

“No, no, she’s a tough girl. Sit down if you’re not gonna help. I got her.” I cradled the baby and held her for I don’t know how long, singing some song my mother used to sing when I was a kid, some shit about love and holding on or something. I found one of the blankets Janna crocheted and wrapped it around the little body, cooing at the hole in her head. She kept crying, tiny arms flailing. The drying sensation got worse, and then Alicia’s head rolled back on her shoulders. The parasite slipped under the water.

 

“Hey! Help her!” I said to Autumn, and she got busy. I moved back to the couch, still staring into the girl’s head. A white glow was filling it, and then patches of red leather crawled over the hole. Right there in my arms, right there with me holding her, the girl grew a face. It formed over the opening, thick leather doubling and tripling over itself, and then a white glow burst from her new eye socket. 

 

I held that baby for maybe two more minutes, and then my blood started to heat up. I felt it in my arms first, the heat running through my veins, and then my face felt like it was incinerating. I had to put her down on the couch and move back, but the pain only worsened.

 

Jamie took her, staring at me. “Your fucking face, man!”

 

“It’s cool. You sure you got her?” He nodded, still horrified. I got up, avoiding my passed out wife, bypassing Astley, stumbling into the bathroom, and closed the door. It was so hot. It was humid, felt like a desert grew in my head. Everything was so hot that even the door sizzled when my hand touched it. 

 

When I pulled myself together enough to look into the mirror, my sight waved so bad I almost threw up again. The skin around my eyebrow was thinned out so much that I could see my bone.

 

 

The kid slept as if she’d just got done kicking someone’s ass. 

 

Autumn waved her hands in Astley’s face. Everyone was just waking up, coming to, whatever you want to call it. I could still feel my face burning. The skin moved around, freaking me out, but I tried to ignore everything but my wife. Janna squinted at me, confused. 

 

“We should wait before we give Astley any blood,” Autumn said, still wiping at her daughter’s face. “That baby might die too soon for it to matter. There’s no point until we know for sure. Latching won’t work this early.” Alicia was too tired to answer, still wet from the tub. Jamie had her in his lap wrapped in a towel, and whatever anger or fear he had was gone. 

 

“That’s fine.” Alicia finally managed. “Just go home. I’ll let you know when I’m ready again. Enjoy your family life.” Autumn sat confused for a moment, then angry, then confused again. 

 

“Just go home? That’s it? What are you going to do with her?”

 

“I’ll keep her. I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind. It can’t be her. I won’t let her go.” Autumn was stunned. She pushed herself up, Alicia’s tired words drawing a rage too big for her body to contain, and scoffed.

 

“What happened to ‘don’t deviate’? You brought me out here to do this just to have you give up? Why’d I ‘extend my life’? What was the point-“

 

“She needs me. The others weren’t like this. I won’t let her go.” Again, Autumn was shocked quiet. 

 

“How are you going to kill that thing without her? What was the point of all this preparation? What about my girls? They’re killing them-“

 

“I’ll have another.”

 

“How? Are you starting a new family? Are you doing this again?” Jamie closed his eyes in frustration, and I felt it. I felt it in my exposed bone, in Janna’s tired cries. 

 

Autumn glanced at me, then sighed. “If you’re going to keep her, she can’t stay here. They’ll come after all of you. David already showed up once, who knows if The Creature knows where you are, too. You can come to my house, but Lawrence can’t-“

 

“This is my home. My family. They can try to hurt us. Rick won’t let them.” 

 

It took me a minute to respond, and then I just swallowed it. Somehow, she was right. Anyone who knew me would know that, and maybe that’s what was so appealing about me. Maybe that’s what made me her main target. I looked down at the little brown girl in her bassinet, at the pretty little hat Jamie put on her, at the makeshift eyepatch they’d used to cover that eye, and of course, no one was gonna touch her. Jamie held Alicia close, but he gave me a long look. No one was gonna hurt him, either. No one was gonna touch Janna. 

 

Of course, I would protect them with my life. But not Alicia. I would never defend the parasite that destroyed everything I loved. 

 

 I let a few days go by before I suggested we leave again, and this time I was met with a better response. Janna let me take her to a hotel, one way out in Rex. She didn’t complain. It took me by surprise, honestly, but the kid’s face scared her that much. 

 

“Something wasn’t right about the baby. I don’t know what’s going on. I keep feeling like I’m waking up, and then everything is fuzzy again. We have to get away,” she kept muttering. I agreed, checking us into the hotel, and led her to the room. We didn’t talk much. There was a kind of defeat in the air where there should’ve been hope. 

 

Can’t say how many times I pulled out my phone to call my mother, or Keila, to talk to anyone about what happened. Every time, I hung up. What would happen to them if they were pulled into the mess we were in? I had forty missed calls from Keila already, and every voicemail was just pure excitement about the baby. 

 

“Is the baby here yet, Rick?”

 

“Will she allow me to see the baby now?”

 

“What’s the baby’s name? Gender? Does it have the Syndrome? Did everything go OK?”

 

“What’s wrong with me,” Janna asked, but I just kissed her and pulled her back onto the bed. We watched something all night, some T.V. show. I couldn’t even process it. I kept thinking about Jamie back there with his ‘family.’ Kept thinking about that poor baby with whatever was going on with her eye.

 

Every now and then, I thought about how Alicia must’ve felt looking at that little girl, that baby she was so excited to save from herself. 

 

We hadn’t brought any clothes. By the morning, Janna’s skin was so cold that I wrapped her in blankets. She laughed a little, burying her face under the pillows. 

 

“I can’t remember the last time I felt normal, Rick. It’s like she’s in my bones. God, she’s so tired, and she’s sad. I don’t want to feel it. Where’s my energy? Where am I?”

 

“Just relax. There’s probably some type of withdrawal that comes with it. She’s been feeding you blood for years.” Janna tried to nod but fell asleep before she could even ask me more about it. I rubbed her feet, worried about how her temperature dropped and then raised over and over. 

 

It was getting late, so I got her up for breakfast. We went to a fancy place up the street with seafood, pretty much the same as every fancy place near the coast. Janna threw up once when we first got there. She threw up again before our food arrived, face turning ash grey. She passed out on the way to the bathroom, had a seizure in the parking lot. We spent our last night away at a hospital, the nurses confused damn near to pain, and I said quietly, “I guess we’re going home.” 

 

Janna nodded and squeezed my hand, waving away their suggestion to put her on a ventilator, a pathetic look on her face. 

 

“Yeah. I guess that’s that.”

 

 

Anger wasn’t the word for what I felt, but somehow I wanted to see Alicia. It wasn’t just the anger, either. Nobody should have to live through seeing their kid like that. I still hated her. Still wanted to see her fly into the sun. But I got dressed and went over there the next day, hoping she’d had time to calm down. Yeah, even with my head bandaged up, even with my face screaming in agony, I went. 

 

Upstairs, everything was quiet. I looked around my living room, but for some reason, I didn’t recognize it. Nothing felt right. When I went down to the basement, a chill came over me before I reached the bottom. It edged along my chest when I opened the door, and then I was shivering. 

The room was chaotically silent, like the aftermath of mass death. Alicia lay in the little bed we’d prepared for her, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling. For half a second, I hoped she was dead. It damn sure looked like it. One of her hands opened and closed, rolling around her wrist. The blankets wrapped tight against her stomach and chest, and every vein in her body pulsed white, then turned black. 

 

I backed away, confused. The air was so arid, my spit dried and dissolved every time my mouth opened. Every word I tried to say turned to actual dust in the air. There was some weird gray mush covering the walls, and it took me a minute to realize it was the formerly purple paint. Everything in the room was gray, white, or black. Even my shirt bled into an impossible black color. 

 

I pushed forward, looking for the baby. She was in her bassinet in the corner, wriggling around. The good eye stopped on me when I got close, and she reached for me. 

 

That eye. Any leftover color in the room disappeared into it in bright smoke that swirled over the hole. It ate all the air, all the life in the room. With one hand, I grabbed her little scarf eye patch and pulled it down, covering the hole. Sound returned, molasses-slow, and I heard Alicia sucking in breath after breath behind me, choking and gasping in the blankets. 

 

“What the hell are you, kid?” I picked the baby up, ignoring the burns appearing on my fingers. She wriggled, happiness crossing her face at the sight of me, and I moved her little hand when she tried to touch the scarf. 

 

“She’s hungry-” Alicia tried, and then she let out a gasp. 

 

“What did you do to her?”

 

“I would never … she’s … it’s the mark … in my bl- blood …” Alicia tried hard to speak, then threw up a bunch of clear gunk. 

 

“How do we undo the shit you did to Janna?” As I waited for an answer, the brown returned to Alicia’s eyes. Her pupils were normal, just regular dots, and then they expanded, blooming until they could’ve bubbled over the lids. She fell out of bed, pulling all the blankets with her. 

 

“You don’t. She dies … without … me. Stay … please. Please …” I walked the baby upstairs, ignoring her mother on the ground.

 

I just kept looking at that covered eye. The way it sucked the color out of everything that crossed by it, how water boiled around it, the way Alicia’s veins throbbed and plumped, turning white. The burns hardened on my hand when we got to the back door, and I kept thinking about the fact that I didn’t feel anything at first. It was like my skin just disappeared. 

 

The girl’s eye could’ve been another dimension. Smoke swirled out of it, sucking back in, pulsing back out. Even with the patch, thin wisps escaped every few seconds.

 

Jamie sat on the porch out back. He’d cut his hair and trimmed his beard. The dude looked like he did when we were young, and then the fatigue sat above him like vapor. I sat next to him, adjusting the girl on my legs. 

 

“None of us is gonna make it out of here,” he whispered after a long moment. “I trapped everyone. That baby isn’t normal.” We both looked down at her. 

 

“I’m not gonna argue with you there. What’s her name?”

 

“Who cares?” Jamie moved away from us, eyeing her. “We have to get rid of it-“

 

“Don’t start that. Don’t do it. I’ll take the baby and leave all of you here if you act like that.” He gave me a look, then laughed a little. 

 

“What’s wrong with you? You’re acting like this is normal. You’re not afraid?” 

 

Why was I so calm? Why wasn’t I running and screaming into the distance, dragging my wife behind me? Maybe she’d get over the sickness if we stayed gone long enough. Probably, she’d die.

 

It didn’t make any sense that I wasn’t upset, but I couldn’t hold on to it. I wasn’t raised to hold on to grief or culture shock. I’d never been in a similar situation, but I’d watched plenty of families get torn apart. I was closer to the beast that Alicia was than the saints that Jamie and Janna were, maybe.

 

“No. I’m annoyed. But this is your kid. We’re gonna figure it out, and then we’re getting out of here. The kid comes with us. So get used to her. Suck it the fuck up.” Jamie nodded, grabbing a tiny piece of her hair. There was so much of the curly mass. I made a mental note to get her a few brushes and combs. 

 

“OK. If you say so, Rick.”

 

“What’s her name?”

 

“Alicia says it’s Erin.” I sucked my teeth, staring at the little dark girl. Of course, she got a real name, not one to blend in. Not one to hide from whatever was after her mother. Alicia did say she wanted to keep her. 

 

“Hey, Erin! We’re gonna take real good care of you. Don’t worry about the crazy lady you had to stay in. You just needed that place to form. Now you’re with your real family, OK? I’m Daddy Rick, this is Daddy Jamie, and you’ll get to meet Momma Janna when she’s better.” Jamie laughed, pinching her cheek. 

 

With the eye covered, Erin was adorable. I gave her a little kiss on the forehead and made a promise to myself to call Keila and my mother soon. If there was one thing we were good at, it was picking up the pieces and making something new. Erin wouldn’t want for anything.

 

Alicia was sick. Janna was sicker.

 

Things eased up, somehow. Erin’s problems took over my desire to escape Alicia, but it might’ve been how rare it was to see her out of the basement. The poor woman couldn’t move, and when she could move, she spent the entire time doing her best to dote on her daughter. It was humbling to see, I guess. You couldn’t say she wasn’t in love with the girl, that she wasn’t fully committed to making up for whatever she had planned to do. 

 

Jamie started spending more time in the basement with her, looking ashamed whenever he walked up the stairs as if I would judge him for it. Janna did, too, and I just gave them breaks by taking Erin out. We walked a lot, going around the neighborhood in her expensive stroller. It’s crazy how sweet the kid was. She loved being outside, enjoyed the rain, loved all the sun. Every now and then, she would throw both arms in the air and rock back and forth, squealing, and I couldn’t get enough of it. 

 

A month after she was born, I took her around the block. The man with the white hair stood just off the street, staring at me. We turned back around and went home. 

 

I opened the door without knocking, avoiding Jamie in the kitchen, and went downstairs. Erin squealed after me in the foyer, twisting in the stroller. Part of me wanted to keep her away from her mother, and I didn’t feel bad about it. 

 

Alicia curled up in a ball in bed, shaking. Her skin looked grey. You could smell the sour breath from the stairs, and I could hear the raspy, anguished way she breathed. I gathered a few blankets up from the floor and covered her naked body, looking away.

 

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, caring despite myself. A groan rose into the air, and then she coughed, whimpering a little. 

 

“It doesn’t matter. Thank you for tending to Erin. She’s such a happy baby, isn’t she? She’s everything. The other children weren’t like this, not even in infancy. Doesn’t she seem different?” I started to speak again, to answer her, but she drifted off to sleep. I picked some of Erin’s toys out of the crib and went back upstairs.

 

Jamie met me at the door, beaming. “Ready to drop me off at work?”

 

“Haven’t seen you this happy in months,” I said, watching him cuddle Erin. The little patch Janna made her was adorable; the sounds she made were delightful. You could exhaust a thesaurus trying to describe the joy the little booger emitted. Jamie tickled her chin, and she laughed. 

 

“Been thinking about what you said. Erin didn’t do anything. I’m not going to sit around hating my own kid for this mess. Alicia and I talked, and maybe I’ll forgive her someday, too. We should just try to move on as a family if we can.” I put the toys in the stroller and tried not to dampen the mood, patting his back. If only it were as simple as loving and letting go. 

 

“Janna couldn’t even get out of bed. I spent hours trying to get her up. It’s getting worse.”

 

“Yeah. Same with Alicia. I’m trying to convince her to go to a doctor-“

 

“Look, man. She’s killing Janna. I don’t know why it doesn’t affect you, but whatever is killing her is going to put Janna in the ground. I don’t care what happens. We need to stop it.” Jamie didn’t respond, playing with Erin’s tiny finger. 

 

I found his jacket and gave it to him. “Come on.”

 

 

Jamie spent a lot of time out on the water. When the weather was good enough, he took research teams to look at fish or collect samples or whatever the hell marine biologists do. I’ve only gone with him a few times but couldn’t even stand up long enough to find out. The ocean ain’t my cup of tea.

 

His research team waited at Chastain Pier. I saw the balloons and cake a mile away, but Jamie was too busy making noises and faces at his kid to notice. 

 

That’s exactly what he needs. Something normal. 

 

At the docks, we showed Erin off like we’d had her with no help. Like we were her dads, and she needed a certain amount of praise to pay our mortgage. 

 

“She’s already a little pirate,” someone yelled, and they all laughed. Man, the way they circled him, the way they patted his back and amped him up was right. It was the way things should’ve been, the way I imagined it. Jamie laughed and blushed, taking their heckling in stride. 

 

“Keep an eye on her for me,” he said, handing her over. I gave my promises, and Erin and I watched him get on the boat. They were still talking loud and making a fuss about the baby when it pulled away from the pier.

 

I watched until they were too far to see us, and then the woman walked up. 

 

Didn’t even notice her at first. She almost fell into the stroller, staring down at Erin and then looking curiously at me. There was a weird wobble to her, a kind of drunken sway. She knelt too close to the stroller, narrowing her eyes at the kid.

 

“Hey, back up a little,” I said in as friendly a tone as I could manage. Erin wriggled, rocking back and forth.

 

“What is that color coming from her face? That blue,” the woman whispered, leaning even closer. “It’s so blue. I can’t stand it.” I pulled the stroller back, grunting my disapproval. 

 

“The fuck are you talking about? Watch out-” And then she yanked the stroller from me. Just like that. A pair of arms wrapped around my neck, closing too tight and too fast for me to put my hands between us. The woman tore into the stroller, ripping straps off Erin, and pulled the tiny baby up by her feet. 

 

Every part of my body tensed. It looked like she was going to smash the girl down onto the boards. I kicked mercilessly, then planted my feet down and lifted the man onto my back. He was too heavy – we fell forward, hitting the boards, and he held onto me, wrapping his legs around my stomach. 

 

Spots blinked over my eyesight, but I kept moving. I pulled him across the boards toward the woman, trying to create a barrier between the baby and the ground. She played with Erin’s patch, wriggling it around, and then she moved it. 

 

It was like the world stopped. Nearly everyone left on the pier turned, frozen in place, to stare at Erin. The woman’s eyes popped open, mesmerized, and she turned the kid upright. It was a scene straight out of a classic painting, everyone dripping with curiosity and wonder. Maybe thirty people started walking over to us, all of them heading for the white light beaming from Erin’s eye.

 

“I’ve never seen a blue like this,” the woman whispered. “We have to take her home. She needs to go home-” A long groan left her throat, and the only way I can describe the noise that I heard is a click. The man let go of my neck and crawled away, whining. Every breath I took was hot, steaming, and painful. 

 

There was another click, and the woman dropped Erin. The skin on her face pulled back, peeling over itself. Like a flower blooming, it rolled over her bone, exposing flesh, and then the flesh rolled back over her skull, exposing bone and tendons. Everything on the woman rolled and shrank until she was a pile of gunk and twisted bone on the floor. It smoked, disintegrating.

 

Gasping, I crawled over to Erin, avoiding her eye. The sound of her screaming crackled through some invisible filter, loud and scratchy. I thought my ears were bleeding. The light was a blinding flash shooting from her skull, but somehow pushing the little patch over it cut off the beam. The sound returned, too loud and fresh on my eardrums, and Erin cried in pain. I looked over her, checked her head, touched her little back, but couldn’t find any external damage. 

 

When I looked up, the creatures drew back in fear. That’s what they were. I could see it now. They were wet, they were just a little bit off, just a tiny bit, but creatures surrounded us. I lifted Erin and walked backward, trying not to look at the woman puddle on the ground, pulling my car keys out of my pocket.

 

We left the stroller, walking backward as long as possible, watching the creatures on the docks. 

 

They didn’t follow us. 

 

We got back, and Alicia was up and about. Janna followed her around, hanging on every word. I was so surprised to see them looking healthy, I almost lost the fear I’d had over the creatures attacking us. 

 

“What’s wrong with her fucking eye? What the hell are we dealing with?” I yelled, too scared to be angry. Alicia turned, smiling, but the minute she breathed the same air as the baby, her body gave out. The juice container she was holding burst on the ground. Janna fell forward after, eyes rolling up in her head, splashing into the glass and juice.

 

I just stood there, still holding the baby. She was drifting off to sleep, but I woke her up. There were three possible concussions around me, and maybe a stroke coming for me if anything else happened. For the millionth time, I thought about calling Keila. 

 

“It’s the baby,” I said slowly, walking to the couch. “The baby is killing you, Alicia. And you’re killing Janna.”

 

The women were in their beds, the baby in the bassinet (moved upstairs to my room), and I finally called Keila. No matter how I put it to myself, there wasn’t much else I could do. My mother understood the world better, and Keila WAS that world. Calling one meant calling the other, so I braced myself to speak to the matriarchs that raised and guided me through life.

 

Immediately, I knew something was wrong. The ringing stopped, but Jamie’s mother said nothing, and then she cleared her throat. Not an ounce of excitement existed across the line. There was no friendliness in the air. 

 

“Who is this?” I looked up as if the man’s voice was with me in the room. It took me a minute to speak around my tongue throbbing in my mouth. 

 

“No, who’s this?” 

 

“Oh, it’s you! The guy in the window, right? Look, I did what you asked. I got the fuck out of your yard and went to someone else’s. I’ve been to a couple of yards, actually. It’s becoming a habit.” A low whine sounded in the background, and I thought of Keila before I thought of my mother. 

 

“Let me speak to them. Put me on speaker, I don’t care, just let me talk to my family.”

 

“Why don’t we meet up instead? It’ll be hard to get my point across without you seeing what I’m doing. I’m an expressive person.” The whine in the back grew louder, and my imagination did ugly things. I bowed my head, trying hard not to think.

 

“Just let me speak to them, and I’ll meet you wherever you want. You know where I live, you can come here if you need to, just-“

 

“There’s a gas station a few blocks or so away from your house. I’ll meet you there in an hour.”

 

“Fine.” There was silence, and then a shaky voice came on, still dainty and caring even through the pain. Keila cleared her throat, tried to speak, then cleared it again. 

 

They’re hurt.

 

“Rick. How are you doing?”

 

“What happened? Where are you?” Another pause, but I heard someone speaking somewhere behind her. 

 

“You shouldn’t worry. I don’t want you all to worry, not with the baby. We’ll manage. You know we’re not weaklings.” Her low tone barely reached me through the speaker. I had to press the cell phone against my face and hold my breath. 

 

“Tell me what’s going on! I’m coming out there-“

 

“Oh, my daughter-in-law got us all into some type of trouble. I know she’s family now, you know how much I love her. I wish she would’ve been smarter about that; we could’ve at least helped before we were blindsided. Have you seen my daughter?” 

 

“No, but I spoke to her a while ago-“

 

“We’ve been fighting with Yvette for weeks. About Sammie, about where Sammie was. She finally said someone was ‘holding’ her in case she was needed, and I still don’t know what that means. We were worried.” She covered the phone and snapped at someone in the background. 

 

“Keila-“

 

“All I know is that Yvette made some deal with Alicia, and someone found out about it. Maybe you know, maybe you don’t. But she brought a man to talk to us about our ‘options,’ asking us to help her get Sammie back and get out of this mess, but oh, he was so disgusting to us. Your mother told him right off! Then he started following us to work and showing up in the yard at night. Your mother approached him, and he spat some type of gunk at her. I’m not sure what is happening to her, Rick. I’m not sure. We at least know where Sammie is now since we’re here in this place together. There are a few other women and children …” She paused, and something moved around in the background. I grit my teeth, sitting on my couch, trying not to go straight through to the floor. 

 

“Don’t worry. I’m coming-“

 

“You’re not. We’re not home anymore. I can’t tell you where we are. I don’t know the exact address. It’s a bit horrible, not the cleanest place.” Someone grumbled in the background, and I thought I heard Keila let out a painful breath.

 

“Are you injured?”

 

“Oh, yes. I’ll be fine once I heal. We’re tough girls, don’t you worry. We’ll figure something out. You just keep my son safe. You know Jamie, he’s not good with stress; neither is Janna. We’re not like these people.” 

 

There were so many things I wanted to say. The mock-pleasantness in Keila’s voice made me sadder than it made me angry, and I wanted to comfort her. 

 

“It’s the white-haired dude, right?”

 

“Oh, yes. Big guy with white hair.”

 

“Where’s my mother?” I got up, pulling on my coat. There was a small gasp, and then a deeper voice came through the phone. My mother wasn’t as dainty as Keila, and some of her roughness grated my nerves when I was stressed.

 

“Rick? I know what you’re doing, but sit down and forget we ever talked. We’re dead. I’m not letting that disgusting mutant take over me-” 

 

“You’re hurt. You’re hurt, he hurt you.” I babbled a bit, holding my chest. She gave me a breathy laugh. 

 

“Mind your business. Save your family. Find that bitch Yvette, and you let her know how disappointed I am in her! We raised her better than this, and she led us to a bunch of monsters … dammit, Keila, hold the phone steady!” I heard fussing in the background, and my mother sighed. “Give them that baby. Keila won’t admit it, but we’re dead here, we’re finished. It’s like acid. I barely have hands left, and it’s spreading up my arm. Sammie’s been unconscious since we found her here. He’s after the baby. Give it to him so at least you three can survive-“

 

Keila got back on the phone, and I could hear her rings vibrating against the back of it as she talked. 

 

“Oh, I didn’t want to say it, but yes—Lydia’s right. We might not make it. We’re tough, but I have a burn going from my foot to my hip. It’s not healing right. The man is a Hybrid, I think. He’s just eating right through us. There’s no telling how much longer we have before he decides to finish what he started.”

 

“I don’t know what that means. I’m coming to get you-“

 

“What is the little one?”

 

“Keila-“

 

“The baby. Girl? Boy?” 

 

“Girl.”

 

“Oh, I bet she’s beautiful! I knew she would be a girl, even with all the secrecy. Alicia doesn’t seem like the type to have boys. Is she like me?” 

 

“Yeah. A little different, but definitely like you. And happy. Always happy.” The feeling of Keila’s pride radiated through the phone.  

 

“This Hybrid wants my grandbaby badly for some reason. I think I know why, or I know I know why. They always want the True Immortals, Rick. My grandbaby is a True Immortal! Those monsters always want them. Your mother wants you to do it, everyone probably does, but I just have to be honest. Please excuse my selfishness. Don’t give them my grandchild. I’m sorry to say that. I don’t care what they do to me, my love, don’t give her to them. We don’t bow to monsters, we’re-“

 

She started to say something else, but there was a loud shriek, and then the phone cut off. I sat there and stared out the window, stared at the calming way the curtains blew in the breeze. It was still broken. Lydia and Keila, two best friends that lived rough lives, would’ve badgered me about it endlessly if they knew. Somehow, that thought made me crumble, and I let myself cry before I got up to go.

 

 

Dude with the white hair paced back and forth at the gas station, waiting. I wrapped a chain around my hand as I walked up, cracking my neck. The gun was tempting to bring, but I didn’t want him dead before I found my mother and Keila.

 

The man barely looked up when I approached, tapping his foot playfully in a puddle. He had on a silly button-up shirt with cats dancing across. Everything about his mood and attitude was playful, unserious, maybe even mocking. 

 

“Let’s be informal this time. I’m Mr. David, and you’re Rick. Has Alicia killed the child yet?” The question surprised me, but I did my best not to react. “I’m sure she at least tried? Good. We can let it grow a while, then see if it can latch. Did Autumn test it out on her daughter, or did she change her mind as well?”

 

“Who are you helping?” I asked the ground, trying not to look directly at him. The rage in me was too raw; it wanted any reason to fire off. He let me finish wrapping the chain around my hand before he spoke.

 

“Myself, for the moment. Can’t help anyone as a hostage, can I? I hope you won’t take offense to anything I do.” I checked out the gas station. The windows were dark, but the flickering light of a small tv filled the store. A man leaned over the front counter, blood pouring out of his mouth, the show carrying on without him. I saw another pair of feet in the aisle, the rest of the body hidden between racks of candy.

 

OK, maybe the gun was a better choice.

 

“You have my family. Why wouldn’t I take offense? Am I missing some grand gesture of peace here?”

 

He chuckled, eyeing my fist. “I do have your family, but there’s a bigger picture. Someone more vicious has mine. And Alicia’s. And Autumn’s. No one here is working with the Shadows on purpose. Alicia seems to be the only one who thinks she can win this if she tries hard enough. The damn girl keeps trying to live a normal life as if a sea beast isn’t one step behind her. All she has to do is have a suitable baby. I told Autumn not to get involved again, told her not to get comfortable, but the women are always stubborn.”

 

“We don’t know any of you! We didn’t do anything, we shouldn’t be-“

 

“Don’t be a fool. You don’t know me, but I know you. I remember that husband. I feed Devils to my ’employer.’ You all live as though Jamie and his family don’t have the Syndrome. What did you think, that no one would come after them?” That hurt me. I thought of my dad burning bodies and aiming his shotgun at fleeing children. It never occurred to me that someone else was doing the same thing. 

 

“Do you think Alicia was even the first person to notice him? His work route drives straight through a place called The Mouth where some nasty things live and breed. I’ve watched him lowering equipment down, sending divers, doing research too close to us. There’s no way he just stumbled across it. I have a feeling he’s involved in something more dangerous than it looks on paper. Perhaps his job isn’t aware of what’s out there, but they’d been sending him and his little crew for months before I spotted him. I got ready to go ahead and bring him down there, and then Alicia stepped in and said she needed you all for her plans. Hadn’t seen the woman in years, maybe it made me sentimental. So I left him alone. If anything, she gave you an extra decade with him.” I was speechless for a moment, and then I tightened my fist around the chain. 

 

“Is the girl showing any abnormalities?”

 

“The baby?” He nodded, and for a minute, he looked more ashamed than I felt. I shrugged.

 

“I work for a ‘woman’ named Yenna. If we give Yenna the baby, it will solve a problem she has right now, and she’ll have an advantage over Alicia. We can all sleep better at night. You can negotiate your lives. It’s how I’ve stayed free all this time, gathering collateral. You’ll feel terrible, sure, but it’ll spare your loved ones. You lose some, you keep some.”

 

“The baby is one of my loved ones.”

 

“Like I said. Lose some to keep some.” There were no eyes around this time. No teeth. It was just me and him and a forcibly closed gas station under a darkening sky. 

 

“Why do you want the baby so bad?” We both stared at the puddle while he tried to think. Maybe he wondered if I would understand. I probably wouldn’t, but I wanted to know.

 

“Two reasons.” He paused again, sighing at the puddle. “Yenna has a new son. It’s already starving, but he’s lived longer without food than any of her other children. When Alicia finds out, she’ll murder him like she always does, and then we’ll have a million more problems. This one isn’t some secret kid – Yenna’s family already knows about him and believes in him. It’ll cause a problem. Alicia has to be controlled, Rick. I need to make sure she stays put. She can’t go to Anity, can’t send any of Autumn’s children in her place, can’t leave at all.”

 

“They know where she is already-“

 

I know where she is. I know about the baby. Yenna doesn’t even know that Alicia is back in the city and doesn’t need to know. She’s not taking the child or keeping your family, I am. And I’ll handle how we approach offering the baby, how we move from now on. That baby’s entire purpose is to set the rest of us free. I’m sorry to be the bad guy here, but you’d understand if you were in my position. Alicia is too emotional to save herself or any of us. My granddaughter likes to run from me unless she needs something, and doom me unless it benefits her.” We finally made eye contact, but I couldn’t see anything substantial in Mr. David: no emotion, no friendliness, nothing. 

 

“The second reason is that I’m exhausted. Tired of collecting Devils for that ditsy sea dog. Tired of Autumn and Alicia running from me, acting like I’m the issue. This plan is the closest we’ve had to success, and they keep letting empathy destroy it. We can’t do anything until the child displays symptoms or learns to Latch, but we never get to that point. Autumn falters, or Alicia changes her mind, or they disappear. Enough is enough.

 

“I’m sick of the mercy killings. I’m sick of Alicia trying to hide, sick of them making plans behind my back like I’m not stuck right with them, like I’m not someone who needs rescuing, too. I’m sick of all of it. There are probably 30 dead kids in the damn ground between the two, and they keep piling up. If they would just get over their emotions and allow the damned IMMORTAL ONE to be sacrificed, maybe things would be different. Instead, they cut me off completely. I’m not a fool – I’ve been watching Autumn and waiting for the signal to come. Alicia would never give Yenna the satisfaction of handing over an actual Devil, so I need to take the baby from her if it’s finally right.

 

“They’re wiping us out. Why doesn’t anyone understand that? We finally have a Devil, and maybe she’s another True Immortal, and we need to test Autumn’s theory. It’s time to get it over with.”

 

He held his hand out like I would shake it, smiling at me as if I was a scared deer. When I didn’t move, he cracked his neck and stepped forward, closing the gap between us too quickly for me to react.

 

“Those monsters at the docks are not the only ones. Do you know how much of an advantage they have from my captured loved ones? They destroyed everything I loved a long time ago, and all I have left are Alicia and Autumn. If you don’t help me, if you allow her to keep running, I’m going to eat your mother. I’m going to dissolve her into a paste, and I’m going to make sure she lives right up until the last moment. I already started eating them, but I can stop if I want. Your mother won’t grow her hands back. Jamie’s mother will grow her parts back, but I can retake them. If you don’t help me, I’ll devour everything you love.” 

 

My anger got the best of me. I hauled off on him, smashing my chained fist into his jaw. Mr. David stepped back, flashing sharp teeth, and I hit him again, pushing my entire body through my hand. Something snapped in his face, maybe his cheekbone, and the third time I hit him, one of his teeth flew out. I moved to punch him again, but he just stood there. He wiped his mouth, a line of thick black liquid spreading over his hand. An acidic smell forced its way up my nose.

 

“Why do people touch me? I’m so nice to all of you, and you put your disgusting hands on me. Rick, I hate having to feel skin; it makes me want to retch. It makes me want to dissolve you.” He spat the black gunk on the ground, punctuating a wave of anger that swelled and gulped. Every word he said turned black and fluid, gurgling out. The size of his body enveloped me in darkness as he moved forward, forcing me back toward the street.

 

“Bring me the baby? I like being nice, but Alicia is my child, after all, she’s not going to let me take it. I raised her better than that. I’m not dumb enough to walk into that house and try. She’s not like you weeping failures. She’ll have that baby’s head in the air before I get to the door, and then my head would be up there, too, wouldn’t it? Oh, you don’t know about that! You don’t know what real mercy is like, do you?” He spat again, and this time it was so white it erased the ground. 

 

“You don’t know about sacrifice, do you? Once, I walked into my granddaughter’s house, saw her sitting at the table, eating with another family, and Alicia slit her daughter’s throat before I could even say hi! Do you know what Yenna asked me to do to that family? What would’ve happened if she hadn’t done that? Do you know how it feels to harm my people, to have them think I’m a monster? To destroy my daugh- gra- granddaughter, my lover’s granddaughter? Do you know about confusion, Rick?! Do you know how it feels to stare at someone and not know what they are to you?”

“Hey, calm down-” He bared his teeth, and white liquid crawled out of his mouth, literally crawled, pushing into the skin of his face and spreading out. 

 

“You know, I love that girl. I don’t want to hurt her or you, or I would’ve just killed you and took the baby on one of your walks. I’ve been doing my best not to go anywhere they can pull from my head, not in the daytime. I keep to the dark, so they can’t see anything if they pull me in the sandbox. Bring me that baby. You should bring it to me, or I’ll kill everyone you know, Rick. Please bring her to me, OK?” He was so close now that I couldn’t see his face, just his chest pushing me backward. I stumbled, falling, but he grabbed me and pulled me close again. The white gunk sliding up his face was so pungent it burned the hairs out of my nose when the stench hit me.

 

“I’m trying so hard to be nice, Rick, just bring the fucking baby to me, or I’ll have to listen to your family screaming in my head forever, I’m sick of adding you simple cowards to my body, just bring me the fucking baby, or I’ll EAT all of you, do you understand you piece of shit human, do you get it, do you fucking get it you frail, inadequate human, do you get it, I will fucking eat all of you-“

 

“I get it!” Fuck, man, I was shaking so hard my body heat rose. I tried to step back again and fell for real this time, hitting the ground hard enough to smash my teeth together. 

 

Mr. David knelt on one of my feet, finally smiling again, and chuckled. 

 

“Oh, good! I’ll give you a few days to reconcile the decision. Talk to your friends. This is their only way out. Alicia can rest easy once I have the child, and you can do whatever you want! I’ll take care of the rest of the plan. And this will all be over. Tell her to find solace in that. She can blame me as long as she wants, I don’t mind! I just need that kid, and it’ll be over.”

 

Mr. David stood, shoving his hands into his pockets. Too scared to move, I watched him walk into the store, grab a snack off one of the shelves, and leave out the entrance on the other side. I waited there until I could hear my heart beating again, and then I pushed myself off the ground.

 

 

 There was never a time in my life where I didn’t know what to do. Even back when my dad left, I at least understood to protect my mother. Protect the people we used to hurt from assholes like us. Protect Jamie, protect Janna, protect Yvette. I knew those things. I knew to be there for my family. 

 

Whatever Alicia brought to us was something original. Or maybe it was something Jamie brought to us. Who knows. I honestly had no idea what would help, how to force things to be OK. 

 

When I went to see what remained of my mother and Keila at our old homes, there was nothing but a ton of blood, ashes, and mess. The way we grew up matched the way we learned to live as adults—two houses facing each other. My mother’s on one side, Keila’s on the other, and now they were burned to the ground. My heart wrenched when I saw clumps of Keila’s hair everywhere.

 

Fighters die fighting. 

 

The dumbest thought went through my head: but what will they come back to? And it was followed by common sense.

 

They’re not coming back.

 

I went home that night and put Erin in the bath. Got her dressed. Apologized to her over and over, slicked her hair back, apologized some more. Sat with her on my lap, staring out the window. My legs wouldn’t move. The more she wriggled and cooed, the heavier my body felt until I could’ve merged with the couch.

 

“What do you think, princess? You want to go with the freak?”

 

I couldn’t do it. Do you know how much I wanted to, how much I needed to bring the damn baby to the monsters? But I couldn’t. Keila in my head wouldn’t let me move, wouldn’t let me get up. Erin cuddled up against me and fell asleep, sucking on her onesie sleeve, and I just sat with her and shut the hell up. 

 

 

I woke up to an empty lap and shrill screaming: Erin’s and someone else’s. 

 

Groggy, I hurried outside. Alicia crawled forward over the gravel path leading to the street, Janna shook with my gun in her hand, and Autumn stepped backward with the baby in her arms. They looked and sounded like hell, the sky was dark with rain, and I wondered when the world would just end. Everything was silent for a moment, some lull in the chaos. Autumn gave me a startled look.

 

“Rick! Rick, listen, OK, you have to reason with her. It’s a nightmare. They- they- they’re destroying my babies. Destroying them!” 

 

“Janna. Put the gun down-“

 

Autumn waved at me, yanking my attention back to her. “I- I’ve been saving them from the pain. I couldn’t do it to Astley. I tried to send her away, and they took her, they were so rough, please! They have my baby. They’ll kill her!” This screaming woman wasn’t the picture of wealth and style that visited us that day. Snot bubbled out of Autumn’s nose. Hair clung to her skin painfully all around her face, red blotches spreading angrily. It looked like conditioner or hair lotion leaked out, dripping down her neck, the light rain targeting her like a punishment. Erin screeched in her arms, but Autumn held on so tight I worried she would strangle the poor kid. 

 

“They’ll kill my Astley if I don’t bring them the baby! Please! They said so, Alicia! I helped you! Look what it got me! You have to let me take the baby-“

 

“Kill her, Janna! Shoot her!” Alicia, too weak to move, threw dirt. She crawled forward like a soldier, sobbing. Janna just stood there pointing the gun, stunned silent. 

“If you wanted me dead, you’d do it yourself! You think I won’t tell them where you are to save my babies? Huh? I don’t care what David is keeping from Yenna. I’ll send them here! I’ll send them right to you, Alicia, I promise!”

 

“We don’t need that shit here, Autumn. It’s already enough-“

 

“They won’t hurt Erin! I’m sure of it, they won’t hurt her. They need her to grow. We can get the damned girl back, Alicia. I promise. I know it, I’ll do everything in my power. Please, I’m begging at this point, I can’t let them do this again. Does Astley mean nothing to you? You need her to be Erin’s Latch! What happens if they kill her? Huh? Will you just claim another one of my children? Do I matter to you at all?” 

 

Alicia’s skin was grey, her mouth covered in dried spit, and her hair was everywhere, but when she stopped crawling, we all listened. “It doesn’t matter. I told you, I don’t want to do it now. I don’t want to. I just want to live as normal a life as possible with my family-“

 

“It’s OK as long as it’s my daughters they’re murdering, huh? No. I won’t do this. I have to spare the girls. Please-“

 

No.” They fell silent, and Janna finally lowered the gun, confused. Jamie walked up beside me, still dressed in his work clothes, and it hit me that I had to explain things to him. I would have to tell him what was going on. 

 

“Looks like things got even more exciting, huh?” He gave me a desperate laugh, putting his work bag on the wet grass. For the moment, I couldn’t move. Couldn’t comprehend it myself. 

 

“Alicia,” I said lightly. She managed to turn to me, retching. “Someone has Lydia and Keila. They’re damn near dead, houses burnt down, the whole nine yards. White-haired dude damn near ate me alive last night. How long do you want to do this?” Jamie waved a bit, grabbing my shoulder to balance himself. I didn’t dare look at his face, but Janna’s was bad enough. 

 

The energy drained from Alicia, and she let her body sink against the gravel, grass blowing in the breeze around her. The royal purple of her long dress fanned in the wind like she’d failed to open her parachute during a skydive. The gravel crunched as she rolled her face in it, speaking to the dirt.

 

“How long do I want to do this? I don’t, Rick. I want you to help me. I want someone to help me.” I moved closer, holding my hands up. Who knew what Janna would do to protect her master. 

 

“I can’t help you against this. I wish I could. I mean that.”

 

Alicia’s defeat was final. It soiled the ground and spread out, holding each of us in place. She sucked in a deep breath, gravel and dirt and air, and whimpered. 

 

“Why am I always the one that loses everything?” she asked the gravel, closing her eyes. “Why am I always to blame for dead parents, dead siblings, dead children, dead friends? What did I do to deserve it?” 

 

Janna sat down and rubbed Alicia’s back. Autumn went blank but loosened her grip on the baby. 

 

“If it’s not you, it’s me, honey. I know the feeling. You know I do. Entire cities have died because I lived. And I’ll take the blame this time, Alicia. I’ll take it all from you if you just help me save my child.”

 

“What a silly woman. Astley’s dead already. You know better.” The wind howled, covering Autumn’s wailing, and Jamie finally walked over and took the baby. I grabbed Autumn and let her scratch and cry, let her slob all over my shirt. When the wind eventually died down, Jamie walked inside, and Janna followed. Autumn walked off, hands hung at her sides, body limp with sorrow. 

 

I sunk next to Alicia, cradling Erin. 

 

“It’s been like this your entire life, huh?” Erin coughed, and every single one of Alicia’s veins turned white. She rolled her face in the dirt.

 

“An old friend of mine left me an apartment downtown. I gave it to Janna a while back. Why don’t you all go there? The Shadows won’t bother you there, not even a little. It’s a bad place for them, historically. They’re afraid of it. Take Erin with you. Take care of her.”

 

“What are you gonna do, then, huh? Sit here and wait for monsters to come take you?”

 

“I don’t care as long as they don’t take my daughter.” She turned to look at me, dirt and gravel stuck to her face. “You wouldn’t understand.”

 

“Make me.”

 

Alicia groaned, but she grabbed my leg and started talking. “My first daughter was human. I knew before she was born that I would use any Devil I created to further my plans. To save the people I needed to save. I knew I would let them be devoured for the greater good. But she was just a little brown human, and she was so lovely. I looked at her, and then I couldn’t see anything else. I couldn’t part with that angel even if she did turn out to be a Devil. 

 

“When she died, I couldn’t imagine loving again. And I haven’t. Child after child after child, I had a harder time attaching to them. What’s the point? Then I saw that eye. I pushed out that little monstrosity. Erin’s the first Devil I’ve ever been able to produce, and I can’t do what I said. How was I supposed to know it would feel like this? No one else will love her, Rick. She is a monster. She’ll wear black leather gloves while everyone else gets white satin, just like me. Why should she suffer so her elders can have peace? It’s not fair. No one understands but me.” 

 

I pulled Erin’s hat further down over her tiny goddess braids. We watched her wriggle around, messing with her eyepatch, and then Alicia grabbed my leg. 

 

“Don’t do it. Please. I know you want to, but I’ll figure something out if you give me time. Just let the poor girl be. I need you to do that for me, Rick. You’re so strong and kind. I knew you could help me the minute I met you. Please.” She fell asleep, all of her energy finally sinking into the dirt.

 

The day I betrayed Alicia, I woke up sweating. I knew I was going to do it. Knew it right in my fucking feet, knew it all the way to the top of my head, and I hated myself for it. The sound of my mother’s mock-bravery, the feel of Autumn’s nails digging into my skin. The white mess crawling up Mr. David’s face, it all combined in my head, and I said, fine. Fuck it.

 

I can’t be everyone’s savior. Jamie and Keila were the people I chose a long time ago, and I wasn’t going to give them up. So I had to betray her.

 

Was I betraying Alicia or Erin? 

 

I picked the little princess up out of her bassinet, glancing at Alicia on the floor. She smiled at me, a weak and ugly smile that didn’t fit. Another day wrapped in blankets, groaning in pain, barely able to move.

 

“You’re gonna die.”

 

“I’ve already died twice today. Another time won’t hurt me.”

 

Every word she spoke wrangled through mucous lodged in her throat. I sucked in a deep breath, wondering what to say. Would it be better if I just left and let them think I was taking Erin for a walk? 

 

“We have to give her to him, but I promise I won’t abandon you. We’ll get through this together, all of us, even your friend. I’m going to take Erin now. I’m sorry.” Alicia’s shocked and wounded face made me shut up, but I kept moving, trying not to look at her. 

 

Why does this feel so bad?

 

“You can’t. Rick, you’re supposed to be the strong one. I know you’ll do what’s right. She doesn’t deserve-“

 

“That doesn’t matter. We can’t handle this. Would you rather everyone else die?”

“Is that what you think will happen? She’ll die? She won’t die, Rick. She can’t die, not like you do. You all can die, but she can’t. She’ll suffer. The things they’ll do to her, you don’t understand!” Alicia pushed herself up too quickly for me to back away. 

 

“Hey-“

 

“We’re not like you. I understand you want to save your loved ones, but- but at least they just die, Rick! She’ll survive, and they’ll torture her! If she’s a True Immortal, you’re dooming her to a fate worse than death!” Alicia stormed forward, reaching for Erin, but I shoved her as hard as I could. Her ankle twisted bad, letting off a loud crack. Whimpering, she jumped back up, darting at me. I shoved her again, trying not to let anger get the best of me. 

 

Even when I put Erin down on the bed, Alicia lunged at me, hissing and whining. It took a punch to the face to get her down for even a minute, and she got right back up and flung herself at me. 

 

Where did all the strength come from? The way she jumped, the way she clawed at me, you’d think she was at the peak of some wrestling career. She thrust her elbow into my face. I slammed her to the ground, pressing my foot into her chest, and she still clawed through the skin on my face and neck. All her words came out as whiny gasps, pleads, begging.

 

“Don’t do this! You can’t! You don’t understand what will happen to her-“

 

“You were going to do it first, right! It’s the whole reason you had her!” She froze, then dug her sharp nails into my stomach. I cried out, pressing my foot harder into her chest. 

 

“Please! Please, I told you I changed my mind, please!”

 

“No, you don’t get to fucking do that after you ruined our lives! Either let me do this and take my help or find another group of idiots to trick! Have a baby with someone else’s best friend!” I grabbed Erin and moved backward, dragging myself over to the stairs, and she lunged at me again. I gave her one last good punch, maybe a little too hard, and she rolled back into the room, screaming her head off. I scrambled out, slammed the door closed, and backed up the stairs. 

 

“Watch out!” Jamie yelled behind me. I jumped out of the way, and he pushed one of my $6000 couches down, jamming it in front of the door, and then Alicia was slamming herself into it.

 

She wouldn’t stop laughing. 

 

“Oh, the karma! It always gets me! You always get me, Yenna! You just keep getting me. You keep fucking getting me!” The sound of her nails sliding down the door, of her feet slipping, the damn whimpering, it all went on forever. I held the little girl, messing with her patch, and for a minute, I couldn’t think of what to do next. How was I supposed to explain to Jamie that I had to get rid of his daughter?

 

Jamie sat on the stairs, clapping his hands together over and over. The damn woman wouldn’t stop screaming at me.

Rick! You shouldn’t. I know you hate me, I know I did terrible things, but you shouldn’t do this. You like kids. You want a kid, you want one, you know this is wrong! Erin didn’t do anything. She’s mine, please, she’s mine, she’s mine, she’s mine. Please. Please, I’ve wanted her for so long, please! You don’t know what they did to my babies, she’ll put her in the water! She’ll drown her, Rick. She’s not ready. She needs a Latch, please! Please!”

 

I turned to Jamie, still rocking the little girl, still listening to the little noises escaping her throat, wondering how I was going to do it. “I love you, man. I love you. If you don’t want me to do this, I won’t.” Janna whimpered behind me, holding herself. The baby cooed, a sweet little dark infant wriggling in my arms. Alicia screamed again, another bloody wail, and then laughed until the sound turned scratchy and wet.

 

“What else are we supposed to do?” Jamie whispered. I snuggled the baby closer, trying to convince myself to move. 

 

He stood, gave me a look of pure agony, and walked up the stairs. I turned, ready to comfort Janna, but she was gone, too. The baby wriggled again, her tiny hands gripping my shirt. 

 

I sat on the steps and rocked until she fell asleep.

 

 

The kid’s name was Erin, and she was unique. She wasn’t a J or an A. Wasn’t an Au or an Ast or anything like that. I tried to think about all the things she was and wasn’t as I approached the white-haired man, doing my best to look out for the bloated people. 

 

There was a spotlight on him, or at least it felt that way. No one got too close. You could see him damn near a block away, that hair blazing under the street lamps. I’d seen a lot of Chastain Pier because of Jamie’s job. Not sure how I didn’t notice all the bloated people, all the horrors walking around.

 

Mr. David sighed when I reached him, pissed. I couldn’t understand it. Didn’t he ask me to do it?

 

“She fought,” he muttered, going over the deep scratches covering my face and arms. “Of course. She always wanted a Devil. Always wanted a family.” He looked at the thin skin above my eye, holding in a second sigh. 

 

“What are you going to do with the baby?”

 

“Why is that always the question?” he damn near spat. “Why do you all ask that after it’s too late? Does it matter now?” He held out his arms. Erin was dressed like only Alicia’s daughter would be, a little tiara on her head. I gave her a bath with all those unscented oils her mother kept, put her in a cute red onesie with gold trim that I found in her room. Even with the eyepatch, Erin had more style than I held in my pinky. I gave her over as gently as possible, not wanting to wake her up. Not wanting to be the last thing she saw.

 

Mr. David held her carefully, admiring the patch. 

 

“Don’t move it,” I warned, and that’s all I gave him. 

 

Man, I felt like shit. Felt like the worst person on the planet. And then his eyes went wide, and he stepped back and fell into the water with the kid. He fell back into the water, and Alicia burst from behind me like someone’s animal, like a wild beast, swinging a machete as if everything around her belonged in halves. The sharp blade missed me three different times, so close my hairs probably split. She aimed for the bloated people around Mr. David, cutting them down so quickly and messily that I couldn’t speak before their limbs hit the ground. I couldn’t move before she was slicing into the next one, and then she was screaming at me to get her baby out of the water. 

 

Don’t ask me why, but I grabbed her instead. She pulled me forward, dragging me off the dock, flinging the machete at Mr. David as he did his best to keep the baby above water. She swam with all her might, screaming out bubbles, too frantic to get anywhere.

 

“You hypocrite! You confused traitor! That’s your grandchild! She’s your blood! Please!” Nothing she said made sense soon, everything growls and grunts. I tried to stay above water, grabbing the dock, but she pulled forward again, yanking me off. 

 

“Ali- Alic- Stop!” The man had a machete embedded in his shoulder and a drowning baby in his hand, but Alicia kept going. I let go of the dock and pushed after them, and then I stopped. 

 

What was I doing? What was I going to do? Was I giving Erin to the monsters or saving her? I floated for a moment, tasted blood in my mouth, and then swam back to the docks. I didn’t leave, though. It felt wrong.

 

I stood out there waiting for over an hour. A couple of times, a scream rang out, and then a big burst of red shot into the sky.

 

Alicia waded through the water further up the shore, arms hanging, bloody from places I couldn’t see, and collapsed on the sand. She didn’t move. I waited for so long, and she didn’t move. There was no sign of the baby or Mr. David.

 

I don’t know why, but I picked her up and carried her back with me.

 

We found Astley later that night in my backyard, her throat caved in. Clothes ripped to shreds. Mouth wrenched open, paper stuffed inside. Jamie was the one to call Autumn, and I could hear her screaming crying through the phone. She was there in less than an hour, pounding on the door, screaming against the wood.

 

Janna wouldn’t let her out back to see the body. I couldn’t console Autumn, couldn’t even get her to move off the ground. Jamie just sat on the floor, winded. 

 

“You let her die, you let her die, you let her die! ALICIA! Come down here! Come here, you coward!” 

 

Alicia walked out of the bathroom, and she wasn’t sick anymore. She stood in the doorway with her hair trailing down to her ankles, with her eyes wide and clear. A long red dress wrapped tightly around her body, long nails trimmed and filed. Autumn stopped screaming. There was no emotion on Alicia’s face, nothing even close to expression. 

 

“Oh, honey. Don’t. Don’t go, please. Don’t leave me like this again, not now!”

 

I knew we were looking at the real Alicia. The one she didn’t want to be, the one she’d been hiding from the last decade. She knelt next to Autumn, tilted her chin up, and spoke.

 

“Well. You all want to give in and play this game? We might as well play it properly. I’m going to need that baby in you, Autumn, and I don’t want you near her. You won’t destroy my property. I’m not asking this time.”

 

We didn’t get anyone back. Not one living person. Maybe Astley counted as the only one we received closure over. At least we had her body. 

 

My mom’s arm sat curled up on Jamie’s porch the next day, the severed end wrapped in a chunk of Keila’s hair. ‘Rick and O’Shea‘ blazed up at me in red, tattooed in cursive on her bicep. I saw her smirking face staring down at me as a kid, laughing when I asked if it would hurt. 

 

“Things hurt sometimes.”

 

Can’t tell you if I reacted or didn’t, honestly. The air went out of my chest, the floor came up at me fast, and then Janna was fanning my face, lips squeezed tight with worry. Every time I tried to move, she gripped me harder, and finally, I gave in and let her cradle me. 

 

The next day, I walked outside and tripped over two severed legs, one dark like Keila and one light like Lydia. By that evening, there was another arm. 

 

“Looks like he doesn’t respect your decision, Rick. Shadows take an arm and a leg for betrayal. Oh, who would’ve thought that giving in to a monster wouldn’t go as planned,” Alicia muttered, piling the limbs in the corner of her living room. “Here you are with a bunch of parts and no mother, and here I am with no daughter. What a noble act you performed, Rick.”

 

“He said they would leave us alone if I gave her to him! He said you wouldn’t have to worry-“

 

“And yet.”

 

I tried to speak. Tried to think of anything to say. Alicia just patted my back and led me outside to see Jamie packing the car. 

 

“You’re not coming,” I managed, and she smiled. It was an empty, blank smile. 

 

“No. It doesn’t look like you all will do me much good. Janna will take you to the apartment, and you should be safe there. I wish you the best.” 

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen. I was afraid! I-” 

 

“Don’t worry. You don’t owe me anything. I’ll make sure no one comes after you. They want me and everything that makes me happy. You don’t fit the description anymore.” She strolled back inside, waving me away when I protested. The pitiful man I was becoming, he let me get into the car and leave that woman there to the monsters and body parts. I imagined the defeat that weighed her down to the sand on that shore and couldn’t get her screams out of my head. There was this frantic urge to get Alicia to come with us, to get her to feel protected by us again.

 

Alicia let us go, but I felt aches of guilt in every muscle without looking at her. Just the thought of her sitting alone, wondering how to deal with this life she lived. 

 

Abandoned again.

 

We went to the penthouse apartment in the city. It was insane that anyone owned something so lavish. $6000 couches were nothing compared to the type of furniture she had there, to the gold leaf lining the baseboards. Shit, the fridge was more expensive than the value of my entire life multiplied by two. The guilt didn’t subside, and neither did the sight of Keila and Lydia’s limbs in a pile or Astley dead in the backyard, the poor kid wrung out; the thought of Erin being harmed; the bruises I gave Alicia. All of it went from my muscles to my organs, spread around everywhere until I sunk down in front of the windows and stared out at downtown Chastain.

 

“You couldn’t know he was lying. How the hell were we supposed to know? You did your best. Maybe we can be the ones to save our moms,” Jamie said to himself the first night, staring at the sky. For the second time in my life, I wondered why his family dealt so well with grief. Lose a father, shed a tear, and never mention him again. Lose a daughter, don’t even cry. Just move on. There was something about him, Yvette, and Keila that I wasn’t getting, but it was too late to wonder.

 

Even with our worlds falling to bits, living in the apartment felt like childhood. Felt like sitting in the backyard and picking worms out of the ground, surrounded by the night sky. We spent many nights sitting near the big windows that lined the walls, staring up at the stars, telling stories about Keila and Lydia. Losing them just didn’t feel permanent. Even with the arms, even with the burned houses, I felt in my heart that we’d get them back.

 

Alicia didn’t say they were gone, and that meant a lot to me for some reason.

 

The first few months were hard. I expected things. Expected to walk out of the house and find my mother’s body parts. Expected to hear from Alicia and be sucked back into the terrible world she was surviving. Nothing happened. After a while, I stopped expecting and started worrying and imagining. And after long enough, I worried about Alicia, too. 

 

Life went on. We all tried our best, man. Jamie kept going to work, avoiding fieldwork in favor of teaching at the university instead. Janna decorated the place, delved deep into forgetting Alicia. I went to work but tried my best to be home more often than not. There was hopelessness to it all, but we kept going, and time went by faster than I expected. No one bothered us at the apartment. We didn’t try to venture any further. I looked at a few houses out in Rex, but there was always someone odd watching. Maybe it was in my head. The only place we could be without eyes was the apartment. Felt like the area was blessed or some shit.

 

Our eighth month there, Alicia called. I dipped into the bathroom for some reason, closing and locking the door before I answered. There was a strange noise in the background on her side. It sounded like dripping.

 

“You OK? Where are you?”

 

“It’s not fashionable … to listen to me, but your wife needs my blood. She’ll die soon,” she struggled, almost wheezing. I heard heels clicking against wood, the sound inconsistent and heavy, and wondered where she was. If she was off somewhere fighting her family and her past. 

 

“Looks like she’s doing cool so far. Are you OK, Alicia? Do you need help-“

 

“There’s a fair amount of my blood … around that apartment. Too much of it soaked into the floors and walls. I’m sure it’s tiding her over, but she’ll need more soon, or that’ll be that.” I walked out to the living room and glanced at Janna on the couch, crocheting something small, still making clothes for Erin. 

 

“What should we do?”

 

“I happen … to have a lot on hand at the moment … Send Jamie to meet his sister at Lostine Pier for more. I don’t want to see your face.” She hung up, and I sat next to my wife, slightly dazed. I’d wanted to ask how Alicia was doing. If she’d heard anything from my mother. Or Autumn. Or anyone. But I didn’t. I just sat there and watched Janna’s fingers twirl and twirl. 

 

 

Two entire years went by without a word from Alicia. Occasionally, my phone would ring, and someone on the line would just sit there, softly breathing. Once, and only once, a small voice said, “We’re alive, Rick.”

 

Jamie started disappearing a lot, but I didn’t question it. He lost his kid; the least he could do was adopt an odd behavior. Our relationship grew a little strained. The guy was jolly, man. Just always jolly and getting jollier, and I didn’t understand it. Even without the thought of Keila and Lydia, Erin was gone. There was no telling what they were doing to the poor girl. I had nightmares about her tiara floating in bloody water almost every night, Alicia screaming her head off in the background.

 

Around the end of year two, it was hard to keep Janna off of me, and then she was stripping in the living room when we were alone. We fucked, staring out the window at the sky, camping out like we were on a mountain. If you turned off all the lights, it sorta felt like being in the air, fucking while floating around the stars. 

 

“We need a baby,” she kept saying. The words tumbled out of her when she rode me. They struggled out when she buried her face in my shirt and ground against me. 

 

“With all the shit going on?” I grunted, trying to pull her face up, trying to connect with her. The longer we spent away from Alicia, the more she became herself again. I guess I stopped worrying that her ideas weren’t strictly her own.

 

“Of course. We need to keep going, Rick. We should keep going.”

 

A few months later, I couldn’t get her to even sniff in my direction. She stopped saying we needed a baby. It turned into a dead, empty, “We should talk to Alicia.”

 

 

There was a small knock at the door one day while I dressed for work. I opened it, not thinking at all, and there was Autumn. The glamourous version, all dressed up and pretty. 

 

And there was Astley.

 

Seeing her put me on my ass, and I crawled backward like a crab, terrified. It was the dead girl unless Astley had a twin, but I knew better than to rationalize. It looked like she’d even had a growth spurt, but it was the same kid. 

 

“You’re being rude,” Autumn grumbled, stepping inside.

 

“How the fuck is she alive? You survived,” I said, calmer but having trouble hearing around my heartbeat. 

 

Astley blushed. “Sorry to break it to you, but you don’t know me.” The voice coming out didn’t match the kid I’d met. It sounded older, wiser, much more sure of the world.

 

“What? Of course, I know you! You’re-“

 

“Look, dude, you don’t know me. It’s just a body. I’m-“

 

“Don’t explain yourself,” Autumn huffed impatiently. “It’s my business. You all get to galavant around the city while we stick to our rotten lives. You don’t get an explanation, honey. I deserve personal projects. I don’t care how any of you feel about it. Not you, not Alicia, not anybody.” Her eyes cut at me. I stopped, catching myself, and apologized.

 

“Just surprised me. I don’t … I don’t understand how any of this is possible, I guess.” Autumn nodded, appreciative, and held her head back. Preparing to say something she didn’t want to say, I figured. 

 

“It’s been a long time, Rick. I’m on an entirely different child.” She tapped her belly. “I’m here as a courtesy. You were kind to me during that little exchange, and I want to warn you before you get sucked into something you didn’t ask for again.”

 

“Great. What’s Alicia up to now?”

 

“Not Alicia. Jamie. It looks like he’s been up to it a long time. I’d wondered where all the information was coming from, and now I know for sure.” I sat up, doing everything to hide my surprise. Astley moved to walk over to the couch, and I winced, offending her so bad she stopped.

 

“You may know that I work for a place called Eon Tech. I’m here,” Autumn started, awkward and apologetic, “to warn you that Jamie has offered to provide information about Alicia. If anyone finds out that I know where Alicia is, I’m screwed even worse than I am with The Creature.” She waited until I nodded, too startled to do anything else. 

 

“You don’t know how bad it’s been these last few years. How bad it’s about to get. If David finds out about this … if my husband finds out? I suppose I can’t blame your friend, but he doesn’t understand what he’s getting into. No one important knows anything about you all. If he shut up, you could just disappear!”

 

“Jamie’s lost a kid. He’s not thinking straight. I’ll talk to him-“

 

“Hey, dude,” Astley said, looking me up and down. “Lost a kid? Do you know how many kids my mom has lost? Your friend’s a real idiot. That’s why we’re here talking to you. He thinks he can handle the shit we go through on a daily. I’ve watched my sisters get crushed, burned, even eaten. Do you think my mom wants to do this? None of us do. This isn’t a game for some bored Devil to push himself into. His little grudge against Alicia is going to get us all killed. We’re finally getting things done. Get him together, or we will.”

 

Astley was an adult woman trapped in a teen’s body. Whatever Autumn had done, this wasn’t her daughter, and she was more menacing than any kid should be. 

 

Autumn stepped between us, flashing a political smile.

 

“Be careful, Rick. I haven’t seen Alicia in a long time, but I’ve heard terrible stories. She did you a courtesy, you have to understand that. She did all of us a courtesy. Alicia is only this quiet when she’s trying to keep trouble away from the people she cares about.” Autumn gave me a small hug, bending down to reach. 

 

“Thank you both for telling me this.”

 

“Just make sure Jamie understands what he’s doing, and if he’s determined, make sure he doesn’t mention me. I can’t stomach anything else, honey, I really can’t.”

 

“Get your friend together,” Astley warned. “Alicia’s suffering enough. Take the clean break and move on. And look, my Mom already has the Latch in case Alicia has the new baby. You should just keep yours. Distance yourself from all of this. There’s no reason for you to be in it.” They gave me polite smiles before they left. 

 

I stood in the doorway for a moment, shocked. 

 

“Keep mine?”

 

All of a sudden, Alicia called every day but wouldn’t let me speak. Most of the time, she rambled incoherently, calling me a traitor and a coward and anything else she could think of. The calls came from different numbers every time, never the same area code, never the same place. Sometimes she just cried, spit seething through her teeth. Only once did she bother to say anything I could understand:

 

“There’s a knife … in my heart … and a man standing … outside my … safehouse … with a bottle of gasoline. Is this the life … Jamie … wants?”

 

The calls stopped as suddenly as they started. None of the numbers picked up, not even a stranger or someone to tell me that I had the wrong person. 

 

The dazed look on my wife’s face grew thicker throughout the pregnancy. I did my best to keep her aware, even going as far as quitting my job. I stayed home and took care of my girl, kept her off her feet, cooked and cleaned, and whatever else that would help. Part of me was afraid karma was waiting around her womb. Waiting to get Erin the payback she deserved. 

 

As far as pregnancies go, everything continued normally. Jamie moved back home to give us space, proclaiming the houses to be empty and untouched. I wasn’t ready to go yet. I couldn’t even work up the nerve to ask him what he was doing, asserting myself like his boss or dad.

 

“Maybe we can have another kid for ourselves after this one is used,” Janna said absently one day, slipping popcorn into her mouth. I didn’t respond. What was the point?

 

Janna stayed on the phone, not speaking, most of the last few weeks of her pregnancy. I thought maybe Alicia just wanted her company, but I heard a voice on the other end a couple of times. A couple of times, Janna nodded.

 

We had an average doctor. Even Janna’s water breaking happened on a quiet afternoon while watching movies, while I rubbed her feet. We went calmly to the hospital, and she gave birth to Osh without making a sound, not even a grunt, just staring straight ahead at the wall. 

 

“Failsafe … if we name him right, he can be a failsafe. She’ll need us again and come back. Almie? His name should be Almie or Arnie,” she whispered, curling up to fall asleep. I watched the nurses wipe him off, listened to his ugly screams, and nodded. When the nurse came around with the paperwork for his birth certificate, I wrote in Osh Snow.

 

Osh was a buff kid. Looked like he lifted weights in the womb or something. He had my father’s physique, it should’ve been a nightmare for Janna to push out. I held him with pride swelling in my chest, suffocating me. Every tiny part of his face could’ve been replicas of my own. He grabbed my finger with so much assurance that all my worry dissolved. 

 

“Can I hold him?” I turned, and a woman stood there, a huge black hat covering her face. It went out beyond her shoulders, the edge sharp as a blade. The shade of mourning ate up all the light around her, but it couldn’t eat my happiness. Even my guilt didn’t survive the moment, so I gave her a small laugh and shrugged.

 

“Alicia?” There was no answer, but she titled the hat to the side, listening. “Are we good?” Seeing her was crazy, almost impossible, but so much love filled me. I wanted to make sure she was okay. I needed to, but I just stood there with a stupid smile on my face.

 

“We’re well. Let me hold him, and we’ll be better. I let you hold Erin all the time. Please don’t treat me differently.” I handed my kid over without hesitation. Alicia turned to stone, part of the ridiculous hat blocking Osh entirely.

 

“He’s?”

 

“Osh.”

 

“You gave him a real name.”

 

“Yeah. Of course, I did. We’re all real people around here.”

 

“You’re so strong and defiant when you want to be. When it benefits you. That’s fine. Fortunately for this boy, I plan on protecting him with my life. As if he were my own. As if he were a replacement for my own.” She held him a little longer, the hat hiding her expression, and then handed him back. 

 

When she pulled the hat up, I squinted, then gasped. 

 

“Yvette?” My disappointment came too fast, and then anger, then confusion. “Shit, you sounded just like her! Where have you been?” Yvette smirked, hand raising to her mouth like a child. The giggles were agonizing, rocking through every part of her body. I tried to think of something to say, but the ugly way her eyes locked on Osh, refusing to even look at me, threw off my ability to speak. It took turning my entire body to pull Yvette’s attention back to me. 

 

“Did I? I’ve been practicing a little. Just in case.”

 

“Where have you been? Wait-” Before I could ask anything else, Yvette bounced down the hall, laughing. 

 

 

Osh made me bold. He made me remember my father, remember what type of man I was, and then I was ready to leave the penthouse. 

 

We moved back into our Chastain home, and Osh somehow had my childhood. Training. From the moment he could move even a little, I was on the ground play fighting with him. I tried to teach him how to make a fist in the first month of his life. Janna woke up, somehow truly woke up, and things were the way I wanted for a while.

 

“We’ll need your granny Lydia to meet you,” Janna cooed, jabbing him in the stomach playfully. He growled in response, wriggling in his car seat. The boy was always laughing or angry, nothing in-between. 

 

And you know, things might’ve gone on like that if I hadn’t decided to talk to Jamie finally. It was so easy to mind my business, so it took me a minute to work up the nerve. Then I couldn’t get Yvette out of my head, and I started thinking about my family, and I had to talk to him. We didn’t see much of Jamie at home, so I went up to his job at Chastain University.

 

The University has always been my favorite place. Something about the oblivious way students carry themselves. You feel their self-assurance either growing or dissolving over every inch of the campus, contaminating every plant, tree, and bench. The energy is unmatched. Jamie and I used to eat lunch together in the cafeteria every day, but I hadn’t been there in years. My job kept me in Lostine for the most part.

 

There was a vibe. Call me superstitious, whatever. I turned the hall to his class, and every step felt like lead. I could see him leaning over his desk in excitement when I got close, and then his eyes raised to meet mine. Jamie gave me too shocked a face to ignore, and that lousy feeling spread out until it met his feet. 

 

When I got through the door, I saw the gigantic man sitting next to him, chatting warmly. The hair on his head and around his mouth shone like gore, too red to be from anywhere but Anity. The red gets watered down through generations if they don’t stick to other Anity folks, but that original Anity red is like a fresh burst of blood from a cut. 

 

It took a minute, and then Jamie pasted a fake smile on his face and stood. “Rick, meet Lawrence! He’s a hematologist and a bi- biologist with a place called Eon Tech that the school works with sometimes. I’ve been doing some fieldwork for them. We were just talking about an- an anomaly out in Redbare Sea.” Like a nervous dork, Jamie laughed at his rhyme. His head was going to pop if and smash against the ceiling if any more pressure filled it. The man stood from his stool and smiled at me, the smeared blood beard pulling up and widening out.

 

“Yes, boring scientific banter. You look like more of a man of the world, Rick. I’m sure it wouldn’t interest you. You’re more … brutish.” It wasn’t an insult, not really, but I looked him up and down anyway. Lawrence had an irritable feel about him. Everything he said was a second away from whining.

 

“Yeah, man? You’re not wrong.”

 

“Good. We need someone like you on our side—too many curious men, not enough muscle. I’m surprised we’ve been working with Jamie for almost twenty years and never met you. He speaks about you often enough.” Jamie’s face fell, then the pasted smile got wider. 

 

Lawrence didn’t notice. “You should talk to him about what we’re doing, Jamie.”

 

“Oh, that’s not- um, yes, I mean … we’ll see.” The disgrace that filled the room was familiar—betraying Alicia familiar. Lawrence gathered his things with the urgency of a dead body, making sure to loom over me for a moment before heading to the door. They shared one last look.

 

“Give Alicia my best if you see her, Jamie. Not Autumn’s. Mine.” The way Jamie nodded, over and over too quickly, reminded me of a child. I waited until I was sure the bloodstain was far enough to actually leave, then punched Jamie in the chest. He doubled over, coughing. 

 

“What the hell was that about? The fuck are you getting into, man?”

 

Jamie closed the door, blocking out the rush of students heading out to enjoy their afternoon drinking. 

 

“Don’t bring this up to anyone, okay? Jeez, I didn’t want to rope anyone else into this. We have Osh. You need to focus on that.” 

 

“Right. So why are you putting us in more danger?”

 

“There’s no danger! That’s Autumn’s husband. I’ve been working with him forever; it’s barely worth mentioning. I didn’t say anything when we met her because … you know, they’re secretive. The company they work for is, I mean. I never work with anyone but Lawrence and some of his staff. You remember Yvette’s husband, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“He’s in charge there! At- at Eon Tech. It’s not just some lab, man. They do all types of things, and they asked me to research this anomaly in the ocean. That was so long ago. It’s not worth bringing up.” His hands moved quickly, running over his braids, tapping the table.

 

“I do know about that place, actually,” I muttered. “My dad had a few run-ins with their ‘scientists’ when I was a kid. Didn’t seem too friendly with your kind back then. They know you have Devil Syndrome?” He was quiet, then pasted that stupid smile back on his face. 

 

“Yeah, they know! They know about Yvette, too, of course. It’s not some evil society, Rick. How do you think I make so much money, or we were able to get the houses so cheap? They take care of me. I don’t tell them anything too personal. And if I need help, they help.” 

 

“Oh yeah? So before you ever met Alicia, you worked with this place?” He looked at the ground, searching for some answer, then gave up.

 

“We could get our family back, Rick! Seriously. I told them I might have something to offer, and they said they’d help me depending on what it is.”

 

“What do you have to offer?” Jamie fidgeted, finally letting go of the smile. 

 

“We didn’t deserve to go through the shit Alicia put us through. We’re good people. You turned your life around once your dad left, so did your mom. You all took care of me. We deserve some type of peace.”

 

“Great. So what do you have to offer?”

 

“Osh is going to be a great kid. We’re going to raise our families together. I’ll find another wife, and I’ll have my own kid someday, and-“

 

“What do you have to offer, man?” Jamie turned red, lifting his chin, and huffed. 

 

“Alicia and her baby. If she’s pregnant. I don’t know yet, but I tried my best. She visits me sometimes, who knows why. I guess she’s lonely. I bet if she is pregnant, she’ll have another Devil, and it’ll be a True Immortal, too. They’re looking for more of them. Everyone always is. They’re pretty rare these days, and I think Alicia’s like the last one who can have them. Shit, they’re looking for Alicia in general, have been for a long time. That weirdo you gave Erin to? He never told anyone about the baby! Autumn didn’t even tell her husband! I didn’t, either, but I told Eon Tech I could replace the True Immortal they lost a while back, a lady named Cora, and they said they’d help. Lawrence said he’d help.”

 

I winced. “So did you meet Alicia first? Was marrying her part of some plan or something? How far back does this go? Were you the one who put us in danger, Jamie?” He laughed a little, tapping the table faster. 

 

“It’s not like that. Eon Tech isn’t bad. They even- look, Rick, the anomaly I found? It’s full of these creatures. An entire undocumented species, and- and they- look, they can take human bodies! Eon Tech is researching some shit we’ve never even dreamed possible, and- and I know it all sounds ridiculous, but-“

 

“It doesn’t sound ridiculous. I met some of them, and they’re not fun, man. It sounds like this place is dangerous, and they’re using you-“

 

“There’s a big one, and I saw the damned beast with my own eyes, and you’ll never see anything like that on land, Rick. It’s- you should come out with me to- to see it-“

 

“Listen to yourself. You’re going to trick Alicia into getting pregnant and then give your second baby to them? Are you fucking serious? What are you saying?” Jamie gave me a frustrated groan, gripping his hair. It was a conversation he’d been avoiding for decades. 

 

“What I’m saying is that we have options. I can play Alicia’s game, too. I recognized her when we met. Eon Tech has photos of her and the other True Immortals at the office. Most of them are probably too old to have children anymore, but not her. They couldn’t get close to her, but she came right to me! She picked me!” The pride in his face swelled and spread down his neck, everything turning red. I tried not to grimace, but he sounded and looked off. 

 

“I even got her pregnant! I produced a fucking relic! And- and I can do it again, and then we can give them Alicia and the baby and move on! The Creature they work with isn’t bad. I’ve talked to her before. She’s sweet, even. They just need help. This is so much bigger than us. I just wish I could pull you in. I knew you wouldn’t understand, though. I don’t blame you.”

 

“They already tried that trick, man. How do you fall for the same shit twice?”

 

“That wasn’t THEM! Mr. David works with them, but Lawrence doesn’t know about Erin. I even hinted at it; he had no idea. I’m not gonna stick around while our mothers die in some cabin or cave or wherever he’s keeping them. It’s been a long time, Rick. We have to try something, or we’ll never get our moms back. Just help me find Alicia, and we can move on from this. She stopped talking to me months ago. I think she figured out my plan.”

 

I went home that night, and Janna sat on the bed, staring at the wall. Sometimes, it happened, and you couldn’t snap her out of it, not with a gunshot or a lightning bolt. Osh grumbled in her arms, wriggling around. I caught him before he slipped out, kissing her on the forehead.  

 

The house was quiet except for the occasional splash noise. I got a bottle of formula out of the fridge, making mean faces at Osh, then stopped. The splashing sound got louder. 

 

Is it raining?

 

A quick look out the window showed a clear dark sky. There was another splash, then a thump.

 

Fuck!” I listened to the voice curse again, walking around the corner. Frantic breathing filled the hall, all wafting up from the basement. “Please, just wait, just wait … dammit …”

 

When I turned on the light, my body instinctively stepped back. The ground shimmered with dried blood. It led from a broken window down the basement steps. I slipped downstairs, holding Osh close, listening to the heavy breathing. The basement door was only slightly ajar, but bloody footprints and handprints covered both sides of the stairwell.

 

“Jamie know you’re having the baby,” I asked, pushing the door open. Alicia slumped over the birthing tub, groaning and shivering in pain, trying to fill it. It looked like a bear ripped her clothes to shreds. One pupil shone like an animal caught in the lights from the hall, and her hair was soaked solid with blood. I put Osh in Erin’s old bassinet and helped start the water, lifting her into it. 

 

“Go … away … I can … handle it … I’ll leave … after … Didn’t know where else …” She yelped, grabbing the sides of the tub. The water swirled around her feet, and I helped her sit down.

 

It took a while to count the stab wounds. Each one webbed with thick leather flesh, some of them suctioning closed. It took longer for the shivering woman to sit still and let me tend to the injuries. I got a big cup and poured hot water into her hair, watching the steam fog over the walls. After a while, the whimpering got to me, so I stopped and held her until she calmed down.

 

“My dad used to come home like this. Said Devils like to cut when you make them mad. You out there fighting your own kind?”

 

“Don’t talk to me … about men … while I’m bleeding … I hate hearing … about men …” I laughed a little, pouring more water over her hair. 

 

“My mom used to come home like this, too. Less hurt, maybe. She’d come back with a bloody eye or cracked teeth, and then she’d just wave me away when I asked about it.”

 

“Of course … she did. Children shouldn’t be involved.” I nodded, smoothing my hand over her head until blood and water eased into the tub. 

 

“Tell me what happened to you.” 

 

Alicia paused, watching me fill the cup again. One of her pupils was small for once, normal-sized, but I didn’t comment on it. 

 

“It never ends. You don’t … want to … get dragged … into this.”

 

“Calm down. Breathe. Then tell me as much as you can. Look, it’s time to bathe Osh, anyway. I have time.” I went upstairs and got Osh’s baby bath, setting it up next to the tub. She slumped against the side, watching me swish the baby’s water until it was bubbly. Osh laughed as soon as his butt touched the suds. 

 

We let Alicia rest, blood swirling through the water until she was ready to speak. A long-nailed finger reached over me and rubbed Osh’s face. He grabbed her finger and wriggled.

 

“This scares me,” she whispered. “Children in bathtubs. Babies in water. I’ve gotten good at hiding it, but even watching you pour liquid over a small child’s head makes me want to hide and scream. I don’t want to imagine the things that happen to children in water.”

 

“What else scares you?”

 

“Affection; men driving cars when they’re angry; babysitters turning into beasts and killing my children. Specific things.” A wet cough ran through her chest and out of her mouth. “Lovers depending on me. Friendship. Things like that. Anyone that knows me suffers.” 

 

“I haven’t suffered. Not really.” She scoffed, motioning for me to pour more water over her back. It hit her like acid, the cuts zig-zagging into the tub. “I’ve seen a lot from the way I grew up. Wasn’t raised to run from fights. We’re too comfortable here, I guess, but if you would’ve just asked me to help you, I would’ve. I mean that.”

 

“I did. I begged.”

 

“I mean before everything started. Before we were already deep in it. You should’ve asked before you tried to trick us.”

 

She sighed. “My fifth child was wonderful. Somehow, I wanted to love her more than I’d loved my first, but I was afraid. Every time I looked at her, my heart beat until I bit my tongue. There is a creature after me, and it was at its worst then. I asked someone to help me once the monster found me and dissolved my husband at the time. A woman named Tracia Bishop. A woman who somehow had more power than a sea creature.”

 

“From Anity? Tracia Tracia?” Alicia nodded, twisting her bracelet on her wrist. Water dropped from it, patting the floor.

 

“The world’s favorite dictator. And oh, did she help me. Did she help herself find the strongest allies a tyrant could hope for, did she help herself to my vulnerabilities. If you ask for help, you give people the chance to understand what you can’t do, and they could use it against you if they wanted.

 

“She let me peel my child’s body from the ground outside her balcony before the guards came after me. They sprayed gasoline on me and that little body. ‘Thank you for introducing us,’ she laughed with my enemy next to her. Best friends for life, I’m sure. They nearly burned me alive. Every person I befriended in Anity burned alive, and that was before she realized I knew Autumn. Tracia has a thing for Autumn.” I poured the water over the tears in her back again, and Alicia grit her teeth loud enough to get Osh’s attention. Her finger shook in his hand. 

 

“I didn’t betray you. Not really. You were all going to die, anyway, Rick. David never leaves much behind.”

 

“Did you find us, or did we find you,” I asked quietly, wondering how much she knew about Jamie’s job. Alicia struggled to shrug. 

 

“Who knows. I figured maybe we would all use each other, and then it wouldn’t matter. Jamie was foolish enough to believe anything I said.”

 

I thought about Jamie at the school, chatting up an obvious predator. Yeah. He was foolish, wasn’t he? But Alicia thought she was smarter than him. Maybe if they hadn’t tried to trick each other, we’d be dead and gone already.

 

“What does Mr. David want with my family? Why doesn’t he give them back now, or kill them?” Osh’s tiny gurgles dominated the room for a moment. Alicia just stared at him, wriggling her finger against his hand. 

 

“He’s simply collecting leverage. That’s all it is. Adding value to himself so he’s always necessary. Keeping hostages so he always has allies, willing or not. If things get bad, he’ll add them to his body. It’s nearly impossible to look your loved ones in the eye and destroy them. I should know. He’s taken my father and grandfather, and he talks to me as one or the other, but I know now that it’s just David. It’s how he lasts. I remember … ” She stopped short, the words failing. “It was terrible, finding that out.” 

 

“Are they dead when he takes them?” 

 

She shrugged. “My father is dead. I watched him die in front of me. There was no saving the gunk left on the ground. Is it the same person if they pick up right where their body left off? I’ve never been able to decide, so he still affects me. My grandfather was alive, I believe. There are plenty of horrors Mr. David’s capable of to save himself, though. Copying people, dissolving them over time. Helping you with all his might, and then destroying you. Plenty.” 

 

I surveyed the curves of her face, stopping on the scar. “How’d you get that?” 

 

Alicia told me the story of her family being killed. She told me the story of Yenna. And then the bleeding woman told me about The Creature, about watching Yenna get pulled down into the ocean. She told me about coming up with her plans and telling Mr. David. Told me how she still wanted to die after all of that and how ashamed she felt to be so selfish. She told me how Mr. David stalked her for years, how he decided to turn on her in favor of her grandmother. She had to come up with the failsafe because of the terrors her grandmother and Mr. David put her through and how everyone seemed to help The Creature. How nothing ever worked in her favor. 

 

I listened without speaking. It dawned on me that I told her story after story over the years. I’d never asked what made her life story, what made her who she was. Maybe I would’ve seen all of this coming if I had. 

 

“I made the same mistake you did, Rick, but at a greater cost. Erin is a baby. Yenna was a woman. A growing, changing woman that made the mistake of loving me.” Osh burped, and somehow a smile crossed Alicia’s face for just a moment. 

 

“You took Janna. So protect her like you would’ve protected Yenna if you knew better,” I muttered. She nodded. “How do I help you? I want to help you. I don’t care what it takes, just tell me.”

 

“It would tickle me to see this little boy have a nice life. Wouldn’t that be the best outcome? A child around me that gets to enjoy their life, not just survive it? Autumn has two little girls that she’s pretending I can use for my plans. Neither of them will make it long enough. I can already tell. If the Creature doesn’t kill them, Autumn will. She’s going a little mad, I think.”

 

“Why don’t you protect them?” She rolled her eyes. 

 

“There is no question, but that doesn’t mean I’ll succeed. Autumn is so deep in this that she can’t stick a foot out, and I’ve been trying my best to throw her a life jacket. It’s hard. Autumn and her girls are mines to protect, sure, but I’m no good at it. I only decided on the concept once I met you and learned all about your little pacts. It’s hard to fend for everyone when no one is fending for me. I’m selfish by nature.” 

 

“You’re mine: you, that jackass husband of yours, and Janna. I’m helping you. We’re getting my mom back, and Jamie’s mom, and we’re gonna be good. It’s a movement now, dammit. Let dude come and take one of these kids from us and see what happens!” We stared at each other for a moment, and then Osh gave another tiny burp. Alicia laughed.

 

“If you want to make that mistake, I’m not going to stop you, Rick.”

 

“Does Jamie know you’re about to have the baby?” I asked again, and she sighed. 

 

“He probably doesn’t even know I’m pregnant. I didn’t trust him enough to tell him. There’s something unusual going on, and I don’t want to get blindsided. Not before I have the new baby to offer.” The words surprised me. I pulled her face up, holding her cheeks, and made her look at me.

 

“You’re gonna give this kid up, too? After everything with Erin? We can protect her!” Alicia laughed a little, twisting out of my grip. 

 

“I don’t intend on giving anyone important up. I never have. I’ve lost many, but I’ve never given them up. This baby … she’s not anything to me, so it’s not giving her up. It’s taking Erin back.”

 

“Yeah? That’s Osh’s best friend you’re talking about. Erin is, too. You’re gonna feel stupid when we save them both.” Alicia smiled, patting my head with so little strength, it felt like a bee landing. 

 

“Help me deliver Osh’s new friend. Help me.” 

 

Alicia gave birth to Astor Leona Free, and she named her one of those damn names despite my whining. I insisted on the middle name to a flippant wave.

 

“She won’t get to enjoy a real life, anyway. She won’t get to do anything at all,” Alicia whispered, only a little more tired than she’d been earlier. Nearly all of her stab wounds were closed up. 

 

“Of course she will. I told you already.” 

 

“I wish you were right, Rick, but you’re not. These last two decades taught me a lot. There won’t be any movement. I’m not anybody’s but my own, and she isn’t anybody at all. That’s a bargaining tool, not a baby. I won’t make the same mistake twice.” She refused to look at her daughter, not even for a moment, but she let me help clean up and get them in bed. When I tried to put Astor next to her, Alicia groaned and slid away. I held the baby while Alicia slept after, expecting her to be sick, but she wasn’t. Alicia’s veins didn’t glow. She didn’t turn gray, didn’t shake. No, she curled up in the bed with Osh while I tended to Astor’s first hours of life.

 

“Don’t listen to the big meanie,” I cooed at Astor. She was a quiet kid, didn’t even grumble or babble. Astor was probably just a regular old human. Her hair was long for a baby, but it wasn’t super long.

 

“You’re gonna be safe. You’re gonna be loved. You hear me, girl? My boy won’t let anything happen to you.” Erin was bigger. Astor had less charm somehow, maybe in how ordinary she seemed compared to her elder sister. Just a regular little brown baby with a ton of hair. I kissed her forehead, laid her down next to Alicia, picked up Osh, and went across the street. 

 

When Jamie came back, I sat in his living room with Osh. I asked him about the rest of his day, kept him busy. By the time I went back to my house later that night, Alicia and Astor were gone.

 

Nobody does hiding in plain sight like Alicia. There must be a second city under Chastain or something because I always felt close to her but never found a hair from her damn head. Janna wasn’t sick. She didn’t get tired or blank, and that meant Alicia was somewhere lurking around, but I couldn’t find her.

 

Jamie must’ve waited years to tell me about Eon Tech because he wouldn’t shut up about it. I was trying to find his wife and second daughter, and he was trying to convince me to turn on his family again.

 

“The place is called The Mouth. It looks like a black hole, like an actual hole in the sea,” he rambled to me one day, holding Osh while I prepped a bottle. Janna came downstairs, saw Jamie, and headed back up. 

 

“Oh yeah? That’s cool.” I moved around the kitchen, head throbbing. Alicia healed from her wounds, most likely. Maybe she wasn’t lying in a ditch somewhere, Astor slowly starving to death next to her. I knew Devils didn’t need to eat, but their babies were different. 

 

Erin ate. 

 

“The Shadows, they’re seldom there. Not visibly. They only need to feed on the Leviathan, and then they venture off to other parts of the ocean. Surprisingly, only a small portion come to land as humans. They have to be trained to do it, did you know that? It’s an honor to show them the ropes, almost like raising a child. To see them walk and talk, to watch them eat, it’s amazing! You wouldn’t suspect they were going extinct if you didn’t know about the Leviathans!” Osh stared up at him, mesmerized, and I wanted to ban Jamie from my house. The more he talked about shit in the water, the quieter my son got.

 

“Wow, that’s crazy.” Jamie kept talking, going on and on about the creatures eating. About the size of their stomachs, how they barely had one but needed so much food. I kept thinking about Astor growing up in a tent with fire-wielding men outside.

 

“So what, you work at Eon now?” He paused, giving me the courtesy of a long thought. 

 

“No, it’s nothing like that. I have Devil Syndrome, you know, they just … they like to keep an eye on us. That’s all. I help with the database and the training.” There was something there. Jealousy, probably. I handed him the bottle, and he fed Osh absently, sitting on the floor instead of the couch. 

 

I tried to motion towards the door, but he didn’t look up. Osh sucked hungrily at the bottle, closing his eyes. When he finally drifted off to sleep, Jamie gave me a sad look, twirling the bottle in his hand mindlessly.

 

“Where’s Alicia, Rick? Lawrence asked about it. They were a little more insistent than usual.”

 

“How so?” I took out a bowl of broccoli and started to rinse them in the sink, doing my best to keep from looking over. 

 

“They just were. I don’t think they’re as concerned with the baby as they are Alicia. Something about not being able to approach her themselves. I got to see some of their research into Cora. A few videos and a lot of notes.”

 

“Oh yeah? Her grandma, right? And?” He didn’t speak for a while, staring down at Osh’s frantic gulping. 

 

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s a reason Alicia won’t deal with them. They’re not so nice all the time. I’d like to stay on their good side, I think. As close to being their best friend as I can manage.” He bounced Osh slowly on his leg, staring at the floor with wide eyes.

 

 

The next day, Jamie came home with a bloody lip, most of the right side of his face swollen. Wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t even let me take a look at it. He just went up to my extra room and stayed there.

 

“Maybe we should sell the houses,” he said randomly a few weeks later. 

 

“Yeah? For what?”

 

“Time for a change. We should try Lostine, maybe. The Fanatics and such still aren’t so friendly further than Rex. They might be worse than before.” I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. 

 

Another week went by, and then Jamie introduced me to a real estate agent. She gave me a pumped smile, trying to hand me some literature, but I declined, taking Osh for a walk. When I came back, Jamie was sitting by himself on the porch, breathless and panicked.  

 

“Listen, Rick. We just have to go. At least away from here. I don’t think we should leave Virginia Steeps, not right now, but we just have to go. Maybe we can eventually get clearance to move to Lauryn? All of us because, you know. We’re all in this together.”

 

“I’m not going anywhere until you fill me in, man. Get comfortable.” He groaned, bunching his shirt up in his hands, exposing his bruised stomach.

 

“They’re bratty. It’s like … you don’t do what they want ONE time in nearly two decades, and they start hurting you. I didn’t think they’d want Alicia so badly. It’s not like she wasn’t right here this entire time! It’s not my fault they let her trick them. I’m- I’m supposed to babysit her forever so they know where she is? That’s really what they wanted?” 

 

I sat down, letting out a tired breath. “What did you think was gonna happen, Jamie? Did they seem nice to you? Any of those pieces of shit seem like good people to you?” 

 

He laughed, still holding his shirt up, and there was fatigue I couldn’t understand settled into his skin. It went deep down into his bones, barely holding him up, shaking through his flesh. I wondered how long he’d been so tired. For once, he looked inhuman. Old. Ancient, even.

 

“Ever since I told Lawrence about the new baby, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The minute I said I was trying to get her pregnant, the conversation changed from ‘what did your research at The Mouth uncover’ to ‘where was she the last time you had sex.’ And I don’t know. It’s getting rough. They liked it when they knew exactly where she was, when she was close. It was part of …” 

 

“Part of what?” He laughed a little, nervous. 

 

“Jeez, you won’t let up. You already guessed it. Part of what I was supposed to do. Keep her close and happy. Keep her out of Yenna’s hair.” He looked ashamed, playing with his hair and biting his lip raw. “Don’t look at me like that. Seriously. It’s not like she’s innocent. Now she’s hitting them with surprises, and I think …”

 

I gripped his shoulder and held it, trying not to get angry. The anger passed, and I just sat there with him. 

 

“I think Yenna—that Creature. I think Alicia’s trying to kill it, man. She’s screwing me over because- because Alicia wants blood for Erin, and she doesn’t care if I get caught in the middle. Every time she does a thing, they come after me like I knew she would do it or something. Now the Creature’s kid is missing! The fucking monster’s kid is missing.”

 

“She said she would kill it.”

 

“I’m dead if she did, Rick. Dead. Not even joking, they’re so serious about that kid.” We were silent for a bit, both of us staring at the ground. I patted his back finally, gripping his shirt a little. 

 

“You’re the one who’s been dealing with them this long. What are our chances? If we move, will they come after us? Fight or run?”

 

Jamie gave it a moment. He pulled his shirt back down and cleared his throat so many times I wondered if he was choking. 

 

“I’ve been doing a little more than I let on. With Eon and the Shadows, I mean. That’s what they’re called.” 

 

“I figured. So they’re not letting you go, I’m guessing? Not alive.” 

 

“No. So. I guess we have to fight. And we need Alicia.”

 

 

How the hell am I supposed to find Alicia?

 

When Jamie left for work, I followed him a while. Just long enough to make sure he made it there. Tried to stay in the area, but my boss called me in, and I had to handle business. I called Jamie and let him know I’d be back, and his voice cracked when he agreed.

 

“Just make sure you come back. Right on time, Rick, don’t stop anywhere.”

 

Half the university was locked down when I went to pick Jamie up. Smoke billowed into the air from too many places to pinpoint, all of it black and charred. Scared students rushed around on their phones, most of them somehow bumping straight into me. I hopped the police tape, damn near falling through a hole in the ground. Black smudges went from the sidewalk all the way up through the halls, all predictably headed to my best friend’s classroom. He wasn’t dead. I could feel it in my teeth somehow, feel it through all the gritting and clenching. Jamie wasn’t dead, but he couldn’t fight whatever this was. He was bound to be hurt, and I had to deal with that. 

 

Jamie’s classroom blurred in my vision, but it could’ve been a smeared canvas when it focused. Lots of blood, incinerated chairs and desks, a shattered whiteboard. The stool he liked to sit on at the front of the class burned in pieces across the room. 

 

My thinking wasn’t exactly catching up with the situation, and I burst through the doorway before seeing the woman. 

 

You could’ve suctioned the air out of the room when I entered that door. The woman stood in the middle of all the chaos, arms wrapped over her chest, brows furrowed in frustration. She focused on me slowly, eyes shrinking to tiny dots, pulling herself upright. Straight red hair pooled into a ball that stopped right below her knees, swaying back and forth. It was the red that did it for me—another Anity-red disaster sulking around Virginia Steeps. 

 

She wasn’t like Lawrence. Wasn’t related to him, wasn’t in the same wheelhouse as him. It felt like looking at the difference between Alicia and Yvette all those years ago. A predator and prey. There wasn’t a docile bone in this woman’s body, and even the length of her made me hold my tongue. The long moment she let go by before she spoke said a lot.

 

“I’m tired of this.”

 

“Me, too.” We stared at each other. 

 

“It used to be fun. Something like a game, I guess. I’m losing more than I’m winning now. Do you understand that?” I didn’t speak. The chummy way she talked to me, arms crossed softly, a small smile at the corner of her lips, it felt like manipulation. The chaos of the room betrayed her. 

 

“If you’re tired, maybe you should stop whatever you’re doing.” 

 

“Stop? You don’t know the entire story. This isn’t my fault. I don’t involve myself with so many humans just to have to come after them. What is the point if I have to do things like this? It’s David’s job.”

 

“Tell me where. That’s all I want to know,” I growled.

 

“Where?”

 

“Where’s Jamie?” Finally, the woman stepped forward, and I wondered if everyone Alicia knew wore heels the size of their forearms. Her legs swung lazily, one heel hovering over a stack of burning books playfully.

 

“Jamie? Why don’t you slink out of that cabinet and talk to your friend? He doesn’t seem to like me much.” There was some shuffling, and then Jamie shivered his way out of one of his floor cabinets, curled up like a baby. There was no immediate damage to him.

 

“Hey, Rick,” he said stupidly, hurrying behind me. I gripped his shoulder, letting my sigh of relief out without shame. 

 

“I want my child back. That’s all I want. I’m sure I’ll get the opportunity to crush Alicia’s skill into dust one day, but right now, I just want Bylas. I want him alive, and I need him intact, Jamie. He must be intact. This fight with Alicia is destroying all the work I’ve done, all the work my people have done. They’re starting to resent me for it. Too many are starting to resent me.” She didn’t leave room for us to ask questions or interject. A sad tone dipped into her words, but she continued to give me a warm smile. 

 

The Creature. This is The Creature Alicia told me about.

 

“We don’t have anything to do with that,” I started, but she kept talking as if I didn’t exist.

 

“People negotiate. I’ve learned that. Alicia loves and trusts you all enough to keep you alive. What do you want in exchange for my son?”

 

“We don’t have him. Go get him yourself-“

 

“I can’t get that close to her, you know that.” I didn’t know that, and she didn’t offer anything else. “Jamie. I pay you well. I don’t have as much control over David as I’d like, but I can at least get him to give you back what he’s taken from you. I don’t want to know what that is. I don’t involve myself in his toys.” She glanced around the room in exhaustion, stretching childishly. 

 

“We want our mother’s back,” I said, unwilling to let her dismiss them. “And I want Erin back.” Her pupils grew a little but ultimately shrank smaller. The pacing stopped. The playfulness stopped.

 

“Erin?” Jamie squeezed my shoulder. I ran my tongue over my teeth, tired of the games.

 

“Yes. You know who that is. You sent your little dog after us. Don’t sit here and pretend you don’t know everything going on right now. You’re not some innocent sea damsel. I want that girl back in one piece, or you can get your son back in a bag.” Tiny lights rose on her head, all attached to strands of hair, but she stayed perfectly still. Jamie cowered, sliding back toward the cabinet, but I stood my ground. 

 

“You’re not as silly as the others.” 

 

“No. Not even a little. And I want all of them back.”

 

“Will you help me get Bylas?”

 

“You get exactly what you give.” She laughed a little, tucking the little lights back into her hair. 

 

“Jamie? You’re a good man. Where is Alicia?” 

 

“A … there’s a shack on the beach. Near the pier. She’s there.” My disappointment was thick, but I didn’t say anything. Yenna never looked away from me. 

 

“You know, I do know a thing or two. I might even know a thing or two about you, Mr. Snow. Why don’t I hold on to Jamie while you talk to that banshee for me? I think that might be the best option.” She reached her hand out for me to shake, but I walked around her. Jamie protested behind me.

 

The door slammed shut in front of me, and I turned to face her before I felt a hand slide over my stomach. She touched my muscles, running the nails up to my chest, then let her hand sit over my heart. I tried to move, but she tightened her grip, and there was no mistaking her for human.

 

“You? Rick. I think I want to keep you. Would you like to be kept?” When I didn’t answer, she let her hand fall and backed away.

 

I left without saying another word. 

 

My house was burning to the ground. 

 

I had to appreciate the deja vu. Being a kid and lighting houses on fire with my dad, shooting whoever ran out. Killing Devils left and right. Watching Jamie’s face while we stared at his burning neighborhood, while we watched everything he loved burn down. 

 

I watched my home wither and buckle under the flames and just huffed a little. Karma. Deja Vu. All of it. Alicia’s house sat neat and tidy across the street, untouched by anything but ash. 

 

They can’t handle her out of that water, I guess.

 

Osh was in his crib at Jamie’s, knocked out asleep. Janna stood in the window, quiet, watching our house burn. She was out of it again, but maybe it was the trauma of the situation. I pushed my hand along her back and led her upstairs, taking a good look at my little pudgy kid. I kissed his forehead and went to work on waking Janna.

 

“They got Jamie. You want me to get him, baby? Or you want to get out of here and never look back?” I ran water over a rag, watching her. She didn’t react, just stared at the wall until her eyes watered. I wiped her face, shaking the rag over her nose. It took a minute, but she looked up at me.

 

“I know you want me to get him. You didn’t marry a punk. You married a troublemaker, didn’t you?” She nodded a little, trying to comprehend my words. “And Jamie befriended a monster. And he’s gonna come home and protect you. The fucking moron owes me that much. Can you hear me? I need to tell you something.” I knelt, grabbing her hands. She kept staring at where I’d been. Slow and tender, I moved her face until she was staring into my eyes.

 

“I might not come back. I can almost guarantee I won’t. So I need to make sure you understand that before I set foot outside.” She sucked in a breath and finally blinked.

 

“What do you mean?” 

 

“I mean what I just said. I need you to understand that I will save our son from whatever he might go through. I’ll save Jamie. And I probably won’t make it out.” She laughed a little, confused, letting me rub the rag over her mouth. 

 

We both heard crying at the same time. I stood, pressing my back against the wall, and slid out to the bedroom. In the middle of Alicia’s king-sized bed was a little brown baby with a lot of hair. 

 

“Astor?” I picked the girl up, shushing and rocking her until she calmed down. A little note sat under her, tucked neatly in the blanket.

 

SORRY ABOUT YOUR HOME. HAD TO COVER THE MEMORY SOMEHOW. DON’T LET HER MOTHER SACRIFICE HERSELF FOR US. THIS IS ALL I CAN OFFER. – Autumn 

 

“Is that? Did Alicia have another baby?” Janna stayed by the bathroom door, worried. I nodded, smiling down at Astor, my son’s best friend. She didn’t get the Erin treatment, no little tiaras, no pretty fabrics, but the girl looked neat and clean. I made sure there were no marks or bruises, then placed her back on the bed. 

 

Looking down at that baby was a defining moment, I think. You had to burn houses down to protect anything that came from Alicia. Those monsters liked to toss kids around. They wanted to take anything from that woman they could get their hands on, pulling her all over the place. Even from the outside looking in, even just dealing with the falloff, I felt the desperation Alicia dealt with day in and out. I settled on it. This wasn’t going to be my life or the kid’s lives. 

 

“Really hate to leave you ladies, but it looks like I’m needed elsewhere. Do you understand what I said, Janna?” I kissed Janna before she could protest, ignoring her pained cry. It was better to leave while she couldn’t feel it. I held a little too long, maybe. Kept squeezing until I could allow myself to let go. Janna shivered in confusion the entire time. 

 

“I’ll get him back. Just keep an eye on the babies-“

 

“I can’t fight them! They’ll come back! They’ll-“

 

“They won’t. Just do what I said, okay? I love you, baby. I’ve never loved anyone more. You take care of these kids with your life.”

 

Rick!” I left Janna and the kids in the room, grabbed my gun, and headed out for probably the last time. 

 

 

The sky bled rain. 

 

There was a house along Chastain Pier. It was a lonely old house that sat untouched for years and years, collecting sand and salt and whatever else the sea had to offer. I walked around it and tried to see the pier from the porch. Plain sight. Just like Alicia liked it.

 

I imagined her sitting in that little shack with Astor, staring at the monsters that wanted them dead. 

 

The creaky patio overflowed with fragrant plants and herbs. I knocked on the door, and it opened with a slow creak, a flickering light somewhere inside. I’ve seen enough horror movies to back away from the porch. There was nothing but the sea behind me. 

 

I started to walk away, and then a little cough stopped me. I listened. Someone inside was talking, cooing maybe. I doubled back and went through the door.

 

A toddler sat in the living room, sucking on his thumb and staring down in wonder. He had all the marks of being cared for by Alicia – shining clean, dressed in the clothes of a royal, and generally plagued with good posture. I knelt, taking in the room. 

 

They haven’t come to get him yet?

 

There was no way they couldn’t have come in the time since I’d gone home, but he sat on the floor, arranging pieces in a puzzle. The shack was dilapidated, but there was a bin full of toys in the corner. A cartoon jumped around silently on a small flat screen. A basket full of hand-washed clothes sat on the couch. The kid scratched his head, ignoring me altogether.

 

“You okay?” He looked up in surprise, straightening, and extending his hand. It felt more formal than it needed to.

 

“Mm-hmm! I am okay.” I laughed, squeezing his tiny fingers. 

 

“Your mommy around?” He shrugged. We stared at each other a little longer, and then his pupils and irises shrunk down to tiny dots. 

 

“Ms. Snow is home!” He pointed at a door leading further into the house. 

 

“Ms. Snow? Is that what she said her name was?” I thought about picking him up but heard a long wail outside and patted his head. “Sit tight, okay? Don’t worry if you hear loud noises. It’s just a party.” I looked around, pushing the door open to a back area. 

 

The unmistakable cock of a shotgun rang out. I pressed against the wall. 

 

“If you think I can’t kill that boy from here, you’re wrong!” The voice cracked with fear, but it held steady enough for me to recognize it. 

 

“Don’t,” I said, and that was all I could say. It was all I could manage. My legs wobbled a bit, but I moved forward into the dark hall, breathing too hard to be sneaky. I didn’t care. 

 

There was a light coming from a room in the back, and I went there first. A soft voice cooed slowly, then gave an excited laugh. 

 

“You are going to be more than your mother thinks, little beauty! A True Immortal! My True Immortal!” My heart stopped, but it picked up so fast it hurt when I saw the old beat-up plaid couch. The woman sitting there had her head tilted up at the ceiling, talking to herself, both eyes swollen shut. Where there used to be hair, long strips of skin hung down, followed by leather blood strips that didn’t go anywhere.

 

“You’re even better than I imagined, my little Erin!” 

 

“Keila?” A smile spread across the woman’s face, showing off rows of empty gums. She laughed a little, still cooing. 

 

“It’s not like Sammie. I love her so much, but you’re special. You’re so special, little one.” I sat down. I cracked my knuckles. I moved down to the floor and covered my ears a moment, and then I decided to look, to really stare at her. 

 

Keila was missing everything. A torso and head were all that remained, and maybe eyes. I couldn’t tell what existed under the swelling. She kept talking to herself, laughing and cooing and sucking in painful breaths. The stubs at her shoulders shone white, almost fluorescent, and the color drained out of any skin it crept over. My vision blurred, but it didn’t make her look any better. The smell started creeping into my nose, and I finally let out a sob.

 

There was a creak, and then I looked up to my mom standing in the door. She balanced on the shotgun, pressing it into the worn carpet. 

 

“Don’t stare at her! She’s better than a pitiful stare. Come help me.” I jumped up, blubbering something incomprehensible, and grabbed my mom. The arm and leg were gone, but I knew that. I’d acknowledged that and came to peace with that. The rest of Lydia Snow was intact.

 

She let me help her over to the couch, protesting when I tried to sit her next to Keila. It was a quiet protest, almost undignified, like swallowing a tongue. I moved her over to the other couch, and we both sat there, staring at our hands. It wasn’t what I’d expected. The horror of Keila stifled anything I could do or say, and then it doubled down when my mom sighed.

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t try-“

 

“Oh, what were you gonna do?” She left it at that, fussing over my hair for a moment. “Quite the story we’ll have for your father. I’m gonna find him and make him listen like he used to. I miss being around protective men.” She leaned her head on my shoulder, swallowing. 

 

“Keila-“

 

“He’s eating her. Doesn’t hurt; at least it didn’t when it was on me. Burns for a while, and then it’s all just numb. Keila’s proud. The minute he put that baby in that room with us, I knew my old friend wouldn’t be there long.”

 

“Erin?”  

 

“We didn’t get a name at the time, but yes. Bless her heart, Keila is a got damn menace when it comes to kids. Wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t let him near the kid. Fought him day and night. She stopped healing a good year or two ago, and then that fungus just went to town. Refuses to Latch to me, wouldn’t Latch to Sammie. Won’t die.” There was more pride and admiration in her voice than sadness, but I couldn’t adopt the feeling. I helped my mom sit up, already calculating the prosthetic cost, already trying to wipe Keila’s injuries from my mind and replace them with machinery. My mom moved with as much ease as possible, used to the absences. 

 

I wanted to tell her about Osh. It sat in my throat, and then I couldn’t.

 

“Alicia got us out of there. Been working on it for years, losing chunks of herself at a time to do it. I wanted her to take us somewhere far away and disappear, but she said she’s gonna settle it with the monsters. Stubborn idiot just like the rest of you.” She adjusted, touching her arm absently. 

 

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” I ducked before she could swat my head.

 

“Hush! Be sorry for yourself. It was a mistake to ask you to comply with them. I’ve watched your father behead Devil after Devil and still fell for the trick. You don’t expect mercy from your enemies. You don’t give them an inch, and if they have the right to ask for it, you’ve already lost it anyway. Might as well fight.” The boy appeared at the door. My mother rolled her eyes. 

 

“I have to wake up Alicia’s little distractions. Strange woman. Go stop her from making a mistake. Don’t give those things another win, dammit, I want them to suffer. I don’t care if you have to slit that boy’s throat, don’t let them win.”

 

“That’s?”

 

“Bylas. Creature’s kid. Polite little shit.”

 

“They know about this place. They’re coming-“

 

“They’re not coming anywhere if they know Alicia’s here. Been here a good minute with this little shit in here.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out a thick rag, handing it to me. 

 

“Don’t drop that. I trust you, son. Take him and leave me to Keila. Don’t you dare sit around and let that woman go underwater. I don’t care what you lose, Rick. Stop this madness.”

 

“Want to go for a walk,” I asked Bylas, and he perked up immediately. I pulled him up on my shoulders, patting his legs, and we headed out to the pier. I could make out the silhouettes of a few familiar monstrosities before we even reached the boards. When I looked back at the shack, lines of people in masks lined up around the porch, more and more piling out.

 

From behind, a cloud of red dust seemed to plume from Alicia’s head, disappearing into the sky around her. She stood with her body snapped upright, Jamie beat up on the boards between her and the thick crowd of Shadows standing across the pier, watching. A long slit pulsed over her heart. She growled, more red dust pulsing from her chest and sifting into the air. 

 

The kid sucked in a deep, agonized breath when we got close. Alicia barely glanced at him.

 

“Quiet, boy. You’ll get your free meal soon enough.”

 

There’s no calculating a crowd like the one that stood staring at us, but they could’ve been nosy neighbors. A lot of them looked more curious than angry or ready to fight. There was some spectacle to it, some wonder. Mr. David stood with his head down in front of them. He only looked up when I walked over to Alicia, patting her shoulder, and then he let his gaze stay aimed at the floor. I couldn’t read what he was feeling but guessed shame.

 

A few of the bloated people got closer, but Mr. David lifted his hand. 

 

“Don’t. There are too many of you here as it is.” He walked forward with his hands in his pockets, a somber expression weighing his mouth down. 

 

“Just stay calm, girl. No need for theatrics. All we want is the boy.” 

 

“Come get him, then,” Alicia said, tapping her foot against the boards. Jamie motioned to me, nearly curled up in a ball, but I ignored him. Bylas yawned on my shoulders, and the entire crowd held their breath. 

 

“She really has him! It’s Bylas!”

 

“And we’re supposed to do what Yenna says? Can we trust a woman who loses her children so easily?”

Some of the whispers were hard to hear, but it wasn’t hard to feel the dissent in the air. Mr. David shut his eyes in frustration and tried to concentrate on Alicia.

 

“I won’t hurt you, girl. You know I won’t hurt you.” He wasn’t as vicious as he’d been with me. If anything, he sounded a little nurturing. Alicia softened a bit. Jamie smacked the boards, snapping his fingers, waving his arms for Alicia’s attention. 

 

“Just give them the kid! I talked to- to Yenna. They’ll let us leave after if you do. Clean slate!” Alicia eyed Bylas, and I put him down so she could see him better. He gave her a small, diplomatic smile. 

 

“This kid? Give them this boy that came out of my best friend’s body? Is that what they want?” A wave of anguish went over the crowd when she pulled Bylas close to her, yanking a machete from her garter. 

 

“DO SOMETHING,” someone yelled, throwing a ball of paper at Mr. David. He stood still. 

 

“I’m not in the mood for this, girl,” Mr. David finally said, his voice breaking. Alicia laughed, rubbing her hand through the kid’s hair. She pressed the machete against his throat until he gasped. 

 

“Hey,” I started, but I shut up just as fast. A hush went through the crowd that could’ve crushed us to death.  

 

“Rick! Bylas has to live! It’s not just about us!” Mr. David yelled. I almost shrugged. He was both pleading and trying to hold ground at the same time, eyes glued to the boy. 

 

Alicia waited for them to calm before she spoke again. “Where is my child?”

 

“Are you still worried about that girl? Who knows where she is?! Her damned grandma fought me until I threw the baby out the window. She’s probably dead on the ground somewhere!” 

 

“You already proved you’re liars. Why should she believe you,” I chimed in, feeling confident. Alicia nodded. “Is whatever you’re doing with her more important than a little boy? Why not make an even exchange?”

 

“We’re already beyond the point of bringing the girl back, Alicia. You should know it’s better this way. She won’t be harmed. I give you my word.” He tried to say something to her with his eyes, but Alicia just sighed.

 

“I don’t know anything. I guess that’s what makes me and your master different.” Alicia opened her mouth, then shuddered. She gave me a long, sorry look. “What if I offer myself? Will you give my daughter to Rick?”

 

“Hey-” I started to protest, but Mr. David beat me to it. 

 

“You shouldn’t do that.” A wave of outrage went through the crowd, but he held his tone. “Just give up the boy and move on. Jamie worked it out. You stay close, stay out of trouble, and we’ll be done when she’s old enough to do what we need her to do. That’s the best option.” 

 

I thought that maybe Alicia would cry. She looked over at the water, taking in her old tomb, and whimpered a little. “I’m already the meal it needs.” 

 

Far back in the crowd, I noticed a different type of disturbance. The top of a head moved forward, and the Anity-red hair was unmistakable. It moved slow, barely visible. 

 

“I’d like to spare my loved ones if I could. Wouldn’t it be better if you had me? Are you truly unwilling to give back my daughter?” 

 

Mr. David didn’t answer. Jamie looked like he would choke, staring at everything but Alicia. I knew him well enough. There was no way we were getting Erin back.

 

With a sudden jolt, Mr. David held out his hand. “I give you my word, girl. It’ll be fine.”

 

Alicia held the machete to the kid’s throat, still glaring, but turned to me. Decades passed between us. I could feel the anguish in the choice.

 

She’s leaving it up to me. 

 

“Alicia stays, and we get Erin back. That’s the only acceptable exchange for the kid’s life,” I said finally. “Or you can just come and get him.”

 

Mr. David didn’t miss a beat. “I’m not willing to allow any of those things.”

 

“You have to stop eating Keila. Completely.” Mr. David chuckled, giving the shack a long look. 

 

“I’m sorry. Snacks calm me down.”

 

I shrugged. “Kill him-“

 

“Wait!” I turned to see The Creature pacing further down the pier, hands clenched into fists. She stomped back and forth, pushing her people out of the way like mosquitos. 

 

“Give her something, Eric! Give her something!” She was far back enough to have to shout at the top of her lungs, nearly invisible in the crowd if not for her height. I wondered how fast Alicia was. Had she seen Alicia move before? 

 

“Fine. I can promise that no one will kill your brat if you promise to stay away from her. She’s still mine. I’m going to do what I said I would.”

 

Alicia sucked her teeth, pushed Bylas behind me, and stabbed the machete into her own throat. Mr. David backed up, pushing people back, and Yenna dove off the pier into the water, leaving a trail behind her as she jetted away. Jamie pulled his shirt up to his mouth, folding into himself.

 

I put the rag Keila gave me to my mouth and pulled the kid away, pressing his face into my shirt. It didn’t feel like enough, so I started moving, pulling him back.

 

A scream rang out. When I turned around, Alicia was on the ground behind Mr. David, struggling to breathe until she crawled into the ocean. Another person grunted, letting out a heavy groan. When I looked, it was Alicia in a suit, choking violently on her tie. I turned, and a kid jerked forward violently, Alicia’s face bulging out of the side of her head, the light brown of her skin darkening.

 

“It’s hard to behave when you all keep bothering me,” she said casually. Bylas grabbed my arm, terrified. A wave went over the crowd, every person sucking in a deep breath, and when they looked at me, they were changing into Alicia. Every one of them was changing or growing her limbs or face out of their chests and stomachs.

 

Mr. David bit back rage, moving away from the scrambling Alicia’s. Their skin darkened so fast, eyes growing, and then more and more fell to the ground. They hit the boards and stopped moving entirely.

 

Alicia just smirked and walked forward, red dust pulsing from her chest and throat. She waved her hand around in a circle, wiping blood on running Shadows, watching their bodies twist and transform on the ground. I backed up as much as I could, nearly falling off the boards. It was like a neurotoxin. They sought her out once they changed, crawling, grabbing at her dress. All the new Alicia’s choked and sputtered on the ground, gasping for air, creeping toward us. 

 

“Where’d she go? Such a rude mermaid, come see how good I’ve gotten at it! I’m sure you’re glad for the meals! You’ve been looking a little thin, Creature! I wonder if I can infect you yet? It’s been a long time since I tried. We should see what happens!”

 

“ERIN!” The new Alicias screamed the name at me, all frozen in anguish. Jamie pushed backward, crawling to fresh air, but there wasn’t any around. Alicia’s blood pulsed and swarmed around her as she walked. The skin on Mr. David’s arms darkened, cracking up to his neck, then turned completely white. The big guy struggled to breathe, falling backward, and every time his skin returned to normal, it cracked and spidered again.

 

“Oh, you’re so hard to take!” Alicia said playfully, holding out her hand and blowing dust toward him. He backed up, holding his breath. 

 

They were terrified. All the Alicias on the ground screamed that girl’s name over and over, writhing. They ranged in emotion from sad to agonized. 

 

“ERIN!”

 

It hit me. Right there on the boards, it hit me why they wouldn’t get too close, why she could hide in plain sight. They needed to know where she was. It was idiotic not to know where she was. 

 

I watched in awe, nearly dropping the cloth. The blood cloud concentrated, swirling around Alicia like a storm, giving me a second to breathe. It didn’t touch most of the Shadows on the dock, but bits and pieces of them transformed anyway. The crawling Alicias changed anyone they touched, spreading it further, and before I knew it, every Shadow on the dock was a copy. 

 

They had to go after the people she loved. They had to keep her calm.

 

She cut down anyone who changed too slow, damn near singing in joy. I could see the energy draining out of her, though. Her steps got heavier, pushing her bare feet against the boards. After a moment, she slid, sucking in deep breaths. 

 

Mr. David shivered on the ground, waiting patiently, and I realized it was time to go. 

 

“Where is she? Hm? Where is she?! WHERE IS … ERIN?!”

 

I got a bad feeling in my stomach. For a second, I worried I was about to turn into Alicia, and then Jamie rammed straight into me, sweeping me off my feet. He grabbed Bylas and ran around us, holding his breath, ducking down to avoid Alicia swinging the machete. 

 

“JAMIE, DON’T!” The sky opened up above us, pitch black, and rain poured down like a hurricane. The blood dissipated, flowing into the ocean. It was impossible to see through the black, but I pushed forward until I reached Alicia, wrapping my arm around her waist. She fell over, limp and tired. I pulled back, dragging her across the boards, wondering which way to go. It was like black smoke, clogging my lungs and eyes. 

 

Tiny lights shone through the darkness, clearing the fog. They formed in a circle, floating forward, moving too fast. Before I could turn and run, Mr. David bent down and pushed himself toward me.

 

At least, I thought it was him. Most of his skin dissolved into the bleach-white gunk. A white blob sped toward us through the heavy rain pouring over our heads, the features carving out into a new face and body midstep. Alicia gasped, falling too hard for me to pick her up, and before her blood hit the floor, the white giant was in front of us. It wasn’t the same man who took Erin. He looked so different that I wouldn’t have recognized him with regular skin. Alicia froze.

 

“Daddy?” The white body stomped her, sending her head nearly through the boards, red blood pumping through the exposed veins until it pulsed around his temples. I grabbed the thing, then tried to pull back when pain seared through my palms. 

 

“Don’t touch him!” Alicia gurgled, crawling backward. The white gunk settled on her dress and moved outward, but she ripped it off in chunks, screaming. Mr. David pulled me closer. I struggled, yanking my arms away. The skin from my palms stayed with him and then spread across his own. 

 

I couldn’t grab the gun in my waistband. Couldn’t even move my fingers. The flesh fell off until I could see tendons, and then it continued up my arm, toxic white gunk melding with my bones. 

 

Mom lied. Man, did she lie! The pain seared into my nerves, digging in and locking. Screaming didn’t help, so I tried moving, but that just made it spread further. Nothing helped. Alicia stood, moving toward me, but I grabbed the Hybrid again, yelling at her. 

 

“GO! PROTECT THEM! GET THEM AND GO!” 

 

“You can’t beat him, Rick! Please! I’ll live! You- you won’t!” I gripped Mr. David harder, gritting my teeth until I heard cracks. Alicia gave me a pained expression, and then she disappeared through the heavy rain. 

 

Mr. David drug me forward, reaching for her, but I wrapped myself around his legs. She didn’t run into the water. She didn’t give up. She ran back toward the shack, dozens of Alicia’s surrounding the building, and the sky cleared over them. I watched them until my eyesight blurred, and then the pain dug into my shoulders. 

 

When the sky finally cleared, The Creature stood on the boards with Jamie and her son. Bodies piled around us, none of them moving, a lot of them already in the water. She barely moved, but her hair lights swung up around Mr. David. 

 

“You are wonderful,” she said quietly, hugging Jamie. He gulped, looking down at me and then looking away. 

 

“Please keep your promise. And … Rick … He’s … please don’t let him die.” He scurried off like an animal. The Creature stared after him for a moment, then glared at Mr. David.

 

“What was that, David? You keep toying with that dog. You keep helping that dog.” He tried to push me off him again, pulling skin from my chest, but I held tight.

 

“How? I’ve tried, I can’t consume her. I can’t copy her. What do you want me to do? Are you going to deal with Tracia if you-” The Creature didn’t speak, but something about the way she changed position shut Mr. David up. He huffed, struggling to move me again.

 

“All these people are gone now. They’re dead because you allowed them to die!” She sobbed, shrinking down next to her son. It was obvious he didn’t consider them people. Mr. David didn’t move, still tangled up with me, but his irritation was palpable. 

 

“They didn’t seem too happy with you, anyway. The more of your brother’s Feeders we get rid of, the better.” She didn’t respond, but his words hit another nerve. “You want me to go after her? I can’t do anything with this insect holding on to me.” I only yelped a little when he slammed me down to the boards, ignoring my bones snapping into his arms and grabbing him tighter with my legs. “What a useless thing to die over. I’m just going to find them and torture them until they-“

 

“You’re not doing anything, David. Eric. HAROLD! Whoever the hell you are right now. You’re going to do nothing. What do you need those weaklings for? You’re going to keep your promise to me and protect my species. That’s what you’re going to do. Jamie already agreed to keep her close and shut her up. All you have to do is protect Bylas!” Yenna checked her son’s body as she rambled. 

 

“I’m doing my best-“

 

“David,” she said, flat, and he finally looked up at her. “I’m going to mark you if you keep failing. I don’t care if it kills my entire species. I’ll send you to The Mouth and gladly watch you and Autumn get devoured. If you’re going to be this much trouble, maybe I should just let everyone die and find another way to save my people.” She stood and walked by us, probably staring at the shack in the distance. 

 

“A mockery. She’s making a mockery of me. How long has she been there watching us? That’s one of the stronger marks on her face, and it’s like it’s not even there. Maybe I am pathetic.”

 

“No more mistakes,” Mr. David muttered, laying his head on my shoulder. I wheezed, trying to grip my hands, and then realized they weren’t there anymore. The Creature winced.

 

“I like Rick. Don’t let him die. I want to keep him.”

 

“I can’t keep taking people. It’s affecting me.” He pulled back a little, the white gunk of his arms and face slowly gaining color, all of it suctioning from my body. He didn’t look like me, but he wore my skin and hair. It pulsed into him like blood through a vein.

 

“Are you going to make me ask you again in front of my child? Have you lost all respect for me? I want to keep him. I’m tired of you and Eric. Give me someone new to talk to. Alicia won’t hurt him, you saw. We need to surround ourselves with her loved ones, or we’ll keep dealing with this nonsense. Just … she’s too attached to her husband and child, they only make her crazier. Put Jamie to work and get rid of that damned baby.”

 

“You want me to give her back?”

 

“No, of course not. I don’t want that dog or her mangled pup near me, do you understand? Don’t let her leave Chastain, but keep her away from me. And stop antagonizing her! I’m in no condition to fight, and I’m tired of losing people. Learn some diplomacy! Take Rick, he can do a better job!” 

 

I watched the white gunk crawl over my skin, seeping all the color out. The Creature knelt, giving me a sweet smile. 

 

“Relax. You won’t die. I know you think I’m terrible, but I’m not. I’m kind to anyone who is a friend to me. You’ll understand when you join David. I like you, Rick.”

 

“I should let him die, Yenna. I can’t take anyone else. I’m already having trouble maintaining control-“

 

“I want him.” I glanced at the white-haired man, blood catching in my throat. 

 

“I can make a copy. I took his skin!”

 

“Just take the whole thing. No need for extras; we have enough of that as it is. You can control him, correct?” Mr. David looked nervous when he turned back to me. I didn’t fight. Didn’t move an inch. The gunk pulsed over more of my bones, covering me until all I felt was the heat.

 

Pain surged through my body. When I looked up, Mr. David was dismantling. No other way to explain it. His skin pulled into bleached strips and attached to me. The pain got so intense that I tried to pull away, but he pulled me harder. I could feel it eating me, dissolving me. Everything that made me what I was sifted into him, blending into the white like clay being sculpted. I let my mind drift until all I saw was Osh’s little face. And then I saw those Devil heads on the wall in my dad’s office, all of them staring down at me in their last moments on this Earth. I felt his hand pat my shoulder, a playful laugh in every pat.

 

“No one is immortal, Rick. We all die one way or another.”

 

Mr. David gripped me harder, pulling my face up to see his. I fought through the blur to read his expression. “Sorry. You’re not bad. I didn’t want this. Don’t be annoying once you’re in,” he whispered, but I gurgled in reply, struggling through the burning.

 

Yeah, let’s see how strong you are, piece of shit. Let’s see how much you regret this decision!

 

I’m not a crybaby. I know that life comes at you fast, and destiny comes at you faster. 

 

My name’s Rick Snow. My father was O’Shea, my mother is Lydia, and my son is Osh. I come from a long line of Fanatics, a long line of people who at least felt like they were defending the weak. Always thought I would leave this Earth a hero to somebody. Even when I was a kid, I thought I would leave this Earth a savior. 

 

I thought I failed the people I love, but it turns out I get the chance to make up for it. I get the chance to end something that never should’ve started. Not even time can stop me from saving the people I love.

 

Not even time.

 

Osh Snow

7

There was nothing. 

 

Darkness yanked me up, holding me under my arms and pulling. My arms moved over and over, water swirling around me, but I couldn’t move fast enough. Loose dirt touched my palm, and I pulled at it, screaming. Would Astor let me drown? Was she even out there anymore?

 

A low hum vibrated through my body, and then a woman grabbed my arm, pulling me out of the murky water. Where was she pulling me from? It was late at night, the sky indigo with white clouds roiling. For a moment, the woman talked to me, shaking my shoulders, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. 

 

A massive flooded hole sat in front of us. I wanted to get away from it, but I didn’t know why.

 

“Osh, you irritant, do you understand me?” The woman asked, waving her hand in my face. 

 

“Huh?” 

 

“Snap out of it! It’s me, Cora! Help me retake control, don’t drag me through this. I’ve seen enough. I don’t want to know any more about this. Why’d you let me jump in that damn hole?” She pulled her hands to her cheeks, giving me a destroyed expression. “That poor man. Your poor father! Why didn’t anyone tell me that I’m being used this way? You’re doing so much to avoid me, to trick me? Just save me, dammit, get me out of here! I’m sick of this. We have to get away from this-” 

 

She pulled her feet out of the water, staring down into a huge hole. “This is behind Alicia’s house?”

 

“Yeah. Well, it was. We filled it in after they finished using it.” 

 

She grimaced, sharp teeth digging into her bottom lip. “There’s more, Osh? Please tell me there isn’t more? Why don’t we go back to where we were? Finish showing me your 15th birthday-” 

 

“Sorry. I don’t like thinking about this part, either. I’m having trouble focusing completely,” I admitted. 

 

“Why do I recognize this hole-” 

 

I tried to speak, but Astor walked over, humming some sad tune. I tried to gauge how old she was, taking in her tiny jacket and short legs. 

 

My name is Osh Snow. I’m seven years old!

 

When I looked back up, the woman was gone. 

 

“We’re not supposed to be out here. And that water is nasty, you should not touch it,” Astor whispered. I sucked my teeth. 

 

“Duh. I just wanted to see where they take you when Jamie isn’t around.”

 

“You’re scared. Don’t be.” She walked around the hole, looking down. “The lady isn’t in here today, so don’t worry.” We stared at the murky water until I was satisfied with her answer, and then went inside.

 

 

The only time I saw Alicia without shoes on was when my mother took Astor to the woods. It was the only time I got to see her without makeup and some form of long flowing dress. It was the only time she wasn’t talking about Erin, or crying about Erin, or ranting about the ocean. 

 

She’d sneak out back in a nightgown and watch the trees, too distracted even to drink. I did my best not to bother her when she was out there, but I got curious one day. 

 

“Astor,” My mom yelled. Astor burst from her room and rushed downstairs, almost falling, throwing me a shy look. “We should try again, okay? Don’t be nervous. You did great last time!”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” Astor pulled her coat on, blank and respectful as always. I pretended not to notice them, staring at the television. My mother patted my head on the way around the couch. I waited a while before I got up, then snuck to the door.

 

They never let me say goodbye to Astor when they went to the woods, but it always felt like she wasn’t coming back. It was the way Alicia stood outside the entire time, her body leaned forward like she wanted to run after them. I stared at her on the back porch, watching her stiffen the further away they went, and then opened the door.

 

I walked out, hoping she wouldn’t get angry. 

 

“Did they go in the woods again, ma’am?” Alicia leaned over me, eyes hard, and gave me something close to a grimace. 

 

“Wouldn’t be a weekday without it. You’re supposed to watch the front door. Do you have some sort of telescope that I don’t know about?”

 

“I just wanted to stand with you. You can hear the door if it opens, and I’ll pretend I fell or something. Ma’am.” Alicia glared down at me a moment, then cracked the door so she could hear. She played with the hem of her nightgown, twisting one foot into the rough concrete of the deck. I tried not to match the little movements but couldn’t help it. 

 

“Stop. If I wanted a parrot, I’d buy one.” I obliged, pulling my back straight and my feet together. “You’re afraid for her, aren’t you?” 

 

It felt stupid to nod, so I just swallowed my gum. Alicia hated that. “Be afraid for all of us.” We watched them walk to the woods, watched my mother put her hand gently on Astor’s shoulder and lead her through the darkness. I held my breath until they disappeared. A few minutes went by, the wind whipping Alicia’s hair around, and then a bright flash filled the space between the trees. I didn’t dare look, but sometimes Alicia’s scar turned white when the flashing started.

 

“What happens,” I whispered. Alicia let her sharp nails swing down, almost hitting me. She was close to crying again. 

 

“Do you remember what a sandbox is, Osh?” 

 

“Like what the Creature uses to follow you?” Alicia gave an empty nod. I felt like I said the wrong thing and wished I hadn’t spoken, but she rubbed her hand affectionately through my hair. 

 

“It’s not just me. Don’t forget that. Why don’t we practice? Let’s tell monster stories this time. Do you like monsters?”

 

“Yes, ma’am! Not the Creature, though. I get scared when we talk about her.” 

 

“Of course you do. What types of monsters do you like?”

 

“Ones that can turn invisible. They turn invisible, and then they walk through walls. I saw one this morning, Alicia! I mean, ma’am! It walked through the wall, and then it tucked Astor in. It was so scary!” She offered me a long, thoughtful pause. 

 

“Is that right? Where’d it go after that?” 

 

“It went to the store. To get Astor food so it could make her eat. It has to keep her alive so it can eat her later.” Alicia always let me tell stories. She sat and listened for hours sometimes, slowly drinking, eyes never leaving me. I told her all about my monster’s day, where it went, what it looked like, and she finally gave me a real smile.

 

“The Creature doesn’t need to be invisible. It makes you like it, and then it makes you do things for it. Do you think you would like it?” I stared off into the woods, thinking. What was the right answer?

 

“Liking it isn’t important. You can beat any monster if you outsmart it. If you learn it.” She stared at the trees. “I’d say that goes for anything. You can’t love someone you haven’t learned, can’t fix someone you haven’t learned. Do you understand that?”

 

“No. I mean, no ma’am.” She offered me another small smile. 

 

“You’ll do fine, Osh. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Do you really not remember anything about your father? I …” She waited a moment, searching as if Jamie could hear Astor all the way out in the woods. I moved back when she dropped to her knees, the dirt bunching up around her dress. I heard Jamie’s keys in the door and dove down with her.

 

“Dammit, those contacts cost a fortune, Osh! Did you drop them out here?”

 

“Um, I think so-“

 

Idiot boy!” The sounds Alicia could hear were lost to me. I just shuffled the dirt around, trying not to let her panic consume my breathing and motions. It was harsh and sharp-edged, peeling up the casual conversation we’d just had. I thought I heard her whimper a little and dug harder. 

 

My mother rushed back from the woods with Astor, running on the tips of her toes. Alicia motioned to the house, and they snuck around the side. They went through the window, sometimes. 

 

Alicia breathed hard, searching the ground. I whispered to her, “That’s a bad lie, Alicia. I mean ma’am. I can fix it, don’t worry. Just close your eye!” She smashed her hand over her scarred eye, still worried. 

 

Jamie walked out a second later, still in his work clothes. He held up two boxes of Little Johnnie’s pizza, smirking.

 

“Figured I’d get take out tonight and let you rest, Alicia. Hey Osh! What are you two doing out here?” Alicia sprung up, frozen, almost crying already, and I had to distract him with a hug. 

 

“Sorry! I lost Alicia’s contacts! I didn’t mean to, and she won’t stop yelling at me!” He picked me up, tsking at Alicia. 

 

“You have to relax sometimes. You’re gonna traumatize him. I make enough to get you more, it’s fine. And it’s not like you’re going anywhere. You don’t need those things.”

 

“Sorry,” she said softly, holding one eye closed. “I overreacted.” My mother walked out with a glass of juice, smiling a frightful smile. 

 

“Your heart is beating so fast, I could feel it all the way in the house!” She handed me the juice, sliding her hand over Alicia’s chest. “You worried about something?”

 

“No. Just looking for my contacts.” 

 

“Oh, you don’t need to do that! Here, let’s go inside. Osh can find them.” Alicia didn’t speak again or move, just stood there watching the woods. A long time passed, and then Jamie put me down, calling Astor down for dinner. 

 

“I got your favorite, Osh!” He laughed, and I heard the rustle of plastic as he pulled food onto the kitchen table. Alicia didn’t move. I tapped her, making a face, but she stared into the woods in a daze. 

 

“Alicia,” my mother whispered. She finally jumped, sucking in a deep breath. Jamie came out, glancing at the woods, and kissed Alicia on the cheek. She didn’t react. He pulled her close, face blushing a deep red, but she leaned away from him.

 

“Stop thinking about Erin. I know you’re thinking about her, and it won’t do you any good. I’m sure she’s fine.” Alicia went blank, frozen in place. Jamie flustered. “You should eat downstairs with us tonight. The kids like it when we eat together.” It was a full-on plea, but Alicia just turned and walked in the house, headed straight upstairs. They shuffled in after her, awkward and silent.

 

I threw rocks at the trees for a while, waiting. If I threw them long enough, I’d miss out on Alicia getting drunk and screaming about ‘Erin’ all night. I’d skip having to help pull her off the floor and put her on the couch when she drank so much her legs gave out.

 

Why would he mention Erin at all? I’m sick of hearing about her!

 

Astor came out after a while, tapping her mouth with a napkin. 

 

“My father said you have to eat now. Please wash your hands!” I grabbed her before she could run back in.

 

“What did they want you to do,” I asked, bending over to play with the raised dirt. Astor shrugged, and I tried to read her expression for the millionth time that day and came back with nothing.

 

“I was supposed to play in a sandbox, but I didn’t see one in the water.”

 

Jamie never let Alicia out of his sight when he was home. There was a lot of awkward chatting, a lot of questions that Alicia let go unanswered. I couldn’t tell how he felt about her, but it was obvious how she felt about him. When he was at work, my mother and Alicia acted like fugitives, running around planning and whispering. They left Astor and me alone most of the time. 

 

When Jamie left for a trip a few weeks later, the two women burst into motion, rushing around the house. 

 

“How long is his trip,” Alicia asked, pulling the blinds closed. She ran her hand under chairs and tables, checking the baseboards. 

 

“A week. A full week! We need to do this now, Alicia! We won’t get another chance-“

“I know, Janna, I know. Is Astor outside already?” My mom nodded, hurrying around. She pulled on her coat, talking to herself, running out back. Alicia didn’t follow. She waited, tilting her head to hear, and then stalked over to me. I held my breath. 

 

“Osh? Why don’t you sit with me a minute?”

 

I did my best to shrink back into the couch, afraid I’d done something wrong, not looking forward to being eaten up by Alicia’s big pupils.

 

“Don’t be so stupid,” she snapped, waving for me to sit up. “Listen and respond. Don’t move. If your mother comes back, pretend you were telling me a story.” I sat still, trying my best not to move an inch. Hearing her whisper always made my skin crawl.

 

“If someone does something nice for you, does that earn your trust?”

 

“No,” I said, hoping it was the right answer. 

 

“Good. People often do nice things to hide bad intentions. Your mother is watching me as well, I think. I doubt she’s told Jamie about our little tests with the girl, but the only people you can trust are in this room. Understand?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Do you remember the last time we talked about the Creature? How she uses my grandmother? About ways to trick it?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“And have you been practicing as I asked?”

 

“Of course! Ma’am!”

 

“Good. The Creature wasn’t familiar with the family Rick left behind, so she won’t expect you. I’m still figuring out a way to get you in there, but I need you to be ready to reach my grandmother. We all have to do our part, don’t we?”

 

“Yes,” I exclaimed, but Alicia’s scowl made me sit back.

 

“Who are you responsible for? No matter what happens, who do you prioritize?”

 

“Erin, Louetta, and Noah. In that order.”

 

“Exactly right. And if-“

 

“And Astor,” I muttered. She paused, letting Astor’s name roll through her head, but continued without correcting me.  

 

“And what am I asking of you?” 

 

I didn’t respond, instead humming and staring down at my hands. She gave me a pleased chuckle.

 

“And if you get caught?”

 

“Failsafe. The big failsafe if it’s bad. Run away if it’s really, really bad.”

 

“Good. I don’t think we have much longer until we’re ready, Osh, so I need you to be prepared before you get there. Cora is the big issue. Every other time we’ve tried, she’s destroyed our accomplices before they get a chance to do a thing. Autumn is doing her best to find a reason to hire you so you can be ready to work when you see an opening. That job should put you close to all three of your priorities. Don’t be too eager. They’ll invite you to participate if you do the right things.”

 

“Yes, ma’am!” 

 

“Let’s practice. Tell me a lie about your mother. Make it the best lie you’ve ever told, straight from your imagination,” Alicia said, smiling warmly. 

 

“I’m from outer space. I-“

 

“A realistic lie. Something Jamie would believe.” I thought hard. 

 

“Yesterday, Astor fell down the steps. She hit her head! There was blood everywhere. Mom hid it because she didn’t want Jamie to think we needed to be watched at home again.” Alicia smirked. 

 

“You’re missing some things that would make that believable. Give details so Jamie won’t question it.” I picked at a button on the couch, thinking.

 

“When she hit the ground, she didn’t even cry! It was super quiet, like she was in shock, and then she just sat up and said sorry! Then I got in trouble, and I had to clean up the blood. Astor was sad, and then my mom made me sit in my room and read all night.” Alicia chuckled, grabbing my shoulder. 

 

“Now. Think about what that would look like if it were true. Really imagine it.” I thought about the times I had pushed Astor down the stairs. The times I’d gotten in trouble for actually hurting her. I imagined Astor falling back, grabbing for the rails, hitting the ground.

 

“I’m at the top of the steps. Astor falls back and tries to grab the railing, but she misses! She hits her head on the bottom.” 

 

“What sounds does she make?”

 

“Her head thuds, but it’s soft because of all the hair. She squeaks like she does when she’s panicking.”

 

“Horrifying! Where was I during all of this?”

 

“You and my mom were upstairs, so you didn’t hear-“

 

“That wouldn’t be believable.”

 

“You went in the backyard to look at the woods, and you weren’t paying attention again. In your nightgown of all things!” She froze, filling with joy. “You’re not supposed to think about leaving, but you want to, and that’s why you were out there in the first place. You were drinking a lot and-” Alicia leaned forward, snapping my sentence in half. She cupped my chin in her hand.

 

“My grandmother will pull things from your head as they are when she sees you, so remember to be thorough. Lie to yourself constantly when you’re around her or someone they use. You may forget yourself, but it’s better than letting them control you.”

 

“Got it.”

 

She made me tell lies until I didn’t need correcting, one after the other. 

 

“The real thing will be harder to manage, but I’m sure you’ll do fine. Now, I received another signal from our friend. It’s too dangerous for me to go, so I’d prefer to send you again. I gave your mother something nice to drink and told her that I needed a few things from the store. Don’t forget to ask the important questions before she tells you all her sorrows.”

 

 

My mother took me to Sam Anthony’s Whole Foods Store later that day but wouldn’t get out of the car. A long growl went through her stomach. An embarrassed laugh followed.

 

“I think it’s food poisoning again. I don’t know what’s going on with my stomach lately, it’s so shameful. Sorry, I’m not feeling up to going inside. Just go to the front counter. I already ordered online, so you just need to pick it up.” 

 

“Oh, Mom, come on! I don’t want to go in by myself. We never get to do things together,” I whined, hiding my excitement. She apologized again and pushed me toward the door. 

 

“You’ll manage. In and out.”

 

The grocery store loomed ahead while I walked, people buzzing around in their own worlds. I lifted my chin and stormed forward, but a man grabbed me, pulling me out of the way when a car zoomed by. I caught my breath in his arms and faced him.

“Are you crazy, kid? Watch where you’re going!”

 

“Keep your hands to yourself before you lose them, sir.” I pulled away and rushed through the double doors. It was less chaotic inside, but only a little. There were a lot of counters—flower displays and demo carts and a bunch more. I had no idea where to stand, so I kept walking around, trying not to look suspicious. 

 

Maybe I should pick up the groceries first?

 

Ugh, you look just like that asshole. I can’t get over it. You sure you’re not a clone?” The voice trailed after a slim hand that slapped the back of my neck. Astley bent down, a long baseball cap pulled far down over her face, and scrunched her nose up at me. I jumped, eyes watering. 

 

“You’re supposed to be nicer! You promised last time-“

 

“Nice? To you? Oh, come on. Keep walking before someone notices us. Not hard to tell you’re a homeschool kid.”

 

“I go to regular school!” I argued, but I walked. We headed towards the freezers at the back of the store. When Astley finally let me go, she turned before I could see her face. I wasn’t exactly sure what she looked like, but she was so thin I wondered how the wind didn’t knock her over. We reached the dairy section, and she opened the fridge, moving milk and butter around until we could see through the back, whistling the entire time.

 

It was hard to see behind all the bottles, but I squinted until my vision cleared. An enormous light eye stared back at me from the freezer. I picked up a box of unsalted butter, pretending to read the label.

 

“I hope you’re well. Don’t worry, this will be quick. I’m supposed to be speaking at some bland museum in Rex in a few hours, and I’m not even dressed. Bring him a little closer.” Astley backed into me, pushing me forward, and I moved more bottles to clear up the view. 

 

“I am well, ma’am! I hope your daughters are well!” I could feel her smile. Autumn loved it when I mentioned her daughters. “Any news?”

 

“We were able to pull Cora into a Latch. She’s in the basement at my lab, and she’s coherent. If everything goes well, we can free her without even touching the water. If that’s possible, we can do the same for Yenna.” I let out a gasp, and Astley pinched me. 

 

“Ma’am?!” 

 

“Don’t get too excited. The Creature still has access somehow. I don’t know what’s going on with Cora’s real body, but I doubt we’ll get much further without it. We can’t do anything with Cora pulling us into the sandbox, and she refuses to speak to me without others around. If the damn bird would stop squawking, I could explain the situation. Imagine whining for someone to save you and then tormenting them through it!” Autumn paused in frustration. 

 

“Is everything okay in Amity, ma’am,” I asked, knowing Alicia would strike me from the planet if I didn’t.

 

Anity. And no. There’s a rebellion happening with the Shadows. It’s getting worse. Something big is happening over there that The Creature doesn’t want us to find out. I don’t know much more than that, honey, but I’ll keep snooping.”

 

“That’s great!”

 

“Now for the big problems. I finally met the Creature’s boy. Lawrence brought him in to be worked on, and that’s strange in itself. Something’s going on with Jamie. He’s usually the one who does any work for her immediate family. I handle the rest.” She paused, thinking. “Tell Alicia this is too strange to ignore. I’m not sure why, but keep an eye on Jamie.”

 

“Okay, I’ll tell her, ma’am.”

 

“I inflicted some damage so I could take a closer look without him being awake. Get ready for this: the damned kid is starving to death. Make sure she understands that. He’s dying. Astley did some snooping for me, and they’re in a state of panic over it. Jamie’s been trying to solve their food issue, and it’s not just the kid – most of them are starving. They’re not adapting to our way of eating quickly enough. The boy mentioned that he works with Mr. David a lot and has a shotgun.”

 

“They let him have weapons?!” Astley popped the back of my neck, looking around. 

 

“He’s catching food for himself and his people, I assume. Astley managed to get them to allow her to join their little crew, I guess for the added protection. Tell Alicia that’s three confirmed Leviathans: The Creature, that big-eyed freak, and their kid. I’m starting to worry about their math when it comes to the sacrifices. One little girl can’t feed three different Leviathans, though I guess the Creature doesn’t have as strict a diet.” 

 

I wondered for a moment if she was the big-eyed freak, then felt terrible. It was best not to ask too many questions.

 

How am I supposed to save everyone from three creatures?

 

“At this rate, they’re going to start looking for Erin again. Listen, make sure she understands that Jamie has to know where that girl is. I call bullshit on all the obliviousness. For now, they have one food source for the boy, some old ancestor Alicia let loose when she escaped, but the damn Devil’s unstable. Centuries-old. Refuses to Latch out, no blood bursts, nothing. It’s like sucking on a lollipop.”

 

Astley tapped my shoulder, grinning. “The male Devils are always nuts. Better to just kill them off or feed them to a Leviathan-“

 

“Hush,” Autumn heckled. “Astley was there the last time the boy fed. That damned Devil nearly killed him, and now he’s too terrified to eat. Even with Mr. David there to protect him-“

 

“A real pussy,” Astley muttered.

 

Hush! I think they’re all hiding how dire the situation is, but the Creature is going to notice sooner than later. And they’re going to start looking for their own food source if she isn’t delivering.”

 

I opened my mouth, then closed it. It was always awkward when I said the things Alicia wanted me to say. For a moment, I wondered if I should just keep them to myself, allowing Autumn to continue. She noticed my silence and sighed. Astley clicked her teeth, looking away.

 

“Get it over with.”

 

“Sorry, ma’am. It’s just … are you keeping away from Noah? Please don’t lie.” She cleared her throat, and I thought I heard nails tapping against metal. 

 

“I’m sorry it’s been so long, Osh. They’re watching me pretty heavily. I had to poison myself just to make it out here-“

 

“And me,” Astley grumbled.

 

“Honey, if I have to tell you to hush again, you’re gonna need another new body.” Astley walked off, letting out a loud whistle. “I can’t even go to the bathroom alone. So yes, I’m keeping away from Noah. She’s trapped in her little castle until Alicia needs to destroy her life. I don’t interact with her.”

 

“Ever?” Another deep pause filled the space between us. 

 

“Oh, honey, who cares? Tell Alicia I’m not the one she needs to worry about! The Creature has her eyes on Louetta and is starting to notice Noah. At this rate, they’ll be married off or eaten or killed by then, and I won’t let that happen. I don’t care what anyone says, I’ll kill them before that happens.”

 

“Please don’t do that,” I said quickly, but she kept talking. 

 

“My husband and The Creature have decided to gain favor with the Dictator by marrying Louetta off.”

 

“But she’s our responsibility!”

 

“She is, isn’t she? But here we are, twiddling our thumbs. What is Alicia waiting for?”

 

“I need to practice so she doesn’t steal my thoughts, ma’am! And I need an excuse to work with you so they don’t know what’s going on!”

 

“Oh, right. It’s amazing that you’re just a child. I keep thinking of your father instead of you. But I’m not asking why you’re not helping, Osh, though I appreciate you greatly. I’m asking why Alicia isn’t. You need as much help as my girls do, don’t you think.”

 

No. Of course not.

 

We were both silent for a moment, and then the eye widened. “Either way, I’m close to convincing Lawrence to let me hire you, but Jamie would be an issue. You tell Alicia she was supposed to help charm some sense into that idiot. I don’t care how she feels about him. I won’t take anything less than her saving my daughters, so she’d better get to work.”

 

“I’ll tell her.”

 

“Tell her to hurry. They took all of our money, every last cent. Lawrence is allowed to make money on our girls, but that’s all. They’re selling them to diplomats that are against Tracia. If I protest, they’re killed instead. My family is suddenly tiny. Please tell her I said that. I lost Ramona and Ingrid.” Astley came back but turned to hide her face when she heard what we were talking about. 

 

“Do you have any daughters other than Noah and Louetta left, ma’am? I’ll add them to my list and save them. I promise.”

 

“You’re always so sweet, Osh. I have some left, but I’m afraid this is a bigger job than you can handle. The treatment is not gentle. I need help.”

 

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Astley gripped my shoulder appreciatively.  

 

A woman turned the corner, approaching the dairy aisle with her cart. Astley walked over, head down, and said something that made the woman walk off. I switched from the butter to the milk.

 

“Is Jamie still telling on us?”

 

“Absolutely. Half of his day’s spent chatting up my husband. They’re both scared babies doing whatever they can to be spared. It’s revolting. I’ve managed to get access to the reports. I know that you had Little Johnny’s pizza for dinner twice this week. They have a classification system to describe Alicia’s danger level at any given time and the threat level of her running away. Lawrence could tell me what underwear Alicia had on last night; Jamie’s that descriptive.” 

 

“Mom!” Astley chastised, pretending to look through the frozen foods across from us. 

 

“Oh, hush, the boy knows what underwear is. Sorry if that’s a little too much information for you, but it’s bad. There are two very interesting things left out of all his reports: you and Astor. I wonder if he over-reports to keep anyone else from finding out about you two? I doubt the Creature knows about Astor, or else she’d be with us. It’s hard to tell what they have up their sleeve, though.” There was another pause. “There’s one more thing, but I’m a little afraid to tell Alicia. Something The Creature’s son said to me. About their family.”

 

“Mom. Not yet,” Astley grumbled.

 

“Right. No, you’re right. Osh, have you been practicing your stories?”

 

“Yes! And I’m really good at it. Nobody could beat me. Alicia says I’m almost ready. I mean, yes, ma’am.” 

 

“I bet you are. What about Astor? Do we know if she has Devil Syndrome? Will Alicia do the test, or is she still stalling? Have you noticed anything that suggests Devil Syndrome?” I stopped, staring at the big eye, thinking about the way Alicia’s veins flashed, and couldn’t get myself to speak again until Astley flicked my nose. 

 

“No, we haven’t noticed anything. We don’t know.”

 

“We need to know soon, Osh. What about the sandbox tests? There’s really nothing?”

 

“Nope. Nothing.” 

 

“Maybe she doesn’t have it. Where does that leave us? Alicia will never let Erin go into that water.” She paused a moment, thinking. “Maybe something’s happening, and they’re not telling you? Does Alicia still trust Janna?”

 

“No.”

 

Autumn sighed, pulling away for a moment. When she came back, I heard her voice but couldn’t see her face. “How is Astor being treated? Alicia isn’t growing too attached, is she? Or, you know … being too rough?”

 

“It’s fine, ma’am. Astor isn’t hurt.”

 

“Good. Don’t worry. We’ve been at this a long time. You just do your best to learn to beat that wench’s little security system. I’ve been pulled in a few times now, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. Now listen, and listen carefully. I need you to tell Alicia exactly what I’m about to say. No mistakes.”

 

I nodded, gulping, and tried my best.

 

 

My mother looked even sicker when I got back to the car, her hands gripping the steering wheel for dear life. I put the back of my hand on her forehead. There could’ve been a sizzling sound effect. 

 

“That took a long time,” she said weakly, eyes barely open. “Did you get everything?” I showed her the bags, nodding. 

 

“I had to argue with the man because I didn’t have identification! Why would I have that? Some people are so dumb!” She chuckled. We drove in silence until we got to the house, and then she put her hand on my shoulder. 

 

“I know you love them, but we might need to do something hard soon. I can trust you, right?” Whenever she said ‘them,’ I knew she was talking about Astor and Alicia. I thought for a long moment before I nodded, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Good. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re safe, understand?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Your father would’ve been so proud of you. We’ll talk soon, just me, you, and Jamie, okay?” I nodded and climbed out of the car, my stomach churning. It felt like forever before I made it up the stairs. Astor peeked out from her door, eyes wide, but slammed it before I could speak. 

 

Alicia met me in my bedroom, arms crossed. 

 

“What a gentleman, leaving your mother to put the groceries away.”

 

“Look, I gotta remember the stuff! I have a lot to tell you—a whole bunch. You’re gonna hate it. Ma’am.” She stepped back into my room, glancing down the hall for my mother. 

 

“Don’t I always? Let’s do a failsafe just in case-“

 

“I don’t need it! I can make stuff up in my head super fast! I-“

 

“Osh. We can’t get sloppy.” 

 

“Yes, ma’am.” 

 

“Just a small one. Tell me some names.” I recited every name I could think of that started with Ast, Al, or Ja. She nodded, satisfied. 

 

“Well? Don’t act stupid, boy, tell me what she said.”

 

The triumph I’d felt a moment before slipped away when I realized I couldn’t remember all of it. I gave myself a minute to pull as much as I could together. “There is a medallion going on. The Creature is trying to use one of Autumn’s sisters to gain flavor with dictionaries!” 

 

Alicia shifted only slightly, her pupils shining. “Say that again.”

 

“There’s a medallion, so The Creature is trying to use one of the girls to gain favor with the Dictator. Autumn wants you to help because Jamie needs charms, and the boy is starving. They can’t do math! And- and that creature boy doesn’t even LIVE with The Creature! Are they killing people? I mean, yes, they are killing people!” 

 

Alicia squinted, doing her best to pick information out of my sentences. “Autumn’s killed before. Why is she suddenly against it?”

 

The boy is out killing people with them, I think for food. Yeah, because they’re starving! He uses a shotgun! It’s a state of emergency! She said she refused what they wanted, and they killed another one of her daughters. They took away all her money, too, and her husband is desperate, and you need to hurry because she can’t hold out much longer like this. They’re selling them to gain favor. Flavor.”

 

“Selling what?”

 

“Her daughters.” Alicia was quiet for a long time. She sat down on my bed, opening and closing her mouth.

 

“They’re selling her daughters? Surely that’s not right. Think about what she said and repeat it exactly.”

 

“No, I’m sure about that part. Her husband is selling them. She sounded really sad. Um, she said that Ramona and Ingrid are gone now.” Alicia let that sit in her chest a moment. 

 

“To whom?” 

 

“Diplomas. For public … sheesh. For public reactions because they are … um. Important to the Dictator? Or something.” 

 

“How is stoking Tracia supposed to help? Do they think she won’t retaliate?”

 

“How should I know? She heard bad things from her husband. She said he knows what underwear you have on. You just have to go to Amity because there is a war! Ma’am. Oh, and she says she met with Yvette, and Yvette still wants to help.” 

 

“Why should I trust her to turn on her brother?” 

 

“I don’t know! Autumn said to tell you exactly this: She’s been keeping some of your Latches in the basement. The ones you make when you’re angry. They don’t all die. They are aware, and they act like you, they’re just not as strong. Can you tell they are there?”

 

Alicia froze, too stunned to answer. 

 

“Okay. So, um, you were supposed to say no, and then I’m supposed to continue—the key lady and, um … jeez. Friends are waiting for you in Amity. Anity, I mean. Yvette can turn into you if you concentrate, and she can turn back, so you shouldn’t feel bad. They want to help. Autumn helped her practice!” I took a deep breath and tried to remember the rest as accurately as possible.

 

“It’s time to go. You would be more helpful in Amity than here. You should do the test before you leave. Yvette is not the only option, but she can do the test for you if you can’t stomach it. You can’t worry if Astor can sandbox or not. It doesn’t prove anything. We need to know she can make a Latch.” Realization hit Alicia slow, and then it burned through her body like acid. It seeped over her hands, dug into her lungs, and came back to me as a gasp. 

 

“Before I leave? Just me? I’m supposed to leave you and … my daughter?” I thought about it.

 

“It would be quicker, she said. You can leave us with Yvette for now.”

 

“That’s idiotic! Jamie will recognize his own sister!”

 

“She said they have it down to a science or something. As long as she has um … breaks, she can pretend to be you! It’s not for good. It’s just a little bit! I have to help the girls, remember? And Astor is supposed to do the water thing.”

 

“But will Yvette protect the two of you? What if someone comes after my daughter, or even you? How can I be sure she’ll protect you? How do I know she’ll make sure my daughter can sandbox?”

 

“I don’t know. How should I know? Ma’am.” Alicia sat there staring at me with her mouth open. It’s probably a bad thing, but I felt good when she started crying. It felt good that she didn’t want to leave us.

 

Alicia wouldn’t make a decision. Autumn didn’t send another signal, but we kept practicing. I started to wonder why it mattered if I was never going to get to meet her grandmother in the first place. 

 

“I just need the girl to do something first,” Alicia explained. “She needs to succeed with Janna before I go.”

 

A year went by, and each day brought more problems. 

 

The first time I saw Alicia kill someone, it was quietly in the backyard. It amazed me. A rambling man or woman would wander in to the yard, see her, and start toward her. I’d sit fascinated, watching her back up, push her hair out of her face, and then disappear into the woods. Watching her come back dirty, sometimes bleeding, and never with the other person. I wondered if she was like a spider sometimes. The hole in the ground was some sort of web, and her scar was the bait.

 

She saw me watching from the window one night and waved for me to come down. I did, excitement trembling through my hands. Alicia stood far back in the woods, her hair blowing in the wind. The man she’d just killed was mangled on the ground, a small trickle of blood leaking from his ear. The ugly twist of his neck looked like the final blow for his life. 

 

“How’d you do that?” She handed me a shovel. 

 

“If you’re not strong, you can always use weapons. Learn to find a weapon in anything around you. A shovel is obvious, but even a log or rock works. Don’t stop until they do. Never make the mistake of stopping too early.” I looked down at the bloody shovel in my hands, amazed. 

 

“Now dig a hole for him. Don’t come back in the house until you’re done.” She left me out there all night. I couldn’t break the ground for at least an hour, and then I was just too tired. I kept pushing until I heard boots behind me in the morning, and a hand rested on my shoulder. Alicia tsked, tapping me with her nails.

 

“What a terrible job! Leave me to it. You’ll do better next time.”

 

She was right.

 

 

The next week, one of the men came after Astor while we were in the backyard alone. I was going to push her into an anthill, so she was already cowering from me. A man stumbled into the yard, near drunk with confusion. 

 

“Right under our noses! And she says she cares about us,” he gasped, struggling forward. He grabbed Astor and yanked her away from me. I ran into the house, screaming for Jamie. 

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“A man! He’s killing Astor! He- he’s going to kill her!’ Jamie jumped into action, but he closed the back door when he saw the size of the man in the yard. I watched him lock the door in horror, listening to Astor scream.

 

“Go hide. I’ll call Lawrence and- and have them send someone!” He rushed off. Alicia strolled to the door, peering out. She grabbed a container of ant killer and stared at me. 

 

“What are you doing?! He’ll kill her!” She opened the door but didn’t move. I could hear Astor struggling outside, crying out in fear. 

 

“I have this fear, Osh, that I’ll go off to handle my business, and you’ll shirk your duties.”

 

“Alicia, she’s screaming!”

 

“I’m going to leave soon, remember? I need you two to be able to handle yourselves. You see how much Jamie does to protect you. Do you think she’ll still be alive when Jamie’s reinforcements show up? Maybe we should just wait and see what happens.”

 

“Alicia! Please!” She pulled the little nozzle on the container, reading the instructions. 

 

“Weren’t you trying to put her in that anthill? Looks like he might do it for you.” She moved out a little further, clearing her throat. “Good girl. Destroy him. Make him regret his decision.” I could hear him cry out, and then Astor screamed louder. “All that scratching. She’s more of a beast than a girl.” She pointed at a hammer on the table. I picked it up, still not sure what to do. 

 

“The Creature will hug you, love you, try to get you to love it back. It’s lonely. Its own people don’t love it anymore, not like they used to. You can see that for yourself. You can trick it with love. Remember that.”

 

Alicia went out finally, but she walked to the anthill. She sprayed it. The man stomped his foot into Astor’s chest, dragging her to the gate. I rammed into him with all the strength I had in my body, throwing him off balance, and then I couldn’t think. I couldn’t stop hitting him. The thought of him hurting Astor fueled through my entire body, and I kept hitting him with the hammer until he fell, and then aimed for his head until he stopped moving. 

 

Jamie stared at me from the door, stunned. He wasn’t calling anyone, didn’t even have a phone in his hand. He walked over and grabbed me, trembling. “No, Osh. You can’t kill people! You’re not supposed to do stuff like that. Rick wouldn’t want you to-“

 

“Don’t lie,” Alicia sang calmly. She nudged Astor with her foot, ignoring the sobbing and drooling. I dropped the hammer and stared down at the dead man, confused. 

 

“You needed help, little beast. Remember who helped you,” Alicia said to the air. She sulked back inside. Jamie started to speak, but I stared at all the blood and mess, ignoring him.

 

Things would die down, and then suddenly, they’d become so hectic we couldn’t even risk sleeping. They kept coming. I often thought about Autumn’s words, trying to make sense of it, but I had no idea what was going on. None of the adults confirmed any of my suspicions, so the most I ever got was from the struggled cries when Alicia trapped another one in the woods.

 

“Yenna might be afraid of you, but we’re not! You should be feeding us! You should be-” 

 

You’re marked! How can she let you exist here when you’re MARKED?!”

 

“I can smell it! You have another one in there, don’t you! Right here while we’re STARVING! I can TASTE it-“

 

They liked to talk. Alicia always cut them off before they could finish. The longer they were around her, the more mindless and destructive they became. Whenever someone found us, my mother skipped taking Astor to the backyard for a while. 

 

Jamie took me out to sea, training me to help him with his work, but keeping the nature of it a secret at the same time. It was confusing, but I enjoyed being out of the house. We even took his old wooden boats out sometimes.

 

“We need to move,” I said one day, helping him tie his sail in place. He pretended not to hear me, so I repeated myself.

 

“It’s better just to lay low where we are. We need to stay in the area for my job,” Jamie busied himself by getting the boat ready for our day trip. It felt like I had more freedom than the women in the house. Even if I couldn’t exactly tell people my name outside of school or take pictures (Alicia wouldn’t have it), I could get on a boat with Jamie. We could go out to eat or see a movie. Sometimes I even walked off and sat by the highway, practicing lies in my head.

 

Astor and Alicia never left the house, but it didn’t matter. Strange people followed Jamie home; they followed my mother home; they followed me home. Some wanted Alicia, some wanted Astor, but they were all out for blood. They wandered the neighborhood, peering into windows, waiting around yards. They kept coming until sometimes the blocks leading to our house looked like a street market. No matter how much my mother and Alicia begged, Jamie wouldn’t let us move. Alicia asked for me to be taken out of school, but he said no to that too. 

 

Another time he was more direct about it. “Moving would be worse. Alicia has too many friends in other places, and- and that’s not a good thing for you or me. And, well, Astor’s not supposed to exist, technically. There’s a balance. If we make too many moves and get the wrong eyes inside our home, you know. And you deserve an education. Rick wouldn’t want you homeschooled. You don’t have to hide like Alicia and Astor.”

 

“They’re showing up at my school. They’re-“

 

“And I need to report in. And …” 

 

“But they’re gonna kill us, sir.” 

 

“Don’t let Alicia’s paranoia bother you. Yenna-, I mean … my boss wouldn’t allow that. There’s some strife going on now, but it’ll even out! Some things are bigger than us. Your dad lost his life trying to fight back, and I don’t think you should make the same mistake.”

 

It felt foolish but doing what Alicia wanted meant giving up my birthday parties. It meant never getting on a boat again, and it meant leaving everything I knew behind. Part of me was glad that Jamie ignored her concerns. Another part of me understood that she was right.

 

Alicia never left, and then suddenly, Jamie took all of her wine away. He took all of her clothes. When she wouldn’t leave the bedroom, he took the door off the hinge. 

 

“It’s marriage or that,” he said cryptically, and that’s when we started going to the dinner parties. The parties were for Astor, but I don’t know much about that. We’d get dressed up and go to random venues around the city, usually just me and Astor and Alicia. Alicia kept us close, smiling and schmoozing with what had to be other Devils and their children. Some would size Astor up, but most seemed more interested in getting on Alicia’s good side. 

 

If I tried to speak to anyone, Alicia would always cut the parties short and take us home. 

 

“Why are you having parties for Astor,” I asked Alicia one day, pulling my tie off. The way her eyes rolled could’ve come with sound. I waited for her to peel her gloves off and fall back on the couch. She reached for a wine glass that wasn’t there, then sighed. 

 

“Devils are archaic.”

 

“I don’t know what that means, ma’am.”

 

“It means we’re rare, and your friend Jamie wants to benefit from it with a good old-fashioned forced marriage. It’s a waste of time. She’ll be in the water sooner than later. Why go through the burden of marriage?”

 

“She doesn’t want to do that, anyway,” I said, balling my fist. I had no idea what she wanted, but the thought irritated me. 

 

“You told me once that you would marry my daughter. Do you still want to do that?”

 

“I never said that. You said that if I wanted to marry her, I had to be smart.”

 

“And here you are, the best in your class. Wasn’t that an answer?”

 

A loud knock rumbled through the house. Alicia didn’t even turn her head. Even when Jamie went on trips, Alicia wouldn’t answer the door. We didn’t have visitors much, but sometimes people would come by after the dinner parties started. My mom locked herself in her room a lot, scared of everything, so Alicia had to answer. 

 

I started toward the door, but she stopped me, repeating her question.

 

“What do married people do? Make noise? Like when you’re not mad at Jamie? Ma’am?” She rolled her eyes again, leaning her updo back on the couch. More loud knocks smashed into the door. I thought it would come off the hinges.

 

“Married couples have babies to feed to a giant monster in the ocean.” 

 

“I’m not gonna be smart just to feed babies to a monster.” She laughed out loud. 

 

“I never finished school. Did I ever tell you that? I was sixteen when my family was massacred, but I didn’t attend school even before then. My mother was embarrassed by me, so the tutors who taught my sisters were unaware of my presence. What I know comes from real life.”

 

“You sound smart to me, ma’am. Can you read?”

 

“Of course! My father taught me when he wasn’t busy robbing and securing money for us. I also learned how to swindle by watching him. My older sister taught me basic math. Much later, a woman named Yenna taught me everything else, including how to survive.”

 

“Jamie said his boss was named Yenna.” All the joy drained out of her. 

 

My daughter doesn’t have a father that wants to teach her things. She doesn’t have an older sister that she can talk to, not in person. She doesn’t have a Yenna. What that girl has is you. You’re all her knowledge and sense in this world. When you’re hitting her with hammers, or pushing her down the stairs, or pressing her into anthills, she’s dealing with her entire world crumbling. Over and over. I can’t leave without your assurance that you will protect her until she can carry out her duties, Osh.” 

 

I felt sick for a moment, thinking about it. The pounding continued at the door. 

 

“Why doesn’t she have you? Why is it always about her duties?” I whispered. Alicia didn’t answer, but she stood, her long black dress pouring to the ground. She shook her hair out, pulling some to cover her eye, and finally opened the door.

 

A man stood on the porch in a police uniform. It didn’t fit him well, not even a little, and I had trouble paying attention to anything but his arms bulging out of the sleeves. He gave her a cheerful nod, glancing at me lurking around in the living room. Before saying one word, he took a long swill of air, closing his eyes dreamily. Alicia’s nails fanned out over the door frame, one pointing toward the hammer on the end table. I waited, watching them. 

 

“Is this the home of Jamie Free?” 

 

“No.” His eyes widened, digging into the side of her face.

 

“Thought all the rumors were bullshit, but here you are. You’re the Devil who tried to kill Bylas. The one that is supposed to feed us. Right here, less than a mile away from the entry point. All while we starve to death.” 

 

“You have me mistaken-“

 

“You’re going to lie with that mark on your face? I lost family to you. Watched my own mother lose her face and gain yours.” Alicia barely concealed her anger, but he shook his head. “Don’t worry. The mark doesn’t bother me. I don’t belong to that impostor, so those marks are useless. I don’t belong to anyone now.” Alicia turned to stone in the door, everything from her hair to her heels motionless. I got closer, grabbing on to her dress.

 

The medallion! Rebellion!

 

The man continued in a friendly tone, pushing himself closer.

 

“These bodies and all the learning, it’s weakness. I’d rather starve in the water than deal with your language and your relationships and your-“

 

“Then go die.”

 

He twisted his mouth. “Someone has to be there for the boy if he’s going to take Maynard’s place. It’s the only good thing she’s done, producing Bylas. Do you agree?”

 

“Doesn’t involve me-“

 

“I’ve been watching your husband, the great Jamie. Our great savior out there figuring out how to get us to land.” He scoffed, turning his head to spit. “My people turn down this street and disappear all the time, so I thought I’d be more friendly. Wouldn’t it be selfless of you to give up that defective Devil you had? She’s broken, anyway. We could at least feed Bylas. The girl is here, isn’t she?”

 

“Your Yenna took the girl a long time ago-“

 

“NOT my Yenna!” I didn’t see the rock until it connected with her face. Alicia fell back, grunting, and the second hit sent a loud crack through the living room. I rushed forward, ducking too low for him to catch me, and pushed my full weight into his stomach. It backed him up a little, but he was up and coming at us again in two seconds flat.

 

“GO UPSTAIRS,” I yelled. My mom and Astor’s feet scrambled over our heads. The officer’s eyes followed the noises, and then he swung the rock down and connected with my shoulder. I crumpled, pain bursting through my entire left side. 

 

He skipped up the steps two at a time. 

 

Alicia held her nose, shivering, pointing at the stairs. I ran up without grabbing anything, too frantic to think. He had Astor at the top of the steps, strangling her. 

 

I did my best to get him off her, but he wouldn’t let go. Astor’s fingers scratched slowly at the ground, her eyes bulging, but somehow there was no expression there. The veins in her cheeks puffed up, and she looked over at me, moving her lips a little. The man gripped tighter, anger bursting through him. She stared up at him until her eyes rolled back. Until her fingers stopped moving. 

 

I cried, pulling at his arms, hitting him with my fists. 

 

“She’s not food! She’s nice! Please stop!”

 

“Osh, would you rescue the girl already! Stop crying and kill him!” Alicia scrambled up the steps, pain seething between her teeth with spit and blood. “The idiot can’t think straight enough to drag her away. Stop him before he kills her!” I tried to move, but I was too scared, held back by Alicia’s words. Blood bubbled out of Astor’s mouth, and then her eyes rolled out of her head and focused on him.

 

“Defend yourself, you dummy!” I yelled.

 

There was a bang, and it came from nowhere. The bang was somehow loud and small at the same time, vibrating through my skull. The man didn’t move for a moment, staring down at Astor, but then his fingers released. She sucked in a deep breath, eyes widening.

 

He turned to look at Alicia, his mouth opened in confusion. I tried to pull Astor, but the room was getting so hot. I stumbled against the wall, and my breath came out dry and ragged. 

 

Astor sat up slightly, sucked in a deep breath, and then the wallpaper peeled up the walls around us. It shredded. I heard my mother yelp upstairs, scrambling around. Alicia snapped back, yanking her earrings out of her ears. They steamed.

 

The man lurched. The skin pulled back over his head, exposing his skull, and then his scalp and neck stripped away. It kept rolling back over his butt and thighs, all of it peeling like an onion. The man didn’t make any noise, not even a grunt, but he gawked at Astor until the long strips curved under his feet.

 

“Oh,” Alicia said stupidly, dropping to her knees. The man’s body continued to unravel even when I pulled Astor out from under him. Alicia rushed over and pushed me away, pulling me to her, and she held me while we watched him dissolve. It felt like little invisible fingers were pulling the skin away, dragging the flesh off of his bones. 

 

“Failsafe. We need a failsafe,” Alicia barely whispered, pulling me tighter when I tried to move. Astor pushed herself up, the pretty burgundy of her blouse stained with the man’s drool. She hugged herself, eyes wide, and I had to struggle to pull from Alicia to crawl over and hug her instead. 

 

“What did I do?” she said simply, curling against me. I held her tight, sighing in relief when the air cooled down. 

 

“You didn’t do that! Don’t worry; think about something else. It’s just a panic attack again, so just close your eyes!” Alicia sucked in a breath.

 

“Didn’t she do it? How did it happen if she didn’t do it?”

 

“I don’t know! She just didn’t do it!” Alicia couldn’t say anything. We both waited until my mother’s footsteps moved over our heads.

 

“Wait, how did he catch you? Why aren’t you upstairs?” The attic door opened, and my mother poked her face out, gasping for air. 

 

“I tried to go up, but Janna pushed me out. She kicked me down,” Astor said softly. Alicia looked up accusingly, but my mother just let the steps down.

 

“We should get rid of him before Jamie gets back.”

 

We pulled what was left of the man’s body into the backyard, and I pushed him into the hole. The two women argued, near screaming in the woods.

 

“Janna, where were you? Your son is downstairs fighting for our lives, and you’re scrambling into the attic? Are you all cowards?” My mother didn’t answer, staring at the soft dirt with something close to disgrace. “You pushed her out? They’re not after you. You know that! You knew what would happen! You’re supposed to be on my side!”

 

“I’m on my family’s side. I’m on Rick’s side. I’m on Jamie’s side. The people who I love without needing to be poisoned, the people I came up with.”

 

“I rescued your mother-in-law! I-“

 

“You should’ve just let him take Astor. Just like you should’ve let them take Erin. You should stop involving everyone in your shitty life.”

 

Alicia let her breathing speak for her, ragged and emotional. I watched the blob-man sink into the water wordlessly. 

 

“This is Erin all over again, except I get to experience the frustration Autumn must’ve gone through. You’re not going to let Astor go either. I knew it the minute you asked me to take her into the woods because you couldn’t do it. You just couldn’t let her go without knowing she could sandbox. We just HAVE to make sure she won’t suffer, but who cares?! So what? Are you going to spare her even if it means our children go through hell, too? Am I part of your vicious cycle now? Is Osh your new Rick?” I stopped breathing for a minute, but a side glance from Alicia made me start again. 

 

“We don’t need that test to tell what Astor is. You already know, and you’re not going to let what needs to happen, happen. I love you. I don’t have a choice. But I- I have Osh to think about. You should’ve just let him take her. Let anybody take her! Free us from having to know you.” 

 

Alicia grabbed my arm, yanking me forward, but my mother grabbed my other arm. The pain from the rock still vibrated through me. 

 

“I’m weak, but I’ll fight you for him,” my mother said, voice shaking. Alicia scoffed. 

 

“I’ll kill you both. I’ll splatter your brains across the dirt, and Jamie can clean you both up, and then I’ll get back to my fucking life.” My mother let me go too fast. She backed away too far. She looked too afraid; she wouldn’t make eye contact. Alicia pulled me inside, ignoring the crunching in my shoulder. 

 

Astor tiptoed down the stairs, freezing when Alicia approached. 

 

“Did you hear that? I bet you did, you little broken Devil. I bet you heard it. You’re going to feed a beast! You’re going to go into the ocean and feed a beast for eternity, and Osh will go off and live a beautiful life! You get to suffer in the house while he goes to school, while he exists! All you have to do is sandbox, that’s ALL! Why can’t you try harder?! Do you want to suffer? Are you that determined to worry me forever?”

 

Astor didn’t attempt to answer.

 

“Right. Who cares? You’re nobody. Not even half of a person. You’re a concept! How do you feel about that? Hm? Your entire life is nothing, you-” 

 

“DON’T TALK TO HER LIKE THAT!” Alicia snapped away as if I’d hit her, blood floating from her nose and sifting into the air. Regaining her composure, she turned to hiss back at me.

 

“She’s not a real person. She’s a responsibility. A means to an end! Ask Janna! Ask anyone! You’re not even real!” My mother walked up, arms wrapped over herself, and bent to check on my shoulder. I couldn’t hold in my rage. 

 

You’re not a person! You’re the fake one! You-” 

 

“Osh,” Astor whispered my name, straightening on the stairs. “Mother, if that’s what you want, then it’s fine. I’ll be what you want.” 

 

“No, you idiot! I don’t-” Alicia stopped herself, balling her hands into fists. 

 

“What do you want, then?” I watched Alicia sob until I couldn’t take it anymore and ran over to hug her. She pushed me away, gritting her teeth. 

 

Jamie walked in. The way he put his bag down, tired, and gave Alicia a soft pat on the back felt like nothing. It felt like absolutely nothing.

 

“I hesitate to even ask what’s going on here, but stop crying. You’re scaring the kids.”

 

“There’s only one KID! She’s not a kid! You’re just waiting to see that she’s not a kid! Erin was a kid! Erin was wonderful, and now where is she?” Alicia choked on her words, struggling to stay up. “You tell her what she really is! They’re going to drown you and EAT YOU FOREVER, AND YOU’LL BE ALL ALONE JUST LIKE I WAS!” 

 

Jamie carted Alicia upstairs, my mother went to look busy in the kitchen, and Astor just sat on the steps until I made her go to bed.

 

After the fake cop came, people wandered onto our street even more, looking around, sniffing the air. Sometimes, some strange person would walk in and sniff around at school, and I always wondered if they could smell Astor or Alicia on me. I did my best to remember what they looked like and where they walked from to get to me. 

 

“Sitting ducks,” Alicia groaned into a glass of wine one night, motioning for Astor and me to sit with her. “They don’t listen to the Creature anymore. Is your father a moron? We can’t sit this close forever. I can only do so much before they tear us to shreds. How did Rick stomach that man? Is he actually a moron, or is he doing this on purpose?” Jamie got home, and she didn’t say anything else. 

 

I wanted to know why she was so afraid of him. He was a wimp—a coward. I appreciated sitting with him at night, reading about the ocean. I enjoyed how nice he was. But more and more, it felt like he was trying to let his family get taken. It felt like he was trying to be my best friend so I wouldn’t hate him when we left.

 

The phone rang one day, and no one answered it. I sighed, sitting downstairs watching television with Astor. My mother and Jamie were somewhere talking. Alicia was sulking. I glanced at Astor, and she was knocked out asleep, her thick hair pooled behind her back. 

 

Jeez.

 

When I picked up the phone, the line was silent. I waited a moment before I said anything. 

 

“Free Residence. May I ask who is calling, please?” For a long time, no one said anything. I started watching my show again, and then a throat cleared. 

 

“Hey, ugly. Alicia ready yet?” I froze.

 

“No.”

 

“Tell her to hurry up.” The line clicked. I stared at the phone, heart-pounding, and glanced up the stairs. Alicia stood at the top, a curious expression on her face. 

 

“A friend,” I said, and she nodded. She sulked back to her room and slammed the door. 

 

 

Alicia tried to run a few weeks later. She went through the woods and across the highway. Only a couple of hours passed, but Jamie made Astor hide in the attic and called someone. A bunch of people showed up at our house, all of them carrying shotguns and pistols. They talked to him on the porch, then ran off to find her. My mom got in her car and drove off, helping. I took Astor up to the attic just like Alicia taught me and locked us up there until I heard them come back. 

 

There was a lot of ugly screaming from Alicia. I wanted to cover my ears but covered Astor’s instead. They beat her up, and she didn’t fight back, and I knew it was because she didn’t want Jamie’s friends to send more people. Alicia thought about her daughter even when she pretended she didn’t. 

 

Some part of her must know Astor’s a real person.

 

When they left, the screaming didn’t stop. I took Astor downstairs, but she dove into my room when the sounds of Alicia’s screams scrambled up the stairs, knocking into walls and the floor. Astor cowered under my bed, her teeth chattering loudly. I moved to comfort her, but the door burst open, and Alicia flew in, clouds of blood over her head. Jamie came in after her, a cloth pressed against his face. He pulled my window open and turned on my fan, and it was probably the only time I’d ever seen him angry. He waited until the blood cleared before he ripped the rag from his face.

 

“I have to listen to you sobbing about Erin every day, and you’d do this? I can’t wait to give her to them! I’ll make you watch them tear her into pieces and eat her! Literal pieces! Literal pieces-“

 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Okay!” Alicia tried to close the closet door, but he ripped it off the hinge, bashing it against the ground until it splintered and halved. Bloody drool poured from his mouth, his voice doubling over itself. He yanked her out of the closet, squeezing her foot until it cracked.

 

“What were you going to do? Turn me into you? Go ahead! Do it!”

 

“I just wanted you to calm down! I wouldn’t do that-“

 

“You think I won’t tell them where she is? I’ll tell them exactly where she is, and then what are you going to do? If I disappear and they come looking through the house, then what?” Alicia just sat with her eyes squeezed shut. “You keep breaking your promises, and I’m going to give them both up. No more Erin to cry yourself to sleep over, no more Astor to ignore and plot over, no more-.”

 

“You shouldn’t hurt your own family,” I whispered, and he dropped her foot. He turned to look at me. His iris took up so much of his eye that I couldn’t see any whites. 

 

You’re my family, Osh! I won’t hurt you. Never.” Calm waved through his body until his eyes returned to normal and his body shrunk. Jamie turned back into the pleasant guy I knew. He even gave me a soft laugh, patting my shoulder. 

 

“All those men fight us, and you do nothing, but you go crazy on a woman,” I said slower, and Alicia whimpered so severely that I stepped between them. Her dress barely existed anymore, only the sleeves remaining, and I blushed, wondering if Jamie would tell them what color underwear she had on. Would he tell them about the clumps of her hair that caught in the doorframe? Would he tell them how afraid she was that she would doom her daughter?

 

She put her arms over herself, as undignified as I would ever see her, and the amount of shame pouring from the closet made me want to set the house on fire. The rage kept going until I couldn’t contain it.

 

Alicia doesn’t even take her shoes off in the house. How dare he do this?

 

“Sorry. Alicia knows she isn’t supposed to do certain things. They put us in danger, that’s all. I’ll take you out for Little Johnny’s later, okay? Everything is fine. I’m not crazy. Don’t say things like that. It’s just a lot to deal with lately.”

 

I waited until he left the room before I went over to Alicia. She adjusted her ankle, listening to the bones crack.

 

“Can you please give me a shirt? Or a blanket,” she whispered. I rushed to yank my blanket off the bed, pulling it over to her. Astor crawled out and went to hug Alicia but stopped short at her appalled expression.

 

“Girl. Let’s find out if you can make a Latch. Osh, get dressed and dig a hole in case she can’t.”

 

I don’t know what happened in the bathroom, but Alicia and Astor came out soaked, and Astor could’ve had a million cups of coffee. She was wide awake, eyes bouncing all around. Alicia patted my head when I asked if they still needed the hole. I’d never seen her so excited. 

 

“Save it for Jamie.”

 

When Jamie took me with him to the ocean, nobody messed with us. No one even turned to look at us when we got the boat ready on the pier. The difference made me guilty sometimes, but it was serene, and the sea felt like peace. We went a lot when things were getting too bad with Alicia in the house, and he told me stories about my dad. He told me about my grandma and grandpa. I let him talk most of the time, keeping all the stories in my head to think about later. Part of me wondered if he kept me out at sea so much in hopes that we’d come home to everyone dead or gone.

 

“Rick should be here. I don’t know. We should’ve gone to Anity or somewhere else. He could handle himself, we might’ve been fine. Maybe the two of us can do that later, you know? Take your mother and go live the best life we can somewhere else. We don’t have to deal with this. It’s not our burden,” he said, leaning his head against the railing. We sat on the boat floor with sandwiches, a tiny radio playing music. Astor was probably at home, hiding in a closet. 

 

I shrugged.

 

“Would my dad beat Alicia up? Would he keep her in the house and- and say he’s gonna let her daughters die?”

 

“Beat her up? That’s not what I did. Everyone knows I’m not like that. I’ve never been like that. Getting older is strange, but nothing’s normal around here.” He laughed a little, rubbing his face. There was so much uncertainty in everything he did. Even out on the water, surrounded by nothing but blue and indigo, he looked too nervous to decide.

 

“Leave by yourself if you want. I’ll take care of them.”

 

“It’s not that simple, Osh. You can’t just-“

 

“You said we have to do things to keep our family happy sometimes. I think it’s okay. I don’t mind fighting.” He looked at me, nearly scoffed. 

 

“That was about curtains, Osh. Curtains don’t compare to our entire lives. Gosh, you’re just like your father!”

 

“You’re right, I am. You hit her again, and you’re gonna lose your arms, sir.” Jamie started to say something. I wondered if he would discipline me. Would he let a little boy tell him off?

 

“We need to talk soon, Osh. Me and you and your mom.”

 

“I don’t want to talk.”

 

Instead of saying anything, he got up and did his best to look busy, roaming around the boat. Relief flooded me.

 

I knew I was lucky, and I had to use my luck to help my family.

 

It wasn’t always bad, and I reminded myself of that constantly. My birthday was still celebrated, as was Astor’s. We even watched television together sometimes. For the most part, we continued to do the small things we’d always done. 

 

You see one person, and they’re actually another. You build your own community, and it’s actually just you. 

 

Alicia said that a lot, and sometimes she asked me to tell her who she was. Part of me felt like I would wake up to a Latch. What did they look like? Could they talk?

 

If there was a replacement available, would Alicia ever come back?

 

We talked about the Creature almost nonstop. I got used to helping Alicia kill people, and then I was mostly doing it alone. If there was an attack, she would motion to the door, barely paying attention.

 

“Why don’t you handle it, Osh?”

 

Through it all, she reminded me that I was supposed to learn, and I was supposed to lie, and I had a job to do. I dug more holes in the yard, getting better and better at it, and she always had someone handy to fill them. 

 

“Such a strong boy. The Creature will be pleased with you, and you need to make sure it stays that way. It adores strength and stoicism over anything else. If you’re smart, you can trick it into trusting you.”

 

“How?”

 

“Like we talked about. Violence and confidence. The Creature will want you to know more so you can help it. It will want to train you. Say no. Show it that you know enough on your own. It likes people who don’t need help.”

 

A couple of times, I caught her standing over Jamie’s bed, once with a hammer and another time with a shotgun. Weighing her options, maybe trying to decide if it was worth the trouble. The thought of Alicia leaving hurt my heart more than the thought of Jamie dying. 

 

I didn’t want her gone, but I knew it was coming. There was a split dragging across the house, one side for Jamie and Janna, the other for Alicia and Astor. They weren’t hiding it anymore. Alicia was going to leave, and I could feel it in my bones. The older I got, the more I dreaded it. 

 

“Do any of you even know me, Osh? Do any of us even know anyone? If Yvette replaced me tomorrow, would you remember her or me? The Creature could recognize a fake version of me in an instant. Could you?”

 

In rare sober moments, Alicia put stuff in my mother’s food. She’d fall asleep, and we got dressed and went to watch Chastain Pier. It was never fun. Astor had to stay right next to me the entire time, covered in so much fabric she looked like a hanger. We grew closer. I started to want to take care of her. There’s a sense of the outside world swallowing Astor when she’s in it, and I wanted to be a buffer. 

 

Alicia made us stand in hidden spots, places that were less likely to attract people. Corners and edges. We always looked at the same thing. Astor, she stared at the cars, at the ground, at everything like it was her first time seeing them. It wasn’t like at home where she stayed as quiet as possible or only spoke to respond. She asked me questions that I grew to cherish. 

 

“Osh, why’s the ground so hot?” She pulled her foot out of her shoe and touched a toe to the asphalt. I worried about her stocking ripping, but Alicia was too busy glaring at the pier to notice. I ignored her for a moment. 

 

“She asked you a question,” Alicia muttered, still staring at the pier.

 

“The sun.”

 

“Why’s the sun so hot?” I patted her head, laughing. 

 

“I’ll read my science book to you later. You should pay attention, though. Someone might try to hurt us.” Astor glanced at the bushes, more questions filling her mouth, but I turned when Alicia snarled.

 

“I get my ankle broken when I even think about leaving, but look at these monsters—gathering around so openly. The Creature loves community, Osh. She loves feeling like a leader, like someone to know. It’s something she envied in the real Yenna, I believe. Look at this excess. Nightly parties, ugly masquerades. It must be nice not to have to spend your life running and hiding. It must be wonderful to flaunt someone else’s beauty! The wench doesn’t even care that her people are starving.” She growled, staring across the parking lot at the crowd. It was never empty. No matter what time we went, it crawled with busy people. I thought it was some type of market or fair at first. There was a joy that poured from them that I didn’t have anything to compare to.

 

Maybe they do have fairs sometimes! If Astor’s so impressed by the ground, she’ll love seeing all the lights and people.

 

“We can’t go?”

 

“Why would you want to sit in front of a watery grave, you tumor,” she huffed, pulling her trench coat tighter. It was getting hard not to notice how different Alicia was from everyone else. The fabric she loved flowed heavenly on any wind it could find. Her heels pushed her up higher than anyone we walked by. I liked the different sounds they made when they clicked on asphalt and then tile or concrete. Assorted notes to play from her shoes. They matched her bags, sometimes even down to the patterns.

 

“I guess it’s alluring to a child,” she said to herself. “When I was young and homeless, the pier was nicer. It bustled with life. I guess that’s why the Shadows like it so much. Plenty of food walks right to them. Can you tell which ones are Shadows?” I squinted, watching them move around. Most of them looked like me, but a few were easy to spot. I waited, taking in the way Alicia stared at me. 

 

“They’re all Shadows. Even the kids.” 

 

“Absolutely correct. The merchants, the college students, all of them. They are adjusting to their new lives on land. The Creature looks and acts like you, but it’s so many other people. Don’t be fooled.” Astor ignored us, digging her stocking into the ground, but Alicia only paid attention to me. “That’s not life over there. It’s a dying species trying to catch a second wind. And they’d just love it if we waltzed over and made their job easier for them. Not that they would notice you two. I’d serve as a reasonable distraction. Would you like to see me get torn to shreds, Osh? I’m sure you’d all like that.” 

 

She touched her scar, growing quiet, and didn’t speak again until night crawled over the docks, swallowing everyone at the pier. 

 

“Do you see that darkness?” A deep black swelled around the Shadows. It was impossible to see through. “Pulled from the depths. They carry the benefits of deep water around with them. Some can even produce pressure!” 

 

“That’s weird.” She laughed, rubbing my hair. 

 

“It is. The Creature is odd, though you should make her feel normal. Make her feel accepted, and she’ll be easier to trick.” Alicia grabbed my hand, more gentle than usual, and we walked back to the train station. She liked being out in public. It was late enough that we were isolated inside, waiting for the last train to come. 

 

I kept watch. Alicia got emotional after we watched the docks sometimes, talking about people I didn’t know or mistakes she’d made. Astor spent too much time smelling the air, taking in life outside of our house. I had to be the one paying attention. 

 

So I saw the girl first.

 

It started as a small flashlight glowing on the tracks. The longer I looked, the less it looked like a flashlight, and the more it looked like a hole in the darkness. Like broken pixels on a tablet, showing through to the lights making up images on the screen. It moved closer, bobbing, and I realized it was a girl. For a moment, I thought I was looking at half of Astor’s face, and then I heard her cough behind me.

 

“Mom?” A tiny voice barely made it to us, but Alicia turned like she’d been shot. She stopped playing with her gloves and just stared, frozen. The girl was dark-skinned with a lot of hair, but I couldn’t make out some of her face. There was a big, bulging hole on one side, so deep that it could’ve led to a new universe. It took me a while to register it as an eye. There was no pupil, no clear border between the eye and the rest of her face, and the light that poured out of it swelled and sifted through the air like toxic gas. Somehow, it stayed in place, swirling back into the hole over and over, contained.

 

Alicia sucked in a deep breath and fell to the ground, gasping. Astor turned to look, her eyes growing wide, already starting to panic. 

 

“Hey, what’d you think about the parking lot,” I said stupidly, grabbing her. I pulled away from a scrambling Alicia, trying to block her view from the monster watching us. 

 

“Erin?” Alicia choked. I heard the train coming and held Astor close to me, still talking about the parking lot. I tried my best to listen and speak at the same time. 

 

“Is that my name?” the girl asked. I felt my stomach lurch when she blinked, like the eye was letting me go for a second.

 

“I said… I didn’t want to see you if…” Alicia stopped talking and finally tried to calm down, hand glued to her chest. She was back up, and her dress burst through the air when the train pulled in, whipping toward the girl. Alicia covered her scar, whimpering, and when the train doors opened, I pulled Astor on without a word. 

 

“No. No, no, no. I don’t know you. Keep that eye covered. And … and if someone tells you it’s blue, run. Don’t even think about it. The minute they say it’s blue, run. Did they tell you that? Don’t you know that?” Alicia stepped toward the train, but the little girl stepped forward. 

 

“Can I come with you?” she whispered. Alicia choked. She heaved, coughing, grabbing on to the train doors and scrambling in. I stood and held my hand to Alicia’s back, rubbing in small circles. The doors closed, but the girl stayed where she was, watching us.

 

“The pier was nice today,” I managed, struggling through the newness. Alicia nodded, pulling the edges of her dress, and sat down. Astor craned her neck, trying to see the monster, but I snapped my fingers.

 

“Don’t be nosy.” When the doors finally closed, I sat next to Alicia. She was shaking so badly that spit gathered up near her mouth. Her scar throbbed, pulsing against her face, glowing. 

 

Astor smiled at the monster when we went by, and the light from the girl’s eye seemed to stick to Astor’s, to somehow make everything white on her brighten. 

 

“Turn around before you kill us, you disease!” Astor jumped, turning to face the front. The suction feeling disappeared as the monster did. I didn’t ask any questions. I just kept sitting there.

 

Kill us?

 

“Stupid girl. What’s she doing out there?” Alicia struggled. “What’s she doing out there this time of night by herself? He said she was somewhere safe, the liar, I knew he was lying. They’re just letting her wander the streets. Someone will find her. Why didn’t I grab her? I panicked. Why didn’t I get her? Maybe we should get off at the next stop. Where would I take her?” Alicia pushed me from the seat, anger replacing her sadness, but it disappeared just as fast.

 

I stayed on the ground, only a little terrified. There wasn’t any malice. Alicia stared down at me with genuine confusion in her eyes, huffing around tears.

 

“Where would you take her, ma’am? You did the right thing.”

 

“Where? Home! She belongs with us!” 

 

“I don’t think that would be good for her, ma’am.” She sobbed, rocking back and forth like a toddler. 

 

“No. They’d hurt her! I have to do it right.” I stood, grabbing the bright orange seat and sliding into it. Alicia wailed a little, the sound trembling through the train.

 

“I bet they’d never allow the same treatment for you. I should decapitate you. I should leave your head floating in the sea! See if Jamie and Rick like that, see how they feel about it then! My children can endure torture and pain. Why can’t you?”

 

“I wouldn’t let you do that to me. You taught me not to let people hurt me. I’m sure Erin knows that, too.” She paused to glare at me, then turned to cry at the window.

 

“Why didn’t I grab her? Why did I leave her there? What’s wrong with me?” She curled up in a ball, her dress hanging down onto the dirty floor, and sobbed. 

 

“You wouldn’t let anyone treat me this way, ma’am. If it was something you could do, you’d protect her. You said it yourself, we’re sitting ducks! I’ll get her back for you, and then we’ll all go to Anity for good.”

 

“We can’t all go, can we? One of us isn’t going anywhere, hm? Or did you forget-“

 

“She doesn’t have you, so it’s not your business. Don’t worry,” I said simply, and it was the only thing that shut her up. She nodded and didn’t make another sound.

 

Astor stared out the window as if nothing happened. A small hum came from her, and she swung her legs back and forth, content to stare at the world going by. It was the first time I was truly worried about her. What did the world look like to someone as forgotten as Astor? What did any of the scenery passing by look like? I sat down and put my arm around her shoulder instead of asking.

 

That night, we got Astor out of bed and went to the hole. I stared down at the murky water, wanting to retch when bubbles of fabric poked out. The smell was unbearable, digging into my nose and pulling out coughs and near-spasms. Astor just stood there. She wore red satin pajamas, too fancy for some dirty hole in the ground. 

 

Alicia took her appearance in, anxiety filling her. She wore a bathing suit herself, tight leggings protecting her legs.

 

“Osh thinks you’re not my business. But you are, and I’m going to help you so we can move forward. So I move on with my life, and he can protect you. It’s silly to let fear stop me from teaching you. Do you know what I need you to do, Astor?”

 

“Drown.”

 

“No, not this time,” she said, shooting a quick look at me. “I need you to do what you’re supposed to do with Janna. You need to make a sandbox and then pull me into it. Can you do that?”

 

Astor didn’t respond. 

 

“The thought of being in that hole makes my stomach turn. And I don’t know if I can, but we need to try. If you do your best, I’ll give you my dignity and help.” Astor still didn’t respond, staring at the hole without emotion. After a long while, she trembled slightly. I moved to hug her, but Alicia raised her hand. 

 

“All you have to do is panic! You’re already good at that. It’s a hole full of brain-dead Latches and dead Shadows, so it should be easy. You’re going to get in it, and no one will help you out. I want you to touch any of those bodies and pull the memories. I want you to escape.”

 

The wind blew, and Astor finally looked up at Alicia, nodding. 

 

Astor got in as slow as she could, touching the water with her toe first. When she was waist-deep, she stopped. A strange sound filled the air. It was like a fish gasping on the ground, fresh out of the water. 

 

It was Astor gagging.

 

“Keep going!” Alicia tried, already exasperated. I tried to move into the water but backed up when a big, ugly body turned on the surface. Astor froze. Alicia slid forward and shoved her down, gagging herself. She held her shoulders but didn’t move. I circled the hole, worried. 

 

Astor took deep breaths, waiting, gripping her mother’s hands. Alicia pushed her all the way down, shoving until bubbles burst from the surface. Another face bobbed up, pale and bloated. More bobbed around them until Alicia sucked down frantic breaths, her arms shaking.

 

When she pulled Astor up, the sheer terror on her face made me slide down until I was nearly in the water. Alicia pushed me back.

 

“You have to sandbox. Do you understand? They’re going to put you in the ocean, and if you can’t do it, you’ll suffer. You will suffer, girl, do you get it?”

 

“Yes! I’m trying!” She pushed Astor under again, holding her shoulders until the water turned red. Astor didn’t fight. She didn’t even struggle. 

 

“Don’t kill her! What are you doing?!” I yelled, but my mother grabbed me out of nowhere. She held me, and we watched. Astor pushed up, sucking in a deep breath. The bodies in the water bobbed to the surface, and Alicia’s veins flashed, but nothing else happened. 

 

“Astor, please. What did you see?”

 

“There’s just dead people in here! I want to get out! I WANT TO GET OUT, GET OFF ME!

 

“They’re not dead! They’re brain-dead Latches, they’re all alive and stuck. You have to pull their memories! Just- just pull their memories, and then you’ll have so many places to visit when you’re under. You just have to try, dammit!” Alicia was getting frantic. She pushed Astor down again, humming erratically, but this time I grabbed her arm. 

 

“She can’t do it, Alicia, you have to stop-“

 

“If you don’t do it, you’ll suffer! You have to try,” Alicia muttered to herself. Her arms shook harder, and she sat still even when Astor’s small hands scratched lines down her chest. Astor grabbed at the dirt, gurgling on the water, and the bodies blazed white. For a split second, a woman’s face bobbed out of the water, glaring at me. She wasn’t like any of the bodies. It took me in, winked, and disappeared back under the surface.

 

I blinked, confused.

 

Alicia jumped back when the water started boiling but didn’t let go, ignoring the bubbling pool.

 

I grabbed Alicia harder this time, and my mother joined me. We pulled until Alicia was all the way out, soaked, and sobbing. Astor crawled from the hole, gritting her teeth in anger, and Alicia fell back, exhausted.

 

“Just try harder! You have to try harder!” Alicia screamed and sobbed to herself until my mother wrapped her arms around her. 

 

“Osh, help her make things up! Please! She just needs to sandbox, that’s all! She can do it!” Alicia’s voice broke at every word, cracking into me. I walked over to Astor and pulled her away from the hole.

 

“We don’t know what will happen while I’m gone! You have to learn this!” 

 

“Oh, you’re not going anywhere, Alicia,” my mom said. She nearly dragged Alicia inside, giving me an embarrassed nod.

 

Astor didn’t react at first. After a while, she clasped her hands together and wrinkled her mouth. “How am I supposed to see things that aren’t there? It doesn’t make sense. I wanted to do it, but I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. It’s just nasty water. I don’t want her to be scared for me anymore! I don’t care what’s going to happen. I’ll do it if she just stops crying all the time!”

 

“There was a woman in there-“

 

“She’s always there. That doesn’t matter. I’m supposed to go in, not pull people out. It’s useless.” Astor gripped her hands tighter together, shivering. “Why does it matter? She never says I’m not going to the ocean. It’ll happen no matter what I do.” 

I started to protest. I started to tell her about Autumn, and her girls, and the plans for the Creature. And then I thought about it. 

 

There were so many plans, but Astor’s was always the same. Feed the monster.

 

It finally hit me that there was no plan to save Astor. The goal was to ease her discomfort. To make sure she could make a new world for herself once she went underwater. There was only a plan to save Erin, and Alicia never wavered on it. She sobbed and screamed all day about saving Erin, but she never talked about sparing Astor. 

 

Words didn’t come to my head. Nothing did. The moon rose in the sky, shining through the trees. I held my hand out, hoping that would be enough.

 

Astor accepted my hand, and we stood out there in silence until I grabbed a shovel. I spent the night filling the hole, and Astor watched me.

 

When I found the words, they were simple. “Wherever you go, I go. I’ll never leave you, Astor.”

 

When the phone rang again that night, Alicia was the one to answer it. I stood at the top of the stairs and listened, my stomach twisting around itself. 

 

“Yes. I’ll meet you there. No, not Yvette. I don’t trust her. Use one of the other ones.”

 

 

I looked at my clock, and it was time. 

 

Alicia couldn’t bring any of her things. Everything had to be the same as it was before she left, so she couldn’t say goodbye. Astor wouldn’t know, Jamie wouldn’t know, Janna wouldn’t know. I was the only one who would know that Alicia Free was gone. 

 

I looked at the clock, grabbed some money out of Jamie’s drawer, and rode my bike to Sam Anthony’s. I bought some flowers. The entire time I rode through Lostine, I tried to remind myself to breathe, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t catch my breath. 

 

The back of Alicia, all dressed up and ready to leave, is burned into my brain. The long black trench coat she wore was beautiful. She let her hair swing far down when she walked. Everything about her was somewhat somber, every color muted when it came near her. Every sound lowered. Every part of the world interacted with Alicia, and the way she returned the energy was all I wanted. 

 

When Alicia loves you, her imprint is so deep that you can’t just say goodbye. You can’t just turn and leave. She sticks to you. You just can’t ever shake the feeling that she’s around. And then sometimes she’s different. She’s vicious and ugly, and that violence doesn’t sink into you the same way. It sits on top of your skin, blocks your pores, steals your air. 

 

We were standing at the Lostine Pier, and she was about to get on a ship. It was the largest ship I’d ever seen, but it was nearly empty. Maybe a few people moved around the deck, and only one seemed to notice us on the docks. Maybe it was a cruise. Maybe it was something else. I couldn’t tell, and my grief wouldn’t let me wonder.

 

“I brought these for you. Astor picked them out,” I lied, trying to hand Alicia a giant bouquet of dark flowers. Dark things always made sense for her. She let out a surprised huff, holding back tears, and then patted my head.

 

“Oh, I can’t take those with me! I don’t have anywhere to put them at the moment. I’d be honored if you took them home and took care of them.” Every word was gentle, wrapped in love and pride. She kissed my forehead, gripping my cheek like an old auntie. I laughed, flooded with emotion I could barely hold. 

 

“I’ll take care of them! And Astor. And- and everyone else.” I pulled them back to me, trying hard to stop myself from crying.

 

Alicia patted my head. “I have no doubt. You’re capable, Osh. You always have been.” The wind blew hard, and her hair flung around her face, exposing the thick veins running along her eye. They looked worse then. The deep black of her pupils shrunk a little, almost down to average size.

 

“You won’t get any thanks outside of this moment,” she smiled. “I regret that I can’t say what I want to say to you. There’s no room for softness, and I’ve doted on you enough. But you’re important to me. Even when I’m screaming, I need you to understand that.” Her hair was practically alive, riding the breeze, and I marveled at her. She was always so imposing, but it was encouraging—a reason to be better. She knelt and gave me a big hug. “I’ve lost a lot of friends and family. You are one of the hardest losses to deal with.”

 

“You won’t lose me, Alicia! I can come to visit, right?” She waved a little at that, squeezing tears out of her eyes. 

 

“Who are you responsible for?”

 

“Erin.”

 

“And Louetta and Noah.”

 

“Erin and Louetta and Noah.” She hesitated a moment, staring at me, then let the moment pass.

 

“Thank you. You’re keeping my word for me, Osh. That means more to me than anything anyone could do.” 

 

I nodded, but I didn’t want her to leave. Some part of me understood that she would be leaving for a long time, maybe for good, and I just wanted to find a way to keep her there in front of me. 

 

“I won’t.”

 

“Everyone will need help. You can’t help them all. Don’t deviate! Only help Erin, Louetta, and Noah.” In my head, I added Astor. I always added Astor.

 

Alicia went over the plan with me. She made sure I understood what I was supposed to do. 

 

“Please come back,” I mumbled. “Please. Don’t leave forever. Do whatever you need to and come back!” 

 

“I will, Osh. You’ll see me again.” She hugged me until all my breaths caught in her hair, and then that was it. 

 

She got on the ship, barely able to compose herself. I could see her sobbing the entire time it took for it to sail away, waving a napkin. I had to save the people she loved, the ones she couldn’t save. It was so hard to breathe that I doubled over, staring until the ship was too small to be real anymore. Staring at the horizon as it ate Alicia up.

 

I rode my bike home, but I stopped along the highway and stared at the traffic whizzing by. Wouldn’t riding into the heavy stream of cars be the perfect failsafe? Would The Creature like to see memories of wheels rolling over my face?

 

Instead, I sat down and made up a bunch of nonsense with a bunch of nonsense names, struggling to get even a breath in. I concentrated, letting the night roll over me. 

 

Footsteps crunched against the grass behind me, and I turned as fast as I could. 

 

Astor shivered, anger pulsing through her, spit sliding over her teeth. She bared them, every one razor-sharp, and let out a series of angry pants. I tried to speak, but couldn’t find my voice. 

 

“She didn’t- even- say- goodbye- to ME, after all those years, after- after all the cutting, and- and drowning, and- she- she- took YOU to the docks!” The trees around us smoldered, bits of bark sizzling and turning black. A blinding white light filled her mouth, escaped her nose, and rolled through her hair. I backed up, but she moved forward. 

 

“Astor, she’ll be back! Don’t get upset, she’ll be back!” 

 

“Are you stupid? Do you think she’s coming back? You’re never going to see her again, Osh! She left us!” More spit bubbled over her chin, and then I heard the same sound I heard when she’d killed the Shadow in our house. I turned to run, but the screech of tires and brakes froze me to the spot. 

 

When I got the nerve to look, I saw scorched, empty cars for miles down the road. A bright white block moved over the vehicles, eviscerating any organic material it touched. I listened to screams rise and get trapped in the death beam, and then it was so quiet I thought my ears were blocked. 

 

Astor sucked in a deep breath, trembling. I rushed over to her but stopped short when the color drained from my shirt. 

 

“It’s OK,” I tried, but the words fizzled out. Astor stood there seething, still boiling with rage, until I dropped to my knees and begged. She turned and walked back toward the docks, screaming in her own sound pocket. 

 

The fear thickened in my throat, and I fell forward, exhausted. The sound of footsteps crunching toward me again made me groan, but I looked up, and it was someone else.

 

Cora walked out of the woods, and I recognized her immediately, my mind completely clear. 

 

She gave a callous, mean-spirited laugh, looking down at her hands. “Osh! Now, don’t laugh, but I knew I remembered that hole. I’m the one your wife kept summoning! Isn’t that interesting?” I sobbed, and Cora stepped back, surprised. 

 

“Oh! I’m sorry, of course, you’re emotional after all of this. Still, that’s pretty interesting, isn’t it?” A sour feeling crept up my throat, urging closer to my mouth with each step Astor took. I couldn’t move. My limbs screamed in agony, but I was stuck in place.

 

Osh. I’m Osh Snow, I’m 30.

 

“Well, this obviously is an emotional section for you, Osh, so we can move forward. I have control again. Let’s go back to your 15th birthday. I’d hate to show you what your wife was actually up to all these years when you were conspiring with Alicia.” Astor disappeared down the highway, hair frizzing and sparking over her head.

 

Barely able to move my lips, I asked, “What do you mean?” 

 

“I mean, you’re not the only one with secret experiences, Osh. And you’d be surprised how much worse it gets for Astor. Look, it’s my turn. Take me back to the right time period, and I’d be delighted to show you some things you don’t want to see. We need Bylas to do this right.”

 

Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller