Written by Trey Briggs || Edited by Lyric Taylor ||  Art by Monte Miller

Chapter 2: Blood

ASTOR SNOW

Panic is such an odd feeling. No matter how much you feel it, no matter how long you’ve drowned in it, you never properly adjust. Never. It becomes a different monster with each iteration, warping and mutating. It commits to swallowing you in a different way every time. This panic in me is old, but it never feels that way. The pressure varies, but I know a panic attack is coming on, sometimes hours before it actually does.

 

It’s a chronic pain.

 

The same panic sat in me and transformed itself through every waking moment that Osh didn’t call. It trailed after me through the chaos of working with children. The panic shadowed me through speech therapy lesson after speech therapy lesson. It glued me to the ground or my seat or the tub floor, attacking me relentlessly. I sat in the shower until the water turned to ice on my hot skin day after day and waited for that pressure to give me a moment.

 

Give me a damn moment!

 

The panic resurfaced as I sat on the docks morning after morning, waiting for Osh. I’ve watched people get beaten to death. I’ve found bodies that my mother left for me. The feeling that comes over you when you see someone that has completed this life is so familiar to me, I could be a coroner. The realization that they are merely an empty shell sat heavy with me as I waited for my husband to reappear.

 

A couple of times I woke up, breath rancid, hair everywhere, and body cold to the bone, still sitting at the edge of the pier. Osh made no appearance. His boats remained docked, unchanged.

 

It was hard to give myself time to adjust to his absence. There was never any alone time, never a second to sit in my panic. I woke up to Juke carrying me home twice. Once to Moose sitting next to me, eating an apple, staring out at the ocean.

 

He shrugged away my incoherent scolding and whispered, “I didn’t want you to fall in, Mom.”

 

My experience with death constantly taunted me, telling me that I needed to get used to it, that I needed to start moving on. And, day after day, I realized that I edged closer and closer to considering Osh a complete loss. Death was the only thing that made sense in this absence. 

 

If I could sob, I’d do it until my chest caved in.

 

 

Around the time Osh announced the boy’s trip, he acted stranger than usual. There’s no getting around the fact that Osh is strange in general, but it was a different type of abnormality this time. It reminded me of the way he used to shift around the house when the kids were young, eyeing doors and windows, the way he used to tense up when the door opened, preparing to protect me without being told to do so. Once the days turned into weeks, his odd behavior sunk into my skin, and I couldn’t take the potency of it. I revisited the memory over and over, staring out at the sea from the docks.

 

One moment stood out to me in particular.

 

“There’s something wrong with your eye, Astor. The left one.”

 

Osh’s voice shook, almost vibrating. I stopped folding Moose’s clothes, put his swim trunks on top of his suitcase, and cleared my throat. Sitting at the edge of the bed, he clasped his hands together, his posture stiff and unfriendly.

 

“It’s fine. It’s been hurting a little, but it’s not worrisome. I can get it looked at if you’d like.” By hurting a little, I meant that I’d been waking up screaming from the shards of glass that had to be nesting in my skull somehow. It felt like my pupil was separating from the iris, splitting in time with the ticks of our wall clock. I could see fine. Something else was going on there.

 

This is a shift, Astor.

 

I tried not to think about it.

 

“Can Noah look at it? I know she’s not a doctor, but she’ll keep it to herself at least. It’s not a normal type of problem; you don’t want anyone asking too many questions.” My hands found my hips, and I cleared my throat again. Sometimes, and it wasn’t often, he made me feel like I should apologize for my Devil Syndrome. In passive but scolding ways, he talked about me being ‘abnormal’ like a nuisance or a punishment.

 

“Osh. I’ll let Noah look at it. Is there anything else?” He shook his head no, pulling his hat off. He’d been working on Juke’s boat, helping him clear out something that was stuck in his trawl net. I tried my best to avoid dead things, so I left them to it.

 

He thought for a long time and then moved over to me, grabbing my face and forcing me to look at him. My eye throbbed a bit—the entire eyeball—but I didn’t move.

 

“It’s not even the same color anymore. It’s not even the same color that it was yesterday. Nobody else said anything?”

 

Students had commented on it. Coworkers at my part-time job at Reginald Elementary gawked at me. Both my children attended this school, and they had also mentioned my eye. Noah stared at me in confusion more than a few times in the weeks leading up to the conversation but knew better than to ask.

 

Juke gave me a simple, “The fuck is wrong with your eye?”

 

“No, no one else mentioned it. You’re being ridiculous.” I felt a pressure building up in my head and wished, for the millionth time, that I could just cry and let it out.

 

Osh let go of my face with a bit too much force, nicking my chin. I hoped I wouldn’t bleed; the last thing I needed was more of his awkward, almost angry silence. The sight of my blood drying too quick was an easy way to set him off. Whatever was in his head already wasn’t saying good things about me.

 

“Is that how your mom’s eyes ended up like that? Did she complain about them hurting?”

 

“Osh …”

 

“Did she?” I pushed back my rage, returning to my errand. Moose had to have everything on the trip. I wasn’t letting him out of the house with less than a full wardrobe. What if they sunk and he needed to keep warm by piling the clothes on? Or if they crashed into an island and he needed supplies? The water was too cold for a swim, but you never know what men will do when they take kids off on adventures. I packed his swim trunks just in case.

 

Osh still wouldn’t tell me where they were going. The most I’d gotten was, “On a trip.” I’d foolishly figured that he meant to bring me something back, something I’d guess if he told me. It wasn’t odd of him to go off without saying exactly where he was going, though he’d usually be a bit more specific.

 

It didn’t change my life in any way not to question him, so I didn’t.

 

“Astor, I’m not accusing you of anything. But let’s be real. You haven’t gone to a doctor, so you must think you know what’s going on. You’re too paranoid to just leave things alone; we both know that. You can’t even walk up the fucking street without having a panic attack, so why are you ignoring this? Tell me.” He leaned against the wall and watched me.

 

I hate people watching me, and yet, they always do. Every room I walk into, every space I enter, someone watches me.

 

“I don’t know how her eyes got like that or what she went through. They’d been like that since I was born as far as I could tell. Again, I’m not worried about it. Don’t mention my panic attacks.” I tried to add a final edge, but Osh ignored it.

 

“Yeah, they were like that all the time. They didn’t look like they changed color. She told me once that there were other symptoms I should look out for, though. Might not mean anything, actually. Or maybe it means a lot. Yours could still end up like hers,” he said. My breaths were coming in short bursts.

 

Don’t you dare have a panic attack now, you coward …

 

“What if it is like hers? Are you going to leave me?” Shock filled the room, both his and mine. I hadn’t expected to say it out loud. What stuck out to me while going over the memory, what I’d missed before, was that he didn’t answer my question. He helped me pack the rest of Moose’s clothes, swallowing hard. He held me from behind for a while, with his lips nested on the nape of my neck, and started talking a lot. Like a busted engine. He kept opening his mouth to say things and then transforming the words into soft kisses.

 

He never actually answered.

 

Sitting at the docks, I wondered if maybe Osh wasn’t missing. Maybe he wasn’t decomposing somewhere on a deserted island, his boat capsized. Maybe, instead, he saw something in me that he recognized in my mother; maybe he’d left us forever.

 

I practiced sobbing at the docks, dry faced except for the moisture from the sea. What would it be like to let out all the pressure? To cry out the rejection?

 

Would it be better if Osh was dead or abandoning his life with us?

 

.

The pressure was nightmarish. I’d gone back and forth with myself about reporting Osh missing. That hesitation sifted out of me day by day. Finally, after two and a half weeks of relying on Juke’s word that he knew where Osh was and that he was okay, I decided it was time. I had to know what happened.

 

I called Noah and asked her to watch the kids. Something in my voice must’ve alarmed her. She showed up in curlers and a tiny dress, house shoes flopping, Juke trailing so close they could’ve been fused together.

 

“Where are you going?” Noah asked, half-excited and half-worried. I love her to death, but drama fuels her.

 

“… police station.”

 

“Oh, hun, let me put my clothes on. I was going to go if you didn’t; this is nuts. Where the fuck would his boring ass even go for this long …” Juke covered her mouth with his hand, lost in thought.

 

“Look. Don’t do that.” We both turned to look at him like he was crazy.

 

I mustered up all my restraint and asked, “You’re not worried at all? His boat is docked! He’s not on it, not here, hasn’t shown up for work. He’s nowhere.”

 

“That man will kill you if you send the cops after him.” Noah made a face. I heard one of the kids shuffling on the stairs but didn’t move to shoo them off. It had to be Astrid.

 

Moose was too quiet to hear, and Chaunce was too loud to miss.

 

“How can a dead man kill me,” I asked. Juke blinked in surprise. He put his arms on top of Noah’s head, leaning on her like a desk.

 

“He’s fine. You’re going to get him in trouble for nothing. If you go down there, I’ll call and tell them he’s out cheating on you and you wanted to get him in trouble for revenge.”  Noah turned and smacked him in the nose like a dog. “Ay!”

 

“How do we know he’s not out cheating on her at this point? You don’t want us to get the police involved? Then tell us what the fuck happened, Jukel. This is not a joke for you to dance around. This shit is ugly. You know how she feels about cops! You think she’d go if it wasn’t serious?”

 

“Ya’ll really can’t just take my word for it?”

 

“Give us a reason to, Jukel! You’re acting like he’s been gone a day or something. We’re hitting on half a month. Astor’s walking around having panic attacks, and you’re sitting here putting more scenarios in her head …”

 

“Don’t mention my panic attacks.”

 

Juke gave an exasperated sigh. “Look, I’m not the bad guy here! Osh is the one who won’t come home. Why are ya’ll yelling at me?” I stopped talking and let them argue for a second, hearing Astrid’s tiny feet squeak on the steps, her breathing hard and pronounced. She was sobbing quietly to herself.

 

“He won’t come home? Like he voluntarily won’t come home? Have you spoken to him?” Noah’s questioning was more direct, more aggressive, and her husband seemed to buckle under it. Juke looked around as if something in the room could give him support.

 

When he couldn’t find it, he grumbled to himself, “… she knows damn well that man ain’t out there cheating or dead. Osh ain’t that stupid! He’s a grown man!”

 

“So you’re telling me you would do something like this to me? You think I’d be here when you got back? At this point his ass better be dead.” A heavy silence filled the room, and all we could hear were quiet sobs. I realized after a moment that I was the only one who could hear Astrid crying in the corner.

 

These beasts can hear things even you and I can’t …

 

“Juke, I should have gone the minute you came back without him,” I whispered, staring at the hardwood floor.

 

Astor. I know this is tough, but you can’t walk around driving yourself crazy about this. Keep going to work. Play with the kids. He’ll be back before any of us even miss him. You have to know that. I’m counting on that. That’s my day one. He’s not going to die out there, and he’s not going to abandon you or us. None of that shit is even in his character.” Something about his tone made me look up. It was like he wanted to convince himself, not me, but it was also thin. Weak. Every word from his mouth was soaked in offense. I looked over at Noah, and she definitely realized the same thing.

 

He was more worried about me going to the police than where Osh was.

 

Juke knew exactly where Osh was.

 

There was a loud rumble around the corner, and a small voice cried out in pain. Rage seared through me. I walked over before Noah could grab my arm.

 

Astrid, holding her knee and unsuccessfully fighting back a barrage of tears, tried her best not to look up. I towered over her.  

 

“Daddy is … Dad-dee is … Daddy is not hurt! Find! I go find!” she whined, holding her knee.

 

Her fresh tears made my head hurt more, made me wish I could trade places with her. I leaned forward, teeth gritting, hands balling into fists. I felt Juke slowly put his arm around my stomach and hold me in place.

 

Relax.” I smelled cigarette smoke and realized Noah had stepped out. My heart beat against his hand, straight through my stomach, almost raising my skin.

 

Juke protected me from myself a lot when we were younger. He would grab and hold me until my rage seemed to transfer into him, until all my emotions bled into him and I shriveled and calmed, tearless, blank. The size of him so wholly engulfed me that I had no choice but to relax, to stop and gather myself.

 

I let all my rage go and took a deep breath.

 

Juke leaned over Astrid, holding out his hand. His smile quieted her sniffles a bit. “Hey, pretty girl. Your daddy’s a superhero. Even I can’t beat him! So nothing can hurt him, right? We’re going to wait, and when he’s done with his secret mission, he’s coming right back. If you cry now, he won’t be able to take you on the next secret mission, will he?” He hoisted her up.

 

Moose suddenly bound down the stairs, frantic, nearly colliding with the wall. He assessed the situation, noticed Astrid’s weepy eyes—her hand on her knee—and my serious expression, and held his hands out to calm himself. Juke motioned for him to move out of the way.

 

“Unc, she’s hurt! She might have twisted her knee! That can cause permanent damage! We have to get bandages and wrap it tight! How far did you fall? You have to watch what you’re doing, Astrid!” Moose ran up the stairs for the bandages while Juke cradled Astrid. She watched me over his shoulder, eyes wide and pathetic.

 

I was drowned for LESS when I was her age.

 

“I’m going to the police station.” I pulled on my coat. The smell of Noah’s cigarette wafted into the house. I followed it, ignoring Juke’s movement behind me. She held up a finger for me to wait, skipping across the street to get dressed.

 

The night was quiet as we stood there, Juke holding my daughter, the wind blowing soft and cold. Her sniffles stabbed into me.

 

“I’m so disappointed in you, Juke. You don’t know if he’s okay, but you know where he went. You know that much, I can tell. I expect better. I expect better from both of you.” Finally, Juke didn’t protest or make excuses or even try to defend his honor. He rested his head on top of Astrid’s giant mess of hair and rocked her side to side, humming until she stopped sniffling and drifted calmly to sleep.

 

He didn’t speak again until Noah came out, and when he did talk, it was with razor-sharp, blistering anger.

 

“I promised him I wouldn’t say anything. Moose promised. But I’m promising you right now, I’m really promising, everything’s fine. It won’t be if you go to the police. I can’t elaborate, but it won’t be. I put a lot of myself into protecting you and everyone here, everyone in our fucking circle. I put a lot of thought into everything I say around the kids, around you, every move I make. Ya’ll come home from the lab covered in all types of shit, looking weird. Do I ever say anything?

 

“Stop questioning me. Stop overthinking everything. I got this! I always make sure everything is okay, right? What, everybody falls apart without Osh all of a sudden? Ya’ll need him to function?

 

“I put it on my momma, wherever she is. I put his safety on my momma. Osh is okay. He is coming back; you don’t need to worry. Let this be the time you believe me, Astor, because I’m not saying it again.” He turned with my daughter and walked into my house, closing the door softly behind him. Noah and I stood stiff under the evening sky, speechless.

 

“Well thank God for Saint Juke, huh,” she laughed cruelly, lighting a cigarette.

 

There’d been one other time when Juke put a promise “on his momma.” Just one.

 

“No one will know unless you tell them. How would they find out? On my momma, I promise I’ll protect you through this. Please, let this be the time you believe me, Astor. Don’t tell anyone. Trust me.”

 

And, like before, I did.

JUKE TEROY

It’s gonna sound some type of way, I know it is, but I can’t remember my childhood. Not only the parts when I was learning to walk or talk, or whatever. I mean, I can’t remember anything from before, what, age 15? High school. That’s as far back as I can go.

 

It wouldn’t mean so much if I couldn’t remember other things. I remember shit as small as the way my food tasted for breakfast every morning. I can tell you what I ate for lunch every single day of high school, in fact. Astor used to do this sarcastic thing where she’d shake my hand when she saw me, and I can remember the different ways her palm felt as we got older. The way it grew, the way certain lotions softened it up, the way it felt when she switched to almond oil. All that.

 

I can tell you how it felt the first time Noah climbed up on my back, burying her face in my neck, laughing. The way her legs wrapped around me, how soft her breasts felt. I remember the feeling of waking up in an alley, my pants soaked through with rain and dirt, trying to figure out how I was going to get cleaned up before school in a few hours. I can remember the panic I had the first time I woke up to the sight of painful, itchy black patches covering my skin. All that. Anything before a certain moment in high school? It’s like I didn’t exist.

 

I think about that sometimes. Not a lot; can’t dwell on a past you can’t remember. But I think about that.

 

Astor talks to me about her past every now and then, and a lot of it has to do with being a kid, the things she missed out on. I can’t give her any stories in return. I don’t know any.

 

I stared at Astor out of the window while I got ready for work. I did my whole routine thing, you know. The boots, the coat, the hat. It never really got down to freezing in Lostine, not even by the water, but we had some good cold fronts that would put you on your ass.

 

On a normal weekday, I’d be going across the street to meet up with Osh, walking with him to the docks, getting the boats ready, dapping him up and heading out. He wasn’t going with me anytime soon, though. His absence gave me way too much time, man, just an extraordinary amount of extra time. You never realize how much time you spend with someone until they disappear into thin air.

 

That’s right, Juke. Thin air.

 

I walked around the house, calming my nerves. Every window I looked out, I could see Astor standing in her yard, head tilted back, staring at the sky. You couldn’t get attention from anyone in that damn family; they all loved to sit in their heads. Even Moose and Astrid liked to sit around thinking, reading, brooding.

 

Astor turned to look at me. A loud noise rang through my head, something like a long beep. I made eye contact with her until it filled my skull, throbbing almost. By the time I turned away, I could feel the noise in my chest.

 

It sounds bad, but it’s not a big deal. It happened sometimes. I don’t like to think about it. I escaped back down the hall to the girls’ room.

 

“Good morning, little terror,” I shouted, throwing the door open. Chaunce sat up in her bed, orange hair all over the damn place, and she looked like a wound on the wall for a second. Astrid cleared her throat, pulling a coat on. You could tell when Astor was mean to her; it was all in her movements. It sat on her face. I heard Noah walking loudly down the hall, a herd of elephants living in her feet.

 

“Move, Jukel, damn! Ya’ll not dressed yet? Come on, I’m supposed to be at the lab today. We have a big thing coming up; I have to brief the team.” All her words had to find their way around her cigarette. I grabbed her waist, pulling her into me, and she patted my nose.

 

“Why aren’t you dressed?” She sighed, wiggling away from me and tossing a skirt from one hand to the other. I whistled at her garters, and she patted my nose again.

 

“So everybody wants to ask me questions now? Why are you still here, Jukel?”

 

“Just … a little weird without Osh.” She eyed Astrid, sucking back on the cigarette, twisting her body into the pencil skirt. I helped her button her blouse.

 

“Hm. Is that something you’re going to have to get used to, or …?” I didn’t answer, finishing my handiwork on her buttons. She raised an eyebrow, smiling a little, and handed me the cigarette. I held it while she buttoned the skirt, then handed it back.

 

“Come here, Astrid. Let me do something to your hair before your momma sees it and kills all of us. The whole damn city.” I watched them scurry around for a while.

 

“She’s getting too aggressive with her, Noah. That shit yesterday wasn’t called for.”

 

“We can talk about that alone,” she said, smiling at Astrid around the cigarette. Astrid gave me a small glare.

 

“You said that last time. Somebody needs to talk about it before it goes too far. It’s not like her. It’s out of nowhere …” Astrid and Noah both ignored my statement, but I let it sit in the air anyway. 

 

“She sleep at the docks again?” Noah asked, tucking her blouse into the top of the skirt, flashing her stomach a little. I laughed when she ran her hand across her belly button and winked.

 

“Yeah. She’s home now, though. I didn’t get a chance to get her before she-”

 

“I don’t care if you have to stay up all night, Jukel, don’t leave her out there by herself. We have to take care of each other.” Noah was the only one who called me by my full name. Well, her momma Autumn did when her face wasn’t so scrunched up in rage from my very existence that she couldn’t speak. My own momma did, too, but I hadn’t seen her in years for her to do it.

 

Chaunce, half-dressed with her hair in the same lightning strike style, followed me down the stairs when I went to leave.

 

“Uncle Osh okay?” You could understand Chaunce most of the time, even when she didn’t exactly say full sentences or words. It shocked me to have the advanced kid. The way Astor made Astrid read the dictionary for ‘fun’, it shocked her, too.

 

“Don’t worry about that, little terror. Are you going to work with me or Mommy today?”

 

“Aunie, duh. It’s Wed day, Daddy!” I found a brush, wet it, and got her hair into a semi-tamed puff.

 

“Don’t say ‘duh.’ I’ll pick you up a little later then, okay? And look … you let me know if Auntie seems meaner than usual, okay? Especially with Astrid.”

 

“Okay, duh!” Noah rushed downstairs with her shoes in her hand, another cigarette lit, and smeared a bunch of gunk on Chaunce’s head. Gel or something, I don’t know what they use. She snatched the brush and got the rest of Chaunce’s hair together. Astrid walked down the stairs behind them, counting the steps to herself.

 

You couldn’t look at Astrid and not want to protect her with your life. She had this bright way of carrying herself that got lost in the rest of us.

 

“Practice figh … fight … hit?” she asked me when she reached the bottom step. I looked out the window at Astor standing there, all of her energy focused inside the house.

 

If she glares any harder, we’ll all burst into flames.

 

I ignored another loud beep in my head.

 

“Not today, pretty girl. Definitely this week, but not today.” Noah eyed me again, finally pulling her shoes on, another smirk behind her cigarette.

 

“Go ahead to work, Jukel. Bring home dinner. Astor hasn’t touched any food in almost a week.”

 

 

Moose waited for me at the docks, his hair tied up on his head like a pineapple. The boy was in polka dot pajamas, the legs becoming wet under his slippers from being too long. I almost stopped at the sight of him.

 

“Your momma did not let you out of the house like that,” I laughed. He glared at me. It took a second, but I fixed my face and braced myself to take him seriously.

 

“Unc, why are we doing this?”

 

“Doing what?” Moose seethed for a second. I patted his shoulder, hiding my smirk.

 

“You’d better get home and get dressed before Astor notices. You have school today, right?” Moose balled his hands into fists and stared out at the sea.

 

“Men don’t act like this. We should know better,” he grumbled, and I patted his shoulder again.

 

“We do know better. Men have to decide how to navigate a situation properly, right? I’m not saying lying is okay. Don’t take that from it at all, understand? I’m saying that we both know how easily upset your momma is. We have to protect her from herself as much as anything else.” Moose seemed to calm down at that; his shoulders relaxed. He scratched his stomach absently.

 

“That makes sense. I can get her in the mornings, Unc. You don’t need to do it. I’m old enough to help Mom, and I need you to let me.”

 

“Go home, Moose.” Defeated, Moose kicked his slippers over the wood of the docks, noticing the water creeping into the fabric. I watched his face fill with regret.

 

“Are we practicing today,” he asked, pulling his pant leg up to survey the damage. I thought about it for a minute.

 

“Yeah. Just me and you, though. Leave the girls. Don’t even tell them where you’re going. Now go home, seriously, I don’t know why ya’ll make me repeat myself like this. Your momma was already up, and it’s, what, ten minutes before you have to leave?” I showed him my wrist watch, and he squeaked. Moose finally turned and ran home, panic in every soggy step.

 

I felt eyes on me. Just an odd sensation of eyes on me. When I turned around to look, a man with a big bun on top of his head was standing behind a chain link fence far in the distance, tossing rocks into the water. He wasn’t new. I put my hand up and nodded. Like usual, he turned and walked off without acknowledging me. It wasn’t even an urgent walk, just a slow gait in the opposite direction. 

 

I turned to the other side, and a woman was standing with a group of men. Her hands in her suit pockets, too far for me to see her expression, she didn’t pretend not to see me.

 

I shrugged it all off and went to work.

 

ASTOR SNOW

The next time I stayed at the docks all night, I brought myself home before anyone needed to come find me. I dressed the kids for school. It was a practice in avoidance—avoiding Moose’s fixation on my eye, avoiding Astrid’s scared and ashamed expression, avoiding Chaunce altogether. Then, I got myself dressed and avoided my reflection, closing my left eye when I had to look at myself. I didn’t need any more panic. It was time to get back to my daily routine.

 

With or without Osh, I had bills to pay and a job to do.

 

Thursday was my personal day for the most part. I reserved space for one client (my 11-year-old nephew who had echolalia worse than Astrid). I left the rest of the day to read, listen to music, spend time with the kids, whatever I wanted. That day was definitely going to end in another trip to the docks.

 

The one client was one of Noah’s older sisters, almost two hours away in the more rural city of Rex. I considered dropping her every week, dreading the commute and hating the incessant questioning about Noah.

 

Is she ever gonna visit Momma? Are you?

 

The silence of the drive felt appropriate for my mood. I didn’t want to get lost in thought, but I didn’t want a distraction either. What I wanted was the ability to move swiftly from one problem to another, to not dwell on things.

 

There were a lot of problems to choose from.

 

As soon as I pulled up to the sprawling home, stopping to adjust my pinstripe blouse, my phone rang.

 

LOUETTA BISHOP CALLING

 

I sighed. A client calling when you’re in their driveway only meant annoying things. That went double for my old foster sister. I pushed my car door open and slowly shifted out, ignoring the second call.

 

Lou rushed down her driveway when I pulled my second foot out, cell phone in hand, breasts flapping around in her robe like an adult cartoon character. She gave me an apologetic gush of breath. My mother used to wear the same sheer robes with the fur lining as normal outfits at parties she’d throw.

 

“Astor! Sis! I am so sorry, sweetie, I really am. I can’t believe I forgot to call you! I have a pop-up conference to go to today, all the way out in the damn country if you can believe it. The normal girl we send is out with the damn flu! I sent Jori to stay with his granddaddy until I get back. I can’t believe I didn’t call!” She exhaled the words in her tiny voice, all squeaks and inclines. I stared while she gushed out air, immaculate, straight black hair framing her face. The trademark Bishop big eyes were nearly made of lashes and lined in black, and she wore one house shoe and one seductive slipper. Under her fur-lined robe was a seductive lace lingerie set, garters swinging. There may have been a conference, but she definitely didn’t plan on going to it. Her curtains shifted a bit, and I wondered if her husband knew she had company.

 

If he ever comes back into town, maybe he’ll care.

 

“My cancellation policy is clear.”

 

“Astor, sweetie, I know! Please! You can’t expect me to pay you that much for a session we ain’t even have! This was an emergen-”

 

“I’m sure it was, Lou. I have emergencies all the time. Your emergencies cost money, however, when I’m forced to drive all the way across town to hear about them. It took me almost two hours to get here, and it will take me two hours to go back. I look forward to sending you the four-hour invoice.” She stared at me, mouth wide open, and let her robe slip a little.

 

“Astor…”

 

“Tell Jori to practice the assignment I gave him last week until it’s etched into the back of his head.”

 

She sauntered up to my window and put her foot behind my tire. I contemplated backing up anyway.

 

“Momma is sick and gettin’ sicker. She asked to talk to you soon. And Noah, of course.”

 

“Why didn’t you pretend that was your emergency?” Lou laughed a little and bent forward into my open window. She looked strikingly similar to Noah, her face a bit more round and her eyes a bit smaller. I could smell alcohol on her breath.

 

You get one vice or you get another with the Bishop family tree.

 

“Astor, you have to convince Noah to come home sometimes. There’s no bad blood. There’s no issue. And, for the love of everything, you come with her! You’re family too, mostly, you understand that. Your husband is out there more than you are.” I stopped and looked at her. There was no mockery in her tone.

 

“Osh? Since when?”

 

“Oh, he doesn’t come to visit me, calm down. He goes out to the old house in Chastain to visit his foster dad. That’s not his real daddy, right? I remember he was a foster kid, too. His daddy is friends with Momma, you know, so we see Osh when he stops by every now and then.”

 

“Just out of curiosity, Lou … when was the last time you saw him?”

 

“… I don’t know, maybe like a couple of weeks ago? He brought your boy out to see his people or whatever. I saw them at the store and got him to bring him by to see Momma. She was excited; you should have seen her. We had a nice visit.” My foster mother stopped speaking to me for a year after she found out I was pregnant with Moose, so I found that hard to believe.

 

“Just the two of them?”

 

“Heh, no, that ‘man’ Noah married was with him, too. That didn’t go over well; she made him stay at the gate. Look, it wouldn’t take anything for ya’ll to come with him is all I’m saying. It’s the next town over. You can leave the dreadhead at home, obviously. Momma is still hurt about the way …”

 

I started the car, narrowly missing her foot as she jumped to avoid me, and pulled out of her driveway, trying my best to keep the car steady. I was no driver. Osh usually took me to my appointments if they were outside of Lostine. Noah drove me every now and then, but she’d rushed off to her lab to deal with ‘a situation’ as soon as I mentioned Lou.

 

Juke was not up for errands.

 

My worry was officially replaced with searing rage. There’d been no mention to me of a stop in our old neighborhood. There’d been no mention, not from Juke or Moose, of a visit to Noah’s parent’s house. There were only a few reasons to go there, and I wasn’t happy with any of them.

 

The boys know something I don’t.

 

I considered driving over to our old neighborhood and looking for my husband, suffering carefully through conversation with Noah’s mother, avoiding her dad altogether, asking her if he’d said anything odd when he was there, why the hell he wanted to visit them in the first place. I even considered going to his foster dad’s house and seeing if he knew where the hell Osh was, what he was doing, how he was doing. Anything.

 

No. Let him come home on his own, the idiot.

 

Juke had no reason to visit Chastain. His mother was long gone, had been since he was a teenager, abandoning him out of nowhere. Osh’s foster father helped Juke out every now and then, but he never actually took him in. Why visit him?

 

I felt the attack coming as soon as I hit the expressway, but I ignored it. I drove toward the docks, driving straight into rush hour traffic. The heavier the traffic became, the more my world started to shift. The plastic of the car started snapping. It cracked ferociously, air fizzing through gaps in the floor. I felt my body being pulled into the road, being drug down into cracks in the street, being sucked into the Earth. The feeling stuck with me until I pulled into the parking lot, shook, breaths stabbing nearly through my back. I was still sucking in air almost an hour later when the sun fell beyond the horizon.

 

My phone rang, and I answered, not bothering to look at the name.

 

Hun. I want you to breathe, okay,” Noah took in my panicked breaths and sprang into action. I gulped down my fear, the phone shaking in my hand, but I couldn’t seem to stop.

 

“He’s dead, he’s dead … I can’t do this … I don’t know what to do. Everyone keeps lying to me …” Noah was silent for a moment.

 

“Astor. Babe. I’m sure there’s some explanation, right? My idiot knows more than he’s telling, but maybe that’s a good thing. If he were dead, Juke would be worse off than either of us.” I took that in a bit, the car cracking less and less.

 

“Yes, he would be distraught …”

 

“Girl, he’d be inconsolable. But whatever he knows is not that Osh is dead. Okay?” She was silent until I finally calmed down, slowing my breathing to a crawl.

 

“Yes. Yes.”

 

“Listen. Come meet me at the cafe. We need to talk about a few things. Yvette called me seventeen times in a row. Seventeen. She left me a message saying they sent a ‘container’ for us to do ‘the experiment’ in.”

 

“Okay. Did you get it?”

 

“I sent it back. I’m not doing this shit, Astor.”

 

I felt myself calm down completely at the fear in Noah’s voice. “It’s really fine, Noah. I’m not worried about it at all. I almost forgot about it.”

 

“How are you so calm about someone wanting to drown you in a plastic container?” I scoffed at her question and stepped out of the car.

 

“You’ll never understand what my mother was like, Noah.”

 

.

My mother wanted to know whether I was a waste of time or not.

 

She wasn’t afraid to find out in whatever way she deemed necessary. I had memories that would put Noah in a coma from grief if a little drowning bothered her. Drowning wasn’t anything new to me.

 

My mother, in many ways, was always the first to hurt me.

 

The worst of it is the shock. That’s what my mother told me whenever she’d lower my body under the water. Her expensive gold-lined claw foot tub sat under us, filled just enough to cover my body and face, barely any for her long legs. She kept her garter belts on. To this day, I remember worrying about how ruined they would get if I fought and how I would pay for it with violence. How I would pay with my skin if her silk bra was damaged, if her stiletto nails were broken. Even her silky hair was tied up in an intricate bun, delicate and ready to spill over and enrage her at the slightest movement.

 

I kept still.

 

“It’s painful the first time you drown, the first time you die. It feels like a million boulders settling roughly in your chest, aching incessantly. You feel a great relief when it’s over.” She paused dramatically, hands on my shoulders. I lay tilted on my butt in the bathtub, a designer bathing suit covering my body, my hair tied up as tightly as she could get it. I stared at her without blinking.

 

The first time, when I was 8 years old, she looked so stricken with grief that I was excited. You didn’t get that sad over someone you didn’t love. You just didn’t. All her angry looks and violent threats paled in comparison to the grief on her face.

 

I couldn’t get over the fact that she was hesitant about wanting to hurt me for once. I didn’t question why she’d look so sad, hovering over me in her lavish garden tub, hands gripping my shoulders. I just loved it. The water was near freezing.

 

“Breathe deep once you’re under, girl. Let the fear take you. I’m strong enough to hold you through your struggles so fight. It will help your body feel trapped. When you feel the need, let go. You’ll know what I mean as it happens. Let’s see how you do.” And she pushed me back, hard, hands like mountains. I didn’t struggle. Not even a little. Her stockings clung tight to her garters, and I tried to keep myself flat, away from them. I watched her face warping around the bubbles in the water that was a bit cloudy from my hair products. I didn’t move until my body made me.

 

My lungs ached. They ached. It was the first thing that had ever actually hurt, and I’d broken two ribs before. Beyond all the pain, the water and chemicals filling my lungs, was this panic. My body raged for me to find some air, make things normal again. Fingers clenched, I didn’t move beyond the faint struggles my body put forth.

 

I knew, and sometimes I still know, that my mother knew what she was doing.

 

The pain turned to pressure, traveling up my veins like blood, and I felt a potent sting growing in my head. My shoulders lurched forward. She pressed them down again, her long stiletto nails digging into my skin. I could see her foggy, beautiful pupils, so big her eyes were nearly black. And then, everything was dark, and I couldn’t see anything.

 

When I opened my eyes, I was still underwater.

 

Still drowning.

 

I barely had energy, but I kicked my feet until they stopped moving on their own. Rage pushed me. I wanted to rip her pretty clothes, to kill her. The lights above her head seemed blinding, almost chaotic with my movement. Smooth porcelain eased against my nails as I struggled, trying to knock her over, to get her off me. The pain increased; my lungs wailed; and again, everything went black.

 

I opened my eyes and was still underwater. The rocks filled my lungs again. I fought. I drowned. Again. And again. And again. An intense pressure built up in my chest. I felt like I was bloating, filling with gas and poisons. The pain surged into my heart.

 

She pulled me up, her face blurred out by the water in my eyes, and spat, “Annoying monster. Cough!”

 

And I did.

 

She forced me back under while my lungs emptied into the water, wave after wave of wet coughs jumping from my mouth. I spasmed.

 

Finally, I opened my eyes, and the world was red. It all looked like thick, bubbling blood. A relaxing feeling took over me, and I stopped. I felt empty, more relaxed than I knew was possible.

 

My mother pulled me up, her hand held calmly underneath my hair, supporting my neck. When I could finally see her again, her face was vivid with excitement. The red was all around me, filling the tub.

 

Except, just like my blood now, it wasn’t liquid for long. Even in the water, it was a fine powder. It covered everything—the floor, her face, my body. The powder seemed to sink back into my skin, leaving me clean, but it stuck to hers.

 

Tears bubbled over her bottom lids, and she sobbed in happiness.

 

“Astor, ohhh … you don’t understand. You … oh, you don’t get it. If I were a different type of beast, I’d be all yours! You survivor! You monster!” She kept yelling that, excited, grabbing a towel and wiping at her skin. We sat for a moment and watched all the powder disappear, all of it sifting into the air and vanishing.

 

She didn’t seem to notice her torn $600 bra. She didn’t notice her missing garter, her scratched skin. Even her hair had fallen, wrapping around her neck.

 

“You reacted as I would have. As I have. Even Yenna couldn’t … even my father! You can do something that is amazing, you monster. You beast. So many useless children, Astor, and I finally have you.” She pressed her lips against my forehead and gave me the warmest smile she would ever give me.

 

“Let’s clean the tub and go watch a movie. Would you like that? You eternal beast! We are one and the same.”

 

...

Noah made a grand show of pouring her wine, winking at me over and over until I laughed and agreed to have some. We sat in a small cafe that shared a floor with the office portion of her lab, a bottle of red wine between us. My alcohol tolerance was low enough that I typically avoided any vices. The pressure in my head was too much, though. I gladly asked for a glass when the waitress ventured over. She set down some chips, our usual when we visited, and let out a loud sigh.

 

Here we go…

 

“What a day, right? Oh, Noah, your hair is always so beautiful! How do you get so much body in it?!” The young waitress was one of two that worked there and was the more aggressive one when it came to tips. She poured my wine and handed me the glass, beaming. Noah rolled her eyes.

 

“Thanks, hun, I like to keep myself up. You working hard for those tips today, huh? Maybe you should ease off us a little.” The girl laughed, embarrassed.

 

“Girl, my rent is late.”

 

“I don’t know the feeling, but I empathize. Here, have a cigarette.” Running her hand behind her ear, she pulled out a half-smoked cigarette. I kicked her under the table, and she chuckled, passing the girl a twenty instead. She grabbed Noah into a big hug in response, triggering another eye roll. I waited until she disappeared behind the counter before I let out a groan.

 

“You’re flaunting that fraud money, huh?”

 

“Hey! I’ll have you know my husband, the Juke Teroy, works his ass off for me to be able to give these tips! In safety! With security! There’s not a fish in the sea he hasn’t caught for his family.”

 

“Oh, forgive me, how could I forget the sacrifices he’s made for his circle. You know, Juke crawled so we could walk.”

 

“Oh, hun, he walked so we could run, actually.”

 

“Oh, no, he runs so we can fly.”

 

“Oh, girl, he flies so we can ASCEND.” Noah shook her wine glass at me and pointed to the air, and I nodded, straight-faced.

 

“Where would we be without Juke? Juke, the savior? Juke, the provider? Juke, the child whisperer?”

 

“Crawling, I guess, bitch.” We laughed, and I downed my wine. Eyebrows raised, Noah poured me another glass. I didn’t realize the pressure in my head was slowly creeping back until I let out the laugh. Our comfortable silence eased it more and more until it was a dull weight in the back of my head.

 

That old panic.

 

“Lou said the boys were at Autumn’s house.” Her glass clinked to the table.

 

“The boys including Jukel Teroy, sworn enemy of the family? At my momma’s house?”

 

“Apparently. They stopped by there after Mr. David’s house.” Noah took this in with a look of shock. I felt like she tried to correct it but didn’t comment.

 

“Well, I don’t know much about him, but Mr. David’s pretty cool, right? I know he ain’t adopt Osh, but he was a good foster parent at least. There shouldn’t be a problem with him meeting Moose, right?”

 

“No. I don’t see the point, but it’s not an issue.”

 

“They actually brought Moose and Juke to my momma’s house, though? Didn’t she call Moose ‘the worst accident of your uncultured life’?”

 

“Exactly. Noah … I don’t understand what all the secrecy is about. It hurts my feelings a little. Osh has never done anything like this.” Noah nodded while I talked, eyes wandering around the cafe, anywhere but on me.

 

“No. Osh is a good guy, isn’t he? He wouldn’t hurt you like this. So, maybe he is dead. What would you do if he was dead?”

 

Nothing could have surprised me more. I waited for Noah to continue, while she unbuttoned her blouse to better reach her cigarettes.

 

“I spotted Yvette waiting at the docks this morning after you went to work. I went to get my underwear off of Juke’s boat—don’t ask—and she was there. I figured she thought you would come out there alone again. And Juke said she stopped by his boat the other day with a couple of dudes. They didn’t tell him what we do at the lab or anything, but he said Yvette asked him if he’d ever met your mother.”

 

Unchecked anxiety that stemmed from foster care, from the handling of my mother’s crimes, from many other things rose in me. They did whenever she was mentioned. I gave Noah a half-hearted shrug.

 

Would Eon Tech really take Osh? Did my mother do something to him? Is she back?

 

I watched her pull a cigarette from between her breasts.

 

She rolled the cigarette thoughtfully between her fingers, not bothering to button the shirt back up. I reached over to do it for her.

 

A thick, black shadow emerged from my right, and as it stretched across the table, every sound vanished. I froze. It stretched over the wine, my hand, the cigarette. It covered Noah’s face until she was just a dark outline with a white cigarette. She smiled, and her teeth shone blinding white. I couldn’t stop looking at the darkness. It stretched on forever, covering everything.

 

“Don’t deviate, Astor. Don’t you dare.” I started to speak, mouth dry, but Noah placed her hand on mine.

 

“Astor. Relax.” I snapped out of it. The darkness disappeared. Noah was staring up at someone, grimacing.

 

Yvette, her prominent chin pulled up with her smile, leaned forward with a lighter in her hand. She lit Noah’s cigarette. They shared a long stare before Yvette retreated through the front door, joined by a group of men.

 

Noah rolled her eyes and smoked, avoiding eye contact with me. We finished the wine without another word.

 

She knows something I don’t.  

NOAH DILL

Yvette knocked on my window like her arm was on fire, only backing off when I walked up with a pot of boiling water.

 

“I love a bold bitch; don’t leave now!” I yelled, yanking the lock back. Juke grabbed the pot from me.

 

“You make the best friends.” I ignored him, opening the window.

 

“Hey, bitch! Don’t leave! I have the good documents for you right here!” She turned and winked, walking backward in her pumps, and I hoped she’d just fall and die.

 

Bust your head, bitch.

 

“So, what? They’re going to follow us everywhere now? I had to deal with this shit at the pier, now they’re coming to the house? What are ya’ll getting into at work?” Juke tried not to sound angry. I get too turned on at his anger. He has to find other ways to get me to take him serious.

 

He handed the pot back to me, and I poured the water into my mug, soaking up the teabag.

 

“I know it’s annoying, baby. You act like I invite them out here or something. They’re stalking me, too.”

 

“But not Astor. And whatever they want has to do with her, right?”

 

“You say that like you’re jealous?” Juke laughed a little, nervous, and sat in a chair at the kitchen table. Even sitting down, he was taller than me.

 

“Nah, I’m not jealous. I can’t imagine having to deal with all this shit. It’s just … why aren’t they following her?”

 

“Because they don’t know where her mother is, and apparently, nobody wants to deal with her type of anger. We’re fair game. Shit, it would probably be worse if they didn’t think I knew her mother, too, or some shit.”

 

“I’m sure you helped them think that. Good. Don’t let them bother her. She’s already stressed enough.” He rubbed the back of his neck, hesitating. “We gonna talk about the stuff with Astrid?”

 

“She’s stressed. Next.”

 

“Okay.” He swallowed, looking down at my mug. “What about the other thing?”

 

“You’ll keep your mouth shut, Jukel.”

 

“You were aggressive as hell the other night. I almost said the wrong shit.”

 

“Learn to control yourself.” I sipped at my tea, closing my eyes in annoyance. Men always want to man up at the wrong damn time.

 

“I can’t lie to her like this. It’s hard. It’s eating her up. She’s going to catch on to something, anyway. One thing or another. All it takes is Moose feeling too guilty and then …”

 

“You’re his favorite play uncle in the whole world. I’m sure you’ll keep him in check. You don’t want me to do it.”

 

 

While Astor whined and moaned about her boring missing husband, I had to sneak around. Yvette wasn’t playing with me. Astor didn’t have to deal with Eon Tech, and I was willing to fight to keep it that way. I made sure I took the brunt of it.

 

So when I opened my window at night to Yvette standing outside, holding up a copy of the application I sent with her big ass chin shining in the moonlight? I just closed it and turned the sprinklers on. 

 

When I went to meet Juke after he’d finished fishing the next afternoon and saw her and two men talking to him? I just stood in the parking lot and waited until they were done talking. And oh, did my baby end that conversation! One of the guys ended up in the ocean, and Yvette ended up running in her fancy suit, damn near breaking a heel.

 

They were bothering me, but I could handle it. Most people bothered me for less. They were getting closer and closer to bothering Astor, which I couldn’t have.

 

They finally caught up to me at my lab. I tried to hurry the conversation along; Astor was out at the docks again, and it wasn’t safe. The panic attacks had me alert like close contractions; they meant something. I needed to calm her down, get her nerves together.

 

But fucking with Yvette was good for a laugh.

 

“Tell me again what happens if I don’t do this. It’s so sexy when you say it,” I mocked, leaning back in my office chair. Yvette rolled her eyes, chewing her cheek.

 

“We tell Astor what you’ve actually been doing with her blood.”

 

“Hmmm, I like that shit, and then what?” Uncomfortable, Yvette motioned for her two big goons to get closer. I winked at the short one. There were different men with her every time she followed me. She switched them up like she switched her tacky suits.

 

“Maybe we even rid her of a parasitic leech. Do you think she’ll still hold you in high regard after she finds out what you’re doing?”

 

“Your pillow talk? Second to none. You act like you care whether she’s happy or not. I know how to handle Astor. And I’m not sure I want to do this shit yet.” I played with my cigarette pack, shifting them around a little. The smell was calming when I couldn’t smoke.

 

“You know what, Yvette? Maybe more funding will help me change my mind? She deserves the finest water to drown in, after all. It’ll take a lot of bottles to fill that container.” She looked around my office, probably for something to hurt me with, but I didn’t move.

 

If she thought she was the first person to threaten me, to toss their weight around, she was wrong. Jukel put so many people through windows and floors for coming after their investments, for thinking they could strong-arm me into anything, that we could’ve opened a redecorating business: Here’s A Check You Can Cash Right Now, LLC.

 

And if he didn’t make them rethink their threats, my little secret weapon did. My mother didn’t raise me to take chances.

 

“Mrs. Dill. The subject has already shown interest in the experiment. Why are you blocking us? You know …” She stopped, glancing at her goons. “You know the situation I’m in. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re in just as much trouble. Do you think Eon Tech won’t take this further?”

 

“Of course you won’t. Astor would never agree to do a thing if you hurt me. She’ll clam right the fuck up. And you’re so close to freedom, hun, why would you give up now? You damn near have the key to your shackles …”

 

“Noah. When can we do this?” Her flat tone was more hurt than anything. I finally pulled a cigarette out, ignoring the way her eyes fixated on it.

 

“You’re going to do it my way, or it’s not going to be done. I want more money. A lot more money. No cameras, no crew, and Astor gets all the research she asked for except the stuff that mentions her mother or Osh. You can go back to soaking up my sprinkler water if you don’t accept.” I crossed my leg and sucked deep on my cigarette.

 

“What makes you think Astor has a choice one way or the other?”

 

“Oh, let’s not act. You wouldn’t be stalking me if you thought you could make her do it without me. We all know about the little elephant hiding somewhere in the room. The murderous one? The one running around killing your colleagues with the machete? The …”

 

“Yes. I get it.” Yvette seemed depressed. I gave her a sad face.

 

“It’s okay, hun. Astor will do what you want. I’ll do what you want. And then, we’ll all be happy.”

 

“You really want to keep this information from her? Even being the most important person in her life?” she asked incredulously. 

 

“Like you wouldn’t believe, hun.”

 

 

Astor made my life worth living, and I repaid her by lying. It was the best gift I could give her, and it was one no one else ever bothered to offer.

 

You could write a whole book on what I didn’t tell Astor. What I wouldn’t tell her.

 

When we were young? I didn’t tell Astor why my momma wouldn’t adopt her. I probably never will. I didn’t tell her that the main reason I fell out with the old bitch wasn’t Juke but her treatment of Astor when it counted. I don’t tolerate people who won’t tolerate Astor.

 

I didn’t tell her that Osh fucked Lou a couple of times when she was out doing ‘private’ things. Osh loved her to death, yeah, but he cheated on her like crazy before they were married. And it doesn’t change a thing, you know? He was young and confused; Lou was sad and rejected. They helped each other.

 

Astor just has this view of the world she’s built. Like we’re all the strongest people on the planet. Like we’re all the noblest. She trusts me with her kids, with her secrets, with her husband, with her blood. You think she’d trust any of us if she knew we were the usual scumbags?

 

To Astor, we’re these perfect beings in a sea of monsters. Her Osh, her Juke, her Noah. We all feed off of it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I feed off of it the most.

 

It’s a bad habit that I’ll never let go of.

 

Before our meeting at the cafe, I checked her mailbox like usual. A single letter sat inside, addressed to Astor Free, and I put it in my house to take a look at later. There was no return address. A thick lump pushed the envelope up in the middle. I didn’t tell Astor when I found body parts in her mailbox.

 

The fanatics got bolder and bolder. 

 

You just don’t tell Astor shit like that. You don’t tell her how often you fish ‘DIE, DEVIL’ letters out of her mail, masquerading as bills and promotions. How much mail you have to throw away because it’s covered in blood or toxins or whatever else. You don’t tell her that these things aren’t even from the same people, sometimes not even the same country. You don’t. One minute, you’ll be talking to her, and the next, she’ll be on the floor, sucking in deep breaths, whining about how the ground is caving in and she’s falling. The bitch should’ve been a writer; we’d all be rich.

 

 

“I’m about to go home. My head is killing me. And you had a rough day, hun. Why don’t you go ahead and get your hours in at the pier? You know you’ll end up there, anyway.” She gave me a knowing and comfortable smile back. It embarrassed Astor to need to go there.

 

Yvette lit my cigarette, and I recognized the power play. It didn’t bother me. I knew what I needed to do for Astor, and I was going to do it on my own time.

 

Astor was going to drown. That was a given. But she was going to be comfortable with it, and I was going to do it at the right time.

 

After the little scene in the cafe, I saw her off and went back to my lab to plan our next session, to figure out where to put the giant plastic container that was sitting in the middle of my office, to figure out how to sell my disdain at signing the paperwork, to make it believable for my best friend.

 

I mean. What can I say? There were just a lot of things I didn’t tell Astor.

 

I didn’t tell Astor that my husband wasn’t returning for the first time that night when we sat at the docks. That Moose wasn’t touching down after a nice bonding trip with his ‘uncle.’ No, you don’t tell Astor shit like that.

 

I’ll never tell her what a real, true idiot her husband is. Oh, I’ve never been angrier at Osh. What he did on that fucking boat? What he didn’t do? The position he put his own best friend and foster father in? The situation he put his wife and daughter in?

 

We had a simple goal, and he completely shirked it.  

 

No. When shit like that happens, you lie. And then you perform. My fucking gosh, you perform.

 

At the end of the day, we all know I’m a liar. I love that shit. I’ll tell you the wrong time just to see your face when you find out the right one. But what I keep from Astor, every single bit of it, it’s to protect her. I get no joy out of it. None at all.

 

Hun, you give me the materials, and I’d create a facade around her. If it would help her smile, help her feel good, I’d make a whole fake world for her. I’ll protect this bitch with my life, even if that means lying to her fucking face.

 

ASTOR SNOW

After the cafe, I took Noah’s advice, headed down to the docks, stripped off my boots and coat, and sat at the edge over the water. 

 

I didn’t pretend Osh would come back. Just sat there until the day abandoned me. I hadn’t had any energy to do anything but cook, and even then, I made a quick dinner for the kids. Osh didn’t believe in small meals; he’d have made a face and made something bigger. He would’ve invited Juke over, and they would’ve buried themselves in fresh fish, making a mess, drinking beers, laughing too loud.

 

Then he can bring his ass home and do it himself!

 

Maybe he was dead. I couldn’t decide how I felt about the thought. I felt myself getting sleepy and gathered my things, determined not to be rescued in the morning.

 

Before I could head home, the lights lining the docks all blew out.

 

I was at the edge of the pier, legs crossed. I didn’t panic at first. Part of me wanted to jump in the water and dissipate into the sea like a fizzing pill, escaping my head. It felt like a spa visit, sitting and sifting through my thoughts.

 

The lights blew out with loud buzzes of electricity trailing each one. I turned and watched them in shock, one by one, burning out until there was nothing but me and the retreating glow on the horizon.

 

I stood, looking around, and realized that I couldn’t see beyond my hands when I wasn’t facing the water. My boots, my coat, they were swallowed by the darkness. Even most of the pier and the four boats sunk into the deep black.

 

That old panic….

 

“Astor?” Someone stood at the beginning of the pier, hands in their pockets. The silhouette was massive, tall and wide, long undefined tendrils framing him in the darkness. I sucked in a breath and tried not to move. “What are you doing out here by yourself? It’s late.”

 

“I- I’m not alone.” My voice faltered but only a little. The man didn’t move.

 

“Yes, you are. Daydreaming like Osh. You two were made for each other.” He chuckled and moved forward, still shroud in darkness. I felt my heart beating in my nose, thick behind my eyes. He talked to me as if he knew me, as if I should be familiar with him. I couldn’t see him to figure out if I was.

 

Jump!

 

I couldn’t see, but it wasn’t from the lights being out. There’d never been darkness so black. It stretched across the docks and began to fizzle out right where the water began.

 

And, somehow, the man’s silhouette was even darker than that, standing out as if he were a different color.

 

“Please.” I didn’t know what else to say. Behind me, the ocean swished, filled with chaos.

 

“You should go home. There’s too much going on right now for you to sit out here alone in the dark like this.”

 

“Who are you?” He finally stepped out of the unnatural darkness. A light flickered on next to him, the electric buzz going on and on. The tendrils were long, white dreads that nearly reached his calves, most of it wrapped up in a neat top bun. Flecks of white spread across every bit of skin, almost interrupted by the light brown. Even with the distance between us, I could make out his unnatural eyes.

 

The opposite of my mother’s. Constricted until there was almost no pupil there at all.

 

“Astor, what’s wrong with you?”

 

“How do you know me?” He raised his hand, motioning to something, and stopped suddenly. Confused. He looked at the white speckles, moved to grab a long white dread, and gulped. The surprise on his face scared me more than anything.

 

More light burst to life around us, illuminating him. The unnatural black leaked away. It finally hit me, staring at his confused face.

 

“… Mr. David?” His smile was forced, but he gave me one. I finally found the strength to move forward, my foot steadying itself before he could see me shake. My shoes and coat were where I’d left them.

 

“Yes. It’s … yes, Mr. David. Osh’s foster father.”

 

“You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself?” I managed to laugh the words out a little, pulling my boots on. My long coat swayed in the wind. He cleared his throat, and the darkness completely dissipated. It could’ve been daytime; the difference was so stark.

 

For a moment, I wondered if I’d had a panic attack or not.

 

I watched Mr. David but didn’t move.

 

“I apologize for my rudeness. You frightened me, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” He’d aged shockingly well, not a wrinkle in sight. Other than the stark white dreads, he seemed so young, he could’ve been my junior. Still feeling wary, I moved forward a little but didn’t get too far from the water.

 

“I was looking for Osh,” he mumbled. I nodded. I wanted him to leave, to turn and escape into the night. He was so still.

 

“I don’t know where he is. I was thinking about visiting you to ask, actually. Did he go to see you a while back?” Some of the malice returned, and he watched me, alarmed.

 

“Who told you that?”

 

“It’s not important; I’m not concerned about it. I’ll tell him to contact you as soon as he returns.”

 

“You’re afraid of me? Did I do something to you?” I tried to speak and faltered. We both stood there, silent, ignoring the lights popping on around us. His heart beat so hard against his chest that I could hear it, clear as my own voice.  

 

“You’re acting strange,” I offered. He nodded, mostly to himself.

 

“You know, your eye looks bad, Astor. Worse than usual. I bet Osh didn’t like that.” He moved forward until he was so close that he could’ve gripped me.

 

“Mr. David. Let me by.”

 

“I’m not here to hurt you. I would never do that. You’re family. You’re damn near blood. I’m only looking for Osh.”

 

“You said as much earlier.”  

 

“We had a fight.” This new information would’ve made me happy at any other time. I would’ve pressed on. I would’ve been comfortable, open, willing to pry more information from him. But something about the lights around us popping on one by one made me hesitate. I made eye contact, and all I could think about was the fact that I’d never actually spoken to Mr. David for more than five minutes. I’d never actually spent much time with him. But I didn’t remember him having a single freckle.

 

“I’m sorry to hear that. I need to get going.”

 

“He’s done something stupid. He’ll get you all killed. I told him to stay home, and he fought me. He never listens.” His anger pushed me back a bit, but he moved forward with me.

 

“Hey …”

 

“He went out there in the fucking water after I told him to leave it alone. He’ll get all of us killed, you understand? It’s not just about you and your damn daughter. We’ll all suffer for this.” I sucked in a deep breath, prepared to scream.

 

“Mom?”

 

I jumped and let out the scream directly in the man’s face, surprised. Moose walked around the man, arms wrapped over his chest, staring at me in a protective scold. I composed myself as much as I could, trying not to fall to my knees. “Everyone’s looking for you. You can’t keep coming out here at night, Mom; it’s not safe.” He looked back at the man accusingly. I pulled myself together.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. David. I have to take my son home. Please … please move.”

 

Worried for my son, I pushed by him without waiting for permission. He didn’t move but locked eyes with Moose the entire way around, pupils constricting even more. I rushed my son forward, hoping and praying that Juke waited for us somewhere beyond the docks.

 

So quiet that I almost didn’t hear him, my son spat at the man, “You’re supposed to know better, sir.”

 

The boys knew something I didn’t.

Written by Trey Briggs || Edited by Lyric Taylor ||  Art by Monte Miller