Written by Trey Briggs || Edited by Lyric Taylor || Art by Monte Miller
Alicia Free: 16
“The world is so small, Alicia. You see one person, and they’re actually another. You build your own community, and it’s actually just you.” Alicia’s father held her small hand as they watched the town burn. Crumbling, waves of heat distorting the shrunken bodies of their friends. She wanted to tell her mother to stop sobbing, to stop sucking in those deep breaths. It was their neighbors she was sucking into her lungs. Couldn’t she understand that?
Alicia followed her family to the car with shaky legs. There was nothing to be done for the town. No one else seemed to register the loss they’d just faced, the friends she’d made in the last twelve months, the faces, small and large and sometimes even tiny, all turned ashen, blending into the atmosphere.
As far as she knew, this was the third time her mother had breathed in her burning neighbors. Her father spat tobacco to the side, irritated, watching with a slowly rising venom that she didn’t find accurate enough. She couldn’t remember too much from the years before her 13th birthday, though. That was the one where her father declared she had to be “tested or eliminated.”
She couldn’t cry. She hardly ate. Her hair grew like an animal. These were signs that she had inherited the “syndrome,” and her father had to know whether or not she was “a full one.” They had to do “the test”. That was the birthday when her mother pleaded with her father to just let her be, to let her live whatever life she had in store for her.
“She either is one or she isn’t. But we have to know now. And we have to protect her if she is,” he reasoned. Her oldest sister agreed to help him. They had long, somber talks about it for the few weeks leading up to her birthday. Her mother wasn’t invited to those talks, but that didn’t stop her from screaming at her husband about it every chance she got.
“You killed the last two tryin’ to test this out! You won’t kill her; you WON’T!”
That was the birthday when her father locked her mother in the closet, ignoring her screams. Alicia struggled and fought, only giving in when she almost passed out from her father’s headlock grip. It was the birthday when her sisters held her down in the tub, with their father egging them on, and she drowned. The one when she chaotically spit blood at her oldest sister, trying desperately to get up. The blood seeped into Mae’s face, into her skin, and her sisters let her up, stunned. It was the birthday when her mother cried upon her release, hugging Mae grimly, calling her a devil.
“You GAVE it to her, Harold! How could you?! You said you couldn’t give it to the normal children! You promised! What did you do? What’s gonna happen to them?”
“I did no such thing. Calm down. Mae’s just protecting her sister.”
Maybe they had always been on the run. Her father told them they’d better get moving before they came back. He said they’d be back. And Harold was always right. Why would now be any different?
From fire or water or genetics, maybe they were always on the run.
Alicia’s father was a mansion, both in size and personality. Wealth seemed to spill from him when he winked, making better-classed men spill secrets and give her family free room and board. He smiled, and the hearts of women seemed to turn to gel, to allow entry, to encourage it. Her mother was quite the same. She was poised, radiating charm and luxury without ever needing to make a penny. Men seemed to wilt when she talked to them, her hands always gloved and clasped. Judith walked by and even Alicia closed her eyes to take in her beautiful scent.
Her sisters were vibrant and almost song-like, all tall with wide smiles and impossibly white teeth. The oldest was the envy of Alicia’s entire life. She was so tall Alicia had to bend her head back to talk to her. She often wished she was as regal and delicate as Mae Free. At 19, Mae wound men, and even women, around her finger with the smallest gesture. They were close. Mae took to staring at Alicia for long periods, almost uncomfortably so, but it made Alicia feel prettier. She didn’t mind it.
The family charmed their way across the country, even engaging with the white folks, who despised them inwardly. All it took was one good scam a year, and they lived like they were rich. Judith dressed them lavishly, making sure to separate them by glove color. Alicia’s were always black leather while the other girls donned white satin. Judith wanted it apparent that Alicia wasn’t to be approached.
Alicia was pretty but not much else. She lacked the charm of her family so deeply that they left her at home when they went out. There was too much venom in her glances, too much anger in the curves of her body. Where her sisters and mother were lengthy and regal, she was petite and curvy. People stayed away from her. Her father couldn’t risk having her around for the scams; she was a dead giveaway that something was wrong. She had never quite fit into the mold, but hiding behind her family’s collective charm protected her nonetheless.
No one ever complained that Alicia didn’t help when they robbed or stole. Her mother forbade it.
“It’s harder for us dark girls, but it’s not impossible. You just have to learn how to work people. Don’t worry. Anyone touches you, and your father will eat ‘em. Cut ‘em up, and eat ‘em, girl,” her mother used to joke. Alicia would look down at her deep brown skin and nod. At 16, running away from another town, she wondered for a moment if she was the reason these towns kept burning. Was her family on the run because of her skin color? Mae was the same brown, but she was lengthy and charismatic. Her sisters, Sara and Mary, were lighter with looser curl patterns, more like their father. Were they hunted because of Mae and Alicia?
No. The marks of the scams never knew what hit them, but they were never bold enough to burn down towns. They went after older white men that boasted and flaunted their wealth, the ones who cornered black women and tried to guilt them into sex, the ones that belonged in prison but skidded by on their wealth and race, terrorizing blacks. They could hurt you in numbers but were almost always too afraid to even look in your direction. Talking helped with their anxieties. They could hardly close their mouths long enough to light a cigar let alone burn a whole town of innocent people.
This time, though, it was hard to ignore her father’s quiet anger turning to shame, her mother’s stillness, with anguish flowing through her. The words she didn’t say were all soaked in blame toward her husband.
“How could you, Harold?”
Alicia was not considered the loveliest, but she would always be the smartest. She knew her charming mansion of a father was the one they were after. And whatever was after him was not going to back down until he wafted into the wind with the others.
Alicia heard her parents arguing all the time. They didn’t bother to stop even after they realized their daughters were awake, huddled in the back of the flashy black car (her father’s pride and joy). The argument was heated enough to make Harold pull over to the side of the road, deep in the country, to better turn and yell at his wife. Alicia stared out the window, eyeing the darkness of the woods, trying to ignore them.
It was an argument they had a lot, and her mother never seemed to shrink until her father’s unsurpassable rage bubbled up.
“How do you know that was actually your brother? We ain’t goin’ there. I’ll be damned if I get tricked by one of those damn things!”
“I’ve known my brother my entire life, Harold. You think I don’t recognize his voice on the phone? Are we really going to lose every person we know and love because of your paranoia?”
Harold cut the engine of the car and turned to face his wife.
“You understand what we’re facing? Did you see what happened back there? If they destroy my body, or worse, the girl’s body…”
Judith scoffed. “According to you, ya’ll would be fine! You’re dragging us around the world. Dragging us. The girls need friends. They need school, not going around swindling and pointing guns at people. This ain’t right. Whatever we’re up against is nothing compared to how lonely we all feel. You are supposed to protect us, Harold. You got all these extra lives, or so you say, and you can’t even protect us…” Alicia watched her mother’s golden brown skin reddened, anger and exhaustion consuming her.
“So I say?” he chuckled. “So I say.” He paused for a long time with his eyes closed, trying to calm down. Judith gave Alicia a tight smile from the passenger’s seat.
“There’s only one place left to go, Judy. You don’t have to worry your pretty head about it. I got a friend down south in the city, in Chastain. She’s supposed to keep us safe from them. She asked for me and the girl personally; she’s been lookin’ for us…”
“Don’t you call her “the girl”. You know I hate that. Just because you made her a monster don’t mean she gotta be “the girl”. And what about the rest of us? The normal ones? This woman gon’ take care of us too? How do you know her?”
Harold was quiet for a moment. “Back when I was young, she was good friends with my momma. She’s like me. Like the girl…I mean, like Alicia. She knows more than I do, and she’s been around a long time. If anybody can help us, she can. And she can teach the girl how to handle herself.”
Alicia stared down at her own feet. Mae squeezed her shoulder in support. A low, static-like noise forced her to look up.
Outside of the car, the light of the day was slowly retreating into the distance. It looked like rain was approaching. Sara, Mae, and Mary all focused on their gloved hands as their parents argued. It was a moment Alicia would think about a lot later, the family all sitting there together, beautifully dressed, with the sky darkening quickly over them. It was like a picture. She would think about looking over to her mother and the heat of her fear. Then turning her head back to look at Mae and finding her staring hard, unblinking, head tilted painfully.
“You mean to leave us, don’t you? You mean to give my baby to that woman and send us away? I’m guessing you’re not coming with us either? You’re going to send us off to live like thieves while you cozy up to some woman in the city and my baby is doing God knows what…”
“I’m sending you away from burning to death, woman, don’t you want that?! You think they’ll stop at me? They don’t know which of us it is!”
“You’re not keeping my baby there. You stay. We’ll go.”
“Alicia and Mae will stay with me. The rest of you are the normal ones, remember?”
“Mae…yeah. How could I forget your little bathtub experiment? You give one of my babies your extra lives and doom another to a shorter one.” Harold seemed hurt by her words, turning further to see her better. Judith’s white gloves shook with anxiety.
“Mae agreed to it. She agreed! The girl has to be protected. She has to have a Latch. It’s…”
“So you say,” Judith murmured. Harold let out an angry growl through gritted teeth, struggling to calm himself. Judith tensed up at his anger, swallowing the rest of her words.
There was that noise again. Alicia felt her stomach churn as the sound grew louder. Shuffling. It wasn’t static. It was the sound of dirt moving under feet. A lot of feet.
“Something’s about to happen, Alicia, I can feel it,” Mae said slowly, her dark cheeks blushing. Alicia nodded. Mae didn’t move again. Not an inch. She sat and stared at her sister until tears welled up in her eyes. “I love you, Alicia. Don’t feel bad.”
“Daddy…” Alicia’s voice came out hoarse and shaky. Harold froze. The other girls looked up in confusion. Mae seemed to be having trouble breathing.
“You hear somethin’?” Judith asked knowingly, straining her neck. Harold held up his hand to shush her. Alicia and Harold could always hear the things the others couldn’t.
“Where’s it comin’ from, girl?”
“I…Daddy, it’s everywhere. I hear them from everywhere.”
Suddenly, the windows of the car turned pitch black, like someone dumped black paint over it, like there were black walls on all sides of them. Alicia couldn’t see anything, not the woods, not the sky, not even the window itself. The darkness completely consumed the car.
Judith’s heavy breathing was the only noise. Gasping. She was always gasping and sucking in air. Alicia tried to listen to the shuffling over her mother’s panic, but abruptly, it was gone. The static disappeared.
The silence was too thick.
“Daddy…drive! Please!” Sara’s voice was thick with worry. Alicia reached across Mae to hold her older sister’s hand—black glove against white—until she stopped shaking.
She closed her eyes and listened.
Everywhere…they’re everywhere! But one’s real close…
“They’re in front of us…” As soon as Alicia spoke, a pair of big brown eyes opened outside of the car window next to her. The whites seemed to blaze into the car, stark against the pitch-blackness. The pupils constricted until they looked like tiny dots in a sea of brown, and somehow, they still focused on her. They slowly slid over to see the back of her father’s head. A wide, white smile seemed to tear across the window.
The front window shattered, an ugly roar filled the car, and Alicia felt her body sliding into her sisters. Judith let out a violent screech, fighting against black hands bursting through her passenger side window. A sticky, bubbling substance traveled along the unbroken glass, thick like molasses. Harold was silent except for grunts. His foot pressed uselessly against the gas pedal. The car leaned forward as if tipped by a giant. Screams ripped through Alicia’s ears, and more pitch-black hands and blobs burst inside. She gripped the window crank, preparing herself for the worst.
Mae sat entirely still, with her head turned, staring at Alicia.
Alicia watched one of the black bubbles wrap around her leg and thin out, changing to effortlessly match her own skin.
Sara screamed then gagged, as a black bubble leaped into her throat. Something grabbed her and yanked her through the window, tearing her dress from the small of her back to the hem. Sara gripped the sides of the window, broken glass digging deep into her hand. Another black hand gripped her face, squeezing until her skull cracked, then dragged her out into the deep black until she was gone.
“NO! NO! NOT THOSE GIRLS! THEY’RE NOT WHO YOU WANT! LEAVE THE NORMAL ONES! PLEASE!” Judith’s pleas turned to gurgles as the black traveled down her throat. She shook violently. The deep blackness seemed to eat the entire world, and all Alicia could see around them were silhouettes.
They were so dark, she could see their outline against the deep black. Hundreds of them, far into the woods, peering around each other. She could smell their drool, feel the heat from their hands ripping her skin. Mary’s head disappeared out of the back window, her body shuddering, and then, Alicia was out of the car. Her father’s frantic cries drowned out the gurgling noise of her mother, the scared whimpers of her last sister, and her own ugly groans of pain.
She couldn’t see anything, but she could feel her lungs collapsing. A pressure built up inside of her, and as she relaxed, unable to move, the darkness took over. The sensation was so familiar.
Death. I’m dying. Like the bathtub. I’m really going to die. She’s really going to die.
It felt like her thoughts were split in two. The first half belonged to her, the crumpled body on the road whose limbs were being tore off by the things. The second half belonged to Mae.
Something was in her lungs. She coughed until there was nothing left in her body and then, slowly stopped moving.
An eternity seemed to pass – time roiled around her, drifting in and out, settling in her head. And then, she was awake, being dragged down the street by a man. He was mangled, with one arm gone and half his chest ripped open. Unfortunately, his legs still worked, making his escape with Alicia possible. He looked like a normal man, eyes wide and constricted. She was shocked to feel normal human skin where he held her leg.
There was a sensation in her chest that felt like the air turned into fingers and tried to push out of her. She bit deep into the arm of the man, and it screamed a normal human scream. It yanked away from her. She realized, almost guilt-ridden, that she was the only one left. That she was far enough away from the car to escape. The light crawled back around her, and she slowly lost sight of the vehicle. The things swarmed her family members, ignoring her.
The man dragging her away gave her a small, apologetic smile. He ran into the woods and disappeared forever. She sat stunned until her father’s frantic voice boomed through her, almost feminine.
“Alicia! Run! RUN!”
Alicia heeded her father’s screams, blocking out the wet way his voice cut out, and vanished into the night. It felt as bright as day outside of that deep blackness, the indigo sky and half-moon guiding her along the dirt road. She ran until all she heard was her own feet slapping against the ground, her own tired whimpers burning through her throat, and only stopped when she saw a barn. The door was wide open. Exhausted, she pulled herself over the wood fence and through the door, not bothering to close it behind her.
It was empty. She hid in a corner, pulling her ripped and bloody skirt as close to herself as possible, and passed out.
When the morning came, Alicia could barely move. The breaks in her skin produced a cloud of strange red dust. A patch of rubbery dried blood formed wherever the break was too wide, easing pieces of her flesh back together. Black veins snaked painfully around them. She felt a long patch of the dried blood going up her back. There was another just like it on her right shoulder that wrapped around down to her elbow. The patch thickened the higher the black veins crawled, bursting open like seams.
The morning was quiet. Exposed in the corner of the barn, Alicia shook violently, breathing almost as loud as her mother always did.
You have to get them. You have to go back.
She didn’t have the energy to argue with herself, so she shook her long brown hair, stiff with blood, and pushed herself up. The leg that was used for the dragging felt like it had a million tiny daggers in it, all trying to move through her bloodstream. All she could do was drag it behind her.
Outside the barn, it was a bright and cheerful morning. The normalcy almost sent her back. Somehow, she felt bigger. Longer.
Upon painfully limping around the isolated farm, she found no people but came across freshly slaughtered animals littering the property, their body parts strewn about. The door to the main house stood open, a bloody handprint splattered against it. A pair of feet lay still in the doorframe. She didn’t dare travel into the home to see the rest of the body (or bodies). There was no way she could help.
They died because the things were looking for me.
Swallowing her guilt, Alicia trudged back the way she came. Something told her the things had moved on, satisfied with their catch. They hadn’t looked too hard for her; they’d gotten the man they’d been trying to get for years.
The blood in her leg hardened up to her thighs, and she whimpered, limping harder.
What had been a car the night before was stripped bare and totaled. Parts of the mangled machine greeted her before she could see the actual body of it. She found an arm, too small to be Mae’s but too big to be Mary’s, and ignored it. More chunks of her family greeted her the closer she got to the shiny black metal. Harold’s pride and joy.
Judith’s body lay on the ground on top of a chunk of metal. Her head was missing. Alicia found it tossed casually a few feet away. The hair flowed in the wind, pretty and fluffy as ever. Alicia kept walking.
She stopped. All the air seeped out of her in a tight wheeze. She looked at her hands for confirmation.
In front of her laid…Alicia. She stared down at her own body and viewed her head roughly severed, sitting on top of the stomach. Her dress blew faintly in the wind, with her black gloves soaked through. It was her. Short. Petite. One arm and one leg were missing. The head was charred and mangled, but she could make out her lips. Her facial structure.
Her eyes traveled the body she was in. She touched her hair. She ran a hand over the long leg, ignoring the sting of pain.
Finally, where the front of the car had been the night before, she found her father. Burned. Parts of his body were crushed in, somehow nearly smashed to blend into the dirt of the road. His legs were flat.
One of his hands seemed unable to stop moving, his fingers fiercely scratching the ground. His head was burnt black and nearly smashed in, oozing blood out of a thick gash. One of his eyes was entirely gone; one was still rolling around, staring at everything. It tried to focus on Alicia when she moved into its view.
Alicia couldn’t let her scream out. It bubbled up in her stomach and sat there, painful and filling. Harold’s finger moved slowly against the ground, seeming to point. Alicia plopped down next to him and almost cried out from the pain.
He let out a long, anguished wheeze and then spoke. Nothing had ever scared her more than his mangled words. They crumbled out of him.
“Go…to…to…city…go…before…teh…teh…back…take…teh…teh…to…take me…ocean…can’t stop…please go…”
“Take you to the ocean?” Suddenly, her father’s breathing stopped completely, and the rolling eye stopped dead on her.
“Never…go…ocean.” The blood rolled through his chest and eased out of his mouth. Somber and serious, Alicia gripped her father’s shivering hand and sobbed into it.
“Daddy, I don’t understand. I don’t GET IT! It’s me; I’m Alicia! Why am I…I’m in Mae’s body, Daddy. I don’t understand! I can’t leave you here! You said you couldn’t die! You said so!”
He made a wet noise that could’ve been a laugh. “No more Mae…saved you…good girl…Leave…me…or…suffer…girl…teh…teh…not what…I…thought…Mae…did well…to protect…teh…made choice…teh…good thing…” He gripped Alicia’s hand with one finger and puckered his lips, his eyes rolling toward his skull. “Must be…you…the…real immortal…I can’t make…another Latch…only you…they will come…again…you can hide…did not know…you had…Latch…will find out…”
Alicia gulped. “You knew this would happen? What about Mae? You sacrificed her for me?”
“Sacrifice…must be…made. Mae…knew…please…teh…teh…find Yenna…will protect…you…girl…they will come…they will come for you…they will take you, too…girl…if you…deviate…”
Alicia left when her father finally stopped moving, when he passed out or died or did whatever his body would allow him to do. He was utterly destroyed. Like the car. Like the girls. She bypassed her sisters and her mother. She walked around her former self. She wandered until she passed the barn, until her leg lost all feeling, until her mouth trembled in the heat.
Somehow, Alicia would make it to Chastain. She would make it all the way there. She would lose and gain her will to live a thousand times before she saw the things again. The guilt of taking Mae would corrupt her judgment. It would sting forever.
But Harold was always right, and this time was no different.
Chapter Three: Acoustics
Just because you can’t die doesn’t mean you won’t suffer. No one understands that better than I do. So I stay numb, and I stay calm, and I exist in a way others don’t. And I will for as long as I’m able. And my children will for as long as they’re able—whether we want to or not.
I remind myself of that as often as possible. And it still doesn’t make the emotional hurt any easier to bear. I can die and get up, maybe an infinite amount of times. I’m not sure. But the sting of betrayal, from my mother or Osh or my children, it rots me.
Yvette pulled a chair up to Noah’s desk and sat, scowling. Noah let out an exasperated groan and pulled a cigarette from her usual spot, still holding a vial of my blood. She’d been trying to get me to look at the color again. It was normal, like always. I didn’t see a spot of yellow in there, but she was insistent. It bothered her that I couldn’t see it for some reason.
I tried to appear composed. One of us needed to be, and both Noah and Yvette were frazzled. Someone else hadn’t wanted to deal with Yvette. A piece of her crisp black suit was ripped, showing the blood-stained white blouse underneath. Some of her professionalism from our last meeting was lost. Her eyes shifted around nervously as she tapped on the table, but she, otherwise, towered over us in her black-and-white suit even while seated.
“I’m surprised to find you two here. I was just in the neighborhood…”
“I’ve been as professional as I feel like being, Yvette. I really have. At this point, you’ve been to my house twice. You hover at my fucking office; you’re stalking my fucking employees. Where I come from, the only step after that is proving that I’m not the one to fuck with. Like I told you before, I’m not interested.” Noah’s words came out slow, the cigarette tapping against the desk’s surface with each pause. Yvette gave her an annoyed expression and turned to me instead.
“You seem under the weather lately, Astor. And that eye looks bad. Are you ever going to take a look at it, Noah? You’re in her arm enough.” I almost jumped at hearing my name leave her mouth.
“I’m well, actually. How are you? I didn’t realize you’d become such an issue.”
Here, Noah is going through her own problems, and all you can talk about is Mr. David…
I’d told the story of Mr. David back and forth, and Noah only nodded. She looked bored.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an issue. I’m just looking for our funding to be used appropriately. We want to move forward with the proposed experiment this weekend. I had a container shipped to your office, Mrs. Dill. Did you receive it? You have it already, right? The one with the drain and the restraints?”
‘Mrs. Dill’ completely ignored Yvette, staring daggers into me instead.
“I assume that means you did receive it?”
Yvette’s hands were shaking, and her lips were dry. It all momentarily filled with me dread.
Noah’s boiling anger bothered me, as well. It sat on the desk, sparking out, consuming everything. There was so much of it all of a sudden that she’d stopped speaking entirely, lips pressed together. I realized she didn’t plan on starting again.
They know something you don’t.
I decided to interject. “I’m sure you assume a lot, Yvette. If any of it were worth anything you wouldn’t sit here with your hands shaking. Is Eon Tech putting pressure on you?”
“Maybe you’re right, Mrs. Snow. Maybe ‘pressure’ is a good word for it. I’m glad you can see the situation I’m in. We—Eon Tech that is—are really interested in seeing this experiment take place. I hope you understand and will comply, Mrs. Snow.”
“Ah! You managed to address me with a modicum of respect. Things must be dire.” The awkwardness thickened. Yvette, unsmiling and nearly unblinking, motioned to Noah.
“Well, I tried to reason with your friend here, and she nearly assaulted me. Twice. So I would much rather speak to you. You seem to be the one with the pull. I don’t care who agrees to it as long as it gets done. Soon.”
“I hope your ripped suit isn’t the result of your reasoning?”
“I’ve been through worse. Astor, let me be more transparent about what we know. Noah sent your blood with her application for funding. It just so happens that we’ve worked for years for a breakthrough like this. We were immediately struck by the similarities between your blood and that of Cora Free. We haven’t been able to find any of your family members since—not her son Harold, not your grandfather, and not your mother. You’re the closest we’ve found to your specific type of Devil Syndrome. And that’s where that ends, by the way; you have similar blood. Your blood, however, is not normal. Not for a human. Not for a devil…”
“Don’t call her that.” Noah put the cigarette in her mouth and whispered around it.
“Your blood set off a whirlwind, a tornado. You will never understand the atmosphere I am working in from so many different directions—”
“She doesn’t care about all of this.”
“Here we had a direct line to Cora. Your mother was the big fish; she was the one we wanted, but here we had something just as good. We found you, and we will study you from afar, Astor. Just this one thing, and we can leave you alone to your life. It’s a lucrative position to be in. We’ll give you the research you asked for. You’ll know everything we’ve ever known about Devil Syndrome, about your mother, about your grandfather and great-grandmother and Dav…”
“…this is a lot more than we discussed, actually,” Noah jumped in. They seemed to talk without including me, all glances. I left them to it, focusing instead on her words.
What was she about to say?
“What could you possibly know about my mother? They couldn’t even find her to arrest her after she did what she did. Even when she left bodies for me to find or stalked my foster parents; no one knew where she was. You couldn’t track her down.”
Why was she begging?
Yvette huffed and eyed Noah again.
“Do we need to speak alone,” I asked, and Noah let out a huff that nearly shut me up.
“Mrs. Snow…do you know anything about your own family? Do you know anything about the situation your current family is in right now? Do you know what happens if you don’t do this experiment, what happens to devils who…”
“If I have to tell you not to call her or anyone else that again, I’m going to drag you out of here by that handle you call a chin.” Eyes closed, Noah shuffled through her small handbag for her lighter. “You’re going to get her worked up, and then we all have to deal with that shit.”
But Yvette wasn’t listening. She wasn’t even looking at her. She focused solely on me, her head turned completely to emphasize that point, pleading with me.
“Astor. I want to tell you something that no one else could possibly know. So you know I’m serious about giving you valuable information. So you know someone is on your side and not filling your head up with trash.” Noah looked up, annoyed.
“When you were young, your mother murdered your father and your husband’s mother. She killed them in front of you, shotgunning your father to death and beating your husband’s mother with a sledgehammer.”
“Everyone knows that,” Noah said softly, disgusted.
“Yes. What everyone doesn’t know is that this wasn’t the first time that Alicia Free suddenly up and killed her entire family. Alicia had around eight other families before yours, and she killed every last one. She killed anyone who knew about the families. And, most of the time, an event triggered the killings. Something that made her worried.
“Your experience was the same. An event, one you’ll know if you do the experiment, triggered Alicia to panic. But there was something different about this time. Little Astor is the only one ever to survive an Alicia Free rampage. Out of all the children she’s murdered, you’re the only one to survive it.” I swallowed.
No. I didn’t know that.
Yvette rested her hand over mine. She pulled her chair closer to me, leaning in as much as she could.
“Do you think that event just stopped because your mother left you, Astor? Do you think she would’ve killed every other family for no reason? What did you throw off by surviving? What does she, or anyone else, have in store for you? Don’t you want to know that?
“Your eye, Astor. That’s not a coincidence. I want to tell you what is happening to you. I believe you already. There would be no way you are not the immortal child, not if you survived Alicia. I know too much about you not to believe that your Devil Syndrome works like Alicia’s and Cora’s and all those other women. And I want to help you with this…puberty you’re going through. I just have to see it. I have to see it for myself first. Noah needs to be there to…to see it. We don’t have time for all of this shit.”
I couldn’t move. Yvette seemed so worried, so genuine, that I had to struggle to keep from hugging her. The panic built up in my stomach, filling me. She was pleading, eyes soft, hair frazzled.
She knows something…
Noah slammed her hand on the table. Yvette stood to leave like a scared dog, but I stood up with her, grabbing her shoulder.
“Let me ask you something, Yvette. Do you know about other things? There’s more than just Devil Syndrome, right?” I thought of Mr. David. The lights. The static. Both Yvette and Noah seemed to falter a bit.
“I’m looking for honesty.”
“Yes. There are other things.”
“I’m in danger. My family is in danger. It’s whatever my mother was preparing for! Maybe something bad did happen to Osh. Right?” They both opened and closed their mouths like fish. The panic crept up to my throat. I couldn’t get any air around it.
Noah stood, and I was too slow to stop her from moving as close to the woman’s face as her height would allow.
“Say whatever you want to say to Astor. She’s not the one conducting the experiment. She’s not on the receiving end. And I don’t care how vulnerable she is right now, I am not allowing her to sign up to do this shit in my lab. I’m saying this to you both, and I don’t want to hear about it again: I’m not doing it until I feel secure. So if you bitches want to play in the water, you’ll need to do it yourselves.”
I woke up to the doorbell, gasping, wrenched out of the dream for the third time. It didn’t seem to end on its own. Once we fell into the water, it was like a stuck camera, just staring out into the darkness. I adjusted my clothing and got up, slightly irritated.
Somehow, I liked being in the dream better.
The pressure behind my eye beat into my head as I pulled the door open.
Lou stood on my porch, lips pouted, arms crossing her chest. She pulled me into a tight hug before I could speak.
“Sweetie. I know you are probably busy. I know I’m a long way from home. But I just wanted to say sorry. For everything. You never did nothin’ to me, and it’s just not right. But that’s all I can say, sweetie. Well. I just wish you two had better taste in the men you ran off for. That’s all. I wish the boys were better to you.” She pulled away and kissed my cheek.
“Sorry? What?” Lou blew me another kiss and rushed back to her car. I watched her rip out of the driveway, pulling off like a madwoman.
I hadn’t even gotten the chance to open the door all the way.
I was in my head a lot. An observant person might think I was taking up the space Osh left behind, sitting in the clouds. It was the headaches. I couldn’t concentrate for more than five minutes without my skull trying to jam itself out of my ear.
The cigarettes only helped so much.
But I was my regular self on the outside. Juke was preoccupied with something, dragging Moose around the world like his true sensei. Astor was terrified to go to the docks for some reason, so she just stayed at work. Yvette was avoiding me and my increasing threats, but it looked like someone else was giving it to her worse. I thought about my mother, what she’d say about all the nonsense going on, and immediately pushed her out of my head.
Astrid seemed to be the only person who noticed anything was wrong with me.
“Okay? Aunie?” In a simple gesture, she rubbed her hand over my forehead to see if I was hot. I laughed a little, sitting up on her mother’s couch. She was easy to deal with. I just patted her head and pulled a cigarette out, and she knew she couldn’t be in the room. Neither one of us wanted the real-life smoke that would come from Astor after I smoked in front of her baby. Meaner than usual or not, Astor didn’t play about her kids.
“I’m okay, hun,” I yelled after her. She sighed in relief, pulling on her shoes. The girl was too pure for this world.
To her credit, kids are easy to lie to in general. They never notice shit until it’s already stuck to the bottom of their sneakers, crusted over and stinking up the house. Shit, I’d even say they were fun to lie to if you weren’t a terrible human being about it. If it didn’t alter their entire life.
Lying just got worse and worse the older your target was. Yvette could come around and try to dismantle my lies, make me look bad. But what did she know about keeping Astor safe? What truths did she know about Astor that I didn’t already hold inside me, tearing me to shreds?
For instance, I thought Astor was my adopted sister, not just my foster sister, until I was 19. Astor never talked about it or brought it up, so I went with the assumption. I thought this for the entire time she lived in our house, right up until maybe a year after I left my family home. It wasn’t until a conversation with Lou and one of my other sisters, Tiana, that I learned what my momma and daddy really wanted out of her, other than the terrible shit I already knew. Even just a little more was wild.
If you knew what I knew about my family, you’d cry for us.
Lou was the big mouth and Tiana, she was the whiner. I was the baby, always and forever. Lou needed someone to gossip to, or she’d burst into flames and keel over, and everything would be terrible. Tiana needed someone to listen to her problems, to what the world owed her, or she’d burst into flames and keel over, and everything would be terrible. They’d been the same since I was young. I made the sad choice of accepting their invitation to go out and eat one time, to catch up. Astor was out of town, and I was more bored than usual.
I escaped; there was no real reason to ever go back. Mistakes happen.
I just remember feeling like a bomb dropped on my head, feeling ashamed that I knew how they actually felt about Astor. I’d always thought she was the little protégé. She saved us! I said as much, picking at my food.
“Sweetie! Come on. Astor’s mean and irritating. You’re the only one that can stand her,” Lou mumbled, scrunching up her face. The nerve of a bitch to call someone whose man you used to fuck “mean and irritating.”
“She’s not even that mean. Astor’s fine.” Tiana waved me off and then waved for the waiter to bring us our menus. I watched them both, feeling like the baby again. Feeling like a traitor.
She literally saved our lives.
“You know, daddy wanted to study her genes. There’s a grant you can get in Chastain for studying rare disorders. He paid for our private schools with it the whole time Astor was there. And then there’s the stipend, but you don’t get it if you adopt the kid. It’s some perk for fostering dying children.” Tiana said it all so matter-of-factly. I listened, bewildered at the falseness of it. Tiana didn’t know about my mother’s basement, but Lou did, and she gave me a tight smile.
Do you inherit the will to scam from your parents?
“Dying? She can’t die.” They both scrunched up their faces at me. Lou leaned in close like she was talking to the idiot I felt like and smiled softly.
“Sweetie…when’s the last time you met anyone ELSE with Devil Syndrome? If they’re not dying, where are they?”
It dawned on me at that restaurant, 19 and somehow more bored than I am now, that Astor might’ve been fooling me. All her stories about drowning, about coming back to life, they really could’ve been bullshit. She could’ve been mean enough to pretend she couldn’t cry, to do some weird tricks to make her blood dry so fast. It hurt.
But I remembered her in that burned house, unfriendly and scared. I remember her promising she’d come home with me, hair wild and down to her ankles. The wallpaper peeling, the water evaporating, and Astor standing there like some animal.
“We should shake hands. It’s polite.”
Even after that, beyond that scary moment, I remembered her staring up at me, head in my lap, ignoring my cigarette smoke in my bed. I remembered her telling me about her mother sinking her into the tub, about the tunnel, about spitting out the blood.
And she wasn’t the only one who told me those stories, of course. Osh told me. More recently, her momma told me more, and with a lot more of my attention. It was tough to look away when she had that big ass machete out, tapping casually at her leg, staring out of my office window. I listened to her talk and didn’t move a muscle.
Yvette had no idea what Astor was up against.
“Cereal!” Chaunce screamed. I pinched the bridge of my nose to stop my headache. The girl screamed or exclaimed or bellowed; she could never just calmly say anything. Why couldn’t I have a Moose? A kid that you literally could pretend didn’t exist, even when he talked, because he was so quiet.
Or an Astrid? She sighed in relief for me, for fuck’s sake! I almost wished she had stayed home from school to hang out with me instead.
I gripped the back of her neck and leaned down into Chaunce’s face, smiling as hard as I could.
“Of course! When have I NOT given you cereal, little terror? When?” She found this funny and laughed, loud and shrill, mouth wide open. Astor tied her hair back that morning, even slicked it down with coconut oil, and put her in a decent outfit. It was what she did when she was nervous, going around overdressing the kids, picking their ears, folding their collars. I was supposed to have Chaunce with me “all day, no exceptions.” She looked like someone else’s kid. She was still too messy to ever fool anyone into thinking she belonged to Astor herself, but she definitely didn’t look like she was in my care.
If I ever got the impulse to brush even a hair on Chaunce’s head, I’d check the left side of my face for drooping. Only a stroke could explain it.
I placed a bowl of plain cereal on the table in front of her.
“Special sauce! I want the special sauce!” I nodded and checked the time on my phone. I had to drop off Astrid’s inhaler to her chipper, highly irritating teacher. And then I had to rush to work. Unfortunately, Yvette was meeting me at the lab again.
The little scene that morning worked my nerves, but it also made me panic. We had to have a conversation. I needed to know that my demands would be met, so we could get on with it before they either killed Yvette or drove me nuts. And I had to get myself ready to lie, to smile, to hyuk my way through the damned ordeal. Going to the school was prep work.
If Yvette keeps offering information, Astor is going to accidentally kill us all anyway. I won’t need to lie.
“Yup, you get your juice too, hun.” I pulled the last of the little vial out of my pocket. I couldn’t do it while Juke was around, but he left pretty early to get the boat ready. I took my nail and scraped what was left of the red powder into Chaunce’s cereal. It sat on top like paprika.
My head throbbed. It always did when I opened the vials. Chaunce put her hand on the side of her own head and mouthed ouch. I nodded, smiling a little.
“I know, hun. Trust me. I’ve been getting them a long time. They get worse.”
She took a few bites, crunching loudly, and her eyes got huge. They always did that when the powder was anywhere near her. I watched her until she ate the entire bowl, still in my bra and slacks. Still half-made up.
I couldn’t look away while it was out of the fucking vial.
“How do you feel?”
“Hm. Need more to feel better. My head hurts bad, Mommy.” I laughed, pulling out a cigarette. I rolled it between my fingers and stuck it between my lips, tasting the filter.
“Mine, too, hun. All the time. Let’s go to the basement before we leave and stock up. You earned it.”
As I approached Astrid’s classroom at Reginald Elementary, ready with my visitor’s pass to wave away any inquiring teachers, I felt odd. There was this feeling of absolute dread slow-building in my stomach.
First I’m Osh, now I’m over here channeling Astor.
It wasn’t a panic attack, though. I could spot those pretty quickly; they were too rare not to stand out. I picked up Chaunce, busying myself with her, and realized that Astrid was already outside of her classroom with her teacher. The woman was arguing with…
Taller than the fucking sun, dark-skinned, posture like an actual goddess from some far away land? Nails sharp enough to cut through wood, steel, bone, shit, maybe even cut you into a different universe?
I started to back up but noticed Astrid’s shaking hand. The skyscraper stood with her back to me, talking emphatically to Astrid’s teacher, Ms. Kansas. Ms. Kansas looked about as menacing as a single ant lost in a field, I mean it. Even across the hall I could feel the fear in the air, and I added to it without pause. To her credit, she pressed on, asking question after question.
Oh, I wanted to escape so bad.
Begrudgingly, I sucked in a breath and walked over to them. Walking around the skyscraper was like edging along a bladed wall. She turned slightly, big pupils sucking me in without her head moving an inch. She wore a flowing satin dress with her titties pushed nearly through her throat. The woman was wearing satin.
“…and, Ms. Kansas, was it? What a simple name. How fitting.”
“Yes. Look, Noah, I don’t know this woman! I know who picks up Astrid; I’ve never seen her before. She claims she’s her grandmother, but she won’t show any identification. It’s the procedure. I have to ask Mrs. Snow before I let her walk away with…”
“Oh, well! We wouldn’t want that, would we,” the woman said charmingly. She stepped back a bit, running her hand over the long slit in her dress. “I can’t have you disturbing my daughter during working hours, can I? Now, let’s think. What could I do to stop you from doing that?” Astrid looked up, panicked, and smiled. She tore away from Ms. Kansas to grab the woman’s hand, breathing hard.
“It’s…fine. She is my…grand…mother. Do not…worried.” The teacher nodded to Astrid, and I think we all had the feeling her life was on the line. I’d never heard Astrid speak so clearly and carefully. Astor would’ve burst into metaphorical tears at her swift progress.
Nothing like close and vicious danger to get your skills up.
The woman’s hand dangled near her leg, and I caught a glimpse of three black garters and a leather sheath.
One could only imagine what it held in place.
Words wouldn’t form for me, not one damn syllable. Even just to save Astrid, to save Ms. Kansas’s esophagus, to make a witty comment. Chaunce stared at the woman’s eyes, the veins bulging around her temple, and I pinched her when she opened her mouth to say something. She pinched me back and whispered, “Blue face!”
Shut up, little terror…
“Yes. As my granddaughter so eloquently said. Do not…worry. We’re going off to practice our speech, aren’t we? And maybe later Auntie Noah will tell me all about the errands she was supposed to run. She’s quite late. We’re running out of time.” I realized, gulping, that she was watching Chaunce. They stared at each other, both wide-eyed.
“You can vouch for me, can’t you…Ms. Bishop?” I winced at my maiden name.
“Yes. Absolutely. Yes. Alicia’s amazing. Let her take ALL the kids, honestly, hun!” I laughed obnoxiously. Ms. Kansas gave me a confused look, and you know, I just couldn’t figure out how to warn her. How do you tell someone that they were making the worst mistake of their life?
Alicia turned, holding Astrid’s hand, and they began walking off slowly. I finally found some courage, the smallest of balls, and yelled too loud, “WAIT! HER PUMP!”
The woman, Astor’s mother, Astrid’s grandmother, the murderess Alicia Free herself, turned very slowly and gave me a wide-eyed stare.
“She needs it,” Chaunce growled. Alicia tilted her head back and smiled. Astrid cleared her face of all emotion, mouthing the words, “It’s okay, Aunie,” to me.
Oh, it was going to have to be. I damn sure wasn’t stopping anything from happening.
“She’ll be fine, child. I take it you can see the mark? Is this the offspring of your Jukebox?”
“Yes.” A look of panic crossed her face while she took Chaunce in. It disappeared into a slow, menacing smile.
“You both smell like my daughter. It’s fascinating.”
Chaunce opened her mouth again, and I slid my hand over it, smiling.
“Oh, and by the way, I do hope I don’t have the same trouble when I come back here to get my grandchild tomorrow. We have a lot of work to do. I’m sure you’ll be too busy minding the other more vulnerable children, Ms. Kansas?”
Alicia walked away, holding a conversation with herself that Astrid didn’t realize she was invited to. Oh, the pure girl. She could smell the death on Alicia a mile away. I wanted to go after them, to be a badass auntie, to save the day, but I just leaned over instead, head throbbing.
“I think we need to tell Mrs. Snow about this, Mrs. Dill…”
“Girl, okay, get killed, whatever, but please…can you hold my kid for a second? I just swallowed all the vomit my body can produce. I have to go to the fucking bathroom.”
Capability can be a bad thing. It can ruin your entire life.
I was afraid to go back to the docks. To leave the house, even. But Moose sat on the couch with me until I unfurled myself from the fetal position I’d slept in. He made the girls breakfast, brushed my hair before work, laid out his own outfits for the week, then asked Noah to lay out the girls’ clothes. He picked up my slack until I was capable again, until I could get up and move around. It was a thing he did whenever I felt too much and couldn’t move. I could count on Moose to help me function.
He didn’t answer my questions, but he carried me.
I took the kids to the park after work one day and couldn’t stop watching him. Moose bossed the girls around the playground, pointing at things they should avoid. He watched them like an overseer, with his arms crossed and hair tied back in the tightest ponytail I could wrangle his tresses into. You couldn’t look at him and not think of capability, responsibility, honor. He was his father’s son, his father’s goal. He took on his father’s missions and fought his father’s battles when he wasn’t able to fight them.
Moose was a child, but childhood couldn’t stop for capability. And nothing could change the fact that he would never be capable of protecting me.
Osh was even more capable in childhood. And he saved me from my mother to a certain extent. But he wasn’t capable of stopping her from doing anything, from saving anyone she targeted. Even at his best, he failed.
When I was younger, my mother pulled me to the side a lot. When we were in public, she’d whisper things just to see if I heard them. They were always terrible things. She wasn’t as blatant as I was with Astrid. She was subtle but deadly in her execution.
At the library once, picking out books about monsters, she whispered, “I want you to read these, so you know how people see you. These are for children, of course. Adults vanquish people like you. Adults mutilate people like you.”
At the park, sitting far away on a bench, my mother once whispered, “No one knows what you are, but they can feel it. Uneasiness. They can feel the disaster on you.” She’d sit so still, you’d think she was a statue. You’d think she was someone to be honored. Regal. Head held high, eyes watching me in disgust. Nothing would move but her giant pupils like some haunted painting. I still think about her stance, that stillness, and shiver.
At the movies, sitting with our neighbors on our weekly night out, she whispered, “I hate your father. I hate you. I hope you burn in a vat of acid. I hope your skin melts, and you keep burning forever and ever. You’ve trapped me. You’ve both trapped me.”
“Ugly little thing.” She called me thing a lot. Little thing. Whenever she thought I was the only one who would hear her, she’d talk to me. She’d threaten me. Once, while she and my father laughed about something unrelated, in the middle of her laughing sentence, she snuck in, “One day someone is going to destroy you, you disgusting little thing. YES, it was hilarious, your mother is always so funny! The faces she makes! Die in a fire! She’s insane! Your life is meaningless.” And no one noticed.
Osh was the only one that ever tried to help me. He’d glare back. He would put himself in a fighting stance when we were young, never breaking eye contact, and dare her to say things to me again. When she came around, he listened. He stopped whatever he was doing and listened for her whispers.
But Osh was afraid, too afraid to make an impact. Capability can be a useless thing. She never spent any energy on him.
Whenever she got the chance, she reminded me that she could get hungry. She was hungry because of me.
She could cry. She cried a lot. She cried in front of me every chance she got and would ask, sucking back sobs, “Don’t you wish you weren’t a disgusting monster so you could cry? It feels so good to let this out, to wash away the pain! Don’t you wish things hurt you, you pathetic beast? Don’t your tear ducts itch, sometimes, when you think about how pathetic you are?”
I still don’t know what she was crying about. Maybe she just did it to make me feel bad, to show me what I couldn’t do. Osh would do stupid dances for me and bring me flowers from the yard, flowers his mother grew herself, whenever my mother mocked me for not crying.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you never want to cry, anyway.”
That vicious behavior from my mother completely stopped when I drowned and didn’t die. Suddenly, we were the best of friends. She gushed to me. She talked to me like I was a living, breathing person. Even Osh seemed to exist, and she took an interest in the things he liked and said.
He never forgave her. Never even pretended to give her another chance. And he made sure I didn’t, either. At least, he tried.
Osh is capable. Moose is capable.
But capable wasn’t enough.
… … …
Moose accompanied me to the police station without protest, but I could feel his anxiety over it. I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
We walked through the heavy doors, and I felt my breath catch.
That old panic.
When my mother did what she did and I had to sit in the police station, half-dressed and wild-haired and entirely out of it, I felt nothing. No one talked to me. No one approached me. They steered clear, regarding me like I was a rabid animal.
Careful. Cautious. No sudden moves.
To be fair, I was a mess. Hair everywhere, covered in blood and shame, my body completely still, staring at the wall in front of me. Tearless but wide-eyed. Immobile. They had no idea what I would do and did their best to ignore me, afraid I might force them to hurt me more than I’d already been destroyed.
I received the same treatment this time when I walked to the front desk, slicking my hair back nervously. The receptionist looked up and grimaced, giving me a tight smile. She motioned for someone else to come over. Moose’s nostrils flared, and I had to keep him still.
Just like all those years ago with his father, Moose couldn’t handle any dismissal of my concerns. I pictured Osh in his place, covered in blood, eyes red, tapping on the desk for someone to get me a new shirt. For someone to give me a hair tie. For someone to treat us like human beings. Except this time, I was dressed professionally. My hair was already tied back in a thick bun. I’d come straight from work, a half-day at that, and I was as prim and proper as royalty. Moose was spotless, clean, and attentive.
And still, they avoided me. One officer walked over, took a look at me, and scurried off.
They know something I-
“Astor?” I looked up, frightened out of my thoughts.
“Astor Free? Jeez, you’re the one?” One of the officers said my name with so much confusion that I almost turned around. I couldn’t place him. He held a stack of papers in his hand, in full uniform, and waited until I was closer to smile.
“Leave the poor woman be! It’s none of your business,” the receptionist growled. He patted her head condescendingly.
“I’m just trying to help her. Relax.”
I watched them. Other officers maneuvered around me, avoiding eye contact. The friendly officer walked around the counter to stand next to Moose and me, trying to calm down my bewilderment.
“I want to report my husband missing. What is with this behavior?”
He nodded for a long time. When he looked up, he stared at what was beginning to be my bad eye.
“Yeah. We have a picture of you in the back, and I couldn’t place it. Astor Free. I had a crush on you in high school. Crazy how things change. What makes you think your husband’s missing?”
“He…look, tell me what you know. Just tell me. No one else seems to want to tell me what’s going on.” I felt my head nearly crunching under the pressure. Moose moved to speak, and I popped his head.
“You used to hang out with Lou, right? She came by with some man to say you would show up eventually. It’s going around the stations. Nothing personal; it’s just a crazy story.”
“Please. Enlighten me.”
“Well. You know, Lou said that your husband is at her house. That…he left you. For her. They showed us proof.”
“Left me? For Lou? Louetta? Who was the person she was with?”
“Some man. Tall guy with dreads? The one her sister used to date. Either way, they said you’ve been putting in false reports in Rex. We confirmed with the station. They said something like nine reports had come in from the same woman. You, I guess. I can fill out the report here if you want but…” He let his sentence trail off.
Moose, through grit teeth, said, “My mother isn’t crazy. My uncle is.”
“Don’t worry about the report. What was the proof that he was cheating?”
“Look, nobody wanted to be the one to tell you this stuff. But they had pictures. They looked old, but, you know. Some things stop growing after a while.” He glanced down at Moose and turned red, but continued on to describe some marks only I should’ve known about. A curvature.
Embarrassed. Maybe for me, that girl he used to like.
A woman came in, frantic, and he rushed off to help her, patting my shoulder encouragingly as he went back.
I laughed a little. It was all I could do. My hand reached behind my head, almost disembodied, and yanked my bun down. I stood there as I had as a 13-year-old. Breath caught in my throat, eyes on the wall in front of me.
Yvette was leaving when I walked into Noah’s office, a satisfied look on her face. She stopped and hugged me, kissed my cheek, and took me in for a while. I didn’t return anything. Noah ushered me in quietly, apparently upset. We were both upset. She was trying her best to look energetic, which she only bothered to do if she didn’t have any energy.
I thought about telling her about Juke. About Lou.
“Astor. I agreed to drown you, hun. I went ahead and agreed. We can do it tonight if you want. They brought the container, and my team is on standby.”
“Why?” She looked up in surprise and sat on the edge of her desk. I sat in the chair, exhausted.
“You were just going on and on about wanting to know everything earlier.”
“Yes. And you have been arguing with me over it through every moment since the first time I mentioned it. So why, Noah?”
“I’m broke, hun. My kid’s a weirdo. I can’t see, my headaches are so bad. I don’t have time to worry about another thing. If you want to do it, fine, we can get that over with, and it’ll be one less thing. I don’t want to do it. I don’t. But I will. So you can have what you want, and I can keep the funding. There.” She let out a long groan.
“That’s honesty for you, Astor. I’m so broke. Everyone is suing me. Everyone on the fucking planet like, all at once. I’m not sexy enough to make something happen with some cash overnight, so I have to work. And Eon Tech is offering me a lot of money.” She seemed ashamed as she rambled. I tried to reel some of my somberness in for her benefit.
“I’m sure the suits and the sudden promise of money are not a coincidence.”
“Huh. You know, somehow I didn’t think about that.” We were both quiet. She slipped her hand into mine, and I plopped my head against her knee.
Ragged. We were both tattered and worn. I felt like the lights in the office were burning into my skin. Even her skin felt burning hot.
“Sure. Let’s do it. It means nothing to me, Noah. I feel like…like I’m filling up. Bloated. I talked to a police officer today who let me know that Osh is having an affair with Lou. He saw pictures. He described Osh’s…privates.”
“Shut UP! Like, recently?” I shrugged. It didn’t matter.
“Do you care where he is anymore?”
The question hit me harder than it needed to. It shouldn’t have bothered me that I did still care. That my heart always felt empty and hollow without him. That I couldn’t breathe when I thought of him with another woman, or in the ocean, or off on some grand adventure. It shouldn’t have made me feel anything, but I felt the most profound shame I’d ever experienced.
“Yes, Noah. I care.” She rubbed my head, and maybe that would’ve been the point where I cried. Where I broke down into a mess of tears, my body heaving, spit hanging from my lips. But I couldn’t cry physically or emotionally. I couldn’t find it in me.
I just sunk.
Osh had been all mine that morning. All mine to look for and worry over. And now, I knew he wasn’t close to who I thought he was. No one was. The only person I could pull up in my head as an example of the honest truth was Astrid.
My little, stuttering Astrid.
“Let’s prepare for the worst, hun. And get it over with. When you wake up, everything will be different. Better. And I know you’ll wake up. You’re gonna be here to save me, right? From these fucking people. From all these fucking situations. From…Juke, maybe. From Chaunce. From my family and yours. And then, I’m gonna save you.” I laughed into her leg a little. For once, she wasn’t smoking.
“If there’s anything alive to save once all of you are done with me, Noah, I’m sure you’ll be the one to salvage something.”
If she asked me “Are you sure?” again, I’d consider it a new language.
“I just want to be sure that you’re sure. I’m not okay with this. I know what I said. Yes, that was six hours ago, shut up. I’m not okay with it; it really just hit me. Not even a little, Astor. I’m actually really freaking out about this. I don’t know what to say, but I can’t stop you…and…just, are you fucking sure?” I stared at Noah. Red filled her cheeks and arms and hands. Her hair was frazzled, her usually perfect makeup was non-existent. I could smell her last four cigarettes. There was a type of panic in her that I wanted to ease.
But this panic I’d had was old. My mother prepared me for it.
While Noah paced, prepping her staff on the same things over and over, lining the walls with emergency supplies and oxygen tanks and towels, I surveyed the container I was in. It was thick, clear plastic with a plug at the bottom that I couldn’t reach. There was a rectangular lid that was wide enough to fit my upper torso through. Water filled up to my neck, a hose leading into the tub slowly filling it with more water. My arms and legs were restrained to the bottom sides of the container with built-in leather straps. Another hose led out of the tub, inactive and useless in the corner.
Yvette stood close, a small smirk permanently printed on her face, and watched us. Today’s suit was a bold navy blue with red lining. Today’s hair was pinned up, away from her face, showing off her huge chin.
“Noah? Mrs. Dill? How do you feel?” Too worried to ignore her, Noah turned, face almost green. They’d begun filling the tub, a long hose traveling from the bathroom connected to the bland, white room. It looked like we were in a large utility closet. There was space to walk, space for the supplies, and that was it. The team had to stay at the door, waiting for Noah’s cigarette-soaked commands.
“Sick. Scared. How about you?”
“Interested. I’ve seen this done a couple of times. Cora was also fond of more intimate settings. She used to like the camera, though; that’s the only thing missing. Calm down, Mrs. Dill. I promise any lover of science would enjoy this. Watching a devil die is always interesting.”
“Don’t call me that.” The water reached my chin now. Their voices seemed to warp in and out of my ears as they filled.
“Astor. Hun. You…you said your mom used to do this. You’re sure? You’ll get up? You’ll…you won’t die, right?” Noah’s face shivered. She’d bitten her lip raw.
“I promise. I would never do that to you. And I’d never leave you to raise my children. I’ll get up.”
“If it even looks like you won’t, I’m getting you out.”
I nodded, swirling the water. Noah stared down at me with so much intensity I thought I was already drowning.
“Don’t be nervous. I’m the one that should be nervous, so stop it.”
“Astor. Things will be different. I don’t care what happ…” The water filled my ears, and I allowed myself to sink down. Their muffled voices rose and flattened around me. I waited for that old panic to set in, to gut me, and it didn’t disappoint.
It took almost two minutes before I had to suck in a deep, frantic breath of water. I tried my best not to struggle, not to move. And I managed to keep still until my chest was so heavy I felt like I was sinking. Until I felt like spirals of metal crawled through my head. Until I truly realized I couldn’t get up, and the pain wasn’t stopping, and I couldn’t get out.
The panic set in, and it didn’t care what I knew. It wanted out of the container. Now.
I could see Noah stepping over to release my restraints, already done. Yvette grabbed her, rough. The water blurred.
Thick bubbles of screams tore through my chest. Heavy. The water was so fucking heavy. The pressure in my head seemed to throb, to stretch out. It reached down through my throat, to my lungs, to my stomach…
I struggled, leather restraints barely budging, until everything turned black. Some part of me soared through a tunnel, through the darkest black I’d ever felt, and swung back again.
I woke up and was still underwater.
That old panic…
Loud but muffled voices raged outside of the container, but I couldn’t see anything anymore. My teeth grit angrily, fighting the pain in my chest until all I could do was black out again.
And again. And again. I felt my arms shaking and smacked my hands against the sides, tapping slower than I wanted, the restraints holding me down. All I could do was wriggle aggressively. My braid started to unravel. Whispers floated around my head, and this time, everything turned white.
I saw my mother’s face, pupils growing, staring down at me. Her bright chandelier swinging over her head. Her designer bra ripping…
“Astor? Do you know why we’re doing this? Do you understand immortality? Eternity? Duty?”
“You die, Astor. Everything dies. There is no way around it. But we have Devil Syndrome. The number one does not apply to us in any capacity. Do you understand?”
Tiny hands gripped me, clawing at my restraints. I felt Noah, my angel, my heart, rip one off. They yanked back violently and then dove in again, bigger hands over them. The container tilted on its legs, splashing water out, but I was still covered. Yvette’s face replaced my mother’s, and she pulled her lips back, snarling. “Annoying monster. Cough!”
And, again, I did.
This time, when I felt my body soaring back through the tunnel, I opened my mouth and let the pressure out. It felt like my soul siphoned out of my skin, my nails, my eyes. I felt air rushing into my lungs but not before I coughed again, thick and angry, spilling myself.
A relaxation like no other filled me.
When I finally straightened, sitting up, sucking in deep breaths, everything was red. Someone had thrown the lid off, freeing me to slide up further. Half of the water was on the floor, circling the drain. Red dust floated around us, stuck to the walls, the ceiling, everything. It slowly evaporated, blowing away in some imaginary wind. Shakily, I looked down at my skin and noticed thick, red dust spotting me.
I looked to my side where the women struggled and, already breathing too hard, tried not to gasp.
Noah was covered in it. Red dust blew from her nose when she tried to breathe, spit clung to her mouth, mixing with it, sliding down her face and staining her lab coat. She sucked in another deep breath, and the air around her shifted, racing into her throat. It was like a fog. Like a cloud of gnats in a field. The dust seemed attracted to her, floating in a haze around her head, darting into her eyes and mouth.
I couldn’t move. Yvette held her still, chaos warping her face, cooing something in her ear. It sounded like “Relax…what color is it for you?” The rest of the team was a blur of movement. Someone thankfully grabbed a towel and began wiping Noah’s face. Someone else, a small woman whose name I couldn’t remember, pushed Yvette almost hard enough to topple her over.
“What the FUCK is your problem?!” She rolled her eyes, motioning toward the safety equipment lining the wall.
“Don’t you have a protocol for blood exposure?” Yvette asked calmly, walking toward me. In tandem, everyone ran toward the wall to get supplies. I tried to move backward but could only shift in the container. One of my hands and both of my legs were still tied down. Yvette let her fingers walk across my wrist restraint in the water, staring at my eyes.
“You very pointedly spat blood at her. Why? I was standing here. The others were close enough for your little dust cloud. Why did you pick her? Is it an automatic thing? Does your body just know?”
“I…didn’t…I’m not…let me up! I didn’t mean to!” Rage pulsed through me, and I heard the restraint whine. Yvette tapped it slowly, still watching me.
“Your eye…was it always like that? No, I would’ve noticed. You look more like a proper devil now. It’s just the one, but it suits you.” For a second, I shrunk back—my eye. I felt like razors crawled through my face, sat in my skull. Something told me I’d look in the mirror and see my mother’s doll eyes staring back, haunting me.
The woman unhooked my wrist restraint, still close. She was clean, I realized. As time went on, everyone was clean except Noah. I tried to move, but my body was weak, emptied. Yvette watched every body part I moved, the small smile crossing her face. She moved deliberately, every motion with purpose, every blink to catch the air.
“You wanted this? You wanted me to do this? This is…you deliberately wanted to…”
“Unfortunately, I’m just the unwilling messenger. The facilitator, if you will. Some things are not personal, Astor. Some things are just organic.” I sucked in a painful breath and tried to roll my eye, to move the pain out of it. The pressure sunk into me.
“I don’t understand what the fuck…you’re talking about…what did I do to her?”
“Before I leave, devil, I want to tell you what we have, had, and don’t have. I promised not to tell you too much else, but I owe you that much. We have proof that there are others like you, still alive and well. We had a list of possible devils, even. We had protections in place to make sure they were safe. Someone went through great pains to circumvent those. Most of the devils on the list are gone.
“We have a clue where your mother is, and oh, is she a pain in everyone’s ass. We have my daughter, and oh, is she a pain in my ass. We have you now, whether you like it or not, and we’re going to try our best to make sure we don’t pull another Cora.
“We didn’t kill Cora. We just don’t know where the bitch is, much like your mother. So we don’t have her. The biggest thing we don’t have is time. And we had to protect you.
“You’re so lucky to have someone love you this much, to navigate the hard parts of life for you. You would’ve never made this decision on your own. You don’t know what you’re going to face, what…mess…others have left for you. People do the most terrible things to protect the ones they love, Astor. We make sacrifices that others aren’t strong enough to make themselves. And I’m sorry for Noah. I’m sorry for everyone who will suffer over this. But these things, they’re coming whether you like it or not. And you’re better off prepared. You have to have a Latch. She agreed.”
I watched Noah through my murky view. She stood still, body solid against the frantic workers trying to pull her to the shower in their newly donned hazmat suits. Noah’s gigantic, bug eyes were wide open, staring at me. My blood seemed to seep into her skin, some of it plain evaporating, and she was clean in no time. It seemed to disappear into her.
Yvette pulled my face back to look at her. “I was told to tell you this exactly, and so, I will: The world is so small, Astor. You see one person, and they’re actually another. You build your own community, and it’s actually just you.” She let her hand drop heavily, exhausted, and I realized that Yvette was relieved. She was done. She’d completed some mission.
Yvette stretched, leaning as far back as she could without tipping over, and then walked toward the door. “Noah, sweetheart, don’t worry about the funding you demanded. Consider yourself funded for life. We’ll settle your lawsuits; we’ll handle your debts. Do whatever you want here. You’ve sacrificed enough.”
“It’s…yellow.” Noah’s voice was clear, slow, and filled with wonder.
Yvette laughed out loud this time, moving toward the door. “Yes, it would be to you, wouldn’t it?”
Noah stood there, unmoving, eyes wide and unblinking, until I sunk as far back underwater as I could go. I couldn’t watch anymore. I closed my eyes and took a deep, watery breath.
Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller