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

Chapter 4: The Boys

Juke Teroy

There’s one saying I live by. It’s something my momma used to tell me when she’d lay out my clothes in the morning for school.

 

“There is no such thing as benevolence, Jukel. If you’re starving with your friends and there’s one piece of food left, you’ll all reach for it. Doesn’t matter how close you are or how much they love you. You’ll kill each other for it.” 

 

This was like her personal saying. She had a million different ways to say it, all more depressing than the last, but they all led up to the same conclusion.

 

In the end, no one’s gonna help you. In the end, you automatically think of yourself. My momma loved to pull me away from everyone, to remind me that it was just her and me, that we were all we could count on.

 

And then, she abandoned me.

 

There’s a lesson in that somewhere, I guess.

 

Lou opened the door and looked even less happy to see me than the last time, if that was possible. She looked even less healthy, too. Half of her mouth was swollen in a big, ugly knot, her flawless skin stretched and shiny.

 

Ol’ Lou wasn’t feeling so great.

 

“Your teeth falling out, girl?”

 

“I wanna go home, you idiot!” The women in my life have always been subtle. Lou has too much emotion in her words; it damn near disgusts me. She’s always been like that, and I’ve never liked her much. 

 

There’s the stuff she did to Noah, too. That shit doesn’t help my attitude toward her.

 

I gave her a quick, disinterested forehead peck and walked around her into the living room. Lou is taller than both Noah and Astor and way more busty, but she’s easier to bypass. Something about her voice made my brain automatically tune her out. I remember seeing her for the first time, back when Osh had a thing for her, and feeling a little excited. It was like standing in front of a celebrity. She’s clean, smells like heaven, and shows off any part of her body she can that will invite your brain to imagine more. I almost fell for the long lashes twice. And Lou will encourage it; you’ll never meet anyone else so desperate for attention.

 

All I needed was her mouth to open, and my interest evaporated. She had none of the class of Noah, none of the acid pouring out of her, smile or no smile. Just a bunch of pouts and sighs until some dumb dude relented and bought her shit or rescued her or whatever else. As brilliant as she was, Lou was a miss.

 

Take all the irritating parts of Noah and dump it into a sexier, taller body, and you got yourself a Lou Bishop.

 

There was nothing I wanted less than to talk to her, even for two seconds. She followed behind me, her long coat open, her tits damn near out to the wind—the usual Lou look with a little less sheen. She looked confused and afraid.

 

I thought I’d feel worse about that, but I didn’t.

 

“Juke, I am sick of bein’ here! And I’m sick in general; I don’t know what’s wrong with me. What’s wrong with me? I have to go; I need to pick up Jori. I have to go to work. I don’t know what damn day it is! Please, just talk to me, tell me somethin’. The smell of that man is gonna kill me, I can’t stand it! I wanna go home.”

 

“Astor would be waiting outside for yo’ ass.” She stopped, speechless.

 

“Why? Why the hell do you keep sayin’ that? I…I ain’t do anything to her; I don’t even keep up with her outside of Jori’s lessons! I can’t stand her! I can’t even remember what happened.”

 

“You made her look stupid. You went to the police station and told them she was crazy. You even stopped by her house first with your bold ass. Oh yeah, can’t forget how you fucked her man…” I took my shoes off slowly while I tried to cut the conversation short. A steady groaning echoed in the background.

 

“I didn’t do any of those things. No way in hell. And Osh? That was so long ago; are you kidding me, Juke! Who wants Osh other than Astor? I’on want ‘im!” I laughed, patting her head.

 

“She doesn’t know that. You told the police what the man’s dick looked like. You even gave them a picture.”

 

Her voice came out quiet and hurt this time, trapped behind her teeth. “I did not. I didn’t. I don’t remember that. I can’t fucking remember that. You told me I did that, but I don’t remember!” She shook her head. The poor girl was scared, ugly scared. Her face looked gnarled and frightened. I took a tiny bit of pleasure in it.

 

“Welp. Kind of reminds you of the whole Noah situation, huh?” She finally couldn’t think of anything to say. I waited, giving her a second to stew on it. 

 

“Noah’s not angry with me. Astor isn’t. Why are you?”

 

“Just how I am, I guess. Now you can’t go home. Or do. I don’t give a shit.”

 

“Why Astor ain’t mad at you? You said you were there.” I shrugged and kept moving.

 

Of course, Astor was mad at me. Of course, she hated me. But Astor was my best friend, had been most of our lives. She would always forgive me. Astor had seen me down in the mud, stealing and fighting, abandoned and lonely. I’d seen her in even worse situations. I didn’t think for a second that there was a thing I could do that would remove her from my life.

 

There was a piercing yet muffled beep coming from somewhere, the same one I heard when I looked at Astor too long. It was getting worse. I could hear it on the boat a lot when I worked. When I did certain things, it slowed down, got a little quieter. Right then, preparing to walk up those stairs again, all I could hear was Lou whining and that beep. That slow, aching beep.

 

A long groan traveled down the stairs. We both stopped talking.

 

“I’m not a doctor, Juke. And there’s nothing here in this showhome that I can use to ease that man’s pain. Please. I’ve never seen anything like that. You have to tell that woman that he’s gonna die…”

 

“Mind your business and stay with him until he gets better. Then you can go home. If you leave the house before then, I’ll follow you and snap your fucking neck. Remember your friend?” She whimpered. My frustration was punctuated by another sharp beep in my head.

 

Noah hadn’t asked me to do so much, definitely hadn’t asked me to hurt Lou or her friend or whoever else. But I have that memory thing, you know? And every time I look at Lou, I see Noah sobbing, crying. I see Astor speechless, staring at the floor. I see the shit she did, and I don’t have any sympathy for the bad I bring into her life.

 

I trudged up the stairs, prepping myself. A person’s skin was supposed to look a particular way; Osh’s body didn’t seem to get that anymore. That was probably the worst of it all. I imagined his skin still attached to his flesh, all the layers still there. I imagined the sight of small, angry Osh, still sporting a pretty boy smile, still laughing like he owned the world, punching things, smiling triumphantly when those things stopped moving.

 

I tried really hard not to see him as he was in that room.

 

But, to be honest, I didn’t have any better memories to think about. Not from recent times, for sure—and honestly, not even from the past.

 

The good ones were definitely not from the past few months, the months he spent ruining all of our lives for the sake of one little girl, only to realize that he’d put her in danger, as well. I couldn’t help but see him as a stubborn idiot.

 

I took a deep breath and finally walked into the room.

 

It was empty except for a small hospital bed. The carpet was stained so heavily with blood that it looked like that was its natural color, an ugly brown that warped the white. The window was taped up, but there was a single ceiling light above his head, blazing.

 

Osh lay on the bed, his skin barely holding onto his flesh. I heard him groaning right up until he saw me, and then, just like the old Osh, he stopped and tried to fake a laugh. Gurgles came out, blood pooling around his cheek in the bed. Lou seemed to be keeping him clean; any skin that had slid off, sticking to the black sheets, was peeled and jumbled in a small trashcan. I could see the bones in his jaw, some of his teeth, the holes of his nose. His entire rib cage looked like it was ready to burst out.

 

A horror show. 

 

The rest of him was covered with a thin bedsheet. The blood seeped through, and I realized there was a pile of soaked sheets in the corner, nearly black with blood.

 

I smiled. Just a little. Just to keep him comfortable.

 

“Ast..ric..?”

 

“He’s still not ready to see you like this, Ol’ Man. Just relax. Well. Try.” He shook a little, teeth chattering, and I had to turn my head.

 

“Wake…from…Ali…sha…Cora…Cor…a…”

 

Osh kept trying to speak. I knew he wanted to get moving, get the show on the road and correct his mistakes. But it’s hard to do that without skin. It’s hard to do that when you’re dying a slow, agonizing death.

 

I cleared my throat and turned back to him.

 

“Don’t worry, Ol’ Man. I’m working on something with Mr. David. I know you had pure intentions. I know that. We’re not gonna get sucked into some old beef. We’re gonna beat them both and have you back to normal and to your family. Your whole family. I mean that.” Osh tried to nod, and his flesh slipped off his neck. It all felt familiar, felt too much like looking into a mirror, maybe a glimpse into my own future.

 

No way was I bringing Moose to visit. The guilt would kill the boy.

 

Two Months Earlier

The black rashes on my skin, they come and go. I remember my mother freaking out about them all the way back when I was 15 and just learning how to shave via internet videos. They always start off as patchy, kind of flat, black mounds. They flake off, itch, everything annoying that you can think of. And man, sometimes I wake up, and they cover my entire chest, so close together that the skin looks charred.

 

It sounds crazy, but I can tell when things are going to be wrong just by the way my skin feels in the morning. The black patches start showing up, they get worse, they itch. When shit is about to hit the fan, the black spots appear without fail.

 

I woke up and knew something was wrong with somebody. I could feel it sifting around me, hanging in the air like dust.

 

We’re a dramatic bunch. Somebody I love is always aching, somewhere. When the patches are bad, it’s even worse than that.

 

That bad feeling pulled me awake, and I knew my skin looked terrible. The mirror didn’t give me any mercy; black gunk gurgled across giant spots on my chest and arms, sifting. When it’s dry, it’s annoying. When it’s wet, it’s scary.

 

It was my day off, and I didn’t need any extra work, but I’d be damned if my Little Terror saw her daddy covered in “spots”. I peeked out the kitchen window, stuffing my face with a bag of chips as quickly as possible. Astor sat with the girls on her porch, the porch light flooding them, a big book open in front of her. I snuck out the back door. Leave it to Astor Snow to have a speech lesson at 5 a.m.

 

It takes nothing to get to our little dock. I love the layout of Lostine, just the entire flow of the city, especially our little corner of it. I barely leave if I’m not going off to work or taking my baby or the kids out or handling the business I have to handle in Chastain, the stuff I don’t talk about. 

 

Astor picked the city for her job and the big park right up the street. I accepted based on the proximity to the ocean (basically my job). Osh didn’t seem to care; he’d make it out to the water one way or another. You couldn’t keep his weird ass away from it.

 

Noah did what Astor wanted, like usual.

 

Walking up to the docks, I felt this weird urge to turn around. I could see Osh from the parking lot and then from the small light blinking over our boats. The sun was barely thinking about getting up. Still, it was unnaturally dark around him.

 

I know that type of dark.

 

But a light blinked through it every time he connected his fist with whatever he was punching. It seemed to follow his lead, flashing every time he pushed into what looked like the ground. Over and over, he lifted up and smashed his hand down, red trailing behind it like a wet shadow.

 

I stopped for a second and just watched. The beeping sound in my head was deafening, matching his movements. Like something out of a movie, man.

 

That inhuman shit always follows me. 

 

 

Osh grunted hard and heavy, sounding angrier and angrier the closer I got. I felt the deep pool of black spread across my chest like a hole to another dimension, getting deeper and broader, so I finally walked up to see what was bothering him.

 

Well, what had been bothering him. It was just a puddle on the ground kind of attached to a body by the time I reached them. He didn’t slow down until the air around us calmed, and the lights seemed to finally reach the ground again. The darkness snapped away.

 

“Relax, man.” I tried to stay calm, to keep my hands away from Osh. You don’t want my rash touching people when it’s wet. Things don’t ever go right once it’s away from my body.

 

And he just generally didn’t seem like someone to be touched.

 

Osh beat the man to death with his bare hands. I didn’t realize he was dead until Osh’s fist hit the ground, scraping through the man’s flattened jaw, until he finally stopped punching, reeling back until he was standing straight up. He breathed hard, staring at me, daring me to say something.

 

That type of anger isn’t human.

 

“I mean. Was it his shirt or something? Dude had on a team you ain’t like?” I couldn’t think to do anything but joke. It was always nerve-wracking to see Osh enraged. His anger just pulsed out of him. I’d never seen anything like it.

 

Never.

 

Osh gulped a couple of times, worn out. He walked over to his workboat, rubbing blood over his eyes as he tried to wipe the sweat from his face. He rubbed it off on the inside of his shirt. There was no wobble in his step. No shakiness from what he’d just done. I looked down at the pile of man on the ground, wondering what he used to look like. 

 

The man’s skin was moist, not with blood, but his bare arms looked a little plump. They looked just a little too slick. I took note of his yellowing nails and the way some of his skin split a little along his forearm. 

 

“Seriously, man, say something…”

 

“Nothing to say. Things keep popping up for some reason.” He motioned to my chest when he said “things”. I tried not to be offended.

 

“For Astor? Between you and Noah, she shouldn’t have any issues…”

 

“It’s worse. It’s getting worse. Everything’s getting worse.” He went back to the body and started the hard process of unsticking it from the ground. I helped. It was all I could think to do.

 

“Just push it in the water.”

 

“You sure?”

 

He gave me a side eye and heaved the body over. We both listened to it hit the water and just stood there. I turned to walk away, shaking a little, but Osh grabbed my shoulder.

 

“Chill for a minute. I want to see something.” I nodded, trying not to look at the teeth left on the ground.

 

“You’re getting a little too comfortable with killing, Ol’ Man.” Osh smirked.

 

“I’m more comfortable with it than you realize, actually. Always have been…” We both watched the body float out from the dock. I worried about it being too visible.

 

“That’s not a good thing, man.”

 

“Hey, how much do you know about Astor?” I gave him a look.

 

“As much as any person knows about someone they’ve been friends with for over a decade…”

 

“How much do you know about Astor’s condition?” he asked, like a schoolteacher trying to coach an easy answer out of a student. I’d never thought much about Astor’s condition. There wasn’t a reason to with the psychos protecting her, guiding her, barely letting her lift a finger. Osh and Noah walked around acting like she would burst into flames if they didn’t control every little thing around her. It always bothered me, but they’re two stubborn peas in a pod. I left them to it. There wasn’t really any harm in Astor being protected.

 

It was worse when Osh and Noah used to work together. I did a dance in the mirror every day after that nightmare was over.

 

“Enough, I guess. She can’t cry. Gets those headaches. That weird thing with her blood; I think I saw that one time…”

 

A loud gurgle interrupted us. A deep circle of black appeared under the floating body and then it sucked down. A massive “plop” sound made me shiver. We waited a moment. Bubbles rose to the surface, dissipated, and that was it. The body was gone.

 

“They eat the broken ones, Jukel.”

 

“Figured,” Osh grumbled, letting his tongue run over his teeth. “Never seen them here before, but something’s different. They’re all over. The water, the fucking land, the fucking sky probably. That’s why you don’t let Astor come out here alone. Call me paranoid, call me a stalker, who cares. That shit right there is why. Honestly, though, they still aren’t attacking her here, not like they used to. I think the ones that are after her all left the water a long time ago.”

 

We started walking back to the house as if nothing happened. I’d caught him killing twice before, once in his backyard and the other time in mine. I’d caught Noah pulling bloody packages out of Astor’s mailbox. She took them to the basement and sorted them like it was normal, sifting them into piles depending on the return label and how dark the blood was.

 

I stayed out of it. All of it.

 

“You got that black shit on your arms again,” Osh was talking and walking so lazily, bloody hands in his pockets, that I forgot he was even talking. I cleared my throat.

 

“Just the same rashes I used to get when I was younger.”

 

“Yeah. Always wanted to ask about those.”

 

“Runs in my family, I think.” I blocked out the image of my mother’s horrified face when she’d noticed them, and then, I blocked out another loud beep.

 

Osh looked up at the sky, rubbing his dark hair curiously.

 

“That’s crazy. Moose gets the same rashes on his legs. Doesn’t run in my family at all, though. He’d be the first.” I nodded, clearing my throat again.

 

I have so many dead giveaways. I always hated it. Shaking is a big one. Gulping. Osh, cool and calm as usual, turned slightly to look at my hands. You could never tell what he was thinking, what he was getting at. It made me nervous.

 

“Heh. Maybe it’s not genetic, then,” I said, putting my hands in my pockets, too. Osh let a smirk spread across his face, unnatural but friendly. His eyebrow raised as the smile spread.

 

“Yeah, man. Maybe.”

 

We made it back to the house right when Astor and the kids were filing out, heading to the car. Moose saw me with his dad and brightened up like he always did. Most kids have superheroes and action figures. Moose had us.

 

“Are we bringing Unc with us on the trip, Dad?”

 

Osh looked down at Moose’s bright face and shrugged, smirking.

 

“Gotta show his soft ass the ropes someday, right?” Astor walked out of the house, with both girls dressed impeccably, Chaunce chewing on her tiny blouse sleeve. I let out a feminine shriek, falling to my knees with my hands pressed against my face.

 

“YOU LOOK SO ADORABLE!” I yelled, rolling over to her in the grass. She screamed in delight.

 

“You stop! No mess up hair!” Astrid screamed. She jumped on my head, pulling my dreads around. I pretended she was killing me, screaming in agony. They both gave me soft kicks and punches until Moose walked over, stern as always.

 

“Mom just did your hair. You just put your clothes on. Did you spend all morning ironing that?” They both stopped, ashamed. Astor walked around all of us and opened her car door.

 

“When do you leave for your trip, Osh?” He walked to the other side of the car, hiding the blood on his pants.

 

“Tomorrow. Let’s talk tonight.” She nodded, embarrassed. They’d been arguing. You could always tell by looking at Astor, by the way she stopped short when she opened her mouth to talk. She looked embarrassed. He was a cool dude most of the time, but the way he talked down to people was infuriating sometimes. They’d known each other longer, whatever, but I always wanted to protect her, even from a bad attitude. I stood up and wiped my pants, punching Moose in the stomach hard enough to topple him but not hard enough to hurt him too badly.

 

“Chill out. Let them have fun.”

 

He nodded, winded, and tried to stand quickly. I turned around to say goodbye to Astor, and Osh was staring at me. Blank, emotionless, but definitely staring at me.

 

He stared at me until everyone got quiet.

 

“Juke and Moose are coming with me,” he finally said, turning to Astor. She nodded skeptically.

 

“Let’s talk about that. I don’t think Moose is…”

 

“Let’s talk later.” He hurried inside, completely cutting off the conversation. I saw Noah watching us from the window across the street, rollers still in her hair, a clear view of Osh’s bloody pants. She waved at me, bored, sucking back a cigarette.

 

We’re a dramatic bunch.

 

“Tell Noah you’re going on a trip. She probably already knows; I told Astor. You know they share the same fucking brain.” Osh played with a pack of cigarettes, his smirk devious. They looked like Noah’s cigarettes.

 

“Why you ain’t tell her yourself when you stole those?”

 

“…I took them from her office earlier. She had a bunch of empty packs laying around. You should go check it out someday. They get up to some interesting shit there. You know she rolls these herself?” He rolled one between his fingers, the smirk growing. I hate people saying more than they’re saying. Just tell me. I felt my chest itch and avoided scratching, trying not to raise any issues, trying to keep the beeping out of my head.

 

Osh stared at the sky again, sitting next to me on a concrete ledge behind my house. I never really finished the things I started. The ridge was supposed to be a fire pit, something for the family to gather around and tell stories or something—to help Astrid get used to talking, to get Noah more comfortable with family time, to help Moose relax for once, something that could cure us all of our issues. I started it excitedly, really into the thought of helping out for once. But the more I tried to finish it, the more it felt like a waste of time.

 

We were all heading to an end, right? My mother’s favorite lesson kept delivering itself whenever I woke up and Noah was missing instead of jumping on me, mushing my face, and burying her lips in my neck like she used to. Every time Osh stared at the sky instead of laughing at one of my jokes, I wondered how much longer we had. When Moose sighed heavily like an old man with too many bills, I just wanted to pack all my things and take the girls and go. It felt like Astrid and Chaunce still had a chance. 

 

The rest of us were getting close to a disaster. Noah’s mother used to warn me about this, about what was supposed to come, but I listened to Noah over her. I still listened to Noah over her, even when I woke up to the black patches and ugly scars. Her mother’s words sat under everything, though; they really sat under everything.

 

“They eat the broken ones, Jukel. You’re breaking. You’re going to break.”

 

“What’s up there that you’re so interested in?” I asked Osh for the millionth time. Moose seemed to sit up, at attention, always serious. Osh chuckled a little, patting my back.

 

“A simple truth. Make sure you tell Noah. We have to leave soon.”

 

“I’m guessing you’re gonna tell me why and where.”

 

Osh said to the sky, “I’m taking you to my foster father. We’re going to talk to him. We’re going to find out what he knows about the things that keep popping up to hurt Astor. And what he knows about Alicia, Astor’s momma. And we’re gonna get rid of all of them forever. We’re going to save you two idiots.”

 

“I thought Alicia was on the run? Or dead or something? Ya’ll always talk about her like she disappeared into the wind.” I glossed over the parts about the “things,” feeling my chest itch again. Osh sighed in frustration.

 

“I wish Alicia was dead. We’re going to make sure she doesn’t come back. Kill her if we have to, or something close to it.” I wanted to cover Moose’s ears for some reason.

 

“Man, calm down! All that…all the fighting shit is getting out of hand.”

 

“You can say ‘kill’ in front of him. We talked about this already, didn’t we, Moose?” Moose nodded to his daddy, moving in front of me to explain.

 

“Unc, she’s going to try and hurt us without us ever even seeing her. And we can’t get rid of the ‘things’ without getting rid of her because they’re after her, and it’s a long story about tradition or something. We have to think strategically and lure her out…”

 

“Shut the hell up.” He stopped. Osh laughed, standing up from the concrete block, still staring at the sky. I kept my eyes on his hands, but they stayed in his pockets.

 

“Moose, you gotta watch your mouth with grown men. Unc doesn’t like kids thinking smarter than he does.”

 

“What are you doing, Osh? He’s a kid. You got him out here plotting to kill his own grandmother?” Osh shrugged, pulling his hands out of his pocket and rolling the pack in his hand. I couldn’t take the daydreaming anymore. I stood up and straightened my clothes.

 

“I gotta go work on something, man,” I mumbled, rubbing the back of my head. “You do what you want with your son. I’m not dealing with this shit.”

 

Osh grabbed my shoulder before I could move on. There was that anger again. I matched it this time, ready to fight his ass to the death. Wanting to beat his ass to death.

 

“This might come as a shock to you, Juke. A real shock. But you’re not the smartest person around. You’re not a genius surrounded by idiots. Your wife isn’t out here sneaking around because she’s an idiot. I’m not out here beating attackers to death because I’m a monster. I let one of those things go, and they don’t stop at Astor. They take her, and they kill your wife, and they kill your kid.”

 

I took a deep breath, ready to interrupt.

 

“And if you’re not going to protect them, someone has to. And if we lose, they have to protect themselves. So you either help me get rid of this fucking monster of a woman, or you get to watch the kids you want to stay so innocent get ripped to pieces. Or worse. Maybe someone will do to them what you’ve done to so many random people you pick off on the street.”

 

I felt the black patches crawling across my skin while I tried to process that.

 

“You know about that?”

 

“No, sir. I only know what I need to know. Just like you. Just like Astor. But we can all walk around pretending to be normal and pretending nothing’s wrong. We can all act like you and Astor don’t have generations of shit to hand down to these kids. And we can watch these kids end up dead, in the ocean, and taken over. Or we can actually do something about the weirdos controlling your lives. So, are you going to help us? I can deal with the part concerning Alicia. Are you going to help me talk to your mother, so she can help us?”

 

“My…my momma? No.”

 

“Let me rephrase that. We don’t need your help, man. That’s the whole reason we’re visiting my dad. But I can do a lot more with you there. I need you out there on that boat with me. I’m asking.”

 

It hit me for the first time, standing there with Osh while he tried to explain to me that we needed my barely-human momma to help us, that maybe all these people that I loved, all these dramatic people I loved, really were doomed. Maybe the “things” were going to keep coming until they got the girls. Maybe Alicia was going to haunt Osh until he self-destructed.

 

My momma, Yenna Teroy or Yenna Dill (depending on who you asked), would consume the entire planet before she helped Astor Snow.

 

 

A week later, we were packed and ready to go on our “trip”. This sinking feeling sat with me the whole time we were packing up the boat. I took the kids to the park to train, thought about pulling Moose to the side to really talk to him, to really explain what his daddy was getting us into. But he was so eager that he knocked his sister flat on her ass a couple of times, chastising her about not being prepared. I didn’t have the heart to calm him down. 

 

We didn’t need to be in that water, near my momma, near the “things”. We didn’t need that.

 

On the boat, waiting to take off, I watched Astor talk to Osh back on the dock like a lost damsel, giving him soft smiles she didn’t have available for anyone else, hugging Moose and rubbing his head and asking him question after question. And all I wanted to do was go talk to her, tell her something true.

 

Your husband is a murderer. And so am I. And so is Noah.

 

Your kids are monsters. My kid is a monster, maybe worse than your kids.

 

My momma wants… Ugh, I couldn’t even say it in my head.

 

And then I wondered what she would tell me back. What she knew that I didn’t. It was the only way we survived, keeping shit compartmentalized. What did Astor know that would knock me the hell out, put me on my ass, ruin my life? 

 

I shut my mouth and helped prepare the boat for our fake trip.

 

Astor doesn’t know anything about boats or even want too much detail into what Osh does. She never seems interested. I’ve tried to explain it to her, to break down the equipment we have, even. The minute I start talking about marine life, it’s like I gave her a handful of sleeping pills.

 

Noah, on the other hand, has to know everything. She eyed me strangely, climbing into the boat, and put a small hand on my arm, her eyebrow raised.

 

“Why is he taking his workboat? You need all that machinery out there?” I laughed a little.

 

“We’re not taking it.”

 

“And his little play boat? Why do ya’ll need that?”

 

“Not taking that one either.”

 

She pointed at Osh. “Ummm, he’s 100% getting that boat ready, hun. Why are you taking it?”

 

“Oh, nah, you know Osh. He loves his boat. We can’t go on a four-day trip without making sure it’ll be good, you know.” She kept staring.

 

“You keep saying that. Where are you sleeping on this four-day trip? Y’all must be docking somewhere.” I stopped talking and kissed her.

 

“You’re irritating as fuck, baby.”

 

“Uh-huh. You make sure you don’t stop in any pussy while you’re out there, or I’m taking the house and all the assets. You can have the Little Terror. And come back in one piece…don’t upset Astor.” She stepped down from the boat, and I wanted to grab her back, wanted her to keep up with the logic. Talk me out of this, baby.

 

But she joined Astor at the dock to wave us away, a sarcastic smile on her face, and then we were gone.

 

We docked across town in Chastain. Moose stared around the big, active pier with all the wrong stars in his eyes. It looked busier than it actually was. Lostine was quieter, especially once night fell, but we’d sheltered the kids with a more secluded corner of the city. Chastain didn’t really have as many rural or calm parts. It was a shit place to grow up, a shit place to do business, and a shit place to go when you’d rather be at home listening to your wife lie about something small.

 

“He’ll meet us here,” Osh mumbled, and I wondered if he thought I had hearing like Astor. What did he think of me at all? I couldn’t decide if we were even close anymore.

 

Did he think I was expendable like the man he’d beaten to death the other day? The “thing”?

 

Moose scratched at his wrist, avoiding eye contact with me.

 

Through a thick crowd of people on the pier, laughing loudly and enjoying first dates and revving jet skis, I saw Mr. David with his white dreads hanging down almost to his ankles, his big, soulless eyes watching us. One of his irises was massive, the pupil almost spilling out of it.

 

“Was his eye always like that?” I wondered out loud. Osh cleared his throat.

 

“Depends. Don’t mention it around him.”

 

We stood until we realized he wasn’t going to meet us halfway, and we walked over to him.

 

Osh and Mr. David shared the most awkward moment I’d ever seen. Mr. David stood almost taller than me and definitely more imposing, eyes glued to Osh. And Osh stared at the ground, not talking, not even acknowledging the man.

 

“We have a delicate balance going on, you know that. What are you thinking, son?” The growl that came from his chest wasn’t friendly. He glanced over at me, letting his eye run over my body. He did the same to Moose. I slowly understood.

 

I wasn’t welcomed. Moose didn’t seem too appreciated, either. Around us, people came and went like normal. A lot of them looked a little moist. Wet. I kept my head down.

 

Osh, still staring at the wood, tried to laugh. “Hey, Dad. I told you I was bringing people with me. This is Astric, my son. And this is…”

 

“Yenna’s boy. Here. In Chastain.” I tried to make eye contact with him, but I couldn’t decide which eye to land on.

 

Maybe whatever Osh is looking at on the ground is interesting…

 

“Sir. Are you going to help us save my mother?” Moose moved forward, unintimidated by the eye. Mr. David knelt down, a small smile on his face.

 

“You’re polite. Smarter than your father, I assume. How would I help your mother?” Mr. David had a handsome, almost rugged face. I could see him being a lot of women’s type. His clothes were crisp but relaxed in style, his hands seemed to be glued in his pockets. Even his facial expressions were comforting and inviting.

 

Something about his hair was off to me. I watched him, hearing the beep in my head, and suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t the only one. All around us, people seemed fascinated by him. Some people, the moist ones, seemed a little more than that.

 

The stares didn’t go by unnoticed. Mr. David might’ve had a reason to keep his hands in his pockets.

 

“Well, my dad says you’re the smartest person alive. We need to make a plan to…to…”

 

“Lure Alicia out,” Osh finished. Mr. David lost his smile so quick I thought he was having a heart attack. He patted Moose’s head as he stood up.

 

“Let’s go back to my house. This isn’t the place to talk. Watch your back. I’m not exactly popular. The boy won’t be, either.” As we walked, following him to his car, I noticed people turning to look at us. Sometimes it was a glance, sometimes it was a full-on stare. But it was the strangest thing.

 

Random people in the thick crowd would pop up or turn their head or fixate on Mr. David. Some would even start moving toward us, their skin just a little too moist.

 

They all stopped cold when they saw me. Froze stiff.

 

 …

“I told you not to bring the Shadow. You said you understood.” Mr. David wasn’t poor. Shit, maybe he wasn’t rich, either, but his house sure was.

 

He had a big wrought iron fence surrounding the entire property, closing us in. The street was lined with attractive black lamp posts, and his home was the only one for a couple of blocks. The whole house was like a giant haunted mansion, all deep blues and purples.

 

“Open the fucking door.” All of Osh’s manners were back at the Chastain Pier. Mr. David held his key in the door, thinking.

 

The attitude wasn’t for nothing. There was a crowd forming at the gate of Mr. David’s house. They didn’t look like they wanted to oogle a socialite or get our numbers. There was nothing but animosity spilling from it, an inhuman, unspoken animosity. I counted twenty people, with more sauntering up the sidewalk, all fixated, all still once they got to the gate.

 

Osh sucked his teeth, glancing over the crowd, and stopped.

 

“Step one…”

 

Close to the gate, two teenage girls stood with their eyes so open, they could’ve been clothes-pinned to their hairlines. They were both focused entirely on Osh. He turned and walked down to them slowly, cautiously, avoiding the near thirty other people gathering at the locked gate.

 

He whispered to them and waited. When they nodded at the same time, he turned and rejoined us at the door. I watched them for a while, and they never took their eyes off of Osh.

 

Mr. David gave him a look of something like hurt and pain. I realized he probably heard something I couldn’t, something he didn’t like.

 

“I just want you to understand what I meant when I told you not to bring Shadows. And that I’d help you if I could, but that I might not be able to. Do you understand?” The lights up the street started blinking out, one by one. Osh turned to look at the people at the gate again. Moose stayed with his eyes forward, unfazed.

 

I didn’t know how I felt about them. The people didn’t seem angry or menacing. They just seemed to be watching us. By the time Mr. David pushed the door open, there were around fifty people at the gate, all with constricted pupils, moist skin, or wide-open eyes. None of them moved a muscle, just stood at the gate with perfect stances. Aside from the girls, they were all staring at Moose and then, slowly, transferring their stares to me.

 

And then back.

 

After a minute, I watched Osh rush quickly through Mr. David’s door, and I felt tired. I wanted to be in bed with Noah. I wondered what she had on…

 

“It’s nice to see you, Jukebox. I’ll be in touch.” One of the teenagers spoke behind me. I turned and didn’t see anyone who fit the voice. A crowd of eyes stared back at me, but the two girls in the front sunk deep into my skin. They’d stopped trying to even breathe and just stood there, staring. Moose disappeared into the house, and I held my hand on the door.

 

“You either stay out there with them, or you come in with us. I’m sure it’s a decision you’ll find yourself making again,” Mr. David said quietly.

 

“Why are they gathering around like that?”

 

“Everyone loves an anomaly. It’s not often you get to see two in the same place.” I took that in, listening to the wrought iron gate slowly begin to rattle.

 

“Sadly, Juke, your friend seems fine with sacrificing us all.”

 

“What are they?” He seemed surprised that I didn’t know.

 

“They’re Latches. Alicia’s current extra bodies, to be specific. They’re here every single day, waiting for me to leave the house, so they can tell Alicia where I’m going. And now they have something interesting to tell her. The others are Shadows. I’m sure you know about those? They’re here so much we’re nearly friends.

 

“The Shadows from the pier are a little different, and they aren’t far behind. They’ll let Yenna know you’re here. The Latches will let Alicia know Moose is here. And Osh will get what he wanted. A shitstorm that brews just fine without him.” I turned to see where he was looking.

 

Every light on the street was blinking out. One by one, they burst or blinked or even fell over. A darkness seemed to float just beyond the lights, creeping closer. One of the teens fell to her knees, suffocating, but still didn’t take a breath. Some of the other people in the crowd also had blue lips from the lack of oxygen.

 

“What the fuck…”

 

We watched the lights burn out one by one. A static-like sound filled the air, and finally, Mr. David stepped back in panic. Understanding, I followed him inside this time.

 

That darkness, I’d produced it a couple of times without trying. I’d seen it from my mother a few times. It wasn’t natural darkness.

 

That darkness was something specific to whatever I was.

 

 

“I just need the coordinates from you, now. For Yenna,” Osh said sheepishly when we got settled. We sat around Mr. David in his lavish office, ignoring the shifting sounds outside. The high ceilings made me nervous. Moose looked around in wonder, trying to keep his excitement in. It was probably the first mansion he’d ever been in.

 

Noah had snuck me into her parents’ house enough for me to only be a little impressed. Their shit wasn’t anywhere near as massive, beautifully decorated, or regal. But the thought of Noah being in it made it that much better.

 

Mr. David turned up some kind of heat lamp when we entered the back portion of the house, apologizing to me.

 

“Your skin might itch. You’re obviously not like the Shadows outside, but…you’re not like us.” I felt the black patches growing as soon as he flipped the switch and the bright lights flashed from the ceiling. The shifting noises stopped.

 

“Are these lights outside, as well, sir?” Moose seemed uncomfortable, listening for the vanishing sounds.

 

“They are, son. They’ll run the bad people off. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you, only the Shadows.” Mr. David offered his hand with his words, and Moose took it without hesitation. I wanted to ask why he was so comfortable with him. I didn’t like it.

 

I didn’t like how comfortable I was with him, either.

 

I watched the man walk away, his white dreads swinging around him like a light source of their own. They glowed. I couldn’t help but stare at them, feeling myself sucking into each strand, feeling like I belonged there in that house, like I was there to get rid of him. I felt violence building up in me that I couldn’t justify.

 

The whole place was brightly lit. When I say brightly lit, I mean he had lights in almost every corner of every wall. A ceiling light hung from above, swinging gently. Push-lights lined the corners of the walls, all pulsing out the same hot light.

 

My skin itched until I groaned. The black muck bubbled under my shirt.

 

Mr. David led us into a superbly bright office, the wood of his desk shining. He waited until I took a deep, painful breath before he spoke a word.

 

“Osh. You are an idiot. You bring her son here—”

 

“Dad, listen to me—”

 

“You don’t understand what you’re doing. You’ve already doomed me to run. I’ve been fine for years, and now this. You’ve doomed these two to run.”

 

I interrupted, “We’ve been in the same areas our whole lives. How does coming through Chastain Pier once hurt us?”

 

“You’re in Lostine for a reason. Do you not trust Astor’s decision-making? Noah’s? Either way, I’m marked. The hair.” He held up a dread, twisting it as it glowed. “It doesn’t matter what I do to it, more and more of those things find me. They can see me from miles away if I’m outside. I’m not Alicia. I can’t outrun them forever. And she sends those Latches by every day to stand at my gate and watch me, to make sure I stay as bait.”

 

“Bait? Why is Alicia watching you?” Osh cleared his throat, staring at his hands instead of Mr. David. 

 

“Don’t act even dumber. Alicia never changed, and she never hid what she was doing. You know better than anyone why Lostine is so safe. I would’ve left years ago if I wasn’t helping your family stay hidden. And I’m sure she’s waiting to see if we ever…decide to get back into the business.” Mr. David looked at me uncomfortably.

 

My mind was slowly going blank, edging out of me. I wanted to put my hand in his mouth and yank his jaw until it snapped off. I thought about pressing my fingers into his temples and squeezing, slowly, feeling him twist in agony. The black patches spread across my chest, down my arms. I felt them inching into my fingers. Moose glanced at me, shaking his head.

 

I tried to think about anything but destroying the man’s entire face.

 

“Why are you marked, sir?” Mr. David laughed a little, giving Moose a sly smile in response.

 

“A strange dedication to old friends and their idiot kids. That’s all.” Again, he glanced at me. My hands were starting to shake.

 

His head would look amazing split in half.

 

“A Shadow being in here is my death, Osh. They can’t stop themselves when someone is marked.”

 

“He has self-control. He won’t hurt you,” Osh nearly pleaded. Moose nodded in agreement.

 

“Unc wouldn’t do anything.” 

 

I wondered if he had a hammer? Something to destroy his skull. I could slowly pull every long white dread out of his scalp, maybe strand by strand even…

 

I interrupted, “How’d she find you in the first place?” He waited for me to elaborate on “she,” but I couldn’t speak again. My mouth dried, the lights sapping all the energy from me. 

 

Strangle him…

 

“Alicia has always known where I am. Your mother, she doesn’t put much effort into the search. This mark is old. They were bound to find me someday. More importantly, now they’ve found you. And him.” I looked over to Moose. He was sweating, a finger scratching slowly at his wrist. His discomfort rivaled mine, as I twisted in my chair under the lights.

 

Mr. David kept glancing at him, nervous. I thought of all the people at the pier. I thought of the number of times I could count where Mr. David actually left his house when we were growing up, and not just to run to the store and come back but actually left the house to engage with people. And when he did, had it ever been with us? Osh shrugged.

 

“Maybe I should’ve come alone. Whatever. We came to ask for help for Astor, not to dwell on my mistakes.”

 

You just made the damn mistake like ten minutes ago…

 

“Yes. Help for Astor. More help than I’ve been wasting my time giving you, apparently. You want to lure Alicia out to help Astor. How is that supposed to work?”

 

I waited for Osh to explain it to him like he’d done for me, to get angry and irritated, to be dismissive. He hung his head and stared at the ground.

 

“I talked to the Latches already. I just need you to take me to Yenna. Take me to the Mouth.”

 

“You want to risk that?”

 

“Alicia took my mother. She took Astor’s father. I don’t want her to take what we built, too, not to save herself. We made our own family. I’m not letting her take that from us. Never. Not one more person, not without me choosing. Alicia’s moving funny. You know what happens when she moves funny. You know. You know it, Dad. I have to…offer her something. I have to step in.” Mr. David widened his eyes in shock. He looked over at Moose and closed his eyes sadly.

 

Whatever comfort I had with him disappeared.

 

“Yes, I get it. I get it.” Osh cleared his throat a lot. He scratched the back of his head.

 

“You know, Dad, when we used to work, I thought a lot about empathy. And you taught me to put myself first. I need you to tell me where she is. So I can…make a deal.”

 

Osh looked everywhere but at any of us. I felt like I was being betrayed, somehow. You only act like that when you’re making a tough decision.

 

Mr. David looked at me, hunched over in the chair, barely able to breathe in the lights. He looked at Moose, who was shivering, trying not to scratch. He let out a tiny huff of a laugh and turned back to Osh like he was the only serious person in the room.

 

“Well, Osh. I’ll take you. You can make your own decisions, obviously. I think you’ll find that showing your hand, giving up your collateral, comes at a price. Are you willing to risk it?”

 

Osh looked down at his balled fist.

 

“Yeah.”

 

The water was chaotic. We didn’t talk much on the way to the Mouth. This was the long part of the journey that we needed the actual supplies for. Moose listened to music in the cabin, avoiding Mr. David, but I stayed close to pick his brain.

 

Osh didn’t speak to us. He tried to distance himself. I thought I had an idea of what we were about to do, but I figured Osh had a dumber version of it on hand.

 

“Mr. David? How do you know my momma?” Mr. David seemed to grow more and more sour the closer we got to our destination. I felt strangely at home the further we traveled from Chastain. When the water started turning nearly black, even with the sun slowly going down in the distance, I felt almost sleepy with calm.

 

“I know everybody’s mom. Comes with getting old in the same place you were young.” I glanced over at him. It struck me that this man might be an old curmudgeon. He looked my age or younger, but I’d never been good at guessing ages.

 

“How old are you?”

 

“98.” I whistled. He gave me a long stare, barely turning his head to do it.

 

“You don’t seem surprised. For someone who doesn’t know what a devil is…”

 

“He knows what a devil is.” Osh appeared from inside the cabin.

 

“Do I?” Osh glared at me.

 

“You’re not stupid. You and Noah, you both know everything. Or am I wrong?”

 

“Are you?” He scoffed and stepped back in the cabin, slamming the door.

 

“I bet you wish you’d stayed home. His lack of self-control is as good a reason as any to start going over your life highlights.” Mr. David sat back against the cabin wall, depressed.

 

I didn’t care about Osh. Part of me was sinking into the water, anticipating seeing my momma. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital when Chaunce was born, and she’d told me a bunch of shit I didn’t want to know. Right there, trying her best to get into the hospital room with Noah, trying to pretend she was family. She told me things I still lost sleep over, and I didn’t want to know anything else.

 

After a long time, right on the cusp of the morning, we stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Moose went to look over the railing, and I grabbed him, pulling him close to the wall. Who knows why. Maybe it was some sort of instinct. I’d never been out there, but I felt like I lived in that water. 

 

Who knows what happened in my childhood. What I couldn’t remember.

 

Something in my head told me to grab him, so I did. Osh noticed but didn’t say anything.

 

“Don’t look over. Don’t get close to the rail. Close your eyes if you see anything in the sky or getting on the boat. You understand me?” Moose stood straight up, trying to look brave, but closed his eyes. Mr. David swallowed nervously and pushed himself back, as well. It wasn’t a sight you could get used to.

 

I have been here. I definitely have.

 

Mr. David tapped the ground, chuckling. “Marked devils never make it back from here, kid. I’m a two-time offender. It was nice meeting you.”

 

Beyond the boat was a hole, a massive hole hundreds of miles long, slowly churning. There was water there, yeah. We could technically keep going over it, keep moving above it. But the water was so deep there, so black and bottomless, that it looked like a gigantic opened mouth. The regular water formed a thick edge around it like lips, waves turning back in a white froth. Nothing moved over the darkness.

 

And when things did move, there was nothing left to do but die.

 

Osh walked over to Mr. David, a pocket knife in his hand.

 

“I’ll throw you overboard if you touch me.” The fear in Mr. David suddenly shot up to 1000. He slid away from Osh. Sighing, Osh turned to me and held the knife out.

 

“We need to talk to her. It’s probably a sure bet that it’ll be Yenna if you’re the one who puts the blood in.” Mr. David groaned behind us, and Moose grabbed onto me. 

 

I grabbed it and cut a tiny part of my palm, digging the knife in. Then, I threw the whole thing in the water, watching a single ripple run from it like a soundwave. The ripple disappeared, replaced by a long groan.

 

“You’re a fucking idiot, Osh.”

 

 

An hour passed before she showed up. None of us moved, still frozen in anticipation or fear, whatever held people in place through trauma.

 

A slender hand gripped the side of the boat, noiseless. I almost missed it, but the sun glinted off the long, curved nails. It slid down a little, and then another hand appeared beside it. It put no real effort into holding the sides. One second, she was outside the boat, and the next, she was in. Long, blood red hair trailed behind her, longer than Mr. David’s, longer than everyone’s. She was taller than any one person had business being, almost inhuman, and her body was thin. Even fresh out of the water, she didn’t look wet or moist like the others. She had a different type of body, a better one. 

 

One that doesn’t belong to her.

 

She stopped when she saw me; there was hope in her eyes. I made sure to glare at her with all the intensity I had in my body. It hurt though. It hurt seeing her make those faces, lift the corners of lips she didn’t own to smile. It hurt to think about what she’d done, what she was. Every face she made was another lie that dug into me, that ruined what I knew about life and love.

 

My momma. Four years after the last time I’d seen her. Over a decade after she’d abandoned me to starve and sleep in alleys. But she didn’t deserve to be called that, not by me.

 

Yenna.

 

She stepped forward, lashes long and impossible, completely naked. Noticing Moose staring with wide eyes, she moved her hair in front of her to cover her breasts. Osh turned and handed her a long coat, something he had tucked away in the cabin, and I wondered how well he knew her. How often did he come out here?

 

She pulled it over her body, steering clear of her hair, and kept giving me her fake loving gazes.

 

“Jukel. It’s been…it’s been a long time. I thought you’d never forgive me.”

 

“I don’t.”

 

“But you’re here. You’re really here. I can’t believe it.” She was filled with emotion but stood tall, smiling. She gave a silent nod to Osh, and he tied her coat in the front for her.

 

“This is not…this isn’t Chaunce, is it? I could’ve sworn you had a girl, Jukel?” Yenna moved forward, giving Moose a slow and warm smile.

 

Osh spoke up. “It’s nice to see you again, Yenna. That’s my son, Astric.” Yenna’s pupils constricted, a hungry look crossing her face. She glanced back and forth between Osh and Moose, then me and Moose, confused. 

 

“I know I can’t come empty-handed.” She gasped.

 

“Oh, I see! For the brine pool.”

 

And it finally hit me what Mr. David meant back in his office. Do you really want to give up your collateral?

 

Osh was giving us to Yenna. Both of us.

 

Me and Moose.

 

Yenna stared blankly down at Moose, touching his hair. He stiffened as her fingers traveled around his face, stalling over his left ear, and then edging around his hairline. A surreal feeling took over me while I watched her. When I was young, as young as I could remember, she used to touch my hair like that. 

 

“It’s so thick. Like tentacles. You’re so much like the sea; I don’t understand why you won’t fit there. I wish you fit there …”

 

I pulled him close to me. She caught herself, straightening a little, and offered him a nervous smile. Moose opened his mouth, but I gripped his shoulder, closing it right back. Her fingers always scared me as a kid. They blended right in with the edge of the fingernail, no change in color, no difference in the nail. She tried to touch his hair again, eyes wide in wonder, and I moved him back against the wall. We shared a long look before Yenna closed her eyes in frustration and turned away.

 

“Well, if you were going to visit, I wish you would’ve brought my daughter-in-law. You’d think she doesn’t even know me.”

 

“Don’t bring her up—” 

 

“Osh. What are you doing out here? What are any of you doing out here? You’re always so reluctant to make the trip; I’m surprised anyone bothered.” Yenna was soft-spoken and calm. There was almost a comical friendliness in her tone sometimes, and other times, she just said things. She could say the most vicious shit with her face dripping cheer and love. 

 

“Let’s see what happens if we eat them, okay? Aren’t you hungry?”

 

It was the only way I’d ever seen her. The woman standing in front of me was definitely the same woman who sat in front of the TV watching ocean documentaries when I was a teenager, the same woman who didn’t understand shaving, simple math, ice cream, and even that the things that happened on her favorite shows weren’t real life. This was the woman who stood on that cliff with me and made me watch hundreds of people throw themselves into the sea, screaming in agony. The one that made me talk to that giant thing …

 

“Don’t worry, Jukel. It’s from where you’re from …”

 

I could imagine her in a million situations, pupils constricting, mouth curling up into a whimsical smile. This woman wanted to be a good mother, a grand leader, a giant in her own right. For a long time, she was all I wanted to know.

 

Yet, somehow, she seemed the furthest thing from me right then. The furthest idea you could come up with when you imagined me and my childhood. The way she looked at me was definitely the expression of a sad mother, but I couldn’t connect to what I knew she was under all of that.

She shouldn’t have ever shown me who she really was.

 

“Jukel. I never thought you’d see me like this again. Out here.” 

 

“Same.” 

 

“How is—”

 

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

 

“Fine. I brought you out to land for a reason. You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe for you with things the way they are. You don’t have to like me to understand that. You saw what happened … well, you probably don’t remember. We aren’t exactly safe anymore.”

 

I couldn’t imagine any creature scaring my mother enough for those words, but she let her eyes flicker down in shame. 

 

“We’re not staying here, so no worries.”

 

Surprised, she gave me a nod. “Of course you aren’t. You couldn’t survive the pressure down there, and we don’t have enough food as it is. It’s the same old story. Worse, maybe. I’m trying to find resources. I hope that’s what you’re out here to bring me, Osh. More resources. Like you used to …” She let herself trail off, shame choking back her words.

 

Stressed. Her presence shoved emotions in me that I repressed as often as possible. It tore memories out of my head, but I ignored them all. I replaced the feelings with a blank face as more patches grew thick under my shirt and a weird desire to swallow over and over again developed. I felt like a kid for wanting to throw up.

 

But here she was. The bits of childhood I could remember all bundled up in Osh’s coat, too tall to be normal, fingers too long to be normal. Yenna glanced at me quickly, and I swore I saw a smirk hidden on her face.

 

All of that just made me want to throw up again.

 

“That body is close to death, Jukel. I thought Autumn was helping you. Guess I should’ve known better with all the fuss she made about your wife. You need something new soon. I can smell the rot from here.”

 

I ignored her, feeling my heart beat harder. Were the black patches rot?

 

Osh got her attention. “Ma’am? I need you to leave my family alone. All of us.” He paused, biting his lip. “I know what’s been discussed, but I can’t hold up my end at the moment. Give me more time.”

 

I didn’t like the way Osh talked to my momma. They were familiar

 

He’s been out here a lot.

 

As they continued to exchange glances, I wondered when they last saw each other. They kept glancing over at me. I didn’t like that either.

 

“Time? I wish I had it to give you. Things are desperate. Unfortunately, I’m losing some control over the younger Feeders. They weren’t around for the good times when I was more … substantial. They have someone else to listen to now, and I have no idea what he tells them. And they’re scared. Hungry creatures will look for food, after all. Dying creatures need food.” She glanced down at the black pit of the water. Everything was getting dark, but it wasn’t unnatural. It wasn’t the one she made or that I made. “Yes. Everything is desperate. I don’t really send anyone out anymore. He does.”

 

Osh opened and closed his mouth. He understood what she meant more than I did. 

 

I don’t like this shit.

 

“The only way I could change his mind, Osh, is to start giving him resources again. I don’t suppose you have any on your boat? The kind we need? Someone like the last big one you brought me.” She eyed Moose.

 

I got the strangest feeling right then. It hit me hard, right in the chest, right between the swirling black gunk traveling across me. They both glanced at me, Yenna and Osh, and I turned around to see Mr. David staring at me, as well. It was a blank, clean stare, but I got the strangest feeling that they were having a conversation I wasn’t supposed to understand. That I wasn’t being talked about but talked around. 

 

It went away, but it was there.

 

Yenna walked to Mr. David and leaned down, shaking her fingers through his hair as if he were a child.

 

“Surely, you have someone close to you that you’re willing to throw away, Eric. Or are you all out?”

 

Familiar

 

His face collapsed into anger, but he didn’t move.

 

“You know, I’m surprised to see you after the last little stunt, honestly. Let me guess. You’re here to make sure we don’t sink the boat? Every time I see you on someone’s boat, I get a bad taste in my mouth.” She let one of her long fingers trail his arm, admiring the skin. 

 

“I brought him for you,” Osh muttered, meeting her gaze. He didn’t sound sure. “He’ll comply. All that I ask in return is that you take Alicia and leave the rest of us alone. Get rid of her already. Stop dancing around.”

 

Yenna nodded, eyeing Moose again. I started to protest, hoping to save Mr. David. The spell of his hair wore off over the trip, and he just looked like a man that wanted to be left alone. I couldn’t think of what to say to connect with her, but my momma gave him a disinterested look anyway.

 

“Eric? For me? Oh, I don’t want to deal with him again. Why didn’t you just kill him? He’s marked for death, not capture. I can remove it if you want. I mean, he’s helped me a bunch in the past. If you’re open to finding resources for me again, Eric, I’ll definitely remove it.”

 

Osh’s face fell. He stared at me accusingly as if I somehow didn’t perform my job right on his surprise sacrifice. Mr. David didn’t react. He stared out over the ocean.

 

Osh moved forward. “Yenna …”

 

We were all silent while Yenna gazed at Moose. There was something I couldn’t read on her face the longer she looked at him, and moving him closer to me didn’t help. He tried his best to look polite and open, but confusion traveled across his face. Finally, Mr. David raised his hand, taking a long swig from a canteen he’d brought with him.

 

“You sure you can’t take me for your resources?”

 

Yenna still watched him with disinterest. Anger flickered across her face.

 

“Of course not. Are you mocking me?”

 

Osh balked. “That’s not what I mean. You … you know what I mean. Take him. You’d have what you wanted. You could leave …”

 

“I can’t take him! I mean, I could, but it would be a waste, and it would be a repeated mistake. He’s poison. He can’t make a Latch, and we can’t eat him. Even if he was a normal Devil, he’d be useless to me after about two years. He’d disintegrate. And we already have enough male bodies.” She eyed him, taking in his somber gaze. “He can’t serve as a Latch, either, so he wouldn’t help me once I found actual resources. I need them to be like the ones Alicia makes. I won’t accept anything less at this stage.”

 

Mr. David nodded with a sigh and turned back to the ocean. The boat shook a little, and he put his hands up, moving back slowly.

 

“Why can’t you make a … a Latch?” I asked, too curious not to. 

 

“Only some of us can make one. And only some of us are actually immortal. I’m hard to kill, but I can technically die.” Mr. David, tired and irritated, sat down on the boat floor, leaning his head back, content with soaking up the sun until we either died or went home.

 

“Yenna, listen!” We all turned to look at Osh. “Not that. The other thing you want. The one you asked for a long time ago. I’m giving it to you.” 

 

My mother’s face changed. Her confusion bled into pure glee, and then she visibly calmed herself down. She tightened her coat around her body and let out a deep sigh of relief. 

 

“Of course. Of course! I should’ve known; I’m sorry. You wouldn’t come out here without something to give. We’re stretched too thin for that. We don’t want our big friend down there to get angry. I knew it; I knew you’d come around! You and Noah, my little helpers.” She turned to take in the shock on my face. “It’s all fine. We’ll be fine, now. He won’t be angry. I’m sure you can already feel his displeasure in your head, right, Jukel?”

 

She glanced at me, and I tried to ignore the beep, tried to ignore what was gurgling in my head. Out in the ocean, it was more evident. The voice of that thing down there in the water, that big thing I didn’t want to see, it beeped in my head. I thought my bones would crush under the pressure of the noise.

 

It was loud. Louder than every thought in my head, louder than my heart beating, louder than their voices. It was transforming from a single, pulsing whine into a dull pressure, sinking deep into my skull. A vibration went all the way down my neck every time it beeped. 

 

Every time it talked.

 

“It’s great you finally came out here, Jukel. Reaching you on land is hard. Alicia makes it impossible for me to leave the ocean. She’s destroyed my enthusiasm lately. She really might win.”

 

Osh huffed in exasperation. “I’m keeping my promise. You keep yours! I … I just want you to take Alicia. You did it once; why can’t you do it again? If we can lure her out, I know you can do it. Of all people, you can take her.”

 

My mother started to sigh. “Alicia? Can I ask you an honest question? What’s your fixation about? Why do you want her harmed?”

 

“You’ve been trying to catch her for how many years? She’s a menace.”

 

“You think I don’t know that? That annoying bitch has so many damned Latches. Who can keep up? I don’t need a Devil that will just die when I take it. I need one that will last. You don’t think I’m putting my all into finding her? It’s for our survival. I’m not some …” She stopped suddenly, her pupils completely disappearing.

 

“The only Shadows we’ve been able to spare lately specifically look for her bloodline. Why would you have a problem with them? Are you hiding someone else from me?” She surveyed Moose like an android, then me. I took a deep breath.

 

My mother didn’t know about Astor or Astrid. Not directly. Not before we came all the way out there to get her to leave them alone. I’d talked to her maybe three times in the last decade, and she’d never once mentioned them. 

 

Osh was the dumbest man alive.

 

“You’re sending them after us. You … you’ve been sending them forever. Since I was a kid. Don’t pretend. We’re beyond all of that.”

 

Yenna watched him in confusion. “You do have another one, don’t you? What a clever man.”

 

Mr. David laughed out loud. A thick, hearty laugh. It seemed to vibrate over the ocean. My momma turned her attention to him, her pupils still missing in the depths of her iris. Strands of her hair started to rise high into the sky, tiny blue lights flickering on at the end of each one.

 

“I did promise I would stop pretending, didn’t I? You get so emotional about it, and yet, here you stand, lying to me again. Well. Let’s move on, so you can go about your clever, little life. Jukel. You need a new body. Please. Take Eric. You can’t survive off of humans; you need a Devil body. They last longer.”

 

Mr. David kept laughing.

 

“I can’t. I don’t know how.”

 

She gave me an apologetic face and walked around me.

 

“That’s interesting. You’ve always had a problem with lying. It’s fine; I’ll do it for you. The cool thing about Devils is that you can save them for later.”

 

Mr. David stopped laughing, sliding away from her. 

 

“Humans deteriorate so quickly, it’s not even worth the trouble most of the time. I wish I’d been able to show you these things.” She looked down at Moose, making sure her breasts were covered under the coat.

 

“You. There’s something odd about you.”

 

“Leave him.”

 

She bypassed us and stood over Mr. David.

 

I turned Moose around, so he wouldn’t see it. It wasn’t pleasant, not for the person being taken over. I’d done it a million times, over and over, and they always ended up worse than they’d been when I’d taken them. I’d only recently perfected it to the point of not killing the human I took.

 

It was a lot of screaming, a lot of burning skin, and a lot of shame.

 

I felt heavy with that shame all the time. 

 

Mr. David screamed next to us, all the sounds of his body turning to agony, to liquid. Osh stared out over the ocean, ignoring us, angry. I watched him instead of watching my mother, wondering what happened. What happened to Osh that made him do something like this? Why didn’t I recognize him over there staring at the horizon? How could I grow up with this man, get married on the same day as this man, go to work with this man, and have no idea who he was?

The beep went off in my head, clearer than ever. I turned around unwillingly.

 

“Good. You can hear it, Jukel?” Yenna walked back over, unnatural, fingers longer than a second ago, and took my hand. Mr. David’s arm bled, but she moved away from the blood as if it were acid. The rest of the arm could’ve still been attached to his body; it looked so normal, the fingers clenched into a fist. Moose flinched, pushing back against the cabin, but I stared at it. 

 

The blood coming out of the wound was pitch black. The rest of the arm was slowly spotting. Thick, white dots that looked more like mold than discoloration spread to the fingertips. Yenna offered it to me and rolled her eyes when I shrank back. 

 

“Well, I don’t want it! It’ll rot if you don’t take it, Jukel. Take it.” Her insistence was backed up by one of the little lights. It floated over, hovering above us. My arm lifted on its own and grabbed the dying limb. The spots spread from it to my hand, then down to my elbow, and I finally ‘ate’ it. A wave of black pulsed from my arm over the severed limb, completely engulfing it. It melted down and came back as liquid, sliding up my wrist and through my shoulder, sitting in my chest. It felt like I had two heartbeats, and then it melted into me.

 

Yenna’s satisfaction was intense. She breathed, letting out a small yelp. I couldn’t look away to see anyone else’s face. 

 

“Use it sparingly. I’ll do the same.”

 

I didn’t know how to respond with the beating in my tongue. We both looked over at Mr. David, and I thought I heard Moose sigh in relief. He sat shaking in pain, one entire arm missing but otherwise alive. He took another drink from the canteen, cursing to himself.

 

Yenna snapped her grotesque fingers in my face. “Eric is special. You can use him as an extra body if you have a piece of him, almost like a dummy body. If you use the duplicate I just made you, it’ll have the arm. No worries.” She winked as if she’d just told me the secret of adding a little sugar to cereal. Like she’d just taught me how to shave without getting razor bumps. She winked like we were normal. Like this was normal.

 

Osh, his voice broken, finally spoke.

 

“So what now? We turn around? We go home and act like this never happened? You keep trying to kill us?”

 

“No. You’ve been lying to me, Osh. You’ve been fraternizing with our enemy and her children. Tell me about your family. Is the little boy a Devil? Can he make a Latch?”

 

Another beep went through my head, and Yenna pulled him away from me softly. The next beep, the garbled language that cleared up suddenly, told me to relax. Not to move. 

 

Stay still, Jukel.

 

Moose watched me, wide-eyed.

 

“I’ll take him if he can make Latches like Alicia. I won’t need anyone else. Have you ever drowned, little boy? Did they give you the test?” my mother asked sweetly. More long tendrils of her hair raised, the tiny lights continuing to blink on at the very tip. A blue one flashed, and Moose looked up, fixated on it.

 

“No.”

 

“No? But it would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

She smiled at me, laughter filling her eyes.

 

Moose gulped, trying to look away.

 

“Of course! Do you want to try it now?”

 

“I— I— I don’t want to die.”

 

“Oh, that’s a bad attitude. How do you know you’ll die? Do you have any siblings?”

 

“Yes,” he barely said the word, fixated on the tiny light. Osh walked over, and I couldn’t grab him. I couldn’t move.

 

“Let him go. We’re not here for that.”

 

One of the lights dangled in Osh’s face, and he swatted it away to my momma’s amusement. She turned back to Moose and smiled with all her teeth, moving closer.

 

“Little boy. Tell me who lives in your house.”

 

“Astrid, my sister. Astor, my mom. Osh, my father.” Moose’s eyes got wider and wider.

 

“Astor! There’s a name I’ve heard once or twice. Oh, you’re a good little Devil! Do they have the syndrome?”

 

“My mother does.” Tears streamed down Moose’s face. 

 

“You’re perfect! Now, I’m going to take you home with me to see if you’re worth all this trouble. Okay? There’s going to be a massive monster down there. But don’t worry. If you make it all the way down, you won’t see him for long. The pressure has a bad effect on eyes …”

 

Osh kept moving forward. He couldn’t see the side of his son’s neck, but I could. A deep black was spreading up his skin, thick liquid hitting his hairline, melding with this hair. It rolled around the other side and seemed to dip back down.

 

Osh’s arm raised, and he stepped forward to grab Moose. The beeping stopped, but I couldn’t move fast enough to save him. 

 

 

“Don’t touch it!”

 

Osh grabbed Moose and immediately tried to pull away. The gunk spread from the boy to his father, too quick to see, and it was too late. Like he’d touched a third rail, his body jerked back and stiffened. Moose’s pupils shrunk even further as his irises grew and wet black patches spread over his skin, dissolving his shirt and moving seamlessly to Osh. They traveled across Osh’s body, connecting and spreading up his chest and neck. His clothes seemed to melt into him. A single scream leaked out, and then Osh coughed out a mouthful of thick, black blood.

 

“Dad! What’s wrong?!”

 

Osh yelled, scrambling backward, his hands shrinking. I grabbed Moose, trying to snap him out of it.

 

“Pull out! Come back! GET OUT OF HIM!”

 

Osh scrambled against the floor like a dying dog, scraping along the railing, a pained hiss pouring out of his mouth. Mr. David, my momma, we all watched in horror as he slapped wetly against the ground, leaving blackened skin behind as he slid along.

 

“Boy! Stop it!” Yenna pulled her strands of hair back in place and moved away from Moose, almost as horrified as the rest of us.

 

“JUKE, HELP HIM!” Mr. David snapped me out of my head. I grabbed the sides of Moose’s drooling, frozen face.

 

“Think about moving your own hands. Your hands. Think about moving YOUR hands.”

 

Slowly, his fingers started to move. The black seeped out of Osh and found its way back into Moose, first forming the patches and then dissolving harmlessly into his skin.

 

Osh’s flesh stood out against the sun. Exposed. I could see the muscles of his stomach, steaming, pieces of skin still rolling off. A pained cry from Mr. David filled the night. 

 

Yenna grimaced. “And here you said you didn’t know what you were doing, Jukel.” She surveyed Osh’s smoking body, wrinkling her nose. “Well. A Devil couldn’t do that. No point in giving you the test.” Her eyes traveled over Moose, up and down, disgusted.

 

“Thank you for the information … little creature. I don’t think you’ll make a good replacement. I’ll need one of the other ones soon. The last girl you brought is gone; we have nothing. We can’t keep waiting around for Alicia to get weaker.”

 

Mr. David started an angry protest, but she shook her head. 

 

“I’ve been patient. Thank you for coming, but I need to act. It’s time, Eric. We’ll speak soon. I’ll bet one of these descendants will actually be a Devil we can use.” She gave me another disappointed glance and jumped back into the water, kicking off the wall.

 

And she was gone.

Moose wouldn’t calm down. We tried our best to keep Osh wrapped up on the trip home, to keep Moose in the lower cabin. His wails punctured everything, spilling out into the night. It was worse than a dying animal, and after a while, it was even louder than Osh’s had been.

 

Osh’s skin slipped off in clumps, blood bubbling through his muscles. He was in shock, silent except for small gasps. But he didn’t die. No matter how much of his skin slipped off, he didn’t. It shouldn’t have bothered me. I didn’t want one of my best friends to die, obviously. 

 

But he should’ve.

 

We got back too early for Astor to be sitting there waiting for us, but I looked around for her anyway. I searched up and down the docks. I worried about it. She wouldn’t be able to sleep without Moose in that house. Whenever she couldn’t sleep, she wandered, and most of the time, she ended up at the boats. We docked, and I realized I had no idea where to take this bleeding, skinless man. 

 

A hospital? A morgue? A burn ward?

 

As if his lack of an arm was no big deal, Mr. David paced with me, trying to think. The stump wasn’t bleeding anymore. It gave off an acidic smell, but the black gunk was gone.

 

“We can fix this. Cora. Cora can fix this. She’ll give him hell, but she’ll do it.” I gave him a blank expression. “You don’t need to know about her. She’s a very impressive Devil.”

 

“I don’t want to hear shit else about Devils. Shit else, man.”

 

He nodded, looking around for ideas.

 

“Let me take him. I just need to get in touch with Cora somehow. I know where to find her. Let me take him to my safe house in Rex.”

 

“You’ll kill him. He betrayed you.”

 

Mr. David paused, confused, and then seemed to remember the boat.

 

“Betrayed me? Yeah, oh, the arm. Me. He betrayed me.” He chuckled, a strange series of gasps and shrugged. “Osh is a complicated man. You think you know what he’s going to do, and he does something completely different. He was trying to protect his family. If you had a little self-control, maybe it would’ve gone better.” 

 

Me?

 

I stopped talking and watched him try to pull Osh’s wrapped body off of the boat. It took a minute for my brain to kick in. I called Noah.

 

“Baby …”

 

“You dumbasses are back already? What happened to four days? Was the pussy that bad?”

 

“Listen. Listen. Please.” She heard the rattle in my voice. “Where’s Astor? Make sure she doesn’t hear you.” 

 

There was a pause, and then Noah whispered heatedly, “What the fuck happened? No, forget it. Tell me what I need to do, hun. That’s it.”

 

I told her. Fifteen minutes later, she pulled up in my car.

 

Mr. David helped me pull Osh off of the boat and usher him into the car. Noah avoided us, walking off to smoke a cigarette. I heard her make an unrecognizable noise when she ventured to the boat.

 

“Listen. Give me the address,” I demanded when Mr. David climbed into the front seat. He exchanged information with me, promising thing after thing. Here was an ancient man with one arm trying to drive off with my dying friend.

 

“Juke, right? We can fix him. You tell that boy we can fix him, okay? And don’t worry his family. Give me time.”

 

“I got you. Time. Got it.”

 

He pulled off. I walked back to the boat where Noah was struggling to open the cabin door with her shaking hands. Moose was somewhere whimpering. For a moment, I had to just stare straight up at the dark sky, counting my breaths, easing myself to peace. They needed me calm.

 

“Hun, if you want help cleaning this shit up before Astor sees it, I need stuff. I don’t know what the fuck you fucking did, baby; I don’t understand this shit. Astor can’t see this. She cannot see this; you don’t even understand …” She yanked at the door over and over, tears streaming down her face.

 

“You really don’t get it, Jukel, she can’t see this shit. Osh wouldn’t let her see this shit. What did you do to him; where is he? He doesn’t deserve this shit. This better not be him all over this fucking … Is that Moose crying in there? Is Moose … is he still here? Jukel, please help me with this fucking door!”

 

The floor was a mess of skin, blood, and whatever acid poured out of Mr. David. I pulled my shirt off, frantic to remove the blood, and the middle of my chest was pitch white. We both looked at it for a second. The white spread out in a spiral, a thick circle that reached all the way to my arms. It slowly dissolved back to normal. 

 

“It’s okay, don’t … I saw my momma. She helped me with the rotting thing …” 

 

She sucked in a deep sob, and I had to grab her. I put my hand on hers to calm her down. We stood there, trying not to breathe in the wet smell of the skin. After a moment, Noah straightened up with a blank face and nodded. 

 

My Noah, always clear-headed when no one else could be. 

 

“Thank you, baby.”

 

She didn’t ask any questions. She didn’t say anything else. She gave me a small kiss, stepped back, and let me open the door.

 

 

Noah’s only command was an agitated and straightforward, “Do NOT go home until you’re supposed to be there. Go to my office tonight, then I don’t give a fuck where you go until tomorrow night. Do NOT let Astor see you.”

 

Noah walked back home and brought her car this time, practicing a lie to herself about it being in the shop. She stayed to clean the boat while we went to her office. No one was there most of the time, and we opened the giant double doors to silence. The crew didn’t come in unless Noah asked them to, as far as I understood it. We headed to the back room. There was a small couch, a 40-inch TV, and a vending machine. 

 

I need to get this boy some real food. 

 

I don’t know what I expected, but the office felt like the wrong place to be. I just had to get Moose to cool down, to feel normal, and maybe everything would be okay. We could go to sleep and wake up as two big, happy families again. Astrid wouldn’t have to listen to someone explain that her daddy was probably dead somewhere. Chaunce wouldn’t have to cry about her uncle being hurt. 

 

Astor wouldn’t have to give me that look she got when something was wrong.

 

Somewhere, Osh was dying in a car with a man he’d just tried to sacrifice. He was probably bleeding out from his exposed flesh, cursing my name, crying for Astor to give up everything and take care of him.

 

Why can’t we just live normal fucking lives? We didn’t do shit to anybody.

 

I tried my best to keep my face neutral. Didn’t make a noise. Moose eventually straightened up, as well, his entire body shaking, mouth clamped down in a straight line, breathing erratically. He stood and stared at the wall until his breath stopped seething through his nose.

 

“I’m okay, Unc. Dad’s okay, too. We just have to relax.”

 

He was going to be a hell of a man someday.

 

“You hungry?”

 

Moose smiled, opening his mouth to speak, and then immediately threw up.

 

I walked him over to the bathroom and helped him wash his mouth and hands. There were little decorative squid soaps everywhere, and they somehow made me so uncomfortable that I slid them under the counter. I didn’t want to deal with anything from the sea.

 

I can’t say how long it’d been since I walked around the office freely. It was more of a thing Osh did. I don’t think Astor even went beyond the small blood lab portion, and the last time I asked her what the actual team was up to, she just shrugged. 

 

“I don’t ask. Noah will only lie.”

 

Moose held his head on the cool porcelain of the counter, groaning.

 

“Yeah, Unc. I think I need some food.”

 

He wasn’t his mother, that was for sure. I guessed that made him his father, and the thought of it sent me scampering around, avoiding his eyes.

 

We searched the office for something to snack on, anything other than the chips in the vending machine, but neither one of us was willing to leave.

 

Noah owned the office and the lab under it. It was one of the great mysteries of her life and career. I hadn’t paid a cent for it, and Astor had no idea where the money came from. Noah and Osh talked about getting the space one day, and then all of a sudden, I was helping her move things into it. I didn’t spend any time there, but she had more furniture than I remembered. It was a little fancier than it’d been when I moved her stuff in. There was no way we could afford any of the improvements, no way in hell. 

 

What is she getting into these days?

 

I felt a breeze and wondered why Noah left the window open. Before I could stop Moose from walking in, before I realized someone was in the front office waiting for us, I felt something in the pit of my chest. A slow, ugly growl crept up my throat, and then I was saying something. Moose looked at me but didn’t move. 

 

“What do you mean?”

 

I tried to speak again, worried, but the same grumble came out. 

 

“I don’t see a woman, Unc. And I … don’t think we should do that to anyone.” 

 

“You understand what I’m saying?”

 

He nodded, still gaunt and confused. I had no idea what I was saying or where the voice was coming from, but I put my hand on his shoulder to steady myself. I smiled a little, unsure of what to do. The pulling feeling still washed over me, edging me toward the office. It was like the universe was gently guiding me in that direction. Moose dropped the cloth he’d found to clean up his vomit and stood, almost mesmerized, locking eyes with me.

 

“Should we go?” I asked, but my feet moved on their own.

 

We both walked toward the front, toward Noah’s desk. The most amazing blue light filled the office, drowning out everything in a triangle shape. It moved slightly, jerking us forward. It was the same feeling as Mr. David’s white locs, the same exact feeling, except I wasn’t enraged. I wasn’t anything but sure that we needed to see this light, to find the source. The minute we reached the room, I heard my mother’s sour words in my head.

 

“See her? That’s a never-ending feast. A special treat.”

 

My hands shook.

 

I’d forgotten all about Osh’s conversation with the Latches. His dedication to making sure we were thoroughly fucked.

 

On the desk sat a tall woman, leaned back with vicious stilettos on. Her leg was damn near bare, the slit in her dress traveling all the way up to the top of her thigh. I tried to count the inches on the machete she wore strapped to the exposed leg and gave up when she shifted. The blue light beamed from the right side of her face, glowing out of the side of her eye. I tried not to look at it, but it held me, mesmerized me.

 

This could only be Alicia.

 

 

“Don’t worry about the sensation. I’m told all Shadows get it the first time they meet me. Some the second and third. It really depends. You’ll get used to it. Let’s not let that distract us. I hear you’re looking for me.”

 

“Not me. I don’t know you,” I said quickly.

 

Moose snapped out of his trance before I did and moved forward to talk. I grabbed him.

 

“Ah. No, it’s always Osh who wants my attention. Spoiled brat. Where is my son-in-law? I heard he made quite a scene with that rancid, white-haired coward. The nerve of Eric walking around Chastain Pier like he doesn’t know what goes on there. The nerve of either of them, putting my grandson in danger.”

 

I didn’t answer. She sat up, the light blinding me again. Her hair was long and straight, cascading down her back. But the more I looked at it, the less sure I was of the length. 

 

“I recognize you? Why …” For a long time, she took me in. She studied my face and body. Her eyes scoured every inch of me until she finally snapped her fingers, a giant smile ripping her face nearly in half.

 

“You’re hers! The monster’s! I finally get to meet the last special baby up close. How fortunate for us all! I’m surprised she keeps having children. I keep killing them.”

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

“Well, I’m often in the neighborhood. Somebody had to protect Astor while Osh sailed off into the darkness. My own son-in-law, trying to send me back into that ocean. Who’d have thought?” A deep sigh rolled from her. She swept her leg off the desk and stood, long, nearly meeting my eyes. Her thin, gold heels clicked on the floor as she moved around us. Instinctively, I pulled Moose into the center of the room, and we turned with her.

 

The blue light filled me. It blurred the left side of her face in shadow, washing everything near it in a neon glow. The rest of the room stood dark, the light from the moon filtering in through the blinds.

 

Alicia walked around us slowly, eyes wide and gleeful, the blue deepening as she moved. The empty black of her pupils didn’t reflect anything, but they felt too big for her eyes.

 

A woman in the corner, withdrawn and almost invisible, watched us like an animal. Her face was shrouded in darkness.

 

“Don’t mind her. She’s a record of sorts.” Alicia waved until I turned back to the light. “I should introduce myself, though I’m sure my reputation precedes me. I’m Alicia. I know of you, though it’s been some time.” She paused, looking over to the woman. 

 

“My friend here tells me your name is Juke. That can’t be right. The monster’s not that much of a comedian.”

 

I opened my mouth to speak, but the light filled it, crawled into it.

 

“I see. Whatever happened to classy names? Strong names? Now we have to walk around with husbands named things like Juke. Poor Noah. Juke! What a generation.” She tapped her long stiletto nails against my wife’s desk. Moose wasn’t shaking anymore. He was fixated.

 

The light was beautiful.

 

“You know, you’ve had many brothers and sisters, Jukebox. I’ve decapitated a few. I’ve put a few holes in a few heads. I’m more familiar with the sight of your brain matter than your faces. And Yenna just keeps on giving.”

 

Alicia picked up one of Noah’s cigarettes and smelled the tip, chuckling a little. Watching Moose.

 

Circling us.

 

“You mongrels love taking things from us. And then we’re the devils, right? I learned to take things back. I learned to take more.” She almost stumbled in her fixation on Moose. I pulled him closer and moved back, blocking off her path behind us. He wasn’t afraid enough for me.

 

“Maybe I’ll take you, too, Jukebox? Yenna would hate that. Or, maybe I’ll go ahead and roll your head into Astor’s yard, so she finally understands to stop associating with fish. Maybe I’ll send your limbs to Noah, so she understands, as well. Better yet, don’t you have a child?”

 

“No. What do you know about my mother?”

 

She picked things up. Rolled things around her fingers. Ran her hands over everything. It was so much like something Astor would do that I couldn’t help imagining her for a moment. No matter what she touched, she kept her eyes on Moose.

 

“Are you … do you belong to the monster or the real Yenna? Do you know who you came from, Juke?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

She let her demeanor waiver just a little, sadness crossing her face, but corrected it just as quick. 

 

“Nothing. Don’t worry. There’s no fun in killing you when I know how much it would hurt Astor. We’re estranged enough. I’ll keep you around for leverage. No harm in having more.”

 

Moose swallowed half of his mouth and stepped around me.

 

“Ma’am, my father didn’t have anything to do with Mr. David …”

 

I pulled Moose close to me, covering his mouth. “Shut up.”

 

Alicia watched him, though. She wouldn’t stop looking at him. And his eyes got wider the longer he stared back.

 

My mother and Alicia had a lot in common. I’d heard all about her when I was younger, when I was in high school especially. All about Alicia destroying our species, about her being selfish. They hated each other. They sought each other’s lives and happiness. My mother was cold and calculating, and Alicia was vicious and calculating. The desperate vibes my mother gave off matched Alicia’s perfectly. They were both doing terrible things out of some sort of necessity.

Much like my mother had, Alicia suddenly beamed at Moose.

 

“You. My grandson, correct? Oh, I’ve wanted to meet you and your sister for so long! Your mother would have quite the reaction if I did. I’m sure we can all agree to keep this little meeting secret. I have some semblance of respect for her privacy. The last time I saw you, young man, your sister had just been born. You were in the hospital. You were excited! I knew she had a little protector.” Switching from menacing to cheerful in the blink of an eye, Alicia moved closer to us. I could’ve been see-through.

 

“You’re so tall; you’ll be stunning! What are you doing here with this thing? I know your mother and father like to associate themselves with monsters, but you shouldn’t get in the habit.”

 

“He’s not a thing; he’s a person. Ma’am.”

 

“Oh, sure, sure. Do you know if you inherited the full syndrome? Or was it your sister? I hope Astor doesn’t have to go through as many kids as I did before she finds a useful one.”

 

“I’m not telling you about my family.”

 

Alicia let out a chaotic, ugly growl of a laugh. “I am your family! And don’t you worry. Granny’s here, now. And Granny has a way of finding out everything she needs to know. Even if she has to chop little boys in half to get the information from the blood rings—”

 

“Ma’am? Why does your face have a light coming from it?”

 

She stepped back in surprise. Alicia sidestepped me and stared down at Moose in wonder, yanking his face up with her fingers, getting too close for my comfort.

 

“Back up…”

 

“You can see it? The mark on my face? What does it look like?”

 

I wondered how anyone couldn’t see it. Her face glowed a deep blue, going from neon to almost black and then back again, the veins bulging. It was grotesque but hypnotic. It wanted me to stare at it until either it ceased to exist or I did.

 

Another growl crept up my throat, but I swallowed it.

 

“It’s swollen, ma’am. And—and you can see the veins. It looks like it hurts. It’s blue.”

 

Alicia’s entire demeanor changed. She looked up at me, filled with disgust.

 

Ah.” She turned, too close, light blinding. “Astor wouldn’t do that, would she?” The more she thought about it, the more distraught she grew. The woman in the corner stood and walked out of the office without speaking, and I couldn’t tell what she looked like. Just a walking blur. Alicia turned to follow her but couldn’t seem to get to the door in her fury.

 

“I see my Yenna isn’t playing by the rules at all. What vagrancy! That’s the most interesting thing I’ve heard in a long time, little Astric. Only a certain type of beast can see my scars light up. The beast that did it wanted to warn your kind when I was around. Only … yes. Only Shadows can see it.” Alicia ambled around Moose, watching him closely.

 

He fixated on her, his pupils constricting. It clicked for her just like that.

 

Alicia let out a sob that probably cracked a rib.

 

“Oh, and I was so excited to meet you! To save you! My grandson! It’s not enough to just kill my children! Now that fish is even taking over my bloodline!”

 

I stayed calm. She was erratic, her eyes wide, the blue light finally reflecting off of her giant empty pupils. Moose didn’t dare speak again. Alicia’s shoulders heaved dramatically as she walked, still stunned. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I just tried my best to take Moose away from her line of sight. Every few steps she would turn in agony, taking a deep dramatic breath, swinging a hand to her machete and then changing her mind.

 

“This monster isn’t Osh’s boy. He’s my grandson, but he’s not Osh’s.” She leaned her head back, smelling him. A look of irritation crossed her face, and she let out her loudest sob, turning to leave. She spat her last words to me so loudly that I had to hope and pray Osh was still passed out all the way in Rex.

 

“This is YOUR boy.”

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