Written by Trey Briggs || Edited by Lyric Taylor || Art by Monte Miller
Alicia Free: 19
The beginning was always hopeful. Alicia learned early that the beginning, the moment the clock starts ticking, is always the best part. Very rarely do endings make you feel elated. Exhilarated.
And here it was. Midnight of some day of the week. New Year’s Eve of some year in her life.
Alicia, tipsy and daring to lean just a little too far over the counter, reached for another glass of sherry. Snobby parties and sexual excitement tired her out. There were only so many ways she could tell old men with thick-rimmed glasses to fuck off. Fortunately for her, her presence at the party wasn’t exactly welcomed. A sadness poured off of her in waves, creeping slowly into anyone daring enough to stare at her, ultimately spoiling their evening. They steered clear after a while. This wasn’t the person she wanted to be when she’d inherited such a fantastic body.
Absently caressing the glass, Alicia wondered if she could even go by her real name anymore. Wasn’t she Mae now? And if she was Mae, who was Alicia? Often, she’d remind herself of who and what she was at any given moment, trying hard not to sink too deep into her sister.
Lonely, somber Alicia. Orphaned Alicia. Worried Alicia.
It’d been a couple of years since the incident, and she still couldn’t shake the sight of her father—her gentle and loving father—in chunks. The feel of being covered in blood, of being bathed in it. Her mother…the girls…
Head leaned back, she poured more sherry down her throat. She didn’t look old enough to drink. She wasn’t.
Mae would’ve been if she’d survived.
Alicia felt guilt rising in her throat the more beautiful she felt. She felt stunning, unique, like a beacon streaming through the partygoers. Her sister’s shoulders were so high. Her mouth, seductive and full, seemed to curve people inward when she smiled. And that was all she wanted when she pretended to celebrate with the rest of society, to look beautiful, to be enjoyed and engulfed by the world. She didn’t really understand how to exist in it.
She only understood how to overshadow it.
Mae’s body was easy to adapt to, really. Alicia felt regal when she tilted her head back and surveyed the crowd. It felt right to see above so many heads, to have to be looked up to, to dominate conversations with her mere presence. The grace of Mae was undeniable. Even with a different person running the ship, the body was too unbelievable to steer wrong. It was almost absurd the things people would do to get even a small peek at her long legs swaying below the expensive fabric she enjoyed so much. In honor of her sister and in recognition of her mother, Alicia made sure that her suitors draped her in dresses that kept her long legs visible but her back and thighs covered.
Demure with a hint of hostility.
The scars disappeared slowly, but they eventually disappeared. The healed skin of the body felt like every imaginable heaven piled softly together, bound with love and care. Alicia, with her somber personality and Mae’s vibrant appearance, was impossible to ignore.
Except, of course, when someone better came around.
A gigantic red bun attached to a thin, lanky body sauntered over to her. While Alicia had to grow into her regality and poise, this woman was born into it. Every head turned to meet her. There was no way to notice anything around her, behind her, or before her. Anything that existed around the woman was rendered colorless when she walked by, taller than the tallest man in the room and slimmer than the slimmest woman.
This bun and this body drew all the attention—including Alicia’s—away from the hybrid of somberness and regality drinking at the bar. Her gaze was sucked straight from emotionless eyes, planting all her thoughts on the woman’s long lashes.
Slowly, with the patience of a lion tamer, the woman approached Alicia. Wild Alicia. Young Alicia.
“I’ve been watching you all night. You’re a stunning little thing. I’m Yenna. You are?” Alicia, little only to the giant, sharply turned back to the bar and reached for another full glass. The nails of Yenna’s hands were like claws, motioning with confidence and a sort of lazy dominance for the bartender to make more drinks.
“Annoyed,” Alicia responded. Yenna smirked, just barely, grabbing the next glass for the sulky patron. The length of her arm trumped Alicia’s by almost a whole hand.
Alicia absolutely seethed.
“Tell me, Annoyed, what’s a pretty young woman doing drunk by herself on New Year’s Eve?”
“Avoiding lesbians.” Yenna laughed out loud this time, rubbing her neck in embarrassment. Yenna. It felt familiar. The name sunk into her chest a bit. Sober thoughts tried desperately to fight through her drunken jealousy. Yenna, whoever she was, seemed to falter at Alicia’s voice. That deep abyss of her words always had an odd effect on people. It was some sort of combination of Mae’s happy lilt and her old near-baritone. Alicia snatched the wine with force, spilling some in the process.
Yenna. Yenna? Yenna, Yenna, Yenna…
“How old are you, Annoyed?”
A sigh sauntered around Alicia’s plum lipstick. What was the point of coming out on New Year’s Eve if she couldn’t drink sherry and look pretty? A couple was kissing deeply in the corner; the man ran his hand up the woman’s leg to reveal a pair of lace garters. Alicia sighed again.
If a man ran a hand up under her skirt, would he be feeling Mae or Alicia?
“Oh, you answered! I expected you to be a bitch for a little longer. I’m 28. Now maybe you’ll tell me your name? I know it, but I want to hear it from you. I was told that you were a stubborn one.” Instantly, without much movement at all, Alicia seemed to sober up. She turned back to the woman, the stunning woman with the giant red bun, and stared.
“Of course. Alicia Free. I was told you would be short and stout, so I’m guessing you aren’t who you would’ve been if you’d made it on time. And I’m guessing you’ve seen some horrible things. Oh, Harold.” She grabbed a glass for herself and drank, a look of irritation hidden behind the gulp. Now, Alicia waited.
“Your father was quite the man. Quite the stubborn idiot, but quite the man. I told him not to marry the normal girl, and he did, as pretty as your mother was. I told him not to have kids, and he had four. And here you are, so young and so destroyed. Just the most aggressive little devil with the prettiest little Latch.”
The party was dying down around them. Outside, the weather ached against the tall windows of the hotel. This would’ve been a horrible time to run out and escape into the rainy night, to find another unlocked door and sleep on another man’s couch with one eye open. But she really wanted to get away from this big red bun.
Yenna. The one her mother didn’t want her to stay with, the one her father had been so adamant that she seek out. Alicia had expected someone much more formidable. The woman seemed so…agreeable.
“Alicia…I knew your father, and he was a hard man to kill. I’m sorry about the…well, I’m sorry about what happened to them. We all risk it at one point or another. If it’s not scared idiots hunting us down or the Shadows looking for food or bodies, it’s something else. Your father was a personal loss for me. I’m glad you were able to escape. If you allow me, I’ll keep my promise to him and teach you how to survive what he couldn’t.”
As usual, tears choked Alicia senseless. She hid her face in the glass of sherry.
“Your dress is a little big. Did you steal it?”
“Yes,” Alicia answered. And she continued to answer because she didn’t have the energy to snap back. She didn’t have the gall. This woman knew.
She knew what Alicia was, what her father was, even what her mother was so afraid of; it leaked off of this woman in waves. They were the same. Alicia realized that she could tell that this woman was the same as her father. She could even tell that Yenna was in her natural body, that she wasn’t someone else like Alicia was. She was just Yenna.
And that felt like a warm bed, better than a warm bed.
It felt like an answer.
Somehow, Alicia felt okay. She felt some weight roll off of her that night, splashing against the rain-soaked ground, sinking into the cobblestone, and disappearing forever. The things that kept her heavy in alcohol just couldn’t exist in her when Yenna was around.
Yenna was to be impressed.
They arrived at the apartment and both seemed to fear it. What could be worth ending this night? Yenna turned, dainty somehow in her long body, and gave Alicia a peck on the cheek.
“You don’t live far from here. I’ve seen you before. With that man. The one you make walk behind you.”
“That could be anyone.” They both smirked. Yenna took out a small card, too small to be a business card but too big to be a random scrap of paper, and handed it to her new friend.
“I took her body. She wasn’t dead; I was. I…I took my sister’s body.” Yenna listened but didn’t react.
“A Latch offers you a new body if yours is destroyed. You didn’t take a thing. Your father told me she agreed to it. I’m sure he explained the cost.”
“I should have died instead,” Alicia tried not to sob, but her words caught sharp in her throat. They stood for a long time before Yenna gave her a big, brilliant smile.
“It’s up to you whether or not I’ll see you again, Alicia. There’s room upstairs for you, but I won’t make you live with me. When you’re ready to come back, understand that I am not your guardian. I won’t be kind to you. I will teach you what you need to know, what Harold couldn’t show you. And make it quick, please. There’s too much danger in this world for a little devil to survive. You don’t have any bodies left to count on.”
“…yes. I’ll—I’m sure I’ll be back.”
Chapter Five: The Little Latch
The night of the drowning, soaking wet but feeling like the most massive weight had been lifted from my chest, I ushered Noah around her office. There were towels and a change of clothes in the corner for me. Noah watched me dress without a word.
My body felt completely empty. Part of me was excited for some reason, exhausted and worn out but filled with a fantastic amount of energy, like a new piece had been added to my brain and I was thinking twice as fast. I managed to snap myself out of it and get the office cleaned up. Noah’s workers went home without too much instruction from me, and I realized they must’ve been better prepared for what would happen than I was. Their hazmat suits lay in a neat pile by the door, clean.
I stood for a moment and took in the tub. The drain in the floor. I thought about Yvette’s words and Noah’s reluctance to do the experiment in the first place. It hit me that my best friend had been planning the whole thing for a long time, or she was at least in on it, and maybe my reaction was what she’d wanted.
Small and somehow broken in pieces, Noah watched me clean, her eyes still wide, her arms wrapped around her knees. She didn’t move from her spot on the ground until I pulled my jacket on, still squeezing the water out of my hair.
“Let’s go, Noah.”
Her eyes widened when I said her name, and she pushed herself off the floor, looking more like her daughter than herself. I felt her fingers wrap around mine, and I ushered her out. Somehow, she was steadier than ever, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything but me. Her eyes crawled up my neck, rested on my jawline, slowly crept up to my ear. She took giant breaths, breathing me in, and I let her.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Don’t be. It was my choice. I told you I’d save you.” I jumped at the sound of her voice.
“What are you saving me from?” I didn’t glance over to see why she wasn’t responding. I couldn’t take her stare.
We rode home in my car.
“Mine is in the shop again. I think that’s what I’m supposed to say, Astor. I can’t remember right now. Please don’t ask me what that means.”
And I didn’t.
Noah stared in the mirror until a long line of drool splashed against her vanity.
“Hey.” I pushed her a little. Just a little. She grabbed my hand and ran her nose over my fingers, sighing deeply.
“It’s like I’m yours. I can’t decide on anything else. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to let go of my hand and be a normal person. Smoke or something. Eat something.”
“I can’t eat. I don’t eat. I’m you now…” I yanked my hand away.
“Noah. What does all of this mean?”
She finally broke her gaze from me to stare into her own eyes in the mirror again. A toddler seeing herself for the first time. A tear crawled over her bottom lid and traveled down her face, dripping to hit her upturned palm.
“The stuff in the mailbox, Astor. And the thing at the school. So many different people, really. I ran out of time to fix it.”
“To fix what?”
“There are people you don’t know … back when we were younger … and the stuff I’m not supposed to say. It’s not just about what you’re keeping from me. I know some of that. They used all of us; they just used us and tricked us, and now it’s all coming back around. They’re going to hurt you; I just needed to make sure you would be okay if they did. If I can’t do anything. There’s a box … it’ll save us. There’s a … box … ” She blinked hard and closed her mouth with effort.
“Where? Don’t even tell me what’s in it; just tell me where it is. If it’s important, I’ll figure it out on my own.”
Noah let out a deep sigh.
“It’s not just that. I can’t take care of the girls. Or Moose. If something happens you have to be here. You have to be.”
I kneeled down and grabbed her face in my hands. She wouldn’t turn from her reflection.
“I can take care of myself. What is it?”
“And Jukel. I don’t want him to be alone if it happens. What if we both died? He’d be alone.”
“Astor. When we were younger, I said I would protect you.” Her voice barely left her mouth, but I heard her. There was no pressure in my head, but I remembered it. That would’ve been the perfect moment for it.
“And you said I would protect you. So let me.”
An inhuman laugh, some kind of grunt, jerked her body forward.
“I love you, Astor. Even without your blood and your syndrome and all that other stuff. Even when you’re giving birth to my husband’s kid. Why shouldn’t I be your Latch? Whenever you want, you could snap your fingers and take Jukel and Moose and the girls. You already own so much of my fucking life. It only makes sense.”
Noah’s tears piled up now, pouring until she had a small puddle in her palm. Her face went back and forth from wide, blank shock to seething anger. She couldn’t seem to stay mad at me, but she couldn’t seem to forgive me either. I moved back a little, clearing my throat, avoiding anything that looked like it would judge me.
There’d been a little cloud over my head for a long time. Just a thought bubble, maybe. And in every conversation, with every smile and laugh and word, I wondered when it would burst. The thought, trapped in there, wandered freely now.
What do they know?
“You know so much, Noah. Why do you love me?”
“You’re the same type of scumbag as I am. You can go around acting like you’re different, but you’re not above anything. You … you make my life interesting. I’m always so bored. Nothing means much to me; it never did until you. You changed my entire future; you … you made it all go away. You brought so much to me without even thinking about it. I would die without you. There’s something wrong with me, I guess. I don’t feel any connection to anyone but you and Juke. Where would I be without you betraying me or taking care of my family or treating me like the nicest person alive? I’d die. I need you.”
Her face hurt to see, the emptiness of her words visualized in every part of it. You could see it in Noah sometimes. When she smoked and stared blandly out a window, barely exerting enough energy to hold the cigarette, letting her ashes fall where they fell. You could really tell that she was trapped there. I didn’t want it so visible, so open, but now that she couldn’t hide it, the feeling flooded the room.
What a solid misery.
I headed to the door. Noah turned to say something and stopped, sucking in a deep breath. She turned back to the mirror and sobbed.
“I don’t want to die, Astor. I never wanted to die.”
Once, way back when I was 17, I went to see Juke in an alley. It wasn’t the only time I went to see him without Noah. He hid his homelessness from her for as long as he possibly could and then tried to hide it even longer. I visited him whenever I could sneak away from Osh to give him some sense of normalcy.
I’d lived the life he was living.
We talked about things no one else bothered to speak to us about. How odd his mother was, my mother murdering people and abandoning me. It was on the day that I told him about the worst thing my mother did that we made a few long-standing choices.
I sat on my butt, ignoring the damp ground, and did my best to avoid his soft gaze as I spoke.
“She used to get up at night a lot. There’s a chance she never went to sleep, I guess. It was around the time she started getting those dreams that I realized she was going to hurt us.”
“I thought she was cutting you and holding you underwater since you were real little,” Juke asked, kicking around the wet ground. It rained a lot in Chastain. It was something I’d always loved, even when I was sitting in an alley with Juke, my hair tied up on my head, school uniform soaking up the dirty water. He stood over me as much as he could, expressing a dominance that Noah wouldn’t give him.
“Yeah, but that was just me. She was always hurting me, but she never seemed to physically hurt Osh. The cutting and drowning didn’t hurt all that much. I have an odd threshold for pain.”
We said a lot in code. There were times when he’d tell me things, and I heard an entirely different story in his tone. I returned the same.
“Okay. So now she’s getting ready to kill everybody. Probably mentally preparing for it, you know? What was Osh doing?” I was silent for a moment.
“Osh had to fight the people that kept coming to get me. The day she did what she did was especially bad. They surrounded the house.”
Juke stopped and watched the water drip from the awnings.
“You know, it’s like we’re the same person sometimes. You’re the female version of me. Your mom was a little crazier. And you had more protection, I guess. My momma used to feed me everything she could find, like food was going to run out or disappear if I wasn’t eating it. She just always wanted me to eat something. Forget about teaching me to pay bills or tie my shoes or anything like that, no, I had to know how to cook. And then she’d pick over my skin for hours.” I adjusted on the ground, my blouse too small. I realized I was wearing Noah’s shirt.
“Did people come after you, too?”
“Yeah. A lot. My momma was like two people sometimes. Just the sweetest person on the planet to me, she never ever raised her voice. Then we’d be out walking or something and every now and then someone would approach us. They were afraid of her. It felt like she was important, and she like …”
“Yeah. Yeah! She kind of pretended I wasn’t important to her or held me behind her a little, and they’d watch me. Just the oddest shit. My bad, finish telling me about the day your momma went nuts.”
“No, that makes sense. My mother did the same thing. She liked going to these parties, and she’d make me go with her sometimes, especially once she started to be nice to me. We did a lot together in that short amount of time, actually. She wouldn’t let me talk to anyone or say anything, though. I had to be pretty and shut up. If it looked like anyone recognized us or was talking to me too much, we always left.”
Juke was antsy. The conversation floating around our current chat had to do with Noah finding out he was homeless and breaking up with him. You’d think he was doing her a disservice, or he was doing it just to embarrass her. It was one of the few times she came to me crying, eyes red and ashamed.
“Hun, he’s a fucking bum. Can you believe that shit? I finally like one, and he’s an actual bum.”
I could tell he knew that I knew, but neither of us wanted to talk about it.
“She took me to the park the day before, and she had a conversation with me about Devil Syndrome. The disorder I told you about. And then she told me she was going to kill my father and Osh’s mother.”
Juke’s eyes widened at that. “She told you that?”
“What did you do?”
I laughed a little. That day ended in a way that was hazy, but I remembered. I wasn’t going to talk about it.
“I didn’t believe her. I went about my day. It’s one of those things that keeps me up at night.”
Angry energy poured off of him in waves, and he stared at me until I felt so uncomfortable I had to shift again. He leaned over me and grabbed a strand of my hair like I hate, rolling it around his finger.
“Did you eat today, Astor?”
“… Why do you always ask me that?”
“You never answer me.”
“No. I never eat.”
“You’re not human.”
His statement hit the air and stayed there. I moved to get up, gulping away my embarrassment.
“No, don’t. Look, I’m not either. I’m not. You know it. We’re not like everyone else.” Juke nodded to himself, a small smile appearing. “Can I tell you a secret? You have to promise you won’t get mad or freaked out.”
I didn’t respond. He laughed a little, letting my hair go and standing up straight, kicking another growing puddle.
“I knew about your momma before we even met. A long time before.”
The rain could’ve stopped, we were both so still. It was like we’d turned into a painting, slowly transforming to color and canvas.
“What do you mean?”
He chuckled a little. The earth could’ve died out in the time it took him to start talking again.
“Is Noah really breaking up with me? She seemed so disgusted—”
“What do you mean? How did you know about her?”
His hand ran over his clean waves as he sat next to me.
“There was this picture she kept on her dresser,” he admitted. “I used to … alright, let’s get something out of the way, right? And then I’ll be honest with you, but you have to be honest with me. Don’t be afraid of me. It’s gonna sound weird, and you might feel scared, but don’t be. Promise me that, and then I’ll keep talking.”
“No. Keep talking anyway.”
Juke swallowed a lot, laughed a lot, and touched his neck, shaking like he always did when he was nervous.
“Maybe … maybe I know more about your momma than I let on. A lot more. My momma was obsessed with your momma. She used to tell me stories about her. I mean, I only saw her once, but she’s definitely your momma. When she used to make me eat, she told me stuff about the ocean. All that darkness that your momma talked about. I know you probably thought she was crazy, but—but my momma told me about the place all the time.”
I was quiet for too long, and Juke grabbed my hand.
“I used to get these black spots on my chest and arms. I still do. They’re horrible now, though. It’s worse when I’m around you. They turn into gunk; it’s weird. Before she left, she saw one and freaked out. It was like the thing that made her leave, I think. She wasn’t the same after that.”
He lifted his sleeve, and I saw a small peek of black, but he blushed and pulled it back down.
“What are you?”
“I don’t know. What are you? You know, you have to be something if the people keep coming after you. When they used to follow us or come to our apartment, my momma always told me to be nice to them. She said they were just scared and hungry. They wanted her to come home and fix things. I think she had planned on leaving me out here all along, honestly.”
“Where is home?”
“I … somewhere else.”
The rain picked up, heavy on the awnings, and I watched the drops turn into a fast pour onto my shoes. Juke pulled me sideways, holding my legs over his thighs. I tried to ignore the heat that went through me, all the way up to my face.
“My mother used to drown me. In the tub, like I said. I think I was really dying, though. I’d spit out a bunch of blood, and then it would all disappear,” I said as low as I could.
The rain drowned us out for a second, then died down. Juke played with my slacks, pulling at a ripped seam, and I realized I was wearing Lou’s pants.
“I remember when I saw your mother the one time. My momma took me to see the ocean. She was always scared for us to go to the beach because she said some of my ‘relatives’ couldn’t control themselves. She didn’t want to hurt them, but she said they might see me as weak because I lived on land. So we kind of went to the one in Lostine, that empty one. They never bothered to go there because there was no food or something.
“So we were in the parking lot, just kind of looking over the beach, and there was this woman there. It was more like a silhouette. There was a glint in the dark, and my momma stopped me. She kind of did this annoyed laugh. ‘See her? That’s a never-ending feast. A special treat. A Devil like her lasts millions of years. We had her for two measly years and lost her, Jukel. Can you believe it? In those two years, we were so strong. Unstoppable. And I still can’t catch her. And we’re starving again. They broke their promises, and now we’re starving again.’
“Then we left. It felt like my momma was scared, but I don’t know. Maybe she wasn’t. I think that was your momma. Her whole face was this pretty blue, and I almost had to walk over to her, like I couldn’t stop looking at it. I feel like that with you sometimes, just kind of drawn to you.”
I thought of my mother being food, of anyone trying to eat her for a millennium, and felt a tiny bit sorry for her.
“How would they eat her?”
“I’m not sure. The way her mood changed, I didn’t dare ask her shit. And the blue light, it was so thick. My momma said it was a ‘mark.’ It let the others like me know that she was looking for her.”
“Okay. So what? We’re enemies? My disorder …”
“Oh, shut up. What disorder? Osh is human. Noah’s a human. We’re just fucking … we just fucking aren’t.”
I understood what he was saying. Back then, though, I didn’t want to deal with that. I tried to get up, but he held my legs.
“We’re not like anyone else, you know that? Even other people like us. That’s why everyone’s always after us.” He ran his hand over my thigh, licking his lips and smiling. That smile always killed me.
“I’m gonna marry Noah one day. Probably soon. And you’re gonna marry Osh, right?”
“Right,” I said in a small voice. He moved forward and put himself between my legs, turning so I had to lay my head against the ground. I gulped.
He buried his face in my neck and bit me harder than Osh did, and I moaned despite my objection. His hands ran under my shirt, and he opened my bra in one motion.
“Juke, this is inappropriate—”
“Listen. We have to at least once, you know? Just to see what happens. Or to make our momma’s mad, wherever they are. Or because you’re beautiful, and this is the only chance I’ll ever get. I can’t stop thinking about you sometimes. You get in my head, and I can’t.”
I couldn’t say the names Noah or Osh, so I just let him touch me until I couldn’t find a reason to say no anymore. It wasn’t until afterwards that I felt the shame of being exposed in a dirty alley, the street far enough away from us to have privacy but the windows of both buildings serving as sufficient exposure.
It wasn’t until after, Juke breathing hard next to me and fixing my clothes, that I thought about Noah and Osh. That I thought about condoms. That I thought about the fact that I’d lost my virginity to someone other than Osh. That I thought about being responsible. We cuddled up together on the dirty ground and watched the water pour around us from the awnings.
It wasn’t until three months later that Juke asked me, frantic, staring at the pregnancy test, to keep it to myself. Noah had “forgiven” him for his homelessness. As far as I knew, neither of us felt any actual romantic feelings for each other. Even sex seemed like a curiosity that we’d explored rather than something we’d ever try again. I expressed that to Juke, and he blushed a deep red with eyes wide, nodding gently.
“Right,” he mumbled. “Same. It’s not—nope, not romantic; it was just a thing.”
He kept nodding, then gave me his big smile. He tossed the test in the trash.
“No one will know unless you tell them. How would they find out? On my momma, I promise I’ll protect you through this. Please, let this be the time you believe me, Astor. Don’t tell anyone. Trust me.”
And I trusted him so much that I didn’t even think about it.
After my talk with Noah, as always, I ended up at the docks. I was too numb to fear anything, even the darkness. Part of me wished Mr. David would come back and drag me into the ocean.
My misery was exhausting in its familiarity. It existed unlike anything else in my life. I could work through it, talk through it. I even found myself laughing through it sometimes. It was always there. The only relief I’d ever felt was spilling my blood out of my body like a squid in a bathtub or fucking my best friend’s boyfriend/husband that one time.
Noah knew about Moose. Maybe I should’ve felt worse about that. Maybe I would’ve felt more if it hadn’t been an admission Noah’d made in some sort of trance. It wouldn’t feel like something she usually kept to herself for leverage.
Even as I tried to wipe Noah from my mind with the waves, even as I tried to clear my head and just breathe, Osh moved right in. If it was so evident to Noah, was it evident to Osh? His absence was starting to feel like a mixture of things. Finding out your kid belonged to someone you considered a brother was enough reason to go off and shack up with the nearest red girl, right?
My thoughts of Osh went from death and drowning to lust and twisted faces mocking me.
Was that him in the window that day? Was Lou all dolled up for Osh? Did they laugh as she went back inside, tossing her hair to the side and climbing on top of him?
The hardest thing to admit was that I didn’t feel any new misery over the situation, just that old familiar panic. I was still running to the docks, ignoring the boats swaying in the wind, and waiting. I just didn’t quite understand what I was waiting for anymore. It wasn’t Osh. There was something out there that kept me coming back, and it wasn’t him. Juke told me often that maybe it was a natural creature thing. We were drawn to water.
Osh had been bred for me. He’d never had the chance to love anyone else, to really devote himself to choice. It was something that had nothing to do with me; it wasn’t like I’d asked for it. Still, I felt more guilt over that than I felt hurt over my husband being with another woman. Part of me felt like I’d hindered him, and now, uncovered, I had to detach.
There had always been something inside of me that knew Osh wasn’t mine on purpose. Nothing was. In Alicia Free’s world, everything played out the way she wanted it to.
Don’t deviate. Don’t you dare.
Sitting on the lone bench, I watched the sun come up and decided I’d leave the Lostine docks to Juke for a while. He could come to daydream about his mother out there, about his chances against the people who refused him. There was another pier in Chastain that had more life, more people. It was time to branch out. I’d blown a small bubble around us, around the four of us and our kids. I was suffocating in it.
The ocean that my mother had always feared slowly danced in front of me and then sat still, almost like a final farewell.
The ocean, it belonged to Alicia. That fear of it belonged to her. I wondered if I’d ever loved or done anything that my mother hadn’t set up or managed or controlled. Was there any part of my life that someone else wasn’t controlling?
I stood and tried my best to leave Osh there, right at the edge, and forgive him.
I’d never let him go. How could I? He wasn’t mine to let go.
I don’t know, man. Something was wrong.
Noah was gone. Outside the window was this ugly storm that I knew I shouldn’t work in, but something told me it would be gone by the time I got ready. The beep. Maybe that sounds crazy, but the noise in my head made me feel like I should just get ready.
Go about my day.
I noticed Noah wasn’t in the bedroom, wasn’t bouncing on me to wake me up or rubbing her hand all over my face to annoy me. I brushed my teeth, a little thrown off by it. She can’t do shit a normal wife would do (I definitely didn’t marry her for her maternal instinct), but I could always look forward to waking up to her. Shit, a couple of times I’d go to sleep on the boat and wake up to her riding up on a dingy, cursing me out for not coming home.
Noah was consistent. That was it. And she was consistent enough that you started to need it after a while; you couldn’t function without it.
I got dressed, wondering where my favorite hat was, realizing Osh had it on that night, that it was probably covered in melted skin, and I pushed it out of my head as quickly as possible. She wasn’t downstairs. Chaunce was still in bed. Again, Noah wasn’t the girl you married to sit at home with the kids. But she got up early and got Chaunce dressed or had Astor get her dressed, so she could hurry up and get her out of her face. Shit, and if she didn’t do it, Astor trudged her bossy ass across the street and got Chaunce ready herself. Astor was avoiding me, really ignoring the shit out of me, and I figured maybe that was the reason she wasn’t stepping up to her adoptive mother duties.
Chaunce was in bed, blankets thrown across the room, tiny feet hooked through her bedframe. Wild. I made a note to buy her a bed with a solid headboard and woke her up.
“Sorry, Little Terror, it’s just Daddy today.”
Even after I got her dressed and fed her a bowl of cereal, I couldn’t find my girl. Chaunce started going off about “Special Juice,” and I just shrugged.
“I don’t know what that is, baby. Your momma will get some.”
“No. Special smoke for Mommy. I want Special Sauce,” she whined.
I knew where Osh was. Noah being gone didn’t make sense. It made me think karma was finally catching up to me. I wanted to go across the street and check to make sure Moose and Astrid were still there, still safe.
All throughout breakfast, I watched the rain outside of the window and wondered what I’d say to Astor.
Astor’s mad, but she’s not that mad. I mean, once we talk about Moose and what Osh knows and all those fun things, she might be mad. Maybe permanently. But she’s not mad now. I’m confident in our friendship, yeah.
Chaunce kept whining about how bland her cereal was. I dug in the closet for the sugar.
“It’s not white! It’s red,” she whined as soon as the spoonful touched her flakes. I gave her an exaggerated sigh.
“What does Mommy call it?”
“Special Sauce or Special Juice.”
“Okay. Sriracha? I really hope your momma is not putting Sriracha in your cereal, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“No! SPECIAL SAUCE!” Chaunce opened her mouth wide, super wide, and glared at me. I glared back, ignoring the black patches springing to life on my chest.
“What did I tell you about that?”
She closed it and looked ashamed, pushing her cereal around.
“I cannot hurt Daddy.”
“Right. And what happens if you keep trying?”
She didn’t answer, just huffed and sat back. We watched the sugar slowly dissolve into the milk.
“I don’t want it. I want Mommy to make it.”
The minute I stepped outside, holding a big umbrella and guiding Chaunce by the shoulder to drop her off with Astor, I saw my wife standing in the grass. Staring in Astor’s kitchen window.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
I put Noah down, rubbing her skin, trying to get her temperature up. It was warming up outside, but the morning wasn’t even ready to start. She was damn near frozen out there, eyes wide and terrifying. She didn’t move when I’d grabbed her, didn’t even seem to notice when I put my coat over her. Chaunce gave a series of shocked gasps. I wanted to get her covered for a wide variety of reasons, the biggest being Moose most likely getting up soon.
She stared at the floor, eyes still wide.
“She’s usually up by now.”
“Astor. I can tell she was still asleep. I could hear her breathing. I wanted to check. I could hear it.” By the time she finished her sentence, it was a whisper. I kept rubbing her skin but realized it wasn’t cold anymore.
If anything, she was burning hot.
She looked up at me, and for a second, she looked normal. Maybe a little confused, yeah, but she was my Noah for a tiny second. Then her eyes got big, and her eyebrow raised almost painfully.
“Shouldn’t you be fishing? You need to be by the water while I fix things.”
“By the water? What—”
“Are you taking Astrid?”
“I don’t think I’m going anywhere near that house right now, baby.”
Noah groaned, eyes refusing to blink. I tried to move out of her line of sight, but she just kept staring, eating my face, digging into me.
“Everything is falling apart. Please, get out of here for a minute. Go to work. Take Chaunce with you, please, I can’t deal with her. I don’t have any more special sauce right now, so she’ll be tired if you take her without Astrid. And a little hard to control. Be careful.”
Chaunce helped me set up my boat, squealing with glee whenever she untied a knot properly or helped pull something heavy. It was always fun taking the girls with me to work. Astrid would ask a million questions, sing little butchered songs, and keep Chaunce from ripping and running.
We’d bypassed the Snow house entirely, and Noah wasn’t kidding. Chaunce was exhausted, barely keeping herself awake. This was a girl who could end up on the roof if you didn’t keep your hand on her shoulder. Part of me was starting to regret never asking questions, leaving people to things. I didn’t know what my wife’s office looked like or what weird shit my daughter was eating in her cereal.
I pulled Chaunce’s tiny pink chair out and patted her head. She looked neater when I got her dressed. She had the cutest little rain boots on, obviously pink, and a tiny pink coat. Even exhausted, Chaunce threw her arms up in excitement and pointed at the ocean.
“I go fishing again!”
“Yeah. You get an extra Daddy day this week, kiddo. I don’t know what’s going on with Mommy and Auntie Astor, but you get to hang out with me and avoid the nonsense.”
Chaunce was quiet, thinking a long time.
“Blueface make Mommy sick.”
I patted her head, starting up the boat.
“Yeah, whatever that means, I’m sure you’re right. You want to help me out a little, kid?”
We headed to my usual spot when I was with her. She opened her mouth wide, falling back on her butt. A small crack sound made me wince. I’ll never understand how she learned to do it or what part of me passed down to her, but I didn’t question Chaunce’s abilities. The way her mouth opened wasn’t possible on a human jaw. It was something she did a lot when Noah wasn’t around. She’d done it maybe twice in front of Noah and got cursed out, put in her room, and left with me for the day.
I didn’t blame her. It didn’t look natural.
Chaunce opened her mouth wider, her jaw nearly separating, and the fish started popping up. They kept plopping to the surface, one after the other, until I couldn’t see anything around the boat but a sheen of grey. I nodded for her to close her mouth.
“It’s okay to kill them ’cause we eat them, Daddy!”
“Absolutely. Don’t kill things just to kill them or because they get on your nerves. You remember what I told you? About protecting Mommy?”
“No crunch. And do not make Mommy do or say things. Mommy is weak and dies.”
I laughed a little. I didn’t know about weak, but yeah, Noah would die quicker than the fish.
“Yes. Do not make Mommy go crunch or do things. Only make the fish sick, right? And only kill some of them. I need some live ones today.” I checked my phone for any texts about work while Chaunce stunned the fish. She stopped after a while and wobbled, but corrected herself before I walked over.
“S’okay, Daddy. Little crunch, right?”
“Yeah. Just a small crunch.”
She opened her mouth again, and more fish popped up. When I was satisfied with our catch, I tapped her shoulder and went to get our nets.
“Now is the hard part!”
I smiled and patted her head, taking in her beaming return grin.
“Right, baby. Make them swim in and THEN go crunch, right?”
“Right! Dead swim! CRUNCH!”
After a while, Chaunce plopped down, tired like an old man. I stopped collecting the fish to check on her.
“No tired when Astrid is here. Want to go see Astrid. Or need Special Sauce, Daddy. Mommy say I need it. So tired.” She curled up and went to sleep, snoring lightly. I just laughed again and went back to gather the fish.
I checked my phone again and saw a text from Osh’s job. Turning it off, I braced myself to finish the task at hand.
“Rest up, Little Terror. We have a long couple of days ahead of us.”
Noah stood in my yard a lot the first few days. I found her trying to open my door at night, twisting the knob for hours, forgetting she had a key. The sound of it dug into me. After a while, it started to sound like other things.
The shifting of feet. Reloading of a shotgun. Wet footsteps.
Juke had to come to get her and cover her with a coat. I realized she was completely naked. It happened three times before I finally went downstairs to open the door. Noah stood fully naked and still, barely registering the wind. The words wouldn’t come to me, but she sucked in a deep breath, her wide eyes still leaking tears, and turned to leave.
I closed the door and ignored a stunned and blushing Moose.
Three times a week since I was fostered by her parents, I’d had my blood drawn. Before Noah, her father carried out the task. He was less pleasant to talk to, and I hadn’t been exactly friendly to him, so he invited Noah to help. It was a ritual I didn’t think I’d miss, but a slight pressure built in me with each drawing I missed.
She’d wait for me to pull into my yard after my work appointments, eyes wide, barely breathing until I opened my car door. Then she’d take a deep breath, almost like she’d been suffocating until I came back like she didn’t want to waste breath on air that didn’t include me.
“Noah. Please. Say something, anything,” I pleaded with her when I found her outside the elementary school, sitting on my car, sucking down cigarette after cigarette. You could smell them from the door of the school. Eight empty packs littered the ground around the car, seemingly crumbled in anguish.
“I just … need to be here.”
When we were younger, Noah dominated everyone. She was so full of energy yet so calm about it that you couldn’t win one argument with her. She’d either swamp you with attitude or give you every inch of her boredom, pouring it into you until you felt foolish and stopped. Part of it had to do with the eyes. They were impossible to escape from once they landed on you. They slipped into your skin and attached to you, swarming your thoughts.
She’d always had a bad habit of staring. In humor. In boredom. In malice. In lust. In viciousness. There was hardly ever a reason she wasn’t burning holes into the sides of people’s face, sucking them up, siphoning them through her head.
All of that felt like the neutral, watered down version compared to what came after the drowning. I had to close my blinds to keep the feel of Noah’s stare from pulling me through the glass of my windows, all the way across the street. I opened my door in the morning and found her there, sobbing, barely registering me.
Juke was getting worried, so I avoided him. The questions would come; they always did. He could only take so much before he started slipping in little inquiries, pointing things out “innocently,” and then asking outright. I didn’t know how to answer, so I stayed away.
I came home from work with the kids in tow a week later, and a package was sitting on my front porch. Noah stared down at it, dressed in a pretty pencil skirt and a disheveled blouse. She hardly bothered to put on makeup anymore.
“It’s what you asked for, I think.”
Astrid gave her a hard stare and then walked over to the box. There was a giant red velvet bow tied around it. The box itself was pitch black, a look of heavy metal to it.
“Maybe Daddy? Maybe he will … he will … coming home?”
Somehow, someone was getting to her. Her speech was still terrible, but she spoke in more sentences, finished more thoughts. Moose walked over to her, eyeing me nervously. I didn’t feel any anger toward her, mangled words and all.
I hadn’t since I’d drowned, somehow.
“Daddy’s busy, Astrid. Let’s go inside.” Moose gave me a small smile as he pushed her toward the door.
“No! Excuse me! Where?!” she screamed at him. Moose gripped her harder. I walked over and pulled them into a big hug. They both stood perfectly still, surprised.
“I don’t know where Daddy is. I’m sure he’s okay. I know it. He wouldn’t leave us on purpose. Okay? So don’t worry. And if anything happened, we’ll be just fine. I promise.”
Moose made a noise I couldn’t understand and yanked away from me, breathing hard, eyes wide.
“What makes you think he wouldn’t leave us on purpose?”
“You don’t know anything about him! He can’t even protect you. He can’t! I’m the one who’ll protect you both, so don’t worry about him! Stop asking about him! He’s not coming back! You don’t need him; you have Unc and me! You never needed him, you idiot!” Moose grabbed Astrid’s arm and tried to storm away, but my anger got the best of me. I pulled him back and stared quietly until his frustration turned to fear.
I felt Noah slowly move behind me until she was staring down at him, as well. My pupil seemed to ignite, growing in my eye. I could feel it moving.
“Who are you talking to like that?” I couldn’t tell which one of us was speaking. The voice sounded like Noah’s, but my lips moved.
“Ma’am … I’m a little stressed out because of Dad be—being gone. I’m very sorry; I was rude.” His eyes jumped back and forth between Noah and me. I could hear his heart beating, and for a split second, I thought I saw black blood running through the veins in his neck.
“Go in the house and do your homework. If you speak to me like that again, I won’t be so nice.” This time, the voice came from me, deep from the pit of my stomach. It was Astrid’s turn to guide Moose to the door. His hand shook on the knob.
Noah put her hand in mine slowly, trailing each of my fingers with her other one. She trailed her fingers up my arm, heavy breathing in my ear, and she closed her eyes in ecstasy.
“How do I feel about this, Astor?”
I could only give her a small, fear-tinged smile and try to pull away. It felt like static electricity pulsed through her fingers into me whenever she touched me. She absently put a cigarette in her mouth, her eyes still pasted to my face, vast and empty, and only pulled her hand away to light it.
“I hope you’re not angry with me. I’m not done yet. I didn’t expect it to feel like this, but this isn’t even the worst part. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
She motioned lazily to the package, eyes still on me.
“Don’t read it.”
I made dinner mindlessly. The house filled with the smell of marinated steaks sizzling in a cast iron pot with onions, drenched with garlic butter and rosemary. I poured myself a glass of red wine while I cooked, avoiding the bay window in the kitchen, humming to myself.
I cut up fruit for the kids’ lunches for the weekend and made strawberry lemonade with real strawberries. I could hear feet shuffling above my head and tried not to wonder where Chaunce was. Juke had her more and more lately, and I didn’t have the nerve to go get her. A small part of me missed having her around. A small part of me missed a lot.
Osh, slowly pulling Lou’s bra strap down, kissing her bare shoulder. He probably grabs her by the neck like he does me, pulling her head up and kissing her, running his lips down the side of her face and biting her, choking her softly until she groans…
Moose always wanted something—anything—sweet with dinner, so I made sweet corn to go with the steak and onions. Every time I opened the fridge, I pulled out something else to cook for the next week, something to chop, something to marinate. By the time Astrid came down to check on me, I’d used almost every grocery we had.
“Hello,” she said slowly, with a tinge of uncertainty. I glanced at her, my knife slicing through peaches, and paused to hand her one. She took my peace offering gently.
Her fear of me filled the room.
“Are you hungry?” she didn’t answer. I laughed a little. “You want to ask me something. Please do. Distract me.”
I sat on the floor in front of her. Astrid’s big hair reminded me that I needed to cut my own. We spent so much time cutting hair in that damn house.
“Not say right. I … will not say right.”
“Try anyway. I won’t get mad. Just try.”
“Okay. Want to read. Daddy … is not … here to … help. But just read, please. For fun.”
No lessons. Got it.
“Let’s read together after dinner. Would that be okay?”
A deep sadness came over me when she smiled. It was innocent enough to be stupid. Ear to ear, teeth bright and small, nose wrinkling from her unburdened joy. I felt like I was looking at the most obvious victim in the world. And usually, most of the time, that made me angry. Most of the time, it made me want to toughen her up, to salvage her.
This time, it just made me sad.
We sat on her bed, and Astrid cautiously opened her favorite book. A little black girl with pigtails was smiling on the front cover with one of her teeth missing, asking Astrid, “What do you see in the world?” It chronicled her adventures as she visited different places around the globe, giving brief history lessons on each. My daughter lit up at every single location, checking for my expression and outright cackling with glee at certain points.
“Do you want to travel?”
“Yes! We will, together, to- together. Girl trips!” I took the bows out of her hair and kept up my small smile.
“Just me and you? What about Chaunce?”
“Oh yeah, Chawn. Sometimes just us.”
Astrid turned the page and laughed out loud at the little girl standing on the point of a building, her arms in the air with a metal rod. A bolt of lightning was hitting the rod, sending a blaze of energy through the girl and the building.
A feeling came over me. We would never travel together. Whatever natural instinct I had would never allow it. Soon, I would go back to wanting to rip my skin off when she talked; I’d get in her face. Someday, I would go back to being the monster in her life and nothing else.
Even bigger than that, more prominent, was my mission. Sooner and sooner, every day, I was closer to having to do what I promised I would do when I was younger, what I was raised to do. If I could learn to stomach her innocence, it wouldn’t matter.
Don’t deviate, Astor. Don’t you dare.
Instead of worrying about that, I spread out next to her, and we laughed through the rest of the pages in the book.
“How the fuck you get these big ass catches?” Ian scratched his head with his fish gut-stained gloves and stared down at my fish. Chaunce giggled loudly, giving me a secret smile.
“Crunch,” she whispered, and I tapped her shoulder.
“Family secret, man. How much are you buying? There’s the usual amount on the boat, and then I have another haul tomorrow.”
He glanced up at me, annoyed.
“All of it. Fuck you mean? Don’t take this shit to Shawndra. Come on, don’t do me like that. You always come in here with that competitive pricing shit.”
I waited for him to panic before I started talking about my new series of raised prices, and he cursed me out like he always did.
“Look, Shawndra pays double. I have more coming later this week, and if you can’t pay me right, I’ll take it to her …”
“What about crab? I need crab, man. Ya boy that used to bring ’em ain’t been here in a while …”
“Yeah. He’s sick. I’ll get you some. I have to clear the lake over in Rex tomorrow, but I’ll bring you some after that. That’s double, too.”
Chaunce covered her ears, disgusted. I gave Ian a face, pointing at my kid, and he shrugged. I only cared about it a little. Her mother is the walking embodiment of foul mouths and curse words.
Ian continued, “You be workin’, man. I thought I was gonna cry when I ain’t see yo’ ass for a few days. Everything good?” Again, he scratched his head with his soiled glove and pulled a giant bass in front of him, slicing it neatly.
I mostly sold my catches to Ian or another local butcher shop. I preferred him, though; he dealt entirely in fish and was loud about my services. I had four other exclusive buyers, and he’d introduced me to them all.
I typically took Chaunce with me once a week. That was enough to fill up all five of those places. Clearing Rex’s lake of their invasive species gave me anything else I could sell. Osh was usually the one who brought in the crab when he saw them out on the job.
I wondered about his students, and then I wondered about his fieldwork, and then I stopped myself from thinking about him altogether. We’d figure it out.
“I’m good. Yeah, I’m good. I just needed a break.”
“Shit, I get it.” He glanced down at Chaunce again, his hands frozen.
They stared at each other until I waved my hand in his face, uncomfortable. He blinked hard, shaking his head.
“Shoot. I get it.”
I moved to bring him over to the counter, so I could collect my pay, but something was wrong. He didn’t move. His hands shook a little, still holding the fish open, guts steaming into the air, and he kept staring at my little terror.
“I feel freakin’ funny, man. Phooey. I can’t freakin’ think straight. What the frick?”
I looked down, and Chaunce’s mouth was wide open, her jaw cracking as she pulled it open even wider.
She closed her mouth too fast and gasped at the pain. Ian shook his head, both his ears and his nose slowly dripped blood. The weight of his shoulders leaned behind him, pulling him down. He wobbled a bit and fell back.
I jumped the counter, pulling him to me. We were the only ones in the shop, but I still looked around until I was sure. Ian’s face was the right color, and his hands had stopped shaking. I checked his pulse, and his heart was beating, maybe a little fast, but it was beating.
He’d passed out. That was it, thankfully. It took a few minutes of me calling his name and slapping his cheek until I realized he wasn’t waking up anytime soon. I came around the counter to a teary-eyed, pouting Chaunce.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“No! No curse! I do not like it! I make him stop! Bad mouth. Aunie say no curse; only bad people do that!” I grabbed her and pulled her as close to me as I could without swallowing her whole.
“Don’t you ever do that to a person. Do you understand me? I said you could stun the fish, that’s it. That’s it. Don’t you ever do that to a human being. Are you crazy?”
She sucked in sob after sob, blabbering incoherently. I scooped her up, resting her against my chest, and stood there.
We would have to wait until he woke up. I was getting paid for my work, even if I had to wait until the next night, even if I had to sit and sleep in the damn shop. The one thing I wasn’t going to do was leave empty-handed and not put food on the table. Noah was going around standing naked in yards; I highly doubted she was scamming grant money. Osh was dealing with the whole skinless thing, and Astor was trying to raise her kids through panic attacks and worrying. I was the only one left to take care of us.
I felt my vision blurring as I stood in frustration, overwhelmed. Sitting down, I leaned back and let my head rest against the counter. Big-eyed fish stared at me from every direction. Chaunce snuggled against me and drifted off to sleep somehow. That was fine. I just needed a second to stop the beeping. Just a second.
There’s something about food that has always relaxed me. I go to the fridge when I’m upset. I take care of my stomach before I think about my head.
My momma had hair down her back, ruler-straight, blood red hair. She spent a ridiculous amount of time dyeing it, flat-ironing it, making sure there wasn’t a curl to be found anywhere. I doubt any other woman could even dream of being as tall as my mom.
The day she left, earlier that morning, she stood in front of the fridge and stared down at all the food. Single mom or not, she kept it packed with everything I liked, could like, might take an interest in. She hardly ate, but she made sure I stuffed my face with food as often as possible.
“Jukel. We’re out of milk.”
“Sorry, I had some cereal. I’m late for school.”
“They’ll understand if you’re late. Your bones, Jukel. You need the milk.”
“Oh, Momma, it’s not that bad. I’m not gonna break into pieces or anything just because I miss a glass.” I laughed a little, but she didn’t return it.
You know, she wasn’t prompt. My momma wasn’t strict or even very bossy. The best way to describe her was relaxed. All my teachers hated her.
“You know how to shop? For milk? Or clothes?” There was a distant edge in her voice. Her mind was somewhere in the fridge. In the onions or kale or cilantro.
“Yes, Momma. Yeah. Of course.”
“I wake up a lot and wonder what you’ll become. If you remember certain things. If you’ll forgive me for those things someday. What will the son of a … the son of …” She let the sentence trail off and die, squinting into the fridge.
Later, sitting around, starving with no money and too much pride, I sat in the same spot she stood and thought about apples a lot. Pears. The small containers of juice that my momma would buy in bulk.
Strawberries. Sharp cheddar cheese. Tuna salad.
“Momma … I got your back. I don’t care what you’ve done. I’m with you.” I patted her shoulder, and she was so stiff, she could’ve been a wax sculpture. She just stood there, staring at the food, her eyes jumping back and forth. I turned awkwardly, not knowing what to say but feeling like she wanted me to say something.
I could’ve asked about the things I didn’t understand. The scars. The black patches growing on my stomach. I could’ve asked her about so many things, but I just chuckled nervously.
“I would kill for you, Jukel. Do you know that?”
We sat with Ian for another ten minutes. When he finally woke up, dazed, and somewhat embarrassed, he apologized to me non-stop.
“Been partying too hard, I guess. I think.” He squinted, trying to remember anything recent, and I just pointed to the cash register. He headed outside and sat on the curb, still out of it.
“Hey, it’ll be okay. Just relax. You want me to take you to the hospital?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’ll call them.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose, groaning.
“Is just headache, okay,” Chaunce whispered, shame blooming red across her face.
We at least waited until the ambulance arrived, Chaunce calmly patting his back. Then we went about the rest of our day. It took a while, but we disappeared into the work until we’d done enough to make a difference in my pockets. I slowly forgave Chaunce, like always.
Can’t blame a person for their instincts.
Chaunce helped me clear the nets, her tiny body barely getting any real work done. It was cute, but it would’ve been cuter if I wasn’t so angry with her. She didn’t pretend not to notice. Every now and then, she gave me a hopeful smile, her lips tight and poked to the side like she did when she was in trouble.
I had an evil thought that maybe she wouldn’t be so dangerous if I got her a muzzle. Whatever she could do only seemed to happen when she opened her mouth. There was nothing else to it, at least not on the surface. People would react the minute her jaw parted a little too far. She could make them do things, hurt them, and sometimes, they spoke like they were trying to push her out of their mind.
It was scary, but it was useful.
I thought about Noah staring at herself in the mirror, standing around in the rain, and I got Chaunce’s attention. She dropped the net happily.
“Mommy’s acting strange, Chaunce. Did you make her go crunch? Maybe just a little bit?”
“You sure? You didn’t get mad at her about anything? Or try to play a game?”
“I said no!” Offended, Chaunce stomped her feet and crossed her arms.
I held my hand up. “I’m sorry. I’m just asking. You know your momma is not like us.”
“Is human bean,” she half-asked, half-asserted.
“Right. You can’t make her go crunch, okay? She’ll die. That means she’ll sleep forever; she’ll never come back. You’d never forgive yourself.”
I wanted to add that I’d never forgive her, but I didn’t think she needed to know that.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it, what it could mean. We had a hell of an upbringing. There were things that were promised, shit that was said, shit that I still didn’t understand. It was always Noah and Osh doing the talking, doing the sneaking. I left them to it. I wished that I’d at least asked a question or two.
What were the odds that they were both hurt, they were both out of order? Noah walking around naked. Noah walking into walls and standing in the window, smoking cigarette after cigarette. I tried to get her to go to the lab, to go do tests on Astor or whatever they did, but she just rolled her eyes in aggravation.
“Everyone’s on vacation. We have to wait at least a week.”
She scowled. “Don’t ask me questions.”
Chaunce climbed up on my shoulders after we docked the boat, staring up at the sky. It always amazed me how weightless she was, how small, almost nonexistent. This little monster that could crush heads and make people babble incoherently was barely heavy enough to register on a scale.
We stood there at the docks and waited for something. I don’t know what.
“I like water, Daddy. Is pretty.”
“Hm. You’re like your uncle Osh. I deal with water, but I can’t say I like it.”
She kicked her feet happily.
“You do not have to like things. It’s okay!”
“Maybe you can get a boat when you’re older. You and Astrid can take it all around the world,” I said, pinching her leg.
She sucked her teeth. I started walking back to the house, trying to figure out anything I could say to Astor. What could I say to get her to help me with Noah without telling her about Osh? How the hell was I going to pull us all back to being okay, to being normal?
“No water for Astrid, Daddy!”
“I mean, you don’t know what she wants. Maybe she loves the water like her daddy—”
“No, no, no. Astrid said no water. Blueface take her, and she did not like it.”
I nodded absently. Chaunce pulled my face up with her tiny hand, glaring at me.
“You hear? Maybe Blueface hurt mommy. Astrid, too. Maybe she hurt everybody.”
I stopped walking. We were still in the parking lot at the docks.
It finally struck me. All the wind went out of me like someone hit me in the stomach, and I pulled Chaunce off my shoulders. She stared up at me with the most innocent face, this little monster, and tried to make sense of my reaction.
“Blueface? The tall lady with the blue scars?”
“Yes!” Chaunce sighed in relief as if she’d been talking to a complete moron. “She scare mommy at school. She take Astrid, and Astrid say she was mean. I do not like her.”
I knelt down and held Chaunce’s face in my hands.
“She took Astrid? When?”
“Before, duh. It is okay, Daddy. Mommy say so. Astrid come back. She was very hurt. But she come back.”
It’s like blood.
My momma said it would taste like blood all the time, and then it wouldn’t taste like anything. I put the cigarette in my mouth and let the blood mix with my spit, the smoke digging into my throat. Smoking was the only part of her, of Astor, that I had until she came home, so I just put the cigarettes in my mouth and smoked them and smoked them and smoked them. I could smell her from a mile away. I could smell the blood going through her heart. I could feel her driving crazy, parking crazy. I could feel her pulling up.
A car rode by, and I felt my hand shake in anguish when I realized it wasn’t her. It wasn’t Astor.
Her heart is always beating so hard. She keeps a steady face, but Astor is always afraid. It reminds me of when she was younger, when we first met. Watching her standing in those strangers’ kitchen with her hair everywhere, with the paint melting off the walls. Watching her run the water over her hands, watching the water evaporate.
“I can’t protect anyone. They die. They all just die.” She said that to me.
What does anyone else know about Astor, about this girl who was doomed from the start just like I was? Who else has the right to say they know her?
I think I’m staring out the window, but whenever I blink, I’m somewhere else. The basement, getting more cigarettes. The mailbox, checking for the package the Fanatics are supposed to send me, but I’m not supposed to talk about that stuff. I have to remind myself not to think about blood and fingers and hair, threats, angry letters, loving promises, my past and future colliding. I’m not supposed to think about what I’m still doing as an adult, still hiding shit, still dragging Astor through a life she doesn’t want, still trying my best.
Being in my head like this, it feels like walking backwards, like time is zooming past me, lifting me up. It feels like I’m walking blindfolded through a maze, and all I have to guide me is the smell of Astor. She smells like blood, like burning skin and evaporating water. How does she smell like the past?
I never realized how much she smells like blood. Now it’s in me; it’s filling me up all the time, and I can’t think about anything else. What are we doing here wasting away with these children, with these husbands? Why didn’t we do like my momma wanted and escape all of it, change our entire futures? We really could’ve gotten away from all of it.
I blinked and looked down, and boom, there was another cigarette in my hand, and I’m smoking it in front of the fucking window, and here we are again. Who knows how many days are going by while I’m just standing here waiting for Astor to get home, so I can see her again? It hit me that this was going to go on for a while, maybe forever, and now I can’t stop crying.
I’ve spent most of my life avoiding being in my head, and now I can’t get out of it.
You can look at her and tell she belongs to Alicia. She’s Alicia’s property, hun, just look at her veins. Since the drowning, I can’t unsee the color of her veins, of her blood. When I wait for her to come home, every vein in her body is yellow. You can see the blood pulsing through, brighter than the fucking sun, pumping around and around. I can’t stop staring at it.
She’s mine. I said I’d save her. I said I’d protect her from the things she’s supposed to do. I told my momma that Jukel and Astor were mine, and she could die mad about it, and I had a fucking kid, and I tricked a fucking monster, and now I was going brain-dead for them.
I sucked on the cigarette, but it wasn’t there, and when I looked down, I’d dropped it between my breasts. It burned deep into my skin, but I just looked back up at the window.
She was close. I could smell her.
Maybe Alicia could’ve warned me that it would be this bad. I wouldn’t have listened, but she could’ve said something, the fucking skyscraper. It’s all blood.
It’s like all I can think about is blood.
The package was still sitting on my table when I woke up in the morning. I touched the velvet bow, curious. Something in the back of my head wouldn’t let me open it. It didn’t feel right. There were answers in that box that even my mother wouldn’t give me. Maybe more questions that I’d never thought to ask.
Why do you need to know these things, Astor? Osh knows enough.
I thought of Juke, his hand running up and down my leg, asking me if I thought I was human.
The box seemed to ask the same thing, taunting me until I turned and got ready for work.
Moose was up, ironing his clothes, and I saw that he’d already awoken his sister. Her small, white blouse and pencil skirt sat neatly on his bed, a pretty floral decal in the top right corner of both. He’d even picked out matching barrettes for her hair and white sneakers. I grabbed them.
“Her flats would look better with that. What shoes are you wearing?”
He glanced back, busy.
“Ummm … the black hightops.”
I nodded my approval. Moose’s room was a neon wonder in the early morning darkness. He had a gigantic fish tank that took up most of the inner wall. Two moon jellyfish squished and swirled in the container.
Paloma and Asia. He named them after two girls he had a crush on at school, or so he said. I didn’t know if he still had the crushes, but he continued to take extreme care of the jellyfish. I wasn’t allowed to adjust anything, feed them, not even look at them too long. The only person he let help him with his little babies was Osh.
“How are the girls,” I said, pointing at the tank.
“They’re fine. I thought they were frustrated with me for a while, but now they’re more responsive.” He put the iron down and held up his shirt for me to judge. I nodded my approval.
“Let me know if you need anything for them. I’ll pick it up after work.”
He nodded, his shoulders high, and I realized he was crying. I let my surprise run over my face before I realized then sat up straighter. He never cried. I wasn’t sure what to do.
“Mom. What if I did something really terrible? What if I hurt someone? Would you hate me?”
“No. Did you?”
Moose grabbed Astrid’s blouse and examined it.
“I really want to talk to you, Mom. When I’m ready, can I talk to you?”
“Of course, Moose. Anytime you need to, no matter what’s going on. How can you protect me if you can’t talk to me?”
His face turned red, and he smiled.
“You’re right. I protect you, so I have to stay honest with you. Men do that.”
I left him to his thoughts and went downstairs to heat up their breakfast. The package sat unopened and prominent, decorating the Cherrywood table with its existence. I ran my hand over the velvet again.
Osh running his fingers over Lou’s cheek, smirking at her as they laugh. Maybe she’s sitting on his lap in the park? Maybe he talks to her about his day, rolling his eyes about something I said once, and she wonders out loud how he ever dealt with me …
I ignored the package and continued the beginning of our day. Moose ran around, heckling the girls, brushing hair, getting ponytails ready. I marveled at his work ethic, nearly ashamed. By the time we all bunched up downstairs, he’d finished our morning routine without me having to say a word or raise a finger. Astrid looked beautiful in her skirt.
“Tired, tired,” she whined, rubbing the back of her neck. Moose popped her forehead.
We walked out the door, and I had to snatch Moose back, covering his eyes quickly.
Noah stood in front of my mailbox, completely naked, with two cigarettes in her mouth and a pile of my mail in her hand. Blood stained the bottom three letters.
“Noah, you’re bleeding. You’re bleeding.” I turned Moose around and rushed over to her, but she leaped back, eyes wide. It was like approaching an animal.
“It’s not for you. It’s not about you. It’s something I have to do.”
By the time I heard Juke coming, he was already putting his coat around Noah’s shoulders. That big clown smile was nearly ripping his face in half.
“Go ahead to work. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I’m sorry, Astor.” He pulled Noah away, but she repeated herself, glaring at me.
“It’s just something we have to do!”
Too stunned to say anything intelligent, I called after Juke instead, “What about Chaunce? Is she coming with me to work?”
He gave me a simple no and kept pushing Noah across the street.
I hadn’t seen a cut on her, but the mail was covered in blood. Fresh, nearly black blood. Moose cleared his throat behind me.
“Mom, can I turn around now?”
Things could be classified simply for me: before the drowning and after the drowning.
Before the drowning, I felt an intense pressure growing in my head. The pressure was also behind my eye and sometimes down into my neck.
After the drowning, I felt clear-headed. Everything was sharper, and all my thoughts were smooth. Even the self-destructive ones, like imagining Osh pulling off Lou’s panties, were less harmful. They played out almost like a reminder of what could be happening, not a threat of it.
Before the drowning, Astrid made me sick to my stomach. After, I wanted to reconnect with her. I had the dream about walking off the pier with Astrid in my arms every single night, and I woke up worrying about her.
And Osh, wherever he was, wasn’t sending me into frantic searches or sad daydreams.
I didn’t know what made the difference, but it was there.
Working at the school, I noticed that kids were frightened by my eye. It wasn’t a subtle change. The pupil grew massive and darker, and it shivered if I looked at the same thing for too long. I held a session with a stuttering first grader that ended with her asking, very clearly, “Is there something wrong with your eye, Mrs. Snow?”
But it didn’t hurt. There was no pressure there. I could somehow feel the pupil getting bigger and bigger, but that was it. It felt almost calming, especially when Noah was around.
I was sitting in my office, getting ready for my next student, when Astrid and Juke walked in. Astrid’s teacher followed close behind her.
Astrid winced when she saw me. It was quick, just a second, but her face crushed in on itself, and then she stared down at the ground.
You made her feel this way.
“I did not do … wrong!” Astrid exclaimed, and Chaunce popped up behind her. They took turns yelling broken sentences into the room.
“Shut up.” Juke only had to say it once, and the hush that fell over the room was final.
The girls looked back and forth, waiting for some shoe to drop. Ms. Kansas looked like she wished he’d been talking to her, her face red and plump, avoiding me pointedly. Juke glared at her.
Huffing, Ms. Kansas finally made eye contact with me, and in one breath, said, “I am going to tell you something that I just have the strangest feeling will get me in trouble. But I want to emphasize that I was just doing what I was told to do by your designated guardians. And that I have been trying to reach you for days, Mrs. Snow. Weeks actually.” Ms. Kansas, her voice shaking, softly ushered Astrid over to me.
“Mrs. Snow, I have no idea what’s going on. You haven’t been coming in, and you haven’t been answering your phone, and all the other nutjobs who usually pick Astrid up are being uncooperative. I must have called Mr. Snow about 3,000 times in a row, and he still hasn’t returned one call.”
Astrid gave me a fake smile, her bushy eyebrows bunched up on her face in nervousness. Chaunce glared at Ms. Kansas.
Juke cleared his throat, eyeing her.
“I think you should get to the point,” I muttered, looking back down at my paperwork.
“Astrid’s grandmother has been picking her up. Well, she said she was her grandmother. She was dressed improperly and just didn’t seem right, so I did my best not to let Astrid go. I really did. It happened four times, and sometimes she would bring her right back, sometimes she wouldn’t. Mrs. Dill said she was the grandmother and that she had permission, and she’s listed as a decision-maker! She comes to get her all the time! As I’ve said, I tried to call you and you wouldn’t …”
She stopped, watching my face transform. Half of me went numb, the other half burst with energy, and then it all died in the pit of my stomach. I stood, crossing the room too fast, and leaned in to make sure Ms. Kansas could hear me.
Chaunce was excited that Astrid would stay home with her from then on. She danced the whole way back, pulled a somber Astrid up to her room, and closed the door. Noah watched us from the kitchen window with wide eyes.
I wasn’t as happy about it. Astor pulled the girl so fast, Ms. Kansas could barely get the rest of her excuses out. By the time we made it back, she was already filling out the homeschool declaration form on the board of education’s website.
No questions I posed mattered.
Who’s gonna watch her while you work? Moose is gonna be lonely at school, and he’ll be there alone; you’re not worried about him? Maybe you should wait to see what Osh thinks? I threw in the last one as a last effort hardball, but she just ignored me and went into the house.
I went home to talk to Noah, to see if she could change Astor’s mind. She stood with her skirt on backwards, her hair loose and trailing down her back, a bra in her hand. I couldn’t open my mouth.
“What happened?” she whispered, staring out the window. She took a pull on a cigarette. Ashes surrounded her in a messy circle; they were piled up on her breasts and stomach. Seven crushed packs were scattered across the floor.
“Baby, one of ya’ll is gonna have to explain what’s going on. Somebody; I don’t care who.”
She waved me away, dropping more ash to the ground. “What’s wrong with Astor?”
“You let Alicia pick that kid up? You crazy?”
“Not crazy. Just careful,” she said, never turning around. I wanted to grab her. To make her laugh or make her suck her teeth or anything. It was like talking to an empty body.
“It’s starting. Just like she said. We have to be careful.” Her voice dipped lower and lower until I could barely hear her.
I changed my clothes and left, agitated. I needed air.
Alicia picking Astrid up made me tired. Four times? There was no telling what she’d done to that girl. And the way Astor moved, you could tell she was terrified. The beeping in my head seemed content for the moment, so I took the chance to think. What could I do to salvage Astrid’s social life? We needed to be back to normal. We’d fought so hard for normal; how was it falling to pieces so fast?
I headed to the park, deep in my head.
Usually, you can’t be tired with the people I know. Noah wants to talk; Astor wants to worry; Moose wants to train. Chaunce, she wants to kill things. Astrid wants to smile and be merry. When Osh’s skin is intact, he wants to think. As much as it annoys me, I appreciate the distraction.
You can’t just exist. It never happens. But now everyone was gone, and I was tired, and there was nothing to stop it.
I walked to the park to clear my head, and of course, Astor was already there, clearing hers. She was sitting on my favorite bench, her hands clasped together, breathing hard as hell. A constant stream of worry spilled out of her like a leak, pouring out the front of her head, staining her expressions. Astor makes me sick sometimes. Just sick of having to calm her down.
But I’ll do it, regardless.
“Hey, Hair.” I teased her, pushing her shoulder slightly.
She turned her face away from me and nodded. We sat on that same bench a lot. When we were younger and fighting with our respective spouses, I’d grab one of Astor’s feet and rub it while we sat.
Shit, I shouldn’t be doing. Shit, that produced an anomaly, apparently.
“You been out here a while?”
“No. I just came out here for some air. Where are the kids?”
I’d forgotten about them, but Moose was there. The kid was basically another parent.
“Moose has them.”
Astor moved to go home, but I slowly pulled her back down. I tried to think of a light way to ask the questions I wanted to ask.
“I take it something weird happened at the lab? Noah told me not to ask questions, and that always means some odd shit.”
Astor normally would’ve chuckled. I knew what made her laugh. But she just sat there, staring away from me, rocking her legs.
“‘Something weird’ is accurate. Maybe a little beyond that.”
“Heh. Nothing that will scar you for life, right?”
She was silent. I noticed that she didn’t mention Osh. She didn’t worry out loud about him; she didn’t even seem like she was thinking about it. That wasn’t abnormal, not after my little stunt with Lou.
But she didn’t mention that either.
“How have you been, Juke? Despite it all?” She turned to look at me, and I had to keep from balking. Her pupil nearly filled her entire eye, just a small rim left for the iris. Her iris as a whole seemed more prominent, more noticeable than the other one.
I faltered a little.
“I’m … well. I’m well.”
We sat in silence. Neither of us seemed eager to talk, but I didn’t want to leave. It felt like a change. It felt like going would mean leaving Astor behind, leaving some of the peace Astor brought me right there to rot on that bench, leaving all our hard work behind. I’d never felt so heavy.
Astor opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.
“You didn’t have to pull her from school, you know. Ms. Kansas understands the situation now. Well, as much as she can.”
“Ms. Kansas isn’t going to be around much longer,” Astor said bitterly.
I thought about it. No, Alicia didn’t seem like the type to take kindly to a snitch. The thought of more attention, more problems, more oddities, it crushed me. Now we were getting people we knew killed. I let out a loud groan.
“The kids didn’t ask for this, though. We can’t change their whole lives trying to protect them. Think about it, Astor. We don’t want them to grow up like us, right? That was the whole speech you gave when we decided on this place. Lay low, live well, all that shit. Maybe teaching them to protect themselves is the better option.”
Astor nodded, adjusting her hair. She kept adjusting her messy ponytail until I moved her hand. Her fingers trembled.
“It’s okay, girl. Relax.” I waited while she struggled to breathe, clutching her hand over her heart. We stayed that way until she sat up and looked at me, her eye somehow even bigger.
“This is bad. Have we been through worse?”
There were a million things she could’ve meant by “this,” but I was just as willing to lump them all together in a box.
“Together? There was the time I broke that man’s jaw in front of the police, and you had to talk them out of taking me to jail,” I offered.
Astor finally smiled.
Encouraged, I continued. “Remember when we were teenagers? When Osh used to get on your nerves, and we’d skip school and go to that weird alternative ballet, the one right behind Chastain station?”
She scoffed, throwing her head back to laugh. “Ugh! Why do you remember that, Juke? What a horror show.”
“And the ‘actor’ kept trying to get your number. I had to pretend to be your guardian, so he’d leave you alone.”
“The creep. We were so young. Do you remember when Noah busted her lip, being stupid on the swing, and she fell and barely scraped the damn thing, and it was like her entire body was on fire?” Astor could barely get her words around her giggles.
“Oh my gosh! She wouldn’t shut the fuck up! All that attitude, and she wanted to go to the hospital for a busted lip.”
We both laughed until I was nearly in tears thinking about Noah whining and lying flat on the ground in pain.
“Oh, remember when that teacher kicked Osh’s ass?”
“Yes, yes!” my excitement made Astor laugh harder. She put her hand on my shoulder, and we laughed until we’d gotten it all out, until things felt a little more normal.
“You remember when I was homeless, and you sat with me in the alley?”
“The time you told me about your momma?” I continued. “The dream she had?”
“The one where she kept saying, ‘everything is dark, please let me die’? That one?”
“Yeah. I think about that a lot. You said you hoped whatever it was never caught up to her. I always wished you cared more about yourself than you did what she was going through.”
We were silent. Neither of us wanted to talk about how that night ended, about how Moose got here, about how slick we weren’t. I was married to a liar, and she was married to a violent psychopath. It only made sense that they could see through us. It only made sense.
Desperation floated around. We were both trying to hold on to something that was slipping away, something so many people tried to help us through.
We were our mothers’ children, no matter what we did.
I remember when Astor was young and tried her hardest to sob, tried to cry, and kept panicking because she couldn’t. She passed out trying to make herself cry.
I remember when Astor had Moose and held him so tight the nurse cried out, scolded her, and physically yanked him away. We all damn near surrounded the woman, scared her senseless, and she gave him right back. My first thought was how much he looked like me, how long he was.
I remember how she coached me through Chaunce’s birth, keeping me calm. Deflecting the foul shit, Noah was crunching through everyone’s ears before, during, and after the labor. Two nurses quit.
I remember how sweet Astor was to Astrid when she was younger, how she sat with her in her lap at that very park, how they used to watch the sunset. Astor would bury her face in her daughter’s hair, holding her tight, telling her made-up stories about her childhood, happier stories than she actually lived. I remember how much I thought they would be inseparable.
Time is disgusting.
She was my first everything, and here we were, choking on silence together. I couldn’t say what she was choking over, but I know Astor. I know her demeanors. The real color of her face. Her mother was picking her daughter up from school. She didn’t realize it, but my mother knew about her now. Noah was doing something weird. We were natural-born enemies, and it seemed like that calling was coming.
I didn’t know what would happen, but I wanted it to be nothing.
“I’m not what you think I am, Astor. You know I’m different. I know you’re different. But it’s probably worse than you imagine. I guess … I can’t hide that forever. I never wanted to be normal, just for all of us to be happy. But it’s not meant for me, man. It’s just not.”
Astor took my hand, all the weight of her lies and mine combining, and she laughed. It was the most depressing laugh.
“You don’t know how much I understand that, Juke. Let’s just sit for a minute.”
Yeah, her eye looked worse than it’s ever looked, but I didn’t mention it. I just tried my best not to look at it when she faced me, not to feel sucked in by the big pupil, not to wonder what the hell she was going through.
I tried my best to keep us all together, to keep my family going, but my momma was right all along.
We were all sitting around a scrap of food, waiting to see who would reach first. This wasn’t something we wanted. This food was rotten; it was molded. It was being used as bait to kill us off.
Truth was, of course, we were all going to reach it at the same time.
I took the package to work with me. I let Astrid come up for the last time to say goodbye to her friends and teacher. She was a little more serious than usual, all her goodbyes swallowed by tears. Chaunce followed, pouting and rubbing Astrid’s back. Part of me felt guilty, but I waved away any protest from Ms. Kansas.
The soon-to-be late Ms. Kansas.
Juke seemed surprised that I wasn’t more distraught about my mother being around. Part of me always knew my mother was lurking. She left me gifts through my teen years, useless things that had no meaning in my homelessness. Lavish dresses. Yards of satin or fancy silk underwear. I’d walk into my foster parents’ house and see a rose gold necklace on the sink that hadn’t been there before. And, of course, there was the training.
That was so many years ago, though.
The girls sat in my office through most of my sessions, even participating. By the end of the day, Astrid was her usual beaming self, and that calmed Chaunce down a bit.
When I escorted my final student of the day out, a thin smile on my face, a man was standing outside of my door.
A knot formed in my stomach as I looked at him. He hadn’t been there a second ago. Of course, a second ago, the door had been closed. He very well might’ve been standing there the whole time. But something inside me knew he hadn’t been there; he hadn’t been in this school; he hadn’t been around. Astrid and Chaunce watched my back, talking to each other in broken sentences, and slowly quieted when they felt my fear.
The man was missing an arm and a leg. That was the first and most significant thing I noticed. His prosthetics were black mesh with metal rods peeking through, and he’d made sure to roll one of his pant legs up to show it. He was attractive in a rugged type of way. I thought of axes splitting into trees, of blood spilling out of mouths, when I looked at him. For a second, just a second, I felt like a hungry animal looking at him.
He smiled and stepped forward to extend his hand. The universe seemed to pass by his fingers as they reached out to me. His nails were clean and filed; his smile was white but jagged. I felt my body aching to touch him.
It only took my mind a second to fill with many things. The panic, that old feeling, was thick. Before I understood what I was doing, I stepped back and closed my door.
“Um, sorry! Mrs. Snow? Are you Mrs. Snow?”
My door was thick Cherrywood. I placed my ear on it, only succeeding in making it harder to hear. I moved back, motioning for the girls to hide. Neither moved an inch; both just stood next to my desk. I could tell the man hadn’t moved.
I could tell too much about him.
“Do you need something?”
More knots filled my stomach as silence filled both rooms. I couldn’t get his teeth out of my head. Jagged. Like he’d been chewing rocks. But white, so white they could’ve been brand new teeth. They could’ve just cut through his gums, blood washing away in a torrent of spit. His clean fingernails. His long dreads tied up in a bun on the top of his head, thick and blue-black.
Nothing. I felt a pressure in my stomach but didn’t move. This wasn’t normal silence.
“Mrs. Snow, I don’t want to talk through the door. Could we maybe meet somewhere public? Would that make you feel better?”
No. It wouldn’t. I didn’t speak.
“Mrs … Ms. Free. Astor Free. The daughter of the infamous Devil, Alicia, right? The one that killed all those people? Right? Astor Free is a much better name. I always liked it. Can you open the door? I just want to talk to you, that’s all. You’ve been ignoring my letters.”
His voice was no less cheerful, conversational. I thought of my mother sneaking angry, violent comments in her sentences. He knew I could hear what he was really saying, just like she’d known.
I must be so easy to read.
“Astor. Either I’ll talk to you, or I’ll talk to your son. I’d rather talk to you.”
I pulled the door open quickly, eyes wide, hand shaking. Astrid stood behind me, and I motioned again for them to hide. Instead, Chaunce appeared next to me, staring up with her huge eyes. The man was still there, waiting.
We stared at each other, Chaunce and Astrid on either side of me, both stone-faced. He seemed to study me, his eyes stopping on each section of my body. Excited. It was like he was walking through a museum, looking at ancient artifacts. I felt that danger; my eye throbbed for the first time since the drowning. I gagged a bit, standing straight with half my body obscured by the door. His pupils were tiny and getting tinier, two pretty grey dots disappearing. Everything about him made me want to walk over and touch him. He felt like varying forms of destiny rolled into one body.
I knew him from somewhere.
Talk him down. You can’t fight him, and the girls are here …
“I don’t know what letters you’re talking about,” I squeaked. I felt rage at my fear, but even that wouldn’t surface. It sat right under it, waiting.
Make it out of here, and I’ll let you scream until your clavicles snap.
A long, slow breath left his nostrils. He stared.
“Astor. It’s really nice to be in front of you, to see you this close again. To really see you and not just … follow you. Or follow your family.”
“You’re just so different than everyone else. It’s no wonder everyone is so obsessed with you. You’re really disarming.”
Someone walked by in the distance. I wanted to shout out, but realized it wouldn’t make a difference. Whatever this man was, he wasn’t going to be stopped by anyone else. He wasn’t the same as them.
He wasn’t even the same as me.
“I felt it was time I, at least, talked to you. It’s my mother’s practice to threaten and intimidate. I’m not my mother. You’re obviously not yours. We should handle these things in our own way, don’t you think? Even destiny can use a facelift now and then.” He let the words roll calmly off his tongue, smiling every now and then.
“You’re … you’re a fanatic. Right? You kill … people with Devil Syndrome?”
I wished I’d read the package sitting uselessly on my desk.
“Oh, I haven’t heard that word in a long time. I wouldn’t say fanatic anymore, but yes. I kill Devils. And you have Devil Syndrome. We’re all caught up.” His lips turned up slightly.
“I don’t have anything against you. I’d like you to leave. “
“Oh, you’re no fun! We’re starting over. I’m Bylas. My family has been hunting …”
“I don’t care.”
Somehow, his shock and subsequent anger surprised me. Why should I be shocked by this? His calm demeanor? His friendly rapport? I hadn’t expected him to care. I realized immediately that that was a mistake. His demeanor was as much a struggle to maintain as mine was, and my fear escalated in that knowledge.
He’s trying to keep himself from hurting me. And he’s having to work really hard.
“Are you asking me to cut to the chase, Astor? I thought we’d have a nice conversation, but maybe I was wrong. I thought maybe we could be civil. Here I am, Astor, being calm and sending letters and trying my best to be a gentleman.”
The words cut through his jagged teeth, all his s’s sliced and split.
“You’re threatening my family. You’re sending me letters, apparently. You’re following me. You’re watching me. Where’s the civility? What do you want?”
Bylas’s eyes grew wider in rage. It was a rage I couldn’t identify. It wasn’t worse than my mother’s potent, black anger, just different. I couldn’t think of anything to distract me from the moment but other terrifying moments.
“Astor, I’m going to kill your father tonight …”
Bylas looked around. He stepped forward as he did, and before I could close the door again, he was in front of me. Chaunce huffed. He slid his hand over mine and closed his eyes, longing or something more perverted crossing his face. When his eyes opened again, they were a darker grey, shrinking more.
“I apologize. Sometimes I think about my wife and daughter, what you Devils made happen, what you did, and get so angry that I start writing those letters. I start taking more pieces of your special friend than I need. I think about your mother, and I want to find you and split you in half. I think about you poisoning this world with what you are, with what you really are, and I want to take your daughter and feed her to something. See if she can survive being digested. I have anger issues, forgive me.”
I gulped, trying to step back, but he held me.
“Sometimes I look at Cora, all the little pieces I’ve chopped off of her, and I wish some of them would grow back. I really thought at least one of you would come looking for her by now. Where’s your loyalty to your own?”
I shook harder. Fear ate anything I wanted to say. The smell of his body, musky but clean, made me feel weaker. I tried to back away again, but gently, he rubbed my hand. His face was too close to mine.
“When I hear you talk, sometimes, I want to let you keep living the way you do. You hold in all that anger well. You live your boring life and raise your little sacrifices. Sometimes I understand why your mother did what she did to Osh. I understand you were hurt, too. And I want to leave you alone.” He brushed his nose against my face, and I let out a whimper.
“But—” His eyes scanned my hair. He examined my large pupil, tracing the side of my face. He lifted his finger to my mouth and raised my lip, surveying my teeth. I just shook, wishing for Osh. I shook so hard my vision started to blur. He moved his hand and turned to walk away. I couldn’t swallow.
“But it would be a shame to…” He stopped.
“It would … it would be—” One of his eyes rolled up, and he let out an ugly croak. I jumped back, nearly knocking Astrid over, and we all watched as a bubble traveled from the pit of his chest to his face in a thick roll, a solid circle. His skin raised around his temples and bubbled out.
I grabbed Astrid but couldn’t seem to find Chaunce. We hid behind the desk, and there she was with her mouth open so far I felt my own jaw crack. Astrid put her hand on her shoulder, firm.
Bylas coughed up a mouthful of blood and fell forward, his face smacking hard against the floor.
“I said no kill, ugh!”
Astrid gave me a small smile and walked around the desk before I could grab her. I heard the man’s gurgles, his feet slapping against the floor, and then he stopped. Moving quickly to try to catch Astrid, I moved in time to catch her leaning over him, shaking his shoulder gently. He pushed himself up, a line of blood and drool pouring from his mouth. Astrid smiled at him.
“No hurt us! We hurt you, okay? If you come back. So go home.”
Bylas crawled backward, his face and chest swollen and deformed, still coughing up blood. Chaunce closed her mouth and let out a long whine.
“Why can’t I kill him? Bad guy! We hurt bad guys, duh!”
“No. Moose said. Not kill anyone.”
I finally let out a crippled, ugly noise, staring at the man crawling away. My entire body heaved down. Trying not to vomit, I grabbed the girls again.
Bylas pulled himself away, scowling. “Your … little monsters. How dare you make another Devil? How dare … you … turn another Latch? A child at that. You’re sick. You’re disgusting.”
I looked at the girls, really looked at them. Astrid was getting taller by the second. Her hair was longer every day, her father’s features more prominent. She looked almost too masculine in one of her brother’s big sweatshirts. Chaunce was still tiny, still sucking on her sleeves, still red-headed and chaotic. At a quick glance, they were perfectly normal.
Except Chaunce was giving my daughter a big, blank stare. And one of Astrid’s eyes was just the slightest bit lighter, just the slightest bit.
My focus was on them for so long that when I turned back around, Bylas was gone.
Written by Trey Briggs || Edited by Lyric Taylor || Art by Monte Miller