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

Chapter 6: A Normal Man

Astor snored lightly. I laid on her breasts, one bare leg pulled over her, and pinched her sides until she swatted at my head. I wanted her to get up. She ignored me until I bit her nipple, baring down until her body jerked forward. She gasped, popping my forehead again. For a moment, I felt guilty, wondering if she’d have trouble breastfeeding Astrid if I bit her too hard.

 

Breastfeeding Astrid? She’s four. Right?

 

“Hit me again, girl,” I growled.

 

She let out a breathy laugh, covering her eyes with her arm. “What do you want?”

 

I wanted to stay right where I was for the rest of my life. Through every eternity imaginable. Forever. She was warm, her thighs were a bed in themselves, and she smelled good. Astor always smelled good.

 

“I’m taking the kids to the park today. You coming?”

 

“I have to work, Osh. I’m sorry.”

 

I lifted her nightshirt higher and kissed her slowly all the way down to her navel. She was sensitive, writhing every time my breath hit her skin. Her hands ran over my head, gripping my hair, and I bit her softly. The smell of turkey bacon wafted through the house.

 

“Juke must be downstairs,” she moaned slightly.

 

“Noah damn sure ain’t cooking,” I responded, pulling at her pajama bottoms with my teeth.

 

She put her hands on either side of my face and pulled me up. “Let’s sleep forever. Just me and you in this bed. Don’t go anywhere.”

 

I didn’t tell her yes, but I wanted to.

 

“I have responsibilities. I … I have to do something.” I didn’t know what “something” was, but the words left my mouth heavy and stunted.

 

“Like what? What could be more important than staying with me forever?”

 

Somehow, the air was leaving my body, and nothing was replacing it. I watched as her face went through a series of emotions, all of them based in sadness, but I couldn’t answer. I could never answer that question correctly.

 

“You know what it is already. Anyway, who’s gonna pretend to be a dinosaur hunter so Astrid can fall all over the park?”

 

She smiled, closing her eyes. “Let Moose do it.”

 

I kissed her again, and she laughed out loud. What a laugh, man; what a hearty, joyous laugh.

 

“Good answer, woman. OK, if he’s doing that, who’s gonna pretend to be on a secret mission and burst into your office at work, finger guns drawn while he gives commands into an invisible headset?”

 

She bit her lip when I kissed her stomach and yanked at her pajamas again. “Let Juke do it.”

 

I felt my heart slow a little. Just a little. She waited for me to continue, an eager smile on her face, but I just stared at her stomach. I let the thick beat of her heart fill the room, the rise and fall of her chest too quick now. One name and all of a sudden she was pumping enough blood for the both of us. Something about that didn’t sit right with me. I watched until Astor opened her eyes and looked, confused.

 

“What?”

 

I tried to speak, but nothing came out. She froze, still staring. Her chest stopped moving, stuck in an upright position. Her right pupil grew slowly, crawling over the iris and into the white of her eye, bleeding over until there was only a tiny ring of white left. I pushed myself off of her, and her eye rolled up slowly.

 

“Hey. Hey!”

 

“Are we going to be here for the rest of eternity, Osh? Are you taking me around in circles for a reason?”

 

A long, brown-skinned woman with smooth black hair tied in a regal braid stalked into the room. She pulled my bathroom door closed like she was familiar with the place, not bothering to look where she walked. Her black silk robe was practically painted onto her upper torso; the lower half divided into four slits, barely covering anything. The look on her face robbed me of all emotion, of every thought that went through my head.

 

“I knew it. I fucking knew it. I’m still knocked out. Still.”

 

“Of course! Do you know how destroyed your body is right now? You’re lucky to be here and not dead!”

 

“I’m sick of being here. I’ve done this enough.”

 

“Well, too bad, Osh. You haven’t given me what I asked for, have you? This isn’t the memory you need to focus on. Is it even a real memory or another random mash-up to confuse me?”

 

I stared at Astor, my heart breaking again. I could remember her laughing and happy, sad and screaming, any type of way but innocent. I couldn’t even enjoy my real memories without someone snatching them from me.

 

“It’s a real memory,” I muttered, and Cora scoffed.

 

She walked around the room, her fingers running along the walls. I watched her while she searched, trying to keep my head straight. Finally, she stopped at a tiny hole in the wall. There was a blur over the wall there, and she tapped at it.

 

“It’s fake. You can’t trick me, Osh. Even you can’t make up so many details.” She rubbed at the hole as if she could wipe it away. “You’re lying to me all over again, and I really can’t believe it. As a child, it was understandable. Now, it’s just pathetic.” Cora spoke gently, almost passively.

 

She walked over and sat at the edge of the bed, arching forward in an exaggerated yawn. Nothing moved around us, not even the curtains in the window. Astor’s chest slowly rose, her body arching, and Cora just watched her in amusement.

 

I got her attention. “I don’t know what you want. Just let me wake up. I don’t have time for this shit …”

 

“You’re close to dying, holding on by a thread. Are you sure you want to be left to that pain? It’s much better here.”

 

“Fine. Let me rest with my wife in peace—”

 

“I’m not helping you for free. And even then, I can’t help you much longer, Osh. So why don’t we get it over with? One of those earlier memories has information that I need to help your family, my descendants. It’s a specific memory. One of the ones with you and that little dwarf doing the bad things you plotted.”

 

I cracked my knuckles and stood, looking at the blurred spot on the wall. Since when did I have a giveaway?

 

“We’ve done this too many times, Cora. You can’t help my family. I can’t even help them. I failed twice. I can’t go through it again. I already told you.”

 

“Hm. It’s interesting, isn’t it, the way our dynamics have changed? Every other time, you could just leave! Walk out the door, ignore me, be a gross little goblin. Now you’re stuck here with me. So you can lie and make things up all you want, but you’re only making it harder on yourself.”

 

“I’m not doing this again.”

 

“You don’t want to go home? To your family? A lot has changed since you’ve been in here, Osh. With Astor. With Moose, even. Come on. Let’s try again for old time’s sake. For good health’s sake.”

 

I let out a groan of frustration, struggling to stay composed. Cora loved watching me lose my temper, even when it made things worse for her. She loved knowing she wasn’t the only one suffering.

 

“What are you waiting for? Show me.”

 

I took a deep breath, and then I could hear waves splashing against metal. I was standing on Mr. David’s boat, staring into the ocean at a drowning woman. Her mouth wrenched open, the jaw completely separating as a black mass shoved its way into it.

 

All I heard was the gulping noise, the gunk pushing deep until it formed thick, slick, black tentacles that bulged from her neck. They slowly pushed down her throat, filling her stomach—some wrapping around her neck, others sliding over her back. She had her arm wrapped around the railing, still not touching the black water of The Mouth, but it was slowly pulling apart at the elbow like wet clay. A man on the boat fell back, sobbing, screaming. His long soaked dreads fell around him, so long they swept the ground as he flailed.

 

“You can’t. You can’t! PLEASE STOP! OSH, MAKE HER STOP!”

 

Every vein in the woman’s body turned black, ballooned, then shrunk and collapsed. She tried to let out a strangled cry, but more black gunk covered her.

 

Yenna stared in disgust, holding her hand close to her chest. “What a chaotic thing to do,” she marveled.

 

She closed her eyes in pain at the man’s screams, turning to glare at the woman standing next to me and then at me.

 

“I thought you were such a good kid, Osh. But you’re just like Alicia.”

 

I looked out toward the horizon. The sun was coming up. The dying woman choked again, but I kept staring at the sun as it peeled back the night, rising steadily. Not once during the man’s screaming fit did he give up Astor to Yenna. Not once did he tell her about Cora. He just screamed and tore at his face, hysterical.

 

“You knew what would happen. Own up to it. You brought him for a reason,” Yenna started.

 

The thick darkness around us swept back and forth over the boat, blanketing us, and then bathing us in light again. Her hair was down, redness pooling around her feet like blood. Tiny lights rose from the ground, her red strands seemingly pushing them up. Then, they stopped. Everything froze, as Yenna’s hair lights began to blink. I sucked in a sob.

 

Cora walked out of the cabin to stand with me.

 

“Ugh, you’re useless! Come on! It’s the same spot every time. I have so many questions, it’s killing me,” she said, frustrated.

 

“Listen, I just want to wake up—”

 

“Is this real? Or one of your fake outs? Are you tricking me again?”

 

I didn’t answer, just stared off at the horizon. She put her arm around my shoulder.

 

“Let’s assume it’s real. Who’s baby is the dying girl carrying? You’re walking around with a grudge against a ten-year-old when a woman’s in the ocean with your …”

 

“Not mine. You know it’s not mine.”

 

Cora glanced back at my friend, standing with her back against the cabin wall, arms crossed over her chest, her eyes glued to the drowning woman. Parts of her face blurred, shifting around and then bouncing back into place. Cora sucked her teeth but continued.

 

“She looks so damn satisfied. Happy, even. What’s her problem with the woman being drowned?”

 

I closed my eyes and breathed deep. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

 

“Trying to bypass me, huh? Fine. Wanna take a break? Go ahead.”

 

I just wanted to make one decision on my own. At least one. It could’ve been anything, I think. Anything that fixed my Alicia problem or maybe made up for the dumb shit I did to my friends. Anything that made me feel like I wasn’t some puppet walking around, snapping on command for Alicia.

 

Noah was right. She’s always right. I should’ve thrown him in the water like we’d planned.

 

The thought of seeing Noah if I ever got up made me wish I’d go ahead and die. All the shit I gave her. All the taunting I did, all the whining, all the anger I gave her, and I ended up being the one to back down. I ended up being the one who was too weak to hurt somebody innocent. We’d planned for too long for me to get emotional at the last minute. It was nearly the same plan as last time. What changed?

 

His face. It was just the look on his face, even with him standing there looking like Juke, talking like Juke. I’d never seen him so clearly, and I still couldn’t stop seeing my kid. Wearing clothes I helped his mother pack. Half of his face was still Astor. Half of Moose was still a part of someone I’d protected my entire life.

 

I belonged in his life. I should’ve been the one who made him. But then, he wouldn’t be the same, would he? He wouldn’t be Astric if I’d made him, would he? He was Juke’s kid. He lost nothing by losing me. Juke was in the fucking hospital when he was born, was right there with me when Astor was wiping the gunk off his face. He didn’t lose anything by losing me.

 

Who did lose something by losing me? Noah hated me; Juke fucked my wife. Astrid probably cared the most out of all of them.

 

How did I know she wasn’t his, too? I spent so much time being away from home to protect my family that I let a whole other man come in and take them from me. Juke got two sexy women and a great group of kids, and I got the ocean. I got Alicia. I got Yenna.

 

I got Cora.

 

Some things never change.

 

 

 

“What’d you do, son? You know better than to touch that gunk. We were already successful; you should’ve just stayed put.”

 

Mr. David was quiet. Forgiving. I couldn’t hear well over the constant throb of pain, honestly. The first few days just felt like a white blur. By the time I could see, just barely, it felt like I was regularly bursting into flames. I just wanted a hospital. A morgue. Whatever was going to stop it. Part of me said goodbye to everyone I loved over and over only to burst back into a fresh bout of pain. I just wanted out, or away, or under.

 

Anything but Cora. I couldn’t do it anymore.

 

I woke up to different people sitting in the chair next to me. Maybe I was in a bed, maybe I was standing on a sidewalk. I was probably in a sauna. Nothing felt real. Sometimes Alicia sat next to me, pulling at pieces of skin, disgusted. Nobody could do disgusted like Alicia.

 

Sometimes it was Astor, worried, holding her head in pain like she did whenever she tried to cry. I always knew it wasn’t her. I always hoped it wasn’t. Shit, even if she was out there fucking Juke, at least she didn’t have to see me like this. Pathetic. Whimpering. At least I didn’t have to hear her sucking in air, drowning in misery. I want her to smile, man.

 

She has the best smile.

 

Sometimes—a lot, actually—it was Yenna. Just sitting there, staring at me with that intense look of interest she used to pour over me. You could tell she wasn’t human sometimes. It was in how she carried herself, how she sat so straight, how tall she was, how much she forgot to blink. I imagined her sitting naked and waiting for me like she did that first time I went to The Mouth, back when I was too young to get anything but was excited to meet her, when she showed me what she was.

 

“I want to help you, Osh, in any way I can.”

 

Sometimes it was Lou, black hair everywhere, snot running down her swollen face. She looked as bad as I felt.

 

“Wake up you fucking loser; get me out of here! What are those things outside? I want to go home, please, I can’t take this. You promised this wouldn’t happen to me; you said I’d be safe with you! I don’t know what’s wrong with me …”

 

And she’d go on and on until she just stopped and stared at the wall.

 

I didn’t know who was real. I just tried not to move. I tried not to fall back asleep.

 

Sometimes, and maybe this was the worst, it was Noah. Crying for the only time in her rotten adult life probably, lips trembling around a cigarette. I tried to tell her I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t do anything wrong.

 

“Oh, yeah? What have you been doing behind my back? What about the plan, Osh? What about what I gave up? You promised, you idiot. You said we’d both give something up.”

 

It was a solid plan. We’d done it before, and it worked. If I’d done what I was supposed to, we’d be as good as we could hope to be. Alicia would be out of my hair, Yenna would be satisfied, and I’d be somewhere with my wife and daughter, happy. Cora wouldn’t be raking through my brain, trying to find something that wasn’t any of her business. I would have completely abandoned the puppet strings from my youth, and we would’ve been free; we all would’ve been free for once.

 

But I looked at Moose, and I couldn’t do it.

 

He was my heart.

 

 

A lot of things led to the day I pulled Noah aside in the lab, but I couldn’t let Cora see it. I tried my best to piece them together differently, to remember my lies correctly. The pain made it harder, but I let my brain haze in and out as I practiced forgetting who I really was. Some parts were too hard to ignore. Those things trampled through my skull. Mr. David gave me an IV drip, something that helped a lot. I don’t know what it was, but the pain eased enough that I could think. I tried to warn him not to put me under, to grab at him, to do something, but my eyes closed.

 

“Sleep for a while, son. You’re not getting up anytime soon.”

 

.

I woke up, and I was in my bed. A terrible taste stung my mouth, sticking to my cheeks and throat, but I ignored it. It was always kind of there, just lurking behind everything I ate or drink. My room choked with textbooks, a telescope, multiplication guides, and science posters lining the walls—everything geared toward making me smarter. Alicia had me in a constant state of training from day one.

 

Was I just here? I shook my head until things felt right. The sun streamed in through my window, shining off the ends of pencils and pens, and things slowly felt normal. Janna and Jamie were around somewhere. They were alive.

 

That’s not true …

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Astor sat next to me with her head rested against the wall, her hair covering most of both of us. I remembered trying to study, her coming in and asking if I’d sit and talk. It was annoying.

 

I didn’t want to have to protect her and talk to her. I just wanted to study. A textbook sat in my lap. I adjusted it, not bothering to look up at the thick hair covering my legs.

 

“Yeah. Don’t worry about anything.”

 

She blushed and pulled her legs up toward her chest. “Osh, what’s your real name?”

 

I looked over and she sat up, rubbing her left eye. We were kids. Astor’s face was so puffy and young that I didn’t recognize her for a moment.

 

“I don’t know. It has to be Osh. That’s what your dad calls me. He’s not a liar.”

 

“That can’t be it. Why would anyone name you something so silly?”

 

Even as a child, Astor spoke with perfect diction. I shrugged her off and went back to staring at the ceiling.

 

Textbook … you’re staring at the textbook. Keep your story straight.

 

She huffed and continued, “I don’t like your last name, either. I want to stay Astor Free. Like my mom. I mean, Alicia. Well—”

 

She said something, but I hummed loudly, glancing up at the door. When I was sure I didn’t hear it, I finally looked up at her. Astor’s face blurred just a tiny bit, but it wasn’t noticeable.

 

“What makes you think you won’t stay Astor Free?”

 

“Alicia says we have to get married one day. And have babies.”

 

“What makes you think I’m gonna marry you? You’re a beast.”

 

Astor sucked her teeth. Back then, they were sharper. Her nails were long, too long. Her eyebrows were bushy. She looked like an animal sometimes, and then Alicia would sweep in and trim her up, and she’d look normal again.

 

“Don’t then. I’d be happy. I’ll find someone stronger.”

 

I pushed her head against the wall until she cried out, swatting my hand away. Sometimes I wanted to hurt her just to see what would happen.

 

“Shut up, beast.”

 

She swatted at me again, but I was already up and walking down the stairs. Alicia stood at the bottom, so still she was a part of the darkness, the light from the windows creeping over her back and shoulders. Her face darkened by the backlight. I barely saw any features, but her pupils gleamed. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep walking and push around her, knock her down. I could be stronger than her if I tried.

 

But I did stop. And I stayed there the whole time Alicia watched me. She watched me until my fear was stuck in my neck, waiting for permission to make a noise.

 

“You called Astor a beast. Why?”

 

“I didn’t …”

 

“I don’t want to peel your skin off, Osh. It would be a waste of my time. Why did you call her a beast?”

 

My mother, Janna, walked in with a nervous smile on her face, three paper bags full of groceries balanced in her arms. She noticed us and immediately smiled harder.

 

“Alicia! Come on, let’s get ready for your party. Let the kids relax.”

 

My mother tried her best to distract Alicia. It was all she ever did to protect me. Standing next to the long woman, my mother was short and unremarkable. Even with Alicia’s scars, Janna’s face was gnarled in comparison.

 

“She’s hairy.”

 

Alicia moved just a little, so slight I almost didn’t see it.

 

“Hairy. Would you say Astor’s unnaturally hairy, boy?”

 

“Yeah. Uh, ma’am. It’s disgusting.”

 

My mother’s face was going to explode. Her smile got bigger and bigger the longer I talked to Alicia, the bags trembling.

 

“It is disgusting, isn’t it? When you call her disgusting, does she cry?”

 

“She never cries.”

 

Alicia nodded, intrigued. She suddenly noticed my mother and grabbed one of the bags, grimacing at the growing smile. I walked down the rest of the stairs, bolder. Every time I talked to Alicia and didn’t die, I felt a little stronger.

 

My mother and Alicia started walking toward the kitchen. I sat down on the couch, picking up the remote to turn on the television, and then I felt one of her long nails tilting my head up. She dug her other nails into my scalp until I cried out.

 

“Osh. Your entire existence rests on that beast. You take a good look at her and remember that. And the next time you hit my child, we’ll all get a good long look at your intestines.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

 

For a second, I was back in the room, with my skin melting and pain subsiding, and then, I was back with Alicia.

 

I was a little older. Astor stood next to me, her eyes forward and head up at attention. Alicia gripped the handle of a blurry sledgehammer, moving her eyes back and forth as if she was choosing.

 

Concentrate, Osh. That’s too obvious. The sledgehammer is too obvious; Cora will know. Do better next time.

 

“Astor. When I asked you to wear your best for my party, I meant it. You have a closet full of glamour, and you come down here dressed like the local office girl? Go to bed.”

 

Astor wasn’t a beast anymore. Her hair hung down to her waist in a neat braid, her eyebrows were expertly sculpted, and her nails were trimmed and painted. She was eleven years old in a pair of black slacks, pretty pearl earrings, and a red silk blouse. I loved her outfit. I sat in her room for hours as she went through shirt after shirt, asking me what looked best.

 

I wished Alicia would die and leave Astor to pick out nice things. Leave her to do any little thing without trampling all over her. You could barely tell Astor had emotions to express when you looked at her face. Just a pretty blank wall tilted upward to see Alicia. She walked around me without making eye contact, but I could feel the static of her disappointment.

 

Who cares what Alicia thinks?

 

Alicia took a long gulp of her blood red drink, holding the wine glass lazily, eyeing me. I wondered if she put people in her cups.

 

“Were the men in the yard, again? During the party?”

 

“Yeah. Yes. Ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Did they try to get in the house?”

 

“No. No, ma’am.”

 

I tried to stand as straight as Astor and failed. It was hard to stand still in front of Alicia. She made us stand in front of her for hours while she daydreamed and ranted about the ocean. Sometimes she made us stand next to her while she slept in case she had a nightmare.

 

I heard Jamie, Astor’s father, turn his key in the door. It blurred badly, nearly curving into itself, and I thought I heard a tsk. When it finally came into focus, Jamie was pushing into the door, everything behind him pitch black. Unrendered.

 

Alicia slowly and calmly placed the sledgehammer on the floor and moved it under the table. Jamie walked in, whistling to himself.

 

“Baby, I got off early. You won’t believe what I found out there today …”

 

“I’m sure it’s immaculate, darling. I’m having a conversation with Osh. Would you mind leaving us to it?”

 

I wanted to hear about his day. He was a marine biologist, and sometimes he let me read his research. He even took me out to the ocean, and I watched the water split in front of the boat, mesmerized. The wind went out of him at her attitude, but he smiled anyway, nodding to himself.

 

“Yeah, no problem. You look good, Osh! Is Astor upstairs?”

 

“If only we had a tracking device on her, we could tell you where she was whenever you asked. Maybe you should just go look instead,” Alicia said into her cup, rolling her eyes.

 

He nodded again, blushing, and went off to his room. Alicia plopped down on the couch as if the small conversation snatched the life, the breath, and the very existence out of her. She was so clear. I took in the deep lines surrounding her right eye, the painful bulge of veins. I stared down at her legs for a moment, then shook my head.

 

“Ma’am? Um, Alicia. Why do you do that?”

 

“Do you actually want to know?”

 

There was no hesitation. Alicia loved talking about herself. A floor-length, breezy, black dress hung off of her in massive piles of fabric, her legs always visible, always mesmerizing. The short haircut she was so fond of then glistened, her strands healthy and shiny.

 

There was a full wine glass on the table. Alicia spent every day dressed like that, moving around like liquid, drinking until she could barely blink.

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“I do it because he’s pathetic and unimportant. He let something terrible happen to me. He let—”

 

A loud gust of wind blew the door open, and Alicia’s words drowned in it. I stared at the veins on her face, not wanting to read her lips. You never really know what Cora can pull from your head. Alicia stopped, draining more wine from her cup. The howling stopped, and the door closed.

 

“Your mother is the same,” she continued. “I only need you and Astor. They just happen to be the baggage that came with producing you. Do you understand?”

 

“No. I don’t think he’s pathetic. Ma’am.”

 

She smiled and moved over on the couch so I could sit.

 

“You know, Osh, you’re lucky. Most people aren’t born with a purpose. I made your mother have you so Astor would have protection, so she’d never be lonely. Your father, do you remember him?”

 

I shook my head no, and she laughed, parts of her hair blurring.

 

“I killed him a long time ago. His name was Rick.”

 

Rick. I stored that in my head but didn’t react.

 

“Rick was a rare type of man. An absolute brute but loving somehow. Oh, he was a pure wall, no one could get through him. He had no interest in me, only your mother. She loved him to the ends of the Earth, as the saying goes. Pass me that bottle.”

 

I handed her the wine. My fingers shook a little, and she exhaled deeply.

 

“Why did you kill him?”

 

“I’ve never been good with rejection, Little Osh. And I needed someone strong. I thought maybe if the man was worthy, well, maybe it would make a difference in the way my child was born. So I befriended Janna, and then, I enjoyed your father’s company when she wasn’t around. Well, I attempted to enjoy him. He was very loyal, very faithful. A gem. He turned me down.”

 

She drank for a long time—long, slow gulps.

 

“One day, Little Osh, Rick decided he wanted to marry Janna. And he did. This bothered me.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I don’t sleep with married men. It lessened my chances of having him. Then I met Jamie. And he was pathetic. Worthless. A punching bag of a man. But he had something extraordinary that none of my other partners had ever had. Do you know what that was?”

 

I thought for a long time, keeping an eye on her glass. She’d make me get more when it was empty. It flashed empty for a moment, air gulping down her throat, but it returned just as quick.

 

Too many tells. I can’t concentrate.

 

“No?”

 

“Devil Syndrome, you moron. And not only that, but it was his first body. He remains in that body to this day.” She smiled a little, almost proudly. “He’s pathetic, but he’s pure. Jamie’s even purer than I am, Osh. I didn’t need your human father. I thought, If this works, my child will need a Latch. And so, I ‘convinced’ your mother to have you to protect my little Devil, a natural-born bodyguard. The only way I could convince her was to make her my Latch. Do you understand?”

 

I didn’t answer.

 

“Well. You wouldn’t. You’ll get the terminology as we go along. Astor shouldn’t be burdened with these things, not with you around, so you’re going to learn. Long story short, I made your mother a vessel, and your father wasn’t happy with her behavior. He didn’t want her around me anymore. Or you. He was very certain that I had ill intentions for you. Imagine that? I arrange your birth at the same time as my daughter’s birth, and the man thinks he can take you away? The sheer gall.” Her tongue traveled the roof of her mouth as she thought about it.

 

“My mom didn’t care?”

 

“Of course, she cared. But Latches aren’t prone to arguing with their betters. What was she going to do, leave me?” She took another deep gulp of wine. “You’re just a little older than Astor. Your mother went into labor three months early. You decided to surprise us and deviate from my plans. I almost fed you to the sea.”

 

I sat and thought about my dad. A “brute.” A normal man who wanted to protect his family. I thought about Astor upstairs, probably trying to cry, probably sitting in her closet with her head on her knees. I thought about my mom and Jamie and myself.

 

“I hate you, Alicia. One day, I’ll get rid of you and save Astor and my mom and Jamie. I hate you.”

 

Alicia stopped drinking to look at me in excitement.

 

“Oh, Osh. You tell me the most beautiful things. I always wished I could produce a son. Yes, please rid us of the burden of my eternal life whenever you figure out how. I hate myself even more than you’ll ever manage.”

.

I took a deep breath, and I was standing on Mr. David’s boat, staring into the ocean at the woman. Davey.

 

It was Davey, and I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t. I shook my head, but she choked loudly against the black gunk. Her mouth was wrenched open, jaw completely separated. There was that gulping noise that I couldn’t forget, the sick way the mucus slid into her throat. For a moment, just a moment, it turned into a yellow python, rolling forward, and then a solid metal pipe. I couldn’t hold on to any of it. It turned back into the black gunk.

 

The gunk pushed deep until it formed thick, slick, black tentacles that bulged from her neck. Her pregnant belly lit up a bright blue, the outline of a baby wriggling. It turned into a giant, rattling egg, but I couldn’t hold on to that either, and it turned back into the baby. The tentacles slowly pushed down Davey’s throat, filling her stomach. She had her arm wrapped around the railing, still not touching the black water of The Mouth, but it was slowly pulling apart at the elbow like wet clay.

 

The man fell back, sobbing, screaming.

 

The man. Bylas.

 

His arm was missing but not his leg, and I tried my best to fix it. The leg turned into a broken piece of driftwood, then a tennis racket, and then I gave up and left him as he was.

 

“You can’t. You CAN’T! PLEASE STOP! OSH, MAKE HER STOP!” Every vein in Davey’s body turned black, ballooning then shrinking and collapsing. She tried to let out a strangled cry, but more black gunk covered her.

 

Yenna closed her eyes in pain at Bylas’ screams. She turned to glare at Noah and me. I didn’t dare look at Noah, not for a second. Yenna was somber, almost calm, and I focused on her with all my energy.

 

“I thought you were such a good kid, Osh. But you’re just like Alicia.”

 

I looked out toward the horizon. The sun was coming up. Davey choked again, but I turned and kept staring at the sun as it rose steadily, peeling back the night. I held my breath, staring at the sun, trying to concentrate.

 

Everything stopped.

 

“Are you kidding? You didn’t even make it back to where we were the last time! Osh, you’ve got to try harder. Or stop trying! Let me see for once, you idiot.” Cora swept over the boat, irritated, walking back and forth. “This isn’t the dwarf I was expecting,” she said, gripping Noah’s face. I didn’t look. “You’re playing with me. Show me something real, dammit. Is this the treatment I get for keeping you alive?”

 

“You don’t have to,” I muttered.

 

She scoffed over me, walking around, looking for a sign, any tiny bit of blur, and stopped on Yenna’s hair.

 

“You’re so good at this. I’m sure I can beat you. Maybe this is just the wrong type.” Cora pulled her long, see-through nightgown closed. Her hair was pinned up in places, cascading down in others.

 

“Are you getting ready for bed wherever you are?” I asked, not thinking. She ran a hand through her hair, staring at the floor.

 

“No. I never get to sleep where I am, Osh. You made sure of that. Why don’t we try a different kind of memory? Something a bit more intense to get you in the mood.”

.

Frantic wheezing filled the hallway. One of my eyes popped open, the light from the hall just barely illuminating my room. I felt upside down, but when I finally shook myself awake, I could hear it a little better. It sounded like someone was struggling to breathe. The sound sat in my chest for a moment, and then it stopped.

 

Listen. You’re not really here. Don’t let her trick you, Osh, concentrate!

 

Another sound seeped in from the hall, a slow scratching at the floor, slowing with every movement, followed by angry grunts. My feet barely touched the hardwood before I quickly ran to yank my door open.

 

Astor’s face was almost purple. Her eyes were partially rolled up, staring at me but seeing nothing, veins bulging in her neck and cheeks. A man bigger than anyone I’d ever seen was on top of her, his hands wrapped around her neck, squeezing and shaking. His skin looked moist, almost bloated in places. It was too tight around his eyes and mouth. There were rips that exposed long lines of flesh in his arms, but he didn’t notice them. All of his focus was on Astor.

 

I didn’t know what to do. He noticed me and pulled her slowly down the stairs.

 

Osh. Would you rescue the girl already?” Alicia stood in her doorway. “The idiot can’t think straight enough to drag her away. He’s going to kill her before he can collect his prize.”

 

I couldn’t think. I tried my best to pry his hands from Astor’s small neck. I pushed my body against his face, screamed at him, hit him as hard as I could. Astor’s body went limp. I watched helplessly as her fingers clenched then released.

 

Alicia groaned and walked over, pulling a small gun from her garter.

 

“You will kill the next one. I’ll help you this time, if only in the name of training.”

 

The man loosened his grip on Astor, fixated on Alicia’s veiny scar, and Astor sucked in a deep breath.

 

“You see the mark, you fish? Pretty, isn’t it? Much better than hers.” Alicia put her hand in front of the gun barrel, smiling. She held it tight.

 

There was a loud bang, and then the noise seemed to suck into the hole the bullet made in her hand. I watched in fear as it burst into his forehead. He just sat there, his grip barely loosening on Astor’s neck, staring at Alicia’s face.

 

A second went by, and then he jerked backward, screaming. Long metal fingers reached out of his head and pulled the hole wider, spilling blood and brain, opening until he fell down the stairs, writhing in agony. Alicia squealed with glee, nudging Astor with her foot.

 

“Isn’t it beautiful? It’s so much fun, and I don’t get a chance to do that often.” She wiped her blood from the barrel of the gun, laughing at my horrified expression.

 

I felt the metal fingers in my chest digging into my stomach. They matched her hand perfectly, right down to the nails.

 

“It’s a thing I can do with my blood and metal. You wouldn’t believe how shocked I was the first time it happened. It’s mostly show; it can’t grow much bigger than an arm, maybe.”

 

We watched until he jerked to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, blood pulsing from his head. The slender metal hand kept pushing out until it fell against the floor, the palm pressing down flat.

 

Astor coughed, sucking in a painful mouthful of air.

 

“Of all the blouses to be strangled in, Astor! Osh, help her up. I have to get rid of this body before the wastes get home.”

 

 

I knelt to try and wake Astor, scared she would never move again, and everything went dark. When my eyes opened, I was staring up at my ceiling in Mr. David’s apartment.

 

Was I just here?

 

The door creaked open, and Mr. David stood there, calm and reserved as always.

 

“Osh. I want to talk to you. I know I’m just your foster father, but if you let me, I want to help you understand what happened to your family.”

 

I sat up. My legs were longer than they’d been a second ago.

 

I’m fourteen. Alicia killed my mother and Jamie.

 

Mr. David stood cautiously in the door as I mumbled, “You’re one of them. Like Alicia and Astor.”

 

“How can you tell?”

 

His almost fluorescent white hair hung nearly down to his ankles. Both of his pupils were normal, but he stared through me like Alicia did sometimes.

 

“You heard me say that. Your hair and nails, I guess. I don’t know. I’m just good at it.”

 

Mr. David laughed and walked in. He was always careful with me. I appreciated it.

 

“You’re right. I have Devil Syndrome. A very special form of it, actually. Does that bother you?”

 

“No.”

 

He sat as far away from me as he could on the bed. The room was small, but I liked it. There were no science posters or multiplication tables. It was just a plain guest room with a small closet. There wasn’t any real space for me to scream or throw things like I wanted, and that kept me calm. Everything sat bottled up in my chest, slowly combining with me until the rage felt normal.

 

Janna’s skull exploded. Right in front of Astor. She didn’t have to do it in front of Astor.

 

Mr. David pulled his hair into a ponytail while he waited for me to speak.

 

“I don’t know where Astor is,” I whispered.

 

“That might not be a bad thing, you know? Do you know what you are?”

 

“Human. A normal human, I mean. I don’t have Devil Syndrome.”

 

Again, he laughed in approval. “Do you consider me something other than a human with a disorder?”

 

I didn’t answer. It felt like there was a right answer, and I didn’t want to offend him.

 

“And you, you’re sure you’re just a normal boy?”

 

“Unless you’re going to tell me I’m not? Sir?”

 

He shook his head no. “As far as I know, you’re a regular kid. You never know what Alicia has up her sleeve, so I wanted to check. She asked me to foster you, you know? Before she …”

 

“Oh. I see.”

 

Vicious disappointment set in me. Of course, she set up my foster home after she murdered my mother. Why wouldn’t she? Another part of my life dictated by Alicia; another thing I wasn’t in charge of; another person for her to take from me whenever she felt the need. Mr. David gave me a long time to think, and then he shocked me.

 

“If you want, Osh, you never have to see her again. Or Astor. Alicia is something a lot of people can’t deal with, but I don’t owe her any allegiance. I could adopt you. We could move on. I don’t think she’d try to find you if we went by ourselves.”

 

The thought invaded me. Leave? Was it possible to never see Alicia Free again?

 

I thought of her raising that sledgehammer—all that blood. The tiny metal hands crawling out of their bodies, all the little buckshots. Was it even possible to escape someone like that?

 

“Where would we go?”

 

Mr. David chuckled. “Anywhere. The world’s a big place, Osh. Virginia Steeps is a big country. We could travel if you wanted.”

 

“Why? Why would you do that for me?”

 

“It wouldn’t necessarily just be for you. I want to get away from all of this, too, sometimes. The Shadows especially.”

 

For a split second, he was sitting next to me, his arm missing, his white hair messy around his body, staring down at me with worry. Pain shot through me, and I tried to call out to him, and then we were back.

 

“What about Astor?”

 

“Well, I’ll put it this way: Wherever Astor goes, Alicia goes.”

 

My hopes crushed back into me, curling into a ball in my chest, and I let them sit there.

 

“Astor doesn’t deserve that. I won’t leave her.”

 

Mr. David seemed to spend most of his time chuckling. He patted my shoulder and stood to leave.

 

“Well. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about anyone that much. It’s admirable. When you’re older, I’ll tell you Alicia’s biggest fear. Maybe you can do something with it.”

.

When Alicia started popping up at Mr. David’s, I wasn’t surprised. He never seemed to take her seriously. It was comforting. The more he waved off the things she said, the more she started to look like a normal, irrational, broken woman to me. Like someone I could defeat someday.

 

“You were supposed to foster them both. Do you at least have an idea where Astor is?” The sobs rattled through her body until she was nearly kneeling.

 

I’d seen her cry. She cried all the time to make Astor feel bad, to get her way with someone, to do many manipulative things. I’d never genuinely seen her cry over another person. Her face blurred for a moment, the tears almost pixelated, and I felt myself stop in fear.

 

That means something. I can’t remember.

 

“She left. When I went to get her, they said she was gone.”

 

“Left, David? Oh, she just waltzed out of the group home? Where would she have gone? Everyone she knows is either dead or in this room.”

 

“Yes. You did that to the poor girl. I’m sure she’s feeling a bit lost,” Mr. David muttered, smacking on a sunflower seed.

 

Alicia barely kept herself composed. He had some sort of authority over her. When she visited, she watched her language, covered her legs, and avoided scolding or taunting me. She sat even straighter than usual. She avoided eye contact with him as much as possible.

 

She’s blurring so badly. It’s like she’s not really here.

 

“I know what I did. Don’t act so benevolent. It was your fault Yenna found me. If she’d found out about Astor, then what? I couldn’t risk it.”

 

“I don’t know why you think I had something to do with that, but I won’t argue.”

 

“You want to pretend you’re not going around hunting again? You may not have shown up to take me this time, but you definitely told them where I was. They’ve been coming more and more, the disgusting fish. You’ve ruined Osh’s youth; he’s spent most of the last two years beating Shadows to death. And you say that isn’t your doing? Those weren’t your goons? Are you some sort of reformed traitor now.” Alicia’s words flew out rapidly, garbled with rage. 

 

Mr. David chuckled. “I would gladly hurt you—and without hesitation, Alicia. I wouldn’t put those children in danger.”

 

“I’ll have to tell that to the next child I see your goons dragging to The Mouth.”

 

He lost his smile then but didn’t back down.

 

“Bylas and Davey have a lot to learn. But they’re not goons.”

 

Alicia rolled her eyes and turned to me, barely keeping the snot from running out of her nose. Her eyes scared me.

 

Osh. You were supposed to stay with Astor. You promised me. What if they find her? Do you remember the men who used to come by to take her? What happens now that we’re not there to stop them?”

 

I didn’t speak. We were in Mr. David’s study, surrounded by books and old wood, but I felt like I was standing in front of my mother’s dead body again. I still felt blood covering me, blood soaking into my shirt. My hate for Alicia had never been stronger, but my fear was still thick in my chest, rolled up with the ball of my hopes.

 

Jamie’s chest caved in the minute the sledgehammer touched it.

 

“Fine. Stand there daydreaming. Neither of you has to care.” She was silent for a moment, then she looked up at me. “Osh. I would love to be the reason you disappear into the depths of a pain-induced coma. You don’t get to do anything but protect my daughter. She’s the sole reason you get to fumble through your menial existence. If you need to sit in that fuzzy little head of yours, so be it. Enjoy your fantasy world. Every time you mess up and Astor gets hurt, I’m taking something from you. Eventually, I’ll just make you a Latch and take your whole … fucking body. Do you understand?”

 

Mr. David raised an eyebrow, but Alicia continued. “Now, go find her before I feed you to the sea like so many other pathetic men in my life.”

 

I jumped at her raised and shaking voice, trying my best to avoid the burn of her wide, angry eyes. 

 

It’s like she loved her or something.

 

According to Mr. David, she’d lost a lot of kids. It wasn’t my fault she was pathetic. With the whole world afraid of you, how do you keep having everything taken from your very hands?

 

Part of me wanted to leave Astor wherever she was. Maybe she’d have a life out there. I couldn’t hate her, couldn’t forget her, but I didn’t blame her for running. Can’t hate the other rat in the cage for escaping, can you?

 

I waited for them to continue, to finish arguing, but they both just sat there. They just sat in place until the room started shaking, until I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t concentrate.

 

I didn’t know what I was supposed to be concentrating on, but I couldn’t do it.

.

“Osh …” I felt my skin pulling away from my wrist and looked down in panic. It was still there, solid. The room shook, and then I felt my skin shifting, and then …

 

“Osh?”

 

“Sorry, sir. I thought … never mind.”

 

Mr. David chuckled and walked ahead of me. The sun seemed to suit his colorless dreads, beaming off of them in places. We walked through the park a lot, especially on the weekends when I wasn’t at school. There was a big one in downtown Chastain that he liked, and we usually had dinner close by afterward.

 

We did a lot of normal, healthy family stuff together. It hurt that Astor couldn’t enjoy it. She deserved to walk through parks with her hair tied, wearing a pretty outfit that she picked herself, smiling.

 

She had the best smile.

 

“How would you like a job?” Mr. David said to the sky.

 

“A job?”

 

School was my absolute focus in the lull between Alicia’s visits. I was already being skipped ahead a second time, and whenever I wasn’t walking or engaging with Mr. David or studying, I was out looking for Astor. It’d been months, and she was still gone. Part of me was starting to feel like she’d actually abandoned me.

 

“Well, an internship. I have an old colleague that needs an assistant to help run the front desk. At a place called the Compound.”

 

Every night, Mr. David left to go to work. I had no idea where that was. Sometimes he came home with blood all over him, wheezing, anger sinking into the floors when he walked. It was a sad, shamed anger.

 

“I don’t know if I have time, sir. I need to study.”

 

“Take your books. It would be a good way to introduce you to some concepts, to some people. Something that might prepare you for the path you’re trying to take. He might even show you how to draw blood.” He stared gloomily out into the distance.

 

The small bridge we were crossing sat over a creek. We watched what looked like two jellyfish swim upstream, their beautiful tendrils floating behind them.

 

“I didn’t know jellyfish were in creeks!”

 

Mr. David scoffed. “There’s so many of them now. They’re everywhere. There will never be enough food at this rate. Never.” He bowed his head and walked forward. “At this rate, we’ll be doing this forever.”

 

We didn’t talk much for the rest of our walk. I thought I saw Astor walking through a cut in the woods and panicked, wondering if I should call out to her. The girl was too tall to be Astor, I realized.

 

Astor would never wear her hair in a bun that big.

 

The sun glinted off of her hair, a quick burst of red, but then she blurred and disappeared. The ball in my chest grew.

 

“I’ll do the internship.”

.

Two weeks later, Mr. David dropped me off at a small clinic in Lostine without walking me inside to introduce me. I couldn’t see the clinic. It was a building in front of me, nondescript and so white I couldn’t look directly at it. It waved a bit, then settled, and I walked in.

 

Maybe I need glasses …

 

Astor was still off somewhere with no money, no shelter, no protection. I had trouble sleeping and wanted to look for her at night, but Mr. David wanted me in the house when he was working. 

 

“If I find her, I’ll bring her back. I promise.”

 

A small, light-skinned girl sat at the front desk, her feet up on the counter, her chair barely managing to stay upright she was leaned back so far. I realized I didn’t even know what they did there. It was a blood lab; that was all I knew.

 

The girl shook her thick, red hair out and glanced up at me. She looked bored.

 

“Hey. You’re going downstairs, right? What do you serial killers do down there?”

 

“No, I don’t think so. I’m looking for Dr. Bishop? I’m supposed to start my internship today. My father said …”

 

“What am I supposed to do with that information? I didn’t hire you.” She rolled her eyes and smacked her gum until the sound stuck in my ears.

 

“Oh, sorry. Can I go in the back, then?”

 

“How should I know?”

 

I waited at the counter instead, trying not to look at the girl’s scowling face. She shook her hair out again, sat up, then motioned for me to move away.

 

“Someone might come in. You’ll scare them off with your unibrow.”

 

“I don’t have a unibrow.”

 

She scoffed. “OK, hun.”

 

Nobody actually came in. She sat around various parts of the front office until her father, the man I was supposed to meet, showed up and scolded her for having her feet on the counter. He gave me a long look.

 

“You’re Osh?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

The tiny girl scoffed. “Osh? That’s definitely the type of name you give a kid with a unibrow.”

 

“Noah. Your mother’s waiting for you in the car.”

 

Noah gave a long huff of relief and grabbed her backpack. Gel pen scribbles and hearts covered every inch of the surface. She flicked the back of my head when she went by.

 

“How old are you?”

 

I tried to look bigger. “Fourteen, sir.”

 

“You’re very young. Too young to do these types of things. Do you realize that?”

 

“Yes, sir. I’m not supposed to help with the blood drawing, just the front desk. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

 

Dr. Bishop raised an eyebrow. “I see. You’re not supposed to go downstairs?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

He thought for a long time, then led me through a door in the back. A set of stairs led down a dark, dangerous-looking hall to a metal door. He put his hand on my chest when I tried to walk down.

 

“You’re too young. I won’t allow it.”

 

There was a lot of noise behind us, and I turned to see a girl almost as short as Noah walking up. She smirked at me and ran her nails through my hair, pulling me back so she could walk down. One of her eyes was covered by her thick hair.

 

“Aw, let the kid down, Bishop. Look at those eyebrows! I bet he could transport a ton of Devils in there.”

 

A tall boy, somber and shy, made his way around me as well. He pulled me forward, giving me an apologetic smile for his friend.

 

“He’s too young, I think? Is he going downstairs or working up here with you,” the boy asked, his words slow and sure.

 

“Up here with me. No question.”

 

“Mr. David probably sent him to learn bloodwork, then?”

 

Dr. Bishop nodded in agreement. The boy gave me his hand. Sharp teeth peeked from behind his lips.

 

“I’m Bylas. She’s Davey. Mr. David told me about you. Do your best.”

 

I felt an odd irritation building.

 

“I’m top of my class! I can handle whatever’s down in that basement.”

 

Bylas nodded. Davey leaned against the metal door, waiting for him. He knelt a little so we were face to face.

 

“Just so you know, you shouldn’t be here yet. It’s pretty ugly out there. You look like a normal kid. You should cherish that.”

 

“I watched my family die. I can handle whatever’s down there.”

 

He smiled. “Yeah. My dad’s a sea monster, kid. Shit gets a little worse than a death in the family.”

 

Dr. Bishop pulled me aside so he could walk down the stairs. I stared after Bylas in awe. He was the first kid close to my age that I looked up to. Even Mr. David wasn’t as calm and relaxed as he was.

 

A sea monster?

 

A loud whistle rang out, and I turned, startled. A tall, brown-skinned woman stood in the doorway, an amused expression on her face.

 

“Wow. Something you actually experienced? You were damn near in love with him. It’s almost sad, considering.”

 

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

 

She walked forward, cautiously looking around us at the basement door. She stared at Davey a long time, her face blank. When she turned back to me, she was somber.

 

“Let’s keep this linear, OK? I don’t want to go back down there yet. I won’t.” She rubbed Bylas’ head, but he didn’t move. Nobody was moving.

 

“Sorry, Osh, I’m being rude. Ignore me. Continue, please. Forgive me if I decide to skip ahead sometimes. You’re doing a great job of boring me to death with your little fake memories.”

 

It took Dr. Bishop a while to get my attention. I turned back to him, startled.

 

What was I doing?

 

We walked back into the lab, and he showed me around, giving me detailed instructions on my work. I told him about Jamie, about my interest in marine biology. He had a bored way of looking around while I spoke that was nearly rude.

 

“Mr. David wants me to foster your friend. Astor, I think. What do you think about that?”

 

My heart raced. Did they find her?

 

“I think it’s a good idea, sir! She’s a great kid. She doesn’t talk much, she’s smart, and she’s neat. She—”

 

“The girls would keep her company, I’m sure, so I’m not worried about her behavior. I hear she has Devil Syndrome. Is that true?”

 

Something about Dr. Bishop was immediately unlikable. I wanted to smash his head in the more we spoke.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“I’d get the stipend. Hmm. Let me ask you, Osh, what do you think of Mr. David? Would you say he’s stable?”

 

“Yes, sir, he’s stable.” I cracked my knuckles.

 

“Hm. Well. Be careful. Men with Devil Syndrome very rarely escape the madness. He may seem like a great role model, but I’ve seen him do some interesting things.”

 

He patted my head, and I had to fight the urge to break every one of his fingers.

.

“How’d it go?”

 

“Dr. Bishop wouldn’t let me go downstairs. He said I was too young. He said you’re crazy.”

 

Mr. David nodded, uncaring. We sat in the living room, watching television. I had my biology study guide in front of me. Every now and then, I’d feel him watching the back of my head.

 

“Why do you study so much?”

 

“It’s kinda weird. I don’t know. Alicia used to say I had to be smart to get Astor. So I try to keep on top of it. It’s just a habit now, I guess. Feels good to be the smart one.”

 

“Is that what you want? To ‘get’ Astor?”

 

I ignored him. A reporter on the news talked with a sad expression. A picture of a teenage boy with braces popped up in the corner of the screen. I looked down at my study guide quickly.

 

“Did they find Astor, sir?”

 

“… yes. More or less in one piece.”

 

My excitement beat in my head, but I kept staring down at my book, not really reading anything. Mr. David turned the television up a little.

 

“… authorities are saying the boys vary in age and location, with eight confirmed missing so far. Joseph Reed was last seen leaving fifth period at Ellyn Charter High School, and his parents are sure he never made it home. Jennifer County Public School System is considering a curfew for both middle and high school students in Chastain and Lostine. If anyone has any information, please call—”

 

“Why do you say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ so much? Is that another idea from Alicia as well?” There was laughter in Mr. David’s voice.

 

I stared at the photos of the missing boys flashing across the screen for a second, my head heavy. They buzzed a little, static swarming up from the bottom of the screen, drowning everything out. Then, I snapped out of it.

 

“No. My mom told me my dad used to be really polite. He always said things like that. He protected her or whatever. I don’t really know much about him, but that always seemed like advice he’d give me if he were alive.”

 

Rick. His name was Rick.

 

After enough silence passed, I said, “I met a guy named Bylas. He doesn’t look too much older than me. How come he can go down the stairs?”

 

Mr. David sighed. The news report started over seamlessly on the screen, the photo of the boy with the braces popping up in the corner again. There was a click, and it muted.

 

“Bylas is different,” Mr. David said. “Damaged and angry and, uh, very hard to deal with. You shouldn’t be around him just yet, not until he gets a handle on his behavior. He’s dealing with some identity issues.”

 

His dad’s a sea monster.

 

We didn’t talk about it again, but he kept sending me to the Compound to sit around with Dr. Bishop. Noah would come in sometimes. We became a little closer after her family fostered Astor, but I never started liking her. She’d come in and ask me question after question about Astor, sometimes making me sit with her while she wrote on my skin with her stupid gel pens. As the years went by, Noah stopped smacking gum and started sneaking cigarettes.

 

“She’s interesting. Like, actually interesting. Her fucking hair just keeps growing. I shaved it while she was sleeping one night, and she had a fucking bob by the next morning.”

 

“Don’t do stuff like that to her.”

 

“Whatever, she never cares. She doesn’t care about anything; she’s so fucking cool. And my dad let me draw her blood a couple of times. It dries when it hits the air, like immediately.”

 

I ignored her and stared at the ceiling. It wobbled a little, a single ceiling light appearing. I saw Juke looking down at me, older, his eyes brimming with tears. His mouth moved silently, and I tried to talk back. My lips felt stringy. Watery.

 

No … ah …” and then Noah shook me, and I was back at the Compound.

 

“What?”

 

“I said, you walking pile of eyebrows, are you two dating?”

 

“Yeah. I guess.”

 

I hadn’t thought about it. Dating was a title. She was mine, obviously, but were we dating?

 

“So she doesn’t like girls? Not even a little? I mean, everybody’s a little bisexual, right? Can I fuck your girlfriend?”

 

“Relax. Has Astor ever told you where she was?”

 

Noah shrugged. “She won’t talk about it. Why don’t you ask her?”

 

“You’re plotting on having sex with her, and you can’t even get her to talk to you? Is it that easy to get girls to fuck?”

 

Noah frowned and tried to stab me with the pen. I jumped back, almost falling over, and Mr. David caught me in his arms.

 

Relax, Alicia! Relax!”

 

I looked up, and Alicia was moving toward me fast, machete drawn, her eyes wide with gleaming black pools. Her face was a mangled mess of emotion. I tried to make out her features, but a mound of darkness covered her.

 

“You absolute waste of skin and bone. You peasant. You …”

 

“Alicia. Calm yourself.”

 

Mr. David moved closer to her, swinging me behind him. I felt blood pouring down my face and looked up at the ceiling.

 

I wasn’t here a second ago? I wasn’t. I know I wasn’t.

 

“I found Astor in a fucking empty apartment, about to do unspeakable things for money. You were supposed to protect her! You were born to protect her, you disgusting mongrel.”

 

Mr. David raised his arms to get her attention. “It was my mistake. I should’ve done like you said …”

 

“You should’ve. You’re right, David.”

 

It was the first time I saw my foster father afraid of Alicia. She seemed rabid, the machete moving back and forth whenever she tried to get around him. I had the feeling she wasn’t above killing both him and me at that moment.

 

“Alicia. I’m going to ask you nicely, and then, I’m going to consider this a threat.”

 

Something about the way he said the words didn’t sit right with me. They didn’t sound right coming from him.

 

“You don’t already? Let me clear that up for you. I’m going to cut Little Osh up and eat him for his insolence. The waste. The waste.”

 

Mae. Who’s going to protect Astor then? He screwed up one time. You sprung a lot on him at once. It won’t happen again. I’ll help. I promise.”

 

She paused at the name, nearly afraid, and then snapped out of it. I could finally make out the features of her face. It took a few seconds of blinking before she could speak again.

 

“You better. And he’s killed before; don’t act like he was some innocent being that I corrupted.” She motioned to the wall with her machete, its gold handle blazing in the light. “By the way, do you know who your new neighbor is? In the townhomes two blocks over? Who’s waltzing around your city with my friend’s body? With my friend’s son?”

 

Mr. David seemed to freeze. “Yenna? No? On land?”

 

“Yes, the creature. On land. I thought my eye was going to burst in my head the mark hurt so bad. I barely made it here. She has a teenage boy with her. My Yenna, the real Yenna, was pregnant when she drowned. Do you remember that?”

 

Mr. David’s mouth dropped open. “No. They’re cruel, but I’ve never seen her take a baby. Never.”

 

“Is that right? You didn’t even know she was here. What does she look like when you go to The Mouth? When your goons go? I want to know. Does she wear the real Yenna’s body to taunt me? Do you even call her Yenna, or does she have a name of her own?” Her voice cracked, and Mr. David seemed to pity her genuinely.

 

“We do call her Yenna.”

 

Alicia seemed to realize I was still in the room. She approached me, calm.

 

“That boy she has with her, Osh. I want you to befriend him. Don’t kill him yet. I want you to befriend him and keep an eye on him. I want to know if he’s my Yenna’s son, if she spared him, or if he’s just another monster.”

.

What did Yenna even look like? How was I supposed to know her son? I didn’t plan on doing what Alicia wanted regardless. The kid could live his life without me. I was already living out Alicia’s plan; why drag another kid down? Why give her any more satisfaction? So I avoided the neighborhood as much as possible, meeting up with Astor while she acclimated to her new situation.

 

Of course, nothing works the way I want it to.

 

I was walking to the bus stop one day, leaving Mr. David’s small apartment with a new pair of sneakers on, when a kid started following me. He was gigantic. I’d seen him around a few times at school, especially in the cafeteria, staring at Astor. He stared at her enough to make me nervous; it was almost an unbreakable gaze.

 

I’d beaten enough people to death to know to curb my attitude.

 

We made eye contact on the way to the stop, but I didn’t acknowledge him. All the way up the hill, he opened and closed his mouth like he wanted to say something. It wasn’t until I was sitting cross-legged on the ground under the bus shelter, books already open for me to sift through, that he walked up and started talking.

 

“Hey man. I like your shoes.”

 

“So?”

 

He laughed nervously. “So. Just telling you.”

 

I went back to reading my social studies book, and the kid cleared his throat about thirty times.

 

“I’ve seen you around school before. With the girl with all the hair. You got Mr. Reed?”

 

“Nah.”

 

He put his hands in his pockets and gulped. It felt wrong to put him through that. He was too nervous. I sighed, closing the book.

 

“I have Ms. Daniels.”

 

He thought for a second. “Damn, I thought we were the same age!”

 

“We might be. I got skipped ahead a couple of times.”

 

He looked impressed, then looked down at his shoes. They were old and worn. I made a mental note to see if I had a pair to give him when I got home, if he could even fit his massive clown feet in them.

 

The kid was clean. It was the first thing I noticed about him. His white, collared shirt was spotless, his hair was lined up, and even his worn shoes were shining. I felt like a bag of dirt sitting next to him, a small spot of syrup on my pants.

 

Astor loves cleanliness, doesn’t she?

 

I was a little lonely. Astor lived across town with Mr. Bishop’s wealthy family. I got status updates from Noah about her when I wasn’t with them at school. Mrs. Bishop didn’t want me near the house, and Astor had no idea The Compound even existed. Mrs. Bishop was …

 

I drew a blank when I tried to think of her. It wasn’t important. Either way, I couldn’t see Astor at her house.

 

The boy got my attention again, and for a split second, I was looking at his teary face in that white bedroom, my skin melted, his beard throwing me off, the sound of his voice going in and out, out of sync with his lips.

 

“I’m sorry, man. I don’t know what . . .”

 

His voice gurgled out, and we were teens again. I blinked, confused, and looked down at the skin of my hands.

 

What was I doing?

 

“Astor’s pretty cool. I have two classes with her. English and Spanish. She’s terrible at Spanish, though.” He blushed and laughed to himself.

 

I chuckled a little myself, thinking about putting his head through the ground.

 

“Oh yeah? That’s cool.”

 

“Yeah, she said she wanted to take French instead, but the class was full.”

 

“OK, man.”

 

The blushing got worse.

 

“I’m Juke, by the way. Well, I’m Jukel. People keep calling me Joo-Cul, and that shit sounds stupid, so I just started going by Juke.”

 

“That’s better?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

 

“Don’t worry, man. I’m Osh. I got it way worse.”

 

He laughed out loud, easing slowly toward comfort. I smiled a little myself.

 

“Osh! That’s original, at least. I’m—I’m . . . I’m sorry, man. It wasn’t like I was trying to keep Moose a secret.”

 

“Moose? What are you talking about?”

 

He took a deep breath, then another, then coughed and held his chest. I put my book down in front of me and tried to get up, but the skin of my palm stuck to the ground, pulling apart like melted cheese when I tried to move it.

 

“The hell . . .?”

 

“I really ain’t wanna lose you or Noah, man. It was my idea, obviously. I fucking . . .. Ugh, I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking.” 

 

The ground cracked, and I watched Juke cough, struggling to breathe through his tears.

 

“Hey, calm down!”

 

He sank to his knees, and the ground broke into pieces around him.

 

“I love her so much, though. Even now, like, I can admit that. I was kind of happy to have Moose; it was like the best of both worlds. I love her, but you know, Noah’s mine. I don’t want anybody but Noah. It’s confusing, and I don’t know. I remember watching Astor all the time before I met Noah. I used to daydream about her. I was just so drawn to her. I don’t know. I don’t know, man. I don’t know, I don’t know . . .” 

 

Juke finally stopped talking and looked at me. My vision blurred.

 

I opened my eyes as wide as I could, and I was in bed. In the room Mr. David put me in. Juke was sitting next to me, talking and sobbing. There was an IV drip in my arm somehow, stuck in around all the mangled skin.

 

I was hot. It hurt; everything seared. I tried to suck in air, but fire chased it all the way through my chest.

 

“Hold on, man, he showed me how to do it. Just calm down.”

 

Juke walked over to the machine, and I tried to follow him, but my body convulsed in anguish. Every time I moved, more fire traveled through me.

 

Just kill me, please!

 

“Relax. I upped the dose. It’s cool. Relax, man.”

 

Slowly, the fire stopped chasing the air, and I fell back, exhausted. My lungs wouldn’t expand enough. Juke sat down, shaking, staring at me with too many emotions to adequately describe.

 

He wiped his eyes, then abruptly sat up straight to continue.

 

“Yeah, I used to have Calculus with her, but then she transferred out for some reason. We still sit next to each other in English.”

 

Juke’s hair gleamed in the sun, and I was back at the bus stop.

 

Was I here a second ago? I looked down at my book, confused. It felt like something had happened—déjà vu.

 

“Stop talking about my girl, man.”

 

Juke, panicked, nodding profusely.

 

“Look, it’s cool. Sit with us at lunch sometime. You’re new here, right?” I said to ease the tension.

 

“No, not really. My mom just put me in school, though. She usually homeschools me.”

 

“Oh, damn. Ya’ll religious?”

 

“Well. Not really. Just a little different.”

 

We talked until the bus came. Then, we talked some more. We talked at school, and we talked after school. I’d never spoken to anyone as much as I spoke to Juke those first few days, not even Astor. He was my first actual friend, and I appreciated his company. He could handle himself, and he was smooth as hell once he got over the nervousness. But he stared at Astor like she was a pair of glasses on his face sometimes.

 

“Well. You seem to like him. I’ll see if Noah wants to talk to him,” Astor said after I brought it up one day. I was starting to get the feeling she liked him, too, and it made me nervous. You never want the random tall dude to show up with his clean clothes and fresh cuts.

 

“Noah’s a hoe. Don’t set my boy up with a hoe. You don’t have any other friends?”

 

Astor grimaced. “You scared all my other friends off.”

 

I could be a little aggressive, especially if I felt like someone was taking up Astor’s time. Noah wasn’t easily dissuaded. Shit, she’d nearly had me in tears any time I tried to get her to leave Astor alone.

 

“True. Fine, I mean. As long as he’s not looking at you, I don’t care.”

.

Before we went to meet Noah and Astor in the park, Juke invited me into his house to help him get ready. He was nervous.

 

“You’re, like, six foot, two thousand. Girls don’t throw panties at you?”

 

He ignored me, opening his front door.

 

It smelled weird. I couldn’t quite place the smell, but I felt it sticking to my clothes, crawling through my hair. Juke didn’t notice. A woman sat on the couch, maybe as long as Juke, watching nature documentaries. I saw a red glint when I came in and looked around for any sunlight, but all the curtains were closed.

 

“Jukel?”

 

“Yeah, Momma, it’s me. I have a friend here. He’s gonna help me get ready.”

 

She stood and awkwardly turned to walk over to us. It was like she was sifting through the oxygen in the room, her long, red hair trailing behind her. It slid on the ground behind her feet as she walked.

 

Devil?

 

“Hello. What’s your name?” I extended my hand.

 

She stared at it.

 

“Shake it, Mom.” Juke blushed and looked around.

 

They both suddenly turned to look at me, eyes wide and terrified. A tall, brown-skinned woman walked around Yenna, a frantic look on her face. She glared at me until I focused on her.

 

“Is this lie important?”

 

“What?”

 

“Oh, snap out of it,” Cora said, as I finally recognized who she was. “You’re dying. I can’t keep holding onto you much longer, Osh. We both know this isn’t how you met Yenna. This isn’t even close to it.”

 

Cora pulled at her hair, frazzled. I slowly came back to reality, looking her up and down. She wasn’t joking with me anymore.

 

Juke was so clear to me. I could see the waves in his hair, the way his manicured nails glinted. Yenna was so blurry I almost gagged. Cora ignored it, putting her hand on my shoulder.

 

“We can do this all day. You can pull me through all these little security measures you learned from that irritating human, or you can help yourself. Show me what I want to see. The important parts. What actually happens here?” I looked at Yenna’s eyes, her pupils tiny dots in a sea of grey.

 

“She acts weird. I get nervous. She’s watching ocean documentaries. Juke takes me upstairs, and he has the spots on his back,” I stammered.

 

Cora rolled her eyes. “Fine. Next lie.”

 

 

Noah and Juke hit it off almost too fast. One day he was staring at Astor, the next he was giving Noah piggyback rides to her classes. They were irritating.

 

Astor loved it, though, and it was one of the few things that made her smile. I tried to get her to talk about where she’d been when she ran away from the group home, but she never would. The guilt from leaving her like that bit me. It was something about the look she got in her eyes when I brought it up.

 

“Nothing happened. I’m fine.” She gave me a small smile in the hallway outside her class.

 

“You sure?”

 

Are you sure nothing happened, Osh?

 

I tried to keep staring at Astor, to talk to her, but I was too afraid. I closed my mouth and backed up. It wasn’t Astor. I knew it wasn’t Astor …

 

Relax. Concentr—

 

“Osh?”

 

I was in front of Alicia, my face bleeding, watching her prance back and forth with her machete. Again. To the side of us, Mr. David watched the news on mute, and the captions at the bottom distracted me.

 

“. . . the boys vary in age and location, with eight confirmed missing so far. Joseph Reed was last seen leaving fifth period at Ellyn Charter High School, and his parents are sure he never made it home. Perhaps someone is trying to draw the monster out? Perhaps it’s all to impress the woman who abandoned him? Jennifer County Public School System is considering a curfew for both middle and high school students in Chastain and Lostine. If anyone has any information, please call—”

 

Alicia tapped the machete against my cheek.

 

“What is he like? What’s his name? I’ve seen you with him, walking around. Engaging. He’s the same one I saw her with; I know it.”

 

Something in me clicked, and I rebelled.

 

“Anthony. It’s not him, though. And it’s not her.”

 

Alicia laughed a little, disbelief in every burst of sound. I hoped I wouldn’t shake.

 

“No? It’s not the creature? How would you know?”

 

“I just do. I’m with him a lot. I’ve been in his house before. His mother is normal.”

 

“Normal? How so?”

 

From his chair in front of the TV, Mr. David cleared his throat. The weight of his worry didn’t stop me.

 

“She’s a normal person. I think you might be mistaken, ma’am.”

 

I didn’t offer any more information. Confusion crossed Alicia’s face, and she slid the machete back into her garter. I tried not to stare at her leg.

 

“David? Am I wrong?”

 

“Maybe. Why would she be here?”

 

“But my mark. It hurt. It was like I was being hit with a sledgehammer.”

 

She glanced at me and smirked a little. I hated her.

 

“There are other Shadows here. A lot, actually. Chastain is full of them,” Mr. David said.

 

Again, Alicia was silent.

 

“I recognized Yenna. Are you saying that I wouldn’t recognize the body of the only friend I’ve ever had?”

 

“You are a little unhinged.”

 

Insulted, Alicia walked toward the window and, after a long moment, laughed. The laugh, throaty and deep, came from a place of hurt. Embarrassed, Alicia adjusted her dress. The somber women I remembered from my youth seemed to snap back into her. The Alicia I respected, loved, cherished. The Alicia that …

 

I cleared my head and watched her.

 

“Yes. I have become unhinged, haven’t I? Wandering around seeing ghosts.” She crossed her arms in front of herself. “Stalking teenagers. Maybe it’s time I took another break.”

.

I didn’t see Alicia or Yenna again for years after that, and I got to enjoy my life as a normal teen for once. Mr. David still sent me to Dr. Bishop’s office to intern. Bylas came by a lot with Davey in tow, and they both seemed more and more exhausted as the days went on.

 

There wasn’t much time spent without at least either Astor or Juke around.

 

One day, Bylas walked around the counter and stared down at me. I had my feet up in a chair and my head in another, reading a book. He pulled the book out of my hand slowly. Davey jumped up on the counter, energetic and calm at the same time.

 

“Can you get down,” Noah asked, barely looking up from painting tiny red hearts on her nails. She was on the floor next to me.

 

“Nah, I’m good,” Davey taunted, winking.

 

Bylas motioned toward the back of the clinic. Toward the door to the basement.

 

“You know Cora, don’t you? Or someone in her family?”

 

“Cora?”

 

Bylas sucked his teeth. “Mr. David said he was gonna talk to you soon. You’re ready. You’re old enough, at least. I wonder what he’s waiting for.”

 

Noah sucked her teeth. “Excuse me, hun. Can you move off of the counter, please? I just wiped it down.”

 

“Sounds exciting. I’m good, though, thanks.”

 

Davey pulled her arm sleeves down and nuzzled into them. They were like two lazy cats meowing at each other threateningly. Noah sighed, cutting her eyes at me.

 

Bylas snapped his fingers to pull my attention back.

 

“Don’t you know Cora’s granddaughter? Or great-granddaughter?”

 

I’d heard the name before somewhere. I couldn’t place it, but it felt like I knew something about it. Davey watched me with an intensity I didn’t appreciate.

 

“I don’t think so. Why . . .?”

 

Bitch, get off the fucking counter!”

 

The bottle of nail polish flew across the room and hit Davey in the forehead, connecting directly in the middle. She fell backward, and a loud crack rang out. A pained gurgle followed. Bylas walked calmly around the counter and helped Davey up, cracking her back into place. Noah pulled another bottle of nail polish out of her bag, moving on to another nail.

 

I walked around and saw a massive crack in the hardwood where Davey’s head landed. Her neck twisted oddly.

 

“Are you out of your mind?” Bylas asked, talking to Noah needlessly.

 

She barely looked up. “Might be.”

 

Davey stopped Bylas, holding her head in pain, her face scrunched up in anguish. The polish pumped out onto the floor. It dried quickly, and the sight of it made my stomach turn.

 

“Hey!” I tried to stop them, but they walked off toward the basement, Davey only glancing back once to take Noah in.

 

It was a problem for one of them. I just wasn’t sure which.

 

Alicia looked different when she came back. Her hair was longer, a blunt bang cut above her eyes. She still wore her flowing, expensive dresses, but now she covered a bit more skin. Her confidence was shot.

 

“David. I think my time is running out. I can’t sit still much longer. They’ve been showing up again. I . . . am desperate. I’m tired. I need your help.”

 

Mr. David handed me the keys and motioned for me to go inside.

 

I waited. Alicia wouldn’t visit and not see me; it wasn’t in her character. She had to suck up my fear, breathe in my hesitation. If she wasn’t controlling my life, could she enjoy her own?

 

When they finally walked in, Mr. David had a strange look on his face. Alicia approached, her hands clasped in front of her. She was going to ask me for something.

 

“Osh. I always wanted a son, did you know that?”

 

“Nah.”

 

She winced only slightly.

 

“Well. I’ve only ever produced daughters. You were the only son I needed, though. I’m pleased with your academic success. With your love for Astor. But I have a big task for you, so pay attention.”

 

Mr. David shifted uncomfortably on the couch, staring forward at the television.

 

“What?”

 

“I want you to bring our friend Yenna food. When they’re eating, they’re quiet. I need you to keep her quiet, do you understand? If you give her enough of my kind, she will offer you and those you love peace in return. It’s like a code of honor they have, the beasts. You can keep Astor a secret and still keep her protected, and I won’t have to deal with any of you for the foreseeable future.”

 

Mr. David looked at her nervously.

 

“What am I supposed to feed her?”

 

By this point, Yenna had abandoned Juke. I had no desire to see her again, not after the pain she caused him. But I was entranced by the fact that Alicia needed me.

 

“I think you were already going to teach him to hunt us, David. And I want you to just go ahead and do it. Stop pretending you’re raising a little scholar. Send him out there to be a monster with your hit squad. Now I’ve permitted it, and you don’t need to sneak around.”

 

Mr. David stared blankly at her. She turned to me to continue.

 

“I’ve killed enough children, and I’ve damaged enough of my bloodline. Nothing is working. They still come. This is a back-up plan before I give into panic—”

 

“I have a question,” I interrupted for once. It felt good to watch her eyes close in irritation. “Who’s Cora?”

 

Alicia didn’t actually respond at first. Her entire body paused in thought, every single inch of her radiating heat. Mr. David tried and failed to say something, giving me a look.

 

“Why?”

 

No one spoke.

 

“I just thought I remembered it. The name. I had a dream the other night …”

 

Alicia softened a bit.

 

“Yes. I spoke of her often. She’s my grandmother. Currently, she’s drowning forever in that brine pool with the rest of the people I’ve dared to care about. I had another little Devil once, but she couldn’t make Latches. Cora took care of her for me and then, well, Yenna took them.”

 

This time, I shut up.

 

This is important. I looked around for some reason, waiting. Whatever I was waiting for didn’t happen.

 

Mr. David finally figured out how to speak again.

 

“Alicia, you want him to hunt Devils? What would that accomplish?”

 

“I want him to join your little hit squad and take Yenna her meals so she can stop searching for me. Feed the bitch.”

 

“Is that the only reason?”

 

Alicia took a deep breath. It was the first time I’d ever seen her look tired.

 

“Honesty is best. Little Osh. There is another reason I need you to be a monster. And, I hate to say it, it makes me uncomfortable. But if Yenna will not stop searching for me, there’s a chance I’ll end up in that water. There’s a more significant chance the longer time goes on and they feast on more and more of us. If it gets too hungry, the beast will take a body. It will look for a suitable meal.

 

“I’m not going back. That is the only certainty of my life. If the worst comes, if the beast itself gets too hungry and searches for food, searches for me, I am no match for it. No one is. Yenna is an annoyance, but she fears me after all these years at least. The beast does not.

 

“If it takes a body and comes to land for me, I . . . I will gladly send Astor in my place. She’s my collateral. I will gladly provide her, Osh. Without hesitation. So plot on me with your waste of a guardian all you want, but feed that monster right, and feed that monster well.”

 

Behind me, a low voice sighed. I turned to see a long, brown woman braiding her hair, sitting cross-legged in front of Mr. David’s television.

 

“Well, Osh. At least that rings true. Guess you can’t cover everything up, can you?”

.

The next night, Mr. David opened my door, blood covering his hands, and asked me the question that would truly change my life: “Osh. Are you sure you want to know the truth? That you’re ready to see what Alicia’s afraid of?”

 

I sat up quick enough to hurt my head, sending me back down. He chuckled a little.

 

“Sir. Yes. Please.”

 

I met him at the door. By this point, I was as close to his height as I was ever going to get. He towered over me, his white locs nearly longer than my body.

 

“Astor. Are you still dating her?”

 

I hesitated. “Yes, sir.”

 

“You’re also dating the Bishop girl. Lou?”

 

The smallest amount of shame hit me.

 

“No. I’m not dating her.”

 

“Sure. Do you care for Astor?”

 

Something in me didn’t want to answer. It wasn’t a general type of question. I could get it wrong; I saw it from the look on his face. So I just stayed quiet until he did his chuckle.

 

“You’re not going to like what I have to tell you. Are you sure?”

 

“Please.”

 

“Fine. I’ll talk to Dr. Bishop at The Compound. It’s time you saw the basement.”

 

The next day, I stood at the top of the stairs with Bylas, Davey, and Dr. Bishop.

 

“He’s still too young,” Dr. Bishop grumbled.

 

Davey put her hand over his mouth. “Hush.”

 

Bylas led the way. There was an excitement in the air. I still held Bylas in impossibly high regard, even going so far as to get choked up when he came around. He put a hand on the metal door handle, preparing himself.

 

“It’s never pretty when you first see everyone, OK? Just don’t feel bad if you get uncomfortable. Some of these, uh, some of them haven’t been in the sun in a long time.”

 

My heart beat until I could barely hear.

 

He opened the door to a type of darkness I’d never seen. It seemed to wisp out in smoke into the light of the hall, waving. It touched my shirt, and the cotton dried. Davey crawled over our shoulders and jumped in first, her feet hitting the ground loudly.

 

As she walked forward, light burst from her skin and seemed to travel in webs around her. It seeped into the black wall, pulling it back until the room broke into light.

 

Piles of dead bodies lay limp on top of each other in the corner. Men. Women. Children. They all had a wet, ashen look to them.

 

Drowned. They were all drowned, their eyeballs burst.

 

 

“They’re not dead, exactly, just empty. Some of these bodies could be salvaged, at least the parts,” Bylas muttered.

 

We stepped over them, each one staring up at the ceiling, some bruised and rotten.

 

“This is part of what we do. We collect the Devils. Mr. David brings them to The Mouth, and they either get accepted as lunch or rejected. Some of the rejected ones go in the water as extra bodies for use. If they get rejected for that, they’re drained and used as bodies for Shadows that need to come on land.”

 

There was a long tank that went from one side of the room to the other. It swarmed with what looked like black jellyfish, long tendrils wrapping around each other.

 

“An aquarium? You keep pets down here? Or are they shapeshifters or something?”

 

Bylas laughed. “That’s kinda offensive, man. This is my family. My kind. It’s not shapeshifting. Some of us can take human bodies; some of us can’t. Same with Devils. If you get stuck being the type of person that can’t take any body, well, you’re just a jellyfish. Or an angler fish. Or something else in the ocean. We can always take those.”

 

Bylas stared into the tank wistfully. “I hate it. You can’t return the hurt ones to the ocean. The other Shadows destroy them. Mr. David lets me keep them here instead. We just wanna eat, you know? Nothing wrong with that.”

 

I thought of the many faces I’d beat into the ground, the constricted pupils, and didn’t say anything.

 

Dead bodies didn’t just surround us; there were also other people. The basement was large, just one big room. Beyond the neatly piled bodies was an area with a small television and a few couches. Four Devils, all sporting wild feral looks, watched us. One girl had puffy, tangled hair that trailed behind her when she walked.

 

In another corner, more normal-looking people walked around, talking. It was like an open office.

 

“Latches. We usually capture the brain-dead ones to help find their Devils; that way we know they’re good for The Mouth. They’ll lead you to them eventually.”

 

“The Mouth?”

 

I felt a cold sensation across my chest. I looked around, and everyone was gone. A small dose of reality ran through me.

 

I’m dying. How do I get out of here? It’s falling apart; I can’t make sense of it …

 

The slow sound of pumps moved toward me from all directions.

 

“Cora?” I asked. All I could hear was the sound of the shoes clicking toward me. I turned to see a blur glowing, and I somehow knew it was Noah.

 

She emerged from a door in the corner, half her face and body shroud from view. Grown-up Noah. Noah from the present.

 

The present. Yeah, I’m too close to the bad parts in my head. I know what happens …

 

Noah nodded, seeming to read my thoughts, and kicked one of her legs around the doorframe.

 

“You know not to go down this path, hun. It’s all downhill from here! You’re a black truck away from the girls in the basement. And that’s just an arm and a leg away from Cora. And then the fun part. The part that makes you feel so bad. Are you going to wake up, or are you going to see this through? Do you really want to see those things again? All those dark things?” 

 

Her voice was off somehow. I tried to speak, but she disappeared, getting suctioned through the door, and I was back with Bylas and Davey.

 

Davey tilted her head, excited. “Hmm. Yeah. That’s what you’d be doing, taking them out to Yenna. Bylas and I can’t go to The Mouth. Let me get you up to speed on the job, kid. We . . .”

 

Bylas put his hand up to stop her. “No. Let him see for himself.”

 

 

Bylas sipped his coffee loudly. Davey crunched away at her bagel, crumbs falling to her shirt. The two acted like they’d never eaten before, one going way too slow and the other shoveling everything into her mouth like a vacuum.

 

I watched them, an eyebrow raised. A television blared loudly above our heads, and a reporter stood against a pitch-black screen. Snot bubbled out of her nose as she waved her arms frantically, trying to get anyone’s attention.

 

“. . . authorities are saying the boys vary in age and location, with eight confirmed missing so far! Eight! Are you listening? Authorities are saying the boys vary in age and location, with eight confirmed missing so far! Joseph Reed was last seen leaving fifth period at Ellyn Charter High School. He was last seen talking to you, are you listening?!”

 

I cleared my throat and stared at the two eating.

 

“Is this what we do? Sit around eating in diners? We’ve been here for hours.”

 

Bylas glanced behind me, ignoring me for the hundredth time. Davey wasn’t so easygoing.

 

“Can you shut the fuck up and wait?”

 

One of her pupils was a milky white. Part of me wanted to be rude and ask about it, but I decided to keep my head. She crunched through another bagel.

 

“How are you eating so much? I thought people with Devil Syndrome didn’t eat.”

 

“Food’s good.” She shrugged. “Plus, I’d rather not lose any weight. I look pretty good right now, right By?”

 

Bylas blushed the smallest bit and kept looking behind me.

 

“She’s staring at the short guy in the middle.”

 

Davey looked around me, letting out a long “Ohhhh.” I moved to turn, and Bylas tapped the table.

 

“Don’t move. This Latch is pretty much brain-dead. If we all look at her, she might freak out. We need to figure out which one of these people she’s following. Guaranteed greenlight.”

 

I moved to nod and saw Chaunce crawling over the table behind Bylas and Davey, sucking her sleeve. She patted Bylas’s head, her tiny hand moving along his face, looking for something to pull herself up with. She settled on his hair and crawled forward.

 

“Do not go to Mouf, Uncle! Not good to show stuff. Is not snitch! Wake up. Miss you!”

 

She chewed the sleeve until drool ran onto Bylas’s shoulder. He didn’t seem to notice.

 

“Ch . . .”

 

I couldn’t say her name for some reason. She made a sullen face and crawled back down, disappearing into the booth.

 

Right. Control yourself. You’re not really here. Cora’s . . . Fuck, are we really sitting here all night?

 

It took a while before the three got up. One of them, a short man with a nasty look, glanced back at the Latch with a sneer. Davey smirked.

 

“One little Devil, coming right up.”

 

We followed them outside. I felt an odd sensation like needles running up my spine, and I turned around. A woman with thick, black hair, a swollen face, and anger shifting around her like a haze was yelling something at me. She was standing in the middle of a street so black it could’ve been an abyss. I couldn’t hear her.

 

Lou?

 

The guy stopped in front of a black truck, too stiff not to have noticed us. The women got inside, and he waited.

 

Bylas whistled. The guy turned around, adjusting his jacket. He sneered, and for some reason, rage stuck deep in my throat. When he spoke, his hands balled into fists.

 

“What is it?”

 

Davey nudged me. “Go ahead, kid. Make him sorry he can’t die once.”

 

I approached him, hands at my sides.

 

Lou’s voice cut in, and I stopped.

 

“Osh, you fucking idiot, get me out of here; I’m dying! Please, please! My fucking hair fell out this morning, please. You’re supposed to protect me! I don’t know what he did to me, I . . .”

 

She fizzled out of my view, and when I turned around, the conversation with the man was over.

 

What did he say to me? The bed, I was in the bed. What am I doing here? I don’t remember this . . .

 

Whatever he’d said, the anger that crushed into me was unnerving. I felt myself sweating from it, biting down.

 

“What do you—”

 

Before he could finish, I grabbed his face and smashed his head into the car door. The women inside screamed, scrambling out of the way, but I kept going even after the window spider-webbed and cracked around his head. Then, I turned him around and smashed him into the middle part of the doors, picking up speed.

 

I smashed his face into the car until I felt my fingertips scrape the protruding metal, until his teeth littered the ground, the sounds of them falling complimenting the screaming women inside. My own teeth were going to break if I bit down any harder. Gnashing, I pushed my foot into his back until I heard a pop. Davey’s hand crept over my shoulder.

 

“Hey. Relax. Seriously.”

 

Bylas knelt on the other side of her with his eyes wide open, and he watched me pant. They both watched me, stunned. There was no respect, no admiration. Nothing about the memory felt familiar except their shocked, worried expressions. I tried to say something, but it turned to static the minute it left my mouth, and they just sat there in silence.

 

Stunned silence.

.

The stalking started to feel normal. I spent a year killing innocent Devils, dragging the ones that wouldn’t die out to the docks for Mr. David. Bylas and Davey were ruthless, ugly and unrelenting. Mr. David matched my aggression whenever he joined us, killing nearly any target we had. He decided we would wait before we went to The Mouth, that I needed more training, more restraint.

 

“Dad?”

 

There weren’t a lot of other places to put my respect after Davey and Mr. David.

 

“Ready to get started?”

 

Our victims were always innocent. I had to remind myself of that when we shot, beat, or kidnapped people. When Bylas stomped a screaming woman, when Davey stabbed someone to death and they didn’t jump bodies or get back up, they were all innocent people that were just like Astor.

 

Astor with her pearl earrings, with her flower bracelets. Silk blouse, slacks. They were just like Astor.

 

“Dad, can you hear me?”

 

The guilt subsided after a while. I tried to think of the Devils like I thought of those Shadows that used to work so hard to take Astor from me. I tried to think of them like I thought of Alicia, even. Monsters. Inhuman. The Devils out in the real world were different, though.

 

They begged, cried, and ran. They rarely fought. I just imagined Astor being pulled down the stairs when we were younger, hands around her neck, barely fighting back. All of the women and children, they seemed to want to be left alone.

 

I learned about some of the men the hard way.

 

We were sneaking into yet another basement. The walls blurred violently, some letting off a low hum, but the girls were louder. You could hear the sobs, small and squeaky, all the way down the stairs. Bylas grabbed me, pulling me back a little.

 

“Don’t save them, man. We’re not here to save them. Do you understand?”

 

“Save who?”

 

Davey snuck around us, a serious look on her face.

 

“The girls. This one, this Devil, I’ve dealt with him a lot. He’s nuts. And he’ll destroy his body if we get too close, so don’t. And please, don’t talk to him. Don’t approach him. Do not try to save the girls.”

 

“Why does he have girls down there?”

 

How did I get here? This isn’t how it happened . . .

 

“Osh. Just be careful,” Davey interrupted. “It might not be . . . nice in there. You can’t kill him. No matter what you see, just remember that he won’t die. So let’s just take him to Mr. David and get it over with.”

 

“Got it.”

 

I heard the rustling of pages and glanced back up behind us. Moose stood at the top of the stairs, blanketed in darkness, a book in his hand. He turned the same page back and forth.

 

Moose. He was Moose. My son. I have a kid.

 

I know what’s about to happen. I’m in my head, and this isn’t real. I’m older. Astor is okay. I already have a son. Those girls are in here. I can’t go in here; I can’t.

 

Bylas nodded, and Davey opened the door, slowly.

 

The crying was so loud in the memory, but right then, it was like the volume was switched off. At the point where it would’ve turned into violent screams, where I would’ve noticed the hydraulic press, I tried to leave. I didn’t need to hear the loud snaps and crunches and then mangled wheezing.

 

I didn’t need to screw up Bylas’s life.

 

“You’re no Devil. Who’s next?”

 

The man sat in the middle of the floor, completely naked and shivering. His hair wrapped around him like a towel, so much of it that it nearly clothed him. There was so much blood everywhere.

 

It was everywhere.

 

“Dad? I brought a book to read to you.”

 

I looked at the door. Moose was still completely black, trying to hand me the book. I turned around to grab it but couldn’t move.

 

Bylas screamed at me. 

 

“What are you doing? Pay attention, I told you—”

 

His voice cut out. The smaller voice filled my head, blocking out his words.

 

“Dad, I don’t care about the stuff with Unc. Or why you did what you did. I know you wouldn’t hurt us. You wouldn’t have left us out there no matter what. Mr. David is a monster; it was him.”

 

Davey moved slowly, cautiously. I looked around at the girls. Their bodies were everywhere. Mangled. Bones and twisted flesh everywhere. Some of them still writhing in agony.

 

“Dad, you always protect me. I know you wouldn’t do anything terrible to me. I know it.”

 

Bylas was screaming at me, trying to get my attention. I fixated on the horror on the floor. Stunned.

 

“You don’t know that, Moose,” I mumbled.

 

My head felt like it was ripping to pieces. Davey tried to grab me, tried to move me out of the way, but I just kept walking toward the man. I couldn’t even raise my shotgun. I couldn’t remember why I’d originally walked over to him, or what the room really looked like, or how any of it really played out. I couldn’t mask the feeling. I couldn’t escape the feeling of that room, not even to trick Cora. Right then, I just wanted to go back to my son’s voice.

 

Moose, my son.

 

“You don’t know what I’m really like. What I did to my friends! What I was going to do to you! You don’t owe me shit, Moose!”

 

Bylas tried to grab me. I moved forward a little too quick.

 

A big smile ran across the naked man’s tired face, and he sucked in a deep breath.

 

You’re right, Dad. Maybe you got everything you deserved.”

 

I felt my body convulse. Small hands grabbed me, trying to hold me down.

 

“Unc! Something’s wrong!”

 

Bylas pushed me out of the way, his arms spread, and Davey rushed over to cover my nose.

 

Her voice suddenly swarmed back into my ears, screaming frantically.

 

“No, fuck, Bylas! Don’t!”

 

A loud wheeze rang out of the man, and a cloud of dust spread over Bylas’s body. He pulled his face into his jacket, ignoring the shotgun crashing to the ground. The man emptied the dust until it covered Bylas, sweeping into his sleeves and coating every inch of his skin. Frantic, he tried to rip off his jacket and shirt to get away from the settling cloud.

 

Black patches bubbled up and then turned to liquid, boiling toward his arm. It crushed in on itself, snapping off where the black goop turned to healthy skin. We watched the black goop harden back into body shapes and snap over and over until he vomited the gunk onto the ground, gasping.

 

“Dad . . . don’t die, please.” 

 

Davey pushed off the wall and smashed her foot into the man’s face, crushing his skull into the concrete floor.

 

“Shit, shit, shit. Bylas, it’s a Blood Burst. It’s a fucking Blood Burst. Shit, shit, shit.”

 

For a moment, it looked like the dust came from her, like it poured from her pores, but I couldn’t tell. She grabbed him, but he didn’t move. He was face down in his jacket. The haze seemed to settle over Davey, and she let it, sucking in deep breaths until the mist retreated.

 

Finally, when the haze completely dissipated, Bylas let out a loud groan of agony. I moved to try and shake him awake.

 

The black arm and leg were gone. Completely gone.

 

“What happened? What did he do? Will they grow back?”

 

Davey glared at me. “I fucking told you, Osh. Don’t get close. I told you that.”

 

She looked down at Bylas, her eyes brimming with tears.

 

“You should’ve just let him become a Latch, By. He deserves it, the idiot. What are you going to do without an arm and leg? Idiot. They’ll eat you. You know how they are. They’ll eat you.”

 

 

“Dr. Bishop brought something to my attention the last time you were there. With Davey. And . . . and Bylas, of course.”

 

I waited for him to scold me. I’d already been pretty much eviscerated by every single person who could stomach me long enough to do it. Bylas seemed depressed, unfocused. Lost.

 

“I didn’t mean to . . .”

 

“What color was the mist you saw? The Blood Burst?”

 

I thought about it.

 

I responded, but I couldn’t hear my answer. I couldn’t feel it coming from my mouth.

 

Pain spread across Mr. David’s face.

 

“Can’t catch a damn break. Alicia is just amazing, I tell you. She’s just amazing. I can’t . . .”

 

He was talking, saying things. Astor leaned on the wall behind him, both her pupils filling her irises. Alicia’s voice came from her mouth when she spoke, taunting me.

 

“What does he know? Cursing my mother like this. How does a traitor expect to get sympathy? Hmm? Well, I guess you’re the right person to ask.”

 

“I didn’t . . .”

 

“I remember this next part, Osssh. I was in bed, at home, waiting for you. Alone. You left me alone all the time to go play in the ocean.”

 

“No. I worked my ass off to save . . .”

 

“Just me, and me and Juke, and me and Juke.”

 

She pushed off the wall and walked over to me, smiling. Tears ran down her face, and suddenly she was growing taller.

 

“You’ll never get Astor like this. Are you really going to see this through, Little Osh? You’re so close to The Mouth. Do you want to make this decision all over again? Why not wake up and spare little Davey the pain? Are you going to sit in your head and lie the rest of your life?”

 

Mr. David wrapped up whatever he was talking about, pounding his fist on the desk to get my attention.

 

“It’s time you met Cora.”

 

 

We stepped into the basement, and this time we were alone. Mr. David led me forward, Davey close behind us. She wasn’t as angry with me as I thought she’d be.

 

“We’re making him these cool prosthetics. Well, the land Shadows are, anyway. He can’t go back to the water now. He’s kinda . . . depressed about it.”

 

“Why can’t he go back?”

 

“Just can’t,” she mumbled.

 

I focused on Mr. David as he pulled a key from his pocket to open the lone door. Davey made a noise like she was nervous.

 

“Osh. You know what’s back there.”

 

Mr. David continued to fumble with the door. The voice came from behind me, too thick and prominent to be real. I didn’t turn around. Jamie’s voice was overlaid with my mother’s. I couldn’t look at him. I knew what he would look like. 

 

“Jamie, please. Help me wake up. Are you all going to follow me through an entire life? Help me. I can’t get up. I can’t . . . I can’t keep this up. She’ll find out.”

 

Mr. David turned the key over and over again. Stuck. Looping. I finally turned around to look at Jamie. He was normal. An inviting smile sat on his face, the same one he would give me when I asked him ‘fish’ questions as a kid. I almost choked, relieved.

 

“You can live a normal life, Osh. Be a normal man. Love my daughter like you want without Alicia following you everywhere. You can do this. If anyone can do this, it’s you.” 

 

He was choking up himself.

 

“I’m dying. Right? I’m dying. Maybe I should just let her see the truth. Is this my life flashing before my eyes? Is this my last chance to see it myself?”

 

He shrugged, his black suit getting shinier and shinier. I tried to stay focused on him, but I couldn’t. My body was turning itself back to the door.

 

“Osh. Maybe think of something else? Something sweet. Don’t open that door, Osh. Please.”

 

“This always sucks. It really sucks,” Davey said.

 

I took a deep breath when the key clicked. This time, there was no shroud of darkness. There was nothing, really, just a blinking light. We walked forward, and I realized we were in a lavish mother-in-law suite.

 

“Cora?”

 

Three women were in different places around the room. One sat on the couch, her long legs hidden under a see-through nightgown. She was reading an old magazine with a model on the cover that looked a lot like her. She was tall and brown-skinned with thick, brown hair cascading over her shoulders. The other two women stared at me, both light-skinned and thin.

 

Everything froze. I looked back for Jamie, but he was gone. There was nothing but impossible darkness beyond the door frame.

 

Astrid peeked her face around the bathroom door, two big afro puffs announcing her.

 

“Baby?”

 

“Hi, Daddy! Can you see me? I don’t know if I did it right.”

 

I looked at her. She was different than the other ones. Completely different. There was something about her that wasn’t in the past or present. She wasn’t fake but couldn’t be real. She was more like Cora.

 

“Astrid, how do I wake up?”

 

“Hmm. Come with me! I’ll wake you up.”

 

She didn’t stutter. Didn’t repeat her words. I waited for her voice to deepen or her body to set on fire or any number of mind fucks. She just watched me, taking a second to glance at the people around her. The lone woman on the couch seemed to move slowly, like syrup. She was trying to turn and look at Astrid, but everyone else stayed frozen.

 

“Daddy? I cannot stay long. Mommy is not happy. Auntie Noah is sick. We really need you.”

 

She walked forward into the room, her hands gripped politely in front of her.

 

“I’m trying. I can’t let this woman see the things in my head, baby. You wouldn’t understand, but I have to keep things secret.”

 

Astrid made an impatient face.

 

“I get it. I know you tried your best, Daddy. But I want come home now. No like this place. Bad things.”

 

She paused at the switch in her words, panic filling her. The woman on the couch had finally turned around and was staring at her.

 

“Who are you, love?”

 

“Just girl. You?”

 

“I’m Cora. Oh, wait! I remember you now. Things get fuzzy in here. Good girl, just like I told you, don’t tell anyone who you are, not even me. Are you trying to rescue your father or me, beautiful?”

 

“Daddy. I no big enough save you yet.”

 

Cora laughed slowly. “Yes. Your father isn’t either. Do me a favor, love? Take him somewhere else? I don’t want to go through what he’s about to do to me again. I can’t control a memory I’m in.”

 

Astrid huffed. “How I do?”

 

“Like I showed you on our visit, love. You can do it. Hurry, now.”

 

Her voice was gentle but deep. Astrid thought for a long time. One of the women in the corner started moving, her bouncy, black curls drooping heavily and then springing back up. Cora took a deep, fearful breath and turned her full attention back to me.

 

“We’ll skip this part. I forgive you, you know? Maybe you’ll spare some time and come get me? Bylas is . . .”

 

“Stop talk! Wake up!”

.

Mr. David touched me gently. I felt my skin coming off, but it didn’t hurt. I was sedated.

 

“Osh. I need to step out for a moment. Juke left. Moose seems capable, and he’s downstairs.”

 

There were no sounds to express my displeasure, but Mr. David seemed to get it. I almost heard his trademark chuckle.

 

“It’s fine. You’ll be back to sleep in no time. Not sure what just happened but, hey, perfect timing. I’m putting you back under, OK?”

 

I tried to talk, but my mouth was too dry. He stepped back and waved Moose in.

 

My son.

 

Juke’s son, he walked in with a book under his arm and nodded to Mr. David.

 

“I’m sorry about your arm, sir.”

 

“It’s fine. Are you going to read to him?”

 

“Yes, sir. It’s so he’s not bored. I read about coma patients in a book . . .”

 

I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but I fought the sleep and listened as Moose sat down and started reading without hesitation. There was no fear or disgust in his voice.

 

“OK, Dad, I’m going to start this one over. You were reading it to Astrid before. Don’t worry; I read to her sometimes since you’re hurt. She likes it better when you do it, though. Anyway, ‘It was cold that night, and Andrew wanted to go back for his coat. His friends insisted that he . . .’”

 

My eyes opened, and baby Astrid was crying and screaming her head off. Astor sat up in her hospital bed, tired. She motioned for me to take Moose out of the room.

 

“You are just feeding her, it’s OK,” Moose whined.

 

He adored his little sister. We could barely get a chance to hold her. He kept sitting on my lap with her, telling her stories. I patted his head and brought him out into the corridor.

 

“Your momma likes her privacy. You gotta respect that, OK?”

 

“OK.”

 

“OK, what?”

 

“Oh. Um. OK, sir!”

 

He smiled, his missing teeth painting him adorable. I pinched his cheek and looked around for the ice machine. In five seconds, Astor was going to scream out for ice.

 

A long woman at the end of the hall stared at us, one of her legs stuck out to the side. She leaned her head back, and a long braid brushed against the ground. My heart dropped. I hadn’t seen Alicia in years. It’d been so long, but I recognized her without even seeing her face. She’d pretty much been satisfied to leave me alone after the incident at The Mouth. Alicia didn’t deserve to see my kids or check on Astor.

 

She deserved so little, it was a wonder she could exist.

 

“Astric. What would you do to protect the baby?”

 

Moose put his chin in his hand and thought.

 

“Um. I don’t know. Be a ninja, I guess, Daddy. Sir.”

 

“That would help.”

 

He noticed Alicia standing there and let out an impressed “whoa.”

 

“Oh, look! Blue light! It’s beautiful, sir!”

 

I looked down at Moose curiously, and when I looked back up, Alicia was gone. I tried to step forward, to go after her, but Moose held my hand firm. Somehow his four-year-old grip kept me in place.

 

“Come on. Let’s go find the blue light.”

 

He shook his head and held on.

 

Andrew wanted to impress his friends. He knew he should be his own person, that he was cold, but none of the others wore jackets that night.”

 

I looked down at Moose, at my son, and tried to remember how old he was.

 

“Dad, can you hear me?”

.

I took the kids to the park. Our neighborhood was a horrible choice. It reminded me too much of my mother, smiling like an idiot, watching Alicia verbally abuse Astor on the swings and command me. Of all the places in the world we could’ve lived, why stay so close to the water, the monsters, the people who hurt us?

 

You know why.

 

Astrid was not her mother or grandmother. She smiled and sang when she played, pretending to be anything but the daughter of two chaotic monsters, pretending to be a goat for some reason. I usually took Chaunce with us, but she’d been sick that morning.

 

We lived pretty good lives. I’d stopped bringing Devils to Yenna, opting instead to work with Noah at a local lab. I specialized in fieldwork as a marine biologist, and Noah handled the more analytical parts of it. We were supposed to be a team.

 

She hated it.

 

I sat and watched Moose. Man, I was proud of the kid. He watched after Astrid while they played, mimicking whatever she asked him to. And he had fun doing it, regardless of the stern look on his little face. There was just something I couldn’t put my finger on, but it was there. My baby got to be a raptor, a T-Rex, whatever she wanted. Moose hunted her, hiding behind the slide and jumping out and crossing “lava” pools by swinging over them on the monkey bars.

 

It was around the third time when he jumped, rushing off after Astrid, that I saw the rash. Little black pools that spread across his back, one wrapping around to his stomach. And that feeling sunk into me.

 

Bylas stood with his back to me, the black patches bubbling up and moving to protect his arm and leg, shifting places. The black gunk pushed into Davey’s mouth, collapsing the veins in her face.

 

My stomach got so tight that I doubled over. I choked.

 

The hardest decision of my life was letting Davey go instead of Astor, letting Juke stay instead of Bylas. The deciding factor had been Astric. The deciding factor in my choices had been my son.

 

I thought about Cora. The Mouth. Davey. I did all of it because of Astric.

 

And here he was, swinging on the monkey bars, and I finally realized as the black patches dissolved back into real skin that he wasn’t even mine. 

.

The next time I went into work, everyone was dead. Every single lab assistant. Every other field researcher. The building was nearly in ruins, all of it cracked and crumbled. Sea creatures lined the halls, some smashed so hard against the wall that they were liquefied. I found Noah hiding in a closet with wild eyes, holding a dead woman tight and pushing a pair of scissors deeper into her jugular.

 

“Calm down! Relax!”

 

I pulled the woman out of Noah’s grasp and flung her to the side. Noah’s eyes looked crazy, somehow even bigger, even scarier.

 

“They came in here, and they just started . . . bu–burning people with that bl–black shit. There’s more! There’s more.”

 

She stopped, open-mouthed with her scissors raised. I waited a second, watching Noah’s face contort. The fear was ugly. Her face wasn’t built to hold anything but apathy and sneers, and the fear made her look inhuman.

 

“Cora.”

 

I heard her clicking behind me, her heels wet with blood.

 

“This is it, isn’t it? The conversation you and Noah had? The one where you decided to sacrifice your son? This building, all of this is real?”

 

I nodded. Cora sat on a blood-stained table behind us, an actual full black dress covering her body. Something about her interaction with Astrid softened me.

 

“A hard decision, Osh. I don’t envy you. I don’t blame you for backing out. But . . . I need you to go through with it. I hope some of this has made you understand that you won’t have that option again. Even in all your misdirection, surely you can see what you’re up against?”

 

“Yeah. I think I get it.”

 

“Bylas and Davey were a hard choice to make, but it had to be done.”

 

For a moment, I pitied her. She spent all her time in her little dream world, and here she was trying to talk about real life things. I leaned against one of the counters and listened.

 

“You have a harder one now. Noah already made her sacrifice. A number of them. You have to do your part.”

 

“Are you real anymore, Cora?”

 

She kicked her lengthy legs, thinking. “Real is an interesting word. You could say the real me is still at The Compound, down in that basement. Still dealing with what you did. The real Bylas hasn’t gotten any nicer. He hasn’t gotten any saner, Osh.”

 

“That’s my fault, I think. I apologize.”

 

She nodded.

 

“It’s only a big deal sometimes. When I’m tired. When I can’t get here. Otherwise, I barely notice him.”

 

She glanced out the big windows at the black sky.

 

“Why’d you pull me in here this time?”

 

“Oh, for once, it wasn’t my idea. I’m glad to be rid of you. David seems content to ‘summon’ me when he has a need. No one seems willing to free me.” She paused. “Am I real? What a question, especially coming from you. You know, there’s the me at The Compound, and then there’s the real me that was in the ocean, sunken. Eyeballs popped out.”

 

“Huh.”

 

I blushed and looked down. Cora tapped on the counter until I looked back up.

 

“Huh, indeed. I’m sure you and Noah know all about that. This is all I get, Osh. I don’t have the luxury to be picky at the moment; you know that. I get visits from a dying man. I get summons from David to help like some sort of indentured servant. And your little Astrid? She comes to see me sometimes. In here. This place. Well, her version is a lot nicer.”

 

“This isn’t my head?”

 

Cora laughed an old, sad laugh.

 

“You know better. It’s just a copy. You would’ve died a million times over in your head, Osh. You barely have any skin right now. And you’ll die soon, anyway. Your daughter helped me pull you in, but I don’t think I can hold her here much longer.”

 

“Astrid. That was really her?”

 

“Unfortunately. Your little girl is a sweetheart. She doesn’t belong in such a tragic mind.”

 

The sound of rain beat against the windows, and Cora stood in her clean dress, watching the sky roll into a sudden night. I looked out, and it was the horizon from the boat. From Davey and Yenna, Noah and Bylas.

 

“This is how David asked you to help me? Why take me through this stuff? Why are these memories so important?”

 

Cora straightened out her dress and turned. She wandered aimlessly. Blood turned to powder all around her, sifting into the air.

 

“It’s a waste of time, if you ask me. You just lie. But even the small pieces say so much. Your head, Osh. It’s the best one I could find for all this information. You know the truth like none of the others. You compile so many things that your lies can’t block out what’s happening to us. I want you to leave here knowing where you stand. Remembering what worked and what didn’t. Don’t give up, Osh. Please. You won’t get away from Yenna without knowing what already happened.”

 

“That makes sense. What is it that I’m missing? I’ve gone over all of this before. I can’t seem to remember things properly anymore.”

 

Cora looked excited, suddenly.

 

“Oh, sure, that’s why. You weren’t prepped by that little dwarf to confuse me; you’re just ‘forgetful.’ It’s so funny, Osh. We went through so many memories at The Compound, and I never saw Autumn. Not once. Doesn’t she own it?”

 

We stared each other down for a while.

 

“You’ve chosen your friends. Poorly, but you’ve chosen. I think you’ve seen enough for now. Don’t worry. It’ll all come back to bite you in the ass.”

 

The sky lit up the floor-to-ceiling windows. The horizon sped up and pulled back.

 

“Astrid is with you, now. Please understand something important: Autumn will never be a friend of yours or your child. And anything she teaches that girl is for her and Alicia’s benefit. Nothing more, nothing less. I’ve seen too much of your child, Osh. She shouldn’t be in a place like the one I inhabit in the . . . real world.

 

“I’ve tried to mitigate as much as possible while you were here. You’ll want to see what she can do with all the help I’ve given her. Give my regards to the little champ. I hope to see her again . . . maybe without Alicia next time. Oh! And tell Autumn’s daughter Lou that I said thank you. She’s been a big help.”

 

She stared sadly out of the window.

 

“Alone again. Let’s roll that memory back once more, just for clarity. I’ll add my own edits this time. Understand, Osh, that you’ll see this again if you don’t succeed next time. The same scene plaguing you, but this time, replace Davey with one of your girls. Replace Bylas with your children. You may not like the way this looks, and I apologize, but you need to see it. This is the future if you don’t work harder. If you keep picking the wrong side.”

 

The floor and walls dropped out, Noah and her scissors going with it, and we were on the boat again. Cora closed her eyes, gripping my hand. I gripped her back and took a deep breath.

 

I was standing on Mr. David’s boat, staring into the ocean at Astor. Her mouth was wrenched open, her jaw completely separated. All I heard was a gulping noise, the gunk pushing deep until they formed thick, slick, black tentacles that bulged from her neck. They slowly pushed down her throat, filling her stomach. She had her arm wrapped around the railing, still not touching the black water of The Mouth, but it was slowly pulling apart at the elbow like wet clay. Moose fell back, sobbing and screaming.

 

“You can’t. You can’t! Please stop! Dad, make her stop!

 

Every vein in Astor’s body turned black, ballooning and then shrinking, collapsing. She tried to let out a strangled cry, but more black gunk covered her. Astrid let out a loud bellow and tried to grab the gunk and climb over the railing to free Astor. It wrapped around her neck, covering her face and yanking her down into the water.

 

Yenna closed her eyes in pain at Moose’s screams. She turned to glare at me.

 

“I thought you were such a good kid, Osh. But you’re just like Alicia.”

 

I looked out toward the horizon. The sun was coming up. Astor choked again, but I turned and kept staring at the sun as it peeled back the night, rising steadily.

 

Everything stopped.

 

 

This time, I woke up to Astrid’s little beaming face. Her hand was cold on my cheek. We were alone in the room, but I could hear voices out in the hallway. I reached over and tapped her nose.

 

My skin . . .

 

“I found! I fix you! See!”

 

My skin, it was shifting back into place. It was still a little loose, a little wobbly, but it seemed to be settling in like a skin graph. A smell crept into my nose.

 

“Oh, that is Auntie Lou. Not good. No mad, OK? Need skin for Daddy.”

 

I looked over in the corner and saw Lou in a crumpled heap, her skin rotten or completely missing with big pockets of pus bubbling out of her face and neck. She stared emptily out the window. Astrid didn’t seem to notice, but I sat up, horrified, slowly moving closer.

 

The smell of her was potent.

 

“Astrid? Is she dead? Tell me she’s not dead?”

 

Astrid barely glanced over, biting her lip.

 

“Was dying. Did not mean to. S’OK, not kill real one. You need more!”

 

I looked down at my hands. Nothing seemed different. I was back to being Osh, the normal man in a sea of monsters.

 

“I need more what? What did you give me?”

 

She blushed and tilted her head to the side.

 

“I made life for Daddy! And life make death for Lou! That’s rules, Gray Gray Granny say.”

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