Alicia Free: 20 - 23
Alicia did go back to Yenna, but it wouldn’t be for some time. Fear crept into her whenever she passed the apartment that should’ve been her home. It felt like cheating to stay so close to stability yet so far. Her supposed savior went about life as if they’d never met, and it stung. An alley across the street gave a perfect tactical view of the apartment, and Alicia found herself hiding and watching on many lonely nights.
Yenna partied. She smiled a lot, even with the weight of some unknown world behind every lift of her face muscles. When she stumbled home some nights, wined up but always balanced perfectly on high heels, she was often with women. Alicia watched as much as she could, sneaking by the building with suitors and marks, and never saw one man on her arm.
The thought of standing in front of the woman was too scary to take seriously. The sure way Yenna spoke, the sly way she bent down to whisper things in the ear of some random woman she was courting, it all felt intimidating. So, for almost a year, Alicia went on stealing dresses, allowing men to buy her things, and escaping into the night when they got too fresh. Part of her feared Yenna would be gone and would have moved on to somewhere more glamorous by the time she came back.
Unsure Alicia. Begging Alicia. Broken Alicia.
Long after she’d lost Yenna’s number, Alicia showed up on her doorstep. It’d been a while since she saw Yenna outside whispering, flirting, or smiling. She wore a dark cloak that covered her nervousness, shrouding her like a wilted plant.
The building was beautiful. It was framed by a cobblestone street, an old historic building that Alicia was sure no one in her family would’ve been able to afford. She pushed against the front door. It didn’t budge. A call box stood to her left, but the buzzer was broken, and all the names on the list were blurred and illegible from years of rain.
Her heart sank.
“Do you know someone here?” A man’s voice shook behind her, uncertain.
Alicia pulled her hood down and fluffed her hair out, ready to woo herself into the building.
“Yes! My sister lives here. I left my phone, I’m so stupid. I can’t call her to buzz me in.”
The man had brilliant white locs pulled up into a bun almost as big as Yenna’s. Alicia took him in, interest filling her. She wasn’t attracted to anyone as far as she could tell, but every now and then, she felt at least a spark of imagination. Well-dressed men were her favorite.
“I have a key.” He opened the door, eying her nervously. His mouth opened and closed almost to a rhythm, trying to build up the nerve to say something. “Are you …?”
She waited for him to finish his question, leading the way to the grand elevator. She’d never seen a building so clean or luxurious. The floors looked paved in gold, a sheen that put her shoes to shame following her every move. Pretending to be at home, to understand her surroundings, she hit the elevator call button and hoped there wouldn’t be too many options.
“Am I what? Single?” Her deep voice held a hint of flirtation.
The man’s face crushed into a pronounced grimace.
“No. Never mind.”
He stepped into the elevator with her and hit the button for the top floor. Alicia had no idea where Yenna lived, but there were thankfully only three options. She wondered if she should knock on all the doors she found. There was no going back to her last mark’s house; she’d taken every last penny he had, barely made it out when he’d woken up in the middle of her theft, and had a long scar down her back from falling down his steps. It patched over painfully while she stood there, leathery blood sealing her skin.
The white-haired man let out a sigh.
“There’s a woman with a big red bun on the top floor. Are you going there?” Alicia didn’t answer. He sighed again. “The one in the apartment all the way at the end of the hall?”
If he was trying to be obvious, it was working, but Alicia was more grateful than anything. She nodded slightly.
As they rose in silence, panic filled her. What if Yenna wasn’t home? What if she turned her away? Alicia eyed the man, taking in his nervous posture.
“You’re handsome. Are you alone tonight?” Alicia batted her lashes a bit.
She’d learned a trick or two from years of scamming on the road with her family. If she got far enough in his door, she could get him pissy drunk before he laid a finger on her, steal his wallet, and get a nice hotel room. The man grimaced again, this time letting the disgust sit for a moment.
“Calm yourself. Have some pride.”
She almost gasped but held her head up and turned abruptly. They stood in silence until the elevator stopped. When the doors opened, the man held them and watched Alicia a little longer. She stepped off, meeting his eyes, and sheepishly nodded her thanks.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you so much. I appreciate the help.”
He nodded, a sad look crossing his face, and held out his hand. “My last name is David.”
“Oh! What’s your first name?” Alicia gave him a big smile, unsure of herself.
He glared back.
“What’s your name?” he grumbled.
He gripped her hand hard and nodded again, biting his lip.
“I thought so. You get yourself together, girl,” was all he said as he let the elevator doors close between them.
There was only one door at the end of the long hall. Alicia stood and watched it, adjusting her body to be as long and regal as possible, smoothing the front of her dress and straightening her cloak. She’d never admit it out loud, but she wanted Yenna to respect her. All she’d thought about since she’d said goodbye was impressing the woman with her grace, her poise. Part of her delay had been nerves; she wanted nothing more than to knock Yenna out with how amazing she was as Mae.
That and to die, to finally die.
Yenna opened the door on the first knock, frustration reddening her face.
“David, if I have to tell you again—” She stopped short.
A thin line of red powder sifted slowly out of her mouth after a moment, evaporating into the air, and Alicia filled with glee.
She bit her tongue. I surprised her so much, she bit through her tongue!
For a long time, they just stared at each other.
“You’re back,” Yenna breathed, gripping the doorknob. Her blood-colored hair was pinned up, dramatic waves framing her body all the way to the ground. “You actually came back. You look … you look amazing, Alicia. You’re beautiful.”
Alicia gasped despite herself, feeling her cheeks flush.
“Thank you. You had to know I would come back. Where else do I have to go?”
Yenna laughed, still shocked, and stepped aside. Alicia stepped inside to the smell of ginger, of earthy incense, and to the view of the city. Yenna’s apartment windows were so large, they looked like portals to another dimension. The space was smaller than she’d expected, but every detail emboldened it. Judith Free would’ve melted, would’ve exploded! Alicia’s white gloves nearly shook with excitement.
“I’ve lost enough people, Alicia, that a year means the same as certain death. I thought you were gone, too. I thought you were Cora all over again.”
She swept by, remembering her hostess duties, and Alicia marveled at the way fabric seemed to move at Yenna’s will. It was one of the most magical moments of Alicia’s life. Yenna brought her a glass of water, staring in awe at the cloak, at Alicia’s glowing skin. The lighting in the apartment was so delicate, such a soft glow, that Yenna was nearly in shadow. They stood together, and it finally felt like something was right in her life. Something was plugged in.
Yenna slowly pulled off Alicia’s gloves, holding them hostage, letting her smile fade as she tugged at each finger.
“What a mistake you made, not just disappearing into the world. Coming back to a monster like me. I’m going to ruin your life.” Yenna’s voice was flat and cold, consuming all the magic Alicia envisioned.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re the only person I have left. And you’re never leaving my sights again. You’re all mine, Alicia.”
Weeks later, after Alicia felt more acclimated to her new home, it really hit her that Yenna meant what she said about not being a guardian. She woke up to an empty apartment nearly every day. When Yenna was there, she barely acknowledged Alicia’s existence. Women would stop by and court Yenna, bringing her gifts, sex, and information. Alicia stayed out of their way and tried to enjoy her new environment.
“You should go out or something,” Yenna recommended one day, trying on a new dress. “Have your pick of my closet; you look my size.”
Alicia stayed in and wandered the apartment instead, walking in circles. Devouring herself.
Mae would’ve loved this. Mae should be here, not me. I don’t deserve this.
Every day felt heavier. Every look in the mirror felt stranger and stranger. She wondered when she would get used to being Mae Free, to her long legs and perfect posture. At times, she felt like a monster, like she would burst through the body and destroy it like she had her sister’s life, like every breath was a sign of how treacherous she was. The thoughts pulsed through her until she was sure, absolutely sure, that she deserved nothing short of death. Alicia couldn’t stop whimpering herself to sleep at night. Her face felt numb if she stared in the mirror too long. Everything was just barely too much, just a little overwhelming, and she couldn’t shake the feeling.
Yenna didn’t bother having a conversation with her those first few weeks. She brought pretty clothes and gifts when she returned from her dates. Sometimes she left notes on the coffee table, simple notes with updates Alicia didn’t understand:
NOT KILLED BY EON TECH. NOT CONSUMED. WASN’T TAKEN BY SHADOWS, EITHER. HYBRID HUSBAND CONSUMING DEVILS. HAROLD CONSUMED.
Alicia ignored it all. She was sure she wasn’t smart enough to understand any of it. She wasn’t even smart enough to save Mae. The embellishments of the apartment started to fade to her, and all Alicia saw was “hostess” money, floors waxed with paid laughter and deviance. Everything was a facade.
By the time Yenna finally sat Alicia down nearly six months later, it was finalized in her head. Alicia Free was supposed to be the one that didn’t exist, and she wanted nothing to do with being alive as Mae.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find your grandmother,” Yenna said.
Alicia hadn’t worried at all, hadn’t even known her grandmother was missing, but she nodded politely, liking the feminine rise and fall of her savior’s voice. The voice didn’t match Yenna’s harsh attitude and mature face. Where did anything light and girly hide in that body? Maybe in the legs that stretched on for miles and miles or the curved waist that barely existed.
“I found some interesting things. It might not be safe once we really get our search started, so we’ll do a little traveling. Cora always wanted to take us places; I’m sure she’d want me to do the same for you. Before we get into this type of trouble, of course.”
Alicia swirled the wine in her glass, nodding. As always, they were dressed beautifully. They sat on Yenna’s blood red couches, Alicia waiting for Yenna to speak. She knew she had more to say.
Despite it all, she still appreciated Yenna.
“Do you remember your granny?” Yenna asked, avoiding eye contact.
Alicia thought hard. She remembered legs, legs that went on even longer than Yenna’s. Arguments with Judith over Alicia, over what she was and how she should be handled. She remembered her father holding her granny’s words as absolute. Closer to the last time she was allowed to see her, she remembered Cora being different. Sluggish. Depressed.
“Yes. She was sick all the time, but I remember her.”
Yenna nodded sadly.
“By the time you girls were born, Cora was pretty much reporting to a place called Eon Tech on a daily basis. Doing their experiments. Protecting all of us. I still lived with her then. I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have … gotten involved in a few things I still regret. I’ve since learned to mind my business.”
There was an ugly pause. Alicia took a long gulp of wine, uncomfortable.
“How did you know my grandmother?”
“Oh, she took me in after my family died. Well. After my human siblings died and my mother and father were taken by Shadows. They can’t always tell about the younger people with Devil Syndrome. We don’t smell the same, I think.”
Alicia thought about her own survival and nodded. They couldn’t tell.
“Devil Syndrome? Is that what we have?”
Yenna laughed at this, nearly scoffed.
“You really are just a baby, huh? What did you think you had? Yes, we have Devil Syndrome. Or that’s what they call it. You’re obviously not human. You don’t need me to spell that out for you. Your grandmother had it, your father had it, I have it. You have it.”
Alicia appreciated the clarity and let it sink into her skull.
“And Eon Tech?”
“A bunch of humans that are focused on ‘learning’ about us and a few other non-humans. You should know about Shadows. They did slaughter your family, after all.”
Shadows. Alicia made a mental note to ask more about them later.
“Is that your … real body?” she asked, wondering if it was a rude question.
“Yes. My family was killed in nearly the same way yours was, and I survived and walked around on my own for a long time. I eventually stole some clothes off a clothesline and started knocking on doors in the first neighborhood I found. Cora’s house was so far in the back that it was its own city. I knocked on her door, we looked at each other, and she invited me in. That was it. She could tell. Cora could always tell. And now she’s missing, and there’s no one to care but us.”
Yenna stared down at her wine, a promise of tears crossing her face. Alicia didn’t want to see her cry. She couldn’t take it.
“Well, I’m glad my grandmother was such a good person. Is. She is such a good person.”
Yenna nodded in appreciation.
“You’re right. What do you remember about her the most?”
“She was funny. And she laughed a lot. She used to take my gloves off, the ones my mother made me wear, and tell me that I didn’t need to be isolated. She said I was more beautiful than my sisters.”
And now what was she? If she’d been more beautiful than Mae, what was she now?
“It was her skill, complimenting in the right way. Cora knew how to make you feel good.”
They both stopped, lost in their own heads. Alicia wondered out loud where her grandfather was, who he was, and Yenna seemed offended.
“Your grandfather’s a coward. He left Cora to be poked and prodded by Eon Tech once they got their sights on her. The night he left, he told me and Harold to come find him in the city when they ‘finally took’ Cora. He knew something was going to happen. He knew, and he did nothing to protect her.”
“Did you go find him?”
Yenna blinked back frustration.
“Yes. And maybe that’s where we screwed up. Harold came with me, that trip he took after you took the test. He told me you did excellent, by the way. If you had died like the others, he was going to abandon the family and come with me to find Cora. I made him promise.”
A deep hurt settled into Alicia, but she drowned it with wine. Abandon Mae and Sara and Mary just like that? Abandon Judith? Why was Alicia the only one that mattered? She wanted to die in her cup, to really stuff the glass down her throat and choke.
“We went to go see Eric, your grandfather, and he wasn’t even in the same body anymore. He was someone else entirely. He recognized Harold, and we all went to pretend to eat. And he told us that we should just leave and never come back. Run off with him. Forget about Cora. He’s a lonely, desperate idiot,” Yenna said. The glass in her hand shook a little, and Alicia feared it would crack.
“What about us? Harold’s family?”
“Oh, that’s the best part. I think Eric was already working with the Shadows by then. Bringing them food. People with Devil Syndrome, just all being round up by him. The more I talked to him, the more I was sure he wanted us to run off to be drowned in the ocean. He was trying to trick us! I had a few adventures in Anity that were ill-advised, and then we were all targets. Cora blamed me, but I swear, everything was fine when I left. It had to have been him.”
Alicia waited for her to talk about the adventures, but Yenna just sighed.
“Cora was so annoyed with us. We really managed to screw things up, and in two different places. After that, Harold couldn’t stay in one place. The Shadows didn’t find out where I lived then, but they did find Harold and Cora. And suddenly, we had to deal with the Shadows and not just Eon Tech. He should’ve come to me as soon as your granny disappeared. We were much more powerful together; they never would’ve taken him. The idiot just wouldn’t let the rest of your family go. I never wanted your siblings with me or your mother. No offense to them, I just didn’t want anyone without Devil Syndrome around. I know how to keep safe.”
Alicia nodded, again flushing with hurt.
They meant nothing. Nothing at all.
Yenna considered her, hiding behind her glass. “I must admit that I met Mae back before you had her body. Cora wanted you to take the test, and I needed to convince him it was time. Sweet little human. Harold was a little forceful at first, but she agreed that you had to be protected after we told her what we were up against. That your family had to—”
“What do you mean forceful? I thought she agreed willingly?”
Yenna glanced down at her glass and chuckled.
“I’ve had a little too much, I think. Let’s continue this conversation later.”
Before Alicia could protest, Yenna was gliding to the kitchen, fabric flowing behind her.
Forceful didn’t equal willing. It didn’t mean Mae wanted to do what she did or even understood what she was doing. Alicia imagined the pretty picture of her family in the car, the twisted way Mae stared at her.
“I love you, Alicia. Don’t feel bad.”
Yenna taught Alicia about the world. She taught her about the Shadows in the ocean and why it was smart to stay close but far. She taught her how to tell a Shadow from a Latch, how Latches worked, how Devils worked. And every time she seemed done, more would come up.
“It’s a big world out there.”
For someone so afraid of the ocean, Yenna didn’t seem to mind traveling by boat. She’d stare out at the sea with her long hair blowing in the wind, closing her eyes in peace. Alicia couldn’t understand it, but she tried. There was no longer a comfort in just being with Yenna, but she still felt an attachment to her, something like familial love.
“I want kids someday,” Yenna told her once.
Alicia balked. “You like children?”
“Yeah. Well, I guess. Now, I do. Why should that surprise you?”
She felt Yenna’s attachment to her growing as time went on. Part of her worried that the attachment went beyond familiar, but she didn’t mention it, and Yenna didn’t overstep any boundaries. They talked about family, children, and the future they had or didn’t have, but Alicia often kept quiet about her own goals. She didn’t want a future. Yenna had so many plans “once things were safe,” once Cora was back.
“I won’t let those beasts destroy my life. Or yours.”
They traveled for a year before Alicia saw the man again. It was at a café in Lauryn. They sat in matching red dresses, fancy red lace piled up around their throats, and Alicia felt the strangest sensation. Staring at Yenna, wondering when it would all end, she felt like she was floating. Watching herself.
Who are you now? Are you Mae? Are you me?
The sensation filled her like blood pooling in her stomach until she leaned over and gagged. Yenna, entertaining a few women strangers with a flirty smile on her face, gave her a quick glance and motioned for Alicia to throw up elsewhere. Alicia stumbled to an alley, still lurching, but couldn’t quite throw up. She felt for sure that Mae was crawling out of her throat, trying to force Alicia out of her body, trying to grab the brick walls and release herself.
Isn’t it fun to be the one who survived, sister?
Mae’s voice was stronger than ever, behind every smile, just under every word. Regret perfumed the air around her. It made her skin supple, made her steps heavy, punctuated her every move. She just wanted death.
And you can’t have it.
Her only suicide attempt, a neat and deep line across her throat with a straight razor, ended in a Blood Burst and Alicia waking up in a random person. For an entire hour, she wasn’t Mae or Alicia but some poor man on the harbor, confused and frantic. She was sucked back into her body when Yenna found her, shaking her awake. The wide gap in her throat patched over with dried blood and was gone by the next day. Alicia found the man she’d been for that hour floating face down in the water, dead. More people gone because of her. More guilt ate at her.
Yenna didn’t mention the suicide attempt, but two days later, while Alicia was trying to get out of her bed, she drove her foot into Alicia’s mouth so hard that her jaw snapped. She’d helped Alicia hold it in place while it healed, but the statement was loud and clear. Alicia was learning slowly about Yenna’s faults, about her seething anger and uncontrollable rage, about her need to be right, about her defiance and emotionlessness, and they all hurt.
In the alley, still trying to vomit up her life, Alicia caught a glimpse of something shiny. She stood still, leaned over on the wall, spit leaking from her mouth, and realized it was a man. His white hair stood out against the dark of the alley. As he approached, she thought about running.
No. Maybe he’ll slaughter you. Stay.
The man was the same one from the elevator so long ago. His face was no longer coated in disgust, but Alicia felt hesitance.
“Alicia,” he muttered, stopping a few feet away.
Alicia shook, coughing up more spit.
“David? Your last name, I mean. You didn’t give a first when you were glaring at me in the elevator.”
He managed a small smile, his hands stuffed in his pockets. She felt herself wobble.
“You don’t seem well.”
“No. I’d say I’m not.”
After a brief silence, the man moved closer. He rubbed his face, nervousness pouring from him in the form of sweat.
“Do you know who I am? Who I actually am?”
Alicia shook her head and finally vomited. She wiped her mouth carelessly, her knees buckling.
“I’ll call you Mr. David s-since you don’t have a first name. Is that fine?”
“I like that.” Mr. David moved closer and put a hand on Alicia’s back, rubbing in a sympathetic circle.
“I take it you’re following me. What do you want?”
“I can tell you where Cora is. But you have to do me a favor.”
“I don’t care where Cora is.”
His hand stiffened on her back.
“What do you care about?”
Alicia laughed, feeling her stomach preparing for another round.
“Death. Kill me. Show me how to die. That’s all I want, truly, and all I’ll bargain for.”
Mr. David was quiet. Thoughtful. He wiped a loose hair from Alicia’s face and watched her vomit again.
“Funny. I don’t want you to die.”
“Then, I guess I can’t help you.”
He backed up and turned to walk, but decided against it.
“Cora was taken to The Mouth. The thing down there … the Leviathan, the one they all feed off of … it has her. Tell Yenna that.”
He smiled, a look of frustration just beneath it. “Don’t deviate, girl. I told you that.”
It took her a moment, a long moment, before she stood up and gasped.
Before she could catch him, he was rushing off into the alley. Gone.
Alicia waited months to tell her. The timing never felt appropriate, not with the happy way Yenna carried herself. There was an obvious difference in the long woman with Alicia around, even to someone who hadn’t known her before. Alicia stalked Yenna for almost a year before approaching her, and she’d never smiled so much. Every laugh had been calculated, lacking honesty or depth. When she spoke to Alicia, even for a moment, there was warmth. There was emotion, some type of emotion, and it sat in Alicia’s chest like a blood clot, spoiling everything. Yenna would woo women that looked like Alicia, women with deep voices and sultry walks, and it was starting to feel like an invitation.
Love. Somehow, she loves me.
There were times when Yenna touched her too gingerly or buried her face in her neck on a plane or on a train or on some other vehicle to the next place. There were times when Alicia would wake up to her savior sitting across from her hotel bed, half-naked, watching her. The worst of it happened after drinks, after fashion shows where Yenna disappeared all night then showed back up covered in blood and hair and holding clothing under her arm that Alicia had just seen walk by on stage.
“I got you something, beautiful.”
Like offerings of dead birds, Yenna would hand Alicia garments. Alicia was never without new shoes, new clothing, new styles. Sometimes, though, a new garment would have a speck of blood or a tear that looked oddly like a knife slash or gunshot. Any love Alicia could’ve brewed for the woman was lost in those tears and holes. She didn’t want people to hurt because of her. She didn’t want more people dead to save her.
For months, she held the information about Cora just under her tongue, always waiting to say it, always turning and seeing the way Yenna ate her entire being up into her gray eyes, always swallowing the words back down. There was also a fear of distracting her only form of security. They were never safe. It felt like the world watched them, waiting for the moment one of them let down their guard. In Lauryn, Alicia nearly lost her head when she stopped to help a wobbling, drunk Yenna to her feet. In just a moment, just long enough for Alicia to wrap her arm around Yenna’s waist and pull her up, a blast rang through the night. Alicia started, letting go of Yenna, and she nearly ran when a group of men rushed from an alley. They were heavily armed, all of them wearing the same colored clothing.
“Fucking fanatics,” Yenna slurred. “Can’t even get drunk with my fav-favorite … favorite girl.” She squeezed Alicia’s cheeks, laughing at her terrified expression.
“They’re not marked,” one of the men said, exchanging an unsure glance with another. “You sure they’re Devils? No point in wasting time if they’re not.”
Alicia’s heart beat too hard, nearly to the point of pain. Yenna wobbled again, grabbing her shoulder.
“No, we’re definitely Devils! Don’t sell yourself short. Your sea beast is de-definitely looking for me,” she taunted, slurring and stretching. “Pity she’s too scared to talk to me again; we had a lovely chat before! It took weeks to get the smell of her out of my hallway! Tell her to say hi.”
The men moved forward at the confirmation, drawing guns. There were too many for Alicia to count, and she didn’t know what to do, so she cowered, ashamed of herself, curling up next to the brick wall and hiding her face. Some of the men were human. Most of them had eyes like the things that killed her father, that killed her family, that ruined her life.
They found me!
She stayed curled up in the ball, squeezing her hands over her ears, until a long fingernail tapped her shoulder. Maybe they would be gentle with her. Maybe they’d pull her through the streets and rip her to shreds like they must’ve done her father.
“You’re cute when you cry.”
Alicia looked up, expecting to be eaten, expecting blood and bones. Instead, Yenna stood clean, not even winded. A pile of bodies loomed behind her, some of the men still gasping. There was a crackling noise, almost like a bonfire. The smell of burning skin entered her nose and wouldn’t leave. There was no fire, though. Not even a hint of a flame. Yenna’s red hair glowed a bit, pulled out of its usual bun, wiping the floor around her.
Burning? She burned them. How?
She knelt down and tilted Alicia’s face toward hers, stopping just short of a kiss. An intense heat poured off of her in waves, bringing sweat to Alicia’s brows.
“You can’t be afraid of them. They’ll take everything from you. They’ll never stop. You and I are the last of something amazing. If they take us, we’re done.”
Alicia pulled her face back, staring at the pile of bodies. She waited for a feeling, any feeling. She’d been scared, hadn’t she? Didn’t that mean she wanted to live? No. It was the thought of Mae’s body being damaged, of her sister’s body being taken by the beasts that took her the first time. She didn’t mind the thought of dying. More and more, she didn’t mind the thought of not existing.
They left Lauryn for Anity, and the response there was worse. Alicia didn’t understand why so many people hated Yenna, hated her, wanted them dead. It wasn’t just the creatures that killed her family. At times, they were followed and howled at by regular people. They were called monsters, spit at (to dangerous reactions from Yenna), and taunted. The fear that seemed to exist in people in Virginia Steeps didn’t exist in Anity. It wore at Yenna after a while.
“Let’s go home before things get rough,” she mumbled one night, standing with Alicia and watching their hotel burn.
All the pretty dresses Yenna had stolen were stuck in the fire, going up in smoke. A crowd formed behind them, everyone silent, everyone watching. They parted when Yenna pulled Alicia through, anger shaking through her fists, and didn’t stop staring until the two turned the corner and headed to the boats.
Alicia didn’t argue.
Alicia waited until she was sure they weren’t leaving again, until they were back in the lavish apartment, until she could see the cobblestones from the window, to tell Yenna about Cora. She waited until she was sure she only wanted death.
“Cora is in the ocean. At The Mouth.”
Yenna’s knees buckled when Alicia said it, but she held herself up with the counter. Too many moments edged by with Yenna holding herself up, gasping, choking on the information until her body buckled again.
“I thought so,” Yenna whispered, holding herself in horror. “I thought … I hoped she wasn’t. How do you know? Can you be sure?”
“Someone told me.”
“Who told you that? Who are you talking to other than me?”
For the first time in months, anger filled Alicia.
“My father told me.”
Again, Yenna buckled, and this time, Alicia caught her.
“Harold? He … you saw him?”
“Yes. And you knew he was alive. He was here the night I came back. He was visiting you. You knew my father was alive, and you let me go on thinking he was dead! You knew.”
Alicia’s nails dug into Yenna’s sides, sending long lines of powder into the air. Yenna didn’t react to them.
“Oh, shut up. That’s not your father. Not … entirely. He’s, well, it’s actually pretty pathetic.”
Laughter burst through Yenna until Alicia let her fall to the ground.
“Let me die! Kill me. Please! Just show me how to get rid of myself. I want to be with my sisters! I can’t take this!”
Yenna stopped laughing and sighed, leaning her head back in irritation. She played with the bottom of Alicia’s dress for a moment, thinking.
“Your father was consumed by that man. It’s a Hybrid thing. They can do disgusting things with their bodies. Don’t be stupid enough to get tricked by a glorified parasite. Everyone thinks he’s their friend until he eats them and takes over their lives. Stay away from him. The … people … in him aren’t exactly sane.”
“I said I want to die.”
“You can’t. You’re immortal. I could beat you to death like I want to if you want, and you’ll just wake up in another body. Even if you don’t make a Latch. You’re a true immortal. Poor you.”
“You’re grooming me. I don’t want to be your-your-your fucking consolation prize!”
The sting that caused in Yenna almost produced a sound.
“Is that what I’m doing? Grooming you? You think I need to groom someone to find affection?”
“I’m practically your niece—”
“You are not my niece. My family is dead. They’re all dead.” Yenna sat forward, collecting herself, trying to speak through more hurt. “You’re not my family. Harold wasn’t my family; Cora wasn’t even my family. You don’t know anything about my … you don’t know anything about the people I come from. My loved ones.” She swallowed more hurt, touching her throat. “Grooming. Grooming? Ha! Is that what it looks like?”
“You would never treat me the way you do if my father was here! That’s why you didn’t tell me about him. You want me to be some sort of—”
“Your father’s dead. Your mother’s dead, your sisters are dead, your entire pathetic family is dead. I’m the only fool who cares about you. I’m fond of you. Is that a bad thing? I like you. I never … I never like anyone.”
Alicia couldn’t take it if Yenna cried. She tried to calm down, tried to talk herself out of any more words, but couldn’t.
“You’re too old for me. You’re too close to my family. I don’t want to be … yours.”
Yenna was so silent that Alicia stepped back, staring down at her. She looked utterly depressed, sadness escaping her throat in a whimper.
“Fine. That’s fine. Maybe you should’ve stayed out there prostituting yourself for coats.”
Alicia sobbed, sucking in breath after breath, and tried to kick her foot into Yenna’s stomach. Yenna caught her and pulled her to the ground, pushing her thumbs into Alicia’s neck until they both heard a loud crack and Alicia’s breaths turned to gurgles.
“You keep touching me and I’m going to have to start being mean to you, Alicia. We don’t want that. I don’t want to give some alley whore the energy.” She spoke through grit teeth, pushing her thumbs deeper into Alicia’s throat.
She pulled Alicia’s head up and smashed it back against the ground, sending her pearls scattering. Alicia choked, groaning in pain, and tried to pull away. Her blood came out as liquid, as Mae’s liquid blood, and feeling it running down her neck and chest brought panic to her that she couldn’t control.
Yenna stood and stomped Alicia until her heel broke in her stomach, rage fueling each stomp. Then, she took off the shoe to beat her with it. She didn’t stop until Alicia begged in agony, her blood finally turning to powder, her hands covering her head.
“Get up, you weak idiot. I don’t need someone like you! I don’t want someone like you! We’re going to look for Cora. We’re going to find her, you ungrateful husk.” She tossed the shoe in the corner and noisily left to throw clothes and items into bags. “See if I save any more of you wretched bitches. See if I risk my life for another one of you fucking weaklings! SEE IF I TRY ANYMORE! Since I’m such a bad guy! Everyone hates me, right?! SEE IF I CARE about anyone but CORA! She’s the only one I care about!”
Alicia laid there gagging roughly until she felt the blood stop gushing out of her neck. Nothing came after. There was no passing into another life. There was no relief. She laid there and listened to Yenna scream and cry until the apartment felt like it would burst into flames, and she wished she could stay there forever.
I won’t die. I just won’t die.
Yenna’s anger over the rejection was swift and everlasting. Alicia found herself at the receiving end of her rage too often, much too often, and she had to love Yenna through punches, kicks, spit, knives, and so much blood. She had to appreciate Yenna’s knowledge through vicious slander, through biting tones and words. All the things Alicia loved about the woman she considered her savior sat buried under a mountain of hate and rage.
“I’m going to teach you how terrible this world really is, you ungrateful idiot. You want to die? Fine. There are so many ways to die without leaving this planet.”
Yenna “taught” Alicia through constant and unrelenting abuse, by dragging her to fight enemies she wasn’t strong enough to fight. And the enemies were suddenly everywhere; Shadows followed them around, they found them in stores, they lurked around corners. Virginia Steeps was beginning to feel like Anity, and they weren’t even safe in the historic apartment. At any time of night, Alicia could look out of the window and see eyes staring up at her from the street. They were everywhere, and Yenna wouldn’t protect her anymore. Whenever Alicia tried to go for walks or collect Yenna’s mail, there were more and more Shadows waiting outside the doors, staring at her, darkness swirling around them. She stopped leaving, terrified, and the isolation felt like bricks in her stomach.
“I need to wash my clothes,” Alicia muttered to Yenna one day, trying to catch her as she breezed toward the door.
Yenna sighed, pulling her hair into a messy ponytail. It still cascaded down her back, sweeping the floor.
“Please. You won’t let me use the washer and dryer. I just need to wash my clothes. Can you … can you come with me to the laundromat? Maybe we can talk?”
Yenna thought for a moment.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
Alicia barely had time to grab her bag of clothing before Yenna walked out of the door. She held the elevator open casually, humming.
Alicia washed her things while Yenna stalked back and forth, her face buried in her phone.
“Do you know how to read, Alicia?”
Yenna smirked, still staring down.
“Well, you became a little orphan when you were sixteen, right? Someone so young, how would I know if you ever went to school? You were on the run so long. What did you want to be when you were a child?”
“I don’t know.” The idea that she might be forgiven fueled her, dredging up a slight hint of confidence. “I was actually very impressed with my grandmother. It would’ve been nice to be a singer or maybe a model.”
Alicia folded her clothes, ignoring the blood rushing to her face.
“Wh-what about you? What did you want to be?”
“Loved.” Alicia smiled a little at the response, then thought better of it.
She gathered her clothes, and they started the short walk back to the apartment. It wasn’t night yet. There were specks of darkness in the sky, but it was still early enough not to worry. Without warning, there was a loud screech. Startled, Alicia spun around, dropping her bag. A large man hit her so hard, she nearly did a complete flip, and Yenna watched them with a bored expression.
“Yes. Loved is the right answer. My parents were evolved just like we are, but they didn’t take to the malformations well.” She stepped over Alicia, ignoring her struggled cries. The man snarled at her, nearly hissing. “They were powerful and unique, but they were so unloving. And I needed that, I think. Nothing else ever loves us. Everything will try to kill us, you know? Humans. Shadows. Sometimes Latches even turn on us, the idiots. You’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to worry about all of that. But you don’t want it, do you?”
She picked at something on her arm, uninterested, as Alicia screamed for help. She screamed until her throat burned, fighting against the man. He dug his fingers into her scalp, pulling her head up and bashing it against the ground. She managed to yank her head away, pushing her fingers into his throat like Yenna had done to her before, but he smashed her hand down and bit her collarbone.
“You’re so weak. Cora used to split men in half for touching her. Literally rip them up the middle. What a woman. And here I am, stuck with you. Some whore that’s too good to protect herself. You think I’m going to do everything for you.” Yenna continued talking to herself, even when the man stood and drug Alicia by her foot, pulling her to a large fountain.
She clawed at the ground, frantic, out of air, trying her best to scream but losing.
“He wants you to die so he can eat. They get hungry when they stay up here too long, you know. He wants to suck all your blood out of the air.” Yenna talked to herself as the man finally hit Alicia hard enough to stop her body from moving.
He pulled her up and pushed her into the fountain, forcing her head under. Yenna stepped in only when Alicia was about to black out, about to give them away with a Blood Burst. Underwater and tired of fighting, Alicia watched a surge of red air pour from Yenna. It pulled up from the ground, devouring the man, sending smoke puffing around his body.
It’s her hair. She’s burning them with her hair.
Alicia tried her best to stay underwater, to drown, but Yenna pulled her up when the man was nothing but a smoldering black body on the ground.
“You’re really determined to waste your time dying, aren’t you?” she asked, almost playfully.
Alicia choked out mouthfuls of water, yanking away.
“He … nearly … drowned me!”
“Didn’t you take the test? You should get used to drowning. You might find it fun someday! Get a little break from this life you hate so much.”
Alicia didn’t bother asking about the hair. Yenna would never explain anything anymore. All of her charm seemed stuck back in that apartment, rotting somewhere with the revelation that Cora was at The Mouth, stuck somewhere under the realization that Alicia wasn’t interested in her.
They picked up Alicia’s clothes, then noticed someone else following them. Another large man. His arms were splitting at the sides, deep gashes running up to his shoulders. Alicia walked faster, getting too far in front of Yenna, then slowed down when she saw another man at their door.
Yenna sighed, rolling her eyes. “Look at all these Shadows following us. I’m sure your best friend David didn’t sell us out. They’re just following us for no reason, not because you met up with your best friend. Idiot. He wants to let them use you as a shell. Empty you out and take you over. Feed a sea full of monsters so they don’t eat him.”
“How do I stop them? I’m sorry, please, Yenna! What do I do?”
Yenna was suddenly too busy to talk. It happened any time they left. More and more, Yenna would leave Alicia to defend herself, watching until things went too far.
As time went on, Yenna started to soften. It didn’t stop her from leaving Alicia to fight, though. She’d suddenly see something nice in a shop window, and it would be Alicia that the Shadow followed into the night.
Scared Alicia. Naive Alicia. Unprepared Alicia.
The more the Shadows attacked, the more Yenna became convinced that Alicia had to learn by practice. The shift was aggressive. Roaming the country with her family had been tedious and, at times, depressing, but this was nightmarish. They barely saw Yenna’s downtown apartment, the cobblestoned road like a distant memory. She felt like most of her life was spent walking around dark roads, fighting men off of her in the dark, spitting blood out in alleys. Yenna rewarded her with outings, but it was a small consolation. When they got dressed to go to parties, looking for lessons in every patron, Yenna would finally compliment Alicia.
“So tall. Cora really bled length into your family line. Regal. You have the skin of a goddess.”
“My sister would’ve loved that. I’m shorter and … thicker. This isn’t me. This is Mae.”
For the first time in weeks, Yenna grabbed Alicia’s face and spoke directly to her.
“Don’t pity yourself; it’s pathetic. Mae’s dead. You are who you take.”
Yenna wasn’t done looking for love and information. Alicia found herself playing Yenna’s younger sister on more than one occasion, sitting on sidewalks while Yenna and a suitor “talked” in cars. On one such night, Alicia stared at the sky, her heart violent with anguish, her body sore from lessons. The agony of her existence was all she could think about.
Was this what her father wanted for her?
“This is relentless. I just want to sleep forever.”
The thought of it brought her as close to happiness as she’d ever been in Mae’s body. Just the thought of sleeping, never waking, never having to deal with the reality of her world again.
“What if you could?”
The voice was low and mocking. For a moment, Alicia figured it came from her head. Maybe Mae was inside of her somewhere.
“What if I can help you sleep forever?”
She turned to see a naked woman with short, black hair shining in the moonlight. The woman’s skin looked dead, damp, plump with moisture. There was a smell flowing from the woman that gagged Alicia on receipt, sinking into the fabric of her long dress. Alicia, unsure, tried to remember the fighting positions she’d learned from being beaten by men. It seemed being beaten only taught you how to take a hit. She had no idea how to fight.
“Do you need something?”
The woman had a sheen to her that didn’t sit right with Alicia. Her eyes were too glossy. They were surrounded by woods, the only sounds being the soft rocking of the car and the bored moans of Yenna.
She has to hear her. We hear everything.
“Not just yet. But when I do, I’d be happy to help you if you helped me. To escape this woman.” Alicia glanced at the car. “A friend told me you want death. I’ll be in touch.”
The woman turned and disappeared into the woods, bits of her flesh peeking through her skin.
Yenna rolled down the window, her hair everywhere, and gave Alicia a curious look.
“Who are you talking to?”
Alicia learned more about Shadows in between gulps of blood. Every now and then, Yenna would get irritated with her, get annoyed at some small thing, and taunt her until she neared a breaking point. The more Alicia disliked her, the more Yenna seemed to find the love she’d lost for her.
They’d taken to training in the courtyard behind Yenna’s apartment. Alicia spat a mouthful of blood on the sidewalk. Again, Yenna stepped back, an amused smile on her face, and waited. The beatings had stopped. Yenna was finally helping her fight, finally helping her defend herself, but now, they fought each other in the name of “training.” It wasn’t much better. Instead of strange creatures slinging her around, now Yenna would do it, and she was more vicious. Yenna was longer than Alicia could’ve imagined before she started getting kicks to the face.
Shock froze Alicia. Yenna took the time to smash her heel into Alicia’s chin. They waited for Alicia to spit before facing each other.
“You’re what? How? With who?”
Alicia stepped forward, not even an inch, and Yenna smashed her foot into her face again. Her neck popped. This time, Alicia tried to stay down.
“It was a personal choice. I told you I wasn’t going to stop my life for these beasts. We’re going to move forward with our plans. All three of us.”
Alicia gulped a new mouthful of blood, feeling it dry in her throat, and coughed it up.
Another family to lose? Is she serious?
“Please. We need to talk about this … this isn’t. … Let’s take a break.”
“We can take a break. I’ll stomp you to death, and when you wake up as someone else, I’ll go for a walk. I’ll kill everyone you jump into until you get back into your own body.”
Alicia whimpered. It was constant. Nonstop.
“Are you going to beat me senseless in front of your new child, too?”
Yenna paused. She let Alicia push onto her feet, then kicked her in the chest. The sound of it hurt almost worse than the actual kick.
“Our new child. You’re going to protect this baby with your life just like I am.”
Alicia’s head spun, then she was on the ground again. She stood with some trouble, wiping her bloody hands on her sweatpants.
“Anyway. Cora. I’m thinking of ways to get her out of The Mouth. I want my child to have her around. It’s tricky, though. There are a few different spots down there. There’s the top portion, which is the entrance. Then, the middle part with all the beasts. The bottom, which I’m not as familiar with, then the brine pool. They keep the bodies they loan out to the Shadows in the brine pool. If she’s down there, we’re not getting her. The shock would immobilize us.”
“Why would you bring a baby into this world? Haven’t you lost enough?”
“Somewhat. And then, Cora came along. And then, you came along. Alicia, as long as we can keep producing, as long as we have someone to care about, life is worth living. You have to know that. I know I’m hard on you, but I care about you. I obviously care about you in … a way.” Yenna smirked again and pulled her knee back, nearly sending her foot through Alicia’s stomach. “I was a little offended when you said you knew where Cora was. I’ve been looking so long, and it’s so obvious. I don’t know how I didn’t put that together. And I admit I haven’t taken your accusations of grooming well. But I want to change course and be healthier.”
“So now … you’re … beating me … up? For … revenge? For … love?”
“Get tough, Alicia. We are up against something inhuman. Something impossible. You won’t make it like this. You won’t protect this little kid with Devil Syndrome like this. Dying and ending up in The Mouth are not the same thing, not even a little. Not for us at least.”
Yenna’s smile seemed to age. Alicia took the opportunity to crash to the ground, groaning loudly while she held her stomach. She felt all the pain in the world as Mae.
I’m not doing it. I’m not letting her do this.
“I said I didn’t want to be with you. I said … I said I didn’t want that. You can’t force me like this.”
“You don’t have to be with me.” There was that hurt tone again, but Yenna didn’t attack. “I’m going to stop hitting you from now on.”
“Oh, gee, thanks …”
“We’re going to raise this baby without fear. We are going to find Cora, but we’re also going to figure out how to destroy those things, and Eon Tech, and everything that stands against us. I’m tired of running. Tired of hearing the same story from all of us, the same story of dark beings pulling us to pieces. All the people with Devil Syndrome plucked off the face of the Earth. We’re going to stop it. And then, we’re going to live.”
“Let me … take a break. I’ll take care of whatever little baby you want, just stop hitting me.”
Yenna nodded, walking off to check their surroundings. To protect Alicia. To protect her baby, to force herself into Alicia’s life forever, to trap Alicia, to trap her, to trap her. Right there, on the ground, Alicia lost what little hope she had left to ever live a normal life. It was like her mother, wasn’t it? Judith forcing her to wear the black gloves. Judith trying to keep her father from finding out the truth about her. Maybe her father was always right. Maybe he really was trying to protect her.
Maybe he still was.
She gasped. The naked woman hadn’t come back for her, but she remembered where they met. Maybe it was time to take her death into her own hands.
I can’t be here when that baby is born. I can’t be around for it.
White hair shining in the moonlight, Mr. David smiled when Alicia approached. She’d made her way back to the woods where she’d seen the woman, tired of waiting. They both stood, the woman as naked as she’d been before, and waited.
“Alicia,” he said almost cheerfully.
“Are you my father?”
Mr. David chuckled, nervously running his hand over his locs. She wondered why they were so bright, almost sucking the light from the area around him. It was hard not to look up at them instead of at his face.
Alicia nodded, tears streaming down her face, and turned to leave.
“I … I’m not your father exactly. I couldn’t save all of him. I tried. I made a … copy. To some degree.”
“So, who are you? And tell me the truth. I’m tired of the back and forth.”
“It’s complicated. I was also Eric. Your … your grandfather.” Alicia turned back around to look at him. “There are a couple of other people in me as well. One full, the others copies. It’s a thing I can do to survive. You could call me a sample tray.”
He laughed at his own joke, glancing over at the naked woman. She didn’t move, just stared unblinking at Alicia. Alicia took in his bright hair again, and it finally hit her. She knew him before that night at Yenna’s apartment, back when she was filled with so much hope.
“You saved me. Mae. When we were attacked. You dragged me away from the car.” He didn’t respond. “You were there! You knew they would attack us.” Again, he didn’t respond. A heavy wave of disgust rolled over her. Fatigue surrounded it. “I don’t care. I want to die. I don’t want to deal with any of this anymore. Tell me how to die.”
“I need something in exchange,” the woman finally spoke, emotionless.
Her voice was syrupy, watery, and moist. It made Alicia uncomfortable, but she stood up straight to listen.
“Your friend. I want her body. Before she has the child.”
Mr. David shifted. Alicia wondered what he didn’t know, what he wouldn’t tell.
“You’re spying on us?”
“Of course. I’ve been watching Yenna for a long time. We have a history.”
“Why do you want her body?”
“This one …” The woman motioned to her body as if no explanation was necessary. “I need a body that will last. I need to do this for the continuation of my species. It is not personal, and I hold no ill intentions against your kind.”
Alicia was still, so still Mr. David almost moved forward to check on her. The words felt false to her, but she couldn’t pinpoint why.
“And then you’ll kill me?”
“How?” The woman didn’t answer. “You want me to bring you someone important to me, the only important person to me, and just assume you know how to kill me? I’m not like the others.”
There was a commotion, then a man was suddenly drug through the leaves, his muffled screams filling the night, and slammed in front of Alicia. His arms and mouth were bound; she could see deep wounds in his back. It was as if he was being pulled by nothing. A single strand of hair with a tiny blue light attached to it lifted from the moist woman’s head and grew, traveling over to the struggling victim.
“I can kill you if you want. I can kill anyone.”
The man pleaded with Alicia through his gag, sobbing, leaves sticking to the snot on his face. Mr. David turned and grimaced as the light suddenly brightened, searing the flesh and skin off of the man, completely covering him until his entire body turned to a black blob of melted flesh. It siphoned easily into the small light.
There was nothing left of him. Not even an imprint in the wet leaves.
“I don’t want that to happen to Yenna,” Alicia said immediately.
“I won’t hurt her. I want to use her body. I have no reason to destroy it. I need you to bring her to The Mouth in one piece. My friend can’t get close enough to her, and she’s too strong for anyone I’ve sent. It has to be you. In all my time watching her, you’re the only person I’ve seen her let her guard down with.”
Alicia stood for a long time, watching. Thinking. She turned without another word and walked back through the woods.
There was nothing she wanted more than to disintegrate.
Yenna was brilliant with happiness. The change pitted her directly against Alicia’s throbbing depression, and watching her belly grow only caused a deeper ache.
I watched my family die. Yenna watched her family die. That baby is just going to end up the same way.
“What if it’s not a Devil? What if it’s healthy?”
“If it isn’t a kid with Devil Syndrome, I’ll kill it. And what do you mean healthy? We’re not sick.”
Yenna absently stuffed blankets into a crib. The room Alicia slept in was being transformed. Yenna moved all of Alicia’s things into her own room, not bothering to ask how Alicia felt about it. The gentle touches had started again. Yenna sat next to her often, turning the television down low, and buried her face in her neck. Alicia found herself rubbing Yenna’s belly sometimes, wondering what was in there. What did little monsters look like? She felt herself slowly being ground down, and she didn’t want it.
Yenna disappeared to doctor’s appointments, and every now and then, she would invite Alicia.
“I have a friend who specializes in Devil Syndrome pregnancies. You should meet her. She’s a valuable asset to us. Probably the only human I can stand to be around.”
Alicia declined every time, sensing she was being pulled deeper into Yenna’s plans for a family.
“I don’t want to be your girlfriend.”
Yenna laughed, straightening a teddy bear. She stood and examined her work. The room was bright, cute, and still somehow lavish.
“Thankfully, I’m not offering. I don’t want to be yours.”
Alicia ignored the lie, staring at the small bear.
“Why do I have to be here? Why can’t you have it yourself?”
Yenna moved swiftly to Alicia and sat down. She jumped, moving over.
“You deserve love and happiness. I know how you feel about your life, what you think you did. You can’t hate yourself forever. You can’t punish yourself for something that wasn’t your fault. Whether Mae wanted to do it or not, it wasn’t a decision you ever made. I won’t let you destroy yourself over it.”
Alicia hated the feeling that stuck in her throat. She turned her head, ignoring the wet heat running down her face.
“Maybe my own decisions aren’t any better.” Yenna patted her shoulder, lifting up with discomfort. So big. She was getting so big so quickly. The baby was too real, too tangible. “I have the utmost faith in you. Accept my love or not. You deserve it.”
Alicia shook with anguish. Deserve it? What did Yenna know about Alicia to say that? Did she deserve something she didn’t want?
Alicia took over protection duties as Yenna’s belly grew. She almost found pride in it, and she walked ahead of Yenna when they were out shopping. She kept watch at grocery stores when Yenna was buying food.
“I really hate having to eat,” Yenna grumbled, packing the cart with ingredients. “That’s probably my only gripe with pregnancy so far. I don’t know how these humans do it.”
A Shadow walked by, and Alicia was proud of herself for being able to tell. He kept walking, browsing the meat aisle.
“They’re not after us for once.”
Alicia knew why. There was no point in wasting more bodies when she was the only one who could do the job, and she hadn’t said no. The naked woman was waiting to see what she would do. But Alicia wasn’t sure.
Alicia did the polite thing and joined Yenna for her dinners, often with red wine and classical music. She enjoyed their conversations more often, embracing Yenna’s sudden softness.
“Who is the father?” she asked one night, and Yenna stopped eating to stare down at her plate.
For the first time since they’d met, Yenna blushed.
“What an annoying question.”
Alicia went through an entire glass of wine, pouring more, before Yenna picked up her fork again.
“Do you honestly care? You’re the one who’s going to help me take care of him.”
“It’s a boy?”
“Yes. Hopefully, our next one will be a girl.”
“Are you embarrassed about the father?”
This time, Yenna dropped her fork and stared at Alicia. She didn’t back down.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Why are you being so secretive? Was it an accident? Do you partake in men every now and then? Did you actually plan this, or are you dragging me into your mistakes?”
“I should beat you to death.”
“You could try. You’re a little slower now. I might win.”
They both laughed out loud, Alicia downing more wine. Yenna was an excellent cook, and she felt normal for the first time in years. When was the last time she’d had dinner at the table as a family?
Is that what you are? A family?
Alicia cleaned up after dinner, scrubbing the kitchen spotless. If there was any mess, Yenna would instinctively clean it. She went through the living room and swept the floor after, staring out of the big windows into the night. The streetlight outside of their apartment caught a glint. Mr. David stood and stared up at her, patient. Except he didn’t look like Mr. David. He looked like her father, her real father. Instead of crisp black waves, his hair was a stark white. It filled her with hurt, but she knew he wasn’t really her father. Not in the grand scheme of things.
Just a copy. Just a piece.
“Why don’t you lay with me for a minute? Just a minute,” Yenna called, and the vulnerable tone that softly shook through her voice scared Alicia more than the white-haired monster.
She held the broom, staring down, then joined Yenna in the bedroom they shared.
“Sleeping on the couch has to be getting old.”
“You commandeered my room. You know, there are less aggressive ways to get a girlfriend. I’m sure plenty of people want you. Like the father of your child, for instance.”
Yenna was already dressed for bed, a long red nightgown blending in with her loose hair. Alicia climbed in next to her, admiring the height from the floor to the bottom of the bedspring.
“Stop. I barely know him. It’s more like a business arrangement. Some Devils … there’s a …”
Alicia waited patiently while Yenna tried to articulate her story. The thick beat of her heart brought Alicia closer.
She’s really ashamed about this.
“There aren’t a lot of us around at any given time. There are less and less true immortal Devils every year. And … and the normal Devils are being born with so many abnormalities, it’s almost a risk to have children with humans. And … and a lot of the children are just human. There was a time when our species was so strong, we always dominated. The children would have Devil Syndrome ninety percent of the time, especially the girls. Now?” She looked around the room as if to find an example. “Now, it’s maybe twenty percent or less, and the boys always have some sort of issue. I was born with a defect myself. It’s not … well, it works to my advantage. But. The father is … the father is a man with Devil Syndrome that expressed interest in me a long time ago. To Cora. I declined, but I kept his contact information in case I ever changed my mind. Cora said I would. She said I would want a family, but I thought … well. And with her being where she is, and Harold being gone, and just everyone being gone. You know. I thought … I should do this. For … the species.” Yenna sighed, her cheeks blood red, and Alicia leaned against her to help ease her nerves.
“Don’t be embarrassed, you moron,” Alicia mumbled, the heat from Yenna’s hair relaxing her. “It makes sense. I wondered how we kept our bloodlines going, anyway. I’m glad you weren’t just trying to trap me.”
“Are you ever going to love me back, Alicia?”
“I love being with you! And traveling. All of the things we do together, I love them. How can you not feel that?”
Alicia settled closer to Yenna. For the first time, she admitted that she did feel something, though maybe not that. She felt a lot with Yenna. It bothered her. It was worse than the emptiness. It was worse than the loneliness, and the guilt, and the feeling of walking around in her sister’s body.
Yenna lifted Alicia’s chin, and her eyes were pitch black. They grew, filling her iris, filling the whites. She leaned forward, moving Alicia’s hand to her stomach. Alicia placed her head on Yenna’s chest, avoiding the kiss, but leaned up and returned it at the last minute. Yenna groaned into her mouth. Her excitement got the best of Alicia. They kissed for too long, for much too long, until Alicia gasped and pulled away.
“I can’t believe I love you so much,” Yenna said softly, kissing Alicia again. “I can’t believe it. Out of all the people in the world, why you?”
“I don’t love you, Yenna.” Alicia felt silly for crying, but it was all she could do sometimes. It was the easiest thing she could do.
“That’s a lie. I know you love me, Alicia. I’ve loved you since I first saw you at that party. Harold used to get on my nerves when we were younger. He went off with that human, left us, and didn’t even think about what he was doing. But it was worth it. Who knew he would give me someone so amazing? No way I could know that two of his girls would turn into the loves of my life.”
Alicia’s smile stuck to her face, and it stayed frozen there as Yenna drifted off to sleep, gripping her tighter. Her hand sat frozen over Yenna’s belly. An aching, gnarled feeling crawled from her toes to the very top of her scalp, swallowing her, and she finally made a decision.
Alicia learned the hard way that good decisions took time, but bad decisions went faster.
Closer to her due date, Mr. David lifted Yenna into the small boat, grunting. She was heavy with the baby in her. Alicia tightened her cloak, quiet but exhilarated. An excitement crept through her.
Don’t think about it. It will be over soon. You’ll be dead. You can’t feel bad when you’re dead.
She talked to herself often before she made her decision. Yenna slept so soundly during her pregnancy, and she trusted Alicia beyond measure. She hadn’t suspected the sleeping pills in her juice. Foolishly, Alicia worried that the pills might hurt the baby, then she remembered what she was doing and added enough to do the job.
Yenna didn’t move while Alicia tied her up. And she tied her up three times to be sure, using her hair as the last bind. Again, she worried that the ties might cut off circulation and. … By the time she was done, Alicia had reminded herself of what she was doing almost eight times. Mr. David helped load Yenna into the car. The whole way there, Yenna snored peacefully. The baby rolled in her stomach.
Did it always move that much?
They reached the docks, and Mr. David gave Alicia a hug.
“Thank you. I’ll take care of the rest.”
After he loaded Yenna, Alicia climbed easily on board.
“She made me a promise. I want it honored.”
“You don’t mean that. Please. You can keep Yenna’s apartment, you can move on with your life.”
Alicia smiled, sitting daintily in the hull. She wanted to watch the water before she died.
“I don’t want anything but what I asked for.”
The thought of being with her sisters kept her peaceful until night rolled over them. The water was black. Ravenous. It felt like a storm could come, and Alicia had the foolish thought that Yenna wouldn’t have a good transition if one did. Then, she wondered what it would be like. What would Yenna feel as the woman took her body? Would they kill her first? She turned to ask and was met with Yenna’s wide-open eyes, staring wildly at her.
Yenna’s breathing sunk into Alicia and wouldn’t leave.
No, no. You’re going to die. You’re finally going to die. Don’t let her guilt you.
Yenna was afraid. She wriggled relentlessly, moaning, struggling. If she would just stop, Alicia could just go back to pretending she was on a cruise, drifting out to a new beginning.
It was cold. Alicia watched Yenna struggle against her binds, her breathing ragged.
“What will you do with the baby?” Alicia finally whispered.
Mr. David stopped steering to stare at her for a moment, something like sorrow on his face, and shrugged.
“She won’t kill it. I don’t think she’ll kill it, at least. It doesn’t matter.”
Her heart beat until she couldn’t hear anything but her body, Mae’s body, working to keep her alive. Yenna kept her eyes on Alicia. Pleading. She was pleading with her. Not angry, not betrayed, just frightened. Why had they taken her in her underwear? Alicia took off her cloak and covered her friend, wiping tears from her face.
“You said it wasn’t painful, right? You said … you said she wouldn’t feel anything?”
Mr. David chuckled. “I said no such thing.”
Alicia felt her stomach knotting up. She watched the water shift around the boat, watched the sky slowly turn over to darkness. Yenna refused to close her eyes, to blink, to do anything but stare at Alicia. The baby seemed to roll in her belly, too active, chaotic.
First Mae, now Yenna. Who will survive you?
Mr. David took a deep breath and held Alicia’s hand.
“We’re here. You’re doing the right thing. Just relax. Don’t talk. Don’t look over the side.”
Alicia, too frightened to listen, looked over. Black water greeted her, except it wasn’t just black water. The water pooled up against a deep pit of blackness, folding over itself, and in the middle of it, just below the black surface, was a sea of white. She couldn’t compare its size to anything; from one rim of the mouth to the other, miles away from them, all she could see was the white layer. A massive pupil rolled over to stare at her, turning the entire edge of The Mouth black. Mr. David yanked her back.
“You can’t put her in there. You can’t put her in there. You can’t.” Alicia felt the sobs ripping through her, felt the damage of her sorrow destroying her.
Yenna struggled against her binds, moaning words Alicia couldn’t understand.
Forgive me, forgive me like Mae did, please forgive me. Please forgive me before you go. Please. Please.
Nothing but fear filled Yenna’s eyes. She screamed into her gag as a thick black tentacle eased into the boat. Alicia grabbed Mr. David, yelping, and he covered her mouth. A hand smacked against the railing, then another, and the woman from the woods pulled herself up slowly, her hair and skin dripping salty water. She jumped onto the boat, smiling brilliantly, and did a small dance of joy. The sound of her soggy feet made Alicia want to gag.
She hadn’t realized how abnormal the woman looked. How much her body split and tore, how the sheen on her was almost sticky.
“You are wonderful, Alicia! Thank you! Thank you so much! I’m so glad to have you on my side!”
She watched as Yenna was covered with more tentacles, all of them slick and black like leeches. Watched her trying her hardest to slide forward. The woman knelt down, lifting Yenna’s face to hers, and gave her a slow kiss on the forehead. Yenna’s hair began to smoke, parts of her arms and legs sending grey puffs into the sky, but the woman only smiled.
“Thank you as well. It’s been a good game.”
The tentacles gripped Yenna tightly just under her breasts, wrapping around, and pulled her into the air. Alicia watched Yenna, her protruding belly, her cloak, and the tentacle disappear into the water. Then, it was still.
So fast. So fast. It all happened too fast.
Mr. David breathed out a sigh of relief. “Let’s go back. Don’t worry, girl. You’ll feel better about it after you see how much more peaceful it is on this side of things.”
Alicia wasn’t listening. She stared at the water, frantic.
The woman stared at the horizon wistfully.
“I apologize, Alicia. I know that was hard to watch. Do you still want to die? Or will you return to land with your friend?”
They waited. One of her tiny bulbs floated up on a strand of hair, stretching to Alicia. She couldn’t speak. Mr. David moved over and out of the way, sighing, but kept holding her hand.
“Wait.” They both stopped and looked at her, a glimmer of hope in the air. “I made a mistake. I … love her. She’s … she’s the only person I love. Give her back? Please? You can still kill me. Just give her back. She shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have done this.”
The woman stood still. Stone. Mr. David gave Alicia the most incredulous look he could produce.
“It’s too late, girl.”
“You don’t understand. That’s going to be my child. I’m going to raise hi-him with her. She’s not bad, she just needs someone to help her be a better person. I don’t want her to die; I want to die by myself. OK? I don’t want this.”
“She isn’t a good person, Alicia. She’s done terrible things,” the woman said, but Alicia stood, anger flooding her.
What did this thing know about being an orphan? About being unloved and left behind by everyone? What did she know about Yenna? No one knew Yenna but Alicia.
“You can have my body instead. It hasn’t been long. It hasn’t. You can tell that monster to pull her back up. You can. I’m sure you can.”
Alicia leaped at the woman, anger pulsing through her, knocking both of them into the water. She felt the black abyss surround her, crawling over her skin, but she held tight, digging her nails wherever she felt skin. She breathed in as much water as she could, screaming on release, agonized.
“Give her back! Give her back! GIVE HER BACK!”
She was sorry. Sorry for Yenna, sorry for Judith, sorry for Harold, for Mae, for the baby. She was so sorry for the baby. She felt the rocks filling her lungs, felt the woman slip from her grasp and scream through the water in anger. The tentacles wrapped around her, gripped so tight her legs broke, and she just laughed.
A tentacle shoved into her throat, ripping her jaw in half, and she laughed and laughed and laughed. She felt herself being dragged down, felt the life draining out of her, felt the Blood Burst coming, knew they would keep her, knew they would keep her alive down there forever, and she laughed. The pressure burst through her head, sending searing pain through her eardrums, pressing blinding white pain through her skull, and she finally stopped laughing.
Yenna was wrong. This was what she deserved.
Chapter 7: Brothers and Fathers
Where are we?
Part of me could see the boards at Lostine Pier, the wet roll of the clouds in the sky, the soft way my boots lifted from the ground. There was a breeze I could feel, light against my face. My eyes closed in relaxation for a moment. There was so much to feel, but that was it. It was all just feeling, thinking, seeing. I tried to turn my head, and nothing happened, just a deeper sense of sinking, a sense of thoughts and emotions curling through my body, maybe pooling up near my fingertips. I felt liquid, almost like gunk sliding through me. I could feel the young woman’s slender ankle in my hand, my grip tightening around it whenever she tried to pull away. She screamed, twisting, trying to stop her body from sliding along the boards behind me. The quiet way her screams wrapped around her confused me for a second. Even when I dug my fingers into her ankles, she yelped into her shirt, one hand curved into the boards behind her, the other holding the fabric to her mouth. I felt myself stop, curious. She sucked in a breath, seeing her chance, and tried to sit up. I felt myself yank her onto her back again, and I laughed. It wasn’t my laugh. It was deeper, older. Less civilized.
“Please,” she choked, still covering her mouth. “I’m not a Devil, I’m not! I-I-I promise! You have to … I wouldn’t be here. I know how bad it is here! I’m from Jones, no-not Lostine. I never come here unless I have to. I kn-know-know about the fanatics out here. But not because-not because I’m a De-Devil. I just … Please, I don’t want to be drowned. I can’t do this!”
Was I stopping? I listened to her cry for a moment, her words retreating into her mouth until she choked. Was I angry?
“I don’t need to take you there if you’re afraid.” I cracked my neck while I talked. The words weren’t mine. They weren’t right. “More and more of the small ones can eat on land. They won’t need me for simple meals soon. Are you a true immortal? Are there any left?”
Her eyes grew wide, but she couldn’t seem to get any words to leave her mouth.
“I’m not-not a De— Not a…”
“You are a Devil. They can eat you without a Blood Burst, the Feeders up here. I’ve seen it. It’s amazing. I never thought we would come this far. Do you want to practice with them? Or do you want me to eat you? You’ll serve a greater purpose in your death with me. You can feed thousands instead of one if you make Latches. Do you?” I studied her face. Her sobs were irritating.
The sound of small footsteps pattered across the boards. I recognized them somehow. They reminded me of work, of home, of everything.
“Stop crying! Don’t be a baby!”
My daughter’s tiny boots stomped over to us, barely making enough noise to register as real. She slammed her hands on her hips, huffing.
“It’s not hurt, lady. They do not bite you. Will just eat blood, OK?”
“Please…” The woman tried once again to yank away, but I felt myself pull her forward lazily.
Chaunce sighed and gave me a raised eyebrow.
She opened her mouth wide. I tried to say something like always, but nothing came out but a proud grunt. Her jaw clicked, pushing further down, exposing every back tooth, then it clicked again, unhinging. The woman arched, her eyes rolling back into her head. I wanted to stop her nails from digging into the wood so deeply, from separating from her fingers. I couldn’t. A second later, the woman’s body went limp. Chaunce shrieked with pride, pulling her mouth closed. She was getting good at it. There was no blood this time, not even a drop.
“Not dead, Freckles. Is just sleeping. I no kill, OK? Astrid do not like that.”
“You don’t have to kill her. She’ll be dead soon enough.”
“Oh no. Not good! You should not,” Chaunce scolded lightly, popping my hand.
I rustled her hair playfully.
For a moment, I felt my voice crawling out of my throat, then it shoved back down. I swallowed, irritated.
“Relax, Jukel,” my mouth mumbled, then my hand was rubbing my throat. “Only a while longer.”
Another part of me could hear Chaunce walking and laughing, and was screaming for her to stop. To get away from me. I didn’t want her to be there. Part of me knew she shouldn’t be there.
You knew this would happen eventually.
We reached my boat, and Chaunce clapped her tiny hands, bouncing. There was darkness in the distance, and it was the kind only my mother made, the kind only my father made. We stared out at the wall of black, and I wondered if he had thoughts. Did he think about what he was doing to all those innocent people?
“We crunch a lot, Freckles!” Chaunce did a small dance, shrieking.
I nodded to her, smiling. There was a pile of bodies in a net, all ‘stunned,’ some with eyes wide open, like ten enormous fish watching us in horror. Chaunce leaned close, counting them, and opened her mouth to stun one that started wriggling.
No, no, no. Stop. What are you doing? Give me time; give me time!
“If I do it too much, they cannot wake up for Grandma. Grandma eat funny foods, but it’s OK. People are diff’rent. Diff-er-rent! Do you eat funny food, too, Freckles?”
“Yes. And I’ll have a lot of funny food, thanks to you. You’ve been excellent, Chaunce. A lot of good food for your new friend, right?”
“Yup! Freckles is fun! And you look cool!”
I looked down at the white spots on my skin, exhilarated.
“Do you want to go see Grandma with me? She loves it when you visit. She was always obsessed with human children, if you can be called that.”
Chaunce made a nervous sound and started climbing off the boat.
“I don’t think so. Have to go to bed. Aunie is not happy. Everyone is in trouble, and I did not even do bad things this time!” She grumbled about it all the way across the boards, turning to give a small wave.
“Don’t worry, Chaunce.”
I watched the tiny girl walk back to the main road, turning on the lights she passed with no effort. We watched her, pride and horror filling us, appreciation and anguish. When she was just a pink blip in the distance, I stared out at the sea.
I’d been this person before. I’d stared at Astor as this person, some mix between myself and Mr. David. Was he trapped with me? Were we all in the same body?
My hand patted my shoulder, then I was pulling away.
“Isn’t that right, Jukel? I’ll take Aunie off your hands soon enough.”
There was a long pause where I didn’t exist. I can’t explain it, just a long moment where I wasn’t anywhere. I tried to move, tried to scream, but all that came out was an annoyed grunt. I ran my hands up soft skin, then rested them on a tiny waist.
“Wake up, Jukel.”
My eyes finally moved on command, and Noah was sitting carefully on my stomach, an unlit cigarette in her mouth. I grabbed her waist harder, trying to catch my breath.
Where’s Aunie … no … Astor?
“What are you dreaming about?”
The question was threatening somehow. I groaned, trying my best to move with her on top of me, but my body was sore. It felt like I’d been walking for years.
“Some crazy shit. Where’s Chaunce?”
“In the bed. I didn’t have the bandwidth to get her up; she can sleep in.”
She bounced on my stomach a little, sucking at the cigarette between her fingers comically. When she touched me with the hand holding the cigarette, my skin stung. The sting spread out, creeping up my neck. My chest nearly liquefied.
“Get up real quick.”
She did, maybe a little too slow, and watched me struggle to sit up. The black patches roamed every inch of skin her hands had touched, but she just watched, a small smile on her face.
“Get dressed, Jukel. I have a favor I need from you that involves heavy lifting. And then we need to go get Osh. It’s time for a reunion.”
I wasn’t looking forward to that. I wasn’t looking forward to telling Noah about Lou or seeing Osh and having to confront what I did. I felt the beep go off in my head, a long shrill alarm, and said, “What do you need me to lift?”
Noah busied herself with the cigarette, still sucking at nothing, avoiding eye contact. I moved to get closer to her, and she turned again.
“You feeling OK?” she asked, giving me a better smile.
“I’m … better. I feel better.” She took another long pull on her unlit cigarette, realized it wasn’t lit, and groaned. “Just need another week or so, I think. This old bitch won’t get out of my head; it’s driving me nuts. Gotta get rid of her.”
She waved me away. “Nothing. There’s … a box. A metal box. It’s heavy. And it’s in a weird room. Um,” she laughed a little. “I don’t want to say too much, honestly, so just trust me. You don’t want to know what’s in it. I just need you to go down to the basement. There’s a small door.” She stopped and didn’t start again, frustrated with the cigarette.
“The room I’m not supposed to go in?”
“Yes. There’s a door in the floor there. Don’t worry about what’s in the actual room; I know what I’m doing. Just remember that, OK?”
I nodded, trying to keep my face straight.
“Take the box and put it in my trunk. Don’t open it. You might hear something moving in there. That’s normal. Everything’s normal. Just put it in the trunk. Don’t open it!”
I stared at her.
“Are you— Hello? Go get the fucking box.”
Noah’s anger was stunted behind her cigarette, her cheeks pulling in further and further. I grabbed a lighter off the dresser and lit it for her.
“Just so I’m clear, I’m supposed to go get the fucking box, the one in the room I’m not supposed to pay attention to. If something moves in the box, don’t worry, just put it in your trunk and don’t open it.” I felt the patches on my chest slowly spreading to my back.
“Hun, if you don’t get your ass—”
I walked around Noah, agitated.
Downstairs, I looked around for the door. I’d stumbled across it once to Noah’s shrill surprise. It was hidden under the stairs, nearly invisible behind a stack of boxes labeled “Science Shit.” The first time I’d found it, Noah was bent over in the doorway, tinkering with something. I didn’t have time to say or do anything before she started screaming her head off, scratching and pushing at me until I ran upstairs, confused. A smell wafted out of it, something familiar. This time, I stopped, bracing myself.
I pulled a tiny handle and crawled inside. There was a flicker, then a light buzzed on over my head. I got a chance to see shelves, rows and rows of shelves, with cold air flowing down to the floor. My skin felt like it was going to tear off of my body as soon as the air hit me. My patches moved then boiled, searing any skin they touched. I gasped for air, pulling my shirt up to cover my mouth.
A faint blue light shone down on me from so many different places, I couldn’t think. Everything inside me shut down, collapsed. The skin on my chest stung then burned, turning black, sticking to the floor, sliding around. My arm went limp, and I had to push myself out the small door with my feet, trying my hardest not to just stay and stare at the blue glow. My mouth dry, I kicked the door closed and sucked in as much air as I could. My shirt gurgled and disappeared into the black pool spreading up to my face, sucking into my jaw. I yanked it out, groaning at the sensation. It just sunk deep into my chest. I sat there, liquid, trying to breathe, until the beep began again. It started and didn’t stop, screaming in my head. Digging my shirt out of my chest, I threw it, watching it bubble away into dust, and I tried to calm down under the weight of the shrill noise.
You stay out of Noah’s business when you know her. It’s for your benefit more than hers. And I’ve always kept to that. I’ve always stayed out of her interests, her hobbies, even her lies. That closet, though, was full of something I didn’t want to ignore.
What is she gonna do with all of that?
Slowly, and with enough cigarettes, things started to make sense again. Up was up, down was down, the sky was blue, etc. I could feel certain things on my own. I could even think about something other than Astor smiling, Astor opening her mouth and spit clinging just slightly to her lip, Astor softly snoring. Sometimes I even thought about things other than biting into Astor’s arm and taking chunks of her flesh to make a mural with. My headaches were gone. Day after day, I felt stronger than anyone my size needed to feel. Closer to Astor but also, I guess, closer to myself. Still, it was shit. I’d prepared for the worst part of it and still couldn’t hold it together. Every time I started to do something, I stopped to wonder about Astor, to smell the air for her, to concentrate until I felt like I was walking in her body. With all the mistakes Osh was making, I was starting to regret my decision just a little.
Astor was livid all the time—seriously, all the time. I could feel it traveling through my veins, she was so angry. If she wasn’t angry, she was sad, just really utterly sad, sink into the floor and become the earth sad. I had no idea what the bitch was so emotional about, but I wanted desperately to get her some weed, some acid, whatever would calm her down. Imagine walking around sad or angry all day just because you decided to become your best friend’s backup body?
I sat in the car with Jukel and tried to concentrate.
Move the box. Talk to Osh. Fix things. Get back on track. Kill the kid.
My head felt a little better, but everything was still cloudy, and I constantly had to run my lies and schemes by myself to make sure I was doing the right thing. Juke sat next to me, wide-eyed. I wanted to slap him on the back of the head. There was no time for both of us to be out of it. I was being eaten alive by the blood of our best friend and even I could function properly. What was his excuse?
“Noah, what’s going on? That room—”
I held my hand up. “Not now. Jeez. Shut up. Why are ya’ll so squeamish about every little thing?”
Juke let his head fall back on the driver’s seat.
“Baby. Please. That’s not normal. It’s not a little thing. Even you know that.”
“Whatever. We just drove two hours; it’s old news. Focus.”
The kids were with Astor. She was doing something; I couldn’t remember. I knew she was angry while she did it, that part I could feel bouncing around in my stomach, but she’d been very vague with me the last few days.
“Talk to me about … Lou. Is … Lou gone yet? Did one of you do the thing?” I asked.
Juke cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“I don’t want to see her, Jukel. At all. Is she gone, gone?” Juke closed his eyes and nodded again. “Good. That’s fine. I knew that … I knew that would happen. It’s fine.” I thought for a second, took a long drag from my cigarette, and asked, “Was it painful?”
I nodded. I knew that. I knew that, of course I did. In a moment, I would go in and see Osh. We’d talk. We’d fix things. We’d get back on track. We’d kill the kid. But I took a moment, my head fuzzy, Astor’s anger pulsing through me, emotion running through every vein in my body, and sobbed. I let out a true sob. Juke wrapped his arms around me as tight as possible, not missing a second, and I appreciated it. I wished I could sit in the car with him forever, just tiny Noah and giant Juke. My eclipse. I wished I had it in me to give up on Astor, to turn to my husband and say, “Let’s go. Let’s get the fuck out of here. Leave them all. Let’s never come back.”
My sobs turned into screams into his shirt, my hands curled into claws at his shoulders, then I just sat for a minute.
Move the box. Talk to Osh. Fix things. Get back on track. Kill the kid.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, baby.”
“She was so fucking annoying. What an annoying bitch. Just the fucking worst.”
I pulled away from him, slowing my breathing. Lou with her big eyes, showing me how to curl my hair. Lou with her annoying mouth, gossiping with me when I was lonely. Lou with her ugly sweater parties and her piercing laugh. Nosy Lou, walking into the wrong place at the wrong time, seeing some shit we couldn’t let her walk away from.
“We had to do it. We couldn’t let Astor tell the police, and we couldn’t let Osh die. We needed someone, and she’d already seen too much. Right? Tell me I’m right. Just say anything.”
“Right. Don’t regret it. Jori is with Tiana, right?”
I nodded, more tears bubbling up. Lou liked to go out of town. She liked to party. Jori was with his Auntie TeeTee, and they didn’t expect Lou back for another week or so, and even then, it didn’t matter. Who would find a body? I didn’t ask, didn’t want to know, but there were two men and a little boy that could get rid of her body like it never even existed, like she wasn’t a whole woman with a whole life that I’d thrown away for the people in mine. I’d picked Astor over her over and over and fucking over. Another sacrifice from team Noah Dill. When was team Osh Snow gonna take a hit? Yeah, he lost his skin, but boo-fucking-hoo. For the hundredth time, I wished Moose was being eaten alive at the bottom of the fucking sea.
“I know ya’ll said we needed her for the woman, Cora or whatever, but what is she? What does she do?” Juke asked, scratching his neck.
“Go home, Jukel. You don’t want to get involved in this shit.”
“I’m involved already. You want to keep making decisions with Osh? You know he told my momma about Astor, right? Well, pretty much told her. Now, what? Did ya’ll have a backup plan for that?”
The words came out of his mouth so smug and annoyed that my head almost cleared. I sat up straight, wiping my eyes and reaching for another cigarette.
“What do you mean?”
“Yenna. You know, my momma? She knows about Astor and Astrid now. Osh—”
“Yeah. So what?”
Juke tried to think of a way to get his point across to me, his face scrunched up. “My momma knows what Astor is now, Noah. You know the thing I did to Lou, the body thing? I’m not exactly normal. My momma isn’t either and … it’s a long story. See, this is why you need me. My momma is like a … She knows about Astrid and Astor, and she might hurt them. All because Osh—”
“Jukel. Go home, hun.” I patted his head affectionately and got out of the car, rolling my eyes when I knew he couldn’t see. Men and children, the banes of my existence.
I wanted to forgive Jukel Teroy DILL, son of Yenna DILL, for his betrayal more than anything. It was hard when he sat in my face and said stupid shit. You know, it was hard when everyone thought I was just some liar and not the smartest one out of all of us. When they thought Osh was just some gump and not the second smartest, not the survivor of everything they were running from. We worked. Say what you will about us, but we work. We get the got damn job done. His momma didn’t know about Astor? Bullshit. That mistake was made a long time ago, and it wasn’t even made by Osh. I was the one who told Yenna all about Astor.
The house was a show home. It was decorated accordingly, everything stiff and lifeless but appealing when you first looked at it. Who knew why Mr. David owned it? Maybe one of the people he swallowed was a real estate agent, and he was just making smart investments. I wandered around, looking at the kitchen and the back porch, trying to keep my head clear. Two more cigarettes disappeared into my lungs before I finally decided to go upstairs and face Osh, sit in the room Lou died an agonizing death in.
I walked in carefully, keeping my face straight. Osh was sitting up on the bed, looking healthier than he had the last time I’d seen him. His skin glowing, hair moisturized.
“Astrid did this? Shit, we need to open a beauty school. Your girl better be an esthetician producing results like this!”
I hadn’t seen him, but Juke managed to describe it to me. Skin hanging off. Flesh visible. All the drooling and shaking. He looked alive now, a big smile crossing his face like he’d never felt pain in his life. It fell when he realized I wasn’t smiling back. Boring, conniving Osh. My longtime partner in crime.
“Did anyone tell you what happened? With, you know?” Osh said. He didn’t look sad. He looked embarrassed, maybe a little scared of my reaction. It was the same thing with Juke.
“Yup. She was going to die anyway, Osh. I mean, you know, after Juke did the thing he does. That’s OK. Don’t get even softer on me. We don’t have too many shots at this shit. And … I’m trying to stay lucid. I’ve been out of it since we drowned Astor.”
He looked behind me, in the corner, and I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to see where she’d been, didn’t want to think about any of it. I’d done a lot of terrible things. Nothing felt worse than I did right then. I blamed it on the new emotions from Astor. I blamed it on Lou always putting me first, always caring about me, always trying her best to fix the things she broke. Lou tried.
Osh, as always, took a long time to think before he said anything else. I was grateful.
“You don’t have to worry too much about it. It’s not what it looks like,” he said vaguely, then changed his mind. “I mean, about Lou in general.” Again, he stopped, glancing up at me. I just stared.
“I don’t need to worry about my sister dying a horrible death? Is that what you’re saying?”
He thought some more, clearing his throat. “Remind me to bring this up later, when you’re functional.” I nodded, ready to move on. “I’m sorry. If I’d killed Moose there, she’d be fine.”
“Yup. You’re absolutely right. We’d all be OK.” I let him sit with that for a moment. “Your wife spit blood in my mouth.”
Osh laughed, trying to get comfortable. I hated to admit it, but I was happy to see him.
“I told you, Blood Bursts are intense. I’ve seen her do it once. Davey, too. They hate people seeing it; it’s a private thing.”
“Yeah, was a little too much like an orgasm for my tastes. Definitely bedroom behavior.”
“You should’ve seen when Bylas lost his—” Osh stopped, swallowing the words back down.
I tried to imagine that cloud wrapping around his body. I could barely remember anything but a beautiful yellow storm, then Astor. Always Astor. Forever, now.
“What did I say, Osh? Don’t get soft. We’re the only ones who matter, OK? Don’t worry about anyone or anything we lost to get here. We just have to survive, and we have to work fast. Astor’s birthday is too close. We just have to keep everything in order,” I said, trying to sound encouraging. Osh gave me a sweet look and nodded. “Did you tell Alicia?”
“You literally did everything but the big thing you were supposed to do, huh? Moose must be worth more than my sister, Bylas, Davey, my brain, or anything else, Osh. How’d he survive both of them? How? What’d you say exactly? Tell me exactly what went wrong so we can fix this shit before it’s too late.”
The door opened molasses slow, and Mr. David walked into the room, his white locs shining. I grimaced. He closed it behind him, watching me, and gave me a small nod. I didn’t return it. All that slow moving wouldn’t make up for anything he’d done to my life.
“Osh said, and I quote, ‘I will sacrifice Alicia’s grandson if she doesn’t come to discuss terms with me. I’ll hand him over to her if she meets me at this office in two days.’ And he gave them the office address.” Mr. David looked a little irritated.
I wanted him out of the room but didn’t have the brain power to tell him to leave. Eyeing his missing arm, I nodded.
“On the nose much, Osh? OK. Good memory, Old Man Fungi.”
He sucked his teeth, and I wondered which one of the people in him did it.
“Do you know if she showed up? Well, no, you were in here living like a bowl of soup. I thought my brain was gonna explode when I saw him get off the boat. I had a whole story ready for Astor, and I was already dealing with the Eon Tech shit. Yvette did her part, I did my part, everyone did their part. What were you thinking?”
“He lost his nerve,” Mr. David interjected. “Moose is a good kid. It happens.”
“Hun, I’m sure your wife was a good wife, I’m sure Bylas was a good protege, I’m sure Alicia was a good daughter slash granddaughter, whatever you want to call it. I’m sure the dirt you grew out of was good dirt. You have literally given half your bloodline to The Mouth or consumed them yourself out of spite. Forgive me if I don’t believe that you think being good matters. We have two other ‘good’ kids to choose from, and he can keep both of them, ones that weren’t produced by two cheating-ass monsters from two motherfucking warring bloodlines—”
“OK. I get it. Watch your mouth.”
This was definitely Harold talking, but I rolled my eyes at him just the same.
“I call two men Daddy, and no one in you is one of them. Fuck off.”
Mr. David got on my nerves. He just really got under my skin. I didn’t like calling his grown ass Mister anything, his locs were too clean, and you just couldn’t trust a man who “consumed” people for no discernable reason. You couldn’t trust a man who hurt your family the way he did mine, but I dealt with him to get the job done, and Osh couldn’t even throw a kid in the ocean. A kid!
I pulled another cigarette from between my breasts. It was blood red from tip to tip. I couldn’t risk losing my head right then. We had to fix it. There was no time left.
“Why does Juke think his momma didn’t know about Astor?” I asked casually, glancing at Mr. David.
Osh shrugged, an annoyed look crossing his face. The two exchanged glances of their own, and I made a note to think about it when my brain worked.
“The way she acted, maybe? She definitely tried to play innocent.”
“I told you. I’ll bet on Alicia any day. Yenna’s too soft to control that Thing down there. She did the same thing with Bylas.”
Osh groaned, nodding.
“I don’t think we should judge a woman for showing affection for her children,” Mr. David sighed, glancing around the room.
I mouthed to him, blowing smoke out with every word, “You consumed your kid; fuck off.”
“Dad? You OK,” Osh asked quietly, making sure to look at the ground. Mr. David blushed.
“Of course. I lost my arm trying to help you two…”
“What arm,” I laughed, lighting my cigarette.
Mr. David huffed and finally walked out of the room. I closed the door behind him, tapping Osh’s head in irritation.
“Why’d you bring him with you?”
“I needed help.”
“All you needed his ass for was to attract the Latches. That’s it. That’s it. Why would you bring him out there? He helps Yenna, Osh! When hasn’t he? You idiot. Osh, don’t lie to me. What are you actually doing?”
Osh cleared his throat and walked back over to the bed, sitting down. He clasped his hands, then opened them.
“I care about you and Astor. I promised I’d do everything to get us out of here safe, no matter what Astor wants. I’m keeping my word.”
“And Jukel. Me, and Astor, and Jukel.”
I moved closer to him, and he covered his head, waving his finger at me in warning. Dork.
“What happened with his arm, anyway?”
Osh swallowed, looking everywhere but at me. “Yenna took it. That’s all.”
Again, something in my head wasn’t happy with the explanation. I couldn’t figure out why, not with Astor’s anger pulsing up again, so I left it alone.
“I’m sorry, Noah. I started changing my mind as soon as we got to my dad’s place. I almost went through with it. All the damn Shadow lights, and the sweating, and I just don’t know how I didn’t realize he was Juke’s before. But then we got out there, and I just… He belongs in my family; he should be here. I wanted to tell him about the basement, and Bylas, and all the shit that happened in that house. I just kept thinking about everything I needed to say to him, and I couldn’t do it. The thought of Alicia meeting him, and my family being together and at peace. I don’t know.”
Rage pushed into my throat, and I moved closer to him again, putting my hand on his shoulder. He stared down.
“Great. I understand. I stalled on the whole Latch thing for a while, too. I really did. You know how much I like myself, Osh? You know how much I like being the raw bitch I am? You think I wanted to ruin that? And then, I got my shit together and did what I know needs to be done. Your turn. Take that little piece of shit out there and throw him in the fucking water. Do it. Alone.”
“We can come up with a different plan—”
“I spent years researching this with you. Years. We don’t have years, Osh! What time do we have? My sister is dead. There is a box full of fun in my basement. My husband is getting closer and closer to the thing we were supposed to be saving him and Astor from. Pull your weight!” I felt myself unraveling, tears brimming my eyes. “I have sat in rooms with Alicia, walked on boardwalks with Yenna, had a whole kid out of my body. It’s too late. I know Bylas and Davey were hard. I know it. And I fucking told you not to let Bylas come back, to kill him, and now, we have to deal with the fingers and the body parts. Listen to me for once, Osh. Please.”
Osh nodded again, and I had to fight the urge to grab his face.
Lighten the mood at least.
“So you got to hang out with Cora again?”
“Unfortunately. It’s exhausting, like writing a book or something, just a lot of things at once. But man, she’s getting powerful. Not exactly our biggest fan, either.”
“Well. After what you did? I wouldn’t be. Did you feel like we made the right decision when you talked to her? With the box?”
Osh smirked. “More than the right decision. She pulled Astrid into the world.”
That hit me right in the chest. I thought about it, shocked.
“Wait, the real Astrid? Without her being there?”
He nodded, his eyes wide, and we giggled like nerds. I tried to imagine it but kept coming short.
“That’s so cool. That’s … my momma is going to snap, but that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“We need to check in with Bylas,” he said, his tone serious again. “She said Alicia was bringing her to see Cora, but I doubt she brought her to your little room. They have to be going to The Compound.”
My mind started to wander. Astor was breathing hard. She wasn’t in danger; it wasn’t that. She was upset. What was bothering her so much?
Osh grabbed the sides of my face and closed his eyes, struggling. “I’m ready to move forward. You have to come with me, though. I can’t do it alone. I won’t.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that, Osh. I don’t think I need to be in front of a giant sea monster in my state.”
“I can’t do it alone.”
I wanted to put my cigarette out on his face. Instead, I sucked in another deep billow of red dust and tried to make my voice calm and understanding. How was this so easy normally? That was the one thing I could say about my Jukel: when I asked him to do something, he did it. I didn’t have to wonder. He never let me down.
“Astor cheated on you, Osh, and Moose will be a reminder of it forever. Do you remember Juke holding that kid, looking at his face, cooing at him? You don’t remember all of that? Do you see how much he looks like Juke?”
“I don’t care. He didn’t do anything. Why don’t we just throw Juke in there?”
“Because we’ve been over this, and I’m going to fucking stab you to death if you don’t shut up and do it. It was your idea. My sister, my fucking brain, my—”
“When are you—” I stopped. Every muscle in my body seemed to contract.
Osh jumped back, looking at my eyes in wonder. I tried to speak but choked, leaning down, gritting rage through my teeth. I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to crush his windpipe and kill him. The feeling was so intense that I staggered back, breathing out a shriek.
“What? What’s wrong?”
I was raised to be responsible, to do something that would change the world, to trust the small group of people I allowed in my life that could handle my duties and responsibilities. And they were all liars. And I cared so much about the people I would affect, but they were liars. Every person in my life was a liar. A manipulator.
I’ve known so many liars in my life. And it’s fine. It’s always been fine. People look me in the eye and tell me the sky is green, the grass is blue, anything. There is not a concept on this planet that hasn’t been twisted and churned to control the way I react to things. They lie to me. They tiptoe around me and tell me they care about me. Lies are the only constant in my life. I don’t know why it was stabbing through my chest then, turning my blood to acid. I don’t know why I wanted them all dead, wanted them all dissolved in corrosive liquids.
Before the drowning, I accepted it. After the drowning…
I watched Juke pull out of the driveway before I barely pressed my foot down on the gas pedal, gliding the car across the neighboring yard. We’d followed them in silence, the kids not daring to make a sound in the back. I could feel my hair scattered around my head, some strands strewn over my face. Every few seconds, I gripped the steering wheel in anger and growled. It’d been days of pretending everything was OK. Days of watching Chaunce through the window, watching her follow Astrid. Watching her dancing in the yard, her wild hair all over her head, her big eyes following Astrid. They were inseparable. I watched Astrid’s eyes like a menace, noticing every little change. The anger just bloomed. My silence is all they ask, though, my friends. All they ask is that I stay silent and uncomplicated, so no one noticed. When Juke stumbled to the car, nodding to me with that dumb ass smile on his face, hiding another thing, I made the kids get in the car, and we followed them. We followed them to Rex, to the city Lou lived in, to a house up the street from hers. I knew Osh was in there. I just knew it.
“Moose. Who lives here?”
“WHO lives here? I know you know. You lie to me, and I’ll cut your head off. Who lives here?”
Moose sniffled. He’d been sniffling the whole trip, the entire two-hour trip to Rex, and I was ready to take his nose off. I was ready to pull it off and throw it out the window.
“I think it’s Mr. David’s other house.”
“Oh, you know Mr. David so well, huh? Is your father in there? Is Lou there?” I opened the car door, letting it swing all the way open, and almost twisted my back when I heard Moose’s door open.
“Sit down with these damn girls before I kill you.”
“You shouldn’t speak like that. You’re having a panic at-attack; you never talk like this. It’s not like you—”
“What do you know about me? What do you know about panic?”
“You-you’re not supposed to lea-leave children in the car by themselves; it’s not—”
Before I could strangle him properly, the front door of the house burst open. Noah rushed out, nearly tripping over her shoes, and flashed me a worried smile. Tiny, beautiful Noah. Noah the liar, Noah the lover, Noah with bleeding letters, Noah with her daughter with her hair all over her head. She hurried over, this liar, this fake, and grabbed my hand.
My fist smashed so hard against her face that the back of her head hit my car door. Moose climbed out, rushing to her aid. She slipped down against the car, hand over her mouth in surprise.
“Oh, so you know where Osh is, hun? You know where my fucking husband is? Just like you knew what was going to happen when they drowned me? RIGHT?” I stomped my foot into her stomach and nearly hit Moose when he tried to stop me.
Chaunce jumped out, screaming frantically at me, and I stomped her mother again for good measure.
“Get in the got damn car!”
Chaunce moved to yell at me, pulling her mouth wide open, and I popped her on the lips, hard. She stepped back, holding her hand over her mouth, tears welling up in her eyes, and I moved back over to Noah.
Noah slid around the door and crawled backward, frantic, but I followed. I wanted her dead. I wanted her entire face crushed in.
“What’d you do to my baby? My fucking babies, not your experiments! We’re not your fucking experiments!”
“Ch-Chaunce is my ki-kid; she’s my kid. Fuck you!”
“You barely feed her; she’s my kid. I bathe her, I cook for her, I potty-trained her, I put her to bed. How about that? Huh? Chaunce is my kid now. You put a needle in any of my kid’s arms, and I’ll break your face in half.”
“Oh, so you can talk down to her and treat her like shit like you do your own daugh—”
I dragged her closer to me, leaning in. The words stuck in her throat, and she stopped trying to talk, her big eyes sucking me in.
“Like you said. Your whole life. Your husband, your kid, everything. You keep hurting my babies, and I’ll take your house, your job, your entire head. Whatever I want, Noah. I’ll take everything you have and give it away if I want to. You touch my fucking daughter again, and I’ll take everything. You understand?”
“You’re mad at me about nothing. I’m not hurting them. I’m protecting all of you. Worry about Alicia. W-worry about—”
“I know what Alicia’s doing. Alicia never lied to me. It’s you I don’t trust.”
Noah stopped. She tried to speak, then stopped again.
Everyone was a liar. My son, my best friend, my husband. My mouth wrenched open, and I screamed in Noah’s face until my throat turned to blisters, puffs of blood billowing from me. Chaunce started crying harder, dropping her own mouth open again, and Astrid walked over and covered it. She was the only calm one.
Parasites. My mother was right that day in the park. They were all parasites. I kept screaming until Moose covered his ears, whining out loud, rocking back and forth, until someone grabbed me around my waist and pulled me back, hugging me, gripping me.
“Astor, Astor! What are you doing?”
I smelled him before I saw him. I could feel his arms, see all the muscles, the muscles that had smashed so many faces for me, that voice that had cursed out fathers, sons, cousins, uncles, everyone for me. My fists when I needed them. My love when I needed it. I felt my legs give out, and it was his chest behind me, holding me up.
Osh. The great, missing Osh Snow. Lou’s Osh. Osh who abandoned me and left me and my kids to be infected by parasites.
“You’re a parasite, you’re a parasite, you’re all parasites!”
I couldn’t stop screaming. I kicked my headlight until it burst, then kept kicking until Osh yanked me away. The ground felt like it was cracking under me, and I screamed and screamed and screamed, reaching toward it. I wanted it to swallow me, to crush me, to finally release me from my duties and responsibilities. I heard Noah wheezing behind us and turned to kill her again.
“Let me be mad alone, you fucking leech!”
Osh held onto me until I stopped struggling. All the wind went out of me. I just leaned against him and coughed out puff of blood after puff of blood. When I finally found the courage to turn and look at him, the screaming almost started all over again. He was fine. He was better than fine. Osh looked radiant. Noah pushed herself off the ground and stormed back inside the house, screaming in rage herself.
He’s fine. There’s nothing wrong. He’s been gone all this time for nothing. He let you worry for nothing.
“A man named Bylas stopped by my job to threaten me. I was there without you. You were so busy out here fucking the girl of your dreams, and he could’ve hurt me. He could’ve gotten rid of me right there, and then what? Bylas didn’t hurt me, though. One little monster made him cough up blood, the other made him wake up. You all must be busy. You must be so busy. He said he has Cora, that I helped kill his family. He said my children were monsters. Was he lying about that, Osh? Was he lying about any of that?” He gave me a hopeful smile, almost pleading, and opened his arms. “I have secrets, too, Osh. I have secrets. I have an entire life you don’t know about, too. You’re not the only ones who can lie. I can lie!”
Moose jumped around me and grabbed him, excited despite everything. Osh kept smiling at me as he hugged Moose, then Chaunce was climbing up his back, bloody mouth and all. It was all love and laughter, all in the face of my anger, and it felt like there was a wall in front of me, a thick wall, blocking me from feeling any of it.
Astrid climbed back in the car, silent, her hands folded in her lap. The rest of the energy I had left went out of me, flew off somewhere into the atmosphere and died. I climbed in the driver’s seat and turned to look at her.
“What are they doing to you?” I mumbled.
I’d never seen her so somber and serious. She folded her little hands in her lap and lifted her head to see me. Her hair was brushed flat, her clothes were ironed and straight. Even in the midst of chaos, she knew what I expected.
“Not sure. Not hurt. Promise.”
Osh tried to walk over again, to get my attention, and I closed and locked my door. My daughter looked down at her hands, calm.
“What are you waiting for? You asked about your father, and there he is.”
She shrugged. “Will not go … unless … you want. Stay with you. Always.”
“Do you mean that? What if I left your father? What if I said I wanted to take you and leave forever, nobody else? Not even Moose and Chaunce?”
The rage leaked out of me. Astrid was the only person in the world, her small face and her bushy eyebrows and her mess of hair all slicked back. She gave me a big smile and nodded.
“What if I always planned to do something terrible to you? And I can’t love you because of that? I can’t allow myself to … set myself up for the pain.”
My heart filled, and I grabbed her hand. She gripped mine back, smiling harder. I wanted to cry. I hoped Noah was in the house sobbing, vomiting my sorrows all over the floor.
“Thank you, Pretty Girl. I might call your bluff someday. Get out.”
Astrid’s eyes widened, but Osh swept in and pulled her out without question. Strong. He was still strong, still OK, still Osh.
So many weeks had gone by. And here he was, healthier than he was when he left. Astrid held his hand and watched me, hurt and trembling, but I gave her a small smile. Noah came back out, tears streaming down her face, and joined the crowd of traitors surrounding my baby. Juke pulled up behind me. They all knew where Osh was. Astrid, Moose, Chaunce, Lou, Noah, Juke, Mr. David. I stared at the crowd of them and felt a violent hate gurgle through me.
I backed into Juke’s car, pulled up and drove away.
Noah’s mouth bled the whole trip home. She was inconsolable, man, just blubbering and whining. I wanted to help, but she just kept whimpering to herself, sucking back sobs.
“You-you should’ve thrown her into-into the fucking sun. How-how dare that bitch hit me?! I-I lost my mind for her. You should’ve run her over and backed up and did it again. That bitch!”
Osh hushed her, trying not to smile. It wasn’t funny. She’d lost her sister, lost everything, and now, she felt betrayed.
“It’s OK, baby. She’s angry. She’ll get over it.”
I looked at the kids in the rearview, sighing. Astrid sat quietly, and maybe she was the worst one in the car. Her defeat was thick. Moose kept his head down, holding Astrid’s hand tight. They looked like Astor had just died, like she’d suddenly fallen off a cliff and they’d never find her body. It wasn’t like her to scream and rant. They’d probably never seen anything like it in their lives, and I could bet Osh and Noah hadn’t, either. Not from Astor, at least.
“She said she-she-she was gonna take my kid! She said she was Cha-Chaunce’s mo-mothe-mother now!”
Chaunce chimed in at the wrong time. “It’s OK, Mommy! It not possible to do. She is my Aunie, can’t be my mommy. That’s not science.”
Osh chuckled, holding her in his lap. Noah grit her teeth and ran her hands through her frazzled hair.
“She’s not even your aunt; we’re not sisters. Who would want to adopt that evil banshee?”
I felt a wave wash over me. It was slow, like my patches turning to liquid. I could feel myself driving, feel the car moving, feel myself in the car, but something was off.
Crash into the median, Jukel. Shut her up.
I held steady. Switched lanes. Got as far from the median as possible. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I looked in the rearview mirror again, wondering if I looked bad, and Mr. David’s face was there instead of mine, covered in white freckles, staring back at me.
“I don’t look like that.”
“What?” Noah whined, still holding her mouth.
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
I drove in silence that wasn’t really there. What were they saying? Why couldn’t I hear anyone talking?
Drive them to the ocean, Jukel. Drive in. Give Astrid to your father. Kill the boy and Chaunce. They’re poison. Kill them before they’re used against your father, against your people. Give Astrid to your father. Give Astrid to…
I stared at Astrid in the rearview, sitting in the middle. She glanced up at me slowly, tilting her head down, and bared her teeth. Chaunce put her hand on her shoulder, shaking her a little, but she kept staring at me in the mirror. The top of her ponytail frizzled a little, curling up, but maybe that was in my head.
Give Astrid to your father, give Astrid to your father, give Astrid to—
“Aye, man, you OK?”
Osh’s voice sounded nervous in the back. I steadied myself.
You don’t need him. You don’t need Noah. You can kill them whenever you’re ready. You can kill them, Jukel. We don’t need to wait for some arbitrary date. Kill them and give your father Astor and Astrid.
Astor. Astor was ruining my life. She was fighting my wife in the street, screaming at people. She hit my car door, and now, we were driving a dented car home. The kids were ruining my life, too. I could kill the kids, then take Astor and Astrid to The Mouth. My momma could take her for me. She wouldn’t die. Astor couldn’t die, so there was no harm in it. If I could just get her to The Mouth, just give her to my momma, she could feed so many…
She’s ruining your life, Jukel. She hit your wife. You don’t even hit your wife.
I didn’t hit Noah. I would never hit Noah. Even when I killed her, I wouldn’t hit her. I wouldn’t hit any of them; I’d just kill them.
Right. You’re better than Astor. She’s a monster. She’s so mean to Astrid. Bring them to your father. It will be better that way. Your father will be nice to Astrid.
Kill Noah, then Osh. Take Astor and Astrid to The Mouth. Yeah, it didn’t make sense to waste resources. The other kids could stay with me. Moose could help me bring resources to my momma, too. So could Chaunce.
We don’t need Moose. Your kids are poison. You have to get rid of them. Kill them.
Nodding. I couldn’t stop nodding. Noah touched my shoulder gently, and I realized everyone except Astrid was quiet now, watching me. She’d turned to look out of the window, disinterested. Noah tapped me again.
“Jukel. Let Osh drive.”
The package from Yvette sat in front of me.
Noah bound herself to you. She bound her daughter to yours. She knew where Osh was; she knew the whole time. They’re parasites. They’re all parasites.
I stopped my ranting and screaming when I remembered the package sitting in my office, Yvette trying to tell me something honest. I drove all the way to the school and parked out front, ignoring the angry protests of the Resource Officer. I ignored the looks, the stunned gasps at my eye, the tsks of disapproval at my ripped blouse. All the way back to my office, seething, powder floating from my mouth, I let the air sift through my teeth.
The package sat on my desk, the bow pretty and shining under my office light. I turned on more, drenching the room in light, and slammed my door shut. My heart raced when I pulled it up and touched the black material. I unwrapped the bow and sunk into my office chair, too weak to do anything else.
Don’t deviate, girl.
Answers. The package had answers that none of the other liars and manipulators in my life would give me, answers that I’d drowned for. There was no way to paint the facts, no way to tell me half of the story. The package wasn’t Alicia taunting me, it wasn’t Osh talking down to me, it wasn’t Noah pretending. It was just a box with pages in it. I half-feared, half-expected to see lots of black marker for some reason, lots of blotched out words and photos.
Don’t deviate, Astor. Don’t you dare…
I ignored the voice in my head and opened the box. The very first page under the heavy top was a beautiful 8×11 sepia portrait of a woman. She had thick, brown hair that framed her face and flowed out of the image. I stared at lips that looked like mine, eyes that looked like mine, a smile that looked like Astrid’s. You could see my family line in her jaw, behind her eyes. Her pupils were normal. Everything about her was warm, calm. I didn’t see madness in her. All I wanted was to talk to the woman in that photo.
Big letters framing the page said “CORA FREE AND THE VIVIDS, LIVE AT THE CHASTAIN BOOGIE!” For some reason, a small smile crept onto my face. I imagined her onstage singing, probably lean like my mother. It took a long time for me to flip the page. There was a short profile on her, but I skipped forward to read about Devil Syndrome instead. I didn’t want to know everything just yet.
When Yvette said she’d give me information, she meant it. I read about Blood Bursts, about the difference between “true” immortal Devils and general ones, about madness in male Devils. There was information on the different ways hunger could affect us, the ways we could be permanently killed, and so much more. I sat and took in all the information I could stomach, saving more for later. I wanted to know about Alicia, about the death of my family. Everything else could wait.
There were stapled sheets of paper at the bottom of the pile marked “RELEVANT.” It started with a list of known Devils in Virginia Steeps. It was massive; there were at least nine pages front and back but next to almost every name was either “MISSING,” “ENDANGERED MISSING,” “WANTED,” or “DECEASED.” There were four pages of known Shadows, and six pages of known Latches. Giant letters at the top of each page read “NONEXHAUSTIVE.” Some of the names were highlighted for me with asterisks for additional information:
CORA FREE – DEVIL – ENDANGERED MISSING
YENNA TEROY – DEVIL – CONSUMED
HAROLD FREE – DEVIL – CONSUMED
ALICIA FREE – DEVIL – ENDANGERED MISSING
ERIC FREE – DEVIL – WANTED
DAVEY (NAME UNCONFIRMED) – DEVIL – ENDANGERED MISSING
PALOMA GETTY – DEVIL – ENDANGERED MISSING
MOOSE SNOW – HYBRID
I wondered about my children being on the list, hovering over Moose’s name. I wondered harder about his nickname being used and decided they had limited information. They couldn’t have had any birth certificates or access to school files or medical records.
Highlighted on the list of known Latches (with tags “BLOOD BURST,” “HABITUAL,” “BRAINDEAD,” or “BIRTH”):
MAE FREE – HUMAN – EMERGENCY BLOOD BURST
NOAH DILL – HUMAN – HABITUAL
CHAUNCE DILL – UNKNOWN – BIRTH
YVETTE LINCOLN – DEVIL – CONSUMED/BLOOD BURST
I almost laughed at Yvette’s name. I wondered how they had Noah on there so quickly. No matter how much I scoured my brain, I couldn’t think of a Mae Free in my family line. I didn’t know much about Alicia’s family, though, and I knew even less about my father’s family. The list rattled me. I paused at the omitted name. Really paused at it. There wasn’t an asterisk next to the name, just a highlight.
Highlighted on the list of known Shadows (with tags “LEVIATHAN,” “FEEDER,” and “HYBRID,” all blacked out on the actual list):
BYLAS (NAME UNCONFIRMED) – OMITTED
JUKEL TEROY DILL – OMITTED
CHAUNCE DILL – HYBRID – OMITTED
I let the information sit in me for a long time before I moved on to the next page. Yvette only included the pages with information on the highlighted people with asterisks. I skipped to my mother’s page, only to find a picture of a different woman. There was a family tree under that page, some names accompanied by photos. The first few generations were names I’d never heard of. It stopped at a blank circle for Astrid, listing both me and Moose (with Moose’s father listed as Osh Snow). They had the wrong photo in the little circle for my mother. A somber girl with thick lips, a rounder face, and harsh eyes stared up over the name Alicia Free. I didn’t recognize her at all. Next to her were the photos and names for Sara, Mary, and Mae. Mae’s regal face struck me as my mother’s. Her photo was the only color photo, and her beaming smile looked so foreign on my mother’s face that she could’ve been a different person. I studied this for a while.
The next page was more about Cora’s life before she volunteered for Eon Tech. It went over her taking Yenna into her home, her son Harold, and even her views as a grandmother. I read the short blurbs of the highlighted people before I went through their pictures.
CORA FREE (NEE FRANCIS) – Cora comes from a long line of DEVIL/DEVIL partnerships. She is the child of Hattie and William Francis, both CONSUMED. Cora possesses inhuman abilities, including some mental and hypnotic abilities. The extent of her abilities was not discovered. Cora disappeared from her home after a blood drawing session at Eon Tech. Her son, HAROLD FREE, and her foster daughter, YENNA TEROY, were informed of the disappearance. Both declined assistance in her recovery. Cora was the target of an early group of Fanatics for much of her adult life but could also be the victim of Shadows. Her enhanced publicity attracted the attention of well-known Shadows, including what we assume to be their main host.
YENNA TEROY – Yenna is the child of a DEVIL/DEVIL partnership. Her parents, Ernestine and Avary Teroy, both refused to cooperate with Eon Tech. Yenna herself refused to cooperate with Eon Tech, also refusing any security or financial assistance. Travels frequently with ALICIA FREE, the daughter of HAROLD FREE. Was last seen with ALICIA FREE. Yenna, originally fostered by CORA FREE, would later provide shelter for ALICIA FREE after both CORA and HAROLD’s disappearance. Consumed by Leviathan 2.
HAROLD FREE – Harold was last seen with his wife and children, including ALICIA FREE (16). Harold’s burned body was found among the remains of his family; much of him remains missing. ALICIA FREE was found in the wreckage. It is assumed she transferred to a LATCH, MAE FREE. MAE FREE was not recovered from the scene.
My breath caught in my throat, and I stared at the page. I went back to my mother’s profile. I tried to imagine my mother being this person, this girl, for the first sixteen years of her life.
ERIC FREE – Eric Free is the result of a SHADOW/DEVIL partnership. He is increasingly hostile and a founding member of the Fanatics. Eric has shown signs of a deteriorating mental state and open hostility toward his own kind and any steps toward betterment or care for them, even his own family. Cannot produce Latches, consumes any Latches he creates, binding them to him to heal. Eric can be considered infectious and can consume others with a form of spore his body produces.
The updated photo of Eric was Mr. David. There wasn’t a freckle on him.
DAVEY (LNU) – Thought deceased, Davey was a member of the Fanatics. Origin unknown.
I shifted through the papers and landed on the one I wanted: a breakdown of my mother’s families.
ALICIA FREE – Families
Alicia Free has had 13 confirmed legitimized families. All but four families were eliminated after signs of the Leviathan’s movement appeared.
They listed the different ways the families died, including when Leviathan 2 was the cause. Leviathan 2 had killed most of Alicia’s kids, all of them normal kids that couldn’t be of any benefit to her. Sometimes she didn’t kill them by taking them to the water to “drain them of resources,” either. No, there were sad stories of Alicia’s children being slaughtered in front of her, of Alicia fighting Yenna to save her children from being burned to death, of her children being dropped from buildings. I read through nine stories of my mother losing her family before it switched to her killing them herself.
Whenever she saw signs of the Main Shadow moving in, she killed everyone, every last person involved, and she left. People betrayed her, turned on her, tried to trick her to get some prize Yenna was offering, and she just killed everyone. Each main family had a short description on the death, and I skipped down to Snow.
Snow: Alicia Free murdered Janna Snow and Jamie Free (Toliver). It is thought that Yenna discovered the family via Jamie, and Jamie and Janna planned an escape. The children were being prepared for transport to The Mouth, with Osh (son of Janna) being taken on multiple trips close to it without his knowledge.
After multiple attacks by Shadows and confirmation from ERIC FREE, Alicia murdered the two and separated the children. Osh Snow was fostered by ERIC FREE and trained to capture Devils for YENNA DILL.
The pressure crept into my head. I knew most of it already. Sitting in the park with my mother, she hadn’t minced a word.
“Astor, I’m going to kill your father…”
I went through the photos, taking in each person. The second to last photo was of the original Yenna, a brown-skinned woman with blood red hair. She looked so much like Juke. I hated what the monster did to her name, to her reputation. I turned the page, and this time, nothing but my own face was there to greet me. My face, my hair, my skin. It was a photo Osh had taken of me a long time ago, back when I was a teenager. It was a photo I’d thought was tucked away in my drawer somewhere. They listed my foster parents, the ones I’d been to before Dr. Bishop. They listed twenty-three siblings, all sisters, and every name said DECEASED next to it. Every name except one.
DAVEY (LNU) sat in my list of siblings, an asterisk next to it in pen. I finally turned to the last few pages in the stapled sheets. A handwritten note stuck out, bold and red:
I promised I wouldn’t put all of the information in here. To a certain extent, I haven’t. I never said I wouldn’t tell you what I was asked to remove. I removed everything about Alicia that didn’t have to do with her many families, anything about your husband that wasn’t on a list (who is in here quite a bit, actually), the file we have on your daughter, Astrid, and some of the more startling revelations about Cora. I think you deserve to know we have this information. Your mother will get rid of me soon, and I have nothing to lose.
This last page is also information I was supposed to take out. Again, I took some out, but I want you to see this photo. Really look at her.
Remember, some things are not personal. Some things are organic. And on the opposite side of that, so many, many things ARE personal.
I’m sorry to say that this could be a very final goodbye. I wish you luck.
The photo was a full-body image of three teens. The girl in the middle was short and sporty. I could feel her energy jumping out of the photo, taunting me. She was licking the face of the man next to her, holding back laughter, and he was trying his best to do the same.
Bylas. The man was definitely Bylas. Here, he wasn’t missing an arm or a leg. He wasn’t bursting with anger, trying hard to compose himself. In fact, Bylas looked as cool and composed as any person could look. He had his arm wrapped around her, a wide smile on his face, his nose scrunched up, his eyes partly closed. I lifted the picture and looked over her profile.
On the other side of her was Osh. He was glancing over at Bylas and smiling sheepishly, hands in his pockets. There was a lot of space at the bottom, and a heading that read FANATICS. I immediately noticed the black bar over Osh’s caption, but the rest read:
The Fanatics was a group of well-known Devil hunters for Yenna Dill. Before the group, ERIC FREE collected Devils for Yenna by himself, often killing the non-immortal ones in the process. The Fanatics are thought to be responsible for the deaths or consumption of over four hundred Devils.
BYLAS (LAST NAME UNKNOWN)
NOAH DILL (NEE BISHOP)
DAVEY (LAST NAME UNKNOWN)
The caption next to Davey’s name read: “Believed sacrificed by Fanatics. Pregnant. Abandoned first daughter of Alicia and Jamie Free.”
I’d seen Davey before. I saw her on the boat with Osh before a big trip of his for work. It was six years ago when Noah was still working with him, when I was pregnant with Astrid. I saw her getting on that boat, saw her pregnant belly, saw Noah glaring at her. I remembered her as soon as I saw the picture.
Osh put a big coat over me. I rolled my eyes, more worried about him in the freezing wind going off on that boat. His face was blotchy and red, his breath constant balls of fog between us.
“What are you doing out here, Osh? Whatever the expedition is can wait. It’s freezing.”
Osh shivered, tossing me a handsome smile, and zipped my coat. He was careful of my belly, rubbing it to feel Astrid kick. I frowned.
“We know what we’re doing. It’s just work. You didn’t have to come down here, Astor. Stop worrying. I’m the one that’s supposed to take care of you. I’d do anything to take care of you.”
It was an oddly tender thing to say, but I didn’t dwell on it. We walked back to the car, parked crooked as always, and for once, he didn’t laugh about it. He seemed so delicate.
“Were those your friends back there on the boat?” I asked.
He never let me meet anyone from his job. Other than Noah, there were other people moving around the boat, but I could only make out the girls. Davey watched me all the way back to my car, and she snuck a wave, super hyper, leaning back to show me her belly. I laughed, hiding my face from Osh. He was always rushing back home, rushing me away from the dock. I loved Chastain Pier, but Osh wouldn’t let me visit.
Osh thought about my words for a long time, then sobbed. I held him until he finished, confused. He opened my car door and gently guided me inside.
“I’m sorry, Astor. I’m really tired. I’ll be back in a few days, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
When he came back, drenched and cold, he didn’t tell me anything. He took a shower and climbed in bed with me. I was exhausted, truly exhausted, so I didn’t protest. I just remember how cold he was, how hard he held me. I just remember him whispering into my back that he would do anything to protect me.
The information in the package hit me all at once. Bylas’s anger sat like a memory at my office door, tapping at it. That cheering, waving woman was my sister. They killed my sister before I even knew about her. What else? What else could there possibly be that they took from me? And it hit me so hard, I almost doubled over. Noah gave me an answer to that question when she was sitting at her vanity, drooling, whining to me about why she loved me.
This time, as I walked defeated out of the school, no one watched me. No one gasped at my physical state. I’d left the package in my desk, locked away. There was no use in carrying it with me. I drove straight to Noah’s house. When she was out of it, crying and drooling, I was so thrown off by her behavior, by my guilt over Moose.
“There’s a box…”
I parked up the street and snuck through the yard. They were back, probably all huddled in my house, talking, coming up with plans, figuring out more ways to control my life. I fished my key out of my pocket and made my way through Noah’s living room, quietly turning furniture over, moving tables out of the way, looking through everything for a box. I didn’t think it was upstairs; anything she was hiding would need to be somewhere I didn’t frequent. It was hard thinking of a place I would miss in that house, the house I’d decorated all the way down to the rugs and blinds, the house I’d helped her raise her kid in.
I went through the kitchen, opening every cabinet, moving the fridge. Her basement door sat behind me, and suddenly, very suddenly, I thought I heard a noise. It was a tap so faint, I almost missed it. Just a small tap, like a nail clicking against a surface, then a scrape. I turned and stared at the door. There was another tap, this time louder, and a slow scrape.
I snuck down to the basement. There was clutter everywhere. I threw things. I kicked over boxes, pushed over her cabinets. It was so obvious she was hiding something. There were so many boxes—some of them letters from Eon Tech, some of them toys and dresses and a bunch of things she didn’t need. I kicked over a box, and more letters spilled out. These were all still sealed. I picked one up, curious, and it was addressed to me. “DIRTY DEVIL BITCH” was written on the front. I sifted through to another one, also addressed to me, and they’d put my name down as Dead Astor. My hands trembled over the letters, and I noticed blood at the bottom of the box. One bloody envelope was down there, opened, but I couldn’t find any more.
There was a stack that was held together with rubber bands. These had my name on them in neat block letters but no address. I opened one, expecting something grotesque, but there were just two words on a white page.
My heart sank. These letters weren’t the same as the others. I could practically feel the hurt pouring off the page, soaking into my fingers. This was from Bylas. I opened another of his, trembling, hurt with him. This one was a black page. It unfolded into a massive poster, all plain black paper. At the very bottom, the black began to swirl, detailed in marker. There was a tiny white stick figure floating, hair high above her head, arms reaching up. White seaweed wrapped around her ankle.
In the same small, block letters next to her, it said: IT SHOULD’VE BEEN YOU.
There was so much hopelessness in such a simple drawing. I glanced at the other letters and decided not to look. I couldn’t take it. I folded them neatly back into the box and put it back where I found it. The tapping noise started again, and I followed it around. I tossed everything else I could find until I hit a small door, just small enough for maybe Chaunce to walk through with ease. There was a cool light around the edges of it, shining in the dust of the mess I was making. I knelt down. The tapping sound doubled up. I opened the little door slowly, filled with dread, and crawled in.
The light shone over me, blinding me for a second, and I took in the room. I really took it in. I sat back on my butt and let the sight sink into me until all I could do was chuckle. It turned easily into laughter, filling me. I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t stop. I grabbed the sides of my head and laughed until I felt spit clogging my throat.
This wasn’t a box. Oh, it couldn’t fit in a box if it wanted to. And if there was more than what I was looking at, I was ready to just walk into the ocean and get it over with.
Something was wrong. Everyone else was dead quiet the rest of the way home, listening to me talk to myself. It was like an alien world outside the window. I couldn’t recognize anything we drove by. Culture shock kicked in, and I felt myself panic, felt myself wondering aloud what was going on. No one answered me.
My reflection kept showing Mr. David covered in white freckles, staring at me, laughing. I ignored it for a while, and when we pulled into Osh’s driveway, I looked back at my reflection, and it was Lou shaking her hair out of her face, pissed.
Easy to throw me away, isn’t it? You piece of shit. You’re all pieces of shit. All of you.
We all wandered into the house. Noah motioned for Osh to come talk to her upstairs. Moose rushed up after them, probably to look for his mom, and Chaunce stood and watched me.
“Not Daddy. You are not Daddy.”
I patted her head. Astrid only turned slightly to look at us, her focus on the living room window.
“Astrid. Do you want to go to the docks to look for your mother? I could take you,” I said.
Astrid stared out the window. A blue light was shining in, swallowing the entire room.
“Can I go … by self … self,” Astrid said, still facing the window.
The blue light moved on, but I could see it turning around, pacing in the street.
We’re not ready. Let her go.
Chaunce tried to follow, but I grabbed her shoulder.
“Not Daddy. Do not touch me.”
But I was. I was Juke. I tried to lift my arm but couldn’t even remember where my arms were. I sat down heavily. Every loc on my scalp felt like ten million pounds of metal, weighing me down. Chaunce wouldn’t stop watching me.
Kill her. Eat her eyes.
I kept falling asleep and waking up to the beeping noise filling my head, sharp and shrill. I didn’t understand it. My focus was completely divided between the noise and anything else going on. Noah brought me a glass of water, still cautious.
“What’s your name, hun?”
“You know my name.”
She watched me drink the water. It felt like magic pouring down my throat.
“OK. What is it?”
Osh appeared next to her, staring down at me. I ignored them. My name was Juke, I think. Or maybe not. What was my name?
I don’t have a name.
“Come on, baby. Let’s go home.”
She held her hand out. I took it slowly, trying not to look at her. Chaunce walked over and grabbed her other hand.
“Not Daddy, actually.”
Noah nodded absently and led us to the door.
The little door opened to a big refrigerated room. Deep shelves lined the walls, all of them full of vials. Vials and vials of blood from the floor to the ceiling on every side, even above the little door. They went up almost ten feet high, the ceiling matching the pattern of the stairs; so much blood, it looked like the shelves were painted red. So much blood, she had to have kept every vial she drew from me since the first time her father let her.
I took a smaller vial and turned it in my fingers. On the side, in marker, was a small label covered with Noah’s swirly handwriting: ASTRID SPEC JUICE. Another vial said: ASTOR CIG. Another said: ASTOR CIG DILUTED. ASTOR LATCH PREP, ASTOR DROWN WEEK, ASTRID POST DROWN; it went on and on. I realized some of the vials were full of powder, some liquid, some had actual cigarettes in them.
I went through more and found some full of long hairs with bulbs at the end: YENNA TEST ONE. Two small, deep black vials: JUKE RASH 1, MOOSE RASH 2.
CHAUNCE/ASTRID MIX 1
MOOSE/NOAH MIX 2
BYLAS TEST 1
MOUTH TEST 1
DAVEY/MOOSE MIX FATAL – MATCH!
I stopped at that last one. The blood was pitch black. It followed my finger around the tube, pressing against the top when I put it back, like it was trying to get to me, get out and join me. It changed colors as I watched it, and four other vials changed with it. I read them slowly: ASTRID MATCH FATAL, CHAUNCE MATCH FATAL, and ASTOR PURE – RESOURCE.
My laughter cut in my throat, and I started coughing. I picked up another vial, this one with a black label, and it simply said CORA. I dropped it. The small bottle shattered, and the blood bubbled against the ground. It pooled and slid slowly along the floor, not a drop or stain left behind, until it spread into a line over a crack I couldn’t see. I touched it and felt the smallest opening. I ran my hand along the sides until I felt a dip, then pulled the trap door up. A large blood-stained metal box sat there. The blood seeped into the opening and seemed to sift into the box, disappearing. The front latch was partially rusted. I couldn’t force it open with the palm of my hand, but I sat and tried, struggling. I heard rustling behind me and went to close the door.
Osh’s blank face stared back at me. Noah was close behind him, her face mangled in disbelief.
“I asked that jackass to do one thing!”
I stared in the mirror. My reflection was speaking to me; it was touching my face, but I wasn’t moving.
“It’s just practice, Jukel. Just practice. I just want to get a feel for your body. It’s hard to navigate on land sometimes. If you stop trying to move, it’ll go by quickly. Go to sleep.”
My lips moved, but I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t talking. I didn’t think I was talking. I stared at myself until my vision blurred.
“It’s easier this time. Go to sleep, Jukel. I just want to look around.”
I nodded, at least I thought I did. Nothing was responding correctly. Chaunce walked up beside me, glancing over the counter to see me in the mirror.
“Not Daddy. Get out of his room.”
I kept staring at myself. The sound of Chaunce’s voice was grating. I wasn’t here to talk to her.
“Not Daddy,” she stated plainly, pouting up at me.
I turned and knelt down to look at her face-to-face.
“You’re too observant. Do you belong to my son as well?”
Chaunce opened her mouth wide, letting her jaw crack, but I stuck my fingers deep into her throat, bending them until she gagged. I kept them there while she heaved against them.
“That’s not necessary, brat. I’m just practicing. It’s not time.” I pulled them out slowly and she fell back, crying and coughing. “You’ve been helpful in the past. I don’t need you. I’m tired of you now.” I pulled her over to the bathtub by her tiny foot. “You’re a weak one. Can you breathe underwater? Or are you bound to land like my useless children?”
“Stop it right now!” Chaunce choked.
I tried. I really tried. Even as my hand turned the knob on the tub faucet, testing the water for temperature, I tried to let her foot go. In the mirror, I could see the freckled Mr. David standing in the position I’d just been in, still my reflection somehow, watching with glee. A small brown hand appeared suddenly, slow and careful, and turned the water off.
“Unc. Let go of her before I kill you.”
My head turned, and there was Moose, just a small boy holding a shotgun almost the size of his body. I felt myself laugh.
“What does that thing do, Hybrid?”
“I can show you if you want to know.” He cocked it without taking his eyes off of me, unbothered by the size.
“A weapon, I’m guessing. You’ll kill the baby, too, won’t you?”
“Only one way to find out.”
My hand let go, and Chaunce scrambled over to Moose, still choking. They backed out of the bathroom, Moose holding the shotgun steady, and he closed the door.
I got back up and stared into the mirror.
“They’re not who you want, Jukel. We want the resource. The meal. We can kill them later. For now, let’s just practice. Let me have control.”
I felt myself nod.
We want Astor.
“What is it?”
Astor stared at the box in wonder, then anger, then wonder again.
“Hun, why don’t you go on and crawl out of there, and we can talk.”
I couldn’t believe Juke didn’t move the box. I couldn’t believe it.
I bet if his momma asked him to do it, he would’ve. Damn momma’s boy.
Thinking of Juke, I backed up slowly, looking at the ceiling, trying not to trip over the things Astor tossed around. I couldn’t hear anything up there. Juke wasn’t doing too good, either. I gave Osh a worried look.
You should’ve thrown that boy in the fucking water…
“Maybe we should all go upstairs with the kids and Juke. Or at least one of us.”
Astor came at me from the little door so fast. I fell on my ass in surprise before she could hit me again. Osh snatched her up and pushed her away.
“Stop. If you want to talk, we can talk.”
“What is it? More blood? Maybe my hair and skin? Is it Davey?”
Osh laughed in surprise at the name. I couldn’t answer.
“I love you, Astor,” Osh started pathetically, stammering all over everything. “I always protected you, and Davey wasn’t … don’t talk about her. I can’t talk about her.” He let his hurt sit in the air a moment, and Astor actually looked ashamed. He sucked in a deep breath, laughing again. “Davey. You don’t know what that felt like. You’re acting ridiculous. I’m protecting you. That’s it. I promise. Please, just give us a second, and we’ll talk. I mean it; just let us compose ourselves.”
“Let you come up with more lies?”
Osh stared at her eye, trying to think.
“Yes, bitch, the fuck else would we be doing? Give us a second,” I spat.
We were already caught. She’d already hit me. Astor glared down at me like I was the very embodiment of toxic waste.
Feel how you want, I’m already yours. You’re stuck.
“Come up with whatever lies you want. I want the box opened by the time I come back. If it’s not open, I’m taking all the kids, and we’re leaving.”
“Shit, you might do that anyway once we open it. To be fair.”
“It’s late. Just go to sleep—”
“You don’t get to tell me what to do.” She stormed up the stairs, and both Osh and I finally exhaled.
“We’re so fucked.”
Astor never noticed shit. Never. Ne-ver. I could put the secret to improving Astrid’s speech on a giant whiteboard in the middle of her living room, and she wouldn’t notice. She’d straighten her daughter’s collar, brush her hair, and scold her for saying a word wrong. She could decorate my entire house and not realize the real reason I wanted it, could walk by the big space under the stairs and have not a hint of imagination spark, could look out that kitchen window and not think, “Hm, you can see almost every room in my house from here.” My momma had a big old lab in the basement at home. Astor never even asked about it. We didn’t have to hide it or say anything. I sat and drew Astor’s blood nearly every day when we were young, and she never even said, “Why? What are you doing with it?” She didn’t ask questions, not to me anyway. I lied to her, and she nodded, and that was usually it. And here I was, having to admit to something. I don’t lie just to have to tell the truth. Why bother if I have to explain shit? All my biggest lies are meant to be permanent.
Osh led the way up to my living room, sucking his teeth at the mess Astor made, grunting as he carted the box. I took a long pull from my cigarette as soon as he dropped it on the ground.
“You couldn’t keep it at your lab?” he asked, low and grumpy.
I tried not to look guilty. “I didn’t want my team to find it. It was stupid. Whatever. Can’t take it back now.”
“Did she take anything? Was anything missing?”
“I went in there with you, hun; how should I know?”
Osh thought for a long time, running his hand over his low fade. The metal box was so old, I thought of high school when I looked at it. Everything it ever held was meant to keep us safe, keep Astor safe, keep Jukel safe, keep our secrets from spilling out into the world and eating us alive. Keep the things inside from spilling out into the world and eating us alive, too.
“So, are you going to open it for her? Are we really doing that?” I asked. Osh grumbled something about just telling her the truth. He looked sick. “Well! Let’s think about that, hun.”
“What are we thinking about?”
“Are we sure we want to show her this now? Can it wait for another time? Can my lip heal first? Can we remove sharp objects from the house?”
Osh bit his lip. “This is our last resort. If we show her, what happens?”
“Well. Let’s see what state it’s in and then decide. What’s the bitch gonna do if we don’t show her? Cry about it? You’re about to throw that piece of shit in the ocean, anyway, and you can just put the girls in the box and everyone else in there, too. Shit, put me in there. Let’s all go for a swim.”
He forced the lock and opened it. A headless, armless, legless torso greeted us. A near complete pile of severed fingers, a severed foot, clumps of hair, two fingerless hands, and more and more and more body parts surrounded it like a stew, lazily tossed in. Bloody envelopes littered the sides like lining. One of the fingers tapped lazily on the bottom of the box, sending out a dull metal tap sound. A few of the other ones wriggled as well.
Cora’s torso was perfectly preserved. It was as alive right then as it had been with the first chop Osh gave her shoulder, that very first blow. I hadn’t drawn any blood from it in a while, and it was just … beautiful. It was like a living body. Every finger, both breasts, every protruding bone, all of it was fresh and clean. I just stared. I just sat there and stared. Osh let out an impressed whistle. Without thinking, I slowly closed the box. The finger kept tapping, getting louder and louder.
We were going to lose Astor. It was so clear all of a sudden. We were doing all of this work to find some semblance of peace for all of us, to move on from being hurt, to save ourselves from things we only managed to patch over before. To pull both Astor and Juke away from the responsibilities the world dumped on them. To free Osh, to free me, to fucking free me, and we were sailing so close to losing everything. It wasn’t just Osh screwing up. I stared down at the marvel of modern science, at the poor woman carved into bits, and sucked my teeth.
“How did we come this far and lose like this?”
Osh shrugged, but it was getting to him. The man looked unsteady on his feet. I thought about Bylas, and Lou, and Davey, and just the shit way we all got into this.
“You know what? Take it to The Mouth with you. Throw it in with your fake son. I’m done with this shit. Let them pry Astor and Juke from my dead hands.”
I drove to Chastain Pier. It was something I used to do to taunt my mother, to taunt any of my guardians, really. I wasn’t supposed to be near the pier at any time without someone to watch out for me. Going and walking around, seeing the danger everyone warned me about lurking everywhere, made me feel independent. It always ended in me running and hiding at the faintest hint of a sound, but I never regretted it.
The beauty of the night taunted me. The world didn’t spin as much as I wanted it to. We didn’t crash into the sun, burning to death in a haze of smoke and lava, but Chastain Pier was unusually empty, and I walked around like a normal woman. No one recognized me there. The boats I’d grown accustomed to seeing over the water were back in Lostine. The people that were destroying me, utterly destroying me, were all in the same place. I wanted to sit for a while, like old times, like I’d had the freedom to do just a few short years between my terrible childhood and my devastating adulthood. Just sit and breathe in the sea, think about nothing but the black water swishing underneath me. It was all I wanted, all I could think about. What had I done to deserve so much activity?
Try not to think about…
I was going to turn thirty. And with thirty came a responsibility I didn’t plan on shirking. I hadn’t, at least. I stood just off the dock, my feet covered in grass, and watched the few people walk around. Dates, probably. A few high schoolers eyed me, but that’s it. They were too busy enjoying each other, enjoying a future that didn’t involve sacrifice. Normalcy was the past, though, and as soon as my foot touched the dock, heads turned. I sat down on a bench further back from the water, blanketed in light under an old street lamp. The sun sank in the distance, slowly giving way to the night, and I sighed.
Just leave me alone for two seconds. Just two.
I sat at the docks until I was the only one in my section. Sat there until a long scream rang out to my left. I ignored the people running, the sounds of water splashing, the choking noises. I closed my eyes wistfully when the lights started blinking out, that familiar static buzz and deep black sweeping around me. They loved their light tricks. At times, I thought they were trying to warn me off, to give me a moment to run. I wouldn’t.
“Jukel must really care for you.”
I looked over, exhausted. A brown-skinned woman with red hair stood at the very edge of the dock. The hair flowed behind her into the water, long strands covering her breasts. She was naked otherwise.
Leviathan 2. Yenna. The Creature. Whatever you want to call yourself.
“I wouldn’t say that.” She moved a bit closer, but not close enough to reach out.
I watched, bored, as the lights blinked out around me. The Creature gave me a courteous nod, stopping far enough to be peaceful.
“Well. He’s done a lot to protect you. He thinks he has, at least. You know how sons are.”
Some of her hair stood up, tiny lights blinking, and I thought of the vials. What adventures had Noah been on to acquire something so deadly?
“Yes. I know how sons are.”
Yenna seemed conflicted. I watched more of the hairs on her head float up, tiny bulbs blinking on one after the other.
“I’m surprised to see you here alone. It’s tempting. I’m sure you know the situation.”
“Are you offering yourself to me? There’s still a few weeks left, I believe? Are you offering yourself earlier?”
I could nearly smell drool, hungry froth, around her mouth. She moved forward just a little, more lights rising. I imagined fiber optic light strands, all blinking to life to dissolve me.
“This isn’t something I want to do, Astor. I never wanted to hurt any of you. We’re getting desperate. I’m sure you can understand. I held up my end of the bargain. You would do anything to save your family, wouldn’t you?”
Men with soggy bodies and fogged eyes started crawling out of the water, their pupils so small, they were blips in seas of white. The last light went out, and we were engulfed in black, just the tiny bulbs painting the dark air, the white eyes bobbing in nothingness.
“Your family, Astor. If you come with me now, I’ll leave your mother and daughter alone. I mean that. I keep my promises; that much is obvious.”
All the liars, land or sea. They all lied to me so casually, so effortlessly. I ignored her, staring at the beauty of the lights.
“Tell me something. I had a sister. Did you know about her?”
“Yes. Didn’t you?”
“And you took her?”
Yenna stepped closer. “Not willingly. Not at first. It definitely wasn’t my intention. It’s something I’m still a bit steamed over. Davey wasn’t my concern.”
“What did you give my husband for Davey?”
“I promised not to tell.”
There was no laughter in her voice. I watched the lights blink on, watched the eyes creep out of the darkness, and I sighed.
“I won’t give my life for my mother. Or my daughter. I won’t give my life at all. I keep my promises just like you do.”
I watched them surround me, more and more eyes bobbing up in the darkness, more and more black spreading across the pier. The screams died down, turning to loud splashing as the Shadows got rid of everyone who wasn’t me.
There was one light directly over my head. It blinked back on, drowning Yenna in yellow, then slowly began to fade.
“That’s unfortunate. I’ve waited long enough. I can’t promise this won’t be painful. You will be an endless benefit to my people, Astor. Your sacrifice will protect your family for generations. It’s an even trade.”
The bulbs in her hair flickered.
I started to close my eyes, moving my hand to my throat, annoyed. Surrounded by overprotective men and women all my life, I’d only ever had to do bad things to protect myself once, after I’d run away from the foster home, and I’d hated doing it then. My fingers pressed against my jugular, and I sucked in a deep breath. There was a sudden vivid glow beside me. A loud swish rang out, and three of the bulbs fell to the ground, dark. A loud hiss rang out in front of me, Yenna’s cohorts drawing back in pain wherever the light touched them.
“You always were rude, Yenna. Here I am having a nice walk with my granddaughter, only to see we haven’t been invited to a conversation that involves us. How should I feel about that?”
There was silence. Yenna’s pupils shrunk in the light.
“Astor. You are as beautiful as ever,” a voice said so close behind me it could’ve been me talking.
She could’ve been a puppeteer. The hairs on my arms stood, my heart nearly stopped, and I sucked in a breath. All of my energy sunk into my surprise. I couldn’t turn.
Yenna stepped back, then kept stepping back, awkward steps that did little to mask her surprise. I finally moved to see what I couldn’t believe. Behind me stood my mother. Beside her was Astrid, swallowed in her brother’s hoodie. She had her sleeve rolled up to her elbow and pressed a tiny blade against her wrist. The handle of Alicia’s machete blazed through the black, so bright I almost couldn’t look directly at it. Alicia, tall, unbroken, and somehow rough in her beauty at all times, gave my shoulder a squeeze and laughed out loud. Alicia, the one I hadn’t seen in years, the one I had to train myself not to think about, the one I loved more than anyone.
“It’s been so long since I’ve actually talked to either of you.”
Noah whined about Astor hitting her as I drove . I looked out at the road and blinked, then I was staring at the barrel of a shotgun. Moose stood behind it, his hands steady, head tilted forward. There were thick black strands shooting from the sides of his arms, forming a stringy wall that nearly blocked my view of the wall behind him. It pulsed slowly, parts of it spiking in waves then thinning over and over again. I saw Chaunce between the strings, her jaw wide open and eyes so big I wondered if her eyelids were still there. It took me a second to compose myself.
“Whoa! Relax! Where’d you get that? How’d … you do this?”
The gunk steamed, spread out like a pulsing web. Chaunce closed her mouth, her jaw clicking.
“Stay back. I don’t want to kill you, but I will. I mean it.”
His hands might’ve been steady, but his voice squeaked uncertainty. Chaunce huffed behind him. The beeping in my head died down completely, and I was met with an empty feeling.
“Is Daddy now! Is back!”
Moose looked up, trying to confirm.
“Are you … Unc? Are you Unc now?”
“Yes. I guess so. Put the gun down. Put this stuff away.”
They stood there a moment longer as if I was going to transform and fly at them. He slowly placed the gun flat on the floor, still holding onto Chaunce. The gunk snapped back into him like elastic, smoothing out along his skin and turning back to his usual brown. Neither of them moved. Seconds earlier, Noah was crying in the car. Astor hit her, and she wouldn’t shut up about it. Then, I was standing in the room in front of Moose and Chaunce, being held at gunpoint, about to have my brain crushed and my body consumed by my own kids. The patches on my chest surged a little, rolling down to my knees, but sifted softly back into my skin. My teeth hurt. They felt hollow and frail.
The bed thudded as I crashed down on it, holding my forehead in my hands.
“What was I doing?”
“Try to kill me! In tub! To drown!”
“You were yourself this time, though, Unc. You weren’t Mr. David.”
“Have I been Mr. David before? Other than with your mom that day?”
Moose held Chaunce’s hand and walked over to me, examining my face.
“Your cheek is white, Unc. It’s not going away now. It usually goes away.”
I nodded. It felt funny. My whole mouth felt funny. Whatever he’d put in me was devouring me. It was taking me. I scanned my arms and hands, whimpering a little. On that boat, he pushed his arm in me. No, my mother did. They planned it. I could remember things I didn’t do, remember being Mr. David, remember shit I thought were dreams.
“How am I both of us?” I muttered, and Moose shrugged. “Where are we?”
“Your house. My dad and Auntie Noah went downstairs. I think I heard my mom down there, too.”
I felt another beep in my head and lurched forward, throwing up on Moose’s shoe. He just stared down at it for a long time. It was a bunch of white gunk.
“What’s wrong with everybody?” he asked, disgust slowly filling him.
Chaunce teared up, running to hide behind Moose again. I looked around the room, remembering the blue light in the living room. I remembered her saying something, walking out the door.
No. Not her.
I lost my breath when I saw my mother. Her lazy pacing, the deep purple of her gown blowing in the breeze. The long swing of her hair. The bang. The machete. Everything about her was as potent as it had always been, and I felt myself scrambling to comprehend it. Astrid paid me no mind, the blade steady over her wrist.
“Do you come out at night to harass young women often, Mermaid? We should’ve brought our grandson out. It could’ve been a proper family gathering.”
The Shadows surrounded us, all fixated on my mother. I felt a fresh smack of fear. Seeing her, really seeing her again, and standing there with my daughter! I’d never seen them together. We’d never been in the same place together. I didn’t want anyone to hurt them.
“Oh. It’s you. The crybaby.” Yenna smiled.
Alicia paced back and forth in front of me, never one to sit still.
“It is. Your favorite snack. And here you are, starving. How many Shadows died of hunger today?”
A few of the floating eyes growled in protest.
“Less and less every day, actually. Davey provides.” Yenna stood still, nearly stone. Her eyes shrunk further and further as she watched Alicia.
“I’m glad she’s finally useful to someone. You should’ve told me you were coming; I would’ve brought lunch. I killed two Latches this morning and just tossed their bodies into a lake. I bet you could’ve fed so many of your people with them. Do you want the address? Maybe you could … sift around a bit until you get lucky.”
Yenna let out an annoyed laugh, trying her best to remain composed. “I’m glad you get to see your daughter one last time before I pull her down to the brine pool and—”
“Nope. Stop talking,” Astrid said calmly.
Yenna glared at her, genuinely offended.
“You don’t worry, little girl. I’m going to smash your head against a concrete wall until you explode, like I did your fourth baby, Alicia. Do you remember?” Alicia stopped pacing, staring down at the boards. “It’s almost time to see your old friend. You know each other so intimately, what with him sucking out your face over and over. You remember that? You wouldn’t dare taunt him, would you? Maybe he’ll show up in person this time, and you’ll be the cause of millions of people dying. More people dead because of selfish, sad, pathetic Alicia.”
I was afraid to look at my mother. The air fell flat around her, her silence fueling the pace of Yenna’s words.
“I’m the nice one, remember, Devil? I gave you so many choices. He- it has never been kind. And it’s already ignoring my requests for more time to find resources. You’re right. We’re dying. If I can’t provide, and Davey can’t provide, and Cora can’t provide, you know what’s next.”
Alicia was quiet.
“Do what’s right for once in your selfish life. Come with me. Save your daughter, let her be happy. Let her raise her family. Please. Do I look like I want to beg you? We’re dying—”
“I’ve had husbands I couldn’t control,” my mother said, her voice flat and sad. “What an awful feeling. I truly pity you, monster. You don’t have a name. You don’t have a place in the world. You can walk around in Yenna’s body for the rest of eternity, use it to have children on land who might save your species, and you’ll never be anything but another fish that feeds off of stronger beings to live.”
“Tell your master or lover or whatever to hurry up already. Why should I care about his victims? Everybody dies.”
“Everybody except you, huh?”
Yenna gave her a smug grin and flipped off the dock, landing somewhere in the distance. The Shadows stayed for a moment, watching us, then disappeared one by one. We waited until the lights started blinking back on before any of us moved. The light went out on Alicia’s machete.
“Whew, boy,” Astrid groaned.
Alicia just stared after Yenna, wounded.
Alicia rubbed my back with the blunt edge of her machete until I stood. We watched the ripples disappear into the water, the darkness trailing behind as they moved at inhuman speed to their home. She turned my face with the blade, examining my eye with amusement.
“She’s shorter than I imagined,” I remarked.
We stood in silence for a moment longer, then Alicia let out a delighted cackle, throwing her head back. She couldn’t stop. I joined in, laughing heartily, holding my stomach. Astrid watched us curiously, then smiled.
“She is very … small! Ti-ny!”
“Is that right? Shorter than me, you think?”
“So much shorter,” I confirmed. “It’s amazing how unremarkable she is. I bet that’s what this is all about. She took the wrong body.”
Alicia smiled at me like she’d probably never smiled at anyone. A hint of shyness sat behind it. She patted Astrid’s head with the side of her machete and tried to hide her delight. She was blushing.
“What a regret, not taking you with me, Astor. You’re worth a million of these humans. What have you been up to, girl?”
I felt my heart swell with pride. Alicia waved the machete, not even looking in her direction, and Astrid walked over to sit on a bench. The air had returned to normal. The pier was abandoned, wiped clean, and one by one, the lights blinked back on. I marveled at Astrid’s nonchalance and compliance.
“Just engaging in chaos. Preparing for the inevitable. Being betrayed, followed, worrying. It could rival your daily activities, I’m sure.”
“I doubt that. I really did kill two Latches this morning.” Adjusting her dress, Alicia slid her machete in her garter, the sleeve holding easily in place. We both watched the ocean, and I felt like a child again. “It’s almost your birthday. You have a Latch now?”
“Yes. Did you take part in that at all?” I answered, trying not to sound bitter. Alicia smirked.
“Heavily. Yvette tells me it would’ve happened anyway, but precautions must be taken. I think you see why. You haven’t given me an answer to our age-old dilemma, and I want to make sure I plan accordingly.”
We both looked over at Astrid. Who stays, who goes?
“What happens if my body is destroyed?”
“Well. Your friend Noah is killed, and you take over her body. And then you live with regret for the rest of your eternity. Trust me. It never goes away.”
The thought of my body being destroyed, then waking up as Noah, knowing I erased her from existence, wasn’t comforting. It wasn’t helpful. I had so many questions. I couldn’t remember how many years it’d been, how much time had passed. I stared at her a while, wondering if it was really her. Should I ask that? Or should I ask about Osh, what my husband was doing? Should I ask about Yvette, about Eon Tech, about Cora? Did she know about the box? Thoughts swarmed my head, then I settled on one.
She groaned. “Why must I always hear about that girl?”
I laughed a little, throwing my hands up. “If you’d spend the time explaining things, I’d know!”
“I didn’t know she was a Devil when I gave her away. I thought she was another useless normal child. By the time I found out, I had you. I didn’t need her.”
I nodded. It didn’t feel like the truth, and she blushed so hard, her face could’ve burst. Alicia shifted uncomfortably, waving the machete back and forth.
“Is that all?”
“It’s all for now, yes. I can’t. Just know that you’re here now, and that’s what matters.”
“Your backup Astor Snow.”
“It is a pleasure to see you, Backup. I mean that, truly. Though I’ve never been that far.”
For the first time in years, maybe since I’d last seen my mother up close, I couldn’t find it in me to worry. I took a deep breath, allowing the salty air to travel through me, and exhaled all my fears.
“What are you doing with Astrid?”
“Only what I told you I would do. Things are as I said they would be. I have to make sure we’re prepared either way, depending on your decision. I’m waiting for you.”
“Oh. I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to that.”
“I know. I’d hoped as well. I actually adore your little girl, to be completely honest. She reminds me of the real Yenna. Full of life, wanting to understand everything. She’s not jaded somehow. You’ve really managed to protect your family from the truth. I’m in awe. I wish I could’ve enjoyed it with you. It’s … you’ve built something I never got to enjoy, and I hate to leave you. I hate to take your peace with me.” She licked her lips, biting down an emotion I couldn’t understand.
I didn’t want her to leave. I could feel the pull of her preparing to go like gravity, could feel it yanking her away from me.
She sighed and continued. “I don’t want to rush you, but I’ve seen the Creature like this before. Many times before. I’m not worried about her. I worry about the big Leviathan. I’ve never seen that Leviathan so ready to move. Your foster mother has, and she could tell you a thing or two about that, but it’s not a pleasant story, and neither of us is willing to go through it. The terror in her eyes when she talks about the way her entire city was wiped off the face of this Earth…” She paused, imagining it. “The Thing does not argue. It is preparing to come and get … one of us, or all of us. I’m glad you enjoyed your life, but it’s time to decide.”
One of us or all of us. The people who would decide the fate of millions of people were on the Chastain Pier. My mother, my daughter, and me. Everyone else was background noise. It was Alicia with her scarred eye, me with my tainted blood, and Astrid with her sweet smile that would end up in the water.
One of us or all of us.
Alicia used to take me to the library and read me stories. She’d say, “I want you to read these so you know how people see you. These are for children, of course. Adults vanquish people like you. Adults mutilate people like you.”
“Alicia. We have to matter to someone. Who will that be for you?”
“Only you, Astor.”
I held the moment like a tangible thing, sucking all the pleasure I could from it. All the pride in being the one Alicia cared about. The one person left on the planet Alicia would do anything for. I let it heal me, let it give me strength. I’d waited so long to hear those words.
Alicia balked, turning to face me. I put my hand on her shoulder and pointed to Astrid, to my little girl on the bench.
For a moment, I thought she would argue. Emotions traveled through her face, then disappeared. She gave me a sad nod.
“Is that what you want if it comes down to that, Astor? Are you sure? We’re all doing our best to make sure it doesn’t, but if it does… You might not have time left to change your mind. I’ll honor your wishes, but are you sure?”
There was so much pain rumbling through her voice that I wanted to say never mind. I wanted to say forget it. Only me, only me, only us. Instead, I gave her a confident nod and pulled her into the only hug I’d ever given her. I watched Astrid sitting on the bench, staring brightly at the ocean, and finally made my decision.
“Don’t deviate. Don’t you dare. I forgive you for everything, Mom.”
Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller