Written by Trey Briggs || Edited by Lyric Taylor || Art by Monte Miller
Chapter 8: Hybrid
A blue light crept slowly toward Moose’s classroom, the color filling the hallway. For a second, nerves crawling red and blotchy through his face, he tried to figure out how big it was. Was it a tiny blue light like the Yenna lady from the boat, or was it a big blue light like the Alicia lady in Auntie Noah’s office?
Your grandmas. They’re your grandmas. That’s what Unc said.
It was impossible to tell. The only certain fact was that it crept closer and closer, reflecting off the floor and lockers, spreading as it went along. Moose looked down at his social studies textbook, trying to cover his face with hair. It didn’t work. His mom always said his hair was too thick, too wild; now, he wished there was more of it.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Moose tried not to think. It worked until Paloma tapped him, snickering.
“What are you doing, Fawn?”
The nickname sent more blotches burning across his face. What was it about girls that made them so good at being mean?
“Nothing. I don’t want to see my grandma.”
She turned and looked at the open door, confused. “There’s nobody out there.”
“She’s coming. I can tell. She’s not normal. I can-I can see the light. You can’t.” It felt stupid to say “my grandma has a blue light beaming from her face that only people like me can see,” so he didn’t. He felt like crying, but instead, he squeezed his hands into fists and thought about how strong he was becoming.
I can’t keep crying all the time.
“Is your grandma dead or something?” Paloma turned and moved her chair, blocking the view of him from the door. “Is she a ghost?”
“Kind of.” Moose loosened his hands a little, wondering if her simple tactic would work.
“OK, don’t worry.” Paloma straightened and picked up a textbook, pretending to look through it, stretching to make her neck longer. She was a lot bigger than Moose, and the size of her obscured him. He stared at the ground, the linoleum waving in his worry, waiting for the blue light to disappear. It did after a second. Looking up, too nervous to glance around Paloma, Moose smiled in relief.
“Thanks. That was cool of you.”
Bored, she nodded and turned back around. “No problem, Fawn. My mom’s a ghost too. I get it.”
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged, looking down at her book. “She died by accident, but she never left. It’s really weird. But I always have to hide from her now.”
Before Moose left to meet his mother, Mr. Lewis pulled him aside, glowing. All the teachers loved Moose, and he made sure to give them plenty of reasons to. Osh had been a child prodigy, flying through grade after grade, and Moose wanted the same.
“Astric, I personally think you all are too young to aim for top of class. It’s a high honor, though, and I have no doubt it will be either you or Paloma.”
Moose paused, trying his best to keep his face clear. “Well, Paloma isn’t as smart as me, sir. She’s a B student. I saw her report card once.”
Mr. Lewis made a face and gave Moose a sorry look. “You’re falling behind just a tiny bit. That’s all. It’s not a huge deal. Valedictorian really means nothing at this point, but I know you’ve been working toward it. You missed two quizzes this semester, Astric, and you didn’t make them up. I was surprised. Astor doesn’t look like the type to allow for any type of slack.”
An ugly feeling slid into his chest, but he ignored it. Don’t cry …
“Excuse me, sir, but it’s Mrs. Snow. And my dad was …”
“I know you have personal issues going on, but that won’t affect the outcome. The bigger issue is the LAAMP exam. You know how much that means for the fifth grade, and only one student in the entire state has ever gotten a near perfect score on it. Do you know who that was?”
Dad. Who else is smart enough?
“I just want you to be prepared. You lose ten points automatically on the retest. Paloma is close enough that even that could push her to winning. Study and show up. That’s all I’m saying.”
He nodded and thanked his teacher, eager to leave.
Lost in thought, Moose walked from the class to his mom’s office, straightening his shirt every few seconds. The Language Arts and Maths Precision Exam. His father didn’t even get a perfect score on it. If Moose beat that, he’d get an award! There would be a ceremony. He’d get to walk through the auditorium in front of the whole school, and maybe even Astrid and Chaunce would be there! His teacher would be recognized as well.
A piece of his hair was out of place. Stopping to stare at himself in the reflection of a water fountain, he tried his best to get it to lay flat, going as far as to stuff it under other pieces of hair. It wasn’t super noticeable, but Moose knew his mother. The reflection seemed to twitch, then The Fake Dad stared back at him, pretending to fix his own hair. He pointed to Moose’s polo, sucking his teeth in disapproval.
“You have crumbs on your shirt. Don’t let your momma see that.”
Moose looked down and wiped them off. “Thanks.”
He made it to Astor’s office right as she was closing her door, locking it methodically. She was always so tired all the time, especially while Dad was gone, and now, she seemed barely functional. He didn’t understand why, but he knew better than to question adults. The tension in the Snow and Dill households was palpable, but there was always something he could do about it.
Men solve problems, they don’t cause them.
Moose grabbed his mother’s hand and tried not to frown when she jumped.
“It’s just me, Mom.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, Moose.” She kissed his forehead, almost missing, and he put his hands on her waist to steady her.
Recently, he’d made a point not to look at or mention her eye. No one else did, at least not in his family circle. The pupil was gigantic, though, spilling over the iris, and it only seemed to be growing the more time went by. Their relationship was equally damaged. She hadn’t completely forgiven him for his part in her breakdown, he thought, and she just wasn’t as nice to him anymore.
When he knew she wasn’t paying attention, he snuck a long look at her eye.
Jeez. It looks so painful.
Silent, they walked through the school together, Astor barely acknowledging his existence. The Fake Dad replaced every reflection he produced, watching and smiling. When the reflection spoke, Moose only turned his head slightly to show he could hear, not wanting to alarm his mother. It sounded like his dad sometimes, and other times, the voice was too high and too pronounced.
“Talk to her. She’s worried. Tell her about Paloma.”
“Do you remember my friend from class, Mom? She might beat me for valedictorian. Can you help me study for the LAAMP?”
“I’m sure your father could help,” Astor barely grunted.
That was it. Moose cleared his throat and fought tears back for what felt like the millionth time that day. Something so small shouldn’t make a man cry, after all. He had to learn to handle rejection.
If Unc were here, he would smile and say something interesting, then Mom would look surprised and laugh.
“Paloma said her mom is a ghost.” Moose was sure that would catch her interest as it had his. He waited, nearly holding his breath, but didn’t change his expression.
“A ghost? How so?” Astor’s tone was only a little interested, but that was all he needed.
“She died and never left the house! And now, she’s mean to everybody. She told me when this light …”
“Don’t tell her about the blue light. You’ll worry her.”
Moose gave the voice a slight nod, and when he looked up at his mother, he realized she wasn’t listening at all. Annoyed, he looked forward to see what she was glaring at. They’d passed the double doors into the parking lot, and Auntie Noah stood in front of her car, smoking a cigarette like always, her foot on the grill. The lot was empty. Moose always waited later for his mother to finish work, and by the time they left, the halls and parking lot were barren. Auntie Noah jumped slightly, surprised to see Astor, but corrected herself quickly.
“What do you want?” Astor’s voice was heavy with suspicion. Moose immediately matched her.
“Sorry, hun! I thought that was your car, but you have appointments today, right? House calls? Why are you here?”
“I decided to take more days at the school. You know. To be closer to my children.” Noah licked her lips and started to suck more cigarette smoke in, but Astor snatched the cigarette from her mouth and examined it. “Well, I see you’re still enjoying the fruits of my body’s labor.”
“Of course. I’d die without it.”
Astor’s face transformed so slowly that Moose had time to stand between them before it could deliver its message, her anger worse than anything he’d ever seen. It was new every time he saw it, something fresh and unique, and he always preferred her blank and empty. His arms shook when he held them out, breathing deep, choking on his nervousness.
“Mom, we should go home!” He didn’t dare stutter.
Astor glanced down, her pupil pushing further out, completely overtaking the iris, and nodded. “Why don’t you get in the car while I talk to your aunt?”
“Oh, I’m still his aunt?”
Astor stepped forward, but Moose met her.
“Mom. Let’s get in the car, OK? Please?”
Astor finally maintained eye contact with her son, but she continued to speak to Noah.
“Why are you here?”
“I wanted to do you a favor. You’re tired, hun. Am I not allowed to pick up my play nephew anymore?”
Moose wondered if Auntie Noah wanted to be hit. The mocking tone she held went against all the tears and anger she’d expressed the other day.
“Why do you need to pick my son up?”
“Hun, please! Are we going to do this forever? Really? You’re my best fucking friend! If you’re not going anywhere, stop being fucking stupid!”
Astor motioned for Moose to get in the car, a final edge to her movement that scared Moose into action. He slid in only a brief second before Auntie Noah and Astor slid into the front seats.
“You’re really leaving your car? I can take him home, Astor.”
“I’m sure you can. I’ll walk in the morning.”
The Fake Dad’s reflection watched Auntie Noah from the backseat, then turned to Moose.
“Do you know why Auntie Noah really came to pick you up?”
Moose didn’t respond, sliding the seatbelt into place. They drove in silence until Auntie Noah pulled out another cigarette. Astor snatched it roughly and threw it out the window.
“Cranky bitch,” Auntie Noah spat, aggravated. Astor gripped her seatbelt so tight, Moose was afraid she would bleed. “You’re going to forgive me. You built this whole life with me, Astor. Not even with your husband, not even with my damn husband. We built a life together. Are you ready to throw it all away over some bullshit?”
“Where’d you put the box?”
At that, Auntie Noah stopped responding at all. They pulled into her driveway, and Moose had to rush to match his mother’s speed out of the car and across the street. When he turned around, Auntie Noah sat stiffly in the car, her eyes wide and blank, staring at him.
Astor fumbled with the door, and Moose realized it was the first time he could remember it being locked. They both realized Osh was in his car in Auntie Noah’s driveway before he spoke, but Astor didn’t acknowledge him.
Moose wondered why his father was sitting around in his car. Noah made a face at Osh, and he shrugged, biting his lip and sighing in frustration. He stopped and waved when he saw Moose watching.
What are they doing?
“Hey! I’m going to work. I’ll be back later, OK? You’re … you’re eating tonight!” Osh stammered, and Moose winced at the insincerity.
Astor hadn’t eaten in a week. She ignored him, fumbled with the lock, cursing to herself, and Moose was too afraid to say anything to his father. Osh sullenly backed the car out of the driveway and pulled off.
This wasn’t the behavior he was used to from his father and aunt. It bothered him how much they were stressing his mother out. Even when everyone knew she was on edge, they were pushing her further.
“Mom, I’ll protect you from anything so you don’t have to be so scared. You have the strongest guys around you to …”
“Everything you say doesn’t have to be profound and protective. It’s OK to just talk sometimes, Moose.” His mother’s annoyed sigh sunk into him like mud, clogging his throat.
The Fake Dad stared at him from the window, shaking its head in disappointment.
“Say something normal …”
“Mom, I think I’ll make valedictorian this year. Like Dad used to …”
“Not that, kid…” The Fake Dad said in disbelief.
Astor sighed loudly and nodded, finally getting the door open.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry, you idiot, don’t cry.
Moose made sure his hands weren’t shaking and followed his mother in the house. Maybe if I shut up it’ll be OK.
“Moose. This isn’t the life I imagined for you and your sister. You shouldn’t have to go through this …” Moose grabbed her hand and turned her to face him.
“You didn’t do anything, Mom. Me, you, and Astrid didn’t do anything. Don’t worry. I’m going to fix it for both of you.”
She gave him a big smile, the first one he’d seen from her in days. They stood in the living room, the closed blinds almost foreign to him, and he marveled at how beautiful his mother was. Even with bags under her eyes, even with no makeup, even with her hair all over the place. If he could keep his mother calm, maybe things would go back to normal.
Astor sighed a little, genuinely relieved, and slicked a piece of his hair back. It popped out again. Her teeth grit, and she tried again, but it just popped back up. After a second, she laughed, but the laugh was heavy with annoyance.
“We’ll see what happens.”
Disappointed, Moose kept his smile and nodded. He could see all the veins in her arms and even some in her neck. They traveled up into her shoulder, covered by her blouse, and escaped to her chin. It was like her blood was blue, a really bright blue, and when she was angry or sad, he could see the veins so clear, she could’ve been bleeding. They’d been like that for a couple of months, ever since he’d returned with Unc from the trip, but The Fake Dad told him not to say anything. Still, she was so cool.
I bet Paloma’s mom doesn’t have blue veins.
Mom wasn’t a ghost. Ghosts didn’t have blood. Maybe Grandma Alicia was, though.
Moose stared at the rogue hair in the mirror, stern. It kept springing up. He tried everything to make it stay down, even a giant glob of gel, and it just sprung out of the pile.
“Stay down. I won’t let you worry my mother,” he whispered, holding it flat.
The Fake Dad stared back at him from the mirror, laughing like it always did. Maybe he could fix his hair if the reflection would just show him instead of The Fake Dad, but every now and then, it replaced his own reflection entirely.
“Why are you so worried about your mom?”
“I just am.”
Paloma the Jellyfish and Jellyfish Asia made the whole room glow sometimes. It was mostly their fish tank. Dad helped him put a bunch of neon lights around it one day, and it looked bigger than it really was. They’d put a bunch of crates under it, and Astor got reflective paper to help the light bounce off and fill the room. The jellyfish themselves were a cool glowing blue like his mother’s veins, and sometimes they had a white outline over their jelly bodies. They were his best friends. Not a day ended without him staring at them until he drifted to sleep, and most of the time (when he wasn’t helping with Astor and Chaunce’s studies), he studied in his room with them, reading his homework out loud so they wouldn’t be bored. He’d named them both after Paloma, though he’d told everyone they were named after two different girls so they wouldn’t think he was a creep.
Auntie Noah said creepy men were the worst people on the planet.
They were Paloma, for her first name, and Asia, for her middle name. He’d seen it in her locker when she was putting her books away one day, arching his body to get a peek inside. She liked to draw; there were lots of really cool drawings of wolves taped in there, and they all had big scary eyes. She signed her name as Paloma Asia Getty at the bottom of every drawing.
“Are you watching me, Fawn?”
The nickname irked him, and he tried to walk away, but she grabbed his shoulder. It wasn’t a friendly grab.
“No, I’m not. Don’t call me Fawn.”
“You’re not a moose. Moose are big, huge, and they are really scary. You’re too small to be a moose, and your real name is stupid.”
He couldn’t understand why she was being mean, but he brushed her hand away and faced her. It was hard thinking of things to say when she was standing so close to him, near menacing.
Everyone is always mad at me.
She doubled down. “Why are you always watching me?”
“You’re fat.” The words spilled out of his mouth, and he almost gasped at himself. Paloma bit her cheek. “I … I don’t know why I—”
She smashed the edge of her textbook into his face. He stumbled at the hit, and when he straightened, holding his chin, she pulled it far back and hit him again in the mouth. A blob of black blood sprayed out, and he gagged at the color of it, but by the time he’d covered his mouth in shock, she was already stomping away.
Moose waited until Paloma turned the corner to whimper, “I’m sorry …” He bunched his shirt up around his mouth, shivering and sucking in sobs, but when he looked up, he saw her hand stuck around the corner. She gave him a thumbs up before disappearing to her class. The Fake Dad made a nervous sound with his tongue, watching from Moose’s locker mirror.
“She heard you from all the way over there?”
Moose had to sit in the bathroom and let his face bleed for almost an hour. The blood was too black, and it sometimes stunk like chemicals. Unc always told him not to go to the nurse (or Astor) when he was hurt for any reason, even if he was dying or close to death. All he could think about at that moment was going to see his mother, to have her dote on him, fix him up, and calmly chastise him. He stayed put.
“Girls don’t like momma’s boys.”
Paloma was fat, but he really liked how soft she looked. It wasn’t a bad thing, at least he didn’t mean it that way.
I don’t know why I said that to her.
“Did you make me say that, Fake Dad?” There was no answer. “Please don’t be mean to people. I really like Paloma.”
“So what? You’re ten, and everyone already hates you. You’ll be dead before you’re old enough to date.”
The jellyfish were a special gift from Unc, and he’d almost named them Astrid and Astor. But he didn’t want to think about them swimming in the water forever. It might be a jinx to name two sea creatures after them.
The Fake Dad smirked at him in the reflection of the aquarium. “But they will anyway. They’re going to drown. They’re both going to suffer forever, and it’ll be your fault.”
“How do I help them, then?”
“Die. Die. Die. Die. Diediediediediediedie diediediediedie diediediedie die die DIEDIEDIEDIE.” It frothed at the mouth as it went on and on, speeding up and slowing down.
Moose rolled his eyes and ignored the reflection, staring at his jellyfish instead, calmed by their slow swimming.
“I don’t think I need to die. Real men can solve things without dying.”
“Is Unc the real man you’re taking advice from? He can’t even keep the skin on his face.” Again, Moose ignored him. “Fine. Why don’t you practice? You won’t get better unless you practice. At least you can die strong.”
There was some sense in that, if only a little. Moose stood and concentrated until the patches on his back and legs appeared. They itched incessantly, but that always happened at first. They rolled up to his shoulder, throbbing under his shirt, and he stood with a solemn face until his entire arm turned black, pulsing with the liquid. Forcing the gunk from his skin to the floor, he watched it creep over to his bed. It spread over his bed like a blanket, and he let it spread further and further until a tiny knock interrupted him. He let the black blob crawl over his door and travel flat against the wall before opening it. Astrid and Chaunce slipped in, closing the door behind them.
Moose sucked his teeth, still watching the black gunk. “You’re both supposed to be asleep. Mom is homeschooling you in the morning; she’s gonna notice if you’re tired.”
“Want to watch!” Chaunce said loudly. Astrid put her finger to her lips to shush her.
“How’d you know I was doing it?”
“It smells funny, right Astrid?”
Astrid nodded. She’d been sullen since the fight with Auntie Noah and their mom, and Moose tried to spend more time complimenting her. It wasn’t working. He still didn’t have the natural skill his father and uncle had that cheered every woman up in ten seconds flat. Well, except recently.
“OK, just don’t touch it. It burns stuff sometimes. I think it’s cold today, but be careful.” Chaunce huffed.
“I do not burn stuff when I crunch. Watch!” She opened her mouth wide, and Astrid huffed angrily. It was annoying.
Unc and Freckles let Chaunce hurt things too much, and she was starting to become a problem when they weren’t around. She’d made Moose’s nose bleed once when she was mad, and the smell of Moose’s blood made the other kids at the park sick. The headache lasted for two weeks straight. Astor even worriedly asked him about it, but he hadn’t wanted her to be afraid of them, so he didn’t say anything. Chaunce could hurt pretty much anybody but Astrid. It never worked on her for some reason.
“Don’t do that in here.”
Chaunce closed her mouth and rolled her eyes.
“Astrid, do you want to practice too? You can try the teleport thing,” Moose offered.
“Are you practicing with Alicia now? Is that where she’s taking you?”
Astrid didn’t answer.
“How can you protect someone who won’t talk to you?”
Chaunce opened her mouth wide again, and both of Moose’s jellyfish started swimming in rapid circles. He pushed the black gunk over her feet and flipped her upside down. It was more out of anger than he cared to admit, but he walked her along the wall to make up for it. A man was supposed to control his anger, and he wouldn’t hurt her, but the jellyfish meant too much to him to leave to her amusements.
“Gross!” She laughed, swinging around. She pretended to walk up the wall and stood over Astrid and Moose on the ceiling, laughing quietly with her hand over her mouth.
“Don’t swing; you’ll hurt your ankles. Walk normally.”
Chaunce walked back and forth across the ceiling, her tiny shoes covered by the gunk, until Astrid turned her head nervously.
Panicking, Moose led Chaunce quickly down the wall and released her over his bed, sucking all the gunk back into his arm. It hurt sometimes if he did it too fast, and he felt it spreading painfully across his back in a wave, bubbling out against his shirt. It settled after a moment, and he fixed his face.
Astrid just watched them, somber. Even when the door opened, she didn’t move.
“What are you doing up?” Osh asked, and Moose beamed up at him. The reflection of The Fake Dad had been standing in the glow of the fish tank, watching them, but it was gone.
They can’t be in the same room at the same time, I think.
“Sorry, sir. We were just talking.” Osh smiled like always and motioned for the girls to follow him back to Astrid’s room. It was good to have him back. It wasn’t the same as before, but it was still good.
“I need to talk to you soon, Moose. OK?”
“Yes, sir. Oh! I need help studying for the LAAMP. I want to beat your scor—”
Osh whistled. “The LAAMP. Haven’t thought about that in a long time.” He went over some memory in his head, grimacing. “I’m really busy right now, but I’ll see if I get some time. You got it, though. Who’s gonna beat you?”
A deep uneasiness filled Moose. He met Osh’s eyes and saw nothing but warmth, but something inside him could see through it.
When they were gone, Moose opened his closet to find his pajamas. He was met with four open suitcases, all half full of clothes and books. Everything was rolled up like his mother did when she was trying to fit a lot of clothes in his bags, all neatly placed. The sight sunk into the pit of his stomach, and he closed the closet door and found a big T-shirt in his drawer instead. Astor would be angry if he didn’t brush his teeth, but all of his energy seemed to sift from him, and suddenly, he was just too tired. After he climbed into bed, he watched Paloma and Asia swim around each other for a long time, unable to get the image of the four suitcases out of his mind. The Fake Dad came back and stared, trying to get Moose’s attention.
“Are you going to cry?”
Even as the tears threatened to well up in his eyes, Moose watched Paloma the Jellyfish and Jellyfish Asia swim lazily around. The neon lights went from blue to purple every ten minutes, and then back. He counted with every switch, and when he reached four, he was still wide awake, thinking about the suitcases in the closet.
“She’s trying to save you from them.”
“They’re my family.”
“They’re monsters. Chaunce is going to kill you if Noah doesn’t.”
Moose tried to close his eyes but heard a loud tap. The Fake Dad was closer in the reflection, almost pressing his face against the glass, his eyes pitch black.
“Osh is going to kill you if Noah doesn’t. Unc is going to kill you if Noah doesn’t. Chaunce is going to kill you. Osh is going to kill you. Noah’s going to kill you. Astrid is going to suffer. Astor is going to suffer. You’re all going to suffer. You’re …”
“Am I the only person who can see you?”
“… of course.”
“So if I ignore you, you’ll be all alone, right? And if I die, you won’t exist anymore. Maybe you should shut up and be my friend instead.”
The Fake Dad stared for a long time, stunned, but didn’t say anything else. Moose turned over and stared at the wall. Unable to sleep, he pulled his book bag into bed with him and studied until the sun beamed into his room.
There was no need to tell him he was going to die soon. He already knew that.
Even though he didn’t like it, Moose thought about the ocean a lot. Unc used to take him out to his boat, especially when Dad came back from long trips for work.
“Your mom and dad need alone time,” Unc used to say, and he’d smile a grown-up smile Moose admired. Everyone needs alone time; I know that. He used to take Moose on the same short trip every time, and Moose always found himself thinking about the last time they went. Auntie Noah wanted Chaunce to go, but Unc just said they’d be back in a few hours and wouldn’t hear anything else about it.
He’s not stronger than Dad, but he’s really smart, Moose thought.
It was awesome. It was just them, and he had the feeling he was going to learn some secret man thing, some amazing thing that even Dad didn’t understand. Unc showed him the equipment on his boat, then the equipment on Dad’s boat, but it was all boring. He didn’t plan on sitting around the ocean when he got older. He wanted to be like Auntie Noah. People were really interesting, and Auntie Noah got to study all types of diseases and blood. It was his birthday, and Unc kept saying he had to check on something.
They sailed the water for a long time. It was night by the time they stopped, and the full moon was the only guide. Moose wondered what was out there in the black water, and for a moment, he worried as much as his mom always did.
Whales are really big …
“Hey. What would you do to protect your family? Your mother and sister, mostly?” Unc asked after a long time. He stared at the water, not at Moose, but Moose watched him when he answered.
“Would you kill people if you needed to? What if something big was after them? After all of us? And the only way to stop it was to hurt people? Would you do it?”
Moose nodded without hesitation. Death didn’t scare him. Even causing death wasn’t that big of a deal, at least it didn’t look like it in movies. There was no doubt in his mind that his dad would kill for him, and he planned on doing the same for the women in his life.
“You might get to prove that sooner than I’d like, Moose. Something big is coming after your mom and sister. Something crazy, but don’t worry about it now. You’re too young.” He stood lost in thought for a moment, then nodded to himself. “Let me ask you another question. You ever seen anything like this?” Unc held his arm out, still staring at the ocean. Pieces of rotted flesh wriggled in the moonlight, flaky and black. Much of Juke’s arm was turning black and rancid. Again, to Juke’s surprise, Moose didn’t react or comment.
His family was as they were. And also, more importantly, Moose had seen something like it. Slowly, he lifted up his pant leg. A small patch of the same black, warped skin moved around right under his knee. Unc sucked in a sad breath, then nodded again. Thankful to get it away from direct air, Moose pulled the pant leg down, staring at the black rashes on his uncle’s arm.
“I think I’d better clear some things up for you, Moose.”
They pulled the fishing equipment out in silence, Unc’s behavior leaning more and more toward anguish. Moose couldn’t do anything but wait; he caught fish and threw them back in over and over. Unc kept starting, then groaning in anger and stopping.
It’s hard to say the right things sometimes, Moose thought, trying not to be rude and watch the antics. He caught two more fish and threw them back into the deep black of the ocean before his uncle came over and sat against the cabin, sighing.
“This is gonna be tough to hear. It’s too hard to hide anymore, though. I’m your dad.”
Moose kept fishing. “Dad’s my dad.”
“Listen. I … your mom and I are the ones who made you is what I’m saying. It’s why you have the same skin problem. It’s why you … look like me.”
“I look like Mom.”
Juke snatched the fishing pole out of Moose’s hand and turned him around. It was hard to escape the pathetic glint in Unc’s eyes, and Moose waited to see if any tears would come out.
Is it OK to cry in front of people? Maybe I should cry?
“It doesn’t mean anything big, Moose. It’s like a fun fact, you know. You can’t tell your Auntie Noah or Osh, and I really mean that. It would ruin everything so fast, you won’t have time to pack your clothes. I just can’t walk around without you knowing, at least. And it means something else, and I need you to understand it.” He pulled up his sleeve again, and this time, he made the black gunk move up to his fingertips, and when he touched the side of the boat, the black gunk spread over it.
“Cool!” Moose smiled finally, still confused, and Unc sucked it back into his fingers.
“You can do that, too, Moose. You and your sisters can do amazing things, and I’m going to help you learn, OK? My mom … came to visit me. I know something no one else knows, not even your mom and … dad. And we have to keep all this a secret, OK? It’s up to us to learn to defend ourselves.”
“Chaunce can hurt things with her head, and Astrid can disappear,” Moose said, thinking.
The girls could do a lot, and up until that point, they’d all used their abilities as fun ways to scare other kids at the park. Moose was in charge, so he didn’t participate.
“What do you mean disappear?”
Moose didn’t answer, still staring at the black gunk spreading over the side of the boat.
Don’t be a snitch.
“She can do other things too.”
“I’ll see it, don’t worry. This is the beginning. Ya’ll are gonna come with me on the weekends, OK? You first. We’ll work on the girls later. If we know how to handle ourselves, they might not need to handle themselves, right? Men protect the women in their lives, right?”
When they got back to the docks, Unc kept talking. Even without fully understanding the information, Moose felt a little lightheaded and wanted to go home.
“You ever feel sick around Astrid?” Unc asked. His demeanor had changed, the admission and the mild reception releasing a weight that crushed down on his shoulders for years. Moose shook his head no. “You and Chaunce be careful around Astrid. Kind of watch the situation, you get me? If you start feeling sick or acting weird just get some air. Make some space between you two. Same for Chaunce, just get her away from Astrid sometimes. They might not get it, but they need space sometimes.”
She does make me sick sometimes. There was a haze that would plume around her randomly, and Moose felt like his blood would start to boil. It was terrible. He already knew how to stay away from her when it happened, though, and so did Chaunce.
She is the way she is. It just happens sometimes. Thinking of that, he could bring up a dozen other strange things about Astrid that didn’t even apply to him or Chaunce, things that happened around them when she was there, things that didn’t affect her, ways she would understand simple concepts.
“Should I be afraid of my sister?”
Unc smiled for some reason. “Be afraid of all the women in your life, Moose. We know how to pick ‘em.”
That night, they went home, and Unc didn’t talk again until they were outside the houses.
“Remember, OK? Don’t tell anyone. Not about the patches, not about the other things we talked about. If you wanna keep these goofballs safe, we have to keep it a secret.”
Moose nodded and went inside, and Unc drove away. It would take some time for Moose to know where his uncle was going when he left off by himself like that. Sometimes he went with him, and he always regretted it.
That day forced a common agonizing thought in the boy: Unc shouldn’t be my dad. It was what he always thought in bed, at least at some point, while he stared at his jellyfish swimming around each other. Sometimes the scene played out differently in his mind; little details changed to suit him. Unc would tell him he was taking Chaunce and Auntie Noah, and they were all leaving forever and he was just saying goodbye. Unc would say he was in love with Astor and he couldn’t take it, so he was going to be a man and ignore his feelings. More often, Moose would imagine him saying that him and Dad were actually superheroes, and after he used to tuck the kids in at night, they went out fighting bad guys.
In bed, staring at his jellyfish, Moose tried not to think about the ocean, but it always happened anyway.
Unc’s skin is getting worse, or he doesn’t remember who he is, or he kills people. I get it. I’m going to be like him. I’m not going to be strong like Dad. I’m not going to be wise or funny or interesting. I’m going to be crazy like Unc. Thinking about it made his chest hurt.
For a long time, Moose tried to ignore the truth and just make Dad his real dad. He’s the one who teaches us things, and he’s the one who’s always there. Unc is OK. If only to save his idol from being so careless, so tasteless, Moose tried to pretend that was the truth. He used to look up to Unc so much, he could barely speak to anyone else—sometimes even more than Dad, but that was a mistake.
Unc was one of Moose’s favorite people, but Osh was his favorite person.
Once a week, usually on Thursdays when Astor had her in-house clients, Unc took the kids to practice. They went to different places, sometimes even going down to the docks. Unc settled on the park that week, a surgical mask covering his face, and he pulled Moose aside before they started.
They watched the girls play for a moment, Unc sucking in strangled breaths. Moose didn’t bother to join them. It didn’t feel like he was supposed to play anymore. Astrid wasn’t smiling, and she wasn’t really playing, but Chaunce didn’t notice. She pulled Astrid around, threw wood chips in the air, rolled in the dirt, everything she wasn’t supposed to do. She picked up a big rock and smashed her teeth into it, growling.
“Chaunce, you know better! What are you doing?” Unc yelled.
Moose rushed over and snatched the rock out of Chaunce’s mouth, disgusted. She growled again. Unc suppressed an annoyed look when Moose made it back to him.
“Moose. I need your help. I’m not feeling so great, OK?”
Moose nodded, trying to show he was paying attention. It was annoying to have to keep Chaunce from hurting herself.
“My teeth hurt! I hate it! Want bite!”
Unc lined them up and looked back and forth. It wasn’t like before when they would practice. The giant was becoming too unstable, and even he didn’t trust himself alone with anyone too long. Something about it stood out to Moose.
On the boat. He’s been weird since Grandma Yenna gave him Mr. David’s arm.
Before, their training would be ninety percent laughing and having a good time. Sometimes they even got pizza after. After the bathroom incident, the one where Unc tried to hurt Chaunce, things were tense. Unc was always sweaty and nervous. Sometimes he forgot he was in his Freckles body, and Astrid refused to listen to him. She didn’t understand it was really Unc. More and more, Unc was someone else when he took them places. If he wasn’t someone else, he was hard to understand, or he was glaring at them and mumbling to himself. So they practiced by themselves unless he specifically came to get them.
“Astrid. It’s been a while since we practiced. Do you want to?” Unc asked. Astrid shrugged. Unc hadn’t even put his hair in a ponytail. He looked messy. “What do you do with Alicia? She’s taking you somewhere, right?”
She didn’t answer. Moose was proud of her slick ponytail, her clean, pleated skirt and red blouse. The red was a little daring, he thought, and she’d squealed with glee at the outfit that morning. A neat single braid hung all the way down her back.
She looks so cool.
Chaunce’s own hair was out, but neater than usual. The red of her hair matched Astrid’s shirt, and even covered in muck, her black overalls and red shirt were adorable. Moose was equally presentable, and he realized he wished Unc would go home and get dressed again. They all looked amazing compared to the sweating, unkempt giant.
There were even spots of blood on his sleeve.
During practice, you had to stay far away from Astrid when the haze filled the air around her. There were a couple of times when both Moose and Chaunce got really sick, almost died maybe, and it was the worst feeling in the world. Auntie Noah gave Chaunce some type of medicine that helped when that happened, but Moose couldn’t take it without getting even sicker. He had to wait it out. It felt like his body was turning into air.
They moved really far from Astrid and waited. Unc went and sat down, tired, but kept watch to make sure no one approached. She stepped into a grassy area and just stood there.
“Are you doing it yet?” Moose yelled.
“No!” They stood, waiting. Astrid glared. “I do not want … to!”
“Astrid, you haven’t practiced in a long time. It’s your turn.” A sense of exasperation pushed into Moose’s voice, but he had no idea if he felt that way.
Unc looked bad. They could hear him wheezing behind them, coughing and sputtering like an old car.
Maybe we shouldn’t show him anything. We’re really running out of regular things to do. If the adults don’t get themselves together, what’s going to happen? Doing his best to block out the sinking feeling, Moose turned to Chaunce and gave her a pleading smile.
“Do not show monster,” she screamed, enraged.
Moose cleared his throat, too nervous to turn and look at his uncle. “That’s enough, Astrid. Are you going to practice, or should we just go home?”
“Home. Home, please. Thanks.”
Moose moved forward to argue when Chaunce walked over and grabbed Astrid’s hand.
“Yes. Monster is spy. Not Daddy!”
“Make them practice.” Unc stood up and moved behind Moose, staring down at the top of his head.
Both Astrid and Chaunce tensed up, moving forward. Astrid’s nails dug into her palm, and Chaunce opening her mouth, wide-eyed.
“W-wait, everybody. Relax! Let’s just go home. We can practice another time.”
One large hand pressed down on Moose’s shoulder. Energy and anger seemed to pulse through it.
“If I hurt him, you’ll hurt me?” Unc asked the girls. Black patches formed on Moose’s skin, but he didn’t move.
“Not hurt. Worse.”
They all braced themselves for the response, Astrid leaning further and further in front of her best friend, Moose’s skin breaking and turning to liquid under his shirt. He gathered some of it under Unc’s hand, right below the fabric, and sent the rest to his own hands. Chaunce stooped down, hands directly in front of her in the grass, and opened her mouth further than he’d ever seen before, completely separating the jaw, resting it against the base of her neck.
Thumping sounds surrounded them. Birds screeched and flew beak first into the metal slides, squirrels spit out mouthfuls of blood and keeled over. Then, they would get back up, crawling forward, only to explode in a gush of blood again. Moose let the black liquid drip down and plump up into a veiny mass around Unc’s feet.
“I see. Are ya’ll threatening me?”
Chaunce crunched her mouth shut but stayed wide-eyed. Astrid straightened, waiting for Moose to respond.
You’re in charge. Are you threatening him?
Moose turned to look at his uncle and smiled. “Let’s go home!”
Unc slowed down more and more as they walked home, arms behind him, his head tilted back to watch the sky. Moose suddenly felt a tiny hand in his. Astrid kept walking, picking up speed ahead of them.
Chaunce growled. “Still not Daddy.”
They both turned to look at the odd way Unc took in his surroundings, almost confused.
“Go ahead of us.”
She did, and Moose found himself walking alone with his uncle. When he turned to face him, Unc was more focused, his eyes tiny dots in a sea of white.
“Which one are you?”
Unc smiled. “I’m not Eric.”
“Are you the sea monster, then? The one at The Mouth?”
Unc gave a slight nod, his focus inhuman. “Young hybrid. We should speak when you feel up to it. I’d like to discuss your existence.”
“You should talk to my Dad—”
“Young hybrid. I want to talk to you. If you won’t talk, there’s no discussion. I will simply act.” Unc coughed, and red spots spread across the surgical mask.
Moose just stared, disgusted, and as much as he hated to admit it, worried.
In the morning, Auntie Noah was sitting at the Snow kitchen table, waiting for Moose. He almost turned around, books in hand, to study in the company of his jellyfish instead but figured it was rude since she’d already seen him. He’d dressed the girls and gotten approval on their appearance from Dad, who again mentioned the need to talk as he rushed out the door for work. The nervousness was growing, and Moose didn’t bother to respond.
Why doesn’t he just talk to me, then?
Auntie Noah sat in front of him and lit a cigarette. She didn’t usually smoke in his mother’s kitchen, not with the windows closed, and definitely not in front of any of the kids.
What is wrong with all the adults? Moose thought, trying not to look disgusted.
Auntie Noah took a long drag on the cigarette while she looked him up and down. The Fake Dad replaced Moose’s reflection in the mirrored cabinet behind her, and they both watched Noah nervously. He nodded, but Moose’s head was the one that moved.
It was just the way things were.
“Moose, you’re the most responsible kid I’ve ever met, you know that?”
Moose tried to look into her eyes but was met with a scarier sight than even his mother’s giant pupil. There was a deep emptiness that stared back, huge and round, and she looked like a monster in one of his dad’s old horror movies. Even with her red hair tied up and nearly glowing in the sunlight from the window, her eyes seemed dead and lifeless. The earrings in her ears were pretty, two little golden cat heads, but it didn’t help. That morning, he’d added pretty flower earrings to Astrid and Chaunce’s outfits, remembering what his mother said about earrings making your eyes stand out sometimes. It didn’t work when you had no soul, apparently.
Auntie Noah was a terrible mom. Chaunce was never dressed properly, she was only bathed when Unc or his own mother bothered to do it, and sometimes he would have to open their door for her when she wandered outside on nights when Auntie Noah was supposed to watch her. If the other adults were too busy, Moose would make sure he had some type of access to Chaunce. She would probably die otherwise, or maybe even hurt other people. And if Alicia was a ghost, Auntie Noah was a vampire. There was a room in her basement, and Chaunce showed it to him once. He couldn’t breathe in it, and the pain that sat in his chest for days after scared him. She was a vampire, or maybe a witch, and Moose didn’t want her around them anymore.
Even Unc didn’t trust the things Auntie Noah said. He was her husband, and he didn’t trust her. She snapped her fingers to get Moose’s attention, smiling sweetly, and he wondered if Unc listened to her because she was so pretty.
“It’s been awhile since we had a milkshake night. You’re doing good in school?” She tapped her cigarette in a small blue ashtray, and Moose thought it looked tacky against his mother’s table.
Auntie Noah squinted impatiently. “I thought so, hun. You are just the smartest kid on the planet. I’m always going on and on about you to my team at work. You still want to be a biologist? Or maybe an epidemiologist? Or you can have dual specialties like I do.”
Noah smirked, nearly done with her cigarette. “Your mom is working late tonight. What if we went to my house and made milkshakes like we used to? In celebration of your big ol’ brain?” The sweetness poured off of her in thick knots, and Moose didn’t buy it.
“I’d rather my mother was there.”
They’d had three other milkshake nights, and he couldn’t remember any of them. The girls couldn’t either. It was after the last one he was sure she was a witch and was maybe trying to steal his soul. Sometimes he dreamed about her sitting next to him, drawing his blood into little tubes, and it was almost always after “milkshake night.”
“What momma’s boy doesn’t? Your momma is so busy, hun, I’ll ask your Dad. Maybe he can come instead. Look, I know I’m making you nervous. I’m a little out of it. And I know you want to protect your momma and your sister. It’s what we all want. You drink one milkshake and they’re good—”
“Should I ask her to come myself? I could call her now.”
She stopped, her face bunching up, and tried to hide her anger behind another pull on the cigarette. Those eyes never left him, and it was starting to feel like she was draining the very life out of him with the sheer size of them alone.
Can witches really do that? Can they kill you just by staring at you?
“Look, Moose. I’m trying to be nice to you. We both know I don’t have to be. Milkshake, hammer, it’s all the same shit. Think about it, OK? I already have everything we need, and my schedule is free this week, so we can have a little party whenever you want. You’re the most important kid on the planet. You should be flattered, you piece of shi— You … yeah, piece of shit, whatever.” Noah gripped the bridge of her nose, standing up to leave.
The Fake Dad gulped in the reflection.
“She’s going to kill you.”
But Moose knew that already.
They both turned in surprise when the front door opened and Astor stormed in, a maniacal look on her face, a little neater than the day before but not much nicer. A feeling of pure pride filled Moose, and he held back the urge to ask her about the milkshake party.
Mom is so smart. She knew I needed help!
“What are you doing alone with the kids?” she spat, and Noah groaned in response. “Are you smoking in my hous—”
“Look. I’m tired of this. Let’s talk, hun. Now.”
Astrid and Chaunce crept nervously down the stairs, and Astor glared at their outfits in disapproval.
“Who dressed them?” Moose sheepishly stepped forward, trying to think of a greeting that would puncture his mom’s wall of anger, but decided to just stay quiet. The look Astor gave him was conversation enough. “You don’t know when a shirt is wrinkled? Is Chaunce supposed to walk into daycare with her hair all over her head? Do I have to do everything around here?”
Everyone’s always mad at me.
“No. I’ll fix it.” Moose said simply, and the way the emotion drained out of his voice scared him. He ushered the girls back upstairs while Mom and Auntie Noah barely concealed their rage, talking loud enough for everyone in the world to hear.
The brush struggled to pull through Chaunce’s hair, but Moose kept trying. He gathered all of it up in his hands and tried to keep it out of the way, but it all fuzzed up and pulled from the ponytail holder the minute he let it go. He brushed it back again, struggling to hide his frustration. The brush was already wet, her hair already slick with coconut oil, and she was super still. It wouldn’t stay.
“Moose, good job!” Chaunce yelled, trying for an encouraging smile in the mirror.
Astrid nodded, matching the smile. They watched him nervously.
“Hush, it’s not done yet.”
“Yes, but still good job!”
Nothing was working. Astrid, her face freshly moisturized, grabbed the brush from Moose so he could finish ironing their clothes. The kids maneuvered awkwardly around the bathroom and bedrooms, and when Moose brought her clothes back, Astrid pointed to the stairs.
“Listen … we … we should-should …” Astrid tried.
Her brother nodded. “You’re right. Not you, Chaunce; you’re too noisy. Keep brushing your hair.”
At the edge of the steps, Moose motioned for Astrid to slow down. She was too bouncy sometimes, and Mom would get mad and yell at her. It seemed, lately, she was saving all her anger and yelling for Moose and Auntie Noah, but he wasn’t looking forward to seeing what would happen if she transferred even a fraction of it back to Astrid.
“… oh, the whole thing just disappeared? The whole fucking box?”
“It’s the craziest thing, hun. Just can’t find it.”
The sound of rapid movement and Auntie Noah’s struggled breaths made him sigh. My mom is really starting to like hitting people.
“Do whatever you want. Whatever you want! I’m just trying to protect—”
“Noah. What was in it? That’s all I want to know. I don’t care what Osh did with it. What was in there?”
Noah was silent for a long time, then it sounded like she was getting up from the ground.
“I don’t know how to explain this stuff to you, Astor. It all looks bad, I know. I’m willing to do stuff you’re not willing to do to save you. That’s the only way I can explain it. You really don’t care about being taken from us? You’re really not going to-to-to even try to get away from this shit? It’s just a ticking clock and then what? You’re just going to go?”
“We’ll discuss it when it’s time—”
“It is time! It is!” Auntie Noah huffed, and Moose could tell she was crying. There was silence, then Noah started again, calmer. “A couple of years ago, I did a lot of stuff I’m not proud of to save you. Because you won’t fucking listen, or even take a second to think about us. About who you’re leaving behind.”
“That’s not your concern—”
“When I found out about Moose, it wasn’t supposed to be some big retaliation thing, but some of it was. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.” For once, Astor didn’t speak. Auntie Noah took it as a sign to keep talking. “Osh and I did some bad things, and none of it was directed toward you. You obviously know about Davey, but I doubt you know what was going on. Why we had to do that. It’s the only reason any of us are here now. You think this isn’t the time? We ran out of time six years ago! This is damn near an extension! We did that! And-and I’m going to explain it to you, but it’s hard. OK?”
“I’m exhausted. I can’t trust you around the children …”
“How’d you get their blood? How did Chaunce become a Latch? Noah, you’re the only one who has the access to do those things. You’re hurting them. Tell me I’m wrong.”
There was a long shush, and the two finally started whispering.
“What are they saying?” Moose asked Astrid, and she closed her eyes to concentrate. After a while, she scrunched up her face in annoyance.
“I’m bored!” Chaunce yelled behind them.
Moose snuck over and covered her mouth, leading Astrid back to the bathroom. He waited while Astrid managed to tame both of the girls’ heads, tying them up in pretty bows with a vicious energy. She was upset. Moose gave them their clothes.
Astrid thought about how she wanted to say what she needed to say, staring at herself in the mirror. “Dave and Core is food. Da-Dave,” she paused.
“Take your time,” Moose said. Chaunce watched them, curious.
“Davey and Cora … are … food. Food gone now. Monster is hungry, walk-walk-walk and eat-eat us,” she said simply.
Moose groaned. The black water and the way the boat shook when they were there sat fresh in his mind.
It’s going to walk now?
“Really? Maybe that’s why it keeps bothering Unc.” Moose kept thinking, and the more he thought about it, the more he was sure about Mr. David.
They tricked us, and now, it can follow us around.
“Say can save with box. Aun … say-say-say, um. Promise no more blood, need-need to kill monster. Mommy say OK. But not OK.” Astrid stopped, squeezing her eyes closed. “Is lie. Not OK. Moose, I know the box … what is … um … the box … the box … is … ugh! Just say right!”
Moose waited. You had to let Astrid calm down, then she always got it. She’d even been getting better lately.
“Good job, Astrid!” Chaunce yelled, throwing another encouraging smile.
“I know what … box. Is in the box.” Astrid whispered, spraying Chaunce’s hair with spritz.
“What is it?” Moose turned away so they could get dressed.
“Gray Gray Granma. Cora,” Astrid whispered. “Not Chawn Gray, our Gray.”
“Chaunce is my sister now, too, remember? Dad’s not my real dad, Unc is. So maybe we have the same grandma too?”
“Huh?” Chaunce asked again. She just didn’t get it, and Moose had spent months explaining it to them.
They needed to know things. No matter what path Unc was on, Moose didn’t want to be a liar. The girls needed to understand their world if they were going to be strong in it.
“Dad is my new dad. He adopted me, I think, but it’s a secret. But Astrid is my real sister, and you’re my real sister because Unc is my dad. He made me with my mom.”
Chaunce thought about it. “Is Aunie my mom?” she asked, picking at one of her bows. It unraveled.
“No. Auntie Noah’s your mom.”
“But Aunie said so when they fight. She said she is Mom now. Is Daddy my dad? Or Freckles?”
“Freckles is a monster, I think,” Moose said, moving her hand from her hair.
Astrid frowned next to them, fixing Chaunce’s bow again, and he didn’t understand why she was so annoyed.
She finally huffed after a moment and asked, “Who is my dad-dad?”
“Blueface is your dad, duh!”
“She can’t be dad, is granny-granny-granny-gr—” Moose held her shoulder until she stopped stuttering. Chaunce sighed, picking at her bow again.
“No, Blueface is um … uncle!”
They all started laughing hysterically, and he was glad for at least a moment of peace. Moose moved Chaunce’s hand, holding it, then held Astrid’s. They both looked up at him, and he realized he was the only person that could talk to them. He was the superhero Unc and Dad were supposed to be for the girls.
I’m the one The Thing wants to talk to, so I must be the strongest.
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I’m your brother, both of you, and I’m in charge. The grown-ups are all crazy. We have to protect ourselves, so do what I say, OK?”
They both nodded, Astrid even smiling a little, and Moose turned to the mirror and tried to fix his hair. The same piece sprung up again. The Fake Dad looked down at them, blank, but he at least stood to the side and allowed Moose to see himself.
“What’s the right thing, Fake Dad?”
Astrid and Chaunce looked at the mirror with Moose.
“I’m your father. I raised you.”
“Oh. Fake Dad says Dad’s my father because he raised me. I think so too. Do you see him?”
Chaunce nodded. “Yes, but he is small and skinny! He is just a kid, not a dad!”
“No, that’s just my regular reflection, Chaunce. Astrid, do you see him?” Astrid shook her head, but she looked down nervously. “When you look in the mirror, do you see yourself, Astrid, or someone else?”
She stared in the mirror for a long time, almost too long.
She looks just like Dad, so I know he’s her father at least.
“Self now. See Gray Gray … sometimes. Not only in mirror.”
“Oh, like in the real world?” She nodded. “Cool. Can she touch things?”
“No. Ask me do it.”
He wanted to ask if she was scared, but didn’t want to ask in front of Chaunce, who was making faces at herself in the mirror.
“What about you, Chaunce?”
“Um … I see a little mommy! She is kid!”
“That’s normal. It’s you. You just look like her.”
“Oh! OK.” Bored by the conversation, Chaunce leaned forward and opened her mouth wider and wider until her bottom jaw crunched. Letting out a long noise with her throat, she picked at her teeth. Moose saw a yellow spot and handed her a toothbrush and some toothpaste.
“Astrid, what does Cora look like?”
“Is tall. Pretty. Sometimes she is … is a squirrel or birs-birds or fish.”
The Fake Dad scoffed. “Isn’t it a shame? What will you do when they’re dead and—”
Astor walked in and grabbed Moose by the back of his neck, seething. The girls jumped and rushed around them, running down the stairs. Every vein in her face and arms was a jarring blue.
“Get ready and get out.”
The LAAMP was coming up, and Moose wasn’t ready.
Moose tried his best to study during every waking second, but he just didn’t get some things. The test was only a week away. Moose felt woefully unprepared. He needed help with some of the harder English concepts, and there didn’t seem to be anyone around to help. Paloma took every opportunity to sneer at him, poke him with pens, and laugh at how much he needed to study. The pressure was ruining his stomach.
The next day at school, Moose saw a blue light moving against the wall again on his way back from the restroom. A tiny spot of vomit stuck to his shirt, and thinking about his mom seeing it made him want to go and throw up again. The light shone all the way at the end of the hall, right in front of the door to his class. He could see his teacher talking to someone as he got closer. The blue flooded the lockers, and for a moment, he was tempted to keep walking toward it, to let it wash over his skin and flesh. It was so beautiful …
It’s definitely Alicia, he thought, shaking his head. Moose crouched down, walking backward.
“What are you doing?” Paloma stood behind him. He tried to step around her, but she moved in the way.
“Is it the ghost again?”
The sound of his heart filled his ears, drowning out her small voice. She finally grabbed his hand. The girl’s restroom was beside them, and she pulled him in, locking the door.
“Don’t worry, no one will know you’re in here. And so, what if they do? You can’t let the ghost get you; they’ll understand.” Paloma checked under all the stalls to make sure they were alone.
“What if she has to pee?” He looked around for a urinal, then turned red with embarrassment. Girls didn’t pee like that.
“Then you must have really bad luck today.” She laughed a little, and for a second, she reminded him of his mom back when she was happier. There was a sullen humor about her.
Moose plopped down under a sink, leaning his head back against the wall. Paloma unraveled her big ponytail and let her hair hang heavy and long, scratching her scalp. It stopped just above her knees.
“It’s just hair, Fawn. Why are you so weird?”
His heart kept beating hard until he felt it in his tongue, swelling against the roof of his mouth.
Don’t cry! She didn’t even say anything that bad. Don’t you dare cry!
“I’m not weird. I have a stressful life.”
“Me too. I guess I get that.” She sat down next to him, sighing. “You’re really worried about the LAAMP, huh?”
Paloma shrugged, biting her cheek. “I don’t really worry too much about it. When you’re smart, it’s not that hard. Maybe you’re just dumb.”
Before Moose could respond, a faint reflection of the blue light shone under the door, creeping closer.
“She’s out there,” he whispered.
Paloma shrugged. “Let’s see. Good luck or bad luck?”
They both waited.
“I have to hide from my mom all the time,” she whispered. “When I have a bad luck day, she finds me and hurts me. When I have good luck, she goes straight to her room. As long as she’s in her room, she leaves me and my brother alone. Sometimes she hurts my dad, I think, but he doesn’t talk about it.”
Moose watched the blue light under the door. It got closer, traveling across the ground.
“She’s right outside,” Paloma gasped. “I hear her breathing. Go away, lady. You’re scaring him—”
They both held their breath, then Paloma let hers out in surprise.
“No, I think my mom said I was, though,” she whispered, staring at the door. “Are you one?”
“What are you talking about?” Moose asked, but she held up her hand to shush him.
“OK. I’ll tell him. Nice to meet you.”
The light moved away, and they were alone in the dull yellow glow of the bathroom. Paloma turned, face flush with amusement, and laughed a little.
“That’s not a ghost! She said she just wants to talk to you, and that you need to stop being a baby before she lets the dwarf kill you. She said Astrid is the only one who isn’t annoying, and then she said a bunch of curse words.”
He couldn’t hear any of that. It didn’t sound like anything but water dripping in the sink and blood pumping in his ears while he held his breath.
“Are you a superhero, Paloma?”
She rolled her eyes and got up, leaving him staring up in shock on the ground. “Nope. Superheroes aren’t real, stupid. My mom says I’m a demon, though. And I’m definitely smarter than you.”
Auntie Noah was making breakfast when Moose went downstairs the next morning. There were a ton of pancakes with a lot of syrup and butter. He loved pancakes but stared at them quietly when she put them in front of him on the table. Chaunce and Astrid came downstairs too, and there were already plates in front of their chairs.
She never cooks.
“Where’s my mom?”
Auntie Noah laughed. “Is that your favorite question now? Sometimes people work, hun. Eat.”
“He’s upstairs getting ready for work. Eat.”
Moose looked down at the pancakes again. Chaunce sat in front of her plate and messily cut them up, shoving so much into her mouth that he had to tell her to slow down. Astrid sat at the table, rubbing her eyes, but she lifted her fork too.
“Don’t,” Moose whispered. Astrid froze.
Auntie Noah didn’t cook. He’d never seen Auntie Noah cook before. Never. A sick feeling edged up his stomach, and he wanted to make Chaunce throw up, but Auntie Noah was watching him. Her eyes stuck to his face, big and scary like always, and her tiny foot tapped against the ground impatiently. He tried not to breathe funny, but the more Chaunce ate, the more the panic crawled upward, stiffening his lungs.
I read that some poisons can take days to work, but you can save someone who is poisoned by making them throw up if you’re fast enough. I need to hurry up. Will she stop me if I make Chaunce throw up?
“Hun, hurry up and eat so your dad can take you to school.”
Moose just stared at the syrup. There was so much of it on his plate. Astrid and Chaunce had regular amounts of syrup on theirs. There was almost a comical difference.
“She only wants you dead, Moose. They’re safe,” The Fake Dad assured him from the reflection in the fridge. Auntie Noah kept watching, her eyes getting wider, her face twisting up more and more.
“I’m not really hungry, actually, Auntie Noah.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I cooked for once and you’re not hungry? That’s really impolite. Eat.”
He watched the syrup drip from the top pancake. Was it supposed to be so thin? The Fake Dad shook his head over and over.
“You’ll sleep. She’ll put you in your dad’s car, and he’ll take you to the ocean. The monster will eat you.”
“I’m not, Auntie. I really apologize—”
She yanked the plate away and smashed the whole thing against the wall, cursing. The plate shattered, pancakes and syrup sticking, cracked porcelain raining down over the trash can. Moose grabbed Chaunce’s hand so she wouldn’t start crying, but he was close to it himself.
“OSH! COME GET THESE FUCKING KIDS!” Pulling a cigarette from the top of her shirt, Auntie Noah stomped outside.
Moose watched the trash can, shivering.
“Your mother, Moose. She can help you. You have to tell your mother.”
“She won’t believe me.” Moose tried, but he knew it was true. There was no question about it anymore.
“She might. There’s no one left to help. You have to at least try.”
Astor came home from work much later that night, and Moose jumped up from his textbooks to greet her. The bags under her eyes were thick and pronounced, creating an ugly image against her pupil, and her ponytail was only a ponytail in theory. She barely made it to the couch to sit back, exhausted.
“Mom, are you OK?”
“Yes. Of course. Just trying to handle a little project. How was your day?”
He opened his mouth to tell her about Auntie Noah, but her head drooped. Moose grabbed her before she fell forward.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t been getting much sleep.”
He looked at the blankets folded neatly on the couch. Dad was sleeping down there. Sometimes he slept at Auntie Noah’s house instead. His mom wasn’t used to sleeping alone. Maybe now that Dad was back, she couldn’t sleep without him.
“Do you want me to sleep in your room with you? Are you scared?”
“No, I’m fine, Moose.”
Undeterred, Moose made her look at him, gently holding her face on either side.
“Can I please sleep in your room? I’m scared sometimes too, ” he lied.
She thought about it, giving him a tired smile. “If you want, sure. I don’t mind.”
They went upstairs, but his mother stopped him at his door.
“You know. Maybe I’ll feel better if I talk to you about something.” She led him inside the room and pointed to his closet. Moose nearly gagged.
“When’s the last time you opened that?”
“I laid out all my clothes for the week already. You don’t need to look.”
She patted his shoulder and opened the closet. More of his clothes were neatly folded into the suitcases. One of the suitcases was closed, filled to the brim.
“You don’t have to come with me. In case you said yes, I wanted to be prepared. It’s a hard question, Moose, and I won’t judge you for your answer. So be honest.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry …
“If I leave your father, will you come with me?” Moose tried to speak, but a small sound, something he didn’t understand, left his mouth instead. “You’re not ready to answer. That’s fine. I want you to consider it, OK? I might have a place for us soon, somewhere nice in the city. If you want to stay with your father, you can come and visit me and Astrid as often as you’d like.”
The exhaustion seemed to find them in the room, and Astor turned and walked toward her own bedroom, nodding.
“Yes, Moose. She already said yes.”
He stood still too long, and Astor closed her door, forgetting he was supposed to join her. The feeling crawling up his chest was close to horror now. It was close to something dangerous and inhuman. It was worse than the black gunk crawling slowly over his legs, itching, burning. He didn’t want them to leave. He didn’t want to leave his dad. He didn’t want to make the decision.
The Fake Dad returned, standing in the warped reflection of his aquarium, sighing. “I don’t know who else you can talk to, Moose.”
Moose sat down and continued to study.
If I can get a perfect score, everyone will come to my assembly. Maybe Auntie Noah will even come, and she’ll stop being a witch for one night. Dad will yell really loud and embarrass Mom, but she’ll get up and join him. Unc will yell and dance. Chaunce will sit on Unc’s shoulders and scream too, and all my friends will be jealous that my family is so cool.
“Astric? Are you paying attention?” Mr. Lewis didn’t even stop writing his sentence across the dry erase board. Moose cleared his throat and sat up, and when he looked in front of him, Paloma was sneering back.
“You are so dumb,” she mouthed.
Moose tried to pay attention, but the words jumbled in his head, all of them stuck in the web of his awards ceremony. Astrid would watch him in awe. Her big brother, the smartest, coolest big brother in the world! She’d wait for him to come back, and then she’d hug him, and she wouldn’t be sad anymore. The pride he felt at that thought alone pulled him out of the class. Unc would turn into The Thing, and it would be too afraid of him to ever come back, and no one would have to worry.
After school, Moose walked outside with the rest of the kids, planning on taking the bus home for once. Auntie Noah sat in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette. He tried his best to avoid her, but she honked the horn over and over. Moose waited by the bus as long as he could, talking to his friends as they disappeared one by one.
Just smile and be polite. She’s still an adult; you have to be respectful. Just tell her you want to walk.
When there was no reason left not to, Moose walked over to Auntie Noah’s car, smiling brightly.
“Get in. I’m taking you home, and then you’re going with your Dad on a trip.”
“Where’s my mom?”
“I’ll tell you when you get in the car.” She opened the back door, not the passenger door. It wasn’t a huge thing, but something about the gesture seemed menacing to him.
Moose tried to stall, tried to turn back to the buses, but they slowly pulled off. Too quickly, they were all alone in the parking lot with empty cars, Auntie Noah’s anger pulsing through everything.
Why is she so mad?
They both just stared at each other. He wondered how much time had passed but refused to check his watch.
“I wanted to take a walk, actually, Auntie Noah. To get some air …”
“You can roll down the window.”
Moose tried to think of something to say, of some way to get out of entering the car, but faltered. Noah put the cigarette out on the roof, and Moose realized she was about to walk over and drag him. He backed up, sucking in deep breaths.
“Auntie Noah, I really-really need to w-walk, I don’t w-want to get …”
Noah shook her hair out and stomped toward him, her eyes wide and hands balled into fists.
“You look awful,” a voice said quietly behind him.
Moose jumped, and Noah’s horrified expression made him jump again. He turned around and was swallowed in blue light, his entire body relaxing, almost falling. It disappeared after a moment, and he finally saw clearly, but the pull was still there. Alicia stood with her hand over her damaged eye, her deep purple nails holding some of her hair back. It didn’t help. He could still see it shining through her fingers, caressing his face.
“What, do you just sit in sewers waiting for shit to happen so you can make an entrance, you weirdo? Ugh, who cares? Help me get him in the car.” Noah struggled to regain her anger.
“Oh, we won’t be doing that today. I have a prior engagement with my grandson. He won’t miss it.”
Noah let out an impatient breath. “Your grandson? Right. You both have so much to talk about and so much time to do it when that big fucking thing is coming to scoop up your daughter.”
“We might. Chaos makes the best conversations.”
Noah stepped forward again, her fists balling back up. “Why are you sabotaging me? Why? I became a Latch. I did what you said. You were supposed to help me in return. Please. Your daughter is going to be eaten alive by that fucking—”
“Yes, I understand what’s going on.”
“Did you trick me, Alicia? Is that it? I’m just another kid you tricked and used? It would take nothing for you to put him in this fucking—”
Noah spun around and walked back to the car, swinging the door open. “I’m not your little fucking mouse, skyscraper. Do what you want. Moose, you little shit, you want to be a man? Save your fucking mother! Save your sister! Save me, you asshole. I’m the one who loses the most here! You-you had an aunt who was willing to sacrifice her life to save you, and she never even met you! Your granny did jack shit to help her! Don’t be like her!” Noah’s voice pleaded, barely recognizable by the end, and her huge eyes welled up with tears.
Alicia glanced down at her grandson, amused, but he felt his heart twisting. He tore away from the blue light for a moment, just a moment.
“I don’t know how, Auntie Noah, just tell me what I’m supposed to do!”
Alicia let the blue light flood over him to shut him up. “Don’t lie to the boy. Those are all malicious lies, Astric. Don’t listen to your pathetic ‘auntie.’ She wanted to be immortal. I didn’t ask her to do that; she did it for herself. Who could blame her? Nobody wants to die a nameless human. Why not die a barnacle instead?”
Noah was quiet a long time, hurt spreading across her face. For a moment, Moose thought Alicia regretted her words.
“Moose, if you don’t come with me, we’re all going to die. You have to die to save us. That’s the truth. You still believe in monsters, right? There’s a big one, and every ending where it doesn’t die is one where some of us or all of us do. Your dad and I have worked so hard, and we finally know how to stop it. I’ve tried and lost everything. I get it! I was you once! I was a kid taking care of adults, I was dealing with shit no other kid deals with! I get it! But you’re the only one who can help us. Even if it only takes your Mom, Moose, she’ll be gone forever. And I’ll die. Do you get that?”
Moose tried to understand her words, but the light. The light was so beautiful …
“Well,” Alicia interrupted, “to be fair, Astor won’t be gone forever, but yes, once she comes back? You’ll die. Moose won’t lose a mother. I doubt your little monster will either, from what I hear about your parenting skills.”
Noah slammed the car door shut so hard, Moose thought the window would break. “Yup. Just like you wanted. Fine. Walk home with your homicidal grandmother and let her kill you instead, you little shit …”
“Oh no. We’ll want to watch our mouths around the school, won’t we?” Alicia tapped her leg, smiling.
Noah started to speak, then stopped, her entire face and neck turning blood red. “Oh fuck off, Alicia, you cunt.”
They watched her speed away, almost hitting a teacher walking out to her car, and Alicia surprised Moose by chuckling. “You were actually going to get into that car?” Her nails gripped his shoulder until he cried out, sucked away from the glow of her eye. “What a disturbing lack of self-preservation. I did you a favor, Moose. A bigger one than you could ever imagine. Now, I want one in return. The next time I come to see you, I want to be welcomed, not run away from. Do you understand?”
Moose tried to speak, but the light shifted through him. He raised his hand to touch her face.
“Good boy. Steer clear of your auntie until then, yes? I’m afraid we’ve both made a mostly formidable enemy.”
Osh was waiting for Moose when he arrived home. The surprised smile on his face told Moose he hadn’t talked to Auntie Noah, maybe didn’t even know what was going on. Panicking, Moose dropped his books to the floor and hugged his father, shaking, trying not to cry.
He’s not waiting for her to bring me back; he wouldn’t do that. She’s a liar. He wouldn’t do that to me.
“What’s wrong? Calm down!”
Moose sucked in too many deep breaths and leaned over, ready to vomit. “She’s going to kill me, Dad. She wants to kill me. Not even … trying to … hide it …”
“Auntie Noah! She-she came to my school and the p-pancakes, and she didn’t give the girls all that syrup, and-and—” He couldn’t articulate it. The staring and yelling and her big scary eyes. “I’m scared, Dad.”
The incredulous laugh Osh let out was fake. It was a slow, nervous, fake laugh, and it hit Moose so hard, he did vomit.
“Oh, come on. Sit down. Just sit down and calm down for two seconds.” Osh disappeared, and when he came back, he had a wet cloth in his hand. “Why would Noah want to kill you? You and your momma have to calm down. It’s going to be OK, I promise.”
“Don’t put that on my face.”
Osh laughed a little, holding the cloth. “It’s water. It’s just water. Just calm down, OK?”
“You’re leaving me … with her on … purpose. You’re too scared to do it yourself, so you’re making her do all the hard work.”
Osh gave him another unnatural laugh, using his sleeve to wipe sweat from his face.
“You want me and Unc dead. Both of us. You don’t care about the monster, you just want to kill us. You-you let Mr. David poison Unc.” Moose’s voice slowed down, evened out, and he glared up at his father.
Osh didn’t disagree. He sat up like his back hurt and stared straight ahead. “You’re paranoid, Moose, and I’m tired of talking.”
“This is the first time we’ve talked since you woke up! You don’t want to talk to me because you’re going to let me die and you feel bad! How could you?”
“First, I can’t sleep in my own damn bed, then I can’t talk to my own wife. Now, my son too.”
“You’re not a real man! You-you don’t deserve to sleep in the same room with Mom, and you don’t d-deserve to have kids! You’re a loser! Unc wouldn’t let me die, he-he would’ve helped me, but you poisoned him! You’re just jealous because Unc is a better dad!”
Osh bit his tongue and dropped the washcloth. They sat in silence for a long time, and Moose couldn’t help but feel like he’d done something terrible.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Moose fiddled with his fingers, wishing his dad would stop staring wide-eyed at him. He wished his dad would close his mouth, or make any movement at all.
“Can you help me study for-for my test? Mom’s too tired and-and Auntie Noah …”
“I have to start getting ready for work. We have an expedition coming up.” Flat. There was no emotion, no personality, nothing that could clue Moose in on the fact that this man was his idol. His mentor. His savior. Osh gave Moose a small pat on his back and stood to leave, stepping over the pool of vomit.
I don’t know why I said that, I don’t know why I said that, I don’t know why I said that.
“Dad. I…I don’t want Unc to be my dad. You’re better. I mean it. OK? I’m really sorry I said that.”
Osh smiled a tight smile, shrugging it off. He pointed at the vomit, not bothering to turn around. “Clean that up before your mother gets home.”
Moose closed his eyes and sat on the couch until the feeling of tears passed. The acidic smell of his vomit wafted up to him, but by the time he stood to clean it, he was calm. The cloth sat on the floor, and he watched it slowly bleach the carpet around it. All he could offer was an annoyed sigh. Dad wasn’t really a superhero. Nobody was. They were just monsters, all different types of monsters. His dad couldn’t stop Auntie Noah, and his dad couldn’t help him because his dad wanted him dead too.
Later that night, looking up from his desk, buried in notes and books, Moose watched a long leg step into his window, then another, then a blue light shone into the room. Paloma and Asia swam in hectic circles when the light touched them.
Alicia shook her hair out, crawling over the bed. He tried to admire the angelic way she looked, the delicate way she sat in her satin nightgown, like a goddess from some mythology story, but he couldn’t get around the pull of the blue light. He wanted to touch it, to walk over to it, to maybe tear it from her face. It was so relaxing.
The Fake Dad whistled to snap him out of it. “Look at it. It’s the only way to dull the sensation.”
Alicia managed a smile. “I won’t hurt you, boy. I promise. Just keep looking at it until it stops feeling like you’re floating. You need to get used to it if we’re going to be friends.”
“It’s beautiful …”
She walked over and smacked him on the neck, hard, the edge of her nails dragging over his skin, but he didn’t cry. He was really proud that he didn’t cry.
“Don’t make me feel like this is a waste of time, boy. Stare at it until it doesn’t feel like you’re floating.”
It took a long time to even hear her words, but she sat patiently. The lights on his aquarium changed three times before he was able to properly breathe and two other times before he could look away from the blue glow. After a while, she sighed and turned to leave.
“That’s enough for tonight. I’ll be back. Leave your window unlocked and open from now on. If I come here and it’s closed, I’ll smash it and kill everyone in the house. Do you understand?”
She gave him a genuine smile, almost proud. “Don’t worry, Astric. I won’t let a soul harm a hair on your head. Walk confidently and protect your mother and sister.”
“I know your Auntie Noah is an insufferable dwarf, but she’s not wrong. Make Astrid practice fighting more. She’ll need it very soon.”
Moose worried about her statement for hours after she left. What part wasn’t Auntie Noah wrong about?
Outside of studying for his test, Moose found himself waiting for Alicia to come back, staring at the window almost as much as he stared at his jellyfish. She’d sat in the tree across from the house a few times, letting the glow from her face flood the room for hours, but she hadn’t come back inside yet.
“Why don’t you take Astrid and Chaunce to the park?” Astor suggested, and Moose was happy to.
They didn’t need to see Astor so unhappy, especially with Astrid’s already tanking mood. He couldn’t let Chaunce get dirty, as usual, and he resigned himself to getting into trouble that night. Chaunce got dirty. It was all she did. Getting in trouble didn’t feel as bad anymore, though.
When they got there, Moose found his favorite bench, planning to study until the girls were tired and ready to leave. Before he could motion for them to play, he spotted Mr. David walking over, a friendly smile on his face. The big man walked up, hands in his pockets, and Chaunce squealed in delight. Astrid ignored him completely, almost scowling, and walked over to the playground alone.
“Chaunce. Go play.” Moose wondered if this would be it. Alicia wasn’t there to save him, and the giant man was too big to fight. Would his Shadow powers work on him? Was Mr. David a good fighter?
Chaunce gave the man a friendly wave. “Not Freckles, but sometimes you are!”
Mr. David smiled and moved closer to speak to her.
“Stop. Don’t talk to her.”
He listened and stepped back. Chaunce went to join Astrid on the playground, and Moose sat down with Mr. David on the bench. They watched the girls play.
“It’s interesting, having kids in my family that I don’t know.”
“We’re not your family,” Moose snapped.
Mr. David chuckled in response. “I know we have our differences. A friend asked me to have a chat with you, and so I am. Do you understand?”
Moose nodded. “My dad. He asked you to.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Auntie Noah can’t take me, and Dad can’t take me. Now, you’re here to do it for them.” Moose looked at his reflection in a puddle on the ground. The Fake Dad was gone.
Mr. David chuckled, watching the puddle as well.
“Maybe. Seeing people, huh? You wouldn’t believe how many different people I see in reflections. Men, women, some children even. It can help to stop talking to them. They get the hint eventually.” He let that sit in the air.
Moose tried to keep a mean face, but caved to curiosity. “Why do you see them?”
“You have to watch what you eat. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so easy to get rid of once you consume them.”
“I didn’t eat my dad. He lived.”
Surprised, Mr. David huffed. “Is that who you see?”
“Yeah. The Fake Dad. He looks like him, but that’s it.”
“Well. We don’t have to take an entire person. Sometimes it’s just a copy of them, sometimes it’s their entire being. It doesn’t stop them from talking to you. Once you get the hang of it, you can even keep a copy of someone and paste them on someone else. It’s a good way to see your loved ones after they die.”
Moose wondered if Mr. David had ever done something so horrible, but he didn’t ask. The thought of putting copies of dead people in a living person made him shiver.
“Do you know what we are?”
The word ‘we’ bothered Moose, but he kept watching the girls.
“No. What are you, sir?”
Mr. David smirked. He held out his hand, and it slowly turned white, big freckles popping up all over his arm. Rolling up his sleeve, he showed off the white splotches spreading up, going up to his neck, all the way up to his eye. It got really big, then the pupil and iris split apart and spread like a spiral. Mr. David’s face changed. Moose watched as half the man’s face turned into Unc, the other half remaining the same.
That is the coolest thing I have ever seen.
“Why don’t you try it?”
“No. It’ll scare the girls.” As much as he hated Mr. David, he wanted to try it badly.
I can do that? I can really do that?
Mr. David chuckled, and his skin and eye slowly went back to normal. “We’re not exactly Devils, though I’m sure some would call us that. I’m not like your mother. Neither are you.”
“No, I’m like Unc.”
“No, Moose. We’re not like anyone on this planet. Remember that when those Leviathans talk to you. Remember that when someone tries to ‘take’ you. People have been trying to hurt me for a long time, and they’ve never even come close. Not physically, anyway.”
Trying her best to watch them without looking like she was, Astrid tripped and fell into the metal slide. Moose paused, holding his breath, and waited to see if she would cry out, but she got up and kept crawling up. Chaunce screeched with laughter. Mr. David scratched the side of his face, tapping his knee at the same time. Something about it bothered Moose deeply.
Mr. David’s arm was back. It dawned on him as he looked as the man’s hands stuffed back in his pockets. Maybe it’s a fake arm? No, you can’t scratch with a fake arm!
“What you did to your father was impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever consumed anyone without killing them, or at least adding a copy of them to my body.”
“You helped Yenna, right? You’re eating Unc so The Thing can control him,” Moose whispered.
Mr. David’s demeanor changed a little, but he kept the smirk. The edges of the smirk only sharpened. Moose remembered Mr. David’s face on the boat. How calm he was, how collected. A part of him wanted to accuse him more, wanted to blame him for Unc’s condition. A bigger part was too afraid to say it to him directly.
What if he poisons me too?
“If you ever want to learn more about being a hybrid, if you think you’ll live long enough to enjoy it, just come to my house.” He stood abruptly.
Moose almost tried to stop him. “Wait! You’re not going to kill me?”
Mr. David chuckled. “No. Should I?”
“No! I just … I thought Dad sent you.”
Mr. David leaned in close to him, his hands still in his pockets, and shook his head.
“Moose. Nobody sends me anywhere. I help who I want to help, I kill who I want to kill. But sometimes someone suggests something, and I take an interest. You’re an impressive Hybrid. That’s all there is to it.” Mr. David walked away, whistling, his hands in his pockets, and that was that.
Alicia came over again, but this time, she was waiting for Moose when he walked in the room. He’d forgotten that not everyone could see the light shining from her face, and he hurried in, shutting and locking the door behind him. The light seemed nearly useless now, just distracting, and he wished she could turn it off.
“Does your mother allow locked doors in her home?” Alicia asked, genuinely curious.
“Unlock it.” He obliged, and Alicia motioned for him to sit on his bed. “Who gave you the Shadows?”
He looked up, confused, and realized she was talking about his jellyfish. They swam hurriedly.
“They’re just jellyfish. Unc gave them to me.”
“Unc. Is that Jukebox?”
“You shouldn’t make fun of people’s names, ma’am.”
Alicia smiled warmly and nodded. “You’re absolutely right. I apologize.” She stared at the jellyfish a while longer, squinting. “I guess it’s good to have protection. Anyway, Mr. David told me a long story about you and a boat. How you were planning to murder me?”
Moose felt the black patches spring up on his back, and he barely managed to hold back his tears before Alicia howled with laughter.
“Don’t worry, Astric. I take no offense. Believe me, I don’t have the right. Pot calling the kettle black and all that.”
What does that mean?
“What do you think about Mr. David, Astric?”
“I don’t like him.”
“Smart boy. Did you feel odd around him?” She eyed the jellyfish again.
Moose shrugged, nervous. He had the feeling he shouldn’t tell her about anything she didn’t offer, and the glint in her eyes confirmed it.
“You Hybrids always hate each other.”
“Do you know other Hybrids?”
Alicia shrugged, bored. She shook her hair out, the blue light moving with her, and continued with the conversation.
“Anyway, I have a decision to make, and doing research helps sometimes. I’ve never actually spent time with you. It’s not fair to make such a big decision without getting to know you. So, I’m going to be your little genie. If you could have anything in the world, something I could help with, what would it be?”
“Literally anything within my power.”
Moose thought hard. Alicia was so scary, so strong, she could do anything. He wondered if she could make his mom stay? Or maybe she could help Dad go back to being a superhero? The more he thought, though, the more he realized he needed to do something for himself.
“My friend Paloma doesn’t even study at all. She’s so much better than me at everything, and she calls me Fawn instead of Moose because she says I’m weak.”
There was a glint of anger in Alicia’s eye, and she raised her eyebrow slowly, almost mechanically. “Weak? Interesting. Do you want me to get rid of her? Is she the plump Devil that sits in front of you? The one you hid in the bathroom with?”
Moose sat up, panicked. “No! Don’t hurt her! And she’s not a Devil. She’s my friend.”
“Ah. Yes, those are important, I hear. How are you proposing I help you?” Alicia watched the jellyfish, admiring the light for a moment.
“Can you help me study?”
She balked, turning sharply to look at him, her giant pupils growing. “You’re serious? You don’t want me to hurt anyone? You want me to help you study? I … Study what?”
Moose held up his finger, then rushed out into the hall. There was no one around. He snuck into Astrid’s room and grabbed her desk chair. When he returned, Alicia was standing and waiting, a confused look drowning her face. He slid the chair over to his desk and pushed his normal-sized desk chair over for Alicia.
“I don’t understand some of the things from the stories I have to read. For the LAAMP exam.”
“Language Arts. There are a bunch of things, but I’ve been stuck on critiquing this one story for days. I have to show supporting ev-evidence for-for my conclusions.”
Alicia swept her dress behind her and sat down, flicking the light switch. The desk flooded, and Alicia spent a long time going over Moose’s notes, then reading the short story.
Wow, she reads fast.
“You’re taking all these notes on this, boy, and you don’t need them. It’s a simple passage! What evidence do you have to support the claim that this woman is senile?”
“She talks to herself a lot during the story, ma’am. I read a book once, and it said that’s a sign for senil … senal …”
“Senility. And her children are trying to put her in a home.”
Alicia nodded, and she tapped on the worksheet with the tip of her long purple nail.
“Why didn’t you write that here?” Moose swept in to write it, and Alicia grabbed his pen. “Why are you doing your schoolwork in pen? And you write in full sentences at all times, do you understand me? Your teacher allows you to turn in work with phrases for answers?”
Moose blushed. “Sometimes.”
“Idiot. You write in full sentences unless otherwise instructed, do you understand?”
They worked for hours, Alicia waiting patiently as Moose read through instructions, sometimes even laughing at the stories he had to read. By the time the sun rose, Moose had completed all of his study workbook.
“I’ll buy some more and bring them tonight. Is the test exclusive to language arts?”
“It’s the Language Arts and Maths exam. It’s the biggest one for the year too! And-and no one has ever gotten a perfect score, not even Dad, but he has the highest score. If I get it, I’ll get an award for it, and we’ll have a ceremony!”
Alicia nodded, rubbing her chin, excitement filling her.
“A ceremony! Oh, we can dress you fabulously. Those kids will die to be you.”
“Right! And I’ll even get to make a speech.”
“Oh, you’re winning that. How are you with math?”
“I’m OK. I don’t understand fractions so well.”
Alicia made a face, waving away his concerned tone.
“I’ll be back every night this week. You’re going to graduate this year top of your class, and you’re going to get a perfect score, and we’ll make those little brats rot with envy when you walk up to that stage. Paloma will dissolve in grief. No issue.”
Moose nodded, bewildered, and watched as his grandmother snuck out of his window.
The Fake Dad didn’t even bother to speak, but Moose was proud of his shock.
Seemingly inspired by Alicia, the next few days were the easiest he’d had in years. Even Paloma seemed too busy to taunt him, and Mr. Lewis gave him compliment after compliment on the work he turned in. Auntie Noah didn’t show back up to his school, or even to his house. Still, his head filled with her words. If I die, they’ll all be OK. What does it feel like to die? The Fake Dad talked about him dying often, but those were just the ramblings of a copy, and not even a living, breathing one. He hadn’t really felt the impact until the words left Noah’s lips, her tears thick in them.
Auntie Noah lies all the time. But Alicia said she wasn’t wrong.
Astor scolded him from the driver’s seat of the car a few days before the test, snapping him out of his thoughts.
“Moose. Don’t read in the car. You know you’ll get sick.”
Jumping, he realized his book was open in his lap and closed it.
“Sorry. I’m just studying.”
“I told you to relax.”
He put the book down reluctantly. Astrid was dressed in a tutu and brown tights, her hair in a tight bun (his own work), humming quietly to herself. Chaunce was with Unc, and part of Moose was viciously worried about her. He had no idea where Auntie Noah or his father were.
“Have a good lesson, Astrid. Pay attention.”
Astor was a little less sleepy. Astrid nodded to her mother, smiling, then gave Moose a smile as well as she climbed out. They waited until she disappeared into the small building to leave.
She likes it when it’s just us, he thought. Astor waited for a moment.
“Moose. Did you think about what I said?”
He turned darkly from the passenger side, but didn’t speak. Astor wasn’t looking at him. She kept her eyes on the road as they drove onto the highway.
Where are we going?
Astor drove into downtown Chastain. Moose appreciated how normal she looked. Her hair was tied in a long braid, puffy but neat near her scalp. Even her nails were done, and her eyebrows were trimmed. They pulled into a parking lot, and Astor led him around the side of an attractive brick building. A plaque read “Historic Chastain.” There were stores everywhere. It wasn’t like Lostine at all, but Moose was used to it from his visits with Unc.
The ones that always end badly.
Here, tons of people walking by seemed to swallow them up, and he was reminded unfavorably of meeting Mr. David at the Chastain Pier.
Astor greeted a small man outside of an apartment door.
“Mrs. Snow! I’m so glad you could make it. This must be your son?”
“I brought him with me so he could get a feel for the place.”
“No problem. As I told you before, this is a kid-friendly building. There’s a playground out back, actually, and …”
Moose felt a slow whistle filling his ears. They stepped into the apartment, and he saw the small, dusty furniture. He took in the big windows, the small hallway leading to the back, and he suddenly couldn’t speak.
“And you said the furniture comes with it, right? The one from the initial showing?” Astor pulled out a pen, glancing back at Moose.
There was an interior brick wall with a fireplace. He could see pipes in the ceiling, stylishly exposed. There was even art on the walls, and he realized some of it was from his house, transported quietly without anyone noticing.
“Right! I’m surprised you didn’t want the penthouse. I’m pretty sure another Snow owns it—”
“I’m not interested in it. Just this one.”
My mom is going to rent this apartment. She’s really going to leave.
When he couldn’t stand it anymore, Moose tapped the realtor and asked as politely as possible, “Can you tell me where the bathroom is?”
Astor grabbed his arm. “I’ll show you. Do you mind giving us a minute, Linden?”
“Sure, sure. I’ll be waiting out here.”
Astor nearly dragged Moose to the bathroom, and it was beautiful. It was all beautiful. The apartment was everything his mother loved except Osh, except her best friends, except even Moose maybe. He threw up into the toilet, his stomach heaving painfully, and couldn’t shake the thought.
She didn’t even give me time to answer. She doesn’t care what I say. His tears were so hot and ugly that black patches formed under his eyes. Astor closed the door in disgust, staring at him wildly. The veins in her arms slowly turned blue, traveling up with her blood, and Moose felt like the craziest person on the planet.
“Calm down. Calm down. Don’t embarrass me. What the hell is wrong with your skin?” He felt it cracking across his face and threw up again.
“I don’t want you to leave us. Please. Please, don’t leave us!” Moose sucked back sob after sob.
“Moose, the lease is already signed. I know the owner of the building … Relax. I’m bringing you with me! That’s why I brought you here, so you could see …”
“I hate it. I want Dad. I want you to stay with Dad!”
Astor struggled for a second, grabbing the bridge of her nose, and Moose suddenly missed Auntie Noah. She was the only one his mother listened to.
“I know what you want, Moose. You can’t have that. They’re hurting the girls. I don’t know what they’re planning next …”
“We’re fine! I can protect them! I promise, I practice. I’m stronger than all of them!”
Astor’s anger was building and blooming, but so was Moose’s. He was tired of arguing with adults. If they wanted to ruin their lives, fine, but he was tired of his being smashed and crumbled.
Astor leaned close. “You can’t protect anyone from anything, you idiot. You’re going to end up in a box in Noah’s basement like whatever she has down there …”
“It’s Cora! See, you didn’t even know that, did you? I know that! I know how to help you! People talk to me all the time!”
Astor stopped completely. Moose expected her to ask him what he meant, to say something else, but she just stood over him. There was a soft tap at the door.
“Um, Mrs. Snow? Is everything OK?”
“Sit down and wait, Linden.”
There was a small gasp, then hurried footsteps. Astor wet a rag and flushed the toilet, wiping her son’s mouth. She sat on the edge of the garden tub.
“Of course, it’s Cora. Of course, it is.”
“Please, Mom. Maybe we can all help each other if we listen. Right?”
“What’s wrong with your skin?”
Shivering, Moose held out his hand and let his mother watch the black patches form. She knew about those, but her breath caught in her throat when they turned to liquid, and they both watched it drip slowly, spreading across the ground. She moved back, frightened, and her breathing got too fast. You couldn’t scare Astor slightly; it was always too much for her. It was why he never told her anything. She was scared so easily, and Moose didn’t want to hurt her. She’d be embarrassed if she had a panic attack.
“It’s OK. Unc told me about being my real dad. And-and he showed me how to control it. They’re not trying to hurt you, Mom. They want to help you. We all do. No one is going to hurt you when I can do this.”
Astor deflated, horror spreading across her face, and her veins glowed even brighter. Moose moved to comfort her, then remembered the gunk.
“No, Mom! Please, listen! We’re all helping you. Auntie Noah and Unc and Dad too!”
“They’re hurting the girls,” she breathed, gripping the edges of the tub. Blotches of red spread across her face, standing out against the blue.
“No! I promise, Mom, it’s not what it looks like. Just let Auntie Noah talk to you, she’ll tell you.”
He hoped Auntie Noah was ready to do some fast talking. He could only help so much. Astor thought for a moment, letting her breath out in slow bursts until she’d calmed down. She moved to touch the gunk, but Moose sucked it back into his arm.
“How did Noah get your blood?”
“I gave it to her! She said it would help her research, so I gave it to her. I-I was already hurt, Mom, and I told her she could take it. I fell in the park.”
The more she looked around, ashamed at her behavior, the more he felt OK with the random stories coming out of his mouth. Something was working.
“And, and I found Chaunce drinking Astrid’s blood in that little room. Auntie Noah has …”
“I know about the room.”
“Yeah, but Chaunce was sneaking in there and drinking stuff! Auntie Noah didn’t do it on purpose! You don’t have to leave; she just needs a lock on the door. It’s her work. She’s a biologist; she’s supposed to do that stuff.”
Astor looked incredulous, but she didn’t stop him. “You want to stay the way we are? You want me to forgive them? You’re telling me that they are just protecting me?”
Moose nodded, swallowing vomit.
“Please, Mom. Just give it some time. I can help. I can help fix everything, I promise. Auntie Noah told me what I need to do. I promise I’ll do it if you just stay with Dad. You’re adults! Talk to each other darn it!”
They rode home in silence, and for the first time since he’d come home, Astor greeted Osh when he stepped out of the house. The shocked look on his face made Moose want to laugh. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but his mom kept grabbing her head like she wanted to cry. She always did that. He wished she could.
Astrid came home from ballet practice with Auntie Noah, and Mom didn’t even get mad. They huddled together and talked, forgetting all about Moose in the car. They looked so happy without him.
I wonder if she’ll want me dead to, once they tell her the whole story. Why wouldn’t she?
“You should save them, I guess,” The Fake Dad said, his voice flat. “It’s not like anyone would notice you were gone.”
The morning of the test, Moose’s body wouldn’t move. He stared at Paloma and Asia from his bed, the covers pulled over everything except his face, and wished he could swim with them.
“Maybe you will.”
He didn’t have the energy to care. Even when he tried, he couldn’t make himself care or get up. The lights changed from blue to purple four times before Moose moved even a little.
“Are you going to sit around all day?”
“Shut up! Shut up, shut up!” Moose exploded, and The Fake Dad stopped in surprise.
Moose sucked in a deep, shaking breath. Men didn’t cry at things so small, especially when they didn’t know why they wanted to cry. They could cry sometimes, but they couldn’t cry all the time.
Men don’t lie to their mothers. Men don’t stop their mothers from finding a new life and being safe just to be selfish. Men didn’t plot to throw their sons into the ocean. Moose was supposed to be strong enough to help Mom and the girls, but he had no idea who to model it after anymore. How was he supposed to help Astrid or Chaunce when he couldn’t even get out of bed, when all of his energy was being used to hold tears back?
I need to sleep. I’ll fail the test if I don’t get some sleep. But he couldn’t.
Mom was staying, it seemed. He couldn’t tell. The grown-ups were talking again, even with Unc, and Moose and the girls weren’t invited to the conversation. But he didn’t care. Everyone was going to get along again, his mom wasn’t hitting Auntie Noah, and they were going to help each other. He was going to be top of his class and even beat Paloma, and she would never call him Fawn again.
“Talk to me, son. What’s wrong if you’re getting what you wanted?”
“I don’t care if my dad and Auntie Noah want to kill me. I don’t want my mom to want to kill me. What if she wants me to die too?”
His stomach clenched, and he focused on not vomiting for a second, pulling some of the focus away from not crying. He watched Paloma and Asia swim around in the tank until his breathing calmed.
“It doesn’t matter if she wants you to or not. You’re going to die. You promised.”
Everything itched. Moose sucked in a mouthful of the black gunk, trying desperately to ease it from his back and arms. It didn’t itch in his mouth. There was too much of it crawling around his back, burning and itching wherever it went. Sometimes he could spit it out if it was liquid enough, and he kept gathering it up, his cheeks bulging, until the bedroom door opened.
“Uh oh. Don’t you have something to do today?”
Mom? He glanced at his window, saw the streams of light between the blinds, and spit the gunk out onto the wall in surprise. It was morning. School! I was supposed to be getting ready for school! Chaunce has to get dressed for daycare. She’s new. She can’t be late! I have the test today. I have the LAAMP today. What am I doing?
The Fake Dad gave a concerned grunt. “You’re going to be late, and on such an important day. That’s never happened.”
Astor’s annoyance plumed through the room, settling heavy on Moose, but it was no match for his own distress. The mass of black gunk slid up his wall, crawling around the room until it was hidden behind the aquarium.
“Moose?” She pushed the door open all the way and leaned in, her face screwed up.
Moose felt his heartbeat thicken and jumped up, falling over the blankets. He tumbled against the hardwood floor, slapping his jawbone, and struggled to get out of the tangle. Still in his underwear and socks, he stood in front of his mother, fell again, and started crying.
“Mom! I’m sorry! I-I’m almost dressed, I’m sorry! I—”
Tears ran hot down his face, and he cursed himself for getting them all over the floor. Idiot. You’re an idiot. I hate you. They’re all going to get hurt. You can’t protect anyone or help anyone or anything. You can’t even get dressed for school on time. Idiot! Drown! You should drown! His mother stood in the door and watched wordlessly, and for a second, he worried she was going to close it, go back to the apartment, and leave forever.
“You look nice, Mom! Please, I’m going to walk to school. You don’t have to wait for me! You don’t need to be late for work because of me!” So stupid. He felt so stupid in front of her, tangles of blanket on the floor, exposed in his underwear and socks. Men didn’t act like that, children did.
Fake Dad watched from the fish tank, sighing. “Maybe you should check on the jellyfish.”
Mom walked over and pulled the blankets off of him, helping him up easily. Sometimes, especially when you heard other people talk about her, you could forget how strong Astor really was. Moose clasped his hands together in front of himself and didn’t look up. He didn’t want to see her eye or feel her anger or exist. There was no way to tell what she was thinking, her face completely blank, and it dawned on him that he didn’t understand her anymore.
“Why don’t you stay home today?”
His mouth dropped open.
“What about class? I have the-the LAAMP exam today. I studied so hard. I can’t miss it! Please, I’ve been studying and-and Paloma said … and I can’t! Please! I know I messed up. I promise I’ll get up on time tomorrow. I’m-I’m-I’m valedictorian, I really am! If I don’t go, Paloma …”
“Moose, you already missed it. It’s after one; school’s almost out.”
A strangled cry escaped him, and he put both hands over his mouth, digging his nails into his cheeks.
Why didn’t anyone get me up? Why didn’t they get me up when they knew?
“Nobody else remembered you were even here. They don’t even care about the test. Alicia was the only one who cared,” The Fake Dad said, sadness in his warped voice.
“You don’t need to worry about being the best all the time, and I know I don’t exactly give you alternatives, but I mean that. You’ll stress yourself out. Don’t do anything today. Relax. You need a break. I’ll come up with you tomorrow, and we can reschedule the exam.”
It felt like a rubber band was in his head, and it was slowly pulling, slowly closing the gap to meet the other side. It was going to snap. Moose tried to breathe, but no air would go into his mouth. Astor just stared, trying her best to look soft and accepting. She wouldn’t stop staring at him with that worried expression, with that big eye.
Fawn. I’m a fawn.
“I want to go to school. Please! They’ll let me take it if I at least go in. I can relax tomorrow, I promise.”
She shook her head no, firm, and hugged him.
“Everyone’s put so much on you. It’s your turn to be a kid today. You’re throwing up every five seconds, Moose. I thought you were going to pass out yesterday. I’ll see you when I get home. I mean it, you’d be doing me a favor by relaxing a little. I’m worried about you.”
She was smiling again, and she had pretty makeup on, and her hair was all the way in her ponytail, and she wasn’t even listening, and she was supposed to be his mother, and nobody woke him up, and he studied so hard, and Paloma was going to keep calling him Fawn, and he’d never be better than his dad, and he just wanted to take the freaking test, and she wasn’t even listening to him, and they were all going to die, they were all going to die, they were doomed.
None of us are superheroes.
“I’ll get the girls dressed, Mom. I’m sorry,” Moose whispered to his hand.
She nodded. “Don’t worry. I got them dressed already, sweetie. We’re both screwing up lately,” she punched his shoulder playfully, awkwardly, but he felt his heart sink lower and lower. As if to sink the knife in as deep as possible, she frowned, trying to smooth down the stubborn hair, and rolled her eyes before she left.
Moose slammed his hand into the wall in anger. More tears poured down his face, burning the patches on his chest. The jellyfish swam calmly around their tank, and he crawled into bed, trying to stare at them until he felt better. They always made him feel better. Asia bloomed and swirled around Paloma over and over. Paloma didn’t move.
Paloma the Jellyfish wasn’t moving at all.
Springing up, Moose tried to see them better through the tears and had to sit and breath until he was calm enough to wipe his face on the blanket. Paloma waved back and forth whenever Asia swam by, but she wasn’t moving. She wasn’t swimming.
“No … no, no, no! No please …” Moose rushed over and stared in, his hands pressed against the glass. “Paloma! No … no, no, no!”
His voice squeaked in fear, and he groaned in rage at it. Paloma the Jellyfish floated there, dead. The black gunk he’d spit out spread through her see-through body and slowly pulled her to the side of the tank, pinning her there. It spread like veins across the glass until it covered the entire inside, connecting to his hand in the front. Moose tried to pull away, but the black gunk traveled with him, going through the glass and sinking into his palm. Paloma’s body crushed inside the black gunk until she was just a ball, then it slowly bubbled until it melted down and melded with it. A big wave went through the veins as her melted body traveled into his hand right through the glass, and the rest of the gunk followed quickly, leaving the tank clean. The gunk slowly sifted back into his skin and disappeared, all traces of Paloma gone.
Asia swam lazily.
Moose sank to the ground, sobbing, and this time, he didn’t get back up.
“If she wasn’t my daughter, I’d give her to the damned beast myself! I’d bring you her head. Plenty of children walked into that test late. Plenty! I watched for hours waiting for you.”
Alicia unpacked all of Moose’s clothes while she ranted through his room, voice loud and anguished, enraged. Moose tried his best to be calm, but he matched her distress perfectly.
I hope someone hears her and comes in and she beats them up. I hope she beats everybody up.
“We studied for days for that damned test. I sat in here with you, a boring child, and read things. We were prepared! You did everything right. You deserve that award! The assembly! How could you let her steal that victory from you? How? You should’ve marched up to that school and demanded they let you take it.”
Moose seethed on his bed but didn’t speak. Alicia threw a shoe at him, narrowly missing his face, and he grit his teeth.
“I didn’t want to stay home! It’s not my fault! I asked …”
Alicia spun from the closet, nearly gliding over to him, and grabbed his face, her nails digging into his cheekbones.
“Let me explain something to you, boy. You don’t ask for things that will affect your life. You do them. If someone doesn’t understand, if they don’t act accordingly, you don’t let your life fall apart to obey them. Is your mother living your life? Was it her award?”
“No. The next time your mother doesn’t listen to you, make her. And if she still doesn’t listen to you, do what you need to do anyway. You are no one’s afterthought.”
Moose nodded, stunned, and watched her in awe as she continued to unpack his clothing.
“Do you think your mother will care that your little bully wins? Do you think she’s thinking about anything but herself, walking around looking at apartments in the city, having children with her best friend’s husband?”
Moose felt a sudden need to defend Astor.
“My mom is a good mom most of the time. You’re right. I should’ve …”
“You’re ten years old. Your education comes first! You shouldn’t be carting around two little girls you didn’t have. You shouldn’t have to wake yourself for school. Things are the way they are, though, and we don’t make excuses, so don’t make excuses for your mother when she messes up. She should’ve woken you up.” Alicia’s words were starting to run together, hot and angry, and Moose felt himself calming in fear. “We don’t worry about what we deserve. We adapt. Your mother went through worse with me, so much worse, and she still managed to find it in her heart to love you, but she forgot to instill some backbone in you. I told her to have a Devil and give it to the beast, and here we are, a Devil and a Hybrid and the beast hungry again, and your mother somehow tricked me into loving you both.”
Moose thought she was going to cry. He sat back on the bed, nervous.
What is she talking about?
“She will regret every moment she spent worrying about the grown men and women who betrayed her instead of worrying about the children who adored her. The imbecile. Did she learn nothing from me? I told her not to have you, and she did. I told her to sacrifice the girl, and she refused. Here we are, and now, she can’t even be present enough to help you conquer a fucking bully. Why am I wasting my time?” Alicia paused on a button-up shirt, marveling at the fabric. “I regret shutting your mother down about simple things, not giving her a peaceful childhood in exchange for preparing her for the worst. Now look at her! I thought I was building strength and bred weakness. Look at the both of them, flailing all over the place. An apartment? Wastes.”
“Should I run away?”
Alicia scoffed so hard, the sound vibrated through the room. “Hush. Where will you find money? You can barely deal with the ‘stress’ of living in a giant house with lax parents. How will you fare at the Chastain bus station with the abusers walking around looking for little boys like you? Adapt, Moose. Take what you have and enhance it.”
Alicia grew more and more erratic with every piece of clothing she pulled from the suitcases, her hair swinging wildly as she placed them neatly into his drawers.
“Leaving Osh? What’s his purpose in life if it isn’t to be with her? Does she think I waste my time breeding entire humans just so she can leave them? What is she going to do, date? Am I going to have to follow her and kill every man she talks to again?!”
“Don’t say anything. This is the insanity part, Moose. She’s talking to herself.”
Moose tried to follow The Fake Dad’s shaky advice, but his grandmother rambled on and on, slamming things around, and he was afraid his mom would come home and find her.
I don’t think she would just beat them up.
“Where is that idiot?”
“Yes, what other idiot could I be talking about, you moron?”
“He-I don’t know. He’s gone a lot now. I think they have an expedition …”
“You’re the expedition, you fool, and you’re not coming back from it! Do you think he still has a job with the university after his little sabbatical? Waste. An absolute waste of a man. Your uncle? Aunt? Is anyone here?” Moose shrugged. “There was a time when I could barely sneak through your yard. Someone was always home, always. Something’s wrong.”
Suddenly, she moved from the closet back to her grandson, staring down at him in a way that seemed almost loving. Her voice returned to a normal pace, scaring Moose more.
“Don’t worry about that test, by the way. I panicked a little when I didn’t see you enter the classroom. I might’ve … well. A few teachers won’t be showing up to school anymore. I’m sure there will be a retest for full credit after such a grand loss.”
Moose felt an immediate bloom of excitement, and then felt bad about it. He thought of his uncle sucking people into his hand, thought of his dad plotting to kill Alicia, thought of Chaunce killing animals. What was the right thing?
“What about Paloma?”
“Oh, I followed her home, the smug brat.” She paused to take in Moose’s worry, amused. “Relax. I like her for you, so I left her alive. Her father hardly speaks a lick of English. I didn’t want to cripple the household by taking her anyway. The poor brat, she cooks and cleans and even tutors her little brother. I watched her for hours, and if her parents weren’t screaming at her, they were telling her to do something. The language her father speaks is an old Devil language, and I mean old. Stuck with two deranged Devils for parents, you can’t get worse luck anywhere.”
The heaviness of Paloma’s situation sunk deep into Moose, and he tried to hide his anger. Alicia patted his shoulder in approval.
“That’s right. Be angry. She’s much like you, Astric, except she’s heavily abused. It took a lot to leave her in that house, but I don’t want to eliminate your advantage. And it should be her decision. When you’re older, I’m sure it’ll be easy to court her. Kill the parents if she hasn’t already by then, and she’ll love you forever.”
Moose nodded, his face burning red. “Is it OK to hurt people?”
Alicia shrugged, picking at her nails.
“This is the problem with you, Astric. Don’t waste time asking if something’s OK if it makes sense. Do you think it’s OK to kill two parents that beat and demean their child? Is it OK to walk out of a house and walk to school to take a test you’ve put your all into studying for? It might not be OK to the people involved, but it’s your life, not theirs. If you can make sense of it, if you understand the consequences, do it.”
The Fake Dad tried to get Moose’s attention, but he was too scared to look away from Alicia’s glowing pupils, the blue light shining off of them.
“Moose. I know things are bad, but you can’t look up to her. She’s insane. Do you hear what she’s saying?”
Insanity was definitely bulging through his grandma but so was passion. Anger. Justice. All the things he lacked in his little world, and all the things he thought he needed. Every superhero had issues. Moose smiled, ignoring The Fake Dad.
Alicia looked back to her long nails and sighed. She adjusted her garter, moving the big machete around.
“Can I … can I see that?” Moose asked. She eyed him warily, tapping the leather sleeve on the blade.
“No. Of course not. Do you like weapons?”
Moose shrugged, still looking at it. It traveled almost the length of her leg, a round bulb at the top.
“What does it do—”
Alicia tapped the side, and a hot light filled the room. His skin felt like it was boiling, the black gunk rising to the top, and then she turned it off. He shivered, gasping for air, waiting to return to normal.
“It does that. To Shadows and anyone like that.”
“That … is so … cool,” he said, feeling his arm. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt. His skin returned to normal quickly, but he still shook. He grabbed a comic book from his shelf and handed it to her.
“You’re like a superhero, Alicia.”
She flicked through the pages, bored, and landed on a long speech in the end. The hero ranted on and on about saving his loved ones, about family. Moose wasn’t super into the book, but he thought of it whenever he imagined the type of superhero his dad could’ve been.
“What trash,” Alicia muttered, laughing to herself. “Is this what inspires you?”
He thought about her previous words. “Yes, ma’am. It does.” It felt good to stick to his guns. To stand up for himself.
Alicia smirked, still reading the book, then folded it and put it in her garter.
“I’d like to read this. I have a long trip planned soon, and it might be interesting. Oh, but it seems I’m done with my research. Speaking of hurting people, will you come with me to the docks before I leave, Astric? I have a gift for you there.”
Moose gulped. “No.”
Alicia smirked. “Smart boy.”
Unc put his hand on the man’s skull and squeezed until his head cracked.
“Unc. You’re going to kill him! Stop!”
The black gunk bubbled out of Unc’s fingertips and covered the man, spreading over his face, and Moose watched as Unc’s missing skin started to fill in, the new skin slowly replacing the gaps. He had a big gap that showed nearly all his teeth on the left side, and one of his lips was almost falling off. They slowly patched up, pulling together, the dark skin of the man contrasting with Unc’s slightly lighter tone, and when Unc let the man fall to the ground, he had the missing skin instead.
“Sorry. I keep getting carried away. Thanks for keeping me in check.”
Moose nodded, holding Unc’s arms until he steadied. He looked better, the new skin slowly warping to match the old.
“I’m sorry you have to see this stuff so much, Moose. I know you have your own problems.”
The two walked slowly through downtown Chastain. They were close to where his mother had chosen to move, and Moose wondered about that. If Astor and Unc made him together, would they run away together when things got bad? It seemed like an impolite thing to ask, but Alicia’s words traveled through him.
Before I talk to It, I should talk to Unc.
“Were you going to run away with my mother?”
Unc scrunched his face up. “Your bougie momma? Move to the city with a man whose face is falling off?” They both laughed.
Moose was fond of Chastain. Other than with his mother, he’d only been there at night, helping Unc stalk for replacement skin and organs. They’d been coming out there for years, maybe about twice a month, any time Unc’s body started rotting. It was something Moose took no joy in but saw as a necessary evil.
Real men do what they need to do. They don’t sit around asking. Unc is a real man.
They’d been coming out more and more, though, and he was starting to worry. He’d almost skipped their appointment that day. But he had his own agenda.
“Unc. Mr. David is eating you.”
“What do you mean?”
“His arm that they put inside you. It’s a copy. And-and it’s taking over your brain.” Moose tried to think of a better way to explain it. “It’s why you’re so … weak, why The Thing can control you and turn you into Freckles.”
Juke was surprised, and somehow, this irritated Moose.
I’m the only person who pays attention.
They walked toward The Fish Dish, Unc’s favorite restaurant. Moose had a feeling he liked it so much because he supplied most of their fish, and he liked to see the people around them enjoying it. They sat down at a corner booth, dark and unnoticeable, and Moose finally built up the courage to do what he wanted to do.
Alicia won’t let him hurt you. If he tries, she’ll show up.
“Unc. I want to talk to the sea monster.”
Unc gave him a confused look and motioned for menus. He was groggy and unfocused all night, and it was only getting worse. Patient, Moose took his own menu and went over the tiny words, glancing up at Unc every few seconds.
Maybe there’s a code word or something?
“Um, Unc, what if I know how to kill The Thing? And Yenna? Would you want to know how?”
Unc thought for a while, and Moose wished Chaunce was there with her “not dad detector.”
His eyes get little sometimes. Just watch his eyes.
“Maybe. Well … yeah. I was going to ask how sure it would be, but yeah. If I knew something I did could save my family, I’d want to know. We haven’t been practicing all this time for nothing.”
“What if I’m the way to kill the monster?”
Juke scrunched up his face, running his hand over the new skin.
Just keep talking until it shows up.
“Moose. You’re a child. It’s not your responsibility to save anyone but yourself. Don’t let your dad put that stuff in your head.”
“Do you see people sometimes? Like, people who aren’t there?”
The two ordered their food, and Moose cleared his throat. The restaurant wasn’t crowded, but for a second, Moose wondered if Alicia could save all of the people there. He didn’t really want to put them in danger.
Why do you care about them? Stop worrying about everybody else.
“Unc. This is gonna sound weird, but just listen, OK? I think you and Mom are in trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like … I think the monster is waking up. Because it doesn’t have food. It’s hungry. And-and it’s in your head sometimes, and it’s gonna make you kill us. And it’s gonna eat Mom.”
The sounds of the restaurant sifted slowly over them, but Moose felt a change. He couldn’t explain it. Unc was quiet, and then he looked up at Moose slowly, grabbing his fork.
“Somebody told you that?”
“Alicia told me.” Unc nearly dropped his fork, but when he picked it up, his hand was steadier. “And Mr. David. They said that’s what everybody is preparing for.”
Moose wondered if he should mention more people for good measure, but nearly cheered when Unc’s casual voice disappeared and another more menacing one replaced it.
“So they are plotting? I told Yenna it was foolish not to attack on their word.”
Holding his excitement down, Moose shrugged. “Alicia is thinking about giving herself up to the Thing to save Mom.”
“Just Alicia? That sounds like something Yenna would accept. I don’t see why they shouldn’t all come. Every last one of them.”
Moose nodded. He already knew that.
“You’re the monster, right? At The Mouth?” Unc smiled, but it warped unnaturally. A waitress walked over and plopped steak and potatoes in front of Unc and baked chicken and mushrooms in front of Moose. He thanked her, then asked again, “Are you the monster?”
What now? You have to ask him something important.
“You said we should talk. I’m here now. Why do you keep bothering Unc?”
It thought for a minute, slicing up the steak. “What animal is this?”
“What about that?” He pointed to Moose’s plate.
“Hmm. A variety. We don’t have the same luxury. We used to, but evolution is cruel.” The clink of silverware filled the restaurant, and Moose wished the Thing would stop looking at the steak. “Something that is so much trouble for us is simple on land. You pick a creature. You kill it. You eat. You don’t need it broken down. You just eat.”
“We have to cook stuff,” Moose said simply.
The Thing looked up, curious. “How?”
“Fire mostly. I saw a cooking movie with my mom once, though, and they used lemon to cook raw salmon.”
The Thing nodded. “This body is hard to control. At times, I know what it knows. At times, I don’t. What is your name?”
“An animal name. You are my grandson? My son’s … child.”
Moose didn’t answer. He wasn’t comfortable saying yes or no to that.
“Does that matter where you are?”
“It does to Yenna, as she calls herself these days. I don’t care as much. There are so many to feed. Why should I worry about four who can feed themselves?” It ate a piece of steak, closing its eyes to savor the moist flesh.
“What do you care about?” Excitement filled Moose. His mom couldn’t speak to the Thing. Not even Auntie Noah could do that. Only he and Chaunce could help there.
Ask the right questions.
“I don’t know.” It said simply.
Moose tsked, slightly deflated.
“What if you got other food or learned to eat other stuff? Would that make you happy?”
It laughed a little. “We’ve looked. It all rots or crushes under the pressure. More and more of us are moving to land. I wonder if I’ll like it.”
“You’re too big, I think.”
“We’re working. I made it once before, years ago. I met the fanatics in Anity. They were not happy.” It thought for a long time. “Yenna wanted me to kill the girl. Autumn. We didn’t find her, but I killed everyone else.”
“You know people’s names?”
“I like names. Yenna tells them to me often. She is too absorbed in the ways of the land, but I don’t mind the names. Will you bring … Cora back to me? The other one, the fanatic, was better, but I’m not sure if we can retrieve her. That was the last real Devil we had.” It stuffed another piece of steak into its mouth. For a moment, It patted Unc’s dreads like a toddler, pulling one long tendril down.
It’s like talking to another kid.
“Alicia. Will you bring her?”
“No. I’m sorry; I lied.”
“What a skilled beast she is. She’s making you comfortable so you’ll defend her, so you’ll stick by her side. She did the same to her old friend, the one she sacrificed to us. The body Yenna uses. The woman was quite surprised when Alicia betrayed her. Will you be?”
Moose faltered a bit, then shook his head. “I don’t know. She’s actually a nice person.”
“She cares about you? Enough to protect you? Enough to show her face if you’re hurt.”
Quickly, the Thing stabbed its knife through Moose’s hand, going straight through the table. It slid the knife forward, cutting messily through his flesh, and pulled it out before Moose had a chance to react. They watched the black blood bubble out of the slit, Moose’s mouth open in pain. The Thing looked around.
“If she cares, where is she?”
Stubborn, Moose let the tears fall down his face but didn’t make a sound. The pain pulsed up through his hand, landing somewhere in his chest, but he just kept staring at the monster. Unc’s eyes were tiny dots, watching him joyfully. It tossed the knife to the side.
“Black blood. You’re poison like Eric. I can’t digest you. The granddaughter, I can digest her, but she brings us food. She performs. Yenna tells me a lot about you and the girl now. She said I’m not allowed to kill you, but she didn’t say I couldn’t harm you. She is my favorite, but she is weak.”
“You’re s-supposed to p-protect the women you love, n-not call them weak!”
It raised an eyebrow, laughing. Moose looked around, half-expecting Alicia to walk forward and decapitate his uncle, half-disappointed and half-relieved when she didn’t.
“Yenna brings me food, and she does her job well. I don’t love things. The other Shadows might love her, but I don’t. Love is needless. I am learning pride, though. Maybe you’ll make me proud.”
Moose was filled with distaste. “Well. I love my family, so leave us alone. All of us.”
“I am going to take your entire family. Unless you plan on stopping me? Will you destroy yourself to save them? Are you as bold as Eric? You should ask Alicia what it’s like. I’m sure she’ll explain.”
Someone coughed in the booth behind them, the smell of the black blood filling the air, and the Thing stood, turning to them angrily.
“Thank you for talking to me. I’m eager to see what happens. I think I’ll leave this son alone for a while. Maybe I’ll come to see you in person next time, Moose. Maybe I’ll smash your house to pieces and suck the remains of your family into my foot.”
Moose shivered, holding his hand, ignoring the toxic gunk pulsing out. It turned, grinning devilishly, and pointed at their waitress. A slit appeared, sending a line of black smoke from the top of his finger to his shoulder, slicing through the air, and Moose watched in horror as the thick line of black leaped over to her. The gunk wrapped around her face, and before she could even scream, it twisted her body into a small ball, the bones and blood crunching loudly. Plates crashed to the floor, and Moose covered his ears to keep the shrill screams out.
“Still no Alicia. Do you understand?”
It splashed more gunk against the wall, and it all rolled into a spiral, spewing burning hot gunk onto the escaping patrons. Moose crawled under the table, gasping for air.
Where is she? Where’s Dad? Anybody?
The screams continued, and Moose watched as body parts separated and curled into the gunk, as people were dragged from the door, their screams abruptly stomped out.
“Where’s Alicia? Where is she?” He hid until Unc’s legs reappeared at the table, sliding in easily. Moose shook on the ground.
Moose waited until his legs could work, then crawled back into the booth. Aside from the broken plates and cracked counters, everything was clean. He’d even eaten the food from the plates. Moose held his bleeding hand, whimpering.
“Are you going … to eat me too?”
“You’re poison.” It responded, annoyed. “I told you that already. Regardless, humans are easy to eat in any body, but I cannot eat a Shadow or a Devil with purpose unless I am in my own.”
Moose’s stomach clenched, the guilt threatening to turn into tears.
I have to stop him.
“The Fanatics, I think they were called. They are not the same as the ones from Anity. They are weaker. Osh and Noah. The ones who gave us Davey. Did they tell you why I stopped the first time? After I almost left the water?”
“They made a deal with me, and then they broke it. Twice. There will be no more deals. When I come to land this time, I’m taking everyone. Had they succeeded in killing me, you would die. And my sons would die. My granddaughter would die. Did you know that?”
“Of course not. You are just a boy. A disgusting, poisonous boy. Alicia will not help you. The Fanatics will not help you. Your family will not help you. They are only ever able to help themselves.”
“So, what? You’re going to help me?”
“Why waste the time? It does not matter what you do. You are poison. Meaningless. Someone will get rid of you.”
Finally, Moose felt his stomach unclench. There was something about hearing it directly, hearing it straight out of the beast’s mouth. Something about the statement that eased his worry, that lifted the pain right from his body. Moose nodded, letting his hand shiver, and didn’t speak again. Even when Unc shook his head, squeezing his eyes in pain, Moose didn’t say a word.
He didn’t need the Thing to tell him his life was meaningless.
He already knew that.
The next time Alicia came over, Moose agreed to go with her to the docks.
“I have to be home soon, though. I need to sleep so I can get the girls ready in the morning.”
It was a needless statement, but he didn’t want her to have the satisfaction of knowing he was prepared, that he was ready. Moose wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but he couldn’t stomach it. He watched Asia swim, lonely without Paloma. He worried that no one would take care of her once he was gone.
Mom will do it. Do I pack a bag?
“Oh, I keep forgetting you have children. No worries, I’ll get you home in time for your child labor duties. What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing,” Moose said, looking at the gauze. Alicia didn’t pry. The Fake Dad let out a long sob, and Moose stared at the reflection, startled.
“You don’t have to go, Moose. It’s not your job to save anyone. I care about you! Asia cares about you! What about us?” He smiled and gave it a sad nod, wishing he could talk to it without Alicia hearing. It was mean sometimes, but he enjoyed their conversations when it wasn’t.
Moose climbed out of the window with his grandmother, waving goodbye with his injured hand instead.
They walked quietly side by side, and Moose noticed that Alicia seemed happier in the moonlight. She leaned her head back, staring dreamily up at the stars.
Is this what she was doing while the Thing was killing all those people?
“Noah wants the Thing to eat me,” he told her, trying not to sound afraid.
“Are we all calling it the Thing now? And yes. Obviously.”
“So does Dad.”
Moose giggled. It seemed really ridiculous when he thought about it. Maybe you just didn’t want to believe it, but yeah. Duh.
“So do you.” Alicia didn’t respond to that. “And if I don’t let them kill me, the Thing said he’ll get up and come get everybody.”
Alicia slowed down, her entire demeanor stiffening.
“It talks to you? In your head? Can you hear it now?” Her hand crept over her garter, pupils widening rapidly.
Moose hurriedly replied, “No! It was in Unc! Sometimes it’s in Unc!”
She left her hand on the machete, but they walked until they hit the small dock. The boats were all gone.
“Let’s walk over to the shore.”
They did, and Moose realized he’d never been to this part of Lostine Pier. The water lapped up, shallow but frothing, and Alicia kicked off her high heels. Moose pulled off his own tennis shoes and socks, walking beside her as the water lapped up onto their feet.
“What happened to your hand?”
He hid his bandaged hand behind his back, wincing.
“I fell. Are you going to help Noah take me to The Mouth?”
“When you talked to the Leviathan, what did it say? Did it sound intelligent? Angry?”
“It sounded like a kid, kind of. But it knows all of Unc’s words, and sometimes names. It didn’t know that steak was a cow.” She nodded, staring out into the water. “Are you going to help Noah—”
“Your Auntie Noah is quite pathetically obsessed with you. With quick fixes in general. She wants to be the one who saves your mother, who gets to ride off into the sunset with her. Don’t fear her. Anyone who would give half their brain for the chance at immortality is a moron. And you’re one of my descendants. You get to choose whether you live or die, don’t you?”
He hadn’t thought about it. “Do I?”
“You’re my grandson. The only person allowed to kill you is me.” He wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be comforting, but nodded. “Well, you’ve talked to the beast. Will you betray me?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Then I won’t betray you. I will never let you drown. Do you understand? I will never let you be siphoned by that beast.” She held out her chest proudly, projecting her voice as if she had an audience. “Do not worry yourself over Noah. She’ll end up in that water before you do.”
Moose thought about Alicia sitting with him, studying, how much fun she’d had. She didn’t strike him as the type to help with homework. She didn’t even strike him as the type that enjoyed the company of children.
Maybe It was right.
“I don’t believe you.”
She scoffed, looking down at the water, pupils shining. “Excuse me?”
“About what, boy?”
“Everything you just said. You’re nice to people so they can trust you, and then you hurt them. That’s what the Thing said, and that’s what … Noah said.”
“They’re not exactly my biggest fans,” she spat bitterly.
And they weren’t, were they? But Alicia hadn’t come to save him, either. She gave him a side glance, sighing. Moose sighed back mockingly and didn’t back down when his grandmother turned.
“It tried to kill me yesterday, and you didn’t help me. You didn’t show up at all. You’re helping Noah kill me. That’s why you brought me here. To put me on the boat. And I don’t care. I just want you to make sure Mom isn’t sad about it. Tell her I ran away, maybe. And make sure somebody takes care of my jellyfish.”
“Well, who told you to antagonize a monster in a—”
Moose didn’t buy Alicia’s bewilderment. He stepped forward into the water, puffing his chest out.
“I want to help kill that monster! I know I’ll die, but it’s worth it. I actually care about people, unlike you.” His chest swelled with pride as he looked out at the water. He wished he could say goodbye to Paloma. He wished she could see how beautiful the water looked at night.
Alicia let out a slow, annoyed gust of air. Moose held his stance.
Where’s the boat?
“You know what? You’ve earned my truth, Astric. I have an important question for you. Will you answer me honestly?”
“If you had the ability to protect every woman in your life, every girl, but you had to die to use it properly, would you?”
“I said so. Yes. I mean … well …” He thought about Unc’s response to his question. “I want to know if it’s a sure thing … and what it will feel like. What does it feel like to die because of the Thing?”
I can’t see the blue light at all anymore.
“It starts like rocks filling your lungs. There are these slippery black tentacles at the top of the Mouth, and they will process you. That means breaking your bones down to a suitable degree, emptying your stomach acid, et cetera. Sometimes there are squid, and they glow fluorescent. It can be beautiful. When the light show is done, you are slowly ripped to pieces. Before you can die from being ripped, however, you will be yanked down until your eyes explode. Your eardrums will also explode. You’ll have time to think and feel before your brain is crushed under the pressure. You’ll experience every moment. After that point, I’m not exactly sure how to explain what happens to a non-Devil. I couldn’t see or hear anything for ages.”
Moose stood as still as possible. “I don’t want that.”
“As for you, after that point, your body will be consumed. Broken down into tiny particles and suctioned slowly into the Thing. And your blood, your toxic blood, will course through the veins of the largest creature on this planet.” Alicia’s tone was sing-songy, almost disrespectfully playful. “This creature eats you, but it’s not like opening your mouth and chewing. It slowly drains your body of blood, oxygen, and anything that gives you life, right down to your skin and bones. Your particular life, however, is toxic. When your life reaches the creature’s brain, it will incapacitate it. Paralyze it. All the other creatures feeding off of it will die of starvation. They can’t consume your blood, and your blood is all consuming. Any creature that consumes your blood will die, and it will spread death to any other Feeder or Leviathan it touches.
“In your personal life, Astric, every descendant of the Creature will perish. Including your Uncle Juke. Your sister, Chaunce. They’ll all die. They are technically supposed to feed off of that Leviathan, and there’s some odd bond there. I don’t think your Auntie expects that part in this hypothetical situation. Somehow, I must have forgotten to explain it to her,” Alicia smirked. “But they would. Even your last little jellyfish would die.”
Sweat was starting to pour down Moose’s face.
“Of course, that is all based on Noah’s research. For all you know, you’ll get sucked down there and die a painful death for nothing.”
Moose tried to keep his chest puffed out, but he deflated, stepping back.
“What if I don’t want to die?”
“Your mother is dragged down into the depths and dies as you would’ve. Except she is a full Devil; she comes back. She keeps coming back, dying every few minutes in excruciating agony. Over and over for an eternity, or until she gets lucky and her body is too mangled to hold her. In that case, your Auntie Noah is erased from her body, and your mother takes her place. I was down there for two years and didn’t permanently transfer into a single Latch, so I’m guessing she’s in for a long ride.
“And your Paloma, she probably gets captured eventually and can enjoy the same fate. And Astrid, your little sister you swore you’d protect.”
“But-but if they have my mom, why would they go after Paloma and Astrid?” Moose asked needlessly. He knew better.
“Do you expect your enemies to keep their word, Astric?”
Again, Moose thought for a long time.
“So you’re being nice to me because you know you’re going to help Auntie Noah put me through that? Because you feel bad about it?”
Alicia smiled slow, and the way it made her face contort scared him.
“If the insufferable annoyance is right, it would be the end. There would be no need to worry, to fulfill promises to your mother, to plot revenge for my dear Yenna. If we can get you into The Mouth, the creature will die, and everyone will be better for it.”
“You don’t have to.” He looked down at his own reflection, scared. It was just him, no Fake Dad.
I should’ve talked to The Fake Dad before I left.
“Oh? What could we do instead?”
Tears ran down his face, and he hated myself.
“I’m smart. I’m really smart. Even smarter than Aun … than Noah. I can find another way to kill it. I can. I even got it to talk to me. None of you did that.”
Alicia nodded, slowly moving her foot through the water. Moose noticed a long red gift box stuck upright in the sand behind them.
“Do you know why I didn’t kill your real father? Juke?” It didn’t sound like a question.
“I’ve thought about it a long time, actually. I’ve known about him since he was a teenager. I’ve even kept watch when Osh was too much of a waste to do it. But I won’t touch him. I refuse. Because he was the son of my best friend. Because I didn’t know if he was just another monster, another shell, or if he was really the child I’d sacrificed. I still don’t.” She stared at her bare feet in the water. “I watched him for years. And then, one day, I told myself to let him be. When I saw him in that office, I hardly even recognized him. The length of him, the stature. Yenna would’ve been proud. You, Moose, you are a descendant of my Yenna. My Yenna, not that fish. We are your grandmothers. I won’t let anyone harm you.” She swirled the water, smiling a little.
“You’re all quite special, you children. I suppose it’s fitting that I always wanted to die, and my grandchild holds the key to survival. Yenna always wanted to live, and here, her descendants hold nothing but death.”
“I almost died yesterday. You’re lying. You’re all liars.”
“Is that right? I’m just a liar? I pour my heart out to my grandson, and he calls me a liar.”
He felt bad. She sounded crushed by his words. Moose didn’t want to make her cry, and he felt rotten when she started to, still circling her foot in the water. She sobbed quietly next to him, her lip trembling, her hands clasped behind her back.
I don’t know why I said that.
“If you pick a fight you can’t win, you’ll lose it alone. I will protect you, but I won’t fight for you. You want to be a man? You face your battles.” Moose opened his mouth, sighed, then closed it in frustration. Alicia didn’t notice. “I want you to remember something, boy. It’s a lesson only I can give you.”
“Things have to matter. Something, anything, even someone. This life can feel endless, but your enemies understand that. They thrive off of that. They’re waiting on your fear to take over, they’re waiting on you to give up! Noah giving you to the Thing, how is that any different than the many others who have been given to it? What has it stopped? Even if it died, even if everything was miraculously fixed, we still lost every part of ourselves by giving in to a monster. You don’t sacrifice your beliefs or your loved ones just to have the easy way out.
“I agree with you, Astric. You are smart. Osh is smart … weak, but smart. Your real father seems smart, capable. Astrid is something out of this world. You are surrounded by people who can figure something out, and I won’t sacrifice you to appease my own desires. I’m sick of losing in the hopes of winning. I’ve had seventy-two years to give in to everyone around me. I won’t give another inch.”
Moose swallowed his fear and shook his head, unmoved. She was a liar. They were all liars.
“I can do it. I’m strong like my mother. If it’ll save her, I’ll do it. I’m not selfish like you are. If my life is meaningless, I should try to use it for good.”
Alicia’s face tightened in disappointment. They stared out at the moon over the black water, the waves an ever-present sound effect in Moose’s life. He’d been born close to the water, and he’d never get to see what the world was like beyond it. So much of his childhood was …
Alicia snatched him by the shirt, twisting it until it choked him, and drug the small boy into the black water, rage seething through her teeth. He panicked, trying his best to pull back, but the muscles of her arms bulged, and she easily slid him into the sea, her dress floating as they went further and further out.
“Wait!” He pushed her hands, and she smashed her fist into his face, sending a burst of black blood from his nose, and the fish cleared from around him as soon as it touched the surface. He kicked again, desperate to get away, but she kept going. She walked out until they were too far for her feet to touch the ground, then she stomped him down with her leg.
“Stop … stop!”
“Let’s give ourselves to it, Astric. You’re so right. Your life is meaningless, you just said so yourself. And after such a great speech. You want to help your mother and sister. You’re strong. Let’s get it over with. Come on, I’ll go with you.”
“You-you said you wouldn’t let me drown! You—” He gurgled water, scratching hopelessly at her legs, the gauze unraveling from his injured hand.
The black gunk spread out but couldn’t seem to thicken in the water. Parts of it settled on Alicia’s skin and sizzled, but she just pushed her heel harder into his chest, yanking his arms up at the same time. When she pulled him up, he managed to land a hit on her face, and she pulled her lips back in a red smile, laughing.
“You said I was a liar. Who am I to argue with you? A grown ass ten-year-old like you knows everything. I’m a psychopath! Drowning you means nothing to me, right?” She pushed his head down again, her leg impossibly strong, and he wished he’d at least feel a bottom somewhere. The endlessness of it scared him.
It hurt too much. He just wanted her to stop, to let go, to let him escape. His hands dug at her stomach and chest, his legs kicked, but she just held him down. His arms spread out, getting weaker and weaker, and he couldn’t do anything but suck in water.
As the sea slowly sifted, a white light filling his head, Alicia pulled him up, screaming at him, “Are you going to die before we even reach it? Is this what you think your mother wants? Your sister?” She shoved him back down, and he screamed weakly, struggling through the rocks in his lungs. It hurt. It hurt.
No, I don’t want it! Please let me go!
She finally pulled him up, letting him cough and sputter as she swam back, holding him close. Head slamming against the sand, Moose vomited, still coughing up water, still trying to scream.
“Now. How do you feel? Do you still want to drown for your mother and sister? Do you still think that’s what they would want?”
Moose slid over the sand, sucking in breath after breath. Alicia offered no help. She casually moved the gift box out of his reach with her foot.
“I allowed my best friend to be emptied and used by that beast, Astric. I’ve watched so many loved ones die. So many. And still, it wants more. There’s no strength in it; there’s no strength in abusing yourself. You are speaking to a woman who has lost many children, who has drowned so many friends and husbands, who has … It doesn’t matter what we do to appease it. There’s no point in sacrificing ourselves any longer.” She wiped dirt from her dress and finally opened the gift box. A machete, covered with a thick leather sleeve, sat heavy in her hand. It had a golden handle just like hers.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you. No one believes in me, boy. Not a soul. I invoke fear and anger. The one person on this planet who believed in me is in that ocean. I was moved when you asked me to help you study. Me, the monster everyone’s afraid of, sitting around reading Language Arts passages. The normalcy of it!
“I won’t sacrifice you. You and Astrid, you’re mine to believe in. I will not fight for you, but I will lend my hand. This is your machete to have; don’t let your mother find it. Don’t let anyone find it.”
Moose sat up, chest still heaving, and grabbed the handle. It was heavy. He admired the sleeve, wondering where she’d had it made. It barely fit in his hand, but he knew this was what real men needed. An unreasonable happiness surged through him, and he wobbled to his feet, laughing maniacally, joining his grandmother in her loud celebration.
“This is your meaning, Moose. This is your award ceremony. LAAMP be damned!” Alicia raised her own machete in the air, smiling at him, and the moonlight reflected off of her pupils.
Amazing. Moose imagined an audience clapping for him, screaming their joy, and he raised the blade in the air. Paloma could get the perfect score. He stood with his grandmother, with Alicia Free, and he coughed his lungs up.
“You will not die, will you, Astric? I want you to promise me before I take you home to your children and the adults you supervise. Promise me I will not lose you to idiocy, or to someone else’s gain. That you will put Noah, or anyone else who might try to hurt you, in the ground if they dare touch you. Slaughter them like meat if they defy you. If they dare to make a sacrifice out of you. That you will survive, and you will protect your sisters, and you will fight for this life with every breath in your body.”
Moose coughed again, trying not to cry anymore, and he fell forward, lungs still burning. It was then he saw her. His jellyfish, pushing through the waves. He wondered if she was real, if Alicia could see her, and decided she couldn’t. Paloma the Jellyfish was part of him now, just like The Fake Dad. She was him.
He was a hybrid. He would never be alone, and he would never let himself lose again. Alicia pulled him up straight by his arm. Strong. He felt like the strongest kid alive. Every part of him seemed to scream in rage, even his skin, his hands, his teeth. He let out an animalistic scream, too excited to stop himself, and Alicia screamed back, leaning forward. He screamed until Alicia’s smile was so big that it almost jumped off of her face, then he nodded.
Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller