Written by Trey Briggs | Edited by Lyric Taylor | Art by Monté Miller |
Chapter 9: The Bishops
The throbbing feeling that pushed through my skull could’ve been a whole hand. It could’ve been fingers wrapping around my brain and pressing in, pulling out chunks. For a split second, I thought I would convulse.
Work was boring, and hun, boredom was going to kill me for once. I needed a cigarette. My team lead came in with a bunch of papers in his hand and shoved them at me. I let them scatter to the ground.
“Noah, please. We don’t have time for this today.”
“When do we ever?” I grumbled.
Osh promised me an exciting life if I stuck with the Fanatics. He said we’d be free from our families if we survived what we did to Davey. We’d get to run off and do whatever we wanted with Juke and Astor. So I got to watch that annoying bitch drown, which was great, but there was nothing exciting about my new life. Working at Eon Tech was worse than staring at walls. How did my momma do it for so long?
There I was, doing what equaled intern work at a facility I wasn’t allowed to know the address of, and even that wasn’t fun. We had to put on blindfolds at a designated spot like kidnapping victims. I wasn’t allowed to bring my phone in, and I couldn’t leave with any bags or folders. There was nothing to take anyway. It was like a document factory. Every now and then, the place would be empty enough for me to rummage through some classified shit. But for the most part, there was always someone watching. It killed me.
My dad and all my millions of sisters were back at The Compound messing with people’s bodies. Hell, they could be creating poisons out of Shadow and Devil blood, all types of interesting stuff. Even Astor was at home, oblivious, sitting around stuttering children all day. I wanted to show flashcards to somebody’s baby for a living, shit. But nope! I was sifting through paperwork at a desk, trying to keep my team lead from flirting with me. Talking about the six kids I didn’t actually have helped keep him disinterested.
Did we drown Davey to live this type of life?
I stared out the window at our direct view of the sea, our massive building hidden between a thick forest and the shore of Chastain. The sky was black with hideous, roiling clouds. I sucked my teeth when hail started clicking against the window.
I need a fucking cigarette …
The hail wouldn’t let up. I ran through my work too quickly, then I was bored again. A huge ball of ice smashed against the window, forming a long crack from side to side. That was interesting for a minute, then I was damn near snoring.
About thirty minutes into my shift, the sky darkened until the windows were black walls. There was something so unnatural about it, something so thick and liquid in the air. I stood up and tried to walk over, not willing to give up on the boredom just yet. It could be anything doing that, honestly.
I lost my balance when a bomb went off.
I fell forward and cracked my face against the edge of my desk. Pain vibrated through my temples, raging through my chin, going all the way down to my neck. In an attempt to not blackout, I pressed my palm against my forehead, grabbing at anything I could. A second blast went off, the sound of it whistling in my ears. I pushed myself under the desk with my feet, holding my knees to my chest. The screaming started, and I clenched my hair, frantic.
Don’t move. Don’t move. Relax. Osh will get you. He won’t let you die in this boring shithole …
“Noah! Noah, are you here? We have to go!”
Two legs appeared in front of me, and I almost reached out but pulled back at the last second. The dorky, nasally voice wasn’t Osh. The door creaked, and a frenzy of footsteps patted against the floor. Too fast to be anything other than Shadows.
“No. What do you want? Tell me; I can find it. We-we have all our research stored. I can take you to—”
Black gunk sprayed over my team lead. His skin burned so fast, it was almost merging with the stuff. I watched his legs begin to convulse, and his entire body curled into a ball, rolling until it was a small black pebble. The gunk traveled around the front of the desk. I held my breath, willing to suffocate if it meant I didn’t have to go through whatever the hell that was.
After a moment, the room was quiet. I felt another boom, which caused the building to sway, and realized I couldn’t stay there. There was less and less screaming, but the big, thudding sounds that shook the building didn’t stop. I crawled out from under the desk, grabbing a pair of sharp scissors, and tried to make sense of the room. There was blood covering every wall, but there weren’t any bodies. Papers everywhere, a shattered cup, but nothing else. No bodies, no bones, no gore. The window was open, and the rapid black seemed to tank downward, the sky too bright to hold it. I rushed over to look at the devastation below. Half the complex was breaking apart. Black gunk crawled over everything, spiking out then smoothing back into itself. There was destruction everywhere, but I didn’t see a single fire.
I braced myself against the window. Everything up to and around the building was covered with gigantic sea creatures. They all sifted into the air as dust, dissolving into the black gunk. Orcas, Humboldt squid, everything exploded and smashed against walls, concrete, and asphalt. There were too many to count. I rushed toward the door but stopped with my hand on the knob, shaking so bad it rattled.
“What the fuck was that? Holy shit, what the fuck was that?” My body lurching, I turned around to look out the window again.
The sky was still dark, too dark, but a deep orange line spread across the horizon. Blocking a huge part of it was a giant black mass stretching for miles across and above. It took me a minute to make out the shape of a gigantic head and upper chest pushing out from the sea. The body arched forward so far in the distance that I couldn’t guess its size. A violent storm raged around it, waves flowing from every direction, lightning cracking. I could just barely make out the body in the blackness of the sky. It was darker than the darkness around it; so black, it suctioned the flashes from the lightning. A sudden burst of water shot up, and the black silhouette disappeared. The waves were coming, thick and frothing.
My feet pulled from under me when something huge soared rocket fast through the air, connecting with the base of the building. I had to crawl back to the shattered window to see a fucking gray whale crashed through the first floor. I backed up and ran from the room, and finally, there were bodies. Piles of them, some tied up, some with their jaws wrenched open, black gunk spiking messily into their mouths. Devils. They’re taking all the Devils we have here. Every few rooms, I’d hear a scream then the sound of crushing bones or burning skin or gurgling. I covered my ears and ran faster.
Get to Osh or Mr. David or one of those fucking strong ass freaks! Where are those fucking idiots?! Where is Osh?!
Down the stairs, I saw a giant pupil staring at me, this one the frantic eye of a colossal squid, its tentacles gripping and curling up the wall. I sucked in a scream, doubling back.
No, fuck no! Nope!
Everything was so big; they were all so big. I had the odd thought that even the doors were bigger than me, the fucking water fountains, everything.
I pulled open door after door. Clean. Wiped clean, not even any blood. All the way at the end of the hall, there stood a man and a woman. The man’s arm lit up, the veins of it glowing neon. Pitch black with fluorescent blue marks. A prosthetic. The woman stood straight as a line. All around her were tiny, floating lights that flashed over bodies, completely evaporating them. Yenna started walking, but Bylas stayed still, and I wished I could see their faces. I wished I knew if they could see me or not.
“Noah!” I gripped the scissors tight. Should I cut my throat? What should I do?
A woman grabbed me and pulled me inside an open door, putting her hand over my mouth. The entire room pulsed with black gunk, but she pulled me inside a closet and held me close. I stabbed the scissors into her and twisted until I could reach her jugular. I kept stabbing until I realized there was blood covering me, human blood. Her fingers clenched, then she laid back. Breathless, I pulled her body close, crying into the back of her head.
She stopped moving, her foot sliding absently against the door, and I sat there. I sat there until the building stopped rocking, until I heard the waves crashing against the side, until the air seemed to change, until I was so soaked that I couldn’t tell what was her blood and what was my own piss.
When the door opened, when it finally opened, Osh stood staring at me, bewildered.
“Calm down! Relax!”
I tried to stand up, but the room spun. It was so bright.
“They came in here, and they just started … bu-burning people with that bl-black shit. There’s more. There’s more …”
“Stop talking, Noah. Look at me.”
When I opened my eyes, desperate to claw out of the memory, I was holding on to Bylas. He looked different, older and more aggressive. Staring over the mounds of his shoulders, I shifted, but he stayed put. My foot scraped against his calf, hard, but he didn’t move. There was a wet feeling coming from his face, the heat of it sliding over my neck. I let my fingers loosen from his thick arms, my heart beating hard enough to pump blood for both of us.
He didn’t move.
It took a long and confusing few seconds for me to yank myself awake.
It’s not Bylas, you moron; it’s Juke.
I rubbed my hands over my baby’s skin, letting his heavy breathing flow over me. We sat there for a while, both of us trying to calm down. My living room ceiling loomed overhead, and I remembered sitting down on the couch to think. Then, boom, sucked into a memory. It was so many years ago. So many cigarettes to avoid going over it. So many plans to avoid ever having to see that fucking thing again. It was so clear. The shape of it, the smell of burning skin. I’d do anything to never see that thing again.
Cora really doesn’t quit. I hate that damn torso.
“You wouldn’t shut up. You were having that nightmare.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Juke kissed my neck, leaving his face tucked there, and I shifted again. No shirt. His skin felt like a good scalding on mine, but there was no way I wanted one of his black patches to spring up right then.
“Don’t hurt me by accident, Jukel.”
When he still didn’t move, I surveyed his bare shoulders for the patches, my heart thumping. He pushed his arm under me and pulled me up a bit. I rested back on him, tense, and tried to avoid any dark spots.
“Every time you have that nightmare, you act like I’m going to eat you. Tell me about it.” There was an odd softness to his voice. It didn’t sound like him, not the wetness of it, not the vulnerability. I tried to look at him, but he dug deeper into my neck. He ran his hand up my leg, stopping at my stomach, and I rolled my eyes.
Leave it up to a man to be horny when his brain is melting …
“It’s not a nightmare. More like PTSD. It’s OK, hun. What’s wrong?”
I patted his back, impatient. “Show me, Jukel, stop playing.”
He pulled back, closing his eyes while I surveyed his face. White pushed through a gap in his cheek. It was only a spot of teeth, but he ran his tongue over them, and I lurched a little. I pushed him back, holding his chin. His tongue was massive and bloated. The sharpness of his teeth and the tiny dots for pupils made him look as close to a monster as he ever had.
It’s happening. I knew it was coming, but I can’t believe it’s actually happening. First Astor’s eye, now this. Can’t ever call my momma a liar.
Forcing a small smile, I kissed his forehead and motioned for him to get up.
“It doesn’t matter what I do. It won’t stop rotting. I had to cut off the skin around my cheek this morning. My stomach is getting worse too. It’s the same spots over and over.” Like a sad puppy, he held his head down, ashamed of my reaction. My voice didn’t tremble, though. I kept myself steady and kept holding his hand, talking to him like Astor did her clients.
“Moose still helping you?” It felt almost blasphemous to mention the little shit, but I’d poured so much time into him to save my loves. I’d say whatever the hell I wanted.
Juke’s eyes were crazy, and his breath smelled salty, wet and worn as it bubbled from his cheek.
You know what would’ve been amazing? Sinking into bed and daydreaming about being younger, about Juke making Astor laugh until she choked at lunch, all of us sitting at the lunch table pretending to have normal lives. You know, we had semi-normal lives for a small block of our teenage years. Did you know that? In high school, around that time, we got to be carefree. I mean it.
A sacrifice, a dead kid, a glorified child bride, and a teenage homicidal maniac walk into a bar…
“Yeah. We went out a few days ago, I think? I can’t remember. I’ll get some more tonight. This is going to irritate you, but we need Autumn. You could pretend it’s for someone else or something? I don’t know.” The end of his sentence was more defeated air than words. I picked up a towel from the couch and wrapped my arms around his waist, kissing his good cheek.
The doorbell rang, and it scared the shit out of me. In all the years we’d been there, I’d never heard the damn thing ring. Jukel took a deep breath, fixing his face. Roaming my shirt, I grabbed a cigarette from between my tits and lit it. The pack was light.
Ugh, three left? Seriously?
I blew smoke against his chest when I exhaled. Jukel winced, watching me as the black patches finally sprung up, moving and turning to liquid. I watched until they died down, sinking back into his skin. They usually stayed down after that, at least for a while. Not anymore. More liquid patches just popped up on his shoulders, rolling over his back. Nothing was working anymore.
I found my phone on the dresser and dialed Autumn Bishop, expecting her to pick up on the first ring. She loved to do that, her high-pitched voice filled with sarcasm. You couldn’t give her a better source of entertainment than calling after a long gap.
Oh, so you know my number? Still married to that corpse? Please come home?
For once, the phone went straight to voicemail. I tried it again.
“It’s not Winter, honey; it’s Autumnnnnn. Leave a message. If this is a professional, hang up and call my work phone. There’s such a thing as work/life balance. Thanks, bye.”
I rolled my eyes and called her work phone. My father’s husky voice answered, and there was something odd about it.
“Daddy … I need to speak to Momma.”
There was a long pause. “Which one is this?”
“Noah. The small one. The one who got Momma’s eyes? The one that married the alley hobo—”
“Oh. She’s a little busy.”
“That’s fine. Can you pass her the phone anyway?”
He was quiet again. “I’m actually on my way out.”
I laughed a little, getting annoyed. “Is she on her way out? Can you ask her to answer her cell?”
There was more silence, then a slow click. Did this old man just hang up on me?
Jukel watched in confusion, holding his cheek.
I shook my hair out, smiling. “I’ll go talk to my mother, baby. Don’t worry. This is far from the end.”
I never knew what to call my mother. Momma? Ma? Mom? Autumn seemed right, and it was what I used most of the time. A lot of my energy was spent trying not to think about what she was doing, removing her from my life as much as possible. Situations sprang up that involved her all the time, constantly, but I worked them out on my own. There was a satisfaction I didn’t want her to have. It’s a long story.
What mattered was that Autumn Bishop was the only person on the planet who could help Juke, and she hated him. You could hear her blood boiling when he came around. I was going to ask for her help, even if it killed us all.
Juke slipped upstairs, holding his cheek in shame. My doorbell rang again, and I had to steady myself on the way to the door. It hit me that I felt as normal as I’d felt in months. I took a deep breath, closing my eyes, and I couldn’t feel anything but my own body. The voice in my head was my own. My emotions were a little wobbly, but mine.
Welcome back, bitch.
There was less confusion, and that was great. I could feel that Astor was the one at the door before I pulled it open. She had one of Astrid’s shirts in her hand, folded. When she didn’t speak and instead stared sourly at my blouse, I went ahead and got it started.
“You’re still moving to the apartment?”
“Not exactly. We’ll talk about it later today.”
The thought of that didn’t sit well with me, not even a little, but I gave her an agreeable nod.
“That’s fine. I have to go see my mother anyway.”
“Will Lou be there?”
There was a distaste in her voice. Even though it was my fault the distaste existed at all and I’d pressured Juke, I felt irritated by it.
“Lou’s dead, hun.”
Astor squinted, rolling the shirt between her hands. She processed the information casually, but I could feel it sitting heavy in her heart.
“Because of me?” As catty as it might have been, I didn’t respond. She swallowed in a hurt way that only I would get, that only I would appreciate, and I really fucking appreciated it. “Please tell me about it later. She deserved to be understood. I know that’s all she wanted. I’m sorry, Noah. Does Autumn know?”
Astor might not be able to cry, but sometimes the way she says things is worse than tears. The way her tone dips in the sentence, coming back up on a wave of strength, then fading out. She does sorrow well. No one else felt sorrow about Lou. I appreciated it so much that I had to take a couple of deep breaths before I spoke again. Dammit, Astor knew things about me no one else knew. She got things about Louetta Bishop no one else got, even beyond the lies I’d been feeding her lately. The fact that she cared meant something.
When have the women in my family ever meant something?
“I have to tell you something, Noah. You won’t like it.” The word “like” came out as a breath, nothing more.
“When I’m done, we’ll talk again. Just us this time. We’ll meet up in Chastain after I leave my momma’s house. Chastain library?”
“That’s fine. I’ll be in the area.”
“No kids, no husbands, no mommas. Just us. Deal?”
Astor struggled to maintain a neutral face. “Deal.”
I should explain a thing or two.
It helps sometimes to know why someone does a thing. Alicia called me a barnacle, a fucking barnacle, and it wouldn’t leave my head. The gall of the insult sat in me, shifting around, and maybe it’s a little bit true. But I didn’t make myself this way.
Failing is hard for me.
I knew I failed. The look on that kid’s face made my stomach turn, hun; I felt like shit. I hate admitting when other people are right, but Moose had a way of making you love him. Sobbing in front of his granny, begging me to let him help? Fuck. It gutted me. It stuck to my bones. I struggled through; why not? I love Astor and Juke more. It’s just, I don’t know. Why push so hard to murder a kid who wasn’t even a bad kid to begin with?
I didn’t want Moose to be human. Be a Shadow, a Hybrid. Be some throwaway thing I could use to help real people in my life. I tried so hard to keep him separate in my head. All that boo-hoo crying, all the faces, all the fucking intelligence. Just eat the fucking cyanide syrup, you little shit!
The plan with Osh? Over. Done. When Astor pulled us all together in her house, Moose in the car staring at us like a sad secret agent, I realized I’d been outdone by a child. My mother’s warning taunted me the whole time, and I couldn’t take it.
Time to regroup, even if there was no time.
And you know what? It wasn’t just that it hadn’t worked; that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. It was that my mother helped come up with the original plan, the one that put Davey in that water. And I was so sure I could expand on it, figure out a better one. I was so sure I could keep that giant monster out of my life. Part of my motivation was pure spite over my heroine turning into my villain. I could outdo Autumn. I knew I could.
“Pay attention and take your time. There’s no such thing as a miracle cure. How are you any different than all these other soulless monsters if you hurt that boy?”
I hated her voice in my head, taunting me. She didn’t even like Moose! She wouldn’t even see him!
“Why is it so easy to throw away children’s lives in favor of your own? Haven’t you learned anything from your own childhood? Are you your father now? Is Osh turning into Alicia? You can’t save yourselves without hurting someone vulnerable?” Davey would probably find that statement laughable coming from Autumn, but it still stung.
We’d spent years planning, and it still wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t that enough time? Plenty of people tried to hurt me as a child, and they did it in no time at all. Give them a minute, they’d give me a complex, no issue. Plenty of people plotted against me. Why couldn’t I use Moose to save the people I loved? He was one fucking boy!
“You’re making a mistake, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Call me when you’ve changed your mind. I hope Astor and that alley hobo know they have fools for angels.”
And you know what? That was fine. So did I. I had so many fools for angels, I’d lost count.
I’ve always wanted the chance to talk about myself. Being a barnacle, a spy, the baby, I’m always the last one to talk. By the time the story gets around to me, boom, it’s almost over. Pass Noah the mic and cut the sound.
Lying comes so natural to me that I found myself going over the truth in my head on the way to see my mother. I had to make sure I remembered the real story before I talked to Autumn. She was a better liar and a way better storyteller, and we had so many little checks and balances to make sure I said the right thing to the right people. I had to get my head straight.
Then, I had to actually tell that truth to Astor. I reached down my tits for a cigarette and lit it, blowing out my irritation until I had to light another one.
Last one, bitch. Get ready.
The drive to Chastain was ridiculous, a pedestrian fatality waiting to happen. The streets crawled with hundreds of protesters wearing pitch-black hoodies. They held red signs with phrases, like “ANITY KILLED THEM” and “THE WAR IS COMING” and “WE WON’T BE THREATENED”. They trudged over sidewalks and even sat on the roads, all bursting with chaotic energy. Angry people who were a lot less quiet followed close behind.
“They’re killing us! No survivors, no prisoners, they’re willing to murder every single one of us! Your children! Your parents!” A woman was screaming at the first red light I managed to get to from the highway. I huffed a little, and three different protesters turned to look at me.
Damn, should’ve rolled the window up.
They’d only move out of the way after the light changed three times, unfazed by the constant honking and shouting from the drivers. Some people cheered, tossing the protesters water and snacks. My heart filled to the brim with the chaos of it all. The smell of people grilling or burning things filled the air. Defiant screams bellowed in the fast-approaching afternoon. It was impressive, exciting, and … and …
And then I just wanted them to move the fuck out of the way.
“I get it, guys, but my husband’s sick. Can you have them move?” I reasoned, leaning my head out of my window, and I revved my engine when they surrounded my car.
In broad daylight, they seemed to snatch all the sun up. A suited woman walked over, breaking through the crowd. She leaned into my window, smiling, and I didn’t want to be bothered with that shit so I stared straight ahead.
“They think the disappearances are the start of war with Anity. Humans love taking credit for the work of monsters. You know it’s not Anity, don’t you?”
The voice was familiar. Irritatingly familiar.
“Yup, but I can’t say I care either way. Can ya’ll move?”
“I need to speak with you ASAP. People are disappearing.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you ask your friends to move so I can get to where I’m going?”
Cars honked behind me, and I realized they were already forming a gap so I could get through. The woman grabbed my steering wheel as her piercing eyes locked on me. It took me a minute, a glimpse at her long chin, and six more cars honking before I realized who it was.
“Unfortunately. I have something for you. An apology from Alicia for her treachery, to start. And this.” She flipped a small piece of paper into the car. It flipped around, landing on my thighs. “Autumn said you should visit the Compound today. ASAP.”
“I’m on my way to go see her anyway. How do you know them?”
Yvette looked around, taking in the protesters. “Things have never been bad enough for this type of cover-up. We are genuinely at the end of the line. I wish I had your focus, Noah. All of these people to save, and you’re only concerned with two.”
I’d had so much trouble placing her, she could’ve been a long lost ghost. Her face was gaunt and dehydrated, and the suit she wore was old, with threads hanging all over the place. I grabbed the note and started reading, but she covered it with her hand. She wrapped her fingers around the steering wheel again.
“Can I have your word that you’ll go to The Compound? Autumn won’t be at her home, she’ll be there. We’re right up the street. You have no excuse.”
“Whatever you need to let go of my steering wheel, hun, you can have it.” I pressed my finger against my power window switch, barely touching her chin, and she lost it.
Hun curled her lips back and screamed, eyes bloodshot, struggling to push my window down with her hands. Another woman drummed on the hood of my car, pointing from my eyes to hers, filling the air with pure bullshit. I sucked the life out of my cigarette.
“I pray that you find some empathy in you at some point in your life!”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but I’m praying you get the fuck from in front of my car. Move!”
Out of the corner of my eye, a protester fell forward, smashing their cheek on the sidewalk. They laid there a second, then slid back and disappeared into the bushes. At least that’s what I thought happened. The idiot banging on my car backed away. We all stared at the bush, confused. It rustled, then flashed blue, and it all stopped.
“You weren’t kidding. Shadows are out, huh?” I whispered.
Yvette was completely still until a horn honked behind me, the driver leaning into it. Another one went off, and I jerked forward, still staring at the bush. She tried to walk beside my car.
“I wish someone cared about me like these women do you! You entitled brat! Go to The Compound!”
Her friend started screaming again, and I barely managed to roll up the window. The sound of the women screaming stunk up the car, riding with me all the slow, agonizing way down the street. The next light had protesters wearing white and screaming about the apocalypse. One busted the window out of the car in front of me, and I backed up as much as I could. Anguish clicked through my teeth. I couldn’t bring myself to stay on the road any longer, couldn’t bring myself to drive the rest of the way.
If that thing doesn’t come out of the water and eat these motherfuckers already!
There was a nearly empty road to my left, and I huffed at the street name. Two blocks away, right up the street, and I’d give Yvette what she wanted. I couldn’t decide whether I should sigh in relief or stay in traffic. The driver of the car in front of me got out, pissed off, and popped their trunk. I still debated. After a lot of internal monologues, I turned down the road. I drove down backstreets for a bit, then turned into a nearly abandoned parking lot and parked. I sat there, staring at the note in my lap, a big white building looming in front of me. The Compound. My parent’s most prized possession.
So many feelings filled me, leaving me weak and stiff with anxiety. At first, it looked like it’d always looked: a modern facility in the city, indistinguishable from the building next to it. You wouldn’t know I’d murdered people there or helped Mr. David drag screaming Devils through the door. That I’d plotted the drowning of Davey with Osh and Autumn in a small room in the back. You wouldn’t know my mother worked on thousands of Shadow bodies there, helping them adjust to land. It’d been so long since I did anything but avoid it.
I stuffed the note in my pocket. There was a light in the front room flickering off and on. Each time it flickered on, I imagined Lou shining a flashlight in my face, waking me up.
“Let’s see what they’re doing on the other side of the house.”
You know what? Let’s talk about me for a while. Not too long. There’s only so long I ever get to hold the mic, talk into it, be profound. I’m at the mercy of other people’s stories so much that, well, half the time, my own main characters are strangers to me. If it ain’t about Jukel Teroy, Astor Snow, Osh Snow, or any of those damn kids, there’s a chance you won’t hear about it, so let me sound off for a minute.
Technically, Lou didn’t exist until she was nine and I was five. When my dad decided Lou existed, that she needed paperwork and could go to school instead of having private tutors, he told us I was hers. Just like that. The baby belongs to Lou.
“Take care of your sister. Bathe her, feed her, make sure she lives. If anything happens, it’s your fault. Do you understand?” Lou smiled and put her elbow on my head like I was an end table. I moved it.
She wasn’t too bad. We’d sit up late at night reading books to each other, crocheting sweaters, or watching educational videos. There wasn’t much structure to it. After all, she wasn’t even in the double digits. “Taking care” of me was like a fun game, then it was something to ignore when it wasn’t. The rest of the family would go places, on vacation, to conferences, who knows where. Lou and I were always at home, and even still, I never saw them. When Lou left for school in the morning, I sat around so bored, I thought my brain would shut down. There was a big door in the hall, and every time I tried the knob, it was locked.
“They’re all on the other side of the house!” Lou exclaimed one day, finally invited to a family dinner. “It’s like a different world over there. There’s music and stuff. We have sisters too, a lot of them. And-and there was better food.”
“Can I go?”
“No, you don’t exist yet. The door is locked anyway.”
Every now and then, I’d catch a glimpse of a petite caramel woman. It was usually out of a window when she was getting in a car or pacing back and forth by our mailbox. I wasn’t allowed to open the windows, but Lou was, so we’d poke our heads out and watch her.
“She’s trying to get our attention!” Lou would whisper, and I’d rush over. The woman would do a cartwheel or a split or run in place. She stayed out there as long as we were willing to keep audience or until my daddy came out whining.
“That’s Autumn. She’s our momma! I met her a few times. She’s OK. She just asks so many questions, and she calls everybody ‘honey’.”
When my mother would try to talk to us or sit alone with us, my father would always pop up to whisk her away. Even in those few seconds, she felt like a good time. Autumn had that hair flip, you know? She had the quick cycle of manicured nail taps on the table. There was this scent she left behind, too grown for me, but Autumn stuck with people. After a while, she gave me little notes, sliding them under the big door if she rushed through the room.
Tooth coming out? Gargle with a tiny bit of salt.
Put some prune juice in the fridge for you. Lou says you’re walking funny!
Watch my interview on Scientific Galaxy tonight! —Autumn Bishop
There were tons of interviews with her. One was with a famous late-night talk show host, and I watched it with headphones on. Lou didn’t care about it.
“You’ve seen many breakthroughs this year. Outside of the work you do with your husband, what motivates you, Autumn?”
“The work I do with my husband doesn’t motivate me. My daughters motivate me. My late mother. My Noah motivates me the most.” I squinted, wondering about the people she cared about.
“Lou? Who’s Noah?”
“Some boy she used to like, probably. How should I know? Watch something else.”
It took a long time to realize Autumn wasn’t allowed to be with us. It took even longer to realize she just wasn’t allowed to be with me.
Most of my childhood was spent sneaking around.
One year, my father came to our side with my mother and properly introduced himself. The man was massive and red as hell with red hair.
“I’m Lawrence, your father, obviously. And this is your mother, Autumn—”
“You’re going to get to see me now!” she squealed, rushing over and grabbing me into a hug. My father rolled his eyes behind her.
“Within reason. The door will stay unlocked. You are not allowed to come to the other side unless prompted.”
All I needed was that door to be unlocked, hun. I snuck over there every night, small enough to hide under desks or in closets. My little ass was hiding in my sister’s laundry baskets, behind the toilet, inside the fridge. Lou didn’t need to sneak as much; they invited her over every now and then. But I did my best to spend most of the day watching them, watching my mother inject strange liquids into drowned bodies or drain a person of blood. Sometimes I listened to my dad discuss things I didn’t understand with beings that could melt me into a paste. My sisters were boring, shuffling around, practicing quotes in Latin or sitting together watching movies and giggling. There were eight I could find, but it slowly whittled down to five.
If I stared at a person long enough, I could tell you what they were. What they actually were.
My dad started taking more of an interest in Lou, and he’d sit us in his study. It was like a lecture. We had to take notes or tell him how his speech sounded. Lou hated it, but it was interesting how different he treated her compared to everyone else. I mean, he didn’t address her directly or anything. He avoided the other girls as much as possible, especially me, but he actually greeted Lou sometimes with a head nod. He smiled when she spoke every now and then.
The more we were out of the room, the more I got to see how their work, the work they actually did, affected the world.
You’d look at the news and see there was a mass disappearance. Everyone in a single town disappeared overnight, all the people in a mall vanished off the face of the earth, all the people in a movie theater up and left. My daddy would do this annoyed laugh and look at me and Lou incredulously. He’d say something like, “Your mother worked on that one yesterday, and already he’s causing trouble. We need to make them sign NDAs.” Under all that was this constant sense of emptiness. There was this feeling that I wasn’t getting something, that I wasn’t understanding something important.
At our yearly family dinner, the only one I was invited to, my oldest sister, Daynah, refused to acknowledge me. She started being nice to Lou once she ‘existed,’ and Lou told me it was because they knew she was going to be around now.
“They don’t know what you’ll be used for so they leave you alone.”
Present day, I tried to look into my father’s lab, pressing my face against the tinted windows. The lights were off again. A single light flickered after a while, a TV or something. There were only a few cars in the lot, all hidden around the back. I didn’t recognize any of them. It hit me that I had no idea what kind of cars my mother and father drove now. A feeling crept down the back of my neck. There’s nothing like a heavy dose of foreboding and guilt, is there?
Damn, when was the last time I visited? Maybe she finally left him? Is she too old to have kids now? How old is she? I wondered, pushing against the locked door. Dust stuck to my jacket. Autumn would never let the lab get like that. Or would she?
I reached for another cigarette, digging in the box, pushing my tits up. Nada.
Nothing shocked me more than the lock turning when I pushed my old key inside. The reception area was clean but lifeless. It wasn’t out of use, I could tell that much, but it definitely wasn’t bustling with life (and death) like it’d been when I was younger. There was no Davey bouncing around, winking or glaring at me. No Bylas blushing all over the damn place, following her like she was leaking fish pheromones. No Lou following Bylas, trying to get him to notice her, to “crawl back.” There was no Osh to put my legs on while I painted my nails, talking about his life or Astor or Alicia or any number of things he wouldn’t shut up about. There was only a small TV mounted on the wall, playing the news at full volume, and the empty reception counter. It all had a clean and sanitized smell, but not like Autumn would’ve left it.
I sat in one of the four uncomfortable plastic chairs, leaning my head back against the wall. I imagined Autumn, small and uncomplicated, walking around with her head buried. Buried in paperwork, buried in her phone, buried in thought. Shaking her hair out and skipping over everyone else to look at me and smile.
“Fix your face, honey. You’re depressing me.”
The news went on and on, and right when I was about to fall asleep, I heard a panicked news anchor’s voice. The sounds of people chanting was familiar.
It rustled me. A petite woman stood in front of the Chastain Aquarium, her hand pointing back while she rambled on. I moved closer to hear and see her on the tiny screen.
“This is the site of the latest mass disappearance, with everything from employees to patrons to the very fish vanishing into thin air. Authorities say it’s far from the first sign of trouble. Cryptic deaths and disappearances have worries rising, not only in Jennifer County, but all over the country.” There was a pause, and the video switched to The Fish Dish, Juke’s favorite restaurant. Her voice continued as the video surveyed the empty eatery.
“Over the last eight months, fourteen similar disappearances have occurred within Lostine. Twelve have occurred in Rex and over forty-three in Chastain. Six teachers at Reginald Elementary in Lostine went missing this week. The bodies of fourteen seamen at Chastain Pier have surfaced in the ocean, dead and decaying.”
The camera swept over Chastain Pier, emphasizing the abandonment. It returned to the news anchor as she stood in front of the marching protesters, holding her mic to her ear.
“The scenes paint a grim picture of political turmoil. President Hawn has stated we will not give in to terrorist threats and actions.” They switched to a press conference with President Viktor Hawn. The sound of his voice, gruff and passive, usually filled me with a special brand of irk. That was replaced with something closer to slow panic.
“These are clearly attacks on our freedom, our liberties, and our sense of peace. We’ve been patient with Anity. I’ve listened to my advisers, sought outside counsel, gone over the history books. Nothing is changing. I will bring back every family member that’s been taken. War is not inevitable, but we will defend ourselves. That much is certain. Virginia Steeps is our home, and we will defend it to the end.”
I ignored the sinking feeling in my chest with an eye roll. Fancy words for a fish.
The basement door creaked open to my side. The president’s voice disappeared behind the sound creeping up the stairs and my own thick heartbeat. Someone massive stepped into the room, paused, then joined me in front of the reception counter. My brain knew who it was before it would clue me in. The hairs on everything, and I mean everything, stood up.
Be wrong again, bitch. Be wrong.
It was something like excitement that filled me when he spoke, I can admit that.
“Shit’s going to hell, huh, Lil Bit?” The man leaned his head back, watching the president speak. Swallowing was impossible, but I tried anyway. I turned to look up at him all the way. He gave me a handsome smile, his sharp teeth shining in the glow of the television. One of his arms was black mesh, a metal rod shining from inside it. I figured one of his legs matched.
It’s actually Bylas this time. Fuck my life.
“Sure is. Got a cigarette?”
Grown Bylas is a buzzkill. He’s a sight to have a heart attack to. When I was younger, he wasn’t nearly as scary. Shit, somehow a lot of things weren’t.
“Lil Bit!” I turned to look at Lou, giving her an incredulous look. One that said, Shut up, we’ll get caught, you idiot.
For a long time, I didn’t know I had a name. Lou just called me “Lil Bit,” and my dad didn’t call me anything.
I got bored with my sisters and dad, focusing instead on my mom. Her lab in the basement was the first one I’d ever seen, and it still tops any lab I’ve been in. I could never pinpoint the type of science she specialized in out in public, but if she needed it, her lab had it. I’d try to head down to the basement at least once a day, hiding under things and making a zigzag from the third floor. I passed a girl who looked like an older Lou in the hall one day, crying to my father, but I only half-listened. Lou breathed super hard behind me, slick as a dry towel.
The girl was really rocking with tears. “I don’t want to go. Please! I’m not even the oldest. I’m not next in line. Daynah, she’s—”
“Why are you girls always complaining? It’s already settled, Ramona.”
“Daddy, please! You promised I could go to someone with Devil Syndrome. You know what Shadows do, especially the diplomats and-and famous ones! You know it. They’ll kill me—”
“They didn’t pay for that. They signed a contract. She said they might not use it for years. Where is this coming from? Daynah never complains; I never hear this from Astley. No one but you.”
“They’re not sold yet!” I snuck by them, pausing when the girl’s eyes landed on me, but she just gave me a slight nod, distracting my dad with a wail. Lou got scared and turned back.
The rest of the way to the basement was easy. There was a vent in there I could unscrew and sit in when I wanted to watch my mom work. You had to get to it at a certain time, and I waited by the door until she left for a bathroom break. I rushed in, frantic, and went straight for the vent. I had it closed by the time she came back and began tapping her nails on counters, rolling her head around on her neck.
Someone from my dad’s lab would bring her body bags, long black bags she’d unzip and scrutinize.
“Put it in the freezer.” For a few of the bags, she would make a face, sighing.
“This one is a dud. Incinerate it.” If the bag was small, she wouldn’t even unzip it.
“Take it to Lawrence. I told him about sending me children.” She’d stop, thinking. “Don’t take it to him. Incinerate it. Make sure it’s ashes, honey, you hear me?”
She was in a particularly bad mood that day, and on more than one occasion, she stopped to wipe tears from her eyes. Otherwise, her face was taut with boredom or concentration, her tone always dismissive, annoyed, and hurried. She wasn’t the graceful and charming woman I’d grown used to seeing in interviews.
I watched her almost two hours before my father brought in a tall boy. A living boy.
“Um … thank you for working on me, Dr. Bishop. Mrs. Bishop.”
“Sure,” she sighed, clicking her nails together. “Sit down and roll your sleeve up. Are you trading bodies? Looking to patch up a wound? What do you need?” Every word my mother said sat soaked in boredom. My dad gave her a look and smiled at the boy reassuringly. Smiling back, he sat down on the table and held his arm out.
“He’s one of Yenna’s children, Autumn. Bylas. Just regular maintenance, careful regular maintenance. There’s no need to take any blood.”
“I know. I’m taking the blood anyway. If you have a problem with it, you can work on him yourself.” My dad tried and failed to communicate something to my mother with his eyes, then gave her a stiff smile. He kept glancing nervously at Bylas.
“Are you sure you want to do that? To Yenna’s boy?” My mom let her silence speak for her and hooked a tube up to his arm, her face blank. “Autumn?!”
“You said I had to work on him, and I’m going to, and I want his blood in return. Do I have to talk through it as well? Is this some sort of punishment?” She suctioned vial after vial of blood from the boy, all of it a deep red.
Bylas returned my dad’s reassuring smile. “I won’t tell my mom; don’t worry. It’s not a big deal.”
“See? We got ourselves an agreeable Shadow for once.” She placed a cotton swab over the needle and pulled it away from his arm, careful, ignoring my dad’s frantic pacing.
“Autumn, we should talk after this.”
My mother sighed and pulled Bylas’ face up to look at her. “Don’t you want him to leave us alone? You should tell him to leave us alone. He won’t listen to me, honey. I’m only here to birth merchandise.”
Bylas blushed. “Leave us alone, please, Dr. Bishop. Now.”
From the little vent, crunched up painfully, I watched my father’s anger bloom and die. The way his face reddened scared me.
Does he get a lot of nosebleeds too?
He stomped up the stairs.
My mother worked on Bylas for a while, but it looked like a regular checkup. She checked his pulse, ran her hands along his stomach, shined a light into each eye, ear, and nostril. Around the time she was checking his scalp, running her gloved hand along the edge, he tapped her.
“Is he really your husband?”
“Unfortunately,” she stopped, closing her eyes and whispering something under her breath. “Well, I shouldn’t say that. Don’t let my attitude fool you, honey. I’ve had a rough few years. Do you feel this?” She pushed a scalpel into his palm.
“Yes!” He tried to yank his arm back, but she held him still.
“Good. Glad you can feel things. So Yenna has children, huh? Why does a Shadow need children on land? Don’t you reproduce in the water?”
“My mom said she wanted a break. And her other children died; they couldn’t survive. I’m the first one to live.”
“Tragic. You know that isn’t your mom, right? I mean, it’s your mom to a certain extent. It’s your mom in someone else’s body. She stole that body.”
Bylas didn’t speak, confused. My mom poked the scalpel into his ear, and I flinched for him. He didn’t move.
“You have a damaged eardrum. Did you know that?”
“I have another one. Have you ever been in the water?” He nodded while my mother rummaged through her fridge.
“Once. And I think I was born there. I’m not sure exactly.”
“I’ll have to operate on you, Bylas. Are you the original Bylas, or is Bylas just a kid your mother took? Were you born in this body? Or were you a sea cucumber or a jellyfish or something?”
“I’m sorry. You seem to have a problem with me?” Bylas’ discomfort matched mine. My mom was quiet for a while longer, examining his fingernails.
“A couple, actually, now that you mention it.” She leaned his head back and shone a light in his eye again. Her breathing was getting ragged. “The body your mom is in. It used to belong to a patient of mine. I helped her during her pregnancy. I wonder if you’re the poor kid she was so excited about. Do you know Mr. David?”
He nodded while my mom continued to search his body for damage. “I work with him a lot. I get to use a shotgun.”
She bristled. “Sounds like something he’d allow a child to have. Do you know my daughter Ramona?”
“What about Ingrid?”
“N-no. I’ve never heard of them.” Anger bloomed into my mother’s neck, her skin redder than my father’s, her eyes closing.
“Anyway, Shadow, your mom is just a sea creature in the original Yenna’s body. That’s not even her name, she stole that, too. She goes around buying innocent girls for your people to empty out or eat or whatever they plan on doing.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know—”
“Shadows are pretty worthless if you think about it. It’d make more sense to just keep on taking fish to live in. Why move to land? Why come here and destroy families? We don’t live the way you do. Your mom thinks she can bring meaning to your ridiculous species. You already have your meaning, though, don’t you? Parasites. You take over everything, you’re—”
Bylas’ eyes widened, but she kept going. As my mother poked around his mouth, raining insults down on him, tears pulsed over his lids. He sucked in quiet sobs until she finally noticed. She stopped, ashamed.
“I’m sorry. Shit, I’m sorry. You’re a kid, what am I doing? I’m so sorry.”
“Do you-do you know who my dad is? Is he as bad as the rest of us?”
“Your mother never told you?”
He sobbed harder, and it was interesting to watch my mother soften up. She melted like ice cream sitting out on a table, clumps of her softening at a time. Finally, her own eyes started to tear up as she wiped his face.
“Honey, pay me no mind. I spent all day arguing with my useless husband. You don’t deserve the residue from that. I should be used to it; they’re not the first kids I’ve lost to his greed. Or to your mom. It’s not you. It’s not your fault.”
Bylas buried his face in his shirt, sucking in the fabric. “I don’t want to-to be terrible.” He sobbed so hard, I felt it in my chest. My mother sat next to him, swinging her short legs. A sneeze crept up my throat, but I held it.
“None of us do, honey. But we all are. I sit here and fix up every single body your mom sends us. Every time I look at the news, there are more people disappearing or dying, and I get ready to work on their bodies too. I can’t sit around worrying about it. Balance the terrible out, you’ll feel better. Pet a cat or something.”
“Why can’t we stay in the water? I don’t want to be here; I want to stay in the water.”
“You know, honey, that’s the part that worries me the most. Every day there’s more and more of you, and nobody will tell me why. I’m seeing Shadow animals sometimes. Somebody brought a damn bison in here once; couldn’t even get the motherfucker down the stairs.”
Bylas laughed a little. I felt the sneeze building up and managed to let it out in a tiny puff of air. My mother’s head turned a bit, but Bylas didn’t notice.
“I’ve given birth to twelve daughters. There are five left. My youngest is my heart. I hope she knows that. And I’m going to save her from being another body or wife. I’m going to do everything in my power to save her.”
Bylas nodded, confused again.
“Dr. Bishop. Can you save me too? And my brother? I don’t think my mom is a good person. She hates Jukel so much; I’m scared for him. She—” He stopped, staring at his hands. Autumn patted his head and asked him about school. They talked about his normal friends, about the things he didn’t understand. By the time my father came back, still red and annoyed, Bylas was laughing. He admitted he didn’t even live with Yenna.
“She’s afraid she won’t be able to teach me things. I live with Mr. David right now. It’s cool; he’s understanding. Plus, he—”
“He’s insane,” my dad interrupted, scowling. “Don’t listen to anything he says. One of the Devils in his head likes you, the other doesn’t; it’s all random.”
“Don’t mind Lawrence. None of the people in Mr. David like him, and honey, it drives him crazy.”
“I don’t need someone to like me to work with them. He’s dangerous. And he’s in contact with Ali—”
“You’re all good to go, honey.” My mother guided Bylas toward my dad. “You remember what we talked about. You’re not a monster until you are, right? Don’t forget to ask Mr. David about your daddy. It’s important you know.”
When they were gone, she waltzed around her lab, touching things. Her nails scraped the top of the vent I was in. I held my breath. My legs were starting to cramp up, and I still needed to sneeze, and I was uncomfortable in general.
Jeez, go upstairs or something!
She took a tiny piece of paper off of a pad and wrote on it in big loopy letters. When she stalked back over to the vent, I almost threw up from anxiety. She slipped the paper through one of the slits and walked away. Her flats slapped against the stairs, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the lights went off and the door closed.
I snooped around her lab for a while. There were giant refrigerators filled with blood, all labeled: Shadows, Devil Syndrome, Husks, Immortal Devils, Latches. Some had actual names. Four vials had MY NOAH on them, and nearly seventeen had LOUETTA. There were four fridges lined up beside each other, all wide and deep. One choked with dead or empty bodies, all frozen solid. I wondered how they thawed them out.
On the way back to my side of the house, I heard my dad on the phone with someone in his office. I had to stop and slip back behind the corner when I realized my mother and Ramona were outside the door. Ramona held my mother’s hand, shaking, and my mom rubbed her hair. She was almost a foot taller than my mother.
“…her birthday. She won’t even speak to me. I want assurance that she won’t be used as a body … I understand the confidentiality clause, Yenna, I really do. I helped Tracia write the damned things. Can’t you at least just say yes or no?”
My mother hugged Ramona tighter, her nails digging into her shirt. They moved closer, both leaning forward to hear my dad’s conversation.
“Ramona would make an amazing bride or even an adopted daughter. She’s top of her class, always a joy.… Aren’t there any Devils available? Or maybe a human. There was the one senator that wanted Daynah. Ramona’s not much younger; maybe he’d settle for— I apologize. Yes, I understand. It’s not a deal breaker. I’m not backing out, just clarifying. She’ll be ready in the morning.”
Ramona shook, backing away from the door. My mother didn’t try to stop her. She just stood there, tears running down her face.
“Mom, I can’t. I can’t.” Their voices disappeared behind me.
I made it back to my side of the house and slipped into my room, ignoring Lou staring bored out of my window.
“What took you so long? I got a whooping like eight years ago!”
“Sorry. They wouldn’t leave the room.”
“You were in the lab again? Did anything cool happen? Did she cut open another dead person?”
“No, he was alive. He has to come back for surgery. His eardrum was ripped or something.”
“I said did anything cool happen. Who cares about an eardrum?”
I shrugged and motioned for her to leave my room.
“You’re so boring, ugh.”
When Lou was gone, I unraveled the little note, bundling up under my covers like I was reading a horror novel.
My Noah. I want to tell you stories. I want to do your hair. I want to take you to the park and teach you to dance and how to cook the best foods. I want to tell you all about myself, all the good parts. Please don’t forget me just because I can’t see you. Don’t forget yourself. I promise I will show you the real world if you wait for me. You are never alone, Noah, and your momma loves you.
I slid the note between my mattress and my box spring, moving the other notes she’d given me. I wondered what the world looked like outside of videos, beyond my window, until I fell asleep.
I never saw Ramona again after that, not even when I snooped through her room. I’d see my mom in there, curled up on her bed, weeping so hard I could see the muscles in her back contracting. It didn’t feel right to snoop on that. Months passed before I could even get back to the vent. My other sisters, including Lou, crowded around her, making sure she was never alone. I could hear them from the top of the stairs talking about school and trips. She didn’t speak.
There was another sister missing, but I didn’t know her name. My mother filled her room with flowers every couple of days. I stole some, filling the space under my bed with them.
My dad caught me in the room taking a flower one day and lost it.
“So you’re a money drain and a thief?” he asked behind me, and I dropped an orchid, frozen. He grabbed my foot and turned me completely upside down, holding me up and staring into my frantic face. “Those flowers belonged to a real girl, not some pet project. Do you know whose flowers you’re stealing, you nameless brat?”
“I-I didn’t. I’m sorry! They’re pretty!”
He let go of my foot, then caught me before I hit the ground. I tried to scream but couldn’t get the sound to form around my fear.
“Do you know what I do to people who steal from me?” He walked me to the balcony and held me over. The floor was so far that it blurred in my vision. I grabbed onto his shirt, still trying to scream.
“Wait until she hears what you do to people who don’t.”
It was my mother’s voice, and it was so calm and conversational that I kept trying to scream. She rested her arms on the balcony railing, staring down at the ground below. There were bags under her eyes, and her hair was all over the place. Still beautiful, still tapping her nails. I was close enough to see how big her eyes were, how much my eye color matched hers.
Hun, I did anything but think about that ground.
My father tensed, gripping my foot tighter, but he didn’t pull me back.
“She was taking flowers. It’s part of your grieving process; they shouldn’t be disturbed. You know how sad you get. We don’t want another incident.”
My mother didn’t speak again, but another voice sprung up on the other side of us, soft and equally calm.
“Dad? Mom’s been through enough today, don’t you think?” He put me down gently, and I looked up to see a beautiful caramel girl, her long black hair pulled up into a flower crown. She looked like a queen. Flawless skin, flawless posture, flawless everything.
Is she a goddess or something?
The smile she gave me was presidential. It was mesmerizing.
“Astley, I wasn’t going to hurt her. You know I would never hurt one of you. There’s not a scratch on her!” He nudged me.
“I’m scared,” I whined. My mom rushed over and hugged me, and when he tried to stop her, another voice came out of nowhere.
“Dad, why don’t you get back to work? We’ll take her back to her side.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt her! Is it a crime to scare a child? Are you all going to be mad at me for every little thing?” He seemed ashamed, but he listened to the new speaker. She was lighter, closer to my dad’s color, shorter, plump, and soft. It felt like heaven when she joined the hug.
“What’s her name?” she asked my mother.
“Noah. And Noah, this is—”
“Oh, mom, does it matter?” My mother blinked back tears and hugged herself this time, sitting back.
“Of course, it does, Amanda. Why wouldn’t it?”
Astley stepped forward, giving me her hand. “Should we bring her with us?”
“No. No, I don’t want her to see this. She shouldn’t see this.” My mom kissed my forehead, shivering, her tears sliding over my face. Astley took my hand.
“I’ll take her to her room. Don’t start without me. Promise?”
They both gave her a somber nod. We walked back too quick for me to ask the questions I wanted to ask, but when we got to the big door, she gave me another hug.
“Sorry. Amanda’s, well … she’ll be gone tonight. It’s not that she didn’t want to meet you, OK? It’s just less sad when someone passes if you don’t know them.” She handed me the orchid I’d been trying to get away with, smiling at my joy. “Take as many flowers as you want. Mom’s friend Alicia sends them to us. We earned them.”
Years later, Lou started sleeping in my bed. She’d be afraid of something in her room at night. She would climb over me and sleep with her thumb in her mouth, foot jammed against my chin. It irked me. I decided to figure out what was bothering her so much so she would leave me the hell alone. I snuck to her room to investigate one night.
There was a woman with a giant red bun sitting cross-legged on Lou’s bed. Everything on her was long, and the room could’ve been a dollhouse in comparison. I waved, half-asleep and fully annoyed, and asked what she wanted.
“I must’ve scared her off. You’re the other one, aren’t you? The one that’s not available? What’s your name?”
“Noah,” I said confidently. I used my name as much as possible and felt proud to do it. She patted the bed next to her, and I sat down. There was a long moment where she took in my small hands, comparing her own curiously. One of her fingers trailed my hairline.
“Red hair? Is it natural?”
“No wonder they’re keeping you for themselves. Your children! I can’t imagine.” She pulled a strand of her own hair, longer than my entire body, and compared it to mine, her cheeks blooming red. “I’m Yenna. You’re beautiful; did you know that? Small, but pretty.”
“Sure. You’re OK, I guess. What are you doing to my sister?”
Yenna thought, taking in more of my appearance. One of her long nails stretched toward the window behind her, but she never broke eye contact.
“Your father said I should consider Louetta. I’ve been trying to convince her to go willingly, though. It’s important to me that she has a good life with my son.”
“Well, you can’t have her.”
Yenna smiled, rubbing my hair, but didn’t move. There was something odd about how lengthy her fingers were, about the way they seemed to blend into her long fingernails with no separation.
“Why can’t I?”
“I’d be bored, and my mom would cry. And she’s too nice. She’s not gonna tell you no so I have to do it. What will your son do with her?”
“I’ve been told child bodies don’t understand certain things as well as adult bodies do. You might not ‘get’ it. Do you want me to tell you anyway, Noah?”
“Yeah? That’s why I asked.”
“My son. Bylas. I want him to have someone here on land. I’d like someone to show him how humans live and for him to fall in love and continue our family. It’s a little different in the water. There’s a higher survival rate here, and I like what I know of your family customs.”
I nodded, scrunching my face up. “Are you a Shadow?”
“Yes. A very important one,” Yenna smiled when she said it, and I guess it meant something that I knew what she was. It didn’t mean much to me. My mother didn’t like them at all.
“OK. That’s not our problem. Why don’t you read a book or something, Shadow? That could teach you a lot. Or watch people. That’s how I learn how to do things, and then you don’t bother people into helping you all the time.”
Yenna patted my head again, and this time, she let her hand roam around until it was under my chin.
“So red. I adore the look of you, Noah. If you were available, I’d take you in an instant. I have another son, but he’s been a disappointing experience. He’s closer to your age. Would you like to meet him if he survives?”
She nodded and stood, and I remember feeling sick just trying to keep eye contact. We didn’t speak again that night. I listened to her talking to my father in the hallway, cutting him off whenever he interrupted. He walked into the room when she was gone and glared at me.
“Your mother is going to kill me. You never know when to shut up and mind your business, do you?”
The next day, my father woke me and Lou up and made us get dressed. He led us through the big door, down three flights of stairs, and into the main hall. I remembered the floor from dangling above it. It was prettier up close.
My mother stood, wrapped in a big peacoat. I counted six sisters, not including Lou. They were all so damn pretty.
Tall, short, light, brown, they all looked like chopped-up pieces of my mother and father. Her nose, his eyes. Her mouth, his jawline. Her hair, his lips. I was the only one with his red hair, though. And I was the only one with my mother’s big eyes.
“You wanted to talk to them? Go ahead. You have ten minutes.” The glare she gave him took up time. It sat on her face for a full ten minutes, motionless.
“I’m sorry, Autumn. Please speak to your girls.”
She nodded, and the way her face transformed when she turned to us, suddenly soft and inviting, was magical.
“Noah. Louetta. You both look wonderful. Did you pick those outfits yourselves?”
“I picked them out,” Lou burst, but she wrapped her arm around my shoulder. “Noah did her hair!”
“So talented! I hear Yenna has been visiting. I hear your father is now allowing that beast to walk into your rooms and sleep in your beds.”
“I did no—”
“I hear that maybe one of you will get married, as our friend Yenna is looking for a bride for her son, Bylas. She wants to fit in badly, you see, and we’re an important family where I’m from! It’s too hard to find love the way the rest of us do, of course, so now she’s roaming our halls for a prospect. Never mind the fact that Bylas is all of thirteen and doesn’t even live with her, and—”
“Autumn,” my dad warned, cracking his knuckles impatiently. My mother sucked in a deep breath, flipping her hair.
“Your father is taking us on a trip to Anity. Do you know where that is?”
“It’s another country!” I yelled, and Lou nodded enthusiastically. Autumn smiled.
“Right. It’s not actually a trip, of course. We’re going to say goodbye to your sister Amanda. Your father thinks it absolves him of responsibility if he lets me spread her ashes in my home country. At my mother’s house. She always wanted to meet you all. The least I can do is keep your ashes in one place.” She struggled for a moment, and Astley rubbed her hand over her back. “I know it might be fruitless, but I want you to meet your sisters. And I want to tell you a story about Amanda. And then, I want to end this meeting that I’ve had to schedule with my own children by saying the names of your sisters who are no longer here—”
“Do you need to do that?” We sat through another ten minutes of glaring. “I’m giving you ten minutes from this point, Autumn, and then you’re going to miss your own daughter’s memorial. I’m not throwing it twice. Skip the names, alive or dead, and tell your little story. Girls? Louetta? Come with me. You’ll need your winter coats.” My father held out his hand, and Lou glanced over to him nervously.
“I’ll tell you later,” I whispered. She nodded, accepting a soft smile from my mother. They all left the room in a huff, my father’s neck red as hell. Astley stayed behind with my mom, and they both looked hurt.
“Can’t even introduce ourselves,” Astley spat, and my mother touched her hand gently. She resumed her cheerful attitude, moving closer to me. “Do you like stories, Noah?”
“I love them,” I said. “Can we sit down, though? It took forever to walk here.” They laughed, and my mother nodded, sitting. Astley didn’t do anything until she did it.
“I love stories as well! Everything you interact with is a story, honey. One life can have a million different stories or just one long one. It depends on the person telling it. It depends on what they want you to know.
“Astley? Introduce yourself.” The goddess gave me a glamorous smile, winking. She wasn’t dressed like the other girls. She was wearing a masculine coat and a thick braid.
“I’m Astley. I like boxing.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. She looked like a boxer the more I examined her. Even her nails were dirty.
“Yup! I like knocking bitches out.” My mother smirked, egging her on. “And when I’m not knocking bitches out, I like watching videos of other girls knocking bitches out.”
“She loves watching videos of girls in general, if it wasn’t obvious.” Astley blushed, giving my mother a wide-eyed scoff. They both giggled. “Why don’t you introduce yourself to us? I want to know what you think of yourself. What do you like to do?”
“I’m Noah. Um … I’m small, so I like to hide in things. And I’m good at learning stuff without any help. And I like blood.”
“Blood’s fun. Poison is better,” my mom laughed, a wicked smile on her face.
“Oh, and flowers are pretty.” I looked at Astley and felt lame. “… and diseases are fun to learn about,” I squeaked. “What about you?”
“I’m Autumn. Your mother. I like big families and being the best at what I do. I like surviving, and I like control. And there’s so much more to my story, and yours, and all these girls. But we take and give what we can, right?” I nodded, feeling so full of excitement I could’ve burst.
“You met Amanda, and so it meant something to me to tell you about her, even just a little bit. She was loud. Lord, the girl could bust your eardrums. She had a big, obnoxious laugh. I’m surprised you couldn’t hear it from across the house.”
Astley cut in, sullen. “Amanda liked to watch soap operas and act them out with me. We used to act a lot of stuff out with our other sister, Ingrid. Then daddy sold Ingrid, and Yenna decided she wasn’t fit enough to be used as a body. So they took her out to this place in the ocean instead—”
“Amanda wrote a lot.” My mother wobbled a bit. “She wrote these amazing science fiction stories. They were so good, Noah; you should’ve read them. She was close to eighteen and ready to leave. She was so scared when-when he told us be-because she watched what happened to Ridley. Ridley was the first one to go. Yenna melted Ridley. She melted her right in front of us, and then she sucked her into those little lights, and she—”
“It’s OK, Mom. Don’t scare her. Breathe.”
My mother nodded, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry. Amanda was a wonderful person. I just wanted you to know that. And we made sure she went peacefully. Your father didn’t get to cash the check. I would do the same for you without hesitation.”
My dad walked back in, and all the girls followed him, dressed for cold weather. I looked down at my short-sleeved shirt.
“I need a coat, too, don’t I?”
My mother stood, clearing her throat, glaring at him. He nodded for her to tell me.
“Your father is not allowing me to take you on this trip. You’ll be alone here. It’ll be scary, and it’ll be a long time before we get back. I want you to conserve your food. Do you know what that means?”
I was speechless for a moment.
“I-I don’t know how to cook.”
She swallowed, and Astley put her hand on her shoulder, but she looked just as sullen. They took a second to compose themselves. “Don’t cook. Don’t mess with anything that could hurt you, OK? No fire, don’t hide under things. You could get stuck and suffocate.”
“She’ll be fine,” my dad said, and Autumn took a deep breath. The two women went back and forth, shooting off advice.
“Don’t open the door unless there’s an emergency—”
“Mom! Look, don’t open the door at all.”
“Don’t play near the banisters. Don’t run on the stairs. Don’t—”
“Autumn, Astley. Time to go.”
My mother rushed over to me and hugged me until I thought my head would pop off. “Don’t die,” she whispered.
Lou came out last, dressed for cold weather, a small suitcase in her hand. She gave me an apologetic look.
“We’ll be back. Be careful, and be safe, OK?” my mom said, and my dad nearly picked her up and walked her out the door. The sisters all followed, Astley turning at the last second and putting a small key on a table by the door.
They were gone for four months.
I was alone the entire time. Even on their side of the house, the lights were off and the rooms were empty. The key Astley left was for the back door. I sat in the yard a lot, rolling around the grass. There was a big garden, blooming with so many different types of plants that I never named them all. The sun felt foreign on my skin.
I snuck down to my mother’s lab, and there was nothing but the big refrigerators and the empty table. They’d emptied the bodies out of the freezer; the blood fridges were locked. She’d filled the fourth fridge with so much food, I couldn’t reach it all, and I found more canned goods in Ramona’s bedroom. There were little notes all over the room, all of them in my mother’s handwriting.
There’s a movie I really like. It’s called Vivid, and I bought it for you. Look under Ingrid’s bed. Her room has all the flowers.
Do you like ice cream? I put a lot in the fridge. Don’t eat it all at once!
What’s your favorite song? Sing it out loud now. Pretend I’m singing with you.
I eventually found the last note, and then I’d follow the prompts over and over. It got boring after a while, and I burned them in the fireplace. The flowers in Ingrid’s room rotted and crumbled away, so I stopped going in there.
I stopped going outside after I saw Yenna watching me from the gate three different times. She snuck into a window once, stalking around the house, but I’d hide in tiny places she couldn’t fit into. After a while, she stopped coming by, but I was too afraid to run away. There was plenty of food in my normal fridge. When that ran out, I ate the food in their fridge. I started eating the canned food in the pantry, then the food in my mom’s lab.
Nothing felt real. It all started to feel boring. Flowers bloomed. So? Ice melted. And? The internet went out about three weeks in, and I was stuck watching Lou’s DVD collection. Nothing but boy bands and science shit.
The isolation in the big house was so severe, I thought about throwing myself down the steps more than once. I imagined my skull cracking and all my blood pumping out, running all the way down to the bottom. I thought about Autumn opening the door and screaming, clawing at her face, ramming herself into walls in agony.
But even that thought bored me.
Back in the present, I tried to ignore Bylas’ existence. I’m about 5’1, 5’2 on a good day. Bylas stood at maybe 6’4 or 6’5, and he wouldn’t move from next to me. The way he blocked literal light from reaching me was nerve-wracking.
“Not sure why you’d come here to watch the news of all places. You don’t have a TV at home?” Bylas said, half-smirking, and you know, I couldn’t manage a laugh. Not even a fake one. I looked around, confused, and tried to move over, but he followed.
What had I expected to find there? What had Autumn expected me to find there?
“Damn, that’s the greeting I get? I’m not finna bother you, Noah. Don’t worry. I know it’s a sad occasion. You’re waiting for Osh, right?”
I shook my head. Bylas wasn’t exactly my best friend. It’d been a while since I’d seen his face. The last time I’d sat and talked with him was after Davey was gone. He’d slouched against the wall, holding Autumn’s hand, listening to her explain everything away.
“You have to know that I’d never do something like this if it wasn’t the only option. She understood, Bylas. She wanted me to tell you that. It’ll make sense. I promise I wouldn’t hurt you for nothing.”
He’d looked from her to me, shaking, muttering nonsensically. After a while, you couldn’t tell his drool from his tears. That look sat in my head when I thought of him. So I hadn’t expected a bunch of friendly banter, that was for sure. It smelled too much like a bad time brewing.
Eye on the prize, hun. Juke needs help.
“I came to see my momma, actually.”
His eyes soaked up my nervousness as he moved closer to me again, still watching the news.
Can I talk to one person whose ass I can kick? Just one?
I tried again to move over, but he slid even closer, leaning in, and wrapped his arm around my waist. He pulled me into a soft hug, towering over me.
“Are you sure you want to see her?”
“Yup.” I moved back, untangling his arms from around me.
“I’m glad we get to end this. It’s been a long time. I’m just ready to start over. I wish it didn’t have to be so gruesome. How’s Lou?”
“By, why are you here?”
Bylas shrugged, and one of his long locs fell out of his top bun and onto my hair. I felt a fear creeping into me the longer he stood there, his side pressed against the reception counter. He walked behind me and plopped into a chair, still watching the news.
“Just waiting for this to be over,” he said.
I tried to think of something to say, but for once, I shut the hell up. For all I knew, he was imagining Davey choking down tentacles, clawing at her face. Maybe he was holding himself back from putting me through a wall. I sat in the chair next to him and kept quiet, trying to ignore the sound of someone shuffling around the backroom. I reached into my shirt, but the pack was still empty. After a long silence, I let myself look around the office, holding back feelings of nostalgia.
The Compound was my daddy’s blood lab in the front, but my mother had a bigger one in the back. I didn’t know what went on in the basement, not exactly. The reception area was where I’d spent a lot of years, most of my early teen years, pretending to care about scheduling appointments. It was better than being home alone, and I got to see some of their work. Their super-secret, super-fucked-up work.
It was where I met Juke the very first time, way before he could even remember. It was where I met Osh, where I’d plot with him about Astor. It was where my mother founded The Fanatics with Mr. David, giving it a real name. It was an ode to what the newspapers called the “cult” that was “kidnapping people” back in her home country.
“What’s supposed to be over today?” I finally found my voice somewhere jumbled in my stomach, and it sounded like it’d been through hell when it came out.
There has to be a pack of cigarettes somewhere in here…
“A lot of things. I’m just getting the basement cleared out. Waiting for the next thing to happen.”
“What’s in the basement?”
He ran his tongue over his teeth, still watching the news. “How careless do you have to be for something like that?”
I looked up to see the news reporter in front of The Fish Dish again. She was pointing at broken dishes on the floor, rambling on and on.
“You didn’t do it?”
He shook his head, thought about it, then shrugged. “Hey, did Astor tell you about me?”
“What about you?” Please tell me he isn’t Astrid’s daddy or something. Please, I don’t even have any cigarettes for this shit…
“I went to visit her. At her job.” This wasn’t as bad, but I sat up.
“She might’ve said something about it to Osh.” It sounded vaguely familiar. We’d been screaming and fighting around it, and Astor’s emotions jammed into my fucking skull. I couldn’t remember who’d brought Bylas up.
“Osh was the whole reason I went. I don’t know; I got worried. I hadn’t seen him in a while.”
I felt a sinkhole next to me, Bylas was so nostalgic and somber. “Wait, you’ve seen Osh enough to get worri—”
“She looks so much like Davey. It’s ridiculous. I kept thinking about Davey following her, stealing her clothes, and it hurt. She should be here, you know? Aunt Davey walking around with the little ones on her neck, dancing around the place. Our kids could’ve been best friends. Your daughter was there. She’s pretty much accurate to your family. You could’ve had her with yourself. What’s Davey’s niece’s name?” Bylas scratched his face.
He gave me a look and laughed. “Of course, he named her that. It’s pretty. Davey was a pretty name too. We were going to name our kid Janae.”
“That would’ve been nice,” I said, wishing I could smash the cigarette pack against my face and breathe the entire thing into my lungs. How long would I get to enjoy the residue before I suffocated? Anything over ten seconds was suitable.
Bylas sat and stared at his hands for a while. When he looked up, he was steadier. “Your dad’s in the back. Osh and Mr. D haven’t gotten here yet.”
“Well, looks like you’ve all been having a good time without me! Is my mom here too?”
He gave me a weird look, edging toward calm and collected, and pulled me into another hug. I pushed him away as slow as possible.
“Bylas, what’s going on?”
A small look of satisfaction crossed his face, but he tried his best to hide it. “Wait, so there’s something you’re in the dark about? That I actually know?”
“Sure. Fill me in.”
He let out a laugh, then straightened his face. “You know Autumn’s dead, right?”
“This one— Lou, pay attention! This one is cyanide. Try it.”
“Isn’t that poison?”
“Gah, you’re so boring! You drank the special juice like I said, right? Try it.”
Something changed after their vacation, and my mother was bolder about seeing me. It wasn’t often, but she’d sneak us into her lab while she worked, and she’d give Lou things. And Lou would tilt her head back and swallow whatever my mother gave her. The little, oval, white pills sat powdery and dangerous on the table. When I tried to grab one and eat it, my mom swatted my wrist.
“Don’t. You’ll die.”
“If she can do it, I can. I’m ready to be a real person too.”
My mother rolled her eyes, and we watched the veins snake across Lou’s face. We watched her lips pulse, and her eyes turn red, and listened to the gurgling sound in her chest, but that was it. Lou sat there giggling, her smile turning purple, her breathing liquid in her chest. I waited for her to turn back, to transform back into herself, and without a bit of pain.
“What is she?” I asked in wonder.
“We’re humans, honey. What do you think? Just a little more involved than most. And you have the luck of having a brilliant momma, one who knows her way around poison. Do you want to try it?”
I nodded, and she walked over to one of the big industrial fridges she kept in the room.
“Isn’t everyone a human, like, other than animals?” Lou asked, and my mother’s body waved she rolled her eyes so hard. There was a semi-clothed body on a metal table behind us. Every few seconds, it would wiggle.
“It’s settling. The Shadows have to adjust to the bodies before they can move on to living on land,” she whispered to me, winking while Lou rubbed the veins sprouting across her nose.
While her back was turned, I snuck one of the little pills into my pocket.
“Hmm… OK, Noah, Shad—” She thought for a second, eyeing Lou. “Black or red?” I translated in my head before I answered, filling with excitement. Shadow or Devil?
“Red.” Lou scrunched up her face mockingly, veins still snaking over her nose. She’d chosen black. I shrugged.
“Good choice, but you can’t have too much of it. That type of special juice comes with complications. OK, pick one: Alicia or Lauren?”
Lou tapped me, grinning. “That’s mommy’s old friend! I saw her once. She was really cool. And she sends us gifts when—”
“Hush. We don’t talk about that.” My mother brought the vial over, reading something on the little label, then pulled my arm to her. For the first time since they’d been back, I felt excited. I didn’t dare ask a question. Lou was quick to get bored and move on to another topic if I asked questions during lessons. I had no idea if my mother was the same. She prepped my arm, then prepped a syringe.
“This is going to sting, honey, like hellfire, so try to relax.”
My dad walked in and glanced at us, walked out, then rushed back in. Autumn pretended she couldn’t see him.
“What are you doing alone with her?”
“Hmm? Lou’s here; it’s fine. Noah wanted to try—”
“Put it away. Is that what you’re doing now? Playing around with poison and blood? You whined and whined for a child you could keep, now this?”
My mother looked sad, crushed, and embarrassed. She shrugged. “Well, and I don’t mean this in any hostile way, Lawrence, but I want you to think about it. Does it matter if you’re just going to keep selling my children off to any monster that walks up with enough money? Does it matter if I play around in their blood?” Her eyebrow got higher and higher with every word, but she wiped my arm with an alcohol pad, avoiding my eyes.
“I know what I said. I meant it, but it’s Yenna. Do you know what that means? She’s second in command of an entire species!”
“Who cares? There are forty empty bodies in that fridge and twenty waiting to be emptied. I do my part. You’re helping her punish me for being alive. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
“You promised I could keep them both, and now you have Yenna taking Louetta too. Am I supposed to think Noah’s going to be different?”
“It’s for marriage this time; I clarified! I clarified—”
“You won’t allow me to be alone with my own child, or bond with her, or even speak to her without someone else there. Like I’m some sort of crazed beast. She shouldn’t be by herself all the time!”
My daddy looked frazzled, then walked over and kissed her forehead. She didn’t lower her eyebrow. Her manicured nails stayed balled up in her palm while she aggressively wiped my arm.
Am I gonna have an arm left when she’s done or…?
“I’m sorry. I was short with you. We don’t want Noah contaminated, though, do we? We already know where Lou’s going, so play with her to your heart’s content. It’s just marriage.”
“Lou already tried it,” my mom whined. “It’s Noah’s turn. She should be included in things, and she will because I’m keeping her.”
“I want to let you keep her,” he said, talking to her like a confused child, “but yes, there’s a chance Yenna might want her eventually. Why risk it? And why bond with her when she might not stay? You’ll end up hurt like you were with … the other ones.”
My mother pulled my sleeve down in a quiet huff and put all the supplies away. I wondered if it hurt to keep her eyebrow raised so high, but the annoyed way her mouth twisted looked worse.
“I’m sitting right here, you know,” I grumbled, and my dad put his hand on my head like I was an end table. I moved it.
“Don’t worry. Maybe you’ll get lucky like Louella, and the only thing you’ll have to deal with is some ‘woman’ who wants half-human babies.”
My mother turned, arms vibrating with rage, and grabbed his lab coat.
I woke up later that month to Autumn staring at me from the side of my bed, trying to pry my eyes open.
“Noah. I have to talk fast, OK? Nod if you’re listening or something, honey, please!” My mother’s hushed whispers sounded far away, but I rubbed my eyes and nodded.
“How would you like to go to school? Real school? With other kids?”
“That would be awesome.”
The excitement in her eyes could’ve been flames. I sat up, waiting for someone to come in and snuff them out.
“It’s so fun, honey; you’ll love it. There are teachers there. And you get to talk to so many different people every day. It’s nothing like being tutored by Lou. I could sneak and come see you too, and nobody would bother us!” She paused to listen for footsteps. Autumn Bishop’s skin was so clear and clean, she shone in the moonlight from my window. I watched her while she listened, taking her in.
“So here’s the thing, honey. Your daddy is never going to let you go to school. He’s going to sell you to Yenna; I know it. And they’re going to empty you out and use you for a body. She asks about you every single time she drops off another husk. He’s getting closer and closer to it.”
My heart pounded, and she put her hand over my chest and closed her eyes.
“Don’t panic. They don’t get to tell your story, do they?”
“I have a plan. Here’s what you do, OK? You know that pill you stole from my lab? The cyanide?” I tried to keep my face blank, but the chaos bloomed and bloomed in her eyes. “Take it. Your daddy is letting us eat together tomorrow for my birthday, the entire family. Well, everyone who’s left. Take the pill.”
“You said I’d die, right?”
“There are worse things than dying, honey. Here, drink this.” She handed me a vial of something black. There wasn’t much of it, less than a drop. It didn’t taste like anything. My heart, though, it thumped, and she kept her eyes closed while she held her hand over my chest, pleased.
“Don’t forget, OK? Take the pill tomorrow at the table and try to get your father’s attention. OK? Promise me.”
Once a year, we all sat around the dinner table for my mom’s birthday. That year was drastically different. What used to be a loud, joyous, emotional celebration was dim and quiet. These were the parties I used to reenact with Lou, mimicking their voices, pretending they talked to me. I even had favorites. Most of the girls I remembered, the ones I kept burned in my brain, were gone. My mother was down to five daughters.
My father sat at the head of the table, and my mother sat to his right, somber. There was a simple black dress draping her body, her hair full and curled. I was used to seeing her show off a bit more at the dinners, but her energy drained into her fork. She barely looked up from the plate.
Everyone else was a little more dressy. For once in my entire life, I knew all the remaining sister’s names. Daynah I remembered because she was the oldest and the one Lou brought up the most. She sat with her nose in the air a lot. Lou said she was always annoyed and obsessed with being her mother’s favorite.
“She really hates you.”
Tiana was there, though I thought she’d been sold off. I found out later that Yenna bought her for “later use.” She was super nice, and she’d stopped in the hallway once and said hi to me when she saw me sneaking around. If I caught her at a bad time, she whined and whined about her life until I had to sneak away again. Louetta was there, irritated with having to sit on my side of the table. The more time went on, the less she enjoyed my company. It was worse after the trip, with Lou admitting that she didn’t want me to take her “boyfriend” from her.
“Daynah says it’s better to get married, so if you get married instead, I might get hurt.”
Astley sat closest to me, giving me soft smiles. Again, I was blown away by the pure beauty pouring off of her. Tiana was the second-most beautiful, soft and pretty like Amanda had been. Too much of my time was spent rating my sisters from prettiest to ugliest, Daynah always coming in as the ugliest.
Astley leaned over and whispered, “Your hair looks beautiful.”
I blushed. “Thank you. Yours too.” I almost wished she had sat next to my mother, though, taking in how sad they both looked. Astley exchanged glances with her whenever someone said something stupid.
“Do you guys know what’s going to happen with Louella?” Daynah asked, and my mother glanced at Astley, huffing. I rolled the little pill around in my hand under the table. It felt like I was sinking in a dark corner. Everyone but Astley and my mother sat with their bodies turned toward my dad, leaning away from me. Their silverware clinked against their plates as they ate, neat and polite.
“Yenna wanted her,” my dad said simply.
“To marry her son, not for anything … not for anything else.” My mom’s words had more emotion, but Daynah just nodded and beamed at her until she rolled her eyes. Whenever someone mentioned Lou, my mom jumped in to defend her or make her sound better, even if what they said wasn’t bad to begin with.
“How is your situation with the … um … diplomat? Is that man being nice to you,” my mother asked, concern dripping from every word. Daynah gave a wide smile.
“It’s fine, Momma. Kind of boring. We’ve been trying to get you some grandchildren,” she did a little excited dance.
“I’ll pass, thanks.” Daynah’s eyes widened, but she kept up her smile. “Is that all, Daynah? Do you at least get to do exciting things? Travel, maybe? Do you get time alone to write, or read, or anything?” Daynah smiled and smiled and smiled. My father watched the exchange, annoyed.
“Not lately. We’re just really focused on the whole family planning stage.”
“It’s why they purchased her in the first place,” Dad nearly grumbled.
“Oh. Of course.” The way Autumn sunk deeper and deeper into the chair was depressing.
“I found a new show I like,” Astley muttered. My mother perked up.
“Is that what you want to talk about right now? You can’t think of anything more interesting than a show?” My dad concentrated on cutting his steak as he talked.
“It’s a roller derby thing,” Astley continued, sipping some juice. Autumn smirked and laughed.
“I bet it is. Any favorites?”
My dad let out a long sigh, and both my mother and Astley quieted.
“Ramona would’ve liked it,” Astley whispered. Eventually, she stopped trying to talk at all and stared down at her plate of food.
Daynah would glance at me every now and then, and hun, the sneer was too vicious to fit on her face. Tiana looked at me to say something, then changed her mind and talked to Lou instead.
Autumn winked a long lash at me, pursing her lips before taking a gulp of cranberry juice. There was desperation in her gulps.
Let’s get this over with so they can go somewhere else and leave us alone.
I snuck the little pill into my mouth and swallowed.
It was a while before I felt anything, then it was too late to question the plan. A dull pulse started in my chest. My mother mouthed to me behind her glass, “Talk.”
Talk? I can’t even breathe… I tried to open my mouth and felt my lips sticking together. Trying again, I braced myself against the table and pulled in a deep breath, surprised by the way it bubbled through my chest, but found I couldn’t exhale. I tried to talk again, and the act of it sent a wave of pressure to my head. Every muscle in my face clenched.
“Daddy … how was … your conference?” Sweat pulsed out of my pores, and I gasped, sucking in another deep breath of nothing. My lungs didn’t respond, so I tried again, and this time, a small gust of air made it. There was a deep pressure in my nose, and it crawled over my gums, down my throat, and into my stomach. My stomach muscles clenched, and I leaned forward on my elbows, folding.
Astley glanced at me, then used her leg to slide my chair back from the table. She looked over to my mother, smiling.
“Suitable. We went to a villa in Lauryn this time. It’s amazing the type of technology they’ve introduced to mainstream households. We’re too reliant on tradition here.”
I sucked in another hard breath, balking at the liquid noise rumbling through it. Tiana gave me a weird look. My hands were bright red, and the throb in my brain felt like it was clicking.
“Something’s wrong with her. What’s her name? Hey? YouOK?” Daynah asked, springing up.
I coughed, trying to push my chair back, but the pressure moved from my chest to my neck. It clenched, then my arms, and I couldn’t do anything but wheeze. I could see my hands shivering but couldn’t feel them. Froth bubbled out of my mouth. Both Astley and my mother kept drinking their juice.
“She’s choking!” Lou screamed, and she reached over to hold my face up. They surrounded me, the noisiness of their concern blurring together. As the pain rose and rose, I watched my mother’s face bloom into pleasure. Astley patted her face with a cloth and stood, dramatic, falling over me.
“She’s trying to commit suicide! Daddy, help her! Please!”
“You’re a natural!” My mother mouthed, then my eyes rolled up so hard, I heard a wet noise, and I can’t remember anything else.
When I woke up, I was on a table, and my dad and mom were standing over me. I kept my eyes closed and tried to steady my breathing.
“…got into my supply. I can’t keep watch on her, Lawrence! You won’t even let us be alone together. What was I supposed to do?”
“What happened to the lockbox I gave you?”
“It obviously didn’t matter. What a clever kid; she must’ve picked the lock.”
I heard my father slam his fist on something. Somehow, I was cold and hot at the same time, my lungs still gurgling.
“There’s Hybrid blood in her stomach. She’s contaminated now. How am I supposed to sell her?”
“You can keep your promise, Lawrence. Let her go to school. Nobody’s gonna buy her for food now.”
I heard my father struggle through a low, ugly laugh. “You had nothing to do with this? After the ‘practice’ session with the girls the other day? You weren’t trying to pull another mercy killing like you did with Amanda or Reese?”
“You think I’d hurt her like this?” There was silence, and my mom added, “OK, I would, but if I’d done it, she’d be dead. I’m thorough.” There was even more silence, then my father was close.
“Fine. I’ll get the paperwork done. She can go to school with Lou and Astley. No after school programs, no extracurricular activities. If I see you alone with her, I’ll give her to that beast for free, and he can rip her to shreds.”
“Noah is her first name, and I want her to have our last name. She’s one of us. None of that random shit you put on the other girl’s paperwork.”
“No. This is a stunt. She doesn’t get to be part of the family. And I already let you have your way with Lou. They don’t both need my name. If I still manage to sell her…”
“Then let her be a Batista, and I’ll go back to my maiden name.”
“No. You’re being ridiculous-”
“Then let her be a Bishop. Please. At least Louetta and Noah. You said I could have them! Please.”
He groaned, mumbling to himself, and the mumbles got lower and lower until I couldn’t make them out at all. Then we were alone in the room. She leaned in close to me and pulled one of my eyes open. The light felt like acid.
“Girl, you are a treat! You should’ve seen their faces when you went down! That’s how you get what you want!”
“You didn’t give me the Shadow blood,” I croaked, sitting up. The sore muscles in my stomach sent me right back down. She smiled like we were sharing a secret, giggling, pressing her mouth against my forehead to hide her words.
“No, it was Hybrid, but it wasn’t enough to kill you. Perks of being a human. You ever want to kill a Shadow? Even a tiny bit of the stuff will make them sick, and a lot of it will incapacitate them. It coated your stomach. It’s hard to explain, but Hybrid blood eats certain things. It consumes it. So you take a little, add more poison, and it just gets sucked up into the blood eventually. Cough it up and be merry. Simple and clean.”
“Oh, honey. It was more authentic that way. And it’s satisfying to suction it out. Sometimes you have to go all the way to make your point. And look! You got what you wanted! You’re real, honey. You’re mine. And you’re gonna have a little six-pack to show off at school from all the convulsing!” She shook me in excitement, beaming.
Checking for my father, she pulled a little sandwich baggie out of a drawer and showed it to me. It was a bunch of gunk. When she squished it against the bag, it moved into the shape of small alveolus.
“Isn’t this cool? It’s most of the Hybrid blood. You hacked it up, girl. It was a treat. It’s like a tiny replica.” She made the baggie dance around, sticking her tongue out at the squishy noises.
“But cool, right? I’ll leave my lockbox open for you. Keep a couple more cyanide pills and two of the black pills in there. There’s also some Hybrid blood. In case you need anything else. You either need to coat the cyanide in the Hybrid blood or take a black pill first. Don’t forget that.”
“How did … you know … what it would do?”
She sat and stared at me a long time, tracing my eyes. “Want to hear a story?”
“Sure,” I gurgled.
“There was a girl once. She lived in Auden, which is a province in Anity. Do you remember what Anity is?”
“The country across the ocean?”
She smiled, the definition sitting well with her. “Yes. The country across the big, massive ocean. Anity is smaller than here. It’s run by a dictator, but she’s a wonderful, caring person if you ask most of the people from Auden. She’s known to look the other way when it comes to certain things, though. Big, important things that deserve to be looked at. Sexual exploitation, for instance.” My mother stopped for a long time, watching me.
“OK. Keep going?”
“So. There was a little girl born into a dirt poor family. She was the youngest of ten children, all the rest of the children being boys. They were a close, happy family. Being poor in Anity isn’t bad. It’s not bad at all. It’s a modern place. Tiny villages for the homeless, free tuition, all the good stuff. There’s more of a community spirit there, and the family didn’t want for anything.” She paused again, listening for footsteps. “There’s a tourist behavioral issue in Anity. People come to see the splendor, the beautiful destinations, and clear water. They go to see all the beauty, and they forget the people aren’t part of the tour. They forget the locals are actual living people, not stock photos or dares. When you take humanity out of something, you can do anything you want to it. It’s just a thing.”
Autumn stood and busied herself in a drawer. “Now remember, the girl’s family was poor, and poor people are always at the mercy of rich tourists. A stinking rich man from Virginia Steeps paid a famous beach in Anity a visit. The poor family was there, and the little girl was swimming with her dad. The rich man walked up and asked the dad the girl’s name.”
“Autumn,” I said, still flat on the table.
She shrugged. “And then the man asked how much she was. He offered to buy her for a certain amount of money. The dad told him to clarify what he meant by ‘buy.’ He did, and the dad beat him until he had to pick his teeth out of the water.”
“Well. Poor people can’t defend themselves, can they? The dad was arrested. The man he beat ended up drowning. It was a sensation. People in Virginia Steeps called for the dad to be charged with murder. The dictator had to make a statement, saying it was being investigated, but it wasn’t. They were going to lock the dad up to save the tourism industry. Can’t have poor people beating up the rich, can you?
“The brother of the man who was killed gave the family an ultimatum. He wanted the girl out of spite. He wasn’t going to pay a cent, either. The family was even poorer than they’d been before, so the mother agreed. Now, here’s where the story gets interesting. It’s where things go from a regular terrible experience to a nightmare. When the girl asked why the mother agreed, the mother told her they weren’t human. If she didn’t give the girl over, he’d take her another way and probably the entire family. ‘No,’ she said. ‘We have to fight these types of monsters head-on.’ She was so brave and uncompromising.”
Autumn paused for a moment, staring down at my hands. “The mother said there was a person with a special condition visiting Auden, and she might help them. They went and found the woman. She lived in a fancy hotel, and she was always traveling. The woman took pity on the girl and her story. She said the same creatures killed her family when she was young. The woman with the condition gave them what they needed for free, and she gave the girl her number.” Autumn sighed, and it seemed like her body was shrinking somehow.
“The mother packed the girl’s clothes, and not once did she cry. She didn’t even seem all that sad. The girl was terrified, but the mother told her there was nothing to be afraid of. She asked her if she would cry her way through life, letting scary people drag her back and forth, or was she going to fight? And then the mother gave her a bag of little pills, and she said to take them if the man seemed like he was going to try to touch her.”
“Was it poison?”
She nodded. “Cyanide. She also gave her the little vial of black liquid that the woman with the condition offered. She told the girl that sometimes life was complicated. Sometimes we didn’t win. But going down without a fight was pathetic. ‘If you’re going to suffer, anyway, take your enemies with you.’ The girl had to drink it, then take a pill, and then she could escape and come home. That was all she was told.
“She took the liquid and the pill after the wedding. Even when the man saw the girl convulsing, he tried to kiss her. He tried to hurt her, but he didn’t get far. The foam from her mouth ate through his throat. The girl watched him die, and she didn’t leave until she was sure he wouldn’t get up.”
“Whoa. Did the cyanide kill him? Or the blood?”
“The blood. He dissolved, Noah. By the time she left, the man had burned inside out. Just from some of the foam.” She stared at the baggie lovingly, sighing.
“What happened? Did she go home?”
Autumn stared blankly at the wall, smiling a little. “Yes. There wasn’t anything left, but she went. And the woman with the condition saved her again, only for her to get married to another grown man a few years later. The woman with the condition was her hero; she dreamed about her even. She—”
The sound of feet coming down the stairs sent her into silence.
“That’s a story for a different time. I’m glad you’re going to school, Noah. You deserve to live, and you never have to take what someone gives you. Everything can be fixed. Even other people’s mistakes.”
Autumn walked casually into one of her fridges, storing the bag. She pinched my shoulders and blew a kiss to Tiana as she walked in. By the time Tiana made it to us, my mother had already started walking toward the stairs.
“Did you try to kill yourself, Noah?”
“Sure. I want … to go … to school.” The rumbling in my chest hurt so bad, I squeezed my eyes shut. Tiana grabbed my hand, sobbing.
“Listen. Don’t do things like that, OK? I know how it feels to be in your shoes, and it won’t always be so bad forever. Survive it. I’ll talk to you if you want. Just don’t do anything like that again!” It was the first time she actually said my name, but I didn’t feel anything about it. Autumn said my name all the time, and she tried her best to make eye contact with me, and she wanted me to have her last name.
And I’d gotten what we wanted.
Autumn told me stories all the time. It was her favorite way to fill the small amount of time we had together. It didn’t matter if she was sneaking to see me at school, sitting with me under the bleachers, or talking to me indirectly, telling someone else a story while I hid somewhere in her lab. She wanted me to know all the interesting ways people could live. Or die. It didn’t always correlate to something important to me, but sometimes her seemingly random actions would suddenly make sense. It would hit me in the face, stunning me. That’s why she did it!
“Noah. Meet my son, Bylas.” Yenna pushed Bylas over to me, a rare smile spread across her face. I still don’t know how old Bylas was, but I was twelve and too small for my age. Bylas was at least fourteen or fifteen and pure length. I tried to look taller, to stretch my neck up, but only because I hated being the small one. I had zero interest in Bylas.
I’d been going to school for a while at that point, and it was exhausting. I had no idea how to talk to people. It was nothing like the social skills videos Lou used to make me watch. Even cartoons and adult shows and movies couldn’t help me. I always ended up coming off as snobby or mean. Boys seemed to like it, but I wanted real friends. I wasn’t finding any. The isolation was almost worse than being left home by myself for four months. It was one thing to have no one around. Now, I was surrounded by people and lonely.
Lou salivated next to us, and whenever she wasn’t salivating, she was trying to outshine me with her entire body. My mother had once again declined to meet with Yenna.
“You still have the cyanide, right? Take one if she tries to take you. Hybrid blood first.”
“Dr. Bishop, it’s wonderful to meet your daughters. My mom won’t stop talking about them.”
Bylas barely paid me any attention, but he wasn’t looking at Lou either. I felt more comfortable the longer he kept the bored expression on his face. He seemed to slink around more than anything. He pretended to brighten up whenever Yenna gave him an excited look.
By this point, Autumn was nicer to him, showering him with praise and advice. He was the son she never had. When he left, though, she bad-mouthed his entire species to anyone who would listen.
Was he born on land?
“You want to work downstairs?” my father asked slowly, eyeing Yenna. “In The Compound? Are you sure you should be in there? Autumn’s work is delicate.”
“Mr. David said it’s safer there. Plus, I could probably help—”
“Good. Thank you.” My dad would never let anyone talk about what went on in the basement, but I figured he didn’t want Bylas to mention the Devil girl down there. I only saw her sometimes when my Dad let me sit at the reception desk, and I wasn’t allowed to interact with her.
“You are so small, Noah. Easily devoured, I’m sure. Is there something wrong with her body?” Yenna bellowed the words, and my dad instinctively pulled me further behind him.
“No, you’re just a monster. Humans don’t look like that,” I grumbled. My dad grabbed my shoulder hard, and I shut up, taking in Bylas’ attempt to hide his smile. Yenna’s pupils shrunk down so small, you could barely see them, and she knelt beside me. Always taking me in, always sizing me up. Lou tried to get her attention and failed.
“The other humans and Devils do seem to be smaller. It was one of the reasons I wanted this body. Does the height pass down, Lawrence? Autumn is also small. Do you think your babies would be average height at least, Noah?”
I rolled my eyes, and if my dad squeezed my shoulder any tighter, it would snap in two.
“I know some things that the original owner of this body knew, but I’m not sure about certain customs. Forgive me. Could Bylas marry them both and just reproduce with Noah? I’d pay double, of course.” Bylas looked uncomfortable, giving me an apologetic look. He gently touched his mother’s arm. It was odd how much she responded to him; there was no lag or pause to it. When he spoke, she turned. When he moved, she followed.
“Mom, she’s too young to do that type of stuff. Humans don’t … they can’t do stuff like that yet. And it’s not good to marry more than one person. It’s trashy.”
My dad finally found his tongue and nodded, choking on his words.
“Not n-now, Yenna. My older daughter Astley would be a better fit if you’re looking to find another human family member. Don’t you have another boy? How old is he?”
Yenna thought, but she took my hand while she did it, surveying my skin. I tried to let go, but she held me. Gotta make sure the merchandise is high quality.
“It’s something I’d really like to speak with your wife about, actually. This body held two infants when I took it. Jukel isn’t … he didn’t take at first. Bylas implanted while he was still in the womb, but Jukel implanted a few years after.”
My dad stiffened, and his tone was stern. “You allowed the infant to die?”
“Well, it’s why I need Autumn’s help with him! Jukel can’t live in the water. He starts to drown, and the others have noticed. They’ve already tried to eat him, but anything that bites him dies. It’s the strangest thing. On land, he won’t wake up. I’ve tried everything.”
A tiny light floated from Yenna’s hair while she talked, hovering over me. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that amount of quiet and unnerving panic from other people. Everyone was trying to look normal, to keep listening, but no one moved, not even Bylas. The little light flickered over my head, and Yenna watched me while she talked to my dad.
“I still like this one. Look at her hair, Bylas; she’s perfect. The children would match my body. Isn’t that important to humans? How long do I have to wait if I only want this one?”
Lou’s face fell in disappointment. My dad gripped his chin, looking back and forth between his daughters, then said something very quietly.
“What?” Yenna asked, still examining me.
“What about the other thing we discussed?”
“Are you sure you want that? Autumn would be angry. It would be a waste of such a pretty girl when she could just marry Bylas, or at least Jukel—”
Fed up, I snatched my hand away. “You can wait forever. I don’t want to marry someone’s dead baby.”
The light flickered again, and it filled the room with a nauseating blue glow. Bylas gulped and stood up straight, fixated on it. I rolled my eyes. Every vein in my body turned black. It lasted a few seconds, then they shifted back to normal. She did it again, the blue light hurting my eyes, and Lou’s veins turned black behind her. The third time she did it, an amused look on her face, Bylas vomited.
“Lady. That’s annoying. Stop.”
She nodded in approval, and the tiny light floated back into her bun.
“You both have poison in you. They won’t do for bodies, Lawrence, you’ll need to lower the prices. I’ll pay the $15,000 for Lou to marry Bylas. What would you say to $30,000 for this one to marry Jukel?”
Present day, I held back vomit, tears, and a headache worse than death.
Bylas led me to the back, guiding me like I was new. We pushed through the door, and everything passed me so slow, so nauseatingly slow. I watched the basement door.
Autumn wanted me to come here? Was that before she died?
My dad slouched over on the couch in the main room, his face in his hands, and there was uncut agony in every breath he took.
I wasn’t sure how I felt, not right then. The thought of my mother being dead, gone, literally not on the planet anymore was surreal. This was a woman that survived two child marriages, a woman who lost her entire family. This was a woman who lost daughter after daughter, refusing to abandon the rest. There were times that popped in my head that I didn’t even want to think about. Escape attempts, rescue attempts, things that could be defined as assassinations. It was too bizarre. Autumn was my heroine; she was my angel. There was so much bad after a while, though, that the further you went into my life, the less human Autumn appeared. I loved thinking about the times when she was immaculate.
It’d been too long since Autumn was my heroine.
Back in the main lab for the first time in years, something hit me. It wasn’t nostalgia. It wasn’t an aching for home or some shit like that. It was this intense feeling of anger.
“Daddy?” He didn’t look up. Lawrence Bishop let the silence in the air speak for him while he rubbed his hands together. A tiny piece of paper peeked out every other roll, his skin older than I remembered. There were streaks of grey in his red hair. Instead of speaking, I sat down next to him and waited, eyeing the way Bylas leaned against the door frame, watching me.
If there was ever a bitch who wasn’t welcome…
Finally pulling his eyes away from the paper, my dad asked, “Now, of all times, Lou?”
“I’m Noah, Daddy.”
“I’m sorry. Of course. Look at your eyes. Look at your hair. Didn’t I tell you not to come earlier? What are you doing here? Now? Of all the times?” His eyes flickered over to Bylas then back to me. I didn’t speak, and he let out such an agonized but quiet noise that I moved back in shame.
“Hanging up on me is not telling me anything, actually. What happened to Momma? I didn’t even know she was sick, Daddy.” I positioned myself so Bylas couldn’t see my mouth. “Is this real this time? Is she actually gone, or is it…”
“Where’s your sister? Louella visited Autumn weeks ago, and she hasn’t answered her phone or shown up since. Jori is still at my house, Noah. What am I supposed to do with a little boy? I don’t know how to raise children on my own.”
“Louetta. And that’s crazy. Why don’t you sell him?” Bylas cleared his throat, hiding a laugh, and disappeared down the stairs to the basement. My dad opened his mouth, closed it, then bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. “I hope you know that’s a joke, Daddy.”
“I don’t know how to raise children on my own,” he whispered. I eyed the door. “Your mother asked for you over and over. Only you and Lou. She didn’t want to speak to anyone but you and Lou. It’s insulting. I’ve tried countless times to get in contact with you. You gave me a fake address. A fake phone number! Even your work address was fake!”
“They’ve been fake for years. You just figured that out?”
“Guess I should’ve known better. You filled yourself with contempt years ago. You were never meant to be here.”
I took that full-on. He wasn’t wrong or anything.
“Why did Momma ask for me? She kicked me out. Shit, she left my husband to rot. What made her think I wanted to see her?”
“Your husband. Of course, it’s always about him.”
“Do my sisters know she’s gone?”
He stopped talking. Of course, they didn’t. They were busy entertaining their respective spouses. The little note folded and unfolded in his hand.
“You’re all she has. It was never the same after you left.”
A feeling finally crept over me, but I bit my lip until I didn’t feel like crying anymore.
“That’s sad on your part, Daddy. Not mine.”
“Lou is never coming back, is she? You’ve all decided to just abandon Autumn. Leave her to rot.”
I shrugged. Lou deserved better than his sadness. He let out a long breath, eyeing the basement stairwell.
“Have you seen the news?”
“I’ve been busy,” I muttered.
“Riots. These idiots are in the streets rioting. You can hardly drive through Chastain anymore. I’ve never been more ashamed to be a human. They think people are disappearing because of Anity, of all the damned places. Anity! Yenna is going to cause an actual war this time if she doesn’t cover her tracks better. Those people are innocent in this. Your mother is innocent in this. My mother is—”
“I didn’t realize she was actually eating that many people.”
Again, he looked to the basement. Panic filled me, but I stayed put. The little note suddenly felt like lead in my pocket.
“It’s gotten out of control. Completely out of control. You should see that basement. I can’t keep up with the volume of bodies they need. Yenna goes on and on about them starving, needing food, needing bodies. There are too many.”
“Wait … you’re still doing that? For Yenna? Was Momma?”
My father’s face went blank.
If they were still doing it, still running their little rogue band of Fanatics, then was Osh? Was Bylas? Were they really that dedicated to it? Davey was gone, I was gone, and as far as I knew, Astley was gone. Were they really that dedicated?
“Noah,” my dad whispered, grabbing my hand. He looked around for Bylas again. When he let go, the little paper was in my palm. “Autumn wanted me to read this. I know I’m a monster. I messed up, just please fix it. Please. You can’t be here today.”
I looked down at the little paper. It was just four sentences, hastily scribbled out, and when I started reading, the color went out of me. My dad covered it with his hand.
“Don’t read it until you’re a safe distance. Leave. Now. No, help her first, then leave.” There was almost a full minute where I couldn’t hear, couldn’t see, couldn’t think. My breath caught in my throat.
Astley wasn’t yours to sell anymore. Jori wasn’t yours to sell. Chaunce wasn’t yours to sell. I wasn’t yours to sell. Yenna will empty us. Who will you sell now?
“What’s going on?”
He eyed the stairs.
“Leave before Osh gets here and realizes you know. They’re negotiating before the big day. Please.” The little piece of paper felt so big in my hand. I yanked my own note out of my pocket, stuck in the chair, and read it. I tried to look away, but the first few words snatched me right back, and I read the whole thing. My dad had the sense to look ashamed, to try to hide his face.
“You’re all disgusting,” I muttered, the sound of my anger soaring in my ears. I could’ve been skiing. I could’ve been jumping out of a plane. Shit, I could’ve been speeding into a deep, black abyss underwater.
“I’m trying to do the right thing now. It’s happening today. Dammit, Lou, call someone to help. You’ve seen that thing before! Get out of Chastain!”
My dad stood and walked back into the reception area when the front door opened. I looked around, my heart thumping through my chest. My phone shook when I took it out, and I texted the only person I ever would in an emergency.
When I looked back up, rushing to find a hiding place, Bylas was at the stairs, watching me.
“You leaving so soon?”
“Yes,” I breathed. I pulled my jacket tighter and walked back out to the front room, hugging the wall. There was a small cluster of doorways before the basement. I could hear my dad talking to somebody, getting closer. I flattened against the wall when they walked by, blocking myself from the basement. Bylas moved out of the way, nodding his head to Osh, distracting him. I slid along the wall and made it out to the reception area. There was a clear view of the desk, so I stood there like an idiot, waiting until I could duck down.
“Time to work, old man. Never thought we’d actually get to this point.” Osh munched noisily, stuffing chips into his face. Mr. David was close behind him, Chaunce sitting on his shoulders. Except it wasn’t Mr. David. His face and neck were littered with white freckles, and right behind him was the freckle-less Mr. David. They were like twins.
What the fuck is going on?
“Sup,” Osh muttered to Bylas. Chaunce turned at the last second and saw me.
“Hi, Mommy! It’s big day,” she yelled.
Bylas laughed loudly, giving her a high five. “I look like your momma? What did I tell you about calling me that? Weirdo.”
Chaunce gave him a look, and they disappeared down the stairs. The world sifted through every color I could see and settled on red.
How many times had Osh urged me to stick to the plan, the plan he couldn’t go through with? The plan that would leave Moose and the Thing dead? The failsafe plan if my mother’s didn’t work? And here he was … doing what?
Betraying you, bitch.
The TV flickered over me, and I stared at the front door, still shocked. Someone else was walking up, sauntering, adjusting their cloak in the reflection. I rushed behind the reception desk and slid underneath. The front door opened again, and the loud sound of talking filled the room. I didn’t have to look to know who it was.
“You’ve been wonderful, Jori. Are you sure Lou wouldn’t mind you visiting us?”
“I haven’t heard from her in weeks. She does that sometimes. Grandpa says it’s OK.” The voices disappeared down the steps.
The note Autumn wrote me was written so small, it looked shorter than it was. Autumn had perfected the art of secret messages a long time ago. I reread it, trying to wrap my head around everything.
Sorry for the nonsense in advance. Can’t trust a woman taller than the sun not to read something. This is something you need to do. I finally got to see what happens to all the dolls.
Pay attention, Noah. I don’t have many stories left to tell.
There was a woman who loved coats. She put coats on everything. Black coats were her favorite; she wore them whenever she wanted to feel special. The woman had beautiful daughters, but only one of them liked coats as much. She wore them to the roller derby, and nobody wore a coat like she did. She got a bad taste in her mouth whenever she wore one, so she had to take the coat off quickly, or she would get sick. Very sick.
Fashion was lost on the rest of them. No need to bother.
The women bought two coats to go to a show. The coats were flimsy, picked at the last minute. They couldn’t be sure the coats would fit or stay on. It was unseasonably cold, and they needed to stay warm. “Give me a pair of good shoes or something. Let some hot air in. I’ll make it work,” the woman said to her daughter. She loved wedges the most.
The women hated the coats, but they did their job. Who knows how long such cheap coats would hold up, though? Hopefully they could take them off if they had some help.
Oh, and honey? The woman saw a lot of coats in her life. Even ones like the one you wanted to buy. It was too small, and it would be a waste of time to try and make it fit. She told six different people in one room that the coat was too small. They told her that was the point.
“What’s the harm in letting Noah waste her time on a ripped coat? We have a better one right in her closet.”
Tell the other Ast to brighten things up as soon as she can. And please keep yourself dark when she does.
That’s all I can spare, honey. Hand’s cramping. I loved you even when I didn’t.
My phone vibrated, and I rushed to stop it. I looked at the messages, trying not to suck in deep breaths.
Noah: Help me, bitch! Bring Juke
Astor: He’s gone. Have kids with me. IN THE CAR ON THE WAY TO CHASTAIN. MOMS?
My fingers never typed anything so fast. I started to hit the send button, then stopped, lifting my head up. Bylas was sitting with his legs bent on either side of me, stuffing chips into his mouth. It was the same bag of chips Osh had.
“Hate to give you false hope. It’s a little satisfying, though. Who you texting, Lil Bit? The birthday girl?”
My fingers absently reached between my breasts. The pack was still empty. Rubbing residue on my gums, I hit the send button.
Even with my mom on my side in every way, fighting to keep me, I’d always wondered why she didn’t just take me and run off. Why didn’t she stop my father? I resented her a little, especially as I got older and was able to spend more time with her.
It was the way my father seemed to float when he looked at her for even a second. The way my sisters’ eyes followed her like a magnet when we had our rare dinners together. Everyone wanted to please Autumn, and yet, she couldn’t stop her husband’s acts. He never hit her, and that was all I understood as abuse when I was younger. My snarky, small, but all-encompassing mother somehow had no agency.
I learned that power came in many forms.
When I met Jukel, he didn’t have a last name. He was simply Jukel, and Yenna didn’t think he needed one. She later picked Dill because of the pickles, shit you not. A lot of what made up her learned humanity had to do with food.
I got the impression that Jukel wasn’t Yenna’s favorite anything. On one of the rare occasions she got my mother to talk directly to her, she brought him by The Compound. Astley was away, going to a special school in Lauryn. They both hoped it would be her ticket out of the house alive. Yenna was down to the last three girls she could pick from. My momma somehow kept my father to his word. The price rose to $60,000, and the amount of tension between my parents was a pincushion around the house. It was also an easy ultimatum for my dad to pull on almost anything.
Yenna dropped Jukel off at The Compound for my mother to “look at,” his crumpled body in Bylas’s arms, stuffed in a mesh laundry bag. You could make out his limp limbs and drooling mouth through the fabric. Autumn was at the front counter for once, looking over paperwork, and the sight stopped her cold. Her big eyes managed to widen, sucking in the scene in front of her.
“What is that?”
My dad touched her shoulder, clearing his throat. She slapped his hand away. Bylas turned red, as usual, but this time it was all shame. Yenna stepped around him, extending her hand politely, almost enthusiastically, her nails gleaming. My mother didn’t move, still staring in shock at the bag.
It was awkward.
“This is Jukel, my son. If you can manage to make use of the body for me. He’s in there somewhere.”
“Bitch, there’s a child in that bag?! Is there a child in that bag…” She moved quickly around the counter, raising her clipboard, and my daddy grabbed her so fast, the words had to travel around his arm. She kept right on screeching. Yenna laughed a little, a tiny light rising, and Bylas turned around to reassure her. It took my father ushering Autumn out of the room and making her sit in his lab to calm her down. I stared at the bag on the counter for a while, waiting for it to move, but it didn’t. In the back, my mother ranted, her light face streaked red as if a cat got to her.
Her head’s gonna explode.
“No. No. Is she serious?”
“She doesn’t understand certain things…”
“Bullshit. Bullshit. You know it, Lawrence. She’s doing it to fuck with me.”
My dad tried his best to disagree, giving her an exasperated look. She yanked her earrings off, seething.
“How would she know how to get to you?”
“He’s only a child! How could she treat him like that? I can’t do it. Tell her to leave. Be a man for once in your fucking life and tell her to get out.”
“Calm down, Autumn. Watch your tone. There’s no difference between working on a child and working on an adult. They’re not human. If you actually think she’s doing it to bother you, why let her get a rise out of you? Stop embarrassing yourself.”
“I’ve done so many ugly things for you, Lawrence. So many ugly things. I won’t work on that boy. This is disgusting! It’s disgusting.”
“Wouldn’t it make sense to work on him, then? If you don’t do it, she’ll throw him away. Or worse.”
“No. That’s it.”
“You will work on him. I cashed the check. This won’t be another refund.” He stated it plainly, and it was the first time I’d seen him advance on her. It felt like being held over the banister, and even without the marble floor below, my nerves shot. Autumn shrank back a little. I wondered if this was how he seemed all the time to her. Menacing, vile with anger, bigger than us.
He’s so much bigger than us.
“Or what?” My mother’s eyes went to me before his did, and she sobbed a loud, ugly cry of frustration.
“You promised I could keep her! I’ll kill us both. I won’t do it! I’ll set this fucking place on fire—”
“I’ll give your body to the Hybrid you like so much. You can spend eternity in his head. Or better yet, we can make a bunch of copies of you to raise the kids. They can make your speeches, cook your dinners. What would be the difference?”
Real fear choked her up. Her hands were stuck mid-movement, her mouth open. I walked over and put my arm around her waist, glaring at him.
“You’re the worst thing that ever happened to us. The worst. You must be so proud of yourself, Daddy.”
He ignored me and kept talking to my mother, sneering. “I’ll let you watch Yenna walk off with her. Right to the shore. You can listen to them rip her to pieces—”
“Lawrence!” Thudding to her knees, hands smashed together, Autumn pleaded. “He’s a child. I can’t look at him, please.”
My dad shrugged and hurried back out to talk to Yenna, to sing and dance if he had to. We sat wordless for a moment. It was hard to block out her quiet sniffles.
“Want to hear a story?” I asked. She nodded.
“Once, there was a kid. And his mom was a fish, and she had another kid that was kinda a fish too, but his body didn’t work. And the fish mom was an idiot. The kid was nice, and he wanted his brother’s body to work so he could talk to it. The fish mom didn’t care. Then, a better mom came and fixed the kid. She felt good about it, and the kids felt good, and the fish mom hit her head on a door frame and died.”
After a long time, she adjusted her lab coat. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet and defeated.
“They’re going to take you away from me. Your father. Yenna. Someone. I know it. Even if I sit and fix that boy up so she can parade him around, they’re going to take you from me. They might eat you, honey. I was thinking about sneaking you to Anity, maybe to a group home or something. Or maybe sending you to be with Astley, or anyone else. I’m ruining your life. What should I do?”
I didn’t know what it was like to be anywhere else, and part of me agreed. It didn’t matter what we did. My dad was going to give me away.
I gave her an enthusiastic smile.
“Find someone stronger to help? Or make me invincible? Then I can save myself, and you can stop whining.”
Autumn squinted at me. It was almost painful. She grabbed my shoulders and pulled me close, a crazed look bleeding through her face.
“You’re clever, kid.”
Later, when we worked on Jukel, my mother was a lot calmer. My dad even left us alone without Lou or Tiana to sit with us. It was one of the only times in my life up to that point that I got to be with my own mother by myself without sneaking around. My dad transferred the boy into a body bag for my mother. I didn’t see how that was better, but I didn’t say a thing.
She delicately opened the bag and made me sit in front of the body.
Jukel was long, but so thin, he seemed to have nothing but bones under his skin. The lean flesh on his face gave way to huge holes showing teeth and gums. Most of his teeth were gone. Deep bruises traveled everywhere, mapping even the pattern on the laundry bag.
“How is he alive?”
“You know what, honey? I have no idea.” My mother pulled the sheet back on Jukel and examined his naked flesh, wincing. “This body is dead. It’s beyond dead. I mean, he’s alive, but his body is rotting. I can’t tell you why he’s still growing, why he even exists at this point. What did she do?”
“He’s the one Yenna wants me to talk to? How do I talk to it? It’s not even alive.”
She sucked her teeth at me.
“He’s not an it. That other boy, Bylas, he’s a Shadow through and through. I’m guessing, heavy emphasis on guessing, that Bylas was conceived after she took the body she’s in. They implanted him normally. This one was already in there, and he was going to be a Devil.” She lifted his hand, examining the skin on his arm.
“She said they were twins.”
“Honey, they’re nowhere near twins. Bylas isn’t even the oldest brother, not technically. This is going to sound strange, but she had to have kept our friend here preserved.” I looked at Jukel, shocked. He didn’t look older. “Want to hear a story?”
“There was a doctor who used to make a living as a prenatal specialist for a niche group of women. Except she wasn’t trained to practice medicine on humans, not exactly. One of her specialties was helping women deal with Devil Syndrome. It was something she was passionate about because of a situation from her youth. A woman with the condition saved her twice. Once from a Shadow that tried to hurt her, and once from the big Shadow that killed her family. She trained at a place called Eon Tech, and she’d splintered off into her own practice.”
The boy’s arm wriggled, and I expected to see bugs. The smell of him was intense.
“A beautiful woman sought her out one day, saying she wanted to have a baby. She had the syndrome, and she wanted to know how to increase her chances of having a baby that had it as well. The doctor was filled with joy. This was the Devil that saved her! The doctor helped her find the donor she wanted, and the patient would come in regularly for checkups. That Devil, she was so excited.” My mom closed her eyes. “She was so very excited.
“The doctor knew that damn baby inside and out. The patient was paranoid, and she wanted to make sure it was OK. There was one baby in there. It was a hassle. You can’t tell if someone has a child with Devil Syndrome, not most of the time. Sometimes, though, you’ll know from symptoms. Momma never gets hungry at all, and then she starts to actually starve. They don’t usually have to eat, but the babies do, and so they starve if they avoid it. Momma’s teeth grow sharper, baby’s nails grow like a creature. It can cause scary complications, and the patient laughed through them all.
“The patient disappears one day, though, and the doctor is worried. She vanishes, no trace of her anywhere. It’s too close to her due date, and the doctor knows the woman wouldn’t risk that. She went to find her. You can’t call the police for something like that, not for someone with Devil Syndrome. There was nothing—” Autumn stopped, sucking in a deep breath. Tearing up, my mother cut a tiny piece of Jukel’s arm and took it over to her desk, mumbling to herself.
I stared at him, but he was stinky, a mound of flesh, bundles of loose skin and ugly patches. I poked him, and the skin pooled up around my finger.
My mother came back and gave me the strangest look, her face scrunched up. She looked back and forth between me and Jukel.
“Noah. Let me change to a different story, OK? Same woman, a few years later. This is more related than it’s going to sound. Pay attention. You’re the only person I’ve ever told this story to, and I don’t want it to leave your brain. It’s a secret. Got it?”
Autumn pulled her latex gloves on so slow and tender, I thought she was going to cry again. My mother handled Jukel, a boy she would later refer to as an “alley hobo,” with love. The body could’ve been her own son. Her sadness made me follow her movements, made me listen to her every word.
“Right around the time the doctor had her first child, she watched a man dragging a woman out of the ocean. He collapsed and passed out. They were both so beaten and scarred that the doctor didn’t think anything could help. The doctor was in Anity, renting a house by the beach. Her husband was paying for it. He was seeing another woman at the time, but that’s not important. The doctor had been married to him since she was fifteen, and she was happy to have independence. She was still very young, honestly. It was her first time living alone.”
Using a small scalpel, she cut a tiny piece of Jukel’s arm. I ran to her desk and brought her a container.
“She’d expected them, and the sole purpose of the rented house was to spot them easier. The old patient of hers was being stalked by a man. He’d come in after her sessions and ask questions about her condition. The doctor wouldn’t answer anything. She knew a spy when she saw one.
“One day he came in and asked the doctor to help him rescue the patient, and two of her close friends. He said they’d been taken by a monster. At that point, the doctor knew about Shadows and Devil Syndrome, but had no idea about the big Shadow in the ocean. He filled her in, and he said he couldn’t figure out how to get around the monster. The doctor came up with a plan for him. It worked. She told him she’d look for them along the beach when they got back, and sure enough, one day they were there.
“He’d only managed to rescue one woman, and the doctor didn’t recognize her. The rescued woman’s face was missing. Part of it. It was like a hole, like something blasted through her eye and skull. It leaked this fluorescent gunk. The doctor kept some of it to study. The rescued woman was out of it for weeks. The doctor cleaned her up and went back to clean the man up. It took forever to get him in her house, he was so massive.”
Slow and steady, my mother cut the loose skin from Jukel’s body.
“The man bled black, toxic blood. It made the doctor pass out twice on the way to her house. She had to wrap his torso in plastic bags to get him to her basement. It burned through. Something told her to save some of his blood. She drew as much as she could from both of them, and she kept it for a long time.”
I eyed the fridge.
“The smell filled her house until he woke up, panicked, and left. He came back and cleaned it all up.”
There was so little flesh on Jukel that we stared down at bone after the skin was gone. She tsked.
“Go in my blood fridge and look in the left corner, all the way at the bottom. Bring me one of the vials that says ‘Fixer.’” I nodded and ran off to get it.
“The doctor fixed the woman’s face. It was the most amazing thing that ever happened to her, Noah. While she was working, it was like the rescued woman’s skin and flesh helped. They assisted, somehow. There were all these thick, leather-like patches that formed. She had scars, all these big veins on her eye, but that was it. The man said her face was blue, shining like a beacon. The doctor couldn’t see anything but the veins. Lord, the rescued woman stood up when she was healed, and it damn near knocked the doctor over. She was beautiful.
“Imagine someone taller than the sun, dark-skinned. Posture like an actual goddess from some faraway land. Nails sharp enough to cut through wood, steel, bone, maybe even cut you into a different universe. That woman had crawled out of the ocean and still came out looking like that in the end. It was such an inhuman moment.”
She took the vial from me and opened it. We both gagged. It felt like my stomach was crawling into my throat.
“Ugh, sorry, honey. He needs it,” she said, tipping it over. The small drop hit the thin flesh of his stomach, then it spread rapidly. It stretched, digging under the skin, and formed a thick paste over his entire body. The smell disappeared, and Autumn breathed in relief, handing it back. I put it up.
“Momma, the story!”
“When the woman finally woke up, Noah, she asked if she was still underwater. Was she hallucinating? The doctor told her no, she was in a beach house in Anity. The poor woman didn’t even know what country she was in or how she got there. She kept asking if she got her friend, if she rescued her grandmother. Did she save the baby? Had she gotten anyone out?”
Autumn got up and searched through her freezer. She dragged a small man’s body out, comparing the skin.
“The doctor told her it was just her and the man. She wasn’t disappointed, not really. She was sad but happy to be out of the water. She hugged the doctor and cried until she was slobbering down her back. The woman introduced herself, and they stayed friends for years. Both the man and the woman tried to woo the doctor at some point in time.” She laughed out loud at the last part, pulling the body to a big metal door.
“The rescued woman was lovely, but mentally unstable. She fixated on a goal, and she wanted the doctor to help her achieve it. Anyone that went along with her crazy schemes should’ve been checked for mental instability as well. It happened often, though.” Autumn looked ashamed, blushing. “She had Devil Syndrome, and people were always after her. It wasn’t only the monster she’d escaped from, though that was a big deal. The doctor pulled some strings she still had at the company she worked for, Eon Tech, to help the woman escape back to Virginia Steeps. She tried to keep her enemies one step behind her. Years went by, and somehow the doctor thought everything was finally OK.
“One day, the rescued woman showed up on the doctor’s doorstep. She held a dying child in her arms. The doctor tried everything. She really did. She couldn’t save the poor girl. The rescued woman nearly suffocated on her tears.”
“What happened to the girl?”
Autumn was quiet for a minute.
“The Shadow … the same Shadow that hurt the doctor when she was young, it found the rescued woman. It sought them both out with all its might and rage, always just around the corner. They couldn’t escape it forever, and it hurt that poor child. And she hurt all the babies the woman had. The rescued woman asked the doctor for her help, asked her to help come up with a plan. She said she was tired of losing. She wanted help to stop the monster once and for all. The doctor said yes. She’d never had so much meaning in her life. If she’d known it would make her own loved ones suffer so much, she might’ve said no. Or maybe she wouldn’t have. Maybe she just would’ve helped faster. No matter what she did, the monster would keep chasing her until one of them was gone.”
She hit numbers on the door, and a low buzz filled the room. We both pulled on little surgical suits. It was a long time before she spoke again, and I could tell she regretted starting the story. I tried to reassure her.
“The rescued woman said the doctor couldn’t help her unless she could live longer. The plan would take a long time, and she didn’t want to have to start over with someone else. The doctor didn’t want to live forever. Death is scary, but it’s something she wanted to experience someday. To see what was on the other side. The woman said she could keep her alive longer with the option to die later, that all they needed was the man with the toxic blood. He came back, and he cut off his own finger and gave it to the doctor. It melted into her hand, Noah. It melted into her.” She made a slicing noise, then a sizzling noise, and I jumped.
“Right? So then … Noah, pass me that bone saw from the closet and tie up your hair.” I rushed away, desperate to hear the rest of the story.
“OK, so then, she nearly dies. The next few months, she sees the man in every reflection, not herself. It’s terrifying. He talks to her, and even flirts with her. It’s like that for years. Years. But she doesn’t age. After a while, the reflection stops showing up. But she’s never sick and never hurt! The woman finally tells the doctor how she can help her one day, and she hates it. The doctor truly hates it. She doesn’t want to hurt any children. The woman wants her to hurt many children, including her own, and she promises it will be for the greater good. They’ll use new children, raise them to do the things that need to be done. But the doctor wonders why it’s always a child that people want to damage.
“The doctor doesn’t want to, and she refuses, so the rescued woman tries to do it alone. So many people hurt for no reason. Between the Shadow and the rescued women, no one is sacred. The doctor wonders how it would’ve gone if she’d—” My mother stopped, staring at the wall in silence. The way her face fell, I put my hand over hers to calm her.
“And then the doctor steps in. She helps the rescued woman conceive a child this time, and it’s a terrible mistake. The woman succeeds, and she gets the type of child she needs. The doctor loses sleep over it. She feels like … it’s worse than if she hadn’t. Because she knows what’s going to happen to the poor girl. Why would she … it’s so stupid. To help her do that to a child, to watch her brainwash—”
“It’s OK. You can stop if you want, Momma.”
The story seemed to stiffen in her. She shook her head, throwing me a smile.
“Anyway. I believe Jukel is what that man was. A Hybrid. She didn’t plan on using the real Yenna’s baby. She wanted to use the body to make new babies, which is how she had Bylas. And the only reason Yenna wants Jukel functional now is because he could be her downfall. He won’t die, and I’m sure she tried to let him. Won’t go away, can’t be killed by her goons, can’t be emptied from the body. It’s better to keep him, to get him on her side. Because wouldn’t that suck? You steal a woman’s body and her child grows up and murders your entire species?”
We stared at Jukel. I moved out of the way and watched my mother work on him in awe.
“So he’s like a secret weapon?”
She laughed. “Honey. That’s a good way to put it. And he’s not the only one.” She winked.
She didn’t continue the story.
Autumn worked all weekend, and by the time Yenna came back, Jukel looked at least normal. New skin that didn’t hang off, new organs, new flesh. Still, he was asleep, and he didn’t move once.
“I hesitate to say this,” Autumn spoke to her hands, unwilling to speak to Yenna. “But you’re going to need new skin for him, eventually. This should hold you over ten or fifteen years as long as he behaves. No jumping bodies, no taking anyone. He’ll be more human than you are, so make sure he eats human food.”
Yenna beamed, shaking Bylas in excitement.
“When the body starts dying, your best bet is to stick to Devils. Their organs last longer, sometimes indefinitely. There’s a chance he’s going to rot anything that attaches to him, even Devils. The skin will need blood if it’s replaced in any area. A steady supply of it.”
“We can help with that, of course!” My dad chimed in, and I felt my mother’s internal groan.
“Yes, as usual. That is the agreement. Are you OK with that?”
Yenna nodded and shook out the laundry bag, motioning for Bylas to put the body in it. This time Bylas looked as uncomfortable as my mother.
“Mom, can we—”
“Put him in the bag and take him to the car. Just like that.” Her pupils shrunk, and he did as he was told.
“Can I ask, Yenna, what the point of that is? Putting your son in a laundry bag? Toting him around like trash?” My mother grabbed my hand as she talked, and I realized she wanted me to pay attention.
Yenna shifted in her long white cloak. “He’s been a nuisance. At this point, he’s an errand I have to run. Empty bodies don’t mean much to me. And I don’t like it when people irritate me. I can hold a grudge for years, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
Both my father and mother bristled.
“Good to know that it extends to everyone else, Yenna.”
Autumn would save me. It hit me right then when I looked up at her face, at the slow-brewing anger. She was my hero right then. Our relationship would be damaged beyond belief as time went on, but I never doubted her.
She delivered every time.
At The Compound, nervous and ready to vomit, I wished I could stay in the past. The future wasn’t looking so good.
Bylas grabbed me under the arm and pulled me out from under the desk. Everyone filtered back into the reception area, every face showing a different emotion at my presence. Osh was ashamed, Chaunce was delighted, Mr. David was alarmed. The white-spotted copy of him had a permanent stupid smile on his face. They all stared at me.
“Noah! Are you part of the negotiation?” Yenna beamed. She opened her arms wide.
“What are you doing with my daughter?” I muttered.
My dad walked up behind me. “Don’t…”
I looked at the note again, seething. “Creature. What are you doing with my daughter?”
She smiled, her expression worse than gore. “Lawrence? Could you talk to her? She’s angry with me for some reason. We discussed this. This is my last attempt to settle the matter, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed while we do it.”
“I’m sorry, Noah,” Osh mumbled. He looked it, but there was no way he could ever be sorry enough for me. I glanced over at the copy of Mr. David again, and something about him made me angrier.
“What is that?” I asked, but Osh just bit his lip and shrugged. I’ve seen a lot in my life, was taught a lot by my mother. Whatever it was, it stared at me with the viciousness of a Shadow and not a Feeder. Not anything sane or even partially human.
I’ve seen enough copies of people, enough unwilling victims to Mr. David, to know something terrible was happening.
“Put my daughter down.”
The freckled Mr. David shrugged and set Chaunce down on the floor. I grabbed her hand and watched them all, stepping backward.
Osh tried to give me a defiant scoff. “It’s a problem when it’s your kid, huh?”
“Don’t say shit else to me.” I wasn’t Astor. My anger wasn’t scary. But something made Osh shut up, and Chaunce hummed peacefully, skipping around me.
“I crunched a lot today, Mommy!”
Everything blurred. I had to grip her to keep from falling over.
“Daddy. Do you have a cigarette?” He patted his shirt and handed me a fresh pack. Bylas walked over and lit the cigarette as soon as I put it in my mouth, smirking.
The real Mr. David was going to stare a hole through me. When I finally looked in his direction, he tilted his head and disappeared down the steps.
“Easy. We’re all here on the promise of non-violence. It’s not the time to overreact,” my dad whispered, but he didn’t need to tell me. What was I going to do? I was an idiot. Just an idiot. I took the longest drag I could, filling my lungs, holding it in. The little note crumpled in my hand, and I shoved it in my jacket pocket.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on if you really want to know. Right now, though, we need Chaunce and Jori in the basement,” Osh said.
When I moved forward, they all moved closer together. Yenna tried to grab my hand, but I yanked it away.
“Why is it such a bad thing for you to bond with me? For me to bond with my grandchild? You need a break from motherhood so you can kill that boy, don’t you? The Hybrid? I’m helping.” The smugness on her face was going to rip me to shreds.
“Did Osh tell you about that?”
“It never mattered. He’s much too young to make an impact; it wouldn’t make any difference. I already forgive you. You’re as silly as your mother. If you would stop being so difficult and help us, Noah, this would be so much easier. You can’t kill me. You can’t kill Freckles. You’ve tried.”
“Who the fuck is Freckles?”
“S’OK, Mommy! I name him!”
Letting go of Chaunce’s hand, I walked carefully by the thick pack of people at the door and followed Mr. David to the basement. I wanted to see her. That’s all I wanted.
Give me a shoe or something?
“Noah, why don’t you come back later?” Mr. David said. He tried to block my path, but I put a hand on his chest. He wasn’t putting up much effort.
His eyes widened, and he put his hand over mine. There was a slow tapping noise coming from behind him, from deeper into the basement. I stepped closer to him, and it really felt like he was about to move out of the way.
“Straight back, to the right. Red door,” he whispered. I pulled back, surprised. “Don’t let the inside of the coats touch your skin. They’re strong. Had to make them quick and clumsy.”
Osh rushed down, breathless, and grabbed me around the waist, and all hell broke loose. He lifted me and tried walking me back up the stairs. I snatched a handful of Mr. David’s hair and pulled myself back to him.
“I thought you loved my mother, you fucking fungus? I thought you wanted her so bad? You think this is what she wants for her grandchildren?” He grabbed my hand and squeezed until my fingers cracked. I grabbed more hair with my other hand, pulling as close to the root as possible. Osh gripped the back of my neck, but I kept pulling. Mr. David’s pupil turned white and separated, spiraling from his eyeball.
“You’re going to copy me, too, you alien? Osh, let me see their bodies. My mother and my sisters, I want to see what you did. I want to take a picture for Astor. I want her to know what you’re really like! Show her my sisters and nephews and nieces lined up and emptied out. That’s what’s in there, right? Dolls for Yenna? So you can save your fucking family?”
Bylas reached around Osh and yanked me away, dragging me up the steps. Jori watched us, panicked.
“They’re going to kill you, Jori! Daddy sold you to these disgusting—”
Bylas shoved his hands over my face, and I kicked backward, biting him.
“Your Grandma Autumn tried to stop them, and they killed her! They’re—”
Bylas lifted me up, and I had to put my hands up to keep from colliding with the ceiling. He slammed me down, and I couldn’t feel my jaw for a moment. The room twisted.
“Relax, Bylas,” Osh said, eyeing Chaunce.
She had her mouth open, crouched down, eyes glued to us. Yenna walked behind her and one of the little lights swung out of her bun.
“You have to behave. This is why I have to take you, silly girl. You have to learn.”
“NO!” I screamed, and it took all four of them holding me to keep me back. I struggled. I saw the flash reflect against the ceiling, and when they let me go, Chaunce sat on the ground, crying, holding her mouth. I scrambled over.
“It’s OK, let me see. It’s OK, Little Terror, open your mouth…” I cooed to her as lovingly as I knew how, hugging her to me, tugging at her lips. I looked all over her for burns, for any sign of char. Chaunce’s mouth wouldn’t open, but she otherwise looked fine. She sucked in a sob through her nose.
Yenna sighed through grit teeth. “It’s fine, Chaunce. It won’t last forever. It’s just to teach you to control yourself.”
I’d never felt such a fit of anger. It started low, right around my feet, and rose until I let out a rotten yelp. She was my kid.
“You keep plotting against me, Noah. What have I ever done to you? I’ve done so much good for you, in fact. How will you control that little girl without me? You don’t need to be here; you know how sensitive you are. I’ve been handling this just fine with Osh. It’ll be over soon, and we can move on.”
“Let me see my mother, and I’ll leave.”
Yenna tsked. “Fine. Go. Eric, don’t stop her.”
I picked Chaunce up, hugging her to me, and walked quickly by them. Their expressions made me want to turn around. Whatever was down there wasn’t going to be pleasant.
“Noah—” Osh started. One of Yenna’s lights flickered.
“She’s an adult. Let her make her decision.”
At the bottom of the stairs, wincing at the sight of my bloody mouth, Mr. David held the door open for me. His face twisted in pain.
“I tried to save them. I always did,” he whispered.
I whimpered, hugging Chaunce tighter, walking slower. The main room was brighter than I imagined. I’d only been down there once, and they’d blindfolded me down the steps. Osh told me stories about dark halls and jellyfish and all types of weird sights. All I saw was a big decorated room, almost like a den. There was a TV, a soda machine, and a few long couches. There were a few doors to my right, and I looked ahead of me for the red door.
Ah. The exit.
There were two more doors, and I figured one of them had the bodies my father mentioned. The other had to have my family.
Mr. David lifted his head toward the first door.
He walked over and twisted a key in the lock, stepping back to the main door quickly. I stared at the door, worried. As far as I knew, nothing good ever happened in that room, not one thing. Nothing ever came out whole again. My hand finally turned the knob, and the smell that hit me made my nose run. Chaunce buried her face in my jacket. I pushed it open more, breathing harder and harder, then I just stood there.
I turned to look at Mr. David. The same man who adored my mother, who invaded her life like a plague. The same man she nursed back to health, standing at the door, the big white spiral of a pupil spinning. The smell hit me again.
I wondered how long ago Autumn wrote that note.
Another night in my preteen years, my mother woke me up, this time with a bright flashlight. I grimaced and tried to turn over.
“Momma, come on.”
“Noah. Do you have any friends at school?”
“No. I have no idea how to talk to those people. They’re so boring.”
She gave me an empathetic look, smoothing my hair. I ruffled it back.
“Well, yeah. Who has a life like yours?” I couldn’t tell if it was a question, so I tried to turn over again. Autumn sniffled, and it took me turning all the way to realize she was crying.
“Mom? Did he sell me? Am I sold?” I tried to get up, frantic, but she pulled me back down.
“Not you. Daynah’s been resold. Repurposed.”
My head hit the pillow too fast, then I tried to hug her too quickly. She sat still through my flailing.
“A Devil? He sold her to a Devil, right?”
“I haven’t seen any people with Devil Syndrome in years. I don’t think there are many more, at least not willing to publicly out themselves to a Shadow.” She pulled a small vial of blood out of her pocket and showed it to me.
“Is Astley OK?”
“I haven’t heard from her in months.” More tears bloomed over my mother’s bottom lid, but she stayed still.
“Lo-Lou? Is she sold already?”
“Yes. The check cleared for Bylas.”
“He wants someone else! You should see him around that Devil girl; he’s super into her! We can fix that. We can—”
“Noah. If there was a way I could protect you from the fate of your sisters, but it would make me a monster … would you forgive me?”
I grabbed her face and kissed her forehead. “No one would forgive you faster.”
She nodded, biting her lip.
“Such a smart girl. You already have a way with words.” She thought for a moment. “You don’t understand. It involves hurting and manipulating a lot of people. Becoming … becoming someone else. You might not recognize me. My actions.”
I thought about her stories, my heart racing.
“I’d forgive you. You’d forgive yourself. You know it.”
“You haven’t formally met Mr. David. Do you want to meet him?”
I’d heard of him. Every time he stepped foot in my dad’s lab, it was like two bulls facing off. They were both big, but Mr. David had an easy menacing quality about him. My dad was more mouthy than anything, at least to another man.
“If I need to, yeah.”
“He has a foster child. He’ll start working at The Compound soon. The reception girl…” My mom paused, sighing. “An old friend came to visit me, and the reception girl was rude. We haven’t seen her since. Your father wants you to take her position. He’ll let me pick you up every day if you go straight from school.”
I thought about him paying me with money he made selling my sisters.
“What about the thing you have to do, Momma? You can tell me. You know that.”
She put her hands over mine, smiling. “It’s better left unsaid. Do you want a friend? One you can keep forever?”
My heart pounded. I was lonely. It was all I could think about sometimes, sitting around staring at walls. I worried about Astley constantly. There was a lot more freedom for me. I could roam the house, or sit in the yard, or talk on the phone. But there was nothing in the house. Lou snuck out the window nearly every night, sometimes going on dates with Bylas. He didn’t want to be “terrible,” so he drooled over the girl in the basement but went out with Lou. I had little appreciation for the hurt it was causing her. Less than none, really.
“Sure. Yes. Please, yes.”
“Momma? Tell me another story about the doctor?”
“OK.” She chewed her lip, rolling her words around her head. “One day, the doctor received a container of blood in the mail. It had no return address. There was also a note, and the note only had one word.” She stopped.
“What’d it say?” Autumn hesitated so long that I had to tap her cheek.
“It just had the word ‘READY’.”
I had no idea what that meant, but more tears spilled out of my mom. I hugged her, kissing her forehead.
“Mom, I know you’ll do what you need to. I know it.”
She finally nodded, pushing herself off of her knees.
“You’re right. Things are going to change for both of us, honey. I might need your help.”
“Not yet. Well, maybe. This is going to sound strange, but I need you to pretend you don’t know anything. About anything but humans. Does that make sense? If the people I’m about to introduce into your life find out you know certain things, we’ll suffer. Guaranteed. Even if the person seems familiar to you, lie.”
“I’m a great liar.”
“People with Devil Syndrome are not as open as Shadows are with us. The ones left are in hiding. It’s equally important that you don’t ever talk about Astor in front of a Shadow. Ever. Consider her as secret as you were before you had a last name.”
“Does she have a last name?”
She nodded. “She is protected and cared for. Overprotected. And you’ll be as well for as long as you know her. The people who protect her are not like your father. If he tries to sell you with her in your life? None of us will see him again.”
For a second, I hoped he’d try to sell me for once.
“This could save us both. And you’ll never be lonely again. I’ll talk to Mr. David about bringing her here soon, OK? Don’t worry. Just pay attention. And be careful. And … I love you. I always will, no matter what happens to me.” I felt her sentence traveling through my bloodstream.
This is a point I can mark. Right then, Autumn trying hard to look enthusiastic, her smile not quite right. Even the way her skin looked dull in the window, how she looked mousy and small. I can mark this point as the beginning of a slow crawl to the end for us.
Standing in front of that open red door so many years later … well, we definitely crawled to the end.
My mother was always beautiful. I’m not saying that because I looked like her. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. She wasn’t seductive and glamorous like Alicia or Yenna. Autumn had a quiet, accessible beauty. I tried to remember her like that as I stared down at her mangled body. The way her hands were digging into the ground, the terrified way her teeth smashed together. The carpet bunched up around her fingers and dried foam surrounded her mouth and chin. Her dress was high up on her waist, exposing regular black panties.
Daynah sat on a single blood-stained couch, her mouth and eyes wide open. Even without her clawing, twisted, or foaming up, she looked worse. Like a life-sized doll, eyes glassy. Her pretty hair was pristine. Tiana sat next to her, arm wrapped around the back of the couch, head leaned back. She was also pristine, wax perfect, but one of her eyes stared straight ahead at the wall. The other was rolled so far up, I could see nerves. Astley was curled up next to them, both of her arms twisted painfully. Both of her feet were curled in, the bones snapped. Dried foam covered her chin and neck. There was a big, ugly black bruise traveling down her chest.
Autumn’s mangled body was in front of the girls, positioned like a painting, like someone needed a muse and found it the hard way. I held the back of Chaunce’s head so she wouldn’t look, and when I turned to back out of the room, I stumbled.
There was a wall with a bunch of bodies pinned to it. Cora was in the middle, or what I remembered of Cora’s Latch. The one we’d transferred, the one Osh cut to pieces while she screamed in agony, begging him to stop. The second one he cut to pieces while she screamed in agony, begging him to stop, was there as well.
Cora consumed latches. They always turned into her, and only one at a time. I was looking at a bunch of Cora’s, all of them nailed to the wall, most of them just heads and mangled torsos. But some were regular empty bodies. One stared at me, blinking back pain, her shoulders and stomach drilled into the concrete. She was missing so much of herself that my skin crawled when she tried to open her mouth. I let out a sob and tried to turn, but couldn’t move. The one next to her looked like my father. The one next to that one looked like my mother. The one next to that one…
They were all my family members. I walked over to the wall and took in girls with my dad’s curvy lips. My mom’s black hair, my dad’s light skin, my moms’ big eyes. Her nose, his eyes, her mouth, his lashes. There were smaller ones, then they weren’t my dad’s anymore. Then they were nieces and nephews I’d never met. I saw Ramona, her body pristine and empty, staring off into the distance. I turned back around to look at my mother, the foam sparkling.
“Get your coat, Noah.” Mr. David sounded defeated.
I slipped my shoes off, still staring at my mother. Holding Chaunce with one arm, I slid one of my socks off, pulling it over my hand. Who knows how long it had been. I knelt down, digging into her mouth with the covered hand. It took some tugging, but a thick glob of black gunk pulsed out. I rolled it up into the sock, tugging until I had all of it. Then, I rushed over to Astley, using my other sock to do the same.
Sobbing, I went back out into the main area. I pulled the door closed slightly, wedged my shoe into the corner of the frame, making it as flat as possible, then closed it as much as I could. I walked to the back, far in the back with the other door, and wedged my other shoe there between the door and the frame. I thought about running up, but Mr. David watched me, shaking his head. When we went back upstairs, both Yenna and Bylas gave me bored eyebrow raises.
“I’m told the process doesn’t hurt at all. Your father provides a great service to us,” Yenna assured me.
The black gunk sat wet in my pocket.
“Consider it payback for Davey,” Bylas muttered, no heart behind it.
Osh stared down at the ground. His hands balled into fists, his shame rolling off him in powerful bursts. You could feel the thoughts crumbling in his head. I hoped it hurt.
Yes, he’s so ashamed that he didn’t stop at Cora.
“Sure, By.” I wiped my face, noticed Chaunce was asleep, and kept crying.
“Well. Of course, you have to leave Chaunce.”
“Of course, my ass,” I muttered, and Yenna had the nerve to look offended.
“Noah. This is the last I’m going to argue with you,” she said, waving her finger at me. I couldn’t tell if she was taunting me anymore. “We need to get started. Chaunce is coming downstairs with us—”
“What are you doing with her?”
“That depends on what’s discussed.”
I shrugged. “No.”
Four of Yenna’s little lights raised. I hoped my heartbeat didn’t wake Chaunce. I wasn’t giving her over. Osh looked like he wanted to say something, but I could guess.
It’s not so easy when it’s your kid, is it? When you have to think of their cute little smile. The gross way they chew their food. How pretty their hair looks when it’s done. The way they always seek you out, annoying as all hell. The way they always put you first.
No, it wasn’t easy.
Yenna started talking, going back into her spiel, and I glanced at the window just in time. My dad was standing in front of the door, blocking it from Yenna’s view. He didn’t see the thick black veins throbbing over the wall next to him. They spread over the front windows, blending in with the tint, then fanned up to the ceiling. I didn’t mean to give them away, but the way it all bulged sucked my attention to it. The way it spiked out then sunk back into itself, ferrofluid popped into my head. Yenna stopped, glancing up slowly, and the veins spidered in every direction, plumping into roots, digging into the wall. They spread until they surrounded the feet of everyone but me and Chaunce, forming a neat circle around us.
“Impressive little Hybrid.” Freckles laughed a real hearty laugh.
Yenna’s wide eyes turned to the door, tiny lights floating up, but she didn’t move. My dad still blocked the way, but I could see. Hun, I could see the most beautiful thing.
From where I was, I could see little Astrid Snow, standing with her hand held out, blood dripping from her wrist. Moose crouched in front of her, his eyes tiny dots, his hand pressed against the ground with veins pulsing from it. And I could see their mother, staring blank at me and Chaunce, crouched down on the side, a big ass machete in her hand. Moose said something, and she turned away, shielding her eyes and face. Astrid moved her hand over, and a drop of blood hit the veins.
Chaunce covered my eyes with her hands, burying her face in my shirt. I moved her hand so I could see. The veins split, half of them forcing a circle around me and Chaunce, rising above our heads and rapidly closing us in.
“Wait!” Osh tried to scream.
The remaining veins burst, light spraying out of them, just before the circle closed. We sat in the dark, breathing, trying not to touch the gunk. Right before the veins closed around us, I thought I saw Astrid pushing Osh down the basement stairs. In fact, I was sure it was her, somehow teleported clear through a door and across a whole room.
I cradled Chaunce and minded my business.
Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller