The bell tolled.
End of a day.
Metal on metal as locker doors banged shut. Textbooks making surprisingly loud bangs, as they were closed. Zippers whisked open and closed. Voices babbled.
Maggie shut it all out, putting her earbuds in. The various sounds were muted. Fiddle, violin and drums stepped in to drown out the world.
The earbud was tugged from her ear.
“Mags!” Heather greeted her. “Friend.”
Heather was smiling. She was round-faced, but not fat, freckled, with hair dyed black. The girl was one year younger than Maggie, in an earlier grade. Sometimes good company, sometimes annoying. Maggie’s gut reaction was that Heather was leaning towards the annoying side today.
“What’s up?” Maggie asked.
“That’s what I was going to ask you. Got plans this weekend?”
“Going into the city to shop for clothes with my mom.”
“Aw, I’m jealous. And I wanted to hang out.”
“Another day? Tonight?”
“Maybe tonight,” Maggie conceded.
They made their way outside. Two schools were placed side by side, grades one through eight at one building, grades nine through twelve at the other. It was usual to see the kids from the younger school meeting up with parents in waiting cars. The older high school students would be retreating to one of the areas out of sight of the school office to congregate and smoke.
That was usual. Today wasn’t usual.
Parents were ushering the children away, getting out of cars to use their bodies and hands to keep the children moving in one direction, keep children from looking.
Some teenagers had lit up cigarettes as they left the school, fairly usual, but the usual spots at one end of the high school were empty and unoccupied, free of the curling smoke.
She turned around, approaching the end of the elementary school where people were alternately clustering and herding children away.
It was an art piece. Grotesque, vile, violent. At first glance, she saw it was a fat man, adult and naked, leaning against the fence, ass on the ground, legs crossed. Torn to pieces, rigged up with chains, boards and nails, mouth yawning open as though his jaw were broken or something huge had been rammed through his mouth and throat to open it wide. He smelled like shit and blood that had been sitting in the sun for ten minutes at a minimum, maybe as much as an hour.
At second glance, she could see it wasn’t really a man. Meat, bone and other bits had been fixed together in a crude semblance of a person. Nails, wire, and other boards held bits in places, and strips of meat had been wrapped to bind other strips in place. A haphazard grid of wires and woven strips of meat held the intestines in place, where they had been balled up and left at the midsection. Bits of the organs bulged through the gaps.
At third glance, she saw the maggots that were already starting to festoon the thing. Whoever had worked on it had done so without the benefit of refrigeration.
She turned away, her stomach twisting.
It’s only art. Just something for show, she told herself.
It didn’t really help to convince her. It didn’t help with the children, the smallest of which were openly crying.
Maggie carefully kept her eye off the thing as she watched teachers and janitors emerge from the school, many carrying black garbage bags. They hesitated a moment before closing the distance, to cover the thing. One or two backed away, recoiling bodily from the smell of it.
The crowd shrieked, and the alarm on the teacher’s part scared the children, prompting a spate of crying and some screaming.
Maggie looked, and she could see the mock thing moving, the chest moving in, out, side to side. Flies took flight from it as it jerked.
It was making noises. High pitched squeals, more like those of a baby than a person. Maggie’s hand flew to her mouth, clamped down over it in case she puked.
One teacher, an older, heavyset man, leaped forward, even as everyone else was backing away. He clawed at the mass of meat, using his fingers.
A medium sized dog, it had been stirred awake by the first physical contact. Bound in the middle of the meat thing, still alive, wire wound around its throat, propping it up to a standing position, the ends tying it to the fence. It still wore a collar, the tags jingling against the fence as it struggled. Blind, caked in filth, it fought against the man who was trying to free it.
Maggie turned away. She didn’t want to see any more.
The location had to have been strategically chosen. Out of sight of any of the windows, but in plain sight once the school had finished for the day. That was all it was. Art, aimed at scaring the most vulnerable people the sickos could find.
She wasn’t the only one leaving. Parents were fleeing the scene with their children in cars.
She could see the expressions. The anger on parent’s faces, the fear on the faces of children.
As she looked, she could make out one car. A man, bedraggled, more like a homeless person than a lower-middle-class parent, was waiting to pull out onto the street.
The only person parked outside of the school who hadn’t picked up a child.
She pulled her phone from her pocket, bending down, and she took his photo. No flash, no noise, but his head still whipped around. He made eye contact with her. No older than thirty, his eyes were heavily lined. More like Maggie’s mental picture of someone who’d gone to war or someone who hadn’t slept in days than a parent. Any suspicion she’d had were confirmed in that moment she made eye contact with the man.
He pulled out, almost as if he was in a hurry to get away, and she took another picture of his license plate.
He disappeared, leaving her with only suspicions.
“What did you talk about?”
“Stuff,” Maggie said. She shifted position so her legs were stretched out across the back seat. “Dreams, her idea of family, my idea of family. Careers. Stuff I might do after school.”
“What are you thinking you might do after school?” her dad asked.
“I’m thinking I might have no idea. I’ve been telling myself, you know, a few months left until the end of the year, then a year left until I graduate. Then I’m done. Now it’s like… wait, I’m going to University? Three to six more years of studying? I’m not that keen.”
“We’ve talked about the role High School plays in life, remember?”
Maggie sighed a bit. “I remember.”
“The things you learn are a very, very small part of it. You’re learning how to learn, and you’re learning how to socialize, how to deal with people and problems. University is the same way. Studying is a very, very small part of it.”
“I know. I get that. The rest of it is partying.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, dad. It’s a few years off.”
“It’s the sort of thing you need to think about in advance. What do you want to study?”
The conversation was cut off as the ads stopped playing on the radio. Her father turned up the volume on the car radio.
“…believed to be the work of a group of high school seniors, celebrating the end of their final year, taking the pranks and activities several steps too far. When we inquired, the police stated they have no leads on culprits, but will be talking with schools in the area. The police chief stated, ‘It would be fitting and appropriate, if we did prove it was the work of out-of-control students, to hold back their diplomas until restitution could be made.’ Other sources speculate that the spate of attacks has to do with the changes in environmental policy, which prompted the Ontario government to rehouse nearly two thousand residents…”
He turned off the radio. “We’re into speculation. Nothing more worth hearing tonight.”
“Still going on, huh?” Maggie asked.
“What a shame. Cruelty to animals, attacking the elderly, scaring children… when you told me about what happened a few days ago, I’d hoped it would be one isolated incident, that they would realize what they did went a step too far, and leave things be. Or if it is people angry about losing their homes and workplaces, maybe that anger could get burned off.”
“But they’re getting more riled up,” Maggie said.
“They are. Which means I want you staying close to home. I’ll drop you off. I’ll talk to some parents. Maybe we can arrange a system, where you come and go in groups, each group can spend the afternoon at someone’s house, doing homework-“
“What?” Her father asked. She could see his smile in the rearview mirror. “Social suicide?”
“You can’t kill that which does not live,” Maggie said.
“You have friends.”
“I don’t like my friends.”
“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”
“You were just reminding me how high school is meant to instill lessons in all of us. ‘People suck’ is lesson number one. Weren’t you paying attention, way back then?”
“I was too busy being miserable,” he said. “Way back then.”
“How to be abjectly miserable is lesson two,” she answered.
“Ahh. See, I must have missed a lesson along the way.”
“But, you know, one of the first lessons that University hammers into you is that you have to let go of the past. Let go of who you were, and let yourself be who you need to be. Let go of being miserable, let go of hating people.”
“Yeah. I can see that. Getting sloppy drunk, getting high, partying. Artificial happiness and friendships. It’s kind of like the inverse of the high school lessons, but it’s kind of messed up in its own way. A good way.”
“I’m kind of hoping you find genuine happiness and friendship, Maggie. I’m hoping you can unlearn all of the less happy lessons and retain the good stuff. But yes, maybe you’ll need to unteach yourself some of the more cynical lessons you’re learning now.”
Maggie grinned. “Lesson ten of High School is ‘sex is horribly overrated.’ I’m gonna look forward to unteaching myself that one.”
“Is that so?”
Maggie’s grin dropped off her face.
“Chris and I promised each other and promised you that we’d have an open dialogue about these things.”
Maggie flopped back in her seat, hitting her head against the car window. “Regretting saying it already.”
“We want you to be happy and safe, and we have focus on steering you clear of any mistakes that are going to follow you for the rest of your life.”
“Oh god. I haven’t done anything, and I most definitely haven’t had sex so awful it’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”
“I meant pregnancy, or illnesses, or-“
“Oh god,” Maggie said, again. She looked to the passenger seat, where her father’s husband was unconscious, reeking of too much wine. He and her mother had been borderline competing, towards the end of the night. “Chris, wake up and rescue me.”
Her father continued, “If you’d like, we could make an appointment to get you some birth control-“
“Nope,” Maggie said. She shifted position so she could cover her ears with both hands. “Nope, nope, nope. Done with this topic.”
In the rear view mirror, she could see her father’s smile.
“You jerk. You’re totally messing with me.”
“If you want to almost give me a heart attack, making me believe you’ve been up to something, I can pay you back three times over.”
“Shouldn’t be allowed.”
“Oh, believe me, I’m not done. Maybe I will call the other parents to arrange groups for safety.”
“And we can see how badly we can embarrass you.”
“Pyjama pants with hearts on them, and dorky old-person music…”
“We have the power, baby girl. Whatever you do to us, we can repay three times over.”
“That’ll change. One day, I’ll be all-powerful.”
“You will be, when Chris, your mom and I are pushing seventy and rotting away in some old folks home. By then, you’ll pity us too much to do anything too bad, and you’ll have kids of your own to lord over.”
“Mebbe,” Maggie said. “You guys and mom in the same old folks home, huh?”
“Why not? I can’t think of anything better, being with loved ones and friends, making peace with a life well lived…”
“Unlearning the last of the not-so-fun lessons life taught you,” Maggie said, closing her eyes.
“That’s a nice thought. What sort of lessons are those?”
“I dunno. Maybe some of the first lessons we learned are the last ones we unlearn?” Maggie asked, half asleep. “Bashfulness, caring about what others think? Being angry at people? Worrying about what comes tomorrow? Holding on to yesterdays?”
“Keep that up, and I’m going to second guess your angry teenager facade. That sounds dangerously like faith in the inherent goodness of people.”
“Oops,” Maggie mumbled.
A piercing scream stirred her from the twilight of near sleep. Sirens.
As her father pulled over, fire trucks and ambulances raced past them, the pitch and tone of the sirens shifting as they started moving away instead of coming closer.
Chris had been stirred awake. The three of them didn’t make a noise as they pulled back onto the road and made their way down the main street.
Rubberneckers had slowed traffic to a crawl by the time they approached the scene. Several homes were ablaze in a single fire, but in the chaos, she could only make out one of the families, standing on the other side of the street, huddled together in a group.
Three houses ablaze, one family of survivors.
“This sucks, this sucks, this sucks,” Ben said.
“Chill out,” Jeremy responded.
“It sucks,” Ben said, for emphasis.
“We know it sucks,” Maggie said. “Doesn’t need to be said out loud.”
“At least we’re going to your house,” Jeremy said. “I’ve got a game I’m itching to finish, and now I won’t get home for another hour or two.”
“If you think you’re going to play my games, you need to get real,” Ben said. “My save files are sacrosanct.”
“I can tell this is going to be fun,” Maggie said.
“Your dad’s idea,” Heather said.
Maggie whipped her head around, glaring at her ‘friend’.
“What?” Heather asked, confused and wounded.
“Utter lies,” Maggie said. “Complete and utter lies.”
“We know it was your dad,” Lor said. “We don’t blame you.”
“Speak for yourself, Holy Lor,” Ben said. “I blame her.”
“Yeah, just a bit,” Jeremy said.
“I like you, but this is kind of annoying, and your dad suggested it,” Heather said.
“You guys suck,” Maggie retorted.
“Yeah,” Ben said, “But we suck in private. We don’t let our suckage leak out and mess up other people’s plans. Like poor Jeremy, and his games, and my house being my house and not some random meeting place for a bunch of kids, like we’re six years old and on a stupid little field trip.”
“Yeah?” Maggie asked. “I gotta ask, do you make sucking in private a regular thing, Ben?”
There were a few chuckles from the group. ‘Holy Lor’ included. Maggie allowed herself a smile, while Ben gave her the finger.
“I’ll take your silence for a yes.”
“Take my silence for a fuck you, Maggie. Any time I’m not talking, you can pretend I’m saying ‘fuck you’ every few seconds.”
“I’ll give that a try. Ought to lighten things up. I can’t help but notice you’re dodging the question about the sucking-in-private thing.”
“Fuck you,” Ben said.
“Now you’re being repetitive.”
“Fuck you and we’re turning right up ahead,” Ben said. “Into the cul-de-sac. My house is at the end.”
“Fancy words,” Maggie said. “Is Ben Meredith getting uppity?”
“It’s a fucking cul-de-sac. Do you know a better term for it?”
“A street?” Maggie asked. “A dead end street, if you want to be extra specific?”
“Or,” Ben said, “You can go fuck yourself, and I’ll call it what I want in the meantime. Jesus Christ. This whole ‘go everywhere in groups’ bullshit is annoying enough.”
Maggie only grinned. The group turned right.
And Maggie found herself looking at the same car as before. A blue beater she might have completely missed if it weren’t for the recognizable dent on the door.
Without thinking, she drew her phone from her pocket and took another picture.
The car door opened.
He was as she’d seen him before. Thirtyish, with lines of weariness around his eyes, a dead stare, and scruff on his face. He was wearing a v-neck t-shirt, gray, with a few smudges here or there, nothing blatant, but signs of dirt or something like that. His jeans, by contrast, had even more stains.
“Oh shit,” Jeremy said, when he saw the man striding towards them.
Ben put himself to Jeremy’s left, interposing himself between the man and the three girls of the group.
“Girl,” the man said. His voice was ragged. “Who said you should take my picture?”
“God damn it, Maggie,” Ben muttered.
“Who said I couldn’t?” Maggie called out.
“Why are you taking my picture?”
“I take pictures of lots of stuff?”
“You’re lying,” the man accused her..
“Okay, maybe I took pictures of you because you looked kind of creepy and you were just hanging around where someone hung some rotting sculpture off a fence outside a school?”
“Delete those photos.”
“You heard the nice man, Maggie,” Ben said. “Delete the photos.”
“Why should I delete them?” Maggie asked.
“I’m asking you to delete the photos.”
“That’s not answering my question,” Maggie said. “That’s restating the thing you just said in a different way.”
“Hey, Maggie, you ever wonder why nobody likes you?” Ben asked. “This is why. He doesn’t like you because you’re not deleting the photos while he’s still asking nicely, and we don’t like you because you’re not deleting the photos while the guy is asking nicely. Seeing what I’m hinting at?”
“I like Maggie,” Heather said.
Ben scowled, glancing back. “You like everyone. You’re like a dog with no conception of strangers. But let’s not get off topic. Maggie was about to delete the photos.”
“I was doing no such thing, you lying liar,” Maggie said, not taking her eyes off the man.
“If you don’t delete those photos,” the man said, “There is going to be an issue.”
“if I do delete those photos,” Maggie asked, “Am I deleting evidence of someone who’s involved in this whole mess?”
The man glared at her.
“Oh… oh no,” Holy Lor said. “Really? Oh no.”
“Give me the camera, and your life goes back to a semblance of normal,” the man said.
“Oh, see, now you’re negotiating,” Maggie said. “I like negotiating. Let’s hear a better offer, though. I’m not convinced.”
“Give the nice man the camera,” Ben said, through clenched teeth.
The man spoke. “If you’re smart, you give me the camera and leave. Leave this town. This is a dying place, and soon it will become a place of dying, of fire and violence and darkness.”
“Give the nice lunatic the camera,” Ben said, quieter, through clenched teeth.
“I’m still waiting to hear a better offer,” Maggie said. “He’s awfully insistent, he’s got to have something to offer if he wants it that bad. I want to hear the offer soon. Going once… Going twice…”
“This is not the way you want to play this,” the stranger said.
A voice, from the nearest house.
An older man, wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders, was leaning over his railing.
“Hi, Mr. Richmond,” Ben called out, eyes darting from the stranger to his neighbor.
“You got a problem there?”
Maggie kept her eyes fixed on the weary looking man.
“Maybe,” Ben said.
“Hey!” Mr. Richmond called out. “Step away from the kids!”
The strange man did no such thing. He stepped toward Maggie and the kids.
He grabbed for her arm, gripping it hard, and reached for the phone.
Collectively, the group fought him. Collectively, they found him oddly strong. He bodily shoved Ben and Jeremy away, then pushed Lor to the ground with enough force that she shrieked on impact.
Maggie kicked in his general crotchular region, but failed to land any hit that mattered.
When Mr. Richmond made his way down the driveway, however, and Ben stood up, ready to rejoin the fray, the man backed away, hands raised.
“Stay put,” Mr. Richmond said. “I’ve already called the police.”
“You’re lying,” the man said. “Phone lines are down.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “You do that?”
“You stay,” Mr. Richmond said, stern. “These kids are going wherever they were going, and you and me are going to stay put until we can have a chat with someone.”
“No,” the stranger said. “No we aren’t.”
He turned to leave, striding away. Mr. Richmond didn’t even try to stop him.
But the stranger puased and looked back. His eyes met Maggie’s. “You’re going to regret this, little girl.”
“I’m kind of a teenager,” Maggie said. “Big girl, at the very least. Little lady would do, too.”
“You’re a child,” the stranger answered. He turned, walking back to his car.
He said something else under his breath.
“Wait, what did he say?” Maggie asked.
“He said you’re a child,” Lor answered.
“I heard that bit.”
“And you’re going to bleed, was the second bit.”
“Oh,” Maggie said. “I’d thank you for clarifying-“
She paused, as the man’s car door slammed. He pulled into the street, then disappeared around the corner.
“-But I’m not sure I’m that thankful.”
“We need to get in contact with the police,” Mr. Richmond said. “Attacking a child, that can’t go unanswered.”
“Maggie thinks he’s one of the bad guys from recently,” Heather said.
“Then we definitely need to talk to the police. Where were you going?” Mr. Richmond asked.
“My house,” Ben said. “My mom’s waiting.”
“Good. Go. Stay there. I’m going to see if I can find someone.”
“I love how everyone’s pretending we aren’t all one to three years off from being adults,” Maggie said. “We can fend for ourselves.”
“I dunno about you,” Heather said, “But I’m kind of glad to have someone’s mom around, after something like this.”
“He hurt me,” Lor said. She showed her hands, skinned and bloody.
Maggie frowned. “Whatever.”
“Shouldn’t be hard to find a cop,” Ben told his neighbor. “Sirens are going by every ten minutes, it feels like.”
Mr. Richmond nodded, glancing towards the street where the stranger had left. “You kids take care. I’m standing right here until you’re safe inside. You lock the doors, now.”
“Yessir,” Ben said.
“Big Bad Ben, being all nice to the adults,” Jeremy commented, when they were out of earshot.
“It’s ‘Big Ben’, what people call me. You added the ‘bad’ part. And Mr. Richmond is boss. He gives me money, just ’cause he doesn’t have grandkids to spend it on.”
“That sounds more like a pedo thing than anything else,” Maggie said, under her breath.
Ben shoved her. “Hey.“
“You don’t fucking joke about shit like that. Ruins people’s lives.”
“I didn’t say it to anyone who’d care.”
“You don’t ever,” Ben said. “And you don’t say it about guys who just saved our asses from a crazy person. A crazy person that might be setting fires and torturing animals. I’ve known Mr. Richmond my whole life. He’s nice, and he went out of his way to help. You want to give me a hard time? Fine. But you don’t talk shit about my neighbors behind their backs.”
“Fine. That’s fair. You’re the guy that’s sucking in private.”
“That was funny once, Maggie. You can’t milk it any more.”
“Milking it,” Lor commented, straight faced.
The entire group burst into laughter. Some of it was nervous laughter, after the close call.
“The most prudish girl in school just made a funny! A naughty funny!”
“I’m not the most prudish.”
Ben opened the door to his house, locking the door behind him. “Mom!”
“Group’s come by. What can I feed them?”
“Anything but the carrot cake in the fridge!”
“Kitchen,” Ben pointed to each place in turn. “Dining room, if you want to do homework. Bathroom, if you need to-“
“Milk it?” Heather cut in.
There were a few chuckles, but she was forcing it just a bit.
“-And living room. Consoles are off limits. But you can watch the TV.”
“Great host,” Jeremy commented.
“When I invite you, you can do whatever. But when Maggie’s dad invites you over to my house, you get only the… nuts and bolts.”
“Bare minimum,” Maggie said.
“That’s the words I was looking for. I’m going upstairs. I’ll be down in a bit.”
The group migrated over to the dining and living room. Heather and Jeremy took the couch, while Lor and Maggie sat opposite each other at the table.
“Never thought we’d be sitting together like this,” Lor said.
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“My parents have no issue with you,” Maggie said.
“I meant, who your parents are, they’re… our families are very different, don’t you think?”
“I think I know what you’re getting at,” Maggie said. “Are you wanting to make this a problem?”
“No. I’m just-“
“Because we can make this about doing homework, fighting off crazy people, and passing the time as fast as we can before we can get back to our everyday lives, or we can make it about your family having an issue with my family. Note how I’m stressing that. Because my family has no issue with yours. It’s one sided. And if you want to keep pretending you’re all about tolerance and goodness, you’re going to have to reconcile that sort of thinking with this sort of acting.”
“I can get over it, Maggie. I can look past what your parents are.”
“That’s great. Good. Grand. Speaking of, I’m going to need to give them a call, let them know I made it okay. Maybe scare my dad to death, if I mention a crazy man attacked me and then hang up before he can get details. Because I’m so going to get back at him for this ‘going places in groups’ garbage he set up.”
“Phone lines are dead in this area,” Jeremy said. “Asshats knocked down a telephone pole.”
“Fuck,” Maggie said. “Fuck. Internet, maybe?”
“No phone, no internet,”
“Fiber? Cable?” she prodded.
“No idea,” Jeremy said. “I’m here because I live near-ish by, not because I’m friends with Ben.”
“We’re all here because of that,” Maggie said. “Fuckballs. I’m going to ask.”
She stood, then made her way back to the front hall and up the way Ben had gone.
Ben’s door, clearly marked with road signs, was closed. She made her way to the end of the upstairs hallway.
Ben and Mrs. Ben were lying on the bed, face down.
A man was standing in the room.
Maggie felt her heart leap into her throat. Didn’t fit. Wasn’t right. Could be an older brother, but why would they be like that? Why would Ben and his mom be lying so still, there?
She backed away, then nearly jumped out of her skin as a hand pressed beneath her shoulderblades, an immovable object, stopping her progress.
A person, not much older than her, judging by the style of dress. The face was hidden by a hood and the poor lighting in the upstairs hallway, but she could see some of the mouth, snaggle teeth.
The knife. It moved, pointing it at her pelvic region.
Her front pocket. The phone.
“So he’s your ringleader?” she asked. “And he wants me to delete the photos?”
No escape. The only routes she had available to her were a hard right into the bathroom, forward into the knife guy, or a retreat into the bedroom with the other guy.
“Phone,” the figure said. She couldn’t peg the gender, but it sounded like a heavy smoker.
“Right. I’d argue, but knife wins arguments.”
“Mm hmmm,” the figure said. Drawing it out a fraction too long. Somehow, for some reason, she pegged it as a boy.
“Are… Ben and his mom okay?”
“As okay as you are,” he said. He sounded so normal.
“…That doesn’t answer my question.”
He stepped closer. She could smell him now. Like the meaty thing on the school fence had smelled. “Tell me. What’s the worst thing I could do to you, using this knife? I do want you to think, then I want you to describe it to me.”
A dozen ideas flickered through Maggie’s mind.
She managed to keep her voice from tremoring. “Cut something off? Cut off a finger? My nose?”
He shook his head. “I’m talking about the bad thing that appeared in your mind’s eye, that you didn’t let yourself think about, not completely. The real worst thing you imagined.”
“What I’m going to do is worse than that,” he said. “Something you can’t imagine. Not yet.”
She moved, ducking into the bathroom. He lunged, following, knife in hand, and she reached out to grab the bathroom door, slamming it into his body.
She reached for the only thing she could. A drawer from the cabinet under the sink. She pulled, and it came free. Nothing inside but combs and hairbrushes.
Maggie hit him, swinging the drawer into his hand, into the knife that was sticking out, that he couldn’t move while she was pressing her weight against the door.
He didn’t let go, didn’t grunt or give any indication he was in pain as she swung a wooden bludgeon at him.
His weight shifted, and the door moved with enough force that she stumbled back. Stronger than he looked. On something?
She searched the area, looking for something she could use as a weapon. A towel rack… but if she pulled, would it come free?
She lifted the lid off the top of the toilet, nearly dropping it.
It wasn’t a fight like on TV or in the movies or in the books about superheroes. Not an exchange, no trade-off, nothing like that. It was ugly, stupid, nonsensical. One of them would swing. The person they swung at would be seriously, maybe even lethally wounded, or the swing would miss. If the swing missed, they’d be leaving themselves open for one equally serious, equally fatal wound. A skull cracked open, a knife in the belly.
She had to alert the others. A noise?
Two thoughts connected. She hurled the toilet lid through the bathroom window, a crash, a noise that might give the others some clue something was wrong. She jumped, feeling a hot flare of pain where the plate glass cut her side on the way through.
A one story fall was less scary than a knife. Glass was less scary than the knife.
A thousand people with knives was less scary than the knife, when it was that guy holding it.
The landing hurt, but it didn’t hurt in a way that kept her from finding her feet, running. She held her side.
Dead end street was a more appropriate label, she thought. Praying that he wasn’t coming after her, that she wouldn’t get a knife in the back in broad daylight.
She reached the main street, waving, trying to get the attention of a car. Removing one hand from her side, she used her bloody hands to get someone’s attention.
The rest was a blur. Shock winning out over anything rational.
No school. No phone. The sirens seemed more frequent now.
It didn’t fit. Nobody seemed willing to admit it, that it was bad.
Two days of intermittent visits to the police station. Giving them the photos, getting the sense they didn’t care, that they were filing it away in the same folders and drawers they stuck all the ‘old crank’ stuff.
There was only fear. Concern that their place would be the next one. Chris was worried, and it was why Chris didn’t want to leave. Didn’t want to rent a car and leave with what they could pack up, like so many people were. The houses that were left unattended were soon occupied by others. By the drug gangs or the crazed seniors or whoever those people were. When the parties and general vandalism were done, the houses were torched, and oftentimes neighboring houses were caught in the blazes.
She hadn’t had any clarification on what had happened to the others. To Ben and his mom, to Lor, to Jeremy and Heather. She’d tried calling them while her neighborhood still had working phone lines, but all she got were dial tones. Her dad reassured her, told her they had to be okay, or they would have heard something. Chris said they had probably packed up and left to be safe.
Were others joining in? Was it a cult thing? Was it out of towners? There were more grotesque decorations in places.
It was getting worse, and nobody seemed to be connecting the dots.
They always heard sirens, but the police weren’t doing anything. They hadn’t done anything about what had happened at Ben’s place.
It was the worst. Being powerless, not knowing.
She felt physically sick, wallowing in it.
Doubly so when she let herself slip. She never stopped that constant, internal mantra, that Ben and his mom were okay, that the other kids had escaped the house. But sometimes she slipped, and she didn’t believe what she was saying.
“Do you know how long we looked for this house? How long we took to find just the right place? A place the three of us could live? If we leave it behind, we’re not going to get it back.”
“If we don’t leave, we’re just being penned in, waiting for another kind of disaster. Have you looked at Maggie? I don’t know what to tell her.”
“Tell her to be strong.”
The voices continued, from the other side of the wall.
Not so long ago, they’d talked about dreams. About possibilities, passions, about what could be.
All she knew now was that she had a direction, not one borne of any of that passion or possibility, but of the process of elimination. She could never, would never let herself feel like this again.
“Don’t go,” Maggie said.
“Someone has to,” her dad said.
“You go on this neighborhood watch thing, and you’ll disappear. Something will happen, and you won’t come home tonight. People will tell themselves things. We’ll tell ourselves things, but we won’t believe it,” Maggie said. She was pleading now. “Dad. You know what’s going on. People are blocking off streets, and we tell ourselves it’s to protect ourselves from them, but you know they’re the ones doing it. They’re blocking any path we could take to drive out.”
“It’s hysteria,” her dad said. “People overreacting, and a lack of communication. That’s why tonight will be good. A big group, talking with one another, figuring out how things stand, what the priorities are.”
“Convincing each other of the lies,” Maggie said. “Reassuring, when we need to be doing the opposite. Digging for the truth at the heart of all this.”
“Maggie, calm down.”
“I’m not going to calm down. Not when you’re going to go out there and you’re not going to come freaking home!”
She had tears in the corners of her eyes.
“Then bring me with you,” she said. “Bring me with you, and bring Chris, and we go, together.”
“No,” Chris said. “If we leave the house empty-”
“Chris,” Maggie said, wheeling around. “Come on. Please?”
“It’s dangerous, leaving the place unoccupied. It’s like they’re watching.”
“I’d rather lose the house than leave you alone, Chris. Please? Pretty please?”
“Now you’re playing dirty,” Chris said. “I haven’t heard that one in a long time.”
She couldn’t bring herself to speak around the lump in her throat.
“We go to the meeting, then go for a short patrol? Make sure there’s no fires nearby? All together?”
She nodded, relieved enough she let out a bit of a sob.
They left the house as a group.
The meeting was at one house in the neighborhood.
The first set of speeches were very much what she’d expected.
“Lock your doors,” one of them was saying.
Ben had locked his doors.
“Leave lights on.”
If you have power.
“Stay in touch with your neighbors, and let them know where you’re going and if you’re leaving.”
And brush it off with excuses and justifications if they disappear and don’t leave a message.
“We think they’re lurking in the area where all the occupants were displaced. Angry locals who didn’t want to leave, who had all of their services shut off. Teenagers and drunks, who got carried away once they got started. Any day now, the police should have a handle on this.”
“Where are they now?” someone asked.
The discussions went on.
No real answers. Nothing definitive.
Maggie looked back just in time to see a man make his way in through the front doors.
The ringleader? The stranger with the blue car and the weary eyes.
She clutched the two hands she was holding as hard as she could, ducking her head down.
Her dads looked, and she indicated with a tilt of her head.
“It’s him. The crazy guy who attacked me. Who sent those guys to Ben’s house.”
“This will all blow over,” the guy at the stage was saying.
Every time the man had shown up, there had been something. The grotesque art show, the invaders at Ben’s house…
“Yes, I’m sure.”
She looked, and she saw him staring right at her.
She watched as he beckoned.
With her dads, she stood from her seat, and they left the meeting. By the time they reached the front door of the house, the man had stepped out.
Outside, it was dark, and it was quiet.
“Delete the photos,” the man said. “Now.”
“What are you doing here?” Maggie’s dad asked.
“Damage control,” the man responded. “Please. The sooner you do it, the better for both of us.”
Uncertain, Maggie said, “I can’t tell if that’s a threat, or-”
“It’s reality. If I explain, I endanger you. I could tell you I’m not your enemy, but I suspect-”
“I wouldn’t believe you,” Maggie said.
“I know,” the man said. “I got that sense. What I can tell you is that you’re nearly out of time. As it stands, you may not make it out alive, even if you delete the photos and leave this city now.”
“It’s dangerous out there,” her father said.
“Very soon, it’s going to be dangerous here,” the stranger said. “Within minutes. You should leave now, on foot. The cars are sabotaged and you can’t use the roads.”
Maggie withdrew the phone from her pocket. She set to deleting the photos.
“Good. That buys you time.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “If you’re not the bad guy?”
“Helping. Failing to help, too. Right now, I’m trying to decide. Do I let things hit rock bottom, or do I fight now?”
“What’s the difference?” Maggie asked.
“If I wait until a handful survive,” he said, “Then try to save them, when I know they’ll believe the truth, I might save more than if I go in front of that house full of people and lie.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“If you’re lucky, it never will,” he said. “Go. Take nothing, keep nothing. But go. And pray they haven’t ferreted you out.”
“Why were the photos so important?”
Chris was the one to jerk into motion, driven to move by the force in the stranger’s tone.
With every block they walked, taking shortcuts between houses, they saw how bad it was. Cars had been taken apart and left dismantled in the road. Houses were burned husks. There were pools of blood on the streets, largely dried, flies clustered on them, flying into the air when they drew near.
“Psychological tactics,” Chris muttered, at the cars. At the pools of blood, he said, “Animal blood. There are farms nearby.”
Maggie wondered if he believed it.
She wondered why she couldn’t believe it.
It all came back to those photos. To the stranger…
Her thoughts were interrupted. Figures stepping out of the shadows.
They hadn’t made it.
When she looked, she found they were surrounded.
How could so many of them be so sneaky? How could they walk in near silence for minutes, and not hear a single scrape of a footstep?
The people formed a ring around them.
Too many were too short, too young, too fat, too tall. Almost none were normal… and those ones looked the most wrong when she looked too close.
She settled for staring down at the road at her feet.
“What… what’s going on?” Chris asked.
“I think you know,” her father said. “It’s… not normal.”
Which summed it up. Normal rules didn’t apply.
Maggie clenched her hands.
“Wee birds,” a woman’s voice.
Maggie turned her head.
“You had him a moment ago, the slippery man,” the voice continued.
Maggie looked, and she saw the figure in the crowd. Some of the people parted to give her a better look.
The woman’s teeth had been filed down to points. She wore contact lenses that reflected funny in the light. Her entire facial structure… implants? The shape of her ears? The too-pugnacious nose Surgery?
Maggie couldn’t come up with excuses as fast as she noticed all the things that didn’t fit. Too much, all together, that made the buxom woman look wrong in a way that simple makeup and cosmetics couldn’t manage.
Her feet were a big part of that. More like a lizard’s. The fingers on her hands were too long. But the most noticeable thing was her hair. It was wet, soaked crimson, and only a blood-soaked headband kept it out of her face.
She toyed with a skull. Not a bleached skull. It was dark, with bits on it.
All of the illusions and self-delusions fell away.
“Oh. God,” Maggie muttered.
“You had a tie,” the woman said. “To him. You know the one I’m talking about.”
Maggie thought of the man.
“Yes. Him,” the woman said. “You met recently, he confided in you, you know what he looks like. That is enough points of reference.”
“Who is he?” her father asked. “What’s going on?”
“He’s slippery one,” the woman said. “He’s lurking, trying to spoil our fun. Hunting me. Because I found a way to cross through your cities. Bridges of bones.”
“I don’t understand,” Maggie said.
A man’s voice cut in. “Her kind can’t walk easily inside modern cities. She found a way, and she’s been waiting for a chance to use it.”
“I was just about to look for you.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sparing you the trouble. You’re letting them go.”
“Giving yourself up. Are you worth so little?”
“I warned them. The largest group I could find. I told them how to fight you, and they’ll think I’m mad, but maybe they’re scared enough to listen. But some of their sins and their mistakes are my sins and my mistakes too.”
“Ah. You’ve given them all your luck and fortune. All of your slipperiness.”
“I’ve tried. And now I’m hoping you’ll let this family go, and promise to stop for three days and three nights.”
“You’re worth so little now. Luckless, feckless, sad little wretch.”
“Blood is power, and I do have some power. You’ll bathe in it, you’ll make some of that power yours, as you have with Faerie and Hags and all manner of other things, and you’ll be even more fearsome, when next you attack.”
The woman smiled, showing her pointed teeth, “Or we could keep doing what we’re doing. I’ll find others like you in time.”
“Others like me will come after you. Stronger people. This is the best option you’re getting.”
She considered, head turning this way and that, as if she thought differently with her head at different angles.
“Break him,” she said.
Her subordinates attacked, grabbing the practitioner, pulling his arms out to to either side, making him kneel. Maggie turned her head before the makeshift weapons came down on his arms.
She still heard the sounds, the strangled scream.
The bloody-haired woman prowled forward, bending down near the broken stranger. Deftly, she pulled things from his pockets. A short wand, a set of large, fat gold coins, a piece of chalk, a book, falling apart, with symbols on the cover. Each fell to the ground, pages of the book coming free with the impact, the coins ringing impossibly loud in the scene.
The woman turned her attention to Maggie and her family.
“No,” Maggie said. “All of us. Let all of us go.”
“If I were to let two of you go, which two?”
“Them,” her father said. “My daughter, my husband. She… Chris will give her better support.”
“No,” Chris said. “N-no.”
“You can take her to her mom.”
“Let them go,” Maggie said. “Please. I- you can’t take my family.”
The voices overlapped.
The bloody-haired woman approached, placing her hand on the cheek of Maggie’s father. “You argue best. I believe you, when you say you’d sacrifice yourself for them. You love them that much.”
He shuddered, bowing his head, unable to maintain eye contact.
“You, I’ll let live, then. You’ll feel the lost most.”
“No!” Maggie cried out. “No!”
And, somehow, it was that idea, her dad, alone, that fed the emotion into her shouts, more than any self preservation.
“Take them to pieces, slowly.”
“No!” Maggie shrieked. “No! All of us live! All of us!”
“Her first. So the adults can watch.”
Maggie had to raise her voice to be heard over her fathers. Her voice was so loud and high it was ragged. “I’ll do anything! Just let us go!”
“Just- just let us go.”
“Agree… Let me think. You’ll experience what you experienced here, twice more. The rule of three, to make this stronger. Perhaps it will be me again. Perhaps no. But you will experience blood and darkness and fire, like you experienced it here. If you agree, it will be so.”
This? Again? Maggie hesitated.
“Yes? No? I am impatient.”
“I said anything,” Maggie said, defeated. “I- I think I meant it.”
“Then keep walking, child. Walk with your parents, and wait. Twice more.”
Maggie stepped forward, and she saw the goblins part, stepping out of the way.
Then she stopped, and she walked over to the stranger.
“Fool,” he muttered, through the pain. “Fool. She was to rest. She had to agree, or she had to finish here, and once she rested for three days, three nights, she would have to sleep centuries before acting again. Now she can keep going, come back with your oath.”
Numb, Maggie picked through the things the woman had taken from the stranger. Coins. The wand.
“The wand- no. Won’t help you.”
She picked up the book. Symbols, magic circles, script.
“No. Walk blindly, pay no attention to this, forget. It’ll make things easier, when the blood and darkness come, next time. Your power is the oath’s power.”
“I’m not looking away,” Maggie said.
She picked up the book. She’d need a way to stick it all together. She hugged it to her chest.
Nothing stopped her or her family as they walked free of their town, leaving it all behind.
Two months ago
“Yes, I do actually know a thing about prophecies,” Laird said.
Maggie frowned. Her ice cream was melting. She licked the biggest dribble from her hand. “And?”
“And it’s up to you. We can manage this, or we can leave it be. It could be bloodier, darker, more dangerous, with each repetition of the three, or it could be quieter, a controlled chaos we can both benefit from.”
“What do I have to do?” Maggie asked.
“Her name is Molly Walker. That will be the first part. The only part of any importance, to you. You can leave the remainder to me.”