The polarity of everything changed in the seconds it took to read the note. The evil that had arisen in his world had been quashed, and he even got the girl in the end of the story, setting the stage for a happily ever after.
Nope. Evil was still around. Evil’s hands still had reaching power into places it shouldn’t. Worse yet, evil could see him when he couldn’t see it. Evil had a blind, a platform from which to attack. At its leisure.
He looked around. Swarming, gaggling, dawdling teenagers, none of them making eye contact with Aiden. No one’s vibe matched the tenor of the letter.
Will could have paid someone to deliver the note. He could have paid someone to write it in the first place. Using his own handwriting would be dead foolish. Then again, trying to have his way with Sally in broad daylight was no display of smarts either.
Aiden’s walk home was a wary one, despite Sally walking beside him.
“What?” he said.
“I just told you we’re going camping early in July. Didn’t you hear me?”
“I’m s-sorry. My mind is j-jumbled.”
She took his hand.
“I really want you to come along. I’ll ask my parents and you ask yours. Okay? You need to get out of here for a while and you need to be with me.”
She’s right. I do need to get out of here for a while.
He thought about what sort of pandemonium would be triggered if Lauren tried to get into his tent. He wasn’t sure to what extent she herself… or the effects of her presence… were apparent to others. That would be just the thing. The tent unzipping from the outside. The sound of it alerting Sally’s family that Aiden isn’t alone in his tent. Alerting Sally that Aiden isn’t alone in his tent — and it ain’t her in there with him.
She squeezed his hand, popping a few finger joints.
“I said you’ll ask your parents and I’ll ask mine, alright?”
“Ok-k-kay, alright, I’ll ask them.”
She smiled. It was warm. It was impish. It tugged a genuine smile out of him. When was the last time his smile was that real? It felt forever ago.
“What you grinning about?”
“S-same thing as y-you?”
“I love you, Sal.”
She kissed him on the cheek. He walked her home, hands locked, her grip steadying his tremors a little.
From the time he first met her, he imagined her parents owned one of the top five houses in town that said, “Hey, we have money.” The house he would walk her to was far from it. It wasn’t a dump. It wasn’t ‘historical’ Keller bait. It was ordinary and past its warranty and just big enough for the family of five. It was very… settled. A nest well-established and nailed down.
Aiden wondered what that kind of life was like.
The cat-scratched front door closed with Sally safely behind it. He put his hands in his pockets and the grim note crinkled at him. He heaved a shaky sigh and began the long walk home with his eyes up, vigilant.
It was as sunny as any late afternoon in late June. The closer he got to the hill that ascended towards home, the thicker the trees got, hinting that this may have been a rather exclusive neighborhood at one point in time. New leaves bright enough to be yellow peeked out from the drowsy winter wood. Redbuds were dotted with birth pangs of pink. There was just enough color that Aiden almost didn’t see the camouflage print ballcap that swayed in a thicket of young trees. He saw the pale, un-camouflaged legs in dull brown shorts first. Then he noticed the deer hunter’s jacket that made most of the wearer disappear. Then he saw the cap, the brim wide, low and shady.
Did he know where he lived? Or he had been following him to find out?
He was too close to home to lose his tail now. The historical district was separated from any other neighborhood and there were only two streets in. Even if he didn’t go straight home, Will had already been tipped off that he had the right area.
The net was cast and closing in.
Aiden broke into a light jog. Surely he wouldn’t attack in broad daylight. R**e, maybe. But not attack.
Aiden’s front door usually frowned at him and put him off. Not this time. The lock grated against Aiden’s house key. You know, the way it does when there’s a chance it might not work. No. No. Not now. Not freaking now.
It took some jostling, but the lock yielded and Aiden sealed himself inside breathing the breath of a man that outran the grim reaper.
A rotund shape swaggered up the street minutes later, not even trying to hide the fact he was checking out the house at the top of the hill on Riverloft Circle Dr.
The wide brim of the camo cap sat low, as if hiding the eyes meant hiding everything. He paced up and down the street, eyes glued to the driveway. One waddling foot in front of the other. And after another pass, he tottered back down the hill.
When you live in a small town, you can’t exactly get away with murder. Especially when you have a known history with the person you murder. Too many people know you and can trace the history of the dirty deed. So you’d have to be dead drunk stupid to try for homicide in little podunk Silverkey Crossing. Right?
Aiden sat slumped on the edge of his bed. Part of him was screaming like a fire alarm, Call the police. Tell them. Tell them everything. Ask for Officer Nielsen. He’ll believe you, even if you don’t have evidence Walrus Boy stalked you home.
And yet another part of him argued. He’s bluffing. If he tries anything, he’s nailed. He just wants to rattle you. Don’t give him the satisfaction.
But you’re not the only person he’s interested in hurting. If he can’t get to you, he’ll try someone else. Mom. Dad. Sally.
Caught up in the turmoil of his thoughts, sundown snuck up on Aiden. Golden peach light cast across his bedroom, putting half of his face in a great candle glow, the other half in dull blue. The peach light turned amber. The horizon cooled and left Aiden in darkness.
“Aiden? Aiden!” Mom’s voice, somewhere downstairs.
He didn’t answer.
Her signature footsteps tromped up to his bedroom doorway and she cast her paranoid glare into his room. Okay, he wasn’t unconscious, vomiting blood or speaking in tongues. No need to make any phone calls. No more nails in her reputation’s coffin. We’re good, we’re good.
“Aiden, baby, aren’t you hungry? Dinner’s still warm, but I can’t keep the crock pot plugged in all night.”
She massaged her hands.
“You alright, honey? Anxious about something?”
“It’s b-been a long school year. I think it’s all c-c-catching up with me.”
She cocked her head and donned a plastic smile.
“Oh, honey, I know. I know. It’s been a long episode for all of us since we moved here.”
Aiden fixed his attention to the floor. If he looked at her, she would surely see the accusation in his eyes. The same accusation her eyes shot at him when he was a shriveled soul in a shattered shell wrapped up like a nutty burrito in the comfy padded place. In a way, he understood. Which is why he didn’t make eye contact. She just wasn’t ready… wasn’t capable… didn’t have the resources as a human being to receive back what she had dealt out.
He came down and ate. It was probably the best batch of stew his mom had made for some time. The sauce wasn’t runny and didn’t taste like brown water. The potatoes melted in his mouth. The beef cubes were tender and free of gristle. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he really was. Mary watched. Okay, his appetite is healthy and he isn’t spitting it up and speaking in any demonic voices. We’re good, we’re good.
But just as soon as he was full and his teeth were brushed, he was back on the edge of his bed. Back in his eddy of thought. The night deepened, his parents’ voices grew silent as their footsteps creaked off to bed. He turned his head to watch the moon ascend from behind the trees that crowned the hillside.
Lauren’s footsteps manifested after a great stretch of quiet. She stood. Swayed. Aiden was usually in bed by the time she showed up. She seemed unsure how to process seeing him awake and sitting upright.
“Hey,” he said.
She came over to the bed and sat beside him, looking him in the eye. She sat in Aiden’s shadow, but those eyes… blacker than the black that enveloped her. Her very eye sockets somehow receding into an abyss deeper than anything in three-dimensional space. Beyond the confines of time.
She was a true portrait of the unnerving. Even so…
Aiden leaned over and kissed her on the forehead with a gentle smak. A blink was her only response. The closest thing to a softening of that frigid stare.
His eyes were pure kindness.
“I’ve got a problem. Will? The g-g-guy that tried to r**e Sally? He’s followed me home to-d-d-day.”
“I feel like I s-should tell someone. I mean, he m-m-may be trying t-to just make me n-n-nervous. B-but if he’s s-serious, he could hurt me or s-s-someone I c-care about.”
He took the note out of his pocket.
“I th-think he wrote me this. Actually, I’m p-pretty sure he d-d-did. I mean, who else w-would?”
And just like that, she reached over and took the note. Looked it over. Her small fingers folded it up and slipped it into a pocket of her white nightie. She gave her Big Brother an extended stare before she hopped down to the floor and walked out of the bedroom.
He was delayed by shock for several seconds before he lifted a hand after her.
Wait. Don’t go. Come back.
He mouthed the words with no sound.
Surely she would come back. Surely.
But she didn’t.
For the first time in months, Aiden spent the night alone, and it was the hardest thing he could remember doing.
There were literally two things on the minds of every last student in Aiden’s school the next day. Summer vacation and underage s*x. Between classes, his left ear and his right were bombarded with all variations of “summer” and “p***y”, and none of it reached him. Something far less superficial was missing from him the night before, and it left him in a cloud of discomfort. Summer? Yeah, that sounded nice. P***y? Okay, the general concept had its appeal. But something much deeper… Something that was already an integral part of him… Something that was an element of how he defined himself… was gone for a night. And getting it back by the next night meant everything.
He again sat on the edge of his bed. The sun sank. His mom came up to remind him that dinner was actually a thing. He just grunted at her. He could gorge on whatever she made and still feel empty.
The moon rode high. Midnight came and went. Aiden spent another night alone. His senses were on pins and needles for her arrival, but the coldest, grayest silence punished his vigilance. A cold shiver lodged in his breathing that made sleep a hard thing to find.
“Hey,” Sally said. Again.
Her boyfriend sat across from her at the lunch table. His eyes glassy and rimmed with the color of bruises. You’d think he was facing the gallows instead of the end of the school year. She came around the lunch table and sat beside him. He looked at her. Well, he looked at her lap. Like he couldn’t quite meet her probing gaze. He didn’t want her to see that his soul had a huge chunk bitten out of it.
“Are you mad at me or something?” she said.
He shook his head. “I’m positive. I’m just not f-feeling well.”
“M-kay.” She leaned her head on his shoulder, and the chill in his skin was a shock.
“If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen, babe.”
Babe? When did she ever call him that?
“I love you,” he said. His words had life but his voice didn’t.
He felt her cheek smile on his shoulder.
“I love you, too. You know I mean that, right?”
The bell rang and lunch was over.
She kissed him, wary of any supervisors that might play the PDA card. “I’ll see you on the way home,” she said. And then she was gone.
Molly Dougherty hated her family in general. She especially hated her older brother William. She was at the bottom of the food chain in school. You or I could look at her and guess that she was a little girl that just needed a few years to grow into herself. The small-town caste system at her school was much less forgiving. She had a few extra pounds, so she was “the pig.” Her hair was red and frizzy and her braces were struggling to do their job. In the minds of her fellow fifth graders, where time stands still and there’s no such thing as a world after fifth grade, she was a bona fide reject.
Now on top of that, she was “The R****t’s Sister”. She came home from school after another day of being reminded of her new social status. As if they were all doing as much damage as they could to make up for all the time they wouldn’t see her during summer. The good grades didn’t count. The good behaviour (at least good by comparison to her brother’s) didn’t count. But her brother goes into horn dog mode one day and bang, that makes all the difference.
She sat at ‘her’ table during lunch period, cut off from the others by the wall of her family’s reputation, now fortified with a few layers of extra bricks added by her brother. She stopped in mid-chew as none other than Carrie Parson sat beside her.
“Hey, Mol,” she said.
Molly looked at her like she just had just grown a second head. Just yesterday, Carrie was leading her little mob of friends in pursuit of Molly as she was walking home, yelling at her to change her name to Mickey because of, well, her brother. Yeah. When words wouldn’t goad Molly into retaliation, they just started kicking her in time to a cruel chant.
“Mickey Mouse, squeal like a pig! Mickey Mouse, squeal like a pig!…”
And squeal she did. Fifth grade girls kick hard and don’t tire.
Now, still sore from the bruises, she looked at the very girl that had given her some of them.
Carrie’s smile was quizzical, awkward. Tempered by something.
Not cruelty. Not mischief. Not sadistic delight — not any of the things that were in her face yesterday.
Something else was there. Something softer.
“Why are you talking to me?” Molly said in a low voice.
Carrie rested her chin on one hand.
“You’re a really tough girl, you know that?”
“You’re tough. Really tough. Like, nothing gets to you.”
“Why are you talking to me?” she repeated.
“Okay, like, this is going to sound really weird, but you really blew away me and the girls. We hit you with everything we had and you didn’t snap.”
Outnumbered five to one. All five persons pouring on blunt force trauma like rancid paint. As if snapping was an actual possibility?
Molly just glowered at her.
Then the rest of them sat down at the lunch table. Erin Laurence. Tia Morrison. Lindsay Renfro. Kelly Latch. Molly’s green eyes became wide open circles. The five girls that kicked her until she couldn’t move were sitting around her.
And they started talking.
Like she was part of the group and always had been, they talked to her. With her. Molly forgot her bruises as a deeper hurt vanished.
Boys. Music. TV shows. In the 15 final minutes of the lunch period, all those subjects were discussed, and Molly kept pace for dear life.
As the bell rang and the crew stood up, they beamed at her. Carrie lingered behind to share one last word.
“Hey. We always meet at my locker to walk home. 406, okay? Wanna join us?”
Molly was hoarse. “I’d love to.”
Carrie bounced. “Awesome! See you!”
The remainder of school crawled by, as Molly was in total system shock. It was like some bizarre form of a gang initiation. We beat you to death and you took it, so let’s be friends. These girls that hated her, she hated back and… well… secretly envied. Them with their good (and barely age-appropriate) clothes and their jewelry. The more she replayed the lunch hour in her head, the more she saw herself dressed like them. Talking like them. She couldn’t wait until school was over. It was too much.
“Hey, Molly-Doll!” Tia was the first to call out to the new member of the clan who marched towards locker 406 with an ear-to-ear grin. The after-school rush was thinning, so they could hear each other talk.
“Got any of that gum left?” the blonde and pink-clad Erin pressed Tia.
Tia frowned. “What happened to the last piece I gave y’all? Ah, forget it.” She produced more pieces of something reeking of watermelon and gave one to each girl. Molly salivated as a piece fell into her hands.
“Wow! Thanks!” she said with awe. This was it. She really was in.
She was a bit self-conscious when she realized the other girls weren’t devouring their piece quite the way she was.
But they didn’t seem to care. Gabbing and carrying on. Sauntering off in that part-of-the-pack gait. They descended the stairwell to the ground floor where the group veered off to the left. This puzzled Molly. Wasn’t the exit to the right? They also got quiet.
Erin mimed to Molly to be quiet. Carrie took point and looked around, then turned to her ladymates to churn the air with her hand:
Students turned soldiers, they all quietly obeyed their commander. Molly felt her heart sinking. They all looked at her and gestured to follow. Her feet obeyed before her brain could object. Now that she had been recruited, dishonorable discharge was not an option.
The hall led to a part of the school that Molly hadn’t really looked over. Strange looking doors that seemed more office than classroom. More than one were boarded up. The frequency of boarded up doors increased until they were in a stretch of hallway where the lights didn’t even work and daylight squirmed in from a terribly distant fire exit.
“Uhm, where are we? Girls?”
“Stick with us. This is gunna be fun.”
They came to a door as sealed by boards as any other… but each board came off at Carrie’s touch. The nails were just barely nestled in their gouges. Tia lit up the door with the flashlight on her phone for Carrie. The boards were propped up against the wall and the girls slinked through the unsecured door. Five cell phones lit up the room. An abandoned classroom where the desks and chairs still stood, veiled in dust.
“What is this place?” Molly said, shivering.
“Our place, babe,” Lindsay said with way too much bounce.
“Woo!” somebody else hollered.
“When you in da club, we show ya da clubhouse,” Tia’s voice in her full ebony vernacular.
The spastic spotlights centered on the dark-headed, pony-tailed Kelly who set down her backpack. It suddenly looked bulky and misshapen, overweight for her slight frame.
When the zipper whizzed open and the canvas relaxed, there was a clinking of glass.
Beer. The girls had beer.
So that’s why everyone held onto their gum.
They all sat in a circle at the head of the classroom, where the teacher’s desk used to be. The bottles hissed to life one after another. Molly struggled with hers.
“Sup, Molly Doll?”
“There’s a dent in the cap. It’s not coming off.”
“Here,” Tia offered.
Flick. A pocket knife flashed in the pool of cell phone lights and the cap clattered to the floor.
“There ya go, babe.”
It didn’t register in Molly’s mind that the bottle didn’t hiss. Perhaps her subconscious dismissed it as the fault of the dent, breaking the seal but reinforcing the cap’s clamp on the bottle.
An all-too-familiar malty, musky scent wafted into her face. The same smell before every fight between her parents ever broke out. Before her dad passed out in front of the TV. The smell, the vanguard to every small disaster in the Dougherty household. The smell that occasionally wafted from her brother’s room when her parents were busy or out late.
Multiple glugs and slushes made the glass sing. She couldn’t see them, but Molly knew that all eyes were on her.
She did it. She drank. The liquid that destroyed her home was now sealing her sisterhood.
The buzzes set in. They were talking more. Laughing more. Every random statement got funnier. Molly in particular was becoming a riot. Her wit and inherent Dougherty perversion began to flow in unison, and her new friends were in breathless hysterics. More than one cell phone clattered to the floor because the bearer was in a seizure of laughter.
She was in the middle of a rant about how her brother’s sexuality and biology both had something to do with farm animals… when a strange pang began to well up. The buzz was heavy, but something else, something uncomfortable tunneled its way into her awareness.
She looked at Erin, her blonde hair washed into pale blue by the torch of her phone. Then there was two of her. Two Erins. Something black like coal burned in the blue eyes of both images.
“What’s… what… I… I can’t…something…”
“Mickey. Hey, Mickey? You alright?”
The full import of Molly’s situation avalanched down on her.
“Sup, Mickey, you look a little pale.”
“She’s always looked a little pale.”
“Always looked a little whale.”
More inebriated laughter.
Molly jumped to her feet as the floor was turning to gelatin. A different kind of laughter brayed out from the girls.
Get away. I’ve got to get away. I NEED to get away.
She stumbled into a wall. The location of the door swirled around her brain like a bumblebee. The voices came from all directions.
A second flick of Tia’s knife. The air grew just as sharp.
“Mickey Mickey Mickey!”
“Piggie Piggie Piggie!”
The jeers swelled. Molly’s legs dissolved from underneath her. Everywhere she thought there should be a door, she would only find more wall. She wondered if the door had magically disappeared and she was sealed inside.
It occurred to her to appeal to her friendship with her assailants. Utterly pointless. The deceit had been thorough. Whatever they wanted to do to her, they were going to do and get away with. She began crying.
Then there was another shift.
One of the other girls began crying. It mushroomed into squealing. It threw the others into confused, mushy babble. Then two girls were squealing. Then three. More than one body collided with Molly, but not because they were attacking her. They were doing the same as her. Trying to find the way out. But something must have tampered with their senses much the way Molly’s had been tampered with.
Molly concluded she had lost consciousness for a few seconds. She instantly went from searching the walls to lying on her side. From all around her she heard peeps of sobbing.
She willed her eyes to open. Somehow in the total darkness, she could see. Some whispered alien light that both emanated from everything and illuminated everything granted her sight. Still seeing double, she descried the shapes of the other girls all around her. Fetal. Crying. Mewling. Coughing. Struggling to crawl away, but weighed down by… something.
Then there was an extra shape. It was awfully short and the omnipresent light wouldn’t touch it. It was dark and it staggered about the fallen girls as if inspecting sedated livestock.
It came over to Carrie. It knelt down.
Carrie let out an amorphous yowl as she was dragged away by her hair. Her arms and legs flailed in a clumsy last stand, but it didn’t daunt her captor one bit. She was towed away, her cries blurring into echoes down the empty hallway outside the classroom door, where they stopped. The small shadow reappeared and the remaining girls wriggled and cried louder. Tia was the next to go. Fingers clamped down on her scalp and off she went, resisting with more hysterics than Carrie, but nevertheless hauled off with the cold efficiency of a conveyor belt. Out into the hallway. Into silence.
The process repeated for each girl.
Lindsay must have fainted; she didn’t make a sound when she was taken.
Erin sounded like a tortured mouse begging for mercy. Was the strange shadow enjoying it? When it took her, it seemed to relax its pace just for her.
Her squeaking had become a warbled bawl in the hallway before her voice was cut off.
All five of Molly’s attackers were gone.
The shadow returned. It loomed over Molly.
I’m next. This is it.
Clammy and bone-chilling breath pulsated on her skin. A hand slid into her pocket with a crinkling sound. Molly strained to hear over her own pulse for any more movement. Nothing. The adrenaline tapered off and she finally succumbed to the poison in her veins.