The headlights caught on something pale and glistening red among the trees, and Raúl’s foot was on the brake as soon as his mind fully registered what he’d seen. Beside him, his sister Julia jerked awake and looked out the windows in confusion. “What happened?” she asked. “You get a flat or something?”
“Someone’s out there.”
“What?” She turned to him, face scrunched up. “You stopped because you saw someone making a little late night hike?”
At first Raúl didn’t answer, too focused on keeping his breathing even, his pulse calm. Then he unbuckled his seat belt with trembling hands and fumbled the door open. “She was hurt,” he explained, voice flat with his effort to stay calm. When he looked back towards where he’d seen the woman, all he could make out were the dark, vague shapes of trees. His car’s lights were the only source of illumination for miles, the surrounding woods still and silent.
“What do you mean? Hurt how?” Pouring out of the car after him, Julia began looking around with ever-growing alarm. “Where is she?”
“I don’t—” He swallowed and jerkily pulled his phone from his pocket to activate its flashlight mode and shine it ineffectually towards the forest. Closer. He’d have to get closer.
“Hello?” he called out, moving cautiously towards the trees. Behind him, he could hear his sister rush to catch up. “Miss? Can you hear me?”
As if in answer, he began to make out the faint sound of sobbing. That spurred him on, concern overriding any fear, and he rushed forward, out of the protective glow of his car’s taillights. Soon his world was narrowed down to the small bubble of light from his phone. Trees burst into being for a few clear seconds, only to melt back onto obscurity.
“Where is she?” grumbled Julia, her fingers gripping the back of his shirt, twisting, pulling so tight it was uncomfortable. But he didn’t chide her, didn’t blame her for wanting to stay close. “Hey!” she yelled into the void around them. “We want to help you!”
A trilling came from somewhere, the only animal sound he’d heard so far. The realization of that drew him up short, his sister bumping softly into his back. They’d grown up in woods just like these, only an hour north, and he remembered vividly how loud they were at night in the summer. There were insects, owls, whippoorwills, frogs…the forest was never silent. “Something’s wrong,” he whispered, gently nudging Julia with his elbow. “We should go back.”
“What? No! What about the injured chick?”
“Just. Trust me, okay?”
The trilling started up again, and it reminded him of a screech owl’s typical call, but was different somehow. Higher pitched, the notes all running together. Suddenly the crying seemed to be closer, as if just a few paces ahead. There were still no other sounds. “C’mon,” he urged faintly, moving his light around and hoping to find only trees.
“She’s close,” objected Julia, pushing him forward. “I can hear her.”
He shuffled a few more steps, and when a figure came into view huddled at the base of a tree, he closed his eyes in dread. “There she is!” Julia cried, suddenly rushing around him. “Hey! Hey there, are you okay?” When he heard Julia gasp, Raúl’s eyes flew open and he was hurrying to be at his sister’s side in case she needed him. But she was just sitting there staring at the crying girl in shock. “Meghan?” Julia reached out towards the stranger and repeated the name.
And that didn’t make sense, unless she’d met some other Meghan since the one she constantly talked about back in high school. That Meghan was blonde with dark, glowing skin and vibrant brown eyes. This girl was pale as milk and had glossy black hair and eyes like spring leaves. She looked like a girl he’d known once, in his freshman year of college. Her name escaped him, but he could still remember how she would smile at him, and how brilliant all her observations in class discussions seemed to be.
Off in the darkness, the trilling began to sound like sharp, manic laughter.
For a moment, the girl before him was a stranger, but then she was looking up at him with those green, green eyes, and he knew her. It had been a few years, but it had to be her. “How did you get way out here?” he asked, trying to smile comfortingly but feeling it twisted too tight in worry. “What happened?”
“Meghan, talk to us.”
Slowly the girl blinked and then gave that sweet smile of hers. She reached out and caressed Julia’s cheek, and then said in a whisper curling with affection, “Fetch something for me? Just over there.” With the hand not caressing his sister’s cheek, she motioned off into the darkness.
“Of course,” Julia agreed with a determined nod. “Just stay right here.”
Fetch what, though? “Fetch what?” he asked, frowning as Julia straightened up and began to walk off without a light or any other guidance.
Instead of answering, the girl turned her attention to him and reached out. “Help me up,” she asked with a shy tilt of her head.
Branches rustled. The trilling came again, short and low, before cutting itself off as the night was filled with the sound of large wings beating at the air. “An owl,” the girl said, drawing his attention back away from the sounds. Something fell, out in the darkness, a loud, dull thump.
“What?” he asked, stalled in his motion to help her up.
“Out there,” she explained, wrapping her fingers around his wrist. “Just an owl.”
“Oh.” Of course. He pulled her up and steadied her, his hand instinctively going to her waist. “What is she fetching?”
“My sister. You had her go off to fetch something.” Strange noises came from the darkness now. Still no insects or other birds, but something wet and violent. His eyes stung, and his chest hurt, but he didn’t know why.
“We’re the only ones here,” said the girl, moving closer, sliding her hands up and around his shoulders.
“Right,” he agreed, because that sounded right.
He dropped his phone so he could wrap both arms around her, and the darkness swallowed them whole.
Day to Day
“Tell me again why I let you bring me here,” Lucy shouted above the heavy pulse of the music as it thrummed through the old house.
Kyle tossed back his head and laughed but she could barely hear it. He smelled like cigarettes and beer and heavy cologne. His eyeliner was smudged and the gel in his hair was losing its grip, allowing the dark brown spikes to limp. Of course Lucy knew why she came, but even Kyle’s toned chest peeking at her through his skin-tight fishnet shirt could not console her by that point.
Just a few friends, he had told her, nothing more. Some goths from the area, mostly college kids but with a few high schoolers—like us, Luce!—allowed to join. Always enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with her friend Kyle, Lucy had agreed to come along. Now she was enduring migraine-inducing death metal and choking on cigarette smoke while squeezing her way through sweaty, vinyl-clad bodies. This wasn’t her idea of a fun Friday night.
“I’m going home!” she informed him, yelling the declaration into his ear and knowing he’d probably still have trouble hearing it.
He seemed to have heard it because he frowned a little and gently grabbed her arm. “So soon?”
Giving an apologetic smile, she pulled her arm free. “Early day tomorrow,” was her response yell. It wasn’t entirely a lie; she had plans to spend the day with her friend Alice, as well as try to make a dent in her English homework. Kyle still looked confused, his big brown eyes taking on a very puppy-dog look. There was a second’s hesitation, but then Lucy was ruffling his wilting hair and turning to make her way through the crowd.
Parties weren’t really her thing. If it truly had been a smaller gathering she probably would have stayed longer and mingled. The loud music and cramped quarters, however, were not conducive to conversation. Ah, the things she suffered for pretty friends! Friends that she would have enjoyed having as something more, but who most likely would never see her in such a way.
Letting out a sigh that no one would ever hear, Lucy wedged herself past a man in a kilt and a woman overflowing her corset. It was a nice corset, though. Eyeing the design as she continued walking, Lucy considered turning back and asking the woman where she got it. Without looking where she was walking, she was suddenly colliding with someone, and they both stumbled away from each other.
“Sorry!” she yelled with what she hoped was an apologetic tone. The man turned around to face her and the only thing she could think of was that he had surely wandered into the wrong party. He was wearing a beige dress shirt, which had just become as revealing as Kyle’s fishnet now that it was soaked through with what must have been the contents of his cup before Lucy had blundered into him. Tendrils of his shaggy black hair were clinging to his face due to the humidity and his dark eyes were regarding her with an unreadable expression.
A man with spiky green hair—for whom, Lucy thought this was certainly the right party—slung an arm around his shoulders and grinned. This new man sized her up with lizard-slit eyes that were one of many varieties of contacts Lucy had seen that night. She didn’t really understand the trend, but it must have been pretty huge because someone earlier had even asked where she’d gotten hers. Except Lucy didn’t wear contacts, her eyes were just weirdly, freakishly pale. When she was little, kids would tauntingly ask if she were part husky. Feeling slightly self-conscious, she crossed her arms in front of her bodice with the pretense of pulling up her arm warmers.
“Ren, you dog! Found yourself quite the catch!” she heard the green-haired man exclaim as he jostled the wet man—Ren, evidently—and laughed.
“Get real,” came the response in a rich, almost rumbling tone that Lucy was surprised could carry over the music. “Look at her, man. She’s, like, sixteen.”
“Seventeen!” Lucy heard herself correct before she could think better of it. She frowned and glared, though it was more at herself than at the men.
Ren’s eyebrows shot up and he offered a slight bow, causing his friend to dip as well due to the arm that was still draped around his shoulders. “Well! My mistake, ma’am! Your youthful beauty must have masked your true maturity!”
Biting the inside of her cheek to remind herself to keep a cool head, Lucy brushed past them and continued towards the door. Behind her she could hear the lizard man’s pleas for her to come back, and Ren’s hearty laughter. She really disliked parties. Truly. Her intrinsic shyness always, always resulted in awkwardness. To soothe herself she thought of what it would be like once she got home and could curl up on the sofa with her copy of Paradise Lost. Just because she had to read it in order to write a report about it for class didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the experience.
Finally she reached the door and escaped out onto the rickety porch. It was a strange old house that served as the venue, and she absently wondered if it belonged to the host of the party—if there even was a host. The partiers had of course overflowed onto the porch, gathering in clusters at corners and cluttering the steps. Her boots clomped awkward and loud as she tried to navigate through the obstacles of black lace and limbs.
The hollow clomping turned to soft crunching as she made her way down the fine gravel path towards the road lined with cars on both sides. Lucy supposed it was a good thing that the party was in the middle of nowhere, where the roads saw little traffic. She trudged her way up the hill to where she had parked, idly swishing her skirt as she walked and doing her best to think of things besides Kyle or mysterious strangers who wore pale colors to a goth party. It was quieter out there on the road, the music and laughter from the house just a faint distraction. Her head still hurt a bit from the noise and the smoke of the party, but the night air was helping to clear it. Even so, the heat and humidity was only slightly more bearable outdoors, which was to be expected of Georgia in the late summertime.
A giggle and the sound of a car door opening drew Lucy’s eyes to a car that was parked about five spaces up. The moon was waning and thin and there were no streetlights, but she could see the two figures standing by the car clearly enough. A girl that Lucy thought looked like someone she’d seen at school was smiling up at a man who looked college-aged. They lingered there, the passenger side door opened and waiting while they murmured and kissed. Not wanting to disturb them, Lucy stopped walking and turned away from them in order to lean against the bumper of a sports car.
She leaned her head back and looked at the moon, watching as purple-grey clouds slowly rolled across it. The black trees to both sides of the road hissed and rustled, as the couple got into their car and pulled away. She allowed herself another moment to enjoy the night before pushing off from the bumper and continuing on to her car.
“So how was your date with Kyle?”
Lucy tripped in her platform boots and shuffled awkwardly for a few steps until she regained her balance. Glaring at her shorter friend, made much shorter with the added boost to Lucy’s shoes, she replied with a growl. “It wasn’t a date, Alice.”
Shimmering pink lips drawn taut in a mischievous smile, Alice gave a little nod. “Riiiight. My bad. So, how was your not-date with Kyle?”
Directing her glare at the sidewalk, Lucy thought about the party and could practically taste the stuffy, pungent air inside that house. She wrinkled her nose at the memory and fiddled with one of her rings. “Bad. I left early.”
“Eh? But why?” Alice was the only one of Lucy’s friends who knew about her little crush, which had been developing since she was fourteen.
“Wasn’t what he made it out to be. Too noisy. Not my scene.”
A thoughtful hum came from Alice as they continued to walk, and Lucy tried to distract herself by looking at the clothing on display in the store windows. “You could have suggested that the two of you leave together,” Alice offered up at last.
Releasing a startled squawk, Lucy looked back at her friend, not able to believe she just heard those words come out of Alice’s mouth. Alice! The girl who had a rule about waiting until the third date before kissing, and who swore up and down that she would save herself until marriage.
Laughing, Alice shoved Lucy’s shoulder gently, her gold charm bracelets twinkling softly. “That’s not what I meant! I meant you guys could have gone somewhere else. Like go get something to eat or see a movie.”
“I think that would be a bit too much like a date for Kyle’s liking, Al.” A shop window sported a mannequin wearing a black flapper dress and a deep purple wig in the style of a ‘20s bob. Lucy stopped and looked at the dress, wondering if she should get something like it when prom rolled around. If she was even going to go. Not that she needed to concern herself with that now, since it was still early September. She watched Alice’s reflection in the window as it moved to stand beside her own.
They were an odd pair, she mused, one girl in all black and the other in various shades of pink. Despite seeming like such a mismatched pair, Lucy Kincade and Alice Jeong had been friends since they were children. Back then, Lucy wore colorful clothing, and Alice had been a shy bookworm. Time and circumstance had a way of changing tastes and personalities, but not their friendship.
Right then, it looked as if her friend desperately wanted to help her out, even though Lucy would prefer she didn’t. She continued to watch Alice’s reflection while pretending to be studying the merchandise visible beyond the display. Dark, almond-shaped eyes were staring sadly at Lucy, while perfect white teeth were chewing away at sticky, pink gloss.
Finally, it seemed that Alice had obtained some sort of epiphany, because her reflected face lit up with a smile. “Why don’t you ask him out next time?” Alice suggested. At Lucy’s continued silence, Alice seemed to feel the need to elaborate. “You know, as, like…friends. Ask him to a place where there will be other people, only not something like last night. Show him what kind of scene you’re into, and then maybe he’ll know of more places like it that the two of you can…um…go to.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, really. The only problem would be getting the courage to ask him and in a casual way so that he wouldn’t think it was a date. Unless he wanted it to be a date. Was dating always so complicated, or was it just her? Maybe it was just so complicated because he was a friend. Situations like that could be tricky, since one always had to consider any and all repercussions. If she asked him out on a date and he had no interest in her, there was the potential of ruining a very good friendship that had lasted years. On the other hand, perhaps it was exactly because the friendship lasted so long that it could survive any awkwardness that would occur from her bringing such an unrequited love into the light. Then again, there was always that slim chance that he returned her feelings, in which case confessing would prove to be a winning gamble. Too bad Lucy never cared for games of chance.
Alice was starting to look a little apprehensive again, so Lucy summoned a smile and turned back to face her friend. “Yeah. Sounds good.” They resumed their walking and Lucy tossed her head back towards the window they were just at. “So, you think I’d look good in a dress like that?”
Glancing back as if she hadn’t just gotten a good long look at the thing, Alice gave a shrug and an assuring smile. “’Course. You’ve definitely got the legs for it, pasty though they are. But where the hell would you wear that?”
Lucy lifted and dropped her right shoulder with feigned indifference. “MnMMmn. The prom, maybe.” She couldn’t help but grin as her friend burst out laughing, especially when Alice started going on about how at least it would be better than something from Morticia Adams’ garage sale.
Monday snuck up quicker than expected, and soon Lucy found herself back at school and swept up in the usual routine. Chemistry sucked, as usual, and she made a mental note to ask her friend Krysti for help on homework later.
“And how is my darling Lucille today?” cooed Alice as she locked arms with Lucy in the hall as they walked.
“Perfect now that you’re here, doll.” Lucy topped the mock flirting off with an over-exaggerated wink that had Alice giggling and shoving against her playfully. “Got your assignment done for English?”
“More or less.” Alice wrinkled her nose and released Lucy’s arm so they could make their way into the classroom one at a time. “I mean, it’s finished, of course. It’s just… Poetry is totally not my thing. I do short stories. I like plot and characters and exciting twists.”
They made their ways to their seats at the front of the class, side-by-side. Sitting down, they both began to rifle through their backpacks in search of folders and text books. “Well, poems can have those things.” Lucy had some trouble finding her pencil, and had to start pulling out random items from that compartment—keys, erasers, crumpled pieces of paper, a compass, a protractor… Ah. There it was.
“Psh. Rarely. And it’s not the same. Besides, we were supposed to write a sonnet, not something that spans pages like ‘The Raven.’” Alice twirled her long black hair distractedly, staring down at the printed page of poetry on her desk as if it were a plague-ridden blanket.
Pulling out her own assignment, Lucy shook her head at her friend’s concern. “I’m sure you did fine. You didn’t get into Honors English for no reason, Al. If you can tackle complex plot lines, surely you can compose a few lines of—” The door closing cut her off, and the room fell silent as Mr. Pulchrum walked to the podium in front of the class.
“Good day, class,” greeted Pulchrum, a wide smile cutting across his pale face and perpetual stubble. He always had a sort of anemic look about him, and often had purplish bruises lingering around his eyes to denote lack of sleep. Sometimes Lucy worried he wasn’t taking care of himself, especially when she’d look up from grading papers for him during her period as his assistant, to find him passed out in his chair, mouth open to release soft snores. Even so, he was always upbeat and would be quite energetic in his lectures on things such as dramatic irony. If Lucy was truly honest with herself, she would admit that she found him more than a little charming.
Purely because of his personality, of course. It had nothing to do with his totally touchable light brown hair and brilliantly shaded hazel-green eyes.
Pulchrum asked if anyone wanted to read their poetry, and Lucy waited until a few others went before she volunteered, so that she wouldn’t appear too eager. Afterwards, Pulchrum flashed her a delighted smile and she felt butterfly wings brushing against the walls of her stomach. It always made her elated when people liked her poetry, and she valued a man like Pulchrum’s opinion more than that of anyone else she knew. Because he was brilliant, of course, not because of how nicely his shirts clung to his frame.
The happy feeling lingered as she made her way to the cafeteria with Alice after class, which was probably a good thing since it helped keep back any flash of nervousness she would have otherwise felt when Kyle sat down at her table.
“Sorry you didn’t like the party, Luce,” he said by way of greeting.
“That’s okay,” she waved it off with a carrot stick and a smile. “Sorry I abandoned you.”
“Don’t be!” His grin upon saying this made her instantly suspicious. “Seems you were scarin’ the girls away. They thought you were my girlfriend or something. Not long after you left, I managed to get, like, three numbers. It was sweet. I think one of them was in college. Her name is Gwen or Lynne or something. It was hard to make out.”
The little butterflies had all gone and Lucy mourned their deaths. Chewing carrots so she would have the excuse of not being able to smile too broadly, she crinkled her eyes in what she hoped was a friendly way. “Good to hear,” she said between chews. “Glad I didn’t spoil your night.” She ignored Alice’s soft elbow nudge to her side and ate with the gusto of the starved.
Eva and Jim finally emerged from the lunch line, and were arguing about something, which was nothing new.
“I’m just saying, you complain enough about people mistaking you for a Jamaican, and I seriously doubt the dreads are going to help.”
“I can’t help it that people here see a black man with an English accent and can’t understand that means I’m from England.” With a full name like James William Lukehurst IV, it was hard to see how much more English he could get.
“At least people don’t stare at you for an uncomfortably long amount of time before trying to guess your ethnicity.” Rolling her eyes, Eva Kuntz-Tenno slid into her usual spot while Jim took his seat across from her.
“I’m just tired of people asking me if I’m off to a costume party dressed as Jimi bloody Hendrix. It’s time for a change.”
“Then stop dressing like Hendrix. Like, seriously, do you own anything made after the seventies? But why dreads?”
Jim sniffed, lifting his chin. “They look good.”
“Oh, stuff it.”
Watching the entertaining exchange, Lucy tried not to look at Kyle, but ended up having to because of the advent of Krysti Van Schuyler at his side. Merrily setting her tray down, the stylish blonde proceeded to inform the group that she was going to join something called a LARP.
“Means live action role-play,” she explained with an excited giggle. “I’m going to be a Drow priestess of Lolth!”
“Seriously?” Alice looked scandalized. “You mean…Like those people that run around in the woods wearing funny clothes and swinging padded sticks at each other?”
“Oh, you know what it is!” Neither the look on Alice’s face nor her tone must have processed fully in Krysti’s mind, since all she seemed to understand were the words. “Looks like fun, doesn’t it? I even get to use my D&D character!” Then Krysti suddenly turned her enthusiastic attention to Eva. “You should consider joining, too. I’d think it’s right up your alley, since you get to act and all.”
A hesitant smile came to Eva’s lips and she swirled her cheese into her chili as a distraction. “I dunno… I’m not really into those kinds of things.”
“But you can be any kind of character you want. You like wolves, right? You can be a werewolf.”
Eva snickered and licked her spoon clean. “A werewolf?”
“Yeah! Well, they’re technically called long-tooth shifters, since I think werewolf characters can only be used as monsters, but still! You can howl and pretend you’re a shape-shifter or something. It’ll be fun. You could be my ally in the battle against the good guys.”
The spoon returned to the chili, moving slower this time in its rotations. Eva’s green-gold eyes followed it and no longer looked up at Krysti. “Sorry, hon. I’ll have to pass.” Then a smile came to her lips, but Lucy noticed it did not reach her eyes. “With any luck, I’ll get a decent part in the play coming up. If that happens, I won’t have much in the way of free time.”
Krysti made a noise like a disappointed cat and pouted for a moment before digging into her own meal. When a hand grasped her shoulder, she dropped her spoon and quickly checked to make sure none of the chili got on her expensive blouse. Satisfied that she was clean, Krysti looked up at the girl who was now hovering near her shoulder.
“Sorry to interrupt,” the girl apologized. “Did I hear you talking about a LARP?”
Lucy eyed the girl, recognizing her as one of the girls from the goth clique which was commonly called the “vamps” due to their penchant for wearing elegant, Victorian-inspired outfits all year long. While Lucy was often called a goth by her peers, she was never a part of any of the varieties of goth cliques found at her school. She got along with most of them, but they were far too concerned with treating it as a lifestyle choice. Lucy liked the clothes and most of the music and certainly most of the literature, but she didn’t want to feel restricted from loving other things as well.
When Krysti gave a hesitant nod, the goth girl smiled excitedly. “I had no idea you were into that! Our current role-playing group is thinking about taking things to that level. If you’ve got the time, you should totally come check our group out. We’re always open for new members.” The goth’s words had Krysti literally bouncing in her seat.
“What’s your game about?” she asked, a squeal of delight to her voice.
“It’s a sort of creatures of the night thing, called Chains of the Damned. A fairly new game that’s not really got a lot of attention yet. Don’t see why, though; it has such a fascinating system and world. Also, you’d love our GM. He’s a brilliant storyteller, and he keeps things running smoothly. Probably helps that he’s the creator of the game.” Lucy was amused to see that Krysti’s eyes were gleaming by this point and that she was hanging on every word.
With a soft chuckle, Lucy turned back to her food. Her gaze brushed past Kyle and caught for a moment. He was laughing at something Jim just said. In that moment—that little insignificant speck of time—Lucy realized that she had a thing for smiles. Truly, she was a sucker for a man with a handsome smile. Kyle’s smile made his cheeks and chin poke outwards until they formed a heart together. This always caused his eyes to crinkle up into sparkling slits. He had a smile that warmed her when she looked at it.
“Hey, you were at the party Friday, right?” a new voice asked, snapping Lucy’s attention away from Kyle and making her look towards the source of the question. It seemed that another of the vamps had wandered over to join her friend in discussing games with Krysti, and she was studying Lucy with an uncertain smile. It was the girl whom Lucy had seen leaving with the older man, and for an instant Lucy felt a little nervous that the girl had perhaps recognized her from that moment as well. Maybe she thought Lucy was peeping at them or something. Trying to shake off her nerves, Lucy brought her hand up to tuck some hair back behind her ear and fiddle with the black loop of her cartilage piercing.
“Ah. Yeah, I was there. So was Kyle,” she added, nodding towards the boy in question.
The vamp’s smile brightened and she nodded. Her posture relaxed to suggest friendship and familiarity, as if having gone to the same party meant they shared something special. “Great party, right? I ended up running into our GM, actually.”
At this, the first goth girl broke from her conversation with Krysti to turn to her friend. “Really?” When she got a nod of confirmation, the first girl’s smile turned almost shy as she asked “Did he say anything about me?”
The second vamp’s lips twitched at one corner before gliding smoothly into a smile. “We didn’t really get a chance to talk that much,” she offered in apology.
“The music was too loud for conversation,” Lucy tossed in, for some inexplicable reason feeling as though she should help the girl out. Evidently their game master was quite the contested piece of meat. Hopefully Krysti wouldn’t go to their games, or else Lucy worried she’d fall for him, too. As much as she adored the girl, Lucy found it ridiculous how quickly Krysti fell in and out of love. Granted, Lucy’s head could be turned by a hot guy, but she didn’t insist it was her true love each time.
“Looked like you were conversating just fine, Luce.” The teasing implication in Kyle’s voice had her whipping her attention back to him with a start.
“What are you talking about? I hung out with you in mostly silence, then went home.” Then, as an afterthought, she mumbled, “And ‘conversating’ is not a word.”
He smiled one of his big, warming smiles at her, curving the edges up slightly in a devilish way. “Ah, but not before stopping to flirt with some college boys. Nice job soakin’ his shirt, by the way. Man, this is why I say sexism goes both ways. Had I done something like that in order to get a similar view of a girl’s chest, I’d have been slapped and called a pervert.” Kyle was laughing by now, and everyone else was looking at Lucy with interest.
“It was an accident!” she squawked, but evidently that was not excuse enough.
“You didn’t tell me about playing wet T-shirt contest with some hot college guy! You told me you had no fun at all!” Alice was looking torn between amusement and anger.
“I’m coming to the next party!” declared Jim, raising his hand as if volunteering for something in class. “If she’s going to go about making clothing transparent on hot young men, I want to be there to witness.”
Eva snorted after swallowing a spoonful of chili. “Purely for artistic reasons, right, Jim? Studying the human form so you can better capture it through sculpture?”
“Oh, you know it! And since it’s to improve my sculpting, of course I’ll need some hands-on experience. So that I can better memorize curves and texture, of course.”
“Of course.” Smirking, Eva exchanged a devilish leer with Jim.
“Wait,” Krysti interrupted with the urgent tones of someone who just caught up with the conversation. “Lucy was rubbing all over some wet guy at the party on Friday?”
For a moment, all Lucy could do was gape like a fish trying to breathe on land, while Eva and Jim snickered and Kyle grinned. Alice seemed to accept this new statement as truth, and she was starting to go off on Lucy with a voice made high-pitched from shock. “Lucille Kitt Kincade! What on earth has gotten into you, going around molesting wet men! But most importantly, why did you not tell me?”
The vamp from the party offered a conspiratorial smile and leaned down over the table beside Krysti. “Was he cute?”
“Well, he was, actually,” she said without thinking. Then, after a beat: “I did not rub all over him!”
“So you only rubbed part of him?” Eva asked by way of elaboration, eyebrows raised and mocking smirk tugging up a corner of her mouth.
“Ooo, did you get his number?” inquired the vamp, who Lucy felt was taking far too much interest in her love life.
“I—there was no rubbing! And no, I did not get his number. I’m not even interested in him!”
“Aw, too bad.” The vamp straightened back up with a pout playing on her deep burgundy lips. “I was going to suggest you come to a party that my friend’s throwing this Friday, since there’s a chance he might show up at that one, too. But, if you aren’t interested…”
“I’d be game,” Kyle piped in, one of his wide grins aimed full-force at the vamp. “I had fun this past Friday, and I met some people I’d like to hang out with again.”
Lucy changed her mind; Kyle’s smiles were goofy and stupid and he gave them out too freely. “What time is the party?” she asked the vamp.
“Eight,” was the response, and it appeared that the girl was pleased to have obtained two more guests for the event. “I’ll give you directions tomorrow at lunch.”
“Sounds great,” said Kyle, still smiling at her as she left with her friend to rejoin the rest of their clique. Lucy viciously stabbed her applesauce with her spoon.
“Halloween come early this year?” Friday evening found Lucy standing in her doorway staring at Eva and Jim as if they’d gone insane. The two of them were on her welcome mat and dressed to the nines in gothic wear.
Eva was wearing black slacks tucked into red combat boots, a black dress shirt with red pinstripes with a vest over it of reverse colors, and a solid black fedora that had a small red feather tucked into its strap. Lucy only ever saw Eva wearing make-up when she was on stage, so she was even more shocked to notice the smoky eyeliner and shadow, as well as the deep red lips lined with black. Eva’s long black hair was in its customary braid and trailing down her back, which exposed her dangling earrings that were comprised of little black heart fragments suspended by fine red chains.
Taking a different approach, Jim’s ensemble looked more casual. His black denim pants were flared towards the end and hid most of his Converse sneakers, and the legs of the pants were loaded down with pockets, rings, and straps. Practically painted onto his chest, his shirt was black with a giant grinning skull stretched across the front, which went with his Jolly Roger hair kerchief very well. He wasn’t wearing any special jewelry, his usual silver loop glinting from his right earlobe.
She had no idea where they got all that stuff, since neither of them were the kind to wear such things, but she was a little afraid to ask. “Sorry, kids, but I don’t have any candy.”
“Guess we’ll just have to egg the house,” Eva replied with a shrug.
“We came to join you for a fun-filled evening of wet clothing!” Jim flashed a grin before cringing as Eva elbowed him in the ribs.
“I’m closing the door now.” Which Lucy promptly began to do, except she found it difficult to complete the task while Eva had a large combat boot in the way.
“Don’t be like that. We’re not going to get in your way of wooing Kyle.” Letting her usual sardonic mask slip away, Eva gave Lucy a sincere look.
The alien expression on her friend’s face almost distracted Lucy from her words. “Who said anything about wooing Kyle!”
Just like that, the mocking smirk was back on Eva’s lips. “Oh come on, Lucy. It’s obvious.”
“No it isn’t!” Oh, God, how she hoped it wasn’t.
“Yeah. It is.” This time it was Jim who tossed in his two cents, and Lucy looked at him in alarm. He offered her a little smile which she was sure was probably intended to comfort. “Don’t worry, though. I don’t think he’s noticed.”
“Probably the only person who hasn’t,” snorted Eva.
“In any case,” said Jim, “we wanted to come. Eva’s offered to drive us. We know how your mum is reluctant to let you borrow the car, so we figured this would be a good incentive to bring us along.”
Lucy stared blankly at Jim for a moment. “Why do you want to come, though? Despite what your current costumes would suggest, I know you two aren’t into this kind of crowd.”
Eva shrugged. “I’m bored and this provides a chance to play dress-up.”
Jim grinned. “I’m shopping for models!”
Lucy sighed. “I’ll grab my shoes.”
A few hours later, Lucy found herself alone in a crowd. Evidently Kyle had found one of the girls he’d met at the last party, or perhaps simply hooked himself a new one. Either way, he was chatting up a girl with cough drop red hair and brown roots. Lucy couldn’t hear what they were saying over the music from such a distance, but she could guess. The girl’s body language was suggesting they go somewhere to get better acquainted, and Kyle’s smile was suggesting a dark corner away from prying eyes. Feeling her stomach liquefy and drain down to her toes, Lucy looked around for her other friends so she could find support. Jim was talking with some boys, employing his usual wide, emphatic hand gestures to illustrate his points. Eva was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she’d gone outside. Intent on finding her, Lucy made her way to the door.
Eva wasn’t anywhere on the wrap-around veranda, nor could Lucy see her in the yard amongst the other kids. Right when she was going to give up, she noticed someone with dark hair and a light-colored shirt lounging alone in the tall grass. She climbed down the porch steps at the back of the house and wandered out onto the expansive and horribly overgrown lawn. When she drew close enough, the figure turned and Ren was staring at her with impossibly dark eyes. At first his expression was blank, and then the spark of recognition flickered across his features and he smirked.
“Come to pour more expensive beer on me?” he asked, and his teeth flashed brilliantly in the dim moonlight.
“I was looking for a friend of mine, actually,” Lucy responded, with perhaps more defensiveness to her tone than was warranted. She had been looking for Eva, though—at least at first.
“I don’t think your boyfriend and I look very much alike, so I can’t imagine you saw me out here and mistook me for him.”
Lucy’s cheeks burned and she hoped the night washed the color out. “Kyle’s not my boyfriend.” Then, a breath later, she added: “Besides, it was my friend Eva I was looking for.”
The confused and insulted expression on Ren’s face made Lucy feel much better. “You mistook me for a girl?” Shrugging, Lucy didn’t vocally respond, but she did allow herself a satisfied smirk which practically mirrored the one he’d worn earlier. Ren shook his head and turned away from her in order to lie back in the grass, pillowing his head on his folded arms.
Uninvited, Lucy sat down beside him. “Where’s the lizard guy?” she asked, her attention directed upwards towards the stars.
“The wha—? Oh. You mean Nick. He’s around. Somewhere. Bastard abandoned me as soon as his ex showed up. He’s been trying to get her back, and evidently he’s succeeding.”
“Well, why aren’t you in there mingling, making new friends?”
“Why aren’t you?”
She raised and lowered one shoulder in a falsely careless shrug, visions of red hair and sharp smiles flitting before her eyes. “Not really my scene,” she said softly.
“Why come, then?”
No response came to mind that didn’t make her sound pathetic and foolish. Eventually she sighed and pulled her knees up to her chest. “Because I’m an idiot.”
“So he’s not your boyfriend, but not for lack of wanting on your part.” It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t feel compelled to answer. Instead, she continued hugging her knees and gazing up at the stars. A whippoorwill was calling in the distance, and the trees surrounding the house whispered like waves on a shore. A soft breeze carried the scent of pine and Ren’s scent—some kind of cologne or aftershave that was spicy and earthy.
Before the silence stretching between them could grow too awkward, she broke it with a question. “What about you? Why do you come to these things? Judging by the way you dress, this isn’t your kind of scene, either.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t judge people by how they dress.” His cliché admonition caused her to turn and look at him. The moonlight made him seem to glow ever so softly, with his pale shirt—was it baby blue tonight?—and fair skin. Instead of finding him beautiful like that, she was struck by how ill it made him appear to be. He looked washed out like an old photograph. The sallow tone of his skin suggested it was not his natural shade, and that he was meant to be tan and olive-toned. Dark brown, seemingly black eyes looked up at her from shadowed sockets, the skin around them bruised from chronic insomnia. His shaggy hair was the same color as his eyes, and it brushed his shoulders and spilled over his folded arms. He was grinning cheekily at her, and she noticed his teeth weren’t as perfect or as white as she had thought a moment ago. They seemed to crowd each other in places, and they showed signs of him either being addicted to coffee or cigarettes.
She must have been staring for a while, because the grin shifted ever so subtly. “I don’t do replacement work.”
“What?” She blinked at him and searched his dark eyes for a clue as to what he was talking about.
“I’m not interested in replacing your crush.”
Refusing to turn away, she glared down at him. “Good, because I’m not interested in you. Period.”
“Now, I know that’s a lie.” Oh, how she wanted to wipe that smug look right off his face. “If there was no interest, you wouldn’t have made yourself at home next to me like this. I’m also willing to bet I don’t really bare such a striking resemblance to your girlfriend.”
Gritting her teeth, Lucy thought up and vetoed several responses before finally just grunting in frustrated defeat. “Fine, let me amend that. I’m not interested in you romantically.”
His eyebrows shot up, and it looked like he was trying to fight off a laugh. “No strings attached sort of deal, huh?”
“For someone who claims no interest, your words seem to suggest otherwise.”
The laugh finally escaped him, and it made any thoughts of illness vanish from her mind. In that moment he reminded her of wild tricksters of old—satyrs, imps, foxes. “I said I had no interest in being a love replacement. Never said I had no interest in other things.”
“There you are!” The voice behind her provided a second’s warning before hands fell on her shoulders with a momentum that nearly knocked her over. She tilted her head back and saw Kyle’s upside-down face beaming back at her, warm brown eyes crinkled in amusement.
“How unfortunate,” Ren bemoaned as he sat up and finger-combed his messy hair. “You totally ruined the moment.”
“There was no moment,” Lucy gritted out with a glare towards Ren.
Kyle didn’t seem to pay any attention. “Luce, sorry to interrupt or whatever—”
“You’re not interrupting.”
“—but I just thought I’d let you know I’m heading out,” he finished. Lucy shifted in preparation to stand, but Kyle’s hands on her shoulders gently held her down. “With Nova.” Her stomach gave a sickening twist. He leaned in close and smiled wide. She could smell that overpowering cologne of his, and the sweet tang of spiked soda. “So don’t worry about me,” he assured with a wink. “Seems you’re having your own fun.” Then just as suddenly as he had arrived, he was gone. In a daze, she watched as he ran across the yard towards the redhead. She wanted to throw up. Or cry. No, not cry. Especially not in front of Ren.
“What an ass. And that’s the guy you’re interested in?”
Without responding, Lucy rose to her feet and started walking off towards the woods. She wanted to be alone, away from that stupid party with its stupid people, and especially away from that stupid Ren. He was calling out to her, but she didn’t care; she just kept walking.
There was a small footpath which seemed to be slowly getting eaten up by the untamed forest. She followed along the barely-existent trail, letting the trees blot out the faint moonlight as well as the sounds of youthful revelry. It was here in the concealing solitude of the forest that she allowed herself to let go and cry.
She was nearly silent, even as her sobs shook her body. The art of silent crying was something she had mastered years ago, after her father’s death, when she’d lie awake in the early hours of the morning and cry until the sun crept into her room. She felt ashamed now as she stood there crying over some boy. There had been many times in the past when she’d been disgusted by girls who were doing the very same thing. “You think something like that hurts?” she’d ask, fresh wounds and frustration making her eyes burn. “Boyfriends, at least, can be replaced. I wish my life was like yours—so free of pain that something so trivial would matter so much.”
Why did it matter now? Why had she become the very thing which annoyed her? I’m pathetic, she thought to herself as her chest heaved with another painful, gasping sob. He’s not worth this. Why am I letting him get to me so much?
Frantically Lucy wiped her eyes and forced her breathing back to normal before Eva could get close enough to see that she’d been crying. Thank God for waterproof mascara.
“Hey, Eva,” she greeted jovially, turning to face her friend with the best smile she could muster. “I’d been looking for you earlier. Where ya been?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” Eva was close now, and even in the grey darkness Lucy could see worry etched clearly upon her face. “I got caught up in a discussion about Tennessee Williams, and when I turned around, you were gone. Then I see Kyle macking on some hair stylist’s nightmare, and I figured you’d need some company. Trouble was, I couldn’t find you. Asked around and was directed to some shaggy-haired guy, who said you’d bolted into the woods as soon as Kyle left with Kool-aid head.”
“I wanted to be alone for a moment.” She turned away, feeling the tingle of newly developing tears. “I’m fine, though. I’ll head back to the party in a few minutes.”
Eva was silent, but Lucy heard her boots crunching on the carpet of dry leaves as she stepped closer. Then, with a hushed voice that both confused and alarmed Lucy, Eva whispered near her ear. “Come back now. With me. Quietly.”
Lucy opened her mouth to ask Eva what the deal was, but her friend’s hand suddenly grasping her upper arm stopped her short. Her mouth snapped closed and in the ensuing silence, she heard something from beyond the bushes to her left. Turning her head towards the sound, she made out the mingling figures of two people pressed against a tree. The couple was producing wet, sometimes sucking-like sounds, occasionally accompanied by a growl or groan. Kissing, was Lucy’s first thought, They’re just two kids from the party making-out in the woods. Something in the way Eva was gripping her arm and radiating tension made her question her initial assessment. Listening more closely, she noticed with a cold tremor that the sounds weren’t right for kissing. A memory popped into her mind of her older brother Mick doing his best to annoy her as he chewed an excessive serving of steak with his mouth open, smacking the meat with his teeth.
Shifting slightly, she strained to get a better look at the couple, even as Eva started tugging at her arm. The wind assisted her by blowing enough on the bushes that she caught long, clear glimpses of them. They were a few yards away, and the shadows were as thick as the vegetation, but moonlight has a way of highlighting certain things. There was a woman—and Lucy could tell it was a woman by the curves—pressing against a man, the tree at his back. It was the man who was facing towards Lucy, and she saw skin glowing pale blue in the moonlight as he tilted his head back with a moan. The woman’s dark head moved down along his cheek, his chin, working towards his neck. As soon as his entire face was in clear view, Lucy had to use every scrap of willpower not to scream. Eva was pulling more urgently at her arm, and this time Lucy allowed herself to be pulled away. Her eyes never left the scene, staring even as the increasing distance and shifting branches made them seem to be nothing more than obscure shadows.
The next few minutes passed by in a confusing rush. Eva pulled her back to the house, where the yelled conversations and the pounding music seemed as distant as they’d been while she was in the woods. On the other hand, that distinctive, wet smacking sound seemed to linger in her ears. Jim was there, objecting to Eva’s insistence that they leave. Then he must have seen Lucy’s face, because his objections came to an abrupt end and he was asking about what had happened, and was Lucy alright? Bodies bumped against her, and Eva’s grip on her hand hurt, but Lucy said nothing as she was pulled through the crowd.
“What happened?” Ren’s face was in front of her suddenly, his look of concern confusing her. Why would he be so worried about a stranger? It didn’t seem right or real. Nothing looked or felt real, and instantly it made sense to Lucy to think the entire evening had been a dream.
Eva must have offered a satisfactory excuse, because Ren was backing off and Lucy was being pulled along again. They climbed into Eva’s car, Lucy in the back, and the thought of being there alone made her grab Jim’s shirt in sudden panic. Without question, he got in next to her and shut the door. She didn’t let go, even after Eva had started the engine and left the party behind in a cloud of dust. The trees whirling past her window looked more threatening to her now than they ever had before, and she drew away from them, clinging to Jim for dear life.
The image would not leave her head, the sounds still ringing in her ears. She felt sick again, like after Kyle left but worse. Much worse. She was sick and dizzy and cold, and her body was trembling.
“Eva,” she said, the first words she’d spoken since the woods. Her voice was barely audible over the whisper-quiet engine, and each sound was cracked and crumbling like dried clay. “Eva, we need to call the police.”
“Not right now,” Eva said distractedly as she concentrated on navigating the dark roads without breaking too many traffic laws.
“We have to,” Lucy insisted, letting go of Jim’s shirt in order to grasp the front seats and pull herself forward. “He was still alive! We have to call for help!”
Eva shifted gears, her tan knuckles turning white as she gripped the clutch. “By the time help arrives, he’ll be dead and she’ll be long gone.”
The small part of Lucy’s brain which was still capable of rational thought despite her panic understood Eva’s reasoning. She knew it was true, but she didn’t want to believe it. She didn’t want to believe any of it.
“Who’ll be dead?” Jim’s eyes were wide, and he sounded confused as well as more than a little frightened. “What the hell happened?”
“Lucy and I saw someone being attacked in the woods,” Eva offered as explanation, her eyes on the road ahead of them.
“Attacked?” Lucy and Jim chorused in unison, but Lucy continued with: “He looked like he was enjoying it! Oh, God, how could anyone…” She felt bile rise in her throat, and she swallowed down as she sank back into the cushions of the seat.
“Enjoying what? Being attacked? Will someone please tell me what happened!”
Lucy squeezed her eyes shut and hugged her stomach. The image was there behind her eyelids, just as clear and surreal as it had been as she’d witnessed it. Moon pale skin and dark, irregular shadows that gleamed, sticky and wet. “A girl was…eating…some guy’s face.” The words sounded so odd to her once they came out of her mouth, and she was torn between laughing and vomiting.
The car rumbled on in silence for a few moments, and though she kept her eyes closed, Lucy was certain Jim’s face was twisted up in disgusted disbelief. “Seriously?” he finally asked.
“Seriously,” Eva deadpanned back.
Jim cursed under his breath and leaned back to join Lucy. She felt his arm come around her and she leaned into his warmth. The rest of the commute passed in silence as Lucy watched the scene play on loop in her mind.
Eva took them to her house, which Lucy had visited several times since childhood, though it was a first for Jim. As soon as Eva had the front door unlocked, she was rushing in and calling out, “Papa! Mama!”
Her father came into the living room looking anxious and concerned. Eva’s father was Dr. Hartmut Kuntz, a dark-haired German immigrant with vivid green eyes and a strong physique. Even though he must have been middle-aged, he still looked quite young and fit, only a few streaks of grey in his hair betraying his true age. He was wearing his usual ensemble of slacks, a dress shirt, and a sweater vest, his hair perfectly arranged without a strand out of place.
“What is it, Eva?” he asked with an accent coloring his words. “You are home early.”
Grabbing both of her father’s hands, Eva erupted into rapid German rambling that was assumed to be entirely lost on Lucy and Jim. Well, at least it was entirely lost on Lucy, if her blank expression was anything to go by. Jim’s face, however, was a mask of concentration as he watched the two of them talk. “Do you understand any of what she’s saying?” Lucy whispered to him.
He flicked her a quick glance before fixing his eyes on the conversation again. “Some. Not much, but some. Like something about walking in the woods and seeing a man and a woman…”
Turning her attention back to Eva, Lucy listen more closely, as if trying to see if she could identify any of the words from the severely limited German vocabulary she had picked up from Eva over the years. Looking back to Jim, she saw he was squinting now, his face squished in perplexed contemplation. “What? What’s wrong?” she asked, maintaining her hushed tone.
Turning his head slightly towards her but keeping his eyes on Eva, Jim whispered back. “Scheusal.”
“Scheusal. Eva said something about the woman and her being a ‘scheusal,’ but I have no idea what that is. They’re using it a lot now, though.” Jim then tried to relay what he could decipher to Lucy, speaking as softly as possible so that Eva and her father wouldn’t hear. Dr. Kuntz asked if Eva was certain about whatever it was she had said, that part Jim said was easy to translate. When Eva nodded and prattled out her anxious response, Jim said it felt like he was listening to a radio station that kept fuzzing out in static. Only bits and pieces were clear to him, but the gaps between the familiar made the entire thing incomprehensible. All he was certain of was that this scheusal, whatever it was, had Eva upset. He also was able to translate what he was confident had to do with the man’s face getting eaten.
“Why are they talking in German?” Lucy asked, suspicion seeping through her shock and fear.
Having no explanation, Jim simply clenched his jaw and shook his head.
They continued watching the animated conversation, until Eva’s father suddenly turned on them with a somber expression. “You will stay here tonight. Both of you. You will be safe.”
“Um. Okay.” Jim looked surprised by the sudden command, most likely because he’d never been ordered to stay the night at a girl’s house before, let alone by the girl’s father. “I’ll take the couch then, yeah?”
“You can take Günter’s room,” Dr. Kuntz offered as he attempted to manage a smile despite his eyes now looking haunted and preoccupied.
“Where’s Günter going to sleep, then?”
Eva looked at Jim as if he was an idiot. “His apartment.”
“What, I’m supposed to know! There are many people who still live at home while in college.”
Rolling her eyes, Eva motioned for Jim to follow her down the hall. “I’ll show you where you’ll be stayin’.”
Just as Lucy took a step to join them, Dr. Kuntz stepped into her path. “Will you please join me on the couch for a moment?” His smile was still screwed on firmly, but Lucy felt none of the warmth which he tried to convey. He sat on the plush leather couch and patted the seat next to him, which she sank down onto without comment. There was an awkward moment as Dr. Kuntz stared blankly at the Persian rug and Lucy tried not to fidget. Then his strong shoulders rose and fell in a heavy sigh and he straightened his posture as he turned his head to face her. “You had quite a scare tonight, didn’t you?”
“We need to call the police.” Lucy didn’t want comforting, she wanted to help the man she saw, or at the very least bring his assailant to justice.
Dr. Kuntz studied her for a moment, his fake smile wiped away. She felt odd under his scrutiny, as if he was looking into her, beyond her, and seeing things she’d never comprehend. “Yes. I will go take care of things now. I just wanted you to know that you are safe here. No one will get you here.”
Her eyebrows drew together and she tried to read his eyes like they were reading her, but they were as indecipherable to her as his native tongue. “Thanks,” she heard herself say, and the sound was small and meek to her own ears. He patted her shoulder, a wan smile passing across his lips, then stood and walked into another room. Seconds later she heard the beeping of a cell phone’s buttons followed by his rich voice talking in low murmurs.
As she sat there puzzling over what just happened, a low whistle from the hall drew her attention and she rose to investigate. Jim was standing in front of a frame containing various family photos, his eyes fixed on one image in particular.
Moving to stand beside him, Lucy followed his gaze and found herself looking at a photo of Günter laughing in the sun as he stood on a beach in only damp swim trunks, the sea at his back. His shoulder-length black hair was blowing in the ocean breeze, and his dark tan skin was a stark contrast against the white sands and pale sky. Even though Eva had some of her Japanese mother’s features, she looked more European than Günter, who must have taken more strongly after their mother. Lucy felt herself smile a little as she looked at the image. She’d had a little crush on the guy since she and Eva were children, but she always knew nothing would ever come of it. Günter saw her as another kid sister, and that perception would likely never change.
“What?” Eva was standing to the other side of Jim, crossing her arms and looking between him and the photo. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Jim replied with a nonchalant shrug and a smile, “just surprised that he’s related to you. I mean look at him—he’s gorgeous!” Growling, Eva bopped Jim upside the back of his head. He laughed and rubbed at the offended area, tossing his other arm around Eva’s shoulders. “Hey now, my Artemis, you know you’re lovely.”
Relief flooded through all of them in that moment, heralded by the banter and laughter. The world hadn’t ended. They’d all be okay.
A staged cough alerted them to Dr. Kuntz’s presence, and the three of them turned to see him standing there with a cell phone in his hand and his brows knitted together. He was giving Jim an assessing look, probably reconsidering the wisdom of having a teenaged boy stay the night in his house with two teenaged girls—especially his daughter.
Sensing his thoughts, Eva nodded her head a little towards Jim as a smirk tugged at one corner of her lips. “It’s okay, Papa; girls aren’t his type.”
Jim shoved at her playfully and averted his gaze away from Dr. Kuntz while Eva grinned wolfishly. The physician’s eyebrows rose, and then his considering look returned, but it seemed more calculating than concerned.
“Günter will be coming over for dinner this Wednesday. You two are welcome to come and join us. I’m sure he would love seeing you again, Lucy. He also would like to meet more of Eva’s friends, I’m sure.”
Jim looked a little startled, but he quickly recovered and a smile bloomed. “Sounds lovely, sir. I’d be honored.”
Smiling in return, Dr. Kuntz nodded at Jim, then looked questioningly at Lucy. When she offered a little nod of her own, his smile grew. “Excellent. Now, before you all settle in, might I suggest our guests call their parents? Being one myself, I know how much they worry.”
Lucy slunk away to Dr. Kuntz’s den in order to make her call. Closing her eyes, she took a few steadying breaths before pressing the buttons to activate her speed dial.
“Kincade residence.” her younger brother Donnie’s voice caught her off guard, having braced herself to talk to her mother.
“Hi, Donnie. It’s me.”
“Lucy? Are you okay?” The worry in his tone had her working harder at masking the lingering shock and fear.
“I’m fine. Just tired.” She sat down heavily in Dr. Kuntz’s insanely comfortable desk chair, its gleaming leather creaking loudly in protest.
Evidently her attempts at masking her emotions were failing, because Donnie wasn’t buying it. “What happened? Did someone hurt you at the party?”
She laughed, the action eased by the absurd thought of a twelve-year-old boy charging in to save her from the bad guys. “I’m fine, really. Can I talk to Mom?”
“Fine.” Despite his acquiescence, it was obvious that the subject would be revisited in the near future.
During the brief pause, Lucy again tried to rein in her emotions and hide them beneath layers of believable calm.
Hearing her mother’s voice made it very hard for Lucy’s resolve, a lump trying to inch its way up her throat. “Hey, Mom. Um. Dr. Kuntz offered to have me stay the night, so I was just calling to see if I may?”
“Oh, of course, dear! How are Hartmut and Jomei?”
“Well, I haven’t seen Dr. Tenno yet tonight. She might be out at the moment. But, um, Dr. Kuntz seems well.”
“Good to hear. Is Günter still down in Atlanta?”
“Uh. Yeah. Yeah, he is.”
“I hope he’s enjoying college. Mick says they still talk all the time. We should invite him over when Mick’s back during the winter break, don’t you think? Well, I mean, we should invite all of them, actually. It would be wonderful having them all over for dinner some evening.”
“Yeah, Mom. Sounds great.” The desk’s surface was so dark and polished that it reflected Lucy’s hand with almost mirror perfection. She watched as her fingers danced along the wood, the tips kissing their shadowy twins. It helped to distract her, to calm her.
“Well, you go have fun. Don’t stay up too late, so that you don’t disturb Jomei and Hartmut.”
Her mother’s voice came warm and sweet across the line, and that lump finally wedged itself forcefully in Lucy’s esophagus. “Thank you for calling, dear. Good-night. I love you.”
Tears pricked sharp and hot at Lucy’s eyes and she strained to keep them from her voice when she answered. “Love you, too.”
She quickly ended the call before she was tempted to spill everything, overcome with the impulse to cling to her mother for comfort and protection. There was no way she would do that, though. None of the Kincade children had allowed themselves such a luxury in years. No, quite the contrary: they resolved to be there for their mother, should she ever need their support.
God, she missed her daddy.
Barely keeping the sobs back, she quickly punched at the phone’s screen again and stared at the glowing picture that lit up the screen as it rang. Mick’s pixilated smile looked back up at her, his glasses slipping down his nose as his eyes looked cheekily over the rims. He was growing to look so much like their father. Like Mick, Lucy also had their father’s jet black hair, cadaver pale skin, and frost-colored eyes. Mick was the one with the bone structure and a similar nose, though.
“Hello?” And the same voice.
“Mick.” She let the pain show in her voice this time, knowing it was safe to do so with him. He was the support for his younger siblings, and he’d always performed his job well.
“Lucy? Lucy, what’s wrong?” She heard him shifting around, and could imagine him sprawled out on his dorm bed, books surrounding him that sported formulas and theories that she’d never understand.
After crying for a solid ten minutes as he husked gentle words of comfort in her ear, she told him. She told him everything.
“You’re safe now, though, yes? Christ. You called the cops?”
Breath still hitching, Lucy nodded even though Mick couldn’t see it. “I think Eva’s dad did.”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she choked.
“No. No, no, no…shhhhshshshhh. Calm down, it’s alright. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sure you’re right, and that he called. Everything’s fine.”
“Mick. Mick, I’m scared. I wish you were here.”
“I know, Lucy, me too.” His voice was so gentle, so sweet, and so very much like their father’s that it broke her heart even more. “If you want, I can take a few days off and head down.”
“No.” She tried to muster up the strength she feigned with her mother. “No, don’t cut. Your scholarship…”
“Lucy, it won’t be a problem. I’ll submit my assignments electronically, and—”
“No.” Taking a shuddering breath, she again tried to fight back the tears. “If you come, Mom will suspect…”
“I’ll just tell her we had the days scheduled off as school holidays or something.”
“Mick, please.” She had to whisper to prevent a whine.
“Lucy, you need to have someone there for you. You can’t carry this on your own.”
“I have Eva and Jim with me right now. I’ll be fine.”
Mick sighed and gently knocked the phone against his forehead in frustration. “Dammit, why couldn’t I have just gone to Tech?”
Despite everything, Lucy found herself smiling at the very thought. If he had gone to Georgia Tech instead of M.I.T., then he’d always be nearby. “That would be nice. I miss you so much.”
“God. I miss you, too, Lucy. When winter break comes, you realize I’m not letting you out of my sight, yeah?”
Her smile grew, and the dried tear tracks made her cheeks feel tight. “Sounds like fun.”
That night, as Lucy lay on a roll-out futon on Eva’s floor, she watched the play of light on the ceiling from the outdoor lamps shining through the trees and curtains. Outside, the surrounding forest was alive with insects. Lucy lived in a more suburban area, where the insects were quieter and the cars provided a soothing hum for a lullaby, so the more rural sounds around Eva’s home were strange to her. They always had been, whenever she’d stayed the night, but at least she could get over them eventually and manage some sleep. Not tonight, she suspected, gripping the soft covers so tightly that her nails jabbed her palms through the thick layers.
Dr. Kuntz had said she’d be safe there. For some reason, this scared her more than if he had never said anything at all. Saying such a thing would imply that she would have something to fear outside the house. It was a silly notion, and she knew it, but it would not leave her mind. Why would she think that the woman from earlier would be able to track her down? The woman probably didn’t even know that Eva and Lucy had been there!
There was a howl from somewhere deep in the woods, and Lucy sat up with a reflexive start. “It’s just a coyote,” Eva said softly. Turning her head, Lucy saw Eva staring at her from where she lay in her bed, the light and shadows of the room casting her calm face in sharp relief and making her eyes seem to gleam. “There are a few that hang out around here. Nothing to worry about.”
“’Course.” Eva yawned, even though neither her face nor her voice gave Lucy the impression that she was sleepy. “What did you think it was?” she asked. “A werewolf?”
A hollow laugh came from Lucy’s throat, and she slowly lowered herself back onto her thin bed. “No. I’m just a bit jumpy, I guess.”
There was a thoughtful hum from the bed, then the soft sound of fabric sliding against fabric and creak of springs. “Lucky we’re not further north, in the mountains. There are mountain lions up there, as well as screech owls. Both of them sound like someone screaming bloody murder. Sends chills down your spine to wake up to that in the middle of the night.”
“I’ll bet.” Just thinking about it sent a chill down Lucy’s spine, so she could only imagine what she’d feel upon hearing such a thing. The room fell into silence again, save for the creatures of the night chattering amongst themselves outside. Time passed, and Lucy wasn’t sure if Eva had fallen asleep or not, but she felt she had to ask something, or she’d surely never get to sleep. “Your father called the cops, right?”
At first she was certain Eva had been sleeping, because she received no answer. Just as she closed her eyes to try to force herself to sleep, however, Eva’s steady, quiet voice carried over the chirping and howls. “He handled it. Don’t worry.”
It was hours before Lucy could find sleep, and when she did, she was plagued with strange, macabre dreams. In the last one, which was the clearest and most vivid, Mr. Pulchrum was there, and he had gathered her and several other students together for a special test outside. The landscape was made of white linen, which she had at first mistaken for snow. Dark, rusted fences marred the white as they wound through the oversized folds, boxing off lopsided rectangles. Pulchrum led them to where an old-fashioned lamppost stood near one of the fences. They gathered in its glow, and the rest of that cloth world suddenly seemed so dark and veiled. “Stay in the light,” he said with a grin. “Stay in the light, or they’ll get you. But what you have to do is get them before they can get you.”
“How?” a boy asked—a dream person whom Lucy had never met in real life. She could see his face, but was unable to focus on any one feature at a time.
Pulchrum was suddenly massive, peering down at them as if they were toys on a table. Somehow, Lucy knew that comparison was accurate, since that’s exactly what they were. The street lamp was a table lamp, and the linen landscape was a sheet stretched carelessly across a table. “That’s the test,” the giant Pulchrum replied with a grin. He held a cage up and shook it somewhere in the shadows. “Stay in the light,” he repeated. “Stay in the light and never leave it.”
The shadows—nearly every shadow anywhere—was suddenly swarming with things. Whatever the creatures were, they were as dark as the sky during a new moon, but their bodies sometimes glistened with a slimy slickness. There were wet clicking sounds when they moved, but they did not growl or snarl. All around her, the students were erupting into a panic, screaming that they needed more light, needed weapons, needed to get away.
She looked up at Pulchrum and asked calmly, “Can they get into any shadow?”
“Even the shadows on my face?”
“Especially the shadows on your face.”
Her heart raced, but she did not let her fear show. “I need to get rid of the shadows, but I don’t know how.”
“Stay in the light.”
“Light causes shadows.”
Eyes twinkling, he nodded. “Then you’ll just have to fight them off, won’t you?”
“Before they can get into the shadows on my face?”
Lowering her attention back to her table-top world, she saw that everyone else was gone. “They’ve run off,” Pulchrum’s voice explained. “They went to find better light.”
“There are shadows between the light posts,” she observed, looking around and being unable to see anyone else beneath any of the other lights—lights which she had never noticed until that moment.
“There are always shadows, Lucy.” Above her head, the lamp flickered. “Time to run.”
Around her the shadows clicked and writhed with creatures and Lucy raised her head to Pulchrum again. “I can’t.”
“Run or don’t, it doesn’t matter. There are shadows on your skin.”
“It hurts.” And it did, though it was the first time she realized it. There was clawing and biting from anywhere on her body that existed in shadow.
So she did. She ran through the darkness, the clicks loud near her ears and the sharp claws scraping at her flesh, but she never really saw the creatures. Beneath her feet, the sheet shifted and the world was suddenly whirling around her as the fabric rose and she lost her footing. She was falling, her hands grasping futilely at the cloth.
Twitching and gasping, she opened her eyes to find herself on the floor in Eva’s room. Sunlight was cutting sharply through the gaps in the curtains, streaking the hardwood floors with gold and blazing a trail across Lucy’s face. Squishing her eyes closed against the light, she made no effort to move away, her mind still lingering halfway in her dreams.
It’ll keep the shadows off my face, a voice in her head reasoned.