It’s his turn tonight.
They ran, they pushed forward. A crush of people.
Smoke billowed, and it smelled like burning rubber. For all the chaos, the noises seemed muted, dulled in how the individual elements mixed, the bodies absorbing the sound. Shouts here and there cut through the cries, the noise of people, the sound of something falling down, but people further ahead in the crowd were actively grabbing others and shoving them to the side, dragging them out of the way.
Even with the high ceiling, the haze of smoke made the exit sign above the door hard to see. The point of view blurred, blacked out for an instant as the person blinked.
“Lancaster fire-” the point of view said, more to himself. His voice soon rose to a bellow. “Don’t- don’t stampede! Don’t shove! We’ll get crammed at the exit!”
The smoke got to him, and he coughed, hard.
He tried to slow, as if he could influence the crowd. The force of people behind him pushed him forward, as heavy as he was. He was a big guy. Big around the middle, more. Only a bit taller than average. It was enough that he could almost see over the heads of the crowd.
He saw a young girl fall, and very nearly tripped over her. To do so might have killed them both. He fell to his knees beside her, grabbing at the edge of a sign on the wall to brace himself, one arm around the girl. He became a barrier, battered by those behind him. Feet scraped at his back, trying to climb over him.
He watched as the people pushed further down. He knew what was happening as it happened. That the press of bodies was keeping people from being able to get the door open, that by the time people realized there was no way forward, the people behind them would keep them from retreating. There would only be the inexorable, forward pressure.
Straining, every movement made harder by people leaning against him or pushing past him, nearly being knocked over to crush the girl in front of him on three occasions, he rose to his feet. For what seemed like a minute, it was all he could do to hold his position.
He looked back, and there was only smoke, people pushing toward the exit. He looked toward the exit sign, and there was only the press, people crammed together until they were chest-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder.
He looked around, at the trash cans, at the signs that were built into the wall, frames sticking an inch or two out, locked plexiglass doors protecting the contents from vandalism. He looked up, and he saw the windows and the glass ceiling above the corridor that led out of the mall. There were high windows that let the light in, and there were latches on those windows.
He reached down, and the young girl shied away.
“Up!” he said. He seized her arm, and as he leaned down, someone bumped into him. He nearly fell on her. Only his grip on the side of one of the sign-frames kept him from falling.
He drove an elbow back, striking at the person who had pushed him. With more energy, desperation, he reached down to seize the girl’s arm, lifted her bodily into the air, and shifted his grip, grabbing her body to lift her.
“Grab on and climb!” he called out. “Get to the window!”
She tried. Sneakers slid against the plexiglass. Fingers gripped the ledge, and even with him boosting her, she couldn’t get up. She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing, as she turned her face down and away from the thicker smoke.
Further down the hallway, a group of people fell like dominoes. For those who wanted to get away, get to the exit, people who couldn’t necessarily see past the smoke or the people immediately in front of them, it was an opening, a way to get forward. The mob moved forward. A woman screamed, a multi-note sound.
Seizing the opportunity, only seeing the gap, people pushed past him, bumped into him. He was holding the girl as he stumbled, and he dropped her. He doubled over, coughing, trying to keep from getting dragged forward. He was a big guy and the movement of the crowd was such that his feet left the ground at points, when people pressed closer.
The girl, too, coughed. She looked at him, wide-eyed, until the smoke forced her to close her eyes, and then she ran for the exit, slipping from his reaching fingers, dodging into a gap of bodies, toward the press, where people were barely able to move. People were panicking in places, voices reaching high pitches.
“No!” he bellowed at the girl. His voice was lost in the chaos.
She nearly fell to the ground amid trampling feet as someone stumbled into her. Then she was gone.
He looked up at the sign, and he reached, digging fingers in where the sign and the wall were. He stepped on someone, tried to climb toward the window, eye on the latch, darting over to look at the smoke behind him, then up to where the smoke was thick near the ceiling. The plexiglass front of the sign was a hinge, so it could be opened, and he dug his finger into that gap for the leverage it could afford.
The climb would have been hard on its own, but he was jostled. His hand slipped, and both his fingernail and the tip of his finger tore off as his hand came away from the hinge. A thin streak of blood was drawn on the plexiglass.
Someone slid between him and the wall, and he was no longer able to hold himself up. He landed on the ground, and people walked over him. His efforts to stand were defeated by the feet trampling him. He couldn’t stop coughing, and his vision distorted from the effort.
Behind them, the fire and smoke were getting worse.
He looked up, vision warped to the point that up and down and left and right were no longer clear, he looked at the walls that stretched skyward, the glass ceiling high above, the bodies pressed around him and over him. The view blurred with the tears in his eyes, growing dark as the people closed in above him.
The image distorted, going black, and he saw stars, flying past him, as if he was being buoyed elsewhere.
A scene faded, unremembered. Points of light became light. Darkness became shadows in a large, dark room.
There was no skylight, no corridor, no crowd or mall. In the center of the room was a spike of twisted metal and glass topped by what looked like a sundial without a marker. Light shone through the glass as if it was coming through the other side, but no source could be seen. The different tints of the red-blue-purple light divided the room into four sections, with a fifth left dark. Each section was littered with debris of different sorts.
Without even needing to look to check the position, Rain reached down for the chair. Always in the same place, the same position. The floor in his section was dilapidated. Uneven floorboards with spaces between them. There were scattered books, tools that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a while, and some assorted branches and dry pine needles, as if it was a space that had been exposed to the elements. He put the chair down on the ground.
“I don’t suppose you guys are willing to talk?” he asked. Again, he didn’t even need to look or check the position of the others. He knew where they would be.
There was no reply.
The memory had been Snag’s, and Snag was the first to really move. Snag wasn’t as big as he had once been. Still tall, but he had lost a lot of weight. The beard he’d had before was longer now, shaggier. So was his hair. There were streaks of paler hair at the corners of his mouth. The hood of a sweatshirt and the lack of clear lighting masked much of the man’s face, so only the beard was visible. Snag’s area was a store without things. Empty display cabinets, cracked glass, metal shelves, a lacquered floor, and more diffuse light than the other spaces.
Snag reached the table, and slammed one hand down on the surface. He gripped the edges, hunched over.
Someone else spoke, quiet enough he was almost inaudible. It was how he usually talked. “You two should know I’m looking into our situation here. I’ll be experimenting soon, so you should know things might get weird.”
A young man. Nondescript. Boring. Blond hair, average weight, clothes without labels, a bit older than Rain at eighteen or so. The slabs of concrete and tile made his space look like a hall of mirrors after an earthquake, if the glass was opaque concrete instead. Shattered, dark, claustrophobic, devoid of the human touch. The only thing about him that stood out was that his glasses were scratched up, to the point where it wasn’t possible to see his eyes. He held his head at funny angles to see through the less scratched part, chin high, looking down, or head bent, looking up and out.
Rain had taken to thinking of him as the recluse. The guy had talked before about not spending much time around people. He was quiet, weird, and his dreams weirder still.
He hadn’t been including Rain in the ‘you two’.
“What experiment?” Snag asked, his voice hoarse enough to be a growl.
“I’m reaching out to someone. They do interesting things with people and sleep. I have no clue what’s going to happen, but it’s possible I won’t show up, or I’ll have a guest. Tomorrow.”
The woman approached, standing from a sitting position in a squat, small armchair. She stepped over stuffed animals and broken toys.
She was elegant, wearing an ankle-length dress with a slit up one side. Her hair was styled into waves and curls. She wore earrings and a necklace, heels, and her nails were painted. None of her tinker gear was present.
Her lower face was covered in the mask that could have been described as a muzzle, it clung so tightly to her face, covering nose and mouth. It was black leather, and it had real teeth set into it. Fangs.
Her eyes were more vicious than the snarling maw. She stared Rain down until she’d reached the plate of crystal at the center of the room, and turned around to sit with her back to the thing. To Rain. Her head turned toward the recluse, and she tapped one long fingernail to one of the teeth of her mask, her muzzle, before pointing it down, knuckle resting against the mask.
“Yeah, actually,” the recluse said. “You know ‘em?”
The woman offered one, singular nod.
“Why ask? She doesn’t talk,” Rain said.
The recluse ignored him.
The woman turned, reaching down to the dias. Rain drew closer to watch as she picked her way through the assorted debris on the table. The wood was burned and as delicate as charcoal, breaking apart at a touch, crumbling into dust as it fell to the five-sided plate. Almost everything on the table was similarly fragile. The glass, the rusty scraps of metal.
She picked out three human teeth, and slid two of them in the recluse’s direction.
“She’s dangerous?” The recluse asked.
Another nod from the muzzled woman. She tapped a finger on the one remaining tooth on her part of the table.
“I really appreciate that,” the recluse said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I have a suggestion,” Snag said. Growled. He was pacing a little, hand brushing against his edge of the plate as he walked beside it. One of his fingers was still damaged from the event a year ago.
“Don’t do it tomorrow night,” Snag said, stopping.
Snag turned his head, staring at the darkness that separated his section from Rain’s. He was almost but not quite looking at Rain, shadows heavy around his eyes as he glared. “Tomorrow is your night. The night after is hers.”
The recluse turned to look at the muzzled woman.
Snag said, “Let’s do it the night after hers. In case something goes wrong.”
“Makes sense,” the recluse said.
On my night, Rain thought.
Rain approached the table. He kept a wary eye on the others as he picked up the debris, destroying it in his hands. Almost everything was so old, burned, water damaged or rusty that it disintegrated with firm contact. He cast it aside, letting it litter the floor. The items scraped and cut his hands on contact, but he didn’t mind.
There were only three items he couldn’t destroy. Scraps of metal, too dull and thick to be knives, too flat and featureless to be of any particular use. Like rectangular pieces of a broken glass, but not glass.
The others were sorting themselves out. Five shards of glass for Snag, three coins for the recluse. The muzzled woman stared him down. She’d already handed out two of the teeth that served as her token, keeping one for herself.
Even the others, when they glanced at him, radiated hostility.
“I need to update up one of my arms,” Snag said, his voice low. He glanced at Rain and turned his back, leaning against the table as he leaned closer to the recluse, lowering his voice further. “I made a replacement, I want to make the other match it.”
“Today?” the recluse asked, picking up one of the tarnished coins.
“Hmm. I’m not sure I’ll have time.”
“It’s fine either way, for me. You?” The recluse turned toward the muzzled woman for that last bit.
The muzzled woman nodded.
Snag slid a piece of glass across the table, to the recluse’s side. His fingertips stopped at the boundary, and the recluse reached over to slide the glass the rest of the way.
“I guess I get to be pretty strong today,” the recluse said.
“You won’t need your workshop,” Snag said. “And we could use a better sense of tech, for reasons we discussed on the phone. Give me your share tomorrow, too, and I won’t need it for a while.”
“I don’t mind,” the recluse said. He passed the coins over to the others. Two for Snag. One for the muzzled woman.
Rain looked down at his rectangles of metal. They hadn’t asked, and he hadn’t offered. He had, once, trying to curry favor. He’d given them his tokens and he’d never received a thing in return.
He kept the three rectangles of metal in his section of the table.
Rain took a seat in the creaky wooden chair and he waited for dawn, listening and hearing nothing of consequence while the three people talked, or, well, two of them talked and the muzzled woman listened.
He’d tried to reason. He’d tried to talk. He’d tried being angry. There was no use. The only option left was to wait until dawn, and try to listen, to act dumb, and drop comments here and there that could mislead.
He looked over to his left at the dark fifth of the room. No details, no debris, no light. No tokens on the table.
He gripped the three pieces of metal in his hands until the edges cut into his fingers and blood oozed out between them.
“Rain. Wake up.”
Rain’s eyes opened. No dreams, not really. Only someone else’s recollections and then the room. He felt more tired than he had when his head had hit the pillow. He had a headache and every part of him felt heavy.
“School,” his aunt said, from the bedroom door, her face peering through the crack.
He sat up.
“Go downstairs to eat before you shower, if you’re going to shower. The girls are making breakfast.”
“I will,” he said, before adding an automatic, “thank you auntie.”
She left the door open as she left. Rain was annoyed, but held his tongue.
Swinging his feet over to the side of the bed, he looked at his hands, turning them over. There was no sign of the dirt, grit. No damage from moving the objects on the five sided table, no cuts on his fingers or blood on the back of his hand.
As he often did, he reached out for his individual powers. His own power was at its ordinary strength. The scythes of shimmering, flickering light appeared in each of his hands. It felt right.
The emotion power- he reached for it and cast it out over the empty space in the middle of his room. He was aware of it like he’d be aware of a patch of shade. The effectiveness wasn’t much sharper than creating the shade would be.
When he reached for the tinker power, the ideas that came to mind were paltry, barely much better than how he might manage setting up a snare or the steps for forging a knife. He wasn’t even especially good at those things.
That left the mover power. He used it to get to his feet, pushing himself out of bed and using the power rather than his balance to steady himself.
He’d slept in a t-shirt and boxers, and felt exposed as he canceled out the arrested movement of the mover power, stepped over to the door and shut it. He pulled on a dirty pair of jeans and ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair until it was reasonable.
His family tended to subscribe to the notion that the kitchen was the center of the home. The buildings that had been erected for the settlement were set up in a way that made for large kitchens. Wood was burning at a massive brick stove with room for six frying pans on it, and there were two girls Rain’s age handling food there. He couldn’t quite remember their names. Heather and Lauren, maybe. Or was one of them Jean? He’d seen them around, but they didn’t go to the school and they’d never talked to him.
Rain’s auntie was at the counter, grating potatoes. Her daughter, Rain’s cousin Allie, stood talking to one of the men that was sitting at the table, while she took her time drying a dish.
Rain knew only one of the men at the table- an uncle, who had said ten words at most in all the time Rain knew him. There was no introduction made for the other two men who sat there.
As good as the food was, as much as the stove was warm and the family close and busy, it wasn’t warm in atmosphere. There was no small talk. There were some glances from Allie, who was washing and drying, and from the girls at the stove. The glances were reserved for when they thought he wasn’t looking.
They weren’t kind looks.
Hash browns, ‘made properly’, his Aunt would say, and french toast cut in thick slices from homemade bread. The bread that wasn’t being used to make french toast was sitting in a basket on the table, with jam and butter sitting nearby. With the production that went into cooking, there was a lot of pressure to eat, to get full. For most, it was necessary, with long days of hard work on the farms.
Not that Rain worked on the farms much.
“Thank you for breakfast,” he said.
The girls didn’t respond.
“You gonna have a shower?” his aunt asked.
“A quick one,” he said.
“Stomp when you’re done,” she said, turning the knob at the base of the sink’s faucet, cutting off the water. The plumbing in the house wasn’t great, and the cold water being turned on meant the shower water would scald.
He gathered his dishes.
“You can leave that for the girls.”
“I already got it,” he said.
He collected a few more things, aware of the looks from the men sitting around the table, and took them to the side of the sink where the dirty pans and dishes were waiting to be washed.
Allie, standing next to him, pulled a knife out of the drying rack. The metal made a sound as it ran against the side of the rack, singing slightly in the wake of it. Between that, the weapon, the hostility he felt from the two girls at the stove, he shivered slightly. He looked out the window.
Those people I saw in my dream want me dead.
He’d paused too long, lost in thought, being as tired as he was. He was very aware of the stares, of the long looks from the men at the table, his uncle excepted. The girls had paused in their work.
“What?” his aunt asked, her voice sharp. She glanced at the girls. Her voice was sharper as she asked, “What, do you need someone to come up and wash you?”
“Gross,” one of the girls at the stove said.
“Hey!” one of the men barked the word. The girl jumped. A rebuke without any elaboration.
“No, auntie, I was just thinking,” Rain said, feeling his face get hot.
“Then save the thinking for school and get going. We need the sink free to finish the dishes.”
He got going.
The shower was hot, even with the cold water cranked all the way around, and he rushed through the process of getting clean. The soap, spooned out of a jar with a wooden spatula to his hands, then applied to the critical areas, was a gooey mess derived from animal fat and ash. He had no idea what the shampoo was, but it was harsh enough to make his scalp hurt, so he only used it every two or three days.
He had scratches and bruises, only some of them from his time with Victoria and the team. He was ginger with them all, checked for the redness of infection, and dabbed them dry instead of toweling more roughly as he finished showering and started getting dry. He stomped hard on the floor, three times, as he stepped out of the shower. The pipes knocked as the water downstairs was turned on again.
The recluse was planning something for three nights from now. He needed to plan, conserve strength. It was possible he would be incapacitated, if the others found a way to hijack the rotation or interfere with his days.
His thoughts were occupied with the logistics and conversations he’d need to have as he wrapped a towel around his waist, checked for chin scruff, and then crossed the hall to enter his room. Clean clothes, bag, shoes.
He did his best to stay out of sight of the kitchen as he headed downstairs, ducking into the front hall and out the door.
The dirt road cut a zig-zagging line between homes and fields. Things had been situated in a way that had been convenient at the time, but the layout didn’t make for good town planning otherwise. Other students were walking to school, older siblings watching the younger ones, friends meeting to talk. Some parents walked with their children to supervise. Other adults were around to supervise. The notorious and inevitable Mrs. Sims was bitching at a group of the fifth graders, splitting up groups of friends to make the boys and girls walk on different sides of the road.
A truck came down the road, and the students moved to the muddy sides where the ground was far softer. It was Jay, stopping periodically to let friends hop into the back.
A short distance behind Rain, Jay stopped in plain view of Mrs. Sims to ask Brianna and Kaylyn Barr if they wanted to ride in the truck, which was already mostly packed with senior boys.
The sisters climbed into the back of the pickup truck. Mrs. Sims scowled, but she kept her mouth shut.
The truck moved a little bit further down the road and stopped beside Rain. Jay leaned past his girlfriend. He had thin facial hair, a baseball cap, and a sweatshirt with a logo on it. The sweatshirt and cap looked brand new, and they also looked like they were from Bet, with the quality and logos. Expensive.
“You want a ride, rain man?” Jay asked.
“No thanks. Walking with a friend.”
“I know who you’re talking about. You know you don’t have the slightest chance with her, right?”
“Of being her friend?”
“Yeah, right,” Jay said. He rolled his eyes. “Enjoy that walk.”
The wheels spun against the dirt road before finding traction. The pickup truck bucked a little with the uneven transition, nearly tossing Kaylyn Barr out the back as the back end came up. Only a quick grab by one of the older boys saved her from a tumble.
A cloud of dust followed behind it. If it was meant to annoy Rain, it didn’t. He turned his back to the worst of the cloud, looking out at the farmland.
“Rain!” Mrs. Sims called out. Some of the smaller students on the road flinched.
Rain looked more her way.
“Get yourself straight to school. Don’t dawdle,” she said.
He could have said something about that. Jay might have. If he hadn’t had the experiences he had, he might even have called her an evil person, said she deserved it. She was an artifact of a prior era, the kind of person who had lived in every small town and rural community he’d known; she was someone who used morality as a stick to beat others with. He could have asked what she was implying, or challenged her.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Just waiting for the dust to settle so I’m not walking face-first into it.”
Someone else might have made a comment, empathized. Mrs. Sims only said, “Go to school. Be a better example for the little ones.”
The people like Mrs. Sims and his aunt were easier to deal with than many of the alternatives. He could understand the people who’d reacted to hurt and loss by becoming harder. He wished he’d been able to do the same, a lot of the time.
Erin emerged from her house as he reached the mailbox staked out in front. He waited while she made her way down, her little brother following.
It was hard not to have his eyes linger on her. She wore a plum colored muscle tank with a cross in black on the front, a black choker with a steel buckle, and black jeans. The jewelry in her ears matched the buckle of the choker, a series of rings in her left ear and a single piece of jewelry in the right, glittering in the sun as she steered her brother along the path.
He’d come to dislike the muscle tops with those oversized armholes on principle, after seeing so many girls he couldn’t stand wearing them as a trashy sort of look. Seeing Erin wear it and look so stunning, he found himself doing a one-eighty on the position on the spot.
“Hey, Erin, hey bruiser,” he said. He stuck out his hand, like he might for a handshake, and Bryce slapped it in a high-five. He and Rain reversed the directions their hands were moving to lightly slap the backs of their hands together, and Bryce moved forward to mock-punch Rain in the hip, then thigh. The third punch missed Rain’s groin only because of a timely twist to one side.
“Careful with Rain, Bry. He looks a little battered, he doesn’t need you giving him more bruises,” Erin said, putting one hand on Bryce’s forehead, pulling him back while Bryce continued punching at the air.
“He’s coming to school with us?” Rain asked. “I didn’t think he went to school.”
“Next year,” Bryce said.
“I’ve got to drop him off at church. He’s being punished, and somehow my parents think a sermon is going to give him direction.”
“What did you do, Bry?”
“I said mean things about Elijah,” Bryce said. “Mr. Jean heard and tattled.”
“You need to be careful who you talk about and how,” Erin said. “You don’t want to upset anyone. What if Elijah heard?”
“Yeah, I know,” Bryce said.
Erin gave Rain a look, from an angle Bryce wasn’t meant to see. Worried, unsure. “You don’t have to come.”
“It’s not a problem,” Rain said.
“Thank you,” Erin said.
Bryce spotted his friends walking down the road with their older siblings, and started to walk that way. Erin bent down, putting her hands on Bryce’s shoulders to catch him. “Nuh uh, Bry. You’re supposed to be in trouble. You walk with us.”
She steered Bryce in the other direction, toward school and church, and as she turned, bent over, Rain saw through the oversized armhole of her top. Stomach, ribs, lacy black bra strap, bra, and a bit of what the bra was meant to support. The look had been automatic, and the moment he realized what he was looking at, he looked away.
He had very complicated feelings on those tops, now, as he found himself simultaneously trying to memorize every detail of what he’d seen and prepared himself so he wouldn’t be an asshole and look again at what she didn’t necessarily intend to show him. He was well aware of how the two things conflicted.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked him. “You’re a little scraped up.”
“I’m always a little scraped up. I’m used to it.”
They walked, Bryce between the two of them.
“I’ve officially watched the last of the videos from the library. Even the bad ones, like E.T.3,” Erin said. “I’m stuck reading and rewatching stuff until they get more.”
“Reading isn’t so bad,” Rain said. “There were five years where my family didn’t even have power at the place we were staying.”
“Every time you talk about your past my heart hurts a little. No TV? No music?”
“Reading by candlelight. Hobbies. You figure out how to entertain yourself. There was a summer some other kids and I dug a hole and covered it with slats of wood, and we called it our hideout.”
Erin pressed the heel of her hand to her heart.
“It was a good hideout. Really.”
“You were so deprived you couldn’t even build a treehouse.”
“We could’ve. We wanted to dig a hole. We covered it with dirt and sticks so people wouldn’t know it was even there, if they didn’t see the hole.”
“How old were you?”
“Ten? Eleven? About Kenzie’s age, I think.”
“When I was eleven? I think we went to Disneyworld at the start of summer. And I had six weeks of camp with the most irresponsible camp counselors. Tons of food we shouldn’t have been allowed to have, swimming, mud Olympics. One of the boys fell on the mud slide and broke two of his fingers.”
“It’s hard to imagine you being eleven.”
“I was the most awesome eleven year old. Man, I really wanted to go back there the next year, but I think our parents all shared notes and realized how dangerous it was.”
“When I was twelve, I think I spent the summer hunting with my dad’s best friend.”
“That sounds neat.”
“It- no. No, it really wasn’t.”
“Aw,” Erin said.
“Dull, wet, buggy. I got to shoot the gun once in three months. I missed.”
“I was so excited to get back home and see my friends, get back to my routine. Then… no home to go back to. The trip with my dad’s friend was just to buy time for my parents to get everything sorted out for me to go live with my aunt.”
Rain was caught between a yawn and something that might have actually reflected his feelings, and decided to yawn.
“I’m sorry,” Erin said.
“How’d you manage last night?”
She was asking about the dream, as much as she could with Bryce listening in.
“It wasn’t too bad. Pretty usual. I’m tired.”
“Yeah. You gonna grab a nap later?”
“I might. Have to get through school first, and I’m already feeling like I’ll doze because I have a full belly. I woke up to three girls around my age cooking breakfast.”
“Barefoot in the kitchen? Not going to school?”
“Pretty much,” Rain said.
“Spending time with you, seeing how you stack up?”
“I’m the one that’s supposed to be studying or showing interest in them,” he said.
“Creepy as-” Erin paused to put her hands over Bryce’s ears, “-shit.”
Bryce pushed her hands away, nearly hitting her with the stick he held. He was drawing a line in the dirt road as he walked, with an apparent system in mind about how he did it.
“Creepier when one of them’s my cousin. I’m pretty sure she’s my actual cousin, too. It’s hard to keep track.”
“She’s not so bad. She played the guitar at one of the campfires a bit ago, she was good, and she’s nice, she was nice to Bryce when she was helping out the teachers during a nature hike, even though she hates me.”
“She’s my cousin, Erin.”
“I’m just saying, if you’re going to have cross-eyed underbite babies, you could do worse.”
“It’s better to stick to the ones you aren’t related to,” Erin said.
“I don’t want to stick to anyone,” Rain said. “I’m not interested.”
“They can apply a lot of pressure. You might end up having to choose one of them.”
“I don’t even know the names of the other two girls.”
“Sounds like another point in Allie’s favor, then.”
“Stop. Please. Have mercy.”
Erin stretched, fingers knit together, hands turned outward and up over her head. The black band of her bra jumped into Rain’s attention and shook him the same way a wildcat leaping in his direction might. What kept his attention was her profile: the way the sun outlined her face, throat, chest. He looked away, his heart now thudding.
She was so beautiful he couldn’t believe they were talking together. Her and him? What the hell had he been saying before about spending a summer sitting in a hole? What was wrong with him?
She sighed heavily as she stopped stretching.
“My family’s been making those noises,” she said.
Rain glanced at her. For someone who had been joking a moment ago, Erin looked so sad.
“How bad?” he asked. He swallowed hard.
“These days? Bad. It’s all they think about. Every conversation, if it runs for more than a minute or two, turns to how pretty I am, and if I have any suitors.”
“You’re talking about the marriage thing?” Bryce asked.
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“Our parents talk about it a lot,” Bryce said. “With Erin, I mean. I’m too young to get married.”
“So are Rain and I,” Erin said.
“Rain’s getting bugged too,” Erin said.
“I’m getting hints. Girls showing up with chaperones, when they really don’t want to be there, but it’s subtle. Nobody really talks about it,” Rain said.
“Lucky you,” Erin said.
“Are you managing okay?”
“I’ve been going over to the junkyard to shoot at bottles. That helps,” Erin said. She had a serious look on her face. “Might be good to have the practice if you ever need help.”
“I don’t want to get you involved.”
“Getting caught up in your thing would be a relief,” she said.
“I’m not so sure it would,” he said. He glanced at Bryce, to see if the boy was listening.
Nope, drawing wiggly lines in the dirt with his stick.
They were close to the church. There was no parking lot, so the cars and trucks were parked haphazardly. Some were moving at a crawl as they tried to navigate the parked vehicles and the people who were gathering.
Rain glanced at Jay’s truck as they found a path between cars to reach the church. Jay was here, then. Rain was left to wonder whether the Barr sisters had hopped out and headed on their way to school, or if they were attending the morning service, now.
Erin drew looks. She stood out, and not just because she wasn’t a usual for the morning service. It was in moments like this that Rain knew he wasn’t letting feelings color his views on her. He could see the way people acted around her, the way they looked at her.
He was spooked, seeing it. He knew who these people were, he’d grown up with them, and he knew how they functioned. On a level, he was one of them.
Erin took Bryce to one of the moms of one of Bryce’s friends. They exchanged words, and the mom scooted over, having Bryce sit next to her.
Rain was acutely aware of the looks he got too. The opposite of the ones Erin got, really.
Erin joined Rain at the door. People were still filing in.
At the front of the church, a shirtless man climbed up onto the stage and walked back to the sanctuary, where the altar was. The light shone through the stained glass window behind him. He was skinny, long-haired, and tattooed.
“Yo, faithful,” he said, leaning over the altar.
There was a murmur of responses from the congregation.
“I’ve been watching, and I’ve been thinking. You guys have been asking me when I’d speak again, and I think it’s time I say a few things.”
There was a louder murmur, with a few hoots and whistles from certain locations.
“We’ve had some hard days,” he said. “Less jobs, the strikes, the talk of war, it’s getting colder out, and I think that reminds us all of winter. Last winter sucked.”
There were more murmured responses.
“It was cold, there wasn’t enough shelter, there wasn’t enough food. Not everyone made it. We did better than some, but we lost six. We remember them. Jack, Josh, Georgia, Kiara, Christian and Rhys. We remember them, and we remember the cold, hunger, and sickness that took them from us.”
The responses were more animated.
“May they be with the Lord.”
It demanded a response. More of a response than the last.
“We remember the bad days, we remember the end. While I was doing that watching, listening, and thinking, I could tell. People are scared.”
His tanned face was expressive as he emphasized words like ‘end’ and ‘scared’, lines crinkling in around his eyes, betraying him as thirty-something. He gripped the podium as he talked.
“All through the city, through the many worlds, people are scared shitless. Bad days are coming. Everyone knows it. You know it, am I right?”
There was a more vocal response.
“Yeah, you know it,” he said, his chin rising a bit. “You fucking know it. Sorry parents, you can cover your kids’ ears if you’re shy, but this is how I talk. Honest. I’m gonna be honest with you.”
Rain looked at Bryce and the woman he sat with. She wasn’t covering Bryce’s ears.
He looked at Erin, and saw how tense she was.
The speaker continued, “You’re scared and you’re scared with good reason. It’s going to get messy. People are going to die. People are going to deal with worse than death, because that’s where we’re at. That’s how it is in the worlds we dwell in. It’s inevitable.”
He remained where he was, lean muscular arms bristling with sun-bleached hair as he gripped the altar, letting that hang there.
“We’re gonna be okay,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “I memorized a passage. This king Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land.”
He pulled his hand away from the edge of the altar and struck it with his hand.
“You know what that says to me? It says you get in our way, you pick a fight with us? You’d best be prepared for the edge of our fucking swords. You’d best be prepared for us to take possession of your land. Do not get in our way, am I right!?”
There was a vocal response.
He raised his voice to be heard as he preached, “Cover your kids ears if you’re raising pussies, parents, but I’m going to say things that gotta be said, and if your kids haven’t heard this yet, you’re doing something wrong. This is the credo we live by. There are fuckers and there are the fucked, and we are fuckers of the highest order!”
Cheers. Bryce reacted, joining in. Erin started to move, to enter the church, and Rain stopped her. He glanced around to make sure nobody had seen.
“We are right and we are righteous!”
“We saw the end, we preached the end, and we survived the end!”
Some people stood from the pews, which forced others to stand if they wanted to see.
“They can shake and sweat and worry about winter and war, but we’re going to fucking thrive!”
Bryce stood on the pew, his high voice joining the crowd’s. He probably didn’t even understand.
Erin didn’t repeat her initial impulse of trying to go in, pulling her little brother away. Rain let his hand drop.
“We don’t get cold, we set our enemies on fire!”
Erin leaned close to Rain to be heard over the roars. “Can we go?”
“If we get hungry, we raid, we pillage, and we’ll eat them alive!”
Cheers. The sound of the mob made Rain think of the mall, of Snag’s dream.
“None of that pussy skipping of the impolite parts. We go Old Testament on the asses of our enemies! Slaves, war, and disaster! We’ll go full Revelations with a rod of iron, and dash nations to pieces! Anyone who’s read that far knows, the end ain’t gonna be pretty, it ain’t going to be kind!”
Rain turned to go. He was aware that people were casting glances his way, that they were seeing him leave. It would be remarked on.
But he’d heard variations of this ‘sermon’ for all of his life. If pushed, he could probably write one.
For now, his focus was on Erin, as he saw how deeply unhappy she was, leaving her brother behind. He caught up with her, walked at her side.
She saw him looking at her, and said, “His behavior gets worse after they make him go to church.”
“I’m not surprised,” Rain said.
“It doesn’t make sense. It’s idiocy.”
“It’s not about sense. It’s about feeling like they have power.”
“They have it.”
She flinched at that, then looked over her shoulder. She slowed.
“I could go in there, drag him away. But they’d get upset with me, and it’s just…”
“You have to pick your battles,” Rain said.
“I don’t get to pick any,” she said. “When do I get to pick a battle and get one I can win?”
He didn’t have an answer for her. The question echoed something he’d felt for some time.
He clenched his fist, feeling the frustration and anger boil up.
In the distance, in the background, he could hear the preacher raising his voice.
“This is the end and the ending has always belonged to us!” The acoustics of the church magnified the voice.
“Let’s go,” Rain said.
“We are the Fallen!”
The church shook with the furor of the crowd and Rain shook in what felt like equal measure, as he saw the hurt on his friend’s face and clenched his fists with a force that should have seen blood seeping between them, as it had in the room he’d dreamed of.
“Thirty-five, forty people?”
“As a rough estimate,” Snag said. “But you’re not a soldier or a team player, from what I heard.”
“Beast of Burden recommended you as more of an assassin. Thirty five to sixty individuals with powers. Plus armed henchmen, drones, minions. We go to war, we do it with the sanction and assistance of the major names, and we intend to leave no room for any result except the one we need.”
“You want them wiped out?”
“Broken, scattered to the wind, if need be. But this one…”
The distorted image projected on the wall of the headquarters shifted. Snag pushed a piece of paper across the table.
“Seventeen years old, by our best guess. We don’t know his name, but we have an idea about his powers. Breaking things, primarily. Mover ability. Tinker ability. Emotion power. The last three are weak.”
“You’re asking me to kill someone young.”
“That hasn’t been a problem for you before.”
“Whatever happens in the chaos, whether they’re scattered, broken, arrested, killed, the result we want you to ensure is that this one doesn’t walk away.”
“We could have reached out to someone else. We reached out to you. You should know why.”
“Because you want this kid to suffer.”
A rustling noise, muted.
It was Love Lost who handed the thin slip of paper over, her claws glinting.
The man at the table investigated the check.
“You really want this kid to suffer.”
“We want him to face a fate worse than death,” Snag said. “But we can’t have that and have him dead at the same time, and we need him dead. If he suffers as much as possible along the way to that conclusion, we’ll be satisfied.”
“If you’re paying, we can satisfy.”
“The check will clear.”
“Then you’ll get that satisfaction you’re after.”
The conversation paused as something grabbed their attention.
“What in the fuck did you do to them?” Chris asked.
“Shut up, Chris,” Sveta said. She gave Rain a worried look, and Rain flinched away from the compassion.
“Victoria’s in a fight,” Kenzie said. “I hope she’s okay.”
Rain pushed his hands through his hair, backing up.
“I hope we’re okay,” Kenzie said. “This is a bit much to deal with just us.”
It’s not to deal with you, Rain thought.
He could see the way Sveta was looking at him. Putting pieces together.
He couldn’t blame her. He was just now realizing what he was up against. For a year, he’d seen them at night. He’d seen them talk, getting everything in order.
For this. To destroy him.
Even hiding among the Fallen wouldn’t protect him. He’d clung to that reassurance and now it was gone.
He turned to go, grabbed his bag.
“Rain,” Tristan said.
“I gotta go,” Rain said. He collected more things. The key he’d been given. “You look after Victoria. Tell her thanks.”
“Don’t panic,” Tristan said.
How was he not supposed to panic?
“Thanks for everything, Tristan,” Rain said. “I’ll be in touch, but I gotta go. I can’t-”
He couldn’t. He wasn’t sure what to do. There was no answer. He had three people after him and they were stronger, more capable. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t breathe.
Choking on the sentence he hadn’t finished, he hauled the door open, stepped out to the fire escape, and made his way down at a run, trusting his power to catch him if needed.
He ran until he couldn’t run anymore. He walked, feeling the full force of dread catch up with him as he slowed down. Then he ran again.
Rain turned. With the panic firmly set in, his first instinct was fear. Even at a familiar voice.
Tristan. Tristan had run after him, and the guy barely looked winded.
“There you are,” Tristan said. “Oof. I turned down the wrong street back there.”
Rain was silent, except for his hard breaths. He felt like he was going to throw up.
“You can’t run. Don’t panic. Trust me, shitty things happen when you panic.”
“I’m dead,” Rain said. “I’m a dead man walking. Holy shit. They’re going to torture me to death.”
“You’ve got to tell people, Rain. You’ve got to tell Victoria, you’ve got to tell Sveta. Kenzie. Chris. Even Ashley- she won’t blink either way, but you should tell her.”
Rain shook his head.
“I’m surprised you didn’t already say,” Tristan said.
“I can’t. I can barely admit it to myself.”
“What were you going to do if Snag or Love Lost mentioned the Fallen while negotiating?”
“I don’t- wouldn’t it be easier?”
“Easier? Yes. Better? No. It’s best if it comes from your mouth first, Rain. The others think this is all lined up against us. But it isn’t. We’re just liable to get hit with the collateral damage.”
Rain wasn’t sure what to say or do. He shook his head.
“No? No what?”
“You tell them.”
“I’m not going to tell them. I’ve been in situations like this before, trying to be an ally, ending up only hurting. Talk to them. Tell them. Write them a letter if you need to put the words in order. I’ll back you and argue on your behalf.”
“I heard that the Fallen attacked Victoria’s hometown. What if they hurt someone she cared about? What if she says she’ll only help the team if I’m not on it?”
“Do you think she would? I’m not so sure.”
“What if?” Rain asked, stressing the question. “They attacked people who were evacuating. There were groups that kidnapped people on the absolute worst day in history, raided them. What if it turns out they hurt people Kenzie cares about? Sveta- do you know what they say about people like Sveta? What I’ve said about people like Sveta?”
“I know what they’ve said about people like me,” Tristan said, setting his jaw. “What you’ve probably said about people like me.”
Rain flinched, breaking eye contact.
“Look at me, say it, and I’ll tell you it’s okay. Because you’re working on it. You’re better.”
“I think you’re really underestimating how little I want to face that side of me, that said those things. Or how little progress I’ve made from being a sack of shit.”
“Look me in the eye,” Tristan said. “Say something like, ‘hey Tristan, I used to be the kind of guy who’d call you a faggot or look down on you because you really like the dick.'”
“C’mon, man,” Rain said, cringing.
“Then you say you’re sorry, and I say it’s not a problem, I figured as much, and I reaffirm that you’re a friend. Really easy script. Then you say it to Sveta. We’ve talked about so much shit, we’ve worked through so much. You have to know we can be cool with this. All of us.”
“I know,” Rain said. “I get it. Fuck. But-”
He was interrupted as Tristan’s watch started beeping.
“Fuck,” Tristan said.
“-But I don’t want you to be cool with it. I’m not cool with this,” Rain finished.
“I gotta change.”
“Look after Rain for me, Byron,” Tristan said, then blurred.
Byron wore a long-sleeved, slate-blue shirt with a snake on the front, and jeans.
“I’m going to go,” Rain said.
“What are you going to do?” Byron asked.
“Hide. Figure things out. Think.”
“Okay,” Byron said. “I think all three of those things sound pretty reasonable.”
“Can you tell the others? Fill them in?”
“I think if Tristan is saying no, I should say no too. Especially when I’m not part of the group.”
“Go. Hide. Think. Spend time with that ridiculously awesome friend of yours,” Byron said.
Rain allowed himself a small smile.
“Maybe call Mrs. Yamada.”
“Seems like a big enough emergency to give her a call.”
Rain nodded. It helped, knowing he could do that.
It helped, hearing Byron calmly lay things out, agree that it was right to get away and get safe. Tristan understood a lot of the other stuff, the fighting, the struggle, the- even trying to come back from being a scumbag. But Byron understood other things.
“Thank you,” he said, without even really realizing he’d intended to say it.
“You have allies,” Byron said. “Friends. Me included.”
“They have thirty-five to sixty people with powers, a hired assassin, and a grudge.”
“And we have a bit of time. We’ll use it.”
“Fuck off,” Byron said, without smiling or even sounding like he was amused or annoyed. “You’re a friend. Of course I’m in this.”
Rain swallowed hard.
“Today was valuable. The team has a sense of what they’re up against. Mostly.”
“You think I should tell them,” Rain said.
Byron shrugged. He was Tristan’s inverse, in that he wasn’t one to push, even when he had strong feelings one way or the other.
“I’m going to hide out at the compound for a day or two. I, uh, I’ll think, and maybe I’ll explain when it’s time to come back. When there’s a clearer picture of what’s happening. Make sure they don’t do anything in the meantime?”
“Sure. Tristan heard too, and I think he’d agree.”
“If you’re going to hide, you should go before they wrap up that meeting and decide to catch a train heading in the same direction you’re going.”
Rain nodded, swallowing hard again.
He turned to go. Not running, this time, but walking as fast as he could.
To seek sanctuary amid monsters.