Shade – Interlude 4b

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter

Rain climbed down from the back of the pickup truck, slinging his bag over his shoulder with the contents rattling.  Two older guys departed at the same time.  The truck puttered as Rain walked around to the driver’s side door.  He handed over some bills.  The inside of the truck was choked with the smell of cigarettes, and the man at the wheel was partially obscured in the dark and smoke, his features lit by the changing colors of the radio display.

“Thank you,” he said.  He didn’t sound like himself.

He only got a grunt in response.  The driver counted the money before putting it aside.

The two older guys approached the window, one of them with a twenty-four pack of beer that looked badly weathered, as if it had sat out in the rain for a month.  It was the other that went to the window to pay.

With the settlement being so off the beaten track, the only way to get in and out was to either have a working vehicle or to pay someone to make the drive.  Rain was pretty sure that his comings and goings were being reported to people higher up the food chain.

He didn’t have alternatives, not unless Erin gave him a ride.

He kept his head down and made the walk along the side of the road.  Here and there, the packed dirt was loose, not held together by weeds or grass, and his footing slipped.  It made the walk a trudge.

It was late, and houses were lit by candle and lamps.  Across the field, a tall bonfire blazed.  The two guys with the beer were making their way there, climbing over a fence to take the shortest path possible.  Were Rain to visit, he’d see people like Jay.  Old enough to mess around and get into trouble, but not yet married.  There had been a time when he’d wanted to be one of the older boys at those little parties.

Were he to visit, he’d be grudgingly welcomed.  He’d be expected to laugh at the jokes, to agree with the things said, to play along.  He would be expected to take the ribbing and jokes at his expense, and there would be a lot.  He would be expected to keep to the unspoken contract.  Adults let those kinds of gatherings happen because the people who attended played along.  They didn’t complain too much when it came time to do something with or for the sake of the community.  The tribe.  The gang.

Rain walked, well aware he’d let the day, afternoon and early evening slip away from him.  He’d left the others and caught a train, and he’d been unable to bring himself to come back here.  ‘Home’.

Jittery nervousness had transformed into a dull feeling of dread.  That dread leeched into and through him like a poison, as if his realization about his high chance of dying had transformed into something that made him feel like he was being eaten alive, being killed by the dread.

He would have thrown up, if he weren’t so tense that he wasn’t sure he could bend over and bring himself to.

He pushed himself forward.  Erin’s house was the next one, and there was light in the window.  He trudged onward, the earth at the side of the road giving way beneath his feet, as he sank in, pulled himself up and forward, then sank again in a few steps later.

He would have walked in the middle of the road, but Jay’s group was out there at the fire drinking, and Rain didn’t trust them or many of the others to have headlights on and their eyes on the road.

Erin was there, sitting at her window on the second floor.  She was keeping an eye out for him, still wearing the shirt with the cross on the front from earlier.  The light from her television cast the shadows around her in various shades of green.

She raised a hand in a wave as he drew close enough for the light from the house’s windows to illuminate him.  He raised his own hand.

With the house being at the end of a path, and Erin being on the second floor, her voice was almost inaudible as she asked something.  She pointed with him as she asked it, then raised her hand in a barely-visible ok sign.

Was he okay?

Rain stood a very real chance of dying.

He was standing there, not responding, his thoughts tearing through his brain.  He had options but none of them were options.  If he went to the Wardens for help he would become embroiled in something bigger, because he knew things and he’d be expected to share those things.  The Fallen would target him and there was no guarantee the Wardens could keep him safe.  There was a chance it would push away Erin and pull him away from the group, as he was taken to safe custody and expected to testify.  There was a chance the revelation would mean Victoria pushed him away, or Sveta did, or even Chris or Kenzie.

He could share with the group, but for many of the same reasons he couldn’t go to the Wardens, there would be a price.  Things would change.

The person online- no guarantees.

Mrs. Yamada – she could offer support, she could help him ask others for help, but there was a limit to what she could do.

Erin repeated the question, calling it across to Rain.

A moment later, she put her book, down, holding her hand out.  Telling him to wait.

“I’m okay!” he called out.  He wasn’t.

Erin reversed direction and put her head out the window.  In the background, one of her parents- her mom, it looked like, stepped into her room, standing behind her.

Rain raised a hand in a wave, and Erin’s mom waved back.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow!”  Rain called out.

“Yeah!” Erin replied.

Rain adjusted his bag at his shoulder, then resumed the trudge.  The false normal and the lie that he was okay was something that felt almost real, he could hold to it for a short while.

Not for the entire way back.  When he did arrive at the edge of the property, with its hastily constructed house, the fenced in yard, and the stable, with a field stretching out behind it, the dread, at least, seemed less pointed.

The knowledge he might die sat heavily, all the same.

He let himself into the house and put his bag by the stairs.  Everyone was in the kitchen.  His uncle was looking over the paper from earlier in the day.  Allie had a crossword and dictionary, and Rain’s aunt was engaged in what seemed like her neverending stream of tidying-up and tending to the property.

“Sorry I’m late,” Rain said.

“It’s fine,” his aunt said.  “Did you eat?”

Rain shook his head.

“Food’s on the stove if you want it.  If you don’t, let me know so I can put the leftovers away.”

Rain got a bowl from the cupboard and approached the stove.

“You look like lukewarm shit, Rain,” Allie said.

Rain’s aunt smacked Allie across the back of the head, hard enough that when Allie bent forward, she stayed like that for a few long seconds.

“He does,” Allie said.

“I probably do look like shit,” Rain said.

“Doesn’t mean she needs to say it,” Rain’s aunt said.  She gave Allie a lighter slap on the back of the head, while Allie was still bent over her crossword.

Rain hadn’t yet ladled the stew into his bowl.

He couldn’t do nothing.  He needed…  As horrible as this situation was, as horrible as each new thing he learned seemed to make the situation, he needed to figure something out.

“Uncle,” he said.

He heard the papers rustle.

“Face your uncle if you’re addressing him,” his aunt said.

Rain did.  His uncle was of average height, muscular as many of the farmers were, with graying blond hair that Rain’s aunt cut neatly every few days, and very tan, weather-worn skin.  The man could have looked so normal and disarming, with a face that might even have looked friendly, but instead he wore a perpetual glower.  He never smiled, and he rarely if ever spoke.

There was no light in his uncle.  Had Rain not lived with the man for years, he might have said he was a sociopath, just in how he held himself, the look in his eyes, and how joyless his rote existence seemed.  If the Fallen needed a job done and wanted able, loyal bodies, Rain’s uncle would go without question or hesitation.

“Would you teach me to fight?” Rain asked.

“You don’t want to do that,” Allie said.

“Butt out, Allie,” his aunt said, hand going up but not delivering another smack.  “This is between boy and man.”

Rain’s uncle folded his paper, then stood from his chair, putting it back under the table.  He made his exit by the side door, entering into the fenced-in yard, the door left open behind him.

“What are you waiting for?” Rain’s aunt asked.  “Don’t keep him waiting.”

Rain hurried, going back to the bottom stairs where he’d left his bag.  He opened the bag as he reversed direction, heading to the kitchen, fishing in the bag for the things he needed.

He had one mechanical arm out as he passed his aunt and cousin.  His aunt was unreadable.  Not as dark as his uncle was- his aunt gave the impression the light had been almost entirely extinguished, but the woman could smile, for the rarest of occasions.  She had things she cared about and prioritized.  Dim or reduced to dark embers, but not gone.

He pressed the arm to his shoulder blade, and felt the connection flare, burning through his nerves to his brain.  A small, tiny window opened in his consciousness, with his awareness of the arm and its position.  He was aware of the air against the current that ran along the outside ‘skin’ of the arm and hand.

He used the extra arm to help hold the bag while he got the other arm out, slapping it back against the blade of his other shoulder.

His uncle waited by the wooden fence, the perimeter made up of only three broad wooden slats punctuated by the stout posts.

Standing there, illuminated only by the porchlight, his uncle gave no impression there had ever been a light there at all.

Rain had two more arms to connect, but they were smaller, attached at the elbow, only reaching as far as his wrist.  They were older and he’d tuned them back up to working order with the intention of leaving one for Kenzie to study.  He’d forgotten, in his haste to leave.

He approached his uncle.  When he got within three or so paces, his uncle took a step toward him.  No prelude, no intent apparent in his action.  With a second long stride, the man reached out to shove Rain’s shoulder hard, pushing him toward the fence.

Rain cast out the emotion power around them, and felt the feedback buzz, the faint response that let him know the power was working.

That done, he reached up.  His normal hand grabbed his uncle’s wrist.  A mechanical hand grabbed his uncle’s elbow, fingers digging in there, in an attempt to force it to bend.  The smallest hand grabbed for two fingers, pulling them backward.

His uncle pulled his hand up and away, and then kicked Rain in the thigh.

Rain fell, his mechanical hands were too slow to let go, and he could see as the two right arms came apart in pieces, wires stretching between wrist and forearm, forearm and elbow, before snapping.  The individual parts fell to the shadows and grass.

His uncle kicked him while he was down, boot to ribs.

Rain reached for the pieces, picking them up with two left hands.  The forearm, broken at the front, was almost like a broken bottle.  He scrambled back, two broken pieces of his arms held in his real hand and his one remaining, full-size mechanical arm.

He dismissed the emotion effect, re-cast it out, just to ensure it was over his uncle.  Not that it seemed to do much.  He’d tried letting it sit on people and some of the farm animals before.  It didn’t work.  He could only hope there was some nuance he could use.

Fuck, his ribs and leg hurt where he’d been kicked.

His uncle walked away, his back to Rain.  He approached the fence, then reached over it.  Allie wasn’t far away.  She’d gone through the gate and was leaning against the outside of the fence, watching.

A shovel.  Rain’s uncle had picked up the shovel that had been leaning against the fence, almost as long as Rain was tall, with a spade-shaped head.  There was an implicit ‘if you’re going to wield a weapon, so am I’ to the act.

“Don’t kill him,” Rain’s aunt said, from the stairs to the kitchen.

Rain’s uncle turned, and gave Rain’s aunt a long, slow look.

“I don’t want to have to explain it to the leadership,” she said.

Rain’s uncle reversed his grip on the shovel, holding it near the spade-end with both hands.

Rain backed away a little as his uncle approached.

The first swing of the shovel was preliminary, measuring distance.  Swung like a baseball bat, it made the ‘whoosh’ sound as it sliced through the air.  If Rain hadn’t leaned back, it might have connected with his nose.

Rain lunged forward.  He had smaller weapons.

His uncle didn’t swing the shovel back the other way.  Instead, moving his hand up to grip it at the middle, he swung it so the upper end caught Rain’s mechanical arm, the lower end caught his wrist.

The mechanical arm broke with the impact, the shattered forearm dropping from its grip.

Rain felt the pain of the impact against his wrist as something that extended along his entire forearm, through his hand, tingling in his fingers.

He knew how to throw a punch, and with his uncle holding nothing back, he had no reason to do so either.  He closed the distance, his chest connecting with his uncle’s as he punched low, aiming for the stomach, just beneath the ribs.  Repeated blows, strikes with fist sharp against muscle and fat.

Fingers tangled in his hair, gripped tighter until Rain’s scalp hurt.  He was pulled away, then without the hand letting go, he was flung into the fence, cheekbone and shoulder crashing into the broad plank closer to the top.

He was pulled away, not allowed to get his balance, and then thrust toward the fence again.

He used his mover power to arrest the push, to make himself stop.  He drove his elbow into his uncle’s arm, where only the connection pad and the shattered remnants of the arm remained, raking the damaged metal and wire against flesh.

His uncle pulled away, and Rain was there, suspended for another second.

Rain couldn’t cancel out his mover power before his uncle got his footing and came back at him, driving a knee into his middle.  He crashed into the fence and landed hard.

He hauled himself to his feet, one hand on the fence, and his uncle kicked him before he was entirely there.  A kick at the armpit, so Rain’s hand couldn’t support him any longer.  His mover power wasn’t available to stop him from falling, and- and it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest if it were.

The pain radiated through him, now.  His uncle stood tall, one hand at his arm, which was bleeding, and paced.  The feedback Rain got wasn’t accurate enough to let him know where his uncle was, and it was hard to find a position where he could look up and over.

He grabbed the fence and heaved himself to his feet.

His uncle looked at his aunt, and Rain took that as an opportunity to sprint full-bore for the man.  He leaped, heedless of personal risk, of the fall that might follow, and kicked sideways with all of his force.

He connected, shin to side.  He saw the pain on his uncle’s face.  Then he used his power to suspend himself, before he could tumble hard to the ground.

It suspended him for too long.  There was no canceling it, and however long it lasted, a second and a half, two seconds, maybe even approaching three seconds, it was enough time for his uncle to turn his way and kick him, hard.

Rain dropped, in too much pain to calculate how he broke free of the power’s hold, and landed in the grass and dirt.

He was kicked several times while he was down.  Back, buttock, leg.  He wasn’t sure if he’d been kicked sharply in the side or if it was only the way he’d recoiled and made an existing wound pull that made it feel like it.

His mechanical hands broke at the slightest excuse, his emotion power didn’t do anything he could identify, and his mover power made him a sitting duck in any real combat situation.

The kicking had stopped.  Rain lay there, his breaths coming out as wheezes.  His thoughts were so mired in sick hopelessness that he could barely think straight.

A hand was extended.  It seized Rain by the upper arm, firm, and heaved him to his feet.

It occurred to Rain, too late, that his uncle wasn’t the kind of person to offer a helping hand.

Still firmly holding Rain’s upper arm, with Rain bent over, his uncle struck him across the face.  It was only the fierce grip on Rain’s arm that kept him from being knocked to the ground yet again.

Again, Rain was struck across the face.  His head sagged.

The next hit caught him backhanded, across the ear.  It was impossibly loud, painful, and it made his thoughts dissolve into sparks.  His ear rang like a siren in the wake of the hit.

Rain, almost insensate, punched in the general direction of his uncle’s stomach, turned his face toward the ground so it would be away of any further blows, and kept punching blind until his uncle let him go.

Rain stumbled back, snorted, coughed, and tried to straighten, before giving up on the latter.  He put his hand on his knee to steady himself.

His uncle approached, and Rain backed up.  His uncle’s turn to return the favor, now.  Swats, a knee, a punch, a shove.  Even the lighter contact was painful, because Rain hurt, and each light contact forced him to move one way or the other while existing bruises and injuries punished those movements.

“Okay,” Rain managed, huffing out the word.  “Stop.”

His uncle didn’t stop, pushing out with both hands to shove Rain back into the wooden fence.

With an edge of desperation, Rain pulled out the silver blades.  It didn’t make his uncle hesitate.

He threw the first blade, and the pain at his armpit altered the trajectory, meant he didn’t finish the swing.  The silver scythe passed through his uncle’s head, the two remaining pieces carrying forward, sailing out to strike the side of the house.

A silver line encircling his head, Rain’s uncle stood there, drawing in a deep breath.

“Okay,” Rain said.  He hunched over, hands on his knees, coughed, then snorted.  “Don’t sneeze or do anything.  That’s all.  Thank you.”

His uncle remained where he was, glowering, eye sockets only barely illuminated by the silver light from the mark.

The mark would fade soon.  Ten, twelve seconds.  Rain watched and waited, nervous of the possibility of disaster.

The silver line thinned out, went away.  Rain’s uncle touched his face.  A moment later, the man strode toward Rain, a dark look on his face.

“Stop,” Rain said, voice weak.  He realized the futility of it as he said it.  His uncle didn’t intend to stop until one of them was unable to move.

The other blade still in his hand, he threw it out, with the blade only traveling a matter of feet before it crossed through his uncle’s midsection, the vertical and horizontal lines of the plaid work shirt illuminated in the gloom.

“Stop,” Rain said, again.  “Or you’ll die.”

His uncle looked down, spreading his hands.

Then, his expression changing, the man looked skyward, sighing.  Rain took the twelve seconds of rest to try to gather his thoughts, not looking skyward, but toward the ground.  He-

Heedless of the mark, his uncle kicked him.  The force was such that the silver mark flared, and it cut what lay beneath.

Again and again, the man kicked Rain.  He stomped once, as Rain lay too close to the ground to be properly kicked.

“I think he learned whatever it is you wanted to teach him,” Rain’s aunt said.  “Why don’t you come inside?  I’ll make you tea, and I’ll look over those scratches.”

Rain waited, knowing that if his uncle decided to ignore the order, there would only be more pain.  Pain that could kill him, if it meant he wasn’t able to fight back when Snag, Cradle, and Love Lost came for his head.

Instead, fabric draped over Rain’s head.

“Replace it,” his uncle said.  Perhaps the eleventh and twelfth words Rain had ever heard the man say to him.

Rain reached up and pulled the fabric away.  The plaid shirt.  Sliced across the middle.  His uncle was fine, because-

Because, Rain realized, closing his eyes, the power only affected one thing at a time.  It would hit clothes first, the person second.

He opened his eyes to watch as his uncle walked away, wearing an undershirt and jeans, opening the door to the kitchen and closing it behind him, the light in the fenced-in yard diminishing with the door closed.

Rain lay there, trying to breathe, hurting from head to toe.

“Dad doesn’t even have powers,” Allie said, from the other side of the fence.

Rain winced, realizing she’d seen.  She was still there.

“You did better when you weren’t using your powers,” his cousin said.  She paused.  “You okay?”

Rain’s nose felt stuffed, every heartbeat making his entire nasal cavity pound.  He snorted, hard, and pain ripped through his skull, blood spraying the grass in front of his face.  He huffed out a breath.

“I’m-” he started.  “Fine.”

He was going to die.  Not here, not because of this.  But he was going to die.

“I’m not sure what you were expecting,” Allie said.  “Dad is the kind of guy who thought he’d teach five year old me how to swim by throwing me into a pond.  I think this is him applying that same principle to teaching you to fight.”

Rain huffed out a breath.  His ribs hurt like hell, but-

He drew in a deep breath, winced at the pain.

Not broken.  He’d had broken ribs before.

“I don’t know if you were around then, but when mom had cancer, it was just dad and me and a couple cousins in the house.  He’d do stuff like tell us to sweep, and if we didn’t sweep right, he’d give us the belt.  He wouldn’t even tell us what we did wrong or why we didn’t meet expectations.  We had to figure it out.”

“I remember,” Rain managed.  “I was there.”

“Then why the hell did you think this was a good idea?  There are other people you can ask.  That you have been asking, unless you’ve been lying to us.  You could have gone to them.”

“I could have.  I wanted-” Rain coughed.  “I wanted this.”

“This?  Oh, you’ve gone and lost your mind.”

Maybe, Rain thought.  Maybe he had.  He’d fit right in, if he had.  But he’d wanted, needed to know if, when he was desperate and in very real danger, there was anything he could pull out or do.

There wasn’t.

“You sure you don’t need help?” Allie asked.

“I’ll manage,” Rain said, his voice coming out strained.  He fumbled out with one hand, reaching for the fence.

It took him some time to get to his feet.  He ended up leaning against the fence, hugging it, while trying to breathe properly.

He was pretty sure the dread and emotion in him was enough that he could have thrown up if he’d tried to.  He was also pretty sure he would black out if he did.

A truck roared as it rolled down the dirt road, moving too fast in the dark.  That would be why Rain walked on the side of the road when he walked that way in the dark.

“Rain,” Allie said.

“Mm?”

“I know we’re not close.  I’ve probably been shitty to you.”

“Better than a lot of people,” he said.

“I mean I’m not in a position to ask any favors from you,” she said.

Leaning over the fence, still hugging it, he stared down at the dark grass on the other side.  He didn’t respond.

“But I really, really need you to get your shit together,” his cousin said.

He winced, closing his eyes.  He opened them almost immediately, because he worried he might black out.

“You’ve turned some heads and drawn a lot of attention,” Allie said.  “You managed to do something nobody really thought was possible.  You put a rung on the ladder that’s even lower than the unpowered.  The person with powers that suck.  Because if you have shit powers, you’re not going to trigger and get other powers.  You have no chance.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He barked out a couple of coughs, feeling a stabbing in his sides with each one.

“I really, really need you to figure something out,” Allie said.  “If you need something from me to help you figure it out, I can try helping.  But I need you to be… not this.”

He focused on breathing, absorbing the words.

“You know why I’m asking, right?”

He nodded slowly, mindful of the throbbing headache, pounding in his ear, and his sinuses.  He wasn’t sure if she could see him in the gloom.

“Nobody really wants you as a husband for their daughter, or as a husband for them.  They’ll go through the motions but they don’t want you.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“Sooner or later, they’re going to get fed up with you.  Then they’ll try pairing you up with someone and getting some babies out of you, see if those kids end up being worth anything in a few years.  When they do, nobody’s going to jump at the chance to be with you or marry their kid to you.”

Rain winced, tried to stand straighter.

“They’ll look back and forth and everyone will avoid eye contact, and then their eyes will settle on my mom and dad.  They’ll pair me up with you, because that’s who mom and dad are.  They’re dutiful, and they’ve sunk so much into this that they aren’t going to stop believing anytime soon.”

He knew it to be true.  He’d worried about it.

“And don’t go thinking of Erin.  I know you like her.  I know you probably hold out some secret hope you’ll get paired up with her.”

“No,” Rain said.

“It’s fine if you do.  Everyone probably does.  She’s hot.  But it’s because she’s hot that she’s going to end up with some forty year old guy close to the leadership, or she’s going to run.  Give up on her now.  If you don’t, I won’t just be the pity incest wife, I’m going to be the pity incest wife with a heartbroken husband.”

“You could leave.”

“Everyone thinks they’ll leave if it looks like they’re going to get a bad pairing.  How many actually do?  When things are close to that point, they start keeping a closer eye on you.  You get asked to have a chat with the leadership.  They don’t leave you the choice.”

Rain used the fence to help himself stay upright as he limped toward the kitchen.

“I’m not going to be one of the idiots that thinks she can get away,” Allie said.  “I’m making peace with it.”

He paused as he saw the shadows of his destroyed tinker arms.

Slowly, he began working his way toward the ground, so he could pick up the pieces.

“Stop,” Allie said.  “It’s painful to watch you.  Let me.”

He let her.

She hopped the fence, walked over to the shadows, and bent down, feeling out for the pieces and picking them up.

“This isn’t going to zap me or anything, is it?”

“Don’t-” Rain paused.  “Don’t touch the oblong pieces, the thin ones.  Hold them by the stems with the wires, or the shoulders.”

“Okay.”

Gingerly, Allie collected most of the pieces.  She handed them over to Rain.  He took the contact pad that had ripped away and switched it off before gathering it into his arm with the torn shirt.

Allie gave him the last piece, then kept her hand on top of it.

“Figure it the fuck out, Rain,” she said.

I’ll die, I’ll get killed by my cluster, and I won’t be a concern for you anymore, he thought, staring into the little dots where her eyes were reflecting the distant fire.

I’ll die, he thought.  I can’t fight my unpowered uncle.  How can I fight… all of that?

“I’ll try,” he said.

The door opened.  Rain’s aunt.

“Allie, there you are.  Inside.  Get the bigger first aid kit from the basement.  I want to patch up your dad’s cuts, and the smaller kit doesn’t have any bandages.”

Allie turned to go, obedient.

“If you want first aid, Rain, knock on the master bedroom door, or go straight to Allie.  She’ll tend to you.  For now, get yourself to bed.  You’re coming to church in the morning.”

Rain swayed slightly on the spot, then said, “Okay.”

The door closed behind his aunt.

He got to his bag and dumped the pieces of the arm into it.  Picking it up, he made his way inside.  The stew had been put away.  No dinner.

He went up the stairs and into his room.  He settled in at his desk.  The day’s homework was on the table, waiting to be done.

Slowly, he set out the pieces of his tinker hands.

Days worth of work.

No secret to be uncovered, no use he hadn’t yet figured out.  Not legs, not claws.

This, these fragile things, they were the only things that came to mind when he reached out for his tinker power.   Between ten and thirty minutes passed while he found all the smaller pieces, setting them in the right places.  He had some wire and tools on his desk, and he got them out.  To start with, he would fix everything he could fix in five seconds.  Then he would move on from there.

The spell was broken as his alarm clock buzzed.  He always set it for the evening, not the morning, because there was a timeframe.

He started to rise to his feet, but he’d been sitting still too long, while hurt too badly.  His body refused to cooperate.

With inching progress, he made his way toward the alarm clock.

“Rain!” his aunt called out from the other room.  “Shut it off!”

Inching progress, shuffling steps.

He made it to the alarm clock, but not to the bed.

Rain’s consciousness was snuffed out like a candle.

Cradle.

His dreams are strange.

A hand slamming down on the table, a paper beneath it.  A mouth opening.  A man that might have been Cradle’s father spoke, but it wasn’t words that came out.  It was the frantic cries of the crowd, the screams, the shouted jumble.

The paper crumpled slightly as the hand on it closed into more of a fist.

In the background, a very prim and proper woman stood with her back to Cradle.

The parents, Rain interpreted.  Disappointment and anger.  I can understand that.

The scene changed.  A balding man in a suit, sitting across from a desk.  The bulletin board behind him had child’s artwork on it.

His expression was plaintive, worried.  The words from that somber older man’s face were the scream of someone that had been burned, stopping as lips closed together, starting as they parted.  His hand moved more papers, sorting through the pile in front of him.

Cradle’s point of view moved, shaking left and right as he shook his head.

The balding older man’s expression changed from worry to something stronger.  Upset.  Deep concern.

The principal, Rain interpreted.  He’d seen variations on this.  It was usually like this, or else smoke, rubble, or broken glass poured from people’s mouths instead of words.  Cradle wasn’t doing so well?

He could understand that too.

It’s even of a similar vein.  Unrealized potential, as far as I can understand it.  Report cards, teachers, father figures, they want something from him and he doesn’t deliver.  He doesn’t hand it over.

Then the long hallway.  The trudge.  Cradle’s hand was visible as he reached up to fix his glasses, as he reached out to the window.  In the distance, far away, the sounds of disaster could be heard.  The stampede, the fire.

School again?  A lonely hallway?  Isolation?  I used to call him the recluse.

Cradle took off his glasses, and all was a blur.  When he put them back on, he was facing teenaged peers.

Their faces moved as if they were shouting, expressions twisting.  The only sound to come out was that of the stampede.  Feet tromping, people shouting with words blending into one another.  Teeth came together as a word was finished, and the sound was of a bone breaking.  One of the teenagers pushed Cradle down.  His glasses were set ajar by the fall.

This time, as he fixed the glasses, he was in the shopping center, standing.

Things moved as if in slow motion.  Inevitable.

What does Cradle feel when he’s here?  Dread?

Cradle’s head turned, everything moving as if it was underwater, as he looked at a group of men and women with tattoos.  They were loud, too loud, as they gathered together, talking among themselves.

He looked the other way.  He saw other faces.  Faces that would be in the crowd shortly.  A couple that were about thirty years old.  Then an older man and woman.

The old couple get trampled early on, Rain thought.

Eyes roved slow-motion in the other direction.  In a store with colorful graphic images in frames, and other things in glass cases, a big guy with long hair, a nose ring and an impressive beard was talking to an older man, while tapping one of the framed cartoon images.  No sound came out of his mouth as his lips moved.

Images like this would be the best Rain would get at seeing Snag’s face uncovered.

There were others.  The twelve year old girl with her friends, that Snag would fail to help.  She would die in the crush, after slipping from Snag’s grip.

A lot of the children and elderly in the mall would be counted among the dead.

One of the three girls said her goodbye to her friends.  The movement was slow motion as she ran across the plaza of the mall.

She was smiling as she approached the woman who waited for her.  The smile fell from her face, she slowed, then hung her head.

The woman showed the girl her watch, tapped it, her words were stern and entirely unheard.  There was only silence in this slow motion prelude to the event.

The woman with wavy red hair, a sweater that failed to hide her impressive chest, and an ankle-length skirt.  Heads turned to watch her berate the child.  The child looked nervously back at her friends.

Love Lost.

Things accelerated, as the scene rushed forward.  Everyone to their positions.

Three explosions in quick succession, loud after the silence, the blasts tearing across the plaza the opening of one of the exits.  Blue flame.

Then the movement, everyone trying to get away.  The layout of the shopping center allowed only one good escape route, and everyone rushed for it.

Another acceleration, skipping ahead in time.  The sound of the stampede, the crowd, all of the noises that had been made or hinted at earlier, now came to the forefront, crashing into the present moment.  Cradle was close to the front of the crowd.  He was shoved, he tried to catch his balance, and he fell.  His glasses came away from his face, they were stepped on.

Twice, he reached for the glasses, and his hands were stepped on.  There was a desperation in it, more of a struggle to get them than there was even an attempt to stand.  The scene was blurred but his hands were as clear as anything.

Close by, a woman screamed, and the sound was prolonged, multi-part.

He found his glasses and put them to his face with bleeding fingers.  He was kicked, stepped on.

Did I subconsciously take myself there?  Rain thought.

He reached up, hand extended.

Pleading for help, reaching and unanswered, Rain interpreted.

How did all of what came before lead into this?

Rain was in the room.  He picked up the chair.

He didn’t venture a response.  He knew what the answer would be.

He didn’t really want to face the others, either.  They were the people who wanted him tortured to death.

For now, he sat in the chair.  There was no reason to stand.  He didn’t even need to find his three tokens.  It wasn’t as if he was giving them away, or getting anything.

His power would be what it was.

Snag approached the table, clearing away the debris, finding his glass.  He turned to stare at Rain.

Rain wanted to answer that stare, wanted to provoke.  He stared across to Cradle’s space instead.  He breathed deep, none of the injuries from earlier present.  They appeared as they were, in a way.  Snag in the same sorts of clothing, partially hiding his appearance, never looking like he’d just come from work.  Cradle wore civilian clothes.  Love Lost…

Love Lost rose from the chair.  Still wearing the muzzle-mask, still wearing the dress with the slit up the side, the heels, her nails painted.  She never took off the mask, now, so it was enough of a part of her to be brought into this space.

Her eyes were downcast as she approached the dais and gripped the edge.  She only lifted her eyes to stare Rain down.  Abject hatred.

It felt like an hour passed before Snag spoke.

“Cradle.  I’d like the coins before we run out of time.”

Cradle came from around the corner of one of the concrete slabs.  He looked worse for wear.

It’s always harder when it’s your night, Rain thought.

Cradle found the coins, gripped them in one hand, and slammed the hand against the invisible barrier that separated his section from Snag’s.  Snag caught one out of the air before it could hit the floor.  The other two landed on the flat surface of the dais.

“You know what the shittiest part of this thing is?” Cradle asked.

Cradle always liked to talk on his nights.

“You infected us,” Cradle said, looking at Rain.  “We each got a piece of each other.”

“Bleed-through,” Rain said.

“So you’ve done some research,” Cradle said.  “We were pretty decent people before.  Love Lost yelled at her daughter, but-”

Love Lost’s hand slammed against the dais.

“But she wasn’t evil,” Cradle said.  He turned to Love Lost.  “Sorry.”

Love Lost glared at him.

“Snag was even a bit of a hero,” Cradle said.

Snag sighed.  “I don’t really think so.”

“The girl you helped?  Friend of Love Lost’s daughter?  Come on,” Cradle said.

“I don’t think so,” Snag said, looking away.

“We were decent people,” Cradle said.  “And now we’re not.  Because of you.  Because you’re infecting us.”

Rain looked away.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.  “I don’t want any piece of you in me.  Just… wake up and kill yourself.  You can’t be happy with the Fallen.  So just end it.  Kill yourself.  Everything becomes easier.”

“I’m not going to do that, and I’m not with the Fallen,” Rain said.  “Not anymore.”

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.  “At least that way it’ll be easy.”

“Are you listening to me?” Rain asked.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.  “If you don’t, then some time, maybe a month from now, maybe a year, we’ll come for you.  We’ll take all of that ugliness you gave us and we’ll give it back.  With interest.”

The coins rattled in Snag’s hand.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

Love Lost’s fingernails clicked against the top of the dais.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

The fingernails clicked.

Rain stood, turned with his back to the dais, venturing further into his section of the room.

A bang made him turn.  Cradle had slammed his hand against the dais.

“Pay attention,” Cradle said.  “And kill yourself.”

“You think I’m going to listen to you?” Rain asked.  “Because you say it over and over?”

“I think if I say it often enough, there’s a chance it’ll catch you when you’re weak.  It could cross your mind at a critical time.  It’s a small chance, maybe, but I’m not doing anything else with the rest of my night.  I could keep it up tomorrow night, or the night after.  I could come up with something else.”

Nails clicked against the dais.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

The church service concluded.  The speakers rotated on the regular, and today’s was Mrs. May.  She was a respected figure in the community, but she wasn’t respectable.  She was a harpy of a person, with a shrill voice and a grating laugh she was inclined to use at the slightest provocation, and most people either loved her and her rhetoric, or they despised her.  She performed a lot of sermons, usually with plenty of warning to others and often with women in attendance.  Much of what she said appealed to that crowd.

Rain took some small solace in the fact that because his aunt and uncle had made him come, they had been obligated to sit through this.  They weren’t part of Mrs. May’s sub-congregation.

He wanted nothing more than to go, to get to his workshop, and to do what little he could to prepare.  As he made his way to the door, however, his aunt was caught up in a conversation with one of Mrs. May’s group.  Oh, wasn’t the sermon so delightful?  The word choice here, the passage, wasn’t it perfect?  Rain was here, that was unusual, was Rain married off yet?  No?  What about Allie?  Surely Allie had suitors.

Different preachers to appeal to different crowds, with diehard adherents attending every sermon.  It didn’t matter that the ideas contradicted, that the sermon the nervous Reverend Patman gave to a small congregation of Mrs. Sims’ type was the polite kind of message that could be heard elsewhere, while the inappropriately dressed Mrs. May preached how wives had the duty of keeping their husbands’ balls drained, prostates massaged, and stomachs full.

The people who wanted to believe believed, and Mrs. Sims’ type stayed because… Rain wasn’t entirely sure.  Because there was a safety in madness, maybe.  Part of why he stayed, really.  Or because leaving and trying to forge a life elsewhere was harder than staying and ignoring the ugliness and contradiction.  Harder than lying to herself and thinking she could bring order to this chaos.

Rain walked through the door to the overcast outside.  Allie joined him, her eyes widening slightly in the only communication she would give him that she didn’t agree with the sermon or the crowd.

“Hi Allie,” a guy said.  He was about eighteen, his tousled blond hair was grown out, and he had a natural smile with a mouth that seemed too wide.

“Hi,” Allie said, shy.  She looked down.

“Hi Rain.  You look like you went to war and you fought your way through the entire enemy line.”

“Hi Lachlan.  I think that might just be the politest way anyone could describe this,” Rain said.

Lachlan chuckled.

“You guys are just… hanging out here?”

“We’re waiting for a ride,” Allie said.  “I think Rain would rather get a ride than walk, after fighting through that battlefield you described.”

“I can give you guys a ride,” Lachlan offered.

“No thank you,” Allie said.  “You’re a dear, but I’ll just wait for my parents.”

Lachlan twisted his head around.  “They’re caught in conversation with the Screeching Mimis.”

“Shh!  Lachlan!” Allie shushed him.  Some heads had turned.

Lachlan grinned.  “I’m just saying, they’re going to be a while.  Once those four get their hooks in, people can’t get away for half an hour or more, and with your parents not being regulars, there’s a lot to catch them up on.”

“Don’t underestimate my mom and dad,” Allie said.  “We’re stern stock.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Lachlan said, smiling like he’d been let in on a secret.  He looked at Rain.  “You want a ride?”

Rain looked at Allie.

“Go,” she said.  “It’s embarrassing being seen next to you when you’re this beat up.”

“What?” Lachlan asked.  “Be fair, come on.  Rain’s one of the esteemed.  He’s blessed with power.  He’s like nobility around here.”

“Bastard nobility, maybe,” Rain said.

“You’re blessed,” Lachlan said, voice firm.  He smiled, then said, “And I’m your humble, obedient servant that would be glad to take you anywhere you want to go.  I’m at your service.”

Rain glanced again at Allie.  “If you could give me a ride to the machine shop, I’d be grateful.”

“Absolutely.  Bye Allie.”

“Bye.”

Lachlan led Rain to his car.  It was a nice one, a sleek blue sedan, roughly five years old, and in near-pristine condition considering it had survived the end of the world.  Rain got in the passenger seat with a wince and a grunt.

Every part of him hurt.

He could remember being in the room, the repeated words, and he dreaded tomorrow.  Every moment that passed ratcheted up the dread.

Being hurt and facing a night like that magnified the fact that he didn’t feel rested.  Even naps were beyond him, when his thoughts were this disturbed.

He looked over at Lachlan, and felt a twinge of sadness.

The car whisked its way along the road, slowing here and there to give a wider berth to the people walking on either side.

“You like Allie, huh?” Rain asked.

Lachlan laughed.  “Yeah.  It’s part of why I asked you if you wanted a ride.  I’m at your disposal if you need anything at all, though.  Don’t think I’m disloyal or selfish.”

“It’s okay,” Rain said.

“I sort of hoped I could give her a ride too and have a chat.”

“I guessed that too.”

“You know how I’m sort of the poster boy for the Fallen?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m eighteen, and I’m of a good age for marriage.  They say I’ve really helped out, so I can have my pick of almost anyone.  I made it really clear I don’t want anyone who doesn’t want me, and the leadership told me anyone I took would come to love me in time.  That’s how it works.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

“But I’d rather have someone who wants me, still.  So I was wondering, you know…”

“If Allie was interested?”

“Do you think she is?”

“I could tell you,” Rain said.  “But that’s only what I think.  With something as serious and binding as marriage, you’d want to be sure.  I can ask her outright, then pass it on to you.”

Lachlan chuckled.  “Yeah?”

“If you want.”

“Now I’m nervous.  Yes.  Yes!  She’s great, you know.  There was a campfire a month ago-”

“You heard her playing guitar?”

“She sang.  She doesn’t like singing because some of the others, like Jay- don’t think I’m disloyal…”

“It’s fine.”

“Jay and some of the others make fun of her singing, or they join in and she hates that.  But her singing is really nice.  It was a small group, just a few of us, and we listened, and I think I fell in love with her right then.  If I could listen to her sing for the rest of my life, I’d treat her like a queen.”

“I’ll ask her.  I’ll tell her some of that, if you don’t mind it.”

“Yes.  Sure.  I’m nervous now,” Lachlan said.  “I was also wondering- she’s not necessarily the only one I’m considering.”

Rain’s heart sank.

“Do you know Nell?”

“I know Nell,” Rain said, feeling relieved.  “Jay’s twin.”

“She has power too.”

“Do you like her?”

“I- she’s pretty, and she’s told me she’s interested.”

“But do you like her?”

“She told me she’s interested, and she’s close to the leadership.  Do you know if I have to say yes?”

“I don’t know,” Rain said.  “I might not be the person to ask.”

“You’re the easiest to talk to.”

“If they told you that you can pick anyone… you can probably pick anyone.  But Nell might not be a fan of yours afterward.”

Lachlan frowned.

“Let me ask Allie, on the down-low.  Maybe if she says no, you go to Nell and act like she’s the first and last person you considered for a wife.”

“What if she says yes?”

“Then you would have to decide if having her at your side is worth possibly having Nell be upset with you.”

Lachlan huffed out a sigh.

“The machine shop is just down the block,” Rain said.

“Thank you for talking to me,” Lachlan said.

Rain looked his way.

Lachlan’s hand adjusted its position on the steering wheel.  His hand trembled a little in the moments where it wasn’t gripping the wheel.

“Sure,” Rain said.

Lachlan pulled the car to a stop.  “Gotta ask you one more thing, if you don’t mind giving me a minute of your time.”

“Okay,” Rain said.  “You saved me more than a minute, so I don’t mind.”

Lachlan got out of the car as Rain did.  In the time it took Rain to work his way to a standing position, Lachlan walked around the front of the vehicle to the side of the road and pulled off his t-shirt.

He turned so his back was to Rain.  Rain, in turn, was faced with a tattoo.  Words in bold letters, inches-high, shaded, with thick outlines.  The first word was just below the nape of his neck, and the last was in the small of his back.

Jesus
Virgin-Mother-Fucking
Christ

Two hands, middle fingers extended, were on Lachlan’s shoulder blades, the fingers pointing up and outward.  Each hand had a nail through the center.

“It’s new.  What do you think?”  Lachlan asked.  He smiled as he turned to look at Rain over one shoulder.

“It’s big,” Rain said.

“Isn’t it?  It was hell to get it done.  Shoulder blades and ribs especially, all in one session.”

“It’s… very high quality.  I see a lot of bad tattoos around here, and that’s… the lines are straight, and the shading of the letters are good.”

“Then you like it?  Awesome.  You think Allie would like it?”

“I don’t want to speak for her.  I can ask her.”

“Nah, I’ll show her.  I see her at the bonfires a lot.  Thanks,” Lachlan said.  “I’ll see you around.  If you need anything-”

“I’ll ask.”

Lachlan grinned, and got back into his car.

Rain was left only with the deepest feeling of sadness.  He was so tired, he ached all over, and his heart ached too.  He wanted to tinker, and later, he would reach out to Erin.  She would listen, he would give her a tempered version of how his days had been-

The machine shop was badly weathered, not well insulated, and existed primarily as a large shack, with two stories.  It was where cars and pieces of equipment were brought to be repaired, with communal tools left for anyone to use.

The second floor, though, was mostly left to Rain.  He winced with every step up, then let himself in.

He wasn’t alone.

Erin was already there, sitting with her knees to her chest, face buried in her arms.

Rain’s heart sank.  A tiny, selfish part of himself bemoaned the fact that it didn’t stop.  That he didn’t get to rest.  It was threats to his life leading into him asking to be beaten to restless nights, church, Lachlan

He wondered if that was the monstrous part of himself that he’d passed on to the others.  The person he had been felt unrecognizable now, to the point he couldn’t even say what was him anymore.

Erin was crying.  Clever, brave, beautiful, compassionate, caring Erin.  Seeing her cry made him want to cry, more than anything else in the past twenty-four hours.

He had never seen her cry and he felt as terrified with the unanswered question of what had done this as he had felt with the threat of being tortured to death.

“Are you okay?”

She jumped slightly at the words.  She hadn’t heard him come in?

“No,” she said.  She blinked, and the blink squeezed out a tear.  She looked away and wiped the tear away.  “I’m sorry.  I know this is your workshop, but I needed to get away.”

“It’s okay.  What happened?”

He didn’t want to know.  He wanted to help her at the same time.

“I had a run-in with Tim,” she said.  She swallowed hard.

Tim.  Another of Rain’s uncles.  Tim who was Seir, who wore the preserved head of a horse but was the furthest thing from the lithe, athletic form of the horse, and the furthest thing from the attractive form of Seir the demon, as was described in the book some of the preachers liked to recite from.  Tim was forty, fat, ugly, and he had standing sufficient that he would run the settlement if the top two people in charge were somehow unable to.

A run-in with Tim.  Rain had his suspicions about what had happened.  That it had happened to Erin?

“I’d beat the shit out of him if I thought I could,” Rain said.

“You look like you had the shit beat out of you,” Erin said.  She blinked a few times, wiped away the tears.  “Are you okay?”

He wasn’t, and he couldn’t tell her he wasn’t.  Not when she was this upset.

“I’m always a little bruised and scratched.”

“That’s more than bruises and scratches.”

“I’m okay,” Rain lied.  “And you’re not.  Can I do anything?”

As if that had brought everything back, Erin’s expression briefly crumpled up.  She fixed it with apparent effort, and wiped away at more tears that had been squeezed loose.

She shrugged, and it was very, very apparent to Rain that she was trying to seem cavalier about something that wasn’t cavalier.

He had such a sick feeling in his chest, seeing this.

“Every time I cross paths with him, he makes comments,” she said.

“Yeah.  That’s- that’s Tim.”

She shrugged.  “He told me I should go to church.  Mrs. May is lecturing, I think?”

“She finished.”

“And he said Mrs. May could teach me what I needed to know to please a husband.”

Rain nodded.  If she was marrying Tim

“I told him to go fuck himself.”

“No,” Rain said.  He saw her expression and looked away.

“I know it was stupid.”

“You can’t- he has a lot of power.  It’s not that he’s right, but sometimes you have to keep your head down.  Some of these people will kill you if you say the wrong thing.  Or worse.  Surviving is- it’s the most important thing.”

“I know,” she said.  She averted her eyes.  “I felt like I could, in the moment.  There were people nearby.  I- he pushed me up against a wall, he threatened me with some pretty vulgar stuff, with the crowd watching.”

“You need to get out of here,” Rain said.  “You’re- you’re not Fallen.  You’re decent.  You’re kind.  You think.  You don’t believe this stuff.  You don’t deserve this.”

“I can’t go,” she said.

“Because of Bryce?  Your parents?”

“Of course because of them!  You don’t understand!”

“I really don’t.”

“My parents are the good, decent people.  If I have any good traits it’s because of them and how they raised me.  They- they’re really kind, they were perfect.  They tucked me in at night and they punished me fairly when I was wrong, they- they played with me and sat down to do my homework with me and they really truly loved me.  They did everything right, they never embarrassed me.”

Rain stood there, taking that in.  He tried to imagine what it was like.

“They- they talked to me and cared about what I had to say.  They- they aren’t this.”

“They aren’t Fallen?”

“They aren’t!  They’re… they’re scared.  The world ended and they lost everything, we lost family and friends and everything they worked for, and they broke down a little.  These people got their hooks in and my parents bought it.  But they’re still the same people.  They’ll turn around and realize how bad this is… won’t they?”

“I don’t know.”

Fresh tears spilled forth.  She buried her face in her folded arms, brought her legs closer.

“You need to get out, save yourself first.  Then you can try pulling them out.”

“I think if I do that, I’ll lose them forever,” she said, her voice muffled.

Rain wasn’t sure what to say.

He’d never really had family, certainly not like Erin had described.

Even if she lost them forever, at least she would be okay.

“My dad,” Erin’s voice was small, muffled.

“What?”

“He was there, while Tim said all of that stuff.  Bryce too.  He just stood there.  Then he apologized for my behavior.”

Rain was lost for words.  He felt a tear well up and out and wiped it away before Erin could see.

“I’m so sorry.”

“After Tim left, I freaked, and all my dad would say was that I shouldn’t have provoked him.  He said I should go to church like Tim suggested.  My dad, Rain.  With Bry there.”

Rain reached out, then withdrew his hand.

“I can get a car,” Rain said.  “I’ll borrow one, we can go for a drive.  We’ll do whatever you want, find your favorite food, talk.  Get away from this.”

“I don’t want to go out there,” Erin said.  “Not like this.  Can I stay here?  Please?”

“Of course,” Rain said.  Was it for the best?  If she got in a car with him, he wasn’t sure he would be able to stop driving her away from this.  He’d been born to this, but she hadn’t.

He still felt lost.  He wasn’t sure what to do.

“Do you- can I give you a hug?” he asked.

She didn’t even answer.  She rose to her feet, walked up to him, and wrapped her arms around him, face buried in his shoulder.

He put his arms around her.  He’d never imagined such a thing could feel so horrible and harrowing.  The horribleness didn’t even have anything to do with his injuries, that every point of contact hurt.  It wasn’t his body that hurt.

Rain stared off into space, feeling much like he imagined the shell-shocked in war-zones to feel.

He thought of Cradle’s reaching out for help, people stumbling past him, knocking his hand away.

“Hello?  Mrs. Yamada speaking.”

“It’s Rain.  I’m- I’m really not doing great.  Can we talk?”

“I thought you might call.  Victoria and Sveta reached out to me.  I’d planned to call you this afternoon to check on you.  Listen, I’m expecting a patient shortly, and I can’t adjust that.  We can talk for a few minutes, or, if it’s not an emergency, I can call you in an hour and a half, and I can give you a lot more time.”

“Please,” Rain said.  “The second one.”

“Be easy on yourself, Rain.  I’ll call you in an hour and a half.”

Rain hung up.

He’d reached out and there was a reach back.

He had that.

Erin was asleep on the other end of the room, on a makeshift bed, Rain’s spare change of clothes piled atop her as a kind of blanket.  Her hand was under her pillow and her gun was in her hand.  He wasn’t sure if she knew he’d seen her do it.

Cradle had described him as a monster.  He wasn’t sure if he was, but as he sat at his work table, trying to work quietly, he imagined he was willing to become a little more monstrous if it meant saving the likes of Erin from becoming a lost soul like Lachlan.

His tinkering might have been limited, but he had other skills.  He’d survived in places more rustic than this for a time.  He could make blades.  He could make traps and snares.  His scrap with his uncle had taught him he couldn’t win a fair fight against even the unpowered, not with his powers being what they were.

He’d draw on every resource he had to keep it from coming down to a fair fight.  When he went back to the group tomorrow, it would be with a different mindset.

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next Chapter