She stared up at the ceiling, tears in her eyes.
“It’s not like I didn’t give you warnings,” he said.
“I can’t change your mind?” she asked. It sounded like pleading, begging.
She looked at him. His head was shaved, his chin was marked with stubble, and he looked weary. The front door was ajar, the world outside dark. He had his jacket and shoes on, and he stood in the hallway, while she stood in the living room. The water hadn’t even dried from when he’d walked in from outdoors and it was clear in his body language he was about to go.
He took a long time to decide what to say.
“I’d say you could tell me things were going to be different-”
“-But you’ve told me it before,” he said. “I don’t believe your words anymore.”
“This isn’t just about me,” she said, raising her voice.
“Seventy-five percent me, twenty-five percent you, then,” he said.
“Don’t fucking reduce it to numbers,” she said, angry now.
“We’ve talked about this,” he said. His voice was calm, in stark contrast to hers. “I’ve tried to be fair. I outlined what needed to change. That you needed to take it easier and be more reliable. I don’t even know where you are some nights, and it’s not because of work.”
“It’s part of the job!” she said. Her voice echoed down the hallway, and the echo came back different. “It’s the work culture! How many times do I have to say it!?”
“I’ve outlined what needed to change. The therapist took my side. She thought it was fair. We agreed on rules, the therapist signed off on them, and you broke them,” he said. His voice was more weary than his expression was. “How many times have I had to get Ever out of bed late at night, get her things, and bring her to the hospital like that because you’ve gotten hurt? You’re a mom.”
“I’m a human being! I’m trying to find a balance!” Again, the echo, louder, jumbled, not going away as it bounced off of the walls, building and multiplying.
“She’s almost five. She’ll be in kindergarten this September. In the last four years and seven months, She’s learned to walk, talk, do some chores, and she’s going to go into school knowing some reading, adding, and subtracting. She’s figured all that out. Why can’t you figure out your balance in that same time?”
“Oh fuck you, Lee!”
“Dad?” the voice was small.
Lee turned and stepped aside. The little girl- Everly, she’d crept up, and now she stood in the hallway that went from the front hall toward the bedrooms, fidgeting with her nightgown.
“Oh, hon-” her words were nearly drowned out by the jumble of sound.
“Hey Ever!” Lee’s voice interrupted hers, positive, happy. Were the point of view not from the woman’s perspective, Love Lost’s perspective, then nobody would’ve heard the small, broken sound that escaped her throat. Another person might not have seen how the lens was watery, blurry at the bottom edges with tears.
Lee bent down and swept Ever up in his arms. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“No I’m not, goblin,” he said. He squeezed the girl in a hug. As he did, he turned, his face where Everly couldn’t see, and gave Love Lost an accusatory, disappointed look.
No I’m not. But she is.
“Where are you going?” Everly asked.
“I have to go away for a bit.”
“You weren’t going to say goodbye?”
“Were you?” Love Lost asked. She didn’t shout, but the words reverberated and echoed down the hallway and through the house as if she’d voiced the words with a megaphone.
Lee’s look was much fiercer, this time.
“It’s not goodbye,” Lee said, the gentle tone disconnected from expression. “I’m going to see you soon. Promise.”
“Wizards can’t lie, Daddy.”
“I know, baby.”
“And we’re wizards. It’s not allowed. It’s a pact of a promise.”
“I know. You and me, we’re wizards and we keep our word.”
Love Lost shook her head, looking away, elsewhere in the living room, down at her hand, which was clenched. When she opened her hand, her palm had a row of half-moon marks in it.
Lee set Everly down. “Go to your mom. Sorry, goblin, but I’ve got to go.”
Everly looked at her mom, hesitated, both hands on her dad’s leg, then obediently crossed the way.
Love Lost knelt on the living room rug, folding her daughter into a hug, her head buried in the little girl’s shoulder and hair.
“I’ll send you the papers by the end of the week,” Lee said.
Love Lost flinched, whole-body, as the door shut with a solid impact. The sound broke up as well, scattered, became a hundred trampling shoes and boots, bangs. Picture frames rattling became another kind of rattle, of things clattering, falling down.
The floodgates opened, and her arms still encircling Everly, she used her thumbs and fingers to try to wipe tears away. To keep Everly from seeing.
“Why are you crying? Mom?”
She shook her head.
“Mom? What did I do?”
Her voice broke as she tried to speak. The noises were too loud- the jumble.
Her eyes were wrenched open as people pushed in close. Her surroundings were claustrophobic, not even accounting for all of the people. Folded tables and pallets on either side of her, many with papers stuck to them. The words ‘event’, ‘convention’ stood out on the paper. People pushed, shoved, and Love Lost pulled closer to the wall, put her head down, burying her face in her daughter’s hair.
“Mom,” was the faint sound, almost drowned out.
Love Lost looked. She made eye contact with her daughter, now grown, twelve or so years old. Makeup around her eyes was thick, bright, smudged. Strands of red hair with one strand bleached and colored blue had fallen across her face. Everly looked terrified.
People pushed past, and Love Lost did what she could to hug her daughter closer. The space between the piles of stuff might have seemed like a refuge at one point, but it wasn’t big enough for two people. Love Lost sat on the ground, her back to the wall, pulling Everly in as tight as she could.
A man squeezed by, and Love Lost looked down at where her hand gripped her daughter’s waist. The friction of the man pushing past had skinned the back of her hand.
Love Lost shouted, inarticulate, and her own voice was inaudible. Angry shouts, telling people to get back, to give space. Someone tried to stick a leg into the gap between her and the folded tables leaning against the wall to one side. The tables rattled as the picture frames had, a steady, endless, echoing drum.
Her daughter said something, but the noises- too much noise.
I can feel the vibration of her speaking against Love Lost’s chest, Rain thought.
Love Lost screamed words at the crowd.
The pressure of the packed crowd was such that the stacked tables couldn’t handle it. Something gave, and the tables fell, sliding down against the ground, taking the legs out of a dozen people in the crowd. The result was a domino effect, people falling over and taking others with them. Others sought relief from pressure in moving over the crowd.
The ripple effect in the crowd was more like a tidal wave crashing through. One moment, where Love Lost’s eyes moved over the crowd, saw people falling, saw others pushing-
Her daughter was torn from her arms by the shift in the crowd. She watched, the scene slowing down, the noise dying out, fingers grasping, as Everly’s face was forced- shoved into the side of a table that hadn’t fully collapsed.
The only sound was the impact, a single, hard knock. The dull echo and the rattling.
Her eyes went first to the slash of red, the gap between nostril and teeth, where the upper lip had split. Then to Everly’s eyes, which pointed in slightly different directions, unfocused. Gone.
She reached for Everly and the movement of the crowd didn’t let her make contact. People moved in, stepping on her, on Everly’s body, and Love Lost fought, fierce, desperate, and animal.
A scream tore from her lips, a multi-note sound. Anger, desperation, despair, grief.
Love Lost leaned over the counter, hands at her temple, as the screaming on the television stopped, replaced by a jingle, jarring voices. Bugs danced on the screen, turning around to wiggle their rear ends, showing off the symbols stamped on their shells.
“Everlyn,” she said.
Her hands moved at her temple, and the scene distorted with the movements.
“Everlyn!” she raised her voice. The shout echoed through the apartment.
She heard the tromp of running feet. The sound echoed, became a part of the background noise.
“Yes mom?” the voice asked.
“Turn it down. That’s loud enough to bother the neighbors. And turn it off, if you’re not watching.”
“I was going to watch.”
“You were in your room.”
“I wanted to find someone to watch it with me.”
Love Lost looked over as two stuffed toys were placed on the counter’s edge. Ugly things, with twisted faces. One of them looked like a ballsack with arms, legs, and a bulldog face. Ugly toys were apparently the in thing. The other was alright. A princess doll with red hair.
“See?” Everlyn moved the toys, animating them with wiggles and moving a finger up to raise the princess’s arm.
“I see. Now turn it down.”
The toys were left where they were. A moment later, the volume of the children’s voices singing the repetitive song started dropping. The noise of the lingering echoes remained.
“Quieter,” Love Lost said. Her fingers moved at her temples, drawing her eyes into slits, as she stared down at the sink.
The sound of the television dropped again. The two toys were whisked away from the edge of the counter.
“Thank you,” Love Lost said, raising her voice to be heard as the footsteps retreated at a run. She drew in a deep breath and sighed, aggrieved.
The peace lasted about five seconds. Something crashed, a loud sound that cascaded, as if everything had fallen down.
“Sorry!” Everlyn called out, from the other end of the house, her voice high. “I’ll clean it up!”
Love Lost raised herself up straight, then went to the kitchen cupboard, retrieving a bottle of headache pills. She doled out two into her hand. The stem of a wine glass was briefly visible as she washed them down.
The theme song had ended, and the television was high cartoon voices, now.
Love Lost buried her face in her hands and sighed.
“What is it, Everlyn?” Love Lost’s voice could only be described as barely restrained, slightly muffled with her face still in her hands.
“Can I show you something?”
“How bad is the mess?”
“Oh, that. I’ll clean it up after. Can I show you something?”
“Can it wait? Please? I’m not up for it right now.”
Love Lost remained where she was. The sounds in the background settled into a throbbing sync. The television show broke away to show ads, high cartoon voices replaced with adult announcers touting toys and kids screaming their glee in response.
She raised her head up, and a slice of color caught her eye. She looked- the princess doll, sitting on the edge of the counter. The weight of the doll held down a little booklet.
She set the doll aside, noting the paper shield stuck to the arm with two pieces of clear tape. The cover of the book had two women on it, both with red hair.
The woman in a dress with the shield was in the book, alongside a figure that wasn’t supposed to be a woman, but Everly. A child drawing herself as larger and more prominent, with a scarf drawn overlong, sprawling out over the page.
The red-haired wizard had once had a teacher but he was gone. There was only the knight who had ‘raised her up’, who had red hair like her. The knight ‘detected’ crimes and was always very tired and very grumpy.
Children on the television in the background shrieked. The sound became a growing echo of screams.
Love Lost’s vision blurred slightly, and she paged through. The lead-in to the book took a long time, and the confrontation at the end was brief, as the demon was slain.
Love Lost looked away, at a small collection of empty bottles on the counter, tucked beside the microwave and the wall, set out of reach.
She finished looking through the book’s ending. She closed it, hand pressing down the front cover so it would lie flat instead of sticking straight up. The teacher’s sticker was in the corner, a tiny superhero silhouette holding up a giant ‘A+’. The teacher had penned out a response, saying in length how much they loved it.
Love Lost’s thumbnail dragged against the construction paper, scratching the words the teacher had put down, the edge of the nail finding the grooves where the pen nib had dug into the softer paper.
She pressed the book to her chest, and picked up the doll. The paper shield came undone, and she carefully pressed the tape back into place along the doll’s arm.
She walked down the hallway, then pushed open the door.
Toys and stuffed animals were scattered across the floor. Love Lost’s eyes roved, over posters on the wall, mostly wizard things, more of the goblins. Homework assignments and one picture of Lee were taped to the wall, at waist height and below.
An eight year old Everly was on her bed, surrounded by toys. She watched her mother, expression solemn.
“I’m sorry I forgot to turn off the tv,” Everlyn said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Everlyn looked at the closet. A set of metal poles with baskets had been pulled down, bringing down the basket from the back of the door in the process. The stuffed animals from within had been emptied onto the floor of the room, with one pole leaning against the child-size chair in the corner of the room.
“I love this,” Love Lost said, pressing the book against her heart.
Everlyn smiled, “You do?”
“I love everything about it,” Love Lost said, for emphasis.
“There are parts I worried you wouldn’t like.”
“I love it all,” Love Lost said. “Can I sit?”
Everlyn moved over so her mother could sit down beside her. She took the doll back.
“When you wanted a scarf for Christmas, did you want one like this? Like-”
“I like the one you gave me.”
“But did you want one like this?” Love Lost looked at pictures on the wall. The sound of her own heartbeat echoed, the sounds that the television spat out growing louder in the distance, like an onrushing train. She pointed. “Like that?”
Everlyn nodded, “Yes.”
“What do you say we go shopping later? We’ll see what we can find.”
Everlyn nodded, emphatic. “Yes please.”
Love Lost reached for her daughter and wrapped her in a hug.
“I’m going to try to be a better mom, okay?”
Everlyn pulled to one side. The movement of people around her tugged her, threatening to pull her from her mother’s arms. Her expression was so afraid.
Again, just as before, down to the last detail, the pressure of the packed crowd was such that the stacked tables couldn’t handle it. The tables fell, sliding out and across the floor, bowling over a section of the crowd. Again, the domino effect, again, people fell over and knocked or pulled others down with them.
Again, people climbed over the fallen.
Once again, the sound seemed to fade. Once again, things moved in slow motion as Love Lost’s eyes moved along the same path, noting the same details, the same imminent result.
Her daughter was torn from her arms. Love Lost watched as Everly’s face was driven into the side of a half-fallen table.
Again, the only sound was the impact, a single, hard knock. The dull echo and the clatter after the fact.
Love Lost’s eyes traveled the exact same path as before, as if moving along a groove. First to the slash of red, the gap between nostril and teeth, where the upper lip had split. Then to Everly’s eyes, which each moved independently of the other. Gone.
The dull echo of the impact against the table was the only sound as she reached for her daughter. The movement of the crowd didn’t let her make contact. People moved in, trampling the two of them, separating them, and Love Lost fought, with nothing knightly or good about how she clawed with fingernails.
A sound tore from her lips, a sound in many parts, for a feeling that couldn’t be put to words or wordless scream.
Then that sound, too, went quiet.
Tear-blurred vision with light from the windows slicing in through the brief gaps that appeared between people became something else. Light on the horizon.
Love Lost sat with a ten year old Everlyn, facing the water, and the soft glow on the far side of it. All around them, people milled, noisy.
“Do you want to do anything?” she asked.
Everlyn looked up at her, confused, then looked back.
Love Lost followed her daughter’s eyes. The orb of the sun was behind them, peeking in between buildings.
She turned to look at the light on the horizon. Gold.
“Do anything?” Everlyn asked.
“We could go to the ice cream truck over there, and see if we can get anything.”
Her daughter looked at her as if she was crazy.
“We could go to the shelters, but I don’t think it would help.”
People ran this way and that. Not sure where to go. Love Lost seemed determined to stay still, stay calm.
She reached for her daughter’s hand, and that hand trembled as she took it in hers.
As if something had swept over it, the water briefly went still, every wave stopping, the ocean appearing as a flat expanse of ice or glass for the briefest moment.
The golden light flared, and it took nearly five seconds before the effect touched the water, breaking the spell. The ground shook as the effect carried into the ground beneath them, and some people who were running lost their balance.
Everlyn’s hands went to her mouth. One was the hand that Love Lost held. Love Lost gathered both hands up in her own.
“I don’t understand why the ice cream,” Everlyn said. A sentence garbled by confusion and stress.
“I wasted so much time. I thought-”
She didn’t finish the statement.
Her daughter gave her a look, confused.
“I don’t know what to do,” Love Lost said.
“Hug me,” Everlyn said.
Love Lost hugged her daughter without hesitation or reserve, burying her face in Everlyn’s hair.
“Too tight. That hurts,” Everlyn said.
The sound of the crowd mounted, the distant rumbles and rattling echoing. People brushed across Love Lost’s arm, in greater and greater numbers-
Rain found himself in the room. He didn’t reach for the chair. He didn’t move.
The view of Gold Morning had been the third of seven scenes.
All punctuated by the same repeated event.
It had been the same way, every fifth night for the last year, with little variation. Sometimes more scenes, sometimes less. He’d seen all of these before.
It never hit him any less hard.
Snag was up, standing at the dais. Cradle, too, had approached it. Rain could hear the murmurs of their conversation.
He hated to look, but he looked.
Love Lost was in the small chair. The same chair that had been in Everlyn’s room.
Rain recognized the stuffed animals, the toys, and the little belongings. Nothing too personal, none of the wizard pictures. None of the swords-and-sorcery superhero stuff that the more moody eleven and twelve year old Everlyn had kept on her wall. None of the toys were ones she’d indicated any attachment to.
Love Lost sat in the chair, limp, not twitching a finger or shifting her posture. Tears marked her cheeks, darkened with the makeup from around her eyes. Unblinking, tears flowing, she glared at Rain.
It was disconcerting to see someone cry and not blink or move.
He hated this. He hated seeing that and he couldn’t imagine what it did to Love Lost. He hated that it took something away from the sympathy, that he had to temper it with his awareness of her wanting him dead.
She had been a deeply flawed person, but that didn’t make the love, the pain, or the resulting emotion any less felt. Just the opposite, in the end.
She poured hate into her glare as if she could somehow make Rain feel the loathing and anger.
With the personality bleed, he thought, she probably could.
Rain felt his heart sink further as Victoria flew higher.
“Crazy,” Erin said.
He looked back at her. She still stood by the door of her dad’s car. She looked so weary. “Me?”
“Her. The flying, I mean. It’s crazy to go from a conversation to seeing someone take off and disappear into the sky like that.”
He’d wanted to convince Victoria more than anyone. She was the least biased in his favor because she hadn’t spent so long in group therapy, listening to his side of things, empathizing and sharing with him. A part of him had wanted to get her on his side because she wasn’t that far from all of the strangers he walked past or took the train with every day- every person who he knew would hate him if they knew his full, unfiltered story.
In the background, Kenzie had stood up. She was looking in Victoria’s direction. Sveta broke away from the group to approach her. Disconcerting, in a very different way, to see how Sveta turned her head away, and she hadn’t fixed her hair since moving it away. The thin-ness of her face, the fact that the only thing behind it was the muscle-like bundle of finger-thin tendrils.
He hadn’t seen that often. It reminded him of catching a glimpse of Erin’s bra strap. Something hidden, that he wasn’t supposed to see. It left him feeling uncomfortable in a completely different way.
Disconcerting, to see Sveta looking at him, catching him looking, and the anger and hurt in her eyes. He thought of Love Lost.
Sveta was one of the kindest people he knew. Having her angry at him? It sucked. But Peat and Fen had been the closest thing she’d had to kin for a long time.
He couldn’t wrap his head around that, because he’d never had real kin. He’d never been in one place for long enough, he’d never been welcomed.
“You look like you’re in shock,” Tristan said.
Rain blinked. Was he? “I- for a long time, yeah.”
“Did you talk to Mrs. Yamada?”
“Yesterday afternoon. She helped me work up the courage to come. You were right. They all needed to know.”
He was aware of the subset of the group that had gathered. Ashley, Tristan, Chris, and himself, with Erin in the background. He looked back at Erin.
He knew the accusation Moonsong had leveled against Tristan, and he had an idea of what that was about. Ashley hadn’t hidden her past. Three out of the five people present had killed in the past. It was disorienting, to track the number as it climbed.
Sveta had an especially bloody past. She’d even gotten blood on her hands after leaving the Asylum.
“Has Victoria ever killed anyone?” Rain asked, before he realized he was asking it.
The reaction was as one might expect. Blinks. Surprise from Tristan. A snort and smile from Chris.
“What are you asking?” Chris asked.
“I thought the admission I’d killed people would have had more impact than the things the Fallen has done in the past,” Rain said.
“I can’t speak for the others, but I guessed,” Chris said.
“Someone doesn’t have your kind of guilt without something that bad or worse,” Ashley said. “You didn’t think you had a choice.”
“I didn’t,” Rain said. “But it doesn’t change what I did.”
“I know,” Ashley said. “When I was talking to the group about understanding what I’d done and how, I knew that sometimes Mrs. Yamada would say things and it wasn’t to me. Most of the time, when you asked about things, it wasn’t about me, it was about you.”
“Sorry,” Rain said.
Ashley shook her head. She looked the way Victoria had gone. “She hasn’t killed anyone before, if I had to guess.”
“Just Victoria and the kids, then.”
“Just Victoria and Kenzie,” Chris said.
Rain looked at Chris. Chris shrugged. “Accidental.”
“Only Victoria and Kenzie. Sounds right,” Ashley said.
“Yeah,” Chris said.
“Christ,” Rain said, under his breath.
“You talking like that was what got me asking about you and Church, remember?” Tristan asked. He folded his arms. “What’s your plan?”
“I’ve got to drive Erin back tonight. If it’s okay, I’ll get together with the group tomorrow. I’ve got some junk for you to drop off, if that’s okay.”
“What kind of junk?” Chris asked.
“Bear traps, wire guillotines, blades without handles.”
“Really,” Tristan said.
“He’s not lying,” Erin said. “I helped him load the car.”
“They’re going to come after me. I’m going to plan accordingly. I’ll cover my escape route, and I’ll make sure I’m armed if they close the distance.”
“They run on walls,” Chris said. “Or jump onto walls.”
“I’ll cover the ground,” Rain said, firm. “I’ll figure something out for the walls.”
“I can help some with that. I’m going the anxiety route, so I’ll be crawling up the walls for the next few days. I can give you some perspective on where to put traps.”
“Thank you,” Rain said.
“You want to set traps… around the headquarters?” Tristan asked.
“And some place we can retreat to if we go into Cedar Point and have to retreat out of. It’s going to be hard to find places that work that won’t put civilians in the target area.”
“You can talk to Kenzie for that,” Chris said. “Make them remotely armed.”
“Okay, wait, stop, stop,” Tristan said. “Is this really what we’re doing?”
“It’s what I’m doing,” Rain said. “For this specific scenario, as a just-in case. I have to do something, and this is stuff I know about.”
Tristan ran his fingers through his hair. He turned to Erin, asked, “Are you okay with this?”
“A while ago, I wouldn’t have been,” she said. She set her jaw a bit, “But I have a gun now, and I know how to use it. Half of the reason I’m carrying it is in case those people come after Rain, or if they come after me as a way of hurting him.”
Rain felt so sad, hearing that.
Sadder, at knowing the other reason she had it.
He hated this. He hated that he saw Tristan here, looking so distressed. He hated that Sveta was so upset, that Victoria was gone, that Kenzie wasn’t rejoining the conversation when being left out was something that bothered her so much.
He hated himself, for being at the crux of so much of that. He could remember Love Lost’s penetrating glare.
How much of this self-loathing stemmed from her loathing of him?
“I don’t know what to say,” Tristan said. “Guns and maiming?”
“You don’t need to say anything,” Rain said.
“I feel like someone needs to say something,” Tristan said. He looked around the group, at Ashley, Chris, Rain. He looked back at Sveta and Kenzie. “Shit, out of the four of us, it’s supposed to be up to me to make the moral argument?”
“You don’t need to argue,” Rain said. “Really, I get it. It’s shitty, but I thought all day yesterday about this. I’ve got to do something.”
Tristan paced a little, then walked a short distance away. He muttered something under his breath.
It was Byron who walked the same short distance back.
“Hey,” Rain said.
“Hey,” Byron said. “I’m supposed to talk to you, I guess, since Tristan can’t figure out how to.”
“I’ve got to stay alive,” Rain said. “I can’t lie down and die, and the only way I can figure out how to get through this is to be a little more vicious. I’ve been in these guys heads for a year. They will kill. They hate me that much.”
Images of Everlyn flickered through Rain’s mind’s eye.
Byron was nodding.
“Kill or be killed,” Ashley said.
“Me being killed might be deserved,” Rain added.
“You don’t deserve to be tortured to death,” Erin said. “And I don’t believe in death for crimes committed either. Only in self defense, if there aren’t other options.”
“Death is a reality when powers come into play and people aren’t willing to play nice. It’s why so many of us have body counts. Other teams aren’t that different, I’m sure,” Ashley said. “A lot of powers don’t come with a ‘stun’ option. A lot of other powers don’t come as part and parcel with power-users who would or could use that option if they had it.”
Rain shook his head.
“I don’t think you deserve the torture and-or murder kind of end either,” Byron said. “I’m not going to say no to the traps, or to Erin’s gun. If it comes to staying alive, use them. Do whatever you have to that doesn’t put others in harm’s way.”
“Thank you,” Rain said.
“I’m going to say some other stuff, though,” Byron said. His expression was so different from Tristan’s. More serious by default than Tristan’s was when Tristan was being serious. His words had weight, even spoken more quietly. “I’m going to tick Tristan off, saying this, but I’m going to start off by saying I really don’t like the team idea.”
“That’s going to tick him off, yeah,” Chris said.
“The idea has good parts to it,” Byron said. “It’s even cool to see people like Ashley and Kenzie talking about team names, getting excited about costumes. But that’s where they’re at, Rain. They’re still figuring it out. Victoria is focused on that right now, I think. A lot of talk of costumes and names.”
“We talked about that a fair bit,” Ashley said.
“The shitty part of the idea?” Byron asked. “The thing that worries me? It’s the idea that the worst things might bubble to the surface and get in the way of this being genuine or good. Chris is talking about Kenzie making components or alerts for traps that are going to potentially maim? No. That’s… really not right.”
“You’re talking about me?” Kenzie asked, smiling as she asked it.
“Maiming?” Sveta asked.
The pair were rejoining the group, after their heart-to heart.
“We’re talking about how far we’re willing to go to save Rain,” Byron said.
“Oh. That’s obvious. All the way,” Kenzie said.
“No,” Rain said. “Not if it compromises stuff. Byron’s right.”
“If you’re going to take serious measures, I think it should be separate from the team,” Byron said, quiet and serious. “Let them be heroes. Be a hero with them, with that other stuff being secondary. Keep it away from the hideout and headquarters.”
“It doesn’t mean these guys can’t help you,” Byron said. “It means that if you’re planning on matching your enemy in preparing to go to war, you can’t ask others unequivocally to come with you.”
Rain nodded again. He felt something bitter well up deep inside, and his expression twisted as he looked away.
“I missed stuff,” Kenzie said.
“I’ll tell you after,” Ashley said.
“Sorry Rain,” Byron said. “Take that as advice from someone in the diminishing population of people with reasonably clean hands. Advice from someone who had a very close up view of hands getting unclean.”
“I shouldn’t ruin them,” Rain said, looking at the group.
“Escalate if you have to, but don’t make it part of how the team operates,” Byron said. “Because yeah, that might ruin them.”
“You’re overestimating how intact we were when we started,” Chris said.
“I’m estimating that the team started from a place of healing and support,” Byron said. “If this is going to work out at all, and I really don’t think it is, sorry Tristan, it needs to hold on to that.”
“I like that,” Kenzie said.
“Thank you,” Byron said.
Ruined. Rain had a sick feeling in his gut. He looked back at Erin.
“I’ve spent nearly two years living with the Fallen,” Erin said. She smiled, but her heart wasn’t really behind it. “Don’t go thinking you ruined me, because they’ve got dibs.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Rain said.
He was struck with the urge, almost panic-level, yet driven by that strong core he’d spent all of yesterday trying to dig up, to say something that would maybe save Erin. To tell the others to grab her, or to not let her go back. He could tell the truth and it might even work, or he could lie, and it would work slightly better, but be limited more to the short term.
She had a gun and she had it partially because she was his friend and she wanted to protect him.
She had it, in part, to protect herself against the people she was going back to.
“Thank you for hearing me out,” he said to the group. “I guess I’ll see what Victoria says or does tomorrow. If I’m welcome.”
“I think you are,” Sveta said. “And I think Erin is too, but we’ll discuss if we’re okay having her in the headquarters. If we aren’t, we’ll still hang out, talk, make sure everything’s good.”
“That sounds nice,” Erin said. “I could do with more friends than just Rain.”
Rain nodded. Privately, he wanted that for Erin too. Especially if something happened to him, he wanted her to have people to reach out to.
“I wish you weren’t going back at all, Rain,” Sveta said. “I can’t say it enough.”
I wish I wasn’t going back either, Rain thought. I wish I wasn’t taking Erin back.
Byron blurred, his eyes flaring as he became Tristan.
“No,” Tristan said. “I appreciate you stepping in, sorry for pushing you into that conversation. I need to think. Take the rest of my time.”
There was another blur. Tristan became Byron again.
“It’s late,” Rain said. “I think- we’ll go back?”
“Want a ride, By?” Rain offered. “To the station?”
“Anyone else?” Erin asked. Rain wished she hadn’t, but waited patiently while the others discussed.
They were going back to the headquarters, to check tapes and discuss, and to prepare for another patrol group that was going to do a walk-through of Cedar Point. It would just be Byron, Rain, and Erin in the car. Sveta had maybe noticed that Rain wanted to talk to his closer friends, and had steered the group’s arrangement slightly.
They three of them got in Erin’s dad’s car, leaving the traps and other junk in the boot. Rain took the passenger seat, suppressing his grunts and groans of pain as bruises made themselves felt. Byron took the back seat.
He wanted to talk to his friend, and he wasn’t sure how. The first fifteen minutes of the drive were agony, in a way.
Any other time, he would have been just fine with the fact that Byron was someone who seemed content to be quiet, to not make conversation.
They reached the train station, and Erin pulled into a parking spot.
“You didn’t tell them about the room,” Byron said.
“The room?” Erin asked.
“Dream thing,” Rain said.
“Should I get out of the car or plug my ears or something?”
“No,” Rain said. “I trust you.”
“Nah. You boys talk. I’m going to run to the vending machine, since it’s a long drive. You can fill me in on the way back if you want.”
She climbed out of the car.
Rain watched her go, feeling a pang of sadness.
“She looks stressed,” Byron observed.
“Bad day yesterday. It’s starting to catch up with her, Fallen being Fallen.”
“And even like this she’s so stunning it sucks the air out of the room,” Byron said.
Rain looked in the direction Erin had gone. “Yeah.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“I’m not doing it. Not well.”
Rain wasn’t just talking about Erin.
“Today wasn’t easy,” Byron said.
“Last night wasn’t easy. If I wasn’t forced to sleep I’d have been up all night freaking out. Instead I had to have some of the shittiest memory-dreams, and then put on a poker face so I wouldn’t show any weakness to the people who want me dead.”
Byron thought for a moment, then said, “Last night was Love Lost?”
“Yeah,” Byron echoed him.
“You said something about the air being sucked out of the room, and I feel like it’s always that way. I can’t breathe, I can’t focus, I go from one bad moment to the next and I don’t even get the mercy of sleep. That’s without even taking Erin into account. Who’s-”
“You love her.”
Rain reeled at the idea.
“I don’t blame you. I don’t think anyone would.”
“I- I spent all of last night watching someone have the one person they cared about most in the world get torn from them over and over again. Then I saw the aftermath. Hurting Erin would be the one way they could do that to me. I guess I do.”
“Yeah,” Byron said. “I think anyone in your situation, in ours, in this kind of thing, if they had someone being nice and cool, they’d cling to that. Love would be natural and inevitable.”
“But Erin’s special, I think. She’s someone you could fall in love with, in any situation, not just one where she’s the one port in an ugly storm.”
“Yeah,” Rain’s voice was hollow.
“Be good to her,” Byron said.
“I can’t,” Rain replied. “Because the most ‘good’ thing I could do for her would be to kidnap her and take her away from all of this. But if I did, she’d never talk to me again, and I’d lose my mind without her having my back. I hate myself for it.”
Byron was silent.
“Instead, I’ve got to drive back with her, take her back to that. Actual, serious danger. I feel like I’m going to panic any second, I can’t figure out a clear way out, you’re right that I can’t drag the others into it, so there’s a part of it I have to do myself, the uglier, more monstrous part and-”
“That’s hard,” Byron said.
“I’m not sure I’m strong enough. That’s why I decided at the last minute I couldn’t tell them about the room. If I did, I feel like they’d read a selfish undercurrent into things.”
“It would tie your hands,” Byron said.
“It- kind of. The room, and how the powers are doled out. It incentivizes us killing each other. I’m weak. I’m really weak. If I kill them, I probably get stronger. That’s my only way out, and if I admit it to the team, and if one of the cluster die, it’s going to be something entirely different from most of us having taken lives in the past, under duress or before the amnesty. It’s going to be real and now.”
Byron nodded slowly, looking out the window.
“Does that change how you see me? That I’m seriously thinking about killing them?”
“Yeah,” Byron said. “It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t exactly blame you, or blame you for not wanting to tell the others.”
“But if you want to have that conversation, I think you should have it with Tristan, not me. You sound an awful lot like he did, and I don’t think he liked how it ended up.”
Byron opened the car door. He put a hand on Rain’s shoulder, brief, as he made his exit from the vehicle. He crossed paths with Erin, who was returning, accepted a chocolate bar from her, and disappeared around the corner.
Erin dumped the collection of junk food onto the space between the two front seats, then put the sodas in an empty trash bin on the floor of the car, so they wouldn’t roll around.
“Good talk?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
“I thought you two needed the elbow room,” she said. “Sugar and caffeine is for if you want to stay awake on the way back.”
Rain was startled awake by a hand at his shoulder. Candy wrappers fell from his lap as he sat up straighter.
It was dark out, Erin was in the driver’s seat, face illuminated by the reflection of her headlights.
She looked spooked.
The path to the camp cut through woods, and the boundary where the area had been cleared out and the settlement began was marked with posts and a signboard that hung overhead. ‘Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here’.
It was supposed to be a cute reference. It seemed apt now. Standing around the two posts, on either side of the road, were Tim, Jay, Nell, Levi, Amos, Ruby and Naomi.
Tim was the oldest in the group. His mask was a horse’s head, cut up, twisted around, and rigged to work as a mask. The mouth pointed up and to one side, teeth bared. Tim’s eye peered through the open eye socket of the horse’s, the back of the head and cheek of the horse serving to house the roll of Tim’s chin. He was tattooed heavily, with more black ink than pale white skin, all textured by heavy body hair. It was macabre enough it didn’t look ridiculous, especially in the stark light of the car’s headlights.
Not Tim, not really. Seir.
The teenagers were in civilian clothes, the crevices of their face cast into shadow by the angled light. Jay had his mask in hand, long hair held back by his baseball cap.
Erin’s hand went to the gearshift.
No. To reverse.
“No,” Rain said.
It wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t get away, and they’d be punished for trying, as sure as they would be any other time they tried to make a break for it.
“Just… drive,” he told her. “Slowly.”
Seir walked over, as the car crept forward. He stopped by Erin’s car door, peering at them with the one eye.
“Cozy,” The side of the horse’s head parted as Tim spoke, a slit opening up between temple and the joint of the jaw.
Erin kept her eyes forward.
“What have I told you about not ignoring me?” Seir asked.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Erin said, turning her head to look at him. Her neck and jaw were stiff.
Seir’s eye shifted, looking at Rain.
“My brother-in-law beat the shit out of you,” Seir said.
“Yeah,” Rain said. “He did. I literally asked for it, though.”
“So I heard. What candy is that?”
Rain felt in the dark cab of the car, until his hand rustled a bag that wasn’t empty. “Grape apes.”
Seir reached his hand through the window, and Erin twisted her face away. The hand was held out, and Rain placed the bag of candy in it.
Seir ripped the bag open, and put a handful of purple monkey gummies into his mouth. He chewed noisily.
“Your repeated absences have been noticed,” Seir said, mouth full.
Rain was silent.
“Buying candy?” Seir asked.
“And using the internet, doing research on powers.”
“Going into the city. Shopping.”
Seir chewed more candy. He didn’t ask any questions, and Rain didn’t volunteer anything.
The bag of candy was about the size of two fists put side-to-side. As time passed, Seir rummaged in the bag, found more, chewed them, cramming more into the slit in the horse’s head before he was even done with the last mouthful. He must have finished three quarters of the bag as the silence stretched on, his one eye on the pair.
Erin flinched as Seir tossed the mostly empty bag into her lap.
“Leadership wants a chat with you,” Seir said.
Rain had been sleeping minutes ago, but now he was more than awake. Those words- if he’d gone straight to bed, no longer bound by the rhythm of his power and the demands of the room, even being as tired as he was, he wouldn’t have been able to sleep. Not after hearing that.
“With-” he started. He wanted to word it right. Couldn’t show weakness. “Me? Now?”
If he asked if that invitation included Erin, Seir might say yes, just out of spite, might make her go.
Please don’t make Erin go.
“You. We were to wait and bring you as soon as you turned up. Which is now,” Seir said.
Rain opened the car door. He didn’t look at Erin, he didn’t say a word. He got out of the vehicle. He closed the door.
She drove away, through the settlement center, to her parents’ house.
Rain was left with his escort.
They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him. Seir remained close, ready to push at Rain’s back or shoulder if he dragged his feet. The rest were a half-circle behind and to either side of them. They talked among themselves, but they avoided talking to him.
Fear driving his senses to the next level, Rain was very aware of the smell of the grape apes. A candy he’d never be able to eat or smell again without feeling nauseous.
If he even got that far.
The house wasn’t even two years old, but it looked older, because the white paint on the wooden slat exterior was haphazardly applied, brush strokes long and the paint allowed to go thin. There was a white-painted fence, and none of the teenaged escorts went past the gate. They stopped beyond, standing guard there.
The front door was unlocked. Rain was ushered inside, the door was gently closed, and Rain was made to walk further.
In the living room, six of the senior Fallen were seated. Drinks sat on side tables, assorted snacks sat on a platter on the coffee table. The domestic scene was made eerie by the masks they wore. Demonic faces, many homemade. Several had been farm animals, the flesh altered with the power of a man Rain didn’t see present, so the pigs and sheep would have half-human, distorted faces before they were killed and skinned. Women in nice dresses with nice hair had heavy tattoos that reached up their necks and beneath their masks. A man wore the hide of an animal around his waist, wearing no shirt so the letters carved out and left to scar on his belly and chest would be visible.
Rain could trace his family connection to most of those present.
He could trace his connection to the meek young women who stood by, ready to serve anything requested. The one with her back to Rain had old lines of red dots soaked through the back of her blouse, criss-crossing.
The assembly was silent, wordless, watching from behind masks as Rain was urged to the stairs.
Even Seir didn’t go upstairs if he could help it.
Rain felt every ache and pain, every human doubt he’d experienced over the past two days, as he ascended those ten stairs. The second floor was spartan, with a long rug, a small table with a vase of wilted flowers on it, and a light overhead. The hallway extended to rooms to the left and the right.
He knew the door was to the left, but he looked the other way, as if there could somehow be an out.
He saw Lachlan, standing in the hallway, toothbrush sticking out of his mouth. He reached up to pull the toothbrush free.
“Rain,” Lachlan said, smiling. His voice was a hush. “Hey, good to see you.”
Rain didn’t have the words to respond. It was surreal, seeing Lachlan here.
“Did you talk to Allie?” Lachlan asked.
Rain stared at Lachlan. “Not the time, Lachlan.”
“Leave the boy be, Lachlan,” Seir said.
A faint thump from the left end of the hallway made all of their heads turn.
One of the meek servant-girls from the living room stepped into the hallway to stand next to Seir, even though she looked like she didn’t want to. She looked up, checking.
“Go,” Seir said.
Rain didn’t need to be told. He walked to the end of the hallway. The doorknob squeaked.
The inside of the room wasn’t all that decorated. Dresser, bedside table, and a four-poster bed with sheer drapes winding up the posts.
“Mama,” he said.
She wasn’t his mother, but it was how she was addressed.
Rain averted his eyes, but he could see the white drape of the nightgown, the feet on the floor. She was sitting so the post and the sheer drape kept him from seeing a lot of her.
But he saw some. Her presence jumped into his head. He looked away, but it didn’t help.
Mama Mathers. Taller than him, gaunt, wispy of hair. She wasn’t old, but she had the presence of an old woman, thin enough that it seemed like she would break or crumple into a heap if struck. She stood right next to him, leaning over him. She touched his face, and he flinched.
“You’ve been pulling away,” she said. Her voice was just as ethereal as the rest of her. “There is no away, Rain. You should know that.”
He remained still, trying not to look.
“We give the young ones so many allowances, and we’ve given you more than most. We thought you would find yourself. Have you?”
“Working on it,” he said, his voice quiet.
“How long has it been since we last talked?”
“Years, mama,” he said.
Her fingers traced his shoulder-length hair. “I told you to grow your hair long, back then.”
“Yes, mama,” he said.
“Do you remember why? Any boy of mine that does anything to catch my eye, good or bad, I have them do it.”
Rain nodded. No words would have come out if he’d said anything, so he didn’t try.
“The girls know it, but the boys sometimes need to learn it. I’m content to let either be my soldiers, but that requires zeal. Not everyone has it. Not everyone cleaves to their role and position. Everyone has responsibilities, and it takes a soldier to obey.”
Rain nodded again.
Her voice took on a different tone. No less ethereal, but haunting-ethereal, now. “The hair is to remind you that if you won’t be a soldier for the families, we’ll have you be a slut. We’ll get children out of you. If you fail at that, if they’re sickly or disobedient, we’ll geld you like we would any of the farm animals.”
Rain’s nod was stiff.
“You’re so distant. Have your aunt and uncle failed us? I’d thought your uncle was so dutiful.”
“They’ve done everything right,” Rain said, eyes on the corner of the rug on the floor.
“Your uncle beat you. You’re weak but you’re one of our blessed,” she said, speaking in his ear. “We could have him crippled or killed.”
“I asked him to, mama.”
“Even so,” she said.
“He is- he’s everything you want in a soldier,” Rain said, and his words were halting as he tried to defend a man he didn’t even love or like. “Hurting him to make a point or impart something onto me would hurt the Fallen more than it helped anything.”
“Allie then,” she said. Her voice was a whisper now. “Has she said things to you, to make you pull away?”
“Allie will be as dutiful a wife as my uncle is a soldier,” Rain said. His neck was so stiff his head shook slightly as he talked.
“Have you talked about it with her,” Mama Mathers said. She leaned over to put her face in front of Rain’s. He closed his eyes. “Leaving?”
“We both know you don’t ever leave,” Rain said.
“Then where have you been, Rain?” she asked.
He couldn’t voice a response.
“Anyone who can’t answer my questions isn’t a soldier,” she said. “If I can’t get an answer when you’re right in front of me, I won’t breed you, either. We’ll take your mind and identity, or we’ll take your balls.”
“I’m weak,” Rain said. “I’ll be your soldier, but I need to figure that out first.”
“You’ve had a year.”
The words echoed Lee’s response to Love Lost.
“I’m going to kill the people who triggered alongside me. Hopefully, I can take their power.”
Her hand brushed his cheek.
“You have a time limit,” she said.
He nodded, stiff.
“I’ll be watching,” she said.
He nodded again.
There was only silence after that.
“May I go, mama?” he asked.
“Rain,” the voice came from the bed, even more ethereal and thin than it had been. He felt chills, hearing the voice. He felt the words worm into his head.
The bedsprings creaked as she stood, holding the pole to steady herself. He looked away. She only now stood from the bed.
“Rain,” she said. “Look at me.”
“I will have you killed if you do not,” she said.
He’d only seen her leg and foot, and she’d jumped into his head, tactile, audible, present, impossible to ignore.
Now, seeing her in full, it was more pronounced, heavier, insofar as the frail woman could be ‘heavy’. Her hair was long, bleached silver, and frayed. Her face was thin enough that it appeared older.
It was worse.
“Why would you leave, when we haven’t talked?” she asked. “You’ve been standing there, talking to yourself.”
“Sorry, mama,” he said.
He knew how she worked, but he couldn’t ignore the apparition in situations like this, because ignoring her and having her turn out to be real was the sort of thing that got him killed.
“Everything I said to you before now, it came from within you. I saw and heard much of it,” she said.
He hated seeing her, hated hearing her. He hated knowing it was for real.
“You should know these things to be absolute truth, divine and malign both,” she said. “The fears, the promise you made.”
“Yes, mama,” he said.
“Every time you think of me or mention me, I will be there. I will know where you are and see what you are doing. I will take stock and I will make my judgments. You will think of me, while saying your prayers on waking and on retiring, kneeling by your bed. Before each meal.”
He nodded, stiff.
“It’s been years,” she said. “You only think about me a few times a day. I thought it was time we were reacquainted. You have your mission.”
“I’ll kill my cluster.”
“And be a loyal soldier. Think of me,” she said. “If you don’t, you know what will happen.”
“Yes mama,” he said.
“Allie. Your aunt and uncle. Erin, her family. And you won’t see me. You’ll see other things.”
“Yes mama,” he said.
“Give me a kiss, now.”
She didn’t bend down, so he had to raise himself up to give her a peck on the cheek. He hated the contact, he hated how large she loomed in his vision, how that would give her more of a foothold.
He hated everything.
“Go, now, it’s late.”
He escaped the room, doorknob squeaking. In the process, he nearly collided with Elijah. It was only his own doing that stopped him.
Elijah held a bowl of water with a sponge floating in it in the crook of one arm. He had a slight smile on his face, barely visible through the long white-dyed hair he had. it was long enough to drape around his collarbone.
Behind that hair, his eyes were a milky cataract white. Not just for show. Seeing his cane was the only reason Rain hadn’t walked into him and spilled the water.
“Elijah. Escort Rain to the door, please. He seems unsteady on his feet.”
“Yes, mama,” Elijah said. He fumbled, and found a place to set the bowl down on a dresser.
Rain didn’t want the escort, but he didn’t want to refuse. Mama Mathers-
Rain flinched as she appeared, standing further down the hallway.
The figure made a small sound of amusement.
Elijah fumbled for his arm, then seized it tight.
The blind leading the sighted. Rain went, reaching out for the railing as soon as it was in reach, so he could have something to hold onto, and so he could keep Elijah from falling if it came down to it.
“Only the guilty are as upset as you seem to be,” Elijah said, his voice smooth, silky, and dangerous.
Rain didn’t reply, focusing instead on the stairs, trying not to think-
Mama Mathers appeared at the bottom of the flight.
He’d gotten so good at controlling his thinking, and it was all for nothing, now. Even thinking about not thinking about her was now enough. It might be for weeks or months.
“It’s hard, I know,” Elijah said. “I had a hard time with it for the first few years.”
They made it far enough down the stairs for Rain to see that the living room was empty, now, but for the meek women who acted as servants in the white cabin, cleaning up bottles and glasses,.
“I fixed it myself, after getting powers,” Elijah said. “Looked myself in the eye, mirror right in front of me, and I told myself to enjoy it. To like it, my own mother a mere thought away. To be loyal.”
When Rain heard the word ‘mother’, Mama Mathers appeared in the living room. They were fleeting images, each lasting for seconds, five or ten at a time. Her head would turn, and she would look around herself, or she would stare at him.
“I’m sorry,” Rain said. He wasn’t sure why he’d said it. Dangerous words. “I’m sorry you had to go that far to find loyalty.”
Not better words, but he wasn’t thinking straight.
Elijah’s fingers dug into Rain’s arm.
“I can’t see anymore, Rain. My eyes have no power.”
Rain nodded. They were at the door now. Elijah didn’t let him go.
“But what I say? My words have more power than before. All I have to do is tell you to, and you’d want it. I could tell you to be gleeful to have the worst punishment we can offer, and you would be, because it would be in service of the Fallen and Mama.”
Again, the image, standing outside, wearing her nightgown, hair blowing in the wind.
“Like I did for Lachlan,” Elijah said.
Rain nodded. “I know. But I don’t need that. I don’t want it.”
“Whether you want it or not has nothing to do with it, Rain, and never did. Don’t disappoint mama.”
He let go of Rain’s arm. Rain stumbled on his way down the stairs.
“Be careful walking home,” Elijah said, his tone light. “It must be dark out.”
Rain pushed past the gate, passed Nell and Jay, who were still standing guard.
They started to approach him, and for the briefest moment, as he felt panic flare, his power appeared at his hands. They stopped, and Rain stumbled back more steps.
“Sorry, Rain Man,” Jay said. “I know it sucks.”
Nell sounded less sympathetic. “Don’t do anything reckless now. Never goes well.”
Rain shook his head, turned and jogged away, down the dark dirt road, with scarce lighting.
When he couldn’t see anyone or anything around, he leaned over the ditch and emptied his stomach’s contents. It tasted like all of the preservatives in the candies he’d taken, so he could stay awake and keep Erin company. That reminded him of Seir, of Tim, and that only made his stomach churn more.
Mama Mathers crossed his mind and was standing on the road above, watching him, as he straightened.
He staggered past her.
He couldn’t go home. Too far away.
His workshop. It wasn’t far. Dark, it required fumbling. He let himself in, made his way up the stairs, and collapsed to the floor as soon as he had it shut behind him.
The fact that the light was on was slow to register.
“Rain,” Erin said.
“Don’t,” he said. He didn’t want her to see him like this.
She knelt beside him. He shook his head.
She wasn’t strong enough to move him, but when he realized what she was doing, he didn’t have the willpower left to resist. She pulled him closer, so his head was in her lap.
She stroked his hair and shushed him.
Mama Mathers stood above the two of them, watching, and he couldn’t bring himself to mention it.
When the cluster dream whisked his consciousness away, it was a mercy.