Tuesday, November 26, 2013

NATIVE

I woke up in bed with a migraine. I pried my eyes open, the bed above mine wiggled like a puddle in a windy day and I immediately shut my eyes.

Every single one of my ribs felt bruised or broken. My phone wasn't on the bedside stand when I groped for it. I wondered idly what time it was, since my room was always dark, without the light or lamps on.

I stood slowly, feeling old and stiff. I stank, too. I held my head softly in my hands and, eyes barely open, made my way slowly down the hall.

"Did I drink at Morgan's party?" I asked myself, but I didn't know the honest answer.

I padded upstairs as quietly as I could and was surprised  and blinded by the sunlight streaming through the kitchen and living room windows.

"Wow that's bright," I said, squinting and cautiously shifting a hand to shield my eyes from the light.

"Hello sleepy head." Mom said. She was pale and haggard; huge, bruise bags hung under her eyes, gnawed on cheeks. "I'm very, very glad you're away." She said, trembling hands covering her mouth.

"Mom?" I said.

I stood at the top of the stairs, squinting at her as tears formed and rolled down her cheeks. Mom opened her mouth to say something else, but then she was on me, hugging me tightly and sobbing loudly. "Thank goodness." She said. "We weren't sure you were going to. Oh thank goodness you're awake!" Said Mom, who took my face in her teary hands and kissed my cheeks. "Oh thank goodness!" She said, then, "Let me call your dad. He'll want to know. He'll be so happy!" I blinked and she was behind the breakfast bar, phone shaking in her hands.

"It's not Friday, is it?" I asked. I rubbed my sore forehead and closed my eyes. I leaned against the wall. "My head is killing me." I said.

Mom looked at me, her lips pursed. She shook her head, no.

"Saturday?" I asked.

Nope.

"Sunday."

Nope.

"Tuesday?" I decided to over shoot by a day.

Mom was crying again. She heaved a few times. "It's Thanksgiving Day." She said.

My jaw dropped. My right eye twitched. "I need to call Mercedes and Jay." I said.

"Mercedes, yes." Mom said. She turned and lurched onto one of our tall dinner table chairs.

A fire crackled in the fire place.

"Call Mercedes." Mom said. "I'll order us some Chinese and if she wants to, Mercedes is welcome to join us."

"Thanks." I croaked. I swallowed and asked, "Where's my phone?"

"We got you a new one." Mom said. She held her head in her hands, elbows on the table. "Its in the drawer with the coupons."

"Thank-you, Mom." I shuffled over, and kissed her hand. She grabbed my hands and kissed them. It hurt, but I didn't flinch.

"Thank-you, William. Thank-you." She said and pressed my hands to her forehead.

"For what, Mom?"

"Waking up." She said. "For waking up on your own."

I nodded and swallowed a sudden lump in my throat.

Mom was still staring at the table. They'd changed the top of it. Instead of metallic glass, it was a slab of what looked like thin, unfinished obsidian laid across an unfinished sheet of wood. I looked at Mom, sitting there, crying, and looked at the slick, new phone in my hand.

I pocketed the phone and hugged Mom and that hurt, too. I stroked her hair, my fingers tingled and she cried even more, but when she stopped, she looked at me and gasped. She wiped at her cheeks and made a smile of her mouth. "Do you want beef with chili and peanuts?" She asked.

"And dumplings?" I asked.

"And dumplings." Mom, said, "Do you know what Mercedes would like?"

"Usually she likes noodle dishes and vegetables." I said.

Mom nodded: "Vegetable Lo Mein, Chili Peanut Beef and a triple order of steamed dumplings it is."

"Awesome!" My stomach growled for some seconds. "Hungry." I said, rubbing my stomach. "Are you okay?" I asked.

Mom said, "I'm fine. I'm just relieved. Very relieved." She smiled again and there was a flicker of actual Mom, peaking out from behind the tired eyes and stressed-thin mouth.

I said, "Okay. I'll be up to take a shower in a few minutes."

Mom chuckled. She said, "You are a bit ripe." She winked at me.

"Thanks." I stuck my tongue at her and walked slowly back to my room, thankful for the darkness.

I sat on my bed and tried not to panic. My left hand thumb was too stiff to text. I finger poked at the phone, thinking and pausing and deleting every two or three numbers. Mercedes answered at the second number I dialed --the first was disconnected.

"Hello?" Mercedes said. She sounded more tired than Mom.

"Hi." I said tentatively.

There was a silence and a thut-hu-hut sound, something soft brushed against the speaker, then Mercedes was back, saying: "Hello? William! Hello! Hello?"

"Hi!" I said. "I'm awake! I'm back!" I sat on my bed. My head was pulsing instead of throbbing. ("Improvement," I thought.)

"Improvement? Oh my goodness goodness goodness." Mercedes said. "It's you? Prove it. What's our secret?"

I told her the code to get to the high school's roof, using the elevator. "When's the last time we made out?" She asked.

I stopped, mouth open, nothing coming out.

Mercedes laughed. "Close enough," She said.

"So, look. Apparently it's Thanksgiving, but if you're not busy Mom's ordering Chinese food. We're getting some vegetable lo mein and dumplings and stuff."

"William." Mercedes said, very seriously. "I will be there as soon as possible." She hung up. I stared at the phone. I saved Mercedes's mobile number to the contacts list and was looking for a towel in a basket of laundry behind the head of my bed when my phone rang.

"Hello?" I said.

"William! You are awake! I'll be home for dinner." Dad said, "Mom texted me and I thought. I don't know what I thought but I'm so glad you're awake! I'll see you soon, son."

"That was weird." I said. I added, "But maybe not unexpected?" I found a thick towel under a few t-shirts and headed upstairs.

I checked on Mom, who was doing better, busying herself setting out place mats and plates and chopsticks.

I started the water, waited until it was good and hot and stepped in. The water hit me, hot and relaxing and my vision started to cloud red and I was up to my ribs in a pond the color of murky, half dry blood. Too small to be a lake. Definitely not an ocean. A medium sized pond. It was raining: deep red slashes through the sky, off the horizon, down down down to splish on the pond surface. My hands: red. Everything: red. Bodies and body parts started bubbling and bobbing up from the pond. Faces rolled and turned in the water. I laughed. What else could I do?

There was screaming. For the first time in a red dream, I heard things. I heard screaming and the individual splash of each storm drop into a puddle. I covered my ears and screamed, too, but all the sounds were still there. I roared and my voice was black ink injected into this red and white  water world.

My head shook and Mom looked at me. She was pure white, with red ringed eyes. "William." She whispered, "You were screaming." A trickle of blood oozed from her left nostril.

I wiped it carefully away.

Mom stood up. "Baths for you, sir!" She said. Mom handed me a towel. "You dry off, I'll go lay some clothes out for you, okay?"

I nodded. I toweled myself off quietly and carefully hobbled down the stairs to my room.

I was dressed and sitting on the couch, looking at all the Spanish homework I had to finish before the middle of December. I sighed, the kettle started to boil and the garage door started opening all at once. I chuckled half heartedly.

Mercedes flew from the garage door directly onto me, almost re-breaking my ankle and choking me between her arms and her shoulder. Her cheek was soft against mine. Mercedes's hair was shaved as short as I remembered it, and she smelled like well cared for leather and peaches, but also medicine --antiseptic and topical. We hugged for a while, once I'd wiggled to a less throat crushing position.

When Mercedes sat up I swore, despite myself. Three-quarters of her head and neck were a rough topography of messy, too tight, too loose skin. Mercedes was wearing an eye patch just like the one Morgan had been wearing the night of her Halloween party. "Messed up, huh?" Mercedes said. She bit her lower lip. "It doesn't hurt, thanks to my dad's company. They took really good care of me. Of us, actually. Oh my good goodness! How are you!" Mercedes slapped my thigh.

I swallowed. "It doesn't hurt? I had a migraine earlier, and uh. I'm okay I guess. I'm not the best. I'm." I sobbed, one long heave. "I'm sore and I don't remember anything after the fight started and I apparently just slept for most of a month." I inhaled. I started to talk but Mercedes fell on me, squeezing me. I shuffled and stretched, and she was laying on me, crying. I cried too.

After a few minutes I wheezed. I said, "I think I just hurt my mom, too. I didn't even know I was doing it. She said I was screaming. All I wanted to do was take a shower." I sobbed.

Eventually, Dad came in, through the inner garage door. "Hi! Oh." He said. Dad set the Chinese food on the weird obsidian table. He took something out of the bag. "Mom and I will be in our bedroom. Shout when you're ready to eat." he said.

"We're ready." Mercedes shouted into my chest. "Also, there's no way you're eating more dumplings than me, Mr. Metzger."

Dad laughed. "Well alright then. I'll put these back." He said.

"Start the kettle," Mom said. She smiled at Dad and they hugged. My head felt better. Dad and I hugged, too, and it felt nice to bury my face in someone's chest. "Thanks, Dad." I said. He patted me on the shoulder.

"Let's eat!" He said.

We ate. We really, really ate. I ate more than everyone else. But, you know, I'd been in a coma for nearly four weeks.

Fine. I'll stop talking about my coma and all the boo and the hoo.

Here, one of the happiest notes possible: The Detroit Lions beat the Green Bay packers, holding onto their playoff chances for the year. How amazing is that? Talk about happy miracles.

So. After dinner, Mercedes and I took the electric kettle and the teapot and tea and some cups and went down into my room to catch up. It wasn't a very pleasant catch up, and I just promised less of the boo and the hoo. So. Lists! Lists(!) worked before. Here we go again.

November 1st - 7th
  • Mercedes woke up in the ditch on the side of the road, I was smothering her. 
  • She called 911 and was told all major dispatch stations were already at, or heading to, her location
  • Mr. Swanson took the two of us to his work, which has a medical wing, apparently. Mercedes said this would have been really cool, under different circumstances.
  • School was cancelled for two whole days due to a "Horrible Halloween Party Accident."
  • They named the dead:
    • Jay Trumble
    • Jennifer Liu
    • Larry, Francis, and Matthew Roberts
    • Nicole Freeman
    • Tomas and Nicole Lewis
    • Philip Jones
    • Johnathon Timur
    • James Johnson
    • Jon Kleber
  • There were five more students, all of whom were now deeply catatonic:
    • Trevor Freeman
    • Chris Jones
    • Elizabeth Gonzalez
    • Derrick Kato
    • Jennifer Louhen
I laughed. "They named Jon among the dead? He's actually dead?" 

Mercedes frowned. "We'll see. They retracted that list, and only people who recorded it have copies now. It wasn't in a newspaper, just a blurb on Fox News the next Monday. Anyway. . . "
  • Mercedes slept in the medical wing while they worked on her burns
  • According to Patricia (you'll see) Morgan was not back in school

November 8th - 15th
  • Mostly a blur of police interrogations and questions and doctors and surgeries. No one visited her, not even Mrs. Swanson.
  • Mr. Swanson brought her some dumplings and other fatty, delicious foods while she was still in the medical wing. 
  • One of the cleaning staff tried to kill-smother her, but Mr. Swanson saved her.
  • They moved her to a private room, somewhere deep under ground.
  • Mercedes returned to school on Monday the 11th. No one said anything about her burns. No one talked to her at all, though. 
  • Friday, Patricia Liu sat down and started eating lunch next to her. Patricia and Mercedes have been eating lunch together ever since. They haven't actually said more than seven sentences, though.
  • Most of her teachers gave her study guides for her classes, to catch up. 
  • They tried to make her talk to a counselor, but Mercedes refused.

November 16th - 23rd

  • Morgan returned to school on Monday the 18th.
  • Mercedes skipped class and ate lunch with her
"She looks worse than me." Mercedes said, "She needs help. Seriously."
  • Some of Jon's friends tried to corner her, but she escaped by fighting really dirty, and due to "Some tricks my dad showed me. They're amazing."
  • Mercedes, Patricia, and Morgan all ate lunch together.
  • Patricia missed two days
  • Patricia was back on Friday, but wouldn't talk about why she'd missed the two days. Morgan seemed to know, or at least understand.
  • Homework of this magnitude sucks so, so badly. Like, Dyson levels of huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuq
  • Mercedes had another red dream. She was in the lab again, most of the glass cases that had broke were gone. She smashed even more and set more fires. The Horse-a-tour appeared again, but she woke herself up by biting the side of her cheek, where the sutures make it bumpy.

The kettle boiled and we got up and, together, made tea: I opened the tea bag, and Mercedes poured the steaming water onto the black leaves and pestled cinnamon.
  • Her dad told her he had to go to Germany for a work project --that it was a big promotion and that it was really good for their family. That he and Mrs. Swanson were doing better, and she might have to go to Germany for a while too. 
  • Mercedes might be staying with us at some point!

November 24th - 28th

  • Grey hooded sweaters, and hooded clothing in general is banned from the schools.
  • Mercedes found and beat up one of the guys who tried to corner her, a few weeks ago
    • She got caught, but was only verbally reprimanded and forced to go to the counselor
  • Mercedes drove back to the house party, it was taped off, but she went in anyway. There was only the burned shell of the house, a few charred support beams
  • Winter finally settled down, on us.
  • Mr. Swanson brought her some clothes from work, as early Christmas gifts, since he was going to Germany shortly.
  • Mrs. Swanson and Mercedes had taken up Yoga, and British Television shows, together.
(I laughed at these, but Mercedes play smacked me until I agreed to try yoga. It didn't take long, given how stiff and tender I was)

  • Mrs. Swanson decided to go to Germany for Thanksgiving, at the very last minute, and left Mercedes home alone.
  • I woke up.

"Wait, so you were just sitting at home by yourself?” I asked. I took Mercedes’s hands in mine. “Seriously?”


Mercedes nodded and looked away from me. She said, "Well, yeah. But my --"

"You have a passport," I said.

"I couldn't leave with you the way you were."

"But! Germany!" I laughed.

"Doesn't matter. Friends matter."

"Family matters."

Mercedes stared at me, but I didn't look away. She said. "Being there for the people who need you matters." She nodded. "Besides, you're like family, anyway. So I win twice."

I laughed.

Mercedes stood up. "I could go for more dumplings. I'm going to try to wrestle them away from your dad, if he hasn't eaten them already."
I sat for a moment, considering. "I'll come with you." I said.

We walked upstairs, Mercedes's posture was impeccable, and my hobble was frustratingly slow. Upstairs, we scouted the kitchen and, sitting on the counter top next to the fridge was a whole, untouched, tray of steamed dumplings.

"Success!" I shouted.

There was some poorly stifled laughter from the living room. 

"Mom?" I said, my voice trembled.

"You should go back to your room for a bit." said Dad.

Mom chimed in, "Don't come in here"

"We thought you'd be down there longer." Dad finished.

"Oh. My. Goodness." I said. I turned to Mercedes, who was blushing furiously and covering her mouth, her eye wide, her grin wider. "We'll see you in an hour!" I shouted.

We retreated back to the safety of my room before they could say anything else.

The tinfoil top came off with a whiff of dumpling meat and a moment of steam. I said, "Let's do this." I handed Mercedes a fresh pair of chopsticks and opened the ginger soy sauce nestled in the center of the dumplings. We set to work devouring the dumplings.

We didn't manage to finish that last tray of dumplings, there was one left. Who left the last one? We both did. We each split and shared our dumplings with each other. Accidental cuteness, Mercedes called it.

After that, Mercedes and I were as inseparable as possible. We ate lunch together, though Morgan didn't eat with us. She didn't speak to us, either, but we didn't see her much, before her party.

The three(ish) weeks before he arrived were pretty much a blur, too. Mercedes moved into our house, though sometimes we went to her house and studied, or the four of us all went over there and ate dinner and watched network television. Mom and Dad started to go over there every Thursday, and Friday evening, watching some television shows on NBC and MTV respectively.

I studied and did double the normal homework and hated it and couldn't stop staring at Mercedes's face for the first week and a half.

We fought about it. I didn't mean to yell, but Mercedes brought it up and then she cried and it was--watching tears trace random paths like pinballs down her right cheek. I stopped staring after that.

Mercedes said, "It doesn't matter that I'm like this. People stared before, but now they will stare forever. I thought that I could wear their stares and eventually I'd graduate to a bigger world, where people didn't stare, but now I'm not so sure."

I nodded. I was done yelling. We were staring at each other's hands, sat in her white and cream living room while Mom and Dad shouted at the television in the other room.

"Do you think its weird that Morgan isn't talking to us?" I asked.

"Yeah. Sort of. She's going through a lot, though. She wasn't in the kitchen as much, after the party. I don't know what she's doing, but she's cooking at the school less. She hung around Patricia and I, but since you've been back, not so much." Mercedes looked at me. I stared at her eye patch. She said, "She'll come around."

I said, "I hope so."

He arrived on the Friday before school let out. Mercedes and I walked into the house through the front door and he was sitting in the living room, on the couch, talking to Mom, who was paying very close attention to whatever he was saying.

He was so big, if he'd had less hair, I would've sworn he was Dad. He stood up when Mercedes shut the door. He had such amazingly clear, blue, tired eyes, and so much neat, full, blonde hair. He smiled at us. "Hullo." He said.

I stammered.

Mercedes stepped forward, slid out of her long coat, hat, gloves, and rubbed her head, watching him through her whole process. (Later, she told me, "He didn't look away or blink once. Not once.") "Hi," said Mercedes.

"Hello." He said. He held his hand out and told her his name. She nodded and shook his hand. "Your name?" He asked. He spoke English so well. Such a refined accent. Clearly someone British taught Him English, but his native tongue shone through like the best sunlight ever.

He was so tall.

Mom stood up and introduced us all. "This is _____." she said. "He is our exchange student for the rest of the year. He will be sleeping in your room, William, and Mercedes will be sleeping in our spare room. I hope that's okay, Mercedes?" Mom turned to Mercedes, who was still eyeing him. "Mercedes?" Mom asked.

"Huh? Oh! Yeah. Okay. I mean, I can always stay at my family's house if you --"

"Nonsense." Mom said, and that was that.

"Hi." I said.

He ignored me.

He ignored me for the first two whole days, no matter what I said, did, tried to show him.

The three of us were out shopping, the Sunday of Christmas week. Mercedes wanted to buy Mr. and Mrs. Swanson presents, so we were shopping for things that would be cool, and for things that would be useful in Germany, and easy to ship there. Mr. Swanson sent a shopping list back with Mrs. Swanson, who was busy at work right until Christmas.

"They're going to be late, anyway, by now, but I still want to send him something, and hopefully we'll be able to Skype on Christmas Day." Mercedes said.

"Ya. That's cool." He said.

I agreed.

The mall was full of people and Santa was there, too. The crowds, though, parted right around the three of us. We made an awesome triangle --he was in the middle, with Mercedes and I each hung on one of his thick, cocoa smelling arms, grinning.

"This is normal?" He asked.

Mercedes and I both blushed furiously, "Oh good goodness yes!" Mercedes said. She patted his arm. "This is how all guests are treated in America." She said.

"Well then." He said.

I said, "Yup. Totally."

"Yup." Mercedes and I said.

We pranced out of the kitchen utensils store with hilarious, sour expressions.

He said, "Not nice."

I said, "Let's go to that noodles place for dinner." I asked him, "Do you like noodles? Like, Chinese or Asian noodles?"

He did not answer.

Mercedes said, "William knows this great noodles place. It smelled really good when I was in there. We should eat there."

"That's cool." He said.

Mercedes drove us from the mall to the noodle place. We sat in silence, while he played with the radio. He refused to listen to internet radio. He just shook his head no when Mercedes suggested it. If a song he didn't like came on, he changed it until he found a song he did like. If there was nothing on the FM channels, he would go through the AM Channels, too.

The door chimes jangled as we walked in. He had to duck into the restaurant and stoop, just a little, not to brush his head against the ceiling.

The saloon doors were painted white and perfectly straight. The paper lanterns were gold embossed with red instead of the other way round. Everything else was the same, though.

"Oh. No." Patricia Liu said when she saw who had just walked into her family restaurant. "What're you doing here?" She asked, looking directly at me.

"I wanted to bring my new friend here. Your. Your mom --"

"My family." Patricia corrected.

"Your family make amazing noodles and soup." I finished quickly. "Please." I added.

"Have a seat." Patricia said and turned and jerked back through the saloon doors. Despite her violence, they barely swung, and they did it quietly.

Mana burst back through the doors half  a second later with three glasses of water. She saw the three of us standing there and dropped the three glasses with a clatter. "YOU." She said.

"You are both giants! You gonna eat me out of my whole kitchen?"

"No." he said, "We will order one dish each, and maybe appetizers. I promise you will have food left after us."

I slapped his arm. I said, "Speak for yourself! I'm going to eat all the soup you put in front of me, Mana! I'm starving."

He frowned. "No, you aren't. You had breakfast."

Mana picked up the spilled cups and dropped a few white dish towels behind the bar.

He had to stoop to stand in the restaurant. I supposed Dad would have to, as well. The three of us sat at the same table the Trumbles and I had. Mana silently brought us tea and just like last time, she didn't spill a single drop. "I bring you all special noodles." Said Mana, quietly. "And appetizers for mister." she added and disappeared back through the saloon doors. The three of us sat, staring at the doors swing quietly through their entropic loop.

I looked at him. He was staring back into the kitchen. "I see." He murmured.

Mercedes huffed. "I sort of wanted to order my own food." She said, folding her hands on the table. "Still, you didn't almost burn the mall down, this time."

"That's true." I said.

"You almost burned down a chopping center?" He said.

"No. Not really, but a fire alarm got pulled and I sort of instigated the actions that lead to that."

He  said, "I see." He looked at me and smiled. "When is your mother returning?" He asked Mercedes.

"I dunno, honestly. Haven't heard from her. Did she go to the same place you're from? They went to Ruhr."

"Germany is a big place. But I have heard of Ruhr. It is not close to where I." He paused, looked around. "It is not close to where I am from." He finished.

"I want to go to Germany. I'd love to visit there!" I said.

Mercedes and _______ looked at me. Mercedes said, "You speak Spanish, why would you want to go Germany?"

I made my eyes very wide and very much pointed at Mercedes. I turned to him. "They speak Spanish in Germany, too, don't they?"

"Mostly, uh, German, and English. My apologies." He said.

"Oh, so, English?"

"Ya."

"So I'm pretty set."

He smiled at me. "Somewhat." He said.

Mana rocketed through the doors. As she came, she shouted: "Got your appetizers! Is the tea good?" We all looked at our untouched cups and surreptitiously sipped them.

He said, "Yes, Mana. Very good. Thank-you."

"My twin giants!" Mana said and slapped a huge plate of vegetable tempura on the table. "Vegan!" She said.

I made a face, but everyone ignored it.

Mana produced a small  spray bottle of something incredibly, vibrantly, almost violently red and set it on the table. She also managed to set another tray, steaming dumplings, on the table. Mana continued, "These are vegetable dumplings, but you'll like them just as much as meaty dumplings. She patted my arm quite hard. I nodded. "This," she tapped the spray bottle, "Is ghost chili pepper spray. Put hair on your chest." She slapped Mercedes's back, "Or take it off honey, if you need that!" Mana laughed all the way back into the kitchen.

Mercedes and I passed on the pepper spray, but he doused his food in it. He did not sweat while we ate the tempura and steamed, vegetable dumplings. He actually made small talk all throughout the meal, which was delicious. Mana laughed and refused to tell Mercedes what it was she had made her.

"Seriously," Said Mercedes, poking at the empty bowl with her heavy plastic chopsticks. "That was the first thing that tasted good, really good, since. Since Halloween." She swallowed thickly and took a long sip from her empty-for-a-while tea cup.

Mana poked her head through the doors. "Hey new giant of mine! Come back here! I give you a tour of the place!"

"Mana!" I shouted, frowning, and pouting, "I didn't get a tour of the kitchen when I first came in."

"You tiny, tiny giant. She's bigger than you, in some ways." Mana said, pointing at Mercedes. "You get a tour, if you're still coming here in a few years. Talk to me when you're driving!"

And with that, he slid, ducked over, through the saloon doors and into the back.

"That's weird." said Mercedes She took his teacup and slurped it. Mercedes said, "Close your mouth. It's what he gets for leaving us here. It tastes even better with his spit on the rim, by the way." She winked at me.

"Shut up." I said, over my high folded arms.

"Psh." I said. I snatched his teacup off the table the moment Mercedes set it down. I replaced it with mine, and inexpertly poured some tea into it.

Mercedes and I chatted about Spanish class, and what we were going to do over break. What movies we wanted to see. She tends toward horror and sci-fi, I tend toward romantic comedies. The gentleman chef brought us our food on a large tray, which he carefully knelt and set on the table next to ours.

Another customer came in, turned around, and left while (I assume) Mr. Liu served our soups. The soups all came in the same ceramic bowl, but inside the delicate white were thick black stoneware bowls with thick black lids on them.

"Enjoy, please." Mr. Liu said. He bowed and disappeared.

The chimes jangled as another customer walked in. The customer walked in, as Mana and he walked through the saloon doors. Both their eyes went wide.

There was scrambling, by the door, and Mana bounded over the counter, hands slapping across the faux-marble; her feet pushed  off the corner and she slammed straight into the customer, a butcher's knife pushed against his throat, her nose touching his.

He was around the counter and closing the blinds on the windows and doors, expertly, smoothly. They were down in seconds and Mana hissed while the customer struggled uselessly.

It was Jon.

My world went red and I stood, shaking, pointing.

Mercedes knocked her chair over standing up so quickly; she pulled a grey stiletto from her sleeve as I lost my sight to the redness. Mercedes said, "Seriously."

All was silence for I don't know how long, but when my vision returned. Mercedes and Mr. Liu were sitting at the table and Mana and him and Jon were no where to be seen.

Mr. Liu opened his bowl of soup and drank deeply, despite the rush of steam. He sighed with  smile. "Hot." he said.

I looked at Mercedes. Mercedes stared into the back room, through the saloon doors, twirling her knife on a finger. When ten minutes passed without a word said I opened my soup and drank from it too.

The sun set.

One customer rattled the door, but it was locked. Mr. Liu held a wiry finger to his lips, looking back and forth between Mercedes and I.

I finished my soup. I finished the tea. I finished the vegetable tempura. Mercedes stabbed, quartered and ate the rest of the dumplings. I pulled out my phone and was checking my social media for the second time when with a creak, he came through the saloon doors.

His sleeves were rolled up, and his arms looked like a bloody relief shading of Mercedes's neck and head. He was drying his hands on a pure white dish towel.

Mr. Liu stood up. Mr. Liu bowed and he returned the bow. Mr. Liu slid silently through the saloon doors. He sat down. Carefully examining his hands, he asked, "You two can keep a secret, yes?"

"Is that Jon dead, too?" I asked.

He nodded, just once.

"I've killed Jon twice, myself. At least" I said, staring at the table. I laughed. I looked up. Mercedes and him were both staring at me, both their jaws a little unhinged, both their mouths quite open. "What?" I asked, looking at Mercedes. I asked, "Did you kill that Jon?" looking deeply into his nose.

He asked, "You killed Jon twice?"

I nodded and gulped. "Are you going to call the police?" I asked.

He and Mercedes stared at me for a long, long time. In silence.

Finally, he said, "No."

Mana shouted from the kitchen, "Not if you can keep a secret." Mana slipped soundlessly through the saloon doors with another, large, pot of tea. Mr. Liu followed her, though the doors squeaked for him. They all pulled chairs around us. I looked up and saw Patricia staring at us with hard eyes and white knuckles, behind the saloon doors. "Can you keep a secret?" Mana asked. She poured us all cups of tea, even one for Patricia, though she didn't come out to get it.

I looked at Mercedes and nodded. Mercedes nodded, too. "Yeah." I said, "We can keep secrets."

"Then please listen to this * "Said Mana.

She told us some ridiculous stories, none of which I'm retelling here. Sorry. When she was done I looked at him and shook my head. Mercedes picked absently at the loose skin on the back of her neck. She winced every time her fingertips touched her torched flesh, but she kept doing it anyway.

"So." He said, "If you see Jon again, call this number. Then kill him. Try to do it quietly, but if you can't kill him quietly." He texted Mercedes and I a phone number.

"Kill him loudly." Mana said.

Mr. Liu nodded and sat back.

Mercedes shivered heavily.

I just sat there. I jumped. It was Mom. She wanted to know if we were going to be home for dinner. I told her we would, that Mercedes was probably joining us, but that we weren't that hungry. "Okay, fine." Said Mom.

I hung up. "That was Mom." I said, "She wants us to be home for dinner in about an hour. I told her you were probably going to eat with us."

Mercedes checked her phone. "Looks that way," She said.

"What is Mom making for dinner?" He asked.

I said, "Not sure, didn't ask." I sipped from my empty teacup for the third time and contemplated the wash of information. I sighed. "So," I asked. "What's next?"

He said, "Well. I would like to go to the house. It will be strange for you. You can leave, but that is the next step. Can we do this after dinner?"

"In the dark?" Mercedes asked.

"Yes. You can leave." He said. "But the sooner I am there there better. William? Would it be rude to not go to dinner? I am suddenly anxious to see the house."

I frowned. I said, "I"m not telling Mom we won't be there, but you can. I don't need to eat, obviously."

"Rice balls." Mana said, "I'll make some rice balls for you, for the trip to the house."

"I'm good." Mercedes said. She sounded tired, though, and stuffed her hands in her pockets.

Mr. Liu got up and walked into the kitchen.

"I am serious. You do not need to stay. I will walk back, or call a cab if things go badly. You two do not need to stay in the house."

I looked him in the eyes; a grin crept between my lips. I said, "There's not much left of the house, honestly. I've been there. I didn't see anything interesting, but maybe you'll have more luck."

He chuckled.

"I'll text Mom and let her know we won't be there for dinner, but to cook anyhow. Leftovers and what not." I said.

Mr. Liu came out of the kitchen and shouted at us to wait, but we were still pulling our coats on when he burst back into the dining room. He handed each of us a small, silver flash light. "Up for seeing, down for defense." Mr. Liu said, pushing the switch on a flashlight up and down. He handed it to Mercedes and repeated, "Up for seeing, down for defense. Okay?"

Mercedes nodded and pocketed the tiny flashlight.

"What is it?" Mr. Liu asked me, dangling a flashlight from the cord.

I blinked. "Up for seeing, down for defense." I said.

Mr. Liu smiled at me, "Good giant!" He said, not condescendingly. He patted my arm. "You may just live, yet." He patted me again. Mr. Liu handed him his flashlight without any questions and smiled broadly at the three of us. He said, "I asked Patricia if she wanted to with you all. Told her it would be a good experience, but she, ah,  declined. I told her maybe next time, okay?"

"Okay!" He said, and high-fived Mr. Liu.

I texted, and got text-yelled-at for flip flopping (on dinner) by, Mom while Mercedes drove the three of us to the scene of so many crimes.

The night was desperate to suck the warmth from us but we stood straight backed and wide shouldered. Mercedes turned the car's high beams on and carefully wound us through the crooked driveway.

He rolled his window down and dangled a hand out the window as we trundled quietly toward the wreckage.

Mercedes stopped the car, but let the lights on, illuminating the blackened bones and struts of the house. The police tape had been torn down, and was barely visible under the leaves. A loose ball of it caught the light in a corner of the kicked over caldron.

He sniffed. "Did someone use acid here? To burn something?" He asked.

"Wow, really?" Asked Mercedes, "That's pretty good. Yeah. Morgan kicked over the caldron, but it was raining so much that night that

I sat in the back with my eyes clamped shut as Mercedes recalled the party for him. I focused on sealing my shut as tightly as possible, and on listening to the roar of blood pumping through the veins and capillaries in my ears. I pushed my teeth together, but it was no good: The blackness was turning to red and  "Ouch!" I said. I opened my eyes, "What gives?"

He left his hand on my knee. He smiled and looked at me. He said, "You were shaking and sawing with your teeth on nothing. I'm here, you are, both, safe."

I said, "Thanks?"

He smiled at me. He popped the passenger door open and hopped out like a sprite. He cracked his knuckles and stretched his neck. "This is very graphic. I have not seen such a place as this before. In all my years. Not that there are many, aber. But. Here. And there is more. So much more blood." He spun in a circle, kept going, spun around again then fell to his knees, an arm outstretched, pushing a hand, a finger in a direction. He said, "That way. We must go that way." He scrambled to his feet and was off at a jog.

Mercedes and I had to run to keep up with him, and we were both wheezing when we broke through the thicket and into the clearing.


“Why no police tape?” He said.


We stared at the pond, and I started to loose my hearing. My vision started to cloud and go red and “OW!” I shouted.


Mercedes shushed me, but he smiled and nodded. He gently stroked the scar on the bridge of my nose. “Apologies.” He said. “You seemed to be about to faint.”


I rubbed my nose too. “Why the nose?” I asked.


“Because it hurts.” he said.


Mercedes chuckled.


There were lumps of flesh, recognizable only as skin with bone protrusions. They bobbed and disappeared on the surface of the lake, as if pushed around by currents, but the surface was still when no chunks broke it.


“Wirr.” He said.

I shone my flashlight on the pond, at the area where he had his light pointed and the water started to bubble and steam, almost immediately. He turned on me, snatched my flashlight out of my hand and turned it off. "Baka!" he hissed. "Idiot. Did you not remember? What have you done!"

I looked at my shoes.

He clamped a hand on my shoulder. I looked up, and he was smiling. We said, "Sorry." at the same time, and I smiled back at him. He chuckled and clapped my shoulder a few more times. "Sorry, sorry." He said. "I forget my self, just then. Not good. Are you okay?"

I nodded. My smile felt false, so I dropped it.

"Your flashlight is up, yes?" He asked Mercedes.

She nodded at him and point up. Mercedes's mouth was very strange when she only half grinned.

"Thank-you." He said.

He turned and examined the lake: Stuck a finger in it, sniffed the water. Lay down and pushed an arm into the mud.

The hunks of flesh, the random bones, stopped bobbing. The meat and bones floated on the surface.

The leaves above us rattled and howled, but by the lake, everything was still.

He stood up, muddy, with some leaves stuck to his knees. He smiled wide at me and said, "You saved me from having to swim in there. Thank-you. Now we can explore the house."

"What's left of it." I said.

We walked slowly back toward the lights from the car. About halfway through the thicket, Mercedes asked, "Were you really going to go in that pond? With all that rotting flesh in it?"

"Yes." Came the reply.

"But why?"

"There was a, like a smell, so to speak. Faint. If I had gone into the pond, it would have been stronger. A clue, perhaps. But William, William and Mr. Liu's powerful little torch, saved me the hassle of being soaked during a freezing winter night like this. For which, again, I thank you William. Thank-you." He tipped an imaginary hat at me, in the dark.

I smiled, hollow and thin lipped. I knew when I was being made fun of. "I didn't know the lake was going to hurt us." I groused.

"Come come, William!" He said. "Now you know. And I know you know. We are in good company, now. Us and Mercedes!" He swooped at me and dragged me bodily toward Mercedes. He wrapped the both of us in a big hug and forced us into a march-step the rest of the way back to the house. We arrived with a jolt. "Both torches are on seeing and looking, yes?" He asked.

Mercedes and I nodded.

A wind rustled the leaves and the trees, they whispered at us, but I couldn't tell what. A black, ashy dust devil swirled in the car's headlights.

I looked at him --he was staring at me. He asked, "Are you feeling okay?"

I nodded. We turned toward the blackened remains of the house and 





Monday, November 25, 2013

ALT



It took me some time to fall back asleep. I woke from a dream, running through a circular corn maze. I had been trying to find something, but I'd forgotten what. I smiled in the darkness when I realized Mercedes was still there, her warm feet against my shins."

I touched the headboard and thought goodnight thoughts to my parents. I hoped they were well. I inhaled deeply and found the ghost of Mercedes's coconut and leather. She was very still, laying on her side, an arm hanging out of the blankets, off the edge of the bed, into the darkness.

I fell asleep again.

I woke feeling like I'd been punched in the face. The lamp was on. Mercedes was not in my bed, and my right eye wouldn't open.

"Okay." I said to myself. I looked at my phone: 6:23 a.m. "Cool. We still have time to get to school. Mercedes can drive. We made lunches. I think. Did we?" I sat up and the world whirled around me. I lay down again. My right eye still wouldn't open. "Why am I talking out loud?" I asked myself.

I sat up slowly, and the whirling was tolerable.

I looked at the pillow. There was a river delta or a city scape of blood on the sheets and my pillow. Mercedes's pillow had blood on it, too but far less than mine. I stood up, fell down immediately and cried out in pain. The tall bedside table did not support my weight, instead falling on me, the lamp toppling off, the bulb cracking off. In the dark, my right ankle felt swollen and raw. I couldn't wiggle my toes.

"Hey!" Mercedes shouted from somewhere. A moment later, panting, my bedroom door slammed open and light poured around Mercedes, her stubble haloed around her head. She half smiled at me. "Are you okay? I was just getting a washcloth." She held up a gently steaming washcloth --vapor trails in the hallway light. "Your eye is bloodied shut and I don't know what else. Your bed is crazy." Mercedes sat next to me on the floor and took the back of my head in one hand. "Hold still." She commanded. She wiped at my eye firmly but gently. She asked, "Can you open it now?"

I tried, but it was still stuck shut. "Nope."

Mercedes dabbed at it and wiped and refolded it and pushed some more. She sat back. She said, "Try now. It looks much cleaner, there's less scabbing."

I slowly opened my right eye. The whirling slowed a bit. Mercedes smiled at me, her brow less furrowed. I said, "Did we get run over?"

"You might've, actually." Mercedes said. "Do you not remember your dream?"

I shook my head no.

"We need to get to school. I checked the news, and they're looking for suspects in yesterday's mall fake fire fiasco."

I noticed Mercedes was dressed: yesterday's leggings and boots. Her belt peaked from under the grey hooded sweater. "Let me see your right ankle --goodness!" Mercedes said, a hand covering her mouth.

"Can you walk?" She asked behind her hand.

"Don't know." I said.

"Here, use my brace. I should be okay as long as I don't have to run, heh, or walk particularly fast. You need this more than me." Mercedes pulled a shiny black, brace from the pouch on her hooded sweater. She scooted down and strapped it to my right ankle, then pressed two buttons I hadn't noticed on either side. A series of needle pricks ran spirals on either side of my ankle. I shudder-shivered and closed my eyes against a wave of warmth that shot up my leg and spread across my chest.

"What is that?" I asked.

"Pain killers, two different anti-inflammatories, a few toxin sensors and a bone and ligament alignment brace cast. My dad brought it home for my mom once, then refilled it and gave it to me a few days ago. It really helps, but I don't know if the meds are going to last very long. You're much larger than my mom and me." She patted my shoulder. "You should be okay to limp around until after lunch, at least." She smiled wanly.

"Thank-you." I said.

"You need to hurry up and get dressed though, or we're going to be late. Do you need help?"

I shook my head no and smiled at her. Mercedes raised half her mouth and got up.

"You sure?" She asked.

I nodded.

Mercedes tossed the bloody towelette at me. "You should swab yourself. Boy stink and all." Her smile filled out and she winked at me in silhouette, standing in the doorway. She shouted as she went up the stairs, "Use the rail! Don't forget anything!"

I nodded. I pulled my practice knee and elbow braces on, under my a-frame and long sleeved t-shirt. I made sure I wore comfortable, broken in jeans and grey socks. Made sure I had everything else (wallet, phone, keys) and slowly made my ponderous way up to the kitchen. I smelled coffee and something greasy cooking as I climbed.

By the time I made it to the top of the stairs I was sweating lightly, but nothing hurt.

"You're sweating, but nothing hurts. That's the painkillers." Mercedes said, looked at me and laughed away my frown. "I had to deal with that thing for almost a week, remember?"

Mercedes raised an eyebrow, then held up a cup of coffee and jostled it at me. In the kitchen light I could see she had a fat lip and there were long, fresh, scabs dotting her neck and hands.

"What happened to us last night?" I asked.

Mercedes turned the stove down to very low, then came and sat next to me at the high top. She sipped her coffee, while I stared at mine. Finally, she said. "I dunno, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with the dream I had."

I said, "Oh?"

"Yeah. I was hoping you'd remember your dream because that'd be, like, confirmation or something." The lid rattled on the pan. "IT's just the grease spitting, and I hope your parents weren't expecting any of that bacon to be left over." Mercedes chuckled. "Or eggs, for that matter."

"You hungry?" I asked.

"I am, but you need to eat, too. It's going to be a long day today."

"It's Halloween!"

"I know, and there's gonna be a school full of students looking exactly like that weird mutant Jon. And then Jay's gonna be a mess. And --"

"I get it. I need to eat." I said.

Mercedes slapped my hand. "And drink your coffee while it's hot."

"You know I like hot black things in my mouth." I said.

Mercedes started to say something, but stopped herself. "Damn straight I do." She said with a smile. She slid off her chair and pulled the large red pan off the stove. She shook the contents. I Noticed the stove was on, too. I looked at my phone. The phone read 6:52am.

The stove beeped. "Hah! It's soup!" Mercedes said, and (with a stove glove) pulled a tray of shredded hash browns from the oven. "Perfect. Grab the Sriracha." She said. Expertly, Mercedes slid half the bacon, scrambled eggs, and golden hash browns onto a plate. Another third she slid onto another plate, and the remaining chunk she slid into a Tubber ware container. "For lunch. I made you sandwiches. They can all go in my bag, though. Your bag. Your spare bag. I'm borrowing your messenger bag, be tea double-you."

"Do you need a notebook or my tablet or something?" I said between mouthfuls of savory eggs and potatoes.

"It'd be awesome if I could borrow your tablet!" Mercedes said. She stole a piece of bacon from my plate and popped it in her mouth, first bending it double against her bottom lip. "Thanks." She said, grinning at me with her eyes and teeth.

"Sure. I'll get it." I said.

"Already got it." Mercedes said. She swigged the rest of her coffee with two serious swigs, full of swagger. She stuffed the last of her food into her mouth and chewed fearsomely. "You finish, I'll start the car." She said.

I barely chewed my food, stuffing eggs and bacon and potatoes into my mouth squirrel like. It was delicious and warm but I barely tasted it. The warm became pronounced as I carefully wiggled into the hulking pullover hooded sweater. I looked at my phone again: 7:01am.

We were going to make it.

I hopped into the car and pressed the garage door opener above Mercedes's head. She made a vrooming noise with her mouth, watching the rearview mirror. Before the door was all the way up, she gunned the engine and with a jerk and a thunk and a whup whump we were on the driveway.

Thunk? Whump whup.

"Oh." Mercedes said.

I said, "Oh."

We both hopped out of the car. Stuck shoving ineffectually at the tire, blood and puke streaming from his face, Jon swore. He looked up at me. There was so much blood. His face was covered from the eyes down. Jon said something to me, but I couldn't understand it.

I threw up. Projectile vomited, really. Right on Jon. Part of me yelled and felt bad and wanted to wipe it off. In a daze, I jumped. I landed on his arms, which pushed into his face. I stumbled and almost twisted my bad ankle. I could feel the cast, doing weird and supportive things as I stumbled. I brought my other heel down on his face; again. Again. He went limp. I heard Mercedes say something. I looked up. She was yelling, but I couldn't understand her either. I said, "It's him It's Jon. Run him over again." I stomped on his neck, twice, and got into the car. "I'm gonna get blood on the mats." I said. "Shoot."

Mercedes got in and reversed over the prone Jon, Then she put the car in forward and thupped over him. Then, slowly, she rolled out again, turning the wheel to X over a different part of him. "He's dead. It was quick." She said. She nodded.

We looked at each other, then to the clock on the dashboard. 7:08am.

Mercedes said, "We can still make it."

I nodded.

Mercedes Squealed the tires and we were off, shooting toward the traffic. I tapped the button and checked in the side mirror that the garage door was going down --it was.

I nodded to myself. "We can still make it." I said. I asked, "Do you have our masks?"

Mercedes nodded and pointed to the back seat. "They're in my bag." She said.

"Your bag?"

"It's mine now. I've marked it."

I chuckled.

"We are not going to talk about that." Mercedes said. I started to say something, but she cut me off with, "I've got a quiz in Government today, but we get extra credit if we're dressed "Seasonably." Can you believe that? As if how I dress has anything to do with government or governance."

I nodded. My stomach roiled. Mercedes swore and stopped at a red light.

We took off like Mana through her restaurant kitchen doors. Cars honked and I braced for an impact that never came for the length of screeching tires. "Awesome." Mercedes said, her face a rictus. "I don't think we'll be able to eat on the roof, it's too cold, even with our extra coats. The lunch room is going to be a nightmare, but I think Morgan has it pretty under control. We should be okay there."

"We never talked about your dream." I said.

"Our dream. You were in it too. We talked in the dream, before --" Mercedes said and accelerated into oncoming traffic, making a lefthand turn into the school parking lot. "--things went sour. Then white. Things went really white. We can talk about it later."

The YOUR SPEED: __ machine was solid red as we flew by it. Mercedes bit her lip and slammed the brakes, fishtailing right onto the sidewalk, across the other lane. She straightened into the correct lane shot out a bark of a laugh.

"HOLY --!" I shouted, but we stopped, the bumper lightly grazing the Handicapped pole. I uncurled. "Thank-you." I said.

"Your class is down that hallway, right?" Mercedes smiled, grimly.

"It is, thank-you. Greatly appreciated!"

"Thank-you for flying Mercedes Airlines. Please remove your own sick bags, and tip your pilots." Mercedes held out a hand. I slapped it.

The clock on the dashboard read 7:12am.

"You are amazing." I said. "See you at lunch!"

"You better." Mercedes leaned down and looked me in the eyes as I pulled my backpack on. She said, "You better." again, and then I was walking to class.

I was on time, but I was the last one in as the bell rang. Every single student was in a grey hooded sweater. Certainly, there were many shades, but all twenty-eight other students were wearing plain, grey hooded sweaters. Even the teacher was wearing a (darker than the rest of us, but still) grey hooded sweater. About half of the students had their anonymous masks pulled up on the top of their heads. They all sat, chatting until the teacher stood up.

The lecture was easy, something Dad had taught me about a few summers ago. I got a question wrong, having transposed letters in my mental formula. I smiled and apologized and some people booed at me for screwing up --it was a surprisingly good humored hour, all things told.

The tone for second hour went off and I stood up. I thought I could get in front of the crowds but I wobbled and had to sit. My rolled ankle felt --anything-- swollen and tender. My right eye throbbed and felt like it was fluttering. I inhaled. I said to myself, "This is the easy part." I stood slowly, exhaling as I stood. I smiled at my first hour teacher. I pulled my anonymous mask out of my back pack. Inhale. Slid the mask over my face. The mask was warm on my cheeks. "All for one." I said.

"And one for all." My teacher replied with a smile. "I love that story."

I nodded as I walked by. I remembered to breathe all the way to second hour. I was a minute late, but my teacher let it slide: I wasn't the last one in, and the teacher must've noticed my limp. I took my mask off and wiped the sweat from my brow.

Two students, both wearing the big eye anonymous masks ran in and slid into their desks just as the teacher started writing on the smart board. "Take your masks off in class." The teacher told them, "Be respectful."

"They're glued on." One of the students said. The other student said, "We are very serious about our anonymity." They said in unison, "We don't want to get murdered."

The teacher sighed and turned back to the board, restarting the lecture.

The glued-ons sounded muffled under their masks and I could've sworn one of them was a girl, but sounded she like a boy under her mask.

I shuffled in my seat and tried to concentrate on the lecture. I hopped I could get better notes from a classmate tomorrow.

The tone sounded. I put my notebook away and sighed and got up. The two people who were late were already gone --dashed out the classroom laughing and smacking people on the back of their head. I stepped cautiously into the throng and shuffled along with the flow. It was shadowy in the hallway, and the few sprayed on cobwebs were actually menacing, looming from the ceilings and corners. There were only a few people wearing costumes other than the grey hooded sweater and most students had the anonymous masks, too. A thousand smiling, soulless mouths. Hundreds of flat black eyes. I felt nauseated.

I shuffled carefully down the stairs and went right. I usually went left. I went right again and hobble hopped, hop hobbled could down the corridor. I was almost to the hallway for my next glass when trouble hit.

Two bulky anonymous-es shoved me into a stair well, then pushed me again and I fell, legs sprawling, backpack flying off my shoulder, over the on all-fours anonymous waiting for me. I banged my head on the back slant of the stairs and this saved me --my body kept going, swinging around the new momentum point. My vision watered, but I landed on a foot and a knee instead of my back. There was shuffling and I had to block a kick to the face with both arms.

Someone threw my backpack at me, but I caught it and used it to ram my way through the crowd of anonymous in the stairwell and around the corner to the outside. I ran a few yards, my ankle spiking in pain. I spun, panting.

Three breathes.

Two pants.

Three anonymous masks walked out of the stairwell, coming straight for me. I fell into a crouch, hands up, fingers tight and spread my legs.

"Boo!" One of them shouted at me, and I flinched. The trio laughed and headed away from me, to the right.

The orange lamp lights snapped off.

I sighed and stood up, my busted ankle and my eyebrows burning.

Someone tackled me from behind.

We turned as we tumbled and, not caring any more, I landed on top of the person, my elbow on their mask's mouth, my fist braced against my other arm. There was a snap I felt more than heard and I I scrambled up, as the crowd swung around as one body, to see what the commotion was. I swung too, and saw the anonymous curl into a ball, clutching at its mask.

One fallen wasn't enough to elicit a change of motion for the whole crowd however, and I let myself get swept over the bridge toward my next class.

I was a minute late, again, and the teacher was already reading from a book of scary stories. She was dressed as a witch, but from under her gauzy black dress poked a grey hooded sweater. Her prosthetic nose was very painstakingly attached and very realistic. I quietly mentioned how good-gross it looked as I sat. I pulled my mask off and huffed.

"That's very kind of you, tall anonymous number seven." The teacher said. "But please stay after class. I explained the homework before you came in, so you'll need to get that from me before you make your anonymous way to your next class. Anonymous?"

"Anonymous." I replied.

The class of creamy, rictus masks giggled and chattered like cold skeletons. The teacher read us her half dozen favorite stories from the scary stories books. We talked briefly about what made them scary and then about the different kinds of scary. It was interesting and I was sad when the tone for fourth hour sounded. I tried to leave but the teacher grabbed my hand and I had to stay. She explained the writing assignment to me. I had to write about the scariest moment in my life, then share it with the class for peer review. It was due next Tuesday. It counted as a test, as far as weight and importance. I nodded at the right moments and smiled and nodded some more.

“I’m going to be late to class. Can I have a pass?”

“You’ve got long legs."

“It’s third floor in the far building and I’ve got a sprained ankle. I pulled up my pants leg to show her the brace. “See?”


“I see.” The teacher said and wrote me an apologetic late pass for fourth hour. I thanked her and started my trek.

Outside, the throngs were already pouring into the distant buildings. I put my head down against the cold and started walking.

A gaggle of anonymous ran past me, one of them pirouetted daintily and laughed. "Hurry hurry little fly!" It called after me. Its voice was distorted, sounded like a robot speech to text translator. The balletic anonymous stopped a head of me. black hair Stuck out around the mask, gentling waving in the wind. "The frog will soon eat you, little fly if you don't hurry up." The disjointed voice said again. The anonymous bobbled its head left to right and ran at me.

I stood where I was, half way between frozen in place and knowing I'd never catch it in a chase. It twirled around me and stopped to my left, closest to the river.

"You'll know fear when the frog comes." The robotic voice said. The anonymous waved at me and ran back to its group of friends, who had stopped and watched from a distance. The gaggle ran off. The tone rang. I walked purposefully toward the school.

I considered my options. I was late to Phoenix's class. Not good. The classroom was on the third or fourth floor. Too many stairs for my ankle. If I cut through the cafeteria and took the elevator, I would only be a few minutes, not half an hour, late. Not bad. I had a pass from my third hour teacher, so I wouldn't be getting detention for being late. Pretty good.

I walked through the empty cafeteria with my mask pulled up, staring at the ceiling for me. My footsteps echoed in the emptiness, even when I tried to walk quietly, so I gave it up.

Feeling suddenly very exposed, I stood and waited for the elevator to come down.

A door closed with a loud click. I heard footsteps, running, somewhere far off in the cafeteria. The elevator dinged and the door opened. I stepped inside, reaching for the third floor button. Pressed it and held the close door button. Two more anonymous skidded around the corner and sprinted for the elevator. The door started to close and I jammed and hammered on the door close button but one of them dove like a baseball player into home base, and their leg wedged the doors open. The doors opened a bit and the second anonymous jammed them open with their forearm. The one on the ground scissored and kicked at my bad ankle and I had to stand on one leg to avoid the swoop. The second one dove at me, slammed me against the elevator wall while I was off balance.

"We need your blood." The one pinning me to the wall said. With a twitch of his hands, there was a blue plastic knife at my throat. There were more robotic voices.

"I've got some to spare, actually. It's in the scar on my cheek, here," I turned my cheek toward the anonymous.

"Oh, he's a comedian. Who knew?" The smaller anonymous had a female robotic voice and white gloves on.

"Femonymous." I thought and chuckled despite my situation.

"This is funny to you?" Manonymous asked.

I shrugged. I couldn't headbutt Manonymous without slashing my own throat. Femonymous was doing something to the panel. The elevator doors were closed, but we weren't moving.


I screamed for help. I got the word "Help!" out twice, before Manonymous cut me with his blade. He reopened the scar on my cheek and put another line just under it. He drew an ex on the bridge of my nose with the knife. He switched which hand held the blade and pushed it against my adam's apple.


Blood started pooling between my collar bones. I gritted my teeth and tried to think clearly. "Just a second." Manonymous said, still searching in his pocket. I smiled at him and carefully shrugged. "This." he said, and tapped the bloody tip of my nose with a small vial. "This needs filling."


The elevator made a dinging noise I'd never heard before. The Femonymous made a confused noise that burbled to a wet gasp.

"What is --" Manonymous turned,and I watched as a short, red haired anonymous pushed a butcher's knife under his chin and twisted. Manonymous's hands shot to the blade handle, but it was too late. Blood pumped and spurted from his wrecked throat. The short anonymous tapped him on his forehead and he fell back, stiff as a plank, hands at his own throat, not at all staunching the flow of blood.

I recognized Morgan's voice, behind the mask, when she said, "They're scenery now. It's halloween. They're just props." Morgan tipped an imaginary hat at me. She stuffed a key back down the front of her grey hooded sweater and patted me on my shoulder with a bloody, gloved hand. "You'll be okay." She said. She pressed the 4 button and stepped out, tracking bloody footprints out of the elevator. A moment later, the doors closed and the elevator rattled to life.

The blood was excruciatingly red to look at in the dull blue steel and institutional pale yellow of the elevator. I stared at the ceiling, but somehow there was a comet trail of blood up there, too.

The door dinged and opened and standing there was another anonymous. With a low growl he dove at me, mismatched fingers and middle-finger thumbs going for my eyes. I fell low and punched him in the crotch as he charged and when he doubled over I grabbed his ears and smashed the mask into the elevator doors. I stood and kicked him into the pool of blood and limbs, just as the elevator doors shut. I stood very slowly. I turned and standing there was Phoenix.

I knew it was Phoenix because Phoenix's hood was down and red hair splayed messily around the anonymous mask. "You're late. You're getting detention." Phoenix said. Phoenix tapped a toe shoe foot on the floor.

I rummaged in my pocket and pulled out the late pass. "I have a pass." I said and held it up like a viking shows off a severed head.

We stood there, in the empty hallway for a full minute.

"Get in the classroom, Metzger." Phoenix said.

I squelched bloodily into the classroom and took my seat. There was a drizzle of blood down my throat and my knees ached. I couldn't feel my ankle. It felt troublingly normal. Phoenix came in and my right eye started twitching wildly.

Phoenix pressed a button on the smart board remote and said, "Today we are going to watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We are going to watch it twice." The board flickered and changed inputs twice, and then Its the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, started playing. Phoenix said, "There will be a quizz." Then turned out the lights and left the classroom.

I turned around. Another class of completely anonymous students. Sure, one or three didn't have the mask, but I saw some home made anonymous masks: a paper plate here, an actual, spray painted, theatrical mask there. I smiled at the paper plate mask, but the student didn't react.

The movie played through and I sat, focusing on my breathing with my eyes closed. My phone went off, and, discretely, I checked it.

JAY: U OK?
ME: Ya. Not dead yet. Just bloody
JAY: They didnt get ne did they?
ME: Na. Your sister saved me
JAY: Coooool C U @ Lunch!

Halfway through the second play through the input switched again, and a bit.ly URL appeared on the board, along with the instructions:

Use your cellphones.
Answer these questions.
You may go.

The quiz was surprisingly easy.

Most of the students got up and left after the test, pulling their hoods or masks down as they went. A few of us, though, stayed. I opened my Spanish textbook and started reading. I'd been falling a bit behind and this was a good time to do some quick reading. Besides, regardless of how anonymous everyone else was, I was a slow, easy target. I contented myself with studying.

"Hey. Hey William." Came a girl's voice.

I ignored it, pretending to be engrossed in my book, but the hair on the back of my neck stood.

Someone poked me in the shoulder and a bruised I didn't know I had screamed in pain. I winced and turned. "Hi?" I said.

"Hello." A petite girl in a clever grey hooded sweater dress said. "I'm Jenny." She was short, with short brown pony tail hair and thick eyeliner only above her tired, deep set green eyes. Jenny said, "I heard you killed Jon."

I frowned.

"I mean, its not like he's actually dead. But I heard he hasn't been bullying people since you and him tangled each other up. I just want to say thank-you. He was picking on me and my sister, we're the same age, and we're juniors, but he always picked on us, and he never got our names right. I'm Jenny, she's Patricia. We're twins, but we're not totally identical!"

Someone behind us shushed loudly. Jenny took the stool next to me and set her back pack on the table. "It's really cool what you do around here. I read all about last year online when I found out William Metzger was the person who helped me and Jenny out. Even if you didn't mean to, we really, really appreciate it."

I was still frowning, but I whispered, "You're welcome."

"So, there's this party tonight. I'm going to it. I could send you the invite if you like."

"You got the part where I'm gay, right?" I blurted.

"Oh." Jenny said. She looked at me. "Really?" She asked.

"Yeah. No boyfriend doesn't mean I'm suddenly not gay. And you're very pretty!" I said, suddenly fumbling for words, "But seriously. I'm not a girls guy."

"Oh."

I nodded.

"Do you still want me to text you the address?" Jenny asked without looking at me.

I smiled politely. "Sure." I said.

"Oh. Okay." Jenny said, "Thanks again." and stood up. "See you later!" She said and waved limply.

The smart board cycled through inputs again, and another bit.ly URL Came up. The instructions this time were:
Do this one tonight.
Watch this video.
Answer these questions.
Email your answers to [Phoenix's Email Addres@pcmail.edu]

The last two students and I wrote down the URL and looked at each other. We chuckled, happily. "Are you gonna tell anyone?" A boy with dusty hair asked.

"I don't really know anyone else in the class. Just Jenny, I suppose." I said.

"Well dude, I'm Gabriel. I know who you are, dude." Gabriel waved at me. "Most people call me Gabby," he said. The tone sounded and we all packed up and walked out.

Gabby fell into step with me as I limped to the elevator. My ankle was starting to throb. My phone went off, but I ignored it. Gabby struck up some small talk. He talked about the swim team and his girlfriend cheerleader. He talked about how bummed he was our original Science teacher got replaced with Phoenix. I agreed with him. Gabby talked about how Phoenix was systematically crushing the smoking spots on campus. How his smoker friends were going nuts and their grades were dropping because they couldn't concentrate. I chuckled sadly.

I said, "That sucks." In front of the elevator. I pressed the button.

"Well, I'm gonna go eat with friends." Gabby paused and looked at me. I shuffled from foot to foot. "If you want to eat with us, you can."

"Thank-you. I'm meeting some friends in the cafeteria."

"Oh, cool. Have a good one dude." Gabby held his hand out and we shook. I smiled at him and we pulled our masks on. "Damn. That is too realistic." Gabby said and walked away.

I stepped over the slumped bodies, into the blood sludge and pressed the down button. The elevator smelled strongly of iron and rotten oranges. All the color seemed to have seeped into the blood.

The door opened and, queasily, I stepped out and limped through the sea of anonymous masks and grey hooded sweaters to where Mercedes and I normally sat. I sat gingerly down and stretched my worse leg out. "Hey." I said.

"Hey." Mercedes pulled up her mask and pushed her hood back. "How'd you know it was me?"

I shrugged. "I just did." I said.

She pushed her tray across the table to me. There was still half a pizza and a container and a half of tater tots, floating in an ocean of ketchup. "The serving lady gave me extra tots. And Jay texted, he's going to be later than normal, he said. He said his sister needed his help with something."

"Cool." I said. I started nibbling at the pizza.

"How are you not hungry?" Mercedes asked. Some of her scabs had fallen off, pink skin bright in the sunless, cafeteria hall.

"Just not." I said. I shrugged.

"So. You remember your dream yet?" Mercedes asked.

I shook my head no and forced myself to swallow a few real bites of pizza. I nodded at her. "But tell me about yours."

"Oh em gee it was weird." Mercedes said. "Everything was red and white. Like a messed up black and white movie, right?"

I nodded.

Mercedes continued, "So, I'm in this red and white, white and black dream, yeah? And I'm looking around and I'm in this weird, blown out lab, and there's all this broken glass, just hanging in the air, and there's fireballs, just frozen in the air, and I'm walking through this frozen scene but its hot. Like, if I get close to the fire, its hot, right? And I'm walking through all the broken glass and stuff and then I see you. You're standing there, with your hands around the neck of some dude in a lab coat. There's white just pouring off the two of you, like steam, like blood, like, well whatever. Like everything. But neither of you are moving. I tapped you on the shoulder and you came to life, or unfroze, or something. You dropped the guy you were choking and took my hand, and you smiled. And we walked through this messed up, on fire laboratory. Down these rows and rows --and this is how I know it was a dream-- the rows of glass containers just went on for almost ever. And inside the tanks were people. Dudes, just floating. Some of them were thrashing and it was murky in there and some of them didn't have fully formed faced. Some were cute little fetuses, just floating in there, looking small." Mercedes paused.

"Wow." I said.

"Yeah. So like, I looked behind us, and the explosions were following us, but at a safe distance. It was like." She stopped. "I dunno. It was a weird dream. Then we came to this elevator and the doors were bright white, and you pressed the button, and when it opened there was this gigantic horse man. Like a minotaur, but with a horse's head instead of a bull and he had a huge metal pole and he smashed you in your ankle and tried to smash you in your face, but you mostly got out the way, and I freaked out and started looking for something to help fight the horse-a-tour with, but where ever I walked, things exploded or caught on fire, and it was terrifying! So I finally found a fire extinguisher and I sprayed the horse in the muzzle and eyes just as he was about to bash your brains out, and he freaked out and started staggering around and stuff, smashing himself into the infinity of glass person tubes. He started braying and screaming and clawing at his face and we got into the elevator and the doors closed and --"

I said, "Wow." again. I finished the pizza and started on the tater tots. I asked, "So you got all cut up and I got beaten up by a, a horse-a-tour.

"Yup. Then when we were in the elevator it stopped moving and we were trapped in it for what felt like forever, then ceiling fell on us and I got this fat lip." Mercedes pouted.

"In the dream and in here." I said.

Mercedes nodded. "Yup. And all these glass scratches, too. And I think we were naked, not that it mattered."

"Huh." I said. "So, we were in the elevator, it was stopped, then ceiling fell in on us. Then what?"

"I think the cables snapped. There was a huge boom, whip crack sound and then we were falling really fast, and then I woke up. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I got up, showered, made breakfast and surfed the internet for a bit, you know, then you were screaming and by the time I got down stairs you were awake and on the floor."

"And not screaming." I said.

"And not screaming." Mercedes said. She She said. “But just before I got down there, you were screaming. About a horse, and fire. And being trampled.”

“Well.” I said, “That is weird.”

“Yeah.” Mercedes said.

“I girl in my fourth hour asked me on a date today.” I said. I dunked two tater tots in ketchup.

“How is that fair?” Jay sat down next to me, swinging his legs carefully under the table.

“You have a girlfriend.” I said, “What do you care?”

“You’re gay! You don’t need girls.”

“It’s not like I asked her out, Jay. She thanked me for beating up Jon, then asked me to a party. My mobile rang. I checked it discretely, Mom was calling me. “Excuse me,” I said. I pulled my hood up and carefully snuck the phone to my ear. “Hello.” I said.

“Please tell me you have my car.” Mom said.

“I have your car. Hi.” I said. I asked, “Where have you and Dad been?”

“Fixing and finishing a project your father was working on. We’re done now.”

I leaned back and put my other hand to my forehead. I thought, "Oh shit. The body."

"William? What body?" Mom asked.

"I have to work on my internal monologue." I said.

"Pardon?"

"Nothing. Listen, mom about the body. The one in the driveway."

"William. There wasn't a body in the driveway. Did you run over a cat or something?"

"No."

"Oh geez, William! Did you hit a dog driving to school?"

"No, Mom. I didn't hit a dog or a cat. There's no body in the driveway?" I asked. My heart thundered and my whole body ached, like every cut and bruised from the last three months had re-manifested.

"I hit --"

Mercedes cut me off, with a chopping, slicing hand motion to her throat. She shook her head left and right, her eyes wide.

"Is this a Halloween joke?" Mom asked. "Because there wasn't anything in our driveway, and my car was missing. And! You forgot to lock the inside garage door. What have I asked you?"

"To always double check the inner and outer doors. Sorry Mom."

"Are you going to be home tonight?"

"There's a party. Would it be okay if I slept at Mercedes's house tonight?"

There was silence while Mom thought about her answer. She said, "You dad misses you."

I said, "I miss him too." And I really, really do. "But this is, like, a once in a lifetime party. I'll stay in with you guys tomorrow night. Promise."

"Well, tomorrow night, Mercedes can stay, too. It feels like forever since we've seen you two." Mom said. "I'll cook something yummy for us all, okay? And you can do the dishes. All the dishes, William, you will do them."

"That sounds good. Thank-you Mom! Tell Dad hello and I love him."

"Will do. Bye."

I said "Bye."I hung up.

"--and then I woke up." Mercedes said, and popped a tater tot in her mouth. Jay just stared at her, his eyes wide.

He said, "Oh that is weird."

"I know, right?" Mercedes said.

"I mean, there was that fire alarm at the mall, then you dream about this fire. Really weird." Jay said. He stuffed a whole quarter of a quesadilla into his mouth and chewed loudly.

"Did you tell him about the giant horse head guy?" I asked.

"Yup."

"Weird."

"Seriously weird." I said. "So, I've got Mom's car, and she didn't ask for it back. So we've got a ride to the party!"

"Are you sure you want to take your mom's car there? It's way out in the middle of nowhere." Mercedes said. She pointed a tater tot at me. "Do you have AAA, if we get stuck or something?"

"I don't, but my parents do. They always keep that stuff in the glove box." I nodded and ate the last of the tater tots. "Thank-you." I said.

Mercedes said, "You're welcome."

"It's still cool if I bring Jenna, right?" Jay asked. "You guys can pick me up?"

"That's fine." Mercedes said "Are we wearing these same costumes? They seemed lame, but I'm beginning to like 'em."

"I don't have anything else." I said. I laughed. "There was someone in my fourth hour with a home made paper plate anonymous mask. It was pretty amazing!"

Jay laughed too, "Hah! There was one of those in my second hour. I wonder --"

"If it was the same person?" I finished. I said, "Yeah, I don't know. Funny!"

The tone for fifth hour went off and the sea of grey hooded sweaters leapt up and swooshed slowly toward the exits. Mercedes, Jay and I all stood up together. Mercedes and I groaned and rubbed at our stiff joints while Jay stood around, hot footing.

"So, what time will you guys?"

"Make sure you and Jenna are ready to go by nine o'clock." Mercedes said.

"Seems early for a cool party." Jay replied, quickly.

"It's a drive. Okay? Just be ready, little one, and mind thy tongue." Mercedes curtly patted Jay on the shoulder and gave him one of her mother's faux smiles.

Jay nodded.

"Shall we then?" I asked.

"Oh lets." Mercedes and Jay said together and with that, we tromped off to our classes.

Fifth hour was another blur of anonymous masks and false jumps and the pain medication wore off just as I was sitting down.

Sixth hour was an agonized, slow motion jog, blurred to the point of abstraction that I came out of laying on the couch in Mercedes's white and cream front living room, with my pants rolled up to my knees and Mrs. Swanson talking quietly but sternly to Mercedes.

"Saved me." Mercedes said -- was the first thing I comprehended.

"Saved you?" I asked. My tongue felt swollen in my mouth. My teeth felt like dentures. I clacked them together experimentally.

Mrs. Swanson looked at me. She shook her stern head. "Mr. Swanson is on his way home with a larger brace. You're not moving from this couch until it's on you. Just look at your ankle!" Mrs. Swanson commanded, "Look at it!"

I did. It was a giant, swollen purple and red mess. I felt my head go light and lay back down. I bonked my head hard on the arm of the couch and said, "Ow."

"These things," Mrs. Swanson held up the brace Mercedes had loaned me, "Are user designed. Custom ordered! They are not cheap!" She set Mercedes's brace on the floor. "You're lucky you get to keep your fool foot." Mrs. Swanson said and stood up. Towering over me, long hands on her hips she said, "Can you drink anything?"

My stomach turned. "I'd better not." I said.

"Close your eyes William. We'll wake you when Mr. Swanson gets here."

I closed my eyes and immediately sounds lost their coherency. The room started to spin, so I rolled to my side. Lying on my left side made it worse. Laying on my right side made it better. I sighed and stayed on my right side.

Someone said something, their lips warm in the dark, against my ear.

(The next thing I remember is) "There you go William, you should be all set now." I opened my eyes. I was on my back. My calves were warm, especially the right one. The window frame was very sharp, and very bright, but my head felt clear.

My tongue seemed smeared with nickel.

"Thank-you." I said.

Mr. Swanson laughed and stood up. He was wearing aqua nurse's scrubs, with a grey hooded sweater over them. He rubbed his hands together. "You're welcome. You're just lucky my family is usually healthy, or I wouldn't have had the company credit built up to get you this." Mr. Swanson smiled and his lips were so full. I started to count the exquisite crows feet on his upper lip. "Tell your dad the bill's in the mail." Mr. Swanson's hand was firm and strong and warm when he patted my shoulder. He was so ni --

"Bill?" I asked.

Mr. Swanson laughed, a deep harmonious gong of a sound and firmly patted my shoulder again. "Not really, Will. (Will!). But let me know if he goes a bit pale, would you?"

And then Mercedes and I were alone in her spacious white room. The grand piano sat attentively, its lip closed.

"I'm sorry Will!" Mercedes said (again?). She put her head next to mine on the couch, our noses crossed and she looked like she had been crying. She sniffed. I patted her cheek, but I was groggy and it came off as more a surprise slap.

"Slap of love!" I shouted.

"Don't you dare!" Mrs. Swanson bellowed from the kitchen, "I will end the life of anyone who hits my daughter!"

"Mom! He didn't!" Mercedes called out.

I closed my eyes, "Loud." I whispered.

"Sorry," Mercedes giggled and bonked her forehead against mine. I winced.

"Seriously though. Why am I so brittle?"

Mrs. Swanson stood tall in the space between the kitchen and the living room. She said, "The medicine hasn't fully entered your system yet. You'll be fine as fine in an hour or so." She handed me a tall glass with a milky red substance. "Vee eight," Said Mrs. Swanson. "Drink it down, it'll help."

It tasted bitter and took a few swallows, but I finished it. I wiped politely at the corners of my mouth. I handed the glass back to Mrs. Swanson.

"Where's Mr. Swanson?" I asked.

Mrs. Swanson said, "He had to go back to work. He took his first lunch break to run you your custom brace. You should thank him. He doesn't get many breaks these days." She nodded, as if to herself.

I nodded at Mrs. Swanson. "I will thank him." I said. I asked, "Are these things really expensive?"

"Don't you worry about it. Just don't make it worse tonight with your horrible dancing, okay?" Mrs. Swanson let a genuine smile slip through her facade. Realizing her mistake, she turned abruptly and went back into the kitchen. She shouted, "We're having left overs. Be down at seven to eat. Remember to wash your hands. Go do your homework!"

"Okay mom/Mrs. Swanson!" Mercedes and I shouted back. We trekked into Mercedes's bedroom and worked there, sitting on her tatami bed. I did my Spanish homework and started the hour long geology lecture Phoenix had assigned those of us who stayed the whole time. Mercedes clicked and clacked away on her laptop. Sometimes she swore. Sometimes she made excited noises.

"This party is going to be crazy." She said.

"Uh huh" I replied.

Sterling conversationalists, the both of us.

"Dinner! Now!" Mrs. Swanson shouted from the bottom of the spiral staircase.

I closed my laptop and looked at Mercedes, who was logging out of her social media browser.

Dinner was pleasant. Actual light conversation about the weather (cold) the food (delicious and warming) and classes (good; can't wait for them to be over).

After we'd finished washing the dishes, Mrs. Swanson excused us back to Mercedes's room.

When we were there, she turned on me, a glint in her eye. "Let me show you something!" She said.

I gulped.

Mercedes gave me a reproachful look. "Seriously? I'm not that much a perv," She said. She strode to her short desk and reopened her browser, logging in. Mercedes turned the screen slightly and showed me a green map with many trees and few roads. She tapped the middle of a mass of trees, zooming in on it. She kept zooming in. Eventually, a hint of a road appeared. "That's the driveway." Mercedes said. She bounced a little in her chair. "And here is part of the roof of the house. The address is waaaay," she scrolled west, "Over here. On this road, right? And do you see?"

I shook my head no. "Nope."

Mercedes said, "See? there's like, a fork in the road here. The left one goes to a lake."

"So we want the right one?" I asked.

"Right." Said Mercedes. "And then we'll want to park a ways away, so we don't get blocked in."

I asked, "What if we're the last ones to arrive?"

"All the better, if you ask me. We can make an entrance and leave when we want. In case it sucks."

"Which it won't."

"Which it totally won't!" Mercedes said. She clapped. "This is so exciting! Our first crazy house party!"

"Yes!" I said, "I'm good wearing the same costume if you are." I nodded to where our hooded sweaters were tossed in a pile by the stairway. "I like it now."

"That's fine, but I'm wearing bigger boots."

"Awesome.

Mercedes checked her phone. "Jay wants to know where we are." She said.

I laughed. "Tell him it's not even eight yet."

"Tell him to hold his horses. Will do." Mercedes said.

We whiled away the hour and a half looking at local Google maps of different houses and memorizing different directions to the party. Mercedes looked up the property owner, who was Mr. Trumble, who owned a few other buildings in the area, too.

At 8:45 we got dressed and said our goodbyes.

We got to Jay's house at 9:10pm. Jenna and Jay skipped down the ornate, pillared front steps before Mercedes had the car in park. Jay banged on her window, "Unlock! Unlock!" he chanted.

Mercedes looked down her nose at me.

"We're friends." I said. Jay pulled a face and licked the window by Mercedes's head and banged on the window with his knuckles. Mercedes snorted, felt for the unlock button and pressed it all without taking her eyes off me.

"Thank-you!" Jenna said, sliding in. She was wearing a skimpy nurses's outfit and matching huge-heel, white, stripper platforms.

"Took you long enough." Jay said. He was wearing a full surgeon's scrub suit, with the safety mask pulled down around his neck along with the stethoscope. He drummed on Mercedes's headrest. "So, where we going?" He asked.

"Surprise!" Said Mercedes, backing out of the driveway. She turned the music up.

The silence was apparently only bearable to Jenna for a minute. Soon she was talking about her family, how much her mom had complained about her costume and how it was fine and she was warm and wasn't that what boyfriends were for anyway? She kept a stream of words flowing, only lulling to let us make encouraging noises at her now and then.

Jenna's chattering was fine. It was nice, actually, to have someone filling the silence.

Mercedes pulled onto the last road and the groping trees and a country blackness swallowed the car. Mercedes turned on the high beams and something grey scuttled from the middle of the road into the trees. "Wha!" she shouted, slamming on the brakes --the car fishtailed and we all shouted at Mercedes, who apologized.

I shouted, "I saw it! I saw it! That was weird! Was it a deer?"

"Maybe it was the boogey man." Jay said. He waggled his fingers between Mercedes and I. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll protect you."

We all laughed.

Mercedes missed the driveway due to some bushes and had to reverse down the dirt road a ways in the dim red dark, but the car's all wheel drive kicked in and soon enough we were slowly bouncing along the narrow, crooked driveway.

An unknown number (not Morgan's) texted me:
side lights only

But Mercedes couldn't figure that out so we were left inching our way up the black, dirt driveway in complete darkness.

It started to rain.

"Seriously?" Jenna asked.

"There's an umbrella in the trunk. I'll get it." I said.

"I'll get it." Jay said, staring hard at me.

"Gentlemen." Mercedes said, "I will get it for the lady."

"Thank-you kindly, Mercedes." Jenna said with a lilt. "But I am a nurse, not a damsel. Thank-you, I will grab the umbrella."

"There's some cars, I'm parking here." Mercedes said.

We got out, stepping into cold mud. Jenna almost fell backwards, her stripper heels stabbing fast through the loose ground. "Gross! My tights!" She shouted as Jay steadied her. Mercedes popped the trunk and got out. She stretched her arms as if warming up to exercise. She caught me watching her and shrugged.

I slid my anonymous mask over my face and pulled the hood up against the slow rain.

"Brr." Jenna said. Then, after a full minute of walking past cold, parked cars with no lights shining anywhere else, she said, "Is this a joke? You guys?"

The crooked driveway ended abruptly; two red spotlights shone on the scene of an exploded party bomb. There were fake limbs and paper streamers hanging from the trees, tied to each other.

On the roots and sticks lawn a gigantic cauldron bubbled over and hissed; some of the steam rose, straight up like a totem pole, but more of it spilled down over the edges, running between or over the roots and sticks.

A huge spiderweb with a slowly circling, robotic spider stretched between one of the spotlights and the tin roof of the, crooked brick house hiding behind all the gore and smoke. Two stories with four windows and a door in the middle, the house looked like nothing so much as a home made, to scale, doll's house.

A sign at the bottom of the walk way was draped in fake intestines. The sign mutely tried to warn us away: Abandon all faith and hope, ye who enter.

"Well." I said. "That's impressive."

"Where's the beer?" Jenna asked, bunny hopping in place.

"Where're the people?" Mercedes said. "We're right on time."

"Inside?" I asked.

"May as well." Mercedes strode up the walkway to the tiny house's door.

I followed next.

In the spider web were maybe a dozen, smaller fake spiders. The smaller fake spiders were grey --you had to really look to notice them. They twitched in place, somehow. I wasn't going to poke the web to figure it out.

The house smelled strongly of cinnamon scented cleaning agents.

Mercedes jumped back with a scream, I stumbled and caught her with one hand, shielding us with my other. A wall of sticky silly string coated us.

"SURPRISE!" Yelled a dozen voices from the darkness inside the house.

"What the good goodness!" Yelled Mercedes. "How did you guys even do that?" She called into the darkness, "Can we come in?"

As if by magic, Morgan appeared. She was also wearing a grey hooded sweater and a mask, but her mask was up on top of her head. Her mask had black eye patch with a red star embossed on it that matched her eye patch. She smiled warmly at us and gave Mercedes a hug. She swept me with a gaze. "Maybe when you're not covered in ghost spoo." She said. Turning back to Mercedes, Morgan smiled and said, "You and your guests." she glared past Mercedes and me. "Are welcome! Here's the tour. It's verbal." She laughed. She was holding a drink, most of which, I guessed, had just sloshed onto the tile foyer floor.

Morgan said, "Beer's in the bathroom, which is uh, in the back right corner, first floor. Smoking is out back only. Upstairs is another bathroom and some bedrooms. Rooms with beds. If a door's closed, don't go in. Leave doors open when you're done. DO NOT GO IN THE BASEMENT. I am serious. It is Pandora's box and I am Pandora. I will open it, if I get drunk enough. But it is for me. I couldn't find the right key or it'd be locked. Do. Not. Go. In. The. Basement. Okay? Okay! Do you know everyone?"

Mercedes shook her head. I said, "Not a one, unless there's a short girl named, uh, Jenny? Here?"

"Oh! How do you know Jenny? Have you met her sister?" Morgan looked at me, her face a conglomeration of mixed expressions.

"I, uh, have not. She's in my science class." I said. Morgan was still staring at me so I added, "She, uh, seems nice. Nice? Nice."

Morgan laughed. "She's nice, sure sure. Come on! There's other things to drink than beer."

Morgan lead us around a stub of a wall. “To the left, ah, here, actually. This is the living room.” The living room had two bay windows and three couch, all different antiquities and cushion lengths. There were people sitting on the couches, on the couch arms, talking.

Music thrummed and throbbed and bubbled occasionally with high hats, but I couldn’t see any speakers.

“That’s the bathroom.” Morgan said and pointed at a stout, closed door on the living room’s far wall. Morgan then gestured to her left (our right. Duh) and said, “That’s the kitchen and dining room and right side of the house. To get upstairs you go outside. It’s a little jacked up. There’s a fire escape in the back. You’ll see.” She smiled at us in the red light, her teeth looked pink and brown.

We walked back and into the kitchen. The kitchen was black lit and there was a fog machine running full blast, on top of the fridge. There was a space for a stove, but no stove, and the sink was full of ice, with another fake arm sticking out of it.

"Don't use that ice." Morgan pointed at the sink and said, "Its not ice for you."

"Oh kay." Mercedes said.

At the back of the kitchen was a small, round table. Four people were very intently playing a  card game, and behind them was a covered, screened in porch. Beyond that, through the drizzle, and into the night sulked bonfire.

I noticed Jay and Jenna were not with us. I mentioned this to Mercedes who limp wrist-ed a hand in my general direction. "Safest place in the world." Mercedes said.

"Okay." I said.

"Come on!" Shouted Morgan from the porch. "I'll introduce you to some people by the fire."

I looked at Mercedes, who shrugged at me. We walked carefully around the card players and nodded tentatively at them when they looked up. "Hey Mercedes." Said someone with painted red nails and flat black caul mask.

Mercedes said, "Hey."

And then we were in the porch. In one corner was a pile of fake limbs, mostly arms, with a few legs sticking out. There were paper streamers tied to fingers, and those webbed up to tacks in the ceiling, dropping like broken spider webs. To the left of the porch doorway was an incredibly steep staircase. Like, it wouldn't be unreasonable to have called it a ladder. It looped back and ended directly above the kitchen to porch doorway.

"Mind your head." Said Mercedes.

"Seriously," I said.

"Not for the too drunk, that is, err, ain't." Morgan said. She giggled and dramatically finished her drink. She tipped her cup upside down to prove its emptiness. "All gone." She sighed dramatically and slouched. "This way!" Morgan perked right back up.

Morgan lead us outside and around the left corner of the house. "It wasn't supposed to rain." She said, "Sorry about that. Here's the drinks. There's the beer, there's the booze, there's the mixers, there's the healthy juices. There's the other mixers and sodas. Drink whatever. You're family here. We like you!" She smiled at Mercedes and I. Morgan took both our hands in hers and shook them. "Please. Do be at home." She said.

Someone from the fire threw a hand at us. "Come over here More!" A shaggy man in a puffy, lambskin leather coat shouted. "And bring me another beer!"

"Someone's in the bathroom!" Morgan shouted. "How about a bloody mary?"

"Stir it with the magic finger!" The shaggy man shouted back, "And you've got a deal!"

Morgan turned to Mercedes and I. She said, "That's Larry. He tries to get people to call him Lars, but don't do that or he won't respect you. Call him Larry. Okay? No matter what."

"Okay." We said and nodded. Mercedes added, "Can I have a bloody mary, too?"

Morgan's grin almost covered her whole face. "Sure thing!" She said and rushed around, pouring a half dozen different bottle and cans and vials into two red plastic cups. "You want me to stir yours?" Morgan  asked.  She picked up one of the fake arms, it's hand pointing, nails painted something dark. Morgan waggled the finger in our direction. "You sure?" She asked.

"No thanks. I'm good." Mercedes said. She held her hands out, for her drink, which Morgan sloshed over to her.

"To the fire!" Morgan struck the "about to dash" then carefully, slowly walked across the wet, splotchy grass to the fire. Mercedes and I shrugged and followed her.

Larry was only a few inches shorter than me, and probably just about as wide. "What're you supposed to be? There's like three of you here." He said to me, pointing a finger.

"Dead high school student." I said.

Larry narrowed his eyes.

I said, "More specifically, the embodiment of the, uh, hahah, student body's desire not to be murdered. The idea was that since the administration wasn't releasing the names of the victims, that they could've been any of us. Thus the anonymous masks."

"Huh." Larry said. He sipped his bloody mary. "More, that is good stuff." He said. He patted Morgan on her shoulder. She caught his hand and patted it in return.

"Thank-you." she said. "The magic finger is the key." Larry and Morgan both laughed.

Mercedes said, "Is that why mine doesn't taste very good?"

"Not a big drinker, huh?" Larry asked.

I stared across the fire at the other three people. One of them was a tiny --ah hah!-- One of them was Jenny, who was flanked by two smaller, versions of Larry. Smaller, but not by much. They sat on lawn chairs and sipped beer. There were umbrellas stuck to the backs of the chairs, to keep the rain off. Jenny's umbrella tilted dangerously close to the fire. The other two Larry's had fur collared, vinyl looking coats in some dark, indistinguishable color. They had long, long beards, too.

I waved at Jenny, and shouted: "Jenny! Hello! I made it!"

Jenny pointedly ignored me, leaning into the Larry on her left and talking animatedly about something I couldn't hear.

The rain decided to make its presence more apparent. "Uck." Morgan said. She looked at Lars. "I remember stories of when Halloween was a warm, dry holiday." She said.

"Cleaners these days get no breaks." Larry said and took a long swig of his bloody mary. Mercedes and I looked at each other, eyebrows high.

Morgan caught our eyebrows and patted them. "Our parents are cleaners for some local companies. Every year, there used to be a company picnic on Halloween, for all the cleaner families, but the weather for the last few years has made the company move the picnic forward and forward and forward and --Thank-you. And forward."

Larry had smacked Morgan on the back of the head after her third 'forward and'.

Morgan smiled, her teeth were still very red, even in the firelight. "So only the kids of cleaners celebrate on Halloween, now. It's sort of a toast to the things we don't believe in."

Larry nodded. "Yeah." he said. "So, why are you two here?" He asked.

Mercedes said, "Morgan invited us."

"It's messed up you'd bring Tweet Tweet, after what he did." Said Larry. "Especially bringing that complete unknown in here."

"Jenna?" Mercedes asked. "What about her? We know her."

"We don't." One of the far Larry(s) shouted. "You two, we understand. You're cool. But her?"

"What about me?" Jenna stepped into the rain, under Mom's umbrella.

The two larry(s) and Jenny stood up. "Who gave you that umbrella?"close-Larry asked.

"Relax, Bigfoot. I'm borrowing it from William. Thank-you William." Jenna curtsied at me, but not well what with the beer cup in one hand and the umbrella in the other. Jenna continued, "Jay's in the bathroom. Does he like being called Tweet-Tweet? Should I call him that?"

Everyone but Mercedes and I laughed.  The far larry(s) and Jenny sat down; talked quietly among themselves.

Close-Larry said, "We were just wondering why you were here. Doesn't all the blood bother you? The guts? The dismemberment?"

"I like The Dismemberment Plan." Jenna smiled. Her teeth were white and perfect in the firelight. "They're good. I'm always sad I missed seeing them live."

"You like concerts?" Morgan asked. She took a few quick steps toward Jenna, who to her credit flinched less than I would have. "What concerts have you been to?"

Jay stepped under the umbrella and wrapped an arm around Jenna's waist. In her heels, Jenna was almost a full head taller than Jay. He wrapped his thumb in her garter belt. He said, "You're not giving my woman any trouble are you?"

The fire sputtered, snuffed from a sudden flurry of sleet.

"Inside!" Morgan called, "No one's dying from hypothermia or pneumonia cause of my party."

With everyone inside and on the first floor, the windows steamed up quickly. Close-Larry and I hauled the booze bins into the porch. We tossed the pile of limbs haphazardly through the door to make room for the ice bin. The fake limbs felt cold and rubbery to touch. They were very malleable and smelled a little bit like burned peanut oil.

Mercedes and I stayed in the porch and drank. In the living room, someone turned the music up and slowed the BPM down to dancier speeds.

"Do you want to dance?" Mercedes asked, staring at my feet. We were sitting in the corner of the porch, guarding the ice bin.

"Sure?" I said, feeling incredibly uncomfortable at the idea.

"Really?!" Mercedes looked me in the face and I must've been quick enough on the change because her excitement spread all across her face. "Awesome!" She grabbed my hand, let's go!" And in we went.

The press of bodies was strangely comfortable, once I realized no one here was going to knife or kick or otherwise hurt me. At first I just bobbed my head, but as the rain started to steam off us, a warmth flowed into me and I smiled, closed my eyes and just moved.

Whenever I opened my eyes, Mercedes, or someone I didn't yet know was smiling at me and dancing along. Hands or shoulders or head moving, bobbing, sliding around to the music.

No one kicked my ankle.

A chill I hadn't know was there thawed and started to drip down my sides. My smile went from furtive to grinning. I clapped along to a crescendo in one of the songs and stopped exactly as the song switched.

Everyone froze, getting the hang of the new rhythm, then like a wave, we all started moving again.

A car horn honked. I thought, "That's a weird sample for this song." And Mercedes mumbled agreement and nodded her head. She had her hands on my chest and I had my hands in my pockets.

I realized after a few seconds of continuous horn honk the sound was not part of the song.

Someone opened the front door and a freezing wind and harsh white light flooded into the living room.

Someone asked what was happening outside and there was a rush to the window. The spiderweb obscured most of the view, but there were at least three black cars and two black SUV's shining their brights at the house. Close-Larry gasped. He said, "No. No no no no no." He looked at Mercedes and I, he Close-Larry started to say something, then ran out the front door.

Mercedes and I looked at each other. We dashed out after him. The bright lights brought us up short and we shielded our eyes from the halogen.

"You're all dead." Jon shouted. He was a silhouette, a halogen specter, but it was him. He looked taller, thicker, but it was Jon. His shoulders bulged. He leaned on a far too big baseball bat. Jon looked right at me. "I can't decide if I want to leave you for last, or kill you first." He shouted. "We'll just let the dice fall as they may." He said. He raised his gigantic bat into the air and all the doors on the five bulky black vehicles opened.

It was like watching a nightmare of clown cars vomit their contents: Anonymous after anonymous masks poured out of the cars --far more than three to the rear doors. Grey hooded sweaters and spray painted black eye sockets.

The rain pelted down.

The three Larry(s) and Jenny stepped out through the front door.

"He-man?" Jenny quipped.

Jon lowered his bat.

The anonymous-es kept pouring out of the cars. Easily three dozen of them stood around the five vehicles, shuffling in the mud, shivering in the rain.

Morgan strolled forward. "You really, really don't want to do this, Jon. This is my birthday party and I'll make cry who I want to." Morgan tilted her head to one side, she held her arms out wide. "Look at the decorations, Jon. They're for you." (I think) she said.

While she talked, the most of the other party-goers had come outside. They had thick coats --bomber jackets, or heavy leather things like Close-Larry. There were a three Red Riding Hoods, a smattering of wolves.

The rain hardened.

Morgan and Jon stood, staring at each other.

Jay came out. "What's going on?" he whispered to me.

"Jon's here. He wants to fight." I whispered back. "You sister's trying to talk him out of it."

"Oh." Jay said. He pushed past me and shouted, "Jon. Leave." Jay strode forward, past his sister. Lightning flashed and he held up two razors. "I will cut you to ribbons again if you step closer." Jay said. The thunder rolled right after his declaration.

There was a stunned silence. Jon pointed his incredibly large baseball bat at Jay. "Fine." He said.

There was another thunderous boom and Jay flew back, arms and legs rag dolled in front of him. He crashed into the crowd, knocking some of them into the gigantic spider web.

Things went crazy from there.

The two groups rushed headlong at each other and pulled up short --Morgan kicked the gigantic cauldron over and something boiling and noxious and purple flooded forward over the feet and ankles of the anonymous army. They screamed and their ankles and feet smoked, but the rain was sheeting down and the acid (or whatever it was) washed away in rivulets down the driveway; tires smoked where it pooled.

Jon threw his head back, giggling uncontrollably.

Everyone stood, staring at each other, except Morgan, who kept looking between Silhouette Jon and the crowd surrounding her little brother.

Staring at the backs of people helping Jay, she said, "Clean them. Clean them all." Instantly the party-goers transformed from concerned friends to a wave of blades and brass knuckles.

The anonymous rushed to meet them, roaring against the cleaners' silence and the rush drum smack of the rain. I watched one of the Far-Larry(s) fall backward, slipping in the mud, four anonymous clawing and batting at him with short sticks and crow bars and Rebar rods.

Mercedes tugged on my sleeve, trying to pull me back into the house, but I stood, rooted, staring at the mess roiling around me in the rain.

Jon swung his huge bat, the exploded end catching and tearing indiscriminately. He waded through the crowd hammering heads and swiping limbs.

My head started to feel light.

Jon smashed Jenny in the chest and pushed her off with his foot. He looked me in the eyes and giggled, hand to mouth. "Oops!" he shouted and swatted away one of the wolves.

My vision went red. I smiled and cracked my knuckles. Time slowed and the red took over my vision. The more red I saw, the more time slowed.

Part of me (a separate part far away, warm, and clinical) did some calculations. By the time my vision was completely red, everything including the rain would be time stopped.

I smiled, feeling the rain trickle sweetly into my mouth, down my chin.  "Good night." I whispered.