Thursday, November 14, 2013

ALt

The next day, Jay was waiting for us at our usual lunch table. It was sunny, for the moment, and Jay's few bandages taped to his head, face, and neck seemed to glow extra-ordinarily white. He smiled and waved vigorously at us. "You guys!" He said as Mercedes and I sat. "I got in a knife fight!"

"We know. We talked to Vernie Ernie. Yesterday." Mercedes and I sat opposite him, Mercedes on the end. She smiled after she said it, but all the bravado and hot air wooshed out of Jay in one long puff. He looked very intently at the puddle of ketchup on his tray, and drew a peace sign in it using a trio of soggy french fries. "Oh." He said.

"Dude!" I said. "Is your sister okay? That is intense." I opened my lunch --homemade dumplings and a stuffed cabbage. I swallowed the joyful knot in my throat and vowed to hug Mom very, very hard as soon as I got home.  I said, "I mean, can she still cook?" Then immediately, "Is that a dumb question?"

Jay shrugged, still intent on his ketchup. He said, "She's okay. Mad at me."

Mercedes switched table sides and nudged up next to Jay. "Hey, she said. "You know what? You did what you did because you had to. That's always why we do what we do, you know?"

Jay sniffed. "She's really mad at me. She said if it was any other fingers she'd kill me in my sleep, or poison me at lunch." He looked at me and held out his droopy french fries, "Does the ketchup taste funny to you?" He asked.

I laughed and leaned back, "I've got dumplings today, I'm not touching those. Sorry."

Mercedes took his hand in hers, wrapping her smallest fingers slowly around his wrists. "Hey," She said softly. Looking him in the eyes, she took the french fries into her mouth, pushing and sliding her lips around them, she caught the tips of his fingers as she did it too.

Jay's arms both went to goose flesh, even as his face matched color with the ketchup. Mercedes swallowed the french fries, and smiled. She started to say something, but was interrupted by a husky, feminine voice.

We turned, just as the sun broke completely through the clouds. Involuntarily, I put a hand to my eyes. Standing in the full beam of the sun was a petite, red haired, girl, dressed in chef's whites. Her skin was almost as alabaster as her uniform.

"Hi sis." Jay said and deflated even further under the table.

"Hi little Jay bird. Tweet tweet." Jay's sister turned to us, a pack of clouds jumped the sun and my eyes stopped stinging when I looked at her. Her chef's hat was too big, and flopped a little to the left. Her jacket was immaculate, but the apron folded down on itself was a miasma of variously faded red stains. Jay's sister wore a bright red eye patch and dark red croc sandals. She said, "Hello children. I'm Morgan Anna Trumble. I cook things." She stuck her hands out toward Mercedes and I, and coughed. Mercedes and I exchanged a look, then shook her hands. "Jay bird told me a while ago that we have you to thank for that aberration neanderthal not bothering us any more. And I heard what happened to you," Morgan turned and looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, "During detention. Emma decided to save you and stepped in. That's some interesting motion you've started, little boy." Morgan cocked her head and smirked up the raised side of her mouth. The sun managed to shake off the latest clouds, blinding me again, and when my eyes re-adjusted Morgan was almost nose to nose with me. She planted her tiny hands heavily on my shoulders. She asked, "You didn't eat any of Emma's cookies, did you?"

I shook my head no.

Morgan said, "Good." And stood up. "Anyway. Since we owe you, I'd like to invite you to my Halloween party. You each get a plus one, too, if you want. I don't know if you'd like to bring anyone other than each other. Tweet tweet isn't invited --" Morgan jabbed a finger at her brother, who flinched, "But if you bring him as one of your plus one's that's fine by me. It's a big party, but it is a very private party. You'll get directions the day before. Keep an eye out."  I saw her move this time --a straight line between her nose and Mercedes's. "Okay?" She said.

Mercedes, to her credit (I think) nodded and licked Morgan's nose --just  brief flicker of tongue. "Uh huh." Mercedes said. The two of them posed there for a moment, noses touching again.

Morgan hopped back, grinning toothy and wide. "Great! Nice to meet you both! Tea tea why es!" She said. She spun and walked briskly, directly, back to the kitchen, parting milling students like a knife through boiled vegetables.

"You know." Mercedes said, "I didn't even notice her missing fingers."

Jay pushed his tray toward me, folded his arms on the table in front of him and put his face down on them.

"I'm serious!" Mercedes said, putting a hand and most of an arm on Jay's back. "Your sister has more confidence than anyone I've ever seen. She's amazing."

Jay's back heaved. Jay sniffed a long sniff. His back twitched twice more.

"Oh come on Jay." Mercedes folded her arms on Jay's back and leaned into him. She shuffled so her lips were close to his back, which shuddered and spasm-d. "Your sister's just being a big sister. I know because --" She stopped and looked at me. I finished the stuffed cabbage I'd been eating the whole time. "Trust me when I say that girl loves you more than anyone but your wife."

"I'm not married." Jay sulked from the depths of his arms. He sniffed. "I'll never be married."

"You will if you want to be." Mercedes said, softly. "You'll find someone to spend your life with, and have adventures with, and it'll be great. But," she said, "It won't be exactly what you want. It won't look or feel like you think it will, even if you know the person really well."

"What she said." I said. I patted Jay's head and finger massaged Jay's skull. I said, "Seriously. You're awesome." I looked at Mercedes, who shrugged, then shooed me off with her other hand. "Seriously?" I mouthed.

Mercedes nodded, seriously.

I left.

So, like, a bunch of interesting stuff happened in the three weeks before Morgan's Halloween party, but for the sake of this story, I'm just gonna list them here. Maybe if someone, like, begs me to go into some detail I will, but seriously. This was supposed to be about him and he hasn't even been in here fore more than, like, two hundred words. Not cool, me. Not cool.

Things that happened leading up to Morgan's Halloween birthday party.

  1. We found out from Vernie that it is also her birthday party, because Moran's birthday is October 30.
  2. Jay tried to hit on me, but it totally back fired and wasn't sexy for either of us.
  3. Jay and Mercedes went on a date. It was very uncomfortable for Mercedes.
  4. Jay and some of Jon's friends, we think, got suspended for a week. These two guys, seniors, found Jay in the bathrooms and beat him up, broke his right thumb and his left wrist and forearm, but Jay took one of the guy's eyes out with his fingers. HIS FINGERS. WHAT? 
  5. I hunted Jon down after school, all the way to his Dad's apartment. It was a really nice apartment. 
  6. In the hallway, I tried to get Jon to admit it was his friends who beat Jay up. I couldn't though. 
  7. He swore he was leaving us alone from now on. I threatened to beat him up right there, his dad be damned, but he teared up and swore that it wasn't his doing that Jay got suspended and all beaten up.
  8. Mercedes and I found a friend of the two guys who beat Jay up, and she couldn't explain at all why the did it. She was sad because her parents were sending her to a boarding school now, and she was going to miss Junior Prom. 


Week two:

  1. I talked to Jay about his date with Mercedes. He cried at making her feel uncomfortable.
  2. Jon started trying to follow Mercedes and I home. We never got caught by him (this one continued through week three...) but he was persistent --he followed us in a tinted window black car and avoided us at school.
  3. Jay asked a girl out in one of his classes, she said yes. Her name is Jenna. She's . . . a girl on the tennis team. She eats lunch with now, even though we're pretty sure she has the middle ("B") lunch. I think its cute, but Mercedes doesn't think so at all.
  4. Jay begged us to take his new girlfriend as our other plus one to Morgan's party. Sure! Whatever.
  5. Morgan gave Mercedes and I cookies. The cookies gave us super weird, kind of matching dreams.
  6. I had another all in red dream where I destroyed a creepy laboratory.
  7. Mercedes and I were jumped and got seriously roughed up by some adults. Dad rescued us, though. Before Dad rescued us, the adults held us down and cut our cheeks and hair with these weird blue knives. They didn't glow or anything, but the cuts bled like our blood was water --that part was weird. Dad took us back to our house and Mom stitched our cuts up. She said the bled so much because they were so deep. Mom said we were lucky they cut on our cheek bones and scalps or we'd have holes in our faces. That is how deep these cuts are. 
  8. I saw my dad talking to Mr. Swanson in a liquor store parking lot.
  9. Jon got in a fight with Morgan, who accidentally cut him with her bread knife. She got suspended and kicked out of her internship.
  10. I talked to The Vice Principle, and the police on behalf of Morgan.
  11. Jon Started following me in between classes, just I'd done to him. He murmured weird things at me.
  12. Jon showed up to school totally beaten up and silent.
  13. Mr. Swanson disappeared.

Week three:
  1. Jon is back to his horrible, abusive, self. He caught the three of us Halloween costume shopping and I let slip that we were going to Morgan's birthday party.
  2. Jon tried to beat us up in the parking lot and actually landed a few punches, and one kick. I was embarrassed, and I lost my phone.
  3. I had another weird red dream about the laboratory I destroyed. I found a man in a chamber and we fought --he beat me and I woke up with broken ribs and a stopped heart.
  4. I spent half a week in the hospital, Mercedes brought me my favorite food (Indian food one night, sushi another. And a steak and cheese hoagie with cold poutine the last night of my stay.) and my homework. 
  5. The Halloween store called Mom, they found my phone.
  6. Jay, Jenna (his girlfriend), Mercedes and I all went out, and all Jenna talked about is Mercedes and me  and our freshman year. Jenna went to our middle school, but we didn't remember her. We're embarrassed for her and for us and Jay was sad by the end of the night.
  7. Jay talked about breaking up with Jenna to me, I told him he should stick with it.
  8. Jay looses his virginity to Jenna.
  9. Mercedes and I quiz and grill him on it. Probably too hard.
  10. Mr. Swanson still isn't back, and Mercedes and Mrs. Swanson fought about it in front of me, which wasn't at all cool, mostly because Mrs. Swanson broke and cried in front of me and, like, wtf?
  11. Jon transfers into my Spanish class, so he can follow me home even more carefully. I don't even know how this is possible.
  12. Phoenix gets replaced by some random short-dude stubstitute (hah! Because he's short...) teacher. Which is whatever, and it's cool that Mercedes and I can sneak onto the roof again, even if the weather sucks.
  13. The weather sucks, but Mercedes and I sneak onto the roof a couple times anyhow.
  14. Despite clear skies, by fourth hour on October 29th it is pouring warm rain. with cold winds.

October 29th. Man. What horrible weather. It started really warm, but this late in Michigan, it just means you're gonna get rain, later.

I had a white and red hooded sweater that matched my letter jacket, with matching gloves. I was wearing jeans and t-shirt with a silly, science euphemism on it. I was wearing my black pumas. Typical.

Mercedes knocked on our front door and Mom let her in and she took her long, charcoal, knit coat off. "Hey." She waved to me "Changing in your bathroom, be are be." She unzipped her back pack and took out a compact plastic shopping bag out. She was gone five minutes and came back out in red and pink camo tights, a brown skirt, with a  matching, shiny, high neck top that came up around her ears. Mercedes accented everything very pointedly: She wore a clashing belt and a too big, black beret . The skeleton jacket Mr. Swanson gave her was open, but tight on her arms. She smiled as she slid back into her over coat. I smiled too. "You like it?" She asked.

I nodded.

"You be good in school today, okay?" Mom said as we left. She handed us each a slate, golf umbrella, too.

"We will," Mercedes and I said in unison. We opened our umbrellas on the porch and stepped into the dark, drizzling, morning. My sub division doesn't have street lights, but most houses keep their porch lights on, and people  don't really park on the streets, so its not too creepy, or anything. And besides: we were us.

As we were walking to the school gate it started to rain seriously. Mercedes took her umbrella down and took her beret off and rubbed a delicate hand over her head --she was completely bald. The water beaded in her stubble and she washed it off. "It tickles." She said with a wide smile.

I said, "Wow." in a hush.

Mercedes smiled at me from the corners of her eyes and mouth. She asked, "You like it?" Without hair, in the pre-dawn, water glistening on her bald head, Mercedes looked a lot like I imagined her dad did, stepping out of a shower. I nodded. "The blood just kept clumping all up in, and it was so frustrating I said whatever! And shaved it off." We walked for half a block with just the heavy patter of rain on our umbrellas. "My parents were surprisingly cool with it. Especially my dad." Mercedes said.

"That's awesome." I said. I asked, "You want to get a coffee? I had some at home, but I don't think it was enough. I didn't sleep well, last night."

Mercedes asked, "Another red dream?"

"Nah. Just couldn't get comfy."  I said. We nodded together. "Just from the cafeteria, I've got a quiz in first hour."

Mercedes nodded.

A security golf cart was speeding away from the gate, its yellow beacon silently stirring up the darkness, but there wasn't anyone else around.

"Huh." we said in unison.

I held the door into the cafeteria open for Mercedes, who smoothly folded her umbrella shut as she walked in. I got my umbrella stuck on the door frame and had to jog to catch up to her. Neither of us liked the brightness of the cafeteria and Mercedes actually put her sunglasses on.

Mercedes said, "This is why we don't hang out in here in the mornings, huh?"

I nodded, teeth clenched against the halogen.

We were waiting in line when someone squeaky shouted our names. We were used to being name called, cat called, harassed, you name it. Freshman year, the first day of school I decided to wear my gay pride t-shirt. It set a, let's call it a, strange precedent that I spent most of the year overcoming with Mercedes's help. Before freshman year, we weren't really friends, but we had our first three and last class together and we became friends pretty quickly. Anyway. People shouted our names all the time. We stopped being bothered then; it didn't bother us now.

Someone said, "Hey!" And Mercedes and I turned in unison. It was Jenna, still holding our wet coat sleeves. "Hey. Jay didn't answer my calls or my texts last night." She said. "I'm worried he's dead."

"He's not dead." I said, "He's just grounded from his phone." I knew this because Jay and I had face-time'd last night. He was sad, and grounded from a lot of stuff. He said the boy's parents were talking very seriously to his parents about pressing charges and that the police were definitely going to get involved. He had told us he probably wasn't going to be in school, maybe the rest of this year, and definitely not in the winter. Mercedes and I were stone faced and quiet after we stopped chatting with him.

"How do you know that?" She asked.

"I'm friends with his sister, duh." Mercedes said and went to flip her hair. I chuckled, since she didn't have any, anymore. "He's grounded for, like, ever." Mercedes said.

"Is he gonna be at the party on Thursday?" Jenna asked. Her hands were bunched in her scarf. Technically, Jenna was at the Other school on campus and she didn't have her letter yet, but she still wore the blue and white jacket.

"Dunno. Stop that!" We said, again in unison. We looked at each. "That's weird." we both said. We stopped talking.

Jenna looked at us. "Are you guys okay?" She asked.

We nodded. The server asked us what we would like. She had red hair, was short. She was incredibly chipper, despite the morning gloom. We order two coffees, no cream, no sugar. We paid, without saying anything, and started to leave the cafeteria. Jenna followed us.

"I really like Jay." She said. I nodded and sipped my coffee.

I said, "This really needs sugar." and turned around.

"I'll come with you! Mercedes said.

"I'll --"

"See you later." Mercedes interrupted Jenna. Mercedes smiled, but it was cold.

"Oh. Yeah. I should meet my friends." Jenna said. She stood there awkwardly.

Equally awkwardly, I waved at her as Mercedes and I headed back into the cafeteria.

"Good save!" Mercedes said.

I poured a few table spoons of sugar into my coffee and stirred. And stirred. I said, "She could have come with us. She's okay."

"I don't like her. She's too." Mercedes couldn't find the word she was looking for. "Too into Jay." She narrowed her eyes and sipped her coffee. "You know what I mean?"

"No." I said. "They're dating. They haven't even been dating that long. It is cute, I think, the way she's worried about him."

"If she were really worried about him, she would've gone to visit him." Mercedes said. "She hasn't been to his house, remember? He's always gone to her house. And she doesn't always sit with us at lunch. Where is she?"

"Come on. You said yourself you think she's got middle lunch." I said. I knew what Mercedes was going to say next. I said it with her: "Right." We smiled at each other and I sipped my coffee. "Better." I said. "Anyway. She's super enthusiastic about Jay, and he's been bummed since Morgan and him fought. Its good for him to have a distraction."

"So you don't mind Jay just using her like that?"

"Whose side are you on?"

Mercedes laughed, she grimaced. "This coffee." she said, after a slight pause.

We sat outside Mercedes's classroom and talked. Mercedes sat cross-legged. I hunched up and hugged my knees. I stared at the steam, still slowly rising from the holes i the lid of my cup. I said, "He's not just using her. They are still new to each other."

"So?"

"So. Who knows what'll happen? They haven't even been together a month yet! And there's still the party."

Mercedes laughed, a genuinely happy sound. "I'm looking forward to that party like woa." She said. "Seriously, it's going to be so much fun to just cut loose and lose myself in a crowd for a few hours, dancing."

I nodded and smiled. "Our costumes are pretty awesome, too."

"Yeah they are." We grinned at each other.

The tone for first hour went off and I stood up, gave Mercedes a hug --weird, right?-- and walked to class, tired, but happy.

The test was easy, just regurgitating dates and names. I flew through it and sat. There was still thirty minutes of class left, but the teacher was staring at her phone. I carefully packed my backpack and carried it with me to her desk. "May I use the restroom?" I asked.

"Take the pass." She said without looking up from the social app on her phone.

"Thank-you." I said. I took the pass and left class. Far away, thunder rolled. The hallways were empty and the gloom still lingered, chilly, without the press of bodies. Mercedes's first hour teacher was too strict to let her out for long, and too observant for me to signal her, anyhow, so I wandered. I took a flight of stairs and turned a corridor, heading for the far wing of the building where the auto shops and photography studios were. I was rarely down this way, but, I decided, that was why I went that way. I walked down the slow ramp and passed the photography studio classrooms. I twirled the hall pass lazily. I got to the tall, double doors that lead to the car bays and stopped. I peered through the small, paint frosted window. It was dark in there: a single bank of lights strung very close to the cavernous top of the room, throwing sharp blue shadows under the hoisted cars and engines. I jumped under the heavy hand slammed onto my shoulder.

"You're well out of class early, aren't you?" Phoenix stared at me hard in the mouth. "Class isn't out for another," A glance at a watch. "Another twenty-five minutes yet. "I'm going to have to write you up for this. Another detention for you, at least. Maybe a week's worth."

"But," I said.

"But nothing. Skipping class is a serious thing."

"But look, I have a hall pass!" I said. My mind was reeling. "Seriously. I have to go to the bathroom. I was looking for a bathroom."

"You know exactly where all the bathrooms are in this building, William Metzger." Phoenix said. "I don't believe you wandered here accidentally."

"Not at all accidentally I said. I pushed my knees together. "I have to poop. But there were people in the other bathrooms." I clutched my tummy and moaned. "I have to poop so bad." I said. I smiled wanly at Phoenix. "Is there a bathroom in there? The door is locked? Please help me!" I said.

Phoenix's eyes narrowed. "You owe me. To the left, in there." And just like that, the door was unlocked, and Phoenix was walking away.

I sighed with relief.

To keep my story straight, I slid into the dark mechanic shop and felt my way past tall lockers. I clinked each lock against its locker as I went, slowly through the dark, feeling low for the door handle.I found it --the flat metal push panel on the door and nudged my way into pitch blackness. I felt around for the light switch, but couldn't find it. Tamping down on some rising panic, I pulled out my mobile phone and thumbed the screen active. I swore and dropped my phone clawing for the door handle, which was missing. I kept swearing and sank to the ground. The screen on my phone was broken, a spiderweb of lines skittering from the black pebble embedded in the middle. "It's a joke. Its a joke, it is a joke." I repeated to myself. "It is not real. There is no way. I will find the light switch and it will be a joke, a hanging mannequin or something. Then I will laugh and I will find the door handle and I will leave." I nodded to myself in the pitch. I stood up and, using the tiny amount of light from my wounded phone found the light switch and flicked it and nothing. No light. Not even the hum of a broken bulb. I sighed. "It is a joke. Tug a shoe off. It'll come off easily." I nodded. I said,  "That would prove it isn't real."

"Look," I said, "Just a mannequin." I tugged on the shoe, but it didn't come off. I untied the laces, with a sinking heart and a rising throat-lump. I tugged the shoe off. The foot in the sock previously in the shoe spun, along with leg and the rest of the body. "Oh goodness." I said and sat down and put my head in my hands.

I stood up, very quickly, swearing. There was something wet and dank on my hands and soaked through my pants, on my back side and my thighs. I kept swearing and backed way from body. I nodded. "Worst case, its dead person pee." I said. I laughed, and my lips felt cracked, dry. I snapped my coat buttons and set my backpack down. "Okay," I said, tugging at the neck line of my sweater. "I need to find the door handle. I should've done that first. Okay. Okay."

I turned my wane phone toward where the door handle should have been. Instead of the handle, there was just a reflection of my phone's screen in a scuffed metal plate. "No handle." I said. "Huh."

I ran my fingers around the edge of door, but there was no gap. The bottom of the door was flush with the floor, too, a rubber seal keeping whatever fluids might happen in and out of the bathroom.

I noticed the slow crackle and woosh of a derelict vent. "Well. I won't suffocate." I said. "That's a good thing."

Outside, I heard a door close. I yelled, "Hey! Hello! Help please! I'm trapped in the bathroom!"

Footsteps walked purposely somewhere, getting louder. I shouted again. The footsteps stopped. Someone knocked, gently, three times on the door. "Yes! Hello! Someone's in here." I shouted and banged on the door with the palm of my hand.

Two more knocks.

I knocked twice back and shouted "Hello!" and "Please open the door!" I stepped back, ready to thank my savior.

The door didn't open. "Hey!" I shouted, "This isn't a joke! I'm in trouble in here! Serious trouble! There's a body in here! A dead one! With me!"

Nothing.

I counted to one hundred, as slowly as I could. The door stayed shut. I tried kicking it, but it didn't budge. Stupid blast doors.

Eventually, the tone rang. Immediately, I texted Mercedes:
I am serious. I am locked in the bathroom in the mechanic shop. Please come right now and let me out. Please.
A minute later I got a message back: Ok! Brt.

I took my backpack off and, feeling the ground first to make sure it was dry, I set it down. I looked away from the body. I looked at the body, where it hung in the darkness, without my phone. I smiled at it. I said, "Hi." I said. "I hope you're happier now." I said. "In Mexico, and other Spanish countries, I think, today and, uh, all the way through until Monday you can come and talk to your family. There'll probably be a funeral. That's less fun than the way Mexicans celebrate the dead. And they do celebrate you, you know? Like: hey! We miss you, we hope you're having fun. Life goes on just like death does. Or something. I don't know. No one I'm close to has died in my family." I leaned against the door and kept talking, "You know, I don't know what its like to die. You seem peaceful, but embarrassing here. But I don't know. You're not fussing about anything. That's good. It's not like HOLY WHA"

Someone banged on the door and my body tried very hard, despite myself, to jump through the roof. I pounded on the door and shouted hello and help.

My phone beeped. It was Mercedes:
Door is locked. How did you get in there? Getting someone with a key, brb.
I sighed and laughed with the same breath. "You know." I said to the corpse. "I hope this was worth it for you. There's a lot of people --not just me-- who are going to be freaked out you're gone. Mercedes was gone for a week once, just in the hospital and I didn't know what to do with myself. I kept doing what I always did. Class, home, homework, sleep, class. But I was lost without her. I looked fine, I thought I felt okay, but you know what? I wasn't. I wasn't even a little okay and I knew she was coming back." I stared into the darkness where i knew the body was and was quiet for a while.

The lock clicked and someone pushed against the door. I stepped back and the door opened. A gruff, older voice said, "What the heck?" And a hairy hand flicked the light switch, uselessly.

"Hey." I said, not knowing what else to say.

The door closed slowly and there as a flurry of swearing from the side of the door. I grabbed and pushed at the edge of the door and scrabbled it open with my fingertips singing at me the whole time. "Hi." I said, "Hello. Someone locked me in there. Sorry I scared you."

The Shop class teacher was an older, skinny man with a white crown of hair and very retro, double bridge gold glasses. He had a full, white, goatee, and was wearing a black mechanic's one piece suit. The name tag on it was Williams. I smiled. "My name is William." I said.

"Mr. Williams." Said Mr. Williams. "Geez, son, you scared me almost to death."

"Look." I said. "I'm serious. Someone hung themselves in that bathroom."

"Son, that's a messed up thing to say." Mr. Williams cleared his glasses on a kerchief he pulled from his right sleeve. "This place has been locked since last night."

"I came in here to go to the bathroom and --"

"What?"

"Long story. Sort of. Anyway." I stopped. It had been locked. Phoenix had unlocked the door for me. "Never mind." I said.

The door opened, the two minute warning tone sounded and Mercedes and a janitor came through the double doors. "He's in  --Oh. Hey." Mercedes said. She cocked her head at me.

"This is Mr. Williams, the mechanics teacher." I said. "Mr. Williams, Mercedes. Mercedes, te presento a Mr. Williams."

Mr. Williams smiled and extended his hand to Mercedes. "Pleased to meet you, young lady." He said with a smile. Mercedes matched his smiled and shook his hand firmly. "Your friend William says there's a dead person in the bathroom."

"Hung." I said.

Mercedes went pale. She asked, "Who?"

I said. "No idea. Someone took the bulb out, or turned off the power or something. I found the light switch, but it didn't do anything."

Mercedes stepped close to me. "How long were you in there?" She asked.

I shrugged, about twenty, twenty-five minutes.

"It must've stank." She said.

"If you don't need me, I'm going to get back to the kitchen," The Janitor said. We nodded and waved them off. The doors swung slowly shut behind her.

"There is an unreasonable number of red haired people who work here." Mercedes said. I chuckled.

I looked around. Mr. Williams was nowhere to be seen.

With a cavernous click, the lights came on. From somewhere, Mr. Williams shouted, "Someone turned most of the breakers off. The bathroom should have light, now, too."

"I'm serious about the dead body." I said, feeling cold.

"I don't wanna." Mercedes said. "I'm gonna."

"Its fine, thank-you for coming to help me. Thanks for the janitor." I said. I hugged her again, palming the back of her head and stroking it gently with my palm. I said, "That feels cool."

Mercedes looked up at me and smiled. Her breath was sweet coffee and mint. "Doesn't it?" She said. "Some wise kid in my first hour told me, loudly, to stop touching myself. I just did it more." Chuckled.

"Oh." Mr. Williams said. "Oh no."

"I'm going." Mercedes said.

I nodded. "I'll text you as soon as I can." I said.

"Metzger, can you come help me in here?" Mr. Williams called. "Help me get the body down."

Inside, Mr. Williams had stuck a large, C shaped magnet to the metal plate, and was trying to lift the body from out the loose noose. The body was definitely a guy, average height, short hair.  Dressed in jeans and boring black and grey sneakers, matching hooded sweater. It was wearing a mask, a simple, white, anonymous mask. I stared at it for a long time, but the black cloth eyes were dull. Mr. Williams and I couldn't get the body down. Far away in the support beams, the rope made squeaking and popping noises as the body swayed.

"I'm going to call the police. I suppose nine, one, one." He said.

"My mobile is broken."  said, staring at the body's legs.

"Why is it missing a shoe?" Mr. Williams said.

"Oh, I did that." I said, still staring at the legs, arms limp at my sides. "I thought." I stopped. What had I thought? I stood there for a while.

Mr. Williams tapped my arm with a fist. "Come on son, let's get you out of here and under a blanket. You're shivering." And I was. I mumbled about my morning coffee as Mr. Williams guided me to his office on the far side of the bays. Mr. Williams handed me a coffee, still warm, and dragged the hard line phone out of the office. The cord was far, far longer than I thought necessary, but here it was, necessary. I smiled and sipped at the creamy, coffee, coffee. I closed my eyes, but before I knew what was happening Mr. Williams was smacking my face, bodily. My eyes snapped open. "Stay with me son," He said, very close to me, eyes boring into mine.

The paramedics and the police entered at the same time. Mr. Williams let them in through the bay doors for the cars --the ambulance backed as far in as it could. The police first cordoned off the bay door, taping the yellow warning line to the hood of the ambulance with something waterproof and amazing. I made a note to tell Dad about the tape they were using now.

I stood up and, clutching the blanket around my shoulders, shambled to the bathroom. One paramedic was on a ladder, sawing at the rope high above us. "Ready?" He called down. The other paramedic nodded and grunted and huffed as the rope snapped and the body slid down.

"Hey!" The first paramedic shouted at me, "You can't be in here."

I laughed, "I was the one who found him." I said. The mask had come off. The face was beaten and broken, but I still recognized it. The door was propped open and the second paramedic pushed and pulled me out of the small, high, bathroom and back to the ambulance. "We're going to take the body." he said. He wasn't portly, exactly. Dwarfish, I would say, but taller than a dwarf normally is. He wore glasses and had a tattoo on his left index finger, like a ring. "Do you need an ambulance?" He asked. I shook my head no and he nodded. He dragged the stretcher out the back of the ambulance. "Can you wait in the Office?" He asked, but it wasn't really a question. I nodded anyway. I smiled at him. And backed away as he pulled a body bag from somewhere and tossed it on the stretcher. The body bag was incredibly glossy, even in the sunless morning gloom.

It was still raining. It was still gloomy. I sat on the windowsill of Mr. William's office, staring at the ocean green ford four door car, up on the huge jack.

The other car I didn't recognize --something old and blocky with two doors and a spoiler in deep red. It was comforting for some reason, so I switched my gaze slowly over to the red, blocky car. Then, I was looking at the wet black-blue work jacket of a very young, very handsome police officer. He smiled and he had crooked cuspid teeth. He had an adorable button nose and obviously trimmed, dishwater eyebrows poised above noon summer sky eyes. I'm such a sucker for pale eyes. He was on his haunches. I focused very carefully on the car, trying to push the logistics of if I stood up out of my head. He smiled at me for a while and put a warm, gloved, hand on my thigh. "Are you --can you talk?" He asked.

I nodded.

"I don't believe you." He grinned, and gripped my thighs with his hands.

My eyes went big and my mouth fell a little way open before i recovered enough to turn it into a yawn, then the words, "I'm William. How can I help?"

"That's what I'm supposed to say," he said.

"I'm okay, thank-you. It was actually really peaceful, after it stopped being terrifying."

"Peaceful? Let me get you another blanket. I'll be right back." he said, and he was. I stared at the car and clutched the blanket Mr. Williams had given me. The officer wrapped another blanket, a grey thing that smelled faintly like disinfectant, around me. "There you go." He said. He said, "I'm officer Williams."

I laughed, just one little bark.

Officer Williams looked at me, his mouth fighting a smile. Finally he asked, "What was funny?"

"There's two of you," I said. I shrugged. "Two in one morning. Misters Williams esses." I single bark laughed again, then got self conscious about it.  I said, "Sorry."

"It's okay." Officer Williams said, though he frowned slightly. "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Just a few, then you can go home."

"My back pack is still in there." I said.

"Oh!" Officer Williams said. "The paramedics thought it was --" He stood up abruptly, "I will get your bag back, now. Be right back!" He said, and again he was, holding my black computer case backpack. I thanked him. He said no problem, then started asking me questions:

HIM: How did you get in there?

ME: I had to use the bathroom, but the other stalls were full. I was looking for a restroom when a security guard came up and asked me what I was doing. When I explained myself Phoenix let me in and I tried to go to the bathroom, and then, now, here we are.

HIM: Phoenix?

ME: That's the security guard's name. That's what we call, err, Phoenix. Just Phoenix. Because of the red hair. You'd understand if you saw. Anyway, Phoenix unlocked the door and told me where the bathroom was. I'm not a car guy.

HIM: Okay. So security guard Phoenix let you into the bathroom?

ME: No, just this room. I found my way to the bathroom. There was no light and no handle on the inside and I couldn't pull the door open and then I used my phone as a flashlight (Officer Williams nodded along through most of this; squatted on his haunches, listening intently, his hands clasped between his wiry thighs. He had incredibly well shined, military boots. They looked like gunner's boots, and I told him so. We chatted about foot ware for a moment.) and found the body, and then I sat there and talked with him for a while and then the tone went off, so I texted my friend to come and get me out, but before she got here, well. She got here, but someone had locked me in, so she

HIM: She?

ME: My friend Mercedes. She's my best friend. She came, but the door was locked, so she went to get a janitor and while she was getting a janitor, Mr. Williams came in and I almost scared him to death --he wasn't expecting anyone in his bathroom.

HIM: Have you been yet?

ME: Huh?

HIM: To the bathroom. Have you gone?

Me: No, don't need to any more.

HIM: Is that what's on your . . . ?

ME: Goodness no! Before I knew there was --he was --there was. I sat in something. That's what's on my pants. And it was really freaky at first, but then it was just, like, there. And I didn't know who it was, so I just started talking to it --to him, to calm me down.

HIM: You recognize the deceased?

ME: Yes. That was Jon _____.

HIM: Were you close?

And I laughed. I couldn't help it. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks and I slid off the window sill and Mr. Williams closed the shutters inside his office and there was a flash of lightning and I was still laughing when the thunder rolled over us and finally I wiped away tears, but they kept coming and my nose was streaming. "Yes, but we weren't friends." I said between sudden hiccups.

Officer Williams gathered himself up. He asked, "Were you two dating?"

And I was off laughing again. After a minute, I blew my nose on the grey blanket. "Shoot." I said. "Snot. I'll wash this for you. I'll bring it back to the police station. No. We weren't dating. We were. We weren't friends. He's so old! You know?" I looked at the handsome, dishwater Officer Williams and his sharp, shiny boots and said, "Not that old, but. He was still in high school, you know, and he was that old. I like old people. Seriously old people. No, not seriously old people. I seriously. I'm serious when I say I like old people. But not too --"I just stopped talking. I half smiled at him and felt the blush roll down my face. I grinned, I bore it.

"I see." Said Officer Williams. "Thank-you."

There were other questions: where I lived, what I liked to study, who Mercedes was, how Mr. Williams treated me (fine, obviously) and some other stuff. Eventually, I asked, "Do you need anything else from me?"

and Officer Williams said, "No. Thank-you, William. But if we do have any questions, is it okay if we call you?"

I perked up, "Sure!" I said, and gave him my phone number.

"Okay, great. I can give you a ride home if you want?"

"Can I sit in the back of your car?" I asked.

"Why the back?"

"I've been in the front of a police car before." I said with a shrug.

Officer Williams shrugged. "Sure, then." He said.

Between handing me my backpack and me standing up, his friendliness choked.

The tone for third period went off as we were getting in the police car. Officer Williams was stern faced as he opened the rear passenger door for me, and there were flocks and pairs an trios of students milling in the rain, around the entrance to the mechanic's bay. I didn't recognize any of them, but I'm sure they all noticed me as I slid onto the molded rear seat. The back hurt my back, since my arms weren't cuffed and supporting me. I sighed through the racing raindrops on the window --a girl with a bright green rain slicker pointed her phone at the police car as we left the lot.


Officer Williams drove me home in complete silence. He turned the radio off, turned off the police radio and left his walkie-talkie muted, too.

In the driveway, officer Williams rolled his window down and handed me my backpack. "Shoot." I said.

"What?" He shot the word at me, almost a dare.

"I left my umbrella at school." I said.

"Your parents can take you back." Officer Williams's hard face softened for just a second, he paused that way, with his mouth half open, a string of spittle between his crooked, top and bottom teeth. "We'll be in contact." he said. He drove off, leaving me standing in the driveway, in the rain. I shook my head and jogged up the short driveway to the garage door. I entered the code, and the garage door opened. Dad's van was in the garage, along with Mom's car. I dashed to the door, pulling my keys out as I went. I hit the button with one hand, stuffing the first key into the lock with the second.

I smashed open the door and shouted, "I'm okay!" before anyone could say anything else. Mom and Dad looked up from the tablet. They were both sitting at the table, hunched over the large tablet screen. Mom had tear tracks on her cheeks. Dad looked pale.

Dad asked, "How did that happen?"

The doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," Mom said and went to the door, around the corner from the kitchen. I tried to pay attention to what she was saying, but Dad started talking to me, almost immediately.

"They're saying it was that Jon boy. Is it the one who was bothering you and your friends at the beginning of the semester? This is very serious. You didn't have anything to do with this did you?"

I shook my head no, frowning. I asked, "Dad, why are you so concerned about this?" Mom came back in and hugged me, wrapped herself around my chest and arms and buried her face in my armpit. "Sheesh mom!" I said, "I'm okay. It wasn't that bad. It was weird, sure, but its not like I was in danger."

"You're trembling." Mom said, matter-of-factly into my armpit.

"Oh." I said.

"And you're soaking wet! How long were you in the rain? Did you walk home?" Mom looked at me. Her mouth was very thin and very long and she refused to drop her gaze like she normally did when our eyes met. she asked, "Did you kill him?"

"What! No!" I shouted it and hopped off the chair. I stumbled a little and had to steady myself against the counter. "How could you even know what happened?" I screeched.

I shouted, "I was trapped in a tiny bathroom with a high ceiling and a swinging corpse. It was dark and I broke my phone and then the police officer was only nice to me because he didn't realize who I was and when he realized, it turns out he was one of them, and he stopped being nice, but at least he drove me home. Its sick and apparently I can't even tell when I'm shivering any more." I slumped to the floor, banged my head on the counter overhang and wrapped my face in my fingers.

Mom and Dad were silent.

"It's just that this is very serious now." Dad said. He pronounced each word very carefully. He said, "I want you to be safe, and this is starting to look, even to us, who try not to interfere with your life too much --we want to give you the same space we had, but you're looking like you're in a bit deep, here, son. Someone died."

"I know!" I shouted. "I know he died. He's dead and I didn't do it, but I sure didn't save him. I didn't even know he was actually in trouble. Not this kind of trouble."

You know who it was?" Mom asked. 

"Yeah. He was wearing a mask when he was hung, but it slipped off when they were getting him down. I was just standing there, as they put him in the body bag. It him. It was Jon." 

"Oh." Mom said.

Dad said, "Oh."

They both put their hands to their mouths. 

I put my hands on my knees and stared at them. I asked, "Oh?"

"Its nothing." Dad said. 

Mom said, "The news didn't release the name of the student, and the whole school system is up in arms about that. All the social media is lit, too."  She continued, "William, this is very important. Are you sure it was Jon you saw?"

I nodded.

"Really?" Dad asked.

I nodded again. I smiled. This time, I noticed I was shivering uncontrollably. My chatty teeth gave me away to myself. I chuckled. I chattered, "It was him. His face, his body. His shoes."

"Because this picture begs to differ." Dad said, and held the tablet toward me.

And, do you know? There Jon was, looking gaunt and bruised, at the back of a crowd of people watching and resetting and watching and resetting, in a .GIF of a gurney with a body bag slamming into the back of an ambulance. There was lightning in the .GIF that turned the picture white for four frames. The .GIF was in slow motion. The doors were closed when the saturation faded back to visual. 

I threw up. It just shot out of me, all at once. The coffee, the other coffee, breakfast. Stress. Everything gushed out of my core, catching and splashing against my chattering teeth and spraying the legs of the table.

I came to in a world shaded red and white. Everything was white, then, though. White and loose. I imagined myself in a leather cocoon.

I did not want to dream.

I stared at the whiteness and told myself, calmly, out loud, "This is just a dream. You will wake up now. Now. Soon, William, you will wake up."

I waited. Contrast was slow to come, this time. After what felt like, reasonably, a few minutes, nothing recognizable had come into focus. I had not woken up, either.

I blinked and, just like the .GIF, color resolved from red to white. Not color. Non-color. I ground my teeth together and bit the quick of my thumb until it hurt and blood pumped into my mouth. I pushed, and pulled and poked at the white. It was cold against my hands. White white white, all around me. B

Beyond the white, I heard voices, too muffled, muddled, to understand. I stopped prodding at the white.

A while later, a zipper sounded. A draft touched my feet and rolled up my body. A blank head looked down at me. I grabbed it and head butted where the pink nose should have been. I rolled left and immediately fell off a high table, thudding onto my knees. I scrambled out of the huge bag and looked, frantically, for a scabby exit sign. Someone tackled me from the left and we fell to the ground. My sternum crushed the attacker's hands and it howled, loosening enough that I kicked and wormed my way out of the grasp. I stood up and lurched toward another table; it had a body on it.

I slammed into the edge of the table with my hips  --dull sensations but for the sharp cold-- another tackle. A hand grabbed my hair and shoved my face forward and suddenly I was looking at someone I knew to be me. Intrinsically, in the dream: I stared at myself, red with white bruises.  Partially dissected. Cold. Something punctured my neck and I woke up screaming, Mom and Dad in my bedroom doorway, light from the hall spilling over them, casting long shadows and blacking their faces.

I couldn't stop screaming. I clawed at my phantom neck wound while I screamed.

"He needs a new bed." Mom said.

Dad said, "I just need to tune it." Dad strode toward me and with a new efficiency smacked my hands away and jammed a needle --a silver flash in the half light -- injected something into my phantom wound.

I woke up in my bed with a sour taste in my mouth and singing teeth. I looked at my phone, in the dark of the room. Seven texts from Mercedes, four missed calls; three voicemails.  I smiled. I said to myself, "I finally cracked."

The texts from Mercedes, in order:

  1. 11:05 Text me! What happened in there? There are police by the shop!
  2. 11:27 Someone died! It better not be you!
  3. 12:37 They aren't releasing a name. Text me back
  4. 13:30 I'll kill you if you're dead
  5. 14:42 Your mom says you're sleeping, call me when you're up
  6. 20:05 They're still not releasing the name, just that, reports are true, it was a guy
  7. 21:06 Glad you're safe
The first voice mail was just someone breathing, heavily and rhythmically into their phone. I listened to all of it, twice, right at the end there was a deep, long sniff. The second voice mail was from Mercedes, about ten minutes before I woke up. She told me she had my homework, but no one was expecting me back at school. Mr. Williams had let slip I was stuck in the bathroom with the deceased. Did I know who it was? The third voice mail was more heavy breathing. Panting this time, sometimes there were low, pigeon sounds, scuffling, a cough, along with the heavy breathing; faintly, a car horn honked. I saved the last voice mail and lay in my bed, staring at my phone. I decided to text Mercedes. I sent her three messages, in rapid succession:
  1. 23:02 Just woke up. Will be in school tomorrow
  2. 23:02 More weird dreams
  3. 23:03 We need to talk
I set my alarms, plugged then lay my phone face down on the floor and went back to sleep.

When I checked my phone, it told me, impartially, I had slept through the first two alarms. I had another voice mail. I didn't care. I needed to shower and get dressed.

When I came upstairs, neither Mom nor Dad were home. Instead, I found a note on the kitchen table:
Hi Son, We're out getting breakfast with a client. So sorry about yesterday. Breakfast is in the oven --eggs and bacon! There's fresh orange juice in the fridge. 
We love you very much. 
XXXooOOO
Mom and Dad

"Huh." I said. I walked to the bathroom. I stood, staring at myself in the mirror. I was naked, bruised, crooked, gigantic, wire-y. The scar on my cheek was still  a thin, dark scab. I ran my hand through my hair, then rummaged in the cupboard under the sink until I found Dad's clippers. I took the hair guard off. I met my own eyes and didn't break my gaze until my whole head was shaved.

I smiled.

I swept up my copious clippings with some rolled, dampened, toilet paper. I tossed it all in the garbage and stood up again. I nodded to myself. Smiling, I got in the shower. I took my time showering. Usually Mom would talk to me about my dreams, or the day ahead before I showered. Not today.

Back in my room, I dressed like usual: boxers, socks, undershirt. Jeans, button down shirt, hooded sweater. My wallet, phone, and keys, all went in their own pockets. I went upstairs and sat at the table, contemplating breakfast. I stared at the wall for a minute or two. I opened the oven and pulled the pan out, it smelled like good grease and fluffy eggs, with just a hint of pepper and cayenne. My smile returned.

Devil's Night Day. Outside, it was gloomy again.  Inside, I poured myself some orange juice and wished lightly Mom or Dad had left me some coffee.

I was eating the last of my bacon when someone knocked on the french doors in the living room, in the back of the house. I frowned and carefully walked toward the glass doors. As I was walking: more knocking, more insistent, in a familiar rhythm. Mercedes! I sprang to the door and flung it open. Mercedes gusted in fast and damp and dragged me around the corner, out of sight. She slammed the door shut and locked. She was panting. I looked at her, her hands on her knees, butt to the wall and panting. Her wool overcoat was tattered on the right side. Her scar was already visible, a baby skin pink line, thicker than mine, but healing faster.

"I don't think they saw me." she gasped. "I'm really sorry if they did. I couldn't make it all the way to school, but, hah, think I lost them around your back neighbor's pool." She panted some more, trying to slow her breath. She asked, "Coffee?" Then, "Thank-you privacy obsessed neighbors!

"I will make some coffee." I said.

"Do we have time?"

"Does first hour matter that much?" I asked as I spooned coffee into the french press and turned on the stove under the kettle.

"No." Mercedes said. She looked up at me, hands still on her knees. "Thanks." She said.

I said, "Good. You're welcome. Jon again?"

"Or his friends." Mercedes sighed. She said, "I don't think it was those weirdo business guys." She stood up and shuddered. "That'd be really bad."

We sat at the high table, waiting for the water to boil. "So, how many?" I asked. I stood up and started packing my back pack: books, notebook, tablet, pencils. Lunch (left over breakfast and the whole Sriracha bottle from the fridge). "How many were chasing you?"

"Three. They were all wearing modified anonymous masks, too." She cupped her eyes. "white smiley masks with the eyes spray painted bigger. The paint ran it was so heavy. They were on bikes, so I cut through back yards, but that didn't stop them, so I started hopping fences. That stopped them. I don't think they saw me run into your backyard. I'm so sorry if they did." She said. The kettle started to whistle, coming to a boil. There was a flurry of knocks on the front door.

"Oh no." Mercedes said.

I stood. With the kettle screaming, I slowly stalked, in a crouch, (all my) fingers gracing the ground, toward the front door. The curtains in the front room were closed. Apart from the kitchen's warm track lighting, it was dark in the house. I wondered, just then: "Was the porch light on?"

Mercedes must have taken the kettle off the stove: Roaring silence in my ears.

Another flurry of knocks.

I peeked out the view hole. Three someones in anonymous masks and mottled grey hooded sweaters --hoods up, strings pulled tight and stuffed away down their necklines. Another flurry of knocks. Anonymous-one wore black gloves, held a dull blue plastic knife like a toddler. The knife looked for all the world like a painted fast food blade. I wanted to laugh. My stomach wanted to burrow.

"Who is it?" Mercedes whispered.

I whispered back, "Its your friends. They've got those knives. I don't know if all of them do, but the front one does."

"What do we do?" Mercedes asked.

Another flurry of knocks, then another set, right away. One of the anonymous called out, "Anyone home? Garage door's open, there's a car. Anyone home?"

There was no way Mom or Dad had left the garage door open. No way.

The other back anonymous shouted, "We're looking for some friends. They missed our play date. We just wanna trick or treat with them. Can they come out and play?"

I looked at Mercedes, who shook her head wildly negative. I put my finger to my lips.

The front anonymous called out, "We'll come in through the garage, if that's okay?"

My parents were not idiots. My parents were smart, observant people. I loved them.

I stood, hunched, rooted, staring out the peephole into the gloom at three hooded, masked figures on my porch. Minutes passed, but eventually shrugged at each other. They jumped off the porch and scamper-ran wildly, skidding through our wet lawn, leaving heavy brown heel prints visible even in the morning dark.

I watched them go and when I was sure they were gone, I sank to the floor. Mercedes tip toed to me, and crouched next to me, an arm wrapped around my shoulders. I sighed and hugged my knees to my chest. I focused on slowing my breathing.

Mercedes handed me a steaming cup of coffee. "This garage door is locked." she said softly. She stroked my head. "I like this." She said. She took and sipped from my coffee cup. "It's dark, but strong." She nodded and inhaled the steam. "And it smells nice."She winked at me. "Your hair looks good, too."

I laughed then. I'd already forgotten I'd shaved my head. I smiled. "People are going to think I'm trying out for wrestling." I said.

"Tell people you're going as The Will for Halloween."

We smiled at each other. I said, "I just might. Are we late for second hour yet?" I asked.

Mercedes looked at a watch she was wearing today. It was day-glo orange and stood in stark contrast to the medley of textures and grays she was otherwise wrapped and safety pinned into. She shook her head. "If we leave soon we'll make second hour."

"Oh." I sighed.

"Come on, Mister. You get a free pass today. I might get in trouble."

I gritted my teeth together and stood up. "If you get detention I'm coming with you." I said. My voice sounded harsher than I'd meant it to.

Mercedes bumped her forehead against my chest, and left it there. She brushed her nose against my sternum. She said, "Thank-you, then." She leaned back and looked at me through the coffee contrails. "Shall we then?" She asked.

"Sure." I said flatly.

We left through the front door.

The garage door was open, Mom's car was in the garage. I keyed the code to close the door, and as the garage door jolted shut there was a muffled scuffle and the rattle of a trash can being knocked over. Athletically, someone in a grey hooded sweater dove-rolled out of our garage just before the door touched cement. They were impressively fluid --a light skid in a tight ball, graceful unfurl and both feet planted at the same time, pushing off into a sprint. Almost. Mercedes's leg snapped out, the top of her foot catching anonymous-four right in the throat. His momentum carried his legs forward and I choked back a cheer, already half out my mouth. Mercedes shifted her hips and brought the sole of her foot down on his neck as he fell. Anonymous-four gurgled and scratched at Mercedes's leg with mismatched, too-short and too long fingers. It was wearing gloves, and some of the fingers were far too long for the nubs within. Others were fraying at the top, alabaster skin poking through the seam.

Mercedes twisted her foot. "Stop. Moving." she said. She spat on the mask and anonymous-four flinched and hissed.

"If it weren't for us pesky kids, huh?" I said. I bent down and roughly loosened, then pulled back the hood. I snatched the mask off. Jon hissed and clawed at Mercedes's food. I couldn't move. I
 . . . I mean, what does one say, when faced with someone gone feral, missing finger joints?

Jon remembered he had legs and hips. Mercedes stumbled forward, her ankle rolling and popping. Jon's knees, then hips smashed into her, and he twisted, catlike, scraping his face across the wet cement to get his hands under him. Mercedes tumbled, hands and knees, to the driveway and yelped. Jon tried to run, but I already had bunches of his sweater in my hand.

"Nope." I said, yanking Jon flat and sitting on him. "Call the police!" I shouted. beneath me, Jon went limp, his arms shuddered out from under him, then, no more movement.

Mercedes stared at her phone, then looked at me. "You're not gonna --"

"No signal?" I asked.

"None."

I said, "You know the code to the garage, right?"

"Hasn't changed?"


I shook my head no. "Go get some duct tape or something."

Mercedes turned back to me as the garage door opened. She said, "Don't you wish your parents were kinkier, now?"

I stuck my tongue out at her, and we smiled at each other as she limped into the house. I sighed. The inner garage door closed with a bang, and then I was in the air, arms flailing. Jon didn't fight so much as he undulated me off him, like a bucking worm but instead of running, a windmill of arms battered the back of my head and pushed me onto the sidewalk. Jon hissed and punched the back of my head and bucked my hips, and rolled, covered up against the blows. He hopped off me and landed, then, dirty boxer-like, landed  a kick to my ribs that curled me up, knocked the wind out of me and took off. I huffed and stood, but my legs were wobbly from the kick and the punches.

I slipped in the grass and wet sprawling and wet. I lay there, getting cold and damp. I stared at the clouds until Mercedes came fast limping out.

Mercedes said, "I found some oh."

I said, "Yup."

Mercedes helped me up. She said, "You should change and we should get to class."

"Seriously?" I asked.

"What else are we going to do? Call the police now our crazy, mutant, mutated arch enemy has escaped?"

"Right." I said. "I am going to kill the next Jon I see."

"Don't." Mercedes said. She said, "Seriously. Just don't, William. Seriously."

I chuckled, mirthlessly, "But are you serious?" I asked. Mercedes pushed me, but I didn't budge and the push back must've tweaked her ankle. She winced. "Sorry." I said, then, "We've got some crutches you can use."

Mercedes laughed, almost as solemnly  "Come on, let's hurry up. But if you think I'm getting to school any way not piggie back you're mad."

"We're all mad here," I quoted, "Why else would we be here?" We went inside and locked the door. Mercedes waited upstairs while I changed into another set of clothes.

She looked up from her phone, "Did you change?" She asked.

"Yes." I said. I adjusted the strings on my hooded sweater. "What's that suppose to mean?"

"Nothing! Sheesh." Mercedes stood up and stretched her arms. "You ready, Shadowfax?" She theater winked at me, and I chuckled. She hopped on my back, I doubled up our back packs, and stuffed the crutches between Mercedes and the bags and off we went.

We made it to school in time for second hour. My teacher made a conciliatory comment and thanked me for being a dedicated student. I passed the hour wondering about Jon and doodling his misshapen hands.

The tone rang and we filed out, me at the back, as always. I got into the hallway and froze. Four of the Anonymous were walking down the hall, away from me, their hoods bobbing through the crowd. I stared. I thought, remembered, realized they were heading away from Mercedes and her next class and breathed a sigh of relief.

I walked to class slowly, looking over my shoulder constantly. I saw two more anonymous people, one boy, one girl, walking toward me, maskless, but with their hoods pulled up and squeezed shut. Just outside my third hour, one of them  was talking to someone dressed normally. I squeezed my hands together, took a deep breath, steeled myself and tapped their shoulder.

"Hey! William! Dude, do you not check your email before coming to school?" It was someone, a junior, named Hank, I think, on the running team. I smiled, a watery thing without teeth. He continued, "Dude, do you have a grey hooded sweater? You should be wearing it, if so." The girl he was nodded. She was blonde, with white lipstick.

"Why?" I managed to ask.

"Read your email, dude!" Hank said. "Seriously. It's legit cool. You know those murders that happened yesterday? And how no one knows who they were? And how administration totally knows, but isn't telling, and how no one can figure out who they were?"

"Yeah?" I asked.

Hank continued, "Well, like, that could've been any of us! It could've been a hate crime, it could've been a --" he stopped. "It could've been anyone, and so we're all going to --all the students were encouraged wear a grey hooded sweater with the hood up. Lots of us are doing it today, but tomorrow's Halloween so everyone should wear one! If you've got the money for an anonymous mask --

"Like in that movie?" The girl said.

"Then wear one of those, too."

"Oh." I said.

"It's like, if you're not wearing a grey hooded sweater tomorrow, then you're with them. You're pro student murder if you're not wearing a grey hooded sweater tomorrow." The tone went off and the hallway began to clear. Hank kissed the blonde on the cheek. Before he left he said, "Seriously William, check your email. Sheesh."

I barely heard him. Phoenix said hello to me, and watched me, very carefully as I made my way to my seat. "Where's your hooded sweater, William?" Phoenix asked.

"I didn't check my email before school today." I said, quietly.

Phoenix said, "What?" and I repeated myself. "Well, wear one tomorrow unless you want to be even more of a pariah." Phoenix said with a smirk.

I sat, rigid for all of class. I answered all the questions Phoenix asked me. I was not corrected. The tone went off, and wooden, I got up and walked out. I was first out, and the hallway had a smattering of grey hooded students, already.

I stood aside and looked around. As more classes filed out, more grey hooded sweaters appeared. I took the elevator to the lunch room.

Most of the tables had one or two grey hooded sweaters sitting at them. I was surrounded by a gaggle of them a I threaded to the table Mercedes, Jay, and I sat at. Jay was there, but Mercedes wasn't.

Jay and I made small talk, about Jenna, about classes, while my stomach churned and Mercedes was missing. Eventually. A wind gusted through the lunch room, and there was Mercedes: Crutches, tattered wool over coat. She winced, every crutch-stup to the table. Mercedes sat next to Jay and swung her twisted ankle up. her boots were heavy, leather, dark, but even through that, I could tell it was swollen. I said as much, and she nodded, her eyes a bit glazed.

"Look, seriously. Call your mom. Go to the nurse. She's okay." I said.

"If I miss tonight, then I can't skip tomorrow, and besides, a cast would ruin my Halloween costume." Mercedes said. She stole the last piece of bacon from my lunch box. "Seriously. Did you read that email? It's clever. Seriously, Every student in the school is going to be wearing a grey hooded sweated tomorrow, and probably a lot of them are going to be wearing anonymous masks, too."

Jay said, "I'm definitely doing it. It is, I think, messed up that no one has released the name of the students that died yesterday. I mean, Two students were found having committed suicide! And no names were released? Sure, there's volunteer counselors and stuff, and there was that announcement this morning during first hour, but nothing else? Not even to the news? What about their grieving families?"

"What if they want to be left alone?" I asked. I forked some cold omelet into my mouth. Jay and I stared at each other for a while.

"That's a possibility." He conceded.

"Or, what if it wasn't even a student? What if they were just bodies that someone put here to freak us all out?" Mercedes said. She turned to me, "I just texted my mom, she's going to call the office and come get me. Can you help me to the front in a few minutes?"

"Sure," Jay said before i could. He smiled. "I'll carry your bag." He added, "You'll wear a grey hooded sweater tomorrow, right Mercedes?"

Mercedes thought for a while, staring at my empty lunch bowl. She said, "Yeah. I think I will. Excuse me." And she texted someone else.

"My sister is doing it too. She was really excited by it, actually."

"Oh?" I said.

"Yeah! She giggled like crazy when we were talking about it with my mom."

"And how is Vernie?" I asked.

"She's good. Her and my dad haven't been talking much, but they go through cycles like that. It's weird, but whatever. She seems pretty good at the moment."

I said, "That's good."

Mercedes stood, and leaning against the table, placed her hands on her hips. She said, with a low, low voice, "Alright my knights! Are you both ready to accompany your princess to her chariot?"

Jay and I nodded. Jay grabbed Mercedes's patchwork of band patches backpack and swung it over his shoulder.

Someone in a grey hooded sweater swore at him. the Grey hood said, "Watch yourself tomorrow, Trumble."

We walked slowly through the cafeteria, Mercedes played off her crutches with majesty. She wrist waved at people who cat called or shouted names at her. She grinned and bared her teeth, eyes flashing. She whispered, "That's right. Shout at me. Then I know who you are." as we crutch-stump-walked our way through the crowd.

Rain gusted about, visibly sideways from the wind, so we leaned against the walls in the vestibule and chatted about school.

The conversation slowed and for a few moments it was just the wind and the incessant pitter of rain. Jay broke the silence. He said, "Did you guys want to go shopping with me tonight? I'm going to go buy a grey hooded sweater. I can't believe I don't own one. Mom's going to take me. I could pick you guys up if you want."

I looked at Mercedes. I looked at Jay, who was looking at the cul de sac outside. Mercedes shrugged and nodded yes. I said, "Yeah, that'd be really cool. Thank-you!"

Jay looked up, eyes wide, hands clenching on his backpack straps. His voice cracked on the first try, but he said, "Great! Where should I pick you up?" The liquor store, just south of the school. The one across from the drug store. You know the one? First street south of here, down Main road?"

Jay nodded vigorously. "Do you guys want to get something to eat first?" He looked between Mercedes and I, back and forth.

I nodded, "Sure." We said together. The warning tone for fifth hour went off. A car horn honked in the parking lot. The rain gusted and pittered. I said, "How about five-thirty?"

"I think my Dad's gonna be home tonight." Mercedes said.

Jay's face fall was like a failed cliff diver.

"I'll just meet you guys where ever you're eating at 6:30pm. Does that work? Dad likes to eat at 5pm when he's home, if he's home. And he should be home tonight, so that'll give you guys time to eat, and I can get dropped off . . . where ever after that."

Jay wrestled some composure back onto his face. He said, "That's awesome."

The car horn honked again.

Jay said, "Let me carry your bag for you."

I said, "And I'll carry you."

"Sure!" Mercedes said.

We got her into Mrs. Swanson's car without trouble, barely getting drenched in the process. We didn't say goodbye. The one minute tone sounded and Jay and I sprinted to our classes.

I thought I saw Jon between fifth and sixth hours, but if I did, he was avoiding, not following me. The maybe-him turned and tightened their hood just as I did my double take. I note to ask Mercedes to check his attendance record next Monday. I smiled.

I managed most of my homework before five PM, and Mom and Dad still weren't home so I wrapped up in a scarf and a thicker sweater, under my regular hooded sweater. I took a slate colored golf umbrella from the rack by the front door. It felt heavy and comforting in my hands. I closed all the blinds and left the computer and office light on. I double checked the window locks and doors and left through the garage.

I arrived at the liquor store early, but Jay and his mom were already waiting for me. I hopped in the back and buckled myself in. I said, "Hi Jay. Hi Vernie."

Vernie turned around. She had Mercedes-esque eyeliner on, and a dead leaves shade of lipstick. She was wearing a pullover, grey hooded sweater. "Hi William sweetie," She said.

"Mom!" Jay shouted. "Sweetie?"

"I don't mind." I smiled. "Hi. Again. How are you? Two?" I kept the smile and patted Jay on his right shoulder.

Vernie pulled out, "I thought we could go to the Noodle place, just down the road."

"You know," I said. "I've never been there. I always wanted to. It's --" I stopped myself. "It has always piqued my curiosity. It's good?"

"We love it, don't we sweetie?"

"Mommmmmmmm,"

Vernie winked at me in the rearview mirror. "We love their noodles." She said.

"Cool. Sounds good." I said. My phone buzzed. Mercedes was teasing me. I texted her where we were going for dinner. She texted me that they were having a home cooked rack of ribs,  with mashed sweet potatoes and Sriracha glazed broccoli. I texted her I was jealous and begged, as much as one can via text, to save me some for lunch tomorrow. I got a very firm "Maybe" in response, and then we were parking in a strip mall. I looked out the window. "Matsu Chan?" I asked.

"Yup." Vernie and Jay said at the same time. They looked at each other and laughed.

"Huh." I said, "Okay."

I got out and followed them into the tiny restaurant. Inside it smelled like fresh seafood and pickled garlic. It was warm enough that the bay window was steamed. It was tiny. Three tables meant for couples pushed against the walls, with red and white, plastic-linen checkered table clothes tacked up, and clear plastic tops covering them. There was a counter, with a few stools, facing the kitchen entrance, barely blocked by two red saloon doors that hung, crooked in the doorway. The carpet was thin, the ceiling would have brushed against my hair, if I had any. To the left of the counter was a short hallway, leading to a unisex bathroom. Three white paper lanterns hung from the ceiling on the corners and middle of the bar. The cash register was antique. There was a hand written sign:
NO CREDIT CARDS, NO CHECKS.

Behind the counter, from somewhere hidden by the red saloon doors, a woman shouted, "We gonna need a bigger pot! You're so big!" A shotgun shell of a woman exploded through the doors and threw two menus on the table. "I know what you want already, Vernie!" She shouted. She turned on me and leaned in. Really, really far in. She whispered, "I'm hard of hearing, please yell your order. You can call me Mana, okay? Okay!" Mana's breath smelled like fresh apples and well used salt in your favorite holiday meal. Mana had black hair in a bowl-cut, red lipstick, crows-feet, and red crocs, red apron, red shirt, red pants. No socks, red toe nail polish. All her reds were exactly the same fade. It was amazing.

I opened the black menu cover, and did a double take. The pages were white text on red background, with swirling gold emboss around the edges, and gold numbers after each description. I shook my head, fighting off de ja vu.

Mana straightened. She shouted, "Vernie! You want Twenty-three, right?"

"You know it Mana!" Vernie shouted and nodded vigorously.

"How about you, Jay? What are you going to eat?" Mana shouted.

"Uh. Twenty-one, please."

"Oh, good one! Twenty-one, got it! What about you, new giant guy? What are you going to eat, huh?"

"What do you eat?" I asked. I couldn't read the menu, to be honest. I added, "I don't mind spicy food."

"Oh," Mana drew it out, quietly, slowly; like a cat unrolling a ball of yarn. "You like spicy food eh?" The quiet was unnerving. Behind the saloon doors, a series of pots and pans crashed to the ground and someone let fly a volley of wild, unrecognizable language. "That's my husband." Mana yelled, hopping in place. "He's clumsy." She winked at me. She said, "I bring you something good. Help you grow big and strong." She laughed, throwing her head back and before the laugh was over had disappeared back through the red saloon doors.

"Wow," I said. I looked at Jay, who was looking at his phone. I looked at Vernie, who was looking at me. I said, "This place is awesome."

Vernie smiled and was about to say something when Mana exploded through the saloon doors again, in one hand she carried a gigantic, white ceramic teapot, cracked, steam gushing from the cracks by the lid and out the spout. On her other hand she balanced three ornate, handle-less tea cups. The table and the heavy, plastic chopsticks rattled when she slammed the tea pot down.

Very carefully, Mana set the cups, one in front of each of us, bowing each time as she placed them. she intoned something then swept the teapot up using both hands on the handle and jerk-poured tea into each of our cups. Mana spilled exactly zero drops of tea. Each of our cups held the exact same amount of steaming green tea. "Give it a minute or two!" Mana shouted as she zoomed back into the kitchen, leaving the tea pot to loom in the middle of our tiny table.

I said, "This place is so awesome."

"Yeah." Jay said. "Sometimes, Mana's daughter works here, she's pretty good too."

"Jay has a crush on her." Vernie said. She smiled at her son, who pointedly reopened his menu. Vernie said, "So, do you have a girlfriend, William?"

I smiled. I said, "I play for the other team, actually."

"Oh!" Vernie said. She sat back, and blinked --quick things. Then she leaned in again. She smiled for all the world like a wolf. She asked, "So you've got a boyfriend?"

I blushed, "No, actually. It wasn't really something I thought about until last year and, um, last year was really busy for me, so I didn't get a chance to do much people meeting in a friendly way."

"Jay uses the internet to meet people. Or, he did. Didn't you sweetie?"

"Mom!" Jay put the menu down with a huff. "I am happy with Jenna. She's amazing. She'd be here now, but she has a project she needs to finish for Monday. But she'll. You'll meet her soon, mom, I promise." Vernie and I politely ignored Jay's slight blush.

From the kitchen, Mana shouted, "Good for you Jay! You need a woman to keep your life spicy!" There was another clatter of pots and more violent yelling.

"Anyway." I said. "I'm pretty happy with my friends. Between school and all the weirdness that's been going on lately --"

"I heard you had a seizure." Vernie said. She leaned across the tabled, planted her elbows and sipped her tea. "That must've been horrifying." She licked her lips.

"It was pretty scary." I said. I pictured Phoenix's rictus smile and shuddered. "Anyway. I don't have a boyfriend. I don't even know what I'd look for in a guy. I think he'd have to be into running, or swimming, or something I like, too. That's the first thing." I nodded.

"It's ready!" Mana shouted, slamming through the doors, which ricocheted back. She held two gigantic bowls, one on the palm of each hand. She careened around the beige service bar and stopped short. A moment later, a bald man slipped quietly through the saloon doors as they swung back open. He side stepped them and twisted and was around the bar and next to Mana before the Saloon doors finished their swing.

He set the gigantic bowl reverently in front of me.
Image Source

Mana set the other two bowls in front of Vernie and Jay. Again, the table remained dry. "Enjoy!" Mana and the man said in unison, and were gone. Vernie bowed her head for a moment and put her hands together in prayer. I froze, feeling rude, chopsticks in hand.

"Amen." Vernie said and looked up. "Let's eat!" She said.

I nodded, with a smile and wove the noodles onto my chopsticks. I slurped and chewed and smiled at Jay and Vernie. They dug into their bowls with equally happy abandon. We ate quietly for a few minutes. I explored the depths of my bowl and found tiny pieces of shrimp, hidden pockets of seaweed wrapped around jalapeƱo peppers stuffed with goat's cheese. Little culinary presents hidden within the bowl of deep, peppery, broth. The meat was fresh. Everything was amazing. After a few minutes, Mana came out, silently, and refilled our tea cups for us. The tea steamed in our cups. The door chimes jingled and I turned, but no one was there.

Mercedes came in with a jingle, walking slowly, but without crutches. She was wearing white leggings and grey sports skirt with a modified, cowl-like scarf neck. Her shoes were faded cloth toe-boots, and she had her two jackets on, as she always did these days. She waved at us, and Mana exploded out of the kitchen with another tea cup.

"Let me get you a seat!" Mana shouted. "You must be Mercedes! Please sit here!" She motioned to the chair behind Vernie. "Sorry, no four tops tables here." She shouted with a wink. Mana added, "Tea?" Before perfectly filling the new cup and handing it to Mercedes, who thanked her for it.

"It's so warm!" Mercedes said. And, staring at the steam, she added, "so warm." She sipped her tea. The rest of us, even the quiet chef watched Mercedes enjoy her tea for a minute.

The door jangled and another patron came in, an older man with a crown of white hair and a rudy, bald head and huge, bushy eyebrows that stuck out almost as far as his ears, which were also hairy.

"Hi Clive!" Mana said.

"Hi Mana," The bald man had a resonant, sonorous voice. He didn't speak slowly, but the words that left his beard lingered, played. "Two hot and sour udon, please."

"Sure thing Clive! Please have a seat!" Mana charged into the kitchen, and started yelling at her chef.

"So, Mercedes, do you need a grey hooded sweater, too?" Vernie asked.

Mercedes choose her words carefully, turning the tea cup in her hands as she did. She said, "I'm not sure I'm doing it yet. We don't even know if it was students who were killed, or if they killed themselves. All we know is two bodies have been found in the school. It's really weird that no one has come forward, knowing who these victims are. Or if they even are victims. It's all really weird to me."

Jay and Vernie stared at her. Mercedes sipped some tea, which did nothing to deflect their stare. She added, "I do need a good, grey hooded sweater though, so if we find something I like, I'll probably get it." She smiled over the rim of her cup.

From the kitchen, the man spoke. He did not shout, but it carried through the small dining room just fine. "You want tea, Clive?"

"Oh go on then, if you must!" Clive shouted back. He smiled to himself, and winked at me. Clive crossed his legs at the knee, laced long, white fingers around the top knee. He leaned back against the wall, shoulders and head, and closed his eyes. A faint smile eased the middle of his severe beard.

Vernie pulled a thin wallet from one of her hooded sweater pockets, pulled out some money and left it half under the tea pot. She stood up. "Shall we get you all some sweaters, then?" With a smile, Vernie winked at me. I smiled and winked back, not knowing what else to do.

"Yea! We should go to the mall first," Jay said, "I'll bet they have grey hooded sweaters." He jumped over a chair --surprisingly gracefully-- and held the door open for all of us.

"See you all soon! Nice to meet you!" Mana shouted from the back. Clive's smile widened, briefly, as a gust of wind snuck into the restaurant.

We exited quickly, not wanting more cold air to overwhelm the warm ambiance. Jay offered me the front passenger seat, which I almost took, but offered to Mercedes instead, so she could stretch her busted up leg.

Jay looked crestfallen, but shook it off by the time we were all in the car, heaters blasting.

"To the mall, then?" Vernie asked. We all agreed.

"We could get Mercedes a wheelchair." Jay said with a chuckle.

"You know, that's actually a really good idea." Mercedes said. She added, "You could push me around!"

I snort laughed and my nose rattled. Most of the ride to the mall was spent listening to Vernie interrogate Mercedes about how Mr. Swanson cooks his ribs, and what extra ingredients went into the mashed sweet potatoes. Mercedes explained the finer points of properly spicing sweet potatoes, and what setting to put them on, in the oven.

"You bake them? Seriously?" Vernie asked.

"Yeah. How do you do potatoes?"

Vernie said, "In a pot, on the stove."

Mercedes laughed. "Huh." She said.

Mercedes also got the who-are-you-dating interrogation, which she managed to draw out and away from the obvious, shifty elephant in the car.

As Vernie pulled the car up to the mall, she tapped the clock on her dashboard. "Okay," she said, "You've got an hour and a bit before the mall closes. Do not make me come in there calling your names. I will be here promptly, I expect you to be here promptly too."

"We will." Jay said, and Mercedes and I chimed in our agreement.

Vernie kissed Mercedes on the cheek, demanded kisses from Jay and I, then unlocked the doors and out we stepped. It was cold and the rain pelted down, angry that we were outside and not huddled, hiding from it. We all smiled at each other and Jay held the door into the Mall proper. As we strode slowly in, Mercedes pulled out her sunglasses, rubbed her bald head and slid the glasses up her nose. They were black cat's eye frames with red sequins.

I looked at her and grinned. She grinned back. Jay laughed and we continued our stroll stride into the body of the mall. The first store we check out was all out of white and grey hooded sweaters. The piercing faced attendant with dyed purple hair apologized and showed us all the super hero and Japanese pop themed hooded sweaters, but we sighed and shook our collective head. "What's this about, anyway?" The attendant asked. We asked her where she went to high school --she was a freshman in college. We aaah'd, and explained about the murders and the no one knowing who had been killed and, really, if they were murders or suicides.

The attendant's eyes went wide in her band of black eyeliner. "Wow." She said. "I hadn't even heard anything at all about that. How legitimately weird. Not hearing about two murders in a high school in the same week."

"The same day." I corrected her.

"Woa." She said.

We all nodded and left her, standing, holding a batman hooded sweater, jaw hanging limp. As we exited the store, I saw Jon. He was one of the crowd already wearing a grey hooded sweater --there were a smattering of them in the crowd. Our eyes locked through the warm pretzel stand. His eyes went wide and he turned abruptly, making his way behind a calendar kiosk.

"I just saw Jon." I said.

"So? You want to leave? I can call my mom. Do you think we can avoid him?" Jay looked especially pale under the halogen lights. He stuffed his hands in his puffy winter jacket.

"Hardly." I said.

"Don't do anything stupid, William. Seriously." Mercedes looked at me. I noticed she hand her hands on the cuff of my coat.

"I"ll catch up with you guys, okay? I'll be right back."

"No one in horror movies ever comes back, after they say that." Jay said.

"Good thing this isn't my horror movie moment, then, isn't it?" I said with a smile. "Or is it?" I moo hoo hoo ha laughed, and headed after Jon.

The crowd was heavier near the shoe store, and there were still a startling number of other grey hooded sweaters to sort through, but I spotted Jon just as he rounded a short corner by an Authorized Personnel Only set of double doors. I ducked, literally, behind a mobile phone stand in the middle of the main concourse and fast crawled past the nook Jon was hiding in. I skirted well around and slid along the wall. I watched him watching for me. I walked purposefully, close to the store entrances, until I was almost on top of Jon. I grabbed him by the collar with both hands and up-hauled him, pushing him through the double doors. I let them bang shut quickly against my back and shoved Jon forward, sending him sprawling, then scrambling and crab skittering away from me. I rushed him and kicked his legs out.

I towered over him.

"You're supposed to be dead." I said. I resisted the urge to spit on him. My phone vibrated in my pocket. "Why aren't you dead?"

"I don't know. Why aren't you dead?" Jon asked.

The corridor was grey on grey, the walls of the stores we were ratting between were high and cinder block on this side, a far cry from the neon and the subdued autumn colors of the store fronts.

I watched Jon's eyes searching for something, anything, but there were only locked doors here. Jon's eyes were, more than anything else, tired. Behind him, I saw a bright red water main curl around itself, the spigot gigantic and dusty, before it dove into the floor from up high on the wall. The hallway was a T junction.

I stopped advancing. Jon stopped crab crawling away from me. "You were dead. I saw you dead, in the mechanic's shop." I said.

Jon's voice was flat. He sat on his butt. "That is messed up." he said. "I'm not dead. I haven't died."

"You've sure been trying to kill Mercedes and I pretty well, lately. One of your messed up brothers tried to break into my house this morning. He was hiding in my garage and tried to jump Mercedes and me when we were leaving for school."

Jon's voice was still flat. He jumped up, quick as lightning. "You're crazy." he said, but there wasn't any malice or zest to his statement.

I asked him, "Was it you who was the other murdered student yesterday?"

"Do I look dead to you?"

"Son los dias de los muertos." I said with a shallow grin. "I don't know what dead people look like this week."

"You could be the dead one, you know. You could be dead and just walking around." Jon stared me in the face the whole time we spoke.

"Are you going to try and kill me?" I asked. My voice also sounded flat in my ears, in the cinder block corridor. "You've tried to beat me up. Your friends and your school lackeys tased me almost to death --" Jon snorted but I continued anyway. I started walking toward him again. "I've got this crooked nose and this scar because of you. My friends have almost been expelled, and one of them has a limp because of you. What gives? Why don't you like us?"

"If you'd left me alone, if that pip squeak rat had just given me his money." Jon said.

"Hey! You two! Come here." The whack and air rush of the doors closing behind me made me turn. There was an impossibly young, ridiculously blonde security guard standing there, baton in hand. He could not have been out of high school. He was sweating, noticeably.

I turned back to Jon, who was looking from me to the security guard.

"You two aren't supposed to be in here." the guard said. "So let's just take a stroll to --"  Jon and I took off running, down the rest of the corridor and skidded left at the T junction. I was right behind Jon when we reached a wide, steel staircase. "Emergency Exit"  spray stenciled to the wall on the first landing.

Jon took the stairs three at a time, but I managed five. On the second landing, Jon turned and kicked at me, bashing my shins hard into the stairs as I but I ducked under it; I grabbed his leg and it was thick as a goodly tree. I yanked with all my force, but he didn't move; he shook my hands from his pants and bounded up the next flight of stairs. The security guard shouted something at us, but we kept running up the stairs. Jon reached the top and paused, I watched his head move slightly as he took in the fire alarm wires on the door. Jon kicked the door open and dashed into pounding rain and the orange lit sleet. I flipped my hood up and kept after him.

I was almost caught up to him when he skidded to a halt. I thought about it. I did. I put my shoulder down and barreled into him --my shoulder dug into Jon's gut and I hefted him as I slid across the slick tar roof. I pushed him like a shot put and he arced, arms windmilling. His feet caught on the edge of the roof, for half a moment I thought he was going to be okay. I thought he was going to crouch and charge right back at me, but his heels slipped over the edge and instead he fell, arms spread, rain pelting.

"Stop! Right there!" The security guard shouted. He had something that looked like a gun in one hand.

I took the chance and broke into a run.

He pulled the trigger.

The sleet knocked the taser nodes to the ground.

I sprinted along the edge of the roof in the orange downpour.

The security guard followed me, shouting for me to stop. His shouting stopped abruptly, but I didn't bother looking to see why. I saw a dumpster full of cardboard boxes and jumped and closed my eyes.

As I fell I noticed the slow strobe-ing lights.

As I fell I heard the burp-chirp of the fire alarms inside the mall.

As I fell, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.

I landed feet together and sprawl-fell forward. I managed half a somersault but ended up on my head, something sharp cutting at an ear. I unrolled and ended belly down on sopping cardboard. My phone went off again. I scrambled to my hands and knees and scrambled through the boxes, to just under the lee of the building.

I climbed out of and crouched behind the dumpster.

I called Mercedes back. "Hey," I said. "I can't really talk. The fire alarm was Jon, and kind of me, too. I think he's really dead this time. I'm on the far side of the mall, I'll head, uh, west, and meet you guys on that corner, okay?"  I listened, then cut her off, "Look, I'm fine, sorry, yes. I'm fine, we need to get out of here before the police get here, please please please have Jay call his mom and meet us at the entrance on the west side department store, okay? Thank-you. Just have him tell her we were looking for sweaters in that department store, cool? Cool. You're awesome! Thank-you so much!" I jogged across the mall's lawn and waited outside the department atrium as throngs of concerned shoppers quickly exited the store.

"Hey!" I shouted and waved when I saw Mercedes. She turned instantly, at the sound of my voice and started to jog, but winced and bent over. She stood up with a forced smile plastered on her face. Jay stuffed himself under her arm and helped her hobble quickly toward me. The three of us met in the rain, on the sidewalk. Vernie pulled up, honking her horn and we helped Mercedes into the front seat.

"That had better not have been you three." Vernie said, through gritted teeth, before we were completely buckled in. "Seriously. No felons in my vehicle." She looked at me in the rear view mirror as she pulled away.

"It wasn't us." I bent the truth. Twisted it a bit more, "It was Jon. I'm pretty sure it was Jon."

"And why are you completely soaking wet and bleeding, young man?" Vernie asked with a sigh.

I was stumped. I started to speak, but Jay cut me off. Jay said, "He got cut by --"

Mercedes cut Jay off. "It's a paper cut. William was trying on a mask and I scared him and it cut his ear. No biggie, Vernie."

I watched Vernie's eyes narrow in the rear view mirror as she pulled onto the main road. The four of us rode in silence for a few minutes. I laced my fingers together and made sure my teeth didn't audibly chatter. My ear sang and my calves throbbed. My nose felt stuffy. I sighed.

Finally, at a stop light Vernie asked us if we still needed grey hooded sweaters. "You know, its sad, but yes. Yes we do." I said. "How sad is that?"

"I'm taking you to Meijer, and then taking you all home. To your houses. None of this picked up at liquor stores tom foolery, either. Do you all hear me? To. Your. Homes. I have a mind to come in and talk to your parents, too." Vernie pursed her lips and clicked her tongue against her teeth as she drove. "I've never heard Jay so concerned as when he called me to pick you three up on the west side." Vernie parked in a handicap spot, placed a handicap hang pass on her rear view mirror after she turned the car off. "William." She said, "There is a towel in the trunk for just such emergencies. Dry yourself. You'll not get sick on my watch." She said this with a flat calm.

I dried myself as best I could.

Vernie said, "Mercedes and I will go find sweaters. You two stay here."

"I have to pee." Jay said. He added limply, "Too much excitement. Fire alarms and all."

Vernie stared at her son, then through her son, then through the rest of the car behind where Jay sat. "You. William. Escort my son to the bathroom. We meet back here in fifteen minutes or less. If you're not back in fifteen minutes, or if another fire alarm goes off, you are staying to explain yourselves to the police." She speared Jay and I with a glare. "I am not happy that I don't know what's going on. What happened. Am I clear?"

Our gazes withered to the floor mats and we both nodded.

Vernie turned to Mercedes. "Are you okay to walk?" She asked.

Mute, Mercedes nodded. Vernie pulled something out of her purse and opened her door. The something blossomed into an umbrella. "You two run." She commanded us. She stepped out and opened Mercedes's door, and they walked into the Meijer.

"Bathroom?" I asked.

"Bathroom." Jay mumbled.

We sprinted into the store atrium with the rest rooms. "No offense, but I'll wait outside." I said.

"Sure thing." Jay said.

"Remember."I said, pointing a finger at Jay as he pushed the door open, "More than three shakes is a sin." He laughed, a single happily surprised chuckle. I smiled back at him.

I goosed stepped around and rubbed my arms an shivered and not thirty seconds later I heard a yelp and the slam of a stall door from the men's room.

I burst in and nothing seemed amiss --a right, clean men's room. Urinals against the left wall. Sinks then stalls against the right. The back wall was taken up with the handicapped stall.

The door to the handicapped stall slowly swung open. In the far left corner, Jay huddled, hugging his knees just like I did. Balanced on his knees was a bloody, squared bladed, switchblade.

"Are you serious?" I moaned, "Really?" I entered the stall and turned. Eyes gouged out, throat slit, splayed,  lilting to the left on the toilet, was Jon. It was clearly him. He had his side designs trimmed into his brown hair. He was sopping wet. He was wearing the same clothes --grey hooded sweater, dark jeans, dark sneakers-- as he was at the mall. He tried to say something, but only managed to blow a blood bubble out-on his slashed throat.

The blood bubble popped.

I turned away from Jon. "Come on." I said to Jay. "Come on, we need to get out of here." I pulled him up and pushed him out of the stall. I stayed in, and locked the door. Jon gurgled and flopped an arm onto his lap. He slowly raised his other hand. His wrist spurted blood at me. Jon closed all but his middle finger then let his arm fall onto his urine soaked crotch. The overflow drain was, small miracle, in the handicapped stall. With any luck people would think an employee or homeless was napping until we were gone. I belly crawled out of the stall and brushed myself off ineffectually. Jay was dancing foot to foot by the exit.

"We good?" He asked. He gagged a little bit. I watched him hard swallow something.

"I don't know." I said. "But we need to get you out of here right now."

The sleet was freezing as we dashed back to the car. Vernie and Mercedes made a triumphant return not three minutes later. "We did it!" Mercedes said, beaming. "We got us some grey hooded sweaters!"

"Do NOT get anything on them." Vernie said, though she smirked after she said it. Then Vernie looked at her pale, shaking son and asked, "Are you okay?" All the mirth dropped out of her. "What happened?" She asked tersely.

I said, "Yeah, he had a bad moment in the bathroom, but he's fine, now." I smiled but it must've been weak because Vernie turned and faced me. She scowled.

"Honey, sweetie, are you okay?" She patted Jay's knee, her eyes cold and boring into me. Jay twitched a little at the contact.

"I'm fine." Jay managed after a swallow. "Like Will said, I had a scare in the bathroom, but I'm good now, thank-you, mom. I think a shower and a good night's sleep will do me up."

"Just like Jenna!" Mercedes shouted.

The rest of us stared at her.

"What?" Mercedes asked.

We kept staring at her.

The sleet redoubled its efforts to soak us through the windows and roof. Mercedes shrunk in on herself, she said. "Sheesh. It was a joke."

"Okay!" Vernie said. "It has been quite a night, and it isn't ten yet. Jay says he needs a shower and to go to bed. I think you two should be on your way, too. I'll drop you off at your homes."

"I'm actually going to--" Mercedes and I stared at each other. We'd started to say the exact same sentence.

I nodded at Mercedes.

Mercedes continued, "I'm actually going to sleep over at William's house tonight, so you can drop us both off there."

"Fine." Vernie said as she drove. "But I'm staying in the driveway until you're both inside the house. And then I'm waiting to make sure you stay in it."

"We could just snea --" My wittiness died, skewered on the daggers Vernie threw at me in the rear view mirror.

"I liked you this afternoon, William. Do not push your luck." Vernie said. "I like Mercedes, too, and she --" Vernie stopped herself. She smiled, a mask of a smile. "Where do you live, William?" I told her.

Vernie drove us to my house in silence. No one but the sleet and the wind spoke, but those two howled.

There were no weird cars, I noted, on my street as Vernie pulled up. "Not the house I dropped you off at last time." She noted. "How about that?"

"This is my actual house." I said.

"It is." Mercedes said.

"Mercedes, please take this umbrella. You can give it to Jay at school tomorrow." Vernie handed Mercedes her umbrella. Vernie asked, "You have the sweaters for you and William?"

Mercedes held up one of the Meijer bags and nodded. "Yes. Thank-you very, very much, Vernie."

I chimed in, too, "Yes, thank-you. I didn't know you paid. Thank-you very much."

"You're very welcome." Vernie's voice softened and she let out a quick sigh. "You two be careful tomorrow. Things are getting crazy and weird around here and I don't know what you've gotten yourselves into but you're good kids. Be good." She pounced, kindly, on Mercedes and gave her a hug.

Jay unbuckled and scotched between Vernie and Mercedes, hugging Mercedes goodbye. I waved at the Trumbles and ran and opened the garage door. My parents were still out. My spirits fell through the bottom of the current barrel into the next one. I sighed in the rain as Mercedes wide stepped into the garage.

Safely in the garage, we turned and waved at the headlights. I keyed the code again and the door closed. The lights stayed on and I unlocked the inner door and we went inside.

Inside, everything was warm and softly lit. I sighed. "I think I want a shower, and some tea. Green tea. Yeah." I said. We took off our shoes (me) and boots (her) and our sopping coats.

Mercedes set the bag on one of the kitchen chairs.

I stripped out of the rest of my soaked, freezing wet clothes, all the way down to my boxer shorts and felt the goose bumps roll onto me. I went into the bathroom, turned on the heater and started the shower.

Mercedes called, "Mind if I sit in with you? I don't really want to be out here by myself."

"Sure," I called back and, naked, stepped into the steaming shower. People who have never had a five shower head shower do not know what they're missing. It is impossible to explain the joyous, body massaging experience. I will only say that it is glorious, and you should make it a point to try one, if you haven't.

Through the steam I heard the door open and close.

"Steamy," Mercedes said.

"Yup." I said. I washed the soap out of my armpits and said, "So. I think we killed two more Jons tonight. I mean, there were definitely two more dead people and they both looked like Jon." I scrubbed my face thoroughly three times.

"I wondered what happened in Meijer." Mercedes said, "Do you think he followed us from the mall?"

"I don't know. I don't know. I don't think so, but Jay wasn't in any shape to talk about it. Do you know? He was the one who killed the second Jon. Sliced him up as if he were opening a letter. It was crazy. I didn't even know he carried a knife! Jay! Carries a knife! It's like Canada having an army."

"Canada has an army." Mercedes said. I could hear her smirk.

"Oh good goodness." I said with mock resignation. "What has the world come to?"

"Well," Mercedes stopped.

I finished my shower and turned off the water.

Mercedes said, "I don't really want to talk about that. Can I sleep in your bed, Will? This is getting way too weird, and people are dying."

I thought about it. "Hand me a towel? I said.

Mercedes tossed me a towel over the glass door and I rubbed myself down. I said, "Yes, you can sleep  in my bed. I don't think my parents are coming home tonight. They probably sent me an email or something."

Sometimes, for bigger projects or installations, Mom helped Dad with his projects. Dad had been working on three projects since the beginning of spring (1) and summer (2 and 3). He seemed pretty happy with his work, but didn't talk much about them.

I finished drying myself, wrapped myself in the towel. Mercedes followed me as I headed down to my room. The single bedside lamp tossed long shadows and a rainbow from the glass of water sitting under it. We didn't say anything, and I turned away from her as I pulled on some sweat pants and a t-shirt. My room has the bunk bed, a double length desk-work-bench, and my dresser. There's a closet, too, where we all keep our dress-nicely clothes --a few suits each for Dad and I, and a few handmade dresses that Mom keeps for special occasions.

"You're so bruised and cut up." Mercedes said. "You're like a road map of bad choices."

"Hey!" I said as I turned around. "You were watching me?"

"Seriously," Mercedes continued, ignoring my question, talking through a slight blush, "I'm amazed you walked away from tonight."

I laughed like wind through a gallows. "One or two people didn't, depending on how you count it." I said. I pulled on some socks and pulled two pairs of slippers out from under the bunk bed. The air was bone dry in my room and I could feel the static charge of the headboard and frame in the air of my arms as I pulled the faux shoes out. I tossed Mercedes her pair.

"Thanks." She said. She hesitated and slipped them on. "Could I borrow some clothes? These aren't really sleepy time clothes, and she was right. Of course she was right! Mercedes was wearing a long sweater dress with a thick accessory belt and another pair of weirdly patterned leggings, along with some thick, white, workman's socks.  The belt was great, I'd seen it before. Batman, if he were real, would have been so jealous of Mercedes's belt. It had almost magically large pockets on the inside and outside and a coiled thirty foot safety rope wrapped in it. Beyond that, it was a thick, leather and canvas belt. Very much Mercedes's speed. Very much Batman's speed.

"Go nuts," I said. I pointed to my dresser (dark wood and frosted, green glass) I turned around stared at the ceiling. At the weird box. I wondered who it was from. I said, "So, did you put the kettle on?"

"Yup." Mercedes patted my shoulder. "Lets go get some tea." She said.

I said, "That was quick."

Mercedes laughed, but it was a short thing. "I wasn't wearing undies." She said. "I thought this was going to go a bit differently."

She was wearing a hilariously too large ensemble: Too large hooded wrestling sweater; comically big side snap sweat pants. The slippers were hers, for when she came over to study or whatever.

I said, "Oh." and chuckled, too.

Upstairs, the kettle was boiling wildly, whistling loudly. I put the loose leaves into a french press and let the kettle settle down. Mercedes hopped onto a chair, holding her pants up as she did. She pulled her phone from a pocket and swiped and tapped at it. I smiled despite the headache that was settling in. Despite the throb in my cheek.

The shower had been nice. It loosened my body and my lungs and fanned my core, got my blood flowing. It was great.  I shook my head and poured the no longer quite boiling water onto the leaves. I watched them tumble and tornado around the inside of the french press. Staring at the tea leaves I said, "You could take a shower, too. It's pretty relaxing."

"Huh?" Mercedes looked up. "Wha?" She asked.

"I said, you could take a shower if you want." I said. "There's always hot water." I sipped the tea and scowled. "Hot!" I said. I set a cup of green tea on the table next to Mercedes and touched her elbow. She was texting again, even before I'd finished my last sentence.

I sad and breathed in the vapors, holding the cup with both hands, elbows planted on the table. I closed my eyes and in the reverse black and yellow of visions, Jon swam in front of me, falling, and bubbling blood and blind and making rude gestures at me. I sighed. Eyes closed, I sipped at my tea.

Mercedes said, "Hey. Sorry. My parents are mad that I won't be home tonight, but they're both drunk, and its too gross out for me to walk. I promised them we wouldn't make out, though, so they're okay with me being here."

"That's good, then." I said and took a long, long sip of tea. My lips hurt. I sniffled.

"Seriously? Jay killed someone in the Meijer?" Mercedes asked.

I nodded. "Unless he pulled the switchblade out and then sat there staring at the body, he seems to have done a worse number on Jon than he did his sister."

"That's not funny."

"I was being serious. Those cuts, Mercedes. They were serious work."

We stared at each other and Mercedes put her arms on the table and rested her head on them. She reached out and tickled at my arms. I unfolded my arms and smiled. Mercedes thatched our arms and we sat like that for a while, enjoying the contact.

Just to break the silence, I asked, "My parents didn't send you a message, did they?"

"Nope. Why would they?"

I stared at my phone. "They didn't message me, either." I said.

"They're probably also drunk, celebrating finishing that job, or they're busy finishing that job. Either way, they're fine." Mercedes said. I nodded, untangled an arm and sipped more of my tea. "Do you think your mom would mind if I borrowed some tights or leggings or something?" Mercedes asked.

"I don't care if she does, you need clean clothes." I stopped. "I mean, we could just wash and dry the pants you've got."

"Leggings, but yeah."

"We'll be up a while longer while they wash," I said.

"That's fine. I'm tired, but I don't think I'm sleeping for a while. You and Jay, man, you two keep me up!"

"Sorry it's not funner." I said and stuck my tongue out. "You stay here and I'll get our stuff into the washer." I nodded. Mercedes smiled, and it uncurled like the steam from the tea. I smiled back and we looped, our smiles growing on each other. I nodded and padded off.

When I got back, Mercedes was trying on one of the grey hooded sweaters. I asked, "Are we really doing that tomorrow?"

"Yup. I even bought us masks. Well, I stole the masks. Vernie didn't see me, she was flirting with the restocking the hooded sweaters. It was weird. I'm pretty sure he's in my math class."

"She is," I searched for a word. "Vernie is unique." I said. "I don't know why that's the word that comes to mind, but there it is."

My phone rang, with a text message. I check it. It was an address from an unknown sender. I looked at Mercedes, who was looking at her phone. I asked, "Address? Unknown Sender?"

"How'd you know?"

I showed her my phone. "No time, though." I said. My phone went off again: 947 - 1027.

"Well that's specific." Mercedes said. She sipped her tea. "Anyway. I stole masks from Meijer. We can wear them and no one will know who we are." She slowed down, as if her train of thought had run out of gas. Mercedes looked at me. "Well." She said. She sighed. She sipped her tea. "Well, no one will know who I am. Maybe." She sighed again. Mercedes said, "I'm sorry."

I said, "It's cool. If I do it, people will think I'm going with the flow on this one. Maybe I won't get anything thrown at me at lunch if I wear the grey hooded sweater."

"No one's thrown anything at you at all this year." Mercedes said. "Don't you keep up with school gossip? That William Metzger kid killed a teacher in the bathroom with his penis! They were having sex and the teacher just died. It's too embarrassing so the administration are covering it up! They're covering up his huge dong!"

I stared at her, my mouth slightly agape. "Seriously?" I asked.

"Uh huh. That's the funniest one I've heard yet. Don't worry. Most people don't believe it." She winked.

I laughed.

"You know what I haven't done in a long time?" Mercedes asked.

"No idea."

"Watched T.V." Mercedes said, "I haven't just watched something and yelled profane opinions at the television. . . I don't think I've done that since school started."

"We can watch something on my laptop. I'm sure we can get a free streaming television trial from somewhere." I smiled. "That does sound like fun, and we have a timer, too. The washer will be done in about half an hour, then we can reset the dryer before we go to bed and everything will be warm and only slightly wrinkled in the morning."

"What do you have for lunch tomorrow?" Mercedes asked. She said, "I ask, because we could take your mom's car and sleep in an extra forty minutes if we made our lunches and set the coffee out tonight."

"The coffee pot actually has a timer. You can set it to start making coffee at any time." I said.

"That is amazing. Let's make popcorn, too. Do you have popcorn? Can we go get popcorn?" Mercedes bounced on her chair, her eyebrows high. "Seriously! This sounds awesome."

"Neither of us know how to drive." I said, "But Dad eats it. I'll just have to get the maker machine out. I'll make us popcorn, you go get the laptop ready to watch something horrendous!" I jumped off the chair and winced --my ankles both twinged. I didn't let it slow me down and side footed into the kitchen, hunting for the popcorn maker.

Mercedes jumped off her chair, too, and said, "I'll start our clothes watching and bring the laptop into the living room. We'll set it on the table. Can we turn the fire, on, too?"

"Yes!" I said emphatically. I said, "Absolutely. As soon as I've started the popcorn, I will start the fire. And we can --" I stopped. I weighed my words carefully. Mercedes paused at the bathroom door. I said, "We can snuggle. We can be those friends, if you're okay with it."

"I'm gonna sleep with you, some warm up snuggling sounds just dandy." Mercedes said.

I laughed and found the popcorn maker --an ancient thing I think my grandparents gave my parents as a wedding heirloom. By the time I had it set up, dials correctly cranked and the popcorn in the right chamber Mercedes was already tapping away on the laptop in the living room. She called out, "How about that super model choosing reality T.V. contest show?"

"Sounds perfect and horrendous!" I shouted back. The popcorn popped an early kernel that shot out the spout and onto the floor. "I need a bowl!" I shouted.

"Pot head!" Mercedes shouted back.

The wind laughed at us and rattled the glass door. Mercedes closed the blinds. And I scrambled to turn the popcorn machine and get a bowl under the spout before more fluffy white food flew out. I managed all that, found a box of long matches and walked to the fireplace. I'd never actually started the fire before, but I remembered the steps. I opened the chimney. I checked the pilot light. I turned the knob. Nothing. I lit a match and held it in there and with a puff and a wham and a few singed knuckles, I had a fire going. I smiled at Mercedes. The wind howled. The popcorn popped. I hopped on the couch, narrowly missing her feet.

Mercedes leaned forward,  clicked start and we watched the first half of the episode quietly. I got the popcorn --a huge bowl of buttery, fluffy white nuggets. The sleet picked up. The first episode ended. Mercedes shuffled our laundry into the dryer, and when she came back, she slid me down onto the couch and we spooned and watched another episode.   Mercedes smelled like coconut oil and fresh coffee.

We both fell asleep, the empty popcorn bowl on the floor, during the third episode. I'd lost interest when the guy I had a crush on got voted off the show, but Mercedes was still cheering for two people when I fell asleep.

I woke up as Mercedes moved, I think she was half asleep. The sleet was slower now, but still audible. "Hi." I said. I rubbed my eyes and smiled in the glow of the fire. I gently shook her awake.

It was incredibly warm in the living room.

I got up and turned the fire off. I remembered to close the chimney. I smiled in the darkness. "Bed?" I asked.

"Bed." Mercedes said softly, slowly stretching and standing, hands hidden in the depths of the long sleeves she was wearing. "You get to be by the wall. I'll protect you from monsters if any break into your room."

I said, "Thank-you."

Through the dark house, we shuffled slowly down the stairs and into my room. I turned on the  bedside lamp. I climbed into bed first, and Mercedes pulled the pillow from the top bunk down. She snuggled into me and then she smelled like popcorn and leather. I smiled into the back of her head, my lips brushed he scalp. Mercedes's hand snuck behind her, onto my hip. I froze.

"Its okay." She whispered. She patted my hip. "Its cool down here, but you're really warm." 

"You're welcome." I said. I couldn't think of anything else to say. I stuffed an arm under her neck. "Is this okay?" I said. Mercedes made a happy, mumming noise; her hands found mine under the blankets.


We laid there, peacefully for a long time. I must have dozed off for a while because I woke up to  Mercedes talking, whispering really, mid sentence. "[something something] you." she said. 

I listened, but she didn't say anything else. My arm under Mercedes's head was numb. I pulled it out, quickly, but that woke her.

"Oh! are you okay?"

"Yeah, arm fell asleep."

"Just like us."

I chuckled. "Just like us. Are you comfy?" I asked.

"Uh huh." Mercedes said and wiggled back against me. "See you tomorrow --!" Mercedes said.

"Good night." I said.