It took me some time to fall back asleep. I woke from a dream, running through a circular corn maze. I had been trying to find something, but I'd forgotten what. I smiled in the darkness when I realized Mercedes was still there, her warm feet against my shins."
I touched the headboard and thought goodnight thoughts to my parents. I hoped they were well. I inhaled deeply and found the ghost of Mercedes's coconut and leather. She was very still, laying on her side, an arm hanging out of the blankets, off the edge of the bed, into the darkness.
I fell asleep again.
I woke feeling like I'd been punched in the face. The lamp was on. Mercedes was not in my bed, and my right eye wouldn't open.
"Okay." I said to myself. I looked at my phone: 6:23 a.m. "Cool. We still have time to get to school. Mercedes can drive. We made lunches. I think. Did we?" I sat up and the world whirled around me. I lay down again. My right eye still wouldn't open. "Why am I talking out loud?" I asked myself.
I sat up slowly, and the whirling was tolerable.
I looked at the pillow. There was a river delta or a city scape of blood on the sheets and my pillow. Mercedes's pillow had blood on it, too but far less than mine. I stood up, fell down immediately and cried out in pain. The tall bedside table did not support my weight, instead falling on me, the lamp toppling off, the bulb cracking off. In the dark, my right ankle felt swollen and raw. I couldn't wiggle my toes.
"Hey!" Mercedes shouted from somewhere. A moment later, panting, my bedroom door slammed open and light poured around Mercedes, her stubble haloed around her head. She half smiled at me. "Are you okay? I was just getting a washcloth." She held up a gently steaming washcloth --vapor trails in the hallway light. "Your eye is bloodied shut and I don't know what else. Your bed is crazy." Mercedes sat next to me on the floor and took the back of my head in one hand. "Hold still." She commanded. She wiped at my eye firmly but gently. She asked, "Can you open it now?"
I tried, but it was still stuck shut. "Nope."
Mercedes dabbed at it and wiped and refolded it and pushed some more. She sat back. She said, "Try now. It looks much cleaner, there's less scabbing."
I slowly opened my right eye. The whirling slowed a bit. Mercedes smiled at me, her brow less furrowed. I said, "Did we get run over?"
"You might've, actually." Mercedes said. "Do you not remember your dream?"
I shook my head no.
"We need to get to school. I checked the news, and they're looking for suspects in yesterday's mall fake fire fiasco."
I noticed Mercedes was dressed: yesterday's leggings and boots. Her belt peaked from under the grey hooded sweater. "Let me see your right ankle --goodness!" Mercedes said, a hand covering her mouth.
"Can you walk?" She asked behind her hand.
"Don't know." I said.
"Here, use my brace. I should be okay as long as I don't have to run, heh, or walk particularly fast. You need this more than me." Mercedes pulled a shiny black, brace from the pouch on her hooded sweater. She scooted down and strapped it to my right ankle, then pressed two buttons I hadn't noticed on either side. A series of needle pricks ran spirals on either side of my ankle. I shudder-shivered and closed my eyes against a wave of warmth that shot up my leg and spread across my chest.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Pain killers, two different anti-inflammatories, a few toxin sensors and a bone and ligament alignment brace cast. My dad brought it home for my mom once, then refilled it and gave it to me a few days ago. It really helps, but I don't know if the meds are going to last very long. You're much larger than my mom and me." She patted my shoulder. "You should be okay to limp around until after lunch, at least." She smiled wanly.
"Thank-you." I said.
"You need to hurry up and get dressed though, or we're going to be late. Do you need help?"
I shook my head no and smiled at her. Mercedes raised half her mouth and got up.
"You sure?" She asked.
Mercedes tossed the bloody towelette at me. "You should swab yourself. Boy stink and all." Her smile filled out and she winked at me in silhouette, standing in the doorway. She shouted as she went up the stairs, "Use the rail! Don't forget anything!"
I nodded. I pulled my practice knee and elbow braces on, under my a-frame and long sleeved t-shirt. I made sure I wore comfortable, broken in jeans and grey socks. Made sure I had everything else (wallet, phone, keys) and slowly made my ponderous way up to the kitchen. I smelled coffee and something greasy cooking as I climbed.
By the time I made it to the top of the stairs I was sweating lightly, but nothing hurt.
"You're sweating, but nothing hurts. That's the painkillers." Mercedes said, looked at me and laughed away my frown. "I had to deal with that thing for almost a week, remember?"
Mercedes raised an eyebrow, then held up a cup of coffee and jostled it at me. In the kitchen light I could see she had a fat lip and there were long, fresh, scabs dotting her neck and hands.
"What happened to us last night?" I asked.
Mercedes turned the stove down to very low, then came and sat next to me at the high top. She sipped her coffee, while I stared at mine. Finally, she said. "I dunno, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with the dream I had."
I said, "Oh?"
"Yeah. I was hoping you'd remember your dream because that'd be, like, confirmation or something." The lid rattled on the pan. "IT's just the grease spitting, and I hope your parents weren't expecting any of that bacon to be left over." Mercedes chuckled. "Or eggs, for that matter."
"You hungry?" I asked.
"I am, but you need to eat, too. It's going to be a long day today."
"I know, and there's gonna be a school full of students looking exactly like that weird mutant Jon. And then Jay's gonna be a mess. And --"
"I get it. I need to eat." I said.
Mercedes slapped my hand. "And drink your coffee while it's hot."
"You know I like hot black things in my mouth." I said.
Mercedes started to say something, but stopped herself. "Damn straight I do." She said with a smile. She slid off her chair and pulled the large red pan off the stove. She shook the contents. I Noticed the stove was on, too. I looked at my phone. The phone read 6:52am.
The stove beeped. "Hah! It's soup!" Mercedes said, and (with a stove glove) pulled a tray of shredded hash browns from the oven. "Perfect. Grab the Sriracha." She said. Expertly, Mercedes slid half the bacon, scrambled eggs, and golden hash browns onto a plate. Another third she slid onto another plate, and the remaining chunk she slid into a Tubber ware container. "For lunch. I made you sandwiches. They can all go in my bag, though. Your bag. Your spare bag. I'm borrowing your messenger bag, be tea double-you."
"Do you need a notebook or my tablet or something?" I said between mouthfuls of savory eggs and potatoes.
"It'd be awesome if I could borrow your tablet!" Mercedes said. She stole a piece of bacon from my plate and popped it in her mouth, first bending it double against her bottom lip. "Thanks." She said, grinning at me with her eyes and teeth.
"Sure. I'll get it." I said.
"Already got it." Mercedes said. She swigged the rest of her coffee with two serious swigs, full of swagger. She stuffed the last of her food into her mouth and chewed fearsomely. "You finish, I'll start the car." She said.
I barely chewed my food, stuffing eggs and bacon and potatoes into my mouth squirrel like. It was delicious and warm but I barely tasted it. The warm became pronounced as I carefully wiggled into the hulking pullover hooded sweater. I looked at my phone again: 7:01am.
We were going to make it.
I hopped into the car and pressed the garage door opener above Mercedes's head. She made a vrooming noise with her mouth, watching the rearview mirror. Before the door was all the way up, she gunned the engine and with a jerk and a thunk and a whup whump we were on the driveway.
Thunk? Whump whup.
"Oh." Mercedes said.
I said, "Oh."
We both hopped out of the car. Stuck shoving ineffectually at the tire, blood and puke streaming from his face, Jon swore. He looked up at me. There was so much blood. His face was covered from the eyes down. Jon said something to me, but I couldn't understand it.
I threw up. Projectile vomited, really. Right on Jon. Part of me yelled and felt bad and wanted to wipe it off. In a daze, I jumped. I landed on his arms, which pushed into his face. I stumbled and almost twisted my bad ankle. I could feel the cast, doing weird and supportive things as I stumbled. I brought my other heel down on his face; again. Again. He went limp. I heard Mercedes say something. I looked up. She was yelling, but I couldn't understand her either. I said, "It's him It's Jon. Run him over again." I stomped on his neck, twice, and got into the car. "I'm gonna get blood on the mats." I said. "Shoot."
Mercedes got in and reversed over the prone Jon, Then she put the car in forward and thupped over him. Then, slowly, she rolled out again, turning the wheel to X over a different part of him. "He's dead. It was quick." She said. She nodded.
We looked at each other, then to the clock on the dashboard. 7:08am.
Mercedes said, "We can still make it."
Mercedes Squealed the tires and we were off, shooting toward the traffic. I tapped the button and checked in the side mirror that the garage door was going down --it was.
I nodded to myself. "We can still make it." I said. I asked, "Do you have our masks?"
Mercedes nodded and pointed to the back seat. "They're in my bag." She said.
"It's mine now. I've marked it."
"We are not going to talk about that." Mercedes said. I started to say something, but she cut me off with, "I've got a quiz in Government today, but we get extra credit if we're dressed "Seasonably." Can you believe that? As if how I dress has anything to do with government or governance."
I nodded. My stomach roiled. Mercedes swore and stopped at a red light.
We took off like Mana through her restaurant kitchen doors. Cars honked and I braced for an impact that never came for the length of screeching tires. "Awesome." Mercedes said, her face a rictus. "I don't think we'll be able to eat on the roof, it's too cold, even with our extra coats. The lunch room is going to be a nightmare, but I think Morgan has it pretty under control. We should be okay there."
"We never talked about your dream." I said.
"Our dream. You were in it too. We talked in the dream, before --" Mercedes said and accelerated into oncoming traffic, making a lefthand turn into the school parking lot. "--things went sour. Then white. Things went really white. We can talk about it later."
The YOUR SPEED: __ machine was solid red as we flew by it. Mercedes bit her lip and slammed the brakes, fishtailing right onto the sidewalk, across the other lane. She straightened into the correct lane shot out a bark of a laugh.
"HOLY --!" I shouted, but we stopped, the bumper lightly grazing the Handicapped pole. I uncurled. "Thank-you." I said.
"Your class is down that hallway, right?" Mercedes smiled, grimly.
"It is, thank-you. Greatly appreciated!"
"Thank-you for flying Mercedes Airlines. Please remove your own sick bags, and tip your pilots." Mercedes held out a hand. I slapped it.
The clock on the dashboard read 7:12am.
"You are amazing." I said. "See you at lunch!"
"You better." Mercedes leaned down and looked me in the eyes as I pulled my backpack on. She said, "You better." again, and then I was walking to class.
I was on time, but I was the last one in as the bell rang. Every single student was in a grey hooded sweater. Certainly, there were many shades, but all twenty-eight other students were wearing plain, grey hooded sweaters. Even the teacher was wearing a (darker than the rest of us, but still) grey hooded sweater. About half of the students had their anonymous masks pulled up on the top of their heads. They all sat, chatting until the teacher stood up.
The lecture was easy, something Dad had taught me about a few summers ago. I got a question wrong, having transposed letters in my mental formula. I smiled and apologized and some people booed at me for screwing up --it was a surprisingly good humored hour, all things told.
The tone for second hour went off and I stood up. I thought I could get in front of the crowds but I wobbled and had to sit. My rolled ankle felt --anything-- swollen and tender. My right eye throbbed and felt like it was fluttering. I inhaled. I said to myself, "This is the easy part." I stood slowly, exhaling as I stood. I smiled at my first hour teacher. I pulled my anonymous mask out of my back pack. Inhale. Slid the mask over my face. The mask was warm on my cheeks. "All for one." I said.
"And one for all." My teacher replied with a smile. "I love that story."
I nodded as I walked by. I remembered to breathe all the way to second hour. I was a minute late, but my teacher let it slide: I wasn't the last one in, and the teacher must've noticed my limp. I took my mask off and wiped the sweat from my brow.
Two students, both wearing the big eye anonymous masks ran in and slid into their desks just as the teacher started writing on the smart board. "Take your masks off in class." The teacher told them, "Be respectful."
"They're glued on." One of the students said. The other student said, "We are very serious about our anonymity." They said in unison, "We don't want to get murdered."
The teacher sighed and turned back to the board, restarting the lecture.
The glued-ons sounded muffled under their masks and I could've sworn one of them was a girl, but sounded she like a boy under her mask.
I shuffled in my seat and tried to concentrate on the lecture. I hopped I could get better notes from a classmate tomorrow.
The tone sounded. I put my notebook away and sighed and got up. The two people who were late were already gone --dashed out the classroom laughing and smacking people on the back of their head. I stepped cautiously into the throng and shuffled along with the flow. It was shadowy in the hallway, and the few sprayed on cobwebs were actually menacing, looming from the ceilings and corners. There were only a few people wearing costumes other than the grey hooded sweater and most students had the anonymous masks, too. A thousand smiling, soulless mouths. Hundreds of flat black eyes. I felt nauseated.
I shuffled carefully down the stairs and went right. I usually went left. I went right again and hobble hopped, hop hobbled could down the corridor. I was almost to the hallway for my next glass when trouble hit.
Two bulky anonymous-es shoved me into a stair well, then pushed me again and I fell, legs sprawling, backpack flying off my shoulder, over the on all-fours anonymous waiting for me. I banged my head on the back slant of the stairs and this saved me --my body kept going, swinging around the new momentum point. My vision watered, but I landed on a foot and a knee instead of my back. There was shuffling and I had to block a kick to the face with both arms.
Someone threw my backpack at me, but I caught it and used it to ram my way through the crowd of anonymous in the stairwell and around the corner to the outside. I ran a few yards, my ankle spiking in pain. I spun, panting.
Three anonymous masks walked out of the stairwell, coming straight for me. I fell into a crouch, hands up, fingers tight and spread my legs.
"Boo!" One of them shouted at me, and I flinched. The trio laughed and headed away from me, to the right.
The orange lamp lights snapped off.
I sighed and stood up, my busted ankle and my eyebrows burning.
Someone tackled me from behind.
We turned as we tumbled and, not caring any more, I landed on top of the person, my elbow on their mask's mouth, my fist braced against my other arm. There was a snap I felt more than heard and I I scrambled up, as the crowd swung around as one body, to see what the commotion was. I swung too, and saw the anonymous curl into a ball, clutching at its mask.
One fallen wasn't enough to elicit a change of motion for the whole crowd however, and I let myself get swept over the bridge toward my next class.
I was a minute late, again, and the teacher was already reading from a book of scary stories. She was dressed as a witch, but from under her gauzy black dress poked a grey hooded sweater. Her prosthetic nose was very painstakingly attached and very realistic. I quietly mentioned how good-gross it looked as I sat. I pulled my mask off and huffed.
"That's very kind of you, tall anonymous number seven." The teacher said. "But please stay after class. I explained the homework before you came in, so you'll need to get that from me before you make your anonymous way to your next class. Anonymous?"
"Anonymous." I replied.
The class of creamy, rictus masks giggled and chattered like cold skeletons. The teacher read us her half dozen favorite stories from the scary stories books. We talked briefly about what made them scary and then about the different kinds of scary. It was interesting and I was sad when the tone for fourth hour sounded. I tried to leave but the teacher grabbed my hand and I had to stay. She explained the writing assignment to me. I had to write about the scariest moment in my life, then share it with the class for peer review. It was due next Tuesday. It counted as a test, as far as weight and importance. I nodded at the right moments and smiled and nodded some more.
“I’m going to be late to class. Can I have a pass?”
“You’ve got long legs."
“It’s third floor in the far building and I’ve got a sprained ankle. I pulled up my pants leg to show her the brace. “See?”
“I see.” The teacher said and wrote me an apologetic late pass for fourth hour. I thanked her and started my trek.
Outside, the throngs were already pouring into the distant buildings. I put my head down against the cold and started walking.
A gaggle of anonymous ran past me, one of them pirouetted daintily and laughed. "Hurry hurry little fly!" It called after me. Its voice was distorted, sounded like a robot speech to text translator. The balletic anonymous stopped a head of me. black hair Stuck out around the mask, gentling waving in the wind. "The frog will soon eat you, little fly if you don't hurry up." The disjointed voice said again. The anonymous bobbled its head left to right and ran at me.
I stood where I was, half way between frozen in place and knowing I'd never catch it in a chase. It twirled around me and stopped to my left, closest to the river.
"You'll know fear when the frog comes." The robotic voice said. The anonymous waved at me and ran back to its group of friends, who had stopped and watched from a distance. The gaggle ran off. The tone rang. I walked purposefully toward the school.
I considered my options. I was late to Phoenix's class. Not good. The classroom was on the third or fourth floor. Too many stairs for my ankle. If I cut through the cafeteria and took the elevator, I would only be a few minutes, not half an hour, late. Not bad. I had a pass from my third hour teacher, so I wouldn't be getting detention for being late. Pretty good.
I walked through the empty cafeteria with my mask pulled up, staring at the ceiling for me. My footsteps echoed in the emptiness, even when I tried to walk quietly, so I gave it up.
Feeling suddenly very exposed, I stood and waited for the elevator to come down.
A door closed with a loud click. I heard footsteps, running, somewhere far off in the cafeteria. The elevator dinged and the door opened. I stepped inside, reaching for the third floor button. Pressed it and held the close door button. Two more anonymous skidded around the corner and sprinted for the elevator. The door started to close and I jammed and hammered on the door close button but one of them dove like a baseball player into home base, and their leg wedged the doors open. The doors opened a bit and the second anonymous jammed them open with their forearm. The one on the ground scissored and kicked at my bad ankle and I had to stand on one leg to avoid the swoop. The second one dove at me, slammed me against the elevator wall while I was off balance.
"We need your blood." The one pinning me to the wall said. With a twitch of his hands, there was a blue plastic knife at my throat. There were more robotic voices.
"I've got some to spare, actually. It's in the scar on my cheek, here," I turned my cheek toward the anonymous.
"Oh, he's a comedian. Who knew?" The smaller anonymous had a female robotic voice and white gloves on.
"Femonymous." I thought and chuckled despite my situation.
"This is funny to you?" Manonymous asked.
I shrugged. I couldn't headbutt Manonymous without slashing my own throat. Femonymous was doing something to the panel. The elevator doors were closed, but we weren't moving.
I screamed for help. I got the word "Help!" out twice, before Manonymous cut me with his blade. He reopened the scar on my cheek and put another line just under it. He drew an ex on the bridge of my nose with the knife. He switched which hand held the blade and pushed it against my adam's apple.
Blood started pooling between my collar bones. I gritted my teeth and tried to think clearly. "Just a second." Manonymous said, still searching in his pocket. I smiled at him and carefully shrugged. "This." he said, and tapped the bloody tip of my nose with a small vial. "This needs filling."
The elevator made a dinging noise I'd never heard before. The Femonymous made a confused noise that burbled to a wet gasp.
"What is --" Manonymous turned,and I watched as a short, red haired anonymous pushed a butcher's knife under his chin and twisted. Manonymous's hands shot to the blade handle, but it was too late. Blood pumped and spurted from his wrecked throat. The short anonymous tapped him on his forehead and he fell back, stiff as a plank, hands at his own throat, not at all staunching the flow of blood.
I recognized Morgan's voice, behind the mask, when she said, "They're scenery now. It's halloween. They're just props." Morgan tipped an imaginary hat at me. She stuffed a key back down the front of her grey hooded sweater and patted me on my shoulder with a bloody, gloved hand. "You'll be okay." She said. She pressed the 4 button and stepped out, tracking bloody footprints out of the elevator. A moment later, the doors closed and the elevator rattled to life.
The blood was excruciatingly red to look at in the dull blue steel and institutional pale yellow of the elevator. I stared at the ceiling, but somehow there was a comet trail of blood up there, too.
The door dinged and opened and standing there was another anonymous. With a low growl he dove at me, mismatched fingers and middle-finger thumbs going for my eyes. I fell low and punched him in the crotch as he charged and when he doubled over I grabbed his ears and smashed the mask into the elevator doors. I stood and kicked him into the pool of blood and limbs, just as the elevator doors shut. I stood very slowly. I turned and standing there was Phoenix.
I knew it was Phoenix because Phoenix's hood was down and red hair splayed messily around the anonymous mask. "You're late. You're getting detention." Phoenix said. Phoenix tapped a toe shoe foot on the floor.
I rummaged in my pocket and pulled out the late pass. "I have a pass." I said and held it up like a viking shows off a severed head.
We stood there, in the empty hallway for a full minute.
"Get in the classroom, Metzger." Phoenix said.
I squelched bloodily into the classroom and took my seat. There was a drizzle of blood down my throat and my knees ached. I couldn't feel my ankle. It felt troublingly normal. Phoenix came in and my right eye started twitching wildly.
Phoenix pressed a button on the smart board remote and said, "Today we are going to watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We are going to watch it twice." The board flickered and changed inputs twice, and then Its the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, started playing. Phoenix said, "There will be a quizz." Then turned out the lights and left the classroom.
I turned around. Another class of completely anonymous students. Sure, one or three didn't have the mask, but I saw some home made anonymous masks: a paper plate here, an actual, spray painted, theatrical mask there. I smiled at the paper plate mask, but the student didn't react.
The movie played through and I sat, focusing on my breathing with my eyes closed. My phone went off, and, discretely, I checked it.
JAY: U OK?
ME: Ya. Not dead yet. Just bloody
JAY: They didnt get ne did they?
ME: Na. Your sister saved me
JAY: Coooool C U @ Lunch!
Halfway through the second play through the input switched again, and a bit.ly URL appeared on the board, along with the instructions:
Use your cellphones.
Answer these questions.
You may go.
The quiz was surprisingly easy.
Most of the students got up and left after the test, pulling their hoods or masks down as they went. A few of us, though, stayed. I opened my Spanish textbook and started reading. I'd been falling a bit behind and this was a good time to do some quick reading. Besides, regardless of how anonymous everyone else was, I was a slow, easy target. I contented myself with studying.
"Hey. Hey William." Came a girl's voice.
I ignored it, pretending to be engrossed in my book, but the hair on the back of my neck stood.
Someone poked me in the shoulder and a bruised I didn't know I had screamed in pain. I winced and turned. "Hi?" I said.
"Hello." A petite girl in a clever grey hooded sweater dress said. "I'm Jenny." She was short, with short brown pony tail hair and thick eyeliner only above her tired, deep set green eyes. Jenny said, "I heard you killed Jon."
"I mean, its not like he's actually dead. But I heard he hasn't been bullying people since you and him tangled each other up. I just want to say thank-you. He was picking on me and my sister, we're the same age, and we're juniors, but he always picked on us, and he never got our names right. I'm Jenny, she's Patricia. We're twins, but we're not totally identical!"
Someone behind us shushed loudly. Jenny took the stool next to me and set her back pack on the table. "It's really cool what you do around here. I read all about last year online when I found out William Metzger was the person who helped me and Jenny out. Even if you didn't mean to, we really, really appreciate it."
I was still frowning, but I whispered, "You're welcome."
"So, there's this party tonight. I'm going to it. I could send you the invite if you like."
"You got the part where I'm gay, right?" I blurted.
"Oh." Jenny said. She looked at me. "Really?" She asked.
"Yeah. No boyfriend doesn't mean I'm suddenly not gay. And you're very pretty!" I said, suddenly fumbling for words, "But seriously. I'm not a girls guy."
"Do you still want me to text you the address?" Jenny asked without looking at me.
I smiled politely. "Sure." I said.
"Oh. Okay." Jenny said, "Thanks again." and stood up. "See you later!" She said and waved limply.
The smart board cycled through inputs again, and another bit.ly URL Came up. The instructions this time were:
Do this one tonight.
Watch this video.
Answer these questions.
Email your answers to [Phoenix's Email Addres@pcmail.edu]
The last two students and I wrote down the URL and looked at each other. We chuckled, happily. "Are you gonna tell anyone?" A boy with dusty hair asked.
"I don't really know anyone else in the class. Just Jenny, I suppose." I said.
"Well dude, I'm Gabriel. I know who you are, dude." Gabriel waved at me. "Most people call me Gabby," he said. The tone sounded and we all packed up and walked out.
Gabby fell into step with me as I limped to the elevator. My ankle was starting to throb. My phone went off, but I ignored it. Gabby struck up some small talk. He talked about the swim team and his girlfriend cheerleader. He talked about how bummed he was our original Science teacher got replaced with Phoenix. I agreed with him. Gabby talked about how Phoenix was systematically crushing the smoking spots on campus. How his smoker friends were going nuts and their grades were dropping because they couldn't concentrate. I chuckled sadly.
I said, "That sucks." In front of the elevator. I pressed the button.
"Well, I'm gonna go eat with friends." Gabby paused and looked at me. I shuffled from foot to foot. "If you want to eat with us, you can."
"Thank-you. I'm meeting some friends in the cafeteria."
"Oh, cool. Have a good one dude." Gabby held his hand out and we shook. I smiled at him and we pulled our masks on. "Damn. That is too realistic." Gabby said and walked away.
I stepped over the slumped bodies, into the blood sludge and pressed the down button. The elevator smelled strongly of iron and rotten oranges. All the color seemed to have seeped into the blood.
The door opened and, queasily, I stepped out and limped through the sea of anonymous masks and grey hooded sweaters to where Mercedes and I normally sat. I sat gingerly down and stretched my worse leg out. "Hey." I said.
"Hey." Mercedes pulled up her mask and pushed her hood back. "How'd you know it was me?"
I shrugged. "I just did." I said.
She pushed her tray across the table to me. There was still half a pizza and a container and a half of tater tots, floating in an ocean of ketchup. "The serving lady gave me extra tots. And Jay texted, he's going to be later than normal, he said. He said his sister needed his help with something."
"Cool." I said. I started nibbling at the pizza.
"How are you not hungry?" Mercedes asked. Some of her scabs had fallen off, pink skin bright in the sunless, cafeteria hall.
"Just not." I said. I shrugged.
"So. You remember your dream yet?" Mercedes asked.
I shook my head no and forced myself to swallow a few real bites of pizza. I nodded at her. "But tell me about yours."
"Oh em gee it was weird." Mercedes said. "Everything was red and white. Like a messed up black and white movie, right?"
Mercedes continued, "So, I'm in this red and white, white and black dream, yeah? And I'm looking around and I'm in this weird, blown out lab, and there's all this broken glass, just hanging in the air, and there's fireballs, just frozen in the air, and I'm walking through this frozen scene but its hot. Like, if I get close to the fire, its hot, right? And I'm walking through all the broken glass and stuff and then I see you. You're standing there, with your hands around the neck of some dude in a lab coat. There's white just pouring off the two of you, like steam, like blood, like, well whatever. Like everything. But neither of you are moving. I tapped you on the shoulder and you came to life, or unfroze, or something. You dropped the guy you were choking and took my hand, and you smiled. And we walked through this messed up, on fire laboratory. Down these rows and rows --and this is how I know it was a dream-- the rows of glass containers just went on for almost ever. And inside the tanks were people. Dudes, just floating. Some of them were thrashing and it was murky in there and some of them didn't have fully formed faced. Some were cute little fetuses, just floating in there, looking small." Mercedes paused.
"Wow." I said.
"Yeah. So like, I looked behind us, and the explosions were following us, but at a safe distance. It was like." She stopped. "I dunno. It was a weird dream. Then we came to this elevator and the doors were bright white, and you pressed the button, and when it opened there was this gigantic horse man. Like a minotaur, but with a horse's head instead of a bull and he had a huge metal pole and he smashed you in your ankle and tried to smash you in your face, but you mostly got out the way, and I freaked out and started looking for something to help fight the horse-a-tour with, but where ever I walked, things exploded or caught on fire, and it was terrifying! So I finally found a fire extinguisher and I sprayed the horse in the muzzle and eyes just as he was about to bash your brains out, and he freaked out and started staggering around and stuff, smashing himself into the infinity of glass person tubes. He started braying and screaming and clawing at his face and we got into the elevator and the doors closed and --"
I said, "Wow." again. I finished the pizza and started on the tater tots. I asked, "So you got all cut up and I got beaten up by a, a horse-a-tour.
"Yup. Then when we were in the elevator it stopped moving and we were trapped in it for what felt like forever, then ceiling fell on us and I got this fat lip." Mercedes pouted.
"In the dream and in here." I said.
Mercedes nodded. "Yup. And all these glass scratches, too. And I think we were naked, not that it mattered."
"Huh." I said. "So, we were in the elevator, it was stopped, then ceiling fell in on us. Then what?"
"I think the cables snapped. There was a huge boom, whip crack sound and then we were falling really fast, and then I woke up. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I got up, showered, made breakfast and surfed the internet for a bit, you know, then you were screaming and by the time I got down stairs you were awake and on the floor."
"And not screaming." I said.
"And not screaming." Mercedes said. She She said. “But just before I got down there, you were screaming. About a horse, and fire. And being trampled.”
“Well.” I said, “That is weird.”
“Yeah.” Mercedes said.
“I girl in my fourth hour asked me on a date today.” I said. I dunked two tater tots in ketchup.
“How is that fair?” Jay sat down next to me, swinging his legs carefully under the table.
“You have a girlfriend.” I said, “What do you care?”
“You’re gay! You don’t need girls.”
“It’s not like I asked her out, Jay. She thanked me for beating up Jon, then asked me to a party. My mobile rang. I checked it discretely, Mom was calling me. “Excuse me,” I said. I pulled my hood up and carefully snuck the phone to my ear. “Hello.” I said.
“Please tell me you have my car.” Mom said.
“I have your car. Hi.” I said. I asked, “Where have you and Dad been?”
“Fixing and finishing a project your father was working on. We’re done now.”
I leaned back and put my other hand to my forehead. I thought, "Oh shit. The body."
"William? What body?" Mom asked.
"I have to work on my internal monologue." I said.
"Nothing. Listen, mom about the body. The one in the driveway."
"William. There wasn't a body in the driveway. Did you run over a cat or something?"
"Oh geez, William! Did you hit a dog driving to school?"
"No, Mom. I didn't hit a dog or a cat. There's no body in the driveway?" I asked. My heart thundered and my whole body ached, like every cut and bruised from the last three months had re-manifested.
"I hit --"
Mercedes cut me off, with a chopping, slicing hand motion to her throat. She shook her head left and right, her eyes wide.
"Is this a Halloween joke?" Mom asked. "Because there wasn't anything in our driveway, and my car was missing. And! You forgot to lock the inside garage door. What have I asked you?"
"To always double check the inner and outer doors. Sorry Mom."
"Are you going to be home tonight?"
"There's a party. Would it be okay if I slept at Mercedes's house tonight?"
There was silence while Mom thought about her answer. She said, "You dad misses you."
I said, "I miss him too." And I really, really do. "But this is, like, a once in a lifetime party. I'll stay in with you guys tomorrow night. Promise."
"Well, tomorrow night, Mercedes can stay, too. It feels like forever since we've seen you two." Mom said. "I'll cook something yummy for us all, okay? And you can do the dishes. All the dishes, William, you will do them."
"That sounds good. Thank-you Mom! Tell Dad hello and I love him."
"Will do. Bye."
I said "Bye."I hung up.
"--and then I woke up." Mercedes said, and popped a tater tot in her mouth. Jay just stared at her, his eyes wide.
He said, "Oh that is weird."
"I know, right?" Mercedes said.
"I mean, there was that fire alarm at the mall, then you dream about this fire. Really weird." Jay said. He stuffed a whole quarter of a quesadilla into his mouth and chewed loudly.
"Did you tell him about the giant horse head guy?" I asked.
"Seriously weird." I said. "So, I've got Mom's car, and she didn't ask for it back. So we've got a ride to the party!"
"Are you sure you want to take your mom's car there? It's way out in the middle of nowhere." Mercedes said. She pointed a tater tot at me. "Do you have AAA, if we get stuck or something?"
"I don't, but my parents do. They always keep that stuff in the glove box." I nodded and ate the last of the tater tots. "Thank-you." I said.
Mercedes said, "You're welcome."
"It's still cool if I bring Jenna, right?" Jay asked. "You guys can pick me up?"
"That's fine." Mercedes said "Are we wearing these same costumes? They seemed lame, but I'm beginning to like 'em."
"I don't have anything else." I said. I laughed. "There was someone in my fourth hour with a home made paper plate anonymous mask. It was pretty amazing!"
Jay laughed too, "Hah! There was one of those in my second hour. I wonder --"
"If it was the same person?" I finished. I said, "Yeah, I don't know. Funny!"
The tone for fifth hour went off and the sea of grey hooded sweaters leapt up and swooshed slowly toward the exits. Mercedes, Jay and I all stood up together. Mercedes and I groaned and rubbed at our stiff joints while Jay stood around, hot footing.
"So, what time will you guys?"
"Make sure you and Jenna are ready to go by nine o'clock." Mercedes said.
"Seems early for a cool party." Jay replied, quickly.
"It's a drive. Okay? Just be ready, little one, and mind thy tongue." Mercedes curtly patted Jay on the shoulder and gave him one of her mother's faux smiles.
"Shall we then?" I asked.
"Oh lets." Mercedes and Jay said together and with that, we tromped off to our classes.
Fifth hour was another blur of anonymous masks and false jumps and the pain medication wore off just as I was sitting down.
Sixth hour was an agonized, slow motion jog, blurred to the point of abstraction that I came out of laying on the couch in Mercedes's white and cream front living room, with my pants rolled up to my knees and Mrs. Swanson talking quietly but sternly to Mercedes.
"Saved me." Mercedes said -- was the first thing I comprehended.
"Saved you?" I asked. My tongue felt swollen in my mouth. My teeth felt like dentures. I clacked them together experimentally.
Mrs. Swanson looked at me. She shook her stern head. "Mr. Swanson is on his way home with a larger brace. You're not moving from this couch until it's on you. Just look at your ankle!" Mrs. Swanson commanded, "Look at it!"
I did. It was a giant, swollen purple and red mess. I felt my head go light and lay back down. I bonked my head hard on the arm of the couch and said, "Ow."
"These things," Mrs. Swanson held up the brace Mercedes had loaned me, "Are user designed. Custom ordered! They are not cheap!" She set Mercedes's brace on the floor. "You're lucky you get to keep your fool foot." Mrs. Swanson said and stood up. Towering over me, long hands on her hips she said, "Can you drink anything?"
My stomach turned. "I'd better not." I said.
"Close your eyes William. We'll wake you when Mr. Swanson gets here."
I closed my eyes and immediately sounds lost their coherency. The room started to spin, so I rolled to my side. Lying on my left side made it worse. Laying on my right side made it better. I sighed and stayed on my right side.
Someone said something, their lips warm in the dark, against my ear.
(The next thing I remember is) "There you go William, you should be all set now." I opened my eyes. I was on my back. My calves were warm, especially the right one. The window frame was very sharp, and very bright, but my head felt clear.
My tongue seemed smeared with nickel.
"Thank-you." I said.
Mr. Swanson laughed and stood up. He was wearing aqua nurse's scrubs, with a grey hooded sweater over them. He rubbed his hands together. "You're welcome. You're just lucky my family is usually healthy, or I wouldn't have had the company credit built up to get you this." Mr. Swanson smiled and his lips were so full. I started to count the exquisite crows feet on his upper lip. "Tell your dad the bill's in the mail." Mr. Swanson's hand was firm and strong and warm when he patted my shoulder. He was so ni --
"Bill?" I asked.
Mr. Swanson laughed, a deep harmonious gong of a sound and firmly patted my shoulder again. "Not really, Will. (Will!). But let me know if he goes a bit pale, would you?"
And then Mercedes and I were alone in her spacious white room. The grand piano sat attentively, its lip closed.
"I'm sorry Will!" Mercedes said (again?). She put her head next to mine on the couch, our noses crossed and she looked like she had been crying. She sniffed. I patted her cheek, but I was groggy and it came off as more a surprise slap.
"Slap of love!" I shouted.
"Don't you dare!" Mrs. Swanson bellowed from the kitchen, "I will end the life of anyone who hits my daughter!"
"Mom! He didn't!" Mercedes called out.
I closed my eyes, "Loud." I whispered.
"Sorry," Mercedes giggled and bonked her forehead against mine. I winced.
"Seriously though. Why am I so brittle?"
Mrs. Swanson stood tall in the space between the kitchen and the living room. She said, "The medicine hasn't fully entered your system yet. You'll be fine as fine in an hour or so." She handed me a tall glass with a milky red substance. "Vee eight," Said Mrs. Swanson. "Drink it down, it'll help."
It tasted bitter and took a few swallows, but I finished it. I wiped politely at the corners of my mouth. I handed the glass back to Mrs. Swanson.
"Where's Mr. Swanson?" I asked.
Mrs. Swanson said, "He had to go back to work. He took his first lunch break to run you your custom brace. You should thank him. He doesn't get many breaks these days." She nodded, as if to herself.
I nodded at Mrs. Swanson. "I will thank him." I said. I asked, "Are these things really expensive?"
"Don't you worry about it. Just don't make it worse tonight with your horrible dancing, okay?" Mrs. Swanson let a genuine smile slip through her facade. Realizing her mistake, she turned abruptly and went back into the kitchen. She shouted, "We're having left overs. Be down at seven to eat. Remember to wash your hands. Go do your homework!"
"Okay mom/Mrs. Swanson!" Mercedes and I shouted back. We trekked into Mercedes's bedroom and worked there, sitting on her tatami bed. I did my Spanish homework and started the hour long geology lecture Phoenix had assigned those of us who stayed the whole time. Mercedes clicked and clacked away on her laptop. Sometimes she swore. Sometimes she made excited noises.
"This party is going to be crazy." She said.
"Uh huh" I replied.
Sterling conversationalists, the both of us.
"Dinner! Now!" Mrs. Swanson shouted from the bottom of the spiral staircase.
I closed my laptop and looked at Mercedes, who was logging out of her social media browser.
Dinner was pleasant. Actual light conversation about the weather (cold) the food (delicious and warming) and classes (good; can't wait for them to be over).
After we'd finished washing the dishes, Mrs. Swanson excused us back to Mercedes's room.
When we were there, she turned on me, a glint in her eye. "Let me show you something!" She said.
Mercedes gave me a reproachful look. "Seriously? I'm not that much a perv," She said. She strode to her short desk and reopened her browser, logging in. Mercedes turned the screen slightly and showed me a green map with many trees and few roads. She tapped the middle of a mass of trees, zooming in on it. She kept zooming in. Eventually, a hint of a road appeared. "That's the driveway." Mercedes said. She bounced a little in her chair. "And here is part of the roof of the house. The address is waaaay," she scrolled west, "Over here. On this road, right? And do you see?"
I shook my head no. "Nope."
Mercedes said, "See? there's like, a fork in the road here. The left one goes to a lake."
"So we want the right one?" I asked.
"Right." Said Mercedes. "And then we'll want to park a ways away, so we don't get blocked in."
I asked, "What if we're the last ones to arrive?"
"All the better, if you ask me. We can make an entrance and leave when we want. In case it sucks."
"Which it won't."
"Which it totally won't!" Mercedes said. She clapped. "This is so exciting! Our first crazy house party!"
"Yes!" I said, "I'm good wearing the same costume if you are." I nodded to where our hooded sweaters were tossed in a pile by the stairway. "I like it now."
"That's fine, but I'm wearing bigger boots."
Mercedes checked her phone. "Jay wants to know where we are." She said.
I laughed. "Tell him it's not even eight yet."
"Tell him to hold his horses. Will do." Mercedes said.
We whiled away the hour and a half looking at local Google maps of different houses and memorizing different directions to the party. Mercedes looked up the property owner, who was Mr. Trumble, who owned a few other buildings in the area, too.
At 8:45 we got dressed and said our goodbyes.
We got to Jay's house at 9:10pm. Jenna and Jay skipped down the ornate, pillared front steps before Mercedes had the car in park. Jay banged on her window, "Unlock! Unlock!" he chanted.
Mercedes looked down her nose at me.
"We're friends." I said. Jay pulled a face and licked the window by Mercedes's head and banged on the window with his knuckles. Mercedes snorted, felt for the unlock button and pressed it all without taking her eyes off me.
"Thank-you!" Jenna said, sliding in. She was wearing a skimpy nurses's outfit and matching huge-heel, white, stripper platforms.
"Took you long enough." Jay said. He was wearing a full surgeon's scrub suit, with the safety mask pulled down around his neck along with the stethoscope. He drummed on Mercedes's headrest. "So, where we going?" He asked.
"Surprise!" Said Mercedes, backing out of the driveway. She turned the music up.
The silence was apparently only bearable to Jenna for a minute. Soon she was talking about her family, how much her mom had complained about her costume and how it was fine and she was warm and wasn't that what boyfriends were for anyway? She kept a stream of words flowing, only lulling to let us make encouraging noises at her now and then.
Jenna's chattering was fine. It was nice, actually, to have someone filling the silence.
Mercedes pulled onto the last road and the groping trees and a country blackness swallowed the car. Mercedes turned on the high beams and something grey scuttled from the middle of the road into the trees. "Wha!" she shouted, slamming on the brakes --the car fishtailed and we all shouted at Mercedes, who apologized.
I shouted, "I saw it! I saw it! That was weird! Was it a deer?"
"Maybe it was the boogey man." Jay said. He waggled his fingers between Mercedes and I. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll protect you."
We all laughed.
Mercedes missed the driveway due to some bushes and had to reverse down the dirt road a ways in the dim red dark, but the car's all wheel drive kicked in and soon enough we were slowly bouncing along the narrow, crooked driveway.
An unknown number (not Morgan's) texted me:
side lights only
But Mercedes couldn't figure that out so we were left inching our way up the black, dirt driveway in complete darkness.
It started to rain.
"Seriously?" Jenna asked.
"There's an umbrella in the trunk. I'll get it." I said.
"I'll get it." Jay said, staring hard at me.
"Gentlemen." Mercedes said, "I will get it for the lady."
"Thank-you kindly, Mercedes." Jenna said with a lilt. "But I am a nurse, not a damsel. Thank-you, I will grab the umbrella."
"There's some cars, I'm parking here." Mercedes said.
We got out, stepping into cold mud. Jenna almost fell backwards, her stripper heels stabbing fast through the loose ground. "Gross! My tights!" She shouted as Jay steadied her. Mercedes popped the trunk and got out. She stretched her arms as if warming up to exercise. She caught me watching her and shrugged.
I slid my anonymous mask over my face and pulled the hood up against the slow rain.
"Brr." Jenna said. Then, after a full minute of walking past cold, parked cars with no lights shining anywhere else, she said, "Is this a joke? You guys?"
The crooked driveway ended abruptly; two red spotlights shone on the scene of an exploded party bomb. There were fake limbs and paper streamers hanging from the trees, tied to each other.
On the roots and sticks lawn a gigantic cauldron bubbled over and hissed; some of the steam rose, straight up like a totem pole, but more of it spilled down over the edges, running between or over the roots and sticks.
A huge spiderweb with a slowly circling, robotic spider stretched between one of the spotlights and the tin roof of the, crooked brick house hiding behind all the gore and smoke. Two stories with four windows and a door in the middle, the house looked like nothing so much as a home made, to scale, doll's house.
A sign at the bottom of the walk way was draped in fake intestines. The sign mutely tried to warn us away: Abandon all faith and hope, ye who enter.
"Well." I said. "That's impressive."
"Where's the beer?" Jenna asked, bunny hopping in place.
"Where're the people?" Mercedes said. "We're right on time."
"Inside?" I asked.
"May as well." Mercedes strode up the walkway to the tiny house's door.
I followed next.
In the spider web were maybe a dozen, smaller fake spiders. The smaller fake spiders were grey --you had to really look to notice them. They twitched in place, somehow. I wasn't going to poke the web to figure it out.
The house smelled strongly of cinnamon scented cleaning agents.
Mercedes jumped back with a scream, I stumbled and caught her with one hand, shielding us with my other. A wall of sticky silly string coated us.
"SURPRISE!" Yelled a dozen voices from the darkness inside the house.
"What the good goodness!" Yelled Mercedes. "How did you guys even do that?" She called into the darkness, "Can we come in?"
As if by magic, Morgan appeared. She was also wearing a grey hooded sweater and a mask, but her mask was up on top of her head. Her mask had black eye patch with a red star embossed on it that matched her eye patch. She smiled warmly at us and gave Mercedes a hug. She swept me with a gaze. "Maybe when you're not covered in ghost spoo." She said. Turning back to Mercedes, Morgan smiled and said, "You and your guests." she glared past Mercedes and me. "Are welcome! Here's the tour. It's verbal." She laughed. She was holding a drink, most of which, I guessed, had just sloshed onto the tile foyer floor.
Morgan said, "Beer's in the bathroom, which is uh, in the back right corner, first floor. Smoking is out back only. Upstairs is another bathroom and some bedrooms. Rooms with beds. If a door's closed, don't go in. Leave doors open when you're done. DO NOT GO IN THE BASEMENT. I am serious. It is Pandora's box and I am Pandora. I will open it, if I get drunk enough. But it is for me. I couldn't find the right key or it'd be locked. Do. Not. Go. In. The. Basement. Okay? Okay! Do you know everyone?"
Mercedes shook her head. I said, "Not a one, unless there's a short girl named, uh, Jenny? Here?"
"Oh! How do you know Jenny? Have you met her sister?" Morgan looked at me, her face a conglomeration of mixed expressions.
"I, uh, have not. She's in my science class." I said. Morgan was still staring at me so I added, "She, uh, seems nice. Nice? Nice."
Morgan laughed. "She's nice, sure sure. Come on! There's other things to drink than beer."
Morgan lead us around a stub of a wall. “To the left, ah, here, actually. This is the living room.” The living room had two bay windows and three couch, all different antiquities and cushion lengths. There were people sitting on the couches, on the couch arms, talking.
Music thrummed and throbbed and bubbled occasionally with high hats, but I couldn’t see any speakers.
“That’s the bathroom.” Morgan said and pointed at a stout, closed door on the living room’s far wall. Morgan then gestured to her left (our right. Duh) and said, “That’s the kitchen and dining room and right side of the house. To get upstairs you go outside. It’s a little jacked up. There’s a fire escape in the back. You’ll see.” She smiled at us in the red light, her teeth looked pink and brown.
We walked back and into the kitchen. The kitchen was black lit and there was a fog machine running full blast, on top of the fridge. There was a space for a stove, but no stove, and the sink was full of ice, with another fake arm sticking out of it.
"Don't use that ice." Morgan pointed at the sink and said, "Its not ice for you."
"Oh kay." Mercedes said.
At the back of the kitchen was a small, round table. Four people were very intently playing a card game, and behind them was a covered, screened in porch. Beyond that, through the drizzle, and into the night sulked bonfire.
I noticed Jay and Jenna were not with us. I mentioned this to Mercedes who limp wrist-ed a hand in my general direction. "Safest place in the world." Mercedes said.
"Okay." I said.
"Come on!" Shouted Morgan from the porch. "I'll introduce you to some people by the fire."
I looked at Mercedes, who shrugged at me. We walked carefully around the card players and nodded tentatively at them when they looked up. "Hey Mercedes." Said someone with painted red nails and flat black caul mask.
Mercedes said, "Hey."
And then we were in the porch. In one corner was a pile of fake limbs, mostly arms, with a few legs sticking out. There were paper streamers tied to fingers, and those webbed up to tacks in the ceiling, dropping like broken spider webs. To the left of the porch doorway was an incredibly steep staircase. Like, it wouldn't be unreasonable to have called it a ladder. It looped back and ended directly above the kitchen to porch doorway.
"Mind your head." Said Mercedes.
"Seriously," I said.
"Not for the too drunk, that is, err, ain't." Morgan said. She giggled and dramatically finished her drink. She tipped her cup upside down to prove its emptiness. "All gone." She sighed dramatically and slouched. "This way!" Morgan perked right back up.
Morgan lead us outside and around the left corner of the house. "It wasn't supposed to rain." She said, "Sorry about that. Here's the drinks. There's the beer, there's the booze, there's the mixers, there's the healthy juices. There's the other mixers and sodas. Drink whatever. You're family here. We like you!" She smiled at Mercedes and I. Morgan took both our hands in hers and shook them. "Please. Do be at home." She said.
Someone from the fire threw a hand at us. "Come over here More!" A shaggy man in a puffy, lambskin leather coat shouted. "And bring me another beer!"
"Someone's in the bathroom!" Morgan shouted. "How about a bloody mary?"
"Stir it with the magic finger!" The shaggy man shouted back, "And you've got a deal!"
Morgan turned to Mercedes and I. She said, "That's Larry. He tries to get people to call him Lars, but don't do that or he won't respect you. Call him Larry. Okay? No matter what."
"Okay." We said and nodded. Mercedes added, "Can I have a bloody mary, too?"
Morgan's grin almost covered her whole face. "Sure thing!" She said and rushed around, pouring a half dozen different bottle and cans and vials into two red plastic cups. "You want me to stir yours?" Morgan asked. She picked up one of the fake arms, it's hand pointing, nails painted something dark. Morgan waggled the finger in our direction. "You sure?" She asked.
"No thanks. I'm good." Mercedes said. She held her hands out, for her drink, which Morgan sloshed over to her.
"To the fire!" Morgan struck the "about to dash" then carefully, slowly walked across the wet, splotchy grass to the fire. Mercedes and I shrugged and followed her.
Larry was only a few inches shorter than me, and probably just about as wide. "What're you supposed to be? There's like three of you here." He said to me, pointing a finger.
"Dead high school student." I said.
Larry narrowed his eyes.
I said, "More specifically, the embodiment of the, uh, hahah, student body's desire not to be murdered. The idea was that since the administration wasn't releasing the names of the victims, that they could've been any of us. Thus the anonymous masks."
"Huh." Larry said. He sipped his bloody mary. "More, that is good stuff." He said. He patted Morgan on her shoulder. She caught his hand and patted it in return.
"Thank-you." she said. "The magic finger is the key." Larry and Morgan both laughed.
Mercedes said, "Is that why mine doesn't taste very good?"
"Not a big drinker, huh?" Larry asked.
I stared across the fire at the other three people. One of them was a tiny --ah hah!-- One of them was Jenny, who was flanked by two smaller, versions of Larry. Smaller, but not by much. They sat on lawn chairs and sipped beer. There were umbrellas stuck to the backs of the chairs, to keep the rain off. Jenny's umbrella tilted dangerously close to the fire. The other two Larry's had fur collared, vinyl looking coats in some dark, indistinguishable color. They had long, long beards, too.
I waved at Jenny, and shouted: "Jenny! Hello! I made it!"
Jenny pointedly ignored me, leaning into the Larry on her left and talking animatedly about something I couldn't hear.
The rain decided to make its presence more apparent. "Uck." Morgan said. She looked at Lars. "I remember stories of when Halloween was a warm, dry holiday." She said.
"Cleaners these days get no breaks." Larry said and took a long swig of his bloody mary. Mercedes and I looked at each other, eyebrows high.
Morgan caught our eyebrows and patted them. "Our parents are cleaners for some local companies. Every year, there used to be a company picnic on Halloween, for all the cleaner families, but the weather for the last few years has made the company move the picnic forward and forward and forward and --Thank-you. And forward."
Larry had smacked Morgan on the back of the head after her third 'forward and'.
Morgan smiled, her teeth were still very red, even in the firelight. "So only the kids of cleaners celebrate on Halloween, now. It's sort of a toast to the things we don't believe in."
Larry nodded. "Yeah." he said. "So, why are you two here?" He asked.
Mercedes said, "Morgan invited us."
"It's messed up you'd bring Tweet Tweet, after what he did." Said Larry. "Especially bringing that complete unknown in here."
"Jenna?" Mercedes asked. "What about her? We know her."
"We don't." One of the far Larry(s) shouted. "You two, we understand. You're cool. But her?"
"What about me?" Jenna stepped into the rain, under Mom's umbrella.
The two larry(s) and Jenny stood up. "Who gave you that umbrella?"close-Larry asked.
"Relax, Bigfoot. I'm borrowing it from William. Thank-you William." Jenna curtsied at me, but not well what with the beer cup in one hand and the umbrella in the other. Jenna continued, "Jay's in the bathroom. Does he like being called Tweet-Tweet? Should I call him that?"
Everyone but Mercedes and I laughed. The far larry(s) and Jenny sat down; talked quietly among themselves.
Close-Larry said, "We were just wondering why you were here. Doesn't all the blood bother you? The guts? The dismemberment?"
"I like The Dismemberment Plan." Jenna smiled. Her teeth were white and perfect in the firelight. "They're good. I'm always sad I missed seeing them live."
"You like concerts?" Morgan asked. She took a few quick steps toward Jenna, who to her credit flinched less than I would have. "What concerts have you been to?"
Jay stepped under the umbrella and wrapped an arm around Jenna's waist. In her heels, Jenna was almost a full head taller than Jay. He wrapped his thumb in her garter belt. He said, "You're not giving my woman any trouble are you?"
The fire sputtered, snuffed from a sudden flurry of sleet.
"Inside!" Morgan called, "No one's dying from hypothermia or pneumonia cause of my party."
With everyone inside and on the first floor, the windows steamed up quickly. Close-Larry and I hauled the booze bins into the porch. We tossed the pile of limbs haphazardly through the door to make room for the ice bin. The fake limbs felt cold and rubbery to touch. They were very malleable and smelled a little bit like burned peanut oil.
Mercedes and I stayed in the porch and drank. In the living room, someone turned the music up and slowed the BPM down to dancier speeds.
"Do you want to dance?" Mercedes asked, staring at my feet. We were sitting in the corner of the porch, guarding the ice bin.
"Sure?" I said, feeling incredibly uncomfortable at the idea.
"Really?!" Mercedes looked me in the face and I must've been quick enough on the change because her excitement spread all across her face. "Awesome!" She grabbed my hand, let's go!" And in we went.
The press of bodies was strangely comfortable, once I realized no one here was going to knife or kick or otherwise hurt me. At first I just bobbed my head, but as the rain started to steam off us, a warmth flowed into me and I smiled, closed my eyes and just moved.
Whenever I opened my eyes, Mercedes, or someone I didn't yet know was smiling at me and dancing along. Hands or shoulders or head moving, bobbing, sliding around to the music.
No one kicked my ankle.
A chill I hadn't know was there thawed and started to drip down my sides. My smile went from furtive to grinning. I clapped along to a crescendo in one of the songs and stopped exactly as the song switched.
Everyone froze, getting the hang of the new rhythm, then like a wave, we all started moving again.
A car horn honked. I thought, "That's a weird sample for this song." And Mercedes mumbled agreement and nodded her head. She had her hands on my chest and I had my hands in my pockets.
I realized after a few seconds of continuous horn honk the sound was not part of the song.
Someone opened the front door and a freezing wind and harsh white light flooded into the living room.
Someone asked what was happening outside and there was a rush to the window. The spiderweb obscured most of the view, but there were at least three black cars and two black SUV's shining their brights at the house. Close-Larry gasped. He said, "No. No no no no no." He looked at Mercedes and I, he Close-Larry started to say something, then ran out the front door.
Mercedes and I looked at each other. We dashed out after him. The bright lights brought us up short and we shielded our eyes from the halogen.
"You're all dead." Jon shouted. He was a silhouette, a halogen specter, but it was him. He looked taller, thicker, but it was Jon. His shoulders bulged. He leaned on a far too big baseball bat. Jon looked right at me. "I can't decide if I want to leave you for last, or kill you first." He shouted. "We'll just let the dice fall as they may." He said. He raised his gigantic bat into the air and all the doors on the five bulky black vehicles opened.
It was like watching a nightmare of clown cars vomit their contents: Anonymous after anonymous masks poured out of the cars --far more than three to the rear doors. Grey hooded sweaters and spray painted black eye sockets.
The rain pelted down.
The three Larry(s) and Jenny stepped out through the front door.
"He-man?" Jenny quipped.
Jon lowered his bat.
The anonymous-es kept pouring out of the cars. Easily three dozen of them stood around the five vehicles, shuffling in the mud, shivering in the rain.
Morgan strolled forward. "You really, really don't want to do this, Jon. This is my birthday party and I'll make cry who I want to." Morgan tilted her head to one side, she held her arms out wide. "Look at the decorations, Jon. They're for you." (I think) she said.
While she talked, the most of the other party-goers had come outside. They had thick coats --bomber jackets, or heavy leather things like Close-Larry. There were a three Red Riding Hoods, a smattering of wolves.
The rain hardened.
Morgan and Jon stood, staring at each other.
Jay came out. "What's going on?" he whispered to me.
"Jon's here. He wants to fight." I whispered back. "You sister's trying to talk him out of it."
"Oh." Jay said. He pushed past me and shouted, "Jon. Leave." Jay strode forward, past his sister. Lightning flashed and he held up two razors. "I will cut you to ribbons again if you step closer." Jay said. The thunder rolled right after his declaration.
There was a stunned silence. Jon pointed his incredibly large baseball bat at Jay. "Fine." He said.
There was another thunderous boom and Jay flew back, arms and legs rag dolled in front of him. He crashed into the crowd, knocking some of them into the gigantic spider web.
Things went crazy from there.
The two groups rushed headlong at each other and pulled up short --Morgan kicked the gigantic cauldron over and something boiling and noxious and purple flooded forward over the feet and ankles of the anonymous army. They screamed and their ankles and feet smoked, but the rain was sheeting down and the acid (or whatever it was) washed away in rivulets down the driveway; tires smoked where it pooled.
Jon threw his head back, giggling uncontrollably.
Everyone stood, staring at each other, except Morgan, who kept looking between Silhouette Jon and the crowd surrounding her little brother.
Staring at the backs of people helping Jay, she said, "Clean them. Clean them all." Instantly the party-goers transformed from concerned friends to a wave of blades and brass knuckles.
The anonymous rushed to meet them, roaring against the cleaners' silence and the rush drum smack of the rain. I watched one of the Far-Larry(s) fall backward, slipping in the mud, four anonymous clawing and batting at him with short sticks and crow bars and Rebar rods.
Mercedes tugged on my sleeve, trying to pull me back into the house, but I stood, rooted, staring at the mess roiling around me in the rain.
Jon swung his huge bat, the exploded end catching and tearing indiscriminately. He waded through the crowd hammering heads and swiping limbs.
My head started to feel light.
Jon smashed Jenny in the chest and pushed her off with his foot. He looked me in the eyes and giggled, hand to mouth. "Oops!" he shouted and swatted away one of the wolves.
My vision went red. I smiled and cracked my knuckles. Time slowed and the red took over my vision. The more red I saw, the more time slowed.
Part of me (a separate part far away, warm, and clinical) did some calculations. By the time my vision was completely red, everything including the rain would be time stopped.
I smiled, feeling the rain trickle sweetly into my mouth, down my chin. "Good night." I whispered.