Thursday, December 5, 2013

naTIVE

I woke up in bed, again, and swore quietly in the dark. I hopped off the bunk bed and swore swore swore as I dashed down the hallway and up the stairs.

It was dark outside. Mom nor Dad nor him were yet up. I squinted at the clock on the microwave.

2:53am.

I swore. I stood in the dark, open kitchen and felt my heart race. My breathing was ragged and deep. "What happened?" I wondered. I jumped and skitter stepped, turning back toward the stairs, mouth wide, fists up.

"You passed out as soon as you stepped through the doorway into the burned house." He whispered. He added, "You are not quiet when you get down from your high bed, you know? Do you want some milk? Or water? I am going to have some water." Silently, he walked past me. He gently pulled my fists down as he passed.

I heard him drink straight from the tap,  before filling a glass.

"Did you find anything in the house?" I asked.

"Let's go back downstairs and talk, eh?" He said. In the darkness, I felt his breath on my nape.

I swallowed twice before I pushed out the words, "Yea, cool."

He patted my shoulder, slid against me as he passed by, silently descending the stairs in the kitchen dark. I felt for the wall and headed back down, too.

I didn't descend slowly, but he was already back in my room, the table lamp on low. He sat on the edge of the bed, hulking forward so as not to scratch his back on the frame. He looked like a swimmer. Like a professional MMA fighter. His left calve was a subway map of white and pink scars.

"It was a bramble bush that I had to walk through once that did that." he said. He patted his left calf, then traced circles, train hopping the scar lines. He was wearing a flimsy pair of navy boxer shorts. His eyes were almost white --so pale blue they almost matched his skin, the opposite of his short, straight and unruly hair. He looked like a very tired young man. He did not look like a eighteen year old. A laughed rippled through him and he chuckled it out. He rubbed his head and mussed his hair. "You should see my back." He said. He stood up, towering over me, his head deftly sliding between the black painted floor frame; turned around.

I gasped. Dumbly, I asked, "Does it hurt?"

He chuckled, "They all hurt, as they were happening." he said. He sat on the floor, cross-legged, resting his wrists on his knees. "Sit?" he asked.

I sat. I tried not to stare at his boxer shorts.

He said, "You passed out, at the house. You talked while you weren't conscious. Do you remember what you said? You talked screamed and laughed and shouted threats and you said a name. Jon. Jon was the guy who came into the noodle place. And taking me there! That's . . .  that was very good of you. Thank-you for taking me for noodles, William. I appreciate that a lot. Do you have Patricia's phone number?"

I shook my head, no. I started to say more, but the cut me off with another flood of words.

He said, "Mercedes is amazing."

I nodded.

He looked at me for a while, his gaze unwavering, passive. So we sat there, him broad and boxer shorts and those perfectly dimpled hips and me in a cooling, sweaty t-shirt and grey sweat pants, hugging my knees. I looked at him, looked away.

Minutes passes like this: me shuffling and looking around, but unable to get back to sleep, him watching me quietly. Finally, to break the silence, I asked, "So what did you find? In the basement, I mean. What did you find?"

He looked right through me, with a soft voice, he asked, "Do you really want to know?"

I nodded.

"You won't be able to sleep tonight, maybe not tomorrow, either, if I tell you." He said.

I nodded again, anyway.

He tilted his head, mouth straight, and raised his perfect eyebrows. "Really." he said, "You don't have to know. It is fine that you do not know. It is almost." He paused, his brow creased. "It is not actually for you to know." He said.

"Why are you even here?" I asked. "Why are you here, and what does it have to do with me? Are Mom and Dad involved? Is that why you're here? Or is it The Liu's that --no. Vernie? Oh my! Did Mrs. Trumble call you?"

He slowly shook his head. "Here I am. Do you want to know what was in the basement?" He said, "One time offer." He actually smiled then, it was like a  breath of spring air in the dim light. "It is a strange path, William." He said. He asked, "Are you sure?"

I smiled back and nodded yes.

"Alright." he said, "We found a barrow of Jons. About twenty. Locked down there. Mad with hunger, most of them. Some were gnawing on each other, or the corpses of more dead."

"More dead?"

"More dead Jons. Being eaten by other Jons. Many were deformed, club limbs, missing eyes, or noses or ears; or limbs. Twenty living we counted, almost all deformed or mad or both. Then they attacked us, crawling or scrambling or clawing their way up the crooked stairs. Mercedes was quick. Quick and smart. She turned her torch to defense and did not waver. The stairs collapsed, under the weight of swarming Jons, hissing and smoking from the torch, but some made it out. Six or so attacked me and a more dashed, away from Mercedes's torch, into the night like cockroaches. Mercedes chased them with the torch, but the fleeing were the fastest. Maybe the smartest, too."

"Where was I?" I asked.

"We tossed --"

I gasped, "Tossed?" I asked.

"Tossed. Tossed you in the back of the car before we went inside. We had to break a padlock on the basement door. Then another padlock on another door, just inside. Probably woke them. Once we dealt with the Jons above ground we set fire to the ones in the basement. Can of gasoline in the trunk. Torch on a motionless Jon. Poof. Fire." He said.

"So what now?" I asked. I stared at the carpet between us. At some point I had straightened my legs out, they were brushing against his left thigh. I moved my legs. "Seriously." I said. I asked, "Are you like, a CDC secret agent or something? Is this a -- oh no! Are we ground zero for a zombie plague?"

"No." He chuckled.

"Would you lie to me?"

"Not any more." He said. "I will not lie to you or Mercedes. Or the Liu's."

I said, "Okay then."

"Now we have a few things to investigate." He said, "All at once we must find the reason for so many Jons. We must also find the reason they were kept in that basement." He murmured something I didn't catch and continued, "Finally, we must find out who murdered all the other students. Killing Jon is one thing, but why did they kill the other, uh, ah, ahah, students? And why did they let the others of you live?"

I nodded. I yawned. I shivered. I nodded again.

"Tired now?" He asked.

I nodded. I said, "I'd like to sleep now, please."

He nodded. He said, "You can have the bottom bunk." and he smiled at me.

"Thank-you." I said, it sounded hollow, but I meant it, so I hugged him. Just dove right in and wrapped my arms all around him and then, I nuzzled his neck.

He stroked my bald head and kissed my forehead. He lifted me up and slid me gently onto the lower bunk. He disappeared onto the top bunk. "Things change now." He said, "I do hope you are ready for the changes."

Sleepily I asked, "So if I see Jon, I should kill him?"

"Definitely."

"Okay. Good night."

"Good night, William." He whispered. He turned out the lamp.

I kicked his bunk and heard him chuckle in the dark.

Of course, I dreamed in red. It wasn't like my usual dreams, though. Only the background was red and there were so many other people, it was weird; all the people were grey scale. I was floating in a crowd of people, none of whom I recognized, all of whom were swimming in different directions; all shouting they were heading "The right way." I was swimming through the crowds, doing the breast stroke, trying to catch up to my parents who were both just out of reach.  Mom was flailing, trying to swim against a current I couldn't see, that only affected her. She kept calling my name and her hair was like fire in the current that pulled her away from me. Dad, though, was swimming fast, along with another invisible current, catapulting away from us. Soon, Dad was out of sight and Mom was too far away to hear. I kept swimming after them and as I felt like I was starting to  make progress I realized I was too far from the ground and that I would die if I fell. I started to fall. At first I fell face first, but the heat started to burn and I rolled and flipped and fell facing up, staring into a red and black-clouds sky. I spread my arms out and closed my eyes and a I jolted violently awake.

My alarm was going off. Leaning over the top bunk, chin resting on crossed arms, he looked at me. "Good morning." he said, "You fell out of your bed." His eyes shone and flickered in the lamplight and phone alarm.

I rubbed my tender head and checked to make sure my eyebrows were intact (They were). "What time is it?" I asked.

He turned my alarm off and looked at the mobile. "Almost ten." He said. He asked, "Do you want to go get more noodles?" Do you think Mercedes would want to get more noodles as well?"

"Let's have breakfast first." I said. "Sheesh. Seriously."

He hopped down, landed in a crouch, winked at me, then padded out the room, still only wearing his navy boxer shorts, having to stoop and almost having to angle his broad, broad shoulders to get through the door. I watched him strutting away and grinned and padded quickly after him, watching his minute wiggles.

Mom was up; he was in the bathroom and it was a bright but cloudy day before the day before Christmas. "Morning sleepyhead!" Mom said. "Coffee?" She asked.

I nodded and plopped onto a chair at our weird new table.

Mom said, "Late night."

I nodded.

The toilet flushed, the kettle boiled, there was a moment of running water and quiet before he came out of the bathroom. He was squeezed into one of my t-shirts. Mom snapped a towel at me and said, "Good morning to you too!" She narrowed her eyes at me before asking him, "Would you like coffee?"

"Yes. Please."

"It might stunt your growth." I said. I smirked at him and he grinned right back.

He said, "So what are we to do today?"

"No idea." I said.

"I would like to go back to the shopping mall, if that is okay with you." He said.

"I think I'm going to stay here, but you can go."

"William!"

"Mom, I'm not feeling very well today, okay? He'll be fine one day without me! Won't you?"

He looked at Mom and said, "It is okay, Mrs. Metzger. I will see if Mercedes would like to go to the shopping mall with me." He strutted around and poured coffee evenly into the three mugs sitting on the counter top. He walked around and set one in front of me. His forearm brushed the length of my shoulders as he walked around the table, and back to the stove.

"Mom, don't you want to know how he got all his scars?" I asked. I sipped my coffee.

Mom shouted at me: "William! That is none of our business, is it?"

"I don't know!" I shouted back, "Who is he anyway?" And then. And then I couldn't stop shouting:  "He's weird, Mom! Even for an exchange student!" I turned to him. I said, "I'm sorry, but you are. You're really weird. I don't know why you told me all that weird stuff last night. None of it makes sense and you're really attractive, sure, but that doesn't excuse the weirdness that you --that you just exude! So! I'm going to stay home today. I'm going to read a book, or surf the internet, or watch a program or something. I don't know! But I'm not going out! Okay? I'm going to stay in, and I'm not going to kill anybody, or a clone of anybody. I'm not going to have to fight half a dozen anonymous mask and hooded sweater wearing mutes. I'm going to finish a few chapters in a book, or something!" I stood there.

Mom and him both blinked at me.

"Okay." They said together.

I realized I was shaking. "Okay!" I shouted.

I snatched up my coffee mug with a small splash, and almost stopped to wipe it up, but instead I stomped down the stairs, slammed into my room and flopped onto the bed. Coffee sloshed onto the blanket. I kicked the blanket off, but still couldn't get comfortable. I hopped, heavily, off the bed and paced. I glugged my coffee. I stood, knees bent and cup to mouth, and stared at the door for a while, but no one came in.

I listened, but they were being quiet, upstairs.

I sat on the bed, then climbed onto the top bunk and stared at the ceiling. I rolled and stared at the baseboards and painted insulation foam covering the wall. I rolled again and stared at the door, but nothing came through it.

I felt a draft and shivered.

I hopped snatched my phone up, and opened a random news site and started reading. That didn't last long. I put the phone back on the night stand and closed my eyes. I woke up just after one in the afternoon and huffed and went back to sleep. I woke up to my phone buzzing. Mom was the only person who could make my phone ring, even when it was set to silent. "Hi Mom." I said. I closed my eyes and rubbed them. "Hi. Okay, I'll be up in a minute." I hung up and sniffed myself. I made a face and hopped off the bunk, landing in a crouch.

I quietly padded down the hall and up the stairs.

The kitchen smelled like healthy grease and cabbage and fresh tomatoes. It was dark, and Mom was humming to herself.

"It smells good in here." I said.

Mom jumped. She turned and looked at me and smiled. "You look less tired than you did this morning. Do you feel better?"

I nodded. I said, "Do I have time to take a quick shower before dinner?"

"It'll wait." said Mom. She smiled at me, then charged at me, flapping a towel -- I let her shoo me into the bathroom.

Showering was easier if I started it cool, and had something to focus on, so Dad had attached a waterproofed tablet to the inside of the shower door. It was above Mom's head, but he and I could read it while we scrubbed. I hadn't yet figured out how to disable browser history or enable private browsing, but I hadn't asked Dad about either of those features, either. Due to that, I smiled and bristled every time I started a TED talk while conditioning my scalp or scrubbing my pits and pockets.

I felt better.

Dinner was just Mom and me. We ate quietly, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Before dinner, I mixed the rice, tomatoes and meat. We stuffed and folded the cabbage leaves together.

I cleaned the plates away while Mom set the kettle on the stove, for tea.

"Did you hear from him today?" I asked.

"Your Dad?"

"No."

"Oh. No. I think Mercedes is taking him out to dinner." Mom said. She added, slyly, "I know what you got him for Christmas. It's very sweet!"

"Mom!" I shouted, but I was smiling, too. I added quietly, "You think he'll like it?"

"I would if I were him." Mom said. Mom continued, "What did you get Mercedes?"

"Uh." I said. I slumped. "Can you drive me to, uh, the mall?"

"Are you crazy?"

"Apparently?"

"Apparently. Yes. Right. Think about what you're going to get her. Maybe it shouldn't come from the mall."

I looked at Mom; her shoulders, her tired-again eyes, her strained lips. I sat up and stretched. I asked, "Are you serious?"

We stared into each other's eyes for a minute. I cackled, half a cackle. "Seriously. Mom. I had four weeks of consciousness before this point. Do you seriously, seriously, think I didn't get Mercedes a Christmas present? Think carefully."

Mom swept around through the kitchen like a dust devil, around the table and wrapped her arms around me. She shook me and kissed my cheek and tried to wiggle me some more. We laughed, and bonked foreheads and the sun came --no birds singing, but the central heating turned off. "Oh William!" Mom said. She pulled out the chair next to me.

"Oh Mom." I said. "Seriously?" I asked.

Mom said, "I'm sorry." She sighed. She said, "It's just that, we thought you were gone. It was so long that you were out and poor Mercedes and with the exchange student coming over, we didn't know what was going to happen."

"About that." I said. I wrapped Mom's hands in mine. "Why is he here, really?"

Mom's hands clenched tight, inside mine. She said, "He's here to see what schools in Canton are like."

"That's." I looked away. "That's your answer? You and Dad were gone for three days on a project Dad won't talk about right before Mercedes and I almost died and I ask you a simple question and you get defensive? You don't have the energy to lie to me? But you won't tell me the truth? What gives?"

Mom's mobile phone rang and I let go of her hands. "Hello dear! William and I were just talking about you! How are you?" Mom nodded. "Huh. Uh huh. So you won't be home for dinner?"

My phone went off, too. Since mom was on her's, I checked mine. It was a text from Mercedes asking if I wanted to meet her and him for dinner at six. I texted back: No, thank-you, but no. Still not feeling very good.

Mercedes: You Ok?

ME: :-\

Mercedes: porque?

ME: You missed a question mark

Mercedes: my phone sux, what's up?

ME: Has *HE*

I stopped. She was there. Him and Mercedes had killed like, a dozen Jons together. I sat there. I couldn't hear Mom's side of her conversation over the roar of blood in my ears. I closed my eyes and made circles with my eyes. I slowly set my forehead against the (seriously, unnaturally cold) obsidian tabletop. I stayed like that until my phone vibrated again. I looked it, under the crook of my arm. Mom padded away to their bedroom. It was Dad, apologizing for not being home tonight. He promised me he'd be back for Christmas Eve, and to protect against Robo Santa and The Krampus (Don't ask. Traditions...) While I was thinking of something to text him, Mercedes texted me again.

It was a picture of her and him, making long, sad faces and big puppydog eyes at the camera. The caption was: Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?

My lips twitched up.

Mom came back. She was staggering down the hallway from their room, carrying a box she could barely see over and definitely not around. "Help?" She squeaked.

I gently snatched the box from her arms and set it on the fireplace. I looked at Mom. It's for you and Mercedes. I commissioned it from a; from a secret artist. You'll probably guess when you open it, but I hope you'll like it and that it. I hope that you both like it."

"What is it?"

"You mean what are they?" a gleam twinkled in Mom's eyes. "I'll give you a hint." She said, "They're international."

"Can I shake it?"

Mom shrugged. "Sure," she said.

I shook the box and things inside made heavy, thunking sounds. "Are they breakable?" I asked.

"Would I let you shake it if they were?"

"Probably not. You can be weird sometimes."

"YOU can be weird sometimes, young man. Watch what you say to your old mother!"

"Not that old." I said. I winked at her. I continued, "Do we have to wait until Christmas?"

"No. We'll have to re-wrap Mercedes's. I thought it'd be cute to give them to you together, but you should open it now, and you can give Mercedes her half when you see her."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously!"

"Awesome!" I tore off the shiny, origami'd on paper and stopped. I stared at a brown box. It had customs labels, and stamps with Russian writing on them. It had been through Switzerland, Greenland, and Canada before arriving here.

My phone vibrated again. It was Mercedes: Whatev

I quickly texted back: All good! Yes! Please pick me up! 5:30?

I went back to examining the box. The corners were all worn, and there were no expiration or fragile stickers that I could see. There were no Canadian stamps, however, and the Canadian address was in Toronto.

"How did it get here?" I asked.

My phone buzzed in my pocket: U b ready in 5min? -Mercedes.

ME: Yup :-D

I asked Mom if I could give Mercedes her present now. "She'll be here in five minutes." I added.

"Sure! Great! I'll put the kettle on." Mom said and disappeared into the kitchen.

I stared at the beaten postage box. "Hey! How did it get here?" I called out.

"Private courier!"  Mom shouted back.

"Huh." I said to myself. "I'm going to wait until Mercedes gets here so we're both surprised!" I shouted.

Mom shouted back, "Great!" Then, "Are you getting dressed? You're going out to dinner? What'll you eat?"

"Oh!" I shouted. "Could we order in, or something? We just ate, but they're going to be hungry."

"I could cook something light, or I could go for Indian food" Mom shouted.

I walked into the kitchen. I said, "Indian food sounds good. I'll let Mercedes know."

"She could pick it up if you hurry! I'll order now. You call her." Mom said. We both started dialing.

I re-wrapped the large box while waiting for Mercedes and him to arrive. "She can open it." I said to myself. I nodded. The re-wrap wasn't perfect, but it was acceptable. I set it on the table.

"And where are we going to eat?" Mom asked.

"Right." I said. I set the present on the kitchen counter.

"And where are we going to put the food?"

"In the middle of the table?"

"Touche'" Said Mom.

While waiting for Mercedes and him to get here with the food, I:
  1. Got dressed properly
  2. Read a few news articles on my phone
  3. Thought about texting Mercedes and his phones pictures of my feet. 
  4. Chatted with Mom about Indian food, after failing to successfully interrogate her on what she ordered.
  5. Peed.
  6. Stared at the Christmas present box. 
  7. Wondered what he was thinking about.
When he came through the door, hands full with take out bags, I jumped to help him and gasped. His face was cut twice: a soon to be scar just like Mercedes and I, right across his right cheek bone. There was a gash perpendicular to his eyebrow, too, running down --it skipped his eye and dove into his cheek. He smiled at me and said, "Soups up!"

Mom laughed and took the bags from his hands, set them on the table and began setting and opening the containers.

He hugged me, which I almost sank right into, but managed to keep my knees locked. I reached for Mercedes and pulled her into our hug.

There was a clicking sound and the three of us turned and then another clicking sound. "Those'll be great on the mantle!" Said Mom. She put her mobile phone down and unwrapped foil; steam poufed from the naan bread inside.

"This all looks amazing, thank-you Mrs. Metzger!" Said Mercedes.

"Mrs. Metzger?" Mom said, her eyebrows knitted.

He said, "It is Mom. We all know that." He made a tsk sound and stared at Mercedes with his face scrunched; couldn't hold the laughter back, though, and I laughed too.

"You have a sense of humor!" Mercedes said. She wiggled an arm free and poked him in the nose. She said, "I didn't think they allowed humor over there. I thought those were outlawed, or you need a permit or something."

"In Germany, I am a coma comma criminal comedian ." He said.

We all stared.

He laughed and laughed and chuckled and struggled to breathe. We stared and chuckled. "Shall we eat?" he asked, after a full minute of belly laughter. He broke our hug and sat down.

Mom brought a pot of tea over, with a pitcher of milk, and a bowl of sugar with fragrant cinnamon sticks poking poking out.

We all sat, quietly for half a moment, then I asked for the Naan and the Baingan Bartha and conversation started. We all chatted and laughed and chuckled.

At one point, Mercedes leaned in and whispered, "I've got so much to tell you!" And patted my leg. We looked at each other, our eyes locked and Mercedes winked and smiled.

Butterflies lumped, momentarily --happily-- in my throat. I nodded.

After dinner the three of us cleared away the plates and the cups and put the leftovers in the fridge.

"We were going to go see a movie at the dollar show, if you'd like to come, Mom?" Mercedes said. She closed the dishwasher door and started it running. "We were just going --"

"I'm very, good, thank-you. I'm going to stay here and wrap gifts." Mom said, "Speaking of; William?"

"YES!" I shouted and dashed around the table. "Look what Mom and Dad got us!" I said. I triumphantly huffed it onto the obsidian table with a thrum.

"What is it?"

"Mom and Dad got us something from Germany. I was going to open it, but then you came over and Mom said we should open it early, so let's!"

"I dunno." Mercedes said. "My mom always makes me wait until Christmas to open presents, even when they're special."

"Well," Mom said. She looked from Mercedes to me, and back to Mercedes. I'd really like you to this, so don't think of it as a Christmas present, if that helps you open it now." When neither of us moved she shooed at us with her hands and said, "Go on! Please!"

We looked at each other.

He was no where to be seen; I wondered if he was changing in our bedroom, as Mercedes and I tore the re-wrapped paper off the box and paused, eyeing the worn box.

"How'd it get all the way from Toronto to here without postage?" Mercedes asked.

"You two!" Mom shouted, "Just open the box!"

In the end i had to get a steak knife from the drawer to get all the packaging tape off the corners of the huge box, and we spilled black packaging peanuts everywhere, digging through them, to find the presents. There were five black bags, they felt like heavy vinyl, and three had my name written on them in neat, all capital letters, silver paint pen. Mine were larger than Mercedes, who gasped when she saw the packaging.

Mercedes looked at Mom. She said, "Really? What are they?"

"Open them!" Mom said.

We carefully snapped the tape and unfolded the tops of the bags. Mercedes got a pair of jeans and a long sleeve, high necked running shirt, both in a flat black material. The knees and elbows were both reinforced, from the inside; the stitching showing through in thick somewhat less flat black thread.

I got a black leather rain jacket with a thick cloth hood and a high collar and a zip. It was amazing, and seemed to thrum in my hands when I held it up to the light. I also got a shirt and a pair of jeans, just like Mercedes's, except my jeans were rich blue.

Mom said, "Mercedes, you already have a jacket, so we didn't get you one, but William needs a jacket like yours, we think, so! Merry! Christmas! I mean, you're both great! We love you too --so much." Mom added, quietly, "Sorry Dad couldn't be here to see you two try them on."

I stood up, and zipped the jacket all the way up, it loosely covered my nose. "We'll send him pictures!" I said. I twirled. "Is it awesome?" I asked.

"There should a button in the right sleeve," Mom said. "That'll turn it on, just like Mercedes. The shirt and pants are always on, as I understand them."

"Oh Mom!" Mercedes and I said simultaneously, turning to look at her.

"Seriously?" I asked.

"Seriously." Mom said. She turned up the fireplace and turned off one of the table lamps in the living room. "Stand in the kitchen so I can take your picture!" She said.

We did, Mercedes took her hooded sweater (black) off, so both our coats were showing.

When I turned my coat on, it hissed and snugged tight, but outwardly, didn't seem to change --no muscle blocks or anything stuck through the leather.

"It should function just like Mercedes's coat does." Mom said. She sipped from her cup of tea.

"I'm going to try on my shirt and jeans," I said.

Mom said, "They're pre-washed so you can break them in at the movies, if you want."

"Seriously, uh, Mom. Seriously. These are amazing. I'm going to put mine on too." Mercedes said. She asked, "Can I use your room Mrs. Mom?"

I changed in the bathroom. You have to press the button again to get the coat to let go of you, and being secretly squeezed and massaged by a pair of jeans was something I was going to have to adjust to. Thankfully they were as obfuscating as they were new.

When I came out, Mom was chatting quietly with him on the couch.

"Movie talk?" I said. I couldn't hear what they were saying from the bathroom, and I didn't want to get caught sneaking. I walked into the living room and sprawled out by the fire. "These are seriously the comfiest clothes I own, Mom. Thank-you so much! Warm though." I thumbed the release and took the jacket off, rolled it up and used it as a pillow. I lay down and closed my eyes. "What movie are we seeuuuuuuu"

"Surprise!" Mercedes said.

"uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuf" I said. I gasped and sat up. Mercedes rolled off me, grinning like a mad woman. "What gives?" I asked, rubbing my belly. "That was a, a thing."

"I just elbowed you in the stomach from the top of the coffee table. I wasn't nice about it either." Mercedes said. She laughed, a throaty, mirthy, thing. "You could punch me in the boob hard as you like and it'd probably feel good." she said, "We are going to see the cheesiest, happiest, Christmas movie possible." Mercedes added, "Are you sure you won't join us, Mom?" Mercedes turned her big eyes on, and looked right at Mom with them.

I lay there, quietly staring at the ceiling, through the skylight into a blanket night sky. I absently rubbed my stomach and blinked.

Mercedes's eyes didn't phase Mom in the slightest. "I'm quite alright without the cheese, thank-you. I'm lactose intolerant, anyhow." Mom said.

"Har har." Said Mercedes, "You're sure?"

"Thank-you, dear, I'm sure."

Mercedes said, "Okay. We should get going then. We may be out later, for a coffee or something, after the movie, do you trust me with your boys, Mom?"

Mom chuckled, "That's creepy when you call me Mom," She said.

"You're right." Mercedes said, "Mrs. Metzger, may I take your boys out for a drink after we see a movie?"

"I don't see why not, as long as you promise not to hurt them."

"I promise not to hurt them."

"Okay then!" Mom stood up and kissed each of our trio's foreheads in turn. She kissed me last, then took my hands in hers. "Take care, William. Lots of care." She said. She stood up and stretched. "I'm going to take a bath, I think. That Indian food was delicious. William, good idea. You kids have a good time!" And just like that Mom was gone, down the hall toward the bathroom her and Dad shared, with its big bathtub.

"Shall we?" I asked.

"Let's!" Mercedes said. She helped me up off the floor, her knees bent, perfectly balancing against my weight.

"Thank-you." I said.

The three of us chatted about movies we wanted to see and lamented movies we had missed. I convinced them that we should see the second part of the fantasy trilogy that had just come out. My enthusiasm won them over, I think, and it was worth it. We have the best dollar theater in all of America. Well. The United States, probably. Definitely Michigan. Whatever.

So we're walking to the coffee house, which has been there forever --my parents, I'm pretty sure, dated here, which is only sort of weird. It's called, The Coffee House. There are other places, green corporate places, and brown, and orange corporate and faux-indie-chain places, but they aren't The Coffee House. If you want coffee and sagging couch in a room painted like the edge of the universe, paused, then you go to The Coffee House. The coffee is steady, their Chai's are wildly variable, their open mic nights are random and mandatory for patrons, even if you say your name and that you got nothin' you' did it. It has handicapped ramps in the front and back and two transgender bathrooms and a huge, covered, patio in the front. The owners live on the second floor and have since for ever.

Anyway. We were taking the long way, through the city's tiny park, really just a lit fountain, covered but still lit, this time of year. We were walking around the fountain when, despite the stillness, the tarp surged. He was under it quicker than I could follow; an edge flapping in his wake the huge bulk of his back tidal-ing through the fountain. A moment later an alabaster body shot out the other side, skidded in the light snow, and on all fours bounded toward the edge of town, toward the small houses and factories side of down town. He exploded out of the fountain, dragging the cover after him like a too large cape, "Folgen! Sie! Mir!" he shouted at us without looking back.

We chased after him at a sprint; through the thin park to the sidewalk. It was cold and late and empty on the sidewalks. The albino thing howled as it bounded along, a long, minor-note wail. It ran a stop-hand-sign and a white minivan slammed into it, launching the body across the street, into a flower bed across the street.

"Get it!" He shouted, "I'll talk."

Mercedes kept running, charged diagonally across the half full intersection her breath billowing in the crisp air. She slid, stopped and slipped something out of her pocket and knelt.

I skid hopped to a halt above, behind, Mercedes just as she slit the creature's throat. The creature. The creature? Who am I kidding? It was Jon. At least partially Jon. It was a Gabriel Hound of a Jon: His face; long fingers for paw toes, human sized, a poor mix of canine and human muscles and shape.

Mercedes had her knees on its neck. Mercedes had jon's face --a poorly 'shopped muzzle-- pointed away from her.

I watched the Gabriel Jon hound close its eyes as Mercedes's opened its throat throat with a pale blue scapel; it sighed.

I stood, frozen, watching the steam slow down. Like a pot of tea on a Sunday morning, I stared and could make out individual water droplets as they danced toward the stars.

Mercedes stood up without taking her eyes off it. "I'm going to get the car." She said. "If it moves. It won't move. Kill it again, if it does. But it won't." She said. Then, Mercedes was gone.

I stared at the dead-dog Jon. I watched the steam billowing from the excision on his throat. Dog-Jon's mouth curled into a rictus, his breathing slowed. He stopped moving. His blood spurts slowed, slowed to a drizzle.

There was the honk of a car horn,  and someone yelling. The slam of a door. He was there, gigantic, handsome, in my field of vision, smiling at me, grim. He picked up the body, carefully, and I watched as Dog-Jon was set carefully in the trunk of the car. Mercedes waved at me, frantically from the driver's seat.

Sitting in the back of the car, it smelled like metal and burned hair. It tasted like bile.

Mercedes was talking, waving her hands, pounding the steering wheel. I couldn't hear what she was saying over the sound of my heartbeat. He was talking too --indistinct and calm. Directing Mercedes.

The rear windows were steamed up. I sniffed. I asked, quietly, "What just happened?"

"Don't yell!" Mercedes said. Snapped.

"Sorry." I whispered.

Mercedes said, "It's okay." and swung the wheel around.

I closed my eyes. A while later we stopped. I kept my eyes closed. The front doors opened and closed.

Minutes stretched.

And the minutes stretched some more.

The trunk pried itself open and a gush of cold washed over my bald head, tickled the scars on my cheek. I opened my eyes.

"Welcome back." he said.

"Thanks." I said. I asked, "Are we done yet?"

"Not yet."  He said.

"Worst coffee ever, huh?" Mercedes said.

He slid into the passenger seat and we were off again, speeding through snow and darkness.

I asked, "How many more of these are we going to collect? To kill. To kill tonight? How many more?"

"I don't know. Hopefully at least three, if we are quick. We are going to a place where there may be more than one." he sounded so calm.

I smiled. he was here, this would be okay. It wasn't as if "-- Look, I don't have a knife." I said.

Very carefully, he handed me a pale blue knife.  It was more like a sliver of exquisitely sharpened plastic, with finger grooves, but no guard. I turned it over and over in my hands. The blade was flat, apart from the handle. It had a piercing point, and both edges were sharp. My thumb bled, a tiny x welled red on the tip.

I asked, "So, what was wrong with this one?"

"What do you mean?" Mercedes asked.

The wiper blades were steady and constant, filling all the space between our sentences.

I said, "Well, the first one looked like it was half a dog, half a Jon. That's weird. I'm pretty sure it smiled just before it died. So, what was wrong with the Jon you just killed?"

"Oh." Mercedes said. I watched her look at him.

Neither of them said anything.

Mercedes stopped at a yellow traffic light.

After the light turned green and we were moving again, he gave Mercedes a string of instructions, then turned and looked at me. "Physically, William, there was nothing wrong with this Jon. We found him eating a border-collie, squeezed between a dumpster and the back of a grocery store. It had built a small cave from cardboard boxes. It was thin as bones."

"Are they all going to be mercy killings?" I asked.

"Yes." He said and turned around.

Swish, thup. Swish. Thup.

Mercedes said, "Here we are." She turned the lights off and the snow on the windshield went grey, still thick.

"Where are we?" I asked. I wiped away the steam on the window, but could only make out we were in a deserted part of a parking lot at a shopping center of some kind.

"Walmart." Mercedes said.

"The evil one lives in Walmart?" I asked.

"No, he works here."

"Wait, seriously?"

"Yeah. See that car?"

"The junker?"

Mercedes turned the engine and the lights off. "Yeah. The junker. The ford truck. That's his. He gets off work in, uh," She glanced at the clock on the dashboard, five minutes. We're going to distract him, and he's going to take care of him. Cool?"

"He works at Walmart." I said. I blinked.

"He works at Walmart and lives with some coworkers, at the moment."

"How do you know that?"

"Friends." He said.

"You've got some network of friends around here." I said.

He got out and walked purposefully toward the blue Ford Ranger, jammed something into the lock, opened the door and slid silently inside, closing the door behind himself.

"Mercedes, this is messed up. How do we know it's him? How do we know it's Jon? What are we even going to do?" I couldn't stop talking. "I mean, he might be crazy. This is. That dog-Jon. I don't even know what that was. Have you --"

"I killed a few the night you passed out and I killed the one on top of Dog Jon, as you call it. I'm probably going to kill this one, too, if he doesn't get it first." She slunk down in her seat, "Duck duck duck!" Mercedes hissed.

I ducked down, contorting and folding onto the floor, still peaking just above the window.

It was Jon, with a broken arm, looking tired, carrying three grocery bags in one hand, fumbling limply, trying to pull his keys out of his pocket with his casted arm.

One of the grocery bags tore open and vegetable cans rolled, fanned out, around him. Jon just stood there for a moment, the clouds of his breath uneven.

"Okay." Mercedes said. She got out of the car and slammed the door. "Jon!" She shouted. "You're coming with us. You shouldn't be here and you know it."

Jon laughed. He started kicking the fallen cans into a pile by his other shopping bags. "Got just as much right to be here as you, I figure." He said.

"No. You've had your life. You've had a few lives. And taken a few more."

"Wasn't me. Not my problem. I'm not hurting anyone and no one knows I'm one of them." I heard him say. Jon said, "Please. Leave me alone."

"You got to come with me." Mercedes said. "It's better for everyone, and it's easy. You'll see." She actually held her hand out.

Jon pulled a gun from under his coat with his casted arm, and pulled the trigger. No sound, but Mercedes toppled backward, onto her back.

I dove out of the car and immediately slipped on the ice, face first, sprawled in a gigantic X. The snow was cold against my cheek, the parking lot grit bit into my lips, wet them in the cold.

"You." Jon said. "You're one of them now, too? I thought you were a protector of the weak."

"I am," I said. "You're evil. Jon was always evil. No one liked him --no one liked you."

"I wasn't made to be liked, though. And now I'm mostly dead, and I, this Jon, just wants to be left alone."

I felt the nozzle of the gun press into the cleft of my skull. I felt a heavy thunk, heard a hiss and woosh. Jon held the muzzle there for a few more moments, and then he didn't.

He didn't say anything else, and neither did I.

I heard the trunk of our car pop open. I scraped my face against the cement and heard a tiny metallic clatter. I saw a blood trail leading from where I lay around to the back of our car. I closed my eyes and counted to zero from three. I opened my eyes. The blood trail was still there. So was Jon's gun. "Seriously?" I asked. I pocketed Jon's gun and crawled to my knees, feeling the heat from the long gun barrel. The back of my head stung  as if someone had given me a charlie horse on the back of the neck. I stood up and walked to the back of the car just as He closed the trunk.

"That was a weird distraction, but it worked." He said. He clapped me on the back.

 My shoulders slumped. "Mercedes." I said.

"Yes?" Mercedes said. She leaned against the side of the car. She tugged at the sleeves of her jacket, dusted the snow and grit off them. "Bullet proof, just like yours." She said. "It's good to know the hood works, too."

"You guys I --"

"We need to go." He said and got in the passenger side, front seat.

Mercedes got into the driver's seat and started the engine before I got in the car. I hesitated. The rear window rolled down. "Come on!" They said together.

I sighed and got in the car. "I thought you were dead." I said. I smacked Mercedes's headrest. "I thought you were dead!" I shouted.

"I'm not! We're all alive!" She shouted, "I'm driving!"

"This is crazy!" I shouted.

"Please," He whispered. "Please stop shouting."

"Where are we going now?" I asked.

Mercedes looked at me in the rear view mirror. She said, "Sheldon Rd. North of the interstate. Did you know there's a system of steam tunnels from what used to be a slew of insane asylums, buried under a sub division? Did you know there's a secret entrance to those tunnels in a storm drain that runs under Sheldon Rd?" Mercedes said, "He told me about it. He scouted the area a few days ago. I searched the records and found a few urban legends. And here we are."

He nodded.

I laughed.

He turned in his seat and stared at me.

I swore.

I said, "You're serious, aren't you?"

Mercedes said, "I can text you the blue prints if you'd like."

"Why did that one have to die?" I asked.

He laughed. He said, "The Jon we just killed? You want to know why he had to die? Because according to the government he was already dead. He screwed up and left a body at a crime scene and was pronounced dead. He killed many, many people, and tried to kill you."

"The one just now?"

"Tried to kill me, and you." Mercedes said. She slowed to a stop at a stop light. "He was Jon. Remember? Endless source of pain for us, Freshman fall? Wanted to beat up poor, dead, Jay? Killed Jay. Maimed his sister?"

"That wasn't him, though. That wasn't the Jon we just killed."

"Wasn't it?" Mercedes asked.

I said, "I'm pretty sure it was not that Jon who did all those things."

"DNA would disagree with you."

"But that isn't his fault. He just wanted to be left alone." I said. "Seriously. He had groceries. And now he's dead."

"You wanted to kill Jon for most of a year." Mercedes said.

I said, "This different." I crossed my arms. "I get why we killed the first one, tonight. I think that one might've even wanted to die. It was probably going to die." I said, "but this one? If we'd left him alone, I don't think he would've killed anyone."

"But we don't know." He said. "They're escapees. They aren't supposed to be out, and thanks to that cursed party you two went to, he cannot be out."

"Why not?"

"Bad things would happen, William." Mercedes eyed me for a heartbeat, in the rear view mirror. "What if they went crazy? What if --"

I cut her off, "Then the police would take care of it. And what if they didn't go crazy?"

"One bad traffic stop is all it might take to --" He started, but I cut him off.

"Might?" I said. I punched the back of his seat. "Might? What are you? The future police?"

He laughed again. "Sort of." he said.

"Doesn't matter to me." I said.

Mercedes said, "Look, William, there's supposedly three Jons in these tunnels. We need your help for this one. Like, really need your help, okay? We don't know what's down there and we need a rear guy."

We all paused.

We all chuckled.

"Fine," I said. "But." I stopped.

"But what?" He asked.

"Never mind. Nothing, nothing." I said. I looked up and smiled, tracing one of the rough holes drilled in the barrel of the gun in my pocket.

We all sat in silence the rest of the drive.

After what seemed like an eternity, Mercedes said, "We're here." and pulled into a bright gas station. She pulled all the way through, next to the brown dumpster, carefully not blocking the tire pump.

"Is this okay?" I asked.

Mercedes said, "Yeah. I know the guy who works this shift."

"How?"

Mercedes laughed, "Tumblr."


Hoods up, we got out, and I could feel the wind snapping at me, but I only felt the sharp cold on my exposed cheeks and hands, until I stuffed my tingling fingers in my jacket pockets. My scars burned. I tried not to think how hot Mercedes's face must be in this wind.

The parking lot was well lit, even in the back, and Mercedes waved at the gas station, but the windows were opaque with condensation.

He hauled a huge pair of bolt cutters out with him as he stood; rested them on a shoulder. He pulled a surgical mask over his face. "Mouths in your coats." he said, "Just in case."

Mercedes and I zipped our coats all the way up. He pushed the edge of our collars across the bridges of our noses, me first, and they stuck. They weren't sticky, but they sealed around our faces, leaving only our eyes visible when our hoods were pulled tight.

"Cool." I said.

A few cars zoomed by and we dashed across the road and, hugging the black tree line, walked for half a mile, then slip slid down a long hill. At the bottom, I followed Mercedes and him down the steep embankment, into a skeletal forest on the western side of the road, somewhere north of the M-14.

The sky cleared as we walked, and the black skeleton forest became moldy with ice shale that clung to the tree trunks and thicker branches. The snow seemed to glow the half moon.

We trudged, silently, spread out, hands in pockets except the arm he rested on the bolt cutters slung over his broad shoulders.

"Found it!" Mercedes called and we all stopped. "I think it's --Yup, here it is." She kicked at some leaves, then bent down and pulled a thatch of sticks and refuse off a grate.


He hopped through the snow, back to the grey metal grate Mercedes had uncovered. "Excuse." He said and hefted the bolt cutters. Mercedes shone her mobile phone around the edge of the grate, which looked to be approximately four feet in diameter. They found and cut away three obviously new locks from the grate. He heaved and hefted it out the way, then crawled in, icy muck slooshing around his gloved hands.

"How are we supposed to do that?" I asked.

"Elbows." Mercedes said. "Here." She pulled two locks from a pocket and handed them to me. "Put these on once you're in. On the grate." She nodded.

"I'm going to have to crawl in backwards." I said. I frowned.

"We'll guide you until you get to the entrance, and help you once we get to the hole." Mercedes said. With her coat mask and hood, I couldn't see her face. "Come on." She said and slid into the tunnel.

I shook my head. I grabbed the grate and slithered backward into the tunnel. I pulled the gate shut and clicked the two locks onto the grate, but not through the eye hole locks. I sighed. I wiggled and elbowed and reverse army crawled. I ran into Mercedes, who yelped and kicked me in the shin. We both apologized and kept going. Mercedes kept a boot against my shoe, so I knew where she was, and so I didn't kick into her if she had to pause again. And going. And crawling. And more sluicing.

Amazingly, I felt completely dry apart from my feet.

"Found it." His whisper echoed in the tunnel. "Going to be tight, but. . . " I heard a grunt and the clatter of dirt into water, then a bigger splash. "It's a long way down." He whispered into the tunnel; another splash.

Mercedes whispered, "Hold on William." She slid silently away from me; only the phantom pressure of her foot against mine to keep me company.

Then, I felt a hand lightly slap my ankle. I started backing up again. The hand tugged at me, and I wiggled to turn. Mercedes guided me down, across loose dirt and broken bricks; when my legs swung out into an open space, he made sure I didn't fall or stumble.

I dusted myself off. "Thank-you both." I said. I stretched in the tiny room. It was musty, warm. The pipe insulation was chewed to the rusty pipe beneath in places. There were thick pipes running along the walls in all directions; without the pipes the room would have been large. With the pipes, the room was claustrophobic. Shadows danced in the dark between the pipes and the wall. I shivered.

Mercedes looked at her phone. "The left one,"  she said. "The left one leads to another hole and another tunnel that leads to the old boiler room."

I snorted. I asked, "Boiler room?"

"That's what the map says."

"Cool." I nodded.

He had a small, LED flashlight. Mercedes had the flashlight Mr. Liu had given us. I had my mobile phone. I sighed. I didn't even have a flashlight app. "We are ready?" He asked.

Mercedes and I nodded. Stooping ridiculously, he quietly marched off down the left tunnel. In the tunnel, some of the binding hung like unrolled toilet paper from the pipes and everything was a shade of grey or white. Mercedes poked at some of the hanging cloth with her flashlight and it exploded in a cloud of something on us both, turning us grey.

"Glad we have the masks." Mercedes said.

"Seriously."

"Sh." He said.

Every noise we made echoed and echoed and echoed.

We came to a red brick T junction with spray paint on the biggest of the white pipes in front of us:

<-- --="" e="" h="" ll="" nbsp="" purgatory="">

We Took the right tunnel, at Mercedes's direction and went some yards; a howling from somewhere deeper in the depths found us. I felt a breeze against my dusted cheeks.

He held up his hand.

Behind us, something dripped into a puddle and echoed softly.

The howl of the wind picked up, ahead of us.

"There should be a hole on the left, and that'll lead us to the nest." Mercedes whispered.

"Lights off." He said.

"You have got to be kidding me." I started to say. I stopped when his and Mercedes's lights went out.

Usually, when you are dropped into darkness, eventually your eyes will adjust. We stood for a full minute, waiting for our eyes to adjust. They never did. The blackness was. It was as if we were staring at pitch. Complete darkness, feet and feet and feet under ground.

There was a hiss, or a rustle. I felt Mercedes's rough hand grasp mine. She squeezed my hand --three quick pulses. I squeezed her hand back twice. "You too." I thought.

We inched through the darkness, the soft scrape of his fingers against the piping on the left wall the only sound for a long time.

"Here." He whispered.

Flash bang grenade is a lie. Seriously, Thunder Sun Bomb is more accurate.

It was pitch when Mercedes let go of my hand, and then CRASH went the whatever and the world turned red and silent. My hearing came back before my vision and I heard him and Mercedes screaming and a sound like a million sheets of paper being torn all at once.

I pulled the gun from my pocket and as my vision turned from white to red I turned the corner, through the breach in the wall and shouted, "Freeze."

The room was made of clean, red brick and had a really high, arched ceiling. Pipes snaked from the corners and tore through the walls, and merged on a large, pot belly, water heater, plump against the back wall. Taped to the top of the heater was an old, electric lamp.

No one listened to me. Three dog-Jons leapt from Mercedes to me. The gun clattered to the floor, yards out of reach.

There was a a tangle of marbled limbs.

As I was buried under gnashing Jon-muzzles and weird, sharp, paw hands, I watched the tangle of marbled crash like waves against him. The tangle screamed at him and snapped its limbs like whips that caught him in the face then arms; the chest, knocked him about. The tangle of limbs had a torso, but its hair looked like ancient, asbestos dreadlocks dipped in sludge. Its arms --no, its fingers-- would have reached the floor, if they stayed still long enough, but they were a dervish of swirling, snapping, cracking ligaments.

There were three dog-Jons gnawing on my arms and butting and clawing at my chest.

Mercedes shout-swore; I watched a plume of blood splurt across my face and something popped in my neck, I felt my cheek split and my vision went weird.

There was a dull popping sound, then two more. Two of the dogs jumped off me and skidded about-face; the other slouched, limped quickly away, bleeding profusely.

Mercedes stepped forward and pulled the trigger again; the head of one dog-Jon' exploded. The other, less dead dog-Jon, rolled onto its legs, growling and guttural. The third whimpered, its legs given out.

Someone else, someone new, yelled, "STOP!"

Everyone: the surviving dog-Jon and the tangle, and our trio, stopped.

"Stop stop stop! What is this?" Someone shouted. My ears were still struck from the Thunder Sun bomb, but I could hear the voice -- paternal-- well enough.

"You killed them!" The voice said.

I said, "They would have killed us."

The voice said, "Your friend would have killed them like chopping veggies if not for my trap."

I stood there, feeling dumb and gangly. I said, "Well --

He snatched the gun from Mercedes's hand, and had the trigger pulled three more times before I started my second word. The third pull produced nothing but a click sound, though the damage was done.

Another Jon, noticeably older than the others, with crows feet nesting his eyes, staggered around the boiler.  Old-Jon looked from me, to Mercedes who was leaning against the wall, staring at him and the gun in his hand.

Old-Jon smiled at me, opened his mouth and said, "Th-uh." He leaned heavily against the curve of the furnace, still smiling. Blood bloomed through his beige workman's coat. He coughed.

Everyone stared at him. Old-Jon was just that: grey hair, thick, peppery eyebrows. Jon's eyes, a cleft chin. "Pee." He said, and collapsed.

The Dog-Jon and the Frayed-Jon looked at each other, then looked at him. They charged him, and he cried out, but they ran past him, into the tunnels. He grabbed hold of Dog-Jon's tail as he passed and yanked him bodily back into the furnace room. Dog-Jon yelped.

Mercedes scrambled after the Frayed-Jon.

I pushed him away from Dog-Jon, the one Mercedes had only grazed.

Everyone snarled.

"Listen. This isn't how this needs to be. It. He. That Jon, right there, does not need to die."

"It'll try to kill something or someone at some point." He said.

"We have tried to kill somethings and someones! Many times! Tonight!" I said, "I think the other, the weirder thing will look after this one. They were working together to --"

He said. "That is horrible! They should not meet! They should not work together. They must be killed. People cannot know such things exist. They should not be family."

"Why? We exist." I said. I gently patted him on the chest. "Look at us." I said. I patted my own chest. "Why am I still alive? These things. This Jon. I think we just shot their parental unit."

The dog-Jon whimpered. It nuzzled at Old-Jon's hand.

"Look." I said. "It's probably going to stay and die with his master anyway." I said --nothing actually, and jumped and howled in surprise instead.

"I think I will head south, actually." said dog-Jon, "If you let me." He sat up, blood on his white, distended face. Dog-Jon yawned, kicked at his jaw with a hind hand. "Sorry." He said.

I said, "Woh. What?"

"These can talk." He said. He backed away from the dog-Jon, who hunched, naked, like a gigantic albino frog imitating a human imitating a dog.

Dog-Jon said, "We can talk. And think. My brother, father, and I were days away from leaving. Father had a ride lined up with some activists. The three of us were going to--"

A howl rippled through the tunnels and splashed and echoed in the boiler room.

"Was that yours?" I asked the dog-Jon.

"I don't think so." dog-Jon replied. "We need to choose quickly, boys. You can try and kill me, and then I can try and kill the two of you. I won't be nice about it, but then again, I doubt you will, either. Or, we should see what's happening in the tunnels. Personally, I'd rather not fight you two."

"For now." he said. "You live." He ducked and dashed back into the tunnels, flashlight out and bobbing.

Dog-Jon and I eyed each other.  I turned and took off after him. Dog-Jon was right behind me, loping along on all fours moments later with the lantern waggling in his jaws.

We got back to the room where Mercedes, him and I had dropped into the tunnel system proper. He was stood there, looking around, hands clenched. He stared at us. He said, "I understand how it got up there, but how did Mercedes?"

I laughed. "With her? Who knows?"

"Please give me a boost." He said.

"Sure thing. I stood under the hole and felt myself go cold. "Oh." I said. I laced my fingers and bent my knees. I said, "Mercedes is done for if they're fighting in that pipe."

He hopped onto my hands, grabbed the ragged metal edge and pulled himself into the hole in the wall. With a wiggle, he was gone.

I turned to say something to dog-Jon, but he was gone, too, the lantern balanced precariously on one of the thin, off-white pipes that followed the wall. "Huh." I said. I looked around, but couldn't see anything, other than the powdery pipes, to get myself up and out.

Mercedes scream echoed down and out the pipe while I was staring at the hole, not really thinking about anything in particular. I figured one of them would come and pull me up, but that seemed wildly unlikely, now.

The scream faded slowly, like the long shriek of a passing night train.

I backed up, ran and jumped; my hands caught the edge but it was sharp and I yelped; fell down, cracking a pipe as I did. I dusted myself off.

"Right then." I said. I pulled the sleeves of my coat over my hands and found they had thumb holes, quite deep on the cuff. "Huh." I said. I slid my thumbs through the holes --the cuffs hung over my fingers like a open mittens. I ran and jumped, grabbed on; the rough metal bit against the cuffs but didn't penetrate. I kicked and scrambled and pulled myself into the icy slush in the tunnel and started belly crawling and kicking my way down the tunnel, toward the sharp white moonlight, my breath billowing.

I poked my head out and immediately face planted into the snow. His boot sailed over my head and I shrimp kicked toward his other leg and grabbed it, yanked it toward me. He toppled into the snow, windmilling as he fell.

"You idiot!" He shouted before his head snapped back, thudded into the snow, my knuckles knocking at his gums. "You --" he started to say.

The cuff of my coat stopped my knuckles from cracking against his teeth in the frozen night. I sat up from the punch flow, straddling him high, my knees squeezed against his wide ribs; he bucked uselessly under me. We stared into each other's eyes as I raised my hands up and prepared to volleyball serve his face. I smiled and Mercedes tackled me, her shoulder catching my chin, making me bite my lip as her entire body slammed into my throat and face. We rolled and Mercedes kicked off my hips and crotch --I gasped-- she sprang to her feet, skidded a little in the snow. Mercedes pointed one of the flat blue daggers at me.

She looked between me and him. "What? What is going on here?" She asked, her voice calm, her body heaving. "And," She added, "Why have you two gone so mad?"

"He did not lock the gate behind us. It got away because he did not do as I asked. Now it is free to kill and marauder."

I laughed. I said, "Marauder? Really? Those Jons were more scared than we were!"

He spat at me. He said, "Did you see it? It was a monster." He barked a fake laugh at me. He said, "You've gone mad, or you always were."

I stared at him for a long time, my fists clench-un-clenching. I said, "I would rather die than let you kill another innocent creature."

"Innocent?" He said.

I jabbed a finger toward him. I said, "More innocent than you."

"That is ridiculous." He said.

"Why?"

He said, "Monsters --"

"Because what? Because they vaguely resemble a dead bully? Monsters? Why? Old men are monsters, now? Well." I stopped.

"Some of them." Mercedes and I said it together, and looked at each other. "Well." We said it unison again. "Stop it!" We said.

"What is that?" He asked.

We said, "Nothing." and cackled.

I pushed a high five at her, through the air and Mercedes returned the gesture right in time.

"Seriously." Mercedes said. "William didn't do anything. The bolts were cut, look at them."

No one moved.

Mercedes pulled another knife out of her coat pocket and, keeping the first pointed toward me, pointed the other at him. "Look." She said.

Slowly, he sat up. He hopped to his feet, without using his hands and I snorted in appreciation. He slowly moved to the grate and bent. He poked around in the snow and came up holding two locks, both missing chunks from their shackle. "Huh." He said.

"Indeed." I said. I walked over and took one of the locks, examined it; pocketed it. "Can we get back to not unnecessarily killing things, now, please?" I asked.

"Let's walk back to the car, it is freezing and that creature, as you say, is long gone."

"We could chase it." Mercedes said. Her breath swirled in the air between us all.

I stared at Mercedes, eyebrows raised, jaws locked.

The three of us stood there, crouched, hands out. Steam rose from my arms, and Mercedes's coat, and his hands.

"Let's go home." He said. "It is late."

The walk back was quiet and long. We didn't bother climbing the bank back up to the road, instead trudging together through the brush and some muck. My toes hurt. The walk back was longer than the walk to the tunnel; a solitary car zoomed by, chased moments later by a silent police car, lights flashing over our head, its siren silent.

We stopped in the darkness, on the edge of the trees.

I said, "Well that sucks."

Someone was leaning against Mercedes's car. Despite all the halogen, I couldn't see who it was. Average height, big, long black coat. Gloves. Black and grey argyle scarf and a fedora, he looked like nothing so much as a fifties gangster. He even lit a cigarette. He stood up and I recognized him instantly, hadn't realized how far he was leaning against the car. Dad checked his phone. He shouted, "You three can come out of the trees! It's cold out here! Let's go home!"

"Mr. Metzger!" Mercedes shouted back. She waved at him and started to cross the street, I hopped, caught up with her, taking her hand and swore loudly --a car, a black Prius, swerved silently around the two of us. It had: Black tires with black hubs, tinted windows, a flat vanity license cover, mudded over. Other than the license plate, the black Prius was immaculately clean as it swooshed silently past us.

I pulled Mercedes the rest of the way across the street and looked back, toward him. There was another black Prius, face down in the embankment. Its lights weren't flashing or anything, and no smoke came from the exhaust pipe.

"Oh great goodness." Mercedes said, a hand covering her covered mouth. She said, "I might be sick." and unzipped her coat; convulsed once.

I put my hands on her shoulders and turned her toward me. I stared into her eyes and gently piano-fingers'd on her shoulders. "It's fine, you'll be fine." I said.

Mercedes looked at me and smiled. She licked her teeth. "I know." She said. She hugged me, then, and didn't let --

"I'm fine, I'm fine!" He shouted.

Mercedes let go of me and I turned around.

The passenger door hung open and he stood there, dusting glass off his coat, apparently unharmed. "Stupid, weak, hybrids." He said. He looked at us and smiled. "It's just another Jon." He said, "He is dead. Crushed under the windshield.

I ran back across the road, almost face planted on the icy hill, and hugged him. "You're alive!" I said. I kissed the tiny patch of his exposed cheek. I whispered, "why is my dad here?"

He shrugged under my arms, his mouth still covered by his collar, he said, "I am not sure. It is a good thing. Let's go talk with him."

We clambered up the bank and crossed the street. Mercedes honked the car horn and her car rocked. We climbed in. "Hi Dad!" I said, closing the rear passenger door and giving him a hug. Dad in the back of a car is a comically cramped thing.

Dad returned my hug, held me there, huge arms wrapped around my shoulders for a long moment. Mercedes turned the radio on, turned down the volume. Dad said, "Are you guys okay?" And released me from his bearlike arms.

"We're, amazingly, all okay. Yeah." I said.

"We were just going for a stroll." Mercedes said, "Through the woods, to grandmother's house and all that jazz. It's cold! Are we going back to y'all's house? I'd love some hot cocoa and my mom knows I'm out with you, so won't mind my staying. Hey!" She looked at him, "Could you text her and let her know I'll be home tomorrow for dinner?"

He said, "Sure." and smiled. He texted Mrs. Swanson as Mercedes drove us home.

I said, "Dad. I missed you. Why are you here?"

"I," Dad said, "Was checking to make sure Mercedes's car hadn't been stolen. Dad paused. He said, "Mrs. Swanson noticed that the car had been at a gas station for a few hours and called to see if we'd heard from you guys. We hadn't, so I offered to come and check on you."

"Oh." said Mercedes. She smiled. "Oh." She said, "Oh."

I frowned.

Mercedes turned the radio up, but the station didn't come in very well; the signal fading and buzzing, static filled. Mercedes tapped along to the static.

We got back to my house and Mercedes parked, bumped against the garage door, reversed off it. She ignored the looks Dad and him gave her.

Dad and him got out, and I was about to when Mercedes said, "I'm going to the party store. I want some chips, and a Slushie. Does anyone else want anything?"

"I'll come!" I said.

Mercedes put the car in reverse and eased her foot of the brake. "Great!" she said. Through the windshield as we were backing away, she pointed at him and gave him the thumbs up, which he returned.

Dad gave us the thumbs up, but we were already half way down the driveway, anyway.

"So," Mercedes said, "I think that's messed up."

"The part where we almost just died; the bit where he jumped through the windshield of a car that tried to crash into him, or the fact that our parents are stalking us now? Or!" I said. I chuckled, "The fact that we're having a rational conversation about it and not freaking out?"

Mercedes sighed and ran a finger across her cheek as we navigated through the subdivision. She asked, "Most of that." She said, "What's to freak out about? We're alive, and a few of our friends, basically, aren't."

"He wants to figure out who killed and maimed all the people at the Halloween party." I said.

Mercedes said, "Me too. And why there was a basement full of Jon-ghouls. I mean, what the hell?" She looked at me, at a stop sign. She said, "Don't you want to know?"

"Jon killed Jay. I saw that. We all did." I nodded and turned on up radio, but it wasn't anything good.

"What about the rest of them?"

"Them too."

"Jon didn't kill them. Someone did. Don't you care?"

We were there, parked, but Mercedes didn't unlock the doors, or put the car in park. She said, "Seriously, do you or don't you want to know who killed the other kids at that party?"

I sat there. I stared at the dashboard. I nodded. I said, "I do. They deserve justice."

Silently, we sat in the car until it was cold. Mercedes broke the silence. "We can't have you wussing out on us, William." She said, "Seriously. We almost had all those Jons back there, but two of them escaped because of you."

"Two of them lived because of me!" I said. I reached forward and unlocked the doors, got out and slammed it shut; strode into the store.

"Woa woa woa!" The clerk said, hands in the air.

I looked at the CCTV and shook my head. I tugged the mask-collar off my face and smiled. I pulled the hood back, still smiling. I said, "Merry Christmas. Sorry."

Mercedes came in while I was stirring my hot cocoa. She came up behind me, put a hand on my shoulder.
"They escaped." She said.

"They weren't guilty of anything." I said.

"That we knew of."

I said, "That's enough for me." I lidded my cup and walked to the counter. Paid with a five dollar bill and told the clerk to keep the change. I walked back to Mercedes, sipping my molten chocolate drink. "If any of our friends get hurt, or there's any reports with witnesses, fine. Awesome! Let's get all south east Michigan Batman on these weird looking Jons, but until then, they're innocent."

"They're monsters, though. You saw that one tentacle looking thing!"

"Monsters?" I said, "Really? Because they look funny."

"They attacked us!"

"We were there to kill them!"

"Fine." Mercedes said. She paid for her chips and Slushie and thanked the teller.

We both slammed the car doors and Mercedes stabbed at the ignition button with her knuckles. We drove back to my house in silence.

In the driveway, I put my hand on Mercedes arm as she put the car in Park. I looked at her face, her bright eyes. I said, "Look. If I know someone's done something bad, something the police don't seem to care or be able to do anything about, fine. But I'm not killing people just because he tells me to. I don't know why you do, either."

"They've all been Jon, so far, William. We've only killed Jons."

I nodded, "But some of them were barely Jon." I said.

Mercedes said, "They're close enough for me." She made to unbuckle her seat belt, but I held her wrist in place. She narrowed her eyes at me, tilted her head.

"When we find out who killed all the other kids at that party I will be right there with you and him. Okay? I promise. If we figure it out, that person is done." I let go of Mercedes's wrist. I said, "Okay?"

"Okay." Mercedes said. We looked at each other, through each other in the dark. "Okay." Mercedes said again. "Let's go have fun!"

"Woo." I said. We got out of the car; I keyed open the garage and in we went.

"You're back!" Mom said, "He was just telling us about the adventures you had! An almost mugging! Right down town! That's crazy!" She stopped and looked seriously at us. "I'm disappointed you didn't call the police."

"Mom!" I said. I took off my soaking shoes and socks and stared at my blue feet. "Oh." I said. "Well."

"William?" said Mom.

"Mom, could you --nevermind. I'll get myself some socks." I listened to Mercedes filling in the details of our mugging as I padded downstairs. I rooted around in my drawers for a while. The gun in my pocket was very, very heavy. I sat on the bed and  pulled out the pistol and looked at it.

My phone buzzed.

The matte black handle, the essential nature of its design. The safety seemed like a concession. My phone buzzed again. I turned it over and over and it was smooth. No knicks or dents or scuffs. I smiled at that, once I finished examining it: a flawless, empty. Perfect and mostly useless without bullets. My phone buzzed again. I set the pistol on the bed and checked my phone. My teeth clenched. Someone had texted me from Jay's old phone number.

The texts read:
Hey, this is Morgan. Sorry to be creepy with Jay's old phone. Didn't have your number.
I wanna have lunch with you and Mercedes and him if that's cool? The 27th?
I hope we can hang out soon. OOOOOOOOOOO 

I stared at my phone. "That was weird." I thought.

"What was weird?" He asked.

I looked up and stuffed the gun under his pillow.  "Morgan texted me. She wants us all to hang out after Christmas."

He chuckled. "I'm probably going to find the gun if you try to hide it under my pillow." He said, "That's cool. Morgan seems okay from what Mercedes told me. What are we --"

"I wasn't trying to hide the gun from you." I said. I pulled it out. I held it out toward him. "You can have it; you should have it, here." I shook it at him. I said, "We should go upstairs. We've been down here a while." I smiled and waggled the gun a bit more.

He took the gun and set it on the top bunk. He said, "I'll hide it tonight. For now, we warm ourselves and enjoy our family!"

I nodded, the smile in my eyes if not my mouth.

Upstairs, Mercedes and Mom and Dad were all watching the fire, occasionally asking or answering work or school or love questions.

"So she finally said yes. And suddenly, here we are." Dad finished.

"You seem to have neglected an important seventeenish years, there." I said. I sank into the couch and (gently) plopped my feet onto Mercedes's lap. "Massage please." I said.

Mercedes started rubbing my feet. "These are freezing!" She said.

I said, "Thank goodness your hands are so warm."

He sat with Mom and Dad on the floor, but got up a few moments later, went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. He came back and sat down on the floor again. "I did not think crime was a thing around here." He said. "It was very strange and we were very lucky Mercedes was with us."

"Hah hah ha." Mercedes said.

"I am serious. Twice you saved us!" He said.

Mercedes smiled in the firelight. I smiled too.

"She was really amazing." I said.

"Anyway, the movie was really good. Better than the first part!" Mercedes said. The conversation rolled and lolled and lol'd from there, and the evening wore on (to borrow a phrase) and eventually Mom and Dad excused themselves to bed.

The three of us sat there, enjoying the peace and the fire and the quiet. The wind gusted, but here, inside, it was warm and soft.

"I'm serious about finding who wrecked that party." I said, at length. "There were, like, so many anonymous there and apparently none of them, except Jon? I can't believe they all escaped. We should see if any of Jon's old friends were there. They'll probably know who did it." I paused.

The silence drew out.

Mercedes coughed and He blessed her.

Mercedes said, "That's a good idea." She added, "Morgan texted me today, too."

"Is she okay?" I asked.

Mercedes said, "Huh? Oh. Yeah. She's okay. Her good eye is giving her trouble, apparently, and the cold is making her phantom fingers play up, but otherwise --"

"She is good." He said.

"Cool." I said.

"Yes. And tomorrow is not too soon?" He asked.

I said, "Tomorrow is too soon, I'm afraid. But maybe the twenty-seventh? My parents and I, we stay in and watch trilogies on the twenty-sixth, but the twenty-seventh would be good."

"What trilogies this year?" Mercedes asked.

I said, "We haven't decided yet."

He propped himself up and looked at me. Or past me. It was hard to tell in the firelight. I stared back at him, his lips and their central canyon.

"You licked your lips." He said. He asked, "Are you hungry?"

I yawned. "I'm tired, actually." I said. I lifted my legs off Mercedes's lap and stretched. "I'll, uh, sleep on the top bunk." I said.

Mercedes made a clucking noise. "Cute." She said, "But you know the spare bed up here is for me. I'm going to bed too, though. Curry coma!" Mercedes chuckled.

He said, "I am going to stay up for a while. I want to start the book your mom and dad recommended. It is a history of Detroit. I'm excited to read it."

"Cool." I said.

"Yes." He said.

We all said our goodnights and hugged, rotationally and as a group. He agreed to put the left overs away before coming to bed and I agreed.

I watched from the corner of the stairs as he turned the fire off, then slid quietly onto the couch, picked up and swiped open the family tablet computer and closed his eyes in the wash of e-reader blue. I smiled. He opened his eyes right at me, and, under lit and blue, smiled at me with all his teeth.

I blinked.

When I opened my eyes he was still smiling, his perfect lips summer sky blue, his eyes warm. He mouthed: good night.

I waved.

I went to bed and woke up on Christmas Eve and I woke up as excited as if it were Christmas proper. I hopped off the bunk; landed quietly, like he did, shook the bottom bunk. He wasn't there. "Oh." I said. I checked my phone and it was still early. But where was he?

He was still asleep, on the couch, in the darkness. It was dark. Early, and dark. I thought about curling up with him, but decided against it. Even if he was bigger than me, I was still a large person. I sighed and considered eating all the samosas. I decided against it. Instead, I started to head softly back down stairs. I stopped a few steps down.

As quietly as I could, I eased into the living room.

The furnace startled me and I felt my weight settle straight through my legs into the floor. Nothing moved, nobody moved, for a moment. I picked up the tablet went back to bed.

I lay on the upper bunk, and looked at the event log. Last night, he opened the web browser, e-reader, and text editor. I opened the web browser, but the history, cookies, and cache were all empty. The e-reader had a large .pdf as its only opened file. The text editor had no recent documents, and there were no documents in the Document folder. I sighed. I dropped the tablet onto the lower bunk and set an alarm for a few hours later. I closed my eyes and, seriously, the next thing I knew