The Leaves of Fall Act 3: Something That Matters

Sep 22nd, 2019 (edited)
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  1. The Leaves of Fall (Or: How Anon and His Friends Saved The World) -- Oliver_Hart
  3. Tags: [Reverse Trap], [Anthro/Human], [Autumn], [Halloween], [Slow Burn], [High School], [Anon], [Nostalgia], [Adventure], [Rabbit]
  5. Cover: https://imgur.com/a/vZS4Q
  6. Sam (drawn by Akella of /hmofa/) https://imgur.com/a/nk3t1wT
  7. Accompanying Playlist (WIP): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J
  8. SoFurry link: https://www.sofurry.com/view/1479078
  9. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
  10. Summary: You've never really 'fit in' with the heavily divided Ranchview High School crowd. Jock, Goth, Prep, Cheerleader, Nerd...you were never any of these. But as Halloween approaches, strange things start happening, and a dark ritual begins with the finding of a curious red book. It's a race against time for you and your friends to stop a group of students from ushering in an age of darkness, and to also figure out just what the hell is wrong with that rabbit.
  11. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
  12. READ ACTS 1 AND 2 https://pastebin.com/gyfAjY5M
  13. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
  15. Act 3: Something That Matters
  16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3IvQjtNp5I&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=19&t=0s
  18. >Wednesday morning
  19. >Your eyes crack open
  20. >You feel Sam against you, his form is as familiar as your own clothing at this point
  21. >WOW he feels warm, even through your clothing
  22. >Like a little ball of magma clinging to you
  23. >What time is it?
  24. >You check your phone
  25. >It’s only 6:30 a.m.
  26. >That explains the lack of light showering in from the crucifix-shaped window
  27. >You have another hour-and-a-half before school
  28. >You stretch out delicately as Sam shifts, his leg kicking, snared in a dream
  29. >Dawww
  30. >Usually when one of your friends falls asleep on you, you feel mildly uncomfortable
  31. >But this is not like one of these times
  32. >It just feels right to have him next to you
  33. >Alex snores away like a bulldozer crushing a field of glass bottles
  34. >You’re about to shut your eyes again when you hear someone moving around on the old wooden bench
  35. >You turn your head
  36. >Jenna is up and moving, smoothing her sweater, running her paws through her unkempt fur
  37. >She must not notice you, because she starts licking at her arm, smoothing it out with her thin, pink tongue
  38. >You wonder what it’s like to groom yourself with your tongue
  39. >It’s like always having a brush on hand!
  40. >Part of you wants to try, but the lucid part of you knows how disgusting that would be
  41. >Jenna turns to start on her other arm and bends her neck low to reach her thin wrists
  42. >When your eyes meet
  43. >…
  44. >You swear, you can almost hear the little voice inside Jenna screaming with shame
  45. >The vixen glows beet red
  46. >She tries to play off her grooming as her smoothing out the fur on her arm, briskly running her paws across her fur, back and forth
  47. >Ruffling and un-ruffling
  48. >”Morning…” she whispers, still glowing red
  49. “Were you just-”
  50. >”NO!” Her voice rings out in a thin staccato, fueled by embarrassment
  51. >She catches herself quickly and claps a palm over her muzzle
  52. >Sam shifts his body and mumbles something you can’t hear
  53. >Whatever
  54. >Not a big deal. You’ve been caught picking your nose plenty of times
  55. >Jenna points to the exit doors of the church
  56. >Immediately you know what she wants
  58. >Untangling yourself from Sam is more of a challenge than you expected
  59. >You worm your way away from him, trying to get him to lean against the back of the pew instead of on you
  60. >Gravity has other plans
  61. >The bunny slides downward, his head landing directly into the crook of your lap
  62. >…Right on your-
  63. >Yeah
  64. >You flush red and stifle a frustrated groan that swells in your throat
  65. >Fucking hell
  66. >Now what do you do?
  67. >You look to Jenna, desperate for help
  68. >But the vixen is fucking useless
  69. >She’s bent over, fighting the giggles
  70. >You can hear each one of her fits pop inside her mouth like little balloons
  71. >Foxes and their gekkering
  72. >You blush even harder as your eyebrows slope downward into a viscous scowl
  73. >Which makes you just look constipated
  74. >And makes Jenna laugh even harder
  75. >When you get out of this you swear you’re going to tell everyone she still licks herself to groom
  76. >Don’t most mammals grow out of that?
  77. >Whatever
  78. >You still gotta get Sam off
  79. >…
  80. >OF YOU
  81. >Not ‘off’
  82. >Fuck
  83. >You slowly, very slowly, slide his head over your thigh
  84. >You plunge your hands into the tangles of his hair and fur, holding him in place so when you slip out from under him, his skull doesn’t smack the hardwood of the pews
  85. >He feels INSANELY hot to the touch
  86. >His body radiates warmth like a tiny little engine
  87. >If Sam were an engine, he’d be a dirtbike or something
  88. >You bite your lower lip
  89. >Shit
  90. >What if he’s getting sick?
  91. >With all of this going on, the last thing you need is a sick bunny
  92. >Before school you’ll go to the store and get him some medicine
  93. >But he NEEDS to be in class
  94. >You’re not going to ruin his life and get him expelled for absences
  95. >You’ve already ruined his life in one way
  96. >If he makes it out of this alive, you’d rather not have it ruined academically
  97. >Here goes nothing
  98. >You gently lift his head
  99. >Slide out underneath him
  100. >And then lay gingerly back down on the pew
  101. >As if he were made of delicate glass
  102. >That dumb little bun just curls in on himself and doesn’t seem to even notice you’re gone
  103. >When you stand up, you have to brush off the stray strands of Sam’s fur
  104. >Uselessly doubled over on herself, Jenna is now gasping in the quiet air as she chokes back laughter
  105. >You swallow the knot of shame that’s lodged in your throat
  106. >Keep it together, Anonymous
  107. >Burn that image of her licking herself into your retinas
  109. >Jenna is still laughing as you two slip out the back doors, but once you’re outside in the brisk air, she stops
  110. >She gives you a very inquisitive look, one of her eyebrows raised in confusion
  111. >She inhales deeply through her nose
  112. >”Hold still,” she commands, before-
  113. >What the hell?
  114. >-Putting her nose on your side and sniffing
  115. >You flush red grab her by the ears and pull her away like she was a clingy toddler
  116. “What the hell are you doing?” You demand
  117. >Jenna takes one last whiff before pushing your hands off her sensitive ears
  118. >”You smell like a female in heat.”
  119. >Wat
  120. >”I smelled it last night,” she continues, oblivious to how uncomfortable and confused you are right now.
  121. >Must be instinct
  122. >“But I can’t figure out why… I’m not even close in my cycle, and even if I were, I take estrus blockers.”
  123. “C-Could be anything!” You assure her
  124. >But you’re really only assuring yourself
  125. >You have absolutely 0 idea why you’d smell like a female in heat, but the idea that you reek of something like that frightens you
  126. >Who knows how you’ve smelled this entire time? All throughout high school even?
  127. >Like a sex-drunk bitch, walking down the halls, dragging a trail of pheromones off of you?
  128. >Christ
  129. “How do you know it’s a… female’s scent?” You say, holding onto a modicum of hope
  130. >Jenna shakes her head
  131. >”Oh, no, I’m sure of it. A female in heat will be pretty noticeable. It smells a little bit like sweat or onions, only more…” she looks to the sky, as if the words were written in the fading darkness “… more sensual, seductive? Like a perfume you really like.”
  132. >Oh
  133. >You can’t say you’ve smelled anything in the church other than the lingering wisps of incense — charred and aromatic, burning your nose, but in a pleasent sort of way
  134. >”I must just be losing it. After all, I’m fighting vampires and werewolves with you guys, right?” Jenna shrugs her shoulders. “And unless you’re secretly a girl, then I’m just imagining things.”
  135. >You manage to smile a bit
  136. >Who would pretend to be the opposite sex? Like LMAO what would you gain from it?
  137. >Only an awkward weirdo would do that
  138. “I promise you, I’m not a female in heat,” you assure
  139. >the vixen nods
  140. >”Yeah I thought so. Shame though. I think you’d look cute as a girl. Anyway, plans? What are we doing?”
  141. >Ah yes, plans
  142. >You’ve been /so/ good at making and implementing those
  143. >Shit, you were just planning to run to the store really fast and get everyone some breakfast
  144. >And Sam some medicine
  145. >You tell Jenna, who volunteers to stay behind and wake up Alex
  146. >”I just wouldn’t go to The Shop N’ Save down the hill with Mike. I’ll explain later,” Jenna assures you
  147. >Sure, whatever
  148. >You’re long past the point of needing explanations for things
  149. >Though Mike is still asleep in your car
  150. >You wonder if he’d be up for a ride this early?
  151. >Afterall, it’s still dark
  152. >And cold
  153. >And Sam has your jacket still
  154. >You wrap your arms around your shivering body and stride towards your car, your chattering breath disappearing in wisps of steam
  156. >Upon investigation, you don’t find him in your car
  157. >You instead locate him a little bit down the hill, taking a leak on some low scrub brush
  158. >Probably also taking advantage of the fact that nobody /ever/ comes up here
  159. >Except your gang of degenerates
  160. >And the occasional group of punks to get drunk or trip acid
  161. >”Can I get some privacy here?” He asks, speaking to you with his back turned
  162. >He must have heard you coming
  163. “Sure, just a quick question: I’m going to the store. Want anything?”
  164. >His stream halts abruptly with ringing clarity
  165. >I M P R E S S I V E
  166. >”The Shop N’ Save?” He says, stressing the words
  167. >You clear your throat
  168. >It’s kind of awkward having to talk to him while he’s obliterating this bush
  169. >Yet, you soldier on
  170. “Yeah, Jenna told me not to take you down there-”
  171. >He raises his hand as if he were unpausing the conversation and starts peeing again
  172. >”Yeah, she’s got a point. If you’re getting food, bring back some donuts and maybe some Halloween candy. Peanut butter cups’ll do.”
  173. “And what do we say?”
  174. >All he has to do is say please
  175. >You don’t like being ordered around, especially by him
  176. >Instead he says the wrong thing
  177. >”I’ll pay you back. You know Mikey’s good for it,” he says, bending his neck around so you can see his smile
  178. >And the fangs that push between his teeth
  179. >You’re reminded that he still owes you like a whole six pack
  180. “Not what I meant, dude. Try asking again.”
  181. >His smile collapses as he sighs
  182. >You can even see him do a quick eye roll
  183. >”Shit, right. Sorry. PLEASE would you get some donuts and Halloween candy?”
  184. “That’s better.”
  185. >You wring a smile out of your minor victory
  186. >Shit if he just asks nicely you’ll get all kinds of candy for him
  188. >You grab your keys, plug your phone into your cigarette lighter which hosts a charging plug, and soon you’re off, traveling on barren roads under lightening skies
  189. >Brilliant orange sunlight strokes the clouds, tracing them in flame
  190. >The little shops and the houses lay dormant and dark, save for the occasional parent meandering to their car for their morning commute
  191. >Still plenty of time to get to school after breakfast, and you could use the solitude right now
  192. >You’ve always been introverted, as evidenced by your small squadron of friends and relatively brief social interactions
  193. >Or you’re just a boring, shy, coward
  194. >Nah, you’ve got a lot of positives
  195. >You’re patient
  196. >You flick your turn signal on and coast into the Shop N’ Save’s lot
  197. >You’re brave
  198. >You slide easily into a parking space, given that there’s practically nobody here this early
  199. >And you’ve got this kind of wisdom that only years of introversion and observation can cultivate
  200. >It’s not street smarts, but you do think you’ve got a good head on your shoulders
  201. >You’re gonna make it, brah
  203. >Walking into the Shop N’ Save, you’re assaulted by colors like you owe them money
  204. >Namely orange and black
  205. >There’s plastic pumpkins on a big pile of hay at the front
  206. >Halloween streamers run the length of the candy aisle, which is completely stocked and loaded up with massive packages of chocolates and sweets
  207. >Fake plastic skeletons hang their feet on top of the shelves, and for a fleeting moment you’re reminded of the fact that there is a skelington inside of you right this very moment
  208. >v v v v spooky
  209. >Anyway, the pharmacy is closed, but there’s still plenty of over-the-counter pills to go around
  210. >You can’t help but notice the ‘feminine care’ section is picked clean
  211. >All the scent masks
  212. >All the estrus blockers
  213. >Completely gone
  214. >Well, you didn’t come here for that stuff
  215. >You swipe a bottle of pain pills off a high shelf
  216. >Turning over the bottle, you see that it also advertises itself as a fever reducer
  217. >There, this’ll set Sam straight
  218. >Heh, ‘straight’
  219. >You still never found out if he was gay or not…
  220. >… Or if you are at this point
  221. >Too bad you chickened out
  222. >Not like it matters anymore
  223. >He only makes your heart beat a little faster
  224. >And you only care a lot about him
  225. >Y-You’re just good bros
  227. >With the peanut butter cups, donuts, a gallon of iced coffee, and medicine for Sam, you cruise on back to the church just as the light is beginning to hit the roads
  228. >It drains through the retreating clouds, washing everything in a delicate salmon-pink
  229. >You take your time getting back to the old church, slowing down as you take a short detour through a couple neighborhoods
  230. >The houses are all strung up with cheesy decorations like fake graveyards and glowing plastic jack-o'-lanterns
  231. >To be honest, you fucking love Halloween
  232. >It feels like the border between the living and the dead becomes thinner right around the 31st
  233. >And with all the grass and leaves dying, you can totally see how your ancestors would have thought this was a sacred time where magic abounds
  234. >Unfortunately, given all that’s happened… they weren’t entirely wrong
  235. >But hey, some good has come of this
  236. >Mike is your friend again, maybe more so than ever
  237. >You’re going to save the world
  238. >Alex is still Alex
  239. >Jenna is on your side
  240. >And Sam
  241. >You got to know that little faggot who you used to hate, and you found out he’s a lot braver than you think
  242. >He’s just a good kid in crappy circumstances
  243. >You almost wish he was here next to you, enjoying the scenery
  244. >He probably doesn’t celebrate any holidays because of his shithead father
  245. >Your stomach ties in knots
  246. >His dad is still lurking somewhere
  247. >Hunting you and his son
  248. >Like some kind of primitive animal stalking its prey
  249. >The thought is enough to make you floor it back to the church
  251. >You all sit on the caved in hood of your car, munching down on the sickly sweet donuts, watching your chilled breaths disappear into the lightening sky
  252. >Every bite tastes fills your mouth with pillowy dough and semi-sweet chocolate
  253. >Sam holds his donut in front of his face
  254. >He cautiously sniffs it, his pink nose twitching as he drinks in the rich scent of freshly fried dough and glazed chocolate
  255. >Alex laughs, sending bits of mushy donut onto the pavement
  256. >”Don’t tell me you’ve never eaten a donut before,” he says, taking a large, messy bite out of his own
  257. >Sam looks at Alex, his mouth forming a soft and nervous frown
  258. >Which says everything
  259. >”JHESHUS CHRISHT” Alex says through mouthfuls of donut
  260. >You pat Sam on the head, lightly digging your fingers into his oily fur
  261. “Just try it, dude. I promise you’ll really like it,” you say, ignoring Alex’s obvious wink
  262. >You don’t care
  263. >You’re going to comfort this lil’ bunny while he has his first fucking donut ever
  264. >You almost feel like you should be recording this
  265. >Like a baby’s first steps
  266. >As you lightly scratch at the skin beneath Sam’s fur, his leg starts softly kicking
  267. >Almost like you found some kind of button connected to his stout haunches
  268. >And even though everyone is looking at you, you don’t care
  269. >It’s cute as fuck the way his powerful legs pound into your door
  271. >Sam opens his mouth and extends a rounded edge of the donut past his teeth
  272. >He takes a meager bite
  273. >Almost instantly his eyes shoot open with glee
  274. >Then he takes a huge bite out of his chocolate frosted donut, chewing thoughtfully and savoring the taste
  275. >When he looks up into your eyes, their bright with pure affection and adoration
  276. >As if he was silently singing praise unto you for introducing donuts into his lowly existence
  277. >Y-You too
  278. >You stop scritching his fur and instead draw an anxious hand to the back of your neck
  279. >Those big gooey eyes make you all gooey inside too
  280. >You don’t even want to LOOK at Alex right now
  281. >But you can’t help but look over
  282. >And yeah, his eyebrows are shooting up and down, his face painted with an expression that says ‘You gonna kiss him?’
  283. >But it’s Jenna’s confused glare that catches your attention more
  284. >She’s staring in disbelief right as Sam as he mindlessly hews off hunks of his donut with his quick moving mouth
  285. >Jenna’s nose twitches like mad as she sniffs at the air
  286. >Her head tilts to the side in astonishment
  287. >What is so perplexing about the way Sam smells?
  288. >You can only smell the damp earth and the cold coffee…
  289. >…Which Sam is now taking massive swigs of
  290. >Oh boy caffeinated rabbits
  291. >Jenna shakes her head in disbelief and focuses her attention back on her half-eaten donut
  292. >”Thanks for the food, Anon,” Mike says, leaning back onto the hood with a cup of coffee in hand. “It’s been way too long since I had proper food, you know?”
  293. “Don’t mention it. And hey, if you need blood-”
  294. >”Pass,” he waves a vacant hand at you
  295. >You can’t help but feel slightly offended
  296. >”I’ll be fine for a while longer. Besides, your blood probably tastes terrible.”
  297. >Okay now you’re actually kind of offended
  298. “Implying there’s good tasting blood?”
  299. >Mike just stares off at the empty space
  300. >”I’m sure there is, dude. I’m not really all the way into this yet.”
  301. >He looks pretty zoned out
  302. >Or angry
  303. >But not at you
  304. >Like, his future is basically over
  305. >And he seems to know it
  306. >But a part of him — a part of you — wants to fight for that future
  307. >And you can feel it
  309. >School drags on with all the urgency of a stoned turtle
  310. >You spend most of your time pacing outside of Sam’s classrooms, checking inside every so often to make sure that he’s okay
  311. >Almost always he’s near the back, idly doodling on a loose scrap of paper or staring out a window
  312. >How the hell this kid makes any passing grades is beyond you
  313. >You guess that if you had to put up with the shit that he does back at home, school would be pretty low on your priorities list as well
  314. >You’re just thankful that he doesn’t have any classes with any goths
  315. >And that his dad hasn’t come to school yet
  316. >You feel like a helicopter parent
  317. >You spend the few minutes you have not stalking Sam fraternizing with Jenna, Mike and Alex, who all rode with you to school with you
  318. >And are damn sure leaving with you. No more running away separately
  319. >The plan, you all decide, is to head to your house after school and get some supplies and hang out there versus sleeping in the church
  320. >Your half-baked ‘plan’ seems to be the only thing with some semblance of stability
  321. >Because your fellow students sure as hell aren’t acting like shining beacons of peace, tolerance and stability
  322. >All the fighting and violence you saw yesterday?
  323. >It’s only escalated
  324. >The hallways are no longer fast-moving streams of hormonal bodies, but are giant moving clusters of mammals surrounding fight after fight, fur flying into the air and claws rending into flesh
  325. >When two groups pass each other, it’s liable to end in friction
  326. >Like two gears moving in opposing direction
  327. >You just try and stick to yourself as the hours count by, as teachers rush bruised and bloody students to the nurse’s office, and as the administrative staff grows increasingly worried that they won’t be able to weather this storm
  329. >By the time school ends, you’ve nearly been jumped twice just for being a human
  330. >Or not belonging to any social cliques
  331. >And every time a rival group jumped in to save you — not that they intended to. They just happened to have a bigger problem with the group that was assailing you than you than they had with boring, lonely old Anon
  332. >Primarily, it was jocks who targeted you, looking more and more feral with each passing moment
  333. >The humans were starting to grow facial hair and unsightly body hair, rippling out of their cliche letterman jackets, shearing the red and white fabric
  334. >They’re getting taller and bulkier too, shoulders pulling outwards more with muscles bulging underneath their skin
  335. >And the other mammals? They’re starting to look more wolfish — their ears are coming up in points, their snouts are narrowing into aggressive muzzles
  336. >You observe all of this as you plaster yourself against the wall outside Sam’s classroom
  337. >The bell rolls over and kicks itself as the proverbial floodgates open up
  338. >Students pour out of open doors in great throngs, but all too quickly there’s more skirmishes between the different groups of mammals
  339. >Sam wanders out of class (last, again)
  340. >Your hands shoot out and find his own before he can register what’s happening
  341. >He gives a startled squeak until he realizes it’s your own hands that are pressed into his
  342. “God damn, kid. What took you so long?” You say, tugging him down the hall
  343. >He evens up the pace and falls in line next to you
  344. >”A-A-Are you mad at me?” He says, looking up at you
  345. >You slink past a pair of ugly looking punks by pressing yourself and Sam into the lockers
  346. >The colorful group of mammals — mostly hyenas and weasels — pass by without incident
  347. “No, just… you know that there’s people out there who want to hurt you, right?” You say
  348. >Okay maybe you’re a little upset
  349. >He was taking this whole thing too lightly, you feel
  350. >”S-Sorry,” he says pointing his eyes to the floor
  351. >Sudden pangs of guilt wash over you
  352. “I just want to keep you safe, is all.” 
  353. >You’re filled with determination
  354. >Your march is bold, proud, determined… Your face says “DON’T FUCK WITH ME OR MY BUNNY”
  355. >And nobody does
  356. >Not even when you pass Vanessa
  357. >She just stares after you from behind a black veil, her eyes sunken in from all the eyeliner and sleeplessness
  358. >Swallows of black coffee and cigarettes hold her body aloft 
  359. >She wouldn’t risk an attack in the open, would she?
  360. >Afterall, her two most important targets are right in front of he-
  361. >Ah
  362. >Mike joins you at your side
  363. >That’s why she hasn’t attacked yet
  364. >Mike look especially pissy today, his eyes simmering with the desire to belt someone in the face
  365. >And then Jenna falls in beside him, her head on a cautios swivel
  366. >She steers your walk down an even busier hall that leads out to the parking lot
  367. >Not the direction you’d take, but hey, you’re not going to complain
  368. >It’s fairly roundabout, but anything to keep the bun safe
  369. >Alex casually brings up the rear, his gaunt form looming over the group
  370. >”Same plan?” He says
  371. “Same plan,” you acknowledge, still glaring straight ahead
  373. >When you get outside, you see that the parking lot is absolute chaos
  374. >Cars dart in every direction — almost as if they’re tyring to ram one another
  375. >But you’re not playing this game
  376. >Not even when an SUV nearly clips Mike
  377. >Your short, stocky friend, reaches out his hand…
  378. >…And scrapes into the SUV’s paint, peeling up the metal like he were a human can opener
  379. >Jesus Christ
  380. >That’s some real vampire shit
  381. >Mike only scowls as the driver lays on the horn and stomps on the brakes
  382. >”C’mon kiddies, everyone to Anon’s shit beater,” Mike says, casually strolling towards your car, paying the driver he just clawed no mind
  383. “Well fuck you too, buddy. You can walk,” you say sarcastically
  384. >”Bet I’d still beat you there.”
  386. >You all pile into your car, just like this morning
  387. >The sun was already starting on its way down, shooting godrays across your dashboard
  388. “Anyone need the heat?” You say
  389. >Mike climbs up in the passenger seat
  390. >”Not when I’m here,” he jokes
  391. >hurrrr durrrr
  392. >But he might be right,
  393. >You look behind you, and everyone is crammed so closely together you can’t help but assume that they’re trading body heat
  394. >Alex is sitting in the center
  395. >Jenna and Sam are at his flank, looking incredibly uncomfortable
  396. >Especially Sam, whose pink nose is wrinkling in earnest
  397. >He probably smells something really strong, because his face is once again pulsing with a blush
  398. >Maybe Alex farted…
  399. >No, because Jenna is squinting at Sam, processing something wordlessly
  400. >You just remember you forgot to give Sam his medicine
  401. >Well, when you get to your house, you’ll remember
  402. >Because everything will be as it should be, and you’ll finally get some reprieve
  404. >Everything is not as it should be
  405. >Ohhhh everything is far from that
  406. >Let’s start with your kicked in front door
  407. >It sits in two splinters, loosely suspended on its hinges
  408. >”It could be the wind,” Alex observes quite dumbly
  409. >No, it was not the wind
  410. >It was someone with huge, powerful legs
  411. >Or… something… 
  412. >Moving into the house, there’s more shit that’s fucked up
  413. >First off: everything is in disarray
  414. >Tables and chairs knocked over
  415. >Couches on their sides
  416. >Jesus Christ someone had to be really strong
  417. >Or really mad
  418. >To do this
  419. >The TV sports a massive hole in it that’ll cost you your non-existent college fund
  420. >The fridge is open and food is everywhere
  421. >And
  422. >You sprint to your room
  423. >It’s completely destroyed
  424. >Everything is upside down, smashed, or seemingly tossed against the wall
  425. >That includes your PC
  426. “Muh rig,” you whisper, staring down at the shattered and snapped silicone pieces
  427. >”I’m just going to assume you don’t normally live like this,” Jenna observes with suspicion, speaking low. “So it looks like someone knows where you live.”
  428. “Right,” you say, bending over a torn sleeping bag from the night that Alex and Sam slept in your house. “So, we’re sure as hell not staying here for until Friday. Take what we need — extra clothes, money, beer…” your eyes quickly sweep over Sam, who is sniffing at the air. “Soap…”
  429. >”Speaking of soap,” Jenna cuts in. “I want to shower.”
  430. >”Same,” Mike agrees
  431. >You’re dumbstruck
  432. “My house just got broken into and trashed and you want to shower… here… now?”
  433. >”It’s not like they’ll come back. They already broke in and didn’t find what they were looking for,” Jenna says, kicking at your tossed up bedsheets. “Besides, I have something I want to test.”
  434. “What did you want to test, if humans bathe with their tongues?” You fold your arms across your chest
  435. >Jenna blushes
  436. >”Oh fuck off… I just want to test something with Sam. You go get him to shower.”
  437. “Is this really urgent? Like, do we need to do this now?” You hiss
  438. >Mike is already stripping off his clothes
  439. >”You two have five seconds to get out of here before I’m naked
  440. >Jenna’s neck turns on a dime
  441. >Her blush only strengthens when she sees Mike’s half-naked body struggling to get out of a pair of jeans
  442. >Sam comes rolling in to the room with a Dr. Bepper in hand
  443. >”W-What’s going on in he-”
  444. >You shield his delicate little eyes from the sight of Mike’s stocky, shirtless body
  445. >Nobody deserves to see that
  446. >Jenna squeals and slaps Mike on the back
  447. >”God damnit, put your clothes back on until you get to the bathroom!” She cries
  448. >Mike lurches forward from the blow
  449. >”Jesus! Claws!” He wheezes. “Fucking snapjaw!”
  450. >You gasp
  451. >Sam gasps
  452. >Jenna snarls
  453. >”What did you just say?”
  454. >”I-” Mike struggles his shirt back on his head. “It just kind of slipped ou-”
  455. >Jenna growls deep in her chest and bares her fangs
  456. >”Go shower, Sapone, or I’m going to bite your dick off.”
  457. >”I’m going, Christ. Watch the claws next time!” He hobbles through the doorway, past Sam, his pants still barely on
  459. >You lead Sam up to your shower, grabbing a towel from your room
  460. >He’s still slurping on his Dr. Bepper
  461. >”W-Where are we going?” He asks as you flick on hallway lights
  462. “Jenna thinks it’s best if everyone gets a shower in,” you grumble, clearly unhappy with the decision
  463. “It doesn’t look like whoever fucked up your house did anything to the bathrooms, strangely enough
  464. >Sam pales
  465. >”S-Shower?! I-I-I don’t need to s-shower or b-bathe with yo-”
  466. >Wew lad
  467. “Slow down there buddy, you and I aren’t showering together. You’re showering by yourself. And yes, you do need a fucking shower.”
  468. >Man, you’re awfully pissy
  469. >You run the water in your bathroom
  470. “There’s shampoo, conditioner, and a bar of soap,” you say, pointing to all the dark blue bottles lining the shower floor
  471. “Oh, and this is for you. You’ve been burning hot since this morning,” you practically throw the little pill at him
  472. >”W-What is this?” He squeaks
  473. “Just take it,” you sigh. “I’m going to go keep watch. You know how to use a shower, right?”
  474. >Damn
  475. >You’re REALLY pissy
  476. >The bunny nods, clearly hurt,
  477. >His greasy bangs fall across his eyes
  478. >You shut the door on him as the hiss of the shower starts up
  479. >You slide backwards with a tremendous sigh. “Fucccck,” you mutter as you lean into the door
  480. >You were hoping to be able to spend the rest of the week here, where there’s beds and bathrooms and showers
  481. >But now either Sam’s dad or the goths know where you live
  482. >They could have easily got your information from the school
  483. >Or followed you one day
  484. >Or
  485. >Bleh
  486. >It doesn’t matter
  487. >If your information is compromised, then so is everyone elses’
  488. >There’ll be no holing up at Jenna’s, Mike’s, or Alexi’s
  489. >Nope, just more nights at the fucking church
  490. >Jehsush Chroist
  492. >You are Sam
  493. >Oh shit oh fuck oh fuck
  494. >It smells like Anonymous in here
  495. >Every breath you take coats your lungs in his scent
  496. >Your insides are starting to feel hot and confused, like balloons knotted together
  497. >The illustrious human musk — kind of sour, masculine, spicy, is your drug
  498. >You’ve been addicted to it ever since you met Anon
  499. >Or maybe it’s just him?
  500. >You run your hands through your long-ish hair
  501. >You are really, really greasy, and you do need a shower
  502. >But the whole room is spinning something awful
  503. >You quickly down the pill Anon gave you
  504. >Maybe you are getting sick?
  505. >Or…
  506. >Worse… You’re in your cycle
  507. >You gasp, but that only serves to put more of Anon in your lungs
  508. >Being in heat right now is absolutely not what you or anyone else needs
  509. >Christ, why are you such a burden to everyone?
  510. >Even Anon seemed pissed off at you
  511. >You jump 10 feet into the air when you hear a light rapping on the door
  512. >”Yo, dude, are you going to shower? Because I have to go after you,” Anon says, his voice tired and uninterested
  513. “Y-Yes!” You stammer, shucking your ratty hoodie and whipping it onto the sink
  514. >“Good,” Anon says with a flatness to his tone. “Just don’t clog the drain with fur.”
  515. >”R-Right!”
  516. >You tug on the waistband of your pants with hesitation
  517. >Your eyes flick over to the door
  518. >As quiet as a mouse (though they’re not that quiet, in actuality. One of your neighbors was a mouse and she was up all night ‘squeaking’ most night) you jiggle the knob and find that the lock holds
  519. >Unlike back home
  520. >But you’re not thinking of /that/ home. You don’t live there anymore.
  521. >You finally lose the pants
  522. >And there you stand, in the mirror, wearing a stained white undershirt and a pair of old boxers
  523. >Your meager breasts stand like little bumps against the thin white fabric of the sahirt
  524. >You delicately palm them and wonder why you even have them?
  525. >You’re still a woman, you know that much is true
  526. >You’re just not a good woman
  527. >You could never make Anon- Y-You mean, any man, happy
  528. >So why do you care so much?
  529. >The most feminine feature you posses, you think, is your hips and thighs
  530. >Because of your slender, delicate frame, your prominent haunches look simply ridiculous
  531. >Even as emaciated as you are, your thighs are rounded and powerful, nature-built for sprinting and kicking
  532. >Put all of this in one body and you’re like a badly cobbled together art project
  533. >Your proportions are all wrong
  534. >You lift your shirt just a little bit, blushing all the while
  535. >Here goes nothing
  536. >One a quick motion you jerk your shirt off, tugging it over your long ears
  537. >And there you stand, again
  538. >A brown Mini-Rex rabbit, wearing nothing but her boxers, blushing furiously
  539. >It must be the scent of Anonymous in here that’s throwing you off
  540. >You shake your head again to try and loosen your… urges…
  541. >But it’s no use
  542. >Maybe a shower will help?
  544. >Building a curtain of steam, you take probably longer than you should under the rinse
  545. >But…
  546. >… You actually got to shower for the first time in a /long/ time, and that feels like heaven
  547. >You look into the fogged mirror, wiping aside a layer of mist with your paws
  548. >With your fur freshly scrubbed, hair shampooed and conditioned and laying in thick, wet stracnds across your face, you feel…
  549. >…Cute?
  550. >Pretty?
  551. >Oh god
  552. >Are you pretty?
  553. >No
  554. >This is just the heat talking
  555. >You’ve n-never been pretty
  556. >You’re just a dumb useless rabbit
  557. >Still
  558. >When you lean in closer, you can’t help but feel a gentle tinge of heat come into your cheeks
  559. >You drop your slender, rounded shoulders and summon a deep, misty breath
  560. >With unsure eyes, you scan over your body, lightly twisting your long, floppy ears that hang down like two useless snakes growing from your scalp
  561. >You let a wandering finger trace their pink insides before smoothing the fur out across your face
  562. >Your nose and whiskers wrinkle at your own gentle touch
  563. >You run your hand through your hair and push it back
  564. >It’ll dry soon
  565. >Now, it’s time for the real moment of truth
  566. >You close your eyes and slowly exhale a knot of nervous air
  567. >The towel drops in a damp pile around your feet
  569. >You’ve done it
  570. >You’re totally naked
  571. >You haven’t been totally naked in…
  572. >… Well it’s been a long time
  573. >With appraising eyes and wandering fingers you scan over your still sodden body, its fur matted down with warmth
  574. >You have a thin, almost emaciated midsection that draws down from your upper torso
  575. >Dotting your chest are two pink nipples, suspended on your two palmable breasts, hanging softly above your quite visible ribcage
  576. >Your bones are delicate and fragile, almost hollow
  577. >Like a bird’s
  578. >You travel down further to where your waist pinches in
  579. >And then bows out again gently with noticeable exaggeration
  580. >Set back powerfully are your haunches, which meld into your rather apparent thighs
  581. >And between them…
  582. >You shiver as you brush a finger over your sensitive clit
  583. >… Is the pink slit of your sex
  584. >You’ve never known how to feel about this, since girls aren’t tough, and vaginas aren’t either…
  585. >… Is what you tell yourself
  586. >Jacob wanted you to be tough
  587. >Dad wanted you to be his son
  588. >But you couldn’t be either of those things
  589. >You don’t feel like a boy — you know you’re not
  590. >No matter how hard you try, you can’t make it happen
  591. >You can only pretend for Jacob’s memory and Dad’s approval
  592. >You’ve done it for so long that you hardly know your feminine side. But it’s there, lurking beneath your sensitive skin
  593. >And you don’t feel brave
  594. >You just feel like a weakling
  595. >So you pretend to be someone you’re not, so you can be strong
  596. >Just like Jacob would have wanted
  598. >Still…
  599. >You give a quick spin
  600. >Your poofy tail flairs out, and you catch a quick glimpse of your naturally padded buttocks
  601. >Glutes from all the running and from what nature gave you
  602. >And that’s just how rabbits are built, you guess
  603. >Oh god
  604. >Your face flushes as you think back to the cheerleader who absolutely M O G G E D you in the hallways yesterday
  605. >D-Do you honestly compete with her?
  606. >Better question: do you think you do?
  607. >God, deep in your tiny, fluttery little heart, you hope so
  608. >But you’d never admit that
  609. >Nobody finds you attractive
  610. >Anon is just so nice to you since you’re his friend
  611. >Yeah
  612. >You’re friends
  613. >You don’t have feelings for him!
  614. >Even though being near him makes your heart start to race
  615. >And when you’re with him all the noise in your head just goes quiet
  616. >It’s like nothing else matters
  617. >He’s handsome, and kind, and brave, and you’re so glad he’s your…
  618. >… friend
  619. >Oh who the hell are you kidding
  620. >He’s you knight in shining armor, Jesus fucking Christ
  622. >Your knight in shining armor bangs loudly on the door, sending you 10 feet into the air
  623. >”Yo Samuel. Sammy. Sammethy. You done in there?”
  624. “J-Just a minute!” You scramble to throw on your clothes
  625. >And you check one last time for hair in the drain
  626. >Thankfully, you managed to scoop all your loose trimmings into the trashcan
  627. >You don’t want to offend Anon
  628. >After all, he’s probably not used to having anthros in his house
  629. >You and Jenna need to set positive examples
  630. >You open the door and slip on out, fully clothed, but still damp
  631. >A trail of steam follows you
  632. >Anon looks up at you, his trailing his eyes from the red book suspended in his palms over to you
  633. >You nervously brush your hair out of your eyes
  634. “I-I’m done,” you say
  635. >For whatever reason you feel extra self-conscious, just standing there in the hallway, still wet, wearing some crusty old clothes
  636. >Anon studies you with interest before slapping the red book shut and loosening his tie
  637. >”Lookin’ sharp, kid. My turn.” Anon slides past you, and you just stand there like some kind of gawking idiot
  638. >“I promise I’ll be quick,” he says
  639. >The door slams with a *WHOMF* and the hiss of the shower can be heard not long after
  640. >You… You don’t know what to do now
  641. >You’ve always waited for someone to tell you what to do and where to go
  642. >Your eyes scan the hallways, lined with shattered family portraits
  643. >You bounce a little on your heels
  644. >What now?
  645. >Ah
  646. >Wait
  647. >Doesn’t Anonymous have a comic book collection?
  648. >Oh my fuck he does
  649. >You bound off down the hallway, using your nose to sniff out Anon’s room
  650. >Finding his is easy: It’s the one that smells the most like a mix of sweat, cologne and human musk
  651. >The smell hits you like a massive wave, and in an instant, you’re dizzy
  652. >You steady yourself on the doorframe
  653. >Your head swims through the musk, drawing your legs into a mechanical trot through the doors
  654. >Unwashed clothes are strewn about the floor like land mines of pheromones
  655. >Wew
  656. >You can hardly think straight
  657. >And it’s by sheer luck that you manage to wander over to Anon’s book shelves
  658. >You find the comics, but you’re barely reading
  659. >Mostly just sitting there with an open copy of Superman, rubbing your thighs together absentmindedly
  660. >It might be time to admit your heat is getting to you
  661. >…
  662. >Nah, you’ll be okay. You can control this
  663. >Anon casually strolls into the room wearing nothing but a towel
  664. >[Thigh rubbing intensifies]
  665. >You squeak loudly and shield your eyes with a copy of The Man of Steel
  666. >Anon jumps back
  667. >”Oh FUCK, dude!” His hands fly to his waist
  668. >He tightens the towel around his midsection
  669. >But your eyes still creep over the top of your hastily constructed visual barrier to catch a glimpse of his bare, hairless chest
  670. >”What are you doing in here?” He asks breathlessly
  671. >You can’t tell for sure, but is his face going scarlet?
  672. >You forget to answer
  673. >You’re just…
  674. >Staring
  675. >Possibly drooling
  676. >Anon snaps his fingers
  677. >”Yo, dude. I need to change. So just like… turn around or something.”
  678. “W-WHAT!?” You practically shriek
  679. >Anon looks at you with an expression of confusion
  680. >”I’m going to change. In my own room. Is that not okay with you?”
  681. “Y-You mean like you-your’re g-going to b-b-b-be naked?”
  682. >A moment of silence passes
  683. >Anon blinks a few times and droops his shoulders
  684. >”I mean… yes. I planned on it. I’m not wearing anything except this towel right now.” He pats his hip
  685. >You can’t help but watch the whole thing, eyes wide
  686. >come to think of it, you don’t think you’ve ever seen a naked human before
  687. >Sure you’ve seen shirtless humans (briefly), but never…
  688. >Oh god
  689. >Your heat is so fucking bad
  690. >This is bad
  691. >Anon, oblivious as fucking usual, turns around and starts grabbing underwear, socks and a pair of jeans from his drawers
  692. >”I-” you stand up, still shielding your eyes with a copy of superman
  693. >Just put down the comic
  694. >C’mon
  695. >His back muscles are probably so hot
  696. >Maybe the towel will slip off
  697. >And maybe he’ll turn around
  698. >And maybe he’ll say to you:
  699. >’Sam, I want to make sweet, gentle love to you.’
  702. >You open your mouth to stammer out an apology, but the sound of heavy, damp fabric hitting the carpet makes your heart stop
  703. >He did it
  704. >He’s naked
  705. >”Turn around a sec,” Anon says quite casually
  706. >You oblige, absolutely GLOWING RED in the face
  707. >Quickly you drop the comic and start tugging painfully at your ears
  708. >Stupid
  709. >Stupid
  710. >Why did you think you could just WALTZ right into Anon’s musky room and start going through his shit?
  711. >Stupid
  712. >Well, he doesn’t seem to care too much, so maybe this isn’t entirely a fuck up on your behalf
  713. >Maybe he’s just really mad at you and he isn’t showing it
  714. >Oh god, he’s probably so mad
  715. >Well good going fucktard, you fucked up something else
  716. >Dad was right
  717. >Still clenching your ears, you (very stupidly and impulsively) turn around and begin to apologize profusely
  718. >…Which was the wrong move
  719. >Anonymous, bare-chested and in a pair of boxers, stands in front of you, one leg shoved down the length of his pants
  720. >Your eyes meet
  721. >And for a brief second, nobody moves
  722. >You’re pretty sure your heart stopped beating
  723. >Anon is glowing red, his mouth working like he’s trying to say something
  724. >You slut
  725. >”Sam?”
  726. “Y-Yes…?”
  727. >”Are you gay?”
  728. “…I g-guess not.”
  729. >Anon slips his other leg into his pants and hikes them up to his waist
  730. >He studies you
  731. >”…Because if you are, I won’t judge you.”
  732. >You don’t realize you’re breathing hot, sultry breaths
  733. >Or that you haven’t taken your eyes off of him
  734. >Or that you’re gently rubbing your thighs together
  735. “I…” you start to answer, but Anon interjects impatiently
  736. >”Would you… just… turn around, or something?”
  737. >…
  738. >Ah, right
  739. >You blink yourself back to reality
  740. >You turn to face Anon’s bookshelf in shame while Anonymous throws on the rest of his clothes
  741. >”Do you feel better?” He asks in a concerned tone
  742. >What?
  743. >NO! There’s a fire in your heart!
  744. >…A-And between your legs
  745. “Wh-What do you m-mean?” You ask, because you’re curious
  746. >”From the fever. You were burning up this morning. Thought I was going to have to pretend to be your dad and get you out of school or something.”
  747. “O-Oh.” You nervously dig your feet into the carpet
  748. >He thinks you have a fever
  749. >Can you imagine if he really knew the truth?
  750. >You clutch your ears tightly
  751. >He can never know
  752. >Nobody can ever know what a weak bitch you really are
  753. “Y-Yeah, I f-f-feel a lot b-bett-tter. T-Thanks for the m-medicine. B-Besides I-I don’t think I-I have an-any more s-s-sick days left.”
  754. >”Christ,” Anonymous says. “Did your dad keep you home a few days?”
  755. >You struggle to keep your eyes forward
  756. >All you want to do is turn around and drink in Anon’s unremarkable body
  757. >Sure, he’s not ripped
  758. >He’s just… average build, slightly tall
  759. >But to you, he’s your superhero
  760. >He’s your Man of Steel
  761. >Geeze, humans must take awhile to get dressed
  762. >”Sam?” Anon asks again
  763. “S-Sorry. I w-was t-thinking. Yeah I-I got sick f-for a week an-and some d-d-days I just ca-can’t go to sc-school. T-T-T-Too much g-going on a-a-at home.”
  764. >”With you and your dad? Where’s your mom in all of this? And your brother? You mentioned you had a brother, I think.”
  765. ”Mom is…” your eyes fall to the copy of Superman at your feet
  766. >Your courage seems to drain out through your toes
  767. >No
  768. >You’re brave, damnit
  769. >You promised Jacob you’d be brave and strong
  770. “…Gone. I d-don’t kn-know where s-she w-went. Dad said s-she ra-ran away because of me and Jake.”
  771. >Anon hums In thought
  772. >There’s a quick hiss as he applies a shot of cologne to his chest
  773. >The sweet, slightly bitter scent hits your nostrils instantly
  774. >It’s pleasant and sharp, and your nose seems addictied to it
  775. >”Jake… is that your brother?”
  776. ”Uh-huh.”
  777. >”Were you two tight?”
  778. “W-What?”
  779. >”Sorry. Were you two close?”
  780. >Your heart catches in your chest
  781. >Yes, you were close
  782. >But at times, you were distant
  783. >Jacob was your protector, your guardian angel
  784. >He tried to teach you how to be strong
  785. >How to defend yourself
  786. >Stand up for yourself and others
  787. >But he had too much of dad in him
  788. >Too much bitterness swallowed down like each hard pull on Dad’s bottles
  789. >Too much vitrol, spite, choking on it at times
  790. >He’d turn against you sometimes
  791. >Other times he was downright psychotic
  792. >But you knew it was always done out of a desire to make you tougher
  793. >Like an Indian Summer, he wouldn’t be around forever
  794. >And he must have known it, somewhere deep inside of him, where the whiskey rotted his guts
  795. >You only helped accelerate that
  796. >When you…
  797. >You know…
  798. >On the tracks-
  799. >”Dude!”
  800. >Anon drags your hands away from your ears, his heavy fingers ringing around your slender wrists
  801. >”You’re going to hurt yourself!”
  802. >Your eyes crack open
  803. >Anon has your hands forced against your sides before you even realize what you’re doing
  804. >For the first time in years, pain rings dully in your ears, like a pulsing heartbeat
  805. >”Christ almighty, kid. You scared me.”
  806. “S-Sorry,” you squeak helplessly. “I-I didn’t m-mean t-to do it. I j-just th-thought of my-”
  807. >”Brother?”
  808. >You nod
  809. >”You don’t have to talk about him if you don’t want to. I’m sorry, I didn’t know this was so hard for you.”
  810. >You squeeze your eyes shut again, and all you see is Jacob’s worn face, eyes sunken in and smoldering with anger, like Dad’s
  811. >He haunts the pinks of your eyes and the space behind your skull
  812. >The image of that day on the tracks comes rushing back to you, and your legs start to tremble
  813. >God DAMNIT! Jacob didn’t die so you could continue to be a coward!
  814. >You aren’t alone anymore! You have people that care about you
  815. >People that love you
  816. >The fact that you’re even in a friend’s house right now is proof of that
  817. >Your trembling subsides into little tremors that you press into the carpet
  818. >You suck in some of the cologne-y diffused air
  819. >Here goes nothing
  820. >Time to play all of your cards (except, obviously, your most important one)
  821. “M-My brother is d-d-d-d-dead,” you say, exhaling the tightness of your chest on the last syllables
  822. >Anon tightens his grip, as if anticipating another anxiety attack
  823. >You slacken the muscles in your shoulders and arms
  824. >Like some kind of scared animal injected with morphine, your tension stymies
  825. >”I had no idea. I’m sorry,” he says, after a silence that drags on for far too long
  826. >His grip comes loose as he feels you go soft
  827. >You inspect the scarlet rings pressed into your skin encircling your wrists
  828. >Nothing you can’t handle
  829. >Strange, this time it was done out of concern, and not out of rage
  830. “I-It’s okay. W-We were cl-close, b-but i-it was f-four years a-ago,” you breathe out, still not able to turn around and face Anonymous. “I-I need to g-g-get over i-it already.”
  831. >”Shit, right before you started high school?”
  832. “Y-Yeah. T-The summer before…”
  833. >You wait for another question, but only feel Anon shifting behind you
  834. >You feel two pairs of gentle, stiff arms slip around your scrawny midsection
  835. >Anon pulls you against him, into a hug
  836. >You can feel the rigidity of his whole body against yours
  837. >The sharp angles of a boy, the arc of his body bent over yours
  838. >The gentle fabric of his shirt
  839. >The coarseness of his jeans digging into your back
  840. >You take in a whiff of his cologne, his clean-smelling deodorant, his freshly scrubbed hair and skin
  841. >Your legs go weak, and you dissolve backwards into your friend
  842. >That’s right
  843. >You’re safe
  844. >He’s your friend
  845. >”You know?” Anon’s voice is deep and scratchy so close to your ears
  846. >You like the way it sends shivers up and down your body
  847. >Like little veins of electricity
  848. >You even like the feel of his chin digging into your shoulder flesh
  849. >You just like… him
  850. >”For all the shit you’ve gone through, you’re really strong.”
  851. >Your heart sinks in your chest
  852. ”I-I-I d-don’t th-”
  853. >”It’s true,” he says in a low, gentle voice, sending more electricity coursing through your nerves. “You’re one of the strongest people I know.”
  854. >How can he say that, after what your cowardice did — what it continues to do to people?
  855. >But you thank him meekly anyway, hoping he never lets go
  857. >You are Anonymous
  858. >And there’s a trillion things you pretend not to notice, as you buckle your seatbelt
  859. >You pretend not to notice how wet from the shower everyone still is as they pile into your car
  860. >You pretend not to notice all the doe-eyes Sam is making at you as he buckles into the passenger seat
  861. >…Though you secretly like it
  862. >You pretended not to notice (or care) when Mike and Alex come out of your house with armload of beer and Dr. Beppers
  863. >You just want to go
  864. >Because you’re pretending not to notice the rusted sedan down the block
  865. >The one that’s been idling there for some time
  866. >”Everyone done pillaging my house?” You ask, sounding annoyed and slightly nervous. “Because I’d like to get a move on before Dracula over there bites my dick off.”
  867. >”C’mon baby, you know I’m good for it.” Mike massages the shoulders of your seat. “Besides, you know Comrade Alexi will give us a proletariat’s discount to get more.”
  868. >”I think I’m fired,” Alex says, quite unconcerned
  869. “Was it me?” You ask
  870. >Alex shrugs. “Nahhhhh I haven’t showed up in a couple of days.”
  871. >Mike’s smile is brighter than Jenna’s chance at making Valedictorian
  872. >”Awwww hell yeah man, I didn’t know you were on the schedule. Nice going.”
  873. >”Also when we rescued you, I may have attacked my boss.”
  874. >”Alex, I’d kiss you right now if it wouldn’t make Anon jealous,” Mike says
  875. >You sigh and pretend not to notice Mike’s bullshit as you put the car into gear
  876. >You do NOT have time for this
  877. >Nor the fortitude either
  878. >As you slip out of the neighborhood, that rusted sedan follows, but turns left when you go right
  879. >Must have just been someone lost
  881. >Still…
  882. >As you drive you can’t help but see that rusted sedan everywhere as you sail down the main road and up the hill
  883. >It’s just never right behind you, at least for long
  884. >Always turning out of shopping centers and then breaking a hard right down unassuming neighborhoods, and then popping up again somehow
  885. >You roll into the church’s cracked lot, the sedan an even distance behind you
  886. >Everyone, carelessly, piles out of the car
  887. >The sedan pauses on the road running past the church
  888. >Alright something is going on
  889. >Something you really don’t like
  890. >Sam is fast asleep next to you as everyone else piles out
  891. >You nudge him with your elbow
  892. >His eyes delicately flutter open
  893. “Hey.” You lean over and whisper in his ear. “Stay down, okay? Don’t sit up. Not for any reason.”
  894. >He looks around impulsively, and then, meeting your eyes, nods
  895. >You lean back in your seat as well, keeping an eye on the crossroads that lead into the church
  896. >The rusted sedan rolls on by without interest
  897. >You try to make out who might driving, but the windows are so dark that it only just reflects back your shitheap vehicle like a fun house mirror
  898. >It only serves to make your car even more awful looking
  899. >Apparently uninterested, the rusted vehicle continues on down the road, and then down the hill, until it disappears and melds into the rest of traffic
  900. >At last, the car disappears in a cloud of dust down at the end of the road, tanking down the hill
  901. >You lean up fully and stretch your arms
  902. >Sam follows your lead
  903. >You swear you’ve seen that car once before, but you can’t place where
  904. >…
  905. >It’s not unlikely it was just trying to get to the opposite end of town while avoiding traffic
  906. >That’s what most of the cars who pass by the church are doing anyway
  907. >”W-What was that?” Sam asks
  908. >His seatbelt comes undone with a janky *click*
  909. >The belts are old and probably do more harm that good at this point
  910. “Probably nothing,” you admit. “I’m just being paranoid.”
  911. >And maybe you were
  912. >”O-Oh.” Sam looks around
  913. >His hair is feathery and soft looking when its washed
  914. >It falls across his face like a wispy spools of brown thread
  915. >If he didn’t look feminine before… BOI, now he does
  916. >He looks like he’s got something he wants to say as his mouth does that thing where it half-opens and half-closes, accented by little murmurs
  917. >”Th-Thanks for letting m-me s-s-s-shower and fo-for listening to m-me back there,” he says in his strongest voice.
  918. >Ah, straight to the point
  919. >He’s getting bolder
  920. >You like this new Sam
  921. >And liking him makes you smile
  922. “Don’t mention it,” you say as you undo your own seatbelt
  923. >It’s already starting to get cold in the car as the sun slopes downward in the western sky
  924. “C’mon, let’s get inside,” you say, popping open your door
  926. >Mike is waiting patiently on concrete steps to the church
  927. “You gonna crash in my car again?” You ask, fully ready to launch the keys at him
  928. >He nurses a beer
  929. >One of your dad’s beers, you might add
  930. >Ah well, everything is fucked anyway. Dad’ll understand.
  931. >”Sam?” Mike jerks his chin up at the rabbit. “Can you go wait inside with Jenna and Alex? There’s something I want to talk to Anon about.”
  932. >Sam looks up at you, as if seeking approval
  933. >You nod and flash a quick smile
  934. “They don’t bite,” you assure him. This seems to do the trick, as the rabbit hesitantly leaves your side and makes for the back of the church
  935. >You and Mike watch him disappear into the dark
  936. >”He’s got it bad for you, dude.”
  937. >You sigh deeply
  938. “That’s what everyone keeps saying, but Sam tells me he’s not gay. I don’t know what to make of it.”
  939. >There’s a long pause
  940. >And then the sound of a train rolling by down the steep hill punctures the night and presses little earthquakes into the dirt
  941. >”Well, look. We’re not here to discuss Sam’s sexuality — or yours either.”
  942. >You flip him off, but his reaction is steady and cold, never taking his eyes off you
  943. >”I’m just wondering if I need to stay at home. Sit this out.”
  944. “What? Mike Sapone does not sit things out. Whatever happened to breaking every finger on th-”
  945. >”Do you think we’re safe here?” He interjects “And I mean, do you think that whoever or whatever fucked your house up… knows where the rest of us live?”
  946. >You shrug
  947. “I suppose it’s possible, if they found my house. That information is at the school anyway.”
  948. >Mike sucks on his beer. The top of the bottle comes loose from his lips with a hollow *piff*
  949. >”Do you see what I’m getting at now? Shit… If they hurt my bitch of a sister, I…”
  950. >He squeezes the bottle
  951. >It explodes in a shower of amber glass as it pops like a cheap balloon in his vampiric grasp
  952. >”Shit,” he says without urgency, watching shards fall from his loose grip
  953. “Happen a lot?”
  954. >”More than you’d think. I’ll get another one later.”
  955. >He sighs and levels his gaze out at the car and at the crossroads
  956. >C’mon Anonymous. Say something…
  957. >…Helpful
  958. “I wouldn’t worry about it. If they’re not attacking us in the hallways — or if Sam’s dad isn’t seen running around the school — then it’s safe to say they won’t go after us so boldly. My house was ideal because nobody was there.”
  959. >Mike leans back on his palms
  960. >”You think they were looking for something?”
  961. “…Or someone…” you add, and you know Mike knows who you’re talking about
  962. >Sam’s insane father
  963. >Don’t want to rule out any possibilities
  964. >”Fucking hell,” Mike runs a hand through his freshly scrubbed hair. “You know Thumper is a liability to us now, right?”
  965. >Liability
  966. >The word makes him seem like he’s a burden to you and the entire group
  967. >But he’s not
  968. >Sam is more than just dead weight to you
  969. >You wince at the utterance of the word, but keep your composure
  970. “It really doesn’t matter whether or not someone is looking for him. In fact, this is the best case scenario,” you reason. “If he wasn’t here, he’d be with his shit head father, or captured by Vanessa and her merry gang of retards.”
  971. >Mike snorts with laughter
  972. >”God, they are fucking cringe, aren’t they? Like, it’s 2019 — who the fuck is still a goth?”
  973. “Talking a lot of shit for someone who is literally a vampire,” you shrug
  974. >”Ah, right.” Mike examines his pale flesh
  975. >In the dusk you can better appreciate the way his eyes shimmer with a predatory glow
  976. >”I think I’m getting hungry,” he says at last
  977. >You take a cautious step backwards
  978. >”Relax, fagtron. I’m not going to attack you. But I do need to figure this out.”
  979. >Still, he might… eventually
  980. “What if we got some good, bloody beef or something? There’s a butcher at the Shop N’ Save.”
  981. >Mike deflates at the mention of the store
  982. >”Can’t really go back there. I think it might be a little unsafe for me.”
  983. >Christ
  984. >Where can you go?
  985. “Well, what if I went? Not tonight, but maybe tomorrow or Friday?” How long do you think you can hold out for?”
  986. >”Long enough,” Mike stands up, his shoes scraping against the concrete
  987. >He stretches out wide
  988. >”I’m not helpless. If I need to, I’ll make a ‘shopping trip’ down to the town.”
  989. “If you could avoid spawning new vampires, that’d be awesome,” you say, folding your arms across your chest
  990. >”Fine, fine. But let’s speed this along. You know Mikey ain’t patient. Now…” he holds his open palm out and clears his throat. “If I could PLEASE have your keys, that’d be great. Guess I’m spending another night here.”
  991. >You fish your keys from your pocket and drop them in his waiting hands
  992. >”Thanks man. Beats sleeping in the gutter.”
  993. “No less than you deserve,” you add with a half-chuckle
  994. >He shoots you some dismissive finger guns and starts walking over to your car
  995. “Hey, wait. One more thing,” you call to him
  996. >Mike doesn’t bother turning around to address you
  997. >”Want a goodnight kiss?”
  998. “You’re… you’re with us, right? Like until the end?”
  999. >This time he does turn around
  1000. >He looks at you, a fire glowing behind his eyes
  1001. >”Until the very end, fagtron. They took my future from me. The least I can do is make them pay for it.”
  1002. >You stand frozen on the steps as Mike stares daggers at you — but you know it’s not meant for you
  1003. >He turns back around
  1004. >”Goodnight.”
  1006. >Inside the church Alex and Jenna are asleep on the floor instead of on the rickety pews
  1007. >Sam is curled up in a tight little bun-ball on the carpet
  1008. >Aside from Alex snoring, the church is dead silent
  1009. >Sam looks so peaceful the way his nose wrinkles and his chest delicately rises and falls as he obeys the gravity of sleep
  1010. >You can’t fight back a weak smile
  1011. >It’s good to see him at peace, see his face without tension or worry
  1012. >A train snores by in the night
  1013. >It’s so close that you can feel it rumbling underneath the floors
  1014. >You can imagine the holy water basin at the front entrance of the church is trembling
  1015. >Sam’s face tenses up and lines appear in his forehead
  1016. >His legs start kicking softly — almost as if he were twitching, or running from something
  1017. >You lay down next to him to try and get him to stop…
  1018. >…You tell yourself
  1019. >His body tenses up in his light doze
  1020. >As gingerly as you can, you pull him close to you and feel him tremble against your chest
  1021. >You feel helpless, just watching him have an anxiety attack in his sleep
  1022. >God, it’s no fucking wonder he’s so anxious
  1023. >His dad is insane
  1024. >He lives in squalor
  1025. >His brother is dead
  1026. >His mom is gone
  1027. >He’s never had any friends
  1028. >Until he met you
  1029. >You’re sorry for how you treated him up until now
  1030. >He didn’t deserve it
  1031. >Your eyes feel heavy as buckets of water
  1032. >Even though the carpet is uncomfortable, just holding Sam like this and feeling him safe is a greater comfort than any bed
  1033. >And the train rolls on in the night
  1035. >”Unwanted.”
  1036. >The words fall from your father’s lips like they were 20 tons apiece
  1037. >His face is stern and hard; carved out of granite and limestone, weathered by whiskey
  1038. >”And that’s all she’ll ever be. A burden. Hold her arm out,” he commands
  1039. >Jacob is still
  1040. >You tremble all over, fear tracing cold fingers up and down your spine
  1041. >Tears swell up in your eyes, but you can’t look away from Dad’s hard stare
  1042. >Be strong
  1043. >Be brave
  1044. >Your brother puts his hand on your shoulder while Dad sucks on his cigarette
  1045. >Smoke tendrils — midnight black — wisp up into a cloudless sky and evaporate into the sunlight
  1046. >”No,” Jacob says, his voice clipping hard in his throat
  1047. >He’s nervous, standing besides the car, parked at the rail yard
  1048. >”You don’t need to hurt us. We learned our lesson already,” Jacob says
  1049. >You look up into your brother’s bruised face
  1050. >His jaw is set hard and stern — just like Dad’s
  1051. >His eyes burn with heat and anger
  1052. >And despite the fear and trembling in his words, he’s still Jacob
  1053. >He’s still his father’s son
  1054. >”What’s the matter with you?” Dad rises to his full height, standing at eye-level with Jacob. His ears stick straight up like pillars. “You were always a good boy, not like this runt here.” He motions to you with a half-assed shrug of his shoulders. "First I catch you two with my gun…” he lifts his greasy work shirt up a little to reveal the pistol tucked in his waistband “…and then I catch you two trying to run away?”
  1055. >Dad jerks his chin to a pile of old clothes, two backpacks, and a gleaming aluminum baseball bat sitting besides his rusted sedan
  1056. >”You got something to prove?” He asks giving Jacob a hard look
  1057. >Your brother doesn’t answer
  1058. >Dad scowls harder, his lower lip trembling as rage boils and churns in his guts
  1059. >”You think you’re some kind of man?” He asks again
  1060. >Your mind is cast back to the last time — in the kitchen — when Jacob said he ‘was a man’
  1061. >The blow your father dealt him still makes your heart skip
  1062. >After silence, Dad bends down to your pathetic height, curving his knarled spine
  1063. >You’re just 14, Jacob 20, and even for a girl, you’re small, thin and delicate
  1064. >You’re trying to be strong, but you can’t help the tears
  1065. >Dad’s expression is cold
  1066. >His dead eyes look directly through you
  1067. >”Roll up your sleeves. Hold out your arm.”
  1068. >Jacob grips your shoulder tight
  1069. >You know what’s coming next
  1070. >Dad holds the cigarette lighter from his car up to you so you can see
  1071. >Its coils glow angry and red with trapped heat
  1072. >”Dad,” Jacob starts, looking down at you. “Don’t. She didn’t do anything wrong. I was the one who came up with the idea to run away. I made her do it. If you have to punish anyone…”
  1073. >Jacob’s courage falters as he looks down at the hot lighter, still bright orange
  1074. >”Punish me. Not her,” he says with a hard swallow
  1075. >Dad squats down and roughly grabs your thin arm with a fierce scowl, still chewing on the end of his ciggarette
  1076. >He rakes back your sleeve, exposing your thin, brown fur
  1077. >”Don’t worry,” he says. “You’ll get yours. You two wanna act so brave? Thinkin’ you two can just run off?”
  1078. >You’re shaking something awful
  1079. >Jacob’s hands dig into your flesh
  1080. >You try to focus on his presence and not your dad ringing his heavy hand around your delicate wrist
  1081. >”All you’ll ever be is a burden,” Dad says to you
  1082. >”Be strong,” Jacob says in a whisper
  1083. >Your eyes slam shut
  1084. >You jerk your head to the side and grit your teeth
  1085. >Dad slams the lighter onto your arm, just below your shoulder
  1086. >The pain hits you like a fucking train, searing into your fur and then your tender flesh
  1087. >You can hardly hold back a scream
  1088. >Your heavy feet stamp into the dirt as dad lazily twists the lighter against your fur
  1089. >The scent of gravel
  1090. >Of dust
  1091. >Cigarette smoke
  1092. >Of burning fur
  1093. >You suck these in deeply and let them pollute your young lungs
  1094. >You want the cancer
  1095. >Anything to produce an absence in you
  1096. >Void the soul
  1097. >Cash the check
  1098. >How do you disappear completely?
  1099. >What would Samurai Outlaw do right now?
  1100. >Dad’s grip on you tightens and an anguished scream rakes itself out of your chest
  1101. >Samurai Outlaw would fight back
  1102. >Your brother’s baseball bat
  1103. >You could make a break for it
  1104. >You could… stand up for yourself
  1105. >For Jacob
  1106. >Move it
  1107. >Move your FUCKING FEET
  1108. >Fuck
  1109. >Your arm is starting to feel numb as the pain resides
  1110. >Dad releases his vice grip on you
  1111. >When your eyes unglue, you hesitantly look down at your arm
  1112. >There’s a ring of singed fur where the lighter was pressed against your tender flesh
  1113. >Beneath that your pale skin is bright red and oozing blood and pus
  1114. >It looks boiled over and ugly
  1115. >You try delicately touching it, but draw your hand away when even the slightest probing sends shockwaves of agony through your body
  1116. >”Your turn,” Dad says between his smoke
  1117. >He grabs Jacob’s arm and shoves his sleeve upwards
  1118. >”We’re not done — not yet.”
  1119. >A train whistle sounds over head
  1121. >You stand on railroad ties, facing the tunnel as if it were the barrel of a loaded gun
  1122. >”When I was your age, my father used to take me out to the tracks and make me dodge trains until I could barely move.” Your Dad takes a long swig out of his bottle
  1123. >Jacob stand off to the side, watching you with nervous eyes
  1124. >”And I know you two been out here. I know all kinds of shit you two been up to. Jacob been bringin’ you out here so he can jump ties, just like his old man. But not like you.”
  1125. >He spits into the dirt and mashes it with his heels
  1126. >”You ain’t blood.”
  1127. >You stare straight ahead as a train whistle shrieks in the tunnel
  1128. >An advancing light begins to burn in the fathoms of darkness
  1129. >The sun on your fur glazes you in a nervous sweat
  1130. “I-I’m sorry!” You cry
  1131. >You’re a coward
  1132. >The worst kind
  1133. >Without your brother you’re not even a coward
  1134. >You’re nothing
  1135. >A train horn drowns out your pleading
  1136. >Dad can only laugh in sharp fits
  1137. >”Everyone’s always sorry but nobody wants to own up to it.” He takes another heavy pull on the bottle. “Now, I want a good clean dodge. No bullshit. No jumping too soon. You may be a bitch but I ain’t raise no cowards.”
  1138. >Jacobs voice reaches your ears
  1139. >”You’re not a coward, Sam. C’mon, just like we practiced. One good jump. Then I go. And then we go home. Okay? Just a good dodge.”
  1140. >You can hear the hurt and worry in his voice
  1141. >This isn’t like those other times
  1142. >This is under the eyes of that bastard father.
  1143. >When you look over, he’s standing next to Dad, his mouth set in a hard, determined line, as if to say ‘I know you can do this.’
  1144. >You can feel the ground start to tremble as the train presses little earthquakes into the tracks
  1145. >It’s getting closer
  1146. >That small bulb of light is now stretching its limbs
  1147. >Growing like a beam of sunshine shot through the darkness
  1148. >The horn blares
  1149. >The train rolls on
  1150. >Surely the conductor must see you standing there?
  1151. >What does it matter? It’ll take miles to stop
  1152. >Vomit rises in your throat and you start to choke
  1153. >You’re a coward
  1154. >A gut-puking coward
  1155. >The horn shrieks again
  1156. >You force the vomit back down into your gut
  1157. >You can’t move
  1158. >Oh fuck
  1159. >You can’t…
  1160. >…Can’t even think straight
  1161. >The train blows out of the tunnel in a hurricane of steel
  1162. >It’s barreling forward
  1163. >”GET READY!” Your brother calls
  1164. >You can barely hear him
  1165. >Or the train
  1166. >You can’t even feel the ground shaking anymore
  1167. >All you feel is that rush taking over your head
  1168. >Blood pulsing in your temples
  1169. >Heart racing in the thin cage of your chest
  1170. >Knees knocking one another
  1171. >And always the train racing against the tracks
  1172. >Draining fuel, chugging thick tendrils of black smoke
  1173. >Unstoppable…
  1174. >And the warm blood rush
  1175. >And your brother shouting “JUMP!”
  1176. >”JUMP!”
  1177. >JUMP!
  1178. >You feel the heat burning off its front, hear the ear-shattering blare of its horn, see the worried face of the conductor
  1179. >Its horn shrieks one last time
  1180. >Everything goes quiet
  1181. >And… You want it to hit you
  1182. >You want that oblivion
  1183. >J U M P
  1184. >With your eyes shut tight, you pretend you’re Samurai Outlaw
  1185. >And this is your tragic end at the hands of a diabolical villain
  1186. >But you’re too scared to even die, aren’t you?
  1187. >Too much of a coward to let this train hit you
  1188. >And yet, you can’t move
  1189. >”MOVE!”
  1190. >Unwilling in life to stand up for yourself
  1191. >Unwilling in death to die
  1192. >You’ll exist in a temporary stasis
  1193. >Just a few simple feet of track between you and oblivion while the train bolts forward, so close it begins sucking air from your lungs
  1195. >”SAM!”
  1196. >Jacob leaps…
  1197. >…Throws his full, protective weight at you…
  1198. >…Lunges forward, onto the tracks…
  1199. >…Knocking you to the other side…
  1200. >…Sending you crashing into the dirt
  1201. >Your father starts forward, and for the very first time in your entire fucking life, he looks scared
  1202. >Jacob sits up on the tracks
  1203. >His amber eyes meet yours with the most worried kindness you’ve ever seen
  1204. >And all you can see is relief spreading across his face, for just a fraction of a second
  1205. >His mouth starts working to say something, forming shapes and letters and syllables borne out of love
  1206. >And, as if he was never there to begin with, Jacob is gone in a storm of steel
  1207. >The train rolls on
  1209. >The cops ruled it as a suicide
  1210. >But you know it wasn’t
  1211. >When the nice human investigators came to your house, you followed along with what Dad told them
  1212. >”W-W-We tried t-t-to stop h-h-him,” you stammered, leg pounding anxiously into the air as you sit at the kitchen table
  1213. >You’ve never been tall enough to reach the floor
  1214. >You tried not looking them in the eyes. Somehow, you thought, they’d know it was you that killed him
  1215. >You washed up
  1216. >You brushed your fur
  1217. >You put on some of Jacob’s clean clothes (they smelled like him; they made you feel like he was still here to protect you)
  1218. >Had to look presentable for the officers, after all
  1219. >You tried talking loudly but your voice only came out in squeaks
  1220. >And in the back of your mind, sitting at the freshly cleaned table, you can only hear one word on repeat, over and over again, a nauseating carousel of unbridled and unkempt self-hatred: “murderer”
  1221. >”We’re deeply sorry for your loss,” the investigators say, almost in unison
  1222. >But it’s not that scripted, forced kind of sympathy either. They exude kindness
  1223. >One of them claps you softly on the shoulder, his deep blue eyes meeting yours
  1224. >Those eyes are drunk on starlight and concern, half closed, as if pressed down by the investigator’s heavy, troubled brow
  1225. >”Listen, if you ever feel like you need to talk to someone…” the friendly investigator produces a pamphlet from his back pocket “…Just call the number down here.” He points to a long telephone number with his pen
  1226. >You take the pamphlet from him with trembling little hands and look it over
  1227. >It seems to be about loss and grief
  1228. >The number is for a free counselor
  1229. >”The state offers resources to families like yours.”
  1230. >Your dad’s eyes are hard and set forward on the other officer, who seems to be regarding the kitchen with a modicum of disgust
  1231. >”So you’re saying he didn’t leave a note?” The other officer asks, curious
  1232. >”Nope, no note,” Dad returns in a calm breath. “Just up and got himself killed on those tracks”
  1233. >Jotting quick notes, the officer continues his assessment of your kitchen
  1234. >”How about his mother?” He holds an expectant breath as he meets Dad’s gaze
  1235. >”She’s gone,” Dad says sharp enough to cut the officer’s throat. “She was a cheat. Up and left. That’s all that happened.”
  1236. >The officer nods and mutters something to his partner, still scribbling notes with a free hand
  1237. >Dad’s eyes flick to the open notepad
  1238. >A scowl contorts his features. ”What, don’t you believe me? My own son is dead and you’re— you’re-”
  1239. >”Standard procedure. I just need to document all of this for my report, Mr. Garlen.” He jots a sentence shut and stares with disdain back at Dad
  1240. >Dad nudges you with his feet
  1241. >You understand his language
  1242. >The unspoken gestures
  1243. >All the language he makes out of violence
  1244. >He wants you to say something
  1245. “J-J-Jacob was a-a-always talking about… it… but I n-n-never thought he’d a-a-actually g-go through with… it…”
  1246. >God, you liar
  1247. >You’re worse than Dad
  1248. >You know you got your brother killed
  1249. >Dad knows
  1250. >You just want to hop up on the table and scream from the heavens ‘YES! I WAS THE ONE WHO GOT JAKE KILLED! IT WAS ME!’
  1251. >But you shrink further into your brother’s old hoodie without saying a damn fucking word
  1252. >The other, kinder officer, nods in approval. “Jesus, nobody should have to go through this. Nobody.” He rises from his seat. “Got everything, Clemens?”
  1253. >’Clemens’ follows suit
  1254. >”Yeah, I think that should do it.” His eyes sweep the kitchen one last time.
  1255. >They linger on Dad, and his mouth falls open, almost as if he’s about to say something
  1256. >Then his eyes flick over to you, shrunken in your seat, feeling like the smallest thing in the world
  1257. >He levels his pen towards you
  1258. >”Actually… Samantha? Can I speak with you in private?” He says
  1259. >Dad raises an eyebrow
  1260. >”What for?” He huffs
  1261. >Whatever semblance of pleasantness he put on was slipping down his face in the form of sweat
  1262. >The officer gives Dad a hard stare
  1263. >”I just want to speak to her.” He turns back to you and smiles sympathetically. “Is that alright?”
  1264. >…
  1265. >This might be your chance
  1266. >You could tell this officer everything
  1267. >All the years of neglect and abuse
  1268. >All the endangerment
  1269. >The scars and welts on your body and arms
  1270. >You could get out of here
  1271. >But you’d be getting out alone, wouldn’t you?
  1272. >No Jacob anymore
  1273. >Not after you killed him
  1274. >You don’t deserve anything
  1275. >Somewhere, deep inside, you fight down the urge to go back to the tracks yourself and hurl yourself in front of a train
  1276. >If only you weren’t such a goddamn coward
  1277. >Like the bug that you are, your eyes flick towards Dad
  1278. >His ashen face is cold with hatred
  1279. >You know exactly what he’s trying to say, all without ever having to utter a single word
  1280. >’Don’t make it worse for yourself’
  1281. >You look back at the officer, who waits expectantly
  1282. ”N-N-N-No. I-I don’t t-t-think I can t-t-talk a-anymore about thi-this,” you say, throwing your face to the side to try to hide the lie in your eyes
  1283. >The officer frowns a bit, and then bites down on his bottom lip a bit
  1284. >”Well, if you ever want to talk to us, you have our card. And if you ever need to… talk… to someone, just call the number on the back of that pamphlet. Okay?”
  1285. >You can’t even look him in the eyes
  1286. “O-Okay.”
  1287. >The two officers turn and thank your dad
  1288. >”And again, we’re deeply sorry for your loss,” ‘Clemens’ says, before tipping his hat and heading out the front door
  1289. >It bangs shut, leaving only you and Dad in silence
  1291. >Dad watches as their car rolls on down the block and disappears around the corner where the streets have no name
  1292. >He turns to you, and you can see the fire in his eyes
  1293. >You push back from the table, the chair squealing in protest
  1294. >”Don’t you run, boy,” Dad says. “Not this time. Not this time.”
  1295. >’Boy’?
  1296. >”That’s right, ‘boy’, because you’re going to pay back what you stole from me.” His voice begins to break in a slurred staccato. “You’re going to give me my son back, you bitch.”
  1297. >And for once in your life, you can see tears welling in your father’s sunken, bloodshot eyes
  1298. >They saturate his unwashed fur and burn a path down his cheeks
  1299. >You can’t be Jacob
  1300. >Jacob was too much like Dad
  1301. >And you’re nothing like that. But you can use what Jacob learned. You can be tough and strong and brave
  1302. >You think
  1303. >Dad advances forward
  1304. >”You bastard son of a bitch,” he says
  1305. >You try to stand at your full height and puff out your meager chest
  1306. >”And you ain’t even my kin,” he sobs loudly
  1307. >He enters the kitchen and pushes the table aside
  1308. >”Well, you smarmy cunt. One day you’re going to pay back what you owe. You’re going to pay me back-” his voice breaks. “-One way or another.”
  1309. >Your eyes shut tight and you tremble, still trying to hold yourself as tall as your brother once was
  1310. >But you’re not him
  1311. >You’re not brave or strong or fierce like Jacob
  1312. >You’re Samantha- no, SAM Garlen
  1313. >You’re weak, spineless, and you deserve everything that’s coming to you
  1314. “I-I’m sorry,” you whisper, though you don’t think Dad can hear you through the cloud of rage
  1315. >Your fingers reflexively clench onto the pamphlet the cops gave to you like it was some kind of life raft in a terrible storm
  1316. >And then the pain comes
  1318. >The weak light of Thursday, October 30th, pins warm pink tones to your inner eyelids
  1319. >You had just strayed into a waking dream, trapped in that purgatory between the full gravity of sleep and waking lucidity
  1320. >In truth, you hadn’t slept well
  1321. >Anxiety drove its barbs into you
  1322. >Earlier in the week it was one distraction after the other
  1323. >And this whole business happening on Friday night never felt real
  1324. >It felt like college — some kind of concept people whispered about while staring at the city from a high school rooftop — not an actuality that was approaching
  1325. >Like a storm on the horizon
  1326. >But now the sky is swollen and ready to empty its fury
  1327. >Friday was one day away from rearing its bald fucking head at you
  1328. >You had:
  1329. >The Behemoth
  1330. >The goths
  1331. >Sam’s Dad
  1332. >All out hunting for you right now
  1333. >All gearing up for Friday night
  1334. >And what did you have?
  1335. >A shopping cart full of garlic and squirt guns
  1336. >Oh, and Sam’s baseball bat in your trunk
  1337. >Speaking of Sam, the bunny is stirring in his sleep, murmuring half-sentences and clenching his body tight
  1338. >Your heart really does go out to the kid
  1339. >He’s really had a rough go of it, and all he wanted was to have one actual Halloween 
  1340. >You guess you’ve taken holidays for granted, because they’re, in a way, a symptom of a healthy and happy home life
  1341. >All this dumb bunny wanted was to have a little bit of what everyone else gets
  1342. >And now you’ve involved him in some weird cult and put his life in danger
  1343. >You  clutch your head as you feel a wave of guilt come over you, pounding in your temples like railroad spikes
  1344. >Dear God
  1345. >What have you done?
  1346. >All he wanted was one crummy dance with you
  1349. >Before you can tear any further into yourself, Sam sits up and rubs sleep from his eyes, belting out a yawn
  1350. >You quickly scoot a heterosexual distance away from him
  1351. >He doesn’t seem to notice as he blinks himself awake
  1352. >”M-Morning,” he says, as if in a daze
  1353. >He might have slept, but it doesn’t appear to have been all that restful
  1354. >Bad dreams, maybe
  1355. >”Morning,” you say, making no effort to keep your voice low
  1356. >You check the time on your phone
  1357. >Plenty of time to kill before school
  1358. >Alex is still sawing logs, so you decide to let him peacefully sleep
  1359. >It’s the least you could do for your comrade after he rescued Mike
  1360. >Ah, and speaking of-
  1361. >Your gaze sweeps the church pews
  1362. >Jenna is weirdly absent
  1363. >You check the bathrooms (even the boy’s room) and she’s still missing
  1364. >Shit
  1365. >Did she ditch you guys in the middle of the night?
  1366. >…Would you blame her?
  1367. >You mean, you can understand the betrayal
  1368. >She’s involved now and had no good reason to be, other than wanting to save Mike
  1369. >Not like he needs saving anyway
  1370. >He’s not helpless anymore now that he’s partially given up on his future
  1371. >He’s drunk on that dumb, reckless nihilism that tends to infect people bereft of their hope and means of escape
  1373. >You and Sam slip out through the fire exit ‘round the back of the church
  1374. >Your lungs tingle as you fill them with frosted air
  1375. >You stand outside the church and watch as your your breaths disappear into thin clouds of vapor
  1376. >Sam makes like he’s blowing on a cigarette and pushes a steady knot of warm out from his chest
  1377. >You both watch it ascend and join back up with the clouds
  1378. >He looks up at you, giggling a little
  1379. >You smile despite the chill
  1380. >Wrapping your arms around your midsection and shivering in your thin fucking baseball t-shirt (good choice, idiot), you pace towards your car (parked like you’d gotten three margarita’s deep behind the wheel last night)
  1381. >You get about halfway across the parking lot when the sight of a busy fox-tail sticking out of the rear driver side door grinds your legs to a frosty halt
  1382. >Wat
  1383. >You hear Mike’s husky voice echo: “Hold it still, you’re getting it all over the upholstery.”
  1384. >Jenna replies: “I’m trying, but you’re shaking. Just… okay, hold on. How about now?”
  1385. >You don’t know why you did this, but you assume a crouched stance, evenly distributing your weight across your body
  1386. >Stealthy, like a fox (just not Jenna)
  1387. >”A-Anon-” Sam calls after you
  1388. >You hush Sam with a finger against his lips
  1389. >Jenna’s ears twist in your direction like a pair of antennas honing in on a signal
  1390. >Her tail, ordinarily swishing back and forth, freezes up, standing stiff and alert
  1391. >”Someone there?” Mike asks from inside the vehicle
  1392. >God knows what the fuck they’re doing inside the car
  1393. >YOUR CAR
  1394. >Jenna slides herself out of the car very slowly, her back facing you, fingers wrapped around her left wrist, as if she were pressing upon a wound
  1395. >You can guess her back is turned because she’s blushing
  1396. >Do vixens blush beneath the orange fur?
  1398. >She’s still wearing the same green sweater and pale blue jeans, but with her tail plastered between her legs, she looks more like a kid who just got caught looking at her christmas presents too early
  1399. >”Anon?” She says, slowly, her voice trembling, stumbling and striving for the courage to say-
  1400. “It’s not what it looks like?” You offer
  1401. >Mike slides easily out of the vehicle
  1402. >He wipes his palm across his mouth, and then onto his pants
  1403. >He evasively turns his head to the side and peers into the car?
  1404. >Why do they both look so guilt-
  1405. >”A-Are you okay?” Sam lurches forward. “Y-You’re b-bleeding…” he says in a low voice
  1406. >He weakly aims a finger at Jenna
  1407. >She still doesn’t turn around
  1408. >The vixen tries hiding her left wrist behind her body
  1409. >”I’m fine,” she blurts, her posture stiffening up to its full, pathetic height. “J-Just go back inside. Nothing to see here-”
  1410. >Bleeding?
  1411. >IN YOUR CA-
  1412. >Oh, bleeding
  1413. >You’re not a total idiot
  1414. >You look towards Mike in disgust
  1415. >Mike shrugs, still not meeting your gaze
  1416. >”She offered, I was hungry. I don’t see the problem,” he says, sounding almost embarrassed
  1417. “Oh fuck.” You take a small step backwards. “Does this mean you bit her? You sucked her blood? Is she going to turn into-”
  1418. >”Eww!” Jenna spins around, fury printed onto her features (and a touch of blush). She clutches her left wrist, but you can still see the blood seeping through the cracks between her claws
  1419. >”He didn’t /bite me/. I cut my wrist and… and…” her blush only reddens, like hot coals whose smolder had been stoked with gasoline
  1420. >Mike sticks his tongue out and points to it
  1421. >Ah, that makes some sense
  1422. >He… licked her arm
  1423. >Which is disgusting, but logical
  1424. >Sam is the first to react
  1425. >”T-That’s so sw-sweet,” he stammers. He looks up at you for entirely too long, as if to ask ‘would you do the same thing for me if I were a vampire?’
  1426. >You make a disgusted face and flick him lightly on the nose
  1427. >He shrinks back from you
  1428. >Jenna, on the other hand, seems less than thrilled. Still wearing her blush, she explains that Mike is an asset to the team and he needs to be taken care of
  1429. >You only buy that a little
  1430. >You suspect that there are some ulterior motives at play here, but don’t want to dig too deeply
  1431. “Well, if you’re all done bleeding into each other’s mouths, why don’t we wake Alex up and start talking about a plan,” you declare.
  1432. >”Fine by me,” Mike says, look very satisfied with both Jenna’s embarrassment and his satiation
  1434. >Alex is already up and eating a balanced breakfast of yesterday’s peanut butter cups
  1435. >He waves as you enter
  1436. >”Ahoy comrades. Care to share some breakfast with me?”
  1437. >Sam bounces forward, all too excited at the idea of having candy for breakfast
  1438. >Christ, he’s like a little kid
  1439. >Just wait until you guys go trick-or-treating…
  1440. >At some point, either before or after you stop Vanessa and The Behemoth and… Sam’s Dad…
  1441. >Your heart sinks to same depths as it did this morning when you were contemplating everything stacked against you
  1442. >But if Sam has those thoughts, they don’t seem to bother him
  1443. >”C-Can I h-have one?” he stutters, bounding down the aisles of the church, his words miles behind him
  1444. >Alex cocks back his arm and fires a wrapped chocolate at Sam’s head
  1445. >It donks off his forehead and lands at his feet
  1446. >The bunny is undeterred
  1447. >He skitters to a halt and pounces on it like a starved wolf, shucking the candy’s foil in visceral carnage and plopping the little chocolate nugget within into his mouth
  1448. >…Kid really likes sugar
  1449. >He doesn’t notice everyone staring at him until he stands up to find all eyes turned towards him
  1450. >He swallows nervously and forces his hands behind his back
  1451. >”S-Sorry. H-H-Hungry.”
  1453. >You manage to drag Alex outside to talk with Mike, which is no easy task
  1454. >Alex, the little (big) commie is lanky, tall, and has little to protect him from the jagged knife that is the cold, October morning breeze
  1455. >Now, assembled around your car (again), you pass the bag of candy around, Sam taking generous handfuls and stuffing them in his hoodie’s pockets
  1456. >You don’t mind
  1457. >Honestly, you’ve eaten enough chocolate for five Halloweens over
  1458. >…If you live that long
  1459. >And that depends on your next steps here
  1460. >You’ve got a decent idea, but you’re not sure everyone else would go for it
  1461. >”Anon, you wanna enlighten us as to what our next move is?” Mike says, not with an air of renewed vigor. “Because Alex looks like he’s going to freeze his ideologies off.”
  1462. >He looks less pale than before, his face and skin touched with color
  1463. >The blue veins that spider webbed beneath his porcelain skin seemed to have retracted or melded back into the warmth of his body
  1464. >Guess a little Type A in your system will do that to you
  1465. >Alex’s body is shaking and spasming with chills, but that’s what he fucking gets for wearing shorts and long sleeves and no jacket (not that you’re any better, you just have proper pants)
  1466. “Well hey we’re all wearing weather appropriate clothes, that’s not our fault.”
  1467. >”W-W-Worry not c-c-c-comrades,” Alex says, his teeth ramming together with every syllable, sounding like he was guillotining the words. “I’ve slaved at The Shop N’ Save in worse.”
  1468. >You nod at Comrade Alexi
  1469. >He is indeed a brave, dumb soldier
  1470. “Alright, I’ll try to keep this brief. Tomorrow is Halloween. And more importantly, tomorrow is the night of the Spooktober Fest — when the dark rite, ritual, what the fuck ever, can be completed. And also when it can be stopped. That’s our Death Star.”
  1471. >”D-Death Star?” Sam says
  1472. >”Do-Don’t te-tell me y-y-you haven’t s-s-seen Star W-Wars either,” Alex chatters
  1473. >The rabbit hangs his head in embarrassment
  1474. >”Jesus Christ,” Mike whistles. “We gotta get this kid up to speed when we’re done.”
  1475. >”Anon, please continue,” Jenna smiles, obviously not interested in being out in the cold either, despite her fur and sweater
  1476. >You nod 
  1477. “Right. So we’re going to that dance-party-function-thing. All of us.”
  1478. >A bright gleam leaps up into Sam’s eyes. ”W-We are?”
  1479. >Surprisingly, everyone nods in agreement
  1480. >You expected more resistance than this
  1481. >Well, to be fair, your plan is extremely basic
  1482. >With a slight twist
  1483. “And I’m also proposing that we go in costume shopping after school,” you say, expecting similar agreement
  1484. >Mike stuffs his hands into his pockets
  1485. >”Why? I’m too damn old to do that shit still,” he says
  1486. “Two reasons: one, we’ll have to infiltrate the Spooktober Fest in costumes so we don’t instantly get caught by Vanessa and the others. And two…” 
  1487. >You look down at Sam, whose eyes are shining at the idea of getting to wear a costume
  1488. >You quickly glance up and hope nobody notices your pleased smile
  1489. >”…There is no second reason. We just go.”
  1490. >Well, there is actually a second reason
  1491. >You’re going to give Sam as close to a normal Halloween as you can get at your age
  1492. >But then again, your best Halloween memories are only scant recollections of traditional holiday fare — trick-or-treating, dressing up, carving pumpkins — the real memories began when you and Mike and Alex would fuck around, get drunk, play vidya, puke into each other’s sinks and pass out in your basement
  1493. >Is a storybook holiday really right for him? Maybe a party with kids his age would help diversify his experience
  1494. >You look down again quickly, and Sam is wearing the cutest, dopiest grin across his effeminate face
  1495. >Yeah, at least costume shopping will be good for him
  1496. >Mike seems less than thrilled at the idea
  1497. >”I’m 18. I’m too old to be doing this crap. What, you wanna go trick-or-treating next?”
  1498. “We’re all 18,” you say, “and I don’t hear anyone else objecting.” 
  1499. >He crosses his stubby arms across his chest in casual defiance. ”Well, I don’t have any costume ideas. And I want something cool.”
  1500. >A smile creases your lips
  1501. >Mike looks like he’s seen something wretched
  1502. >You dig into your back pocket and draw out two neatly folded sheets of notebook paper
  1503. >You unfold them — Sam’s drawings from Tuesday — and hold them up for everyone to see, like you’d just found the map to some buried treasure
  1504. “Sam’s already got costume ideas for all of us.” 
  1506. >School rushes by in an orange blur, and really, you do mean an orange blur
  1507. >As the administration preps for the Spooktober Fest, everything gets a fresh coat of orange and black plastic varnish
  1508. >Fake jack-o-lanterns line the hallways (where they remain upright and not filled with trash by the students for a good hour)
  1509. >Streamers hang from rafters
  1510. >Someone set up a scarecrow outside the front entrance, complete with a smiling pumpkin face that certainly doesn’t broadcast terror or fear
  1511. >You have to remind yourself that this is a public school function
  1512. >Its been neutered of any true culture and color
  1513. >The only really scary things are the budget cuts this time of the year
  1514. >The custodial staff (really, just Stella) hauls tables into the gym while volunteer students and teachers and haul ‘sp00ky’ supplies from the equipment room, which include a gigantic fog machine, some fake gravestones, and even a faux skeleton
  1515. >Yep, it was going to be a major suckfest, and be about as fun as a school-sanctioned event can be
  1517. >Though while you’re tailing Sam (again) the whole day, you do overhear a convenient little piece of information outside of Sam’s class
  1518. >Four preps, humans and neatly dressed with clean sweater and sharp haircut to match their even sharper tongues, are loudly discussing the one thing that high school kids care more about than getting the FUCK out of their hometown: where to acquire tons of alcohol for tonight’s costume party at one of their fancy suburban homes
  1519. >And this ain’t like your house, no, the homes where the preps come from makes your house look like Sam’s
  1520. >The idea of a party intrigues you
  1521. >You’ve never been to one before, at least, put on by kids your own age
  1522. >Were they as full of debauchery as the movies say they are?
  1523. >Also, you have nothing really going on tonight other than get costumes…
  1524. >God, it’s your last year in high school EVER
  1525. >Why shouldn’t you show up, get plastered and make an anonymous ass out of yourself?
  1526. >You’ll bring the whole gang
  1527. >Especially Sam, who has probably NEVER been to party in his life
  1528. >…Yeah, you’ll do it for him, you lie to yourself
  1530. >You pen down the address on your hand, and then later transfer it to your phone right as the bell kicks itself and students saturate the hallways
  1531. >Sam is the last out the door (as usual), lagging behind a particularly mean looking panther jock, buttoned up in his letterman's jacket that screams ‘I peaked in high school!’
  1532. >But the large feline pays no attention to you, and instead directs a death glare at the four assembled preps
  1533. >Ah yes, the two natural enemies of high school life — preps and jocks
  1534. >One group had money, the other group had brawn
  1535. >You’re not sure why any of that really matters, but people are superficial
  1536. >And in a less-than-superficial gesture, the preps fire back at the panther with a few raised middle fingers
  1538. >”Oh fuck off, cunts,” the panther directs a rolling growl in their direction
  1539. >You casually step to the side and fold yourself against a locker
  1540. >You pull Sam against you and shimmy away as fast as you can
  1541. >This could get ugly very quickly
  1542. >Everyone is at each other’s throats this week, thanks to Vanessa
  1543. >One of the preps steps forward
  1544. >”What are you going to do about it, razor mouth?”
  1545. >This does enough to spike the Panther’s blood pressure
  1546. >Yep, time for you to go
  1547. >You’ve endured enough supernaturally prompted aggression for the rest of your life
  1548. >With Sam trailing closely behind you (not like he has much choice), you steer your way down the hallway, nudging past students who (appropriately) nudge back
  1549. >With all the strength your skelly body can muster, you manage to stay upright as you’re jostled to and fro by bodies in motion
  1550. >Sam seems to have plenty of experience getting knocked around, so he’s a lot better at staying on his feet and dodging wayward elbows
  1551. >When you look behind you, you see the crowds parting for a teacher and school resource officer (and really, they’re just cops) sprinting down the hall, shoving through throngs of teenagers, heading back to where the panther and the preps were
  1552. >Guess you were right
  1553. >It did get ugly
  1555. >Battered plenty, you’re able to make it down the stairs, to the lunchroom, and then out to the parking lot where the kiss of cold air against your skin is a relief from the sweltering heat inside
  1556. >Sam seems to agree, as he tugs at the collar of his hoodie with his one free hand, letting out some trapped heat
  1557. >Strangely enough, you don’t see anyone you need to avoid other than angry students 
  1558. >No goths
  1559. >No Sam’s Dad
  1560. >No Stella
  1561. >Just cars in motion, kids cutting each other off, clusters of teenagers strutting around, looking for something to sate their boredom
  1562. >On the way to your car, you steer clear of a group of punks, but they only offer ‘fuck you looking at?’ glances from behind the curling cigarette smoke trailing off their lips
  1563. >You see Mike waiting on the hood of your car like he owns it
  1564. >Jenna is at his side, talking to him
  1565. >Neither of them notice your approach 
  1566. >Mike must have cracked a joke, because Jenna slouches in her ordinarily rigid and prim stance
  1567. >She throws her vulpine head back and laughs from her belly
  1568. >You think that’s called gekkering for foxes? But you’re not sure
  1569. >And when she recovers, she absent-mindedly runs her fingers through the fur on the top of her head, twisting it earnestly while Mike prattles on about something you can’t hear
  1570. >As you approach, Mike throws a quick glance at you and the bun
  1571. >His cheer seems to drain to a half-smile, as if he were glad to see you, but you had interrupted something important
  1572. >”There’s the chauffeur and his sidekick,” he says with a weak laugh
  1573. >He seems… in good cheer
  1574. “Nice to see you too, Edward.”
  1575. >”Edward?” Mike tilts his head
  1576. “Nevermind, you don’t read,” you fire back quickly
  1577. >Jenna giggles. “Well probably not those types of books.”
  1578. >She puts a lot of stress on the word ‘those,’ drawing your curiosity
  1579. “So you read trashy young adult fiction too?” You prod
  1580. >”I live for it. I’d get The Deathly Hallows tattooed on my arm if I could… you know… see it under all of this fur.”
  1581. >You internally wince
  1582. >You can hear your inner elitist yelling:
  1583. >’Who, past the age of 12, reads Harry Potter?’
  1584. >Thankfully Mike silences your inner critic counters by calling you both ‘book reading morons,’ promptly ending the discussion
  1586. >”Guess we’re just waiting on Comrade Alexi,” Mike observes from the back seat
  1587. >He’s sitting in the middle seat, squeezed up close to Jenna, who doesn’t seem to mind
  1588. >Sam is in the passenger seat, as usual
  1589. “Guess so…” you observe, drawing out the last syllable so you can ease your transition into your next request
  1590. >Smooth like butter, you can taste the transition on your tongue
  1591. “….Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we… I don’t know… went to a costume party?” You propose, your voice stumbling into a pathetic whisper
  1592. >So much for your initial success with the transition
  1593. >Mike seems to hear it well enough, though
  1594. >”A costume party? Like at the school? Fuck no-”
  1595. “Not at the school,” you interject, before he kills your idea. “At someone’s house. I think it’s happening at Braydon Smith’s place tonight.”
  1596. >The car is silent, and the sudden guilt you feel burdens you like a millstone around your neck
  1597. >Really, it’s a selfish request
  1598. >You just want to go to the party because you’ve never been to one
  1599. >And because Sam needs to have an experience! A good one! Something that reminds him Halloween isn’t just trick-or-treating and fake fog machines and happy scarecrows
  1600. >”Will there be booze?” Mike asks
  1601. >”What? Hell no, count me out if there’s underage drinking.” Jenna crosses her arms across her chest in a pout
  1602. >Mike issues a snort of laughter. “So you’ll steal a shopping cart and five pounds of garlic, but you won’t drink with us?”
  1603. >Jenna reddens. “I-I left a $20 at the counter, so it’s alright.”
  1604. >”Whatever. If there’s booze I’m in. Not like we had any plans tonight.”
  1605. >Your eyes shift from Jenna to Mike
  1606. >She frowns
  1607. >”Well, I’m not drinking.”
  1608. >”PERFECT!” Mike practically jumps in his seat. “You can be the driver. Anon, Sam, Alex and I will make sure we handle most of the liquor. I’ll drink enough for the both of us.”
  1609. >You pass a look down at Sam, who seems apprehensive, given that he’s thoughtfully stroking his ears, threatening to tug on them 
  1610. >You do your best attempt at a reassuring smile
  1611. “It’ll be fun. I want you to have something close to a normal Halloween experience. Okay?”
  1612. >He flashes a nervous smile
  1613. >”O-Okay,” he says, but you can hear the mistrust, which sounds like little silvery knives in your heart
  1615. >Alex arrives well after the rest of the cars are gone
  1616. >His light brown hair curls down in uneven tangles from his golden beanie — disheveled from exhaustion
  1617. >And the rest of him is a sweaty mess
  1618. >His ordinarily pale cheeks look flush with color and exhaustion, and as he limps across the blacktop, you can see that he’s wearing damp sweat stains underneath his long maroon shirt
  1619. >He throws open the door without a word and grunts his way next to Mike
  1620. >”Where the hell have you been?” Mike asks
  1621. >Jenna and Sam both pinch their nose in unison, as if they were following lines from a script
  1622. >”Ghrisd,” Jenna says, her  voice a high, nasally whine. “Ydou reeg,”
  1623. >”Huh?” Alex says, barely perceiving anything as he throws his head back against the seat
  1624. >His chest heaves
  1625. >The vixen unplugs her sensitive nose. “I said you REEK.”
  1626. >”Oh.” 
  1627. >Alex hears the complaint, but doesn’t seem to register it
  1628. >You snap your fingers at the poor kid in some attempt to bring him back to reality
  1629. >It seems to reel him back in enough for an exhausted explanation
  1630. >”Coach Griswald made me run an extra mile today for calling him a fascist.” His voice comes out in tired puffs
  1631. >”Nice one, dude.” Mike says
  1632. >”Ygou woudnd gnow whad fagscism is iv id pud ids bood on ur negg.” Jenna says
  1633. >Alex rolls against the door panel and shuts his eyes. “Fascist,” he whispers to the door panel, who whispers nothing back but the cold rattle of loose metal as you twist your keys into the ignition
  1634. >You’ve wasted enough time here
  1636. >Imagine the most generic Halloween movie soundtrack possible, and you’d have a rough approximation of what’s playing overhead at the costume store
  1637. >For the first time in what feels like a very long time, you are assailed by corny ghost moans and anything-but-bone-shaking thunder
  1638. >And the cherry on top?
  1639. >Squealing bat sound effects that sound like they got ripped from 1960s Scooby-Doo reruns on TV
  1640. >As the sliding door opens, and all these sounds strike you in one aural gut-punch, you breathe deeply and squeeze your eyes shut
  1641. >You’re home, back in your memories
  1642. >You’re a little kid again, trying to find a costume that will draw the least amount of attention because you didn’t know, back then, that you had a crippling fear of judgement
  1643. >Mike shrugs past you, aiming to get this over with as soon as possible, tossing you out of the nostalgia
  1644. >Jenna is close behind him, but the glow of joy in her eyes is enough to tell you that she’s plenty excited to be here, and not out stealing things from a liquor store, like Mike had initially suggested
  1646. >Sam bounces from clothing rack to clothing rack, grabbing packages and pre-made costumes, turning them over in his tiny hands like they were precious gems
  1647. >From a firefighter to a skeleton to an anime character… he seems immensely pleased by all of it
  1648. >It’s like he’s been dosed with rocket fuel. You’ve never seen him so reckless and excited
  1649. >And as you dig through a bin of shitty plastic props and discount costumes, you can’t help but smile
  1650. >You feel like you’re doing the right thing
  1652. >You’re sorting aside discount costumes (mostly just wigs with gum in them) when you hear Sam beside you, breathing hard from exhaustion in little wheezes
  1653. >You straighten your back and look down
  1654. >The bunny has no less than 10 separate costume pieces stacked high, burdening his already thin arms
  1655. >”A-A-Anon,” he stutters, nearly out of breath. “I-I-I want to t-t-t-try these on.”
  1656. >… It’s not like he needs your permission
  1657. >Oh
  1658. >Wow
  1659. >He’s probably been clothes shopping once or twice in his life
  1660. >Jesus Christ that’s surreal
  1661. >You take clothes shopping for granted every time you go
  1662. >Does he…
  1663. >Need instructions?
  1664. “Go find the changing room,” you tell him, as you pick a package of cheap ‘priest vestments’ from the refuse of the discount bin
  1665. >He throws you a confused glance at the mention of the word ‘changing room’
  1666. >”W-W-What is that?”
  1667. >You’re not sure if this is irritating or adorable
  1668. “It’s a room where you get naked and try on the costumes,” you say, trying to dismiss him so you can find your other co-conspirators
  1669. >When you got into the store you all fanned out in alternate directions
  1670. >Except Sam, who clung to you like he was glued to your hip
  1671. >He really likes hanging around you, you tell yourself
  1672. >Or he’s getting really touchy
  1673. >One of the two
  1674. >Sam looks unsure of his instructions
  1675. >You groan internally and point a lazy finger towards a hanging sign that says ‘changing rooms’
  1676. >Sam fixes you with a ‘I’m sorry’ look, and then bounds off in the direction of the changing rooms, jockeying his stack of costumes
  1677. >What the hell does he even need those for?
  1678. >The designs he came up with for himself —  ‘Samurai Outlaw’ — couldn’t be simpler: a hoodie, some baggy pants, a bandana, and a baseball bat
  1679. >Whatever
  1680. >Let the kid have his fun
  1681. >You smile at the thought of Sam getting to finally enjoy what you’ve taken for granted for years
  1682. >You hold the costume you picked — a priest’s robes — up to the light
  1683. >It’s fairly standard — there’s a picture of a rhino wearing them, and despite the rhino’s size, the long, flowing, cheap cut of cloth hangs off his arms and around his waist in huge swaths
  1684. >They’re primarily an off yellow, sickly like vomit, with a definite gold stripe running down the center of the piece with two lines branching towards your shoulder, like a ‘Y’ with a spike down its center
  1685. >They match Sam’s drawing for you
  1686. >The kid has talent, that much is true
  1687. >But the costume is a scant reflection of Sam’s vision
  1688. >In fact, like all Halloween costumes, it’s cheaply made, and the cut is a bit large
  1689. >You’ll have to go try it on
  1691. >As you make your way to changing rooms, you pass by Alex
  1692. >He smirks and pulls the brim of a fedora lower, having tossed his signature yellow beanie aside
  1693. >His whole body is clad in cheap cloth that’s been textured to look like a striped suit
  1694. >But you know? The cut is tapered in at the sides and shoulder, so from a distance, he really does look like some kind of 20s-30s gangster
  1695. >The fedora tho, invokes your inner elitist again
  1696. >Too much time on the internet
  1697. >”Nyyeeh sheeee,” he says in the worst accent you’ve ever heard
  1698. >The utterance of those words causes something physical to seize up inside you
  1699. “Listen, Alex, comrade… Never say that again like that, okay?”
  1700. >He nods in agreement
  1701. >”Save my charisma for Friday. Gotcha.” He winks at you
  1702. “That’s not what I meant, but aright. Save it for Friday.”
  1703. >”Was it good?” He asks, already having decided for himself it was Oscar-worthy
  1704. >You agree with him, in the way that a parent agrees with their child when they say they’re going to grow up to be ‘The President of the Moon’
  1705. “Don’t change a thing, Alexi.”
  1706. >He fires dual finger guns back at you, and you almost wish they were real so you can be spared an encore performance
  1707. >You can feel a shiver still running up your spine as you pace off towards the changing rooms
  1708. >If only you were dead
  1710. >There’s only two available changing rooms
  1711. >Hmmm
  1712. >You try the one on the left and get a metal rattle as the lock catches
  1713. “Sorry,” you say, face going flush with blood
  1714. >You probably just scared the piss out of someone who is stark naked in there, trying on a slutty ‘nerd’ costume or something
  1715. >But the response you get back is as empty as your wallet is about to be
  1716. >There’s sadly no dividers for your voice to carry over
  1717. >The sound isolation must be insane
  1718. >These are just closed-in rooms with mirrors pasted onto walls and signs that say ‘changing room’ glued on the windowless doors
  1719. >Classy
  1720. >Alright, Sam must be in the one on the left, you reason
  1721. >Meaning you’ve got the one on the right to try
  1722. >You find it’s not locked, and you hear no voices of protest as you crack open the door
  1723. >Good!
  1725. >You twist the nob and slip inside, snapping off the endless chime of cheap Halloween sound effects as the door shuts with a meaty *thunk*
  1726. >A distinct, girlish falsetto shrieks behind you
  1728. >You don’t even think about the consequences of what you do next, because your body moves autonomously
  1729. >You don’t consider how turning around changes your life almost completely in less than a fraction of a second
  1730. >So much can happen in the resonate space between heartbeats
  1731. >A car wrapping around a tree, impaling the driver who held his eyes down at his wheel for one pulse too many
  1732. >A baby’s first, catching lungfulls of air, and the exhaustive sigh of the mother who was told her son would be a stillborn
  1733. >The small gap between the barrel of a gun and the temple is one heartbeat across
  1734. >This is one of those moments
  1736. >You turn around and behold Sam Garlen, who has one bulbous leg down the throat of a pirate costume’s trousers, and is standing, otherwise, stark naked, all of his clothes scattered around him in a pile
  1737. >”A-A-A-Anon!?” He shrieks, voice rising and rising in pitch
  1738. >But his words bounce off your useless eardrums 
  1740. >Your eyes sweep over him, up and down, focusing on absolutely everything all at the same time, soaking in the near-flatness of his chest, the slenderness of his shoulders, but also the play of the overhead light on his body, like he was the lone actor in a very bright spotlight, directing your eyes downward
  1741. >And downward
  1742. >Past the pink of his nipples, the meager puff of his breasts, the slender and exposed bones of his ribs (still mysteriously bruised)
  1743. >Down the tuck of his midsection, pinched inward…
  1744. >…Which only emphasizes the girlish bow of his hips…
  1745. >…To the pink slit of his sex, begging for a gentle hand to spread it like a flower that only blossoms in the fall
  1746. >And then you look up at him, feeling drugged, completely senseless, like your head was a balloon floating away from the stalk of your neck
  1747. >And then you open your mouth
  1748. >And you say the DUMBEST fucking thing anyone could possibly say in a situation like this
  1749. “Dude, where’s your dick?”
  1751. >He?
  1752. >He has no?
  1753. “Are you a eunuch?” You say
  1754. >Where’s his dick lmao
  1755. “Sam? Do you hear me? I’m- I’m trying- where is your dick, man?”
  1756. >Sam isn’t hearing you
  1757. >His face is pulsing bright red, his jaw heavily slacked downward
  1758. >Powerful tremors shake through him and dislodge words and thoughts from the hollows of his skull
  1759. >And even though he looks like he’s just been shot, he doesn’t move to cover himself 
  1760. >And neither do you, because there’s a block in your ability to process things right now
  1761. >Your eyes mindlessly flick between his bare groin and the way his eyes explode out of his face, and then to a circular scar encrusting his right shoulder, like a vivid burn mark
  1762. >Your brain is doing the analytical equivalent of 2+2=5
  1763. >You open your mouth to ask him where his dick is agai-
  1765. >Sam plummets backwards like a statue cleaved off of its stand
  1766. >You watch him crash, unable to will your body to move and try to prevent his oncoming concussion
  1767. >All it takes is one heartbeat
  1768. >You hear his skull bounce off the floor with a dampened *pomf*
  1769. >And you stand there like some kind of leaden idol, feeling nothing but your heart pounding
  1770. >Looking at nothing but the pile of poofy pirate pants and Sam laying on the floor, unconscious
  1771. >And thinking nothing except “where’s her dick?”
  1773. >You drown in the pinks of your eyelids, eyes shut, as if to reset your nervous system
  1774. >Wow
  1775. >It’s roomy behind your eyes and above your throat
  1776. >Lotttaaaa empty space
  1777. >Maybe the distant echo of your inner-self pounding his head against an imaginary wall
  1778. >Dunno
  1780. >Did that really happen?
  1781. >You bend your fingers inwards, squeezing them into a weak fist
  1782. >Then you wiggle your toes
  1783. >You can… move
  1784. >Yeah
  1785. >When you open your eyes, Sam is still there in that pile of himself(herself?)
  1786. >Still dickless
  1787. >You creep over to him(her?) as if your feet were made of fragile glass
  1788. >He(she?) still has his(her?) right leg halfway into a pair of canvas-white pirate pants
  1789. >Your eyes travel upwards from the pants
  1790. >You know that’s only a distraction from the real investigation you’re trying to conduct
  1791. >Steeling yourself, you let your gaze settle on his(her?) crotch
  1792. >…
  1793. >Yep
  1794. >That’s EXACTLY what you think it is
  1795. >You swallow hard, and your mind feels like it’s trying to rebuild itself after being reduced to a chunky, dysphoric slurry
  1796. >So… the whole time… Sam has been a girl?
  1797. >He- shit, SHE has kept it under wraps this whole time? Why?
  1798. “Why the hell…? What’s the point of hiding this?”
  1799. >You want to wake her up
  1800. >You want to grab her and shake her and ask why she’d keep this from you, and what it put you through
  1801. >Instead, you do the next best (and right) thing
  1802. >Your feet barely touch the ground as you tip-toe to the opposite side of the dressing room, all the while keeping one eye on Sam
  1803. >She still has shock pressed into the lines of her young face, which looks more feminine than before — less angled and softer at the cheeks and at the jaw
  1804. >But her eyes are clamped down and her mouth is screwed shut, and, thanks to the her decision to strip bare, you can see her meager chest rising and falling with unconscious grace
  1805. >It’s like watching a very small and weak balloon inflate and then deflate
  1806. >It takes everything in you not to try to stir her awake
  1807. >Watching her fall unconscious was hard enough
  1808. >But this… this was like standing by, helpless, while a beautiful bird with broken wings drifts struggles uselessly to take flight again
  1809. >You want to rescue her
  1810. >But you don’t. You do what you think you should
  1811. “Please don’t wake up, please don’t wake up, please don’t wake up,” you beg the unconscious bunny, whose eyes scrunch together and whose brow furrows
  1812. >She looks like she’s in pain
  1813. >You hover over her, holding her ratty old hoodie
  1814. >Sweat beads from your forehead and down the bridge of your nose, threatening a high-dive onto Sam’s own forehead
  1815. >You drape her ratty old hoodie across her rounded hips, hovering over her body like a crane trying to defuse a small bomb
  1816. >And all the while, you keep flicking your gaze over to her bare crotch and the pink slit that is her sex
  1817. >You still can’t believe it
  1818. >You swear, the next time you blink, you’re going to wake back up in your bed on Friday night of last week
  1819. >And all of this is going to be a dream
  1820. >There will be no horrible plot to destroy the earth
  1821. >Mike will be normal
  1822. >You will have never have fought
  1823. >Your house will have never been destroyed
  1824. >You will have never made that pact with the goths
  1825. >You will have never stolen Sam
  1826. >In fact
  1827. >When you wake up, you’ll still hate him… her…?
  1828. >You layer the hoodie gently across her lower half  as she begins to stir
  1829. >When will you wake up?
  1831. >You don’t wake up
  1832. >She does
  1833. >Little slivers of rusted gold peer up at you, shuddering with dim recognition
  1834. >Her mouth starts to move, and you freeze, hovering over her, obscuring her in your shadow
  1835. >”I’m s-s-sorry.”
  1836. >You take a safe step backwards, face burning with hot blood
  1837. “I don’t understand,” you say, trying not to look at her. You direct your eyes anywhere but at her
  1838. >Sam props herself up on her palms, still shaking
  1839. >”P-Please…”
  1840. >She makes a spinning motion with her fingers
  1841. “Oh, right! Christ, I’m such an idiot.” Berating yourself feels like the only sensible thing you can do right now (other than turning around)
  1842. >You do a sharp spin and face the corner like a child who’s being punished
  1843. >Sam pulls on her boxers first, then hoodie, and then sweats — none of which are done with anything resembling speed or urgency
  1844. >Mostly just defeat
  1845. >”O-O-Okay, y-y-you can turn a-a-around.” The sadness in her voice is almost as powerful as your shame
  1846. >And your curiosity
  1847. >When you face her, she’s still the same old Sam you’ve known for years
  1848. >The Sam who you’ve grown to call a friend
  1849. >The Sam you care about
  1850. >The Sam that still furiously blushes when you so much as lay a finger on her
  1851. >This may be the same bunny, but you can sense a change
  1852. >So you’ve gotta know now
  1853. >But first, something very important:
  1854. “I’m… REALLY sorry, Sam. I didn’t mean to barge in on you like that. I though you were in the room next to this one, and… I don’t really have a good explanation other than the fact that I’m a fucking idiot.”
  1855. >Sam points her eyes downward at her feet
  1856. >”I-I-It’s okay. O-Or, I m-mean, it’s n-not okay. I do-don’t know. I do-don’t kn-know anything.” 
  1857. >There’s an awkward pause, where you’re staring hard at Sam but she’s focusing all of her attention into avoiding eye contact
  1858. >Guess it’s now or never
  1859. “Why?” You say, and you think you know what to say next, but your tongue seems to swell in your mouth
  1860. >Nothing comes out but stupid noise and the hissing of your throat
  1861. >She forces her hands behind her back to try and abstain from pulling at her ears
  1862. >”W-What?”
  1863. “Why. Why did you keep this from me? Does Jenna know?”
  1864. >Ah, truth at last
  1865. >She shakes her head, sweeping her bangs into her eyes
  1866. >”N-Nobody kn-knows ex-except Dad.”
  1867. “Just dressing and acting like a guy is one thing, but pretending to be one? Are you trans?”
  1868. >You pause
  1869. >Was that the wrong thing to say? Shit
  1870. >What are you supposed to say when someone comes out to you
  1871. “Because I swear I won’t be mad at you if you are. I’m just confused. Help me understand.”
  1872. >Again she shakes her head
  1873. >”I-I’m not… no… I do t-t-this be-because…”
  1874. >Her eyes start to blaze in the light, and you can see the frustration pressed into her face
  1875. >Maybe this was a mistake
  1876. >Actually, not maybe. This whole thing is predicated on your mistake
  1877. >Well, you better make it right you fucking moron
  1878. “You don’t need to tell me-”
  1879. >”Be-Because m-m-my br-brother is d-dead-d-d-dead-”
  1880. >Gentle sobs start to clip the last of her syllables
  1881. “I know. You must have really loved hi-”
  1882. “bBec-c-cause of m-m-me,”
  1883. >Wat
  1884. >”I k-killed him.”
  1886. >Wow
  1887. >You felt that one like a lead fist in the ribs
  1888. >Right about where your dusty old heart shudders and pumps dried blood
  1889. >She looks like she wants to cry, but isn’t allowing herself to
  1890. >Not yet
  1891. >She wipes her nose with a snotty sleeve
  1892. >Her voice plummets into a hoarse whisper
  1893. >”J-J-Jacob tried to m-make me tough a-and st-strong- so I could s-stand up for m-myself.”
  1894. “You ARE tough and strong! With all the shit you go through-”
  1895. >Now you see something you haven’t ever seen before:
  1896. >An angry Sam
  1897. >”GIRLS A-A-AREN’T STRONG!" She blazes, chest heaving. “G-Girls are w-w-weak and I-I have to b-be strong. I-I h-have to b-be strong f-f-for J-Jacob… I h-have to be the s-s-s-son my d-d-d-dad d-didn’t get to h-have.”
  1898. >She doesn’t strangle her ears this time around
  1899. >Instead, she tightens all of her anger and remorse and sadness between her fingers and closes her fists around them
  1900. >You just stand there, feeling limp and useless
  1901. >And more than that:
  1902. >Guilty
  1903. >She looks at you, flush in the face, chest swelling with hot air that she pushes in and out with each ragged breath
  1904. >You’re not sure if she’s going to start yelling again
  1905. >But she doesn’t
  1906. >She looks at you one last time with that fire in her eyes, and then…
  1907. >She slams her eyes shut — hard
  1908. >She shakes her head, throwing her dangling ears around violently, trying to dislodge her confusing and conflicting thoughts 
  1909. >Her fingers spread outward, and her body stops trembling, like a rocket struggling to fire off the launch pad
  1910. >All that’s left between you two is silence, the sound of Sam trying to get her breathing under control
  1911. >And outside the door, the muffled drone of Halloween music marches a steady beat
  1913. >Now is the time to say something, because this silence is worse than driving pins and needles into your skin
  1914. >It’s selfish
  1915. >You know that?
  1916. >It’s selfish to want to distract yourself from this pain
  1917. >Maybe it’s something you need to face, for yourself
  1918. >For Sam
  1919. >”I-I’m sorry,” she says weakly. “I d-don’t… I d-d-didn’t mean to s-s-shout.”
  1920. >Now it’s your turn to sigh
  1921. >God it’s such a relief
  1922. >You don’t know if you could handle Sam being mad at you
  1923. “The only thing you have to apologize for is not thinking you’re strong. God damnit, kid, you’re tougher than me and Mike and Alex combined. I don’t know how you got it in your head that you’re weak… that you need to replace your brother, or anything like that.”
  1924. >Sam looks wounded, but you carry on
  1925. “I have spent my entire life up until Tuesday afternoon being a gutless coward. I don’t see myself in you — not even a little bit.”
  1926. >”B-But you s-s-saved me from m-my d-d-dad. Y-You d-d-did wh-what I couldn’t,” she counters. And it’s a fair counter — if you leave out the fact that you were aided by a supernatural curse
  1927. >You shake your head
  1928. “That wasn’t me. Or, it wasn’t the real me. Everything brave and important I’ve ever done has been because I sacrificed Gloria Duchene to the goths. But not anymore. On Tuesday, I made that choice to quit living like a fucking coward.”
  1929. >You pause, searching for a truth in the vacant silence
  1930. >You’re not tough
  1931. >Not an asshole
  1932. >Not strong
  1933. >You only know one thing:
  1934. “I’m scared of everything,” you say with a heavy sigh. You turn your eyes away from her. “Why do you think I haven’t decided on my future yet, or sacked up and picked a college? Why do you think we’re hiding in a church instead of out looking for your dad to confront him? Christ, Sam, there’s a million things I wish I could say to you right now, but they die on their way out. But every day I get a little stronger. Every day I learn more and more what I’m capable of.”
  1935. >You squat down and meet her height
  1936. >Her eyes are still and fixed on your own
  1937. “I keep telling myself, if Sam can hit her dad with a baseball bat, then I can make it through until tomorrow — even if it kills me.” 
  1938. >Neither you, nor the rabbit, say anything for awhile
  1939. >You stare into one another
  1940. >And at one point, you swear, you traded brains for a second
  1941. >And a brain is a private, intimate place
  1942. >You felt what it was like to have someone wander around in the garden of your thoughts and memories
  1943. >First violation, then admittance, and then wonder
  1944. >And you, too, spent what felt like an hour inside of Sam’s mind, uprooting her pain, hearing distant rushes of train whistles felling forests and arcing blows of fists across your tender bone
  1945. >And then the connection severed
  1946. >You retrieved yourself from Sam, and her from you, and you tried desperately to memorize all that you had seen or done
  1947. >Sam must have felt the yank of separation, the cascade of sensory data overwhelming her synapses, because at last she blinked
  1948. >And then you blink, staring lucidly into one another’s eyes, but seeing more than just your own reflections
  1949. >Your eyes lock on her lips pink lips — the color of a ripe peach
  1950. >And you lean forward
  1951. >She shudders, her eyes falling shut in resignation
  1952. >Of mind first
  1953. >Then of body
  1955. >…
  1956. >You pull back at the last possible second, your lips a hair’s width from brushing one another
  1957. >When you open her eyes, her lips are still curled, her eyes still shut
  1958. >Waiting for you
  1959. >And you are full of shame
  1961. >The minute you retreat back into yourself, you feel the immense weight of guilt and shame
  1962. >Shoulda done it when you had the chance
  1963. >Coward
  1964. >No
  1965. >Not now
  1966. >Not here
  1967. >This isn’t the time, nor the place
  1968. >You’re glad you didn’t
  1969. >Sam’s eyes flutter open, and you see her flash a look of confusion
  1970. >And then the shame comes
  1971. >She throws her head downwards, her shoulders sloping with her gaze
  1972. >”I-I-” she starts, but you’re not going to allow her to do this to herself
  1973. >She’s too good of a person, drowning there in her hand-me-down hoodie and sweats, ears lopping carelessly behind her crop of hair that you’ve come to find beautiful on her
  1974. “Your secret is safe with me,” you say, trying to cut the tension
  1975. >”It…” she stops herself, uncertain in her next fumbling words
  1976. >”I-It doesn’t have t-t-to be a s-s-secret anymore.”
  1977. >Wat
  1978. “… Are you sure? You want people to know?”
  1979. >She hesitates for a moment
  1980. >And then, drawing herself up with a deep breath, she fixes you with a determined stare
  1981. >”Yes.” Her voice is steady as steel
  1983. >You gather a sharp-dressed Alex, a Jenna dressed like a bumblebee, and Mike, who has done little more than acquire a slick leather jacket that’s slightly too big for his frame, outside the costume shop 
  1984. >You’re dressed up in your white priest vestments, which are a loose cut of pale-yellow cloth with cheap gold thread running down the center
  1985. >Beneath that, you have a white robe, and Gloria’s crucifix dangling around your neck
  1986. >You look like a priest, if the Catholic Church were in a severe budget crisis
  1987. >”You two done making out yet?” Mike groans. “It’s getting dark and I’m getting hungry.”
  1988. >Indeed, the sunlight was dissolving away into the blue dusk
  1989. >People were inside having dinner by now with their families, so the clean-swept sidewalks were barren
  1990. >Meaning the party was going to be soon
  1991. >The one you were all crashing
  1992. >That harvest moon was rising, huge like another earth looming overhead
  1993. “Quit yer’ bitchin’, my son.” You waggle a finger at Mike, who playfully bites the air around it
  1994. >Jenna giggles
  1995. “I helped Sam with HER costume, so it took awhile,” you say, taking care to really draw out the ‘HER’
  1996. >You sweep the group with your eyes, looking expectantly from face to face
  1997. “I said, I helped Sam with HER costume, so it took awhile.”
  1998. >This silence tastes like need-smarter-friend-juice
  1999. >They don’t seem to understand
  2000. >Except Jenna, who cocks her head
  2001. >The sharp ears on top of her head twitch with curiosity, like a live wire jumping with current
  2002. >You lean forward
  2003. >Here it comes
  2004. >The big moment
  2005. >
  2006. >”It took you THAT LONG to get him his costume? What is he going as anyway?” She says
  2007. >”I bet his costume is really elaborate. Lots of moving parts. Did you cop a five-finger-discount on it?” Alex says
  2008. >…
  2009. “Actually,” you start, “you’re not even wrong. The costume was almost free. We just had to buy a little rope for HER bat.”
  2010. >Mike, that pale motherfucker, shivers, and says: “why do you keep saying it like that?”
  2011. >Bingo
  2012. “Like what?”
  2013. >The vampire fledgling folds his arms across his chest
  2014. >”’Her.’ You keep saying that instead of ‘him.’ Say it right, man. I’m too cold to deal with this.”
  2015. “Ah, you stupid bitch. Maybe there’s a reason for that?” You prod
  2016. >Jenna’s face lights up with a sudden alarm
  2017. >”You’re not messing with us, right?” She says, eyes going wide. “Are you saying what I’m thinking you’re saying?”
  2018. >You fight to keep the smile growing on your face from betraying your pointless ruse
  2019. >The fox shakes her head. “You’re just messing with us. Right?”
  2020. >Her pleading expression and Mike/Alex’s cluelessness is the straw that breaks the camel’s back
  2022. “Okay Sam, you can come out now!” You call
  2024. >The bunny totters around the corner of the building, trying her best to keep her hands away from her ears and to keep the blush from overpowering her ‘costume’
  2025. “I give you: Samurai Outlaw.”
  2026. >You gesture towards Sam like she were a prize on a game show and you were a beautiful hostess
  2028. >She stands before you all, as short and as self conscious always
  2029. >Her hood is thrown over her head, with two holes sliced out of the top so her ears can dangle down behind her 
  2030. >And a red bandanna obscures every feature of her face except the amber glow of her eyes
  2031. >Her brother’s baseball bat is strapped to her back with a bit of rope and cord
  2032. >Other than that, not much has changed about her
  2033. >It’s a simple costume, but dead close to her idealized drawing of Samurai Outlaw
  2035. >”Is that it?” Mike says
  2036. >You scowl
  2037. “Don’t you think it’s cool?” You say, ignoring his jab
  2038. >”I mean, it’s pretty simple, is all. I don’t know why it took you guys so long.”
  2039. >”I think it’s really fucking cool,” Alex says, encircling the rabbit, who is frozen in the metaphorical spotlight
  2040. >Too much attention on her all at once
  2041. >Jenna is dead-frozen, staring fixedly at Sam
  2042. >”She really does look… good…” she says, stiff and distant, her mind trying to reconnect its crossed wires
  2043. >”Awww not you too,” Mike says, now encircling Sam with Alex, like two sharks honing in on a bleeding whale
  2044. >He’s a little more interested than he lets on, you think
  2045. >The simplicity of Sam’s design is its main strength
  2046. >You could see Samurai Outlaw as some kind of urban antihero or something in a comic book
  2047. >Sam flinches and shrinks away from the prying eyes of Mike and Alex as they comment on how cool the baseball bat prop is
  2048. >Jenna loudly clears her throat, drawing everyone’s attention from Sam’s bare-bones costume
  2049. >”Sam,” she says, a cautious warmth tinting her words. “Is what Anon says true?” She threads her fingers together and folds her hands down at her waist
  2050. >The bunny points her eyes down at her feet in response to the sudden question
  2051. >You open your mouth to spill the metaphorical beans for her-
  2052. >”Y-Yes. It’s true. I-I-I-I’m a girl,” she says suddenly
  2054. >The boys come to a sudden halt
  2055. >”You’re fucking with us,” Mike says, glancing between both her and you. “Actually, you’re both fucking with us. Stop that.”
  2056. >”I KNEW I SMELLED A FEMALE’S SCENT,” Jenna says, and the joy of being right gleams in her eyes — brighter than her polished fangs
  2057. >Instinct takes over, and Sam shrinks back away from the fangs and the claws, holding her bat out in front of her like an aluminum shield
  2058. >Jenna recoils quickly and mutters an apology
  2059. >”A-Anyway,” she continues, looking incredibly harmless as a bumblebee. “I thought I smelled something… strange. But I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. This explains so much.”
  2060. >Alex looks dismayed
  2061. >”So wait, Sam, you’re really a girl?”
  2062. >Overwhelmed, Sam shoves her bandanna back over her face to hide her blush
  2063. >”Yes,” she says, behind the cloth. “I-I’m not lying-”
  2064. >”Wait, if you’re a girl…” He looks at you, and then back to Sam, steam practically pouring out of his ears
  2065. >Guess his mind is really cranking on putting these two facts together
  2066. >”If you’re a girl… And Anon is a boy… And you two…”
  2067. >You feel a steady knot of anxiety and embarrassment settle in on your chest
  2068. >It spreads quickly to your face
  2069. “Alex… Don’t…” you caution him
  2070. >…Okay, maybe there’s a little rage there too
  2071. >His mouth drops open, his smile almost as wide as his face
  2072. >”ANON ISN’T GAY!”
  2073. >Strangely enough, he looks to Mike for confirmation
  2074. >And that fuckass is smiling, nodding, as the realization slowly dawns on him with all the speed of a turtle and the grace of a rhino
  2075. >”Anon’s not gay,” Mike repeats, more to himself than to the rest of you
  2077. “I’ve been saying that from the very fucking start; I’m not gay, you goddamn idiots,” you counter, face pulsing red
  2078. >You almost hate that they care more about you being not-gay than they do about Sam’s true identity
  2079. >”Thumper, you’re really a chick? Like, pussy and everything?” Mike leans forward, smiling like a total shithead
  2080. >The bunny flinches backwards, and you know Mike’s just doing it to fuck with Sam, but you can’t help but internally cringe on her behalf
  2081. >You imagine her blush must be the same color as her bandanna
  2082. >”MIKE!” Jenna cries. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
  2083. >He spins around with a wounded look on his face
  2084. >God you really are glad Jenna can keep him under control
  2085. >Mike mutters an apology while Alex claps you on the shoulder
  2086. >”I’m seldom wrong,” he says, “but you played the long-con with me. Good work.”
  2087. >You smile at him — a warm smile that you hope communicates how fucking done you are with this whole joke
  2088. >He smiles back, and deep down, you still don’t think he understands
  2089. >”Hey,” Mike holds an open palm out to Alex. “You owe me 30 bucks.”
  2090. >Alex looks down at the pale palm, spider-webbed with blue veins, and then back up at Mike
  2091. >”You idiot,” he shakes his head slowly, a smile still warming his face. “You actually think I have any money?”
  2092. >”Nah,” Mike says, all too casually. “I just like knowing I was right.”
  2093. “Wait,” you turn to the vampire. “So you thought I was straight the whole time?”
  2094. >You still feel that warm pulse of shame and blood in your face
  2095. >”Nah, I thought you were bi. That’s why he only owes me 30 and not 60. You’re not bi, right?”
  2096. >You answer him with a raised middle finger, while Sam stares holes into the sidewalk
  2098. >Parties
  2099. >Why is it that parties are a staple of entertainment for high school (and college) students alike? What is so alluring about 50-70 hormonal teenagers stuffed into a house, drowning in noise and drink?
  2100. >Because they’re fun, damnit. And you need to experience this. And Sam does too
  2101. >It’ll be good for you 
  2102. >And that’s what you tell yourself as you pull up to Bradyon Smith’s house, which is in one of the ritziest neighborhoods you’ve ever seen
  2103. >Cars that cost more than your mortgage choke the gutters for three solid blocks, making your rust bucket stick out like a festering wound on a super model’s porcelain skin
  2104. >You cut the engine and stare into the dash, trying to find the courage to move 
  2105. >You lost it somewhere between your gas tank’s ‘E’ and red needle inching dangerously close to the pits
  2106. >Mike pops the door and spouts a sharp and immediate whistle
  2107. >Jenna and Sam instinctively look over at him, expectant
  2108. >Despite your anxiety, you can’t help but grin a little
  2109. >They’re so cute
  2110. >”These houses make me sick,” Alex groans as he unfurls his wiry body and stands tall in the cold night air
  2111. >”Everything you see here?” He gestures towards the rows of gated homes, their windows polished and shining with domestication, their exterior paint as fresh as their lawns are green. “All the fruits of oppression. This is what you get when you atomize, sodomize, and demoralize the gentle laborer.” He spits onto the pristine sidewalks for effect
  2112. “Don’t you live in a neighborhood like this?” You offer, stepping out of your rustbucket
  2113. >You know he’s got a three-car garage, a house twice the size of yours, and a modest trust fund
  2114. >He just dresses poorly and bikes everywhere for loosely understood ideological convictions
  2115. >Alex tips his fedora at you like you were the body pillow he finally convinced his mom to pay for
  2116. >“I’ve only infiltrated their ranks. How does a virus kill its host?” He pauses, eyes flashing between your collective faces
  2117. >Impatient, he turns to Sam
  2118. >”Sam? How does a virus kill someone?”
  2119. >”F-From the inside…?”
  2120. >”Precisely!” Alex explodes. “As they say in the Art of War, ‘know thy enemy.’” 
  2121. >He seems to have gotten to know his enemy’s deep pockets well enough
  2122. >You clear your throat
  2123. “Save it for the revolution, comrade. We s-still have a party to go to.”
  2124. >Your voice stumbles a bit, betraying your nerves, as if the tension now spreading across your body could manifest itself in clipped syllables
  2125. >You feel a delicate, fuzzy hand sneak its way into yours
  2126. >When you look down, Sam is starting deadhead, but you can still see the blush pressed into her downy fur
  2127. >Her hand starts trembling, and a reasonable guess would tell you she’s far more nervous about this than you are
  2128. >Her experiences with alcohol and drunk people until this point have not been… positive
  2129. >You give her hand a reassuring squeeze, as if to say ‘I’m here for you’
  2130. >But what you want to say is ‘We don’t have to go. I’m not sure I want to anymore.’
  2131. >The chance you had to back out goes pacing off down the street when Mike and Jenna, walking awfully close to one another, start making their way towards Braydon’s house
  2132. >Alex jogs off after them, one hand plastered to the top of his skull to keep his fedora in place
  2133. >He throws a quick glance over his shoulder —  back at you — before siding up with Mike
  2134. >… Shit
  2136. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAFt9bMoKhs&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=11&t=0s
  2137. >Dressed in your priest vestments and standing off next to the keg itself, you feel your face burning, and not just from the alcohol
  2138. >This beer tastes like social anxiety
  2139. >Teenagers — entirely human in composition — mix and mingle with such grace that their sheer normalcy practically tips the last swallow of beer in your mouth when you see a girl in a skimpy ‘nerd’ outfit jam her tongue down Braydon’s throat
  2140. >You look down at Sam, who hasn’t taken a single sip of her beer
  2141. >She stares down at her feet, awkward and alone 
  2142. >”Hey,” you nudge her. ”You gonna drink any of that?”
  2143. >”Y-Y-Yeah,” she says
  2144. ”Alright. But don’t let this color your opinion of beer — or parties. Both are shit.”
  2145. >You debate detaching from the wall and wandering back into the crowd
  2146. >Is there a redemption arc in your future?
  2147. >…Evidently, there is one in Alex’s future
  2148. >He sticks above the crowd like a well-dressed beanpole
  2149. >His hands fly and curve and cut through the air while a rapt (and drunk) audience looks on
  2150. >They hold their collective breaths while Alex clears his throat
  2151. >He looks like a proud hawk standing atop as his kill
  2152. >”All I’m trying to say is that we’re complacent in the slow rape of the environment. I’m just as guilty as you are, people.” 
  2153. >He crushes a red plastic cup in his iron(curtain) grip, spewing shards of plastic and cheap beer about the crowd
  2154. >And yet, nobody revolts against him
  2155. >In fact, someone hands him their own beer like a feeble adherent in the presence of their enlightened cult leader
  2156. >He takes a mighty gulp and hands it back
  2157. >”Thank you, comrade. These hands-” he holds them up to the crowd for effect. “These are the hands that will tie noose around my bosses’s neck. But not yet. Not until all of you are free from your own bondage. You there!”
  2158. >He throws an accusatory finger towards someone in the crowd dressed like a hotdog
  2159. >”You there, dressed like a hotdog! Where do you work?”
  2160. >”At a coffee shop,” the hotdog replies
  2161. >”Bah, your stimulant juice only fuels the proletariat. I promise, comrade, we will dismantle your prison brick by miserable brick.”
  2162. >Someone shouts back at Alex, but the pounding music obscures both the retort and Alex’s reply
  2163. >You can tell by the smug look on Alex’s face it’s about to get heated 
  2164. >This was a bad idea
  2165. >”D-D-Does Alex h-h-hate his job?” Sam asks
  2166. “Yes. And as a bonus, he hates everyone else’s job for them.”
  2167. >”I-I only w-w-work so I c-can come home late. I don-don’t think I li-like my job very much. St-Stella is-”
  2168. “Insane?”
  2169. >Sam nods, sloshing her beer in her cup. She takes a weak sip and makes a sour face in response
  2170. >You swap your empty cup for her half-full one
  2171. “Like I said, parties and beer — they’re both shit. Well, most beer isn’t so bad. I take back what I said earlier. But the stuff they’re serving here? It tastes like piss.” 
  2172. >Sam giggles
  2173. >”H-How do-do you kn-know what t-t-t-that ta-tastes like?”
  2174. “When did you get so cheeky?” You say, and you genuinely are trying to be lighthearted this time around
  2175. >Sam’s response comes almost automatically
  2176. >”S-Sorry I d-didn’t mean t-t-that.”
  2177. >Christ
  2178. >You’re far too inebriated to explain the nuances of your prior statement
  2179. >There’s so much there, your addled mind muses
  2180. >You are SUCH a BRILLIANT communicator, especially when you’re drinking
  2181. >You tug at the collar of your robes, degassing some hot air trapped in the folds as your conversation drifts into awkward territory
  2182. >The sheer amount of bodies in this lavish house turns the marble-white walls into a kiln
  2183. >You’re roasting in your costume, and you’re sure Sam, with the shag of her fur and thick hoodie, is melting even more than you are
  2184. >Plus anxiety often turns up the heat in a person
  2185. “Fuck this,” you say, peeling off the wall. “It’s hotter than Auschwitz’s kitchen in here.” 
  2186. >Sam sighs deeply, all the tension draining from her face
  2187. >”Y-Y-Yeah it is,” she says
  2188. “Can’t even believe it’s October. All the normie-”
  2189. >You catch yourself before you complete the phrase
  2190. >Christ, you’re starting to sound like Vanessa
  2191. >You cough
  2192. “I mean, all the people crammed in this room are making it hot as shit. C’mon, let’s go somewhere else.”
  2193. >You take take another swallow of beer, your head spinning already from the drink
  2194. >This lavish house, with its top-of-the-line electronics and marble white walls, is starting to make you sick
  2195. “Folllowww meeeee,” you say in a sing-song voice, pushing through a throng of people dressed offensively like cats
  2196. >They give Sam uneasy stares as she follows in your wake
  2197. >By this point the stares don’t bother you
  2198. >You’ll flaunt Sam all you want, and everyone who thinks you shouldn’t be seen with her can suck your entire dick
  2200. >Wherever Mike and Jenna went is none of your concern
  2201. >You’re ascending the stairs to try and carve out a little bit of space between yourself and everyone else
  2202. >Sam labors behind you
  2203. >You can see the sweat glistening on her furry brow, and you pause halfway up the spiraling staircase
  2204. >If you didn’t know better, this house could be used to shoot porn in
  2205. >It just has that vibe, you know?
  2206. >Maybe you’ve seen it somewhere
  2207. >Sam joins you at your side, and instead of carrying on further, you grasp for her hands
  2208. >She’s tiny, but she reaches up to meet your efforts
  2209. >You don’t even care who sees anymore
  2210. >You just want to help her, see her grow and change
  2211. >And it feels good to have her tiny, delicate frame up against you, and you’re starting to get an idea of as to why
  2213. >At the top of the stairs you finally get what you came for. A bit of silence
  2214. >The thrumming bass from the music downstairs is like a distant memory, echoing off cave walls and dissipating into senseless noise
  2215. >You take a look around, sucking in hot air
  2216. >God you’re still out of shape, and Sam is no better
  2217. >She rolls her sleeves up to her elbows and throws her hood back
  2218. “I feel you on that one, sister.” You roll the sleeves on your priest robes as best as you can
  2219. >She looks uncomfortable being called ‘sister’
  2220. >You squint hard in the half-light that cloaks the upstairs portion of the house
  2221. >It’s just an endless sea of doors, presumably leading to bedrooms or bathrooms
  2222. >Wait
  2223. >Don’t people come up here to hook up during parties?
  2224. >Oh god
  2225. >You almost consider going back downstairs, when, at the end of the hall, you see an open door
  2226. >Okay
  2227. >Good
  2228. >This is good
  2229. >The door sways and wavers a bit, as if pulled by some kind of invisible force
  2230. >To you, that means there’s an open window
  2231. >And more importantly: a cooling breeze
  2233. >You and Sam labor down the hallway, struggling under the weight of your costumes and the clothes you’re wearing beneath them
  2234. >Christ
  2235. >Just getting to the room is like running a full marathon
  2236. >When you stumble through the door and into the moonlit darkness of the bedroom, the cold air that kisses your sweaty face makes it all worth it
  2237. >You raise your head off the floor as Sam stands in the entryway, the moonlight outlining her baggy figure in an other-worldly glow
  2238. >Two wispy white curtains flank a wide-open window
  2239. >They stir like captured ghosts as another gust cuts into the room
  2240. >The room is bone white and clean, with a single king-size bed in the center and a nightstand to the right of it
  2241. >Must be a guest room
  2242. >Wait
  2243. >You look back towards the window
  2244. >It leads outside (duh) but it doesn’t terminate into a sheer drop
  2245. >Instead, the roof extends far outwards beneath the frame
  2246. >Which means you can…
  2247. “Hey, come with me. I want to try something.”
  2249. >That something involves you shimmying out of the open window onto the roof
  2250. >You crawl out of the frame and plant two palms on the gritty shingles
  2251. >You notice three things
  2252. >One: the air out here is free, but it feels like swallowing ice water with every breath you take
  2253. >Two: the rooftop shingles paint black streaks on your palms and the hem of your priest robes
  2254. >Three: Above your head, the moon hangs like a fattened guillotine, so close that you swear to god with a good-sized ladder you could reach up and tear a hunk off like it was cheap styrofoam
  2255. >This HAS to be fucking up the tides and the oceans
  2256. >Full moons for a whole week? Yeah, shit is fucked in coastal towns
  2257. >You stand up at full height on the rooftop, staring up at the bold moon
  2258. >It’s hard to believe a bunch of angsty teenagers with a magic book could have this much of an impact on an ancient celestial body
  2259. >And it’s even harder to believe that a communist, an anxious bunny, a coward, an asshole and one perfectly normal vixen are going to push it back into place tomorrow night
  2260. >You hear the sound of struggle and turn to see Sam crawling out of the window
  2261. >With the bone-white light of the moon draped across her like a thin sheet, she looks like a specter
  2262. >When she looks up at you, sweat kissing her brow, she tries to smile, but the exhaustion is plain enough to turn her smile into a strained frown
  2263. “Careful now.” You crouch down on instinct. “One good tumble and you’re going over the edge.”
  2264. >She squeaks and freezes up halfway out of the window
  2265. >Good going Anonymous
  2266. >You scared her
  2267. “That’s just like, the worst case scenario. Let me put it like this,”
  2268. >You release your grasp on her and lock eyes
  2269. >You love the way her eyes shine like gold nuggets hit with flashlights in the dark
  2270. >You love the way they’re so full, like they could hold all of her troubles and pain in there, and blink them away
  2271. >You love the way she lives life as an art form
  2272. >You love he-
  2273. >”Y-Yes?” Sam says. “W-What w-were you g-g-going to s-s-say?”
  2274. >You must have been staring for too long, lost in the hurricane of your thoughts
  2275. “I meant to say: I may be drunk, but I promise, I won’t let you fall.”
  2276. >You extend a hand to her
  2277. >With a slight hesitation, she takes it
  2278. >Her palms are slick with sweat, and trembling from exhaustion yet you interlock your fingers all the same
  2279. >With a determined force, you pull Sam through the window
  2280. >And once again, you don’t know your own strength, or how weak Sam is, because she flings towards you with less-than-acrobatic grace
  2281. >Thankfully, you planted your feet deep into the shingles, so instead of knocking you down like a holy bowling pin, you steady her against you, like a storm in a tree
  2282. >Which isn’t all that hard, actually
  2283. >Her body is soft and small against your own, lithe and feminine
  2284. >You wrap your arms around the back of her neck and pull her tight to keep both of you from rocking backwards and taking an involuntary swan dive into a backyard without a pool
  2285. >It feels like you might break her if you squeeze too tight, but you can’t help it
  2286. >Instead, she returns your gesture, wrapping her arms around your waist to ‘steady herself’
  2287. >She cinches her body tight against yours
  2288. >And for a moment, in complete stasis, you two stand atop that rooftop, locked together like two pieces of a puzzle
  2289. >You can feel her heart hammering against your chest, the heat of her body radiating off her, the catch of air leaving her chest when she sighs into you
  2290. >She stands on her toes and looks up into your eyes
  2291. >And her smile is bigger than the moon
  2292. >”T-Thanks for c-c-catching me,” she says, color high in her cheeks
  2293. >You instinctively look away, hiding your relief and the embarrassment now pressing color into your nervous body
  2294. “I told you I wouldn’t let you fall.”
  2296. >From the corner of your eyes, you can still see her looking up into your face, finding serenity in your soft features and boyishness
  2297. >You settle on her thin, pinkish lips
  2298. >Magnets aren’t even attracted to each other this much
  2299. >You almost lean in and-
  2300. >Something catches your eye
  2301. >Something at the apex of the roof
  2302. >Two lone figures, silhouetted against the moon like two figures on a canvas
  2303. >One of them has a tail that’s fanning back and forth and a pair of sharp ears perked high into the air
  2304. >The silhouette couldn’t be more obvious to you
  2305. >Jenna
  2306. >And
  2307. >The person next to her must be Mike and
  2308. >Oh my god
  2309. >Your heart leaps into your throat as you see Jenna’s shadowy figure lean into Mike, her predatory face pressed against his
  2311. >”S-Something w-w-wrong?” Sam asks, still buried in your chest
  2312. “N-No, nothing’s wrong. In fact…”
  2313. >The world is just spinning a little too fast
  2314. >Or that’s the beer
  2315. >”Y-Your he-heart is beating r-really fast,” Sam coos. “I can h-hear it like a d-d-drum.”
  2316. >A cruel idea springs to mind
  2317. >You figure you owe Mike this for pummeling the shit out of you on Tuesday
  2318. >And really, just in general, for being a calloused ass
  2319. “Things are about to get better. Follow me, and be as quiet as you can,” you say, disengaging from Sam, much to the bunny’s disappointment
  2321. >You crouch low and try to distribute your weight as evenly as you can
  2322. >You even spread your arms to keep balance as you climb up the slope of the rooftop towards its shingled summit, where the lone figures of Mike and Jenna now sit, awash in the revealing light of the moon
  2323. >Sam is much better at this than you are
  2324. >She must have more experience being stealthy, because she manages to pass you on your way up
  2325. >She casts an expectant look over her shoulder
  2326. >Mike and Jenna don’t seem to be paying attention to anything except each other
  2327. >And to each other’s tongues
  2328. >And right when they break apart, staring romantically into one another, you announce your presence with crescendo of claps and whistling
  2329. >Jenna and Mike both jump almost a solid foot into the air, putting Sam’s jet-pack reflexes to shame
  2330. >You crawl up behind them both
  2331. “God, you two are precious, you know that? Just absolutely precious.”
  2332. >The vixen’s blush is so bright you swear you can her cheeks glowing in the dark
  2333. >And…
  2334. >Oh that’s just beautiful
  2335. >Mike throws his head to the side in a pout
  2336. >But really, it’s so you can’t see that he’s also blushing like a school girl
  2337. >”I don’t suppose it’s too cliche to say ‘this isn’t what it looks like?’” Jenna whispers
  2338. >Your smile widens as you and Sam scoot up next to them and plop down on the roof
  2339. >Happy now?
  2340. “Far too late, my dear. And you-” you level an accusatory finger at Mike “-Do you have protection?”
  2341. >Jenna pales
  2342. >”P-Protection?” She stammers, shrinking into her bumblebee costume
  2343. >”Anon, shut the fuck upppp.” Mike buries his face into his palms
  2344. “I’m serious. I know you don’t pay attention in Biology with Mr. Bolm, but you still have the right to bear your third arm — for now.”
  2345. >”His WHAT?” Jenna shrieks
  2346. >”Anon, don’t answer that,” Mike commands you
  2347. >Well, you’ve had your fun
  2348. “Awww you crazy kids.” Your tone is mocking. “I’m just teasing.”
  2349. >”I’m older than you are, you assfucker,” Mike hisses, turning his focus back onto the moon
  2350. >Anything to distract from the fact that his face is burning red, made all the more obvious by the fact that he’s hopelessly pale now
  2351. >Whatever happened to not liking anthro women?
  2352. >Quietly, Sam whispers in your ear: “D-Do humans h-have t-t-three arms somewhere?”
  2353. >You slap your palm over your mouth
  2354. >It’s all you can do to keep down the laughter
  2355. >Sam looks towards Jenna for guidance. The fox — still helplessly crammed between you and Mike — mouths something at the bunny
  2356. >And now you’re the only one not wearing hot scarlet across your face, as the realization strikes Sam with the expediency of an iceberg
  2358. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qbk-xo6Zqs&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=9&t=0s
  2359. >The world seems to fall silent, save for the distant thrum of bass from the house, or the shrieks and shouts of drunken teenagers spilling (or stumbling) out into the backyard
  2360. >The moon looks so swollen in the sky, hanging above Ranchview as if dangling on a single, translucent thread
  2361. >A chill gust sweeps past you
  2362. >You tighten your arms around your body, shivering
  2363. >Mike and Jenna don’t seem too bothered — Mike’s jacket should keep him plenty warm, and you’re sure Jenna’s bumblebee costume is padded
  2364. >How you wish your were a bumblebee and not a knock-off priest
  2365. >You feel a bright spot of heat nuzzle up into your side
  2366. >Sam presses herself up against you
  2367. >Your eyes meet for a quick second like flint and steel striking each other
  2368. >And you’re about to say something
  2369. >But then you turn your focus onto something behind you
  2370. >Grunting
  2371. >Noise
  2372. >Struggle
  2373. >A dark shadow crawls up the rooftop
  2374. >In your addled state you almost scream and hurl yourself forward, off the roof, in a bid to escape
  2375. >You tense up, ready to explode forward and take that promised swan dive
  2376. >A cloud rolls past the moon, releasing a flood of white light that strikes the dark figure like a spotlight from God
  2377. >Oh
  2378. >It’s Alex, and his arms are loaded with beers
  2379. >You spin the rest of your body to face him
  2380. “Yooooo!” You call out
  2381. >”What is up comrades?” He says with a hoarse grunt. “Thought I’d come join my co-conspirators on this monument to man’s misery.”
  2382. >He plants himself next to Sam and starts unloading beers from his arms, passing them down the line
  2383. >Sam takes one and examines it, as if unsure of what it is
  2384. >You pluck one and twist the lid, releasing a sharp hiss of pressure. It’ll be shitty beer, and you’re already cold and slightly drunk, but moments like these feel right for a brew
  2385. >Jenna cautiously takes hers and sniffs at it, grimacing at the sharp scent of hops
  2386. >”So,” Mike says, sitting back on his palm and throwing back his beer. “What brings the great Alexi up to our humble perch?”
  2387. >Alexi sucks down on his drink and issues a triumphant belch
  2388. >”My work is seldom appreciated by those who don’t understand it,” he says, as if you’re supposed to know what that means without context
  2389. >His voice is ragged and strained
  2390. >He must have been shouting for a good while after you and Sam dipped
  2391. >”I got them too riled up. I swear, they’re about to riot down there,” he continues. “I’d approve, of course, but I didn’t want to be the center of it. Buncha rabid animals.”
  2392. >You cringe at the utterance of the ‘r’ word, but Sam and Jenna don’t seem to care all that much
  2393. >”Good work comrade,” Mike says. He sets his empty beer down tenuously on the slope of the roof and leans his head on Jenna’s shoulder. “Sew the seeds of the revolution.”
  2394. >He sounds a million miles away
  2395. >Distant, yet happy
  2396. >The vixen’s head snaps left, then right, down the line of people, her face puffed up and red
  2397. >When you lock eyes, you see the request for permission in them
  2398. >You shrug in indifference
  2399. >She knocks the lid off the beer, and with eyes scrunched tight, brings it to her dark lips
  2400. >You don’t care what they do or what they drink
  2401. >You’re too at peace to care
  2402. >Around you the world seems to erupt in hormonal chaos and drunken debauchery
  2403. >Social worlds you’ll never be a part of
  2404. >Things you’ll never do
  2405. >But you like it better up here with your friends
  2406. >You feel like a tiny raft adrift on a very large and unfamiliar ocean, and everyone of you is a torch against the darkness
  2407. >You’ll happily burn for them, together, like one big bonfire
  2408. >Or five logs leaning against one another in a blaze
  2409. “Ever thought that this is what you’d be doing your senior year of high school? Fighting the forces of evil for a bunch of people who don’t even know you exist?” You wonder aloud
  2410. >”Them down there?” Jenna points a finger forward the knot of costumes moving around the backyard. “They know we exist. I think.”
  2411. “They know, but they don’t care.”
  2412. >”Gahhh don’t get all emo on us, Anon,” Mike says. “You keep talking like that you’re going to start siding with the goths.”
  2413. “Bah, never. I’m not that much of a titanic idiot. Besides, I DO care about those kids down there. But I care more about the people up here on this roof. That’s why I’m doing this. And because I’m sick of being a coward, watching from the sidelines, running away from what scares me, hurting who I care about in the process.”
  2414. >Your mind flashes back to Mr. Bolm and Gloria, both casualties of your cowardice
  2415. >And then there was Sam
  2416. >The way you treated her for so long makes you physically cringe
  2417. >You hope, in some way, you’re setting things right
  2418. >And not just with her, but with yourself too
  2419. >Your heavy eyes flick down to her slight, pink lips, curled up in a shy smile
  2420. >”Awwww we care about you too,” Jenna adds, her voice flush with joy and the beginnings of inebriation
  2421. >Is this her first time drinking?
  2422. >”You know what I care about?” Alex says. “Changing things for someone somewhere. I wanna do something that matters. That’s why I fight against oppression in whatever form it takes. Be it at The Shop N’ Save, school, or even at this gathering-”
  2423. >”It’s called a party,” Mike cuts in. “Just call it a party. And I don’t seem to recall you running for any sort of student office… ever. How exactly do you fight oppression?”
  2424. >”My existence is resistance,” is Alex’s retort
  2425. >”I’m with you on doing something that matters, but that was a lame excuse and you know it.”
  2426. >The communist crusader shrugs and pulls back on his beer again
  2427. >When all reasoning and logic fails: beer
  2428. >Beer is a universal language
  2429. >It’s clear that this isn’t the time or place to discuss thin-
  2430. >”I-I wan-want to do something th-that matters t-too,” Sam squeaks up.
  2431. >She drops into a whisper. “I w-w-want to f-f-finally b-be brave.”
  2432. >You’re a little shocked that she’s actually talking on her own behalf for once, but then, registering her words, you start to nod
  2433. >Doing something that matters
  2434. >Being brave
  2435. >Now those are ideas worth dying for
  2436. >There’s something to rally behind, whatever ‘something that matters’ is
  2437. >How do you quantify it? How do you define what matters?
  2438. >…Does it matter?
  2439. >Maybe you can channel the pervasive energy of an idea or a goal, however nebulous it may be, and achieve something immeasurable?
  2440. >As if all the great forces of evil and old and adult age were the clear sky, and you, your little group of friends, were the hurricane that would go nameless and uncategorized
  2441. >You want to do something that matters
  2442. >You want to stomach everything and keep it down — all the terror, the fear, the anxiety, the shame, the regret, the pain
  2443. >All for something — and someone — that matters
  2444. >You want to be brave, like Sam, who has already endured so much pain and hardship, who grows by leaps and bounds and strides every chance she gets
  2445. >And that’s when you made your decision, settling your eyes again on her lips
  2447. >Two things were happening in that moment:
  2448. >Mike, Jenna and Alex were staring at you, shocked, their faces practically glowing in the pale moonlight
  2449. >And you were — consciously or unconsciously — wrapping your arm around Sam’s slender waist, while her words pounded into your skull, in-step with your wild, hammering heart
  2450. >’Be brave’
  2451. >She looks up at you, startled, at first, but she doesn’t draw back when you bend your neck and lean forward
  2452. >’Be brave’
  2453. >Her eyes flutter shut before yours do
  2454. >She leans up, towards you, drawing on the unconscious muscle memory that teaches birds to fly and fish to swim, to draw her arms around your neck and pull you close
  2455. >’Be brave’
  2457. >Your lips meet hers
  2459. >Every heartbeat you spend there feels like it could drag on for eternity
  2460. >With delicacy, you press your lips together
  2461. >Her fur tickles the tops of your lips
  2462. >You taste the sweat, the salt, feel the palpability of her slender mouth tight against yours
  2463. >Before you even realize what’s happening, Sam tightens her arm against the back of your neck, further pressing you two together, breaking the parallel distance that separates you from her
  2464. >It feels…
  2465. >…Like heaven in her arms
  2466. >Like wetness and fur, like comfort and grace
  2467. >And you start to tremble at the weight of everything crashing down on you all at once — the kiss, the alcohol, the night sky, your friends — but to Sam, that’s all a galactic mile away
  2468. >There’s only you and her: doing something that matters
  2470. >When at last you pull back from each other (you still shaking; hot air and steam dumping from your mouth), there’s silence
  2471. >Sam quickly pivots her body to face away from you, but you can see the unbridled joy played out across her face
  2472. >Her ears stand on high alert, and her little poofy tail is fanning as fast and as violently as a stubby tail can fan
  2473. >You wipe your lip with the back of your hand, still tasting her on your tongue
  2474. >That was your… well it was your fir-
  2475. >”BRO JOB BRO JOB BRO JOB!” Mike howls into the sky, clapping his hands like a madman. He pulls on an imaginary train whistle. “CHOO CHOO!”
  2476. >He stands up, wobbling on two shaky legs. “Hey, everyone!” His voice booms. “Anonymous isn’t gay!”
  2477. >”Mike get down! If you fall off this roof I swear to God…” Jenna hisses
  2478. >Paying her no mind in his addled state, he cups his hands around his mouth for volume and belts out: “SAM GARLEN IS A-”
  2479. >Jenna yanks him down by the bottom of his jacket
  2480. >He lands hard on his ass, grunting as the roof practically sodomizes him
  2481. >”Ow,” Mike groans, sliding down onto the slope of the roof
  2482. >You scowl at him, still flush, head spinning from the kiss
  2483. >But you can’t say you don’t deserve it a bit
  2484. >The whole thing is stupid and silly and sappy
  2485. >”Hey,” Mike looks up at Jenna. “Thanks for that. I think I had a little too much.”
  2486. >”Oh, you think?” She replies curtly, her own beer half empty
  2487. >When they start talking you disengage and focus back on Sam
  2488. >Sam turns to face you, and her expression gives you pause
  2489. >She has tears in her eyes, though she’s doing her best to smile
  2490. >The rabbit scrubs her eyes with the back of her hands
  2491. >”T-Thank you f-for tonight.” She pauses, as if she’d forgotten what she was going to say. “A-And for e-everything. W-Without you I-I don’t think I-I’d have m-made it t-this far. Y-You saved m-me.”
  2492. “Nonsense,” you say. “Samurai Outlaw saved herself. And I mean that. All I did was provide some of the grunt work.”
  2493. >”…I-I d-don’t k-know ab-about that… I-I’m n-not a h-hero. I just d-d-dress l-like one.”
  2494. >Fuck
  2495. >What is it going to take for her to believe that she has some worth?
  2496. >You turn to face the moon again as all five of you lapse into a momentary silence
  2498. >”Can you believe it?” Alex cuts the quiet like an ice-breaking ship cleaves into the frozen Arctic. “Tomorrow is… the day.” 
  2499. >He’s not looking at anyone
  2500. >His eyes fill with moonlight
  2501. >”Gonna go to that party and knock some skulls,” Mike says, sitting up, grabbing another brew and then leaning hard into Jenna
  2502. >Unsure of what to do with her own hands, she hover-hands over Mike’s waist
  2503. >And it’s frankly fucking adorable how awkward she is around him
  2504. >”Y-Y-You thi-think we ha-have a shot?” Sam asks
  2505. “’Course we do. The goths are a lot dumber than they appear. We’re going to go to that dance tomorrow, kick some ass, and then…” you drag in a deep breath of cold air
  2506. >”I’m going to go to college.” Mike says before you can finish. “I don’t care what I need to do to lift this curse. I’m going to fuck some shit up and then go to college — put this all behind me.”
  2507. >You feel your throat tighten
  2508. >It must be just the cold, right?
  2509. >He’s not going to… leave you all behind though, is he?
  2510. >Like, intellectually, you know he’s leaving, but emotionally, you guess it really hasn’t hit you yet that everyone is going their separate ways
  2511. >”Me too,” Alex joins in. “I can’t think of anything more important. Or anything I’d rather be doing with my Halloween.” He flashes his polished smile at you all
  2512. >Your heart jumps a bit
  2513. >”You’re going to school?” Jenna says, looking at Alex like he just said he was pregnant
  2514. >”’Course I am,” he replies in a slurred voice, deep into another beer. “I’m going to be a politician and FIGHT for the rights of the people.”
  2515. >Your hands start to sweat a bit
  2516. >College
  2517. >Everyone leaving
  2518. >Ambitions
  2519. >Plans
  2520. >Goals
  2521. >What do you have?
  2522. >A wild, vague notion, one that scares the shit out of you:
  2523. >The idea of leaving too
  2524. >You glance down at your beer, see it’s half-empty, and knock it back for courage
  2525. “I’m going to graduate,” you blurt out, probably a lot louder than you had intended
  2526. >You feel that familiar knot of anxiety start to coil up in your chest like a cobra
  2527. “A-And I’ve decided: I’m going to college.”
  2528. >Stunned silence except for the rhythmic pounding of a subwoofer
  2529. >Someone at the party squeals with laughter
  2530. >”Good,” Mike says, matter-of-fact. “Of all the people I know, you’re the most qualified to go to school.”
  2531. >”I’ll drink to that.” Alex hoists his bottle in the air like an amber torch
  2532. >You weakly lift yours
  2533. >Jenna lifts her (second) bottle with Mike
  2534. >”A-A-And I’m n-n-never go-going back to my dad!” Sam exclaims, thrusting her half-finished beer into the air
  2535. >What do you say?
  2536. >Something cool?
  2537. >Something deep?
  2538. >Maybe just anything
  2539. >Spinning around in your head, thoughts firing off in all different directions, you can only settle on one thing:
  2540. “Here’s to something that matters.”
  2542. >”It’s easy, Sam. Even I’ve driven a car,” Alex slurs from the passenger seat. “It’s like… like riding a bike.”
  2543. >”I-I’ve n-never r-ridden a b-”
  2544. >Alex groans
  2545. >”What else haven’t you done, breathed air?”
  2546. >You shoot him a defensive look
  2547. >Sam sits perched on your lap, her slender fingers gripping the wheel. Your foot rests on the brakes
  2548. >Your car, the rustbucket, is humming steadily, crammed in between Mercedes and BMWs
  2549. >Like a pimple on a perfect face
  2550. “Listen, you’re going to do just fine,” you assure her. “Just take us ba-back to the old church.”
  2551. >You can still taste the last beers on your tongue, and the sloshing in your stomach makes you wish you hadn’t been so zealous tonight
  2552. “I work the pedals, you steer. There’s nothing to it.”
  2553. >”I-I don’t k-know…” she starts, but Mike cuts in from the backseat, his words even sloppier than Alex’s
  2554. >”Yours is the only one thats sober,” he says
  2555. >”Hey, I’m sober enough,” Jenna whines. She’s laying horizontal in the backseat, her head in the crook of Mike’s lap. Mike runs a gentle finger through the fur on her skull, causing her ears to fold back
  2556. >”You kidding? I wouldn’ts trust you to even rides a scooter right now,” Mike leans his head back against the seat and closes his eyes. “You and me got a good set up back here anyway.”
  2557. >”Normally I’d claw you for that.” Jenna nuzzles into Mike’s lap. “But this time you’re right.”
  2558. >”On which part?”
  2559. >She replies: “Quit while you’re ahead.”
  2560. >Which Mike does, the crowned champion of the evening
  2561. >Or, at least of the back seat
  2562. >You have Sam
  2563. >And that’s enough
  2564. >As if to remind your inebriated self of this fact, you wrap your arms around her waist and lightly pull her against you
  2565. >She squeaks a little, but her typical tremors never come
  2566. >Even at her boniest, most emaciated, you don’t care about having her weight on top of you
  2567. >You just need to feel the weight of a single person to anchor you back to earth
  2568. “Ready?” You whisper to her
  2569. >She nods and grips the wheel a little tighter
  2570. >You throw the car into reverse and give a little gas
  2571. >Sam angles the wheel to compensate…
  2572. >… And your car goes the wrong direction, scraping into the curb with a painful shriek
  2573. >Her body tenses up
  2574. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” you say in as soothing a tone as you can muster, but your tongue trips over your words and you just end up doing a lot of drawn out syllables
  2575. “Just angle the wheel the other way when you’re going in reverse.” 
  2576. >She pulls the wheel over and you give it some gas
  2577. >The car comes free
  2578. >You throw the transmission into drive and give the accelerator a little gas
  2579. >You pull away into the night, leaving the pounding bass and debauchery of the party behind you in a swirling trail of loose leaves
  2581. >Sam is surprisingly good at navigating her way around town, and her steering motions — while labored and cautious — get you out of the the ritziest part of town
  2582. >She hardly even needed you to navigate the main roads
  2583. >Her memory is impressive, to say the least
  2584. >It’s probably what helps her draw so gracefully
  2585. >The night is slow and cold, the radio low, but the car is a warm little torch carving down the empty roads
  2586. >And it feels good to have Sam’s delicate body resting up against yours
  2587. >She feels like she’s made of glass sometimes
  2588. >But then you remember her running away from her dad, opening up to you, defying Stella, going through ALL the shit that she’s been through in her life
  2589. >And you know she’s made of sterner stuff than what her bones and mottled fur say about her
  2591. >For how boring and shitty the party was, the rest of the night turned out to be perfect
  2592. >Until you got to the church
  2594. >You should have sensed something was wrong as you piled out of the car
  2595. >You should have been more alert, but the beer had blunted your already blunt senses
  2596. >How could you have not seen it there, just in the moon-cast shadow of that tree?
  2597. >Sam and Jenna sensed it too, but neither of them seemed to be able to place their sudden, hair-raising anxiety
  2598. >It was just that gut-kicking, involuntary sense that something was here that did not belong
  2599. >The two exchanged worried glances the second they got out of the car, Sam’s ears high and alert, Jenna’s mouth opening up in a snarl
  2600. >You ever have a moment, right before something goes horribly wrong, where everything happens in slow motion?
  2601. >This was one of those moments
  2602. >You saw Alex adjust his fedora and straighten his suit jacket out, brushing off dust and grit from Braydon’s roof
  2603. >You saw Mike smile at Alex, his mouth shaping silent words as he pulled his jacket around him
  2604. >Sam looks towards you, her face is shock and horror, her body weak lines and frailty collapsing into her clothes like a failing bridge into troubled waters
  2605. >She opens her mouth to say something
  2606. >But
  2607. >Everything went quiet
  2609. >And then a light shineth into the darkness, spraying your shadows up against the front entrance of the church
  2610. >Two lights
  2611. >Old headlights
  2612. >From an old sedan, wearing belts of rust and cracks on its windshield, as if it shared blood with your own rustbucket
  2613. >An old and shitty Sedan that Mike had seen before in the neighborhoods on Tuesday
  2614. >The old and shitty Sedan that you saw in the school lot, that followed you here last night and left without suspicion
  2615. >The old and shitty Sedan that Sam’s Dad is climbing out of
  2616. >The silver of a worn pistol flashes in the headlights
  2618. >And there he stands, alone in the headlights, tall, cut out of jagged angles, his mouth set in a hard, determined line, amber eyes fixed on Sam
  2619. >His body stirs and sways with restlessness and the tell-tale signs of inebriation
  2620. >Jenna gasps and takes a small step backwards, her ears folding submissively against her skull
  2621. >Sam remains frozen, eyes shot wide with something beyond just plain fear
  2622. >”Who the fuck are you?” Mike says, taking a step forward
  2623. >Sam’s Dad calmly raises his gun and aims it square into Mike’s chest
  2624. >Mike retreats a step backwards, and you can see his knuckles whiten with tension
  2625. >”All of you,” Sam’s dad says, his eyes sweeping the assembled group. “Just stay where you are.”
  2626. >He moves closer, heavy work boots crunching the shards of glass and gravel into the cold blacktop
  2627. >Up this close it’s easy to tell just how drunk he is
  2628. >His body moves in an almost serpentine pattern, but his bloodshot eyes remain fixed and hard
  2629. >Staring right at Sam
  2630. >”D-Dad?” Sam sputters as all the color leaves her cheeks in a single moment
  2631. >”Shut the fuck up,” he simmers. “You don’t get to call me that. Not ever. Bet you thought you were really brave, or clever, running away like that?”
  2632. >You can see the tears glassing Sam’s eyes as she starts to tremble all over
  2633. >”I-I’m s-s-s-s-sorry,” she says, though her apology is poorly received
  2634. >Her Dad’s face twists up into an enraged scowl
  2635. >”I know you are, you little twerp. You’re always sorry for everything all the time. But you ain’t sorry enough, not yet you’re not.”
  2636. >Your heart takes a leap into your stomach
  2637. >Christ, whenever someone says ‘not yet you’re not’ it never means anything remotely good
  2638. >Especially not now
  2639. >Sam’s hands fly to her ears, but she doesn’t even have the strength right now to properly grip them
  2640. >She just strokes them like a child strokes a toy when they’re nervous or scared
  2641. >”That’s right, squeeze your ears. It ain’t gonna do you no good,” he says, whiskey-rot pouring from his gullet
  2642. >You desperately want to snake a hand out and hold onto Sam
  2643. >Instead your eyes flick towards Sam’s dad
  2644. >Maybe it’s not too late for diplomacy?
  2645. >At the very least, you might be able to distract him long enough
  2646. >Your body goes numb, but you will your mouth to open and your tongue to work
  2647. >It’s the rudder that steers your small ship into a dangerous hurricane
  2648. >You summon a fortifying breath
  2649. >Full sails ahead
  2650. ”It was my idea to rescue her,” you say. You meet her Dad’s gaze
  2651. >You see nothing but cold hatred
  2652. >”I know it was your idea. You think this stupid cunt could ever work up the guts to do what he did on his own? You don’t know how spineless he really is.” He motions towards Sam
  2653. >Alright, fuck diplomacy
  2654. >Diplomacy is the last resort of the weak
  2655. >You feel the anger rising in you like a stoked fire, smoldering in the center of your chest
  2656. >It burns and races outwards, singing through your nerves and veins like brushfire
  2657. “She’s stronger than you think she is. Way stronger than you’ll ever be.”
  2658. >Her Dad’s stare pierces you like a crossbow bolt straight to the chest
  2659. >”A-A-Anon, p-p-please,” Sam pleads with you. “D-Don’t say a-a-anything.”
  2660. >You breathe hard
  2661. >Your courage ebbs and flows like a weak tide
  2662. >It takes the stars
  2663. >And the light of an unnatural moon
  2664. >To whip yourself up into a tsunami
  2665. >Two forces — courage and cowardice — rage inside of you
  2666. “What’s with the bottle? Couldn’t face a bunch of teenagers without a little liquid courage, could you?”
  2667. >With that, you know which of the forces is winning
  2668. “And that gun. What are you doing with that? You can call Sam spineless all you want, but you’re the one hiding behind that soulless piece of shit.”
  2669. >Those old devil eyes of his narrow as he draws forth something from his addled memories. 
  2670. >“I remember you,” he says, rather calmly 
  2671. >He takes a massive step forward, his rabbit legs carry him with uneasy grace
  2672. >Your whole body tenses up
  2673. >You might be able to grab the gun
  2674. >It’s within arms reach
  2675. >Sam’s Dad is so close now
  2676. >Your heart hammers against your ribcage like a war drum
  2677. >Your arm starts trembl-
  2678. >There’s an explosion of blood in your mouth as the butt of the gun crushes the side of your face
  2679. >You stumble and nearly fall flat on your stomach, but catch yourself on the pavement, palms pressed into the cold grit
  2680. >Pain throbs behind your eyes like the ringing of a dull and distant bell
  2681. >You taste the salt and iron of the blood filling your mouth
  2682. >You spit a gob of the acrid fluid onto the blacktop, feeling too dazed to move
  2683. >”A-Anon!” Sam squeals
  2684. >And yet, she’s still stationary, pulling at her ears
  2685. >Only her worried eyes offer any kind of help
  2686. >The coward
  2687. >”That’s for running me down with your car like some kind of gutless bitch,” her Dad growls, his voice rugged and sharp
  2688. >The sound of the hammer snapping back on the gun freezes you in place
  2689. >”I came here tonight to put an end to this rotten bloodline,” he says, leveling the gun at the side of your head. “You ain’t no man, but you sure talk like one.” 
  2690. >Jenna and Alex gasp
  2691. >You remain frozen on the ground
  2692. >There’s a hitch in his chest as his breathing quickens
  2693. >”What’s a few bodies more?”
  2695. >Your eyes slam shut
  2696. >So, this is how it ends? Your brains needlessly splattered on some forgotten strip of blacktop?
  2697. >All 18 years of a life surmised and put to an end with one errant twitch of a mad rabbit’s fingers
  2698. >To whatever god is out there, you hope they take you into their pearly gates or walled gardens or whatever for trying to stand up for someone weaker than you
  2699. >Maybe you’ll be reincarnated?
  2700. >Somewhere, fast approaching on tracks of milled steel, pressing little earthquakes into the ground, a train sings into the night
  2701. >”S-Stop!” Sam commands
  2702. >You can hear her dad’s breathing slow, the tension in his chest trickling out with a drunken wheeze
  2703. >Your eyes flick open and you turn your head to look up
  2704. >Sam’s shape blocks your view of her Dad
  2705. >And might have blocked the bullet that would have entered your skull and torn a comet’s tail through your dreams, memories and personality
  2706. >”L-Leave th-them a-alone. I’m the o-one you want,” she says. “I-I kn-know why yo-you’re h-h-here. T-T-T-To take me back h-h-home.”
  2707. >She summons a deep breath from the small well of her courage
  2708. >”I-I’ll g-g-g-go h-h-home with you if you p-promise to l-l-leave them a-a-alone.”
  2709. >Her voice is steadied and measured, and were it not for her stutter, you might have even thought she was…
  2710. >…Brave
  2711. >Silence rings louder than a gunshot, except for the distant train whistle that’ll soon be passing down the tracks by the church
  2712. >You rise to your feet slowly, just in time to see her Father’s face twist up with horrible, rib-sucking laughter
  2713. >”You think I’m taking you home? Boy, you’re not going home tonight.”
  2714. >Sam forces herself to maintain eye contact with her father
  2715. >”I-I’m a g-girl, d-d-dad. I’m n-not Jacob. I-I can’t rep-replace your s-s-son.”
  2716. >His laughter stops almost as quick as it started
  2717. >”Don’t you think I don’t know that?” His voice is a cold whisper that rises into a shout. “YOU CAN’T REPLACE MY SON, BUT YOU SURE AS HELL CAN PAY FOR WHAT YOU DID TO HIM.”
  2718. >The train howls again, growing closer, and that devil smirk spreads across his face
  2719. >”Perfect timing,” he says, sweeping the gun around the group
  2720. >You swear that grim, devil smirk is going to be seared into your brain for the rest of your life
  2721. >“Everyone, down to the tracks,” he says
  2723. >You are Samantha Garlen, 18-years-old, a brown Mini-Rex rabbit dressed in your brother’s baggy hoodie and jeans, with a baseball bat strapped to your back, pretending to be a super hero of your own creation called Samurai Outlaw
  2724. >Samurai Outlaw is tough
  2725. >Samurai Outlaw is a loose cannon who plays for the good guys, but by his own rules
  2726. >Samurai Outlaw is collected and at ease among criminals, being one herself
  2727. >That is, of course, the character Samurai Outlaw
  2728. >You are Samantha ‘Sam’ Garlen
  2729. >And tonight, you die
  2731. >You feel the muzzle of your father’s old pistol pressed into your back as he marches you down the hill behind the old white oak door church
  2732. >Towards the set of railroad ties
  2733. >Your friends huddle together at the top of the hill, helplessly watching as you’re marched to your death
  2734. >They could call the police, but they’d never get here in time
  2735. >They could try rushing your dad
  2736. >But they’d end up getting shot
  2737. >”There’s gonna be an accident tonight,” your dad whispers. His breath is hot and salty in your sensitive ears, sending shivers up your spine
  2738. >You know the spine-crawling feeling well
  2739. >“Going to put an end to you, boy.”
  2740. >The train whistle sounds off again, and your dad starts laughing as the shakes hit you
  2741. >”You hear that? That train? I bet you wish you were dead right now, you coward little kid.”
  2742. >”SAM!” Anon shouts. “DON’T LET HIM DO THIS!”
  2743. >You’re almost to the tracks now, the gun firmly in the small of your back
  2744. >You try to keep a steady voice. “I-I-It’s okay,” you call up to Anon. “I-I’ll be okay.”
  2745. >Your gut sinks with each word
  2746. >Dad doesn’t seem to hear you
  2747. >Or if he does, he doesn’t care
  2748. >That train is so close now
  2749. >So loud and clear
  2750. >Gliding down the tracks, snaking around corners and bends, pulling its innocuous cargo down the ties
  2751. >The apprehension and waiting for death is the worst, part, you think
  2752. >Death can’t be that bad
  2753. >It’s everything leading up to it that makes your whole body shake violently
  2754. >You lift your heavy feet as you cross over onto the tracks
  2755. >Dad stands you upright
  2756. >”Remember these tracks? This is where I lost my son. That’s right. These fucking rails, down at the pits where you faggots would go play.” Dad draws out the word ‘faggots.’ “These rails got blood on ‘em. And it ain’t the old rail car yard, but this’ll do nicely. You’re going to pay back your debt tonight. Blood for blood.”
  2757. >You feel like puking again
  2758. >Dad towers over you, ignoring the baseball bat pressed against your back
  2759. >You stare dead ahead, eyes wide
  2760. “I-I remember J-J-Jacob t-t-too,” you say. “I-I-I re-remember h-h-how he l-looked out f-f-for me, a-and how much-”
  2761. >What you say doesn’t matter anymore
  2762. >You’re just speaking to the empty void at this point
  2763. “-How much l-like y-you he w-was. B-But he was b-better than y-y-you.”
  2764. >Dad digs the gun a little deeper into your back
  2765. >”I know why you remember him like that — you were always hidin’ behind him when trouble came ‘round. You always ‘been a burden to everyone.”
  2766. >He leans in real close to your ears, ignoring the bat strapped to your back
  2767. >”I bet he hated you.”
  2768. >You go stiff all over
  2769. “T-That’s not true…” you say
  2770. >What if he did hate you?
  2771. >You always held onto the idea that he had mixed emotions and feelings towards you
  2772. >But it wasn’t outright disdain and hate
  2773. >You were a coward weakling, but were you really worthy of his hate?
  2774. >Your thoughts blur and coalesce together as the train whistle blows again
  2775. >It’s so close now
  2776. >”Of course it’s true. He HATED you.” The way Dad says ‘hated’ is sharp enough to cut your throat. “We all hated you. All you’ve ever been is a coward and a burden.”
  2777. >You struggle against him
  2778. >”A drain on everyone. You ate our food and slept under our roof. But you ain’t even a guest. Just a liability. And you ain’t got nobody. Not even family.”
  2779. >He roots in you place with a rough hand that digs into your fur
  2780. “N-No, I h-ha-have f-f-friends now-”
  2781. >”THEM?” Dad jerks his head towards the top of the hill, where Anonymous, Mike, Jenna and Alex watch — helpless
  2782. >”They’re not your friends. They probably hate you too.”
  2783. “They do-don’t!” You cry in your strongest voice. “T-They c-c-care about me!”
  2784. >Tears spring to your eyes
  2785. >You wish you could stop your throat from tightening
  2786. >Where is your composure?
  2787. >Do you really want to die like a crying, sissy bitch?
  2788. >”They don’t like you. They feel /bad/ for you. You’re damaged goods anyway. Not my son, not my daughter, not anyone’s friend. Just my burden. That’s all you are.” 
  2789. >…
  2790. >He’s right, isn’t he?
  2791. >They don’t like you at all
  2792. >In fact, they’ve never liked you
  2793. >All those moments of cold callousness, avoiding you, ignoring you, all the whispered jokes and idle hatred
  2794. >The way they treated you
  2795. >The names they called you
  2796. >Always looking after you like you were some kind of…
  2797. >… Burden
  2798. >Even Anon didn’t like you
  2799. >Especially at first
  2800. >But… He saved you from this life
  2801. >He looked out for you
  2802. >He put his lips on yours and kissed you like he meant it
  2803. >From the rotten crevices of your brain — where all the abuse lives — comes a voice, one that’s not entirely your own
  2804. >’People don’t change.’ 
  2805. >’He’ll take what he wants from you, and then leave.’
  2806. >A cold wind rushes past you, and all you can do is gawk into the darkness, staring at that bend like the condemned stares down the gallows
  2807. >Soon death would come charging around that corner
  2808. >Unless…
  2809. “I-I’ll go h-h-home w-w-with you… I’ll n-never ta-talk to anyone ag-agin. I’ll d-d-do wh-whatever you wa-want. J-Ju-Just let go-” your pleading voice is swallowed up by another, closer train whistle
  2810. >Dad braces his broad back against the wind
  2811. >”Don’t you get it? You’re not going home. And you’re not dodging this train — not that you could in the first place. I told you: I’m going to put an end to this bloodline. Right here. On these tracks.”
  2812. >Your body goes cold, and then slackens into his rough grip, like you were throwing yourself into a big bed that you’d never climb out of
  2813. >So that’s how it’s gonna be?
  2814. >You feel his own hold on you loosen as he steps back
  2815. >And then
  2816. >The hollowed tip of the gun at the back of your head
  2817. >”Now get down on your knees,” he commands. “Right here, on these tracks. Where you robbed me.”
  2818. >You obediently drop to your knees
  2819. >”You miss your brother?” He says. You can tell by the strain in his voice — he does too
  2820. >”You’ll see him again soon.”
  2821. >The train tears around the bend, its forward-facing lights throwing yours and Dad’s shadows down the strip of tracks
  2822. >The conductor rips on the horn
  2823. >And everything goes quiet
  2824. >The familiar squeal of the brakes
  2825. >The train as it rolls down the ties
  2826. >The blast of the horn
  2827. >Even the blustering wind
  2828. >All gone
  2829. >And soon, you will be too
  2830. >It ends how it began, you guess
  2831. >Unwanted
  2834. >Like a brick through a window, Anon’s voice reaches your ears, scattering shards of quiet all over your addled mind
  2835. >Things register in your blunted senses:
  2836. >The train barreling down the tracks
  2837. >The wind
  2838. >Your father’s momentary distraction
  2839. >And Anon
  2840. >His voice so scared for you, so desperate, scarring his own throat so that he can be heard against the roar of the train and the cut of the wind
  2842. >What would Samurai Outlaw do?
  2844. >Samurai Outlaw would rise to her feet despite the wind blasting back her hood, her piercing amber eyes fixed dead ahead, catching the glow like a bowl
  2845. >Samurai outlaw pours light on everything
  2846. >Samurai Outlaw would — quick as a whip — spin to face her nemesis, drawing her signature baseball bat as she moves
  2847. >In one single motion, she’d swing her bat 
  2848. >And she’d swing with years of pent up rage, with the rawness of life singing through her adrenaline-clogged veins
  2849. >She’d swing as if her very life depended on it, as if her bat could rip galaxies apart and separate light from dark
  2850. >She’d swing like she was blasting through a thrown beer bottle out in front of a church, surrounded by friends
  2851. >That swing would connect with hurricane force against her foe’s hand, knocking the pistol from his grip
  2852. >There’d be tremendous flash of light as the gun went off, barking at the tip with a spray of fire
  2853. >But the bullet would fly past her right ear, damaging her hearing
  2854. >That’s exactly what Samurai Outlaw did, that night
  2855. >And you are Samurai Outlaw
  2857. >You are Sam again
  2858. >Your Dad, having just had his gun knocked from his hand, leaps upon you as the ground starts to quake with the approach of the train, like water might shake during an earthquake
  2859. >The back of your head knocks against one of the wooden ties on the tracks, dazing you
  2860. >From the corners of your vision you can see your friends rushing down the hill towards you, shouting, waving their arms to try and get the train to stop
  2861. >But it won’t stop
  2862. >It can’t stop
  2863. >And Dad knows this
  2864. >”IT’LL BE BOTH OF US!” He roars at you, his coarse voice barely above the train’s own clattering
  2865. >”BURDEN!” His hands find your throat
  2866. >”THIEF” He squeezes tight, wrapping around you like a noose
  2867. >Your eyes shoot open as you feel your last breath trapped in your chest screaming to get out
  2868. >Your tiny hands shoot towards his wrists to pry them away
  2869. >His grip is too formidable, too practiced and too full of hatred
  2870. >There’ll be no dodge this time, not from either of you
  2871. >”COWARD!”
  2872. >That’s what Jacob used to call you
  2873. >Coward
  2874. >What else did Jacob say?
  2875. >Your mind blurs back as your vision starts to collapse, cold, dark stars clouding the corners of your eyes — oblivion creeping into your sight
  2876. >Your whole body is shaking, tossed about from the rumble of the train, the adrenaline, and the fear
  2877. >Spittle starts boiling out of your mouth as your eyes roll upwards
  2878. >Even with the train bearing down, something quiet — yet sharp — returns to you
  2879. >Jacob’s voice comes back to you like a distant and fading echo emanating in the back of your skull
  2880. >Some memory from when you were a child
  2881. >Filling a sock with gravel
  2882. >Your brother standing over you with his bat, saying:
  2883. >>”Even if you’re a girl, you just gotta hit a wolf in the nose, and they’re down. Humans, aim for the shins. That’s all you have to worry about. Rabbits? Right in the chest.”
  2885. >You pull your formidable legs underneath you as dad presses furious rings into your neckline
  2886. >You aim your feet upwards…
  2887. >The train blasts its horn, deafening your other ear
  2888. >…And rocket your kick upwards, as if you were punting the moon itself
  2890. >Your blow connects directly with Dad’s ribcage
  2891. >His grip on you goes slack as his body registers the pain
  2892. >You pull in gulps of cold air, rejuvenating your body and lungs, feeling as if you’d been drowning inside your own skin
  2893. >Dad’s lungs suck inward and his face twists up with shock
  2894. >Then his eyes squeeze shut as his arms bend and shoot towards his chest
  2895. >Like a giant building collapsing, he drops forward, not unconscious, but stunned enough to give that impression
  2896. >Still coughing, you roll off the tracks
  2897. >A final dodge
  2898. >At the perfect moment
  2899. >You raise your head — covered in burrs and scrub grass — and look towards the tracks
  2900. >Dad is propping himself up on his palms, coughing
  2901. >He turns his head towards you as the full brunt of the train’s headlights hit him, outlining his ragged shape in black and gold
  2902. >He opens his mouth to speak one final cruelty
  2903. >And then in a blur of steel and the clanging of horns, he’s gone
  2904. >As the train rolls on
  2906. >You hear muffled sounds all around you, feel the cold of the wind against your fur, ripping through you like you were full of holes 
  2907. >All you can do is stare and listen to the sharp ringing that pierces the wall of nothing clouding your senses…
  2908. >…And stare at the train, winding by in the night, like a great metal snake bound on tracks of dirty steel
  2909. >He tried to kill you
  2910. >Your own dad
  2911. >Strangely enough, you don’t feel like crying
  2912. >Why don’t you want to cry?
  2913. >Wasn’t that your own flesh and blood now smeared across the tracks?
  2914. >Or, at the very least, the man who acted as your flesh and blood
  2915. >Well, no, you can’t say that either
  2916. >That devil drunk was no father
  2917. >You have nobody
  2918. >Except the gentle hands pulling you to your feet
  2919. >The concerned, shouting faces of all your friends, the relief so clear in all of them that your throat starts tightening up
  2920. >They’re hugging you and grabbing at you and speaking to you, but you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying
  2921. >The world is still ringing
  2922. >And spinning, too
  2923. >The world is spinning faster than you could have ever imagined
  2924. >The stars and the swollen moon become a lighted smear across the sky as your legs tremble and give way
  2925. >Your eyes glaze over
  2926. >The darkness takes hold of you
  2927. >The last thing you see is Anon’s face as he takes you by the shoulders, his face soft as patted butter
  2928. >And when you shut your eyes and surrender to that darkness, you feel your feet swept out from under you, pulled by the gentle current of the unconscious
  2930. >You are Anonymous
  2931. >You are not a strong man
  2932. >But right now, you could care less about the battery acid sting in your muscles
  2933. >Or the cold sweat threading its way down your face
  2934. >It’s a welcome feeling
  2935. >Because it means you’re keeping Sam safe
  2936. >She’s resting in your arms as you carry her bridal-style up the hill, back towards the church
  2937. >Under cold and delicate stars, you watch as her timid chest rises and falls
  2938. >Her face isn’t relieved
  2939. >It isn’t strained
  2940. >The worried lines that often bunch up under the dark circles beneath her eyes are absent
  2941. >All you see is sheer exhaustion
  2942. >You can still see the frustrated, angry marks pressed into her neck like a necklace
  2943. >The red lines of fury
  2944. >You can even see where his fingers had pressed hard — little splotches of red — as if Sam were molding clay and he was trying to sculpt her into everything he hated
  2945. >It makes you hate her Dad even more than you already do
  2946. >Soon those marks would fade from Sam
  2947. >And old wounds will scab over and heal
  2948. >But the scars will remain, like a broken jar
  2949. >You can put all the pieces back together, but it will never be the way it once was
  2950. >Mike glides up next to you,
  2951. >You’re too intent to hear him
  2952. >”Can you carry her all the way up?” He says. “Because if you want…”
  2953. >His voice trails off
  2954. “No. I need to do this,” you say to him
  2955. >Even if your arms strain and burn, you’re going to carry this stupid, brave bun all the way to the top
  2956. >Mike is silent for a moment, then says: “Police?”
  2957. >Your answer is quick and short
  2958. “No.”
  2959. >”Don’t you think someone will notice that Sam’s dad is gone? I’m no fan of the police myself, but… her dad is dead. There’s a body down there.”
  2960. “Good. He was a monster trapped in a memory. He tried to murder his own daughter, and then kill himself.” You cradle Sam’s head in the crook of your arms like you would a child
  2961. “As far as I’m concerned he’s better off dead.”
  2962. >”You know that was my first time meeting the guy, right?”
  2963. “What’s your point?”
  2964. >”He didn’t make a great first impression on me either.” Mike spits on the ground
  2965. “You should have been there the first time I met him. I about pissed myself.”
  2966. >You were nearly at the top of the hill now
  2967. >You were tired, sweaty, and your nerves were burnt to a crisp
  2968. >Sam obviously had it worse, but at least she was unconscious now and could get some rest
  2969. >She deserves that
  2970. >”So no police then?” Mike asks again
  2971. “We’ll let the conductor call the police — if he ever does. Who knows, there may not be enough of his body even left over to identify. At least, I hope so.”
  2973. >The police never came that night
  2974. >And neither did sleep
  2975. >Alex and Jenna spoke in hushed voices to each other, often rising from their rickety pews to stretch and ask if you were alright
  2976. >You were alright
  2977. >You were just watching Sam sleep for hours
  2978. >Mike stood guard outside, wielding Sam’s baseball bat
  2979. >What was there to keep guard from anyway? Do the goths even know where you are?
  2980. >Is their behemoth resting in the school somewhere on the night before their ritual can be completed?
  2981. >Is there someone in this entire conflict that knows peace right now?
  2982. >Maybe it’s you
  2983. >Watching Sam, doubled in on herself, not dreaming, not kicking in anxiety, not fighting with demons (real and imagined)
  2984. >What you felt at first was concern for her
  2985. >Then, as you laid her on the pew in the front row, like an offering to God, letting the full weight of her being rest, relief washed over you as if were water from baptismal springs
  2986. >She was alive
  2987. >Wanted
  2988. >And breathing
  2990. >Alex drops down next to you, lowering his frame with an exhausted grace so as not to wake Sam
  2991. >”How you holding up?” He says with a tired smile
  2992. >His voice is low and scratchy, and for the first time, you sense there’s a small touch of nerve there
  2993. “You know, one thing I never thought I’d be doing last weekend was… this…” you say
  2994. >”I did.” Alex’s matter-of-fact tone gives you pause
  2995. “Bullshit, you didn’t know any of this would happen.”
  2996. >”Well, not this specifically.”
  2997. >”But I did know we were going to do something important. Something like save the world, and save Sam.”
  2998. “Alex,” you sigh, exhaling your nervous energy. Sleep was just starting to fall on you — or maybe it was exhaustion?
  2999. >You look down at Sam, who is utterly conked out on the pew
  3000. “I’m too tired to play games with you right now.”
  3001. >”It’s not a game though. I just know we were meant for this. Some people just have greatness running through their blood.”
  3002. “And you’re saying we have greatness in us?”
  3003. >”Maybe, I don’t know.” Alex shifts his body nervously
  3004. >He absently begins chewing on his nails
  3005. >”You remember when we were on the roof?” He says, not looking at you, but instead towards the altar, sitting high on steps of polished wood
  3006. “Which time?” You say with a heavy yawn
  3007. >When is the sun coming up? It’s gotta be close
  3008. >”The first time. On top of the school. So much has changed since then. You, Mike, Sam, Jenna — even me.”
  3009. >You close your eyes, fighting sleep
  3010. >It’s kind of true
  3011. >Sam — she’s proved she’s made of stronger stuff than what she’s been made to think
  3012. >That her life is worth living on her own terms
  3013. >She’s not a bad replacement for her brother, a burden or a coward
  3014. >And you know that, and somewhere deep inside, she probably does too
  3015. >That courage will blossom in her, with time, care, and a lot of healing
  3016. >Mike… he’s kinder to you
  3017. >He seems to care more about you and everyone else, and especially Jenna
  3018. >He can’t go it alone anymore and he knows this
  3019. >Unfortunately his future is still kind of fucked, but maybe something will change tomorrow?
  3020. >Alex… is Alex
  3021. >And you
  3022. >You’re much less of a coward than you were
  3023. >You can sense an anxious strength in you, and not from the curse that the goths gave you
  3024. >But from scaring yourself shitless
  3025. >You’ve also decided you’re going to college, and though the very idea of leaving Ranchview and everyone and everything you know behind knots your stomach, you’ve decided you’re going to do it — you need to do it
  3026. >The thought of Sam all alone in town, nowhere to go, all alone again while you study in some expensive school’s dormhouse, gives you pause
  3027. >You care so much for that stupid fucking rabbit that the idea of not leaving is a genuine option for you
  3028. >You really, really, really care for her
  3029. >You’d tell yourself that you have a crush on her, but you know that’s not true
  3030. >You honest to God love her
  3032. >”Yes sir,” Alex says in a tired, dragging voice. “Despite all that’s changed since last Friday, I do know one thing.”
  3033. >”We are definitely doing something that matters.”
  3035. >Sam doesn’t wake with the first of the morning’s light
  3036. >You watch it filter into the church, laying bars of gold across the pews
  3037. >One of them strikes Jenna directly across the face, who is sitting a few rows behind you
  3038. >The fox squints, as if in pain, and then blinks herself awake
  3039. >She shields her eyes with the thin length of her arm
  3040. >You turn to Alex, who is dozing away
  3041. >His snoring fills the whole church
  3042. >The way they echo off the high ceilings is vaguely reminiscent of a guttural Gregorian chant
  3043. >You were restless the whole night, obsessively watching Sam, just observing the careful rise and fall of her chest, just making sure she was alive
  3044. >You forced yourself to fight through sleep and keep a vigil (though you did take some time to read through The Book of Rite a bit more)
  3045. >And now the result was a live current of energy singing through your veins
  3046. >You can feel your heartbeat stumbling in your chest with a misplaced sense of purpose
  3047. >This happened sometimes — you didn’t sleep and then you’d end up with the shakes, but full of energy and purpose
  3048. >Still, going into tonight without sleep may not be a great strategy
  3049. >Well, no sense in fighting it now
  3050. >Everyone would have to be up soon anyway for school
  3051. >Sam especially
  3052. >You don’t want her to miss her chance at a GED
  3053. >She’s missed enough school already
  3055. >You go to shake her awake, but stop short, your hand hovering over her
  3056. >You can see one of the glossy bulbs of her amber eyes — like molten gold in a crucible — peering up at you through the thick strands of hair that fell over her face in the night
  3057. >You lock eyes with her, still frozen
  3058. “… Morning…”
  3059. >”Morning…” she returns, her voice above a whisper, but not by much
  3060. >She still sounds tired
  3061. “You… doing alright?”
  3062. >Fuck
  3063. >What was that?
  3064. >She just watched her Dad die
  3065. >Even if she didn’t like him, she might still have some weird connection to him
  3066. >Who knows?
  3067. >And all you can ask is ‘you doing alright?’
  3069. >She sits up, stretches, and says, rather flatly: “I-I’m not sure. I d-d-don’t f-f-feel n-nervous. N-Not like I normally do when I-I wake up.”
  3070. >She turns and fixes you with a clear gaze, thick ropes of her falling across her face
  3071. >”W-W-What do you think t-that means?”
  3072. “I… think that’s a good thing?” You say, not sure how to process this or respond
  3073. >She nods, slow
  3074. “You look better though. Like there’s a weight off you.”
  3075. >She doesn’t toss her head to the side in evasion, like she normally would
  3076. >Her gaze is clear and steady, like she was looking at you for the first time
  3077. >Her fingers still anxiously drum on the pew, however
  3078. >”I-I guess? I d-don’t know what t-to feel. H-He was n-no fa-father to me, b-but he was st-still my dad.”
  3079. >You open your mouth to speak
  3080. >Do you really think you can help this situation?
  3081. “Well let me put it like this: do you have any positive memories of him?”
  3082. >…
  3083. >She stirs a bit, and then turns her head to stare out the cross-shaped glass window that sits over the altar
  3084. >”N-No.” She says after a long moment of silence. “I-I tried t-to think of some b-but I can’t. Al-All I ca think of is h-how messed up my head i-is because of h-him.”
  3085. >You nod in affirmation
  3086. “Well look, I’m not trying to ruin any fond memories you have of him, but you were effectively his prisoner — physically and mentally.”
  3087. >”You k-know what?”
  3088. >She turns to face you
  3089. >”Y-You’re right. I-I-I’m glad he’s gone.”
  3091. >Nobody seems to want to talk much about last night, Friday morning
  3092. >You all sit around in a semi-circle outside your car, which has become something of a morning ritual for you all, a designated meeting post even
  3093. >Still dressed up in your priest costume, you, fruitlessly, try to get people to start talking
  3094. “Sooooooooo…” you trail off, unsure of where you were even going to take your sentence. “Today is the day, right?”
  3095. >Nobody speaks
  3096. >Guess nobody really knows what to say after last night?
  3097. >Nobody except Sam
  3098. >She gathers her arms around herself, shivering in the frosted Halloween air
  3099. >Above her, leaves drift in the wind in a  storm of russet brown, auburn red, and gold
  3100. >”I know l-last n-n-night was…”
  3101. >She pauses
  3102. >”L-Last night w-w-wasn’t e-e-easy.. B-But I wanted to th-thank you a-a-all for being there. A-A-And for being-”
  3103. >She looks at her father’s abandoned car, drifting into a sharp memory of angled features and coarse hands; of devil eyes and devil smirks, imprisoning her; trapped in the grasp of a memory
  3104. >Shaking her head, she banishes those thoughts — if only for a moment
  3105. >You watch her fidget and shake, and know, deep down, she will never be whole again — If she ever was to begin with
  3106. >”-F-For being my f-f-friends. I don’t t-t-think I would h-have made it l-long i-if I d-d-didn’t h-have any of you.”
  3107. >”None of us,” Mike chimes in, “would have made it this far without each other.”
  3108. >…
  3109. >He looks around, intensely self conscious and hungover
  3110. >”But I ain’t doing a group hug thing, alright? That’s not what I’m saying this is.”
  3111. >”Not even as a show of solidarity?” Alex questions in reply
  3112. >Mike shrugs. ”Why do we always have to hug and pat ourselves on the back? I get it — we’re all friends now.”
  3113. >”Then will you settle for a homo-erotic high-five?” Alex raises his arm in preparation for a very hetero palm tip-to-tip
  3114. >”Alright, but you can’t call it that. This is purely a high-five.”
  3115. >”Gotcha,” Alex winks at you for some reason. “No homo.”
  3116. >Mike groans and slaps Alex’s palm as hard as he can
  3117. >Sam and Jenna just exchange looks, while you, the third wheel, the dick between these two balls, just watch with folded arms
  3118. >Well this is as close as you’ll get to group hugging
  3119. >And that’s alright with you
  3121. >When you roll into school, the place is a madhouse
  3122. >The five of you stand in the front entrance, wearing your costumes still, slackjawed like a bunch of mouth-breathing, smooth-brained idiots
  3123. >The place looks completely transformed, like it was hit by a tidal wave of tacky orange and black decorations, fake skeletons, plastic headstones and of course fake cobwebs that Alex spends a decent amount of time running into
  3124. >Let’s not forget the “Spooktober Fest” banner adorning the school’s entrance, hanging above you like a massive guillotine
  3125. >Hand-painted wooden signs adorn the halls, directing students to the gym for the night’s festivities
  3126. >Some students — mostly humans — are wearing their costumes
  3127. >Somehow, looking at those signs proclaiming the Spooktober Fest’s ‘outrageous’ activities (punch, haunted classrooms, cornhole, dancing, pumpkin carving) gives you anxiety
  3128. >Sam, however, is overjoyed with the whole thing, almost like she forgot the whole purpose of tonight
  3129. >”G-G-G-Guys!” She stammers, eyes wide. “Look how c-cool th-this is!”
  3130. >She points a stubby finger at the streamers, tracing their lengths through the air like she was conducting a symphony nobody could see or hear
  3131. >”They do this every yea- OW.” Mike winces as Jenna claws him across the arm, carving gashes into his leather jacket
  3132. >”Let her have her fun,” Jenna warns him in a hiss
  3133. >”You know, you’re awfully aggressive for a girl dressed up as a bumblebee,” he says.
  3134. >Sam is gleefully focused on the streamers, and not much else
  3135. >You place a hand on her lower back, and she nearly hops a foot into the air
  3136. “Sammmmm,” you say in a chiding voice (but you’re being ironic, you swear), “remember why we came to school. So you don’t lose attendance and get expelled. Remember, tonight is the night. Try not to let the decorations distract you.”
  3137. >Still shaking, Sam meets you with a steely gaze
  3138. >”R-Right. T-These are all j-j-just distractions,” she says with determination
  3139. >For effect she throws up her hood and pulls her ears through the holes in the top
  3140. >”And I hate to break your immersion,” Alex interjects, “but the Halloween season has been commercialized to the point of meaninglessness. When most people think of Halloween, they think of carting around immortal plastic pumpkins filled with name-brand candy bars and chocolate harvested off the backs’ of enslaved South American lemur children. It’s a far cry from the ancient tradition of Samhain, which are the ACTUAL origins of-”
  3141. >”Holy shit, do you need a soapbox or something?” Mike says, still rubbing her clawed arm and grimacing at the deep gouges
  3142. >Alex looks confused. “Why, do you have a soapbox with you?”
  3143. >”Nevermind,” Mike says. The bell rolls over and shrieks
  3144. >And, like actors in a play, the milling students turn towards their classes and leave their conversations behind, thinking there would be another day to have them
  3145. >Thinking: they’ll always have Monday to see their friends again
  3146. >Or this weekend!
  3147. >And as you all fanned out in different directions — Jenna and Mike on their way to English down the hall, Alex down the stairs towards the gym, and you and Sam down another hall towards Sam’s own art class — you saw a little flick of something
  3148. >It was a short burst of smoke that appeared and then evaporated as quick as lightning
  3149. >At the end of the small hall to your left, with everyone’s backs turned
  3150. >You saw the formidable shape of a feral dog, larger than a car and twice as fast
  3151. >And you saw Vanessa, two goths at her side, standing at the end of the hall, their shadows stretching outward like the long reaching hands of death
  3152. >You and Sam both froze, legs and veins stuffed with concrete
  3153. >Were they really there? Or were you seeing things?
  3154. >Sam stiffens up, and her ears jolt upward in alarm
  3155. >You hear one word that seizes your heart with a pair of calloused, drunken hands
  3156. >”D-Dad?” She utters
  3157. >You shut your eyes and hope to whatever god(s) there might be that you’re just seeing things
  3158. >When you find the courage to open your eyes again, that hallway is empty
  3159. >But you feel Sam’s fingers — interlaced with your own — clench up tight, cold sweat threading between the two of you like glue
  3160. >Neither of you look at each other, but you say everything you need to with a good squeeze of your palms
  3161. >’I’m here for you’
  3162. >And that sick, low growl — the sound of something old and feral — fills the halls
  3163. >Whatever it is, it’s gone now
  3164. >But it’s out there, and it knows:
  3165. >Its time is close
  3167. >You feel a hit of blood enter your legs, warming them, like a block ice met with a flamethrower
  3168. “D-Did you… See that thing too?” You say, pulling against Sam’s immobile form, dragging her away from the short hallway towards the stairs
  3169. >You can always take the long way around to Sam’s classroom
  3170. >”I-I-I’ve se-seen that b-before,” she stammers, her legs finally obeying her
  3171. >Her voice is frantic as she struggles to put some motion into her legs
  3172. >You don’t care if you have to drag her like a wounded soldier across a mile of broken glass, you’re getting the FUCK away from that thing and the weird shit you just saw
  3173. >”D-D-Did you see my D-Dad?” She says as she finally puts her feet beneath her
  3174. >You two travel down the empty stairs and into the lunchroom together
  3175. >You’ll take her to class
  3176. >But you need a minute
  3177. >You sit down on an available table
  3178. >Some students still lurk around, probably on their free period
  3179. “No. I saw Vanessa and her friends. At the end of the hall with The Behemoth? Didn’t you see them?”
  3180. >She shakes her head viciously, ears swinging with her in a tight arc
  3181. >”I-It plays t-t-tricks on you. I-It makes you s-s-see things that a-a-aren’t there. L-L-Last time I s-s-saw my b-brother.”
  3182. >She suffocates the tips of her ears in her grip
  3183. >Without even having to think about it, you clutch at her hands and hold them in your lap
  3184. “I remember you saying that. And I remember something similar happening to me. But listen to me.”
  3185. >Frantic, nearly on the verge of tears, she looks up into your eyes
  3186. “We’re going to be alright. We can’t let them play mind games with us today. We’ve gotta save everything we have for tonight, okay? Like I said, tonight’s Spooktober Fest is our Death Star.”
  3187. >Sam looks down at your palms pressed together
  3188. >You follow her gaze, and can’t help but notice the way your hands fit together perfectly, like two pieces of a puzzle that had to spend a few years apart before finding that they completed one another
  3189. >You feel the warmth pulsing off her little body — you can feel it in the sweat you trade between palms
  3190. >”Tonight,” she breathes hard and tries to smile at you
  3191. “Tonight.” You echo her words in the same half-whisper
  3192. >You lean forward, so close that you can smell your bodywash still on her, the scent of her heat billowing off her like a shroud
  3193. >You want to kiss her, so badly, but you know: now isn’t the time
  3194. >It was time to be strong, for everyone’s sake
  3195. >For Mike
  3196. >Jenna
  3197. >Alex
  3198. >Yourself
  3199. >And most of all: Sam
  3200. “I swear, I’ll never let anything happen to you, okay?”
  3201. >There’s a slight pause as Sam studies you
  3202. >She’s not questioning the validity of your words
  3203. >More so just searching your eyes for something real to latch onto and hold herself to
  3204. >Finding it, some light where all the shadows divide, she nods and tightens her grip on your fingers
  3205. >’I’ll never let anything happen to you, okay?’
  3206. >The words resonate in your mind as you stand up, pulling Sam with you
  3207. >You swear to yourself, to everything that you fought for and believe in:
  3208. >You are all going to be okay. You won’t let anything happen to anyone
  3210. >Oh how wrong you are
  3212. >School is utterly pointless
  3213. >With all the buzz about the Spooktober Fest, classes involve the students pitching in to help set up the school for some sp00ky fun
  3214. >Which really translates to students hauling in shit from around the school and moving it into the gym
  3215. >You stick close to Sam, watching from the hallways as she struggles to lug a cheap wooden stockade towards the gym
  3216. >Why the school has a stockade you can only guess, but you can tell it’s not heavy
  3217. >It’s probably made out of cheap particleboard from any home improvement store
  3218. >So you take one step forward, dead-set on helping her haul that-
  3219. >A foreign hand finds its way onto your shoulder
  3220. >”There’s my star student. I was wondering when I’d see you again.”
  3221. >Oh
  3222. >Mr. Bolm
  3223. >You turn your back against Sam, though you’re still eager to end this conversation and go help
  3224. >Mr. Bolm is standing before you, dressed up like a wizard
  3225. >He’s clad in a purple velvet robe, and his receding hairline is hidden beneath a pointed, purple wizard hat
  3226. >In his right hand he has a gnarled walking stick, probably his ‘staff’
  3227. >And in his left is a biology textbook, which functions as his ‘book of spells’
  3228. “Hi, Mr. Bolm,” you say, eying him up and down. “Kind of hypocritical for you to be dressed up as a wizard, right?”
  3229. >He looks taken back
  3230. >”Why is that? Don’t you believe in magic?” He says with false gruffness to his voice
  3231. >Wat
  3232. “I-I mean, I guess so-”
  3233. >”Nahhhh,” Mr. Bolm says with a slight hissing laugh that makes you feel a little more comfortable around him. “This is what I wear when I play tabletop. I DM for a group of faculty.”
  3234. >Seeing your incredulous expression, he adds: “Who shall remain nameless.”
  3235. >Of all the weird and wack shit you’ve seen this week, seeing Mr. Bolm dressed as a corny-ass wizard and admitting that some teachers around school play tabletop games with him is the most unbelievable thing yet
  3236. >There’s an awkward pause in the conversation
  3237. >Mr. Bolm LOOKS like he has something he wants to say to you, but doesn’t know how to say it
  3238. >Guess you’ll just have to cut the silence
  3239. “Sorry I haven’t been in class,” you blurt out. “I’ve been… really busy with some things around school. And at home.”
  3240. >Your teacher looks relieved that you started the conversation back up again
  3241. >”I guess as an educator I’m supposed to chastise you for truancy, but…” he shrugs. “I trust you. Senior year and all that. I remember being in high school as well — all the excitement and energy of 12 years of education all building towards a head. Like the crescendo of a really great song. Ironically, your education seems to matter the least when it should matter the most.”
  3242. >He holds up his hands in a gesture of humility. “Believe me. I’ve been there. I just wanted to make sure you’re coming back to class. I wouldn’t want you to jeopardize your future.”
  3243. >If you make it out alive tonight, yeah, sure, you’ll go back to basic biology and shit you’ve already read
  3244. “Yes sir,” you say, turning back to focus on Sam, who is still struggling with the stockades
  3245. >She seems to have made almost no progress
  3246. >Other students — with empty hands — pass by her like she’s not even there
  3247. >The sight spikes your blood pressure a fair bit
  3248. >Fucking assholes could care less about Sam
  3249. >Why?
  3250. >Well… a week ago you were trying to avoid her like the plague, to be fair
  3251. >Mr. Bolm clears his throat behind you
  3252. >”Err, Mr. Anonymous?”
  3253. >You turn around again, and the expression on your face makes Mr. Bolm pause
  3254. >”You alright there?” He says apprehensively
  3255. >”Need to use the bathroom?”
  3256. >You shake your head and clear the expression from your face
  3257. “N-No, sorry. Just thinking.”
  3258. >”Well…” Mr. Bolm drags out the last syllables to a high ‘luh’ like he does sometimes
  3259. >C’mon you magical fuck, get to the point
  3260. >Can’t he see that your waifur needs you?
  3261. >”What I really wanted to ask you about was college. Have you given any more thought to it?”
  3262. >…
  3263. >Oh
  3264. >Right
  3265. >Yeah, your future
  3266. >When you declared on the rooftop on Thursday, how serious were you?
  3267. >The very utterance of the word ‘college’ makes your stomach drop into your bowels
  3268. >The thought of leaving scares you half to death
  3269. >But
  3270. >You’ve done a lot of things that scare you this week
  3271. >In fact, you’ve scared the shit out of yourself so many times, you’re not sure who the old, cowardly Anonymous even is anymore
  3272. >Unlikes what Vanessa thinks, people do in fact change
  3273. >You’ve seen everyone around you change and grow, like the leaves of fall ripening on their branches and exploding with color as the seasons turn over
  3274. >Every season is built on change
  3275. >And so are people
  3276. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have thought about school,” you say at last
  3277. >Mr. Bolm leans forward, eyebrows high on his forehead, nearly disappearing into the brim of his wizard hat
  3278. “I think I’d like to give college a try. I don’t really… know where, or what, but I know I’d like to go. Like you said, I’d be wasting my time staying in Ranchview.”
  3279. >The smile that explodes across your teacher’s face almost knocks you off your feet
  3280. >”That’s so great to hear! Oh my god, I’m so happy you said that!”
  3281. >A look of relief mixed with joy spreads across Mr. Bolm’s features
  3282. >He even cranes his neck upward and exhales sharply, forming a tight ‘O’ with his mouth
  3283. >After a slight pause, he turns his head downward again
  3284. >”Well, listen. How about next week you come by my classroom after school ends, and we can look at some scholarships together. If you’re worried about cost, don’t be. I know of some GREAT scholarships for STEM students, if you’re thinking of going into the sciences.”
  3285. >T-Thanks
  3286. >You feel a rush of blood to the head
  3287. >This is all moving so fast
  3288. >STEM? Sciences? Scholarships?
  3289. >Last Friday you were pretty sure you were going to be staying in Ranchview forever, and now you’re practically picking a time and a place for your old life to end and new one to begin
  3290. >You feel dizzy
  3291. “I-I will,” you look at him and try to smile
  3292. >Mr. Bolm is too overjoyed to really pick up on your shift in mood and posture
  3293. >You’re practically keeled over in your priest vestments, clutching a locker for support
  3294. >”Great!” He proclaims. “I’ll see you on Monday!”
  3295. >Still smiling, he turns on a sharp heel
  3296. >Thank fuck that’s ov-
  3297. >”Oh and one more thing.” He turns back on an even sharper heel, his cloak billowing around him like a cyclone of purple felt and velvet
  3298. >You see he’s wearing pointed brown boots
  3299. >Man, he really goes all out
  3300. >”Are you going to the Spooktober Fest tonight?”
  3301. >Your stupid lizard brain is moving so fast in so many directions that all you can say is:
  3302. “Yes?”
  3303. >”Good!” He proclaims. “You kids need to have some fun. This has been the week from hell — all the fights and the vandalism and all — I think everyone is ready for a break, or for the end of the world,” he adds with a laugh. “Let’s just hope it’s the former and not the latter.”
  3305. >”At least the garlic makes sense.” Mike folds his arms across his chest
  3306. >It was a little after 4 in the afternoon
  3307. >You’re all back at the church now, except for Mike, who is watching from the front doors, which you’ve propped open with a few rocks
  3308. >Your heart flutters as you watch Alex and Jenna rip open plastic and cardboard boxes containing squirt guns and water pistols
  3309. >In fact, you pace unevenly up and down the aisles, constantly checking your phone
  3310. >You need a place to put your apprehension and anxiety
  3311. >The Spooktober Fest was in five hours
  3312. >You’ll need to bring Sam and the red book with you, deep into enemy territory, secure The Book of Wrath from Vanessa, and undo the ritual before midnight or EVERYONE, not just the ‘normies’ (as Vanessa might say) are fucked
  3313. >Before everyone goes mad with lust and hatred and evil, all at the behest of The Behemoth
  3314. >Oh, right
  3315. >Yeah, that hallucinatory dog-thing that’s lurking somewhere in the school RIGHT NOW probably, uncontrollable by Vanessa since Sam fudged the ritual up about a week ago
  3316. >”But I don’t get the water pistols. We’ve got an army of goths, vampires, an insane janitor and trans-dimensional monster to plow through, and you’re bringing squirt guns?” Mike says
  3317. >Well put, Mike
  3318. >It’s like he can read your mind or sense your anxiety
  3319. >You even complete each other’s sentences sometimes, like an old married couple
  3320. >But this is no time for gay jokes
  3321. >”Quit being such a pessimist.” Jenna stands up with a see-through pink water pistol in her hands. She trots past you, still in her bumblebee costume, to where the baptismal font is, near the entrance of the church
  3322. >Its waters are still with the powers of purification
  3323. >She dunks the pistol into the font, its surface shattering like fragile glass
  3324. >A few sputters and gurgles of air rise to the top as concentrated vampire repellent fills up the pistol’s body
  3325. >She rips her arm from the font, pulling the pistol up with it in a spray not unlike that of waterfalls that cascade down mountain cliffs in forgotten jungles
  3326. >The last rays of light that pour in from the cross-shaped window at above the altar strike the water pistol so perfectly that it was like God himself was blessing that little $1 toy from China
  3327. >”Behold!” She announces. “A blessed water pistol!”
  3328. >You half expected a choir of angels to open up and shower you all in shimmering and airy harmonies
  3329. >Instead, Jenna spins on her heels and aims the gun at Mike
  3330. >”Hold still,” she says, slamming one eye shut as she sights down the length of the ‘weapon.’
  3331. >Mike takes a cautious step backwards. ”Wait, hold on. We don’t know what that-”
  3332. >He never finishes his sentence
  3333. >Instead, a pathetic piss-stream of water strikes him in the shoulder, though most of it is absorbed by his shirt
  3334. >And that’s right about when he started yelling
  3335. >As if he were a smoldering blaze suddenly doused in an ice-bath, steam rises from his shoulder where he was struck
  3336. >He scrambles and struggles to wipe the holy stain from his shirt, but it only gets on his hands, causing him to scream louder
  3337. >Jenna throws down the water pistol and dashes to Mike’s side
  3338. >In his panic (or out of contempt) he pushes her aside
  3339. >The fox goes stumbling down onto her ass, and lets out a panicked yelp
  3340. >”Holy FUCK!” Mike says, ripping his shirt off and whipping it to the side
  3341. >He looks even more pale now that he’s bare-chested, his skin the sickly color of cream cheese
  3342. >You have to admit: when he first looked down at Jenna, who was sitting up on her palms, you thought Mike might kill her then and there
  3343. >Instead, he looks down at the burn mark on his shoulder
  3344. >The whole spectacle is a little…
  3345. >Gross?
  3346. >”That was fucking wild,” he says. “I can’t believe that worked so… so… so well!”
  3347. >Jenna hobbles to her feet
  3348. >Her bumblebee costume makes her look like a massive, striped marble, propped up on her two thin little legs
  3349. >”What?” She whispers under her breath
  3350. >Saying she was relieved and astonished would be an understatement
  3351. >She looks like someone just pulled her cub from the crumbling wreckage of a burning building
  3352. >The dark shadow of Mike falls upon Jenna as he turns to face her
  3353. >Mania burns in his eyes
  3354. >”That’s brilliant. Do you know that?”
  3355. >Jenna can only stare on, slackjawed
  3356. >Steam rises off Mike into the sky
  3357. >”I said, it’s brilliant. The squirt guns. Filling them with holy water. Did you come up with that?”
  3358. >Jenna nods, her eyes still split wide and jaw slack
  3359. >You feel as if Mike’s words are reaching her, but her concern has overridden everything else except primitive motion
  3360. >Mike turns his attention towards the remaining water pistols and the large water gun leaning near the baptismal font
  3361. >His eyes settle on its smooth, bulbous plastic form, painted green and purple (thanks doc)
  3362. >There’s a huge reservoir in the back for water, and a gimmicky orange pump at the front for, well, pumping water
  3363. >”I want that one,” he says dimly, like a child with his eyes on candy
  3364. >”Mike, wait,” Jenna tries to stand between him and the water gun. “You can’t.”
  3365. >”And why not?” He says, a tinge of frustration in his voice
  3366. >Jenna motion towards his burnt shoulder. "You’re lucky I only got you with a little bit.”
  3367. >”Bah, I’ll be careful.”
  3368. >”I’m serious! I don’t want you doing anything crazy or dangerous!” She growls
  3369. >Mike is unperturbed. “This is coming from the woman that just shot me with holy water. Right.”
  3370. >She assumes a defensive stance, barring her fangs and spreading her body wide, claws extended
  3371. >She’s the fiercest looking bumblebee you’ve ever seen
  3372. >He brushes past her with ease, however, his shirt in hand, stopping only at the entrance of the church, as if held in place by an invisible hand
  3373. >Jenna stamps her feet
  3374. >”God damnit Mike!”
  3375. >Mike turns his attention to her. “Listen, Jenna, sweetie, babycakes, sugartits, I’m going to be okay.”
  3376. >In turn, Jenna bows her head, hiding her face
  3377. >But from this angle, you can see it tighten up with frustration
  3378. >Her body starts trembling
  3379. >Oh shit
  3380. >This isn’t about the water gun
  3381. >”You better be okay,” she says, her voice struggling against the tightness of her throat
  3382. >When she looks up again there are tears stinging her eyes
  3383. >”You better not do anything stupid or dumb or crazy, you hear me Mike Sapone?”
  3384. >Mike doesn’t say anything back
  3385. >His brows narrow together and slowly, he nods
  3386. >”I promise you,” he says, turning to face all of you
  3387. >”You hear that? These motherfuckers took away my future. I don’t want any of you doing something stupid — that’s my job. I want my future back, or at least some fingers to break. And I need all of you to stay alive tonight, because if the world ends, I’m at least doing it in good company.”
  3388. >You have to admit, the way he’s looking around at everyone makes you think that he might attack any one of you at a moment’s notice for saying the wrong thing
  3389. >Jenna scrubs her eyes with the back of her paws
  3390. >“If you get hurt I’ll fucking kill you.”
  3391. >Honestly, you’re more surprised that she’s swearing over the fact that she’s crying
  3392. >Whatever, it’s probably one of those emotional things that are super out of your range
  3393. >”You can kill me after I kick Vanessa and Lydia’s dreary asses back to hell.”
  3394. >Alex obediently hands Mike the squirt gun, which Mike hoists onto his shoulders
  3395. >You can’t help but think back to Sam’s drawings for you all
  3396. >He really is ‘Slayer,’ as unoriginal as that sounds
  3397. >You shrug. Guess they fit
  3399. >You all sit on the hood of your car and suck down on Dr. Beppers, cheap burgers and lukewarm beer
  3400. >You watch as the sun sets, washing everything in a thin orange haze
  3401. >Your heart hurls itself against your ribcage, even with Sam sitting next to you on the hood
  3402. >She seems to be in the same place you’re at, mentally
  3403. >Or it’s the caffeine?
  3404. >Her legs kick off against the front-end of the car, and her whole body shakes as she brings the can of Dr. Bepper to her lips
  3405. >You can feel The Book of Rite in your pocket, heavy and flat like Mike’s sister
  3406. >Nobody says much as you watch the sun set, counting the minutes as they turn into hours
  3407. >Pretty soon darkness swallows you all, and the lights in the church flick on, as if God were home for the night
  3408. >Mike hops off the hood of the car, glowing white with anemia
  3409. >He’s still holding the squirt gun
  3410. >He still seems pretty attached to it
  3411. >”Well,” he says, his fiery-red gaze sweeping the group, and ending on you. “What’s the time?”
  3412. “7:30,” you say, shoving your phone back into your pocket.
  3413. >A smile forms on his lips, though its hard to see in the darkness
  3414. >”Shall we?”
  3416. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjTTB6yII4o&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=6
  3417. >You dunk a water pistol into the baptismal font whose waters never seem to run dry
  3418. >The pistol gurgles and sputters as it fills
  3419. >Just for safety reasons, you dunk Gloria’s crucifix (still around your neck) in the font
  3420. >Sam, Jenna, and Alex string together garlic necklaces from the garlic bulbs Jenna ‘paid for’ on Tuesday
  3421. >You fill the other two water pistols up as your brain works your confidence over with a lead pipe
  3422. >Mike’s words echo in your ears
  3423. >’We’ve got an army of goths, vampires, werewolves, an insane janitor and trans-dimensional monster to plow through, and you’re bringing squirt guns?’
  3424. >Would this really be enough? Not to mention the general violence
  3425. >And
  3426. >The Behemoth
  3427. >A stream of water hits you in the face, shattering your anxious wanderings
  3428. >Mike is standing at the entrance of the church, pumping water at you
  3429. >”This thing has RANGE baby. You feel that?”
  3430. “Hey I’m not refilling that if you keep shooting it at me.” You wipe your face down with your shirt
  3431. >”No worries my possibly bisexual friend, I’m just getting my range down.”
  3432. “Right, well, don’t do it with me.”
  3433. >”C’mon, you know you like it when Mikey gets you all wet.”
  3434. >You flip off Mike and return to your task
  3435. >Everywhere there’s motion
  3436. >Garlic necklaces laced around necks (and any extras go into pockets)
  3437. >Water pistols passed out to Alex and Jenna
  3438. >And more importantly, beers
  3439. >Sam totters off to your car, its doors open and headlights on, 
  3440. >They blast against the peeling white paint of the church
  3441. >She comes sprinting back at break-neck speed, her garlic necklace bouncing against her hoodie
  3442. >But you see she’s not empty-handed when she returns
  3443. >She’s got a length of rope and…
  3444. >Ah shit
  3445. >Her brother’s bat, in her right hand
  3446. >”H-H-Hey A-Anon. I-I need some help wi-with this.” She offers up the rope and the baseball bat
  3447. >You stuff your water pistol into a belt loop under your robes (which really completes the whole ‘priest’ look) and tie the baseball bat around her shoulders and under her arms, securing it to her back
  3448. >She ties the red bandanna around her snout and throws her hood over her head, shoving her ears through the holes you so graciously cut at the top of her hoodie
  3449. >She looks up at you, her amber eyes shrouded in shadow, peering up at you from the darkness like two lights in a tunnel
  3450. >”H-H-H-How do I look?” She says cautiously
  3451. >You crouch down to her height
  3452. “You look great, but you’re missing something.”
  3453. >She yanks down her bandanna
  3454. >”W-W-What?”
  3455. You plant a quick kiss on her lips
  3456. >Just a short one, but long enough so that your taste lingers on her tongue
  3457. “My luck.” Your voice drops to a whisper
  3458. >Sam lets out a shy squeak
  3459. >In an instant, her head is pointed to her shoes
  3460. >”Y-Y-Your costume is so nice,” she says evasively
  3461. >Your heart sinks
  3462. >Maybe that was too soon
  3463. “Thanks. I like it too, I gues-”
  3464. >She jumps forward and plants a clumsy kiss on your lips, and lingers there, pressed against you, for far too long
  3465. >You said it once, you’ll say it again: why do you always attract the weirdos?
  3466. >When you at last pull apart, she looks distraught, her brows sloping up and her mouth curled down into a frown, slight distress pressed into her features
  3467. >”S-Sorry.”
  3468. >…
  3469. “For what?”
  3470. >”I c-c-couldn’t think of a-a-anything clever to s-s-say.”
  3472. >You want to spend forever with her, here, in this crummy old church, shooting water pistol’s at Mike’s feet, shivering as a breeze sweeps the leaves by like handfuls of confetti thrown to the wind
  3473. >But forever isn’t in the cards for you tonight
  3474. >The hours roll by, and your reserve stock of fortifying beer and Dr. Beppers runs dry as you chill by the front doors with Mike
  3475. >He looks especially manic today, chugging his beer and howling at the moon, which has grown alarmingly fat and red in the sky
  3476. >He swipes the back of his hand across his mouth, catching the last drops of beer
  3477. >”God, I don’t even care how close to oblivion we all are. I’m just ready to get some revenge and break some knees.”
  3478. >Jenna appears beside him with a Dr. Bepper
  3479. >”Here. Try and sober up a little bit. You’re no good to us drunk.”
  3480. >”Drunk?” He stumbles backwards in one small inebriated step. “Listen, let me tell you something. I fight better when I’m a little bit loaded.”
  3481. >”S-So d-d-did my d-d-dad,” Sam says to nobody in particular
  3482. >Mike pauses in his swagger
  3483. >The cringe on his face says it all
  3484. >”I didn’t mean it like that,” Mike says, a foreign shame creeping into his whispering tone
  3485. >”O-Oh!” Sam shakes her head. “N-Neither d-d-did I. S-S-Sorry. I’m just th-thinking about some o-other stuff.”
  3486. >Right
  3487. >’Other stuff.’
  3488. >The taste of Sam still lingering on your lips offers some insight as to what she’s probably thinking about
  3489. >You didn’t want the moment to end either
  3490. >Kissing her feels… right… like how a fish was born to swim, you know?
  3491. >You stare up at the moon in silence and take a hearty slug of your beer
  3492. >Liquid courage
  3493. >And you’re going to need it
  3495. >Like a pair of well-meaning school shooters, you opt not to park your shit heap car in the now crowded parking lot, but in the teacher’s lot out front
  3496. >It’ll be a longer haul to the gym versus the student lot, but that’s okay
  3497. >You might need to make an escape later, and you don’t want to be caught in traffic
  3498. >Wouldn’t it be bad ass if you guys had a car chase? Like damn, that-
  3499. >”Anon.” Alex shakes the back of your seat. “Are you ready comrade?”
  3500. >You cut the engine
  3501. ”You’re freaking me out man, I feel like I’m about to go shoot up the school or something.”
  3502. >”Don’t get cold feet on us right now, bunny-boy. We need you to get to that altar with Sam,” Mike says, now more sober than before. “What time you got?”
  3503. >Jenna checks her phone. ”10:45. We’re cutting it close.”
  3504. >”Cut it too soon and we’re going to show up before show time and get caught,” Alex offers, one of the few intelligent statements he’s made. “Too late and… well…”
  3505. >”So, front doors, guns blazing?” Mike says, pumping on his over-sized squirt gun. He rests his hand on the door handle, eager to get moving
  3506. “If you can control yourself, I was thinking stealth. We really only need to worry about the vampires”
  3507. >As you rattle off a list of potential foes, your stomach sinks further and further
  3508. >”…The goths, Lydia, Vanessa, whatever they did to Gloria… The Behemoth…”
  3509. >If you weren’t nervous before, you were now
  3510. >Your feet beat into the shitty, carpeted floor of the rustbucket
  3511. >Sam, picking up on your nerves, wrings her ears like she was trying to squeeze the blood out of them
  3512. >”A-A-And what d-d-do we do?” She asks, staring dead ahead at the school
  3513. >Ordinarily you’d say the school was looming in the darkness, but it’s not dark
  3514. >Not at all
  3515. >Above the school the moon is pinned low into the sky, glowing a near scarlet red
  3516. >You’re reminded of the moon in Majora’s Mask, when the celestial body would get close and closer each day 
  3517. >Publications called it a ‘harvest moon’
  3518. >You and your friends knew better
  3519. “W-When we get into the s-school-”
  3520. >Shit, did you stutter?
  3521. >It’s either nerves, or that Sam is rubbing off on you
  3522. >Or both
  3523. >You swallow hard and feel for the The Book of Rite tucked into your pocket
  3524. >It feels loose, so you push deeper down in there
  3525. >Don’t need it flying out
  3526. >It takes a few earth-spinning seconds, but you finally put your thoughts together like the broken puzzle pieces that they are
  3527. >Remember, Anonymous: you’ve changed. People are capable of change and growth
  3528. >You and your friends are living examples
  3529. >And yet, here you are, wishing to be anywhere else in the world, wishing to slink away and let someone else handle it
  3530. >But you are ‘someone else’
  3531. >Alex shakes your seat again
  3532. >”Comrade, are you alright?”
  3533. >You wave your wrist in a dismissive fashion
  3534. >If only to try and dismiss the nerves
  3535. “I’m a-alright. What I was saying was: when we get in there, we’ll need cover from all of you in getting to the gym. Vanessa knows that  I know there’s a way to stop this. I imagine it’s going to be heavily guarded by Vanessa’s thugs, and whatever supernatural spookery she can concoct.”
  3536. >”And you know how to stop it?” Jenna says
  3537. >You turn to face her, which is a struggle considering you’re still wearing your seatbelt
  3538. “Both books brought to the altar, and Sam’s freshly drawn blood ought to banish The Behemoth and put an end to this whole thing.”
  3539. >”H-How fresh?” Sam squeaks at you, her body still shaking
  3540. >You flash a grim look at her
  3541. >”Like, straight from your wrists fresh, since it was your blood that ruined the ritual the first time. I found a banishing ritual when I was browsing through The Book of Rite a few days ago.”
  3542. >Sam’s anxious foot-pounding is so loud that even Jenna tries to get her to calm down
  3543. >Deep breaths, everyone
  3544. >Remember all that you’ve learned
  3545. “So you’ll need to go up there with me,” you continue. “And we’ll need cover from the rest of you, whatever that looks like.”
  3546. >”So like I said, guns blazing,” Mike adds
  3547. >He seems about the only one excited for this
  3548. >Or, rather, he seems mad
  3549. >Which for him often look like the same thing
  3550. >You won’t lie, the dark and edgy looks he’s been flashing ever since you were gearing up in the church have been concerning you
  3551. >You exhale slowly, trying to remember what your therapist told you about anxiety and fear
  3552. >’Take all of your fear and worry and put it into a little ball that-’
  3553. >Bah, fuck it
  3554. >Your therapist can’t help you at the end of the world
  3555. >Only you can
  3556. >”I’m tired of waiting. I’m ready to light this candle,” Mike says
  3557. >”As am I,” Alex concurs. “The revolution has come to its climax. Once more, friends, to the barricades again!”
  3558. >”Everyone, just be safe.” Jenna pops open her side door and steps out into the cool air. “Especially you, Mike. I don’t want you doing anything stupid.”
  3559. >”I’m going to do what I have to do, but I promise I’ll try not to get anyone hurt,” he says in reply
  3560. >Though you can’t see them, you can tell just by the tone of Jenna’s voice that she’s worried. Their conversation continues, but you can’t hear anything, because Alex is humming the Soviet anthem loudly
  3561. >He pauses
  3562. >”Everything be okey, komrade.”
  3563. >GOD his accents are bad
  3564. >He sounds like a Bond villain
  3565. >Still humming the Soviet anthem, Alex exits the vehicle, leaving only you and Sam, and the mutual sound your feet pounding into the floor
  3566. >Focus on the moon, dude
  3567. >Just… chill
  3568. >You’re a lot stronger now than you were before
  3569. >Still, what’s with this feeling in your gut?
  3570. >This otherworldly anxiety as you watch the sky get swallowed by the moon
  3571. >It dominates the whole skyline, and you swear you can almost feel its gravitational tug, like it could rip you out of this car and suck you into orbit
  3572. >A shaking, fuzzy hand finds your own
  3573. >It’s Sam
  3574. >She’s no longer pulling at her ears, but she still wears all the signs of nervousness as plain as the bandanna tied around her neck
  3575. >Kicking legs, trembling features, quivering lips flush with blood
  3576. >Yet her eye contact is impeccable — something you’re pleased that she’s learned
  3577. >You drink in her glowing amber eyes, searching for courage
  3578. >”W-W-We’re g-gonna b-b-b-be okay r-r-right?”
  3579. >You swallow and nod
  3580. >”R-Right. We’ve all come so far. We’ll be okay. And l-like I said, I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
  3581. >She breathes out a held breath and squeezes her eyes shut
  3582. >She tries putting on a brave smile
  3583. >”Y-Yeah. I-I’m a lot s-s-stronger than I-I was. I’ll d-d-do my best to t-t-take care of m-myself i-in there.”
  3584. >Mike slaps the hood of the car, causing you both to jump
  3585. >You’d have hit the ceiling were it not for your seatbelt
  3586. >His voice is muffled, but you hear him well enough. ”LET’S GO LADIES.”
  3587. >You and Sam share one last look
  3588. “Ready?”
  3589. >”R-Ready,” she says
  3590. >You unbuckle your seatbelt
  3592. >The hallway that leads to the lunchroom (and then gym) presses up on all sides, as if it became narrower in some portions and then wider in others
  3593. >You wipe your brow of sweat as you lead your gang down the empty halls
  3594. >The heat snuck up on you at first — a slow and sweaty rise in temperature
  3595. >You’re reminded of the metaphor about the frog being boiled alive, never noticing a thing
  3596. >Only, you know, it’s more literal than that this time
  3597. >And you do notice
  3598. >”I think the janitor left the heat on.” Alex slumps over a bit as you continue down the hall
  3599. >”No stopping,” Mike breathes, drawing on the sweaty, humid air
  3600. >More than a frog metaphor, you’re reminded of last Friday, up in the annals of the school
  3601. >It was so hot you all collapsed
  3602. >And you can guess why
  3603. “God this is a long hallway,” you wheeze
  3604. >You should have asked Vanessa to make you athletic and not brave
  3605. >Not that it matters now anyway — that buff left you Tuesday
  3606. >”Shouldn’t we at least see someone out here? Like in the halls?” Jenna says, leaning up against the lockers in her bee costume. I find it very hard to believe everyone is in the gym right now and STAYING there.”
  3607. >”After all you’ve seen with us, that’s what you have the hardest time believing?” Mike says
  3608. >”You’re lucky you’re cute, Sapone.” Jenna half-assedly waves her holy water squirt gun in Mike’s face
  3609. >It looks like everyone is melting there in the hallways, like plastic army soldiers put to the blowtorch
  3610. >The gradual rise in temperature is going to do you in yet again
  3611. >Sam draws her baseball bat and stands alert, taking the lead away from you
  3612. >”I-I-I-I hear s-s-something,” she whispers
  3613. >Her whisper is useless
  3614. >A hysterical voice booms from the ceilings
  3616. >You groan
  3617. >Not this bitch again
  3619. >There’s a rattling behind the group
  3620. >Ceiling tiles fall and clatter onto the floors like glass plates
  3621. >And then
  3622. >Threading down on a line of rope like a corpulent Spider-Man(Woman) is none other than than Stella the janitor
  3623. >Ah, yes, the crazy crystal badger
  3624. >The one who assaulted you on Tuesday
  3625. >She plops down like a sock filled with yogurt, landing unceremoniously in a big pile of fur and psychosis
  3626. >She’s dressed in… oh god
  3627. >Like a sexy nurse
  3628. >How did the spill of her rather impressive cleavage and the deep cut of her shirt ever make it into a school?
  3629. >Didn’t the other staff see th-
  3630. >”THE STORM IS ME.” She wheezes and stands upright, arms wide, claws bared
  3631. >Hands down the shittiest iteration of Solid Snake yet
  3632. >Thanks Kojima
  3633. >”That’s right you thieving fucks, I’ve been waiting for you to show your face again.” Even in the darkness you can see her face screwing up with madness, froth dripping from the corners of her mouth
  3634. >Her rose quartz earrings dangle from her ears, strung up in gold
  3635. >Her eyes settle on Sam, who shrinks away from her manic gaze like a dog flinches away from beatings
  3636. >”I should have never trusted you. Your betrayal was revealed to me in a dream, and yet I chose to ignore it. I never thought my own minimum-wage employee would betray me, and yet here I stand, half-naked in a dark hallway on Halloween, prepared to assault a bunch of teenagers.”
  3637. >She lurches forward, still winded from the titanic effort of sitting upright
  3638. >”I taught you EVERYTHING you needed to fight off the Glowing Ones, (((them))), Grays- and you threw it all in my face, Sam.”
  3639. >”Y-You didn’t teach me any-anything e-e-except how t-t-to make c-c-chlorine g-g-gas and e-e-eat crystal p-powders,” Sam blurts as she nervously reaches for her baseball bat
  3640. >You tense up, and your heartbeat quickens
  3641. >If you need to, you will throw yourself at this crazy bitch
  3642. >Sam’s defensive stance does nothing to deter the badger 
  3643. >”You can ignore dreams,” Stella froths, “but you can’t ignore destiny. And tonight, your destiny is-”
  3644. >Alex steps between Stella and the group, his lanky, striped-suit-clad form like a pillar of sanity in the face of Stella’s unhinged madness
  3645. >And thank fuck Alex is going to take the hit for this, maybe he’ll belt her one in the-
  3646. >”I’m sorry, but how did you know about the Glowing Ones?” He says
  3647. >F U C K
  3648. >Stella comes to an abrupt halt, and you swear you see her eyes fill with the sharp light of clarity
  3649. >”How do you know about the Glowing Ones?” Alex presses her, his hand inside his suit jacket, as if her were concealing a pistol
  3650. >Which isn’t ENTIRELY wrong, you just know what kind of pistol it is
  3651. >”You’re one of them, aren’t you?” Stella takes a tactical step backwards and assumes a low, combat-ready stance. “Well try all your mind zog on me, it won’t work. I’ve swallowed enough red pills to piss blood.”
  3652. >”Comrade! Please! We mean you no harm. We are no Glowing Ones, Grays, Jews or anyone else in the NWO cabal.”
  3653. >Stella snarls in reply. “Exactly what a deep state operative would say.”
  3654. >Yet she hasn’t thrown her impressively large, scantily clad body at Alex, who is standing firm — the barrier between the gang and Stella
  3655. >Soon, though
  3656. >In a matter of seconds, Stella will snap like a brittle twig, and assault Alex
  3657. >Your muscles ache from all the tension
  3658. >”I assure you, we are no friends of the deep state or the CIA. I share in your struggles against imperialism and oppression, comrade. Please, lower your claws. We are no enemies.”
  3659. >The badger hesitates
  3660. >”Imperialism? What are you talking about?”
  3661. >Oh god, here we fucking go
  3662. >Stella does not lower her claws
  3663. >Or wipe the froth from her mouth
  3664. >But she hasn’t lunged at anyone’s throat yet, and that’s a good sign
  3665. >You can only see Alex’s back, but you can tell, just from the context of the conversation that he’s wearing the most obnoxious, holier-than-thou grin
  3666. >Stella is about to get a crash course in poorly-researched history and conspiracy theories
  3667. >Actually, wait
  3668. >This might be a good thing (not only because Alex will finally have someone to talk to who is ‘woke’)
  3669. >You take a step back
  3670. >And then another
  3671. >You tap Sam on the shoulder
  3672. >She jumps a little, but seems to get the message, and takes a quiet step in sync with you…
  3673. >As do Mike and Jenna
  3674. >”Let’s start with the 50s and 60s.” Alex shoves his hands easily into his over-sized pockets, adopting a casual lean. “Ever heard of a little thing called MKUltra?”
  3675. >Stella gasps. “How did you know?”
  3677. >She sounds as if Alex is the only other person on earth who knows about the CIA’s actual attempts to devise a truth serum, which only serves to further spike your blood pressure
  3678. >Ah Christ, okay, now’s the best time to take your leave before you call them both retarded
  3680. >You turn tail (in Jenna’s case, literally) and throw yourself into a run down the hall, aiming for the gym
  3681. >Er, it’s more like a shamble in your long robes, but you get the picture
  3682. >THE POINT IS you’re making a quick getaway, and the gym is so tantalizingly close
  3683. >You lift the hem of your robes as you break into what could only be called a gallop
  3684. >Jenna hobbles alongside you in her bumblebee costume, while Mike sprint ahead in a leather blur
  3685. >H-HE’S FAST
  3686. >When you look behind you, you see Alex still standing there, explosively gesturing at Stella, while the badger explosively gestures back
  3687. >You can only catch little shards and fragments of what they’re saying
  3688. >’Bourgeoisie’
  3689. >’The Glowing Ones’
  3690. >’Class-Consciousnesss’
  3691. >’Muh crystals’
  3692. >The stream of weird bullshit recedes into the sounds of your feet pounding against the floor
  3693. >Alex, the brave solider that he is, will have to deal with Syliva himself
  3694. >You sneak quick peek at your phone
  3695. >11:00 p.m.
  3696. >One hour left
  3698. >The remaining four of you post up outside the gym’s double-wide doors
  3699. >From the window slits on the doors you can see… a lot of fog… and a lot of strobe lights
  3700. >You hear the pulse and thrum of bass-heavy music, no doubt some PG attempts at making a banger a bunch of horny high school kids can attempt to grind to
  3701. >Not that there probably aren’t shit load of chaperones in there, obscured by the industrial fog machine, waiting in the wings to curb stomp any hormonal urges
  3702. >Mike places a palm on the door and looks to you
  3703. >”You guys ready?” He grips his water blaster close to his chest
  3704. >Come to think of it…
  3705. >You pat your pocket where The Book of Rite is. You shove it back down
  3706. >…Yeah
  3707. >You’re ready
  3709. >You take one last look over your shoulder at Alex…
  3710. >Who is no longer there with Stella
  3711. >In fact, the whole hallway is empty
  3712. >Oh boy
  3713. >No time to stop now though, not with the clock ticking
  3714. >You give Mike an affirmative nod, which is returned to you by your co-conspirator
  3715. >Jenna draws her water pistol
  3716. >And the doors open
  3717. >And…
  3718. >Chunky clouds of fog roll out and blanket your feet in a slow parade
  3719. >An impressive wall of sound hits you
  3720. >First, low bass
  3721. >Then high shrieks that sound unnatural to you
  3722. >And murmurs
  3723. >And the smell of sulfur and and bodies and sweat
  3724. >Flashing strobes pulse against the obscuring clouds of fog
  3725. >You can see shapes and shadows veiled behind the wall of mist, but nothing more
  3726. >Mike steps first into the gym
  3727. >Then Jenna
  3728. >And then you
  3729. >And then Sam, her baseball bat at the ready
  3731. >You see… almost exactly what you expected
  3732. >The massive gym has been ‘transformed’ by the concentrated efforts of an insane badger and the school board
  3733. >Long, cloth-covered tables burdened with candy and drinks are pressed up to the side of the gym, each table draped in spiderwebs and spewing gallons of voluminous fake fog from beneath the draped cloths
  3734. >The center of the gym hosts a DJ table and several sizable loudspeakers
  3735. >Behind a MacBook, with chunky headphones on, is a rat who looks far too small next to the impressive loudspeakers on each side of the table
  3736. >You can’t place why, but she looks somewhat familiar
  3737. >From above strobe lights and stage lights flash and pulse like spotlights on the hunt for someone in the crowd
  3738. >And surprisingly, there’s a lot of students here
  3739. >At least, more than you thought
  3740. >But you can only see their faint outlines as they’re traced against the fog by the pulsing strobes and stage lights
  3741. >It IS Halloween, shouldn’t most of these kids be out at crazy parties like Braydon Smith’s last night?
  3742. >Guess only the losers are here
  3743. >Which makes you…
  3744. >Never mind
  3746. >You move deeper into the gym, your only real goal being the equipment storage room against the walls
  3747. >Mike, very slowly, brings his water gun around the room
  3748. >”Where the fuck is everyone? I thought there would be more resistance than this.”
  3749. >”I don’t trust this,” Jenna adds as the four of you make it deeper into the gym
  3750. >The center of the gym is… too clear
  3751. >And the shapes in the fog are starting to shift and move, which draw your eye
  3752. “Just keep moving. Sam,” you don’t look down at her. You keep your gaze spinning around the fog-cloaked gym, watching as the shadows in the fog shift and move. “Do you hear anything?”
  3753. >”J-Just the music!” She strains to be heard above the thrum of the music. “B-But i-i-it sm-smells like… w-w-warm bodies.”
  3754. >”No kidding,” Jenna adds. “I can’t get a bead on anything in particular. There’s too much going on in here.”
  3755. >Well, if they’re here, you wouldn’t know it
  3756. >They might have done a great job of cloaking their presence from the two anthros in the group
  3757. >Or it’s entirely unintentional
  3758. >You just can’t take your eyes off the silhouettes in the fog
  3759. >They’re all around you as you reach the center of the gym and emerge from another bank of fog
  3760. >Fuck, you’re already halfway to the equipment room
  3761. >You approach the DJ table cautiously
  3762. >The rat pays you no mind
  3763. >She continues to jam away, bouncing her head to the pulsing electronic music
  3764. >The music is painful for you at this distance, you’re sure it’s almost deafening for Jenna and Sam
  3765. >”Christ!” Mike turns around and shouts. “There’s no way it should be this easy!”
  3767. >”You’re right.”
  3768. >A voice — too familiar to you — booms over the loudspeakers
  3769. >Vanessa
  3770. >The music abruptly cuts
  3771. >The rat behind the table looks up at you four, her eyes glowing red with fire
  3772. >Fuck
  3773. >How did you not see it before?
  3774. >The rat smiles with a pair of obvious fangs pressed against her lower lips
  3775. >You know that rat
  3776. >She was with Vanessa on Tuesday
  3777. >”We didn’t want to make it too easy for you. But God, are you kidding me?” Vanessa’s obnoxious whine on the speakers; the four of you suddenly under the pointed spotlights
  3778. >Weapons drawn
  3779. >”You really didn’t see a trap coming? You seriously thought you’d just be able to waltz in here? You’re dumber than these normie idiots.”
  3780. >A spotlight shines into the parting fog
  3781. >And there, in the bright pool of artificial light, is Vanessa Doermuth, Lydia Penferth — the lioness — at her side
  3782. >Vanessa shrugs in her tight black jacket, a canvas tote bag in the crook of her elbow
  3783. >”Was this Mike’s idea to just waltz in here? Gah, what a dumb fuck. But people never change, I guess. I’m just disappointed that you’re here with them Anonymous. You’re smart. You ought to see reason.”
  3784. >Her voice booms over the speakers, and you guess that The Book of Wrath is somehow involved in that little vocal trick
  3785. >Lydia crosses her arms across her furred chest
  3786. >The light catches the many piercings that are stapled to her — in her lips, above her piercing eyes, hanging from her ears, the chain dangling from her pointed muzzle
  3787. >She stares hard, particularly at Mike
  3788. >Shaking, you answer back
  3789. “Where’s your little pet, Vanessa? Did it run away on you? You can’t do shit to us. Not while I have this.”
  3790. >Stupidly, you draw The Book of Rite out of your pocket and hold it up like a token of invincibility
  3791. >That was your second mistake
  3792. >Your first was asking about her ‘little pet.’
  3793. >The doe laughs
  3794. >”Pet? That depends — which one are you talking about?”
  3795. >Another stage light fires off, illuminating an empty spot next to Vanessa
  3796. >There’s a guttural snarl that echoes off the gym’s walls
  3797. >The Behemoth — all cloaked in pouring mist — flashes in next to Vanessa
  3798. >It’s nearly triple her size now
  3799. >It crouches low, as if ready to lunge forward at any moment
  3800. >Fuck
  3801. >You literally walked into thi-
  3802. >Another spotlight next to The Behemoth
  3803. >Christ what is this? A professional wrestling ma-
  3804. >Oh
  3805. >Oh no
  3806. >Oh no no no no no no
  3807. >”Hi ‘Nonny!”
  3808. >Standing in a clearing of the fog, underneath the yellow spotlight…
  3809. “Gloria?” You say in exasperation
  3810. >She looks… Actually the same as when you betrayed her
  3811. >Denim skirt down to her fucking ankles, crisp white blouse underneath a blue sweater, hands folded at her waist, horns polished to a high shine, innocent dimpled face
  3812. >Only… something ain’t right with the way she’s smiling
  3813. >You thought for sure there’d be fangs
  3814. >They wasted an opportunity to turn her into a vampire?
  3815. >Wack
  3816. “Wh-What are you doing with them?” You ask
  3817. >All the guilt of your betrayal comes crashing down on you like leaden weights
  3818. >”My new friends? Well, after you tricked me and used me for a dark ritual-” her cheerful smile widens “-I found out that, guess what, Vanessa was right!”
  3819. >The doe flashes you a knowing smirk
  3820. >”She’s right she’s right she’s right!” Gloria claps her hands together proudly. “I changed my ways, Anonymous. And you should too!”
  3821. “Changed your ways?” You turn to face Vanessa. “Whatever happened to people not changing?”
  3822. >Vanessa draws The Book of Wrath and a razor out of her canvas bag
  3823. >She approaches Gloria
  3824. >”Oh, don’t worry. People don’t change. Deep down at her core, she’s still a horrible, hypocritical, prissy little bitch. But we think she’s much nicer to be around as a slave.”
  3825. >Slave?
  3826. >With a christened smile, Gloria obediently rolls back her sleeve and holds out her wrist to Vanessa
  3827. >”One last chance to turn over the book and the bunny and join the winning side.” Vanessa pauses, the gleaming razor just inches from Gloria’s pure white wrists
  3828. >”Sam, Jenna, Anon… you’re all welcome to join us.” Lydia adds. “Except for you, Mike.”
  3829. >She flashes a toothy grin ”I want you all to myself.”
  3830. >”Hah, very scary you lanky cunt. Where’s your gaggle of fledglings?” Mike taunts
  3831. >”Oh, there’s here.” Lydia snaps her fingers
  3832. >The lights on you grow brighter, illuminating more of the gym
  3833. >The four of you are surrounded by no less than six cheerleaders — human and anthro — their eyes glowing red, bodies tight with strain and tension
  3834. >They look like hounds waiting for their master’s call to swarm their prey
  3835. >Mike brings his super soaker around the gym
  3836. >”I already told you, I ain’t joining you crazy bitches. You stole my goddamn future.” His fingers slip around the trigger. “So try something. I dare you.”
  3837. >”I’d love to, really baby.” Lydia steps forward-
  3838. >”WAIT!” Vanessa shrieks
  3839. >Silence as Lydia freezes in place
  3840. >”We haven’t heard from the leading ‘man’ yet. Anonymous? Spare your friends here? Give up the book and the bunny?”
  3841. >…
  3842. >You really can’t win this one
  3843. >And time is running out
  3844. >You’re outnumbered, outclassed and outdone…
  3845. >…That’s what the old you would have said
  3846. >But Vanessa’s wrong
  3847. >People DO change
  3848. >And you’re not a coward anymore, despite the shaking in your voice and the tension in your throat
  3849. “Get fucked you evil bitch.”
  3850. >Vanessa’s eyes harden
  3851. >”So be it,” she says 
  3852. >In one quick motion she slashes the razor across Gloria’s wrist
  3853. >A waterfall of blood spills out…
  3854. >…Which she catches on an open page of The Book of Wrath
  3855. >Gloria starts to shake and shudder
  3856. >She keels over in agony, dropping to her knees
  3857. >Her sweater and blouse rip at the back as her shape grows larger
  3858. >And taller by at least five feet more
  3859. >And bulkier (is swole the right word here?)
  3860. >Until her whole fuzzy body ripples with muscles and her clothing is but stray scraps adorning her white fur
  3861. >Heh, you can her tit-
  3862. >Her eyes glow bright red as they settle on you
  3863. >”’NONNY!” She growls
  3864. >Her voice is at least several octaves lower than it should be
  3865. >She stomps forward as the spotlights follow her
  3867. >Oh
  3868. >Well, fuck
  3869. >You shove The Book of Rite into your pocket
  3870. >Vanessa snaps The Book of Wrath shut. ”Be a good little girl and bring me the book and the bunny, okay Gloria?”
  3871. >But with the way Gloria is moving, you don’t think she intends to do anything except break your neck
  3872. >Vanessa doesn’t seem to care. She turns to Lydia
  3873. >”They’re all yours. Just don’t kill Sam.”
  3874. >The lioness roars with pride and snaps her fingers twice
  3875. >The cheerleaders snap to attention like trained soldier
  3876. >”Alright you cunts, have at ‘em. Just leave Mike.” She starts forward, parting the fog as she moves. “He’s mine.”
  3878. >All six cheerleaders converge in a single moment, most of them opting to leap forward like feral wolves
  3879. >”God, FINALLY.” Mike unloads a blast of holy water into the face of a pig cheerleader
  3880. >She makes a horrendous, high pitched squealing noise and crashes head-first into Mike
  3881. >Mike goes down hard with the anguished swine on top of him
  3882. >Still wearing her cheerleading uniform, she clutches at her face as steam pours from her sizzling flesh
  3883. >In the middle of pitched battle, you can’t help but smell… bacon
  3884. >Makes you kinda want breakfas-
  3885. >Suddenly you’re in the air as Gloria’s brawny fist wraps around your midsection and squeezes you like a stress toy 
  3886. >You swear you can hear something snapping
  3887. >”You’re lucky I’m so gentle ‘Nonny,” Gloria bellows
  3888. >Well given that you think she cracked a rib, you don’t think that’s entirely true
  3889. >The goat turns and starts walking you towards Vanessa, who waits with The Behemoth at her side
  3890. >You struggle and kick valiantly, but with your water pistol tucked safely in a belt loop beneath your robes (and really, it’s not like you could harm Gloria, of all people, with holy water) you’re defenseless
  3891. >Christ on a fucking cracker how did they already win? This is so unfair
  3892. >You turn around and peer over Gloria’s shoulder
  3893. >Mike and Jenna are back-to-back, fending off no less than five vampire cheerleaders by themselves, blasting holy water in wide sprays
  3894. >Jenna’s garlic necklace and bumblebee costume might keep her safe, but Mike is straight up raw dogging it
  3895. >You can see that even the tips of his fingers are starting to burn from stray splashes
  3896. >Well, everyone’s fucked now- wait, where’s Sam?
  3897. >There is no Sam right now, but there is Samurai Outlaw
  3898. >The hooded hero dashes in front of Gloria with her baseball bat drawn, bringing the hulking Goat to a halt
  3899. >Samurai Outlaw’s chest heaves — both with nerves and exhaustion
  3900. >From scared amber eyes, she peers up at you like a mountain climber might look up at a perilous summit 
  3901. >With curiosity, Gloria reaches for Samurai Outlaw, but the bun jumps out of the way
  3902. >”Sam?” Gloria asks, her voice deep as a canyon. “What are you doing?”
  3903. >Samurai Outlaw rips down her red bandana
  3904. >”S-S-S- GOD DAMNIT s-s-saving the world,” she yells, so that Gloria can hear her above the yowls and screams of the cheerleaders
  3905. >Gloria scowls
  3906. >”Only one person can save the world, and His name is Jesus Christ.”
  3907. >The goat sweeps her free arm at Samurai Outlaw, but the bunny propels herself upwards into the air
  3908. >Gloria’s meaty arm passes harmlessly underneath the rabbit, who stomps back onto the polished wooden floors with a massive *thud*
  3909. >”Heretic!” Gloria’s cry vibrates in the hollows of your chest
  3910. >She stomps her huge feet
  3911. >The whole gym seems to quake in sharp bursts
  3912. >Samurai Outlaw falls onto her ass, momentarily dazed
  3913. >Taking advantage of Samurai Outlaw’s temporary immobility, the goat lifts one massive foot to stomp the hero out like a bug
  3914. >But the bun is quick to scramble up to her feet and hop (heh) out of the way
  3915. >To add injury to insult, Samurai Outlaw grips her baseball bat tight, pulls it behind her shoulders, and swings for the fences…
  3916. >…Though Gloria’s leg happens to be in the way
  3917. >Maybe that was the point
  3918. >The bat collides with the goat’s shine bone, resonating with a mighty and metallic *THUNK*
  3919. >Your captor roars with pain
  3920. >Gloria keels over, eyes squeezed shut, her grip on you loosening
  3921. >Now’s your chance
  3922. >You start to pull and wriggle yourself free, feeling less like a worm on a hook and more like a fish in a loose net
  3923. >Samurai Outlaw swings with two more rapid bursts, the bat colliding into Gloria’s shin bone like a freight train
  3924. >And right as you get free and tumble onto the hard gym floor, Gloria kicks out her wounded leg, punting Samurai Outlaw across the gym
  3925. >She CRASHES into a table, knocking the whole thing over and falling limp
  3926. >But you’re okay
  3927. >Kind of
  3928. >The fall dazed you, but Gloria looks more stunned than you are, which is a blessing
  3929. >”God damnit you stupid mutt!” Vanessa cries. ”Grab him!”
  3930. >You turn to see Vanessa smacking The Behemoth, who cowers next to her
  3931. >What the fuck is this
  3932. >”Why won’t you do as I tell you!?” She screams
  3933. >The beast finally budges, its ephemeral ears folded backwards
  3934. >It takes slow, plodding steps towards you, like it was dodging land mines
  3935. >Why is it not lunging at you and attacking?
  3936. >What the fu-
  3937. >Ah
  3938. >You feel Gloria’s massive, gaudy crucifix against your chest
  3939. >That’s right. It’s afraid of it
  3940. >You breathe a sigh of relief
  3941. >The behemoth won’t get near you
  3942. >And Vanessa can’t use The Book of Wrath on you when you’ve got The Book of Rite with you
  3943. >All was going as well as it could
  3944. >Until you feel a dark shadow eclipse the spotlights now shining holes into you
  3945. >You look up
  3946. >Oh
  3947. >Well
  3948. >Fuck
  3949. >Vanessa looms over you, hands on her hips, the canvas bag with The Book of Wrath sticking out of it is resting on the gym’s floor
  3950. >Completely unattended
  3951. >Holy fuck
  3952. >Your eyes flick between Vanessa and the bag
  3953. >”I’ve gotta do everything myself,” Vanessa growls, her fangs boldly exposed
  3954. >You jump to your feet and throw a quick punch at Vanessa
  3955. >This time you’re not going to get your ass kic-
  3956. >The doe expertly catches the thrown fist and pushes it back, the look of boredom and annoyance on her face never crossing over into strain
  3957. >God, you must really be weak
  3958. >Or she’s juiced up with a curse?
  3959. >Whatever it is, she uses her new strength to her advantage…
  3960. >And belts you one in the face
  3961. >Actually, more like in the nose
  3963. >Bright lights fading to darkness
  3964. >Your vision explodes; white rods and cones
  3965. >You feel (and hear) bone crunching as the doe’s strained fist collides with your pathetic — now bloody — human nose
  3966. >And back you go, a few stumbles
  3967. >And yet you remain standing
  3968. >Even with your fists raised like a boxer
  3969. >Oh the things you learned from anime
  3970. >Blood gushes from your nose
  3971. >”That was a solid hit,” Vanessa cocks a pierced eyebrow. “How are you still standing?”
  3972. >You spit some accumulating blood out of your mouth
  3973. “Because I hate you.”
  3974. >You lunge forward and ACTUALLY manage to catch the doe by surprise
  3975. >You deal her a sucker punch in the gut
  3976. >She’s a lot bonier than you could have imagined
  3977. >She keels over with a massive *huff* as you push all the air out of her with your fist
  3978. >Fuck, gotchu, you bit-
  3979. >Venssa’s arm swings wide at your throat
  3980. >And it’s only dumb luck that you bend backwards
  3981. >And thank fuck that you did
  3982. >Because you catch the metallic glint of a razor blade flashing in the spotlight
  3983. >Just inches from your neck
  3984. >”Fuck,” Vanessa growls low
  3985. >Her eyes meet yours. “Lucky dodge.”
  3986. >You came just inches away from having your throat slashed open
  3987. >And all you can ask is:
  3988. ”Who brings a razor to a fist fight?”
  3989. >”Yo, Vanessa!”
  3990. >A voice, faintly familiar-
  3991. >Awww fuck
  3992. >A spotlight lights another goth — Reese, that ghostly pale, black-haired goth boy — with-
  3993. >SHIT
  3994. >-With Sam slung over his shoulder
  3995. >Reese is standing by the door to the equipment room, ready to move
  3996. >Vanessa grins
  3997. >”Guess you lose this round, ‘’Nonny.’”
  3998. >The way she says it is most definitely mocking
  3999. >But you know why she’s choosing that name now
  4000. >The ground shakes
  4001. >Gloria roars behind you
  4002. >You spin and see the gigantic goat glaring down at you, her face red with pain after Sam(urai Outlaw) thwacked the shit out of her leg
  4003. >You try backing up a bit, but you know your efforts are in vain, as Vanessa is behind you by just a few feet
  4004. >Caught between a rock and a hard place?
  4005. >Guess you could always try… diplomacy?
  4006. “Gloria…” you start, not sure where you’re going to take this
  4007. >Fuck dude, you better think of something, because the only thing between you and certain death is the book that both Vanessa and Gloria want
  4008. >You hear a lion roar, right as you open your mouth
  4009. >All three of you look towards the source of the noise, and see Mike up in the air, hoisted above Lydia Penferth’s head like a trophy
  4010. >He swings a stubby arm at her valiantly, but can find no purchase with his free hand
  4011. >Jenna, on the other hand, is barricaded behind a few tables as the vampire cheerleaders press in on all sides
  4012. >She manages to drop one of them with her holy water pistol, but there are still four left
  4013. >And she only has so much ‘ammunition’ in the tank
  4014. >And Alex?
  4015. >Absolutely nowhere to be seen
  4016. >Maybe he’s still in the hall with Sylvia?
  4017. >Who fucking knows anymore
  4018. >Everything is fucked now
  4019. >Honestly, you should just give up the book at this point
  4020. >You came in with a shit plan and got dunked on
  4021. >But one thing first
  4022. >You turn back up to Gloria and try to find the judgmental (yet blindingly innocent) goat behind her angry eyes
  4023. >You hope she’s still in there somewhere, like some good girl piloting an out-of-control meat-mecha
  4024. “I’m sorry for lying to you on Tuesday and using you as a sacrifice. What happened to you is my fault.” 
  4025. >The hulking goat looks… wounded? Hurt?
  4026. >”W-What?” She stammers
  4027. “I said I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”
  4028. >She shakes her head and takes a hulking step backwards
  4029. >”’N-Nonny?” She huffs, conflict as plain on her face as the confusion. “What are you saying?”
  4030. >And then you do something that maybe you should not have done
  4031. >But it felt right at the time
  4032. >You unwind your (Gloria’s) crucifix from around your neck, piling up the gold chain and massive wooden cross into your palm
  4033. “This is yours. Remember what you said about people being capable of change? In the gym on Tuesday? You were right — and I’m trying to change. I’m sorry, for everything. I was a coward back then, and maybe I’m still a weak coward, but I’m trying to change because of you and all my friends.”
  4034. >The goat kneels down and, with delicacy and surgical precision, plucks the crucifix necklace from your palms
  4035. >She holds it up to the light while Vanessa looks on, astonished
  4037. >The black book in Vanessa’s hands
  4038. >Then a spill of blood
  4039. >And then Gloria, pained, clutches at her head again
  4040. >”I’m sorry ‘Nonny!” She cries as she swings her brawny fist at you
  4041. >You hit the gym floor and cover your head as her first glides right over you
  4042. >Well that was a good dodge, you think to yourself
  4043. >Thank fuck she’s so sl-
  4044. >You fail your perception check and are completely blindsided by The Behemoth who is now free to destroy you as it pleases
  4045. >The Book of Rite goes flying from your pocket onto the gym floor, where Vanessa retrieves it
  4046. >Into her canvas bag it goes
  4047. >”Good dog.” She claps her hands like a retarded seal
  4048. >”Vanessa!” Reese yells above the chaotic din. “We gotta go!”
  4049. >The doe looks between you, on the ground with her little pet above you, and then at Reese
  4050. >She looks disappointed that she won’t get to see you get mauled to death
  4051. >The Behemoth snarls in your face, as if waiting for Vanessa’s signal to eat your neck like jerky
  4052. >”Have at ‘em.” She flicks her wrist dismissively, turning her back and making for the equipment room with swift strides, tailing behind Reese who is carting an unconscious Sam over his shoulder
  4053. >You look up into the cold twisted face of The Behemoth, and though you can barely make out its shape, you know that behind the clouding, ephemeral shroud of smoke is a twisted mouth crowded by fangs
  4054. >And you know: time is running out
  4055. >When midnight rolls around, everything will be fucked
  4056. >And isn’t everything fucked now?
  4057. >And then something happens that you did not expect
  4058. >Both you and The Behemoth look over as the doors to the gym explode open
  4059. >The spotlights fly to the door, and everything stops, like all the air was sucked out of the room
  4060. >Sylvia is there, on all fours, frothing at the mouth her wild, psychotic eyes looking in all directions, but never at the same time
  4061. >She’s stark naked too, except for the heavy crystal earrings that she’s wearing
  4062. >And astride the feral badger, water pistol drawn…
  4063. >Oh god
  4064. >…Is Alex MOTHERFUCKING Mullen
  4065. >Gloria and The Behemoth orient themselves to face down the new threat
  4066. >Alex digs his heels into Sylvia
  4067. >She screeches with all the ferocity of someone so overloaded with conspiracy theories and alternative facts
  4068. >The mind-broken badger leaps forward, her sharp claws leaving scars against the polished gym floors
  4069. >Alex threads his hands into the shag of her fur, and braces for impact as The Behemoth tears off at Gloria and The Behemoth
  4071. >Alex, Sylvia, and The Behemoth collide in the air, tangling into each other with rabid ferocity, fur flying, claws and maws at each other’s throats
  4072. >Alex is quickly ejected from the battle and hurled forward
  4074. >You gasp as the sudden release of pressure on your chest opens up your lungs
  4075. >Your eyes instantly flick towards the open equipment room doors
  4076. >Now is your chance
  4077. >You throw yourself onto your feet, making sure you’re still armed with your water pistol and take one last look at Mike, who is still in a pitched battle with Lydia
  4078. >You two lock eyes for a quick second
  4079. >And he sees the open doors to the equipment room
  4080. >And then nods at you, as if to say ‘go’
  4081. >You nod back, turn on your heels, and tear off, lungs already burning, body aching all over from being beaten so badly already
  4082. >And you check your phone
  4083. >The time reads 11:30
  4084. >C’mon
  4085. >You will your body to move faster as you ascend the stairs behind the door in the equipment room
  4086. >Just a little faster
  4088. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxBiDoRtUMk&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=15&t=0s
  4089. >You are Mike MOTHERFUCKING Sapone
  4090. >And-
  4091. >”Looking tired, baby.” Lydia snarls, so annoyingly cocksure
  4092. “Shut the FUCK UP, Jesus!”
  4093. >Blood runs down your clawed up arm and drips onto the floor
  4094. >You pump another blast of water at her, which she dodges with the fluidity of… well… water?
  4095. >She claws downward across your already burnt chest, shredding your jacket and shirt
  4096. >Three ribbons of blood blossom where her claws scarred your skin
  4097. >You wince, but issue a deafening blow with the butt of your super soaker, clapping Vanessa across the jaw
  4098. >The lion is dazed, but there’s not enough time for you to pump another round at her
  4099. >”Good hit baby, but you think that little bit of plastic is going to stop me?”
  4100. >She throws her head forward
  4101. >Her skull crashes into your skull
  4102. >Light flashes in your eyes
  4103. >Blood threads down from the top of your skull, blinding you
  4104. >And then you feel your nose crumple as a tight, closed fist collides with it, sending you to the floor and you onto your back
  4105. >There’s another explosion of salt and iron in your mouth as blood sprays from your nose
  4106. >You peek through the blood stinging your eyes and catch Lydia halfway in the air, her arms wide and ready to rip into your neck
  4107. >Oh god, you’re getting pounced on
  4108. >You roll
  4109. >Hop to your feet
  4110. >And blindly pump another spray of holy water at her…
  4111. >…Which catches her in the leg
  4112. >The minute the spray touches her JNCO jeans she starts roaring with anguish
  4113. >”Mike you cunt!” She screams. “My mom just bought me these!”
  4114. >She stumbles forward
  4115. >You frantically pump another spray at her, this time aiming for her head
  4116. >But thanks to the blood in your eyes, your shot only manages to melt her ears
  4117. >Hot steam POURS off the lioness as her flesh starts to disintegrate
  4118. >”I swear to fuck,” she growls, shambling forward, “this time I’m not going to miss.”
  4119. >She swipes you with her claws
  4120. >Weakly, you hoist your water gun in front of you in some pathetic attempt to keep her from cutting open your throat
  4121. >And contrary to her earlier dialogue, she misses
  4122. >Her claws rend your water gun in half, soaking her all over with the reserve tank of holy water
  4123. >Particularly in the face
  4124. >Some drops catch you on the hands
  4125. >It’s worse than boiling water — it’s like having your hands coated in molten metal
  4126. >And yet
  4127. >It’s exactly what you need
  4128. >Lydia collapses onto her knees, clawing desperately at her melting face…
  4129. >…Which is now shedding skin and fur like a coat
  4130. >Though your own hands are starting to burn and melt, you only managed to catch a few drops
  4131. >You can only watch through your blood-stung vision as Lydia’s face literally melts off, all her piercings sloughing away with the rest of her fur and skin
  4132. >Desperately she tries catching them in her paws
  4133. >It’s actually… pretty disgusting
  4134. >Still screaming and coughing blood, the bones of her snout now exposed, she tries mashing her melted fur and piercings onto her face
  4135. >It accomplishes little
  4136. >”MIKE HELP ME!” She cries
  4137. >”OH GOD HELP!”
  4138. “I-”
  4139. >Oh shit
  4140. >You might have actually killed someone
  4141. >You leap at her, unsure what to do, only knowing that you want to help
  4142. >The lion grabs you by the shoulders, choking and gagging
  4143. >Her claws dig into your skin
  4144. >”YOU STUPID ASSHOLE!” She gargles. “I’LL KILL YOU!” 
  4145. >She yanks you against her
  4146. >Her jaw falls open
  4147. >She pulls your neck into her mouth like you were a chew toy
  4148. >The horrible gagging noises and chortling fill your ears
  4149. >Your eyes instinctively slam shut
  4150. >You can’t believe you fucking fell for her bullshit pity move
  4151. >God DAMNIT
  4152. >Welp, you fought your hardest
  4153. >And your future is over anyway
  4154. >Time to die
  4156. >But the sharp pain never comes 
  4157. >Her grip on your shoulders relaxes…
  4158. >…As she falls backwards, face practically gone
  4159. >Holy shit
  4160. >Did she just…
  4161. >Is she…
  4162. >Dead?
  4163. >Breathing hard from the adrenaline, you look down at Lydia’s mutilated and ruined form
  4164. >Her face is practically skeletal
  4165. >Yep
  4166. >She’s gone
  4168. >Your brush with death is sudden death makes you appreciate the chaos of the gym right now
  4169. > The heavy spotlights now rapidly panning between Alex’s battle with The Behemoth and Gloria
  4170. >And Jenna, still fending off the vampires, dropping another one with a well-placed shot
  4171. >You cough hard and a spattering of crimson blood comes up onto your partially melted hands
  4172. >Fuck
  4173. >You’re a complete mess right now
  4174. >You can’t breathe through your nose
  4175. >Your vision is blurred
  4176. >You’re probably not thinking straight from that blow to your head
  4177. >Your arm is shredded
  4178. >Hands partially melted
  4179. >Chest bleeding
  4180. >Legs bloody and wounded
  4181. >You’re ruined
  4182. >And so is your life
  4183. >”Mike!” Jenna pokes her head out from behind her barricade
  4184. >”Get to Anon! We’ll hold them off!”
  4185. >Alex, who is fighting his own battle with The Behemoth, Sylvia and Gloria, concurs as he dodges a stomp from Gloria
  4187. >You just stare placidly, slack-jawed, not sure what Alex means, and especially not sure what you’re going to do next
  4188. >Is there still hope?
  4189. >The whole school rumbles as The Behemoth shrinks away from Sylvia’s flying claws
  4190. >It issues a challenging roar and leaps forward into the badger, rending her fur
  4191. >They’re right
  4192. >This is your chance
  4193. >You haven’t laid yourself to waste for nothing
  4194. >At the very least, you can get some revenge
  4195. >Putting all of your resolve and hatred into your quivering legs, you jog towards the equipment room doors
  4196. >As the sound of pitched battle explodes around you
  4198. >The ground shakes and trembles as if a switch was suddenly thrown 
  4199. >And your heart sinks when you realize what probably just happened
  4200. >…The ritual was set in motion
  4202. >The Behemoth raises its head to the ceiling and issues a triumphant, victorious roar, and then blinks out of existence
  4203. >The sound of raised car alarms fills the gym
  4204. >It must be in the parking lot now
  4205. >A bloody Sylvia flinches and skitters backwards at the sheer volume
  4206. >Even to your ears, it’s sharp like broken glass against your eardrums
  4207. >You don’t slow down
  4208. >You don’t look back
  4209. >You throw open the door leading up into the tunnels
  4210. >And dive right into the darkness
  4212. >You are Anonymous
  4213. >And you feel like crying
  4214. >Like, actually dropping to your knees in a terrible fit of anger and frustration
  4215. >You’re drenched in sweat and your body is badly bruised and beaten
  4216. >The ritual started
  4217. >The books are nowhere to be seen
  4218. >And neither is Sam or Vanessa
  4219. >You made it to the altar room, the one all scarred up with cryptic drawings and that burning ‘31’ etched onto the wall
  4220. >And the basin at the center of the room is filled with fresh blood
  4221. >Bunny blood
  4222. >In the ephemeral orange light of the room, you see a steady trail of blood leading your eyes across the room, back into the halls, and disappearing into the dark
  4223. >Standing between you and that trail of blood is Reese, a goth
  4224. >The guy who carried Sam up here
  4225. >He’s roughly your size, though pale as cream cheese. His blue lips look almost suffocated
  4226. >Black hair drips across his sweat-soaked face
  4227. “Outta my goddamn way, Reese,” you snarl at him. “I don’t have time for your bullshit right now.”
  4228. >”Pathetic mortal,” Reese scoffs, showing his bright vampire fangs. “I can’t let you past me. Turn around now.”
  4229. “Don’t give me that ‘pathetic mortal’ shit, you useful idiot. Step aside or I’m going through you.”
  4230. >”Sorry dude. Guess you’re just going to have to go through me.”
  4231. “Reese I swear to fucking G-”
  4232. >The vampire goth is too eager
  4233. >He leaps over the bloody altar, mouth wide open, ready to sink his fangs into your neck
  4234. >You move to the side easily as the useful idiot crashes clumsily into the wall behind you
  4235. >He turns to you with a growl
  4236. >”Heh, you’re fast, but I’m faster.”
  4237. >Actually you’re not fast
  4238. >That was the easiest dodge ever
  4239. “Nothing about that was fast at all, but nice try.”
  4240. >”I guess I’ll have to use… THAT…”
  4241. >What is this, a shitty anime?
  4242. >He lunges directly at you, catching you in the midsection and hurling you against a wall
  4243. >Okay, that one actually hurt, you think, as your body collides with the scarred up walls
  4244. “Why do you obnoxious cunts have to be so strong?” You rise to your feet, still shaking out the adrenaline and the pain in equal measures
  4245. >”Because we have been given the gift of speed and strength by our queen, Vanessa Doermuth.”
  4246. >You draw your water pistol from under your robes and level it at his chest
  4247. “Bet she didn’t make you immune to this.”
  4248. >”A water pistol? My queen will be most pl-”
  4249. >You spray him in the face
  4250. >”MOTHER FUCKER!” He shrieks, clawing at his cheeks and eyes
  4251. >The smell of melting skin makes your stomach churn, and you don’t like doing this, but my GOD is your body in pain
  4252. >You’d drown in morphine right now if you could
  4253. >So with anger you pull the trigger again and blast Reese in the crotch, melting away any chance he ever had of reproducing
  4254. >He collapses, legs kicking violently underneath him
  4255. “I told you, I don’t have time to put up with your shit right now.”
  4256. >You holster your water pistol in your a belt loop beneath your robes
  4257. >Every motion and movement fucking HURTS as you grunt your way into the dark hall, leaving Reese to turn to a pile of goth-goo and ashes
  4258. >You have one singular goal in mind as you follow the trail of blood into the dark:
  4259. >Find Sam
  4261. >The door to the rooftop shuts behind you as the raised wind batters it
  4262. >You stand on the rooftop, the night sky dominated by the moon
  4263. >And
  4264. >Standing as a shadow against the titanic moon, is Vanessa
  4265. >But you don’t care about that dumb hoe right now
  4266. >Your eyes quickly fall on Sam, who is unconscious near the roof’s edge, laying in a big heap of herself
  4267. >”You know, her blood is really useful. Plus Reese tells me she’s light as a feather. She’ll come in handy in the new world.”
  4268. “Reese is dead,” you say, taking a step forward, clenching your fists. “He’s melting right now next to the altar. Don’t you care?”
  4269. >The doe throws her head back and laughs
  4270. >The canvas bag dangles in her hands
  4271. >”You think that’s going to get me to drop everything and rush down there? Nope!” She laughs again, her bright fangs glistening with need. “Reese served his purpose. And so did you! Look at what you brought me!”
  4272. >She holds up the canvas bag
  4273. >”Like a good little idiot.”
  4274. >The sight of that bag is enough to make your heart start to race
  4275. >All you’d have to do is… somehow beat Vanessa and get both of those books back… and… grab Sam and… do it all before midnight rolls around
  4276. >Speaking of
  4277. >A quick glance at your phone
  4278. >It’s 11:40
  4279. >20 minutes until the end of the world
  4281. >”See that?” Vanessa points up at the red moon. “It’s almost time for the new world, Anonymous. Aren’t you excited?!”
  4282. >The moon is so close that you swear, if you were good and drunk, you might leap off this roof in an effort to grab onto it
  4283. >Bright flashes of memory come back to you in lightning bolts of clarity
  4284. >You can see yourself sitting next to Sam and Alex and Mike on the edge of the roof, chucking beers over the edge
  4285. >Bullshitting about lives you didn’t live
  4286. >You, hiding your cowardice, avoiding the big questions like college and what will become of your friendships after school is over
  4287. >Taking your anxiety out on Sam
  4288. >And Sam, still hiding who she is, covering her abuse and neglect with the oversized clothes and awkwardness
  4289. >Sam
  4290. >Who is now broken-legged and on the edge of the roof, one good shove from oblivion
  4291. >But Vanessa doesn’t seem to want to hurt her
  4292. >’She’ll come in handy in the new world.’
  4293. >What new world?
  4294. >You lurch forward, just a little bit, grunting as you put pressure onto your beaten joints
  4295. >Vanessa smiles as she sees you approaching
  4296. >”Oh? You’re approaching me? Instead of running away, you’re coming towards me?”
  4297. >Ooh you hate her
  4298. “I’m not saying the lines,” you say through clenched teeth. “Now get over here so I can punch your lights out you evil bitch.”
  4299. >”Fair enough.”
  4300. >She darts forward, head down, eyes forward
  4301. >This anime bitc-
  4302. >She plants a strong right foot in front of her, cocks back her arm and swings into your stomach
  4303. >You manage to block it with your arms
  4304. >But the bone-shattering force of her hit forces a scream out of you
  4305. >You swear you’re seeing stars
  4306. >And she didn’t even have to blast you in the head
  4307. >Your arm rings and vibrates with pain, but you bring your leg up for a kick
  4308. >You’re no karate master, but you do manage to hit her in the side
  4309. >She winces with pain
  4310. >The ensuing psychotic smile she flashes makes you regret having kicked her
  4311. >And when she grabs onto your leg, leans back, and starts twirling you in a tight arc, you REALLY regret kicking her
  4312. >The world becomes a blur
  4313. >Colors and shape lose their meaning
  4314. >Everything is just a mishmash of everything, atomized and reduced to smears of motion
  4315. >Then everything snaps into focus as she releases her grasp on your leg
  4316. >You’re airborne now, sailing across the roof of the school like a human comet
  4317. >You skid back to earth, your back scraping on the grit and gravel of the rooftop
  4318. >When your body comes to a halt, you’re dangerously close to the edge of the roof, and dangerously close to being paralyzed by Vanessa
  4319. >Why?
  4320. >Because now she’s airborne and falling fast, her heavy black boots ready to smash your skull and grind your brain into a fine paste
  4321. >Splayed out on the gravel, it takes a good amount of your strength just to throw yourself out of the way of her killing blow
  4322. >She lands like she weighs 20 tons
  4323. >You feel the shock wave of her landing in your palms
  4324. >You climb to your feet and throw a quick jab at Vanessa
  4325. >Yet again, she catches your fist with little effort
  4326. >Still holding your fist in the air she sucker-punches you in the gut
  4327. >And there, on the rooftop, the final hope for humanity is brought low
  4328. >You seem to crumple around her fist
  4329. >All the air is forced out of your lungs as you drop to your knees
  4330. >You suck oxygen like earth was running out
  4331. >And who knows, in Vanessa’s new world, maybe that’s the case?
  4332. >Through all of this, that canvas bag is still in the crook of her elbow
  4333. >The two most important books in the world, and there they are, in a thin canvas fucking bag, right in front of you
  4334. >Shaking and badly bruised, you reach for the bag
  4335. >The doe laughs and bats your arm away like an annoying fly
  4336. >She all but punches your lights out with an unnaturally wild right cross that sends you skittering across the rooftop
  4337. >Your eyes snap shut, and you try to pretend that it’s not happening, which has been your strategy for everything in your life that scares you
  4338. >You try to pretend that none of this is real and that this is all some really bad teen movie, or that you’re trapped in some shitty dubbed anime
  4339. >But it’s real. It’s all real. Vanessa, the moon, Sam, Mike, Jenna, Alex, The Behemoth
  4340. >You’d rather get a slap to the face to wake you up, but you can’t choose how things happen
  4341. >Vanessa starts laughing in that really obnoxious laugh that’s made you hate her for so many years, and you want to tell her to shut the fuck up, but you can’t put your energy into words
  4342. >”Outnumbered, outclassed, outdone,” she lifts you easily in the air by the collar of your vestments and stares into your eyes. “And here I thought at least you and I could see common ground. I really thought you’d understand. And after all you’ve done for us, I was perfectly willing to let you live.”
  4344. >Well, here we are
  4345. >This same tired start where the story began
  4346. >You on the rooftop, the parking lot a total wreck, you close to death, and everything everywhere a complete and utter mess
  4348. >Vanessa’s lips curl up into a smile, and the fangs — which a doe definitely shouldn’t have — slide forward
  4349. >”Unlike people, I guess some things change.”
  4350. >You never thought it’d end like this. In all the fantasies you’ve had of your demise, death-by-doe was not one of them
  4351. >Your beaten head rolls back, like your neck was a noddle and your head a bowling ball
  4352. >You feel swollen all over, wet with blood and sweat
  4353. “You know, I think you’re right. People don’t change,” you say, struggling for breath
  4354. >Your gaze briefly flits to Sam’s crumpled body on the edge of the roof, and then back to Vanessa, who is staring so triumphantly back at you through darkening eyes
  4355. >”Little too late to fly a new flag there, Anon. You missed your chance to be on the winning side.”
  4356. “You didn’t let me finish.” You breathe hard. “I was going to say I always hated you. I still hate you. Even if I could understand where you were coming from, I’d still hate you. In some ways, people don’t change, because I will always, always hate you.” You take a shallow breath. “But you’re wrong about everything else.”
  4357. >Vanessa flashes a toothy grin, or some poor attempt at containing her fury — one of the two
  4358. >”Aww you’re cute, you know that? If I were into humans — scrawny cowards like you — I might think about making you some sort of concubine in the new world. But sadly…”
  4359. >She lifts you higher in the air like you’re some kind of rag doll
  4360. >”People just don’t change.”
  4361. >She cocks her arm back, and in one swift motion, hurls you with unbelievable force
  4362. >Your back slams against the hard metal door of the rooftop’s maintenance access entryway, a low, hunched over brick building jutting out from the roof
  4363. >You bounce forward, coming to rest against the door, all the air ejected from your lungs via concussive force
  4364. >You lurch forward and breathlessly gasp, propped upright by sheer luck
  4365. >You swear you physically felt yourself going concussed
  4366. >”You’ll be a coward forever!” She howls, starting forward, “Always creeping in the dark, always running from what threatens your peace. I know your type.”
  4367. >She towers over you with clenched fists, her blood moon shadow engulfing you entirely
  4368. >The sound of car alarms blaring draws both of your attention
  4369. >And then a terrible squealing noise that shakes the rooftop gravel, the sound of The Behemoth raging somewhere
  4370. >”Can you hear it? Maybe not with your pathetic human ears, but I can. It’s the sound of a human’s spirit breaking. Ooooh we’re so close now to the end now.”
  4371. >She shivers, but not from the cold and biting wind. Her expression turns soft as she look down at your pathetic, writhing form
  4372. >“Seeing you like this, down and out, moments away from death, I can’t help but pity you just a little.”
  4373. “You don’t have pity,” you wheeze, still trying to recover from the glancing blow dealt to the back of your head (which you’re sure is starting to bleed now). “You only have anger and hate for people who couldn’t care less about you at all.”
  4374. >”You mean those SHEEP in the gym beneath us? Of course they don’t care. And that’s their crime. They’re self-absorbed, self-obsessed, normal, well-adjusted, happy, social and loving, and they always, always will be. You and I are different — that’s why I trusted you. It’s why I thought you’d understand what I had to do.”
  4375. >She leans in close
  4376. >”I wanted you to rule beside me, you stupid fucking coward. At least you know what it feels like not to belong.”
  4377. >Your vision is going fuzzy, but you’re still lucid enough to spit blood and curses
  4378. “Fuck you, Vanessa. Gloria was right this whole time. People can change. You’re just a sad, lonely doe who never got the message.” Blood and curses fly from your mouth
  4379. >Did you bite your tongue?
  4380. >Vanessa shrieks with laughter
  4381. >Real, horrible, rib sucking laughter
  4382. >”Oh Anon, how I wish that were true. Maybe you’d have seen our side of things… saw all these normalcunts for what they are: shallow and selfish. But it’s okay. I’m going to make everything better. We can all be equal in our madness as we tear this world apart, brick by rotten brick.”
  4383. >JESUS CHRIST she’s insane
  4384. >You thought she was just edgy and had gone too far, but no, she’s just insane
  4385. >And cocky too
  4386. >Villains
  4387. >Why do they always have to gloat?
  4388. >You might gloat too if you were her
  4389. >And you’re about to have reason to gloat
  4390. >Your hand sneaks beneath your robes, where you keep the water pistol tucked into a belt loop
  4391. “Some free advice, you crazy bitch:” you say, aiming the pistol upwards under your vestments. “don’t monologue.”
  4392. >Vanessa recognizes the shape of your holy water pistol beneath the robes all too late
  4393. >Triumphantly, you squeeze off a few shots that fly through the relatively thin fabric of your fake vestments
  4394. >Thank FUCK for cheap costumes
  4395. >They catch Vanessa once on the breast of her skin-tight black jacket
  4396. >And then again in the face, arms and legs
  4397. >It’s about as unceremonious as it gets — little streams of water pounding against Vanessa’s arms, legs, chest and face
  4398. >No concussive heat blast, no triumphant orange muzzle flash to herald her doom
  4399. >Just holy water in a cheap, 99-cent water pistol
  4400. >But it’s enough
  4401. >She flinches and winces as the streams of water strike her
  4402. >Wisps of steam and smoke trail off her as a bright scar appears where her skin and makeup begin to slough off from her face
  4403. >And yet beneath the searing flesh, you can see a hateful, devil’s grin
  4404. >Reminds you of Sam’s dad
  4405. >”Very clever you little CUNT.”
  4406. >You pull the trigger again — and you keep pulling it until her hand grips the water pistol and easily squeezes it into shards, sending plastic and holy water flying in all directions
  4407. >With skin and fur falling away from her hands, revealing tightly corded and magically cursed muscle beneath, she looks up at her now bloody and raw fist with morbid curiosity
  4408. >And then with contempt down at you
  4409. >”You’re still a coward…” she hisses through her fangs
  4410. >Oh god
  4411. >Her face is starting to peel and welt up
  4412. >Still winded from being hurled across the roof, you can do little more than struggle when she grips you by the collar and pulls you to your feet
  4413. >She pulls back her right arm like a pistol’s hammer being cocked back
  4414. >”…You brought a gun to a fist fight!”
  4415. >Her arm explodes forward and hits you so goddamn harm in the jaw that you don’t actually feel it
  4416. >You feel the blunt force of her bloody fist colliding with your jawbone, but the tremendous shock of pain that normally follows a finishing blow like that doesn’t come
  4417. >What gets you is the way your body collides with the door, head slamming backwards into the cold metal
  4418. >Now THAT hurt
  4419. >But at least she hit you hard enough to knock you from her grasp
  4420. >Dazed, you can see Vanessa pulling her bleeding fist back again for another killing blow
  4421. >And it happens in slow motion
  4422. >For once you’re grateful to have been belted one
  4424. >The way her arm pushes forward, a comet’s tail of fresh blood streaking off of her now boiling arm and chest and face…
  4425. >…The way the cars begin flying through the air haphazardly behind her, as if tossed by some gigantic child — but you know that’s the Behemoth’s work as it spreads its madness to the moon and stars…
  4426. >And it’s in this slow motion that you’re able to duck your head and roll onto your side
  4427. >The doe’s triumphant fist punches a hole in the door right in the space where your head used to be, all metal shredding inward like a flower’s petals opening
  4428. >You hit the ground hard, getting a face full of gravel and grime
  4429. >And maybe a few pebbles up the nose
  4430. >Vanessa rips her hand out of the door, the thin canvas bag dangling in the crook of her elbow
  4431. >She bellows a deep, scarred-throat shredding roar, as if she were full of hell itself
  4432. >But you hardly hear it
  4433. >Your eyes are fixed on something else: that swinging bag she’s carrying, so tantalizingly close
  4435. >Without thinking you reach out and-
  4436. >You get a black boot in the gut as Vanessa roars, the glint of madness long since swallowed by darkness and rage
  4437. >You can’t even see her pupils anymore — just black stones
  4438. >Sputtering blood from your mouth, your mind instinctively reels backwards in time, flying at the speed of a warm blood rush
  4439. >You just want to find a place in your memories that doesn’t hurt
  4440. >And maybe it’s because you’re on the rooftop again, but you can’t help but find yourself back in the same place you were last week near this time
  4442. >Friday night, one week ago you-
  4443. >Another stuttering kick in the gut and you’re sucking air
  4444. >-You were all on the rooftop drinking and-
  4445. >Your hands grope blindly against the side of the maintenance access entryway, feeling for something — anything to anchor you to reality
  4446. >-And you still had beers leftover and-
  4447. >You fight against the urge to vomit as the doe clutches you by the throat, your airways pinched off in a vice grip
  4448. >She starts to hoist you in the air, face-to-face with her, spitting blood through her sharpened teeth, face peeling and sizzling, revealing a mask of muscle and raw skin beneath her velvety fur
  4449. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQwKWuTrlCY&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=22
  4450. >She shrieks in a voice not her own, “I WANNA SEE THE LIGHT LEAVE YOUR EYES!”
  4451. >>-The four of you elect to leave the rest of your beers on the roof, right next to the rooftop door, making plans to return again-
  4452. >Your searching fingers find the still full bottle against the side of the access tunnel and wrap around its neck
  4453. >You feel Vanessa’s second hand cinch around your throat like a vice
  4454. >She lifts you in the air under her own strength, too fixed on your inevitable suffocation to notice the amber bottle dangling in your right hand
  4455. >Dark stars all around you
  4456. >Swarms of unconsciousness bleed in around the corners of your vision, stretching inward like ruthless vines
  4457. >You’re very still and limp as she chokes the life out of you, and you know: this is your time
  4458. >Sam isn’t moving over there on the ledge
  4459. >Jenna, Alex, Mike and Sylvia are still trapped in the gym
  4460. >She squeezes your airways shut
  4461. >She squeezes for everything she’s worth
  4462. >Everything she’s worked for and built
  4463. >Everything you’ve tried to undo
  4464. >And for what?
  4465. >What was it all for?
  4466. >For Sam
  4467. >For Alex
  4468. >For Jenna
  4469. >For Mike
  4470. >
  4471. >For something that matters
  4472. >You bring your arm up, the amber bottle shot through with red moonlight; like Excalibur ripped from the lake
  4473. >Vanessa’s eyes go up, settling on your weapon, its oblong shape reflected in her black pupils like a prophecy from beyond time
  4474. >With your last moments of consciousness, feeling her bloody fingers pressed tight against your skin, your grip tightens and…
  4475. >…you bring down your arm down in a hammer-stroke, the bottle crashing sharp against the top of her skull
  4477. >The bottle breaks into heavy shards and a spray of warm beer, leaving you with only its jagged neck as you fall from Vanessa’s grasp
  4478. >The doe throws her hands onto her head and screams
  4479. >You drop like a cinder block into a heap of blood and cheap costume fabric
  4480. >One last thing though
  4481. >With the last bit of lucidity you can still scrounge up from your brush with death, you swipe the sharp remnants of the bottle against the taut strap of her canvas bag with enough force to sheer the fabric
  4482. >It drops against the rooftop, spilling its contents — and the two books — everywhere
  4484. >You gasp and suck and sputter, struggling to put air back into your nearly-collapsed lungs
  4485. >The books are just feet away, while Vanessa stumbles backwards, blood cascading down her face from a now bright red gash on the top of her skull
  4486. >You’d reach for the books but… you just have nothing left in the tank
  4487. >She screams and shrieks horribly through the pain and…
  4488. >Fuck
  4489. >…Lunges towards you
  4491. >Well, this is all you can do, you guess
  4492. >You played your last card and you still couldn’t stop her
  4493. >You’re sorry to everyone you’ve let down
  4494. >Which is… literally everyone on earth
  4495. >But more importantly:
  4496. >Sam, who risked everything for a better life
  4497. >For Alex who wanted to change the world
  4498. >For Jenna who… gave up her car?
  4499. >And for Mike, who ruined his entire life for you
  4500. >If he was here, you’d scream apologies, beg his forgiveness
  4501. >But he’s not
  4502. >You’re cold
  4503. >So very cold now
  4504. >Alone
  4505. >And ready to die
  4507. >The door to the roof flies open
  4508. >You weakly turn your head around and squint through your collapsing vision
  4509. >Standing there in the portal, breathing hard and gripping the frame like a life preserver in choppy seas…
  4510. >…Is the BIGGEST asshole you’ve ever met…
  4511. >Mike MOTHERFUCKING Sapone
  4512. >”You bitch,” he seethes
  4513. >He starts forward, and you notice his body is practically ruined
  4514. >No water gun
  4515. >MASSIVE bloody gashes running down his chest and arms and legs
  4516. >Blood from his forehead forcing one of his eyes shut
  4517. >Nose crooked
  4518. >Hands looking like they’ve been dipped in a vat of acid
  4519. >He rushes past you, almost like you’re not even there, suffocating on the ground
  4520. >”You stole my friend.”
  4521. >”You stole HIS boyfriend.” He jabs a finger at you
  4522. >He lunges through the air, intercepting Vanessa mid-sprint
  4523. >”You stole my future!”
  4525. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZbOvE996hY&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=24&t=0s
  4526. >The pair tangle their limbs together, digging tooth and nail into one another, fighting to stay on their feet
  4527. >The first one to go down isn’t getting back up again, you know that
  4528. >Vanessa gives Mike a powerful shove, sending him clunk-footing backwards
  4529. >She follows up with a wild right that goes wide as Mike ducks it
  4530. >And watching him move, even all ragged and bloody, is like watching water slip around sharp rocks
  4531. >He comes up strong, exploding with an uppercut that knocks Vanessa a good inch or two into the air
  4532. >Though she lands on her back, the doe is far from done
  4533. >She swiftly rolls out of the way of another rage-guided fist, meant for her face, which explodes into the gravel
  4534. >And in an instant she’s back on her feet, breathing hard, her face a horrible, bloody mask of what she once was
  4535. >The Behemoth roars, shaking the entire school — hell, maybe even the earth, you don’t know
  4536. >Now is your chance
  4537. >The world is ringing. Everything starts to collapse around you — an avalanche of sensory data cascading in on you all at once:
  4538. >Mike and Vanessa, tangled up together, near the edge;
  4539. >Dark stars pulsing and receding in the fringes of your vision;
  4540. >The feel of the gravel and grit underneath you as you dig your fingers in and pull yourself across the rooftop;
  4541. >The hammering pain jumping and pulsing through your body, emanating from a bloody gash at the back of your head;
  4542. >Spinning nausea rising in your gut;
  4543. >Heart hammering like God Himself was pounding on your ribcage with a mallet;
  4544. >The sight of Sam aching to her feet;
  4545. >The panic that rises in you when you see Mike come away from Vanessa as a splattering of crimson is shot up against the moon;
  4546. >His shriek and Vanessa’s laughter against your ears;
  4547. >Everything, all at once:
  4548. >One time for all time
  4550. >Your right hand falls upon The Book of Wrath, its gritty black cover reflects the crimson light of the moon
  4551. >You flip it open to a page — any page — intent on one quick spell to knock Vanessa on her ass for good
  4552. >You look up
  4553. >Mike stumbles backwards, away from the rooftop’s edge, clutching at his neck
  4554. >Your eyes widen as blood spills out between his fingers
  4555. >He makes horrible, ugly gurgling sounds as he bleeds profusely through the slash across his throat
  4556. >A razor gleams in the doe’s hands
  4557. >She turns to look at you, and even from a distance, you can see the proud smile on her face that says, ‘That’s for the bottle.’
  4558. >Mike drops to his knees
  4559. >But you can’t take your eyes off your best friend, who is sharing a look with you
  4560. >A desperate, wild look, one that says, ‘I’m scared to die,’ and ‘I don’t want to go.’
  4561. >But there’s something else there behind his bulging and panicked eyes
  4562. >Another expression
  4563. >And it sends your heart plummeting when you lock eyes for the span of a heartbeat, because you know what he’s saying:
  4564. >’Goodbye.’
  4566. >No
  4567. >NO
  4568. “MIKE!” Your throat is raw, like you’ve been screaming with your head under scalding water
  4569. >You know what he has planned
  4570. >Mike, that asshole, rises to his feet, tottering on the edge of the roof where you once sat and threw beers at the city
  4571. >He releases his hold on his own neck, and blood comes cascading out like a dam bursting
  4572. >He needs both hands for this
  4573. >He needs Vanessa, who is striding forward, towards you, the razor gleaming in her hands
  4574. >”Now, your turn,” she says in your direction
  4575. >But she doesn’t get any further than a foot or two
  4577. >He wraps his tired arms around her waist and digs his feet back into the grit and gravel
  4578. >And starts dragging her backwards
  4579. >”Get the hell off me!” Vanessa throws an elbow at Mike
  4580. >But the distance to the edge is short, and he’s long since passed the stage of lucidity
  4581. >He’s just a body, hauling another body
  4582. >The last of what he has is wrapped around her waist
  4583. >All effort and pain and glory between his threaded fingers
  4584. >If Mike’s heart were anywhere else but his shuddering chest, it’d be between those fingers
  4585. >He stumbles backwards, hauling Vanessa’s struggling form towards the edge of the roof
  4586. >Now at the edge
  4587. >So close
  4588. >You scream again
  4589. “MIKE! YOU ASSHOLE!”
  4590. >He lets one foot slip off, his body suspended in purgatory, eyes to the sky, vacant and yet so full of moonlight you swear they’re glowing
  4591. >With one final effort he pulls Vanessa’s body tight against his own, takes another step backwards
  4592. >And then they’re gone
  4594. >You remain unreasonably still despite it all
  4595. >Everything has gone hauntingly quiet, save for the rush of blood pulsing through your veins
  4596. >That you are alive; you hear that loud and clear
  4597. >You just keep looking at the spot where Mike and Vanessa once were, as if they were going to reappear any second
  4598. >But they don’t. And the ground rumbles again with an otherworldly tremor again
  4599. >Your throat tightens up, reminiscent of the pain you felt when Vanessa was choking you out
  4600. >But this?
  4601. >This hurts more
  4603. >Your eyes instinctively flit towards some motion on the edge of the rooftop, just in the fringes of your vision
  4604. >It’s Sam, struggling to rise to her feet, wounded body trembling itself back into consciousness
  4605. >Sam
  4606. >It’s Sam
  4607. >WAIT
  4608. >IT’S SAM
  4609. >Suddenly you're on your feet, having collected the two books and an edge of the broken glass bottle
  4610. >”Sam!” You call, clutching at your head where the pain is the sharpest
  4611. >The little bunny can’t stand under her own power
  4612. >Your sprint across the rooftop
  4613. >It feels like you’re running the mile all over again
  4614. >Before you help Sam, you take a masochistic look over the edge of the roof
  4616. >Two bodies
  4617. >A pool of blood
  4618. >Still as the moonlight
  4619. >It’s a long way down, but you can see Mike’s eyes peacefully resting, his lips just slightly parted, almost as if he were sleeping and would never wake up again
  4620. >And Vanessa, that horrible bitch of a doe, looks shot through with surprise — eyes bulging, mouth agape
  4621. >But still and void, just like Mike
  4623. >Even though she’s pure hatred and evil, you can’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for her and her ilk
  4624. >No
  4625. >Sympathy isn’t the right word
  4626. >What you feel is pity
  4627. >That mike had to die, so that you may live-
  4628. >”A-Anon, h-help me,” Sam wheezes
  4629. >She’s limping upwards on a badly wounded leg
  4630. >-You’re not going to waste his sacrifice
  4631. >You slip your shoulder underneath Sam’s arm and hoist the rabbit to her feet
  4632. >She nearly collapses against you as her leg gives out again
  4633. >”S-S-Sorry,” she says, wincing. “T-T-Think it might b-be b-broken.”
  4634. “It’s alright,” you say to her. “Just hold out a little bit longer.”
  4635. >You press the books and shard of glass against your breast and stare fixedly at the open door
  4636. >The one with the hole punched into it
  4637. >The one leading into the dark
  4638. >And towards the end
  4640. >You race through the darkened corridors of the maintenance tunnels
  4641. >Well, race isn’t the proper verb to use
  4642. >It’s more like a speedy hobble in the sticky heat
  4643. >But it’s progress, despite how blurry everything is
  4644. >And how blurry your thinking feels
  4645. >Curious
  4646. >That’s all it is to you
  4647. >Curious
  4648. >Certainly not concerning
  4649. >But you feel that worry like a shard of ice against your bare skin
  4650. >Pain hammers behind your eyes, and your body feels like broken glass
  4651. >But time is of the essence, as each labored step through the darkness drags you closer and closer to the altar
  4652. >Sam is breathing hard, and to be fair, you’re practically gulping air
  4653. >Christ it gets hot up here
  4654. >”A-A-Anon, I c-c-can smell blood…” Sam’s voice is a high whine. “I-It’s really st-strong.”
  4655. >Careful not to drop the books or the slip of glass, you feel the back of your head, and gasp when you feel how wet with fresh blood it is
  4656. >Christ
  4657. >”O-Oh God,” Sam shudders. “A-A-Are you al-alright?”
  4658. “Yes,” you lie through clenched teeth. “Just keep p-pushing forward. I think we’re almost t-there.”
  4659. >In truth the pain is like a millstone around your neck
  4660. >Your heavy head and bruised up body want to collapse into the heat, to lay down and succumb to everything
  4661. >Death is a warm blanket
  4662. >You won’t allow yourself that comfort
  4663. >Not yet
  4665. >The fire-light glow of the room calls to you like a torch in the dark
  4666. >At the end of the hall, you see orange light slanting around a sharp corner, reflecting off the old copper pipes
  4667. “I think we’re almost there,” you say as you two hobble into the light
  4668. >You try smiling at Sam, but a lancing arc if pain drills right down from your head to your feet
  4669. >You halt in place and grit your teeth, body trembling as little tremors rip through you
  4670. >”A-Anon-” Sam looks up and gasps. “Y-Your head!”
  4671. >You again feel the back of your skull
  4672. >Oh Christ
  4673. >There’s so much blood
  4674. >And what’s more, you can feel a terrific gash
  4675. >”A-Anon we need to s-s-s-stop,” Sam says as she slides out and away from you
  4676. “We can’t-” Another wave of nausea and pain. “-Not here, not now.”
  4677. >”J-Just take it easy a-a-alright?”
  4678. >Her voice is so distant as you check your phone
  4679. >11:57
  4680. >You hear is a dull buzzing sound, like a swarm of locusts in your ear
  4681. >Those dark stars are back in the corners of your vision, pulling further and further inward
  4682. >You gasp sharply when they cloud your vision completely, sending them back to your peripherals, the way that a shoreline recedes in the electrified minutes before a tsunami
  4683. >You can see it now, as the narrow hallway opens up into a low, familiar room
  4684. >Strange etching and carvings adorn the walls, with a flame-written ‘31’ glowing large and bright like a neon sign
  4685. >And in the center of the room: the stone basin, still a shallow pool of blood in it
  4686. >You throw your hands onto the basin’s rim for support as another wave of agony overwhelms you
  4687. >Your lungs feel like they can’t get enough air
  4688. >You gasp
  4689. >And gasp
  4690. >And gasp
  4691. >And gasp
  4692. >Until the color returns to the room, all orange and pink, but tinged at the edges with gray and black
  4693. >The books and the glass shards fall from your shaking hand
  4694. >”H-H-Here.” Sam scoops them up and hands them to you. “P-Please t-t-take them, y-y-you’re the only one w-w-who knows what to d-d-do.”
  4695. >She wrings her ears
  4696. >You allow the books to fall into the center of the altar, where they are promptly saturated by Sam’s old blood
  4697. >Fuck
  4698. >Fuckity fuck fuck
  4699. >With shaking hands you flip open The Book of Rite, searching for that page about banishing
  4700. >But Christ, everything is so blurry, and your heart is racing so fast
  4701. >”An-Anon, here.” Sam holds her wrist above the altar, her sleeves pushed down her thin arms
  4702. >In her right hand is the jagged slice of glass
  4703. >Sam locks eyes with you and nods
  4704. >”T-Tell me w-when.” She steadies her shaking voice
  4705. >Fresh blood
  4706. >It has to be fresh
  4707. >You’ve been staring at the pages for too long
  4708. >You blink away the dark stars as your blood soaked fingers leaf through the pages of The Book of Rite
  4709. >It’s here
  4710. >It’s… somewhere in the middle
  4711. >11:58
  4713. >God, wouldn’t it be poetic to die at exactly midnight?
  4714. >Your hands are trembling too bad
  4715. >You’ve lost too much blood
  4716. >You’re concussed
  4717. >So just give up the ghost
  4718. >The world goes gray
  4719. >And then starts to get a bit darker
  4720. >How you’re remaining upright is anyone’s guess
  4721. >11:59
  4722. >A delicate furry hand starts leafing through the pages in front of you
  4723. >And you can see on the pages that same, torturous, spidery scrawl
  4724. >An old type of cursive written in fragmented pen
  4725. >And Sam points to a heading that’s faded with age
  4726. >”I-Is this i-it?” She says
  4727. >You hear her voice, but she sounds like he’s yelling across a canyon
  4728. >You read the heading, eyes bouncing around the scrawled cursive
  4729. >’Banishment’
  4730. >A smile spreads across your face — a wild, delirious smile
  4731. >You look up at Sam
  4732. >That dumb bunny
  4733. >That stupid, amazing, lovable, dumb bunny
  4734. >Your mind shears into two, like a glacier being cleaved in half
  4735. >You’re not sure what you’re going to say next, but your mouth starts working anyway
  4736. >You nod towards her exposed wrist and the trembling shard of glass hovering just above delicate fur
  4737. “R-Remember, ac-across the s-street, not d-down the lane.”
  4739. >A quick slash
  4740. >Sam gasping, reflexively clutching at her wound
  4741. >A steady trickle of blood saturates the page
  4742. >Light explodes from the old pressed parchments
  4743. >You shut your eyes and exhale
  4745. >You’re whipped onto your ass by an other-worldly force
  4746. >You and Sam both go tumbling down (tumbling down) (tumbling down)
  4747. >The two books ascend into the air, dripping with blood as their pages spin and explode in fractals of light
  4748. >You can only watch with gaped maws as the world coalesces and then spreads apart right before your eyes
  4749. >The ground shakes beneath you as you struggle to stand upright
  4750. >You are quickly cut down by a series of jarring tremors that are so violent you can feel them in your teeth
  4751. >So you just lay on your back
  4752. >Like a dying fish
  4753. >And watch as the world trembles and shakes as your vision collapses into stuttering pulses
  4754. >You’re wide awake
  4755. >You think
  4756. >You don’t know anymore
  4757. >Until Sam crawls on top of you
  4758. >And then you know you’re awake (or at least alive)
  4759. >Or was she always on top of you and now you’re just gaining consciousness?
  4760. >Your eyes struggle open
  4761. >You feel her delicate frame on top of your own, like a heavy feather pillow
  4762. >It feels like with her there, all the tremors stop
  4763. >The books fall uselessly into back onto the altar’s center
  4764. “Sam?” Your voice is weak and tinged with exhaustion. “W-Why are you laying on top of me?”
  4765. >You cough out some dust and grit
  4766. >”Y-Y-You were sh-shaking,” she answers back
  4767. >But when you look up, her eyes are filled with tears
  4768. >They streak and cut down her dirty fur in mirrored lines
  4769. >It’s almost kind of beautiful, in a weird way
  4770. “Stop crying you big baby,” you say, half-joking
  4771. >The rest of you isn’t sure what exactly you’re trying to say
  4772. >”A-A-A-And you’re st-still bleeding.”
  4773. >To your surprise, she throws her arms around your neck and dips her face against your chest
  4774. >You can feel another type of tremor:
  4775. >Sam, shaking against you with heavy relived sobs
  4776. >”I d-d-don’t want to l-l-lose you,” she cries. “G-G-God p-please be alright.”
  4777. >You open your mouth to speak, which feels like a monumental effort
  4778. >Like your jaw was weighted shut
  4779. >So you don’t talk
  4780. >Just let the waves of unconsciousness take you, like a small boat being carried out to sea, as your vision goes to gray
  4781. >Sam is talking again, but you can barely hear her
  4782. >She sits up and scrubs her eyes with the back of her sleeves
  4783. >She tries to put on a determined and strong face
  4784. >”D-D-Don’t m-move. I-I’m g-g-going to g-g-g-get help…”
  4785. >But when she meets your darkening eyes, her strong front shatters like a dam suddenly bursting
  4786. >”A-Anon-” she bites her lower lip and swallows the lump in her throat. “P-Please s-s-stay with me.”
  4787. >You’re trying
  4788. >You want to live
  4789. >Because, if nothing else, you have something you need to tell her
  4790. >”I-I l-love you s-s-s-so much.”
  4791. >Your mouth forms the words, but no sound comes out:
  4792. ‘I love you too.’
  4793. >Sam spends a few more heartbeats staring into your eyes, before leans in, plants a faint kiss on your forehead, and then rolls off you
  4794. >She stands tall (or as tall as she can with a broken leg) and leans onto a carved up wall for support
  4795. >”I-I’ll b-b-be back, o-okay?”
  4796. >She doesn’t wait for you to respond, not only because you really can’t right now, but because there’s no time
  4797. >She hobbles off down the hall, out of the reach of the slowly declining light
  4798. >The world turns beneath you, as if you were balanced on a spinning top set in motion at the explosive dawn of the universe
  4799. >And with the last molecules of consciousness now buzzing around you like flies as entropy quashes all motion, a wave of sadness and despair washes over you
  4800. >It’s not that you’re afraid to die
  4801. >You’re just afraid to lose her
  4802. >You exhale
  4803. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pfi1UQ_PKQI&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=18&t=0s
  4804. >…
  4805. >…..
  4806. >…….
  4807. >…….
  4808. >…..
  4809. >…
  4810. >…
  4811. >…..
  4812. >…….
  4813. >…….
  4814. >…..
  4815. >…
  4816. >..
  4817. >.
  4819. >Be Sam
  4820. >And…
  4821. >Ow
  4822. >Everything hurts
  4823. >Are you made of glass?
  4824. >It feels like it
  4825. >Did every single bone in your leg break?
  4826. >It feels like it
  4827. >But you keep pressing on, now that all the hot air feels like its been sucked out of the gloomy hallways
  4828. >Your natural night vision and sense of smell help guide you through the maze of corridors where Vanessa brought you
  4829. >And soon you start to smell something other than mold and mildew and wet concrete
  4830. >You smell wet bodies, strong and sharp against your nose
  4831. >You (carefully) descend the stairs that lead to the door into into the gym’s equipment room
  4832. >And the closer you get to the bottom, the sharper the smell
  4833. >And the louder the noise of people yelling
  4834. >And screaming
  4835. >And murmuring
  4836. >But mostly yelling
  4837. >It’s like a hurricane in your ears
  4838. >When you finally stumble into the gym, all the lights are on
  4839. >And… you swear there was a metric ton of fog clouding everything
  4840. >Now you just see a chaotic swarm of mammals
  4841. >Humans, anthros, all mixing together, yelling, looking around, frantic in their costumes
  4842. >Everyone is out looking for someone or something
  4843. >The shock of the ritual’s defeat must have sent everyone into a frantic state
  4844. >Your burning eyes struggle to focus on anyone or anything in particular
  4845. >It’s just lights and motion
  4846. >You lean into the door frame and grit your teeth
  4847. >Another jolt of pain tells you that racing (if you could call it that) through the tunnels and down the stairs was a bad idea
  4848. “H-H-Hey!” You yell, desperate. “S-S-S-Someone come and h-help me!”
  4849. >God damnit, Anonymous is going to bleed to death
  4850. >It’s worse than talking to a wall
  4851. >People embrace and hug and cry and rush for the doors, but pay you no mind
  4852. >Hell, even a few of the cheerleaders, color back in their skin, hug and embrace over the disintegrating bodies of their former squad mates
  4853. >If they remember anything, you can’t tell
  4854. “HEY!” You shout again with hoarse lungs
  4855. >And then
  4856. >Parting the crowds like Moses, is Gloria, barely dressed in a tablecloth
  4857. >And she’s leading Jenna and Alex and Sylvia
  4858. >”Sam!” Alex waves his arms frantically
  4859. >Relief nearly drops you to your knees in prostration and thanks
  4860. >That and the broken leg
  4861. “P-P-Please hurry.” You point a finger towards the not-so-hidden doorway, still wide open. “A-A-A-Anon is up there a-and he l-l-lost a lot of b-b-b-blood.”
  4862. >It’s times like these that make you hate your stutter even more
  4863. >”What the hell is that?” Sylvia says points towards the open door. “I’ve never seen that door before in my life.”
  4864. >Unlike Gloria, the badger hasn’t bothered to clothe herself
  4865. >Her wide, yet stacked body moves with slovenly grace as she pounds her feet towards the door
  4866. >…Followed by Alex and Jenna and Gloria
  4867. >You want to go with them
  4868. >You want to make sure he’s safe
  4869. >But you know you’ll never make it up the stairs again
  4870. >You’ve done all you can do
  4871. >And now you wait
  4873. >Be Anonymous
  4874. >Are you
  4875. >Flying?
  4876. >Yeah
  4877. >You’re ascending to heaven
  4878. >You feel weightless, bereft of any earthly tethers
  4879. >A leaf on the wind
  4880. “So… I… I’m dead?”
  4881. >A booming voice echoes back
  4882. >”You made it little buddy.”
  4883. >You dun did good this time around
  4884. >A warm smile spreads across your face
  4885. >Everything is dark
  4886. >It feels… good, to be dying
  4887. >It’s blissful, like a dream
  4888. >”You’re going to be alright.”
  4889. >Wat
  4890. >”ETA to the hospital?”
  4891. >No
  4892. >Wait
  4893. >You’re dead
  4894. >But you hear voices around you
  4895. >The whirring blades of a helicopter cutting through the air
  4896. >The slow trickle of blood piped into your arms through an IV
  4897. >”Give us 10 minutes and we’ll have him in ICU.”
  4898. >Your eyes creak open
  4899. >And are filled with sterile, surgical light
  4900. >A paramedic — a cheetah — leans over you
  4901. >Her whiskers and nose twitch as she sees you flirting with consciousness
  4902. >”HEY JOE! HE’S AWAKE!”
  4903. >’Joe’ answers back: “Right, I’m punching it.”
  4904. >Your internal gravity shifts forward as Joe indeed punches it
  4905. >Where are you?
  4906. >You roll your head
  4907. >Oh
  4908. >Oh fuck
  4909. >You’re in a helicopter, circling above the school
  4910. >You peer out the open door, vision pulsing as blood fills your sapped veins
  4911. >You can just make out the rooftop of the school
  4912. >And the four shapes on top of it, standing still with apprehension
  4913. >You shut your heavy eyes, stones on each lid
  4914. >Oblivion feels good
  4915. >So you should enjoy it while it lasts
  4916. >Because after this?
  4917. >There’s so much life to live
  4919. Epilogue
  4920. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DY2AEZyR_mo&list=PL9aXlzDRA49QKxgYsOV2JuDd410_nI-0J&index=11
  4922. >You are Anonymous
  4924. >Warm air
  4925. >Blue skies of May
  4926. >Sunshine and the promise of summer
  4927. >Idle chatter and the nameless sounds of classic rock swell into a noisy current that sucks you down into its depths
  4928. >You’re sitting at a cheap card table in your backyard, next to Alex while relatives and neighbors you’ve never met drop by the table and congratulate you, tell you they knew you since you were only knee-height
  4929. >”God, kid, I can’t believe you used to climb the tree in my front yard,” Mr. Harris says, extending a hand to you
  4930. >Mr. Harris is a human, and meaner than his long, silvery hair let on
  4931. >He looks like a retired art teacher, minus the glasses and the actual interest in teaching children anything other than that he found them obnoxious
  4932. “I remember I’d climb your tree and you’d spray me with the hose until I got down,” you say, taking his hand and shaking it
  4933. >Actually, you’re not even mad
  4934. >You just wanted to let him know you remember his indiscretions against a 9-year-old
  4935. >”Well,” Mr. Harris clears his throat and pulls at his collar. “Congratulations anyway. On graduating.”
  4936. “Thanks!” You say, still shaking his hand. “We’re glad you could come to Sam and I’s party.”
  4937. >”Oh, yeah. Sure,” he says, curiously eying the rabbit, who sits next to you, wearing her graduate cap
  4938. >It smushes her ears to the side, and if it hurts to have her ears bend that way, she doesn’t show it
  4939. >She cracks a shy smile and nods in appreciation at Mr. Harris
  4940. >”Congratulations to you too, Sam,” Mr. Harris says, with the kind of awkward distance that can only come from knowing a friend of a not-so-friend
  4941. “T-Thank you,” Sam says, folding her little hands into her lap
  4942. >When he’s gone, you plop back into your chair
  4943. >Alex nudges you with his shoulder
  4944. >”He seemed like a dick.”
  4945. “You have no idea. That guy used to call my mom and tell her I was harassing his daughter. She was like six years older than I was! All I was trying to do was get her to give my basketball back.”
  4946. >Sam giggles
  4947. >”I-I can’t picture y-y-you playing b-basketball.”
  4948. “Well, I’m not saying I was any good.” You tip the neck of a bottle of root beer back, the sticky sweet nectar filling your mouth with a slow trickle. “I hardly even played basketball. I’d just chuck it against the garage door a bunch. Drove my dad insane.”
  4949. >”M-Me and my b-brother used to r-r-race against c-cars in the neighborhood,” Sam offers
  4950. >”Did you beat any?” Alex turns his bottle up and takes a pull
  4951. >”O-Only when t-they didn’t know w-w-w-we were racing.”
  4952. “I’m not surprised. Rabbits are fast as fuck,” you add.
  4953. >More neighbors come by to congratulate you before Sam or Alex can respond
  4954. >This time it’s an anthro family
  4955. >Lynxes, from down the street
  4956. >You think you used to play with their son, but you’re not sure
  4957. >What was their name?
  4958. >”Hey Anon! Congrats on graduating!” The older, male lynx says
  4959. >He’s wearing a maroon polo that clashes against his gray-black fur and sharp yellow eyes
  4960. >They’re full of unrestricted joy
  4961. >You smile and stand to shake their hands, but your smile must have been a dead giveaway: you can’t remember who these people are
  4962. >Luckily the older woman to the right of the other lynx, seems to pick up on your confusion
  4963. >”You might not remember us,” she says, her voice gentle and smooth like a trickling stream. “The Jamisons? This is my husband George,” she pats him on the shoulder.
  4964. >”And this is my dead weigh- I mean, wife, Meredith,” George says
  4965. >They both giggle
  4966. >Fucking boomers
  4967. >”You used to play with our son Kyle, back in grade school,” George crosses his arms and assumes a relaxed slouch
  4968. >So you were right to begin with
  4969. “Oh, right, Kyle!” You say, not remembering anything about Kyle other than the time you pulled his nubby tail and he bit you and then he had to go to a special school for a year
  4970. “How’s he doing now?”
  4971. >The family exchange… looks
  4972. >Oh you know those looks
  4973. >Discomfort
  4974. >Guess what you did either fucked him up for life or awakened something fucked up in him.
  4975. “Anyway, I hope he’s doing well,” you add, trying to salvage the conversation
  4976. >There’s a slight pause that only the chatter of the party fills
  4977. >”So, Anon,” the father starts, leaning on the table. “I hear you got a great STEM scholarship to Red Field. Congratulations on that.”
  4978. >It’s true
  4979. >You worked with Mr. Bolm, who helped you find some really great scholarship programs for you to apply to
  4980. >Only caveat is that you have to be in a STEM discipline
  4981. >Secretly, you were considering English
  4982. >Still, it wasn’t so bad. Red Field was a short drive from home — no more than an hour
  4983. >And it was a damn good school
  4984. >”It’s true,” Alex says, smiling. “Anon here is going to build space communism.”
  4985. >You can no longer tell if Alex is joking or being sincere
  4986. >Ever since October his cavalier attitude towards communism… changed
  4987. >He seemed more at peace with his surroundings, and less revolution-focused, though the notion still haunted him
  4988. >The father looks at Alex and smiles the smile of a man just trying to be polite
  4989. >”And you must be Sam,” he says. “Congratulations.”
  4990. >”No, my name is Alex,” Alex says. He points a finger at Sam who is watching the streamers — red and white, the colors of your school — dance among the branches of the trees. “Sam is the bunny.”
  4991. >”Oh…” George puts on a forced smile and extends his hand to Sam
  4992. >The bunny shakes it with a firm grip
  4993. >”T-T-Thanks, s-s-sir.”
  4994. >”And uhhh, Sam…? What are you doing after this?”
  4995. >Sam brightens
  4996. >”I-I-I’m going to Ran-Ranchview C-C-Community College,” she proudly declares
  4997. >And speech therapy
  4998. >Meredith plants her paws over her heart. “Oh that’s so great to hear. Our Kyle is planning on going there in the fall. Your family must be so proud.”
  4999. “We are,” you cut in, quickly. “We’re very proud of Sam for graduating.”
  5000. >Sam continues to brighten while the two anthros deflate
  5001. >”I-I-I’m studying a-a-art and animation. I’m g-g-going to do my m-masters at CAL ARTS.”
  5002. >The wind seems to shift
  5003. >And the conversation seems to turn awkward, but you don’t give a fuck whether or not the Meredith and George and their wacko son Kyle think Sam is part of your family
  5004. >You think it was that blow to the back of your head, maybe
  5005. >It released all inhibitions
  5006. >”Well,” George retracts his hand and wipes the sweat from Sam’s palms onto his pants. “That’s really nice to hear, Sam. Ah, look at you three.” He puffs up a bit. “Fine young men. You’ll be raising hell and chasing girls across campus.”
  5007. >”Ac-Actually I-I’m a w-w-woman,” Sam flashes a bright, innocent smile, one without any sort of ill-will for the well-meaning Jamisons
  5008. >Meredith looks… confused
  5009. >”Plus Sam and Anon are dating,” Alex says to nobody, in a short, disinterested puff
  5010. >Nobody ever asks him what he’s doing with his life
  5011. >Going to a good school on the west coast
  5012. >Studying political science
  5013. >”Nobody cares about Alex Mullen.” He throws his hands to the sky
  5014. >The Jamisons take cautious steps backwards
  5015. >Sam is a woman
  5016. >Anon is dating an anthro
  5017. >…Whatever the fuck is wrong with Alex
  5018. >It’s alll too much
  5019. >”W-Well, congratulations to the three of you. Really. Anon, Sam, we left you both cards in the kitchen. Okay? Have a good day!” George and Meredith turn tail (literally) and disappear into the crowd
  5020. >You’ve been awfully combative today
  5021. >You can’t help it
  5022. >You’re a bit anxious
  5023. “God, I know this is tradition, but I can’t wait for this to be over. There’s too many people I don’t know or remember.”
  5024. >”Nah man, don’t worry. It was the same way at my party. Cake big enough for me to sleep on, aunts and uncles from the east coast… I don’t get it. But the money is nice.”
  5025. “W-W-When do we ge-get to eat c-cake?” Sam stammers
  5026. >She’s already three root beers deep, you’re not sure she needs any more sugar
  5027. >You pretend not to hear her
  5028. >Alex will fill her in anyway
  5029. >You stare at the banner above your back porch as it sways with the soft breeze
  5030. >It reads: ‘Congratulations Anonymous & Sam!’
  5031. >The whole backyard is gilded in red and white
  5032. >Red and white streamers, tablecloths, napkins, cups, outfits, cake colors, gown colors
  5033. >It’s a lot to take in, and that’s just the decorations
  5034. >There were plenty of people, mixing and mingling and talking over the sounds of your dad’s belly laugh while he mans the grill, or the thrum of music coming from a portable speaker set up on the back porch
  5035. >Your mom plays hostess, the curls of her golden hair falling in her eyes as she throws her head back to laugh at a story about you wetting your pants in the third grade
  5036. >Everything is happening at once, dancing around you and Alex and Sam
  5037. >There would have been four of you if Jenna could make it, but she was busy with parties of her own, and getting set up at her fancy east coast school
  5038. >You, Alex and Sam trade a quick look as a drunken relative stumbles out the back door to a chorus of cheering
  5039. >Unspoken looks
  5040. >The language of friends
  5041. >Someone is missing from this table
  5042. >…
  5043. >”What an asshole,” Alex says, and you’re not sure if he’s talking about Mike or drunk uncle Richard
  5044. >Maybe both
  5045. >”I-I’ll d-d-drink to that,” Sam declares, knocking back another root beer
  5046. >You and Alex quietly follow her example
  5047. >You’re going to miss school, in a weird way
  5048. >Despite how easy it was after Halloween
  5049. >The school basically coasted you and the gang through school after they ruled Mike and Vanessa’s death as suicide
  5050. >It was all sympathies and As once the investigation got through
  5051. >People you never met coming up to you like they ever gave a shit in the first place to tell you ‘how sorry they were’
  5052. >And, actually, you felt that at least some of it was sincere
  5053. >So that didn’t bother you
  5054. >What bothered you most was the lack of something that felt like it was a part of you your whole life
  5055. >Like having a rebellious arm suddenly ripped off
  5056. >Sure it wouldn’t cooperate some of the time, but it was still your arm
  5057. >God damnit, you missed that cunt-for-brains
  5058. >You pull on your root beer in an effort to drown the lump in your throat
  5059. >”So, when do you ship out, Anon?” Alex says casually. “I’m out start of August.”
  5060. “Start of August? Jesus, that’s… three months!”
  5061. >Alex shrugs in his dress shirt and tie
  5062. >He kept the beanie on as a means of protest
  5063. >”Can’t be helped, comrade. I’ve gotta go get oriented out there on the coast and get ready to raise some hell.”
  5064. >God damnit
  5065. “I move in end of August,” you reply, still slightly angry that you’re losing a month of time with Alex
  5066. >”Wait, Sam, what are you doing when Anon’s gone?” Alex says
  5067. >Sam stares straight ahead, watching the banner sway in a warm breeze
  5068. >She seems… lost in something?
  5069. >You can guess what it might be
  5070. >Melancholy
  5071. >”A-A-Anon’s f-f-family is l-letting me stay with t-t-them f-f-for c-c-college-”
  5072. “PROVIDED I visit every couple of weeks,” you add in
  5073. >Your parents took to Sam almost instantly, overwhelming her with love and sweets
  5074. >Sam, of course, lost her shit and your ‘welcome party’ nearly put her back into the hospital (and this was after the hospital essentially had to reconstruct her shattered leg)
  5075. >She had been living with you since Halloween, and you’ve loved every minute of it
  5076. >”That’s a sweet deal. Anon’s mom makes a killer fucking omelet. My best sleepover memories are waking up to her cooking,” Alex says
  5077. “Yeah,” you say softly. “She does.”
  5078. >You were going to miss her omelets (mom-lets she’d sometimes call them)
  5079. >But the omelets are just a smoke screen, concealing what you’re really going to miss:
  5080. >Everyone and everything
  5081. >The bright glow of Ranchview in the night, like a jewel crowded with light
  5082. >The camaraderie
  5083. >Cruising your rustbucket under falling leaves
  5084. >Halloween decorations and birthdays and Christmases where you traded out Sam’s old hoodie for a sweater that nearly drowned her, but one that she hardly ever took off
  5085. >The familiarity and pace of life
  5086. >All shot to the moon on a strange and unfamiliar comet
  5087. >Alex rises from his chair and smooths out his shirt and slacks
  5088. >”So, hey, Anon, are you and Sam coming to the school tonight?”
  5089. >He looks like a fucking accountant, not a revolutionary
  5090. “Yeah, we’ll be there. You still want to go, Sam?”
  5091. >Sam nods, knocking her tassel into her face, where it swings like a pendulum
  5092. >”And don’t forget the beers,” Alex adds. “That’s the most important part.”
  5093. “Right, right. I’ll sneak a few from my dad.”
  5094. >Alex gives you an affirmative nod, and then another for Sam
  5095. >And then he doesn’t move
  5096. >Just stands there, unsure of what to do with his hands
  5097. >Fuck, when did things become awkward?
  5098. >It started getting this way when you found out you’d gotten a few major scholarships
  5099. >He scrubs the back of his skull with his palm
  5100. >”Sooo… guess I’ll see ya’ll tonight?”
  5101. “Sure thing man, at 11.”
  5102. >He throws a thumb towards the doors
  5103. >”Congratulations again, Anon, Sam. Sorry to abandon you both so soon. I’ve got some things to take care of at home.”
  5104. “No worries comrade. Go do what you gotta do.”
  5105. >”Right. Bye then.”
  5106. >He pushes through the crowd like a forceful beanpole and jumps on his thin bicycle
  5107. >With a few encouraging *dings* he’s riding down the street, towards home
  5108. >You lean back in your chair and sigh a deep, exhausted sigh from the pits of your stomach
  5109. >”W-W-What a-are we d-d-doing tonight?” Sam asks
  5110. >You flick her tassel, still hanging in front of her face
  5111. “We’re going back to school, remember?”
  5112. >”N-No.”
  5113. “To see him?”
  5114. >”O-Oh, y-y-yeah. S-S-Sorry I f-f-forgot.”
  5115. “Don’t sweat it, Thumper.”
  5117. >Sometime around midnight, you’re climbing up the (fixed) ladder towards the roof, backpacks full of beer
  5118. >The shiny chrome ladder does not shake or groan when you grip it
  5119. >Which is reassuring
  5120. >Alex scrambles over the top of the roof
  5121. >Followed by Sam, and then you
  5122. >You point at the stooped access building
  5123. “So this is where we left the bottles last time.”
  5124. >”The ones you smashed Vanessa over the head with?”
  5125. “Yeah,” you say, looking for any amber shards that might still be left over. Wouldn’t that be something?
  5126. >Like a little fossil
  5127. >The clean light of a half-moon shines down on you, illuminating your search
  5128. >You don’t find anything
  5129. >Still…
  5130. >You draw a beer from your backpack and place it next to the access tunnels
  5131. >”Waste of a perfectly good beer,” Alex notes, still shouldering his alcohol-laden backpack
  5132. “You never know when someone might need this.” You put your hands on your hips
  5133. >Memories come flooding back
  5134. >Lots of memories of pain
  5135. >Of how badly your body was broken
  5136. >Doctors said you’d had a major concussion, several cracked ribs, and came so close to dying they were already calling your parents about funeral arrangements when you got to the ICU
  5137. >You shake your head, banishing the thoughts
  5138. >Though they’d always plague you, you could move on
  5139. >You could change, because people do change
  5140. >Just like Sam could change
  5141. >”G-G-Guys, can I h-have my Dr. Bepper now?” Sam asks, feet swinging off the edge of the rooftop
  5142. >Well… some things don’t change
  5143. >You and Alex sit next to her
  5144. >She quickly grabs the soda from your hands as you pass it to her, and cracks it open with a noisy hiss
  5145. >You take her free hand and squeeze it affectionately, passing a smile between you two
  5146. >Alex doesn’t seem to mind or care
  5147. >He’s got plenty to drink
  5148. >And there’s an empty spot next to him which has been hounding at his attention
  5149. >An absence, filled only by the unopened beer bottle that Alex places there on the rooftop
  5150. >The three of you stare at it, like it was about to start speaking
  5151. >And hopefully if it does, it’d sound like Mike
  5152. >But you hear nothing from the tongues of the nether
  5153. >Just crickets chirping up
  5154. >The sound of hearty swallows of beer
  5155. >And then Alex belching
  5156. >”Ah shit,” he says. “I needed this.”
  5157. “Same here. After today I just need to be with a few very important people right now.”
  5158. >Sam squeezes your hand
  5159. >Finished, Alex chucks his bottle off the rooftop, at the city
  5160. >You shrug and let yours fly into the darkness, where it shatters somewhere below on the black top
  5161. >”Y-Y-Y-You know s-s-some has to c-clean that u-up,” Sam remarks
  5162. >Must be the leftover janitorial training
  5163. >”True. But this is tradition,” Alex says
  5164. “Yeah, Thumper.” You playfully nudge her with your elbow. “Your turn.”
  5165. >Taking one last look at her can of Dr. Bepper, Sam shrugs and chucks her can over the edge
  5166. >It speeds away into the darkness with surprising velocity
  5167. >Like a red and silver comet
  5168. >”You SURE you never played baseball?” Alex remarks
  5169. >Sam shakes her head
  5170. >”No. J-Just good at pe-petty crimes.”
  5171. “Brother?”
  5172. >She nods and smiles
  5173. >You’re glad she’s made peace with that part of her life
  5174. >Or she seems to have
  5175. >You all seem to have made peace with yourselves in one way or another
  5176. >”Listen,” Alex says, to the city, to you, to the sky, spangled with signs and stars
  5177. >”I’m going away for awhile. A long while. But I don’t want to lose touch with any of you guys.”
  5178. “It’s not like we’re going overseas,” you remark
  5179. >But you feel an ache in your chest and a budding tightness in your throat
  5180. >Maybe you would lose touch?
  5181. >Maybe, like most high school friends do, you’d grow apart?
  5182. >”Well, even if we do drift in different directions, I want you to remember this spot.”
  5183. >Draining his beer, Alex throws another bottle off the ledge, already good and drunk
  5184. “Not sure I’m ever going to forget the place where I nearly died.”
  5185. >”S-S-Same,” Sam adds
  5186. >”And the place where we lost our friend,” Alex says
  5187. >Silence
  5188. >Not awkward silence, but a longing
  5189. >Memories replaying against the night sky
  5190. >Collections of stories unpublished, lives unlived
  5191. >Potential unrealized
  5192. >All we are is a collection of stories, and broken pieces strung together by friends and family
  5193. >Losing Mike was like having an important page ripped out of your favorite book
  5194. >Or like losing your brother
  5195. >Sitting there, on the rooftop on a warm night in May, you remember something you told Sam many months ago:
  5196. >>“An old friend of mine used to say you get two families: the one you’re born into, and the one that you make.”
  5197. >Christ
  5198. >You big softy. You really are going to start crying
  5199. >You don’t feel the need to hide your emotions around the family that you made, but you still can’t help but pound down your beer
  5200. >Gotta drink that melancholy into submission
  5201. “Of course we’re not going to forget this place,” you say, unable to stop your mouth from moving. “And you guys- how the hell could I forget you faggots?”
  5202. >”You better fucking not, that’s all I’m saying,” Alex says
  5203. “Sam, least of all. I’m not going to forget you. You’re crashing in my house.”
  5204. >The little bunny is speechless, but not because she’s been insulted or blindsided like the last time you were all on this rooftop drinking together
  5205. >But because she’s looking for the right words to say
  5206. >You wipe the tears out of your eyes
  5207. >Ahh fuck
  5208. >You hate crying, but it feels good up here
  5209. >To be crying with the friends you’ve called family
  5210. >”I-I won-won’t forget-” she starts, and then pauses
  5211. >”Forget what?” Alex says, setting his beer down on the ledge
  5212. >Sam stares at her next can of Dr. Bepper, reading the label
  5213. >Studying it
  5214. >In the darkness crickets chirp in a steady, organic metronome
  5215. >And when she’s finally found those words, she turns her amber eyes to the moon, letting the light fill her and trace her in a glow
  5216. >She’s ready with her answer
  5217. >And it’s the only answer you need to or want to hear, one that surmises everything that you’ve done or felt and said
  5218. >You swallow hard and point your eyes upwards to the same moon that Sam is looking at
  5219. >”S-Something that m-matters.”
  5221. >And roll credits
  5222. https://soundcloud.com/fredo-disco/hey-mike-i-miss-you-man-backyard-version
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