“Let’s go back inside,” Abby said, not taking her eyes off the figures, not even for a second.
Claude waggled his cigarette, the bright red tip tracing after-images in the night air. “Almost done. Besides, looks like we’ve got trick-or-treaters coming. We need to hold them off while someone looks for candy.” His grin was bright in the darkness.
Abby looked past him. The lantern-bearers were closer now. No matter how slow and lurching their steps, they’d be at the building in minutes. “They aren’t –” she said, but cut herself off. They weren’t what? Weren’t trick-or-treaters? Weren’t normal? Weren’t safe? Weren’t…?
She wasn’t sure where this atavistic urge had come from — this absolute, all-powerful need to get away from those figures, whatever they were or weren’t — but the closer they got, the closer Abby got to running inside and shutting the door, regardless of what side of it Claude was on when it closed.
She felt a little pang at that thought, and decided to finish what she’d been saying. They were real big on giving your fears voice here at Brightest Lantern, after all.
“I don’t think those are trick-or-treaters,” she said in a rush, as though worried Claude would cut her off with a peal of mocking laughter for being such a scaredy-cat. Not that he would, but the worse the fear, the worse the side-paranoia of that fear being dismissed and disbelieved. “They look weird to me, Claude, the way they’re walking. C’mon, let’s go.” She almost tugged at his sleeve, but held back.
Claude took his last drag and ground out his cigarette with the toe of his slippers, watching the figures. “I think they’re hurt,” he said. “Go ahead and go in; find somebody to help. I’m going to see what’s up.” He started to walk away, and this time, Abby did grab his sleeve. Claude looked back questioningly.
She almost let go, almost said she was going inside whether he was or not.
Miss Abby, I’m getting the nurse. You’re sick.
And as Laycee ran from the room, Abby lunged from her desk, still woozy from having tried to bust a hangover with a handful of uppers. She stumbled, cursing at the girl.
The last thing she saw as she tripped was one of the front row desks rushing towards her face.
The last thing she heard was her entire class of twenty-five kids screaming.
“Come on, now,” Claude said, his voice not able to soothe her spiking nerves this time. “Nothing to be afraid of. You want to come with me?”
“Dear Christ, no,” she blurted.
Claude gently plucked her hand from his sleeve and held it in his warm, calloused grip. He cast one last glance back at the figures, who’d almost crested the hill. (And how could they have gotten so far, walking so slowly?)
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go back in and find somebody together. I think Dove and Parky are on late shift tonight.”
Abby kept watching the not-at-all-trick-or-treaters as Claude opened the service door for her. She half-expected them to be right there, lunging and attacking the moment she turned her eyes away. She zipped into the shadowy, red-dotted hallway, wind snapping at her hood, and Claude followed, retrieving the piece of security-defeating foil as he shut the door. Abby noticed he gave the door an extra-firm tug as he closed it.
As if he knew she was looking, Claude turned to her with a frown. “Got me spooked now, too.” She could see him better in the gloom of the corridor, what light there was catching the laurel of grey hair that ringed the brown egg of his head. Claude always dressed like a big, husky grandpa: button-up shirt and slacks, with one of several cardigans in constant rotation.
He looked at the shut service door as though daring a knock to sound from it. “…Probably just some drunk college kids,” he said. “Come on, let’s go find somebody.” They turned as one and headed down the hallway to the reception desk.
Abby thought about how the nearest college was two counties over, but didn’t say anything.
The reception desk was unoccupied; not uncommon during the night shift, when no visitors would be arriving, but not comforting at the moment. The reception area itself, all stuffed vinyl chairs, plastic plants, and tables scattered with Prevention magazines, looked eerie in the dim red light.
What was it Claude had said? Something about an abandoned spaceship?
Claude walked to the desk and dinged the bell by the flatscreen monitor, then quick-stepped back in surprise as a little squeal of terror sounded from under the desk.
Abby stepped back as well as a skinny, hangdog figure rose from behind the desk clutching a stapler, but then she saw who it was.
“Fleur?” Claude echoed. “Baby, what are you doing out of bed?”
The nervous tween, thin as kindling, looked at the both of them as though just then recognizing them. Her wide blue eyes combined with the emergency lighting to make an unsettling shade of purple. She seemed to become aware of the stapler she held like a club, and put it down on the desk, swiping aside brown ringlets that had drifted over one eye.
“What’s wrong?” Claude asked, moving closer but not too close. Abby had noticed that about Fleur: everyone wanted to hug the poor thing, but no one ever actually did.
“I couldn’t sleep with the lights out,” she said, her every word, as always, dripping with apology. “I came up here and — what are you guys doing?”
“Just getting some fresh air,” Abby said, even as she knew her and Claude’s clothes would stink of smoke. You simply didn’t mention smoking around Fleur, or anything to do with fire, for that matter. “So where is everybody? Where’s Dove? Why…why were you hiding?”
Fleur shrugged, looking guilty for not knowing. “Nobody was here. I waited and waited, but then I hid because I saw something outside. Something like –” Fleur turned towards the main doors, but froze, another squeak of fear coming from her lips.
Abby and Claude turned as Fleur did, and Abby fought not to make a noise herself.
Outside the frosted glass of the main doors, three shoulder-high lights bobbed and jostled.
Today’s Words: 1056
Total Words: 2437
Notes: I keep typing ‘Clause’ instead of ‘Claude.’ Note to self: stop typing ‘Clause’ instead of ‘Claude.’