Lanterns: Day Zero

Hello and welcome to my third year of a recurring writing challenge! Last year and the year before, as part of the Countdown to Halloween blogging group, I attempted to write an entire Halloween-themed horror novel over the course of October. I tried to write every day and post that day’s prose to this blog, with the ultimate goal of a complete first draft before the month ended.

And did I succeed? Well…er, um, *cough*

That first-year novel, Face After Face, is still unfinished, stalled out at around 78K words. (You can see its health bar to the right of the screen). The second-year attempt, Voidville, fell just short of the goal by being completed on November 1st, and is still stuck as a first draft (although still free to read on this blog!).

Will my two-time utter failure stop me from trying again? By any reasonable standard, it should — but it won’t!

So welcome to this year’s Halloween novel: Lanterns. I’m not going to reveal much about it (I’ve dropped some hints on Facebook, to the interest of roughly four people), but I hope you’ll give the first few chapters a whirl and see what you think.

Last year, I tried to make things extra-Halloween-y by posting pictures of my black cat, Valentine, but I won’t be doing that this time around; it was way too much work getting her to stand still for photos. Val is fine — she just celebrated her 15th birthday a few months ago! — but you’ll have to do without pictures of her this year.

…And that’s all I’ve got by way of introduction. I’ll shoot for producing at least 1,000 words a day Monday to Friday, with more on weekends, and do my best to create a finished first draft of Lanterns on or before October 31st.

Hope you’ll come along for the ride!

Voidville: Day Thirty-One, Part Two

On the computer desk this morning, waiting for me to start writing.

SIDE TWO, TRACK SIX: THE SUN ALWAYS SHINES ON T.V.

They spent the night in a section of concrete pipe, back in the rearmost part of a oil-drilling-supply company’s yard. Andi and Benjamin slept chastely, back-to-back and head-to-toe, until the light of daybreak woke them.

Benjamin moved first, shifting away from her. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” she said, stiff and sore. She’d never felt this many joints crack in her life.

They sat at the lip of the rounded concrete, watching the sunrise. The business wasn’t open yet, so they found a hose in back of the office and held it for each other, splashing their faces with the chilly water until they’d both woken fully.

A couple of vending machines sat outside the main office, and courtesy of Benjamin’s spare change they breakfasted on Dr. Pepper and Tom’s potato chips.

“So where to?” Andi asked, as they got their bikes ready to roll.

“Cy’s house.”

“Seriously? Just confront him, like that?”

Benjamin smiled. “He’ll be in school, remember?”

“Will he?”

“If not, then all this comes to a head a lot sooner. Either way…”

Andi packed her hair under Eddie’s cap. “So we’re going to tear up his notebooks, yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s anticlimactic, I know. Hope you’re ready for a few hours of Earth-shattering paper tearing.”

“Will it stop him?”

Benjamin shrugged, looking guilty to be so unsure. “I was able to shift us into Voidville yesterday, which I guess means the cops still have my book in evidence. I don’t know if destroying his books will stop Cy, but it’s my best guess. Every time you have some kind of reality-warping in science fiction, there’s an explanation. I’m still figuring out the rules of this.”

She propped up her bike and walked to him. “For luck,” she said, gently cupping his face and leaning in for a kiss.

“Whoa,” he said, leaning back. “Are you sure? I heard if you kiss before you get married, it makes you sick and –” His smile betrayed his attempt to sound serious.

“Oh, be quiet,” she said, and kissed him. It was awkward, and clumsy, and their lips mashed together all wrong, and he breathed loudly through his nose onto her face…

…but she knew she’d never forget it.

***

Benjamin rang the doorbell at Cy’s, then fished in his pocket for a key. “We can all get into each other’s places,” he explained.

As he pulled out the key, the door opened.

Beth, Cy’s older sister, stood there, head cocked, observing them both. “Hey, Benjamin,” she said. “Cy went to school today. Did he know you were still out of class?”

“Uh, yeah,” Benjamin said. “I just needed to borrow a game. Is that cool?”

“Yeah,” she said, indifferent. “Come on in.”

He did, Andi following. “Be right back,” Benjamin called, leaving the senior girl and Andi together in the living room. Andi recognized it from when she’d run full-tilt through it earlier in the week. Probably not the best conversational gambit to use with Cy’s sister.

“You’re her, ain’t you?” Beth asked.

“…I’m, uh, who?”

“Cy’s girlfriend,” Beth said. “He told me he was dating a pretty redhead.”

Andi coughed. “…Uh, when did he tell you?”

“Oh, last night. Said he was making some changes, and that you meant a lot to him.” She studied Andi. “Oh, hey, I thought I recognized you. JV flags, right? I see you at pep rallies all the time. Varsity cheer, nice to meet you.”

Andi expected ‘aren’t you wanted by the police’ to follow, but Beth didn’t appear to be up on current events.

“It’s good he’s dating a normal girl like you,” Beth said. “He’s a sweet kid, but he’s too mixed up in all his sci-fi and horror and crap like that. You need to, like, steer him straight, y’know?”

“I guess I do,” Andi said, wondering where Benjamin was.

“Promise me you’ll do that,” Beth said. “He needs to stop daydreaming all the time and face the real world.”

“I will,” Andi said. “I promise. So, uh, why are you home today?”

“Senior skip day,” Beth said. “You got a lot to look forward to when you get to the 12th grade.”

“Couldn’t find it,” Benjamin said, bounding back up the hallway. “Guess I’ll ask him later. I’m supposed to meet him tonight.”

“Well, have fun trick-or-treating, or whatever,” Beth said. She bade them goodbye and flopped on the sofa to watch TV.

As they walked to their bikes, Benjamin said, “The notebooks are gone. His closet’s empty. I looked around the rest of his room, but they weren’t there. He must have known. Or maybe he could sense you rescuing Europa yesterday, and he knew we’re closing in. Either way…”

“Where could they be? How could he have moved them?”

“Maybe he conjured up a group of monsters to move them by hand last night, who knows? Now I have to figure out where he’s going to be tonight.”

“Why are you sure it’s going to be tonight?”

He gestured at the houses lining the street they biked down. Each one had its yard filled with decorations: carved pumpkins, paper skeletons, fake cobwebs in the trees. “It’s all connected, I think. Halloween, monsters, Voidville, the supernatural. If you’re going to do something occult, well, Halloween is when you do it for maximum effect. I’m just not sure where.”

“Why not anywhere?”

“No, no…Cy is picking a place, and he’s picking it for a reason. I just have to try to think like him.”

Andi thought of Cy’s craziness, then of Benjamin, when he described how godlike he felt during that first Voidville session at the Harts’ house.

“Don’t try too hard,” she said, shivering.

***

They got hungry that afternoon, and Benjamin decided to play the odds. Living in a town of a few thousand people meant you couldn’t know everyone, but it increased the chances of running into someone you did know whenever you went out.

He cruised by the convenience store once or twice until he was sure he didn’t know the clerk. Andi still had some cash, so he loaded up on burritos, chips and soda. They ate in the small park in the south side of town, sitting underneath a jungle gym, keeping an eye out for nosy people.

“Can I ask you a question?” Andi said through a mouthful of spicy meat and tortilla.

“Shoot,” Benjamin said, mouth equally crammed.

She sat her food down on a napkin in her lap, flicking away an errant ant. “It’s things Eddie and Cy have said to me this week. About how some people have nothing but imagination, like the real world doesn’t mean anything to them. That’s not true, is it? That can’t be true.”

Benjamin swallowed and looked at her. “Why can’t it be true?”

She searched for an answer. “Well, because…it’s so sad.”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “It is, isn’t it?” Then he went back to eating.

“…What kind of answer is that?”

Benjamin sighed and set down his own burrito. “Because if I give you any more of an answer, it’s going to sound even more sad.”

She kept staring at him.

“All right,” he said. “Something you find as you grow up is that the world…well, okay, some people just aren’t made to function correctly in the world. They’re strange, they don’t fit. For them, what’s the point? You’re playing a rigged game. So why not stop playing and make your own game?”

“Why not try to fit in?” Andi asked.

“Why lose everything that makes you unique by conforming?” Benjamin fired back. “The thing is…I’m never going to have a place in this world. Neither is Eddie. Neither is poor, screwed-up Cy. I’ll get by, I’ll find a job, make a living, and all that…but I won’t fit, no matter what I do.”

“You won’t if you give up,” Andi said. “If you quit before you even start.”

“If you went to a carnival,” Benjamin said, “and they had a ring toss, and they had a big sheet of bulletproof glass over the pegs, so that no matter how you threw the rings they’d always bounce off and never hit a peg…would you play?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, there you go.” He picked up his burrito again.

“It’s not the same!”

“Okay. Say you went and saw the ring toss, and they gave you magic rings that passed through the bulletproof glass and landed on the highest-prize pegs every time, would you play?”

“…Yeah.”

“Of course you would,” Benjamin said. “And you’re playing now, every second of every day. And winning every time.”

“That’s not fair,” Andi said. “And you’re not being fair to yourself, either. You’re so smart and so creative. You have a lot to offer this world!”

“I have a lot to offer some world,” Benjamin said. “But not this one.”

“And what if this is the only world?”

He laughed and took a big bite of burrito, finishing it off. “Then I guess I’m screwed.” He stood, dusting his hands on his pants. “You about ready?”

“No,” she said. “I still want to talk about this.”

He remained standing, and reached out to grab one of the jungle gym crossbars. “Nothing else I can say will make you happy. And nothing else you can say will change my mind.” He looked away. “And the sun is setting. And we’re running out of time.”

She ate the rest of her food in two quick, chomping bites and stood. “We’re not done talking about this. When this is all over, I’m gonna make you see reason.”

“I’ve already seen the sleep of reason,” he said over his shoulder as they walked to their bikes. “That was good enough.”

She frowned as she got on her bike. “Okay, so Cy. Any ideas? I was wondering about the graveyard.”

Benjamin shook his head. “The police patrol the graveyard extra during Halloween. He won’t risk it. The school? He hates it, but it doesn’t have any significance past that. It’s got be somewhere that really connects with Halloween. Somewhere — oh. Connecting…with Halloween. Oh, man. I think I know. And it’s perfect.”

“Where? Where?”

Benjamin turned to her. “He’s gone to Randall’s.”

Andi stared back at him. “…Randall’s just burned to the ground.”

Benjamin blinked, then laughed. “Oh, no, sorry, no. Force of habit. Something we always said in the group. When we talked about going to Randall’s…we never actually meant Randall’s.”

***

Andi had to admit: the place certainly did look like Halloween Central.

Life in a small country town meant one thing when October rolled around — pumpkins. Everyone with a patch of land grew them, either to enter in contests or to sell to friends and neighbors.

And if there was one thing pumpkins did, it was grow and multiply, like any other gourd. Try to grow pumpkins, or summer squash, or zucchini, and before you can blink you’re up to your armpits in the stuff.

So what to do with the excess? The town had, after many years, arrived at a solution:

Store them at the FFA practice farm.

The excess pumpkins were dropped off by the pickup-load on Halloween. Over the next few days, they’d be picked up by enthusiastic canners to be jarred and stored for a few weeks, after which equally enthusiastic bakers would make pies by the hundreds to be given to food banks and churches and shelters around the county, just in time for Thanksgiving.

But for tonight, the pumpkins sat in huge piles at the practice farm, walls and mounds of ridged, orange bulges in the moonlight, like a crude maze.

And what a moon to light them — full and bright and looking fit to burst in the sky. Andi and Benjamin had brought flashlights, but found them unneeded.

“I’m going to feel really stupid if he’s not here,” Benjamin said as they climbed over the gate.

“What will we do if he’s not?”

“Keep looking until we find him, or it’s too late. What else is there to do?”

They walked around the grounds for a few minutes, getting their bearings despite the sameness of the piles of pumpkins fighting against that. Andi was again thankful for her track outfit, as the cold breezes of the day had given way to a cruel, cold nighttime wind.

“Oh, hey,” said Benjamin. “I think…” he walked a few steps away. “Yep,” he called back to her, “it’s a bike. Beth’s old one, looks like. It’s just been rotting in their garage since she got a car.”

“So where’s Cy?”

Benjamin looked around. “Wouldn’t this be a good time for you to step out and say, ‘right here’?”

Silence.

“Come out, Cy. We’re here. Let’s get this over with.”

Silence, squared.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Benjamin said. “Andi, come on. We’ve obviously got to hunt for him.”

She ran forward and he offered his hand, which she took without hesitation.

They prowled the stacks of pumpkins, looking for any sign of Cy. At last, they reached the various buildings of the farm, and started testing doors to see what was locked. The big, main barn door slid open for them, and they went inside.

Here, they needed the flashlights.

Andi clicked hers on, and immediately blinked as the light glinted off something, reflecting back at her.

Something like linked metal rings, or coiled wire…

…or the spirals of a thousand notebooks.

“My God,” Benjamin said. “You told me about it, but I never pictured…so much.”

They walked cautiously to the gigantic mound of paper, swinging their beams to the side as they moved.

“Is that…?” Benjamin asked as they got close.

“Huh?”

“Hang on, on top of the stack, is…?” He stepped ahead, closing in. When he reached the notebooks, he said, “Andi, stop. Don’t come any closer.”

“What? What is it?”

“Don’t do it. You don’t want to –”

Andi stubbornly ignored him and walked to where he stood. She shone her light on top of the stack.

There lay Cy. One hand was at his neck, a knife buried in his throat. Blood had spilled off, staining the ruled paper, sticky and red in her flashlight beam.

She turned and threw up, semi-digested burrito spilling to the ground.

“Jesus Christ,” Benjamin said. “Cy…why? Why, man?”

“I don’t understand,” Andi groaned, wiping her mouth, still feeling like she had more to puke up.

“…Human sacrifice,” Benjamin said. “Black magic. I guess…I don’t know what he was thinking. Trying to complete some ritual, like being able to manifest Voidville in the world wasn’t enough.”

Andi turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at Cy’s final resting place.

“We have to go,” Benjamin said. “If someone finds us here, with everything else that’s been going on…”

“We can’t just leave him!”

“We’ll call in a tip from a phone booth,” Benjamin said. “It’s the best we can do. Come on!”

Hand in hand again, they hurried out of the barn into the pumpkin stores. As they sped up the main path, a light burst brightly behind them, illuminating the way ahead.

Andi clutched Benjamin’s hand tightly. The cops. It had to be. They’d been waiting for someone to return to the scene of Cy’s murder, and now they had their prime suspects.

They stopped and slowly turned, shielding their eyes against the glare — golden and swirling.

Not headlights. Not any kind of light found on Earth.

It was a vortex of energy, coruscating and hypnotic.

“What is it?” Andi shouted. As the light had appeared, the wind had picked up, howling almost painfully.

But before Benjamin could answer, a figure stepped forth, the vortex calming and glowing less brightly as he exited.

“Man,” Cy said. “I wasn’t sure that was going to work.”

***

The doorway through which he’d stepped had dimmed down to almost nothing by the time he reached them. It still stood, but was at best a few dozen sparks endlessly chasing each other in the air.

“Hey, man,” Cy said, smiling at Benjamin. “Good to see you.” He looked at Andi for second, but rolled his eyes and turned away. “I’m glad you could be here, Benjamin. If anyone was going to understand what I’m doing, it’s you.”

“And what are you doing, Cy?” Benjamin asked. “Besides killing yourself and coming back to life?”

“You saw that?” Cy grinned proudly. “When you took away my sacrifice yesterday, I didn’t think I had any choice. And y’know? It was a weak little body, anyway. Good riddance.”

“Sacrifice?” Andi asked. “Eury? So all that ‘collateral damage’ stuff was a lie.”

“Of course it was,” Cy and Benjamin said at the same time. Benjamin followed up with, “Sorry.”

“Of course it was,” Cy said again. “One thing I found, creating life, was that the matter and energy I drew from Voidville was second-rate. I couldn’t make anything lasting, anything worthwhile. Jason was a dimwit, and his replacements were even worse. No, to make life you have to give life. And now that I have, your attempts to stop me to the contrary, I can finally do what I’ve been planning all along.”

“What is it, Cy?” Benjamin asked. “What’s all this for? What’s almost killing my little sister worth?”

“Man, don’t you know?” Cy asked. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?

“I’m making everything right. I’m bringing back Lloyd.”

Benjamin stared at him for a few seconds. “…Say what?”

Cy frowned. “You heard me. I am bringing our friend back to life. And it’s going to fix you, fix Eddie, fix the game…everything’s going to be all right again!”

Benjamin stood, quivering and quiet. Cy stepped closer. “It’s okay, man. I know it was an accident, we all did.”

“What are you talking about?” Andi asked. She glanced at Benjamin and didn’t like how he looked.

Cy rolled his eyes again. “Like you care. Like you could understand. But fine…Lloyd was the original Horror Host of Voidville. And he was brilliant, the best we ever had. But one day, because Benjamin kept pestering him, Lloyd let him run the show. We were playing keep-away with a ‘dragon egg’ — really, one of those pre-inflated balls you get at Wal-Mart — trying to keep it from the…”

“Cerulean Sorcerer,” Benjamin said, his voice affectless and dull.

“There you go,” said Cy. “So it got thrown to Benjamin, who got all mad because you don’t directly play with the Host. So he tossed it away, and it went out into the street. Lloyd went after it, and I guess he didn’t see that drunk guy in time. And,” Cy clapped his hands together.

Benjamin flinched at the noise.

“And you’ve never been the same,” Cy said. “But if he comes back, then everything’s okay again. Don’t you see? Don’t you agree?”

Benjamin stood still for so long, Andi almost reached out and shook him. But at last he turned to Cy.

“Do I agree? How can I? Do you think I want Lloyd to come back, knowing he’ll never be able to forgive me for what I did? I’ll never be able to forgive myself!”

Cy fumbled for the words. “It doesn’t matter! If he comes back and hates you, I’ll make him over again, and create a version of him that doesn’t!”

Benjamin bared his teeth in fury. “And you think that’s okay? Jesus, Cy, I can imagine Lloyd forgiving me a hundred times over, but that doesn’t make it true! And making some lobotomized copy of him instead…how is that right? How?”

Cy stared back, then spoke after a long silence. “I should’ve known. I probably could have guessed, especially after she ruined you,” he said, pointing at Andi. “But it’s okay. I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and neither one of you can stop me.” The portal began to churn and glow again, gaining substance. “My big mistake was trusting other people,” Cy said.

Another Cy stepped out from behind a stack of pumpkins, followed by another and another, until a full dozen stood at various points across the area, all looking at Andi and Benjamin.

“I just needed to rely on myself,” all the Cys said as one.

Benjamin wasn’t bothered. “Oh, gee. Let me guess. This one,” and he pointed at a nearby Cy, “is the one who’s friendly to Eddie. And this other one is the one that talks crap about him behind his back.”

Andi, emboldened by Benjamin’s words, took up the game. “And this one here is the one that tells his sister I’m his girlfriend, while that one over there is the one that slips me a poisoned Coke.”

The Cys flinched and scowled at the taunts. “Shut up,” they all said.

“This is absolutely accurate for you, Cy,” said Benjamin. “Not just two-faced, but baker’s dozen-faced. Suits you down to the ground, man.”

“I am going to fix everything,” said the original Cy, while his dupes glowered. “I am going to make the world perfect, and you will beg me to let you live in it. A new Lloyd. A replacement for Eddie, with all the smarts but none of the jackass. A replacement for his convict dad. A replacement for all the judgy church people in town. A replacement for my bitch sister. I’ll make it all correct, the way it should be.”

“So,” Andi said, “this is the one that nicely asks his sister for face paint, and this one,” and she pointed right at the one that had just spoken, “is the one who calls her a bitch.”

Shut! Up!” Cy screamed, and his duplicates all popped like soap bubbles.

“That’s something I found out,” Andi stage-whispered to Benjamin, making damn sure Cy could hear. “He can’t do his little magic tricks when you break his concentration.” She looked over at him, smirking. “By the way, did you get all the sleeping pill residue cleaned out of your little computer?”

Cy reached out his hand and flickered his fingers. Andi felt something rush by, thrumming and fast, but nothing happened to her.

Then Benjamin collapsed to the dirt, and she saw the arrow jutting from his chest.

“You can’t hurt him anymore,” Cy said. “Never again. And I don’t need him for this. Lloyd was my friend, too.” He walked away, waving his arms like a conductor, and the portal started to swirl and blaze.

Andi scrambled over to Benjamin, who lay on his back, the arrow clearly having punctured a lung or even nicked his heart. He looked up at her, eyes rolling in the sockets.

“Hey,” he said. “Sorry. Thought I could…” he coughed, and blood flecked his lips.

“Don’t talk,” she said. She had to save him. She had to stop Cy. But everyone was right. She didn’t have the imagination. She didn’t have the power. She was too much a part of the real world, the world that rejected those who used their minds and loved transcending Earth with their thoughts.

She didn’t have enough imagination to stop Cy.

But as she looked at the arrow, it seemed to waver and fade, just for a second.

Maybe she had enough imagination to do something else, instead.

She focused. The arrow wasn’t real. It was just another trick of Cy’s, just another thing he conjured up. Like Jason, it could move through the world, touch things, even cause harm…but it

just

was

not

real!

The arrow blinked away, and Benjamin’s chest was un-punctured. He set up with a gasp and looked at Andi, amazed.

“Go get him,” she said, and ran just a step behind as Benjamin bolted towards Cy.

He hit his old friend with a flying tackle, knocking him clear of the portal, which had begun to blossom at its center, revealing something beyond.

Something that looked very much like another world.

Benjamin and Cy tumbled together, punching and kicking, until they bumped up against a stack of pumpkins. One fell off and bonked Benjamin on the head, and while he reeled from that, Cy conjured up a sword and chopped Benjamin’s head off with one clean stroke.

Andi screamed and ran to Benjamin, pushing down the shock as best she could and finding her focus again because this wasn’t real, either, it was just another one of Cy’s damned tricks, and Benjamin’s head —

— was back on his body, and he was whole again.

“Oh,” said Cy, pulling a hatchet out of nowhere. “I see. I’ve been trying to kill the wrong one.” He advanced on Andi, but Benjamin produced a sword of his own, and parried Cy.

The two swung weapons at each other, clanging and clashing, until Benjamin swirled his sword around and disarmed Cy. Cy took it in stride, inhaled, and breathed a plume of fire right in Benjamin’s face. Benjamin dropped, his head a blackened chunk of charcoal.

Except Andi knew that wasn’t real, either.

Benjamin’s head healed and he sprung up, a chain whipping from his hand to wrap around Cy’s neck. With a pivot, he whipped his friend up in the air and slammed him back down again by the chain.

Cy shot out circular saw blades that chopped off Benjamin’s feet at the ankles…until his feet reattached again.

Benjamin created a python that wrapped Cy up tight.

Cy shot gamma rays out of his eyes and scorched twin holes through Benjamin’s chest, which healed in less than a second.

At last, Cy staggered away from Benjamin. “You know,” he gasped, “of all the ways this could’ve played out, The Sword in the Stone wouldn’t have been my first guess.”

Benjamin laughed at that, an honest, pure chuckle.

“You can’t stop me,” Cy said. “And I can’t stop you. But I…” and he stopped, pained, clutching at his neck where the chain had wrapped, then his chest where the snake had crushed.

“Oh,” Cy said. Then, looking at Andi, “Oh. Ha. Ha ha ha! Oh, this is perfect. Absolutely perfect.” He went to the portal.

“Cy,” Benjamin warned.

“Calm down, man,” Cy said. “I’m not doing anything. I’ll just…” and he laughed again. “I’ll see you soon.” With that, he dived through the portal before Benjamin could make another move. Benjamin ran to the portal, which still stood, cycling back down to a few whirling embers.

“What did he mean?” Andi asked.

“I don’t know,” Benjamin said. “Maybe his concentration broke, but –”

Andi looked back at the gate to the farm, wondering if they could still get away, if someone had come by and noticed all the craziness going on.

“I have to go after him,” Benjamin said, “just the same. If he’s in Voidville, he’s still a danger to this world…I need to –”

Benjamin cried out pain.

She spun, and saw blood beginning to seep from his chest, his neck, his ankles…

“Oh, God,” he said. “I understand now.”

“What’s happening?” she said. She tried to focus. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. He was fine.

“It’s from when you healed me. You made the weapons disappear, but the damage? It was very real. So, you repaired me…with your imagination. Imaginary blood vessels, imaginary muscle fibers…”

She thought of threatening Cy in his room. If she beat him up, and she was made to vanish, the damage would still remain…

“And now it’s failing,” Benjamin said. “Where you healed me is fading away.”

“I’ll try harder,” Andi said. “I’ll imagine it back!”

“And then?” Benjamin said, and coughed up some blood. “You’ll have to sleep. You’ll have to focus on taking a test, or remembering a flag routine. And then I fall to pieces.”

“No, no,” she said, breathing the words as fog in the chilly air.

“But I think Cy was onto something…get me to the portal.”

She got under one arm and the two of them lurched to the swirling sparks, which began to enlarge and shine as they drew closer.

“Voidville is pure imagination,” Benjamin said. “I can stay healed as long as I’m there.”

She almost dropped him. “No! Benjamin, you can’t go!”

“It’s the only way,” he said. Then, with a wincing quirk at the corner of his mouth, “…Told you I couldn’t function in this world.”

“But…maybe you can function in another,” she said, words barely getting out from the tears that had started.

“You could come with me,” he said. “Think about it. After we stop Cy, then there’s nothing but play, forever. Every day is a new adventure. For long after the Earth is dust.”

And she could come with him, couldn’t she? There was nothing but hurt and complication here: angry parents, angry school, angry cops. She could turn her back on tests, on electives, on college, on becoming an adult, on having kids, on starting a family and passing on her gran-da’s stories…

He looked at her, and must have seen something in her eyes she thought was hidden. “Oh, yes,” he said, and coughed again, wetly and more violently this time. “The siren song of the magic ring-toss game.”

“No,” she said. “It’s not like that, it’s just –”

He pushed away from her with necessity, not scorn, and stood, wobbly, in front of the now-open portal.

“You played as well as anybody ever did,” he said. “If you ever want to play again, just imagine. I’ll hear you.”

And with that, he fell backwards into the portal. This time, it flared and shut completely, with no more floating embers, just the emptiness of the space where it had hung.

Andi reached out and waved her hand where the portal had been. No warmth, nothing. Just the same chill wind as everywhere else.

She breathed great hitching breaths that stung with the cold air, the tears slowing and finally ceasing.

On the way back to her bike, she paused to kick a pumpkin, not stopping until it was unrecognizable pulp beneath her feet.

Then she hopped the gate, got on her bicycle, and started the long ride back home.

Back home, and back to reality.

*****

Today’s Words: 5029
Total Words: 44777

*****

Notes: Whew! One-point-five hours until midnight here in Texas, and I am wiped out. I had hoped to finish the epilogue today, but I don’t think I can. Nearly eight thousand words in a day seems like my limit. That unfortunately means the challenge is a complete failure this year, as well.

So it goes. See you tomorrow for the epilogue, and the conclusion of the first draft of Voidville!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Thirty-One, Part One

On the computer desk this morning, waiting for me to start writing.

They lit out from Eddie’s that next morning. His mother was gone, already ten miles away in the county seat, starting her shift at the DMV.

The boys had taken the floor to sleep while Andi took the bed, joined late in the night by Eddie’s standoffish cat, who provided some much-welcome warmth.

After waking up they ate Super Sugar Crisp, sans milk, while they discussed the town and the best way to get out of it.

“So who’s all looking for us?” Andi asked. “My parents, for sure.”

Benjamin swallowed his mouthful of cereal. “The school’s looking for you, too, I’m sure. And the cops. Eddie and me? No one, I don’t think.”

Andi thought of Benjamin’s broken, screaming mother, and a bit of puffed wheat caught in her throat. She coughed.

“So I’m the weak link,” she said, voice dry. “Maybe I should stay here.”

“Ye–” Eddie began.

“No,” Benjamin said. “We need you.”

Andi shook her head. “You think you need me, Benjamin. But Eddie’s right. He told me I couldn’t go toe-to-toe with Cy, and he wasn’t wrong.”

“Well,” Benjamin said, “Eddie’s an asshole.”

No one argued his point.

“If we’re doing this,” Benjamin continued, “we need to stick together, and we all need to contribute. So you don’t have years of experience with role-playing games and horror and science fiction and all the rest of it. So what? You’re here, and you’re willing to fight for what’s right. And that puts you light years ahead of most of the people in this world. We need you, Andi. Europa needs you. So don’t stay behind, okay?”

Andi smiled, feeling a prickle at the corner of her eye. “Okay,” she said at last.

Eddie got up, went to his room, and returned quickly, tossing Andi a Megadeth baseball cap. “Here,” he said. “Might as well try to disguise yourself.”

She stuffed as much of her unruly, signal-flare hair under the cap as she could. It was uncomfortable and made her scalp feel constantly tugged-upon, but it was the best course of action.

Benjamin looked at the clock. “At nine, Randall’s parents should both be gone to work. We’ll leave then.”

“So are we playing?” Eddie asked. “I mean, to get inside the Leviathan of Randall’s house. Do we need to make props or anything?”

“Just the clothes on our backs and the brains in our heads,” Benjamin said.

***

Randall’s house looked more imposing than Andi remembered. The windows in the second story were like eyes, gazing judgmentally on them. They ditched their bikes in the culvert by the entryway and walked up the long gravel stretch to the front door.

“Aren’t you going to set the scene?” Eddie asked. “Start the game?”

“We’re not starting yet,” Benjamin said. “We still need the Wolf Man.” He rang the doorbell.

After a few seconds, a voice called, “Just a minute!” Andi could hear steps thudding down the stairs, then a figure appeared at the door, distorted through the stained-glass insets.

The locks and chains rattled and clicked, and the door swung open to reveal Randall. He almost seemed to cave in on seeing his friends, and let out a groan of relief.

“Thank God,” he said. “Oh, thank God.”

Andi stepped up and hugged him. “How are you?”

“I’m…” he started, but stepped away from the door. “Come in, y’all, please.”

They walked in to the smell of fresh paint. The walls had been re-done, and a few new religious icons and pictures hung from the walls. The most heavily-shredded sofa had been replaced.

“I’m so glad to see y’all,” Randall continued. “You want some Wyler’s?” He went into the kitchen and the group followed. Randall kept up his cheerful patter. “We just got grape, but it’s not too bad if you drink it fast and don’t let it linger on your tongue too long.” He began fetching tumblers out of an overhead cabinet.

“Where’s your brothers?” Benjamin asked.

“Off at church camp,” Randall said. “They were…having a rough time of it here,” and the bobble in his voice suggested it hadn’t been smooth for him, either. “How about y’all? Back in school yet?”

“No,” all three said at once.

“I’m glad you came by,” he said. He fetched a pitcher out of the fridge. “But it was smart for you to wait until Momma and Daddy left, let me tell you.” He went to pour the purple drink into the first tumbler, but spilled it. “Ah, shoot,” he said, and set the pitcher down to get a paper towel. When he turned, his gangly elbow knocked over one of the plastic glasses, and ice scattered everywhere. Then he spun to correct that, and knocked the pitcher onto the floor. Its lid burst off on impact with the floor, and sugary liquid went everywhere.

“Ah, God,” he wailed. “Ah, man, they’re gonna kill me! They’re gonna…!” Randall turned this way and that, not knowing what to clean up or fix first. He spun to face his friends, tears in his eyes. “Help me,” he said. “Please, y’all…for the love of Christ, y’all gotta help me.”

Andi took him by the hand and led him to sit, shivering, at the kitchen table. She stroked his forearm and murmured calming words while the other boys cleaned up the mess.

“…It’s his sister,” Randall said. “It’s Eury. She’s here; she’s in the house, but only I can see her. She’ll slip around a corner when you blink. She’ll be standing in a room, but when I call for someone to come see, she’s gone. I’m going out of my mind. Momma and Daddy are about ready to call an exorcist, and we’re not even Catholic…” He turned to Benjamin. “Please tell me that’s why you’re here.”

Benjamin walked over and touched Randall on the shoulder. “It is.”

“Oh, thank you,” Randall said. “I wanted to call you and tell you, but they unplugged all the phones. I just felt trapped here, haunted by Eury, and I couldn’t think of any way to help her.”

Eddie joined the group at the table, still holding a dripping, stained towel. “We’re going to take care of it, man, but we could use your help.”

“Anything.”

***

“I still can’t believe it’s Cy,” Randall whispered, “but I know y’all wouldn’t lie to me.”

They sat on the new sofa: Randall, Andi, and Eddie. Benjamin stood before them, eyes closed, preparing.

“The first thing that hits you is the smell,” Benjamin said, and the others quit their whispering.

“The smell of biology, ancient biology. Saliva, phlegm, blood, gastric juices, all stewing from since before your most elderly ancestors were born. The creature you’re trapped inside has lived for millennia, swimming the oceans of Voidville, devouring countless lifeforms to slake its demigod’s hunger. This is the brother of the Leviathan — the Ziz.”

Andi saw the other two close their eyes to concentrate, and she did the same, taking Benjamin’s words and projecting them on the darkness of her shuttered eyelids.

“You are in the creature’s throat, a slick, vile surface, spongy beneath your feet. And echoing up that cavernous esophagus, you hear the cry of a lost soul…Bast, goddess of cats.”

With that, the image bloomed in Andi’s mind: her, regal and corpselike in her green dress; the Wolf Man and Frankenstein, as real and dangerous as they were in the movies. The stink of the Ziz’s innards wafted on its warm exhalations.

And in the distance, the plaintive meows of Bast.

Benjamin wasn’t there with them, of course. He narrated, but was never a physical presence.

Not in the real, true Voidville.

“Further down,” said the Wolf Man. “Banshee, can you fly ahead and scout for us? The Monster and I can gouge handholds in the flesh, but it will be slow going.”

“Aye,” Andi said. “Sure, and ’tis no burden.” She rose from the moist, tacky floor and drifted down the throat, ears and eyes alert. Behind her, her compatriots followed cautiously, ready to claw and clutch at the Ziz’s flesh at the slightest sign of a slippery slope…or the pulsating waves of swallowing.

Another yowl, and Andi homed in, only to hear more voices.

“Dinner, dinner,” grumbled something in the darkness ahead. “Dinner, dinner.”

Andi glided ahead, eyes piercing the dark.

She spotted Bast, who clung to a gobbet of torn meat just on the edge of a precipice, where the throat gave way to a dead-drop into the mighty Ziz’s eight hundred interlinked stomachs.

Around her, giant crabs — symbiotic pests that infested the Ziz’s digestive system, living off its intake of food, shielded from its acidic guts by their thick exoskeletons.

“Dinner, dinner,” grumped another, poking at Bast with a closed claw. She hissed and swatted back, an act that gave the crabs great amusement.

Andi swooped in close to get a count of their foes, but not without getting noticed. One crab, its polished bowling-ball eyes swiveling, caught sight of her.

“Dinner, dinner — dinner, dinner!” it cried.

Other crabs took up the chant. “Dinner, dinner — dinner, dinner!”

Then one crab, bigger and crustier than the others, scuttled through the group and intoned, “Feast. Feast.

Andi gave Bast what she hoped was a reassuring wave, and the cat goddess shouted out, “Andi!”

“We’re coming, honey,” Andi shouted back over the crabs’ clamor. “We’ll be back to get you soon!” With that, she hovered in close to the crabs’ bristle of snipping claws, just enough to taunt them further. She floated back, and they followed, so she poured on the speed until she reached the friendly monsters.

“Crabs!” she shouted. “Huge ones! A whole passel of the beasties, coming this way!”

“Dinner, dinner!” came a mighty chorus from down the throat, getting closer. They could hear the clicks of dozens of heavy-plated legs, and the organic clanging of huge carapaces bashing together as the throng approached.

“How many?” asked the Wolf Man. She saw his toe-claws dig into Ziz’s esophagus for purchase.

“A dozen, easy — with one massive bugger running the show.” She swung in the air, pivoting to come behind her friends, ready to rain down screams of death on the overgrown seafood.

The crab army got close enough to see, and there were more — dozens more than Andi had spotted.

“Must have…called friends…” Frankenstein moaned. He raised his hands and, when the crabs were in range, let off a lightning bolt at them. It struck without effect.

“I don’t think my claws or teeth can make a scratch in those shells,” the Wolf Man shouted. “Maybe we should fall back?”

“They were just about to rip Bast apart,” Andi cried. “This is our only chance.” She swept in and shrieked at the crabs, the walls of the throat wobbling with the transverse wave.

It didn’t faze the crustaceans at all.

“What can…do?” Frankenstein said, electricity laddering between his fingers.

Andi fell back to land beside her comrades. “What would they not like? What have we not tried that we could –” She trailed off, thinking about crabs at the seafood place in her last hometown.

“Get your clothes off,” she said. “All of you.” She shucked her own dress, leaving her corset and pantaloons. The other monsters could only stare. “Now!” she shouted, putting just a tiny thread of death-energy into her voice to shock them into action.

The others stripped down to their drawers and lumped all the clothing together per the Banshee’s instructions. The crabs would be upon them in seconds.

“Now,” she called, “lightning, right on the clothes. We need fire!”

Frankenstein hesitated. “Fire…bad.”

“I know, dear, I know it scares you…but we’ve got to do it. You’ve got to be as brave as I know you can!”

The monster swallowed, nodded, and pointed at the cast-off garments. Blue electricity crackled from his fingers, and the clothes caught fire, bursting into a pyre just as the crabs reached them.

The plated monstrosities clattered to a halt.

“If you don’t want to steam in your own shells, I suggest you back off!” Andi shouted.

“Hot, hot!” cried one crab.

“Hurt, hurt!” went another.

Without waiting for their leader to speak, the gang of crabs retreated, scuttling their way down the throat to the myriad stomachs.

The heroic monsters ran around the fire and down the throat, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein stopping as the floor got too slick. Andi flew ahead and found Bast where she’d left her, now un-menaced.

“Take my hand,” Andi called, and grabbed Bast’s paw, hoisting her into the air. “Hold on,” she said, and the two of them flew up the throat to freedom, their friends racing behind.

Ziz’s mouth was slowly closing.

“Go!” someone shouted. “Go!” It sounded like the Host.

They slipped between the teeth just as they closed with a thunderous clash, and tumbled onto a rocky beach.

Andi looked down. Eury was enfolded in her arms, fast asleep.

“And with that,” said the Horror Host, “you have completed your latest adventure, rescuing your beloved friend Bast from a horrendous fa — *cough* — fate. You have earned the right to –*cough, cough* — to a rest, heroes. Well — *cough, cough* — well don — *cough* — done…”

Andi could still smell the smoke from their burned clothes, as it wafted into her nose and coated her throat. She coughed, too, tears leaking from her eyes as she opened them to look around…

…and see the Harts’ house was on fire, raging and blistering.

Benjamin bent double, hacking. Eddie looked over at Randall. “He’s out! The smoke!”

The smoke was indeed thick in the room as the walls blazed, the curtains going up into frazzles of coiled, scorched polyester. “Come on,” Benjamin choked, and waved the others ahead to the door, Andi holding Eury, Eddie with Randall slung over his shoulder.

They stumbled out the front door, hacking and soot-covered, to the sound of distant sirens. At this point in Autumn, it made sense. Everything was dead and dried-up. A fire would be responded to faster than any other emergency in the county.

“They’ll get us,” Andi gasped as they raced away from the house to the fence line. She noticed absently that they were all clothed, so that hadn’t transcended from Voidville, at least. “Cy’s still out there; we have to…”

Eddie laid Randall down by the barbed-wire fence. “Go,” he said. “The three of y’all, get out of here. I’ll take care of this.”

“You can’t,” Benjamin said. “They’ll blame it on you. They’ll –”

“I said,” and Eddie stood, looming over them, “get the hell out of here. Get your sister home.”

Andi looked around. The sky had darkened. How long had they been in there, enraptured in Voidville?

Benjamin hugged Eddie. Then, to Andi, “Come on.”

They ran back to the barn, getting out of sight just as the fire engines and police cars pulled up the driveway. Andi could see the small figure of Eddie running to meet them.

“I’ll carry her for a while,” Benjamin said, and took Eury from Andi’s aching arms.

They headed away from the house and barn until they reached the far side of the Harts’ property, worked their way along the fence until they reached the highway, then hopped it and followed it from the other side until they found the culvert with their bikes. The flashing lights of the emergency vehicles continued to strobe as arcs of water jetted into the ruined house.

Benjamin got Eury behind him on the seat, and she was responsive enough to loop her arms around him and hold on.

“We’ll be home soon,” Andi heard him murmur to Eury, who said something fuzzy and half-dreamed in response.

***

The lights at the Vail house were dark when they pulled up. Benjamin got off, keeping Eury upright, then pulled her into his arms and carried her to the front door.

Andi stood by the bikes as he sat his sister up in the front porch swing. He studied her for a moment, then leaned in and kissed her on the temple.

He rang the doorbell and sprinted back to the bikes, tear tracks on his cheeks.

The two of them rode off into the night, not speaking and not looking back.

*****

Today’s Words: 2726
Total Words: 39768

*****

Notes: Part one of today’s posts…taking a break for lunch!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Thirty

Preparing to use the scratchy ramp.

As they approached, the DJ switched over to ‘Careless Whisper,’ and one by tentative one, girls and boys walked across the basketball court to ask one another to dance. The floor filled before the first chorus kicked in.

It figured. The one time Andi wanted witnesses, and everyone decided to divert their attention with a dance. Not only that, but to a song about never dancing again.

The world made no sense the more she lived in it.

“Hey,” Cy said as he reached her. “Great costume!” Eddie and the newcomers straggled behind, forming a vague semi-circle around Cy.

“Have you met my friends?” Cy continued as Andi stared hot pokers at him. “This is Carrie,” and he pointed at the one girl in the group: a thin, sallow thing. “And Norman,” and an equally thin boy gave Andi a hesitant wave. “Norman can’t stay long,” Cy said. “His mom is way strict. And this,” he finished, pointing at a boy almost as tall as Jason, “is Michael.”

Andi peered at Michael and thought an expressionless white mask would go nicely with his blue jumpsuit.

“Is Randall here?” Cy asked, looking around the gym. “He and Carrie have a lot in common; I wanted to introduce them. I think they’d get on like a house afire.”

“Glad you could make it, Cy,” Andi said, forcing a smile and trying to keep her peripheral vision on his new friends and Eddie.

And how new were they? Freshly created from the ether this afternoon, she figured.

“It was so nice of you to invite me,” he said, pulling an orange envelope out of his jacket and fanning himself with it. “Makes a guy feel wanted.”

Andi thought back to how hard her heart had pounded when she prematurely got off the bus earlier today to slip the envelope in Cy’s mailbox.

And even without Eddie on her side, her plan still had a chance to work.

Maybe.

Hopefully.

The Wham tune finished, and ‘Weird Science’ came on to replace it. “So,” Cy said, crossing his arms, “what were you planning? Settle this with a dance-off? I know you tried to poison Eddie against me,” and his friend nodded, “so there’s that part of your scheme over and done with. What’s next?” He smiled like a proud parent anticipating some choice babble from a talkative baby.

“Next is: I give you one chance to hand over Eury,” Andi said, “before things get ugly.”

“Oh, come on,” Eddie scoffed. “You’re crazy, Red. Cy had nothing to do with any of this. Nothing.”

Andi ignored him. “I had some time to think about this, Cy. You’re using imagination to hurt people. Well, if you can do it, so can I. I’ve played Voidville. I know how it works. All I have to do is want it badly enough, just like you. And I want that little girl safe and sound so bad you can’t understand it.” She took a breath and tried to calm her twanging nerves. “I,” she announced, “am the banshee. A ghost of Celtic lore. I have the power to end life with my scream.” She leveled her stare at Cy, who looked, for the first time since he walked in, uncertain.

“And a shrimp like you?” she said. “I just have to whisper in your ear, Cy, and you’ll drop stone dead.” She took a step towards him. “Tell me where Eury is. Now.”

Norman, crane-like, bobbled forward and seized Andi’s arm. “You really shouldn’t make such a fuss,” he said, milquetoast dripping from every word.

She pivoted and kicked, going for a field goal with his crotch. Norman squeaked and crumpled, cupping his groin. “…That hurt,” he managed to whisper.

Andi wheeled on Carrie. “Are you next, spooky?” Then, to Michael, “How about you? Or do you not go after girls unless you’ve got a knife?”

Michael backed away, protesting to Cy. “Man, screw this. I don’t want to get hurt.”

Cy, not caring if anyone saw it happen, furrowed his brow. Norman and Michael ceased to be, leaving nothing but air behind. Carrie looked pleased at having been spared, until he turned to her as an afterthought.

“That’s how useful you are,” Cy told her. “I’d already forgotten I made you.” With another dark expression, he made her vanish, as well. There was a muffled scream from somewhere on the dance floor, but it sounded more like the result of a pinched bottom than someone witnessing the supernatural.

Eddie turned this way and that, mouth moving silently, eyes bugging. “Wha?” he finally managed. “Whaa–?”

Cy seized the moment, turned and grabbed Eddie’s hands. “Yes, man, yes. I can do those things she said I could. She’s right, but she’s wrong. You don’t understand what I’m trying to do…”

Eddie looked down at Cy, confused. “What is it? What are you trying to do…?” Then, focus coming to his eyes, “What have you done?”

“I’ve just been testing the waters,” Cy said, “playing around with the reality of the last few games. A pinch here, a poke there. But I’m close, man, I’m really close to fixing everything…”

Eddie frowned. “And Benjamin’s sister?”

“Who gives a shit?” Cy shouted, the loud music stopping his voice from carrying. “Who cares? She ruins the game, she pesters everyone, Benjamin can’t stand her…”

“Can’t stand her?” Andi yelled back. “He was tearing apart that farm looking for her!”

“What if it was your sister, man?” Eddie asked him. “What if someone had kidnapped Beth, and some…twerp was standing in front of you, teasing you about it?”

Cy recoiled like he’d been Maced. He looked up at Eddie, eyes moist. “…Twerp. Twerp? That’s what you think about me? All the…all the time we’ve known each other, and that’s what you think of me…?”

“That’s what I think about you right now,” Eddie said. “But you can change that. If you’re the friend I’ve had all these years, man, then tell me where that little girl is.” He chucked a thumb at Andi. “Or I let the banshee test her theory on you.”

“She’s in the belly of the beast, where she belongs. I’m going to make everything right, Eddie, and you’ll be sorry you acted this w–”

Eddie grabbed Cy by a handful of lapel, and punched him once, quick and piston-like. Blood spurted from Cy’s squashed nose, and he wailed after a stunned second.

“A pinch here, a poke there,” Eddie snarled. “How’s that for a poke? Talk!”

“Don’t hit me, don’t hit me!” Cy begged. “I’ll tell you!”

Andi’s jerked her head away from the scene to see a chaperone coming toward them.

Cy saw the man, too, and before Andi could blink the shorter boy had healed, instantly. No blood, no damage. Even the red stain that had dripped on his shirt was gone.

“Or rather,” he said to Eddie, who stared at him in shock, “I’d tell you if I was really here.”

And with that, Cy disappeared, leaving Eddie holding a handful of emptiness.

“Oh, God,” Eddie muttered, flexing his hand as though Cy’s fading away had given him an electric jolt.

“What’s going on over here?” shouted the chaperone. “Did I see you threatening somebody?”

“We were dancing,” Andi said. “He, um, dipped me.”

The music currently playing was more conducive to a mosh than a waltz, but the man seemed satisfied. “All right, then. Dance a little less aggressively, if you don’t mind.” He stalked away.

Eddie stared at her like the horizon had just slipped out of sight, leaving him lost at sea.

“He always…” he said, voice low and phlegmy, “he always said mean things about me, when he thought I couldn’t hear. Things about me growing up to be a serial killer. I thought he was just joking, but…”

She stepped close and put her hand on his shoulder. His face was vacant, unreadable.

“My friend. All these years, my friend. But he wasn’t.” He looked at her. “Was he?”

“I…think he was,” she said. “People, y’know, they say people change when they get rich. Maybe when people get…power? Maybe it’s the same thing.”

“What’s he going to fix?” Eddie asked. “You heard him. What’s he going to make right? What’s worth Eury’s life? That girl never hurt a soul.”

“What’s the belly of the beast?” Andi asked back. “All he does is act cryptic.”

Eddie looked at the huge throng of dancers: happy, carefree, full of life and energy. “I think you were right,” he said. “Power…maybe when people get it, they decide to be a hero or a villain. And Cy made his choice. He’s taunting us because he can. Because he’s getting off on it.”

“So what now?” Andi asked.

“I think you were on the right track, luring him here and trying to take him down. If he’s fighting with imagination, then yeah…right on.”

She sighed and spread her hands. “If only I’d had a chance to test the theory.”

Eddie blurted out a chuckle. “You? Red, I said you had a good idea. I didn’t say you had a chance in hell of succeeding at it!”

Andi was speechless as he continued to laugh.

“You’re a tourist, Andi. You would have played with us for a few more games until you got bored or your girlfriends peer-pressured you into quitting. Or until you met some quarterback who swept you off your feet. You played the game really good, I’ll give you that, but for you, imagination is something you do when you’re bored. For me? Benjamin? Cy? Imagination is a way of life. Cy would have wiped the gym floor with you if you’d tried to take him on.”

Andi fumed. He was wrong. She never would have abandoned the guys. She never would have stopped playing. She wasn’t…she wasn’t that kind of person. She was positive she wasn’t.

“Okay, then,” she said, when she could trust herself to speak without cussing a streak, “what do we do then, genius? Are you going to take Cy on?”

That set Eddie off again, guffaws galore. “Me? Are you out of your mind? The best gameplay I can come up with is based on things I’ve swiped from TV and movies. I talk a good game, but inventing new things, fresh ideas? I might last a minute or two longer than you against him.”

“Oh,” said Andi, taken aback by his honesty. “So…oh!”

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “If the game is Voidville, and a player’s breaking the rules, there’s only one person you can go to…

“…the Horror Host.”

SIDE TWO, TRACK FIVE: BURNING UP

Andi snuck away from the gym to the girl’s locker room and changed out of her dress into her track clothes, grateful for the increased range of motion. Eddie met her outside and they took his bike into town. She sat behind him, hands around his waist, though not too tightly.

She tried to reconcile his jerkiness with the other, more passably human emotions he’d shown at the dance.

Once or twice, headlights illuminated them from behind as Eddie pedaled along, and Andi glanced back, half-expecting to see her dad’s car gaining on them. He had to have shown up to the gym by now, and he had to have realized she’d gone.

Eddie stayed silent the whole ride over, grim and focused on the dark streets ahead. Nothing accompanied their ride but the whir of bike spokes and the howl of the wind.

A block from Benjamin’s house, he coasted to a stop. “His parents might still be up,” Andi said.

“House looks dark from here,” Eddie said, “but let’s walk the rest of the way.”

As he said, the Vail home was dark, cars in the driveway, as they approached.

“This is his room,” Andi said, then, “Sorry. You know that.”

They crept to Benjamin’s window, and Eddie scratched on the screen. “Benjamin!” he whispered. “Wake up, man; we gotta talk.”

Sounds of movement and the creak of bedsprings came from the window. But when the lights came on, the shadow they illuminated was too tall to be their friend.

“I agree,” said Benjamin’s mom.

***

She paced for the first minute or two, back and forth in the living room, the kids seated in a line on the sofa. She paused, looked as though she was about to speak, but then went back to her small circuit of the living-room floor.

Mr. Vail had been the only one asleep, but you could hear the quote-marks when Benjamin’s mom said ‘asleep.’ Benjamin had been up watching TV, and his mother…

“I heard you two talking the other night,” she said once she stood still, wagging a finger back and forth between her son and Andi. “You aren’t as quiet as you think. So I thought I’d make him swap rooms with me and give you, missy, a piece of my mind if you came back.

“But like I say, I heard you talking. And I heard what you said. And while I was lying awake, waiting to pounce on you, I thought about everything I heard.” She turned her focus on Andi. “Do you know where my daughter is?”

“I’m — I’m not sure,” Andi began.

Mrs. Vail cursed and turned to Andi’s left.

“Eddie,” she said, almost pleading, “you’re a good kid. You try like hell not to be, but you are, underneath it all. Please. Please. Do you know anything about Eury?

“Miz Vee,” Eddie said, sounding just as tortured as her, “you wouldn’t believe me. There’s just no way. But if you’d seen the things I saw tonight –”

“What? What? Eddie, stop pussyfooting around and tell me!”

“We saw Cy make some people vanish,” Andi said, flinching under the baleful stare that spun her way. “Just, poof. Not like a magic trick, either. They were there, then they weren’t.”

“And then Cy disappeared himself,” Eddie added. “I had a grip on his shirt, and he…wasn’t there anymore.”

“It really did happen,” Andi said. “Please, we need you to believe us!”

“Shut up!” Mrs. Vail shouted, and the three of them clammed up.

“You boys,” she said, quieter but with no less danger in her voice, “and your game. I didn’t think it was healthy, boys your age playing make-believe and dress-up. But I knew you were hurting after your friend died, and I thought it might be…I don’t know, therapeutic or something. But you need a doctor. It’s gone on too long, and you can’t tell reality and fantasy apart anymore. All this garbage about Eury, and knowing where she is, and who took her…it’s just another part of the goddamn game, isn’t it?”

“Mrs. Vail?” Andi asked, and caught that withering gaze again, “what about me? I only played the game twice, and I never knew Lloyd…”

“I don’t know,” Benjamin’s mom shot back. “Maybe you’re just natural-born crazy.” Andi bristled, but didn’t retort.

“Give me your number, girlie,” she continued. “I’ll call your parents and tell them all this. Hopefully they can get you the help you need. And Eddie –”

“Miz Vee,” Eddie said again, his voice quiet. “You know Mom’s not going to be awake this time of night. She’s passed out before seven most of the time.”

Mrs. Vail looked at him, her eyes pinched. “Ah, Jesus. You poor thing.” She stepped close and cupped his cheek in her hand. “We’ll get you well again, Eddie. I promise. Mr. Vail and I will do whatever we can to –”

“Mom?” asked Benjamin. But the sound didn’t come from Andi’s right.

It came from across the room.

Benjamin’s mom looked at him then turned to see her son also standing by the piano on the far side of the living room. The new Benjamin waved, soft and light, as if afraid of breaking his hand.

“Hey, Mom,” both Benjamins said, in disconcerting stereo.

One Benjamin stood from the sofa, and the other walked toward him. They circled his uncomprehending mother, talking all the while.

“Sorry,” one said. “Sorry I didn’t speak up sooner. I was trying to concentrate.”

“I wanted to see if I could do it,” said the other. “You know, create something out of nothing like Cy did.”

“Turns out I could,” said the first, somewhere between proud and abashed. “Even though the cops have probably burned my so-called ‘devil worship’ book.”

“Mom?” asked the second. “Momma?” She looked down at him, focus laser-like, looking as if she wanted to pretend there was only one version of her son in the room. “I’m sorry to do this. I know it hurts, when people who have trouble imagining — or people who gave up on their imaginations — hit something they can’t explain.”

“But,” said the first one, resolutely ignored by Mrs. Vail, “it was the only way I could prove to you that we know what’s going on –”

“–and that we know how to stop it,” finished the second one, who snapped his fingers and vanished. Mrs. Vail screamed, brief and piercing.

“It’s going to be okay,” the remaining Benjamin reassured her. “I promise. I’m going to get Europa, and we’ll be back home soon.” To Andi and Eddie: “Ready?”

“Where are we going?” Andi asked.

“I figured out where my sister is,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and if all this going on is Voidville-based, there’s only one place she can be.”

He walked back over to his mother, who had sunk to her knees, sobbing.

“Mom,” he said.

He hugged the hell out her.

But she shoved him away, and backhanded him clean across the face.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “I know; you’re that thing, that copy. I watched the two of you; I know which was which. You’re not my Benjamin. What did you do with him? What did you do with MY BABY BOY??”

Benjamin stepped back as she screamed, “Get out! Get out!” He, Eddie, and Andi ran for the door, Mrs. Vail’s shouts pursuing them.

Andi saw him turn back one last time, to make one last plea, but his mother would have none of it.

“Get out!!”

***

They got his parents’ ten-speeds out of the garage so they could all have a bike. Theft, at this point, seemed the most minor of transgressions.

“So where are we going?” Eddie asked as they mounted up and pedaled away.

“Nowhere, tonight,” Benjamin said “We’re crashing at your place, Eddie. There’s nowhere else to go. But tomorrow…”

“Yeah?”

“Tomorrow we’re going to Randall’s house. That’s where Eury is. Leviathan, yeah?”

Eddie nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, man. Makes sense. Belly of the beast?”

Benjamin glanced at him. “Say what?”

“Something Cy said about Eury.”

“Mmm.”

“What are you two talking about? What makes sense?” asked Andi. “Why are so sure she’s there?”

Benjamin turned to her, and his weird little smile almost broke her heart.

“Haven’t you heard?” he asked. “Houses around these parts tend to turn into monsters and eat kids alive.

“I’ve seen it first-hand.”

*****

Today’s Words: 3186
Total Words: 37038

*****

Notes: Big finale tomorrow! I will probably break up things into a few smaller posts, to allow me time to eat, nap, etc. See you then!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Twenty-Nine

I'm pretending this photo is blurry because it's 'artistic'.

SIDE TWO, TRACK FOUR: LIFE BEGINS AT THE HOP

A man in her room. A man, huge and towering, flickering in and out of reality as he loomed over her, his clutching hands going for her neck as she lay in bed, drugged and barely conscious.

It might have been real; it might have been a dream. But either way, it was enough to send her fumbling out of bed, colliding with every bit of furniture she had in her woozy, dead-headed rush to the door.

Her father found Andi, still half-asleep, trying to force the lock on his gun cabinet.

“Whoa,” he said, taking her hands in his and steering her away. “Hey, hey, what are you doing?”

“The man,” she mumbled. “Man in my room.”

“What man?” he asked, alert and stern.

“In my room,” she said, and leaned against him for warmth. She felt something between her face and his shirt, an extra layer of thin cloth. “Gotta shootum.”

He crouched, pulling her with him until she sat, swaying gently, on the hallway floor. “Wait here, baby,” he said. “Don’t mess with the guns.”

Dad was gone for a few minutes. Andi jerked awake for a second at the thought of him opening her closet and finding the rat-thing waiting, but fatigue won and closed her eyes again.

He came back, heavy steps approaching her. “There’s nobody there, Andi,” he said, and pulled her up to stand. “Do you want to go back to bed?”

“Nnn.”

“Do you want to sleep with Mom?”

“M’fourteen, Daddy. M’not a little girl.”

“I know.” He led her by the hand, just like when she was young and they’d go to Astroworld during the summer, down the hall to her parents’ room.

“Hey, she needs to bunk up with you tonight, okay? She’s having a rough night. I’ll take her room.”

“God, poor thing. Of course. C’mere, honey.” Dad led her to the empty side of the bed and Andi slid under the covers, into Mom’s gentle hug, without protest. “This stress is eating her up, Joseph.”

“I know. Damn school.” Then, his voice came from further away. “We’ll talk about it in the morning, make a decision then. Good night.”

Andi snuggled up, feeling safer than she had in days, and let pure, natural sleep claim her, a tear of gratitude mingling with the sleep-crusties in her eyes.

The man came back, like all nightmares do, but he was far away this time, a dot on the horizon. And no matter how fast he ran, he could never get any closer.

***

Andi woke early, disentangling herself from Mom, and sat on the edge of her parents’ king-size as the morning light leaked through the curtains.

She thought about the day ahead, and if she’d survive it.

Cy had to be gunning for her. She was the only one who knew about his plan (whatever it actually entailed), and she’d made clear her intent to stop it. But before she’d even opposed him, he’d tried to slip her a drugged soda.

So why hadn’t he walked the few blocks to her house, stood outside her window, and created something in her room to kill her?

Maybe he’d tried. Maybe she hadn’t been dreaming last night.

She stood. Dad.

Andi raced down the hall and opened her door.

Dad lay in her bed, curled up, gently snoring, and unharmed.

She let out a huff of relief. Then, to convince herself of his well-being, she walked over and gave his hair a light, affectionate pat, but not so light that he didn’t grumble awake.

“Hrrm…hey, Little Flame.” He shifted, tangling his flannel pajamas with the blankets, and rubbed his eyes. “Did you sleep okay?”

Andi nodded.

“You ready for breakfast?”

“Yes, please.” The thought of food sent her from normal to starving in a snap.

“Okay,” he said, and rolled over and pretended to go back to sleep. “Go wake your mother.”

Andi laughed at the old joke and reached out, poking his shoulder, doink-doink-doink. “Daddyyy!”

“…All right, all right,” he said, and got up, yawning and scratching his head. “Chef’s on duty.” He walked past her, but paused. “And afterward, we’ll change those bandages.”

She didn’t know what he was talking about until she looked down, seeing herself for the first time. Band-aids and gauze, dotting her arms and, as she felt around, her face and neck. She could even feel it rustle in her pajama legs, gauze against fabric.

She had no idea what had happened.

***

“We heard the crash last night,” Dad said over the sizzle of frying sausage patties. “Went out and found you passed out in the hedge on your bike.” He turned and smiled. “You just konked out. Everything finally got to you, I guess.”

Andi frowned, now feeling the itch of dozens of jabs and scrapes all over her body.

Mom wandered into the kitchen, matching Dad yawn for yawn, and hugged Andi. “Somebody got a solid night’s sleep,” Mom said, then moved away to peck Dad on his stubbly cheek.

“Hot stuff, coming through,” Dad said, and put a plate of eggs, sausage, and toast in front of Andi. Mom poured some V-8 and set the glass by Andi’s food.

As she ate, devouring the food at first then picking at the dregs, her folks got their own breakfast together and joined her. She looked up from forking a fluff of scrambled eggs into her mouth to find them looking at her. Smiling, unthreatening, but staring all the same.

“Ummm…” she managed, around the mouthful of food.

“Honey,” Mom said, “we’ve been thinking about it. We’re worried that everything that’s been going on, plus all your school work and electives, are overloading you. And that you fell asleep riding your bike last night is the capper.”

“Mom, I’m just –”

Mom closed her eyes. “Andi, it was dark. What if you’d passed out a few blocks away, in the middle of the street? What if someone hadn’t seen you in time?” She opened her eyes. They glistened. “What we’ve decided to do is this: we’re taking you out of school for the rest of the year. We’re going to get you a private tutor to keep you up to date with your schoolwork, and then you can go back to campus after New Year’s.” She held up a hand as Andi began to protest. “We’re not forbidding you from seeing your friends, or anything like that. Well, besides the ones we already talked about. You can still hang out with Wren and the girls. This is not a punishment; this is just…simplifying your life for a couple of months.”

Andi wondered how her mother would react if she knew precisely how complicated her daughter’s life currently was.

Or how much more complicated it was going to get.

But…was that a silver lining glinting at her? No school meant no snooping students or interfering teachers reporting back to her parents. No school meant she could meet with Benjamin and try to solve this nightmare without outside troubles.

“And,” Mom said, “we know tonight is the Halloween dance, and we know how hard you and your friends have worked on it, and how much it means to you. You can go and tell your friends what’s going on, and say…well, not goodbye, but au revoir.”

With that, Andi agreed so enthusiastically she worried her parents might suspect she had another motive.

She wanted to go to the dance, and had been prepared to beg her folks to let her.

Because since she woke up, she’d had the beginnings of a plan bubbling in her head.

And the dance was crucial to its success.

***

At this point in her life, Andi had exhausted both ‘redhead girl Halloween costumes’ — Raggedy Ann and Pippi Longstocking — several times over.

Luckily, she had another costume now. One she’d gotten very comfortable in.

Mom almost managed to hide her frown when Andi came downstairs that evening in the green dress, pancake makeup blanching her face, hair done up in haloing ringlets. Her scratches and scabs looked more like makeup effects than actual injuries.

“It’s all I had handy,” Andi lied.

“Well…okay.” In truth, Mom might have been right to frown, since the last time she’d seen Andi dressed like that, the girl had been getting out of a police car.

Dad, too, appeared less than happy at her costume choice, but he drove her to the school all the same, singing along to Sixties music on the radio. Andi joined in on the ones she knew.

“When is this thing over again?” he asked, as they pulled into the gym parking lot.

“Eight thirty,” Andi said.

“I still don’t understand why they had to do this on a Wednesday,” Dad said. “Seems like it could run later on a Friday or Saturday.”

“Tomorrow and Friday are football, Dad,” she said, “and Saturday’s November 1st.”

“Oh, right,” he said. “Football.” Then, she chorused along with him, “Damn school.”

Dad grinned at that despite himself. “Don’t cuss. It’s not ladylike.” He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. “Have fun. See you after eight.”

Andi got out and waved him goodbye, hurting terribly inside.

She hadn’t figured the odds, but there might be a chance she’d never see him again.

***

The last-minute decoration after school today had gone off without incident, with streamers and cutouts and banners strung and hung by committee members dedicated to pulling off a great dance rather than stroking their egos. Scuttlebutt around school said the high schoolers were having much less success getting their Thursday dance together.

The flags who’d arrived fashionably early mobbed her, complimenting her on her outfit, even if her explanation bored-slash-confused them.

“A banshee is a spirit from Celtic mythology…” Andi would begin, before their eyes glazed over.

She saw, and waved at, a few other friendly girls before touching base with the other dance committee members, checking that their areas of expertise had been covered. Snacks, check. Punch, check. Music — currently ‘In A Big Country,’ blaring through the loudspeakers, check.

Then it was time to make her own check.

She spotted him after just a few seconds, leaning against a far wall, cup of punch in hand. She knew he’d be here. He came to every school function, no matter how unwelcome he was, just to irritate people.

One could, after enough observation, surmise that everything he did was calculated to irritate people.

This was her last time at school until next year, so she strode across the empty basketball court, not caring who — peer or chaperone — saw her. She might have waited until enough students had gotten over their initial shyness to start dancing, providing her with a little cover, but time was crucial.

It was only a matter of time until the other person she expected to be here showed up.

“Red,” said Eddie as she walked up to him. Then, as she got into better light and he saw her scrapes and cuts, “Jesus, what happened to you? Looks like you got dragged through a hedge backwards.”

“You’re half right,” Andi said. “Listen, Eddie.” She looked around then drew a deep breath. “You did shoot lightning out of your fingers. Everything strange at Randall’s house? It really happened.”

“You talked to –”

She nodded. “Yes, yes, yes — but it’s not him. It’s not Benjamin, it never was. It’s Cy. Cy’s the one behind it. He kidnapped Eury, he — he made Jason out of thin air. Now, I know you’re his friend, but I was at Cy’s house last night, and –”

Eddie held up a hand. The smart-assery had started draining out of his face the moment Andi had mentioned Cy, and now it was all gone, leaving nothing but seriousness in its wake.

Seriousness, and a little anger.

“Yeah. Yeah, he is my friend. My friend since kindergarten, Red, and my friend when a lot of other people stopped being my friend. Now, I don’t know why Benjamin might be trying to drive a wedge between us, but…”

“He wasn’t…isn’t…!” She glanced around the gym. If she couldn’t get Eddie on board, what chance did her plan have?

You weren’t here when my dad robbed the Allsup’s and went to jail. You weren’t here when this town turned its back on my mom and me. Even Benjamin wasn’t my friend then. But Cy was. He’s always been there. So whatever ‘proof’ you think you’ve uncovered about him…whatever ‘evidence’ Benjamin has whispered in that little ear of yours…it’s all crap.” Eddie drained his cup. “I’m thirsty,” he said, and stalked away to the punch bowl.

Right then, Cy entered the gym.

He had three other kids with him, no one Andi recognized, and before she could move to intercept, they had met up with Eddie.

The conversation was quick and animated, and Eddie pointed across the gymnasium at Andi more than once. She could see Cy shake his head, that’s-too-bad, a couple of times.

Then they were walking towards her, all five of them, Cy in the lead.

When he got far enough ahead of the pack, so that none of them could see his face, Cy gave Andi a wink.

*****

Today’s Words: 2222
Total Words: 33852

*****

Notes: Not as much writing today as I’d hoped to get done, but I think I’m still on track to finish this on Halloween. It might be an all-day marathon, however…!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Twenty-Eight

Just a few photos left!

“Not necessarily,” Cy said. He looked at the floor as he spoke. “There’s been some research into things like that…quantum theory, that kind of thing. It’s not as insane as you might think.”

“It’s still pretty insane,” Andi said, and Cy gave a chuckle.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”

Andi waited for him to look up, to make eye contact, but his gaze went over to a bookshelf instead. “So…what I want to ask you,” she began. “If — if — what Benjamin and you say is true, then how do we stop it?”

That got his attention. Cy’s eyes snapped to hers, wide and shocked.

“Stop it?” he blurted out. “Why on Earth would you ever want to stop it?” Before she could speak, he ploughed on. “This is — imagination becoming real, do you have any idea what that means? What it means to people like me, and Benjamin, and Eddie, and…” He went quiet for a few moments, still looking at her, then, looking away again: “Some of us, imagination is all we’ve got. Something like this…I can’t understand why you’d want to stop it. You played with us, you felt how free and amazing it is….”

“What about Eury?” she asked, and he visibly flinched. “If this is real, and it took her…”

Cy closed his eyes and rocked back and forth on the bed, slowly, gently, as if trying to calm himself. Andi could only stare. Having the idea of this reality-creation introduced to him, then having it threatened with destruction, had hurt him in some way she couldn’t understand. She tried to map her own experience onto what he might be feeling — if she lost the flag corps, or student council — but she just couldn’t get into his head.

After a few seconds, he stopped moving, opened his eyes and looked at her. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, then. If it’s real, and that’s what happened to Eury, then all right. I’ll try to help you find a way to end this.” He slid off the bed. “But we’re getting into some really strange areas here. I need a Coke or something to sharpen my mind. Can I get you something to drink?”

Andi agreed to a Coke, and Cy left for the kitchen. Alone, she looked around his room, feeling a poke in her heart. This room was his world, wasn’t it? And here she was, violating it, crushing his dreams.

But Eury, if she was still alive, was Andi’s priority.

She stood and stretched, and paced, surveying the titles of his books. His magazine binders had been neatly labeled: STARLOG, FANGORIA, CINEFANTASTIQUE. She cast her eyes to the long, winding shelf above. All the action figures were dust-free. She pulled a book off the shelf — Red Sonja — and saw what appeared to be an adult version of herself in a metal two-piece, swinging a sword.

She wondered if Cy pictured her like that, and if that was the source of his shyness.

A little snooping gave way to a lot more, and she pulled open the drawers of his dresser while glancing at the doorway. They were packed with clothes, packed to bursting, and she wondered what he had in his closet, if all his clothes were in here —

She stood at the closet, hands on the two small, wooden knobs that would separate the doors. This felt wrong, like too much of an invasion of privacy. She should just sit back down and wait for Cy to come back with her Coke. Besides, what could he possibly have in there but board games, or toys, or more books…

She pulled open the closet doors.

The reflected light dazzled her for a moment, and she blinked at the glare. At first, she thought it was some kind of chain-link fence, or a huge screen of metal mesh, like the kind that made Red Sonja’s bikini.

But her eyes adjusted, and she could see it clearly:

Spiral notebooks. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, stacked floor to ceiling, deep into the closet, wall to wall. Nothing else was in there — nothing else could have fit.

Andi just couldn’t parse it. She looked at the coils of metal, interlocked and gnashed and trapping stacks of lined paper between them, stacked taller than her. What was this? What could Cy need with so many…

With a numb, shaking hand, she reached out and pulled one of the notebooks from its stack, dimly thinking she could cause one of the gargantuan piles to topple onto her.

On the notebook’s cover, in big, bold letters: VOIDVILLE.

She flipped it open, dread compelling her as much as it warned her away.

The book was filled with tiny script, letters so small they fit four lines of verbiage to each blue-lined row on the sheet. She peered at the page, and could barely make out the words.

But what she could read had to do with the world of Benjamin’s game.

How methodically sharp a pencil must that have taken to write? And how focused, how fanatical a concentration must have been needed to write that tiny?

“It’s a relief,” Cy said from the doorway, “not to have to hide anymore.”

Andi shrieked but clapped a hand over her mouth, dropping the notebook in the process.

Cy rapidly closed the door behind him, pushing against it with his back as he gripped a glass of soda in each hand.

“Left for me,” he said, “and right for you.” He placed the right-hand glass on his desk, and walked to the bed, sipping his own Coke. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said, not noticing or caring when she remained standing.

“What is all this, Cy?” she asked when her voice returned.

He smiled at her. “Is it okay if I turn that back on you? What do you think it is?”

Andi glanced back at the siege-wall of notebooks. “I think,” she said, turning to Cy, “I think you think it’s possible to change reality by describing things. I think you want Voidville to be real so badly, so much more than even Benjamin could want it, that you’ve been making these notebooks for years and years. And,” she said, watching him very closely as she finished, “I think you need to see a psychiatrist.”

He shook his head, the smile dimming. “That’s what I thought you’d think…think you thought? Never mind. The point is: you’re only part-wrong, which is not too bad.” He took another drink of soda. “I don’t ‘think’ it’s possible to alter reality, I know it is. I’m not trying to create a real-life Voidville; it’s just a means to an end. And I haven’t been working on those notebooks for years. Just for the last six months or so.”

Six months? She pictured him in this room, waking up early, staying up late, spending every conscious moment meticulously jotting line after miniscule line of text, day by day by day. Blowing all his allowance on new notebooks, or lying to his mother about needing new school supplies as often as he could get away with it.

Relentlessly creating his vast library of worlds, here in this room, surrounded only by the things he loved.

“…And the psychiatrist?” She badly wanted to wet her dry throat, but the glass of Coke was further away than she felt comfortable moving.

Cy gave a scoff-laugh. “Well, you may have a point there.”

But she couldn’t run, not just like that. If she’d found who had abducted Eury — and the roiling in her gut told her she had — she needed to find out where the girl was.

“You said you knew it was possible to alter reality,” Andi said. She thought of TV shows: talking people off ledges, negotiating with hostage-takers. “How?”

Cy looked at her evenly. “I made you fly, for starters.”

“You what?”

“How did you get on the roof of that barn at the practice farm, Andi?” he asked, leaning forward. “Tell me.”

“I climbed a –” she began, defensively, because of course she climbed a ladder, or…

“There wasn’t a ladder,” Cy said. “The place was deserted. The FFA may be a lot of things, but careless with their tools isn’t one of them. So…no ladder, no rope, no convenient pile of boxes, no smaller buildings to the side. Fifteen feet in the air. How’d you do it, banshee?”

“I…I climbed the side –”

“Corrugated metal?” He snorted. “Try again.”

She thought back, and in her head it was like a jump-cut in a movie. First on the ground, then blink! Up on the roof.

Andi leaned against the desk for support, her head swimming. She didn’t fly. You can’t fly, it’s not possible. It’s not.

“It’s a lot to wrap your head around,” Cy said. “It took me a while to grasp that I’d done it…and that I got you back down safely the same way.”

“You didn’t,” she said, voice so weak it couldn’t even convince her.

“But I did,” he said. He sat his glass on the floor and stood, a full head shorter than her but seeming to fill the room with his presence. “I did that and more. I manifested Voidville inside Randall’s house. We became our characters, with all their powers, if only for a few seconds. And the monsters in that world…they had such fun destroying that house while we played. The Wild Rumpus,” he said, and laughed.

“Shut up,” she said. She had him; she could go to the police. She could convince them, somehow. All she had to do was shut him up and get out of this madhouse.

“I created life, Andi,” he said, taking a step towards her. “Life itself.”

“You did not!” she shouted. “You, you slipped us drugs at Randall’s. We flipped out.” Her anger flared, burning away fear and confusion. Getting mad at someone? That, she could handle. “You did not make me fly, you did not make the game become real, and,” she drew a deep breath, “my ass, you created life!”

Amused, he said, “Still a skeptic, aren’t you?” Then, over her shoulder, “Isn’t she?”

Strong hands grabbed her from behind and held her firm.

Andi screamed and struggled, but the figure at her back kept her wriggling to a minimum.

“Hush, now,” Cy said. “I never planned it this way, but all these bookshelves? All this stuff on the walls? Soundproofing.”

Andi looked down at the hands that gripped her arms. The rough gloves, the Army Surplus jacket sleeves…she knew if she could face her attacker, she’d be staring into a hockey mask.

Cy confirmed it. “You can let her go, Jason. Just block the door.”

Andi stumbled away, arms tingling from the strong grip, as Cy’s hulking friend moved to stand at the door, arms crossed.

He had to have been hiding somewhere in the room. And Andi might have believed that if there had been a feasible amount of free space for a behemoth like him to hide.

“If that’s the way you want it,” Andi said to the two of them, “then so be it. But let me tell you boys one thing — if nobody can hear me scream in here, then they can’t hear you scream, either.” She balled her hands into fists and stood her ground.

Jason reached up and took his mask off. Instead of the mangled, lake-bloated face Andi expected, it was just some gangly guy. Sandy-haired, wide-eyed, and completely forgettable.

“Cy, I’m not cool with this,” he said. “She’s nice.” He looked at Andi in her fighting stance. “Well, usually.”

The shorter boy sighed. “Fine, then.” He stared at Jason, and Andi spun just in time to see the boy guarding the door vanish. There, then gone — no lights, no smoke, just a big lump of nothing where he’d been standing a second ago.

“Omigod,” she whispered. True. It was true.

“And if you had any lingering doubts,” Cy said.

Jason reappeared just long enough to say, “Hey, wait,” and then he was gone again.

She turned back to Cy, who had picked up his glass and taken a long drink. “Yes,” he said. “You flew. I made Jason up out of thin air. Voidville spilled through into the real world, right there in that nice Baptist family’s house.”

“And Eury?”

Cy suddenly found something interesting to look at on a bookshelf across the room. “She’s safe…safe-ish. She was collateral damage. But I’m going to fix –”

She was four steps across the room and on him before he could finish his sentence. She grabbed Cy and twisted the neck of his t-shirt in her fist.

“Collateral damage,” Andi spat. “Cy, I’m willing to bet that if I beat the piss out of you, but you manage to make me disappear, you’ll still have had the piss beaten out of you.” She raised a fist, but Jason formed beside her and grabbed her upraised arm.

“Come on,” he said. “There’s no need to fight.”

“Let me go!” she shouted in his bland face. “Did you steal that little girl away? Why are you helping this creep?”

“Because he made me,” said the tall boy. “What else am I supposed to do?”

Jason pulled her away, kicking and scratching, and in the struggle, Andi bumped the computer desk. Her Coke toppled over, spilling on her, Jason, and the COMMODORE machine.

Jason was gone in an eyeblink, and Cy rushed forward, pulling a small blanket off the bed and blotting at the soda as it seeped between the keys of the computer. “No, no, no…” He glared around, and Jason flickered here and there, but Cy’s attention was too drawn to saving his precious machine.

Andi seized the moment to open the door and step out into the hall. She locked eyes with Cy, hers triumphant, his furious. She held up her forearm and insolently licked away the runnel of soda that had splashed there.

“Thanks for the Coke,” she said with a vicious grin, and sprinted down the hallway to the front door. She passed Cy’s mother on the way.

“Leaving, hon’? Come back any –” But Andi was past her, through the door, and on her bike before anything more could be said.

She worked the pedals as fast as she could, adrenaline spasming her hands as they gripped the handlebars. Just a few blocks until home.

As she rounded the last corner, she felt something else in her thoughts beside the panic and terror and worry that she might have tipped over the edge into insanity.

She felt sleepy. And not fatigue, but something worse. Something medicinal. It came on fast, like a black fog billowing from the back of her skull to envelop her sight, her hearing.

Something in her Coke. He’d put something in —

Her vision tunneled as she reached her house, and everything dimmed.

She drove onto her own house’s front lawn before unconsciousness took her, momentum propelling her and her bike into the scratchy, unyielding embrace of a hedge.

*****

Today’s Words: 2531
Total Words: 31630

*****

Notes: First over-sized installment as we race to the end!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Twenty-Seven

"How many more of these do I have to pose for?"

SIDE TWO, TRACK THREE: EVERYDAY I WRITE THE BOOK

He said it like it was the most natural, normal thing in the world.

That’s what kept blowing Andi’s mind.

Describe something in enough detail, and you eventually create it…

Where did an idea that crazy come from, that’s what she wanted to know.

And worse, why did an idea that crazy make more and more sense, the longer she thought about it?

Was this what life was for Benjamin and the other players? Tossing out mind-bending ideas like this every day, like it was second nature?

Andi remembered something she’d read as a child, about believing impossible things before breakfast. But she couldn’t recall which book it came from.

She had to talk to someone about this, because while it was all well and good having an explanation for something (no matter how loopy), how did you go about using that explanation to create a solution?

Assume the craziest: assume that Benjamin, somehow, created a real, live Voidville by closing his eyes and wishing very hard. Okay. Fine. All right.

How did you stop it?

How did you shut the thing down, and prevent it from trashing any more houses, or making any more guys shoot lightning out of their fingertips?

And, following the idea to its conclusion of maximum lunacy, how did you rescue Eury from it?

The more Andi thought about it, the more she felt out of her depth. She wasn’t stupid; far from it. But she felt like an expert in biology being asked to predict the weather. This was so far out of her sphere of experience she didn’t know where to begin.

It felt more and more like a job for Benjamin himself, if he wasn’t trapped in a house with a missing-presumed-dead sister somewhere in the woods and two parents who were falling to pieces over it.

So who else could she ask for help? She loved Wren like a sister, but she’d be as out of her element as Andi, if not more. Eddie? No. He’d be more focused on hitting on Andi than solving the problem.

Which left only one possibility: Cy.

Andi knew him the least out of the group. He was quieter than Benjamin, but he knew his way around the game. And he’d never struck her as anything less than a loyal friend to the others, and a generally decent guy.

She wanted to pass him a note, but didn’t want anything connecting them. Some busybody in class would squeal to a teacher, and the teacher to Andi’s parents, and the whole thing would be blown.

So she took the risk of slipping a note in his locker — always a chancy proposition, because you never knew how neat a locker was on the inside. The note could tumble into strata of garbage, never to be found.

Cy, however, didn’t seem the kind of guy to keep a messy locker. The kind of guy to cross his t’s and dot his i’s: that was Cy.

Andi dropped the note off at lunchtime, and by the end of the day had her response, deposited in her own locker. Cy’s handwriting was neater than hers.

Meet me at my house tonight, 7:00.

Too late, she hoped her note hadn’t given him the wrong impression. Cy was a nice enough boy, cute in his way, but way too short to date. She thought about her note — vaguely worded in case someone else intercepted it — and felt her stomach knot up.

She crossed her fingers that she wasn’t giving him any illusions.

***

One skillful lie about studying with Wren, and Andi was on her bike after supper, on her way to Cy’s. He lived only a few blocks away — not something she’d ever known.

His mother, gregarious and smiling, let her in. “Cyrus didn’t tell me he had company! Wait right there, hon’, and I’ll get him.” Andi stood in the knickknack-clotted living room and waited until Cy’s mother returned and waved her down the hall to his room.

Sure enough, the room was as neat as she’d imagined the inside of his locker to be. He had plenty of geeky things, no mistake, but everything had its place. The walls were decorated with framed posters and signed photos of TV stars, each rectangle seemingly plotted out to occupy the walls in an arrangement to allow maximum coverage. His books were shelved in perfect lines, none of their spines broken. Magazines shared the same shelves, organized in binders. And in an unbroken high self that ringed the entire room close to the ceiling, action figures stood side-by-side, standing vigil.

“This is where the magic happens,” he said, smiling, as he ushered her inside.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s…that’s a collection, all right.”

“I like to have the things I love around me,” Cy said, shy about her attention but still proud. “Um, here,” and he pulled out a desk chair for her to sit while he sat on his bed. On the desk sat a beige computer with brown keys. Andi saw the word COMMODORE on the machine.

“So I wasn’t quite sure about your note,” Cy said, “but I guessed it had something to do with our mutual problem?”

With a flush of relief, Andi agreed. “I went to see Benjamin last night.”

Cy’s eyes widened. “Oh, man. How is he?”

“Not good,” she said. “Mostly bad. But we talked about…the weirdness at Randall’s house. And he said something that, nuts as it sounds, I can’t get out of my head. And I wanted to talk to someone who might…understand it better than me. And that’s you.”

Cy ducked his head in an embarrassed way. “Well, geez. I mean, thank you; I’ll do my best.”

“It was — he said something about Lego. Then, and this is where it goes off the tracks, he said that if you describe something in enough detail…”

“…you can create it,” Cy finished. “Yeah. Yeah, man. So he thinks that’s what happened with Voidville? At Randall’s place?”

“Told you it was nuts.”

*****

Today’s Words: 1020
Total Words: 29099

*****

Notes: Back on track! By my reckoning, we’ve got four days, and three and a half chapters plus an epilogue left to go. I think it’s doable — away we go!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Twenty-Six

Peeking out of the laundry room...

It sounded like a rusty harp, SWWRRRINNNNGGG, and she stopped halfway along and dropped to her knees under the window. The whole neighborhood had to have heard that.

Above her, a series of small motion-sounds. Then, at the window, her friend’s whisper:

“…Hello?”

“It’s me,” she whispered from her crouch, then slowly stood.

“Omigod,” he said. “What are you doing here? It’s,” he paused, and she could see his silhouette behind the screen turn, “…past three!”

“I had to talk to you. I’m sorry, Benjamin, but I just had to.”

“About what?”

“Benjamin…who is Jason?”

“Jason…from the game, Jason? He’s from Eddie’s scout troop.”

“No he isn’t.” Andi felt exposed out here. Her scalp tingled with anxiety and she reached a finger under her toboggan to scratch. “Eddie thought he was Cy’s friend, and Cy thought he was yours.”

“You talked to the guys?” Any sleepiness in Benjamin’s voice vanished. “How are they? Did they say anything about Randall?”

“Benjamin,” she said, “focus. You’re not listening. Some guy, this Jason…nobody knows who he was. Your sister vanishes, and so does he. Was he even there when the police came?”

“Well…he had to have been, right? Where could he have gone?”

“Where could Eury have gone?” Andi itched again, then stopped at Benjamin’s silence. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I didn’t even ask how you were.”

He was quiet for a few seconds. “We’re not good,” he said. “Not good at all. I think the cops finally stopped suspecting me of abducting Europa, but now they think my parents had something to do with it.” He paused and let out a sigh. “It’s a good thing you didn’t scratch on the window beside mine. That’s Europa’s room. Mom’s been sleeping in there.”

Andi felt a return of the earlier chill up her back.

“And Dad,” Benjamin said. He paused again. “Hear that?”

“…The tapping?”

“Yeah. That’s him on his typewriter. Morning, noon, night. Before, he couldn’t get two words out in a day. Now just listen to him go, tap-tap-tap.”

She held up her hand and pressed it to the screen, feeling the cool metal mesh on her palm. A moment later, and he did the same, although the screen was too cold for any warmth to pass between them.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “God, Benjamin, I’m so sorry. Are you –?”

He pulled his hand away slowly. “I’m losing my mind,” he said, and she could hear the beginnings of tears in his voice. “I don’t know. Andi, oh God, I just don’t know. I think I hallucinated at Randall’s house. I think I went crazy because I looked at Eddie and thought I saw –”

“Lightning coming out of his hands?” she put in. Benjamin’s nascent sobs gave way to a gasp.

“How? How in the hell –?”

“Because the last time I talked to Eddie, he told me the same thing. He saw the same thing. How can two people imagine the same exact hallucination? And I’ll tell you something else, Benjamin. You’re not the only one who saw things that day. I could swear on a stack of Bibles my hand passed through the damned wall, just like I was a real ghost.”

He was silent for so long she worried he might have passed out, but then: “It has to be connected. Europa, the things we all saw, the house getting trashed. Andi, how can it not be connected?” He fell quiet a bit longer, then: “But how is it connected? What does it mean?”

“All I know,” she said, “is how real it all seemed. I mean, the first time I played with y’all, I had a blast, and I totally got swept up in it. But this…”

“It was the same for me,” he said. “I get consumed by the game all the time, so strong sometimes…”

That reminded her to ask about Lloyd. But not now. It felt like they were on the verge of something, so close.

Benjamin kept talking. “But this last time, I felt like…oh, Andi, I felt like God. I felt like I had power over life and death, and that all of you were puppets strung from my fingertips.”

Something in his voice gave her pause. He wasn’t expressing fear…it was pleasure.

But just as quickly, he came back to his old self as he uttered a cryptic word: “Logopolis.”

“Log – huh?”

“It’s from Doctor Who,” he said. “Do you know Doctor Who?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Okay, well, it’s…” but he trailed off, as though realizing he was falling into infinite digression. “Okay. As long as we’re talking insane things.” He took a deep breath. “The basic idea is that if you describe something in enough detail, you eventually create it out of nothingness.”

“What does that have to do with…”

“I don’t know,” he said. “My book, where I keep track of and detail everything in the world…?” Then, after a pause, “Look at it another way,” he said. “Faith can move mountains, right? So maybe we all believed in the game so much that Voidville manifested itself in reality. We became our characters. We transformed, wrecked the house, and…”

“Eury?” Andi said, her voice the softest she’d ever heard it.

She could see his silhouette nod. “Voidville is full of monsters; not just us.”

She thought, for the first time in a couple of days, of the rat-thing in the pantry, and her gorge rose.

“Are you okay?”

After a respite of deep breaths, she could speak again: “I’m okay. But if this faith or Lego stuff is true, then where is sh–”

Benjamin’s door swung open and the lights switched on. Andi dropped to the grass with ninja reflexes, only afterwards realizing the tapping noise had stopped.

“Heeyyy, son,” slurred a deep male voice. “Oh! You’re up! What’cha doin’ up, buddy?”

“I was…praying,” Benjamin said.

Mr. Vail sniffed once, twice. “That’s good. Yer a good boy, Benny. I don’t care what these turds in town say. You’ve always been a good boy. Hey,” and Andi heard his voice get closer, “you wanna drink? Yer old enough now. And it’s good, Benny, it’s reallll good. Make you forget everything. Thass what we need, isn’t it? Forget everything.”

“No, thank you.”

“…Suit yourself,” Mr. Vail said, with not a small amount of wounded pride. “Go on. Get yer ass in bed. Tomorrow’s another day…” With that, the door closed.

Andi crept away until she reached her bike. As she did, the light in Eury’s room switched on, and she turned back to see a figure staring out the window.

Not caring who heard the noise, Andi mounted her bicycle and pedaled, legs spinning like a dervish, until she was home.

*****

Today’s Words: 1128
Total Words: 28079

*****

Notes: The four of you who have been reading these posts will notice this one is a day late. Well spotted!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Twenty-Five

Helping with laundry!

After supper, Andi snuck a couple of cans of soda into her room and at bedtime, before brushing her teeth, she chugged them both even though they’d gone all warm and nasty.

Tucked in, kissed goodnight, and reassured by both parents, she lay in the dark, feeling the caffeine jitters tremble through her system. The clock on her nightstand read 9:00.

Six hours to go.

She’d never used the headphone jack on her alarm clock, but tonight she plugged in her bulky set and clamped them over her ears. It wasn’t comfortable lying on the pillow like that, but anything extra to help her stay awake was worth it.

So she lay there and counted the crawling minutes, ears getting sweaty from the headphones, and turned over all of the last week’s craziness in her mind. She wanted to be organized when she picked Benjamin’s brain, because goodness knew how much time she’d have at his bedroom window before a roving parent burst in on them…or before Andi’s own folks found her gone and called the cops.

What would she do if that happened? She opted to push the thought out of her mind rather than dwell upon it.

Instead, she went back to considering what she’d say to Benjamin…which led her to thoughts about Benjamin himself.

What had drawn her to him? Curiosity about his game, at first, but in the whirlwind since, she hadn’t had time to think much about it.

She was old enough to date (according to her parents), so when Andi had started junior high, she went out with the sort of guys a go-getter like her was ‘supposed’ to date — a couple of boys from the JV football team.

She found them one-note and boorish. Both had taken her to the movies; both had copped a feel in the back row, their pizza breath clammy in her ear.

Both got a slap in the face, and both might have gone on to spread awful rumors about her if she hadn’t reminded them about her homicidal friend Wren.

Benjamin? He’d be too terrified to grope her. She’d have to make the first move…and the thought gave her a shiver, there underneath the warm blankets.

He was shy and clumsy and single-minded…but when he talked about something that interested him, his passion gleamed like mirrors in the sun.

And unlike most of her peers, he didn’t seem interested in growing up at all. If you asked him to play freeze tag, he’d jump at the chance, and probably find some way to make the game even more fun.

She knew she was getting older; who didn’t? But why the rush? You could be a kid and act like an adult all you wanted, but that didn’t mean you could legally drive a car, or vote, or buy alcohol or cigarettes or a house…

Why not be a kid when you were a kid, and let everything come naturally?

She shuddered awake and looked at the clock. Midnight. Halfway there.

She needed to talk to Benjamin about Jason, about the fugue state they all seemed to go into at Randall’s house, about Eddie’s lightning and Andi’s intangibility…

…and about Lloyd.

It was just last year when it happened, but Andi was too caught up in her activities to feel anything other than general-purpose sadness when he died. And later, general-purpose regret for having felt general-purpose sadness. She’d gone to the candlelight vigil, and now wondered how many of the students there had actually known Lloyd Sono before he died.

The clock read 12:10, and she debated taking off the uncomfortable headphones and simply going to sleep.

She compromised, leaving the headphones on and slipping into a doze while the wind picked up to a droning howl outside.

Later she woke feeling refreshed, then feeling worried about that because it meant she’d slept for a while.

She looked at the clock, which was flashing 12:00, over and over.

The power had gone out. What time was it? Panic, better than any soda pop or music blaring through headphones, slammed her awake. She made to scramble out of bed, but something held her back.

What time was it? If her parents had just gone to bed, Andi thumping around and making noise would certainly stir them. She took deep breaths and counted to ten, forcing herself to settle down. Then, when her pulse was under control, she slipped out of bed cautiously, putting one soft foot on the floor, then another.

Andi crept to her dresser, found her wristwatch by touch, and held it up to a sliver of moonlight that sliced through a gap in the blinds.

2:30 AM. Another deep breath, followed by a sigh of relief. Thirty minutes ahead of schedule was close enough for government work.

She shimmied out of her pajamas and pulled on the dark clothes she’d nonchalantly draped over a chair back earlier. She stuffed her hair under a black toboggan as best she could, then pulled on her jacket, its pockets already packed with a flashlight and other tools.

Andi took one look around her shadowy room, focusing on the crack under the door to see if a hallway light had been switched on since she awoke. With a quick blink of determination, she went to the window and pulled it up just enough to slip through.

And with that, she was loose in the night.

***

Benjamin’s house was too far to walk, but her bike was too noisy to ride in the dead of night. She met herself halfway by walking the bike a couple of blocks after leaving her house and a couple before reaching Benjamin’s.

Arriving at his place revealed her next labor: figuring out which bedroom window was his. As she crept to the house, she could hear a strange tapping noise, like a slow woodpecker. Andi looked around, but couldn’t locate it.

She decided to try window roulette. She walked up to the first window on the left-hand side of the house, held up her flashlight, and clicked it on then off again in a quick light-dark, staring into the room as hard as she could.

The burst of light revealed a Madonna poster next to one of Strawberry Shortcake.

Eury’s room: it had to be. Andi felt a chill wander up her back.

She waited for sounds of movement from inside the house, but heard nothing except the tapping, which had neither slowed nor sped.

She went to the next window, and sent in another quick burst of light. A model of a spaceship hung from the ceiling with fishing line. On the wall, a tacked-up poster of Batman.

She nodded to herself there in the dark. With a trembling hand, she reached out and dragged her nails down the wire mesh of the window screen.

*****

Today’s Words: 1143
Total Words: 26951

*****

Notes: The four of you who have been reading these posts will notice this one is two days late. Well spotted!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)

Voidville: Day Twenty-Four

Running out of places to take her picture!

“…Of course I care,” he said, the tones of a hurt child weaving their way through the bluster.

“Then help me,” Andi said. “Both of you, help me! We’re talking about some strange guy no one knows, who wormed into your circle of friends and now…? He may have kidnapped a little girl! She could still be alive, and all I need is help from…!”

Some sense, some outer vibe, told her she was shouting. It told her everyone else in the cafeteria had gone quiet, she was shouting so loudly.

It just didn’t tell her quickly enough.

One of the teachers monitoring the lunchroom made her way over to their table just as Andi stopped yelling. “Is there a problem, Miss Brennan?”

Andi turned to the matronly teacher. “No,” she said, trying so hard to soften her voice it came out as a mousy whisper. “No problem.”

The teacher took her by the elbow and steered her away from Eddie and Cy’s table. “Maybe it’d be better if you sat with your friends,” she said, walking toward the flags’ table.

“I’m not hungry,” Andi said, and pulled her arm away from the teacher in as subordinate a manner as possible. The teacher looked at her, then back at the guys, and shrugged.

“Suit yourself,” she said. “You can go the library, if you want.”

Andi held her head high and got out of the lunchroom as quickly as she could.

Before the door had closed behind her, the chatter started up.

***

People gave her a wide berth the rest of the day, and Andi couldn’t help but soak in the irony of it all. Everyone had been fine and welcoming to her until she re-associated with Cy and Eddie.

With that weighing her down, she stayed after school to help with the last dregs of the dance-planning. Everyone was muted and hesitant around her, as though afraid she’d go off on them, too. They smiled and nodded as she made suggestions and tightened up schedules, and she knew full well it wasn’t out of respect or friendliness.

Only Wren stood by her and, gaining Andi’s full gratitude, actually criticized her once or twice when Andi misspoke or missed a detail. You could hear the tension in the room draw like a bowstring when Wren said, “No, dummy, it’s such and such…” but Andi was thankful for someone treating her like a normal person.

Likewise, the flag corps practice. Andi went in expecting timidity and eggshells, and was nearly knocked over as her team hugged her, all dozen of them at once, crying and cheering.

“We missed you soooo much!”

“We were soooo worried about you!”

“It’s soooo good to have you back!”

Andi soaked up the love and well-wishes until she almost felt normal again, then set to work whipping the squad back into shape. The week’s routine took form, and she grew satisfied it would be 100% by the upcoming pep rally.

Wren walked her out to where the late bus waited, idling, its engine pluming exhaust into the darkening October afternoon.

Between Andi and the bus, leaning against the flagpole, waited Eddie. He tossed off a salute when he saw her.

“You need me to handle this?” Wren asked.

“No,” Andi said. “And don’t French him, either.” Andi turned back to her. “I’ll be okay. See you tomorrow.” Wren took the hint, squeezed Andi’s shoulder, and cut left to the big bike rack where her ten-speed was one of only two remaining.

Andi strode the distance between her and Eddie quickly, calves aching from walking in formation with the flags for an hour.

“What can I do for you, Eddie?” she asked, allowing him his usual once-over of her. “I’m going to see Benjamin, if that’s what you’re going to ask.”

He raised an eyebrow. She could just picture him doing the maneuver in a mirror until he got the smart-assery quotient just right. “Seriously? I’d be surprised if his mom let you within a mile of their house. Now, his burnout dad, that’s another…”

“I’m not going now,” Andi said. “Tonight, when everyone’s asleep.”

The other eyebrow went up to visit its fellow. “Wow. Rebel, rebel, aren’t you, Miss Brennan?”

Andi rolled her eyes. “What do you want, Eddie? The bus is about to leave.” A few other straggling students made their way out of the building, shuffling toward the big orange vehicle.

Eddie sucked at his teeth. “I need you to ask him a question. And it’s not about Jason.”

“Then wha–” The bus sounded its horn. “…Skip it,” Andi said. “Sneak over there and ask him yourself.” She turned and ran. The bus driver pretended like he was closing the doors, but opened them again as she reached the bus.

She got to her seat and plopped down as the other students continued to mill about. She leaned against the window, feeling the cool glass press against her face, and wondered if she’d be able to pull off the plan she’d made for tonight.

A fist banged against the window, the brief shock rattling through to her jaw and cheekbone, and she pulled away from the window with a start.

Eddie jumped up and knocked against her window a second time.

Andi popped the latches and slid the window down what meager distance it would go. “What?”

Eddie peered up at her, frowning, one hand at his brow to shield against the setting sun. “My question,” he said.

“What? What is it?” The bus jerked and began to roll.

“Ask him,” Eddie shouted over the engine, “how I was able to shoot lightning out of my hands!”

The bus pulled away, Andi too stunned to say anything as Eddie, and the school, receded into the distance.

***

Dad was going on about ‘that damn school’ again when she got home, and Andi wondered if he’d been grousing all day.

Mom intercepted her inside the front door and gave her a hug, which immediately put Andi on alert. Dad was the physical one, not Mom.

“Honey,” she said. “I’m sorry, but the school called this afternoon. They said you got into a fight at lunchtime with one of the boys that vandalized the Harts’ house.”

“That damn school, poking their damn nose into everyone’s damn business,” Dad could be heard to announce from the den.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay home a few more days?” Mom asked. “Just until this awfulness completely blows over?”

“I’m fine,” Andi said. “I’m just fine, okay?” She started to move past, but Mom snagged her by the elbow.

“All right,” Mom said, a bit of sternness creeping into her voice. “But if you’re going back there…well, we don’t want you associating with any of those boys anymore.”

“What?” Andi dropped her backpack from nerveless fingers.

“Your father and I have talked about it, and we know they must have pressured you into going along with them and tearing up those poor folks’ house. You don’t want to throw everything away by getting mixed up with criminals like that. I know…” and she paused, sniffed, “I know it hasn’t been easy for you growing up, moving from place to place, and we’ve always tried to give you as much freedom as we thought you’d earned. But we can’t let you ruin your life by falling in with a bad crowd.”

“Mom –!”

“We’ve made up our minds,” Mom said. “Stick to your electives, student council, and all of that. That’s how you’ll get past this. But you are not to speak to any of those boys ever again. Understand?”

Andi stayed quiet and fuming long enough that Mom had to say “Understand?” again, her tone suggesting Andi not make her ask a third time.

“Yes,” Andi said. “I promise not to see any of them again.”

“Okay,” Mom said. “Thank you,” and then went in for another hug.

Andi watched her leave for the kitchen, then went down the hall to her own room.

Once there, while waiting for supper to get ready, Andi finished making plans to visit Benjamin that night.

*****

Today’s Words: 1358
Total Words: 25808

*****

Notes: The four of you who have been reading these posts will notice this one is three days late. Well spotted!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information or Day One to read from the beginning, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)