Two little boys stood together just outside the gates to the schoolyard. Both wore hooded sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up and plain denim jeans, just slightly faded. The younger of the pair kept his eyes on the ground but the older looked out into the yard at the other children who laughed and played.
“We could join them. Learn. Improve.”
His voice was toneless, his sentences smooth with no imperfections for childish haste. The younger boy shook his head.
“They would know. We are not like them and they would know.”
“Learning would help us to better feed.”
For a long moment, they stood in silence. Then they both turned and walked towards the teacher monitoring the yard.
“Excuse me. Can we play too??”
The teacher looked down at the two children and started to say something, started to back away. Then the little boy looked up at her with his jet black, soulless eyes.
“Please, may we play?”
The valley was over the next rise. That was what she kept telling herself. All she had to do was keep her family moving for a few more miles and they would be somewhere where they could stop for the night. It would never be somewhere they could stay forever, the past had seen to that. There were no such places left in the world. Not with the seeking eyes.
The children were slowing down. They always slowed down when the sky began to darken, when it was the most dangerous to stop. She picked up the youngest child and held her close as they moved into the trees. Cover was good. Cover made them harder to spot from above.
They had been promised water and food, and the promises held true for once. A river stretched out across the bottom of the valley and fruit hung from the trees. The children ran forward now, eager to taste the sweet fruit. She looked to her exhausted mate and he smiled wanly. They would have to make a shelter as quickly as they could. Stone was the best, but wood would work if it had to.
“No fires. Remember the rules.”
She said it from habit. Even the youngest knew the rules of the night by now. Never venture out of cover. Never stand on a height. No fire, no light of any kind. The older children gathered as much fruit as they could and dragged it to the shelter. They would feast in the dark but they would do it together in safety.
As the night wore on, she stayed awake. Not that she wasn’t tired, she simply couldn’t sleep. What if it hadn’t been enough? What if something had betrayed their presence? Then, like every other night that she could remember, she heard the humming overhead as the seeking eyes passed them by. Only then was she sure they were safe. Only then could she sleep.
There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”
Her world was silver and glass and cold as ice. It hadn’t always been like this. Sometimes, she could remember the feeling of the sun on her skin or the warmth of another’s touch. These days, she barely remembered what it was like to have skin. She was a nightmare monster given substance and forced to haunt the slumber party set. She was blood red eyes and terror sealed between silver and glass. She was the specter of midnight and thrice spoken names.
She was a promise in the dark and a crossroads. The words of the game were a key to her prison and the players were her sustenance.
The forms were nearly observed and soon she would feed. Soon, the little sweet sixteen who dared challenge her memory would be nothing more than a statistic and a mystery.
The girl opened her mouth a third time.
They had known about the fire. They had even known the stories the neighborhood kids all seemed to tell about how some night you could still smell the smoke and still see figures at the windows, even when no one lived in the old house. But the Mason family didn’t have a choice. It was what they could afford. The house had been rebuilt, of course. There were all sorts of safety features built in now. Everything was as safe as they could possibly make it. But that did nothing to stop the sounds in the night. Tanya Mason, five years old and exuberantly excited to have her own room for the first time ever, had carefully set her horses out on the new desk that sat in her room as a promise of starting school at the end of the summer. Now, she lay on her bed in the dim light of her night-light and listened. There were the scratches in the walls. Everyone knew about those. Her Daddy said it was probably mice and had laid traps. There were the bangs from the basement. Daddy had called the oil man and he’d said the furnace was just fine. But here was the part that only Tanya knew about: the voices
The child would have powers. She had promised herself that when he had been born. This child would have powers one way or another. No matter what it took, she would not let her son be one of the few Normals of Scuttle Bay. Even if she was, even if her husband was. The question was how. It wasn’t in his blood, that much was clear. That left magic and science as her options. From the day he was born, she started in with everything she had. Vitamibe, spellwork, offerings left for Faeries and gods alike. None of it worked. Finally, she took her infant son to the coast. A pirate wreck lay deep under the water still and she could just barely see the shadow there. Holding the child by the ankle, she held him in the water. He would have powers. He would be a hero. He would make it in this place. Of that, she was convinced. The boy stopped moving. She pulled him out, a mad gleam in her eye. What great powers would he manifest? But his eyes were glassy and dull and he didn’t move
It was back. Or he was back, I suppose. The specter stood in the doorway with his cap pulled down low over his eyes. I pulled the blankets up higher and wiggles, making sure all of me was under. Blankets are a shield. Never leave the blanket. But he just stood there and stared at the floor. He never entered, never spoke. He would just stand there until he vanished.
It was me who changed the patterns.
I spoke, I asked who he was. He looked up slowly, his eyes dark and tormented. His words echoed in my mind and seemed to grip my soul. “I am your future.”
Then he was gone. He never did return.
The silence was overbearing, the silence and the darkness. The sky was empty now. No stars shone in the infinite and the only sound left to us was our beating hearts, hers and mine. We had come this far to stop her and only I remained. The mission was a failure. She held out her hand to me. I stood and accepted it.
“We will bring about a new age, Adam. Accept that. Accept that we will bring about a new people, a new future. Embrace your fate.”
Hers was a forked tongue that told only lies, but I ate them whole. I drew her into my arms and our lips met, tasting sweet and sticky. Her mouth was still, after all, covered in crimson horror. She smiled and let the bitten heart fall from her fingers, reaching to tangle her fingers in my hair.
“I accept my fate, Eve.”
There, in her starship, I understood madness.
The quill scratched across the surface of the paper, the sound echoing in the long hall of the library. Knowledge poured from the mind into the book. All the while, screams hung silent, floating in the air. Waves of color and fear played throughout the room, emanating from where the prisoner hung on the wall. It was his knowledge that filled the book, his blood that formed the ink.
The librarian watched the pages as they filled until finally the book fell closed. Then, slowly, inexorably, he turned towards the holding cells.
“Bring forth the next.”
It’s not like the comics.
My name is Brooke, but most of the world knows me as the Cobalt Crusader. Not exactly the name I would have picked if I’d had a say in it, but you know how these things work. But pretty soon, they’re gonna have a new name for me. The latest victim of the Bronx Ripper. He started out as a two-bit serial killer, nothing special. The kind of guy the detectives go looking for. Sure, I kept an eye out, just like I always do. But I’m in it to protect people actively. I don’t solve crimes. Then he got a name and people finally realized what his MO was. Whoever this guy really was, he thought he was Jack the Ripper. He said so in the letters he was sending to the NYPD, talking about being the Ripper reborn to finish his work. He does his research too, the bastard. He knew how the armor plates in my suit work, knew exactly where to get me with a knife to bypass the armor. And he knew my fighting style. Now he knows my face. And I’m on the floor with nothing. The armor is worthless, the training means nothing, and I’m out of tricks. I’m not like the other heroes. I don’t have powers, just the stuff I made. He’s setting up a camera now. All I can think is to wonder what time it is. Will my face, my name, and my death be on the 6 o’clock news or the 11 o’clock? I’m beyond the point of fear. Fear is good, it helps you survive. But when there’s no hope, the fear goes too. Now all I have is the pounding of my stubborn heart as he turns on me with that knife of his. It’s not like the comics. Never let anyone tell you it is.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the news anchor was pale, unusually shaken, as he tried to pull his words together. “It falls upon me tonight to express a sorrow that cannot be described.”
The doorbell interrupted the news and Joe sighed, getting up from the couch. He dropped his greasy slice of pizza on the counter and stalked towards the door of the shabby apartment. Whoever was at the door started to bang on it, rather urgently.
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’. Jeez, can’t a guy eat in peace?”
When he opened the door, he looked up several inches into the face of the police officer standing there.
“Sir, are you Joseph Tucker?”
“Yeah, that’s me. What’s this about?”
The officer looked uncomfortable for a moment and then spoke again.
“I’m here about your daughter-“
“Brooke ain’t home. She’s never home on time. What’d she do this time?”
The silence was interrupted by the news anchor’s voice.
“The hero we knew and loved as the Cobalt Crusader has died at the hands of the Ripper.”
The officer looked at his partner and then gestured towards the television.
“We’re going to need you to identify the body. It’s…it’s an honor to meet you. It was a pleasure working with your daughter.”
Joe didn’t know how to respond to that in the slightest.