Authors: Robin Wasserman
The flames burned away her fear. She swung the door open wide. “I see you!” she shouted at Reverend Willet, at the burning thing he had become. As the fire devoured the men and their cross, Ellie understood with a blazing clarity that the tests she had set for herself had been nothing but a child’s game.
She saw her purpose now.
She saw, even across the burning sanctuary, the reverend’s eyes, which held something she understood and was finally prepared to fight.
She saw evil.
The street was deserted, but it was daytime, and you could never be too careful. So they would not hold hands. No matter how much West might have wanted to.
They walked slowly, ostensibly to accommodate Nick’s limp but also, by unstated agreement, to draw out the trip back to town as long as possible. They couldn’t stay in the cornfields forever, lying on their backs and naming the clouds, tall stalks bending in the wind, their linked fingers and tangled legs hidden by waves of golden green. They could, if they dawdled, delay the inevitable return.
“I found a new one,” Nick said. “
– a bunch of astronauts accidentally travel to the future and end up the main exhibit in some kind of alien zoo.” Their current obsession was bad sci-fi movies from the fifties, the cheesier the better. (Extra points when the special effects involved alien spaceships dangling from visible strings.) “You want to come over and watch Sunday?”
West didn’t answer.
“We don’t have to watch the whole thing,” Nick said. “We could just…” He cleared his throat. “My parents are out of town.”
Nick looked alarmed. “I didn’t mean – I mean, we don’t have to…”
“It’s not that. I just… can’t.”
“I’m going to that picnic thing,” West said. “With Cass.”
“It’s no big deal,” he said quickly. He didn’t know how this worked. He didn’t even know if he
it to work.
No, that was a lie. He wanted it.
“It’s just a thing.” He shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s fine,” Nick said. His pace quickened, and West pretended not to notice him wince each time his weight landed on the bad leg. Nick wouldn’t say where the limp had come from. Rather, he said plenty, fantastical explanations about skydiving crashes and circus calamities, until West gave up asking. He knew only that in fifth grade, Nick had been perfect, one of those golden-haloed kids that the others knew instinctively to follow, as if the shine would rub off on them. Maybe too much of it had, because Nick had appeared on the first day of sixth grade with long hair that nearly covered his permanent scowl and a leg that moved like a block of wood. At unpredictable intervals, it gave out beneath him, pitching him into pratfalls that the old Nick would have known how to turn into a joke. The new Nick only lay there, rubbing his leg and scowling harder, as if daring someone to kick him while he was down.
The limp had improved over the years, but it always marked him as different. West sometimes wondered whether that made the rest of it easier for him, not having a choice.
“I can tell her I can’t go,” West said, hating himself for how little he wanted to do that. Cass was like armor. As long as he wore her on his arm every few weeks, he was safe. Or, at least, safer – nothing about this was safe. “I will. I’ll just tell her.”
“I said it’s fine.”
“It’s obviously not fine.”
Nick reached for him, then remembered himself, and pulled back just in time. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” West said. “I really am.”
“It’s a movie. We’ll watch another time.”
“I know what you want me to do, but… I can’t.”
“Jeremiah.” This time, checking first to make sure there were no cars in sight, Nick did take his hand. Only briefly, long enough to give it a single, quick squeeze. Nick was the only one who called him Jeremiah. Even his mother had been trained out of the habit. “I don’t want you to do anything. The way things are now, it’s fine. It’s good.”
“Now is when you say
” It stunned West how well he had learned to read Nick’s face, the crinkle of concern in his pale forehead or the way he bit the inside of his cheek when he was nervous. As he did now.
it’s going to be different, once school starts.”
“I told you —”
Nick held up a hand to stop him. “I meant what I said. I don’t want you to do
I’m just… sorry it’s ending.”
“You mean summer.”
They had reached the fork in the road where they habitually parted, one path leading to Nick’s house at the heart of town, the other to West’s family farm on its outskirts. The narrow highway was lined with cottonwood trees, one of them thick enough to provide cover. West took a deep breath, then took Nick’s hand. They secreted themselves behind the tree. West leaned into the trunk, savoring the roughness of the bark on the back of his neck. It came to him that these were the kinds of details he would want to remember.
When it ended.
“We shouldn’t risk it,” Nick said, but he didn’t mean it.
“I want to,” West said, and he did.
Nick had never asked anything of him. Not even at the beginning, when they were near strangers to each other, just polite acquaintances sharing an exile from phys ed. Nick had his limp; West had a football injury he’d exacerbated at the start of baseball season, enough so that his season soon ended for good. Nick never pressed, never hurried. It was West who had to suggest they continue their long talks over warm beers in Nick’s backyard, their shirts in a heap beside them, the sun blazing down, the sweat pooling between their shoulder blades. For endless afternoons, they rehashed old Super Bowl plays and debated whether their math teacher’s chin mole was grosser than their Spanish teacher’s werewolf knuckles and circled around the thing neither of them was willing to name. Eventually the conversation ran out, and then there was only the two of them, and an empty house, and a soft bed of grass, and sweaty skin, and want.
When it happened, it was West who moved first.
The guys had understood West keeping to himself as long as he was sidelined by an injury. But his arm had healed, and in the fall, the team would be waiting. Watching. Nick believed it was the team he was worried about – and the girls who worshipped him, the almost-ran guys who wanted to be him, the teachers who turned a blind eye and passed him, the full cast of characters who’d long accepted the myth of Jeremiah West. Nick believed that West cared, and it was easier to let him.
“You’re insatiable,” Nick said, offering his first real smile since they’d left the cornfield.
“Perks of dating a jock,” West said, aware of the word that had slipped out, the one they’d both been conscious never to use. “Plenty of stamina.”
“Let’s not forget conditioning.” Nick ran an appraising hand across West’s defined torso. “Also much appreciated.”
West kissed him.
They clung to each other, bodies mashed together, and Nick’s hands found West’s waist, his shoulders, his neck, then cradled his head, pulling him closer, and closer still. Before Nick, there had been girls, and that had been pleasant enough. But with them, West had never felt this kind of hunger, this need that consumed him now for pale, freckled skin, for wiry muscles, for hands and lips and tongue.
It was the hunger that had, finally, been impossible to ignore.
It was safer to emerge separately from their flimsy hiding spot, and so Nick set out first, reluctantly. “I’ll miss you,” he said, with excessive melodrama, so West wouldn’t mistake it for what it obviously was: true.
West laughed. “You’ll see me
“Excellent point. I take it back – I’m sick of you.”
“Not as sick as I am of you.” West wanted to grab him again, to drag him back behind the tree, to kiss him, to swallow him whole. But he didn’t.
He let Nick go.
Down the road, limping, slowly, oblivious to the black Chevrolet that suddenly roared up behind him – oblivious until West shouted, and then too slow, too awkward, to get out of the way. Spinning around to face the oncoming car, Nick shuffled backward and then, as he hadn’t in years, pitched into one of his awkward falls. The car kept coming. The chrome bumper caught him at the waist and lifted him off his feet and carried him like a hood ornament and West ran and ran and no feet had ever been so slow. He ran, and the car slammed Nick into a tree, another cottonwood, sturdy and unyielding. The car backed up and rammed him again, and again, and again, until the bark was bloody and Nick was a broken rag hanging from the dented bumper. With a final gunning of the engine, the driver shot through the windshield and landed on top of him, and only then did the car finally rest. Only then did West reach the bodies, an eternity past too late.
Nick was in the grass, his limbs jutting at all the wrong angles, metal and glass and gravel embedded in his fair, perfect skin. The driver lay across him, the blood that gushed from his chest splashing on Nick’s face and pooling in the hollow of his neck. It was Paul Caster, West’s assistant coach, a man who’d once led West’s Pee Wee football team to a league championship.
Neither of the bloody heaps was moving.
West knelt. He wiped the blood from Nick’s forehead and pressed his lips to the ruined skin. It was still warm, and, in some dim, calm place miles beneath his panic, West supposed it took some time before a person turned into a corpse. He dug into Nick’s pocket and found his phone, mysteriously intact, and used it to call 911. An accident, he reported, though it had not been that. Come quickly, he begged, though there was now no hurry.
He kissed Nick’s lips, hungry, even now, now more than ever, for more.
And now the hunger, he realized, would never go away.
Now there would be only want and need. There would be no Nick.
West was the one who felt cold.
He folded the phone into Nick’s limp fingers. And then, because there was nothing left he could do, because Nick was gone, and because he was a coward, he ran away.
No one knew how much Cassandra Porter hated children. Except perhaps the children, who seemed to sense the hostility that leaked from her pores. The timid ones smiled politely and stayed close to their mothers. The bold ones kicked her shins or shouted things like “Not the ugly lady!” – which failed to help their cause.
It wasn’t an abnormally strong aversion; it wasn’t even hate, precisely, so much as disinterest verging on mild distaste. She could admit that giggling babies and dimpled kindergarteners were cute; she just wanted nothing to do with them. It wasn’t her fault that in the eyes of the child-adoring world, that translated as hate. So she kept it to herself, and no one was the wiser, except the children, who could always tell.
It made babysitting a bit of a chore.
Gracie Tuck stood up from the table, her untouched pizza cooling on her plate. “I’m going to my room,” she said.
“No big plans for the night.”
“I wouldn’t expect so.”
“Probably I’ll just smoke and drink a little and maybe play with some matches if I get bored.”
“Don’t burn the house down.”
Gracie was twelve, a blond waif with an elfin smile, which she deployed now. She was, by far, Cass’s favorite babysitting charge, self-sufficient, jaded beyond her years, and clearly embittered by the fact that her parents still felt she needed a babysitter. Hence the polite fiction that Cass was only there to supervise the baby now miraculously asleep upstairs. As far as Cass could tell, Gracie hated children even more than she did, and seemed to reserve a particular animosity for her baby brother. Or, as Gracie liked to call him, the Accident.
She wasn’t the type of child most people found adorable, but Cass appreciated her peculiar charms. Usually. Tonight there was something unsettling about the appraising way she looked at her babysitter, as if weighing whether it would be safe to leave her downstairs, alone. There was something about her tonight… something that made Cass wonder whether she really did have big plans of some sort, whatever would constitute big plans for a twelve-year-old whose best friend was a pet chameleon. For a moment, she toyed with the idea of following Gracie up the spiral staircase, inviting herself into the girl’s bedroom for a round of Monopoly, or Truth or Dare, or whatever it was normal twelve-year-olds spent their time doing. But then the baby cried, and in the subsequent flurry of rocking and feeding and diaper changing, Cass forgot her concerns. An hour later, settled in front of the TV, she closed her eyes and promptly fell asleep.
She dreamed that Jeremiah West was gnawing at her arm, his teeth tearing through flesh and muscle and sending a hot pain radiating through her shoulder. When she jerked awake, the pain was still present, sharp and real. She gasped and searched around wildly for the source of attack – until the dream faded. She remembered that the throbbing in her arm was courtesy of that afternoon’s flu shot; West would no sooner tear into her arm than he would tear off her clothing. She hated needles even more than she hated babysitting, which made it all the worse that the latter necessitated the former. The Tucks insisted on a flu shot for anyone who came within ten feet of their precious Accident. Since every dollar earned dragged the out-of-state-tuition dream a little closer to reality, Cass had consigned herself to a Saturday of needles and diapers and pain. Her arm only really hurt when she rubbed it, which she did now out of sheer spite.
The TV had somehow shut itself off; the house was dark and quiet. But Cass was suddenly convinced that something had woken her. Some noise, some instinct. Something wrong.
“Gracie?” she called, softly, not wanting to wake the baby.
There was no answer.
don’t want to go up there.
The thought came unbidden as she stood at the base of the stairs.