Bizarre and weird and vaguely wrong and wonderful. Verona perked up in her seat.
The way the seats were arranged, there was a column of seats, an aisle, two columns of seats together, an aisle, two columns, an aisle, and another column, for four and a half rows. More importantly, the arrangement of seats meant Jeremy was right in front of her and Lucy was across the aisle, Wallace in front of her, Melissa beside Wallace.
Mr. Kelsch turned his back to write on the board, and Verona excitedly reached forward to reach for Jeremy, but he was leaning forward and she was short, and the spacing of the desks meant she couldn’t do much. Rather than jab him with a pen or pencil, she raised her foot up and nudged Jeremy in the butt with the toe of her shoe.
He turned around, eyebrow raised.
She pointed out the window.
Outside, past the fence that surrounded the school grounds, Mrs. Oakham was waiting. She held a leash, but it was too thin to be an ordinary leash. It was more like a shoelace, bright blue, extending down to a harness and clipping to the collar. Sir was at the end of it, fighting the leash he was connected to like he was in a battle to the death.
“Awww,” Jeremy murmured.
“I know, right? Oh my god,” Verona whispered. She turned, spotted Melissa, beside Wallace, diagonal to Lucy, and whispered, “Lucy, kick Melissa in the butt.”
Melissa turned, eyes wide, hissing, “Lucy what me in the butt?”
Wallace collapsed, the arm brace on his right arm scraping his desk as he dropped his face down, laughing silently.
“Kick, to get your attention,” Verona hissed.
“I did not hear that as ‘kick’.”
Verona and Jeremy joined Wallace in the stifled laughing fit, with Lucy holding it together a few seconds before joining in. Wallace bit his sleeve to try to keep silent.
“Guys!” Mr. Kelsch called out. He looked out over the class. Besides their little cluster at the back corner by the windows, Mia and her friend were talking and some boys were distracted showing each other doodles they’d drawn in their notebook. “Guys, I know it’s almost lunchtime, but if I could have your undivided attention until class ends, I’d appreciate it.”
Verona stifled the chuckles over Melissa’s line, smiled, and sat up straight.
If body types could be circle, square, pear, whatever, Mr. Kelsch was ‘noodle’. Maybe a bit taller than her dad, but easily half the weight. Maybe a third of the weight. He was the youngest teacher at the school, but had a face that made him look younger still, in a nice sort of way, with a head of the sort of blond curly hair that had to be hard work to keep from going full ‘clown hair’. She’d seen him around last year even if he hadn’t taught any of her classes, and if he went without a trim for a week or two he just very obviously lost all control over it, and very obviously hated it, too.
He also wore exclusively boring clothes, always in shades of coffee, she thought. Cream, tan, light brown, dark brown, nearly-black brown. Ties in those shades were a staple. As if he thought that would make people take him more seriously as a teacher, maybe.
If he thought that, he didn’t need to.
“Okay, thank you,” Mr. Kelsch said, seeming a bit bewildered that the class had listened. “I’m sorry, I’ve completely lost my train of thought. Someone remind me.”
He stared out at the class, a sea of nearly thirty eyes staring back at him.
Verona sobered up, the giggling fit gone. She felt bad for him, seeing those blank stares, knowing she contributed to it.
Mia put her hand up. “Something about rights and citizenship?”
“Thank you,” he said, looking relieved. He held up fingers. “Human rights. Civil. Minority. Language. Economic. Political…”
Mr. Kelsch glanced down at the sheet on his desk. “Cultural and Legal. We’ll be getting into those over the course of this week. I think I already said that, so… I guess that’s that.”
For another moment, it looked like the break in flow had really messed with him. Asking for their attention to wrap up and then realizing the lesson was over.
He found his stride again, though. “Write that down and think about what they mean to you, if there are any you don’t understand. Next class I’ll ask, and depending on how you guys answer, we’ll devote more time to the trickier ones. If you didn’t read the chapter for today’s class, read it tonight, there’s no other homework. And I think that’s that. You can get up, stretch, but wait until the bell rings before you leave.”
The class immediately got up and started sorting themselves out, eager to get to lunch. Verona penned down the terms.
“Wait, I forgot-!” he called out.
To deaf ears, pretty much.
“Hold up!” George raised his voice.
“That’s- thank you,” Mr. Kelsch said. “There are sheets here on my desk, please swing by, grab one. We have a teacher shortage and a lot of the schedules are being changed around. For your fourth period class, you can choose an elective, to sit in on a grade eleven class, or continue doing what you’re currently and have an afternoon-long math and personal finance class with Mr. Sitton-”
The class groaned.
“So get a sheet, sign it, get your parents to sign it, and bring it back.”
“I’ll get one for each of us,” Jeremy said, as people started to mill around, the chaos of bags being zipped up, books put away, and people hanging around while others wanted to move past taking over the class. “Me, Wallace, Verona, Lucy-”
“Av-” Lucy started, looking at the empty seat next to her own. “Nevermind.”
Melissa nodded. “Saves crippled ol’ me a bit of a walk.”
“Thanks Jer,” Verona said. He flashed her a smile.
“You can only milk that so much,” Lucy told Melissa.
“I can milk it plenty! It’s the one benefit from nearly losing my foot. Now I want Verona to tell me why you wanted Lucy to-” Melissa fake-coughed, “-ck my ass.”
Lucy playfully pushed on Verona’s arm, while Verona cackled. Wallace laughed, which seemed to make Lucy happy.
“I misheard too,” Wallace told them.
“I wanted to give you a heads up,” Verona said, pointing for Melissa’s benefit. “It’s Sir.”
Melissa used her cane to walk to the window. “Oh my god, it’s actually my mom. I think she brought Sir to cheer me up. That’s humiliating. She’s just standing there, people can see her.”
The bell rang.
Jeremy caught up with them, handing out the sheets. Verona let hers crumple a bit in her haste to shove it in her bag, but she used her left hand to do it and felt the beginnings of a cramp. She massaged it out.
As she hung back, and as everyone got sorted, she saw Mr. Kelsch packing up the papers, putting them into folders. Virtually every student had already migrated toward the end of the classroom with the door.
On impulse, she walked over. “Mr. Kelsch?”
“Yep,” she replied.
“I try but with schedules getting crammed in, more students for each of us, I’m frazzled. What can I do for you?”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Getting distracted.”
“It’s tough,” he said. “Right before lunch. I’m eager to eat and take a break. I really do think you guys should get recess, even in high school. Gives you a break and gives us one.”
“Is there a response more ‘amen’ than ‘amen’?” she asked him. “Because dang, yeah. But no, it was a kitten. My favorite kitten.”
“And that’s my big weakness, and I felt bad I got distracted so I wanted to say so.”
“Thank you,” he said. He squinted a little as he said, “It’s fine. Happens.”
“You’re my favorite teacher so far, I like this class,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, with emphasis. “I’m happy that’s the case.”
She felt a bit awkward, now that she’d said it.
“Keep it up,” she said, as she backed off, clicking her tongue and giving him a finger-gun.
She rejoined the others.
“What was that?” Jeremy asked.
She just shrugged. She wasn’t even sure she could put words to it. Like… Mr. Kelsch seemed like someone on the line between going two paths; he was early in his career, she was pretty sure. She could see him doing with his personality what he’d done with his clothes, hardening, trying too hard to fit into that ‘teacher’ mold that was expected. But right now, at least, he was gentler than any other teacher, there was more… caring? Sensitivity? Like he cared what the class was doing and reacting, and he felt it, compared to some who would just have a lesson plan and ram it through.
So she wanted to at least encourage the good side of it. It felt important.
Especially when it felt like she was missing some of that caring and sensitivity herself. She might have some, she might be able to use it like she’d just done, maybe, if she was being generous to herself in how she interpreted her reaching out to him. But it was a limited amount. Like she could do it once a day or a couple of times a day and then she’d be emotionally exhausted.
“Lucy,” Mia called out. “Want to come to Heroes? Wallace?”
“Uhhh…” Lucy replied, before glancing at Wallace, who shrugged.
“Hang,” Verona told her, on impulse.
“Next time?” Lucy replied.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Mia said. She talked with Sharon for a second, then called out to Lucy, “We’ll go out there tomorrow instead, kay? Gonna practice dance in the yard.”
“Sounds good, have fun,” Lucy said.
“Want to come, Melissa?” Mia asked, like it was an afterthought.
“Nah. Got lunch waiting for me.”
As they left the classroom, Verona maneuvered around to get to Melissa’s side. They left as a group of five. “Melissa- Melissa, heyyyy Melissa-”
“Can I come say hi to Sir?”
“Yeah,” Melissa said. “Just don’t make fun of me or think I’m a loser because my mom came to my high school.”
“Melissa, hon,” Verona said. “Bear with me here, because this is a- it’s a principle, okay? One I hold close to my heart, as close to universal as you can get in this weird world where very few things are for absolute certain, okay? Kitties.”
“Kitties,” Jeremy said, like he was chiming in in agreement.
“It’s almost never wrong to have more cats and kittens, okay?” Verona asked. “So, if I’m mad at Jeremy for whatever reason? Is he going to buy me a chocolate bar, or-?”
“Cat pictures,” Jeremy said, like it was the most sensible thing in the world. Because it was the most sensible thing in the world.
“Works, see?” Verona said. “Or, like, we could do the lame thing and make fun of you for your mom coming to school, get some chuckles in, or…”
“Play nice and get more time with Sir,” Jeremy finished.
“I can get behind this,” Melissa said. “I might adopt this.”
“Seems like us dog people are a dying breed,” Lucy told Wallace, dry.
“It’s lonely sometimes, isn’t it?”
They left the school and Melissa sped up a bit to go to Sir. She had trouble bending down and managing her foot so her mom bent down and lifted Sir into her arms.
“Hello Verona, hello Jeremy. Nice to see you again.”
“Oh my god,” Melissa muttered. “I can’t believe you came.”
“I thought you’d like a friendly, fuzzy face to greet you. Lift your mood a bit?”
“Ugh,” Melissa said, while looking a lot like her mood was being lifted as she nuzzled Sir, getting one on one time before letting Verona and Jeremy reach in for light scratches and pets. Verona wanted to nuzzle him like Melissa had but that got weird with personal space and the fact Melissa was already cradling him. She settled for feeling the purrs under her fingertips.
Balm for the soul.
“This is Lucy and Wallace, by the way,” Verona said.
“Hi,” Lucy said.
Melissa’s mom smiled. “Hi. I’ve got a deal with Melissa where if she walks home for lunch for her physio, I make her what she wants. Within reason. Bonus points for the next day if she walks back, but I sometimes drive if it’s hard.”
“You don’t need to tell them this,” Melissa groused.
“I just thought- I know you wanted that sandwich, but if your friends wanted to come by, hang out… hm, there’s not much in the house.”
“Then don’t bring it up?” Melissa replied.
“If only a couple came you could each share the lunch. Toasted sandwich? Loose meat, dijon, swiss, russian dressing?”
“Dang,” Jeremy said. “Nice deal you’ve got.”
“What a cool mom,” Lucy said.
Melissa glared daggers at Lucy for a second.
“I don’t care about the time with Sir so I’m not obligated to do anything. Besides, she is being cool.”
Melissa glared daggers at Lucy again then turned away, relaxing as soon as Sir had her attention again.
“Wallace and I can hang back,” Lucy said, before looking at him. “Right?”
“Yeah, for sure. Brought my own lunch.”
“Or-!” Mrs. Oakham said. “You could all come, if you’ll bring Sir home, and I’ll go… will your parents be mad if I get food for you?”
There was a unanimous no and excitement over the prospect of food.
“We walk out to Heroes and some of those other places sometimes,” Lucy said.
“Heroes is healthy-ish,” Melissa’s mom said. “Heroes?”
“You could give me the list now, time might be tight.”
“Melissa can text you,” Verona said. “I can carry Sir in the meantime.”
Melissa turned those eye-daggers toward Verona, this time. Verona grinned.
“Sounds workable. Yes? Yes?” Melissa’s mom checked with everyone. “Yes, yes?”
She stopped on Melissa.
“Yeah,” Melissa conceded.
“Wonderful,” Melissa’s mom exclaimed, beaming. “Text soon.”
Verona reached out for Sir as Melissa’s mom hurried off. Melissa gave her a very unimpressed look, but handed Sir over.
This is nice.
Sir relaxed against her.
This is inner peace.
“Let’s walk,” Melissa said. “I’ve got stuff in my room for Sir. I’ll show you.”
“Really going all out, huh?” Lucy asked. “I mean, there was this dog I wanted, this summer, didn’t work out…”
Verona looked over at her friend. Lucy looked so hurt, just talking about it.
“…Would’ve done a lot to make him comfortable. I sorta get it.”
“I’m sorry,” Wallace said. “I bet you would’ve been the best owner.”
“I dunno. But that’s not something I meant to get into,” Lucy said.
“Okay,” he replied.
Lucy shook her head a tiny bit, as if to shake herself free of a daydream, distraction, or line of thought. “I’m curious, Melissa, is it your money, or your mom’s, or…?”
“It’s mine,” Melissa said. “Kind of? I got caught smoking this summer- got framed for smoking by a certain someone, and got super grounded, right?”
“Why do you say certain someone like it’s someone here?” Wallace asked.
“Someone we know,” Verona replied. “Can call him Iggie, he’s an alright dude, weird, gets caught up in trouble. Got imprisoned for a bit this summer.”
“Hey.” Lucy elbowed Verona, who grinned.
“I didn’t know that last part,” Melissa said. She thought for a second. “Good.”
“Yeah,” Verona replied. “He’s around though. I think he saw Melissa smoking and when she hid her cigarette from her mom, he sorta snuck in and there it is, a cigarette lying there when mom passes by?”
“Oh damn,” Jeremy said.
“Uh, yeah,” Melissa said, looking uncomfortable. She’d brought him up, maybe to put Lucy and Verona on the back foot, but now the table had turned. “Anyway, she suspended my allowance, said she’d hold it back, and I could spend money on what I wanted. I’m spending it on Sir.”
“Wise,” Verona said, nuzzling Sir with her face, catching Jeremy’s fingers in the nuzzle.
“Before I forget, let me get your orders.”
They gave their orders. Verona got so distracted by Sir that she needed to be prodded to awareness. “Uhhh, half size toasted white, spinach, ground meat, cheese, black olives, green pepper, onions. Garlic sauce.”
“I’m going to ask my mom to put that in a separate bag so it doesn’t taint the rest of ours,” Melissa said.
This was nice.
This was a recharge.
“Are you unironically holding hands?” Melissa asked.
Verona raised her face and looked.
Sure enough, Lucy was holding Wallace’s hand. He had one arm in a sling and one arm in a brace, and the hand that wasn’t immobilized by the sling was holding Lucy’s hand.
“Unironically?” Lucy asked.
“I dunno,” Melissa said. “Feels like I only ever see old people doing it. And guys goofing off.”
“Do you want to hold hands?” Jeremy asked Wallace, smiling, while reaching for the hand that was in the sling.
“See?” Melissa asked.
“People hold hands when they like each other. It’s a thing. It’s not a big deal,” Lucy said, a bit defensive.
“Do you want to hold hands?” Jeremy asked, overly joking, to Verona, smiling. She elbowed him lightly away.
“Alternative: you can hold Sir for a bit.”
“Ahh, the kitty principle in action. That’s not a bad response,” he said, carefully taking Sir. Verona kept hold of the little leash. “Sir, you gentleman. I’ve missed you. I can’t say I agree with the shoelace harness as an aesthetic choice, but we all have to make do, don’t we?”
“I hate it,” Melissa said. “Who takes a cat for a walk? My mom.”
“On the other hand,” Verona said. “Kitty principle. We got to hang out with Sir.”
“Running a teeny bit thin, that,” Lucy said.
There were some chuckles. Verona played up the protests.
They walked the rest of the way to Melissa’s place, and she couldn’t help but notice Jeremy sneaking glances at Lucy and Wallace. At the fact they held hands the entire way from school to Melissa’s.
Verona massaged her empty hand, rolling her thumb in a circular motion around the palm.
Tuesday. Ten minute homeroom with Mr. Sitton, an hour and twenty minutes of gym with Mr. Bader, and now an hour and twenty minutes of social studies with Mr. Kelsch. After lunch would be their last full afternoon with Mr. Sitton, with Math in the first half and personal finance in the latter half. Later the electives would kick in, and they’d scatter to different and smaller classes, some with younger and older grades, or sitting in with the grade twelves for the other classes.
Just this desperate freaking scrabble to hold to this stupid pattern and idea of what school was. She knew she could create a fetch of twigs and glamour and it’d be a replica of herself, just good enough to pass, and it took notes and she could read the notes in fifteen minutes of free time, and she’d be up to date. Instead she sat through a class designed to occupy their time and designed to match the slowest students in speed and pace.
She could be in another version of this school right now, she knew. She might be in fear for her safety over there, maybe, but she wouldn’t be bored. She wouldn’t feel the joy and life in her slowly leaking away, leaving her a husk.
Social Studies was the highlight of the day, which wasn’t hard because gym and a full afternoon of Math were a real drag. At least there would be an art class tomorrow afternoon, and every afternoon for the rest of this trimester. Trimesters only because the faculty was in survival mode. The advanced classes and stuff were an emergency band-aid because parents had been upset.
Anyone would be upset about two hours and forty-five minutes of just math. The class a grade up had English for the afternoons, but they at least got to watch a movie for part of that. For sanity’s sake.
Social studies didn’t feel like it dragged, and Mr. Kelsch had a bit of a Jeremy vibe. She wasn’t going to have a crush on a teacher, but if she did, it’d be Mr. Kelsch. He seemed like the kind of guy who, ten or twenty years from now, she would want to blindside with an advance and bring up to her loft apartment-slash-practitioner atelier above a bookstore.
Lucy was getting water from the back of the classroom, and as she passed by she leaned over Verona’s shoulder to look through the window. Class was only just starting so it wouldn’t be Mrs. Oakham, but-
It was Miss. She paced by the fence, and a bag blown by the wind stuck at about head height, barring the view. As Miss moved, the wind moved the bag to one side. Nobody else was paying enough sustained attention to notice the weirdness, apparently.
There was no time to go out and check with Miss. But when Verona raised a hand in a wave, Miss stopped.
“What does she want, you think?” Lucy asked. “Emergency?”
“What’s this?” Wallace asked, as he approached his seat.
Miss walked away.
“Saw someone we know,” Lucy told him. “Weird that she’s around here. I don’t think it’s anything major.”
Not an emergency or she’d stick around, probs, yeah.
“We’ll talk to her after, I guess?” Verona asked. “Lunch?”
“I guess,” Lucy said. “I’ve got a thing with Mia. I think you can come, you know. It’s not like they’ll tell you to screw off. How are you doing, Wallace?”
He lifted his arm. No brace. “Good! Being careful. I listened to the album you sent me. You might actually get me into music. There’s stuff I want to send you. It really reminded me of this other thing I listened to- it’s a game soundtrack, but it’s really good. Do I hurt my standings in your eyes if I say that? Talking about games?”
“No. I’m a bit out of the loop, but no.”
Jeremy joined in. “I was telling Verona a while back, uh, I think there’s overlap in games and art, right? Because you’re trying to appeal to a massive audience, right? So they have to push computer systems to their limits, create art with the right appeal for the game, music’s the same right?”
“Yeah,” Verona said. “Makes sense.”
“I’ll listen to it if you send it to me,” Lucy said. “Or bring it, whatever. You still owe me that- I dunno, video game date? You wanted me to try some games and see what works?”
“Horror games, yeah,” Wallace said.
“Oh man, that’s cool,” Jeremy said.
“I kinda want to see,” Verona said. “I’ve got fond memories of Lucy getting super into freaky cartoons and stuff.”
“Kinda defeats the point of it being a date, though, you know?” Lucy replied.
“Doesn’t change the fact I want to see.”
“Reaction video,” Jeremy said.
“No, no, I’d be self conscious-” Lucy protested.
The bell rang, signaling the last call before class was to start. Students filed in.
“Some of these games you play for a hundred hours, they have to keep the visuals and audio interesting, right?” Jeremy told them, as he settled into his seat. “A lot of it’s better than you’d think.”
The teacher came in.
Not Mr. Kelsch.
Just some woman who walked to the front of the class, elderly. She might’ve been pear-shaped but her hair was long and straight and draped down to her shoulders in a way that made it hard to see the line of her neck. That same hair was dyed black but with roots showing. The only color was a colorful gauzy scarf around her neck.
There were some murmurs, but the conversation in class died down in volume.
“Where’s Mr. Kelsch?” Caroline asked.
“Mr. Kelsch has moved to a different school. I’ll be substituting. Everyone sit down, now, the bell rang, class is starting. We’re going to get right to it.”
There were a few muted noises of reaction and protest, but various students obeyed.
Verona settled back in her chair, leaning back, feeling that emotional void where a reaction should be. An extended feeling of shock and loss that had followed from the night of August thirty-first.
“Books out, pencils out. My name is Mrs. Morehouse, and I’ll be your teacher for the next week or two, until they can find a more permanent replacement for Mr. Kelsch. I’m going to begin now. Which part of the textbook did you get to?”
She stopped at George’s desk, he pointed to a part of the textbook. She compared with the papers in the folder she had on hand.
On the far, rearmost corner of the room was Caroline, who had asked about Mr. Kelsch.
Caroline might have liked Mr. Kelsch as much as Verona had, because it looked like Caroline was trying not to cry.
This- all of this, it was a lot, Verona had to remind herself, in the face of a small war that was being fought inside her head and chest. A war where one side simultaneously wanted to react like Caroline was reacting but groped for something and found nothing there. A war where another part of her questioned who would even cry in class over a teacher, had to rationalize it out by recalling that Caroline had been sort-of friends with Pam and Alayna, both of whom had left with a third of the other students.
“Let’s see. First section, the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship are broken up into eight categories…”
I guess the underside of Kennet just picked up a Social Studies teacher, Verona thought, as she slumped in her seat.
Miss approached them as soon as they were far enough away from school to not be caught up in the rush of students from lunch. Peckersnot and Nat followed behind her.
“Hey, Peck,” Verona greeted the little guy. “Heya Nat.”
He waved. Nat didn’t, but she dipped her head a bit.
“Did something happen?” Lucy asked.
“A non-emergency, signaling us but not making it a big drag-us-out-of-class deal something?” Verona added.
“Yes,” Miss said. “Shortly before I came to you, a car of young people came off the highway, driving into Kennet. They ended up in the underside.”
“Drunk driving?” Verona asked. “Or something else? Sketchy people?”
“People may filter in that way, as with the teacher, but others can find their way by other means. I suspect that happened here. It’s a distortion in space, and a specific pattern of turns could lead them there.”
“Like how on certain roads, reversing a certain distance and direction can take you to a wrinkle in reality that you wouldn’t reach if you did a u-turn and drove straight?” Verona asked.
“There are a number of those wrinkles and spaces. We didn’t want to bother you, we know you’re in school, I thought I might try to catch one of you and let you know in case you wanted to act. We sent Matthew in. Pipes accompanied him.”
“And has Matthew come out?” Lucy asked.
“No. Nor have the four young men and women who drove in.”
Verona inhaled a bit. “Ok, cool. We’ve got about thirty-five minutes left for lunch, let me do that. Lucy, you go meet up with Mia, let me handle it.”
“If I don’t show up within five minutes of lunch ending, the stuff for creating a fetch of me is with all the wood and stuff they piled up and put by the dumpster. You’ll see it with the Sight. Just assume I get caught up in stuff. If Peck’s willing to go he can come find you and tell you if I need a rescue.”
Peckersnot bobbed his head in a nod.
“I want to come,” Lucy said. “I know you said I wouldn’t like it, but I need to get to grips with this.”
“I’m okay with this being my thing.”
“It’s- I worry, you know? About you. About all this,” Lucy told her. To Miss, she said, “Our social studies teacher left.”
“There will be a trickling of departures. I’m sorry, if that was a teacher you liked.”
“It was,” Verona said. “We’ve gotta hold onto what we’ve got, right? Keeping connections to people around Kennet? Tell Lucy she should go with Mia and George and Wallace and get fast food.”
“I don’t know well enough to know if she should. There is a balance, if one of you is above, one of you is below, and one of you is off to the side, but there is merit to holding onto connections.”
“I want to hold onto my connection to my best friend,” Lucy said. “And I want a better idea of what’s going on down there.”
“You also want to go with Mia. You’ve got a good thing going,” Verona said.
“Yeah. Come on. The Arena is mostly the same direction and that’s one of the clearest routes in, right?” Lucy said.
“It is,” Miss said.
“But are you coming with?” Verona asked Lucy. “You really should go.”
“Come on,” Lucy said, nudging Verona. Ignoring Verona.
Verona sighed. “Peckersnot?”
He nodded. She bent down, extending a hand, and he clambered up her arm. He reached her bag and unzipped a side pocket to slid in alongside spell cards.
“He can point you to where the innocents were last seen,” Miss said. “That would be Matthew’s starting point.”
“I don’t suppose you want to come too, Miss?” Verona asked.
“A number of goblins are asleep, the ghouls can’t come out in the middle of the day. It limits the number of people who can keep an eye on things. We need to be able to identify the next batch of innocents who slip through like this group did, if there are any intruders through Kennet’s perimeter and knotwork, among other things.”
“Like if someone from the undercity comes up?”
“Yes. We have stayed on top of things thus far.”
“That’s happened then?” Lucy asked.
“Yes. We’ve stayed on top of it. It would help if you could check on Matthew and help us stay on top of that. It’s hard for Others to rescue an innocent without testing that innocence.”
“Wish us luck, then,” Verona said.
They hurried off.
The Arena was only a few blocks away from the street that led to the school front doors, but the streets between one and the other were convoluted, and it was lunch hour, which slowed things down further.
“Got your stuff?” Verona asked.
Lucy patted her bag. “Some.”
“Did Avery send you the thing about connection blockers?”
“Avery asked me for the stuff about connection blockers, because I was fiddling around for the ones for my mom, and slipping out early.”
“Gotcha,” Verona answered.
“I hope it’s not a bad thing that Wallace and I tagged along for the trip to Melissa’s yesterday.”
“No. I wanted to hang out. It was nice.”
“Yeah. I like seeing those two together, you know? Jeremy and Wallace? I get to see a side of Wallace I don’t when he’s with me and he’s all… I dunno. Quietly panicking about the fact he’s with a girl? Like I do when I think too hard about the fact he’s a boy and he likes me?”
“You’re easy to like,” Verona said. “He’s got good taste.”
“You’ve got good taste. You picked them both for Class RankR.”
“Hate that thing,” Verona huffed.
“Jeremy’s cool. I’m glad you’ve got a friend in him.”
“He is cool. Puts up with me.”
Lucy let out a short, soft laugh, focusing on hurrying.
It was hard to jog and talk at the same time, so they didn’t talk as much.
“How many times have you been there?” Lucy asked.
“The dark side, the flipside, the inverted version… I don’t know the terminology.”
“Mostly the same thing. I think the things that make one-” Verona paused to focus on running and breathing for a second. “-make a place a bit of the others. Undercity sounds cooler. I couldn’t think of any clever names for it.”
“Undercity works for me. How many times?”
Verona thought. “Ten?”
“In the last two weeks?”
“Visit one when we were getting the lay of the land, then a bunch lately. Mostly just quickly passing through. That one last Monday where I went because Miss hinted innocents were getting stuck.”
“Right. That’s a lot.”
“It’s a bit of a break, you know? Chance to get away?”
“I wish you didn’t feel like you had so much to get away from.”
They reached the Arena. There were some cars, and a pile of melting ice by the side of the parking lot. The melt had a rainbow sheen of oil on it, but from their perspective, it looked like it favored the red hues of the rainbow.
They checked the coast was clear, moved to the point in the puddle where the smallest number of people might be able to see them, and Verona bent down to draw the square and sign it.
“I miss the hell out of Avery,” Lucy said. “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do a lot of stuff we used to do just fine before she joined us.”
“Yeah,” Verona said. She wanted to add to that, but… that felt like a whole conversation that she didn’t want to have.
Because she knew exactly how it would go if she talked about the state of them, a pair. Or a trio, if she wanted to take a half-stepback from the conversation about them as a pair. And that conversation would lead to a conversation about herself and how she was doing and honestly, she didn’t want to scare Lucy.
They touched their hands to the diagram.
Lines lifted up, and the square became a platform beneath them. The landscape around them shifted, moving like a picture book, going from one scene to a nearly identical one.
The factories belched black smoke at the one corner of Kennet. It made everything just a bit darker, and gave the light a slight filter, taking some color out of certain things, while magnifying others.
Peckersnot clambered up to Verona’s shoulder. Pointing.
“Been downtown yet?” Lucy asked.
“I’ve been to the school and areas around it, mostly.”
“Then I guess we’re visiting downtown together.”
They had to circle around the Arena that had been ruined in the last night of summer. Verona caught Lucy looking back at the building.
Lucy had a way of looking frustrated, a lot of the time, or she had a natural expression that defaulted to a frown, and on occasion, like when Lucy was with Wallace, she could look so… how to even say it?
Saying she looked nice implied Lucy didn’t look nice when she had her regular expression, and she did. Regular Lucy was stellar. But Lucy with her guard down was special.
And this, Verona supposed, was another piece of that puzzle. Lucy with her guard down, like she’d forgotten Verona was with her, looking vulnerable, but not smiling. Opposite of smiling. Crestfallen. Forlorn.
Verona caught her friend’s hand, squeezing it. “Come on.”
They almost ran hand-in-hand, but the mechanics of moving got awkward, one hand slipped from another, and they didn’t try to resume it.
“What have you figured out in all the times you were here?” Lucy asked.
“That there’s no one-to-one match for the missing people. There’s no nega-Avery or anything. But loose roles might get filled. Mr. Kelsch leaves, someone fills in a ‘teacher’ spot over here. Factories are down and out back home? Someone’s doing something here. Here. Check this out. We’re getting into some place where people might be marking their territory.
As much as the colors were a bit washed out and the smoke from the factories was giving everything the faintest of darker tints, clouding up windows, and making the murky murkier, there were things that weren’t. A fresh mural stood out on the exterior, alley-facing wall of a store.
A little further down, there was a shop where a scary looking man in a butcher’s apron stood watching while a kid in an employee uniform worked on a ladder, painting over the shop sign. The initial coat had been black, but fresh red paint was being used to paint the shop letters: Gristle & Bon- The final ‘e’ was yet to be completed. The red paint stood out far too much for how it was streaking its way through the still-wet black. In the midst of the gloom it looked more like lit neon than anything.
“See the sign?”
“Do you See the sign?” Verona asked, turning on her Sight.
Lucy did the same.
The paint smoked faintly, and a meaty-flesh thing slithered behind the thin membrane-like layer the paint had created over the surface. The letters welled with blood.
“Definitely See the sign,” Lucy said.
“So there are Others and Other-adjacent humans manifesting too, and as they get involved you can see the hints. A lot of the time they’ll mark their territory. Sometimes they mix blood into paint before it’s applied. So… that butcher might be a little special. Watch out for stuff like…”
“That?” Lucy asked.
They were in the midst of crossing the street on their way to the northwestern end of downtown, and as they did, they could see a mark. Smack dab in the middle of an intersection, drawn in blood, it had that same look to it where it was almost like it was lit from within. Or like some spirit-like cut across reality.
A triangle with elaborate wings and talons, taking up the full square of the intersection, between the traffic lights. The paint was a bright, electric blue that stood out in contrast to everything else.
And above it was a body, wrapped in trash bags, with only the arms sticking out to either side, flesh mottled and bruised in the way Verona supposed dead bodies got bruised, pallid on top and purplish on the part lower to the ground. Cords lashed it by the wrists to the traffic lights on opposite corners of the intersection, so it dangled, and a collection of dead birds hung by their feet from those cords. The arrangement of dead birds was supposed to evoke wings, Verona supposed. There were strings of ten or twelve dead birds nearest to the traffic lights, connected so one hung by the neck from the talons of the one above, their sometimes broken wings outstretched. Nearest the hands, there were only two large birds.
When the wind blew one way, it made the strings of birds sway, like the dangling figure was moving its wings. When the wind blew the other way, it did the same thing, but with the cloying smell of a dead body and the musty smell of a number of dead birds.
The fluids of the person inside the garbage bag wrapping were trailing out through a hole in the black plastic that wasn’t at the very bottom, a mixture of blood and something darker spattering down onto the mark in the intersection. The face was painted using the same paint as was on the intersection. A stark blue smiley face.
“Yep,” Verona confirmed. Then she admitted, “Kinda thought the first one we saw would be less… that.”
“Okay,” Lucy said, quiet. “So what does that mean, then?”
“That means there’s a group with a medium-strong Other in charge near here,” Verona said. “And I guess they’re making a statement.
“Don’t tell me that’s Rook.”
“Nah. Pretty sure that’s the Bitter Street Witch. That’s Bitter street, not Bittes street. They renamed it.”
“Okay,” Lucy said, frowning more.
“She took over an empty storefront as her headquarters, lots of the dead birds hanging inside. Does some augury. I haven’t met her, I just heard.”
“She’s a practitioner?”
Verona shook her head. “Talented resident with a bit of Other about her.”
“Okay. And him? The guy in the bag?”
“From what I read?” Verona asked. “If we have like, fifty deaths a year by natural causes back in Kennet, and maybe one to four deaths a year that’s from regular human violence? Ignoring the recent stuff with the Carmine tipping the scales? Maybe flip that around. Maybe fifty deaths a year by violence here, just a couple regularly.”
“They’re killing each other?”
Verona shrugged. “Some, I think. Hard to know, not every undercity is the same. Maybe it’s more active right now while they’re getting settled. And I guess when it comes to getting old or sick, they keep on trucking, mostly, they’re not super tough, but Famine and Pestilence don’t pay as much attention here, unless they have a reason or it’s a special event.”
“Is it newsworthy? If someone gets sick?”
“Don’t think so,” Verona said, keeping an eye out. Above them, someone whistled. It wasn’t a catcall. It was a signal. “Come on.”
They hurried on, before whoever had been signaled could emerge from hiding.
Downtown was already a little more intense.
The stark blue emblems of the Bitter Street Witch seemed to be drawn along the west-facing walls all in a vague line cutting across downtown. Each one had a bird nailed to the wall in the center, some disemboweled, some so decayed that the nail and a bit of feathers sticking out of dessicated flesh were all that remained.
Until they reached one corner, where an incomplete sign had been painted. A middle aged guy was sitting there by the unfinished diagram, throat slit, the dead bird who was going to be mounted on the wall shoved into the bloody gash.
A bright yellow scrawling was drawn over the faded blue mark. Drippings from the paint had fallen onto the body.
“Downtown’s a little more intense than the part I was hanging out,” Verona said.
“Okay,” Lucy replied, not taking her eyes off the body. “That’s good to know. If my brain was working I would’ve been really worried about what you’ve been up to.”
“I wish you’d go to have lunch with Mia. Let me handle this,” Verona said.
“It worries me you’re not freaking out,” Lucy said, quiet.
“It’s because I’m not too freaked out that I want to handle it. I wanted to at least handle some stuff and establish some ground rules before I had you coming to visit. I can really truly handle this. I want to handle this.”
“What ground rules?”
“Making it clear that we’re the practitioners of Kennet,” Verona told her friend. “I’ve only made one, like, half step in that direction, with the Vice Principal.”
It seemed like someone had written ‘stuck-around-stuck-around-stuck’ ad nauseum on a store window with black marker, but someone else had thrown a rock through it, kicking out the glass, meaning the street was littered with glass with words on it. Verona wasn’t sure if that was a failed attempt at erasing the mark of another group or the Stuck-Arounds’ way of marking territory.
“I don’t know what group the yellow scribble belongs to, but they’re pretty hardcore, if we judge by the body,” Verona said. “And there’s something Other in charge, which could be an actual Other or it could be the leader-figure moving away from humanity. Stuck-Arounds don’t have an Other in charge, they’re just a… big group. Mostly everyone age eighteen to twenty five trying to party constantly, get drunk, get high, sleep off the times they got drunk or high, or raiding just about anyone and everyone to get the stuff so they can party again. Some older teens, some older people, but mostly it’s that age group. Rowan’s age group.”
Lucy nodded, but she was on high alert, eyes scanning the surroundings. “Trying to keep an ear out.”
“Good,” Verona said.
“So the leaders being Others… that’s like Tashlit’s brother?”
“Yeah. She pointed out the markings and what they mean. Depending on the knot and how stuff forms, they can… the markings can take on certain power. But I don’t think our knot is that far along. There are knots where if you move into one sub-realm, it’ll just be night and raining, all the time.”
“Ronnie,” Lucy said.
Verona glanced back at Lucy, expecting some warning or signal about something her friend had heard. Lucy was frowning, but frowning at her.
Verona glanced at Peckersnot, who was still perched on her shoulder, ready to give directions.
“How are you?”
“If you mean my hand, it’s pretty eh. Not fun. I’ve been massaging it so much my other hand might be developing cramps and soreness.”
“I don’t mean your hand, but I do wish your hand was better. It’s- it’s hard to get a read on you sometimes. Avery and I promised we’d back you up, we’d rescue you if you needed rescue. Are you okay there?”
Verona shrugged. “Am I ever? That’s not me saying no, or yes, or anything like that, more like what the heck is okay?”
“I’ve known you for most of my life and I can’t- I can’t tell if you don’t need rescuing at all or if you need it even more than you did partway through this summer.”
Verona smiled. “Maybe you can’t tell because I can’t either. Honestly- can this conversation wait?”
“Can it?” Lucy asked.
Lucy’s expression again… it threw Verona all the way off, because it wasn’t the usual frown, it wasn’t that guard-down smile she reserved for Wallace more than she’d ever reserved it for Verona, and it wasn’t the expression she saved for mourning John. Mourning the end of summer and what they’d hoped it would be and what it would mean.
Here, just… Lucy was looking a lot like a really worried kid. In a way that reminded Verona of how she’d looked after Paul left.
Except it was reserved for Verona.
Something crashed about a block away, and Lucy jumped out of her skin. Verona backed away a step, grabbing Lucy’s arm. They retreated.
Lucy reacting like that was bad.
Or it was good, it meant Lucy was… maybe Lucy was getting better at baring her heart, which was bad because it was for bad reasons more than good ones, a lot of the time, even just this past hour, but good because it meant Lucy was growing past what had hardened her heart in the first place.
But it was also bad because it meant Lucy jumped like that. It meant Lucy was bewildered and for an instant she was freezing, tensing, when Verona needed a Lucy who was equipped and ready.
She kept a firm grip on Lucy’s arm.
Glass shattered, boards were knocked out of a shuttered store display, and a group emerged from the interior of one of the closed stores. A scrawny old man, shirtless, with Einstein hair and a shaggy beard, pants that didn’t fit him and only stayed up because they’d been lashed to skinny hips.
And a group of five women who might’ve been his daughters. Or wives.
He had that blue painted mark on his chest, and flesh around the mark was red and sore-looking.
He was unarmed, but the women with him weren’t. They were dressed in shades of blue, two of them with slashes of that shade of blue around and over their eyes. One held her improvised weapon in plain sight- scissors. Three more held theirs behind their backs or held their bodies so the weapons dangled alongside legs, only partially in view. Hatchet. A grouping of chains bristling with fat metal hooks.
The last of the four… hiding it better. Like she actually wanted to keep it a secret. Verona saw a glimpse of the weapon when the woman moved, between the old man’s feet, a glint of an arrowhead.
Too thin to be a crossbow. A short spear, maybe. Or something else.
Lucy reacted, drawing a weapon with the weapon ring and Verona immediately slapped at her hand. Too late, too slow. The old man tensed. The women moved forward to protect him.
“Drop it,” Verona hissed at Lucy.
Lucy dismissed the weapon, but remained tense. The old man and his group didn’t move a hair, and they didn’t stand down.
“Sorry, should’ve said,” Verona whispered. “If you pick a fight most people around here will pick one back. So you gotta be ready to back up what you’re doing.”
“Are those women okay?” Lucy asked, quiet.
“If you start asking if everyone’s okay here you’re going to spend a lot of time asking questions and not much time getting anywhere,” Verona murmured. She raised her voice. “We’re passing through! We have no issue with you or Bitter Street’s Witch yet! We’re neutral! Can we trade?”
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice rough.
“Information,” Verona said. “Will you stay put if I reach into my bag for cigarettes to trade?”
“Leave the bag!” he called out.
She shook her head.
She could see him weighing the danger of trying to come after her. He glanced around himself, and she could imagine him trying to figure out if there was an ambush.
Two young teenagers with no apparent backup- if he sent three of his women after them, could his women win? In a contest of raw strength, numbers, and viciousness, they probably figured they could get away with it. Could they, even if Lucy and Verona didn’t use practice? Lucy was good but Faerie swordfighting didn’t lend itself super well to brawls…
Didn’t really matter. Because they could practice. They could win.
But he didn’t know that. What he had to work out was that if he sent these women out ahead, would he be leaving himself vulnerable to attack from the sides or rear? He had to wonder if it was worth the risk to come after them, if they might have a hidden gun, or other tricks.
Of course, it was more complicated than just looking around. If he did, he’d betray too much.
But it was how Verona would think.
“We’re on speaking terms with the Vice Principal at the school. Have you heard of me?” Verona asked.
“No I fuckin’ haven’t,” the old man replied.
“You probably will,” Verona said. “We’d like to be on speaking terms with the Witch of Bitter Street. That starts with me offering you a partial carton, in exchange for you telling us where those out-of-towners that wandered into downtown ended up. Tourists, don’t belong here. Don’t fit in. Would’ve been a car full, about… hour and a half ago.”
“I know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m reaching for the carton. Slowly,” Verona said.
One woman made a small adjustment in where she stood.
Creating a gap for that woman with the arrowhead to step into.
“That weapon that woman has,” Verona murmured, as she reached.
“Harpoon gun,” Lucy replied.
“I don’t have much for that,” Lucy murmured. “If I had other stuff I could deflect metal. Or the spirit shield I used that night.”
“No shenanigans!” the old man called out. “Shut up and put up!”
Verona dipped her head in acknowledgement. Peckersnot did the hard work of finding the carton and pushing it into her hand.
She revealed the carton, then threw it onto the road, about ten feet ahead of her and Lucy. A lone cigarette bounced out.
“Tell us where they are, we move on, you can grab those.”
“We could grab them now,” he replied.
“You can try,” Verona told him.
Again, he was doing that little bit of consideration.
Behind him, the woman with the harpoon gun was still holding it out of sight. Her gaze was cold.
Lucy wasn’t looking away from her. Discreetly, hand moving with glacial slowness, Lucy withdrew a packet of glamour from her back pocket. Folded paper with dust inside, marked ‘blur smoke’.
“They went to the big gas station, where they service the trucks off the highway. Axxel Gas. Pulled in near the mechanic’s. Tires got popped while they were looking around. So they’re stuck there. Trying to figure out what to do.”
“Anyone with them?”
“Don’t know. They tried taking tires off a car over near Bitter street, we put a stop to that.”
“Tell the Witch of Bitter Street we’ll want to talk at another time. Gotta establish rules about the white sheep.”
“Innocents. People that don’t belong.”
“Not so easy if you hurt one and get on our bad side. We’ll spell it out for your boss when we talk to her. Might be one of us, might be both, might be we bring friends.”
“How should we let you know when your appointment is?” he asked.
“You don’t. I’ll come back another time, soon, I bring a gift, she adjusts her schedule, we’ll talk. It should be mutually beneficial. I don’t know how long she’s been around-”
“She’s been around,” the old man said. “Couple places like this.”
Verona nodded. “She’ll know then. She wants to be on our good side.”
He seemed to see something in her or read something in her tone.
He nodded. He pointed at the carton.
“We’re moving past you. You walk to your left.”
The other group did, moving slowly. Verona and Lucy moved to their own left, the two groups rotating around one another.
“What gifts does she like?” Verona asked.
“Don’t know her well enough to say. It’s her and six of her brothers at the top.”
“She probably likes birds. Gotta be running out, the way we’re stapling them to telephone poles and nailing them to walls.”
They circled around until Verona and Lucy were standing where the other group had been, and the other group was close enough to reach down and grab the carton.
The harpoon gun was pointed at them now.
Lucy’s glamour did its work, swirling around them.
Creating a camouflage smoke that captured the colors of the environment and created a swirling blur. They quickly shuffled about ten feet to their right, and Lucy tugged on Verona’s arm.
They used the cover of smoke to run, when another situation would have necessitated that they slowly back away for a good long distance.
“We’re close to Heroes, there’s still time,” Verona told Lucy, once they were far enough away. “You can pull the ripcord. Arena’s not far. I can manage this.”
They got to where the gas station was in sight.
A dirty white sedan was parked in the middle of an empty gas station. All around the perimeter, sitting on short concrete dividers or standing in the little roadways the car would need to use to exit, were twenty-somethings.
The tires hadn’t just been slashed, they’d been peeled apart. Or the people in the car had tried to drive it with slashed tires and the tires had come apart in the process. The four people were inside the car. Hiding out. Probably calling for help that couldn’t find them.
No sign of Matthew and Pipes.
Which was all secondary, in a way, because Verona and Lucy were brought to a halt as the mouse in the trenchcoat stepped out from around the corner, walked out to a point where sidewalk and street met, and turned to face them.
“This freaking thing,” Verona muttered. She raised her voice. “Go away!”
A mascot-style mouse head with a wide grin stared at them. The mascot head was dirty, some of it less fuzzy and more plastic-y, like the polyester fibers had been melted. Besides that and the stained trenchcoat… naked. Not naked like any attempt was being made to flash anyone. Just… casual, far-from-normal naked.
“Fuck off!” Verona shouted.
Body hair dense and matted to the point that the greasy locks that swirled or curved around loose skin were almost impossible to distinguish from folds and creases in flesh. A deflated potbelly hid the goods, just barely, but long pubic hair was plastered to thighs and dangling belly. Verona hadn’t been so lucky to have the potbelly blocking the way the first time she’d seen the mouse in the trenchcoat- and what she’d seen had resembled a smashed, lumpy, flesh-tone grilled cheese sandwich framed by pubic hair, which left her no more or less illuminated about the gender of the mouse in the trenchcoat than she’d been before that brain-scarring sight.
“I think I might actually call it quits,” Lucy said.
“Leave!” Verona shouted out. “God!”
The mouse in the trenchcoat carried a bright red gas canister in each hand. The mask leered, twenty or so oversized teeth on display. No reaction, no response.
“Come on,” Verona said, pulling on Lucy’s arm.
They circled around. The mouse in the trenchcoat turned to keep facing them, making no effort to open the trenchcoat or close it. As they crossed the road to approach the gas station, the mouse in the trenchcoat turned and started walking with purpose, gas cans in hand, disappearing off to an alleyway.
The men and women and older teenagers who’d been sitting a bit ago now stood, as Verona and Lucy approached.
Peckersnot was hiding, which was a cue- Verona checked. Yeah.
The people in the car watched.
Which meant they couldn’t practice.
Empty gas station and a bunch of creepy no-lifers giving tourists a hard time? That could fly.
But fire, transformation, Others? No.
And they had to get those people out of here. Somehow.
“How do we get them back?” Verona asked.
“What did you do with the woman you saved?”
“She was so drunk she could barely stand.”
A petite girl with tattoos dragged a bat behind her as she walked down the width of the gas station. She blew a bubble of bubblegum.
When it popped, Verona felt like people would charge them.
“Can we talk?” Lucy called out.
One of the guys, about twenty years old, actively smoking, shook his head. His hair was long and greasy and his yellow-green shirt might not have been yellow-green before. Other clothes he wore, like one pair of jeans, looked new enough Verona wondered if he’d stolen them. Except stores here didn’t exactly stock blue jeans.
Which raised a lot of questions on its own.
This place is a system I want to know and understand, she thought.
“First thing, we need to blind the people in the car,” Verona said. “Smoke?”
“Might not be enough,” Lucy replied. “Wind.”
Verona checked and yeah, there was a lot of open space around the gas station. Not so much to break the wind. The smoke from the one guy’s cigarette was flowing away in a steady, near-horizontal stream.
“Got an idea?” Verona asked, twisting around.
He smeared fingers at his nose and held them up.
“I’m not sure how you think that’ll help, little guy. But I trust you. Don’t- fricking don’t touch me or my stuff with snotty hands. I trust you, just tell me what you need,” Verona said.
Peckersnot pointed down.
She grabbed him and used the concrete divider between the main street and the gas station to help bar the view of Peckersnot, lowered him to the ground.
He painted an image onto the divider. A triangle with a partial circle attached… zig-zag for a mouth.
He drew a series of parallel wavy lines leading to ‘Snowdrop’s mouth.
She looked over at the gas station.
“Okay,” she said. “You want milk.”
He pointed at the car, then himself.
“I deliver the milk, you’re going to the car…”
He motioned, throwing.
“I’m throwing you at the car?”
He shook his head aggressively.
“I’m throwing milk at the car?”
“Open or closed?”
He shrugged, hands out to the side.
He pressed a hand to his one eyeball.
“Okay,” she told him.
He scampered off.
“Might provoke a fight,” Verona noted.
“I don’t think we’re getting those people out without a fight,” Lucy replied. “Do you want me to use smoke too? In case Peckersnot’s idea doesn’t pan out?”
“He’s smart for his size. But I can’t see it hurting.”
More of the Stuck-Arounds were migrating over from places they’d been sitting. The attitude was casual confidence. One was eating potato chips, a pair of crowbars tucked into one armpit.
“Lucy! Verona!” Matthew called out.
As Matthew and Pipes left the gas station, a bunch of the Stuck-Arounds suddenly changed direction. Many of them took up positions crouching by concrete pylons and behind the pumps of the gas station and the pillars that held the overhanging roof up.
Because Pipes had a rifle.
“What’s going on?” Verona asked. “You’re hurt!”
Matthew looked down at his arm. He’d been gashed, and it looked like he’d used a stapler to close the wound. “I heal fast! It’s fine!”
They ventured a bit in Matthew’s direction. Verona saw Tashlit inside the gas station. She raised a hand in a wave and got a wave back.
Tashlit couldn’t leave without being seen. Verona could make some sense of the situation as she saw more of it.
“Stuck?” she asked.
“Our hands were a bit tied,” Matthew admitted. “The people in the car won’t leave, can’t use the Doom without them seeing. Pipes can shoot but they’ve made it clear that if we go that far, they’ll go after the people in the car. They’re pretty sure that they can kill a few of them before Pipes finishes off the last of them. I believe ’em.”
“I’m fifty-fifty on that,” Pipes said. “Want to take a heads or tails bet on whether I can pick ’em off before they do any real damage?”
“Let’s not,” Lucy said.
“Girls,” Matthew said. “One of you go, get to my place. Get Jabber. Bring him here.”
“Could do,” Verona said.
“Enh,” Lucy grunted. “We’re on limited time. Lunch break’s getting close to over. We could talk to Miss, ask her to send… Rook? Someone that can pass for human. Have them bring Jabber.”
“Still takes time,” Verona said. “Still… I’d rather deal with this ourselves.”
“Why?” Lucy asked.
“Because we need to? Because these guys are part of Kennet now and if we just Jabber our way through it, we’re not gaining any ground.”
“Innocents are a priority,” Lucy said.
“They are and we can make them a priority without that. Humor me?” Verona asked.
“Sure,” Lucy said.
“Pecker’s on the job, he wants milk. We toss it at the car. You think that’ll set them off?” Verona asked.
“Why milk?” Matthew asked.
“Probably won’t set them off. But that’s only a probably,” Matthew said.
“Then I can distract,’ Lucy said. “They focused their attention on us. If we force them to deal with us at the same time you use the milk… I dunno. Verona sneaks them away and then what? Once we go looking for a way to cloud their thoughts we’re right back to talking about Jabber.”
“We don’t baffle, we don’t cloud,” Verona said. “I distract. Matthew, milk. Lucy? Smoke. Hopefully that’s enough visual cover for us to practice. We don’t get them out of the car, we draw the diagram and bring the car over.”
“Expensive power-wise, and it takes time,” Lucy said. “Like, the time to draw and the time for the doorway to open when we’re not in a nice spot like the Arena.”
“Yeah. But we’re saving innocents, supporting Kennet… that power expense will work, and it’ll be worth more in the long run. Get them out, bail, let innocence do the rest.”
“If you drop them right in front of the mechanic’s garage you’ll have the car materializing in plain sight,” Matthew said. “…but I think I can get the Doom to cooperate.”
Verona clicked her tongue.
At the back of the car, someone who’d been using a crowbar on the trunk managed to pop it open. They immediately clambered in, possibly reaching through a gap to try to worm through to the middle seat.
Pipes moved around, gun in hand, and raised his voice. “Hey!”
The guy in the trunk backed off, saw, and backed off more.
Couldn’t back off, couldn’t trust.
“You and me, we distract. Lucy gets the hostages away, the rest of us deal.”
“You’re sure?” Lucy asked.
Verona nodded. “I think it’s important that the people of the Undercity know who we are. How many of the Stuck-Arounds are out there?”
“The kids? Twenty-three,” Pipes said.
Kids. They were pretty much adults to Verona.
“Get the innocents out of here, leave ’em, see if you can get to Heroes before Mia and her group leave,” Verona told Lucy. “Set up the Fetch when you get back to school.”
“You’re skipping again? You need to-”
“Please,” Verona interjected, cutting Lucy off. “Please. I just- I need this.”
“What’s ‘this’, even?” Lucy asked.
“Something that isn’t going from slowly being ground to pieces at home to being slowly ground to pieces at school. I’ve been asking you for a while, just let me do this. Let me have this. I want you to do your thing, that makes you… you.”
“Does this make you you? A place with creepy mice in trenchcoats-”
“That fucking thing,” Pipes growled, in his booming voice.
“-or corpses hung up like art installations?” Lucy insisted, her voice rising, a bit more intense.
“And murals, and feeling like a badass, and feeling like something I’m doing matters?” Verona asked. “Yeah, it’s a lot more me than the grind.”
“You being in reality matters to me,” Lucy told her.
“This is our reality too. I’m uniquely equipped to handle it. I want to handle it. I can see every minute spent in this place, you don’t. So let me handle it. Please for the love of fucking everything we’ve been fighting for, for your mom, for me, for you, for John-”
“Go and fucking go have lunch with your friends already!” Verona raised her voice. “Have Wallace! Have fun! Fucking trust me already! I don’t need you freaking babysitting me!”
“That’s not what I’m doing!”
“Listen to me then! Listen already! Listen and go and we’ll touch base after. There’s literally nothing I want more right now than for you to be okay! For you to be there and not here!”
Lucy stood there, stiff, jaw set, clearly frustrated.
“Please,” Verona said, making it a statement.
“Okay. But I don’t think I can act normal with Mia and the rest with this-” Lucy motioned between the two of them. “-ringing in my skull.”
“Next time, then. Or a bit more each time. I think you’re changing and I think you’re letting walls down and I want it to be like it was when you’re with them, not like it was when you were by the Arena. Or looking at me, not that long ago. John would want you happy.”
Off to the side, Pipes and Matthew were watching. Tashlit was watching. Pipes folded his thick arms at the mention of John.
“That’s dirty fucking pool, Ronnie.”
“Have I ever pretended to play fair?” Verona asked. “It’s how practitioners are. We deceive when telling the truth, we cheat with the rules and we tip the scales when playing with balances. And I’m the best at all that out of the three of us. We’re running out of your lunch hour. Can you make the smoke?”
“Milk,” Verona told Matthew.
They let themselves into the gas station. Verona reached for the two-liter carton. Matthew reached past her to get the plastic crate the cartons were sitting in. It looked heavy, and he needed both hands. He motioned with his head and she dropped the carton she’d grabbed onto the tray.
There was a man at the counter, tubes running to his nose, looking at them with what looked like the apex of laziness and resentment combined. Matthew slapped a fistful of bills onto the counter, and the guy didn’t blink, let alone move.
“Can you throw all that?” Verona asked.
“I can’t,” Matthew said. He drew in a deep breath. “I know we don’t always get along. I worry, I love you, I hate you at the same time. We’ve been too mixed into things for feelings to be anything but complicated.”
“Hm?” Verona grunted.
“If I let you loose, and if you cooperate, I’ll let you loose again,” Matthew said.
“You know where things stand. You know how close I’ve come to something reckless and stupid. And I know you’re getting weaker. Your chances are low and they’re slipping away. She got too strong, with that composite spirit in her. I don’t think you can afford to play games or mess with us.”
He held the tray, walking out of sight of the car while holding it.
“I’ll give you fifteen seconds. You probably only need five. How you use those extra ten seconds will say a lot,” Matthew said. He looked at Verona. “Get clear.”
She backed off, looking back at Tashlit, who retreated further into the store.
“I’m ready,” Lucy said. “Smoke, slip through, draw the portal?”
“Smoke, wait for Doom round two, then slip through and draw the portal.”
Lucy finished the diagram.
“Go,” Matthew said.
The Doom poured out of him, flowing out as something black and oily, taking on a shape that momentarily resembled Edith, then tore that same image apart.
It flowed along a course that stayed out of sight of the car, carrying the milk.
Going over the little hut with the candy, milk, Tashlit, and the glowing guy inside. Hurling the milk into the air.
The jugs were torn open as they were mid air, by way of many small claws.
Matthew was the only one out of the Kennet Others who’d fought Musser’s familiars that night and come out clearly ahead. When he cut loose, he was strong, and he had less and less reason to keep from cutting loose while the situation with Edith persisted.
Partially full milk cartons bounced off the car’s roof and hood. Stuck-Arounds ducked and ran out of the way.
And smoke flowed. Lucy had placed it so the wind would carry it.
Verona had a glimpse of Peckersnot on the roof, mixing snot with the milk to thin it out and let it flow. He smeared it at the top of the window, and it dribbled down. Windshield wipers worked overtime, spraying to clear the view got stuck.
The little guy dipped his head into a shredded carton of milk that apparently still had some milk in the bottom, snorted it, and then expelled the snotty milk out onto the driver’s side window. More of it dribbled down.
“Get them! Break the windows, drag ’em out! They want to play games? Let’s play!”
Tashlit stepped out of the store, apparently sensing the way was clear, innocent eyes unable to see through milk and smoke.
And Matthew stepped around the corner, whispering.
Half the Stuck-Arounds formed a line between them and the car. The other half went after the car.
And Matthew released the Doom again. Ramming past the lines. Ramming the vehicle, lifting it up and dragging it.
One push to shove it to the side of the garage. He strode after it.
Pipes stepped between one of the Stuck-Arounds and Verona. Tashlit’s advance and her strange nature were enough on their own to make others back off.
Verona hated that. That they were scared, that Tashlit had to be scary.
But she had to let the others work.
She went into the convenience store, reached around for her bag, and pulled out more of the cigarettes she’d brought. From Melissa’s old stash. She placed one on the counter. “Stapler? My friend used it on his arm.”
The guy took the cigarette, reached over, and slid a heavy duty, industrial stapler over the cracked plexiglass of the counter. He barely flinched at the noise of what was probably Matthew shoving the car again. Verona guessed he was pushing it around to a spot behind the garage.
They were really pushing it with the innocents.
Maybe it would have been better to use Jabber.
But this wasn’t just about those innocents. It was about the people who came after.
It was about what might happen if Kennet as Verona knew it faded away, and there was only the inverted version of Kennet. This version.
Tashlit thought there were rules that would settle into place. People with power here could shape the areas.
Verona put her mask on the counter. Using the stapler, she stapled sections together along the inside.
The cracks remained visible along the outside.
They’d done things for their masks that included accommodating for darkness, smoke, and other hazards, and while Lucy had stuff to breathe in the smoke more easily, Verona only had the eyes.
Only really needed the eyes.
She ran her hand along staples to make sure they weren’t going to jab or scrape her, and that things were mostly smooth, then tied it on. The cracked cat.
Am I just accepting that things will be broken?
That Kennet might not be recoverable as we knew it?
I already sorta realized I can’t keep up the routine. I can try for Lucy but not without coming up for air.
I can’t be the everything my dad needs me to be, like I could singlehandedly be his wife and therapist and daughter and friend. I can’t be the kid Lucy treats me as. I can’t do it.
I know I can do this, at least.
She could see through the smoke as the lines around the diagram erupted into life. Lucy making her exit and taking the car with.
Verona pulled an arrangement of twigs and twine from her bag. One evocative of a shrine.
The innocents would be confused, but Verona was pretty sure the answer to that confusion wouldn’t be magic. They’d pulled off for repairs, been surrounded by hooligans and a scarcity of help, and then the car had been drenched in milk and gunk, there had been smoke to alarm or confuse them, and then the pranksters had fled.
The way innocence worked, reality would help smooth the rest out. Like how they got moved. The noises. People working at the mechanic’s would think the people in the car were high, and the people in the car would think the mechanics were fucking with them.
The others were dealing with the Stuck-Arounds that the Doom hadn’t trampled. Tashlit sidestepped most people with weapons, backing up, circling around. Until someone came at her with fists alone. A guy nearly twice Tashlit’s size.
Tashlit grabbed him and threw him into two other people.
Pipes fired the gun, aiming to wound, not to kill.
And Matthew wasn’t using the Doom, maybe not wanting to strain things. But his eyes were dark.
Verona circled around, moving through the thinning haze of smoke.
“As I was telling you all,” Matthew addressed the Stuck-Arounds. “We have a council here. We’re not going to tell you how to run the gangs on this end of Kennet, but we do have rules.”
“Number one? Don’t screw with the white sheep,” Verona called out. “The innocents.”
A few of the Stuck-Arounds turned to look at her, identifying her in the smoke.
She could see through the smoke with her mask on, at least, better than she would with it off. She could see a faint hazy version of her reflection in the gas station window that faced the lot in front of the garage, and she could see how her eyes glowed with Sight and how the cracks picked up that glow.
She hadn’t fixed whatever she needed to fix to make the mask stick.
“What are you doing?” she addressed the hooligans and thugs. “You’re backing away from them and moving toward me?”
Tashlit, Matthew, and Pipes were on the one side. Verona on the other.
She pushed her mask up to take a quick swig of the sixberry admixture. She held the twig arrangement to her upper chest, and willed it to work.
The little branches glowed like her eyes did. The spirit reached his way free, then slipped into the emptiness fostered by the sixberry admixture. Letting her be a host, just for a little while, to one of their shrine spirits, a complex echo mingled with a territory spirit. Lott was about barred doors, traps, broken glass inset into concrete, and a vicious edge.
“I am one of Kennet’s three witches. Like Matthew said, you don’t cross the innocents. That’s the big one. I’m going to add one. When we talk, listen, take us seriously. And if you’re backing away from them and toward me? Any of us three? That tells me you’re not taking us seriously enough.”
Her voice mingled with Lott’s as she finished, “I’m pretty tired of not being taken seriously.”