Verona leaned over her kitchen sink, looking out past the window and across the long, narrow backyard to stare down a woman who might not have eyes.
“What do you want?” Verona asked, under her breath. “What are you thinking?”
The woman was wearing a blue sweater with extra material around the neck, an ankle-length pleated skirt, and boots. Where she stood, a branch hung low and the leaves obscured her face. Verona couldn’t see her hands either. One was hidden in the shadows of the foliage and the garage. The other was blocked from view by the wind chime that hung just outside the kitchen window.
She leaned to one side to peer through the wind chimes, and the wind picked up, moving the long, dangling metal bars into the way.
She stopped leaning, and the wind died down.
Verona chuckled a little bit to herself. “If this is you getting ready to come after me and do something horrible, maybe you could hurry it along, cut right to the chase? Back door’s unlocked. You don’t have to drag it out.”
The woman didn’t move a muscle. She hadn’t for some time.
“I’d fight back, obviously, but if you’re this good at being freaky and messing with wind chimes or whatever, you can probably get away with murdering me.”
The water that was pouring into the sink made the suds collect enough that they touched her finger. Grabbing a sponge, she walked over to the oven, giving it a scrub where pasta water from last night had crusted onto the glass stovetop. There were grooves where the glass had melted from too-hot things being placed on top, and she gave those some extra attention.
She could hear the laundry beeping downstairs. Jogging down, she went to the laundry machine to rotate the loads, pushing the sleeves of her sweater up a few times to keep them from getting in the way or getting damp.
She was in the middle of hanging up her dad’s work shirts on the clothesline that cut in an annoying way across the middle of the laundry room when her phone rang. She extricated it from the tight jeans pocket and checked the time: 4:50. She let it clatter down onto the top of the dryer before hitting the button to answer the call.
“I’m here! Doing laundry!” she called out to the phone.
“I need you to help me think of something horrible to do to Avery.”
“Uh oh,” Verona said, without affect. “Why? What are you doing?”
“I’m going to make it so she’s in the middle of giving a presentation in class and then her hair starts falling out.”
“Lucy!” Verona laughed. “You can’t say stuff like that!”
“We’re still at the school. We haven’t even shopped yet. I’d go in there and drag her out if I knew where to go to get her. Making her hair fall out is being nice.”
Verona smiled. “But making her give a presentation might be going too far. That’s cruel.”
“I can’t tell if I should laugh or roll my eyes at you.”
“I’m rolling my eyes, sorry. Too lame a joke.”
Verona’s smile faded away. She made a face as she fished her dad’s underwear out of the washer with one finger to minimize her contact with it. She flicked it into the dryer and shook her hand, shivering.
“You can’t lie, remember? That’s kind of a thing,” Verona said. “If you say you’re going to make something happen like having her hair fall out, then you’re obligated to actually do it. Or else.”
“I am going to do it. We’re still at the school, Ronnie! I sat through her practice, she went inside and she hasn’t come out. We’re going to be late, on the most important day of our lives.”
“What could be the most important day of our lives. Have to be careful of how you phrase things.”
“Did her teammates say what happened? Maybe she got hurt.”
“She’s talking to a teacher.”
“Ohhh,” Verona breathed the word.
“Yeahhh,” Lucy said, echoing the sound.
“I’ve got to get some stuff done for my dad. If he shows I’ll convince him to let me go for the weekend, if he doesn’t agree or if he doesn’t show, I’m going to leave and apologize later.”
“I don’t want any headaches, and my dad’s a headache. I’ll be on time, don’t worry. For now, if Avery comes out, don’t be too mean to her.”
“Ehh, I know, it’s very ehhh,” Verona replied. “But if you really get on her case, then there will be a bad mood hanging over everything for the day or the weekend, and that’d suck. Be a little mean.”
She could hear Lucy’s snort.
“Do you want me to finish the shopping? Or does that mess things up?”
“Can you? I really don’t care if it messes things up a bit. I’m antsy, and I’m annoyed, and the only way I can keep myself from losing it is if I think of more horrible things to do to her. I’m sending her texts.”
“What do I need to buy?”
There was a rustling.
“Bread, milk, meat.”
“Meat’s a pain,” Verona admitted. “I can’t bring it from home, right? It’s my dad’s. It has to be the corner store.”
“I was thinking about those deer pepperoni sticks, and that jerky you sometimes eat.”
“I’m not sure that it’s even meat. I mean I love it, but I’m not sure. Is that like… good? Will they like it?”
“It works. Or get the different kinds to cover some bases.”
“Okay, I’ll try. Might have to get some cash from my dad. Ugh. Give me fifteen seconds, might be noisy.”
She’d finished hanging up everything that needed to be hung up. She made sure everything was out of the washer, then turned on the machines.
“I’m going to murder her.” Lucy could be heard, over the rumble. Verona scooped up the phone and jogged up the stairs. “Dispose of her in the woods.”
The first thing Verona looked at as she stepped into the kitchen was the window.
Yep. Still there, still not moving. Still with face and hands hidden.
“Creepy miss hidden-face is in my backyard,” she remarked. “Has been for a bit.”
“Avery and I saw her around earlier.”
“I wonder if she’s anxious or something. Does someone like her even get anxious?”
Lucy made an amused sound.
“Remember when we were wondering if she actually has a face, and it’s, like, awful?”
“Yeah. We started wondering out loud if she might be burned or scarred or something.”
“And then we got into the really strange stuff, like what if she had a spider’s face? Or a mess of holes and teeth?”
“Yeah,” Verona said.
“Do you think we could sic her on Avery, who still hasn’t come out of the school?”
“I think Avery is a sweetheart,” Verona said, at the same time she sighed. She didn’t take her eyes off the woman. “She’s not an idiot. If she’s held up, it might be for good reasons.”
“I’ll do the shopping and swing your way, over the bridge. You’re out by the parking lot?”
“By the gate behind the school, closer to you, where you can see the sports field.”
“If she comes out, hurry this way. Maybe call so I don’t walk right past you.”
“I gotta finish up. I’ll let you go.”
“Don’t forget your stuff. I’ve got you down as… molasses and vegetable ash.”
“Yep, all packed up. Just have to make sure I can leave without incident.”
She hung up, and spent a good minute scrubbing the top of the stove, until the white bits were gone.
She had to unbutton the jeans she wore to be able to comfortably bend down to scrub the front of the oven, the handle, and the groove that served as a handhold for pulling out the metal drawer below. The jeans were from her shopping trip with her mom last fall, to buy stuff to wear for her first year of high school. Now it was spring and as much as she hated it, she was outgrowing them. They dug into her stomach when she sat down or crouched.
Her mom had been so frustrated when she hadn’t wanted to buy a lot of clothes. It was Verona’s preference to have things that were very precisely hers, instead of a lot of things that kind of worked. To those ends, she had two pairs of jeans she wore, this low cut pair of skinny black jeans, and acid-washed jeans with holes at the knees. She had three sweaters, all with broad horizontal stripes, two of which were black and white, and then tops she tended to wear under the sweaters.
The sweater she was wearing now had a hole in the elbow. The other elbow had had the same problem, but she’d patched it with black moleskin. There were some loose threads of wool near the collar, too. She tried to get them to lie flat and found they couldn’t.
She straightened up to a standing position, hooking her thumbs in her belt loops to get her jeans to where she could do them up again before finding the kitchen scissors to snip off the stray threads on her sweater.
As she dropped the strands into the trash, she gave the kitchen a once-over, popping open the microwave to check there wasn’t anything still stuck inside. All handled. Floor swept, counters wiped, stove scrubbed, microwave done, dishes cleaned.
Dining room was the same – table wiped, quickly wiped down with pledge, floor swept, papers sorted and put on the bookshelf behind the door.
She paused, looking out the back window. The woman watched her. She was pretty sure.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. Moving on…
Living room was vacuumed, and she’d dusted the mantle, top of the TV, and the picture frames. She’d moved furniture to get beneath it. The place had a faint baked smell to it, like the lint had gotten too hot inside the vacuum, and her nose ran a bit.
She’d decided. She really, really hated cleaning. She hated how insurmountable it was, she hated how cleaning off a surface often meant getting other things dirty, she hated every step in the process, and now that she was as close to done as she could get, she felt next to no satisfaction. It would just get dirty again, and she hated that. Hated that she was cleaning up a mess that would get made again and again for the next… however many years. Fifty. Seventy. Crumbs and dust and gross food on gross plates, over and over again.
She stood in the doorway of the living room, surveying it all, and felt her dissatisfaction grow until she had to turn away. She jogged upstairs, and pulled off her sweater as soon as she was at the top of the stairs. She investigated the patchier bits as she made her way into her room. There were more holes she could put her finger through, and the sleeve was damp from doing laundry.
With some regrets, she pitched it into the trash.
In the bathroom, she used a wet hand towel to wipe her face, neck, and pits, because it had been work to get all of the stuff downstairs done. After a quick glance in the mirror, she grabbed her scissors and tidied her bangs. She picked up a hand mirror to fix a few stray hairs at the back.
Her other sweater was similar to the one she’d just trashed, but the collar was wide enough it could slip off one shoulder. She checked for holes, found none, and pulled it on. The sleeves extended to her first knuckle. Cozy.
She drew in a deep breath, exhaled. She stood at a few different angles.
“Ready,” she whispered, staring at her reflection.
She could hear a commotion downstairs as her dad let himself into the house, and she could feel it through the floor as the door shut.
She looked back at the mirror. Her expression had changed, and it was probably the expression she’d had while musing on the cleaning.
She exited her room, walked down to the last few stairs, and took a seat on the stairs, watching.
Her dad was a big guy. Tall, big around the middle, his eyes small. He was red in the cheeks, and he was sweating enough that his hair -buzzed shorter than the hair on his forearms- looked wet. He stood in the living room, wearing a short-sleeved button up shirt and slacks with zero personality.
Sitting on the stairs in the front hallway, she felt quietly pleased with herself as she saw her dad stand in the living room and look at the dining room. She didn’t love the work, but… his reaction, maybe?
“Long day?” she prompted him, when he didn’t say or do much.
“There you are.”
“Here I am.”
“Scissors?” he asked.
Oh, she was still holding them. She touched them to her hair. As part of the back to school shopping, her mom had taken her to a stylist to get a french bob and she’d been trimming it herself to keep it in approximately the same style ever since.
“Yes. A very very long day. I’ve had a headache since noon, and then I had to deal with Louis and the mess he’s made of the client lists. Renault is saying he wants to fire Louis for five months now, he has a paper trail of Louis messing up, but he won’t follow through.”
“I have to do twice the work. I’d quit if I could get away with it,” her dad said. “It’s exhausting. You have no idea.”
She shrugged. “I guess I’m glad I don’t.”
“Give it five years and you’ll understand,” he said. He ran his hand along the top of the TV. No dust.
Point for me, she thought.
“Um,” he said. He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. He did look like he had a headache. “I was downstairs this morning. Could you put on a load of laundry?”
“Done,” she said. “Your shirts are hung up.”
Another point for me.
Doing the chores wasn’t satisfying, but this? This was okay. She leaned forward a bit more.
“Alright,” he said. “As I was pulling in, I noticed the grass needs cutting.”
She frowned at him.
“It’s getting long, Verona, and it’s going to rain this weekend. Can you get at least the front yard done in the next hour, before it gets dark? And pull some spaghetti sauce out of the freezer to defrost. I’ll tell you when to put on the noodles. I’m going to go lie down.”
“Um, what?” she asked, standing up and leaning over the railing at the bend of the stairs. “I just came home from school and spent two hours doing chores, and I don’t even get a thank you? Or a ‘good job’? I get more chores instead?”
“If you spaced out the chores more across the week, you wouldn’t have to spend two hours doing them. There will always be more to do. If you wait and it rains, the lawn will be wet and that much harder to mow. Now please, I have a headache and the smell of the cleaning chemicals isn’t helping.”
“What’s the point?” she asked. “Why should I even try if I’m never going to get credit for it?”
“Because if you don’t, you’ll get grounded.” He said it like he was joking, his hand over his eyes, his head tilted back, a smile on his face.
She didn’t reply, staring at him with her eyebrows pressed together.
He dropped his hand and met her gaze. His tone became more serious. “Do you think my boss tells me thank you? At either of my two jobs? Do you think any of my coworkers give me a thumbs up? When’s the last time you ever said thank you, dad, I sure appreciate you working six days a week to put food on my plate and a roof over my head?”
She paused, wanting to retort and not finding the answer ready.
“You haven’t,” he said.
“I have,” she said, even though she wasn’t sure. She wracked her brain.
“This is just the way it is, Verona. Houses are expensive, I don’t have time to do this stuff, so you’ve got to pick up the slack. I get the bare minimum from your mom, I don’t have any help. Our nearest family is a six hour drive away. I need you in-”
“March sixteenth. Your birthday,” she interrupted.
He shook his head, his tone exasperated. “What?”
“I wrote in your card, thank you for everything you do. I told you I appreciated your hard work. In your birthday card. I spent a lot of time thinking about what to write.”
“Okay. Thank you, but that doesn’t matter, Verona. It doesn’t change that this is our reality.”
“But you never say the same to me.”
“And you don’t say it to me nearly enough. A birthday card two months ago is not a lot when I spend sixty-plus hours a week working for your benefit.”
She frowned at him.
“You can argue all you want. The lawn still needs doing.”
“I was going to go spend the weekend with Lucy and Avery. We have a thing.”
“And when were you planning to mow the lawn?”
I wasn’t, she thought. “After?”
“Sunday? Before it’s dark? Front and back. Knowing the rain and damp may make it more difficult?”
“Sure,” she lied. “Or Monday.”
“Yeah,” she told him. “Can I go hang out with them? And get a bit of money so I’m not being too much of a sponge?”
“I guess I’ll get myself a pizza,” he said.
“The money?” she asked.
He produced a ten dollar bill, handing it to her as he walked up the stairs. She leaned into the railing to let him squeeze by.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I’m not comfortable with your bra strap on display like that. I’m fairly sure the school has rules about that.”
She touched it. Her collar hung off her shoulder, and there was just a strap there.
“It’s a top.” She pulled down the collar to show him. “And I wore another sweater to school.”
“Okay,” he said. The stairs creaked as he made his way up.
She waited until she heard his bedroom door close before stepping down from the stairs. She put the ten dollar bill in the side flap of the gym bag she’d loaded with stuff.
She paused, the scissors in hand, then removed the childhood toy she’d put in the bag, and put the scissors in instead.
Her eyes scanned the vacuumed carpet and swept floors, the furniture she’d wiped down with orange-scented polish, and the still-wet counters.
She went to the freezer, pulled out the spaghetti, and ran hot water into a bowl with the tupperware container bobbing inside of it.
Nobody in the backyard, now.
Her dad would come downstairs to call the pizza place, find the spaghetti mostly defrosted, and because he hated wasting and refreezing food, he’d feel like he had to eat it. If he asked, she’d say she didn’t hear about him saying he’d get pizza. Or something.
It was stupid and it was petty and it made her feel better.
She grunted as she picked up her bags and then let herself out.
The west half of Kennet was largely residential. There were a couple of houses that had old people living in them that were nice, with gardens that were tended to every day, but for the most part it was just kind of sad. There wasn’t anything metal without some rust on it, an awful lot of the paint was peeling, gardens were barren after the winter, and lawns were only just seeing their patchy initial growth. Where lawns hadn’t been raked enough, the leaves formed dirt-like clumps that made the lawns seem more patchy than they were.
Five thousand people lived here, and she was pretty sure there wasn’t one person who loved living here.
Well, no, that wasn’t true. As she put her mind to the task, she could imagine there might be some criminal types who would appreciate the ability to lie low. Or idiots. Or the stoner snowboarder types who did almost nothing for half the year and then worked at the slopes the rest of the year. If all you loved was weed and snowboarding then this might be pretty good.
She looked over the area, and part of her reason was because she hadn’t seen the woman with the hidden face for a bit now.
There was a corner store by the bridge that divided the western half of Kennet from the eastern half, and she hurried to do the shopping for the milk, bread, the jerky and the venison pepperoni.
Loaded down with schoolbag, gym bag, and the plastic bag with the milk inside, she crossed the bridge and navigated the winding streets on the east side of Kennet. Here, the buildings were spaced far apart, with desolate lots and grass-less fields between them. A big box hardware store. A dismal car lot. The dance studio. The Christian school.
Her school was Louis Riel Public. A big, featureless block of brick with a lot of windows, and a bit of corrosion from the metal around the windows that stained the white-painted ledges. Lucy stood at the opening in the wire fence, leaning into the post.
Just coming back to the school was kind of depressing.
“I’m going to murder her. If this thing we’re doing is for real, I’m going to feed her to a troll or something. If it isn’t, I’ll feed her to wild dogs.” Lucy’s words were aggressive, and it was a stark contrast to how her hair bounced behind her head. It was combed close to her scalp with only a few kinky hairs escaping near the forehead and ears, and was held back with an elastic, where it formed an almost perfectly round afro-poofball behind her. Even though Lucy was black, her light brown hair had even lighter red-blonde highlights to it.
Whenever Verona didn’t see her best friend for a few days, she somehow imagined her as having pink in her hair. No idea why, no rationale, but it was something that had been consistent since kindergarten.
Verona put down her bags, giving her hand a shake to get blood flowing to where the plastic had been tight against her finger. She stepped into the school grounds, put her hands around her mouth, and drew in a deep breath before shouting at the top of her lungs, “Averyyyyyyy!”
Lucy joined her, shouting, “Averryyyyyyy!”
They kept going, drawing in deep breaths and hollering, until Avery’s face appeared in the second floor window above the exit.
“I’m cold, you moron!” Lucy hollered.
Avery’s face disappeared from the window.
“You could have dressed warmer,” Verona spoke between huffs to catch her breath. Lucy was wearing what might have been a red sweatshirt dress with a stripe down the side, and her legs were bare from the knee down, her feet in red and white sneakers with little maple leafs on the tongues. It looked new, even though Verona knew the shoes weren’t.
“I wanted to dress nice.”
The door opened, and Avery stepped outside. She was pale, her bare arms and face covered in freckles, and her strawberry blonde hair was tied back into a short ponytail. She was wearing a jersey over a t-shirt and track pants, and had a towel around her neck.
Lucy bent down, picked up her bag, and held it up. “Do not tell me we have to stop at your house too!”
Avery almost skidded as she reversed direction, holding up one finger as she re-entered the school.
“I’m going to curse her,” Lucy muttered. “I’m going to make it so her teeth fall out, she swallows every last one, and they bite her on the way out.”
“I’m getting it out of my system,” Lucy said. “The oaths and lies and crap.”
“I hope so.”
“This is going to be weird.”
“Yeah,” Verona answered, still catching her breath after all the shouting.
“You got the stuff?” Lucy bent down to fish in the plastic bag. “Bread, milk, meat?”
“Yep,” Verona said, even though Lucy had already found and opened the package of ten pepperoni sticks. She took a bite before frowning at the door. “You got the wine?”
“I asked before and you were evasive. You said you’d tell me in person.”
“I asked if I could try a glass. My parents gave it to me, I tried it, I kept the rest. It’s not a lot.”
“How fast does wine go bad? It was last night. I put it into a thermos.”
“I have absolutely no idea. Doesn’t the alcohol in it stop it from getting moldy or whatever?”
Lucy chuckled. “No idea. Really hope this doesn’t screw us up.”
The door opened. Avery had her bags this time.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry!”
“Walk fast,” Lucy said, steering Avery through the opening in the fence. Verona steered as well.
I’m so not up to walking fast. I just walked halfway across Kennet.
“Sorry, please don’t be mad.”
“Lucy’s going to curse you,” Verona said.
“Is that a thing? Please don’t, if it is. I have an excuse.”
“It’d better be a good one.”
“Ms. Hardy wanted to talk to me.”
“Sorry, that’s the opposite of a good excuse,” Lucy replied.
“It’s a terrible excuse,” Verona said, dropping her own hand from Avery’s shoulder.
“She wanted to have a serious conversation. How am I doing, how stuff is with family, how’s sports.”
“Curse it is,” Lucy said.
“I’ll help,” Verona said.
“Stop! Listen, I owe her so much. She practically saved my life. She was being nice and supportive, I can’t be all hurr durr, role model, favorite person, I gotta go.”
“Can too, when we have an appointment,” Lucy said.
Verona watched Avery’s expression change from something anxious and energized to something… like she was sinking into a mire. This was the dark cloud she’d wanted to avoid.
“Let’s not fight,” Verona said. “We have to get along. Do you think you could own up to being the reason we’re late, if it comes up, Ave?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Verona glanced behind Avery’s head at Lucy, who seemed to visibly relax as Avery said that. Leaning into Avery to reach across, she gave Lucy a poke in the arm.
“Fine,” Lucy said.
“I can’t imagine her being mad, though,” Avery said.
“No. Me either,” Verona admitted.
They crossed the bridge, and immediately turned left, walking down the path by the river that fed into the lake. The houses thinned out pretty quickly.
“Can we talk?” Avery asked. “Fill the silence?
“Sure. About what?” Verona asked.
“You know Melissa, with the big hair?”
“I know Melissa with the big hair. Why?”
“She’s on the dance team and the soccer team. She was asking me if you’d join the dancers.”
“Different topic, please. I’m sick of it.”
Lucy explained, “They’ve been bugging Ronnie about it since we had kids in our classes who were still occasionally wetting their pants.”
“Huh,” Avery said. “That’s a thing? I missed out on a lot with homeschooling, apparently.”
“Were you one of the pants-wetters in kindergarten?”
Lucy stuck her elbow into Avery, who bumped into Verona as she backed off. Avery laughed, even as she tried to look apologetic to Verona.
Which was good, Verona decided. It was a break in the more intense mood.
“Oh, I wanted to ask!” Avery said. “The app. She also mentioned this thing? Like all the girls in class are rating the boys or something?”
“Everyone’s rating everyone. I think all the boys joined in,” Lucy said. She got her own phone out.
“Seems kind of a bit mean,” Avery said. “And I have no idea what to do. I was going to ask Ms. Hardy about it-”
“Tell me you didn’t,” Lucy said.
“I didn’t! I didn’t, really. Why?”
“Teachers would probably make us stop.”
“I’m apparently one of the last people who haven’t joined, which is why Melissa nagged me, but then that gets weird. Like, I wanted to double check, if I answer now, can they figure out what my votes are?”
Avery had her phone out, and there was a heart in a circle at the top along with the app name: Class_RankR. She’d already put in their school and grade. There weren’t enough students in their school and year to form two whole classes, so they were technically in the combined eights-and-nines. There was a list of classmates, some of which had pictures attached. Others were smiley faces dressed up with hair in varying style and colors.
“I think you’re safe. Everything’s locked and hidden until the person who organized it asks for the tally.”
Avery didn’t pick or submit anything new.
“You wanted to talk and now you’re being all quiet,” Lucy said.
Avery looked up from her phone. “Do you think there’s any chance at all that I could end up dating Ms. Hardy? Because she’s had girlfriends, and-”
“No chance,” Lucy said.
“Sorry,” Verona added.
“But… like, even if I waited five more years, turned eighteen?”
“You were her student, she knew you when you were a kid. No. If she did, she’d be creep and I’m pretty sure she isn’t one.”
“No buts,” Lucy said.
Avery sighed. “This sucks.”
“Yeah,” Verona replied. She gave Avery a rub on the back.
The path they were walking down was sloping. There were trees on either side, now. The ski hills loomed to their right.
“Who did you guys pick?”
“Amadeus,” Lucy said, without hesitation. “Second pick was, uh, George, I think.”
“Yeah, okay. I think they’re pretty popular. Verona?”
“I really, really don’t care. I picked Jeremy and Wallace, because they seem like the kind of guys who wouldn’t get votes, and I like Jeremy’s drawings, and Wallace is cool sometimes. They don’t deserve to get no votes.”
“That’s nice,” Avery said. “If I could go out with anyone who wasn’t Ms. Hardy…”
Verona watched as Avery selected Pamela O’Neill.
“Pamela?” Lucy asked.
“Why do you always have a tone in your voice like you can’t believe it whenever I say I like someone? I’ve mentioned Pamela before.”
Lucy answered, “I didn’t think she was your first choice. There’s way cuter girls in class.”
“Pamela’s-” Lucy started, finished.
“You can say it. If you want to be judgey, own it,” Avery said, with as much aggression and indignation as she ever mustered.
“A healthy size. Kind of like Ms. Hardy.”
“You have a type,” Verona commented. Her hand and shoulder were hurting from carrying the bags. She was glad at least that Avery was distracted from her nervousness.
“I like that about her. Like she’d give great hugs. And she’s legit the nicest person in class.”
Lucy considered, then nodded.
Avery hit the submit button, with just the one choice on the list highlighted. She heaved out a sigh. “When do we find out?”
“Whenever. It’s dumb,” Lucy said. “It really doesn’t matter that much.”
“It’ll matter when the results come out,” Verona guessed. “Someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. Probably a lot of someones.”
“I just wanna see,” Avery said, putting her phone away. “I worry feelings are going to get hurt. Maybe mine.”
“Fingers crossed,” Lucy said.
As they walked down the winding path, the trees getting thicker, Verona was keeping an eye out for the woman with the hidden face. She saw a figure in the trees, moving through foliage faster than someone should be able to, given the slope and the undergrowth. Not much bigger than them.
She huffed out a laugh, the huff partially because she was a little out of breath.
“What?” Lucy asked.
Verona lifted the bag that held the bread and meat, pointing.
The small figure carried on down the path, slowing down as they ran. They came to a stop at a bend in the path.
The three girls carried on walking until the person was in plain view. They stopped.
A child, a couple years younger than them. Despite the recent run, the boy didn’t heave for breath, and was almost motionless. He wore mismatched clothes that looked like they had been picked from the lost and found, and his mouth was hanging open, with blood smeared across his lower face. With the open mouth, his teeth were visible, half of them missing and the other half broken with black and brown at the edges of the breaks.
There were others nearby, it seemed. Verona could hear distant singing.
Her heart was racing, looking at the boy. She felt very conscious of her breathing, where she wasn’t quite holding her breath, but she was putting in the extra effort to not breathe too loudly.
“I am sufficiently freaked out now,” Avery whispered.
“You’ve got a little something on your face there,” Verona said, loud enough for the boy to hear. She tapped her mouth.
“Verona,” Lucy whispered.
The boy turned, and then resumed running. The sound of the distant singing faded.
“Don’t… agitate him. Or it. Whatever it is,” Lucy said.
“I am a little bit majorly freaked out now,” Avery whispered, her volume still low.
“Me too,” Verona admitted. “Let’s keep going. We don’t want to be late.”
Lucy checked the paper she had in her pocket- she was using the map from a brochure, and had other notes and lists with it. “I guess we keep going forward until we get there.”
Verona still stood by Avery, her hand on Avery’s back, and she had the feeling that if she wasn’t there and and Lucy wasn’t at the other side, Avery might not have budged.
They resumed walking.
“What’s the chance this is all a big joke?” Avery asked. “Isn’t this stupid?”
“Is that why you procrastinated on coming?” Lucy asked. Verona gave her friend a look, frowning, and saw an answering huff in return.
“I didn’t- no. That really, really wasn’t why.”
“Five percent chance this is a big joke,” Lucy said. “Too much weirdness, and I feel like they would have let us in on the joke before now.”
Verona considered. “I was thinking more like fifteen percent. It’d take a lot of smart preparation beforehand, but it could be a promotion for a scary movie or something. The town could even pay for part of it if it got more people to come in the tourist season.”
“I don’t think it’s a fifteen percent chance this is all a prank,” Avery said.
Something moved through the foliage. Bigger than a person, maybe, and it moved through the branches high above them, and it went from being twenty feet behind them to well ahead of them in a matter of a second or two. Avery made a surprised sound. Verona laughed.
It was nervous laughter, short, emotions spilling over, her heart racing in the silence after.
“You’re not going to go crazy on me, are you?” Lucy asked.
“No crazy here,” Verona promised.
Her friend was quiet, alert, and tense. Lucy’s whole thing was showing no fear, no weakness.
The singing began to pick up again. There were more figures in the woods. More things moving through the foliage now, until the rustling seemed incessant.
There were other paths through the woods here. She could see an adult male making his way through. A guy she might have seen, once. It wasn’t like he was a familiar face, but she felt like there might have been a time at a big event when she’d seen him, thought he looked scary or intense, and then never had occasion to think about him again. Pale, his blond hair shorn short, he wore a canvas jacket that matched his pants, and he carried a bag. He wasn’t old, but the lines in his face were deep and sharp.
There were others down the path too. Faces that she did feel like she had seen around town. A woman with wide hips and bleached-blond hair. Maybe twenty-five to thirty five? Verona wasn’t so good with that age range. There was a guy sitting with her, broad across the shoulders, with a chin-strappy sort of beard that didn’t quite match his round jawline.
The woman with the hidden face was there too, hands in the pockets of a long coat. She walked around the perimeter of the clearing as Verona and the others approached, and when it wasn’t low-hanging branches obscuring her face, it was leaves that had picked that moment to fall.
Verona looked around. There were a lot of kids in the woods, along with the occasional adult. Some had clothes that looked like outfits, others were mismatched. A couple were naked, smeared with mud or blood. Some had their mouths open, others had their mouths closed, but an awful lot of them had blood around their mouths.
The singing was louder now, and Verona couldn’t see the source of it. Sing-song, playful, like a song that might get sung at the grade school, or a Christmas song with zero Christmas in it. She couldn’t make out the words.
The man with the short blond hair reached the clearing’s edge, and went over to lean against a tree behind where the toque woman and chinstrap guy were.
“Is this where you all murder us?” Verona asked.
“Murder?” chinstrap guy asked. He looked surprised at the notion.
“Murder,” said another voice, “is the smallest of the things you have to worry about.”
The other voice was the latest person to join the group. He took a similar path to the one the blond guy had. He looked homeless, with the condition of his skin and hair, but his clothes weren’t that bad. His hair was thinning on top, wispy, and his beard uneven, with wiry black and gray hairs. Maybe an addict? Something like that? He didn’t look like he weighed much more than Verona or her friends.
“Children?” the man asked the woman with the hidden face. “Really?”
“Um,” Lucy spoke up. “Teenagers. Technically.”
“I’m noticing we haven’t firmly ruled out the murder,” Verona said, subdued. There was a lot going on around them.
“As far as I know and hope, nobody here has any intention of murdering you,” chinstrap guy said.
“I’m Matthew. This is my wife Edith. That’s Miss.”
Miss was the faceless woman.
“Behind me we have John. The others are waiting to poke their heads out of hiding. Nobody wants to be the first to get spotted.”
Avery made a sound, drawing closer to Lucy, as something moved in the bushes.
“Children?” the man with the thinning hair asked, again. He sounded kind of outraged.
“It made sense,” Miss said. “Everyone agreed. You included.”
“I didn’t- I wouldn’t have… not if I knew it was children.”
“I saw it,” Avery whispered. Verona was annoyed at the interruption, when she was drinking in every detail, trying to put the puzzle together. What was happening, who was important…
“What did you see?” Lucy asked.
“In the bushes. It was… really ugly. It had a monocle. I can see a face in the branches above.”
“Oh,” Lucy murmured. “Yeah. I… wow.”
Verona was bothered that she was the one who was missing out. If this was a prank, were they in on it? They weren’t that good at acting, but…
“If you want to make an issue of it, you can take a stand, Charles,” Miss said. “We won’t hold it against you.”
“Everything is held against me,” Charles said.
“Who’s he?” Verona asked, abrupt, pointing at the man with the hair so thin he looked almost bald.
“That would be Charles Abram,” Miss said. “He’s your predecessor.”
The man was wild-eyed, swaying a little as he stood at the clearing’s edge, caught between looking at the girls and glaring at Miss.
“And, uh, what is it exactly we’re doing, that he was doing before?” Verona asked.
“There have been some arguable cases like Edith and Matthew here, but Charles was the sole practitioner of Kennet for a good decade. But for him, you three girls, and the natural things one might expect to find in forest clearings, those here are best described as Others. Beings that naturally exist beyond the realms and ken of man. Charles would… manage us. Keep people safe from us, keep us safe from people, and handle problems.”
“We’re here to solve a problem, right?” Lucy asked.
“What have you told them?” Charles asked.
“Watch your tone, cullion worm.” The words came from the trees, and they made Verona shiver.
Charles was already tense, but he went more rigid at that.
“I made them an offer, five weeks ago. The two girls were friends already. I pointed them to the third because three makes a good number. I told them we would teach them of magic and strange things if they would help us with a problem. One you can no longer assist us with, Charles.”
“The Carmine Beast.”
“Yes. I’ve described only the most fundamental things. I had them spend a weekend practicing avoiding lies, and watched them carefully. I explained the ritual to awaken, in rough strokes, and told them what they’d need. I told them they would be able to speak to the wind, or to flames, to see far things, to change their shape…”
“Go to magical places,” Avery said.
“Yes. And curse their enemies.”
Verona studied it all, taking it in.
“I can see the little things, and the faces in the trees,” Avery said. “But I still can’t see your face.”
“Or your hands,” Lucy said.
Why? Why were Lucy and Avery getting this, when Verona couldn’t? Verona was more scared at that than she was by the children with broken teeth. She looked at the children, seeking out clues.
“You can’t see her face because of what she is,” Matthew said. “We can’t either. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
What she is, not who she is.
Verona turned, aware they were surrounded. She could feel her skin crawl, see the intensity in Charles’ eyes, the cold expressions. The strangeness of it, without the slightest hint of a giveaway…
She swallowed hard, turning again.
She could see the things in the bushes. Small, ugly, and twisted. Something she might have taken as a stone in the corner of her eye was a figure too lumpy and misshapen to be a person. Three other things were perched on him, one maybe a girl, tiny with red-stained skin, her expression twisted into a permanent scowl, then a fat one with what looked like nails sticking point-out from the inside of his belly, wearing a waistcoat and monocle, and a scrawny one with a nose like a pickaxe.
In the trees- there was a figure taller and more muscular than a person should be. There was a slender woman sitting on a branch, and what looked like maybe they were wings, draped around her like a blanket. A teenage girl with eyes black from corner to corner, hair matted with filth.
“They’re so new,” the woman with the wings said, in that silky tone.
Edith’s eyes burned like flames. Matthew’s eyes were too dark.
All with the backdrop of that crowd of mostly-children standing motionless in the trees, and the constant, eerie singing.
She let out a half-note of a laugh.
“There we go,” Miss said. “We can continue now.”
“This is on your heads,” Charles said, growling the words.
“There what goes?” Verona asked. “Why can we continue?”
“Your eyes are open. It’s a good first step,” Miss said. “Traditionally, to open someone else’s eyes is to take on a responsibility for that someone. We’ve spread that responsibility out among ourselves.”
“So if we die, all of you only suffer a little?” Lucy asked.
“We have no intention of letting you die,” Miss said.
“Why were my eyes last to open?” Verona asked “That doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s a good thing, Verona. Those things that let you hold onto what came before, like skepticism, imagination? They’re going to be things that make you an excellent practitioner, should you follow through here today.”
“Don’t,” Charles said. “I don’t care if I make enemies. You girls, I’m telling you now, don’t.”
“What’s his deal?” Lucy asked.
“The practice, as we call it, is best summed up as an ongoing contract. By pledging to make your word inviolable, forces in this world will start listening. Routine, ritual, and expectation have formed the grooves and determined how best to communicate with those forces. Diagrams, symbols, knowing who and what to appeal to. Many, many things become possible. If your word is inviolable.”
“He lied?” Avery asked.
“Lying will hurt your relationship with spirits and Others by a very small amount. But breaking an oath or promise? It will make you forsworn. Every force that worked for you as a practitioner will work against you. The trappings of innocence and ignorance that protect most people in this world don’t protect the forsworn. The unluckiest have no refuge, no means of self defense. They become battlegrounds, their bodies open for any echo of a dead person, any complex spirit, any power to invade and try to take over, fighting among one another for purchase, and tearing up the substance of the Forsworn’s Self in the process. And that is only one of the very many ways the Forsworn become vulnerable.”
“Do not,” Charles growled. “I’m telling you three. Walk away now.”
“Others, like Charles, make deals. Some become slaves. Others give up something.”
“And Charles?” Verona asked, staring at the man, who looked like he was ready to spit.
“I think we were kind, we were reasonable,” Miss said, with the hint of an accent. “Once a year we give him something inconvenient. A curse, for example, until we can deal with it. Five weeks ago, we gave him a bit of sickness and that will be our contribution for this year.”
Charles looked off to one side. He said, “You were very kind. You could have made it a daily contribution and it would still have been kind.”
“What’s the catch?” Lucy asked. “It can’t be as simple as just losing the ability to lie, in exchange for all of that.”
“Practices have their own prices,” Matthew said, from his seat on the fallen log. “That price could be a simple offering of food, a little bit of risk. But that’s not what you’re asking.”
“What do you want from us?” Lucy pressed.
The ugly little things were sniggering. The smallest one had fallen from her perch on the largest one’s shoulder.
“Something terrible happened, of a scale that words cannot easily convey. We need you to look into it,” Matthew said. “No need to solve it. Simply… look into it.”
“That’s sketchy as heck,” Lucy said. “Elaborate?
“Five weeks ago,” Miss said. “A very old, very powerful presence that helps manage this area was lost to us. By old rules made thousands of years ago, the spirits, ambient and everywhere, may pass judgment on practitioners when it comes to matters of import; they decide things such as whether a person is forsworn. By the flip side of that same coin, we’re not meant to look after our own affairs. We need a practitioner to.”
“Our problem,” Matthew said, “is we have an equilibrium. We’re free, we handle our own affairs when we can. The moment we ask an outsider to come and they realize they could enslave us or make demands of us, the equilibrium falls. They might exterminate the goblins. They’d separate me from Edith. They’d turn us into tools. Names in books to be summoned.”
“It was always going to be some time before they realized the Carmine Beast was gone. We hoped to have months, and we had five weeks,” Miss said. “Now we need the ability to tell outsiders that practitioners are handling the matter. Give us the ability to say that, help us where you’re able, and we will give you a share of all of our power.”
“You want us because we’re kids, we’re young, we’re… not threats,” Avery said.
“I picked you three for several reasons. That was one, yes. Our deal would include you promising not to seek undue power over this area or us, except where necessary to apprehend the culprit. In exchange, each and every one of us would pledge to do you no harm, to give you power, and to protect you and lend you the aid we can against outside forces.”
“Like the murderer?” Avery asked. “Or… did you mean lost as in missing?”
“With creatures that old and that important, the line between the two is a fine one. Power is rarely extinguished, and the power that is the Carmine Beast is still in Kennet.”
“It’s-” Lucy started. She stopped, looking around.
“We’re keenly aware of practitioners and visiting Others. There have been none. What’s left of the Carmine Beast is still in Kennet.”
“Meaning it’s one of you?” Lucy asked.
“It seems so,” Miss said.
“Walk away,” Charles said.
“You can walk away if you don’t like the terms of this deal,” Miss told them. “You’re aware. You’ll see things and Others, and they’ll know you see them, but you’ll be largely innocent, still. You’ll have protections. Especially here.”
Verona reached out for Lucy’s hand. Her own sleeve still extended to the first knuckle, so when Lucy gripped her hand, she held it through the sleeve. Verona could still feel how cold Lucy’s hand was.
Charles stared at them.
“I want more,” Lucy said. “I want a promise, to make sure this isn’t a trap.”
“What are you doing?” Verona asked.
“That you won’t do anything that will keep us from leading long, full lives. That you won’t just protect us from enemies, you’ll keep us… from whatever happened with Matthew and Edith-”
“It was a decision,” Matthew said.
“Still,” Lucy said. “I think I want to grow up, get married, have kids, buy a house, get old. You don’t stop us from getting those things.”
“Agreed,” Miss said, “we can make that part of the deal made.”
Verona clutched her friend’s hand.
“Then yeah,” Lucy said, with that stubborn look on her face, chin just a little forward. “I’m all for it.”
“If I can go to neat places, travel, get… away,” Avery said. “And if I’m safe.”
“As much safety as we can provide,” Miss said.
Verona almost said something, then changed her mind. “You can’t lie?”
“I cannot. Nor can the Others.”
“So we’re supposed to solve a murder-disappearance where the culprits can’t tell a lie, and can’t touch us?”
“Not without severe consequence.”
“Okay,” Verona said. She looked at the various Others. The woman with the hidden face. Matthew. Edith. The filthy black-eyed thing in the trees. The elegant, wing-wrapped woman. The giant that stood in the background, barely visible. The children. The… goblins? Was that what Matthew had said? The man who leaned against the tree, with the short blond hair.
Her heart beat fast, and it wasn’t from fear.
“Okay,” she said again, with more emphasis.
Charles had been someone who looked defeated from the moment of his arrival, because, Verona supposed, that was what he was, fundamentally. It seemed worse, now.
“Did you bring everything?” Miss asked.
“The Awakening ritual is fuller opening of your eyes to the practice, and the commitment to your word. From that point, you would be unable to tell a lie without consequence, sometimes steep and life-altering. By committing to your word, you will be heard. Other families may conduct the ritual in a symbolic fashion. With props, important objects, and offerings symbolically offered to the various kinds of Other. Here, to make the deals, your responsibilities, and your protections manifest, all of the sapient Others of Kennet are here to take the offerings in reality.”
“Sounds good,” Verona said. Lucy and Avery were nodding. They’d gone over this part of it.
“When making this commitment, it is best you are quintessentially, markedly you. Most do it unclothed.”
“Not gonna happen,” Lucy said. “Not in front of all of these people, and not when it’s still cold as tits outside. You said there was another way.”
“There are many variations on the ritual. What you wear may be what the spirits expect you to wear.”
Verona had put her bag down, and now she unzipped it. She pulled out the mask. A deer mask, carved out of wood and painted with tan at the nose and around the eyes, a speckled darker brown at the edges and ears. She handed it to Avery.
Avery handed Lucy a fox mask, painted orange.
“Damn,” Lucy muttered. “You’re way better at carving than I am, Ronnie. That deer mask is great. Sorry yours is…”
Verona shook her head. A black cat mask. It was simple, but she liked it. She hugged it to her chest with one hand while offering Lucy the hat she’d made herself. Each of them had a gift for the other two. And for themselves, short cloaks.
“If we make these the focus of what the spirits see in the ritual, you’ll find your practice is best when you’re in full raiment. It will give your words more weight then. You’ll want to keep at least one thing with you when you might be practicing.”
“Cool,” Verona said.
“You’ll be bound together if you awaken together. You’ll be stronger as a trio than as a pair, and stronger as a pair than alone.”
Verona squeezed her friend’s hand again. She looked and saw that Lucy was holding the brim of her hat and Avery’s hand at the same time. That would be why she hadn’t donned the hat yet.
“Is the hat culturally insensitive? Or inaccurate?” Avery asked, lifting it up with a free hand. “Or… really silly?”
“It’s too late for second thoughts, you ditz,” Lucy said. She was wearing the fox mask, but had yet to put on the hat.
“It’s fun,” Verona said. “And that’s part of the point.”
“There is still time for second thoughts,” Charles said, his voice rough-edged. “And I worry the fun will be fleeting.”
Verona looked back at the path that led to the southwestern end of Kennet, and found herself nodding.
Yeah. She didn’t want that.
“Nah,” she said. She smiled. “Let’s do this.”