Once Upon a Cannibal Sunset

Claws

Streetlights passed overhead in metronomic rhythm—one, two, three, four—illuminating black upholstery—five, six, seven, eight—and white knuckles perched at the steering wheel’s upper crest—nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Still, no matter what proof assured her she did move, Jamie felt no closer.

It had been so long since she’d last visited Alice at home that the memory of every right, left, right turn occurred to her with hardly the time to spin the wheel. A year ago this Christmas by her own measure, and only to pick up the USB drive she’d lent the younger girl for her Introductory Spanish final. Alice’s mom had been aghast that she wouldn’t stay for dinner, but she’d only come on her fifteen-minute break and wasn’t much a fan of spiral ham. Alice has told me so much about you, the elder had enthused with a toothy grin, but how could she, when her daughter knew so little already?

If she could’ve foretold Mrs. Marx’s struggles would claim her life by November, she liked to think she would’ve smiled a little brighter. Maybe spared a laugh. Come up with a better reply than, we don’t speak of you much.

She wouldn’t let that frigidity cloud any more cries for help. And after six weeks, three missed meetings, half a dozen calls sent to voicemail…Jamie knew it could be nothing but.

As the little houses and white picket fences of the suburbs turned to high apartment buildings and windows boarded up with wood planks, the streetlights thinned out, casting the sidewalks under darkness. Alice’s building looked much the same as all the others: about twenty stories high, red brick, and falling apart. Even from the ground, she could make out her window on the thirteenth floor by the duct tape holding the glass in frame. Dim light lived within.

Jamie frowned. “You can binge Netflix ‘til midnight but not pick up one phone call?” Surveying the teenagers—out too late for anything good—that watched her from the dark, she knew her new car wouldn’t be leaving this neighborhood unscathed. “You’d better be swinging up there, kid.”

Her stomach flipped. Maybe not swinging, but…bleeding…or crying. Something temporary.

She whispered a prayer for her Mustang as she threw herself from its front seat, locking the doors with a click of the remote in hand. Her coat caught on the heel of her boot—an unfortunate casualty of the office dress code. There hadn’t been time to change.

Unlike the buildings she’d acquainted herself with in Short Hills, there was no doorman or revolving door, or windows into a gleaming lobby—only a door, studded with chipping green paint beside a list of doorbells. Perhaps at one time they’d been used for unlocking the ancient door, but not anymore: a block of wood sat at its corner, propping it open.

Casting another look over her shoulder at the car, still well within view, Jamie appraised the worn slip of paper beside the number 1304: A. Marx. Her finger burned—six, seven, eight times—over the bell to the tune of a mechanical buzz.

“Come on, Alice,” she whined. This didn’t have to be a sleepover. If she could get a sniffled, Just a broken phone, Jamie. I’ll call you when I get a new one, she’d be home by one a.m. and back to work at seven.

A hope for naught. With every insistent buzz, she received no answer.

Jamie sighed. Whatever got stolen off her car, she would call it a win if she could still drive it after all this. The only thing worse than spending the night in this foul city would be staying for two.

The white light beyond the door blinded Jamie to a long hallway of nondescript doors. As her eyes adjusted, she picked out ripped wallpaper lining the walls, the stain of yellow along the ancient carpet, and garbage. Lots of garbage. From somewhere in the general vicinity of the elevator came moans that raised gooseflesh over her arms.

She darted for the stairs. Every cursed piece of gum and unidentified brown goo clung to her boot, but she shoved such trivialities away by the tenth floor in place of a baser need for oxygen. Her calves burned, arms aching to hold her up against the arm rail. By the time the thirteenth-floor landing approached, she’d already decided: if Alice was still alive, it was a temporary state. Jamie fully intended on pitching her out the window by night’s end.

Her fist against 1304’s door echoed down the hall. The upper floors, while at least devoid of the piss stains in the emerald carpets so prominent down below, didn’t get such an abundance of lightbulbs. These were the lower-watt kind, more of an amber than white and the one over Alice’s door had burned out. It had been burned out last year, too.

“Alice?” she hissed with another slam of her fist to the wood. She hissed when the door slipped a splinter into her pinky. “Ouch. Alice!” She kicked the door, to no answer. Forgetting all desire for quiet, she shouted, “Alice, open the door!”

She gripped the knob, waiting for the catch of the lock, but it turned easily, door swinging open without even the deadbolt’s interference.

Weird on a normal day, but, today, it raised every hair on her body. “A…Alice?”

The door groaned until it stopped short against the inner wall. Jamie stepped in, already entangled in a mess of Alice’s shoes strewn across the floor. Was that cause for concern? The last time she’d walked in, the place had been immaculate, but that had been Christmas…

On another step, she turned a corner into the living room to find a lamp, overturned. The hand-me-down sectional sat under a cover of its own snow-like innards and every pillow corpse lay empty across the floor. She crept in, picking at every little bit of fluff before she cast it to the floor. Alice didn’t lay within; rather; she’d stacked the cushions into a pile at the room’s center. The frame lay broken around it, sat up to wall the soft interior like a nest.

As Jamie stood, turning back toward the hall, she froze, meeting the wall that separated this room from the kitchen. It wasn’t the mess of canned spaghetti on the black and white tile that stopped her breath, or the sink, stacked high with pots, pans, plates, and half-eaten steak and other unidentified meats. Or even the fact that every cabinet’s white doors hung open.

It was the claw marks. Five, torn into the dry wall all the way to the pink insulation within.

“What?” she whispered, arm already half-outstretched to touch. At the first brush of jagged edges, she pulled it back to herself. Was this a joke? “Alice?”

No one answered, but, as she listened, she made out other sounds. Wet sounds, like the slurp of spaghetti.

That kid was fucking with her. What other reason could there be for this mess?

Nevertheless, she staggered ahead on feet that wanted nothing more than to turn back. This was an awful lot of work for a joke…

Water stained the hall carpet, product of a running toilet spilling across the floor. Beyond that, the bedroom door hung open, the only glow from the nearest building’s floodlight through the window.

The slurping grew as she edged closer, taking the doorway in both hands. Jamie leaned around the corner, fingers shaking, tongue dry around another call of Alice’s name.

Yellow eyes.

The gleam of teeth.

Blood. So much blood.

A man lay across the floor, body limp and head tilted back in deep unconsciousness. The porcelain shards of a lamp glimmered around him, a very few embedded in his temple.

The face that looked up from the end of the stranger’s arm was at once familiar and completely unrecognizable. Its mouth, stained red by the hand it had detached from the man’s wrist, housed four rows of teeth like serrated blades. Its yellow eyes glowed, wide and hungry, as it met her gaze. The creature had to be over six feet tall, skin nearly green and scaly in patches across its cheeks.

Still, it was very clearly Alice. At least, it was trying to be.

The Alice Jamieknew didn’t make five feet and had most certainly never had more than one row of perfect teeth, as she liked to display in the headshots she badgered her for an opinion on with every impending casting call. The shock of blonde hair had gone uncombed but they looked like they had, at one time, been the curls usually so pristinely arranged around her pixie face.

Jamie didn’t breathe. There wasn’t time.

With a deep growl, those alien eyes narrowed, Alice’s new, thick legs coiling beneath her. In a single kick, she threw herself across the room, arms outstretched to wrap around Jamie’s shoulders.

Jamie shrieked. Dropped to her knees. Felt the air as Alice soared overhead.

The other girl hit the wall with an unholy crash, but she didn’t even hesitate to turn on Jamie, teeth bared and red and dirtied with the remnants of human flesh from its last snack. From her first step, Jamie threw herself into motion, taking off toward the front door on ankles buckling inward with every step.

The thing followed so close, Jamie could feel its every unsuccessful attempt to grab her shorn hair. As she neared the door, arms out to wrench it open and hopefully—hopefully—slip out before she got eaten, something like a knife dragged down the back of her neck, tearing her flesh open and turning her coat into nothing more than twin rags, sliding down her arms.

“Agh!” The pain was distraction enough. She hesitated for a mere instant with hand in mid-turn on the knob and pulling. It was all the time the creature needed to pin her against her only exit and slam it shut.

“A…Alice!” she shrieked, head smashing against the wood. Her ears rang, time slowing around her. Her words emerged as thick as the canned spaghetti. “Get off.”

The doppelganger pressed itself completely to her back, holding her in place with heavily muscled arms and legs. Its scales grated against the skin bared by her torn coat. Its tongue probed at the center of her back, trailing up the cut it had torn from her skin.

Tasting her.

Jamie’s body shook, so small in the arms of a predator. Instinct bubbled up inside her like impending vomit, urging that she scratch, bite, run, something before death tore her throat open with the same talons it had ripped through the drywall. It gripped her around the arms, cold to the touch and tearing her flesh with every light touch.

As its head dipped, it breathed over her neck, tossing her hair into her face. She swallowed hard, unable to move, unable to inhale, unable to speak. It reared back, jaw coming down around her shoulder with a snarl that reverberated all the way into her chest.

Pain exploded from every conceivable corner. Like needles and rocks and ice and fire and something Jamie knew no one could have felt before. There would’ve been a word for it if such a pain had existed before this moment. There would be books about it. Classes. Dissertations and lectures and statues.

Her body went limp, falling against the creature as it tore the sleeve of her shirt and four rows of teeth’s worth of flesh away from her whole. She slipped away, landing face-first on the carpet, but the creature didn’t seem to care.

Jamie glanced at the door through the haze of tears building within her eyes. Escape was so close, within reach, but her shoulder screamed so loudly she felt it in her legs, her arms, her face. She couldn’t find her limbs in her muddled brain to move them.

It chewed her. Loudly. And when it swallowed, it reached for her again, flipping her onto her back so the world around her was only glowing yellow.

Jamie’s lip quivered. This was it. Death. “Alice…P…please?”

The beast stilled in its descent toward her throat. Eyes like liquid gold flickered, yellow, then gray, then yellow, and gray again. Alice’s face, green and scaly, cooled. Her jaw snapped shut, lip turning down into a frown.

Her new, monstrous mouth opened to reveal a single row of inhumanly sharp teeth. Rather than its deep bellow, Alice’s voice emerged, “Jamie?”

The world around her swirled, but Jamie managed the smallest smile. “Y…yes. Yes. It’s Jamie.”

Alice withdrew, standing stiff to look back over her shoulder at her bedroom door. A whimper like a wounded dog passed her thin lip. Her body clenched, clawed hands gripping at the sides of her head. “Go away,” she cried. “Please, go away.”

Jamie reached for her. Perhaps it was the blood freely pouring from her shoulder. Perhaps it was the last of her fear festering where sympathies she’d never had before lied. She no longer saw the creature of scales and claws and teeth, even if that was exactly what stood over her. She saw herself, standing with arms over her head, pleading that the voices go away.

Her fingers breezed over Alice’s knees.

In one moment, the Alice-beast stood over her with mouth drooling Jamie’s blood.

In the next, she was gone.

Dazed

The world shimmered, light from the fallen lamp catching on the pooling red. Jamie searched for coherent thought through a world of crimson, but all awareness was tainted by panic. Chills crept up and down her body, beginning at the phantom chunk of shoulder as it continued to leak across the floor. 

She couldn’t find her limbs. Such details were too small, too inconsequential in the wake of screaming, raving, blaring pain, clenching around her heart, her lungs, her stomach. If there was still heat to be found in her body, it existed only in the acid bile churning at her center. Acid creeping up her throat. In her mouth. On her lips. On the floor.

The heaving forced her onto her side to spit the yellow vomit into the blood that haloed her. She found feeling in her fingertips first, pincushion to splinters protruding from the wooden planks. Then her toes. Still, she laid there, crushed beneath the weight of the air alone and suffocating.

Jamie’s lids drooped, asking her why this had to be so hard? For how long would she fight? It would only take a moment, one blink of the eye…

She could sleep.

As she gave in, relishing in the brush of lashes over her cheeks, the musical tune of a bell jingled by. Jamie’s body tensed, drawing a groan from a place in her chest she didn’t recognize. “Seven?”

She forced her lids open to a white kitten, darting into the living room with human eyes trained on her face. The silk ribbon around its neck bounced with the silver bell at its end.

“Sev—”

Jamie squeezed her eyes shut against another wave of rolling upheaval as it raced higher in her throat. She swallowed it back, concentrating on the taste because, at the moment, it was the only thing outside of the pain she knew was completely and indisputably real.

Unlike Seven.

The more she thought of acid and pain and the splintering wood under her face, the ringing bell faded. Before she opened her eyes, she knew she wouldn’t see that cat sitting there, watching her, but it filled her with her first welcome bit of relief all night.

It didn’t last. Raising a hand to her shoulder, she hissed at the burn rippling like water across her being. Would it really be so bad to lay here, where the pain could dull? Someone would have to stumble upon her eventually…

Jamie grit her teeth. If she didn’t stop this bleeding, she wouldn’t last another hour. And, as appealing as rest was, this wasn’t the kind of neighborhood that liked to interfere in each other’s business. It could be months before anyone found her and the guy down the hall.

Unless Alice came back. And Jamie wasn’t sure she wanted her to come back.

An unintelligible grunt passed her lips, growing into a bat-like shriek as she forced herself upright with her uninjured arm. “Shit!”

“Shut the hell up!” A succession of quick knocks resounded against the other side of the kitchen wall. “Christ!”

Jamie’s first instinct told her to answer the neighbor with pleas for help, but she hesitated on a staggered inhale. With every moment alone, her encounter with the beast felt like a rapidly deteriorating nightmare. And, as much as she hurt in its wake, she had to admit that the things she’d seen were wholly illogical.

She’d seen illogical things before. She couldn’t trust them.

Gathering her wits, Jamie shook her head back to some semblance of reality. “F…Five…five things I can see…” she whispered.

Easy enough.

  1. Her new boots, broken at the heel.
  2. The couch innards, blowing closer on a draft from the window.
  3. A fragmented chunk clawed out of the wooden floor.
  4. White kitchen cabinets, hanging open.
  5. A ruby pool, seeping into the floor.

Real things. Logical things.

“Four things I can feel…”

  1. The draft, wafting in through bits of ripped tape on the window frame.
  2. A twisted ankle, most assuredly resulting from the break in her shoe.
  3. Sticky blood, clinging to her arms.
  4. The ever-reaching, all-consuming burn of missing flesh.

“Three things I can hear.”

  1. Every footstep of the neighbor, walking back to bed.
  2. The drip of the toilet, flooding into the hall.
  3. The wheeze of her every breath through nostrils clouded by tears.

“Two…” she wiped at her nose as it leaked. “Two things I can smell.”

  1. Alice’s dying vanilla plug-in.
  2. Cold spaghetti.

“One thing I can taste.”

  1. Copper. Hot and thick and metallic.

This was the real world, where there was no Seven or scaly lizard monsters and people didn’t eat other people with four rows of razor-sharp teeth. So what exactly had she seen, since she had definitely seen it wrong?

And where the hell was Alice?

She staggered upright, abandoning her shoes in the pile of Alice’s sneakers stained with red. In the same motion, she reached for the key rack, hanging from it for dear life.

The lizard monster couldn’t be real, but the chunk it had taken out of her shoulder definitely was. And it definitely needed attention now if she was ever going to walk out of this god-forsaken place.

If she was going to find Alice.

Jamie limped ahead on bare feet, passing into the hallway like she passed into a whole other world. The real world wasn’t red, colored by the reflection of a fallen lamp in a pool of blood. It was amber.

Jamie pulled at the sleeve of her coat until it ripped fully down to the seam, flattening it over her bleeding wound and pushing until the pressure sent her to her knees. Darkness swirled around the hall, wishing to pull her under, into the abyss of sleep she craved. As she dragged her head up, the darkness cleared enough that the stairwell threshold gleamed red.

A handprint.

The sudden rush of adrenaline spurred her to her feet, slipping, tripping, falling into the wall. With arms wrapped about the doorway, her nose touched the wallpaper a mere breath from the pointed end of the print’s index finger. Or…was it a thumb? A really long thumb?

The bloody silhouette dwarfed her own hand like a doll’s.

Jamie stared at it through the clearing dark, waiting for the inhumanly long fingers to shrink into some impression of normalcy. But, as the moments stretched on, it didn’t change.

Maybe it wasn’t Alice’s hand…

She shot that idea down in its tracks. Who else would be so covered in red since she came up those stairs not ten minutes ago? No one stirred up and down these halls.

Still, Alice was smaller than her in every way. Both of her hands together couldn’t make a print so big.

Far, far below, a door slammed shut. Some animal—a big one—roared beyond the outer wall, pulling her into the image of yellow eyes, green flesh, and teeth. Of claws and scales and thighs like tree trunks.

Alice?

With heart pounding like a sledgehammer against her ribcage, she ran down the stairs, skipping two or three at a time. The compulsion to follow pulled at her like strings on a marionette, but some voice, some long-buried instinct, asked her what she was hoping to run to? Whether Alice wore the skin she saw or not, she’d damaged her. Gravely.

Which was exactly why she had to follow, she reasoned. Why else did she know Alice if not to get her through these delusions?

The bitter air slapped her face, stringing thick, white flakes into her hair. Sobering cold brought her back to Earth.

Up ahead, a bowed shadow ran, protected by the dark between streetlights. “Alice!” Glass crunched under her bare foot. Jamie hissed a string of expletives.

Pursuit wasn’t happening on foot. Not without shoes.

She limped toward the car, precious moments wasting away while she dug shards from her sole. Still, she saw that shadow as it dove down the street and around the furthest corner. “No, no, no!” Casting the last green bit of bottle to the ground, Jamie threw herself into the driver’s seat without a second glance at her missing rims.

God, she hated this city!

Wheels spun, protesting with human-like screams all the way down the street. Jamie’s foot burned as she stomped on the gas, eyes flickering around the corner before she’d even skidded onto 2nd Avenue at forty miles per hour. By then, aside from the group of teenagers meandering down the road with eyes turned on her, the sidewalks were empty.

No lizard monsters to be seen.

She shifted gears, peering through the shadows for a four-foot something blonde girl, instead. Maybe with a knife.

Even as the logical prospect brought her a wave of warm and fuzzy relief, she sneered. There wasn’t a knife on god’s green earth that could leave wounds like these in her shoulder. Which was why she should’ve chalked up this failure as a win, packed her battered self up, and gone home to her luxury apartment.

But she was stupid. Willfully stupid.

Because she wasn’t thinking about the Alice that attacked her. She was thinking of the Alice who had stumbled into support group three years ago with coat pulled up around her face. The Alice who’d been too scared to sit in circle, so she’d hidden in the corner, pretending to sip coffee.

Jamie wasn’t good at meeting people, either.

There had been something in the younger girl’s grey eyes, a listless shift, that had called to her. Like she was looking for something to jump out at her from behind the chairs or coats hung on the wall.

She’d recognized the business card betwixt her fingers: Dr. Evelyn Brown’s. And, more than that, she’d recognized the address in swirling black cursive scrawled across the back. She hadn’t even graduated from high school by then, and, though Jamie had been barely four year out of high school herself, she’d looked at Alice and seen a kid.

A scared little kid.

She could imagine her out here on the streets preluding the snow, as scared as she’d been then to wake from one of her delusions to find herself drenched in blood. Only, then, she’d be waking alone, in the cold. Confused.

Jamie swallowed the pain digging under her skin. There would be plenty of time to focus on that with Alice in her passenger’s seat.

The snow accumulated on the hood with the tens of moments she drove the outskirts of the city and within, spying for that head of blonde hair in the night. She couldn’t stand to give up the search, but her faith wavered as the clock edged closer to the first hour.

Where would someone drenched in blood go to hide?

As she passed the park at the border of Plainfield and South, she looked out across the undisturbed snow and stomped on the brake with both feet. Despite the hours, the motion lights shone white, set off by the figure behind layers of caution tape at the top of the hill.

 Jamie didn’t come around enough to be familiar with the clearing outside of the playground at its head. A couple of basketball hoops dotted the perimeter, but the expanse between the road and anything recognizable was so large and empty, she wondered what hid beneath the cover of flakes.

She threw the door open, ankle-deep in snow from that first step. Her feet burned, instantly aflame in the prison of ice.

“Alice!” Jamie hobbled closer, arm crossing her chest to keep pressure on her shoulder. “What the…” her lungs refused to catch the thin winter air. “What the hell are you doing out here?”

The silhouette raised a hand. “Stay back,” she shouted in broken soprano.

Jamie slowed, neck craning to view the Alice coming into sharper focus. An Alice far too tall, far too wide, and far too green. Blood drenched the lower half of her face, stretched up to her ears from the sheer fervor with which she’d eaten. Tears dragged crimson drops onto the floral blouse unbuttoned down to her sternum.

“What’re you doin’ out here, kid?”

“I said stay back!” she cried.

Jamie lifted her palms in surrender. “Okay. Okay. We’re okay. I’m not gonna hurt you—”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I won’t hurt you.” Alice shook her head, throwing long blonde locks into her face. They stuck. “I hurt people, Jamie. I don’t wanna hurt ‘em, but I can’t stop myself.” Sobs shook her down to the bone. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

Jamie took another step closer. The ground under her feet felt different out here. More solid. Stone?

“It’s just another delusion, Alice. We’ll figure out your meds and everything’s gonna work itself out—”

“It’s not!” the girl shrieked. She clapped her hands over her ears, head turned downward. “It’s not like that.”

Another step. “Tell me what it’s like.”

The hill beneath Alice quaked with her every movement, casting snow ahead, over a ledge rapidly coming into fruition with every one of Jamie’s steps. Her heart lurched into her throat.

It wasn’t a hill at all. It was a bridge.

A wall cut off the higher ground, leading to what must have been a stream down below, though it looked long dried up now.

“I hear him,” Alice whimpered, striking her temple over and over and over again. “He’s hungry.”

“What’re you doin’ up there, kid?” Jamie hid her wavering voice behind a chuckle. “You’re gonna catch your death out here. Wind’s picking up.”

Alice’s grey eyes cleared enough to hold her still. “He’s telling me to eat you right now.”

“First taste was pretty good, then?” she asked, squeezing her shoulder. That threw out the knife theory… “He’s not real. Remember? C’mon, let’s exercise together. What’s five things you can see?”

Alice’s lip quivered. “S…snow? And…and trees.” Her neck stiffened, head shaking, eyes squeezed shut around a fresh torrent of tears. When they opened, they gleamed the brightest yellow. “Food.”

Jamie’s jaw locked around a protest. The snow under Alice’s feet moved as she did, readying to step closer to her without mind of the abyss between them.

“Wait!”

Remarkably, this yellow-eyed thing stopped.

“You tryin’ to jump?” she demanded, turning her gaze to the ground. When she looked back up, Alice’s eyes had returned to their usual grey.

She was losing it. She’d taken her medicine, done all her exercises, gone to therapy like the good patient, and for what?

“Jam…Jamie…I’m…I’m really scared,” Alice sniffled. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

“I do,” she insisted. “And I know how we’re gonna fix it. You just gotta come down so I can get you to a doctor.”

“No doctor’s gonna help me now!” Alice’s knee bent, edging her ever closer to open air.

“Hey, hey!”

“Just let me do it, Jamie. Nobody’s gonna miss me anyway. Everybody’s gonna be better… better off—”

“Not me,” she snapped, running ahead. “Look at me, kid. Don’t look down.”

“Look at you? Look at what I did to you!” Alice shrieked. “And I did so much worse to others.”

“We can fix it.” The words spilled off her tongue without a thought. She didn’t even know if she meant them. “But we can’t do any of that if you’re not gonna come with me.”

Alice chewed her lip, foot hanging over the edge. Her eyes flickered, grey, then yellow, then grey.

“Alice…!”

A crack split the air.

Jamie stilled, eyes widening. The snow between her feet split, reaching toward the dam wall. Water like the business end of a thousand knives pooled around her, pricking at her bare flesh.

Not stone. Ice.

She’d been so intent on Alice, she hadn’t looked…hadn’t cared…And now she didn’t know where the lake ended and the grass began to escape it.

Seized by her racing heart, she stood with gaze trained on Alice’s look of horror, eyes shifting grey, yellow, grey, yellow.

“Alice! Help—”

Then, the ice broke and she sank into the frigid waters like a rock. 

Water seeped into her clothes, making them heavy. With every swipe towards the surface, they yanked her down further, as if pulled by a hand sprouted from hell itself.

But it couldn’t be hell. Even in hell, she wouldn’t have felt the icy paralysis down her spine. Wouldn’t have felt the cold sting across her flesh like fire. Wouldn’t see the face of an angel hanging just outside of arm’s reach.

An angel with glowing yellow eyes.

Or maybe it was a demon.

The cold inched deep into her every limb until they were stiff, stopping what little defense she had against the murky depths. They were of no use anyway. In the dark, there was no sure way of knowing which way was up, or if her extended fingers breached the surface.

There was only the silence and the face, and even that wouldn’t last much longer. Her lungs screamed. Head swam. Chest collapsed. The moss of the sandy bottom met her shoulder, as far from oxygen and life as she could get…

When the last of her most recent breath ran out, she gasped in a mouthful of water and a flood of silver bubbles rushed away. What little light made it through began to dim and, for the first time in so long, her whole body relaxed, free of work and worry and responsibility. The need to close her eyes against the frigid current came to a fevered pitch.

Pressure gripped her arm, hauling her away from the dirt and the sand. The water yanked at her hair, desperate to reclaim her.

Then, air.

“Jamie? Jamie!”

Jamie fell on hands and knees in the snow, clawing for the grass beneath as she heaved. After the night she’d had, there was no possibility of food remaining in her gut to expel, but her body seemed confused by the assault coming from every tangible direction. It hadn’t gotten the message.

Fingers rounded her arms twice, their rough skin grating against her. The wood-like claws at their tips extended even further still and drew instant gashes out of her unmaimed flesh.

“Ow!”

Alice released her, jumping back a couple steps. “Sorry. Sorry!” As Jamie fell back on her haunches, wiping at the drool that yo-yoed from her lip, she met a sight of a back so tall it bent over itself in a hunch, eyes trained on reptilian hands outstretched before her. “I don’t want to do it…I just can’t help it.”

Jamie’s jaw opened for words, but none emerged. With every minor breeze from the road, shudders travelled up and down her back like a freight train. If not for the sheen of ice branding itself to her limbs, she would’ve sworn she was on fire. Her chattering teeth echoed through the park.

“Y-ou-ou…” she pointed up and up and up into the face of her ‘buddy.’ Only nineteen and looking like an Alice suit wrapped around a linebacker. “Th…this-s-s-s-s is-s-s-s-s…wh…what is this-s-s-s-s?”

The younger girl stepped closer, only to retreat, dancing back and forth with bulging arms outstretched. “We’ve gotta get you outta here, Jamie. This wind is gonna kill you.”

Jamie couldn’t argue. Didn’t want to. That didn’t stop her from shaking her head. “N-n-n-not with-th-thout y-ou-ou-ou.” She doubted herself for the promise. One, because she was awful close to breaking for the car and the heat it provided, even if she had to crawl. For another, because, if Alice agreed to come with her, Jamie wasn’t so sure she’d fit.

“But…” Alice took another step back. “What if I—”

“You won’t.”

“But, I want to—”

“No.” Jamie scowled. “Y-y-y-ou don’t.”

 Alice’s eyes swam, broad shoulders leaning toward her. As another wind blew, Jamie rattled, struggling to lift an arm when she felt frozen into a ball. Her legs refused to budge.

“H-h-help me, pleas-s-s-se?”

Alice hauled her to her feet, supporting her easily with one hand, even while she held her as far from herself as possible. Jamie watched her, forcing one foot in front of the other. “You-ou-ou sh-sh-should go to th-th-the hospital, kid.”

“Me? You’re the one bleeding out and half-frozen!”

“And yo-ou-ou gre-ew-ew-ew two f-f-f-feet overnight,” she snapped. “Eith-th-ther I’m halluc-c-cinating, or s-s-something’s-s-s up.”

Alice walked faster, all but dragging her toward the curb. From the moment the car door had shut, encasing Jamie in sweet sanctuary, she cranked the heat up full blast and held her face to the vent.

“Ahhh.” For as long as she thawed, the door at her side remained closed. “Alice, you better be thinking of getting in this car out there, ‘cuz if it’s anything else, I’m taking my own pound of flesh outta your neck.”

The passenger’s side door begrudged opening. “I…My nails will rip the seats.”

A chuckle warmed Jamie’s nostrils. She slapped the steering wheel, chuckles growing to body-shaking guffaws and half-manic giggles. “Where do you think I’d be hiding concern for anything else in this head of mine, Alice? I am at full capacity.” When the girl kept still out in the snow, her laughter died off. “Forget the seats. Get in the car.”

Alice hunkered down, moving the seat as far back as it would go. She forced one leg in, then the other, and stuffed her knees between the dash and her chest. The door slammed shut. “You okay, Jamie?”

“About as okay as I’m gonna get, kid.”

“You’re taking this a lot better than anybody ought to.”

Jamie shrugged, eyes forced ahead at the road. Was she? Because it felt like her insides were pooling into gelatinous goo at her feet. And a heat had settled into her head, less a product of impending cold—as likely a conclusion as that would be—and more a product of strain. “I’m not positive this isn’t another hallucination. Nothing Dr. Brown can’t fix.”

Alice giggled and the sound sent shudders down Jamie’s back. It was a crazed sound, not her young ‘buddy’s’ soprano, but deep baritone. Nevertheless, she took solace in the minute glance of grey behind her lashes. “I thought so, too. But it just kept getting worse.”

Jamie swallowed. “What is it?”

The giggle faded. “I did it, Jamie. It’s my fault. I brought the devil into my body—”

“That’s cr—” Jamie shook off the word. “Silly. What would make you think—”

“He told me.”

The severity struck her so much deeper in the close quarters. “Who?”

“The devil.” Alice sighed. “Things haven’t been so good since Mom went.”

“Did you tell Dr. Brown?”

She scoffed. “Just ‘cuz someone tells you it’s okay to grieve, doesn’t make you grieve less. I went to her. School counselor. Saw a priest. Just made me feel worse. You know people who commit suicide don’t go to heaven?”

“I…” Jamie shrugged. “I’ve heard stuff. Doesn’t mean it’s for real.”

“Well that’s what Mom believed in. And…” Alice sniffled, “I just couldn’t stand to think she was lonely down there. So I took a shit ton of her Prozac. Went down to meet her.”

“Kid…”

“But I woke up. I think he did it, ‘cuz he was sitting pretty up here, in my head, when I opened my eyes.” Silence passed between them. “God is punishing me for what I did.”

“No, he’s not—”

“Yeah? How do you know?”

Jamie chewed on her inner cheek. “’Cuz he wouldn’t have sent me if he was.”

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