We. Such a slippery little pronoun. Who is in and who is out? If we say, “we lost one of us,” the number included in the pronoun changes in midsentence. To Martin the word was like a variable in a computer program, a running counter that had a different value depending on when you looked at it. But the problem was more difficult than that; the definition depended on who was doing the counting.
Did Barbara consider herself one of us, those last few weeks, that last meeting? Perhaps she was already watching us from the outside, a soldier spending her last night in the trenches, or a terminal patient sitting through her final Thanksgiving meal. We who remained didn’t know what to think. How had we missed the signs? She seemed to be getting happier. Finally letting go of the damage the Scrimshander had done to her. Only in retrospect did we realize that it was the opposite. She was ready to embrace what he’d done to her.
Martin first understood this at the wake, when Harrison leaned in and said quietly, “Of course she was feeling better. She’d finally come to a decision.” They were in line to greet the family, and Martin was pushing Stan in his chair. It was a very long line. Nothing brought out the crowds like an untimely death.
Barbara’s husband and her two sons stood at the end of the line, greeting each visitor. The husband, a trim, balding man, seemed distracted. When someone was directly in front of him he would look baffled for a moment, and then automatically shake hands and try to say something. His attention, however, always flickered back to his son. The older boy stood beside him, the younger sat on a high wooden stool. They followed their father’s example and shook each hand dutifully.
Behind the family was the pearl gray casket. Martin thought, Thank God it’s closed.
After they made it through the line, Harrison started to say goodbye to them, and Stan said, “We’ll sit over there.” He pointed toward Dr. Sayer, who sat on a half-empty pew. Harrison exchanged a look with Martin, but followed them.
Martin parked Stan at the end of the pew. The doctor moved over to make room for them, and seemed grateful that they’d come. She clutched a clump of tissues and didn’t seem to be done crying. Martin was shocked at this, then ashamed by his shock. Why was he surprised that she was human? Somehow he’d placed her in another category, the way little kids put teachers and pastors in a special category.
Yet, he still didn’t know what to say. In desperation he said, “Is Greta coming?”
“I don’t know,” Jan said. “I tried to text her with the details, but . . .” She shrugged.
Martin looked at the doctor’s long-fingered hands, which didn’t seem to match her squat torso. She wore no wedding or engagement ring. It seemed that she’d come alone. There was so much he didn’t know about her. Was it hard to run a therapy group without being able to talk about yourself, or was it a relief?
Stan said something that Martin didn’t catch. “She shouldn’t have listened to the whispers,” Stan repeated. “You’re not supposed to listen.” He seemed to be offering this as advice to himself. Shit, Martin thought. Forty years and he’s still not over it. And now Barbara, giving in some twenty years after her attack. Martin had been hoping that someday he’d stop imagining what the Dog Man had done to his roommates. That he’d forget that there were creatures that right now were clinging outside these stained-glass windows.
He’d told the group that he was adjusting to life without the frames, and some days he actually believed that. Mostly he ached to have them back. Therapy was about facing reality, and with the frames he saw more reality, and that was exactly what was driving him crazy. Pretending to be normal made life so difficult. So far he had not given in and bought a new pair of frames (it helped that he was broke). But what if he could never adjust?
He was fucked, that’s what.
Greta appeared at the other end of the pew. She was dressed as always in black on black, but at least that was appropriate here. She sat down next to Harrison, and Martin thought, so that’s back on. Or maybe not: Greta stared straight ahead, not talking. Harrison glanced at her, then seemed to give up. Despite the expensive midnight blue suit, he looked like he hadn’t slept.
What a group. Sitting together at the funeral like a wing of the family. The psychiatric wing.
No, I’m not fucked, Martin thought. We all are.
Jan had decided not to follow the family out to the burial at the cemetery, and so had the rest of the group. They stood outside the funeral home making awkward small talk until Martin managed to load Stan into the transport. As they pulled away, Dr. Sayer said to Harrison, “I would like to ask a favor, but you must feel perfectly free to say no.”
Jan had debated with herself about the ethics of even asking Harrison for help. His primary issue—besides the sense of deep alienation from humanity that every member of the group shared—was his self-image as a doomed captain. He felt responsible for others’ lives, even as he was certain he’d fail them. Barbara’s death was one more damning piece of evidence.
Harrison, however, was an expert in his field. And she needed his advice.
“What is it?” he asked Jan. He frowned. “Is it about Barbara?”
He was so quick. Jan touched her shoulder bag, but didn’t open it. “I’ve gotten some pictures from the police. I’d like to have your opinion on them. Now, if that’s possible.”
Harrison glanced over his shoulder. Greta hovered twenty feet away. Waiting for him.
“Greta can come too,” Jan said. “But she may not want to see them.”
They walked a block to a small park and found a bench. Jan sat beside Harrison, while Greta stood by nervously, hands in pockets. “Barbara wasn’t found immediately,” Jan said. “The police think that by the time her husband got into the apartment, she’d been dead at least twenty-four hours.”
“You talked to the police?” Greta said.
Jan realized that what she meant was, You talked to the police about us?
“Before I met with them and told them anything, I got permission from Stephen, Barbara’s husband. Client confidentiality still holds for me, even after death.” Jan lifted her iPad from her handbag and turned it on. “I wouldn’t share these if I didn’t think it was vitally important.”
Greta moved behind Harrison’s shoulder. Jan watched their faces as Harrison flipped through the pictures.
“The detective told me he’d never seen anything like it,” Jan said. “She’d cut open each thigh without breaking a major artery. Then she’d had the strength to cut open her left arm along the bicep. She tried to cut the right arm too, but she couldn’t hold the razor with her arm damaged like that.”
They came to one of the worst pictures and Greta turned away. Harrison took a breath.
“The police just gave these to you?” he asked.
“The detective owed me a favor,” Jan said.
Harrison said, “I don’t see how I can help you with this. It looks like she cut along the scars she showed us. Re-creating what the Scrimshander did to her.”
“She’s not re-creating anything,” Jan said. “Keep going.”
After the crime scene pictures were the autopsy pictures. “I told them to take these pictures. They didn’t want to. They didn’t know her history, didn’t have her on file. I shouldn’t have been surprised—she was attacked so long ago, in a different state. I told them to google her maiden name. Then they understood.”
The first several pictures were too messy to make much sense of; it wasn’t clear which limb, which wound was being photographed. In each of them, though, white bone glinted from between the tissue.
“Fuck,” Harrison said. “She was trying to see them.”
He stared at the screen. “That last meeting, she asked me if I’d seen the scrimshaw. I said it was beautiful.”
“Oh please,” Greta said to Harrison. “She had this planned for a long time. One comment didn’t send her over the edge.”
Jan said, “I didn’t bring you here just to see the wounds.” She took the tablet from him and flipped ahead. “I asked the police to take pictures of what the Scrimshander had carved into her. I wanted them to open all the scars, but they wouldn’t do that. The family would have a fit. So, we just have whatever Barbara got to. Here’s the first image, from her left humerus.”
The photo was at high zoom. The actual size of the etching was about an inch wide and four inches long, stretching down the bone. The picture was a bit hazy: the head and torso of a man, looking up and to his left. A crosshatch of curved lines radiated from him. The next picture was an even tighter close-up of the face.
“What the fuck?” Harrison said.
“That’s you,” Greta said, amazed.
It was Harrison. Not as a boy, but as he was now. He even seemed to be wearing a suit jacket, his uniform for the meetings.
“How is that possible?” Greta asked. “The Scrimshander drew this, what, twenty years ago?”
“Barbara was nineteen,” Jan said.
Harrison flipped to the next image, and the next, each one an alternate shot of his portrait. Then he reached the first photo of the next series, Barbara’s left femur.
Greta stepped back, her hand covering her mouth.
“I know, I know,” Jan said.
“I was a kid when he did this!” Greta said. “How could he—?”
There were two figures in the picture. One was of Greta, crouching, holding what looked like a thread in each hand. The other was of a young girl, who stood with her hand on Greta’s shoulder.
“That younger girl—is that you?” Harrison said.
“I thought it might be a before and after picture,” Jan said.
Greta shook her head. “No. That’s not me.”
“But look at her neck,” Harrison said. “She’s scarred like you.”
“I told you, that’s not me.”
Curved lines, similar to the background in Harrison’s portrait, radiated behind the two figures. The threads in Greta’s hands seemed to be the same width as the lines in the background, giving the impression that the hatchwork was not mere decoration, but something three-dimensional, like a net, or the rigging of a pirate ship.
“There’s more,” Jan said. “Martin is there, wearing the frames. And on her right arm, where Barbara stopped, there’s a part of a wheel visible. I think it’s Stan’s wheelchair.”
Harrison jumped up from the bench. “I hate this shit!”
“It’s prophecy,” Greta said.
Harrison wheeled about. “No! This is just . . . time shit. Time isn’t running parallel on the other side. The two universes bump up against each other. You get thin spots at random places. Space, time, it’s all different parts of the same bubble. Sometimes they look through and they see the future of our side. And sometimes we see the future of theirs.”
“That’s what prophecy is,” Greta said. “Seeing the future.”
“That doesn’t mean it has to happen,” Harrison said. “It’s not predestined.”
“You’re lying to yourself,” Greta said. “Listen to what you were just saying. The bubbles intersect. What they see has already happened. We just haven’t got there yet.”
“No, that’s not how it works,” he said. “There’s still free will and—”
“You can’t stop it!”
Jan stood up. “Greta, Harrison, please.”
Greta growled and threw up her hands.
“Please,” Jan said. “This may be important. We don’t know what the Scrimshander’s drawings mean, but Barbara thought he’d left her a message. She died to see it. That’s what I would like to figure out now.”
“Okay, we need all the pictures,” Harrison said. “We need to see everything the Scrimshander put on her.”
“We don’t have that,” Jan said. “The Scrimshander cut into Barbara in five locations. We have only three places Barbara was able to get to—three and a half perhaps, counting the glimpse of Stan. And we already know that x-rays and MRIs don’t work.”
“Then what do you want from me?” Harrison asked.
Greta started to say something, then shook her head.
Jan said, “I was hoping you could see something in these pictures that I didn’t. You’ve dealt with the Scrimshander. You’ve dealt with . . . lots of things that I haven’t.”
“Okay,” Harrison said after a moment. “Email them to me and I’ll take a look.”
Jan reached into her bag and fished out a small white thumb drive. “They’re all on here. High-res.”
Harrison took it from her. “And what if you don’t like the message?”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s not good news.”
Greta said she knew nothing about computers, and seemed content to walk around Harrison’s apartment while he fiddled with his laptop. He paged through the pictures again and again, but kept coming back to the collection of portraits: of himself, Greta and the young girl, Martin, and Stan—or at least that wheel that suggested Stan. He had to assume that Barbara’s portrait was on her sternum, the only scar she had not opened. Would that have been the nineteen-yearold Barbara, or the forty-year-old woman they’d just buried?
He arranged the pictures according to their location on Barbara’s body. Harrison on the left arm; Greta and the mystery girl below him on the left thigh, clutching those threads; Martin on the right thigh. They were all facing inward or upward, as if gazing at the last scar on Barbara’s chest. There was not enough of Stan visible on the right arm to know where he was looking, but the orientation of the legs and wheel suggested he was looking at that blank spot in the middle of the table. Harrison wanted badly to know what was hidden there.
He kept poring over the pictures, looking for clues. It was evident that the crosshatching behind each portrait was not just decoration. Greta’s portrait, in which she clutched those lines as if they were cables, proved that. The lines curved, and by fiddling in Photoshop he could imagine them meeting up at the center of her body, the same point in space where all the portraits were gazing.
“Holy shit,” Harrison said. “It’s a spider web.”
Greta put away her phone and looked over his shoulder at the screen. “And we’re all in it.”
“Us, and that girl,” he said. She could have been any age from seven to fourteen. “You don’t have any idea who she is?”
She didn’t answer. He started to turn, and she said, “Who’s in the center of the web?”
“Barbara, I guess. I don’t know.”
Greta straightened. “You need the actual bones.”
“Yeah,” he said absently.
“You could go dig them up.”
He turned in his chair. “What? No.”
“She didn’t get cremated,” Greta said. “That’s on purpose. She wanted us to dig them up.”
“We are not going to go grave-robbing.”
“It’s not robbing if Barbara wanted you to have them. She died to find out what was in there. You can’t just pussy out of this.”
He squinted at her and gave her a slight smile. “You keep saying ‘you.’ Not ‘we.’ Are you in the group or not?”
She walked to the window and pushed aside the curtain. “Jesus, Harrison.”
“So what’s the deal?” he said. “You’ve been gone for weeks. You haven’t even called me. And now you’re in my house.”
“This is not what I planned for today,” she said. “All this . . . photo stuff.”
“What was on the agenda?”
“I came to thank you. For keeping my secrets.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “You didn’t tell them, did you?”
She was talking about the fire. “It’s your story,” he said. “Your choice about what to say or not say.”
She let the curtain fall back. “But you figured out what really happened.”
“They didn’t fuck up the ritual,” he said “Not completely. It worked in the end. The Hidden One got into you. How could it not? You were designed for it.”
“The prettiest little bottle on the shelf,” she said.
“There’s another secret I’ve kept,” he said. “This one from you.”
“I can read you. Those designs on your skin—they’re not just pictures. It’s a kind of language.” He could see that she didn’t believe him. “When I was a kid, I got . . . infected with something from the other side. It did something to my head.”
“So now you can read their language.”
“And what do my scars tell you?”
“Warning. Danger. Keep out.”
She nodded as if she suspected this all along.
“You’re irresistible to the Hidden Ones,” he said. “But once you have one inside you, you’re a lockbox. A prison cell. And the warnings tell everybody else to stay away.”
“You should listen to them,” she said. She flicked a hand toward the laptop. “Look at the web. I’m tearing it apart. If I stay I’ll kill you.”
“That’s not what those mean,” Harrison said.
She shook her head. “Oh, Harrison. You’re the optimist.”
“Listen to me—”
“Martin was right,” she said. “The Sisters had come back for me. I knew you’d figured that out.”
“Aunty Siddra’s group couldn’t be the only one living outside the farm,” he said. “Did you know they were following you then? Following us?”
“No!” she said. “I mean, they’d tried to reach me before. In New York. I moved and I thought I’d lost them. Then—I never intended for anyone to get hurt. Not even Martin. But they’re so protective . . .”
“I’m surprised they haven’t come after me,” he said.
She looked up sharply.
“What did you do?” Harrison said. “Why didn’t they come after me, Greta?”
“I made a deal,” she said.
He got up from the chair. “You’re not supposed to make deals with the devil.”
“But that’s what I was raised to do. It’s all I ever wanted to do—clinch that deal.” She turned back to the window and moved the curtain aside. “Growing up, I prayed every day to be worthy of a Hidden One. Regular men were abusers or liars or . . . useless. But these creatures were divine beings. Cousins to angels.”
She pressed her forehead to the window. “But then, when it finally entered me, I realized it wasn’t divine at all. It was nothing but rage and need.” Her voice resonated strangely against the glass. “It hated me. It hated Aunty Siddra. All of us. And I thought, everything I’ve suffered, the years of pain, all that was to make a home for this? To put this sick thing inside me, just so it could walk around in our world?
“My holy purpose was a sham. My great honor was to keep this thing inside me like a loaded gun. I wasn’t a bride, I was a receptacle. A fucking missile silo.
“I’d been such an obedient girl. Such an idiot. And that moment I did what I had never done before. I said no. I cast it out of me, and I said, Do what you want.”
Greta said nothing for half a minute. Harrison took a step closer. The streetlights made her face glow, and when she opened her mouth it seemed to be her reflection that spoke.
“Aunty Siddra burned first. She went up like kindling. And then the other women inside the bus, the dark-haired women who’d come with her. I walked down the steps to the yard. I was only a dozen feet away when the gas tank blew, but I was unharmed. Metal and glass flew around me, but the Hidden One kept it all from touching my skin.
“I turned to watch them burn. And you know what?” She kept her eyes pointed down, into the street. “I liked it.”
Harrison said nothing.
“But my mate wasn’t done yet. There were so many Sisters in the yard, crying or bleeding from the explosion. He started . . . jumping, from woman to woman, lighting their clothes on fire. He landed on the roof of the farmhouse and set the shingles on fire, then leaped over to the next camper. Hopping and skipping through all our crappy, makeshift homes. Dancing around me with joy in his molten heart. He didn’t hurt me. He loved me now, because I’d set him free.
“Then I heard the women. It was like waking up. You know how when you’re first coming awake, there’s nothing but silence? But then you wake up a little more and you can hear a radio playing in another room, the sound of voices? Suddenly I could hear the screams. Women were burning all around me, and burning alive inside the house. One of them was my mother.”
Harrison took another step forward, and she put out her hand.
“Then it came to me,” she said. “The Hidden One. It wanted more.” She shook her head. “If I hadn’t been raised like I was, if I hadn’t spent most of my life in pain and under the knife, I might have been overwhelmed. But I’d learned detachment, right? Control. So I spoke to it. I said to him, There’s a place I want us to go. But we can’t go like this. Come to me. Hide inside me.” She shook her head. “I don’t think they understand humans. It loved me, and I’d just done this wonderful thing for it, so it believed me. It slipped down my throat. I could feel it churning inside me. Eager.”
“I’m so sorry,” Harrison said.
She seemed not to hear him. “When it was inside me, I sealed myself shut. I didn’t need the final mark on my forehead. I could hold it in through force of will. I was the cork.”
She turned from the window. “Oh, it howled. It hasn’t stopped since.”
“We can fix this,” Harrison said.
“There’s nothing to fix,” she said. “Barbara and I understand that. The Sisters aren’t going to stop. I just have to do what I was born to do.” She tilted her head almost apologetically. “I’m their queen. They want me to lead them.”
“That’s the deal?” Harrison asked. “To go back to them? Greta, you can’t do that. You don’t have to protect me. Protect the others. We can figure out a way to get them to back off.”
“I have to do this.”
“No. There’s no such thing as fucking destiny. We’ve talked about this.”
“They’ve got a new bottle, Harrison. If I won’t serve, they’ve got someone who will.”
And then he got it. “The girl. You know who she is.”
“Her name’s Alia. She’s younger than I was when I went up.”
“Yeah.” She glanced back toward the window. “I’ve got to go now.”
The whole time she’d been telling him her story, she’d been watching for them to arrive. “Are they out there?” he asked.
She started toward the front door. “I’m just so tired, Harrison. And they’re going to stay after me until I give in.”
“You can’t respond to this,” he said. “They’re just using the girl like a hostage. Let me think. Maybe we can . . . I don’t know. Something.”
She stopped. Her smile was wistful. “You know, I kept thinking you were going to solve my problem for me. You’re the monster killer. The hero. But I guess . . . kids’ books, right?” She shrugged and continued toward the door.
He grabbed her by the elbow—and jerked his hand back. It felt as if he’d grabbed a hot steam pipe.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve thought this through. I’ve got one play.”
Pain throbbed in his hand and radiated up his arm. The skin, however, looked normal. Did he need ice, or was this some kind of psychosomatic shit?
She unlatched the door and opened it. Two women stood in the hallway. One of them tall, almost six feet, with thick dark hair like a Cherokee. The other was shorter, and wore a kind of scarf sweater that covered her head. Her lips were a shade of bright pink.
“Get the fuck away from her,” Harrison said to the women.
The one with the covered head raised her arm. She held a small black pistol that seemed enormous. He felt as if he was hurtling into that black barrel.
The woman’s pink lips parted as if in satisfaction.
He tried to settle himself. He’d had firearms pointed at him before. But maybe this was one of the things you never got used to.
The tall woman took Greta by the arm and led her out. The small one kept her gun on Harrison.
Greta looked over her shoulder. “Goodbye, Harrison Squared.”
We were a team of professional insomniacs. Once you know there are monsters under the bed, closing your eyes becomes a foolhardy act. So, we paced. We stared into the dark. We listened for the creak of the opening door.
Dr. Sayer was no exception. Sleep had always been hard to come by for her, but the situation had only gotten worse since Barbara had died. In those thin hours after midnight, Jan was certain she’d made a terrible mistake. If she hadn’t formed the group, if she hadn’t prodded and poked them into sharing and reflectingand processing, perhaps their sadness would have gone dormant. Perhaps Barbara would still be alive.
If her patients had started talking like this she would have known what to say. So, on those sleep-starved nights, she said those words to herself, and sometimes believed them. Then she would head down to the basement. The relief didn’t last long, though. Sometimes it vanished before she made it to the bottom of the stairs. Then she would walk back up, lock the door behind her, and make another circuit of her house.
Harrison had been right; this was no hero’s journey they were on. Campbell didn’t understand the other stories in the world. The group knew the truth:
A monster crosses over into the everyday world. The mortals struggle and show great courage, but it’s no use. The monster kills first the guilty, then the innocent, until finally only one remains. The Last Boy, the Last Girl. There is a final battle. The Last One suffers great wounds, but in the final moment vanquishes the monster. Only later does he or she recognize that this is the monster’s final trick; the scars run deep, and the awareness of the truth grows like an infection. The Last One knows that the monster isn’t dead, only sent to the other side. There it waits until it can slip into the mundane world again. Perhaps next time it will be a knife-wielding madman, or a fanged beast, or some nameless tentacled thing. It’s the monster with a thousand faces. The details matter only to the next victims.
As for the Last Ones, the survivors of each spin of the wheel, the best they could hope for was to learn how to live with their knowledge. On most days, she believed she could help others do that.
Deep into the night, however, the doubts slid their claws into her brain, pried her open like an orange. She feared that she was keeping secrets from herself. What if she was hurting these people? What if she longed for destruction? What if she’d become, at last, her mother’s daughter?
And so it was almost a relief when the phone rang.
“Dr. Sayer,” Harrison said. “I need your help.”
Harrison was surprised to find Dr. Sayer waiting for him on her front porch. She was wearing black jeans and a thin black fleece over a flash of red T-shirt. Her hair was pulled back tight. It was weird to see her in street clothes. He felt like a third-grader spying his teacher at the grocery store.
She climbed into the car and he said, “You don’t have to do this. You could just make the call, then stay here.”
“It’ll work better if I talk to him.”
He had to admit that if he asked Martin, the kid would say no. “Okay,” he said. “He never liked me or Greta. But he listens to you.”
“Martin was afraid of Greta,” Jan said. “He always liked her. He’s made great strides. What did you do to your hand?”
“Nothing.” He’d wrapped his hand with a beige chamois cloth he kept in the glove box. His skin still throbbed. “What’s Stan’s address?”
She read it off to him, and he typed it into the GPS. While he drove, she called ahead to Stan’s house. He picked up immediately, and Harrison could hear his voice booming over Jan’s cell phone.
“Could you wake Martin?” she asked Stan. Then: “Oh. Good.” And then: “I don’t know why, exactly.” She looked at Harrison. “Harrison said we need Martin’s skill set.”
She told Stan a little bit of what Harrison had told her. She said to Harrison, “Martin wants to know if you have the frames.”
“Tell him it’s all set. Just get ready.”
After she’d hung up, Jan said, “You do have a plan, right?”
“It’s a kind of plan,” he said. After the Sisters took Greta, he followed them downstairs, hanging back to avoid being seen—and shot. By the time he reached the street, they were pulling away in an ancient silver Pontiac, a wide, rattling thing. He ran back to the garage and to his car, but by the time he pulled around front the streets were empty. He swore at himself, then drove to Greta’s apartment, not because he thought they’d be there, but because he couldn’t think of anyplace else to check. Finally he called Jan.
Stan’s house was a two-story Victorian guarded by a chain-link fence. The house seemed to have vomited its contents into the front yard. Furniture and objects loomed mysteriously out of the dark.
“Whoa,” Harrison said.
“I really should do home visits,” Jan said.
The front door opened, and Stan appeared in his chair, with Martin behind him. Martin pushed him down the ramp into the yard. And Stan, that crazy bastard, had a shotgun across his lap.
Harrison hopped out of the car and went to the gate. “No no no no no.”
“What?” Stan asked.
“We just need Martin,” Harrison said. “And no . . . that.”
“You’re going after crazy cult members,” Stan said. “Trust me, you need artillery.”
“We are not shooting anyone,” Jan said.
“What are you going to do?” Stan asked. “Talk?”
Harrison noticed that Stan was wearing a pair of split-hook prostheses. “Wait, when did you get those?”
“I’ve got loads of ’em,” Stan said. “Hooks, rubber hands, you name it. I only use them for special occasions. Like pulling triggers.”
“Jesus,” Harrison said. “Martin, get in the car. I’ll get Stan back into the house.”
“No,” Martin said. “Stan comes with.”
“We discussed it,” Martin said. “Stan’s part of the group too. And I need him if we’re going to do this. It’s all for one—”
“Or all for nothing,” Stan said.
Harrison thought about the images etched into Barbara’s bones. All of them, connected. “Okay. Fine. But no fucking shotgun.”
“You’re going to regret it,” Stan said, but allowed Martin to take the weapon from him. He waved to a spot in the yard and said, “Hide it in that oven there.”
They managed to lift Stan into the backseat, and Jan helped buckle him in. Martin expertly collapsed Stan’s chair and levered it into the trunk.
“You have the frames?” Martin asked. “I’ll start loading the software.”
“About the glasses . . .” Harrison began.
“You said you had a pair.”
“We don’t have time to go break into Radio Shack.”
“They’re not sold in—”
“It’s going to be okay, Martin. Come on.”
“How can I track them if you don’t have frames!”
“Please, just get in.”
Martin got into the front seat, and Harrison punched the accelerator. The streets were mostly empty of cars this time of night, though not necessarily empty of cops. He just had to hope they didn’t get stopped.
“I like this car,” Stan said from the back.
In ten minutes they swung into Harrison’s neighborhood. His block was lined by boutique shops at ground level and upscale condos above. Harrison slammed on the brakes. Stan laughed throatily.
“There’s the entrance to my building,” Harrison said. “This spot is where they took off from, an hour and five minutes ago, give or take. What’s your range, Martin?”
“I don’t have a range,” Martin said. “I need the frames!”
“No,” Harrison said. “You don’t.”
“You have no idea how this works,” Martin said.
Harrison opened the driver’s side door. “Get out,” he said to Martin. The kid looked at him. “Come on!”
Martin reluctantly climbed out of the car. Harrison took him by the shoulders and stood him in front of the headlights.
“You said Greta left trails wherever she went. Wakes, you called them.”
“You know that those wakes can’t be seen by the naked eye.”
“That’s why I need—”
“Listen to me!” Harrison said. It was difficult not to shake the kid. “Those trails are not made out of photons. Hardware can’t see them. Software can’t see them. Only you can see them, Martin. You want to know why?”
“This is bullshit,” Martin said.
“You’ve got the sight,” Harrison said. “The third eye. The sixth sense.”
“I don’t see dead people,” Martin said.
“No, you see worse. I’ve met people like you before. You have a talent. You don’t need a gadget to make it work.”
“Is this where you tell me to put away the targeting computer?” Martin asked.
“No, I’m not—yes. Yes, this is where I tell you to put the fucking computer away. Use the force, Luke.”
Jan had gotten out of the car. “What’s going on?”
Harrison turned Martin to face the road. “They drove off in this direction. You see the intersection? Just tell me—did they turn left, right, or go straight?”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Concentrate,” Harrison said. He gripped the kid’s shoulders as if he were prepping him to go into the ring. “Picture the wake.”
“I’m concentrating.” Martin stared down the street.
“Left?” Harrison said. “Right?”
Martin wheeled and pushed Harrison’s arms off him. “I told you, I need the frames!”
“Martin,” Jan said softly. “Can we try something?”
Harrison put up his hands and stepped back.
“Just guess,” Jan said to Martin.
“Don’t try to see the wake. Just look down the road and say the first thing you think of.”
Martin took a breath. He squared his shoulders, stared at the intersection, and said, “Straight.”
“Good,” Jan said.
“Or maybe right.”
“No take-backs. Ready? Into the car.”
Harrison eased them up to the intersection. “Keep going?” he asked.
Martin shook his head. “I can’t see a thing.”
Jan was leaning between the front seats. “Doesn’t matter. Keep going.”
Harrison scowled at Jan, but he wasn’t sure she saw his expression. He went straight, then slowed at the next cross street. Martin sighed, so Harrison kept going.
The light at Madison was red. Martin rubbed at his face. When the light turned green, Harrison accelerated, and Martin said, “Oh.”
“What is it?” Jan asked.
“Nothing. Just . . . maybe we should have gone right.”
“Harrison?” Jan said.
He wheeled the car around in the middle of the street. An oncoming car blared its horn and Stan raised a hook—flipping the metal bird.
At the light Harrison swung left onto Madison in the direction Martin had maybe kinda sorta thought they should go. Maybe, Harrison thought, we should just turn off the GPS and get a Ouija board.
“You’re doing great,” Jan said.
“Damn straight he is,” Stan said.
Martin grew more confident in his answers. He led them crosstown, then south. The Sisters, if Martin’s tracking was accurate, had stayed off the interstate and major throughways, but neither were they dodging or weaving. They probably never thought they could be followed.
Martin led them into one of the rattier sections of town: weather-beaten apartment buildings, check-cashing stores, ’60s-era brick ranches defended by sagging chain-link fences. The cars at the curb were either gleaming refurbs or rusting heaps, a binary distribution.
Martin pointed at a space between buildings. “Turn right there.”
“That’s an alley,” Harrison said. “But okay.”
He nosed the car into the alley. He drove slowly for a hundred yards, and then Martin yelled, “Stop!”
The kid’s eyes were wide. He was staring at the back of a three-story apartment building that looked like it had been abandoned years ago. “Can’t you see it?” he said. “Up there.”
Graffiti swirled like kudzu up the brick walls. The windows were covered with plywood except for the top floor, where lights flickered from an open window.
Harrison edged the car forward. Behind the building, three cars were crammed into a tiny gravel lot. One of them was the silver Pontiac the Sisters had driven away in.
“It’s coming out,” Martin said. His voice sounded far away. “The bottle’s open.”
The bottle’s open.
Harrison swore. They might already be too late. “Okay,” he said. “Everybody stay in the car.”
“I’m coming with,” Jan said.
“You’re not leaving me out of it!” Stan said.
“Nobody fucking move!” Harrison said, not quite yelling. “I’ll be right back.”
He ran for the back steps of the building. There was a rear door, made of rusting metal. A chain and padlock held it closed.
He heard voices and looked up. From the open windows, female voices chanted in a strange language. Chanting was never good.
Jan appeared behind him. “I’m going around front,” he said. “Just . . . guard this door.” Before she could argue with him, he jumped off the steps and ran for the side of the building. The space between buildings was narrow and dark, the walls seeming to pinch shut above him. He bashed his knee against a hunk of metal—an air conditioning unit? a refrigerator?—and stifled a shout of pain. He squeezed past the obstruction, then hobbled toward the mouth of the little alley.
A group of people was walking down the sidewalk toward him. He stepped back into the shadows, but really the whole street was in shadow: The sky above the rooftops was the color of a bruise; the sole patch of light glowed from a distant streetlamp. Three women, silhouettes in long skirts, passed within feet of him, talking in low voices. Arabic? Persian? He couldn’t tell.
Wood shrieked. He risked a peek around the corner. The front door of the building was a wooden slab that looked like it had been chewed off at the bottom. A wedge of light spilled onto the sidewalk, then vanished as the door closed with another shriek. He waited ten, perhaps twenty seconds, then limped toward the entrance.
The door did not quite meet the frame. He leaned closer, but could see nothing on the other side but a dim light. He could not hear the women’s voices, or the chanting he’d heard earlier.
Greta was wrong about him. He’d never been brave, even as a boy. Everything he did felt like a forced move, the only option he could think of at the time. And now here he was again, creeping around in the dark, playing Monster Detective.
He put a palm against the door and pushed.
The lobby was lit only by an electric lamp that sat on the floor. Rows of metal mailboxes gleamed along one wall, some of them open like black mouths: eels waiting in the rocks. A door once guarded the stairwell, but that was off its hinges now and lay flat on the garbage-strewn floor.
He’d stepped three feet into the lobby when a figure came down the stairs: the tiny woman in the sweater scarf. Her pink lips opened in surprise. They stared at each other for what seemed like seconds, but could only have been a moment. Then her eyes narrowed and her right arm jerked up. Her hand was full of metal.
He threw himself backward and slammed into the wooden door. It opened halfway and dumped him onto the cement. The Sister ran toward him, the pistol twitching at the end of her arm.
He scrambled backward. “Don’t shoot!” Once, when he was younger, he would have been stupid enough to say something clever.
The Sister halted just outside the door, framed by the dim light of the electric lantern. She aimed the gun at his face. He was on his back, arms and legs splayed, a crab caught in mid-scuttle.
She glanced left, then right. He thought, Maybe there’ll be bystanders! She wouldn’t shoot him in front of witnesses, would she? But the street was as dark as before, and there was no one on the sidewalk.
“How the fuck did you find us?” she said. Her voice was nasal, the accent pure Brooklyn. That threw him. He was expecting something more exotic.
She took a step forward. “Talk, you piece of shit!”
The woman did not quite finish the word “shit.” A black shape came out of the dark to her right and enveloped her, knocking her out of the wedge of light. The two figures hit the ground and rolled, then rolled again. The new attacker clung to the tiny woman’s back.
It was Jan. One arm was cinched around the Sister’s neck, the other around her chest and arm, pinning the gun to her side. Her legs were wrapped around the woman’s hips.
The Sister tried to get to her feet; she got one hand under her and pushed, but Jan shifted her weight and rolled onto her back, keeping the woman pinned against her chest. The Sister struggled, but the choke-hold was unrelenting. The woman’s pink lips worked as she tried to get air. The pistol dropped from her fingers.
Harrison reached them. “Jan,” he said. “Dr. Sayer.”
The doctor’s face was distorted by some crazed emotion. The whites of her eyes had nearly vanished; her pupils were black and reflective as oil.
“Jan! Stop. Please.”
The Sister had stopped moving.
Jan seemed to see him then. Her mouth went open in surprise, and she pushed the Sister’s body from her. “Did I—?”
He touched the Sister’s face. “She’s alive,” Harrison said, though in fact he had no idea. He stared at Jan for a long moment, then held out his unbandaged hand. She took it and pulled herself up. Her strength was alarming.
In that moment several questions in his mind were answered, or rather became one answer, like notes resolving into a chord. He knew who she was—and who she used to be.
Perhaps she saw the understanding dawn on his face. “Not now,” she said. “Greta.”
They dragged the unconscious Sister into the lobby—Harrison thought it best to get her off the street—and then started up the stairs.
Their way was lit by fire. Every half-dozen steps sat a glass bowl filled with oil and a floating wick, but the inconstant light was almost worse than pure darkness; the stairs seemed to shift beneath Harrison’s feet. Stabbing pain in his knee twice made him catch himself against the grimy walls.
Jan seemed to be having no trouble, though. She pushed past him, and he had to lunge after her to keep up. He felt like he was making a tremendous amount of noise, clumping up the stairs, huffing in the thick atmosphere of scented candles and stale urine.
At any moment he expected another Sister to appear, walking down to check on Pink Lips. He wasn’t sure what Jan would do, or what he would do. He didn’t know if he could cope with another gun aimed at his forehead.
On the second landing they heard the women’s voices chanting above them. Jan threw herself up the remaining stairs. “Wait,” he said, trying to keep his voice down, but she didn’t seem to hear him.
He reached the third-floor exit. Jan was halfway down the corridor. At the end of the hall an open doorway quavered with candlelight. The singing was loud now, a chorus that made his skin itch.
Jan reached the doorway and stopped. Harrison caught up to her a moment later.
Everyone in the room had turned to look at them.
Inside were a dozen women, sitting or standing around an open space in the center of the room. The tall, Indian-looking woman who’d come for Greta stood there between two wooden chairs that faced each other. Greta sat in one, and in the other sat a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old. Greta had stripped down to her wife-beater and boy shorts, and the girl was dressed similarly, in a white T-shirt and shorts. Her skin, too, was an echo of Greta’s, their twin scars glowing and dancing in the flickering light.
Greta held the girl’s hands in her own, and had been leaning toward her. Now they’d turned, like the rest of the women, to see who was interrupting them.
Greta looked at Harrison as if he was a stranger. No: an enemy.
“Don’t do it,” Harrison said. “Don’t do it to her.”
He’d had it wrong. He thought Greta was going back to the Sisters to be their queen. Instead she was going to pass her mate to the next bride in the list.
“Out,” Greta said.
Jan said, “Greta, please . . .”
“Both of you,” Greta said. “Out.” One of the women on the floor nearest them began to get up.
“OUT!” Greta shouted.
Then it was in the room with them: the Hidden One revealing itself, shuddering into the world. Someone screamed. Harrison threw up his hands to shield his eyes, but that was an animal gesture, useless against the non-light that burst from it. It was not a “fire creature.” This was what fire aspired to. The heat that frightened the flames.
The thing churned toward them like a whirlwind. Harrison yanked Jan backward, into the hallway. The creature halted there on the other side of the doorway.
The door slammed shut. And then the women on the other side began to scream in earnest.
Jan shouted Greta’s name. Harrison hauled her back. The door shook in the frame; glowing holes popped through the surface like tiny meteor strikes.
“We have to get out!” Harrison shouted at Jan. “It’s—”
The door exploded outward. Shards of blazing wood bit into his skin. He grabbed Jan’s arm and yanked her toward the stairwell. Flames raced along the walls ahead of them. A roar filled his head, and he didn’t know whether it was the sound of the fire or the voice of the creature.
The stairwell was clear. They threw themselves down the stairs, Harrison barely staying on his feet, tripping over the oil candles and sending tiny flames bouncing ahead of them into the dark. At each turning of the stairs they caromed off walls, slamming shoulders.
Then the fire found them. Flames rippled across the peeling paint, and in an instant the stairwell became a furnace. They ducked their heads and ran, Harrison keeping one hand on Jan’s back, pushing her forward. Smoke jetted ahead of them. He could see nothing. He’d lost track of the number of floors. Somewhere above him, Greta’s mate was burning down the house.
I’ve got one play. He’d misunderstood everything. First he thought she was going to be their queen, their Aunty Greta. Then he thought she was going to push the Hidden One into the new bride. But thatwasn’t something Greta could do. Not to another little girl. So she had to finish what she’d started years ago—and make sure the Sisters never did this to anyone else again.
Jan dropped to her knees, then reached back and yanked him down. “Stay low!” she shouted.
Jan crawled forward—but “crawled” was the wrong word. She scuttled forward, moving on palms and toes. And so fast. He’d never seen anything human move like that.
They were on a flat surface now. He kept falling behind and she would stop, reach back for him. Her hand would touch his face or shoulder, then she’d lurch forward again.
The smoke enfolded them. He could not see his hands, much less Jan. He was coughing, and his eyes were watering furiously. The heat was like a weight pressing him to the ground.
Jan stopped short, shouted something back to him. It took her several tries for him to understand that the way ahead was blocked. He crawled up beside her and touched hot metal: the building’s rear door. The padlocked door. But how had they gotten back here? The lobby should have been right in front of them. Somehow they’d missed it, turned one too many times.
Jan started banging on the door. He joined her, hitting it with the side of his fist, but his blows were feeble. Then he started coughing, and suddenly he couldn’t lift his arms. He dropped flat against the floor, trying to find oxygen.
So strange. All his life, he was sure he’d die in water. He’d nearly drowned when he was a toddler and had not gone back into open water until a very bad night in Dunnsmouth. Even after surviving that night, he’d never lost his certainty that the sea would eventually suck him into the dark. Death by fire had never occurred to him.
Jan still banged away. Or else someone else was banging to get in. Sorry, he thought. Come back later.
A rush of wind and heat blew past him. Then he felt hands on his arms, and he was dragged out of the building, into the parking lot.
“Hey, Martin,” he said. Or tried to say. One breath and he was racked with coughing. Martin stood over him, still holding the tire jack, as Harrison rolled onto his side and attempted to hack his internal organs onto the gravel.
The building was in full torch. Every window blazed, opera boxes bursting with madly clapping flames.
“I could see Jan,” Martin said. “Behind the door.”
“Thanks,” Harrison said. He raised himself to his elbows, coughed some more.
“But Greta . . .” Martin asked. “I think she’s still in there.”
Jan was sitting up a few feet away, looking at the building. Her eyes were shining. “Oh God,” she said.
Harrison twisted to follow her gaze. The door they’d been trapped behind was wide open, the interior rippling with orange and yellow. A pair of figures walked down the corridor through the flames. No, not through. The flames parted around them.
Greta and the new bride stepped out of the doorway, holding hands. They were untouched. Radiant.
A few feet from the door, Greta stumbled, then righted herself. The girl looked up at her, concerned.
Greta turned. The building seemed to swell with new heat like a great beast inhaling. And it was a beast. The creature proudly shook the walls, bellowing from every open window. So large! So mighty!
Then: An explosion knocked Harrison onto his side, shook the ground. Debris rained down. When he looked up again, the building was shuddering. Then, thunderclaps. Internal structures gave way as floors collapsed.
Greta and the girl were still standing, facing the building. Greta opened her arms.
Fire burst from every window. Rivers of flame bent through the air toward her and in an instant engulfed her.
He tried to shout, but his lungs had no air.
She blazed. She blazed, lost inside the fire. And then the fire was inside her.
Greta opened her mouth, and the flame glowed there. Her eyes were alight. The girl beside her cried out. Greta raised an arm as if to say, Just give me a second. Then she closed her mouth, and then her eyes. Sealing the bottle.
Greta fell over onto her side. Jan was beside her a moment later, kneeling on the gravel. “She’s breathing,” Jan called to him. He assumed that was the truth. Jan wasn’t as much a liar as he was.
Behind him a voice said, “God damn.” Stan was sitting on the hood of the silver Pontiac. With his shortened legs he looked like a little kid who’d been propped up there to watch the fireworks.
Harrison got to his feet. “God damn” pretty much covered it.
The little girl, the former bride, looked down at Greta, then back at the building. The fire still burned, but it was an ordinary fire now, feeding only on oxygen and fuel. Cremating the dead. How many of them had been this girl’s family? One of them was likely to be her mother. And Greta—by releasing the thing inside her—had killed them.
The girl’s expression was stony. Another sole survivor, he thought. Another victim. And another candidate for long-term therapy.
Sirens sounded in the distance. Harrison turned to Martin and said, “You know how to drive?” His voice was a croak.
“Uh . . .”
“Start the car at least. The keys are in the ignition. And get Stan back in.”
Harrison went to Jan and crouched down. “We have to get Greta and the girl out of here,” he said. “I’ll help Greta. Why don’t you. . . ?” He nodded toward the girl.
Jan stood. “Tell me your name, child.”
“Alia,” she said.
“We have to go, Alia. Do you understand?”
She nodded. Jan held out a hand, but the girl declined to take it. They walked side by side toward Harrison’s car.
Greta stared up at him. “Did I get them all?”
He looked at the building. “Pretty sure.”
She took a breath. “Good.”
He reached for her, hesitated, then touched her elbow. Her skin felt almost cool. She allowed him to help her up.
“You should go,” Greta said. “Take care of Alia.”
“There’s room in the car for all of us.”
“I’m a murderer,” she said. “Again.”
“Everybody falls off the wagon.”
“Do not quip.”
“Sorry,” he said sincerely.
Martin was at the Pontiac, leaning over so Stan could climb onto his back. Jan was leading Alia to Harrison’s coupe. They had just reached the car when the door window shattered beside Alia’s head. The girl screamed.
Another voice shouted. Harrison turned. A woman shuffled toward them. One leg dragged behind her, and what clothing remained seemed to be glued to her body. Most of her hair had been burned away, but he recognized her. She screamed again and raised her arm a second time. She was pointing straight at Alia.
He ran toward the shooter, trying to put his body between the weapon and the little girl. He heard the pop of the pistol, felt a sting on his left thigh that made him stumble.
He righted himself, threw open his arms, making himself as large a target as possible. His vision began to swim. The woman with the pink lips was ten feet from him. He doubted she’d miss from this distance.
When the next gunshot came, it was much louder than he expected. Then another shot, and another.
The woman leaned backward, and fell. She did not move.
Harrison pivoted, and his leg nearly gave way. “What the fuck, Stan?”
Stan was riding on Martin’s back like a little kid. One hook steadied the barrel of a pistol; the other hook was looped around the trigger.
“I told you,” Harrison said. He blinked to clear his head. “No . . .fucking . . ” He began to tilt sideways, at first slowly, then very fast. He hit the gravel with a thump. His left pants leg was a very different color from his right, he noticed. Probably from blood. Almost certainly.
Jesus Christ, he thought. She couldn’t hit the plastic leg?
He opened his mouth to complain, but words escaped him, and consciousness fled closely after.