Cara led us out to the well first thing Tuesday morning.
“What’s the first rule of unknown substances?” Julian said as we geared up. They’ve been taking their teaching duties marginally more seriously lately. I think going to Palefish has been good for them.
“Don’t let them touch your eyes, nose or mouth,” I said.
“Or ears,” Julian said, tugging down his beanie to better cover his.
“Or any other orifice,” Neal added. “Pee now. This is a no exposed-booties adventure.”
“Shame,” Cara sighed.
Am I obsessed with Cara: yes.
It took literally all day to get there. It was miles away, and the fog has gotten so thick in just the few days we’ve been here that I couldn’t see Neal ahead of me. We had to all carry a rope to make sure none of us got lost. The going was slow.
We could tell we were getting closer because the fog was getting denser. I could feel it slicking my hair and soaking into my clothes. I swear I saw shadows out in the fog, and heard the shuffling and scraping of movement, out there somewhere, where I couldn’t see it. It was like being lost in the dark. Every sound and shadow squeezed my heart.
I don’t know how Cara managed to lead us because I couldn’t even find my feet in the fog. When I said as much to Neal he just said, dryly: “A lesson you should learn now: never underestimate Cara.”
We couldn’t even stop to eat or drink so by the time we made it to the well I was disheveled, damp, and feeling sorry for myself, but trying to hide it. Especially from Rook, who is apparently unbothered by the fog, can walk many miles without eating or drinking without breaking a sweat, and rocks a wet hair look. From what I could tell, anyways. The fog by the well was so dense I could barely see my hand if I extended it in front of my face.
“You’re sure this is it?” Lana called from some indeterminate place ahead of me.
“It’s right here,” Cara’s voice came back. “Come up and look.”
It took some doing, but soon we were gathered around the well. I had to kneel down to see, but from that vantage I really could see the fog drifting up from the lip of the well like pollution from factory chimneys.
“This is an open rift,” Neal realized aloud.
“We don’t know that,” Lana replied.
“Got a better explanation?” Knock asked.
She didn’t. None of us did. Julian picked up a rock and dropped it into the well. As far as I could hear, it never hit the bottom.
A chill ran through me.
A whole other world was at the bottom of that well.
You’d think I’d be getting used to this impossible shit, but I was literally standing on a precipice over an unknown universe; I’m not sure there’s getting used to shit like that.
“How do we close it?” Daryl said. I like Daryl more every day. I find his endless practicality deeply comforting.
I was expecting impossible problems to require impossible solutions, so when Julian said, “Is there a well cover?” I laughed out loud.
“If there is, who knows where it is,” Knock replied.
“What about a big ass rock?” Daryl said.
Classic Daryl. So practical.
“A slab of concrete would do the job,” Neal said. “We just need some tools.”
It took almost an hour to find the tool shed. Cara, who had been out to the site before the fog was this thick, knew the general direction towards the barn, so we set out according to her memory.
The only hitch was that as we were walking, I tripped over something horribly soft and went sprawling across the grass, skewing my goggles off my eyes. By the time I’d managed to fix them back on and open my eyes the others had already gathered around to see what the issue was.
It was a dead dog. Or at least, it was a dead dog’s skin. It was lying in the grass, completely deflated. When Lana knelt to examine it, it’s insides — it’s bones and organs, anything that would have given it form — seemed to be… missing.
“Not a great sign,” Neal commented.
“Keep your masks on, people,” Daryl agreed.
We went on looking for the tools. Once we found them, it took surprisingly little time to pry up the concrete. Lana’s super-strength helped.
Somehow, hilariously, covering the well seemed to work. Fog still seeped out where the the concrete wasn’t sealed, but not nearly to the degree that it had been.
“Alright, well, it’s a start,” Lana said, brushing off her hands. “We’ll have to come back with a better seal. Maybe actual, wet concrete. But at least it’s not getting worse now.”
So we turned back towards the clinic. I was already exhausted and we still had a long walk home. I kept thinking of that dog, the horrible emptiness of it.
I was thinking about the dog in fact, when Team ACAB found us.
It must have been an accident. No one was intentionally finding anyone out in the fog.
“There’s more of those things!” someone shouted, someone who’s voice I didn’t recognize, and then there was a storm of gun shots.
When I tell you I dropped, I mean I hit the ground so hard I scraped my cheek on the pavement. I will never in my life be cool with gunshots. Fuck gunshots.
Everyone was yelling. I had dropped the tow line and couldn’t find it in the mist. All I could see was the occasional flash of light, and all I could hear was chaos.
It was Rook that found me.
I don’t know what he said, my ears were ringing too loudly, I just focused on his eyes over his mask, screwed up against the shouting erupting around us, swimming out of the mist as he leaned down to help me. My knight in black magical hazmat suit hahahahaha.
We stumbled blindly away from the shooting, off the road onto a sidewalk beside a building. In the fog, that’s all we could tell for certain.
I had hit full-on panic mode by that point and had to crouch down against the wall, gasping for air.
Rook knelt, too. “Gunshots, huh?”
I could only nod, still just trying to catch my breath. My heart was doing it’s best to pulverize itself against my rib cage. My were hands going numb, vision going spotty. You know, the whole panic attack package.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Kids screaming always fucks me up, I get it.”
“We might be in the wrong line of work,” I managed.
“Beats retail,” he replied and I managed to laugh.
The gunshots had stopped, but so had the shouting.
“Neal?” I shouted, but no one answered. “Julian?”
Instead of an answer there was more shooting and then, hurling towards us from out of the mist, an enormous chunk of concrete. Rook must have seen it first because he lurched over me, flattening me down against the sidewalk. The concrete hit the side of the building so hard that rubble rained down on us.
We scrambled and ran blindly, holding hands so we didn’t lose each other, until the wall abruptly ended and we spun round the corner and leaned flat against the wall, breathing hard.
“What the fuck was that?” I gasped.
“No one should have been able to throw that much concrete that far,” Rook said.
“Did you see where everyone else went?” I asked.
Rook shook his head. “I lost them.”
The building we were up against turned out to be a nail salon, so we ducked into it. The whole front wall of the salon was windows, and outside the fog swirled and pressed against the glass, but it was clear inside. We went and crouched behind the front desk, out of sight.
Rook got out his phone and swore. “Look at this.”
The service reception symbol was flickering up and down. When I got my phone out, it was the same. Rook dropped pins to everyone, but so far none have sent. This isn’t even gonna post. I’m literally just writing down what happened to self sooth hahahaha.
“Do you think they’re okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Rook replied immediately. “They’ll come find us soon, we just have to stay put and wait.”
Easier said than done. The adrenaline eventually wore down, and we sat with our feet in the empty foot baths in the nail salon and waited for someone to contact us, but no one did.
“I’ve never gotten separated before,” I said.
“I have,” Rook said. “A few times, actually. They’ll find us. It’ll be okay.”
We were quiet for a while. Rook yawned. “Do these things lean back do you think?” he said, searching the sides of the chair for a lever.
“Should we get some sleep?” I was starving and exhausted, but surprisingly not panicking. Being with someone else made the whole situation feel a lot less dire. That someone else being Rook also helped.
“Yeah, probably,” he said. “You wanna sleep first? I can keep watch.”
But I couldn’t fall asleep. No matter how I tried to get comfortable there was no sleeping for me. There was no shutting my damn brain up, and it didn’t help that I was hyper aware of every single thing I did because Rook was right there.
“This isn’t gonna happen,” I said.
“Yeah, I know same,” he replied. “I never sleep well in the field.” He was quiet for a minute, both of us staring at the ceiling. Then he said, “I could paint your nails.”
He got up and went to the wall of polish. “What color do you want?”
“Are you serious?”
“You have something better to do?”
Obviously I didn’t. They didn’t even have good magazines.
He chose a whole handful of colors and kicked the desk chair over to my seat.
“Once,” he said, studiously wiping the excess paint on lip of the bottle, “I got stranded on a sandbar off the coast of Texas for 3 whole days before Knock and Daryl found me. I had to build myself a driftwood shelter and fish for my dinner.”
“Nope,” he said. “I cut up my windbreaker and used half on my shelter and half as a fishing net.” He squinted down at my fingernail. I am actively not telling you about how his hands were warm and dry, or how he smelled sorta good even though we’re both sweaty and covered in dust.
“We’re going to be fine,” he said. “We just have to sit tight and stay calm. Do you like this color?” He leaned back so I could see his handiwork.
“Why are you so good at this?” I asked.
He smiled. “I used to have sisters,” he said. He bent back down to keep going.
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
It got sorta awkward there for a second until he said, “It’s okay, you can ask.”
So I did: “What happened to them?”
“You know what a rot snake is?” he asked.
The only thing I know about rot snakes is that their venom is incurable and that’s what killed Nolan Hawthorne, but I nodded.
“The whole family went on this fishing trip, and that first day I was the only one to catch a fish. Not a very big fish. I cooked it up myself and everyone tasted it, but I was the only one who really ate the thing. Except I must not have cooked it well enough because I was sick all night, running back and forth to the outhouse. At one point I heard everyone start screaming, but by the time I got back it was too late. They were all bitten.” He blew gently on my fingernails. “Knock and Daryl had been hunting it for a few days, but they were too late. They handled the rot snake, but the poison was already at work on my family. Have you ever seen it?”
I shook my head.
“It basically makes your body decompose very quickly,” he said, gently turning my hand to get an angle on my thumb. “But the venom only works as long as your heart is still pumping, so it keeps you alive… way too long.”
What the FUCK. Julian told me that rot snake venom was a slow ugly way to die but he didn’t say it was watch-your-loved-ones-decompose-before-your-eyes ugly.
“Knock and Daryl handled… everything, but I was alone after that, so they basically gave me a choice: I could come with them and learn the trade, or I could go into the foster system. I actually tried living with my friend first. I was good in school, and my parents were both professors, so I grew up around academia, and I always wanted to go to MIT. But I was um… sort of a mess. I couldn’t tell anyone what really happened to my family, and I was really struggling just to like… get through the average day. After a few months it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to MIT, so I called Rook and Daryl back and they came and picked me up. I’ve been with them ever since.” He sat up to admire his work. “There,” he said. “What do you think?”
My fingernails looked fine, but I was a little hung up on the entire fucking horror story he’d just told me.
“So you’re just going to hunt from now on?” I asked and Rook shrugged.
“Actually, I think I’m going to attend Palefish next year,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot better lately, and I miss school. I talked Lana and she said they’d be glad to have me.” He shrugged. “My parents always wanted me to attend an Ivy league, and this doesn’t quite count, but it’s more exclusive than MIT, so I feel like they’d be okay with the compromise.”
I said, “how did you get to the point where you like… wanted to go back to normal life?”
He gave me a look that knew way too fucking much. “Daryl was a therapist before he started hunting,” he said. “I’ve been pretty much living with my therapist for like two straight years.”
“Time helps,” he said. “Also, xanax.”
I squirmed. “Here,” I said and reached for the nail polish. “Your turn.”
“Fine,” he said. “But only if you tell me how you ended up with the Hawthornes.”
I hesitated. “It’s sort of a secret,” I said.
“I won’t tell,” he said, and given this is the most I’ve ever heard Rook speak, I believed him. Also, I was studying his very broad, warm hand, at the time and was pretty much mush.
So I told him the whole story: Madelyn, the whole cult situation, and the magic that kept drawing monsters toward my little town, which in turn drew in the FBI agents, and the unicorn, and the ritual sacrifice that ultimately ended up getting me shot in the face.
“Holy shit,” he said. “You really did die, didn’t you?”
“I really did,” I replied.
“Fuck,” he said. “I feel like an ass always joking about it now.”
I laughed. “Don’t, I like feeling normal.” I blew on his fingernails. I’d painted them powder pink with a layer of glitter over the top. “What do you think?” I said.
He smiled. “The color’s nice, but you’re terrible at this,” he replied.
“It’s dark!” I said, which it was. It was late and still no one had come back for us. Rook climbed back up into the pedicure seat beside me and we both faced the dark windows.
“It’s nice to talk to someone who’s not like, a thousand years old,” Rook said.
“Do you miss your friends?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Rook said.
“There’s no going back, though, is there.”
“No, not really.”
We were quiet for a minute, watching the mist where it was illuminated by streetlights. My stomach was really churning. Partly because I was starving, and partly because there really is no going back. I’m a high school drop out, a runaway. I haven’t spoken to anyone — not even my mother — since I left. It’s not like I can call them, not with the FBI still so hot on my case. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to face them again, after running away.
And now here I am out in the mist, and the Hawthornes are gone, and I’m all alone. Well, almost.
“They’ll find us,” Rook said, as if he could hear me.
But they didn’t. Or they haven’t yet. It is now early Wednesday morning and we haven’t heard anything from anyone. We’re still in the damn nail salon. We spent the whole night out here, snoozing badly with our feet in the pedi baths. Rook’s still asleep, so I’m writing this, but —
Oh shit, I think I just saw something outside. I have to go