ice box

This has been an unusual case, because the creature isn’t a secret. It flies around the town freely, and people see it regularly. They consider it a badge of honor to have seen it — a good omen, a sign of the lords blessing — or a warning, depending on your behavior. Plus the investigation is already done. It’s not like there’s any research to do. We’re literally just here waiting while Neal tries to convince this thing that he’s it’s best friend.

The trouble is, apparently, that it’s pretty well bonded with the preacher.

“Protsman did warn us that these birds were loyal,” Daryl said over dinner last night, when Neal finally slumped into the booth across from him. “Don’t take it so hard.”

“Neal doesn’t like it when he’s not the beastie’s favorite,” Julian teased, crunching his salad.

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Neal shot back. “It’s that I don’t have much practice.”

“At not being the favorite?” Rook asked and Neal tipped his beer at him.

“Exactly.”

Julian rolled his eyes.

Julian’s been in a really good mood because he turned into the beast and didn’t maim anyone. Julian finally asked what had happened when he turned last night when we were parked in the forest behind the church, trying to find the bird once more before going to bed.

“Do you remember anything?” Neal asked, peering through his binoculars.

“No.”

So Neal told him the story and Julian stared at him, open mouthed with wonder.

“I approached you?”

“Yep,” Neal said. “You walked right up to me and looked at me. You let me touch your face.”

Julian pulled his knee up to his chest in the car seat. “Huh. Damn.”

“It was a start,” Neal said.

“Barely,” Julian said, but he’s been in a good mood ever since.

Which was why he was happily teasing Neal and crunching salad earlier this evening instead of gazing out the window, chin tucked in his black turtleneck, deep in whatever melancholy thoughts he retreats to when he’s in a bad mood.

“Alright correct me if I misunderstand the research,” Neal said. “This bird bonds with one person, but that person’s community is what becomes, more or less, it’s flock, right?”

“That’s how we understand it,” Knock said.

“So here’s my question,” Neal said. “Is this bird deciding who has to die based on the preacher’s thoughts alone? Or is it collecting data from everyone? I don’t get the impression that our preacher is particularly murderous.”

“You never know,” Knock said.

But the thing is that Neal does know. If this one individual man had this much murder in him, Neal would know it.

“What do you think?” Julian asked.

“I think this bird is acting on group-think,” Neal said. “I don’t think anyone in that church would say they wanted ‘sinners’ fatally punished if they were asked.”

“But?”

Neal shrugged. “But people think things they don’t act on. People get passionate in their heads, if they’re stirred up enough. And if enough people think those things… well, a psychic bird might get the idea that that’s what you want.” He said this fairly calmly, considering our dumb gay asses would be nice and dead if anyone in town got wind of our… you know… trying to bang men and also women.

“The problem,” Neal went on, “is that I can’t undo the whole town’s collective certainty. I’ll do my best, obviously, but no matter how much this thing likes me, the six of us just don’t have the weight of an entire town of people flushed with religious conviction.”

Knock let out his breath like a horse. “Yeah, we thought that would be the case. Anyone got any ideas?”

“About how to talk down a group of religious fanatics? Historically, no,” Julian said.

They did some brainstorming, and ultimately decided it was time to bring out the badges and pretend to be hunting a murder, just see how they try to explain their situation to an outsider. Not that I was paying literally any attention, because Rook was sitting across from me and there was literally no space in my head for giving a single shit about anything other than that.

Remember on Sunday when he came and leaned against the wall and I had no idea what to say or do and it was just like… super awkward? Yeah well, it’s still super fucking awkward.

Right now I’m sitting in the motel room. He’s right on the other side of the wall. I can hear him watching tv. I’m just so EMBARRASSED.

This morning when we all met to strategize, Julian specifically asked me to come on a coffee run with him, which would have been horrifying enough if Rook hadn’t looked up sharply and not said a single word.

In the car, Julian said, “…so the other night…”

And I realized he was gonna make us TALK ABOUT IT.

“Look, I should have said something earlier,” he went on, maximally awkward. “This is not the first time Neal and I come across something that alters our perception of reality, and behave… unlike ourselves, and it likely won’t be the last. We all just sort of know the score, so usually we just get on with it, but I just wanted to make sure —”

“I’m fine,” I said, even though anyone who’s blacked out and done something horrifying knows that what I’d actually like to do is dig myself a hole and hide in it.

“It’s okay if you’re not,” Julian said.

“Can we just… forget it happened?” I squeaked and Julian twiddled his thumbs on the steering wheel.

“Sure,” he said. He pulled to a stop at a light, and the entire duration of the light was agonizingly silent. But then the light turned and we pulled through the intersection, and Julian said, “So, if you leave dust alone for long enough, it grows into mushrooms. That’s how I first encountered it. We were like… I mean, Bev and I were like 15, the others were a little older. As dust, exposure is pretty chaotic, but once it matures into mushrooms, the effects are much more subtle. No less intense, but much more subtle. For me, that meant I was able to control my instinct to turn — so I didn’t become the monster, physically. But mentally…”

“Oh no,” I said, and Julian smiled his small, restrained smile.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I went full on beast mode. I like… stripped off all my clothes and went loping around on all fours, bare ass in the air, running down the street, growling at people. Jasper and Cara only caught up with me because I had to stop and pee on a dumpster to mark my territory. I remember distinctly that I kept trying to sniff people.” He glanced at me as he pulled into the coffee stand line. “And I mean, that’s a fun story, but if you want to talk about waking up having lost all control of who you are what you do, I have a few stories about that, too.”

Oh, yeah.

“So when I tell you I get it, I really do get it,” he said, and then leaned out the window to order coffees.

And you know what, that really does put things into perspective hahahaha. So by the time we were getting back with the bean fuel, Julian and I were laughing about some dumb thing, and Rook looked up and saw us juggling cups of coffee and trying to hold open the door for each other, laughing, and his face FELL, like, visible expression of dejection, because of course LAST TIME we talked, it was all about how much I wanted to make out with Julian.

And then this afternoon, while Neal was still out flirting with the murder bird, Knock, Daryl and Julian decided they had a mission for us.

So, the older people seem have accepted their fun new 1950s conservative mindset with some enthusiasm, but the kids? Like, are we really meant to believe that in the new year 2021, there are still 18 year olds who believe that people who have sex before marriage deserve divine retribution? (Yes, I know, I very clearly grew up in the Pacific Northwest)

And who better to start this conversation with than the pastor’s daughter.

Her name is Makayla. She’s a senior at the local high school. Rook and my job was to casually talk to her about the deaths, to get an idea of how she felt about the new religious fervor that had swept the town.

On any other day I would have been STOKED to have been given a task, but today it just meant I had to spend several long hours not knowing what to say to Rook.

After school, Makayla worked at one of those pottery painting shops on their little main street area, between a couple antique shops. It was a tiny little store. Rook, Makayla and I were the only three people in there.

She is this sweet, peppy, pretty girl with big brown curls and freckles, who was super happy to chat with us, but obviously I could tell she wasn’t like… really talking to us. Like, she was using her customer service voice.

Rook told her we were on a road trip.

“That’s so romantic!” Makayla said, and I said, immediately,

“Oh no, we’re just friends,” and listen, in my head I was actually trying to say, don’t worry Rook, you don’t have to pretend to have any romantic interest in me! Don’t feel awkward! I’m not offended! Because I’m the MOST insecure. But actually it just sounded like I was super eager to make sure everyone knows Rook and I aren’t dating.

Hang on I need a moment to scream into a pillow.

Okay, back, I should be able to get through the rest hahaha.

So Makayla gave me a quick look-over like only a pretty, popular small-town girl can, and said, “well, we’re so glad you decided to stop in our little town!”

“It’s so cute here,” Rook said, totally unruffled. “I’ve never spent much time small towns.”

Makayla smiled, a big bright, customer service smile. “Yeah? Where are you from?”

So Rook made up some story about us being from Minneapolis. Remember at Palefish when we like… barely spoke all week? Yeah, where was this then, huh?? Not that he was like… gregarious or anything. But apparently when he wants to he can turn on this quiet, self-assured friendliness, and I was totally blind-sided. I don’t think I said a single word to Makayla through the whole conversation, I just watched Rook coax a conversation out of her and tried to keep my mouth from hanging open.

“Do you like living here?” he asked, and Makayla shrugged.

“Oh, you know,” she said. “It has its ups and downs.” This with a big grin. “You know, everyone knows everyone, which is sometimes great, and sometimes…” she left it up to our imagination.

“Oh, right,” Rook said. “I’m sure it can get a little claustrophobic.”

Makayla exhaled slightly. “Yeah, you can say that again.” And then, as if catching herself complaining, she added, “but you know, so many places don’t have a sense of community, and you can’t say we don’t have that.”

Yeah, you have such a tight knit community that anyone who deviates is mysteriously speared to death by a big ass bird, I thought, which is probably why I said, aloud, “yeah but at what cost?”

Which could have gone over poorly, but instead, when I glanced up in a panic to see whether I’d pissed Makayla off, I saw a flicker of her real feelings under her customer service face.

“I think anywhere you grow up comes with a cost,” she said, but her eye contact and her little frown, said something else and I felt a little kick in my gut — like oh. OH. I don’t know what it is that she’s suppressing, but I saw the fear and stress of suppressing it.

“I heard there’s been some murders around here,” I said and Makayla got super uncomfortable.

“Deaths,” she corrected. “I don’t think they’re murders.”

“You don’t?” Rook asked.

Makayla hesitated. “Well,” she said. “That’s not what they say, anyways. I um… I have some stuff —” and she gestured vaguely behind her while she made her escape.

Which left us to paint our mugs. Like we were on a date.

Literally — LITERALLY — we didn’t speak a single word to each other the entire time. SILENCE. I’m going to have nightmares about this mug painting session. Why didn’t we just LEAVE???

I mean, I know why we didn’t — one of us would have had to say let’s just leave and since neither of us were SPEAKING, we just kept painting.

It was excruciating. Just awful. Rook and I haven’t ever been like… the most talkative companions in the world. But like… we’ve been through a lot together!! It’s honestly sort of easy to forget on paper, since my life is just a roller coaster of monster drama, but that doesn’t mean that us surviving Fog Town together means nothing to me!! Like, he’s both insanely hot, and also, I care about him a lot —

And now I’m sitting in my room, alone, just one flimsy little wall separating us, and neither of us are doing anything about it.

I should just… go talk to him? That’s a thing people do, right????

Lmfao okay this is ridiculous, I’m doing it, COURAGE I’ll be right back

HAhhahahahahaa

So, when I opened my door, walked three steps and just about ran directly into Rook.

He said, “Oh. Hey.”

We stared at each other and I was starting to panic because I was NOT prepared to be CAUGHT coming to talk to him.

So I blurted out, “I’m going to get ice.”

????????????

He nodded as if confused as to why I would tell him that, which is for sure fair enough. But then he said, “…do you want some company?”

I had a whole butterflies moment, but what did I say? “Sure, I guess.”

So… we walked out to get ice. Agonizing silence. I had no idea what to say. Literally smooth brain, just nothing happening at all, and it was so cold outside hahaha.

“Did you bring a cup or something?” he asked.

“What?” I asked.

“…for your ice?”

Nope, of course not, because I didn’t actually NEED ice, I was there to talk to him but I couldn’t THINK of ANYTHING to SAY.

“Oh shit,” I said. We just stood there in the cold next to the icebox, waiting for… the pavement to open up and swallow me whole?

“I was actually coming to look for you,” he said.

Oh??????

He scratched the back of his head. “I heard you open your door so I came out. I just wanted you to know like… uh.” He cleared his throat and looked literally anywhere but at me. “Have you been sitting in your hotel room this whole time?”

So I said, “what?”

And he BLUSHED, and said, “I mean, I thought I’d like… bump into you at a coffee shop or something.”

At which point I got defensive because no, okay, I haven’t been leaving the motel room, I’ve been lying here except for at meal times for like four days. Partially because I haven’t spent this much time solo in MONTHS, and everything has been super fucking WEIRD lately and I’m TIRED, and partially because I was sort of waiting for him to leave his motel room so I could accidentally on purpose bump into him.

So I said, “sorry I get coffee at weird times?” And to be clear, because the words are pretty innocuous written down: I said it in a mean way. Like, my tone for sure implied that he was fucking weird for saying that. Intentionally.

And Rook looked at his feet. “No, that’s not what I meant.”

All the meanness went out of me, but I wasn’t sure why yet.

“I just wanted to tell you,” he said, without looking up at all, and while picking at his fingernails. “That whatever is up with you and Julian, it’s cool.” And then, talking over himself, “I mean obviously it’s cool, he’s cool, I didn’t mean — uh.” He cleared his throat. “I’m actually gonna —” and he started walking away.

It took me so long to piece it together. Just me, standing in the flickering yellow light next to the ice box, exhaling big plumes of cold air, the gears in my head crunching along.

Was he… paying attention to where I was… because he was trying to run into me in a coffee shop? Were we both waiting for the other person to leave their motel room so we could run into each other? And why was he bringing up Julian?

I knew why.

I plunged my hand into the ice box and chucked a handful at his back. An ice chip hit him in the back of his head.

He turned back, shoes crunching on the dirty pavement. “What?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

“There is nothing going on with me and Julian.”

“Oh.”

“Like less than nothing. Julian would never.”

“Yeah no, I got that from our conversation on the phone.”

I cringed, full body, covering my face with my hands. “No like… I was just super high, and… Can we promise to never talk about that again please?” I said.

“It’s just,” he said, “I don’t really have a lot of friends so like —” he stopped and smiled helplessly.

Elation folks, like my insides were made of champagne.

“I don’t have any friends either,” I said. And then we both added at the same time, “Except for Bass.”

Rook smiled, relieved, and his hair flopped into his eyes.

“We can carry ice back in our hands if we go fast,” he offered and I laughed helplessly. He laughed, too, because it was contagious not because he had any idea what was funny. “What?”

I peeked up at him, kicked the pavement, and admitted it: “I don’t need any ice.”

He must have understood, because he BEAMED at me, his whole face lit up, and my stomach went 🦋🦋🦋

And I ALMOST ruined it, like I was literally searching for something else to say, when he finally took the steps between us, and I just know if I’d opened my mouth, he wouldn’t have kissed me, but being terrible at talking to people had to work in my favor eventually, right?

He PICKED ME UP and sat me on the ice box and I totally bruised my calf and it was WORTH IT. He said, “this okay?”

And I wrapped both my arms around his neck and grinned at him, and that was IT folks, we KISSED, FINALLY, and listen for someone who was literally tongue tied three minutes earlier, he was NOT fucking shy hahahaha.

Things were definitely getting a little bit hot and heavy when someone who actually needed ice came out of the building and found us, which should have been embarrassing, but I was all jacked up on adrenaline, I didn’t care about anything. I took his hand and we ran for it, bouncing off the walls as we went.

We paused at my door.

“Should I say good night?” he asked.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked back and we spilled into my room.

Or should I say, our room, because I was definitely sharing it with the Hawthornes. Why don’t I get my own room? It’s not like money’s an issue. (I don’t get my own room because I would get scared alone in a motel room)

To his credit, Neal knocked before he came in, but like, you know the knock-and-come-in while already talking. No idea what he was saying because I was busy shrieking and reaching for my shirt, but whatever it was he immediately stopped, retreated, slammed the door behind him.

Rook and I just lay there, shaking with laughter, horrified.

“We’re never not gonna hear about this,” he whispered.

“Yeah no, we’re so screwed.”

He pulled his shirt back on, leaned down and pressed a kiss on my lips. “Breakfast tomorrow?”

I nodded, elated, but also like writhing with embarrassment as Rook let himself out, squeezing by Neal with a strangled, “good night.”

And then I was alone with Neal, awaiting my awkward, awkward fate.

He came in, closed the door. There was a long, horrible silence.

Then he said, “You had to decide to finally become a teenage girl right now? You couldn’t wait like… a couple of weeks?”

I was blind-sided. “Huh?”

“Like don’t get me wrong here, I’m genuinely relieved, I thought you’d never move on from that girl you had back home. And Rook —” here he paused to do a little chef’s kiss gesture “— an angel. A precious precious sweet potato. But you have to do it right now? You know premarital sex is firmly on the list of sins, right?”

“We weren’t having —”

Neal held up both his hands. “Mm no no, I don’t need the details. Literally I cannot believe I’m saying this. But I don’t have a handle on this bird yet, so I’m going to need you and Rook to keep it —” he made a ☹️face “Jesus friendly.”

And that’s why I’m hiding in the bathroom tonight, thinking about ✨Rook✨ Remember last week when I wrote at length about how when I have a thing for guys it’s always like… theorhetical, not in practice? Well, we’ve done it folks, we cracked the system. He wants to make out with me and I still want to make out with him. Turns out all I needed to experience lasting, mutual attraction with a dude was the threat of death 🥰

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