Authors: Skye Malone
He gave a slow shrug. “I don’t know as anything’ll fit you, but I can see what I got.”
His gaze stayed on me a heartbeat longer than Zeke, and then he drew a breath, pushing to his feet. He headed into the kitchen.
Zeke watched him go.
“We’re staying here?” I asked in a low voice. “We could walk to the gas station.”
Not taking his eyes from the doorway, Zeke’s mouth tightened. “You haven’t slept in a week,” he whispered. “Whether or not you reach Kansas, you’re still going to need every bit of strength you’ve got to travel far enough from the water that those bastards can’t find you.”
I hesitated as dishes clinked in the kitchen. I knew he was right. I hadn’t wanted to sleep, though. Not when every time I closed my eyes, memories returned of a blindfold closing over my head and people punching me in the darkness. Even thinking about it now made me shiver. But at the same time, I knew that, stranger’s house or not, if I closed my eyes I’d probably pass out where I sat. And it could be hours more till we found someone else to help us.
I paused as the man came back into the room, a pair of mugs in his huge hands. Murmuring our thanks, we both took them.
The bitter decaf spread through me, warm and relaxing despite the lack of sugar or cream. Wrapping my fingers around the ceramic sides of the plain mug, I watched the man while he headed upstairs.
“You sleep,” Zeke said. “I’ll keep an eye out, alright?”
I glanced to him. “Okay.”
He nodded, not quite looking at me. He took a sip from the mug and then grimaced at the taste and returned the cup to the table.
Silence fell while I finished my coffee. Everything felt awkward around him, and not just because of the strange surroundings or the fact his brother was a Sylphaen.
I still wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, with him so close. With what had happened between us in the cave still hanging in the air.
Footsteps clomped on the steps as the man came back down to the living room.
“Got you some stuff that might fit,” he said, his arms full of a mismatched bundle of clothes. “Though you, uh…”
He paused. “What’re your names?”
I swallowed. “Chloe.”
The man nodded thoughtfully. “Earl,” he offered. “So yeah, stuff might be kind of big on Chloe. It belonged to my girl. She, uh, she was a bit larger than you.”
His face tightened for a moment, something almost like anger flashing over his face, but before I could catch more than a glimpse of the expression, he covered it by turning away to set the clothes on the easy chair. Leaving the pile on the seat, he turned and headed to the kitchen without another word.
I hesitated and then stood, leaving the rough blanket on the couch. From the pile, I drew out a pair of jeans. Checking the tag inside, I saw they were a size or so above my own, but when I pulled them on, they weren’t so large as to be unwearable. A forest green tank top followed and I shifted around uncomfortably at the feeling of both it and the jeans on my scales.
Once I had a chance to do so without raising suspicion, I’d really have to change my skin further.
Earl came back in. He paused at the sight of me, his face tightening again, and I dropped my gaze away. I didn’t know what’d happened to his daughter, but it didn’t take a genius to see it wasn’t something good.
“Thank you for the clothes,” I said as Zeke rose and retrieved a shirt from the pile.
Earl nodded and continued into the room. He took my mug from the table and then hesitated briefly when he noticed Zeke’s cup was still full. Not saying a word, he picked up both and returned to the kitchen.
I sighed, exhaustion stealing over me as he left. The mere feeling of clothes brought back how long it’d been since I’d stayed on land for any length of time, and everything that’d happened between then and now.
Not the least of which was truly how little I’d slept.
I walked to the couch and sat down.
Zeke glanced back at me. “You okay?”
I nodded. “Just… yeah, tired.”
He watched me for a moment. “Hey, Earl?”
The man leaned his head out of the kitchen.
“That room you were talking about,” Zeke prompted. “You think you could show that to us?”
Earl nodded, and then jerked his head toward the stairs. Following his own direction, he walked over to the steps.
I pushed away from the couch, though my limbs didn’t seem to want to support the motion. Seeing me wobble, Zeke came over and took my arm. I started to protest the help even though his touch felt as warm and amazing as ever, but nothing seemed to respond, including my words.
I’d never been this tired in my life.
Together we crossed the room and climbed the steps, Earl going ahead of us. At the landing, he turned and walked through an open doorway just beyond the staircase.
Zeke led me inside. A queen-size bed waited to the left, covered in blankets not much different than the rough one I’d left downstairs. Twin windows flanked it, each of them partially shielded by ratty curtains and sunken into the wall with window seats on their bottom edges. A dresser stood at the far end of the room, its top as bare as the rest of the space.
I clung to Zeke while he continued toward the bed, my legs feeling heavier with every step. I lay down, not even bothering to pull back the rough blanket, and my eyes closed immediately when my head touched the pillow.
“You want something else to drink?” I heard Earl ask. “Not coffee?”
Zeke hesitated. “Sure. Thanks.”
My brow furrowed. Something felt wrong about that. About all of this. I couldn’t believe I was so tired.
And then sleep claimed me.
“…do it in Jeri’s old room.”
Earl’s words filtered through the cotton stuffing in my head, barely making sense.
“Yeah, well, seemed fitting.” He paused. “Listen, Richard, I called you as a courtesy, on account of how you said one got away from you yesterday. But it took me an hour after the girl collapsed to get the boy to finally conk out, and with that damn scum-sucker metabolism of theirs, you know I can’t promise either of ‘em will be down for long. You and your boys want any part of this, you better hurry up and get here.”
Alarm struggled through me, weighed down by an exhaustion that wanted to smother my mind back into sleep. Scum-sucker? He…
“Hang on,” Earl said as though interrupting someone. “One of them ain’t breathing the same as they were.”
My heart began to pound harder while I fought to open my eyes. Breathing? He sounded so far away. How could he hear anyone
Footsteps clunked on the hardwood floor. Light pierced the blackness around me as I managed to lift my eyelids. I was on the bed, facing the doorway. In the window seat, Zeke was slumped, his head resting on the wall. The room was dark around us, though the hall light was on.
Earl came to the door. In one hand, he held a phone to his ear, and at the sight of me, he made an angry noise.
“What’d I tell you? The girl’s awake.”
He dropped the phone onto the window seat as he strode toward me, and all my dull commands to my muscles couldn’t make my body move. Striding past me, he retrieved something from the dresser and then returned with a sports bottle in his hand.
I tried to pull away, but he just reached down and grabbed my head from behind, lifting it toward him. With his teeth, he popped open the top of the bottle and then shoved it into my mouth.
Bitter-tasting liquid flooded my throat. I choked, the drink spewing from my lips, but he just dropped the bottle and clamped an enormous hand over the lower half of my face.
“Swallow,” he ordered.
I stared up at him. His grip tightened on my hair, tugging at my scalp.
Someone shouted angrily from the tiny speaker of the cordless phone, their words indecipherable. Earl’s face darkened and he glanced to the window seat.
Spikes crept from my forearms, finally answering the frantic signals from my brain. As he turned back toward me, I flopped my arm out like the dead weight it was, succeeding in catching his side.
With a pained cry, he lurched away, his hand leaving my mouth.
I spit the liquid out and struggled backward, half-crawling and half-tumbling from the opposite side of the bed.
“Zeke,” I croaked.
He didn’t move.
Earl made a furious noise while he straightened, clutching at his side. Blood darkened his flannel shirt.
But he didn’t look startled. He didn’t look surprised in the least by the tips of the iridescent knives protruding from my skin.
“What…” I tried. “Why are you…”
He glanced from me to Zeke, and then to the phone still laying on the window seat. Annoyance twisted his face. He reached over, retrieving the bottle from the floor, and then he returned his gaze to me.
Clutching the edge of the bed, I trembled. “Please. I’m not your enemy.”
“Tell that to my daughter.”
My brow furrowed.
He started around the bed. I scuttled backward, my legs still refusing to hold me, though the spikes listened and grew longer. Half-sprawled on the floor with my back to the wall, I lifted one of my arms in front of me like a shield.
“I don’t…” I managed, breathing hard with the effort of keeping my arm up. “I don’t know your daughter. Please.”
A snarl curled across his mouth. “Please,” he repeated scornfully.
He kicked my legs, toppling me sideways. His hand came down on my wrist, avoiding the spikes, and he twisted it. I shrieked as pain shot through my arm. Dropping the bottle from his other hand, he took my throat.
“Stab me again and I break your neck right now,” he growled.
Not waiting for a response, he shifted his grip from my throat to my other wrist and then yanked me with him. Like a flour sack, he dragged me from behind the bed and started across the room.
“‘Please’,” he muttered as he went. “That’s what you all come down to. You and your magic. Begging. You know she begged me too? My own girl. Begged me to kill her after what that scaly bastard did. After I finished him off. Said she couldn’t live without him.” He scoffed. “
. First scum-sucker she’d found, and one she’d already started gutting like the fish he was. But then he got his hands on her and…”
Earl looked down at me. “You try any of that make-me-love-you shit on me, I’ll be sure I remember just enough to kill your boyfriend nice and slow right in front of you, got it?”
I stared up at him, screaming in my head for my limbs to move. For anything to start working. My arms were going numb from the angle at which he was holding them, and nothing in my body seemed to want to work right.
My gaze went to the window seat. “Zeke!” I cried. “Zeke, wake up!”
His brow furrowed, but he didn’t open his eyes.
And then Earl pulled me into the hallway.
Hardwood slid beneath my back and my legs bumped into the oak railings lining the stairwell. The light overhead glared in my eyes as we passed below it, and then Earl turned, hauling me into the shadows of another room.
My vision sharpened out of desperation when he shut the door. Painted shelves hung on the walls, with figurines of ballerinas and horses on them. Faded posters were taped nearby, featuring Hollywood stars and pop bands that had been famous nearly two decades ago. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, as though it hadn’t been touched in years.
Something like stiff fabric bunched up at my shoulders with a crinkling sound. Shifting his grip, Earl heaved me upward and then dropped me to the floor again.
I rolled my head to the side awkwardly. Plastic. I was lying on sheet plastic.
Heart pounding, I tried to push away from the ground, but my arms just tingled with numbness and wouldn’t hold my weight. I struggled to roll over, my gaze searching for Earl.
He was standing at a white-painted vanity, with a four-post bed covered in teddy bears and a white quilt nearby. Pink ribbons hung from the edges of the mirror, while an old strip of pictures like those taken at an amusement park photo booth was tucked into the space between the glass and its frame. Swiftly, my eyes picked out the details. Earl, though his beard was shorter and he was smiling, and at his side, a round-faced girl of maybe fourteen or fifteen with curly brown hair and an embarrassed expression that didn’t fully hide her grin.
Drawing a breath, he lifted a hand to the photos. In the reflection of the mirror, I could see his eyes close, pain and rage on his face in equal measure.
I shoved at the floor, succeeding in moving a few inches backward on the cold plastic. But my legs were still dead. Reaching down with one hand and not taking my attention from Earl, I rubbed at them frantically, trying to wake my muscles.
“Jeri was so good with a knife,” Earl murmured without opening his eyes. “I taught her since she was practically a baby and she was always so good.”
He exhaled sharply, as though pushing the memories aside, and he glanced back at me. “I found her in here, you know? Right about where you’re lying. After she’d…”
A shudder ran through him. He returned his gaze to the vanity and then he lifted a large hunting knife from its top.
In my head, I shouted for my legs to move, while spikes stood out from below my elbows to my wrists.
“She was right, though. She always kept my spirits up with her belief you scale-skins were still out there somewhere. And she was right.”
He turned, the enormous knife gripped in his fist.
Adrenaline made its way to my legs. Shoving awkwardly from the plastic, I scrambled toward the closed door, not taking my eyes from him. My hand fumbled for the handle.
The door was locked.
“You know the wonderful thing about your kind?” he commented, watching me. “You don’t exist. So no cops’ll come looking when you disappear.”
He strode toward me, the plastic crinkling beneath his feet. I felt desperately around the knob, trying to find the lock.
My fingers landed on it. Frantically, I turned it and then grasped at the knob again.
He lunged at me.