Chapter 1: Prologue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
I was twenty years old when my mother decided it was best for us to move to Santa Carla, away from my father. It had reached a stage of constant fighting for them and they couldn't bear to be alone in the same room without having disagreements. I remember it clearly; my little sister Susie was sitting in the leather armchair in the hallway, a book in her trembling, small hands and a worried expression on her little face. I couldn't blame her for being worried. You could hear them in the other room through the walls:
"I can't take this anymore..."
"You want to leave, fine. There's the door, sweetheart."
My father was very angry. What came next was a lot of thumping noises and the clatter of silverware being thrown around the kitchen. Although I miss my father greatly, it was the best thing my mother ever did. So, this brings me to our story. It was a five-hour drive and Susie was growing restless in her seat. She still hadn't mastered the art of giving mom an easy time. We pulled up into a service station and went into the small diner.
There weren't many customers there, about four or five. The owner was an old man who smelt of gasoline and salt water. Susie ordered a chocolate milkshake with a side order of fries and I ordered a glass of soda. We sat on one of the red vinyl seats by the window so we could take in the view, or lack thereof.
"You'll enjoy it here, ma'am," the owner was telling my mother as he sat the plate and our drinks on the table. I would never tell Susie this, mainly because she was too young to understand what it meant, but it looked like the owner was flirting with her. I tried my hardest not to smile at that.
After a while he got to talking about some of the regular customers around here and that's when they pulled up. There were five of them, perched on the seats of their motorcycles and flying into the parking lot, their engines roaring. They had the whole James Dean look about them, as though they thought flying around on a motorcycle was the safest thing to do.
He admitted it was awkward and difficult with the boys around, but he said the trick was to treat them like everyone else. I think deep down inside he pitied them. He said how they had no mother but fell silent as soon as they came bustling into the diner, the doorbell jingling.
My mother was all of a sudden in a rush to get out of the diner. I presumed it was because some of the boys were screaming expletives, and she was always cautious with her language around Susie. We gathered our things and I was halfway toward the door when he looked at me.
He had blond hair, combed back in an unusual-looking style. He had a toothpick between his lips and looked like he needed a shave. The thing that terrified me the most was his eyes; cold slate blue eyes that seemed to hold me in. I couldn't look away from him and it seemed as if they could see right through to the back of my brain.
He smirked, the corner of his mouth pulling slightly upward as he looked me up and down with appraising eyes and I knew I had to look away from his gaze right then. My mother gave me a disapproving look, as though she saw the whole thing, and made her way out of the door, holding Susie in her arms.
One of the boys hissed at me as I opened the door to follow my mother, a very strange thing and one of the elderly customers flinched at the sound, spilling her drink all over herself. It was very bizarre. All the customers seemed to tense and fall quiet when they entered the room. I wondered idly how much influence they had over the people in this town.
The house we were staying at was very old, with yellow paint crackling at the veneers and dead, brown leaves scattered in the garden. My mother said the house had "a lot of character". There was a fair coming up that week on the Boardwalk, and my mother was very enthusiastic about me taking Susie and, hopefully, making some new friends. I wasn't particularly excited about that prospect, but I decided to take Susie anyway.
Susie was bouncing around and couldn't stand still when we were waiting in line. It was very crowded. There were clusters of families with their children, buying fairy floss and going on the scariest rides. Susie wanted a Coke, so I bought her one from the stall using my allowance money.
I wanted to sit down for a while, so she could drink it properly without spilling it all over herself, but I didn't want to be a killjoy. We walked slowly through the crowd, following where everyone was walking to. Susie wanted to go on the carousel, so I held her drink for her and watched her. Her feet could barely touch the ground.
I sit in one of the benches, watching her face get even more excited every time the ride did a turn. That's when I saw him - the boy from the diner, the blond one. He was standing by the carousel, watching very closely as the children spun round and round. I saw him look at Susie a few times, fleetingly. Every time he did, it made my blood boil.
I hadn't noticed the ride had finished, but my sister was already walking through the opposite sides of the gate, ambling along, unsure of where she would find me. I imagined her to be crying, her lips trembling as she searched the unfamiliar faces through the crowd as I quickly went to meet her on the other side, only the boy had already beat me. He was saying something to her, and her little mind must have been full of indecision.
I rush over to her and take her hand. She looks immediately relieved when she sees me and takes her Coke, stuffing the straw into her mouth and taking a generous suck. I look up and realize the boy has already started walking away, strutting ahead of us. He disappeared quickly through the crowd.
Susie and I started walking slowly and I decide to get her something for dinner. It seemed like the suitable thing to do. I wait patiently near the stalls, my aloneness becoming apparent, magnified, as I realize Susie isn't with me anymore. I look around me hurriedly, turning on the spot several times.
I hear little children laughing, playing with their toys and food. I don't see any of Susie anywhere, but then I realize the scene is almost too familiar; she's with him. What does he want from her, my little sister? I'm halfway toward them when I hear them deep in conversation; at least it's mostly him doing all the talking. Susie is too preoccupied with sucking her straw to comprehend what he is saying and, more importantly, that he is stranger danger.
He kneels down next to my little sister, the ends of his black coat flapping in the wind. "How is that blood?" he asks her, and a sickening shiver overtakes me that had nothing to do with the chilly wind.
My mother had always stressed to us the importance of not speaking to strangers, but it's as if my sister completely reverted. He could have been a stray dog baring its wet, shiny canines and she still would have taken the moment to reach out to him without hesitation.
"Huh?" she says shyly, her little face puckered and scrunched up in confusion.
He gestures toward the Coke can she's gripping tightly in her hands. "Blood," he repeats with an expression of mirth, leaning in closer. "You're drinking blood. How does it taste?"
Of course, Susie didn't know any different. Then, as a five year old, you couldn't tell who was being friendly or who was being downright strange. All I knew was the impression I got of him merely by watching him from afar; he was certainly dangerous just by the look of him, how he'd strut around the grounds, weaving in and out of the crowds of screeching and squirming children and families as if he owned the damned place.
A shimmer of laughter breaks into the air from a group of bare-chested kids near the hotdog stand. The sound startles me and diverts my attention for a moment. When I look back over at my little sister, I stand there for a moment watching, not thinking, and not breathing. There's something red and shiny dribbling down her chin. I rush over to her, ignoring the boy and using the napkin in my hand to daub at her chin. She looks up at me confusedly as I take her arm and pull her closer to me.
The boy laughs and there's something cruel and knowing in his laugh. He stands, looming over me in height. He's much more intimidating when looking directly at you. His slate blue eyes seemed to go all the way through me and he looks at me with such a high level of intensity that it starts to unnerve me.
He smirks; it softening the harsh look of his face slightly. "Is this your little sister?" he asks, his voice coming out rasping and low.
I look into his blue eyes surrounded by laugh lines and tell him the truth. "Yes. We've only just moved here. Susie likes the fair. Tonight was my treat." I crumple the used napkin between my fingers, glancing over my shoulder for any sign of a trashcan. When I turn back I realize the boy is staring intently at my little sister now.
"It was only Coke, Susie," he says emphatically and I tighten my hold on her arm.
Susie shrinks away from him, silently flinging her arms around my hips and burying her face from sight. He doesn't look offended by this, but he doesn't look impressed either. I try my hardest not to smile in satisfaction over this as I imagine my mother speaking: "Good girl. Don't talk to strangers now, dear."
"I think we should go home now," I say to him, only it comes out more like a question than an actual farewell to end conversation.
He glances at something or someone behind his shoulder then meets my gaze again. "Now?" he repeats, raising his eyebrows. "But the fun has yet to begun. You don't wanna miss out on the best part, do you?"
I let my eyes travel down the slight, litheness of his body that his dark coat and clothes seemed to accentuate, the collar of his coat unbuttoned loosely enough that I could see the muscles in his neck through the fair, lightness of his skin. Everything about him seemed threatening, the way he walked to the way he talked, but he was also redolent of longing, freedom, fearlessness of death and danger, as though he was undying and everlasting, immortal.
I shake my head. "Oh, no, I don't think we will stay," I say at last, looking down at Susie who is now peeking up at the boy with an expression of curiosity that must so mirror my own.
Even I can notice the disappointment on the boy's face. "Come on," he says softly, touching my arm confidentially and causing Susie to swivel behind my legs. "I've met your sister, now I want you to meet my brothers."
I think about it for a moment. My mother certainly wouldn't be happy if she found out about this. Susie would confess the whole ordeal to her as soon as we got home. I look down at my watch; it's 10.45. Our curfew is 11.00. The boy is watching me expectantly, waiting, and before I can answer, he takes my hand and pulls me along. I tighten my hold on Susie's wrist and she stumbles along with me.
I don't know where he's taking me, but all I know is that holding my hand, he has a delicate touch. It isn't something you would expect from a boy who seems so brazen and startling. We are far from the fairgrounds now. The only light is the weak, dim light coming from the moonlight and I look down at Susie to discover her face is shining wet with tears. She's crying and it was then that I realized the whole thing was a very big mistake.
The boy all of a sudden lets go of my hand and Susie collides into my legs, shivering. I can barely make out her profile, or the boy's. I start to wonder idly where he has disappeared off to, but I'm more concerned over the fact that my sisters upset. Tears are leaking out of her eyes.
"It's okay little Susie," I whisper to her, pulling her close to me. "Hush." She flings her arms silently around my neck and I lift her up, her warm face buried into my neck. I feel around on the ground with my free hand, the other holding her to me tightly, feeling sticky wet strands of grass and dirt.
My mother would hold me in contempt for doing this to poor Susie. I didn't know what I was thinking, trusting this stranger so wholly and completely, regardless of the fact that he gave me the jeepers.
I suddenly feel something stroke my hair, a hand perhaps? I swivel around in the direction it came from and hear someone say, "Don't let me startle you, Ruby." It's the boy again. And it's pitch-dark out here, I am not aware of our surroundings and, of course, he startled me.
It was then that I realized this was weird. I had told him Susie's name, but I don't recall ever telling him mine. I can't see him through the darkness and I start to panic, my chest rising and falling and my body heavy with the weight of my sister in my arms. What did he mean by the word brothers? Of course, it was logical to assume he meant it at face value, but the fact that I wasn't so certain terrified me.
"Your brothers?" I brought myself to ask, my voice shaking.
My ears are freezing and I could almost make out the fog of my breath in the dim moonlight. Susie is motionless in my arms. I start to reluctantly wonder if she has been frozen to death.
"Paul," I hear a deep voice say, another boy's voice, ahead of me.
"Marko," another says to my right.
"Dwayne," a lower voice says from right behind me, laughter evident in his voice.
They were all fairly common names; I wasn't certain why that surprised me. But there were four of them – the boy who I met earlier, his name he hadn't mentioned yet - and only two of us. I doubted Susie would be included in any of this. I start getting myself worked up over horrifying theories, replaying in my mind what they could do to me. Would they gang rape me? Torture me? All the possibilities were endless but there was no way I would ever ask them. I wouldn't want to encourage or provoke them.
"Who wants to go first?" I hear the boy say ceremoniously.
Something touches my hair again and I turn wildly on the spot, my breath hitching in my throat. The noise of Susie is becoming apparent now and I can hear her breathing strenuously and sobbing into my blouse. Someone laughs; high-pitched spooky laughter that resounds painfully in my ears and echoes slightly through the air.
"W-w-what's going on?" I ask, using my free hand and reaching out blindly.
"Ruby wants to know what's goin' on," the boy with the deep voice, Dwayne, says in a mocking voice.
"What is going on?" the boy, who I assume is named Marko, says with a hint of confusion clear in his tone.
At last my hand finds something, a soft material, someone's shirt and my hand instinctively bunches it up into my fist. The boy comes into view, the one from earlier, his skin ghostly pale in the moonlight. I realize our faces must be barely inches away from each other due to my poor eyesight, but at that moment I don't care.
"Please let us go," I plead firmly, trying to keep my voice calm for Susie's sake.
He leans forward and puts his mouth near my ear. "We're not holding you captive, Ruby," he says quietly. "You can run. You only need to make sure we don't catch up to you..."
"Wishful thinking," one of the guys laugh.
"We'll give you a head start," he breathes in my ear, his voice rasping. "That's the most generosity you're gonna get from us." I try to steady my breathing. "If we catch up, where you'll be going is with us. If not, we'll let you go free..."
It sounded easy, but I wasn't that naive to believe it. "Okay," I agree, letting go of his shirt and holding Susie tighter to my chest. I run. I run, my chest rising and falling, my breathing increasing with every step I take. I ignore the voices around me, the jibes, the calling of my name. This is life or death. For Susie's sake, anyway.
I go crashing through the gate, the lights of the fairground coming into view. I weave my way through the crowd of careless, oblivious families, never slowing to catch my breath or to mutter some kind of reassurance to Susie. I stop near the hotdog stand, clutching the wall for support and breathing in and out slowly. I close my eyes. The voices in my head are getting softer and more distant. I try to decode them: "Join us, Ruby" or "Be one of us..."
I open my eyes and look down at Susie, her cheeks wet with tears. I kiss her forehead, gasping as a voice right near me says, "My blood is in her veins. She's one of us now."
Nice feedback is appreciated, of course. :)
Chapter 2: Draining
Ruby makes a shocking discovery....
As soon as we got home from the Boardwalk, I discovered my mother was getting prepared to go out anyway. I honestly didn't want to be alone right now, with what happened with the strange boys from the fair, but then again, I couldn't exactly tell my mother that. I could tell she was genuinely happy living here, starting over and having a clean horizon. It didn't seem fair to mess up her contentment over something as silly as what happened tonight.
"Did you two enjoy yourselves tonight?" My mother asks and she glances at both me and Susie as we enter the house, before making her way into her bedroom. I look at Susie and hold a finger up to my lips, reminding her of our pact of secrecy we made on the way home.
Susie nods and growls at mom. "Roar!" she yells and mom feigns fear. "Okay, time for bed now, Susie," she says seriously. Susie scrunches her face up. "But I don't want the bloodsuckers to bite," she says sadly. "Then keep your Bible under the bed," mom tells her before tickling her. I listen to Susie's loud boisterous laughter as I go into the kitchen.
After a few minutes, mom comes in, attaching her earrings. "Will you look after the house while I'm gone?" she asks, looking at me worriedly.
"Of course, mom," I say quickly to appease her. "And I'll make sure Susie stays in bed and that no bloodsuckers enter her room. I'll keep guard." She has always worried unnecessarily over me and Susie.
She smiles wryly. "I honestly don't know where she gets that bloodsucker nonsense from." She shakes her head. "Did you meet any new friends tonight?"
I mess with the coffee machine, turning my back on her. "Sure. Everyone is very... kind in this town." I hope she doesn't catch the sarcasm. Thankfully, she doesn't.
"Well, I'll be gone until one in the morning, dear," she tells me before rushing toward the door. I stand there and wave to her as her car glides slowly down the driveway and out of sight.
I realize it is uncharacteristically quiet in the house now, with Susie sleeping and mom gone. I don't really like the thought of being in this house alone. Sometimes the floorboards creak and the refrigerator buzzes. Perhaps I just scare easily.
Just at this moment I am startled by an intense beam of light that pans through the lace curtains of the window and into my face. I am momentarily blind as I stumble over to the window, peeking out the curtains. Everything is suddenly still, quiet outside. Then comes the loud noise of something rapping and scraping against the door, someone's nails perhaps, and I rush over a little too quickly, grabbing the wall for support.
I take a deep breath as I open the door slightly, peeking through the crack. This was going against another one of my mother's warnings about opening the door in the middle of the night. For a moment there is nothing out there except the pitch-black darkness, and then a moment later I am suddenly face to face with the boy from tonight, the blond one. I curse myself.
"I'm David," he suddenly says, extending a leather-clad gloved hand. I know better than to shake it. The wind leaking through the crack in the door is chilly and I shiver, holding my hands to my stomach. I'm feeling a bit suspicious. What is he doing here? How did he find out where Susie and I lived? I hear a soft rustling noise from behind him. Obviously someone else is out there.
"You gonna invite us in?" David asks, blocking my view so that I can't see how many others are out there.
"It's eleven thirty at night."
He leans against the door. "So?"
"Say it," two voices say in unison from outside, presumably Marko and Dwayne.
"My mother will be home in an hour and a half," I say quietly, not that it mattered much to them at all.
David glances behind his shoulder. "That's practically a yes, isn't it, boys?" he asks through the darkness before pushing past me, hitting his shoulder against mine.
The four other boys come into view, one I haven't seen before. Dwayne stops right in front of me, picking up a handful of my hair and tugging painfully on the ends before continuing on into the dining room. Paul whistles loudly, the sound echoing slightly off the walls and the boy I haven't seen before; he exchanges a nervous glance with me before going straight in after the boys.
Dwayne seemed the least intruding of the four. He stands still, looking around, his arms hanging at his sides, his long dark hair dangling down his back. Marko was staring down the hallway. We still hadn't finished unpacking yet, so the floor of the hallway was covered in boxes. "What are all of these?" he says quietly, kicking one of the boxes with the heel of his shoe.
The boy I hadn't noticed before, he was watching the other boys with an expression of wonderment. It seemed like he was desperately trying to fit in, trying to prove himself, when in actuality he stood out like a sore thumb. He wasn't brutal like the other boys, I could tell. He seemed quiet. Then again, he wasn't included in the bizarre things they had said to me about Susie tonight. I wondered idly why he'd want to be friends with such heartless people.
David is perched on our leather sofa, his legs crossed and shiny black boots resting on our coffee table. I wouldn't dare scold him for it. It was something my mother would have done however. He leans forward and picks something up off the table, using the twine to pick off the dirt on his fingernails.
"Would you all like something to drink?" I ask, not daring to forget my hospitality. Five eyes focus on me, and then Dwayne and Paul laugh. Their laughter is spooky, and it seems to me like a clear indication that something unpleasant is about to happen. I shudder at the sound and brace myself.
"What's so funny?" I ask defensively and the laughter immediately stops.
"Ever heard of a blood transfusion, Ruby?" David suddenly asks, breathing in my ear and I gasp, clutching my hand to my throat. I turn around and realize he is standing right near me now, looming over me. He's smirking at some kind of inside joke that I don't get.
I try to breathe slowly and carefully. I wouldn't want to let them have the satisfaction of knowing that they terrified me. "Of course I have," I say at last. "I'm not stupid."
"Well, that's what we're gonna need."
He pushes past me and strides over to the boy, who is now looking at him expectantly. I didn't understand how anyone could look at David like that. He turns and faces me directly, his blue eyes staring. "This here is..." he pauses. "What's your name, kid?"
The boy shifts his feet uncomfortably. "Jeremy."
"He's new to the town – like you," he continues as if there was no interruption. "Only he gets to be the sacrificial lamb..." I didn't understand what he meant by that. I imagined he was making it up to scare the poor boy. Dwayne and Paul start with their laughing again.
That's when the boy was driven into action. He produced a handgun from his jacket only he didn't make it in time. It was all very fast-paced. One moment I thought I could actually hear David's brain clicking into gear as he ascertained what the Jeremy boy had in his hand, a second later it was worse than any nightmare.
David lunged at him, the sharp canines of his teeth penetrating the skin of his neck. I watched the boys face, stunned to the spot, an outsider looking in at something extremely unpleasant. His eyes were protruding, tears leaking from his face. After a while, his skin got paler than I had ever seen one possibly go before, and I knew what it meant. Death.
Then it was Marko's turn. The boy's hands were trembling now with every audible suck and when Paul got to him I could tell he was already gone. Halfway through Dwayne's turn, David asked me if I would like to try some of the refreshment. That was how he put it. I was physically repulsed, my stomach lurching.
Paul and Dwayne resorted to dancing around with the body, taunting it and lifting its arms, fluttering the hands around and contaminating the room with their laughter. David actually looked disappointed with them. He returned to the sofa, stretching out his legs on the coffee table once again.
Soon I was lying down on the floor, in a pool of something wet and sticky, with the dead boy right on top of me. I thought it was the worst feeling in the world to be lying flat on my back with a dead boy on top of me drained and bloody. To be trapped underneath him and hearing the raucous laughter from Dwayne and Paul above me.
I closed my eyes, thinking of my little sister.
My sister would most likely be shivering under her bed sheets, trying to block her ears from the horrible sounds coming from the dining room. The boy's body was motionless, heavy on top of me. Everything was still. No breathing, no heartbeat. I was the only one breathing. I could only hear my own heartbeat. The dark surrounding me smelled like death. I could yell for hours, but the only thing keeping my mouth stapled shut was that little girl in the next room. I had to be brave for her.
I open my eyes. The body suddenly rolls off me and the four boys are crouching over me now. "Had a peaceful rest?" Dwayne says, his mouth curved up into a grin. There is shiny, wet red liquid on his chin.
"Get her up," David only said, looking annoyed.
"Why don't you get up?" Marko said. His voice was gentle, encouraging.
I found I couldn't move even if I tried. I could not get up. My whole body felt numb, my legs especially, as though moving them would be a great difficulty. The sticky wet feeling was unnerving against my skin and I felt I could be sick at any moment.
"Hey, forget about it," Paul said, standing up. "Let's just drain her, too. We'll be doing her a favour, or say, let's get her sister Susie to do it..."
My ears prick up at the sound of her name. "What about my sister, Susie?" I ask, my voice trembling. "What has she got to do with all of this?"
"Now you've done it..." I hear Marko say quietly. I met his eyes, held them, but he did not speak. It was David who spoke next.
"Where's your little sister, Ruby?" he asks, a strange smile coming across his face.
"Susie stays out of this."
"Not if you want her to live, she doesn't."
I didn't understand it at all.
"She's bound to us in more ways than one," he explains. "The need for blood is singing in her veins; she must feed."
I think my emotions finally took over then. I didn't want Susie to be involved in any of this. She was my little, selfless sister. It was hardly fair. "Please, just leave her out of this," I managed, and I kept saying it a lot. But I think David grew tired of hearing me plead. I guess in the end he had made plans for the both of us.
I tried to ignore the sticky wet sensation of blood between my fingertips, propping myself up on my arms. That's when I realized the room is a mess. My mother will indefinitely kill me when she gets home to discover all of this. Not to mention poor, poor Jeremy.
David is glaring at Paul and Dwayne sharply. "Why don't you two boneheads go make yourselves useful?" He looks at Marko. "You too. Let's move this party elsewhere."
Marko stands up, looking incredulous. "We can't just leave her on the floor in shock and with blood everywhere like that -"
"- Well, I say we can," David says, raising his voice with a deadly tone. "Now move!"
The end of my ordinary life came quickly anyway.
Chapter 3: You're Lost Little Girl
Ruby realizes that her little sister is going through some not-so-good changes, and the Lost Boys make another appearance...
I can't sleep.
I can't close my eyes because every time I do I see him; David. David lunging right at me, David sinking his teeth into my neck, David sucking out my insides, David with my blood dribbling down his unshaven chin. I shiver, and pull the tangles of my bed sheet away from me. I look over at my alarm clock.
The illuminated red numbers read 12.31 through the dark. Mom will be home in half an hour. There really is no way out of this. Unless I take Susie with me and we go far away, so far that they'll never find us. She won't ever be included in any of their bizarre notions again. I stumble over to the door, flicking on my bedroom light. The light is painful and I blink a little, my eyes adjusting momentarily.
I rummage through my sock drawer, finding my secret box. I pull open the lid. It shakes noisily from all the spare coins I've placed in there. I pull out my notes and count them. I have enough for two to take a train out of here, to get out of this place, but I don't know where we'll go.
I'll use visiting our father as a diversion. My mother won't be happy about this, but she'll understand. It's life or death. I creep slowly into Susie's room, switching on the light. To my surprise, she's already fully awake. She scrambles out of her bed and runs over to me, pulling me into a tight hug. She's trembling.
I tell her to go sit in the lounge room patiently and wait for me. She obeys. I go into the kitchen, grabbing mom's black ballpoint pen and notepad. I write her a note in my shaky handwriting:
Gone to visit dad for a few days. Don't be concerned.
Ruby and Susie.
Checking once again that I have all my money securely in my pocket, I go into the lounge room. Susie is sitting on the leather sofa, her feet not touching the ground, staring silently at the wall. I kneel down beside her. "Susie, we have to go away for a few days, all right?" I tell her. I can tell she doesn't quite comprehend what I'm saying; she blinks silently, then nods. I hug her again.
I get her hat off the rack and slip it on her head. My mother has always wondered why Susie liked the hat so much. I remember it clearly; our father gave it to her once when we were out together watching a ballgame. It was her safekeeping; something that reminded her that dad still loved her despite what he and mom went through.
After we buy our tickets, we walk into one of the small grocery stores on the Boardwalk for supplies. Susie looks up at me through her thick black eyelashes, her hat sliding down her forehead. "I'm thirsty."
I take her hand. "I'll get you something." She follows me down the back aisle where there is a huge row of vending machines near the staff exit. "What do you want? A Coke?"
Susie shakes her head, no. "It tastes icky."
I'm confused. "You liked it before..." I remind her.
She finally settles on a Coke and we spend the next few minutes inspecting the junk food aisle of chocolate and candy bars. It seems too decadent to spend all my allowance money on junk when real food would be more useful, for a few days at least. I buy a loaf of bread, some Oreos and a Hershey Bar for Susie. After we walk outside into the dry, night air, hand in hand, I pause for a moment, opening her Coke.
While Susie takes a sip, I look at my watch. It's 12.55. We still had half an hour until the train was boarding to Florida. There was no use in getting there and waiting early. It would have bored us to death. I step off the sidewalk and freeze, my mouth agape.
I feel as if my stomach just dropped out of my chest, as though I've lunged from a great height. They were all there waiting; all four of them. I don't know why it surprised me so much. In a way, I knew there was no getting out of this. After witnessing what happened with the poor Jeremy boy, they terrified me more than ever before. I feel the bile rise up in my throat.
They'd slithered silently onto the Boardwalk like slimy snakes. Susie is squirming with joy now. She chants the name David over and over. He looks as if he is trying to hide a grin and shakes his head. "You weren't planning on running out on us boys, was you now, Ruby?" he asks in a clearly mocking tone.
I'm not sure what possessed me, but I kept on walking, Susie straining for me to let go of her hand so she could run over to them. I tighten my grip on her hand and, before I knew what was happening, someone caught my arm, twisting me around to face them. It was him.
"If you do, she'll die," he continues in a repulsive voice.
I remember once reading somewhere that there was a killer in all of us. I felt that if I'd had a gun, I would have killed him without hesitation. I hit him with my grocery bag as fast as I could and as hard as I could. All the contents go flying, spilling out onto the pavement. He had no right to do this to Susie. I didn't even exactly know what the name was for people like him – a monster? Heartless? Cruel?
He just stares back at me with cold eyes, his chest heaving in fury. Susie has started to cry. People have started to look at us, notice the tension between us. I don't care.
"Now, now," he says gently, letting me go and raising his leather-clad gloved hands in a sign of surrender for all to see, retracing his steps. "I know you didn't mean to insult your brothers..." He climbs back on his motorbike, his blue eyes staring.
Brother? That didn't make any sense at all.
I look down at Susie. She looks up at me and I stare back at her. She's trembling, the hat sliding lower down her forehead with every shiver. I couldn't refuse her when she looked at me like that. I let go of her hand and she toddles over slowly to the boys on their bikes.
She has a sudden attack of shyness as David leans down over the handlebars and removes the hat off her head, tossing it over the Boardwalk, but my absence interferes with her concentration. She looks over at me, her face scrunched up in confusion. "Come on over here, Ruby," David says quietly, but in a voice so icy it shook me.
Susie is over near Marko now, standing on tiptoes. "Hey there, little sister," he says as she flings her arms around his neck and he lifts her onto the bike. She pats his head as though he is some kind of wild dog. Dwayne laughs. It's really starting to bug me.
"She isn't your sister," I mumble futilely. "She's my sister."
Marko smiles. "And when you become one of us, you'll be our sister, too."
I open my mouth to say some foolish remark, but then David intervenes. "Not likely boys." He tilts his head to the side, letting his slate blue eyes roam over my tense, shivering body. "I'd rather have her as a meal. Wouldn't you?"
I look away, trying not to gag. My face must look funny, because they all laugh. I shudder at the sound, bending over to pick up the loaf of bread and the Oreos that are now scattered all over the pavement. My hands are trembling. I look over in time to see Marko slipping a helmet onto Susie's head.
"What are you doing?" I ask, shocked.
I drop the food, the wrappers making crackling sounds as I trudge over them, trying to get to my sister.
Marko looks confused. "What?" he asks, holding onto my little sister tightly.
I hesitate. "You're not taking her," I say, my voice coming out small and scared now.
"She's coming with us now," David says. I force myself to look at him. "She'll just be another missing little girl on a milk carton." He shrugs, smirking, stepping on the pedal of his bike. The engine roars loudly and I flinch at the sound.
How could they do this? She has a mother; a mother that will be devastated when she finds out her youngest daughter is "missing". I feel like I'm going to cry. I can feel it in my teeth. My eyesight is starting to go blurry.
"If you wanna see her again," David continues quietly, raising his eyebrows. "You can come with..."
I feel suddenly nauseous at the thought. If I'd have to endure any more of them hurting people, like that poor Jeremy boy, in front of me I'd surely be sick or go insane. Not to mention they – most of all, David – gave me the creeps. How can you live with people who frighten you?
I have a quick idea. "I want to ride with Susie," I say, quickly wiping my face with the sleeve of my jacket to stop the tears from leaking. If I could just take hold of her and make a run for it, then maybe we could escape...
David laughs, shaking his head. "Not so fast," he says softly, rolling the bike forward over asphalt and shielding Susie from view now. "You're with us now..." He says it more like a question than a fact.
I'm sobbing now and I can't seem to stop. "Yes," I nod. "I want to see..." I falter, my voice shaking uncontrollably.
David's harsh face softens for a moment and I think that maybe he's going to comfort me. Instead, he produces a funny-looking black helmet and shoves it into my hands. "Okay," he says, a faraway and distant look in his blue eyes as he thinks this over. "You've stated your position clearly," he says, gruffly. "Now I'm gonna state mine." He lowers his voice and says in a deadly tone, "Get on the bike. Now."
I didn't argue. Not that I saw him as my "brother" or anything like that. I think, deep down, I was finally accepting the fate of my little sister, no matter how much I loathed David and the idea. I slammed the helmet on my head and I got behind him as he started the bike. I didn't want to touch him, but he clasped my wrists in his hands and forcefully put my arms around his waist. I felt like some kind of wretched prisoner. I cried all the way to where ever it was they were taking us.
It was freezing on that motorbike. The wind was biting into my skin and my face and ears ached from the cold. It was too dark to see anything else except for the orange flickering glow of the headlight. I didn't know where we were, but when David stopped the bike, I was hasty to get away from him. My leg got caught on the pedal and I toppled sideways, headfirst toward the dirt, but I didn't seem to hit the ground because the next thing I knew was that someone had grabbed me from the front of my blouse before I did.
I took the helmet off my head quickly, tearing a few strands of hair painfully with it. David is still perched on his bike, waiting for the others. They arrive barely a few moments later, the roar of the several engines making my ears throb. I go straight over to Marko's bike, him lifting Susie and putting her carefully in my arms. She isn't wearing her helmet anymore, but she's sleeping. Her body is heavy in my arms.
"Let's get something to eat," I hear Dwayne say. I follow them blindly. I hear their boots trudging through the dirt, the crackling of leaves, gravel. I realize my nose is running. I really need a tissue. "Chinese again?" I hear David say knowingly through the silence. Someone laughs.
There's a faint orange light ahead and then suddenly Marko is holding a match, the orange glow flickering on his face and making his pale skin look eerily ghostly. He smiles at me, the corners of his mouth shadowed before tossing the match and it goes sailing through the air. There's a startling sudden burst of flames and then the room is fully lit, a big old rusty can burning.
Susie stirs awake in my arms slightly, shielding her eyes from the brightness of the flames by hiding her warm face against my neck. I look around the room, innocently observing. The flames are making dark shadows jump and dance across the stone walls. There is a large bed dominating the room with sheer thin material draping along the dusty, sandy ground and large looming crevices in the corners of the room.
It doesn't look so fit for living. More like an underground cave than anything else.
I move slowly, creeping toward the bed. Located right next to it is a dirt ridden portrait of rocker Jim Morrison, from The Doors, cobwebbed and spray painted on. It was very bizarre.
"How do you like our humble abode?" Marko says from right behind me. I turn around to find him grinning broadly, proudly. "The bed's all yours..."
I hesitate, looking down at the bed. It certainly does look very comfortable, if yet a little dusty. I run my fingertips along the thin fabric, appreciating the soft, spongy feel of it. "Thank you," I say appreciatively, reaching up and loosening Susie's grip on my neck. I let her little motionless body fall onto the bed.
Marko watches curiously as I pull down the covers. "Here, let me do that," he says and I move my hands away. He picks up Susie, her head lolling to the side and places her gently on the mattress before pulling the covers up over her. She looks very warm.
Feeling content that she's safe and warm, I turn around abruptly, my knees bumping into something and my body pitching forward, landing on something or someone hard. I realize I've fallen unwillingly into someone's lap. I raise my head slowly, looking up, bracing myself. Oh no.
I scramble back up onto my feet, holding the arms of the chair for support. David is sitting in some sort of wheelchair. I didn't realize he had been there watching the whole conversation between Marko and I, watching me put Susie into the bed. He stares at me, his blue eyes holding mine in. He's so unnerving. I couldn't look away even if I tried.
"Why don't you eat?" he says. His voice is soothing, quiet. He glances behind his shoulder in time to see Paul thrusting a large box at him. He relaxes into the wheelchair, staring back at me, not daring to take his eyes off of me as he takes it from him. He opens the box and the delicious smell of food and steam wafts into the air. I'd forgotten how hungry I was, how hungry Susie must be.
He holds it out to me. I hesitate for a moment before snatching it from him. I look inside the box. There's something black, shining, wriggling.
"You like beetles, don't you, Ruby?" David asks, something cruel and knowing in his icy voice. Dwayne laughs. Paul joins in with some taunting. The sight of the beetles nauseates me. My stomach lurches.
"You're sick," I manage, flinging the box at him.
The contents of the box lands into his lap with a messy, loud splat. The laughing abruptly stops. David looks down at his lap, at the obvious mess. It must have been some kind of trick of the light. I didn't understand it at all. One moment there were black, wriggling beetles in there and now there's just plain, mouth-watering rice?
David sighs loudly. "What a waste of perfectly good food," he says disappointedly, cupping a handful of the rice into his leather-clad gloves and flicking it on the ground.
I feel as if I'm going to cry again. God knows what David will do in return for spoiling their dinner. He meets my gaze and I'm suddenly nervous. I clutch my stomach, shivering. He props himself up out of the wheelchair with his hands and the movement is so fast that I recoil slightly. The rest of the rice resting on his lap falls onto the floor, piled near his black shiny boots.
"You're gonna pay for that," he says, looming over me. I scream.
Chapter 4: Feeding Time
Ruby makes a discovery, while Susie becomes friends with Dwayne and David...
Here's the next chapter of One of Us. Hope you like it so far. :) Feedback is appreciated, too.
The boys decide to get an early night and I am thankful for it. I felt the need to be alone, the need to wallow uninterruptedly without anyone overlooking. I pad slowly toward the bed and sit down next to Susie, my legs crossed. The springs squeak a little. I start to wonder idly how old this bed is, if the boys have slept in it. The thought doesn't agree with me very well. My stomach lurches at the thought of sharing the same pillow that David has used.
I watch Susie for a moment, the way her chest rises and falls with every inhale and exhale. It starts to dawn on me that she actually looks peaceful, happy. My throat constricts at the thought and I have to look away from her. On one of the stands by the bed, there's a dusty, dank empty alcohol bottle with a lit and burning candle corked inside the neck.
It provides a soft, low light that makes shadows dance eerily across the wall and illuminates an opening in one of the large, dark crevices on the wall. I have a sudden intense urge to go investigating. I creep off the bed slowly and pick up the bottle, directing the light toward the opening.
When I go inside the first thing that hits me is the smell: something is obviously rotting in here. A dead animal or a carcass of some sort, perhaps? A plethora of unanswerables run through my head. I raise my free hand and try to cover my nose with it, try to mask out some of the unpleasant strong stench, but it only makes it worse.
I direct the candlelight above me and am astonished by my findings.
The four boys are hovering silently in the air. It was a sight I have never seen before in my entire life. Their hands are drawn to their chests protectively. Marko looks serene, peaceful sleeping. His sandy colored hair is splayed out, hanging wildly underneath him. I sneak a look over at David and I am suddenly rigid with tension. The difference in his face is startling. He almost looks younger. He looks like a benign carbon copy of the despicable David that I know and see when he is awake.
The stench is starting to become overwhelming. I turn slowly, holding the bottle low to the ground so the orange flickers of candlelight will expose any hazardous dips and cracks in the ground that may cause me to go stumbling or tripping over. Then I hear a sound that puzzles me, causes me to stand rooted to the spot. I swivel around at the sound of it.
A low growl of agony clatters in David's throat. Whatever it is he is dreaming of, it mustn't be very pleasant at all. A very strange feeling washes over me, this intense need to comfort him and I turn back and make a start toward him.
His eyes suddenly pop open. I don't know if he is fully alert or not to see me standing right there, frozen, but all I know is that the irises of his eyes are no longer the cold slate blue they always appeared to be. Now they are red, bloodshot, murderous...
I didn't have the courage to bring to light the fact that I was lurking around, that I watched the boys sleeping in one of the looming, dark crevices in the cave. If David did notice it, he certainly didn't mention it at all. Curiosity simply got the better of me.
People seemed to treat me differently now that they notice I'm constantly tagging alongside the boys. They don't dare look in my direction and, if they do, they look at me with fear, caution. It was very bizarre. I presumed it was because they knew what the boys were capable of, how dangerous they were. It sent an odd thrill through me.
A band is playing on the Boardwalk this evening and the sound resounds wonderfully in my ears. The energy in the air is phenomenal. I think of myself standing there by the rails with David and the boys who are now chattering and ignoring me and the band and music that are blaring brilliantly from the stage a walk away. It only takes me a moment to make up my mind; I want to dance, I want to let go of my troubles and I want to blend in, be free.
A really well-built man without a shirt on, holding a saxophone, occupies the stage. Three other musicians are behind him, standing bass, drums. The crowds are swinging furiously to the beat of the music. I walk into it, drowning in a sea of head bangers and hippies. I sway my hips slowly to the music and a Goth girl with a burning cigarette between her fingers looks over at me:
I been in a cave
For forty days
Only a spark
To light my way
The music vibrates through my tailbone and up my spine.
I look over toward the boys. Marko sees me and gives me a little wave. "Come dance with me!" I yell at the top of my lungs. Marko starts moving on the spot, vibrating with the bass line, flailing his arms around. Paul jumps in, stepping to the music, imitating a head banger and flinging his head around:
I wanna give out
I wanna give in
This is our crime
This is our sin
But I still believe!
The singer blows on the saxophone and the hot, catchy hymn smacks me right in the face. I'm sweating and panting now. The music is rousing, encouraging. Soon enough Dwayne joins in, shaking his head and his dark long hair making a black blur around him. I close my eyes and the music runs straight through me, grabs hold of me without consent and moves my feet and hips and shoulders and arms. I open my eyes to see David watching me, a cigarette hanging between his lips.
I ignore him and turn around on the spot.
That's when I see him; I spy him from over the crowd. He looks fairly young, early twenties maybe. He's wearing a plain black T-shirt and jeans and hi-tops. He isn't dancing; he's just standing quietly, looking around. A boy next to him with a bright green Mohawk looks defensive, saying something to him. It looks like he's saying something rather unpleasant because he grimaces. I stop dancing and my heart is pounding. I squeeze my way through the crowd. He stares at me when I'm halfway toward him, his face bleak and confused.
I stand close and speak in his ear, "You're not dancing?" I ask loudly.
He nods then leans over me and shouts, "I honestly don't know how." I laugh. We just stand for a moment, watching the crowd and listening to the music. The music crashes to an end and then the masses of people clap, cheering for the singer and his band. A moment later, another song begins. This time it's more goading and soft.
The boy raises his voice over the music, "Will you teach me?" I look over to find him staring at me with his gray eyes. He steps back and throws his hands in the direction of the crowd. I nod. He looks grim, nervous, on guard as I take his hand and slowly drag him into the crowd.
We blend in easily and I start swaying my hips to the beat. He hardly moves at all, concentrating fiercely on the way my body moves. Then he starts nodding his head fervently, his dark, curly hair falling into his forehead. I try not to laugh. I nod my head along with him, trying to encourage him.
After a moment he stops and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He leans in closer, looking frustrated. "I'm sorry," he says, shaking his head. "This is a waste of your time. I honestly can't dance at all..."
I smile and put my mouth near his ear. "Don't take yourself so seriously," I say emphatically. "You aren't that bad at dancing. You just need to loosen up..."
I start to dance again but he stops me. "Do you want to get a bite to eat?" he asks.
I consider. David and the other boys shouldn't mind if I'm away for an hour or two. I look over in their direction. They are all standing by the railings, chattering away, and I notice Susie is riding Dwayne's back like a little monkey, her head bobbing happily every time he moves or makes a gesture with his hands. The sight leaves me close to tears and I honestly don't know why.
I realize Susie has adapted to her new lifestyle with the boys so easily, whereas I haven't been willing to accept it at all. I'd feel like a traitor if I did. Our mother will never know that we are alive and happy. She will never see us again. I tried and we have no choice. Susie's fate has already been decided beyond repair. I know it will hurt to never see her again, but the thought of maybe someday we will run into her and my mother will finally then know, know for certain that Susie and I are all right, is something that keeps me hopeful and strong.
Still, David and I got along like cats and dogs. I couldn't bring myself not to despise him. It was something that came naturally for me. Ever since the first night at their underground home – cave, abode, I still didn't know what to call it – where I spoiled their supper, David has been treating me differently than Susie or the other boys. It's almost as if he purposely goes out of his way to annoy me or upset me.
He often used my raging appetite to his advantage; I haven't been able to eat a proper meal in days without reluctantly opening a box and finding beetles, scorpions, and other disgusting creatures withering and lurking inside; I think it was about time I finally gave up on accepting the food he was offering.
I look down at my watch. It's almost 1:00 in the morning. I didn't realize how late it was; it certainly didn't seem late. I realize its way past Susie's bedtime, but she doesn't seem to mind at all. She seems fully awake, aware.
"Yes, I would like that very much," I agree at last.
We start walking slowly on the Boardwalk together. Three steps toward the railings, they all turn to look at me; David is taking a long drag of his cigarette and gray, whitish smoke is trailing out of his nostrils. Marko and Paul whistle loudly and the boy next to me tenses, stiffens underneath his clothing. I try again not to laugh. The boy seems very jumpy. Susie starts bouncing around on Dwayne's shoulders, her small little hands reaching out for me. I wave at her, reminding her that I haven't forgotten about her and she noticeably relaxes a little, tugging on a long strand of Dwayne's hair.
"Ouch, you little bugger," I hear him say and Susie giggles boisterously. I smile at the sound, relieved.
The boy glances quickly over his shoulder back at them. When he meets my gaze again, he looks worried. "You know those guys?" he asks, his eyebrows raised.
I nod, quickly looking down at my fingernails. "Something like that, yes," I reply.
"Oh," he only says. He looks incredulous, his brows furrowed. There's a long moment of silence where we reach one of the hotdog stands, then he turns to face me. "Is a hotdog all right for you?" he asks. I nod silently.
I go to pay for mine but he shakes his head; he pays and then we both wander around silently. There are a lot of girls around in vintage flannel dresses, boys in combat gear. There are hardly any older people out at this time of the night. I start to wonder if this is a popular scene for youngsters here in Santa Carla.
I take a small bite of my hotdog and chew it laboriously before swallowing. Although I was indeed very hungry, my nerves made me feel nauseous about eating in front of this boy. I liked him. He was very different than Marko or Paul, Dwayne or David, even. He was very quiet, thoughtful, kind...
He glances over at me before cramming some of the hotdog into his mouth. Although it seemed quite bizarre, I found it fascinating to watch him eat. The Adam's apple on his throat bobbed up and down when he swallowed and he had yellow mustard on the corner of his mouth. Before I can contain myself, I daub at his mouth with my napkin in a very motherly gesture. He looks down at me, confused.
I feel so stupid. "I'm sorry," I say quickly, looking down at my hotdog. "You just had mustard on your mouth. It was very distracting."
He laughs and I found the sound of it very pleasing. "I get a tad carried away when I eat," I hear him say softly. I nod. He stares out over the Boardwalk and I take the opportunity to look at him. He's very handsome in a benign sort of way. His hair is black, shoulder-length, curly. He exudes masculinity and geniality, unlike David who looks as if he might bite... literally.
"Is it always this eventful at night?" he asks suddenly, hoarsely, and I quickly look away from him.
"Yes," I admit reluctantly. I eat a quick bite of my hotdog and then swallow before saying, "I only just moved here."
He looks taken aback. "I've lived here since yesterday," he says, smiling amiably. "I thought you were a long-timer in this town, considering your friends back there..." My heart sinks at the word "friends".
"They aren't my friends," I say defensively. I felt this sudden compulsion to make it clear that they weren't the kind of people I usually hang around with. "I was sort of... obligated to be around them." It was the only way to explain without revealing too much of my bizarre predicament to this stranger.
He nods and runs a hand over his face, and I can see a silver earring dangling from the lobe of his right ear. It seemed something all the boys did nowadays so it didn't exactly surprise me. But it glistened in the faint light. "Oh, yeah. What's your name?" he asks and that's when I remembered I hadn't introduced myself.
"Ruby," I answer quietly.
He extends his free hand. "I'm Patrick." I shake his hand, chanting the name silently in my head. Patrick. That's a nice name for a nice boy. I feel a weird combination of contentment and freedom over this knowledge.
"Are one of those guys back there your boyfriend?" he asks, waving a hand over his shoulder.
I sigh. "Definitely not." I have a sudden dismal thought of dating one of the boys and having them lock me in a coffin full of insects, surrounded by their raucous laughter. I shudder at the thought. It seems like something they would do.
"Of course not. I mean, you don't seem like the type..." I hear him say, talking faster and faster by the minute. He lowers his voice, pondering loudly. "I've heard they have quite the clouded reputation. You seem like a nice girl. It doesn't make any sense..." He suddenly stops walking and lifts up his half-eaten hotdog. "I can't eat anymore," he says, looking strangely guilty.
I laugh. "Yes, I'm sorry but I can't either..." We both stride over to one of the trashcans and dump our hotdogs in at the same time. We spend the next few minutes walking in the opposite direction.
I start to feel uneasy as we reach the end of the Boardwalk where the boys and Susie are still by the railings, waiting. Patrick seems to notice this. He shoves his hands in his pockets and stares at me. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Ruby," he says before looking down at his sneakers.
I hear Marko and Paul starting with their whistling again. "Kiss him," Paul says in a taunting growl. He suddenly looks uncomfortable, his body stiffening and I know that he's heard it too. He runs a hand through his hair before meeting my gaze. "I'll see you around," he says quietly, looking over my shoulder and glancing at the boys pointedly before turning on his heel and walking down the steps.
I stare after him for a moment. Someone puts their arm around my shoulder, jostling me. It's Marko. He's grinning broadly, leading me over to the boys and Susie. "Why didn't you just bone him, little sister?" I hear Paul say, laughing. His laughter falls short when David punches him in the stomach. "Oof," he says, clutching his stomach.
Susie is still up on Dwayne's shoulders. She makes a loud noise, holding her arms out to me and struggling to get off his shoulders. As Dwayne gently puts Susie onto her feet, she comes toddling straight over to me. I am startled by the difference in her face. She looks thinner. Her eyes look too big for her face. I kneel down, stroking her soft, curly hair. "Are you okay, Susie?" I ask quietly. She nods.
David kneels down, looking at Susie now, who has her thumb in her mouth. He whispers something in her ear, something that I can't make out. The closeness between Susie and him annoys me. I don't exactly know why it bothers me so much. He squeezes her shoulder and then she grabs his black coat urgently, pulling him closer to her. She says something in return, some confirmation of some sort and he nods his head slowly and smirks. He stands, looming over me.
"Feeding time," Marko announces, clasping his hands together and regarding me anxiously.
Chapter 5: Home
Ruby decides that wherever Susie is, then that means home...
Here's the next chapter of One of Us. Hope you like it! :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They all look at me. It makes me suddenly nervous. "What?" I ask. David points over at something behind my shoulder. I turn.
A woman is alone, standing by the doorway of a video rental store. She looks distracted. She shouldn't be alone in the middle of the night, definitely not when there are dangerous people like David around. I feel a pang of sadness for her.
I don't understand what's going on, but then David pushes Susie forward gently and she staggers. She starts emitting small little heartbreaking noises of distress, waddling through the crowd. I have a sudden intense urge to rush over and comfort her, but David grabs my arm. "Hold it," he says curtly.
"She's a natural..." I hear Marko say.
Susie is over near the woman now. The woman notices Susie and looks startled, leaning down. "Are you lost little girl?" she asks.
Susie stares at her impassively before nodding her head slowly. "I can't find my mommy," she says sadly.
"Here." The woman takes her hand. "I'll help you find her." They start walking slowly in the opposite direction, the woman looking around.
Paul bursts out laughing and when I look over at him, he grins and gives me two thumbs up. "We'll meet you back here in, say, half an hour," David breathes in my ear, his breath tickling my ear. "Don't be late."
Before I can answer, he squeezes past me and starts walking in the direction of Susie and the kind woman. The boys quickly follow, Marko staring at me and backing away slowly, his hands at his sides, as though daring me to follow them. When he sees I'm not going to budge, he swivels around on his heel and strolls on after them.
Great. Now what am I meant to do? I look around. I walk aimlessly toward the entrance of an old record store. There's loud rock music emulating from the jukebox, customers in band T-shirts and ripped jeans wandering around the aisles. A Goth girl with an unlit cigarette in her mouth is studying religiously one of the Punk aisle catalogues, her heavy fringe falling into her eyes.
I walk down the Jazz aisle slowly, cautiously, observing. Two hippies in bright yellow robes are lounging around, sprawled out on the carpet in the corner of the room, their hands tangled together. I wander around near the Punk aisle, hoping to go unnoticed, as my movements attract the Goth girl's attention. A boy is standing next to her, his back to her, flipping through the bin of records.
He's wandering around the store with the young boy from the Boardwalk tonight, the boy with the green Mohawk. He flips through another one of the bins. "Sorry, buddy," I hear him say reluctantly. "I don't see any Sex Pistols, The Clash, anything..." Out of the corner of my eye, I see him turn his head into my direction.
I can feel myself going red. I pretend to be looking at something very interesting, flipping through the bins. My heart is racing. I look up again quickly to see him saying something to the boy, using his hands for emphasize. He's clearly lecturing him on something, and the boy grimaces.
Then he looks right at me. He holds my eyes for a few seconds and then beckons me over. I hesitate, before walking slowly over toward him. "Hey, you remember me, don't you?" he asks apprehensively, shoving his hands into his pockets. "From tonight..." When I don't say anything, he raises his eyebrows and his forehead scrunches up comically. "You know, we had the hotdog?"
I smile. "Of course, I remember you," I say finally. "You're Patrick."
He looks relieved. "Yeah."
The boy with the green Mohawk darts me a look and then laughs, shaking his head. Patrick glances over at him, scratching his neck in annoyance, and then reaches over, putting his arm around the boys' shoulder. Suddenly, the boy grins at me. "This here is my little punk of a brother Alex."
The boy with the Mohawk nods his head fervently. "Nice to meet you," Alex says quietly. He's wearing the usual punk attire; all black, full ripped T-shirt and safety pin getup, combat boots.
"Now remember," Patrick says to him in a very serious voice. "Mom said no piercings until you're at least eighty-five." I burst out laughing, I can't help it. Patrick grins broadly.
I catch his younger brother's eye and he makes a disgusted face. "Ugh. I'll be dead by then..."
The rest of our conversations together come haltingly and Alex resorts to asking one of the owners of the store for any Punk record recommendations. There's a young boy behind the counter, about Alex's age. A boy wearing a bright red bandana wrapped around his head, red flannel shirt and combat boots comes in carrying a huge box, heaves it on the counter, and then looks at us questioningly before going back out to the staff exit. Patrick and I exchange a glance.
The boy in the red flannel shirt comes back out again and walks over to us. He mutely thrusts a thin paper book at Alex before starting to unpack the boxes. Alex looks up at his older brother. Patrick is silent and quizzical.
"Hey, excuse me," Alex says loudly. The boy, who is now piling records on the counter, pauses and meets Alex's gaze. "This isn't what I asked for."
The boy shrugs. "You should probably take it," he says in a very deep voice, a voice that seems unnatural for his scrawny, boyish stature.
Alex looks down at the book. I lean forward slowly, looking at it intently. It's some sort of comic book with a bold title that reads "Vampires Next Bite" in calligraphy. It's very bizarre. He turns the page slowly, and a graphic-looking woman scantily clad in a red dress with large, bulging breasts is printed on the second page. I couldn't imagine why Alex would need to read such a thing.
"Awesome!" Alex seems so pleased with it that he doesn't even seem to mind that it could almost pass as crude pornography. "What I'd give to see one of them..." The way he says it, so innocent and childlike, confuses me.
The boy squints at Alex and says with a grim expression, "Yeah, well, consider yourself warned. You could be next." He leans in closer and says sotto voce, as though informing him of a deadly secret, "Bloodsucking scum roam the earth looking for punks like you to feast their fangs on..."
There's a long awful moment of silence where the two stare at each other silently, glowering. Then Patrick embraces his little brother, giving his shoulder a light squeeze and his brother jumps as though he has administered an electric shock, alarmed. "Come on, let's get out of here, Alex," he says, veering his brother toward the exit. I quickly follow them.
Alex looks both excited and scared now. "Look Patrick, I got a free comic book." He laughs, holding up the comic book to him. "Isn't it the coolest place around here?"
Patrick suddenly looks nervous. "Sure, if you like these sorts of things..." He looks over at me and rolls his eyes, grimacing. I try not to laugh.
Outside the store, Patrick stops walking and runs a hand over his face. He doesn't look very happy at all. "Didn't it creep you out, what they were saying back there?" he asks me indignantly.
There's no denying that I really liked Patrick and his younger brother, and it makes me feel sad to mislead him in this way. But it has to be done. I hesitate. "Not exactly."
He smiles, but it's not a very friendly smile. "And you believe it too, right?" You would too if you knew, I think but I don't say. He sighs loudly. "You know what? You can just forget it..." He grabs his brother by the shirt and pushes him forward gently.
"Oh, can't we look around some more?" pleads Alex.
"No," Patrick retorts firmly. "You should go straight home to mom..."
He makes a face. "But everyone else gets to stay out late!"
"I said no," Patrick says again, his voice rising. "You're just a kid. Go home." He points in the direction of the steps. "Go home, Alex." Alex starts strolling slowly, then turns around to face us directly, frowning, his hands at his sides helplessly.
I think about it for a moment. It certainly wouldn't be safe for a boy as young as Alex to be walking home alone at night, especially when there are people out here like David. "He really shouldn't walk home by himself at this hour," I say. Patrick looks over at me resignedly. I shrug.
Patrick stares at me for a moment then glances over at his brother sharply. He looks as if he is silently considering. "Fine," he relents at last. Alex looks victorious. "Yes," he says happily, punching the air with his fist.
We all walk a few feet apart, with me leading, down the Boardwalk. I didn't exactly know where I was walking, but something captures my full attention. At the end of the Boardwalk, there is a large, thick bulletin board. There are thousands of photocopied black-and-white photographs of strangers, bold headlines that read "Missing". I look at the photographs intently. There's a photograph of a man with a handlebar moustache and grim expression on his face, a boy barely Alex's age in a baseball cap, an elderly black woman...
"That's weird," I hear Patrick say from right behind me. I turn to discover that he's no longer glowering; he's obviously out of his bad mood. I feel an immense amount of relief over this. His brother is standing beside him, flipping idly through his comic book.
"Let's get something to drink," I suggest, and he nods. His brother looks thankful for the change in direction and runs back toward the record store.
We spend next few minutes roaming around for a place to sit. We find a small shop with an elderly woman behind the counter and slide into one of the booths and on the leather seats. The woman comes over to greet us, smiling warmly. Patrick runs a finger down the columns of the menu. "I'll have a coffee, zero sugars," he says, handing the menu to me. I order the same.
There's a long moment of silence where we just sit there silently, waiting. I start to wonder if Susie is all right, if she is safe with the boys, but I know and trust that they wouldn't dare to hurt her. The elderly woman brings over our coffees at last. Again, I have a sudden attack of nerves. Even the thought of something as little as drinking in front of this boy makes my hands tremble.
"Do you like it here in Santa Carla?" Patrick asks before taking a sip of his coffee.
I shrug. "It's something you slowly have to get used to, I guess," I reply reluctantly. I stare down at my steaming mug of coffee for a moment. "Why did you move here with your family?" I ask, curious.
He smiles. "I don't know." He takes a spoon from the dispenser and doctors his coffee, stirring it. "My parents insisted and, well, my brother... he loves it here." He takes a sip of his coffee and grimaces, before saying, "My brother blends in well, being the little punk that he is."
I laugh. I detect a large amount of fondness for his younger brother. It doesn't surprise me. I'm intrigued now. I sit up straighter in my seat. "Are your parents divorced, too?"
"No. My parents are actually hippies. They believe in free-love and all of that bullshit..." He shakes his head, looking acutely embarrassed. "My father says that's the key to why their marriage is such a success..." He looks down at his coffee, running a forefinger along the rim of his mug. "I think maybe that's why they moved to Santa Carla; to expand their horizons."
"Oh." His sincerity baffles me. I stare down at my coffee, then take a small sip. It's very strong, and hot. The liquid burns my throat.
Patrick looks very uncomfortable now. "My mother, well, she's just sort of always there, and she's very understanding. Beats me..." He shrugs. He stares down at the table. He looks distracted, pensive, his mind elsewhere. When he meets my gaze again, he leans forward in his seat. "At school the kids always thought I was different. My mother always found a way to cajole me into taking a thermos of wheatgrass juice to school every morning..."
Hearing the events of his childhood made me think back unpleasantly to my family, to my mother. I found myself hoping and wondering if she was all right.
Patrick laughs. "I remember sitting there in the playground... all the kids around me were eating cherry-flavored Pez and drinking soda, and I was the weird kid with wheatgrass juice and carrot sticks..." Reminiscing on such things, he looks very hurt. It's obviously evoked the strong feelings of frustration he's had with his parents over the years.
I'd never had that problem with my parents. I couldn't imagine it at all. He doesn't say anything else after that. He presses his lips tightly together and stares down at the table. I don't say anything either. We finish our coffees and then leave the store, thanking the elderly woman behind the counter for her kind hospitality.
Soon his brother Alex rejoins us. We all say goodbye and then they leave. It's two-thirty in the morning now. The temperature is starting to drop and the wind is becoming very cold and biting. I walk on the Boardwalk, dodging a few clusters of people who are exclaiming loudly over clothing and food. To my relief, I find the boys easily, waiting by the railings where we agreed to meet earlier. I found it strange that they roused such feelings of relief and security over me.
I hear Susie screaming "Ruby!" as she spots me. She starts to whimper. I rush over to her, squeezing past Marko and Dwayne. "What did you do to her?" I ask, bending over her worriedly. I look over at David, expecting an answer.
Instead Paul says, "She finally saw the boogie monsters." He must see the confusion on my face because he quickly adds with a simpering air, "She almost massacred the whole population of Santa Carla and left none for us..." He laughs and shrugs.
I ignore him. It seemed like I was the only one taking this very seriously. Susie looks up at me, tears clinging to her long black lashes, her lips quivering. "Hey, kid," I hear David say softly. I turn around. He strides over to her sedately. Susie stares up at him, her arms dangling at her sides. "Check it out."
He holds out a stuffed, bright-pink lamb to her – one of the prizes from the gaming stalls – and makes it dance, rocking it back and forth with his hand. Susie's eyes widen and her lips part in surprise. She starts emitting shaky high-pitched giggles and David smiles, thrusting the stuffed animal into her little hands.
It was very bizarre. I'd never seen David act so compassionately before. He notices me staring. "What?" he asks, smirking and making motions with his hands, patting his trench coat pocket before turning on his heel and strutting over to the railings.
I'm speechless. Who is this new David that has replaced the old, despicable one? The question lingers in my head unanswered, but I like it. Susie sits down on the wooden panelling of the Boardwalk and plops the lamb down next to her.
I look over and notice that Marko is staring too. He meets my gaze and smiles his vast smile. He gives me a little wave before inclining his head and watching Susie patiently as she plays with her new gift from David. I stand beside him and look at her. She's barefoot now; her booties are gone. Her face doesn't look so thin anymore. She hugs the stuffed lamb close to her, clutching it tight with her hands.
David is smoking again now. The strong stench of tobacco is something that I'm beginning to associate with the boys. They always seem to have a cigarette hanging between their lips and the smoke constantly burns and stings my nostrils. Paul ambles over to the railings and steps over it, his leather pants squeaking, and sits perched up on the top railing with his legs dangling over the sides. David offers his cigarette to him. "Dessert?" I hear him say, and Paul bursts out laughing and accepts it.
At the start, everything was so dramatic and intense and frightening and unsettling. There was a lot of stuff going on, stuff that I wasn't even certain I wanted to know. Living with the boys, I thought it would always be like that. I thought I would die if I had to live with these terrifying and yet automatically fascinating boys. I thought I would suffer greatly if I never saw my mother ever again.
But, now that I know I'll always have Susie with me, and that these boys mean her no harm, I've actually found myself enjoying their company. To observe them, to see how they interact so closely with each other, it's almost as if they are one, big, tight protective family and Susie and I are included in all of that. A strange feeling of warmth floods through me.
Marko puts his arm around my shoulder, warming me from the slight chill in the night air. "Hey, little sister," he says, bringing me back down into this moment. My face feels wet. "No need to cry," he says quietly and I realize my eyesight is now blurry. I quickly wipe my eyes with my hands. "Let's go home," he says at last, grinning broadly. I nod.
Home? If home is where Susie is, then the boys must be home.
Feedback is appreciated, of course. :)
Chapter 6: The Other Side
Ruby wonders about David and Susie...
Here's the next chapter of One of Us. Hope you like it. :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I wake up gasping and my eyes pop open.
A small rush of wind is leaking in through one of the higher cracks on the ceiling of the cave, the flame of the candle corked in the neck of the dusty alcohol bottle wavering and rustling loudly. It's morning hours now, judging by the soft, orange light emitting through the crack. This knowledge placates me for some unfathomable reason and I feel around blindly, searching with my hands for Susie in the covers.
My hands find nothing and I roll onto my side in a state of panic. Where is she? She was here last night with the boys so where did she go?
The only thing I can find relating to Susie is the stuffed, pink lamb that David gave her last night, resting on the foot of the bed where she placed it when the boys were saying goodnight. My mind starts replaying the happenings of last night like a videotape:
"Catch you on the other side, little sister," Paul said, grinning. Something clinked every time he moved, something metallic, one of the many heavy chain ropes adorning the sleeves of his leather jacket perhaps, and he winked at me before he slinked easily through the crack and out of sight.
Dwayne hesitated, taking longer than the other boys. He stood right near me. He was so tall that he towered over me; it's something I hadn't noticed before. He leant down and kissed the top of my head sloppily, and my breath hitched in my throat. I remember feeling shy all of a sudden. "'Night Dwayne," I said in a wobbly voice. He sauntered silently over to the crack and then he was gone.
Marko walked slowly over to me, Susie toddling alongside him. He was holding her hand and she looked up at me. "You can sleep with Karen," she said, before plopping the stuffed lamb onto the bed.
I remember feeling very miserable when she said that name; Karen. Karen is our mother's name and I couldn't imagine why Susie would want to call her toy that without making her feel lost and lonely without her. Marko smiled his vast smile and then let go of her hand. He strolled silently over to the crack and then he too, was gone.
I wasn't expecting David to say goodnight to me and I didn't want to embarrass myself by standing there and waiting expectantly, so I turned on my heel and went straight over to the bed. It was then that I realized Susie hadn't come to the bed with me. David must have taken her with him – she must be sleeping with them – but how?
I pull the tangles of the bed sheet away from me and hop out of the bed. I step over the numerous white, empty paper containers of Chinese food that are scattered all over the ground, intersected with leftovers of rice and noodles from last night and reach for the alcohol bottle, cupping my free hand over the flame.
When I enter the opening, I realize the smell is more sickening than I anticipated. The stench burns my nostrils and I have to hold my breath so I don't gag. I direct the light above me shakily.
"I don't believe it," I say quietly to myself.
Susie, my little sister, is suspended from the ceiling like the other boys, her hands and face stationary, white and disembodied in contrast to David's black coat and trousers, her face inclined level to his chest. I can tell she's deep into her sleep; her body is limp in his arms and she has her legs twined around his waist. Her hair is splayed out underneath her, dangling down past her ears, a curtain of wild brown curls and tangles.
It seems as if David has really taken her under his wing and in some wretched sense this fills me with both sadness and gratitude. It suddenly dawns on me that I haven't been paying much attention to what must have been happening to my little sister. Is she really now one of them?
The question lingers unanswered in my head, but simply by looking at her, it doesn't need to be asked.
The question that terrifies me and simultaneously thrills me at the same time is the subject of what she is? Will she be the same Susie that I have always known from childhood? The same Susie who I grew up with, the Susie who loved talking to her stuffed toys and who giggled and wriggled like a fish out of water whenever you attacked her by tickling her tiny feet? I suppose in time I will know.
But, looking at David, who is so brazen and cruel and inhumane in every single way, did this change him? Surely he couldn't have always been the monster that he is today? Surely he too was once a kind, gentle person - one who might have actually even loved someone and would have done anything in his power to protect them?
All these questions pierce me with a deeper sense of sadness and I have to quickly turn away. There is a constant tickling in my throat, a cough that is threatening to escape at the pungent stench wafting in the air. The stench from before seems to be magnified and I start to wonder idly if it has something to do with the fact that Susie is the latest addition to their peculiar family.
I couldn't fathom why it smelt so much down here, like an animal carcass rotting in the desert...
I direct the candlelight down low to the ground and creep slowly toward the thin opening, dead leaves and gravel making loud crackling, scratching noises from the weight of my shoes.
Oh. I stop still, holding my breath, terrified that if I dare exhale a scream or cough will unwillingly escape from my mouth. I knew who said those words. Nobody could possibly ever say it as icy and low and full of warning as him – David. My body tenses in apprehension and I stand still for a long moment, not thinking, not breathing, waiting, almost surrendering for him to come get me, kill me, rip me into pieces, plunge his teeth into my neck... only it didn't come.
I turn around on the spot slowly, cautiously, directing the light above me. He couldn't be – but he just said –
David is still hovering in the air, like the other boys. Susie is still wrapped around him and his hands are still holding the small of her back protectively. His eyes are shut and his face, his face is still this facsimile of David, albeit the benign, peaceful one. He's obviously still sleeping, but then it didn't make any sense; I was so certain he had discovered me standing there, watching them. Why else would he say those words?
Again it baffles me, the change in his face. That mask of hatred and hostility doesn't seem to be there anymore; he looks young, restful. For all I knew, he could have been a few years older than me at the very least but, then again, I didn't know how... old he was in his years. And, in all honesty, I didn't really want to know right now.
I return back to the bed, not daring to look back at them for one last time as I do. I shiver at the cool morning wind that blows in through the crack, holding the blanket tighter to my chest. I wait for a long time in silence, my hands clasped around my knees, but they don't seem to rouse from their sleeping.
If there was something I had grown accustomed to about the boys; it was that they seemed to sleep all through the morning hours and only awoke at six o'clock at night, when the sun was down. It was something that fascinated me and here's the secret: I enjoyed those mornings and afternoons alone with Susie. Being alone with her, it was very reassuring. She seemed the same despite this new lifestyle with the boys, only now, sleeping all day along with them, I wasn't so certain...
Feedback is appreciated, of course. :)