All the gears in your head are working double time to think of a name. Not just any name, though--it has to be a special name for a special thing. Scott told you once that only the special things have a name like yours. It’s one of the few things you’re proud of.
So much is put into a name; an entire person is expected fit into the space of a few letters. The name Percevian--Perce, you must insist--is all you have. At the end of the day when you’ve gotten tossed around by kids double your size named Joe or Bobby and you lay bleeding on the concrete, you at least can say your name is more interesting than theirs.
This is the same way. It’s unique. It’s not just an ordinary fish, you can feel it. Nothing on the tip of your tongue seems right, though. Everything you come up with is too bland. Too ordinary.
“Perce, come down for dinner!”
You frown at your mother’s voice but tell her you’ll be down right away. You are, if nothing else, always polite.
As you are about to leave, a name comes to you.
“Moros,” you say, testing it on your tongue. You look back at the fish and assume that his change in direction is a sign that he thinks it’s a good name; something fitting, a badge to wear with pride. As much pride as a fish can have, anyway. You go down the stairs wondering if fish can take pride in the way their scales shine like a human does with hair.
Looking back on it, that may have been your second mistake. Leaving the fish alone, that is, taking your eyes off it to hurry down creaking steps and eat too little because you think too much, offering only a few obligatory words to your parents. You scarf down your food and take the steps back up two at a time, though it takes the breath out of you to do so.
Something in the room has changed. You don’t know it, not yet, but the air is charged suddenly, little hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. The fish stares you down, beady little eyes accusing through the water and glass.
You left me, you think you hear.
“I think I need to go to sleep,” you say, almost to no one at all.
Light spills across your room and drags you up from the depths of sleep. Remnants of a dream flicker briefly behind your eyes before going out in the face of the rising sun. You dreamt of a presence, something you don’t know, biding its time in the darkness. At the last second, moments before you awake, it lunged, but it always attacks in that split second before consciousness and the thing dissipates without a trace.
This is not unusual to you. In fact, you think nothing of it and get ready as usual, tired as you are.
At least it’s Friday.
As you put on a shirt, you at last remember your fish. It still swims on in endless little circles without a care in the world. “I’m going to have to hide you. I don‘t think Mom and Dad would take kindly to you.”
You don’t know why you said that aloud. It’s not like you expected an answer. Or maybe some part of you did, and that the silence that followed was both relieving and disappointing.
Short on time, you settle on moving Moros to your closet. You’re sure no one will look there; no one comes into your room to begin with. It’s too messy, your mother complains, but the mess is a perfectly organized chaos, thank you very much. Clothes and books and scraps of metal lay scattered about, yes, but everything is in its right place at all times, even if the right place is just the floor.
You grab your backpack--hanging from the headboard, like always--and head out to the bus stop. The grass crunches beneath your feet with frost, and you pull a little tighter on your jacket. It’s big on you, the sleeves way past your hands, so you bunch those up to preserve what little heat you give off.
A few minutes later, you are jostled from your thoughts with a light shove against your shoulder. “Hey, Perce!”
“Good morning, Scott.” Your breath comes out like a plume of smoke when you exhale.
“Yeah, mornin’, mornin’. You still gonna come around tonight?”
“I don’t know for certain, but I’ll try.” You’re not a very busy person, but who knows what could happen in the span of hours? Better to be unsure than dealing with the guilt of ditching your best friend. And boy does he know how to guilt-trip.
“Great! So you do anythin’ interesting last night?” He wiggles his eyebrows and cracks his Scott-trademarked grin. “Haven’t heard a peep from ya since school yesterday. Been innovatin’ lately?”
“N-no, not really. I was, uhm, busy last night.”
“Really now? With what?”
“Ah, actually, I--”
Screeching tires cover the last of your mumbling and you breathe a sigh in relief. Thank you, terrible bus brakes.
He seems to have forgotten, or at least let it go, as he doesn’t bring it up again when you get on. You sit together as usual, him on the outside and you tucked into the corner as if you could melt into the seat and disappear. Every bump causes your head to hit the cold glass; the window rattles in its pane against your skull. You could fix that with your tools, you think, but then the noise wouldn’t drain out your thoughts, and they always seem to get bad around this time of day. It’s nice to have a semblance of silence.
Scott doesn’t say much to you. He looks over at you every once in a while to make sure you’re alright, but otherwise focuses on his homework. You wonder why he crams all the work into a space of a 25 minute bus ride.
“’Cause I got better stuff to do at night. You would, too, if you weren’t so scared to hang out with me at night more than three times a week.”
If anyone else had said that, the words would sting and make you really try to melt into the floor, but Scott’s different. There’s no bite to his words. It still makes your face burn with shame, though. “S-sorry,” you offer, pulling your legs to your chest. “I didn’t mean to say that out--”
He silences you with a ruffle of your hair. “S’okay, Perce. Just kiddin’ around.”
You spend the rest of the bus ride in silence, determined to keep your eyes on the passing world behind the window, colors and shapes blurring as you go by.
I wonder if this is what Moros feels like.
But why are you wondering what your fish feels anyway?
You’re doodling on your notes again. You don’t realize it at first, you hardly ever do. You go from writing a sentence to drawing a fox and it all just evolves from there until you have a whole woodland scene penciled in. With that blissful creative trance, the same you get when working with a new invention or drinking tea, everything else fades from your consciousness. You aren’t entirely sure what has been said in the past…however long you’ve been drawing.
When you do fully come back to yourself, something’s…wrong. It feels like tingling in your back, bugs crawling over your skin; the intense feeling of being watched and scrutinized, the subject of undivided attention. You glance around, and then even turn around, but no one seems to notice you much. They’re elsewhere, too, in the lines on their paper or the vapor in the clouds. No one is watching you.
Yet you still feel it, eyes burning into your back, your spine, every nerve on fire, the blood draining from your body and your stomach roils, wow you are going to be really, really sick--
“Percy,” the teacher says, from somewhere very far away. You focus on her voice, your own breathing, anything to bring your heart rate back down to normal levels. “Are you alright? You don’t look well.”
You don’t trust yourself with words so you shake your head. She looks concerned and yeah there goes everyone else, turning around and staring and you did not need that at all. Okay everyone just look away now please before I wretch all over you.
She gives you a pass and sends you off to the nurse. You have never been gladder to be out of class. Just getting away from people eases you more; being out in the hallway with no one else is like opening a window after the end of winter, the stagnant air gone in the rush of a fresh breeze.
You breathe. Compose yourself. For a moment, you lay your head against the wall, cool against the clamminess of your forehead.
The feeling that you’re being watched still haunts you. You try to focus on the sound of your sneakers against the floor as you continue on, count the rhythm, then count the colored squares you pass, but none of it helps. You still feel it, causing you to cast nervous glances all about. You are met with only an empty hallway.
What are you running from? You hear, and before you can protest I wasn’t running you’re already bolting down the corridor, the pounding of your feet echoing around you and you might just scream if you weren’t using all the oxygen in your body to run.
Or should I say, who are you running from?
It’s not yours.
The burning in your lungs and ache in your legs is the only thing that causes you to stop. If you could you would’ve ran until you were so far gone from any place even resembling home. Nothing is right here.
Your face prickles with the cold. Your lips are sore and chapped and probably bleeding, not that you could feel it. What Scott calls your Big Jacket, the one that usually managed to keep you comfortable if not warm in the coldest weather this small town has to offer, is back in school. Your regular jacket isn’t doing much against the chill, so you find a comfortable space in the park and huddle up for warmth.
That comfortable space--which barely is in this kind of weather--is against the trunk of an oak tree. Its leaves were long since discarded to the wind, leaving the branches bare and clawing at the sky. When the wind whistles through, the branches scratch together above your head like a bunch of nervous fingers twiddling away. Beyond your feet lay a pond; small, but the lapping of water at the bank can be heard from where you sit. It’s a sanctuary against the rest of the world, someplace pure and all for you.
You sit there until your breathing evens out once more and it doesn’t feel like someone set fire to your legs. Now they just feel numb. You amble over to the edge, following the perimeter of the pond in hopes to keep the blood flowing to your extremities.
Something flashes in the water. You stop.
A goldfish swims there, just beneath the surface, in endless loops and swirls. A lot like your Moros.
Your blood turns to ice.
Percevian, dear, do not be afraid of little old me. I am not the one you need to fear, after all.
Before your legs give way from beneath you, you plop to the ground. “I….w-what? What’s going on? What’s wrong with me?”
Nothing, Moros says--except it doesn’t speak, not really, it’s a voice that floats in your head and all around you at the same time, a voice from everywhere.Nothing is wrong with you.
“I’m having a conversation with a fish.”
Not just a fish. This is simply…what’s easiest for you to see me as. I’m here to protect you, Perce, because you’re special. And in the world there will always be those who seek to put down what is not like them. But I’m here for you, to keep you from that.
You stay silent, concentrating instead on your fingers. This is weird. This is really weird even for you and that’s saying something.
I know you must be hesitant to believe me. But speak truthfully--do you not sometimes feel like you are being watched? Followed, perhaps?
Again you don’t answer. You know you don’t have to.
Your silence is understandable. Let me just say, however, that it is very important no one know about me. Okay, Perce? Can you do that?
“I…I guess so, yes.”
Good. Thank you. No one can know about me, and I do mean no one can know. Should someone find out, well…I will certainly be gone within the night. And who will you have then to keep you from harm?
When you look up, Moros is gone.
The coffee shop is a second home to you by now. The workers behind the counter know your name and your favorite, and as soon as you walk through the door Sheila asks, “Chamomile, Perce?” with a little smile on her face.
“Yes, thank you.”
The smell alone is enough to calm you down. Warm, light scents fill the air, from green tea to hot chocolate to coffee; a thousand different combinations all with a unique smell and taste, even the smallest differences to be appreciated. When you get your cup you hold the sides until it burns your fingers. The tea, when cooled enough, is perfectly warm against your insides, staving off the chill you got from the time it took to walk here. It hadn’t start snowing, thankfully, but it was certainly cold enough for it.
You inhale the steam rising from the tea. Even that is like a wave of peace filling up your lungs, diffusing into your blood all the warmth and ease only a simple pleasure like this could give you. Relaxed as you are, you don’t even notice the next person who walks through the door until they’ve sat down opposite from you. And then it doesn’t entirely register until he drops his backpack with a loud thud.
“Perce, I have gone crazy lookin’ for you.” He takes a moment to catch his breath. His hair sticks up at odd angles from the wind and you smile behind your cup. “Heard you weren’t feelin’ too hot and then suddenly ya end up missin’! S’enough to kill a guy with worry.”
“I’m sorry, Scott, really. I didn’t…I didn’t mean to end up leaving school so suddenly myself. Something….came up.” You take another sip of your tea while you come up with an adequate lie.
“Well don’t leave me in the dark, kid! I haven’t been runnin’ around for the past hour not to know what’s goin’ on.”
You are silent for another few moments--more out of wanting to make him wait than anything--before you start. “Ah, you know…how I am. Like you heard, I wasn‘t feel very well. Nauseas, headache, et cetera, et cetera. No big deal, honestly.”
“No big deal? I saw you runnin’ down the hall. Looked like somethin’ was after you.” His eyes narrow. “Those kids botherin’ you again? You know I’d pummel them soon as you give the word, nice little warnin’ in the shape of Scott--”
“Oh, n-no! Nothing like that. I just…I felt so sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to, ah, throw up in the hallway. That would have been terribly impolite of me.”
He stares at you, right through you with those bright green eyes of his, until at last he cracks a smile. “Sounds just like ya, Perce.” Chuckling, he begins rummaging through his backpack.
You breathe a sigh of relief. He bought it.
Then again, you’ve never lied to him before. It’s not like he would expect it.
“Hey, so, I wanted to show you this after school, before you went and took off on me like that.” Before you can ask what it is, he’s prodding you in the leg with it. “Keep it down low, alright?”
You take it from him. It’s still warm from his hands, and you flick it open with a little shik. You’re glad you kept it under the seat; this would undoubtedly get you kicked out.
“S’cool, right? Don’t drop her or anythin’.”
You raise an eyebrow. “Her?”
“You’re naming your knives now, Scott?”
“Only the real special ones,” he says, and gives you a little wink.
You twist it this way and that, examining the hilt and the blade. Even in the low light the steel glints. It’s curved and jagged like something out of a nightmare, sharpened to paper-thin edge--by Scott himself, no doubt. Black and silver details are set in the metal in swirls and patterns, something you’d expect from a ceremonial dagger, not a pocket knife. Not something cheap you’d find…wherever Scott gets his collection of knives.
“This must have been quite expensive,” you murmur, turning it over one last time. It’s not heavy, but not feather-light either.
“Price is a…relative sort of thing, right?”
You tsk at that. Of course he didn’t buy it. This is Scott you’re talking to after all; there are reasons you aren’t out with him all the time. His activities are questionable and you’d simply rather not ask the questions.
Maybe that’s why you two get along so well.
His phone blares suddenly and you almost drop the knife in shock. He grins. “Gimme a sec, Perce, s’probably important.”
He steps out. You have finished your tea long ago and clean up your space before settling in again. You would rather not go home just yet; facing your parents--whatever that might mean, if they even know--is not high on your priorities right now. Staying here, with the comfort of your little tea-made sanctuary, is much more preferable.
You can see Scott through the glass. He’s pacing and gesturing, about what Scott only knows and you won’t find out.
Or maybe you will. Maybe tonight, home will be an if sort of thing; you could spend the waning hours with Scott and his other friend Alex and find out what the nightlife is like. Walk under the crescent moon in an inky black sky and not fear a thing with your two friends at your side. What’s keeping you here, you wonder, your fish? Or your fear?
When he’s done on the phone, he only pokes his head in. “Gotta run, kid! I’ll talk to you later. Take it easy, alright?”
“Thank yo--Oh, Scott, your knife!”
He was already gone.
You sigh and pocket it. It would be just like Scott to forget all about--what did he call it? Jackie. Right. For something he cares enough to name, he forgot pretty quick.
It’s only polite you return it to him. He’d be devastated if it went missing for long. That doesn’t mean you’ll chase him down, though; he’s off being another Scott now, not the one you have snowball fights with or the one who dreams of a big future, but the one who runs down streets at midnight with scissors in one hand and match in the other, waiting for the fire to catch and for something to finally tear.
You step into the dying light of the day an hour or so after. Later you will look back on the how quickly the sun had set those winter days. Hours passed in the blink of an eye. You will never forget each one and every last one.
Or maybe you already have, maybe all the light has been consumed by all this dark, teeming and breathing and shredding any remnant of a life before what you have now. It’s been a long, long time since you’ve seen a light so bright it could blind.
When you are halfway to Scott’s, the sun has already set. Streetlights flicker to life before you, their orange glow guiding your way. The shadows in between are what unnerve you, all the spaces down which you can’t see due to the dark. Anything could be there, lurking and stalking, teeth bared and talons sharpened to cut and all you have is Scott’s dainty little knife in comparison.
Oh, good job, you’ve scared yourself again. Hanging out with Scott and Alex at night was never an option; you’d give yourself a heart attack before you got two blocks from his house.
You walk a little faster. Even that doesn’t help; the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. You’re sure you feel eyes on you again, just like in school and every other time before that, someone on the edge of your awareness who you can’t follow but is shadowing your every movement. Watching, dissecting, tearing into pieces with their eyes. The sound of shoes against sidewalk from somewhere just out of hearing match yours step for step.
Like Moros said.
You walk faster than before and pointedly ignore everything not bathed in the lamplight.
A voice breaks the silence in the street from behind you. “Percy? Little Percy? Thought that was you.”
Barely audible, you let out the most pitiful little squeak. “Uhm, yes, it’s me, but I have to go now, so…”
“Go? Go where? Home’s not that way, kid.”
A chill races up your spine. “Have you b-been…following m-me?”
“Wouldn’t call it following, really. More like…noticing. Small town, you know?”
“N-no, I…I have to go. Now.” You dodge to the left or right to move, but he easily blocks you every time.
“Have to go feed your fish?”
Oh, you think, that’s all you have in you to think. He knows. He knows and Moros said there was someone out to get you, someone following you, and here he was, following you. Oh.
Your fish was right.
One of the weirder thoughts you’ve had lately, to be sure.
Then, from somewhere in your skull and resounding all around you is Moros. He cannot know. If he knows I will go away and there will be no one to tell you of things like these. I warned you, Perce. Did I not?
“How did you know about that?” You ask, voice wavering and barely above a whisper.
“Like I said, I notice things. Does it really matter whether I heard it through the gossip train or with my own eyes?”
You try to move back, get away from this and go home, forget Scott, he can get his knife later; it’s not worth it anymore.
Grabbing your shoulders, he pulls you away from the light.
Your heart is jack hammering in your chest. He shoves you into the wall and the breath is knocked out of you. Every gasp for air is ice in your chest. You don’t want to do this here or now, you just want to go home and sleep for a thousand hours and never wake up, just drift into the sweet emptiness of unconsciousness.
“I think you need to learn a lesson ‘bout walkin’ around after dark--this ain’t your place, kid.”
He grabs a handful of your hair. Unsuccessfully you try to pry him off, but you’re too weak and too tired and too you to fight back; your nails dig in but they’re all chewed off and don’t have a bite to them. Probably feels more like feather brushes to him. He slams your head into the brick behind you and white-hot pain bursts at the back of your skull. Colors dance in front of your eyes.
Pathetic and cowardly and weak, and all you have is the taste of tea on your tongue and a memory of warmth and a glint of light.
Light. Metal. Blade. Knife. Scott.
Though trembling and through the pain, you manage to sneak your hand into your pocket. The handle in your palm sets you at ease; you’re done with the cowering and hiding. You do not want to end so weak.
It fits into your palm perfectly. Made for you.
Made for this, Moros says, somewhere distant.
You grip the hilt so tight your knuckles might crack. The blade comes free with a flick of your wrist.
You step out of the shadows.
It feels like hours since you’ve seen the light. Could’ve been minutes. Seconds. Half-moments or nothing more than a passing thought. Days. Months. Years. An eternity, surely, of heat and red and the shadows hissing, cheering you on to your fate.
You shiver and it’s not from the cold. You’re burning up, blood boiling; you’ve never been this hot before. Every step you take must scorch the pavement and leave embers and ash in its wake.
But when you look back the prints are red and they don’t blow away in the wind.
The street is silent save for your ragged breathing and footsteps. Streetlights are your only company, beacons in the dark leading you down an ever winding path of shadowed alleys and whispered words. Not your words. Never your words.
You barely hear them anymore. There is nothing in your own head, for the first time in your life. No over thinking, no analyzing, no words running rampant. The same emptiness as this deserted street.
You don’t know what time it is when you throw rocks at Scott’s window. You stand there as patiently as possible, shaking and ready to collapse. The creaking of his window opening is the most beautiful thing you’ve heard in years. He looks down at you, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Perce? Issat you?”
“Yes.” Your own voice sounds a million miles away. “You, um, forgot your knife.”
He sighs. “Be down in a minute; lemme just get some clothes on. Jeez.”
As promised, he opens the back door for you a minute later. “You didn’t have t--” and he stops, eyes widening and jaw working but no sound coming out. “Perce?”
You might start crying for the second time tonight.
“S-sorry, sorry, I, um, your k-knife?”
Your knuckles are bone white around the handle. Your fingers uncurl painfully, sore from clutching it in your first for so long and with such force. The light in the kitchen behind him is enough to illuminate it against the night.
“Perce, what did you do?”
Very, very red.
Candy red and crimson and rose petals and it shines in the light where it hasn’t already begun to dry. Your hands are smeared in the same color, a red dark enough to drown in.
Yeah, there go the tears, warm and wet down your face. You tremble, wait for him to shout or scream or slam the door or leave you out in the cold to your fate like any sensible person would.
Instead, he pulls you inside. To the light. Comfort. The familiarity of his kitchen, his house, smelling of pizza and garlic knots and a thousand other things that make it feel like home. You shouldn’t be here. You’ve done too much wrong to deserve this.
He guides you over to the table and makes you sit. “Just don’t…get any blood on the table or anything, alright? I gotta…” he trails off, mumbling to himself with a hand in his hair. Like this is a normal sort of stress. You’re too stunned to stay anything, so you sit huddled up and try to ignore the cloying smell of blood.
In the end he brings you tea. He sits down across from you, tense but not…angry. Eyes cool--tired, but cool. No fire or rage or menace there.
The tea cup is unsteady in your hand. You gulp it down despite the burn, anything to take away the taste of copper in your mouth. You leave a little red print behind on the rim, almost like lipstick, and you would laugh if this were under different circumstances.
“I think you better start from the beginning, Perce.”
Despite the voices screaming for your silence, you start with the fish.
Chapter 2: Epilogue
Years later, in city not so distant, a man finishes another cigarette.
It’s midnight. The moon is high and shining along with far away suns, but it’s not noticed by the man. He sits at his desk, as he has been for hours now, with more papers and files than he knows what to do with.
That’s not true. He knows what to do with all of them. He’s very good at what he does. Time is the issue--never enough of it in the day.
The rest of his company left long ago. They are sensible people more often than not and know when it’s time to go home. He doesn’t. He’ll stay until three in the morning, reading and rereading if that’s what it takes to get the job done. Cases are few and far between these days; he can’t take the chance of losing one to the weakness of his own humanity.
It’s clockwork: the shuffling, the scanning, the notes, the filing, putting the puzzle together with what little pieces he’s given.
What’s before him now is yet another piece to a big puzzle, one that gets bigger and bigger every day. This is a corner piece, perhaps, this little newspaper clipping from ten years ago. It’s the beginning when one already know what comes next; a good piece to further his effort to profile him, at the least. Every criminal starts somewhere, even one of the three most notorious mobsters in the city. Beginnings speak volumes.
It started, apparently, with the murder of a teen.
There are no signs that point to him directly, but the lack of evidence screams his name. There’s a reason he and his accomplices have never been pinned for anything. While everything he’s learned about crime scenes states that every contact leaves a trace, they’ve managed the perfect crime time and time again, not a hair or skin cell or DNA marker in sight for years.
Still, even the little pieces help. It is, if nothing else, interesting to see where it all began.
“Good evening, Detective. Would you like some tea?”