Chapter 1: On the Edge of Adventure
When you were thirteen, there were advantages to being the youngest of your friends by several years.
For one thing, while most of Simon Holmes' classmates were still stuck riding their bikes or relying on their parents for rides, he was pretty much guaranteed most weekends to be spending time with someone with a driver's license and access to a car, which made things like getting to the abandoned haunted roller rink on the edge of Eerie much easier.
On the other hand, there was the way older teenagers always seemed to turn even the most routine paranormal investigations into complex social events.
Dash would say it was Simon's own fault, but with Marshall without a family car for the evening, Tod working overtime at Eerie Video again, and Dash refusing to commit to even going, calling Melanie Monroe for a ride had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Only Melanie had said sure, it sounded like fun, and then called back thirty minutes later to say she'd invited Janet Donner, and also this girl she'd met last Saturday night, and could they move things back a couple hours, because that was the earliest everybody could make it?
Which was fine. It took extra coordination, and as much as he liked Melanie and Janet, having both of them along on the same investigation with Marshall and possibly Dash made the tension levels higher than usual, but it was fine.
That the new girl was both Melanie's maybe-girlfriend and also probably a vampire—or a zombie, they still weren't quite sure—just added a layer of social complication.
"Do you think bringing the wooden stakes would be rude?" Simon asked Marshall on their sixth and final mission planning phone call. From Melanie and Marshall's descriptions, the girl was nice, and Simon had learned over the years it wasn't always people's fault they were also monsters. While he wanted to be safe, he didn't want to seem unfriendly.
"Nah," said Marshall. "In a weirdness investigation situation, stuff like that's not personal. I mean, who knows what we're going to run into when we go in there? All we really know is that this place was shut down under mysterious circumstances, and there were rumors of weird things going on there before that."
"True," said Simon. It was odd how few records existed, and how many people didn't seem to remember there ever having been an Eerie Roller Rink until they were reminded of it. His own vague memories had only resurfaced after Marshall talked about going to investigate. He'd been so young when it was open, he wasn't sure if he'd even been inside.
He held the phone to one ear with his shoulder as he grabbed a pile of dirty clothes off the living room floor. "Gross," he muttered at the days-old remains of a half-eaten microwave dinner he found under it. That would explain the smell he'd been noticing.
"What?" Marshall asked.
"Nothing." Simon picked up the dinner tray with the sleeve of one Harley's dirty shirts and threw it in the open trash bag beside him. "Just doing some straightening up."
In recent weeks, the disorder in Holmes house has reached a level that even Dash…well, Dash hadn't exactly said anything, but had looked more than a little alarmed last time he came over. Simon was hoping a clean living room would put his mom in a better mood when she got home tonight. If she got home tonight.
"I'm still not sure it isn't a trap," he said, as he tossed the laundry in the general direction of the laundry room, then started emptying overflowing ashtrays. "I mean, it's never even been on our radar until now, and you hear about it from some guy you meet in a club on the same night you…" Simon trailed off. His best friends had been targeted by a malevolent force of weirdness that had, among other things, apparently promised Dash anything he wanted in exchange for betraying Marshall. There wasn't a non-awkward way to say it.
"I know," Marshall said. "And I know better to assume anything's a coincidence, but there was a lot of weird stuff going on at that club that night, not to mention going on in this town all the time. I'd be really paranoid to assume all of it was after me personally. And we were talking about ghosts at the time, so it wasn't exactly out of context when this Scott guy said he remembered the roller rink was haunted. Besides, we're more prepared now. We've all got wards."
"Yeah, I guess." Simon looked down at the leather wrist cuff he wore, stamped with a ward against dark magic. Dash and Marshall each had one, and he'd gotten more from the Unkind Ones to give to the girls tonight. Still, he couldn't help but wonder if they would be enough. One had just barely been enough last time.
"I think we're looking at the following possibilities," Marshall was saying when Simon tuned back in. "One, the guy's deliberately leading us into a trap. But if he is, would he really be meeting us there to walk into it with us? Two, he's being manipulated into leading us into a trap against his will. If that's true, it could mean he needs our help. Three… "
Marshall's next words were drowned out by a noise from upstairs that sounded halfway between a series of explosive farts and the dying screams of an eldritch abomination.
"Hang on!" Simon shouted. He abandoned the living room, and took the phone outside to the Holmes' back porch. Shutting the door muffled the noise enough for him to hear Marshall again. "Sorry, Harley's practicing."
"I figured," Marshall said.
Harley Holmes was the tuba player in a death polka band he'd started with some of his friends from school. He still wasn't very good, but his constant practicing tended to drown out the sounds of their parents' fights. Which was, Simon assumed, at least part of the point of his little brother's new hobby.
It reminded him of a question he needed to ask Marshall. "Are your mom and dad still gone for the night?"
"Yeah," said Marshall. "Dad's still at the conference in Muncie and Mom won't be back from visiting Syndi until Sunday. Why?"
"I wanted to give Harley an adult to call. You know, in case of emergency while we're gone."
"Wait," said Marshall, "your mom's still not home? Wasn't she supposed to be back…?"
"Six hours ago," Simon confirmed. And his dad had said he'd be home by dinner time. On Wednesday. That the rest of the Holmes still hadn't heard from him was only typical these days.
"Oh," said Marshall. The silence stretched between them for a few moments. Then, "Maybe the Donners?"
"Having married people date night, according to Janet," said Simon. The Monroes were best avoided until the memory of Harley's behavior at their last pool party had a little more time to fade. And the McNultys were just best avoided.
"I'm sure Mr. Radford would help," Marshall said.
"Yeah," Simon acknowledged, "I guess." It was true Mr. Radford would always help if needed, but Simon had begun to consider they had leaned a little too hard on him where keeping an eye on Harley was concerned when the store owner had started to make some pointed remarks about how he did have a business to run and it wasn't a babysitting service.
"You could always bring him along," Marshall said.
It was an audibly sincere, but reluctant offer. It wasn't just the possibility of putting Harley in danger Marshall was concerned about, Simon knew. Or that said danger could involve the fact that Harley had picked up on some of Simon's dad's worst behaviors when it came to interacting with women, and there were limits to how tolerant Janet and Melanie—let alone a girl Simon hadn't met yet—were likely to be. It was also that last time Simon had been forced to bring his brother on a mission, Harley had gotten bored and managed to destroy Marshall's expensive new night vision binoculars. Simon was saving up the money to replace them, even though Mars was still refusing to let him take responsibility or even bring it up again.
"No," said Simon. "He'll be fine. I was fine by myself at his age."
There was another silence, punctuated only by the muffled sounds of Harley's playing.
It was time to broach a subject they'd been avoiding the entire conversation. "Is Dash for sure not coming?" Simon asked. Dash wasn't exactly the best emergency contact—he wasn't great around kids, and his last interaction with Harley had involved a lecture about how if Harley was going to shoplift, he was at least going to learn how to do it properly—but he'd be there if needed.
"I don't know," Marshall replied. "You're the one who talked to him last."
"But…" Simon began, then decided for the moment against mentioning who he'd seen climbing out of Marshall's bedroom window that morning. "He didn't say. He just said 'Oh, really?' when I mentioned who else was coming, and that he could think of better ways to spend a Friday night." Which, for Dash, was far from a definite no.
He heard Marshall sigh. "Dash is going to do whatever Dash is going to do, Simon. You know that."
It was true. The problem was what Dash was likely to do in these situations usually depended on how he was feeling toward Marshall at the moment, and Simon was having a hard time figuring out what that was.
They hadn't been speaking to each other. And not in the way Marshall and Dash usually weren't speaking, which involved a lot of glaring, shouting in each other's general direction, and attempting to pass messages to each other through Simon, despite Simon's repeated demands they stop.
No, this was falling silent when they were forced to share a space together, refusing to meet each other's eyes, and after a small while in the same room, one of them suddenly realizing there was something important he needed to be doing elsewhere. Worse, while they both clearly upset about something, they weren't even saying anything bad about each other behind each other's backs.
Simon hadn't been this worried for them in a long time.
"I wish you'd tell me what's going on with you guys," he said.
"You know what's going on," Marshall replied.
"No, I don't. I know something more than you're saying happened at that club, but you won't tell me and all Dash will say is it's his fault."
"It's not Dash's fault," Marshall said, too quickly.
"Be honest," Simon said, in what he hoped was a stern voice.
"It's not all Dash's fault."
Simon sighed. "What did he do this time?"
"I keep telling you. He didn't do anything."
"Okay, what did you do?"
"I didn't…look, people said things they shouldn't have said. That's all."
Well, that was vague. Still, it was nothing they hadn't gotten over before. "It sounds like he was under the influence of some pretty weird magic that night," Simon began.
"He was," said Marshall, "I wasn't."
"You were under the influence, though."
"Did Dash tell you that?"
"He didn't have to," said Simon, trying not to sound exasperated. "I could figure it out myself from the way your memory of that night gets fuzzy after a certain point. And the way you looked the next afternoon. I know a hangover when I see it, Mars. And did you think I really believed you just happened to have your fake ID on you in case you had to do some undercover work? Don't treat me like I'm stupid."
"I'm sorry," Marshall said. "You're not stupid. It's just that I'm not exactly proud of everything I did that night."
"Mars, part of not being stupid is learning from your dumb mistakes, so when I'm your age I'll make different ones. How am I supposed to do that if I don't know what they are?"
"Okay," said Marshall. "You're right. So, when you're my age, stay away from anything served in a shot glass and grey-haired amnesiacs of mysterious origin, and you'll have learned from me."
"Sorry," Marshall said again.
It was time to be more direct. "Are you mad at Dash?"
"No," Marshall said. Then, "I don't know. Maybe. A little."
"Is Dash mad at you?"
"I can't read Dash's mind, Simon. That was a one-time situation involving a cursed Slurpee machine."
"Should he be mad at you?"
"Mars, do you need to apologize?"
There was a long pause. "Probably."
"Then why don't you just do it? This isn't one of those 'I'm not apologizing until he apologizes first' things, is it?"
"No, it's…" There was a deep breath, and when Marshall spoke again, Simon could barely hear him. "I don't know how."
"How to apologize?" asked Simon. "Easy. Just say you're sorry and you didn't mean it."
"You can leave off the 'didn't mean it' part, if you have to."
"Whatever it was, it can't be as bad as all that."
Marshall's laugh was hollow. "You have no idea."
Simon thought back over every awful thing he'd ever heard Marshall say to Dash, including all the things Marshall actually meant, and the things Marshall had no idea were even awful. He tried to imagine what could possibly be worse.
Dash brought out a side of Marshall Teller most people never got to see. Simon had heard Marshall call Dash every unprintable name Simon knew, and a few he was still meaning to look up. He'd heard Marshall make speculations on Dash's origins and probable parentage that ranged from the merely offensive to the downright obscene, and describe to Dash's face and in graphic detail various ways Marshall hoped he would meet his untimely end at the hands of one form of weirdness or another and finally be out of everyone's lives for good.
Simon would feel sorry for Dash way more often, except Dash usually gave as good as he got, and was at least half the time the one who'd started it.
They had arguments they way most people made small talk. At times, Simon had figured out, it was a bizarre form of flirting behavior. It was even cute, if you knew how to listen to it. Then there were the many times one or both of them was aiming to wound.
"I don't think there's anything you could say Dash wouldn't forgive you for," said Simon.
Marshall gave that same hollow laugh again.
Simon decided he might as well come right out and say it. "I just thought maybe you'd worked this out last night."
"Last night?" Marshall sounded equal parts guilty and confused.
"It's trash day. I saw him climbing out your window this morning during routine sasquatch watch. Neither of you are as sneaky as you like to think. You could have just told me you'd talked."
"We didn't. You're the one he talks to."
"Then what were you doing all night?"
"Wait!" Simon said, noting Marshall's tone and mentally reviewing what he'd just asked. "That wasn't what I meant! Don't answer that!"
Marshall's snort of laughter was at least more genuine this time. "Don't worry. Can we just say Dash didn't exactly come over to have a conversation and change the subject? Please? So, wooden stakes. Do you still have some, or do you need me to bring extra?"
Simon sighed and massaged his temple where his head was beginning to throb. There were parts of Marshall and Dash's relationship he legitimately didn't want or need to know about—or accidentally walk in on ever again—but there were times he suspected they used that as an excuse to keep from talking to him about things that were important. He decided to press forward. "At least you guys are, well, interacting again. That's a good sign, right?"
"'Interacting.'" He could hear the air quotes Marshall was no doubt making. "Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"
Simon missed the days when conversations with his friends didn't lead to navigating a minefield of potential embarrassment. "Mars, be serious."
When Marshall spoke again, all traces of amusement were gone from his voice, "It was a mistake."
"Last night. It was a mistake. One Dash and I both need to stop making."
Simon tried to remind himself Marshall said stuff like that a lot. At least six or seven items on the list of Marshall and Dash's Standard Argument Topics were variations on the theme of whose fault it was their association was over forever. There was no reason to believe this time was any different. Except while Marshall said stuff like that a lot, Simon couldn't remember him ever before sounding so sad.
"Why?" he asked.
"We're not good for each other. We never have been."
"That's not true! I mean, you fight a lot, but couples do that..."
"We're not really a couple, Simon."
"Whatever you are," said Simon. Defining what exactly they were to each other wasn't the point. "Whatever happened, you'll move past it. You always do."
"No," Marshall said. "We come back to each other in spite of it. And it needs to stop."
"Why?" Simon asked again.
"He isn't happy. I'm not happy. As long we're in each other's lives like this, neither of us is ever going to be."
Simon felt a cold weight settle in his chest. "So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. End this, I guess."
"You mean, go back to being just friends?"
"I don't know that we were ever really friends, Simon."
It was Simon's turn to fall silent. Yeah, this was bad.
"Don't worry, it won't be tonight," Marshall said, as if tonight's investigation was all Simon was concerned about.
"When I figure out how to do it without hurting Dash."
Oh, man. If Marshall was worried about hurting Dash and still talking about ending things, it was worse than Simon thought. "Do you really think you're going to be able to do that ever, Mars?" he asked.
"Probably not," Marshall admitted. "But I need to at least try. And that means it won't be on a night when we're hanging out with Melanie and Janet."
Simon nodded to himself. That was wise. Marshall's complicated history with both of them was going to have Dash on edge as it was. It also meant Simon had a little more time to figure out how to salvage things.
"Okay," he said, hoping to force Marshall to think this through. "And after you end things, then what? You're just never going to see each other again?"
"I'm sure we'll see each other," said Marshall. "I mean, we're two of the few people in this town who pay attention to how weird it is. Besides, he's your friend. That means we're going to run into each other from time to time."
"For now," Simon said, before he could stop himself.
"Simon, you do know that this has nothing do to with you, right? He's not going to stop being friends with you because of me."
"I know," said Simon, even though he didn't, really.
"You don't sound like you do."
"Maybe it's not Dash I'm worried about." Again, it was out of his mouth before he could re-think saying it.
"You're worried I'm going to stop being your friend? Simon, I wouldn't do that."
"Not on purpose."
"But you'll stop coming around when you know Dash will be here. You'll start spending more time with Melanie and those guys, and eventually..."
"I might need some time away from Dash for while, sure, but I would never—"
"You've done it before."
"You've done it before. You didn't mean to that time, either, but you and I almost stopped talking for months because you couldn't stand to be around Dash. I thought I'd lost you for good." It was the year Marshall had turned fourteen. There'd been a party with some of Marshall's older friends. Neither Simon nor Dash been invited.
"No," Marshall sounded almost frantic. "Simon, no. I swear to you. This is nothing like before."
"How would I know? You wouldn't tell me what was wrong then, and you won't tell me what's wrong now."
"I'm sorry," Marshall said, but didn't offer anything else in the way of information.
"I want to believe you," said Simon.
"Then believe me." As though it were that simple.
Simon didn't know what to say. Marshall was his best friend. Until Dash came along, he'd been his only friend. Over the years, they'd formed a weird little trio that somehow worked despite Marshall and Dash's various forms of tension. He'd been worrying about losing Marshall a lot lately—the specter of graduation this spring, and then college, still loomed—but he'd thought they'd have at least the rest of the year to get used to the idea. He wasn't ready to deal with this now.
And if Simon was feeling this way, how was Dash going to feel?
"Wooden stakes I'm good on," Simon said at last, "but I'm running low on duct tape and extra D cell batteries. And, um, I accidentally misplaced my video camera."
By which he meant he'd left it on the coffee table overnight and was pretty sure it could now be found down at the Eerie Pawn Shop. He was going to have to get better about leaving the expensive equipment at Marshall's or Dash's before he went home.
Marshall didn't ask questions. "It's okay. We can use mine. And I've got you covered on the rest."
"Thanks," said Simon.
"No problem," said Marshall.
"So, do you think there's any way we can talk Melanie into letting Janet drive?" Simon asked.
"You heard what happened on their trip to the lake, I take it?
"She says it was an accident," Simon said. "I'm still not sure how you accidentally drive fifty-six miles per hour over the speed limit."
"Or through a cow pasture. It's the kind of thing that only happens when you're Melanie Monroe," Marshall said. "The amazing part was that she got off with a warning."
"I think that also only happens when you're Melanie Monroe," said Simon. "Remember that time she—?"
He was cut off by the sound of the front door slamming open. Somehow, he'd missed his mother's car pulling into the driveway, but there was no mistaking her yell of, "Simon! Harley!" followed by a string of expletives.
The tuba playing stopped abruptly, as his mother started screaming at Harley about the mess in the house, and Harley started screaming back that he wasn't the only one who lived here, so why was it his job to pick up after the rest of them?
Simon had made a mistake. He'd left the living room in a state that wasn't exactly clean, but was just clean enough to showcase how dirty it had been. It had only put her in a worse mood.
"I've got to go," he told Marshall.
"Your mom home?" Marshall asked, being diplomatic. He could probably hear her from his house, even without being on the telephone.
Simon sighed. "Yeah, I should probably go deal with this."
"You sure?" Marshall asked.
"I'm sure," Simon said. "See you at seven?"
"See you at seven," Marshall confirmed. "Bye, Simon."
He hung up and went inside.
Chapter 2: On the Edge of a Broken Heart
Marshall hung up the phone and tried not to worry as he went back to sorting equipment. Simon was the expert on dealing with his own family, he reminded himself as he added extra earplugs, iron nails, and another container of salt to the pile of stuff for combating the effects of weirdness, and his video camera to the pile for recording evidence. If Simon said he could handle things with his mom and Harley, he probably knew what he was talking about.
Marshall looked at the next item on his list, bolt cutters, and started another pile for breaking and entering tools.
It was turning out to be a lot of stuff, but he had to bring supplies to cover all bases, given they had no idea what they'd be dealing with. He also needed supplies in sufficient quantities to cover that, as of last count, there were at least five other people coming along on this mission and aside from Simon, none of them were professionals. He knew Janet would be as prepared as she knew how to be, but didn't fully trust Melanie to remember to bring anything other than her roller skates. The other two were unknown quantities.
Then there was Dash.
Marshall hoped Dash really did have something better to do tonight. It would make things less complicated, and give Marshall a little more time to think about how to end things properly.
The first thing, Marshall told himself, was to remember not to sleep with Dash.
It was something he'd failed at twice this week already.
The first time had been after their infamous club visit. To be fair, it didn't seem right to tell somebody it was for the best if you were both out of each other's lives for good after he'd spent the better part of a morning nursing you through a hangover.
Still, Marshall had at least planned to apologize when he was feeling awake and fully human again. He remembered they were sitting beside each other on Dash's mattress watching TV when he'd gotten as far as, "So, I was drunk last night" and watched Dash flinch in reaction.
Marshall didn't remember so much making a move next as suddenly finding himself murmuring "I'm not drunk now" down at Dash, who he had pinned underneath him on the mattress.
He remembered Dash's eyes going from narrow to wide as he'd slowly grinned up at Marshall and said, "Well, thank god for that." And that had been it as far as talking was concerned until someone had finally pointed out that they were well into the afternoon and if they didn't call Simon soon, Simon was going to panic.
Last night…well, last night Dash had climbed through Marshall's bedroom window and gotten about as far as the word "So," before Marshall had him pinned up against a wall and was practically ripping his clothes off. If there were spoken words between them at any point after that, they hadn't been in coherent sentences.
They did better when they didn't talk. When Dash was in his arms or sleeping next to him, it was easy for Marshall to forget that he was with the most infuriating person on the planet, and only remember the ways Dash fascinated and attracted him. Over the years, Dash had somehow become Marshall's first lover, and second-closest confidant. He'd saved Marshall's life more than once. And he remained one of Eerie's more intriguing mysteries.
It was when they were talking that things broke down. More than half the time, they were shouting at each other, calling each other names, or in general, making each other miserable. Or Dash was announcing to an entire bar full of weirdness that Marshall was his. As if their relationship was anything like that. As if those words from Dash's mouth could ever make Marshall sound like anything other than just one more thing Dash could buy, sell, or trade in another one of his get-rich-quick schemes. One more thing he would have traded, if luck and some quick thinking hadn't saved both of them.
Marshall could never let himself forget the other side of Dash. The side that was selfish and greedy, and had endangered his life through action or inaction multiple times, not counting the time he had once directly tried to end it.
Simon still didn't know about that one.
Marshall and Dash had never exactly been friends. They'd gone from mortal enemies to whatever they were now through a series of escalating mistakes after Marshall had resigned himself to allowing Dash in his life for Simon's sake. When Dash and Simon started hanging out, he could never quite bring himself to let a little matter like an attempted alternate reality homicide force him to ask his best friend to give up the only other friend he had. But for a long time, he couldn't quite bring himself to spend time with Simon when Dash was around, either.
He'd come close to losing Simon back then, he knew.
That Simon was still hurt and confused by it all these years later was something Marshall hadn't realized. He wanted to explain, but at the same time, didn't think bringing up the deep past was going to do anybody any good now.
Yes, Marshall was attracted to and fascinated by Dash. He probably always would be. But it didn't mean he would ever quite trust him.
It definitely didn't mean he had any other feelings for him. No matter what he might have said when he was drunk.
He added Item #2739 from the Evidence Locker to the combating-the-weird pile. A rubber duck that, for no discernible reason, emitted a high-pitched scream lasting several minutes whenever you squeezed it. It was one of the worst sounds Marshall had ever heard, making it potentially effective against the thing that had targeted them, whose chief weapon seemed be its own voice.
He had just put the extra batteries next to the extra flashlights when he heard someone climbing through his open bedroom window.
"Dash," he said softly, without looking up.
"Teller," said Dash, because of course that's who it was. He heard Dash shut the window. "You should be more careful. Anything could get in here."
Marshall snorted. "Anything, which is almost always you." It was easier to lapse into their familiar rhythm if Marshall didn't look at him.
It was the longest conversation they'd had in a while. Simon would be so pleased.
He looked up. Dash stood by the window, framed in the light of the late afternoon sun. His grey hair was in complete disarray, as usual, and he was wearing yesterday's t-shirt. Marshall could tell it was yesterday's by the ripped collar which only drew attention to the trail of bruises and bite marks on that side of Dash's neck.
Marshall, who'd been responsible for both these things, felt the color rising to his face, and turned away.
"So," Dash said.
"So," Marshall echoed, as he heard Dash move closer.
When Marshall looked his way again, Dash was holding out a handful of twenties. "Here."
"What's this?" Marshall asked, confused.
"Money," Dash said, as though explaining the concept to someone new to it. "Cash. Legal tender. Pieces of green paper you can exchange for various goods and services."
Marshall didn't understand. "You're giving me money?"
"I'm giving you your money. Well, yours and your sidekick's, minus my thirty percent. Got it from Mrs. Johansson on the way over."
Marshall gaped at him. Mrs. Johansson was the sweet, eighty-three-year-old woman whose granddaughter had hired Marshall to rid her attic of what the old woman was convinced was the spirit of her dead brother-in-law. Marshall wasn't sure where to start here. With the part where Dash had apparently gone over to the Johansson house on Marshall's behalf looking like that, or with the fact that he still couldn't quite remember having agreed to charge for weirdness investigation in the first place, let alone give Dash thirty percent of the profits for doing none of the work. Or with…
"It was a squirrel," Marshall said. "Not a ghost."
"But a squirrel you took care of, right?"
"Well, yeah." Marshall was sure Dash had heard this from Simon already. They'd trapped it, then Marshall had let it loose in a Deadwood Park while Simon called a couple members of the Unkind Ones he knew who did some roofing on the side to patch the hole where it had gotten into the attic in the first place. "But it wasn't even a weird squirrel. Not anything she needed to call people like us for. I wasn't going to charge her for it."
"Which is why collecting the money is my job," Dash said. He made an impatient gesture with the twenties, as Marshall continued to stare. "Are you going to take it or what? Because if you don't want it…" He started to draw the hand back.
"Do you need money?" Marshall asked, giving him a pointed look.
Dash made a sour face, and let the bills fall into Marshall's lap. It was another thing about Dash Marshall found hard to understand. He'd steal, cheat, and lie to get money—and really, the fact that he hadn't just kept all the profits for himself in the first place was somewhat new behavior—but offer it to him, and he'd get weird.
Marshall sighed, and pocketed the bills. He'd figure out a way to give Simon most of it later. "Thank you," he said.
Dash made room for himself on the bed without asking, disrupting Marshall's carefully organized piles and sweeping most of their contents to the floor.
"Hey!" Marshall said. He leaned down and started to check the electronic equipment for damage.
Dash sprawled next to him, then shifted, reached under his back, and pulled out a set of handcuffs.
"Cold iron," Marshall explained. With a binding spell etched into the metal. Effective at restraining multiple types of weirdness.
"Huh," Dash said, tossing them aside. "So you're still going through with this stupid idea?"
Marshall sat back up and forced himself to ignore the sensation of Dash absentmindedly stroking his leg. He realized one of his own hands was toying with Dash's hair, and quickly withdrew it. "If by 'this stupid idea,' you mean investigating the roller rink, yeah. You coming with or what?"
Dash made a noncommittal noise and shrugged.
"I need to finish getting ready before everyone gets here," Marshall said.
"When's that?" Dash asked.
"Simon'll be over at seven, everyone else by seven-thirty."
"It's going to take you that long to get all this crap together?" Dash asked, not unkindly.
"Well, it's going to take me longer now that it's all over the floor," Marshall pointed out. "And then I figured I'd test some of the equipment…"
"Hmm." Dash suddenly sat up, faced him, and then shifted, putting one leg over Marshall's until he was practically sitting in his lap. Before Marshall could say anything, Dash grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulled him close, and kissed him. Marshall started to respond until he remembered exactly where that led and why he wasn't going to go there.
"Um, Dash…" he began, as he tried to squirm away.
"Shh," Dash touched his finger to Marshall's lips. "You've got time for a little reciprocity."
Marshall stilled and made a questioning noise.
Dash ran the fingers of one hand through Marshall's long hair, then gently tugged to pull his head to one side. With the index finger of his other hand, he traced a line down Marshall's now-exposed neck.
Marshall shivered, noting the messages about not sleeping with Dash had failed yet again to make it from his brain to the rest of his body.
Dash looked into Marshall's eyes for a long moment, then ran the same finger down the side of his own neck, highlighting the marks Marshall had left there. He laughed, low and dangerous. "I've got those in other places, remember?"
Marshall nodded, as much as Dash's grip on his hair would allow.
"The way I figure it, you've had your way with me more than once this week," Dash said. "And you haven't exactly been gentle, have you?"
Marshall swallowed hard. "You haven't exactly been complaining."
"I'm not complaining now." He brought his lips to Marshall's ear, nipped once at the earlobe, and whispered, "This is me returning the favor."
Marshall took a deep breath. Don't, he was going to say. Stop. This isn't going to happen.
Dash's lips were on his neck.
He had told Simon he wasn't going to end things tonight. Maybe letting Dash get this out of his system now would eventually make it easier on both of them.
"That—" He gasped as Dash found a particularly sensitive spot. "That's fair."
He ignored the part of his brain that was still screaming at him this was a terrible, terrible idea.
Instead, he reached for Dash, who let go of Marshall's hair and swatted his arms away, before grabbing his wrists and pinning them above his head.
Dash laughed that low, infuriating laugh again, then shifted his grip and brought one hand down to cup Marshall's chin. His kiss this time was rough, insistent, almost designed to drown out any voice of reason still left in Marshall's head, if Marshall hadn't already decided to let reason be damned.
He closed his eyes and for one last time, let his world narrow down to the sensation of Dash's lips, Dash's tongue, Dash's touch.
Then he felt something cold and metal encircle one of his still-pinned wrists.
He pulled away and blinked in surprise. When exactly had Dash picked up the handcuffs again?
Dash's eyes were wide with feigned innocence when Marshall met them, but his grin was wicked. "You said you wanted to test the equipment."
"This wasn't what I—" Marshall began, before something more important occurred to him. "You have the key to those, right?"
In answer, Dash reached into his front pocket and withdrew a small key. He dangled it in front of Marshall's eyes, then reached past him and slapped it down on the bedside table. It was a clear challenge.
There were at least several thousand good reasons to put a stop to this right now. Marshall couldn't quite remember any of them.
Instead, he met Dash's eyes and nodded. "Give it your best shot."
Chapter 3: On the Edge of Evening
Janet Donner roller skated over to her bedroom closet, and retrieved the machete she secretly kept on the top shelf. She unsheathed it and studied the blade for a long moment.
"What do you think? Overkill?" she asked.
From their perch against her bed pillows, a stuffed cow, a floppy-eared plush jackalope, and a smiling, blonde Cornfield Kid doll stared at her impassively and failed to offer any opinions.
Her room was, for the most part, a proper eighteen-year-old’s bedroom now, cartoon bedding long ago replaced with a stylish cream comforter set, cute kitten pictures and boy band posters taken down in favor of some framed Monet prints and a couple of original Sara Sue Haverstocks from the last time the artist had been in town. The stuffed group of three, however, remained. Relics from a childhood she wasn’t quite ready to let go of completely.
She shrugged, re-sheathed the blade, and skated over to put it on top of her backpack full of supplies. There was probably a safety rule against skating with very large knives, she reflected as she made a few slow circles around her bedroom floor. It had probably been made by somebody who hadn’t grown up in Eerie.
She glanced at the checklist Marshall had given her, currently being held up by Eliza Lenore the Cornfield Kid, then skated over to her dresser and rummaged through her jewelry box until she located a sterling silver cross her grandmother had given her some long-ago birthday. She started to put it on, then thought about the importance of not making hostile first impressions on friends’ significant others, and slipped it into her pocket instead.
There. She was as ready for tonight as she was ever going to be.
It wasn't too late to back out, she told herself. Melanie would understand. Melanie always did.
Only this time there was a girl, and Melanie really, really wanted her to meet the girl.
Melanie considered it part of Janet's job as her best friend to vet any guy or girl Melanie was currently interested in, and while under most circumstances that could wait a bit, with this particular girl and this particular group, Janet also knew Melanie was counting on her to be the much-needed voice of sanity tonight.
She heard a squeal of tires in the distance, as though somebody had just turned on to their street and taken the corner a bit too fast, and started double checking to make sure she had everything together. Moments later, she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, then a knock at the front door, followed by her younger sister Stacey, who was camped out in the living room waiting on someone's mom to chauffeur her to her friend Brittany Mellman's party, yelling, "I got it!"
Moments later, a somewhat disappointed and disgusted-sounding Stacey yelled, "Janet! It's Speed Racer!"
Janet rolled her eyes. Melanie Monroe wasn't exactly Stacey's favorite person right now. "Let her in!" she yelled back.
She unlocked her bedroom door and skated to the top of the stairs in time to witness Stacey, one hand on hip, confronting Melanie in the hallway. At age fourteen, Stacey Donner was now taller than Melanie, and the extra height added by the four inch heels she was wearing meant she was practically succeeding in looming.
"Tell me you're not getting my sister arrested tonight," Stacey said.
Melanie raised her hands. "If this is about the trip to the lake, that was an accident." She was wearing a pair of stonewashed jeans, an old Several Thousand Maniacs t-shirt, and a Members Only jacket. Her hair was tied back in a loose ponytail with a hot pink scrunchie. Janet wished she'd thought to dress up.
Stacey looked from Melanie's outfit up to Janet's skates and back again. "What are you guys doing tonight?"
"Costume party," Janet answered.
"Themed movie night," Melanie said at the exact same time.
Stacey's eyes narrowed. "The thing you're really doing, it isn't anything illegal, is it?"
"Um…" Janet began.
"Not exactly," Melanie said.
Double uh-oh. While that sort of answer was likely to be ignored in the Monroe house, where Melanie's parents had long ago decided they were better off not knowing what their daughter was up to most of the time, it wasn't going to fly with Janet's overprotective little sister.
"Because if you were doing anything illegal," Stacey said. "I would be obligated to report it to Mom and Dad."
"It's just a little breaking and entering—" Melanie began.
"We're ghost hunting," Janet interrupted, before Melanie could make the situation worse.
"Ghost hunting? You mean with Simon?" Stacey asked. Then hastily amended, "And the rest of those guys?"
"With those guys," Janet confirmed.
"Oh." She looked confused. "Why the skates?"
Janet decided it was time to go all in. "Do you remember the old roller rink?"
Stacey's face scrunched up in momentary concentration. "Kind of," she said, finally. "You mean the roller rink's haunted?" Then, "You mean you're breaking into the roller rink?"
"Yeah," Janet said, with a conspiratorial smile. "Wanna come with?"
"Me?" Stacey asked.
Stacey beamed. "I…you don't think there are really ghosts there, do you?"
Melanie shrugged. "Simon and Marshall do."
"I—" Stacey began again. She looked conflicted, then frowned. "I can't. I promised Brittany I'd go tonight, and if I'm not there…"
It'd be fourteen-year-old social suicide. Janet, who remembered all too well, nodded in sympathy. "Well, maybe next time."
"You mean it?" Stacey asked, looking from Janet to Melanie.
"Sure," said Janet.
"Why not?" said Melanie.
"Okay, yeah, next time," Stacey said, as if she still couldn't quite believe it. Then, "You know, Mom and Dad are going to be so happy when they hear you're at a costume party. They love it when you get out of the house to do something normal."
"Thanks, Stacey," Janet said. "And if Mom asks, I have no knowledge of anybody borrowing her shoes."
Stacey's face flushed as she looked down at her feet. "Uh, thanks, Janet."
"See you around, kid!" said Melanie, earning her an unnoticed scowl behind her back as she practically bounced up the stairs, then followed Janet down the hall to her room.
"I love the quad skates," Melanie said, when the door was safely shut behind them. "They're so retro!"
"Thanks," Janet said. Technically, they were also borrowed from her mother without asking—Janet had outgrown her own since the last time she'd skated—but they'd been sitting untouched in the attic so long, she didn't think her mom would mind.
"I've got mine in the car," said Melanie. She'd made it clear her priority tonight was not engaging the forces of weirdness. She sat on Janet's bed and picked up Spot the stuffed cow. "So, your sister—"
Below, Janet heard the sound of another vehicle pulling up and Stacey yelling something like, "Don’t wait up!" before making an exit without giving her own ride a chance to knock.
"Ignore her," Janet said, when all was quiet again. "She spent a year once thinking I was dead, so when you do something she thinks could have gotten me killed—"
"It was an accident!" Melanie said, reflexively.
"Uh-huh," said Janet, skating another circle around the room. "And was how fast you were going on the way here also an accident?"
"Okay, I may have been going a little fast after trying to lose the milk truck tailing me since Maple Street." Melanie scowled down at Spot as if it had been the cow's fault.
Janet studied her friend. Melanie's history with milk trucks wasn't exactly the greatest. "Was it tailing you, or did it just happen to be behind you?"
"Either way," Melanie waved a hand. "The important thing is, I lost it. Anyway, that wasn't what I meant. What I meant was, your sister and Simon, huh?"
Oh. So Melanie had noticed that. "Yeah, there's something there. At least on my sister's part," Janet confirmed. "I'm not sure if it's a recent thing or if it's just recently become more obvious."
"Does he know?"
"Simon? I don't know. I'm not going to be the one to tell him. It would break all sorts of sibling confidentiality protocol." She considered. "Still, it couldn't hurt to try to get them together. Even if nothing else comes of it, it'd good for him to have a friend his own age."
"You know, I keep forgetting how young he actually is," Melanie said.
"I know you do." Janet gave her a look.
"I said I was sorry about all the puns you had to explain to him last movie night!"
"No, you're not." Janet grinned. It was easy to forget Simon was just a kid, and they didn't always think to make sure things like conversations and video rentals stayed at a PG-13 level. Then again, it wasn't like the Holmes kids had much parental guidance at the best of times. It was possible Simon's vocabulary and increasing grasp of innuendo wasn't all due to his friends. "Anyway, I don't think either Simon or my sister is the redhead you came over here early to talk about."
Melanie smiled. "Georgia. You're really going to like her. At least, I think you're really going to like her. But be honest with me either way."
Yeah, there was no backing out of tonight now.
Melanie took Janet by the arm the next time she skated past and pulled her over to sit next to her on the bed. "Okay, so I called her before I came over, and she's meeting us at the Tellers. Would it be okay if we went there a little early so she doesn't show up before us? I mean, she's met Mars, so it's not like she doesn't know what to expect there, but…"
Yeah, the fact that Melanie and Marshall had a history Janet wasn't sure if Melanie had fully disclosed was just one of the elements that would make that awkward. "No problem," she said, "as long as it's not too early." Showing up at Marshall's house way before he was expecting you was a good way to find him up in his attic with Simon investigating something weird he'd feel the need to explain to you in detail. Or worse, he'd be in up his bedroom with…she shuddered involuntarily. "Um, do we know exactly who else is going to be there?"
"Last I talked to anybody, not Dash," Melanie said, as if that answered the question.
"I didn't say Dash, specifically."
"Yeah, but Simon doesn't make you make that face."
"I like Simon," Janet said. "I mean, I worry the rest of us are corrupting Simon…"
Melanie laughed. "As far as I know, it's just us and the guy who told Mars about the rink. Tod was invited, but these days, given the choice between spending time with the rest of us or adding to his Get Out of Indiana Forever fund, you know what he's doing."
"Another shift at the video store." Janet would have more help from her parents than Tod would from his after graduation, but she could sympathize with his all-consuming desire to get out of Indiana forever. While she probably wasn't going to be able to follow Melanie all the way to the Ivy League, every college Janet was applying to was at least a day's drive from Eerie. "So are we sure tonight is Dash-free?"
"Well, Mars is going to be there…"
And where Marshall Teller went, his grey-haired shadow almost inevitably followed. Janet collapsed back on the bed and pulled a pillow over her face. "Yay," she said in a flat, muffled voice.
"They were fighting a lot last weekend," Melanie said. "There's a good chance Dash really won't show up."
"And an equal chance Marshall's sleeping-with-my-archenemy bullshit is once again going to ruin a whole evening." She removed the pillow and looked up at Melanie. "You're being awfully calm about this."
"I'm trying." Melanie lay back next to Janet. "I want to spend more time with Mars before we graduate, and…well, some people come as part of a package deal, you know?"
That was a sentiment Janet couldn't argue with.
"Besides," Melanie continued, "Georgia and I already caught a very special episode of the Mars and Dash Show the day we met, and that didn't scare her away, so…"
"It's just," Janet turned on her side to face Melanie. "I don't understand why, when he could be in a real relationship, he's still doing whatever it is he's doing with Dash."
"Nobody does," Melanie said, brushing a stray strand of Janet's hair out of the way. "I mean, okay, from a certain point of view, Dash is kind of hot."
Janet wrinkled her nose. "Does this point of view include any part of his entire personality?"
Melanie tried and failed to suppress a laugh. "You're not helping with my whole calm acceptance thing."
"I'm sorry." She picked up her jackalope and hugged him. "It's just that they fight, I think it's finally over for good, and the next time we hang out with Mars, there's Dash again, and we're supposed to ignore everything that happened last time. And everything he told us about their history. I can't help worrying I'm going out of my way to be nice to somebody who's a clear and present danger to my friend."
"According to Mars, it's not as bad as it looks from the outside."
"Also according to Mars, there's a good chance Dash isn't even from this planet." Which, knowing Marshall, was a big part of the whole attraction.
"I know." Melanie tossed Spot up in the air and caught her by a stuffed hoof. "But sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants."
Janet sat up and studied Melanie's face. "And for some people, that's to live fast, die young, and date a good-looking corpse?"
Melanie grinned. "I love that you get me."
"So, you're still thinking she's some kind of undead, then?"
Melanie glanced at the door as if to make sure it was shut, then sat up, leaned toward Janet and lowered her voice. "Okay, so we got to second base in the parking lot behind Eerie Cinema Wednesday night."
"Cold hands, no heartbeat."
"Not that I could tell, but Mars and Simon say they could be retractable, so I wouldn't necessarily notice until…"
"What? Just before you're about to get eaten?"
Melanie giggled. "Hey, we don't know each other that well yet."
Janet swiped at the back of her head. "See, this is exactly the sort of thing we're not going to say in front of Simon anymore. But, seriously, was there any, you know, rotting?"
Melanie shook her head. "Again, not that I could tell."
"Really bad breath? Overall scent of death?"
Melanie shook her head again. "Minty breath. Kind of buttery-popcorn-y, since we were at the movies. So, yeah, she eats food. Should probably mention that to Mars and Simon, in case it means something. Overall scent of…mmm, well, it reminds me of this one laundry detergent Devon's mom used to use. In a good way."
And there was another thing. "Does she know about Devon yet?"
Melanie tossed and caught the cow again. "Um, not exactly. That's a conversation we need to have soon. Assuming the subject doesn't come up tonight." She bit her lip.
Yep, Melanie Monroe was nervous. And unlike Janet, who sometimes felt she spent her entire life in a constant state of anxiety, Melanie was seldom noticeably nervous about anything. Which meant that whatever this Georgia girl was, Melanie liked her a lot.
"Are you hoping the subject will come up tonight?" Janet prodded.
"Well, Mars and Simon have more experience with this sort of conversation than I do," Melanie said, confirming Janet's suspicions about why she'd invited the girl out to an evening with all of them at once as a third date. "Thanks for coming along, by the way. I mean, I know the whole weirdness investigation thing isn't exactly your thing."
That was an understatement. Out of their whole group, besides Marshall and Simon, Janet was the one who believed in the weird the most. But while Marshall and Simon's experiences only made them that much more determined to seek out all things inexplicable and poke them with a stick, Janet's just made her want to leave them the hell alone whenever possible. That fundamental incompatibility was one of the things that made her and Marshall's short-lived romance so short-lived.
"It's just the roller rink," Janet said, echoing to Melanie what she'd been telling herself all day. "We used to go there all the time when we were kids."
"Well, not me," Melanie said, looking wistful. "I didn't even know there was a roller rink in Eerie until this week."
"I keep forgetting it shut down before you guys moved here. Yeah, it was great. The guy who ran the thing was really nice. We'd spend whole nights skating around to cheesy music, eating junk food, playing video games..."
"So was it haunted?" Melanie asked.
"Not that I knew of," said Janet, shrugging. "Not that I was paying attention back then, but I never heard anything about ghosts. And nothing weird ever happened to anybody I knew. Nothing bad, either, unless you count the time Vanessa Li fell and broke her arm doing the limbo and couldn't go swimming for the rest of the summer." She considered all she'd learned about Eerie since then. "That doesn't mean it isn't haunted. Especially now that it's been shut down for a while."
"But you're not sure?"
"I don't know." Janet caught Spot in mid flip before Melanie could throw her again. She arranged the cow and the jackalope back against the pillows, on either side of Eliza Lenore. "I lost a year of my life once because I set my watch the wrong way. My ex-boyfriend may be screwing a homicidal alien and my best friend is dating the one of the living dead. I don't put anything past this town anymore."
Melanie put her arm around Janet's shoulders. "If it helps, she's a nice one of the living dead. And she has good taste in music and horrible taste in movies, which means she fits right in with the rest of us. I think you'll really like her."
Janet smiled. "If you do, I'm sure I will." She couldn't resist a glance over to the machete on top of her backpack. "But don't think I'll be understanding if she tries to kill you."
"Who do you think I am? Marshall?" Melanie said in a tone of mock offense. "If anybody tries to kill me, I fully expect you to be a complete bitch about it. Also, I promise I won't invite them to parties ever again."
"Good." Janet checked her watch. "We've still got some time to kill. How about I change into something more retro, and you tell me all about Wednesday night?"
"Okay," said Melanie, as Janet got up and skated over to her closet. "So we decided to meet at Eerie Cinema to see the new one with the radioactive armadillo…"
Chapter 4: Knife's Edge
The story of Marshall Teller and Dash X, Marshall had speculated once in one of his journals, was also the story of how over the years of living in Eerie, Marshall was slowly but surely losing his mind to the forces of weirdness. His present situation was only one more piece of evidence to confirm that theory.
Item: He was in bed with Dash. Again.
The person he'd promised himself mere moments ago he wasn't going to sleep with was kissing his way down Marshall's neck, stopping to leave what would no doubt be a mega-size bruise Marshall only hoped his latest disguise kit was up to the task of covering, and Marshall was doing nothing to put a stop to it.
Not that he could do much if he wanted to, because…
Item: He was chained to his own headboard.
Correction: He'd let Dash chain him to his own headboard.
Double correction: He'd sort of helped.
He'd willingly gotten into position on his back with his hands above his head and told Dash how to fully secure the thick cold iron cuffs around his wrists. He'd had a brief moment of panic as a sensation like a low-level current began coursing through his body as soon as they were locked into place, no doubt due to the binding spell he hadn't realized would have an effect on regular human beings. He'd taken off his ward for the first time in almost a week, which left him additionally vulnerable, though dark magic was one the few things Marshall could think of that Dash hadn't yet wanted to try in bed.
That his decision-making skills had once again failed him this completely where Dash was concerned he could only blame on the forces of weirdness at work.
Marshall gasped as Dash applied lips and just a bit of teeth to a sensitive spot near Marshall's collarbone. He was marked there now, he knew, in nearly the same place he'd done it to Dash last night. That had been another stupid choice, especially if he'd hoped to keep their encounter secret from Simon, but weighed against the way he'd managed to make Dash moan when he'd done it...
Yeah. The forces of weirdness overpowered common sense every time.
Dash grinned as if he knew exactly what Marshall was thinking. He sat up and lazily traced his fingers over his handiwork, then down the length of Marshall's body, seeming in no hurry now that he had him exactly where he wanted him.
Marshall closed his eyes and tried to relax into the sensation.
"Look at me," Dash commanded gently. He cupped Marshall's chin and turned his head so that when he opened his eyes they met Dash's full on.
That was almost more than Marshall could stand.
Most people probably didn't have this much trouble looking their lover in the eye, he considered. Then again, most people probably hadn't spent the better part of a week avoiding doing just that. He'd almost forgotten how fascinated he could be by Dash's eyes alone, especially as they were now: wide and dark, partially obscured by a few strands of that wild, improbable hair, and filled with that look he sometimes got, the one that was lust mixed with equal parts incredulity and curiosity, as if he couldn't quite believe Marshall was allowing this, and couldn't wait to see just how far he'd be able to go.
It wasn't to the benefit of his continued health or sanity that Marshall found that look almost irresistibly hot.
Dash kept his hand on Marshall's chin as he slipped the other beneath his shirt. Marshall startled a bit at the skin to skin contact, and saw a glimmer of smug satisfaction cross Dash's face. Instinctively, he reached for him, and there was a clang of metal on metal as he found himself brought up short.
Dash laughed and the smug look returned in earnest. "Don't hurt yourself, Slick."
Marshall pulled against the thick iron cuffs, deliberately this time. "Doesn't hurt." He meant to say it with a certain amount of bravado. It came out as a whisper.
Dash leaned down until his lips were next to Marshall's ear and whispered, "Yet."
That Marshall found that so hot he let out in involuntary, strangled noise was just another sign of how weird and messed up the entire situation was.
He tried to force himself to relax, but couldn't control the way his stupid tattletale heart sped up under Dash's hand, or the way his breath caught as Dash's fingers worked, teasing and tormenting each of Marshall's nipples until they grew hard. Every single reaction was a reward, and Dash knew the territory of his body too well for Marshall to hope to withhold them.
He was beginning to realize the full consequences of his position. With Marshall in control, their encounters this week had been quick and frantic, Marshall using every trick he'd learned in course of their association to force Dash to respond to him with an intensity that didn't allow either of them time to think about what they were doing together until it was done. When they were finished, they'd lay silent, spent, not looking at each other until the moment one would reach for the other to begin it all over again. It was what he'd assumed Dash wanted with his talk of reciprocity. This was intimate in whole other ways Marshall wasn't sure he could endure.
It couldn't last forever. If nothing else, Dash would have to stop when Simon came over.
It was also, he reminded himself, their last time.
Something must have changed in Marshall's expression, because Dash's eyes suddenly narrowed. He let go of Marshall's chin, and Marshall, unwilling to be the one to look away first, struggled to keep his gaze fixed on Dash until Dash's face softened, and mercifully, he broke off to capture Marshall's lips with his own.
The kiss deepened. Dash's hand moved lower, and Marshall jerked against his bonds again when it reached the front of his now much-too-tight khakis.
Dash broke the kiss long enough for another low, mocking laugh.
In a flash of irritation, Marshall thought about holding out to see how hard and how long he could make Dash work for his next reaction, but he gave that idea up almost as soon as Dash began stroking him through the fabric of his boxers. His hips moved as if of their own accord as he thrust himself up into Dash's hand, moaning into his mouth, surrendering himself to the rhythm Dash was setting. Dash's fingers were on his waistband, teasing, dipping just below the fabric to make contact with hot skin, and Marshall was starting to shudder with anticipation, when Dash abruptly stopped and moved just out of reach.
Dash smirked down at him. "Oh, Slick, what am I going to do with you?"
"Anything you want."
The look on Dash's face made almost everything Marshall had been through as a result of their entire association worth it.
Dash blinked. "What was that?"
"Anything you want," Marshall repeated slowly, savoring Dash's increasingly wide-eyed expression. He pulled against his bonds again. "It's not like I can stop you now, is it?"
Dash continued to blink at him, looking for a moment like a jackalope caught in headlights. "You," he whispered, "are so…"
Instead of telling Marshall what he was Dash kissed him again with an intensity that left him gasping for breath. For a moment it was as if Dash's hands were suddenly everywhere, tugging at Marshall's shirt, reaching behind and slipping under his boxers to cup his ass. Marshall moved as much as he was able to allow Dash access, reveling in the sensation and the knowledge of having finally succeeded in getting Dash into exactly the state he'd wanted him.
And then Dash sat up, reached into his back pocket, and pulled out a knife.
He was almost—at least seventy or eighty percent—sure Dash wasn't going to cut him. At least not badly. At least not where Simon would see. Even though, if Dash wanted to, Marshall had just technically given him permission.
It wasn't just any knife Dash held, either, but the one he'd had forged out of metal that had survived the explosion at the Loyal Order of Corn headquarters. The blade gleamed black and sharp as he flicked it open, and the handle, inlaid with a piece of alien crystal, glowed faintly as Dash gripped it.
"Hold still," he commanded, reaching for the front of Marshall's shirt.
Marshall tried, but couldn't stop himself from squeezing his eyes shut, so he felt, rather than saw, his shirt being cut away from his body.
When he opened his eyes again, he was naked from the waist up except for the key to the Evidence Locker, and Dash was studying him with an odd expression.
Marshall swallowed a few times, trying to find his voice. "I liked that shirt," he said at last.
Dash smirked. "Yeah, well, you should have thought of that before we got started."
He leaned down and Marshall froze again as he felt the dull side of Dash's knife blade against his cheek. Dash drew it down his skin, gently, in a parody of a caress.
He remained perfectly still as Dash traced a winding line down his chest, though he couldn't suppress a gasp as the metal slid over some particularly sensitive skin. The crystal in the handle was glowing brighter now, because Dash could do that sometimes when he wanted. It was as good a reminder as any that the weirdness of being with Dash extended beyond the fact that he was in bed with his one-time archnemesis. His one-time archnemesis who was currently holding him at knife point, his brain supplied. And to whom he had just surrendered full control.
He couldn't remember being more turned on in his whole life.
Dash traced his way down to Marshall's waistband of Marshall's pants and began cutting again, and Marshall resigned himself to losing the rest of his clothes. He just had to stay completely still until this was over. Stay still, and remember to breathe. Remember to breathe, but not too much, because the blade was close enough that even the tiniest movement mattered. Stay still, remember to breathe, and try not to think about the look on Dash's face. Or how Dash was wielding a sharp object of probably-extraterrestrial origin near some very important bits of his anatomy. Stay still, remember to breathe, and try not to imagine what Dash was going to do to him once he finished with his pants and boxers.
He was trembling with need and adrenaline when the final bit of fabric fell away.
The knife's glow faded. Marshall opened his eyes. He was completely naked, save the ever-present key, pinned beneath the gaze of a still fully-clothed Dash.
Somehow, he found his voice. "Yeah?"
"You gonna be okay?"
"I don't know." He tried for nonchalance, though he was pretty sure he was visibly shaking. "Am I?"
There was that look again. "I guess you get to find out, don't you?"
Dash's next kiss was gentle, which didn't distract from the fact was still holding the knife, though he kept it away from Marshall's skin. Their movements were careful, though Marshall couldn't resist arching upward, pressing his body into Dash's for as much contact as his restraints would allow. His skin felt like it was on fire and the fabric of Dash's clothes was rough against it, the metal of the snaps and buckles mercifully cool. He could feel Dash was as hard as he was, and he wondered just how long Dash would stand to hold out and keep tormenting him.
Dash laughed again. "God, I love how turned on you are right now."
"Am not," Marshall couldn't resist countering, despite all evidence to the contrary.
"And who's crazy enough to fuck crazy?"
It was as close to pure affection as they ever got.
Dash moved the knife away; Marshall didn't see where it had gone, only surmised it was still somewhere close if he decided he had need of it. He brushed aside a strand of hair that had fallen into Marshall's eyes. "You have no idea what you look like when you're like this, do you?"
Dash touched his lips to Marshall's. "Naked." He moved so that his mouth was next to Marshall's ear. "Helpless." He nibbled on the earlobe, first gently, then hard enough to elicit a gasp that was almost a yelp. "Completely at my mercy." He stretched up and joined his hands with Marshall's bound ones, lacing their fingers together, and gave him another one of those looks. "Ready."
The last was almost a question. Marshall met Dash's eyes, and this time, it wasn't difficult. He found his voice again. "Go for it."
He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but it wasn't quite what Dash did next. Starting at Marshall's fingertips, he began exploring every inch of his body with lips, teeth, tongue and hands. It was gentle, almost worshipful, until the times he'd reach a particular spot on Marshall's skin and bite or suck hard enough to leave evidence behind. Marshall almost laughed when he realized what Dash was doing. Getting exactly what he'd said he wanted at the beginning of all this.
It was inexact. There was no way Dash could perfectly recreate every bruise Marshall had left behind, every bite, every point where Marshall's fingers had gripped Dash's body just a bit too tightly—and definitely not without crossing the fine line between working Marshall into a frenzy and causing him the sort of pain that would throw him out of the moment—but that was a line Dash knew how to walk all too well.
Dash shed his clothes as he went, taking off his shirt, running his fingers over his own skin, and forcing Marshall to confirm with a nod that, yes, there was the faint outline of his teeth marks on Dash's smooth, pale chest just above one dark nipple. It was diabolical, and yet somehow entirely fair, and there was nothing Marshall could do except lay there and take it.
At one point, Dash traced light fingers over a spot where his own nails had dug into Marshall's flesh. "You owe me for those next time," he whispered. And Marshall remembered that soon he would need to tell Dash there wouldn't be a next time.
But that time wasn't now, and by the time Dash got down to slowly and methodically recreating the bruises Marshall had left on his inner thighs, Marshall couldn't get words out anyway.
He couldn't stifle his own incoherent cries, either. When Dash was done marking him, when Marshall finally felt Dash's hand and hot, wet mouth move to his cock, he could only thank all the applicable gods that the window was shut and the house was empty.
He couldn't bury his face in a pillow or control his own volume, as Dash began to work him with lips and tongue.
And he couldn't reach for Dash, as much as his fingers ached to grip themselves in that wild, grey hair.
After Dash forced a particularly loud cry out of him, he looked up, seeming to take pity. "Want me to gag you?"
Dash smirked. "Too bad."
And again, he took Marshall into his mouth.
There was no way Marshall would ever call this reciprocity. He'd sucked Dash's cock before, yes, but Marshall was only human, whereas Dash was a being who had, since the beginning of this part of their association, been able to practically swallow Marshall whole with no seeming effort, and do things with his tongue Marshall still swore shouldn't be anatomically possible. Marshall moaned, bit his own lip hard enough to taste blood, then stopped even trying to hold back, instead relishing the way the sounds he made seemed to spur Dash on.
He'd been teased and tormented almost beyond the point of endurance, and all too soon, he realized he was close to the edge, and tried to cry out a warning.
He wasn't sure if it came out in words, but Dash stopped.
Dash stopped altogether, and again, moved just out of Marshall's reach.
Marshall let out a frustrated moan.
"Hmm? What was that?" Dash asked.
"Dash…" He couldn't keep the desperation out of his voice.
"Was there something you wanted?" Dash asked.
It was dawning on Marshall that anything Dash wanted could well include walking away and leaving him like this for his friends to find. He didn't think he would do it, mostly because he didn't think Dash would let his own need go unaddressed with Marshall right there, restrained and willing, but he had to admit to himself he wasn't entirely sure.
He made another desperate noise.
Dash reached out and ran a thumb along Marshall's swollen lower lip, and Marshall nearly exploded from that small bit of contact alone.
"I need something from you first," Dash whispered.
Marshall had already surrendered his body and his freedom. He frantically tried to think what he had left that Dash could possibly ask for, and flashed back to last weekend. To Dash blurting out, "He's mine" under compulsion, and Marshall later fighting through a drunken haze to insist, no, he wasn't.
He still wasn't. There was nothing Dash could do to him to make that true.
He shuddered, and he wasn't sure what part of that was anticipation, and what part was fear.
And then Dash whispered, "Beg."
That, he could do.
This was also reciprocity in its way, for something Marshall had started a long time ago, one night when things had gone further than he'd intended. It was a demand he'd made as a last-ditch effort to force one of them to put the brakes on, fully expecting Dash to shove him away and tell him not to be stupid. Instead, he'd learned that under certain circumstances, it was possible to get his archnemesis to say please as many times and as eloquently as Marshall required.
He swallowed a few times, and tried to remember how to form words. "Please," he managed.
Marshall tried to respond, and what came out was practically a squeak.
"What was that? You want me to stop?"
Dash shook his head. "I didn't catch that."
He tried again. "Please don't."
"Please don't what?"
"Please don't stop."
Dash caressed his cheek and used one finger to lift his chin. "Then tell me what you do want, Marshall."
The sound of his full first name in Dash's mouth sent electricity down his spine. He looked into the eyes of the most fascinating, most infuriating person on Earth. "You," he said.
"I'm right here," Dash said, in a voice that was almost soothing. He reached toward the nightstand and for a half-panicked, half-relieved moment Marshall thought he was reaching for the key to the cuffs. Instead, Dash opened the drawer where Marshall kept the condoms and the lube. "But you're going to have to be just a little more specific."
"I want you," Marshall began. He could feel himself blushing, even though this was Dash and there was no reason for it.
He forced himself to speak. "Inside me."
"I want you to fuck me."
"I didn't quite hear you."
"Okay." And Dash's hands were on him again. Marshall shifted and gasped as one now-slick finger slid along the crack of his ass until it found his entrance and slid none-too-gently inside him. "This what you want?"
"Yes!" He willed himself to stay calm. "Please."
"Is this all you want?"
Knowing the only way forward was to give Dash exactly what he wanted, he tried again. "Please, keep going."
"Keep begging and I might."
Marshall wasn't quite sure what he said next. The word "please" over and over again, alone and in combination with the words "don't stop" and "more" and "yes" and at least one "I hate you" which only made Dash laugh, as Dash's slick fingers moved inside him, stretching him until finally Dash said, "Okay, okay, shhh."
Marshall was barely coherent by the time Dash rolled on a condom, grabbed Marshall's hips and moved into position. He paused to give Marshall another one of those looks. "I told you I wasn't going to be gentle, remember?"
Marshall met his eyes. "Don't be." He was expecting Dash to demand he plead with him again, so he cried out in surprise as much as anything when Dash thrust inside him.
Dash fucked him then, hard and fast, and it was frantic as anything they'd done all week, only this time it was Dash in control and Marshall urging him on. He strained and struggled against the cuffs in earnest, and when the metal began to cut into his skin and the low-level tingling sensation increased, he barely noticed and didn't care. He couldn't touch Dash, and he still didn't have anything to grab onto, so he found himself digging his fingernails into his own palms. He begged—because Dash hadn't told him to not to—for harder, for rougher, for more, though at some point the ability to form words left him again.
It seemed to be what Dash wanted to do anyway.
He felt Dash's hand around his cock again, and heard him whisper, "Marshall" and suddenly it was too much, too soon, and he came with a wordless cry. It was a few more frantic thrusts before Dash himself climaxed with a shudder and a small moan, and collapsed on top of him.
They lay like that for a long moment, spent and sticky, until Dash finally stirred.
"Fuck, Teller," he said in an astonished voice as he pulled himself out of Marshall and rolled away.
"You just did," Marshall couldn't resist pointing out.
He couldn't dodge the swat upside the head Dash gave him.
"You gonna live?" Dash asked some moments later, as he unlocked Marshall's cuffs.
Marshall flexed his wrists experimentally as the effect of the binding spell faded. "I'll live. Might be a little sore, though."
"Good." Dash pulled Marshall down next to him, then took his hands and kissed both wrists where the skin was still red and raw.
"Both." Dash moved from Marshall's damaged wrists to kiss the half-moon nail marks on his palms, then released his hands. "I like that you'll be spending tonight feeling every single thing you let me to do you."
Marshall flexed his wrists again, relieved he still seemed to have the full range of movement, and contemplated the task of concealing what they'd just done, the evidence written all over his body. "Oh, god."
Dash grinned. "Tell everyone how much you loved it."
Marshall reached out pulled him closer. Dash made a half-hearted noise of protest to indicate that he objected to being held on general principle but was going to allow it anyway, then settled into Marshall's arms.
Marshall held him quietly for a few moments, reveling in the feeling of finally being able to touch Dash. He buried his face in Dash's hair, breathing in his scent, that post-coital scent that was partially the two of them mingled together, for what he reminded himself was one last time. "Does that mean you're not coming with us tonight?"
"Nah," Dash said. "I have better things to do than hang out with your friends looking for supernatural trouble. I'll find you later."
Marshall wasn't going ruin the mood by asking what specifically those better things were. "Okay," he said.
"Go have fun with your smarter half and your girlfriends."
"Ex-girlfriends," Marshall clarified.
"I suppose," Dash continued, "if for some reason, you literally can't live without me, you've got my number."
Marshall hugged him tighter. "I'll miss you," he said, without thinking.
He was barely aware that he'd spoken that aloud until Dash gave him startled look. It wasn't the sort of thing they said to each other.
He suddenly couldn't meet Dash's eyes again. His gaze drifted around the room until it fell instead on the New York Giants clock on his wall.
"Holy corn!" he said, jolting upright.
"We lost track of time! Simon's going to be here any minute!" He jumped out of bed and grabbed a sheet to cover himself. "The equipment's not ready. I'm not ready. I need clothes. You're here and not dressed..." And that was going to be awkward to explain to Simon, given the phone conversation they'd had that very afternoon.
"Hurry! Get up!" He threw Dash's pants at him, then picked up the shirt with the ripped collar Dash had been wearing when he arrived. "And find a different shirt!"
Chapter 5: An Edge of Hope
Simon had already been there and gone.
His mother had gotten tired of screaming at her sons, poured herself a drink and fallen asleep in front of an episode of World's Deadliest Carnivorous Plants. Harley was upstairs in his room playing a video game with the sound off when Simon finished packing up his bag and decided to go over to Marshall's early.
He'd been given a key to the Tellers' front door years ago, with instructions that he was to use it whenever he liked, so he let himself in and was about to head upstairs when he heard the sound of Marshall's raised voice and Dash's distinctive lower one coming from Marshall's bedroom.
"Please be fighting, please be fighting, please be fighting," he muttered under his breath, as he took a few hesitant steps up the stairs. If they were fighting, it meant they were finally working out their issues, and he hadn't just walked in on…
The sounds from Marshall's bedroom became more distinct.
"Okay, not fighting." He could feel his ears turning warm as he crept back down the stairs and slipped out the back door as quietly as he could.
The Tellers' back porch light had burned out again, and the temperature was already beginning to drop. Simon looked down the street toward his own house, then sighed, sat down on the steps, pulled his coat tighter, and rummaged through his bag until he found a flashlight and the latest issue of the International Journal of Parabelievable Studies. He read the featured article about the mating patterns of the North American spotted batsquatch, and tried very hard not to think about the mating patterns of North American paranormal investigators.
He was happy with the general idea of Mars and Dash together, especially if they could manage to stay together, it was just that he didn't need his overactive imagination dwelling on the specific details, which it seemed more and more inclined to do these days. He made a mental note that he was instituting a personal policy about calling first before he came over when Marshall's parents weren't home.
He finished the article and started another; a rambling, poorly-sourced speculation about the role of time travel in the Tunguska Event, which was at least amusing. When he got to the end, he checked his watch again: 7:06.
This time, when he walked back into the house, he slammed the door as loud as possible and shouted, "Marshall?" before going slowly up the stairs, making his footfalls extra heavy, especially on the creaky step. He pretended he didn't hear people running back and forth, whisper-shouting at each other on the top floor.
When Simon reached the top of the stairs, the door to Marshall's room was open. Dash was sitting on the edge of the bed, the items Simon recognized from their carefully constructed equipment list scattered around it. Dash's hair was wet, and he was frantically tugging on a boot when he sensed Simon's presence, straightened up and grabbed the nearest object on Marshall's nightstand.
"Hi, Shrimp," he said, reverting to an old and increasingly inaccurate nickname he knew Simon hated.
"Hi, Dash," said Simon, refusing to take the bait. "Come over to talk to Mars?"
"No, just to borrow," Dash said, looking down at the book he had in his hands, "this."
"Freeling's Guide to Dangerous Apparitions?" asked Simon.
"Problems in your apartment?"
"Something like that."
"Okay," said Simon.
"If you're looking for your sidekick, I think he's down the hall," Dash said. He picked up the book and his coat, then walked over, opened Marshall's window, and put one leg over the sill. "I was just leaving."
"So you're not—?"
"Friday. Better things to do."
"Okay," Simon said again. "By the way," he called over his shoulder as he turned to leave, "your shirt's on backwards. And inside out."
He was also pretty sure it was Marshall's shirt, but wasn't going to say anything.
Down the hall, the upstairs bathroom door was also open, a thin trail of steam escaping from inside. As Simon approached, he could see Marshall standing in front of the mirror. His feet were bare, and his outfit so far consisted of jeans and an open, fluffy, blue bathrobe. His disguise kit was open beside the sink, and he'd raised a makeup brush to his neck, but hadn't yet started to apply it. Which he really needed to do, or else Melanie and Janet were going to have a field day about the hickeys. It was as if somewhere in the process of scrambling not to get caught, Marshall had realized it was futile, and froze. Now he was staring into the hollow eyes of his own reflection in the section of the glass where he'd wiped off the fog, his other hand gripping the sink as if he might fall if he let go.
Simon cleared his throat.
Marshall startled enough to drop the brush, but didn't turn around. "Hey, Simon," he said. "This is…" He sighed. "You're not stupid. This is exactly what it looks like."
"Mistakes were made?" Simon ventured, folding his arms and leaning against the doorframe.
"Mistakes were made," Marshall confirmed.
That seemed to snap Marshall out of it, at least a little. "Fine," he said, as he moved to simultaneously pull the robe shut, cover the marks on his neck, and push his sleeves down to cover the welts around his wrists, small injuries Simon had already mentally assigned to the category of things he knew better than to notice. "It's just…consenting adult stuff."
Simon could feel his ears growing warm again. "No, I mean, when I came in you looked…" He tried to find the right words. Like Mr. Burgess from the bank did right after the Eerie Chamber of Commerce accidentally summoned that thing that sucked people's souls out through their eyes was accurate, but probably not helpful. "Upset," he finished.
"I'm fine," Marshall repeated. "Where's Dash?"
"Out the window." When Marshall failed to respond with any sarcastic observations about Dash's refusal to use the front door, Simon asked, "Did you at least talk?"
"Yeah," Marshall said. "We talked. Just not about what we needed to talk about."
"So you're still—?"
"We're still nothing."
"But still together, right?" Simon asked. He couldn't quite keep the edge of hope out of his voice. Then, before Marshall could object, "I mean, you didn't end things?"
"I told you it wouldn't be tonight," Marshall said.
"I guess I still don't understand why it has to be ever," said Simon.
"Nothing's changed, Simon."
"You obviously still like each other."
Simon caught Marshall's embarrassed half-smile in the mirror before Marshall looked down and turned away. "We're still terrible for each other. Eventually, we're both going to remember that. This was just one last time before—"
A door slammed.
Simon ran back down the hall to Marshall's bedroom. To Marshall's now-shut bedroom door.
When he opened it again, the room was empty.
Marshall was behind him looking stricken.
"The wind?" Simon suggested, indicating the open window.
"There's no wind," Marshall said, stating what they both already knew. He collapsed against the wall and sank to the floor, curling in on himself and resting his head on his knees. "Shit," he muttered.
"I'm sorry," Simon said, knowing this was all his fault. "I thought he'd left."
Marshall didn't look up.
"Do you want me to go after him?" Simon asked.
Marshall still didn’t move. "No, I—"
The doorbell rang.
Simon glanced at his watch. It was probably Melanie and Janet. They were early, but not that early.
"Marshall?" said Simon. "I'm going to go get that and stay with them while you finish getting ready, okay?"
Marshall nodded, but made no move to get up.
"You are going to finish getting ready, right?" Simon asked.
"Yeah," Marshall said. "Yeah, I just need to…um…"
"Disguise kit," said Simon, snapping into getting-Harley-ready-for-school mode and counting off on his fingers. "Then clothes. Then shoes. Then equipment."
"Equipment," Marshall echoed. Then, "Dammit, the equipment! Fucking Dash—"
Simon reminded himself that his best friend was very upset right now and that he probably needed to let that one go. "I can help—"
The doorbell rang again.
"No, I got it. Just do what you said and keep everyone downstairs for a few minutes, and I'll be right there, okay?"
"Okay." He started down the stairs. "I'm sorry."
"Simon!" Marshall called after him.
"None of this is your fault," Marshall said. "You know that, right?"
Simon nodded, even though he knew better.
When he got to the front door, Melanie and Janet were on the doorstep, Melanie in the process of reaching for the doorbell a third time. He took in their outfits and their hair. Melanie's was in a ponytail while Janet's had been crimped and teased out to frame her face. They'd both ratted their bangs upwards, adding inches to their height. The scent of hairspray lingered. Simon wished he'd thought to dress up.
"Hi, Simon!" said Melanie. "We were starting to get worried, and…oh my god, what happened to your hair?!"
"My hair?" Simon mouthed, as he stepped aside to let them in. He reached toward his head before he remembered that he'd been talking to the girls by phone most of the week, but they hadn't seen him in person since…
"Tod got to him, wanna bet?" Janet said.
Yes, since the makeover he'd gotten from Tod, his dyed-black and slightly spiked hair matched his current all-black outfit. "It's just something I'm trying," he said, as he shut the door and followed them into the living room.
"Why did you let him do that to you?" Melanie said, taking off her jacket and sprawling on the Tellers' sofa. "The red curls were adorable."
"I like it," Janet said, sitting down next to her. "Not that your real hair isn't great, but you don't have to be a redhead all the time if you don't you want to be." She turned to Melanie. "It gets exhausting, trust me." She turned back to Simon, and added, "It's that stuff from the mall, so it's not permanent if you decide you don't want to keep it, right?"
"Yeah." Simon smiled at her and took a seat across from them in Mr. Teller's new recliner. He hadn't decided yet about the hair. At this point in his life, he knew better to believe all his problems could be solved by a makeover, but he'd thought a new look would at least make him feel a little different. A little older, a little more confident, a little bit more like Tod. So far, he just felt like the same old Simon, except that he sometimes startled himself when he looked in the mirror.
"Is that an original Return of the Jedi shirt?" asked Simon, changing the subject, as Janet shrugged out of a jean jacket covered in neon splatter paint.
"Yep. It was my mom's. And nobody spill anything on it, because I may have kinda sorta borrowed from her closet without asking. As long as my sister was starting a trend."
"That is so cool!" he said. And then turned away in the sudden realization that the whole time he'd been admiring the picture of Jabba the Hutt on Janet's shirt, he'd also been looking directly at Janet's chest.
It wasn't like Marshall hadn't tried to warn him, but it was just one more thing that was deeply unfair about both puberty and the passage of time; by the time he'd gotten around to realizing what the big deal was that some of his friends were girls, those girls had officially become women.
"So where's Marshall?" Melanie asked, addressing the investigator not in the room.
"Marshall's…um…" Simon glanced back up the stairs. "Marshall's coming."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Janet dig her elbow hard into Melanie's side for no reason.
"He had to finish getting stuff packed up," Simon explained.
"Oh," said Melanie.
"Where's Dash?" Janet asked, eyes narrowed.
"Dash is…" Simon suddenly realized he had no idea where Dash was, what Dash was doing, or if Dash was even safe. "Dash is not here," he said aloud. "He had other things to do tonight."
"Okay," said Janet, in a tone that indicated she wasn't quite sure if he was telling the truth.
He was saved when the doorbell rang again.
"I got it," said Simon, as de facto host.
The girl at the door was about Melanie's height, with pale skin and hair a shade of dark red that, unlike Janet's and Simon's (most of the time), probably didn't owe anything to nature. She wore oversized sunglasses, basic dark jeans and a leather jacket that would have been at home in any of several decades, and a teal t-shirt with the words "Eerie, Indiana Tornado Days 1985" next to a picture of a smiling Old Bob. Her fingernails reminded him of Tod's; short and painted black with chipped polish. She had a backpack over one shoulder and was carrying an Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension lunchbox that she seemed to be using as a purse.
"Is this Marshall Teller's house?" she asked. "I'm supposed to be meeting—"
"Georgia!" Melanie called out from inside the house. "Come on in!"
Simon wondered briefly if the girl needed an invitation to get through the door, and if so, whether Melanie's would work or if he was going to have to go get Marshall, since Marshall was the only the one who lived here.
The girl stuck out her hand. "I'm Georgia. Sheridan. Are you the infamous Simon Holmes, by any chance?"
Infamous? He took shook her hand. As he expected, it was cold. "I'm Simon," he confirmed, then repeated Melanie's invitation. "Come in. Most of us are in the living room."
She passed the threshold. "It's nice to meet you," she said.
Before Simon could reply, Melanie ran up and embraced her. "Hey you!" she said. They kissed and Simon briefly wondered about the fine line between watching for signs of fangs or bloodlust from your friend's possibly undead date and inappropriate staring.
"I love the hair," Georgia said to Melanie.
"Thanks!" she replied. "It was a last minute decision. Come meet my friend, Janet."
Simon stopped at the foot of the stairs as Melanie led the girl to the sofa. "Marshall!" he called up. "Everyone's here!"
"Just a minute!" Marshall called back. "Um, see if anybody wants anything to drink or something!"
Simon checked the fridge and offered everyone a choice of Cornade, Coke, or something he thought was either pink lemonade or another Things, Inc. experiment. The last had no takers. As the girls talked, he passed around a plate of Swedish toffee bars Mrs. Teller had left, then passed out the wards.
"Cool. We get accessories?" asked Georgia as Melanie helped snap hers on. She failed to flinch, scream, or burst into flames of any sort, which Simon thought was a good sign.
"They protect against dark magic," explained Simon.
"Are we expecting dark magic?" asked Janet.
"Not necessarily, but just in case," said Simon. He explained about the protection they offered, and the conversation turned to last weekend and the band at the Gold Room.
"They haven't played there since," said Georgia. "Actually, it's been pretty boring."
Simon knew. Marshall and Dash had both been keeping tabs on the place from a distance, separately, which was something he was supposed to deny knowing about if the other of them asked. Simon thought it was worth checking out again, once they knew a little more about what they were dealing with. Or it was worth someone checking out again. Someone who actually looked old enough to get into clubs.
"Speaking of dancing," Janet said, even though they were only barely speaking of dancing, "isn't there a big dance coming up at B.F. Skinner soon?"
"Um, yeah," said Simon, who did vaguely remember seeing posters to that effect pinned to various bulletin boards around school. It was an annual thing for Lake Eerie Day, a remnant of an old pagan ritual used to appease the Eerie Lake Monster.
"You going?" asked Janet.
Simon shrugged. "I guess." Even though it would have Miss Annabell Lee as DJ again instead of a band and would probably be dull, any large gathering of teenagers in Eerie did have the potential for mega weirdness. There was the time it had rained frogs in the gym, after all. And the homecoming when somebody accidentally spiked the punch with a transmogrification potion thinking it was Everclear. And Marshall and everybody's junior prom.
"Have you asked anybody?" asked Janet.
"Not yet," said Simon. "I can probably handle it on my own, but I can always ask Mars for backup if..."
"No," Janet said. "I mean, have you asked a date?"
Simon was about to ask who brought a date to a weirdness investigation, then glanced over at the other end of the sofa, where Melanie was whispering something into Georgia's ear. And then he realized he and Janet might not be on the same page about school dances.
"Oh," he said. "Um, no."
"Is there anybody you're interested in asking?" Melanie asked, suddenly joining the interrogation. "Anybody you like?"
"Um…" Simon considered. He didn't really think about any of the girls in his class that way. Or any of the guys, either. Which was probably for the best, since nobody his own age talked to him anyway. "Not really."
He jumped up before anybody could ask him anything else. "I should go check on Marshall."
He practically sprinted up the stairs and, at the top, nearly collided with Marshall, who was finally on his way down, carrying two full backpacks. He was fully dressed, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt over a t-shirt, and he'd somehow used his disguise kit to cover up the evidence from earlier.
"Thanks, Simon," he said. Then, to the group in the living room, "Hi. Sorry I'm late." He took in everyone's outfits as he grabbed his jacket off the railing. "And the only one not dressed to go to 1985."
"I'm not," Simon pointed out.
"Yeah, but you've got a little bit of a Robert Smith thing going right now. You blend," said Georgia. Simon didn't know who that was, but it didn't sound like a bad thing. "Hi, Marshall. Are we waiting on…anybody else?"
"Hey," Marshall said, his expression carefully neutral. "Good to see you again. And no. No, we're not. Is everyone ready?"
Melanie stood and twirled her car keys around her finger. "Let's roll." Everyone gathered their various belongings, as Simon ran their glasses to the kitchen sink.
He was the last one out the door and was in the process of shutting it behind him when he nearly collided with Marshall who had stopped short in front of him.
Dash stood on the Tellers' front step, leaning against the side of the house, hands in his coat pockets, wearing Marshall's Famous Monsters of TV Land shirt.
"So," Dash said, "when are we leaving?"
Chapter 6: The Edge of Town
Simon looked from Marshall to Dash and back to Marshall again.
"We?" said Marshall, in the same careful, neutral tone he'd been using earlier. "I thought you had plans."
"I did," said Dash. "Plans changed. Unless I'm uninvited."
"You're not uninvited," said Marshall. "I just thought you weren't going."
"Because I can leave now if you want me to."
Over Marshall's shoulder, Simon saw Melanie and Janet exchange a look.
"It's a paranormal investigation," Marshall said. "We could always use backup."
Dash gestured at the small group around them. "It looks like you've got backup."
"More backup. There's not a headcount limit on backup."
"I don't want you to leave," Simon said to Dash.
"Do whatever it is you want to do. I didn't uninvite you. You said you had plans."
Dash peeled himself off the side of the house and stepped forward until he was almost in Marshall's face. "Where do you want me to go? Or can't you tell me?"
Marshall stepped backward. "Are you seriously asking me to tell you where to go right now?" His voice was quiet, and Simon could tell he was fighting to maintain that careful tone. "Look, Dash, you'd be an asset to the mission. You have experience and Simon already said he wants you along."
"It's just," Melanie interrupted, "I don't know that six people and all their stuff will fit in my car."
"Oh, well, I can take a couple people in my truck," Georgia said. She gestured to an old white pickup with a camper shell parked on the street just past the Teller mailbox. "It's no problem."
Melanie hid it quickly, but Simon didn't miss her initial frustrated glare at that suggestion. From the look on her face, neither had Georgia.
"I'll go with you," said Simon, both because he didn't want her to feel bad for trying to be helpful and because he was determined to figure out just what this girl was by the end of the evening.
Marshall closed his eyes and seemed to do some quick mental calculations. "Dash, will you ride with them?"
"I—" Dash began. Melanie was glaring openly now, and Dash caught her eye. "Sure. Fine."
"Fine," said Melanie, folding her arms.
"Fine," said Marshall.
"It's fine," Simon said to Georgia, because none of this was her fault. Maybe he could find some time later in the evening to pull her aside and give her a crash course in group dynamics. Or maybe Melanie would do that.
There were reasons why they never seemed to spend very much time hanging out with new people.
Melanie did pull her aside then, and they whispered together briefly before Georgia nodded and looked up. "Okay," she said. "Everybody who's coming with me, this way." Simon followed her, Dash behind him, while the rest of the group headed for Melanie's car. When she got to the truck, she opened the back and dropped her backpack and lunchbox inside, then gestured for Simon's bag. He shook his head, feeling more comfortable keeping it with him, and she shrugged and shut the tailgate too quickly for him to see what else might be back there.
Simon climbed in the cab and slid over to the middle seat. Dash looked like he was about to object, then just scowled and climbed in after him. For a truck that belonged to a vampire or something, the inside was almost depressingly normal. The upholstery was dark brown, which Simon guessed was probably a good color for hiding bloodstains if, hypothetically, you had to worry about that sort of thing. The stereo was newer than the vehicle itself, and had a built-in CD player. There was a pine-scented air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, and what looked like a perfectly ordinary can of Cherry Coke in the cup holder.
Georgia opened the driver's side door and slid in behind the wheel. She glanced in the rearview and wiped a stray eyelash from her cheek before starting the truck. Simon added "has reflection" to his mental checklist.
"Do you need directions?" he asked, as they pulled away from the curb.
"No," she said. "I've been there before."
"I'm really sorry about this," Marshall said, as he watched the truck disappear down the street. He sank down into the passenger seat of Melanie's car.
"It's fine," said Melanie.
"He told me he wasn't—"
"I said it's fine," said Melanie, in a tone that meant it wasn't. "Let's face it, where you go, he goes." She pulled a pair of sunglasses from the holder on the visor. "I just didn't expect he'd be going there with my girlfriend, is all," she added under her breath.
Marshall decided against explaining how he couldn't let Simon go alone, and out of all possible combinations of people in the same car, sending Dash had seemed the safest and least awkward option. He also decided against mentioning that Melanie had just used the word girlfriend. "I'm sorry," he said again.
"She said it was fine," said Janet from the back seat. "Stop apologizing."
Melanie started the car and peeled out of the driveway.
They rode in silence for a few blocks until Melanie spoke again. "So, Mars got laid. How was everybody else's day?"
Marshall choked. "Melanie!"
She fixed him with an evil grin. "Well, am I wrong?"
He could tell his face was turning crimson. He looked down and studied his left sneaker as though it were the most fascinating object in the world. "Could we talk about something else, please?"
The sole was already starting to peel away near the toe, he noticed. So much for the quality control standards on the new Sky Monsters. He sighed. "If I give you the answer you already know, can we change the subject?"
"Thought so," said Janet. "When you didn't come downstairs, we were starting to think he had you tied to the bed up there or something."
He didn't respond or even look up. But something in his body language must have spoken for him, because Melanie gasped.
"Shut. Up," she said with a laugh that was almost a giggle. "Really?"
"I didn't say anything!"
Janet's eyes and mouth went wide. "Oh my god!" she said. Then, apologetically, "Mars, I thought I was kidding."
Marshall remembered he actually did have a talisman that would allow him to ask the earth to open up and swallow him, but he'd left it at home in the Evidence Locker.
"It wasn't—" Marshall started, then wondered why he was starting to explain. "Honestly, any other topic. School. The weather. That gnome infestation at the farm and home store—"
"Hey, as long as you had a good time," Melanie said. She gave him a sharp look. "You were having a good time, right?"
"I—" Marshall sputtered. "We're not talking about this! New topic."
"So you and Dash are…okay, then?" Janet asked.
"Mr. Radford's got these all new flavors of ice cream at World O' Stuff now. I'm still not sure about sun-dried tomato," said Marshall, in as level a voice as he could manage. "Or mayonnaise, though Simon's brother says that's his favorite—"
"Is that a yes or no?" Melanie demanded.
"It's an 'I'm not talking about this.' It turns out wasabi chocolate chip is better than you might think."
"Because if you're not okay—" said Melanie.
"Or," Marshall said, returning the look Melanie had been giving him, "we could talk about how someone in this car is dating someone who doesn't have a pulse. Who, I might add, just drove off with my very best friend in the whole world. And Dash."
"Okay," Melanie said. She raised her foot from the accelerator. The car slowed down until they were going the speed limit. "We can talk about that again. We can talk about that all you want. But you first."
"Mars," Janet said. "We all know you're not going to win this one."
The car slowed even more. The were passed on the left by an old woman in a purple Edsel.
"Fine," Marshall said, because Janet was right. "No, Dash and I are not okay right now."
"I knew it," said Janet. "What did he do this time?"
"I meant what I told you before," said Melanie. "Just say the word, and I promise I will make it look like an accident."
"No," Marshall covered his face with his hand. "He didn't do anything wrong."
Through his fingers, he saw Melanie and Janet exchange a look. The car sped up, but just slightly. "Explain," Melanie said.
Marshall looked from Melanie to Janet and back to Melanie again, and resigned himself to the fact that he had no other choice.
"Fine," he said. "Remember last weekend?"
Simon exchanged a look with Dash. "Melanie told us you moved to Eerie recently," he began.
Georgia picked up the Cherry Coke and took a sip. "I did. Well, moved back. I grew up around here, so I've been to the roller rink."
That would have been useful information to have when he was still doing research, Simon thought.
"You know, I'd forgotten all about it until Melanie invited me tonight," she continued, before Simon could ask his next question. "Which is…very strange. But anyway, no, I never saw any evidence of it being haunted back then. So how about you? Ever been before?"
Simon shook his head. "At least, not that I remember. I was really young, and it closed before Marshall and Dash got here."
"Oh." She glanced at Dash. "You're not from around here?"
"They came to Eerie later," said Simon, answering for him and sidestepping the question of Dash's origins for now.
"When was that?"
"Marshall moved in around…five years ago?" said Simon. He was going to have to check the Evidence Locker for the exact date, but it had been at least that long. There were times when it felt like Marshall had been part of his life forever, but in reality, Simon had been close to nine years old the day he'd first seen the moving van pull up to the Teller house and decided to go over and say hello. He remembered his initial disappointment on finding out how old the Teller kids were. Marshall was already thirteen then, and had seemed almost impossibly brave and smart. At first, Simon had trouble believing his new neighbor wanted anything to do with him, and after that, worried Marshall was just letting him hang around out of pity. Somehow, they'd wound up best friends for life.
"Just after Melanie moved here?" Georgia asked.
"A little before," said Simon. "They met on her first day of school." He stopped, realizing he didn't know exactly how much of that story Melanie had shared yet. "I was in a different grade then," he said, trying to think of another subject. There were all sorts of questions he wanted to ask, most of which he'd promised Melanie he wouldn't ask directly unless he cleared it with her first. The one that came out was, "So, why am I infamous?"
"Oh, that," said Georgia. "Well, according to your friends, not only are you already an experienced investigator of the weird, you're basically fearless and smarter than all of them combined."
Simon glanced over at Dash, who shrugged. "She's not wrong."
"To be honest, I was a little intimidated about meeting you in person," said Georgia.
"Oh." Simon had no idea how to process any of this.
"How about you, Dash?" asked Georgia. "How long have you and Marshall been…I mean, how long have you been his, um…?"
"I'm not," Dash said.
"…associate?" she came up with in nearly the same split second.
In the years he'd known Dash X, Simon had grown familiar with the look that passed across his face when somebody accidentally managed to punch a hole in his carefully constructed façade. It was usually Marshall who invoked it, but other people could do it, too, when Dash's defenses were down. People who assumed he had parents. Anybody who mentioned the Loyal Order of Corn. Marilyn and Edgar Teller when they casually included him in the phrase "our kids."
Georgia Sheridan, near-stranger, asking an awkward innocent question.
"I didn't mean to upset—" she began.
"Get one thing straight," Dash said. He stared at horizon, reassembling his expression into a glare. "I'm not Marshall Teller's anything."
Nobody had touched the climate controls, but it was as if the air in the truck had suddenly plunged about ten degrees. Simon looked back and forth between them until Dash turned away and stared at the storefronts they were passing with an intensity Simon knew better than to interrupt.
"So," Georgia said into the resulting silence. "Music?"
She punched a button on the stereo. The sound of somebody singing a plea to somebody else to come back filled the truck, at a volume just high enough to prevent casual conversation. Simon didn't know whether to be relieved or frustrated. Maybe he should have at least apologized for Dash.
They'd be at the rink soon. If things went really south in the meantime, he did have at least seven different ways to combat the undead in his backpack.
Georgia forgot to breathe when she wasn't concentrating, he noted.
"You said what?!"
When he got home, Marshall was making a note in his journal that if he wanted to live to the old age he'd seen for himself in at least one version of his future, he was never again telling Melanie Monroe anything startling when she was behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.
She pulled a sudden, sharp left across four lanes of traffic and brought the car to a stop on the outer edge of the parking lot of the Eerie Mall as the sounds of honking faded in Marshall's ears.
"I was drunk," he said, checking himself for damage. They'd somehow survived unscathed. He looked up at the illuminated sign on the building they were parked in front of. Either that, or this version of the afterlife had a Sears.
"Yeah, but drunk enough to say 'I love you' to Dash?" said Janet, leaning over the backseat. She seemed to have barely noticed Melanie had just almost killed them all. "After all that?"
"Technically, it was 'I hate that I love you,'" Melanie clarified. She took off her sunglasses to fix him with a look. "But still."
Was he the only one in this car more concerned about his own mortality than the state of his semi-relationship?
"Everyone is going to wonder where we are," he said.
"They're not going anywhere without us," Melanie countered. "So what did Dash say?"
"That I was drunk and needed to go to sleep, basically."
Melanie considered that for a moment. "Do you?"
"Need to go to sleep?"
"I was drunk," Marshall repeated.
"So you keep saying," said Melanie. "But it doesn't answer the question. Look, I know a little about drunken I love yous."
"She's not wrong," said Janet.
"This one time, I got drunk and said 'I love you' to every single person at Jessica Binkerman's birthday party."
"She did," said Janet. "And to the cute waiter at Dragon of the Black Pool."
"Oh, yeah," said Melanie. "And I think to that one fat guy in the sequined jumpsuit."
Janet nodded. "Him, too. And to the giant statue of corn at the center of town."
"Really?" said Melanie. "I don't remember that one."
"It was after you finished off the corn whiskey. There's video."
"Oh." She turned back to Marshall. "My point is, I didn't worry about it the next day. I didn't mean it, they knew I didn't mean it, and I knew they knew I didn't mean it. You, on the other hand, are very worried, which means when you said it, it was serious."
"Yeah, but that's different," said Marshall. "I mean, it's not like you and any of those people—or the giant statue of corn—were, um…"
"Having close encounters of the naked kind?" Janet supplied.
"That wasn't what I was going to say." It was also an image that wasn't leaving Marshall's head any time soon.
"But for you, it's a factor. So the question is," Melanie continued, "are you worried because you meant it, or are you worried because you didn't mean it, but he thinks you did? Or is it something else?"
"I don't…" Marshall began. "He doesn't…"
"Look, Mars," said Melanie in a softer voice. "I know you and I were out of each other's lives for a while, and that's on me. And when I came back, there was Dash, and let's just say Dash took a lot of getting used to. Whatever this thing between the two of you is, it's weird, but I've come to accept that for some reason, it's what you want. If you love him, that's a whole other level of weird, but I'll accept that, too."
"We're your friends," Janet added. "No matter what you decide to date."
"Everyone knows Melanie's driving," Marshall said. "They're going start worrying when we don't pass them on the road."
"They know to wait for us if we're late," said Melanie.
"The sooner you answer, the sooner we end this conversation," Melanie said. "So, do you?"
"If we get there and somebody's missing blood or brains or a head—"
"Then you can say 'I told you so.' Now: Do you love Dash?"
Marshall shook his head. "No."
Neither of his companions looked entirely convinced. "You're sure?" Melanie asked.
"I'm sure," Marshall said. And he was. "Look, what my mom and dad have is love. It's sappy and gross and between two old people who don't seem to realize how embarrassing they are to live with sometimes, but it's real. They'll still be calling each other cute nicknames and cuddling on the sofa together when they're ninety-something. What Dash and I have is…something else."
"Despite the cuddling on the sofa?" asked Janet.
"We don't cuddle."
"Says someone who's never had to watch himself and Dash watch movies at my house," said Melanie. "But, okay. You didn't mean it. So are you worried he thinks you did?"
"No." Marshall remembered the way Dash had left his house earlier. "No, he knows I didn't mean it."
"Does he love you?" asked Janet.
"Of course not," said Marshall, trying not to sound exasperated. "He's Dash. And that isn't what we are to each other."
"So it sounds like you went out, got drunk, got in a fight, and said something stupid you didn't mean," said Janet. "Aside from all the Harvest King magical compulsion creepy stuff, that happens to lots of people. My guess is you'll both forget about it after you find something else to argue about."
"Or is that not the end of this story?" Melanie asked.
Marshall sat in silence, regretting every decision that had led to this moment.
"This car doesn't move until you talk," Melanie said, taking the key out of the ignition.
Almost immediately past the mall, the storefronts gave way to more and more woods and undeveloped land. A light fog began to cover the ground, growing thicker until it partially obscured the road. They passed a few houses, a boarded-up gas station, and the giant sinkhole that had last been a VFW dance hall. Or a restaurant. Or a tire store. Or a combination day care center and temple of the goddess Tanit, depending on which local legend you believed. The actual records were pretty spotty.
Just beyond that, surrounded by woods, was the roller rink. There had once been a sign marking the entrance, but all that stood now was a tall, white wooden pole with a jagged top. They pulled into the parking lot in front of a boxy-looking, windowless, brick building. A giant, smiling roller skate had been painted on the side in red and white, and the words EERIE ROLLER RINK under it in cheery letters.
"Huh," said Georgia, turning down the stereo. "It's still standing. Like we just left it."
If Simon didn't know any better, he would have guessed the place had been abandoned more recently than a decade ago. There were thick chains over the doors, and even in the low light of the single lamp still illuminating the parking lot, he could tell a thin layer of grime had begun to settle over the place, but other than that, it did still look relatively new; the paint hadn't even begun to peel.
"Weird that nobody's tried to do anything with it," muttered Dash. Simon wasn't sure if he had a moneymaking scheme in mind, or was filing the rink away as a potential hideout in case of emergency.
"Nobody develops much on this edge of town," said Simon. "Marshall and I have a theory it's because the level of background weirdness is stronger here."
Georgia pulled into a space behind the building, hidden from the road, and switched off the engine. They waited.
"You don't think they got lost, do you?" Georgia asked at last. "I didn't think they'd be this far behind us."
"Knowing Melanie, I kind of thought they'd be in front of us," said Simon.
"She did say she might have to talk to Mars for a sec," said Georgia.
"Oh," said Simon. That meant there was a good chance they were even now still in Marshall's driveway discussing the Dash situation, but he wasn't going to say that out loud. "I'm sure they're fine. They probably just had a lot to talk about."
Dash pulled his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and scowled at the screen.
Georgia tried her own phone and shook her head. "No signal. How long do we wait before we start to worry?"
"I think—" Simon began.
There was a flash of headlights and a crunch of tires as another car pulled into the lot. Simon started to breathe a sigh of relief until he realized it wasn't Melanie's, but a blue sedan he'd never seen before.
"That might be Marshall's contact," he said. "Let me out."
Both of the other people in the truck opened their respective doors and slid outside. Simon followed Dash out the passenger side. It was much colder than it had been when they left Marshall's house, and he zipped up his jacket and jammed his hands in his pockets as he moved in front of Dash. If this was Marshall's contact, or even if it was some authority figure stopping to demand to know what they were doing here, Simon thought it was best if he did all the talking. The sedan parked in a space directly across from them, and Simon stood blinking in the glare of headlights until the driver of the other vehicle shut them off.
A man got out. He was young, about Marshall's height, wearing dark jeans, a white shirt, and a letter jacket from Schaeffer High, one of the towns closest to Eerie. Class of 1994, Simon noted, which meant he'd already graduated. His dark blond hair was slicked back from his face.
"I'm Scott," the guy said. "Are you Marshall's friends?"
"I'm Simon," said Simon, stepping forward to make the introductions. "This is Dash and this is Georgia."
Georgia gave a half-wave. Dash jammed his hands in his pockets and rolled his eyes.
"Hey," the guy said. He barely glanced at Simon, lingered longer on Dash, and openly stared at Georgia. It was the look of a prey animal deliberately not taking its eyes off a predator. That was interesting. "So, where is Marshall?"
Simon wondered how many times tonight he was going to have to answer that question.
"Jail's not out of the question," Dash muttered under his breath.
"You heard about what happened on the trip to the lake, I take it," replied Georgia at the same volume, then raised her voice to address the newcomer. "We were just wondering that ourselves. You didn't happen to pass a red Saturn on the way here? Or see one pass you?"
The guy shook his head. "At least I don't think so? I wasn't looking for one."
"They're running a little late," said Simon. "They'll be here."
"So, do we wait for them, or…?" asked Scott.
Simon considered. He wasn't quite worried about Marshall yet, and wanted more information about this guy before he was willing to walk into the building with him. "We could take some preliminary readings of the outside and get the doors open."
"Okay," Georgia said. "But if they aren't here soon, I'm heading back to look for them."
Dash scowled and said nothing.
Simon decided to ignore him. "Cool," he said. "We have a plan."
Melanie and Janet were silent.
"Wow," Janet said, at last. "That's…wow."
"Yeah," said Marshall. "I messed up. And no, I don't know why he's here tonight. I suspect it's because he thinks I don't want him to be, and therefore, it's the best way to torment me. And by extension, the rest of you."
"Oh, geez," Melanie said.
"I'm sorry," said Marshall. "I should have listened to Simon."
"No," Melanie said. "You shouldn't have. Your luck and your timing and maybe your whole decision to have kinky breakup sex may have been a little terrible, and that sucks, but ending things with Dash because you're unhappy? That's not wrong. You know I'd support you whatever you decided to do, but for this, I might throw you a parade. There might even be fireworks."
"I might even let her have fireworks," Janet added. "Which, after last Fourth of July, is saying something."
Melanie put the key back in the ignition. "It's just we left him alone with Simon and Georgia. Damn. I was really, really hoping for a fourth date."
"Hey, I thought it would just be for a few minutes. I'm not the one who decided to stop and have a meeting of the Marshall Teller's Personal Life Discussion Group," said Marshall.
"Guys," Janet said.
"I know," said Melanie. "I didn't realize the situation."
"You did realize he was Dash."
"I know. Maybe she'll forgive me. Someday."
"And we never did get to talk about you."
"I know." Melanie started the car. "You've got between now and the rink. Ask me anything. But I—"
"Guys," Janet repeated.
And then Marshall looked across the parking lot and saw what had gotten her attention.
"Um, how long has that milk truck been there?" he asked.
Melanie froze, one hand on the gear shift.
If this part of the lot hadn't been otherwise deserted, Marshall might have missed it. It was an ordinary looking Eerie Dairy truck, blue and white with the standard picture of the somehow sinister-looking cow mascot, parked directly across from them. Marshall hadn't seen or heard it pull in. From here, he couldn't make out if anyone was behind the wheel, though it was angled in a such a way that if there was a driver inside, that person had a direct view of Melanie's car.
"Is that the one that was tailing you earlier?" asked Janet.
"I can't tell from here," Melanie said.
"Wait, one of those things was tailing you?!" said Marshall. "Why didn't you say something?"
"I forgot," said Melanie.
"See, this is exactly what's wrong with this town," Marshall said. "Everybody obsesses over stuff like who said what to who and forgets the really important things, like milk trucks are dangerous."
"Hang on," said Melanie, putting on her sunglasses and shifting out of park. "I got this."
Simon found his tape recorder as Georgia worked on picking the padlock on the main entrance door. Marshall's contact, Scott, was hovering nearby, ostensibly taking pictures, but mostly standing around looking nervous. He was wearing a ward now, and his behavior hadn't changed since he put it on, which was worth noting, but still not definitive proof he wasn't leading them all into a trap or something. Dash slouched against the side of the building, eyes closed, blatantly ignoring the fact that there was any work going on.
Simon hit record. "Investigation of Eerie, Indiana Haunted Structure Number One Thirty-Two," he said into the recorder.
"Wait," said Scott. "There are one hundred and thirty-two haunted structures? Just in Eerie?"
"That we've investigated, yeah. Though we haven't been able to confirm all of them," said Simon. "And sometimes upon investigation, it turns out to be some other type of weirdness." Like with number seventy-eight, which hadn't been a house so much as a giant, shape-shifting carnivore in suburban camouflage.
"Is it ever just a guy in a mask? Like on Scooby-Doo?"
Simon and Dash exchanged a look.
"So what makes you think this one is haunted?" Simon asked. "Marshall said you said you saw ghosts."
The guy nodded. "A couple of times. When I was little. A least, I thought that's what they were back then."
"What did they look like?"
"Like people. Only, you know, all…ghostly. Like you could walk through them. I remembered last night there was a rumor going around school one year; some of the older kids thought there might be a serial killer operating out of the rink."
"Kids. They'll believe all sorts of stuff," Georgia said, from behind them.
"So I remember wondering if maybe it was all connected," Scott continued. "Like maybe they were people who died there?"
Serial killer. That was new information. Simon mentally filed it away, and once again wondered why people never remembered to tell him these things when he was still in research mode. "Did you try to communicate with them?"
"The ghosts?" Scott asked, as if the very thought was absurd. "No. Anyway, nobody believed me, and after a while, I started to figure I'd imagined it. Then my family moved out of Eerie, and I forgot all about it until last weekend, when I met—"
There was a rattle of chains behind them. "Got it!" said Georgia. She stood up, holding the open padlock in her hand. Simon added "breaking-and-entering skills" to his mental checklist.
"About time," Dash muttered.
Simon decided little good would come from pointing out that if Dash had wanted the lock picked faster, Dash could have been the one to volunteer to do it. He started to help her unwind the long chain.
And then, finally, Melanie's car screeched into the roller rink parking lot, sped around the building, and came to a stop beside Georgia's truck.
There was mud all over the tires and the lower half, as if it had just been off-road.
Simon watched, arms folded, as Marshall and the two girls got out, carrying backpacks, skates, and in Janet's case, a large machete.
"We were starting to think you were lost," he said as they approached. "Or in jail."
"I'm sorry," said Marshall. He sounded a little shaken. "There was a Code Two situation. We had to be sure we weren't followed."
"Oh," said Simon. "That was smart of you."
Melanie ran up to Georgia. "I am so, so sorry. Things happened and there were milk trucks, and we tried to call, but—"
"There's no signal here," said Georgia, giving her a quick kiss. "It's okay. We kept busy."
Melanie lowered her voice. "Okay, what's wrong?"
Georgia hesitated. "You remember that list of rules you gave me for surviving a night out with your friends?"
"I accidentally broke number five."
Melanie wrinkled her nose in confusion. "You saw something unspeakably weird in the building and decided to run further inside instead of out the door?"
"Wait, no. I think I mean number four."
"Ah," said Melanie. "You commented on Marshall's marriage."
She caught Marshall's glare, grinned, and shrugged.
Georgia nodded. "That one. And now Dash is in a bad mood."
"Don't worry about it," Melanie said, putting an arm around her. "We've all done it. And Dash doesn't have any other kind of mood."
Marshall wasn't the only one with his eyes on Melanie, Simon noted. Scott kept looking at her, looking away, shaking his head and blinking, and then trying to catch a glimpse of her again out of the corner of his eye.
Simon thought he had at least one definite answer about one of the newcomers now.
Scott gave a final headshake, turned to Marshall and beamed. "Mars!" he said. "Nice to see you again."
"Yeah," said Marshall. "Glad you could make it. In a few minutes, I'll get you to show me where you remember seeing the manifestations, okay?" He turned to Simon. "Have you been inside yet?"
"Not yet," said Simon. "We were working on getting the doors unlocked. So far, all we know for sure is there's nothing noticeably unusual about this parking lot." He shrugged. "The electromagnetic field fluctuations are a little wonky, but we are out past the mall."
"What does that mean?" Scott asked.
"It's weirder out here," said Marshall, giving him the short version. He turned to Simon again. "Have you briefed everybody?"
He shook his head. "We were waiting on you."
"Okay," Marshall said to the group at large. "While we finish getting the door unlocked, Simon's going to give you all a rundown on the basics of a haunted structure investigation. Then we're going to pass out the cameras and stuff, do a standard check for curses, traps, and general major weirdness, and then head inside. Sound good?"
There was a murmur of assent from almost everyone.
"Dash?" Marshall said to the member of the group who hadn't responded, acknowledging Dash's existence for the first time since they'd arrived.
"Whatever you say, oh, Fearless Leader," Dash said, not moving from where he was still leaning against the building. He closed his eyes again, and repeated quietly, "As always, whatever you say."
Marshall didn't respond, and instead turned back to Simon. "Simon?"
Simon gulped, realizing he'd just been put in charge of telling everyone here what to do. "Okay," he began. "Item one: We're giving everyone here a camera and a flashlight. Whatever you do, do not drop, lose, or accidentally bind your soul to either of these things…"
Janet was trying not to be sick.
Per Simon's instructions, she was also trying to keep her flashlight steady in her cold, slightly trembling fingers as she took note of anything unusual in her surroundings, but more of her energy than she wanted to admit was focused on keeping down Mrs. Teller's Swedish toffee bars.
The odd feeling in her stomach had started not quite the moment they'd entered the building, but just after they'd walked past the dark and deserted ticket window. In the rink's heyday, Janet remembered, it had been manned by a variety of surly, intimidating teenagers. Most of whom, upon reflection, were probably younger then than she was now.
The feeling had morphed into full-blown queasiness as they proceeded single-file through the second set of double doors and into the roller rink proper.
It intensified as they moved past the closed door to the manager's office to the skate rental counter, Marshall in front, Simon bringing up the rear and keeping an eye out for any dangers that might be behind them. Dash was close to Simon, almost as far away from Marshall as he could get without having to take a position of actual responsibility. The rest of them were in a loose configuration somewhere in the middle. Simon and Marshall were wearing modified versions of miner's helmets, each with a built-in light and camera that would take a picture of whatever they were looking at if they touched a button on the side. The hands-free practicality almost made up for the fact that they looked a little ridiculous.
Janet kept one hand near the machete sheathed at her waist, trying not to jump at every noise as their flashlight beams illuminated the rows upon rows of rental skates, all covered with a faint sheen of dust.
Marshall stepped behind the counter to flick the light switches on the wall a few times, then shrugged when nothing happened.
Next to skate rentals was the snack bar, surrounded by multiple booths with bright red and yellow plastic benches. In the low light, Janet could just make out a few ancient strands of licorice whip on the counter, though the giant jar of pickles she remembered was gone.
The counter configuration was set up so that one person could man both snacks and skate rentals at the same time, and in Janet's memories that had always been the owner, Mister…the name had once rolled off her tongue as easily as Mister Radford's, but now it remained stuck just beyond the edge of recall. She could almost picture him there, a cheerful, heavyset man with receding hair who was famous among the elementary school set for giving out candy to his favorite customers to celebrate dubious and probably made up special events. Even back then she was pretty sure National Learning to Fall on Skates Day wasn't a real thing, but she and her friends had happily gorged on the free chocolate anyway.
Her stomach gave another lurch at the memory.
Beyond the snack bar, against the far wall was a dark, silent lineup of arcade games that led to a semi-enclosed room that held even more games, in which Janet had once spent many hours and many quarters.
To the left was the skate floor that dominated most of the room. It was surrounded on either side by rows of rental lockers and benches for changing. Not waiting for a cue from Marshall, she turned, walked over, and leaned against the carpeted half-wall that marked the floor's boundary, aiming her flashlight down and across to illuminate the smiling roller skate logo at its center. In her memories, it had been a happy smile. It was probably only her imagination or something about the angle of the light that made it look vaguely sinister.
As the rest of the group gathered around her, she swept her flashlight upward toward the giant disco ball hanging directly above the center of the floor. At least four other people did likewise. Their beams reflected off the mirrored surface, scattering tiny points of light around the room.
"Wow," said Scott, the guy who was apparently responsible for Marshall's bringing them all here. He was observing the whole thing through the lens of Marshall's video camera. "It looks exactly like I remember it. Except for all the dark."
"Yeah," said Georgia, from Janet's other side. "No kidding." Still looking at the disco ball, she snuggled closer to Melanie.
That didn't help Janet's nerves at all. Not the public displays of affection, which while arguably nauseating, were something she'd been expecting. No, it was that the other two people who'd been here before were stating aloud the one thing that was so obviously wrong about the Eerie Roller Rink.
Months as Marshall Teller's girlfriend back when they were younger had given Janet more experience than she'd ever wanted with Eerie's abandoned buildings. Spooky old mansions and boarded-up warehouses being, in Marshall's mind, ideal places to take someone on a date.
She thought she knew what to expect from this kind of investigation. Rooms full of cobwebs. Mice or rats. Walls covered with graffiti, at least some of which Marshall would be convinced had some sort of occult significance. The lingering and occasionally overpowering scent of rot or mildew. Destruction from human vandals or the inevitable ravages of time. Despite Melanie's optimism, Janet had been half convinced the floor would be too damaged to even consider skating.
The roller rink had none of those things. Aside from the thin layer of dust and lack of heat, it was as though somebody had turned out the lights, locked the place up, and gone home only yesterday. Not even the spiders seemed to have put in an appearance in the meantime.
It reminded her of nothing so much as the Lost Hour.
Marshall looked up from the electronic device Janet had mentally assigned to the category of "weirdness meter." It measured something Marshall understood and for which Janet didn't want the long-winded technical explanation.
He caught her eye and gave a small nod.
Yeah. It didn't help at all to know that she wasn't the only one thinking it.
"This was where I saw ghosts," Scott said, waving his flashlight to indicate the rink floor in general. "The first time, I mean. When I was eight. Out with the regular skaters, but kind of not quite there, y'know? Then one skated right through my friend Alex. Who didn't even notice."
"What did they look like?" Marshall asked. "Were they men? Women? Kids? Did you notice any visible indications they were dead?"
"All I remember is a couple of tall people on skates. So, grown-ups. Or older kids, I guess. I mean, almost everybody looks grown up when you're eight."
Janet nodded. He had a point.
"As for knowing they were dead, well, I mean, you could see and walk right through them. That's a pretty good sign it's ghosts, right?"
"Was there anything else unusual you noticed when they first appeared? Did the temperature of the room drop or anything like that?"
Scott shook his head. "I don't remember."
Marshall looked over at Simon.
"It's not inconsistent with a haunting," said Simon, "especially if they died here. Or if there was something about the roller rink that drew their souls back to it. I know you didn't talk to them, but did they interact with anybody or anything else?"
"They just skated for a while, then disappeared. Like I said, eventually I decided maybe I'd imagined it. Anyway…" Here Scott walked over toward the snack bar area, the rest of the group trailing behind. "The second time was right about here. I was ten. I remember because that was the year Wild Cherry Cornade came out."
Ah, yes. Janet remembered the delicious red drink that left a permanent stain on nearly everything it touched. Wild Cherry Cornade had left the market after less than year amid a flurry of negative publicity. The company tried to go in the opposite direction some years later with Crystal Clear Cornade, but that hadn't lasted very long either.
"I'd just left the snack bar with a jumbo size and some nachos when they showed up. One of them was right in front of me," Scott continued. "He—it was a guy that time, I'm pretty sure—scared me so much I dropped both of 'em. In fact, you might even be able to tell the exact spot..." He aimed his flashlight down at the carpet. Janet could make out several obvious red stains in the otherwise blue and yellow zig-zag pattern at their feet. "Well," Scott continued, "one of these is mine."
"Do you remember anything about what the guy looked like? Was it one of the same ones as before?" Simon asked.
Scott paused, thinking. "Tall. Wild hair. Old, but not old old, I guess. I don't know. It was a long time ago."
"Semi-transparent, like the others?" asked Simon.
"Yeah. And he had, like, this crazed look in his eyes. And I…"
"You what?" Marshall prompted after the pause had gone on a while.
"I dropped my stuff and ran. Well, skated away fast as I could. Went home. Got yelled at by my mom for ruining my clothes." He shrugged. "That's it, basically."
It wasn't. Janet could tell by the tone of his voice.
Apparently, Marshall could, too. "Are you sure?" he asked. "Any detail, no matter how minor it may seem, could help give us a better idea of what we're dealing with."
Scott shook his head. "That's all I can remember. Honest. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know."
"Okay," Marshall said. Janet could tell he'd decided not to press the issue. "Why don't you hold on to the video camera for now? The evidence suggests whatever these things are, they're drawn to you, so if they're going to appear tonight, odds are you'd be the one mostly likely to get good footage. All right," he continued, addressing the group as a whole, "while we're in here we're going to use the buddy system. Pick at least one person and stay within each other's line of sight at all times. Any questions?"
Melanie raised her hand. "Can we skate?"
"In the dark?" Scott asked.
"We've got flashlights," Melanie pointed out. "And the floor's intact."
"Give us a little bit to make sure it's safe," Simon said, sounding disappointed but resigned to Melanie's obvious lack of interest in the mission. "Something like, let's just say hypothetically, a portal to the underworld might not be so obvious at first. But if it is safe, I don't see why not. Any other questions?"
Scott raised his hand. "What do we do if we do see something weird?"
"Come get me or Simon," said Marshall. "Or shout, and we'll come to you. In the meantime, record any evidence you can."
Janet didn't bother with hand raising. "So let's say I see something like Scott's describing. Do I want to use the iron nails or the salt?" Or should I just go straight for my knife? she mentally added.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Scott reflexively suck his finger at the mention of iron nails. He'd already managed to stab himself with one of the ones he'd been given earlier.
"Both are good protection," said Simon, "but their effectiveness depends on what kind of weirdness you're dealing with, and we don't have enough information to know what that is. Hold on to both, but don't go on the offensive first. Some of the things you encounter might be harmless, or nice. Or at least nice until they think you're a threat."
"Right," said Marshall. "Nice or not, they might also be dangerous when provoked, even accidentally. If you can, get me or Simon before you engage."
"What about garlic?" asked Scott. "I brought some. Well, garlic powder."
"That would be mildly annoying to, um, vampires. Mostly," said Simon. Janet couldn't help glancing over at Georgia, who didn't seem to have reacted. "Maybe a couple of other things."
"Like Janet's sister," Melanie said.
Janet couldn't resist joining her in a snort of laughter. Melanie discovering Stacey Donner's dislike of garlic had led to a long period of her ordering extra on every single pizza. Which was only slightly less mean than when Marshall had found out about it and insisted on a series of tests of Stacey's humanity, one of which involved a squirt gun full of holy water.
Marshall was now looking mildly annoyed at the interruption.
"Sorry," Janet said.
"Anyway," Simon continued, "not usually effective against ghosts. You might as well hold onto it, but I don't think we'll be dealing with any vampires tonight."
"Oh." Scott raised his hand again. "What about wooden stakes?"
"Do you have wooden stakes?" Marshall asked.
Scott nodded. "One. It wasn't on the list you gave me, but they use them all the time in the movies, so I thought just in case…" So had Janet, but she wasn't going to say anything.
"Again, that's mostly vampires," said Simon. "I wouldn't. They're hard to use if you're not a professional, and not a good primary deterrent against anything not vulnerable to wood."
"What about other people?" Georgia asked.
"Um, yes," said Marshall, as he and Simon exchanged a look. "I suppose stakes are also effective if you use them on other people. Nobody do that."
"No, sorry, I meant what do we do if we come across other people? Or evidence of people?" Georgia clarified. "It's an old building, so I thought somebody squatting here wouldn't be out of the question. Except, well…" she trailed off and indicated the undisturbed room.
Marshall nodded slowly. "Good point. Sometimes other people can be the most dangerous part of a weirdness investigation. There are some telltale signs you might be dealing with a squatter instead of a haunting. Dash—" He paused. "Where's Dash?"
Janet looked around, suddenly realizing Dash wasn't among them.
She vaguely remembered a glimpse of him still standing near the skate rental counter, scowling, while the rest of them were looking at the disco ball. That was the last she was sure he'd been near the group.
Marshall gave a dramatic sigh. "Dash!" he called. He didn't receive a reply. "C'mon, Dash, this isn't funny!"
From the darkness surrounding them, nothing answered.
"Dash!" Simon was met with the same lack of response.
Janet swept her flashlight around the room, trying to illuminate every dark corner. The others did likewise. None of them revealed a grey-haired figure.
"Don't worry, he does this," Marshall said, sounding both annoyed and like he was trying to reassure himself as much as anybody.
"He's probably fine," Simon added, in the same tone. "So I think we should…"
"Room-by-room search?" Janet asked, remembering Marshall's missing science project back in the ninth grade.
Marshall gave her a grateful look. "Room-by-room search," he echoed. "Simon—"
"Right. I'm with you," Simon finished. Janet could tell that wasn't what Marshall had been about to say. She suspected Simon just had assigned himself as Marshall's buddy because he didn't want him dealing with Dash in the company of someone like Melanie or Janet who would do nothing to discourage all the shouting Mars was likely to do when they found him.
"Okay," Marshall said. "We'll start with the arcade."
Janet saw Melanie and Georgia, practically joined at the hip already, catch each other's eye and grin. "We can take the office," Georgia offered.
Janet looked toward Scott and they shrugged the mutual shrug of the only two people left together just after couples' skate had been announced. "We'll stay and check out the snack bar," she said.
"Great," said Marshall. "Everybody stay safe. Again, if you run across anything weird—or Dash—come get me and Simon."
"And don't stake anything," added Simon.
"Especially not if it's Dash," said Marshall. Then under his breath, "Unless you have to."
He followed Simon into the arcade room, muttering.
Melanie and Georgia walked a few steps toward the office, Melanie with a backwards glance at Janet, who gave her a smile and what she hoped was an inconspicuous thumbs-up. Halfway there they stopped to whisper together, Melanie's gestures suggesting something moving fast and in a circular motion. Janet could tell she was about ten or fifteen minutes away from putting her skates on, no matter what Marshall had to say about it. Georgia seemed to be hanging on her every word.
Unfortunately, dealing with Marshall's drama meant Janet hadn't had enough exposure to Melanie's date—girlfriend? Janet hadn't wanted to say anything in front of Marshall, but she was not going to pretend she hadn't noticed that back in the car—to form a full opinion yet.
Georgia seemed nice enough. A bit awkward maybe, but being thrown into their group for the first time would make anyone awkward. The important thing was that, undead or not—and Janet would leave it to Simon and Marshall to weigh in on that one—she seemed really into Melanie, her body language suggesting she was much more interested in trying to make out with her than trying to murder her.
So far, it had gone about a thousand times better than the first time they all met Dash.
Though, Janet considered, patting the machete at her side, she wasn't yet at the point where she was willing to take anything for granted.
"That's a big knife." She startled slightly at the sound of Scott's voice, and turned from Melanie and Georgia, realizing she should probably be doing a better job of keeping an eye on the unknown element she was temporarily partnered with.
"Yep," she said.
"So, um, your friend?" he continued in a nervous whisper, leaning close enough that she could smell the cinnamon breath mints he'd been chewing. "The dark-haired girl?"
"Melanie," Janet supplied.
"Melanie," he repeated. "Is she, um…what's her story?" He raised Marshall's video camera, not even bothering to conceal that he'd aimed it toward the couple now retreating toward the manager's office. Then he lowered it again, blinking and shaking his head.
Janet recognized that sort of double-take all too well.
What are you looking at? she wanted to ask. It was probably a shadow, or a cloud, or some vague, indistinct form that overlapped Melanie's own. There were those who could see Devon properly—sometimes as the thirteen-year-old who'd died under the wheels of a milk truck and sometimes as the young man Melanie's own age he would have been had he lived to grow up by her side—but given the story Scott had just shared, Janet thought that would likely have provoked a much bigger reaction.
Whatever else this guy was and whether or not he'd gotten Marshall here under false pretenses, it seemed he really could see ghosts. At least a little.
"She's my best friend, she's a senior in high school, and she's dating the girl with the dark red hair," Janet said, deliberately misinterpreting the question he hadn't quite asked. "Why?"
"Just curious," Scott said. "And…?" He gestured again.
"Georgia?" Janet finished. "Her, most of us just met."
"Oh," he said. Janet couldn't read anything definite from that single syllable, and was disappointed when he didn't follow it up.
"C'mon." She put her skates down on a nearby bench, and led him over to the snack bar. Long practice had taught her if she had something to do, she could do a better job of ignoring her nerves.
She shined her flashlight over the counter, then across the open cash register with its empty drawer, the soda fountain, the now almost-bare racks of ten-year-old candy, and the unplugged popcorn machine and nacho cheese dispenser.
"It's spooky in here," said Scott in an almost-whisper, causing her to nearly jump.
"Yep," she replied, fighting down the urge to strangle him.
The food situation was weird. Whoever had shut the place down seemed to have cleaned up and taken most everything with them, leaving only a few of the less appealing candy choices, like Necco Wafers, licorice, and the Eerie Candy Company's chocolate-covered prunes. The Slushie machine held the liquid remains of one flavor which Janet remembered had been an unappealing shade of green even back ten years ago when it still would have been fresh.
The door to the small kitchen area was slightly ajar.
She startled at a noise behind her, but it was just Simon and Marshall again. They emerged from the arcade, stalked past the row of lockers and conferred for a brief moment before disappearing through the door to the men's room.
She turned back to the snack bar and vaulted over the counter.
"So how do you know Mars?" Scott asked in another almost-whisper as he put the camera and his flashlight down and struggled noisily over after her.
So much for the advantage of stealth. She waited until he was on the other side before answering. "We used to date."
"Oh," Scott said. The emotion in that syllable she could read.
"It was a long time ago," she added, keeping one eye and the beam of her flashlight on the kitchen door as she reached toward the wall and tried the light switch. Nothing.
Had something beyond the kitchen door just moved? No, that was a shadow. Probably.
"Is he seeing anyone now?"
Janet was beginning to understand Marshall's frustration with people focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time. And did this guy seriously not know about Dash? According to Melanie, Dash and Marshall had put on quite the show at the club last weekend.
"Not exactly," she whispered, after becoming aware she'd let the silence stretch on a bit too long.
She was about to elaborate when she heard a noise and put up a hand for quiet. She kept her flashlight on the kitchen door and started to reach toward her machete again.
There was a blinding light.
Something beeped. And chimed. And whirred. In the immediate area, she could hear the fridge and other snack bar machines come to sudden life over the cacophony of a mini-arcade's worth of games powering up.
Scott screamed and grabbed her sleeve, and she fought against her instinct to violently shake him off. He was warm blooded and seemed to have a pulse at least, the part of her brain that wasn't dealing with the sudden surge of adrenaline noted.
Somewhere, she could hear Marshall shouting for Dash.
She blinked rapidly, willing her eyes to adjust, as Scott let go and retreated to the far wall, looking embarrassed.
"Well," she said, switching off her flashlight. "That was startling."
She pushed open the door to the mini-kitchen and made a quick survey of the counter area. There were scorch marks on the wall and ceiling, she noticed, mostly concentrated above the microwave and sink, though whether they were the result of an ordinary kitchen accident or something like a sacrifice to the dark gods, she couldn't say. Based on how her part-time job at Grandma's Fried Kitchen had ended last summer, it could have easily been both. The unenclosed cabinets held a few boxes of plastic utensils and some disused party supplies. She opened the doors to the fridge and the freezer. They were both bare, empty of food and of anything less pleasant, like leftover human remains.
The lurch her stomach gave at that thought was only slight. At least her nerves seemed better.
She left the snack bar, Scott trailing behind.
The rink had come to partial life, the disco ball spinning and sparkling, the overhead light array casting multicolored spotlights onto the rink floor. To her right, the screens of newly-awakened video games beckoned enticingly. She looked over her shoulder to see the signs for "Snacks" and "Skate Rental" illuminated in garish green and pink neon, calling even more attention to the fact that the rink owner had never quite been able to decide on a single color scheme for the place.
From overhead, she felt a gust of warm air and tried not to feel gratitude toward the grey-haired figure clearly responsible for all of this, who now stood in the middle of the room, arms folded, regarding a furious Marshall Teller.
"Sorry," Dash was saying, not sounding exactly contrite. "Did I ruin the ambience in here?"
"You disappeared without telling anybody where you were going," Marshall said. "After Simon clearly explained—at length—in the parking lot why that was a bad idea."
"I didn't know I needed permission to look for the electrical panel."
"I didn't know that's what you were doing! I didn't have any idea where you were, or if you were okay, or—"
"Why does it matter?"
"Because I don't want to lose—" Marshall took a deep breath. "I don't want to lose anybody on this mission. Remember what happened to Ralphie Delaney? Or that girl Becca from Terre Haute? And why it's a terrible idea to wander off by yourself in a haunted building?"
Dash shook his head in disbelief. "You were worried about me being by myself in a haunted building? You do remember I've spent my whole life—?"
"They haven't!" Marshall indicated the crowd they were drawing. "At the very least, think about the example you're setting."
"Yeah, Dash," Simon interrupted. It was rare for him to take sides when they were like this. "How do you expect anyone else to listen to me if you don't?"
Dash's dramatic sigh was almost an exact echo of Marshall's from earlier. "I didn't know I was supposed to be an example."
"Well, right now you're a really good example of what not to do," said Marshall.
"I'm well aware I'm on your 'What Not to Do' list, Slick."
Janet cleared her throat.
Marshall startled, as if suddenly aware other people could hear them. He gave Janet a brief, guilty look before turning back to Dash. "Just…be more careful. At least let Simon know if you're going off on your own. Please?"
"Fine." Dash started to stalk away, then stopped. "I'm going over to that bench. That okay with you, Simon? Since we're all listening to you now?"
"It's fine, Dash," said Simon. "Look, I know you know what you're doing. It's just—"
Dash waved a hand. "Can I go? Or do I need to wait for you to say 'Simon Says'?"
"Go," said Simon, now sounding as irritated as Janet had ever heard him.
Dash started to walk away.
"Dash!" Marshall called after him. Dash stopped, but didn't turn. "Thanks. For getting the power on."
Dash didn't respond. Instead, he found one of the benches on the side of the rink near the lockers and sprawled across it not bothering to take his boots off. He tucked one arm under his head as a makeshift pillow and draped the other across his eyes.
Janet turned away, determined to ignore him.
"So now what?" Scott asked.
"Yeah," said Melanie. "That was enough to wake the dead. Or scare them back into hiding."
"You're right," said Marshall. He took off his helmet and ran a hand through his hair. "It's highly probable we'll see an increase in paranormal activity after this, so everybody be cautious. Explore, take pictures, look for evidence of anything unusual, but same rules apply. Get me or Simon if you see anything, and meet back here to check in in fifteen minutes." Almost reluctantly, he called out, "Dash?"
"I know! I'm grounded," Dash answered. "I'll be right here, not moving, until Simon says it's okay."
"You're not—" Marshall shook his head. "Fine. You do that."
"Let's finish checking out the back office," Georgia said to Melanie. Janet suspected that was code for Let's go make out.
"Yeah okay," Melanie replied, with only a slight reluctant glance at the rink floor. Then, "Janet?"
There were six different combinations of secret words and hand signals Melanie and Janet had developed that meant I need your help to get me out of this situation. Melanie wasn't using any of them.
Janet shook her head. "I'm going to go back and get pictures of some stuff out here. Meet up at check-in?"
"Meet up at check in," Melanie agreed, allowing herself to be pulled in the direction of the closed office door.
Janet had once seen Melanie Monroe face down an entire crowd of possibly demon-possessed soccer moms armed with only a cafeteria tray and a half-eaten corn dog on a stick from the Eerie Mall food court. Melanie could take care of herself.
She walked back over and used the disposable camera Simon had given her to get a few shots of the snack bar area and the damage to the kitchen. Scott followed behind, videotaping silently. He pushed a few dispensers on the soda machine, then jumped back when the orange drink flowed out with a slight hiss.
"So what's Dash's story?" he asked after a small laugh at himself, as if that had broken the ice for a new round of conversation.
Janet rolled her eyes, then caught Scott's slightly wounded expression and bit back the sarcastic reply she'd been about to make. She knew Simon suspected this guy of scheming to get Marshall here for some hidden, probably sinister purpose of his own, but so far he hadn't done anything except for come along on the mission, videotape things, and try to puzzle through their group dynamics. If nothing else, being nicer to him might yield more information.
"Just how well do you know Marshall?" she asked, as she led him toward the arcade area.
"Not very," he said. "We met last weekend, and we've talked a couple of times on the phone since then."
Janet turned to face him and signaled him to cut the recording. When he did, she continued. "And when you met him, was anybody with him?"
"No," said Scott. "It was at a club. I bought him a drink, we got to talking, somehow the subject of haunted houses came up…"
Because that sort thing always did when you were talking with Marshall, Janet reflected.
"And then I remembered this place. I had to leave early, but I gave him my number," Scott continued. "A few days later, he called."
She was about to respond when she was hit with a sudden wall of noise that made her nearly double over.
She covered her ears against the onslaught of hideous screeching that, as the volume lowered, resolved itself into the slightly more tolerable sounds of Starship's "We Built This City."
"Sorry," the voice of Simon suddenly cut in over the loudspeaker at a volume loud enough to sound like the voice of God.
"We know the sound system works," said the voice of Marshall from the same source.
Apparently, they'd decided to check out the DJ booth.
"Well," said Janet, willing her heart to stop racing. "If the dead weren't awake before, they are now."
"Yeah," Scott said with a nervous laugh.
"So how much did Marshall tell you about the rest of us?" Janet asked, trying to get the conversation back on a less paranormal track.
"Only a little. All of it was good, I promise. Mostly he talked about Simon, who's his best friend and partner in these sorts of investigations, I guess? I wasn't expecting him to be so young."
Most people who knew Simon only by reputation wouldn't.
"And did he mention Dash at all?" Janet prompted.
"He mentioned on the phone there's a friend of Simon's who sometimes helps them with the paranormal stuff. And if I met him, I shouldn't bring up the tattoos. Or the hair."
Janet suppressed a sigh. She'd come here prepared to deal with Melanie's love life and Marshall's typical whatever-it-was, not this.
"And then the last time we were on the phone, he let me know about you and Melanie," Scott continued. "To be honest, the way he talked about you, at first I thought you were together. No offense."
"Me and Melanie?" Janet's high, involuntary laugh reminded her a little too much of her mother at uncomfortable dinner parties. "Like together together? No."
"Sorry. I shouldn't have assumed—"
"No. I mean, I'm not offended. Melanie's the most amazing person I know. We're best friends. It's just as far as assumptions go, that one's wildly inaccurate." She turned and practically sprinted the last few steps to the arcade games, as if that would be enough to escape this conversation. "Oh, look!" she said, gesturing to one machine in particular. "Remember Brain Invaders?"
"Yeah," said Scott, catching up to her. Together they watched the row of pixelated zombies—or whatever they were supposed to be—scroll across the insert coin screen. "That thing was a classic even back when we were kids. It's in good shape for being about a million years old."
Janet had to give the guy credit for being willing to go with an abrupt change of subject. She pointed a thumb in the direction of the semi-enclosed room. "Want to go see if the Skee-Ball machines are still there?"
Scott switched the video camera back on. "Let's do it."
He was kind of cute when he smiled, Janet noted.
The Skee-Ball machines were still there, along with all the other games Janet remembered from her childhood: Pole Position, Pac-Mac, Intergalactic Fast Food Wars, the original Slime Creatures from Outer Space pinball…
She was starting to really wish she'd remembered to bring quarters.
"Hey, it's Disasteroid!" Scott said. "That game scared the hell out of me when I was little."
"When the Disasteroid came to life and it would start screaming 'Behold!' at you?" Janet said. She crossed over to the game and ran a hand along the side of its cabinet. "Yeah, I know. I had all of the top five scores on this thing for about three months in 1985."
"Wow," Scott said. "You must have been one brave little kid. And really good at games."
Janet shrugged, as her fingers rested automatically on the still-familiar controls. "I had a lot of free time." She was good back in the day, she'd admit. It was almost insulting how many people were surprised to learn that the infamous JED was actually Janet Elizabeth Donner, age seven. Brave, she didn't know about. A screeching asteroid with a skull for a face was scary, yes, but the good, delicious kind of scary that everyone knew couldn't really hurt you. It wasn't like the Disasteroid could make its way out of the video game and try to devour anybody in real life.
At least, Janet didn't think so. She made a mental note to never, ever ask Marshall or Simon that question.
"Hey, is that Disasteroid? Cool! I've always wanted to play that!"
Janet startled a little at Simon Holmes entering the arcade. The background noise had masked the sound of his approach. "It is cool," she said turning to him and smiling. "It was my one of my favorites when I was a kid."
Marshall was right behind him, weirdness meter in hand. At least they'd taken their helmets off. "How's it going, guys?" he asked.
"Great," said Scott. "We were just reminiscing about some of the classics."
"Yeah," said Janet. "Also, if there are any ghosts in the rink right now, they're not in here playing pinball, if that helps."
"It does. Even lack of evidence of the paranormal can be important information," Marshall said.
"Hey, Scott," said Simon, "would you mind taking some video of the rink floor? I need to let our friend Melanie know if it's safe to skate soon, so it would also help a lot if you could tell us if anything looks different from what you remember."
"Sure," said Scott. He started to follow Simon, then glanced back over his shoulder.
"You guys go ahead," said Marshall. "I want to have Janet look at these readings. Then we'll catch up."
He leaned against the Disasteroid machine and they waited until the other two were out of earshot.
Janet looked at the meter in his hand. "Yep," she said, "the little wavy line thing on there is pretty wavy."
"It's useless information," Marshall replied. "We're out past the mall."
"Oh." Janet dropped all pretense. "Is Melanie out of the office yet?"
"Not yet. We went to check on them and there was…giggling."
"She's fine then," Janet said. She waited a beat. "How's Dash?"
"Dash is…being Dash." Marshall didn't seem to want to elaborate, and Janet wasn't going to force him. "So, first impressions of Melanie's new girlfriend?"
So Marshall had noticed that word back when they were in the car, too.
"Seems nice." Janet folded her arms and joined him in leaning against the machine.
"Yeah, seems nice," Marshall echoed, with just the slightest bit of emphasis on the second word.
"And not a vampire, I take it?" She grinned when he turned to look at her, his face full of surprise. "I do pay attention to the things Simon says when he's giving instructions, you know."
"Most likely not," Marshall confirmed. "But we're still not sure exactly what she is."
"Oh," said Janet. "Is plain, ordinary human out of the question?"
Marshall nodded. "Yeah. Sorry."
"Oh," she repeated. Then, "Melanie knows what she's doing. She can take care of her herself."
"I know," Marshall said. "But—"
"I am going to look out for her as much as she needs me to. Why do you think I'm here in the first place?"
"Thanks. For being here, I mean. Just in case I hadn't said it yet." Marshall smiled and for a second, Janet remembered why she had once fallen for him. Even aside from the fact that when they'd met, they'd been the only two people on Earth.
"It's okay," she said. "It's been fine." And it had so far, despite her still lingering anxieties.
"And thanks for keeping an eye on Scott."
Janet waited a beat for it.
"Speaking of Scott…"
"He also seems nice," she said carefully.
"Did you notice anything, y'know, weird about him?"
"You mean, other than that he's psychic?"
She watched as Marshall's expression moved from surprise into that disappointed look he got when he realized you already knew all about the astonishing thing he'd been about to explain to you. "Yeah, other than that. How did you know?"
"The way he looks at Melanie. Kind of a major tip-off. Other than that, no, nothing weird. Aside from his obvious ulterior motive for getting you here."
"What?" And Marshall was back to surprise again.
"Oh my god," said Janet, trying not feel smug. "You really don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" He was starting to sound slightly alarmed.
"Marshall, think," Janet said. "When you met this guy, where was Dash?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know? He wasn't with you or you don't remember?"
"We were kind of pretending not to know each other at the time."
Janet wasn't going to ask. "Okay, so you're by yourself and you meet a guy in a club," she said, "he buys you a drink and gives you his number, and later you call and agree to meet up. And it never once occurs to you that he might be interested in you?"
"What do you—? Wait, interested interested? No! I mean…no. No way. You're kidding, right?"
She gave him a look. "Yes, Mars. You got me. I'm kidding. I'm making this whole thing up because this group doesn't have enough interpersonal drama in it already."
Marshall looked stunned. "But he didn't even…he was just going to help us investigate the roller rink!"
She raised an eyebrow. "And nobody in history has ever suggested to anyone else that they go investigate something weird together as a way of asking them out?"
He had the good sense to look embarrassed at that one. "What do I do?"
As if Janet was qualified to give advice here. "I don't know. For one thing, I know he's into you. I don't know if that means he isn't also out to kill you."
"True," said Marshall. "And a psychic sensitivity to paranormal phenomena could indicate any one of a number of seriously weird and malevolent—"
"Okay, okay. Given the way almost everything in your life turns out, it's probably safest to assume that's true for the moment. But let's pretend, just for the sake of argument, it turns out he's neither weird nor malevolent. What would you want to do?"
Marshall looked down. "I don't know."
"He's cute," Janet pointed out.
"Yeah, I guess," Marshall agreed.
"You did tell us you wanted this breakup with Dash to stick."
"It's not technically a breakup," Marshall said. "I mean, Dash and I were never really tog—"
"The point is," Janet interrupted not willing to let him get off the subject, "you're a free man now, Marshall Teller. You can start acting like it."
"I know. It's just…" He trailed off and rubbed the wrist with the ward on it with his other hand. "It's soon."
Janet supposed that was true. After all, if she had the timeline down correctly, Marshall had waited something like four whole days after his relationship with Janet was over to start making out with his mortal enemy.
"From another point of view," she said, trying to keep her voice gentle, "given how long you've been in your not-really-a-relationship and how many not-really-breakups you've had, maybe it's overdue."
"I guess," said Marshall, not sounding entirely convinced or happy.
She was trying to think of a way to respond when Melanie leaned in the doorway of the arcade. Georgia was behind her. Melanie's lipstick was slightly smudged, Janet noticed, and some of her hair had come out of its ponytail, but otherwise she looked unscathed.
"There you guys are," Melanie said. "So Simon thinks the rink floor is probably at least as safe as it ever was. What do you think?" she asked Janet. "Want to leave the weirdness hunting biz to the professionals and get some skating in?"
Janet looked back at Marshall, who gave her a smile that seemed at least partially genuine. "Go ahead. Simon and I can handle it from here."
Together, they made their way back to the rink, Janet stopping along the way to retrieve her skates.
Dash was still feigning sleep on the bench beside the rink when she got there. He shifted and opened one eye as she passed.
"Donner," he said by way of acknowledgment.
"X," she replied with a small nod and what she hoped was at least a neutral tone of voice.
She sat down on a bench as far away from Dash as possible and slipped her shoes off, wondering if tonight would be the last night the rest of them would have to interact with him. She supposed not, upon reflection. Dash was Simon's friend, and she'd try to be as polite to him for Simon's sake as she was for Marshall's. Still, it would be a relief if he'd at least stop coming to movie nights.
She was halfway through lacing up a skate when Melanie sat down beside her. "So what were you and Mars talking about?" she asked quietly as she began the process of putting on her own skates.
Janet paused, aware there was a chance Dash could hear them. Then she decided she didn't really care. "Mostly about whether or not he should ask out the cute psychic guy."
"Wait," Melanie looked over to where Scott was chatting with Marshall and Simon. "Cute Blond Guy is also Cute Psychic Guy?"
"Yep. He doesn't know we know, I don’t think."
Melanie looked thoughtful. "And is Cute Psychic Guy also Evil Psychic Guy?"
"We don't know yet."
"Oh. Well, in that case, I say Mars should go for it and see what happens."
"Yeah, but 'go for it and see what happens' is what you always say," Janet replied. "Speaking of which, what were you and Cute Dead Girl up to?"
"Investigating," Melanie said. "Despite what Mars so obviously thinks. Well, mostly investigating." She laughed. "We found a locked filing cabinet in the office, but when we got it open, it turned out to be mostly tax forms and receipts and stuff. There didn't seem to be anything unusual about any of it from what we could tell, but we're not exactly professionals. The place seemed to be making money before it shut down. The office safe was empty. There were some weird dried herbs and talismans in the desk, but Simon thinks they're just standard ritual cleansing equipment for public buildings."
"Well, you found out more than we did," Janet said. "I learned all the good food is gone from the snack bar, the arcade's still there, and Marshall can be remarkably oblivious for someone who want to be a professional investigator."
"That last thing we already knew," Melanie pointed out.
"And that last thing we already knew," Janet echoed. "So, no, I didn't learn a lot."
She finished lacing up just as Georgia sat down next to Melanie with a pair of skates from the rental counter. Janet watched as she wiped the dust off with the sleeve of her jacket, then begin picking apart the knots in the laces with long fingernails.
"We'll wait for you," said Melanie, as she finished with her own skates.
"Nah," Georgia replied, smiling. "You guys go ahead. I'll watch for a while."
"Okay," said Melanie, not bothering with a polite argument. She got to her feet, grabbed Janet's hand and pulled her toward the rink floor.
"Wait a sec," the voice of Simon commanded over the loudspeaker. Apparently, at some point he'd gotten back in the DJ booth.
They stopped and waited until Simon spoke again. "Okay, now."
And then the music began to play. The overhead lights started to move, casting multi-colored circles and zig-zag patterns down on the floor.
Yeah, this was almost exactly how Janet remembered the Eerie Roller Rink.
She wrinkled her nose. "I'm not sure about making my triumphant return to the rink floor to the sounds of Journey."
Melanie laughed. "At least it's not the Carpenters. C'mon. There is no way I'm waiting around for him to pick a good song." She pulled Janet onto the floor.
And then they were skating. Janet worried about being unsteady at first, but muscle memory and the bit of practice she'd gotten that afternoon kicked in. She held Melanie's hand for the first lap or so around the rink, then broke away, laughing, and raced past her, skating as fast as she could until Melanie caught up with her.
They raced each other for a while until Janet stopped, sacrificing her lead, and reversed direction, skating backwards. Melanie joined her and soon they were racing that way until Janet, not remembering to look in the direction she was going, bumped into Melanie and they went down together, still laughing.
Emboldened by the lack of other people on the floor, Janet tried a few spins. Melanie spun beside her, tried a leap, skated forward again, then crouched down, extending one leg out in front of her in a shoot-the-duck maneuver.
They practiced tricks until the music segued into something slow.
Melanie skated to the center of the floor then, stopped, and stood under the disco ball for a few beats with her eyes closed and her arms outstretched. Then she opened her eyes, spun, and began skating away in a slow, widening arc, moving her upper body in time to the music. She went faster and faster until she transitioned into a jump with a spin from which she came down on one foot, wobbling a bit on the landing, but staying upright.
Janet forgot about what she was doing and stopped against the wall to watch. From the rink side, she could hear someone clapping.
Melanie stopped again, one arm out, before moving away in a complicated series of arcs and twists, crossing one skate over the other without lifting her feet off the floor. She went down into a split, then back up again, before skating backwards into another spinning leap.
The changes, when they happened, were subtle: a slight difference in posture, some minor variations in the way she held her arms and and positioned her feet. There were moves all about speed and power that were almost pure Melanie and moments of fancy, complicated footwork made to look easy that were almost pure Devon, but all of it seamless enough that unless you knew Melanie Monroe well, you wouldn't suspect you were watching someone couples' skate with themselves.
Janet wondered what it had to look like to Scott.
Melanie ended the routine where she began, with a slow tightening arc back toward the middle of the floor, until she stopped under the disco ball, arms crossed over her chest, head lowered, as the song came to end.
The room burst into applause.
Melanie came out of the pose, tossing her head and blowing some loose strands of hair away from her face. She caught Janet's eye, grinned, and stretched out a hand.
Janet started toward her.
"Wow! That was incredible." Georgia, clad in rental skates, was on the floor now. She skated to center and then she and Melanie were in each other's arms.
Janet subtly reversed direction and tried to look anywhere else as they kissed.
Her gaze skimmed the side of the rink and caught on Dash's.
Dash, who had at some point gotten up from his bench—having secured Simon's permission to move, Janet presumed—and was for some reason watching her now. She met his eyes, trying to get a read on an expression that was neither a smirk nor a scowl, and therefore one she wasn't used to seeing on his face.
She finally gave up and turned away, starting another lap around the rink.
She'd nearly completed a full circle when the screaming began.
And we're back! With roller skating. Apologies for the long delay between chapters; I'll try not to let it happen with the next one.
Chapter 8: On the Edge of Despair
Things get worse. And weirder.
Simon had just started the next song and was breathing a sigh of relief that this one hadn't made Janet roll her eyes. He was beginning to realize how out of his depth he was in the DJ booth. Most of his musical knowledge had been picked up from Tod McNulty, who these days tended to like bands most people in Eerie had never heard of now. It wasn't proving to be much help in navigating a selection of mostly pop and rock that was at least ten years old. A lot of the artists he didn't even recognize. Others he did. Everybody had heard of bands like the B-83s and New Kids for Squids. Or knew who Madonna was. It was just that he could never remember which ones people still liked and which ones they hated but still talked about anyway.
He was trying to decide whether playing the theme from Ghostbusters next would be too depressing, since so far this mission hadn't involved any ghosts. At least, none they hadn't brought with them.
And then the screaming started.
It was a noise made by nothing human. A horrible, high-pitched, unrelenting shriek that suggested something terrible and many-throated was keening in utter agony. It was the sort of sound that you didn't so much hear as experience stabbing straight through your ears and into your brain. Simon Holmes, experienced weirdness investigator and horror movie aficionado, had in all his years on the planet, never heard anything worse.
He saw Janet almost slam into the wall as she simultaneously tried to cover her ears and reach for the knife at her waist.
The other figures on the rink floor sank to their knees. Someone was running out the front door. Someone else was shouting, but over the noise, he couldn't make out what they were saying.
Marshall was over to the side gesturing frantically at…Scott, it looked like. Scott, who had Marshall's bag in one hand and appeared to have just flung something away with the other. Something he was staring after in abject horror.
The only person who didn't look in any way panicked was Dash, who was standing off to the side of the rink, fingers jammed in his ears, eyes rolled heavenward.
Simon cut the music, covered his own ears, and shut his eyes, waiting for the onslaught of sound to pass. He'd recognized who, or rather what, was making it almost immediately. He'd not only been on the mission where they'd first acquired Item # 2739: Screaming Rubber Duck, he still vividly remembered the role it had played in his and Marshall's last great prank war. Earlier, he'd told Marshall it was smart of him to think to bring it with him when they were strategizing about things that could break a vocal compulsion. Now he wasn't so sure.
He opened his eyes again as the screaming faded away, saw Melanie helping Georgia to her feet, and felt a pang of sympathy. He wasn't sure yet if Melanie's date had preternatural hearing, but if she did, the last few moments had to have been awful.
Over by the wall, Janet looked like she was about to barf.
Marshall was gently taking his bag from Scott's hand, the look on his face one that reminded Simon of Marilyn Teller when she was clearly trying not to lose her temper at something stupid somebody had just done, but was also trying to be nice about it.
Dash was watching them, shaking his head.
Simon mentally took roll again. Melanie…Georgia…Janet…Marshall…Scott…Dash. Everyone who had come on the mission was present and accounted for either on or near the rink floor.
So who had he seen running out the front door?
He sprinted out of the DJ booth and to the door, stopping there for a split second to survey the dust at his feet. He recognized his own faint Sky Monster prints and Marshall's. Dash's boot marks. Some smaller prints that were probably the girls and a couple larger ones that were probably Scott's. If there had been someone else besides the seven of them, it wasn't obvious from here, but at least the motion-activated camera would—
The motion-activated camera he'd meant to set up once they got inside and completely forgotten about.
"Oh man, oh man, oh man," he muttered to himself as he pushed open the door with one hand, taking his small emergency flashlight out of his pocket with the other. He shined it around the deserted lobby area and into the ticket booth before he found the lights and flicked them on.
He crossed the lobby and pushed open the door to the outside. It was quiet out there, the only noise the squeak of the hinges and the scuff of his shoe on concrete. There wasn't even a noticeable rustle of wind through the distant trees or a hum of traffic from the nearby road. The single light overhead shone down on the three vehicles in the parking lot and nothing else. A quick scan with his flashlight revealed nothing moving in the shadows. It only illuminated the chains they'd removed earlier, sitting in a coil off to one side of the door.
"What's going on?"
Simon startled at the distinct voice, wishing not for the first time that his second best friend in the whole world would learn how to make some noise when he walked up behind people.
He stepped back into the lobby and willed his heart to stop hammering.
Dash held up his hands. "I know," he said. "I didn't ask if I could be out here. But you went running like a bat out of hell while nobody else was paying attention. What happened to Slick's all-important buddy system?"
Simon tried not to sigh audibly. He swallowed his irritation, both at Dash and at himself for not remembering to set a good example. "I thought I saw someone go through the door."
"Through the door or through the door?"
That was a good question. Simon reviewed his own memory. Nope, what he'd seen had been fleeting enough he couldn't say for sure whether or not whoever it was had actually opened the door first. For that matter, it had been fleeting enough he wasn't exactly one hundred percent sure he'd seen anything at all. "Don't know," he said. "You didn't see anybody…?"
Dash shook his head. "Not until you."
"It may have been nothing," Simon conceded.
Dash looked skeptical. "Given the way things usually go when you and the Boy Wonder decide to bother the forces of weirdness, my money's not on nothing."
Simon wished he had Dash's faith in that, but of the two of them, Simon had been at this a bit longer and a lot more often. For every verified and carefully tagged encounter with weirdness they had stored in the Evidence Locker, there were dozens of false alarms. Fairy sightings that turned out to be tricks of the light. Mysterious lights in the sky that turned out to be airplanes. Hauntings in attics that turned out to be squirrels.
He didn't know if it made sense to call everybody's attention to something he'd only maybe sort of glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. Not while he was supposedly in charge of things, which he still didn't remember exactly agreeing to. Deciding what to do was so much easier when you were at least second banana in the operation.
"I didn't get a great look," he said at last.
When they stepped back into the rink again, Marshall was waiting for them, his bag slung over one shoulder.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Dash ignored him and spoke directly to Simon. "So what do you want to do?"
"About wh—?" Marshall began, then stopped himself. "Simon, is something out there?"
"I thought I maybe saw someone go through the door," Simon told him.
"Through the door or through the door?"
"I don't know," he answered, miserably. "I thought it was one of you guys at first, and I…I messed up, Mars. I forgot to set up the camera."
"It's okay," said Marshall, not sounding upset. "It happens." He moved past them to make his own scan of the lobby, accidentally brushing against Dash in the process. Both of them visibly flinched at the brief contact.
"Nothing there that I could see," Marshall confirmed when he'd finished taking his own look outside.
"It may have been just disco lights and sensory overload," Simon conceded.
"Or it may be another mystery we haven't solved yet," Dash countered. "Like, just for example, how Blondie over there got ahold of the screaming duck."
The way he said it might have been deliberately calculated to irritate Marshall, but it was also a really good point.
Simon looked at Marshall, who sighed. "He was going through my bag and accidentally picked it up and squeezed it not knowing what it was."
Dash raised an eyebrow. "So Teller's letting people he just met put their hands all over his equipment now? That seems safe."
He'd directly acknowledged what Marshall was saying, even if he hadn't responded directly to him. Simon wanted to feel some small triumph at that, but he was too busy trying to figure out whether or not what Dash had said was meant to be dirty and mentally willing Marshall not to get upset if it was.
Marshall's tone when he spoke was the same flat, even one he'd been trying to use with Dash all night. "He said he was hungry. I told him he could have one of power bars in my bag. I meant I'd get him one once I finished reviewing the video from earlier, but apparently, he…misunderstood." He shook his head. "I've talked to him and he won't do it again."
Dash snorted. Simon could see the unspoken questions written on his face. Like, why was Marshall acting so okay with this? And, why hadn't Scott gotten shouted at in front of everybody after that major breech of mission protocol?
"You sure you can trust him?" Simon asked.
Marshall shrugged. "He apologized. A lot. And there wasn't anything missing. The upside is we know now that he was in at least close proximity to every charm, ward, and anti-weirdness measure we have, and nothing happened. That's good information, right?"
"I guess," Simon allowed. "It's a decent indication that he's human, at least. Well, human with some extra-sensory abilities."
"Yeah, there's that. But other than that, it's possible he's just a guy," said Marshall. "A guy from Eerie, but still."
"I don't know, though," said Simon. "It seems like…" He trailed off, trying to think of polite words to describe exactly what it seemed like. Like there was something Scott wasn't telling them, that was for sure.
"Janet thinks that he—" Marshall began. He stopped, looked at over Dash then back at Simon. "Never mind. It's not mission-relevant."
Dash's eyes narrowed. "I'm going to look outside." He started to walk away, then stopped. "That is, Simon, may I pretty please—?"
"Dash, don't," Marshall said quietly before Simon could respond.
Dash's face was the picture of wounded innocence. "Don't what?"
"I know you," Marshall said. "I know exactly how this game works. You'll keep asking for permission for every single thing in the most obnoxious way possible until Simon gets annoyed enough to tell you you can do whatever you want. And then you'll do whatever that is, which is probably something illegal or humiliating to somebody else or something we've already asked you specifically not to do. And your excuse will be Simon said you could. Don't. Be mad at me, but take it out on me. Not on him when he's in charge."
A look of guilt flashed across Dash's face. Real guilt, not the "aw, shucks, you got me" look he sometimes got when you called him out on something he'd admit to but wasn't actually sorry for.
Simon guessed his own expression held no small amount of guilt as well, as he'd been just about to fall for it and say almost exactly that, thus proving once and for all that he really shouldn't be put in charge of anything.
"I'm not mad at you," Dash told Marshall. He said it as a simple statement of fact. It was a tone Simon wasn't sure he knew how to read from Dash under the circumstances. He could tell from Marshall's expression that Marshall didn't.
Simon thought quickly. "Dash," he said. "I trust you. Do whatever you want to do as long as it doesn't hurt or embarrass anybody on purpose. Not unless you have to."
"Whatever you say, New Fearless Leader," Dash said. He took Simon's flashlight and was out the door before Simon had a chance to react.
Simon was aware he'd just technically exempted Dash from the entire buddy system, but still. "Mars," he said, knowing he was about to test the limits of just how in charge of the mission Marshall actually considered him to be. "Would you go with him? Make sure he's safe?"
For a split second, Marshall looked like he was about to argue. "Sure," he said.
Simon watched him leave, wondering if he'd done the right thing. Yes, he decided at last. They'd either talk or they wouldn't, but they would protect each other from anything else out there. Probably. He kept his eyes on the door, glancing over at the rink floor only as the music started up again. Something noisy. Somebody had been shot through the heart by somebody else they blamed for it according to what lyrics he could make out.
Georgia was on the floor by herself now, Scott standing by the side of the rink, watching her warily, like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to join her or he wanted to run.
Simon heard rather than saw Melanie skate up behind him.
"Everything all right?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, trying to sound nonchalant. "Possible weirdness sighting. They're checking it out."
"Oh," she said, intrigued. "You need me to do anything?" It wasn't that Melanie didn't care about the mission, Simon was beginning to realize. It was just that her interest in anything only really perked up when there was the possibility of immediate action.
"Not yet," he said.
"Oh," she said again with less enthusiasm. "I hope it's okay Janet took over the music. She wasn't feeling well and needed something to do that involved not moving."
"That's okay," said Simon, hoping he didn't sound as relieved of that responsibility as he felt. "Is she all right?"
Melanie nodded. "She says she's fine. She just needs a few moments off her feet. And possibly a few less scares from the Weirdness Locker."
Evidence Locker, Simon mentally corrected. "Have her let me know if she wants some Pepto-Bismol or something," he said aloud instead.
Melanie stood with him for a moment, eyes flickering from the rink floor to the door like she couldn't decide which needed her attention most. "He okay?" she asked at last.
He meant Marshall. Simon supposed that indifference to Dash's continued health and well-being was about the best he could hope for from Melanie Monroe.
"They're fine," he answered. "Just doing a perimeter check. They'll be back in here soon."
"They'll both be back in here?"
Simon tried to put the full force of his trust in Dash into his response. "Yeah."
"It's just that last time I remember they had a fight and went off together for a 'perimeter check,' Mars came back alone and Dash hotwired Andrea Fantucci's car."
"That won't happen." Simon refrained from pointing out that the incident with Andrea Fantucci's car had been a long time ago and under completely different circumstances that were at least part Marshall's fault. "They're not fighting now."
"They did just have the world's worst breakup earlier. Not," she added quickly, "that they were ever really together. I know."
"Oh," said Simon. "Marshall told you about that." Of course he had. There had to have been reasons other than a creepy milk truck it had taken Melanie so long to get here.
"Yeah, he did. Why is Dash even here?"
"We did invite him," said Simon, knowing that wasn't quite what she was asking.
"I know. It's just it can't be easy for Mars having to deal with him right now. Especially not in front of everybody like this. I kind of debriefed Georgia on the whole situation and apologized about a billion times for leaving you guys alone for so long."
"It was fine," said Simon. "Well, it was mostly fine."
"Yeah, well, I still should have known better," said Melanie. "Scott has no clue about any of this, by the way. Apparently Marshall didn't tell him about Dash. At all. And you know their big public make-out session followed by their big public argument last weekend is still all over school, but the poor guy doesn't even live here, and according to Janet, wasn't around to witness any of it…"
Wait, what? Was that what happened at the club last weekend? Either Melanie was assuming that Marshall had already told Simon or she was crediting Simon with being a lot more plugged into the high school gossip network than he actually was.
"Yeaaah," he said, trying hard to keep the surprise off his face and out of his voice. Then, "I'm sorry. This is my fault"
"Your fault?" She blinked at him. "Simon, absolutely none of this mess is your fault."
"Well, I was the one who—"
"No." The way she said it left no room for an argument. "Look, Mars is my friend." Something about the way Melanie said that reminded Simon that she had once been Marshall's first crush. Maybe both of Marshall's first crushes. "But he makes his own decisions, and it's nobody's fault but his if those decisions are stupid." She scowled in the direction of the door. "Except in this case, kind of Dash's."
Simon hesitated. He was torn between wanting to defend Marshall and wanting to defend Dash. Torn between the recognition that Melanie had a least part of a point, and the sudden, really mean desire to point out that he was talking to the biggest risk-taker he knew, who at times didn't seem to have learned anything from a certain fateful day doing skateboard stunts in front of a milk truck and who therefore had no room to talk as far as stupid decisions were concerned.
Before he could think of a diplomatic response, Melanie spoke again. "I just want him to be happy."
He flashed back to Marshall talking about Dash on the phone earlier. He isn't happy. I'm not happy. As long we're in each other's lives like this, neither of us is ever going to be.
"I know," said Simon. When she didn't respond, he added, "I promise Dash isn't going to touch anybody's car." He wasn't sure what else to say.
Melanie didn't look convinced. She glanced over at the rink floor and exchanged a wave with Georgia, but didn't head back. "So, about Georgia…"
Oh, yeah. That was another thing he hadn't been paying enough attention to. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't have anything new to tell—"
"No," she said. "I mean, thank you, but no. There's nothing else you need to tell me. Her and I have decided we're going somewhere alone after this to talk. Like we should have done in the first place instead of me getting my investigator friends involved. And I'm the one who's sorry. You've got enough to deal with right now without worrying about other people's love lives." She directed that last bit toward the closed door in a pointed tone.
"Oh," said Simon. While he was disappointed at the thought of not being the one to solve the mystery of Georgia Sheridan, he supposed the two of them talking things through together was the right thing to do. Still, "What if we're dealing with Scenario Delta?"
"Is that the one where you have evidence she's a clear and present danger to me or any of my friends?"
"That's different," Melanie said. "If someone's in danger, that's always different." She gave him an odd look. "You do know that, right?"
"Yeah," said Simon, a bit confused that she seemed to think he wouldn't. "I know."
"I take it we're not, though? Dealing with that scenario?"
Simon shook his head. "Not as far as I can tell right now."
"I didn't think so," said Melanie, who was nonetheless audibly relieved. "I like her and I'm pretty sure I can trust her." She looked back over at the floor, and then back at Simon. "But just in case of Scenario Delta, I've got a squirt gun full of holy water in my jacket."
"Oh," he said. Yeah, Melanie could take care of herself.
They stood together a few moments longer.
Simon realized he wasn't sure what he'd been about to say. He had questions, but they weren't the sort he could just ask. Are there reasons other than the obvious you're worried about Marshall? was prying into his best friend's life in ways Simon couldn't quite bring himself to be comfortable with.
What does Marshall tell you that he doesn't tell me? was even worse.
He was trying to think of what to ask instead when the door opened, and Marshall himself walked through it, followed by Dash.
They were quiet and very carefully not looking at each other, but seemed none the worse for wear. No signs of mussed hair…or torn clothing…or blood…or dirt…or scorch marks…or any other evidence to suggest they'd been fighting, either with the paranormal or with each other. Marshall had his video camera in one hand. He shook his head when he saw Simon.
"Nothing?" Simon asked.
"Not that we could detect," Marshall answered. "We only went around the building and as far as the parking lot though. If it went all the way to the woods…" He didn't have to elaborate on the sheer folly of going into the woods out here at night. Instead, he smiled at the woman next to Simon. "Hi, Melanie."
"Hi, Mars," she responded, as Dash made a face. Dash wasn't carrying his flashlight. Simon made a mental note to ask later.
"So what do we do now?" Melanie asked.
"Suggestions?" Simon asked the group before they could all turn toward him.
"Ward the door?" said Dash.
"What would that do?" asked Melanie.
"If something's out there, keep it from getting in," said Marshall. "Assuming it's the sort of thing that can be deterred by a ward. The problem is, if we put one up and something's out there that belongs in here, we might have just locked it out of its home."
"That would be mean," said Simon. Especially since they were the ones trespassing. "Anyway, if it was something, it was probably scared of us, not wanting to hurt us."
"Or annoyed," said Dash. "And considering just how annoying you've all been tonight, a ward may be worth risking."
"Um, theoretically, would something like that also stop anyone in here from getting out?" Melanie asked.
"That might be a whole other problem," Marshall acknowledged. "Especially if we need to leave in a hurry."
"Okay, so no. We're not doing that," said Simon, with what he hoped sounded like authority. Then he admitted, "We don't even know that this was a real weirdness sighting."
"We could set up a watch," Marshall phrased it like a suggestion. "We could do another sweep of the interior just to see if we missed anything. We could—"
"Great. You have fun with that," said Dash and started to walk away.
"Wait," said Simon. "Where are you going?"
"To see if anything's haunting the arcade."
Marshall looked like he was about to protest. Simon held up a hand to stop him. "Let him go," he whispered. To Dash, he said, "Let us know if you need anything."
As their associate turned to leave again, Marshall called out "Dash!"
Dash turned back around, eyes flashing, as Marshall shrugged his bag off his shoulder and held it out. "Front pocket."
Dash took the bag, careful not to let his fingers touch Marshall's in the process, unzipped the front pocket and removed both rolls of quarters Marshall had packed without saying thank you. He started to hand it back, then snatched it away again, reached in one final time, and took a power bar, eyes on Marshall's as if daring him to say anything.
Marshall didn't, just quietly accepted the bag back and watched him walk away.
Melanie lightly touched his arm. "Mars, do you need me to—?"
"Nah," Marshall told her. "We've got this. You should go be with your gir…uh, you know, your date."
She gave him a long look. "If you're sure."
"Yeah," Marshall said with a half-smile, making a shoo-ing motion with his hand. "I'm sure. Go have fun."
"Okay," She turned to leave, then turned back to Simon. "Wait, you were going to ask me something?"
"Oh, um," said Simon. "I just…I wanted to know where you learned to skate like that."
"Oh," said Melanie. "We took lessons when we were younger. And we've had some practice since then. Mostly street skating, though. Come to the floor later and I'll show you a couple of tricks, if you want."
"Um," said Simon, who wasn't ready to admit that he couldn't skate at all. "Maybe."
"Great, see you out there!" she said and skated away.
Simon turned Marshall as soon as they were alone. "So what's our plan?"
Marshall studied him. "Okay, best guess: What do you think we're really dealing with here?"
Simon sighed. "Best guess one: Disco lights and sensory overload."
"Really? Because Dash is right. You're not exactly the paranoid, over-imaginative one of us."
Simon wondered when Dash had said that, and if Marshall had been as calm hearing it as he was relaying it now. He continued, "Best guess two: I did see something, but that something doesn't want to talk to us and isn't coming back as long we're here. And I cost us our one chance to get evidence."
"Simon, that's not on you. I could have remembered the camera, too, but I didn't. Thanks to a certain someone, we were all distracted." He glared in the direction of the arcade room. "You really think we're not going to find anything evidence-wise?"
"Mars, let's face it. This place is dead. And not in an Eerified way. I mean, yeah, I think strange things may have happened here, but we've been inside for a while now, with multiple trained investigators and a psychic, and so far, the only one who's seen anything is me. And I'm not even sure that I did. We've had weirder trips to the post office."
"Well, yeah," said Marshall, "but consider the Eerie Post Office."
"I think," Simon continued, "whatever we're looking for might not even be here anymore. Or it's here, but isn't going to show itself tonight." He gestured toward the rink floor. "I mean, how many times have the forces of weirdness gone into hiding on us when there were this many potential witnesses?"
Marshall nodded. "True. So you're thinking we should come back another night just by ourselves?"
"Yeah," said Simon. "Yeah, we should. Just the thr—" He stopped himself. It wasn't exactly going to be weird to go on investigations without Dash. Their other associate didn't always want to tag along on everything Simon and Marshall were doing. But it was going to be weird to remember not to at least invite him. "Just the two of us," Simon finished.
"Good plan," said Marshall, ignoring the slip. "When Mom and Dad get back, I can borrow one of the cars again and drive us, which'll make things easier."
"So what do you want to do in the meantime?" Simon looked toward the rink floor, where Melanie and Georgia seemed to be trying to talk a reluctant-looking Scott into skating with them. "Do you want to have another look around the building, or—?"
"Or," said Marshall, "we could skate."
"Um…" Simon began.
"I mean, we did come all this way to break into the roller rink. Plus, think about it. None of us saw anything at all until we stopped paying attention. If we act like we're not paying attention again, maybe something'll show itself again."
Simon nodded. He did have a point.
Marshall continued, "And meanwhile, over there is one of the only places in this building right now we know for sure is full of weirdness and unanswered questions."
Simon looked back toward the trio on rink floor. Yeah, that was also a really good point.
"I should warn you, though," Marshall continued. "I'm gonna suck."
"Roller skating. I'm terrible at it," Marshall said. "I haven't done it since I was a kid back in Jersey, and even then, I wasn't very good. So don't expect me to be able to keep up with those guys. I'm warning you now, because if you do want to skate, you'll probably want to stay out of my way. If you don't, well, I imagine I'm going to be pretty hilarious to watch."
"That's okay," said Simon. "I don't really know how to skate at all." He brightened a little. "If I go out there with you, we can be terrible at it together."
Marshall patted the video camera. "Okay, final suggestion. We set this up by the entrance to record anything that might decide to leave or come in again and we hit the floor. Not," he added, "literally. If we can help it."
Simon agreed. They found the tripods, and set up the video camera and the forgotten motion activated still camera so they were both pointing at door ready to record any evidence, then each selected a pair of skates in their size from the rental counter. They took these to the rinkside benches, where they wiped them down with the special sage and bloodroot infested wipes that protected against both bacteria and curses, then put them on and laced them up.
Simon wobbled when he stood up in skates for the first time. He'd ridden Melanie's skateboard before, but the sensation of having wheels attached directly to the bottom of his shoes was a new one. He felt a lot taller and a little unsteady as they made their way onto the rink floor.
He slipped slightly when his wheels left the carpet and almost fell backwards into Marshall, but managed to save himself. He kept one hand on the wall as they made their way around the rink for the first time, practicing gliding forward, one foot in front of the other, until he thought he had the rhythm of it.
And then he got overconfident and pushed away from the wall.
He shot forward out of control, arms wheeling, until he inevitably lost his balance and fell backwards, letting out a super-embarrassing almost-squeak as his butt hit the floor.
A pair of skates that weren't Marshall's came to a stop in front of him.
Simon looked up, ears burning red, as Georgia extended a hand.
He took it and allowed her to help him to his feet, remembering his conversation with Melanie earlier and willing himself not to notice the temperature of her skin or the distinct lack of any pulse at her wrist. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"Why?" she asked. "You're doing fine for a beginner."
He winced. "That obvious, huh?"
"Well, yeah, but this town hasn't had a roller rink most of the years you've been alive. I'd be astonished if you were an expert at it. The good news is, your falling technique's not awful."
Simon studied her face to see if she was making fun of him, but her smile seemed sincere.
"Seriously. When I was first learning to skate, it took me a lot of falls and a really nasty sprained wrist before I learned not to try and stop myself on the way down like this." She put her arms out to demonstrate.
That was probably while she was still alive, Simon realized. He'd never heard of any of the living dead complaining about spraining a wrist. It was type of injury most wouldn't even feel, or else the type that would heal up almost instantly. Again, he willed his internal investigator to shut up.
"Anyway," she said, keeping ahold of his hand as he gratefully allowed himself to be pulled over to the wall again, "I wanted to ask if you minded me taking over the music. Your friend Janet's ready to get back out here again."
"No," said Simon, happy that Janet was feeling better. He considered for a split second the wisdom of letting someone whose abilities were unknown have sole access to the sound system, then realized that if she had wanted to try anything with it, she could have done it a while ago whether or not he said it was okay. "I don't mind."
"Cool!" she said. "I always wanted to be a roller DJ."
Always? Did that mean roller DJs had existed her whole life, and if so, how old would that make her, tops? Again, he told the investigator in his head to be quiet.
Something must have changed in his expression, though, because she she leaned in, close enough to make Simon's heart speed up, and whispered, "You really want to ask, don't you?"
He couldn't bring himself to lie. Instead, he said, "I may have promised I wouldn't."
"That's good," she said. "I may have promised myself that there are certain conversations I owe it to Melanie to have with her first."
"Though," she continued, "if someone smart were to figure it out on his own in the meantime, I don't suppose I could stop him, could I?" She raised her voice slightly again. "You don't remember if they have The Cure up there do you?"
Simon almost embarrassed himself further by asking, "The cure to what?" before he mentally reviewed the context and shook his head.
"Oh, well," she said. Then she skated away toward Melanie, calling out, "Good news! Simon says it's cool!"
Simon turned to find Marshall, who'd probably been watching them from a slight distance the whole time.
"What were you guys talking about?" Marshall asked.
"Music," said Simon. "And falling down."
"Oh," said Marshall, in a tone of voice that indicated he knew there was more to the conversation, but wasn't going to push the issue. He held out a hand. "Speaking of falling down, want to try again?"
They did. They skated with Melanie, who didn't try to show Simon any fancy tricks, but did show him some techniques for starting and stopping before she left the floor to go spend some time with Georgia in the DJ booth. They skated with Janet, who tried to teach them to skate backwards with a little less success. But mostly he and Marshall just hung out and skated together. Marshall was steadier on wheels than Simon was, but not by very much. It took them a while to make it all the way around the rink without either of them falling, and they spent a lot of time hugging the wall or just stopping to watch the others, but it was fun. A relaxed, silly sort of fun that reminded him of nothing so much as the early days of their friendship, before…
Simon glanced toward the back wall, where he could see Dash in silhouette, alone in front of one of the games.
The song that was playing faded and Melanie's voice came over the PA. "Couples' skate," she announced before music started up again, this time something slow.
Simon guessed she was probably kidding, since she and Georgia were the only couple in the rink. He was about to say as much to Marshall when Scott stopped in front of them.
"Want to skate, Mars?" he asked.
Marshall didn't exactly recoil but didn't exactly seem mega-enthusiastic about the idea either. "I, um—" he began, with a look at Simon.
And then Janet was at Simon's side. "Hey, Simon," she said. "Be my escort for this stupid thing, please?"
"Um, sure," said Simon. He took her arm and let her lead him out on the floor, leaving Marshall and Scott behind, vaguely aware that it was probably supposed to be the other way around.
Skating arm and arm with Janet was a lot different than skating with Marshall, Simon realized. He was suddenly hyper-aware of the way she smelled—like hairspray and cherry vanilla, mostly, which was nice except for the hairspray—and that he himself was a little sweaty, which he hoped she didn't think was gross, and also that he really, really needed to keep his feet under him, because falling against her might put him into contact with body parts he had no business being in contact with.
Inevitably, that thought almost made him lose his balance completely and they stopped while he found his feet again, thankfully without any accidental groping.
Melanie and Georgia were out on the floor now, skating with their arms wrapped around each other's waists, as close as two people could get without actually melding. Marshall was skating with Scott, a bit slower and closer to the wall. They were talking, Scott looking at Marshall and Marshall looking mostly at his feet. Every few moments, Scott would reach out, as if he was about to take Marshall's arm or something, and then seem to think the better of it and draw back.
"He likes Marshall doesn't he?" Simon whispered to Janet when they were far enough away from the other couples. "I mean, likes him likes him?"
She didn't answer at first. "How would you feel about that?" she finally asked.
"I don't know," said Simon. "We don't know him and we don't know if we can trust him. We don't even know what he is yet."
"That's very true," she conceded. "But let's say it turns out Marshall likes him back. If you found out he was somebody you could trust, would you be okay with that?"
No, Simon wanted to say, Marshall's with Dash. But that wasn't true. "I guess," he said aloud. Then, echoing Melanie from earlier, "I just want Marshall to be happy."
The look Janet gave him then was strangely full of concern. "I know," she said. "That's what we all want for him."
"I want Dash to be happy, too."
There was a long silence between them.
"So how many of the games in here have you played?" Simon asked her at last.
Janet seemed grateful for the change of subject. They talked video games until the couples' skate was mercifully over.
Simon let Janet go then and looked for around for Marshall, finally spotting him over in the corner with Scott. They weren't skating anymore. Scott had one hand on the wall and was learning toward Marshall, saying something to which Marshall wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention because he was busy watching…
Simon hadn't seen Dash get the rental skates he was wearing now and wasn't sure when he'd joined them on the floor, but there he was, skating by himself, moving in that sort of quiet, confident way he did when he wasn't trying to be particularly stealthy, but wasn't trying to call attention to himself, either. Only he was doing it on wheels.
And he was good, dang it.
Simon hadn't actually dreamed of getting Dash on skates, so he couldn't say he expected this, but it was a thing that happened sometimes. In one of Marshall's notebooks was a whole list of random skills and facts Dash had never learned—or at least, couldn't remember ever learning—but nevertheless just knew. Roller skating seemed to be another one of these. Simon was familiar enough with Dash's facial expressions to note, even in this light, his faint look of surprise at what his body seemed to instinctively know how to do as he moved backwards into a small spin.
He wasn't as good as Melanie. Then again, Simon guessed few people who didn't roller skate on at least a semi-professional basis were as good as Melanie. He almost wished he could be jealous, but there was something deeply unfair about a universe that could leave somebody with a skill like that, but no idea of who he was or where he'd gotten it.
The look on Marshall's face was part awe, part unconcealed excitement at the reveal of another tiny piece of the puzzle that was Dash, and part…well, on a night before tonight, Simon would definitely be planning on giving them some alone time when they got home.
Dash came to a stop then and his eyes made contact with Marshall's from across the rink.
What happened next, or rather what didn't happen, surprised Simon. He fully expected Dash to make a play for Marshall's attention then. The Dash of even a year ago would absolutely have done it, would have attempted to out-do Melanie on one of her tricks from earlier or tried something else to cause a scene.
Here and now, Dash just looked away after one small head movement that might have been a nod and went back to skating as though no one was watching.
Had Dash changed more than even Simon had given him credit for? Or was this another game Simon didn't yet recognize?
He'd worry about it later, he decided. Later, when he wasn't trying to cope with with gravity and with not looking like a complete klutz when they were still technically on a mission he was still technically leading.
The rink floor was big. It had been built for way more than six or seven skaters and it was plenty big enough for both Dash and Marshall to be on it at the same time without having to interact with each other. It would be fine, Simon told himself.
And it was.
For about ten minutes.
What happened next wasn't anybody's fault, really. Simon was back to skating with Marshall, feeling just confident enough to have moved a little bit further away from the perimeter of the rink. Janet was crouching down into that one legged maneuver she called shoot the duck, when Scott swerved in front of her, probably to avoid Melanie who was back out on the floor now, and who he hadn't seen in front of him until it was too late. Janet veered out of Scott's way and directly into Simon's path. Simon fell rather than risk accidentally running her over, which made Marshall swerve without much control in an attempt to avoid running over him.
Marshall went sideways and slammed into Dash. Hard.
They fell together, Dash's head making contact with the floor as he went down backwards, Marshall on top of him.
Simon scrambled to his knees and looked over to see if anybody was hurt as the music and other skaters came to a stop.
Dash was on the ground, not moving, his expression dazed and a little furious. His wide, dark eyes were locked with Marshall's. Marshall, for his part, seemed stunned. The key had come loose from under his shirt, and Simon thought he could see blood on his face.
After a couple of labored breaths, Marshall shifted slightly, lifting himself up on his arms to take part of his weight off Dash. "You okay?" he asked in a whisper.
"Peachy." Dash's response was a low growl. He swatted Marshall's key out of his face, then propped himself up on an elbow, winced, and reached to gingerly rub the back of his own head. "You?"
"I—" Marshall shifted again, checking himself for damage. He started to reach toward Dash, who flinched away, but then reached out with two fingers and touched them to Marshall's mouth.
"You're bleeding," he observed.
He was. Split lip, from what Simon could see.
Marshall broke eye contact just long enough to take in the sight of his own blood on Dash's fingers, then gingerly patted his own lips and touched them with his tongue. "I'll live," he said.
"You will," said Dash.
Marshall reached toward him again.
"Teller." The tone was a warning, but this time Dash let him settle a hand on the back of his head, though he scowled and drew in a sharp breath at the contact.
They both spoke at once, and then stopped, faces inches apart, Dash with a hand to Marshall's chest, though whether he was reaching out to push him away or pull him closer, Simon couldn't say. They froze like that for the space of several frantic heartbeats.
Given what Simon had just learned about recent past events, he wasn't sure if they were about to start fighting or about to start making out right there in front of everyone.
Janet cleared her throat.
Georgia's voice came over the PA system. "Everyone okay out there?"
And Marshall scrambled back from Dash as if he'd been stung.
"I'm sorry," he said once he'd put some distance between them. "I didn't mean—"
"You never do, do you?" Dash muttered as he got to his feet. His face was flushed and he wavered slightly as he stood. "Don't worry about it. It was my fault."
"It wasn't your fault!" Marshall turned away, finding the wall and using it to help himself up. "It was mine. I should have been more careful."
"And I shouldn't have been anywhere near you!" Dash countered. "You don't know what you're doing. I knew that."
"You didn't do anything wrong!"
Their voices were raised now. Simon could see the others exchanging glances, and even Janet and Melanie, who had been through this sort of thing before, looked confused as to whether or not this was a fight.
"No," said Marshall, turning back to face him. "You didn't. And you're hurt."
"Yeah, well, stuff happens," said Dash, rubbing the back of his head. His eyes narrowed. "We'll both survive. Don't beat yourself up about it on my account."
"I'm not!" Marshall shouted. "I just—"
"What?!" Dash shouted back. Then, lower, "You just what?"
Marshall threw up his hands. "I'm trying to apologize!"
"Don't." Dash practically spit the word out through clenched teeth. Yep, it was a fight.
Marshall. Oh, man.
"Don't you dare." Dash cut him off. "Don't you dare tell me you're fucking sorry."
Marshall blinked. "I can't…" He turned away, and stood at the wall, wiping the blood from his mouth, and tucking the key back into his shirt. Simon could see his shoulders shaking. He'd been with Marshall through losing friends, through losing a grandparent, through the Giants losing shots at the playoffs. It didn't happen often, but he knew what his best friend and most trusted associate looked like when it was all too much and he was barely holding it together. "I don't want to do this anymore," Marshall said in a rush, before skating away, off the rink floor and through the door to the men's room.
Dash didn't say anything at all. Just turned and skated off in the direction of the arcade.
Everyone looked at each other.
"I'll go talk to him," Melanie said before Simon could react. She held up a hand, fingers splayed, and mouthed the words "Five minutes" toward the DJ booth, then thought for a moment, held up the other hand and mouthed, "Ten." Then she skated off the floor after Marshall, stopping to knock once before slamming through the bathroom door.
In the seconds of silence that followed, Simon became acutely aware that he was Dash's only friend here.
"Everybody keep skating," he said. "I'll be right back."
As he made his way carefully to the edge of the rink floor, he heard Janet say, "So, there are a couple of things Marshall didn't tell you…" Though Simon was guessing that by now Scott probably had a pretty good idea.
He found Dash at the controls of the Brain Invaders game.
Simon leaned against the game cabinet and watched as Dash maneuvered his pixelated avatar back and forth across the screen, firing at the descending rows of invaders, dodging the things they were shooting. Brain exploding rays, if Simon remembered the game correctly, which he wasn't sure he did. It was a classic of classics, after all, and older than he was.
Dash was good at this, too, though that was less of a surprise than the roller skating had been. Dash had a history of being good at arcade games in general, which was a useful survival skill for a kid without a home. It wasn't just that he could make money off it; it also gave him a plausible excuse to linger in places with indoor climate control for hours at a time for the price of a handful of quarters. It was one of the few completely safe and normal things Dash and Simon sometimes did together when Simon was looking to avoid his own home and Marshall was occupied elsewhere.
"How's your head?" Simon asked at last.
"Screwed up," Dash's voice dripped with sarcasm, yet held an odd sort of calm. "Void of important bits of vital information. And, oh yeah, a little sore from a recent encounter with a floor. Why?" When Simon didn't respond, he added, "It's fine, Doctor Holmes. Go be with your friends."
"I am with my friend."
Predictably, Dash didn't respond to that, just worked the game controls until he'd eliminated the last of the brain invaders onscreen, then started the next level. But he didn't tell Simon to go away again, either.
"He says he's not happy," said Simon at last.
Another handful of pixelated creatures met their fate before Dash spoke again. "I know."
"Are you happy?"
"Me?" Dash's eyebrows raised at the question. Onscreen, his avatar barely dodged a couple of brain rays. "Ecstatic. Being out here wasting the night instead of being back in town making any money is turning out to be the time of my life. Plus, I got a bonus concussion out of it and everything. I'm overjoyed."
Simon didn't respond to that. Instead, he tried another question. "Dash, why are you here?"
"I was invited, remember?"
"Yeah, but why are you here?"
Dash swore under his breath as his pixelated self took a direct hit, blew up, flashed out of existence, and re-spawned. His hands moved faster on the joystick and fire button as he returned to attacking the descending rows of brain invaders with a renewed vigor until he'd wiped out all of them and started a new level.
Simon was about to give up on him answering that question either, when Dash said quietly, "I don't know." He paused to concentrate on dodging invader fire, then continued, "I guess I figured given the stupid thing you were about to do and the kind of mood he was in when you were about to go do it, it would be more fun to see for myself how you all met your inevitable demise instead of finding out later you'd disappeared and never knowing why."
Which was Dash-speak for I was worried about Marshall and also hoping to get answers.
"Don't worry," Dash continued. "This is the last time I make that mistake."
Simon ignored that. Unfortunately, he didn't have answers, at least not the ones Dash needed. "Marshall cares about you," he said.
Dash gave a snort of laughter, as onscreen, he took another hit and exploded.
"He does," Simon insisted when Dash had regenerated again. "Why do think he freaked out when he didn't know where you were earlier?" When Dash didn't respond, he added, "You should talk to him."
"Why?" It was a simple question. As though Simon had suggested something that didn't quite make sense and Dash was merely seeking clarification.
"So you can work this out," said Simon.
"Why?" Dash repeated. "We had a mutually beneficial arrangement. If he decides he doesn't want to benefit from it anymore, it's his loss."
"You can't just—" Simon began, then realized how well telling Dash what he could or couldn't do was likely to go. "You mean you're just giving up? Just like that?"
"Yep." Dash shot down another couple of invaders.
"Why?" Simon winced at the way it came out as almost a whine, hating the way he'd been reduced to pleading with his friends for information. "You don't want to be…mutually beneficial anymore?"
Dash hit the fire button with a little more force than necessary. "Why does it matter what I want?"
"Because it does!"
"No, Simon, it doesn't. He's made what he wants pretty clear and that's all there is to it."
Dash didn't take his eyes from the video screen. "What exactly do you want me to do? Force him to change his mind?"
"Well, not exactly, but—"
"Should I kidnap him? Keep him chained up in my apartment until he gives in? Maybe I could make some use of B.F. Skinner's old eye exam equipment or call up good ol' Eunice Danforth and see if that husband of hers has any ideas on how to—"
"No!" Simon shouted, wondering how the conversation had gotten this far off the rails. He forced himself to take a couple of calming breaths before continuing, "I was thinking talk to him. Let him know how you feel."
"How I feel." Dash's laugh was not a pleasant one. "You mean sick of this conversation?"
"I mean how you feel about Marshall and you know it."
"Uh-huh." Dash's fingers danced on the controls. "And just how do you think that is?"
"I know you really like him. That you care about him, no matter how mad you get sometimes."
The next level started. The brain invaders advanced. Dash dodged and fired.
"I know you don't want to lose him," Simon persisted. "Just tell him that. It couldn't hurt."
"Couldn't hurt, huh?" Dash laughed that awful laugh again as onscreen, another life ended in a pixelated explosion. "Simon, he was never mine to lose."
"That's not true!"
"How many times do I have to tell you? We're not Marilyn and Edgar. We fuck. He uses me and I use him, and neither of us owes the other one anything. Stop trying to make this into something it never was and drop it."
If Dash thought phrasing it like that was going to shock Simon into shutting up, he had another thing coming. "I don't think—"
"Besides, it looks like he's already ready to move on. Let him."
"Marshall? With who?" It was Simon's turn to laugh. "He and Janet broke up over irreconcilable life goals, Melanie's dating someone else, and Scott..." He shuddered. "We don't even know who that guy really is."
"Well, according to his driver's license, his library card, and his auto club membership, he's Scott Dearborn, age 20, from Schaefer, Indiana." Dash took his hand off the firing button long enough to reach into his pocket, pull out a brown leather wallet, and hand it to Simon. "See?"
"Dash!" Simon took the wallet and gaped at it, scandalized, wondering if Dash had taken it before or after their discussion about touching other people's stuff without permission. He couldn't stop himself from looking inside and confirming what Dash had just said. It was hard to tell in this light, but if any of the cards were forgeries, they were at least semi-decent ones. He checked the cash dividers. "Was there money in this?"
Dash sighed, rolled his eyes, then reached into his pocket again and pulled out a twenty.
Simon took it and put it back in the wallet. He couldn't even summon the energy to get mad. Not even at himself for not remembering to specifically tell Dash not to steal. "I'm giving this back," he said, pocketing the wallet, already planning on how to conveniently "find" it later somewhere near the rink floor.
Dash just shrugged. "Either it's his real name, or as aliases go, it's at least consistent." There was a pause while he wiped out another row of brain invaders. "Not like Dead Girl's."
"What?" Simon put a hand to his temple, willing away the headache he was getting. "You mean her name's not really Georgia Sheridan?"
"Well, that is the name on her Colorado driver's license, yes." Dash reached into a pocket again and handed Simon another wallet, this one with a picture of a sunglasses-wearing kitten on it. "The one on her Georgia license, on the other hand…"
Simon grabbed the second wallet out of Dash's hands and opened it. The Georgia license said she was Elizabeth Madison from Atlanta. And the Wisconsin one gave her name as Eleanor Truman. There were also IDs and credit cards in the names of Samantha Ramey and Olivia von Orloff.
Before Simon could ask, Dash handed over another few twenties. "Leaving that around for us to find was either the act of an amateur or someone who doesn't care if they get caught." Because they weren't planning on leaving any witnesses anyway was the heavy implication.
"That, or she wasn't expecting any of Melanie's friends to be a pickpocket," Simon muttered, putting the bills back in the wallet and wondering just how he was going to get it back to her. Finding one wallet on the floor was one thing, but two stretched credibility.
Dash just shrugged and kept playing, his expression suggesting that he couldn't fathom why having their personal possessions stolen was the sort of thing people wouldn't expect when they went to meet their maybe-girlfriends' other friends for the first time.
Simon was going to have to let Melanie know about this, he realized. And that was a conversation that wasn't going to go well no matter how he approached it.
But first, "Just promise me you'll talk to Marshall," he asked Dash. "Really talk. Please?" After a second, he played the very last card he could think of. "I'll owe you one. Name anything."
Dash's eyes didn't leave the screen and his hands didn't leave the controls as the brain invaders advanced faster and faster. "We've talked," he said at last, so quietly Simon almost didn't hear him over the game. "There's nothing more to say."
He fired frantically at the last of the invaders, managing to hit one dead on. It vanished just as another started to reach the bottom of the screen. Dash was on his final life now and the invader was moving too fast. There was nothing he could do.
It was game over.
Simon looked at him, wishing he knew what to say. "I'll come find you when it's time to go," he said at last. "Or maybe I'll see you back out there. Let me know if your head starts hurting worse in the meantime. I have aspirin."
Dash didn't respond. Just used another one of Marshall's quarters to restart the game.
Simon sighed and began making his way back to the group.
"Hers was in the lunchbox," he heard Dash say behind him.
Okay, that Simon could work with.
As he approached the rink floor, he saw Marshall was back out on it, skating with Janet now. She said something and they both laughed together, Marshall's sounding not exactly fake, but a little forced. Melanie was skating with Georgia. Or whatever her real name was. They were smiling at each other and both seemed to be laughing for real, though Melanie kept shooting worried glances in Marshall's direction. Scott was no longer on the floor. Simon guessed by everybody's lack of concern at his absence that he was probably in the DJ booth and had just picked the song about the comma chameleon that was playing now.
Janet and Marshall noticed Simon and waved. Simon waved back and made a series of gestures he hoped indicated that he needed to sit down and check his skates, then waited until their attention was off him again before he located the bench where Scott had left his jacket and surreptitiously dropped Scott's wallet so that it landed underneath.
Georgia's lunchbox purse was on a bench, as luck would have it over in a shadowy corner that not even the DJ booth would have a good line of sight on. He sat down beside it, back to the rink to block anyone's view of what he was doing, then untied and pretended to re-lace his skate as he opened the lid and slipped her wallet back inside. He couldn't help noticing the lunchbox's other contents. An Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension thermos, a makeup bag, a small pocket sized notebook and pen, what looked like an iron railroad spike, and an avocado green plastic container with a familiar logo stamped on its lid.
She said she had grown up around Eerie, Simon reminded himself. Which could explain why her lunchbox held a discontinued item from a brand of kitchenware that was definitely local.
He couldn't stop himself from what he did next. He lifted the container and opened the lid, coughing to mask the familiar whooshing noise it made, and took the smallest of peeks at what was inside.
Right as the entire building shifted.
Simon had lived in Indiana his whole life and had never—the incident with the thing under the golf course aside—felt an earthquake, but this didn't feel at all like he'd always imagined one would. There wasn't any shaking or rumbling, just a sensation that the building was sliding sideways out from under them.
He lifted his feet, grabbed onto the bench, and held tight.
He heard a couple of bodies hit the rink floor as the lights went out and the music came to an abrupt halt.
"Oh, shit!" He couldn't see her, but that was definitely Janet.
Someone shrieked in the silence. One flashlight beam, then another came on. He heard Marshall call out, "Dash!" almost simultaneously with Dash's shout of "It wasn't me!" from across the room.
Simon resealed the Foreverware container and slammed the lunchbox shut. He would deal with that later.
"Everyone okay?" he called out, pulling out his backup emergency flashlight, as he received and mentally counted off a series of affirmations. Rather than re-lace the one skate, he unlaced the other and pulled them both off, figuring that would make it a thousand times easier to move around in the dark.
Marshall was right. They'd stopped paying attention and now, finally, something was happening. He just didn't know what that something was.
The sliding sensation stopped.
Simon took up his flashlight again just in time for it to be useless as the lights flickered a bit, then came back on.
There was no structural damage that he could see. On the rink floor, people were getting to their feet, blinking and shielding their eyes. Scott came stumbling out of the DJ booth. Everyone exchanged glances with a few nervous giggles and almost identical relieved-but-embarrassed smiles. They all seemed unharmed, though Janet looked a little green.
Simon caught the excitement in Marshall's eyes despite his expression of serious concern.
He looked over his shoulder at where Dash was scowling at the Brain Invaders machine. He'd no doubt lost whatever progress he'd made in the game, but otherwise seemed fine.
"Mars," Simon called out. "Should we—?"
"Hang on," Marshall said, "I'm coming to you." He started to skate toward Simon, a little too fast, then slipped, faltered a bit, and dropped the flashlight he was holding. He moved to go after it and started to fall for real.
Janet reached out and grabbed him.
The power went out again.
And again the entire building seemed to shift, as though the ground was sliding and almost twisting out from underneath them. Again, Simon heard a loud thud as someone on skates fell.
"Everyone stay calm," he ordered, even though this time, there was less of a sense of panic.
At least, until Melanie swept her flashlight over the rink floor and called out, "Janet?" Then, "Mars?"
Beside her, Georgia echoed the call. For a split second, it looked like her eyes were glowing faintly yellow in the darkness.
The sliding sensation stopped.
Again, the power came back on, and again, everything was just as it had been before.
Except Janet and Marshall were no longer there.
"Guys?" Melanie called. Her voice went high and held a note of panic that chilled Simon.
"Marshall?" Simon called. He tried to seem calm, but wasn't sure if he was doing a very good job. "Janet? Where are you guys?"
"They were right here," said Georgia. She took Melanie's hand. "They didn't move. They just…disappeared."
"No," Melanie said, shaking her head. "No, this can't happen. It can't!"
Georgia put a hand on her shoulder and began to murmur something in a reassuring tone.
Melanie turned on her. "No, you don't understand! This is what she's most afraid of. This is the one thing I always promised her I would never let—"
Simon didn't hear Dash approach until he was right in front of him. He started to say something, then threw up his hands in utter helplessness, willing Dash to take charge, or at least give him some idea of what to do.
"Where are they?" Dash snarled. He looked around, stopping to glare at Georgia and then at Scott, who didn't even notice, since he seemed to have decided that curling into a ball on the floor and murmuring, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod" over and over again was the best way to deal with the situation.
"Teller!" Dash shouted, as he made his way across the floor and disappeared into the DJ booth.
Simon started to go after him.
The shifting sensation started again.
And the shadows around Simon began to move.
He took a step, feeling off-balance even in his stocking feet, as small tendrils of darkness started to take shape in the places the disco lights couldn't reach. A few of them snaked out, not toward Simon, but toward each other, entwining and joining together, growing thicker and more solid, until Simon was faced with an almost-wall of blackness. The temperature around him dropped several degrees.
He stopped and held the arm with the ward on it out in front of him, making a fist. He'd put most of his stuff down to skate, but he still had salt, cold iron, and blessed silver on his person, so he wasn't exactly worried.
"Hello?" he called out. "Who are you? Where are Marshall and Janet?"
The scream came from the shadows in front of him with a force that sent him stumbling backwards. It drowned out Scott's relentless chanting, echoing off the walls even as it echoed around the inside of the Simon's head. As awful noises went, it was pretty bad, but ranked nowhere near the duck.
"Why?" Simon asked it. "Who are you?"
From somewhere behind him, he heard Melanie's voice. "Simon, who are you talking to?"
"I'm…" Simon began, gesturing toward the wall of shadows in front of him.
The lights went out again.
Again the world shifted.
And again the scream, "GET OUT!"
It was louder this time, accompanied by a solid blast of force that knocked the flashlight Simon had started to raise out of his hand.
"Hey!" Simon cried out. "Not cool!" That was his last flashlight. Then, "No, we're not leaving without our friends." He couldn't distinguish the shadow thing from the rest of the blackness now, so he kept his eyes straight ahead.
He took a step forward into the blackness and tried not to stumble.
In front of him, something started to glow. First twin red orbs appeared, where the eyes would be if Simon were addressing someone slightly taller than him. Then the outline of a grinning, glowing skull.
From off in the distance, he could hear the voices of his other friends and a pounding and shouting, as though someone were stuck on the wrong side of a closed door.
Simon took another step forward.
The scream was louder this time, but the skull moved as if the thing in front of him had just taken a step back.
"I can't leave without my friends," Simon repeated. "Where are they?"
It screamed again, this time a wordless scream that might have been frustration or might have been rage.
Simon took another step forward. Again, the thing retreated the same distance backward.
"We just want Marshall and Janet back," he said calmly. "Then we can leave. But not before that."
"Simon?" That was Melanie again, but she sounded like she was coming from a long way off. "Where are you? We can't see you."
"I'm over here!" Simon called out. "By the glowing, screamy…skull thing."
There was a pause, and then, "What glowing, screamy skull thing?"
Huh? "The one that…" Simon began.
The one that was rising now, getting higher and higher until it loomed over Simon.
An entire distinct skeletal shape began to form under it, glowing bones barely cloaked in heavy black shadows. The end result looked something like a light-up Grim Reaper. It swiped out at Simon with long, bony fingers.
Simon dodged without much effort.
"I'm okay!" he called out. "Everybody just stay where they are! Stay together!"
He took another step forward. The thing moved back.
"Please, just stop this and give us our friends back and we'll get out of here and leave you alone," he said. "I promise."
Internal organs began to form among the exposed bones. Eyeballs and intestines. A beating heart under the breastbone. Squishy bits that dripped and oozed. It was disgusting and kind of neat, actually. Simon would almost be impressed with the manifestation if he wasn't so impatient for it to give him answers.
"GET OUT!" Again, that force that almost made him stumble.
Simon kept his feet and took one more step forward.
The sensation that the world was twisting around him was even stronger now. Something rumbled. Something banged on the roof and on the walls. This time it really did feel like the building was shaking, too.
The thing in front of him had formed muscles now. Simon was facing an almost seven-foot tall, glowing humanoid figure that looked like it had been flayed alive.
"Gross," he told it. He crossed his arms and took a half-step back so he could look up and meet its eyeballs. "Stop it. Now."
"Simon, I think I can tell where you are." That was Georgia. "Hang on, I'm coming your way." There was a pause, then, "Hey!"
He wasn't sure what had just happened, but he heard Dash and Melanie's raised voices join hers in what was clearly an argument.
Simon couldn't deal with that and the thing in front of him right now. "Please," he said to it, willing his friends to be okay by themselves. "Just listen." He reached out toward the figure and his warded arm went right through it.
It screamed again and for a second, the glow grew bright enough that Simon needed to shield his eyes and look away as the thing reshaped and reformed.
When it had finished and the glow had dimmed, Simon looked back to find that his hand was now resting on the barely-solid shoulder of a kid just a bit taller than he was. A boy who looked to be about his own age, too. He had skin now and was wearing slightly old-fashioned clothes: a striped, collared shirt, a blue vest, corduroy pants. Tennis shoes instead of roller skates, Simon noticed. His dark hair was in a bowl cut and the fringe slightly obscured the giant gash on his forehead, out of which something oozed. There was a bruise on one cheek. Around his neck, on a heavy chain, he was wearing a large silver medallion etched with some symbols Simon couldn't quite make out. From the red marks in the flesh around his neck, someone or something had tried to use it to strangle him. And judging by the fact that he was now glowing, semitransparent, and very obviously dead, it was a good bet either that or the blow to the head had killed him.
Simon looked the kid in the eyes, trying to ignore the gore dripping into one of them. He'd dealt with ghosts before and knew the polite thing was not to notice stuff like that. "Who are you?" he asked. "Do you need help? Where are our friends?"
The kid didn't answer. He just looked at him and in a voice that wasn't a scream anymore, but a panicky, quiet rasp, said, "Too late," before he vanished out from under Simon's hand.
It was pitch black now, and without the unearthly spirit glow, Simon couldn't see. Why hadn't he just kept his helmet on? It would have been a lot safer and he'd have a light now. He blinked, willing his eyes to adjust, and listened for his friends. He heard that frantic, chanted, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod…"
Oh, good. For better or for worse, Scott was still with them.
And then the dead, glowing kid appeared again. He was near the front of the rink this time, all the way by the door to the manager's office.
"Hey!" Simon called out. "Hey man, wait up!"
The spirit waited as Simon stumbled through the darkness, running to catch up to it. Waited until Simon was almost close enough to reach out and touch it again, then walked through the office door. Definitely through the door.
From somewhere, Simon could hear Dash calling his name.
"Over here!" he shouted. "Office!" He flung open the door and stumbled through it to find…
His momentum took him forward and slightly sideways and he held back a cry as the door shut behind him and his knee slammed into something he recognized as probably the small cot set up near the entrance he'd seen earlier when he was checking out the place with Melanie and Georgia. Apparently, the proprietor was dedicated enough that he even slept here sometimes. Or maybe all of the time. After years of hanging around the World O' Stuff, Simon had begun to wonder just how often small business owners in Eerie actually left their establishments.
"Hello?" he called out. "Is anybody there?"
The power came on again.
The person in front him was standing on the manager's desk. She had been reaching toward the giant clock on the wall above it.
She turned to face him.
"Simon!" Janet Donner looked shocked.
She also looked different than she had when he'd seen her a few minutes ago. She wasn't wearing skates now, for one thing. Her jean jacket was tied around her waist and her Return of the Jedi shirt—her mom's Return of the Jedi shirt that she'd borrowed without asking, Simon remembered—was torn at one shoulder. Simon's heart sank for her, as he realized the kind of trouble she was probably going to be in when she got home. Her hair was even wilder now than it had been, and her clothes and face were covered with a layer of dirt or dust. The knife sheath at her waist was empty.
Around her neck was a large silver medallion etched with some symbols Simon couldn't quite make out.
She was staring at him in horror. Or not at him, he realized too late. At something directly behind him and just over his shoulder.
He didn't turn in time. Didn't even get a chance to move before he felt something cold enough to burn at the back of his skull. It ripped through bone and into his brain and he couldn't help screaming at the sensation of sharp, icy fingers shredding through the soft tissue in his head.
He caught the look on Janet's face then and he heard himself apologizing even as his vision went black and he found himself losing control of his body.
His knees buckled and he hit the floor.
And then he didn't feel anything anymore.