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For Those Left Behind

Chapter Text

And in the naked light I saw,

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking,

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never shared

And no one dared disturb the sound of silence

~Disturbed, The Sound of Silence


 

Monster High has many secrets.

Everyone with their own skeleton in their closet, their own demons they want to keep hidden, their own little horrors locked deeply away in the dark cage of their minds, hoping that they'll never see the light of day, that no one will ever find out the true horror that lies beneath the surface.

The ghost students, especially.

They keep their whole lives as tightly chained up as the ones they wear draped across their bodies. The keys to their iron chambers kept under the tight guards of their hearts with a strong hope, as well as a desperation to escape the past, that no one will ever know. Considering our lifespans are almost infinite compared to that of mortal man, you almost completely forget that everyone has a beginning. That there's only one way to become a ghost. But it's so normal for us, people don't notice. No one thinks about it, so no one will ever ask, and that way they can move on with their unlives in peace.

But I know the truth.

All of it.

I can see it in their dreams.

Their nightmares.

Where the past comes back to- no pun intended- haunt them, where they're forced to relive every second, every gory detail, every emotion present at the time.

Forced to relive their human lives.

Forced to relive their deaths.

They all float around here, wearing smiles on their faces, but in the night they come back to the pain and terror. I've seen it firsthand: Screams echoing like church bells in the haze; smells of blood, saltwater, smoke, and gunpowder a thick, suffocating perfume in the air; phantom pain so intense it wraps around like a second skin, bringing every nerve to life and squeezing the air from lungs, the familiar sensation of fire in one's chest as their hearts pound all over again in a cocktail of fear and adrenaline, feeling like it's going to burst right out, before it suddenly slows to a terrifying thump, the seconds between every beat growing bigger and bigger until it stops all together. Over and over again, night after night.

It's a wonder none of them have gone mad yet.

But underneath the horror, it's really quite tragic.

To know what they all had ahead of them in their short lives, and how the unfortunate circumstances changed all that. To see little remnants of who they used to be, and that now only a shadow of their former selves remain. To know that your entire life can change forever, and before you know it, it becomes your unlife.

None of them ever talk about it, of course. There are some things that you just keep under wraps, even from your closest friends.

They don't know that I've seen their dreams.

Or if they do, they've never said anything. Maybe they prefer to keep it that way. I can respect that. Either way, I've come to understand all of them in more ways that I never thought possible.

And I learn.

Partially, that even out of tragedy can you move forward.

But most importantly, to cherish the life you have and those in it.

Because like the ghosts know far too well, it can all be taken away.

Chapter Text

~1845~


 

"I heard they found a body in the courthouse they're building."

Spectra lifted her head, tearing her gaze away from her textbook as she looked to the right. Mary grinned down at her, gripping the back of her seat as she sat turned, sitting on her knees.

"Really? Where you'd hear that?" she asked.

Mary shrugged, "From the shoemaker, as I was passing by. Word is that they're suspecting foul play, or that someone snuck into the it at night, drunk, and fell from a great height.."

Spectra's eyes widened at that. That definitely was some news. To know that the courthouse everyone had demanded finally be built was going to be halted because of a grim death? It would surely be in the papers for weeks.

There was a scoff, and Spectra looked to the side. Mary's twin, Celeste, shook her head as she looked up from her textbook.

"You know Mother says it's only a rumor," the blonde scolded, "And that you shouldn't immediately believe everything you hear."

Mary rolled her eyes, "Oh, yes, sister, because you're one to talk."

"I don't just go off assuming everything I hear is fact," Celeste rebutted.

"Besides," she added, "I heard it was a child's body they found."

Spectra's mouth made an o-shape, before a giddy grin stretched across her features. "Ooooh, now that's a scandal. It would be in the papers for weeks."

"Yeah," Mary said, "And it wouldn't make any sense. What's a kid doing all alone in an empty building in progress all by themselves at night?"

"Like I said, I don't know if it's true," Celeste disclaimed, "For all we know, there was an accident and the child's parents decided to hide the evidence."

Spectra rubbed her chin, "Well, there's only one way to find out. I say, a little…digging is necessary, just to find what clues may lead us to the best conclusion."

Celeste gave her a look.

"I don't know about this time," she said, "There's a lot more people around at this time of day working on the courthouse. And aren't you already in trouble with your parents for the last time we got caught?"

Spectra shrugged, "What they don't know won't hurt them."

"Normally, I'd say yes, but Celeste is right," Mary said as she sunk into her seat, "There's going to be no way we can sneak in there without someone seeing us. And to be honest, I'm not looking forward to having to deal with that with Mother again."

Spectra gave both of them a small smile. The twins were a bit of an odd bunch, but they were the only ones in the school building she found who shared her love of investigating. Most of the others just laughed at her or told her she deserved whatever she got coming to her for being nosy.

"You don't have to come with me if you don't want to," she said, "If you want, you could even be the lookout and I'll go in by myself. That way, if anything goes wrong, we can just-"

SLAM!

The three girls suddenly jumped as a ruler smacked Spectra's desk, making a large clapping sound that echoed in the room. Spectra glanced up in shock, meeting the angry lined face of her teacher.

"If you ladies want to chit chat about mindlessness, I suggest you go outside and do it," she responded harshly, "But while you are in my classroom, I'd like to remind you that such hours will be spent studying and not harping like a bunch of crows. Now stop talking and get back to your work."

She walked away with a second glance. Spectra looked up to see the rest of her classmates were looking at her, several them chuckling quietly. She blushed, forcing her gaze onto her book.

Not that they mattered. Let them be concerned with their stupid language lessons and boring books. They wouldn't know a good story- one that was actually happening in reality and not a book- if it hit them right in the face.

Mary turned back in her seat, though she leaned over at Spectra.

"Just let me know when you have time, and we can go together," she whispered, "I want to see this for myself."

Spectra whispered, nodding in response just as the teacher turned back around. She forced her gaze onto her book, though the words didn't register as she continued to mull over the news. At least someone was willing to explore her curiosities with her.

They were her only friends, but they were thick as thieves, and she wouldn't have it any other way.


The twins both have differing accounts of what they've heard, but they both confirm something: That something did in fact happen at the courthouse they're building, she wrote, her fountain pen making light scratching sounds on the paper as she her hand moved quickly down the page, writing nimbly and leaving curly letters in its wake.

This calls from some investigating, Spectra scribbled down, an excited grin coming to her face as she noted the idea, I'll have to start from the distance, look from afar to make sure it's not too busy to approach. I'll probably get the most if I stay close to the walls; the windows should be open at this time of year, what with how hot it is. Maybe if I'm lucky, I could even sneak in and see where it happened. I just hope all the mess has been cleaned up. I'd hate to be minding my business and look down, only to see I've stepped on a pool of dried blood-

"Spectra!"

She jumped slightly at the sound of her name being called. She had become so engrossed in her writing that for a moment, she forgot where she was. Spectra lifted her head, her hand paused in the middle of writing a word. Her mother stood in the doorway of the kitchen, hands on her hips as she looked at Spectra with a disapproving frown.

"Didn't I tell you to set the table? Supper's almost ready!" Chloris scolded.

Spectra blinked at her, confused. Chloris frowned and gestured with a nod to her left. Spectra looked over; the stack of plates and silverware that she was given a few minutes earlier still sat in their place at her side, untouched. Spectra blushed, realizing that she had completely zoned out in her writing.

"S-Sorry!" She said, "I guess I lost the time writing."

"You guessed right. Well, come on then, hop on it!" Chloris responded, looking at the grandfather clock, "Your father is going to be home soon, and I want to have everything organized so when he does, we can all just immediately sit down and eat."

Spectra pouted. She hated being interrupted when she was in the middle of writing an entry; it made her feel anxious that she might've missed a detail or overlook something important in her distraction once she got back to.

She held up her journal. "Can I at least finish this one? And then I'll get right to it, I promise-"

"Spectra."

Her shoulders dropped. That was a tone that indicated there would be no negotiating. Sighing in resignation, she closed her journal, picking up her pen and inkwell and placing the three of them on the shelf for later.

"Oh, don't make that sound," Chloris said over her shoulder as she went back into the kitchen, putting the last touches on the roast duck, "You'll have plenty of time to write once supper is over."

"Yes, Mother," she heard Spectra reply with a heavy sigh, the slight clacking sound of plates being set on the wooden tabletop echoing behind her.

Chloris smiled, shaking her head. Her daughter, always one for dramatics. Sometimes she swore Spectra seemed better suited for the theatre than the printing press; her girl could put on such dramatics it would make Shakespeare laugh.

Just as Spectra adjusted the last fork with its knife, the front door opened. She looked up, seeing a tall man walk in, shutting it behind him as he removed his top hat. His auburn hair was combed back into an elegant style, albeit a bit mused from his hat. nose. Light green eyes that held a slightly tired look to them glanced down as he removed his coat, putting it on the rack near the doorway. Spectra smiled, giddiness instantly welling up in her.

"Papa!" she exclaimed, running around the table and up to him, throwing her arms around his waist.

The older man looked down at her as they stumbled back slightly, looking surprised for a moment, before a warm smile came onto his freckled features.

"Almost fully grown and you still run to me as if you were just a child," he greeted as he returned her hug, wrapping her up in a tight embrace. Spectra squeezed her eyes and squeezed; she didn't care. In her opinion, you were never too old to be happy to spend time with your family.

They broke apart, her father walking forward as Chloris appeared in the entryway of the kitchen, a soft smile on her lips.

"Welcome home, my love," she greeted warmly, giving him a light kiss, "How was your day?"

Hugo shrugged his shoulders as he smoothed down his waistcoat. "It was all right," he said, "Some close calls, but everything turned out all right."

Chloris nodded, "That's good to hear."

Her and Spectra grabbed the food, bringing it over to the dining table and setting it about. After it was all placed, the three of them took their respective place. After they did their daily ritual of saying Grace, they proceeded to fill their plates.

"So, Spectra, how was the delivery?" Hugo asked as he took a sip of wine, "I hope it wasn't too much trouble for Mr. Windsor. I know that even for him, it was a bit of a bulk order."

Spectra paused in eating, her fork hovering in the air as she looked at her father with confusion.

"What?" she asked.

Hugo's inquisitive smile dropped, and for a moment he looked as confused as she was. It was replaced with a frown when he realized she had no idea what he was talking about.

"The delivery?" he repeated, "You know, the one I asked you to pick up once you got done with your studies? The one we talked about this morning, right here at the table?"

Spectra furrowed her brows, trying to remember. It suddenly came to her, and her eyes widened.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, slightly retreating into her chair as a blush came onto her face, "I…I didn't get it. I forgot, sorry."

Hugo gave her a grim look. "Spectra, you promised me you'd go get it. I can't keep having Mr. Windsor keep it with him, it puts a lot more on him having to keep track of it."

"I know, I'm sorry," Spectra apologized.

It was true, that she had forgotten.

Though, she probably wouldn't have if she hadn't gone out of her way to go the completely opposite direction of the post office. And she probably wouldn't have forgotten if she hadn't been distracted by the news of what the twins had told her.

Not that her dad needed to know that, though.

Nope, they were just fine not knowing.

She looked back down at her foot, trying to shrug off the sudden nervousness the thought spawned as she shoveled several bites into her mouth. As she chewed, she felt the feeling of someone staring at her. She looked back up to see her father staring at her, something unreadable in his eye.

"…What?" she asked.

"Are you sure that's the only reason you didn't go? You forgot?" Hugo asked doubtfully.

Spectra nodded quickly. "Yes. I'm sorry, I'll make sure to go tomorrow. Guess I just got caught in my studies."

"Uh-huh," Hugo said, unconvinced, "Are you sure? It doesn't have anything to do with a little mystery of hearing there was an accident at the new building being built in town and trying to see if it was true? Or maybe that was another girl with black hair in a purple dress, I could be mistaken."

Spectra nearly choked on her food. She sat up in her chair, staring at her father with wide blue eyes. Hugo just looked at her with a nonchalant look; he shrugged at her horrified expression.

"Thought so," he said, taking another sip.

"You knew?!" Spectra questioned.

"Of course I did," Hugo replied, "I do work at the mill only a block over, remember? I work right next to the window, I see everything on the street. I was only waiting to see if you were going to fess up yourself."

"You did what?" Chloris questioned, looking at her daughter with wide eyes, "Spectra!"

Spectra winced. Here it came.

"I-I-I wasn't going to be there for long!" she defended, "I just…I just wanted to have a look around, see if the rumors were true!"

"By trespassing?" Hugo pointed out.

"I wouldn't think it to be trespassing," she tried to counter, "I mean, I didn't break anything open. I just thought of it as…a little spectating, before anyone knew."

Chloris' eyes widened, before she groaned and put rubbed her eyes.

"Spectra, good lord," she commented.

She grimaced at her mom's words. "I was just trying to find out the truth…"

"There's a right way and wrong way to go about that, Spectra," Hugo said sternly, "Such as not going where you're not supposed to and snooping upon matters that don't involve you, and instead opting for just asking people."

Spectra pouted as she hung her shoulders. She stared at her food in embarrassment, and a little bit of frustration.

They talked like it was a common occurrence, and it wasn't anything like that…at least, not that common of an occurrence.

And it wasn't like that was her immediate option that she went with. She did try asking around. In her experience, though, just asking people upfront could only get you so far: Most of the time the people she tried to interview either tended to brush her off- often followed by some crude comment along the liens of how it wasn't "ladylike" for her to get such big ideas, whatever that was supposed to mean- or just flat out ignored her and told her to go away.

As Spectra saw it, it was important to get the truth and all the important details through any means possible- even if that meant pushing the boundaries sometimes.

What was the big deal anyway? It wasn't like she was breaking and entering, was she? She didn't even get into the building! Last time she checked, looking through a window wasn't a crime.

"I'm…I'm sorry," she mumbled, though it was obvious she didn't really mean what she said, "It's just everyone I asked around just told me to hush my mouth, and I was just curious."

Hugo and Chloris shared a look. Though they both felt that while Spectra meant well, but needed to be reminded that there was a boundary to everything, it felt obvious that this was a conversation that wouldn't go very far. Sighing, Hugo rubbed his temple.

"Just…promise me you'll be more careful, please?" he asked, "And no more of this sneaking around. I'd rather not look forward to hearing one of the foremen complain my ear off."

Relucantly, Spectra nodded. "Okay, Papa."

In reality, though, she didn't feel okay, because she didn't understand what the big deal was.

"I don't get it," she grumbled as she sat at her vanity later that night, brushing her hair, "I didn't break anything. I didn't steal anything. I didn't even get inside. So why are they so upset about it?"

She furrowed her brows at her reflection, as if she were expecting it to answer back. For a few moments, she was silent, watching through the mirrored glass as she pulled the bristles through her thick black locks.

A thought suddenly came to her.

"Maybe it was really bad," she considered, "That's why they wouldn't want anyone to see, wouldn't they? Because it was worse than anyone initially thought?"

She paused, thinking it over.

It would make sense. She didn't know how they cleaned up broken glass mixed in with blood- her gut twisted at the thought- but she could only assume it wasn't an easy task. Looking back at her reflection, Spectra smirked slyly.

"I don't think checking one more time to see if there's any clues would hurt anyone," she told herself, "I just have to make sure I…blend in much more."

She chuckled as she put her brush down. Surely one more little peak wouldn't do any wrong?

She stood up, opening her door and walking down the hallway, intent on giving her parents a goodnight kiss before she said her prayers and got into bed.

As she approached their doorway, she heard them conversing on the other side.

"….didn't want to say anything when Spectra was nearby," she heard her father say, "I thought this would be a little too graphic for her to hear."

Spectra paused, her hand hovering above the wood where she was about to knock. As soon as she heard her name, though, she froze.

"Is it that bad?" her mother said, her tone grim.

Her father didn't reply for a second, presumably nodding to answer her question, based on the slight gasp that Spectra heard come from her mother.

"It was terrible. I didn't actually see it happen, but one minute I see him working the cogs. I turned my back, and next minute he was lying on the floor, screaming like a pig in the slaughter. It was awful," her father replied, a noticeable edge now having crept into his voice.

Curiosity shot up in Spectra, and she raised her brows as she kept closer to the door. Putting only the barest weight against it, she pressed her ear to it.

Something happened at the mill after all? From the sound of it, someone got hurt? How?

As if she had vocalized it, Hugo quickly answered. He sighed heavily, before he carried on.

"I'll never forget the site. He nodded for a second, just ONE second, and his hand got caught in the gears. Two of his fingers, ripped right off," he said, his voice sounding like it was about to crack; something that Spectra had never heard come from him.

"By God," she heard her mother respond in horror, "What did you do?"

There was the light sound of footfalls on the hardwood floor, before Spectra heard a far off sound of squeaking, presumably her father sitting down on the bed.

"What we could do when we finally snapped out of our horror," he replied, "It was nothing short of a miracle the boy didn't bleed to death. But his fingers…there's no way we could save those. Even after the foreman made us wrestle them out of the machine in case they broke it."

A feeling of queasiness went through Spectra. The faint taste of bile briefly appeared in her throat at the thought of the sight of someone getting their fingers caught.

"He was worried about the machine? Even with what was happening?" Chloris asked from the other side.

"Oh, of course he was. Why wouldn't he be?" Hugo replied sarcastically, sounding bitter, "After all, if the machine breaks, that's good money the company lost. And we can't have that, now can we?

"He didn't even care that he was in pain, Chloris," he continued, "When we finally managed to get a tourniquet on him, all he could do was yell at the poor kid about recklessness and 'being more careful' and how we 'didn't want another repeat of last time'."

Spectra's eyes rose.

'Like last time?'

Her father never mentioned anything about any accident happening at the mill before. What else had he hidden from her?

Her mother spoke up, "So…what is going to happen?"

There was no response from her father.

"….Hugo?"

Spectra heard him sigh again.

"This can't keep happening, Chloris. This has been the fourth time in two months alone. And the foremen, they…they don't care. They give compensation, but only so the ones who are injured can keep their mouths shut about it. They can't keep getting away with this," he explained.

"Hugo…Are you proposing…?"

"When I saw that boy, Chloris…God, he couldn't have been more than a year or two older than Spectra," her father said, "And to see him like that…All I could think of was how I would feel if she were in his position, if she was-"

A pang went through Spectra's chest when she heard him suddenly cut himself off, his voice growing thick and heavy until it sounded like he was about to break down in tears. She had never seen him cry before. The thought of so actually made her a little afraid; it was clear that whatever had gone down at the mill, whether this time or previous times- she wondered how many other times something like this happened- was weighing on him deeply.

But what was this 'proposal' her mother spoke of?

A few seconds of silence passed.

Then, Spectra heard Hugo clear his throat, before he resumed.

"I've spoken to a few others at the mill; they feel the same way," he explained, "We've talked about it for a few weeks. And…they're thinking of organizing a union. Against the foremen."

Spectra felt her mouth drop open.

"Oh, Hugo, a strike?" her mother exclaimed, "You could lose your job."

"No job is worth being treated like something disposable," Hugo snapped, "It was awful enough this time, Chloris, but what about the next? What if it's me who's hurt next? What if it's even worse than missing fingers? No, I won't stand for it. I will work to support my family, but dammit, I will not stand for this inhumanity! Something needs to change!"

Spectra lifted her ear and stared at the door. Her father sounded angry, but she could also detect a small bit of fear in his voice.

"I'm not saying you shouldn't, Hugo," her mother clarified, "But…please, be careful. These aristocrats would do anything to keep the money in their pockets."

"I know," he responded, "But something must be done. I will not stand for being treated as if I'm one with the machine any longer."

"I know, my love. And you know I am with you all the way."

Spectra backed up from the door. Her heart beat with exhilaration, her palms were sweaty. Goosebumps were forming on her arms.

She turned and, trying to be as light as she could on her feet against the creaky boards of the floor, raced back to her room. Being considerate to not slam the door, lest she give herself away, she backed away from it, sliding into bed and under the covers. She stared at the ceiling, a million thoughts racing through her head all at once.

Papa was planning on organizing a union? Oh, that was preposterous! And dangerous.

She didn't know many people in the upper class- most of the kids who were part of it who went to her school tended to act like they couldn't be bothered to even look in her direction, so conversation was a rather scarce subject- but from what she'd heard around town, she knew that they knew very well what to do with their money and how to keep it. Even if it meant going to very…unethical extremes.

Her mother's words echoed through her head.

She was right. Papa was putting himself in a risky position. A strike could mean many things; maybe there was a chance that the foremen would realize how bad the working conditions were, and actually work with their employees to improve the conditions.

Or they'd just fire him on the spot and cast him to the streets. Then her mom would be the sole provider, but they wouldn't be making nearly enough to get by.

Spectra suddenly felt a lump in her throat. She shook her head, coughing a few times to clear it out.

It wouldn't do her any good to think about the what-ifs. All she could do was wait and see how it all played out.

As she felt her eyes get heavy, Spectra smiled.

"I'll watch…from a distance," she said with a yawn, "That way I can keep in the loop and they'll never know it."


"Well, little Spectra! What a pleasant surprise!" Mr. Windsor greeted cheerfully as she walked through the door, "Your father said you'd be coming around to pick up his packages. Though I admit I was expecting quite a few days earlier."

Spectra fought to keep the blush on her face down. "Yes, he did. I…kinda forgot, every time."

Mr. Windsor raised an eyebrow in doubt, though he didn't say anything as he walked to the back, reappearing a few seconds later with her father's things in his arm.

"There you go!" he said, handing them to her over the counter as she dropped several coins into his hand in exchange, "Everything should be there! Is there anything else I can get for you?"

Spectra shook her head, "No, this is it. Thank you, Mr. Windsor."

"My pleasure, dear!" he chuckled, "And please, feel free to drop in any time. It's always nice to see a familiar face."

Spectra gave him a small smile as she nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."

As she left the store, she adjusted her grip up on the packages, frowning as some of the sharper edges began to dig into her arm.

"I don't understand what he needs all these parts for," she said to herself as she began to walk down the street, "What is he planning on doing, build his own mechanism?"

She struggled to get a better hang of the packages as she continued walking, grunting as she tried to position them more comfortably without dropping them. She turned the corner, where the bank and market were located.

"…just decided that they would throw everyone to the wolves with them, without any regard for how the rest of us would feel!"

Spectra stopped at the sudden sharp voice some ways up ahead. She looked up.

She saw interested to see her mother standing outside the bank, seemingly conversing with Mrs. Connell, the wife of one of the men Hugo worked beside. As she drew closer- initially going to introduce her presence- Spectra's steps slowed when she saw the tight, pinched look upon Mrs. Connell's features as she addressed Chloris.

"It's not like he's trying to get everyone fired," she heard Chloris argue back, "Hugo just believes the foremen are much too careless when it comes to the working conditions of the mill. He's trying to help Arthur and all of them, Beryl."

Spectra crept closer, curious and confused about the conversation, though she now made a point to keep out of sight, lest her mother or Mrs. Connell turn around and notice her.

"Help? And how is putting everyone's job on the line 'help?'" Mrs. Connell snapped back, her dark blue eyes narrowed, "It sounds more like a scapegoat, if you ask me! They couldn't be brave enough to face the boss on their own, so they decided to put together this 'union' so if they're punished, they can make it seem like there was just one big conspiracy!"

"Beryl, it's not like that-"

"Who's he to complain, anyway? He's not the one who's lost any fingers!" Mrs. Connell cut her off, "If he's so concerned, let him shove his hand through the grinder! Then he'd really have something to whine about!"

Spectra withheld a gasp as she stared at Mrs. Connell from behind the stone staircase she hid behind.

She couldn't remember a time where she heard Mrs. Connell be so mean. The petite brunette was normally a kind, well rounded woman, always inviting Spectra and her mother over for tea at her tiny house and known around town for her green thumb and the massive rose garden she was always adding to. Her and her husband didn't have much, but they seemed happy. To hear her be so sharp tongued- Spectra would be better convinced if this were a doppelganger she were seeing right now.

From the way she saw Chloris take a step back, a hand to her chest and the high gasp that came from her, she could tell her mother felt the same way.

"Beryl, for goodness' sake, that's why Hugo and them are doing this in the first place!" Spectra watched as her mother's hands balled into fists, "So nothing like that happens again! For god's sake, you saw the poor boy who got injured last week! What if it had been Arthur who'd been hurt? Or your son?!"

"Well, he got money to pay his medical bills, didn't he?" Mrs. Connell argued back, "So I fail to see how this is such 'unfair' treatment that your husband is arguing against. No, all I see is someone who doesn't want to work for his income, so he wants to bring everyone else down in his little tantrum!"

"Beryl-"

"No," Mrs. Connell snapped, "Just…just stay away from us! My husband is a good worker, he doesn't need to worry about this!"

With that, she turned around sharply and marched away. Chloris held out a hand.

"Beryl, wait! Beryl!"

It was obvious that the brunette wouldn't hear another word, though, as she stalked away without so much as a second glance. Spectra watched her grow smaller as she retreated up the street, before she disappeared into the busy crowd up ahead. Chloris just stood there, presumably watching her go.

Slowly creeping out from her hiding spot, Spectra clutched the packages closer to her chest. She took a hesitant towards her mother's back, before she slowly walked up to her.

"Mother..?"

Chloris turned. She jumped slightly at seeing Spectra being so close, her face paling slightly.

"Oh, Spectra, darling!" she exclaimed, "I didn't know you were nearby!"

She looked down at the wrapped boxes in her hands. "Oh, are those your father's packages? Good, you finally got them. He was waiting for the day he could finally get them in."

It was clearly an attempt to divert the subject, but Spectra would not be so easily swayed. She looked up to her mother with a grim expression.

"Mother," she repeated, "Is…is everything all right? With….with Father?"

She didn't miss the way Chloris' eyes widened. The latter's mouth went in a flat line, and she stared at Spectra for several seconds, her eyes unreadable.

"…Yes, dear," she finally responded, reaching up to tuck a stray piece of hair behind Spectra's ear, "Everything is okay. You'll see. There's nothing to worry about."

Spectra didn't know who Chloris was trying to convince more, her or herself.


"So what do you think?...Spectra?"

The blue-eyed girl suddenly lifted her head. "Hmm?"

Celeste frowned. "I asked what you thought of it all?"

"Of…what?"

"About the rumors of the bakery, of course!" Celeste repeated like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "You know, how Harry was saying that the baker's taken a mistress and apparently expecting a child?"

"Oh, that….I…I didn't hear that," Spectra admitted, looking down at the ground in embarrassment at her zoning out.

Celeste pouted. Mary, who walked with them on Spectra's opposite side, looked at her with concern.

"Is everything all right, Spectra?" she asked, "You look like you're carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders."

Spectra sighed, looking down at the mud that lightly coated the tips of her boots.

It sure felt that way.

After having spent the last few days pondering over what she heard her parents discuss, the scene of the argument between her mom and Mrs. Connell replaying over in her head like a broken record, Spectra began to feel dread bloom in her gut. Though she was initially excited to hear this dramatic rumor, to know that her father was towing the line at the company, as time went on, and the more she thought about it, the more Spectra found herself feeling nothing but worry and fear. Her parents were still unaware she knew, but as they continued to whisper behind closed doors, the talk of the union's plans and her father discussing secret meetings with his fellow members made her fearful. This wasn't just juicy gossip; this was something that could be a potential recipe for the worst kind of disaster.

She didn't miss the way that Mrs. Connell had seemed to pointedly ignore her, acting like she was seeing right through Spectra when she passed her right on the street, or like she heard nothing the few times Spectra had called out to her.

If one of Mother and Papa's closest friends was this quick to disown their friendship, then she couldn't imagine how it would be when the superiors found out about this union.

And honestly, it made Spectra fear for her father's life.

"I'm just…tired," she finally responded, clutching her books tighter to her chest. "It's been…a bit long of a week."

"It has been rather slow, what with everyone getting anxious about the upcoming holiday," Mary agreed.

Celeste nodded as well, giving Spectra a sympathetic look and lightly patting her on the shoulder.

"Well, please don't stress yourself," she advised, "After all, the last thing we need is for our best detective to fall asleep on the job!"

Spectra gave her a small, grateful smile, which Celeste returned with a grin, showing off chipped teeth and a missing space on her bottom left. Mary also gave one, though hers was closed mouth, the apples of her cheeks bright pink like tulips.

Celeste looked ahead, and the grin melted right off her face as shock overcame her features.

"Hey, Spectra," she said, "Isn't…isn't that the mill your dad works at?"

Spectra's brows furrowed. "What?"

The three came to a stop, and she followed where her friend pointed, light blue eyes landing on a large pale building where a noticeably large crowd of people had gathered. She noticed a few policemen on the scene, keeping the crowds back as multiple people craned their necks and tried looking over shoulders to see what was going on.

Spectra felt her heart stop.

She recognized that building all too well.

"Papa…" she said breathlessly.

The twins looked at her in worry.

Celeste raised her hand. "Spectra-?"

"PAPA!" Spectra shouted, dropping her books as she burst forward, grabbing at the edges of her skirt to keep from tripping as she ran towards the crowd, an icy wave of fear running down her spine.

The twins shouted after her, taking off behind her.

Please don't be what I think happened, Spectra thought to herself as she raced to the crowd, slipping in through the few spaces and trying to push her way through. Please be okay, please don't let this fantasy be true.

She grunted as she shoved her way to the front, trying to look over other citizens' shoulders as she drew closer, feeling frustration overtake her fear as she realized her view was blocked by top hats and other women's hairstyles, the heels of their boots also giving the others a good few inches or so on her.

Finally, Spectra stumbled forward as she got through the crowd, standing up straight and looking around desperately.

Her eyes widened at the site of seeing a large group of men dressed similarly standing outside the mill- many of their faces quite familiar- some sitting down, others talking amongst each other, while others paced back and forth. All of them wore grim, pale expressions, many of them losing eye contact and staring at the first thing that caught their attention.

Spectra felt her heart leap into her throat as she looked around. Please don't be what I think it is, Please don't be what I think it is…

Her eyes landed on a familiar tall man with reddish brown hair. He looked at the factory building with a broken expression, his mouth set in a frown so deep it was like hooks were pulling at the corners, his green eyes glassy and sad. His hands lay at his sides, balled into tight fists.

Relief overtook Spectra as she dashed towards him.

"Papa!"

Hugo blinked at the sound, and he turned his head. His eyes widened when he saw her approach, though he turned and held his arms out, allowing her to run into his arms, the force making the both of them stumble as Spectra wrapped her arms around his waist in a tight hug, burying her head into his chest.

"I was so worried!" she exclaimed, her voice getting thick as she looked up at him with teary eyes, "I saw the crowd and I recognized the mill and all I could think about was if..if…"

She broke off in a sniffle, withholding a sob as she tightened her hug. Hugo wrapped his arms around her back, gently embracing her as he put a hand on the back of her head, pressing a gentle kiss to her temple.

"Shhh, my dear, it's all right," he consoled softly, "Do not trouble yourself over that big imagination of yours. I am okay, there, there."

Mary and Celeste caught up to the two of them, watching the exchange as they wore matching looks of concern. Spectra pulled away a bit, looking up at him with wide eyes that were brimming with tears.

"W-What happened?" she asked shakily.

Hugo's face became surly. He turned, keeping his arms around her as he looked back towards the mill.

"There was an accident," he said, "One of the men I work with…Jonathan Pendleton- you remember him, right? He was at your birthday party- he…he was trying to repair one of the machines- i-i-it had stopped working and they didn't want to let it stay broken, loss of good money and time, you know? S-So he was trying to do that, but…b-but then it started back up…"

Spectra's eyes widened to the size of coins as she stared up at her father in horror. Hugo kept his gaze on the mill, but he had noticeably gone quite pale; his Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed with what looked like great difficulty.

She looked over her shoulder. The twins stared back, both of them staring with open mouths in horror.

Spectra swallowed hard. She leaned further into her father's embrace, trying to keep the horrifying images that her mind was suddenly creating out of her head.


Dinner that night was a quiet affair.

Silence permeated the room, broken by only the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the sitting room and the slight clinking of utensils against plates. Tension hung in the air, thick and suffocating like a wagon full of sheered sheep's wool.

Spectra squirmed as she looked between her parents. Hugo had severe bags under his eyes, as if he hadn't slept in a century; he had his elbows up on the table, his fingers laced together and his mouth resting on them as he stared ahead blankly. Chloris looked down at her soup, ladling some of it onto her soup before letting it spill back in; her brow was crinkled as she looked at the various things on the table. Neither of them had eaten much, their still full plates growing cold.

Looking down at her soup, Spectra found she couldn't muster up much of an appetite, either. Her thoughts were consumed with what her father had told her. Poor Mr. Pendleton.

Images of gallons of blood on the floor, of a random arm turning into the gears of the machine like a worm navigating self made tunnels in the mud, of him most likely wailing around with nothing more than a bloody stump, where torn muscle and shattered bone and blood dripped; her mind making the sound be that like ripping fabric-

Spectra felt her stomach lurch. She swallowed hard, trying fight down the taste of bile burning the back of her throat.

"May I be excused?" she asked, any semblance of wanting to eat now completely gone.

They looked at her, as if they had forgotten she was there.

Hugo stared at her for a moment, before glancing down to her barely touched food. Something that seemed like pity shined in his eyes, and with a sad smile, he nodded to her.

"Yes, dear," he said, "Just please put away your dishes before you do."

Doing as she was told, Spectra gave them a both a kiss before she started up the stairs. Up in her room, she sat at her desk, her journal out in front of her; though she could regularly fill pages upon pages a night based on the latest rumors she had heard around town, tonight Spectra could find no energy to even pick up her pen, the slightly crinkled paper remaining blank as she stared at it. Thoughts swirled around in her head like a hurricane, the day's events playing over and over again, weighing on her heavily and making the pain in her chest grow.

That could've been Papa in that machine-

Stop, she told herself.

She didn't want to go there, didn't want to think bout 'what-ifs' and 'maybes' and 'if onlys'.

All she knew was now she understood her father and his friends' demand for a union more than ever.

She suddenly blinked as she heard a heavy knock come from downstairs. Spectra furrowed her brows, looking at the clock on her desk.

The hands read that it was a quarter to nine. Who could it be at this hour?

She heard the door open, the sound of Papa asking who the person was only faintly heard through the floorboards. A second voice, one Spectra didn't recognized, answered much louder, joy heavy in its tone. It sounded masculine.

Spectra frowned. Were they expecting someone? Didn't seem likely- with all that had happened over the last few weeks, she would've presumed both of them to be much too overwhelmed to entertain guests.

She strained to hear what they were saying, but couldn't make out any words.

Shrugging, she turned back to her journal, deciding that a little story planning might do her good. As she reached for her pen out of its holder, though, her elbow accidentally brushed her inkwell, knocking it over. Instantly, ink spilled over the desk.

"Damn!" Spectra hissed, shooting out of her chair. She grabbed her journal, yanking off before any inch of the black substance could touch it. she righted the inkwell up, but it was too late, as ink started dripping off the edge of the desk, getting onto the floor.

Spectra cringed, gritting her teeth at the sight of the mess. This was not turning out to be her night.

Groaning, she set her journal on her bed and headed for the door. Spectra prayed that she was able to get a towel before her mother suspected something had happened.

As she descended the stairs, she heard a commotion in the dining room.

"….you've probably heard of the…terrible occurrence that happened later today-"

"Of course I know. I was there," her father's sharp voice cut the speaker off.

Spectra paused on the stairs.

There was a moment of silence, before the unknown voice- presumably whoever had been at the door- coughed.

"Mmmm, yes, of course," the voice- a man's- cleared his throat, before continuing, "Well, that saves me time. I'm sure it's no secret we are all devastated at the loss. Jonathan was a good man."

Spectra frowned. She kept silent as she continued down the stairs, getting to the bottom and starting for the kitchen.

She passed the sitting room; she turned her head to see her mother inside, sitting at the sofa reading a book. Or, at least trying to emulate it, based on the way Spectra noted she seemed stuck on the same page and how her eyes kept sliding to the corners as she listened to the conversation in the dining room.

Heading into the kitchen, Spectra made sure to keep out of sight of the doorway of the dining room, though she allowed herself a brief glance from the mirror that was positioned on the wall near it.

She could see her father's back in its reflection. He sat at the table.

A man sat across from him. One whom Spectra didn't recognize. He was quite old- about fifties or sixties- tall, and brawny; a crisp white shirt and burgundy waistcoat looked perfectly tailor to his wide shoulders. His dark blonde hair was combed backward, looking like it was one big piece with his neatly trimmed beard and mustache. There was a gold brooch on his label, with what looked like a real emerald set in it. His lined face was smiling as he talked to her father.

"Well, if it wasn't already apparent, Hugo, this is definitely something that is going to have a great affect on the company," he said, "There's been a great uproar about the workers' safety, talk of possibly getting the law involved. Some have even said that they might consider a boycott. Rumors of a strike. You may have heard these?"

Spectra froze. Her skin prickled. Her fingernails buried themselves into the cloth towel she had grabbed.

Oh. So that's why he was here.

Her heartbeat started to pick up.

What did he want? Was Papa going to lose his job now? Was that the purpose of this visit? To let him know the higher-ups were onto his little group and that they were now going to be terminated?

The silence that stretched throughout the house clued her in that her father seemed to be feeling the same.

When Hugo finally responded, his voice sounded strained. Whether it was to keep panic or anger out of his voice, she couldn't tell.

"…Why do you ask?" he questioned.

"Oh, I'm trying to accuse you of anything here, Hugo. We're friends here after all," the man replied, "It's just that the foremen may be concerned if such behavior was going on. Such practices could threaten the company's profits. From their perspective, they may find it a bit…treacherous, when the people they gave employment to might be going behind their backs."

"Funny, because find it a little treacherous that a company whose workers are those responsible for keeping it afloat would allow them to just get mutilated and killed on the shift," Hugo spat venomously.

Spectra smirked, curling her lips in to silence her giggle. Give it to him, Papa, she encouraged silently.

The man responded, "Well, now, that is a bit harsh, don't you think? After all, the company is only trying to keep everyone's best interests in mind-"

"And yet they have not batten a lash when their workers lose limbs. Repeatedly."

Silence.

Spectra's shoulders bounced up and down as she chuckled; she held the towel to her mouth to muffle her giggle.

"Mr. Vondergeist, I'm not trying to-"

"Mr. Fitzgerald, pardon me, but what is the reason for this visit?" Hugo asked, "I have quite a bit to get done tonight, and if all you're going to do is relay to me things that I already know as someone who works for the mill, if you have nothing else to offer, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

A moment of quiet, before Spectra heard the blond man sigh.

"I see," he replied, "Well, then how much?"

"How much of what?" Hugo asked.

"How much to keep this whole thing between us? To keep the news of Mr. Pendleton's death away from the public eye?"

Spectra's mouth dropped open. She turned around, staring at the corner of the doorway in shock. There was a hiss from the sitting room from her mother; Spectra could tell she was equally shocked and disgusted at the proposal.

"I-I beg your pardon?!" Hugo questioned in disbelief.

"A couple hundred? A thousand? Maybe ten thousand?" "Mr. Fitzgerald" listed off, "Name your price, and we'll be happy to provide it. All we ask is that nobody ever learn of this misfortune-"

"How dare you!" Hugo declared.

Spectra jumped slightly at the sound of his chair scraping the floor. She looked back to the mirror, watching as he shot up from his seat, glaring down at Fitzgerald with his fists balled.

"That man was my friend, and because of your company's incompetence and disregard for our safety, he died horrifically, with his pregnant wife being a widow, and you want to bribe me to try and keep quiet?! You are a godless man!" he spat.

The blonde held his hands up, looking surprised at the outburst. It was quickly replaced with a stern glare, his bearded mouth turning downward into a frown.

"Now, Mr. Vondergeist, I strongly encourage you to think this through," he said, with the same tone like a teacher talking to a child being disciplined, "Several other works of this little 'union' of yours have taken this generous offer. What happened to Jonathan Pendleton was horrible, but do think of what you're putting at risk: after all, I doubt many would share your attempts at being heroic if they learned that it may put them out of employment."

Hugo didn't reply, but instead marched around the table. Through the mirror, Spectra saw him walk through the kitchen doorway to the front door, yanking it open. He gestured to it, his face dark.

"Please leave," he said curtly, glaring at Mr. Fitzgerald.

The larger blonde man stared back at him, the two engaging in a silent stare before the former sighed again, his shoulders dropping as he shrugged.

"It seems we won't be reaching a compromise tonight," he said, "I'm sorry that I couldn't convince you to change your mind."

He stood up from the table, walking to where Hugo stood. The shorter man walked over to the rack, grabbing what was presumably Fitzergerald's coat and holding it out to him impatiently.

"Yes, well I'm sorry that I couldn't see the truth of the men who own this establishment," he said, "I'll make sure to hand in my resignation letter tomorrow at the very earliest, for your convenience."

Mr. Fitzgerald nodded as he took his coat. "Yes, that would be the best course of action."

Not even bothering to wish the man a good night, Hugo walked away without another glance, starting to make his way back into the kitchen.

Spectra noticed how the blonde man just stood there, messing with something under his coat; he made no move to put it on or to walk out.

Instead, to her confusion, he actually shut the front door, looking towards Hugo as he shuffled some papers on the table, his back turned to the blonde.

Something in her gut twisted as he started stalking towards her father, something eerie and sinister in his blue eyes, which were quite cold.

"I'm sorry it had to come to this, Mr. Vondergeist," Fitzgerald said dejectedly, "You were one of the good ones."

Spectra furrowed her brows. What was that supposed to mean?

Hugo, hearing the man, made a similar face. He started turning.

"What are you talking-"

Fitzgerald pulled something from his jacket.

He held it up, and it glinted in the light.

It was something metal, with a pointed end. A knife.

Before Spectra could even comprehend it- could even understand what was going on, make sense of the scene that she was watching play out in the mirror- Fitzgerald rushed at her father.

He reached out from behind and grabbed Hugo by his collar-

-Before shooting forward with the hand that held the knife and burying it into his back.

Spectra's mouth fell open in horror. She barely registered the towel dropping from her hands.

"AAARGH!" Hugo shouted, his eyes squeezing shut from the pain. He grit his teeth, the cords in his neck bulging.

Fitzgerald pulled the knife back- the tip now dark red- before he plunged it in again.

And again. And again.

He ripped it out after the fourth time, loosening his hold. Hugo dropped to the ground in an instant, falling onto his front like he were a rag doll. The blonde man stared down at him, shaking his head.

"The company has a way of keeping people quiet, one way or another."

"PAPA!" Spectra screamed, running from the kitchen.

She bolted from the dining room, dropping down to her knees. Her hands hovered above him like she were afraid of touching him; her breathing went ragged at the giant holes that now tore through his vest and shirt and dug into his back. Blood bloomed from them like flowers, staining and spreading across the once pristine fabric. Hugo didn't move, his head remaining down as he lie there. Spectra whimpered, tears filling her eyes.

She looked up at Fitzgerald, her blood running cold at the lack of emotion in his eyes. He stared down at her, slightly shadowed from the light behind him, looking like a giant bear that had cornered a helpless rabbit. He gave her a smile that looked almost pitying.

"Oh, my dear, I'm sorry you had to see this," he said, "But there are consequences when one doesn't do what they're told."

Spectra whimpered, falling onto her rear as she scooted away from her father's body. She sobbed as she felt her back hit the cupboard. She was trapped.

Fitzgerald started to advance on her-

"GET AWAY FROM HER!"

Fitzgerald's mirthful expression turned to surprise as he suddenly felt himself shove forward, making Spectra scream again as he momentarily got closer to her. He stumbled into the kitchen, losing his footing as he went sideways. He dropped the knife to claw at his throat.

Chloris hung onto his back, a ribbon clutched tightly in her hands as she used it for a makeshift garrote, choking him. She pulled back against him, trying to further cut his airway off as her legs swung back and forth, kicking desperately to try and find a firm hold. Fitzgerald clawed at his throat, fingers digging in to try and put space between it and the ribbon as he slammed against the wall, trying to throw her off.

Spectra, still backed up into the cupboard, watched with horror. She reached out as Fitzgerald stumbled into the opposite wall, turning so he could slam Chloris backwards into it again.

She hissed, baring through the pain as she pulled her arms towards her, tightening her chokehold. Fitzgerald went forward, his hands digging into hers as he swung her sideways, making her hit her head against the mantlepiece. Chloris shouted in pain.

"MOTHER!" Spectra screeched.

Chloris looked at her over the struggle, her pale blue eyes wide with fear.

"Spectra, run!" she commanded, "Get help!"

Spectra's eyes widened. She couldn't leave her. "But-"

"GO!" Chloris screamed, gritting her teeth as she struggled to keep her grip on the ribbon. Fitzgerald suddenly threw himself back, making the both of them bang against the stove. Chloris yelled out as the sharp corner jabbed her in the side, sending excruciating pain through her ribs; for a moment, she felt like she couldn't breathe.

Spectra felt adrenaline course through her veins as she watched the situation at hand. She didn't want to leave her mother, but instinct was telling her to get out of the house as soon as possible.

She looked at her father's body, her stomach rolling. She bit her lip as she looked at the front door.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, before she shot to her feet and started for the doorway.

She didn't get far, though, before she slipped as she felt something grab hold of her dress skirt. Spectra looked over her shoulder in horror to see that Fitzgerald, having seen her intentions, ran forward as best as he could with Chloris still hanging on to him, and got a hold of her hem; he yanked her back, making her feet slip out from under her and causing her to fall hard onto her front. Spectra cried out at the pain in her knees that shot through her entire legs as they smacked right into the floor.

Despite Chloris still wrestling the ribbon around his neck, Fitzgerald grabbed ahold of her ankle, pulling her towards him; his face was beet red as the oxygen flow cut off, and he grunted like a pig as he tried to loosen the pressure of the ribbon. Spectra thrashed, her other foot banging against the floor; she dug her nails into the hardwood, scratch marks appearing in them as he pulled her farther back.

"No!" Chloris exclaimed when she saw that the monster had gotten ahold of her daughter.

Throwing herself forward with a newfound strength, she let one hand go of the ribbon to grab his face, dragging her nails into his cheek as she whipped her head to the side and bit his ear.

"AGH!" Fitzgerald yelled, losing his hold.

Spectra kicked back as she got her leg free, hitting him in the shin. Her palms smacked against the floor as she got back to her feet. Turning so that her back faced the wall, she watched as Chloris took her other hand to grab his face, clawing down his chin. Her started to pull her head away, her teeth drawing blood as she clenched them closer into the thin flesh.

Fitzgerald screamed, his hands trying to grab at hers and tear them away to no avail.

Spectra backed up, swallowing.

As Fitzgerald spun them around, Chloris, still biting into his ear, looked at her, the two making eye contact. Despite the fear and desperation Spectra could see in her mother's blue gaze, there was also one thing, a silent command Chloris gave her.

Run.

Spectra swallowed, her throat dry. Her lip quivered, a fresh wave of tears running down her cheeks.

I'm so sorry, Mother, she repeated in her head.

She whipped around. Stepping over her father's body, she fumbled with the doorknob until it flung open, and bolted down porch steps. Her feet made pounding sounds on the concrete as she hurried down them, before leaping off and making a run for it.

There was a yell of pain from inside the house from her mother, and Spectra turned around.

Chloris lay in the entrance to the sitting room, looking dazed as she lay on her back. Fitzgerald stood above her, one of her ceramic figurines in his hand. He glared down at her with a look of absolute hate, his bright red with anger as his disheveled hair stuck out in all directions. He spat something at Chloris, before he raised the figurine above his head. Spectra's eyes widened.

She made herself look away just as he brought it down on her mother, tears streaking her cheeks as she ran for the nearest house.

"HELP!" she screamed as she banged on the door, "PLEASE, SOMEBODY! ANYBODY!"

She bashed on the door with both fists, looking back between her house and this one, afraid that any second, Fitzgerald would burst through the open doorway and find her.

However, there was nothing but silence from the other side. Surely someone would've had to have heard her, wouldn't they?

"HELP!" she screamed again, "PLEASE!"

Silence. The windows remained dark.

Knowing she couldn't afford to stay, Spectra ran off the porch, making a ploy for the next house. Again, no response even as she pounded on the doors, screamed herself hoarse, and pulled the knob. As if the other residents had just suddenly vanished.

"Open up, open up, open up, please," she sobbed as she banged on the door. She rested her forehead, her shoulders bouncing up and down. Fat tears rolled down her nose and off her cheeks. She looked up at the darkened windows.

"Please help me," she whispered.

Realizing that she was on her own, Spectra wept as she forced herself to go down the porch steps and run to the next house.

She was running out of time. She could feel herself wearing down, her limbs screaming out in exhaustion and her lungs and throat burning from the deprivation of oxygen. Snot filled her nose and hindered her breathing. She could hardly see in the dark. Sweat made her hair stick to her forehead and her clothes feel unbearably roasting.

You're almost there, she tried to tell herself, This one will have to have people, they'll HAVE to have heard you screaming, how could they not? Just a few more steps. Just a few more-

Something struck her shins, and Spectra felt herself fly forward as her feet went completely out from under her. The wind was knocked out her as she slid forward a few inches, and Spectra saw stars as her chin hit the pavement, making her teeth clack together loudly. She groaned, wheezing as she pushed herself onto her elbows.

A hand suddenly nestled into her hair, grabbing a handful of it, and Spectra screamed as she was suddenly yanked backwards. Her hands flew to her head, grabbing at the hand that was pulling at her roots.

She met the angry eyes of Fitzgerald, and for a moment she forgot how to breathe.

The blonde's face was bloody, several long thin gashes running across his face. His ear was bleeding, small puncture wounds in the shape of teeth engraved into the shell. There were small dots of blood on the collar of his shirt, and an angry red line that was already starting to bruise ran across the length of his thick throat. In his other hand, he clenched the bloody knife tightly.

Before Spectra could even so much as kick him, Fitzgerald marched towards the side of the house, dragging her as she kicked by her hair; Spectra struggled, a scream of pain ripping through her throat as he stopped and pulled her up front.

They were standing in front of a barrel full of rain water.

The question of what he planned on doing with it had barely formed in Spectra's mind, before Fitzgerald suddenly shoved her head forward, dunking it under the water.

Spectra screamed as she was held there, the water silencing her and sending little bubbles up from the surface. The freezing water stung her face, blurring her eyesight. She kicked against the side of the barrel and the ground, flailing against his grip. Her hands found purchased at the barrel's edges and she tried to push herself up, only to feel Fitzgerald force her head into the water further.

Her lungs burned, a pressure building up as the deprivation of air suffocated them. Black spots occurred in her vision, and Spectra screamed again.

Before she could pass out, Spectra was wrenched from the water. She gasped for breath, coughing as she involuntarily swallowed some of the water that got into her mouth, her hair sticking to her face; she could barely see as she blinked the water from her eyes, her vision stinging.

There was hot breath in her ear.

Something hard and cold was placed against her throat

"Sorry it was to be this way, my dear," Fitzgerald whispered menacingly, not sounding the least bit sorry, "But when people upset the balance, they must be removed."

Spectra sniveled.

"Please, don't do this! P-P-Please-"

Her words died as he jerked his arm across her neck.

There was a stinging, unbearable pain in her throat and her chest.

Spectra tasted blood as it filled her mouth; something warm splashed and soaked the front of her already damp collar.

She couldn't breathe.

He let her go, and her hands went to her throat as she collapsed.

Spectra choked, blood pouring from her mouth and between her fingers as she bled out. Her diaphragm felt she had a massive weight on her chest as she tried to wheeze for air that would not enter her lungs. The only thing that came from her mouth was gurgles as blood filled her trachea. She jerked, trying to will the pain away.

She looked up at the night sky, finding Fitzgerald standing over her, watching her. His eyes flashed with malicious joy as a playful smile came onto his face, like he was a boy who had won the race and had been awarded an array of chocolates. Behind him, the night sky was alive with a flurry of stars.

Spectra saw her vision blur; she felt herself go numb all over.

No, she begged, Please. Not like this…

She reached up at the sky with a bloody hand, her fingers flexing as her arm shook. Her sight began to fade, Fitzgerald and the stars growing dimmer.

No…

She couldn't feel anything anymore. Couldn't hear anything anymore.

Tears welled up in her eyes as the blackness creeping into her vision grew, until, with her arm falling right at her side, Spectra felt herself fade from reality entirely.


 

"….Tra…."

"…Spe…."

For a moment, she knew nothing. Felt nothing.

"…Ectra…"

There was a small noise; a faint one. She couldn't decipher who it was or what it was saying, but she heard it ever so slightly.

"S…pectra…"

Consciousness starting coming upon her, and her eyelids fluttered.

"Spectra!"

Slowly, she opened her eyes. At first, she saw darkness, her mind fuzzy.

Then, it all came rushing back.

A sharp gasp escaped her throat as she sat up, clawing at her throat. Spectra panted, tears filling her eyes.

She couldn't feel a wound… was it a dream then? But it felt so real, there was no way her imagination think up something so awful and horrendous….But all those events…

Hands touched her shoulders, and she screamed, slapping at whoever it was. What if it was Fitzgerald coming back to hurt her more?

"Get away!" she commanded, kicking her feet out.

"Spectra, Spectra, calm down, it's me!"

She froze, recognizing the voice instantly. Her hands dug into thick sleeves. She looked up.

Her eyes widened at the sight, and a fresh new fear overcame her. Her mouth dropped open.

"P-P-Papa?" she asked in disbelief.

It looked like her father; same long nose, same round chin and freckles.

Except his skin was translucent. And not even translucent in the sense that his veins were greatly visible, but actually see-through, like he was made up of nothing but gossamer. His skin was an eerie milky white, like he was sculpted from marble. Hugo's hair had lost any shade of brown, and instead was now a bright crimson; so bright, in fact, it was almost glowing. His once green irises were now the color of rust, and the whites of his eyes were now oxblood. His clothes, Spectra realized, were the same ones he was wearing that same night, only now they now were various hues of red and orange.

Spectra furrowed her brows when she realized that he also wore several lengths of chain around his waist and over his shoulders, the ends of which were somehow floating like they were bubbles.

Shaking her head as she re-examined every detail, Spectra looked up at him.

"Papa, I-I-I don't understand," she said, "W-What happened to you? Where are we?"

"I don't know," Hugo said, "I've been like this since I woke up. Your mother was the same way when I found her."

Spectra's head perked up. She gripped her father's sleeves tighter, "Mother's here? Where?! So that does that mean she's okay? Does that mean-"

She paused, suddenly hesitant to ask, like if she vocalized it, it would automatically be true.

"Hugo, did you find- Spectra!"

Her head shot up at the sound of her mother's voice, and she turned, eyes widening.

Her heart filled with relief at the sight of her mother, but just like her father, confusion and shock accompanied it at her mother's new appearance.

Chloris had a strange glow to her as she ran towards them. Her facial features and dressware remained the same as they were that day, only now her black hair had become a strange shade of baby blue, her dress a mixture of similar shades of blue; she was translucent, though her face had a noticeable blue tinge to it, her crystal blue eyes backed by sclera that was a darker blue. Chains hung down from her waist and off her bust like a skirt of some sorts.

As her eyes landed on Spectra, her face lit up, and she glided towards them, wrapping Spectra up in her arms.

"Oh, Spectra!" she exclaimed as she held her tightly to her chest, "I'm so glad you're okay! Oh, I was so worried."

Spectra's vision blurred as her eyes welled with tears, and she was momentarily distracted from her confusion as she hugged her mother back.

"Oh, Mama, I was so scared," she whimpered, "I'm so sorry for leaving you, I didn't mean to. I was so, so scared."

"Shhh, shhh, my little swallow, there is nothing to apologize. I'm right here. There, there, Mama's here."

She cooed softly to her daughter as she rocked Spectra gently. Hugo moved to embrace the both of them, holding them to his chest. For a moment, they all sat there, happy to just know that they were still together.

But did…did that mean…that what happened actually happened?

Lifting her head, Spectra took the chance to observe where they were.

It was some kind of void, no form of architecture, person, or animal in sight; Just swirls upon swirls of some strange turquoise mist. It made Spectra nervous.

What was this place? How did they get here?

"Papa?" she asked, pulling away, "What is this place?"

Hugo looked around, shaking his head.

"I'm not sure," he answered, "There doesn't seem to be anything here, but…emptiness."

Spectra bit her lip, not sure if this was meant to be taken as a good sign or not. With the former, considering the events that had just transpired, it certainly didn't feel that way.

"So does that mean…" she said hesitantly, "That…that…Mr. Fitzgerald…the house…it…it happened?"

They stared at her grimly, neither looking like they wanted to answer her.

"The Vondergeist Family. It is time."

The three of them jumped at the sudden voice that boomed from seemingly everywhere. They broke apart and looked around, trying to locate the source.

"Who's there?" Hugo asked warily.

"Your lives as mortals have ended, and you are no longer bound to the human realm by earthly means. It is time to cross."

They looked to the right. Spectra felt her mother hold onto her tightly, her father standing in front of the both of them in an attempt to shield them from any possible danger.

A shadowy figure stood among the swirls, the whispy tendrils snaking around them like a vines on a tree.

It began to approach; the three of them got to their feet, stepping back in fear as it came closer.

As it broke from the swirls, Spectra could see no defining features on the person, them being covered by what looked like a long black cloak. It held some sort of staff in its hand as it held its arm out to its side.

As the figure got closer, she was shocked to realize that it was a scythe.

"The Fates have come to a decision, and they have decided that now is when you leave this Earth and cross over to the Spirit realm where you belong," they declared, their voice distorted and non distinguishable from male and female.

Spectra grabbed onto her father's arm. The person's words repeated themselves in her head, and something clicked.

"Who are you?" Hugo asked, "What do you want?"

"I am here to deliver you from this world. You're earthly ties are no more, you have a place among the living no more," the person answered.

"A-A-Are you saying we're…we're dead?" Spectra asked.

Hugo and Chloris gawked at her, but she kept her eyes on the cloaked figure as it drew nearer. To her surprise, its hooded face gave a curt nod. It reached out and pointed at her, its sleeve falling away to reveal a skeletal arm, no flesh or tissue present on it at all.

"Yes," it answered, "You have met your fate, and it is time to move on. You have landed here in Purgatory, and I am here to help guide you to the other side."

"You're the Grim Reaper," Chloris stated emotionlessly.

"I am one of many," the figure replied, "And I am here to help bring you over. Come, it is time to go."

"W-Where are you going to take us?" Hugo asked.

The reaper gestured with its bony hand.

The family gasped and step back as a brilliant light suddenly flashed, blinding them. Spectra held her arms up to shield her face until the light faded. When it did, she looked over her arms, before jumping back at the sight of a large ship now standing before them.

They gazed upon it with astonishment, before Spectra looked back at the reaper. She couldn't see its face, but she had the feeling it was staring back upon her as well.

"What about…what about the man who's why we're here?" Hugo suddenly asked, "That man, he…he murdered us! He committed an ultimate sin! What's going to happen to him?"

"The fate of your executor is not of my concern, Hugo Vondergeist," the reaper replied, "Nor is it my responsibility to see to it what becomes of him now. My concern is to bring you and your family over to the other side."

Hugo and Chloris shared a look.

"What…what if we don't want to go?" Chloris asked, "What if we want to see whether or not we get justice?"

"You do not have a choice," the figure responded, "You are not of Earthly flesh any longer, you have no place in the Human world. If you choose to disobey, there will be dire consequences."

The whole time the reaper spoke, its tone remained the same, but at its answer, Spectra noticed both her parents stiffen up. Now where have heard that before? She thought bitterly.

Her father looked at her, an unsure expression. Spectra looked back at him. He looked at her mother, sharing a look with her, a short silent conversation occurring between the two of them.

Sighing, Hugo took both of their hands.

"Okay, we're ready."

The reaper nodded.

"Good. Come now."


 

The apparent "Ghost World" was not at all what Spectra had been expecting.

She looked out, taking in the sight she saw.

A packed city was laid out in front of them, tall buildings and shops made of what looked like iron and stone put together in neat rows as cobblestone streets stretched out between them. People- other ghosts- went about on them, looking like average citizens on an average day.

Expect…none of them were walking.

Thinking at first her eyes were deceiving her, Spectra rubbed them and blink. But no, she saw what she saw. Everyone was floating, hovering at least a foot off the ground as they leaned forward slightly, moving weightlessly through the air like dandelion seeds.

In fact, as Spectra observed, nothing was touching the ground; except for the architecture, any furniture or wheelbarrows or objects were also floating, bobbing up and down like buoys on the sea. Everything also had a strange blue illumination to it, giving everyone an unearthly glow to their semiopaque figures.

The strangest feature of all, though, was the fact that like her and her parents, everyone had chains draped across their figures, links rattling behind them and swaying with their movements.

The reaper had told them on the boat that there was a building nearby they could go to; there, someone would help get them acquainted, show them the ways of this world, find them a place of residency, and help get them school and work if they wished to pursue those things still. Everything to help get them settled in.

Settled in. Like they were simply moving to a new city.

Like they were still alive. As if they hadn't just been murdered in their own house by her father's own co-worker.

Like it was just going to be that easy.

A pang of bitterness came over Spectra.

And they wouldn't even get to know if Fitzgerald and the mill owners were ever going to face punishment.

The reaper had made that very clear on their voyage. The two worlds remained separate as a way to maintain balance between the worlds of the living and the dead, it had explained, separated by a series of "portals" that could only be accessed by a select few when it was appropriate. The reaper was one of them, but apparently some could be opened when certain conflicts arose. However, those times were often few and far between.

Thus, as they had officially crossed over to this realm, they were to never go back to the human realm.

"To do so is to upset the balance," the reaper had said, "And the gods do not take very kindly to those who choose the upset the balance for their own selfish desires."

It hadn't stated it outright, but it was very clear there was an underlying threat in that statement.

"So this is it," Chloris said sadly as they looked around the town, "This is…where we are to be for all eternity."

"What…what do we do now?" Spectra asked.

She looked down at her feet. It seemed that her body had quickly adapted to this defying of gravity, and she was now floating off the ground like everyone else was. Like she had suddenly become lighter than air in this strange world.

The other ghosts who moved about paid them no mind, going about their day doing whatever constituted as normal in this place.

Hugo sighed, "…I guess we go where it…told us to go."

They all looked ahead. A few blocks down, there was a building near the corner. In front of it stood a large statue of a woman with angel wings who was pointing to its front doors.

New arrivals, come here, said the sign hanging from her arm.

They all shared a look, before they leaned forward, floating into the crowd and preparing for whatever awaited them.

Passing by a window of a shop, Spectra paused at something in the reflection. She turned, finally able to get a good look at herself.

The face that stared back was definitely not one that she recognized. Blue eyes set against a grey backdrop stared back at her, with skin the color alabaster making her high cheekbones stick out even more, while hair that was once black now glowed a dark violet that was almost the same shade as her dress. Silver chains decorated her bust and arms like some sort of mock jewelry.

Spectra raised a hand at her reflection, staring at it as she took in its transparency, like it were made of clear glass.

There was hardly any semblance of the human girl she had been just a few hours prior remaining in this new image.

A reminder that this life she had was no longer her own, not anymore.

She sighed sadly, holding back tears as she turned away, floating back to where her parents waited. Hugo put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but it hardly helped.

Silently, the family continued, wondering what was in store for this new "afterlife" of theirs.


A hundred and sixty-seven years later…

It was funny to Spectra how the mere sight of school could still stir so much anxiety and dread in her, even in death.

The grand castle of "Haunted High" looked more like some kind of grand mansion than a school, with a large winding staircase and several stories of classrooms. She stared up it, grasping her messenger bag tightly as she floated in place. Around her, students were already beginning to make their way up the staircase and into the building, some looking like they were ready to start the days, while others looked like they'd rather jump in the River Lethe.

Sighing, Spectra straightened up and leaned forward, starting to make her way inside.

It felt weird, being back at school after so long. After decades of just spending her free time roaming about, staying up in her room and writing, getting the latest scoop around their small town (what they called nosiness, she called staying aware and informed), the thought of ever going back to school and becoming swamped with boring subjects seemed almost like a joke.

But when there was news of a new school opening, her parents insisted that she go.

You never got to finish schooling during our living years, her father had said, And it will do good to find something that keeps you focused, help you make some friends.

Spectra frowned as she entered the commons area.

So what if she didn't? She hadn't even liked school when she was living (she swore to this day, that crabby headmaster was out to get her), so what was the point of going back for something you hated in the first place? It wasn't like she was ignorant of the times, either; she had her ways of keeping track of and keeping up with the latest trends and tech and other cool stuff people managed to create through the years; especially the fashion- what could she say, a girl liked to dress and impress (and goodness, had they come far from her day of frumpy dresses and skirt frames and corsets).

And she had plenty of friends…ish.

(Okay, maybe three people didn't count as a whole lot to some, and sure she hadn't really gotten acquainted with any of the ghosts around her age since she first came to the Ghost World, but it was all in the eye of the beholder, wasn't it?)

Digging into her bag, she pulled out her schedule, looking at what she had been signed up for this years. She frowned when she saw her first class of the day was mathematics.

Ew, no thanks.

Why did I agree to this? Spectra thought as she looked around, trying to see where the math room was located. Wasn't she too old for school anyway? She was over a century old, after all, wasn't there kind of a limit or something on how old you could be to still be in high school.

"…say they're letting other people transfer there. For like, no fee at all," she overheard as she passed by two female ghosts.

"Isn't travelling between the worlds forbidden, though? Like, because of all that mess with the Red Lady?"

Spectra paused; she kept her head down, only turning ever so slightly as she tuned in on the conversation.

"The Human world, yeah, but the Monster world is like, an exception or something," the first ghost reply, "I guess since they have a lot species that don't die like humans do, or something, like, it's an exception."

"I don't know," the second one said, "I mean, walking among the solids again? One that's filled with all the people from the scary stories I used to hear, no less? No thanks."

Spectra raised an eyebrow, curious.

So they had heard of this apparent "monster world" as well; there had been rumors going around of a second world- well, not really a world, but a society, rather- that had been existing for thousands of years, kept hidden from human eyes. One where the apparent monsters of the story books- living corpses like Frankenstein, fairies, vampires, werewolves- were alive and breathing, and apparently lived just like people. Only, well…creepier.

And now they're letting ghosts cross over? She thought. She knew that it was it was no longer allowed for ghosts to go to the human world to haunt houses (not that there were really a lot of portals that made that possible in the first place), but to hear they were allowed to leave the realm?

To actually walk the Earth again?

This calls for some investigating, Spectra thought, pulling out her small notebook pad and writing down what she had heard the two ghost girls talk about.

-Talk of so called 'monster world' exists

-Apparently ghosts can leave here and go there

-Conspiracy? A possible mutiny? Must investigate further

Looking briefly over her shoulder, Spectra slowly started floating to the side, intent on trying to hear more of the ghosts' conversation without making it too obvious.

BRRRRIIINNNNG!

Before she could listen in more, though, the bell rang. Within an instant, the commons filled up as everyone started floating about, rushing to get to their classes. The two ghosts she'd been listening in on grabbed their bags and departed in the opposite direction, leaving her by herself.

Spectra sighed as she slipped her pen and pad back into her pocket.

So much for getting a scoop.


 

 

Six months later…

Spectra sat on the couch, her knees pressed together and her hands gripping them as she looked between her parents. Hugo and Chloris sat on the sofa opposite from her, pressed against each other as they awaited her response.

"W-What?" Spectra asked, sure that she had misheard.

Hugo nodded, "You heard right. Your mother and I have talked it over several times, and we think it's best if we leave."

"Leave the Ghost World?" Spectra asked, "B-But where will we go? I mean, Dad, what about your job? What about school? I thought you wanted me to go Haunted High and finish my education."

"And you will," Chloris explained, "And your father and I will still be able to find work; we've actually already gone and started talking to several places of employment. We just think it's time for a different change in scenery."

"But where? I thought ghosts were forbidden from going to Earth?" Spectra asked.

Hugo explained, "The human world, yes. But there's a whole other community out there- more geared towards people like us, I guess you could say. I'm sure you've heard about it, this so-called 'monster' community?"

Spectra nodded, "A lot of kids at school talk about it, but only bits and pieces; most of them don't like the thought of interacting with 'solids', as they call them."

"Understandable. You grow so used to our abilities, it feels alien to live with people who don't have them," Chloris stated.

"Yes, well, as you know I've been trying to find a new job anyway, and there was a recent job fair in town," Hugo said, "Well, one of the offers required transferring for it, and they allowed those interested to take a tour over to the other side. Your mother and I gone over, and it, well, we think it do us all good in the end if I take it.

"…Where would 'it' be, exactly?" Spectra asked.

"Not too far off from where we originally lived; it's located in Oregon, in a city called New Salem. The monster community there, as I've been told, is quite diverse- they even have a few ghosts already living there. There's even a high school there that you could attend, one that's been around for thousands of years, dedicated to helping the monster and human communities learn more about one another and integrate."

Spectra blinked, surprised.

Another high school? Where she'd actually get to see these people- these creatures that she once thought were nothing more than fictional ideas spawned by creative minds? It sounded a little bit scary.

But also, quite tempting.

"So…what do you think?" Chloris asked.

Spectra bit her lip.

They had it good over here. The little ghostly house they lived in was small and comfy without feeling tiny; their neighborhood was nice and quiet. Haunted High could be a bit of a pain, what with all the ridiculous rules the mysterious principal had implemented, but it was kind of nice to have a schedule again and associate with other people her age (at least in the mental sense). There was also a part of her who didn't want to leave her best friend behind.

But yet…secretly, there was a part of Spectra that yearned for more.

She had never said it aloud, but honestly, living in the Ghost World was depressing.

To be truthful, she hated it.

She hated how everything always had a gloomy atmosphere to it, how there was always an air of melancholy about no matter how happy everyone tried to act, how no one talked about the one thing that they all had in common because it was considered improper, but yet they all had a twinge of sadness when they went about their day, so obviously it was still bothering them. How she felt like she could never really enjoy anything without being reminded of the reason she was in the Ghost World in the first place. How she was never supposed to talk about it, but there was this attitude that she was expected to never forget about it, because for some reason forgetfulness was seen as a bad thing.

And Spectra hated it. Absolutely despised it.

She wanted to forget.

She wanted to live.

"We're not saying you have to make a decision tonight," Hugo said, noticing her conflicted expression, "Just…give it some thought, okay?"

Spectra nodded.

Later that night, as she lay on her bed, trying to finish up her Hauntistry homework, she found she was unable to focus on the readings in her textbooks, the thoughts of this potential new school in her mind.

A new school…new beginnings…a new start.

One where nobody needed to know her story. Where she'd be among the land of the living again, to be able to see the seasons again, to see night turn into day and vice versa, to eat food again and touch solid objects and actually have stuff that remained on the ground.

Where nobody ever had to know the real story.

Spectra sucked in her lips, that one thought in particular growing more tempting.

To be among mortals again- well, at least some of them were mortal, she was pretty sure- to walk the Earth again, instead of its cold, empty parallel shell. To actually feel normal again.

And who knows what kind of juicy gossip monsters have? Her mind teased.

That one made her smile.

Oh, yes, it would definitely be pleasant.

She could start over, again.

And no one would ever have to know of the pain, the reality of what she went through, the horrendous secret behind her unlife that she was never allowed to speak of in this place. Spectra Vondergeist could be whoever she wanted to be, for once. Could tell them whatever, and they wouldn't think otherwise. They would see only what she wanted them to see- and what she wanted them to see could be anything.

Most especially, anything that didn't involve a girl who died in a horrific fashion. Oh no, that would definitely be something she made sure was kept under tight lock and key. Out of sight, out of mind.

She could make her own story, and give it her own ending.

Spectra's smile grew.

The thought in itself was almost comforting.

Chapter Text

~1957~


 The sun beat down upon the neighborhood like a magnifying glass glaring upon a swarm of helpless ants, every surface glittering and having somewhat of a shine to it, the sky a bright shade of blue that hurt to look at, not a single cloud in sight.

Johnny hated it. It was way too muggy, like he had been breathing on his own face for the past fifteen minutes. And everything had that smell to it; the one you couldn't really describe, but you knew what it was because it came every time it was this hot out and everything just smelled something awful. Like someone decided to light a fire using plants from the swamp. Although the scenery was pretty nice.

"Pass me another one of them root beers, Johnny?"

He smirked as he looked up, squinting against the harsh daylight. "I don't think you need anymore, Benny. By the way you chugged those last two, I reckon you'll be crashing by no later than three."

"Yeah, Benny," a redheaded girl said from where she sat a little ways above Johnny, "Save some for the rest of us. Those bottles were almost fifty cents a piece, quit wasting all of 'em."

Benny glared at them, his messy blonde hair falling in his face.

"I'll say when I've had enough," he said, "C'mon, John, don't leave a boy hanging when he's got the thirst."

The red head glanced at Johnny, her eyes telling him not to give in. Johnny just shrugged, digging another bottle out of the backpack they had them stored in and popping the cap off before holding it out; Benny grinned at his compliance as he took it. The red head rolled her eyes but said nothing.

Johnny leaned back on the bleachers, watching as the blonde tilted his head back and took a big gulp from the bottle, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as he chugged, before he brought it back up, a satisfied "Ah" hissing through him as he smiled.

"That hits the spot," he sighed cheerfully as he put the bottle on the ground near his feet, where a baseball glove and worn ball also lay. Picking the latter two up, he nodded at Johnny as he threw the ball into his mitt.

"Say, how 'bout you and me go a few rounds, Johnny?" he asked, "See who can hit the ball the furthest?"

Johnny shook his head, "No thanks. I'd rather not exhaust myself to death in this heat."

Plus I didn't spend all the time I did on this 'do just to mess it up in five seconds, he added mentally. Not to mention he wasn't really looking forward to the possibility of a black eye from the ball sailing right towards him or his mitt flying off and smacking him in the face. Benny was his best friend and he loved the dude to death, but Heaven almighty if he couldn't hold onto anything even if it taped to his wrist like he were made of butter or something.

Benny pouted, "Man, you're a buzz kill."

"The one and only."

"Teresa?" he asked hopefully.

She shook her head, her nose wrinkled up. "And get my new skirt all covered in dust? Absolutely not."

"Aw, come on, you guys!" Benny whined, "What's the point of us sitting here with our gear if we're not going to do anything?!"

"Because you wanted us to bring all our stuff even though we wanted to just go to the diner?" a brunette with glasses who sat on the upper level of the bleachers suggested, leaning his chin on his folded hands as he held a bat.

Johnny smirked as Benny suddenly blushed, looking redder than Teresa's hair as his eyes widened. Benny shook it off, though, now regarding the brunette with a small glare.

"I didn't hear any complaints when I suggested it to everyone, Ralph," he spat, "Besides, now that we're here, we might as well put it all to good use."

Ralph shrugged, "If it gets you to stop whinin', fine."

The blonde's face instantly lit up as Ralph stood up, grabbing his bat.

"Finally," he said, "Though, I have to warn you, I've gotten quite better since the last time."

Johnny rolled his eyes. He mumbled, "Oh, Jesus, here we go again."

"Not to brag in any sort of way," Benny said, rubbing his fingernails on his shirt and looking at them at a way like he was purposefully trying to appear bashful, "But ya boy here's been practicing. Reckon if I keep it up, I'll be right on my way to the nationals with Mickey O'Toole."

They looked at him with equal looks of exasperation; Ralph just snorted.

"Like hell you are," he replied, "And I'm gonna marry Grace Kelly."

"I'm serious! I've been practicin' in my backyard with Scooter, I've improved a lot since last month!" Benny insisted, "And I've been watching and trying to mimic all the times Mickey's been up to bat."

"Yeah, but Mickey actually can pitch," Johnny pointed out, grinning as his friend turned his glare on him.

"Oh, shut up."

"Make me."

"Having your dog go collect your stray balls because you lose them hardly counts as practicing, Ben," Teresa added in.

Benny stared at all of them, putting a hand to his chest in mock hurt. "Hey, what's with all the negativity? Gee, I confide in ya guys, and you smash my dreams? Y'all colder than Alaska in December."

"Hey, hey, there's my favorite people in the world!" a slightly gruff voice greeted.

They all turned their heads; an African American boy was waving at them as he jogged up to them, his brown eyes kind and soft.

Johnny nodded at him, "Hey, Jeremiah, where ya been?"

"Got caught up having to help my dad at the deli downtown," Jeremiah replied as he cocked a thumb behind him, "Been getting pretty busy lately and we're a bit short. Anyways, what we all talkin' about?"

"Benny here thinks he's gonna be in the big leagues like Mickey O'Toole is heading," Ralph commented.

Jeremiah raised an eyebrow, "Who?"

Benny whirled on him, eyes bugging out like the boy had just burst into flames right then.

"'Who?'" he repeated in disbelief, "How have you not heard of Mickey O'Toole?! He's only the best batter in the whole state! Strong enough to send a ball into the stratosphere and halfway 'round Mars! The one who's destined to get out of this small town and make to the big leagues!"

"I have a lil' doubt on that one," Jeremiah shrugged, "He couldn't be nearly as good as Dink Reynolds. Now that be one of the mightiest pitchin' hands I've ever seen."

"He one of them colored kids?" Johnny asked. Jeremiah nodded.

"You see him once, and you'd know he's made for the big leagues," the latter explained proudly, "I swear, he's gonna be the new Jackie Robinson. I feel it."

Benny scoffed, waving him off.

"Whatever, screw you guys," he said, "I know I can do it, you'll see."

Ralph rolled his eyes, knowing they weren't getting anywhere, knowing the blonde was more stubborn than a bull.

"Okay, fine. But just once."

Grinning madly, Benny turned around and started walking a little ways away from where they had all gathered, throwing the ball back and forth into his mitt. Ralph looked over his shoulder, shooting Johnny a despondent look. Johnny just raised one of his eyebrows. This was bound to be fun. Sighing, Ralph turned and started following him.

"Remember you're aiming for the air, not the dirt, Benny," Jeremiah called out.

"Jerry, if I wanted your opinion, I'd ask for it!" he got as a reply; Johnny looked at him and they shared a grin.

Turning around, Benny faced all of them, holding the ball in his mitt up to his chest. Ralph stopped a little ways away from him.

Benny positioned himself, lifting his leg up as he held the ball away from himself. Johnny watched as he cocked his arm, spinning it several times to build up momentum. Ralph stood in front of him, slightly turned to the right , his feet spread and the toes of his sneakers digging lightly into the dirt, anticipating the blonde's move. His hands clenched his knees, his back slightly hunched. Spinning around, Benny cocked his arm back, before propelling it forward, launching the ball with all his strength. It soared through the air, sailing over their heads as it flew a good hundred feet or so. Ralph pushed off his feet and shot for it, keeping his gaze on the ball as he ran for it, trying to make it to the position where he could catch it before it hit the ground.

The others watched as he ran. Johnny was impressed; he had to give his friend credit, Benny certainly had improved his pitch. He heard the latter's sneakers against the hard dirt, and looked away from where Ralph was running to see the blonde walking up, a cheeky grin on his face.

"Didn't I tell you I had been practicing?" he asked smugly.

Johnny snorted as he looked back towards where Ralph was running. "That you did, that you did."

They all watched in amusement as Ralph stumbled on a rock, pumping his arms as he tried to keep up with the ball. He raised his mitt in an attempt to catch it mid air, but the ball sailed right over the mitt and took a dive some fifty feet away, bouncing high on the dirt before it gradually lost momentum and rolled several feet until it came to a complete stop.

Ralph, who was still a few feet away, stomped to a stop, groaning at his failure.

"Gee, Ralph, got beat out by Benny?" Jeremiah called, "You must be getting slow."

"Yeah, you got beat out m-hey!"

"Blow up your ass, dude," Ralph bit back.

He turned back to the ball, letting out a huff. He walked over to it, letting his arms swing at his sides as he approached, before he bent down and picked it up. They all watched him.

A flash of red at the corner caught Johnny's eye. He frowned, looking to the left.

His eyes widened when he saw what it was.

He shot up from his seat.

"RALPH! LOOK OUT!" he yelled.

Ralph, who had just began to stand back up, lifted his head at the sound of his name. There was a weird sound to his left. He turned his head-

-only to see the full front of a red Cadillac barreling rights towards him.

The group all got up in surprise and scrambled off the bleachers, starting to run towards him. Ralph yelped in surprise as he scrambled back landing on his back. He held up his hands in defense, like it would be enough to soften the blow of the vehicle.

There was a screeching sound of tires on the asphalt as the Cadillac skidded to a stop just right before him, the grill only a hair's width away from his knee. Ralph kept his hands up, still bracing himself for some kind of collision. Realizing that he had not been been hit, he slowly lowered his hands, staring at the chrome in confusion from between his fingers.

Johnny and the others ran up to him. Johnny knelt down, putting a concerned hand on his friend's shoulder.

"What the hell, man?!" Benny exclaimed.

"Ralph, you okay?" Johnny asked.

The brunette looked at him, eyes wide with shock and fear. Letting out a shaky breath, Ralph took his hand and stood up.

"Y-Yeah," he said, "Thought I was a goner there for a second."

Johnny nodded in relief, though a scowl quickly made its way upon his features as he glared at the Cadillac. What kind of jackass went highway speed in a schoolzone?

The passenger of the Cadillac popped his head out from the side, a bewildered smile on his face.

"Whoa!" the brunette passenger exclaimed, "Sorry about that, dude! Totally didn't see you there! You all right?"

Johnny's frown deepened when he realized he recognized the face. Of course, it couldn't be anyone else but Lance Johnson and his group of the other rich kids slash decently well off kids that went to their school- after all, who else could afford such a state of the art model of car? And if they were here, that couldn't mean anything but trouble. Especially when it came to Johnny's group.

"Y-Yeah," Ralph replied, still looking a little bit shaken.

"How the hell did you not see him?" Johnny asked, "Why were you even going so fast in the first place? The sign clearly says it's twenty-five."

"It's not like we hit him or anything," Lance's friend Max replied from the backseat.

"But you almost."

"We could back up and finish the job, if you want it to be so badly," Paul Gleeson, the driver, said as he glared at Johnny.

Johnny glared back, feeling his fists ball. He had half a mind to go around to the driver's side and give the guy a good socking.

"Now, now, no need to get physical," Lance replied, smiling at Johnny. It was one, though, that implied he didn't the least bit sorry about almost running over Paul. Hell, he probably was the one to suggest it in the first place.

Lance grinned at him, a dark glint in his eye, "After all, we're all friends here, aren't we, Johnny-boy?"

"Don't call me 'Johnny-boy' and last time I checked, no, we're not," Johnny replied.

Lance looked at him, slightly surprised, before his eyes slightly narrowed like he was sizing him up. The corner of his mouth perked up smugly.

"Aw, sure we are," he replied, gesturing to each of them, "We all know each 'round these parts, don't we? You, Benny, Ralphie, Jerry, and, uh...remind me of your name again, darling?"

He pointed to Teresa, who stared at him like she wanted to be anywhere else but where they all stood at this moment.

"Teresa," she curtly responded.

"Teresa, right!" Lance exclaimed as he clapped his hands together, "I thought it started with a T or something!"

"Hmph," she responded, her eyes narrowed in bored annoyance.

Whether he noticed her cold exterior or not, Lance rattled on like nothing had happened, and he rubbed his hands together as he regarded the group with another playful smirk.

"Well, we'd love to stay and chat, but the boys and I have got some lucky ladies we're taking out on the town tonight and we got to get ready," he replied, nodding at Ralph, "Again, sorry about that lil' scare, my dude. Hope there's no hard feelings."

Ralph didn't respond, looking over the tops of his glasses like he wasn't sure if it was sincere or not (which it most likely wasn't, Johnny thought to himself. Boys like Lance didn't know what an apology was).

"Well, have a great day, everyone," Lance said as he walked back to the passenger side, opening the door and sliding in. Before he completely sat down and buckled his seatbelt, though, he nodded at Johnny and gave him one last sly grin.

"I have a good feeling we'll be seeing each other around more, won't we, Johnny boy?" he asked, before sitting down.

They all moved out of the way as Paul started up the Cadillac, the engine roaring to life. Lance continued wearing the arrogant smirk, but the others in the car glared as the tires screeched on the asphalt and it shot down the road. They watched it grow smaller, becoming nothing more than a red dot until it turned the corner and disappeared completely.

Johnny shook his head, "God, I hate those fucking cake eaters."

"Don't give 'em the satisfaction," Jeremiah advised, "They're just doin' it to get a rise out of us."

"Yeah, well, it worked," Ralph muttered, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.

Benny, who sensed the tension that now hung in the air, rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. Trying to diffuse the situation, he suddenly perked up, stepping out to face all of them with his arms spread wide at either side.

"Hey, cheer up, you guys!" he said, "Don't let those losers get us all down on this nice day! C'mon, how 'bout we forget about 'em with a nice friendly game of baseball? Winner gets to choose where we eat, loser has to pay for everyone."

Teresa snorted at the offer, "Careful with that suggestion, Ben, it could come back to bite you in the arse. Which it totally will."

"Oi!"

The sudden dark mood Johnny was feeling instantly evaporated, and he chuckled as he listened to his friends' bickering. As Benny and Teresa continued to argue, the group started making their way back towards the baseball diamond, just as ready to forget the scenario that had just happened.

Johnny agreed. It was a nice day, no use letting it go to waste.

Except the sun. The sun could chill out a little with its heat.


The harsh light of the day later proved to actually be somewhat comforting, as he stood in his room.

Johnny gently swayed as he slowly drew the bow across the fiddle's strings, the strong sound loud in his ear as it smoothly sang out. The sunlight that peaked in through his window was soft this time, casting a slight glow around his room; it was calming, comfortable. He lifted his fingers up and down on the neck as he pushed the bow back on the strings, before drawing it out again. He closed his eyes as he moved his arm back and forth, producing sweet melodies. He felt himself surrender to a slight state of bliss as he played; his fiddle always managed to make him relax and let go of the stresses of the day. Nothing like playing a few tunes to get your mind off. He looked down at the sheet music that was propped up against one of his books on the sill, eyes steadily scanning the notes as he played them out.

He was interrupted at the sudden hard knocking against his door, the hinges slightly rattling with the vibrations. Pausing with his bow against the strings, Johnny looked over his shoulder briefly, before taking the fiddle of his shoulder as he reached for his case.

"Come in," he called, starting to set the instrument back into the velvet lining of the case.

The door creaked slightly as it was pushed open, a middle aged man with a pudgy and slightly lined face and glasses poking his head in.

"Dinner's ready, son," he stated as he looked fondly upon the teen, "You better hurry down and wash up, you know how your mother hates waiting around and letting it get cold."

Johnny smirked. "I'll be down in just a second, Pa."

Tucking the beloved fiddle and bow carefully back into their engraves of the case, he closed it, snapping the locks shut and tucking it under his desk. He strolled to the door, pulling it shut behind him as he joined his dad in the doorway.

"I could hear you practicing from downstairs," Richard said, gazing up at Johnny- who stood a good foot taller than his dad- with a proud smile, "You've gotten such a hang of it. It feels like only yesterday I handed that old thing to you."

"Practice makes perfect, right?" Johnny grinned as they walked down the stairs, "Reckon if I try hard enough, I might just get lucky one night performing at the Robin's Den and get to perform when one of those big shot executives decides to visit this town and get me a record deal and make millions."

Richard chuckled, patting him on the shoulder.

"Aw, yes, quite a big dream. But remember, school first. Study hard, do your homework, and find a career, and you'll soon find you'll have plenty of time to become a fiddle star afterward," he said.

Johnny chuckled. "Yeah, I know."

His mother Sybil was busy setting down the prepared dishes onto the table as they walked in. Johnny quickly washed his hands, before they all sat down, taking a second to say grace before digging in.

"Johnny, is that all you're gonna have?" Sybil asked as she noticed the amount of casserole on his plate, "Maybe you should take some more bread, too."

"Ma, I'm fine," Johnny insisted.

Her bean casserole wasn't bad, but it wasn't necessarily his favorite, either. The beans always had this mushy texture that grossed him out if he thought about it too much, and the cheese could get really stretchy and it became frustrating to eat. He could eat it because he was hungry, but wouldn't take more than he needed.

"What? You're a growing boy, you need to get meat on your bones!" Sybil insisted as she grabbed the dish and started spooning more onto his plate, "You need to eat up and get strong and healthy!"

"Maaaaa."

Richard chuckled at the display as his wife continued piling up food on Johnny's plate, despite the latter's insistence that he was fine. Johnny withheld a groan as she continued to spoon out casserole, before she finally set the dish down.

"Don't give me that look," Sybil said, "You don't watch yourself enough. You spend all day out, sweating yourself up a mess and stayin' out late and getting' into tizzies! You need to build up your strength!"

Johnny rolled his eyes. He knew she was only looking out for him, but he wasn't six. He ate plenty well!

"Now eat up. I don't slave away at this food all evening just to have it go to waste," Sybil commanded as she stabbed at the casserole on her own plate, shoveling it into her mouth.

"Yes, Ma," Johnny replied with a sigh, though he smiled as he dug into the fresh mountain of food on his plate.

His mother could be so ridiculous. But it was also one of her greatest features, and through his annoyance, he loved her greatly for it. They didn't have much, but her and his dad always tried their best to make the best of situations and give him what they could.

Conversation continued as they ate, the slight wear and tear of the house feeling lessened by the warm, inviting atmosphere that generated from the family.


 A week later, he stood with Benny and Ralph outside of the barber shop, the three of them leaning against the wall as they watched random people passing by and customers go in and out of the bakery across the street. Johnny flicked a quarter up and down. It was a rather boring day, nothing much happening.

"-so then Max is bein' a jerk and throwin' straw wrappers and all and all, and keep in mind Mr. Brown isn't facing the the backcounter so he can clearly see it all but does squat," Ralph was explaining, "So I'm trying to eat in peace, even though I'm getting really irritated, but then this bozo decides to throw a whole napkin at me!"

"What did you do?" Benny asked.

"Well, when he does that, my patience officially has run itself thin, so I just- without saying a word- spin around in my seat and aim right for his forehead; it bounced so hard off of him I swear it looked like his life flashes before his eyes!" Ralph exclaimed, a satisfied smirk on his face. It didn't last though, as he looked back up at Benny, the satisfaction replaced with bitterness.

"Guess who was the one to get kicked out?" he added.

Benny's eyes widened, "No way! You? But you said he could see Max was the one doing it first! Surely you could just explain it to him or something, right?"

"Oh, he knows who really started it," Ralph replied, "He just doesn't care."

"It's cuz you don't have all that fancy money like he does," Johnny said, "He knows if he gets on Max, the whiny jackhole will just go to his father and have him threaten to sue or something. You know how guys like him are."

"Yeah," Ralph agreed, leaning back against the fence, "Doesn't mean it doesn't suck, though."

Johnny didn't respond, though he gave his friend just a brief look before he looked back out on the street. Benny bent down, squatting with his arms on his knees as the three of them stood in silence for a few minutes.

"Johnny?"

His heart skipped a strange beat for a minute when he heard the familiar voice.

He looked to his left.

Cheryl Diggs stood in front of them, dressed in a pale yellow dress that was almost the same shade as her hair, which was tied with a red ribbon.

One of the best singers in the choir club, Cheryl had been the class president three years running. The daughter of a real estate tycoon, she was known all around their school as probably one of the smartest girls in school, headed without a doubt to a future in the Ivy League. She was also known for her caring, altruistic attitude, being the mastermind behind dozens of fundraisers and charity events the school had organized.

And Johnny maybe had a bit of a crush on her. Maybe.

"Cheryl, h-hi," he responded, pushing off the fence and straightening up, "What are you doing here?"

"I was about to head home, and I noticed you guys over here," she explained, pushing her glasses up her nose, "I was wondering about something, and I thought you'd be interested."

"Oh, yeah?" He said, putting his hands in his pockets, "What?"

"Well, the school's having a fundraiser to help raise money for repairs to the cafeteria this year," she announced, adjusting the books in her arms as she pulled out a flyer from in between them, handing it to him, "And I was wondering if you guys would like to consider coming."

Johnny took it from her, looking over the print on it. He glanced back at her a second later, an eyebrow raised.

"Why me, specifically?" he asked, "I'm not exactly skilled in baking goods or going door to door."

"That's okay! The fundraiser's kind of an expansion of things, anyway," Cheryl refuted, "We were actually thinking of putting on a concert at the jazz club downtown. A kind of pay to enter, you know? And, well, I've heard from a few kids how like music and all, and I thought you would be interested."

He felt a bit of flattery at her considering him, and he rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

"I dunno, I don't really do well with crowds," he answered.

Not with crowds of people who weren't his friends and people who were in similar living situations like his, that as. Though the thought could be tempting, Johnny was also apprehensive to associate with the people who would normally be quick to look down upon him like he was scum on the side of the road. They didn't deserve it, and he wouldn't dare put himself in a situation for them to gawk and laugh at like he was a monkey in the zoo.

Cheryl smiled at his doubt, shrugging her shoulders. "Well, give it some thought at least, please? We really want to try and get the school the repairs it needs before the year starts. We'd really appreciate any kind of effort any of you put in."

She looked at all three of them. Johnny felt a weird, warm feeling in his chest as he shifted on his feet, suddenly feeling a bit self conscious in front of the petite blonde. The obviously amused and questioning glances that he could feel Benny and Ralph giving him from behind weren't helping at all.

"I'll see if I can make time," he commented.

It was apparently enough, and Cheryl's smiled widened, her brown eyes looking extra big behind her rectangular glasses. It made a pleasant tingle run through Johnny, a wave of electricity that went down to his toes.

"Glad to hear it," she said amusedly, "Well, I better get going. My mother's going to be here any minute. See you around, Johnny!"

"Yeah, you too," he replied, watching her back as she turned and started walking to the drop off area.

The warm feeling had spread through his entire body, and Johnny put a hand to his chest. What was happening to him? He didn't really understand where this feeling was coming from, but he had to admit, it was rather enjoyable to feel it.

"Ooooh?" Ralph asked, breaking the silence, "Do I need to get my vision checked again? Or did I just see the beginnings of a possible romance happen?"

Johnny stiffened. "Shut it," he said.

"Oh, you saw what you saw all right!" Benny exclaimed, "It seems our lil' Johnny's startin' to get a little crush! I might even say he's a little heels over head!"

"Shut up," the brunette repeated, feeling his cheeks warm.

"There it is! Wow, look at how red you are, you look like a tomato! No need to be shy, 'Johnny-boy', nothin' wrong with a lil puppy love!"

"Benny, don't make me pound you."

"Just sayin'! Just lemme know if you need a little melody to help spice up the mood. You know, lemme get my guitar and her address and we could serenade her! Guaranteed to sweep her off her feet!"

Ralph burst out laughing as Benny dodged a swing from Johnny, the latter's normally fair skin having taken on a noticeable red tinge, as if he had become badly sunburned. Trying unsuccessfully to get another few shots in, unable to make a solid hit with his faster friend, Johnny settled for glaring at the two of them, before tearing his head away in a 'hmph' and holding his nose up, his cheeks still bright red. Benny and Ralph exchanged matching grins of humor; it wasn't often they managed to get their friend so riled up and off guard.

Finally deciding it was enough teasing, Ralph patted Johnny on the back.

"Come on, John, you know we're just jacking ya. If you got a special someone, we're happy for you."

"I don't, though," Johnny growled, "I've had only like a few conversations with her."

Plus I doubt her millionaire parents would ever let their dear daughter date a 'disgusing' greaser.

"Still," Ralph insisted, "Just sayin'. If ya do like her, go get her. If that's what makes ya happy, well, we're happy for you."

Johnny's pinched expression softened at his friend's words, and he looked over his shoulder, wanting to make sure they weren't trying to further pull his leg. But as he scanned their faces, he could find no trace of hidden humor in their soft expressions, their reassuring smiles completely sincere. Feeling something rather touched at Ralph's statement, Johnny's face softened.

"Thanks, man," he said, feeling very much grateful for their support.

"Oi, Spirit!"

And just like that, he was back to being annoyed.

Johnny groaned at the sound of Lance calling his name, turning around to face him with a roll of his eyes. He really could have a happy life without having to see the guy's crooked face every other day.

Lance was marching right towards them from across the street of the deli, Paul and a few of their other friends trailing behind him. Unlike other previous days where he wore his typical shit-eating grin and looked like he had already had a few tricks up his sleeve, however, Lance wore a look of obvious anger, his head slightly bowed and his forehead crinkled, lips pressed into a thin line. His hands were by his sides, balled into fists as he glared at Johnny something fierce. Johnny just stared right back at him.

"Who pissed in his cereal this morning?" Benny muttered to him.

Lance and his friends stopped curtly in front of the trio. Lance sneered in disgust, shaking his head at Johnny like he couldn't quite believe whatever was on his mind.

"Ya know, Spirit, after all these times you 'n me have spent joshin' each other, that we would have an understanding of where we stood in terms of where we belong," he finally stated sharply, "But it seems that you don't want to stay where you belong."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Johnny asked, confused.

Lance's nostrils flared, like he had just insulted him. Pointing an accusatory finger at the black haired boy, Lance grit his teeth.

"You tryin' to make a move on my girl, is what I'm talking about. You tryin' to swoop in and make your move like you Ritchie freakin' Valens or something."

Johnny's eyebrows furrowed.

"Your girl…Cheryl?"

"Yes! My girl," Lance snapped, "I want you to stay away from her. I don't know what you think you're trying to do, but she ain't into no grease monkey."

Johnny frowned, undeterred by the brunette's attempt at a threatening undertone. Lest they were his parents, there wasn't anybody who was going to tell him what to do.

"First of all," he replied, "Cheryl approached me. She was talking about the school fundraiser and wanted to know if we were interested in helping. Secondly, last time I checked, she's hardly 'your'girl, if the flat out rejection at your pitiful attempt at a date last week at the roller rink is anything to go by."

Lance sneered at him, but Johnny didn't miss the way the tips of his ears suddenly reddened. He didn't feel bad- in all honesty, he relished in the scene he had witnessed transpire that Thursday; how Lance tried to get her to dance with him, only for Cheryl to say she wasn't interested. Lance, who had try to make a big show in front of everyone, ended up having the whole crowd stare at him. Johnny wished he had a camera with him at that time, only to witness the hilarious expression of embarassment on Lance's smug face.

Trying to mask down the still fresh humiliation from the memory, Lance stepped closer in intimidation.

"She probably wasn't feelin' it that time, but no matter," he said with a shrug, "Don't fool yourself. She's mine, and don't think her little attempt at talking to you means anything. Probably just felt sorry for you is all."

Johnny stared at him. Something clicked in his mind, and he had to pinch himself to keep from just laughing in the poor bastard's face.

"Are you jealous because she came to me, and not you?" he asked amusedly.

Lance didn't respond, but the way his eyes widened was more than enough of an answer. He went so red in the face Johnny would've almost felt sorry for him if it wasn't hilarious, if not a little more than irritating.

"Jealous? Me? Of you?" Lance stammered, "Please! As if I'd ever have any reason to want to be you!"

"Other than the fact that Cheryl actually wants to talk to me and doesn't seem to want to spare even a second of her time with a stuffed shirt like you?" Johnny pressed, "The only person fooled here is you, Johnson. She's not into you. I know you're probably used to getting everything you want, but Cheryl ain't one of them. Just accept that, it's not a big deal."

He might've as well said that the boy's mother was giving quickies to all the guys in the comic book shop, Lance's face lit up with a murderous intent, his blue eyes icy. If looks could kill, Johnny had no doubt he'd be six feet under.

Sputtering, Lance sneered at him. He spat his next words like they left a bad taste in his mouth.

"You wish I was, Spirit. Even if Cheryl weren't my girl, I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you. You see, she's a girl who's got taste; she likes to be treated. She looks for fine dining, something that's not cheaply made pizza in a back alley or whatever you can buy on a guido's budget," he said.

Johnny felt his fists clench, jaw tightening at the jab towards his Italian heritage. He tried not to show that the insult had gotten to him, but Lance's presence and his berating lately was starting to become quite tiresome. He was just trying to enjoy his summer, and he didn't no Soc ruining it.

Lance sat back, crossing his arms. He smirked, feeling a familiar satisfaction with being able to get under the greaser boy's skin, despite the latter's attempts to act otherwise. His friends chuckled at his insult, giving small comments of agreement.

"What? I'm just being real with you man," he said mockingly, "Hey, I'm actually trying to help you.

"You see, these girls like Cheryl, they come from money, as you know, so they got some high expectations," he continued, "I know you've grown up around people like ya folks who're used to finding their soulmates in the street gutter, but girls like Cheryl, well, they're gonna expect a little more than that."

Johnny bristled, rage building up in his chest. Any semblance of calm he'd been trying to maintain he felt fly right out the window.

He could take any sort of low blows aimed at him- him being poor, his fashion style, whatever- but nobody, absolutely nobody talked smack about his folks and got away with it.

Patience having now run out, he took his own threatening step towards Lance.

"I think you should leave," he said in a tight voice.

"Or what?" Lance challenged back, "You gonna slick my hair back to death?"

"No, but I can break ya nose."

Ralph reached out and put a hand on Johnny's chest, holding him back slightly.

"Don't listen to him, Johnny," he said, "He's not worth it."

"Yeah, man," Lance's friend Thomas said nervously, putting a hand on his shoulder as he looked at the corner store next to them, "We don't need to have Mr. Bowers seeing us and bringing out the broom. Let's just go."

Lance harshly shrugged him off. Him and Johnny glared at each other, only a few inches apart from touching completely. Both groups stared at them, some looking back and forth in fear, scared of what either of them would do, while others looked excited, hopping up and down on their toes eagerly in the hopes of fists to start flying.

A few seconds passed.

Finally, Lance broke the silence with a snort, waving Johnny off like he was just a mere pest in the way.

"Nah, I'm not gonna fight ya," he said, "Now right now, at least. I think you deserve a chance to at least learn ya lesson before I have to get nasty.

"So I'll only say this once, Spirit," he said, leaning in, "Stay away from Cheryl. I don't want to have to get nasty."

"I ain't doin' shit. You don't got a hold on that girl, Johnson, she can do what she likes," Johnny responded, "And if she wants to keep comin' around talking to me, I'm not gonna turn her down cuz I was actually raised to be a gentleman. So how 'bout you back off?"

Lance, a bit taken back by the blatant display of defiance, took another step forward. This time the two were almost nose to nose, barely an inch between them.

"You really want to go to this rodeo, Spirit?" he asked lowly.

"Anytime, anywhere, you name it, Johnson," he responded, standing slightly taller than the blue eyed brunette, "Just don't go cryin' to your mama when I whup you."

Lance narrowed his eyes, like he was pondering if he was actually going to take Johnny up on his little threat. He didn't, though, blinking as he turned away, giving Johnny another wave off.

"C'mon, let's go," he told his friends as he walked passed them, "I'm itchin' for a shake right now."

The rest of them followed after him, though a few them spared the boys a few glances- some wary and others disgusted- before they turned around and walked away.

Johnny watched Lance's back, still fuming. His fists tightened in his pockets. His teeth clenched tightly in his mouth. He was normally one to let things go if they ended on a passive note, but a big part of him itched to just screw formalities and run right up to the brunette and pop him one in his big old mouth. He hated how Lance had managed to get under his skin despite his efforts to ignore him, and he hated even more how he couldn't do more but let it go for now, lest he face possibly getting jumped by the latter's posse.

Benny patted his shoulder, noting the fury in the tall boy's blue eyes.

"C'mon, John, don't let those guys get to ya," he said, starting to pull him, "Let's just go."

Johnny scowled as he continued staring at the group's retreating figure, keeping his gaze on them as he started to turn, before he forced himself to pull away at Benny's insistence, and the two of them and Ralph began to walk in the opposite direction down the street, though the scene continued to play out in Johnny's mind, his imagination cooking up a thousand different ways on how to get back at Johnson on his own time.


 By the end of the week, though, nothing had come up from Lance's threats, the latter doing little more than his usual dose of jackassery that could easily just be brushed off. Just as Johnny suspected. All bark, no bite.

"So, me 'n Teresa, we got to talkin', and we were thinkin' of maybe going to the movies on Saturday," Benny said as they navigated walked down the street, both of them grasping glass bottles of cola. Johnny's fiddle case banged against his leg, having taken it with him to get the strings fixed at the music store.

Johnny spared him a glance as he took a swig. "Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah," Benny confirmed, "See, she's got some dough from that job she's been workin', ya know, and I still have some leftover birthday money I've been savin' up. So we was thinkin' that maybe if we all chip in, we should all have enough to eat and watch at the drive-in uptown."

As they turned the corner, Johnny couldn't help but feel a bit excited at the site of the music store coming up. It was silly, really, but personally, he felt anywhere he was around music, he was home away from home.

"I'm down for that," he commented.

They stopped at the intersection, waiting for the traffic light to turn red. Johnny cocked his thumb at the music store, "Ya wanna hit up a couple sessions together? I got some extra cash to pay for probably two hours."

"I can't today," Benny replied, "My pops is actually gonna pick me up to go to my aunt's house. Her car's been having some trouble lately and he wants me to take a look at it to see if I can find a problem before she has to resort to shillin' out for a repairman."

"Oh," Johnny responded, a little bummed. His mother had guests over today, and rather than coop up upstairs or risk having to entertain a bunch of old ladies, he normally hung out with Benny until they were gone. But with Benny having to help his aunt, and the others busy with other things- Teresa had church, Ralph was on a fishing trip with his dad, and Jeremiah worked part time in the next town over- he'd be on his own.

"Sorry, bro, you know I'd rather us be shootin' it."

"Naw, it's fine," Johnny waved him off, "But first thing tomorrow, we get some coffee?"

Benny grinned, "First thing tomorrow."

The two bumped fists- their own personal handshake- before they parted ways, Johnny heading for the music store while Benny crossed the street to the left. Johnny watched him go once he was across, tracing his back until Benny disappeared behind a small circle of boys who were currently walking their bikes up the sidwalk. Sighing, Johnny adjusted his grip on his case, pushing through the old door of the music store, the small bell at the top ringing.

"Johnny!" Mrs. Leary greeted from the cashier as he walked in, "What a surprise! I haven't seen you in a while!"

Johnny shrugged, "Been busy. Havin' to scrounge for cash for school and all that."

"Oh, no worries, dear, I understand," the old woman said with a kind smile, "Something I can get for you."

"Just some new strings. I think they're starting to wear out again," he commented, holding up his case, "And maybe an hour or so in The Box?"

Mrs. Leary smiled, "Oh, dear, you know never need to ask."

After ringing up his purchase and helping him replace the worn out ones on the fiddle, Mrs. Leary handed him a key, and Johnny thanked her before walking to the back of the store.

"The Box" was the name for a little room in Leary's Music Parts where any one could pay for a registered amount of time to practice in the back. It had soundproof walls so the noise wouldn't travel, and had stacks upon stacks of music books piled all along the walls, whether it be for guitar, tuba, piano, or even the triangle.

Johnny set his fiddle down on one of the few chairs in the room, Johnny walked over to the stack that carried books for violin music. Shuffling through a few of the pages, his eye caught the title of a particular song near the back.

"'The Parting Glass?'" he said to himself, "Didn't know they had this in written form."

The notes looked easy enough, he thought. And the ones that looked a little more complex, he could always add his own swing to things so it wouldn't mess up the melody.

Peeking over his shoulder, Johnny watched the door for a moment.

He shrugged after a moment's notice.

"What the hell," he commented, "It's not like I have anything better to do right now."

Placing the music on a sheet stand, he opened the case and pulled out his fiddle and bow. He spread his legs slightly apart, pressing the end of the fiddle against the slope between his neck and shoulder, grasping the end of the handle with his left arm. Holding the bow is in his right, he raised his arm up and set it against the strings, before slowly drawing it across, producing a low hum.

His eyes slowly danced along the page as he lifted his fingers up and down, trying to match the melody of the notes to the sounds of the fiddle. Drawing the bow back and forth, he soon fell into rhythm as he read along the stanzas, effortlessly playing along. A soft, high tune filled the room, and Johnny took a deep breath as he continued to play, feeling the familiar sense of calm come over him.

The door creaked heavily.

Instantly, he stopped, the fiddle's strings making a harsh Neeeee! sound as Johnny yanked the bow away, whipping around at whoever had entered.

Cheryl took a step back in the doorway, taken aback slightly by the sudden jerking of the brunette before her. Blushing, she held her hands up.

"Sorry!" she exclaimed, "Mrs. Leary had told me there were some books in the back room I was looking for, and I thought this was the storage room!"

Johnny's posture relaxed immediately at his recognition of her; shoulders dropping, he breathed a sigh of relief, though he felt a little trick of shyness- something much unusual for him- seep into his chest.

"It's fine. I just was bored and thought of playing a few notes."

He turned away bashfully, trying to look like he was distracted with the sheet music.

Cheryl stared at his back for a second, before she smiled softly and walked over to where he stood. She took a seat in the front row of the small group of chairs they had lined up, folding her hands together in her lap.

"I didn't know you played the fiddle," she complimented.

Johnny raised his head at her. His eyebrows shot up to almost his hairline at her compliment, obviously caught off guard. He looked away as he felt his cheeks grow red; suddenly, he felt very self-conscious standing in front of her.

"Been playin' since I was eight," he commented, "Don't know what I'd do without it."

"Didn't you quit the band though?"

He nodded, "Too many hours. Plus it got kinda boring; they wouldn't let me play my own stuff. A guy's gotta have the time to his own juices, ya know?"

Cheryl chuckled, nodding. The room suddenly felt into silence, and they both looked at random places, both of them suddenly uncomfortable.

"...Could you play again?" Cheryl suddenly asked, "I would love to hear it."

Johnny swallowed; for a moment, all he could do was stare at her, his heart beating rapidly like it was about to burst out of his chest. Shaking his head to get his concentration back, he smiled and nodded.

"Sure," he said.

Getting raising his fiddle and bow again and placing back into his previous position, he took a deep breath- he didn't know why he was suddenly feeling so nervous around Cheryl (a part of him did, but he didn't need to address that), and he was only hoping he didn't slip up somehow and make a complete ass of himself. Johnny closed his eyes, and without a second thought, began to play.

He played a few old songs for her, ones that he knew by heart. Then he played a chorus version of an old lullaby that his mother used to sing to him every night before bed when he was a kid, one that admittedly he sometimes hummed to himself when he was having a bad day or stressed out. He finally tried to play The Parting Glass from memory as best as he could, though he frowned and grunted a few times when he messed up at some parts, making the fiddle produce an uncomfortable screeching sound.

When he ran out of ideas, Johnny finally stopped, lowering both objects and looking at his one person audience.

Cheryl was absolutely beaming in her seat, her eyes wide and sparkling with awe like she had just laid eyes on a miracle, the apples of her cheeks rosy pink as she beamed at him, the corners of her mouth pulled up so high it looked like it could almost hurt. Johnny felt his heart skip a beat at her expression.

She batted her long eyelashes at him.

"That was…amazing!" she said, standing up, "You're like a real Antonio Vivaldi!"

Johnny felt his blush deepen at the compliment, a smile tugging at his mouth.

"Thanks. Been practicin' for so long it comes naturally. It's pretty much second nature to me by now," he stated.

Cheryl stood up from her seat and walked closer to him, her eyes still wide with admiration. She took the sheet music off the stand to take a look, shuffling the papers as she read along the musical notes. She looked back up at Johnny and asked, "Who taught you how to play?"

Johnny answered, "My grandfather, originally. This was one of the only possessions he brought with him over from Italy; he used to always play for my dad, and gave me lessons when I was old enough to properly hold it. When he died, my dad gave it to me. Been self teachin' ever since."

He smirked, leaning into her, "I'd like to think it's paid off."

She giggled, "It certainly has."

He gazed down at her fondly, the warm feeling in his chest making his stomach do flip flops and his mouth go dry. He kept note of the little things she had about her the way she smiled- how she had a little dimple near the corner of her eye, the bow shape of her lips, how the beauty mark near her chin complimented the oval shape of her face as she smiled. He was feeling funny in a whole new kind of way, and it was honestly a little enjoyable.

He had a flash of what Benny told him of the plans for the weekend, and a little light went off in his head.

"Hey," Johnny said after a moment to catch her attention.

Cheryl looked up at him, curiously awaiting what he had to say next.

A little twinge of doubt suddenly ran through him- What if she says no?- but Johnny shook it off. He wouldn't let low self esteem keep him from trying it. He rubbed the back of his neck.

"So, um, the gang and I were talking," he explained, "And there's been talk about us going to see a movie at the drive-in. A group effort, where all of us pitch in."

Here goes nothing, he thought to himself, bracing himself for the worst. He looked up at Cheryl.

"I was…wondering if, um…you wanted to go. With me."

Johnny looked away right after, bracing himself for the possibility that he had just gotten all of his hopes up and just embarrassed himself. He slowly looked back to gauge her reaction. Cheryl was staring at him, her eyes wide for a new reason; she blinked, caught off guard by his suggestion. Her face flushed as she realized what he was asking, and for a minute he was sure had completely blown out.

Way to go, Johnny, he thought bitterly, You have a way with words. NOT.

But then, Cheryl suddenly beamed, her surprise replaced with excitement. She stared upon him over the top of her glasses, brown eyes shining.

She took a step closer to him; Johnny felt a fluttery feeling shake up his stomach.

"I'd say you got yourself a date," she said, "Pick me up at six? Or I could meet you halfway?"

He raised his head, looking down at her with genuine surprise- his mind went blank for a second, like he couldn't quite believe what he had heard (Did she say 'date?')- before his lips twisted in a smirk, a mischievous glint in his eye.

"Alrighty then," he said, "Six it is."

Cheryl giggled, and he froze as she suddenly reached up to adjust his collar, her fingertips brushing his neck and jawline as she straightened it out; her hand fell away, and she gently brushed his chest, smoothing out his shirt. She kept her hand there for a couple of seconds. Johnny wondered if she could feel just how fast his heart was racing at the gesture. The area burned pleasantly.

"I have to go. My mother's going to be picking me up soon. But I'll see you tomorrow," she stated, "Have a good day, Johnny."

He turned as she walked past him, his eyes watching her as she picked up her things and made her way over to the door. She stopped briefly to give a look over her shoulder and wag her fingers at him, Johnny responding with a wave before she turned back and headed out, making a turn to the left and disappearing around the corner.

Johnny stared at the doorway, feeling suddenly lightheaded as a big, goofy grin marked his face. The place on his chest where Cheryl's palm had brushed him still tingled, like she had engraved her touch into his skin. He put his own hand up to it.

Damn, I'm good! He thought to himself.

It wasn't a bad day after all.


"And where do you think you're going?" Richard asked from his seat as he stared over the tops of his reading glasses and the newspaper, following his son's movements as he stood in front of the mirror near the parlor, slipping his hands into the sleeves of a black leather jacket.

"Me 'n the gang gonna hang out tonight," Johnny replied as he looked at his reflection; his hands went to his scalp, fingers smoothing back the tiny hairs that had just slightly come loose from his newly gelled pompadour, "Gonna all chip in on our own so we can eat at the dinner, then we're gonna head to the drive-in."

Richard raised an eyebrow. "The drive-in? Don't you need, you know, a car to go to the drive-in?"

"Ralph's already got us covered, Pa," Johnny replied, "His mom and dad got something and they're out of town for the night, so they're letting him borrow their Chevy."

"But is it gonna fit all of you? I can't imagine how uncomfortable it's gonna be to have squeeze in the lot of you and stay that way throughout the whole movie."

Johnny looked at his father through the reflection. He shrugged. "We don't exactly have any other option."

Richard watched him for a second. His lips pursed together as a thought came to him, and he considered it, before a small came onto his lined features. Folding up the newspaper and setting it aside on the coffee table, he stood up.

"In that case," he said, "You'll need a little something extra."

Johnny raised his head, confused at the comment. He watched as Richard walked over to the drawer where they kept the items that everyone in the family used simultaneously, digging through it before he pulled something out. He turned around, holding something metal up between his fingers. Johnny's eyes bulged when he realized that it was the key to his father's truck.

"Everyone needs a lil elbow room after all, don't they?" Richard asked, smiling at his son's reaction.

He walked over and grabbed Johnny's hand, turning it over so his palm faced up. He deposited the key in his hand, father and son sharing a look. Johnny stared at him, his mouth hanging open in shock. He looked down at his hand, where the silver key glinted in the overhead light, before looking back at Richard.

"Pa…" he stated breathlessly, "Are…are you sure?"

Richard nodded firmly. "Of course," he said, "You and Benny have worked on that ol' thing so many times, you might as well get a chance to take out for a night."

Johnny stared at him, still flabbergasted by the fact that he was actually given the chance to drive the truck. Him, driving the truck, by himself! His dad's old pick up truck was by no means a hot rod to race down the streets, but it was one of the few luxuries they had, in Johnny's opinion. It got them to where they needed to go, and it was also where Johnny discovered his own love for vehicles, having had to help repair a blown out tire on it once. Since then, he had been hooked, becoming their own little amateur mechanic, as his mother once said jokingly. He'd been allowed to drive it plenty of other times, when one of them felt ill or were preoccupied and needed him to play chauffeur, but never before had he actually been able to drive it without either her or his dad beside him.

Johnny swore that once he got out of this town and made it, he'd buy them a brand new one. Hell, he'd even pay for it himself.

Richard tilted an eyebrow up, mildly amused by the dumbstruck expression on his son's face.

"I can trust you're not gonna wreck it?" he asked playfully.

Johnny blinked. It seemed like it finally registered exactly what he had just been granted, and he grinned widely, his teeth showing as he clenched the key tightly in his grip.

"Yes sir!" he exclaimed, "And if I do, I'll even fix it myself."

Richard laughed, patting his arm. "Glad to hear it. Now, you best get goin'."

Johnny nodded, though his attention was more focused on the key as he stared down at it in his hands like he'd just been awarded the finest jewel on the planet. Giving Richard a quick hug, he grabbed his wallet and sped walked to the door, feeling more than eager to get in the truck and get the feeling of driving it alone for the first time.

"And don't stay out too late!" Richard called as he stepped out the door and started down the steps, "I know you teens like to have a good time, but you ain't eighteen just yet!"

Johnny chuckled, calling back, "I know!"

Making his way to where the beat up, paint-chipped vehicle lay in the driveway, he wasted no time in unlocking the door and sliding into the front seat. He jammed the key into the ignition and squirmed in the seat, nearly bouncing like an enthusiastic child as he felt the vibrations of the engine starting up. He felt the cool smoothness of the steering wheel, the brake and gas pedal under his heel. Looking in the rearview, Johnny smiled back, not even minding he probably looked like a fool over his excitement.

He maneuvered it out of the driveway, slowly exiting his neighborhood. He made his way past the school and the roundabout, before slowing down as he started to make his way into the more wealthy neighborhoods a few miles over.

As he eyed the white picked fences and the lit up windows, Johnny felt a wave of apprehension start to come over him. Cheryl had met up with him before the beginning of class the day before and had given him directions to her address, so he wasn't worried about getting lost. But he couldn't help but feel a little on edge around these houses.

You could never be too careful around the rich people's neighborhood. You could never know when they decided that you didn't belong and they wanted to boot you themselves.

The tension in Johnny's quickly dissipated, however, when his eyes caught site of something brightly colored a few blocks down. He lifted his head and leaned slightly to the left.

Cheryl stood on the street, dressed in a white short sleeved dress printed with purple roses, matching with her violet heels. Her hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, tied with a purple ribbon. Her purse hung down by her knees, the plastic catching the moonlight.

Johnny smiled and pulled up to her house.

"Need a ride?" he asked as he leaned out the window.

Cheryl turned, her face instantly lightening up as her eyes landed on him. She skipped to around the side and pulled the door open, sliding in.

"I must say," she said with an impressed tone, "I expected a good time, but I didn't expect to be treated like royalty."

Johnny shrugged, "What can I say? I try to deliver."

She giggled at his words, and as he began to drive he spared a brief glance out of the corner of his eye. She was looking over the interior of the truck, brushing her hands over the dash and quietly observing the roof. She didn't show any reaction to the damage- how the upholstery was cracked and torn beyond all repair, or how the mirror on her side was cracked, or how the glovebox rattled with every inch because the lock was broken. He was grateful for that.

This night was already turning out good.

The streets of downtown were alive as they usually were most Saturday nights, the restaurants packed with patrons who wanted to take the weekend to spend time with friends or family and the department stores showcasing whatever hot sale was going on in their windows. Johnny grinned as he saw the familiar faded black paint of the Chevy Nomad Wagon that Ralph's family owned sitting in a parking lot of the drive-in diner. The windows were down a few pairs of arms were resting outside of it.

He couldn't wait to see their faces.

Parking the truck a few spots away, he got out and walked to open the door for Cheryl. She beamed at the gesture.

"Well, well, a ride and chivalry?" she inquired amusedly, "You spoil me tonight."

"Nothin' but the best for the ladies," Johnny replied as he held his hand out, helping her down from the small perch. Letting Cheryl smooth down the skirt of her dress, he offered his arm to her.

The pleasant burning that had occurred when she brushed his chest returned as Cheryl slipped both of hers through it, squeezing the crook of his elbow. Johnny fought down a gulp as he suddenly felt something akin to butterflies bloom in his gut.

"Is that my favorite man I think I see?" Benny called out from where he leaned out of the window of the Chevy as he caught sight of them as they walked towards it, "I think it is!"

"You would guess correctly," Johnny called back.

There was a shuffling inside the car, and from the driver's side he saw the door open, Ralph climbing out and leaning on the door. A moment later he saw Teresa and Jeremiah appear from the other side, looking at him with excitement as the final member to their group finally made an appearance.

"It's about damn time," he said, "I thought you wanted us to meet you by the mailboxes?"

"I did, but my ol' man let me borrow the truck for the night," he said.

Jeremiah's eyes widened, "No kidding!"

"Yep," he said with a grin, cocking his thumb back, "Even offered of his own volition. Didn't even have to beg 'em."

"Lucky," Teresa muttered, "Mine wouldn't even let me sit in the front seat when we're parked."

"Well, that just makes everythin' better," Benny exclaimed, "That way we don't all have to cram in like sardines in a can."

His eyes fell to Cheryl, as if he had just noticed her presence. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Johnny observed as Ralph made a similar face, while Teresa just gave a small smile, like she had expected it sooner or later. Jeremiah just looked back and forth between them, not knowing who she was and patiently waiting to find out.

Benny met his eyes. Johnny snorted, nodding like he knew what the question the blonde was going to ask.

Pulling his arm free, he put it over Cheryl's shoulders and drew her closer to his side, his hand grasping one as he pulled her forward slightly.

"I hope you guys don't mind if Cheryl hear joins us," he said, "We've just been talkin' lately and I thought it would be nice if we added a plus one to our circle."

They all stared at him for a second, before exchanging looks with each other. He felt Cheryl shift against his side, no doubt nervous about the impression they could get getting from her.

To Johnny's relief, they all looked at the bespectacled blonde with looks that were warm and welcoming. Jeremiah gave her a kind nod, while Teresa just shrugged. Ralph gave him a thumbs up from his position, and Benny smiled so widely it looked almost like his face hurt.

"Well, shucks, the more the merrier!" Benny exclaimed, "Well, c'mon, John! Let's get her inside! There's a burger and shake in there calling my name!"

Johnny felt Cheryl's shoulders drop in instant relief. He gave her a reassuring squeeze, and she smiled up at him gratefully.

"No need to be scared," he said, "We don't bite."

"Sorry," she apologized, "I just get kinda nervous meeting new people."

"I can get that. Don't worry, though, the gang's cool.

"Now," he suggested, "How 'bout we get some food now and you have a chance to talk and introduce yourselves?"

The way her smile widened made something flip in his stomach, something that went all jittery.

If that was a sign that the night was already off to a good start, Johnny didn't think he minded it too much.


 The jittery feeling only grew as the night went along. Johnny almost felt like skipping as him and Cheryl made their way back to the truck to head to the drive-in, he was so happy.

Dinner had gotten way better than he thought. Though he, admittedly, had doubts about his friends' reaction to him bringing Cheryl- not that he could blame them; after years of getting crap from all the other families who had money in their pockets, you couldn't help but be a little on guard whenever one of them hung around you, like the idea that a stuffed shirt voluntarily being in your presence sounding too good to be true- as soon as they got around to sitting down and getting their food, they instantly connected. Cheryl seemed to take great interest in listening to Benny and the others talk about whatever, and to his great delight, she actually liked many of the same musicians as they did- though him and Ralph had to but in to stop her and Teresa from almost getting at it over if betty bangs were still in or not.

All in all, everything was going great, and if he played his cards right and didn't screw up, it would hopefully only get better.

"So what movie's playin' tonight?" Cheryl asked as she climbed into her seat.

"I'm not sure," he replied, checking the rearview, "I think Jerry said it was some sort of science fiction. Somethin' 'bout a robot and a kid or something."

"Oooh, I do love science fiction!" Cheryl said, "I just hope there's nothin' too scary in it. My uncle took me to see It Came From Outer Space a few years ago, and I still get the chills from it!"

Johnny chuckled, "Well, if you do, feel free to hang on to me, if it makes you feel safe."

He didn't think anything of it as he said it. When he realized just what he had said, his eyes suddenly widened, his smile dropping in a horrified frown. Did I really just say that?! He screamed at himself. His face lit up bright red in embarrassment.

When he looked back to reply- surely, she must've thought he was an idiot now- Cheryl just giggled at him.

"Oh, I'll be sure of that," she commented, "Though I wouldn't be too sure of that."

Johnny rubbed the back of his neck, trying to force the heat on his face to dissipate. "Y-Yeah. You're right."

They found at a spot along the edge of the rows of cars somewhere a little ways off to the back, where Ralph's car sat in front of them. He went to the stand with Benny to buy popcorn and drinks, and as he settled in once he got back in the truck, he felt a jolt go through him as Cheryl suddenly slid closer to him, only about an inch between them.

"I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable," she said, "It's just a little cold, is all."

"It's not," Johnny assured. Uncomfortable is the LAST thing I feel right now, he added in his head in excitement, having to keep himself from grinning like an idiot.

The movie started, and he leaned back in his seat, eyes on the screen.

The flick itself turned out to not be all that interesting- something about a kid getting hyperintelligence due a super computer that turned about to be evil or something- the storyline getting rather dull, and Johnny swore that was the same robot from Forbidden Planet. His interest now lost, he gazed around the drive-in, trying to find something he could keep himself occupied with (because he didn't just spend almost two dollars for nothing) when his eyes landed on Cheryl.

She kept her eyes straight ahead, looking completely entranced with the film. Her eyes glittered a bright amber brown in the lighting, her eyelashes batting every few minutes or so, going up and down like a butterfly flapping its wings. Her lips- painted a lip pink- jutted out in a pout.

He wondered how soft they would feel on his.

Swallowing hard, he tried to shake the thought from his head. Still, he couldn't help but notice several things, now that they were alone: how close she was sitting next to him, how her knee was almost touching his. Her hands were in her lap; he could see the faint shimmer of what looked to be a gold ring on her right ring finger. Johnny bit his lip, temptation calling at him like a mantra. Dare he?

He could stay like they already were, and miss his shot at any chance of taking this…whatever this was between them a bit further.

Or, he could go ahead and make her super uncomfortable and completely blow it.

Aw, screw it, he finally decided, and shifted so he could rest his hand across the back of the seat, conveniently also draping it across Cheryl.

He looked forward as to try and give the impression that he was also engrossed in the film. Inside, though, he awaited her reaction, any sign that she had noticed his intention at all.

He got his answer as she suddenly made a small noise, before she pressed herself against him, pressing their legs together. Johnny inhaled sharply. Was she…?

Cheryl leaned against him so their shoulders were now brushing. She was!

Despite himself, Johnny found he couldn't keep the grin off his face as he boldly slid his hand down her arm, feeling her bare skin before letting it rest around her waist. He could feel tingles running down his spine, traveling down his arms and into his toes. She rested her head on his shoulder, and Johnny stare ahead at the film, though he was no longer processing anything about it at all.

All he could focus on was this moment, and how as of right now, he didn't want it to end.


 "Well, that movie blew," Benny lamented as they walked back to the food stand, intent on getting some snacks and going to the bathroom before they headed out, "Can't believe I used up my last sixty cents for that."

Jeremiah shrugged, "It was all right."

"Not worth almost a whole dollar, it wasn't," Benny replied. He laced his fingers together and held them behind his head, "Now that that's over, what else do we do?"

"We could go back to my place," Ralph suggested slyly, "Play some cards, listen to some tunes. Plus I found a stash of beer my dad tried to hide."

"You had me at beer," Benny joked, "What do you say, Johnny?"

"Maybe. I should probably drop Cheryl off at first. Don't think her folks are the type to appreciate their daughters being out late with us peasants," Johnny said, shaking his word and emphasizing 'peasants.'

"I'll try to come by later, though."

Benny raised his head, staring at him for a second as if he had caught the underlining message in the sentence. A grin slowly stretched across his face, and nodding in understanding, he patted Johnny on the shoulder.

"Don't keep us waitin' too long," he advised, before turning and going to meet up with Jeremiah at the water fountain.

Johnny hung back, his hands in his pockets as he turned himself, waiting for his blonde haired date to walk out of the restroom. Cheryl stepped out a moment later, her head bowed as she adjusted something in her purse. As she stepped to Johnny, she looked up, sighing happily as she slipped it over her shoulder.

"Sorry if I was taking a little while. The other stalls were all filled," she said sheepishly.

Johnny shrugged, "Naw, it's good. I should be the one sayin' sorry, if I had known the film was going to be that bad, I would've suggested we all just head to the bowling alley."

Cheryl smiled, "Don't be. I still had a good time. I got to be with you, after all."

He swallowed hard, his smile shy from her compliment. "Well, I thank you for acceptin' it. I mean, you coulda turned tail the minute I even bothered, and you decided to stick it out for a guy like me."

She tilted her head, her look soft. "Why wouldn't I accept a proposal from the sweetest guy I know?"

Johnny's eyes widened, a faint blush coming on his features. He suddenly felt small under her gaze, though it wasn't exactly uncomfortable; more like a nervous twinge, but one that made him want it to last. Cheryl took a step forward, a new unreadable twinkle in her eye.

"You know, Johnny," she said lowly, "I've been really enjoying these last few times we've spent together."

She came closer until she was right in front of him, their chests slightly brushing. Johnny suddenly felt his heart rate pick up, his palms going sweaty as he looked down at her with widened eyes. He gulped.

"Yeah…" he said, feeling lightheaded, "We…we have…"

"I think…." Cheryl mused, stepping even closer. She started to raise on her toes, and he found all his attention had suddenly become focused on her lips, "That I would like…for that to happen…more often.."

"Me…too…"

"Maybe…" she said, looking up at him with half lidded eyes, her face coming closer to his, "We could…on a new level…"

This is it, Spirit, his mind told him, No turning back now.

"We…could…" Johnny whispered.

His mind went on autopilot as he closed his eyes. He felt his head go forward, before he felt her lips against his.

He felt lightheaded, like the first time he had gotten drunk with Benny, the feeling of sparks running through his veins making him feel electrified, like he was going to start bouncing off the walls at any moment. Cheryl's lips were soft against his chapped ones, and he could feel her press against them eagerly. He didn't know what to do with his hands, so he settled for placing them right at her elbows, holding her slightly. He pushed forward with a little more vigor, delighting in the slight moan he earned from her.

They broke apart after a few moments, cheeks equally flushed. They gazed upon each other fondly, their eyes glassy and holding nothing but tenderness at the person in front of them. Cheryl was the first to look away, her chin digging into her shoulder as she looked at the ground shyly.

"That…that was…" she stammered, slowly looking back up at Johnny with amazement, like she couldn't quite believe what they had just done. Her lip quivered as she became at a loss for words, too overwhelmed by the sudden heat that had just passed through both of them at their kiss.

He put a hand on her shoulder.

"Could I show you something?" he asked, "Away from here?"

Cheryl looked up at him, curious. She looked deep into his eyes- those dark blue orbs that right now, only radiated the purest of emotion and honesty that she had ever seen from the normally mischievous brunette. He often tried to put on the front of the whole bad boy attitude that came with his personal sense of style, but right now she could only see sincere affection in his gaze directed at her. Her heart swelled at it.

She nodded with a smile.

Johnny smiled in return. He took her hand, and delighted in the way she laced her fingers with his as they walked back to his truck, both of them in probably the best of moods they had been in all week.

Little did they know, they were being watched.

A pair of blue eyes stared into their backs with the upmost hatred- particularly at Johnny's back- as the two walked. They burned with rage, their owner snarling as he balled his fists.

"That bastard! Thinks he's so fucking smooth?! This is the last straw!..."


 "Okay, close your eyes," Johnny stated as he guided her to the ladder.

Cheryl looked at him with confusion. "What?"

"Just trust me on this," he defended, "I promise, I'm not gonna do anything to spook you. Just want to surprise you, is all."

He held his hands up in defense; she pursed her lips in doubt, sparing a look at the old ladder that led up to the top of the loft, and then casting a glance at the old tools that hung on the wall. She sighed, giving him a reassuring smile.

"Okay, Johnny. I trust you."

She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, her nose light scrunching up at the action as she held her hand out. Johnny grinned at her cute expression, taking it- hers was soft and tiny compared to his larger, callused one, her ring slightly cool in his palm- and slowly leading her up the ladder, step by step, being careful to keep an eye on her so she didn't miss one. As they got to the top, he climbed onto the top loft, turning so he could lead her up the last few steps and help pull her up.

"Can I open them now?" she asked.

"Not yet," he answered, putting his hands over her eyes.

Slowly leading her over the hay that was laid out over the floor, bringing her to the open window that faced out towards the old field.

"Okay," Johnny said softly, "Open them."

He took his hands away, gauging her reaction as she cracked them open.

She gasped as she saw what lay out ahead of them. Johnny smiled, reveling in the wide eyed amazement in her eyes.

The view she was given was that of the deep night sky, the royal blue decorated with the image of millions of stars scattered across its surface. As far as the eye could see, clusters upon clusters of stars littered every inch, twinkling bright white like polished diamonds. Constellations created patterns among them, and tonight there was a particularly bright patch near the right; a greyish cloud of illumination that seemed almost like a tear in the sky. The edge of the milky way, gracing them with its presence.

"Oh…oh my gosh, it's…it's beautiful!" Cheryl finally said, breathless.

Johnny smiled. Him and Benny had found the old barn when they were about fifteen one summer, going for a walk along the dirt road behind the neighborhood when a game of toss ended when Benny threw it too far and it landed at the bottom of the lake. Seemingly abandoned by its former owner, the tools covered under a fine layer of dust and any old livestock having since been taken out, it had become their own secret little hangout, where they'd often come to relax and have a few beers they'd stolen from their parents. Now, Johnny felt it was the only place appropriate to show his lady, so that they could finally have some decent alone time.

Cheryl looked at him, the amount of love in her eyes almost overwhelming. "Johnny, this has been lovely. The dinner, the movie, this. You…you really are the best."

His heart swelled, and he shifted on his feet, suddenly feeling a little sheepish. "I try."

She smiled, leaning up on her toes to give him a peck on the cheek. He smiled gratefully.

A few minutes later, they lay on the hay, facing the open window as they talked about everything under the Sun.

"- so then, Benny gets this brilliant idea to just climb on Mr. Roth's roof and get it himself," Johnny said, in the middle of telling her a story, "But, he obviously didn't take into account that maybe the drain pipes aren't that strong and probably can't support the full weight of a twelve year old boy, so lo and behold, the second he steps off the water barrel to try and put his foot to the wall, the drain pipe completely gives way and rips right off! And Benny goes falling to the ground!"

Cheryl laughed, holding a hand to her mouth at the image. Johnny grinned back at her.

"That's horrible!" she exclaimed, "Was he all right?"

"Yeah, nothin' but a bruised shoulder and pride is all," he answered, "Really, we both needed to be worried about my ma; boy, was she mad, she tanned our hides so badly. And we had to spend the rest of every weekend that month going over to fix Mr. Roth's pipes. Lesson learned, I tell you what."

She giggled some more at his grimace, before relaxing and laying back against the hay. She folded her hands, turning her head to look at Johnny.

"So, you have plans for after graduation? I know the year hasn't even started yet, but have you thought about it all?" she asked.

Johnny pondered the question for a minute; he stared at the ceiling, his hands behind his head. He sighed.

"I really don't know," he admitted, "My folks want me to go college. You know, take the chance that they didn't get to have. But…I want to do something with music. You know, play for a livin'. Maybe I'll travel, doin' skits on the weekend, or join a band or something. On the other hand, though, I…I don't want to let them down."

Cheryl gave him a look of pity. She pursed her lips in thought for a second, looking down at her hand and briefly twirling her ring.

"I think," she replied, "I think you should follow your heart. Do whatever makes you happy. I think they'll be proud of you either way."

"You think?" Johnny asked, raising an eyebrow in doubt.

"Sure. You've got the potential to do anything you set your mind to, Johnny. More than I think you realize. If you think you can play music for a living, or think you'll be happy selling cars or something, I'm confident you can do it," she explained, sitting up to get a better look.

Johnny chuckled, tilting his head, "Is that what this thing between us is about? Me having potential?"

She smiled, "Maaaaybe. And maybe because I wanted to get to know you a lot better."

He blushed at her sentiment, though a sudden feeling of self-consciousness came over him. He tore his gaze away from her for a second, looking back to the ceiling.

He didn't have a lot to offer. He didn't have a fancy car to drive her around in, or the cash to spoil her on weekly fancy dinner dates, or a mansion to hold her up in; hell, barely anything in their house was new, most of the furniture and decorations being antiques passed down in the family or flea market finds. He lived in the poor side of the neighborhood, where the houses had cracked shingles and rickety doors, leaking roofs and browning lawns where the grass had dried up. She had parents who both had educations and could afford to buy her new clothes every other day of the week and had more than enough money than they knew what to do with.

He wasn't like the other guys she probably knew in her neighborhood. He hadn't a dime to him. And yet she still agreed to his proposal anyway. Why?

"Cheryl…" he suddenly said, sitting up. He placed his hands in his laps. She looked at him, concerned at how he said her name.

"I…I'm not exactly like the other guys at school," Johnny said, "My folks and me…we don't really have a whole lot. I mean, we manage, but it's at the bare minimum. I can't exactly offer a whole lot-"

"I know," Cheryl interrupted, "I don't care."

He turned his head, "But why?"

She smiled, "Because you're you. You're sweet, and you're funny, and…well, you're a great guy, Johnny."

Cheryl put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing in an attempt for comfort. Johnny felt something leap in his chest in flattery. He felt the corners of his mouth pull into a smile.

"So what is this between us?" he asked, "Are we official now or something?"

The look in Cheryl's eyes turned coy. "It is if you want to be."

His mouth went dry. Against his better resistance, Johnny felt his smile grow, and he gazed upon her softly as he wrapped an arm around her.

"Yeah," he responded as he pulled her back down with him, "I think I'd like that."

Cheryl cooed, closing her eyes and cuddling up next to him, her hand on his chest. He took a calming breath, closing his own eyes and enjoying the feel of her against them. The night was calm and quiet, the only sounds besides their breathing being the gentle hum of crickets outside.

There was suddenly the strange screeching sound of tires.

BAM! BAM! BAM!

They both jumped at the sudden sound of a harsh pounding on the barn's doors. Before either of them could react, they heard them open, banging against the pillars.

"OI! SPIRIT!" a familiar voice shouted up at them.

Johnny furrowed his brows, recognizing who it was. He pushed himself up by his elbows as Cheryl sat up on her knees. They spared a confused glance at each other.

"Is that…is that Lance?" Cheryl asked.

"I know you're up there, Spirit! And I know Cheryl's with you too! So get your ass down here!" the voice demanded, harsh and cold.

Frowning, Johnny rolled over and pushed himself up by his knees, walking over to where the ladder was. He peered down.

Lance was glaring back up at him, looking like an angry bull with his nostrils flaring, his face beet red and his hands clenched into tight fists. Paul and their gaggle of other friends stood behind him, giving the tall brunette varying looks of disgust and disbelief.

There was a creaking sound behind him, and Johnny looked to see Cheryl had come up, looking even more confused as she saw the boys standing at the bottom.

The site of the blonde seemed to infuriate Lance, and he gritted his teeth at Johnny.

"I knew it, I fucking knew it," he spat out to the two above, "You never listen, do ya, Spirit? I told you to stay away from my girl. Now get your ass down here so we can settle this."

He looked like he wanted nothing more than to wrangle the life from him. But Johnny was not in the least bit intimidated by the furious expression on the boy's face. If anything, he was annoyed that yet again, Lance was in his space and purposefully pursued him to bother him.

He was not going to let him ruin his night.

Rolling his eyes, Johnny started to make for the ladder, before he was stopped by the feel of Cheryl grabbing his wrist. He spared another glance back at her, the latter's brows furrowed in concern.

"Johnny, don't," she said warily.

"Come on, Spirit!" Lance demanded impatiently, "Unless you provin' yourself a chicken, come down here and face me like the man you present yourself as!"

The guy's voice was grating on Johnny's nerves. Pulling his hand away, he regarded Cheryl with a simple "Stay here", before descending the ladder, his face pinched as he made haste.

Reaching the bottom, he turned around and leaped off the last step, putting his hands in his pockets. Refusing to give Lance any satisfaction of possibly thinking he got to him, Johnny just gave him a glare.

"What do you want?" he asked like he was bored.

It seemed to do the trick. Lance's eyes widened in rage, and with a snarl, as if he were a rabid dog, he darted towards Johnny, coming right up to him and poking him hard in the chest.

"I've had it with you, Spirit," he spat, "You walkin' around this school like you actually worth shit, thinkin' you can come crawlin' in here talkin' to our girls. I'd thought sooner or later you'd learn your fucking place, but obviously, I've been too fucking easy on you."

Johnny narrowed his eyes.

"Don't touch me," he said coldly, smacking Lance's hand away, "And get the fuck out of my face before I make you."

Lance raised an eyebrow incredulously, "You're gonna make me? I'd like to see you try."

"Stop it!" Cheryl demanded, hurrying down the ladder now and racing to where the two stood. She got in between them, looking up at Lance with anger, "Just stop it, both of you! This isn't a big deal, just stop!"

"Why the hell you defendin' him?!" Lance questioned, "You of all people should know better, Cherry! Hangin' out with losers like him, you're only encouragin' him!"

"I will hang out with whoever I please, Lance!" Cheryl responded, her face flush with anger, "For the last time, we are not a thing, you don't get to dictate my life!"

"Obviously, based on the way you two was tonguing out in at the theater," Lance said venomously.

He leered at the way their eyes both widened, Cheryl going pale.

"Yeah, I saw ya," he said cruelly, glaring down at Cheryl with a newfound sense of disgust, "What would your father, think Cheryl? You throwin' yourself at these greasers like some kind of tramp in the whorehouse? Though, maybe that's where you belong."

Johnny grit his teeth at the insult.

"Don't call her that," he snapped, lightly pushing Cheryl to the side to get face to face with Lance.

Lance just sneered at him. "Or what, Spirit?" he taunted, "You gonna knock my block off?"

"If you don't get your friends and get the hell out of here, I just might have to do more."

"Oh, feelin' bold are we?" Lance said.

"Do it, Lance!" Paul called back.

"Pound his face in!" Gary DeVeau encouraged.

"You really wanna do this?" he questioned a final time. Johnny glared back.

"You gonna get out, or am I gonna have to throw you out?" he hissed.

Not intimidated by the tone, Lance shrugged, sighing in frustration.

"Okay, so we're doin' this," he announced as he stepped back, throwing his jacket at Paul and pulling his waistline up. He bent down slightly, holding his fists up.

"Ready when you are, Spirit," he said.

Johnny frowned at him, pulling off his own jacket.

"Johnny, don't-"

"Cheryl, stay back," he just warned, tossing his leather on the ground, before getting into his own fighting stance.

Lance grinned evilly as the two approached each other. His friends looked at them with glee, all of them looking eager to get their own shot in and see who came out on top.

"I've been waiting on this for a loooong time, Spirit," he said as they got closer.

Johnny just narrowed his eyes. "If you're so eager, swing already."

"Gladly."

With that, he launched himself at Johnny, throwing his fist up in an attempt to get Johnny square in the side of the face; Johnny, catching the maneuver, threw himself to the side, ducking his arm down and managing to land an uppercut.

"JOHNNY!" Cheryl screamed as they went at each other, wincing as the two teenage boys threw fists and kicks, each of them landing punches and swing at one another. "Johnny, no! He's not worth it!"

She tried to pull them apart, only to struggle as Gary held her back, pulling her towards his group.

"Don't jump in, girly," he warned, "This is their time to settle it like men."

Johnny grit his teeth in pain as his back smacked into the pillar holding up the barn's loft, pain blooming all down his spine. He tried to ignore it, dodging Lance's other punch and jumping to the left. Lance wouldn't let him get by, though, as he dove and grabbed hold of the black haired boy, slamming the both of them into the side of the wall.

"Give up now, Spirit, and this could all be over!" he exclaimed, getting his hands around Johnny's waist and throwing the both of them to the ground.

"Not a chance!" Johnny spat back as he rammed his elbow back, earning a pained shout from the other boy as he got Lance in the nose.

"Get 'em Lance!"

"Break his fuckin' Jaw!"

"Don't let him get one up on you!"

The other boys cheered on their friend, most of them jumping at the excitement of the fight, shouting in glee whenever Lance managed to land a nasty hit on Johnny. Cheryl stood among them, watching in fear as they continued pummeling each other, her heart racing in nervousness of what was going to happen to her blue eyed date.

In the confusion and the adrenaline of it all, none of them noticed when the two crashed into the old shelf on the barn's west wall, it knocked over an old kerosene lamp on the top, the rusted mechanism falling right onto the floor and breaking, along with an open gasoline can, the mixture pouring down the sides of the wall. The chemicals met, and formed a puddle that instantly spread out from under the metal and glass. Nobody in the barn paid attention to it.

And in not paying attention to it, they noticed neither the puddle, nor the still smoking cigarette butt it was heading towards.

Lance jumped back, bending his knee and kicking his leg out to try and get his opponent in the crotch. Johnny spun to the side, grabbing his ankle and pulling him towards him. Lance flailed as his balance was thrown off; he couldn't recover, though, as Johnny took the chance to dive at him, wrapping his arms around his waist as he tackled them to the ground. Lance hit the concrete floor with an 'oof'; before he could recover from the daze, Johnny straddled him, cocking his fist back and socking him right in his left cheek, before doing the same to the right, Lance's head whipping back and forth as he was handed blow after blow. His friends shouted, shocked at the advantage that Johnny suddenly had over their friend.

"Come on, Lance, get up!"

"Yeah, don't let him do you in like this!"

The kerosene and gasoline puddle, all the while, got closer to the cigarette but; the butt itself was still slightly aglow with a few embers, a small cloud of smoke rising up from it.

Struggling to get out from under where Johnny sat atop him, Lance thrashed, grabbing blindly for his arms to stop the swirl of punches. Johnny struggled in return, ripping his hands away and trying to land a few more. Lance raised his knees to his chest, managing to plant his feet on Johnny's chest, catapulting him off. Johnny flew back, stumbling to regain his footing. He panted, his lungs burning, heart pounding with the adrenaline that ran through his veins; he was sweating, a few stray hairs sticking to his forehead.

He watched as Lance rolled over, getting onto his knees and pushing himself up. The rich boy glared at Johnny something fierce, his hair in disarray and his breathing equally hard. Johnny could see bruises already beginning to swell up on the latter's face from where he had hit him.

Lance froze as he felt a trickle of something wet in his nose, before it suddenly dripped down his lips and his chin. He wiped his nose, pulling his hand back. He stared at it, his eyes widening in shock when he saw red.

"Aw, he does bleed," Johnny teased, a mirthful smile on his face, "And here I thought you guys were made of gold."

Lance raised his head, snarling at the boy's arrogance. A newfound bout of dark, burning hatred filled his chest, and everything about Johnny- the latter's pompous grin, how he looked at Lance like he had bested him, the way he dressed, the fact he was here- alone- with Cheryl after Lance told him to stay away, the way he talked, the way he acted like he was worth shit when he was just a down and out greaser who didn't even have a penny- made the hate burn in his veins, dark thoughts filling his head.

A thought came to his head about the object in his back pocket, a Lance sneered cruelly at it.

"Oh, you want to see red?" he asked, moreso to himself than Johnny.

They ran at each other again, dodging each other's strikes. Lance's hand flew to his back pocket, digging in and enclosing on the metal object that resided there.

"I'll show you red," Lance hissed as him and Johnny jumped back.

Johnny, not quite understanding what he meant, brushed it off and ran forward again.

Lance did so as well, though he pulled something from his pocket.

Johnny raised his fist, ready to throw another punch over hand.

Lance dodged it, and thrusted whatever he had underhand-

Johnny saw something glint briefly-

"ACK!"

He choked out, suddenly freezing.

Lance stilled also. Something in his eyes flashed, and the dark excited expression he had completely fell apart, his mouth falling open in horror, as if he had just now realized what he had done. They stumbled, before they just held each other, too startled to move.

Johnny stared at him; little sounds came from his throat, but in his shock, no words would form.

"Come on, get 'em!"

"Throw that greaser to the ground?"

"Lance, what's wrong?...Lance?"

The jeers died down as they all noticed neither of the two boys moving, like they had been frozen in place.

Johnny's lips quivered, his mind going blank for a second.

Hot, searing agony bloomed in his abdomen, sending pin and needle-like sensations throughout his whole body, like molten lava had just been injected into his veins. It stole his breath, made every other inch of his body hurt. He felt tears prick his eyes at the sensation.

He was confused. Why did it suddenly hurt everywhere?

Johnny looked down.

His eyes widened.

Lance tightly gripped the handle of what looked to be a switchblade, his knuckles bright white. Johnny had seen it before; Lance liked to sometimes show it off in the locker room and brag about all the things he'd done with it, though Johnny doubted it had gotten any type of use other than to be a prop.

Johnny couldn't see the blade.

"Lance?" he dimly heard Paul ask, all joy having gone out of the guy's voice and having been replaced with concern.

Gasping, Lance pulled away from him, yanking the knife away- Johnny let out a noise of pain as he felt something stinging in his side at the action.

Lance stumbled away from him, staring down at Johnny's front with horror.

Johnny got a look of the blade this time.

It was covered in red.

He felt something wet- thin and runny, some kind of liquid starting to run down the front of him, dampening his shirt. Johnny put his hand to the area where it started to hurt; he winced as the action made it sting worse. It was wet, there.

He looked down, bringing his hand up.

Something twisted in him.

It was blood.

His blood.

It soaked his shirt, staining the bottom right of the white cotton bright red. It started soaking his waistband and running down his leg. Drops of it dripped off his hand and splattered onto the ground and his shoes.

Johnny looked up at Lance. The latter stared back, horrified.

He looked to the group.

They went pale as they all got a good look at him. Their mouths dropped open, eyes going wide. Cheryl looked like she had just seen the devil as he caught her eye, her eyes eyes going to the size of dinner plates.

She screamed.

"JOHNNY!"

Johnny doubled over as the pain suddenly overwhelmed him- he felt sick, like he was suddenly going to puke. He placed both hands over his bleeding side as he fell to his knees, feeling his hands become drenched within seconds.

"SHIT!" Paul exclaimed, hands digging into his hair. He stared at Lance in panic. The other boys started shouting as well, all of them registering what they were seeing and not knowing what to do.

"Oh g-god, he's really bleeding!" he said, his voice strained, "F-Fuck, Lance, what did you do?!"

"Shut up!" Lance bit back, though he didn't take his eyes off Johnny, "H-He provoked me, he-he…oh god!"

"Johnny! Johnny, listen to me!" Cheryl called out; she shoved the other guys- too frozen with alarm to move- running right for Johnny, falling to her knees right beside him.

Johnny grit his teeth against the pain; he dimly registered that he was shaking, hot stinging pain shooting through every inch of him, making him feel nauseous and his discomfort greater.

"Johnny, y-y-you're going to be okay!" she tried assuring him, throwing her arms around him and rubbing his back, "You're going be okay, w-w-we just need get you out of here! We just need to get you to the hospi-"

The puddle, ever spreading, finally reached the burning end of the cigarette butt.

They all screamed as there was a flash, before a sudden wave of yellow-tipped blue flames raced along the liquid path. As it met the remains of the lamp, another bright flash fanned out in front of them all, before bright orange flames shot out and instantly consumed the bookshelf.

"SHIT!" Gary shouted as he fell back on his rear, watching the spectacle in horror.

Their attention was suddenly taken away from Johnny as they watched in terror as the west wall of the barn was suddenly consumed in fire. The old barn, ancient and worn and decades old, stood not a chance against the hungry flames, and within only seconds they spread across the infrastructure, devouring the dried wood and hay and engulfing everything in its blanket of orange heat.

"HOLY FUCK!" Paul exclaimed.

"LET'S GET OUT OF HERE!" Max roared, not sparing his friends a second glance before he turned on his heel and darted for the barns door.

The others followed suit, shoving and tripping over each other as they wrestled to get out before the flames reached the front.

Cheryl screamed as one of the pillars, weakening as it was eaten away by the fire, collapsed, sending the loft collapsing, the ladder slipping out and slamming to the floor before the flames reached it as well.

Johnny, in pain, only dimly registered what was going on.

It was hot. It was starting to hurt. He hurt, and he was wet.

There was a coppery taste on his tongue, and he tore away from Cheryl as he coughed, something thick coming up in his throat. He gagged as it filled his mouth, and blood burst from his lips, spilling over his chin and splattering on the ground.

"Johnny!" Cheryl exclaimed, tears spilling down her face and her voice wavering, "Johnny, c-come on, we gotta get out of here! W-We gotta get you help, okay! Come on, we just gotta g-g-get you up-"

She tried pulling him to his feet, but it only caused a wave to roll over Johnny that was so great, he nearly passed out; his head swam, black spots starting to dance in front of his vision. "Johnny!"

She cried out again as a wave of heat passed over them as the roof of the barn became engulfed in the flames, burning splinters of wood starting to rain down upon them.

Johnny couldn't move.

He didn't want to move, because moving made it hurt worse. Oh, god it hurt so much…

He collapsed onto his front, curling in a fetal position as he gritted his teeth against another wave of pain; he felt sick. His head hurt, blood loss and the heat of the fire making him dizzy.

Cheryl tried again to get him up, only to feel herself ripped away from him by a harsh tug on her arm. She looked up to see Lance- his face grim and his attention on where Johnny lay- getting her to her feet, pulling her towards where the others were heading out.

"Come on, we gotta go."

Cheryl pulled back, "We can't leave him, he needs help!"

"Shut up and get moving!" Lance demanded, starting to drag her to the doors. Cheryl tried to resist, but it was futile, the taller brunette greatly outmatching her strength. She reached back, tears streaming from her brown eyes as she still tried to yank free of his grip.

"No, Johnny! JOHNNY!" she screamed as the distance between them got greater.

Johnny rolled onto his stomach, lifting his head- it took great effort to do so- to see what was going on, where everyone had went. All of Lance's friends had bolted, and he could see him trying to drag Cheryl out.

He coughed weakly as blood poured from his mouth. He could smell it all over his body, his hands coated in it. The fire raged all around him. The heat had started to hurt, his back roaring in pain as the heat seared it. His vision was watery, tears clouding it.

"LET ME GO!" Cheryl screamed as she tried to dig her heels into the ground, "I'M NOT LEAVING HM!"

"COME ON! WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE!" Lance screamed back, using his other free arm to grab her and yank her towards the door.

"NO!" She looked back over her shoulder.

Johnny groaned. He tried to crawl forward, but the ripping pain in his abdomen made it nearly impossible to do so. He swallowed, whimpering as he reached a hand up. Cheryl reached back, fruitlessly as Lance finally dragged her out the doors, and they disappeared from sight, leaving Johnny alone.

As the flames roared around him, and he continued to bleed, Johnny kept a hand reached out, various small sounds escaping his throat as he struggled to call out to someone.

Don't go, he thought, tears and blood pouring down his jaw as he reached out.

Don't go. Don't leave me alone.

Please, don't let it end. Not like this, not now.

The black spots grew larger. Johnny felt lightheaded, his vision blurring. His fingers twitched as he continued to reach out, the heat unbearable on him. He could feel blood spreading out from under him. Holes started appearing in his shirt where embers caught on and burned the fabric, falling onto his back and burning his skin.

He was suddenly tired. So tired.

He blinked. He couldn't keep his eyes open.

It was going fuzzy. He couldn't think straight. Everything suddenly felt numb.

Please, he thought, Please, someone, help me.

Help me. I'm scared.

Then, it all went dark.


 "….only seventeen…"

"…end up like this…"

"…my son! That's…that's my boy!..."

"YOU DID THIS! YOU DID THIS TO HIM!"

He flinched, awareness suddenly coming back to him.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, his eyelids fluttering with great resistance, like he had been in a very deep sleep and had just woken up. He blinked at the sight he was seeing in front of him.

The night sky shone back down at him, the moon full and casting its bright white glow upon him.

Johnny blinked again. He furrowed his brows, frowning.

What…what happened?

He sat up, looking around. Where am I?

The dark shadows of the forest greeted him, the sound of crickets and frogs echoing throughout the bush. The earth was soft under his hands. Johnny looked around, confused. It was the place along the dirt road where the barn was, but…something was off.

How did he get here? He didn't remember falling asleep. His truck was missing. He turned, trying to get a hold of his surroundings. He looked to where the barn lay.

Johnny stiffened.

What greeted him back wasn't the old, faded red white and barn that he remembered.

Instead, what lay ahead of him was it's burned out, blackened remains, with only the charred basic infrastructure still standing, the rest of it in a pile of ashes on the ground at the center.

Johnny's mouth fell opened. What the hell happened here?

Something on the ground, a little ways away from him, glinted in the moonlight, catching his eye. Johnny turned. It was a small gold ring, lying in the grass.

"That's Cheryl's ring," Johnny said to himself. What was it doing here?

He reached over to pick it up-

He froze at the sight of his hand. He held it out in front of him.

His skin color was off. Johnny turned it over to his palm, eyeing the discoloration. He looked at his other hand.

"What…what the hell?" he said to himself.

His hands, normally fair toned, with slight redness at his knuckles at his fingertips, were now completely white, as if they were made out of marble. His fingernails had turned dark grey.

There was also a strange blue glow around them.

Something flashed in Johnny's mind.

Feeling wet….pain coursing through his entire body…Cheryl and the other boys looking scared out of their minds…the barn burning down…Lance's surprised expression…a knife in his hand…

"Ergh!"

Johnny bent over, overwhelmed by the images that raced through his mind at what felt like a million miles per hour. He grit his teeth.

Flames…pain…blood…

He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling like his skull was about to split in too. When they stopped, Johnny remained there. He released a shaky breath, afraid to open them for a second. Slowly, he forced himself to look again, lest he stand there all night.

They nearly bugged out of his head when he saw that instead of where he should've seen the white toes of his sneakers, all that was there was translucent blue light.

Johnny let out a shout of surprise, falling back. He stretched out his light, looking at the pale glow that seemed to outline his whole body.

"What…the hell…happened to me?" he stammered out.

He got to his feet, something in his gut telling him he ought to take a look at himself. Johnny darted over to the river nearby, leaning over the side and taking a look at the messy reflection staring back at him.

"What…?"

His skin had gone entirely white, though there was a faint grey undertone to it. His ears were now strangely pointed. His black hair was still in its slicked back style as he normally left it, but now it was shot through with streak of periwinkle, creating a striped pattern. All around him, there was a strange blue glow, like he was some kind of lighthouse, or a lamp.

Johnny also noticed, with slight horror, that he was entirely see through.

But how…how did…

He looked at his abdomen, where Lance had stabbed him. There was no blood, not even a sign of a scar.

Did that mean he had dreamt the whole thing? But then, how did he end up here? It didn't seem likely, given that the barn was burnt down right in front of him. But then, that meant…

Johnny felt something inside him go cold.

No…

No, it…it couldn't be…He couldn't be..

"NO!" he yelled.

That couldn't have been the case! He had to be all right, he had to be!

"I…I need to get back home," he said to himself, "Need…need to find Mom and Dad…f-find out what happened."

He turned and darted out of the woods, stopping only to get Cheryl's ring. He raced back to town- it was a struggle; to Johnny's horror, he felt almost weightless, and every time he touched the ground, it felt like he was sinking into quicksand before getting flung out.

There was something different about the house as he approached it. Something…still. Like the usual warmth it provided had been put out.

"Ma?" Johnny called as he opened the door.

Silence greeted him. The lights downstairs had been turned off. Something about it made Johnny slightly panicked. He didn't know what, but he didn't like it.

"Pa?"

He ran up the stairs. "MOM? DAD?"

There was a single light on upstairs, coming from his bedroom.

Johnny was confused. He could've sworn he turned the light off before he left to go pick up Cheryl.

He could hear what sounded like small sniffles coming from the inside.

"Ma?" he called out again. No response.

He pushed open the door.

His mother and father sat on his bed, their backs turned to him. Sybil leaned on her husband, her shoulders shaking up and down as small, quiet sobs racked her figure. Richard held her, trying to whisper soothing words, though the way his voice cracked let it be known that he wasn't quite holding it together either.

"Pa? W-What're you guys doing in here?" Johnny asked, "Why are…why are you guys crying?"

They didn't even budge. Like they didn't hear him.

Johnny reached forward to grab Richard's shoulder. "Pa-"

Only for his hand to go right through him.

Johnny yanked his arm back as if he had just been burned. He stared at his hand, panic overtaking him. Looking back towards his father, he reached out again. His hand went right through his shoulder, seemingly not even giving Richard the slightest sensation.

Johnny could feel terror overtaking him. What was happening? Why…why couldn't they see him? Why couldn't they hear him?

There was a newspaper on the bed. The headline caught Johnny's eye. He frowned in frustration when his hand passed through that as well, and he was forced to lean down to read it.

Local Teen Dies in Gruesome Rivalry Gone Wrong

August 4 th

Johnny's eyes widened. August fourth? But that….that wasn't until tomorrow…

But…local teen.

His blood ran cold.

"No…" he took a step back, horrified. He glanced at his parents. Neither of them moved, still holding onto each other desperately as they grieved.

"No…" Johnny repeated, "NO!"

He darted out the room, racing down the stairs and out of the house.

He couldn't be….he couldn't be dead…t-that was impossible! He was only seventeen, he couldn't be- no!

"Somebody!" he called out as he raced into town, where people were walking and going about their night, though there was a noticeable solemn mood in the atmosphere tonight.

"Somebody, please! I'm here!" Johnny cried out.

He tried getting in front of people, trying to grab onto them. He jumped in front of them, waving his hands in their faces, trying to get them to look at him.

They just passed right through him, like he weren't made of anything. They saw right through him, as if he weren't even there.

"Somebody! Help!" he yelled, "I'm here! I'm-I'm-I'm alive! I'm not…I'm not…"

He looked around. Nobody had noticed him. He couldn't touch them, couldn't scream, couldn't do anything. They wouldn't hear him either way.

"Somebody…please…"

Johnny sank onto his knees in the concrete. Tears ran down his face, glowing bright blue as they hit the ground.

"Please…I'm here...I'm...I-I'm here…"


 After a few hours of walking- or rather, floating- throughout town, he came to a rest near the edge, sitting down on the curb. A million thoughts raced through Johnny's mind, and he felt defeated and crushed like he had never felt before.

He was dead.

He had died the previous night in that barn, alone and in pain.

And now, he was…what was he?

A ghost?

Yeah, probably. After all, he matched a lot of what they said ghosts were, didn't he? He floated, he glowed, he wasn't quite opaque. So yeah, he died and became a ghost.

So…what did he do now?

He had nothing left. His dreams, his education, his family, his friends, his home…they were all gone. They were alive, but he was dead. He truly, had nothing left to him.

Johnny bit his lip, feeling like he was about to cry again.

"What do I do now?" he asked, "Where do I go?"

He looked up at the stars, like they were going to give him an answer.

They just stared back, silent.


 For the next few days, he wandered, not exactly knowing where he'd go or stop. All that he knew was that he couldn't be seen.

Guess that was his final destination. Wander the Earth until God or whoever the hell was up in the big house decided to finally set him free. And it wasn't like he was in any race- from as far he could tell, he didn't need to eat or sleep or do anything for sustenance. So he wandered, with nothing but the clothes on his back, going from town to town without being so spared so much as a glance.

A few months later, he made it into Oregon, and that was where things gotten even weirder.

"I'm telling you ghouls, that boy is no good news! Hits the sauce like it's his unlife source!"

Johnny looked up. He had wandered into some kind of small town, with tiny shops and businesses stacked against each other. It was early in the morning, so the streets were relatively quiet, some of the buildings still having the Closed sign out in the window.

Up the street, a group of girls chatted amongst themselves as they walked down the streets. They were dressed similarly, all three of them wearing poodle skirts and saddle shoes. They carried books in their arms, looking like they were headed to school.

Except…

Johnny furrowed his brows, straining his sight, thinking he had been fooled at first. As they approached him, his eyes widened.

They weren't human.

One girl was completely grey- not even ashen, actual grey- with blue and purple hair. She giggled as she listened to the girl in the middle- one whose skin was a frightening purplish red color, and the one he'd heard speaking- ranted about something. Johnny's eyes bulged when he saw that her lined eyes were bright red, and noticed how a pair of sharp teeth stuck out over her bottom lip. Her hair was a mix of mahogany and pink, a bat clip in her hair. Like a…like a vampire.

The third girl, whose appearance was the strangest, had her blonde and pink hair tied back in a ponytail, pink eyes peering out of cat eye glasses. To his shock, Johnny noticed she looked like she was completely made out of stone, complete with bat-like wings and ears that were shaped like bat wings as well.

A…a gargoyle? But those were only statues. In France.

And they certainly didn't talk.

He rubbed his eyes. He had to be seeing things, he had to! They had to be part of some kind of costume party and just got dressed up. VERY dressed up.

The girls stopped a few feet ahead of him.

"He ain't good news, I tell ya," the vampire proclaimed, "And worst of all, he thinks he can just wine and dine me for one night and that'll somehow butter me up enough to give him third base. As if!"

The gargoyle chuckled, "Sounds like you dodged a bullet there, Batty."

"Oh, did I!" The vampire proclaimed.

The grey skinned girl held up a hand, "Uuuuugh?"

The vampire gave her a smile, "Aw thanks, Ghouly Sue. But I'll be fine. Plenty of bats in the cave, right?"

"Uuuuugh."

The stone girl perked her head up. Johnny froze.

She was staring right at him.

Not even through him. At him.

"Do you need something?" she asked, looking a bit creeped out by him.

Johnny's mouth dropped open. The other girls turned to face him, looking at him with confusion.

"You…you can see me?" he asked.

The gargoyle nodded, "Of course we can. You're here, aren't you?"

"But…but nobody else…" he stammered, "Nobody has b-been able to since I…since I…"

He trailed off, suddenly feeling an ache in his chest.

The girls traded looks of concern. Johnny floated back slightly as they suddenly made their way towards him, gathering around him in a circle.

"You….you just passed over, didn't you?" the gargoyle asked.

"Passed…over?" Johnny repeated, confused.

"She means if you're new to the whole ghost business," the vampire asked.

Something in him contracted almost painfully- wasn't he unable to feel pain if he was dead anyway?- and Johnny looked down at his translucent feet.

"I…well, I-I kinda…died a few months ago-"

All three girls' mouths dropped open, and the vampire gasped.

"Only a few months ago? And you've just now found a monster town? You poor thing!" she said, putting a comforting hand on his arm.

To Johnny's further surprise, it actually stayed there.

"Ewweggh," the grey girl moaned at her friends.

The gargoyle nodded, "You're right, Ghouly. If there's anyone to help, it's Miss Bloodgood?"

"Who?"

"You'll see," the vampire answered, gesturing for him to follow the three of them, "Come with us. We know just the person to help you.


 Two months later…

"Hey, Johnny, wait up!"

He stopped at the sound of his name. He looked over his shoulder, looking to see a plant monster- what was his name? Albert? Alfred? Alex?- waving at him. Johnny turned, floating in place as the plant monster ran up to him, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

"What do you want?" Johnny asked coldly.

The plant monster- Arthur, that was his name, Arthur Frondsarelli (or, as Johnny remember, he preferred "The Fronds", even though it sounded super dumb)- stood up and beamed up at him, holding the collar of his pink jacket.

"Man, you're fast!" he exclaimed, "Almost ran into a mummy trying to catch you!"

Johnny didn't respond; he just tilted an eyebrow up impatiently.

Arthur, realizing he got no humored response from the ghost, coughed, suddenly feeling awkward.

"Um, anyways," he said, "Me n' Elvis and the ghouls were gonna head down to the Five and Die-ne for lunch. We were wonderin' if you wanted to-"

"No," Johnny responded.

Arthur pulled back, surprised. "You didn't even let me-"

"You were gonna ask if I wanted to join you," Johnny interrupted, "And I'm telling you no. Not interested."

Arthur took a step back. "A-Are you sure?"

"Positive," Johnny said, turning around without another word and floating away.

"Hey, w-wait!" Arthur called back in vain, "I-I-If you change your mind, you know where to find us!"

Johnny didn't reply. He just looked forward, floating among the various monster students as they walked in between classes, some of them crying out and giving him dirty looks as he passed through them. He paid them no mind- it's not like he was possessing them, so what the hell was their damage? It didn't hurt them- going straight to his locker and digging out his fiddle case.

He looked at the schedule he had taped on the door. He had Biteology next, then after that, lunch.

"Naw, not today," he said to himself, slamming the locker close. He didn't feel like sitting in class for forty minutes, staring at the chalkboard while the teacher droned on about some weird science or another. He'd probably fall asleep anyway.

Instead, he took his fiddle case and headed for the catacombs, phasing through the closed doors and making his way down to the bottom.

He had discovered the old maze of passageways when he had first started attending Monster High, having accidentally passed through the wrong door when Mr. Rotter had asked him to take a few papers over to the attendance office. A big empty space, they had since become his sort-of second home (or rather, third), often more time here spending his freetime roaming them and playing music than he did at the foster home he'd been suited in with Mrs. Kindergrubber.

Technically, he was sure he wasn't supposed to be down here, but Johnny didn't care. At least here it was quiet, away from all the noise and chaos. And at least he actually had privacy here, unlike at the foster home where everyone had to share rooms and nobody knew how to fucking knock.

He put on a record on player and sat back against a few of the boxes, closing his eyes as rock music began to echo throughout the catacombs.

He thought back to Arthur's invitation, and his rather curt response. Johnny frowned.

"It ain't my fault the stupid kid doesn't know how to take no for an answer," he said to himself, thinking of all the other times the plant monster and his friends had tried to invite him to other group functions, "If he just learned that I don't want to be friends, he wouldn't be in a position to be embarrassed."

He didn't need them.

He didn't need anyone.

Despite his best efforts, Johnny felt his mood darken as the familiar seed of bitterness bloomed in him, consuming his thoughts and getting him into another bad mood.

He remembered something Bloodgood had told him a week or so ago, when he'd gotten busted for his prank with the cherry bombs in the teachers' lounge. Something about being concerned about his closed off presentation and how his sudden anti-socialness wasn't going to do him any good in terms of coping with this new life (or unlife, as they called it).

It's not good to shut people out, Johnny, she had said, I know this has been a big change for you, but this acting out of yours isn't the way to handle it. Connecting with people will help you more than you think it will.

A 'big change'. Like he had just moved towns or switched into another class.

What the hell did she know? Of course he was closed off, he fucking died for Christ's sake! His whole life had been taken away from him, and he didn't even get the decency of descending to a new higher plane, or whatever the hell they called it, instead having to be forced to still walk this godforsaken earth.

And his friends and his family- he couldn't even see them, something about rules and how humans were still fragile to the knowledge that monsters were real and "it's a slippery slope that could risk conflict breaking out".

He'd never get to see how his parents were coping, or how Benny and the others were doing.

If Cheryl ended up all right, and if she blamed herself (he hoped she didn't).

If Lance ever even got punished for it.

Did she just expect him to be okay? To just move on like that? To listen to this annoying little plant monster and his ragtag group and just be hunky dory because they wanted to split burgers and fries with him?

"They're not my friends," he grumbled, "I don't need friends. Don't want 'em, don't need 'em."

He had friends. Only now they couldn't see him or hear him. But he wasn't just going to replace them with any newbies. It just wasn't that easy.

No, he was doing perfectly fine.

He sat up, glaring into the wall opposite of him for a few minutes. He suddenly felt angry, like he needed to lash out.

Instead, he opened his fiddle case and took it out. This one was a lot newer than his grandfather's, but still had a bit of an old feel to it. He had found it one night while scavenging the halls, and seeing no one claim it, had taken it for himself. Screw anyone who called him a thief, the fiddle was one of the only things probably keeping him still sane at this point.

Getting into position, Johnny began to play.

He let himself get lost in the music, all thoughts of friends and death and Bloodgood banished from his state of mind as he played.


 Four months later…

"I must say, Mr. Spirit, I'm very disappointed in you," Bloodgood said sternly as she crossed her arms, staring down at him, "I wish it didn't have to be this way, but this behavior of yours is unacceptable, and it's got to stop."

Johnny just glared at her. He tried to shift in the sitting position he was forced into, but the magical chains kept him rooted to the floor and the wall. He tried to move his arms from where they had been forced into a crossed gesture.

"Putting your students in chains and keeping them locked up in your school?" he said sarcastically, "You know, Miss Bloodgood, if we were in the human world, people would call this child abuse."

Bloodgood ignored his comment.

"Skipping classes, constant disrespect towards your teachers and classmates, constant pranks that end in property damage, vandalism, theft of school property, noise complaints, not to mention trespassing when it comes to spending all your time in the catacombs. Things you have been repeatedly warned about," she listed off, "You're looking at quite the detention sentence here, young man."

Johnny shrugged, "I like to leave an impression."

"At least sixty years worth," she added, gauging his reaction.

"I've got time."

Bloodgood narrowed her eyes.

"You know, this bad boy persona you've got going on may fool everyone else, but it's not going to fool me," she remarked, "I've dealt with people like you before. You can act like you don't care, but I know the truth."

Johnny just shrugged.

"This should give you time to reflect," Bloodgood pressed, "You can feel the way you feel, but don't think the world's going to accept your tantrums just because you can't deal. Things aren't always going to go your way."

"Fuck you!" Johnny spat, his composure down, "You have no fucking clue what I've been through! You have no clue what it's like to be me, to have live with this, this, this absence of an actual body! You're actually still alive, I'm fucking dead! I can't talk to my parents, or my friends, o-o-or anyone else I grew up with! I'm stuck in this fucking weird ass society where I'm suspected to just go about my day like nothing ever happened! So don't give me this bullshit like you actually understand a single thing about how I feel!"

Bloodgood repressed a smile; there it was, that rare glance of his walls coming down.

"Maybe so," she simply responded, "But what I do know, is you have lot going for you, Johnny. Even as a ghost. I just hate to see you throw it all away to be consumed by your bitterness."

Johnny was silent.

Trying to maintain his stubbornness, he tore his gaze away from her, staring at the floor like he was trying to melt it. Bloodgood sighed; she could only help him so much, but her and the staff couldn't do it all if Johnny wasn't willing to let people in. She tried, but she couldn't find peace for him. He'd have to do that himself.

"Well, you're not leaving those chains until you've served your punishment like everyone else has had to," she said, "Maybe this will give you some time to clear your head, think about what you've done. If you don't cause too much of a ruckus, maybe you can get it reduced for good behavior."

With that, she turned and walked out, the door shutting behind her. Johnny heard the lock click a moment later.

He glared back at the door for a few minutes, before he sighed, letting his gaze drop back to the floor.

Well, this sucked. Sixty years? Shit. That was going to be long, especially since he knew it was going to be boring.

Johnny took a deep breath, leaning back against the wall.

"Well, it's not like I got anywhere else to be," he said, staring at the wall.

 

Chapter Text

~1672~


The seas were particularly rough today. Even from this distance, she could see the rapid rise and fall of water on the horizon, raising up in a large wall before crashing onto itself like glass shattering against a marble floor. All around the sides of the ship, she could hear the vengeful waves slapping against the hull, sprays of sea foam slowly running down the sides like hair potion.

Vandala closed her eyes, leaning against the front and taking a big inhale of the salty air.

"Ah," she said, a dreamy smile coming onto her face as she tilted her head back, loving the feel of the bright sun on her face, "Jus' the spot."

"Ye're gonna fall right o'erboard if ye keep careenin' like that, lassie," a strong, tired voice said behind her.

She looked back over her shoulder; the speaker, a middle aged broad-shouldered man with grey streaks throughout his long blonde hair, gave her a playful look as he steered the ship's wheel. Vandala smirked as she hopped backwards off the step of the bow.

"I be jus' enjoyin' the view, Jimmy," she commented, Ain't everyday we get a beauty like this without all the rain and rockin' o' the boat getting' in the way."

The man, Jim, chuckled. "Ye can't enjoy the view when ye're swimmin' with the fishies now, either, can ye?"

Vandala waved him off, looking to the back of the deck. The crew was bustling about, bringing supplies up from storage, or adjusting the sails. She looked back at Jimmy, and it seemed only then did she realize that there was something off with him being the one at the wheel.

"Jimmy, where's me father?" she asked, "How come ye're steerin' today?"

Jimmy jerked his head back, gesturing to the stairs that led to the interior. "He's in his cabin, lookin' back o'er th' map. He thinks wit' the way th' weather's been, we might've been knocked off course fer a few days. Says we may 'ave t' land fer supplies."

Vandala's eyes widened. "Again?" she asked, "But we've already had t' detour in th' Caribbean!"

Jimmy just shrugged, turning his gaze back out front, eyes on the open ocean in front and around them.

"That's the way things be sometimes, lass. No worries, jus' a lil' sidetrack, that's all."

She wasn't convinced.

You couldn't afford to sidetrack when treasure was on the line.

For all the time they got 'sidetracked', there could've been someone else who already reached their destination and taken all of it for themselves.

At her pouting expression, Jimmy just rolled his eyes. Spinning the wheel a good three-sixty, he grabbed the pegs as he steered. He understood the lass's excitement, but supplies needed were supplies needed; treasure didn't account for much if you were dead because you didn't restock on feeding your crew.

"Ye should natter if ye got any concerns," he said, "And he could use some company. Been so busy with the wheel I reckon he's barely seen more than two faces the past week."

She frowned. "Maybe I will."

Turning her nose up, Vandala started past him; her attempt to walk away with attitude was ruined, however, when she found herself having to lug her right leg forward, grunting whenever she could feel it catch in any holes or spaces in the wood of the dock. Vandala looked down at the peg there with annoyance when it got stuck in such a hole, and she had to grab her thigh and yank to get it loose.

"Ye might want start carrying around some extra blubber oil wit' ye," Jimmy called back over his shoulder, "I always find it makes good for getting out of those stubborn spots."

He grinned at the low growl that came from the teen.

Vandala moved faster across the deck, though she kept her head down this time, cheeks burning with embarrassment.

After some difficulty getting down the steps, she made her way to the captain's quarters. The door was closed, the seagreen glass that made up its circular window thick and opaque, blocking any view from the inside. Vandala raised her hand, giving three short, quick raps on the old wooden door.

"Enter," a gruff voice announced from within.

She turned the knob and pushed it, revealing a small, cluttered room with a single desk in the middle, the like of which had a large map laid out on its surface. Books and loose sheets of parchment littered the floor, along with several glass bottles, some empty while others held scarce amounts of some sort of liquid. The door that led to the bed area was shut, displaying the sea lion skull that hung on the back. The curtains by the window were drawn, making the room rather dark.

Hunched over the desk, pouring over the map, was a tall man dressed in a burgundy coat, a compass in one of his hands. His heavily lined face adorned a few scars- the most notable being one through his left eyebrow and another making a C shape on his right cheek- his thick black beard nearly hiding his lips. His black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and his dark eyes narrowed as he noticed something on the map.

As Vandala's right leg made heavy raps against the floor, the captain looked up; he smiled when his eyes landed on his daughter's figure.

"Aw, Dally!" he exclaimed, "I was just thinkin' o' ye! What can I do?"

Vandala came forward, sitting down in the chair that faced the desk. She asked, "Are we really gon' have to stop for supplies again?"

Ishmael looked up, slightly surprised that she knew about such a thing. He looked back down on the map, a frown stretching across his slightly chapped lips.

"I hope not. But after lookin' at our inventory, 'n the route we be headin' towards, we may run out within two weeks once we get east of the Bermuda. Best we have too much, lest we starve out in the middle of nowhere," he answered.

Vandala frowned, "But I thought ye said a few nights ago over supper that our supply of marks was starting to get low? Can we really afford another stop?"

Ishmael sighed, pulling up a chair to sit across from her.

"I don't like this any more than ye, Dally," he said, "Normally we could just hunt on the waters and that would do us good. But considerin' our last two hunts 'ave turned up without even a catch, and especially with the…circumstances that befell last month, I find our resources have been depleted much faster than they usually would be."

Vandala stiffened at the mention of last month. Unconsciously, a hand went to her right leg.

The feeling of contrast against her palm made her look down. Her brows furrowed at the sight, where the tanned skin down at her thigh turned thick and puckered, the beginnings of a purplish red scarring masked over by polished wood; where what should've been a knee, a calf and shin, and a foot were instead replaced by a solid carved peg, the likes of which clacked against the floor every time she adjusted herself.

Oh, yeah.

Last month.

For a moment, Vandala found herself caught up in the memory, the familiar flurry of emotions she had gone through when it happened all coming back to her; the sudden blankness of the mind she had experienced when it first occurred, too shocked to register it completely. The sudden panic and icy fear that went through her whole being she did, as red hot pain overtook her body, particularly below her waist. The sound of her father yelling and the feel of him and the crew yanking her out of the water as it turned red around her.

She still had nightmares about it.

And they didn't even manage to catch the shark- she remembered briefly seeing it break the rope of the harpoon, before it dove into the water with the broken stick still embedded in its side. Now that just added insult to injury.

Ishmael lifted his head at her silence; he followed her gaze, and frowned when he realized what she was staring at.

"Ain't no shame in failure, lass," he said softly, "It was an awful time for all o' us, and we suffered greatly. But ain't nothin' more we can do. All we can do is move on and learn from it."

Vandala looked up at him. He gave her a reassuring smile, standing up and walking around the desk.

"Besides," Ishmael commented, "That gives ye one up on them old hornswagglin' bilge rats down at those shoddy lil' pubs. How many of those yellow bellied swabs can say they fought wit' a shark and lived to tell 'bout it? Aye, they be pissin' their pants if ye just even make 'em think about it!"

He shot her a grin as he came around to her side, showing off slightly yellowed teeth, one of which that was near the back of his upper jaw a fake one of gold. Vandala looked at the floor, pondering the thought. A matching grin slowly made its way onto her face. He did have a point. What did those old blokes have on her? She lost her leg to a shark- what did those braggarts have besides maybe a few tall tales about stepping on a sea urchin?

"There's that smile I was lookin' for!" Ishmael exclaimed, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder, "I knew no one could ever get mah girl down!"

Vandala stood up, beaming as she wrapped her arms around his waist. He gave her a light kiss on the temple.

After a moment, however, Vandala's concerned expression returned, and she pulled away from her father to look up at him.

"But what 'bout the money?" she asked again.

Ishmael just smiled down at her, stroking her chocolate brown locks.

"Oh, me precious pearl," he said, "Don't ye worry yer pretty little head over it. We'll be all right."

There was a little twinkle in his eye, and the corner of his mouth cocked up mischievously.

"Besides," he added in, "There's sure to be a few sorry sea dogs wit' a few pieces o' eight in their pockets who're too drunk outta their minds to notice if it be missin'."

He grinned at her, and Vandala's eyes widened momentarily, before she snorted and she felt her own smirk grow.

"Ah! O' course, how could I forget that?!" she said, giggling as Ishmael ruffled her hair playfully.

Hey, sometimes you had to do what you had to do.

Besides, a lot of those guys they pick pocketed were higher ups- politicians and aristocrats. They wouldn't miss a few spare pennies.


Vandala looked out upon the water, excitement gnawing at her insides. The water was frightfully clear today, her reflection nothing but a slight shadow upon the translucent aqua surface; she could all the way to the rocky bottoms, where several small schools of dish darted this way and that. The sun shone down upon her mercilessly, warming her freckled skin.

Tearing her gaze away, she shielded her eyes with her hand, looking out upon the horizon for any sign of their target.

They had been rather tricky scurvy dogs lately, darting away or putting up a fuss until they managed to break away. Her father tried to keep everyone's spirits high, but Vandala could tell that the last few misses they had with their harpooning was starting to get the whole crew frustrated.

She crossed her arms. "Ya think we might actually have a chance at catchin' one of the slippery bastards this time, Jimmy?"

Jimmy, his back facing her as he rowed, shot her a comment over his shoulder.

"I hope so," he replied, "It'd be nice to eat somethin' else besides grits and biscuits for once. I swear, any more of that and I might just fling meself overboard."

"Of course we'll get something," Wai, an olive skinned Maori man whose shirtless abdomen revealed numerous tattoos, commented as he sharpened a harpoon, "With Dally on the prowl, we're bound to land ourselves a mighty catch! Hell, maybe we'll even get extra lucky and land us a white whale! The gal's full of surprises."

Vandala turned and gave him an appreciative smile. It had been a while since she had gotten in the water, what with the recovery for her leg and all, but she had been itching to go for a swim finally.

Are…are you sure? She had asked her father the night before, when he had approached her with the idea just as she was settling in for sleep.

Ishmael had smiled. Why not? he had responded, Ye always were a champ with that spear, and I know ye miss ridin' the waves. Now's the chance to test out that leg and see if ye still got it.

The thought made her look down at her peg leg. She had abandoned her usual attire of a billowy shirt and trousers today for a sleeveless top and a pair of pantaloons that she had rolled up to the knees, and Vandala had tied up her brown hair had been tied back in a messy ponytail.

"Thar she blows, off of starboard bow!" someone from the ship called out.

Vandala raised her head, eyes scanning the waves.

Off to the right, a little ways from the rock ledges, a sleek black dorsal fin cut through the water, before it tilted forward and disappeared under, a large black tail with a white underside raising out of the water and throwing spray into the air before it slid back beneath the water.

Vandala narrowed her eyes. An orca. Not technically the hardest of catches- compared to other whales like the few humpbacks they managed to kill, or that one white giant who nearly destroyed the whole ship with a whack of its tail- but definitely not one to be soft on. They looked gentle enough with their beady little eyes and round faces, but Vandala remembered watching with Jimmy when the ship came across a pod of them hunting a group of seals. The poor latter bastards never stood a chance.

She swallowed.

No matter. It'd be her first orca; a fun challenge.

She felt the boat stop, and she stood up, taking a deep breath.

"You got this, lass?" Jimmy asked.

Vandala nodded without turning to look at him.

"I be born ready," she said in a low voice.

She looked back, reaching out. Wai ran the rock he was holding across the harpoon one last time, before holding it out to her. Vandala took it, feeling its weight in her grip. The smooth wood felt cool against her hand. She looked back out at the waters, green eyes tracking where the orca had gone.

Her eyes wandered, before catching sight of its dorsal fin sticking out as it swam just beneath the surface.

Cocking her arm back, Vandala held the harpoon so that it barely brushed her bicep. She carefully followed the orca's movements; it hopped slightly out of the water as it came in their direction, seeming none the wiser to their intentions, probably brushing them off as just another bunch of strange creatures on the tide.

The orca passed by them, its body looking like a wave itself as its tail slowly went up and down.

Vandala closed one eye, aiming at a soft spot. She pulled the harpoon further back behind her.

Suddenly, she propelled her hand forward, focusing all her strength into her right arm, launching the harpoon straight at the orca.

It cut through the air, its metal point glinting in the sun before it propelled and embedded itself deep within in the orca's side.

The orca let out a cry, and it leaped again in the water as it turned away from their dingy at a speed that seemed almost impossible for its massive size; Vandala stumbled in the dingy, almost falling right overboard as it jerked with the orca's massive strength, yanking them along as it tried to get away.

"That's it, lass!" Jimmy cheered, "Steady, now!"

Regaining her balance, Vandala leaned forward on the head of the dingy, slight wind hitting her face as the orca unknowingly dragged them along behind it by the rope attached to the harpoon, the dingy skipping against the waves like a stone as the orca's wavy movements lifted it up from the water.

"Wai! Another one!" Vandala called, reaching behind her.

Wai picked up one from the small pile that lay on the floor, giving the blade two quick stroaks with his rock, before he shoved it into her hands. Vandala turned back to the orca, watching as its back fin went up and down as it moved. She grabbed the bow, holding on tight as she waited for the right moment for the tail to go back down, leaving the orca's backside exposed. She pulled her arm back again, leaning slight back this time before she threw the harpoon again.

"Yes!" she hissed to herself as she managed to hit it on the left side, just a little bit below its dorsal fin.

The orca's blowhole sputtered as it let out a spray of water, and it raised hits upper half slightly before diving into the water, its fins flapping desperately as it was hit with another wave of pain. Blood started to run down the sides of its wounds, red coloring its white underbelly and leaking into the water. Vandala swayed from side to side as the boat rocked violently with the orca's movements, a curtain of seawater hitting her and the men as it's tail slapped against the water.

All of a sudden, the orca took a sharp dive straight down, it's tail lifting up a curtain of water as it straightened to a complete one-eighty, before it quickly slid straight under the tide. Vandala felt herself jerked forward again as the dingy was tugged again, before there was a ripping sound.

"The bastard's snapped the line!" Jimmy exclaimed, holding onto the sides as he whipped his head around trying to catch sight of where it had gone.

Vandala furrowed her brows, looking out upon the horizon for any sign of a dome on the waters or the slight splashing appearance of a fin. Alas, nothing. It seemed that the orca had come to realize its best means of escape was to go below surface where they couldn't follow. If it did, then their catch had slipped right out of their hands.

But she had a feeling this wasn't the end.

Not with the orca.

In her experiences, from the first time she went with her father on one of these whaling activities, to when he started letting her to it herself, large sea mammals didn't just swim away in fear. No, they were huge, and when they realized what they could do with that hugeness when they got a look at you, they came back with a vengeance.

Silence stretched between the group as they continued looking out for any sign of the orca.

"Where the hell did he go?" Wai asked.

"Probably managed to outsmart us n' go backwards from where it came," Jimmy suggested.

Vandala shook her head, "No, it wouldn't leave. This one's got a bone to pick. I can feel it in me bones."

But yet, as her eyes darted to try and find a sign, she came up empty handed as nothing but the calm waves greeted her back. Vandala frowned. Where on earth would it be?

Something just a few feet away made her look down.

She looked down into the water. In this area, it had noticeably become darker, taking on a green tinge.

There was a sudden rippling pattern in one particular area, just a foot or so from the dingy. Vandala raised an eyebrow. There was a strange niggling feeling in her gut that told her something was coming up.

Sheets of white foam started forming on the surface, first coming up as just a few stray lines, before it quickly started thickening and growing over the area where the ripples appeared, shielding the ocean floor from her sight; it looked almost like snow on the water, an opaque blanket of white that grew as the ripples started becoming more intense.

Vandala's eyes widened.

That could only mean one thing.

She whipped around at the men.

"He's surfacing right near us. Brace yourselves-!"

The orca burst from the sea foam snout first, sending a cloud of seawater upon the dingy like a raincloud. The trio grabbed onto the sides of the dingy to keep steady as they were suddenly jerked violently. Water and blood ran down its body like a waterfall.

Vandala stumbled backward as she lost her balance; she grunted as her rear hit the seat next to Jimmy painfully. She looked up at the orca, watching as it started tilting to the left, its fins sleek and black like spilled oil.

She grabbed another harpoon, not bothering to get take aim as she stood back up and shot it out, hoping to catch it off guard again. Though she was rewarded with a stream of blood that began to run down the orca's belly as the harpoon caught it in the underside, the orca was hardly deterred as it brought its weight down on the water, slamming against it with all its might. The force sent up a massive wall of water that came barreling down upon the dingy. Vandala held her arms up, trying in vain to shield herself as she felt herself instantly become drenched.

"Whoa!" she exclaimed as the dingy rocked, turning dangerously sideways to the point it was almost completely vertical before it slammed back down on the water again. Vandala's hands thrashed out as she fell back in on the floor on her rear. An inch of water now rested inside of it.

"Look out!" Jimmy called.

A shadow suddenly came over them.

Vandala's head shot up.

She barely had time to comprehend what she was staring at- the orca's tail, bending backwards away from them- before it suddenly unwound and slapped the surface of the water, sending a shockwave right towards them. Vandala felt herself thrown backward, letting out a grunt of pain as her shoulder blades slammed against the seat. She heard Jimmy and Wai shout in alarm as well as they were almost thrown right overboard.

"He's definitely got a taste for us seein' Davy Jones, that much be obvious," Vandala stated, standing back up.

She wrung out her shirt as her eyes scanned the water, noting how the orca had once again disappeared from their sight.

Jimmy shook his head- the sudden whiplash from the jerking of the boat had started to spawn a killer migraine- turning his head to look out over the side of the dingy.

"Aye," he agreed, "Only question is where the slick dog went now?"

Vandala turned her head, forced to blink as the sparkling reflection of the sunlight on the water's surface seared her eyes.

She heard a distant, but bold voice behind her.

"Dally, are ye all alright?!" Ishmael yelled.

She looked over her shoulder, catching his faint red-clad figure leaning over the side of where The Bountiful swayed back and forth in its anchored spot a few yards from a mass of rocks; she could make out the slightly shadowed silhouettes of the other crew members behind him.

"We're fine!" she yelled back, "The big bastard's just givin' us a run for our wits!"

Turning back around, she leaned forward, her hands on the bow as she craned to see any clue of where the black and white beast had gone.

Ye can run, and ye can fight all ye like, she thought to herself, But ye can't hide. C'mon out and face me like the monster ye act like ye are.

There was a great big splashing sound to the left. Jimmy exclaimed, "Thar he comes!"

Vandala turned, watching as the orca leaped out of the water and dove back in, its dorsal fin cutting through the water as it swam towards them at a rapid pace, looking like an angry bull about to gore the matador as a dome of water rose up and over it from its speed.

Vandala narrowed her eyes. Two could play at that game.

"He's comin' straight at us!" Jimmy exclaimed, "He's gonna topple us!"

"No, he ain't," Vandala replied, turning around and lurching for the other harpoons that lay in the floor of the dingy.

Grabbing one, she put her foot on the edge of the bow, holding the harpoon in the same position as she cocked her arm back. The orca was even closer, speeding towards the dingy at full speed. Vandala waited- her heart pounded as she waited for the right moment. It had to be just right- one second too soon or too late, and her and the guys were fish food.

"'Here he comes," Jimmy said in a low voice.

She ignored him; she bit her lip, her palms going sweaty around the harpoon as the orca sped closer.

"Wait fer it," she muttered, "Wait fer it…"

The harpoons she had already used on the orca stuck out like sewing needles in a pin cushion. It barreled towards the dingy, now only a few feet away, a colossal monster of black and white that was sure to destroy the dingy the minute it rammed into it.

Vandala pulled the harpoon back over her shoulder a little bit more. Wait for it, she thought, Just…a little…more…

The orca jetted towards them, not only about two feet or so from completely wrecking the dingy.

"NOW!" Vandala yelled as she thrust the harpoon forward, throwing it down at a tilted angle just as the orca got within a few inches of the boat.

Blood sprayed out in a jet as the harpoon buried itself deep within the top of the orca's head, almost center to the spot right below the curvature of its dorsal fin, just as the orca crashed into the side of the boat.

Vandala flailed as she felt herself suddenly flung backwards at the impact, her mind just barely comprehending the sound of Jimmy and Wai yelling, before she suddenly felt everything go cold around her as she was thrown from the dingy and into the water.

The shock of the cold made her mind go blank for a second, wetness overtaking every inch of her body. Her hearing went muffled and distorted, the taste of saltwater filling her mouth before she closed it, stealing her breath. Her eyes stung.

There was something large and black in her peripheral. Vandala looked-

-only to get smacked in the face with the orca's fin as it dove passed her, leaving behind faint trails of blood that quickly dissipated. Vandala saw a bright light flash in her vision momentarily, a sharp pain radiating from her nose. A steady stream of red started rising up in front of her, and she could faintly smell iron.

She caught a glimpse of the rope that was tied to the end of the harpoon dash by her as the orca attempted to bat her away with its tail.

Oh, no you don't! She thought, dodging the strong extremity and clawing at the water in front of her desperately to grab it before it went out of her reach. Her legs kicked relentlessly; she grunted as the edge of the orca's tail caught her in the abdomen, sending a cloud of bubbles shooting up from her mouth.

Her hands caught the rope just at its end, and she dug her fingers in. Vandala let loose a shout of surprise as she was suddenly yanked forward, finding herself being pulled behind by the orca as it attempted to make another getaway. She was flung up and down rapidly, and grit her teeth against the painful pressure against her left arm as she was repeatedly slapped against the orca's side. She felt her stomach lurch in motion sickness.

Ye're not gettin' away that easy! Vandala said mentally, and she squinted as she held on with all her might; the orca's rapid speed made it now almost impossible see even blurry images.

Ignoring the pain in her chest that was starting to bloom from the lack of oxygen intake and the rapid adrenaline rush, Vandala forced herself to let go of the rope, leaping to grab a section of it that was higher up.

The orca's quick movements and sharp turns certainly didn't make it easy, and she nearly lost her grip, almost being flung right into a reef when the orca made a sharp turn. She persisted, though, forcing her wobbly limbs to climb higher and higher upon the rope, nails digging into it as she hurriedly made her way to the harpoon.

Finally able to grasp the wet wood, Vandala hugged herself to it, fighting against the bile that was suddenly threatening to come up from her throat from the constant jerks. Gritting her teeth again, Vandala closed her eyes.

Please, Gods, let this work!

Gripping the harpoon tightly in her hands, she yanked up as hard as she could, ripping the harpoon from the orca's head; before she could get flung right off its back, she brought it down again, stabbing the orca next to the previous wound before pulling it back out, repeating the process.

She heard the orca scream as it started thrashing, attempting to throw the teen off of its back. Vandala slipped on its back as it started spinning like a barrell, holding on for dear life onto the harpoon. The orca's tail whipped back and forth, its fins slapping her legs. Vandala refused to let go, bringing the harpoon back down. Her chest burned with the need for air. Whisps of red ran wild around her, spouting from the orca's head.

The orca suddenly leaped out of the water. Vandala gasped for air; the panic that was rushing through her intensified with the feeling of falling as the orca dove straight back into the water, hitting her with another shockwave as she hit the water. This time, she was unable to keep a grip on the harpoon, and she felt it rip from her hands as she tumbled forward off the orca, spinning around wildly in the water.

She kicked and pawed at the surface, trying to stabilize her position. She opened her eyes against the wild current, empty blue green greeting her back. She could faintly hear movement underneath, and looked to the right to see a blurry black shape moving wildly a few feet away. Her lungs burning for another intake of breath, she swam to the surface.

Her hair clung to her face as she finally took a breath, her ears popping. Vandala treaded, panting as she blinked, trying to dispel the water from her eyes and keep the bright sun out of her vision.

She heard a frantic splashing to her right, and turned to see the orca had once again resurfaced. This time, however, it looked like it was a struggling. She noticed three additional harpoons- ones that hadn't been from her own throwing- now stuck out along its left flank. Dozens of bloody wounds marred its body. Gradually, its flopping slowed down, the noises coming from its massive throat becoming lower and less frequent.

Then, to Vandala's surprise, the orca suddenly jerked, before it rolled over on its side. It went still, its body bobbing back and forth in the water; blood pooled around it, staining the water dark red. The harpoons, some bent and broken, stuck out along its body, blood pouring from the wounds.

There was another sound behind her, and she turned to see Wai and Jimmy rowing towards her. Jimmy looked over his shoulder, giving her a smile of amazement.

"Well, shiver me timbers and send me some barnacles, that was the most arse-kickin I be seein' in all me years!" Jimmy exclaimed as he leaned over the side of the boat, extending his hand out towards her.

"I admit, lass, ye had me scared out me britches for a second- thought ye was a goner there for a second, but ye once again proved ye always got a trick of ye sleeve!"

Vandala smirked as she grabbed his hand, allowing him to pull her into the dingy.

"What can I say, I'm full of surprises," she said as she climbed into the boat, standing up and ringing the water out of her shirt.

"And a damn good throwin' arm, that be for sure!" Wai complimented as he stared at the orca's corpse, "Bless be we finally got some good eatin' in a while!"

Vandala chuckled, looking over at the ship, where she could see several smaller boats descending from the sides of the hull, the other crewmembers coming to prepare the orca and hoist it up upon the ship.

One of the boats, the one that was already in the lead, had one member standing up, revealed to be Ishmael. His bright red coat almost glowed in the bright sunlight as he stood with one foot up on the bow, hands at his hips. His smile was so wide it looked like it almost hurt, and he looked upon his daughter with an expression that showed nothing but the greatest pride and love that only a father could give.

"Well done, well done, Dally!" he cheered as they came next to the dingy, "I knew there ain't no way ye was gonna let that stupid peg leg get in the way! And ye even went beyond and caught us a monster!"

The amputee teen felt herself blush at her father's words.

She had to admit, she missed this adrenaline rush.

Ishmael turned away from her and turned, yelling at the other boats that were coming in behind his.

"He's a monster, boys!" he called, "So come on, then! We be feastin' tonight!"


Later that night…

There was a knock at the door. Vandala looked away from her mirror, pulling the nightgown in her hands over head really quick and smoothing it out.

"Come in," she called, running a brush through her hair really quick before she pulled back the quilt on her bed and slid in.

The door slowly opened, revealing Ishmael's dressed down figure as he stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. The lone candle from Vandala's desk cast a dim, warm glow in the room, the shadows making the lines and scars on his face stick out more. He looked up at Vandala, a gentle smile gracing his features.

"Oh, sorry 'bout that, didn't think ye be turnin' in at this hour," he apologized.

Vandala smiled, "It's fine. I was prol' gonna read a lil' bit before anyway."

Ishmael nodded, making his way to her bed. He sat down on the edge, his hands folded in his lap. Vandala sat up against her pillow, waiting to see what he had to say.

"Ye did fantastic today, Dally," Ishmael said, a twinkle in his eye, "I admit, when ye got knocked out the boat, I was wee afraid that I had gotten ye in over ye head."

Vandala shrugged, "What can I say? I got the quick thinkin' from the best."

Ishmael's smile deepened, and he looked upon her with a fondness in his eyes. Something to his left that glittered in the candlelight on her nightstand caught his eye, and he looked to see that the offending object was a gold coin of some kind, of which was kept locked in a small glass locket of some sorts, a thin chain threading through the small hole at the top. Ishmael's smile widened as he recognized what it was.

He reached over and took the locket from the desk, admiring it as he turned it over in his hand.

"I remember when I first gave ye mother this," he said, holding it up in front of him, "Can't believe ye still kept it after all these years."

Vandala perked up at the mention of her mother- the subject one that Ishmael rarely talked about with anyone, let alone her, and it tended to be regarded as rather taboo for the crew to bring up- and she looked down at the quilt, picking at a loose seam.

"Well, wouldn't be right if I just chucked it in wit' the trash, now would it?" she pointed out.

Ishmael chuckled, "Ye got a point. Though, this coin here isn't one of a kind. At least, not on this ship. Ye coulda always replaced it any time with any of the other five thousand ones we have stored below."

Vandala shrugged. He did have a point. She looked back up, a little bit surprised at her father's expression as he continued to marvel at the coin in the locket.

It was nothing too special; it was a typical gold coin from her father's homeland, one side printed with a Celtic knot, while the other contained the picture of a ship sailing the seas, the words I Shall Rise Again decorating the top boarder at the edge, while at the bottom, it simply read Bountiful. Separating the two phrases at the sides was a coat of arms on one end and a royal crown on the other. It was slightly tarnished along its raised edges, the coin itself deformed from its previous perfect circle shape.

Ishmael's smile turned sad as he twirled the glass casing that contained the coin, before handing it back to her.

"I told ye the story of how I got that specific coin, haven't I?" he asked.

Vandala nodded as she put the necklace back on her nightstand.

"I was just a wee boy- only a bit older than ye are now- 'n I was the cabin boy to a bristled ol' swashbuckler named Hawkins," Ishmael continued anyways, "It was me first taste of ever sailing the seven seas, 'n up until that point, not much had happened, except for having to scrub the deck every other day and spearin' a few whales.

"But then," he said, "We came upon our very first bit o' treasure! A lil' ways off the Canary Islands, it was a steal, I tell ye! We been the very first to nab the location. Just imagine it, Dally, the looks on all our faces when we opened that chest! Jewels bigger than ye whole fist, strings o' pearls, golden chalices and bracelets and brooches studded with gems of e'ery color, and pound upon pound of these gold coins, one from almost e'ery country!"

His eyes widened as he grinned at Vandala, the memory of his crew's find bringing back a nostalgic feel of childish excitement. Vandala couldn't help but smile at the glee in his eyes; even though she had heard this story well over a dozen times, she couldn't find it in her to interrupt her father when he looked so happy in recounting the tales of his youth.

"There so many gold coins, they be slippin' out our fingers as we tried to carry them back to the ship!" Ishmael continued, "But there was one- one, out of near thousands- that I saw, that I just knew I had to have it. With the very insignia from me home countryI tell ye, it made me feel closer to home after all those months gone. I never went anywhere from then on without it. Called it me lucky coin, always seem to get my outta trouble."

"And ye decided ye were even gonna name ye ship after the sayin' on it when ye became a cap'n of ye own, in hopes to keep that luck," Vandala narrated, having heard what was to come next to many times she could practically reside it in her sleep, "I know, Father."

Ishmael smirked at her, though he didn't lose the nostalgic look in his eye as he nodded.

"And I did," he said proudly, "Truly is a lucky coin, that one. Just only a month after we hit that treasure find, I met ye mother when we was stationed to dock in Ireland. Gave her that on our weddin' day to show that I trusted her with the little I had."

He swallowed hard, a sad sigh rumbling deep from within his chest. "Ye mother would be proud to see ye wear it."

Vandala bit her lip, not knowing what to say to that. She shifted as an awkward silence started to settle between them.

Ever since her mother had passed due to a terrible fever when Vandala was only six or so, her father very rarely ever talked about her. On the rare occasion that he did, it was either in passing or entirely by accident. The crew never brought it up, and Vandala, not really knowing how to approach such a subject, decided it was best not to ask. In truth, she didn't remember much about her mother- the only way she even remembered her appearance was whenever Jimmy or someone else commented how much she looked like her- only that she had met Ishmael when they were young, like he had just said, and the two had wet in a small ceremony a couple of months afterward and went along with him on his ship despite her family's protests. Other than that, it was all blank.

The ship suddenly rode along a rather large wave, making it rock up and down. Vandala grimaced as she felt her stomach churn, a nauseating feeling coming over her. A small groan sounded from the back of her throat, and she put a hand to her stomach.

Ishmael was broken out of his reverie at the gesture, and he looked over at her, his brows furrowing in confusion.

"I will never understand how ye been born and raised on a boat ye whole life and hardly ever taken a step on land, and ye still get seasick," he said in disbelief, "Ye experience these waves every day, and ye still ain't used to them?!"

Vandala pouted, "It's not like I want it to happen."

"Oh, I'm just pullin' ye leg, lass," Ishmael reassured, patting her leg gently, "Well, I won't keep ye up."

He stood up from the bed, leaning forward and kissing her forehead.

"Sweet dreams, my pearl," he said softly.

Vandala smiled, "G'night, Father."

Ishmael then departed, the door shutting with a soft click. Vandala watched it for a second, before she leaned over, blowing the candle out and settling in under the quilt. She looked at the ceiling for a moment, the portholes on the wall sending faint blue lights dancing across it. The day's events playing over in her head. Her heart leaped for a moment as she recalled the thrill of chasing the orca, of clinging onto it and risking drowning or getting mauled to bring it down.

As her eyes grew heavy, a triumphant smile found its way onto her face as she was whisked into a peaceful sleep.


Vandala frowned as she felt the ship lurch again roughly, making the things on her desk rustle. Another wave of nausea bloomed in her stomach, a familiar sour taste in her mouth making it water. She grit her teeth.

It had been an interesting turn of weather in the past few days. Whereas the last three weeks had been hot, humid, and filled with scorching sunshine, now it had suddenly turned cold and gloomy; the bright blue sky had been overcast and filled with grey clouds that steadily became darker the closer to the horizon they were, inferring a threat of rain and wind. The air now carried a cold chill to it that rattled her bones, and the water had lost its turquoise translucence to be replaced by an opaque bluish grey color. It was like they had fast forwarded into an entirely different season. The whole atmosphere in general had become rather depressing.

She had originally stayed up on deck with her father to keep him company while he steered, but the large waves that the water had taken on today had quickly proven to be too much for her, and after spending fifteen minutes leaning over the side puking her guts out, she thought it would be best to just retire to her quarters and rest.

Though, it seemed that the ocean decided it wanted to make her extra miserable today.

Adjusting herself in her crossed legged position, she took a deep breath and tried to refocus her attention on the book in her lap. Just don't think about it, she told herself. If she just read and forgot about it, it would be like the ship wasn't even moving at all.

She looked down, picking up on the text from where she left off.

Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices that, if I then had waked after long sleep will make me sleep again-

Someone was singing.

Vandala paused.

She raised her head.

Somewhere, someone- she couldn't pinpoint from which direction it was coming from, or who was doing it; it didn't sound like anyone from the crew- was singing.

It was a faint melody, soft and slow, with no discernable words. Only the soft rise and fall of a woman's pitch; like the distant call of a songbird on the wind.

Vandala's eyes glazed over. Her skin prickled at the melody.

She couldn't describe the feeling that came over her, only that it suddenly made her head feel like it had been filled with cotton, keeping her from thinking it straight. Goosebumps ran down her arms and spine, and she felt oddly blissful.

She also wanted more of it, that beautiful singing.

Her hands felt like they were being controlled by someone else as she slowly closed her book, placing it on her bed as she moved her legs over to the side, about ready to stand up.

Something passed by in the view of the porthole.

The ship lurched rather roughly.

Vandala blinked, broken out of the strange trance. She looked at the porthole.

Dark water was all that greeted her back, splashing against the glass. The occasional fish swam by.

She furrowed her brows, getting up on her knees to crawl over to it. She could've sworn that something else had been there.

She went to investigate-

All of a sudden, the ship slammed into something on the left, and she was flung from her bed.

Vandala let out a yell of shock as she tumbled off, smacking against the legs of her desk, hitting her head hard. She lay there for a few seconds, dazed from the blow. There was a pounding in her skull, and she whimpered as she raised a hand to her head.

There was a cracking of wood behind her, and Vandala screamed as she suddenly felt ice cold water dumped onto her back.

She whipped around, eyes widening in surprise and horror as she saw a giant gash ripped into the middle of the back wall, from which seawater was pouring in. Within seconds, the floor was covered with an inch or so of water. Vandala stood up, backing up.

What had just happened?

She grabbed onto the chair to keep her balance as the ship was hit again. There was the sound of something breaking, and she could hear the crew outside her door shouting.

"Hurry, there's a leak in the hold!"

"Gunports are ripped open! They're split!"

"Everyone, up on deck! Hurry!"

The men bustled about wildly, running around. Bilgewater sloshed with every rock of the ship, coming up to Vandala's ankles. Some of the men looked soaked, their hair plastered to their faces and their shirts and trousers transparent.

To Vandala's horror, she could also see several holes in the wall, water spouting from them like geysers.

"Vandala!" someone called, and she looked to see Jimmy running up to her.

He grabbed her arm, leading her through the hull and to the stairs that led to the deck.

"What's going?" Vandala asked, "What's happening?!"

"We've crashed. Ship's hit the rocks, completely torn the keel apart," Jimmy answered, his tone grave as he led her through the rushing crewsmen, "The cap'n's tryin' to get steer us away, but all it seems to be doin' is ripping us further apart."

Vandala raised her head in shock. They crashed? How? Her father was one of the best navigators she knew of, there was no way he would allow for such a thing to happen!

"How?!" she asked.

Jimmy frowned, "I dunno, all I know is that there was this weird sound, and before anyone knew it, it was like we had just lost-"

He was caught off as the front of the ship was propelled upward by a strong wave, and everyone below yelled as they were suddenly thrown upward. Vandala yelled in pain as she was slammed back against the floor as she came down, gasping for breath as the wind was knocked out of her. She struggled onto her elbows, looking to see Jimmy gritting his teeth in pain. There was a giant bump in his forearm, the radius fractured.

Vandala felt her stomach churn. Before she could offer the blonde any sort of assistance, Jimmy got to his knees and stood up, yanking her to feet. He pressed the flat of his hand against her shoulder blades.

"Get to the deck and see if you can help the captain stabilize!" he exclaimed.

"But-"

"Go!"

He shoved her forward. Vandala wanted to argue- he was injured, what could he do down here with his arm snapped in half?- but forced herself to obey, struggling to get up the steps as the ship swayed vigorously back and forth.

She nearly slipped on the deck, looking up at the talk to see other crewmembers running back and forth, some of them in lines as they yanked on the ropes connecting the sails. She looked up to watch as a few other struggled to keep them straight in the foretop, the white fabric billowing against the harsh winds. Looking up ahead, Vandala saw her father hunched over at the captain's wheel, fighting with it as he tried to steer the ship away from the mass of rocks. From the jerks of the wheel, it looked like it was resisting.

"Father!" Vandala called out as she ran up to him, "What happened?!"

"Damn creatures led us right here," Ishmael replied, though it seemed moreso to himself than to her, "Waited for the perfect time to strike."

Vandala furrowed her brows. "What creatures? Father, what-"

The ship's front crashed into the rock mass again, the bowsprit snapping like a twig. A massive wave of water crashed against the ship, crashing upon those present on the dock, soaking all of them. Vandala covered her eyes against the spray. Her clothes clung to her like a second skin, her hair tangled.

The ship jerked sharply to the right, and she screamed as she felt her feet slip out from under her as it suddenly tilted. She slid a few inches downward, before she felt her father catch her by the elbow. The ship righted itself, and Vandala winced as she smacked hard against the floor, pain radiating from her tailbone.

There was a shout, and she looked to see Wai flail around, before he fell backward over the edge.

"Wai!"

Tearing from her father's grip, she ran over, peering over the edge. Wai thrashed in the water, coughing as he grasped for breath.

Vandala reached out. "Wai!" she called.

Wai looked up at her, sputtering as he shook the water out of his eyes. He reached up, for her, his eyes wide with shock.

A pair of arms shot out from the water behind him and wrapped a cord around his neck, strangling him as they dragged him under.

Vandala pulled her arm back as if she had been burned.

What…what was that?

She heard a bloodcurdling scream, and looked to the left to see that other members of the crew had fallen in the water. They struggled against some unknown force that was hidden underneath the water, before they were pulled under completely. She watched in horror as the area where they were previously floating turned a dark red.

The ship jerked right, and she was thrown onto her back. Ishmael swore as he tried to steer the ship away, only for the captain's wheel to get caught, and it refused to budge.

"Father!" Vandala cried, "There's something in the water, Father!"

"'Dala, don't let 'em get ye!" he shouted back, shooting her a wide eyed manic look over his shoulder, "Don't let 'em-"

He was cut off as the side of the ship crashed into the rocks. Within in an instant, the entire hull was ripped open, the wood splintering and cracking, and Vandala could feel the ship sinking as water filled the entire inside.

She and the crewmen yelled as they were thrown to the side of the ship; a sharp pain went through her as her side slammed against the railing. Vandala scrambled as she slid down the side, only barely able to catch the railing before she could slip right over and fall into the water. Her arm muscles screamed as she clenched the soaked wood tightly. She grit her teeth, looking at her hands. She prayed that they could withstand the cold and stress enough to hang on.

There was a roar down below, and Vandala forced herself to look down; she tried to ignore the shot of panic in her heart when she noticed the drop from her position to the water.

Jimmy was down below, paddling to a broken piece of wood- presumably from a box that got destroyed in the crash- and throwing himself atop it. He coughed and wheezed, shaking his head. Vandala noticed there was a rip in his shirt along his back, a giant bleeding gash extending almost the same length of it. She saw as he looked around, probably seeing how the others were.

There was a flash of something to the right.

Vandala craned her neck to look.

It was somewhere off by the gathering of smaller rocks. She saw something slither right under the surface of the water- the dark shade made it hard to see much of it, but Vandala could just briefly make out a flash of white.

Her heart leaped. A shark?

"Oi! Anyone out there?! Anyone need help?!" Jimmy called, his voice hoarse.

As he looked, the force of it caused the board he was floating on to turn, slowly rotating him so that he was facing west, his back to the rocks.

Which left him ignorant to the sudden head of long blonde hair that popped up behind him.

Vandala watched uneasily as the woman- she didn't recognize her as being anyone from the crew- slowly approached Jimmy, the latter who was still unaware of her presence. She slowly swam towards him, gliding in the water silently. Vandala felt her heart pound at the woman's appearance. Something was telling her that whoever she was, she didn't come with good intent.

The woman came up to Jimmy, tapping him on the shoulder.

Jimmy, obviously not expecting the sudden contact, jumped, making the board turn. He whipped around, and Vandala could see him go wide eyed at the strange woman's appearance.

The woman smiled innocently, reaching up to gently stroke his face, tucking a piece of hair behind his ear. Jimmy stared at her, his eyes wide and his mouth falling open in shock. The woman, however, seemed unbothered, just lightly stroking his chest. He shied away from her touch.

Vandala saw the woman's other arm reach behind her.

Her blood ran cold as she quickly pulled out a knife from underneath the water and slammed it into Jimmy's neck.

She watched as he jerked, a hand instantly going to his neck as blood ran down between his fingers and his arm. The woman didn't hesitate, though, and yanked the knife right out- Vandala could see blood squirt out along the water- before thrusting it right into his throat.

Jimmy struggled, losing his grip on the board and slipping into the water. The woman lunged for him, pushing the both of them under the water.

As she did, her bottom half raised up.

Though, instead of where legs should've been, a bone white fish tail- sparkling iridescently in the light- came out instead, throwing prisms of light across the water's surface before it slipped right back under, Jimmy and the woman nowhere in sight.

Vandala felt her bottom lip quiver. She tried to say something- her instincts told her to scream, yell out his name, doing something- but any words or coherent sound that formed in her throat died the second she laid eyes on the strange tail. For a moment, all the breath left her body.

There was a chorus of giggling by the rocks, and she forced herself to tear her gaze away from the spot Jimmy was just at- she tried not to linger too long on the blood in the water.

They fell upon the group of women that sat on there, the bunch of them laughing and giggling as if they were just a bunch of maidens enjoying a day out on the beach. Most of them were nude, their bare torsos visible to all the world, though some of them did wear a garment of shells that barely covered their chests. Their hair was long and mused, sticking to their faces, shoulders, and backs in tangled strands. All of the women were draped in what looked like pounds of jewelry, strings of pearls winding around their necks and gold rings on their arms, their fingers looking almost made of metal with the amount of rings they wore.

And they didn't have legs.

Instead, large fish tails made up their bottom halves, all of them colorful scales that gave off a rainbow shine in the light.

Some of them also had unnaturally colored skin- some grey, others pink, a few blue.

Vandala's mouth dropped open.

"M-M-Mermaids?" she said to herself in disbelief.

She remembered being told stories of the like when she was a little girl, listening to her father with eager eyes while he sat at her bedside, recounting tales of the sirens whose beautiful, unearthly appearances were more ruses for luring ships to their dooms. Stories of fish women whose singing voices were so hauntingly powerful that they enveloped you in a trance, getting you under their spell so that you'd lost all focus and control, not knowing what was going on until your ship was long since sinking in the waters, torn apart by the rocks surrounding their islands; all so they could get whatever treasures you had for themselves. Femme fatales with a beauty that rivaled Aphrodite's, all to disguise the bloodthirsty thieves that made up their souls. Every sailor's doom.

But…they were all stories.

Just little fairytales meant to frighten children like her who didn't behave while the ship sailed.

They couldn't…they couldn't be real.

But as Vandala looked upon the creatures, her heart dropped into her stomach with the very horrible realization that right now, they were right in the middle of one of these fairytales.

Screams erupted all around her.

She watched helplessly as the crewmembers were swept out of the sinking ship, kicking and yelling in fear as they tried to steady themselves before they got swept under by the current, only to be yanked and cut to ribbons by the monstrous women, the latter who just giggled as they robbed the corpses.

One of them- a strawberry blonde with scales running down her shoulders and webbed hands- looked right up at her.

Vandala whimpered.

The mermaid looked surprised, eyebrows raising up as her violet eyes gazed upon the dangling teen.

Slowly, a grin made its way onto her face.

Her mouth opened to reveal jaws made of razor sharp teeth.

Vandala panted, tears pouring down her cheeks.

"FATHER!" she cried out, "FATHER, WHERE ARE YOU?! PLEASE, I NEED HELP!"

She got no response.

"Please," she sobbed, "Please help."

The ship rocked to the left, making her slam against the back.

Vandala screamed as she was jerked, feeling her grip loosen.

She looked up at where her hands grasped the railing. She clenched her fists tightly, but it was to no avail as she felt her hold start to give way.

"No," she begged as she dangled, legs kicking aimlessly, "No, no, nononononono…"

Her nails dug into the wet wood, her elbows shaking as she felt her fingers start to slip, the cramped digits unfurling as her arms lost the strength.

"No….please no…"

Her first set of knuckles loosened.

Then the second ones.

"FATHER!" she screamed again, "FATHER, HELP!"

She was barely hanging on by her finger tips. Her finger tips were white under her nails.

Then, they slid off.

Vandala screamed as she felt weightless for a second as her hands just slipped through the railing, before the force of gravity yanked her downward.

She grabbed at the air above her, the railing quickly growing further and further from her as she plummeted down about a hundred feet.

She hit the water, and the cold that surrounded her felt like she had just been struck by lightning.

The force made her sink quite a few feet; for a moment, Vandala was too overcome with the shock of the cold to think. The cold pierced her bones, filling her veins; it was as if she had fallen into a pit of venomous snakes, their toxic fangs stabbing at every inch of her skin.

She finally registered what had happened, and glanced up at the shifting wall of light above her. Vandala panicked as she felt herself sinking, and she clawed for the surface.

Her chest started to get a constricting feeling as she let out a yell out fright, though instead of an intake of air she was only greeted with a swarm of bubbles that shot to the top. She pushed her legs out from under her, trying to propel upward.

There was a movement of something to her right.

Vandala whipped her head in that direction, pushing away. She could hardly see in the dark water- little more than debris from the ship and a reef.

Something glittered to the left, and she accidentally let herself swallow salt water as she jumped, a yelp escaping her.

Again, nothing.

Vandala's eyes buzzed around, her heart pounding.

There was a muffled noise of what sounded like flapping in the water behind her. Vandala turned-

She saw a flash of light blue, before something wrapped around her waist and tackled into her, sending the both of them flying backward.

Vandala shouted, looking down.

A mermaid with bright purple hair lifted her head at her, bright blue lips smiling devilishly as she pulled back, her matching eyes slit like snakes.

Something grabbed at her arms, pulling them to either side; Vandala looked back in alarm, letting out another muffled shout as she struggled to get free.

Two more mermaids floated on either side of her, trapping her arms in their clutches as they grinned at her. One had a multicolored tail that faded from blue to magenta as it got to her fin, her hands webbed and her bright red hair flowing around her like a cloud of blood. Her companion to Vandala's right had a frightening black tail, of which contrasted deeply with her light blue skin and pink hair.

Vandala thrashed against them, trying to scream in the depths of the dark ocean to no avail.

The first mermaid, the one that had tackled her, grabbed her chin and forced her to look at her. Vandala stared back, blue eyes the size of pin pricks.

The mermaid simply smiled back, though the malicious glint in her eyes made it clear that she was not just some curious soul. Her eyes trailed down to Vandala's front.

She reached forward, grabbing something and bringing up to eye level between the two girls; Vandala saw she had her gold coin grasped between her thumb and index finger. The mermaid looked at her, her smile widening dangerously.

With a swift pull on the coin, she snapped the chain of the necklace. Vandala struggled against the two other mermaids. She kicked wildly and pulled from side to side as she tried to free herself, though it was futile, their grip like iron shackles.

The purple haired mermaid floated back, still holding her necklace in her fist. She pulled something from the belt that rode low on her hips.

It glinted, and Vandala's breath caught in her throat when she realized it was a dull knife.

She thrashed harder, kicking out at the mermaid and trying to get away. The mermaid's smile grew, like she took great joy in seeing the girl's fear and struggle.

The mermaid raised the knife high above her head.

Vandala continued to kick blindly.

The mermaid brought it down.

Vandala's eyes shot open.

Her mouth fell open.

The mermaids let her go, moving to stand by their friend. They watched her with gleeful expressions, giggling to themselves.

Vandala felt herself sink further into the water.

Clouds of red started to leak out from somewhere on her front, filling her vision.

Slowly, she descended deeper into the water, the mermaids' figures growing smaller.

Her eyelids felt heavy.

A feeling of numbing tiredness came over her.

As she sank, with the ocean around her growing darker, Vandala let her eyes fall shut as blackness enveloped her.

She heard nothing but the soft noises of the seawater.

And soon, she felt nothing.


There was the echo of a dripping sound somewhere, loud and constant.

She furrowed her brows as she kept them closed. It was irritating, the sound. Every echo sounded like a giant bang of cymbals in her ears.

Vandala groaned, slowly prying her eyes open.

She was in a cave of some sorts, of which was slightly flooded with water. Stalactites dripped condensation onto the puddles below them. The air was humid and salty smelling.

Vandala blinked, narrowing her eyes in confusion.

They suddenly shot up.

She pushed herself up from where she had been laying halfway in the water, looking around.

"Hello?" she called, her voice repeating in the hollow space, "Hello, somebody?"

Except for some debris, like broken boards of wood and rope, there was nothing else in the cave.

A spike of fear went through Vandala's heart as the memory of what had occurred came rushing back to her.

"Hello?" she called again, her voice cracking, "Father? Father!"

She sobbed as staggered around, turning as her eyes searched to try and find another sign of life. As she stumbled around, her boot caught the edge of a rock, and Vandala yelled out in surprise as she felt backward, landing on her rear in a puddle with a splash.

Squeezing her eyes shut for a second, Vandala grit her teeth against the pain in her tailbone. She brought a hand up to her head, pushing the tangled locks out of her face.

Opening them back up with a grimace, she was about to look back out around the cave, only to stop when her eyes fell upon her legs.

Vandala stiffened.

The long skirt she had been wearing that day had rode up to her thighs, exposing her legs from the knees.

Only, the skin was green.

Not the decaying, sickly pale color that she'd seen the ill and the dead take on, but actual, gem-colored green. Her entire left leg had suddenly taken on the color of seafoam, the same shade the water had been the day she went whaling with Jimmy and Wai. The small scars that she had gotten from sharp rocks and fish bites that had lined along her calf were now gone, the skin looking as smooth as a newborn's.

Vandala realized, with great terror, she could also see through it all, to the sandy bottom that lay a few inches aside her. As if she were as clear as the waters she had proudly sailed.

She put her hands up to her face.

They were the same color, and had also had taken on the strange transparency. Vandala made a small sound, confusion and terror starting to rise up in her. She touched her face- she could still feel everything there, but at the same time…she couldn't.

Something flashed light in her eyes out of the corner. Vandala raised her head, finding it to be a mirror shard halfway buried in the sand. She scrambled for it, grabbing it and bringing it up to her line of sight.

She didn't recognize who it was staring back at her.

A pale green face the same shape as her own looked back through eyes that should have been blue, but now were a startling shade of bright pink. Matted hair the same shade of jungle leaves fell in and around her eyes, sticking to her wet cheeks and chin.

Vandala held it out like it was burning her, in disbelief.

That couldn't…she wasn't…

She took a step back.

There was a strange jangling sound accompanying it.

She looked down at her body.

Various lengths of rusted-looking metal chain hung down around her waist, looking almost like a metal petticoat. Loose cuffs- like the ones that the guards would put around prisoners' wrists when they were leading them through town for a public humiliation- clasped the area just above her ankles tightly. Similar ones hugged her wrists, the chain on their cuffs wrapping up her forearms.

Vandala wheezed. A new seed of fear placed itself firmly in her stomach. Her chest felt tight, like she was going to suffocate.

She looked around the cave.

"Help!" she cried out again, her voice rising in pitch, "Help, Father! Where are you?! I need you!"

There was no reply.

She started to weep, the feel of hot tears running down her cheeks and dripping off her chin making them itch.

"HELP! FATHER!" she cried out again, "Help, s-s-something's wrong with me. FATHER!"

"Vandala Doubloons…"

She froze.

A voice- one that was definitely not her father's- called out to her.

"Come….it is time."

Vandala hugged her hands to her chest, glancing at the cave's walls.

"W-W-Who's there?" she called out.

"It is time to cross. Your time in this Earthly realm has come to an end, and now you must ascend to the next plane…"

She whimpered. "W-Who are you? W-W-Where's my father?"

"You have met your fate," the voice continued, "Now, you must move on."

A dark shape suddenly appeared out of the shadows of the cave and started to come towards her. Vandala let out a pitiful snivel as she took a step back.

"S-S-Stay away from me," she said, "D-Don't come any closer."

The figure continued on anyways. It was dressed in a dark cloak, all its features hidden from view. In its arm, it carried a tall metal object. A scythe, gleaming despite the darkness and looking like it could cleave a man right in half.

She felt a realization come to her, and her chest filled with even more panic as the figure stalked closer.

"You are not meant to roam this Earth any longer," the figure stated, its voice distorted as if a thousand people were whispering all at once, "I am to guide you to the other side. Come."

"Where's my father?" Vandala questioned, "I-I-I'm not leavin' without me father."

She backed up against something solid.

Someone put a hand on her shoulder.

Vandala screamed, scrambling away from the person. She whipped around to face them.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! It's all right, it's okay!"

The person who had talked held their hands out in front of them in a passive manner, waving them up and down in an attempt to calm the panicked teen.

Vandala stilled.

Initially ready to fight, all the adrenaline rush had suddenly left her. Now, she was just utterly confused.

A girl who looked to be a few years younger stood in front of her. Like the figure that had been approaching, she too wore black, though it was pushed haphazardly behind her shoulders and the hood pushed down, revealing the powder blue gown she wore underneath and the white heels that barely poked out from under. Her hair, which had a big spring green bow adorning the back, was an odd shade of blue and pink, and hung around her shoulders in a way that was not at all like a regular citizen's.

As she looked at Vandala with equal surprise, the former was shocked to see that the girl's skin was entirely light purple; the area around her nose was a particular dark shade, as well as the skin around her eyes, and her lips had little lines going through them, giving her an overall skeletal appearance. Vandala suddenly felt queasy when she realized she could see the girl's bones peaking out from under her skin.

The girl, to make it even stranger, gave her a nervous smile, blue eyes unusually kind and gentle. As if she was…embarrassed?

"Sorry!" she said, "Didn't mean to scare you like that!"

Vandala stared at her, speechless.

She heard a sigh behind her, and looked to see the first black clad figure approach.

"River…" it said tiredly- was that exasperation she was hearing in its voice?- "What have I said about interrupting?"

"I didn't mean to!" the girl in front of Vandala replied, "I just, she looked a little scared is all! I wanted to help her calm down."

"That is not of your concern," The figure reprimanded, "You are here to learn the process for when you are old enough to start reaping of your own accord, not to play peacemaker."

The girl pouted- Vandala thought it looked so wrong with her ghastly appearance. "I wasn't trying to."

She looked back and forth between them. She was stumped from the exchange- what in the name of Davy Jones was going on here?

"Uh…" she finally spoke up, "Pardon me, but…um, do I be missin' something here?"

The two of them looked at her, as if they had forgotten she'd been standing there. The girl perked up, giving her a wide smile.

"Of course, how rude of us not to introduce ourselves!" she exclaimed, holding out a hand- the bones shined bright white underneath her transparent purple flesh- "I'm River! And this is my dad! And we're here to take you to the Spirit Realm!"

"River," the figure said in a warning tone, "This is not how you talk with souls."

The girl, "River", gave him a frown.

"Well, she asked!" she defended, "I'm just trying to be polite."

"The Spirit Realm…" Vandala muttered to herself, her eyes widening. She looked at the two of them, "Does…d-does that mean that I'm…I'm…?"

They looked at her. River's brows furrowed in concern, her eyes filling with sadness. The black clad figure, its face hidden from her from its hood, simply nodded.

"You and the entire crew of The Bountiful have perished in your quest," it confirmed, "You sought adventure, but now, your strings of life have been cut. Your fate was decided long before your birth, and now it is time for it to play out. You must come with me. I am to help you cross over."

"I'm ain't anywhere without me father."

River perked up. "He's here! We already got him and everyone else from the boat to ours! We just needed to come get you before we could leave!"

A strike of hope went through the pirate teen.

"H-H-He…ye found me father?" she asked.

The skeleton-like girl nodded. Vandala reached forward, grabbing her at the shoulders.

"Where? Where is he?!" she demanded, "I need to see him!"

River looked at her with surprise from the action, before she raised a hand and pointed over Vandala's shoulders at some area in the cave.

"They're right outside on our ship," she stated, "Like I said, we just had to come get you before we took off. He's been asking a lot about you too."

"Please take me to him!" Vandala pleaded, "Please, we only have each other!"

The figure nodded. "You will reunited shortly in due time. Now come, I do not like to have my time wasted."

As they led her out of the cave (Vandala was shocked as they simply pulled her through the rocky walls), she was shocked to see a large ship awaiting on the rocks.

It was huge, about twice the size of the Bountiful. It was an eerie sight, the entire thing glowing a bright pale blue like it had been molded from a star. Long oars the size of fully grown trees stretched out on either side, causing light ripples from where they rested in the water.

Vandala's heart swelled when she looked up to see a few dozen or so people on the deck, all that she had recognized as being the crewmembers.

"Vandala!" a voice from above called.

She raised her head.

Several of the men shuffled from on the ship, parting to the sides as someone made their way through the crowd.

Ishmael burst from the crowd, staring down at her with disbelief as he stood near the steps leading up to the ship's deck.

Vandala's mouth dropped open. "F-Father…"

She broke into a run, darting straight for the ship. Ishmael started hurriedly descending the steps, jumping off of the last one and holding out his arms, catching her in a great big embrace as Vandala lunged for him, spinning the both of them around.

"Father," she sobbed, wrapping her arms around him tightly, clenching the fabric of his clothes tightly.

"Oh, me precious pearl," Ishmael cooed, pressing a kiss to her temple, "I'm so glad you're all right. When I couldn't find ye, I had begun to think I lost ye for good."

Vandala pulled away, looking up at him with teary eyes. Ishmael's appearance had changed, just like hers had. Now, his skin was a pale periwinkle color, his hair and beard now dark magenta and his eyes bright yellow. The whites of his eyes had turned dark purple.

"Father….are we really…" she sobbed out, "Are we really…"

Ishmael frowned, looking out on the water.

"I'm afraid so, me love," he said grimly, "It seems Davy Jones got the upper hand of us today. We tried to fight, but those damn sirens are clever, and good at what they do."

Vandala didn't know how to respond. She just hugged him tighter.

It was a small comfort.

They had just lost everything- their home, their wealth, their promise of a brighter future- but Vandala found the slightest bit of relief in knowing that even through it all, they still had each other.


The ghost ship sailed along the strange waves of the vortex, gliding like a knife along butter as it made its way to wherever their destination lie. Vandala leaned against the railing, watching the strange water over the side. She could hear the crew talking amongst themselves behind her, her father and them talking with the reaper about what was to become of them, now that they had crossed over to the Ghost World.

The Ghost World.

It sounded wrong just saying that in her head.

Vandala swallowed hard, looking out at the void around them with bitterness.

So this was it?

They had come so far and done so much, only for it to end like this?

It wasn't fair.

They were pirates. They were supposed to be the most clever of thieves, sailing from city to city, stealing from the rich and making their mark as they battled naval fleets and pitted themselves against the monsters of the ocean. They were supposed to make a last stand, go down in a blaze of glory.

Instead, they had sunk. They'd never get the treasure, never live to tell anyone about their exploits.

No one would probably ever know they had existed. Dead men told no tales, after all.

Vandala frowned, bitterness overtaking her as she looked out upon the void they were travelling through.

Bad idea, as the minute she did it, she suddenly felt her stomach lurch as nausea hit her like a tsunami. She held a hand to her mouth, leaning over the edge as she retched.

This was also not fair.

How was she still getting seasick? She was dead! Ghosts didn't get sick!

"Hey, you okay?"

With a groan, Vandala looked over her shoulder. River stood by her, the small girl looking at her with concern.

Putting a hand to her stomach, she wiped her mouth.

"Of course I'm not okay," she replied bitterly, "I be a dead lass now. Just peachy keen."

If she took offense to her rudeness, River didn't show it. Instead, she nodded.

"It's a hard thing to live with," she agreed, "Well, unlive with, I guess is more appropriate. But the Ghost World will help you! We've got homes, shops, all kinds of stuff! It'll be like nothing ever even happened!"

Vandala shot her a look, not buying any of it.

River didn't seem to notice, continuing her rambling.

"We've got tons of people to help you, too," she said, "They'll help you find a place to live and work. Don't get me wrong, I get it, it's gonna take some getting used to, but…you won't be alone, if that's of any comfort."

Vandala nodded absently, looking back down upon the strange whisps.

A thought occurred to her.

If there was a Ghost World…and that's where people went after they died…

"River," she suddenly spoke up, "Me mother…me mother died when I was a wee girl. If this 'Ghost World' is meant to house souls who've…died…then, does that…does that mean I might see her again?"

River looked surprised at the question. She fiddled with the cuff on her dress, not looking at her for a second, and the slight hope Vandala started to feel was quickly diminished.

"Death is…a tricky thing," River finally spoke up, "Many people end up going to the Ghost World. Some though….some are able to move on. Cross over to the 'true' afterlife, I guess you could say. It's complicated and I don't really understand how it works, but some people the gods let go on to Paradise. Or Hell, if the circumstances call for it."

"Oh…oh," Vandala replied.

She felt a pang in her chest. She reached for her neck, only to feel a fresh wave of sadness sullenness come over her when she felt only empty space where her coin usually rested.

They took it, remember? The voice in her head recalled, Snapped it right before they did ye in.

That coin was the only thing she had left of her mother.

And now, with her new deceased status and River's admittance, she truly had nothing left of her.

River, noting the melancholic aura of the green skinned girl, shifted on her feet.

"I'll….I'll leave you alone," she said, before turning and floating over to where her father was engaged in a discussion with Ishmael.

Vandala stayed silent, looking out on the void.

So this was the end….

She had spent her last moments drowning, getting robbed by sirens- those damned creatures- and having her only home smashed to bits and sunk.

Her fist clenched on the railing.

No.

This was not the end.

Vandala refused to let it be the end.

She was the Captain's daughter, a swashbuckler from birth, taught to hunt and loot and read and battle with her every breath. To never give up and never give in.

She never didn't it, not once in her life.

And she would not do it now. Not even in death.

Raising her head, she let the strange whispy air brush her green locks as a new bold feeling came over her.

She recalled the words that had been engraved on the coin.

"I shall rise again…" she muttered to herself.

And she would.

She would rise and see the world, leave her mark one way or another.

And nothing- not mermaids, Davy Jones, or the Devil himself- would stop her.

Chapter Text

~1993~


It wasn't that Kiyomi didn't appreciate the gesture her mom was going for- designing the whole thing for herself was no easy task, and she always took the value of homemade gifts very seriously. But just because it was thoughtful, didn't mean she had to like this particular process any more.

"Kiyomi, stop frowning so much," her mother said, "You'll get premature wrinkles that way."

Kiyomi blinked, breaking out of her trance of her staring in the mirror.

Her reflection blinked back at her. She stood on a small stool, arms stretched out side to side as the unfinished yukata hung off them and her shoulders, the light pink cotton decorated with floral print and leaves. The long sleeves came down to her waist, the bottoms sporting several loose threads and rough hems as they were yet to be finished. She looked down to see Kaoru, her mother, knelt at the bottom of the stool, stitching the hem of the yukata; several ball point pins stuck out of her mouth, the sharp metal points clenched sharply between her teeth.

Repressing a sigh, Kiyomi looked back into the mirror.

"I can't help it," she said, "It's just so boring standing here."

Kaoru looked up at her, rolling her eyes. She shook her head and looked back down at where she had the fabric grasped in her hand. "Well, don't you want to make sure it fits all right? I mean, I guess you could attend the festival in a yukata that has uneven stitching and will either feel like it's choking you or that you're wearing a giant sheet, but I wouldn't."

She held the hem up closer in front of her face. Grasping the thin needle pinched between her thumb and index finger in her right hand, she carefully pushed it through the cotton, carefully threading the thin string tied at the end of it through it, bringing the layers together.

Kiyomi resisted the urge to groan as she looked up at the clock, shifting on her feet impatiently.

Truth be told, she wasn't exactly all that thrilled for this year's Hanami Festival; even with the anticipation delicious food that would be present and seeing the pretty designs of the other women's yukatas, she just couldn't find it in her to garner much excitement. It was hard to look forward to something when you knew when you'd be spending it alone.

It'd be even harder when she knew that sooner or later, she'd be bound to run into the other girls from school.

She swallowed hard.

"Ouch!" she exclaimed, suddenly feeling a sharp prick in the side of her calf. Kiyomi looked down, seeing her mother as she pulled back, a sheepish smile on her features.

"Sorry!" Kaoru exclaimed, "Didn't realize how close your skin was there."

She pulled the yukata back, exposing the bare skin of Kiyomi's leg. A small trail of blood was running down her calf, a tiny cut visible in the lamplight. Kiyomi frowned. Great.

"Oh, what a mess," she heard Kaoru say to herself as she put down her needle and grabbed a tissue from the wicker basket that lay by her feet, pressing it to her daughter's leg. Kiyomi winced at the contact, feeling a sting that sent goosebumps across her skin.

Kaoru frowned as she pushed the fabric hanging around her leg away, trying to keep any blood from staining it. She applied more pressure to the wound, only to find that it was causing more blood to come running out.

She sighed, "Guess I poked deeper than I thought."

She looked up at Kiyomi, lightly tugging at the sides of the yukata. "Go on and get a band-aid, I think I've gotten far enough for one day."

Thank goodness, Kiyomi thought to herself, sliding the yukata off without any resistance and hopping off the stool. Her socked feet brushed against the carpet as she speed-walked out of the room into the hallway; she groaned in satisfaction as she rolled her shoulder blades, bending her stiff arms into her to relieve the ache of keeping them outstretched.

"….was knocked unconscious afterward. When she awoke, she managed to undo her restraints and dial 911, but by then the thieves were long gone," she heard from the television in the living room.

Kiyomi spared a look inside, catching sight of her dad sitting back on the sofa, his arms over the back as he watched the screen, seemingly oblivious to her presence as she made her way into the bathroom near the stairs. She opened up the medicine cabinet and took out the small box of bandages, pulling one out and lifting her leg to put it on.

"What did you do?" her father suddenly asked.

Kiyomi looked up in surprise. Her father wasn't looking at her, his gaze still focused on the fuzzy TV screen. She furrowed her eyebrows. How did he…?

Daisuke finally turned away from the small screen, looking over his shoulder at his daughter with an eyebrow raised.

"Well?"

Kiyomi blinked, still caught off guard by his question. She furrowed her brows. "How…did you know?"

Daisuke smirked, gesturing his chin out at her now bandaged leg. "I couldn't help but notice the slight hop you were doing as you came through the hall," he explained, "The same hop you do whenever you hurt your leg."

Kiyomi blushed. Did she really do that that much? "Mom was w-working on the yukata and had me model for her so that the proportions will be right, a-and she accidentally pricked me with the needle."

She heard her father click his tongue; Daisuke shook his head, a slight annoyed sigh escaping him.

"I've told her time and time again she's going to work herself to the bone with that thing," he said, "She thinks that she has something to prove to the other women and doesn't believe me when I tell her they all just bought them for their daughters' and are only saying they made them.

"I mean, you really think those women have ever picked up a needle a day in their lives?" he told Kiyomi, "Bunch of liars, that's what they are. But does your mother ever listen to me? Nope!"

The blush that marred Kiyomi's face disappeared at her father's slight lament, and she giggled at the grumpy expression on his face. Daisuke smiled in return. He leaned down slightly, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear.

"Personally," he whispered, "I think the results would turn out perfectly fine if she just stops overthinking every little detail."

"I can hear you, you know!" Kaoru shouted from down the hall in Japanese.

Kiyomi and Daisuke sputtered, smothering their giggles.

After they shared some laughs and she gave her father a kiss on the cheek, Kiyomi went ahead up to her room, intent on finally relaxing off her feet and trying to finish the homework she had started.

The bright afternoon sunlight cast a rose-tinted glow throughout the room as it peered in through the curtains, the small glass diamond catching the light and casting small dots on the walls. The tightly coiled carpet contrasted with the fuzziness of the pink shag rug that was strewn across the middle of the floor, and Kiyomi bunched some of it between her toes through her socks. She turned around and spread her arms back out, letting herself fall backwards onto the bed; the springs lightly creaked, and the purple comforter was soft under her palms. Kiyomi sighed in relaxation as she closed her eyes, happy to finally give her back a break.

For a moment, she just rested her eyes, listening to the sounds of her parents moving around downstairs and the gentle tick of her bedside clock. Taking a deep breath, she let it out and sat up, pushing herself off the bed and heading for her desk, where her math textbook lay open, her notebook lying next to it. Formulas and numbers dotted the upper half of it.

Getting it done, Kiyomi quickly realized, was not nearly as easy as she thought it was.

"How is that the answer?" she questioned to herself, "And where did that three even come from?! Ugh, this isn't telling me anything!"

She pursed her lips tightly, narrowing her eyes as she scanned the page in the back of the textbook that held the answers to the practice problems again. Looking over the book's steps as to how it gave the answer, she glanced back over at her notebook at her own work-through of the problems; she frowned when she noticed that the formula she'd used was nearly the exact same one that the book used.

"Then how did I get such a different answer?" she asked, "It doesn't make any sense!"

Groaning, she leaned back in her chair, rubbing her hands over her face in frustration. Technically, this particular assignment was not due for another week, but Kiyomi had thought to get an early start on it anyway, since she figured if she finished early, she'd have more time to focus on her history paper that was due in a couple weeks.

However, from her position right now, it looked like that those plans were about to fall through.

There was the faint sound of laughter outside her window. Kiyomi lifted her head, slightly curious. She leaned forward and brushed the curtain aside, looking out.

A few girls she recognized from school were walking on the sidewalk in front of the house, giggling and talking amongst each other. There was a number of shopping bags between them, all displaying the logo of one or another of the many stores that were in the mall. All of them seemed to have their hair and makeup done, and she could see what looked like varying colors on their fingernails when they were exposed. Obviously the results of what could only be a day at the salon, preceded or followed by some shopping and maybe a lunch out included.

One that she wasn't invited to.

Kiyomi fought against the lump in her throat as she suddenly felt a feeling of heaviness settle in her chest. She bit her lip. Her grip tightened on her pencil.

That could be her.

If only she were actually their friend.

If only she ever found the strength to actually say something and not get so choked up from the shyness that the only thing she achieved was making herself out to look like a total idiot.

She tried to blink away the tears that suddenly appeared in her vision. Swallowing hard, Kiyomi shook her head and wiped them away furiously, before she glared back down at her textbook and tried to distract the sudden sadness she felt with more math.


 "So since we didn't get to tackle chapter six today, I'm expecting you to read that along with chapter seven for tomorrow as well," the teacher announced as he wrote the pages on the chalkboard, "I'll hold the questions off for another day, but don't think that this means you can just slack off."

Kiyomi grimaced as she watched him right; the prospect of yet even more homework being added to her already loaded schedule for the night was definitely not something she was looking forward to. Nor were the other students, if the collected chorus of groans that sounded around the room was anything to go off. She picked up her copy and flipped through the pages really quick, her mood souring when she realized just how many pages both chapters combined equaled.

Sixty pages? How did Mr. Stevenson expect them to be able to read that much by tomorrow? When would she even find the time to get started on such? In addition to starting her history paper, she also had online homework for science to do- something that she knew from prior experience was going to take no less than an hour alone- in addition for studying for the math test that was coming up and doing the reading for Astronomy. Kiyomi knew she was a slow reader, so the thought of having to tackle that much in a book in a little over a night made her feel even more helpless.

She jumped as the shrill sound of a bell overheard suddenly sounded throughout the room; as a reaction, students immediately started getting out of their seats, shoving whatever materials that were on their desks into their backs and heading quickly for the door.

"Hold on, the bell doesn't dismiss you, I do," Mr. Stevenson said, "Hey! Hold on!

"Remember to do your reading and make sure the questions from Monday are written in your notebook!" he called out as students ignored him and continued to leave the room, seemingly understanding his attempts to make them stay were in vain.

Kiyomi kept her head down as she hurried out into the hallways, her chin digging into her collarbone as she hugged her books tightly to her chest. Murmuring quiet 'sorries' and 'excuse mes' as she navigated through the crowd, she got to her locker and started putting in the combination. A familiar pound of dread started to settle in her gut as she finished exchanging out the books and notebooks she needed.

Slamming it shut, she turned. Her legs felt like lead as she slowly began to make her way down the stairs to the lower level of the school, before making a left and heading for the gymnasium.

Gym. The last class she had for the day. And the one that Kiyomi absolutely despised.

Having to get undressed in front of dozens of other girls to see more than she wanted anyone to see of her, having to wear herself out and get pummeled with rubber balls and get all sweaty and gross and get hurt, having to get swept up in all the chaos of everyone else running around and making loud noises and having to go up against guys who were thrice her size? Absolute recipe for disaster.

With a heavy heart, Kiyomi forced herself to keep walking. Only thing worse than going to a class she hated was missing it and having to deal with the teacher and administrator getting on her for her absence.

She kept her head down as she and the other girls went to the locker room, fixating her gaze on her feet as she slid out of her uniform and into her gym clothes as fast as she could; no need to dally and let some of the more cruel girls get the chance to ogle and find some flaw they could use against her. When the coach called from the front office for the girls to head for the front doors, Kiyomi kept her gaze on her shoes as they followed after one another in a single file line, lining up next to each other on one of the lines on the hardwood floor.

"Okay, everyone, here's the plan," the coach announced as she held up a volleyball in her right hand. Everyone in the class sat on the floor of the court around her, listening to what was in store for the day, "I want all of you to get into teams, and we'll split the floor into a three courter for a couple rounds of volley. You can pick whoever you want to be with, but you must have at least five people, since we don't have enough for an even number."

Kiyomi's heart dropped into her stomach. She clenched her sleeve.

She hated when they were given the option of making their own teams. The only thing worse than being picked last for a team was being outright ignored and having to be in the team with those you either didn't even know or didn't like.

The instant the coach blew her whistle and left them to their own devices, the students immediately started getting up, heading over to a certain spot or another to talk with their friends and join up for their dream team. Kiyomi stood around awkwardly, looking around to see who she might have the best chance with.

She spotted Beryl Jenkins to the right, the latter already having joined up with Polly Richards and Margot Castillo; the three were laughing with each other as they tried to decide who else would join their team.

Heart hammering in her chest, she approached the girls, holding her hand up slowly with an intention to tap Beryl on the shoulder. When she got within only a foot of the trio, however, Kiyomi found that her feet felt like they had suddenly just rooted to the spot, whatever sentences she tried to form ahead of time dying right in her throat. Her hand stood outstretched, fear quickly overtaking any will of her body.

She opened her mouth, but she felt a large lump in her throat, like her vocal chords had suddenly been frozen. The girls continued to talk in front of her, completely oblivious to her presence.

"E…E-E-Excuse m-me," she finally managed to mumble out, stumbling over her words so severely it almost sounded like a bunch of incoherent sounds.

Beryl and the other girls obviously didn't hear her either, the three oblivious to her presence as they continued to talk amongst themselves.

Kiyomi swallowed hard. Times like this, she cursed the crippling shyness she experienced whenever she tried to talk to anyone in public that wasn't her family or the neighbors they were closed to.

Taking another deep breath, she tried again.

"Um, B-Beryl?" she called, "C-Could I-"

Right then, a pretty red head with freckles all over her face skipped over to the trio, a big smile on her face.

"Hey! You guys got room for one more?" she asked.

Kiyomi saw Beryl's head perk up, her shoulders hitching up in excitement. An high pitched squeal escaped her.

"You bet!" she exclaimed, "In fact, we're about short two more."

The redheaded girl beamed, "Great, because Susie was actually wanting me to see if she could join too!"

"That's even better!"

The redheaded girl turned, and the trio followed after her, not looking back even once; leaving Kiyomi standing there, her hand still outstretched in mid air.

She watched them go, her chest tightening. Slowly, her fingers curled inward, and she lowered her hand to her side, her gaze dropping down to the floor.

Oh, she thought to herself, I…I guess you already have enough.

She didn't have time to dwell in her disappointment and frustration as the coach came up to her. Her hands rested on her hips as she furrowed her brows at the Japanese girl's sad expression, and she looked around briefly to see if there was any sign of her being part of one of the numerous groups that had now formed through the gym.

"Kiyomi, you don't have a group?" she asked.

The brunette looked up at her, slowly shaking her head.

The coach frowned, and scanned the gym again; her eyes landed on a group of boys who were standing off to the sides, all looking similar to Kiyomi in that they didn't seem to belong anywhere.

She pointed at them, "You can join up with those guys over there; they look like they need some partners."

Kiyomi followed her finger, eyes landing on the boys. Her heart dropped when she recognized Kyle Lambernelli and Liam Dessen to be among the few who were standing around.

Though she often tried to not let first impressions get the best of her judgment of people, Kiyomi didn't find either boy to be particularly…favorable. Kyle couldn't pay attention to save his life, and was the type who seemed to prefer everyone to do the work for him while he sat back and messed around, his only contribution being to complain about how wrong everything was. Liam, on the other hand, Kiyomi just found creepy. He had always regarded her with the most skin crawling of expressions, and any time he talked to her his sentences almost had some kind of innuendo or another within. Definitely not someone she wanted to work with in gym class.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" the coach asked when the teen didn't move, "Get going. We need to get started."

Kiyomi frowned, wanting to object. She'd rather be alone than deal with a team that didn't know teamwork. Knowing that doing so would get her nowhere, though, she just kept it to herself and obeyed.

She tried not to bristle as she noticed Liam eyeing her as she walked towards the group, an eerie smirk coming onto his face as he looked at her with a dark glint in his eye.

"Everyone got a team? Anyone who still needs to be placed?" the coach asked, looking around.

They all stared at her.

Taking it as confirmation, the coach nodded curtly, before blowing her whistle. She turned away from the teens, looking towards the volleyball nets that had been set up around the gym.

"If no one has any objects, then let's get started then! First team to claim whatever side of what net gets it!"

Everyone started for the various courts. Kiyomi sighed.

Here goes nothing, she thought to herself, hoping that it couldn't get much worse.


 Apparently, it could.

Kiyomi winced as she rubbed her thigh through her skirt, the ache making her limp slightly as she made her way down the sidewalk. The area where she had fallen after Kyle collided into her still felt tender. No doubt she'd have a bruise there tomorrow.

And it wouldn't have happened if he had bothered looking where he was going, her mind said snarkily.

She frowned at the thought.

Not that it was exactly a lie; she had told the boys that she had it when the ball came soaring over to their side of the net, sailing right towards Kiyomi's corner. There had been no need to anyone to move, as it was right in her line of position. She could've hit it perfectly and probably got a good spike- finally evening their playing field when they were fifteen minutes into the game with the other team and still had not landed a single point- but Kyle, who spent most of the game more interested in watching the others than actually participating, decided it was at that moment his time to shine.

It ended in disaster, of course, the two ramming right into each other, Kyle's knee getting her in her outer thigh. Hard.

"Of course, have to pay for his insolence," Kiyomi muttered bitterly to herself.

Not that she was entirely blameless. She didn't exactly tell Kyle off when he did run into her. And yeah, she could admit that she could've spoken up when Stephen Nagrash tried to take control of where everyone would stand and what everyone would do and she realized how full of holes his plan was. And maybe she should've said something besides 'yeah' when the coach asked her if she was okay and gone with the best course of action of going to the nurse's office to receive and icepack.

But she didn't. She never did.

She might've as well not have even had a voice.

Kiyomi shook her head. Dwelling on her frustrations wasn't going to help anything- it was all said and done, too late to do anything about it now.

There was a high pitched squeal off to the side.

"No!"

"Yes! And he even said he wants to take me out on the town after the dance! Aw, I can't believe this is actually happening!"

Curiosity tweaked Kiyomi's interest, and she looked up to see Beryl and the other girls walking together; their hair was down and like her, they were redressed in their school uniforms. They were giggling with each other, Beryl's cheeks bright pink, like all the excitement had gone to her head. Polly and Margot clapped their hands in joy, Polly even jumping up and down as they looked upon her with amazement.

"You are so lucky!" Margot exclaimed, "Calvin is like, so hot!"

Beryl gave her a smug smile in return, "Well, duh. Why else would this be totes uh-mazing?! And Calvin was so sweet about it! I think it's safe to say that we're bound to become an item soon!"

A spur of jealousy went through Kiyomi. Oh, yeah. The Spring Formal was coming up. It sounded like it could be a lot of fun…if you had an entourage to go with, that was. Like Beryl's situation- just the criteria, with plenty of friends to dance with and go shopping for dresses with and talk with when everyone was too tired to do anything else, and, from the strawberry blonde's news, even a cute date to show up at your doorstep. The cherry on top of what would only be described later as a perfect evening (if nothing went wrong, of course) when everyone talked about it later on.

Figures, Kiyomi's inner voice said, You'll only hear about it, while everyone else will get to experience it first hand.

Just in her nature. Always watching from the sidelines, never getting to play the field herself.

Her shoulders hunched up in defensiveness as Margot suddenly turned and looked right in her direction. Kiyomi felt herself blush, realizing that she probably looked like she was staring at them.

Margot raised an eyebrow, sucking her lips in, like she was trying to figure out what exactly the Japanese girl had been doing. Kiyomi shuffled on her feet uncomfortably. Please don't come this way, please don't come this way, please don't come this way, she prayed.

Luckily, no such thing happened. Margot just shrugged, before turning her attention back to Polly and Beryl. They walked past Kiyomi on the opposite side of the street; the latter two didn't even glance her way once.

Kiyomi's fingers dug into the strap of her bag as it hung down in front of her knees. She bit her lip, watching them go.

It would be nice to have that, she thought.

Shoulders dropping in defeat, she hung her head and continued on her way, eyes glued to the concrete sidewalk that lay out in front of her.

"…says that she awoke to a strange tapping noise coming from somewhere within the bedroom," the little TV that lie on the kitchen counter stated as she walked in through the front door, "When she went to investigate, she wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted her back."

Walking into the kitchen, Kiyomi found her mother leaning back against the kitchen table, arms crossed and face pinched as she watched the small screen with great interest. Kiyomi placed her bag down in one of the chairs, moving to the fridge to dig out some ingredients for a small snack.

"Police say the intruder made their way through the garage through a door leading into the backyard that was unlocked," the news anchor on the TV continued, "Which led them into the living room. While the family slept, they made haste of any valuables in sight. The total amount lost, police say, is equivalent to over five thousand dollars worth of belongings."

Kaoru shook her head, clicking her tongue.

"That's been the fifth robbery this month," she said, eyes still glued to the TV, "How they haven't managed to find any sort of clue, I don't get. It's all during the night, there's no way they can't make some kind of mistake or leave some sort of clue."

Kiyomi looked up as she unscrewed a jar of peanut butter. "Maybe whoever's responsible a professional? Maybe they've got some skilled in doing night work and know how to cover their tracks?"

Kaoru scoffed as she shook her head. She finally turned around, regarding her daughter with a look of disbelief.

"Goodness, I hope not! If so, I'll never feel safe going to sleep again as long as they're out there!" she exclaimed.

Kiyomi couldn't help but giggle at the way her mother's eyes bugged out, making her look a bit like a frog's (not that she'd say that in front of her out loud). Kaoru shot her a dirty look, obviously not appreciating her daughter's jovialness in a moment that was obviously supposed to be serious. It didn't last though, and she ended up having a few chuckles of her own.

"Nevermind that, though," she said, making her way over to continue her task of the dishes, "How was school?"

Kiyomi paused, her knife frozen in the middle of where she was swiping the peanut butter across a slice of bread. She pondered telling her mother the whole story about what had occurred in gym, including her hesitance when it came to asking Beryl and the other girls, but decided against it.

Though she knew they loved her and always wanted to help her when she was feeling down, her parents were not the most understanding of people. If she told Kaoru her grievances when it came to the group she was stuck with and the difficulty of just talking to Beryl, Kiyomi knew that it would probably get brushed off as she was probably just overthinking things and they just didn't hear her, and that she just got a bad stroke of luck being stuck with Kyle and Liam. And she wasn't sure she really wanted to hear all that today.

"It was…fine," she finally answered, "Nothing much happened. Have a lot of homework to do. Some boy ran into me in gym."

"Oh? Are you okay?"

She nodded, though she turned so that the leg that had been injured was facing Kaoru for emphasis. "I think I'll have a bruise."

Kaoru nodded, "Sorry to hear that. You should probably put some ice on it, help the swelling go down."

"Okay."

Scrubbing the last bit of grime off of the porcelain bowl she was holding, Kaoru placed it in the drying rack and grabbed a towel to dry her hands.

"I hope that homework you have isn't too much, because I want to work more on the yukata today," she said, "I'm thinking if we hustle, we can get it done by the end of this week."

Kiyomi pouted. She turned away as she finished her sandwich, grabbing her bag as she walked towards the stairs. She suppressed a groan as she responded, tiredly, "Yes, Mom."

Hopefully, my arms won't fall off by the time it's all over, she thought.


 The next few weeks went by in a bit of a blur. Kiyomi found herself so swamped with things- from copious amounts of homework and reports and tests to study for, to helping her dad down at the post office, to being her mother's personal mannequin, to helping around the house and preparing for the festival- that she had barely noticed how fast the week had gone by until she found herself in her room Saturday night, finished with her Astronomy assignment two days early.

She blinked as she stared at the words in front of her. Her wrist cramped slightly at the nonstop writing she'd been doing for the past hour. Kiyomi flexed her hand, trying to relieve the ache. She squeezed her eyes shut again against the dryness that had overtaken them.

Kiyomi glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Her eyes widened.

"Ten-thirty, already?" she said in disbelief, "Goodness, I must've zoned out over this or something."

Leaning back in her chair, she held her arms out in front of her. She linked her fingers together, stretching until she heard a satisfying pop in her back, making her groan. Turning right and left slightly to relieve the ache of the hunched over position she had been in for the past few hours, Kiyomi took one last look at her assignment, skimming over to see if there was anything she had missed.

It almost felt surreal. She had been worrying herself almost sick for the past few days over getting it done, spending the whole day on it from the moment she got up and dressed, pacing around and keeping herself from throwing the whole thing out the window when she hit a writing block, stopping only to use the bathroom and get food. And now, she…was actually done.

Not that she was complaining at all.

Her stomach suddenly rumbled, begging for some more food. Kiyomi put a hand to it, a blush coming onto her features despite her being the sole person to hear it.

Oh, what the hell was a little reward snack going to hurt? In her opinion, she was more than deserving of it, considering the headache she had just given herself for the past day and night.

She pushed her door open to reveal a dark, empty hallway. The only source of light, besides that coming from her bedroom, was a small rectangle that poured out from under her parents' bedroom.

They must be getting ready for bed, Kiyomi thought. Deciding it best to not disturb them, she silently trekked past their door, her feet making a slightly rustling sound as they slid slowly against the carpet.

Taking the stairs one at a time, she made her way to the bottom, doing one last stretched before stepping off and making her way for the kitchen. Her feet made not one noise as they landed on the tile floor.

The dim, naked bulb positioned over the kitchen was the lone source of light in all of the downstairs, casting all nearby surfaces in a faint glow. Kiyomi flipped a switch, looking in the cabinets to see if there were any sugar cookies left. She'd been so preoccupied with her assignment that she had skipped out on dessert after dinner, which she had rushed through.

Something banged on the wall.

Kiyomi jumped, letting out a surprised "oh!".

She stared at the wall with wide eyes, a hand to her chest as if to help calm her suddenly racing heart.

What on earth was that?

She leaned slightly to the right, trying to see what it was. Her entertained the thought that maybe the neighbors' cat had somehow snuck in again and was climbing over the shelves (the fact that it was again made her sigh internally).

But then, there was another sound somewhere off to the right, near the back door. Something that sounded akin to padding on the floor. There was another bang- though this one slightly smaller- that was followed up by the definite sound of someone hissing under their breath.

Kiyomi whipped around, staring at the back door.

A trickle of fear started to make its way into her chest. A shiver went up her spine, her blood felt cold.

She swallowed, her throat suddenly feeling dry.

Against her best efforts screaming at her to run away, whether it be up to her room or straight out of the house or just somewhere that wasn't here, her curiosity got the best of her; even with her mind screaming at her in objection, Kiyomi started inching towards the spot. Though she wasn't quite sure she really wanted to know what had caused the noise.

There was another movement behind her, and she froze.

She started to turn-

There was a giant pounding of footsteps on the floor behind her, before Kiyomi felt a pair of hands grab her and yank her against something hard and solid. An arm went around her neck, and she felt her airway slightly cut off.

Something metal and cold pressed against her throat.

"Make one sound, and I'll slit you wide open," a foreign, gruff masculine voice hissed sharply in her ear.

Kiyomi sucked in a breath. A small squeak escaped her lips.

She swallowed hard against the pressure on her jugular. Her bottom lip quivered as she tried to think of a response through the mass terror she was feeling in the moment.

"W-W-W-Who a-are you?" she finally managed to ask, her voice small.

She heard an amused chuckle. She clenched her sweaty palms into fists.

"Nobody you'll ever see again, as long as you be a good girl and do what you're told," the man responded, pressing the knife harder against her throat for emphasis.

"Bruce, what are you-shit!" a second male voice responded from somewhere behind Kiyomi to the left, the shock evident in his voice.

"I thought you said there was nobody home?!" the man holding Kiyomi questioned in an angry voice.

"I did! I-I-I didn't see no car, 'n all the lights were out!" the second guy defended.

As scared for her life as she was at the moment, and despite the suddenly questioning she suddenly did for herself of why she felt it necessary to answer these obvious criminals who had broken in, Kiyomi found herself answering in a watery voice, "M-My dad's car is d-d-down at the shop. H-He had to get it f-fixed."

There was silence for a few seconds, and she could only guess the men were taken off guard by her actually saying something that wasn't just begging for her life. Afterward, though, Kiyomi heard the guy holding her curse under his breath.

"Fuckin' great," he muttered, "And here we were doing so good."

Kiyomi swallowed again, her chest fluttering as she felt a slight sting as doing so made her flesh press deeper against the knife.

"P-P-Please," she stated, "Please don't hurt me."

The man snorted this time. The feel of his hot breath on her ear made her skin crawl.

"Don't make any sudden moves and I won't need to girly," he stated, "But if you try anything. I might just have to."

She whimpered.

"Rick? Sam? What's going on?" she heard a third voice announce from in front. A shadow appeared on the wall near the window, before a man suddenly came into full view.

He was wearing all black, his blonde hair messy and unkept and falling in his face. From under his shaggy bangs, Kiyomi could see his eyes widen as they landed on her. It was obvious that the three of them- or however many people were in this house right now- were not expecting her to be down here or in the building at the moment. For Kiyomi, the feeling was too mutual.

The blonde man looked up at his companion, his face pale.

"What is she doing here?" he asked, his voice panicked, "Oh, shit, we're in trouble now!"

"Shut up!" the first man said, "You want anyone else to hear?!"

He took the knife out from her neck, waving it to the side for emphasis on where they were. The second his grip loosened, Kiyomi took the chance. With all the best strength she could muster, she thrusted her arm back, elbowing him right in the gut.

"Oof!" the man exclaimed. He had no time to recover, however, before Kiyomi slammed her heel into his foot, making him howl. She yanked herself free of his grip, turning one-eighty and darting for the stairs.

"MOM! DAD! HELP!" she screamed as her feet slammed on the floor.

The two other burglars, caught off guard at first by the sudden display of action, stood still for a second as they processed what had happened. As Kiyomi rushed to the stairs, however, they snapped out of it, and both of them lunged for her. She screamed as one of them managed to grab her by the ankle, yanking her feet out from under her and making her land on her front on the stairs.

"HELP!" she continued to shriek, her voice ringing throughout all over the house, "OTOU-SAN! KAA-SAN! HELP, SOMEONE'S HERE!"

Kiyomi thrashed as she felt herself get further pulled down the steps. She dug her nails into the threads of the carpet, trying to grab a hold of it before she could be completely pulled off the steps. She tried kicking out, though she only earned a grunt from the burglar holding her before she felt him wrap his arms around her waist, wrenching her off the stairs and throwing her down onto the floor.

A light came on from above.

"Kiyomi?" Kaoru called with concern.

There was the sound of muffled feet galloping above, before it was followed up by the tell tale noise of people rushing down the stairs.

"Goddamn it," Kiyomi heard one of the men whisper.

Scrambling to get back up, she clamored onto her stomach, lifting herself up by her elbows.

"Mom! Someone's HERE! SOMEONE'S-"

She was cut off as one of the burglars, the one who had first threatened her, smashed his boot into her back, slamming her into the floor and kicking her across the face. Kiyomi cried out in pain, hands flying to her face to cradle her bruised mouth.

"Shut the fuck up, you little bitch!"

"Kiyomi!" Kaoru exclaimed at the sound of her wail.

She appeared around the corner of the stairs a second later, jogging down the stairs with Daisuke following closely behind her. Her eyes widened at the sight of her daughter lying on the ground, some mysterious man standing over her with one of his feet on her back.

"Ki-"

The man who had grabbed Kiyomi lunged and tackled her to the side. Kaoru let out a cry of alarm, the both of them falling to the ground. The man got up quickly and climbed on top of her, grabbing her arms and pinning them behind her. She cried out again as she felt her forearm twist at a threatening angle.

Daisuke stopped on the stairs, his head whipping to the side as he watched his wife get manhandled. The man who held Kiyomi down with his boot ran for him; Daisuke barely had time to comprehend he was coming right in his direction before the man slammed his fist into his face. Kiyomi saw his head snap back as a sickening crack sounded throughout the kitchen. The man ducked and threw a punch into Daisuke's stomach, the latter doubling over with a pinched face full of pain before he was grabbed and thrown towards Kiyomi, falling on the ground beside her.

"Dad!" Kiyomi cried out, scrambling for him.

She ignored the sharp pain in her bottom lip as she help him onto his elbows. Daisuke's nose was bleeding, crimson running right down his nostrils and chin and onto his nightshirt. There was a cut across the bridge.

Kiyomi looked back up at the man. She whimpered as he glared down at the both of them with a feral anger, his teeth grit and his eyes wide. He held up the knife in his hand, pointing it at the both of them, and she backed away slightly.

He snarled, "I ought to cut you right now for that, you little bitch!"

He whipped his head back at where the blonde man and Kaoru lay in the entrance.

"Get 'em tied up, put 'em where we can see them at all times!"


 Kiyomi trembled as the burglar finished tying her arms. The thin shoelace rubbed and dug into her wrists, and she clenched and unclenched her fists to keep the blood circulating. He gave the knots a firm tug, making sure there was no room for them to come loose, before he stood up and walked around. He knelt down in front of her, grabbing another thing of shoelaces from his pocket and starting to tie her ankles.

"W-W-Why are you doing this?" Daisuke asked shakily from beside her.

He looked upon the three intruders with one eye, his other swollen shut. His cheek was deep purple as a fresh bruise started to bloom. Kaoru sat on his other side, her head down as she wept. Tears dripped off her nose. Kiyomi could faintly hear her desperately praying under her breath in Japanese.

All three of them had been gathered in the kitchen, where they sat with their backs to the sink and cupboards as the burglars tied them up.

The burglar with the knife turned to look at them. He was tall and brawny, Kiyomi noticed now that she finally got a good look at him. A tousled mess of curly dark hair sat on his head, a full beard gracing his chin and lips. There was a distinct redness in his cheeks and nose, though she couldn't tell if it was from his frustration or just natural. He sneered upon the family, his upper lip curling like an angry dog. The hardness in his brown eyes made them look almost black.

"It's a hard business, buddy," he replied with a snarky tone, "Just doin' what I can to get by. It's amazing just the kinds of treasures that lie in people's homes.

"It would've gone smoothly like it has been," he continued with a frown, "Y'all weren't supposed to be here in the first place. It seems as though somebody fucked up their observations."

He spat the last few words at the other two as he looked back over his shoulder, giving the both of them a dirty look. The blonde one shuffled on his feet, while the third burglar- a short, portly man with a widow's peak and rather big lips- looked away with a 'hmph.'

Something clicked in Kiyomi's head at his sentence.

"You're the ones who've been doing the breaking and entering that's all over the news," she commented.

They looked at her. The curly haired man grinned- she felt sick at the way he'd look her over- gesturing to himself.

"Aw, so you're able to put two and two together," he said with a grin, "Glad to hear that."

"Please," Daisuke spoke out, "Please…d-don't do this. P-Please, take whatever you want, but j-just don't hurt my family."

"We weren't…planning on it," the blonde burglar mumbled. His head was down.

The curly haired man shot him a dirty glare, his jaw tightening in annoyance. Looking back down at the helpless family, he shrugged. "We were planning on doing that anyway, dumbass. If y'all just remained upstairs like good ol' folk, this wouldn't have happened. Now, be good little hostages and maybe we won't hurt you too badly."

Kiyomi felt herself back up against the counter unconsciously as he pointed the knife at them for emphasis, its metal blade gleaming in the light. She heard her mother sob, and she pressed herself against her father in an attempt for comfort.

"Wait, what?" the blonde suddenly spoke up, "That wasn't part of the plan! You said nobody was going to get hurt by this!"

The man growled, whipping around. "Shut up, Sam."

"But-"

"Shut it," he snapped back, "If you have a better plan for how to handle this shit, then speak up, or else keep your mouth shut! We wouldn't even be in this mess if you'd just know how to be more fucking careful!"

"You never said anything about hurting anyone!" The one apparently named Sam called back.

"If you two idiots would be so kind, we should probably start doing what we came here for in the first place," the second burglar- the one presumably named Rick- stated with exasperation as he walked into the kitchen, a few of the family's belongings in his hands.

Kiyomi lifted her head, watching the exchange with slightly piqued interest. Fear and nervousness still clawed at every nerve, but now she was intrigued by the sudden outburst from the tall man. Compared to his large exterior, "Sam" suddenly looked rather small.

It was then that Kiyomi realized just how young the blonde looked. His black clothes looked much more baggier on him up close, his sleeves rolled up to reveal arms that were rather thin and wiry. He had a young looking face- Kami, he couldn't have been much older than she was- his cheeks still rounded with baby fat and his eyes looking wide like a deer in headlights. His jaw was clenched in what she could only guess was nervousness, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed (with what looked like difficulty). His eyes darted back between them and the larger burglar constantly, like he were afraid to look at them but also couldn't find it in him to keep eye contact with his accomplice.

It occurred to her that of the three of them, it was becoming quite clear this probably wasn't his idea.

Not that it mattered. He still went along with it, and was still in their house, and still helped the other two tie her and her parents up.

As the two continued to bicker- 'Bruce' dragging Sam by the collar as they followed Rick out, presumably taking his advice to actually start scourging the house- Kiyomi found her attention diverted when she suddenly heard her father squeak in alarm.

She looked to the side. Daisuke's bottom lip was quivering, his eyes wide and confused as they stared at the ground in front of him. His face scrunched up like he had felt something unpleasant.

"Dad?" Kiyomi asked, "A-Are you okay?"

Daisuke didn't answer her. He blinked rapidly, as if trying to dispel whatever it was had come over him, before he suddenly gasped in alarm.

"D-Dad? Daddy?"

Kaoru seemed to have taken notice of the sudden change in behavior as well. She paused in her praying to look over her husband, her brows furrowing in concern. She leaned closer, trying to get a better look at his face.

"Daisuke? Honey?" she asked, her tone shaky.

He didn't answer either of them, only grunting in what sounded like discomfort. He continued to blink, his eyes bugging out. He let out a shaky breath, and Kiyomi's eyes widened when she noticed his face starting to go bright red.

"Daddy? Daddy, what's wrong?" she asked, her eyes starting to fill with tears.

She caught her mother's eyes, and the both of them shared a scared look, before Kaoru's eyes suddenly widened with realization, her face going white as paper.

"His chest," Kaoru said in a small voice, "H-He said he'd been having chest pains all day. T-That's one of the reasons he wanted to go to bed early. H-He was about to take his medicine when we heard you."

Kiyomi's blood ran cold.

When she was eight, they had faced a small scare in the family when Daisuke suddenly went through a period of chronic dizziness and feelings of fluttering in his chest that he couldn't explain. Her parents had initially chalked it up to just the flu, but after her father suddenly fainted one day coming up the steps when he came home from work, they had grown worried that something bigger was responsible. Kiyomi remembered her mother accompanying him to the doctor- her grandmother had babysat her- and watching them go whilst fear gnawed at her gut of the worst case scenarios that may have been responsible. She remembered being sat down when they came home and them explaining to her what exactly an arrhythmia was and that, no, Daddy wasn't gravely ill or going to die, but he would need to take better care of himself when it came to watching what he ate and keep careful of the exertion he'd place on his body from then on out.

All of that came rushing back to her at once, and she felt like she had been hit with a semi when she realized why Daisuke was behaving the way he was.

Already struggling with cardiac problems, the stress and adrenaline Daisuke had experienced in these last twenty minutes, Kiyomi realized with horror, had no doubt sent him into what could only be a full blown heart attack.

Just as the recognition came to her, Daisuke made a horrid noise in the back of his throat, and he looked like he couldn't breath.

"Daisuke!" Kaoru exclaimed, turning to him, "Daisuke, look at me! Look at me, anata, just try to breathe, okay?! You're going to be okay, just take deep breaths, just-"

Daisuke's head snapped up, his expression that of shock, before he lurched forward, falling and landing on his face. He went still.

"DAISUKE!"

"DAD!"

Both women screamed at the lifeless man, tears pouring from their eyes as they called out in vain to get him to sit up, to show that he was okay. There was little they could do in their tied up position other than try and shuffle over to him.

There was the sound of feet slamming on the stairs, before Bruce trudged back in. His expression of was pinched, lips pressed together in an angry frown.

"Didn't I tell you dumbasses to be-….o-oh. Oh shit!"

The jewelry box he had been holding in one hand crashed to the floor as his eyes fell upon Daisuke, the old wood cracking open upon impact and scattering earrings and necklaces across the tile. Kiyomi and her mother didn't bare him any mind as they continued to look at her dad, their screams giving away to mere helpless sobs. Kiyomi barely registered the sounds of other footsteps, presumably Sam and Rick running into to find out what had happened as well.

"Fuck man," Rick swore.

Sam's voice came out cracked, "I-I-Is he…is he dead?"

Kaoru wailed at his comment, bowing her head. Kiyomi stared at her father's body, her breath coming out in short, panicky breaths; all she could focus on was the fact that her father's for-sure dead body was lying just a couple of inches away from her.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

"Goddammit," Bruce ran a hand through his hair, "Shit! Fucking hell!"

"What're we gonna do, man?" Sam asked, "O-Oh god, he's f-fucking dead! He's actually dead!"

"I can fucking see that!" Bruce snapped.

Kiyomi looked up at them through blurry eyes; she clenched her jaw as she glared at the three men. A mix of rage and fear bubbled in her gut.

They had done this. They were the reason her father was now like this. They had come into their home, intent on stealing their valuables, attacked them, kept them tied up with threats of harm if they retaliated, and now her father was lying dead in their kitchen.

The question now was, what would they do now?

Bruce made eye contact with her, an eyebrow raising at her pitiful attempt to be intimidating. He sighed, and shot a look over at his companions.

"Looks like we're gonna have to go with Plan B," he said.

Rick nodded in understanding. Sam, however, she noticed, just grew pale, his eyes widening in further disbelief.

Whatever they had planned, it couldn't have been good. She noticed how Sam went to object, only to be silenced by the larger man with a firm hand that was held up. He swallowed, hanging his head with resignation.

Bruce turned back, looking back upon the tied up women. Kiyomi pressed herself up against the counter. She didn't like that look in his eyes.

They started walking towards where she and her mother still sat, pressed against the counters, Daisuke's still body in between them.

"I'm sorry, ladies, I really didn't want to come to this," he said sadly. Kiyomi had to keep herself from laughing bitterly- his past actions in the last hour made it clear he was anything but sorry.

"But we've been having good luck with our snooping, and I ain't about to let that streak end," Bruce explained, reaching into his back pocket for something as he came towards them.

Kiyomi and Kaoru stared at him, their glares more scared than intimidating. Kiyomi felt herself beginning to shake as he got closer.

Please, Kami, she silently prayed, Please send us a miracle.

Bruce's face was neutral as he stood in front of them; she watched with bated breath as he knelt down in front of Kaoru, not saying anything. Kiyomi swallowed hard; Kaoru stared back, her eyes wide and hard as she waited to see what the brute's next action would be.

He fumbled with the object in his back pocket, looking at Kaoru with an expression that in any other circumstance Kiyomi could've believed was actually remorse.

"Just stay calm," he muttered, "It'll be over soon."

For a beat, all the girls could do was stare at him with confusion on what he meant.

Without warning, he suddenly lunged for Kaoru, yanking the plastic bag that he had stashed away up and over her head.

"MOM!" Kiyomi screamed as her mother instantly began to thrash. Kaoru's back banged against the counter, causing loud bangs to echo throughout the house. She hit the doors with her fists, her feet kicking out helplessly. Kiyomi could see a faint imprint of her face appear on the bag as Bruce held it tightly over her. A dent appeared briefly as Kaoru struggled to breathe against the suffocating plastic, her own screams muffled as her oxygen was quickly depraved.

Bruce grunted as he held her down, slamming his knee into her midsection as he grabbed at the handles of the plastic bag, tying them together and pulling so that it pressed tightly against the bottom of her neck.

"STOP!" Kiyomi screamed, kicking her feet against the floor, pulling at her restraints, "STOP! DON'T HURT HER! STOP PLEASE!"

Bruce ignored her, gazing intently down on Kaoru as she continued to struggle. Her breath came out in desperate pants as she whipped her head right and left, trying to get the bag off her. It puffed out like a balloon as she breathed out, before sticking tightly to her face like a mask, outlining every edge and crevice when she breathed back in.

Kiyomi continued to plead herself hoarse. Tears streamed out her eyes as her wrists pull at the knot tying them behind her, the skin growing irritated as the circulation would get cut off and the shoelace chafed at her joints. She begged Bruce to stop, that he didn't have to do this, that he was hurting her mother, but she might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Bruce just stared upon Kaoru blankly as he held the bag tightly around her neck, his knuckles white.

With horror, Kiyomi watched as her mother's struggles steadily lessen, the bloating of the bag that indicated she was trying to breathe becoming less frequent, before she finally went limp. Not a noise escaped her.

Kiyomi felt her breath hitch.

"M-Mom?" she whimpered, her voice barely audible.

Nothing. Kaoru lay there, still. Her head had fallen back, her legs splayed out wildly at an angle that couldn't have been comfortable. There was no twitch to come from her, no steady rise and fall from her chest to indicate that she was breathing.

Bruce got to his feet, removing the bag from around her head and letting her drop, before he turned to Kiyomi.

She gasped as he turned to her, a sinister smile on his face.

"Guess we only have one left," he joked morbidly, holding up the bag in front of him.

Kiyomi let out a hysterical gasp as she started to writhe against her restraints. She pulled wildly, ignoring the way she felt the circulation cut off and the pain of the tight knots crushing her wrists, and tried to yank her ankles apart, her feet bashing against the tile. She sobbed uncontrollably, murmuring "pleasepleasepleaseplease" as she struggled to get free. Tears dripped off her chin, snot running down her nose.

"Oh, don't worry, my dear," Bruce said in a sickeningly soothing voice, "It'll all be over soon. Just be a good girl and let me do all the work."

"Noooo," Kiyomi moaned, shutting her eyes as he approached her. She couldn't stand that look in his eyes, the way he acted like he was trying to be sympathetic, like he actually cared. She pulled against her bonds, her flesh starting to sting in protest as it grew raw from the action.

Bruce knelt down in front of her. He dug his fingers into the bag, spreading it apart so that it would fit over her head.

Kiyomi let out a wail, yanking at her arms.

He reached for her head-

Kiyomi jerked as she suddenly felt the resistance from the shoelace's knots give way, the force of her pulling causing her to fall backwards. She let out a cry of pain as the back of her head slammed against the cabinet.

Bruce paused. His eyes widened in surprise at seeing the young girl able to get free.

It was probably fruitless, a part of Kiyomi's mind thought distantly. Her ankles were still bound, and there was no way she was going to get that little knot undone in the small window of time allotted by the robbers' shock. And even if she did, it was an impossible feat to think that she could scramble out the back door and run for the neighbors. There were three of them and only one of her, and by the time she could even get to her feet, there was no doubt they'd be on here in a second like a pack of hyenas.

But even with all this, Kiyomi knew she had to try.

She had to fight.

Instincts going into hyperdrive, she swung at Bruce, reaching up and dragging her nails down his face, her fingers digging deep into his skin and drawing blood. He yelled out in a mixture of alarm and pain as she did so, and he fell backwards as he lost his balance. Pulling away, she landed on her back and pulled her knees up to her chest, before shooting them forward and kicking him in the groin. That earned her a high pitched yell from the large man, and he crumbled on the ground next to her father's body.

Sam and Rick yelled out his name in surprise, and Kiyomi took her chance to roll over on her stomach; she raised her head, eyes locking onto the back door. Her palms slapped against the tile as she began to desperately crawl towards it. Waves of pain crashed up from her knees as they banged against the hard ground.

"HEY!" she heard Rick yell, "Get that little cunt, you dumbass!"

She went faster as she heard someone jogging over to her. She had gotten only a few feet of the back door before someone grabbed onto her ankles and dragged her back; said person dropped down and grabbed her around the waist, pinning her to the floor.

"Get off me!" Kiyomi screamed as she thrashed in his hold.

"Hey, c-calm down!" Sam tried to appease- she didn't know if that was an attempt to make himself feel better, or her, and by this point she couldn't care less- as he held onto her, grabbing her by the shoulders and flipping her onto her back so she could see his face.

Wild, nonsensical sounds escaped Kiyomi's throat as she slapped at him, aiming wildly. Sam cried out as she got a few good shots into his face; she clawed at his exposed neck, landing several bright red scratches on it that quickly welted. He raised one hand up to protect himself, his other pressing on her chest to keep her pinned.

"HELP!" Kiyomi screamed, "HELP! HELP! HELP!"

"Sh-sh-sh! Stop!" Sam said, trying to grab her hands to stop her strikes.

"HELP, SOMEONE PLEASE!" Kiyomi continued to scream.

Sam grit his teeth, looking up at the windows nervously. The girl had a voicebox, that was for sure, and if she kept this up, there was no doubt the whole neighborhood would be awake in minutes.

Biting his lip, he managed to grab her wrists in one hand as the one pressing against her chest shot up to cover her mouth. He pressed his knee to her midsection, somewhat straddling her. Kiyomi shook her head, trying to remove it. muffled grunts escaped her.

"I-I-It's gonna be okay," he told her shakily, "I-It'll be all right. I know, y-y-you're scared, I-I-I am too, j-just calm down, okay? Everything's going to be fine, everything will-"

His hand slid as Kiyomi jerked her head so that his middle finger was pressing against her lips.

Kiyomi opened her mouth wide and bit down hard on it, her teeth clenching tightly.

"AUGH!" Sam screamed.

He ripped his hand away, cradling it to his chest. He looked down at Kiyomi with disbelief. She paid him no mind, and continued to hit him as she rolled her head back at the back door.

"Help! Please, someone killed my parents, help!"

"Goddammit, STOP!" Sam suddenly shouted as he fought off her weak hits, "Stop, already! JUST STOP!"

In his rage and desperation to keep her quiet, he lost all rational train of thought, and his hands went to her throat, squeezing tightly.

Kiyomi let out a choked gasp, her hands grabbing his wrists and trying to relieve the sudden pressure being applied to her windpipe.

"Just stop, why won't you listen to me?!" Sam exclaimed, "I said it was going to be okay! It wasn't supposed to end like this! It wasn't supposed to end like this, okay?! I said to calm down, why won't you just calm down?!"

Kiyomi didn't answer him. she tried to pry his fingers away from where they were digging into her windpipe, but the tall hysterical blonde might've as well been a statue in that moment. She raised her knees, but found them trapped beneath him as he straddled her. Sam continued shouting in her face- though it seemed more to be him venting out his panic and frustration in his hysteria over the night's events than genuine irritation with her- but she barely paid it any attention as the depravity of oxygen quickly began to take its toll.

"Why won't you listen to me? Why won't you just stop and think?!"

Sam began to shake her, his hands still wrapped tightly around her neck. Kiyomi let out little squeaks, desperate to shake him off and to finally get some air. Tears blurred her vision. Her face started to grow red. Everything felt fuzzy.

A feeling, akin to that of a large weight being placed on her abdomen, began to settle in her chest. the pressure felt like it was crushing her internal organs. Kiyomi gasped breathlessly in pain, still trying to lessen his grip on her neck.

She let out a yelp as Sam began to slam the back of her head into the floor. He continued to yell at her, though she had since stopped making sense of his ramblings. She tried to beg, but no words would form from her mouth as her throat closed up. Her lungs burned, begging for breath. Kiyomi could only see blurry shapes as the burglar continued to bash her head against the ground, sending shooting pains rocketing throughout her skull.

She couldn't breathe. She couldn't think. She couldn't feel.

Kiyomi coughed and wheezed as he continued to paw at his iron grip, but found her strength lessening.

Blackness started to edge into the corner of her vision. Kiyomi suddenly started to feel light.

Like every single nerve in her body had suddenly deprived itself of touch.

She couldn't feel anything.

All outside noises began to fade out, at first becoming a garbled mess of audio. Then, she heard nothing.

Kiyomi suddenly felt tired.

So, so tired.

She just…she just wanted to take a nap.

Take a little rest, sleep the pain away. Yes, that would be….

Her eyes rolled back into her head.

Whatever little strength she had left her. She couldn't focus or think.

Kiyomi felt her finger loosen, her body relax.

She was just going to….

Just going to….

Then, blackness.


 "…-an….-yomi-chan….Kiyomi-chan….Kiyomi-chan, wake up."

Her eyelids fluttered. She stirred, slowly opening them.

It felt like she had been in some sort of thousand-year sleep. Her body protested at the thought of getting up; her extremities felt like lead, the blanket of tiredness still settled over her. For the moment, all she wanted to do was sleep.

"Kiyomi-chan, you need to get up."

Through her eyelashes, she made out swirling lights of blue, green, and violet.

That's all that there was. Lights upon lights.

Kiyomi frowned. Had she slept in?

"Kiyomi-chan, wake up now."

She froze.

That voice, was that….?

No, it…it couldn't have been. It wasn't possible.

She couldn't have been here. Kiyomi hadn't heard her voice in over two years.

Not since she had passed away in her sleep.

"Kiyomi."

She was fully awake now. Her eyes snapped open.

There was a small, gentle hand upon her shoulder. She was given a light shake. "Kiyomi-chan."

Kiyomi's eyes widened. She pushed herself up from where she had been lying on the floor, turning her head hesitantly.

"G-G-Grandmother?" she asked.

She turned.

Her eyes went wide at what she saw.

"Hello, Kiyomi," her late grandmother greeted.

Or, at first glance, if you were looking at her from the back, it seemed to be. She had the same petite, rotund physique that Kiyomi remembered, her hair in the same short style that just barely brushed the bottom of her ears, parted at an angle to the left.

Except when Kiyomi looked in her eyes, she found none.

Nor a nose, or a mouth.

The woman who sat in front of her had no face. Instead of the familiar wrinkled and worn features that made up her grandmother's face, there was nothing but smooth blank skin, like an artist's canvas that had yet to be graced by any paint.

The woman was also glowing- her skin was a light lavender, her hair a mint green color. The clothes she wore were of varying hues of purple and green. A thing of chains wrapped her waist like a waist cincher.

Whoever this woman was- whatever this woman was, she wasn't human.

Kiyomi screamed, leaping away from her touch and scooting backwards.

"G-Get away from me!" she exclaimed.

She had a brief memory of reading something about faceless ghosts in her aunt's library when her and her parents visited her in Kyoto last year. Folklore said that the noppera-bo was a relatively harmless creature, the most damage done being it going out of its way to frighten humans for a laugh or two. That they would impersonate someone close to whoever they had in mind to scare, before letting their faces melt away to cause a great uproar over what looked to be like their whole faces had melted away.

But none of that compared to seeing the real thing up close.

The faceless woman went to her feet quickly, her body language suggesting she hadn't been expecting the sudden reaction- Kiyomi swore she'd seen her flash grey for a second. She held her hands out in front of her in a passive gesture.

"Easy, easy, child! It is just me!" she tried to persuade.

Kiyomi wasn't convinced. She backed up further against…whatever it was she was touching, since there didn't seem to be any solid floor. Of which was doing nothing to ease her panic.

She raised up an arm in defense. "W-W-Who're you?"

"Kiyomi-chan, it's me!"

"Y-Y-You're not her, y-you can't be my grandma," she responded, "M-My grandma's dead. Y-You're not her."

"Of course I am, don't tell me you've already forgotten your own grandmother's fa-"

The strange woman suddenly paused. Her head perked up like she had suddenly realized something. Her lavender skin changed color again, this time glowing a dark purple, a shade that reminded Kiyomi of black light. The luminescence almost hurt to look at.

"Gah, I'm sorry, dear! I forgot about the face thing. That silly little projection can get so annoying to focus on, most of these days I just forego it," she stated casually, "Here, is this better?"

Within a second, she had a face again. Or, at least, the outline of one.

Kiyomi stared at her. It was…a little less eerie, to see something she could actually look at on the featureless dome. Only a little, though, the see through eyes and mouth still unnerving with the way they moved on the woman's face. Almost like she were wearing a mechanical mask of some kind.

But there was no doubt that the features that looked back at her were her grandmother's. Despite the anxiety that felt like it was bursting from every orifice and the million questions that were racing through her mind, Kiyomi found she couldn't help but be a little relieved by the woman's presence.

"There, isn't that better?" the woman said with her grandmother's soft smile.

Kiyomi swallowed. Her nerves still felt shot through the roof.

"G-Grandmother…that's…it's actually you?"

The old woman nodded softly, starting for her again. "I'm sure you have many questions, my dear. But don't you want to get up? Straighten yourself out?"

"H-How are you here?" Kiyomi asked, still in disbelief, "Y-You're a….you're dead. There's no way you could-"

She raised a hand to her lips, only to freeze when she realized she couldn't feel anything there.

Kiyomi pressed her fingers further to the spot. She…she was overthinking things, surely, just brushed her chin by accident…

But when touched her mouth…there was nothing.

A sudden cold feeling went through her.

She raised her hand higher.

She felt a nose, but…no eyes. Even as she could see her fingers right in front of her vision, she felt nothing. No lids, sockets. Just…smooth bare skin. Nothing.

Her breath hitched. Kiyomi looked back up at her grandmother, panic overtaking her again like a heavy coat.

"W-Where's my face?" she questioned, "What happened to my face?!"

"Kiyomi, calm down-"

Her quest to soothe went ignored as Kiyomi looked down with horror at herself, examining every new detail with increasing terror. She held her hands in front of her face, whimpering as she observed how they now glowed light blue, how she could see through them to look at her grandmother, as if she had suddenly been made of glass. She pulled at her clothing, which had now changed color and floated about her like gravity had stopped applying to it. At the way her hair had somehow now become a shade of bright pink. At the chains that decorated her entire body, which rattled with every frantic movement.

"What's happening to me? Where are Mom and Dad? Where am I?" the teen continued to question, looking like she was on the verge of a panic attack, "Why are we here? W-W-Why do you look so-so inhuman, Grandmother?! What is-"

It was like a tidal wave had hit her, as memories came rushing at her all at once. Flashes of the scene that she had been in before she presumably had waken up in this…place, the people involved, what was said and what was done.

She suddenly felt like she couldn't breathe.

It was all coming back to her now.

The sounds.

Her father on the floor.

A plastic bag on her mother's head.

Some strange blonde she had never seen before yelling at her, his face red and tears in his eyes.

There was a hand on her arm.

She looked up, seeing her grandmother's facial impression looking upon her with worry. Kiyomi looked at her with despair.

"It wasn't a dream, was it?" she asked in a thick voice.

Her grandmother's imitated lips pursed, and she looked at her with a sad expression. It confirmed her fears.

Kiyomi buried her head in her hands, suddenly overcome. She sobbed, even though no tears came out, feeling like she had just been punched in the stomach. Her skin lit up in a shade of baby blue, as if to emphasize her despair. Her grandmother wrapped her arms around her, whispering words of comfort into her ear as she held her head to her chest, smoothing down her hair.

"I-I can't be dead, I can't be, I…I…" Kiyomi blubbered through her tears, "No…they couldn't have….I…"

"I wish it wasn't so just like you, my love," her grandmother sadly murmured, "But it seems Kami has other plans for our family. Such cruel is fate sometimes."

Something went off in Kiyomi's head at that comment, and she suddenly pulled away from her grandmother to look around the void they were in. It was then that she realized two people that, in this revelation, should've been there with her.

"Grandma, w-where are…where are Mom and Dad?" she asked, "Shouldn't…shouldn't they be here too."

Her grandmother gave her a smile, though it was a melancholy one, like she didn't want to be saying the words she was about to say.

"They have already woken up long before you. The reaper has already taken them over to the Spirit World. I asked if I could come this time and have some time alone with you so it would not be so frightening."

Kiyomi tilted her head back in alarm. Reapers?

"Speaking of which," her grandmother looked around, her fake eyebrows furrowing, "We should get going. They are not the most patient of creatures, and they don't take particularly well to those who try to resist their fate."

"But-but I…" Kiyomi felt a million questions bounce around in her head. Spirit World? Reapers? Fate? What was going on here?

But her mother shook her head, giving her a soft smile as she held a hand out.

"Now's not the time for that, my dear," she said, "We need to get going. We have a lot to go do, and answering your questions when we're already there will help you get you better acquainted."

Kiyomi gave her a doubtful look. Part of her didn't want to go.

Because going meant leaving it all behind. Meant…nothing would ever be the same.

Would they even get to know if their murderers had been brought to justice? Or would they be left in the dark for…however long this new life of theirs was?

Knowing she had little choice, though, Kiyomi got up and on her feet, hesitantly taking her grandmother's hand and allowing the tiny woman to guide her through the strange vortex.


 Seventeen years later…

There was a group of girls gathered at one of the lunch tables a few feet away to the far right, all of them deeply engrossed in a conversation. She watched as they talked amongst each other, most of them wearing a wide smile, while a few others had their eyes bugging out in shock; probably at the latest gossip they had just been told, or some unbelievable fact from their friend. Either way, they were clearly having a good time in each other's company. They all were dressed similar to one another- either they had planned that, or that was one eerie coincidence- their clothes all varying shades of magenta and yellow.

Kiyomi was interrupted from her zoning out when she felt something punt her in her temple. She broke her gaze off to look down. A French fry lay to her left. She furrowed her eyebrows, bringing two fingers up to the area that it had touched. She felt a small smudge of grease.

Frowning, Kiyomi looked up, her eyes- or, at least the projection of ones- scanning across the wide cafeteria for whoever the culprit could be. They landed upon a freshman a few tables away, who was snickering into his shoulders as he tried, and greatly failed, to avoid eye contact with the noppera-bo. His light blue face was flushed, and every time his eyes met with Kiyomi's, he burst out into a new round of laughter as he buried his face in his crossed arms to muffle his laughter.

Kiyomi pouted. How rude.

Suddenly, an idea came to her. Two could play at that game, she thought.

She smirked to herself, making eye contact again with the freshman, forcing him to keep eye contact with him.

Suddenly, her facial projection changed so that it looked like the freshman's. She made sure to furrow his eyebrows and tilt his mouth in the same exact sneer. If anyone had been paying attention, it would've looked like the noppera-bo had suddenly become his reflection. She went cross eyed and tilted her head, looking like some sort of scarily funny Halloween mask. She watched as all traces of good humor left the freshman's face; he pulled back in his seat, his eyes bugging out of his head.

The freshman, obviously unnerved by the action, got up out of his seat. He shot Kiyomi fearful glances as he pulled on his backpack and gathered up his lunch tray, before making a bee line to the trashcans and practically bolting from the creepateria. Kiyomi raised a hand to her mouth, chuckling. Though it had taken a long and frustrating time to learn how to project a face (and learning how to keep it there without having to consistently concentrate on it), being a ghost who had no such one definitely had its perk.

Kiyomi's chuckles gradually ceased, and she smiled as she looked back at the seat where the freshman had been sitting. A cackle brought her attention back over to where she had been previously watching the group of ghouls; they had all thrown their heads back in laughter, probably from one of them cracking a joke.

A pang of envy went through Kiyomi, and her eyes slid back down to where her sushi lay in front of her. Her shoulders dropped as a sigh went through her, and her smile slowly dropped. Propping her arm up to lay her cheek against her palm, she poked at her food, whatever appetite she had now gone.

Her parents had convinced her that coming to Haunted High would be good for her. Even though she was technically an adult in living years, the spokesman for the high school stated that any ghost of any age- whether you were chronologically twenty or two hundred- who wanted the chance to earn and update their education was welcome to enroll. Kaoru and Daisuke thought it would be a good chance to start over, in a way; let her have those moments of a being a teen that she didn't get when it was cruelly ripped away.

Unfortunately, to Kiyomi's great dismay, it seemed that all this was going to be was an exact repeat of her first experience with school: she hadn't made a single friend in the past two weeks, her shyness and quiet nature still managing to get the best of her. She still found herself seated silently in the back of the class, watching from afar as her classmates went about their lives of drama, adventure, and sadness; still going home by herself with no one else to accompany her.

They were all ghosts here, and still she was invisible as ever.

"Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

Kiyomi paused.

She looked up. A ghost floated next to her, holding a lunch tray- she was glad sometimes that being a ghost meant no longer having to depend on eating, because whatever that orange slop was in the center couldn't have been edible- and a notebook. Her handbag hung off her arm just above her elbow. Her crystalline blue eyes looked down at Kiyomi with curiosity.

Kiyomi blinked. She looked around, before she turned back. Was this ghoul really…talking to her?

The mysterious girl raised one dark purple eyebrow in confusion. Realizing that she hadn't answered, Kiyomi scrambled to make some room. "U-Um, n-no! Not at all!"

The ghost smiled, sliding into the seat next to her.

"Thanks," she said as she deposited her handbag under her seat, "It's so hard finding somewhere to sit, everyone's so snooty about who fits in at 'their' table. I was beginning to think I'd have to eat in the bathroom."

Kiyomi smiled, "Tell me about it. I asked this group of goths if they minded me sitting at the corner of where they were. By the looks they gave me, it was like I had asked for their firstborn."

That earned her a laugh from the purple headed girl. She gave Kiyomi a smile. Her voice was light and airy as she pointed to her. "You're in Mr. O'Whisp's class, aren't you? You helped the mural for the class project?"

For a moment, Kiyomi was stunned.

Someone actually recognized her? Her?

Shaking away her shock, she nodded. "Y-Yeah."

"It was really pretty, what you did," the girl complimented, "Your handwriting's lovely."

"Thank you. I do a lot of calligraphy in my spare time," Kiyomi explained.

"Oooh, sounds fun!" the girl pouted, "I wish my handwriting was as nice. But I'm normally when I get a scoop, I'm in such a rush to get all the details jotted down I barely have time to go over to make sure it's actually legible."

"Scoop?"

"For the paper!" The girl held up her notebook, "I try to keep track of all the latest trends and current events going on around school. I think it's important everyone is up to date on things going on around us."

She frowned as she looked at the notebook, like a thought had to come to her.

"Though, it seems that not everyone else has the same idea," she added.

Kiyomi couldn't help but giggle at her expression. The girl smiled at her, and they both shared a moment of laughter.

"Well, I'm sure they'll thank you for it one day," Kiyomi said after they calmed down, "You'll see…um…"

She felt herself turn purple when she realized that she couldn't, for the unlife of her, remember the girl's names.

The purplette didn't seem to mind, though. She simply smiled and held out her hand. metallic bangles clacked on her alabaster wrist.

"Spectra Vondergeist," she greeted, "And I'm glad to know someone appreciates the thought in my work."

Kiyomi smiled again. She fought to keep herself from turning orange as a fluttery feeling started bubbling up in her chest- did…did she just make a friend?- and grabbed Spectra's hand, giving it a soft shake.

"I'm Kiyomi. It's nice to meet you…Spectra."

Chapter Text

~1971~


He looked back and forth between the wall and his sketchbook, trying to get as close of a resemblance of the brick wall onto the paper as possible. His pencil scratched against the thin paper, flicking thin little lines of granite across its white surface as his eyes scanned the little details of the wall, noting where the cracks spread out along the rough material and where some of it had become weathered from the elements.

Porter lifted his head back up; he held the hand that gripped his pencil out in front of him, making an L-shape and holding it where it was slightly angled with that of the wall. He stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth, squeezing one eye shut as he focused on where to get the right view for his sketch. He wanted the replication when he added his own personal designs to be perfect, and sometimes, even being off by even an inch or so when it came to rough material like what the wall was made of could mess up the entire outcome of the picture.

"Ever be that much, you cheating sack of-"

He paused in his sketch, raising his head. A man back walked out of the shop Porter had been leaning against his, the latter's eyebrows crinkled in anger. He was a few years older, with tangled brown hair that fell to and around his shoulders, and looked almost to be one big giant piece with his full beard and mustache. He gripped a paper bag tightly in his hands, and was giving a dirty look to whoever was inside.

Porter flipped his sketchbook closed, pushing himself off the wall and falling into step with the guy as he walked up to him.

"Trouble with Mr. White, Cory?" he asked.

The man reached into the bag and pulled out a receipt, his mouth forming a thin line as he looked at what was printed on it.

"If only. He has some ass at the register trying to overcharge me for the bread," he responded, shoving the receipt back into the bag, "Like I haven't been buying this exact brand for the same exact price for the past five years this store's been here."

Porter smirked, "He probably thought he could one up you since you'd be presumably far too gone from shrooms to pay attention."

Cory grinned at him, nudging him with his elbow. "Well, he was in for a disappointment."

"Yeah," Porter replied, shooting him a sly grin, "…he should've gone with weed."

He laughed as he ducked to avoid the sudden backhand that Cory threw at him.

"I will gladly have you know I choose to not abide by your narrowed view of stereotypes and have not touched the devil's grass, you heathen!" Cory boasted, putting his hands on his hips.

Porter stopped. He tilted his head and gave him a look of doubt.

Cory stared back, his mouth forming a grimace. He looked off to the side, kicking a rock.

"Well…not in the last two weeks, at least," he muttered. Porter chuckled; his brother could fool everyone else, but Porter had snuck into his room plenty of times when he had friends over to recognize the faint rotting egg smell that never seemed to go away completely.

He put his hands in his pockets as the two walked through the town, passing various shops and businesses. Many of the stores had signs hanging in their front windows, all displaying the same message of some sort of sale in various front, along with the words Support Our Soldiers put in bold in the center; some of the signs included a cardboard cutout of someone in uniform beside them.

As the two of them turned the corner after walking a few blocks, Porter could see the clocktower of the local university coming up ahead. The sun was peaking out behind the clouds, highlighting the changing Autumn leaves, and the air was only slightly chilled- a stark difference from the last few weeks, where it had been constantly pouring down rain- and many seemed to have taken advantage of this rarity; Porter could see students sitting down on the grass out front on blankets or gathered in circles, either engrossed in group conversation or studying in silence.

There was one group off to the right that stood a bit more spread out than the others, all of them surrounding a table that was set up along the pebbled walkway that weaved between the plots of grass. Most of them were standing and held stacks of papers in their hands, calling out to the students who passed by and trying to hand them one, before moving on to the next one; all those gathered around the table had noticeably bright colors in their attire, whether it be the multiple buttons attached to their lapels or the swirl patterned shirts they wore. Most of the girls wore headbands that had brightly painted beads woven into them. Two people- a girl and a guy, respectively- sat at the table. A cardboard sign hung from its front, the words In With The Love, Out With The War! Buttons 60 cents painted on it in bright red.

The guy, Porter noticed, looked like he was getting rather bored of the situation. He kept tapping his nails on the tabletop or bouncing his leg as he looked around before leaning his chin on his palm. The girl, however, was sitting up straight, a big smile stretched onto her light pink-painted lips as she held her hands out in front of her, her fingers laced together. Her honey brown hair was parted down the middle, a few locks interwoven with beads. The fringe vest she wore, which had several identical beads hanging from the tassels, clashed severely with the bright patterned long dress she wore.

Porter called out to her as he and Cory approached the group, "Any chance there's a family discount for your products, ma'am?"

The girl turned her head at the sound of her name; her eyes widened as they fell upon the two boys, her smile growing.

"Hey, you made it!" she exclaimed as she jumped out of her seat, rushing around the table to grab both of them in a hug.

Cory pulled back, looking over her shoulder at the table and the few of their friends who stood waiting for more passerbys.

"And what exactly is 'it' we're here for?" he asked.

Sandra gestured to the table and her friends.

"We're doing a fundraiser!" she answered, "We want to try and spread the word about the student movement against the war, get people interested in our club. We're also selling buttons to help raise more money in organizing events and to further get the message across!"

"Uh-huh. And how booming has this business gotten since you started?" Porter asked in doubt as he eyed the still-mostly full box of buttons that lie on the table. Many of them displayed peace symbols or were glued with cardboard to look like flowers.

Sandra pouted at his statement, looking over her shoulder to watch as one of her teammates tried to get some guy walking by to stop and chat, only to get regarded with a muttered "piss off" as the guy walked by without a second look. She winced at the spectacle, but tried to her hide it with a smile when she turned back to the boys.

"We've been a little slow on progress today," she admitted, "B-But it's still the morning! You know how it is, most people just got out of bed, they can't think straight because they've got all these classes to worry about. I guarantee by later today, we'll have gotten to much more people!"

Cory and Porter shared a look of doubt.

Turning around, Sandra reached over and grabbed the button box off the table. She turned and held it out to them. "Speaking of which, if you two want to help, they're only sixty cents."

Porter snorted, "'Only?' You sure you don't want to the mortgage to the house while you're at it?"

However, he dug around in his pocket and pulled out a few dimes, dropping them in Sandra's hand and fishing around for a random one. He pulled it out to reveal a white one with the words 1-2-3-4 WDWYFW along with a hand that was giving the finger printed on the front.

He shrugged and pinned it to his lapel. Sandra smiled at him giddily.

"'Scuse me, mind telling me what's going on here?"

The siblings turned at the sound of a gruff, snappy voice. A police officer stood on the walkway in front of the bench, his hands on his hips as he looked at the group with something akin to disgust.

Inwardly, Porter sighed. Of course they want to have a look, he thought to himself. Who else to take down those who dared to go against the status quo like the damn pigs?

The guy at the table looked up at Sandra in concern. She raised her hand in a gesture to pacify him, before walking over to the cop. Her hands were laced together and hung down in her front, slightly banging against her waistline as she made her way around.

"Is there a problem here, officer?" she asked kindly.

The cop frowned at her, his already lined brow crinkling deeper- Porter thought if he did it any more, he'd look more crumpled up than a wadded-up ball of aluminum. The cop jutted his chin out at the table, before regarding her with stern brown eyes.

"I was asking what's going on here," he said, "Couldn't help but notice you have a little nice display set up here."

"Oh, yes! We're raising awareness about our clubs!" Sandra smiled, gesturing at the other students.

Though she was smiling, the others regarded the officer with varying looks of apprehensiveness. Not that Porter could blame them. These days you never knew what they were going to pull out of their sleeves. The officer certainly didn't look impressed, and his expression only became more pinched as his eyes scanned the signs.

"Uh-huh," he replied curtly, "And what kind of 'club' are we talking here?"

He didn't let her answer, though, as he reached for the button box, shuffling through them and pulling a few out. Porter watched the exchange with slight nervousness; he noticed how Sandra's posture suddenly stiffened, the other students staring at the officer like they were debating whether or not to bolt right on the spot. His eyes slid to the side and he could see Cory's jaw clench. Like the cop looking through a bunch of buttons was going to expose their worst secret.

And, in a way, he supposed it would. The peace movement in their town wasn't exactly a sentiment shared by the older folks in charge.

The cop held out a few in his palm, poking them to get a clear view of their messages. Everyone watched him with bated breath.

""Wage Peace', 'Get Out Now', 'Make Love Not War'," the officer read off. He snorted as he looked over another one, "'Draft Beer Not Students.' How sweet. That's a good one."

No one responded. The cop looked up and gave Sandra a smile. The gleam in his eye made Porter bristle. He handed her back the buttons; Sandra took them hesitantly, clutching them to her chest like she were afraid he would snatch them right back out of her hands.

"Well, kids, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I'm afraid that I'm gonna have to shot this little operation down," the officer said, not sounding the last bit sorry.

Porter watched Sandra's eyes widen. "Shut down? Why?!"

The cop looked smug as he put his hands in his pockets, eyeing the sign with a keen dislike. "Well, you see, ma'am, I can't help but notice you're selling merchandise. Unfortunately, there are certain rules against selling things on school property-"

"We have a permit to do so," the guy sitting at the table immediately said.

The cop's smugness dropped in an instant, and he whipped his head to stare at the guy. Porter and the rest of them watched as the guy dove under the table, pulling out a backpack and slamming it on top; he dug around in it, before pulling a slightly crumpled sheet of paper and holding out to the officer.

The officer didn't take it. Instead he just stared down at it, before slowly looking up to the guy like he wanted to roast him right there.

Undeterred, though, the officer switched tactics.

"That you do," he said with a hint of annoyance, "But, you see, we've gotten a few…concerns from around campus. Complaints about if this…movement of yours being disruptive to other students."

Sandra's mouth dropped open. "Dis…disruptive?"

"Yep. Sorry, but you're gonna have to move it to somewhere else."

The smug smile returned on his face, and he was immediately greeted with a chorus of protests from everyone. Porter frowned at the cop. He should've known. Disruptive. Like handing out a bunch of papers was truly a nuisance.

But forcing every guy down and out on his luck to join a militia, uproot them and stick them in a boot camp for months on end and then ship them off to slaughter innocent Vietnamese people all so the big guys could make some money off of the whole thing, that apparently was absolutely fine.

"Excuse me, officer, but I'm afraid that we are not legally obligated to do that," he commented suddenly.

Cory shot him a look that told him to not get involved, but he ignored it. Sandra gave him an equally pleading look as the officer turned to him, his lips pressed together. He stared down Porter sternly, standing up straight, his eyes burrowing into him. Porter refused to be intimidated, looking back with his own defiance clear in his blue gaze.

The officer asked in almost a whisper, "I beg your pardon?"

"I said, you can't make us move," Porter replied.

The cop narrowed his eyes at him, stalking up to him.

"You trying to question my authority, son?"

"Not at all, but I'm rather confused on your stance. As far as I can tell, my sister and her friends have just been standing out here trying to get people's attention. I don't understand how that can be disturbing," Porter said.

The officer wrinkled his nose.

"Look, I know you kids like to talk about what you think is very important to you," he said with a bit of a snap, "But people have a right to go about their day without being heckled over the smallest things."

"And we have a right to make raise awareness wherever we want that's not a private establishment under our Constitution," Porter countered, "If we were harassing people or following them or littering, I could understand, but as far as I can tell, you're telling us to leave just because other people don't like what we're saying."

From his peripheral, he could see Sandra's friends watching the conversation with interest, some of them nodding in support to his statement. Sandra crossed her arms, watching the cop's back with what looked to be a newfound sense of defiance.

The cop, on the other hand, looked like he wanted nothing more than to pull out his nightstick and use it on the blonde. Instead, he leaned further in, snarling at Porter in a way that made his nose furl up like an angry boar; he grabbed the teen by his collar pulling him so that they were almost nose to nose.

"You smartass little rat, I oughta-"

"You will not touch him," Cory spoke up as he quickly got between them, yanking the cop's hand away from Porter. He stood in front of the latter, fists clenched at his sides.

The two stood with their chests almost touching, the top looking at Cory like he were a fly he wanted to swat. His mouth was pulled into a deep frown, his dark eyes almost black; Cory, however, being the taller of the two men, stared down at him equal contempt, blue eyes appearing frosty from under his shaggy bangs. The others watched as they held their breath, tension thick in the air. It seemed evident that a fight was going to break out

Instead, the cop turned his head, scoffing as he waved Cory off.

"Bunch of hippie brats, that's what y'all are," he spat at the group, "We have men up there- good men- risking their lives and dying up their to keep our country free, and you spoiled brats who haven't even worked a day in your lives want to turn your backs on them all because you want to smoke some."

"Not at all, sir," Cory replied, "We just think that because our men are dying, that this war has run its course. It's time to take them out of a country we have no business being in and bring them back home."

The cop stared at the tall brunette, disgust on his face. Finally, he turned his back on the group, walking away while muttering something about 'damn young burnouts' under his breath. The group watched him go. A few of them were smirking at him, knowing that this was a round they had won.

Sandra and Cory turned to Porter, their eyes bugging out at him. Porter looked away.

Hey, why was he being looked at like that? It was the old man who started it. Besides, was he wrong? Whatever happened to freedom of expression, to sticking up for what was right?

"Man, Mom's gonna kill you if she finds out you mouthed off to a cop," Cory commented. He raised one of his eyebrows.

Porter just shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets.

"What Mom doesn't know won't kill her."


He sat in the living room that evening, sitting with his legs crossed under him as he held his sketchbook out. A box of pastels sat on the table under the lamp next to him, and Porter dug through them as he tried to fish out a color he was looking for. Grabbing a rust color one that was rather buried, he brought it up to the page, which was open to the sketch of the brick wall he did earlier; in addition to the wall, though, the sketch now contained faint lines in the middle, of which made out what seemed to be words and a picture.

Porter jutted his lip out as he colored in areas of the sketch, trying to recreate its shading from memory. As he finished applying the red, he curled his fingers on the pastel stick, pressing his thumb to the color and rubbing it, smearing it around so that the shading looked less harsh. When he was done, he rubbed his thumb on the hem of his shirt and dropped the pastel back into the box, digging around for another one.

"That better not be another one of the nice shirts your grandmother bought you that I see you dirtying up," his mother commented as she passed through from the kitchen.

Porter looked up, before looking back down at his shirt like he hadn't realized what he'd been doing.

"It's not," he replied, "I made sure to pick an old one. One of the ones I don't wear anymore."

"Or, you know, you could always just use a napkin," Dixie replied as she opened the china cabinet, "Because I'm not going to waste money on dry cleaning and iron press just to have it all destroyed again."

Porter rolled his eyes- when her back was turned of course, "Moooom, don't sweat it! I'm being careful! Besides, what's the big deal! think, personally, it brings a bit of flare. Makes it more…me."

Dixie gave him a look over her shoulder. Instead of replying, though, she simply shook her head and went back to putting the newly polished china back in its rightful place. When she was finished, she closed the glass door and locked it, walking over to the couch and readjusting the blanket that hung over its back for a few seconds before leaning over and giving Porter a kiss on the temple.

"Remember to turn the lights off when you're done," she reminded him, "I'm want to try and cut down so our light bill's a little less."

Porter smiled, giving her a return peck on the cheek. Dixie got up, turning the kitchen light off before heading up the stairs to get ready for bed. As her footsteps faded up the carpeted steps, Porter relaxed deeper into the couch, sighing contently in the silence that now followed with him being the only soul in the room.

For the next few minutes, the only sounds was the soft clinking as he dug around in his box, looking for pastels. Picking up an acid green one, Porter settled back into position, raising it to start coloring in the words that he had added to the wall sketch. He started making back and forth motions with it, leaving light green in his wake.

There was a creaking from the kitchen.

Porter paused. He looked over to its direction. The pass-through window that separated the kitchen from the living room besides the walkway provided a view that showed nothing. Everything was still.

He shrugged. Probably was just the house settling.

Going back to his sketch, Porter pressed the pastel stick against the paper again-

There was another creak, this one much louder and longer.

Porter jumped slightly. He looked passed towards the pass-through window.

One of the cupboards above the stove was open.

He stiffened. That…that wasn't like that just now, he thought to himself. Or at least…he didn't think it was.

Putting his sketchbook down on top of his pastels box, he slowly got up, not taking his eyes off the cupboard as he made his way into the kitchen. As he turned the corner, he just stood in the doorway for a couple of minutes. With the only light coming from the living room, the kitchen was mostly dark, everything casting a heavy shadow upon the floor. The open door of the cupboard stood out, an eerie black rectangle in the air against the bright backdrop of the light.

Porter stared at it for a couple of seconds, before he slowly reached up to grab it by the handle.

He looked into the cupboard. Arranged spices and bags of various grains stared back at him. He frowned. Shaking his head, he closed the cupboard.

"All that sugar's probably getting to me," Porter muttered to himself, grimacing when he thought of the sugar cookies he had for dessert after dinner.

Turning around, he started making his way back into the living room. There was an itching in his fingers at the thought of getting further along on his picture, and Porter knew he wouldn't sleep until he had gotten enough done to be satisfied.

When he walked back into the living room, however, he paused.

His sketchbook was on the coffee table, open right down the middle to show some drawings he had recently done. His pastels box was lying next to it as well, a few sticks taken out and scattered across the surface of the paper.

Something tingled in his gut. Porter felt goosebumps break out on his skin.

He barely withheld a scream as something banged in the kitchen. Leaning over to peer through the pass-through window, Porter could see the edge of the cupboard he had just closed.

It was open again, all the way so its knob was touching the cupboard next to it, and this time, it was moving, tapping against the other cupboard with light raps; like a metal knocker's ring rapping against a door.

Porter bolted for his sketchbook, holding it tightly to his chest as he gathered up his pastels from around the table and dropped them back into the box. He shoved it under his arm and made a U-turn, almost hitting his knee against the ottoman as he made a beeline for the stairs; he only stopped once to quickly turn off the living room light.

"Okay, that's it!" he exclaimed as he stomped up the stairs, not daring to look even once over his shoulder, "Obviously I need to go to bed because I'm imagining things cuz I'm tired, because I am not going to entertain this and become phantom food!"


Porter sat in class, bouncing his leg up and down impatiently as he tried- and failed- to follow along as the teacher went over math problems on the chalkboard, writing down various numbers and formulas that Porter felt might as well have been a second language. He flashed a glance to the clock on the wall above, only to groan when he saw there was still thirty-five minutes left.

He leaned forward, laying his head on his crossed arms. He didn't even bother to even try to listen to the teacher as he stared ahead in space. Why was it always the most boring classes that went the slowest? And why did he even need to learn this garbage in the first place? Proofs and circumference weren't going to help him pay bills or get a job!

Besides, I don't need any of this numbers crap when I break out onto the scene, he thought with a smile, All I need is me and my art.

There was a nudge at his side. "Pssst, Geiss."

Porter looked to the side. Jean Dupain, one of the kids from the chess team, was leaning in towards him, staring at him with wide green eyes. Porter furrowed his eyes at him, before, after taking a glance to make sure the teacher wasn't looking, leaning in.

"What?" he whispered.

Jean replied back lowly, "Heard your sis got shit from a cop for promotin' the war protest on the university campus. That true?"

"Why do you care?"

"Did she?" Jean persisted.

Porter frowned, "Yeeaaaahh?"

Jean nodded, like this was what he wanted to hear, before he leaned in closer.

"My bro and cousins are gonna be hostin' a rally at the community center tonight, at eight. Word on the street is the pigs are getting' on the hunt on crackin' down on groups like ours that are speakin' out against the war, trying to throw the book at them," he responded.

"Where'd they hear that?" Porter asked.

"Word gets out," Jean said, "And ever since those guys from Beaverton put on that big thing with burning their draft cards, they've been out for blood."

Porter's eyebrows furrowed, his expression slightly confused.

"On what grounds?" he asked, "They can't arrest us for just demonstrating what's perfectly within our rights."

Jean shrugged, "Yeah, well, they also technically can't just decide to go into a foreign country and start massacring its people without so much as even an official declaration of war, and yet here we are."

He looked at Porter through a curtain of strawberry blonde hair. "So, what is it? You in or what? Because Barry says to let you know he isn't gonna be personal carpool again. Our old man's getting way too suspicious."

Porter waved him off, "We'll be there."

Later on, though, as he sat with the rest of the family around the table of supper, he realized that doing so might've been easier said than done.

Porter glanced at the clock with the same impatience he had in class, watching as the hands went agonizingly slow along the minutes, the little "tick, tick tick" almost manic in the calming quiet of the kitchen. He looked back down at his barely touched roast and potatoes, jabbing his fork into them; he found he couldn't muster up much of an appetite, the nervousness of how they were going to go about this smoothly gnawing at his gut.

He snuck at a glance at his mother. She seemed oblivious, eyes focused on her plate as she brought up a spoonful of vegetables to her mouth. He looked to the side. Cory regarded him with a wide eyed stare, obviously sharing in the anxiousness. Sandra, Porter noted, kept cutting her roast into smaller and smaller pieces, though it seemed to just to give her hands something to do.

"Something wrong with the food?" Dixie suddenly asked.

Porter stiffened. His knuckles turned white as the grip on his fork tightened. Slowly, he looked up at his mother.

She stared back at him with curiosity, chewing as she raised her eyebrows. Porter looked down at his mostly full plate, before shaking his head. He hated the way his heart suddenly began racing in his chest, and he hoped his face didn't seem nearly as pale as it felt in the moment.

"N-Naw, it's great," he tried to give his best smile, "Nothing could ever be wrong with your food."

Dixie rolled her eyes, before her expression became confused again. She looked over all three of her children, noting how each of them seemed to suddenly do everything to avoid making eye contact with her.

"What's up with you guys? You're all normally chatting up a storm right now," she asked, "Something I need to know?"

Before either of his siblings could say something that was probably a much better excuse, Porter suddenly found himself bursting out, "U-U-Um we're having plans tonight!"

He tried to ignore how he felt Sandra and Cory's burning glares into his side, and tried to maintain eye contact with Dixie as she perked up. She blinked owlishly.

"Oh?" she replied, "You didn't tell me you had anything beforehand."

"Yeah, s-sorry about that, must've gotten s-sidetracked," Porter scratched his head, "Anyways, my friend Parker- you know, that kid from the chess team?- we're gonna have a study group. We've got this big midterm coming up, and we wanted to get a head start on studying. So y-you know, we're prepared and all."

"Yeah!" Cory suddenly exclaimed, "And I said I'd drive them!"

Sandra looked at her mother, adding to the lie, "A-And Daisy asked if I could hang out with her while we're there! Like, her parents don't want her home alone and all that, so she wanted to see if I could keep her company while she waits!"

They all gave her tight, crooked smiles, their cheeks rising up to their eyes like doing so was almost painful for them. Dixie looked at them with a brow raised, not looking very convinced. Porter cursed inwardly. Why didn't they go over this at all before it got close to the meeting starting?

However, Dixie just looked back down at her plate, gathering up some mashed potatoes on her spoon.

"Oh. Okay," she replied, her tone light and airy, "Just don't stay out too late, okay? It's a school night?"

Cory nodded frantically, "Oh, don't worry, I'll have them home before you know it! As a matter of fact I could stop by the gas station and fill up for you while we're there."

Dixie smiled, looking at him with warm green eyes.

"That would be lovely, thank you dear," she stated.

She looked back to Porter, "Where're you guys gonna study at?"

Porter picked at his food again, cutting a piece of roast with his fork. "Well, since the library's closed now, we figured we'd just go to the community center, since it's not too-"

Sandra kicked him under the table. Too late did he realize what he let slip, and his eyes went wide in horror. He lifted his head, desperately hoping that she hadn't caught on.

She had. Dixie had stiffened in her seat, her fork hovering above her food, frozen in place. he could see her fingers tighten around it. Slowly, she lifted her head. Porter had to keep himself from wincing at the pinched expression that now graced her normally soft features.

"The community center?" She repeated, her mouth straightening into a thin line, "You're not planning on going to one of those anti-war meetings those other college kids are holding, are you?"

So much for incognito mode, Porter thought bitterly. He tore his gaze away; he could feel Dixie's own continue to burrow into him, like she was staring right into his soul and could just see the deception radiating off of it.

Cory was the first one to speak up. "Mom, it's nothing. Barry just wanted to get-"

"No."

"Mom-"

"No," Dixie repeated in a clipped tone.

"We were just going to talk-" Sandra tried to repeat.

"No, absolutely not," Dixie said, "You know how I feel about those people and their shenanigans, Cory. The fact that you were going to sneak behind- nevermind, that's not important. The answer is no, and that's final."

"We weren't going to do anything wrong," Porter muttered.

Dixie gave him a look.

"I would hardly think getting approached by a policeman hardly counts as 'not doing anything wrong'," she replied.

At their shocked, pale faces, she nodded.

"That's right, I heard about all about your little get-together, Sandra, from Mrs. Johnson, of all people," She confirmed, shooting her daughter a glare. Sandra shuffled in her seat, hunching her shoulders up.

"He was the one causing trouble!" Cory defended, standing up out of his seat, "Sandra and the rest were perfectly within campus policy, and he was coming up being an ass! He threatened Porter!"

"Then that should be a lesson to stop this madness right then and there!" Dixie snapped, "The fact that you got approached it all should tell you that this little movement is far too much trouble than it's worth."

"But Mom-" Porter began.

"No buts," Dixie interrupted. She stood up from her seat, her chair making a large screech as it scraped against the floor, her palms flat on the table as she fixed each of them with a stern expression, "I said no. No going out, no driving my car, and no community center. You're all going to stay right here where I can keep an eye on you."

Without another word, she turned her back and stomped out of the kitchen. Her heels made sharp clacking noises on the floor, their muffled pounding on their stairs still strong enough to echo throughout the kitchen.

The siblings exchanged a guilty look with each other, their shoulders all hunched up. The silence was heavy.

Sandra nudged Cory.

"You shouldn't have tried to argue with her about it," she scolded, "You know how sensitive she is with this whole war thing, especially after everything that happened with Dad."

Porter winced at her words. Instinctively, his eyes slid to the side and trailed the wall, before coming to a stop as they landed on the slightly worn frame that hung in the middle, right below the clock; the photo in it- which was slightly yellowed and crinkled- displayed a colored picture of a man in a military uniform. His hair was short and was the same sandy blonde as Porter's, his eyes blue and kind.

He tried to avoid looking at the photo whenever he could, but sometimes it just crept on him. Like now, when he was mentioned.

Cory snorted, rolling his eyes.

"If it weren't for 'this whole war thing', Dad would still be here," he said bitterly, shoving his chair in and leaving his plate alone as he darted from the kitchen, disappearing around the corner. The front door opened and slammed a few seconds later.

Sandra looked over to where Cory had gone sternly, her mouth tugging down in a frown of disappointment. She looked down at Porter with an apologetic expression.

"Will you help me clear the dishes?" she asked in a low voice, like she were scared of being too loud.

Porter tore his gaze away from the picture, looking down at his cold food. He nodded without looking at her.

"Yeah, sure," he mumbled.


There was a knock at his door.

Porter rolled his head in its direction. He lay on his bed, his sketchbook propped up on his legs as he tried to get more coloring done; he had found his progress halted, however, as he became more concerned with replaying the events from earlier in his mind.

"Porter, can I come in?" his mother asked from the other side.

He sat up. The door opened a second later, slowly revealing Dixie in her nightclothes as she hesitantly revealed herself to him.

"I noticed your light on, so I didn't think you had gone to sleep yet," she commented as she walked in, slowly shutting it behind her.

Porter didn't say anything.

Dixie gave him a half-smile, fiddling with the hem of her nightgown as she swayed back and forth awkwardly. She stopped, and starting making her way towards him. Porter turned so that his legs were now hanging off of the edge of the bed to allow her room as she sat beside him.

"I want to apologize for that scene at dinner tonight," Dixie stated as she sat down, staring at the wall ahead of her. Her hands were folded in her lap.

Porter looked at her, not sure how to respond to that. He slowly turned his head, also gazing at the far wall. The tension in the air felt thick, like the smoke of a fire or the air on a humid day.

"It's just…you know how I feel about that kind of stuff, Porter," Dixie continued, "After everything that's happened…I worry about you kids. It's….it's not that I'm against what you're for- heavens knows I hate this war as much as the next person to wear a peace button- but…but the people who are opposing it…they can get nasty. Very nasty.

"I know you want to speak out, and I'm glad you've found something your passionate about," she said, "But the atmosphere is tense. When I look on the TV and see the draft card burnings spreading, see the police and protesters clash and chaos about, I worry. All I can think of is the possibility that may be you I see on there one day getting manhandled and tear gassed by a guy with a baton."

She finally looked at him, and the look in her eyes made Porter's throat tighten up unconsciously.

"You understand where my fear is coming from, don't you?" she asked.

Porter nodded, though mentally he was itching to state his disapproval.

He understood the threat of violence between the protestors and the supporters all too well. In his opinion, that was why these protests were needed. To let people know they weren't alone, that they had a voice, that that was what the country was built on, to speak out against inequality and civil unrest no matter what the intimidation. Him, Sandra, and Cory weren't just doing it because they wanted to get a little thrill at being anarchist punks, they did because they had experienced the effects of the war firsthand; because it was over fifteen years too long for something that was just to fill the rich folks' pockets to keep going on.

He did it because he didn't want any more to have to go through the grief he had gone through. That he was still going through.

Dixie looked away for a moment, her eyes trailing the various canvases and framed paintings he had done throughout the years that hung from his walls. She smiled briefly, before her eyes dropped and she gave Porter a stern look.

"I've already lost my husband, Porter," she said, "I don't want to lose my children, too."

I don't want you getting involved in any more of these, was what she really wanted to say. Porter knew that tone all too well to think there wasn't a subliminal message behind her statement.

He didn't respond for a moment, finding himself between a rock and hard place; he didn't want to just give up on something he was passionate about like some kind of chicken, but he didn't want to say no either. His mom may not have seen it the way he did, but he also knew she only meant well. She had lost the love of her life and was scared. It seemed cruel to just reject her in her face, and he didn't exactly want to deal with the fallout of that at this time of night.

Instead, he just nodded.

That seemed to pacify Dixie enough, and she gave another kind smile as she nodded too. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. She reached forward and wrapped him up in a hug; Porter responded, albeit a little bit hesitantly.

"I'm glad you do," she commented, pulling back to kiss his temple before she stood up from the bed, "Well, I'm going to be going to bed. Don't stay up too late, dear."

"I won't," Porter replied.

She walked over to the door and opened, pulling it behind her as she walked out. Right before she closed it, she turned and gave him another look.

"Goodnight, dear," she said kindly, "I love you."

"I love you too."

With another warm smile, Dixie closed the door. Porter stared at the door as he heard her faint footsteps trek down the hall to the master bedroom. He didn't move from his position, his legs still dangling off the edges.

A spike of guilt suddenly went through him, and he groaned as he fell back onto his comforter. He stared at the ceiling.

What was he going to do?

He didn't want to lie, especially not to his own mother of all people, but he was not going to give up on the protests. He wondered if she was going to go with the same approach with Sandra and Cory, and how they would deal with it.

Porter lifted his head slightly, looking to the right to glare at the framed picture that rested on his nightstand. It was similar to the one in the kitchen, displaying his father in uniform.

"This is all your fault, you know," he said to the frame, "If you hadn't gone off and obeyed the draft and gone along with that whole 'serve your country' bullcrap, I wouldn't be in this mess."

He was only given more silence.


"This seat taken?"

Porter lifted his head slightly. Jean stood in front of him, one hand on the seat across from him. He gripped his messenger bag in his opposite hand, and raised his eyebrows at the blonde in a questioning expression.

Looking back down at his novel, Porter shrugged and turned the page. "Knock yourself out."

Jean nodded as he let his bag slide off his shoulder, letting it deposit on the floor with a dull thud as he pulled the chair out and slid into it.

"Man, I tell you, these classes are gonna fucking kill me," he said, "A calculus test and two book reports? And my old man asks me why kids these days never go outside."

Porter smirked, raising a brow at him. "Well, maybe if you actually did your work and didn't wait two hours before every class to get your homework done, you'd actually have free time."

Jean gave him a look. He responded, "I don't think you're in any position to be talking about getting work done on time, Mr. 'I did my entire history report in science class because I spent all that week working on a piece for an art competition. That I didn't even win.'"

"Oi!" Porter pointed at him, "That was different, okay? That is something I'm passionate about."

Jean snorted, "Oh, sure. Just like I'm sure that little makeout session you had with Gina Summers under the stairs when you were supposed to be taking Weight's attendance to the office was probably passionate too."

He grinned as Porter gave him a dark look. He cackled as the latter shot him a brief glimpse of the finger as he jerked his head back down to look at his book, muttering under his breath. A librarian shot the two of them a pointed look.

Looking at the blonde, Jean's expression suddenly turned much more serious. He leaned back in his chair, looking from side to side to make sure there was nobody nearby that could overhear them, before leaning in closer to Porter.

"So," he began, "D'you hear anything about next Saturday?"

Porter looked up at him. He had a look in his eyes that told the strawberry blonde to go on.

Looking back and forth again, Jean whispered, "Barry's getting the word out, but he's planning a march that day. We're gonna start at the campus and go all the way around town. He says there's supposed to be thousands in attendance."

"Oh, yeah?" Porter asked.

"Yeah. He says with it, we'll finally be making our mark, letting people know we're not gonna go down quietly."

He was given a nod from the blonde; Porter felt the edges of his mouth quirk up in a smirk, and he smiled at the orange haired boy in front of him.

"That's…that's great!" he exclaimed, "T-T-That's fucking awesome! How does he know?"

Jean smiled, "He got into contact with everyone that he knew. They spread the word, and then their friends spread the word, and their friends' friends spread the word. We finally did it, bro. All this time, we're finally gonna get the word out!"

"Oh man, there's no way the pigs can stop us now!" Porter said in glee.

Jean nodded in agreement. "They see all of us, they'll probably be pissing their pants in no time!"

They burst out laughing, the two of them doubling over as loud cackles escaped them at the scenario. Other patrons in the library looked in their direction with disdain, annoyed that the quiet atmosphere had been disrupted.

"SHHHHH!" the librarian at the front desk hissed at them, her tone shrill.

Both boys' laughter immediately ceased, and they hunched their shoulders up. Muffled snorts continued to escape them through pursed lips, though, as they looked at each other, their upper bodies bouncing up and down.

Taking a deep breath, his face bright red, Porter forced himself to calm down; he brought a hand to his mouth to muffle the loud giggle that threatened to burst through. Jean held both hands to his, tears of laughter pouring down his cheeks.

Over the next few minutes, they both took the time to calm down, though they still let out the occasional giggle. Jean took a deep breath, an amused sigh coming from him as he wiped his eyes. Porter ran a hand through his face, feeling out a breath.

"Speaking of which, Barry actually wanted me to ask you a favor," he then spoke up.

Porter tilted his head. "What is it?" he asked.

"Well, he's seen your artwork and stuff at school, and he thinks you're great and all," Jean explained, "So we were wondering if you'd be up for making the banner. You know, one that everyone who's in the front holds while we march that says some kind of quote or some shit."

Porter's eyes widened.

"M-Me?" he asked, pointing to himself, "Y-You want me to do it?"

"Sure, why not? You've got the spirit, you've got the sources, and you've certainly got the skill. And hey, if you're still beating yourself up over it, consider it your way of making up for missing the meeting last week."

I've already lost my husband, Porter. I don't want to lose my children too.

Porter felt all good spirit suddenly leave him, a seed of dread planting itself in its place at the base of his stomach as his mother's words echoed in his head.

His smile dropped. He suddenly felt it hard to swallow.

Instantly, guilt began to settle over him, like a large blanket. The conversation that he had with his mother from last week began to replay in his head, and he felt a lump in his throat.

This march, if what Jean said was correct, was going to be big. Probably the biggest thing they were going to put on all year. It was a landmark- finally they got to the big goal they had wanted. No more just standing outside the shops and giving out flyers, finally they were going to show they had rallied enough people to prove that they couldn't just be shut up with a mere few threats from corrupt policeman. To know he was being looked at the one responsible for making the banner and whatnot honestly felt like a huge honor; before then, Porter thought he was rather invisible to everyone else involved and written off as just being Cory and Sandra's brother. To know he was actually noticed and his skills actually appreciated- well, he'd be lying if it didn't boost his ego tenfold.

But at the same time, he didn't want to go against his mom's wishes.

She would pissed if he went along with this, no doubt.

But this is something you've been working towards for ages, a voice in his head reminded him, And you're just going to back out because she pulls a little guilt trip on you?

It's not like that, Porter defended, It's just, s-she's just looking out for me.

And yet she wants you to stop. Is this what your old man died in the jungles for? Just for you to give up like a total coward because Mommy wants you to sit down and shut up like a good boy?

He frowned. He was not a coward.

Why was he even being targeted? He doubted Cory and Sandra got the same kind of talk. Probably because she realized with them it was a moot point by now. They were too old and too engrained in their ways for her to convince her otherwise.

But Porter, apparently wasn't. No, she thought she could still get to him, that he could still be "saved" from the big bad protests and the rebellious teens. That if she used Dad against him- something that she knew was still a sore spot in their household- he would just drop everything and be by her side.

Porter clenched his fists. Who did his mother take him for, a fool?

"You know, if you don't want to do it, you can just say so."

Porter blinked, snapping out of his thoughts. He looked up to see Jean staring at him; the strawberry blonde had a look of slight exasperation on his face, and was staring at him impatiently. Porter blushed when he realized that his silence must've been taken as disgust or refusal.

"No, I can do it," he refuted, "Just give me a few days."

Jean's expression brightened, and he gave him a smirk as he stood up.

"Good, cuz to be honest, you were also one of the only options," he commented, giving Porter a friendly punch on the shoulder, "I knew you wouldn't let me down."

Porter smiled, though it fell flat as he thought back to his mom.

"Yeah…" he said, staring at the cover of his book.

This was going to be hell to try and hide from her.


A week later, he found himself in his garage at night, trying to put together exactly said banner.

It had been no easy feat, by any means; the task of buying the supplies, working on the banner somewhere, and hiding his progress in a place where his mother couldn't be able to even accidentally stumble upon it was by no means easy, and Porter had found himself filled to the brim with constant paranoia and stress. Like if he even so much as did something menial like sneeze, it would somehow set off an alarm to warn Dixie what her son had been up to.

Porter shook his head. Nevermind that, though. He needed to focus. If he got caught up in his anxiety, he'd never be able to finish.

He stood, looking down at the long white sheet that was rolled out on the concrete floor. It was about the size of one you'd throw over a bed, if not just slightly bigger. The snow white fabric had been stained now, though, long streaks of neon pink and green staining it; so far, it had spelled out STOP THE WAR! BRING OU. There were several little peace signs and flowers sketched onto the sheet in charcoal.

Porter bit his lip, scanning the words. It probably wasn't the most catchiest of slogans, but he figured if he made it colorful and bright enough, than people would have no choice but to read it and understand that they didn't want violence or to just be nuisances in public. All they wanted was for good men to stop dying.

He still had a ways to go, but he was keeping good time. The march was in a few days, and he was already almost halfway done. Just an hour or two tonight and he may have even been able to finish the whole thing by tomorrow.

Picking up a can of spray paint from the crate that he kept his collection nestled in, Porter popped the cap off and started to shake it. The rattling sound echoed slightly in the big yet crowded garage as the pea rolled up against the sides of it inside. Bending over, Porter positioned his arm right along where the faint outline of a T lie in the fabric, gently pressing down on the can's nozzle.

There was a hissing sound in his ears as the paint sprayed out onto the fabric, coating the outline of the T in bright green as Porter began to pull his arm back, dragging the can down the sides so the charcoal was covered in paint.

For the next ten minutes, he only registered the sounds of the cans and his breathing as he worked back and forth, switching out the green spray paint for the bright pink as he filled in the letters. The strong chemical fumes from the paint wafted in his nostrils, and he wiped his hands on the already stained shirt he wore whenever his fingers slipped and they accidentally got paint on them.

Right before he went to start on the outline for the last letter- an E and the exclamation point- Porter stood up, wiping the sweat from his forehead; he leaned back with a groan, twisting to try and relieve the ache in his lower back. He stepped back slightly and reached for the glass soda bottle he kept by the stairs, twisting off the cap and taking a long swig. He let out an 'aw' of satisfaction as the cool cola sizzled in his parched throat.

Porter looked down at his work. He let out a sigh.

"Just a little bit more," he told himself, "Just a few more and you can finish it right as Mom leaves, first thing tomorrow morning."

Trying to keep up the motivation with that thought, he reached for another spray can.

Something scraped against the floor to his right.

Porter jumped, his head whipping in the direction.

Still life greeted him back, all the tools and extra chairs and other miscellaneous items in their exact same positions.

Except…

One of the chairs was now facing him, when just a moment ago he swore it was turned to the side.

Porter stood up slowly. He could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. He took a step backward, as if preparing for something to just jump right out at him. A bead of sweat ran down his temple.

"What…the fuck…" he questioned to himself.

BANG!

"Jesus!" he swore, his hands flying up in shock as he dropped the spray can.

It hit the concrete floor, landing on its side and rolling away from him. Porter stumbled back as he heard a loud collision on the wooden shelf behind him, whipping around. He grit his teeth in pain as he misjudged the distance and nearly fell over as he ran into his paint crate, hitting his heel against it.

His eyes darted back and forth over the shelf, eyeing its contents. Old paint cans and gardening supplies sat on them, but Porter knew that the loud sound that had just occurred couldn't have been his imagination.

"What the hell's going on?" he asked himself, thinking back to the scene in the kitchen the previous month.

His palms grew sweaty. His mouth felt dry.

There was something in here with him. And something told Porter it wasn't just an animal.

He inched to the small shelf near the east wall, reaching his hand out behind him to feel for the garden shears that he had seen earlier. Porter carefully panned out his surroundings, his dark blue irises widened and frantic as they tried to catch even the tiniest bit of movement, if only to see who was responsible.

He felt smooth wood under his palm. Porter gripped the handle tight, slowly dragging out the shears from the shelf.

His heart pounded in his chest. He could feel the blood rush in his ears. Pulling the shears out all the way, he held them in front of him, snapping them open and shut.

"Who ever you are," Porter stated boldly, though he couldn't hide the shake in his voice, "Come out and be a man and show yourself."

Empty air greeted him back. He slowly turned his head right and left, his palms sweaty.

There was movement by the door.

"Dear, do you know if-"

"AH!" Porter exclaimed as he jumped, thrusting the shears in front of him.

Dixie stepped back in alarm, letting out her own shout of surprise at the sudden display. She stared down at the large shears pointing at her, a hand to her chest. She gripped the doorframe tightly, her mouth dropping open.

Porter blinked, confusion overtaking him at her appearance. When it finally occurred to him how crazy he must've looked right now, he blushed and lowered the shears, rubbing his neck awkwardly.

"Uh, um, s-sorry," he apologized sheepishly, "I-I heard something and I, um…"

Dixie frowned, her eyes staring at the shears for a minute before they trailed back up to her son's face.

"What on Earth is the matter with you?" she asked, "You act like the Manson family is about to break in here and stir up trouble!"

"Sorry," Porter grimaced, "I've been…hearing things lately. Weird paranormal stuff. I-I swear it was like there was someone in here with me."

Dixie stepped into the garage, "Now do you understand why I tell you to wear a mask when you work around those darn spray paints? The fumes are gonna rot your brain, drive you up the…..Porter….What. Is this?"

Porter froze.

In his fluster, he had failed to realize that he had left the banner completely spread out and open for anyone who could walk in to see. Especially the number one person he wanted to make sure never knew about it.

He didn't need the sudden icy tone in his mother's voice to know that the jig was definitely up.

Turning around, he placed the shears back where he found them, before taking a deep breath and- with great reluctance- turned to face her. He grimaced like she had struck him, not at all wanting to be here at the moment.

Dixie stared down at the banner like it was some sort of heretic text, her green eyes darkened several shades and wide. Her lips were pursed together, and her fists clenched tightly at her sides, so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. She shook violently, as if Dixie were eager to hit something. Her face had taken on a bright pallor, like she were ill or scared out of her wits.

Porter swallowed hard- his throat felt horribly dry, despite his swig of soda- and waited for her to say something. The atmosphere was thick and cold.

Unable to stand the deadly silence, Porter finally approached her. He raised a hand up to touch her, his voice a bit small, "Mom-?"

"This is for that march I've been hearing about…isn't it?" she asked, not looking at him, "The one that's taking place on Saturday, I believe?"

He cringed. So she knew about that too. Shit. Now he was really in trouble (how did she find out? Was she eavesdropping on them whenever him, Cory, and Sandra talked, or were they just that bad at keeping it a secret?).

Guilt welled up in him. Her words from earlier fluttered again in his mind, and something heavy settled into his stomach.

"I…I didn't…" he attempted to deflect, but found no words that could come to him and make it sound convincing, "I only…wanted to…"

"I know, dear."

Finally, Dixie turned to him. There were tears in her eyes. His heart dropped.

Giving him a sad smile, Dixie looked back down at the banner. She started walking around it.

"I knew by now, it'd get me nowhere to try and talk to your brother and sister out of any of this," she said tiredly, gazing down at the fluorescent letters, "They've had their minds made up for a while. All those people up at the college probably aren't helping me any either. But with you…I thought I had a chance with you. Get it all out of your head, especially after what happened to those kids down in Kent."

Porter swallowed hard. She looked back at him, still wearing the smile on her face.

"I should've known, though. That you wouldn't give up that easily, especially just because I give you a few guilt trips. That you would continue to pursue something you were passionate about, even if told otherwise. With your art, your protests- you got that spirit from your father, after all," she stated.

He didn't know what to say to that.

Standing back up, Dixie walked over to him. She raised her hands and put them on both of his cheeks, making him look her in the eyes. They were stern, though there was still that familiar gentleness in them.

"I'm not going to stop you from what you guys are trying to do," she explained, "Just…please tell me you'll be careful. You can never trust what those policemen are up to nowadays."

Porter's eyes widened in surprise at her statement. His mouth dropped open, and for a moment he was too stunned to respond. Dixie took that as a chance to pull him into a tight hug; she wrapped her arms around him, digging her fingers into the fabric of his shirt. Shocked at the gesture, Porter just stiffened in her arms. A second later, though, he relaxed, closing his eyes and burying his face into her shoulder as he hugged her back.

"I will," he said, "I promise."


Porter winced, pulling the zipper of his jacket all the way up to his chin in an attempt to keep warm. There wasn't any sign of rain yet, the skies being light blue and the sun shining bright, but the wind had been mighty strong today, blowing with a vengeance so hard it felt like it could almost knock you over. It was mid spring, but the cold was so sharp and severe it was like winter all over again. It sent goosebumps all down Porter's body and made him scoot closer to his siblings in an attempt to steal warmth.

All around them, dozens of people stood around. They crowded around the entryway to the university's main building, going on for as far as Porter could see. Many of them wore matching prints of tie dye and geometric patterns, a variety of buttons on their lapels or their bags or on their headbands. Some of them carried signs of poster board glued to wooden sticks, while others carried sheets, all of which displayed messages similar to the one he had put on the banner.

He felt an arm go around his shoulders. He looked up to see Cory staring out into the crowd, a grin on his mustached face.

"Looking big, isn't it?" he asked, giving Porter a smile, "I feel like I'm 'bout to burst out of my skin."

Porter returned the smirk, "Yeah, I feel like I just chugged a whole crate of Coke."

There was someone making their way through the crowd, and seconds later Sandra came from between the two couple in front of them. Her hair was tied back in a thick braid, with an extra one going horizontally across the top of her head near her hairline. Her rust-colored coat clashed with the brightly colored long skirt she wore. In her hands she grasped a sign of her own, one that read LOVE, NOT WAR in rainbow-colored letters.

She smiled at her brothers, "You guys ready to make some noise?"

"I was born ready," Cory replied.

"Okay, okay, everyone listen up!" a loud voice called from somewhere in the center of the crowd.

They all turned to watch as someone climbed up onto the edge of the fountain that rested near the garden in the middle of the campus square. It was Barry, dressed in jeans and a sheepskin coat. His dark hair was slicked back.

He put his hands up, cupping them around his mouth like a makeshift microphone.

"Okay, everyone listen up!" he repeated, "Now, I know you're all excited and eager to start soon, but I think it's important that we go over a few things before we get this baby off the road."

Porter and the rest of them listened eagerly. With the sun behind him and everyone looking up at him, he chuckled as he realized Barry looked like some kind of messenger from Rome.

"Now remember, there's a lotta folks out here who aren't too keen on us practicing our civil rights, so out of their 'concern' for safety, there may be a few cops that we come along the way," Barry stated, " There may also be a few counter protestors. If they say anything, ignore them. If you find they's following you and trying to grab at you and give you a hard time, just keep walking. It'll grind your gears and you'll be finding yourselves wanting to pound them one, especially after they put their hands on you, but you can't, okay? It sucks, but these uniformed guys are gonna be looking for any reason to put you in the slammer, no matter how many witnesses or evidence you got. Understand?"

There were varying volumes of sounds of agreement from the crowd. Porter watched as Barry nodded.

"Good. Remember- this is for peace. We're not here to swing, we ain't here to engage the instigators, and we ain't here to cause a riot. We're here to send a message, and if we keep our heads up, we'll get even more," he added.

That earned him a few rounds of cheers. He grinned, looking out onto the crowd.

"Glad to hear the excitement in the air," he said, "Now, if there aren't any concerns people would like to be addressed, how 'bout we get this show on the road?!"

There was even greater applause as people clapped their hands and cheered. Barry hopped down from the fountain and disappeared into the crowd. People started shuffling around the siblings, getting into position.

Cory looked at Porter, "This is it, lil' bro. All our hard work."

"Yeah," Porter smiled, "We're finally doing this."

He caught a glance of something white near the front and craned his head to look. He could see the people at the very front of the line passing something down to each person next to them. It was a long white cloth, and he could faintly make out neon letters on its other side.

Porter felt a sense of pride go over him as he recognized them unfolding his banner, all of them getting ready to hold it up as they led the crowd through town. It was relatively simple- a few bright colors for the letters and some flowers and peace symbols- but to know that it would be one of the first things that people would see when glanced upon the approaching march made him feel good. Like it was really his first chance to shine.

Everyone started lining up, raising their signs. Sandra squeezed in between him and Cory, lacing her fingers through his as she held up her sign.

"Ready?" she whispered in his ear.

He nodded eagerly. "As I'll ever be."

"Now, everyone," Barry shouted from the front, "Let's roll out!"

With it, they all began marching.

At first, it was mostly silent, with only some chatter coming here or there as they walked. As the crowd turned a corner and started to flood onto the streets, though, Porter could make out a faint chant coming from the front, one that steadily began to grow as more and more joined in.

"HELL NO, WE WON'T GO! HELL NO, WE WON'T GO!" people in the crowd shouted as they marched along; those with signs pumped them up in tune to the rhythm. Him, Cory, and Sandra joined in, Sandra waving her sign while the boys raised their fists.

"HELL NO! WE WONT' GO! HELL NO! WE WON'T GO! HELL NO! WE WON'T GO! HELL NO! WE WON'T GO!"

They started onto the main street. With the massive number of people in attendance, it didn't take long for the sidewalks to be completely filled up. Some even had to spill out onto the curves. They tried to be mindful of other pedestrians and scoot out of the way, but there was little room available if they didn't want to go right into open traffic. Porter took note of how some people stopped in their tracks to watch them, whether it was standing in their spot or looking out through their windows.

It made him feel big; sure, he probably wasn't all that noticeable, looking like just a flash of blonde hair within the sea of hundres (if he was even tall enough to be seen from above). But knowing that they were looking down upon the crowd- down upon him- made him suddenly feel like they were invincible. Like finally, finally, they were being seen.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly for about the first half hour. Then Cory grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him closer to him.

"Keep close," he muttered into Porter's ear, "We got trouble."

Porter looked around. It was hard seeing over the people taller than him and the various signs, but there was a flash of red and blue somewhere to the left, and he started noticing everyone in front of him slowing down; a brief space formed between two people in front of him allowed him to briefly see what was up ahead, eyes landing on a line of men who all seemed to stand arm-in-arm with each other. They were decked out in what could only be riot squad gear.

Great. Gradually, they and everyone else started coming to a stop, and he saw some rustling in the front- presumably Barry making his way to talk to the officers.

He could only faintly make out some conversation- the people around him started chatting under their breaths and made it hard to find and stay focused on Barry's voice- but suddenly jumped as he heard Barry swear loudly, "Bullshit! You can't do that!"

"I can, and I will, boy," an unfamiliar gruff voice bit back.

There was a crackling sound that was followed up with an ear splitting whine, before a man's voice sounded over what could've only been a megaphone.

"Okay, folks, you've had your fun, but I'm afraid it's time to leave," the sheriff's voice declared, "Can't have a bunch of people blocking traffic; I know you're going to be disappointed, but I'm gonna have to ask you to pack your things up and leave."

"We're not going!" someone called from the back.

"They're trying to oppress our civil rights!" exclaimed someone else.

A loud voice with a slight crack, no doubt another cop, shouted from the front, "If you don't leave we'll make you leave!"

Porter winced at the high pitched tone; the officer's threat only served to set off a chain of objection from the protestors, some of them waving their signs around, while others spat swears and threw in a few verbal jabs. He felt Cory's grip on his shoulder tighten.

Something unpleasant began to make its way into his stomach; Porter wasn't sure if it was nervousness or what, but he was suddenly overcome with the feeling that something bad was going to happen.

Something very, very bad.

The protestors and officers continued to argue, and he noticed how some of the officers were now approaching the edge of the crowd, waving along civilians as they tried to get the marchers to dissipate. Though a few of the protestors moved aside to let them through, they still stuck close to each other, glaring at the officers with varying looks of annoyance, worry, or outright disgust.

"Oi! Hands off!"

"You heard him, get your ass moving!"

"Get the hell off me, man!"

Everyone's attention was diverted to the right at the sounds of a struggle. Porter turned his head, eyes landing on an altercation between a police officer and one of the protestors- someone he faintly recognized as a relative of Jean and Barry's. The young man held on tightly to a sign, engaging in a tug of war with the police officer as the elder man tried to yank it from his hands.

A chorus of shouts broke out from the crowd as several protestors made their way to the pair and tried to get in between them. Upon seeing their comrade get swarmed, several police officers started for the group, grabbing at the others and shoving them away from the duo. Soon enough, they all started getting physical with each other and exchanging verbal blows.

The crowd grew louder as more and more people got involved- some scolding their fellow protestors for giving into the bait, some yelling at the cops to leave their friends alone, others just trying to diffuse the situation before it escalated any further.

The unpleasant feeling in Porter's stomach grew at the site of people fighting with the police. Anxiety started to creep up in his chest, making his heart beat faster and a tingle to run down his spine.

He felt Cory grip his shoulders with both hands now, the older boy starting to lead him away from the escalating chaos in the crowd. Porter looked up at his brother with concern. Sandra was on his other side, her eyes darting around in nervousness. She clenched her sign to her chest like it could protect her.

"We've gotta get out of here," Cory said, "If a fight breaks out, all hell will break loose."

He started to lead the two of them away onto the street. Porter could hear the sounds of yelling behind him, and recognized one voice as Jean's, who seemed to try and ultimately fail to stop the conflict.

Then, right in front of them, a punch was thrown.

Them and several others stepped back in surprise as the blonde man uppercut the police officer who had been attempting to wrench and twist his arm behind his back. The black-clad man stumbled back, a hand flying to his face to stiffen the blood that had already begun to pour from his nostrils.

"Hey!" a fellow officer shouted as he pounced on the blonde man, yanking a cannister of pepper spray out of his belt and aiming it right at his face. The blonde screamed as his eyes were doused with the orange fluid; he dropped his signs as his hands flew to his face, doubling over.

In that instant, all hell broke loose.

Porter watched in horror as it unfolded; protestors starting to his officers with their signs or their fists, officers tackling and grabbing at people and slamming them against the store walls to slap handcuffs on them. One officer blew hard into his whistle, only to recoil with a loud wail as one protestor threw a bottle of some kind of liquid that splashed in his face. One girl who had flowers threaded in her hair screeched as she fought against the officer who had her pinned against the hood of a car, kicking back with her legs. The officer grit his teeth as she got him in the shin, though he was able to bend her over; in his anger, he grabbed the baton that hung by his side and raised it, slamming it down on the girl's face.

Cannisters of tear gas were thrown; Porter grabbed at his shirt and yanked the hem up over his nose to shield himself from the smell as they began to smoke. The people who were hit scrambled for cover through the thick clouds, some of them stumbling blindly when it got in their eyes. He felt Cory yank on his sleeve and start to drag him and Sandra through the panicked crowds.

There was the scream of a siren, and the people a little ways next to him were flown right off their feet by the stream of a fire hose, soaking them and blowing them down the street like they were mere leaves in the wind. A brief shower came over Porter, soaking his hair and his shoulders.

He tried to ignore it as he focused on Cory's back, trying to keep up with his siblings as they started to make a run for it.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Porter ducked instinctively; several people screamed at the sound of gunshots that rang out over the crowd. His ears rang from the high volume. The crowd further dispersed as the people all around him began to run for shelter from the bullets, keeping their heads down and dropping their signs. Many of them started running into Porter in their recklessness, and he found himself suddenly getting knocked around, like a pinball in the machine. He lost sight of his brother and sister as his vision was overcome with the front of coats. He yelled out in surprise as he was knocked down, landing hard on his stomach. His knees hit the pavement, sending a shockwave of pain up his body. His hands and sleeves were soaked as they landed in a puddle.

"Porter!" Cory called out to him.

He looked up. Cory came into his vision as the long haired brunette dropped to his knees, offering a hand. Porter scrambled up out of the puddle as he grabbed onto his arm, allowing Cory to yank him to his feet.

"Guys, come on!" Sandra cried out. Tears ran down her cheeks as she knelt beside the corner of an alleyway, pressing herself against the brick wall.

There were more gunshots.

Porter let out a cry of fear as he jumped at them; he felt Cory try to navigate him closer to their sister, keeping the both of them in a kneeling position to try and keep out of harm's way of flying projectiles.

A flash of something bright caught Porter's eye.

The police had began to make their way around the crowd, forming somewhat of a circle as they fired blindly into the air. Possibly more of a scare tactic to try and break up the fighting than to actually have the intent to do harm. Whatever the reason was though, it only further spurned the violence, the protestors getting more and more rowdy as they threw random projectiles at the police. The hysterical shouts and constant shoving wasn't helping the situation.

People and officers were fighting alike. Objects sailed through the air, either landing on the ground or hitting people in the head. Clouds of tear gas and the nauseating spicy scent of pepper spray and mace coated the air. Banners and other trash littered the street.

Porter looked side to side, eyes widening at the scene unfolding in front of him as Cory huddled him near his chest.

A barrage of sounds hit him: Sandra screaming out to them hysterically, glass shattering as it smashed against the concrete. Police sirens roaring, a hose spraying, people cursing and yelling and crying.

BANG! BANG!

Porter stiffened.

He felt Cory hug him to his chest, the older boy nearly throwing his weight on him as he made both of them drop to the floor, forcing Porter's and his head down.

Porter barely registered it, though.

His eyes stared straight ahead, at the wall in front of them. There was a window there, and he could see the blank expression on his face as his reflection stared back at him. His mouth dropped open.

For a second, all sound was suddenly blotted out; there was nothing there, but a faint ringing in his ears. Porter briefly wondered if his eardrums had burst or something. Slowly, it came back to him, though everything sounded like he was underwater. Muffled and low.

There was a pinprick of pain in his abdomen. A stitch in his side, right under his ribcage near his belly. Like he sometimes got if he overexerted himself in gym class and didn't drink enough water.

Then, the pinprick grew to that of a softball. A burning, flaming hot softball that had gone all the way through his body.

He could hear Cory yelling at him, urging him a long, feel him trying to pull him closer to Sandra. But Porter felt himself rooted to the spot. He raised a hand, gently placing it on Cory's arm.

"C-C-Cory," Porter muttered.

His voice sounded light and airy, tight. He didn't think there was ever a time he'd sounded like that.

"Porter, what're you doing, come on, we gotta-….Port?"

Porter couldn't look at him. His mind still felt blank, unable to completely understand what had just transpired. His eyes remained fix on the wall, feeling dry.

He raised a hand to the area where it hurt. It felt warm and watery beneath his palm. Droplets of something dripped down his fingers.

"Porter?" Cory said again, his voice concerned, "Porter, w-what's wrong? Talk to me, buddy, what happened?"

"I…I don't know," Porter mumbled.

His body moved mechanically as he slowly lowered himself onto his knees, his hand continuing to grip Cory's for support. Cory immediately lowered himself with him, his eyes darting around his figure as his hands hovered his little brother's body in inspection. One hand landed over where Porter's was placed. Porter felt it ache where slight pressured was applied

"Buddy, talk to me. Talk to me, Port, what's wrong? What happened?" he asked in a panic tone.

Porter didn't reply. He looked down, peeling his hand back from the area.

His palm was soaked in blood. It outlined every dip and crack in his hand, little droplets trickling down and off his fingertips. There was a patch of it spreading on his shirt, dying the fabric a dark maroon. It centered around a small hole, of which was also dripping blood. Cory's hand came away from them, also covered in blood.

Placing his hand back over the area, Porter looked up at Cory. The latter's eyes were wide with horror.

"Cory…" Porter muttered.

His knees buckled under him.

He felt like all the strength had suddenly been sucked out from him.

"PORTER!" Cory shouted, lunging for him and catching him before he could fall completely backwards.

The brunette cradled him to his chest as he brushed the hair out of Porter's eyes, forcing eye contact. He tucked Porter into the crook of one arm, his other pressing against the wound to stifle the bloodflow

"Look at me, buddy, look at me, Port! It's gonna be okay, you hear me? It's gonna be okay!" he exclaimed frantically. His dark eyes were wide and shiny with tears that threatened to spill over the edges, "It's gonna be okay!"

Porter looked around his brother's face. He felt like he was in a daze. Pain radiated from his stomach, and he groaned as he tried to form coherent words. His mind was like a blown fuse, overriding any attempt to speak.

He looked down at where Cory's hand was. It was even redder, blood caked in his fingernails like the residue from working with clay. Porter tried to reach for it, but his arms felt like lead. He couldn't get them to cooperate with him. "Cory.."

"N-n-no, don't look at that, buddy, okay? Look at me," Cory demanded, grabbing him by the chin and forcing the blonde to look back up at him, "Okay, it's not that, it's not that bad. You're gonna be all right, you're gonna be okay."

The brunette shot his head up, looking around.

"Somebody help!" he shouted, holding Porter closer to him, "Somebody, help, PLEASE! My brother's hurt, he needs help!"

Porter moaned, his head lolling back. He could see people staring at them, watching them in shock. Nobody was fighting anymore. Protestors and police stood around, watching the two boys in disbelief. His head fell to the side, and his gaze met Sandra's. She still kneeling by the alleyway, and looked like she had a hard time breathing. She held a hand to her mouth as her gaze met Porter's. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

"HELP!" Cory screamed, "Don't just stand there, someone call an ambulance! He needs help!"

He looked down at Porter. Tears flowed freely from his eyes as he lifted his head back up.

"Look at me, Porter," he said as he cupped the teen's cheek, "You're going to be all right, okay? Just breathe."

Porter couldn't breathe. His diaphragm felt congested; every little gasp made his chest burn, every fall a little bit harder to rise. He tasted something like pennies on his tongue.

His eyelids felt heavy. Something settled over him, akin to the feeling of him staying up all night and desperately needing to get some shut-eye.

"C-Core…" he repeated, before his eyelids fluttered. For a moment, he thought they had rolled back into his heads.

"Hey, no! No, look at me, Porter, look!" Cory lifted his head, "Stay with me, okay? Don't close your eyes. I need you to stay awake for me."

"I'm…I'm so tired…" Porter responded.

"I know, buddy, I know, but you can't go to sleep yet, okay? Just a little longer."

Cory grit his teeth and looked back up. "Would someone get me some fucking help?!"

"There's an ambulance on it's way," a police officer replied grimly. He looked pale, almost as white as the hair that came out from under his hat.

Cory looked down at Porter with a smile, though it didn't seem very hopeful, based on the way the tears poured down his cheeks and nose.

"You hear that, buddy? They're coming, it's going to be fine, they're coming and they're going to help you," he said fast.

Porter groaned.

He scrunched his eyes shut as he suddenly felt the need to cough. His throat had filled with something thick, and the penny taste coated every inch of his mouth has he hacked.

"Nonononononoooo," Cory muttered as he sobbed. He grabbed the hem of his shirt and started to dab at Porter's lip, "It's going to be okay, Port. Hold just, fuck, hold on."

"I-I'm sorry…" he whispered, "Told Mom…I'd be….c-careful…."

Cory's lip quivered, "Don't think about that, buddy. Just listen to my voice, okay? Hang in there, help's almost here."

Porter felt heavy.

A large blanket of drowsiness came over him. His eyelids felt heavy again, and he blinked as he tried to stay awake.

But he just so tired.

Surely, a little nap wouldn't hurt?

His head hurt.

"M'wanna go sleep," he mumbled, his head arching back.

His eyes dropped shut, his blinking less and less as he lost the strength to stay awake.

"Dammit, Porter, don't close your eyes!" he heard Cory yell, and felt himself being shaken, "No no no no! Stay with me, you hear me?! Don't you leave me now!"

Porter felt cold. He could only groan as darkness started to surround him, swarming into his mind and blocking out his consciousness.

"Porter! No! Don't do this, please ! Wait, wait, please, just a little longer, the paramedics are almost here! Hey, HEY! Someone, please help me! Please, my brother needs help! Help me!" he heard Cory beg, "Please, Port, look me in the eye! Say something!"

I'm sorry, he said in his head, I just want to sleep.

He felt himself be held tighter.

The last thing he heard was his brother let out a deep, anguished scream that devolved into broken sobs, before he drifted away.


"Mmmmm, just five more minutes, Mom," Porter groaned as he rolled onto his side and curled into himself.

He shivered as he rested his cheek on his hands. God, why was it so cold? He hoped that didn't mean the thermostat had stopped working again. He reached an arm out and felt around where he lay for a blanket, only to become confused when he realized he felt nothing of the sort near him.

Nor did he feel sheets, or pillows, or a bed for that matter. Just hard, flat ground.

Porter frowned, slowly opening his eyes.

The dark street greeted him back, the dim glow of the streetlight above him bathing in orange. Moonlight shown off of a nearby puddle.

Porter blinked.

Gaining awareness of his surroundings, he sat up, groaning as he stretched his arms above his head. Letting them drop with a sigh, Porter pushed himself up, standing up and putting his hands on his hips. He looked around in confusion, scanning the darkened windows of now-closed shops and the faint hint of stars in the sky that were blocked out from light pollution.

How the hell did he get here?

It didn't feel like he was dreaming- he tended not to have a lot of those, and when he did he didn't remember them- but he didn't remember lying down or going to sleep. Did he get knocked out or something?

"Oh, man, don't tell me I'm sleepwalking," he groaned, rubbing the skin between his eyes with one hand, "Mom will never let me out of the house now!"

"I'm afraid it's a bit worse than that."

Porter stilled.

His head shot up, his hand hovering a bit in front of him. His eyes widened at the voice, and his mouth dropped open in shock.

That voice….

"It couldn't be," he whispered to himself, slowly turning around.

As his gaze landed on the speaker, he froze once again. He felt his lip quivered.

"It…it can't be," Porter whimpered. Something wrapped around his heart and squeezed tight. It felt as if someone had punched him in the gut.

The eyes were the wrong color- irises that should've been the same navy hue his were instead were a shocking pale violet, set against sclera that were a strange and frightening shade of dark grey- but yet, they still held that familiar softness he had recognized, still carried the same lines around them.

The man's mouth turned up in a small smile. Porter could see the telltale dimple in the right corner pronounce himself.

"Sorry to disappoint you, but it is," his father replied, "Hello, Porter."

Porter stared, bewildered.

This…this had to be a dream. Some sort of sick joke his mind decided to play on him.

And yet…when he looked upon him…Porter could recognize every thing that made him…well, him. The smile lines, the hairstyle, the gentle look that always reminded Porter of the warm hugs he'd receive when he was younger and the play fights they would engage in, the way he did his trademark stance with one hand on his hip and the other in his pocket.

Every single thing he did could've belonged to no other but Theodore Geiss.

"D-Dad?" he called out. His voice sounded completely unlike him, small and fragile.

Theo's smile widened, and he nodded.

"Hey, kiddo, what's the matter?" he joked, "Cat got your tongue?"

Porter didn't reply. The silence between them stretched, the only bit of relief being the small patter of water that dripped from a drain nearby. He watched as his dad shifted on his feet, lifting a hand to rub at his neck. Another habit of his that Porter remembered.

Theo cleared his throat, looking at the side.

"I-I know this must be pretty awkward," he responded sheepishly, "You must- oof!"

His sentence got cut off as Porter suddenly came rushing towards him, wrapping his arms around his waist as he lunged at his father. They both stumbled backward; Theo had to flail his arms out to keep his balance. He looked down in surprise, obviously not expecting the action.

Porter buried his face in his father's chest as he tightened his grip. His shoulders shook violently as tears flowed from his eyes, despite the wide, relieved smile that painted his face, soaking the front of his dad's shirt. He didn't even seem to notice how the tears glowed unnaturally in the light.

"I'm so glad you're back," he sobbed, "I've missed you so much. It's b-b-been so hard without you."

Theo's eyes widened at the statement. They quickly softened, though, and a gentle smile graced his features once again as he returned the hug, holding his son tighter to him. He rubbed his back soothingly, bringing it up to cradle Porter's head as he pressed a gentle kiss to his temple.

"I missed you too, son," he said in a small voice, "God, you're so big now. You and your brother and sister just seem determined to overtake your old man, aren't you?"

He didn't receive an answer; Porter just held him tighter, quietly weeping in relief as Theo soothed him.

After a few minutes, they separated. Porter wiped his eyes and looked up and down at his father, finally getting a good look at him.

Theo looked like he had come out of some sort of sci-fi comic, or a cartoon strip; in addition to the strange color of his eyes, his entire skin glowed bright yellow, his hair almost the same shade albeit just a tad bit lighter. His clothes, which Porter recognized as a uniform of the marines, were a mix of neon orange and reds. Chains wrapped around his entire body. His waist, legs, arms, and neck were bound in them. Undone shackles and padlocks hung from their ends.

The most striking feature, however, was the lack of solidity that Theo seemed to possess. To Porter's slight horror, he realized that he could see through his father to the other side of the street, like he were looking through a gauzy curtain or a glass bottle. Like he were just a projection.

That made a sinking feeling emerge in Porter's chest. What if…this wasn't real after all? What if he was really dreaming this whole thing?

"What…what happened to you?" Porter asked as he furrowed his brows, "W-Why do you look so…weird?"

Theo's expression turned grim. He looked at Porter brokenheartedly, sucking in his lip like he didn't want the words he was going to say to actually come out.

Porter took a small step back, now slightly afraid. Theo sighed, lowering his head.

"That's what happens when you're dead," he finally answered, "Everything just seems to stop being normal."

Porter froze. He stared at his father in shock, at first not quite registering what he had been told. Theo wouldn't look at him, choosing to stare at the ground, with his interest seemingly suddenly taken up with a pebble near the gutter. His mouth was a tightly pressed thin line; Porter could see his jaw clench.

"D…d….dead?" was all he was able to get out.

No, that…that couldn't have been right. He had to have misheard.

Then again, he was standing here having a conversation with his dead father, who had been so for three years after having been gunned down in the jungles of Vietnam, but for some reason was now standing right in front of him, glowing like some sort of nightlight.

Theo looked at him, his jaw set tight. "Porter, do you remember about earlier?"

"Earlier?"

He furrowed his brows. Earlier? What did that have anything to do with his question? Porter scratched his head, looking at the ground as he tried to think about the events that had transpired that day. The family had eaten breakfast together, and then him, Cory, and Sandra had taken the bus to the school to get ready for the march-

He paused.

The march.

Suddenly, a dozen or so flashes of memory came racing through his mind. Porter's hands flew to his head as he doubled over, overwhelmed by everything he had been seeing. Chanting, people holding signs, the feeling of euphoria as they began to make their way through the town. Making way for pedestrians, Sandra's arms over him and Cory as she sung happily. The brightness of the sun and sky on that day.

Sounds of arguing. Scenes of people fighting police, the feeling of water being sprayed everywhere. A nauseating, spicy scent in the air.

A sudden sharp pain in his stomach. A strange coldness all over him.

A phantom pain struck him under the ribs sharply. Porter's hand drifted to his side unconsciously. He breathed heavily as everything that had transpired came flying back to him like he was just hit by a freight train.

He looked up at Theo, who stared at him with concern. Straightening himself up, Porter looked at his father with despair.

"They…they were too late, weren't they?" he asked in a tight voice. His throat felt thick.

Theo biting his lip was enough confirmation.

"They tried to give you CPR," he explained, "You were pronounced dead at the scene."

Porter hung his head, still in slight disbelief as he stared at the ground.

He…he couldn't be dead. He was only sixteen, he still had a bunch of stuff that he needed to do in life. He wasn't even done with high school yet! He was supposed to graduate, break into the scene with his street art, make millions of dollars, travel the world, buy his mom a house-

Something in him squeezed painfully.

Mom.

Porter swallowed hard as she echoed through his mind.

You told her you'd be careful.

He did.

He promised her.

And now here was, after having bled out on the pavement in Cory's arms.

And for what? The march was no doubt a disaster- he didn't think you could exactly call a massive brawl with the riot squad mass arrests a success.

His eyes filled with tears.

Mom, he thought, I'm so sorry.

And what about Cory and Sandra? How were they going to cope with it? They had watched it happen. Guilt weighed heavily on him as he thought back to the fight at the dinner table; his mom said that one of the reasons she didn't like them getting involved with the anti-war movement was because of the violence that had broken out at other demonstrations. They had insisted that it was all worth it, that everything was fine.

And now Porter had only gone and proven her right.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see his father standing closer to him, his brows knitted in worry.

"I'm sorry, I really wish it didn't end up this way," he said.

"I promised her," Porter replied, barely above a whisper.

"I know."

Looking down at his shoes, Porter took the chance to finally examine himself, realizing how his own appearance seemed to have now change. His skin was bright green, the now shamrock-colored flesh visibly transparent. His shoes had gone from what and red to a crystalline blue, of which made him look like he was wearing glass, from the way his feet were visible from under the surface. Bright white chains hung from his wrists from the thick shackles that now clasped around them, a matching pair hanging around his ankles, making the metal material pool around his feet.

Porter could only imagine his face now looked different. The thought made him feel slightly queasy.

A beat of silence passed between them, before Porter looked back up at his father.

"W-W-What happens now?" he asked.

Theo's mouth stretched into a thin line. He scratched his head as he looked around the town. "I'm not sure. You'd think with all these ghost stories that I'd have some luck, but even the cemeteries are silent. I thought for the moment, I could at least come back home, somehow let you guys know I was there-"

Porter raised his head, "Wait, what?"

Theo nodded, "Yeah, I tried to give a sign I was there. Since I couldn't touch any of you or talk, I thought if things got a little bit out of place, that maybe that would at least give you a sign something was up."

"That was you?!" Porter exclaimed, thinking back to the scene with the cupboard in the kitchen and when he was working on the banner in the garage.

Theo smiled sheepishly, a dark yellow blush on his cheeks, "I figured if you started noticing it, that you would pay enough attention that I could communicate with you on a better level. Though, it seems the only thing I managed to accomplish was scaring you out of your wits."

"Thus is the nature of poltergeists. It's rather lucky, to be able to still maintain some physical contact with living forms."

Father and son froze. Despite their now airy forms, both felt a chill run down their spines at the sudden voice that now spoke. Theo grabbed Porter by the shoulders and pulled him closer to him; the older man's head looked around in fear, his lilac eyes scanning their surroundings anxiously.

"Who said that?" he questioned, "Show yourself!"

"But no matter," the mysterious speaker continued, as if uninterrupted, "You are not meant to be in this plane of existence any longer. You may have delayed your ascent, but you cannot delay your fate."

Porter noticed something over his father's shoulder, and tilted his head up slightly to get a better look.

He withheld a gasp of fear when he made out a shadowy figure in the distance, someone draped in black who floated towards them like a ship approaching a lighthouse. He paled at the sight of a sharp and curved blade that was held tightly in the figure's skeletal hand.

"D-Dad," he stuttered out, pulling at Theo's sleeve.

Theo looked, initially confused at the fearful look on his son's face. Porter pointed over his shoulder and he turned his head. His eyes shrunk to nearly pinpricks, the whites the size of dinner plates. Hastily shoving Porter behind him, he used his body to shield the teen from the mysterious stranger. He swallowed hard as he glared at the figure, trying his best to hide his fear.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"Both you and your son have separated from your earthly bodies," the figure ignored him as it continued to come forward, "You are not meant to roam this realm any longer."

The whole thing's body was hidden under its long and thick black coat, the ends of which floated about it like it defied gravity. The scythe gripped tightly in its hand gleamed menacingly at Porter, like it was just teasing to slice him in half. Porter felt his father press against him, as if trying to hide him from the visitor.

"Who are you? What do you want?" Theo repeated.

"I am here to take you from this realm," the figure answered, "You may have managed to run from us at the time of your death, Theo Geiss, but enough is enough. You and your son are not meant to be among the land of the flesh and living anymore."

"My son and I aren't going anywhere."

Porter couldn't see the figure's face from under the massive hood, but from the way it's shoulders bounced up and down slightly, he could've sworn it was chuckling. Like it was amused by the statement.

"You do not have a choice," the figure replied with a hiss, "Your very presence here disturbs the natural balance of the living and the dead. You are to go to the ghost world where you now belong. If you refuse, there will be grave repercussions."

"B-B-But what you said just now," Porter suddenly spoke up, "Y-You said we w-were p-poltergeists, right? Those are ghosts that cause physical disturbances, right? The ones that levitate objects and throw stuff around? S-So isn't that why we're here? To cause disturbances?"

"It does not matter what type of ghost you are, Porter Geiss, for you are all dead still the same," the reaper answered, "Your father may have been able to resist for the past three years, but sooner or later, his time would've come, as it has now. Making contact with the living is a serious crime among the gods.

"And I should warn you, they are merciless when it comes to punishments," it stated, tilting its head towards Theo.

The both of them bristled; the reaper's voice was almost distorted, but the threat was unmissable.

A thought suddenly came to Porter. Stepping out from behind Theo, he frowned at the reaper.

"Wait, so you're a reaper, right? Like, the kinds in the stories that collect souls and whatnot?"

"I would not be here if I was not," the figure stated.

"Soooo my dad died all the way back in 'Nam and has managed to somehow get himself all the way back here to the states and has probably been so for the past three years, and you haven't done anything about it until now?" he asked, an eyebrow raised.

Theo shot him a look, surprised by the statement. He looked to the reaper with a blank expression.

The reaper didn't respond; it stood in place, gently floating up and down. Silence passed between the three of them as a gust of wind picked up and blew leaves down the sidewalks. Porter didn't feel any of it in his air-like state.

"….many souls come into the world and leave it every day," the reaper finally replied, "Sometimes, our records can get…skewed, and very rarely, some newly deceased stay in the living life for some time without notice."

Porter's eyes widened, "You mean, you just forget to claim some dead people?"

"Kid, give me a break, there's three billion people in the world and millions being born and dropping like flies every second. Could you keep track of all that info at once? I don't think so," the figure replied, its distorted voice giving way to a low masculine tone.

Porter took a step back, taken off guard by the response.

"S-Sorry," he said sheepishly.

Nodding curtly, the reaper's tone returned to its whispy state as it turned its back on them and said, "It is imperative that we return as quickly as possible. Portals between the realms are only meant to be opened temporarily and used by other reapers, but there are the occasional souls who try and reject their fate and sneak out."

It waved its hand; Porter and his father jumped in surprise as the air itself rippled, before a giant ship abruptly appeared out of nowhere. It was massive- it was designed like a cruise ship, but looked even bigger than an oil tanker- its large sails covering the sky in front of them, while its hull loomed over them, the bowsprit probably the size of a football field. Its figure was that of a dark iron skeleton stretched from side to side in chains.

Porter swallowed.

The reaper started floating away. "Let us depart. The spirit realm is quite a ways away from us at this time, and the portal will not hold for long lest escaping souls try to get out. On the way, I shall answer any questions or concerns you may have, and inform you of what to do once we reach our destination."

There was a large groan as the side of the ship opened up to reveal a large staircase. The reaper began to make its way up the steps, casting a look at the two male ghosts as it got halfway up.

Realizing that they were to board- how was it someone with not even a face visible could still manage to give you the most hardened of glares?- Theo sighed as he looked to Porter, jerking his head at the ship.

"Well, no good in waiting around," he commented, "Shall we?"

Porter stared at the ships, hesitation overtaking him. A sinking feeling appeared in him. He looked behind him on the deserted streets of the quiet town, his eyes lingering on the spot where he had woken up.

Where he had bled to death on the cold concrete.

So this was the end, was it? That was it? Just one shot was all you had, and then it all ended? Now he was supposed to go with this freaky fucking thing in a giant cloak with a huge scythe and follow him to the…Spirit realm, was that what the reaper called it?

What would happen next? Was he going to be judged, and depending on how bad he did in life, be placed in either heaven or hell, like he'd always been taught at church? Or purgatory, like the storybooks on mythology he used to always read talked about?

And what about his family? His mother? His siblings? How were they going to deal with it? Did this reaper honestly expect him and his dad to just…just leave them in the midst of everything that had occurred?

Of course it did. Because this was life and death. Nobody ever said it was a game played fairly.

"Porter?"

He looked back at his father; Theo stood some steps up the ladder, paused in his ascent to glance at his son.

"It's nothing," Porter muttered as he dipped his head.

Well, here goes nothing, he thought.

Without another word, he began to follow the other two, taking the steps one at a time up the large ghost ship.


Thirty-nine years later….

'You should go try it out,' he said. 'It will help you figure out what you finally want to do in life,' he said. 'It builds character,' he said, Porter thought sarcastically, Yeah, right. This builds as much character as watching paint dry builds excitement.

He and the other students in the creepateria watched as the young wererat ghost was apprehended by the Hall Moanitors, who had her in a series of their infamous chains. The poor ghoul looked like she was on the edge of a complete meltdown as the Ghost of Haunting Present held her in a familiar purple detention chain, reading in a monotone voice her punishment and how long she'd been in them for. Future and Past looked like giants compared to the small wererat, towering over her like they were going to jump her at any second.

If there was one thing he didn't miss about high school after all this time, it was definitely the people roaming the halls ready to pounce on you for anything.

"This is so stupid," he commented to the blue skinned phantom sitting next to him, "She just threw her trash in the same bin instead of separating it. What's the big deal?"

The phantom shrugged. "Can you really be surprised? The moanitors are sticklers for 'order', or whatever the hell they think is order."

Porter frowned, "So they're just gonna confine her here for three weeks, no mercy? That's absurd."

"Dude, what'd you expect? It's Revenant. The lady's got a bigger stick up her ass than a dryad taking a chick from behind," the phantom responded crudely.

He turned back to look at the wererat and the trio. With a final signature, Present declared the her sentence- three essays detailing the history of hauntings, all with a bibliography of no less than five sources, all in Chiclawgo format- before snapping his parchment shut. The wererat's eyes went wide, her lip trembling, before she whipped around and darted off with her hands covering her face, her sobs getting lower in volume as she disappeared into another part of the school.

Shrugging at the action, Present looked back upon the students. Some of them leaned back, slightly intimidated by the ghosts' presence- you never knew what little bullshit thing they would classify as being worthy of the next chain. Porter just glowered at them; he wasn't about to be intimidated by some half-pint.

"Let this be a lesson," the short ghost told all of them, before him, Past, and Future turned, their hands all behind their backs as they floated off into the hallways, no doubt to look for the next poor sap they could deem as being an offender to the school rules.

Porter watched them go, his mouth a thin line as he trailed back to where the wererat ghost had previously been floating.

It was nonsense. He had a suspicion she was pretty stiff from the first day of school, but it seemed with each passing day, Principal Revenant's rules just became stricter and stricter, dwelling out ridiculously impossible punishments for what seemed to be the most minor of things. Porter couldn't even fathom the number of students who had been confined to the library to write nonsensical essays with impossible topics in the last two weeks alone- he had lost track at thirty-eight.

This is bullshit, she can't keep getting away with this.

But what could he do? He was just one poltergeist, and while many seemed to share in the sentiment that Revenant was going too far, their fear at becoming the next to become stuck in the school while they worked off detention chains far outmatched their exasperation. It seemed like Revenant knew it too, and took great delight in ruling her school with an iron fist.

Sighing, Porter put his cheek in his fist, mindlessly doodling in his sketchbook. What was a manster to do?

His eyes slid back to the bare wall across from him, of which the trash cans and recycling bins rested under. It sat bare, with only a faint shadow on it to hint that there had once been a painting or a banner of some kind that once rested there.

An idea came to Porter's head.

He paused. He glanced down at his sketchbook, looking over the half-colored picture that marked its surface. He bit his lip as his gaze jumped back up to the wall, before they darted back down again at the paper.

Mouth twisting up in a small grin, Porter turned his head to look at the unopened cannisters that rested in his bag. Their brightly colored caps jumped out at him, just begging to be taken off and have their nozzles pressed down on.

He was never one for vandalism. He was all for self-expressing in whatever way you damn well felt like, but he had limits when it came to damaging things that weren't his. It always felt like doing so was going beyond expressing yourself and just trying to force others to be like you, and Porter definitely wasn't for that.

Does it really count if it disappears, though? He thought.

After all, he had been told that ghost paint faded on its own. No stains, no weird fumes, no mess.

His grin grew devilish.

Porter looked around, making sure that the Hall Moanitors hadn't come back. They weren't anywhere to be found, and none of the other students seemed to be paying him any attention, all of them focused on their schoolwork or their lunch. Putting his markers back in his pencil case and gently closing his sketchbook, Porter slid them back into his backpack, before he pulled out the spray cans.

He hooked them to some loose links that hung around his waist- he had found over time the chains that had been part of his wardrobe for almost the last forty years really helped when it came to functioning as a makeshift art-tool belt- and slung his bag over his shoulder. He tried to give the best impression of being just another busybody student on his way to class as he got up from his seat and slowly floated over to the wall.

As he stopped in front of it, Porter deposited his backpack on the ground at his feet and slowly floated up to the bare space of the wall. He floated back a little, holding his hands up so his fingers made a rectangle shape together as he closed one eye, trying to get a good perspective on where he was going to put the details.

After getting enough imagery, Porter took one last look over his shoulder. The rest of the student body remained oblivious to his intentions.

Chuckling, Porter looked back at the wall, reaching down and plucking the spray cans from his belt with a flick of his wrist. They came off by themselves and floated in front of him on their own as he held his hand out slightly to control them (one of the abilities of being a poltergeist that he had quickly come to take full advantage of when him and his father had first moved to the Spirit World).

Keeping the image in his mind, Porter moved his hands up and down as he mentally commanded the cans to spray, and within an instant, clouds of bright neon colors quickly lit up around him as he went to work.

A few minutes later, he had finished. Porter floated back, admiring his work.

A colorful away of pigments now decorated the once barren brick, the flashy colors twirling around and next to each other as they formed a big painting. It was that of a ghoul with silvery blue skin and hair, a defiant look on her face and her posture standing tall. Her arms were out in front of her, closed into fists and on either side of her shoulders in what looked to be the middle of an action. Between them, a chain linking both of her wrists was snapping in half, pieces of it falling to the ground.

"Dude, look at that!"

"What's he thinking? If Revenant sees he'll be toast!"

"Wow, that's amazing!"

Porter smirked as he heard the comments roll in. He turned around, looking down to watch as his fellow schoolmates looked up at his painting with a mixture of both shock, horror, and amazement. He pumped up a fist, one still holding a spray can, up into the air.

"Freedom for everyone!" he exclaimed, "No to these detention chains, and no to these over the top detentions!"

"That's right!"

"Get 'em out of here!"

"Yeah!"

He grinned at the cheers and cries of support as people waved up at him. A feeling of flattery came over him as he watched several of them pull out their iCoffins and take pictures of his handiwork before the paint began to fade.

Floating back down to his bag, Porter began gathering up his things. He hooked the loose spray cans back onto his belt. Two ghosts- a green skinned girl who was dressed in a way that reminded him of a pirate, and a blue skinned one with pink hair whose face oddly seemed more like a screen than actual molded features- floated over to him.

"Are ye crazy, lad?" the green skinned ghost questioned, "If the Hall Moanitors catch this, they be havin' ye walk the plank in no time! Probably give ye months worth of detention!"

"Yeah, I don't think it's quite smart to test Revenant like this," the pink haired ghost said worriedly, looking around.

Porter shrugged, "Hey, that's the risk you gotta take when it comes to speaking up for others. Besides, it's ghost paint! It'll disappear in a few minutes anyway."

The pirate ghost raised an eyebrow, "Ye be sounded much confident of yeself."

"What can I say? Raising hell's in my blood."

She didn't look convinced, sharing a look with the pink haired ghost. The latter gave Porter a look, and asked, "Who are you anyway?"

Porter didn't respond right away, thinking of what to tell her. Another idea clicked, and he grinned. He raised up a hand in a mock solute.

"Call me Paintergeist, at your service."

 

 

Chapter Text

~1988~


The lights above her were blinding, shining down on her like two stars having just gone supernova. As she approached up the steps, she could hear the crowd growing louder, chanting her name as they awaited her to finally appear before them.

Adrenaline made her heart feel like it was beating faster than a hummingbird's wings. Finally getting to the top, she stood just beyond the curtain, waiting for the right moment to make her presence known. Through the crack in the red fabric, she could just make out the audience. There looked to be hundreds, if not thousands, in attendance.

"ARI! ARI! ARI!" she could hear them exclaim, could see them pump their fists up in tune to their words.

She held the microphone close to her chest, gripping it with both hands. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she tried to ease her rapid heart. She closed her eyes.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for!" she heard the announcer over the intercom.

She lifted her head and opened her eyes again. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She was ready.

From beyond the red fabric, she could hear the crowd get louder, their demands reflecting their own anticipation.

"The one, the only, ARI!"

The curtains pulled back to reveal her, the spotlight flashing her and shining down on her form like something divine had chosen her.

The music started up from the band onstage, and as they began, she raised the microphone to her lips; lyrics flowed from her lips as she begun making her way onstage, waving a hand to the audience as she sung. The crowd erupted in applause as her appearance, many of them already clapping as other jumped up and down. They sung along with her, waving signs and posters and phones that acted as fake lit candles and danced as they moved with her to the beat.

"ARI!" they shouted, "ARI! ARI! ARI!

"ARI! Ari! Ari, wake up already!" 

She jerked under the covers. The music and audience immediately melted away, the atmosphere quieting down in an instant. The only sound she could hear now was some sort of annoying buzzing sound that beeped in her ears like an angry crow.

Ari groaned, slowly lifting her head out from under the covers as she looked around, eyes blinking heavily.

There was no stage or spotlights. No screaming crowd, or backstage equipment, or stadium surrounding her. Instead, there were pale lilac painted walls, with a variety of posters, photos, and other things taped or tacked onto them. A white vanity sat along the wall opposite her, a large rounded mirror with a filigree frame showcasing her bedraggled state as she stared back with puffy, swollen eyes still heavy with sleep. Her hair was a crown of tangles on top of her head, some strands sticking to her cheek as a line of drool started drying.

The loud buzzing continued, and she looked to the side. The clock on her nightstand beeped relentlessly as it vibrated slightly across the surface. The flashing digital screen displayed that the time as 8:45 in big red letters.

There was a knock at the door, before it opened a second later; her mother popped her head in.

"Ari, get up already! You'll be late for school!" she chided.

Ari blinked owlishly.

"Huh?"

She looked back at the clock, blank-faced.

Her eyes suddenly widened as something clicked in her mind, putting two and two together.

"OH MY GOD!" she exclaimed, snatching the covers and throwing them to the side, "I'm gonna be so late!"

Swinging her legs over the side, she stumbled off the bed and darted over to her closet, throwing the sliding doors open and digging through the clothes.

"I'm going to be late, I'm going to be late, I'm going to be late!" she exclaimed as she yanked various garments off the hangers and tossed them onto the bed.

Her mother watched with a raised eyebrow as Ari zoomed back and forth in the room, repeating how she was going to be late to herself as she quickly shimmied out of her pajamas and threw on her school uniform, not even taking a moment to breathe as she buttoned up her shirt and skirt, pulled on her blazer, and stumbled while she struggled to put her feet in her shoes. Grabbing her bag off her desk chair, Ari ran past her, not sparing her mother even one look as she dashed out the room and made her way to the stairs.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Mrs. Hauntington asked.

Ari paused. She looked at her mother, who continued to regard her with one of her brows raised. She looked down, her forehead crinkling in confusion as she tried to think of anything else she needed to do.

Mrs. Hauntington turned her head with an expectant look, exposing her cheek.

Ari's eyes widened. "Oh!" she exclaimed.

She quickly ran over, reaching up to give her mother a quick kiss on the cheek. The elder woman smirked, now satisfied.

"Sorry, bye!" she apologized as she turned back around and ran for the stairwell. The slight heel in her loafers made heavy pounds on the stairs as hurried down them, whilst trying not to trip and fall.

She pulled the door close behind her with a slam as she hurried out the front, before hopping off the front porch and running down the street towards the school. Ari could feel her bag bang against her knees as she ran, but she tried to ignore the pain, the fear of getting a detention surpassing her personal discomfort as she pumped her legs.

After a good ten minutes or so, the large cathedral-like structure of the school's main building finally came into view. To her relief, Ari could see still a few dozen students or so gathered around in the courtyard. Good, that meant she still had some time. She could still make it, just a few more steps.

DING! DING! DING!

"Oh, bollocks!" Ari hissed.

It seemed she had spoke too soon, as there was suddenly a large chime to ring forth from the top of the building, echoing throughout the small town. Instantly, students got up from where they were sitting or leaning against posts and gathered their bags, before hurrying towards the large doors of the main entrance.

Ari looked at her watch. Class began in five minutes, but she was still a good ten or so minutes away trekking on foot.

Head shooting up at the entrance, Ari propelled herself forward. Her bag hit her knees even harder as she pumped her legs, her feet slapping against the concrete as she tried to beat the clock.

"Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap!" she hissed to herself.

In her mind, she groaned.

Why did it seem life always had to have a way of making everything ten times harder for her?


"So he says to me, 'You know, I couldn't help but notice you during rehearsals, and your acting is sooooo good," Tracy repeater, deepening her voice to create a fake impression of a man's, "'How would you like to go out on Friday? I know this place we can hang out."

"Really?" Margaret asked, "He actually said it? Just like that?"

Tracy rolled her eyes, "It gets worse. Then, he says if I was in the 'mood', he even knew a place down by the lake where we could go and not be 'disturbed'. Like I was just going to up and snog him like some total slag! Please!"

Ari quirked an eyebrow, sipping on her drink. After school had ended, her and her friends had decided to go to the local diner to get some food and catch up. While they stuffed themselves on burgers and chips and milkshakes, Tracy rambled on about her latest- and rather unfortunate- experience with boys who didn't seem to understand (or care) to take 'no' for an answer.

Michelle, who sat next to her, shrugged as she took a bite of her burger. "I don't think he's that bad," she said, "He probably just doesn't know how to approach girls any other way."

"If he doesn't, then he shouldn't even bother until he learns the proper way to talk to a lady," Tracy responded.

She reached over grabbed a chip out of Ari's basket, swiping it in the small pile of ketchup on her tray before popping it in her mouth. She shook her head as she wiped her hands on a napkin.

"And it's not like he didn't know what he was doing either. I saw the look in his eyes, it was the same as the last two who tried to ask me out," she elaborated, "They all think just because they try- and fail, may I remind you- to woo me and take me for a night out, that I'm suddenly gonna be falling all over and giving it up to them! Please, they're not that lucky!"

Ari smiled, "That makes it, what, three guys this month, Trace? If there's one good thing to be found, maybe you can find flattery in how many are interested in you?"

"I would be flattered, if it wasn't the just totally gross guys doing it!" Tracy lamented.

Ari and the other two girls broke out in laughter at her pained expression. Tracy pouted at their reaction, though there was no true malice behind it as their giggling spawned a grin of her own, and she soon joined them in their group laughter.

After a few minutes of good fun, Tracy straightened up, wiping a small tear from her eye as her last few chuckles escaped her. She looked back at Ari with a sly grin, a slight sparkle in her eye.

"What about you, Ar?" she asked, "I don't suppose you have any secret liaisons that you could happen to tell us about? I at least hope they're at least much cuter than the luck I've had."

Ari's grip tightened on her cup. Her eyes went wide as she stared at her friend, and turned bright red as the girls all turned to look at her. She looked back and forth between them, hunching her shoulders slightly as she took another sip of her drink.

"N-N-No," she stuttered, "Nothing to r-report."

"Really? Nothing?" Michelle teased, leaning in close to her, "Not a love note? A poem of some kind? Flowers in your bag or a serenade outside your window?"

"Afraid not."

Tracy's brows furrowed, and her mouth dropped open like she was in utter disbelief at the blonde's words.

"Seriously? How could anyone pass you up, you're like the most gorgeous gal in the entire country!" the brunette exclaimed.

Ari flushed again at her friend's words. She gave a nervous smile. "O-Oh, pish, Tracy, you're too kind."

Tracy shook her head, "No, I mean it! You're really telling me not one boy has even approached you?!"

"Well, n-no," Ari responded. She really didn't like where this conversation was going.

Michelle shrugged, "It's not her fault. You see how those boys are. They'd rather go for the cows that would give them attention and hang onto to every half-arsed phrase they said if it meant they'd get some kind of doting and attention."

Margaret grinned at the statement, giving Ari a look.

She replied, "Not to worry though. Our little Ari could enchant them if she wanted to with that beautiful siren's voice she's got, couldn't you, dearie?"

Her grin widened as Ari's face grew to a shade of scarlet so deep it looked like she was in some desperate need of oxygen. She refused to look at any of them, sharply turning her head to stare out the window. Her posture was tight and stiff.

At the mention of the blonde's singing, Michelle perked up like it had made her think of something.

"Oh, that reminds me!" she exclaimed, turning to dig in her bag, "Ari, there's something I wanted to show you! You absolutely have to see it."

The group turned to look at her as she rifled through her pack. The blush that marred Ari's cheeks disappeared as her embarrassment turned to curiosity at her friend's statement (and she was a little more than glad for the topic of conversation to be turned away from her and her love life for the moment).

"Where is that bloody thing?" they heard Michelle hiss to herself as she continued to dig around, "Aha, there it is!"

Reaching for something deep in the bottom, she whipped around back in her seat and held up something in front of her; a big white smile decorated her face as she turned so Ari could see it. It was a slightly crumbled piece of yellow paper, big black font decorating its front as small pictures and symbols ran along near the margins. Ari reached across and took it from her, holding it with both her hands as she looked down at it. Her eyes dropped to the top and slowly moved back and forth in a downward motion as she read the print.

Her brows furrowed as she read along, and she looked back up at Michelle. "A singing contest?"

Michelle nodded, "At McManon Hall on the seventeenth! I saw it on the way to the loo this morning, and I thought you'd totally want to see it! It's so you!"

Ari's mouth thinned, and she shifted in her seat as if uncomfortable. Her gaze slid to the table.

"I-I-I don't know, Shell," she said, "I mean, that's much time to prep, a-and I'm sure that there's a big enrollment process, and there's not much time between now and that, and there's a-a lot of people, I'm sure, that are going to attend."

Tracy quirked an eyebrow, "Oh, don't tell me you're shy? After all that gabber you did at the choir concert last week, now you suddenly got stage fright?"

Ari glared at her, "I-It's not that, it's just-"

"Oh, come on, Ar, who're you tryin' to convince, us or yourself?" Tracy interrupted, "Like it's your kind of thing- singing in front of a crowd, giving a performance, all that and more!"

She took the flyer from the blonde's hands and turned it around so that the text still faced her; she used her opposite hand to point at something on it.

"Look right here. It even says there's going to be agents at the show looking for potential candidates," she said, "That means real life agents, Ar. People looking to sign others and get them a place in showbiz.

"Your dream is quite literally right here! So what's with the sudden shell, huh?" she asked.

Ari turned her gaze away from her, staring out the window again. She could feel their stares on her, but refused to budge. Her hands twisted in the fabric of her skirt in her lap.

It wasn't that she wasn't excited, that wasn't it at all. In fact, the whole concept of it made her actually feel like she was about to burst right out of her seat from excitement at any minute. A contest? Agents? The fact that her dream that she had been aiming towards for years, that she had aspired to be ever since she first learned how to talk, was quite literally within arm's reach? She'd have to be mad not to get herself in a tizzy!

No, it wasn't the contest or the fact she'd be performing in front of actual professionals that made her hesitant. She could care less of the fact that there were probably going to be hundreds of people in attendance at the most- she'd been performing in front of large crowds ever since she had started grade school, she was way more than used to it by now.

It was moreso the people in the crowds she was wary of. Though everyone was entitled to their opinion and she could deal with criticisms and generally less than favorable comments, Ari found that when it came to the public sphere, people had a tendency to be a little more than unrestrained when it came to their comments; especially when it came to events that dealt with anonymity, like the voting and polls that the singing contest was sure to have. This wasn't a school choir concert where everyone was required to clap and be nice out of respect for not hurting underage girls' feelings, this was something anyone and everyone would be attendance to, which meant no thought was off limits. Criticism she could deal with, but verbal bullying and tongue lashings from people who only wanted to cause trouble? Not so much.

As if reading her thoughts, Tracy suddenly pouted as she spoke, "You're worried if there's going to be any hecklers at the show."

"I'm not worried about them," Ari responded, finally turning to them and leaning against the window, "I just don't fancy the thought of putting myself in a position where I have to put up with them."

"But that's exactly what they want!" Michelle rebutted, "They want you to get hesitant so that you end up not even doing it, so then they can feel all high and mighty about themselves! Don't even bother giving them the time of day!"

Margaret nodded in agreement. "Yeah, and think about it: it'll make it all the more sweeter when you win and can make them stick it in their pipes and smoke it."

Ari gave her a look, "You mean if I win."

"I mean, do you really think there's anyone else we know in this crap town that stands a chance against you? You hit the first note, and those yuppy agents will get complete tunnel vision," the raven-haired girl replied.

Ari blushed again. She turned to look at all of them, grey eyes panning over each of their faces, trying to read for any hint of deceit.

"You gals really think I can do it?" she asked.

They all nodded eagerly. Tracy beamed, folding her arms.

"You kidding me?" she answered, "The second you even get up on that stage, they won't even remember that there's anyone else in the room!"

That got a smile out of Ari. She looked back down at the flyer, feeling a renewed sense of confidence in her. Tracy was right, she'd be reaching for this moment all her life, and now it was finally here, right in her grasp. Why should she let a few gobsmackers who had nothing better to do with their lives stop here just out of fear of a few mean comments?

She looked back up at the girls.

"You're right," she stated, "I'll do it!"


"It's in a couple of weeks, and it's on a Friday, so that'll give us plenty of time to prepare and figure out how we're going to get there and all those details," Ari explained, "And the girls and I think that if we all save up our money until the time comes, we should have enough to catch a cab and get food."

She looked up to gauge her father's reaction. The statement was meant to be reassuring, but it seemed to have the opposite reaction as he grimaced, looking over his newspaper at her.

"I don't know, Ar," he said with doubt, "I mean, all the way to York? By yourselves? To a place where dozens of strangers are gonna be? Doesn't seem like a good turnout for a bunch of young girls."

"That's why we're all going as a group, Dad," Ari explained, "We're not going to be by ourselves, we'll have each other. And Margaret's parents are even thinking of stopping by to check it out, so there'll be at least some parental advisory there."

He didn't look convinced. Her mother, on the other hand, shrugged as she stood beside Ari, the latter helping her fold laundry.

"Well, I think it's a wonderful idea," she stated as she folded a towel over her arms, "It sure is exciting, actually getting the chance to get signed. I'm happy for you, dear."

Ari smiled, "Thanks, Mum."

Her father pursed his lips together, giving her a look. Ari looked back pleadingly, pressing her palms together and mouthing 'please'. He frowned, keeping her gaze for a minute before he finally sighed and looked back down at his paper, straightening it out.

"Do what you want, but everything you pay for is on you, understood?" he said.

Ari beamed, a giddy squeal escaping her as she put down the shirt she'd been holding to run over to him, giving him a tight hug.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, Daddy!" she said, squeezing her arms around his head, "Thank you!"

"And I want you home the way you came!" he added, though it was obvious there was no real sternness in his voice, try as he might, "None of these stories about strange lads dropping you off from their cars!"

Lisa rolled her eyes, "David, have a little more faith in our daughter, would you? She knows better than that, she's a good girl."

David's eyes softened at the statement, and he put his paper down to return Ari's embrace, pulling her down onto his lap.

"Yeah, she really is," he said, "And I also know she's going to take everyone's breath away the minute she lets that beautiful melody stream from her mouth."

"Daaaad," Ari feigned embarrassment as she tried to pull out of his grip.

Lisa and David smiled at her as David held on tighter, until Ari gave up and settled into his embrace. A few minutes of peaceful silence passed before they whole family suddenly jumped at a sudden crack of thunder that burst from outside, the noise loud enough to rattle the picture frames and various objects on the shelves. It was followed up by a blinding flash of lightning that momentarily lit up the sky like it had suddenly become daylight.

"Goodness, don't tell me another storm is coming," Lisa commented as she put down the towel and walked over to the window.

Ari and David turned to look in her direction as she pulled back the curtain to gaze out. It was almost complete pitch black outside, save for the few blurred circles from streetlights, hiding any distinguishable shapes from view. She could, however, hear the clear pitter patter of rain hitting the windows and walls. Within seconds, it echoed throughout the whole house, the sound akin to marbles falling on the roof.

David craned his head, "The weatherman did say something about this season being a bit more rough than beforehand."

"I know that, but still, this is excessive," Lisa said as she let the curtain fall back into place, "I can't imagine how terrible the roads must look. Someone's going to get killed under these conditions."

She shook her head at the thought, though she dropped the subject as she went back to the laundry. Ari got off her father's lap and helped her fold the rest of the clothes, before excusing herself to her room to finish up her studying, as well as get a headstart on her audition.

"What should I do?" she asked herself.

She slowly paced around the room, eyebrows furrowed as she thought of what type of song should she do. She held one hand to her lip in thought, while her elbow was supported by the other. Rain pounded against her windows like someone slamming on a pair of drums. Ari tapped her chin as she pondered what exactly she should do.

Should it just be a cover? Or something I wrote myself? She thought.

Doing a cover would require far less work, considering she already had the lyrics, the melody, and the rhythm down, not to mention it would be something the audience would likely recognize. But writing her own song could give her a little one up if they were looking for creativity. But then that would put even more stress on her shoulders and make her severely crunched on time if she was to ever get a complete one done, and did she really need that extra stress?

But what song should she cover if she decided on the former? She had to be extra careful in her selection- none of the too obvious classics, that'd make her seem generic and bland. But nothing too unknown, or else they'd probably get the impression she was "one of those people". It had to be the right balance of popular but not overdone, well known without being overplayed. And that didn't even start taking into account what genre, artist, how old, and how well she knew the lyrics the song was going to be.

There was also the issue of how she was going to look; what she was going to wear, how her hair was going to be, whether or not she should wear makeup, her shoes-

"Ugh, why is this so hard!" Ari said to herself, stopping in the middle of her room to rub her temples.

Her mother had always told her that the road to reaching your dreams was never an easy one, that if you didn't push through the scrapes and the bruises that appeared once in a while, you'd never get anywhere. But Ari didn't think that trying to decide on what seemed to be even the most trivial of details was going to be this hard.

Positioning herself so that her back was to her bed, Ari stretched her arms out on either side of her and let herself fall back onto it, bouncing slightly as the mattress groaned under her weight. She stared at the ceiling with a pout, her eyes scanning the various posters of pop stars and rock groups that she had taped up over the years. Sparkling eyes and painted lips stared back at her, her idols' faces painted with heavy makeup in the shape of lightning bolts and triangles and bright neon hearts, their hair done up in the latest styles and wacky colors, their clothing ripped and fishnetted and exposing an amount of skin that her mother would never dare let her step even two feet out of the house showing.

A determined look came to Ari's face, and she frowned as she sat up on her bed.

"I'm getting ahead of myself," she commented, "I'll never get anywhere if I let the stress of it all overtake me before I even take the first step."

And that first step was deciding what she was going to sing. If she managed to get out of the way, she'd be solid.

She looked over to her nightstand. Her Walkman sat under her lamp, its latch open to expose a cassette tape already inserted into it. Her headphones lay on top of it, the cord tangled around it.

Ari smirked. She had work to do.

She got up on her knees and crawled over to her nightstand, grabbing her Walkman and setting it beside her, before turning back and opening the drawer to grab her box of tapes. Plopping it down next to her Walkman, she traded the tape that was already inside for a new one, before snapping it shut and pressing play.

As the tape began to spin, Ari slid her headphones onto her ears. A smile came onto her face as she closed her eyes, keeping her hands at her ears as music began to flow from the headphones. She sat there, gently bobbing her head to the rhythm and mouthing the words.


"Absolutely not."

"Come on, it'll be fun!"

"No."

"Ari, trust me on this! You wanna make an entrance, don't you?"

"Yes, but I also don't want to look like an idiot," Ari said with a roll of her eyes as she turned away from Michelle, flipping through the clothes on the rack to try and find something.

Michelle pouted. In her arms she held a few garments that she insisted would make Ari look "hip" and "hot" and "make all eyes fall on her": an outfit composed of skin tight metallic red shorts, bright purple stockings, a rainbow sequined tube top that would leave little to the imagination at the very least expose her belly button (and also looked to be three sizes much too small, in Ari's opinion), and knee high hot pink boots that had bright turquoise laces and chunky platforms that were no less than three inches high. The whole thing would be complete, according to Tracy, with tons of rhinestone jewels draping Ari's neck, arms, and ears.

"You won't look like an idiot, though!" Michelle insisted, "You'll look glam, you'll look chic, you'll look…um-"

"Like she gets dressed in the dark?" Tracy answered as she came around the corner, a few things under her arms, "Seriously, 'Shell, there's such a thing as color coordination. Not to mention the whole thing looks twenty years out of style."

"That's not even out of style, that's just tacky," Margaret said as she held up a pair of shoes.

"Well, I don't see you lot suggesting anything different for our friend here," Michelle grumbled, crossing her arms.

Ari looked over her shoulder, giving her a pitiful smile.

"I appreciate you and them coming to help me, Shelly, and the thoughtfulness, but the answer is no," she stated.

Michelle puffed her cheeks out; a red flush came onto her cheeks as she tore her gaze away. She held up her nose with a 'humph' before turning to start putting the clothes back, all the while grumbling to herself.

Ari and Tracy exchanged a look. Tracy just rolled her eyes and shook her head. Ari laughed, before her smile quickly melted away, becoming replaced with a look of distress as she looked back down at the clothes.

The girls had insisted on going to the boutique for her to pick out an outfit for the show ("What's wrong with my regular clothes?" "Ar, it's a contest, 'regular' isn't gonna get you that win"), but after a whole hour of her trying on various outfits and accessories, only for her choices to get shot down or the group disagreeing and debating on what fit and what didn't and what looked cool and what looked like it should be destroyed, she still had nothing. Ari looked at her watch, withholding a groan at the time. It was a quarter to three. She needed to get home and practice, but that didn't seem possible with what little progress they had made.

Tracy put a hand on her shoulder. "Relax, Ar, it'll be all right."

"You say that, but we still have nothing and there's still so much to do," Ari said with a frown.

She absentmindedly ran her hand along various skirts and shirts that hung from the hangers, feeling along their smooth fabrics and pulling out the ones that caught her eye before letting them fall back.

"Well, what about that one?" Tracy asked.

Ari looked at her, confused.

She pointed at the clothing the blonde was grasping. Ari looked down to see she had been holding the skirt of what looked to be a long dress.

Something in her clicked. She looked back at Tracy. Tracy only raised her brows.

Turning back to the dress, Ari reached for the hanger and pulled it off the rack, holding it out in front of her to get a good look.

The moment she laid eyes on it, she found herself smitten.

The dress was long, cut so that the back part of the skirt reached all the way to the floor, while the area in front was shorter so that it looked like it would stop just below Ari's knees. It was a beautiful lilac color, and soft to the touch with its lovely satin material. An outer layer of tulle ran along at almost the same length, the edges trimmed with silver lace. Sequins were sewn into the tulle, making the dress glitter under the dim light and casting little dots of light along the wall and across Ari's blazer.

Ari reached out and gently brushed the dress again, relishing in its softness and beauty.

Tracy watched her, a satisfied smirk coming onto her face at her friend's reaction.

"I think we just found a winner," she commented.

Margaret and Michelle looked up, and they both gasped at the sight of the dress, equally starstruck.

"You should totally get that one!" Margaret encouraged.

"Yeah, it's so you," Michelle agreed, "It's so totally tash!"

They all gave her a look.

"'Tash?'" Ari asked.

Michelle nodded, "Yeah, you know! When something's awesome and cool, it's the best, it's 'so totally!' That kind of thing!"

Tracy frowned, "…then why not just use 'awesome'?"

"Because that's too old fashioned, duh!" Michelle answered.

The girls just stared at her. Ari shook her head and looked back towards the dress, before looking back up to her friends.

"Have we finally come to an agreement, then?" she asked and held the dress against her figure, "Yay or nay!"

The girls all lit up.

"Definitely yay!" they answered.

Ari nodded with a chuckle. "Good to hear."

They looked around some more for jewelry, shoes, and anything else that went with the dress, and also for the other three to browse for stuff that might've caught their interest. Ari's mood vastly improved as the girls took advantage of some of the boutique's more unusual items, going into the dressing room with piles of clothes and coming out decked in some of the ridiculous outfits ever seen, which sent the others into fits of giggles. At one point, they all burst into laughter and became so overwhelmed they all fell onto the floor, which ended up with a manager approaching them and scolding them for being too loud.

"God, would you look at this!" Tracy exclaimed when they finally exited the shop, their bags in tow, "It was bone dry this morning, where did all this bloody rain come from?!"

Ari looked up from under the awning that they stood under. The ash grey color the clouds had been that day had now darkened to a threatening soot color, and she could see some of them light up briefly with lightning. Rain poured down on the streets around them, makeshift streams flowing down into the sewers and puddles as big as trampolines forming on the roads.

The girls squealed as they stumbled back, narrowly avoiding being splashed as a car suddenly drove by and through one such puddle, sending a sheet of water to them.

Michelle groaned as she looked in her schoolbag.

"None of you girls would happen to have a spare umbrella, would you?" she asked.

Tracy shook her head as she deposited her bags at her feet to pull on a raincoat. "Sorry."

"Mine only fits one person," Margaret explained, "And sorry, love, but I plan on staying dry."

Michelle grimaced, "Oh, man. Me mum's gonna kill me! She told me to make sure I had it, and I completely forgot! She'll pitch a fit if she sees my uniform's ruined."

Ari gave her a reassuring smile, "You could use mine if you want. I brought both it and my coat just in case. Plus, I live closest to you, so it'll be the most convenient."

The blue-eyed girl's eyes widened in relief, and Ari squealed when Michelle suddenly leaped at her, wrapping her up in a tight hug.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, Ari!" she said, "You truly are a lifesaver!"

Ari smiled at her, though she gently shimmied and pried the ecstatic girl off of sure. "Um, sure, you're welcome."

Even with their protection, though, it proved to be little use against the harsh and unforgiving force that the rain brought down upon the two of them. Coupled with strong and violent winds, the girls found themselves having to run all the way home to escape the brutal rains, both of them screaming when Michelle nearly slipped and brought the both of them down as her foot caught onto a slick patch of mud. Despite their best efforts, they were thoroughly soaked by the time they made it to Ari's porch.

"You can just take if you want," Ari advised as she pulled her hood down, turning to Michelle, "And just give it back to me tomorrow."

"Are you sure? I don't live that far," Michelle asked.

Ari nodded in reassurance, "I doubt this shower's going to let up in only five minutes, and I'd hate for you to get drenched in just a few minutes. Plus, I don't think your mum would like it either."

Michelle giggled, "Yeah, you're right. Thanks, Ar."

"No problem," Ari smiled.

She bid her friend goodbye with a wave, and withheld a chuckle as Michelle let loose a shriek as she was suddenly pounded by a sheet of water that blew towards her from the east the minute she stepped out from under the porch. Cheering her on, Ari watched with mild amusement as the brunette ran against the downpour- her umbrella was fairly big, but with the direction the wind was blowing in from, Michelle had been forced to tilt it slightly to keep it from blowing inside out. At the moment, she looked more like a knight protecting herself with a shield.

When Michelle ran past the neighbors' house and disappeared from sight, Ari turned towards her front door. She peered in her shopping bag for a moment, sighing in relief to see that despite the outrageous weather she had just been through, her dress had miraculously remained dry and undamaged.

"What in the world happened to you?" Lisa asked with bewilderment as she leaned out from the kitchen, eyes widening at her daughter's soaked state.

Ari shrugged off her raincoat and placed it on the rack to dry before sitting to pull off her loafers.

"The rain," she answered.

A pained look came to Lisa's face. "Still? I could've sworn they said it was supposed to lighten up today!"

Ari shrugged, "Well, I guess nature decided otherwise. Me and Shell nearly got blown completely on our backs from the wind."

She put her loafers together and held them up. She shrunk back slightly with a grimace as she observed the amount of mud that now caked their soles.

"Wipe it off as best as you can with a paper towel and leave 'em outside," Lisa advised, "I just mopped the floors with morning."

Her eyes fell upon the tote bag that rested at Ari's feet. "Oh, and what's that?"

Ari leaned over to pull the dress out to show her. She held the dress to her figure.

"What do you think?" she asked.

Lisa's mouth dropped open at the sight of the garment, and her eyes lit up. She strolled towards Ari, picking up the dress to get a closer look.

"Oh my, it's absolutely beautiful!" she stated, "Where did you get it?"

"The girls and I went down to the boutique. They said I needed to get something for the contest."

Ari frowned when a thought came to her, "And it only took what felt like hours for me to find something they didn't completely hate. Not that their options were much better."

Lisa chuckled, "I take it creativity was blown a bit out of proportion?"

"You have no idea. At one point, Michelle actually tried to talk me in to this hideous bodysuit that was such a bright orange that it hurt my eyes, and it was covered in rhinestones no less!" Ari exclaimed.

Lisa only smiled at her daughter's disgusted expression. Her eyes softened as she looked back between the dress and her, handing it back to Ari with a gentle look in them. As Ari took it from her, Lisa reached up to put a soft hand on her cheek, brushing a loose strand of her behind her ear.

"You're really going all the way for this performance, aren't you?" she asked, "A nice costume, a beautiful song, a competition that actually has agents looking to sign people in the audience. I'm so happy for you, love.

"Gosh, it's times like this I can't believe where all the time's passed," Lisa continued with a slightly watery tone, "I swear, it was just yesterday, you were sitting on my lap, singing along to your grandmother's record machine. Now here you are, all grown up and about ready to take on your dreams."

She wiped a tear from her eye, suddenly a bit overcome with emotion. Ari gave her a smile, reaching to embrace her.

"Oh, Mum, I'm not going anywhere," she said, "It's just a competition. I might not even win."

"I highly doubt that."

That earned her a giggle from the younger blonde girl. "The girls said the same thing when they first brought it up."

Lisa's smile widened as she wrapped her arms around Ari's waist, bringing her closer to her.

"That's because they know greatness in the making when they see it," she said.

Both women hugged each other tightly for a minute, before they separated with a kind expression towards one another. Ari gathered up her bags and started to head for the stairs, while Lisa turned to go back into the kitchen.

As she walked through the entryway, she called out to Ari over her shoulder, "After supper, put it on and come down for your father and I to see. You know he wants to get a good look at anything to make sure that nothing inappropriate is sticking out!"

Ari giggled, "Yes, ma'am!"


It was starting to get very uncomfortable sitting in the same position in the chair. Ari tapped her foot nervously as she looked in the mirror; her reflection stared back at her with a pained expression as she waited for Margaret to finish doing…whatever she was planning on doing with her hair. Ari looked up at the freckled face girl through the mirror as she turned her head ever so slightly.

"Are you almost done?" she asked, "This feels like it's taking forever."

"Almost, almost! Just a few more minutes," Margaret replied, not even looking up at her as she continued doing God knew what to her hair behind her, Ari unable to see from her position.

Glancing up at the clock, Ari frowned. It was almost a quarter to six. The contest start at eight, but York was a good forty-five minutes away not counting traffic, plus they still needed to get dinner and find parking. Ari had no idea when her part would come, but she intended to be there when it did.

She made a noise of frustration as she crossed her arms, staring at herself through the mirror with an impatient expression. The girls had come over to help her with her hair and makeup, and for whatever reason, when Michelle insisted on doing something with her hair- Ari now knew she should've shot it down the moment the brunette said it 'was a surprise!' when asked what- she agreed to it. Considering how long this process seemed to be though, she was really starting to regret saying yes.

"Don't pout like that, you'll crease your foundation," Margaret scolded. Ari looked up to see her swirling a brush around in a ban of blush, raising it up so she could blow off the excess before she started fanning it into the blonde's cheeks.

"She has a point, though. We need to get moving soon if we're ever gonna even get out of the city within the next few hours," Tracy noted.

"If you want to speed it up, you could always help," Margaret said pointedly.

She only got a shrug out of the brunette.

"I said I'd stand guard for the dress," Tracy replied nonchalantly as she jerked her head to wear the lilac garment hung over the back of the door. It earned her and eyeroll from both Ari and Margaret- they knew plenty of times that "standing guard" for Tracy (which she used for quite literally anything) just meant to watch without having to do any work.

"Okay, it's all coming together nicely!" Michelle suddenly announced, raising her head to give Ari a smile through the mirror, "I just need to apply a few bobby pins to keep everything in place, and we should be good!"

Ari wrinkled her nose, "This better have been worth my trust, Shell."

"It is!" the brunette replied in excitement, "Trust me, you'll thank me when you see it! Margaret, could you move out of the way for a second?"

The redhead did so, though not without a "just don't mess up my progress" mutter.

Michelled grabbed at the corners of the towel that were folded inward, resting near the crown of Ari's head. Ari looked up at her brow with doubt, anxious as to what the results were going to turn out to be; a part of her mind starting praying up to God that this wasn't going to turn out to be some sort of punishment for whatever she had done wrong.

Pulling the towel away, she wore a face of excitement as she shot her hands out to what she had done.

Ari looked in the mirror, turning her head when she failed to notice any changes at first. Michelle had certainly done a beautiful job, her hair not in thick ringlets cascading all down her back, but then Ari caught sight of something…

Her eyes widened.

She grabbed at a lock, pulling it out to the side so she could see it clearly in the mirror. Her mouth dropped open. She stared up at Michelle.

"You dyed my hair?!" she exclaimed, looking back at the mirror, her expression one of disbelief.

Margaret and Tracy gasped in equal shock, though Tracy seemed to find it a bit more amusing, from the way she scoffed and brought a hand up to her mouth to hide the way the corners of her mouth turned upward.

Michelle shrugged, "Well, not all of it. I thought going all the way would be too extreme, but I thought it'd be a good chance to incorporate the color scheme. You know, make more coordination with your dress."

Ari brought a lock in front of her face and stared at it in horror. It was true that Michelle had, thankfully, not done a full on dye job (if such had happened, Ari wasn't sure she would be able to keep from strangling her), instead having gone with her best attempt at an ombre affect, and now about halfway down, her normally platinum locks darkened to a red violet color.

Though there was a part of her impressed with the work, and telling her that the color did go rather nicely with her outfit, it was suffocated by Ari's louder thoughts of the fact that she would've rather preferred no color in her hair at all.

"How could you?!" she questioned, spinning around in her seat and regarding Michelle with a glare.

Her brunette friend looked back at her, blinking owlishly. Michelle's eyebrows raised in surprise; she clearly didn't expect such a reaction. "You don't like it?"

"You dyed my hair!" Ari repeated more firmly, looking back in the mirror in panic, "My mum's gonna kill me when she sees this! And not to mention school! They'll sooner run me to the nurse's office to shave it all off!"

Michelle rebutted, "It's not permanent! I made sure to get the ones that are only temporary when I went to the store! Plus it should all wash out by Monday, you just need to make sure to shampoo a lot to strip the color!"

Ari didn't respond, continuing to look wide-eyed at the mirror as she looked upon the dyed strands in appalment. Tracy crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe. She shrugged.

"I have to admit, she's right," she said, "It does go great with your clothes. And it really suits you, personally."

"Y-Yeah, it really brings out your eyes!" Margaret added, trying to diffuse the noticeable tension.

Ari's shoulders relaxed considerably. She looked at the three of them, still a little doubtful. "You…you think so?"

They all nodded in response. Turning back to the mirror, Ari bit her lip as she stared at her hair more.

Well…they weren't exactly wrong. It was a nice color, and it did match up pretty nice with her dress. And for someone who didn't know a whole lot about hair, he had to admit, Michelle nailed the effect down like a pro. And hey, it did bring out the undertones of her eyes pretty nicely. And red violet was one of her favorite colors….

The more that she looked at it, the less Ari could find it within herself to get mad. Quickly, she came to realize that she did like it after all; she always wanted to do something interesting with her hair, but both the school dress code and her parents' personal restrictions limited her options of anything super spectacular. But Michelle managed to do something with it that was both befitting of her sense of style and not too over-the-top.

And slowly, Ari could feel the corners of her mouth tug upwards, her cheeks warming with a flush of excitement.

"Ooooh, I think I see a smile coming!" Tracy said, "I'm not wrong, am I?"

Ari looked at her, not even bothering to try and hide it.

"Oh, there it is! That lovely little thing! I knew you liked it!"

Michelle beamed, feeling reassured that her friend wasn't displeased with her work. "So…y-you really like it?"

Ari nodded, "I do."

The brunette's eyes widened, and her mouth fell open in a gasp of joy. A high pitched squeal escaped her, and she actually jumped up and down in elation before she lunged at Ari; the latter let out an 'oof' as she was swept up in one of Michelle's known bear hugs again.

"I'm so glad!" Michelle exclaimed, "I admit I was a bit nervous about trying it out, but I thought 'aw, why not?' and I'm so glad I did! It's so you! So-"

"So 'tash?'" Ari asked in amusement.

Michelle nodded eagerly. That got a laugh out of the others as they shared in the satisfaction of Ari's new hair.

The grandfather clock suddenly rang from downstairs; they all stilled as echoes of large chimes rang throughout the house. Tracy looked down at her watch.

"Damn, six already?" she asked, "We better get going then. You know these cabbies aren't going to wait around, especially in this crap weather."

The others nodded in agreement. Pulling off her bathrobe, Ari deposited in on the chair before standing up, walking over to get her dress of the back of the door before making a beeline for her bedroom, the other girls following behind her. They helped her pull on and zip up her dress and step into her high heels, making sure none of her makeup was smeared or that any single locks of hair had fallen out of place, before they all gathered their purses and coats and pulled them on. When the taxi cab pulled up, after waiting for Ari to lock the door, they all made a mad dash for the vehicle, squealing as the pouring rain came down on them with a vengeance.

"Well, well, you ladies certainly look like you're due for a night out on the town," the driver remarked as they shuffled tightly together to fit, looking through his rearview mirror, "You've got some lucky dates waiting?"

"Ha, they wish," Tracy muttered.

Ari gave him a nervous smile as she settled her coat in her lap, trying not to constantly glance at the clock on the dashboard.

"We have an event to go to, but we're kinda crunched for time and we really can't afford to be late for this," she explained, leaning forward, "Is there a chance you know any shortcuts to get us there faster?"

The cabbie shot her a grin through the rearview, "Not to worry, dearie. Ol' Jack will get you there in no time. 'Ell, by the time we arrive, it'll feel like barely any time has passed!"


According to Jack, a 'shortcut' apparently meant speeding down the road at twice the speed limit, dodging cars left and right as he weaved in and out of lanes without so much as putting on his turn signal, barely slowing down enough to avoid running through red lights, only waiting at the stop sign for half a second, and turning the corners so sharply Ari and the girls had to hold onto their seatbelts to keep from bouncing around in their seats. Ari could feel her head swimming at every swerve and brake slam; her stomach rolled and twisted to the point she wasn't sure that she could go the rest of the ride without throwing up. The steady pour of rain that slickened the roads and blurred the lights in the windshield was doing nothing to ease her anxiety.

Finally, after what felt like a grueling four hours, she could feel the small yellow taxi jilt to a halt. Ari leaned forward to look out the window. The flickering neon sign of an old diner stood out against the dark of the night. The cabbie looked all too pleased with himself as he wished them all good luck and hoped they had a good time, and to also make sure to never hesitate to call if they needed a ride back ("We'd have a safer time hitchhiking with a bunch of escaped inmates" Tracy whispered to her as they scrambled out).

The thought of going through it again almost made her lose her appetite completely, if the anxiety of the show hadn't done it already.

Such a feeling now returned as she found herself right at their destination, the chattering of the dozens of people already there sounding like white noise in Ari's ears.

She blinked, realizing she had zoned out. Squeezing her eyes shut at the sudden dryness that had overtaken them, she looked around. The theater was packed with attendees that filled nearly every seat, even the boxes and the uppermost layers were at maximum capacity. It made the vast area look a bit crowded, yet at the same time seemed to emphasize how big it was. Her stomach clenched at the thought of standing in front of the huge crowd once it came her time to perform. All those people, all those eyes on her…

"Oi, you gonna get anything?"

Ari jumped slightly at the voice behind her. Realizing she had spaced out, she turned around to see one girl standing behind her- another one of the contestants- a redhead with a sparkly outfit and a pinched look on her face. She looked in front of her realized she was standing in front of a vending machine.

Blushing, Ari realized she had meant to come here to get something to try and soothe her jumbled nerves; in her anxiety, she completely paused when she was about to do so and completely spaced out.

"U-Um, n-no, sorry," she apologized, stepping out of the way to let the redhead ahead of her.

The girl gave her a look, before she simply shrugged and went about her business. Ari stared at her, feeling a pit in her stomach formed as she thought back to the audience. She stood against the wall, fiddling with the hem of her dress as she looked to the left. A little ways off, she could see an open door. The entrance to the backstage, where eventually she'd be waiting just beyond the red curtain that would expose her to those hundreds of people to perform her song

This was it. No more daydreaming, no more fantasies in her sleep, no more wishing and making up hypothetical situations of what could happen or what she'd probably do.

This was now. Now, she finally had the chance to prove herself. To possibly make her vision a reality.

Or, she could screw up horribly and do nothing but make a big embarrassment of herself in front of hundreds of people, including her friends.

Don't go there. You'll only overwhelm yourself with doubt, she thought, biting her lip.

She could faintly hear the contestant that was currently on through the speakers. He wasn't too bad of a bloke, but he did tend to get off key at times, and Ari cringed whenever he sung a high note that he obviously couldn't hit. It sounded like he was at the end of his set. Which meant the next contestant was up soon.

Ari took a deep breath. Which meant that she could very well be next.

Trying not to let her nerves get the best of her, she turned towards a mirror that was nearby, trying to focus on adjusting her hair and making sure her dress didn't have any wrinkles in it. The staff wouldn't tell any of them the order they were picked to perform- according to them, it would help prevent any possible sabotage from cheaters and "just made them things a lil' more fun that way"- so it was really just a matter of waiting it out and hoping that you weren't caught in the middle of something when your time came.

The clock seemed to tick on forever. The other contestants bustled about, oblivious to or ignoring her presence. Ari shuffled on her feet, increasingly anxious with each slow passing minute. Every tick felt like a roaring peal in her ears.

""Scuse me, lass, what's your number?" someone asked.

She looked to the side; a tall man, looking to be in his mid twenties, regarded her with a curious expression. He held his hand out, his index finger pointing to the tag she wore slightly. Ari looked down, still a bit scatterbrained by her skittishness, grabbing at her dress with two fingers to look down at the paper. Before she could answer, the tall man nodded.

"Aw, number thirty. You'll be up next," he explained.

Ari's head shot up. "W-What?"

"You're next, so make sure you're at the stage within five minutes," he said, "Don't want you missin' when it's time to put the music on, now will we?"

With that, he walked away, not even sparing her another glance.

"W-Wait!" Ari called as she reached out. It was fruitless, though, as the employee had already began making his way over to the other waiting contestants. She let her hand fall, and bit her lip as she looked back down at her tag.

She was next? Like, as soon as this song was finished, she was going to go on and perform her song and get up in front of the crowd, 'next'? The thought made her heart beat rapidly, and for a second, she couldn't be sure if she truly heard him correctly.

A look at the clock finally snapped her out of the daze. She only had three minutes before she was on.

Shit, Ari thought, whirling around to the direction of the stage and picking up the hem of her dress before speed walking as fast as her heels would allow her to, muttering constant apologies and requests as she tried to avoid and maneuver around the other attendees and equipment.

Her shoes made large, obnoxious bangs on the stairs as she ran up the metal steps, further clacking on the wooden floor of the stage. Just as she made it behind the edge of the red curtain, she was stopped by another employee wearing a headset.

"Stay here," she ordered the teen, "Once they announce your name and what you're doing, that's your cue, got it?"

Ari nodded her head rapidly. The employee handed her a microphone, and she took it tightly in her hand so that her knuckles turned white.

The guy who was currently singing sounded like he was winding down on the last few lyrics; Ari winced as he tried to keep his note going, only for his voice to crack. She stared at where she could just barely seem him beyond the edge of the curtain. She could see the edge of the seat rows a little ways past him.

Her heart hummed in her chest.

Finally, the music stopped just as the guy cut himself off at the last lyric. There was a round of applause, and Ari felt her anxiety skyrocket.

Moments later, the man came from behind the curtain. His face was shiny with a sheen of sweat and there were noticeable pit stains under the arms of his long-sleeved shirt. His cheeks were bright red, and his breathing was rather heavy. He regarded Ari with a nod and smiled at her.

"Big crowd out there tonight!" he exclaimed, "Just 'member to give it all you got!"

Ari smiled at his enthusiasm, though internally she felt her stomach clench with a new wave of nervousness. The man walked past her, giving her a clap on the shoulder- she had to resist the urge to shrug off his hand as she felt his moist palm dampen the fabric instantly- and she was left to stare at the stage. She couldn't see the audience, but she could see how the wooden floor lit up white from the fluorescent lights above her. The same lights that would be on her when she came out.

Her eyes widened.

Oh god, she was next.

"Yep, lovely bugger he was, wasn't he? Give him another hand, folks!" the announcer and host commented through his microphone. The audience reciprocated with another wave of clapping, some of them hollering out noises and words of encouragement. Ari swallowed; her mouth felt like sandpaper.

"If you liked him, you'll love the rest!" the host continued, "Next up is fifteen-year-old Aria Hauntington from Manchester, performing her own rendition of the ballad 'Angel in the Morning' by Juice Newton!"

Ari felt her heart leap at the mention of her name.

There was a chorus of shrill, high pitched shrieks from somewhere in the audience, the sounds of young girls screaming her name at the top of their lungs.

"YEAH! ARI!"

"GIVE 'EM HELL!"

Despite her mood, Ari couldn't help but smile. Even from here, she could tell it was the girls, all giddy and ready to see her perform. Even with all the pressure mounting on her shoulders, the thought of them screaming out words of support did truly help her feel better.

Straightening up, Ari looked ahead. Her shoulders hitched up as she inhaled a deep breath, before letting them drop as she let it out through her mouth. She held the microphone tightly to her chest, before proceeding forward. Her feet felt like they had suddenly been tied with lead weights.

The spotlights on the ceiling nearly blinded her as she made her way past the curtain; Ari squinted, raising up a hand to shield them. As she made her form known, the audience cheered again with some applause. She could hear Tracy and the others scream from somewhere far back, Tracy's voice obvious as she screamed out "YOU CAN DO IT, AR!" so loud that it nearly hurt Ari's ears.

Ari turned mechanically as she made it to the middle of the stage. Lowering her hand, she finally took the chance to look out upon the audience.

Thousands of eyes stared back at her. They followed her every movement, focused solely on her and awaiting what she was about to do next. Most looked excited, giving her soft smiles and anticipating what she had in store for them. Others raised their brows in doubt, like they were expecting more and that she had failed to live up to those expectations. And a few just looked bored out of their minds, and they slouched in their seats and whispered to their friends. Ari's eyes scanned the crowd for her friends, trying not to let them linger too long on a total stranger and make her thoughts think back to the fact that if she screwed up, hundreds were now going to see it.

There was a loud whistle from the back. Ari tilted her head up, her eyes straining to make out the attendees amongst the blinding lights of the ceiling.

Her eyes caught onto a waving motion. They trailed to the right, and landed upon a group of familiar teenage girls, all of which were dressed in various shades of purple and redviolet (Ari remembered Michelle talking everyone into it, insisting it would be their "spirit colors" to further cheer her on); they waved their hands wildly at her, big grins painted onto their faces as they called out to her, paying no mind to the other annoyed patrons sitting around them. Ari smiled.

Her eyes caught a flash of gold, and she looked to the left where Margaret had been sitting. There was a couple sitting next to her, seemingly unbothered by the hyperactive teenagers. Instead, they regarded their attention towards Ari, and she noticed how they were, coincidentally, dressed in the same shades as the girls had been.

Ari's eyes widened. Except…she recognized them…they weren't any random couple…

Her mouth dropped open as her father lifted his hand, giving her a thumbs up and a nod. Lisa sat next to him, and her teeth looked even whiter than the lights above her as she twiddled her fingers at her daughter. Ari stared back in shock.

What were they doing here? They had said they had already had plans with friends!

She looked back at the girls for some kind of explanation, but they didn't seem at all surprised that her parents had suddenly decided to join them.

Music started flowing from the speakers, and Ari tore her gaze away from the small group as she snapped back into focus, staring ahead the crowd. She held the microphone with both hands right to her chest, and for a second a wave of fear overtook her. Was the music just beginning, or had it been playing and she had been too distracted to notice? Did that mean she was off-key? What if she suddenly forgot the words?

Relax. Don't think about it. Just let yourself glide along with the melody, her mind told her.

Right.

No need to make herself mess up over nothing

Standing up straighter, Ari stared ahead into the crowd, listening as the beginning notes of the song began to play. She swayed lightly with the music, feeling a familiar sense of calm wash over her. Something that she found always came to her whenever she listened to music.

A beat passed. Ari took a breath, and raised the microphone to her lips.

Don't think about anyone else. Just go with the flow.

Parting her lips, she slowly began to sing.

"There'll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can bind your heart…"

Her voice came out a bit squeaky, and Ari winced at the sound of it. Dammit.

Her mind quickly countered, Don't think about it, just keep on singing. If you ponder over it, it'll just become more noticeable.

Thinking of the only distraction, she began to sway back and forth. The notes came gradual to her, but Ari couldn't help but feel like she must've looked a bit awkward to everyone else; she knew her posture probably looked stiff as all hell, and she forced herself to move the microphone away from being so close to her mouth lest it look like she was trying to eat it.

She made forced her mind to clear and just focus on the rhythm. On the instruments and the beat and the lyrics and forget everything else. This time was her time. She didn't care about anyone else in the moment, just herself.

Her swaying became more gradual. She felt something come over her, and slowly, the swaying began to pick up into stepping back and forth, and then into small little dance moves.

As she sang along with the instrumentals, she felt something come over her, and she reached out to the audience, gesturing to them as the vocals poured from her mouth.

Something bloomed in her chest, and Ari couldn't help but smile. A renewed sense of confidence came over her, and as the chorus came to her, she moved away from her spot, walking to the edge of the stage, making eye contact with audience members as she sang along.

It was a euphoric feeling, something that made her heart feel like it was almost humming- though this time, in a good way- that made her veins feel like they had electricity flowing through them and her mind fuzzy with adrenaline.

Joy.

That was what she was feeling, was joy.

Joy because music was always a way she could make herself feel better. It was her calling card, her mother used to always tell her.

Joy because…because this was it.

This was her moment. Her time to finally chase her dreams in reality. To finally show what she had.

And Ari felt joy. Oh, so much joy.

Pretty soon, Ari found herself prancing back and forth on the stage. It was her own personal dancefloor as she twirled and spun with the music, her voice loud and clear as she reached the high notes, her tone in perfect pitch with the strumming of guitars and ringing of piano keys. All eyes were focused on her, but she barely paid them any mind. It felt almost natural to have them here, to be watching her every move as she gave her performance everything she had.

And what a delightful feeling it was. It was one that Ari wouldn't mind feeling again.

The final chorus came. Ari put her all into it, raising a hand up before yanking it back down in a fist as she hit the last word, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to keep the long note going without her voice giving out.

Finally, she cut herself off, ripping the microphone away as she took the chance to finally take a breath. She pumped her hand holding the mic into the air and kept the gesture.

Applause roared out over the music around her. Even with the deafening bass that made the floor vibrate under her, she could hear people shouting and whistling in elation at her performance. Their clapping sounded like thunder throughout the theater, and she could see people shooting up out of their seats to get better range of their praise.

The music played its last few notes, before it died down with the brief applause, leaving her with silence.

A second passed. Two, then three. Ari looked out, gauging everyone's reactions. A seed of nervousness bloomed within her, and she swallowed hard, afraid that the quiet meant that she hadn't been performing as well as she thought.

Who was I kidding? Of course I wasn't. I was fooling myself I thought that-

Everyone shot out of their seats and raised their hands to clap. Suddenly, the whole theater exploded into an ensemble of applause, shouting and screaming out in a standing ovation. Some people even threw roses at her feet. Ari's eyes widened in surprise, her mouth dropping open as she looked upon the crowd. Whenever she caught someone's eye, they nodded at her and gave her big smiles, all of them clapping as hard as they could.

She looked down at her feet at the flowers before them, a blush making its way onto her pale face.

They…they were clapping. For her. For her performance. They…they actually liked her performance!

Something much more pleasant replaced the nervousness in her gut, and Ari swore her heart skipped a beat as she smiled back up at them. She looked around, eyes trailing every row and seeing people focusing all their attention solely on her. Not a person was sitting as they continued to whistle at her and cheer. Her eyes swam with tears, though they were far from sad ones, as she basked in the delight of the audience. She grabbed the hem of her skirt and did a curtsy, which seemed to spur them on even further.

"Wow, talk about a voice there!" the host exclaimed as he walked up to her, speaking into his own mic, "I have a feeling I know where this competition is headed! Give her another round folks, Miss Ari!"

He gestured to her, and the applause became even louder. Ari felt her blush deepened as she gave them a wave, before finally turning away and walking offstage.

"Now our next contestant is a simple bloke from a small town near Liverpool…" she heard the host comment as she went behind the curtain, but found she couldn't quite pay attention as she made her way down the steps.

A pleasant, airy feeling had overtaken her- like she were walking on clouds- and she dimly realized she was swaying from side to side as she walked. It also registered that the big grin she was wearing on her face probably made her look really stupid, but she couldn't find it within herself to care. Not even some of the other contestants giving her weird looks deterred her.

"There's our superstar!"

She turned at the voice; her eyes widened as she saw the girls gathered up in a group behind her. They all wore big grins of delight, and looked upon Ari with a proud expression. All of them squealed as they ran to each other, wrapping each other up in a big group hug with Ari at the center. She squeaked as they jumped up and down in excitement, yanking her like she was a rag doll.

"You did so good!" Margaret exclaimed.

"From the minute you came on, we knew you had this competition in the bag!" Tracy added in.

Michelle hugged her tighter, "You were so great! Like, everyone's attention was right on you! It was like, not even a competition from that point on! It's just showcasing how much better you are!"

Ari giggled at their compliments. She blushed further, and tried to return their embraces, though she found it was some difficulty considering all three of them had her arms pinned.

There was suddenly weight on her back, and she craned her neck over her shoulder, shocked to see her father wrapping her up in a tight hug from behind.

"There any room left for one old chap?" he asked, giving her a big smile.

Ari gasped, "Dad!"

Something caught her eye over his shoulder, and she was further surprised to see her mother standing behind him, regarding her with a warm smile as she clasped her hands to her chest.

"Mum!"

Ari wriggled out of the strong grip her friends had on her, and ran into David's waiting arms. He held her tightly to his chest, looking down upon his daughter like she were the most beautiful thing in the entire universe.

"What're you two doing here?" Ari asked, pulling away slightly, "I thought you said you were going to go down to the pub with Cheryl and Oysen for some drinks?"

David smirked, "What? And miss my daughter singing her soul out in the chance to actually become a superstar? Why, I'd be a madman to do such a thing!"

"We wanted to surprise you," Lisa explained, "Maybe play a little trick to get your spirits up so you wouldn't get overwhelmed with the atmosphere of all of this."

Ari smiled, "Well, it certainly worked.

"How did I do?" she asked as she looked between everyone.

Tracy beamed, "Only that you completely stole everyone's breath and made it clear that that record deal was made for you? You absolutely killed it!"

"Yeah!" Michelle said, "It was so totally tash! Like, the greatest thing ever!"

Lisa furrowed her brows. "'Tash?'"

"I'll explain later," Ari said in amusement.

Migrating over to the side to let others through, they all sat and chatted, occasionally waiting and listening as the next few acts went onstage and judging their performances. Ari bopped her head to some of them- they were quite good, and she'd be lying if it didn't feel like she definitely had some competition- while she discussed the ones her and the girls felt like had fallen short (she tried not to giggle when Michelle imitated one girl who she said sounded like "a dying goat with strep throat caught in a trash compactor). Lisa and David got them all snacks and drinks from the vending machines, and as time went on, Ari could feel her anxiousness return the longer the contest seemed to go on.

Suddenly, a voice sounded from over the intercom, "All contestants to the stage in five. All contestants to the stage, please."

Ari froze.

If they were calling all the contestants, that meant…

Tracy looked at her with a big smile on her face and nudged her.

"Well, you heard him, get up on there!" she ordered, yanking the blonde to her feet as everyone stood up, "You don't want to miss out on your trophy now, do you?"

She gave her a slight push, and Ari stumbled towards where the other contestants were walking, all of them getting into single file. She made it to the doorway and looked back, an unsure expression on her face.

Her parents and friends all beamed back at her; Margaret and Michelle gave her two thumbs up, while Tracy brushed her fingers out in a "shoo, shoo" motion. David held Lisa to him with a hand on her arm as she rested her head on his shoulder, and they both regarded her with looks of pride.

Shooting them all a small half-smile, Ari took another deep breath as she turned back around and made her way to the stage.

The massive audience staring at her and the other contestants felt just as threatening as it did when she went to perform. Ari stood nearly shoulder to shoulder with the people beside her, and she hunched her them slightly to give herself a little bit of space. Her hands fiddled with some of the lace in the hem of her dress, not knowing what else to do with them and feeling like letting them just hang would make her look awkward. She looked down at her shoes just to avoid having to look ahead and making eye contact with anyone in the crowd.

"Okay, folks, you've heard them all, twenty-five lovely and vastly talented up and coming starlettes we've got here! Give 'em all another round of applause!" the host cheered, a roar of applause coming up as a response.

"However," the host added, "Even though each of them have their own set of skills, only one of them will be lucky enough to take home the grand prize! So who will it be?!"

Ari felt her heart speed up again. She swallowed as he gestured to each of them; one girl dressed in a punk outfit bounced on her feet in giddiness as the host approached her, looking like he was going to gesture to her. She bit her lip in excitement, only for it to become a deep frown when he quickly turned away and moved on to the next person. The host moved to a guy in a suit a few feet down; the man also looked hopeful that he was who was being referred to, though his hopes were let down as well when the host continued moving from person to person.

Ari shuffled on her feet, feeling more antsy at every passing moment. Without any performance from her this time, the dozens of gazes of the audience felt just as intimidating as they did when she first walked out onstage; Ari felt like every single movement she made was being heavily monitored. Even the slightest shift of weight felt like it was being amplified for every single person to see.

"Now, the time has come," the host said, "The judges have spoken, and a decision has been made."

They all looked to him as the lights dimmed, so that only a single spotlight was focused on him. He held up a white envelope to show them.

"Who will it be?" the host questioned, "Who will walk away with our grand prize and the ego of a lifetime?"

He adjusted the mic in his hands as he brought the envelope closer to him, undoing its seal and pulling out a sheet of paper.

Ari felt the other contestants next to her grab both of her hands in anticipation. She held them back, squeezing tighter.

Not a person made a sound. Everyone stared at the host, waiting with bated breath.

"And the winner is…" The host stated as he held the page out in front of him, his eyes reading along for the name.

His head shot up.

"Ari Hauntington!"

Everyone jumped out of their seats, cheering and clapping.

Ari gasped. Her eyes widened; the other contestants got out of the straight line they had been in to all turn to her, each of them smiling as they clapped and gave her their congratulations. She looked at them, momentarily stunned that she heard the right thing.

Off in the distance, she could hear Tracy and the girls screaming in excitement, her parents joining along with shouts of encouragement.

She looked ahead, where the host had been pointing to her. He gave her a wide smile, gesturing for her to come up next to him.

Ari took a few slow steps forward, taking his hand as she looked around. She blinked as a few bright lights flashed in her face- photographers and journalists taking pictures of her. The host raised her hand in his in a victory stance, and the crowd screamed louder. He turned around and hugged her, and in her surprise she almost forgot to hug him back.

As he pulled away, a lady dressed in gold came up and handed her a large bouquet. Ari took it wordlessly, and looked back upon the stage. She could barely see the audience now, the large spotlights from up and above and the back shadowing them in their intense luminescence.

The host put a hand on her shoulder, and she turned to him.

"It is my great honor, Ari, to announce that you are our winner! Congratulations! Is there anything you'd like to say to the wonderful people in the audience?" he said.

He shoved the microphone in her face. Ari looked down at it, still feeling a little blank minded.

"U-Uh, t-thank you," she said into it, flustered.

He pulled it back, "You heard her folks! Give her another hand, will ya?!"

The cheers became louder. Ari blushed as she held the bouquet tighter to her. She lowered her head, her chin nearly touching her collarbone as she shyly withstood the acclamation from both the crowd and the other people onstage.

She slowly raised her eyes to look at them again. Something heavy settled in her throat, and she blinked rapidly as she suddenly felt tears come to her eyes again. Her smile widened, and she raised her head, the bask of all the attention melting away her bashfulness. Adjusting the bouquet into the crook of her arm, Ari lifted her hand and waved again, and before she knew it, she was overcome with emotion. Tears poured down her cheeks as she turned to wave at all of the audience, but she didn't care to wipe it away.

She knew the night was probably going to be one full of surprises, but she had never thought it would get far, far better than she ever imagined it.

And if it kept in this direction, Ari all but welcomed it.


"Oh, Ari, I'm so happy for you," Lisa said proudly as she looked through her visor mirror, "We always told you you had the talent, and I'm so glad that others got to see what we knew all along."

"Yes, quite," David said, putting the keys in the ignition, "I'm also glad that Margaret's parents conveniently happened to not shot up until everything was almost done. If I remember correctly, you said something different."

Ari rolled her eyes, "Dad, I said they might have considered stopping by. I never said they were definitely."

"I know, but you know how these streets can get at night. What were you to do if your mother and I weren't there, with four teenage girls wandering them alone?"

"David, leave her alone," Lisa scolded, "It's been a good night, there's no need to soil it just because you want to be bitter."

"I'm not bitter. Ari knows I'm just trying to give her a hard time," David replied, looking in the rearview, "Don't you?"

Ari smiled and nodded. "Yes, Daddy."

They all finished their seatbelts on, and David turned the engine on before looking back to maneuver the car out of the parking space they had been taking up. The rain came down in hard pellets upon the rooftop, hitting the windows so that it sounded almost like they were going to break, and gave everything in the view of the windshield a slight blur, even with the wipers on.

Ari looked out her window. The parking lot was quite empty compared to how packed it had been when she and the girls had arrived; David had told her, when they were making their way to the car, that it had taken them a good forty-five minutes to finally find a slot available. While cars eased in a line to the entrance to the road and honked at each other, she could see some attendants still gathered around the outside of the theater, taking shelter from the rain under the awnings and talking. The ones who weren't raced to their cars, some of them holding up papers and backpacks in an attempt to keep dry from the relentless downpour. She noticed two men in suits talking to each other.

Ari felt a wave of disappointment go through her, and she pouted, resting her head against the window.

She knew she really didn't have a right to get upset about it. After all, she had won the competition, and everyone got to see her, so it wasn't like she needed a boost in self-confidence. Why would she be upset when she had given her best, and gotten the best in return, so what was even the point of letting the little things still get to her? If it were anyone else, Ari would think they had the ego the size of a mountain.

But even with her achievement tonight, it still did get her a little under the weather when no one actually came up to talk to her- despite the girls' reassurance- who looked to be interested in at least working with her that weren't people just giving her words of congratulations. After all the time she spent preparing and practicing and stressing over even the tiniest details like what jewelry she should wear, she couldn't help but feel like she had gotten so close and everything was still out of reach.

She looked up at the sign of the theater and frowned. Stop it, she scolded herself, You did good and you got almost a hundred pounds to yourself now. You have to take what you can get, or else you'll never be satisfied. And even if you didn't get quite where you wanted to be this time, you said you won't get it next time?

So she didn't get a four year contract as the cherry on top, she still won, didn't she? Ari smiled to herself as she looked over at the seat beside her, lovingly petting the slightly wilted bouquet and the envelope that held her check inside.

Yeah, her mind was right. She had won, and right now that was all that mattered.

Ari sighed in contentment, and felt a smile of triumph mark her face as she leaned back against the window and closed her eyes. The radio was turned on low, some kind of rock ballad flowing through the speakers, and its soft tunes mixed in with the patter of the rain to create a sensual, calm atmosphere. Her breathing evened out as Ari felt herself doze off.

She was quickly awakened, however, at the feel of being shifted a bit roughly. Cracking open her eyes slightly, Ari began to raise her head to ask what had happened.

The car suddenly jerked to the left, and Ari felt herself get shoved forward, before inertia yanked her against the confines of her seatbelt and made her head slam sharply against the window. She cried out, doubling over and holding her head in her hands.

"David!" she heard her mother reprimand.

"Sorry, sorry!" her father reassured, "The pavement just got slick there for a second."

Lisa gave him a glare before she turned around in her seat.

"Are you okay, love?" she asked.

Ari whimpered as she sat back up, keeping her hand pressed to the spot that had smacked against the glass. She rubbed the spot tenderly as she felt a headache start to come on.

"Y-Yeah," she said in a pained voice.

Lisa gave David a grim look. "Dear, maybe you should slow down."

"I've been doing that ever since we got on the highway," David replied, looking at Ari through the rearview, "Any slower and the ones behind us will start honking. No worries, it was just a slick patch- OH FUCK!"

As his gaze went back to looking ahead, he suddenly shot back in his chair and slammed on the brakes. Ari and Lisa both screamed as they were jerked about in their seats, the tires making an equally high screeching sound as they burned against the asphalt.

Ari looked ahead in worry, wondering what could've caused her father to have such a reaction.

Her breath hitched when she saw a pair of what could only be headlights coming right towards them at a speed that was way too fast for either car to be able to move out of the way without hitting one another.

David slammed his palm flat against the middle of the wheel, and the horn let out with an ear-grating screech. Lisa grabbed at her door handle and arm rest, pressing herself tightly to her seat. Ari let out a cry and squeezed her eyes shut. She curled in on herself as she braced for the impact.

The car in the opposite direction blared its horn as well, and the bright gleam of its headlights washed over the whole interior of the family car before ripping away to the left as the car swerved. David attempted to swerve as well, but neither car was fast enough to completely get out of the way, and their taillights shattered as they smashed against one another.

Ari screamed at the impact, and it grew louder when she felt the car swerve and spin on impact.

It did so once. Twice. Three times.

She kept her head down, her mind shooting out a bunch of scenarios at once- the car flipping, them getting run off the road and crashing into a tree- that made her feel sick.

But then…there was stillness.

The feeling of flying in her chest stopped. Ari kept her head low and whimpered, still waiting for something else to happen.

But no such thing ever came.

Confusion overcame her. Slowly, Ari lifted her head, looking between her fingers. She looked back and forth in the car, inspecting it for any signs of damage.

Nothing. Everything was still the way it was in one piece, her parents were still in their seats- albeit the both of them looked like they had just had the fright of their lives- no sign of the interior being bent or broken or twisted. The only sound came from the drumming of the rain against the car outside. Otherwise, it seemed all good.

Ari raised her head, looking out the window. They were still on the road (thank God), though they were now perpendicular to the lane, the front end slightly sticking into the opposite lane. She looked back to see just the edge of where the taillight had been hit. The top of the red glass was broken and jagged. No doubt if they looked a little bit farther down the road with a flashlight they would probably see the shards of the coverings littering the asphalt.

Ari took a shaky breath. Her heart pounded near out of her chest, and her stomach quivered every time she inhaled. She looked up at her mom; Lisa stared back at her, wide-eyed. They both looked to David. He was nearly bone white, and his mouth hung open limply.

"Are…are you girls all right?" he asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Lisa swallowed hard, and she nodded as she took a deep breath. She blinked rapidly like she was about to cry.

"I'm…I'm o-okay," she commented. It came out thick, like her throat had closed up and she struggled to get the words out.

David looked at his daughter. "Ari?"

The blonde blinked. She took another look around the car, and glanced down at her body for any sign of something being out of place. Finally, she looked back at her father and nodded lightly.

"Y-Yes, Dad."

David nodded in response, collapsing in his seat as he took a deep breath.

"W-We're…we're okay," he told them, "No major damage, no broken bones. We're good, we're fine. Just a bit mighty scare, that's all. But we're fine."

He looked back in the rearview with a frown. "Bloody wanker was going down the wrong side of the road. He's lucky he didn't full on hit each other."

"What're we going to do about the taillight?" Lisa asked, still sounding a bit shaken up from the experience.

"Better it's a broken taillight than broken us."

He lowered his visor and looked in the mirror, before taking a deep breath. Ari watched as he straightened up and placed his hands back on the steering wheel. Gripping it, he began to turn the car.

"Let's just get home so we can-"

SCREEEEEEECH!

Their heads shot up at the noise behind them. The whole family turned to look out the back window.

They barely had time to comprehend the bright headlights that filled their vision from the truck- its tires screaming against the wet asphalt in an attempt to slow down- before it slammed right into the side of the car; the window and door smashed and bent together like they were made of puddy.

Ari screamed as the momentum shoved her forward, though her seatbelt made her snap back into her seat. She felt a twist of pain in the back of her neck from the whiplash.

Not that she even comprehended her own pain over the chaos- the sounds of her father telling them all to hang on, her mother screeching like a harpy, the sound of glass shattering and metal crunching and straining against the force all around her. She screamed again in fear as she felt herself get jerked back and forth in her seat, her seatbelt being the only thing that kept her from completely flying around in the car.

Her head smacked against the window. Ari cried out in pain as white light bloomed from behind her eyelids. A tidal wave of pain spread throughout her skull, like a woodpecker was hammering into her brain. No doubt a concussion.

The scar skidded several feet; it spun again, and over the sound of the tires Ari could hear her parents continuing to shout, though she couldn't make out the words. It felt like she were on the teacup ride at Alton Towers- spinning endlessly in her seat, the world rotating all around her at a high speed, leaving her with no way of knowing if it was ever going to stop. Her things fell off the seat and scattered onto the floor. She faintly heard the sound of the soda bottle she had in her backpack shatter upon impact.

Suddenly, the car jerked on its right, the rims groaning with the extra weight, before its left side suddenly flew up.

The whole side raised up, exposing the exterior mechanisms underneath and making the car go vertical. It made a complete one-eighty angle, and the right side suddenly lifted off the ground.

Ari felt a sickening fluttery feeling- like she were flying- go through her at the feel of the car going completely off the ground.

Time seemed to freeze in that instant. For a moment, it was like she was floating, the car just hovering off the ground, everything that was on the floor stuck in the air. Her parents' eyes were widened at the feeling, and they looked like they were in a photograph with the way they seemed frozen in their panic.

Then, the car came back down.

Its roof slammed against the ground as it rolled, denting it and smashing the remaining windows.

It came up again. the right side scraped against the ground, before it came back down again with a hard smash right side up.

It rolled again.

And again.

And again, doing a aileron roll along the pavement. Pieces of metal and rubber were torn from it, littering the ground in its wake.

Ari screamed the whole time. She threw her arms up in front of her face as thing went flying around on the inside of the car- her roses scraped at her skin with their thorns, shards of glass nicking at her and other miscellaneous objects pelting her in the stomach. She screamed for her mother and father, though they probably couldn't even hear her over their own screams.

The car hit the ground upside down again.

Through blurry, tear-filled eyes, Ari dared herself to look ahead.

It was hard to see, everything outside dark and wet and spinning.

There was a flash of grass and trees.

Then, there was the feeling of falling.

The family screamed louder as the car tumbled down the down the hill. The car rolled even faster. Rocks flew around the inside of the car as it brought them along with it, various flora getting flattened or ripped up from the ground. Everything went so fast Ari could barely concentrate.

She heard something hard smack together up front.

"David!" her mother screamed.

Ari looked up to see her father slumped forward. His head went back and forth like a bobblehead as he flailed, unconscious from the blow to his head from hitting it against the steering wheel. Ari could see blood running all down his front and the sides of his head. She felt like puking.

The front of the car took a dip, and Ari felt herself shoot forward.

Her head dipped forward and struck the back of her mother's seat. The pain already present in her head from hitting the window now intensified, and a new pain in her nose blossomed as she heard a snapping sound echo in her ears. Ari wailed and brought a hand to her mouth. She could feel blood already dripping down her nose and lip.

The car flipped again, nosediving onto the edge of the hill before it fell off. It tumbled and twisted itself in every direction; inside, the family flailed against their seatbelts, as if they were nothing more than rag dolls.

It fell onto the right side. Ari was flung against the door; her elbow banged painfully against the handle, sending a jolt of pain all the way down her to her fingertips. She hissed at the sensation.

There was a crunching nose to her right, before her arm was suddenly engulfed in a fireball of agony. Ari cried out and looked to the side.

The impact had made the door bend inward like a piece of paper. Doing so had smashed her arm between the gap, shattering the bone and slicing her skin.

Ari screamed, but had no time to attempt getting it out before the car hit the side of the hill, this time being the left side. She hit her head against the window again as it rolled, sending agony through her skull and arm as the metal clamped down tighter. Her ear popped, and something wet began to run down her lobe as she dimly realized she couldn't hear anything out of it afterward.

She couldn't focus. There was some sort of ringing noise in her head, a searing pain keeping her from thinking straight and focusing.

Her tears splashed down onto her collarbone and dress as Ari cried out for her parents. She couldn't hear them respond, the pain scrambling her thoughts and putting itself at the forefront of her mind. She felt blood soak her arm. Something around her middle squeezed painfully, and there was suddenly the feeling of fire in her belly.

The car hit the bottom of the forest.

It bounced on its back end, completely breaking the other taillight and crumbling the trunk, before sailing backwards and coming to a complete stop upside down.

It was bent up and dented on all sides. One of its wheels spun randomly, while the rim across from it lay bare, the rubber having been shredded. Glass and metal littered the forest floor. The headlights, cracked and dimming, flickered on and off, sending a beam into the trees. It highlighted the rain as it poured down, the drops looking like little sparkles as they caught in the light. The ground was muddy and full of rippling puddles.

On the inside, the crumpled up roof slowly gathered water at its center as the overflowing rain ran in.

Ari and her parents hung upside down, restrained to their seats like roasted ducks in a deli shop window. Her right arm was still caught in the ruined door, though it was a much more gruesome sight, with the her elbow now twisted at an impossible angle. Her left hung limply over her head, her knuckles barely brushing the roof. Blood poured from a deep cut in her temple, dripping off and diluting as it mixed in with the rainwater. Her dress was ripped near her leg, exposing a fresh gash that dripped and stained the lilac fabric.

Groaning, Ari struggled to open her eyes. Her lids fluttered, and they felt supremely heavy. Her right one she could barely even open, the skin around it swollen and already bruising.

She slowly looked around the car, trying to make sense of what she was currently seeing. Her vision came out blurry and out of focus. She inhaled, only to cough as the feeling and heavy scent of blood pooling in her nostrils and a clot in her throat suffocated her.

Her chest rattled in pain with every little cough. It sent waves of pain rolling across her body and made goosebumps break out all over her skin.

Ari looked at her parents. They weren't moving.

She groaned. Everything hurt all over and her head was spinning and she couldn't focus.

There was a burning feeling in her chest. Something that made her vision fuzz out even more. Ari squeezed her eyes shut, trying to will it away.

She was in so much pain. She was cold and scared and hurting and confused and God, did her stomach hurt. It felt like someone was jamming a hot poker into it.

Ari tried opening her eyes again, but found that the last little bit of strength she had fly away as her vision faded out, a veil of blackness creeping into the corners of her sight. Outside, the rain continued to beat down upon the car and the ground, hard and cold.

As she lost consciousness, she thought she could just barely hear the sounds of sirens in the distance.


She felt stiff. A heaviness had overtaken her, some sort of fictitious weight placed over her entire body to keep her grounded, rooting her to the stop.

There was the strange sound of beeping in the distance. A steady rhythm, like a leaky faucet that dripped into the drain of an echo-y bathroom. As she came to, she also picked up on a mixture of various noises as well: the slight rattle of wheels rolling along on the floor, the squeak of work shoes as people went to and fro, the chatter of conversation, the opening and slamming of drawers.

Ari opened her eyes.

A white ceiling towered over her, the fluorescent lights installed in it blaring down on her almost menacingly, as if trying to expose something she was hiding. Ari stared at them for a few moments, her eyebrows slowly knitting in confusion. She blinked again like it would give her a different image, but alas, the white ceiling remained; it was almost painful to look at, the color illuminated by the lights.

She turned her head. A metal table was lined up beside her, with some kind of adjustable light- one that reminded her of the kind the dentist used to inspect her teeth- hovering above it. A few feet away stood the wall. It was bare, save for a single telephone installed in it and three windows that showed some sort of metal contraption on the other side.

Ari sat up. She looked down to see a white sheet strewn across her lap. She glanced around the room for any sign that indicated how she ended up in…whatever this place was.

Several other metal tables were lined up across from her, pressed against what looked to be a row of deep metal sinks, like the ones used in the back of a restaurant, and a small cart stacked with white tubs. There was the beginning of a dark hallway to the left. Ari leaned to the side, craning her neck. She turned her head so that her ear was facing the hallway. She thought she could hear just the barest sound of chatter from some ways away.

"H-Hello?" she called out, her voice echoing in the large room.

No answer.

She pulled the sheet off and swung her legs over the side. Slowly, she made her way to the front of the hallway. It was dark, shadowing what looked to be a small desk area. The sound of conversation was more apparent now, seemingly coming from just beyond the door. Ari approached it with some hesitance, slowly raising her hand to grab onto the handle.

It suddenly opened on its own, revealing two adults dressed in scrubs. The one in front, a thirty-something year old man with a scraggly beard who carried a stack of folders under his arms, kept his gaze over his shoulder as he continued talking with his colleague, not even turning to avoid running into Ari as he held the door open.

"-he says that the police will need to do an investigation to confirm who, if anyone, was at fault, and to make sure there was no factors like intoxication involved, hence why they're still here," he said as he finally turned to flick on the lights.

The other person in scrubs, another man who looked a few years younger and had long blonde hair, frowned.

"That seems kinda cruel," he commented, "I mean, their families are already gonna be dealing with funeral arrangements and insurance claims and all that crap, surely the last thing they need is the stress of having to wait to even get their corpses into their claim?"

The bearded man shrugged, "That's business for you. Nobody ever said it was easy."

Ari looked at the two of them, baffled. They both passed by her without even so much as a second glance, completely oblivious to her presence. From their outfits, she guessed they were probably doctors or nurses, some kind of medical worker in the least. Which meant that this had to be a hospital, didn't it?

But how did she end up here? She tried remembering, but for the moment everything was kind of a blur.

"Um, excuse me," she called to them, "Could I ask you a question?"

The two men didn't even turn to scold her. They kept on walking by, continuing on with their discussion. The bearded man set the folders under his arm down on one of the tables, before he headed over to the sink to wash his hands.

He looked over at the blonde, "You look like you're not satisfied with that answer."

"I don't know, just seems a bit unnecessary," the blonde answered, "Feel sorry for whoever these poor bastards are. I can only imagine the breakdown me mum would have if they told her I had died and made her come all the way to a place like this to look at me body just to make sure that it was really me."

"Well, that's why we're doing this in the first place. Because nobody else can handle it."

Ari frowned at their lack of acknowledgment. She felt a slight twinge of feeling disrespected, but pushed it down.

"Excuse me, where am I? How did I end up here?" she asked again, only to be greeted with the men's backs as they made their way to the table with the sheet over it.

She grit her teeth in frustration, though a part of her started to become a bit worrisome over just how ignorable they were treating her. Surely two men in this hospital (or, at least that's where she thought this was) would be at instant attention when some random teenager was walking around what looked to be a private area? So the fact that it didn't even seem like they heard her…

Ari strode over to them, her arms swinging angrily. The men continued to pay her no mind, continuing to dress up as they put on gloves and surgical masks. The bearded man also put a cap over his head before turning to the white sheet, bending over it.

"Okay, time to get this show on the road," he commented.

Ari raised her arm, intent on grabbing his shoulder.

"Sir, would you please-"

Her arm passed right through him. Like she were sticking it through a waterfall.

Ari pulled her arm back as if it had burnt her.

The bearded man raised his head, like this had finally gotten his attention.

He looked over his shoulder. Ari stared back at him, her eyes wide with fright.

"You okay?" the blonde man asked as he died up his hair.

The bearded man looked around the room- his eyes passed over Ari as if she weren't even there- before he shrugged and turned back to the sheet.

"Just got the chills all of a sudden," he stated, "I think the thermostat's broken again."

Ari gaped at him. A tight feeling started stirring in her gut. Her lungs squeezed painfully as she found herself out of breath. She looked at her hand. It was paler than normal- an impossible milk white. Her hand shook. Ari took a shaky breath.

"So," the blonde guy said, picking up a clipboard and looking it over, "Who're we dealing with today?"

"The daughter," the bearded man said, "The parents were pretty obvious- blunt force trauma, a broken neck. She looks like she's got much more of an array of injuries, though, so we gotta figure out what did her in in the crash exactly."

Ari went cold at that statement. Something trickled down her spine, a gut feeling that told her she knew what she had to do with this.

The bearded man reached over and grabbed the sheet. He pulled it back, folding it over the bottom half. He let loose a sad sigh.

"She's a beauty," the blonde responded.

"Yeah. Or at least, she was," the bearded man replied grimly, "Only fifteen, can you believe that?"

Ari's feet felt like lead, but she forced herself to walk over to the table.

To see what was under the sheet.

She came up next to the bearded man, staring down at the sight that greeted her.

Her mouth dropped open. Her breath came out shakily, growing more and more rapid the longer she stared down. Her shoulders rose and fell with every inhale, her abdomen shaking. She made a distressed noise in the back of her throat, barely resisting the urge to scream.

Lying face up on the table, looking pale and bloody and still and dead, was her.

Her body.

Ari's eyes slowly panned over her face, lingering over the multitude of injuries that marred her face. Her bottom was split right down the middle, leading off to a vertical gash in her chin. Her temple had a large gash in it. Her right eye was swollen shut, the skin around it reddened and puffy and nearly bulging. She was nude under the sheet, and just out from under it, Ari could see a massive bruise running diagonally down her collarbone where her seatbelt had sat. There was dried blood ringing around her nostrils and philtrum. There was a myriad of bruises at the corner of her lip, right near her earlobe, and cheek.

A fire erupted in her chest.

She heard the blonde man tsk. "Such a shame. To be so young and go so early."

"Yeah," the bearded man agreed, "All we can hope is that she went quickly like her folks, didn't go slow and painful, ya know?"

Ari felt sick.

She slowly reached up, her fingers hovering above her body. Hesitance gripped her like a vice.

Something itched at the back of her mind.

"I can't imagine what the roads must look like. Someone's going to killed in these conditions," her mother's voice echoed in the back of her head.

Ari gasped as everything clicked into place.

She cried out as the night's events flashed in her mind rapidly, like someone clicking through a stock of photos. She gripped the sides of her head, her nails digging into her hair as phantom pain covered her like a blanket. She screamed at the memories- the car swerving to avoid the driver going the wrong way, the flash of taillights from someone behind her, the sound of metal twisting and glass crunching, the smell of blood and wet earth everywhere, pain rattling her entire being, piercing her soul and lighting every nerve on fire- and fell to her knees as her legs gave out.

"STOP!" she yelled, tears pouring down her cheeks, "PLEASE, STOP! MAKE IT STOP-!"

"Aria Hauntington."

Ari fell silent. Her eyes shot open as a chill overcame her. She sensed a presence behind her. Fear gripped her heart in an icy wrap.

With great hesitance, she looked behind her.

There was some sort of portal forming behind her, a warp in the air that rippled outward. Ari stared at it, frozen to the spot.

She let loose a squeak as a black shape formed coming out of it, a cloaked figure that carried a large weapon behind it.

"Noooo," Ari groaned, quickly realizing who this being was, "Please, not yet."

"You have passed on from the mortal plane to the afterlife," the reaper stated, sticking out a long bony hand and curling its finger at her, "Your ties to the realm of the living have been severed, and you must now journey on to the spirit world, where you belong."

Ari flipped over, scooting back on her rear to put distance between her and the ghastly figure.

"N-N-No, please n-not now, not yet," she begged, "P-Please, I-I-I'm only fifteen!"

Surely that was way too young, wasn't it? She was barely grasping the cusp of the teenage years. There was still so much she had going for her in life, so much she had to do before it was her turn to kick the bucket. What about her friends? What about the competition? She…she got a chance to show her talent, to finally get the chance to experience what it was like performing in front of an audience for once, to get a taste of her dream, and now this…this thing was saying that she had to give it all up? That now she had to turn and walk away from it all?

"No matter if you are fifteen or fifty, your time has come," the reaper continued, unaffected by the young girl's pleading, "You do not belong among that of the flesh. Your time in life has been served, and now you must follow your fate."

"I…I won't do it," Ari insisted, "You can't make me."

The reaper tilted its head slightly at her, as if it were surprised by her refusal. Ari couldn't see it's face, but she felt a sudden chill go through her, as if it had just shot her the iciest glare from somewhere beneath its hood.

"This is not a matter of debate," it stated, its whispered voice carrying a sinister undertone, "Everyone who dies must pass on for judgment. The gods do not like those who try to mess with their fate. If you resist, Ari Hauntington, I can assure you that ramifications will be quite severe."

Ari felt a pang of fear run down her spine- something told her she didn't need a super big imagination to think of what the level of severe meant- but wouldn't allow herself to back down. She stood up on shaky legs and balled her fists, doing her best to regard the reaper with a defiant glare.

"I…I won't!" she exclaimed, "I don't want to go!"

"It doesn't matter what you want. Your parents have already accepted their fate and passed on, and it is your time to do the same," the reaper countered.

There was a painful squeeze in Ari's chest at the mention of her parents. She swallowed hard.

"N-N-No. I…I won't do it."

The reaper stared at her for a moment. Ari stared back at it, trying not to fidget and show any sign of weakness. The ticking of a clock on the wall nearby made agonizing loud sounds that felt like they had been amplified in the silence.

Ari screamed as the reaper suddenly shot forward, its scythe gleaming in the light as it floated nearly chest to chest with her. She stumbled back, hitting the edge of the table where the men did her autopsy.

"That is enough," the reaper replied, "It is time to go."

It reached forward with a bony hand.

"NO!" Ari screamed slapping it away. She lost her footing, and let out a noise of surprise as she fell through her body and the table.

Something strange happened, right then.

There was suddenly a flash of light in Ari's vision, a strange bolt of purple and blue- for a second, she swore everything turned the opposite color, like the negative of a photo before it was developed- before she felt a weird feeling overcome her. Some sort of prickly sensation.

Her back banged against the table as she fell back.

Ari fell on her knees- she felt an abrupt lightheadedness overtake her- and lay her palms out to catch herself.

She realized she could feel cold tile under them.

"What's this?" she heard the reaper question in shock.

Ari opened her eyes, looking down at her hands. Her eyes widened, and she brought them up to hold them out in front of her.

The snow white color they had taken on once she'd woken up had gone, and they were back to the regular fair color they had always been.

However, they were also translucent. Ari felt her eyes bulge when she realized she could see right through them. She let out a shaky breath.

"What the hell?"

She looked over her shoulder.

The morticians stared back at her in surprise, their hands hovering over their body in the middle of the autopsy. The bearded man gaped at her, his mouth falling open.

"You…you can see me?" Ari asked.

"Impossible!" the reaper exclaimed, "You should not be able to take a physical form!"

Ari whipped her gaze back at it. What was it talking about? What had happened?

She had no time to think it over before she had to roll to avoid the sudden swipe of metal that came at her as the reaper suddenly dove at her, its scythe gripped in both its hands. She heard the morticians shout in alarm as she crashed into one of the metal tables.

She looked back over her shoulder. The reaper flew through her body before it came back up, whipping around at her. It shot towards her again; Ari ducked and crawled on her stomach as it went gliding through the table and floor.

"Leave me alone!" she shouted, getting to her feet.

"Stop this madness this instant!" the reaper shouted, "I do not know why you suddenly regained your solidity, but this is not how it was meant to be! Accept your fate that you are dead, Ari Hauntington!"

"NO!" she screamed as it suddenly threw its scythe at her.

She dropped to her knees; the scythe went spinning over her head like a frisby. Ari caught sight of the door and bolted for it, ignoring the confused shouts of the morticians as she yanked it open and ran threw the hallway.

"Come back here this instant!" she heard the reaper yell behind her.

Ari's heels pounded on the tile as she ran threw the hallway. She narrowly dodged cleaning carts and abandoned gurneys as she pumped her legs, attempting to get as far away from the strange cloaked being as she could.

She looked over her shoulder; she let out a shriek as she saw the reaper coming right for her; its cloak trailed on behind it like a flag in the breeze. Ari forced herself to turn away, focusing back on what was ahead of her-

She suddenly collided with something solid that came around the corner.

The impact knocked her backwards, her wrists and tailbone flaring up in pain as she landed on her palms and rear. Ari lifted her head and stared up at whatever she had run into, confused.

Two nurses stared at her in surprise and worry. Obviously, they hadn't been expecting her.

"Wha…" Ari thought.

What was going on? Why was she suddenly able to touch things again? Moments before, she had been invisible to the morticians.

"Young lady, there's no running in this hospital," one of the nurses scolded, her face pinched up in a frown.

Ari stared at her. Several small sounds came her throat as she tried to form words.

"It is time to go," she heard the reaper whisper in her ear.

"AH!" Ari screamed, jumping to her feet.

She turned to look at the reaper. It reached out for her, its hands forming a claw.

"NO!"

Ari stumbled backwards. The nurses jumped, not expecting such a reaction from the strange girl.

This time, though, she fell through the nurse and onto the floor. Ari fell onto her back as she stared up at them. The nurses turned sharply to look at her, their eyes wide with horror. The one she had phased through looked pale, and she clasped the folders she had been holding to her chest like she were trying to protect herself.

"I-I-I'm sorry," Ari said, getting to her feet, "I didn't-"

She stopped when she caught site of her arms. She looked down at them. Horror bloomed in her chest when she realized they had become translucent, and she could see right through them.

"Enough," the reaper said, phasing through the two nurses as well. Unlike her, however, they didn't seem to even notice there was another presence there.

Ari screamed again, all manner of apologies flying right out of her head as she turned on her heel to escape the black-clad reaper again.

She pumped her arms, her breathing coming in raggedly. Her soles made squeaks on the tile as she made sharp turns around the corner. The hospital staff regarded with stares of confusion and shock when she ran past, but she made them no mind as she blindly turned whatever corner and went through whatever door appeared first.

A doctor came through the double doors she had been running towards.

"WATCH OUT!" Ari shouted at him.

The doctor looked up, surprised at the oncoming juggernaut. He twisted himself to avoid her and stumbled out of the way. Ari urged herself towards the door.

She suddenly felt her footing give way as she misjudged her step. Ari let out a shout of surprise as she stumbled. She held out her hands to avoid crashing into the doors.

It turned out she didn't need to, as she phased right through them as well. A ring of blue light briefly surrounded her figure as she went through them like they were nonexistent, crashing onto the floor of an operating room.

Ari looked up. The staff turned at the sound. Faces covered in hospital masks and goggles ogled at her, their eyes enlarging. She scrambled to her feet, looking around for the next exit.

"Oi, you're not supposed to be in here!" the doctor from outside said sternly as he came in.

Ari turned.

He grabbed her arm to lead her out.

They all let out shouts when he gripped nothing and Ari passed through him like she were just an illusion.

She stumbled back at the operating staff's cries, regarding them with a wide stare. Her hair was disheveled and hung in front of her eyes in tangles.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I-I-I don't know what's happening to me, I just-"

She bumped into one of the operatives. The young woman screamed at the see-through girl.

Ari jumped back. She felt something about her change- what and how, she didn't know, but something told her she just…just did- and the woman screamed louder. The other operatives backed up in fear. One of them positioned himself over the patient on the table like he was trying to protect them. There was the rattle of chains were Ari had been standing.

She looked down at herself.

Her translucence was not only now present, but the color about herself had changed. Her arms had turned white again. She saw a flash of light purple where her hair had been. Chains had appeared, wrapping around her waist and shins like leg warmers. One was spun around her wrist.

"No," Ari said in fear, "NO!"

She ran past the operating team out the other door, not even caring if the reaper were close behind her or not.

The hospital staff screamed and shouted and moved out of the way as she made her way past them. They jumped out of the way and pressed themselves against the walls as the teenager ran, most of them looking shocked at the strange state she was now in.

Ari cried in fear. Sometimes she ran into them. Sometimes she went through them like she were made of wind. Other times she caught a brief sight of herself in a reflective surface. Sometimes she looked normal.

Other times she looked like she weren't completely there.

And other times a completely different person stared back at her.

Ari continued to run. She ran through various halls and rooms, leaping over objects left on the floor and skirting around the corners. Her vision was blurry with tears, but she was focused on just running. On just getting out of the hospital and away from the reaper. Where she was going to go, she didn't know.

The only thing she did know was the one thought that persisted in her mind.

Keeping running, she told herself, Just keep running. Keep running, keep running, don't look back…


After what felt like an hour or so, Ari finally made herself come to a stop.

She had since gotten out of the hospital building and had continued on her path through the city. She jogged to a messy stop near a brick building. She put a hand to the wall, breathing heavily. Her throat felt like it was on fire. Her lungs hurt. There was a stitch in her side that felt akin to someone repeatedly jabbing something between her ribs.

Ari looked up, inspecting where she was now.

She was in the back of some kind of alleyway. There was a red door set into one of the walls; the handle had a button mechanism for typing a code installed into it. There was a dumpster beside it, overflowing with garbage bags; some of them had torn, garbage spilling out onto the ground around it. Above, the sky was a dark grey color. It seemed the rain had finally let up after the last few relentless weeks, though a thick blanket of humidity still remained. Giant puddles sat at the bottom of storm drains.

Ari caught sight of the glare from a mirror beside the dumpster. Slowly, she approached it.

She wiped off some of the grind with her hand, preparing herself for whatever image greeted her back.

Her regular face stared back. Her dress was grimy and torn, and her hair was disheveled, but everything was pretty much the same. She still wore the dress and shoes that she had for the competition, her hair was still in the ombre style Michelle had put it in. Only…

Ari furrowed her brows, taking a closer look.

Only now, her eyes had turned pink. Ari brought a hand to them, her lip quivering. Her gaze trailed to her hand. It was opaque now, as solid as it had been- as she had been- when she had been living.

Ari stared at it. She looked back at her reflection, an idea coming to her head.

Focusing on her hand, she thought of earlier, when she had been chased by the reaper.

Suddenly, her hand turned translucent.

Looking back at the mirror, Ari found that, as she thought, she had become see through again. The reflection of the wall behind her came through her figure. Cautiously, Ari put her hand to the mirror. It passed through it seamlessly. She pulled it back out.

There was something else, too.

Something else that had happened in the hospital. When she first woke up. Something about her appearance that had changed.

Ari focused again, willing it to happen…whatever it was. She shut her eyes, concentrating.

There was a strange noise, and she felt a slight crawling feeling over her skin.

When she opened them, she took a step back in shock.

Her face and figure remained the same in her reflection: her face was still round, her hair still done up in ringlets and the little braids at the top of her crown that she always wore.

But now, the coloring was…off.

Her hair had now darkened to a light purple color, a shade that had a tinge of pink in it, similar to the color Michelle had used to dye her ends that night. Her skin was bone white, and looked almost pearlescent with the way the translucence her body had taken on. Ari touched her lips; they were pale purple, something that made them look almost sickly. The chains that she had seen earlier had returned, covering her legs, her shoulders, her waist, and her chest like some sort of harness. A particularly giant one hung down around her neck, the ends held together with padlock. A thin blue glow surrounded her, as if warning others who may see her of what she really was.

Only her eyes remained the same with their greyish blue color. Quite odd, that they would be, considering her more human appearance.

In fright, Ari turned back. Now, the familiar tanned face and blonde hair greeted her back.

She stared down at her hands in a mixture of perplexity and panic.

What was happening to her? Why…why could she change like this?

The reaper had said she was dead- not that she needed to know that much, considering she had seen her own body in the morgue- that much was known. That would explain why the two guys in the morgue didn't seem to see or hear her. And it would also explain why she passed through solid objects now.

But then why…why could see suddenly touch them, then?

Why did her appearance change, too? The ghostly part seemed to be what she were to look like now that she was dead, but she could change that back to a more-human appearance (or, she could if she could figure out how to control it). But why?

Why…why was this happening? It didn't seem like she was supposed to have this ability, if the reaper's reaction was anything to go off of. Most likely, it occurred entirely by accident.

"So…what do I do then?" Ari asked herself.

She didn't want to go with the reaper. She didn't want to go the Spirit world, or whatever it had called the place it claimed to be taking her to. She still had so much to experience in life, she didn't want to give all of it up! It wasn't fair, she was a good person. Why did this happen to her?

But…she wasn't alive. Not anymore, not technically. It wasn't like she could just go on with her daily life like nothing had ever happened. The girls were sure to have heard by now what had happened, and they had her body in the morgue, so unless she want them to think she was some sort of rando playing a sick joke, that was definitely not an option.

Plus, the reaper had said her parents had already gone with it. They were already in the Spirit world.

Ari didn't have anyone else.

If she went with it, she could see them again.

But…no, she wasn't going to do it. She was not going to just give up and resign to this "fate" like some sort of sheep. Screw fate, dammit, she wanted to live!

But…..what could she do? Even if she went to the reaper, would she even be able to go with it, now that she didn't seem to be completely ghost now? With this…ability of hers?

"I don't know," Ari said to herself in a thick tone, "I don't know what to do."

She buried her face in her hands as she fell upon her knees and wept upon the street. Overheard, the sky rumbled with remaining thunder.


Twenty-eight years later….

"-We're heading for something, somewhere I've never been; sometimes I am frightened, but I'm ready to learn, of the power of-"

"Okay, okay, stop, I've heard enough."

Ari ceased her singing. She bit her lip nervously, gauging the executive's reaction.

He sat back in his seat, looking her over with pursed lips as he rubbed his chin. His eyebrows were raised like he didn't know what to think of her. She couldn't see his eyes through the mirrored shades he were, and such inability made Ari nervous. She shifted on her feet, feeling small under his gaze.

Beside the executive, Tom gave her a big smile and two thumbs up. He had been telling her from the beginning he was confident that she'd get a contract (telling her "anyone with ears at least a little bit of taste" could see she had it in her); according to him, Mr. Pfeffer was one of the top names in the industry right now, and a personal friend of his- though Ari was really starting to doubt that part- and he claimed that he only needed to hear her for ten seconds before he was sold.

Right now, though, she got the opposite feeling. He didn't look too impressed, his lips marching down in a frown as he raised his head up, looking her up and down. He turned to Tom with a doubtful brow raised.

"Where'd you say you found this lass?" he asked.

"Right on Mulvaney Street, can you believe it?!" Tom said enthusiastically, "Was walkin' by to get us some drinks- it was right after that daft cow diva Biggins brought in stormed out, remember?- and I found this beautiful lil' one on the corner, singing for money. 'N I asked her, 'Lass, what's a pretty face like you doin' out on te street?' and she said she had no home and was hopin' to earn some money for food' and I thought, man, this gal's got the voice of an angel!

"I knew you'd see it like I did, so I wanted to bring her hear to show her stuff, didn't I?" he finished, looking at Ari to confirm his story.

She gave a small smile. "Y-Y-Yeah, that…t-that's what happened."

Pfeffer grabbed at his shades, lowering them a little to give Ari a look over the top of them.

"You on the streets, did I hear that correctly?" he asked.

"Yes sir," she answered, "I…I'm afraid I've been there for a little while."

It wasn't a complete lie, not at all. It just…wasn't the whole truth.

Ever since she had learned to master her solidifying ability, she had been wandering from town to town, staying out of the public eye. Not knowing what else to do, Ari thought that until something else presented itself, whether it be the reaper finally catching up to her to take her the Spirit World (she hoped that day never came) or by some miracle coming across other ghosts that probably could help her in her predicament- now that monster-human relations were starting to improve- she would just lay low, going about her days as best as she could. After all, she doubted that they let dead girls get educations.

So when Tom came up to her, telling her that he was impressed by her singing- she had been finding odd jobs just to pass the time, if not to be able to buy stuff without giving away her supernatural identity- and wanted to show her to an agent since he thought she had potential to be the next big thing, she took the nosedive in.

(Hey, if she wasn't able to get her big break alive, this could be the sign of some sort of second chance, couldn't it?)

A part of her was worried about letting her guard down- she had now since been able to turn solid and keep her human appearance without even having to think about it most days, but at times when she got scared or surprised, she would shift instantly- and hoped that they wouldn't much about her appearance, particularly the strange color of her eyes (no matter how many times she had tried, the pink color was always present when she was in human form). Ari pushed the thoughts away; thinking about it would only make her more likely to turn.

"Oh, relax, I ain't tryin' to shame ya," Pfeffer reassured, "Trust me, I've been there a few times in me own life before I finally made a name for myself."

Ari nodded, not knowing how else to respond.

Pfeffer rubbed his chin again. He sucked in his lip in thought, before he turned to look back to Tom. The redhead grinned back.

"So what do you think?" the latter asked, "We got ourselves a legend or what?"

Pfeffer shrugged, "Yeah, I'll take her."

Ari's eyes widened. "R-Really?!"

"Sure, why not? You do have quite the voice, I'll admit, and it's been a while since I worked on a record with anybody," Pfeffer explained, getting up from his chair, "I will warn you though, I expect complete participation from you. You will show up when you're told to and do what you're told to. None of this diva stuff, ya hear me? I've dealt with plenty of them in my life, I don't want to deal with more."

Ari nodded eagerly, "Yes, absolutely, sir! T-Thank you, so much, it means…it means the absolute world to me!"

Pfeffer waved her off, "Yeah, sure whatever."

He went over to the calendar on the wall, his finger hovering over it as he looked at an empty date. He pointed to a square that marked the twenty-fifth.

"You start Monday. Be here by ten-thirty, one the dot. No sooner, no later, got it?" he ordered, looking over his shoulder.

Ari nodded, "Yes, sir."

"Good. It'll be nice working with you, um…"

He looked at Tom. Tom opened his mouth, ready to say something, only for his face to come up blank. He turned to Ari with an apologetic smile.

"What did you say your name was, lass?"

Ari went to respond, but hesitated.

What was she supposed to say? She doubted anyone remembered such a name like hers, considering it had been nearly thirty years since the accident, not to mention she had lived nearly two cities over from this one. But from her experience, you could never be too careful. What if Tracy, or the other girls came across her name and realized she looked and sounded just like their friend from long ago? There'd be talk everywhere, no doubt. And with monster coexistence on the rise, she was putting herself even more in danger. If she got exposed, she was ruined. The reaper would no doubt be at her doorstep in a second.

Just be honest, her mind said, You're Ari. Nothing's changed about that.

Except it had. Ari Hauntington was dead.

Dead girls didn't get record deals.

A thought came to her, and after a moment, she looked up at the two men.

"…Tash," she stated, "M-My name is Tash."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It's not easy being a reaper sometimes.

You get a lot of looks and a lot of talk behind your back. Not that I can necessarily blame them for it; when you're part of a race that's responsible for deciding how long someone's going to live and taking people to the afterlife, no matter how much they plead or swear at you or cry their eyes out, it's only natural some people treat you apprehensively. Still, it is a little hard, seeing the constant fear they carry in your eyes whenever you're near. The distrust and the stiff movements they do, as if afraid to make any sudden movements around you. Like you're just some kind of messenger wherever you go, always there to be the bearer of bad news and ruin the day.

Like you're just a robotic shell who does one thing and one thing only.

Like you're heartless.

I'm not, though.

It's not like I enjoy doing this. Do they think I like having to go to collect souls, to appear in front of people who barely have a grasp on what's happened or are just now realizing the transformation they've gone under and tell them that yes, the worst has occurred and yes, what they think just happened has happened, and no, there's no negotiations? Please, I'm a reaper, but I'm not a sadist.

There's nothing to enjoy about it. It's rough, it's demanding, and the pressure can really get to you, especially with the wide spectrum of souls you deal with- dementia patients succumbing to complications that barely even know who they are anymore, babies who've taken their last breaths sometimes only just minutes after having their first, happy families who've never done a thing in their lives that have been torn apart by bloodthirsty killers- it's a burden that's as heavy as the cloaks we wear.

But that's just the way it is, sometimes. It's not pleasant, but someone has to do it.

Monsters I've found are a bit easier to deal with than humans. Given that the dead quite literally walk among us in monster society, and that the select lucky few (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) have been granted true immortality, the process of dying tends to be written off as nothing more than a minor annoyance. For some, it's even a rite of passage, the end of an era where life ends but unlife begins.

That doesn't mean it's always so easy, though. Some still feel like they've been robbed of their most personal possession. Like they've been almost violated by the fact that someone has decided what is to become of their souls and their bodies and their lives without any personal consideration or even opinion. I can understand that. Life is hard. Death's even harder.

That's why sometimes it makes me sad whenever I interact with my ghost friends.

Don't get me wrong, I can tell they're happy with their unlives now. They all are going to school, they have other friends, most of them still get to live and talk with their families- whether it be in the Monster World or the Ghost world- and they still have plans for the future and they're still content overall.

But still…I can see the pain in that still lingers in their eyes. In their half-hearted smiles, the sudden softness of their voices that they take on whenever someone brings up something that triggers a memory of the past, how they'll look out the window with that faraway expression, presumably reminiscing over simpler times. When things used to seem much easier and there wasn't this bombardment of knowledge about monsters living amongst us and life and death and separate realms and planes and all that other complicated junk.

They probably aren't aware that I know how each of them died. That I saw how each and every event played out. Every word said by one person or the other. Every finger raised, every smell created. Every small action that imploded into the chain of events that would eventually lead to their deaths. They've never made it aware that they suspected as much, and I've never said anything about it. They've been through enough, they don't need someone coming along and picking at old wounds.

Sometimes I wish it didn't have to be like this for them.

Sometimes I wish I had the power for all of them to start over. To be able to keep on living in their time periods, going along with whatever their original plans for the future, if they had any, were. So they wouldn't have to endure that pain, especially at such a young age. God, they're teenagers. Teenagers shouldn't die, not in such horrible circumstances.

To have all your working for, all you ever dreamed of, all that you were ever gifted in life, just ripped right out of your hands in the fraction of a second….it's horrible. It's unfair.

But that's not my choice to make, though. And it's not about what they want. We all want things in unlife, that doesn't mean we're gonna get it. This is about what needs to be done, to maintain balance in the universe and make sure that those who seek to corrupt it don't get the power in their hands.

Even so…my heart aches for them. It doesn't stop me from wishing that things had been different. That they wouldn't have to bear such a burden in their hearts.

I'm slightly comforted by the fact that even after death and having to adjust to this new, supernatural existence they are stuck with, that they have all found the courage to move on.

To endure the heartache, the suffering, the nightmares, and whatever else has come to them as a result of these tragic endings.

To find a new purpose out in the monster world- whether it's an instrument to play, a voice to speak for the silenced, a newfound sense of adventure, a knack for current events, a pretty dress to wear. Sometimes it's the little things, which most of them have learned to appreciate a lot more now.

Whatever it is, even after their deaths and the almost crushing knowledge that they're dead, they find something that gives them even the tiniest strength that allows them to carry the weight. To keep going, even it's just a little bit at a time.

And sometimes, that's enough.

 

~Fin~