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Until Everything Goes Back to Normal

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“You’re far too sentimental.”

Emily scoffed as her and Beth walk through the school’s parking lot. Beth pursed her lips, unsure whether it was pointless to respond. They had spent the day arguing over whether to cut a sophomore from the debate team. Technically, Emily was right - Scott Douglass was a distraction during practice and earned them a remarkable zero points during most competitions. If this were an official debate, Emily’s side was winning.

As they walked in temporary silence, Beth’s face morphed into a scowl to match her co-captain. Knowing Em, she had her rebuttals and concluding remarks prepared for days before she began to argue this.

Being kicked off the debate team was unprecedented, though that was only because Emily didn’t have enough authority until this year. Beth shuddered at the very idea. Although Emily and her were among the most popular (and, in Emily’s case, feared) girls in school, their social prowess didn’t extend to the debate team as a whole. That is to say, Emily and Beth were popular despite their position as debate team captains and certainly not because of it. Kicking someone off would be social murder. 

Emily didn’t bother to hide the fact that she was growing increasingly impatient waiting for the response that Beth never planned on giving. Fortunately, they were interrupted by the sight of a man loitering by Emily’s car.

“Ew,” Emily said. Beth didn’t know how, but Emily’s scowl managed to get even meaner. “What is he doing?”

The man lifted his head at Emily’s voice and began to lumber towards them. His movements gave Beth pause. He moved like a marionette with an unseen hand pulling the strings towards them. Emily kept walking towards him with far more confidence than warranted for such a short girl. Beth lingered behind.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Emily asked.

As the strings moved the man closer, a rotten smell made both girls’ eyes water. Now that he was almost close enough to touch, Beth could see how his pale skin stuck to his face. His eyes looked like he had an incurable amount of cataracts, and Beth doubted that he was seeing anything more than vague outlines of the two. His brown hair had clearly been falling out in tufts, and his pale scalp poked through what little hair he had left. 

The puppet man finally shook Emily’s confidence. She reached into her bag, grabbing a bottle of pepper spray. Beth wasn’t surprised she had one. Right as she took it out and shouted a final warning, the man lunged for her. Beth’s scream caught in her throat, but Emily ducked and stumbled backwards before he could touch her. She squeezed the top, and a burst of pepper spray hit the man in the face. He was unfazed, and he lunged again.

It was Beth’s turn to spring into action. She grabbed Emily’s arm and yanked her away just before the man could grab her. Beth ran back towards the school with an iron grip on Emily’s arm as Emily took a moment to snap out of her shock. The man followed them, but he felt no strong desire to run. Beth’s only plan was to put as much distance between them and the man as possible, but she didn’t want to count on the man to continue his leisurely pace. She was relieved when Emily took charge and made a beeline for the football field instead. The man continued to lumber after them as Emily opened the gate to the stands and she slammed it in his face. Just like with the pepper spray, he didn’t respond as he pushed against the fence. 

Emily kept pulling Beth away from the fence, not allowing for any time to catch their breath. It was unlocked, but the man didn’t realize it. Yet. He just kept pushing against the gate, hoping to power his way through. The fence creaked at the man’s efforts- it was meant to keep footballs in and wildlife out. It didn’t stand much of a chance against the strength of a grown man. 

The football team’s practice ground to a halt at the scene. Beth was openly sobbing, and Emily was barely holding herself together. Matt was the first one over, having stopped the play in its tracks. The rest of the team dutifully followed their captain, and even the coach knew to shut his mouth and let them go. Matt arrived far faster than seemed humanly possible. 

Matt pulled Beth behind him, and he wrapped his arms around Emily and held her securely to his chest. He was far larger than both women, and he held Emily so tightly that Beth was worried he’d accidentally crush her. He stared at the man, who was undeterred by the arrival of nearly 25 men. Matt’s eyes, usually so kind and gentle, bore deep into the man.

“What’s going on?” Matt asked, his voice tense and low. His question was directed at Emily, and Beth was so terrified that she didn’t even try answering.

“He hit us. He- he tried to kill us,” Emily said, staying pressed up to Matt.

If Matt hadn’t already committed to holding Emily, he would have charge and killed the strange man himself.

Beth didn’t correct Emily. The man didn’t technically touch them, but she didn’t think the latter part was an entire lie. She felt sick as she thought about what would have happened if they hadn’t ran when they did.

“Jesus Christ,” the coach said. He sounded more upset about the inevitably of practice being cancelled than anything else. The team milled around him in awkward silence, unable to gauge if the situation was actually serious. Things like this didn’t happen in their town. 

Finally, the coach directed one player to grab his cell phone and call the police. Before the boy could make the call, the gate came crashing down and the man stumbled inside the field. This time, however, no one backed away. Even Emily straightened up, wanting to see the man’s face when he realized he was no longer attacking two women. There was nothing as sure as the confidence of teenagers surrounded by their friends.

The man, however, didn’t seem to mind the added opponents. In fact, the presence of the team seemed to make him more excited, and he advanced faster towards the group while slobbering from his mouth. 

Duke, a man known for his temper on and off the field, saw this as a perfect opportunity. Unlike most of his violent outbursts, this one would earn him praise and glory. He would be the hero that saved Emily Davis and Beth Washington, and he imagined both families would shower him with some of their fortune. While the rest of the team waited for orders from either Matt or the coach, Duke darted forward and easily tackled the man. The man scratched and bit at Duke, and he managed to bite Duke’s uncovered forearm. Duke screamed and smashed the man’s head in the ground, causing him to release his arm. Beth’s stomach dropped at the cracking sound and the sight of Duke’s blood, and a paling Duke rolled off the man. Three of his teammates took his place in holding the man down, and the coach hurried to Duke to check out his wound.

“Matthew, get the girls out of here. We’ll wait for the police,” the coach said. He glanced over at his players, who were piled on the man. One player stood with his cleat on the man’s leg, and there was cracking sounds whenever the man tried to move. The coach didn’t want anyone to be charged with manslaughter, but he wouldn’t mind them roughing the biter up. 

“Yes, coach,” Matt said. He led the girls out from the other end of the field, and he held both of them this time. He wanted the man to be hurt, but seeing his teammates actually hurt someone made him too uncomfortable to think about. The trio walked back to the parking lot in silence, and Emily sat in the front of Matt’s old truck. Matt drove in silence, going to the Washington mansion first to drop Beth off. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw two other cars in the driveway,

“Thank you,” Beth said. She was equally relieved at the sight of the cars. She didn’t know if she could manage being alone.

“Do you want me to walk you in?” Matt asked.

Beth knew it was a genuine offer, but she also knew Emily wouldn’t bother to get out of the car to join them and she didn’t want to leave Emily alone. She shook her head, smiling at Matt in the mirror.

“Hannah and Josh should be home,” Beth said. “I’ll be alright. Thank you, though.”

Beth left and half jogged to the front door. She didn’t want to embarrass herself, but she didn’t want to spend any more time outside than necessary. She waved goodbye to Matt and Emily before she shut and locked the door. She initially planned to tell her family what happened, but as she walked in she was hit with an intense feeling of exhaustion. The emotions of what just happened bubbled up, and she finds herself wishing that she took Matt up on his offer to walk her in. He could protect her far better than her sister and brother.

Beth knows the right thing to do is to tell her siblings. They deserved to know, and they usually knew how to make her feel better. But both Josh and Hannah were too dramatic, and if she told them then there would be no chance they would let her fall asleep anytime soon. She also considered calling Sam, but Beth didn’t want to worry her. They would all find out when the police come to get an official report, and she knew the story would spread like wildfire. At least she had Emily to guide of the rumors in their favor.

Instead of calling anyone, Beth checked the locks on the windows and doors in their house. Her dad made sure to have the best security available, but Beth still felt unsafe. The security was here to protect his wealth, not his children. 

Beth went up three flights of stairs to her room. She drew the shades, locked her door, and kept her lights on. The puppet man’s putrid scent still stung her nose, so she lit every candle in her room. They barely helped.

Her only comfort was Shoelace, a stuffed pug that Sam won for her at the fair nearly ten years ago. She crawled into bed with her stuffed animal and hid under the covers. Beth fell asleep curled up around her stuffed animal as she waited for everything to go back to normal.