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Part Seven

  The miasma of despair that followed Morgan around had somehow become physical, smothering Rebecca completely with its absoluteness. The physical nature of this dread was thick and choking, keeping her suspended in its semisolid state. Though her senses were dulled, she was aware that the jelly could potentially allow her limited movement should she find the wherewithal to try. It was the sense of living fear—coupled with a sixth sense that she was not alone—that compelled her to remain still with her eyes squeezed shut.

  Though dread and panic dominated her senses, two facts stood out as being particularly alarming. The first was that, despite the malignant amnion sealing her mouth shut, her lungs did not seek air. The second was the fact that her heart did not signal its distress at the situation. In fact, it did not shudder a single time, the muscle merely a heavy rock in her chest.

  She knew, in that instant, that she was dead.

  He had finally managed to kill her, and for a brief moment, fury drove back the fear. After all was said and done, after surviving that night so long ago, to die by Morgan’s hands was intolerable. She hoped that Olivia managed to kill her brother, if only so that the motherfucker would be stuck not-drowning in noxious sludge right by her side. It was her anger that compelled her to open her eyes to whatever hell awaited.

  After fighting against the pressure sealing them shut, her eyes eventually snapped open. With unanticipated clarity, she saw that she was surrounded by what appeared to be a dense, whirling mass of clouds that sparked with silent, crimson lightning. Though it was slow going as her body could barely move through the thick ether, she pivoted in place to take in the environment.

  Debris of all kinds—burned out cars, corn stalks, chunks of mortar—flitted effortlessly past her, as though it sailed through air and not in what she found herself suspended. Below her—or as ‘below’ as the gravityless space suggested—was a void that physically hurt to peer into, as though someone burned her retinas with a cigarette if she stared too long.

  And then there were the people.

  Each of the bodies had been drained of color, caught in the moment of expiration, agony permanently etched on their faces. There were several—like the security guard below and to the right—who were in as many pieces as Morgan had left them, a frozen splatter of red the only remaining chromatic flourish on their forms. Others were writhed in a motionless crackle of flame, the impossible fire cascading across unhealthy former flesh that flaked from dehydration.

  Morgan’s body count was higher than the official reports had ever guessed. When she had gotten out of the hospital, a recalcitrant fear that he had survived the ordeal settled into her gut. Those that remained at the school were uninterested in hearing about it or otherwise wanted to stay away from the girl whose brother slaughtered so many. The guidance counselor, worried, didn’t seem impressed when she would show up to school with proof of mutilated bodies popping up in nearby towns, each suggesting to Rebecca that her brother escaped death.

  The police had recovered a badly burned body from the wreckage. This proved to be all the evidence the remaining adults in her life needed. The officials themselves had no interest in the links she was finding that suggested the firefighter still lived. Abandoned by her peers and those supposed to protect her, she pursued the leads with fanatical devotion, trying to anticipate his next move, but the path seemed random.

  Until she got access to her father’s safe deposit box, anyway.

  Triggered by something unseen, the void below her seethed with enough force to send shockwaves rippling through her flesh. Tendrils of red, crackling plasma erupted across a heretofore unseen writhing mass, tracing the outlines of ovoid features. The first massive eye opened and trained its alien gaze on Rebecca, before hundreds of smaller—though still immense—orbs snapped open, pupils dilating in anticipation.

  Rebecca screamed.

  A shift occurred, and the iris sank in on themselves, revealing concentric rings of whirling, bladed teeth spinning above an infinite maw. From each eye, a snaking vein lined with spines lashed out and sought out the floating woman.

  “No!” she yelled, the amniotic fluid seeping into her lungs. It was unpleasant, but it did not prevent her from continuing her protest. “Fuck you!”

  With terrible ease, the tendrils tore into her chest, worming under her ribs and surrounding her heart. The pain was searing to the point of blindness, and secondary branches of agony worked their way along her bones to sear her limbs into paralysis. Rapidly approaching was the sweet promise of unconsciousness, though even hazy with hurt, Rebecca knew such a release would be enduring and uncompromising. She willed her arms to move, and with an unanticipated quickness, she grabbed the invasive living barbed wire and pulled.

  This seemed to surprise the alien thing, as it lessened it grip momentarily. It immediately withdrew, slicing Rebecca’s hands in the process, before sending different tendrils worming their way through her guts to drag themselves along her spine. Again, her body was locked motionless by the action as her vision went white.

  “G… ge… get out…” she commanded, forcing herself to do something, anything, to remove the living cancer from her. Her hands barely responded at first, but she forced herself to grab one of the offending slithering invaders and yank it free with shocking force. Another followed.

  With a low rumble, the creature below registered what Rebecca took as displeasure. The snaking things withdrew, only to snap forth and wrap around her wrists and legs. From there, they tightened to the point where the woman thought that she would lose her hands and feet. Something much worse happened, however—she was being reeled in to the mouths.

  A terrible pain exploded in her chest, and the woman hissed.

  Surprisingly enough, the monstrous aberration released its hold.

  Rebecca suddenly felt tired. There was another sensation, too. Something she couldn’t quite make out because of the sudden fatigue.

  Another terrible pain, and she felt something crack in her chest.

  She was tired, impossibly so. And there was something familiar itching at her insides.

  The creature below her roared, and thicker, spinier tendrils whirled toward her with desperate hunger.

  She wasn’t scared at this. She was far more intrigued by why her heart had decided to start beating again.

* * *

  Her first breath was a hacking, anxious thing, pulling in air that was tinged with the acrid tang of toxic smoke. Something was weighing her down, keeping her from sitting upright, though it was the sharp pain in the center of her chest that did more to keep her horizontal.

  Rebecca’s eyes opened, but she could barely make anything out due to general darkness and vision that didn’t seem quite ready to cooperate. In fact, her whole body appeared to be reacclimating to the once-familiar sensations of living. It wasn’t like waking up; rather, it was like she had slipped into another person’s body—the parts were in the right place, but they didn’t altogether work quite the same way she was used to.

  “Hey!” Olivia said. The girl’s head—or at least a blobby rendition of it—entered Rebecca’s vision. “Hey!” Hands cupped the woman’s cheeks, firm, comforting, and—most enticingly—warm. “You’re okay. You’re okay, now.”

  “Olivia…” It was all she could manage at the moment.

  She felt something wet hit her cheek, and one of the hands withdrew from her face. Accompanied by a sniff, the hand drew itself across Olivia’s more defined face. “I thought I lost you.”

  Rebecca smiled. “Is he…”

  Olivia nodded. “I blew him up.”

  The woman shut her eyes and nodded slightly, a tear sliding through the dirt on her skin. “Are you sure?” She looked back at Olivia, her features now in clear focus.

  “Pretty sure,” she answered. “I came for you as soon as I could.” A sad smile ticked up the side of her mouth. “You weren’t breathing and your heart wasn’t beating and I couldn’t get the ax out…”

  “Ax?” Rebecca asked. She picked her head up and looked at the twisted steel buried in her chest. “Oh.”

  “It was too hot,” Olivia explained, showing her blistered hands. “Hotter than before.” With a wince, Rebecca wrapped her hands around the icy handle. “Whoa, wait, what are you…”

  The woman pulled with a growled roar of exertion. The ax and the wound protested, but ultimately the weapon relented, sending a plume of ash and charred flesh into the air. With a clang, she cast the ax to the floor and let her arms flop bonelessly to her sides.

  Olivia stared for a few moments before clearing her throat. “Didn’t that, uh, hurt?”

  Rebecca shook her head. “My, uh…” She gestured toward the middle of her chest, where the sharp pain had squatted since she woke up. Words failed her, so she improvised. “Middle… part… hurt.”

  The girl shrugged. “I may have broken your ribs resuscitating you.”

  A weak nod. “I hear that’s how you know you’re doing it right.”

  A commotion from down the hallway drew their attention, and soon enough flashlight beams were playing across the lockers as figures approached in the smoky darkness. “Hey!” Olivia shouted. “We’re over here!”

  “I gotta go…” Rebecca said, trying to get up.

  The girl forced her back down. “You’re hurt.”

  “Stay on the ground and put your hands on your head!” a male voice commanded.

  “Oh, for fuck’s sake…” the woman muttered, recognizing the voice.

  “My friend is hurt!” Olivia protested.

  “Hands on your head!” the order repeated. The officer had broken away from the others, surging forward toward the girl with gun drawn.

  “Okay,” Olivia said, acquiescing. It wasn’t fast enough for the officer’s liking, and he grabbed her by the wrist and pushed it down. “Jesus! I said okay!”

  “Take it easy on her, Dewey,” Rebecca chastised, turning onto her side. It was tiring, but the speed with which her stamina returned—and expanded—was comforting.

  His eyes fell on her, and his face twisted in disgust. “It’s Duley,” he corrected. “I should have known you had something to do with this.” He knelt by her and grabbed her by the arm. “Care to explain why my car was found in a burned-out barn and some dead kids?” The other four officers had reached Olivia.

  “Not really,” Rebecca answered. He gave her a shove, knocking her onto her back. Dizziness kept her from righting herself, as the mild shift in perspective had carried with it a stronger-than-usual vertigo.

  An officer gently guided Olivia to her feet. “Guy’s an asshole,” the girl muttered while nodding her head toward the man towering over Rebecca.

  “Take it easy, Duley,” the gentler officer scolded.

  But Duley hadn’t heard him. His eyes were transfixed by the ax wound. “What the hell happened to you?”

  “The same thing that happened to the two cops out front,” Olivia snapped. She took a step toward Duley, only to find herself blocked by another officer’s hand. “She saved one of them. Ask her yourself!”

  Duley looked at her. “Maybe when she wakes up, kid.” His eyes fell back to Rebecca, who had once again pushed herself up to her side, head low in an effort to stave off lightheadedness. “Your boogeyman?” he asked snidely.

  “Yes, you asshole,” she said, wobbly getting to her knees. “He burned the barn, killed kids, that fucking security guard,” she pointed to illustrate the two halves down the hallway, “one of your colleagues, and gave me this.” She pulled her jacket open to reveal the extent of her injury. She pushed herself upright, unsteady but defiant. “Woulda been worse had I not taken your car.”

  One of the officers peeled away from the others and checked down the hall. “Oh, god,” he said, gagging. “She’s right.”

  Duley glanced at the ground. “Looks like we got the murder weapon, too.” He knelt down as Rebecca put her hand on her head. He smugly cast his gaze at her, hand grasping for the ax. “Grand theft auto is the lea—” He snapped his hand back and rose with a hiss. “Why…”

  A thunderous crash and a cascade of mortar and dust fell from the ceiling, illuminated with an orange glow. Duley instinctively grabbed Rebecca and tried to lead her away from the collapse, but something snagged his forward momentum. He was yanked away as the woman was left stumbling to the ground. His uniform burst into flame under some unknown force, and the scream that betrayed his shock was cut short by a wet crunch that made him slouch.

  Olivia began to chant, “No!” in disbelief as Rebecca turned to bear witness to Morgan, wreathed in fire, rising to his full height, wrist deep in Duley’s chest. An intolerable sound accompanied the withdrawal of his hand, upon which the officer fell to his knees, clearly dead but attempting to negotiate his way out of it.

  The officer who had verified the security guard’s body pulled his gun and advanced. “Whatever the fuck you are, you are done!”

  “Stay back!” Rebecca warned, holding her hand out.

  Morgan turned toward the encroaching officer, which inspired a fear-driven pulling of the trigger. Rebecca winced and shrank from the attack, though the firefighter did no such thing. With bounding strides that left a wake of burning skin-and-clothing in their wake, he was on the man, flaming hand wrapping around his skull as spasms emptied the gun into the floor. The bone broke under the pressure, and as the fire spread on the officer’s body, Morgan lifted him into the air and slammed him head-first through a locker.

  “Shoot it!” another officer ordered, and the hallway erupted with gunfire. Morgan turned and advanced on the officers—no, Olivia, who had taken cover behind them. The killer grabbed Duley’s shoulder and hurled the body at them. They scattered, and in an instant, Morgan surged forward and was smashing an officer’s skull beneath his boot.

  The unusual thing was that he bypassed Rebecca to do it.

  For a moment, the woman felt as though she should take the moment of oversight and flee. Survival instinct propelled her upright, scrambling to begin her flight, when she heard Olivia scream: “Rebecca! Run!”

  Time seemed to slow as fresh panic raked her heart. Morgan turned to the sound of Olivia’s voice and belted out a predatory roar. One of the officers fought their way upright and grabbed the girl by the arm and tried to pull her to the exit. Before the monstrous man advanced, the final officer—from the floor—opened fire. The bullets flecked off fetid, burning flesh, but did nothing to stop the laser-focus on Olivia.

  Rebecca’s eyes fell to the floor, to the ax.

  Faster than she thought possible, beyond a rational decision to do so, she was picking up the freezing weapon’s handle and running toward Morgan as the brute turned toward the offending officer, having apparently just decided that the pest should be killed first. Rebecca ran past the piles of flaming sloughed off skin. The officer’s gun clicked dry and the firefighter darted toward her.

  “No!” Olivia cried.

  But Rebecca was behind Morgan, sweeping the ax low and slicing out the back of the knee. The firefighter shrieked as the blade turned his flesh and sinew into ash, gliding through him as effortlessly as though it had always been so. The monster fell to his knee with a thick crunch of buckling bones.

  Rebecca hadn’t noticed the curious wound she dealt, instead circling around and bringing the ax down on Morgan’s shoulder. With an explosion of powdering flesh, the firefighter’s arm was severed and fell to the floor. He grabbed the ashen stump, screaming.

  Unlike his other guttural bellows, this sounded almost human, almost like the old Morgan. Between that and the uniqueness of the harm she had inflicted on the killer, Rebecca found herself stopping, ax held at the ready, watching the dying flames dance along the surface of the thing that was once her brother. Eventually, he pulled his attention away from his shoulder and glanced up at her, crystalline blue eyes full of an incomprehensible fury.

  He leapt at her, but the ax came down on his skull and split it in two before stopping with a gurgle. In that instant, it was as though Morgan became an unmovable object, a statue dedicated to cruelty. And then, in ragged chunks, his skin fell away, leaving a twisted, charred skeleton covered in fractures and spurs, between which red embers danced before dying permanently. The bones touching the floor had fused with the surface, locking it in place.

  For the briefest of moments, Rebecca swore that she saw his diseased heart wrapped in a cage of living razor wire. But it was gone in an instant, and with it, the connection with her death dream.

  Fingers pulled her grip away from the ax. “Okay, it’s okay now,” Olivia said. She didn’t release her hold, still fearful that this final act was somehow a trick. “C’mon, Rebecca.” Finally, she released her hold, the ax remaining suspended in the skull, an enduring part of the monument to death. Rebecca was entranced by the sight, but finally turned to look at the girl, her concerned expression soft and welcoming. Her hand found its way to the woman’s face and wiped away a tear. “It’ll be okay.”

  Rebecca hadn’t even noticed that she was crying, though the moment she did so she felt oddly embarrassed. “I’m so—”

  The girl embraced her tightly, cutting her off. “Thank you,” she whispered in the woman’s ear. Rebecca nodded and squeezed back.

* * *

  The officer taking Olivia’s statement did not seem particularly convinced about the details she offered. However, she had come after the three officers that had encountered Morgan and survived, so at least she was in good company. Throughout the entire conversation, she cast glances at Rebecca, seated in the open doorway of an ambulance, being looked over time and time again by a paramedic. Something about her injuries must have been fascinating, since her own gouges and bruises got a cursory glance and, at best, a fresh bandage.

  Her interrogator finished and gave a polite, though slightly insincere, smile. Alone, she waited for the paramedic to get bored with Rebecca and leave, offering the woman a blanket to make up for the damaged jacket. Part of her expected a cop to swoop in and arrest the two of them, but they were more interested in talking amongst themselves or the other first responders.

  Olivia approached Rebecca. “Hey.”

  The woman gave a smile. “Hey.”

  Trying to look nonchalant, the girl swept her gaze across the school. “Are you planning on sticking around?” she asked with a slow, awkward movement toward Rebecca.

  The woman shook her head. “Probably not a good idea.”

  The girl’s heart sink. “Why not?”

  Rebecca sighed. “Don’t I deserve a little bit of solitude after that?”

  She took a seat by the woman and shook her head. “No. At least…”

  “What?”

  “Not until you tell me why it was me.”

  Rebecca looked at the girl. “That’s a bandage you won’t be able to put back on.”

  “I’ll deal with it,” came the steely response.

  A sigh. “I really like you, Olivia.”

  The girl laughed. “I really like you, too.”

  She glanced again at the girl. “Tell you what,” she began. “I’ll tell you what you want to know if we just, uh…” She gestured to the eastern horizon in front of them. “Watch the sunrise.”

  Olivia smiled. “Weird. But okay.” The girl slid closer to the woman and waited. “You should give me some blanket.”

  Rebecca laughed and wrapped her arm around the girl’s shoulder, draping the thin sheet around her. “You good?”

  “I’m good.”

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