SINCE Leon and Rush are gone to their exhibition, the Pit Fighters left behind get to sleep in today. Some of the others choose to lounge in the barracks, but Max meanders outside into the training yard.
The sun is still low in the sky, and there is a crisp chill in the air, the last vestige of early morning. A cursory glance around the yard tells Max that most of the other Fighters are still in their barracks. Chelle is not one of those Fighters. She stretches languidly, her arms reaching for the sky. The breeze musses her short, black hair giving her a pleasantly tousled appearance. One of her pale blue eyes is scarred with a milky sheen covering it. Max doesn’t remember when she came by the injury, but he thinks she looks all the better for it. It makes her look roguish.
He’s always had a bit of a crush on her. There was a time when he thought that one day they might get together, but dating is complicated for Pit Fighters considering they have to punch and stab each other on a regular basis. Forget dating, being friends is hard enough.
Fitz is in the yard too. He suspects that the other Fighter harbors similar feelings for Chelle, but Fitz has always been good at disguising how he truly feels by being flip and cavalier. Max is careful to keep his distance. There’s no point in starting something when no one is around to see it and break up the fight.
As the sun climbs higher, more and more Fighters exit the barracks. It is getting closer to lunch time, and with Leon and Rush absent, everyone is curious to see which faery from the house will bring them their food. Max knows better. No faery from the house ever ventures down to the yard unless the brothers have planned for the Fighters to put on a show. They’ll probably just send lunch with the House Pets.
Max finds an empty bench to sit on while he watches the pacing Fighters. Every once in a while, two Fighters get into a skirmish. A couple of kicks and punches are exchanged, but then the aggression quickly dissipates. Whenever these sort of scuffles don’t peter out, Leon and Rush are usually here to put an end to it. If things get out of hand while the authority figures are away… well, Max doesn’t dwell on that. The Pit Fighters are like caged dogs that have been trained to tear at each other. It’s only a matter of time before somebody explodes.
He shakes his head, and picks up a broken stick to pick at the dirt under his fingernails. It’s hard to believe that any of these scarred and violent teenagers used to be normal kids with normal lives. Now they’re not even allowed to go to school anymore. Not like the House Pets: Maggie, Lela, and Annabelle. Comparatively, those three are living in the lap of luxury.
Max barely remembers his old life. He knows he used to go to Ferris High School. He used to have friends there, but he can’t remember their faces anymore. He can still recall what his mom looked like; picturing his dad’s face is harder. Unlike his mom, Max only saw his dad every other weekend. The only thing he remembers of his little sister is her vibrant red hair that his mother could never tame. He wonders what happened to his sister after he disappeared.
There’s a commotion by the gate. Max assumes it’s their lunch, until he hears how frantic the approaching footsteps are. A body comes barreling down the road and slams into the gate. From the sound of her voice, Max can tell it’s Lela, but she’s sobbing and babbling nonsense. Others have gathered around the gate and try to help her open it. When it finally swings open, Lela doesn’t move. She just stands, swaying back and forth and clutching her hair.
Max gets to his feet for a better view. Lela—pretty Lela with the mocha skin and the chocolate hair—is not so pretty anymore. The skin around her eyes is puffy from the tears, and her pajamas are covered in large blood stains. He is too far away to hear what she’s saying. Before he can get closer, chaos erupts in the yard. Everyone runs in separate directions. Some go back to the barracks and emerge with arms full of clothes. Others skip the barracks and sprint across the open field, not bothering to look back.
They are running away.
Indecision and confusion root his feet to the grass. He doesn’t know what is going on or what to do. He’s knocked to his senses when Sammy clips his shoulder roughly, almost sending both of them to the ground.
“What’s happening?” he yells over the panic and confusion. Sammy’s eyes are wild, and Max half expects him to take off again without giving him an answer.
“It’s the Fairchilds!” he gasps. He’s about to bolt once more, but Max grabs his arm and uses his momentum to swing him around.
“Sammy! What about the Fairchilds?”
“They’re dead!” Sammy’s voice gets higher and more frenzied with each syllable. “All of them!”
In his shock, Max releases his friend’s arm, and Sammy is gone in a flash. The blood pounds so loud in his ears that all other sounds are reduced to a droning buzz. It takes someone else almost shoving Max to the ground again for him to come back to himself. Who cares about his belongings in the barracks, he decides. They all have to get out while they can.
In that moment, he’s free. The suffocating walls crumble and the sky breaks open. For the first time in years, the heat of the sun on his face feels more like a blessing than a punishment.
He spots Sammy on the other side of the field already, disappearing into the woods. Max lunges after him, only to be stopped by a bony but firm hand gripping his sleeve. He whirls around, prepared to beat down whoever dares to keep him in this hellhole. But he halts with his fist raised in midair when he sees the person holding onto him is Maggie. Her pale face is set in a grim expression, and she too is covered in blood.
“Don’t follow them,” she cautions. “They won’t make it far.”
“Says who?” he retorts and yanks himself from her grasp.
“Says biology,” she snaps. Max pauses. He’s never seen Maggie look so serious. She is always smiling and teasing the little Fairchild children. But those children are dead now. Of course she would be upset by that. “How far do you think they’ll get if they can’t eat or drink anything?” she says rhetorically.
Her tone is condescending, but Max has to admit that she has a point. They won’t get far at all. He looks around the yard and notices that he’s not the only Pit Fighter who chose to stay behind. Fitz is still here—of course he is, because that’s just the kind of luck Max has. Luke is over by Lela, trying to calm her, and Chelle is leaning against the open gate with her arms crossed.
Including him, six of them left are left. Max frowns. One of the House Pets is missing. “Did Annabelle leave?”
At this, Lela bursts into fresh tears. Maggie sighs and takes Max by his shirt sleeve, tugging on him insistently as she starts walking back up the dirt road toward the house. She looks back and nods at Luke, who continues to hold Lela and awkwardly pat her head. This isn’t Luke’s brand of comfort, Max knows, but the distraught girl doesn’t appear to care.
“Come with me,” Maggie mutters as they round the bend, and the other three vanish. “I’ll tell you what I know, but I’ll need your help in the house.”
Max has never been all the way to the farmhouse, just seen it from afar. They pass the greenhouse and the garden and the well where the changelings’ food and water comes from. He eyes the two features with trepidation. What will they do when the enchanted food and water inevitably run out? He buries his concerns for the moment though, as the imposing Fairchild house looms over the two humans. The dark red bricks absorb light from the midday sun—he can practically see the heat coming off the building in waves—and the wraparound porch casts long, creeping shadows over the lawn. Never has he encountered a structure possessing so much menace.
“Be prepared,” Maggie warns him. “It’s grisly in there.”
The world becomes eerily silent as she pushes the front door open, and Max finds himself holding his breath. From all the blood on Maggie’s and Lela’s clothing, he expects to find a horror show within the walls of the expansive farmhouse. Oddly though, the foyer is very anticlimactic. Except for a few bloody footprints, the room is spotless.
A grand piano gleams in one corner between two glass vases that hold a tasteful arrangement of lilies and cattails. The walls are a pale ocean blue, and if he ignores the footprints, the carpet is white as snow. Gossamer curtains billow gracefully as the breeze from outside fills the foyer with the clean scent of morning dew that still lingers even in early afternoon.
But Maggie doesn’t stop there. She continues to lead Max through the house. There are more bloody footprints in the kitchen. He sees handprints too. Crimson streaks are smeared on the counter tops, like someone slipped and caught themselves with wet, sticky hands. When Maggie shows Max into the dining room, he instantly knows that this is the room she was preparing him for.
The smell hits him first.
Max knows what death smells like; the Pit reeks of it. But that stench is so out of place when it clings to the wallpaper in someone’s home, even if it is the home of faeries. The Fairchilds are not at all recognizable. He can identify the three younger children, but only because they are the smallest. He assumes that Master Fairchild is the adult wearing navy blue sleep pants, but Madam Fairchild wears similar sleeping attire so he can’t be certain.
But what really makes him feel ill is not the sight of his mutilated owners or the retched odor of fresh death. It’s the staging. Every member of the family is seated at the dining room table, their uneaten breakfast served to them.
“What do you need help with?” His voice is hoarse when he speaks. Max swallows, and the action leaves his mouth bone dry.
Maggie holds her twisted right hand to her nose and mouth, and then gestures to the bodies with her left hand. “We need to move them to the freezer, which obviously I can’t do alone.” Max eyes the crooked fingers of her right hand and the odd angle of her wrist.
“We’re not going to bury them?”
She raises her eyebrow. “Do you want six dead bodies sitting out in the summer sun while we dig graves? No, we’re just temporarily storing them.”
“Touché.” His stomach churns, and he tries to swallow again, but there’s no moisture left in his mouth.
Max moves the kids first. They are light enough that he doesn’t require Maggie’s assistance, which is good since she seems reluctant to touch them. She leads him to the walk-in freezer, and then sets him to work. Three times he makes that trip, each time with a little body cradled in his arms. He’s careful to leave room in the freezer for the adults. It takes him a few minutes to shuffle boxes around, but eventually there is space on the shelves for him to lay the children down, one on top of the other. Max steps back to observe his handiwork. He can’t help but feel like he’s created a perverse bunkbed.
Next, he goes back to the dining room and starts lifting the oldest daughter. He looks to Maggie for help this time, but she is standing off in the corner, watching him warily with her arms crossed and her shoulders hunched.
“Can you handle her by yourself?” she asks, chewing on her bottom lip. Max sighs but decides to humor the House Pet. He puts one arm around the back of the corpse and slides his other arm beneath her knees. Max lifts her a few inches off the chair to test the weight, but as soon as he does, he knows something is wrong.
A loud snap and a dull thud make Maggie jump. The body in Max’s arms is suddenly not in one piece anymore. The dead faery falls apart, and he loses his grip on her. Her lower half slips underneath the table, and the top half of her body falls into the chair with a wet slap as her entrails connect with the wood.
All the color drains from Maggie’s face, and Max worries that she might be in shock. “You don’t have to do this,” he says to her in a low voice. “I can take care of the others by myself.”
Her eyes stare vacantly at the body, but she resolutely shakes her head. “The sooner we get this done, the better.” Hesitantly, Maggie steps out of the corner and grabs the faery’s wrist with her good hand. She walks backwards, dragging half the body in her wake. Reluctantly feeling a smidgen of respect for the House Pet, he follows her with the other half.
Maggie attempts to help him with the remaining bodies, but since she only has the use of one hand, he does most of the heavy lifting. By the time they get the three adults situated in the freezer, Max is ready to run from the suffocating house. He leans against the cool side of the freezer door and uses a dishtowel to wipe a layer of sweat from his brow. Maggie gives him an expectant look.
“I hope you’re not too tired. There’s still one more.”
Instead of explaining herself, she motions for him to follow her yet again. Thankfully, she skirts the dining room. They’ve left a bloody, smelly mess in there, even though the bodies are now gone.
Maggie stops at the end of a hallway and opens a plain, innocuous door. On the other side, a staircase spirals down into the bowels of the house. “The House Pets sleep down in the basement,” she says. She begins to walk down the stairs, but Max has difficulty following her. He hates basements. And clearly, she already knows what they will find when they reach the bottom. So why does she refuse to tell him?
The raven haired girl looks over her shoulder just once to make sure Max is coming too. This is what spurs him to action. If a House Pet can handle whatever is in the basement, then so can a Pit Fighter. He won’t let frail, little Maggie show him up.
Down and down the steps they go. As they trek farther underground, the air becomes cooler and damp. An overpowering musty scent assaults his senses. He wrinkles his nose and tries not to breathe too deeply. When they reach the landing, he sees that they are in a crude laundry room. A deep grumbling emits from the dryer along with the whoosh of clothes tumbling around inside the machine.
Instead of walls, the rooms in the House Pets’ quarters are separated by heavy curtains. Behind one curtain that’s only half closed, Max sees a toilet and a sink. Maggie pushes aside another curtain. She strides into a room with three beds. Max is somewhat surprised to find that the bed sheets are all individual of each other. In the barracks, every bed is uniform. He’s sure that Maggie, Annabelle, and Lela didn’t get to choose the color and design of their bedsheets, but at least the Fairchilds acknowledged that they had some personality.
The first two beds are unmade and disheveled. The third bed has a pale pink comforter and hides a lump underneath. Maggie steps aside, allowing Max a view of the figure lying under the blanket. The strawberry blonde hair and the pretty rose-petal lips are a dead giveaway for Annabelle. At first she appears to be sleeping. It’s not until he looks past her pale face that Max notices the bed and the wall behind Annabelle are covered in blood and a substance that looks like brain matter.
A pistol, presumably stolen from Master Fairchild’s collection, is loosely held in her hand. Her mouth is still slightly ajar. Max can’t imagine Master Fairchild kept the firearms on display loaded, but Annabelle had a weird relationship with Leon. Though he can’t fathom why Leon would he give her bullets.
Max starts to rub his face, but quickly realizes that he hasn’t washed the blood and viscera from his hands since moving all the Fairchilds to the freezer.
“What happened here?” he groans and slumps onto the bed closest to Annabelle’s. Maggie sits next to him, seeming much more collected than she was upstairs.
“The gunshot woke me up. I guess she finally snapped,” Maggie says simply. She takes a white stick from her pocket. “This was in the bathroom.” Max looks at it more closely. He feels a jolt of shock when he realizes that he is looking at a pregnancy test. “Three guesses as to who the father is—was,” she corrects herself. “It feels so strange now that everyone is gone.”
“Not everyone,” Max corrects her numbly. “Leon and Rush are out of town.” A crease appears between Maggie’s eyes, as if the absence of the two oldest Fairchild sons is something she forgot. “How did she do it?” he asks. “How did she kill them?”
“I found the wood-chopping ax in the mudroom.”
“The ax? Geez, that thing’s heavy.” And so were the deceased faeries, he recalls. How did petite Annabelle hack them past recognition? And how did she stage the bodies all by herself?
“Yeah. Talk about an adrenaline rush.”
“Are we moving her to the freezer too?”
She nods and stands to her feet. “Come on, I’ll hold the door for you.”
He gathers Annabelle in his arms, making a conscious effort to show her more care than he did the faeries.
Once he exits the house, Max draws as much air into his lungs as he possibly can. He’s seen violence, but not in such a domestic setting, and he has never been faced with cleaning up the aftermath. Curiously, Maggie does not look nearly as shaken as he feels.
The sound of fast approaching footsteps interrupts his thoughts. Fitz, Chelle, and Luke come jogging up the path, and bringing up the rear is Lela.
“Did Lela tell you what happened?” Maggie asks the group. Fitz nods his head.
“I assume you guys are going to need help with the house cleaning. But right now, we’ve got another problem.”
Chelle points back the way they came. “There’re more bodies down by the yard,” she says. “People trampled each other.” The words leaving her lips should be horrifying, but Chelle speaks them as if she’s talking about the weather. Max himself has spoken callously about his fallen, fellow Pit Fighters in the past; even now he doesn’t feel terribly upset over their loss. But he doesn’t like the thought of Chelle dismissing their comrades so coldly. Would she view his lifeless body that way, as nothing but a problem to be disposed of?
Maggie sighs loudly, propping her good hand on her hip. “How many?” she asks and tries to use her twisted fingers to pinch the bridge of her nose.
“At least seven,” says Luke. “Maybe more, we didn’t venture very far into the woods.”
Maggie bites her lip in thought. Finally, she asks, “What do Leon and Rush usually do when a Pit Fighter dies?”
“They drive them to a crematorium,” answers Fitz. “Although we’d be hard pressed to tell you where it is, since none of us have ever died in the past.” Max has the sudden urge to smack that smart-aleck grin off Fitz’s face. Before he has the chance, Maggie comes to a decision.
“Let’s take them far enough into the woods so the smell won’t be noticeable from here, hide them, and leave them.”
“Why can’t we do that with the Fairchilds too?” asks Max with a frown. That seems a whole lot easier than digging six graves—well, seven if he counts Annabelle.
“Because I said so!” she retorts. A shocked silence falls over the group. He can now see a hard and unforgiving quality in Maggie’s green eyes. Her cold, emotionless expression fades when she sees Max and the others are taken aback. And suddenly, she returns to the tired, shell-shocked House Pet from earlier. “And we still need the Fairchilds,” she adds softly.
Something about Maggie’s words unsettle Max, but he can’t put his finger on what it is. Instead of questioning her, Luke just nods.
“Okay. Max and I will start collecting bodies down at the yard. Fitz and Chelle can begin cleaning up the house. Does that sound good?” Even though his question is addressed to everyone, Max notices that all eyes turn to Maggie for the final word.
“Yeah, fine.” She shrugs and drapes her arm around Lela’s shoulders. The poor girl is still trembling and sniffling. She leans into Maggie’s embrace. “We’ll be in the garden if anyone needs us.” She uses her grip on Lela’s shoulders to steer her away from the Pit Fighters and away from the carnage.
Once the House Pets are gone, Fitz’s cheerfulness dissipates. They don’t speak as their little group of four splits in half, Fitz and Chelle going toward the house and Max and Luke turning to the yard. They all briefly nod to each other—what they’re acknowledging, Max isn’t sure—and then part ways.
It isn’t until he and Luke are walking in silence that Max realizes the day has progressed into late afternoon. All at once, he feels exhausted and heavy. It’s not just death that weighs him down. It’s that momentary taste of freedom.
In that instant, when everyone was running and the world was upside-down, he felt so light, light enough to fly. He could have floated up into the sky and never come down again. And then he came crashing back to Earth, the pressure of Maggie’s little hand heavier than a lead weight. With every poisonous word from her mouth, he was reminded that even though he could run away, he would never be free.
The air around him is sour. He knows Luke can feel it too as he keeps glancing in Max’s direction. These dark thoughts won’t help anyone, but he can’t hold them back. They burn in his veins. He had felt freedom, and then this hell house reeled him in once more. None of them are free and they never will be. Despite the Fairchilds being dead, they are all still prisoners.