Being a Survivor
When he got to school, Thea had joined his friends at their usual place at the flagpole. “Hey, you don’t have your skateboard with you,” Short Round was looking at him as if he had lost his mind.
“I’m skipping the skate park and going to the library. I’ve got tests and I’m going to hit the books.” Michael only half-believed what he was saying himself, but he couldn’t tell his friends that he didn’t want to be around them right now. If he did, he’d have to go into the why and he didn’t want to go there.
“Oooh,” Short Round and Dewey said in unison waving their hands around, while Thea sat and glared at him. He didn’t know if that bothered him, or if he just didn’t need the heckling right now. He shook his head.
“C’mon guys, cut me some slack. I had a rough night.” That was putting it mildly. He’d rescued his sister and beat up the weirdo who’d tried to grab her. Oh, and there had been the incident a week or so ago when he’d been attacked by the wind and a tree. Yeah, he had a break coming all right.
“Ah, he deserves a little time off. Things were kind of hairy at Mikey’s last night.” Short Round immediately realized that he probably shouldn’t have said that when Mike shot him a murderous look.
“Mike—what happened? You didn’t say anything to me.” Dewey’s eyes were wide, full of surprise.
Michael flicked his eyes toward Thea. “Not now, Dew-man. Later, okay?” Dewey nodded. Thea wasn’t so firmly established in their group that she knew the secrets they kept to themselves. She looked puzzled, but from the looks on their faces, she knew no further information was forthcoming. They headed into the school and to their respective classes.
Michael spent the day concentrating on what his teachers were saying, hoping that would make the memories of the night go away. Even as he took notes, wrote down information that was put on the whiteboards, the thoughts were still there, taunting him. It wasn’t until P.E. that he was able to take out his aggression and he worked himself into a dripping sweat when class was done.
He took a shower, grabbed his pack, and headed to the bus. He found a spot all to himself and idly watched the city pass by until the bus stopped in front of the old library with the rose window. Mariah, unseen, was waiting for him, sitting on the bottom step. He cocked his head and she got followed him to a small bench that a donor had placed beneath a giant fir tree. Michael dropped his bag and collapsed onto the bench, Mariah sat at his side, her head on his shoulder.
“Michael, I’m sorry about last night…” she started to say, but he cut her off.
“Don’t apologize to me when I was acting like a total jerk. Don’t do it—ever. I don’t know why girls do that, but I think it’s their guys’ fault. I owe you an apology. I could have said a lot of things to you that meant the same thing and told you why I felt that way. I’m sorry, Mariah, I’m really sorry. It’s never going to happen again. I love you.”
“Michael, I love you too,” she replied, then froze. “Michael, there’s something that doesn’t belong here,” she whispered, “Let’s get away from here, fast.”
He didn’t ask why, but picked up his pack and ran into the library. Mariah sat next to him as he tried to busy himself with studying, but he was having trouble concentrating. Instead, he watched Maria floating about the library as if looking for something. He wondered, idly, if there were any ghosts here. It was as old as the town and a lot of things could have happened.
Suddenly she was beside him. “Call someone and have them pick you up. I’ll stay with you until they get here. Something is wrong, I can feel it. She kept looking nervously out the window like something dangerous was watching them, but this time Michael wasn’t buying it.
“Mariah, maybe it’s after you, not me. Maybe it’s just there. Besides, I’m tired of running from things. I’ve let myself become afraid of what might be out there, whether something’s there or not. I survived the attack from the tree, from the guy who kidnapped you—I even survived a concussion that the doctors told me could have killed me. From now on things change. No more fear.
“Sometimes it’s good to be afraid,” Mariah countered.
“Not when it rules your life. I started to forget that I’m a survivor, not a victim.” Michael picked up his pack and stood up. “I’m outa here, are you coming?” he asked her.
“Okay, I’ll come with you.” Mariah had that look that girls got when they thought weren’t being listened to. He rolled his eyes and they left the library, not speaking to each other, but not leaving the other’s side. They walked hand in hand up the street, listening to the wind rustle the leaves. People were coming home from work, or school, tucking themselves into their comfortable little lives. They’d look at Michael and his long hair, wondering why the strange-looking kid acted like he was holding someone’s hand, then shake their heads and go about their business.
Mariah kept looking over her shoulder. “Michael, something is following us, can’t you feel it?”
He couldn’t, not at first, until he felt the first little breath, like ice, blow through his hair. He tried to brush it away with his hand, then felt the full effect--his hand was growing icy cold.
“Michael, you should have listened to me, you should have gotten a ride. It’s followed us here from the library. It’s not looking for me--it wants you.”
“I’m not going to let it have me, whatever it is,” he muttered and dropped Mariah’s hand and began to run. He couldn’t see if she was able to follow him as he sped down the street, unaware of the stares that he was drawing. It didn’t matter, he didn’t care, he could feel that cold as death fingers reaching out for him and he would not, could not let it catch him.
When he reached the edges of his neighborhood he felt the cold dissipate, and he felt a warmth go through him that let him know he was out of danger, for the moment.
“We did it, Mariah,” he said, “We got away from it. We’re safe now, I’m home.”
“We aren’t safe, Michael, we just got lucky. It’s gone for now, but it could come back. I don’t know where it came from, but you shouldn’t go to that library anymore. Something lives there, something evil. All these things that are happening have made me more afraid, for both of us. Maybe this is the battle we weren’t meant to fight, I don’t know. All I know is I couldn’t bear it if any harm came to you.” Mariah’s eyes had the black circles around them that substituted for tears.
Not caring if anyone saw, he kissed her. “Don’t worry about me, I’m Saint Michael, remember? Goodnight, princess. I’ll be waiting for you tonight.” She beamed at him and floated up the street.
Michael turned around and started up the steps to his house. He was almost up to the porch when he heard a voice say, “Who were you talking to?” He went up the last two steps and saw Thea sitting on the porch.
“I wasn’t talking to anyone,” he answered. Not anyone by definition alive anyway, so technically it was true.
“Yes you were, I heard you.” Thea wouldn’t be put off. “ I heard you say, ‘Good night princess’, which, by the way, sounded pretty tacky. But I looked at the sidewalk and saw you standing there alone, talking to someone who wasn’t there. You got an imaginary playmate or something?” There was no doubting the sarcasm in her tone.
“You gotta problem or something?” he countered, “Maybe you heard things that weren’t there. Why were you spying on me, anyway?” Michael sat down on the opposite side of the porch, starting to feel a little heated. He hated the awkwardness between them, and feared that it might lead to hostility, which he didn’t really want. This was probably his fault. He had been too friendly in their initial encounters, and she may have mistaken it for something more. Even worse, she’d tried to flirt and he’d thoughtlessly brushed her off, and obviously, it had not gone over well.
“I came over here to see why you were so rude to me on the bus. Why you seem to like me one minute and ignore me the next. If I were anyone else, I’d feel like there’s something wrong with me, but there’s not. And I wasn’t spying on you. I knocked on your door and your mom asked me if I’d like to come inside, but I told her it was a nice evening and I’d rather wait out here. And as high as this porch is, you wouldn’t need binoculars to see anyone walking up or down the sidewalk. Sound carries really well here. I wasn’t spying, I just happened to be here.”
“Okay, okay,” said Michael, “You weren’t spying on me then. But why didn’t you just call and tell me you wanted to talk.
Thea sounded a little less sure of herself now. “This is a conversation that should be carried on in person; it’s the type of conversation that guys like to avoid. Well, I don’t avoid things, I confront them. So I decided to confront you.”
He admired Thea’s guts; she wasn’t afraid to ambush him and make him face her. He was sorry that he had had to hurt her feelings, but he cared, cared deeply, for someone else.
But something bigger was at stake besides Thea’s feelings. Even if she wanted to only be friends, he couldn’t risk having her walk down the street past the house. The monster, the “It” who lived up the street was as much a danger to her as he was to Kit. He sighed. He was going to have to do something he didn’t want to, but it at least he could keep her safe.
“Get your stuff,” he said brusquely, “I’m taking you to the bus stop and making sure you get on.”
“I’m perfectly capable of doing that by myself,” Thea’s voice had just the right mixture of sarcasm and hostility to let Michael know exactly how she felt.
“Not here you aren’t.” He took her by the shoulder and marched her down the steps, then turned and paraded her up the street. She tried pulling away from him, but he was too strong for her. All she could do was let herself be pushed up the dark street until they suddenly stopped in front of what looked like an abandoned, run-down house.
“See this?” Michael asked, “Have a good look. See all those bushes? It looks like no one lives here, but someone does. The guy who lives here tried to grab me once; then I had to rescue my sister from him. He’s really good at disappearing, so the cops haven’t found him. I don’t think they can, I think he has a hiding place no one can find. You walk by this house and you just might get grabbed too, and if no one knows you’ve been here, how can I rescue you?”
“This is sick, really sick, trying to scare me like this. I bet no one lives there, anyway.”
Michael’s response was to point to a dimly lit window. “Oh yeah? Then why the light in the window? I’m surprised he wasn’t out here tonight: this is the time of year he likes to do his hunting. Daylight ends early, it’s dark, and if he drags you into the bushes no one will hear you scream. I don’t want you to be another victim, Thea. From now on, you don’t come to my house. It’s not safe.” He paused and took a deep breath, “And besides, there’s someone else. Short Round knows it and he should have told you.”
She gave him a look of sheer hatred, then turned around and ran up the street to the bus stop. Michael watched until he was sure she’d gotten there safely, and waited until she got on the bus. He didn’t like what he’d done, but he wasn’t going to hand “It” another victim. He’d like to keep Thea as a skateboarding friend, but no more than that. Hurting Mariah’s feelings again was out of the question—she was too important to him. He watched the bus rumble off, then turned around and walked home.