Smoke Girl

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Chapter Six: Flame

1.


Marcee's left us the key to her house under the doormat, just as she said she would. We unlock it and head inside the empty house. I need to shower before I head to school.

If anyone will help, it will be Mr. Landwick. He'll understand what the flyer means.

At sundown tomorrow, Alvin Gaffrey's mass initiation happens. His reign of terror begins. Ruba and Marcee and their families will be driven from town just like in the past--and maybe violently. They could even be hurt or worse--killed.

I can't let Alvin Gaffrey find me before then. I think of that vision he plunged me into on Main Street and his words in the library, and I scramble into the shower and crank up the hot water. I shower and shower for the longest time, until every molecule of grime disappears from my mind, rolls off my body, and down into the drain. Almost until my skin falls off.

I almost wish it would.

Water patters to the porcelain of the shower. The drops seem to speak as they contact the floor.

I'm. Not. Like. Him.

I dry off, dress, and head back out the living room where Renee and Ruba wait their turns.

I'm. Not. Like. Him.

"Go," I say. "We have only a couple more hours before school ends. If we're going to catch Mr. Landwick, we have to hurry."

Renee goes next.

How much does she suspect? She hasn't asked me many questions today. The sound of the shower floats in through the wall as Ruba and I wait in silence.

Is the same mantra going through my sister's mind?

2.

By time we reach the high school, the bell rings to begin the final hour of the day. It's Mr. Landwick's conference hour. My stomach turns at the thought of facing him again, especially after yesterday. What is he going to think after Dad wanted the album and the clippings back like that? Will he turn me away or call my parents?

The corner of the flyer pokes into my pocket.

I will take the risk. We need all the help we can get.

"Renee," I say to my sister. We stop by the outside benches. "Wait out here. I need to go in and talk to a teacher about something."

"About what?" she asks.

"About getting help. So we can go back home." My feet hurt from the walk to school.

"So Mom and Dad can stop being racist?" she asks. "What is with them all of a sudden?"

Oh. She does know what all this means, after all. "Yes. I'm going to have my history teacher, Mr. Landwick, talk to them."

"That's good."

I walk inside and keep an eye out for the hall monitor. I pass classes in session. A lecture about the Quadratic Formula. A darkened classroom where they're watching a movie about grizzly bears. I wish I could be among everyone else, clean and uninfected with Alvin Gaffrey's blood.

Mr. Landwick's door is still open, just as it was yesterday afternoon. I peek in. He's at his desk, grading a pile of worksheets.

"Mr. Landwick," I say.

He looks up. I can't read his expression.

"I need to talk to you."

He nods, but slowly. "Come on in."

He saw how my father acted yesterday.

"It's about my dad."

My teacher shifts in his chair. He's uncomfortable. "What happened yesterday, Jae? I told the office about it. Perhaps you should see the guidance counselor. She's written you a pass to go down there."

I fish the folded-up flyer out of my pocket. "My dad has been hanging these all around town." I toss it down on his desk. My heart's pounding.

Mr. Landwick unfolds it and reads the plain text. He studies it for almost a full minute and sighs. "Jae, I really think you should see the guidance counselor. If your father's getting involved in unsavory things like this--"

"You don't understand. I need as much help as I can get shutting this down."

He puts his hand over the flyer and nods. "I will report this," he says. His words are heavy. "Most people won't know what this means. There was another one of these that appeared in the band hallway this afternoon."

"Thanks," I say. "But what am I supposed to do?" Should I tell him? "I haven't been home since last night. There was...a gathering there that I didn't want to be at."

Mr. Landwick's eyes grow wide. "Jae, you're kidding."

"I'm not. Please. Don't call my parents and tell them I'm here." I glance out the door to make sure no one's listening in. "I can't go back there right now. Not until I find a way to get my parents out of that."

My teacher stands up and grabs the corner of his desk. I've put him in an uncomfortable position. "The best you can do in this situation," he says, "is to tell yourself that you are not responsible for their actions, any more than you're responsible for the actions of Alvin Gaffrey. Unfortunately, you cannot change their opinions. People like that are very set in their ways, often so much that they can't see logic. The only person you can control is you."

"I know that." Or do I? Alvin Gaffrey's controlling Dad and he wants to control me. I'm not sure I can even resist his influence forever. I speak over a lump in my throat. "The thing is, they're trying to pull me into it. They're telling me I can't hang out with some of my friends. It's getting bad. They're trying to bring back stuff like we saw in that album yesterday--and worse!"

He glances down like he's not sure what to say. "Do you want me to go out to your house and talk with them?" he asks at last.

I'm not sure how to answer. I do want him to go fight this battle for me, but at the same time, will Alvin Gaffrey try to sway him? "I'm not sure."

"Do you feel like we need to talk to the police?"

My stomach turns at the thought of Mom and Dad getting arrested. But, as far as I know, they haven't done anything violent yet so the police won't have a reason to put them in cuffs. If my parents know they're being watched, it might stop them from trying anything worse than they've already done.

But they'll know who called the cops. How are they going to respond to that?

"Maybe." What will I tell them? They have to respond to every call, don't they? "Will they take me back home?"

Mr. Landwick lets go of his desk. "Probably. Jae, they're your parents and I'm sure they're worried about you. But if they're putting you through any abuse, you need to tell the police."

"They aren't. Not exactly." I can't blame Mom and Dad for something they haven't done. It would make me no better than Alvin Gaffrey. I need to get out of here. Mr. Landwick knows I've run away. "Just...just report what's going on around here to someone who might be able to stop it. Please."

I turn and leave, to head back to where my best friend and my sister wait.

3.

Ruba's parents aren't home when we get to her house. I know we shouldn't come here, that Dad will probably want to look here again. Ruba opens the door and turns the lights on inside. It's already getting dark and I don't want to be outside right now.

"Can we sleep here tonight?" Renee asks.

"You can, if we stay quiet," Ruba says. "My parents might be out to dinner right now. They usually go on Friday nights."

"Like Mom and Dad like to go to the movies," I tell Renee, trying to keep the tone light. "They're probably going right now."

"No, they're not. Don't lie to me, sis. I know what it was that we saw last night. What it meant."

I don't know what else to say. "I'm sorry." Does she know who Alvin Gaffrey is? She can't. I never told her, and I don't think Dad did, either. He never even told me. I have a feeling that my parents had planned to keep him a secret from us for the rest of our lives.

If only I hadn't opened that chest...

Ruba goes and turns on her light. We pile into her room and she closes her curtains. I'm glad to be somewhere familiar, somewhere I can feel comfortable.

"But where did all those other guys in the robes come from?" she asks. "They weren't in our yard one second, and the next, they were there."

"I'm not sure." I look to Ruba for an answer, but she shakes her head. "When that guy in the black robe burned all those papers, they appeared. Ruba seems to think that there was some kind of bad energy in those that helped to bring them back from the past, or something."

Renee leans against the wall. She has bags under her eyes. They're deep and exhausted. She needs sleep. We all need sleep. "Ruba," I ask. "Do your parents check in here late at night often?"

"No," she says. "They're pretty cool about that. I think you will be safe here."

"As long as my parents don't come here again." I can't be sure they won't. Dad hadn't wanted to stay here very long last night, so that might be an advantage here. All Renee and I have to do is hide if he shows up.

"Why don't the two of you sleep?" Ruba yawns. "I'll keep watch and keep my light off. I can just use an energy drink to stay awake until my parents get here."

I curl up next to her giant teddy bear. "That sounds like a good idea."

I'm sitting here, not doing anything to stop Alvin Gaffrey.

It's driving me insane. I should be out there, shouting him down. Going around town and throwing away all those flyers that I find. Maybe I should have gone to the police. Mom and Dad would probably be safer in jail, even if I break and destroy our family.

But what more can I do?

I close my eyes and try to think of a way to stop Alvin Gaffrey. But instead, my thoughts flow around each other, turning into weird shapes and strange creatures. I swim through bizarre landscapes until oblivion takes me.

4.

"Renee. Jae."

Ruba's scared. She shakes my shoulder and I wake. The clock on Ruba's nightstand reads ten thirty. Her parents must not be home yet.

"Up."

I open my eyes. There's a hard knock on the door.

And another.

It's still dark. The shadow of Renee stretches out on the wall.

Another knock. The temperature of the room turns to frigid and dangerous.

My heart stops and I push myself to my feet. The three of us stand close to each other, unable to move.

He's here.

"Jae," Alvin Gaffrey calls. "Renee. Are you in there?"

"Does he really think I'm going to answer him?" I ask. My heart's pounding.

"It's not safe for you to be in there!"

"What's he going to do?" Ruba asks. Her voice is a frightened hiss.

I have a few ideas. "We need to get out of here. Back door."

He bangs on the door now. "Come out of there. Don't make me come in and look for you, because I will. I don't want the two of you hurt."

It kills me to say it to my best friend. "Call 911," I choke out. "Tell them your house is on fire."

"What?" Ruba stares at me, eyes wide.

"Just do it."

Where are Ruba's parents? They should be home soon, though I don't think that will stop Alvin Gaffrey. The doorknob rattles again. I reach down and feel for the photo still in my pocket. It's still there. Can he detect it?

The doorknob rattles harder. The lock snaps.

Ruba grabs my arm and Renee's arm at the same time. "The secret compartment."

We run back down the hallway and back into Ruba's room. I push Renee around her bed and Ruba fumbles with the door that leads to the storage space. Renee crawls in and I wave Ruba in after her. Alvin Gaffrey might even kill my best friend. If he comes in here before we can all hide, it's me that I want him to face.

The front door's opening with a creak.

"Get in!" Renee waves her hand. The fear makes her voice high.

I crawl inside and close the door behind us. I'm crammed in beside two bodies. My knee rests on the spiral notebook of what must be Ruba's secret journal. Someone's hot breath blows against my ear. Will Alvin Gaffrey see this door? It's not obvious unless you know to look for it.

Footsteps enter the house. They're muffled, but I know that the figure in black stands in the entryway where Dad stood the night before.

"Girls," he calls. "Come out. I am serious about this."

I keep my hand over the photo in my pocket, jabbing Renee in the process. I've got to cover up the energy the photo is giving off, or something. A board creaks under me. I hold my breath.

The footsteps head away. He must be searching the kitchen. A door opens and closes.

"The pantry." Ruba shifts next to me. "If he's there we can run for it. I can't make a phone call in here. No bars." Her phone glows next to me. She's right.

"We can't," I say. "There must be more of them out there."

The door closes. Footsteps sound again and become muffled. He's on the carpet of the living room. The couch scrapes against the floor. He's searching behind it. Alvin Gaffrey is leaving no stone unturned.

"Are they in there?" another voice asks. "I don't want to hang around here long."

It's Marvin. That means Dad must be close as well.

But Alvin Gaffrey doesn't answer. He walks closer. Crosses the threshold from the living room and back into the entryway.

He's coming in here.

Ruba seizes my arm. I tighten my grasp around the photo. He's going to kill her right in front of me and Renee. I want to hug Ruba but I might make that board creak. We're statues of terror, waiting for the worst.

Blankets shuffle. He's looking under the bed. He's only three feet away, maybe four. Surely he must be able to sense us. He walks a bit closer. The closet door creaks open. The sound is very loud in here. He flips on a light. Off again. Closes the door.

And walks out of the room.

I let out a breath, not daring to release the photo. The monster walks down the hall. The coat closet opens and closes. Marvin asks something else that's muffled. There's still no answer.

Next to me, Ruba sniffles.

There's silence for a bit. Then another thump. At last, after what feels like hours, the footfalls grow loud again, pass us, and head back to the front door.

"The house is empty," Alvin Gaffrey shouts. "Do it. We need to leave."

The front door slams.

5.

"We have to go," I say, pushing open the secret compartment.

The room's still dark. We pile out into Ruba's room. There's still a slight chill to the air. He's not far. We have to get out without being seen.

Ruba flips open her phone. Its bluish light fills the room.

I grab her arm. "We don't have time to call right now."

"What's going to happen?" Renee asks.

The front kitchen window shatters. There's another crash. A whooshing noise fills the house as an angry orange glow explodes down the hall.

Renee screams and covers her ears. Fire. It's erupting in the kitchen and we need to get out of here. Those two thoughts race through my mind, growing louder and louder until I finally manage to peel my foot off the floor. Tires screech outside. The deed is done. They're leaving.

Ruba coughs. The stench of smoke wafts in. My eyes water and burn.

"The window," I manage. I rush over and push it open. I gag. The house is filling with smoke. I don't even care if Alvin Gaffrey is still out there, watching. I breathe in precious fresh air. The whooshing grows louder. Light dances on the walls. What have they thrown in here?

I push at the screen. Renee screams. Ruba babbles something and coughs again. I curse and punch at it. It's stuck. I scream. Someone has to--

"You girls! Hold on."

There's a man outside the window. I can't make him out. He rushes around the house and I hear the front door open again, along with more gagging. A neighbor.

Renee's slumping on the floor. She slides against the wall. The air is thick. Acrid. Ruba has her nose down inside her shirt to hold out the fumes.

"Sis!" I kneel down beside her. "Get all the way down on the floor. Lay flat!" We're going to have to crawl to the front door. It's closest--but also closest to the flames. Footsteps approach. It's the man. Ruba drops down beside me. She's doing better than Renee, but not much. Her eyes water. So do mine. The world's a blur. I'm disoriented.

"My wife's calling the fire department," the man says. He dives down towards us. I can't even tell what he looks like.

"Grab my sister!"

Renee grunts as the man scoops her up. He runs. I seize Ruba's arm and try to rise, then duck down again. We have to move. Heat blasts against my face. The smoke grows thicker. Everything's black and I can't see. Are we still in Ruba's room? Will the man be able to come back in?

I can't wait for him. I flail and my hand hits Ruba's door. Hot air blasts into the room. Flames flicker. There's no way he's coming back in.

I shut the bedroom door. It'll hold back the flames for some time. Let the smoke flow out the window, maybe enough so we can stand.

Ruba grabs my arm. "Jae," she manages.

Something pops outside the door. A window, maybe. The roar's deafening. Will the house collapse?

We have to get out. I suck in a breath of precious air. It's not too bad here on the floor. I hear the man shouting again. He's at the window. I turn my head to look up. The smoke seems to be thinning. It's flowing out the window.

Something cuts against the screen. The man's using a knife or something. I hear Renee shouting from outside. I pull my shirt up over my nose and pull at Ruba. "We have to go out the window!" I shout. "Now!"

I suck in a breath and hold it. I'm not sure which one of us stands first. The man yells for us. The smoke burns my eyes. We rush for the window and I reach out, gripping the sill. The air's cooler here. My eyes water less. We're almost out. I reach outside into the cool night air and a hand grips mine.

"Sis!" Renee yells.

I tumble out of the smoke and heat and toxic fumes and onto the Osmans' lawn. Renee lands beside me. I suck in precious lungfuls of air. I'm alive. We all are.

"Are you girls okay?" the man shouts.

I manage to blink the tears from my eyes. It's a red-haired man standing over us. An orange glow flickers across his face and his features are wide with terror. Renee stands next to him. She's hyperventilating.

"Is there anyone else in the house?"

"No," I answer with a cough.

I can't nod. All I can do is scramble to my feet and pull Ruba up. She's sobbing. Behind her, flames lash out of the kitchen window, hungry and evil. Black smoke billows up into the night. Somewhere, sirens wail. The neighbors have called the fire department already. Maybe some of them even saw those sheeted figures in the yard. Saw one of them throwing the firebomb through the window.

Ruba leans on me and I absorb her grief. I wrap my arm around her, grab Renee's hand and lead them away from the house. The air grows cooler, but something snaps behind us and crashes.

Which one of them did it?

Did Alvin Gaffrey throw the bomb or did Marvin? Did someone else they've brought in do the deed?

We cross the street. The man asks if we're okay again. We're not. None of us will be ever again.

Did my father do it?

The man opens the door to his house and we pile in. There's a woman inside, a middle-aged blonde with a towel. Ruba takes her face from my shoulder and accepts it. She buries her face in it and remains quiet for a what feels like minutes.

"Did you girls see what happened?" the man asks.

"Did you?" I'm frantic. Did Dad start the fire? What would my parents have gone through if we hadn't made it out? "There were people out there before it happened. I heard them."

The man faces his wife. "We were taking a nap," she says. "I didn't see anyone outside just now. We only woke up when we heard a crash."

Despite the sweat drenching the back of my shirt, I shudder. Did Alvin Gaffrey affect everyone on the street, somehow making them look away at the right time? This is in town. The houses aren't packed together that tightly, but it's easy for everyone to see up and down the street. But no one came out when Alvin Gaffrey and his minions had the house surrounded. No one called the authorities until the fire had already started.

Or has he swayed more people to his side than I realize?

The sirens grow louder and the outside flashes in reds, blues and yellows. I can't bear to look at it. My best friend's house has become a box of hell, spewing flames and smoke.

"Renee," I manage. "Are you breathing okay? Do you feel okay?"

She nods. Her eyes are red and watery, as red as mine must be. She's not staggering. That's a good thing. Whatever carbon monoxide we've breathed must be getting out of our systems. It's a dry thought falling on my numb mind.

"Do you girls think you need paramedics?" the woman asks. She's shaken and holding her cell phone. Her hand trembles so much that she nearly drops it.

Ruba sobs again. She leans against the brick of the entryway wall, away from us. Renee runs into the couple's bathroom and closes the door. The sound of retching comes out. I know I should say something to my friend and go comfort my sister, but what do I say? I'm connected to the people who did this and no number of showers is going to erase that.

"I'm sure they'll send some," I say. I turn to my best friend and take her shoulder. "Ruba, I'm--"

She pushes me away so hard that I have to step back. "Don't touch me!"

I stand there as if slapped. "I know you're upset. I didn't have anything to do with this. I swear." I'm trembling.

"Just go!"

Her words are knives. They stab me in my memories, making blood flow over them all.

"Ruba--we're best friends. We can't let this change that. It's what they want."

The man looks between us both. His eyes widen again. "Was this arson? Do you know who set fire to the house?"

I ignore him. Ruba turns away from the wall and manages to turn her gaze to me with one eye. "I think I know why you were always worried about having me over at your house when your parents got home," she says. "I'm not mad at you, Jae. I just need to go think about some things."

She brushes past me and back outside. The man says something again, but it's lost. Ruba collapses on the porch and buries her face in her hands as her home and childhood turn to charcoal and rubble.


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