It’s hard pretending nothing feels or seems different. Hard to not want to look over my shoulder every time I go somewhere. Even harder to do is act as though my own dad hasn’t told me, my siblings, and my mom anything. Now they’re cramming families in to the high school. Everyone separated by graduating class or something to that effect. All I know is that this isn’t good. We still haven’t gotten past the virus that broke out at the beginning of last year. That and I have no clue as to whether or not my brothers are okay. Staff have been escorted to out of the cafeteria. Parents and legal guardians are forced to stand at the back. Everyone is anxious, but the students seem to think it’s another assembly. Although, I don’t know what assembly forces entire households into the cafeteria.
A tap on my shoulder pulls me from my thoughts. It takes me a moment to turn to see who it is. Pleasantly surprised to find two familiar faces. The last I saw either was when I graduated high school. We’d all ended up going to different colleges.
“What’s the occasion? You two haven’t been in town for months.”
“Laz’s school finally let the students go home. I had to drive cross country by myself.”
“During a pandemic?”
“Lupe’s not bright, Rys. How’ve you been?”
I hug Lupe and her cousin to me before letting them sit down on either side of me. Lupe’s hair is slicked back into a neat ponytail. Her makeup is even done despite the mask she’s wearing. Lazarus still looks the same as he did when he graduated. Dark hair kept short, expressionless face and eyes ever watchful.
“I’ve been better.”
Lupe hums in agreement. Last year was hell for everyone. And this year started off as even crazier. Somehow we’ve gotten to the end of January with little to no problem. Until today. Rather last night when mass emails and calls went out to students and their parents. All stating how there was to be an assembly all household members had to attend. Mom couldn’t get out of work which leaves just me. Dad’s still away at work. If it can really be called that. He hasn’t called or anything since the news broadcast.
“How are the boys?”
“Good. I guess. Austin’s having a tough time readjusting to being in school. Maxine hates being here as usual.”
“Lazarus, for once in your life can you not be an ass.”
“He’s fine Lupe.”
Lupe rolls her eyes. For as long as I’ve known them they’ve always been this way. Picking at each other. It’s a welcome sight after months of paranoia, worry, and chaos. I smile briefly. Catching sight of Austin’s homeroom teacher. For a moment I almost think she’s looking for someone, but brush that thought aside. Until she taps my shoulder moments later. There’s worry in eyes of gray that I’ve never seen before.
“You’re Austin and Maxine’s sister, Rys?”
“Is Austin okay? Did something happen.”
“He seems to be in distress of some sort. Hands over his ears and he’s shaking in his seat.”
She tries to continue, but I jump to my feet immediately. I let her lead me to my brother. Sure enough he’s leaned over his own lap, hands over his ears, and shaking violently. The kids sitting around him look terrified and slightly appalled. As gently as I possibly can I place my hands over his. His shaking only calms slightly, but he manages to lift his head to look at me. Slowly and precisely trying to hold my forearms. It seems for a moment he’s forgotten he can no longer speak and hasn’t been able to for some years.
“Where’s your phone?”
He shoots a look to his teacher. Confused, I look to her, upset when she pulls his phone from her pocket. Rolling my eyes I take it from her, placing it in Austin’s hand. Unfortunately, because it looks like she tried unlocking it, he’s locked out of it for an hour. Without a second thought I give him my phone, unlocking it so he can tell me what’s wrong.
I don’t feel safe here. Can we go home?
I stare at the words on the screen. Since moving here he’s rarely felt unsafe. Scanning his face I can tell he’s not just trying to get out of whatever this assembly is. He’s genuinely uncomfortable. Something or someone is causing this feeling.
“How about you come sit with me for a bit. And if the feeling doesn’t go away we’ll go home. How’s that sound?”
Let’s just leave now. Please?
“Ten minutes and if the feeling is still there I’ll get Max and we’ll go home. I promise.”
He looks upset, but agrees with a nod. Handing me back my phone. The teacher reaches for his to take it again, but my hand stops her.
“I understand your family likes to stay connected, but he’s not supposed to-”
“I know you guys are just getting back in to the swing of things, but Austin’s phone is one of the only ways he can communicate. I was sure you knew this.”
She looks confused as though what I’m saying doesn’t make sense. Eyebrows knitting together fro a moment before she pulls a note from her pocket.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“You’ve been dealing with him since September. Weren’t you told?”
“I don’t remember it being brought up. I figured it was simply a thing because of the classes being done online.”
“No ma’am. He’s unable to speak. His phone is the easiest way for him to communicate. It’s also a little more efficient. I don’t understand how you didn’t know when you switched back to in person learning.”
“As I said, I had chalked it up to him being at home and not wanting to speak over video.”
“That’s not the case. That aside, I want him to sit with me. Just until he calms down. Something is upsetting him.”
She just looks from me to him, reluctant to even want to let him move. However, I’m not making a suggestion. Either she’ll let him or he’ll follow on his own. There’s not much anyone can do tFSo stop him. She gives in. Austin practically glues himself to my side. The kids who’d been around him relax instantly. He still looks on edge. Thankfully, there’s still space for the two of us with Lazarus and Lupe.
“Sensory overload, maybe. I just know he’s not comfortable being her and wants to go home.”
Lazarus reaches to ruffle his hair, but Austin moves behind me rather quickly. Usually he comfortable with the two cousins. He’s never done anything like this. And I wish I knew what was making him feel so uncomfortable and unsafe.
“He looks terrified, Rys. Take him home.”
“We already have our agreement about him going home.” The two nod turning their attention to the stage. All of them very reminiscent of the man from the news broad cast, in demeanor at least. Suddenly I don’t feel so well a sinking feeling rising up through my stomach and settling. More than anything I want to run and not look back. Oddly enough, I’m not the only one. Lazarus and Lupe’s eyes go dark. Both their expressions have become more serious. I’ve already begun to text Maxine. There’s no way in hell I’m staying or leaving my brothers. Not with what I saw on T.V. Austin’s shaking again. Hands balling up the material of the back of my top. A part of me wants to know if they’ll make the same announcement as their friend. And if they are, I don’t want to be in the same vicinity when it happens. Not even the same building. I can feel my heart trying to tear through my chest. They’re still settling in on the stage. Alarm bells go off in my head. After an excessively long wait I finally get a response from Maxine. Much like myself and Austin he doesn’t feel comfortable being here.
“Austin, where’s your stuff?”
We were told not to bring anything to school today. That it wouldn’t be necessary.
Flustered I look a the sentence and then my brother. The one time he actually listens to the school and it had to be today. He simply shrugs before looking back at his phone, hoping that he’ll be able to finally get back into it instead of using my phone. With a frown I take him with me as I exit the lunch room and stand in the hallway. Some of those same men are planted by the doors. Just as stiff as the guards outside of Buckingham palace. Their eyes however, are on Austin and myself. Except the other two at the other end who appear to be interrogating Maxine. Grabbing Austin’s hand I head over to collect my other sibling. Almost instantly Maxine plasters himself to my other side. Glaring up at the two men. I roll my eyes at his childishness. When I attempt to turn and leave one of them grabs my arm.
“Everyone is to remain inside.”
“My brother’s have appointments they need to get to.”
“It can wait.”
“It really can’t. They’re already late.”
“Too bad. Now either go back in quietly or we can drag you.”
“Last I checked you and your friend aren’t my brother’s doctors.”
The man’s grip on my arm tightens to the point of painful. I’m sure it’ll leave a bruise tomorrow.
“I won’t say it again, miss.”
“Let go of me. I’m ont a child and I’m not doing anything that warrants you grabbing me. Or would you like for me to contact the authorities?”
My question only makes the man hold tighter to me. He doesn’t care that I’ve threatened to call the police. A scowl starting to form on his face. This definitely isn’t a place to be. Maxine shifts slightly and I instinctively use my other to tuck him behind me.
“Go back and sit down. The meeting will be starting shortly.”
“Go to hell. Now if you don’t want to get sick from one or both of my siblings, I suggest you let o of me so I can take them to their appointment.
Why the hell won’t this idiot fall for it?
He ignores me entirely. And two more just like him show up and force the three of us back into the lunchroom. When the door shuts I hear two of the men lean against it. So much for trying to leave. The only other ways out would be through the kitchen or the stage. And if they’re being this way about people leaving designated meeting spots, it wouldn’t surprise me to find the doors leading outside under guard as well. Both boys follow me back to Lazarus and Lupe. Maxine sits between the two of them while I remain standing with Austin attached to me.
After a moment the lunchroom doors open up to allow in members of the school district’s staff. As if there’s any space left to put people. The doors slam shut. Above us the lights cut off, pulling everyone’s attention towards the podium on the stage. Just like the broadcast a man struts onto the stage. Right behind him are several pairs of men dragging and half carrying what looks to be various people dressed in nurse smocks and lab jackets. I recognize one of the people as a local pharmacist. The more I look the more I realize all of these people practice some form of medicine.
My heart is sinking ship in my chest. I can feel my breath stuck in my throat. Around me there’s murmuring. Everyone is hyper-aware now. Shifting uncomfortably and looking around. It doesn’t take much to figure out what’s going to happen. I want nothing more than to take both boys and get the hell out of here. And yet I know I can’t. Not with them holding everyone hostage. There’s no way I can strong-arm us out. Not when I know what they’re capable of. Behind the men and medical hostages the projector screen lowers. Nothing shows up and the man behind the podium doesn’t seem too concerned about it.
“We’d like to thank you all for your patience.”
His eyes dart to me for a split second. I’m smart enough to not react. Maxine and Austin don’t either.
“I’m quite sure many, if not all, of you saw the broadcast at the beginning of the year. We’re also aware that the important parts were left out.”
He sounds so casual. Hands tucked into his pockets. At best I can only assume he’s around my age or a bit older. Barely moving. Only his eyes move, watching not only the kids, but the adults and staff. Ink that moment I catch the faint sound of chains being placed on the lunchroom doors and I’m sure I can’t be the only one. The speech is just a distraction from the real threat. And to keep people occupied on something else. Just as he finishes talking the sound stops. Just in time for a familiar face to appear on the projector screen. The very man from January’s press conference.
Someone shoot me please.
The room is an uproar of fear, anger, and concern. Not just from parents and teachers, but students as well. And while I’m curious to know why we’ve been locked in, I absolutely do not want to stay and find out. Not after what I saw. That was just a glimpse. This is the real danger.
“Enough! You can save your questions for later!”
Podium guy looks irate. I’m not sure how they thought this was a good idea. Not to mention thinking it would go over easy. My attention diverts to man displayed from the projector.
“…you government will have you believe we’re monsters or out to ruin the world. That is not the case. Simply put, the more of our kind there are the harder it is for them to get rid of us. In order to make sure our idea is realized, the lovely medical professionals you see before you will be doing thorough checks of everyone. If you’re deemed healthy beyond a doubt you’ll be rewarded with a new way of life. And if not we’ll be terminating your existence. Permanently.”
Outrage fills the room. Nurses, doctors, and other medical practitioners swearing and yelling. Similar to January one of the people dragged on stage loses his head just like Dr. Kasten. Head separated from his body. Both falling recklessly to the floor. Blood pooling and coating the stage like varnish. Half the room is shrieking in terror. Some of the female students, if not all, are sobbing. Luckily, Austin is behind me. However, Maxine is not. It’s just my luck that he’s seen everything. Panic shines in his eyes as he turns to me. Hands shaking and breathing coming in short bursts. I can see the tears that spill over. Despite there not being any room I squeeze to sit beside him. Hugging him as tightly as possible. Somehow, I have to get them out of here. And many are finding out we’ve been trapped in here.
“I suggest you all behave. This can get ugly really fast.”
No one is listening anymore. There’s chaos as people press up against the door. Everything seems to be happening at once. The opposite end has become a war zone. Flipped table, blood, piled up bodies and limbs. More importantly, those things with the mass amounts of teeth, mangled fur, and neon eyes. The blood is vibrant on the matted black fur. More terrifying in person, if I must say so myself. Before I can fully process that one of these things is barreling towards us, Lazarus and Lupe shove me and the boys aside. Both just barely get away safely. Lazarus slips and one of those things clambers atop him. Unlike everyone else he manages to hold its mouth open. The growl that comes from the thing makes my skin crawl. Suddenly, I’m being pulled to my feet. I don’t know how, but Lupe’s gotten to me and is tugging forcefully. Pulling me towards the door. Although, how it got open is a mystery to me. I’m barely able to glance back at Lazarus, still lying on the floor struggling. Until I see the maw of that, whatever it is come down fully. For the first time in my entire existence I’m destroyed by the sight of death. Left to wonder what dying means now with them in control.