TWENTY-THREE | Stay
The noise began suddenly. Scraping, banging, whining. Something outside was trying to get in. He covered his ears, heart pumping against his ribs, pounding inside and out. There was a loud CRACK and he jumped, terror pulling at the muscles in his arms and legs. Panic. He wanted to run, to break a window and get away from whatever was trying to break in.
“There are things outside that will hurt you,” James had said. “It’s dangerous out there, but not here. You’re safe inside this shed. In this spot. Keep your head low—lower than the windows. Now stay. Stay.” James extended his hand, palm down, and pressed it against E7′s forehead. Stay.
A strangled whine came out as he looked from the windows to the door. If he didn’t get out, that thing would get in. What was safe, wouldn’t be. Danger.
E7 couldn’t move. His muscles ached to propel him through the glass and away from the noises at the other end of the shed. Wrapping his arms around himself, he tried to stay still but his body was pulsing, pushing, his feet sliding against the floor as his legs prepared to run.
The chain clinked and rattled against the door as it slid open. E7 folded himself into a ball on the floor, too afraid to look at what was coming. He closed his eyes and tried to take small, quiet breaths. Everything he did suddenly sounded so very loud.
Footsteps scuffing the floor, a rustle of clothing.
Opening his eyes, E7 peered underneath the table at a pair of shoes. It was a person, not a monster. He watched the shoes with wide eyes, mouth hanging open. They were pointed away from him, then slowly turned toward the windows. He sucked in a breath, held it, and slowly lifted his head to peek over the table between objects.
If he wasn’t so scared and exhausted, he might have been curious about the contents of the shed. Since James had brought him here, he’d tried not to look around at all. The objects and colors, the open spaces and the closed ones, it all made his head spin. He’d been staring at the floor, his head on his knees since James left. He didn’t want to see anything new—to be scared or confused and want to ask questions but be silent instead. When he raised his head to see the face of the person who broke into the shed, his frantic heartbeat slowed just a little. The face he saw wasn’t new. Oatmeal hair and honey eyes.
It was her.
The girl from his dying dream.
She was here. She was real. Familiar, not dangerous. Safe.
Gaze shifting from one thing on the table to another, a smile played at the corners of her mouth. She was thinking about something that made her happy. Her brows were knit together, the side of her lip curved under as she bit it in concentration.
E7 copied her expression, trying to figure out what she was thinking.
Then she saw him.
“Oh god. You.” Her voice was softer than he remembered. He blinked when she did, eyes widening like hers. It was like looking at a different kind of mirror. The one where you don’t look like yourself at all. A kind of mirror he never knew existed.
“Ohgod,” he whispered, trying the word out. What was an ohgod?
“What are you doing here? H-how did you even get here?” her wide eyes bulged even more. “Are you stalking me?”
E7 swallowed. The pitch of her voice was changing. She was starting to sound afraid, even a little angry. At him? Had he done something wrong? James said stay. He stayed.
“What the hell!”
He flinched at her raised voice and ducked down, dragging himself as far into the corner as he could. No, no, no. Not good. This was bad. She was angry. Very angry. Yelling at him. He covered his ears, moaning, confused. What did he do wrong?
Objects on the table rattled as she stomped around to stand in front of him, nothing between them now but the empty air. One hand, curled into a fist, rested against her hip. The other one seemed to be stuck in her hair. Long, soft, oatmeal hair. Did it smell like brown sugar?
“What are you doing?” she demanded, voice still raised. “Get out!”
E7 avoided her angry glare, staring at the ground instead. Too confused to sit still, he hugged his legs to his chest and rocked a little. His pulse, which had slowed down when he first saw her, was racing painfully in his chest. Dizziness made him close his eyes and groan softly. He didn’t know what to do. He could run away—
If he could get past her—
He could go look for James—
“I said out!” she shouted, pointing at the door, through which he saw the open sky and the trees and the shadows and the unknown abyss that almost swallowed him alive last night.
Go? Out there? Alone?
E7 shook his head and covered his ears, blocking out her words and her anger. “I can’t,” he cried, the tension finally breaking him. “I can’t go out there. James said stay here. He said stay. I have to stay.” He breathed heavily—in and out, in and out, in and out—his head was spinning. Stomach turning. Nausea. Dread. Would she make him leave? Would she drag him outside, shut the door, lock him out? Scared. Alone. Until James came back. Angry. James would be so angry with him.
Now stay. Stay.
She stared at him, eyes searching his face. Surprise wiped away the anger for a little while, but it was back again. Fierce, cold, and terrifying. E7 sucked in a tight breath, lungs locked. He knew that look. He’d seen it before, only a few hours ago. But it had been on someone else’s face.
“James,” she said the word through clenched teeth. ”He brought you here?”
E7 nodded, his head still dizzy and trembling. It felt like it was attached to his neck by a weak thread, ready to snap. So heavy. He put his hands at the base of his skull, elbows resting against his knees. The posture locked him in a small space, shrinking his world to a manageable size, allowing him to breathe again.
“But...” the anger in her voice faded, leaving confusion behind. “Why?”
He didn’t answer, didn’t move. Breathe, he thought, just breathe.
“Hello?” she folded her arms across her chest. “I’m talking to you.”
Shoes. No socks. One knee bent...now the other...arms down at her sides...up again...a sigh. Angry? No...impatient. Feet shuffle, take one step, two steps—
She was coming toward him.
E7 kicked at the floor with both feet, shoving himself as far under the worktable as he could go and knocking over some of the sculptures in the process. They crashed around him, shattering. Pieces skittered across the floor and under his hands as he crawled back, back, back, until his head was against the wall and he had crammed both shoulders under the edge of the table. His legs were bent but wouldn’t fit. Tucking his bare, vulnerable foot behind his calf, he continued to kick at the floor with his duct-taped shoe, jamming his shoulder painfully tight between the table leg and the wall of the shed.
“Hey, you’re breaking shit!” she snapped, her feet frozen in place. She wasn’t coming any closer now. Bending down—a hand on each knee—she stared at him instead. He froze and tucked his face into his shoulder, avoiding her eyes. He was rigid and terrified, trembling from the strain of holding himself against the wall, and stuck there as long as she was close. “What is wrong with you?”
E7 whined, a strangled grunt escaping him. His shoulder was burning, head still spinning, but he couldn’t move. The ice in his chest—the cold, dead feeling that had been there for so long now—was starting to melt. Heat pulsed through him, scorching deep into his bones. Perspiration seeped into his clothes, dampening the fabric. Dried dirt turned to mud on his skin.
No no no
It wasn’t dead at all. Never dead. Just sleeping.
NO no no
It slid into his veins and coiled in his chest.
NO NO NO
The monster woke up.