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    The Devil's Smile

    The Devil's Smile


    Lauren

    Some things are simply meant to be. Call it fate, call it karma, call it just plain bad luck, it all boils down to the same thing - there is no escape. Probably a little over-dramatic, I admit, but it's the first thing to pop into my head when I see where my trail ends, and I get greeted by a strange sense of deja vu. It's a sight I'd seen before, I realize, only a few days earlier, though then it had been only a picture.

    "Come on," she'd begged, unconsciously reaching up to stroke the little gold crucifix that hung around her neck, half blending into the color of her cheerleading uniform. She'd done it at least a dozen times since she'd started talking to me, and most of those had been after flipping to the picture on her cell phone. "Don't make me go without you. See, it doesn't look that scary, does it?"

    "Seriously, Crystal? I don't… I'm not even sure how to respond to this." I'd shaken my head, staring down at her. She was petite, blonde, basically just what you'd think of when it come to cheerleaders. Except not a bitch, though I imagine part of that came from the two of us being best friends since kindergarten. Not that I'm such a great influence that I'd prevented her from becoming stuck up and annoying or anything. She might be that way towards other people, though I can't see it. She just isn't to me. "So I'll just start by saying I have to babysit that night."

    "Halloween night? You're babysitting on Halloween night? You hate trick-or-treating!" She knows me too well.

    "Well, luckily, so does the kid. We're just staying in, having a nice, boring evening."

    "There's still four days," she'd reminded me. "They can find somebody else. Come on, you can't do this to me!"

    I'd rolled my eyes, 100 percent convinced there wasn't a chance in hell I'd wind up going. "Okay, I'm ready now. A, You know I hate parties. B, I'm not invited. Or, you know, I assume I'm not invited, seeing as this is the first I'm hearing about the party."

    "I'm inviting you! This is an invitation! Me begging you to come with me is an invitation! I don't know how much more invitational it can get!" She'd stomped her foot, clearly getting frustrated with me. All right, while she wasn't a bitch, per se, she was still a bit of a brat. An only child, very used to getting her way without needing anything more than a pout. Of course, since I'd known her for so long, I was pretty much immune to her.

    "C, are you serious? What are you, eight? It's a cabin, Crystal. Yes, it's a little creepy looking, because nobody has touched it in years, but it is not, I repeat NOT, haunted. And even if it was, how do you know the ghosts won't like having a bunch of teenagers partying in their house? Maybe they're just lonely, and misunderstood, or… whatever."

    "You are a terrible friend, Lauren," she'd huffed at me, stabbing at the screen of her phone with her fingers again, bringing the picture back up. "Look at this place! It's not misunderstood, it's evil!"

    "And you want me to go there? Why don't you just come hang with me? We can scare the kiddies that come trick or treating or something, and then have a slumber party in the living room and watch some corny old horror movies on TV all night. The kid won't mind." Hell, the kid probably wouldn't have even noticed. She's quiet, when she isn't being an incredible nuisance, spends most of the time locked in her room, reading or scribbling in her notebooks. When it isn't the hardest babysitting job ever, it's the easiest, and at least the former gives me an excuse to bump up my rate.

    She'd raised one eyebrow, then shook her head. "Because I'm scared, Lauren, not dead. Is that really how you want to spend Halloween?"

    It would have been nice, yes. But instead, here I am, four days later, staring up at the cabin, my head already hurting from the thumping music and piercing, half drunken laughter I can hear even from outside. If I didn't know any better, I'd be sure Crystal was behind it somehow. But no, it was just… What, fate? No, I'm sticking with bad luck for this one.

    The cabin, for it's part, doesn't look quite as creepy in real life as it had on Crystal's phone. Since the picture had basically been the invitation for the party, I'm sure it had been touched up a little before being sent. It isn't the most pleasant looking of structures, don't get me wrong - the shutters were falling off, and the chains holding up the swing on the front porch looked to be made more of rust than metal - but it doesn't give off quite the "cheesy horror movie" vibe I'd been expecting, even though whoever was throwing the party had tried to get it to, dangling fake cobwebs from the rafters on the porch, sticking paper skeletons in the windows, surprisingly few of which were broken.

    I sigh, walking slowly up towards the front door. Even if they'd been strict about admittance at the beginning of the party, it had been going on long enough now that most anyone who'd cared about that was already too drunk to remember why, but I still feel my heart skip a beat every now and then from anxiety. It's not like I'm even here for the party, or care about it, yet even so, getting rejected isn't a pleasant feeling.

    To prove that to me, the front door opens, two girls I half remember from Social Studies spilling out, giggling over one another. They're dressed as an angel and a devil - the slutty kind, of course, since it's Halloween after all - and clearly more than a little wasted. I watch in silence as they fumble through their purses for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, briefly making me worry they were going to set the whole place on fire before I could do what I'd come for. Finally, the devil spots me, a goofy, intoxicated grin on her face.

    "Hey," she calls, barely able to get the word out without laughing. "Hey, nice costume."

    "Yeah," agrees the angel, slightly more coherent, but wobbling more dangerously in her high heeled boots. "You look just like a loser. Uncaddy. Canny. Un."

    "Not," the devil agrees. "Catty."

    "Yeah, thanks for your input," I say, rolling my eyes and walking past them, glad for the motivation to go inside, to get away from them. Even when they aren't incompetently attempting to insult me, I'm not a fan of drunk people. There's sure to be many more inside, but hopefully they'll all be too busy drinking even more alcohol, or making out, or whatever it was people do at parties, to pay any attention to me. Nobody else is guarding the door, or anywhere near it, so I slip inside easily.

    A smoky haze hangs in the air, making me cough before I've even shut the door. There's cigarette smoke in there, of course, making me wonder why the devil and angel had bothered stepping outside, since plenty of others obviously hadn't, and a hint of marijuana, but mostly the sickly sweet scent that comes from a fog machine. I'll admit it, I'm a geek, and I've worked backstage on a play or two, which is why I recognize the odor immediately - in small doses, it almost smells like cotton candy, and is kind of nice, but whoever is in charge of it here is clearly not a fan of subtlety.

    Sure enough, nobody cares when I enter, or even notices. I imagine part of that comes from the fact that they couldn't possibly hear me close the door, or my footsteps as I reluctantly move further and further into the nexus of bodies. There's the music I'd heard from outside, only seemingly ten times louder, but nobody seems to be too interested in it. A few people seem to be moving a bit to it, their bodies semi-consciously carried away by the beat. Mostly, however, everyone just seems to be more interested in trying to talk over it, half-shouting to the groups of people huddled around them. It feels like a (more) hellish version of the cafeteria, a thing I'd never have dreamed possible.

    Through the maze of wings and tails, cat ears and helmets, capes, long coats, short skirts, all backlit, moving through the fog, silhouetted by red lights, I can see vague, white forms, large and irregular, strange and haunting. For a moment, the noise and atmosphere get to me, and I'm confused, then I see a group of people sitting on one of them, and I realize it's just the furniture, with cloths thrown over top. I wonder briefly if the people who had organized this had done it, but when I get close enough to the ghostly form of a table, I can see the layer of dust over top of the fabric.

    I look around, stumbling past zombie and robots, doing my best to survery the crowd, to no avail. Was I too quick? Did I beat her here? Or did I miss her already? Getting drawn into this maelstrom of hormones and alcohol for no reason would really be just about the last straw for this day.

    I may actually scream as the figure steps in front of me, a large, black cloak blocking my view of the crush of bodies ahead, a hand of not fingers, but something much longer, pointier, more dangerous, reaching out for my face, though if I made any noise, I couldn't hear it. The figure shakes as if it's laughing, then pauses expectantly. After a moment, it reaches out, carefully wrapping its hand around my arm, and pulls me away, back to a dark hallway. The haze and noise are still there, but diluted enough for me to regain some sense, and as the figure stretches its free hand out towards one of the doors in the hall, I break free.

    "Who the hell are you?" I demand, trying to stare into the hood of the cloak. Without even the ominous lighting in the main room, it's even more difficult to make out the features within. I can hear the laugh this time, and it's familiar. I reach out and hit the figure's arm, sending its arm flailing, one of the fingers popping off and skittering along the floor.

    "Pick that up," Kevin demands. I raise an eyebrow at him, and he sighs. He flicks his head upwards once, then twice, before bringing up one of his hands, gingerly scratching upwards with his claws, trying to catch the fabric of the hood with them. Finally, he gets it, revealing his face, red from laughing, and, no doubt how hot it must be in that get-up. "Come on, I can't hold anything with these things."

    I roll my eyes and bend over to pick up his lost claw, feeling even more annoyed with my original, girlish fear of them upon seeing that they're just construction paper, rolled up and taped together. He holds out his hand and I reattach the finger. "What are you supposed to be?" I ask. "The ghost of first grade craft projects yet to come?"

    "Please," he smirks. "You pissed your pants when I popped out at you."

    "I did not," I answer testily. "I was just playing along."

    "Yeah," he smiles. "Sure. What are you doing here, anyway? You hate parties."

    "I'm quite aware of that," I tell him. "I'm looking for…"

    "Crystal?" he interrupts. "That's where we were going." He gestures towards the door and I open it to humor him. He follows me inside, pushing the door shut with his foot, muffling a fair amount of the cacophony. Whatever had been rigged up to bring electricity to the party didn't extend this far, but enough light came in through the eyes of the paper skull in the window, and a small enough amount of fog from the other room had drifted in, that you could see. And I'm sure that, given the activity the room was no doubt originally meant for, that was enough.

    There is a rather large furniture ghost on one side of the room, stretching up good ways to the ceiling, thin at the top and a good deal thicker at the bottom, most likely a vanity table - with an extra helping of vanity, given the size of the mirror. A covered chair sits beside it, but otherwise, the only thing in the room is a large bed. And on that bed is Crystal.

    "Are you all right?" I ask, quickly scurrying to her side.

    She glances up at me groggily, then giggles. She's still wearing her cheerleading uniform, though now she's sporting a set of red horns from her forehead, with a tail sprouting from the back of her skirt. "I knew you'd come," she says.

    "What's wrong?" I brush her hair away from her horns gently. "Mad someone else stole your costume?"

    "Pshh… She's just a demon… I'm a cheerleader demon. There's a difference, Lauren."

    "My mistake." I glance up at Kevin, looking for some clarification, still not sure if there's actually anything wrong with her, and less than happy that he'd left her alone in this state, especially splayed out on a bed. He doesn't think about stuff like that sometimes. Before I'd met him, I'd always assumed that people who claimed to be asexual were just gay and afraid to admit it, but he's managed to change my mind.

    "She's just tipsy," he says with a shrug. "She's a bit of a lightweight."

    "Well, duh," I roll my eyes, looking down at her petite form. There are people who can surprise you by having an alcohol tolerance far greater than their body mass would suggest - Crystal isn't one of them. If anything, she holds her booze even worse than you'd expect.

    "I was watching the hall," Kevin reads my mind. "I'm not an idiot, you know."

    "Jury's still out. You did let her drink to begin with."

    "Let her? Like I was going to stop her… She didn't come here to have polite conversations and sip tea."

    "I'm right here," Crystal pouts.

    "Be quiet, the grown-ups are talking." I pat her head. "Obviously, she isn't going to be any help, so you're going to have to be."

    "For what?"

    "Have you seen a little kid around here? I…"

    The slightly muffled sound of the music stops abruptly from outside the door, followed shortly by the buzz of the countless conversations, only to be replaced with a single voice. "It's almost midnight!" it announced, getting a response of hoots and howls and yelling. "Almost the day of the dead! So I invite all of the spirits floating around here to come out and party with us! Come on!" Another roar of approval from the masses, and the music starts up again, even louder than before some cheesy, ominous pipe organ that was sure to turn into a rap song at any moment.

    Instead, after a moment, it dies out suddenly, and, for the first time that night, there is complete silence.


    Claudia

    I should have known better. Really, it had been against my principles from the start. But the more I thought it through, the more I realized that this was one thing I couldn't do on my own.

    It wasn't even a case, not exactly, just curiosity. We all know what they say about curiosity, but frankly, it had never steered me too wrong. Never given me much, either, so I'm not saying it's always the best thing to listen to, it simply isn't as bad as they make it out to be.

    Of course, you can barely call my other cases "cases", really when most of them involved a missing cell phone, or figuring out who had started some stupid rumor, that was hardly saying much. Don't let anyone tell you different - eleven year olds are boring as hell. Every now and then, something interesting enough would pop up for me to solve, but most of the time, there wasn't enough money involved to make it worth my time, or my sanity, having to listen to them whine about their mundane little problems. Sometimes there wasn't any money at all… One time, they'd tried to bribe me into taking the case by promising I could sit at the "cool table" at lunch, as if I cared about that.

    The worst part is, I know there's more interesting things out there. Even in a little, out of the way, one horse town like this, there's still an occasional burglary - the real kind, money and jewels, not cell phones and stuffed animals - and vandalism, and, every few years, an honest to goodness murder. It would be enough to keep me from going crazy if, you know, the police would let me help. I'd even offer to do it for free, at least at first, but any time they see me anywhere near, all I get is a scolding and a ride home in the back of a squad car, where I get told off again.

    So just looking into my own curiosity wasn't much of a step down, really, much as I hated to admit it.

    I'd seen the woman many times, which is hardly surprising, given the size of the town. What was strange was that it was always at the supermarket, nowhere else. Even that in itself isn't exceedingly odd - I'm not going to claim the town is so small I see everyone everywhere, though throughout my years here, I have seen most everyone in at least three different places - just enough to get me interested. Every time I saw her, she had a package of Pampers in her cart. Nothing strange there, but every time, no matter how many months apart, it was always the same size.

    Sure, since they were the biggest size, perhaps they were all that would fit her baby, but surely after all this time, it would have outgrown even them, right, not to mention the baby food she was also always stocking up on? And if the kid was big enough to need that size diaper from the first time I noticed her, wouldn't it be ready for potty training by now? Plus, she had no wedding ring. That didn't mean she couldn't be a single mother, though nobody I asked about her thought she had a kid.

    Altogether, on a busy month, I wouldn't have given it a second thought, would have just flipped past its entry in my notebook, where I write down all the little mysteries I wanted to solve, like I had so many times before. This month, however, with nothing better to do, and no other entries I could feasibly tackle, I decided to give it a go. Most likely, all it would take is a quick look around. I wasn't expecting any big revelation, some dark conspiracy, anything beyond an incredibly reclusive mother.

    I already had her name - Elaine Malone - written on her page, which I'd gotten from asking Jean, the stock girl who knew everybody, last time I'd spotted her in the store, along with her address and phone number. She didn't live too far off, but it was far enough that I wouldn't be able to get there and back between the time my bus dropped me off and when Patricia got home. That was where my famous luck had come in most handy, as one of the girls from my class, Mandy, lived right up the road from my target. Even better, she owed me one, ever since I'd caught her shoplifting and hadn't turned her in. I didn't particularly care that she was stealing, but it was always good to know these sorts of things, in case a situation like this arose.

    I'd expected to have to do a bit of begging, since I was in trouble for breaking one of her lamps the week before, but Patricia - I'm sorry, mom, as she prefers to be called - was thrilled to hear I was going to a sleepover. Mandy was less so, though she played her part well while her mother baked cookies for us and smiled and went on about how she hadn't seen me here before, and it was nice for Mandy to be making new friends. As soon as her mom was gone, however, holing herself up in her room so we could watch movies in the living room in peace, she turned to me and said, "All right, freak. You happy now?"

    My temper flared up momentarily, fingers clenching into a fist around my pillow. She was lucky this was all I'd asked her to do! I could have used her for my whole plan; I know when to push and when not to, though. A secret has different values to different people… For her, with a pushover mom and no dad to speak of, it was worth a sleepover that she thought I would just use to try to prove to the other kids in class how cool I was. For Dylan, it was worth a little more, at least I hoped.

    Dylan was the tricky part. He was older, thirteen, yet not old enough to be smoking behind the school, as I'd seen him doing. Most of the time, when I confront a kid about their wrongdoings, they back down, promise they won't do it again, beg me not to tell. Dylan was the first to threaten me. I had expected it to happen eventually, but I'd gotten cocky. The only thing that had saved me then, according to him, was that he "couldn't hit a girl." I'd kept him on my list anyway, despite the potential danger, and in making my plans, his name had come up. He lived nearby, too, and he played softball. From what I'd heard, he could throw and run quite well, which made him as perfect as I could get. I really needed to move up in the world, start digging up dirt on people old enough to drive, but it was too late to do that this time.

    I crept outside Mandy's house, stopping at her mailbox to grab the carton of eggs I'd hidden there when I'd first arrived, then headed towards the meeting spot with Dylan. I ran through alternate scenarios in my head as I walked, trying to think of how else to get Elaine out of her house in a hurry in case Dylan didn't show. The current plan required two people, no way around that. Winston was letting me borrow his cell phone, in case I got scared or whatever and wanted to go home early, so I could call Elaine and tell her… What? Beyond her name, address, and phone number, I knew nothing about her. Poor planning on my part, yes, but she was a difficult person to find information about. Besides, I was all right at disguising my voice, yet nothing I could do on my own, without my computer, would make me sound remotely like a believable adult. I hoped for a bit of inspiration as I passed her house, but it was just a regular, ordinary house, with no clues on the outside about who lived within.

    So it was a good thing Dylan was there after all, his bike leaned up against a fence. "You're not going to need that," I told him right away. "Leave it here. Come on, follow me." He followed orders obediently, though his attitude spoke more of annoyance than fear. I took him past Elaine's house, pointing it out, stopping a few doors down. "Okay, this is simple enough. You're going to egg her house - don't be quiet about it, either, we want her to notice. I don't know how well she'd know the kids in the neighborhood, so I got you this…" I took a rubber werewolf mask out of the bag, handed it to him. "When you get her to come out, you need to make sure she's going to chase you, so save at least one egg for her. Once she starts, you run this way, but not too fast. I need five minutes, at least. More would be better. Let her think she can catch you until then, and then get away from her. Got it?"

    "Yeah, I get it," he shrugged, pulling on the mask. "But you're throwin', too."

    "What? No, that's not part of the plan. If I'm there, too, we can't guarantee she'll go after you, and if she doesn't, the whole thing is ruined. You need…"

    "No, I don't need to do anything, kid. I'll play along 'cause it's the Halloween season, and I haven't gotten in a good egging this year, but we're doin' it my way, or I'm out."

    Unpredictable. That had been what I was afraid of, just what I didn't need. I knew he wasn't too scared of me, but I'd been hoping for enough to keep him in line. Still, I thought, I could make it work. "Okay," I said. "If I run as soon as she opens the door, and before you hit her with the egg, I should be able to get far enough away that she'll almost definitely go for you instead of me." I hated 'almost definitely', always tried to avoid it. Sometimes you just have to go with it. "You cool with that?"

    "Yeah, that should work. Let's go."

    There is a certain thrill to petty vandalism. I was nervous about it when I first grabbed an egg from the carton, glancing at it sitting there in my hand, unsure if I'd really thought this plan revision through thoroughly enough. Dylan took one, too, but he just stood there with it, waiting for me to take the first shot. I took a deep breath, aimed as best I could, cocked my arm back, and threw. I'd been aiming for a window on the second floor, where a light was on, instead hitting the wall between the first and second floors, but I let out a half-triumphant, half-surprised yelp anyway, grinning slightly as I saw the egg ooze its way down the siding, slowly sliding towards the ground.

    Dylan took my lead, though his yell was louder, more like something you'd hear in a war movie, and his egg hit the window right smack in the middle. "Not quite that loud," I hissed at him. "We don't want to wake up the whole neighborhood. He didn't say anything, just handed me my next egg. I aimed for the porch next - I wanted to get her attention, yes, but the more mess, the better, and that was a place she might feel inclined to clean that night. In case Dylan didn't keep her out of my hair long enough, that might give me the extra time I needed to escape.

    I could see a shadow stirring behind the curtain in the upper window, but it wasn't leaving the room, so we kept going. Elaine managed to ignore another two direct hits from Dylan, probably telling herself she was imagining the noise, or it was some pesky kids making a racket for no real reason, while I egged her car and, in a surprising feat of accuracy, her front door. Finally, the curtains parted, and she stared down at us for a long moment. "Throw!" I hissed at Dylan, who was standing there dumbly, until I grabbed another egg and did my best to launch it right at her. I missed, but she'd seen it, which was all she needed to step away, curtains fluttering back into place behind her, her shadow rapidly growing smaller.

    "Great!" I exclaimed. "Now don't forget the rest of the plan!"

    But before I could start my run, Dylan had snatched my arm. "No, you don't wanna miss this," he told me. "This is the best part."

    "No, this isn't what we're supposed to do!" I reminded him, squirming in his grip, the horrible realization that I was helpless against him slowly dawning on me. He was bigger than me, and stronger. And Elaine had seen me throwing that egg, not him. He could claim I'd thrown all of them, that he'd been trying to stop me.

    "Remember this next time you try to blackmail someone out of your league," he said, turning as he heard the front door opening, and nailing Elaine right between the eyes with an egg. He shoved me down, pushing me towards her house, taking off in the opposite direction as fast as he could go, which was pretty darn fast. It was why I'd chosen him, after all. My knees landed hard on the rest of the eggs, still waiting in their carton, exploding them all over my jeans. I tried to scramble to my feet, but before I could make it, I felt a strong hand on the back of my sweater, lifting me up, and I knew I'd been caught.


    Lauren

    "About time," I grumble, staring at the door. "Is that the end?"

    Kevin walks over to the window, pulling the skull down to glance outside. "Well, there's no cops… I'm not sure wh…"

    The three of us jump as the screaming starts, Crystal scrambling into a sitting position on the bed, Kevin raising a hand to his chest. For a moment, we just look at each other, wide-eyed, until I shake my head in annoyance. "I'm pretty sure this is only going to scare the ghosts away," I say. "Not attract them."

    "Anyway… Why are you looking for a kid, exactly?" Kevin asks.

    "Did Crystal not tell you I was babysitting tonight?"

    Kevin nodded. "She did. And? Aren't you done?"

    "No, her parents are in the city all ni.."

    "Wait. She's here? You brought the kid here?! You, Lauren, are a terrible babysitter."

    Because the juvenile yelling from the other room wasn't bad enough, Crystal chose that moment to join in drunkenly. I roll my eyes, glaring briefly over at her as she lies on the bed. "Is that really necessary, dear?" I ask.

    Kevin walks over to her, patting her hand gently, his paper fingers tapping against her stomach. "How do you even get hired? Do these parents just not know you?"

    "I'm not babysitting HER," I remind him. "And screw you. I did not bring her here. She came here on her own. I think. I hope."

    He raises an eyebrow. "She must be a pretty cool kid to get an invitation."

    "She wasn't… Oh, why do I bother?" I sigh, staring out the window, where I can see partygoers running around like idiots. Clearly the first stage of the party wasn't stupid enough. "Is that guy supposed to be Iron Man? Why is his costume gray? Did he not even watch the movie?"

    "Did you? He's not Iron Man, he's War Machine."

    "Whatever." I shrug, turning away. For a moment, I think I see something moving out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to look, nothing's there, not even War Man, or whatever he is, who had apparently gone around the corner to the other side of the cabin. "And is that chick just some hooker from the Old West?"

    "It's from Jonah Hex," he corrects me. "Shouldn't we be looking for this kid of yours? I bet… Oww, chill out, Crys."

    I glance over at him, seeing him try to shake Crystal's fingers off of his wrist. "I don't know. I'm not a very good babysitter."

    "Are you really going to pout about that now? If she is here, I bet she's pretty freaked out right now. Are you just going to leave her out there?"

    I shrug, feeling a bit vindictive. "Would serve her right." The wild west prostitute is heading for the trees now, obviously too into whatever game they're playing. I have to admit, I'm grateful to Crystal for getting so wasted, so I'd had an excuse to not be with the rest of those idiots while this was going on.

    "Are your rates just super low? I ju… Damn it, Crystal!" He lifts his free hand to his mouth, biting off his finger extensions and spitting them onto the floor before using his actual fingers to try to pry Crystal away.

    "Now who's the awful caregiver?" I tease. "At least I don't curse at the children I watch."

    "Shut up and help me out," he growls at me. "She's really flipping here, Lauren." I roll my eyes, trying to come up with some catty reply, eyes lazily peering out the window again. "Lauren? Lauren!"

    But the last two are just echoes, barely penetrating my mind, though I know they're just as loud, if not moreso, than his last words. Yet I feel like I'm moving outside of myself, like the world is falling away, my body with it, and everything has slowed down. One moment outside, the hooker is almost to the tree line. The next, which seems both too slow and too quick to be real, she's on the ground, not like it would have been if she'd fallen, but as if she'd been thrown down. And, because that wasn't surreal enough, she's on fire, too.

    I look around, outside the window, seeing if anyone else saw it, was going to help her. A robot is there, a pile of crudely decorated cardboard boxes. And then the middle box slides apart, sliced in half, and it takes a second for me to realize the same had happened to the person inside. A witch stops running suddenly and begins to convulse, like a seizure, only it's so powerful her feet are pulled off the ground, and yet she doesn't fall.

    Something falls out of the sky right in front of my window, something silver, and now red, the non-Iron Man, now in a heap on the ground. I let out a shriek and the world snaps back into place. I whip around to face Kevin, who is still yelling my name, and Crystal, still screaming wordlessly, though now there is more pain in her voice. There are a trio of deep gashes in her legs now, and as I watch, three more appear, the highest one tearing through the fabric of her skirt. She's still holding onto Kevin for dear life, and now he's holding on to her as well, kicking out blindly towards the end of the bed, lashing out at thin air.

    The last kick is stopped by thin air, so he repeats it, then scrambles across the bed, dragging Crystal with him. "Come on, Lauren!" I blink and nod, then run across the room, hopping on top of the bed to reach the door, not wanting to risk going around. Kevin slams the door shut behind us as we make it into the hall.

    Crystal whimpers, sinking to the ground, the two of us immediately bending over her, though there isn't much we can do. "What the fuck is going on?!" Kevin demands, asking no one in particular.

    "It's happening outside, too," I warn him, trying to catch my breath. "I don't…"

    I glance down the hall, towards the main room. Through the haze, and the red light filtering within, I can see the shape of bodies on the floor, of people trying to run away from threats they can't see, only to be knocked down, cut apart, slaughtered without any warning, any way of escape. I feel the bile rising in my throat, manage, just barely, to hold it back. "What are we going to do?"

    "We have to get out of here!" Kevin says. "We need to get out and…"

    "I just told you, it's happening outside, too!" I hit him, surprised to feel tears splashing onto my cheeks. "Why don't you ever listen to me?!"

    "Well, we can't just stay here!" he shoots back.

    "We're all right… For now… M-Maybe we can just wait it out and…" But of course, I can't do that, I realize, the memory of the reason I'm here washing over me. Can I really just leave Claudia out there to fend for herself? She might not even be here, or she could have gotten killed already, but what if she hasn't? I would have to be ten times worse at my job than Kevin thinks not to do something about it. "Can she walk?" I ask Kevin, then glance down at Crystal, her form looking even more frail and petite than normal. "Can you walk, sweetie?" She whimpers, but nods.

    "Where are we going?" Kevin asks. "I thought you said…"

    "I did. But we have to find Claudia."


    Claudia

    "This is not acceptable. Simply not acceptable, young lady."

    "I-I'm sorry, ma'am," I said, ducking my head. I reminded myself not to use her name, not wanting her to figure out I knew anything about her. "It was just a prank. It's almost Halloween, you know, and…"

    "No, no, I don't care. You made a right mess of my house, and I hope you don't think you're getting out of here without cleaning it up." She stopped her pacing and stared down at me, hands on her hips. I provided what I hoped was the appropriate amount of shamed squirming on her couch, acting like her angry gaze was getting to me."You're lucky I didn't call the police."

    She was right about that. That had been one possibility I'd worried about, but not too much. She didn't seem the kind of person to ask for help if she could avoid it. She was a fairly tall woman, yet not quite tall enough to reach the items on the top shelf at the store easily, but I'd never seen her ask for help. Inconclusive evidence, sure - enough to take a risk, though.

    "I don't recognize you," she said, squinting at me. "You're not from the neighborhood, are you?"

    "No, ma'am," I shook my head. "I'm just visiting my aunt. I'm going back home tomorrow."

    "Does your aunt know you're out at this time of night? Who is she?"

    I knew better than to give out specifics, so I changed the subject. "You have a very nice home," I told her. "I'm very sorry about what I did to it."

    That worked to get her off the subject. "Oh-ho, you have no idea how sorry you'll be. You're going back out there, and you're going to wash my porch and my car until they're spotless. The rest of the house can wait until tomorrow morning, I suppose."

    "Can't I just do all of it tomorrow?" I asked, sniffling, widening my eyes into a mask of innocence. "I promise I'll come by as soon as I wake up!" I actually might have, too, if just for one last shot at figuring out her secret.

    "Sure you will," she scoffed. "I'm not as dumb as I…" She glanced down at me, paused for just a second, almost too short to notice. "Look." She shook her head. "No, it has to be done tonight. Now."

    Noting that playing up the cute angle seemed to work on her, I stared down at my feet bashfully. "Can I have a glass of water first? I'm really thirsty…"

    I felt her eyes on me, suspicious at first. "Well, all right," she conceded. "Stay right here."

    And I did. The temptation to do more loomed large, yes, but getting her to trust me was more important. I didn't even look up until she got back, much as I wanted to take a closer look at the magazines she had strewn across her living room. I let my hands shake a little as I took the glass, even allowed a little water to splash onto my sweater. "I didn't even want to do it," I told her quietly.

    She seemed to consider this for a moment. "Was it your cousin's idea?" I nodded. "Well, he doesn't seem like a very good influence on you."

    I decided to take a gamble. Much as I hated to protect Dylan - no, he was going to need protection from me when I got out of there, and figured out some way to get him back - it would be good to muddy up her memory of the event, make it less likely that she recognize him later on, since I knew he'd have no problem giving her my real name. "She's usually nice enough," I told her. "But she's, you know, a teenager now…" I shrugged, trying to fill my voice with a sense of wonder, acting as if that were something magical, rather than just the fact that this imaginary cousin of mine had been born two years before me.

    "Well, that certainly explains it," she chuckled. For a split second, I thought it would be as easy as that, but she continued. "She didn't look like any of the girls in the neighborhood, though."

    "She's from a few streets over," I said, thinking quickly. "She didn't want anyone to recognize her."

    "Clever girl," Elaine nodded. "And that's why the mask, too, I suppose."

    "Yeah."

    "She didn't think you needed one?"

    I paused a moment. "Well, I'm not from around here." I winced inwardly, hoping that hesitation hadn't been too obvious. If there's one thing that will kill a good lie, it's not sounding confident in it.

    "That's right." She looked down at me again. I glanced up cautiously, happy to see a half smile on her face. "I don't suppose you're going to give up your cousin, are you?" I shook my head slightly. "That's because you're a good girl, aren't you? Not like her." She set her hand on my head, like she was patting a dog or something. I didn't like it, but I forced myself not to shake her off. "I believe you, honey, but somebody's got to clear up that mess, and it's hardly fair that it be me, is it?"

    "No, ma'am," I agreed. It seemed like there was no chance of getting away from it.

    She smiled, reaching down to pat my knee, only to stop as she noticed something. "Oh, dear, look at that." I glanced down, remembering only then the eggs splattered across my pant legs. Apparently she hadn't noticed them, either. "That won't do. Come along upstairs, honey, I should have something that will fit you."

    Immediately, I was puzzled why she would bother with that now, rather than after I was done cleaning up the rest of the eggs, though I wasn't about to question something that would delay that. As we walked up the staircase, however, her hand resting on my shoulder, I started to wonder why she'd have anything my size. My research strongly suggested she had no children, and I'd seen no evidence to contradict that. No pictures on the wall, no mention of them - though she did sound like she was awfully familiar with the other children in the neighborhood - and no sight or sound from them.

    She led me to her bathroom, where I stepped away from her, quickening my pace enough to get inside before her, to show her I didn't need to be guided any further. To my surprise, she followed me in before closing the door. It was a nice bathroom, with a big tub, pictures of flowers on the wall, permeated with the scent of potpourri, stocked with big, fluffy, pink towels. It was certainly large enough for two people, although that was hardly justification enough for me. "I can get changed on my own," I told her. I started to suggest she just go get me those clothes, so I, you know, actually could, but thought that would come off too bossy.

    "Oh, I'm sure you can, dear," she smiled, a grin full of sweetness and light, the kind I remembered getting from Patricia and Winston, but not since I was a little kid. It had always felt a little patronizing, but never more-so now that I was eleven, and getting it from a total stranger. "But isn't it easier when you have help?" She reached out with one hand, lifting my chin to get a clearer view of her so-happy-it's-almost-scary face. She let go after a moment, then reached upwards to tap the tip of my nose, and then downward.

    I feel a slight tugging, one I realize only later is the button of my jeans being undone, then the hissing sound that brings me around. I'd heard it a million times before, but not without bringing it about myself, not for years and years. "Wait, what are you doing?" I asked frantically, so shocked that, for a minute, I have no idea what to do. I have no plan for this, no brilliant idea to get myself away from whatever is going on.

    "Just hush, baby, it'll be all right," she told me, and before I knew it, my pants were around my ankles, and I was, for all intents and purposes, wearing nothing but a sweater and a pair of white panties. I felt fear wash over me, real fear and confusion, magnified as she grabs me by the waist, effortlessly lifts me, setting me on the closed toilet lid, where she quickly removes my shoes and socks, then takes off my pants completely. They land in a pile on the floor of her amazing bathroom, under a rack of inviting looking towels.

    I shivered as I felt the cold, wet cloth run over my legs.She was so near my feet, close enough I should have kicked her and ran out of there, but I was still feeling half paralyzed with fear. She was larger than me, and quite a bit stronger. Acting out without a solid plan was definitely not a good idea; sitting there afraid of what she would do to me next made formulating a plan rather more difficult.

    "It didn't get get through my pants," I pointed out to her. "I'm pretty sure I'm clean enough."

    "Oh, that's all right," she said, still smiling. "I don't mind." The washcloth kept moving further and further up my legs, far past where my jeans had been soiled, but it seemed pointless to mention that to her. I was really starting to get nervous about how much higher it was going to get when she noticed me shaking. "I'm sorry, sweetie. Are you chilly? Let's go get you changed into something warmer, all right?"

    "All right," I agreed. "Just bring me the clothes and I'll change. Thank you for all your help, but I think I have it from here."

    "Nonsense. It'll be easier to take you to them." She lifted me back down off the toilet, then took my hand firmly and led me out of the bathroom, leaving my clothes behind. I should have told her I don't like things to be too easy, something. I just padded alongside her silently, cursing myself for not figuring out that things were shady before going anywhere with her. She had never even threatened to call my parents, or even my imaginary aunt, which should have been one of the first things she did, surely.

    "I do hope you like your room," she said, stopping in front of a closed door, waiting anxiously, looking like she felt nearly as nervous as me. "It's been waiting for you for a long time… I saw you, and I knew you were the one, and after talking to you, I was just sure of it. There's just something about you. You're perfect."


    Lauren

    "I don't wanna go…" Crystal whines before we've even taken our first step.

    "I'll stay with you," I assure you, patting her arm. "Hey, Kevin, I can watch her here if you could just go ahead and…"

    "I don't want some little kid to get killed," he says, "but she's not my responsibility. If you aren't going out there, neither am I."

    "Fine," I sigh, part of me feeling bad about trying to trick my friend into doing my dirty work for me, the rest of me annoyed it hadn't worked. "Pussy."

    He doesn't rise to the insult, or give any indication he even heard it. "So are you?"

    "Am I what, Kevin?"

    "Going out there."

    I don't want to. God, I don't want to. I don't know what's going on, but I can still hear the screaming, just a few feet away. If Claudia really is here, though… Well, I should have been paying closer attention to what she was doing, shouldn't I? She can be a pain sometimes, but she's just a kid, and it's my fault she's in this danger. Besides, who's to say we're actually any safer just standing here? We hadn't gotten torn apart yet, but it had only been a minute or two. Maybe it just hadn't noticed us.

    Instead of speaking, I start walking, every step taking all the courage I can muster. My heart beats faster as Kevin gets further away. I don't have a crush on him - not anymore - and I know he wouldn't harm a fly. He's great with animals, he'd probably just catch it and make it his pet. But he's tall, strong, and comforting to have around on a dark night, or when moving out into the unknown. I silently let out a sigh of relief when I hear his footsteps behind me, moving closer, half dragging Crystal with him. I hate to do it to her, but now even more than before, we can't just leave her alone.

    Chaos reigns in the main room. Bodies lay broken on the floor, draped across sheet covered furniture, surrounded by pools of blood. Girls and boys huddle together, sobbing. Some are still standing, staggering through the mist, clutching large flashlights, canes, even a crowbar, but most of those are fake, just part of a costume. From the amount of blood already on them, likely someone else's costume, someone who had no need for the props anymore. My devil and angel from the front porch are still together, off to one corner, clutching each others' arms like Crystal is grabbing Kevin's.

    One boy is thinking clearly enough to grab a sheet from the couch, gather it up, toss it back and forth in front of him. It takes me a moment to realize what he's doing, though once it dawns on me, I feel stupid for not thinking of it myself. If you're fighting something you can't see, the first step should be to make it visible, obviously.

    Only, it turns out that isn't such a good idea after all here. After a few unsuccessful swipes, the sheet catches something, sticking in midair. For a second, there's the shape of an arm writhing beneath it, and then the sheet bursts into flame. The boy starts to let go, but it seems to have a mind of its own, swooping down, covering him completely.

    He claws at it, screaming, stumbling blindly. The angel and devil shriek as he comes close to them, too terrified to even try to help, scattering away from him. The devil trips over a piece of furniture, letting out a yell of pain and surprise, reaching out to stop herself from falling. She grabs a handful of sheet as she goes down. The thing she ran into wobbles briefly, but stays up as it is unveiled, the sheet pulling away to reveal a mirror beneath.

    In that mirror is the living room, of course, in all its grisly glory. But that isn't all. Standing there, in the middle of it all, is what I can only describe as a demon. It's big, scaly, red. Spikes run down the outside of its arms, horns sprout from its head. A pair of leathery wings sits on its back. As I watch, the demon spreads them, letting out a silent roar. I can feel the air grow warmer, more oppressive. This has to be a dream. A nightmare. There's no way it can be real.

    The girl in the devil costume seems to think the same thing, shaking her head, crying as she stares into the reflection. Even above all the other noise of pain and death, I hear her scream, "No!" as she raises her arm, brings it smashing down on the mirror, as if by breaking that, she would destroy what was in the image there.

    It takes my brain a split second to process what happens next. First she was there, with us; then she was staring back at me, eyes wide. She opens her mouth to scream again, somehow on the other side of the mirror. At first nothing comes out, and then, before I know it, she's engulfed in flame.

    "Fuck this," I hear Kevin's voice from beside me, before he starts to move away. I turn away, not before having to see the girl's eyes melt in her head, to see Kevin snatching Crystal's purse from her grip, digging through it frantically.

    "What are you doing?" I ask quietly, not wanting to draw attention to myself from the monster.

    He finds what he needs, throws the purse down as he pops it open. The powder puff falls to the floor, followed by a cloud of rouge, but the mirror is there, intact. He turns it so it faces the room, catches a brief glimpse of the demon, then nods, starting for one of the other doors in the hall, one we hadn't just come from. I follow, watch nervously as he opens the door a crack, angling the mirror so he can check the inside. I try to look, too, but my angle isn't as good, or I'm just not quick enough - by the time I see the beast, like a tiger but darker, with glowing eyes, Kevin is already slamming the door shut, moving on to the next. There is a thud, and I see the door buckle slightly.

    From the other side of the cabin, the angel looks up from where she'd collapsed in a huddle upon seeing her friend vanish and immolate. "Hey!" she yells. "Hey, wait for me!"

    In the large mirror, I see the demon glance over at her as she stands, starts to run towards us. It takes its time - it's in no hurry - but I can still see it turn towards us, where she's running, and I'm so glad I can't see its eyes in the mirror now, as it must surely see us.

    "Go away!" I scream at her. "Leave us alone!" She can't really be dumb enough to lead it right to us, can she? And yet, here she is, barreling towards us, not thinking of the danger she's putting us in. "Is it safe?" I demand.

    "I don't know!" I can tell he knows he's running out of time, too, his voice quivering slightly, the compact shaking in his hand. I step further into the hall, closer to him, and further away from the mirror in the main room, losing my ability to see the demon.

    Even though I know he's quite aware of the pressure we're under, I can't help but bark, "Hurry up!" at him.

    "I don't know!" he repeats frantically. "I think it's okay…"

    "Then just go!" I throw the door open, push him inside, then follow. I push it closed behind us, standing with my back to it, trying to catch my breath. A second later, I feel an impact on my back, and another, and another. I let out a quick moan of pure, primal fright before realizing it's the angel, pounding on the door.

    "Let me in!" she screams. "You can't let it kill me!"

    I stand there, shaking. "It'll get us, too," I say, though I'm not even sure it's loud enough for her to hear. "If I open the door, it'll get us, too…"

    The door jolts again, harder this time, two fists slamming against it rather than one. Then a scream, and it stops, still as death. I close my eyes, sink to the floor, trying not to think of how I'd sentenced the angel to death, how, if she was even out there, I'd practically done the same for Claudia.


    Claudia

    My heart began to beat faster as she rambled. This was it… My first big case, and I hadn't even realized it. I'd mistaken it for just something to kill the time, keep me busy, but I'd found a real psycho. And, unfortunately, she'd found me, too. I'd never really been in this kind of danger before. I'd always thought my mind would just leap into action automatically, like a faster version of how it was when I plotted out a course of action for solving a mystery, but I guessed that was the kind of thing you needed practice for, at least to get over the initial blind terror, since it hadn't happened yet.

    So I decided to live in the moment, take things as they came. Maybe I should have just done it earlier, in the bathroom, but even if I'd gotten in a good shot, she was still kneeling right in front of me, so I'd have had to go right past her to get away. There was more freedom in the hall, though it was unfortunate that she had ahold of me. Well, that just meant I'd have to make sure it hurt bad enough, because I sure as hell didn't want to see what kind of slaughterhouse was on the other side of that door.

    It would have been easier if she hadn't taken my shoes off - my state of semi-nudity would make my escape pretty awkward all around, especially once I was back at Mandy's house - but I still had my heel, which I drove into Elaine's ankle as hard and fast as I could manage. There was a gasp of pain, though I wasn't sure if it was from her or me, as her grip on my hand tightened significantly, the opposite of the effect I'd been hoping for. I bent over before I could think about it and bit her hand. That time, it was definitely her calling out her agony. She not only let me go, she flung me away, sending me crashing into the opposite wall. I lost a valuable moment feeling dazed and just standing there like a moment before rushing down the hallway.

    I bumped into a door, half stumbling into the doorknob. It swung open, nearly making me fall to the ground, but I managed to stop myself. It was dark inside, but I could see silhouettes of people inside, and I wondered why they hadn't helped when they'd heard the struggle outside, why they weren't helping now. "Come on…" I panted desperately. None of them made any move to do anything, and I knew I had to be running out of time, so I decided to leave them, worry about them later, once I was safe myself.

    Unfortunately, she wasn't just bigger and stronger than me, she was faster, too, and with a higher tolerance for pain. I had almost made it to the stairs when they suddenly slipped further away, falling upwards. I felt my feet leaving the floor, for a moment making me believe I'd simply fallen, which would have been bad enough, but once the disorientation had worn off, I realized I was being carried, tucked under Elaine's arm like a particularly large and squirmy package as she marched right back to the door. I tried to wriggle my way free, to kick her and make her drop me, but all I was doing was thrashing uselessly, unable to keep her from opening the door.

    From my vantage point, especially as that kept moving up and down with Elaine's footsteps, it was hard to get a good look at what was inside the room, not that I particularly wanted to know, for any reason other than curiousity. I could see a colorful pattern on the floor, like blocks, which seemed odd, as I was carried across it. When I craned my neck upwards, I saw a rocking chair looming in the distance, though it took a few moments to recognize that was what it was, from my angle. By that time, we were there, and I felt myself being maneuvered about until, in what felt like one swift motion, I was lying on my stomach across her knees.

    "I won't tell anyone about any of this, I sw…" I blurted out, sure this was some strange lead-up to my inevitable killing. She was holding me down gently but firmly with one hand on the small of my back, though I was planning how to kick her if she came close enough. I did not expect what came next, cutting me off mid-beg, making me jump and yelp as the sound of it seemed to echo throughout the room. "That hurt," I whined, bottom stinging.

    "That's the point, baby. How are you going to learn the lesson if you can't remember it?" There was another one. I closed my eyes, trying to fight back the tears that were threatening to erupt. "And with kids, sometimes all they can remember is pain." I wanted to tell her I wasn't one of those kinds of kids - I remember everything. It came out as another shriek. "Believe me, this hurts me more than it hurts you."

    I was pretty sure there was no way that could be true, as, for what felt like hours, there was nothing but the pain, a constant ache, reinforced every few seconds by a fresh application. I finally opened my eyes, feeling my cheeks growing wet anyway, knowing it was too late to try to stop it, and though they closed again with every hit, in between, I caught glimpses of the room.

    Thwap! There was a playpen in one corner, mesh and plastic, pink and white, surrounded by baby toys.

    Thwap! A crib, wooden bars and fluffy stuffed animals, a mobile lazily turning above.

    Thwap! A changing table, a package of the largest size Pampers sitting on top of it, and at least a dozen more stacked beside it.

    Thwap! Maybe it was just my position, but the furniture looked huge, much bigger than regular nursery equipment, big enough for, say, me.

    At long last, the spanking finished. I collapsed across Elaine's knees, exhausted and humiliated. I felt her kiss the back of my head, felt her pick me up. The cool plastic padding on the changing table crinkled as she set me down on it, and felt soothing against my warm tushie. I sat there docilely while she snuck her fingers under the bottom of my sweater and pulled it up and off of me. At that point, what did it really matter if she saw me naked? It wasn't any worse than what had just happened. And while I recognized what was coming next, knew that it would be, in a way, I was still in no shape to stop it, especially once she'd pushed me onto my back and pulled the soft, pink, velcro straps across my chest, holding me down.

    "You're going to have to learn to behave," she told me, sniffling. "I don't want to have to do that again, baby, but I will if I have to." She walked up next to my head, stroking my hair. "They always fight it," she mumbled, almost to herself. Above my head, I could hear a tearing sound, and when she came back to where I could see her, she was holding one of the diapers in her hand. I strained half-heartedly against the restraints, kicking my legs unhappily.

    That was a bad idea. She frowned, and before I knew it, there was a strap across my ankles as well. "You're a little older than most of them," she told me, running her hand up my leg. "But I think it will still fit."

    My voice at last recalled it was for something other than simply wordless cries of pain. "No, it won't," I protested. "I'm not a baby!"

    "Of course you aren't. You think I don't know that?" she asked coldly. "I'm not crazy. Babies… Mothers watch them too closely nowadays. And toddlers, and the really small children. But eventually they get big enough that they start to wander too far from home, you know, and their parents just let them. Can you believe that? I wouldn't let them. Even you. You're older than most, but you're still too little to be out this time of night on your own. You're the closest I can get…" I'm sure I saw a tear at the corner of her eye, though I didn't pay much attention to her face after that, as I felt her hands tugging my panties down.

    "You can't do this!" I wailed.

    I was wrong. No matter how hard I tried to fight, and, tied down as I was, there wasn't much I could do, she still managed to slide the diaper beneath me, force it between my legs. When she pulled the sides up, I hoped they wouldn't reach, that it was too far of a stretch, but they fit perfectly, as she was more than happy to point out. "And you said they wouldn't fit!" she chuckled, patting the front of the diaper with a crinkle. "Silly little thing. Mommies know best."

    She walked past me again, returning with what I thought at first was one of the towels from the bathroom. When she unfolded it, however, I saw that it had feet, and mittens, and a tiny zipper up the back, one that I was sure would be quite difficult to man
    From birth onward, we are dying one day at a time.

    #2
    Re: The Devil's Smile

    She walked past me again, returning with what I thought at first was one of the towels from the bathroom. When she unfolded it, however, I saw that it had feet, and mittens, and a tiny zipper up the back, one that I was sure would be quite difficult to manipulate with that thick, pink cloth covering your hands, and a set of little metal snaps on the crotch. It looked like it might be a little small for me to be entirely comfortable in, though unfortunately probably not too small for me to fit into. "You're going to be the one, I can feel it," she told me. "You were a bad girl, but they all are. I'm sure you got all of that out of you now… There's something special about you, I just know it."

    And I knew she was going to put me into that thing. She was going to put me in and zip me up, seal me inside with this diaper on, and no way to get it off without her. Then she would put me in that crib, the one that looked just as big from the changing table as it had from her lap, and my escape would be even more impossible. I'd be trapped there, subject to her every whim, which I very much doubted would include letting me out of the sleeper or diaper to use the bathroom. Somewhere, she had a stockpile of baby food, too, that I knew she'd be waiting to spoon into me.

    In just a few minutes, she had taken over my life, my options, and there had been nothing I could do to stop her. I was completely, utterly, irrevocably helpless, and I didn't like it. It was the worst feeling I'd ever felt, even worse than the spanking that had left me glowing red beneath my Pamper. I had always been so afraid of pain, thinking that was the worst thing that could happen, never realizing there was something worse.

    And in having that realizing, something snapped into place inside of me, waking up. I stared over at Elaine, hating her for putting me through this, a pure hatred that ran deeper than any that had come before. Suddenly, the pressure against my chest had loosened some, and Elaine had dropped the sleeper to reach up towards her neck, gasping. It took me a moment to see the strap wrapped around her neck, to put together that it was one from the changing table; it was a moment longer before I figured out it was me doing it. At my command, the other straps loosened, then popped free. I rolled off the table quickly, grabbing my sweater as the straps reached out, pulling Elaine onto the table. They grabbed her hands, forcing them down, away from her neck.

    I pulled the sweater on as I ran into the hall, half tripping over the panties still around my ankles. Without time to fully change, I just pulled them up, over the diaper, as I headed for the room I'd seen the other people in. "I've taken care of her for now!" I announced to them. "C'mon, let's get out of here."

    They still didn't move. After a second, I reached into the room for the light switch, flicked it on to find another nursery. There were three kids in it, all girls, around eight or nine, I guess, one standing in the crib, two sitting in the playpen, dressed in babyish outfits. They were all dead. I suppose they'd been taxidermied or something, but even the smiles that had been forced onto their faces couldn't fully hide the fear lurking beneath. I didn't recognize any of them. From another town, perhaps, somewhere she'd lived before here?

    Either way, it didn't matter now - there was nothing I could do for them. I grabbed the rest of my clothes from the bathroom, hurried down the stairs and out into the night. By then I realized I wasn't being followed, and, most likely, I wasn't going to be. Good. I ducked behind her fence and changed, tossing the diaper into the yard before leaving.

    "Where have you been?" Mandy asked when I came back into her living room. "Eww, what's all over your pants? What's wrong with you? Eugh, never mind, freak." But I didn't care what she called me, what she thought of me. I knew what I was.

    I was a superhero.


    Lauren

    I gasp in shock as Kevin grabs my arms, hauling me upwards onto my feet, though my legs feel so weak I'm sure I'd fall right back down if he let go. "Snap out of it, Lauren!"

    I feel my body move as he shakes me, but it's not enough to jolt me out of my thought pattern. What had I done? All this death around me, so much it feels almost unreal, so much destruction. I had one chance to change that, to do something good, and I'd shut the door on it.

    'There wasn't time,' part of me says. 'You have to look out for your friends. You did what you had to, for them.'

    'She had enough time to knock,' another debates. 'Not once, not twice, four times. How long does it take to open a door a crack? Not longer than that. You wanted her to die. You were still pissed she made fun of you earlier, and you wanted revenge.'

    'I don't care what someone I barely know thinks about me.' But no part of me can really believe that, not completely.

    "Perfect," Kevin's voice floats in from the corners of my neuroses, and a moment later I feel another shock as I hit the floor. This time, I manage to snap out of it, but I stay silent, watching him pace the room for a while, checking the compact compulsively.

    The babysitting section of my mind, still active from earlier tonight, wants to reach out to him, calm him down, tell him it will be okay. The frightened little girl section, which had taken over most of my brain minutes ago, knows none of that is true. Neither of them manage to get my voice working.

    Outside the door, things are getting quieter. Briefly, I feel comforted by this, only long enough for it to sink in that it means the demon is almost finished out there. Is that why it left us alive, because it knows it can wait, give us hope for a few minutes, then rip it away? It's terrible that the quietening means so many people have died, too, of course, though to be honest, that doesn't occur to me until after I've fought through the horror of that first idea. And if Claudia is out there, if she's somehow survived this long, her time is almost up.

    That thought finally gives me my voice back. "What am I going to do, Kevin?"

    He's sitting next to Crystal, who is sitting in the corner, shivering. The room is dark, and empty; in the moonlight streaming in from the window, I can see her legs glistening wetly, and I know she's lost a lot of blood. Maybe too much. Her eyes are closed, but her chest is still moving. For how much longer is anyone's guess.

    "There's not much we can do," he says quietly.

    This angers me for some reason, pushing me up off the floor. "Are you just going to let us die?"

    "Me? Why am I the one who's supposed to save all of us?"

    It's unfair, I admit, and I have to love him a bit for not pointing out that, between the two of us I was ahead in the category of letting people die, as my mind reminded me of that fact all on its own. "Crystal's in no shape to do it. I can't. I don't even know where to start. I couldn't even save that… that angel girl."

    'Didn't,' I correct myself. 'Didn't save her.'

    "Melanie. Her name was Melanie." And in those few words, I can tell he does blame me after all, even if he won't come out and say it.

    "It would have killed all of us right there!" I attack, eyes flashing.

    "I'm not saying you were wrong."

    I wish I was holding something, anything, so I could hurl it at him. "Why not? Why don't you just say it?!"

    He sighs. "Lauren, I don't want to fight with you. If we're all about to die anyway, can't we do it without being mad at each other?"

    I throw my hands in the air, let them fall back to my side. "You really have given up, haven't you? Do you even care that there's a little girl out there who…"

    "Oh, shut up about her! If you really cared about her, you would be out there now, looking for her! But all you do is talk about it, and try to get me to do it for you! I'm sorry that you couldn't keep track of one child, and yes, I hate that your incompetence might very well have killed her, but it isn't my fault! What am I supposed to do?!"

    "Be a man!" I suggest. "Or do you not have the balls for that?!" He purses his lips, his head shaking slightly. It doesn't stop me. "Of course not! You're too scared to even TRY to have a relationship with anyone! You don't care about anyone but yourself!"

    "You know what? You want me gone so much, fine. I'll go." He marches up to me, sliding the compact into my hands and staring right into my eyes as he says, "Better than spending my last moments trapped here with you."

    Then he's gone, the door open and closed again in a flash - much shorter than the time it took to knock four times - before I can reel myself in, try to apologize, to stop him. He's one of my best friends, the one I always turn to for advice, the one who's always level headed… Yet today, probably my last day with him, or anyone else, and I'd spent it yelling at him. Why? I know it isn't his fault, not what's happening here, not things that had happened in the past between us, none of it. But who else is there to blame?

    The door shakes violently. Crystal wakes up with a shout, and I run over to try to calm her down. She's shaking even harder now, and her face looks pale, so pale. I want to save her so much. I want to save Claudia. I want to go back and time and stop Kevin from walking out that door. I want to get out of here alive.

    A stream of blood begins to flow in under the door, to remind me of just how helpless I am to do any of that.


    Claudia

    I knew right away what my next case would be. I didn't have a page for it in my notebook, but it had always nagged at me. I'd told myself it wasn't important, there was no reason for it. Now I did have a reason.

    This time wasn't about money, or gaining the respect of the cops, or anything like that, and if I got caught, I'm sure there was a lot more at stake than getting grounded. But that was just the way I liked it. That danger made my heart race, made me feel alive, especially now that I knew about my powers.

    I felt like I was moving towards something. Destiny, maybe? I knew it was childish to expect something magical to come from piecing all of this together, yet I couldn't help but feel that way. Patricia would say that's because I still am a child, but what does she know?

    Tracking it down hadn't been that hard… The official records are sealed, but, like I've mentioned before, it's not exactly a big town. Mrs. Patrakas, the lady in charge of the newspaper archives, is one of the few grown-ups in town who doesn't treat me like a kid, and she lets me rummage through the old papers whenever I need to, since she knows I'll be careful with them.

    It might be a while before she does that again, if she ever looks at that day's paper again, sees that I tore out part of it. I know I should have felt bad as I sauntered out of the archives, thanked her, rode away on my bicycle, but instead, all I felt was glee, knowing I was one step closer to solving this thing. I just had to wait for the perfect opportunity.

    Lucky for me, that opportunity was just a couple days wait from when I'd made my discovery. I already knew Patricia and Winston were going out Halloween night - how could I not, after they'd checked with me a dozen times to make sure I really, truly, definitely did not want them to take me trick-or-treating instead - and leaving me with Lauren. What better time would there be than that?

    Sure enough, slipping out of my room had been no problem once she'd settled down on the couch, the porch lights off, the last of the trick-or-treaters dispersed. I snuck around the back of the house, grabbing my bicycle and wheeling it down the sidewalk away from the house, before crossing the street and hopping on board, riding it off into the darkness. I'm sure it was all more clandestine than it really needed to be, since Lauren wasn't exactly difficult to get past, but that just made it all the more exciting, as if I'd actually accomplished something.

    I drove into the night, illuminated sporadically by the moon, when it wasn't hiding behind a cloud, and the light leaking from the windows of the houses that grew further and further apart the longer I rode. I didn't need the light, though. I'd driven the first leg of my journey every day since I'd made the plan, hopping on my bike as soon as I got off the school bus, racing to get back before Patricia got home from work. A few trips was all I needed to feel sure of myself, even at night.

    Of course, in the daytime, it was easier to see the people and small animals that occasionally ran into my path, not to mention easier for drivers to see me, so I took it a bit slower than normal, and even then I nearly ran into a car that was backing out of its driveway. It would have been fine if it had kept going, but someone inside had obviously seen me and warned the driver to watch out, which, to him, translated to "Stop!" I then had to do the same, skidding my bike sideways and nearly falling off. One of the car doors opened, and I pulled my hoodie further around my face, straightened my bike out, and rode out into the street and around the car, not wanting to take the risk that they might know Patricia or Winston and thus recognize me.

    I felt my bike bump and jolt beneath me as the sidewalk ended, thus signalling the end of my well-memorized path. I slowed down enough to fish a flashlight out of my pocket and turn it on before wedging it in between the strands of plastic pretending to be wicker of the basket on the front of my bike.

    The road continued on, twisting and curving, into the forest. I had almost made it to the end when I heard the sound of a car coming up behind me. Quickly, I clicked off my flashlight and veered into the trees, hopping off the bike once I felt like I was far enough and stashing both it and myself behind a tree. The moon was out now, making my job of hiding more difficult, but also making it easier to see that it was, indeed, Lauren's car that was making its way down the path, just as I'd feared. But how had she known?

    I patted the pockets of my jeans and sweatshirt, groaning and rolling my eyes as I realized the one thing I'd forgotten - the article. I didn't really need it anymore, after all, so I hadn't worried too much about bringing it with me, or even hiding it particularly well, trusting Lauren's track record as a hands-off kind of babysitter to keep me safe. This just had to be the one night she took an interest in her job. I watched, completely still, as she pulled forward, past the picnic tables, to the little parking lot just beyond, surprised when her headlights illuminated quite a few other cars already there.

    I left my bike behind the tree, memorizing its exact spot carefully, then followed at a distance as Lauren trudged towards the old, gravel road, leading on past where the pavement stopped. Despite the annoyance of her throwing my plans off, I had to admit it was fun tracking her, moving through the trees like a shadow. She would glance behind her every now and then; the first few times, I dashed behind a tree anxiously, but after that, I began to realize she wasn't looking at me, or even for me. She was just scared.

    It made me feel happy in an odd sort of way, knowing that she, or anyone, really, was afraid of little old me. In my black jeans and one of Winston's old, black sweatshirts, I'd felt somewhat badass, until I'd looked at myself in the mirror, seeing just a little girl staring back, small and scrawny, the hem of the shirt hanging down, having come un-rolled, to slightly past my knees, like I was just playing dress-up. That feeling was long gone as I stalked Lauren, however, grinning devilishly beneath my hood. I knew it wasn't just a game, of course, but it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. I wasn't a kid, I was a jaguar, lithe and fast and dangerous.

    Before long, the gravel on the path she was on began to grow sparser, until it vanished completely. She seemed much less sure of where she was going then, and I worried that I had made a bad choice following her instead of striking out on my own. Somewhere deep inside, though, I knew we were heading in the right direction. Sure enough, the trees began to thin out into a clearing, and sitting in the middle of it was the cabin.

    I watched Lauren make her way slowly inside, then watched a little longer while the teenagers smoking on the front porch stumbled back inside. Fewer trees meant less places to hide, and more chances of being spotted, something I didn't want now that I was this close. Finally, I wound my way around the cabin, to the back door. Nobody was there, luckily, although there was something fairly small sitting there, making a sound like a car engine. Of course, you could barely hear that over the noise coming from inside. Clearly there were people inside, and a lot of them. That was going to make this all much harder. Nothing wrong with a challenge.

    I crept towards the door, keeping low, hoping nobody was looking out the windows on the back of the house. I could hear the noise from inside ebbing and flowing, and I moved and stopped with it, letting it become the soundtrack of my mission. I rested my hand on the doorknob for a moment, feeling even it pulsing with the sound, then I pulled it open and stepped inside.

    And then everything went quiet.


    Lauren

    Despite the darkness, I still manage to notice the little golden cross around Crystal's neck. It looks almost ridiculous there, so incongruous with the rest of her costume. At first, I smile at it, thinking she'd just been absent minded, forgotten to take it off. But she'd been scared of coming here, so sure it was haunted… Maybe it hadn't been such an accident that she'd left it on after all.

    And perhaps that had been what had kept us relatively safe so far. It feels a little insane to consider our situation safe, but, compared to those who hadn't been with us, or left us, we weren't doing too badly. She was hurt, and bad, yet the monster in the other room hadn't managed to kill her, even when it had the advantage of total surprise, with none of us even suspecting it might be there. And while we hadn't stayed in the hall for more than a couple minutes, that would have been plenty of time for anything in the house to take us down.

    Would it work on whatever was outside, too? Could we climb out the window and make a break for it? It would be a pretty slow break, with the condition she was in, though we might still have more of a chance there than here, with that demon lurking about. The rest of the cabin is almost completely silent now, and it has to know where we are if it has even a grain of intelligence. It could already be outside the door, waiting. How long would one tiny necklace be able to hold it off, especially if we tried to spread its effects to cover two people?

    Either way, there's only two ways out of this room. If the demon comes in through the door, it's big enough to block off that way, so we'd just be heading outside to get away from it anyway. Wasn't it better to start now, get at least a bit of a head start?

    "You okay?" I ask Crystal, weaving my arm through hers, pulling her up and onto her feet.

    She groans, leaning heavily against me. "Been better," she says weakly.

    Am I really going to be able to get her out the window like this? Do I have a choice? "Hold on, we're getting out of here."

    She shakes her head. "No, we can't…"

    It's not until I feel like I want to start crying that I realize I already have been. "Kevin's gone, Crystal. We can't do anything for him. All we can do is save ourselves."

    "Not him… The girl… Claudia…"

    "We don't even know if she's here, Crystal! I just found some old newspaper article on her desk. That doesn't prove anything… It was probably just for a school project, and she's… She's just hiding in her closet or something. I don't know, she's weird."

    "Help her," she demands. "She might still have a chance." With a burst of strength I didn't think she had left in her, she breaks free of me, stumbling and falling back to the floor. I look down at her, feeling lost and impotent. I help her back over to a wall, prop her up against it. My hand itches to take the necklace, since deep inside, I know she's probably a goner anyway, but I stop myself, a little disgusted at even thinking that. If anything is going to keep her safe until I get back with Claudia, or with some assurance that she was already dead, that will.

    "Are you sure?" I ask, more for myself than her, hoping she'll say no. I'll feel terrible for the rest of my life if it turns out Claudia really is here, and I left her, but at least that life might last longer. Unfortunately, she nods. Saying goodbye feels too final, too morbid, so I squeeze her hand instead and get up, pulling the compact out of my pocket as I head to the door.

    This is it, I tell myself. I had failed Kevin, and Melanie, and everyone else, but I can still do this. I can still get out there and save Claudia, then get back here and save Crystal, too. I have no real evidence that the necklace will do anything, but I have to hope. And Claudia has always been a master at hide and seek… Surely she found herself a safe hiding spot at the first sign of trouble. They're both still alive, and if anybody is going to keep them that way, it's me.

    I flip open the compact and reach for the doorknob, getting ready to peek outside. This'll probably be the most dangerous part - if the demon is right outside, there's not much to stop it from just ripping the door the rest of the way open and coming in. But if it's waited this long, then most likely it's moved on to another…

    The door bursts inwards, flying back into my head. The compact flies out of my hand, clattering across the floor, as me and the door hit the adjacent wall before also hitting the floor. I can feel blood pouring from my head. Head wounds tend to bleed a lot, even if they aren't that serious, I remind myself, though when I look up to see how Crystal is doing, my vision is wobbling wildly. When it finally straightens enough that I can make out Crystal, slumped against the wall, it's just in time to see her cheerleading blouse darken from yellow to crimson, radiating outwards from the center of her chest like an explosion in slow motion.

    I'm next. I know there's no way the demon forgot about me, or that it would pass me up after butchering everyone else. I feel like my life should be flashing before my eyes, but all I can think about is when it'll come, and from where. I know I can't stop it, can't save myself. I can't save anyone. I wait, hunched up behind the door, head pounding, my last few moments ticking by painfully slow. Very few people know when they're going to die… This is a luxury, of sorts, not that it's any comfort.

    Finally, I begin to move, reaching out, half dragging myself across the floor. Maybe that will just draw the monster's attention more quickly, though I'm not sure that bothers me as much as it should. Every movement sets my vision off again, leaves me dizzy and disoriented and vulnerable. Each time I stop and wait, part of me knows it's the end, that the next thing I feel will be burning hot claws raking through my body, tearing me apart. But it doesn't come.

    At last, I reach out my hand to pull myself a little further and feel plastic. I pull the compact in towards me, staring down at it. It had closed when it landed, and one side was dented. Was it the side with the mirror? I shake it feebly, and I don't hear glass rattling inside, but does that mean anything? I'm not even positive I even can hear anymore.

    My hands are shaking as I fumble with it, trying to pry it apart. It breaks apart, falling into two halves, but the half that stays in my hand is the one with the mirror, cracked, yet mostly still intact. I start to move it around, hoping for a glimpse of something red and scaly, just so I know where it is, when it might strike. I stop as I see the window, however. Outside, it isn't dark, but the light isn't the kind that comes from the sun, either. It flickers, brightness changing subtly every few moments. Curious, I lift the mirror slightly, trying to get a better look.

    Outside, the world is engulfed in flames. The land is dry and cracked, and full of monsters, larger than even the demon. In the skies, I can see dragons, like dark snakes with wings, twisting and snapping at one another. Smoke hangs over the image like a fog, and everything shimmers from the heat. I catch glimpses of tips of horns, edges of wings, mostly standing still, but occasionally swaying, as if to an unheard beat.

    I stare at it, transfixed. There is no escape. There never was. As despair settles over me like a heavy blanket, weighing me down, I barely feel the claws rake across me.


    Claudia

    The memories were never truly gone, but I had never thought to attach much significance to them until I stepped into the cabin. I could remember her fully then, my real mother, as she sat in the room I entered from - the kitchen, it used to be, panting, exhausted, and beaming down at me. I'd stared back up at her, though my vocal chords were still too weak an inexperienced to produce anything more than a cry.

    I wasn't sure what exactly I was looking for, going back there. Perhaps a bridge between those first memories, and my next ones. I'd fallen asleep when it happened, and when I woke back up, I was in a hospital, surrounded by other babies, Patricia and Winston staring down at me. When I'd gotten old enough to talk, I'd asked them where my real mother was, why they'd taken me away from her, but they dismissed it, saying I'd just dreamed that. Yet I always saw an anxious look pass between them afterwards.

    But I'd never really thought to seek the cabin out before, though the thought that someday I should return was always there in the back of my mind. Part of me always knew that my real mother was long dead, so why bother? Now that I knew I was different, that I wasn't just an ordinary kid, it seemed more important that I find it, see if it could help me figure out who, or what, I really was, though I'd never dreamed it would be so close.

    Once I was there, it all fell into place, just as I'd hoped, but been too scared to believe, it would. I'd always remembered my mother looking at me, smiling, her lips moving, but never the words. I thought I was just too young to really be able to hear. Now that I'd returned, found myself back in the same place they'd been said to me in the first place, I realized I just hadn't been ready to listen, hadn't discovered what I am. I'd always suspected I was different in some way, but never recognized the full extent.

    "This is my last gift to you," my mother had told me. "This is just a taste, a promise. This power will be all yours, and so much more. This is what you will have. This is what you will become."

    It took only a moment for it all to come back. It sent me reeling for a second, until I felt the chaos blooming around me, and then I felt at home.

    "They'll take you from me," my mother said, across the years. "They'll kill me, but don't fret. You'll want revenge, but it will draw too much attention. Just wait, my darling. There will be time enough for that later. The world is yours, but you must stay safe until you're ready to take it."

    When it was over, I spared Lauren, with only some superficial wounds. I didn't really have anything against her, and I felt like there was something more I could do, something better than just ordinary destruction. And there had to be a scapegoat, somebody to blame for all the other bodies. I couldn't have anybody poking around my town just yet. I may have had my power, but I was still getting used to it.

    So I let her keep her life, and her body made it out of there. Nobody could figure out her motives, but they found her clutching a knife, with a can of lighter fluid and matches in her pockets. It was a tragedy for the town, though luckily Patricia and Winston agreed that I shouldn't go to the many memorials, that I didn't need to be exposed to all that. Don't get me wrong, I could have made it through, told the families I was sorry this had happened, but why waste my time? I had more important things on my mind.

    Lauren is in a mental institution now. She's in diapers now, like the one Elaine had put on me, the one that had, ultimately, awoken me to my destiny - I didn't plan it that way, but it's kind of amusing how it worked out. I don't know what I had expected to happen. Guess I never really thought about it. There were plenty of parents calling for her blood, but she hasn't spoken since that day, or moved, or done anything on her own.

    She hadn't been a good babysitter, but I'd always kind of liked her because of it. I knew I could get away with whatever I wanted with her there. Sacrifices must be made, however, and that's all she was - like I said, I had nothing against her.

    But Dylan… Him, I have something against. Maybe I should thank him for ultimately teaching me who I really am. But I don't think so. No, him, I'll really punish. If he's really lucky, he'll get to die.

    And when I'm older, when I'm ready and I don't need them anymore, Patricia and Winston will feel my wrath as well. Maybe I'll take one of them out beforehand, to let the other suffer… Maybe the other one will even get to live through the beginning of the end, to let them see that even though they'd killed my mother and tried to pretend I was their own child so they could raise me to be a good girl, they still couldn't stop the inevitable.

    But that's a story for another day.


    Lauren

    Sometimes things are just destined to happen. There's no escaping it, no matter how hard you try. You can run in the opposite direction as hard and as fast as you can, yet you still find yourself pulled back there, kicking and screaming. I probably sound like a drama queen with that - I'm not, I promise, strictly backstage here - but I can't help but think it.

    An odd feeling of deja vu washes over me as I stare up at the cabin, before I remember I'd seen a picture of it just a few days before. There's a difference between a picture and reality, of course, but your brain can be pretty easily fooled sometimes, even if it knows that.

    I trudge up to the door haltingly, not wanting to go in, knowing I have to. I hadn't been invited, exactly, though by this time of night, I doubt there's anyone sober left to care. To prove my point, two girls stumble out, one dressed in white, the other black. They're laughing with each other, clumsily getting out their cigarettes. The one in black glances over.

    The devil smiles at me.

    From birth onward, we are dying one day at a time.

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