Hawthorne High School is officially closed. I guess Ben and I were the only students on the list to return in January and most of the teachers quit or something. Can’t say I’m too bummed. It would be like going to a ghost town for school, maybe with real ghosts. No, don’t want to talk about that.
Ben is still having nightmares. I finally found out who his secret girl friend is, er, was. Carley Martinez, the Homecoming Duchess (that’s Freshmen court). She was one of the first to…well, they said the attack started at the stage after the court was chosen. I, uh, found the notes she’s given him at school. He left them laying out in his secret porn stash in the back corner of the top shelf of his closet. Okay, practically laying out. You can’t expect people to respect your privacy if you put things in a lock box that can be picked with tweezers and a hair pin. Anyway, they were really serious, I think, but they weren’t exactly in the same cliques and Carley’s big brothers are really big and really protective, so they kept it secret. That’s why he didn’t go to Homecoming. She had to go ‘cuz she was nominated. Not my fault. I didn’t vote for her.
I told Peter. I know, total stool pigeon that I am, I couldn’t keep it a secret. I don’t know what to do! I think he might have loved her and all his poetry is really dark and scary now (and also poorly protected). What if he decides to, I dunno, follow her? I mean, he’s a bit of a turd most of the time (read: all of the time), but he’s my brother and I don’t think I could get over that, not ever. Peter, of course, was no help at all. Like all adults, he doesn’t understand. He said I should tell my parents. Oh, and own up not only to spying on him but ratting to the parental units. Brilliant. He already hates me for being a freak. Might as well make it permanent, right? Then he offered to counsel Ben, ‘cuz we all know how much Ben likes churchy people. The only thing he said that made me feel better was that he was gonna pray on it. I know that sounds like just cliché words to you, but from him, it’s pretty dang serious. I’m convinced he’s the only guy who asks God questions and gets answers. Or maybe he’s just crazy…
Gotta get ready. They’re holding a memorial service at the school. I don’t want to go, but I can’t not go. Tabitha, quoting her shrink, says it will be great for closure, or something. I think it will be great for bringing back all the details that have been blurred since then. I just hope I don’t throw up.
“Thanks for picking me up, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis,” Tabitha says as she squeezes into the back seat next to me. Ben has crushed himself against the door to ensure he’s not touching me. Like I’m contagious or something. I wish he would give it a rest.
“No problem, Tabby,” Dad replies with an indulgent smile. “Your mother feeling any better?”
“Oh, no. Still puking her guts out, but that’s chemo for you,” she answers in an offhand manner. The rest of the drive is silent except for the country oldies Dad insists is music despite all my complaints to the contrary. Yodeling should be banned. Tabitha keeps nervously pulling down the hem of her somber black dress. A small part of me is jealous of her, as usual. I couldn’t wear a dress like that. I’d just look like a heavily bruised pear. Even pale and sad, Tabitha is strikingly pretty. Good thing she’s my friend or I would hate her.
We’re at school before I’m ready. My nails are all chewed down to nubs and stinging, but I keep gnawing at them until Tabitha mercifully grabs my hands and holds them. Her hands are cold and shaking a bit and her manicure is chipped, which makes me think she’s not as put together as she wants us to think. For a moment I try to imagine what she’s going through. She had a lot more friends than me and they were all there. Add to that her mom’s cancer flaring up again and I start feeling a lot less jealous of her. After we park and get out of the car, I put an arm around her waist and we walk up the icy path together. Ben hurries past us without comment, his collar turned up to avoid the wind.
Every step is agony. Everything inside me is fighting to turn around and run back home. I think Tabitha can tell because she increases the pressure of her arm around my shoulders and almost pushes me forward. The front doors have plywood panels instead of the security glass. I wonder if that’s how they got in.
Through the front doors and the second doors. I can’t breathe. I can’t see. Somebody is screaming. Screaming like they’re dying. Screaming like dying would be better than what they suffer. I see their faces. They’re trapped and screaming. Burning. Crying. Begging for release. Trapped.
I have been uneasy since the Homecoming Massacre, as they are calling it. I think Joan feels it, as well. Granted, she does not share her thoughts with me any more than usual. I wonder how she survives without interacting with others. She is frequently surrounded by people at the center, yet always utterly alone. It saddens me, but I suppose that is just her way, as they say. I shall continue to be grateful that she remains in such close quarters with people. This way, I know she is eating and sleeping, though never as much as I think she should. And now I sound very much like an old mother.
Today I am going to Bernadette’s school for the memorial service. They are holding it at the school, which will be an opportune time for me to assess the damage left behind by the incident. These things have a way of lingering, clinging on like parasitic vines to the survivors. Bernadette mentioned that her brother will be there. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to speak with him. Concern for the twins has been growing on my heart. It is dangerous for them to be sundered as they are.
The main parking lot is packed by the time I arrive, so I follow the little road on to the same overflow parking lot I used the last time. The walk is short but the wind is fierce, turning my ears and nose into burning red beacons by the time I reach the shoddily repaired front doors. I can see poster boards set up in rows in the cafeteria, all the tables having been stored elsewhere. The boards have dozens of pictures a piece, 4×5’s of the lost students. Some are the standard pose and backdrop of regular school photos. Others are clearly the expensive professional photos of the Seniors.
As soon as I step through the second set of doors into the cafeteria proper, a jolt rips up my legs, through my spine and straight through my chest. I gasp and clutch at my heart, taking steadying breaths as I attempt to adjust to the presence festering here. I was right to worry. Something is still here. It is so strong that the normal people can feel it, too, though I am certain they attribute the sensation to their grief. Gradually, the presence retreats from me, but not before I understand what it is. The victims are still here.
It is not completely unusual for the victim of a violent death to linger. We would not have such a vast collection of ghost stories if this were untrue. However, it is a rare person who has the strength to remain and perhaps one in a thousand people would have this much presence after three months. I suddenly think wistfully of the gym bag in the trunk of the car. No item in that bag would be appropriate in a gym, but here they would certainly come in handy.
The principal is standing by the auditorium, welcoming people as they enter, face appropriately grim. I suppose I can offer my assistance as a trained counselor. It is my alibi for being here, if anyone asks. I believe Bernadette would prefer our relationship remained unknown.
Shaking hands with the forty-ish man, I offer my condolences. He asks, “Are you a parent?”
“No, sir. You could call me a concerned citizen,” I answer. This confuses him, so I continue with,”I’ve been told by a few of my colleagues that many of the survivors are unable to pay for the substantial counseling of which they are in desperate need. I thought that you might avail yourself of my services on a pro bono basis.”
“Absolutely. Here is my card and my references. Make sure you check them. Once you have, please give me a call. I would like to do my part to heal this community.” His face brightens slightly with a ghostly smile, possibly his first in months.
“We’ve had so many complaints, so many people threatening to sue for emotional duress. I’d been hoping, needing something like this. If you’re serious, this could mean the difference between a closed school and one opening next fall. Thank you very much, Mr…”
“Rupez. Dr. Peter Rupez. Peter, please.”
“Thank you, Mr, er, Dr, uh, Peter. You’re a Godsend.” Very true.
Just then, the screaming starts. It is blood-curdling, heart-wrenching, coming from a growing crowd right by the front door. I feel like I already know who it is, but I force my way through the crowd anyway. A pretty blonde girl in a heavy coat and a short black dress is bent over a familiar red-haired figure. Bernadette has stopped screaming now. Her whole body is twitching and shaking, her eyes have rolled up and her hands are clutched tightly over her ears. Her blonde friend is crying, but there is no time for civility. I roughly push her aside and lay Bernadette on her back yelling commands for air and space that are completely ignored by the jostling crowd.
Frustration pulses in my veins and I release a bolt of power, forcing the people back and shutting out their voices so I can concentrate. The silvery white force field shimmers around my newly silent space bubble. Bernadette goes limp and cold. My heart seems to hiccup, but I know she lives. She is simply…starved, weak. The attack was too much for her. Ah. Her strength, sundered from her by fear and prejudice.
“Benjamin!” I yell without removing my eyes from her pale face. Her freckles are a startling contrast to her skin tone, standing out like dark stars all over her cheeks and nose. “Benjamin Lewis, you will come here, NOW!”
I feel the field shimmer and look up into his face. Even scared he can manage to glare at me with loathing and disgust. It never ceases to amaze me the emotional range that teenagers can maintain at all times. “She needs you, Benjamin.”
“What for?” he sneers. “Can’t you just fix her like you did your other pet?”
I will remain calm. Yelling at him will only push him away and Bernadette cannot afford his departure. “No, I cannot. That is not how it works. You are twins, Benjamin. Symbiotes, even. You need each other.”
“Bullshit,” he responds vehemently. “I don’t need freaks.”
“Oh, yes? I see. I was unaware you were a coward.” She prays for him everyday. She worries about him. And he will not look on her though she lies here near death.
“I’m not a coward!” His face is flushed and angry. Good.
“Oh, no. Because it is only the brave that leave their kin to die, is that it?” He pales slightly. “Do you understand yet, Benjamin? She will die without you.” He hesitates, still angry, still afraid and resentful. He finally looks at his sister, looking so terribly pale on the vinyl tile.
“What do I need to do,” he mumbles, moving to her side at last.
“Hold her hand and talk to her,” I breathe with a brief prayer of thanks. “She will be safe in here while I work.” The moment he grasps her hand, color starts to return to her cheeks.
“Work? Gonna exorcise the building or something?” The sneer is back in his voice, yet he still kneels with his sister and I am not in need of his respect or devotion.
“In a sense.”
I should have come here sooner. I know that now. God has been telling me so for weeks. I was too distracted to take notice. Now Bernadette has been hurt and hundreds of souls have been in torment for months. There are too many people here, too many witnesses. No choice, now. I remove my old, worn jacket and hand it to one of the many people clamoring around me. The twins’ parents are shrieking at me because their children are trapped in an impenetrable field of energy. No time for this. I ignore the noise and cross the cafeteria to a doorway that still bears the markings of a police investigation. Tattered yellow tape hangs from the corners, fluttering without a wind.
The crowd does not follow me through that door. The gym is silent, the air heavy with the crush of the unseen. I can feel them press in upon me, grasping at me, clawing my skin with incorporeal nails and teeth. Their breath moves my hairs on my neck and clogs my nostrils. Standing in the middle of the blood-stained wooden floor is an exceptionally solid entity. It is made of light, though no light escapes to light the dark room. Great white shadows arc from each shoulder like vast wings, smoky feathers rustling silently. Even as I approach I sense that he is not one, but many at once.
“Legion,” I say calmly.
“Peter,” he replies just as calmly.
“I thought you left.” My tone is courteous with just a hint of curiosity. I wonder if I should be frightened.
“I tried.” His eyes are unfathomable. Dark and light at once. “They keep me here, so I hurt them. It is a cycle I would prefer to end.”
“They have cause,” I reply, almost chiding him. “Their deaths came at your hands.”
“I do not deny their right to vengeance. Far from it.” He does not smile, exactly. His face may not even have a mouth. It is always difficult to tell with his kind. “It further proves the point we have been trying to make since the Beginning. They are unworthy.”
“According to you, perhaps. It is not up to you to decide who is worthy, Legion, regardless of your love and loyalty to the Father.” He responds merely with a noncommittal shrug. This is an old argument, the oldest, and it won’t be resolved by us here. “I will release you and they will pass on.”
“I am surprised you would take that path knowing where they are destined,” he says gently. His head tilts slightly to one side as though puzzled. “All of them are bound for the Void. Surely you would spare them that torment?”
This is not news to me and he knows it. None of them were saved. All of them will burn. “Do not tempt me, Demon,” I say softly. I suspected he would try this, but foreknowledge does not lessen the pain of it. I place a palm on his broad chest directly over his heart and push him out of this world and back to the Void with his banished brethren. The presence is furious. The walls tremble, the lights shake, the floorboards creak.
“No,” I say with all the authority I have. “You do not belong here. You will only bring pain to those left behind. Go now.” Another push and the air is simply that, stale but clear. Exhaustion consumes me and then I feel His presence fill me and wash away the deep sadness. My steps are steady and loud back to the door.
Tempting as it may be to simply sneak out the other gym door, I must ensure that Bernadette is better. And retrieve my coat, of course. The crowd is gone, my jacket is abandoned on the floor and the field is still glittering like dust in new sunlight. I can see Benjamin holding Bernadette, rocking back and forth, shoulders shaking with violent cries.
I am about to interrupt them when a voice behind me says, “You should be more careful, Father.” Turning around, I see Joan gradually appearing from the shadows. It is slightly unnerving to see her appear out of seeming nothingness, but I do not suppose she would be proficient at her job if she were unable to hide herself. “They are weak-minded, easy to make forget. Those two will not,” she states with a nod at the twins.
“They are not a threat at this time,” I warn. There are times I worry about Joan’s protective nature. She will not kill them if I vouch for them, but she would never hesitate to do so if she saw it as necessary. “Thank you for your help. Why are you here?” I have learned to be direct with her. She does not appreciate politeness when it wastes her time.
“I have been in the neighborhood since Legion. It was troubled and they can sense it. They congregate around places like these. Easy kills. Like moths to a flame.” Cold, unemotional, reptilian even. Still, she could have killed all those people and instead chose to simply distract them and cloud their minds. This thought gives me hope.
“It should calm down now. I sent him home,” I nod at the gym. “Without him to feed on, they had no strength to remain.” Another pang of sadness.
She has stopped listening to me. Her eyes are fading to a pale yellow and her head is slightly tilted. With a nod of acknowledgement, she departs through the front doors, on the hunt again.
The force field fades when I walk through. I can hear Benjamin mumbling apologies over and over again, his shoulders still trembling. When I walk around to face him, he raises a tear-streaked face filled with hate and accusation. “You said I could help her You said she would die without me. Well, she’s dead, you lying son of a bitch. NOW BRING HER BACK!”