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Alice couldn’t run. She couldn’t hide. All she could do was sit there as her mother went. In.
“Must be out your got. Dayum. Mind. Just doing whatever you please.” Mom paced in front of the coffee table, her steps barely muted by the carpet. She’d kicked off her heels and abandoned one near the door while the other lay over by the fireplace. This alone was a sign Alice was well and truly screwed. “Like you run things ’round here. Like you pay bills, do you pay bills?” Mom whirled on Alice, who had pressed so far back against the couch she felt she might slip between the cushions and be lost.
“No, ma’am.” Alice’s voice sounded as small as she felt in the face of her mom’s fury.
A little muscle in Mom’s jaw jumped as she ground her teeth together. “I can’t hear you.”
“No, ma’am,” Alice managed, louder this time, the words thick with the emotions coursing through her. Fire licked at the center of her face, and a feeling like fingers around her neck closed off her throat. She just wanted to go to bed. Couldn’t she go to bed?
“Got the school calling me ’cause you decided you just wasn’t gone show up, I guess. Now I’m missing work, and for what? For what, Alison? Knowing I didn’t raise you like this, knowing this wasn’t gone fly. Then walk in here covered in lord knows—what is that mess?” Mom flapped a hand at Alice, indicating the black splattered against her clothes and skin. “And what is that smell?”
Alice stared at the stains. Yeah, that inky shit stank to high heaven, but that wasn’t why her eyes started to water. It wasn’t why her chest went all tight, like the space was suddenly too small for her lungs. She smoothed her fingers over the rusty red splotch on her shirt. A handprint hidden under all the other yuck. His handprint.
The heat behind Alice’s eyes filled the rest of her face.
“I know you not ignoring me.” Mom’s tone went razor sharp.
Alice wanted to answer, but the words tripped over her tongue and hit the back of her teeth. What escaped instead was some sort of whine.
Mom’s eyes widened slightly. Her arms unfolded from where she’d crossed them under her chest, and she shifted as if to reach out to Alice, but lifted a finger in warning instead. “No, ain’t no crocodile tears gonna fix this.”
The tears came anyway. They welled up and spilled over Alice’s cheeks as she stared at the floor while fighting to keep from all-out sobbing. The carpet’s shaggy white tufts went brown and green, the memory of the shredded football field dancing in and out of her vision. The rumbling snarl of Fiends and the shriek of clashing weapons filled her ears. Her heart knocked against the inside of her chest, its thump-thump rising to join the crash.
Voices surfed the waves of chaos.
“Side, on fire!”
“I-it’ll be okay … you’ll be okay.”
You lied to him.
She flinched. She hadn’t meant to lie. She gave everything she had to try and save him! The Black Knight, he was the one that didn’t keep his end of the bargain. He was the one that let those monsters tear her friend apart! Chess was gone because of him.
Maybe, but Chess would be at home right now if you hadn’t pulled him into this.
“Alice,” Mom barked.
If it wasn’t for you, he’d still be alive.
A buzzing prickled beneath Alice’s skin, spreading over every inch of her. It pressed at her temples and filled the space behind her eyes.
You did this. You killed him.
Her vision darkened at the edges. Her jaw throbbed, the muscles so tight her teeth ached. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t—if she did, she wouldn’t stop.
Just like Dad.
The sobs tore free. Hard, unforgiving things that clawed their way from the depths of her. They stole her breath, shook her frame, and bent her in half until something deep inside cracked open and bled familiar shades of shame, anger, and regret.
Fingers played against Alice’s shoulders before the cushion beside her dipped with sudden weight. The smell of floral perfume reached her before Mom’s arms tucked around her.
Let me go! Alice wanted to scream, but she could only cry and gasp and cough and cry some more.
“Come ’ere.” Mom drew Alice up, then guided her deeper into her embrace. “I don’t know what’s going on. You don’t tell me nothing, you just out running these streets. Is something happening at school?” She rubbed at Alice’s back, her fingers pressing steady circles between her shoulders. “Talk to me, baby.”
Talking. That wasn’t possible. The very idea of words shriveled in Alice’s mind. Whatever managed to make it to her tongue just dissolved entirely. A groan slipped free, muffled against Mom’s shoulder, but that was it.
“Okay, baby, okay.” Soft shushes and faint humming filled the silence between hiccupped sobs. Every now and then a whispered Jesus accompanied them.
Jesus had nothing to do with it, Alice wanted to say.
Eventually, the sobs died away enough for Alice to cobble together a couple words. “H-he’s gone.” She coughed like she was six years old again. Snot slipped over her lips, between them. She rubbed at her mouth. Her throat burned.
“Who’s gone?” Mom smoothed hands over Alice’s braids, then wiped at her cheeks. “Is this about your daddy?”
Alice shook her head. The action made her dizzy and left wet, slick patches on what felt like one of Mom’s really nice shirts.
“Look, whatever’s going on, you don’t have to deal with it by yourself.” The arms around Alice tightened in a squeeze. “We’ll get through it. Together, okay?”
A sudden edge of anger scissored through her thoughts. Together. What, like with Dad? There wasn’t much “togetherness” in dealing with her father’s death.
“But you gotta tell me, baby. I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”
That anger sharpened. Alice had tried to approach her mom after Dad died, but the woman either retreated so far into herself it was like she was looking for Narnia, or she threw herself in the opposite direction and got lost in her work. Meanwhile, Alice ended up crossing into another world and killing shit as a hobby.
And say Alice did have a sit-down with her mom or whatever, how in the hell was she supposed to explain any of this? Hatta, the pub, Wonderland? Chess …
Would Mom even believe her? And if she did, what then? She’d probably forbid Alice from going to Wonderland or seeing her friends. She might go off on some mess about how she believed Alice believed what she was saying, then make her “talk to someone” about it. Maybe she’d yell at her for making shit up and never trust her again.
Or maybe, just maybe, Mom would understand for once, or at least try to. A small, hopeful part of Alice latched onto that barest sliver of a silver lining. Maybe all this could be one less thing she had to carry, to hide. Maybe it would be okay. Mom wasn’t a liar, like her.
But Alice had no idea where to start.
Begin at the beginning, something whispered against her mind. A gentle touch. A calming press.
The night Dad died. The night she met Hatta. The night everything changed.
Her racing thoughts settled on the memory. It was so crisp and clear in her mind she shivered at recalling the cold press of stone against her back. The stink of the fetid puddles and heat-soaked dumpsters nearby stung her nose. She could practically taste the salt of her tears. Then a beast slithered out of the throbbing dark, followed by a monster slayer, an invisible boy bright and shining.
Begin at the beginning.
Alice took a slow, deep breath. She sniffed and swallowed and swiped at her nose “I—I…”
“Yeah, baby?” Mom encouraged.
Alice licked her lips. “It … a-after Daddy…”
“Take your time.”
Her throat closed up, again.
The rest of the words refused to come. They gathered at the back of her tongue, piling on top of each other like rocks after a landslide, heavy and broken. It was as if part of her still wanted, needed to keep the secret.
Something shifted in Mom’s expression. The corners of her mouth turned downward, and Alice felt the tightness in the arms still wrapped around her.
Get it together, Kingston. She had to say something.
Janet Jackson and company belted We are a part of the Rhythm Nation from Mom’s pocket. She huffed in annoyance before pulling her phone free. “It’s Courtney.”
Alice blinked, surprised. Court just left not twenty minutes ago, after getting her own cussing-out. The flutter between Alice’s lungs agreed. Something was wrong.
Mom slid her thumb across the screen. “I can tell her to call back, so we can finish talking.”
“She probably left something.” Alice hoped she didn’t sound too eager as she wiped at her still-aching face. “Or I left something in her car.”
Mom squeezed Alice, rubbing at her arm, and lifted the phone. “Yeah, honey?”
Court started screaming.
Mom jerked the phone away from her ear, her expression twisting, before telling Court to calm down and try again. Alice couldn’t make out what she was saying, but whatever it was, it didn’t sound good. The fluttering in Alice’s chest turned to full-on flailing.
A frown wrinkled Mom’s forehead. “Chester is where?”
Alice’s insides went cold.
“A what? Oh lord, hang on, baby. Here.” Mom held out the phone. “I can’t understand her.”
Alice reached for it, her fingers shaking. She didn’t want to take it. Whatever was going on had to be bad, and she was so done with bad, but Mom was already pressing it into her hand. Chewing at her lower lip, she lifted it to her ear. “Yeah, Court?”
“Alice! Ohmigod, I’m coming to get you.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“Something happened with Chess, we need to go to the pub.”
“Som—” Alice blinked rapidly, her brain misfiring for a second. Did she hear that right? “With who?”
“Chess! Hatta called and said we had to come back, right now.” The rising panic in Courtney’s voice mirrored Alice’s. “Then someone started hollering and he hung up.”
Alice shook her head. “No … he’s not…” Her chest tightened all over again. She couldn’t catch her breath, and it left her with a feeling like water sloshing around her thoughts.
Mom leaned forward to catch Alice’s attention. “What’s going on?”
“I tried calling back,” Courtney said. “But no one’s picking up!”
For a few seconds, Alice couldn’t remember how to speak. Her mind was working so fast trying to keep up with what Courtney was saying, what Mom was saying, with her own thoughts, and it kept misfiring.
Something happened with Chess.
Hatta said to come back.
But Chess was dead.
They had to hurry.
“O-okay.” Alice finally managed, one hand pressed to her mouth. She shut her eyes and tried to focus on breathing as the burn of tears made a comeback.
“I told your mom Chess was in an accident and we’re going to see him. I—I didn’t know what else to say!”
“Okay,” Alice repeated, her voice thin.
“Shit, this is so fucked up.” The sound of sniffles and whimpers carried over the phone.
“C-Court?” Alice croaked. She swallowed to ease the ache in her throat.
“I’m okay! I’m okay.” Court sniffed again and whispered something Alice couldn’t make out. “I’m okay. ETA two minutes.”
“O—” Court cut the call. “Kay.” Alice lowered the phone. Her heart buzzed in her ears as her mind continued to tumble over everything. Something was wrong with Chess. But Chess was dead. Hatta said to come. Something was wrong. Hatta said …
Bad. All bad.
“Alison!” Mom snapped her fingers in Alice’s face. The sound sent shards of pain dancing behind her eyes. “What’s happening?”
“U-um, Chess.” The words got stuck again. She pressed her hands over her face and groaned. Her fingers came away wet with fresh tears. “S-something—oh my god. He was in an accident? Court’s coming. We’re gonna go see him. Please, Mommy.” Her voice cracked on the plea. “Please. I—I—I know, I’m grounded, but I have to see him. It’s bad. It’s real bad, please. Please.”
Mom pinched her lips together and held Alice’s gaze, her brown eyes questioning. For a perilous stretch of seconds, the only sound was Alice’s harsh sniffles and choked breaths. Mom licked her lips and glanced to the side before sighing through her nose.
She’s gonna say no. Raw, unrelenting panic jolted through Alice and knocked an equally unforgivable idea loose. “O-or! You can take me. He’s at Grady.”
The small sound Mom made at the mention of the hospital sent Alice’s stomach plummeting. It was a low blow, and god, she felt a whole ass for doing it, but she had to get out of here.
Swallowing the sour taste at the back of her throat, she pressed on. “You can drop me off on your way back to work, and I’ll call when I’m ready.”
Another handful of seconds passed.
Mom pursed her lips and leveled a look at Alice. She opened her mouth, and the blast of Courtney’s horn made them both jump. Mom shut her eyes, pushed to her feet, and started pacing in front of the coffee table again.
Alice glanced at the clock. Both hands stood nearly straight up, putting the time at just noon. “Or you can, um … pick me up when you get off. Please,” she pressed. She had to sell this. Sniffing, she wiped at her nose. “Court can bring me home, whatever works, I just need to—”
Mom lifted a hand, gesturing for quiet. She paced a bit more. Her shoulders hitched when Court blew again, but Mom remained focused on Alice. “I don’t know what’s going on with you. And I hate thinking I can’t trust you.”
Alice couldn’t deny she had that coming, but it still hurt to hear it. She fought to hold her mother’s gaze.
“But you’re not leaving me much of a choice here, Baby Moon,” Mom continued.
“I know.” The words leaped free before Alice even realized they’d hit her lips, her mouth suddenly dry. “I know. I—I’m sorry. I just … there’s a lot—”
Another blast from Court’s horn. Mom grunted before stalking over to the door, yanking it open, and stepping partway onto the porch. “I will rip that horn out and choke you with it, lil girl!” Then she turned back to Alice, letting the screen bang closed behind her. She eyed her a bit longer before jerking her head toward the door. “Come on.”
With her heart in her throat, Alice hopped up, grabbed her bag, and hurried after her mother, who padded down the front steps. Her feet had to be freezing—pantyhose didn’t do much protecting from the cold. Alice followed close behind as they headed down the driveway, toward Court’s Camaro.
Court’s wide green eyes, red and puffy from crying, watched them approach through the passenger side window, which she rolled down after Mom twirled her finger.
“Here’s the deal.” Mom bent forward so she could meet Court’s gaze, then glanced back and forth between both girls as she spoke. “The instant you get to that hospital and find out how Chester is doing, call and let me know, and not from Courtney’s phone. Use the phone in his room, or the nurse station, or information booth, or security, or something, I don’t care. Then you can sit and visit for a little while. Just a little while.” Mom looked to Alice. “Your ass is in this house by three o’clock. Not three-oh-one.”
“Yes ma—” Alice started, but fell silent when Mom lifted her hand again.
“I’m not playing with either of you. This is it. Last damn chance. If you mess this up, you two won’t see each other outside of school until college.” She swung a manicured finger back and forth between the girls like the sword of Damocles. “I mean it. I love you, Courtney baby, but you will not be allowed in this house for the rest of the damn year.” The finger stopped at Alice. “And I’m putting bars on your window. Don’t. Test. Me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” both girls chimed together. Alice’s voice shook almost as much as she did.
Mom tucked her hand into the crook of her elbow, arms folded again. “What time I say?”
“Three o’clock,” Alice answered.
Mom peered into the car. “What time I say?”
“Three o’clock,” Court answered as she swiped at her flushed cheeks. Her whole face was bright red.
Mom stepped back and gestured for Alice to get in the car, which she scurried to do. She was fastening her seat belt as Mom practically leaned in through the window to stick them both with a healthy dose of side-eye. “What time did I say?”
“Three o’clock,” the girls said together.
With a nod, Mom threw an arm over Alice to give her one of those awkward half hugs that she did her best to return. “Drive safe.”
Court waited until Alice’s mother had backed up a few feet before pulling off. Neither girl seemed to breathe until they turned the corner, but Alice could feel her mother’s glare following them, like heat from Nana Kingston’s comb on the back of her neck. Court kept her eyes on the road, her grip on the wheel so tight the color had drained from her knuckles.
“What all did Hatta say?” Alice asked, anxiety crawling through her. She fought to keep her breathing even, but it felt like her whole body had turned against her, still trembling as she sunk farther into the seat.
“S-something happened with Chess a-and, um…” Court took quick, deep breaths and blinked rapidly. “And we needed to get back there right now.”
“What kind of something happens with a … a—a dead … He’s dead…”
“I know!” Court slammed her fist on the wheel. “That Duchess woman started screaming in Russian and Hatta hung up! I don’t—” She pursed her lips and stared ahead.
Shit. Alice glanced around. “Where’s your phone?”
Court pointed to the cubby under the center dash. Alice snatched the phone up, punched in the lock code, and hit the pub’s number.
It went straight to voice mail and Alice’s body went tight. A wave of … of rage washed over her. How the hell you say some shit about someone’s dead friend, hang up, then don’t answer when they call back? Alice had to force herself to relax or she might crush Court’s phone like she did hers. She waited a bit, then hit redial. It rang this time. And kept ringing.
She tried again, her knee bouncing.
On the fourth try, someone finally picked up.
Alice’s heart jumped at the sound of Hatta’s voice. There was an edge to it, an unease that plucked at the already frayed whispers of remaining strength barely holding her up. “Hey, it’s me. What’s going on?”
For a moment the line went so quiet she thought the call had dropped. She even pulled the phone away to double-check. Then Hatta said the absolute last thing she could’ve expected.
“Chess is gone. And he took Maddi with him.”
Copyright © 2019 by Leatrice McKinney