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She saw the man with no hands first. He lay screaming in the road, caught in the shimmer of something burning. His skin was blackened and smoke corkscrewed from his hair. It was his wrists, though—the raw stumps of his wrists—that made Edith close her eyes. Not that she could unsee, of course, or even turn away.
His shirt had been burned from his body.
Edith Lovegrove, ten years old, clapped a hand across her mouth and managed, with colossal effort, not to scream. Her throat ballooned, dark with pressure. Her ears rang and popped. As if in response, the window expanded. It showed more terrible things. The worst she’d ever seen.
Here was a dead woman slumped across a trashcan.
Here was a parking lot—no, it was a street—jammed with burning cars.
Edith rose from her bed and stumbled to her work desk, where she usually made friendship bracelets and birthday cards, and as a little kid had written letters to a certain jolly old elf in the North Pole. Now she opened the drawer where she kept her markers (the grownup kind, not the washable kind) and grabbed the first one her fingers happened upon: Aquarius Blue. Stepping away from the desk, she heard a dull, crumpling sound like a wall collapsing. Her eyes—also Aquarius Blue—rolled back into her skull and saliva beaded at the corners of her mouth.
“Draw,” she mumbled, because that’s all she could do. “Out.”
She would normally reach for Shirley, her sister, but Shirley had slammed that door, burned that bridge. “No more,” Shirley had said, and she’d been adamant. “Never again.”
Edith saw the front end of a burnt-out vehicle, its wheels blown from their axles and its hood folded like an envelope.
The marker trembled in her hand.
It was hard not to reach for her sister, like not reaching for a rope when being dragged out to sea. And maybe, Edith thought, she should. This was bigger and more terrible than anything she’d seen before, and she was certain Shirley wouldn’t want her to be alone, despite what she’d said. She would—
Edith saw bodies—eight, maybe nine of them—recognizable by their shoes, their postures, but otherwise charred and dripping. She pulled her box of toys to one side, tore down her Rihanna and Minions posters, and used the marker to reproduce the images in her mind. They were hurriedly drawn, wild loops and lines, a kind of psychic shorthand.
The red and blue lights of a fire truck pulsed along a city street already lit by flame. Edith expected them to flash across her bedroom walls. She heard a woman screaming and saw a buckled street sign: W. CHIPPEWA ST.
“Out,” Edith said again, and scrawled what looked like a W on its side with a swirl beneath it. She started on a second symbol and felt an increment of relief, but not enough.
It was all too big. Too much.
“Bottletop,” she blurted, and touched her sister’s mind.
Shirley, I’m so scared.
* * *
Martin Lovegrove reflected that, when he was a kid, the best part of the day was that magical couple of hours between dinner and bedtime. That was when his family gathered in the living room to watch TV, and even though they were individually absorbed in shows like Quantum Leap and Roseanne, they were still together. They laughed and cheered in all the same places. And sometimes, the TV stayed off and they played board games or listened to music. It was family time. A Lovegrove observance. Martin remembered it with fondness.
He slouched now in his favorite armchair with one leg cocked on the arm, much like the teenager who’d religiously watched The Wonder Years, because that’s how he always sat; that’s how he was comfortable. He had the TV remote in his left hand, scrolling through options on Netflix. Laura lay on the sofa, watching Jimmy Fallon highlights on the iPad. Her headphones blotted out all sound.
“As if,” Shirley, their oldest daughter, said suddenly. She wasn’t even aware she’d spoken out loud, Martin thought. She was brain-deep in her phone, texting one of her girlfriends. “Like, nooooo.” Her thumbs tapped the screen without pausing. Martin wondered if they twitched in her sleep.
Fifteen years old. She’d said maybe ten words to him since he’d rolled home from work. Three of them were Love you, Dad, which more than made up for the half a dozen or so other monosyllabic grunts.
Family time wasn’t what it used to be.
“We’ll go to the zoo on Sunday,” Martin said. It came from nowhere—boom—into his head and out of his mouth.
“What?” Shirley didn’t look up from her phone. She didn’t even complete the word: Wha?
“The zoo,” Martin repeated. “You know … exotic animals held in captivity for the viewing pleasure of overfed Westerners. We’ll go. The four of us. We’ll eat ice cream and pretend we have a fulfilling life.”
“It’s Claudette’s birthday this weekend.” Shirley’s eyes flicked up briefly. “She turns sixteen. I’m not missing it.”
“What? Her birthday lasts the whole weekend?”
“Her party is Sunday. I totally told you.”
Martin rolled his eyes. “Oh, right. I totally forgot.” He selected Lost and hit play. A crappy show, no doubt, but a guilty pleasure. He sometimes liked to imagine he was marooned on an island, hundreds of miles from civilization, with nothing but a mysterious smoke beast and countless plot holes for company.
He heard creaking from upstairs: the sound of small footfalls across the floorboards. His finger jabbed the pause button and he looked at the ceiling. Edith had retired to bed after dinner—which she hadn’t eaten—with a mild fever. Nothing to worry about. Martin was more concerned about the possibility of a night terror. Edith had suffered terribly between the ages of five and eight. Their family doctor had assured them that night terrors were not cause for concern, and did not suggest a deeper psychological condition. “Think of them as temporary disruptions while her central nervous system is maturing,” she’d said. “Yes, they can appear quite upsetting, but there is no lasting damage, and Edith will have no recollection of them come morning. Just keep her from harming herself, or others, if she’s thrashing around.”
Edith rarely thrashed. She’d trembled and screamed, and often spoke phrases that should not have been in a child’s vocabulary. Martin had written some of them down, underscoring those that appeared most extraneous. “Blunt force trauma,” she’d muttered once. She was six years old. On another occasion she wailed, “He oído disparos y corrió.” Martin ran this through Google Translate and it came back with, “I heard gunshots and ran.” To the best of his knowledge, this was not a phrase she’d picked up watching Sesame Street.
Laura suggested that Edith could be drawing on events from a previous life, but then Laura was susceptible to spiritual fancy. Martin thought it more likely Edith had heard these things on the evening news, but agreed to take her to a hypnotherapist. He—a wildly bearded man with Star Wars collectibles dotted around his office—didn’t explore the past-life route, but instead introduced Edith to a visualization exercise that brought an end to her night terrors. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, and maybe the disruptions would have ceased anyway, but whatever the reason, they were twenty-three months without incident.
Good, yeah. Positively bueno. Martin still thought about it, though, whenever he tucked her in at night. And maybe that would never go away. Not completely. She was his baby, after all.
Another creak from upstairs. Edith was definitely up and moving around, obviously feeling better. Martin smiled and turned his attention back to Lost, where Hurley was currently bouncing through the jungle. Oh Hurley … four and a half seasons without Kentucky Fried Chicken and still a goddamn lard-ass.
* * *
Laura muttered, “He does Dylan better than Dylan,” and Martin snapped out of his show. That was when he noticed the clicking. It wasn’t the rhythmic clicking he associated with Shirley’s texting. This was constant. A purr. He looked up, expecting to see her zoned out. And she was, but not in the usual way. Her head was angled awkwardly and her eyelids fluttered. Her thumbs blurred off the screen.
She was having some kind of seizure. Martin drew his leg off the arm and sprang from his chair. He got Laura’s attention by waving a hand in front of her eyes, then crossed the room to where Shirley reclined in the other armchair. He cradled the back of her head in one hand and gently tilted her jaw to keep her airway open. She garbled something. The veins across her throat bulged.
“What’s happening to her?” Laura asked, crouching beside the armchair. She tried removing the cell phone from Shirley’s hands but Shirley held tight, her thumbs still working.
“Seizure, I think,” Martin said. “Maybe she was looking at flashing images.”
“Should I call nine-one-one?”
Martin looked from Shirley to Laura, then down at the cell phone’s screen as Laura tried to free it from their daughter’s clasp. He glimpsed what she’d typed: a string of random letters, symbols, and emojis, but with several full words interspersed in all the nonsense. Martin barely logged them before Laura pried the phone away. He definitely saw SCARED and CHIPPEWA and perhaps BOTTLECAP, or maybe it was BOTTLETOP.
“Martin?” Laura snapped. She threw the cell phone on the floor and clutched Shirley’s hands. “Nine-one-one?”
“Wait,” he said. He eased Shirley onto her side and peeled damp strands of hair from her brow. “It’s okay, baby. Mom and Dad are here.” Her eyes flashed open and closed. Her mouth moved silently. Martin pressed the cool back of his hand to her cheek and she whimpered. A moment later, she screwed her face up and started to cry. It was like a pressure release. The tightness left her body at once. Her trembling first lessened, then stopped altogether.
“Okay, sweetie,” Laura said. “It’s okay.”
Martin wiped her tears away. She blinked, took deep breaths, and looked into her empty hands for her phone. Her expression switched from confusion to fear.
“Edith,” she said.
“What about Edith?” Martin asked.
Shirley shook her head and groaned. More tears spilled from her eyes.
“She’s screaming inside,” she said.
* * *
Martin didn’t run anymore. A wobbly jog was the best he could manage—wobbly because the muscles he’d displayed in his twenties, and even into his thirties, had softened, and at forty-one he sported what the magazines kindly called a dad-bod. He didn’t put this down to being a busy family man, or to working fifty-plus hours a week, but to a torn ACL he’d suffered playing racquetball with his brother. He’d played football and basketball through high school, and amateur league baseball for most of his adult life, all without injury. But five minutes on a racquetball court with Jimmy (three years older, thirty pounds heavier) and he felt his left knee go pop. The operation to repair it was straightforward enough, but his work insurance plan didn’t cover sporting injuries … and even if he could afford to pay for it himself, it wasn’t like he had time to go under the knife.
He took the stairs quickly, though, and with his heart clamoring. As he rounded the newel post, he felt the injury fire a warning shot, and managed only three more lumbering steps before his knee gave out. He slumped against the wall—“Ah, fuck!”—and limped the rest of the way to Edith’s room. Shirley’s words accompanied him. She’s screaming inside. Martin had no idea what he’d find when he opened Edith’s door. There was no way Shirley could know what was happening to her sister, but the whole seizure thing was undeniably eerie.
She spooked you, is all, he thought, grasping the doorknob and pushing the door open. There’ll be a solid explanation for this. They were probably watching the same—
The thought broke. It didn’t fade or even simply end. It broke, and with a tiny shattering sound, like someone stepping on a microscope slide.
Another night terror, certainly, but not like any he’d seen before. Deeper, was the word that came to mind. Edith stood in the middle of the room, her face a cracked oval, a thread of drool hanging from her lip. She looked at Martin. Her eyes caught the light like sparking flints.
“It’s all flashy now,” she said. “And loud. Whoop-whoop.”
Martin stumbled toward her, meaning to scoop her into his arms and cradle her until the storm had passed and she was dreaming sweetly. The shock in her expression knocked him back a step, though. Whatever was making her scream inside … she wasn’t just seeing it, she was living it.
“Edith … honey, it’s—”
She clutched a blue marker in her right hand and used it to point at the wall, where the posters had been removed and she’d drawn a series of symbols. They were esoteric, nonsensical, though apparently not without meaning.
“The whoop-whoop,” Edith said, pointing to a diamond with sunrays shooting from it. The marker toppled from her hand. “It all went boom, Daddy.”
“Everything went boom.”
He swept toward Edith and lifted her into his arms. Effortless, with her being so delicate. The muscles across his chest barely flexed. His injured knee reacted otherwise, buckling under him, spilling him to the floor. He never let go of Edith, though, and she looked at him through ribbons of dark blond hair, her mouth a wavering circle, one hand reaching, not to touch his face, as he thought, but to point at another symbol on the wall behind him, this a broken swirl, and she whispered in the frailest, sweetest voice imaginable:
“The man with no hands is crying.”
Copyright © 2018 by Rio Youers