With each step, the city sucks a little more light from me. I’ve become a shriveled fraction of my former self. My insides let sorrow and darkness take hold. It grips onto my heart and seems to weave a thread through my core, sewing torn and broken pieces together again. I want to stop walking and lay down to die. But giving up is only an option for the broken. I’m patchwork now. So, I keep walking.
I’m not sure why I follow the old woman and a boy named Marcus. We walk for twenty minutes in silence. I consider leaving, turning right when the others go left. Each step is moving lead. I am dead weight.
I should have called the police myself. I should have stayed behind with Mom. When I think about what’s happened, it feels like lies slipping off my tongue to speak my truth out loud. A tightness rises in me, choking out my ability to ruminate rationally. I don’t think I would even believe it had I not witnessed it myself.
The pizza delivery guy crouched over my cat’s slain body. He looked up at me with inhuman black eyes.
I’m going crazy.
The scene plays over and over in my brain. Like a movie on repeat, I can’t shut off. I was backing out of the bedroom, knocking things over along the way, stumbling into Mom as I clamber over the top of the couch to get away from the black-eyed man.
Limp fur, black eyes, and Mom telling me to run.
I don’t let myself think past that. I don’t want to remember.
It is the last word Mom ever spoke to me. She looks at me with chocolate brown eyes and points.
Mom’s voice is calm, collected. It’s not a question.
It’s not a demand either. I want Mom to grab my hand and drag us out of the house together.
It’s a plea.
All I want is her, whole and perfect. To be in her warm arms one more time. Hear her voice whisper me to a safe harbor. Only I know one more time would never be enough. No amount of time would be.
Her screams still echo in my mind.
I can hear her begging for a savior, for someone to help her.
But nobody came.
My mom is dead, and it’s all my fault.
My boss is an asshole. I walk into work two minutes late for my shift, and he jumps down my throat. I know, have a stronger work ethic or blah, blah, blah. What’re two minutes in the big scheme of things? Let me argue for a moment that being a decent human being should weigh heavier on the scale of our lives.
“Robert, that pizza’s not going to deliver itself. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Don’t make a habit of being late because I don’t have time for pissants,” Sunny says all this without taking a breath. Beads of sweat roll down the side of his round, red face.
He should talk. He’s never here when we needed him. He only shows up when you least expect him.
One of these days, he’s going to have a heart attack from being such a pompous ass.
I plaster my best brownnoser smile on, “I stopped to fill my tank before work instead of on the company dime,” I say. “It won’t happen again, sir.” Which is basically the truth. I stopped before work and bought a Red Bull to get me through the late shift instead of stopping during a delivery. I like to keep my times down. Lower times equal better tips.
“Don’t let it happen again, or I’ll find a new driver,” Sunny says. He doesn’t look away, so I stand there, waiting. “Take the damn pies, Robert,” he spits his words out, spraying me in the process.
I wipe my face with the back of my sleeve and grab the stack of pizzas. Sunny goes back to his office. He’s probably jerking off to the thought of a new hire. Pervert can’t keep his hands to himself. It’s a wonder this place is still open.
Speaking of new hires. I take the pies out front and go about putting them into insulated carriers. “Hey, I’m Robert,” I say with a smile. “How’s your first day going?”
“Hi,” the new girl says. Her cheeks flush pink, setting off her golden eyes, “I’m okay.”
“What a unique name,” I say.
She flashes me a toothy grin, “Randi,” she says and puts her hand out.
“It’s nice to meet you, Randi. If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask. Don’t mind Sunny, though. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s an ass with loose hands. Worse when there’s a pretty face around,” I say.
Randi flushes a deeper shade of red, “So far, it’s been okay. A lot of new information but nothing I can’t handle,” she says. “Besides, I wore my lucky sparkle jeans. I’m set.”
“That you did,” I say, glancing down the length of her legs.
“Reality is so much better when you add a bit of glitter and neon. Just ask the ‘80s,” Randi smiles, and it’s not only her pants sparkling.
Blood leaves my head and rushes south. I give her a nervous laugh. She winks at me before turning back to her task. For the first time in a long time, I look forward to coming back here after deliveries.
The directions read: second house on the left. There is no parking, so I set my flashers on and park in the middle of the street. I pop the trunk of my beast-mobile and nearly crap myself when there’s no pie in the back. Did I deliver an extra at the last house? Sunny will shit bricks and take the pizza out of my paycheck, not to mention there go my delivery times for the night. Ugh.
“Looking for these?” whispers a voice.
I flip around and face nothing but the night. “Hello?” I ask to the empty street. “Is anyone there?” My skin prickles, hot. Shake it off, Robert, shake it off. I walk to the passenger side and double-check the seats, looking for the order. Pizza does not simply disappear.
“Open wide,” the voice says, calm and ominous.
This time I’m confident someone is standing right beside me. I swing a fist to my left, but I stumble and catch air. I turn around, back to my car.
The street is empty.
Someone is holding me, squeezing my chest.
My heart pounds in my ears, the only sound I can hear. I close my eyes, pushing away the fear. “Go away,” I say, and my voice is small—a squeak. The tightness moves up my chest to my throat. I’m grabbing at it, trying to get air—beating my hands against my car for anyone to hear me. For someone to help. I can feel my lungs compressing in on themselves. Black spots darken my vision. I feel dizzy.
I gasp out for a breath.
For anything to end my anguish.
And it does.
A girl’s cry for help booms in a deserted alley near me. The sound bounces off the tall metallic structures of the city and seems to pool into my ears.
I hand off the endless bag of cold-cut sandwiches to my Abuela.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Abuela pushes the tote back into my arms. “You’re not running off without me. Listen to your Abuela. You’re not Superman. Just because I take you with me doesn’t mean you get to run into burning buildings.”
I know better than to backtalk, so instead, I roll my head back to the stars above me, blow out a breath, and I count them in the Fibonacci sequence. One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen… By the time I reach three-hundred-thirty-seven, I can feel my pulse slowing. I don’t have a bad temper. I have a problem ignoring people in evident pain. Abuela knows this better than anyone. Years and years of frustration have taught me small tricks to stay calm under these types of circumstances.
Another scream rings out into the darkness. This time the sound takes root in my blood, wiggling its way into every painful inch of my body—dark flashes of violence and pain cloud my vision. Rats crawl on my skin, and maggots hatch in my mouth. If we don’t do something soon, I’m going to be sick. Loud thumping nearly drowns out the mental sobs. An earth-shattering cry makes me drop Abuela’s bag. Hoagies topple out onto the sidewalk. “Someone is hurt, Abuela. We have to go,” I plea. “We have to go now.”
My hands are starting to shake. Butterflies hatch in my gut, turning carnivorous, and I can’t stand here for another minute. Can’t she see that someone is hurt? Screw the sandwiches, and let’s go! We’ll feed later when someone isn’t screaming for their life. Let me go, and you stay.
I can’t voice any of this. It will only make Abuela send me home or, worse, put my training on hold. I don’t want to be sent back to Mundi. Not yet. Not while someone needs our help. Not while I’m still breathing. I’ve worked too hard to get to this point. I’m not about to walk away from it so quickly. It’s taken weeks to convince her to bring me along to feed the transient community.
“Maldito chico,” Abuela curses damn boy at me.
I know I’ve upset her, but I don’t care. She’s flipped the bag upside down, emptying the sandwiches at the foot of a man. His clothes are dirty, ripped, and two sizes too big. The number of hoagies piled on the street corner contrasts with Abuela’s small Mary Poppins bag.
“Pass these out to your kindred. I’ll know if you didn’t,” she says to the transient.
The man’s shoes talk, no longer warming his toes and protecting them against the frigid night. He gives her a wide-eyed curt nod, “Yes, ma’am.”
I know he’s scared of her, the sudden ice in my belly says so, but he’s too hungry to run. His emotions ripple through the air. I know the feedings are more than demon population control. They also help the homeless and hungry. This man is unshaven and unwashed for weeks. Underneath, he wears kind eyes like a badge of honor.
“There will be more tomorrow,” she promises. I know Abuela will send more and help this man. She’ll do whatever she can. Change the world one person at a time is what she always says. It’s one thing to hear her words and another to see her in action.
It stirs pride in me.
Abuela gathers her bag and pauses to look at the man once more. The world is full of pain and suffering. He deserves just as much attention as the one who’s screaming. I know this. I know Abuela wants to say as much, but she refrains.
We walk around the corner and out of sight of the man.
Another scream carried by the wind lands in my ears.
“Your turn, Cane,” Abuela holds out her walking stick and lets it go. Cane hovers in the air, dancing in the light breeze. “Now find that poor soul. Seek,” the last word leaves her tongue as a slither. The hand-whittled timber starts to spin of its own accord, flying down the empty street ahead of both of us.
A vision rattles my sight. This time it’s of a bloodied pizza. Adrenalin pumps through my veins, pushing my internal demand for action. Crunching metal, like a wreckage, blinds me to logic. I throw all caution to the wind and take off on foot. I’m running down the empty streets. My gut making a choice before my brain can stop me.
I glance back, and Abuela grabs the bottom of her long flowing handkerchief skirt, freeing her feet to run. She moves after Cane with swift motions, cutting through the night.
“You’ve got sixty years on me, Abuela. I should be running laps around you. Not the other way around,” I say, laboring the words between breaths.
“Maybe by the time you’re my age, you will learn the art of running. I doubt it will make it through that thick skull of yours, but I’ll hold out hope for you,” she says.
We round one more street corner. The silence between screams is deafening. A deep thudding reverberates in my bones. It sends my head into dizzying swings.
There she is.
Cane is positioned between a girl and a meat suit, vertical, spinning at sixty-six miles per hour counterclockwise. Cane starts to glow. An energy field stretches beyond the girl, encompassing her and Cane in its white light.
I move to Abuela’s side. She puts her arm out in front of me, forcing me to take a step backward. I want to move in front of the girl—an internal need to put me between her and the meat suit.
“What do you want, hag?” the possessed boy says. He can’t be much older than I am, seventeen or eighteen.
“Oh, the meat suit can speak. Good for you,” Abuela takes a step closer, and so do I.
Dark trundles shadow his eyes. A red t-shirt with a Pizza Time logo clothe the stolen body. “I will have her first. Then I’ll have you for dessert,” The meat suit winks at Abuela, his voice silk.
Abuela smiles, “Aw, you think I’m sweet. But first, Cane, let’s see if this demon has a heart.”
Cane moves quicker than a melting snow-cone in hell. Flesh rips away from the body snatcher’s chest cavity leaving Cane embedded.
“You were wrong. She wasn’t the one to worry about. I am,” a wicked smile plays at Abuela’s paper-thin lips. I start to understand why she didn’t want me to come, why she put off my street training for this long.
Wide eyes blink back as a bloodied heart pulses its last beat.
Silence falls in the ally. My stomach turns its lunch, and I think I might hurl. One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen… I take a deep breath to calm my stomach and look away from the pizza delivery guy, away from the demon.
“Are you okay?” Abuela examines the girl.
“M-mom ordered Pizza. It was just supposed to be pizza,” the girl is shaking her head. “It’s always a pizza. Or a car wreck, or something I’ve done. I’m cursed. I. Did. This. I…” a sob catches in her chest.
“You look fine,” Abuela blows out a breath. “Were you in a car wreck?”
The girl doesn’t hear Abuela. She takes a few slow breaths and looks around. “What’s a meat suit?” the words have just registered in her brain.
“A demon dressed in the skin of a man. What’s your name, child?” Abuela asks.
“Like a real person? A real demon? That can’t—” the girl trails off again.
“Your name?” Abuela is losing what little patience she has left. She won’t last much longer.
“But that thing killed my—you killed him—what about—” Each time she tries, her words fail to leave her tongue before being bombarded with the next question.
Abuela’s irritation is starting to pulse, like hot flames licking my skin.
“Yes,” I say, putting a stop to her questions and Abuela’s growing anger. “He was dead the instant the demon possessed his body. The mind dies, leaving behind the meat suit, as we so delicately call them. Now please, tell me your name. I’ll answer more questions after.”
The girl sticks her chin out, “If you’re going to kill me, make it quick.”
I’m completely and utterly taken aback. I don’t have time to respond before Abuela launches into threat mode.
“I want to know your name, child. You can tell me, or I can rip it from your tongue if you’d rather join him,” Abuela points to the meat suit and takes a step toward the girl, head down, hands raised. “Cane,” it’s a command. The stave removes itself from the corpse, trickling drink of the reaper.
She is serious, but I am quicker. I step between Abuela and the raven-haired girl. “Abuela,” I growl. I’ve never growled at her before. Something overtakes me. Something more profound and primordial claws at my chest, begging to come out.
“Move Marcus. If she doesn’t speak, then I’ll make her. Or she can die with the meat suit.”
“Stop it. You’re not going to kill her,” I say. I take two giant steps and stand in front of the girl. Her creamy skin is shadowed only by fear.