CRIES FOR HELP: Lawndale is in trouble when Mr. O'Neill discovers his monstrous potential. Alison, Wind, and Link guest star.

WARNING: This story contains some disturbing scenes. It is horror and it痴 also very gritty. If it were a movie, it would definitely be rated-R.



CRIES FOR HELP
by Dervish

的知 the fear that keeps you awake, I知 the shadows on the wall, I知 the monsters they become, I知 the nightmares in your skull, --Voltaire, When You池e Evil

1.

Imprisoned
Fighting to tread the dark despair that haunts me
makes me beg to know why
Why this ever happened.

When joy of the bright mornings was my existence
my soul was already starving for something it had never known
and now it withers away to nothingness
And now I must paint a smile on this empty vessel
entropy swallowing all I ever had
if I ever had anything

Despair hints at terror as I contemplate this road of destruction
My fate blooms into rotting pain with every passing day
It痴 so hard to watch the dying rain blood on the thorny roses
the love I once might have known giving way to rot and loss

Desperately, the razor is all I feel now
dulling the constant pain of being alone
Craving one last taste of my lost dreams and desires
Watching the petals of my roses wither and fall
my heart beating its last



Lori looked up from her poem, but barely registered the park at night around her, or the dry, crackling leaves she sat on. She wasn稚 ready to stop yet. She needed to pour more of her pain, confusion, and despair out. To write was a pressure valve for her soul.

Her tears had stopped, she could no longer cry. But she could write. It didn稚 stop the pain, but it made it bearable. Poetry had become her only relief.

But just now something smothered her muse, like the plug was pulled. She wasn稚 sure what it was, so she kept looking to see if she could pick up where she left off, trying to figure out why her inspiration had suddenly dried up.

She sighed. Maybe she should just go home. But she really wanted to finish this. She NEEDED to finish this. If she didn稚 finish this, she might finish herself with the lancet. Slit her wrists. She wasn稚 quite ready for that. Not yet. She wanted....no, first she needed to unburden this pain from her soul. Otherwise, it might follow her into the next world.

Out of the blue, despair hit her like burning fire and she stifled a sob. She put pen to paper to continue, sure that all her pain would pour out of her soul tonight so that she could finally shuck off her mortal coil, freeing her soul into blessed oblivion.... maybe even peace.

Link to Darlarcarscar

She looked down at what she just wrote and nearly snarled. Rage joined despair. Oh, fuck this. Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this! She wanted the tears she felt behind her eyes to come, but as usual, her eyes remained dry as she silently writhed in more misery than she had ever known was possible. Even after all she壇 felt, she was amazed at the intensity of this horrific pain that wracked her soul, bound her in ineffable agony.

Ineffable Agony

Good.
That was something. She tapped pen to paper, willing more words to come. Instead, she drew a picture of Lawndale High. She壇 hated moving here and getting put into Mr. O'Neill痴 self-esteem class. She couldn稚 put her finger on it, but the pathetic Mr. O'Neill struck her as dangerous. She tried to write in his class to take her mind off his psychobabble, but nothing came. And she had nightmares of him cutting her with her own lancet, licking the blood, eyes lit with vulpine pleasure that would cause her to jerk awake, unable to sleep.

Her mom didn稚 care about her nightmares. She just told her that Ms. Manson and Mr. O'Neill were there to help her, so go share her nightmares with them. Yeah, right. Her mom insisted that Mr. O'Neill called more than once because he was truly concerned about her. That made her want to gag.

Lori pulled her headphones out of her pack and put them on. A moment later Danzig was alternating between tragic ballad and gritty cacophony in a piece called 泥ead Inside. Maybe it would inspire her, or at least take her mind off everything.

滴ow does it feel when you're dead inside, Lost someone to the other side,
Felt so bad 'cause you didn't cry, Couldn't shed a tear cause you're dead inside.

She drew crude sketches of Mr. O'Neill and Ms. Manson. She followed with a crude sketch of Ms. Li. She didn稚 know why, but this seemed to be helping her. They sucked, yes, but they had nothing to do with her parent痴 fucked up divorce, her mom痴 exploiting her and her sucky brother and sister for child support, her dad's frequent tantrums over having to pay it and the police ignoring the court order against him, and finally moving to Lawndale, leaving everything she knew behind. Perhaps she should feel relief, but instead she felt a cold, painful emptiness.

Danzig continued to sing to her. 滴ow does it feel when you're cold inside, Emptiness constant at your side, Freezing ever secret thought you hide, Motionless, frozen hell design.

Lawndale High wasn稚 really the problem, even if Mr. O'Neill gave her nightmares. It gave her someplace else to be besides home. She didn稚 really have money to hang out elsewhere. And she met Andrea there. Even if they weren稚 exactly friends, Andrea showed her places where she might fit in. So if anything, Lawndale High was a respite from her home. But that should be taken as a statement at how much her home life sucked, more than praise for Lawndale High.

Danzig was screaming in her ears about how cold he felt.

Andrea had taken her to cool place called Arcanum 17, a place for the 殿rtistes of the gothic persuasion. It wasn稚 only goth. There were plenty of college students, artsies of all ages, and others. But it was half goth. And many of them, not just Andrea, read poetry like this. Maybe she could work up the nerve to read her own.

Danzig asked (rhetorically, it seemed), 滴ow does it feel when you're lost and blind, Loneliness is your only guide, And how does it feel when you're black inside, Numbness calls from your inner eye.

Lori suddenly realized she was drawing a picture of the lancet that was in her backpack. One day, she would use it. Black despair wafted a miasma of hopelessness around her. Why couldn稚 she write more lines? Why couldn稚 she cry?

She jerked her backpack to her lap, put her headphones back in, and fished for her scalpel-like lancet. Finding it, she glanced around to see if anyone was here. For a Saturday, it was very quiet, and she didn稚 see anybody.

Pulling the lancet out of its plastic cover, she pulled her sleeve up to find a good spot to cut herself. She had many red scars hidden under her sleeves. No one ever seemed to wonder why she always wore long sleeved shirts. No one cared.

She hissed as she cut, blood instantly showing. Her breathing quickened. Her mind focused on the cut. Focusing on the pain of the cut took her mind off the pain in her soul. This was the only other valve she had, for when her poetry didn稚 work. One day, her lancet would not give her some small, pitiful relief, but would relieve her of the pain forever.

She cut herself again. This time she did not hiss. But she heard a gasp.

Whirling her head, she stared at a nearby tree. Lori wondered if someone was hiding behind it. Straining her eyes, she thought she did see a man trying to hide behind a nearby tree. There, he moved. There was someone there, and she would guess it was an adult male.

Lori felt fear twist her gut and tighten her body. But then she choked it down. So what? If he killed her, she would thank him. Anything to stop her pain. But she was also pissed. This was HER private time.

And she suddenly knew with utter certainty that this man had chased her muse away. To return to her poetry, she needed to get rid of him. That didn稚 make sense, but she just knew it to be true to the very core of her being. She could never write poetry while he was there.

Lori gripped her lancet hard and snarled, 敵o away!

The intruder stayed behind the tree, remaining very still. Lori got angrier. 的 see you, asshole! Go away before I hurt you, you fucker! Rage and despair mixed to create an odd sense of liberation from fear of what he might do to her. She honestly didn稚 care. And she didn稚 care if she went to prison for killing him. Maybe she could write undisturbed in her cell. That痴 all she cared about. She frowned when she thought they might make it difficult to cut herself, let alone kill herself. Despair and rage both crescendoed to a new high as she realized this horrifying possibility.

溺otherfucker! Lori got up, ignored the sleeve as it fell roughly over her bleeding arm, and the man finally moved. He came around the tree, slowly coming toward her, his hands out to show he was harmless. Still, some part of Lori was suddenly afraid again. Something ancient in her spine and brain urged her to run very fast. But the despair and rage at this intruder kept that instinct in check.

Her rage rose even higher as she finally recognized him: Mr. O'Neill.

釘rittany? asked a shy Mr. O'Neill. 的知 sorry if I disturbed you. He actually sounded sincere.

Lori suddenly remembered just how pathetic this man really was. 的t痴 Lori! she snapped. 展hy are you stalking me!?

徹h, no, said Mr. O'Neill, sounding shocked she would even think that. 的 saw someone in the park, and I just had...had to see who it was. I was.... Here Mr. O'Neill actually seemed confused. He took in another breath. 的 was drawn here. To you.

Lori rolled her eyes. 迭ight, fucker. She wondered if he壇 tell her mom she was cutting herself. Probably. Luckily, her mom wasn稚 likely to care, as long as she didn稚 fear losing her booze and cigarette support money. She glared at him as Mr. O'Neill came within a few feet of her. A light behind Lori cast her shadow out in front of her, and it nearly touched Mr. O'Neill.

Lori痴 eyes widened when she saw the... desire? Yes, desire in his eyes. She couldn稚 believe it, but she shouldn稚 have been surprised. It was why he became a teacher, no doubt. And right now, he wanted her! Within her contempt, some unsuspected vanity reared itself. He didn't regret her the way her dad did. He wanted her. And she momentarily wondered if he could somehow fill the emptiness that afflicted her.

No, she thought to herself. The brief hope and excitement withered so fast, she wondered if she'd only imagined it. She wasn稚 flattered, angered, or anything else. She just didn稚 care. She wondered if she could use it against him, make him silent. But there was no way she壇 let him touch her. She shivered as she thought of Mr. O'Neill embracing her, and remembered the nightmares. She felt fear dance over her skin.

鏑ori? asked a concerned Mr. O'Neill. 鄭re you okay? He touched her arm and Lori jerked her arm back. She glared at him with all her rage and despair, but found herself suddenly very tired. She felt something..... she didn稚 know what it was. She closed her eyes, as if she were falling asleep. She wondered if she had accidentally cut herself too deeply this time. She felt a line of blood go down her arm and onto her hand, but it didn稚 feel like much.

Lori felt Mr. O'Neill gently grab her wrist and lift her shirt sleeve up. She opened her eyes, and suddenly felt a soothing peace fill her soul. Mr. O'Neill gazed at her bleeding arm as if in a semi-trance himself. Yes, Lori mused, they were both falling into some kind of trance. She smiled slightly, but there was no happiness behind it. He seemed to be sucking her pain out, which was a blessed relief, but also any will she had to resist, or even to live.

Suddenly, Lori gasped as Mr. O'Neill bent his head down and licked her arm. A moment later, she realized Mr. O'Neill had been licking her blood! Did he have some vampire fetish? That actually sounded kinda cool, until she recalled her nightmares. Fear rose up in her again, but she did not move. Mr. O'Neill jerked his face to her and she felt something in her mind when their eyes touched.

Mr. O'Neill was behind her eyes! She could feel him as clearly as she could feel herself. He was as surprised as she was.

She felt him behind her eyes, searching for her pain. He had known that holding a person strengthened "the connection," whatever that meant, but he never knew just how much tasting the blood actually created some kind of psychic link, and he had no idea how long it would last. He ravaged her mind, looking for every drop of despair within her. And he found it.

Lori screamed, but was cut off by Mr. O'Neill痴 other hand. She felt compelled to look into his eyes again and she felt herself lost in those depths. Everything came to her. The family without love, the life without hope, the disappointment that haunted her, the sadness that was her constant companion. She felt something give, and Mr. O'Neill suddenly gasped in guilty ecstasy. She felt her soul being sucked out. She couldn稚 even remember her name now. She was nothing. There was no poetry, no name, no hope, no soul.

Lori felt his tongue on her arm again, licking another line of blood. He let go. She still felt him in her mind, raping her of every hell she ever experienced, and he silently told her he would always be there to feed off every other moment of hell. She would never be alone again. She had him and he had her, forever.

She raised the lancet. She would kill him. She had to. But he felt her in her mind. Not me, he mentally commanded. End it now. She took the lancet to her wrist and cut deep. She made a mewling noise as she breathed in. This was a mortal wound. She knew it, and he knew it, too. She didn稚 care. He loved her despair and drank deep. As she fell clumsily and weakly to the ground, she knew that this was her last night on earth. She hated O'Neill, but she didn稚 want to die alone.

She reached for him. Hold me, she willed. Hold me as no one as ever held me. He took a step to her and then stopped. Then he smiled cruelly and stepped back several steps. Why should I? he thought back at her, flashing several of her suppressed and humiliating memories back at her. Her gut clenched from blood loss and heartache, and Mr. O'Neill cruel smile grew joyous, lost in the moment completely. As her consciousness ebbed, Mr. O'Neill reminded her she never finished her poem. Her pain would follow her eternally, never to be released. One last whimper and Lori was no more.


Mr. O'Neill stared in rapture for several minutes. Slowly the realization that one of his students from self-esteem class was lying dead, blood all around, her shirt soaked with it, only a couple of meters in front of him. He knew with utter certainty that she would never rise again, take another breath, see another morning. And he knew he had caused it. He had... no he hadn稚 liked it. Like was too weak a word for what he felt.

For the first time in his life, he felt himself radiating strength and power like he never known before. And, for the first time, he remembered what names went with what faces!

He licked a few stray drops of her blood from his hand, but he felt the vitality of the blood quickly fading. Lori was just meat now. He mused darkly that there had been no release. There was just agony, terror, despair, and indescribable loneliness... and then nothing.

His senses were sharp, his entire being reborn. And.... he felt like writing a poem about it. He had a muse now, and he wanted to celebrate the horror he knew, the horror of what he had done. But he also was afraid of what he now knew he was, and the intense pleasure that came with that self-realization.

He looked again to the corpse in front of him and muttered with only a little concern, 徹h dear, what have I done?

Whatever he had done, he knew one thing with certainty:

He would do it again.

2.

You know, you two are pretty cool, said Link, in a tone of voice that said he could hardly believe his own pronouncement. Jane and Daria smiled somewhat self-depreciatively at the tone, while Link took another bite of his pizza. Anyone there at Pizza King this Saturday night might have thought Link was a little brother to either Daria or Jane.

Link had run into them here, and he had joined them. This was his first time to meet Jane. As if in omen what such a meeting could result in, an ambulance raced by Pizza King, its sirens blaring.

哲ot many share your opinion, Daria casually remarked, ignoring the ambulance, just before taking another bite of pizza herself.

典hat痴 because many people suck! Link had an intensity of passion, and a surprising ability to cut through crap, that was oddly appealing to the other two. 鄭nd they don稚 matter anyway.

鉄o is it you against the world? asked Jane.

鉄orta, said Link mildly. 的 have friends, but most wanna pretend the world is either wonderful all the time, or that they themselves aren稚 touched by it. Or they try to be one of the reasons life sucks all the time.

添ou use to think I sucked, remarked Daria.

添eah, my mistake, said Link. 釘esides, when Mr. O'Neill came in and practically said he got you to make me open up, I was sure you were just another jerk.

Jane smirked. 添eah, Mr. O'Neill is not someone you should face before a certain age.

徹r any age, Daria added.

Jane continued, 釘ut Daria and I first spoke to each other in his self-esteem class.

Link痴 eyes widened. 鉄elf-esteem class!? His voice sounded as if he壇 heard they were into necrophilia. He shook his head. 鉄o how did you wind up in his class anyway?

展e were both tested to have low self-esteem, said Daria. 鄭nd he痴 just as bad in class as he was at the OK to Cry Corral. After Jane and I graduated the class, he tried publicly humiliating us in front of the entire school. Luckily, my real problem is that I have low esteem for everyone else. And I used the situation to humiliate Quinn.

鉄he also tortured her parents by dragging them to Pizza Forest and a UFO convention, Jane added.

撤izza Forest? asked Link in horror. 典he place with the singers?

Daria smiled ominously at him. Link shuddered.

Jane smiled and added, 的n a few short years, Link, you値l probably be taking Mr. O'Neill痴 classes, too.

This time, Link nearly convulsed. He decided to change the subject. 鉄o what痴 your family like?

Jane shrugged. 展ho knows? They池e almost never around. Except Trent. He plays in a band called Mystik Spiral.

鼎ool, said Link. 的 wish my parents were never around. My problem is they池e never around when I could use them, and they池e always around when I can稚. Jane looked at him, inviting him to continue. 典hey don稚 do anything, really. They池e always out, trying to get ahead in their so-called careers.

展hat careers? asked Jane.

撤rofessional butt kissers, one for some investment schemes, another to do with computers, shrugged Link. 典hey both work up around the Halcyon Hills Corporate Park, like 12-15 hours a day. Then they come home and wonder why nothing is done. It痴 like I tell them I can稚 cut the grass cause the mower is broke, and they put taking care of it in their planner while paying someone else to cut the yard. and never get back to it until they demand to know why I haven稚 cut the grass again. The mower still hasn稚 been fixed, and they haven稚 found out that what痴 wrong with it is that I cut the cable between the control lever to the engine.

Wo, said Jane. 典hey might be pretty mad over that.

溺aybe I知 mad over their always preaching responsibility, but expecting the entire world to take care of all the stuff they don稚 care for, Link replied. 典hey just think I知 their intern at home or personal assistant or something. And when they can稚 use me, they try to ship me off somewhere, like that prison camp that Daria used to be a guard in. Or something else to straighten out their messed up son, never thinking that maybe they池e the ones messing me up, especially by sending me off to be brainwashed on what a wonderful planet we live on, where the only people not happy all the time are delusional.

Jane gave a slight smirk at his youthful exaggeration, even though she understood what he was going through in her own way. She wondered if he ever got the speech about the butterfly. Probably not. His parents sounded a lot like Daria痴 mom. But the way 電elusional slipped off his tongue, it sounded like he used it a lot. Probably heard it a lot, too. She frowned in thought, wondered how much he was exaggerating, and how much he was understating.

釘ut at least Dad got me a Play Station 2, said Link grudgingly. 典hey池e both using it to foist me off as they always do, but at least it痴 fun. As usual, Link said 泥ad in a tone of voice that showed how little he thought of him.

鏑atchkey Stress Syndrome, remarked Daria deadpan, 典he all-purpose psychobabble to guilt your parents into getting you what you want.

溺aybe a Play Station 2 is the going price for your children痴 love these days, added Jane dryly.

徹r maybe, said Link a little devilishly, 泥ad didn稚 want me to turn his girlie magazines and internet porn over to Mom. 溺om was said with only a little less hostility. 的 mean that stuff was so weird, that even I
never knew that people could like it.

Daria and Jane frowned, but decided against asking how weird while they were eating. But at least he was learning to take care of himself, which his parents wanted.

的 got some ideas for some games, said Link with a mouthful of pizza. 的 think I壇 like to design some when I知 older. No higher ideals, just release for all the sex and violence we hold within us. Keep us from killing our parents. Give us something to do when we don稚 have parents around us.

鉄o that痴 why Tom liked having us play those games, right Daria?

展hat?

鉄o he can release all those violent, sexual impulses he felt when he was with us.

Daria blushed slightly, and then switched to annoyed. 的t痴 just something to do, she said. 鄭nd maybe it kept us from expending our violent tendencies on him.

Link, who didn稚 like it whenever Jane and Daria talked about stuff that he didn稚 know about, turned to Jane. 鉄o what do you do with no games, with your parents gone all the time? Hold lots of parties?

Jane smirked. 滴ardly. Sometimes Mystik Spiral has people come over, which can be sorta like a party. But I知 usually working on my art.

泥o you paint?

添eah, a lot, said Jane. 鉄culpt, too, and a few other things.

鼎ool. I壇 like to see some of your paintings, said Link, who also liked painting. 展ho else is with you? A brother, right? He痴 in Mystik Spiral?

添eah, said Jane. 鄭nd Mom痴 home half the time. Everyone else just sorta wonders in every once in awhile, but they never stay long. Can稚 say I blame them.

鄭nyone else there right now?

Jane痴 face wrinkled in distaste. 笛ust Mom and Trent right now. But Wind, a much older brother, is supposed to be bringing his newest would-be wife to meet the rest of us. And I think they both need a place to stay. Jane was obviously displeased.

迭eally? asked Daria. 展hen?

鄭ny day now, said Jane in a subdued voice.


Link interrupted with, 的s Wind痴 last name 銑ane, too?

添eah, said Jane.

典hat痴 gotta suck.

添eah, repeated Jane, taking a distracted bite off her pizza.

鄭 lot of lives seem to suck, said Link, sounding subdued himself now.

As if on cue, one of the girls Daria and Jane barely knew at Lawndale High came running in, her eyes red. She jerked her head around until she found some people she knew. She raced to them and blurted, "Ohmigod, you池e not going to believe this! You remember Lori, the new girl? The others at the table nodded. 溺r. O'Neill found her corpse in the park! They say she slashed her wrists right there for everyone to see! She痴 dead!

Daria, Jane, and Link were shocked but said nothing. An excited murmur with a range of emotions, took hold of everyone else at Pizza King.

添ep, said Daria softly, 都o many lives suck.

3.

Daria decided that she and Jane should walk Link home, but made it sound casual. As they passed near the park, they saw emergency vehicles and several people milling about.

All three recognized Mr. O'Neill, who was talking to a couple of policeman. He seemed to be holding together very strongly, but even from a distance he looked visibly upset.

Suddenly, he turned his head and seemed to focus on Jane, Daria, and Link. Daria placed herself between Mr. O'Neill and Link, and put a protective arm around him, until Link casually shook it off a little later. Daria didn稚 know why she did that, but all three unmistakably felt something dark there. Nothing they could put into words, so they didn稚 talk about it. But maybe 兎vil or 塗unger would致e been the closest word.

By the time they got to Jane痴 house, they mostly had forgotten that haunting moment, and Daria and Link continued on to Link痴 house while Jane went inside Casa Lane.

Nothing could致e prepared her for what, or rather who, she saw. Jane stood there in shock, eyes wide and blinking, stuttering several times as words fought to escape her.

滴i, said Alison somewhat shyly. THE Alison. The one from the art colony.

Finally, Jane sputtered, 鄭lison? Wh-what are you DOING here?

Alison bit her lip, a self-conscious gesture she had never seen her do before. 的 didn稚 know you lived here until today, Jane.

釘ut, Alison, Jane almost whined, almost yelled, 展hat are you DOING here?

Alison sighed. She turned and raised her voice. 展ind!? Wind, can you come here? She turned back to Jane and smiled shyly again. 滴e痴 upstairs, talking with your mom.

Jane reminded herself to breath. 鄭lison? asked Jane, 鼎an we talk somewhere private? Please?

的 thought you might want to do that, said Alison. 哲ever mind, Wind, Alison called out. There was no answer. Alison shrugged and asked, 展here?

Jane decided against her room. 的s anyone in the basement? When Alison shook her head no, then Jane gestured for her to follow and quickly walked to the basement and down the stairs.

When down in the basement, Jane turned and asked sharply, 鄭re you leading Wind on just so you could get back with me?

Alison displayed a little annoyance, but reined herself. 徹f course not. We met at a gallery. He liked my work. We talked, we got along, and we.... well, that痴 a long story. But I didn稚 even know he was your brother until today, when I saw pics of you in this house.

釘ut I didn稚 think you were after romance, said Jane with some bitterness. 的 thought a quick lay was all you were into. And whatever that could get you.

Annoyance washed over Alison again, and was gone. 笛ane, sighed Alison, 典he only reason I went with Mr. Dotson was to test you, and maybe make you a little jealous. Alison laughed a bitter laugh. 添ou got so insanely jealous that you scared me a little. And that comment you hit me with was too low. It痴 not like YOU had anything to offer, except for who you are. And I was willing to be friends, but you couldn稚 handle that.

Jane clenched her fists. 的 was NOT jealous! Jane was the one fighting annoyance now. But she fought as resolutely as Alison. 鏑ook, Alison, I was going through a real rough time then....

鉄o was I, blurted Alison with a little heat, crossing her arms.

鄭nd maybe I did overreact a little. But you have to know that Wind can稚 stay married to anyone! And I知 thinking you池e the last person he値l be able to hold on to.

鄭re you still jealous? Alison purred. She smiled, but dropped it when she saw Jane fighting fury. 的値l tell you the details later, said Alison, 釘ut right now, I really like Wind. I haven稚 decided if I知 willing to marry him or not. I asked to meet his family, and if I decide to let him down, I値l make it sound like it was his family I didn稚 want, and not him. I think that would be easier on him.

Jane stared at her speechless.

After a minute, Alison asked, 鄭re we done here?

Without a word, Jane turned and walked back upstairs, Alison following behind.

4.

The next day, Amanda, Wind, Alison, and Jane sat at the table, with an ordered pizza and breadsticks being shared between them. Trent had a gig to go to. Jane might have gone with him, but she was determined to keep an eye on Alison until she could figure out if Alison was playing games or not. So far, Wind was talking about Alison nonstop. It was all good, but Alison seemed to be holding back from asking him to stop.

Wind went into long descriptions of several paintings Alison had at a gallery in the next town over. He said her pain of loneliness in her paintings just called out to him from many of her paintings, and he had
to know the artist. They met, and Alison was fun. It sounded as though Alison might have tried to drop him, but they seemed to have become at least comfortable with each other. With Wind holding on with claws, but knowing when to give sometimes.

Wind and some others seemed to have influenced the gallery owner, Mr. Evans, to get more of Alison痴 works. Which was good as Alison was finally able to pay off some bills. But it was only for a short while, and it wasn稚 big enough for two to live on comfortably. And Wind had just been evicted from his place.

Luckily, there was Mom痴 house. Whether this was good or bad luck was dependent on the person痴 frame of reference, Jane thought morosely.

鄭nd she痴 an Aries deluxe!

鄭ries deluxe? asked Amanda.

鉄un, Moon, Venus, Mars are all in Aries! So痴 her ascendant! But her Mercury is in Pisces, along with my Venus. Her Aries Venus and Pisces Mercury makes her an awesome artist, too!

滴uh, said Amanda neutrally. She had Alison pegged for a free spirited Sagittarius, or maybe even a secretive Scorpio.

Jane tried to suppress her sigh, but didn稚 quite make it. But she did have to admit that Alison WAS good.

鄭nd I have a Libra ascendant! We池e both RIGHT for each other, because our ascendants are diametrically opposite! Wind then held up some fingers as he counted other planets off. 溺y Sun, Mercury, and Mars are in Cancer, so I guess that means she痴 gonna be the head of the roost. Wind smiled at Alison, and Alison stopped herself from rolling her eyes just in time to smile back. 鄭nd Alison said I knew how to pay attention to someone without smothering her!" He missed Alison silently moving her lips over that. "Plus, her planetary and house arrangements make her more easily hurt, but my Cancer placements make me more sensitive to her.

Alison fidgeted. Jane couldn稚 tell if she was being embarrassed by Wind, or for Wind.

的致e always believed butterflies had to be free, said Amanda indulgently.

Alison turned to Amanda. 展hat痴 your sign? Jane thought Alison just wanted to change the subject, than from any real interest in Amanda.

的知 an Aquarius, said Amanda, with some pride. She cocked her head considering. 擢or some reason, all my kids are Aries, except Trent and Wind. Trent is a Pisces. But Jane is an Aries, too. I think she has a
Sagittarius ascendant, don稚 you? Amanda looked toward Jane.

Jane breathed out. 的 don稚 know. I don稚 care, either!, she thought. She thought she would change the subject before they bored her to death. 滴ow long do you think you値l be here?

的 don稚 know, said Wind. 填ntil we can get on our feet better. Then we値l plan the wedding!

Jane rolled her eyes. So this was Alison痴 game. Get a roof over her head. Well, Wind himself would be plenty of vengeance enough, Jane thought sourly. As they continued, Jane finished her pizza and then went upstairs. She decided she would get her mind off Wind and Alison by painting something.



Later that night, as Jane neared Wind痴 room while she mentally repeated her story of wanting to ask Mom something in case they saw her, she smelled the unmistakable smell of cannabis. Wind and Alison were laughing and saying stupid things that probably struck each other as somehow witty or even profound.

Then Alison started singing. Off key, but not too bad in a relaxed sort of way. 添eah, yeah, God rolls great, yeah, yeah, God smells good, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Alison started giggling again.

Then Wind and Alison both sang, 展hat if God smokes cannabis? Do you suppose he had a buzz when he made the platypus? When He created Earth our home? They both started laughing.

They shouldn稚 try going professional, Jane thought. Alison kept humming. Jane knew she heard that song somewhere before, but she couldn稚 remember where. Maybe she was stoned when she heard it. She leaned closer when she heard Alison go, 徹h, oh, good spot!

Driven by some unknown drive, Jane casually passed their room. Alison was mostly on Wind痴 bed, her legs hanging off. Wind was massaging one of Alison痴 feet, while Alison rested her other foot on Wind痴 shoulder. Since Wind was focused on Alison, and Alison was lying back on the bed gazing up laughing lightly, Jane was not seen. The sight disturbed her for no reason at all, and when Alison made a sound that revealed she was enjoying whatever spot Wind had found, Jane felt furious, at them, and even more at herself. But she left to go down the stairs as originally intended before she could betray herself or the depth of her feelings to them. After all, what was there left to say?

5.

Come Monday, Jane was still in a foul mood. Daria had been a little taken aback by the repressed fury that her best friend just barely let out of its cage. Jane felt confused, too, and she didn稚 know why, and that only served to worsen her mood.

So when Jane walked into Mr. O'Neill痴 class, she wasn稚 pleased to see Mr. O誰eill smile at her. Somehow, it looked obscene, but Jane shook that ridiculous notion off. Mr. O'Neill was just annoying, that痴 all.

Right after the bell rang, Mr. O'Neill got up from his desk. Jane noticed right away that there was something different about him. She couldn稚 place it right away. But it seemed he wasn稚 cringing anymore. Beyond that, she couldn稚 really say.

鼎lass, said Mr. O'Neill in a voice that sounded faintly amused, and stronger than ever, 的知 sure you have all heard of the terrible suicide of Lori Goodman. He paused, and the entire class got quiet. Nearly everyone had heard he had been the one to find the body, too. Someone coughed nervously.

典his was a horrible tragedy, continued Mr. O'Neill, 鄭nd the faculty at Lawndale High are very concerned. We don稚 want anything like this to happen again. But we know statistically it is only a matter of time. So we will be pausing in our Shakespeare to take time to write an essay.

Some slightly annoyed noises were made. Mr. O'Neill ignored them.

的 want everyone to write about something that has every made them think of suicide. If you never have, then what do you think would? And I want you to include something that you think could help you overcome these obstacles to your actualization.

Daria raised her hand.

Mr. O'Neill frowned. 展hat is it, Daria? A hint of steel in his voice.

A slight murmur quickly picked up in the classroom. Even Daria痴 eyes widened. 填m, said Daria off balance, 滴ow did you remember my name?

Mr. O'Neill sighed. 泥aria, other people aren稚 as stupid as you like to say in your pretentious stories and essays. In fact, you池e probably less intelligent than many in this school, or you壇 know how to get along better.

Daria was so shocked, she forgot to ask him what actualization meant. Daria knew, of course. She was planning on telling him at the end, she just wanted to remind him that using a word and knowing what it meant were two different things, and as payback for when he annoyed her by using it and refusing to tell her what it was in his self-esteem class. But now she had forgotten what she intended to do.

Andrea spoke up lowly, but audible to everyone. 鏑ike getting along with the locals is a sign of higher intelligence.

Mr. O'Neill turned to her. 鄭ndrea, he said, 的 can see right through you. It痴 not like you池e that deep. You池e just as pretentious as the Fashion Club, only in a darker way. The only reason you chose your gothic pretension is because you know you're way too fat to be beautiful. But in the end, you are no different, except you are isolated and deluded. Just as Daria is no different by deluding herself about being smarter than everyone else. He tried not to show how he drank her pain as she bled in unseen ways from the little nicks he just dealt her. She refused to show him how he hurt her, but she couldn't hide it from HIM. Mr. O'Neill couldn't help but grin a little which actually caused Andrea to flinch a little.

Brittany raised her hand and spoke without being called on. 展hat if you don稚 have any reasons to feel bad, and you never thought of suicide?

Mr. O'Neill blinked by the unexpected question and then shook his head sadly. 的 think you池e repressing, Brittany. Don稚 you remember how you were snubbed by that modeling agency? Don稚 you remember how Kevin left you for another girl before you seduced him back to you?

Eep! Brittany痴 eyes widened. Kevin kept smiling like an idiot without a clue.

釘rittany, Mr. O O'Neill continued, 土ou put so much stock into your looks and popularity. But just because you are above average at these things at Lawndale High, doesn稚 mean you will be out in the real world. When you go to college, you will find there are people so much better looking and so much more popular than you could ever hope to be. You will become a non-person, fighting to retain what you once thought you had, and you will ultimately fail at everything: school, cheerleading, modeling, life.

There was real fear on Brittany痴 face. Like Daria, she was stunned into silence.

展hat will you do, Brittany, Mr. O'Neill continued relentlessly, in a lower, slower voice that suggested confidentiality, when your family and friends have disowned you? What will you do when you池e a burnt out junkie selling your butt to complete strangers in hopes of your pimp giving you another hit of the drugs you used in a futile attempt to hold onto what you never had?

It was obvious Brittany was seeing it. Her mouth was opened in a silent O of fear, and it looked as if her eyes were misting. She had even forgotten to be humiliated or outraged that someone would say such things to her, particularly in front of other people.

Daria and Jane looked at each other in shock, and a little anger. Then Jodie spoke up. 的 have a question. Jodie痴 tone suggested anger. 滴ow is this supposed to be helping us to feel better about ourselves?

Mr. O'Neill shook his head and laughed a little mockingly, causing about everyone to blink. 笛odie, he said with a smirk, 典he point isn稚 about feeling good. We can all pretend that we do, but then we池e completely unprepared for when life strikes us a blow. He clenched his hands into fists, bringing them up, as he made his face looked concerned and wise. 展e must learn to be stronger than the pain, to face our demons without fear or weakness.

展ith all due respect, said Jodie bluntly. 的 don稚 think that痴 what you池e doing.

展ith all due respect, said Mr. O O'Neill just as bluntly, 的 think you need to fess up more than anyone. You don稚 think life is wonderful. You池e so busy in your nonstop quest to prove to your parents that you池e worthy of their love, and yet you haven稚 proved it in all your life. You try so hard here at Lawndale High to show your best, but all your manipulations of people do is show your neurotic need to suck the approval of everyone around you. What happens, Jodie, when you can no longer do that?

Jodie started to speak a couple of times, choked, got up and left. Mack was right behind her, glaring at Mr. O'Neill.

展alking out of class, Mack, is a real good way to lose your position as captain of the Lawndale Lions. What will you have to offer Jodie, then?

Mack actually blinked at that, but quickly followed Jodie out of the classroom.

Daria got up and left. And then Jane.

鄭nyone else want an F for the day? asked Mr. O'Neill in a kind voice.

Andrea got up and left, pointedly flipping him off as she went. No one else moved. No one else remembered that he was getting their names right.

It was one of the worst days many of them ever knew at Lawndale High, and they could only hope things would soon go back to normal. As the bell ring, Mr. O'Neill demanded they have the essays done by tomorrow. He looked forward to giving the ones who walked out of his classroom another F if they didn稚 turn such an essay in. And then making them 途edo it.

But he had to admit, while this was all good, it wasn稚 anywhere as good a high as when he had tasted the blood. And he could feel the strength in him slowly leaking away. He needed more if he was to continue feeling this good, this strong. And to feel even stronger. Because deep down, he knew his potential had barely been tapped. He was in the process of Awakening.

But he did not yet know what he was Awakening into.


6.

Jane had come back from another jog. She had to get the adrenaline out of her system, and she needed to clear her head before she bumped into Wind or Alison again. While a part of Jane was secretly glad to see Alison, another part felt angry that Alison had intruded on her here. With her older brother. She quickly went into the shower and cleaned herself off. Daria should be over soon.

Going down to the kitchen to see what was in the fridge (if anything), she found Alison eating a salad that she'd apparently made herself. There was more in a bowl, but Jane turned to leave.

笛ane, wait.

Jane turned, raising a brow.

的 wanted to talk to you about Wind. Do you mind?

泥o you mind if I eat some of your salad?

滴elp yourself.

Jane went to the fridge. She pulled out a can of Ultra Cola she saw and filled a bowl with salad at the table. 迭abbit food isn稚 really my thing, she said sitting down. 釘ut it will work for the moment. So what痴 up?

Alison seemed uncomfortable. 滴as Wind always been secretive?

Jane chewed as she thought. 滴e's usually willing to talk, said Jane cautiously. 釘ut now that I think about it, he doesn稚 say much. Jane shrugged. 溺aybe he痴 just shallow.

Alison shook her head. 鉄ometimes, there痴 a depth about Wind that痴 intriguing. But only sometimes. Other times I want to strangle him for being such a jerk.

Jane laughed. 典hat what all of Wind痴 ex-wives say.

Alison nodded cautiously. 滴e won稚 talk about them much.

溺aybe he doesn稚 want to make you jealous.

哲o, that痴 definitely not it. I致e caught him flirting with other women, and he enjoys it when I come to chase her away and drag him off where he痴 less likely to misbehave. Alison covered her face with a hand for a moment as she exclaimed, 敵ods! Sometimes I even talk to him, and about him, like he were a child!

溺aybe he just wants a little fun. Jane痴 voice took on a slightly darker tone.

笛ane, said Alison. 的知 sorry I tried to make you jealous. I was hurt over your just brushing me off like that. I was sure we could致e been something special. That you were willing to throw that aside really hurt. What I did was petty, but I think it was understandable.

溺aybe, said Jane cautiously.

的f you池e still mad at me, maybe you should let it out of your system.

Jane put down her fork and listened. She heard nothing, and didn稚 think anybody else was home. 的s Wind home?

Alison shook her head no.

Jane took a drink and then said, 擢irst, I felt used cause you got me drunk. Next, I didn稚 like how you came onto me. I wasn稚 ready for that. Then, when I thought about it, and realized that just maybe there was a little truth to it, you wouldn稚 let me say it. You just had to show off how fast you could find someone else. I really needed to talk to you about that then, and about so many other things. I was scared of being hurt again, and then you seemed to show me how little I meant. Maybe that痴 why my ex-boyfriend dumped me for my social outcast of a best friend.

的知 sorry, Jane. Except for the getting you drunk. I didn稚 set out to get you drunk. I致e been drinking and getting high since I was 13. I had a high tolerance by the time I was your age, and I just assumed you would to. After all, you were out there on your own, just as I was on my own at your age.

徹kay, granted. But a lot of that other stuff still sucked.

添ou池e right. But some of it was just thoughtlessness on my part, not nastiness. And I ask you to remember something. What I did not do. I did not plant one kiss on you. In fact, I didn稚 even touch you beyond that of a friend.

哲ot from any lack of trying, Jane mumbled.

展hen I like someone, said Alison, 的 do go off like a rocket. But as uncomfortable as I made you feel by my sudden advances, I did not actually violate your boundaries. When you told me to back off, I backed off. Maybe I tried convincing you not to shut me out, but I did respect your boundaries. Believe me, Jane, that means something. At least it does if you致e dealt with the kind who don稚 respect your boundaries. The ones that think they can force you to do what they want, or that saying no just means you池e playing hard to get.

Jane took a few more bites, contemplating.

Alison looked at her with sad eyes that made Jane soften her expression, if only a little. 鼎an we still be friends, Jane?

Jane shrugged. 的 think so. But give it time, Alison. And I try to avoid Wind, so don稚 take it personally if I seem to be avoiding you while you池e with him. Jane took another bite. 鄭nd I知 glad you found a gallery to display your work. You do some really amazing work. You wouldn稚 have to sleep with anyone to get your work displayed, and I知 sorry I said as much.

Alison nodded her thanks. 展ind and Amanda are coming to see my work at the gallery tomorrow. I壇 like it if you came out, too.

的値l think about it, said Jane. After a moment she asked, 鼎an I bring a friend?

Alison smiled. 徹f course. Then Alison stared at Jane intently as her tone took on a stronger tone as she asked her next question, changing the subject. 泥id your mother NEVER scorch a shirt, burn a biscuit, sing off key, waste money, or lose her temper?

Jane laughed. 展ind is always telling stories about how wonderful the women in his life are, whoever they happened to be at that time. Alison blinked at that. Jane continued with, 滴e definitely lives in Camelot, and he thinks he痴 Lancelot, and Mom as the Lady of the Lake.

撤retty delusional, huh?

添ou better believe it. Especially about the wasting money bit. Unless you count not buying us food when she had to choose between feeding us and getting more clay.

Alison winced. 泥oesn稚 sound like it was fun growing up around here.

的t had its good and bad points. Jane smirked and added, 展ind might be right about Mom not burning a biscuit, given that I only remember her making biscuits once in my life.

Alison laughed a little at that. 釘ut did she always know what to say when he was sad and blue?

溺aybe for Wind, said Jane, 釘ut she usually told me things that made me want to rip the wings off of butterflies.

Alison痴 laugh was a little lighter over that.

的 meant to ask you, Alison, did you do some of your paintings on acid?

Alison smiled slightly. 添eah. A few. But don稚 be fooled by my paintings. They don稚 have all the colors of an acid trip. The ones that make people ask if I were on acid were really done by my focusing on one object, and silhouetting everything else around it. It gives a new perspective on the object of my painting. I do a little surrealism from time to time, too, but when I知 sober.

They heard the front door open. Jane went to see who it was. 滴ey, Trent! Hey, Daria! Hey, Link!

滴ey, Janey. Trent went for the kitchen.

滴i, said Daria. Link waved once. He was carrying a sketchbook, which made Jane curious. Jane went to meet them.

添ou were riding with Trent and Link? Does Tom know?

Daria gave Jane a slight glare. 泥on稚 start that again. Trent passed us while we were walking over here, and he offered us a ride.

鉄o bring any real food from your house to mine?

撤eanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Already made.

典hat値l work. Jane took a sandwich and started eating. With the salad, this wouldn稚 be too bad. Jane heard Trent in the kitchen laugh and cough at something Alison must've said.

溺y mom is going to call Ms. Li tomorrow, said Daria. 鉄eems Mr. O誰eill really freaked out the fashion drones. He told them they were into fashion because they knew how badly they needed to cover their blemishes.

典hey must have loved that.

Daria frowned. 轍uinn also said he cornered her while she was alone and told her that everyone else was far more aware of her own imperfections than she was. She said he claimed she was popular only because people felt sorry for her.

Wo, said Jane. 滴e痴 turned into a real prick. Or do you think Quinn is exaggerating again? When Daria gave Jane a look that somehow implied an unspoken sympathy for Quinn, Jane sighed. 添eah, there痴 something up with Mr. O誰eill. I haven稚 figure out what, though.

滴e痴 a jerk, Link added helpfully.

Daria added, 轍uinn was really freaked by it. She couldn稚 even eat her lasagna.

溺aybe she痴 on a diet, and knows that being upset is the only excuse your mom will take.

哲o, said Daria. 溺r. O誰eill has definitely crossed a line. But Mom says he痴 just upset over the suicide. But she does wonder why he isn稚 taking time off over it so he can come to terms with it.

的 wonder what that girl痴 parents are doing?

徹h, did you hear? Mr. O誰eill is supposed to be spending a lot of time with the dead girl痴 mother. And the mother is wondering whom she can sue over her daughter痴 suicide.

Jane shook her head. 展hat does Ms. Barch have to say about that?

的 don稚 know, said Daria, 釘ut we池e sure to find out.

Link spoke up. 的 think Mr. O誰eill just likes going wherever people are suffering.

Jane痴 eyes widened.

Daria looked up to Jane. 展hat?

的 think Link痴 right, Daria. Mr. O誰eill.... he seems to like hanging around people who are suffering.

Daria made a noise that said she agreed, but wasn稚 sure that meant anything.

迭emember? pressed Jane. 滴e wanted you to read some of your writing at the coffeehouse that would have insulted the people listening there. Then there were all those problems, most of which he set up. When you read that unexpected story instead, he was shocked and shut the place down.

溺aybe because he thought I had incited a riot?

Link piped in, 添ou did? Cool!

哲o, said Jane. 滴e seemed visibly upset to me before anyone left the Coffeehouse. And another time, continued Jane, 滴e chased me when he thought I was crying. He seemed extremely disappointed that I was okay. Even annoyed. I think he felt cheated somehow.

徹h, yeah, said Daria, 澱ack when he tried humiliating us both in front of the entire school. Daria thought a minute and added, 添ou remember when he got my mom to send me to volunteer as a counselor at his OK to Cry Corral?

Jane nodded. Link made a face that said he clearly thought that any parent that would force their kid to go with Mr. O誰eill was unfit to be a parent.

的 thought he at least tried, because whenever a kid was upset, he would try talking to them in his office. They always came out worse. I just thought he was being stupid, but maybe he痴 a passive-aggressive sadist.

鄭nd, added Jane, 塗e痴 always talking about saving the jellyfish and all, but you remember when he crushed that spider? Even said, 租amn spiders right in front of us.

Daria was still thinking of the OK to Cry Corral. 展hen I was trying to get Mr. O誰eill to drop me as a counselor, he told me he had tried to get Ms. Barch before. Can you imagine Ms. Barch and Mr. DeMartino working together?

Jane smirked. 撤oor kids.

添eah.
So why didn稚 Mr. O誰eill see that? Then he tries getting me. It was as if he was trying everything he could to make those kids miserable. And you should致e been there, Jane. He sounded all caring, but he was one of the most sadistic counselors I ever saw in my life. Even if he was acting way too nice to be torturing anyone. And it痴 easy to torture kids by forcing them to sit still and do pointless busywork like twisting wires together, while a beautiful lake and landscape lie right outside, where you池e not allowed to go. But how do you accuse him of intentionally hurting others when he痴 passively aggressive that way?


添ou know, said Jane, 塗e痴 always been a jerk! I just never noticed it until now.

Link added in, 滴e called me into his office once. I told him he didn稚 really care about helping kids. He said he did and I told him that if that were true, then he sucked at it. Link added a moment later, 泥aria and Mr. DeMartino were okay. I知 glad I met Daria.

Daria smiled for a moment before she turned her thoughts back to Mr. O誰eill and she shook her head. 釘ut today was different somehow... Daria trailed off.

Jane asked, 添ou don稚 know how it was different?

Link looked up at that, curious himself.

Daria scrunched up her face some. 的t痴 like before he was stupidly cruel, but today he was cruelly stupid. Maybe even malevolent. Daria shook her head. 的 suppose he壇 say he痴 just internalizing feelings of guilt and rage over a death of a student in his class, and he痴 taking it out on the rest of us.

添ou don稚 sound like you believe that.

的知 not sure I do. But what else am I to believe?

Daria, Jane, and Link were lost in thought for a moment.

Then Daria said, 釘y the way, I left a little early because Link stopped by. He wanted me to show him where you lived again. And I took what excuse I could to get away from the 池ents who won稚 stop telling us we need to understand Mr. O誰eill痴 position.

Jane looked to Link. 添ou wanted to come here? Why?

添eah, said Link. 的 wanted to see your paintings. Then he looked down at his sketchbook, 鄭nd show you a little of my own work. Link handed her his sketchbook.

Jane痴 brows rose, but she took the sketchbook and said, 鉄ure. After her own experiences at the art colony, she wasn稚 about to practice ageism. She knew how hard it was for a 12-year-old, especially a boy, to find an audience, too. Art is communication, and you don稚 feel satisfied until someone else understands what you池e saying.

Alison came in, with a can of V-8 in her hand. 的壇 like to see some of your paintings, too.

Jane glanced up in surprise, 滴ave you been listening in?

哲ot really, said Alison. 釘ut I couldn稚 help but hear you once Trent fell asleep. He痴 in the kitchen with his head on the table. So I got bored.

Jane flipped through Link痴 pad a bit. She stopped on one that was very detailed. A dark, menacing forest. An owl looking at the viewer was downright creepy. A silhouette of a boy wandering, surrounded by thorns. It was bleak. And impressive.

Alison leaned closer to examine it. 添ou did that yourself? When Link nodded, Alison said, 添ou致e really captured the essence of being alone in a world that is both cruel, and yet somehow indifferent.

Link blinked in pleased surprise at that. 典hanks.

Jane turned to a crude sketch of a classroom. It took a few moments before she realized that the teacher and all the students were those Borg drones from the Star Trek series. She laughed a little at that.

展hat? asked Link blushing.

的t looked so ordinary at first. You did really good at making the Borg implants subtle. I didn稚 even catch it at first.

添eah, said Link, 的 couldn稚 get caught drawing that. I was supposed to draw what I saw--which I did in a way. This would致e gotten me in trouble. Mr. Drieson only looked at it for a second before dismissing it.

Jane lifted a brow. 迭esistance isn稚 futile?

Link shrugged. Jane turned another page of a sketch of girl. Pretty good, but not too interesting.

The next page stunned her. It was done with the pad long ways. A boy was struggling to walk, maybe even escape something. A lifeless skeleton hung by its talons to the boy痴 ankle, its finger bones digging in and drawing blood. The detail was superb. And the boy痴 haunting expression, along with the drawing as a whole, conveyed a feeling that wasn稚 easily put into words. Alison whistled.

Daria asked, 的s this to alarm parents and teachers, or to enlighten other students?

Link smiled in a way that reminded Jane of Daria痴 evil smile.

Jane smirked, too. 徹kay, everyone to my room, and I値l show you mine if you show me yours.

 

7.

Mr. O誰eill realized he was going to have to be more careful. Apparently, several parents had complained to Ms. Li yesterday night and this morning. She had put her foot down, and said if she kept getting complaints, she was going to have to insist he take a vacation to get his head together.

What Ms. Li didn稚 know was that he had his head together for the first time in his miserable life.

He had long stayed around the hurting to help them, to answer the cries for help, but always seemed to make them more miserable. Before he discovered what he really was, he had really wanted to help them, but somehow he couldn稚. And he always felt a little stronger after the fact, as if in the suffering of others he somehow caught a "second wind." He'd long called it his "connection" to those in need of him, and felt that he was something of an empath. He also noticed that when he was particularly down, a visit to a funeral, a hospice, a prison, an asylum could always boost his spirits. He hadn稚 known why until Saturday night. He just guessed it came from TRYING to do good, even if he only made everyone feel even worse.

But now he realized he had encouraged the suffering. He壇 been careful, but he was almost caught more than once. And sometimes, he learned, anger could be used to thwart him. Any anger that didn稚 rot the soul in endless frustration, fear, and despair. While people were often angry with him, they usually could not justify it at all, and so suffered silently, and Mr. O誰eill silently, unknowingly (even to himself) fed.

He wasn稚 sure why his hosts had to be down. He guessed that maybe he was feeding off the aura or etheric energy of the body. That the same things that led to sickness--sadness, anger, despair, guilt--not only weakened the immune system, but also their psychic defenses. When their defenses were down, his starving cells or aura could pick off that energy.

Another thing that bothered him was that the more positive emotions tended to elude him. He usually noticed them from a lack of feeling any weaknesses. He wondered briefly if Lori had found peace when he had killed her, or if she really simply stopped when she died.

Another problem had been that he tended to identify things by their feel. He had a hard time with names, but a part of his brain that didn稚 deal in words always recognized them instantly. Once, he hadn稚 even noticed a broken window at the OK to Cry Corral until after Daria and Link--two people he realized he needed to separate if either were to continue to be of use to him--had run off from him. The energy signatures--or Sigs as he thought of them now--were what called out to him, the way smells were primary to a dog. It was only now, that he was filled with the energy he needed, that he was as grounded as everyone else. Maybe even more so, as he felt his empathy strengthen almost to the point of being able to see inside their head. Not as intimate as with Lori, but definitely psychic.

Yesterday, the classes had been rich sources of feeding. He now realized why he had become a teacher. He had never experienced so much misery in his life as his own time in school. And now, it was only going to get better. For him.

But it wasn稚 enough. Whatever was in his biology or soul had been cannibalizing his own energy all his life. The other energy hadn稚 been enough, just enough so he could function. He had found it hard to think or get centered or do anything. But now, since he had Awakened, he knew who and what he was. And he quickly made peace with that. And as a schoolteacher, he felt like a child in a candy store. He just had to be more careful how he fed.

And he was going to need to feed again more substantially, and soon. He felt himself slowly beginning to slip back into the starvation state that had haunted him nearly his entire life. It hurt. He felt something of a hollow space in his gut and behind his eyes that demanded to be filled. And there were so many people around him here at school just begging to be tapped.

Jane in particular seemed haunted by something. She was more stable today than she had been yesterday, but he figured he could cause a relapse, if he knew where to strike. He wanted to tap Jane all that he could soon, and she could be another believable suicide. Maybe Daria would follow. It was well known that those close to a suicide often took their own lives.

He was Awakened. The others were prey. He knew what it was to be strong now, and he would never surrender this feeling, ever again.

There. In the library. Sigs he recognized. Jane and Daria. Jodie and Mack. All with a mixture of pain and hope. Interesting. He slipped in to see what they were doing together.

添ou aren稚 using each other, Daria was saying. 鏑ook, you池e both dedicated to your duties. You can relate that way. You are among the few who can understand why the other puts out all that time and focus on other activities. Most other people would feel neglected. Another woman would say Mack thought football was more important than she. Another guy with Jodie would wonder when Jodie would make a little time for him. But you don稚 have that conflict, because you both understand it.

There was silence. Some murmuring that he couldn稚 quite make out.

的f you really were just using each other selfishly, then you wouldn稚 be torturing yourselves over it.

Jodie and Mack both lightened up. Daria was definitely dangerous, Mr. O誰eill told himself. For all her antisocial acting, she was a do-gooder at heart. And she knew what she was doing. Mr. O誰eill thought it might be better if Daria offed herself first, and soon. Maybe he needed to push for that now. He walked further in, letting them know he was here.

摘xcuse me, he said disarmingly, 溺ight I have a word with you?

徹nly if it痴 to apologize for being a jerk, said Mack.

Mr. O誰eill felt a stirring of rage he hadn稚 known he possessed, but he suppressed it and gave an apologetic laugh instead. Ms. Li and the coaches had nearly gone ballistic when he urged them to kick Mack off the team. He was told to leave Mack alone in the future, so he had to tread carefully. For now. 的知 only trying to help, he said.

Four hostile faces glared at him.

的 was only pointing out possible deficiencies and sources of insecurity so they can be dealt with now, rather than festering and ultimately triggering another suicide, he told them with as much false sincerity as he could. 的 feel it痴 my responsibility to see that doesn稚 happen again.

"Right," replied Mack in a sarcastic tone.

They were drawing strength from each other. He had to stop that, he had to divide them. 笛odie, you remember when you wrote that essay on Mack thinking he was BMOC and it was making his head a little big? Mack wrote something similar about your student council duties.

的 don稚 remember writing anything like that, said Mack.

的t was a long time ago, replied O誰eill. 釘ut not as long ago as Daria and Jane. They seemed to think the other pretentious in her talent as an artist or a writer respectively. He noticed they were all a bit nervous. That was good, and he brightened just a little. 鄭nd I find it hard to imagine Jane and Daria giving advice of the heart after that unfortunate incident with that rich boy.

Too far. They instantly solidified against him. Damn. He needed to catch them alone and take them out one by one. He laughed disarmingly and then said, 鄭nyway, I知 glad you池e working the problems out so that they don稚 fester. He turned and left.

As Mr. O誰eill left the library, he saw Charles growl at another student. Can稚 have that. This time, he壇 pick him off while he was alone. The way he壇 do to Mack, Jodie, Daria, and Jane soon.

鼎harles, said Mr. O Neill, 鼎ome with me.

Charles shuddered, but followed Mr. O誰eill to his classroom.

滴ave a seat, Charles.

Upchuck nervously sat at a desk near Mr. O誰eill.

哲ow Charles, grinned Mr. O誰eill, 的致e noticed you致e harassed a lot of girls here at Lawndale High, but you don稚 seem to care that they are constantly rejecting you. Are you afraid of them?

Upchuck shook his head, very uncomfortable. He had a bad feeling about this, and it was all over the school how weird Mr. O誰eill had been yesterday. And all the teachers seemed a little down or angrier than usual, too. Especially Ms. Barch.

的 think you are afraid, Charles. You池e not afraid of being called Upchuck, though, or even of being rejected. You池e afraid of being called faggot.

Upchuck eyes widened in shock. What the hell was Mr. O誰eill doing?

Mr. O誰eill put his hands on the desk Charles was sitting at. 添ou are gay, aren稚 you? You can稚 face it in yourself, and you can稚 stand others knowing it. But I致e found out. I知 here to help you. Help you leave the closet and realize your actuality!

填m, no thanks, said Upchuck. He got up to leave. Mr. O誰eill grabbed his arm.

展e池e not done talking, Charles. Sit down.

哲o.

鼎harles, do you want me to call your Dad to talk about your latent homosexuality? Mr. O誰eill thrilled in how he masked his exuberance and triumph with the false sounds of a concerned teacher.

Charles gasped, and then stared in shock. He was tasting good, Mr. O誰eill thought. All of a sudden, he tensed, and Mr. O Neill felt something gathering momentum within Charles. But before he fully realized what it was it, a fist smashed into his nose. A surprised and hurt Mr. O誰eill ducked away, letting go of Charles, and covered his nose.

Charles ran.

After a few moments, Mr. O誰eill centered himself again. He then found the energy within him could heal. He felt the cartilage in his nose re-knit, the bleeding stopped. He wiped it off. But now he felt much hungrier. Charles would pay for that, he swore. Charles might have run, but he couldn稚 hide. And then the things he was going to do to Charles. Even if he wouldn稚 report this to Ms. Li for the moment. He壇 take care of this himself at a later date.

But first, he needed to feed again. But from whom?

Yes, things could get most unfortunate for the students of Lawndale High. It was good there were self-esteem teachers like him to answer such cries for help. Maybe he could even open a new camp, the Cry for Help Corral, for worried parents to send their troubled teens. Maybe even troubled teens like Charles. Yes, that would bear thinking about. Mr. O誰eill grinned at the thought.

Grinning, but also tense. It was time to feed.

8.

Danzig痴 鉄talker Song was tormenting the hapless passengers of the Tank. The hapless passengers being Amanda, Wind, Jane, Alison, Daria, and Link. Trent grinned, lost in the music, slightly nodding his head to it. Yet it somehow, for some reason, seemed ominous.

no one knows my name
where I come from
no one sees my face
sees me coming
you can never hide
if I want you
you can't even try
keep from crying

no one sees my face
sees my pain
no one can see my shape
in the shadows
you can feel the dark
when it's stalking
I can slip right in whenever I want you


The Tank pulled up at the gallery, and the occupants filed out with some relief. A full hour plus of Danzig, along with bands like Prong, Godsmack, Coal Chamber, Slipknot, and Drowning Pool was enough to try anyone痴 nerves, if they weren稚 into that kind of music. Trent might have been, but Amanda and Wind seemed grateful to their higher powers as they got out, almost jumping. The others seemed okay, but relieved to be out, too. Only Link, who'd come at the invitation of Jane and Alison, seemed unfazed by the rough and noisy ride.

Still, it was better than the other stations right now, and the increasingly depressing news of people killing themselves or killing others.

They entered the gallery to find a surprising number of people there. Jane and Alison stared at one in particular, and both bore expressions of distaste.

的 take it you know him, said Daria, looking at Jane.

溺r. Dotson, said a shocked Jane. Was there some weird karma thing going on here? Or were they just unlucky? Alison seemed even less pleased than Jane.

The Lanes and friends went over to the display of Alison痴 paintings. They were done in brilliant hues, and psychedelic renditions of the ordinary turned into the fantastic.

They looked at some of the other artists works. They were mystified how Dotson痴 works ended up getting space next to all the others. It must be NEA, known to provide support for artists that couldn稚 make it on talent. There was no other explanation.

Mr. Dotson came out to join them. 鄭lison! I知 glad you could make it. I bet you didn稚 think you壇 get to see a master artist unveil his latest work tonight!

Alison dryly remarked, 添ou池e right. And I still don稚.

笛ealousy doesn稚 become you, Alison, clucked Mr. Dotson. 釘ut you should know I have the ear of Mr. Evans himself! And you know he has impeccable taste. And he thinks your works are taking up valuable gallery space. I told him to leave your works alone, but I think I値l tell him to do what he thinks best. Alison glared while Mr. Dotson smirked at her.

溺r. Evans? Daria asked Jane.

滴e owns several galleries and is a revered art critic, said Amanda, from behind Daria and Jane. 摘ccentric in the extreme, but the few artists he favors often do well enough. You値l see enough of artists hoping for his favors. Amanda shook her head. 的 tried talking to him a couple of times, but he wouldn稚 give me the time of day.

溺aybe his son could paint something better than you could, Amanda. Mr. Dotson replied dryly.

鄭nd any one of my kids could come up with a better clich than that, Amanda retorted.

Mr. Dotson turned back to the rest of them. 的知 glad you could all make it to my exhibit. All the way from Lawndale, hm? I assume Amanda is still living there. So how was traffic on the way out?

敵lad you asked, remarked Daria dryly, 的 was afraid this talking was never going to stop being so boring.

Mr. Dotson痴 laugh was light, if somewhat strained. 鏑et me show you some of my work.

展e池e here to see Alison痴, said Wind, 鉄o if you don稚 mind....

Mr. Dotson interrupted Wind with, 鄭nd you are?

Wind smiled. 的知 Wind Lane, Alison痴 future husband!

Mr. Dotson smiled mockingly at Amanda and Alison both. 的 find that very interesting, he said, sounding highly amused.

典hat痴 more I can say for you, blurted out Link. 鏑eave us alone.

鼎harming kid, Mr. Dotson murmured, obviously thinking otherwise. He looked at Amanda. 徹ne of your brood?

鏑ink is a very talented artist. Jane is helping to foster his talent.

的 see, said Mr. Dotson, in a tone that said otherwise. 展ell, it was nice meeting you, he said with obviously false sincerity. 滴owever, I must excuse myself to meet with my fans. Adieu.

Jane shook her head. "Well, he hasn't changed much."

"You said it," replied Alison tightly.

The Lanes and friends continued touring the gallery. Wind seemed infatuated with so many paintings. He might not have much in the way of artistic expression or talent, but he certainly appreciated it. He was hypersensitive to whatever an artist might possibly mean. Sometimes he even seemed to be right. But Trent appeared oblivious to the entire gallery.

Wind would say things like, 鉄uch color! Such form and movement! I could look at that picture for hours...

溺e, too, Trent would reply hoarsely, 殿nd I still wouldn稚 figure out what it痴 about. Wind looked bemused as Jane and Alison stifled a laugh.

They couldn稚 help but notice Mr. Dotson displaying several of his works to a varied crowd and some people with cams. One work on display was the 撤aper Plate Genocide he had showed at the art colony.

But what drew Daria and Jane痴 attention was the cam marked Sick, Sad World. They drew closer, and everyone else followed them unconsciously.

Right now, Dotson was showing a new masterpiece of his that he called, 笛udgment of the Walrus. It was several open and empty clam shells on a tray with a judge痴 hammer glued to it. He was explaining how he was inspired after reading Lewis Carroll.

的 don稚 get it, murmured Amanda.

添ou have to know what the artist was thinking, said an art major, who seemed shocked by Amanda痴 lack of artistic understanding.

Jane interrupted with, 展hy should she know something that Mr. Dotson doesn稚?

Amanda excused herself suddenly, and went into the ladies room to run some water and hide her laughter. Because of that, she missed the best part.

摘xcuse me, Mr. Dotson! shouted a blonde, Sick, Sad World reporter with a strong accent that none of the visitors could identify. 展hat do you have to say about the footage of yourself and Mr. Evans in a passionate embrace at the New Year痴 Ball?

鏑ies! All lies!

釘ut Mr. Dotson, you couldn稚 get space at a garage sale until Mr. Evans gave high praise to your work, and he didn稚 do that until after the New Year痴 bash! Is that a coincidence?

迭idiculous!
I had good reviews from him long before that time!


釘ut weren稚 you his editor? And didn稚 you replace Hanson Dmitri痴 name with your own?

的t痴 true! shouted a man with dark hair and a beard. 溺y best works! From Toy Train Disaster to Paper Plate Genocide, he took them all from me! Mr. Evans said he would deal with it, but then it was the New Year痴 bash!

的値l not take anymore of this slanderous abuse! You値l be hearing from my lawyer, all of you! Mr. Dotson stormed off the stage.

的 never knew, murmured Alison.

的知 not convinced, said Daria. 展ho would steal Paper Plate Genocide?

Since they had seen all there was to see, and the excitement seemed to be over, they went outside back to the Tank as soon as Amanda had rejoined them. As they left, they passed Mr. Dotson smoking a cigarette. He glared at them, assuming that they had come out to taunt him. The fact that they were leaving never occurred to him. 鉄o, he said bitterly, 殿fter that ridiculous personal attack on me by my enemies, you致e come out to mock me.

徹n the contrary, said Daria, who was only a few feet away from him now as she passed, 妬t痴 scarcely necessary. Daria smiled as Mr. Dotson glared at her with some fury. With Trent behind her, she wasn稚 worried about a physical attack, and with a lawyer mom, she wasn't worried about being sued. She left him to his muse.

Daria wondered if they could all gang up on Trent and have him play something else--anything else, or even nothing--on the drive home.

9.

Mr. O'Neill was in the homeless area of Baltimore, the proverbial 努rong side of the tracks, away from Lawndale. The area with all the drunks and crack addicts, the soup kitchens and pimps. He was dressed down, but not shabbily. He wanted to be as bland and unmemorable as possible. He wasn稚 the slightest bit afraid as he had parked his car and got out. He was the predator. The demonic hunger within him told him with full certainty that all the people around him, even the violent ones, were his lawful prey and he would not be denied.

Like any predator, he favored the weak and the wounded. His heightened senses were attuned to any cry for help that would tell him where to feed. And he needed to feed, but he knew it would be a bad idea to be in the area of too many suicides. And out here, no one was likely to be missed by anyone important. Walking along, he slowly absorbed the energy that was made digestible to him by the despair. There wasn稚 as much as he thought there壇 be, but it would hold him until he found true game.

Instinct focused on a woman looking in a window. She had a cigarette in her hand, but it was unlighted. Instinct told him to light it. So he went up to her and said, 哲eed a light?

She smiled at him and nodded. With one hand, she brought the cigarette to her mouth. With the other, she put 4 fingers under her shoulder for a moment. His instincts told him she said, 鉄tarting price is $40. A prostitute. That was fine. Maybe even perfect. This street etiquette was new to him, though, and he had only instinct to go on. He would have to remain wary.

的知 new in town, said Mr. O誰eill, by way of greeting as he lit her cigarette.

添eah, I thought you were, she said. He could feel her sizing him up. She wasn稚 too impressed with his appearance, judging him as not having much money. 鄭nd it痴 not vice night, so you池e probably not a cop.

哲o, I知 not a cop, said Mr. O'Neill, 的 do have $200, but nothing to do. I was wondering if maybe you could show me around?

She smiled more sincerely, then said, 展e could go to your place. I知 sure we can find something to do there.

Mr. O'Neill laughed shyly. 展ell, he said, 的 have someone there and it would be.... awkward.

She shrugged. 的 know a place real close. Come on!

She led him to a nearby apartment that he hoped he never had to live in himself. The fridge in an adjoining kitchenette was small and in view the moment she opened the door, and everything was in shambles. He sensed someone sleeping in another room, but he couldn稚 get any firm details.

Then a sleeping gray cat suddenly bolted up right and stiff, hissing at Mr. O'Neill. Then it came at him, hair standing up, baleful glare and unholy yowl. Mr. O'Neill backed up a step, truly afraid. The anger in this cat was too much to cut through, and somehow IT KNEW WHAT HE WAS! Worse, the tenuous psychic link he had already formed with this lamb was suddenly even more tenuous. He was too shocked, and almost ran.

徹h, Mary Jane, chided the woman. She picked the cat up and put her out. The cat remained outside the door hissing and yowling.

She turned back to her date. 鏑et痴 see some money, she said, very business like. The link was reforged, and he could feel her excitement. She not only was getting money, which was survival, but she was also being accepted. Mr. O'Neill allowed her the moment, grateful to her for saving him from the evil cat, and out of pity at what was about to happen. He pulled out $60 and said, 典his is a start.

鼎ool.

She took it into the kitchenette, and asked him, 泥o you want a drink? Some grass?

哲o, thank you. You池e enough.

He heard her moving around, and then she came back. 添ou mind if I play my Last Dance CD?

O'Neill gestured that he didn稚 mind, thinking it might be useful for drowning out sounds that he didn't want to disturb others with. Haunting darkwave soon filled the front room.

last night I thought I saw you staring
staring at the sky
last night I thought I saw you wishing
for your dreams to die
last night I thought I heard you crying
crying all your tears
last night I thought I saw your shadow
as you disappeared.


As she sat beside him, he was able to tell she had taken a pull of some hard liquor moments ago, and with his heightened senses, he could致e even named the brand if he壇 known them.

泥o you want me to suck your dick?

Mr. O'Neill actually blushed. He didn稚 know why he hadn稚 expected something like that. 填m, I知 not sure. Let痴 just neck, and let nature take its course.

哲eck? Neck!? She seemed to think that was funny. 徹kay. Let痴 neck.

do you believe in angels
do you believe in blood and wine
do you believe in broken hearts
or is this something
you致e never heard of
do you believe it痴 a better world
do you believe that no one cries
do you believe in bitter tears
or is this something
you致e never wanted to believe in?


She was fairly aggressive, measuring his reactions, while he fully attuned himself to her energy. He sensed all kinds of things: unhappy home and school, drug problems, betrayal by friends, nasty johns, a pimp that scared her who was trying to force her into his stable, a possibly suicidal guy going nowhere in the next room that had her pull tricks while he tried hooking up 努ith some old friends to do a little B&E with the hope that they could trade stolen goods for drugs. Her name was Vicki, but she liked going by the name of Joyleaf. So far, she hadn稚 actually given him any name, mundanely speaking.

last night I thought I saw you staring
staring at the sky
last night I thought I saw you wishing
for your dreams to die
last night I thought I heard you screaming
screaming out your heart
last night I thought I saw your shadow
tear you apart.


A suppressed memory came to him of her meeting a guy, going off with him, being gang raped by him and four friends. She was in her early teens when it happened, and the experience left permanent scars and various STD痴, including a 渡on-specific one that came and went, but couldn稚 be identified, let alone treated. This was his key.

典ell me about the time you were gang raped, Vicki.

She instantly stopped. 敵et away from me, fucker! She was instantly pissed, but he could feel that her fear was stronger than her anger. He caught her realization that she'd never given him her name.

Mr. O'Neill REACHED into her with his Hunger. She gasped, but she stayed in control of herself.

典ake your money and go, fucker!

Mr. O'Neill punched her in the mouth. She cried out and she also bled. He quickly took some blood and put it in his mouth, letting the connection strengthened.

His eyes widened in shock at the rage in her. Even more, she had just stuck a switchblade knife in him. He lunged, pinning her arms, as the knife hung from his abs. She screamed in disbelief, rage, and the beginning of true terror. "PAUL!" she shouted in a panic, and then her voice caught in her throat, frozen by the will of the monster that had her in his grasp. He licked at some more of the blood, and he owned her, invading her soul to plunder it of all its pain to feed on.

He saw there was more to the gang rape. Her parents were never that close to her, but her dad (who was living elsewhere) wouldn稚 talk to her anymore, and her mom seemed to think she brought it on herself. She had become pregnant, and her mom made her abort it to keep shame from coming to the family. But she had already been raped and by multiple men, and that alone was enough of a blow to the family name. Her mom even callously asked her if a certain boy would want 電amaged goods" like her once.

She had tried getting help from others, but to no avail. Others she knew back then had never experienced any such thing, and didn't like to think that they might, so they shunned her. Counselors were incompetent, and in one case, exploitive and in another, sexually abusive. She fell into drugs and then met people with similar experiences, people she felt she could relate to and belong with. She began exchanging sex for the affection she didn't get anywhere else, and each time her mother found out she was told this was why she had been gang raped to begin with.

She'd gotten into harder drugs and left home, eventually turning to prostitution to pay the bills and avoid the drug tests of a mundane job that didn't pay enough anyway. She thought about suicide, but was scared of death. And she hated how her boyfriend in the next room talked casually about suicide, threatening to abandon her. She壇 already have kicked his butt some, but he kept wishing he was dead, and she was scared to push him. She just wished she could go to sleep and forget all these horrible memories and her fucked up life and never wake up.

The monster Mr. O'Neill had her now, broken past the last of her resistance, and her pain was so ineffably delicious. He reached down to his abs and pulled the knife out. He could feel the pierced muscles and organs already beginning to reknit. Meanwhile, he made her relive the defining hell of her life over and over and over, years of pain and frustration summed up in seconds.

And then, all too quickly, she collapsed and he got nothing more. Mr. O'Neill knew she wasn稚 dead, but she wasn稚 fully alive either. She was in some kind of coma. He felt horrible disappointment. Had she not stabbed him, he would致e been sated, but with the healing, he needed more recharging. He was so disappointed, he almost cried.

be careful what you池e wishing for
upon your falling star
I just might be the angel
that you池e looking for.

do you believe in angels?


He turned toward the form he felt sleeping in the bedroom. He already caught that his name was Paul, but his heightened senses now told him that he was also called Mouse, though he kept trying in vain to get people to call him Iceman. Another addict, he was currently sleeping off tweaking for five days straight. And he manipulated people like Vicki by holding himself hostage via suicide threats. In trying to save him, they would try to save themselves, and do anything to keep him from 登ffing himself. He smiled and went to his room, carrying the switchblade.

Paul had many fears. He just barely feared dying more than he feared living. But O'Neill was able to amplify those fears. And the male was so weak and vulnerable to him that Mr. O'Neill made this meal last much longer.

Paul took a satisfying long time to die, filling his every pore. Paul slowly slashed himself to death, while O'Neill gagged his involuntary screams with a sock in the mouth and a belt pulled over his mouth.

Feeling very satisfied, he left the flat, which was now deathly silent except for the slight refrigerator noise and a buzzing fly which sounded eerie and unnatural in the flat turned sepulchral. He took the switchblade with him, along with the $60 he had given her, not touching the money that was already there. He also took a windbreaker to wear over his shirt, as his own had blood on it. No big deal. He smiled, not caring if anyone saw him leave. It might even be days, or longer, before anyone found them, and they'd blame the entire tragic event on the drugs the two abused.

But right after he locked the door and shut it behind him, he found himself surrounded outside the door by Mary Jane and four other cats, two of them looking feral. He壇 had trouble with cats in Lawndale, but not like this. He felt their rage as murderous, and he ran. They chased him for about a block, and then he seemed to be free of them. Cats had never liked him, and dogs stayed away from him. It seemed the stronger he got, so to did the antipathy the cats and dogs felt for him. Not feeling as fearless as he had moments ago, he realized this could become a serious problem. He had no idea why this was happening, but he decided then that he should check the folklore and myths tomorrow, to see if he could find some clue to this pattern, and maybe even a reason for it, and if there was a way to counter it.

He began walking to his car, which was about a mile away. He whistled something as he went. He had never done that before, but now somehow it felt natural to him. He knew it was something Paul had done when he was younger, walking to and from a Catholic school. He remembered how he felt compelled to write poems for a couple of days after he swallowed Lori's soul, too. He frowned as another cat hissed at him, but it retreated. Perhaps they only became aggressive if he entered what they considered their lair.

His senses were sharper than they had ever been. His potential was being tapped even further, and despite this new complication, he felt like an excited child. When he felt a raw source of pain calling to him from nearby, he let himself get lost in the urge to hunt. It reminded him of how excited Paul had been when he found Easter eggs as a child. He tracked it down to a lone junkie in an alley. He walked up to him, but jumped as a feral cat jumped out from a trash can, hissed, and took off running.

The junkie came to, saw him approaching, and snarled, "Go away!"

Mr. O'Neill smiled and asked 展hy would I want to do that?

Then he brought his foot up and stomped him in the mouth. The junkie cursed and tried to roll away, but Mr. O'Neill was on him in a heartbeat. He was stronger, too, and he was already taking over the man痴 mind as he licked some of the blood that had come out of his mouth. With a taste of blood and alcohol and tobacco, he fully entered him and almost laughed at the junkie's shock at the attack. Oh, it was sweet! With each new victim, he was able to squeeze more than the last one!

The man was Mr. DeMartino痴 age. He had gotten busted smoking weed at 18 and thrown in the Army to 鍍each him responsibility. Busted for grass again, he got sent to 'Nam. There he not only smoked grass, but enjoyed harder drugs, like heroin. There was constant pain and despair and disgrace. It was hell.

And then his platoon surrounded a village that was supposed to be hiding some Charlies. All he could see were the elderly and the young, with some young mothers out. He didn稚 see too much of anyone who could be a Charlie. He wondered if they would storm the village. Then the order was given to fire. He didn稚 know why, but he didn稚 question it. Someone had seen something. The shooting began. He shot, too, too terrified to even aim properly.

Afterward, they were led into the village. There were no Charlies, they had slaughtered a village of innocents. Their commander didn稚 care, claiming with a tone of assurance that these villagers gave comfort to the enemy. They shot the few survivors. His platoon was sent to dig a pit. Several hours later, most of the villagers were in the pit, along with some animals, and lye was spread over them. The village was then set on fire, and they left. Let痴 hear it for governments spreading their endless death and destruction in contesting exploitation rights under the headings of 渡ational security, 斗aw and order, and 鍍he public good. Or was there really a reason that would make sense of what he did?

And it had always haunted him. He had thrown in several corpses himself. Animals. Old men. Women. Small children. Infants. He had followed orders, and no one could致e faulted him for that. While the Manson family was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, those that committed the even worse atrocities at My Lai were barely slapped on the wrist despite global outrage. The only one given a life sentence was pardoned almost immediately by President Nixon who believed the officer thought he was truly following orders. This was a complete reversal of the Nuremberg trials and similar trials in Tokyo that executed soldiers who claimed they were just following orders, but the President couldn't be morally wrong, could he? Besides, he'd heard that it was a base of sorts, and now the Charlies couldn稚 use it anymore.

But it was a village in South Vietnam!

There was at least one more casualty in that village: himself. More specifically, his soul. He'd felt any self-worth die in that village, too. As he left the carnage they put in a pit of lye, he'd felt a heavy weight burden his soul, a stain that he could never be rid of, and the smell of blood and lye somehow seemed to permanently linger around him. He began losing sleep because he was back gunning down villagers nearly every time he closed his eyes, even for a moment. He'd have blown his own brains out except he feared Hell too much and he wondered if maybe there was some explanation and some redemption that he did not yet see.

He did more drugs and lost himself to narcotic addiction. But he wasn稚 left behind the way other lost souls like him had been. He made it home, now seen as a "real man" by his family, rather than the mass murderer that he saw himself as. But he was different. He had nightmares. Sometimes when he saw his face in the mirror, he whispered, "Murderer." He once even smashed a mirror. And the only thing that could stop his nightmares and his self-torture was heroin. It was his medicine, his chicken soup for the soul.

But he did marry, and even had a few kids, but he could never look at his own kids without remembering the Vietnamese children he helped to bury in a shallow mass grave of lye. Somehow, other soldiers, including those that had also taken part in the massacre he participated in, put it behind them, but he wasn't able to do it. They didn't want to talk about it, and one said he'd kill him if he ever showed up again. It wasn稚 long after that death threat that he was busted for heroin, grass, and cocaine.

Not only did his family disown him, but his wife got a divorce and quickly remarried another man that he believed she had been having an affair with for years. He spent years in and out of prison, rehab centers, and on the streets. He would get on some kind of government program, only to be kicked off when the hunger finally overwhelmed him. But H no longer gave him any temporary relief, it simply kept him from suiciding. He may have been alone, in tremors and nightmares, and the vision of all those villagers he had buried, but he knew it was better than he deserved. A vision he never shared with others, his shame was so great. He knew there was evil in the world, and he was it, his soul sobbed.

Mr. O'Neill slowly started becoming aware of the alley again. He looked down and saw that the junkie was dead. He had simply died, somehow depleted of all his bio-energy, and Mr. O'Neill felt great. It was as if his cells, somehow gorged, were metamorphically changing into something else. And the change brought ecstasy. That time, it had been so real, he had even forgotten where he was. Each feeding Awakened him more and more into his destiny, leading him to some great transubstantiation.

He left, feeling as if he were glowing with vitality, and continued for his car, his senses impossibly sharper than before. At this point, he was practically a telepath, too, getting stray thoughts from people痴 heads as he passed them. Everyone was a beacon, radiating life force. Except him. He was a void that all that force was pulled into.

Then he telepathically saw a stray memory of some black girl shot in the head. Focusing on it, he realized that she'd told her boyfriend to treat her with more respect, and he'd shot her in the head as a response. Finally, he realized that this memory was from the grief of her best friend who'd seen the murder, and she was near. Somehow he realized then that it was the young, teen girl of ebony skin he could see across the street sitting at a bus stop, he started to approach to feed without even thinking, when he suddenly reeled, startled.

There was a dark hispanic male in a doorway a few feet away from the young girl that somehow demanded all his attention. But unlike all the other cattle around him, he radiated nothing, and so O'Neill gained no thoughts or emotions. He was a sinkhole that drew all energy within himself, and he was staring balefully at Mr. O'Neill. And then he realized what he was:

A predator like himself! And he was stronger. And now he was coming for him, just waiting for the traffic to clear.

Mr. O'Neill panicked and ran as fast as he could, which he found was faster than he'd have imagined possible. He didn稚 know what the fellow creature like himself wanted, but he was sure the guy was territorial. He hadn稚 thought about that problem, of there being others like himself to compete with. He would have to get his own stable. The thought of starting a Cry For Help Corral again flitted across his mind.

After several blocks, he stopped running and caught his breath within mere moments. As he continued toward his car at a brisk pace, he wondered how many mental hospitals, prisons, teen rehabilitation centers, and schools were run by people--creatures--like himself. How many politicians were creatures like himself? Was one of the teachers at his old high school a creature like him? And how many were latents, as he himself had been until this last Saturday, and how many had Awakened?

As another cat hissed at him, he suddenly recalled that cats in particular were either considered guardians against malign entities and goblins, or were executed in droves for being evil spirits themselves. He wondered then, how many popes and preachers and inquisitors, particularly the ones that killed the animals as familiars of their victims, had been like him?

And that led to a startling question: just how many were there in the world like him now? How many were Awakened, and how many still Slept? And were there OTHER entities different from himself?

Too many questions. And the two things he'd learned today both taught him that what he didn稚 know could seriously hurt him, possibly even destroy him. But he was much stronger than he had ever imagined, even if he knew he wasn稚 ready to challenge another Awakened yet. He would have to avoid this place in the future, at least until he was even stronger. Shaking his head in disappointment at the loss of this fertile hunting ground, he reached his car and got in.

Driving back to Lawndale, he contemplated how he was stronger, and contemplated how he could now kill directly by draining without ordering his victims to off themselves as he had with his last victim. That would be most useful. He spent the rest of the drive home wondering whom to tap and kill first. Maybe Lori痴 family, O'Neill mused. After all, they had enough problems. And a suicide in the family often led to others.

His thoughts ran swiftly as he returned to his lair, for he had classes to teach tomorrow.

 

10.

Jane and Daria entered the coffee bar known as Arcanum 17, known locally as the Ark 17, behind Wind and Alison. Even though it was Friday night, the place wasn稚 crowded, and it was dark. There had been some people outside smoking and talking, and that was probably the smoking area from which they would be returning from.

Sure enough, there were plenty of goths. For the most part, they seemed divided into different cliques or styles of goths, with only some intermixing. Many of the artsies and college students were also evident, and seemingly keeping to themselves among their own crowds, too. But there was a little mixing. And a few people were obviously just here with dates, or to get hooked up, or maybe to see what unholy rites went on.

The place did not serve alcohol, but did serve a lot of coffee. And espresso and cappuccino and latte and a host of other drinks, many of which would keep you up through the night.

There were also many paintings hung around the building. Several were of the avant-garde kind, full of chaotic images, twisting landscapes, and dreamlike images. Some were enigmatic and creepy, like the one of modern girls dressed as Britney Spears running innocently about a Victorian home, while one Victorian-age girl seemed erotically charged, while being attacked by a curtain. Another was that of hanged men holding briefcases, each hung from the gallows by their own ties. Another had a television with many eyes watching the people on the couch watching it.

Others were less surrealistic, but still odd. One was an ape looking in a mirror to see a human staring back. Another had flags with their stripes as prison bars, holding people captive. An especially intriguing one had people facing you. But instead of faces, there was a dark, reflective glass that distorted your own image back at you.

Someone mumbled out poetry up front from a mic. Since they only heard part of it, the friends ignored it as background noise and kept looking at the visual art.

There were a few photographic pieces, too. One had only half a boy that seemed to have branches for arms coming out of his shirtsleeves. Another had a woman looking out into an endless ocean on some foggy day that looked otherworldly. A third had a screaming mermaid being held by a giant hand out to a cat trying to catch her. Another one was just haunting: several sad children around a dead rabbit.

Then there were many drawings, with a few paintings and one photograph, with the theme of vampires or of cat-human hybrids. Most were more erotic than creepy, macabre, or horrific.

的 always thought it was interesting, said Alison casually, 鍍hat what would normally be banned as sexist and pornographic is made okay if you add an element of vampires to it. She shook her head. 的 can稚 help but wonder about a society that find animated corpses robbing the living of their blood and their life more acceptable and empowering than the images of open sexuality.

Daria and Jane did spend a few moments imagining the vampire leaning over his helpless victim with ripped clothing and bite marks as a human male instead of a vampire male. Or the one of a scantily clad female vampire leering out of the drawn portrait as a human exotic dancer. Two naked female vampires licking each other痴 necks, fangs protruding, in a graveyard, above a man slashed to pieces as being ordinary women.

Yeah, it was easy to see the PC thought police taking offense at the porn and exploitation and hatred of women, if the vampire elements were missing. But with the vampire elements, they were not only praised instead of condemned, but the artists had prices on them that were typically a couple of hundred dollars and higher. Weird.

滴ey, said Jane sounding a bit disturbed, 鼎heck this one out.

Daria got up closer to the drawing. Her eyes widened at the sight of the vampire biting the neck of a helpless teen. The vampire and victim were dead ringers for Mr. O'Neill and Lori.

Daria took a breath and asked Jane, 泥id you hear what happened to Lori痴 family?

展ho hasn稚, said Jane frowning. Apparently, Lori痴 brother and sister had also killed themselves, possibly as part of a suicide pact. And then their mother came home, found her last two kids dead, and killed herself, too. It was all over the news, with reporters speculating about possible foul play or the involvement of cults. But so far it looked like nothing more than a horrible tragedy.

Wind put an arm around Alison who was being uncharacteristically withdrawn. Alison flashed him a smile, but it was a distant one. They moved to a nearby portrait of Bast dressed as a goth.

But Daria and Jane both grimaced as they continued to morbidly stare at the O'Neill and Lori drawing before them.

鄭hem. Attend.

All four turned to see a goth appearing to be in her young 20s wearing what looked to be the black robe of a Catholic priest. The only visible accessories were a Russian Orthodox cross hung from her neck and Doc Martins on her feet. Her shoulder-length hair fell black and thick around her pale, full face and green-gray eyes. Her hands, with black fingernails, were interlaced with one another, almost as if she were in prayer. She pulled the otherworldly and creepy aura off perfectly.

的 have a message, she said, 吐rom the other side.

Alison sighed. 鼎assandra....

的t痴 important, she hissed. 添ou are being hunted. He will devour you, if given half a chance.

Daria was the first to recover. She asked, 展ho?

添ou know him, said Cassandra melodramatically. 滴im. She pointed to the pictured vampire that looked like Mr. O'Neill. They noticed then that Cassandra had drawn the portrait, and she had titled it simply 摘vil Night Angel. She would have guessed that Cassandra had gotten the inspiration from the news--Mr. O'Neill had been interviewed over the girl's death after all--but it was dated from over a month ago. Mr. O'Neill had seen Lori kill herself about a week ago. Maybe she faked the date?

Cassandra abruptly turned and left.

鉄orry about that, said Alison. 鉄he gets crazy like that sometimes. She does a lot of shrooms. Sometimes she just giggles, other times, she gets all weird and mystical on you.

Jane and Daria both couldn稚 help but shudder, and they all decided not to look at any more of the visual art tonight.

的 can稚 believe I haven稚 heard of this place, said Jane.

的t opened only a few months ago, said Alison. 擢or the most part, it痴 still for people around Middleton College. But word is spreading, especially among artistes of all kinds, and recently the goths.

As soon as Alison said that, Wind was rudely bumped by a gothic guy out of some nightmare. Ripped shirt, ripped jeans, thick boots with several straps, and a trench coat. Black, tangled hair cascaded down his back with the sides of his head shaved, white make up covered his face, black lipstick was applied sloppily to his mouth and mascara around his misanthropic eyes, and he sported the standard black fingernails.

The gothic death rocker snarled, 展atch it, pretty boy!

鉄orry, said Wind both annoyed and apologetic. He blinked. 鄭re you wearing makeup?

笛ust because I知 wearing makeup doesn稚 mean I can稚 kick your ass, mamma痴 boy.

Wind seemed on the verge of panicking, and the other three frowned. Daria and Jane wondered if they made a mistake coming here. Even The Zen usually didn稚 have people this belligerent. Then a female goth, looking concerned--and less disturbing--grabbed the nightmare, saying, 典here you are. Come on, already, stop fucking around! She had neon red hair, combat boots, desert combat fatigue pants that looked baggy on her, despite her medium build, held up by a leather belt. Her shirt proclaimed, 泥on稚 piss me off, I知 running out of places to hide the bodies.

"Thanks," said Wind, watching the death rocker lurch away.

哲ever mind him, said their casual savior. 滴e overdosed on his friend痴 vitamins yesterday and didn稚 wake up until 2 hours ago. And we can稚 decide if we should let him have any more coffee until the vitamins wear off or not.

Jane asked, 天itamins?

天itamin R, said the woman.

天itamin R?

迭italin

展hy was he taking his friend痴 Ritalin?

She shrugged. 釘uzz. Besides, he痴 been stressed over all the suicides and murders lately. He lost a couple of friends himself a couple of days ago. A friend of his slipped into a coma of some kind, and his other friend living with her slashed himself to death. They think the guy who died may have been gone a couple of days before the body was found. She gave a look of pity and distaste. 徹fficially, it痴 drugs, since drugs have replaced Satan for causing all evil in the world. But not too many believe it. I don't. I mean he talked about it, but he was sliced to ribbons. He's too much of a pain wimp. I think the cops are just trying to lighten their caseload.

Wo, said Jane, 鍍hat really sucks.

添eah, she said, 的t does. Anyway, he had to take her cat, who is acting all traumatized. Poor kitty. And stuff like that isn't only happening in the city itself, but here, and even over in Lawndale.

Jane and Daria unconsciously looked toward the drawing of a vampire that looked like their teacher, and a victim that looked like a recent suicide in Lawndale.

徹h, shit! Gotta go! She ran off. Apparently, the guy who ODed on Ritalin was snarling at someone else.

Alison was laughing with Wind. 添ou okay? What would your mom say to make it all better? Wind seemed to be enjoying the teasing.

的 wonder, said Daria, 妬f he had time to put on makeup, why didn稚 he have time to brush his hair?

Jane looked up and thought. 鄭n artistic statement regarding the time we waste on trivialities, but ignore the important stuff that we have to think about with our heads?

Ohhhh.
Ok.

 

的 see a good table," said Wind. "You wanna hear the poetry, right, Alison?

展ind, said Alison seeming amused, 的 plan to read poetry. Yes, get us somewhere near our usual place.

After getting some drinks and snacks, the four sat at a table near the far wall but close to the stage. Above a small stage hung a sign that read ELEPHANTS ARE CONTAGIOUS!

Daria turned to Jane. 摘lephants are contagious?

鉄urrealism, said Jane. 典wo of the poets that founded surrealism were said to use this phrase, and it has come to represent the poetry of the movement. She knew this stuff. She壇 been around artists and art camps enough to have picked up on the basics.

鉄urrealism was actually more to do with the liberation of language, said Alison. 典he poetic experience was the true fount of wisdom, liberating us from the confines of 双rdinary reason and discourse. Some thought it was a type of psychic channeling of the subconscious wisdom that could lead society to a non-repressive civilization.

鉄urrealism," added Wind, "like the Dadaism it sprang from, had many forms of expression. Most people just remember the paintings, but there were live art performances, bizarre exhibits, and most of all, poetry.

Alison smiled at Wind as she continued, 典he Veristics tried decoding the language of the subconsciousness to the conscious. The Automatists were more interested in being liberated from all meaning, as they believed imposed meaning was delusional and oppressive. Both were looking for a way to escape the authoritarianism inherent in society by freeing the imagination. There痴 even a social and political surrealism. South Park can be considered social surrealism, though plenty of art professors would bristle at the thought. Even some anarchists have used surrealistic methods in their causes of social liberation, such as the call to 礎ecome Luther Blissett.

滴ey, said Jane, who'd been looking around as Alison talked, 妬sn稚 that Andrea?

Daria leaned forward. 添eah, she said, 努hat痴 she doing here?

Andrea got on stage. A lot of clapping and cheering followed. Apparently, she was popular here. She spoke into the mic:

鄭shes of the dead fill my mouth, horror coalesces in my gut. The grave I can honor, but not the way we live.

撤eople nod sagely at the most insane decrees, and offer themselves as sacrificial toys to little sadists in grown up bodies, where murder is a sin, and sin is your sacred duty.

擢orce conformity on all, as long as those who dictate the conformity are the worst models that tremble before the infinite expressions of the infinite.

的n sordid reflections we see ourselves, but without recognition. We are already beyond the looking glass, and we are all mad.

She stomped off stage, to more clapping, and one guy yelling, 添EAH! at the top of his lungs.

"She's gotten better," remarked Jane. "Hey, maybe you should read one of your Melody Powers stories here."

"I don't think so," said Daria. "The Lawndale Lions might get away with a riot, but a goth riot would probably not be anywhere as pretty."

"I doubt they'd care enough," replied Jane. "I don't think they get excited over things like that. Maybe if you had Melody Powers more like Anita Blake."

"Forget it," said Daria, fighting a smile. Then they both caught Cassandra staring intently at them. Both blinking uncomfortably, they looked around to see what the other goths were doing.

One goth had her blonde hair up in a bun covered under a black see-through veil. She wore a black leather dress with red frills on the bottom. It looked as if her dress had a garter belt. She wore black gloves that didn稚 cover the fingers, unless you counted the excessive red lace frills that replaced the fingers of the gloves. She wore a red band around her neck. Black stockings and black high heels completed the ensemble. She moved cautiously for some reason.

Three goths passed their table then, two women and a guy. The women both had red hair and cat eyes, and the guy was completely bald and draped in a plain black robe. One of the women simply wore jeans, thick black shoes with heels, and a black shirt that said EVIL in electric blue lettering. She had her arms folded in front of her, and walked quickly from place to place. The other woman trailing slightly behind her and "Fester" was thicker than either of the other two and had what looked to be real red hair, and she was wearing almost all white that transformed what some would call plain and overweight into a vision of beauty. Only her thick belt, gloves, and Doc Martins were black.

One guy, tall and gangly, was dressed like a Victorian gentleman, complete with top hat and parasol in one hand. The only thing that distinguished him from that era was the sunglasses he wore, even in this dim light. And maybe his black hair falling straight down his back, that shown bluish in the light. He actually had the grace of a dancer when he moved, and often used his fingers and hands, even the one holding the parasol, to emphasize whatever he was saying.

The one he was talking to wore a black trench coat, black leather boots, with a black hat that looked like something the 50s secret agent might wear. His thick black hair fell in a rough ponytail behind him, down below his shoulders. He was constantly looking around him as if he were worried about someone sneaking up on him.

While many seemed to be dark, sullen, and angst-filled, a few seemed unnaturally happy. Some looked casual, too, without any affected pretensions at all. Some had many piercings, and some seemed to have none. Some looked almost plain in a simple black dress or casual dress (mostly black), while others looked as if they had robbed a Hot Topic store and were wearing their plunder. A few even seemed to have yarn for hair, sometimes with their own hair mostly shaved off, and a couple of these were wearing glo-bracelets.

And Cassandra seemed invisible to the goths and other folk flowing around her as she stared back at Daria and Jane intently. It was as if only Daria and Jane could see her. They couldn稚 even tell if she blinked. Enough people moved in between Cassandra and them that she could have easily blinked unnoticed then.

Then they noticed another goth, this one coming towards them, bouncy and hyper, with normal, shoulder-length red hair in pigtails and an oval face with a hint of freckles. Glo bracelets and friendship bracelets adorned both wrists. Black skirt with blue belt with glitter and stickers of planets, stars, moons all over her belt. She was the first goth they saw in tennies, too.

Jane looked to Daria. Gothica Pippilotta?

Daria shrugged and said nothing. This night was just getting too weird for her.

滴i! the goth said brightly and quickly, 的知 Zanna! Mind if I welcome you?

鄭ctually, said Daria, 展e池e much too weird for anyone to sit down with us. Even our doctor won稚 sit down with us unless we池e strapped down first.

鼎ool, she said, seeming to mean it, 的 like weird. And I like new. And you池e new.

展e池e not new, said Alison, who seemed to be debating whether or not they should welcome Zanna. 展ind and I have been coming here since the place first opened.

添ou池e new to me, Zanna corrected, as she grabbed a chair from a nearby table and sat down by them. 典ell me what your dreams and passions and aspirations are.

Alison looked at the others, eyes raised in question of whether they minded or not.

鄭lison is my passion, said Wind, ending that question.

鼎ool, what else?

As Wind suddenly looked uncomfortable, Alison interjected with, 釘esides becoming an artist that doesn稚 have to do anything other than part-time work at most, I壇 like to get a lot of garbage out of my head.

Zanna leaned forward to Alison. 展hat would you put in your head, instead?

Alison blinked at that. She turned her head a bit as she considered. 的 guess that I have more power over my own reality than the masses around me.

Zanna looked to Jane and Daria who were watching this bemused. 鄭nd you two?

鄭rtist for me, writer for Daria, said Jane offhandedly.

釘ut what would you want to discover or find in yourself?

滴ope, said Daria.

典hat痴 so sad, said Zanna, as if she hurt for Daria.

迭ealistic, corrected Jane.

滴ope for what exactly? Zanna asked Daria. 的n relation to you, not the world out there.

滴ope, said Daria, 鍍hat I wouldn稚 be rejected for myself, or that I won稚 fear and hate the rejection sure to come if I show my true self.

鉄o what you want is to be loved for being yourself, and not some fake image that society tries to force on you.

徹r at least not hated for being myself instead of what others say I should be.

As Zanna looked to Jane, Jane shrugged and said, 的壇 like the ability to trust? At least, if there is a good reason for it.

徹h, there is," said Zanna touching Jane痴 hand. Jane pulled her hand away, frowning slightly. 鄭t the very least, said Zanna, 土ou should find the ability to trust yourself.

Zanna looked to Wind again who was pursing his lips. 展hat would you want?

的知 not sure, said Wind. 的 think the ability to take care of others as well as they take care of me.

Only Daria heard Jane mutter, 滴ow about the ability to take care of yourself?

Then more clapping took place. All five looked up, with Zanna clapping, and she actually whistled over the din.

溺any of you heard Johnny warn you to stay away from the hag if you wanted to live, said an older woman that couldn稚 be easily identified or classified on sight as a goth or anything else. 釘ut the hag within me has a response.

敵ood intro for a bunch of surrealists, Jane quietly said to the others.

鉄he痴 the owner, Alison replied.

擢OOL! Some actually jumped when that came through the mic.

The shout quieted everyone, and then in a more normal, if creaky voice, she continued:

添ou think you can flee from me? Shun darkness, avoid solitude, and you値l be safe? Silly child, you have no idea what you池e struggling with. An ugly, old woman. Oh, yes, you say, that痴 the crone, run away! But what will you do when I don a different mask? Will you recognize me in my black suit and smooth stained-glass voice? What about when I知 blonde and busty, and urge you to buy? When I wear four stars on my uniform collar, will you see the hag then? When my voice rings with authority from the Oval Office, will you know it痴 me?

She took a breath, a dramatic pause, and then said in a harsh tone, 泥ie for God, country, or big business, I don稚 give a damn. The hag, most heartily, welcomes you to Hell.

She walked off the stage to applause and cheers.

哲ot bad, said Jane clapping, 澱ut I wish I heard the poem she was responding to.

徹h, that was done by some high school goth last week, said Alison. 鉄omething about of avoiding solitude and staying out of the dark or the hag, or crone, would seize you and take you to Hell.

滴eaven and Hell are inside, you know, said Zanna enthusiastically. 鄭cid can show you, if you need to see it for yourself.

Alison smiled indulgently at Zanna. 展hat are your dreams and passions?

Zanna dramatically proclaimed, 典o be stronger than the darkness that surrounds me and the light that burns me! Then she said in a more normal tone of voice, 迭emember all the multiverse resides in you, and you reside in all the multiverse. You can choose the peace, love, unity, and respect. It痴 yours to claim. Don稚 let Choronzon and his prophet Gray Face fool you into thinking otherwise. And never forget: when others laugh at you, the multiverse laughs at THEM. So choose plurrrr-ality existence, and let plurality manifest through you.

As they tried translating the tongues Zanna was speaking in, another goth came up, seeming to be as bouncy as Zanna. She had black hair with purple and electric blue hair extensions and red novelty contacts. Beyond that, she just wore a simple black miniskirt, stripped socks that almost reached her knees, and Do Martens. Jane wondered if she could get some of those contacts being worn here and wear them to Lawndale High.

Zanna obviously knew her. 滴ey, Doob!

滴ey, Zen.
You still have those shrooms?


的 don稚 need shrooms! I知 like this all the time! You can keep your dooms! I値l just play in rhyme!

Doob frowned at that. 添ou ate them all by yourself didn稚 you? You selfish bitch.

的 need some latte. You want some? Zanna got up.

Andrea approached Daria and Jane, and seemed to be pointedly ignoring Zanna and Doob. 滴ey. What are you two doing here?

鼎ome to witness the fall of western civilization, said Daria, 努here entropy is art.

Zanna spoke up again. Extropy! extropy! She actually did a little dance. It was weird how someone could be cute, charming, and frightening to behold at the same time. 哲ot entropy! Entropy is the illusion of decay as a new and better future is being born right before our eyes!

哲ever mind her, said Andrea, 都he痴 a perky graver. The stress of conflicting lifestyles is tearing her mind a part. Not that the shrooms and other drugs she likes to partake in help.

哲ever mind her, said Zanna, pointing melodramatically to Andrea. 鉄he痴 just a mopey rager. Not that the beer she guzzles helps.

釘itch! cried Andrea looking down at her shirt, 添ou got that glitter shit all over me again! You goddam candy!

滴ey, said Zanna to Andrea in a voice of concern, 典urn that frown upside down!

Suddenly, Andrea and Zanna just weren稚 there anymore. Doob made some small sound of disgust and stomped off indigantly the way she came.

展ow, said Daria watching Andrea chase Zanna. 鉄he even runs faster than you can. Despite Zanna being much more lightweight and long-legged, Andrea wasn't losing ground.

擢aster than I do, corrected Jane lightly.

鄭nd through such an obstacle course, too.

Then Zanna crashed into the gothic nightmare that had threatened Wind, causing the goth to spill whatever he was drinking all over himself. 釘itch! he seemed to yell, getting up. Zanna took off, and then Andrea crashed into the dripping goth, causing him to fall and hit his head and knocking him out. Meanwhile, Zanna raced outside with Andrea not far behind.

Daria and Jane were startled when they saw Cassandra standing beside their table, staring ominously at all four of them. 的n case you missed the significance, Mopey and Perky are equal manifestations of the Divine. They were surrounded by less obvious, but just as significant, divine manifestations. She left them again, almost seeming to glide like a wraith.

Daria was getting that creeped-out feeling again. 泥id everybody get the shrooms but us?

徹h, let me read my poem, said Alison a bit tiredly, 都o that we can leave soon.

Alison marched straight up to the mic. Scattered applause came up. Alison began reading from a paper without any introduction:

滴ear my warning:

鉄ometimes love is stronger than cruelty and indifference, but only so long as the cruel and indifferent don稚 know. Cold, alone, dying inside, Who壇 ever guess that love would save me from my hell, only to cast me into a deeper pit of hell further below?

鏑ove, like solitude, beckons us all enigmatically and terrifyingly to our ultimate downfall.
Hate, like love, washes away the laughter and tears of the world, even as it lethally sustains us all.

典he ghost of my love reminds me that forbidden love can only be so pure, comforting and perfect, as long as the masses remain ignorant of your passions, and you keep your empowering comfort secret.

的t痴 too late for us now, and she lies abandoned and unloved by all in her vault. Both of us brought shame to our families, her death accusing me it痴 my fault.

的 live on, but my siren lover still sings, her love haunting me, as does her hate. And I try to remember that our fall was not my fault, it was only our fate.

展as living or dying the greater mistake, I wonder, since I live and she doesn稚, yet we both writhe in hellfire. Death, like the Life it is, robs me of my hopes and dreams, while beckoning with promises of all that I desire.

鉄o hearken! Should you ever find love in a world of cruelty and indifference, never let anyone know, and always keep your distance. Or the one you loved will become the cruelest of all, and nothing will silence the ghastly shrieks of your lover痴 undead countenance.

The clapping was much more intense as she came off the stage, with some whistling thrown in.

展ow, said Jane, 典hat was more intense than I壇 expect from you.

典here痴 a lot you don稚 know about me, Jane, said Alison somewhat annoyed.

Jane, Daria, and Wind looked uncomfortable.

的知 sorry, said Alison, rubbing her forehead with her hands. 的 think I got too much caffeine in my system. I知 shaking enough. It just seems to me that tonight is being really weird.

添eah, said Jane, 的 think there is a major disturbance in the force. Wanna go home, or stay longer?

They all agreed to go home.

展e should致e brought Tom with us, said Jane to Daria as they were walking to the door.

Daria smiled. 徹h, no. For real fun, we should致e brought the entire Sloane family.

Daria and Jane grinned evilly to one another just before Jane reached out keep the exit from closing. Daria turned to look behind her one last time as she was walking out the door, and saw Cassandra, seemingly invisible to all but them, staring intently at them still, somehow striking Daria as an omen of doom.

 

11.

Jane didn稚 think it was weird that Mr. O'Neill was in her room painting her portrait on her canvas. Nor did she think it was strange that the more defined she became on the canvas, the weaker she felt. She heard some distant cries, and then realized they were from the canvas Mr. O'Neill was painting on. She looked closely, and saw several people in the background screaming for help. One of them was Lori. And then she saw her own portrait was frozen in a horrified scream.

Jane sat up in the dark, gasping. Sweat trailed down her body, and she didn稚 feel like going back to sleep. She groggily twisted her head for the glow of the clock: 2:30 am. Great, she'd been asleep for less than 2 hours.

Jane went down the stairs in her nightgown. She wasn't surprised that someone was in the kitchen, but she was surprised to find it was Alison. She paused as Alison looked up at her and then continued in. She saw Alison, still dressed as she was earlier tonight when they had been at Arcanum 17, had a bottle of peach brandy, and decided that was what she was in the mood for, too. Maybe it would help her sleep.

溺ind if I join you?

鉄uit yourself, said Alison non-committally.

Jane poured herself an Ultra Cola and mixed some brandy in. The alcohol should counter the caffeine, she told herself.

添ou sound about the way I feel, Jane said to Alison. 典hinking Wind isn稚 the one?

Alison looked at Jane for a moment. She finally looked back down. 的 don稚 know.

Alison looked so forlorn and lost that Jane couldn稚 resist putting a hand on Alison痴 arm, saying, 滴ey, whatever happens, we池e still friends, okay?

Alison kept looking down. 的 really don稚 know what love is. I don稚 think Wind does, either. I thought I did, once, but I was deluding myself. Only the hate was real.

Jane bit her lip for a moment. She had never seen Alison morose like this before. And Alison didn稚 act particularly intoxicated. Affected, yes, but not intoxicated.

This have something to do with that poem you read tonight?

Alison finally looked up. 添eah. She kind of laughed. 的 was instantly inspired to write it after I saw Link痴 sketch of a skeleton digging its bony finger痴 into that boy痴 ankles.

鏑ink, yeah, said Jane. 典hat boy has promise. Jane thought it was sad he would more likely be a game designer unless his focus changed, rather than an artist. On the other hand, game designers rarely starved.

Jane spoke up again. 鏑ink may have inspired you, but that was about someone that meant something to you. It wasn稚 about us, was it?

Alison looked at Jane and smiled a sad smile that had a touch of mockery to it.

的値l take that as a no, said Jane. 鉄o who was it about? Jane had a hard time imagining Alison giving herself over to love for anybody. She would be really surprised if Alison married Wind, and then would be more surprised if the marriage lasted longer than a year.

Alison stared down again for so long that Jane figured this was a part of Alison she wasn稚 allowed near yet. Then she took another drink and looked up, but still away from Jane. 典here never was any love in my family, said Alison matter-of-factly.

添eah, said Jane sympathetically, 杜y mom couldn稚 care if I stayed home or moved out or anything.

Alison did look at Jane with a bitter smile and shaking her head. 的 think your mother loves you and all her other kids, said Alison. 鉄he may be self-absorbed and irresponsible as hell, but she does manage to keep this place and let you all crash here.

Jane frowned, but acknowledged it with a shrug of her shoulders.

鄭t the very least, said Alison. 鉄he doesn稚 hate you.

添our mom hated you? Jane couldn稚 believe this.

徹h, yeah, said Alison. 天ery much. Only I didn稚 know it until my last days there.

Jane wondered a moment if she wanted to hear this. For some reason, she thought of Mr. O'Neill painting her on the canvas again and decided ANYTHING was better than that.

典ell me, Jane said simply.

Alison poured herself another cup of peach brandy and took a sip. Alison looked at Jane again, tightening her lips in thoughts. Then she shrugged her shoulders.

的 never got any affection, began Alison. 擢ood, clothes, a roof over my head. These I could count on. But that was it. She shook her head slightly. 鉄ometimes, I got a little, but it was fake and I knew it. It was for the benefit of whomever was watching, not for me. So I tried getting solace from my best friend. Her name was Nancy and her life sucked like mine, even if she had all the material benefits like I got. Comfort turned to affection, affection turned to sex, and friendship blossomed into love. Alison looked to Jane. 釘ut don稚 get the wrong idea, she said to Jane, 的t happened slowly over two years.

Jane poured a half cup of peach brandy in what little brandy and Ultra Cola was left in her cup. 鉄o what happened?

展hat happened?
Alison repeated back. 滴er mom and brother showed up unexpectedly while we were in the throes of passion. Alison smiled bitterly. 滴er mom had forgotten some receipt or something. I don稚 really remember that part to be sure. What was important was that she came home, and they both caught us.


Jane痴 eyes widened. 的 take it her mom didn稚 take it well.

Alison smiled slightly, with no joy. 添ou could say that, she said. 鉄he slapped me over and over until I finally got out of there. I had to finish dressing outside.

Wo, said Jane.

徹h, that痴 not the worst part, said Alison, 的 heard her doing things to Nancy. I wanted to run in there and help, but....

展hat?

的 was afraid. Alison looked ready to break over that. 的 guess it wouldn稚 have made a difference anyway. So I went home. And when I went in, I knew right away that Mom knew. Alison took a deep breath. 溺om grabbed me by my hair and dragged me into the living room. She slapped me several times, even used her fist a couple of times. Luckily, she couldn稚 get enough leverage to hit me very hard.

展ere you struggling?

徹h, you bet I was, said Alison. 的 was terrified. And all the while, Mom was yelling at the top of her lungs, demanding to know how I could have done this to her. I tried asking what I had done to her, but couldn't get it out she was hitting me so hard. Then she slammed my head against the wall and let go. I fell down. She jumped on top of me, and she did go to fists, yelling how much she hated me and how much shame I brought to her.

"Fooling around is shameful, but beating you up wasn't?" asked Jane incredulously.

Alison looked to Jane with haunted eyes. 的 was bleeding. She was shrieking this with passionate intensity. I'd known the love was never real between us, but it wasn稚 until this day that I realized how much she hated and loathed me.

Jane felt hurt for Alison, and tried saying something. 鉄he was upset....

哲o, Jane, said Alison. 典he affection was rare and perfunctory, but the hatred she was sharing with utmost sincerity was real. Before all this, I was at least acceptable because I was ribbons and lace and sweetness and light, a part of the perfect family. Or I should say they fooled themselves into thinking I was. And maybe I fooled myself into thinking this, too, from time to time.

Jane shook her head. "I don't get why she was so upset."

Alison took another drink. 展ell my getting caught affected her, too. She couldn稚 gossip with her own friends, because I was the subject of a lot of gossip. And so was she. She shook her head. 的 became stigmatized overnight by the adults and the other kids both. Parents told their daughters to stay away from me. Nancy痴 brothers bleated over it to everyone at school. And as a result, Mom was stigmatized, too. So her lesbian whore of a daughter would pay.

展hat did you dad do? asked Jane. 鉄urely, someone had.....

的 had no one, said Alison emphatically. 溺y dad beat the crap out of me even worse than my mom did, and even threatened to have a guy 'straighten' me out. Cathy, my older sister, treated me as a pariah. My two brothers never stopped mocking me.

滴ow old were you then? Jane asked.

14, said Alison

鉄hit, muttered Jane.

徹h, yeah, perfect word, said Alison. 釘ut then it gets better. I thought I could at least get some peace at school, but then I learned it followed me there, too. she said bitterly. 淘Lesbian was written on my locker the very next day. And it wasn't just snubbing and gossip. There were fights, with slapping, punching, and kicking. The non-stop harassment. The locker room... Alison shook that off, whatever it was. 典he faculty thought I was the problem, and they openly talked about expelling me as a disruptive influence.

Jane was lost in what she had never suspected about Alison. 展hat about Nancy?

哲ancy? asked Alison. 徹h, Nancy wouldn稚 talk to me. Nancy blamed me for seducing her and she hated my guts as intensely as Mom did. Nancy痴 mom tried pressing charges against me for raping her daughter, and my own mother returned the favor. Alison looked to Jane. 典hat痴 why I don稚 know if what we had was love. She threw it away so quickly, and I couldn稚 believe it, because she was all I had left, and I didn稚 even have her anymore.

展hy would she do that? asked Jane. 鉄he lost everything to. Why not stick together?

鉄he told me once that she wanted to forget me, said Alison, 澱ecause look at what I and our love brought us. We might not have been loved before, but we weren稚 hated, either. And she just wanted the hate to stop. She thought she could make it stop if she publicly hated me. But it didn稚 work. No one ever forgot.

Alison took another drink and leaned forward. She was just starting to slur her words, Jane realized. 鉄o I thought I would win back my acceptance in my own way. I went after guys. Aggressively. I fooled around with a bunch. See, I wasn't really a lesbian, I was bisexual. Really, I figured back then that everyone was, they just hid their attractions to their own gender the same way they hid masturbating. So I restricted myself to guys and tried to make a rep as a slut, figuring that would be better than a lesbian. Her tone dipped. 釘ut it changed nothing. Other than to get treated like a slut, a whore, and a lesbian. I had boys and girls both come on to me, and then drop me. But at least they gave me a little affection while it lasted. And I needed that, especially after Nancy hung herself from a rope and managed to kill herself.

泥amn, whispered Jane. She was getting a little tipsy, too, but she drank some more anyway. She needed it.

鄭 part of me died with her. said Alison. 鉄ee, I had given up all hope when nothing changed in my freshman year in high school. Alison laughed. 的 even prayed to God for the first and last time in my life for everything to change. Nothing did. It was all over for me. I just didn稚 know it until my fifteenth birthday. It was completely forgotten, nobody even wished me Happy Birthday. And then had it confirmed when my sister痴 seventeenth birthday was remembered, and celebrated by everyone but me. I had to stay home to listen for an important message Mom was expecting.

Alison leaned back again. 典hat was the end of my world, said Alison, 登nly it took me awhile to figure it out. The suicide didn稚 stop the other kids and adults from torturing me. And I had no real friends. People I could hang out with, yes, but not anyone I was ever close to. Sometimes my crowd would gain some vicious revenge on someone, but it never brought any satisfaction.

Alison looked at Jane again. 的 had always liked art, but being an artist just wasn稚 an acceptable profession. And it was something others would laugh at. But now, I couldn稚 imagine working with these people in the world around me. And it became my only expression. It became my escape. I would get so enraptured with a leaf, or a person, or a landscape, or whatever, and I would forget EVERYTHING, if only for a while. Only my subject existed and my pain was forgotten. Alison suddenly looked angry. 鄭nd then my bitch of a sister and her friends dumped a bunch of my paints on my sheets. Mom was furious. At me, of course. So instead of going to bed that night, I just took my sketchbook and ran away from home. I thought I could make money drawing portraits and caricatures.

Jane blinked. "It didn't go so well, did it?"

Alison deflated, shaking her head. 的 was very hungry, cold, sleep-deprived and scared. People could be even more brutal than in school and at home. And people with money tried ripping me off. Or try to get me in the car with them for a little sex.

"Aren't there shelters?"

"Sure there are. They're supposed to turn minors in, though. If I didn't show an ID, they were required by law to report me. Not all did, but they were at risk for not doing so. Even those bastards at C-House...that's Covenant House...would visit the more merciful shelters to make sure they abided by the law. I couldn't stand to be sent back home so I usually avoided them."

"What about abuse shelters?"

"Same thing," said Alison. "Oh, don't believe the hype of federal ninjas and zealous social workers descending on parents who yell and spank. Maybe they do that when they need to prove a need for funding, but it usually takes them MONTHS to investigate abuse, and the investigation is shoddy. Sometimes they're even turned away by a claim that the kid isn't living there anymore. And any abuse shelter would have to turn me in or be charged with aiding in my corruption. It's for my protection, you see," said Alison bitterly.

Jane shook her head, remembering one of her mom's friends. "I think a lot of people feel that these laws keep kids from running away in the first place, and are to protect you from being exploited," she said.

Alison laughed bitterly. "Yeah, the idiots feel, but don't THINK. What those laws do is put the runaway at the mercy of such exploitation, exactly as it was willfully intended. By denying me any sanctuary, I'll go home and stay away from the pimps, but what if home is even worse than the streets? Hell, I couldn't even go to the hospital without being reported. Even illegal aliens can go, Jane, but I couldn't! Illegal aliens can go because the state wants healthy migrant workers, but runaways and such can't go because the state wants us in brothels so that they could pimp us by fining us. And we're the type to have parents the least disturbed by such exploitive laws on the books. No matter if I was raped, drugged, or beaten, I couldn't go! And since the laws are against me, I have no choice but to have the pimps or the police, or be a fugitive hunted by both, and that means it's either home or the very people the stupid laws are supposed to be protecting me from!"

"Don't they go after people like your 'rents?"

"Oh, no, haven't you been listening? Hell, protecting perverts, Jane, is what those laws are for. Did you know that even though I had no choice but to go home or be a fugitive, if my Dad molested me and was convicted, I'd still be forced to live with him after he got minimal counseling or be locked up for contempt of court?"

"Wo," mumbled Jane, "that's fucked up." A little louder she wondered aloud, "I wonder how many that's happened to?"

"It happened to more than one of my lost sibs out there. One was even seized by two cops and dragged to her father because it's the law! Gotta keep the family together! And without her father's permission, she couldn't go to an abuse shelter! Her only other options was to endure or kill him, and you know what's said about taking the law into your own hands, even when the law is your greatest enemy! So FUCK the law!"

"Aren't abuse shelters supposed to be places of sanctuary?"

"For adults, not for kids on their own. Unless Mom gave the shelter permission to keep me then they had to turn me in, and she wouldn't do that. That would make her look bad that her daughter was in an abuse or runaway shelter. So she'd take me and then have me locked up in some teen gulag instead. Or if I was lucky, maybe a boarding school." She shook her head and in a more quiet voice repeated, "Fuck the law. Just like it fucked me."

Jane, aware of a lot of the dark side of society, was surprised at some of this, but didn't disbelieve it. It actually explained a lot. "You were between a rock and a hard place," she said.

Alison looked at Jane, 釘ut you know what? It was actually better than the hatred directed at me personally. And then I met some other kids on the streets and I joined their krew. I did that so I would have some protection from the perverts, pimps, and everybody else. But for the first time in my miserable life, I had a family. A screwed up family, yes, but still a family. I would still choose to live with them, my sibs, in an abandoned building and with empty stomach than well-fed in the home I grew up in.

Jane had been drawn in, and she took another drink. 滴ow did you survive?

展e had all kinds of tricks for that. Alison laughed a bit. 哲ot the kind you池e thinking of, though we did that sometimes, too. I avoided that myself, since I already felt like a slut as it was. Even if turning tricks is more of a business deal than anything lustful on our part. Alison took another drink, leaning back again. 典here were different groups. Some were into turning tricks. Others were into B&E, and traded what they stole for drugs, which we then sold, if we didn稚 do them ourselves. Some panhandled. A few even sold plasma, after they were coached on what to say and not to say to the clinics ripping us off for the pharmaceutical companies. Alison grinned cynically at Jane. 鉄o be careful of the meds you get, if they have plasma in them.

鄭lison, said Jane, 展hat did YOU do? I really want to know, and I知 not going to think you池e a bad person. I care about who you are now, not who you were then. But I need to know.

Alison smiled a little, and it looked like a real smile starting, though her eyes grew distant again. 展e壇 rip off the pizza shops. We壇 call in some orders for pizza. We had to use different numbers to get a lot of orders, and the numbers couldn稚 be from a payphone, 団ause they壇 know. But when we pulled it off, or got someone else to pull it off for us, we壇 go behind whichever pizza place it was and wait. Eventually, when no one picked up the pizzas, they壇 throw some to all of them in the dumpster out back, still in their box. Alison laughed just a little. 展e壇 have to share with whatever bum claimed the dumpster as his property, but there was usually enough. And he would often share his bottle, or even pot, with us.

Jane could actually imagine herself doing that one. 敵o on, she said, finding this fascinating, as well as being concerned for her friend.

展e壇 hit stores, too, Alison continued, 吐or the five finger discount. Even with their cams, they never caught us, and they never seemed to figure out what we were doing.

展hat were you doing?

徹h, we壇 slowly filter in. Some of us would get in the deli, drinking coffee or something, but others of us would be elsewhere. Then the guy we had set up for that would come in. He壇 usually be a minority, who壇 play the part to justify a racist痴 view to the hilt. But sometimes we used someone that was heavily decked out as someone in the punk, metal, or goth culture. The stupid people would always follow them. With the cams, too, I guess. But when we saw him come in, we壇 get busy while the guy created a huge scene. We壇 filter out while he was yelling up a storm. Sometimes he壇 go to jail, but he壇 be let out in a few hours. Usually, they were glad just to have him kicked off their property. And we rotated such people around. And we tried not hitting the same stores too often without break periods for fear that they壇 finally catch on to what we were doing to them.

"Wow. And they didn't learn?"

Alison laughed cynically and added, 典he majority of people are really stupid, Jane, with a serious long term memory problem. But there are limits to their stupidity. Even Mr. 善aper Plate Genocide Dotson would eventually catch on, if we didn稚 pause and rotate our krew members a bit. Alison smiled at Jane, but with a little more self-depreciation now. 鄭nd of course I did what portraits and caricatures I could. But a lot of times, the people paying me were just scoping me out for sex. Still, it was very exciting to make money from my art. It meant other people liked my art. It meant they liked me. Alison finished her cup and let it stay empty. 的 met my sugar daddy that way. His name was Jim. He paid me to draw him. He was an art major himself from a well-to-do family, and I loved it when he would go on and on about how talented I was. And unlike most others, he wasn稚 even married or engaged or anything. He just wanted to exchange the comforts of his home for sex.

"Was it like he adopted you?"

Alison shook her head. 哲ot really. Maybe it could've been, but I wouldn't let it. I went with him for periods of time, but I always went back to the krew. Because my krew, my family, loved me, needed me. He didn稚. Alison frowned. 釘ut that changed with the street sweep.

鉄treet sweep? asked Jane

展here the police--the top gang-- just went out busting and beating the shit out of everybody.

泥id you ever turn them in?

Alison laughed pretty hard over that. 填nless you got all the money for a lawyer, ain稚 nobody who cares, Jane. We had no place in society except as scapegoat. And they could fine us from time to time, making their money off us like any pimp would. Pick us up on a vice night and charge us all a hundred bucks. Instead of a 祖harge they called it a 租ebt to society as if it didn稚 go in their own pockets, but it was the same damn thing. I'm sure you know how they expected us to raise it. Protecting kids? They're fucking pimps. THAT'S why the laws exist, Jane, not to protect kids, but to protect their racket.

Jane whistled. "Suddenly, anarchy doesn't just sound like fun, but maybe a good idea."

Alison sneered a bit as she continued. 添ou don't know the half of it. But every once in a while, like say an election or a gathering of politicians, the police would get us all off the street to give the stupid voters an illusion of crime being off their streets. That痴 a street sweep. And the voters were so stupid, they couldn稚 even remember the previous month when we were all out there. She looked at Jane intensely. 的f you池e ever in that position, Jane, remember the police are NOT your friend. Some cops will even turn you over to a pimp for a bounty, or will call a pimp and tell him when you値l be getting out of jail.

Jane shuddered. "Hope I'm never there," she said. She poured a little more brandy into her cup and swallowed it all.

Alison got up and got some water. 展hen I got pinched...that means busted...groped, and threatened by the cops, I called Jim, saying he was my dad. They didn稚 believe it, but they didn稚 care. As long as I was off the streets for the time being, then they could definitely use the space I was taking up. But this was a serious street sweep that shattered our krew for a while. I知 sure many eventually hooked up with each other again, but not me.

"You stayed with Jim?"

Alison looked at Jane to see how she was taking it. Jane was wanting to know more. She wasn稚 looking at her in a way that would make Alison clam up. So she said, summing up now, 笛im got me off the street. He was moving after graduation, and I moved with him. He helped foster my talent, gave me what I needed, and even helped me get my GED and driver痴 license.

展hy do I get the feeling that something went wrong between you two? asked Jane.

釘ecause you池e psychic? said Alison, with a small bit of cynical humor there. 鄭s it turns out, he needed 壮omeone younger. Think about that Jane! I知 17, and I知 too old for him now! He was gonna trade me for a younger model, and I thought, 糎hat about when I知 27? He gave me three months. Luckily, I knew enough people in the art community by then that I could...

鏑ive with whoever would give you a place to stay? asked Jane.

添eah, pretty much. Pretty fucked up, huh?

典he world is fucked up, Alison, and it fucks us up. But you池e not fucked up, okay? When Alison still looked down, away from Jane, she added, 鄭nd Jim was right about one thing. You really are talented. He didn稚 have to make that up just to get into your pants.

典hanks, Jane, said Alison. 鄭rt was my only real solace. I was pretty lonely after that, even with the companionship. Alison looked to Jane again. 添ou were the first person I really ever thought to open up to. When I saw you, on your own at that art colony at an age I was on my own, I thought you might be like me. When I heard you saying what I was thinking, I thought you had to be a lot like me. I mean most people don稚 learn to see the stupidity for what it is unless they池e capable, and then only if they池e put in a position to be forced to see it.

"Alison..." started Jane.

Alison put a hand on Jane痴 arm, cutting her off. Jane didn稚 pull away. 的 already told you that I went off like a rocket, and that痴 true. For some reason, it never occurred to me that you had a radically different background than I did. I thought you knew how to pick up on the signals. Alison shrugged and pulled her arm back. 的 read you wrong. For that, I知 sorry. And I知 sorry for trying to get back at you with Dotson.

鄭lison, Jane said, with a little laughter in her voice, 的 can forgive you, since I know Mr. Dotson paid you back many times over than anything I thought you did to me.

徹h, he did, Jane, he did. She took a drink of water. 滴e was one of the most infuriating, arrogant, and condescending males I致e ever met. And I felt like such a slut afterward.

鉄o how long did you stay with Dotson?

鄭 few hours.

Jane laughed at that, and Alison laughed a little herself in response.

鄭fter you, said Alison, 的 shut myself off again, and focused on my art. I had a few lovers, of course, but they weren稚 real. They were just companionship and a source to fill my needs as best as possible until they tried crossing my boundaries. And then I met Wind. Alison looked to Jane. 的 don稚 know what it is about your family, Jane. It痴 fucked up, yes, but there痴 something special here. I think under the right circumstances I could get close to Trent, too.

添ou know, said Jane, 的 tried telling you at the colony that maybe we could have a relationship before the Dotson-thing happened. After I thought about it after I left you that night, I thought that maybe I would like to see how it worked. Slowly and all. But then I kinda flipped out when I saw you with Dotson.

Alison didn稚 respond to that, except with a sympathetic humming noise that she had picked up from Trent.

的 was willing to give it a shot with you. And I never was willing to do that with anyone else.

展hat about that Tom-guy that you liked?

典om? asked Jane. 徹h, yeah. Him. I liked him and all, said Jane, 澱ut it was Daria who really hurt me. I mean in the way that mattered.

添ou like Daria, huh?

添eah. Jane痴 eyes widened. 的 mean, no! I mean.... I don稚 know, Jane admitted. 典he entire treachery thing really confused me. And then you confused me. And when you pulled that Dotson stunt, I felt as if I had been betrayed for a guy again, the way Daria betrayed me for a guy.

典hat was pretty low of me, Jane, said Alison grudgingly. 的知 sorry I did that. I didn稚 stop to think about what you were going through.

添ou already said you were sorry, Alison. You don稚 need to keep saying it. And I took as much time to think about what your life was like as you did about mine.

溺aybe we went about it the wrong way?

添eah, I think so.

鉄o this Tom-thing... think I could help you forget all about him? Help you to forget about everything?

Jane痴 eyes went wide. 填h, Alison just for the record, it would feel too weird if you and I did anything while

展hile I知 going with your brother, with the possibility of marriage?

添eah.

Alison smiled. 鄭nd you know what, Jane? I think I like Wind too much to break up with him. At least for now. And if I did, I would give it time before I went with you, simply so he wouldn稚 feel hurt by the two of us. But if Wind wasn稚 in the picture in any way, I壇 be willing to start over with a little more wisdom than we had before.

添eah, Jane said relieved. 溺e, too.

釘ut we池e real friends, now, right?

鏑ike sisters. Only I actually like you.

This time, they didn稚 skip the hug.

 

12.

Link finished playing around with Alias on his PS2. He壇 definitely have to spend more time on this, maybe even putting his play time on 滴unter: The Reckoning on hold for the time being. He preferred doing that when he had the house to himself. When his step-dad was home, it didn稚 feel like his house. Even his mom made him uncomfortable now. She obviously preferred his step-dad's company to his. He was just in the way.

But lately, his would-be dad had been kinda cool. Not that he understood this change. He'd even been the one to give him the Alias game just a little less than an hour ago, along with a Sydney Bristow poster. He loved that show. He thought she was better looking than any of the other gamer poster girls. She was also a much more interesting character.

In any case, he was being much less of a jerk than usual. He'd almost completely stopped with his never ending demands of what Link 都hould be doing for his future or the 吐amily image, or things like having various items in a specific order on various desks and tables, or things like peeking under the door when he was in the bathroom. He had stopped all of that, or at least hadn稚 done any of it in over a week.

典hanks for the game, Dad, said Link, and meant it, as he headed for the door.

展here are you going?

徹ut, said Link, a little of his usual hostility creeping back into his voice. He hadn稚 liked his step-dad痴 tone of voice.

鄭nywhere in particular? The tone seemed a bit better.

哲o, said Link, softening his own tone. He wasn稚 about to tell him about Daria and Jane if he could help it. He壇 probably have one of his 兎pisodes over Alison and Trent. He kept walking, but his step-dad caught him before he left.

鏑ink, he said, 的 wanted to talk to you before I had to return to work. You know neither of us get to spend much time together. I壇 like to fix that. I壇 hoped we could do that this Saturday morning. He actually smiled then. 添ou致e become special to me, someone with a lot of potential, and I want you to know that.

徹kay, said Link somewhat subdued, somewhat suspicious. His step-dad had been trying ... he had to give him some credit for that. Maybe he really was seeing him as something other than an inconvenience that had come with his mom. But he felt uneasy the way his step-dad smiled casually, but his eyes remained rigid.

For some reason, he wanted to talk in his home office. 滴ow did you like the game I got?

擢ine, said Link grudgingly. 鄭nd all the others, too.

典he play station was part of an understanding, his would-be dad said, 殿bout not bothering your mom with some of my hobbies. Link frowned. He didn稚 want to talk about that anymore. 釘ut the games were extras.

泥id I say thanks?

His step-dad snorted. Then continued. 的 think you池e old enough to know that everything comes with a price.

Link was getting a very bad feeling, but he couldn稚 put his finger on what was wrong here. But he had a feeling he wasn稚 going to like it when he did. Instead, he said, 撤rices are up front, not demanded later. Link痴 tone of voice had gotten chilly.

鏑ink, what did you do when you found my stash?

典hought about how I could blackmail you. Link didn稚 add about how he wondered if he could use it to get rid of him. And that he would致e if he壇 known he could.

釘ut you not only found my internet clubs, but also my magazines. You went to some work there.

Link shrugged. He壇 found the clubs easy enough by checking the backlogs. He hadn稚 actually been able to get on, but he learned enough by what was shown before he had to give a password. He'd then wondered if there was anything else. After a quick look through his sock drawer which turned up nothing, he looked under the bottom drawer, which had about an inch or two of room to a wooden bottom. Bingo. 哲ot really, he said. 的 was just lucky. And I knew to check backlogs.

徹h, yes, his step-dad murmured. 釘acklogs. You are a clever boy. Somehow, he sounded more annoyed than proud of him.

的知 surprised you didn稚 hide it better than that. I thought you worked with computers.

的知 an executive over sales, his step-dad said absently. 釘ut, yes, I know how to use a computer. I just didn稚 think anyone would check my backlogs. He stared at the boy a moment, increasing his discomfort, and then asked again, 釘ut what did you do when you found it?

典hought about blackmailing you. This time, he said that a little slower so his step-dad might hear it this time.

釘ut what else did you do?

哲othing. He had been curious, of course, but the stuff was way too weird for him. Besides, a lot of that just didn稚 seem real to him. It was just glamor and glitter. He much preferred some of the girls he went to school with. Not that he talked to them much.

鏑ink, said his step-dad sternly. 泥on稚 lie to me. I can tell you致e been going through some changes. I was your age once. I know what you went through. It痴 okay. Really. Here, I want to show you something. He sounded as if he thought Link would be pleased with his surprise. He opened his locked file drawer and pulled out a sack. Turning he said, 的 think you値l like this. Link felt very nervous, but he took the sack. Inside was what he thought it might be: more porn.

填m, thanks, said Link. He put them back in the sack, and looked at the clock. They hadn稚 been in here that long at all, Link noticed with some surprise. He felt tired, though, as if he壇 been in here awhile.

典ake them out, Link, said his step-dad, 殿nd look at them.

哲o.

鏑ink, said his step-dad, finally showing unmistakable annoyance, 泥o what you did when you first found my stash.

Link was scared now. He still wasn稚 sure exactly what was going on here, but he had a pretty good idea of what was going down in some general sense. His mind raced furiously as his breathing picked up and his entire body began to slightly tremble. Then his step-dad pulled out a magazine, opened up to a page, and laid it across his lap.

展hat do you think, Link? asked his step-dad.

填m.... this is different. He swallowed, thinking furiously. He was suddenly grateful for all those camps he had been sent to that had developed his wits and imagination in trying to survive the dysfunctional staffs and faculties that wanted to 塗elp him.

泥ifferent? asked his step-dad. 添ou mean from what you saw in my stash? Yeah, it痴 a little less sophisticated, but....

哲o, said Link defiantly, 的t痴 different from my stash.

His step-dad blinked in surprise, and then laughed loudly. 徹kay, Link, what do YOU have?

展ait, said Link, 的値l get it. He was making this up on the fly.

He got up a little too quickly and walked out of the room, but his step-dad got up and followed him. It seemed he just wanted to follow. Link gestured for him to come on, and then continued to his room. As Link started to enter, he said, It痴 right under here. Then he grabbed the door and slammed it shut.

His step-dad banged against it. Link locked it just in time. 鏑INK! shouted his step-dad, furious. 徹PEN THIS DOOR, NOW!

Link wasted no time at all. He went to his window, where he壇 already taken the screws (that kept all windows from being opened by burglars) weeks ago, and opened the window. The banging at the door stopped, and Link hopped out. He took off running. He quickly passed the first house next to his, and yet he felt as if he were moving with intolerable slowness.

His heart almost stopped when he heard his step-dad outside yelling at him. 鏑INK! He took off for a fence. He was in better shape than his step-dad, but his step-dad had longer legs. He didn稚 want to find out how much difference that might make. He ran for a backyard fence of the next house over. He resolved to not obey his step-dad痴 command, even though part of him told him not to make his step-dad any more angry than he already was.

鏑INK! Get over here, NOW!

Breathlessly, he leaped at the fence and pulled himself up. His step-dad was only meters behind and rapidly catching up way too fast. Link continued along the fence, but was dismayed that a medium-sized dog was barking at him in one yard, trying to reach up and grabbed him in its jaws. And almost right after, a pit bull tried the same in the next yard, one with better reach. He had forgotten this little detail. His mind was torn between his step-dad and the two dogs. He continued to edge along the fence on hands and knees, but heard his step-dad climbing up, too. He realized that his step-dad scared him more than the dogs.

His step-dad yelled out, somewhat pleading now, 擢or god痴 sake, Link, you池e gonna get yourself killed! Come on back and we値l pretend it never happened. Come on, Link, please!

Link pushed his glasses back up, which had been slipping, and picked up his pace. He was halfway to the next backyards. His step-dad crawled further along the fence after him. The dogs ran back and forth between them. 鏑INK! Come back! His step-dad almost sounded tearful.

Link made it to the next fences as he heard his step-dad shriek in panic. He turned to look to see the pit bull with his dad痴 pant legs in its jaws, and it was pulling him. His step-dad was obviously going to be pulled off unless his pants ripped. Part of Link gasped in reflexive concern, and a part of him cheered in jubilant hope of a bloody end. He felt guilty for both of those sentiments.

A man in the pit bull痴 yard came out of the house, yelling incoherently. The pit bull finally let go, but lunged again. His step-dad jerked back and fell into the yard with the other dog. There was barking, snapping of jaws, and his step-dad screaming, fighting to get out.

Now Link had a choice between a yard with yapping small dogs, and another littered with toys and a play center. He took the one with the toys and jumped, running for the gate. He saw a shape looking out the back door at him as he went out the fence, but he didn稚 stop. Anyone was likely to turn him over to his step-dad. So were the police, unless his mom took his side, and he didn稚 dare trust her enough. He was a hunted animal that didn稚 trust anyone. Except Daria.

Out on the street, he ran, keeping an eye out for his step-dad or his car, while traveling off the streets when he could. He was a fugitive. He could trust no one but a strange high schooler with no legal power to help him, and possibly no idea about how to help him at all.


13.

Ms. Barch had finally convinced her Skinny to come on over. She felt the challenge of another woman, and was determined to secure her claim to O'Neill. At first she壇 thought it was that dead girl痴 mother. But she'd recently killed herself after her other two kids offed themselves. Maybe her Skinny was just upset over that. Or maybe there was someone else.

And now that he was at her place, Mr. O'Neill seemed distracted, but not in his usual way. His mind seemed to be elsewhere. Yet at other times he seemed unusually focused, in a way she'd never seen before. She'd felt creeped out for some reason whenever he whistled as they'd walked together this morning. She couldn稚 help but worry. Something weird was going on with him. She could feel it.

"Janet?" asked Mr. O'Neil, without turning around. He was gazing out the window as if looking for something. "I sense you're distressed."

Again, he was creeping her out. 展e致e got to get you some help, Skinny, Ms. Barch replied. 典hat girl痴 death followed by her family痴 has really affected you. She glanced at him staring resolutely out the window. He seemed to be tolerating her rather than listening to her, and that irritated her. 添ou may be a man, she said with a touch of her usual venom, 澱ut I don稚 hold their deaths against you specifically. Just men in general.

She heard a smile in his voice. 添ou think I知 a man?

徹f course you are, Skinny! A rare good one, at least until recently. You池e not being poisoned by your own testosterone, are you?

的知 not even sure I知 human anymore.

Ms. Barch痴 eyes widened. He sounded perfectly serious. She might even have to use all her wiles and charms to bring Skinny back from the Abyss. And that痴 where he was. She knew it.

He spoke up again, softly, but with a hint of cruel amusement that she found chilling. 鼎an稚 you feel them out there, Janet? The sigs are amazing.

Sigs?

摘nergy signatures. Mr. O'Neill felt Janet痴 confusion. So he added, 典hink of them like the scents a bloodhound gets that calls him to hunt.

典imothy O'Neill, have you been doing drugs? Ms. Barch痴 question demanded an answer.

He turned and smiled at her. Ms. Barch actually looked away from that grin, unable to fathom it, and unable to stand up to it.

的 have to go, Janet, said Mr. O'Neill distractedly. 典hank you for your hospitality.

展ait a minute! Ms. Barch was angry. 添ou池e not going anywhere, Skinny! Not until.... until.... She suddenly forgot what she was talking about. She was suddenly reliving so many of her memories. She felt weak and tired and defeated and old. Her anger almost pulled her out of it. Almost.

的 don稚 have to touch anymore, Janet, her Skinny was saying casually as he walked towards her. 的 don稚 even need the blood now. It still helps. But it would raise too many questions if there was more blood. The papers have been noticing the high rates of murder and suicide lately. I知 sorry Janet. He learned down and let his fingers touch Ms. Barch痴 head, his fingers in her hair. Some small part of him did feel a sense of pity and loss as he continued to harvest Ms. Barch痴 soul, but whether it was for Janet or himself, he did not know or care.

鉄kinny.... Ms. Barch mewled pitifully. 滴elp....

Mr. O'Neill shook his head sadly. 的知 sorry, Janet. But I must go. In memory of our love, and for the sake of haste, you will die almost painlessly. And so it was. Almost painless. And with her death, the last sense of pity for the humans, and the last remnants of his own humanity, were gone. If there was a sense of loss he experienced, he was more than compensated by an odd sense of liberation.

Janet Barch apparently died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Mr. O'Neill was awash in pleasant satisfaction, both for increasing power and skill, and at the energy he took. He left. He 都cented something good. He walked down the sidewalk, whistling casually, allowing himself to be drawn to the energy signature that called to him. He didn't realize that his walk had a more predatory tone to it now, one that vaguely looked like the walk of Ms. Barch.

He ignored the dogs that went wild within their yards as he passed them. He ignored the two cats that arched their backs by the front door of a house, hissing and yowling. He had better things to focus on.

After a few minutes, he even recognized it: Link. And so much sweeter than ever! He salivated, and he stopped whistling. This was so pure, so sweet. He was going to gorge, and damn the consequences. How could he ignore such a tempting treat?

Just a few minutes more, and he had him in his sights. He detected that Link was very scared of being caught. Excellent. He was heading for Daria痴. For a moment, he considered letting him make it. He壇 take them both. But, no.... that would raise too many questions. What he was about to do was wreckless enough.

He reached out to Link and SHOVED his will into Link痴. Link screamed and fell to the ground. Mr. O'Neill mentally commanded Link to crawl back into the alley he壇 been hiding in. He approached the now senseless delicacy. He sensed Link saw him as his own father. No, step-dad. He didn稚 even have to try anymore with the psychic links and the phantasms that evoked the horrors out of them. It just happened as he willed it.

Even better, he no longer felt pity. When he had been honing his powers by feeding on Lori痴 family one by one, he had to convince and console himself that he was actually doing them a favor. And then he was scared people would know. But no reporters came. Two police officers asked him a few questions, but they didn稚 suspect him at all. They were just doing their job, getting the paperwork filled out. The interview didn稚 last more than a few minutes.

Janet was the last victim he壇 ever hold a slight regret or guilt for. He no longer needed to rationalize his feedings. Now, not even children were safe from him. Only the increasing awareness of his need to hide his activities and to become more efficient and less deadly would keep anyone safe from him in the future. But today, he was going to live dangerously. He was going to swallow Link痴 soul here in broad daylight. He壇 kill any witnesses, if he had to.

He was only a few meters away, walking slowly toward the young, cowering lamb when another source entered his awareness. A car was approaching too close. Would the car痴 occupant (he sensed only one) notice? Could he fool their senses? But then he blinked in surprise. It took him only a moment to recognize the sig as Link痴 step-dad, even if he never met him before. He was in a car alone. He was angry, injured, and terrified of what Link could potentially do to him. Interesting.

The step-dad parked the car near a huddled Link. 敵et up, Link. His voice rang with parental authority, but Mr. O'Neill sensed his fear. It wasn稚 as tasty as Link痴, but it was much easier to access. 敵et up! he said again, moving to claim Mr. O'Neill痴 lawful prey for himself.

No. With an act of will, Link痴 step-dad was suddenly Mr. O'Neill痴 thrall. The images! Not even the prostitute O'Neill put into a coma had anything to compare to what this man had done, and had been done to him! Interesting, he felt this one's potential to become like himself. For a moment, O'Neill totally forgot Link. The boy could wait his turn.

Mr. O'Neill toyed with the man痴 thoughts and will as he finished closing the distance. Then he cut the whimpering, older lamb, licked the blood, and then handed him the prostitute's switchblade. End it, he willed toward the helpless lamb before him.

The step-dad did. He wrote 的知 sorry with his own blood on the wall of the alley, and lay down to bleed to death with no comfort to be had. Mr. O'Neill gasped, savoring every sin, every drop of vitality, the loneliness that was giving way to a terrifying oblivion in his victim, infusing himself with such power that he felt he was reaching a transubstantiation. But the lamb died just before O'Neill reached that point.

He looked around, comically disappointed. Link was gone.


14.

Link ran.

He had NO idea what that was about. But he knew without a doubt that Mr. O'Neill, aka 填ncle Timothy, was some kind of monster.

He had felt something that terrified him so bad, he couldn稚 move. And he had seen his step-dad coming for him. Mom was behind him, accusing Link with her eyes of destroying her happiness, looking for a reason to cast him away.

And then he not only relived finding his cat killed after his real dad had run over him (probably by accident, but he wasn't sure), he felt as if he had been run over himself, which was about how he壇 felt when he saw Tabby dead. His real dad hadn稚 thought he壇 done anything too bad; Link needed to 澱e a man and 鍍oughen up. Losing his friend Tabby would help build character.

Other specters were rising to taunt him and drag him straight to Hell. That's right, said a voice that vaguely reminded him of the OK To Cry Corral, only the voice made him think of The Devil.

And then he found himself in the opening of an alley. It was like he suddenly remembered where he really was. He knew Mr. O'Neill was near, but he didn稚 know how he knew. Then he saw his step-dad was down on his knees crying. This was bad and confusing enough. But not terrifying until he looked up at the approaching inhuman eyes of 填ncle Timothy. The eyes of the Devil.

He fled. He no longer cared about hiding, or even dignity. Only escape.

A few minutes later, he was at the Morgendorffer home. He straightened himself up as best he could, as fast as he could. He rang the bell and knocked. He forced himself to calm down, but couldn't fully stop his rapid breath or hammering heart.

A long minute later, Helen Morgendorrffer answered the door. She wore a green shirt and shoes with a casual pair of slacks that he hadn稚 seen her wear before. For the first time she seemed relaxed. 滴i, Link! said Helen cheerfully, but then her faced grew concerned. 鄭re you all right?

的知 fine, said Link. 的s Daria home?

的知 sorry, said Helen, sounding sincere, 都he left to meet Jane at Pizza King for lunch a little less than an hour ago.

典hanks, said Link, and he took off running.

What a strange boy, thought Helen. She was sure something was wrong with him. She suddenly wanted to help him for some reason, or at least give him a ride, but if he said everything was fine ... Shaking her head, she went back to her briefcase and pulled out the packet she'd been working on, while Jake read a paper.

展ho was it, Helen?

徹h, that boy Daria met at Mr. O'Neill痴 camp.

A few minutes later, there was another knock. Helen sighed.

泥on稚 worry about it, said Jake, 的値l get it!

典hank you. She was in the middle of reading a briefing and she just caught something significant that she knew could help her in one of her cases. She quickly forgot about the door.

Jake answered it to see Mr. O'Neill.

滴ey! said Jake all friendly, 擢rom Lawndale High, right? What can I do you for?

添ou can tell me where Daria and Link are. Mr. O'Neill phrased that as a command, vaguely sounding like Ms. Barch.

Jake didn稚 notice. He put his finger to his mouth as he tried to remember. 泥amn, I don稚 remember! Turning, he yelled, 滴oney, where did Daria and Quinn go?

The O'Neill creature sighed. Was he once that bad himself? He walked in past Jake. Helen was coming up a little annoyed, but smoothed her face for a moment when she saw Mr. O'Neill.

滴i! said Helen. 的知 so sorry about that horrible incident with the new girl and her family! You must be so hurt! What can I do for you?

典ell me where Daria and Link are now.

Helen blinked. Something was not right here. But she was having a hard time thinking. Her voice was low and distracted as she said, 泥aria went to meet Jane at Pizza King about an hour ago. Link just left to meet them. I think.

展hen do you think they値l be back?

的 don稚 know. Daria usually goes to Jane痴 house after pizza.

典hank you, said Mr. O'Neill. 的 was never here. Stop daydreaming.

鉄ay what?

Mr. O'Neill was gone.

Jake suddenly found himself getting a drink and remembering the abuse he took from his old man, while Helen wondered if she was a good enough wife and mother, spending so much time away from her family. For some reason, she was glad Quinn was off with that Fashion Club of hers right now. But she suddenly worried about Daria. She hoped she was okay. She would have to do something special for Daria when she came back. It wouldn稚 be long before Daria would be out of the house completely.

Jake refilled his glass and swallowed it, mumbling angrily to his dead old man who was still imprinted traumatically on his nervous system. Helen glanced worriedly over at him. She felt as if she had forgotten something important. Never mind. She would look at her planner soon and refresh her memory.

She hoped Daria and that boy she met at camp were okay.

 

15.

The Creature known as Mr. O'Neill decided against going to Pizza King. There壇 be too many witnesses there. And his prey might not be there anymore. But he knew Link would almost certainly leave with Daria and Jane.

So he started walking to the Lane痴 home. He vaguely recalled it. He had driven Wind home more than once after he had been so thoroughly humiliated at school that he was unable to ride the bus without crying. He smiled now remembering. Wind had been very sweet, and he didn稚 mean that as in nice. He wondered if he壇 be lucky enough to find Wind, too. No way, he decided, as he kept walking in the direction he knew 鼎asa Lane to be, he was powerful, but even he couldn't arrange that.

Mr. O'Neill suddenly tensed in fear when he heard muffled laughter. He turned and saw a black van. Out the shotgun window, he saw a strange woman taking pictures of him with what looked like a digicam. She had a fit of the giggles, and yet he vaguely sensed fear from her. Perhaps even fear of him. She turned away from him and the van raced off.

He didn稚 know what that was about. He did know that what he hadn稚 known on the first night he'd gone trolling for human sheep had come close to hurting him, maybe even killing him. He'd best be careful. What also startled him was that until he heard the woman's laugh, he'd barely registered their being there! It made him very, very nervous.

Maybe he should forget about discretion, and simply kill a whole bunch of people. He wanted to be strong enough to survive whatever was about to happen to him now. He noticed the van passed him once more. Now that he was feeling for it, he found he could detect them when they came very close. But other than to detect no psychic sinkhole around them as he had around the other Predator, he couldn稚 get anything more out of them, or what they wanted!

They weren稚 cops or detectives, because he recognized such people when he encountered them as lawful prey. Perhaps a bit more aware, but many of them had even more weaknesses to exploit than most other adults. Some cops chose their career because they were bullies, and bullies were full of fears. That didn稚 fit the feel of the van and its occupants. He didn稚 know what the van was about, except that it was almost certainly dangerous to him. He picked up his pace for Casa Lane.

He made it the rest of the way to Casa Lane without the van returning. He knocked while his luck held. To his delighted surprise, Wind Lane answered the door, and he was still delicious! Not as vulnerable as in his school days, but he had picked up a stronger fear of abandonment and codependency that more than made up for it.

Wind blinked at him. Mr. O'Neill smiled warmly back. 滴i, Wind!

Wind痴 eyes cleared. 溺r. O'Neill? Hi. What are you doing here?

Mr. O'Neill assumed a concerned expression. 的 need to speak with Jane and Link. They should be here soon, if they池e not already. May I come in?

A little meddling with Wind痴 mind, and he was walking in. Scanning, he detected a woman in an upstairs bathroom cleaning herself off and thinking hard about some things, and a sleeping person upstairs, probably in his or her bedroom. Interestingly enough, Wind痴 proximity was making it difficult to know more of the two piggies upstairs. So Mr. O'Neill looked into Wind痴 soul, and got a name: Trent. Yeah, he remembered Trent. He also got that the other was an artistic type named Alison. But best to be sure that was all. 的s your mom or dad home?

哲o, said Wind, and disappointment wafted off of him. 溺om just left for a gathering who are going to do something about filling the Evans vacuum. She won稚 be back until Monday, at least. Dad's still overseas.

Mr. O'Neill didn稚 really know what he was talking about, but decided it was unimportant. What WAS important is that there were three people here. And soon to be three more. And he was going to gorge on them all, and hopefully reach whatever transubstantiation he felt trying to happen within himself and then track down the van filled with sheep that seemed to know a little of what he was, but didn't show the proper respect of prey for those higher on the food chain.

Mr. O'Neill frowned suddenly. Something barely touched his consciousness, but he didn稚 know what. Acting on an impulse, he carefully glanced through a curtain to a window facing the street. A moment later, the van passed again. Slowly. It was looking for him, as if he were the prey. Hard as he tried, he was unable to glean anything about its occupants, other than a vague sense they knew what he was and they were trying to find him. Though he didn't fear mere humans, he was still glad when it kept going.

Then Mr. O'Neill screamed. Spitting and hissing, two cats were attacking him! He struggled to kick at them and fight them off, but they were too fast and too determined. He would致e run except the van was out there. He had to defeat them. But as both cats hissed on each side of him, murderous intent radiating off of them, he rediscovered the human emotion of fear.

展ind! Help! Mr. O'Neill actually followed that with a short, sharp crying sound that he'd thought he would never make again.

Wind opened the front door. He tried scooping them up, but one clawed him as well, and neither allowed Wind to catch them, or even distract them from O'Neill.

Mr. O'Neill, bleeding badly on his arms and shins, along with minor punctures on his abdomen, ran out the door instead. The cats followed. Wind came out with a vase and threw water at them. They both jumped aside, but continued yowling. Mr. O'Neill leaped back inside, pushing Wind back in the process, and slammed the door shut with preternatural speed. He stood with his back to the door, gasping for air. Eyes open in genuine fear, he asked breathlessly, 泥o you have any more cats? Or dogs?

哲o, said Wind, trying to calm him. 鄭t least, I don稚 think so.

Mr. O'Neill sensed the woman upstairs heard something and was drying herself off so she could dress and come out. The sleeping form upstairs continued to sleep. He glanced out the window and didn稚 see a van. Then turning toward Wind, he approached him with deadly purpose. Wind had a bad feeling, but he ignored it. Well, it wasn稚 like it would致e done him any good anyway, Mr. O'Neill thought. 的 remember how you use to cry, Wind, and I would have to drive you home. Don稚 you?

And suddenly, Wind remembered all of it and more so clearly as if it had all just happened moments ago. Every single time. His face scrunched up, and tears begin to fall from his face. The vase dropped from his suddenly limp fingers and rolled towards O'Neill and stopped.

No protection. Kids as predators. His mom and dad always leaving him alone, feeling abandoned and at the mercy of the big bad world which, like the big bad wolf, was hell bent on devouring him. Wind then became a toddler, sobbing his heart out, while Amanda painted his portrait (not that he understood what was happening at the time). At the same time, he was a few years older and his dad sternly told him not to touch his cameras or the pictures he took. He wouldn稚 even let Wind touch it after he ruined his dad痴 film once. He'd been locked away from that part of his dad. His dad loved his cameras more than he loved Wind. He'd heard Vincent wasn't his real father from an aunt, and he wondered if it was true. A toddler and child crying became an adult clinging, the women who would leave him as his mom and dad left him, the need for security, for being loved and taken care of, protected from the horrible world out there.

Mr. O'Neill gasped in ecstasy, reaching further into his soul, learning all the mistakes, all the vices, all the shattered dreams, and all the fears of his latest bride-to-be leaving him, even before they got to the altar.

Mr. O'Neill lost himself in the feeding, amplifying Wind痴 pain and extreme anxieties. He barely registered that Wind was on the floor sobbing, that he was crawling on top of him, seeking the blood connection to sweeten it, gain every drop.

Then pain and confusion brought him back. The vase Wind dropped had shattered over his head. He turned to see a black-clad steely-eyed woman with tribal tats and a vague Oriental or Native American cast to her features. Alison. She was ready to tear him a part. But he saw something the woman didn稚 show him mundanely: fear.

Remembering his mistake with Link, Mr. O'Neill decided to hurry and finish Wind off. He looked back at Wind and prepared himself to suck up what was left, even if he missed a lot that way. Wind whimpered as he began.

The woman kicked him in the face, practically in the eye. Her fury was rising, but so was her fear.

Mr. O'Neill snarled. He shoved out at her with his will, even as he got up. Alison suddenly cried out in surprised pain. He charged her, knocking her down, and punched her in the mouth. He actually felt her lips cut by her teeth, and her pain registered to him as pleasure. He leaned down a moment later and licked what blood he saw off her chin.


Alison was suddenly 14 in his grip. And she was being slapped by her mother who hated her. It was diluted somehow, and this frustrated O'Neill. She fought him, but had no idea what she was fighting. She shrieked in mindless rage at him, struggling to free herself or to hurt him. She struggled with every ounce of will, and felt herself breaking from the onslaught. She felt his surprise at her resistance, and that strengthened her resolve, but it was still wearing away. Alison knew she couldn稚 keep fighting.

敵et off her! Get off her! Wind had a clumsy arm lock around Mr. O'Neill痴 neck. Alison couldn稚 speak, but tried using pure will to project at him to claw at Mr. O'Neill痴 eyes. Then she felt the man on her in her head, promising to pluck out her eyes and keep them for a souvenir.

Mr. O'Neill finally reached up with one hand and pulled one of Wind痴 fingers, twisting it painfully. For the moment, O'Neill was torn between the two of them. And then Alison punched him in the throat.

Mr. O'Neill slung Wind back impossibly hard. Alison heard Wind shout, 敵ET OFF HER MOTHERFUCKER!!! And then she was being slapped by her mother while other girls celebrated her pain in the locker room. She'd forgotten Wind existed, as she hadn稚 heard of him yet. She felt she needed to remember something, it was very important, but the pain in her head was too much.

Alison 努oke up to find Trent holding a thick stick, the kind used to make sure glass doors can't be opened by someone outside. It was practically a club. Mr. O'Neill rolled off of Alison, came to his feet, brutally slapped a charging Wind aside, and lunged at Trent. Trent swung the stick again, but Mr. O'Neill was too fast. Trent fell backwards, dropping the stick. Mr. O'Neill punched Trent and knocked him senseless. And then Trent felt his old teacher reach inside him somehow and grab him at his fears of being left alone and adrift, a failure that would live by begging on the streets with no instrument to lose himself in.

And then it was gone. Alison had clubbed Mr. O'Neill to the head.

Alison suddenly felt weakness spreading through her. Screaming, she brought the club down again. And again. And again. And again. Finally, Mr. O'Neill fell over, limp, the last traces of his foul, violating presence within her fading. Alison hit him again. She raised the stick, now bloody, to strike him again but Trent grabbed it.

滴e痴 out, said Trent. He coughed. 典hanks.

Alison was fighting hysteria. 展hat the fuck is he!? What did he do to us!?

Trent shrugged. 滴e used to be my teacher. But he痴 changed somehow. Now he痴 Janey痴 and Daria痴 teacher. Trent frowned. He couldn稚 allow this. He hoped Mr. O'Neill was dead already. It looked it.

The front door opened. Daria, Jane, and Link came in, stopped, eyes wide open. They saw Wind bleeding and sobbing, Trent and Alison bleeding from the mouth, Alison holding a bloody club, and Mr. O'Neill beaten to a bloody pulp at the floor between all three.

Jane spoke first. 泥id we come at a bad time?


16.

Mr. O'Neill, still unconscious, had a feed sack wrapped around his head, and ropes binding his hands and feet. He was being carried by Trent and Wind into the back of the Tank. Two cats hissed and spit, running alongside O'Neill, but they did not attack. Everyone guessed he was in some sort of coma, but they wanted him far, far away. So far, they had not planned beyond that, though they all knew they would have to soon.

And none of them harbored any hope that they壇 be believed by the authorities.

They all got in the Tank. Alison drove, with Daria riding shotgun. If Alison was obviously being 鍍ampered with, Daria was to grab the wheel. The rest guarded Mr. O'Neill. Trent still had the stick. Jane had a poker. Wind had a skillet. Link had a butcher knife. Unknown to everyone but Jane, Trent had a .38 snubnose in a belt pouch inside his pants.

Despite the helplessness of their foe, and the readiness of the impromptu team, they were all terrified. Getting caught by the police like this was a minor fear compared to what they would do if Mr. O'Neill woke up before they could do whatever they had to do to him.

Daria and Jane both weren稚 fully convinced. But they knew Link was convinced of it. They had assumed that the shock of being attacked by his step-father had incurred a psychotic episode. But even then, they were creeped out by what Link said about Mr. O'Neill after the way he'd been this week.

Then when they made it to Casa Lane to decide what to do about Link, they saw something they never even thought they might see: a hurt Trent, Wind, and Alison surrounding a beaten-to-a-pulp Mr. O'Neill. Daria and Jane saw the terror in their eyes and believed.

But now that they had time to adjust to the situation, they were questioning how much truth there was to this. Was this mass hysteria? Was it real? Neither of them were sure, and they were going along for the moment to see how this unfolded.

The old feed sack had been put over his head to help keep blood out of the Tank, and also because they knew Mr. O'Neill seemed to need eye contact to do whatever it is he did. What they didn稚 count on was that it also hid the regeneration going on for Mr. O'Neill, a healing that was rapidly bringing him to consciousness.

What they also didn稚 count on was that Mr. O'Neill still had some of Alison痴 blood on his tongue. Alison was feeling more and more tired, but she thought it was the adrenaline burning out, and the stress of the situation. The O'Neill creature knew he had to play this carefully, because one chance was likely all he was going to get.

The van started to swerve. The last thing they needed was to be pulled over. Daria turned with concern toward Alison and called her name. 鄭lison?

Alison looked back at Daria, smiled slightly, and brought herself back. Then she fainted onto the wheel. Daria shrieked and grabbed the steering wheel, but the Tank swerved off the street and into a lamp post. Daria and Alison were both wearing seat belts, but the other occupants crashed toward the front, momentarily stunned.

With the Tank still idling, Alison slightly senseless and with images placed in her by the bound creature, she unbuckled her belt and she would.....

She would save Nancy!

Nancy was hanging from a rope and Alison would untie the rope that was strangling her. That she was unbinding Mr. O'Neill as Daria yelled at her to stop and the others were trying to shake the sudden confusion and sluggishness from their head did not register in the least.

Link was the first to lean toward Mr. O'Neill. But he was thrown back by Alison who shouted, 鏑eave her alone!

Daria was unbuckled and coming back while Mr. O'Neill struggled to get the feed sack off of his head. He managed to get it off just as Daria picked up the poker and hit him on the head. Mr. O'Neill gave a startled cry and rolled to the rear door as Alison seized Daria痴 arms, shrieking in despair. Mr. O'Neill had the doors open as Wind hit Mr. O'Neill in the head with the skillet. Alison suddenly stopped struggling with Daria and Mr. O'Neill fell out of the van. He quickly undid the poorly done knot around his ankles.

The others stared at Mr. O'Neill, not daring to jump out with their weapons. Maybe they should try escape. Mr. O'Neill took off running with a slight limp, and they were all tempted to let him go, despite fears that he would surely come hunting them all down later.

Then Wind dropped the skillet and leaped out. Alison leaped out after him. Jane followed, quickly passing them both heading for Mr. O'Neill.

敵et the Tank, Trent, said Daria. Trent got in the front seat and pulled the Tank out, and he counted the slight damage to the Tank and light post a small blessing. He turned the Tank around and sped after their three friends. They quickly caught up. Wind and Alison were helping Jane up and the Tank stopped by them.

敵et in, said Trent.

Deciding they couldn稚 catch him, they desolately got back in. They drove on, and saw Mr. O'Neill up ahead suddenly drop down, holding his ears. He shook and shuddered. He turned to several little girls shrieking with laughter, on and around the merry-go-round and shrieked something at them, and then ran across the street away from them.

All the occupants of the Tank could see besides the laughing girls was a woman was staring after Mr. O'Neill frowning and obviously wondering if she should call the police. But as Mr. O'Neill continued to head away, she seemed to abandon the idea.

And then a black van in much better shape than the Tank passed them.

Trent backed the Tank up slightly and turned down another road. They cut off Mr. O'Neill on the next block who was running in their direction. He stopped as several got out of the Tank, and Trent dug out his .38.

Mr. O'Neill turned, snarling. Alison instantly fell to her hands and knees, and the others felt a wave of nausea creep over them.

And then the black van that passed them just a minute ago, pulled around the Tank and stopped. A woman got out of the shotgun side and came at Mr. O'Neill, shooting him with a Taser. Three men who did not look as if they belonged together got out and two grabbed Mr. O'Neill and another grabbed Alison and dragged them in. Neither Alison or Mr. O'Neill offered any obvious resistance.

The van sped out of there.

The others ran back to the Tank. Wind shrieked, 敵o after them, Trent!

Trent did. The black van didn稚 seem concerned as it drove steadily out of Lawndale, it didn't speed, didn't try any fancy turns. They didn稚 know what to think of this new development. The strangers seemed to be against Mr. O'Neill, but they had abducted Alison, too. And they'd seen how they moved. These people knew what they were doing, but no one in the Tank sensed anything of 斗aw enforcement around them at all. And Trent had the feeling they might need more than his .38 if this were to get any more violent.

Wind sobbed once, certain he would never see Alison again.

17.


The black van pulled over on the side of the road in an isolated wooded area. Trent pulled up behind them and readied his .38. He nodded to Wind, who went out the back and walked toward the van.

A large, ebony-skinned man with long dreadlocks and dark blue tribal marks tattooed on what showed of his arms and neck and a medium-sized woman with a basic cut of shoulder-length brown hair, both looking a little older than Wind, came out to meet him. They moved like martial artists, maybe even commandos incognito. They appeared unarmed, but no one believed it. And they knew there were others in the van.

Trent, Daria, Jane, and Link watched as the two led Wind up to the back of the van and opened the door. There were three more men and another woman, all holding stun guns around a bound Mr. O'Neill. Alison was sitting up with a breathing mask hooked to a tank of some kind over her nose and mouth, and she seemed to be laughing. Wind rushed in and hugged Alison.

Trent got out, fearing they were about to abduct Wind, but kept the .38 pointed to the ground. Everyone else got out, too, and walked behind Trent with a mixture of fear and curiosity, tainted by real hostility.

The medium-sized woman said, 滴i. Name痴 Becky, or that will do. Since you池e almost certainly as confused as we all were when we first found out about the Stalkers, I値l get right to the point.

Someone took the mask off of Alison, and she came out giggling. They all raised their brows when they noticed she was wearing a necklace that held a piece of metal.

典he Stalker seems to have bonded with Alison. He probably has some of her blood on his tongue. As you can see, we gave her one of our amulets. It痴 a piece of cold iron. We use them in killing Stalkers. And when people wear them, or surround themselves with a quantity of them, it makes it much harder for a Stalker to form any empathic links with humans, let alone to feed off of them.

Alison was crying a little now, her head buried in Wind痴 chest. Jane went up and put a hand of support on her arm, and Alison reached and touched Jane痴 hand for a moment.

展e gave her nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to purge the Stalker痴 link. Laughter can be painful to them. Indeed, one of our main training exercises for Hunters like us is to learn how to joke and laugh about anything, and mean it. Laughter to them is like rubbing alcohol on a tick. The gas here helps. Between those two things, and our healer, it was enough to sever the link between this Stalker and Alison.

While all the others were struggling to process this, Link spoke up, simply accepting what he heard was true, given his own experience. 展hat is he?

的f you want, I値l tell you. But first, we池e gonna stake him. It痴 not pretty, so you may not want to see it. She glanced up and down the roads a moment before sticking a hand toward the woods. The four got out carrying Mr. O'Neill. The woman, also ebony-skinned, stayed while the big guy took her place.

Daria痴 eyes opened. 鄭re you sure about this?

添es, said Becky. 的t has to be done. There is no way to reverse the changes once they begin, and they tend to regenerate. About the only thing that seems to work is a stake of cold iron pinning them to the ground. It grounds their energy and prevents them from drawing on any other energy. Essentially, they become human again. Then we usually blow their head off.

Daria swallowed hard. 釘ut.... he痴 been around for years. Are you sure you have the right person?

Becky looked toward the ebony-skinned woman, who spoke up with a slight, untraceable accent, 轍uite sure. She ran her gaze over all of them, and they all felt something as her eyes touched them. 添ou can call me Sanda. I was a healer before I became a Hunter. And I can feel them. They池e like vortexes that suck everything around them. And I can feel when someone has been drained. Like all of you, though you two, she pointed at Daria and Jane, 塗aven稚 been touched by him much recently. The rest of you are lucky to be on your feet.

She walked up and put a hand on Alison. 的 sensed his blood bond to Alison. He would致e sucked her dry to save himself if we didn稚 break the link. That痴 why I told my team to grab her.

She looked at them all again, and nodded to Link. 徹ne of us heard your friend there at Pizza King and knew we had 'em. It confirmed our suspicion that your teacher was our Stalker. We'd just narrowed in on him and were about to take him out anyway. You see, we were sent after your murder and suicide rate skyrocketed. That痴 an indication that another Stalker has become active. Most of them never activate, but a few do. And those few do a lot of harm. Some are even police officers, prison guards, doctors, politicians, clergymen. And, of course, serial killers.

"Why not try to expose them?" asked Daria.

She paused a bit, licking her lips. 展e can't. Because if they became common knowledge, it would increase the fear of them, which would actually make them stronger. In the past, the Stalkers have always manipulated such hysteria to go after innocents, from which they fed. Just about every such witch hunt or inquisition in the past was orchestrated by a Stalker. She shook her head. 摘ven worse, a few that learn of them try to BECOME one themselves.

A car passed them by and kept going.

典here are other variants," she continued after the car was out of view. "Some are what we call the Sybaritics. They drain through eroticism and sex. They池e usually more benign, but can still destroy a life. A few of them have even been known to kill that way, much like a Stalker. We sometimes hunt them, too, but they池e low priority.

She frowned. 添ou should watch out for the Lhiannan-Shee, she warned. 典hey seem to drain creative people, ultimately stealing their artistic talents and their will to live. Luckily, they池e rare. Perhaps thanks to so much dry, stale schooling and TV that crushes so much inspiration, turning artists into pale imitators of what they get shoved in their head.

Alison turned away from Wind, but let him put an arm around her. 展hat are you? she asked.

鄭 Healer, she repeated.

釘ut what does that mean?

She sighed. 的知 sorta the opposite of a Stalker. We need positive feelings to thrive; the ugly ones the Stalkers like are too discordant for us. We sicken if we池e around the negative too much, and yet we池e driven to confront it and drive it off. To heal. Her voice became a bit distant. 釘efore I knew about the Stalkers, I healed people in my New Orleans neighborhood. I even did it for free, if they didn稚 have money. She gave a distant smile as she added. 的 always knew when they were telling the truth about that.

She cleared her throat. 典hen a Stalker started preying in my neighborhood. I sensed it, and it sensed me. It fought to kill me. If it wasn稚 for Jamal, my husband, he would致e killed me. They can稚 kill my kind the way they can others. But we can die of all the things others can. And while we can heal much better than the average person, we don稚 continuously suck off the life force of everyone around us, and that means regeneration is almost impossible for us.

They heard a gun shot.

的t痴 done, she murmured. 的n a few minutes, they値l be bringing the body back in a bag.

填h, then I think we値l be leaving," said a shaking Jane.

添ou致e been hurt, she replied. 鄭ll of you. I would like to meet with you and help.

哲o thanks, said Jane.

Alison spoke up. 的 think you should. I felt her. It was very soothing, and all the despair and lethargy went away.

的 don稚 think we should be seen around that van, said Daria.

Sanda sighed a bit, but smiled. 滴ow about if I come with you? I can be picked up tonight, from wherever you choose to drop me off at.

添es, said Alison. Wind nodded, supporting Alison痴 decision.

Trent frowned and said, 鼎ome on. But I値l be watching you.

的 know you will, Trent. She smiled when he looked at her wondering if she could get in his head the way his old teacher had done earlier. Then she lost her smile and nodded to him.

哲o tricks, he warned.

哲o tricks, she agreed solemnly.

18.

Trent was inspired in a way he never been before. The music flowed through him, filling his every pore, his every inspiration. All the blocks were gone. Then he came to in the living room. Sanda seemed pleased with herself.

Sanda had mentioned how they all had their auras drained, some of them wounded. Mostly by the Stalker, but from other sources, too. Daria didn't believe in auras, but maybe the visualization of one helped Sanda in a way that she could do whatever it was that she did.

But they had all felt Sanda痴 talent, and been grateful for it. Once they felt the 吐low of whatever it was she channeled or directed, it was like dropping cool, refreshing water down a parched, dry throat. They all felt keenly the potential beauty in themselves and in the world around them. It was, to say the least, an unfamiliar sensation, except for that rare moment in early childhood in which such stark appreciation could be reached (just as Mr. O'Neill had reintroduced them to the starkest terrors of early childhood).

The 兎xtra pep would go away, Sanda told them, but if they worked at it, they would all be stronger than they致e ever been in their life. Alison was peaceful and content, and found Wind more appealing than ever. But then so were Jane and Trent. No matter, Alison mused, she was among friends, no matter what.

Wind, sitting next to Alison, was the most obviously changed. For the first time, he showed concern with others in a way that showed he was truly connecting with them. He radiated a serenity he never knew before, and it was obvious that he was ready to stand up for others, instead of just demanding everyone else stand up for him.

But Sanda went to Link again. Link was still somewhat down.

添ou池e wondering about your family? Your step-dad may be dead, but your mom will just marry someone else. And she痴 told you more than once that you池e an inconvenience.

添eah, said Link matter-of-factly.

鼎ome with us, said Sanda. 典here痴 not too many of us. We can always use someone else. And we have an extensive underground railroad. You need it when some of the Stalkers hold political and judicial power, or are with the strong arm of the law.

釘ut what about school and.... life?

展e can get you another birth certificate, social security number, everything. We've plenty of experience at extracting kids from situations such as yours. And you値l see some school, she promised him, 殿s we can always use someone to scope them out for Stalkers and their kin. Or for my type, as we can always use more like us, and my kind are especially in danger of Stalkers.

After a minute, Link asked, 鼎an I still be friends with Daria and everyone else?

鉄ure, said Sanda. 的知 hoping we might get one or two more recruits out of this group in the next few years. But I should warn you all, said Sanda, looking at all of them again, 鍍hat few of us live to see old age. The few who do, do so because they retire to raise a family. And they池e haunted by what they know is out there. Right now you think you know about the bogeyman, but there are other creatures out there that you'd wish you'd never met, should you catch one of them at the wrong time.

Sanda spared them the tragic stories--and the darker reason she and Jamal hunted them so ruthlessly. For now. If they decided to hunt Stalkers, they could know the full grim truth then, before they signed on. Meanwhile, she would claim Link as her own to replace her own son that had been cruelly taken from her by the Stalker that nearly killed her.

After saying his goodbyes and promises to stay in touch, Link left with Sanda.

Daria and Jane wondered how Lawndale High would look to them on Monday without a Mr. O'Neill, and wondered what teacher would replace him. They wondered if Ms. Barch had any clue as to what kind of monster he was, and how she'd react to his disappearance. They had no idea yet that she was dead.

EPILOGUE

Three Years Later...


Dr. Hadeley went to greet their latest 堵uest. She was another rebellious teen they'd abducted last night by two strong men working for her. They壇 put duck tape all around her leaving only two slits to breathe out of, and then shaved off her hair when she got here. All with her mother痴 approval. Not only that, but the girl痴 mother was paying them good money to torture her daughter. It was quite amusing, really.

She pondered what to start her with today. Generally, she liked them to think they had adjusted to the deprivation, the 澱uddies assigned to them, beatings (not to mention sexual abuse) by staffers who 塗ad to restrain them, low-protein diet, and the entire program before she introduced them to electroshock, sensory deprivation, and other tortures. (She did not like others like herself, but she had to be grateful that she could do these things legally--at least most of these things--and she was sure it was another like her that made it so.)

When the kids realized that it could ALWAYS get worse, and there was no hope for help or reprieve, they tasted so..... sweet.

She went in and smiled at their latest guest. When the girl didn稚 smile back, the doctor reprimanded her and then had her strapped down and injected with drugs while an orderly sat on her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe. All this so she could feel the utter helplessness of her situation, all the while the good doctor promising to help her straighten out her life and realize her actuality.

Later, still buzzing from that encounter, she remembered she was to meet with another concerned mother. She was bringing her son who liked to skip school. He didn稚 know that he would be staying. She licked her lips as she contemplated a new victim and what she would do to him, and have done to him.

She smiled as she entered the lobby. Two beefy orderlies were there, but gave no sign of the brutality they routinely practiced. One sat in a chair, another on a table, leaning against the wall seeming bored. They weren稚 like her, the good doctor thought, which was good. They were just good at following orders.

And out of all the evils in the worlds, the great majority of them were not done in hatred, rage, or even greed. They were done by those following orders, doing their job or even their duty. Which is a good thing, the doctor thought, as she contemplated some of the orders she had given, and would give in the future. They had a job to do.

She did wonder who the new janitor was, though. He shouldn稚 be here now, and he definitely should not be doing his job with headphones on (he was listening to a comedian, if she felt him right, though it was hard to read him for some reason), but she wasn稚 about to make a scene in front of the new client. Besides, he really didn稚 matter. It just annoyed her that the schedules and plans were haunted by fuck ups and snafu. In her line of work--and way of life--you needed to be in control, or things could turn bad on you real fast.

Her smile faltered a little when she couldn稚 detect much from the boy or the mother and boy痴 uncle. She wondered why this was. Maybe she should致e fed more earlier. Or maybe they'd just left someone else that was like her which had drained them somewhat already. A teacher? Maybe that痴 why the boy skipped school. She would have to look into it and either form a working alliance (maybe even get the school to send unruly students here! They already gave bounties to school counselors for getting kids sent here) or eliminate the rival. There just wasn稚 enough sheep for them to gather in one place.

She did catch SOME fear from the boy. She壇 turn it to terror as soon as she could. But something bothered her. He was listed as a 典om, but he thought his name was Link. Or that痴 what a camp counselor once called him and he recognized it as being him. She pushed aside her momentary doubts, reminding herself these were mere humans that were meat for her, and went to meet them, a spider approaching a fly caught in her web.

滴ello, she said in way of greeting to the new clients, 的知 Dr. Hadeley. She suddenly frowned as the janitor snorted, restraining laughter. She looked at one of the orderlies and motioned for him to get him out. He got up and went to the janitor.

When she turned back, the two adults and the boy each had a taser out. She jerked as she was hit by all three together. She tried reaching out, but one put a heavy rock on a chain around her head. She heard a gunshot. Then another. The two orderlies were down, she knew, but she was having a hard time feeding from them, and they died too fast anyway.

She was barely aware of being dragged out the door by the family and the janitor. She calmed herself and tried to find a weakness in them. She despaired. These people were trained to deal with her kind.

She could read that they were planning to shut her 鍍reatment center down. And because they knew what she was and what she could do--like control the minds of investigators, lawyers, and judges--they were going to kill her now. Not only would that keep her from foiling them, but her grisly death would allow the media to make the story read far and wide. And they hoped the abuses would come out with the rest of the story. It might change the laws that allowed such mercenary prison camps for locking up and torturing (and occasionally killing, if "accidental") teenagers to legally exist.

She struggled, and tried reaching up to claw one for her blood, but was kicked in the face. Another taser hit her. And then the man pulled out an iron bar with a sharpened end and rammed it through her chest, and took out a hammer and pounded it down until it went all the way through her and into the ground.

She felt all her power, energy, life force shooting down the iron bar into the ground, where it dissipated, no longer of any use to her. The last thing she saw was the fire blast of a gun shot point blank in her face.

END.

***
典his world of ours is not as it seems, the monsters are real but they池e not in your dreams; learn what you can from the beasts you defeat, you値l need it for some of the people you meet.
--Voltaire, 敵oodnight, Demon Slayer

*****
AUTHOR'S NOTES:

A grim story. It was useful in exorcising some inner-demons of mine and in making a tribute to people I've known in the past. For example, the junkie that was in the Viet Nam conflict was a street person I knew as a runaway that went by the name of Pappy. He died, but I don't think I'll ever know if it was an accidental OD or deliberate suicide. He was a good person that punished himself for what he done far more vigorously than anyone else cared to. I hope he found peace in his death and that maybe this story helped to rid him of some of his pain, as it has helped me.

"The Hag Returns" was done by a Liz, and read over the airwaves of a goth radio program called Zombie Time in response to "The Hag" by Johnny. Since I know Liz, I borrowed her poem with permission (and she was one of the beta readers for this story), as I thought it was a good mood setter, and subtle reminder that evil is not always seen, even when we're looking for it--maybe especially when we're looking for it. ("The Hag" might've gone good, too, but I don't know Johnny, so I couldn't get his permission.). She also requested that I only give "Liz" as the author.