Chapter Fourteen: Old Yeller

An apology for how inconsistent we’ve been getting chapters out lately. (Ew. Finals.)

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Chapter Fourteen: Old Yeller

Yells and shrieks rise from the floors below us, and Rose’s father bangs on the door again. “It’s time to go, lass! My men will not be able to hold them off for long!”

I stare at the old, withered, Southern-belle-of-an-alien clasping her knitting needles so tight her knuckles go pale. Hopefully I sound much braver than I feel as I ask, “Who are ‘they’?”

She shrugs. Her knuckles go paler. The captain shouts an obscenity from the hall.

I am an assassin who has seen far too little violence as of late so—weirdo alien or not—I lunge at the old woman and knock away her knitting needles. I close a hand around her throat. I squeeze. “Tell me who ‘they’ are, Batty McBat Pants. Now.”

She clucks her tongue. “You will not hurt me.”

I squeeze harder. Her skin is hard, scaly; like a snake’s. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten what I do for a living?”

She raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten I examined your mind?” Despite the way she’s shaking, she grins. Her teeth are crooked, and five shades of yellow, and suddenly look not at all human. “I know you better than you do, Miss Mary. You don’t have enough anger in ya to harm me.” Her milky eyes narrow. “I guarantee it.”

“Ugh.” I step back, throwing my hands in the air. “I really do not have time for your creepy mind games, lady! And who are you, the Men’s Warehouse guy? Just tell me who the bloody hell ‘they’ are so I can go defeat them and the pirates can get on with the Sacrificing Me Thing! Okay?”

She cackles. “Darlin’, you cannot defeat them. No one can.”

The pirates are screaming bloody murder downstairs. Idiots—just because some mysterious enemy is destroying you, that doesn’t mean you have to deafen me. It’s not like it’s my fault.

The captain shouts something from the hall again, then bursts through the door. His blue eyes are wide, unwashed beard all atremble.

“We need to go, lass.” He glares at me, even though this clearly is all the alien lady’s fault, not mine. “Now.”

He grabs me by the arm and pulls me into the hall. The floor is made of creaky wood that tilts at a thirty degree angle so I keep sliding down it into him.

“What, is this the French’s idea of a fun house?” I pull my arm from Captain Delleray’s grasp, but his grimy undead hand clamps right back on again. He drags me towards a narrow, winding set of stairs.

His glare is as sinister as a Disney villain’s. “Hush up and keep moving.”

The pirates still sound like a band of dying cats downstairs, but the captain and I are the only two in the hallway. We reach the stairs, but instead of going down, he takes the adjoining flight up.

“Where in the world are you taking me, Jafar-Scar-Hans?”

“What?”

“OH MY GOSH HOW DARE YOU NOT KNOW DISNEY.” I yank out of his grasp again. This time he shoves me in front of him and blocks the way back down the stairs.

“I don’t know what type of blasphemous creature this ‘Disney’ is, but now is not the time for bickering.” He moves a step closer to me and I inch a step upward. “If ya don’t move now, we’ll both be goners. So git!”

The not-at-all manly screams of the pirates are getting closer. I take Rose’s father’s advice and sprint up the stairs.

Two flights later, the ceiling growing closer and closer until we practically need to crawl in order to continue up the steps, I come to a door barely big enough to fit an overweight Chihuahua, let alone a human. I shove it open and shimmy through it, but get stuck at the hips.

“Move, girl!” Captain Delleray hisses.

“I can’t—” My voice is a wail, and he shushes me.

Everything has gone quiet below us.

Even horror movie music would be a comfort right now.

I push forward, digging my toes into the top step. I wriggle in an attempt to dislodge my hips. But still I won’t budge.

Perhaps my ice cream addiction has finally come back to bite me.

Goodness, what I wouldn’t do for a tub of Ben and Jerry’s right now.

“A little faster, perhaps, Miss Hart?” Captain Delleray hisses.

“A little help, perhaps, Soon to Be Even Deader Than He Already Is Pirate Man?”

With a low growl, he shoves a shoulder against my butt and I sail through the doorway—into a place not at all like the roof I saw on the other side of the door a moment ago.

I’m standing. The room is bright, full of mirrors and computers. Rose stands across from me.

“Hello, Mary,” she says. Her tone is annoyingly tentative, like she has no idea what I’m doing here, when clearly she and her father worked together to make it happen. Or maybe this is just one of those stupid alternate dimension things again and Pixie Stick caused it. Who cares.

I cross my arms. The pirates’ screams still ring in my ears. My hips burn from scraping them raw against the doorframe.

I open my mouth and she rolls her eyes. She says, “None of this was my fault.”

“None of what?” I ask. “Abandoning me with your father’s crew so that they could drag me to French New—” I stop. Rose is clearly resisting the urge to spit. “You’re kidding me. You too with the ‘French’ thing?”

She shrugs. “We just very much dislike the French.”

“You’re a lot of bleeding idiots.” I step towards her, straightening my posture. “Anyway. I save your life, getting you off that ship, and how do you repay me? You leave me with the zombie pirates. Who then take me to F-R-E-N-C-H Guiana. Who then make me undergo this freaky mind reading thing at the hands of an alien—oh yeah, by the way, the Squishes ARE NOT THE ONLY ALIENS. And then some random ‘they’ people attacked, and all the pirates were screaming like sissies, and Daddy Dearest and I were finally about to get away, and now you drag me here?” I spin. “Where in the name of all that is good and American is here, anyway?”

“Here,” says a voice that is oddly familiar yet new, “is my superhero hideout.”

I turn and my heart leaps to my throat. “Wait, wait, wait, are you James?! ARE YOU THE TWIN?” My eyes widen. “Dude, it’s like an even weirder version of Randy!”

“I resent that,” says a voice that is perfectly familiar, and I turn a little further.

“Oh my gosh, Randy!” I have to resist the urge to leap at him, since any sudden movements could send him to the fetal position. “You’re alive! They told me you were dead!” I clap my hands together. “Thank God. Now I don’t have to feel bad for you anymore.”

“Um.” Randy scratches the back of his head. “You’re welcome?”

“So how did I get here?” I ask the room at large. “And where exactly is ‘here’ beyond being James’s superhero hideout? Also,” I wag a finger, “when exactly did you become a superhero, Thing Number Two? You didn’t mention that in your Christmas letter.”

James doesn’t answer, though.

I turn towards where he just was, and he’s disappeared.

“Oh no.” I stumble a step back. “Not this again.”

I blink and I’m gone too.

I blink again and I’m standing on a crumbling sidewalk in the middle of a dead little town. Randy and James are to my right. Rose and William are to my left.

“Uh, where are we?” asks Randy.

I glare. “So you decide to believe in teleportation now.”

“But seriously.” He stares at the town around us. A few pedestrians are out and about, but that’s it. The air is heavy with the moisture and electricity of a coming thunderstorm. “Where. Are. We?”

A kindly looking woman with curly white hair and creases at the edges of her lips stops in front of us with a smile. “You’re in Hell—”

Rose squeaks. My shoulders sag. “Great.”

“—Michigan.”

“Even better.”

Chapter 13: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

“So…what can you do then?” Is that a rude question? I can’t tell if that’s a rude question. The look on James’ face says it might be. The way his eyebrows narrow inward so that he’s squinting at me makes me think neither one of us really knows what’s going on right now.

“Depends,” he says, shrugging. “On Mondays the wings come out and then on Wednesdays—”

“Some things are meant to be kept to yourself,” says Babysitter, plopping down onto the faded sofa, launching a cloud of dust into the air. She attempts to stifle a cough with the back of her hand, and it makes me wonder about the state of their house—its atmosphere of general disuse.

Pixie Elvis makes a clucking noise, like a small chicken, and nods his head. “Yes, yes. Do not tell them when you’ve eaten their sweets. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, but if you eat it they get angry.”

“What?” James’ eyes slide toward his brother who shrugs.

“He’s not good at colloquialisms.”

“Or talking in general,” I supply. “It’s best to just ignore him if possible.”

“I am underappreciated.” Pixie Elvis glides rather than walks toward Babysitter who shifts her position uncomfortably, the whites of her eyes growing wide as she tries not to make eye contact. “And you are lovelier than a midday sun.”

Desperation runs off her like perspiration (although it appears there may be some of that too). “What?”

Pixie nudges even closer to her until she’s sprawled backwards across the couch in an effort to get away from him. “I would beg and steal just to feel your heart beating close to mine.”

A hand, more firm than warm, presses against my back and William whispers in my ear. “It appears our human friends have something more entertaining planned.” He gestures to the open space where Randy and James used to be standing and now…

“Where are they?”

William smirks, and it makes his already lovely blue eyes shine with an alarming glint. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

“And what about—?” I point toward the Babysitter whose full focus is now on Pixie Elvis who continues to attempt to woo her with lyrics that no one actually knows. “Never mind.”

“Basement.” The words are hushed as he reaches out to take my hand and I let him. Oddly enough. His hands are not as cold as I thought they’d be. Not warm, certainly, but not cold either.

I’m suddenly concerned that my palms feel clammy. Is that even possible? Can a semi-ghost have sweaty hands? I hope not.

I don’t know how William finds the door to the basement since it’s buried in the seams of the wood-paneled wall, but when he presses his knuckles against the worn boards, a latch pops and a slab of wood the size of a doorframe slides into itself. Nifty. A set of spiraling stairs drops steeply down into a vat of dark space that makes my insides quiver. Interesting, since the last time I felt this way our vessel was being commandeered by a bunch of alien squirrel-fish.

This isn’t quite the same, but a pit in my stomach says it’s going to be almost as bad.

Will takes the lead which surprises me. Normally he’s the type to make anyone else go first—self preservation he always said—but his grip tightens as he pulls me after him, making sure that I can keep up in the sudden flood of darkness.

“Are you sure they’re down here?” I whisper, although it could hardly even be called that. Even so, he manages to hear me, squeezing my hand in confirmation. It’s then that I see the pale glow emanating from beneath a door that I cannot see in the blackness. At least, I assume it must be a door.

“Strange,” William says, pausing just outside the glowing frame. “Does the air seem surprisingly bearable to you?”

“What?”

Something shifts behind the doorway, probably James or Randy (I hope), but we have no way of knowing what exactly it is they’re doing in there. Most likely: something that will permanently stop my semi-beating heart from fulfilling its wish to be whole again. It’s not as if Randy has any sort of good feelings toward either of us. We’re the pirates who sort-of, kind-of helped to ruin his life. Well, us and Mary.

Mostly Mary.

“My lungs may not know what decent air is—at least they haven’t for quite some time—but doesn’t it feel oddly not stale in here?”

I shrug but the darkness absorbs it. “Maybe this is where he keeps the brig.”

William freezes and I attempt (with little positive result) to stifle a laugh. I meant it as a joke, but maybe…

The door before us slides open, and I can’t for the life of me tell if it’s from being pulled open, or being pushed from behind.

Randy just stands there and I don’t think he could appear any more apathetic if he actually became a heartless ghost-zombie-pirate. “Of course you had to follow. I should have expected it from the beginning. You two are as nosey as middle-aged, childless neighbors.”

“That’s oddly specific,” I say, stepping into the lightened hallway—no, not hallway, laboratory. The black and white tiled floors clash wildly with the mirrored walls and there are reflections of me everywhere. Reflections! I quickly avert my eyes. Two hundred years of not once seeing myself, and I’m not sure now’s the time to break that streak.

But I do not manage to look away fast enough. A large plastic bottle wrapped in a gaudy yellow and blue plastic label makes me cringe. I can practically taste the burn of the sweet liquid inside; like rum but much, much worse.

“Is that—?”

“What?” James, who has donned a white, cotton doctors jacket glances over at the clutters of chaos that coat his desk. “Ah, the Brisk?”

Beside me William inhales deeply, and I’m not sure if that lungful of air will ever come out. Even I can feel my half-working lungs constrict in discomfort.

“What’s the matter with the both of you?” Randy grabs the bottle off the desk, what remains of the deep brown liquid sloshing around at the bottom of its wave-textured core. “You’re from Britain. Aren’t you supposed to be, like, tea connoisseurs or something?”

“Not the kind that is chilled,” William hisses, “because that is disgusting. But that one…” He points but cannot finish the sentence.

“What’s wrong with Brisk?” James’ voice rings with a note of offense.

I purposefully meet Randy’s eyes. I have to make him understand in a way his brother won’t. Especially since James seems to be getting angrier, and I’m nearly certain his eyes just glowed.

“Remember that place we used to live?” I ask. “Before we met in London. The place where missing and unwanted things just kind of tended to show up?”

Randy nods; I think he understands what I’m trying to get at.

“There was a lot of Brisk there.”

“What are you lot talking about?” James’ hands are clenching and unclenching into fists, and I’m not sure if I’m really seeing green sparks near his fingertips or if the whole situation is just getting to my head.

“Ghosts,” William says and I bite down hard on my lip, the taste of blood coating the tip of my tongue. “They don’t even like Brisk.”

“Who doesn’t like Brisk?”

William smirks. “People who want a full set of teeth.”

“That’s ironic coming from a pirate,” Randy sneers, and for the first time since we’ve been to this odd place, the two brothers look irrevocably identical. The same formation of the eyebrows, narrowed over two sets of identical light eyes in frustration. The same willowy stance that, though the shoulders are slumped, appears to go on forever.

I sigh. “I’m going to take a guess and say this isn’t about potentially crappy iced tea.” None of the boys look up at me, but they don’t tell me to shut it either, so I continue to talk. Yammer, really. “In that case, then would someone be so kind as to tell me exactly what is going on down here, or why we’re here in the first place?” I wave a hand in James’ direction. “You claim to be a superhero, but what exactly can you do that’s so super?”

As if being pulled from a trance, James’ face slowly tilts until he is looking directly at me, though I’m not sure how many words he actually took in. “Oh right,” he says, tugging at the collar of his lab coat. What I had thought was a silver pen tucked into the front chest pocket, he pulls out to reveal one glowing red end that shoots some kind of light ray across the room. Pointing it at a section of mirrors, it lights up the entire room, one beam of light fracturing into many, until all around us red lights drag through space. I don’t move, I don’t breathe. Something in my decomposing gut says touching them is a bad idea, and I don’t need to sense that twice.

“The funniest thing about being a superhero,” he says slowly as a platform rises in the center of the room (where are these things coming from?) and I openly stare as his hands really do begin to spark. “Is that the superpowers tend to be overrated. It’s the gadgets that make the good guy.”

“Rose, what is going on?” William’s expression is determined as he glares across the room at James. I don’t know what his plan is, but I’m not certain picking a fight with the glowing man is our best option.

“Randy?” A wind springing up from who-knows-where whips my hair away from my face. The sleeves of my tunic slap against themselves, and suddenly it’s as if all breathable air has been removed completely. And then…

It stops.

“What—?” But I don’t get to finish, because that’s when I notice the figure that’s suddenly appeared in the center of the room. Her eyebrow is cocked in unadulterated annoyance that is directed straight at me.

“Hello, Mary,” I say and she crosses her arms over her chest. I sigh again, louder, and match her expression with an equally peeved one of my own. Before she speaks, there is something I want to make perfectly clear. “None of this was my fault.”

Chapter Twelve: Eleanor & Park

My head weighs a thousand, million pounds. A thousand, million, bazillion pounds.

I blink my eyes open and a paint-splattered stucco ceiling greets me a good distance away. So at least the dead pirates and crazy lady didn’t shove me in some moldy crawlspace somewhere, but also, I’m no longer in that hideous sitting room. Which means I have no idea where I am.

Maybe Randy was right to always be scared about everything.

Then again, that constant, irrational fear didn’t stop him from getting himself blown up on our first ship. And Randy was an idiot even when he wasn’t nearly scared out of his pants.

So, no, he wasn’t right. He was stupid. And I’m not scared.

I sit up, toss aside the quilt, swing my legs over the side of the bed, and immediately fall backward as my two ton head throbs.

“I’m glad to see you’re finally awake, sweet pea,” comes the old lady’s voice from behind me. I roll onto my stomach and lift my head. She’s sitting on a beige plaid daybed resting snug against the far wall. Her fingers fly over a half-knit scarf/sweater/knotted-piece-of-crap. I let my face flop back against the stained quilt.

“What did you do to me, you crazy witch?” My words are a muffled whisper that makes my head pound even worse. My head spins even though I’m lying down and my eyes are closed.

“I apologize, Miss Mary. It seems we gave you too high a dose. You look like you weigh more than you do.”

“The person who drugged me thinks I’m fat.” I twirl a finger. “Whoop-de-doo.” It falls back to the quilt. “What was the point of your psycho drug coffee anyway? WAS IT EVEN BRAZILIAN?”

She laughs—hearty and slow. I grit my teeth.

“I told you, darling. I needed to examine your mind.”

My heart stops. My eyelashes stick against the quilt as my eyes fly open. “Oh my gosh. Did you do open brain surgery while I was out or something?”

She laughs again. “Of course not. I said I examined your mind, not your brain.”

Jaw locked against the pounding, I lift myself from the bed and eyeball her. “What do you mean. You examined my mind.”

“Yes, yes.” She waves away the expression in my eyes like I don’t look like I want to send her to the fiery depths of hell. Which I’m pretty sure I do. “I thought you would react this way, after seeing all those dark thoughts of yours.” She fans herself in that way that women in overdramatic movies set in Georgia do, “Dear me. The number of times and ways you have thought of maiming others must be worthy of some sort of award.”

“Randy used to say I should be in an asylum.”

“Oh yes.” She fans herself faster. “Randy. You had plenty of thoughts about that boy, as well.”

“Excuse me?” My mouth falls open in disgust. “I will allow you to call me crazy, but I will not allow you to speak lies about my feelings for a neurotic, phobia-filled—and dead—thief!”

Just the idea of the idea of finding Randy attractive makes me want to vomit.

I shiver.

The old woman clicks her tongue. “Whatever you’d like to believe, sweet Mary.”

“Dude. Just because I’m not elated that the guy’s dead does not mean I’m in love with him.”

She shrugs. I still need answers about what’s going on, so I resist the urge to strangle her. (For now.)

“I see you’re thinking of creative ways of offing someone again.” She smiles, the skin around her sightless eyes crinkling, and mimes slitting her own throat. “How lovely! You truly are an intriguing—albeit altogether unoriginal—specimen, Mary Hart.”

THAT’S IT. I lunge across the bed and raise my leg in the sort of kick that would make a black belt jealous, and her knitting needles flash through the air. Yarn entraps my ankle. She yanks and I slam face-first into the carpet.

“How in PWNBEIBER’s name did you do that?!” I shriek into the shag.

“You’re even denser than your thoughts implied.” Her tone holds the suggestion of a shrug, although that might just be due to the combination of her slow, Southern lilt and know-it-all attitude.

“So you looked into my mind, then.” I pick a tuft of shag carpet from the back of my mouth. I roll over—she’s knitting again. “What exactly does that mean? The mind, at best, is a metaphysical presence. It has no physical presence. It’s just all the chemicals and dendrites and other crud in your brain interacting. It’s not something you can see or examine.”

“Oh, but that isn’t true, Miss Mary.” She holds her project towards the light and tilts her head to one side, squinting at it. She clicks her tongue. “No, no, no. The mind is a very physical thing. Thoughts are heavy. They’re colorful drips of wax from the candle that is your—”

“Are you on something?” I lower one brow. “You have to be on something. Don’t tell me—” I point at her bulbous nose. “It’s the junk you put in my coffee. You’re on either a very high or very low dose of the junk you put in my coffee and now you’re going to eat me.”

She clicks her tongue again. “Now, now. Let me finish, dear. The mind is indeed a physical entity—if you know how to find it. Different sorts of matter exist, just as different sorts of light do. And just like the different sorts of light, you humans can’t see or feel all sorts of matter.”

“Wait.” My cheeks go icy cold. I shove myself as far from her as possible, so every vertebrae presses against the bed. “You said ‘you humans.’ As in second person. As in addressing someone other than yourself. As in you are not human.”

“Why of course not, darling!” She laughs. “What ever gave you the idea that I was human?”

Freaking alien species are just invading Earth left and right now, aren’t they?

And she has a point. I nod. “Well, I guess that does explain your terrible sense of home decorating—but wait, I thought you put plaids and stripes together because you were blind. So no, that doesn’t explain your terrible sense of—”

“I’m not blind, sweet pea.” Again with that infuriating, conceited laugh. At least she doesn’t seem as set on turning me into a zombie-ghost as the Squishes are. “I simply see things differently from the way you do.”

“Like how?”

“I see the things that are neither here nor there. Such as your thoughts.”

I shake my head. “No, that can’t be right. The things that are neither here nor there are in Norland. Thoughts can’t be in Norland. It’s in a different dimension.”

“Not thoughts in general, dear.” She wags a veiny finger. “But your thoughts, yes.”

“How?”

“You are a genetic anomaly. A certain, very rare combination of factors in the genome of a human being leads to the birth defect of your thoughts existing not here, nor there, but in Norland.”

“Great.” I slouch, scowling. “I’m finally something special and it’s because I’m defective.”

“I never said you were special.” Quieter and very exasperated, almost like the weird, witchy alien doesn’t want me to hear, she says, “Of course, your thoughts did warn me you were an assumptive one.”

“But if I have a rare birth defect, then—”

“The defect is special. You, Miss Mary, are not.”

I roll my eyes. “Hurray.” I lean forward as her knitting needles click together again. The whatever-it-is seems to be growing at an exponential rate. “So what does this mean for me? Is this defect why I can see the ghosts and pixies and all that? Is it why the pirates are sacrificing me to an inanimate object they want to bring to life?”

She shakes her head. “Captain Delleray and his crew are not sacrificing you, dear—.”

“Oh, thank God.” I slump. The pounding in my head subsides a little.

“—They simply want to sacrifice you.”

I look at the splotchy ceiling. “I rescind those thanks, Big Guy.”

“You see, dear Mary, you are not special now. But as I suspected—and your mind confirmed—you have the potential of many possibilities.”

“I’d really love if you stopped calling me bleeding ‘dear’ and all that if you’re assisting the people who are planning to push me off a cliff or something else of the like in the near future, Missus Southern Alien Person.” My leer is stuck somewhere between irritated and mad. “All due respect, ma’am.”

“All due respect,” she copies my tone, “one does not need to be ‘pushed off the cliff or something else of the like’ in order to be sacrificed. After all, you have a very special defect, Miss Mary.”

“So the plan,” I say slowly, “is to sacrifice my thoughts. To an inanimate object. To bring it to life. And bring all the pirates back to life?”

She clicks her tongue. “I did not say that.”

“But you implied it.”

Someone bangs on the door. It’s Rose’s father’s voice, strained and shouting, that informs us: “We need to run. They’ve found us. They’re here.”

Then someone screams.

Chapter Eleven: Captain Underpants

We’re black from our short (unplanned) hiatus! Hurray! Without further ado, here is the next chapter 🙂

Mel

~~~~~

There are two of them; two Randy-s. My head is nearly as twisted as my stomach as I try to process this new information. The woman from the doorway ushers us in and I’m sure I must look like an escaped convict, or at least a perturbed goblin, because I can’t stop the fear from encroaching on my stare. She’s going to be able to tell that I’m not fully alive. I can feel my skin becoming more translucent by the second as panic threatens to crawl up my throat. I look down at my arm: pale but definitely not see-through. I sigh in relief.

“What did you say your name was?” I say to Randy Number Two as I pass him in the entryway, clinging as closely to the wall as possible to avoid any physical contact. Whether or not he can touch me is one thing, but it’s still pretty hard to explain the whole ‘my body temperature is forty-seven degrees colder than the average human’s’ thing. And I don’t think “I used to be a ghost” is a good explanation for when the question eventually does come about.

Inside, we are ushered into a room with faded blue carpet and pale robin’s egg walls. The furniture too, though covered in a visible layer of dirt and dust, must have—at one time—also been blue. Now it’s a dingy gray that does nothing but make me sad. It reminds me of overcast sea days; nothing but a memory of clear, blue skies.

“James,” he says, as the woman mutters something that only Randy can hear.

“And you know Randy how?”

His eyes narrow at me as though this fact should be obvious. It is but I want to hear him say it.

“I’m his brother.” The words come from behind me and I spin around to catch Randy’s face caught up in a strange look—almost like fear—before it settles back into the I-don’t-care-about-the-world motif that is so familiar.

“You have a brother? And a mother?” I ask glancing at the woman behind him.

“No,” both boys say.

The woman folds her arms over her chest. “I’m their babysitter.”

An indignant cough arises somewhere to my left and a small voice cries, “You sit on babies!”

The woman and James grow visibly pale as a small figure swoops down from the ceiling. “Is that a—what is that?”

I make eye contact with Randy who looks like he might turn into a puddle, and so I do the only thing I can think of. With a quick reaction that can only be attributed to whatever ability is leftover from me being, you know, dead, I pinch two fluttering wings between my fingers and toss the small creature to the floor.

“This is my uncle,” I start. “Um, Elvis.”

“Was he just—?”

“Flying?” I supply. “Of course not, that’s ridiculous. He simply enjoys wings. He likes the way they are, uh, shiny.”

“Glisten!” The little creature says, dusting off the rump of his tasseled pants from his rather hard meeting with the carpet. “My wings glisten they do not shine you ridiculous child.”

I force a smile. “He also has a great personality.”

James nods but I can’t tell if he believes me or if he is merely attempting to understand what is happening. I can relate.

Awkward silence swoops in to fill the empty spaces, and it’s Randy, surprisingly, who is first to break it. “So you’ve both met Elvis,” he says, gesturing to the pixie who (thank the heavens) doesn’t attempt to fly again. “This is Rose.” He tilts his head toward me in gesture and I cringe inwardly. I didn’t realize until now exactly how much I could miss the anonymity of being invisible. “And over there, smoldering in a corner is William.”

Oh, right. William.

I glance over my shoulder in time to lock on to his eyes which are searing fire-tipped daggers into my back. I suppose it was my fault (kind of) that we ended up in this situation, but not a whole lot. In fact, the stare really is just too much. Of course I’m not going to tell him that because as much as I hate to admit it, I really would like to keep my new aliveness.

Will takes a step forward and my mouth becomes suddenly dry. Not good. Not good. Not—

“What now? There are two of you suddenly?”

James frowns. “There have always been two.”

“And what about this one?” He points to the Babysitter. “I may be from the eighteenth century, but even I know that what you call a ‘babysitter’ has a purpose among children. Unless you are referring to your mental state in which case, I fully agree.”

“Randy, why are these people here?” James no longer looks confused, merely irritated at the entire situation, and once again I can’t help but to relate. When I said on the ship that we needed to get to wherever we were going, this definitely was not what I had in mind. I hate everything about this America land so far, where people can replicate themselves and keep nannies far beyond the appropriate age.

“We’re looking for the Frogg,” Pixie Elvis squeaks, stroking his feathers with the tips of his fingers. His wig lies listlessly on his head, not quite centered enough to be believable, and his wide eyes practically glow against the dull walls.

Babysitter clears her throat. “The Frogg?”

“James Frogg,” I say, turning toward The Other Randy. “That’s you.”

His eyes flash wide. “No, you’re mistaken.” His voice shakes as he talks. “I’m only James.”

Randy sucks in a lungful of air, making everyone jump. “Except, believe it or not, it is you that we’re looking for.”

“No, Randy.” He looks pleadingly at his brother. “It’s not.”

William steps forward until his hand is close enough to mine that they could (just maybe) brush against one another. “Listen, kid, we know it’s you. You might as well admit to it before I decide to force it out of you.”

“Yes,” Pixie Elvis cries excitedly, “he’ll make you talk to the Ugly One.”

Randy’s eyes narrow. “Mary?”

The little thing huffs in annoyance. “That’s what I said.”

James glances between them, his eyes easily passing over me. Sure, no, I’m fine, thank you. “Who is Mary? Wait.” He pauses. “Mary, Mary?”

“You know Mary?” I ask and William glares at me from the corner of his eye.

“Clearly he does.”

“What are you doing, Randy?” James looks like he might lose his dignity in a moment and flounder to the floor in a dead faint. I look at Randy who stands firmly in front of his brother. Twin brother.

I cannot get past the oddity of the whole situation.

“Just tell them, James. We don’t have a lot of time. My partner’s been kidnapped by pirates, and I’m walking around with two that would love to kill me at any moment.”

“Wait, whoa there, Bucky.” I point to my face. “Are you talking about me? Am I one of the two, because when have I ever—?”

He doesn’t bother to listen to the rest of my mini-rant, turning back to his brother who looks more than a tad confused.

“Pirates, Randy? Pirates?!”

“Yes, well, they’re dead pirates if it makes you feel any better.”

“D-dead?” Babysitter mumbles.

“Ghosts,” I correct her. “We’re ghosts. And zombies.”

“And pirates,” James says, finishing the list.

“Yes, right.” I narrow my eyes at him, the green frog on his neck bouncing around as his Adam’s apple bobs up and down. “And you are?”

In a flash of bright, green light that is more than a little alarming, James disappears, landing gracefully on the coffee table a few feet away. He is no longer wearing the blue breeches and red shirt, but a skin-tight, green layer of slippery fabric that hugs his muscles tightly and disappears into a pair of equally strange and scaly black pants. A black mask is strapped across the bridge of his nose, and I can’t help thinking that he no longer looks like Randy, but a more powerful version of Randy.

He runs a gloved hand through his hair which stands spiked on his head, sighing. “The truth? Here it is.”

William scowls. “This must be a joke.”

“Quite the contrary,” Randy mutters. “Everyone, meet James Frogg. My brother and superhero extraordinaire.”

 

Chapter Ten: Code Name Verity

… Aaand we’re still behind. Sorry ’bout that. (I’m on spring break, which means I’m actually busier than usual, believe it or not.)

We’ll try to get caught back up in the next couple weeks, all right? Thanks for hanging with us.

 

~Julia

*********

Chapter Ten: Code Name Verity

The inside of the old woman’s lair proves that she truly is blind, despite the freaky blank-staring-at-people thing. Either that or she lacks a functioning brain, because I have seen garbage heaps with more sense of style than her living room. Everything is ragged and mismatched—each leg on the desk is a different shape and color, and while a sky blue shag rug greets visitors at the entrance, the scuffed hardwood that makes up the majority of the floor gives way to vibrant green linoleum in the far corner.

She sits me on an old plaid sofa that’s patched with polka dot and striped fabric swaths. It droops in the middle all the way to the dusty tile floor—and that’s before I drop onto it.

The pirates gather in the entryway with only the captain and my two personal guards joining me among the Clash of the Patterns. The woman hurries into the kitchen and busies herself at the stove, just visible through the narrow doorway. The captain sits on the edge of a paint-splattered desk that, surprisingly, holds his ghostly weight.

“So, what now?” I lean against the sofa’s back and it lets out a sound like a cat in labor. I jump and scoot back to the edge of the cushion. My guards hack up laughs under their breaths. I shoot the big one a stare, then clear my throat. “What are we doing here? Is she going to chase me around with tar and feathers, or…?”

“Oh, nothing of the sort, dear.” The old witch is back. She holds a tray in her wrinkled, freckly hands. “Tar is far too expensive in these parts.” She sets the tray on a side table she’s situated in the center of the room like she thinks it’s a coffee table (pretty sure being blind can’t account for that big of a mistake) and turns to Rose’s father. “Would you like one sugar or two, dear captain?” Her southern accent sounds a little les strange now that we’re off the French-filled streets.

I lean towards Big Pirate Man. “She does realize y’all are dead, right?”

Quick as whiplash, the woman’s dark, sightless eyes are on me. “You do realize I’m not deaf, right?”

My cheeks flare. I glare. “Blame it on the idiot ghost pirate dudes. After a couple days stuck with these unresponsive goons, it’s impossible not to forget other people can hear.”

She clucks her tongue and smiles like she thinks my reaction is cute. My cheeks grow even warmer.

She passes a steaming mug and a bowl of sugar to the captain, who takes it with a passive shrug, then turns back to me. “Would you also like a drink, lovely Mary?”

My cheeks cool. My throat is drier than sandpaper. “Is it coffee?”

“Yes. Straight from Brazil.”

“Bloody hell, why didn’t you say so!” I reach for the tray and my guards yank back on my moldy, ghost-rope bindings. I sag and stare longingly at the mugs on the tray.

Coffee. Beautiful, delicious, Brazilian coffee. If these pirates do end up coming back to life somehow, I’m going to murder them all over again.

Meanwhile, my bindings might actually be the most stylish thing in this room. Which is the saddest statement known to man.

“Oh, come now.” She clucks again. “Let the girl have something to drink.”

Muttering, the gnarly pirate pulls his equally as gnarly knife and slits the bindings.

I down my mug, black, in one gulp.

I lower it and everyone in the room is staring at me.

“What?” I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “I haven’t had anything to eat or drink in two days. You’d think you guys would at least let me have a baguette or something, since we’re in a French—”

The pirates turn to their left and spit. Through the doorway to the hallway, the rest of the pirates are just visible doing it as well.

The woman leaps away from Rose’s father, then leans forward to smack him. My eyes widen. Her hand doesn’t go through him, but rather glances off his grizzled beard like beneath it is a real and solid cheek. “Manners!” she scolds.

I regain my composure enough to say, “See, that’s what I’ve been telling them for like two days now. You’re not going to get anywhe—”

“We apologize, madam,” the captain says. “It is simply that those filthy—well, you-know-who-s—have wronged us many a time.”

“Then why did you decide to bring me to French Guia—?”

They turn to their lefts and the woman smacks the captain again. “Don’t you dare!” They suck the spit back into their mouths.

Maybe this lady isn’t so bad after all.

“Well,” I say, “now that we’ve gotten the Coffee and Pirate Smacking portions of the evening out of the way—would anyone mind telling the Apparently Not Special Girl what we’re doing here? Ya know, if this isn’t part of the Sacrifice Her to the Gods part?”

“Sacrifice her to the gods?” one of the pirates out in the hall asks. “Who said anything about sacrificing her to the gods?”

I throw my hands in the air. “What, you’re going to sacrifice me and it’s not even to the gods? Life is so unfair!”

“Mary.” The old woman lowers my hands and perches on the edge of the side table centered before me. “You sweet, sweet child.”

“Good job on the comforting there.” I roll my eyes. “‘Sweet’ is just another way of saying naïve. So you didn’t even comfort me with the truth, because I’m not naïve. At all. Minus ten points from whatever house you’d be in if you weren’t such a Muggle.” I tilt my head to the side. “What’s Trelawney again? Hufflepuff? That would be you.”

“I don’t understand a single word that just came out of your mouth,” says Big Pirate Man.

I huff. “What else is new.”

“Anyway,” says the old lady, “you asked why Captain Delleray and his crew have brought you to my home. They have because I asked it of them. And we are inside, because beyond these walls, at any time, they might be listening.”

“Okay, next round of questions.” I stare at her and hold back a yawn. “Who is this mysterious and so-far-annoying ‘they’ and—oh yeah, I seem to have missed this part: why am I here?” This time I truly do yawn. “Oh, and while we’re at it, who are you people sacrificing me to?”

“Not who,” she corrects. “‘What.’”

“Oh, yay.” I twirl a finger. “You’re not even sacrificing me to a person! It’s an inanimate object!”

“Not inanimate,” says Rose’s father. “Or at least it won’t be afterward.”

“Great.” My eyes droop. “You’re bringing a statue to life using me?”

I had other questions. What were those?

The old lady must read my mind—that must be something people can do—because she says, “To return to your previous questions: ‘They’ are a force not to trifle with. And you are here because I must examine your mind.”

She is speaking far too quickly and I am so tired and everything is spinning and the patterns are melting and I’m starting to hate French people as much as the British and—

“What? Examine my what?” I lift a hand in protest, and my head falls against the gnarly pirate’s shoulder. He shoves me onto Big Pirate Man. The hideous room swirls and dims. It goes black.

“She may not be special now,” the old woman’s voice reverberates in a ricochet through my pounding head, “but her possibilities… she possesses many possibilities.”

Chapter Nine: The Princess and the Frog

“Rhode Island is boring.” The pixie sighs loudly. None of us says anything because we all agree. There are trees, beaches, and a few more trees. I look over at Randy, who’s scratching at the skin on the underside of his wrist. He’s been doing that for a few hours now, ever since we docked the ship, and his eyes keep swiping over the horizon as if he’s expecting to see someone he knows.

William, on the other hand, looks like he might be ready to kill our human companion just for the sport of it. He catches my glare and returns it with a sharp smile that makes my insides turn.

“Don’t,” I mouth at him, and he just shrugs. His passivity makes my spine quiver. I don’t know which is worse: siding with Randy, Mary’s frenemy who most likely doesn’t care whether I live or become… more dead—or William who, well, is just scary. It’s probably because he doesn’t have a soul. I don’t even think it existed when he was alive.

“How much farther?” Pixie Elvis squeals, kicking one tasseled leg out in front of him to reveal a bright red, gladiator sandaled foot. “My toes are chaffing.”

“We need to get to Portsmouth first,” Randy says absently. “If I’m judging right, we’ve drifted into the Rhode Island Sound. If we can make it to Portsmouth, I know where we can get some food. And sleep.”

William’s sneer is extra-vile as he says, “Let me guess, this Mister Frogg is an acquaintance of yours?”

Randy rolls his eyes. “I have no idea who he is.”
“Then what’s in Portsmouth?” I shove my hands into the pockets of my denim breeches. I don’t know why these things weren’t invented earlier—the convenience is outstanding.

He sighs loudly, mussing his hair with a large hand and kicking at the sand that we’ve been trekking over for hours now. “My house.”

“I’m confused,” I say as he steers us onto a paved roadway that heads into the downtown center of whatever small-town village we’ve found ourselves in. “I thought, before, Mary said you were from Canada.”

“I was born there, sure,” Randy waves as a car stops for us to cross the street in front of it. Whoever is behind the shaded glass can only see one half of our traveling party—the mostly alive half—and I almost wish our Pixie friend were able to surprise him with a little Elvis tune, if only to allow his fear to brighten my mood. “Didn’t you think it was strange when I wasn’t ending everything with, ‘eh’?”

“Eh, what?”

“You know, Canadian stereotypes…?” I just blink at him and he looks at me like I’m some kind of buffoon. He sighs in exasperation. “So you’re telling me that you’ve been alive for over two hundred years and you’ve never been on this side of the Atlantic?”

I shake my head. “I was in the Bahamas for some years as a child, eleven or twelve maybe, when my mum was visiting her family. They lived on a sugar plantation, but then it turned into a slave holding—or maybe it was the other way around—”

“Wait, slaves, did you say slaves?” I can only categorize Randy’s expression as somewhere between surprise and utter disgust.

“Yes, after the slave trade, before independence. I was dead after that, and the seas weren’t much fun to wander during the wars.”

Randy’s face slackens again in surprise, while William merely slumps his shoulders forward as if the motion can block out a past he’d rather not remember. Pixie just keeps fluttering on, every so often moaning about a sore wing, but never stopping too long. I cannot tell if he’s half listening to the conversation, or if he is more focused on the string of lyrics that once in a while escapes his lips.

“I’ve been traveling over mountains, even through the valleys, too. I’ve been traveling night and day, I’ve been running all the way, baby, trying to get to you.”

William swats at him, a motion he dodges with an alarming amount of poise and agility seeing as his back is to the dead pirate.

“What wars?” Randy asks, drawing me back to the conversation at hand, and in front of us we come to another light, but this time rather than crossing the street, Randy leads us down a side road and onto a street that is clustered with houses. A fake antique sign that someone has drilled into the ground exclaims “Welcome to the Neighborhood!” and something about it makes me uneasy.

“The French Revolution, the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, World Wars one and two, none of them were much fun for water dwellers. It’s why we stayed docked in England most of the time.”

“Oh.” He says it like he understands, even though I know there is no way it is true.

“I spy!” Pixie Elvis cries suddenly, and we all—including William who attempts to cover his shock by crossing his arms over his chest—lurch forward in surprise. His small finger points upward at a sign that hangs just above the dark green front door of one of the many houses along this road. Every house looks like the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. It’s both alarming and charming, and I cannot tell which emotion is winning.

“It’s called a suburb,” Randy had explained earlier when William had made some snarky comment or another about it.

The sign reads “Tarot Readings available, starting at only $5,” but it isn’t that which draws my attention, but the immense displeasure that is suddenly sprawled across Randy’s face.

Suddenly the door squeals open on hinges that are surprisingly loud for a neighborhood of homes in such pristine condition, and even William seems to be uncomfortable as a woman with dark curly hair standing out in springy columns sticks her head out, peering at us with wide, gray eyes. Well, no, not us. Him. Just Randy.

“Is there something you would like to tell us, big boy?” William asks sharply, and I wonder if he realizes that he’s taken several steps toward me. I feel a slight pressure on my lower back, the sense of fingers pressing against my spine, and I know that he has. Whether it is a protective measure (which, in his defense, it is possible that the woman is a psychopath), or a desperate search for comfort amid the uncomfortable, I don’t know.

“I spy with my little eye,” Pixie Elvis continues as if nothing’s changed. He even ignores the woman as she opens the door even further, halfway stepping out of the house, her mouth dropping open in wonder. “Something green!”

“Randy?” she says, and I exchange a wary glance with William. Pixie Elvis, however, still appears to be confused as to why none of us are guessing.

“Do you give up?” he asks, spinning around, eyes wide as if we really might answer him.

“I wonder,” another much lower voice says from the doorway, and this time it’s the woman’s turn to look fearful.

“James, no—” she says.

The boy has dark hair with impeccably light eyes, and his clothes are normal (for the living): more of the denim breeches, and a red tunic that fits him nicely, exposing the subtle outline of the muscles underneath.

And then I see it on his neck, where the collar of his shirt meets the soft skin of his jugular. A small green creature is tattooed onto the skin there, and my empty heart cavity convulses into what one might have, once upon a time, described as butterflies. But even that is not enough to distract me from the fact that this new boy—though his hair is several shades too dark—looks unmistakably, irrevocably, identical to Randy.

“The person you’re looking for,” he says in a voice that sounds eerily like one I already know, “is it me?”

~~~~~

I want to apologize profusely to everyone for how long it took me to put out this chapter. I’m especially sorry to Julia who not only had to wait for me to write this, but also had to read the crazy-cold-medicine-induced chapter I sent to her at 1:30 in the morning. ( It didn’t make sense AT ALL!)

We should be getting back on schedule after this, though, so expect the next chapter coming this Friday!!! Sorry again, and I hope you enjoyed:)

Mel

Chapter Eight: The Maze Runner

Chapter Eight: The Maze Runner

“You know your ghostly brains have rotted out if you think you’re going to get away with sacrificing me.” My hiss isn’t loud enough for the people on the street to hear me—and it’s not like they’d be able to understand what I’m saying anyway, since they’re, ya know, French and all. But the looks they shoot in my direction tell me they still can see my mouth moving despite the fact that they cannot see the ghosts leading me, hands bound, through downtown Cayenne, French Guiana’s capital city.

Cayenne reminds me an unpleasant amount of London, with squat old buildings, a multitude of sculptures tucked in all over the place, and grey clouds overhead that seem determined to dump themselves all over my hair (which is disgruntled enough as it is, thank you).

I lean close to the pirate holding the other end of my ropes like he thinks he’s a dog-walker or something—he’s the whale-like one—and say, “So, if y’all are planning on sacrificing me, that at least, like, involves an awesome feast, right? Because I haven’t eaten in like two days and I hear it’s bad mojo to sacrifice someone on an empty stomach.”

As always, he doesn’t respond. None of them ever respond to me. I even offered to belch the ABCs in exchange for a shower when we reached land—which you’d think would be a very pirate-approved activity, and is also way below my pay grade—but they didn’t even let out a chorus of hacking laughs. They just averted their eyes and went about their business, which primarily seems to involve walking through walls and making snide remarks about the living.

Lucky dolts. I’d give an arm to be able to make snide remarks out loud without the threat of the subsequent slap after someone heard me.

Rose’s father walks a few paces ahead with a couple of the more grizzled pirates in tow, while the Big Kahuna and Gnarled Knife Dude walk so close that my shoulders keep knocking against their only semi-solid ones. The rest of the crew wanders behind us, probably having all kinds of fun wreaking mayhem on the French people while I’m stuck playing the part of prisoner.

You’d think they’d at least let me have some fun seeing as they can’t perform whatever ritual they’re intending without me, but nooo, I must be bound at allllll times. Ugh.

“You know,” I say, “I hear it’s unhealthy to not feed or water your sacrifice for days on end. It has a tendency of leading to premature death.”

The only response is a crack of thunder overhead, followed by the rain falling even harder.

I hate the tropics. This is almost as bad as London during its rainy season. AKA always.

Gosh, I hate Europe.

Rose is so lucky she ended up on the ship still heading to the United States.

—Although honestly, based on how my captivity has been going so far, Randy’s probably luckier than I am even though he’s at the bottom of the ocean.

Poor Randy. Poor, poor Canadian Randy. All he ever wanted was to avoid conflict, and now he’s probably fighting for eternal slumber space with those dead guys my pirate non-compadres stole their new ghost ship from.

We turn a corner into a long, narrow alleyway and the din of haughty-sounding French fades behind us, muffled beneath the pounding rain and frequent, disgusted outbursts of the pirates pulling up the rear.

I roll my eyes and sing the word, “French!”

In a display of unity that would surely earn them gold at the Olympics (I will kill them for making me miss the Olympics, even if the games are in Europe), the pirates—including the two “looking after” me and the ones around the captain—turn to their left and spit.

“Wow,” I laugh. “That’s the most reaction I’ve gotten out of any of you since you all abandoned me below deck yesterday as we approached shore.” Maybe it’s just my hunger-induced delirium talking, but the big pirate’s lips tilt up in what could pass as a smile. I twist to face him, eyes wide. “I saw that! You’re developing a sense of humor! IT’S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE.”

He reacts by yanking harder on the ropes. My wrists are so numb at this point from chafing that it doesn’t even hurt.

There is something inherently wrong about that fact.

Finally, the captain stops before a sagging, wood plank door in the back corner of the alley and, after a ceremonial crack of his knuckles, he knocks. The door swings open to reveal a short, frail woman with wispy white hair and eyes that are as dark as the clouds above (or my mood).

“My dear captain,” she says, obviously recognizing him despite the fact her eyes are clearly unfocused and a good chance exists that the pirates are all still too dead to produce a stench a normal human would be able to pick up (although they absolutely reek to me). She smiles, revealing crumbling yellow teeth, and asks, “You have brought the girl, yes?” Her unseeing eyes swivel and land directly on me.

I shiver, and it is not because of the rain or my fatigue.

“Wait, is this the sacrifice?” I pull against my bonds, but Big Pirate doesn’t budge. “Are you going to feed me to the Wicked Witch of the West, there?”

The old woman cackles and lightning stereotypically flashes overhead. “No, no, no, my darling.”

She turns her gaze back to the captain and whoa there—she’s speaking English. The old lady. Is speaking. English.

In an accent that is perfectly southern, she says, “Do come in. All of you. We have much to discuss.”

“What is this?” I ask. “What’s going on?”

“My dear, sweet Mary,” the woman sing. She wears the sort of smile one dons before luring small children into an oven with the promise of candy. “You think you are special in your ability to see that which most believe to not exist, am I correct?”

“Um.” I tilt my head. “Yes?”

She laughs again, although now the sound is quieter. It barely echoes against the imposing walls all around us, but it still sends a shiver ricocheting down my spine. “I am afraid I must inform you that you are not nearly as special as you think.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Her wild, wispy eyebrows sag. She glances around the alley with her sightless eyes. “Do come in.” She steps further into the shadows beyond the door. “It is dangerous here. They may be listening.”