Merton thought about telling Beverly about the strange encounter last night, but when he got to school the next day, she was already amid the circle of Johnny’s friends. He walked past, hoping they wouldn’t notice, but Beverly dragged him to her side.
“You’re bringing your camera to the football game Friday, right?” She nudged him towards the same redheaded cheerleader. “Cheryl was wondering if you could get some shots of the cheerleaders.”
“Friday the thirteenth,” Cheryl said, smiling. “We were thinking of dressing up, if Johnny didn’t take offense.”
Johnny gave an easy smile. “I don’t mind having a little fun.”
Billy slapped him on the back. “We oughtta change our names. ‘Wolverines’ doesn’t sound so threatening when you’re facing down a real live zombie.”
“Unless that zombie is Johnny,” Beverly said.
There was a consensus of laughter. Merton tried to smile, but he was finding it difficult to breathe.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “Take the pictures, I mean.”
Cheryl grabbed his arm. “You’re a peach, Merton.”
He gave a nod and slunk away from the crowd. Beverly followed after him.
“Come on, Meton,” she said. “You could at least try to be friendly.”
He brushed her off. “Sorry, Bev. I’m still feeling off is all.”
She frowned. “Still hurts?”
“Sometimes, yeah. I barely got any sleep last night.”
“You haven’t even been up two whole weeks.” Nervously she pulled on her fingers. “Maybe you should go back to the hospital.”
He pushed open the door to the journalism room and tossed his bag onto a chair. “It’ll pass.”
She crossed her arms in disapproval. “If you’re so sure. You should come to the game on Friday.”
“I said I’d do it.”
“Merton.” Her nose scrunched up. “Cheryl asked you specifically.”
He picked up the camera to fiddle with it. Miss Helim had pulled it out of some supply closet, and he missed his old one. “I know. I was there.”
“No, I mean.” She sighed and sat across from him. “Cheryl came up to me a few days ago because she wanted to know if we were going steady.”
The camera slipped from his grasp, and he caught the strap. Embarrassment flared on his face. “Why’d she wanna know that?”
“Because she likes you, Merton! She doesn’t care about whose photo gets taken at the game! She just wants you to chat her up!”
He laughed. “What?”
“I’m serious, Merton. Ask her on a date.”
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t want to date Cheryl.”
“You don’t know that.” She gave him an earnest look. “She could be your soulmate. You’ve never even talked to her.”
“My soulmate? Bev, you’ve gone off the deep end.”
“I’m just trying to make your life a little better. A cute cheerleader said she wanted you to ask her out. I am passing that message along.”
He shook his head. “My life is fine where it is.”
Her lips pursed in frustration. “Is it? You’ve been a grump lately. A grump who refuses to have friends.”
“I have you, Bev.”
“And that’s swell, Merton, but I like hanging around Johnny and his friends.” She stood, giving him a long look. “I’d like it a lot more if you were there too.”
Merton sucked in a breath. “I said I’d be there Friday, alright? What more do you want from me?”
She gave a frustrate sigh. “I don’t know. For you to actually try.”
He waved her off as she stormed out of the room. The door clicked shut, and he collapsed a little, leaning a back in the seat and letting the camera rest on the table. He should’ve mentioned Jack Kenley or sleepwalking or how being around people was making it hard to breathe. He could’ve said he didn’t care about Cheryl the cheerleader because Beverly was right there. He wanted to say a million things, but it was easier to keep that in and play along.
He stayed in the journalism closet until the first bell rang. Beverly and Johnny were already sitting in their seats, chatting idly about nothing. He slumped down beside her and watched as she laughed and swooned and pretended to pay attention while she snuck glances at Johnny. Merton couldn’t pay attention at all. The whole day felt like a fog rolling into his brain. He did his best to weave through the throngs of students and avoid talking to anyone, including Beverly, who pouted about it like no other. At lunch, he was too sick to eat, and he hid in the journalism room among the dusty stacks, sorting through the photos he’d collected this year. As he brushed aside the photos he’d taken in the woods that night, he wondered what would’ve happened if he’d gone with Beverly to the PTA meeting instead.
The door opened with a click, and he tossed the pictures down. He’d been thinking of things to say to Beverly so she wouldn’t think he was so sour, but it wasn’t Beverly who walked into the room. The foreign girl stood in the doorway. She inspected the room with thin black eyes, her pale face obscured by her long dark hair. She dressed like nearly any other person in school, which made it eerier that she was in all black, with her skin so white it looked like she was a coloring book page not yet filled in. Something about the way she stood there gave Merton a powerful deja vu. He clutched his forehead as a headache bloomed.
“Are you lost?” he asked, and it came out meaner than he intended. Mabe Beverly was right about him being a grump.
“Curious.” Her voice still carried the heavy accent, and he’d heard she hailed from a few different places. The only way he could describe her accent was ‘European’. “I hadn’t been in this room before.”
“Is that why you came at lunch time when no one would be here?”
She looked at him, and it made his skin goosebump and his heart freeze. “You’re here.”
He offered a bemused smile. “Sorry there’s no big tour or anything.”
“I heard about your accident,” she said.
Another wave of deja vu. He sat back as his chest began to burn. “How, exactly?”
She pointed to the newsletters on the wall, and he breathed out.
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah.”
“I wanted to express condolences–”
“Geez, they talk like that where you’re from?” He wanted to relax in her presence, but she was like a freezer door left open. “Don’t worry about it. You read Bev’s newsletter, huh?”
“It is, strangely, the only way to know what’s going on in this town.” She stepped into the room proper, examining everything. The towers of filing cabinets remained unopened, and the walls were slowly being filled with the news Beverly produced. “I was wondering if this sort of thing was normal. Dead rising from their graves, mysterious lights in the woods, that sort of thing.”
She looked at him again, and suddenly breathing was easier. There was something in her voice, a cadence among her lilting accent that calmed. She was standing beside him now, and he couldn’t remember her moving. Her hand reached down to examine the photos he’d been looking at. A handful were of the night Johnny staggered into the stadium, freshly undug. She picked one up, examining it.
“You’re friends with Betty, right?” He glanced at the ones of the stands. Familiar faces were shock, the black and white photo making them ugly masks. “You didn’t come here to spy for her, did you?”
“No.” She set it back down. “As I said, I was curious. These are very good.”
“Oh.” He felt his face heat up. “Thanks. You just point and click, you know.”
“I don’t.” She picked up another of the crowd shots and frowned. “You weren’t there that Friday, where Johnny was allowed back in school. You don’t have any pictures.”
She was way too close to him, and his heart started to pound again. “No. I was somewhere else.”
She stepped away quickly, head down. “I’ve intruded. I’m sorry. I hope you feel well.”
He waited for the door to click behind her before he sunk his head into his arms and tried to breathe again. He didn’t know where the panic attack had sprung from. It wasn’t even the strangest conversation he’d had in the last twenty-four hours. Was she European or just strange? Or had he misconstrued genuine concern for creepy? What he really wanted to do was sleep. It’d clear his head, if he didn’t dream.
Eventually he righted himself and returned the pictures to their places. He considered skipping class entirely. He had a built in excuse. But Beverly would get on him for missing, and she’d probably tell his mom, and then it’d be a whole conversation at home, and that made his head hurt too. He grabbed his books and walked to class. Maybe tonight would be better. No dreams, no Jack, just sleep.
He didn’t really count on it.
Marya had not known of an American high school teaching quantum mechanics, but she waited outside of Betty’s class diligently. The photo she’d stolen sat on the top of her notebook. The faces were obscured by the rain, and the bright stadium lights created a stark contrast that made those in the back of the stadium hard to see, but she felt better for having it. It would take one person to notice a thing like this. She tucked it away as the bell rang, and classes let out.
Betty tossed her book bag over her shoulder and hooked her arm in Marya’s. Marya was a little embarrassed at how much she enjoyed the attention, and with her shrinking social circle, Betty had much attention to spare.
“You don’t do anything for Thanksgiving, I bet.” Betty spun her locker combination and tossed her books inside. “Lucky.”
“What do you do?” Marya asked.
“My mom drinks through the whole week and forgets to make a meal. I used to go over to Johnny’s instead. His mom makes the best turkey.”
Her shoulders slumped as she tucked next period’s books into her bag. Marya was aware the laws of friendship dictated she say something here, potentially invite her to her own home for the holiday. But inviting her into her home was not the best way of keeping up the persona she was currently living.
“Perhaps we could do something instead,” she said. “My house will have the same volume of levity as yours, but a picnic might be nice.”
Betty smiled at her. “You don’t look like the kind of girl who enjoys a day out in the sun enjoying nature.”
“You’re such a sweetheart, Marya.” She squeezed her friend’s hand. “We should do something. I’ve been dying to go up to the lake again. Or there’s this really nice spot not far out of town.”
They parted ways for class, and Marya couldn’t help but smile as she hugged her books to her chest. Her elated feeling was interrupted when she saw Shelley, her face buried in her locker, whispering under her breath. Marya considered for a moment what she would even say to the girl, but she’d already accomplished many of her goals today. She approached her, eying the inside of her locker.
“You’re Shelley, correct?”
Shelley jumped up and slammed her locker. She adjusted her glasses as she looked at Marya, her bag clutched to her chest.
“You’re that girl always following Betty around.” Her eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
“I still don’t know many people in this town.” Marya summoned a smile. “Betty mentioned you were competitors in the annual science fair?”
She huffed, picking at her curls. “You can tell Betty she doesn’t have to worry about my entry. I’ve got more important things to do than a high school science fair.”
“She didn’t send me here.”
“I’m sure.” Shelley looked at her through her too large glasses. “She’s still not talking to Johnny?”
“I’ll have to talk to that Jones girl then,” she murmured.
“You’re interested in the undead?”
“Ha.” She gave her a humorless look. “Johnny redefines biology. Suddenly we don’t require a heart, or lungs, or even brain activity. Lightning is a joke. I’d take cosmic radiation or black magic as an equally reasonable explanation.”
“You don’t have one?”
She shrugged. “If I had an explanation, I wouldn’t be digging around Betty Isen to find one. Why do you have such an interest in the undead?”
“You’re right,” Marya said. “This is an unprecedented event. I thought a scientifically minded individual such as yourself would have an idea.”
“I don’t do people’s homework for them. Ask Betty if you’re so interested.”
She flounced away as the bell rang. Marya glanced at her locker. It wouldn’t be difficult to open it and see what was inside, but she wasn’t sure if she should push things so quickly. There were a hundred mysteries in Whitby. She had time enough to solve them.
Merton kept an eye on the street outside his house and the window outside the pop shop, but Jack Kenley didn’t make himself known again. It didn’t make Merton sleep any easier, but he was grateful for that at least. He’d successfully managed to avoid Beverly and Johnny’s gang, but even after feeling sick for days, he showed up at the football game, camera in hand. He did promise.
Beverly grinned when she saw him, but it disappeared as she ran up to his side. She pressed a hand against his face.
“You look pale,” she said. “Are you still in pain?”
He shrugged, trying to smile. “It’s fine. I’m here, aren’t I?”
She squeezed his arm. “You can go home if you want. It’s just football. It’s not even an interesting game.”
“What? No.” He waved his camera at her. “You have dropped an opportunity to photograph cheerleaders into my lap, Bev. I’m here.”
At least the weather was clear tonight. No stormclouds threatened the horizon, no freak lightning storms offered to bring back the undead. The moon sat perfectly over the stadium, nearly full, and it burned Merton’s eyes to look at it. He had no idea which teams were playing, but he got plenty of shots of the Wolverines. He turned his attention to the girls, who’d decked out their cheerleading uniforms with pale white face paint and fake scars drawn on with theater makeup. They finished their cheer, rustling their pompoms at the crowd, and then they broke apart, giggling to each other. Cheryl gave him a wave with her pompom, and he gave a half-hearted one back as Beverly pushed him forward.
“Go,” she said. “Chat. I’m going to be riveted by the action.”
Merton walked awkwardly behind the coaches and the benched players. They cheered on their teammates and joked among themselves. Johnny sat between them, no uniform on, but he did wear his letterman’s jacket. Beverly bounced towards him, a big smile plastered on her face. When she caught Merton looking at her, she nodded towards where the cheerleaders were standing.
The girls were giggling to each other as Merton walked up. They made a berth for him and Cheryl in that way that girls did when they were protecting their own, a hawkish sorority. She tugged on her red hair and smiled at him.
“Do you like the makeup?” she asked.
He nodded without really thinking about it. “Very spooky.”
“Johnny said it was a laugh. We’re going to the malt shop after. I know Beverly usually comes along, but she wasn’t sure if you would.”
“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I’m still not feeling that well.”
He was aware he should say something else. Maybe invite her along some other time. Make plans. Suggest a date. His eyes drew back to where Beverly was standing. A cheer went up among the crowd as a touchdown was made, and the girls shook their pompoms excitedly.
“Come on, Cheryl!” one of the girls said as they got into formation.
“Yeah, okay.” She gave him another half-wave. “I’ll see you later.”
Merton’s disinterest in the game grew. He took photos here and there, and after he took a few shots of the cheerleaders, they all ran to his side to ask for a copy. Beverly must’ve gotten bored of jock talk, and she stood by him to complain.
“When Johnny was on the field at least there was something to watch,” she said, flipping through her notebook.
Merton took a picture as the band marched across the field. “You’ve got a one track mind, Bev.”
“I’m taking that as a compliment.” She looked at him. “Did you say anything to Cheryl?”
“She asked if I was going out after.” He was in a mood to say yes, but fatigue clung to his bones, and the thought of cramming into a crowded booth made him pause. “I’ll see, I guess.”
The action on the field was middling, and so he turned to take pictures of other things. The cheerleaders raised their pompoms over their heads, and he watched the crowd. Betty was on the top of the stands, saying something in the foreign girl’s ear, her eyes pointed away from the field. He caught a few excited faces also dressed up for Friday the 13th, some fans with their hands raised up, and then he froze as his shutters snapped on a familiar face. Jack Kenley was leaning over the front banister of the stands, grinning big at him. He lifted a hand and waved.
Beverly had noticed Merton’s face. “What’s wrong?”
His face was hot, and the camera strap was strangling him. He unloosed it and pushed it into her hands. His vision edged with darkness, the lights too bright and glaring.
“I’m getting some air,” he said, straining to keep his voice normal.
He shambled past the crowd, feeling Jack’s eyes on him. His chest felt like lead, his whole body shaking, and he clutched a hand against the wall of the tunnel leading into the stadium. Beverly stood behind him as he sunk to the ground.
“Merton,” she said quietly, “you’re not okay. Is it your head? Is it that scratch?”
“I don’t think it’s the wound,” he said, though it did burn.
A cheer came up from the stands, and she looked behind her. “You need to go to a doctor.”
“It’s just people,” he murmured. “The crowd. It’s too much.”
The band started up. It must’ve been a touchdown. Beverly stood there, one foot towards the field, the other beside her best friend.
“Go on,” he said, forcing a smile. “I’m just going to breathe here for a while.”
She clutched his camera in her hands. “You’re going to go home and rest, okay? And you’re going to tell your mom. Or I will.”
He shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”
She handed him his camera back and squeezed his hand before returning to her post. Merton was relieved to see her go. The burning in his chest subsided, but the pain was still a steady throb. Maybe some of it came from the accident, but he was more wary of crowds and stress than any infection. Jack had scared him. Jack who was following him around. No one else was reacting to him, and he wondered if this was some hallucination brought on by his concussion. He sat there, head against the concrete wall, breathing in and out until his skin cooled. He fiddled with his camera to give his hands something to do. It helped.
“Are you unwell?” a voice said right beside him, and he nearly fell over in surprise. It was Marya, her dark hair falling over her shoulders, the black dress accompanied with a black jacket. Her eyes were large in the dim light, and sparked with a curiosity.
He slowly got to his feet. “You’re quiet. Where’d you even come from?”
Her eyes darted down. “I’m sorry. I saw you walking away, and you looked pale–”
“You a doctor then?” he snapped.
She withdrew. “No. I didn’t mean to presume.”
Her expression gave him all types of shame. “Geez, I’m a jerk. Sorry. I got an influx of people who are interested in how sick I am.”
“Who else is interested?” she asked.
“No one. Don’t worry about it.”
She turned, looking back out on the football stadium, and the burst of stadium lights reflected off the thin lines of her face, casting half her face in shadow. When she looked back at him, it looked like her pupils filled the entire socket. When Merton blinked, it was gone. He felt dizzy again, for a different reason.
“You should be careful,” she said, a tremor to her tone he hadn’t expected. “Sunday night is a full moon.”
“Oh, um.” He rubbed his face. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Well, he had, in his dreams, where it bore down on him like a spotlight. The two of them stood there, and Merton was overcome with the urge to ask her what her deal was, why weirdos were suddenly obsessed with his health problems, why everyone couldn’t just leave him alone. The moment ended by the horn that signaled the end of the game. Marya turned around and walked away.
Merton left then, before anyone else decided to talk to him. He rode his bike home, the moon at his back.
Betty exited before the crowed and immediately wrapped an arm around Marya.
“You keep ditching me,” she said. “And you missed the big touchdown.”
“I’ll survive.” Marya watched the crowd as it flooded out. “Where are you going to be Sunday night?”
She shrugged. “At home, doing my advanced physics homework. Why?”
“I worry sometimes about this town.”
“Tell me about it.” She squeezed her shoulder. “Let me buy you a soda.”
“I–” Marya blinked up at her and smiled. “I would like that.”
“Knew you would.”
They walked together to Betty’s car, and Marya tried not to think about the moon overhead. They beat the traffic to the malt shop and took up a booth together.
“You’re really quiet tonight,” Betty said as she set her float on the table.
Marya put her hands around her own soda, letting the straw bob in the fizzy glass. “I am worried.”
“No one’s giving you any trouble, are they?”
“No, it’s not about me.” Her eyes went to outside, where the street was busy tonight, cars lined up against the sidewalk, and the night sky clear. “Do you think there’s something wrong in Whitby?”
Betty opened her mouth to respond and snapped it shut. The door jingled as a large group of football players walked in, amid them Johnny. They laughed and slapped each other on the backs and quickly took up the available booths, surrounding Betty and Marya. Betty’s fingers curled, and she turned her head away. Marya didn’t. She saw the look Johnny passed their way, the sudden crestfallen face. The girl beside him–Beverly Jones, she realized–saw as well and stood bodily between them, saying something that made him look at her.
“We could go,” Marya said in a softvoice.
She stabbed her straw into her own float. “Drink your soda.”
Marya glanced again at the group, most of which took no notice of them. A few other glances were passed, but they took effort to ignore. Marya realized it was a parade of Betty’s old friends, people she’d decided to have nothing more to do with, the losing side of a custody battle. Beverly Jones took the right side of Johnny, leaning in to talk to him, laughing loudly when he talked, and flipping her hair back at every opportunity.
“God,” Betty murmured. “They’re all wearing that ridiculous makeup.”
The cheerleaders had, in fact, decorated their faces to bad approximations of the undead. The white and green makeup made for ghastly masks, carnival drawings of ghosts and goblins, eerie in their own way, especially beside the actual living dead Johnny. Marya shivered at the funhouse mirror that stared back at her, the crude portrait cobbled together from caricature.
“It’s all a big joke to them,” Betty murmured.
“It is a little upsetting,” Marya said. “I’m surprised he feels comfortable among them.”
Her lips curled. “I bet he doesn’t. Jo–he’d go along with it if it made everyone else happy. He doesn’t like causing trouble.”
Marya remembered him sitting among his friends as parents and teachers stood up to call him a menace. Not a flicker of self-doubt had graced his face. Now he sat amid the crowd dressed in the Halloween version of himself.
“Maybe we should go,” Betty said. “I can’t stand looking at them.”
The crowded restaurant presented a problem on that front, as they took their unfinished drinks to the counter. Betty elbowed her way through as Marya managed to avoid touching anyone at all, and then someone backed up into Betty, pushing her forward, and her float onto the shirt of the person beside her. Beverly gave a shout, staring down at the sticky mess that now covered her sweater. Behind her, Johnny stood with a tray of drinks. Betty’s hand covered her mouth as she started to stutter out an apology, and then her jaw clamped shut as she looked up at him.
Johnny stared back at her. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Beverly grumbled, and then she glanced up at them. Absolute disappointment bled into her face when she realized the question hadn’t been directed at her.
“We were leaving anyway,” Betty said quickly and dumped her now empty glass on the counter, grabbing Marya by the arm and dragging her free of the crowd. Marya watched as Beverly grabbed a fistfull of napkins and murmured something rude, while Johnny shifted to help her. Then Betty shoved open the door and let go of her, storming onto the street. Marya followed behind.
“She’s always hanging off him, isn’t she?” Betty spat out, folding her arms over her chest. The night had turned chillier, and the smell of winter was in the air.
Marya paused as they walked past the alley beside the malt shop. There was something else in the air, and distractedly she asked, “Who?”
Betty wrung her hands in the air. “That Jones girl! It’s like she set out to embarrass me!”
“I think you embarrassed her more.” The smell of smoke, though that wasn’t uncommon, and something ancient. A heartbeat thudded in her ear, but when she turned there was nothing there.
“I don’t know why I think I can go anywhere in this town.” Betty fished for her keys. “I’m going home. Do you want a ride?”
“I’ll walk,” she murmured.
A similar shade of disappointment blemished Betty’s face, but she turned sharply, waving a goodnight. Marya waited for her to disappear down the street, and then she stepped into the alley. The extra heartbeat was gone, and the alley dead ended into the building behind it. She stood there a moment, face lifted up to the sky, the pale brush of the moon touching the lines of her face.
A few minutes later, a cloud of bats dispersed, beating their wings towards the edge of town.
Beverly called Saturday morning to regale Merton with all the gossip from the night before, and Merton listened faithfully. His head pounded with fresh pain, and he buried his face in the couch as she ranted against Betty and bemoaned her lack of progress with Johnny. She started to ask how he was feeling, and he made up an excuse to hang up on her. He didn’t want to tell her he felt a thousand times worse than he had last night. His stomach cramped and his limbs ached and the migraines were getting worse. His mom came up to ask him if he needed anything, and he pretended to work on the mountains of homework he was behind on. The second she shut his door, he curled back into bed, reading comic books and listening to the radio. The day went in and out as he slept and woke, and his dreams followed him. He was buried in the dirt in Devon Fields, the trees cold and stark above him, where lights danced in a thousand colors. The moon was the largest of them, a yellow angry eye staring him down. There was someone else there without a face.
He woke up outside, in his backyard, the moon fat overhead. A memory stayed with him, hot breath on the back of his neck, a low rumble in his ear, making his heart pound in his chest. Nausea overcame him, and he stumbled back in, grabbing a blanket off the couch and wrapping it around him. His mom was in the kitchen, cleaning dishes, and she walked out, drying a plate with a cloth.
“I didn’t hear you get up,” she said.
He clutched the blanket over his chest. “It was just now.”
She placed a hand against his forehead, her skin still warm from doing dishes. “How are you feeling?”
“Just tired,” he said
“Yeah, mom.” He smiled at her, though his teeth hurt. “I’ll be good as new tomorrow.”
“Okay.” She sighed as she draped the washcloth over her arm. “One of your friends came by today.”
That surprised him. “Beverly?”
Her lips quirked up. “If it was Beverly, I would’ve said. A girl though.”
He strained for people who would bother with coming by his house. “Was it Cheryl?”
“Who’s Cheryl?” she asked.
He rolled his eyes beneath his blanket. “Nobody. Never mind.”
“I told her you were sleeping. Did you want something to eat?”
“No. I’m still pretty beat.”
“Alright.” Dishes clattered as she placed them back in the cabinets. “You know we can go back to the doctor if you need to.”
He didn’t want to. The thought of being trapped in the cold clinical hospital room with doctors standing over him made him shiver. He wondered how Johnny stood it, those days they probably held him under a knife and made him sit behind clean hospital walls until they deemed him appropriate for society. He’d rather deal with the concussion.
He pretended to be fine all Sunday, despite the light burning his eyes, and barely being able to choke down food. His mom didn’t buy it, but she also didn’t drag him kicking and screaming to a doctor’s office. He ate soup and stared at his textbooks until the words blurred. He laid down after dinner, sweating with his skin itching, and he closed his eyes.
The moon was a burning light behind him. His chest ached with pain, the scar throbbing, and when sleep didn’t come, he stumbled into the bathroom to wash his face. The angry red slash on his skin burned in the low light, the skin around it looking bruised, and under his skin veins curled like an angry web. Breath escaped him. His whole body burned. It was the worst it ever felt, worse even than when he was in the hospital, and now he regretted not telling his mom how bad it was. He stood up to go get her, and his vision spun. He found himself on the bathroom floor, nails digging into his skin, bones aching, every nerve screaming, blood filling his mouth. He couldn’t see what was happening to him. He couldn’t even open his mouth to scream.
That was where Merton stopped, and the creature began.
Beverly had managed a near perfect grade point average since she started high school. Merton called her an overachiever, but she just did the homework. She sat at her desk now, staring at her English essay, trying to dissect the words of the Bard, and in the next room her parents were laughing at the TV. Ed Sullivan’s voice interrupted her train of thought. She sighed, tapping her pen against her desk, and gazed out her window.
Her most recent heartbreak was fresh on her mind. Day one of the new semester she’d said she was going to stop mooning over Johnny, but she was only getting worse. He and Betty hadn’t even talked since he’d been resurrected, and Friday night he’d still turned to Jell-o when he saw her at the soda shop. It was unfair that she’d still have such an effect on him, when Beverly couldn’t do the same. She’d spent the rest of the night pouting and wishing Merton was there, and then feeling bad knowing he was home sick instead. Calling him Saturday, he hadn’t said one word, not really. Was he just sick, or was he mad at her? He’d seemed annoyed at her the other day. Every time he looked as sick as he did, she felt a thick weight of guilt in her chest. If she hadn’t gone with Johnny, if she’d convinced him to go with her instead, if they’d been paying attention, if a million other things had happened, he wouldn’t be sick in the first place.
Her scattered thoughts made her head heavy. She stood and stretched, looking out at the sky from her window. She could name nearly every constellation thanks to her summer nights spent on Merton’s roof. She counted a few right now to clear her head, until she saw something move across her lawn.
She thought she’d imagined it at first. Slowly she leaned forward, discerning shadow from houses and lawns and trees. A shadow stood, almost looking like a person, maybe, its large upper body strangely proportioned to the rest of the body. She watched for a minute, and it didn’t move.
She walked out into the living room where her parents were. Her mom and dad shared a blanket between them with empty mugs of cocoa on the table. Her mother’s brown hair was in curlers, and her pudgy dad smiled at her as she walked in.
“Working hard, sweet pea?” he said.
“Sure, dad.” She frowned out the window. “I was gonna check something really fast.”
She opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. The mysterious figure was gone from her lawn. Beverly walked onto the sidewalk. The streetlights cast shadows everywhere, and the moon gave an odd glow to the street. Across the street, her neighbors’ hedges shook, and for a moment there was a flash of eyes reflected in the low light. The body of the shadow she still couldn’t make out. She stepped forward.
The tree in her yard exploded as a hundred squealing bats took off. Beverly ducked her head and went back to the safety of her porch. Sheltered in the awning of the porch, she couldn’t see the figure again. The bats twittered off towards Devon Fields.
“You alright, dear?” her mother called.
“Yeah.” Beverly closed the door and locked it, just in case. “Saw something weird.”
“Hopefully no more zombies shambling about,” her dad joked, but Beverly gave him a look.
“I’ll be in my room,” she said.
She heard her mom whisper something to him, but she shut her door and went back to her desk. No other mysterious things plagued her vision that night, but she was uneasy as she got ready to lay down for bed. She eyed her window, and then shut the curtains tight before curling under covers, bringing them over her head.
Betty remained in her room as well, the door locked. She could hear her mother downstairs, shouting and moving around, and she turned up the radio as Elvis crooned. Her face still burned with embarrassment over Friday night. She should’ve expected it, all of it, but that Jones girl rubbed her the wrong way, and Johnny was so–so Johnny about everything. And he’d looked at her with his kind eyes, and all she could see was a corpse.
Poor Marya had been dragged into it too. She’d have to make it up to her. Next week was Thanksgiving, and for the past two years, Betty had been at Johnny’s table, getting wrapped in hugs by his mom and watching his father slice the turkey. And now she had Marya, and few items of canned goods, and half an idea to get out of the house. She almost wished she could spend it alone, but the thought of that was worse. Stuck in her room, with only her mom for company. She’d go insane.
Something tapped against the window, and she looked up. Shapes moved in the darkness. The slits in her blinds let in the glimmer of streetlight and the shade of the dark street. Betty stood slowly, reaching for the cord when something thumped against it. She pulled the blinds up. In the street were a hundred bats, flapping their wings as they dove up and down, and one had smacked against her window. It fluttered nervously, looking at her. Her fingers dug into the edge of the window and she pulled it up, but it flew away, returning to the swarm outside. Together they all dashed up towards the sky and screeched towards the edge of town.
Betty stuck her head out and watched the swarm weave away. She missed what was happening on the street below. Smiling, she turned up the radio, and Elvis sang out into the night.
The bats flew, keeping just ahead of the thing that followed them on the ground. Whitby was not a large town, and the colony didn’t take long to make it to Devon Fields. Few cars were parked outside. They flew further into the trees, flying away from the well-traveled paths, and they landed together on a single branch.
The moon continued its climb.