“See ya tomorrow, Ollie!”
If I don’t die first. The morbid thought sliced through my mind like a knife’s cut, but I’d managed to be one step ahead of death for two years now. Tonight would be no different. Of course, I told myself that every night.
“Night, Cath,” I called, waving at the pleasantly round woman who busily wiped down sticky, vinyl-covered tables across the empty diner. I slung my grungy backpack over my shoulder and shoved open the diner’s door, the little bell above my head jingling. A blast of Kodiak’s finest fall air swept through the little restaurant. The gust of wind chilled my legs, gooseflesh prickling, but I didn’t shiver.
I was almost free of the grease-bathed restaurant when Cath hollered, “Are you sure you don’t want these leftovers?” She held up a to-go box full of fried goodness. Knowing Cath, she’d probably slipped in a piece of my favorite pie: lemon meringue. I gritted my teeth against my growling stomach and mentally told it to shut the hell up.
“I’m fine. Thanks though.”
The door chimed closed behind me, and I took off across the dark parking lot, the diner’s neon sign popping and flashing over my shoulder, sending shadows dancing around me. My backpack bumped against my spine, its straps growing wet in the drizzling rain. Kodiak was a quiet place this late at night, but I still slid my hand around the small gun I carried in my raincoat’s pocket.
To some, it would be scary to walk six blocks home in the dark by themselves wearing a waitress uniform that barely came to mid-thigh. Not me. Only one thing truly scared me, and he was five thousand miles away. Everything else was a piece of lemon meringue pie. Had been that way since I was a little girl.
Guess that’s what happens when you can’t feel pain.
Child Services discovered I couldn’t feel pain, a mutation of congenital analgesia, when my first foster daddy shoved me into a fireplace and broke my arm. He said I was being too loud. I took a fire-poker and dented his skull. Using my broken arm.
The incident had packed me on to foster family number two. Spoiler alert: that one didn’t end well either.
Congenital analgesia meant processing pain stimuli was impossible for my brain, which wasn’t as cool as it sounded. The doctors called my version of the disease a mutation, something messed up in my thalamus, because I cognitively recognized temperatures and touch. I’d been poked and prodded all my life, and I felt the poking and prodding—the pressure against my skin, the warmth of touch—just not the pain of it. No matter the reason for my freakishness, I’d made up my own rules: don’t get too cold, wash my hands, never let anyone touch me, and shoot first and ask questions later.
I trucked along, the walk to my cash-only, pay-by-the-week apartment already feeling familiar enough that my teeth weren’t on edge the entire walk, as if I expected cops might jump out from behind a car and finally arrest me.
We murderers were naturally a jumpy lot.
Glass storefronts lined the empty street around me, closed signs flashing. Streetlights buzzed above my head, and I slipped from patch of light to patch of light like a moth fluttering along.
As I walked, I listened to the thwack of my shoes against the sidewalk. I kept my eyes moving, looking down the narrow alleys, watching the empty cars lining the road. My thumb flicked the safety on and off. Between the weight of my gun and the natural ease I felt in Alaska, like it was a sacred haven for runaways like me, I almost hummed a song under my breath.
I came to the unlit section of town, where the city hadn’t bothered to replace the streetlights’ blown bulbs. The darkness enveloped me so quickly that it was like stepping underwater. The only light came from the flashing red “closed” signs on the storefronts lining the left side of the street where I walked.
Normally, I walked right through, but tonight I paused and looked around. No one else passed me on the street, which wasn’t unusual for this time of night, but my “shit’s about to go down” radar sprang to life—a radar finely tuned from fourteen foster homes over the course of six years. Currents spread out along my skin, raising the hairs on my arms. My spine tingled. Slowly, I reached up and flipped back my hood, so it wouldn’t hinder my peripheral vision.
Tick tock tick tock
The sound blasted in my ear, and I jumped in surprise. Reacting quickly, I pulled my gun and spun around, forefinger alongside the trigger. The ticking kept up, like a clock gonging right beside me.
I was the only one on the street.
Frowning, I dug my cheap pre-paid cell out of my pocket. One glance at the display told me the phone wasn’t making the weird clock sound. The ticking trumpeted so loud, so close, it resembled a war drum in my ear.
Tick tock tick
I swiveled around, craning my neck to see deep into the shadows of the dark alleys between the small stores beside me. The shadows didn’t move or tick, even though the ticking sounded like it literally came from two feet behind me. I spun in a circle again with my eyes roving the ground for something I might have stepped on. Faded concrete and old gum stared back at me from beneath the toes of my Converse. I stepped over to the closest store’s window and pressed my face against the glass.
The clock sound faded slightly, and I glanced down the street, straining to keep up with the noise. It might have been a car, but none had passed by me. Lights blazed a few blocks down, but in front of me, darkness reigned, making the town’s familiar streets suddenly feel like a foreign country with a population of one. And maybe an obnoxious cuckoo clock.
Or maybe just one cuckoo murderer: me.
The ticking continued to fade into a faint murmur. I flicked on the safety and put the gun back in my pocket.
I spun around, the sound a whisper against my ear, like someone had blown a kiss inches from my face.
The sound came from my head now, directing me toward the alley next to me. Slowly, I turned and looked.
A dog with dramatically pointed ears materialized from the shadows, its black fur rippling like silk in the silver moonlight. It drew to a stop a couple feet away, obsidian eyes sweeping up my body in a way that gave me the very distinct impression it was cataloging my most tender parts. Its nostrils flared, breath condensing in the still air between us.
I didn’t move and neither did the dog, as if we were locked in a game of chicken to see who would turn away first. After a few blinks, the dog cocked its head and huffed a heavy breath, like I’d disappointed it by not playing the game right.
Over the past week, Kodiak had reported a series of animal attacks, but it felt like a mistake to consider this creature just a dog. At any moment, I expected it to throw back its animal pelt and reveal a man beneath, laughing at playing a joke on me.
I leaned closer, bending slightly at the waist. The creature stiffened, but I focused on the black inside its eyes. A store’s sign flashed above me, giving me all the light I needed to see.
My reflection was upside down, which wasn’t right at all.
“What the hell are you?”
The one to end you, brave girl. To lick the marrow from your bones and dine on your fear.
The shock at hearing the dog’s voice in my head saved my life. With a gasp, I recoiled, stumbling backward right as the creature lunged, its snapping jaws sending a pungent breeze across my face. Its front paws, massive with curling yellow claws, hit the concrete right where I’d previously stood.
Not willing to turn my back on the dog and knowing better than to run, I backed into the street, hand reaching into my pocket for the gun. The dog followed, letting out a low rumble that shook my bones. As it stalked me across the street, keeping close enough to reach out and touch, I stared back at my upside-down face in its empty eyes.
Why aren’t you afraid, brave girl? Why don’t you feel my pain?
I drew my gun and aimed, refusing to believe a dog’s voice was in my head.
My heel hit the street’s curb and I stumbled. My arms pinwheeled for balance and the gun went flying. I fell backward as the dog leapt at me, jaw stretching open wider and wider, like it was going to consume me whole.
Together, we hit the ground, the air gushing out of me with a gasp. The dog’s claws ripped my rain jacket, its weight bearing down on me with enough bruising force to bend and crunch my ribs.
The dog’s lips pulled back in a snarl, teeth dripping with long ropes of saliva. On instinct, I braced my hand against its neck, locking out my elbow until the joint bent dangerously backward. The dog snapped repeatedly, its razor-sharp fangs coming within an inch of my cheek. Judging solely by the angle of my joint and the surge of heat straight to my fingers, my arm would break soon if I didn’t do something.
I cursed, the words running through my head before they hissed out my mouth. The dog, I swore, laughed at me.
With my other hand, I grabbed the dog’s ear and yanked, an unnerving warmth spreading through my damaged elbow from holding up the dog’s weight. I’d nearly ripped the appendage off before I realized the dog didn’t care about its ear. Deep in my elbow, something popped and snapped, but the pain accompanying a dislocated elbow was absent, and I managed to keep holding the dog off of me.
This dog had met its match.
At least I thought so until it feinted to the side, rolled off me, and charged again. I scrambled to my feet right as the dog hit me in the side and knocked me into the store’s window front hard enough to send a spiderweb of cracks through the tempered glass.
I gritted my teeth. I would be damned if some freak-ass dog was going to take me out.
I sprang forward, ready to try running away, but the dog latched on to the hood of my jacket and slung me backward with a vicious shake of its head. I hit the pavement again, the air in my lungs jarring up my throat. The dog sprang onto me before I rolled away, the heat from its thick fur stifling. It lunged for my throat, ready to rip it out, but I just managed to raise my hands in time. My fingers pried deep into the dog’s mouth, the backs of my hands digging into my neck and choking me along with the dog’s hot breath that stank of rotten meat.
The dog tried to sling off my grip as it shifted to try a new angle. I grunted and shifted with it, forcing my hands deeper into its mouth. I maneuvered my fingers and curled them around the dog’s upper and lower jaw.
A force, like twisting open a tightly sealed mason jar, worked up through my cramping fingers and hands. The flare of concentrated heat, normally my first warning sign of injury, spreading up my arms was unlike any I’d ever felt before. I didn’t know the dog’s teeth had cut my palms until blood gushed down my arms.
For a split second, I wished I felt the pain. To feel normal for a moment.
No such luck, so I ignored the warning waves of heat in my arms and pressed harder. The dog’s jaw stretched farther open until the skin along its mouth tore. Its eyes blinked in pain, flickered bright white, before returning back to black. It scrabbled backward, feet scuttling against the pavement, a whining scream building deep in its throat, but I kept pushing my hands apart as it struggled against me.
No, the dog said, voice crystal clear in my head.
Maybe I was half-crazed from the warmth growing into a fire inside my hands, where the dog’s teeth likely shredded my palms, but I answered back. Screw you.
The dog paused, as if he heard me plain as day. There was a sudden release, like the reluctant jar’s lid finally springing loose, and a loud crack echoed against my hands. With its jaw dangling loose in my hands, I adjusted my grip and went in for the kill. Another snap punctuated the silent night and reverberated up my arms. The creature finally stilled, neck broken. With one last heave, I shoved its body off of me.
Slowly, I rose, checking out my hands. Along the palms, right below my fingers, deep punctures cut into the fleshy tender parts, glistening with blood and exposed muscles. The sight worried me plenty, but from deep within my hands, the fire spread farther, which concerned me even more. The sensation went beyond my normal warning signals and became something else entirely—something else being what I imagined pain felt like. But I knew better than that, which meant the dog probably had some disease.
Thinking how expensive a black market rabies shot would cost me, I crouched beside the dog and lifted its mangled head with my good arm. In its eyes, my reflection was right-side up. No more clock noises. It was just me, alone on the street, staring at myself in a dead dog’s eyes. A dog that I would’ve bet my life on had spoken to me. And I had answered.
“Well,” I said, cradling my hurt arm, “that’s new.”
“Believe me, hot legs. You have no idea.”
I whirled around. Two guys stood behind me. The one who’d spoken busied himself with checking me out. He had electric-red hair and a series of jagged black scars spreading from the right side of his forehead and over his eye, making the damaged iris a shockingly bright gray color. The longest part of the scar stretched down his cheek and into the corner of his mouth.
My attention quickly flipped to the second guy, who studied me with a dark, shadowed expression that instantly raised my hackles. Every instinct I had screamed he was the dangerous one. And you always kill the dangerous ones first. Only then did I notice they were both dressed in thick black pants laden with all kinds of gleaming knives. They wore vests resembling Kevlar but with a thinner piece wrapped around their necks.
Obviously this was my night for running into freaks. I glanced around for my gun. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Hatter and this is Luke. We are very happy to have your acquaintance,” the one with red hair—Hatter, apparently—said.
“Like the Mad Hatter?” I spotted my gun beneath a parked car ten feet away.
“Oh, you’re good. She’s good, Luke.”
My eyes flicked toward the other one with dark hair and blazingly bright green eyes—Luke. He nodded toward the dead dog beside me. “You do that?”
His voice was deep and even, like he controlled every syllable as it left his mouth. As I watched, he pulled out something from his pocket and began unwrapping it. A hard caramel candy fell into his palm. I blinked, suddenly remembering the dog beside me as Luke popped the candy into his mouth.
I sniffled, letting my eyes moisten. Slowly, so it didn’t look overdone, I trembled and cradled my hurt arm. The victim act worked on some guys. While looking as helpless as possible, I tried to work out how to reach my gun. “It attacked m-me.”
“How were you able kill it?” Luke asked, unimpressed with my act.
“And when do your legs open for service?” Hatter grinded his hips toward me.
A red haze rose up through my body, starting in my bones and leeching out into my blood. I’d felt this way before when I’d killed a man. This feeling, this heady rush of rightness, was like an old friend. It’s how I knew I was the violent, killing type.
In a blink, my eyes cleared and I straightened, dropping my hurt arm down to my side in case I needed it. “You two better move on before I crack open your jaws too.”
“Answer the question.” A motion down by Luke’s side caught my eye; the fingertips on his right hand danced against each other in an odd sort of tapping rhythm. He sucked hard on the candy in his mouth, almost like it was therapy to him.
“Which one? There were a few.”
“What’s your name?”
“Name’s none of your business, asshole.”
“How did you kill the ’swang?”
Luke watched my face for a long moment, his eyes flicking between my nose and mouth and back up to my eyes. He even stared at the pulse in my neck for a moment. Finally, he crunched the caramel candy up and swallowed it before responding. “You really have no clue, do you?”
“Look,” I said, wiping my bloody palms on my bare legs, “I don’t have time for this shit.”
I moved to walk past the guys, but Luke grabbed my arm, his entire hand wrapping around my forearm. I’ve had a very strict “no touch” rule since I was ten and put into foster care. I reacted on pure instinct. My hand shot up, the heel of my palm smashing into his eye socket. I could only imagine the pain he was in. Literally.
The punch did a little to alleviate the heady need for violence pulsing in my blood. If they didn’t let me go soon, I would kill them.
Luke staggered back, bent over at the waist, and howling in pain while he clutched the side of his face. “Hatter,” he managed to choke out.
I turned my attention to Hatter, who took his sweet time pulling out a little plastic gun from the back of his rugged black pants. I pointed my finger at him. “Don’t do it,” I warned and then paused, cocking my head to the side. “Is that a water gun?”
“Kentucky fried chicken!” He sing-songed the words as he pulled the trigger. Two wires shot out of the end and straight at my chest.
Prongs tore my uniform and blasted into the skin right beneath my collarbones. With a frown, I glanced back up at Luke and Hatter. Their mouths fell open in shock at my lack of response. But something spread through my body like a great humming or a bone-jarring vibration. My body flashed warm then cold, another warning sign. I crumpled to the ground, confused as to why my body twitched and flailed about. The back of my jaw locked tight, and my eyes fluttered into the back of my head. I could’ve been adrift on the sea of pain for hours or seconds while I peered down into the murky depths, wondering what was wrong with me.
Strong arms lifted me into the air, and Luke’s caramel breath swirled across my face. The night’s breeze tickled along my legs, fluttering the hem of my skirt. I groaned. Not because I hurt, but because my body refused to move. It betrayed me. The pain remained as foreign as it always was. Yet, I was too numb to move.
“Ugh,” I moaned, my throat refusing to form actual words.
Luke carried me a ways down the street, my head jostling against his chest, and we turned a corner into a narrow alley, where a discreet black van was parked. I wanted to threaten them, to lash out and shred Luke’s face with my nails, to fight back, but I only managed a sick little whimper that sent a surge of self-hatred through me. As Hatter went ahead of us to open the van’s back door, Luke squeezed me tighter to his chest, murmuring something I couldn’t make out through the fog that had descended around me.
When we were at the back, Luke carefully laid my body out on a cold metal floor, like he didn’t want to bang up my elbows, which was nice of him considering if I hadn’t been paralyzed I would’ve ripped his nuts off. He turned away from me and disappeared. The breeze coming through the open door ruffled my hair. A long, silent moment later, he and Hatter came back into view with the dog’s body lifted between them, arm muscles straining against their dark thermal shirts.
I wanted to tell them they better not dare to put that thing in here with me, but I’d lost my voice. They tossed the dog in next to me, and its broken neck flopped over in my direction. Open eyes, cloudy and vacant, stared right at me, but my head refused to turn away.
I was paralyzed on the floor of some van with a dead dog-thing beside me. This was bad. This was really, really, really bad.
The van’s front doors opened with a squawk of worn metal and the guys climbed in, the engine rumbling to a start a moment later. They tossed their vests and throat guards into the back with me, and someone rummaged through the console by my feet. No one spared a glance back at me. They hadn’t tied my wrists, so they must be fairly certain I’d still be out of it when we arrived at our destination. I shivered, feeling a lick of fear crawl up my spine. What would happen to me when I got there?
“We have a situation,” Luke said from the direction of the driver’s seat. By the lack of Hatter’s response, I realized Luke must be on the phone with someone. “A civvie killed one.”
Muffled, hurried words sounded from the other person on the phone, but they were obviously talking about me. I strained my body until my neck finally moved, and the front of the van came into view.
Luke interrupted, his voice clipped, giving me the distinct impression he didn’t care for the person on the other end of the line. “I don’t know how she did it, but does it matter? We don’t bring in civvies.” The voice on the other end raised to a static-filled yell. “Well, I think we should let her go. There’s no point—”
Luke paused for a long time, listening to the other person and occasionally answering with a clipped yes or no. He glanced back at me, his expression unreadable as his green eyes searched over me, as if my life’s secrets were written across my exposed skin. If anyone else would have looked at me like that I would have gagged, but I stared back at him, unblinking and unyielding. He turned away first.
“Have the plane ready for us then,” he growled before disconnecting the call. He shoved the van into drive and steered it back onto the street, the wheels bouncing over a curb.
“Wh—” My throat closed up. It took a couple tries before I spoke again. “Where are we going?”
Hatter looked over his shoulder, his wild eyes dancing with delight. He looked crazy. I shivered. “You killed a ’swang, hot legs! You get special attention, now.”
“It’s not every day a civvie kills a ’swang. Especially at night. We gotta know who you are. We could use you on our side.”
“Shut up, Hatter.” Luke examined his slightly swollen eye in the rear-view mirror as he drove down the quiet street.
“Come on, Luke. You know we could use her too. She took it down with just her hands! Could you imagine what she could do with a sting whip?”
“What’s a sting whip?” I asked, trying to keep up, but it was like they were talking in another language.
“No civvies.” Luke’s fingers tapped a mad jig against the steering wheel, tension simmering off of him like hot pavement in summer.
“Civvie or not,” Hatter said, “Dean said to bring her in, right? So we bring her in.”
“Please,” I begged, my voice rasping. Both men up front stilled. Luke glanced into the rear-view mirror, eyes hard and unrelenting in the face of my fear. And I was definitely afraid. I had the sinking feeling that my greatest fear wasn’t as far away as I’d thought he was. “Please, where are we going? Did Max send you?”
“Who’s Max?” Luke asked. But Hatter grinned, his smile slashing across his scarred face like an exclamation point. “You took down a ’swang, and you’re worried about us?” He laughed, like belly laughed, for a long moment. “Nah. You don’t have to worry about us. We’re taking you to Fear University.”