Majesty remained in the woods a good half hour before leaving. Her lungs burned by the time she mounted the steps to the terrace off the side of Derek's house and bedroom. Blue-black clouds suddenly seized the sun as if to keep it from falling into the clutches of the bloody Siren beckoning at the horizon, and the darkness swallowed Majesty up.
As chills shook her, she prayed Derek was home. She cringed at the prospect of being alone, with Death so evidently at her heels ... and bragging about it. A glow through the curtain looked promising.
She knocked on his French door with a shaky fist. Sweat had plastered hair to her face. She slid the snaky strands behind her ears, smoothed out the rest. Not that he'd ever notice a difference between her delectable diva swagger and this river-rat-on-crack thing she surely had goin' on ... but still. Getting no response, she rapped harder and bounced on her heels. "Come on. Be home."
Finally, an outer light came on. Once the door opened, she clung to him like someone snatched back from a riptide.
"What's up, Maj?" Shirtless and in jeans, Derek pushed against her shoulders, but she held on. His hands plodded across her back as though not equipped to deal with the duty of consolation. Why couldn't he ignore his hatred for tears and let her stay in his arms? Just once!
Conceding, she pulled away and entered his midnight blue sanctuary, which at 20' x 36' dwarfed her entire upstairs. Despite the warmth from lit candles and the running gas fireplace, she couldn't stop shivering. She paced in front of his jumbotron and spat out the dreadful tale, with her hands completely going off-script with their own take.
"What? Were they for real? Come on, Maj."
"Yes. One said he'd eradicate me when he finds me. They go to CCH and saw my shirt!"
"Okay, okay. Calm down. With the hype, Colts shirts are everywhere. What'd the cops say?"
"Uh, I haven't told 'em yet. My cred's shot. Kind of an unintentional cry-wolf thing."
"Majesty. You gotta tell 'em."
"Oh, yeah, I know. But I can't go in there all hysterical and spazzed out. They'd blow me off like always. Me. The idiot griever. I need a freakin' game plan, a way to say it that won't make me sound like Chunk. But my brain's in mud. Help me think."
"Um ... get a good look or recognize voices? Details'd help."
"Un-uh. I missed pieces actually. They sounded weird and muffled, wore scarves over their mouths. And also, some of the officers know me. What if my identity lands in the press?"
His blue-diamond eyes twinkled with ridicule. "Guess you'll be eradicated then."
"Come on. Get real. This is serious."
"The press? The TriTown News has what, fifty readers? A sap like you will crash if it happens and you'd done nothing to try and stop it. Hmm. Hey, I know. Call from a payphone. Then, no one has to know your identity, and cops'll be more apt to believe it. Solves everything."
She mulled it over, chewing her lip, twisting fingers together. "Okay. Maybe. Hopefully it'll work. There is that relic hanging on for dear life in the Don't-Blink Zone. I've got to try it. I don't want anyone to die. For a while now, I've felt like something's been chasing me, Death really. That's why I've been so nutty."
"Is that what they call it?" He embraced her, his hands doing a better job this time, drawing gentle swirls. "It'll be okay. Relax. You've got a whole team of protectors, armed with bats."
"No! I don't want anyone to know. Not even Alec. Okay?"
"Sure, crazy, whatever you want."
His muscular hold soothed but also ignited a thirst for him to kiss her with unforgettable passion. But that would never happen. He was her best friend, and that's all he'd ever be. Waving flames from maybe twenty tapers evoked images of him ravishing some naked slut allowed to scream his name. His dark brown hair, wet at the tips, and the saltiness that met her lips, only made them multiply. Though the sickening illusions cut through her like a gazillion shards of glass, she'd take them over bloody ones any day. "What's with all the candles?" She slapped her mouth for spilling the thought when she'd specifically told it not to.
"Aaah, ya know, prayin' to Satan."
"And ya didn't invite me? Mean." Stupid candles. Fabulous. Exactly what she needed at the moment too. But what kind of nemesis would Grief be if it didn't stab at her from every angle? "Why would anyone wanna slaughter people like that?"
"Beats me. Hopefully, we can find out who it is before they act."
"Trust me. Once I gather my thoughts, that's what I fully intend to do."
. . . .
Being with Derek had lessened Majesty's anxiety, but a sliver of dread lingered, as well as prickly frustration from him not seeming even slightly aroused while he'd inspected her for ticks in his bathroom. What the heck was his problem anyway? He'd have to be blind to be more blind. She waved to him as he ripped out of her driveway. Dogwood blossoms that had settled on his Corvette sailed off and fluttered to the pavement. Majesty entered her meager cottage and inched the door closed. Ignoring the call of fresh-baked banana bread, she turned to slink upstairs, but her mother met her at the door, making her grouse.
"Happy to see you too. How was the game?"
Majesty removed her cap, shook her tresses and fingered through the snarls. "We won. We're so close. The regional final's next week."
"I thought you had state semis or something."
"After the next win." She waved her foot side to side, longing to be in her bedroom, and not in the faux-finished foyer, pretending yesterday's closeness wasn't broken into bits of nothing.
"Oh. I can never keep it all straight."
Majesty stepped forward to leave but couldn't escape the inquisition, thanks to the almighty arm-block. "What. Lemme go up."
"In a minute. Did Derek drop you off?"
"Yep." She recoiled as her mother stroked her head.
"You okay? You look flushed."
"Yeah, I'm fine. Ran everywhere today. I'm zapped."
"Better get to bed then."
"Plan to. Right after I memorize a scene for drama."
"That's good. Paul and I are going out with the Millers next Saturday. Got plans? If so, I'll have to beg or barter to find a sitter."
Jerk-face again? Bed's barely cold! "Don't think so, but somethin' may come up. Can't you try to find a sitter anyway? I hate staying home when the weather's so nice."
"I rarely get to go out. Stop being selfish. I know you're not crazy about Paul, but he takes my mind off things. Plus, Skye misses you. You're far busier now than you were with track, jazz and three other things. She can't wait for school to end, especially since you're in this Our Town play on top of everything else."
You can't wait ya mean. "What else? I have the team and acting. Never even congratulated me on landing Emily by the way. I haven't been this idle since eighth. My grades are up. You wish I were like you, Kleenex on hand, barely living, but that's not me. Never will be."
"Not true. I just hate when you bury yourself to avoid-"
"You always do this ... Ya know what, fine. I'll watch her." She spun away, seething, and took deep breaths to keep that hideous beast, Grief, from clawing its way out of its tiny prison in all its menacing fury like some pent-up demon. Once she settled back into her comfortable zone of numb, she peered over her shoulder and said, "Can I at least invite Aislyn and the guys over for games and pizza?"
"As long as you clean up. I hate coming home to a mess."
"Yeah. Thanks for the nudge."
Snubbing her mom's glare, Majesty crept up the stairs to avoid waking her sister, but Skye was peeking out of her room, floppy, white bunny drooped over her arm.
"Hey. Whatcha doin' up, Bug?" Majesty sauntered over and leaned against the doorjamb, then tapped the four-year-old's head with her cap. "Should be sleepin'."
Skye yawned. "Too many moonbeams are coming in the window. Can you read to me?"
A cuddle-and-read sounded the perfect remedy. "Sure. I'd love to." Plus, Skye's night terrors slew any stillness of night with blood-curdling screams and a story might settle her subconscious mind. Majesty lifted her so she could reach the shelf. "I trust you'll pick a winner. You know my faves."
Skye handed it over.
"The Velveteen Rabbit? Excellent choice." She carried Skye to the Dora the Explorer bed and snuggled her.
"Why ya sad?"
She shook her head at Skye's x-ray vision. "Rough day." She swept Skye's honey-colored bangs aside and planted a kiss on her forehead.
"Oh. Call Alec. He's so funny."
"You're right. He is."
"When he sings "Ring Around the Rosie" and the ABC's all squeaky, it cracks me up." Skye burst out laughing and bopped her head, but Majesty shuddered at a rebirthing of toxic words. The forest no longer seemed a place where urban legends fell flat in the wake of maturity along with belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. It really was a sanctuary for death and danger. If only trees could warn. Then again, that's prob'ly what the crows are for.
. . . .
Hell on earth was officially Cedar Creek High, and Warren couldn't wait for it to freakin' freeze over. Droves of mindless germs in its corridors polluted joviality with antagonism, celebrating yesterday's victory in one breath, spewing venom in the next. He subsisted in a bubble, in this strange and foreign land. The inhabitants once dealt him flimsy condolences, but any and all voices of kindness had long since dissolved into static. Still, he much preferred disregard over abuse.
He rushed up the stairs to get to third period unopposed, but Fate being his nemesis, found the very source of infection at the top of the landing.
With an audience of three in tow, Preston Reilly, the King of Vile, said, "Hey, Warren, what's your obsession with hell?" He flicked Warren's chest right on the towering flames of his Road to Ruin shirt, depicting people falling into a fiery chasm at the end of a broken road. "Goin' there?"
"No, but you prob'ly will be."
"Did you just get smart with me?" Preston gawked at his minions and back at Warren again but with more fury.
"Course not. 'Cause surely any intelligent assertions might put you in a dyspeptic or irate disposition, and I'd hate to do that."
Preston double-fisted Warren's shirt. "You're a pissant freak, you know that?" Some stupid ring on his right hand pressed into Warren's neck.
"That's what I hear." Warren's swallow took longer than it should have to complete.
He released his hold on Warren.
"Watch it. Someday I might rip out that shiny, new backbone." He held a tube of lipstick before Warren's eyes. "I bought you a new shade. That one isn't very pretty. It draws too much attention to your braces." He tucked it into Warren's pocket.
Preston's entourage, made up of two cheerleaders, Warren supposed, and Blake, laughed as an assimilated unit, indisputably requiring lifelines to a collective hive mind to function.
Warren chucked invisible daggers into the heads of Preston and his female lemmings as they slid down the banisters.
Still hovering, Blake whacked Warren's chest. "Got a trunk full of wooden stakes, just so you know." After turning into Jase with a crash, he shoved him. "Hey, runt, watch it."
Jase sank into a hunch and scuttled around Blake, who got carried away in a tide of his fellow jerk-swimmers. "What'd they want?"
"The usual. What else." Warren sneered at Jase, who exemplified regression to a primitive state, shoulders slumped, arms dangling. Pathetic. No one, not even this dorky sidekick of his, appreciated his brilliance and talent. Little did it matter. Soon he'd amass the respect he deserved ... from everyone. People would regret their misdeeds. He just needed to settle Jase's apprehension about committing a criminal act.
Though it could spell ruin to entrust his plan to a jittery dolt like him, with his greasy, blond hair forever moving more than any guy's should, unfortunately his cache of abettors only contained one.
"This is gonna end," Warren swore.
. . . .
Jase's brown eyes, dull as mud, turned Majesty into organza when she said hi. Well, if he wanted more friends, he should try, um, returning gazes or replying when spoken to. She felt no itch to sweat it. Unlike him, she didn't mind skirting under the radar, not with killers-to-be on the hunt. Her neck ached from the protective slouch she'd lugged around all day.
Though her victory shirt, one of five Colts shirts she owned, screamed flamboyance with its sparkly MJ on back, not wearing might've beamed brighter to whomever the deadly sickos were. But, thanks to the Athletic Director's good sense to market paraphernalia, Colts shirts flooded in plenty, making her feel less self-conscious. Still, she feared she held some other exposing tell.
According to school records, males totaled 254, which included invaders from Megan's Corner. Finding 'em won't be easy. With more girls, what are the chances they'll find me?
The dismissal bell rang. Finally.
Leaning against the lockers, Alec adjusted his Red Sox cap and squinted at her.
Majesty was about to snap, "What!" when a passerby said hi. "Oh, hi, Hannah." She backhanded Alec's chest. "She's cute. Ask her out."
"Heidi of the Alps? No way. I bet she yodels and clog dances."
"She does not. Cut it out. I know. I know. Ya gotta have a sports nut."
"Stop going all Aphrodite on me."
"Actually, her son Cupid's the real romantic. She enjoys causing havoc. If I went all Aphrodite on you, you'd be fawning at my feet, burning with desire, getting harder by the-"
"Kay. Gotcha." Pink conquered the tan on his face, and his irises, which volleyed between blue and green, fell to the hue of colder oceans. "Quit matchmaking, all right?"
"For now," she laughed. Being able to floor this rock among mere men sparked a thirst for even greater stun power. "Hey. I got my first invite to a party at the King's mansion today."
"Yeah. Derek and I found his junk mail this morning. I'm not buying."
"Then I don't wanna go, but Derek might, and you know he kinda sorta weakens my will."
He swept strands of her hair off her face and tucked them behind her ear. "Lovesickness. Tackles the best of us. Want me to beat some sense into him, Brown Eyes?"
"No," she moaned.
He removed his cap and wiggled it onto her head. "Cuter on you." He smoothed his golden brown hair but missed some wisps on top. "He's beh…" She took care of 'em. "…um, been so detached and serious lately, rarely laughs anymore."
"Maybe your jokes just suck."
"You know what I mean. I don't know where his mind is these days."
"I do. Think fake boobs ... Gotta go. Bye." She one-shouldered her backpack, stuffed with books and letters of warning for every church within fifty miles.
"I can give you a lift," Alec said, reaching for it.
She recoiled. "No! I'm good. I'll walk. It's gorgeous."
"What the heck? Rob a bank?"
"No. I ... have lots of locker crap ... cleaned it out. It's not heavy."
He sneered at her and said, "Okaaay. You cool or what? You've been weird all day. Kinda jumpy and quiet actually. And you, quiet? With the title recapture a couple of wins away? Not like you at all."
"I'm fine. Just tired. Need fresh air. See ya." As she turned, faces warped like deranged clowns in a funhouse mirror. She clenched her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Though her vision reset, anxiety stuck. Her pulse raced as she exited and jogged to the Don't-Blink Zone.
With no one near the payphone, she darted there, kissed her Carlton Fisk keychain for luck and called police.
"Cedar Creek Police Department. Recording."
Peering around, she hunched and shielded her mouth. "Hi. Uh, I was jogging in the woods last night around seven-thirty. I overheard two guys, who I believe go to Cedar Creek High, talking about some plan involving a church. They didn't specify, but they mentioned guns and shooting. That's all I heard. Just wanted you to know. Bye."
"Wait a minute! Miss-"
She hung up and gnashed her teeth. Load off me now. But what if they learn I ratted, figure out who I am? The phone rang, making her jolt. Stupid caller ID. Casting a glance over her shoulder, she gasped and did a double-take. "Oh no! Gas station cameras." Cops'll know in five. It's fine. Be cool. She jerked Alec's cap down on her brow. "He-hello?"
"Tell anyone else, anything, even the fact that we found you, and someone you love will die," said an electronic voice. "No one can stop us ... least of all, you." During a diabolical laugh, she shivered and slammed the phone down.
Aside from Smitty changing gas prices on his sign, no one appeared in eyeshot. The letters, now affixed with a death sentence, suddenly weighed like lead.
Majesty couldn't stop shaking, as she ran home, the long way.
Kings & Queens by Courtney Vail
from Little Prince Publishing
available in paperback and eBook
at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords.