As the six James Buchanan High School seniors stood just inside the double doors that separated the cafeteria from the school’s entrance hall, Nat found that all she could think about was her younger sister.
Suzanne Lyons had gotten up that morning almost an hour before Nat. She used that time to mull over several outfits. Nat remembered thinking she never in her life needed as many outfits, much less accessories, for a school year as Suzanne seemed to. Her little sister had dozens of different folders and book covers and pens. She had three different bookbags, for god’s sake! Nat remembered their grandmother laughing when Nat teased Suzanne about this. “You only start high school once”, her grandmother reminded Nat in a soft voice. Still, Nat started high school three years before, and she did it much more efficiently. Even with the hour’s head start, Nat got to, and finished, breakfast before the younger Lyons daughter.
She got showered, and they dressed around each other in the hallway bathroom they shared on the upstairs floor of their home. Suzanne had been so excited for her first day of high school—a little annoyingly so to Nat with how long her sibling had spent drying and styling her hair when Nat had needed to get around her to dry off from the shower—and she had been shaking with excitement the whole past week. It was like no one had ever been a ninth grader before her! When Suzie was still struggling with what to wear, Nat mentioned she should have put that week’s nervous energy into planning her outfit. Suzanne replied that she had! She had narrowed it down to the ones she weighed against each other that morning.
Nat had offered her a ride to school so she wouldn’t have to deal with the bus, but Suzanne had declined; she wanted to see her friend Kimi so they could plan the day as conquering freshmen together. While Nat was still throwing together her plain notebooks, Suzanne walked out the door and headed up the street to the bus stop. By the time Nat pulled out of the driveway and turned down the road, her sister was gone. She figured the bus had picked her up.
But there Nat was at the school that morning… and Suzanne was not. Her sister was so excited. So eager. And now, she was missing. Where was her sister? Where was everyone?
“No one is coming, guys. Should we,” Gene hesitated halfway through his suggestion. Maybe he was pondering if it was a good idea after all. “Should we go out there?” he seemed to muster the courage to suggest.
The sound of the crash a few minutes before had gotten them all away from the table and up toward the dual doors, but none of them seemed particularly eager to throw them open and see what had caused the disturbance. Whatever had created it had since ceased after the initial burst; Nat could not hear anything coming from that part of the building.
“Yeah, I mean… why are we so scared of a noise, anyway?” Vinny asked.
“Because this day’s already fucked up, and now there are weird smashing noises, idiot,” Aaron shot back, barely bothering to look back at his classmate. He pushed his girlfriend behind him, then took a step back, almost knocking her over in his zeal to protect her. “What part of that isn’t a bit scary? You’ve seen a movie before, right?”
Vinny did not respond, and they fell back into the silence of waiting for some signal of what was going on behind the doors. Nat turned her head to the side, leaning her ear towards the doors to try to pick up anything. Vinny made a face at her; she shrugged and shook her head in response. There was nothing she could hear.
“What is the absolute worst case scenario here, guys?”
“Werewolves. A werewolf.”
All eyes turned at Gene’s response to Smith’s question. Nat felt her mouth tighten at his response.
Gene rolled his head to the side and popped his eyebrows. “Well, it’s not a good case scenario,” he said much more quietly.
Her sister was missing—who knows what happened to her—and Nat was stuck with one of her more off-putting classmates speculating on lycanthropy in the middle of the late summer morning. Although… all things considered…
Smith pushed the door on the right open, not much, just enough to poke part of his face into the gap and call out a greeting. She could see him pivoting to look every direction, but nothing responded.
“Do you see anything,” Becky whispered, pushing her way past Aaron’s outstretched arm.
Smith shook his head.
“Do we think a bird just flew into a window or something?”
“Vinny, I’m going to chuck you out there if you are so damn sure everything’s okay.”
Becky tugged on Aaron’s arm and made a shushing sound that she might have intended to be a word, but if so, it failed to fully materialize.
Smith slowly pushed the door all the way open. The rest of them froze; Nat felt naked against the world on the other side. Smith took a step into the entrance hall, holding the door open for anyone who wanted to come next. Nat looked to Vinny and motioned toward the door with her head. For all his certainty that they shouldn’t be scared of birds or whatever, he mouthed back an emphatic “no”.
Smith turned back. “I don’t see anything, guys.” Smith faced them for several seconds after delivering that news, but no one made a move. “Literally. Nothing is wrong.”
“We believe you, man. We’re just waiting to see if Vinny’s pigeon eats you.”
Gene laughed at Aaron’s remark, but something about the absurdity of it all returned the strength to Nat’s legs. Suzanne could be… well, she could be anything or anywhere at that moment, and it could even be Nat’s fault. And she was going to let herself be scared and not walk through a doorway? She strode up next to Smith, only to find he was right. The window into the shop was undamaged. None of the light bulbs above them were out. She examined everything she could think of that could have made that sound, but nothing was out of the ordinary.
“Was it the doors?”
Smith and Nat eyed each other at Becky’s words. The main entrance doors were around the corner from the guard desk, and those they could not see yet. Smith shrugged; Nat nodded in return. At that, they carefully made their way past the desk. As she finished each step, Nat tensed her body for something—anything—to come darting out behind the wall. Even a pigeon.
The spider-web pattern of cracked glass was certainly not a fixture of the door just a few minutes ago when she had arrived at school. But now it confronted her. It started at about the height of her shoulders and radiated outward from that core. At the point of impact, the pane was so ruptured she could not even see out of it anymore for all of the smaller cracking and warping. Further out from the center, the breaks were bigger and more spaced out and defined. That let Nat see what else was part of the glass.
Blood. The thick red stain of it stood out to Nat and invaded her senses. She could smell it even on the other side of the entrance. It streaked down from the origin of the webbed pattern, and her eyes followed it to the ground.
The body at the base of the door was motionless, and it was covered in more blood than the door. Nat instinctively stretched upward and stood on her toes to adjust her perspective. More of the fluid was pooling around the limp body. Nat tilted her head as much as possible, but from her angle she could not get enough of a glimpse of the face to see if it was someone she would recognize. The soaked and stained shirt and jeans were definitely not what Suzie had settled on that morning.
The sound of Aaron’s disbelief shook her out of studying of the body. She looked back and realized she was now several steps ahead of Smith; she must have been unconsciously creeping forward at the sight of the body and the blood. The rest of her classmates had finally pushed themselves out of the safety of the cafeteria to see what she and Smith saw.
“Who is it?” Becky asked.
Smith looked to Nat for an answer, no doubt since she’d taken the steps towards the body. All she could do was shrug.
“Is it… are they alive?” Vinny followed up.
“I didn’t see them move,” Nat answered, “but I don’t really know.”
“We’re not going to leave them out there, are we?”
“Did they run into the door at full speed or what?”
Nobody seemed to have an answer to either Aaron’s or Gene’s questions that came at the same time. Nat recalled the sensation that this was all a gameshow-like prank; the base of her neck shivered. Or maybe it was a feeling like they were being watched. But this was a lot more than just a joke being played on some kids on the wrong school day, right?
“No, yeah, we’re definitely not going to leave them out there,” Smith responded to Aaron since he clearly had no answer to Gene. “Help me bring them in in case they need help.”
“Oh god,” Gene said in a timid tone.
A few yards out from the broken glass door, a figure stepped out from behind the northern corner of the high school building. Even from the distance, Nat could tell he was tall. Tall was hardly the word for it; his size was inhuman. He would certainly tower even over Aaron if he were to approach them.
She could not see his face, not his real face anyway. He hid that behind the sort of rubber mask you would find on any given Halloween. A fiery orange, smiling demon visage covered his true face. Its sculpted teeth protruded out from its mouth, reaching almost up to its thick nose, and its angular eyes were set off by menacing eyebrows. There was no way to see the man’s real eyes through the material of the mask. The top of the mask was bald, and the head of the mask seemed to come to something of a dull point instead of rounding back over his head. Some kind of fur or faux-hair made up a braided beard that extended down to his chest.
Nat could not tell if he was topless or wearing a matching costume over his body. What appeared as his skin matched the flamelike tone of the mask he wore, but she could not see any visible points where material ended or more human skin began. His body seemed thick and powerful. His chest was broad and its muscles pronounced. His pants were loose, flowy, and black, but she could tell his legs were as large as a telephone pole even through them. He carried a large axe to his side that did not seem to burden him at all. Nat didn’t know the kind of double-sided axes cartoon barbarians wielded existed in real life
They all saw him, but none of them said anything. Any movement to help the person injured and just a few feet away from them stiffened into nothing at this presence. The masked man’s hulking breathing caught all attention. Nat blinked several times to make sure she kept her focus, just in case he made a start toward the broken door.
He lifted his axe over his head in his right hand, never taking his stare away from them as he did so. For a moment he remained that way, staring and breathing and holding the weapon high like it weighed as much as a baby’s rattle. Suddenly, he slashed forward, the blade on one side fissuring the sidewalk beneath his foot, though he didn’t even shake at the impact. The attack was not at anything in particular, but, Nat figured, just to make them imagine what it could do to them.
They all reacted at his demonstration. The six students ran back to the double doors and letting him out of their sight. It wasn’t smart, and Nat knew that immediately, but not looking at him certainly felt a lot better in her soul than the alternative. She could at least pretend he wasn’t there. Out of sight, out of mind… that is what they said, right?
“The fuck was that?” Aaron asked. It had to be the question on all of their minds. They all exhaled at his words, and Nat hadn’t realized they must all have been waiting for someone to shatter the moment and remind them to breathe. She was acutely aware of all of their deep inhales afterwards, though. “Seriously, what the fuck was that?”
“Not a pigeon,” Gene said.
“What if he tries to get in here?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want us?” Vinny responded to Becky.
“’Maybe he doesn’t’…? What do you think he wants?” Aaron growled, grabbing Vinny by the front of his polo shirt.
“I’m just trying to keep Becky calm, Aaron!”
“Yeah? What do you think is gonna happen if you do? You her big hero then?”
Nat could not believe what she was hearing, at that moment of all times. “Are you two serious right now? Back off, Aaron.”
“You know he’d be all up on you if you liked guys, Nat. Don’t defend him—”
“Shut up!” Smith’s yell cut them all, and they turned to see him taking a step back toward the glass door… and that man outside it. “Look, just… go lock yourselves in a classroom or something! I’m going to…,” Smith looked over his shoulder, then faced them again, “I’m going to hold him off. Or something”. With the exception of the “or something”, there was an unreasonable determination to his voice, even as she noticed his arms viciously trembling.
“I’m sorry, maybe you didn’t see him out there,” Gene replied, then lifted his hand high over his own head. “He is very big, Smith”.
Smith shook his head. “Look, I know. I saw him. But he’s… This summer, I… something happened to me. I’m…” He stopped, looking over the rest of them. His previous resolve had obviously weakened. He opened his mouth, only to close it; he seemed to find the words only to lose them again twice over. His arms twitched at his sides, moving around without much direction.
He finally extended his right hand, palm up. He bit his lip as he studied the rest of them. A small ball of flame rose slowly from his palm, danced back and forth, and then sizzled away into a swirl of smoke. Nat watched the dissipating smoke rise up to the ceiling. “I’m a GAP,” he finally concluded, the confidence having returned to his words after the demonstration.
Nat’s stomach fell out at the words. She suddenly felt inexplicably cold thinking about what he’d just shown them. She looked down and saw her left hand shivering just as his arms had been as he gathered all of his courage to tell them. To tell them that he was a Genetically Altered Person. He was a…
“Look,” Smith started back up while holding out his hands as if to reassure them all, “it just happened a few weeks ago. It’s all brand new to me. No one even knows!” He glanced sideways. “I mean, you all know now, but… I haven’t really known who to report it to or how to tell…,”
Nat moved to his side and looked out at Vinny, Aaron, Becky, and Gene. She swallowed, thinking of the blood on the fractured door and the poor soul lying there helpless against… whatever the hell that was out there. She saw heads tilt and faces change at her move, but she pushed through it.
“I… Smith’s not… it’s me, too. My… whatever. It started in July. I’m…,” she glanced to Smith and locked eyes with him. It suddenly made sense that she didn’t need to say anything more. She thought again of Suzanne. “Yeah. Me, too.”
“Holy shit, Nat,” Vinny said lowly, clearly shocked that Nat hadn’t told him. “What do you do?”
Nat swallowed, the question crushing the ball of resistance she had built up inside of her into a hundred pieces. She hesitated. “I don’t make fire balls. But I can help Smith.”
That seemed to be enough for her best friend; he nodded very slowly, maintaining eye contact and giving her a feeling of security. More than anything, Nat did not want anyone to know the answer to his question, but she could not let Smith put himself in danger for her if she could help him. If doing so changed how any of them felt about her, she would have to cross that bridge when she came to it.
Aaron shook his head slowly at the two of them, the now-outed GAPs in his presence. Nat felt what was coming; he was furious. Of course he was! She and Smith had developed the recent mysterious genetic anomaly, but they had come to school that day as if everything was normal. It was people like them who were going to make it harder for people like Aaron to just be themselves and–
“So I’m just supposed to not do this same thing, huh? Just supposed to stand here and let you two make asses of yourselves alone?”
Wait what, Nat thought, her previous assumptions smashing into a wall in her mind. Aaron came up to Smith and herself and turned so that he was shoulder to shoulder with her. He rolled his right hand into a fist and lifted it up the level of his own chest. “I had a pretty fucked up summer myself, it turns out.”
“Aaron!” Becky shouted, wide-eyed.
“Sorry, Becks. I just didn’t want to…” Aaron looked around the walls of the school. “I didn’t want to lose everything I’ve worked for.”
Becky’s head shook and a hard swallow made its way down her throat, though Nat could not tell if it was for fear or anger. She stepped back, as if distancing herself even further from her boyfriend even as he had already moved away from her. Even though she was not close enough to be touching him, Nat felt Aaron’s body slump at that sight. His girlfriend clearly must have thought he was a monster. But if that was true, what would she think of Nat, then?
She felt the need to pull attention away to whatever was happening between the couple. “This is crazy. First only the six of us show up while the rest of the world is M.I.A., and now three of us are going through this?”
“Well… maybe four?”
Gene took barely a half step forward from Vinny and Becky, smiling sheepishly with just the right side of his mouth. He looked at Nat and those next to her, then down to the ground. He bounced on the balls of feet twice, looking like a very awkward runner trying to stretch everything loose. After rocking back and forth and reaching down to tap the sides of his knees, his legs sprouted upward at least two feet! His extended legs seemed rubbery, but they held him up. “I got… I got stretchy this year,” he said, which was as good of an explanation as any. His eyes were still all over the room, as he could not seem to decide who, if anyone, to look at.
Aaron grimaced. “That is… really gross, guy.”
“You think it’s bad to look at, you should feel it happen!”
Gene wobbled forward to let Aaron touch his legs. Nat pictured a beach house in a hurricane, swaying on stiff, unsteady support beams. A swirling sensation in her stomach forced her to look away, bringing a stunned Vinny and Becky into her view.
She narrowed her eyes at them. “You two…?”
Vinny seemed to stare past her. His hands shot up in front him in a defensive posture. “What? No! What? No!”
Becky shook her head violently with her eyes shut tight. “No! I’m normal!” Aaron stiffened next to Nat at the words. “I mean… I’m sorry! I’m not like that! Like you! I mean, you’re… but I’m… not the same!”
Smith let out something that Nat could not properly decipher as a grunt or a sigh. “That’s weird,” he remarked. “But I guess it makes as much sense as anything else today…”
“Anyone else think it’s strange while we’re all here outing ourselves, Devil Face out there hasn’t, you know, busted in and killed us or whatever?”
A jolt shot through Nat. How on earth could she have almost forgotten that thing outside? Seeing one classmate make fire out of his hand and seeing another turn into a baby giraffe were shocking, sure, but she realized at Gene’s words that it had distracted her from something even bigger.
They all turned their attention to the corner around which stood the entrance to their school. All breath was held as they listened, but Gene was right; not only had that man not come in after them, but Nat could not hear anything at all.
She took a few steps backwards from the awkward line she formed with Aaron, Smith, and Gene until the door would be in view. She motioned for everyone else to stay where they were. Tilting her head back, she finally got a view of the broken glass door. But the man—Devil Face was as good a name for him as any—was gone. And so was the broken body.
She took a few more steps toward the shattered door. The blood was still there, as was the cracking of the glass. But that was it. Her head darted around; he couldn’t have come in through that door or they’d have seen him, but he could be anywhere outside. He could be right around the corner from where he first stepped out.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know that much. I just know he’s not,” Nat pointed at the glass door in response to Vinny, “here.”
“All right, so… do we leave?” Aaron asked.
“He could be out there around the wall waiting for us,” Nat responded, the mental image of the masked man standing just around the corner and holding his axe high almost comical to her.
“So do we stay here?”
“He could be breaking in through a window right now,” Gene realized aloud.
“Well Jesus, guys,” Aaron growled, “what should we do then?”
No one had an immediate answer as everyone glanced from one classmate to another to see what they thought. They were suddenly confronted by Schrodinger’s Demon; he was simultaneously both inside the school and just outside the door waiting for them. If Aaron, Gene, and Smith were anything like Nat, they barely knew what they could do. And none of them had any idea what Devil Face was capable of.
“All right,” Smith finally started. “The cafeteria is a big, mostly empty area. Let’s go back in there and sit, like, right in the middle of it, right? So if this guy comes from anywhere, we’ll see it. And then we can… whatever. Flight, fight, whatever. Right? But we’ll see it coming.”
Nat agreed; it seemed as safe as anything else for the moment. There was too much happening all at once that morning to process, and if they could settle someplace safe and try to figure any of it out, that had to be their best option. What to do about Devil Face. What to do about each other. What to do about Suzanne. But in the short-term, Smith’s plan was as good as any.
Gene reached out with a disgustingly elongated arm to the double doors to the cafeteria. Nat’s insides turned again at the sight, but she could not look away this time. His hand approached slowly, then smacked the door on the left hard as if to catch anyone on the other side unaware. The door opened and swung back fast; there wasn’t anything behind it. Gene shrugged, then opened the door more slowly.
Nat tensed herself into readiness. She felt she was ready for whatever she saw. Devil Face. Empty tables. Whatever it was, she thought herself ready.
But she was not prepared for all the bodies.
One thought on “The Chosen: Chapter 4”
I like the cat and mouse game Devil Face is playing. There’s a lot of nice tension building and I’m not sure everyone will survive.
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