“So how exactly are these sleeping arrangements going to work?” Seb inquired, brow furrowed in confusion.
Joel seemed to think the solution was obvious. “Pemberly and I in one bed, you and Muri in the other.”
“No, no, no, no,” Muri protested quickly. “We’re not—that’s not happening. I’m not closing my eyes within ten feet of him. Me and Pemberly, you and the asshole,” she said, pointing at Seb, who had the audacity to look wounded by her name-calling.
Joel looked extremely hesitant about sharing a bed with Seb—I couldn’t blame him—but he didn’t argue. Muri looked like she might deck him if he tried to bring up that proposition again. From her perspective, the debate was settled.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” I said smugly, patting my brother on the shoulder and moving past him to grab a blanket out of my bag. I rolled myself into a burrito and then snuggled into my side of the bed—the side facing Joel and Seb, since Muri had made her distaste for the latter very clear.
I watched with sleep-heavy eyes as Seb approached his bed hesitantly and surveyed the wrinkled-sheets, clearly too big for such a small mattress. He looked uncomfortable, and I wondered if it had anything to do with his comments while he’d been staying at my apartment about Joel’s sexual orientation. It didn’t strike me as the type of thing to bother him, but I couldn’t figure out what else it could be.
“Are you getting in or not?” Joel asked gruffly as he claimed one side of the bed and kicked the covers away from himself. I could read the tension in his face, too, and I was beginning to worry about how he was handling all of this. Bed partners aside, Joel was a fussy sleeper and it was guaranteed that he’d wake up already in a terrible mood. I just hoped Seb wouldn’t add to the sleep-deprived crankiness tomorrow morning.
“I usually sleep naked,” Seb said finally, with an apologetic smile aimed at Joel. I narrowed my eyes at him and hoped he saw. “Of course, exceptions can be made. I’ll just go find something to change into.”
Once again, he disappeared into the bathroom and I watched as Joel tossed and turned for a few minutes before he finally drifted off. Muri was a solid brick wall behind me. If it weren’t for the even sound of her breathing, I might have thought she was dead. Then I, too, fell asleep before Seb ever returned to bed.
When I opened my eyes, I was in Lila’s kitchen. This time, unlike the others, I knew immediately that I was dreaming, but couldn’t do anything to halt the progression of events playing out in front of me.
But something was different about this.
Lila was still there, bleeding on the tiled floor, gasping for a breath that would never come as I tried to hold her together just long enough for someone to come and help us. Dan had already left the house. I hadn’t stopped him when I saw him walking out the front door covered in blood, just rushed inside the house to find Lila. I’d regretted that later, when the shock had worn off, and I had sense enough to let the anger seep in.
Unlike the countless times I’d relived this scene in my sleep, I was watching myself perform the actions like in a film. Even the images themselves seemed distorted, like they were being diffused through a filter instead of pulled straight from my memories. Gradually, I became aware of the additional presence beside me, watching the tragedy play out.
“This is my favorite part,” Letuch said, looking on impassively as I futilely tried to perform CPR on my dead best friend. “Keep watching.”
As much as I wished I could look away, it was like my eyes were glued to the image of the grisly scene taking place in Lila’s kitchen. I stared helplessly at my dream self as I finally gave up, accepted that Lila was dead, and took her necklace before leaving the house to sit on the porch and wait for the police.
“You don’t understand,” I cried out as the sequence abruptly cut to black, leaving myself sitting in the void with Letuch.
“I understand plenty,” he replied. “You watched a girl die and robbed the body without a second thought. Humans are disgusting greedy animals, down to the last. And you have what’s mine.”
I woke up to the sound of a bed creaking, followed by two voices whispering harshly in the dark. The clock on the nightstand between the two beds showed that it was still far too early in the morning to get up, but I had no intentions of falling back asleep if I could help it. Blinking the sleep from my eyes, I rolled over onto my side, wincing when my gut churned in response to the sudden movement. I was about to slip off the bed to turn on the light and see what the commotion was all about, but what I could see in front of me made me stop short.
Joel was perched on the side of the bed, face twisted into a horrible expression (anger? pain? I couldn’t tell in the dark) while Seb hovered over him, kneeling on the mattress with his hands reaching towards Joel but not quite touching. They were clearly arguing, but I had to strain to make out the words.
“I don’t know why you’re so upset,” Seb said in a low voice. He dropped his hand and moved away from Joel suddenly. “If anyone should be bothered, it’d be me, and I’m fine.”
“Stop talking,” Joel hissed, bending forward even more until his forehead nearly touched his knees.
“It happens,” Seb continued, ignoring Joel completely. “It’s really not a big deal.” Seb reached out again then, but Joel caught his hand before it could reach him.
“Do. Not. Touch. Me,” Joel said, before letting go of Seb’s hand and climbing off the bed altogether, grabbing a pillow and tossing it down onto the floor. “Have Pemberly wake me up in the morning.”
With that the conversation was apparently over. Which left me (now fully awake) watching Seb, who was still sitting on the other bed, apparently at a loss. I continued watching him for a few more minutes until he finally slipped back under the covers and turned toward the wall. It was a while before I drifted off again, unable to keep my eyes open despite the fear of what I might find in my dreams.
I woke in the morning to the sound of Seb’s phone going off. I had barely rolled out of bed when Seb appeared at my side ready with a glass of water and some aspirin.
“How are you feeling?” he asked quietly.
I looked around to find that both Muri and Joel were still fast asleep. Seb’s laptop was sitting on the bed Joel had vacated earlier, the sheets underneath now folded tidily over the too-small mattress.
“Fine,” I replied, not entirely truthfully. My head had started throbbing the second I woke up and was quickly getting worse. My stomach just felt hollow, but I wasn’t sure I could handle solid food quite yet. I gratefully gulped down the handful of pills. “How long have you been up?”
Seb shrugged. “Just an hour or two.”
So since his argument with Joel then. But I couldn’t say anything about that, so I dropped the subject entirely and headed to the bathroom to start getting ready for the day. When I had finished showering and dressing, Muri was awake and waiting her turn for the bathroom, while Seb was nowhere to be found. I shot her an inquisitive glance, but she just shook her head.
“Go wake up your brother,” she said, in a voice still heavy with sleep.
I did so delicately, knowing firsthand that Joel’s temper had an especially short fuse in the mornings. Today was no exception. He slowly sat up and pushed me away without a word, already looking livid without any provocation. Whatever anger he’d been harboring toward Seb had clearly not faded with sleep. I was tempted to ask him what was wrong, but thought better of it. Prodding him for answers would only make things worse.
Seb came in before long with coffee and bagels for everyone. I looked down mournfully at the one offered to me without touching it, and watched as Seb silently packed up all his stuff and then sat down on the bed with a sigh. Joel came out of the bathroom then and made a beeline for his bags, doing everything in his power to avoid acknowledging Seb’s presence.
My eyes flitted between the two of them nervously, afraid all the tension would suddenly snap and I’d have to break up another fight between them, but it fizzled out when Muri demanded to know what our plans were for the day.
“Dr. Jekyll and Peaches should stay here,” Seb said in a voice that invited no argument. With the way I currently felt, I didn’t plan on offering one. “The worst of it’s over, but you’ll probably still feel the effects of the venom for a few more hours at least,” he told me. “The best thing for you to do is get some rest.” I didn’t plan on going back to sleep, if that’s what he meant, but I wasn’t opposed to lounging in bed all day.
“No complaints here,” I said with a weak smile. “What are you guys going to do then?”
“Muri and I will check out some leads,” Seb replied after exchanging a hesitant glance with her. “Break into some government buildings, interrogate a few people, the usual. It’s all pretty boring actually,” he added. “We’ll probably be back sometime this afternoon. Here’s a key if you need it.” He pulled an old-fashioned metal key from his pocket and tossed it to Joel, who snatched it easily out of the air. “Be back soon,” he said cheerily, with a jaunty wave. Muri just rolled her eyes and pulled him out of the room, closing the door behind them without saying a word in farewell.
The sound of the door shutting sent another throbbing pulse of pain through my head and I closed my eyes tightly. Joel noticed, however, and walked over to the bed to put a hand over my forehead.
“I don’t have a fever,” I told him, opening my eyes a crack to take in his worried expression. “I’m poisoned, not sick.”
“Envenomated,” he corrected, but his voice had lost some of the bite now that Seb was gone. “Scoot over.”
I allowed him to reposition me until I was lying with my head across his stomach, his hands gently digging into my scalp. I let out a sigh of pleasure and let my eyes slip closed again.
“Are you going to lose your residency?” I asked after a few minutes had passed. I’d never liked my job, and didn’t really mind inevitably being fired over skipping town, but for Joel it’d be a massive sacrifice to give up his dream of becoming a doctor because of my mistake.
“I took leave for a few weeks,” he replied easily. “I figure that’s enough time to take care of all this shit and go back to our lives.”
I hummed in agreement. “Do you think we can?” I asked.
“Go back? What else would we do?” I remained quiet for a moment, long enough that Joel’s hand stilled in my hair. “Pemberly?”
Opening my eyes, I stared up at Joel, who was surveying me suspiciously now. “Well, Seb was talking about his job and I just—”
“Joel, you can’t—”
“No, Pemberly, you’re not running off with him to go work for some bullshit secret organization or whatever. It’s not happening, okay?”
Sighing, I rolled off of him and onto the other side of the bed, propping myself up on my elbows to give him a severe look. “Look, Joel. You’re the one that told me to go, remember? Our lives back in Portland were pointless and boring. We were barely scraping by as is. If this ‘organization’ Seb works for can gives us something better….”
“It’s not up for negotiation!” Joel yelled. I stared at him until he realized he’d raised his voice. “Sorry,” he said with a touch of embarrassment, his anger suddenly vanishing. “Let’s just drop it. Do you want me to rub your back?”
I shook my head. “I think it’s probably better if I go sit in the bathroom for a bit. I’m really starting to feel like shit again. Can you go get me something safe to eat? My stomach’s killing me.”
Joel nodded, already getting up and pulling on his shoes. “Applesauce and ginger ale?”
I nodded. “Help me up?” I wobbled precariously for a moment, supported only by Joel’s hand around my elbow. My vision started to swim and I could taste bile at the back of my throat. “Definitely about to throw up,” I told Joel, who hastily steered me away from the bed.
Together, Joel and I hobbled to the bathroom, where I was deposited gently onto the floor next to the toilet to endure the rest of my miserable existence. I opened my mouth to utter a thank you, and immediately found myself with my head in the bowl, stomach desperately trying to throw up anything at all. It was marginally better than last night had been, but I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Joel crouched next to me with his hand on my back, trying to help me. But it was kind of embarrassing to have someone sitting right next to you watching you vomit, so I waved him away and managed to remind him to get food in between heaves.
Joel couldn’t have been gone more than twenty minutes, but it felt like hours before he finally returned with grocery bags in hand. I’d spent the last five minutes incessantly dry heaving to the point where the thought of putting anything in my stomach was physically painful. But I knew I had to get something down.
“Are you sure you’re okay to eat?” Joel asked worriedly. “Won’t you just throw it back up?”
“At this point,” I croaked, “anything is better than what I’m doing now. Give me the applesauce.”
Joel ended up spooning it slowly into my mouth like I was a baby. I could barely even swallow, and the whole process took much longer than it should have. Once the first cup was empty, Joel gave me a can of ginger ale and instructed me to sip it slowly.
“I have been sick before,” I said irritably.
“Not like this, you haven’t.”
That was true. I always caught minor illnesses more frequently than Joel did, but I’d also watched Marisol waste away in a hospital dying from cancer, and Joel screaming in pain on the living room floor before he’d had his appendix taken out. In comparison, a day spent in bed watching TV and occasionally puking into a mixing bowl wasn’t that big of deal. Being bitten by a mermaid was kind of like that, but cranked up to eleven.
I ended up throwing up everything less than an hour after I’d eaten it, just as Joel had predicted, but the violence of the action had decreased considerably. I pressed Joel for more applesauce after the next round of vomiting was done, and repeated this process until the early afternoon, when I finally felt like I could return to my bed and sleep off the rest of the effects of the venom. Nightmares be damned, I was fucking exhausted.
Of course, once I got into bed and made a cocoon of the covers in preparation for my nap, Joel decided it was time to have yet another conversation.
“Why do you like him so much?" Joel asked. We hadn’t even been talking about Seb which meant that he must have been starring in Joel’s internal monologue. "He's a tool."
I gave Joel a look.
“Well you have to like me,” he pointed out. “I’m your brother.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” I muttered, face smushed against the pillow. “Plus, you thought Lila was horrible too, and I was friends with her for years.”
“Lila was horrible,” Joel argued, thinking better of the insult only after he’d said it. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine. She was a little rough around the edges. Maybe I like that.”
“Maybe that’s what gets you into messes like this,” Joel replied.
After that, we fell into a comfortable silence. I could see Joel swiping the screen of my phone, playing one of the numerous games I had installed on the thing. We’d compromised on technology; he got primary possession of the laptop we shared, and I got the smartphone while he stuck with the ancient flip he’d gotten as a high school graduation present.
“Beat Level 89 yet?” I asked sleepily.
“No,” he replied, bottom lip pulled in between his teeth in concentration. “I think I might have to use a cheat if—”
There was a loud thud against the motel door. Both of us bolted upright. Joel scrambled to his feet and sprinted over to the door. He squinted through the peephole for half a second before drawing back, all the color gone from his face.
“Shit,” he hissed. “Pemberly, go into the bathroom and lock the door.”
“What’s going on? I’m not just going to leave you to whatever’s out there.”
“Just do what I say!”
But I didn’t have a chance to take a step in either direction before the door burst inward, a dark shape consuming the entryway. Joel would have fallen backwards if not for the clawed hand that shot out and seized him by the collar. I watched helplessly as Letuch leaned down to almost press his nose to Joel’s, golden eyes burning into my brother’s.
“Should have used you instead of that imbecile Daniel to be my errand boy, hmm?” Letuch said, and my stomach sank as I realized what this meant. “Tell your sister to come over here.”
“That wasn’t the deal,” Joel said without a moment’s hesitation. “You said you wanted Seb, not her.”
“Seb?” Letuch laughed. “No one wants Seb. Now tell your sister to come with me before I cut your face off.”
Before I could voice a single syllable of protest, Letuch raised a finger and sliced a razor-thin line through Joel’s eyebrow, the pointed black claw hovering ominously over his eye. With blood streaming down his face, my brother stared up at the man who held his life in his hands and kept his mouth shut.
Letuch sighed. “I’d rather not resort to killing you in front of your own flesh and blood, but you’re giving me little choice here.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said a familiar voice from behind the hulking form in the doorway.
Letuch stiffened and carefully released Joel, who immediately rushed over to my side. I pulled his head down to examine the gash running through his eyebrow. It wasn’t terribly deep, but it would probably leave a scar.
When I turned back to the doorway, Seb was standing in front of Letuch, switchblade in hand pointed at Letuch’s navel. The height difference between the two was almost comical, but the looks on their faces were anything but.
“We used to be friends,” Seb was saying. “Don’t make me do this. Just leave.”
“The girl comes with me,” Letuch said, but he was eyeing the knife at his belly with trepidation.
“I will kill you,” Seb said slowly, “if you try to take her. You know you can’t take on all of us without your undead friends to help out.”
Letuch’s face hardened and he looked straight at me, eyes cold and full of hatred. I half-expected him to say something appropriately villainous, like “I’ll be back” or “You haven’t seen the last of me” but he only cast a meaningful look at Seb before retreating with his metaphorical tail between his legs.
Seb was trembling from head to toe as he lowered the knife.
“Why didn’t you just kill him?” Joel demanded, taking an aggressive step forward. I pulled him back instinctively.
Muri walked in then, surveying the scene with obvious disdain. “Done with your pissing match, then?” she asked. “I assume nobody died.”
The look Seb gave her was full of bitter resentment. Clearly Seb wasn’t the only one capable of hitting below the belt.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“That,” Muri replied, “is what happens when someone doesn’t know which side they’re really on.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Seb said venomously, his tone reminiscent of our first meeting, when he’d hurled insults at me instead. “You really going to spill my secrets to a couple of strangers when I know so much about yours?”
Muri scowled, but ignored him, turning her attention to Joel. “Care to explain why you almost got your sister killed?”
Joel didn’t answer. He looked shell-shocked now. His reactive rage had worn off with Letuch’s disappearance.
“Letuch can be convincing enough when he wants to be,” Seb muttered. I was surprised to hear him defending my brother, especially after such a colossal misstep, but it was even more surprising that he and Muri had managed to arrive just in the nick of time.
“Great timing,” I said. I felt like I was still catching my breath, the words coming out an octave higher than I intended.
“One of my contacts tipped me off,” Seb replied, tucking his switchblade into his pocket. “He spotted Letuch lurking around town earlier and I figured we should check up on you two. You’re lucky we didn’t get here any later.”
Muri looked ready to scream. “Enough chit-chat,” she said harshly, crossing the room to grab me by the arm. “We’ve wasted enough time. Let’s go.”
Joel was already protesting behind me, but I was only half-listening.
“Letuch is going to be looking for you, which means you’re safest with me,” she said, shouldering her own bag and throwing one of mine at me. It collided with my chest with a loud thump, nearly bowling me over. “Your brother and Seb will take his car and hopefully throw Letuch off the scent. He doesn’t know I’m with you, so you’re going to ride with me.”
“What about my car?” Joel complained.
“I’ll make sure someone takes care of it,” Muri said dismissively.
“Are you going to Zida’s?” Seb asked. His tone was one degree below civil, with just the slightest edge to it.
“Might as well,” Muri replied just as coolly. “Text me when you find a place to stay and we’ll meet you.”
Seb nodded, though Joel still looked reluctant. It wasn’t surprising that he was so perturbed by the idea of leaving me again, especially right after the encounter we’d had. Separating myself from Muri, I walked over to Joel to throw my arms around his chest, letting his chin knock against the top of my head as he hugged me back.
“I’ll be okay,” I told him. “I should be more worried about you.”
“Love you,” he murmured into my hair. It was a rare thing for him to say, and more often than not, it had meant ‘goodbye’ for us.
Seb left first, grabbing the car and getting as close as possible to the room while Joel collected the rest of our things and met him outside. I watched through a crack in the blinds as my brother got into the passenger seat before Seb sped away.
“Ready to go?” Muri asked, with just a leather backpack hanging off one shoulder.
I nodded and followed her into the parking lot. It had rained again sometime during the day; the asphalt was slick and dotted with puddles I had to jump to avoid. Muri stomped through them carelessly in her beat-up leather ankle boots, and didn’t look the slightest bit chilled by the wind despite her wardrobe choices. I, on the other hand, was already starting to freeze, and that was with a sweater and jeans on.
“So where exactly are we going?” I asked absently as we walked. “Shouldn’t we just leave town again?”
Muri’s expression made it clear she was barely tolerating my presence. “Seb and I have other things to do besides look after you and your brother. You’ll be safe enough with me.”
“Well, who’s this Zida person Seb mentioned?”
“Zida’s a contact I have in the area. They have ears on the ground in the—in our shipping industry. While Seb and I were out looking for leads, we found evidence that the smuggler might have crossed paths with Zida at some point. There were a few inconsistencies in the shipping logs over the past few weeks. It’s possible they worked together legitimately in the past, and the smuggler is using Zida’s connections to ship illegal cargo.”
I gave Muri a skeptical look. “You don’t think it’s more likely that they were helping the smugglers?”
Muri laughed. “No, I don’t.”
“Well, why not?” I pressed.
“Because Zida wouldn’t risk our professional relationship on a payout from petty criminal.” Muri’s tone made it clear she was done dealing with my questions, so I decided to leave it at that. Though I still wasn’t convinced this Zida person wasn’t involved in the smuggling somehow.
Muri stopped at the rear of the parking lot between a sleek gold motorcycle (possibly the most ostentatious vehicle I had ever seen) and a much more conservative looking pewter-gray pick-up. I reached for the handle of the truck door and snatched my hand back in embarrassment when Muri laughed.
“Wrong one, sweetheart,” she said with a smirk as she straddled the golden monstrosity. I stared at her in disbelief. "Hop on." Muri handed me a helmet and started to tie her hair up into a messy bun on top of her head.
“You’re joking, right?”
“You can walk if you want,” she replied, deadpan, as she started the engine.
I clambered awkwardly onto the back of the bike and then struggled to cram the helmet onto my head. I sat there for a moment waiting as the bike rumbled beneath me, but instead of driving off, Muri turned around in her seat to face me. She was shouting something at me, I think, but I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the engine. Finally, she grabbed one of my hands and placed it around her waist. I very quickly got the picture.
Once I was holding onto her in a way that she’d deemed safe enough, Muri slowly walked the bike backwards out of the spot, and then shot forward so abruptly I almost slipped off.
We zipped through the unfamiliar streets of Lakeside before exiting onto the highway. It was nearly fifteen minutes before I realized we were headed north, back toward Portland.
But we stopped shortly thereafter in a small fishing town just off the highway. There wasn’t much to the place: just a marina, a few convenience stores, and several dozen ramshackle houses dotting the surrounding area with no evidence of planning in their placement. Muri navigated the winding streets like she lived there herself, and it wasn’t long before we stopped in front of a small duplex with pale green paint peeling from the weathered exterior.
When I stepped down off the bike it was like I’d forgotten how to walk. Muri steadied me with one hand as I wobbled precariously for a moment, before just as quickly turning to make sure her bike was still in pristine condition. She took the helmet from me without a word.
I could tell immediately that I looked like a disaster. My hair was flattened down against my skull, the skin of my hands bright red from the wind, and my sweater had ridden up several inches in the back. Muri, in sharp contrast, looked more or less as flawless as she had when we’d left, the exception being her slightly tousled bangs.
I watched with increasing discomfort as she rifled through her bag. It was freezing. And I was growing impatient. “What are you—”
She pulled a gun out of her bag, the black and gold weapon every bit as ostentatious as her bike. “Take it,” she said, pressing the gun insistently into my hands. “Just tuck it into your waistband, okay?” The gold filigree bit into the meat of my hand, the metal even colder than the wind.
I nodded and obediently tucked the weapon into my jeans. The shape of it was more or less hidden by the bulk of my sweater. “This doesn’t exactly seem safe,” I pointed out, wiggling my hips to make sure the gun wouldn’t show through the front of my sweater when I moved.
“Neither is walking into a situation like this unarmed,” Muri replied. “The safety’s on. You’ll be fine.”
I crooked an eyebrow. “I thought you trusted this Zida person.”
“I trust them not to fuck themselves,” she said coldly. “I don’t trust them not to fuck me.”
“Sorry I asked,” I muttered, half-hoping she wouldn’t hear me. “So what are we trying to accomplish here?”
“I will be asking questions. You will be staying quiet and following my lead.”
“Why can’t I just stay outside then?” I asked, looking nervously up at the shuttered windows of the house.
“It’d look suspicious,” Muri told me. “It’s better if you come with me. Zida will likely assume you’re a trainee.”
“Trainees don’t talk?”
“Not if they know what’s good for them,” she said pointedly. “And one more thing: Zida doesn’t…. Well, they don’t look…human. I just don’t want you to be surprised.”
I was startled by her consideration, but realized that freaking out about Zida’s appearance probably wouldn’t go over well. I nodded in acknowledgement, and with anxiety slowly creeping up from my stomach, followed her up the rickety wooden steps that led onto the porch.
Muri knocked five times in rapid succession, then took a step back, nearly tripping over me as she did so. We waited for at least a minute before finally I heard footsteps from inside the house.
The door opened slowly, and came to a stop about six inches from the frame. A pair of vibrantly green reptilian eyes peered through the small gap and a low voice asked: “What do you want?”
Muri rolled her eyes and flashed her wallet at the house’s inhabitant, too quickly for me to get a look at whatever badge monster hunters—detectives?—used to force their way into civilians’ homes. “We need to talk. Business.”
“I filled out the registration forms for the last international shipment!” the disembodied voice protested. “I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“This isn’t about that.” Muri put a firm hand on the door and pushed, simultaneously beckoning for me to follow her inside the darkened entryway.
There wasn’t a single light on inside the place, and every window was shuttered. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that the gaps around the blinds were taped closed. Someone had gone to an enormous amount of effort to make sure that not a single shred of light penetrated the interior gloom.
Muri didn’t seem surprised or alarmed by this, and I followed closely behind her as she deftly navigated the mess of empty soda cans, pizza boxes, and piles of dirty laundry that littered the entryway. Zida was now nothing more than a shapeless black form leading us further into the house. If I hadn’t already been a human popsicle from the cold outside, I would have had goose bumps from my growing unease.
We were finally led into something that vaguely resembled a living room. I could make out the presence of a few different pieces of furniture in the darkness, but almost every surface was covered in dust and debris to the point where it was hard to determine what the actual purpose of the area was intended to be. I gingerly sat down onto a dilapidated sofa, following Muri’s lead, and tried to hold in a cough as a cloud of dust erupted around us. Zida sank into an armchair, still nothing more than a dark silhouette, their only identifiable feature a pair of unnervingly yellow eyes.
“What is this about, Gyllen?”
It took me a minute to figure out that Zida was addressing Muri by her surname.
“Have you heard anything about the situation in Lakeside?” she asked smoothly.
Zida croaked out a laugh that sounded more animal than human. “Who hasn’t?”
“You’ll have to do better than that,” they replied. “I don’t owe you favors anymore. And like I told you, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“True.” Muri leaned forward, elbows on her knees as she stared intently at the darkness. “But maybe I could do you a favor instead.”
“Safe passage to Howland.”
Zida laughed again, but there was less humor in it this time. “To be turned away at the gates? You know as well as I do they aren’t letting anyone in.”
“Exceptions could be made.”
“Not by you.”
“But I have connections with those who could,” Muri insisted. “I could at least get you onto the waiting list. That’s more than anyone else would do for you.”
I wanted to tell her not to bother. Far from being afraid, the hopeless desolate tone emanating from the dark silhouette now made me sad. As sad as I’d felt about the mermaid’s plight. I looked around me and saw a life full of loneliness, a life spent in hiding, in total isolation.
Suddenly, Zida was turning their head to face me instead of Muri, eyes narrowing to slits. I held my breath as they scrutinized me for a long moment before speaking.
“You are not like other humans,” they said slowly. I wondered if Zida had picked up on the same thing Seb had sensed.
“No, I suppose not,” I answered instinctively, forcing myself to maintain eye contact with the creature. I could feel Muri seething next to me, probably two seconds away from taping my mouth shut herself.
“My name is Zida,” they said finally.
I forced a smile, uncomfortable with the attention. I would have been happy to sit and observe per Muri’s instructions, but now I felt compelled to respond to the introduction. “Mine’s Pemberly. Nice to meet you.”
Zida didn’t return the greeting, but I got the sense that I had passed some sort of litmus test. The chair creaked as Zida rose. “I’ll get you both some iced tea. Please wait here.”
Muri waited until they’d left to turn and berate me in a harsh whisper. “I told you to stay quiet. You could jeopardize this entire meeting, and then we’ll have nothing to go on!”
I was confused. “Well, what was I supposed to do?”
“Let me do the talking,” Muri said slowly. “Every interaction with a non-human is a delicate procedure. Zida most likely has valuable information that could get us exactly what we need to find the smuggler. Do you understand?”
“Is waiting on us—on me—to give him something to go on. This meeting is crucial.”
“Oh.” I flushed with embarrassment, grateful she wouldn’t be able to see my face turn red in the dark. “Sorry.”
There was a loud clatter from the kitchen, and Muri stood up reflexively. “Stay here,” she ordered. “I’ll be right back.”
I waited anxiously for either Muri or Zida to return. There was nothing to look at in the darkened living room; I could barely see my own hand in front of my face. Seeing no other recourse, I fell into old habits and pulled my phone out to play a daily challenge for my favorite mobile game. I let out a hiss of disappointment when I lost within less than a minute, and quickly looked up to make sure that no one had entered the room while I was occupied. I was still alone.
Several minutes passed and there was a smell like something burning from the kitchen. Despite Muri’s instructions, I slowly got up from the couch, placing my phone down in the creased and wrinkled space that marked the spot where I’d been sitting. I carefully felt my way out of the room, letting out a shriek of surprise when I collided with something solid at the entrance to the hallway.
“Not like other humans,” Zida said, “but still not a very good listener. Please have a seat.”
At a loss for how to react, I allowed my feet to carry me back to the couch and obediently sat down. Muri was pushed down next to me, her arms bent at odd angles. Hands tied behind her back, I guessed. This was confirmed when Zida crouched down next to me and did the same. I did my best not to shiver when smooth scales brushed against my hands and arms.
“Do not try to escape,” Zida warned, before walking off in the same direction they’d come.
“What’s happening?” I whispered to Muri as soon as Zida was gone. “What’s going on?”
“Shut up,” Muri hissed. “Just do what they say. Zida doesn’t see you as a threat. Make sure that doesn’t change. Understand?”
I nodded. I was beginning to see why Muri had asked me to carry the gun.
Zida came back into the room then, but they weren’t alone this time. Before I could make out the features of the two strangers that had joined us in the darkness, both Muri and I were being hauled up off of the couch by our elbows, and marched through the cluttered hallway—though Muri looked like she was being dragged more than anything—until we reached another door. It opened to reveal a cramped garage, most of the space taken up by a large van covered in peeling gray paint and faded bumper stickers.
The light flickered on and after taking a few seconds to adjust my eyes, I saw that Muri and I were being held by two men, both at least half a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me. One, a tall white man with glasses and a sandy blond mustache; and the other with skin the color of the outside of a ripened avocado and two massive yellow teeth emerging from his lower jaw like boar’s tusks.
I let out an involuntary squeak of shock which was returned with a low growl from the tusked man. The blond one shrugged in apology at his companion. “Humans,” he said, like that explained everything.
After my hands had been tied with some strange silk-like material I didn’t recognize, we were loaded into the back of the van like unwanted furniture. I found myself sprawled ungracefully across Muri’s lap and quickly rolled off with an embarrassed smile. Muri didn’t return it. She didn’t look at me at all, her eyes intent on the men getting into the front of the vehicle.
Come to think of it, Muri hadn’t moved a muscle except to speak since before she’d gone to check on Zida in the kitchen. Reaching surreptitiously behind me, I reached over and pinched her arm. Hard. She didn’t so much as flinch. I stared at the red blotch between her shoulder and neck in dismay, a tell-tale injection mark if I’d ever seen one. She’d been drugged.
“Can you move at all?” I asked quietly.
“Shut up,” Muri replied, eyes darting over to glance at me once before she returned her gaze to the front of the car.
“Is that a yes?”
I kept my mouth shut after that. I glanced over at Muri a few times, seeing her staring viciously at the men in front without so much as a blink. Finally, when the man with the tusks jammed his meaty finger against the tiny buttons of the car stereo to turn on the radio, she glanced over at me.
“I need you to bend me over,” Muri said in a low murmur.
I gave her an incredulous look. Where the hell did that come from?
When I didn’t move, she sighed and made a weak attempt at scooting closer to me. She let herself tip over until her head rested against mine, and I let out a small gasp in surprise at the sudden closeness. I could see the tusked man glance back at us in the rearview mirror and I did my best to maintain a blank expression as Muri tried to control her breathing, the exertion having taken its toll on her.
“My phone,” she hissed against my neck. I watched in prurient fascination as she leant down as much as she could to take the first button on her shirt between her teeth and undo it, allowing the top of her shirt to fall open and reveal her phone tucked into her bra.
“Oh,” I said quietly.
I moved out of the way, allowing her to bend forward even more until I could just barely reach the phone if I angled myself around to reach her from behind my back. It was a risk; either of the men in front could look back at any moment and catch us. I pulled the phone out and straightened up, casting a nervous glance at the tusked man in the passenger seat. He seemed oblivious and I exhaled quietly in relief.
I started to pull Muri upright by her arm, but stopped when she shook her head vigorously. Somewhere in between a dozen frustrated glances, I figured out that she wanted me to hold the phone close enough to her face that she could see the screen. I watched with my head askew, arms stretched awkwardly behind my back, as she pecked at the phone’s touchscreen with her nose. It would have been cute if our situation wasn’t so dire.
I wasn’t sure what exactly she was trying to accomplish. Texting Seb or someone else for help? What help could they be when we were loaded up in an unknown vehicle with unknown captors driving to an unknown location?
Then the phone started to ring.
Just the slightest bit of noise before Muri quickly muted it, but it was enough to get the tusked man’s attention. He whirled around just seconds after I managed to get Muri into a sitting position again and examined us suspiciously.
“I thought I told you to be quiet,” he growled.
He hadn’t said anything like that (though it was strongly implied by the context of the situation) but I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to inform him of his error.
“We just want to know where we’re going,” Muri said calmly.
I looked at her sharply. What the hell was she thinking?
The man huffed out a laugh but turned his face toward the road once more. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
I glanced down at the phone in Muri’s hands. The call timer was going, the name at the top of the screen displaying in all caps: “ASSHOLE”. So she was keeping Seb on the line then. Smart. But it wouldn’t get us anywhere if our captors spotted the phone the second they let us out of the van.
As carefully as I could, I felt around the edges of the phone, touching only the casing so as to not accidentally hang up on Seb. I pressed the button on the right side, opposite the volume control—hoping her phone worked the same way mine did—and was relieved when the screen went dark. We exchanged a meaningful look, and I helped her to lean forward again so I could slip the phone back into her bra. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she did the button back up, once again using only her teeth.
The rest of the drive passed in tense silence. I tried to peer around the tusked man’s head to get a sense of our location, but all I could see was the highway in front of us, lined with trees on either side. We could have been practically anywhere in Oregon. With a quiet sigh of resignation, I slumped back against the abrasive car upholstery, and waited for rescue.