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We Disappoint, We Disappear

by shukyou (主教)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/342735.html)

He had just fallen asleep when he heard the voice. He opened his eyes in the all-but-dark room, lit murky beige from the streetlight outside the curtained window. There was a figure standing in the corner, strange and familiar at once, and unmistakably human. It didn’t move in any direction, threatening or otherwise. It just stood there.

Slowly Daniel began to believe he wasn’t dreaming. There was too much gravity to things, to his own body. He was heavy, and there was a man standing in the corner of his room. Really, it was more the idea of a man, like if someone had taken a photograph from Daniel’s perspective and then filled in an adult male figure with nothing but black ink. It didn’t belong there.

Daniel sat up a little. He wasn’t afraid, even though he knew he should be. It was watching him; he got to watch it. He waited for his eyes to adjust in the darkness, but there was nothing to adjust to. This was as visible as it was ever going to get.

He frowned and squared his shoulders. He cleared his throat.

The figure jumped.

That made Daniel jump too, though from where he sat in bed, the effect didn’t even lift him off the mattress. “Um,” he said, because nothing else was coming to mind. “Um.”

“Danny?” said the figure, only it wasn’t even fair to call that noise speech. It was more like hearing wind blow through a crack in a window and trying to decipher words from the patterns in the gusts. “Christ, Danny, can you see me?” It rushed at him with unnatural speed, blurring and shifting as it burst right for him. “Danny, can you–”

He opened his eyes. The light from beyond the curtain was sunlight now, and the room had only one occupant. His alarm had been squawking at him for twenty minutes; Daniel had slept through it, which he never did. He turned it off, then stared at the empty corner of the room, listening to the rasp of air in and out of his lungs until his heart rate returned to normal. Then he got up.

Nightmares again. God fucking dammit.

~*~

Daniel hated jogging but did it anyway, because it was something to do and because it made him look harmless. Seeing a man jogging, to most people, was like seeing him fill up a car or buy a gallon of milk: so common that it made him look unimpeachably normal. That was the kind of normal Daniel needed.

He’d grown up in the town, but unlike most of the other residents who could say that, he’d actually left for a time. That was the time chronicled on his arms and chest, inked in incoherent, sometimes-obscene pictograms that told stories no one else could read. Scars added their commentary, some breaking colored lines, others holding their own on the skin as later designs worked their way around them. His skin was why Daniel never went jogging in anything but a long-sleeved t-shirt, not even on the hottest days.

It was going to be a scorcher today, folks, said the weatherman on the radio as Daniel brushed his teeth. Two miles into his run and not even eight AM, and he was already sweating like a faucet. That was okay; he was miserable about the heat, but he could focus on that misery, and it would distract him from everything else.

It was a good plan, one that worked right until Daniel jogged the road over the river and came upon a sea of flashing red and blue.

The cops were out in full force – not even just local Lawrenceville officers, but staties too. A couple even had yellow words stamped across the backs of their jackets, though Daniel was too far away to read those designations. What was more, he had no interest in getting a better look of any sort. He’d gotten up close and personal with cops too many times in his life, and since getting clean had done his best to ensure that he didn’t bother them, so they didn’t bother him. By and large, even in a tiny town like Lawrenceville, it worked.

He stopped for a break at the municipal building, which had a water fountain outside where they didn’t mind him drinking so long as he didn’t sweat on everything while he did. The custodian, Mr. Clarence Massey, Jr., was cranking up the awnings when Daniel stopped in. “Morning,” he said to Daniel with friendliness polished by years of customers service.

“Morning,” Daniel repeated. He wiped his brow on the hem of his shirt. “Say, any idea what’s going on out there?”

“Alan Bennett’s girl is missing,” said Mr. Massey.

Daniel’s face didn’t move at first. Then he remembered it probably should, so he shifted the features until they said worry. That was one of the things one of his various court-appointed psychiatrists had made him do, practice making expressions in the mirror so that he could learn exactly what his own face conveyed. He had never gotten good at it. “Missing?” he repeated. He didn’t know how old Josie Bennett was. She seemed small when he saw her with all the other girls, just a wisp of a thing with tanned limbs sticking out from her summer dresses. Please, God, he prayed, let her be older than she looked. Let her be old enough to have a bad-decision friend who kept her out all night with stolen candy vodka, or even better, a bad-decision boyfriend who would get stopped half a state away with her in the car. Lots of reasons for an older girl to get out of a small town with all due haste.

Mr. Massey nodded. He resettled his hat and folded his arms across his chest. He was quite a bit older than Daniel, and his son, Clarence Massey the Third, was at least ten years younger, but they looked at Daniel like he’d personally shoved both of them in lockers and slashed their ties every day of high school. Small towns took things communally.

Daniel wiped his brow again, this time with his sleeve, remembering not to expose any more skin than necessary. “You think she just got lost out there?” he said, pointing to the wooded area by the river, the one that formed the town’s northern boundary.

“Hope so,” said Mr. Massey. Daniel straightened his spine as it went from possibility to certainty that he was being evaluated as a suspect. If Massey was thinking it, he wasn’t the only one.

Calm as he could, Daniel nodded. “Me too,” he agreed. “If they’re getting people out there to search, I’ll be glad to join.”

“Be mighty neighborly of you,” said Mr. Massey. Daniel nodded again to agree that, yes, it sure would, just like good neighbors did, good neighbors who were above suspicion. They exchanged some awkward farewells and then Daniel took off again.

He wasn’t jogging now, though. He was running, full-on, limbs working and heart pounding. He ran so that his breath filled his lungs in great tidal roars and rushed out again with equivalent bursts. He ran until he had soaked his shirt through, until his empty stomach was all knots and acid. He lost track of how many miles he covered, looping back and forth.

Josie was twelve. Of course she was twelve. He’d seen her at the sixth-grade class’ bake sale during the town’s Founding Days festival a few months back. She was a cute thing, with a bright smile and sweet eyes. There had been something about her, though, as she laughed with her friends, something that had made Daniel take note. It was a too-familiar edge of skittishness, on full display in the way she jumped when the high school marching band roared up nearby. It was a sweet little fragility that maybe she would have grown out of, and maybe it would have haunted her all her life.

But her life was over. He ran as fast as he could, but he couldn’t run back time.

~*~

Anger management issues was a phrase he heard first when he was in eighth grade, when he’d slammed another boy up against a locker so hard that the kid had needed stitches. When they’d asked Daniel why he’d done it, he hadn’t been able to give them a satisfactory answer. There hadn’t been one. The kid had just said something wrong, or looked at him the wrong way, or something, and now here he was in the hot seat, with the principal and his mother.

Eighteen months, it turned out, was the time limit on forgiveness for tragedy. Fourteen was when the the poor things stopped and the this is unacceptables started. It wasn’t even a gradual shift, either, some slow fail of patience. It was near-immediate and it had all the edge of can’t you get over it?

Like losing a brother, they’d said when they thought he wasn’t listening. Fuck them. It wasn’t like that at all.

His mother had tried. God, she’d tried. But after his dad had skipped out on them just before little Danny’s fifth birthday, she’d been left to raise a kid that – and Daniel could say this with no malice – she had never wanted in the first place. He knew even at a very young age it wasn’t his fault he represented all the shattered hopes and dreams on which her young life had been built. But it didn’t make it any easier to see the look on her face.

That disappointment – in him, in herself, in life – was what had made escape easy. Seventeen, he’d hit the road and never come back, only there’d been no search party looking for him. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Back at his house, Daniel climbed into the shower and pressed his cheek to the pale blue tile. It was his house, the same one he’d grown up in. He’d done a lot of renovations to the inside, mostly by himself where he could, but it was still in its bones his childhood home. His mother had spent three years fighting cancer here, and had only told him about it with six months of that fight left. She’d died in the study on the first floor, which he’d converted to a bedroom after he’d been unable to get her up the stairs anymore. He didn’t go in there. He didn’t go a lot of places.

Josie Bennett made him think about monsters.

He knew about what most people called monsters, of course. He’d met them, even spent time locked up with various ones, men who caused pain for pleasure, or because they were bored, or just because they didn’t know what else to do. He’d also met a number of monsters inside his veins, pumping his heart up or settling it back down as needed.

But no, he knew about monsters too. After getting his GED during a stint locked up for heroin, Daniel had been encouraged by several officers of the court to put that to good use, to go to school, to learn a trade. So he’d signed up at a community college, saying that he expected to go through some tech courses and learn a handyman’s trade and become a productive fix-it member of society for the rest of his life, actually expecting to maybe make it a few months before something got its fangs in him and dragged him back down.

That was before he’d signed up for Folklore and Human Society, a jack-off, blow-off, gut class if he’d ever heard of one before. There, he’d met Professor Ivanson.

On the first day of class, Professor Ivanson had asked, “Are fairy tales real?”

Of course that got a laugh out of Daniel’s forty-nine classmates, all of whom, like Daniel, had probably signed up because they’d needed a Gen Ed requirement and this had been the only one to fit in their schedules. But Daniel looked at the roly-poly, bearded man in the tired grey suitcoat and got the sense that this Ivanson guy wasn’t joking at all.

“Are fairy tales real?” asked Ivanson again, sounding for all the world like he wanted an actual response.

“Um, no?” answered one of the younger guys in the room, sounding like it pained him to say such obvious words.

Ivanson smiled. “And that’s where you’d be wrong,” he said, his speech as gentle as Daniel would always remember it. “Fairy tales tell us something very real. The specific settings and creatures inside of them may not be part of our everyday experiences, but the fear is real. The lessons about consequence and disaster and real. These stories aren’t just made up by a single person with a gruesome imagination – they have been created collectively, passed down and embellished and polished until they reach us in their current forms. We tell them because we recognize what’s in them. And what we recognize is what we fear.”

Daniel hadn’t moved the whole class. He’d barely breathed. As soon as they’d been dismissed, he had shot out the door nearest to his back-row seat. The next class meeting, he’d sat in the front. He’d taken notes and done all the reading. By the time the semester was done, begrudging plans to repair cars and small appliances his whole life had been abandoned in favor of a declared English major.

It had been the first time in his life he’d ever been able to put the past into words and have it not sound crazy. Through fiction, fiction became believable. He could say what he meant about loss and grief when he talked about it in terms of trolls under the bridge, wicked witches, fierce giants, evil dragons.

Josie Bennett had been taken by a monster. She had been gobbled up whole by the Big Bad Wolf.

Staring at his tired face in the mirror, Daniel thought he saw something over his shoulder. When he turned, though, he saw nothing unusual there. He curled his hands into fists and pressed them against one another, breathing in and out on a slow count of ten. There was nothing there. But the wolf was outside, and it was hungry. When it came to eating children, monsters rarely stopped at one.

~*~

Down the street from Daniel’s house was a little park, barely a quarter of a city block, overrun with weeds and wildflowers. Daniel liked it that way for the most part, but sometimes he took the time to rip out a few volunteer stalks, until even a casual passer-by could see the little plaque there. It wasn’t much – it had been too hard to think of it, much less make a big deal of it – but there was a short dedication and five names. The fifth was Charlie Snow’s.

Everyone at the store was talking about it, though he heard the conversations hush when he passed by. He was still suspicious. He tried to keep his head down, made beelines for the things he needed and didn’t dawdle, but there was no escaping the chatter of fear and speculation.

What surprised him more was what he wasn’t hearing: sentences starting with it’s just like twenty years ago. Maybe they weren’t there yet, Daniel reasoned as he put cans of beans and tomatoes in his basket. After all, one incident was a single data point, and one point did not a pattern make. And Josie Bennett might yet turn up, now that they’d cast their missing-persons net wide. One woman he passed in the dairy section had heard they’d be making announcements on all the nightly newscasts in a three-state area. Another standing by the boxes of cereal had seen the search units spreading upriver, which seemed to indicate they thought she was still alive and on the move, as rushing water carried dead bodies a different direction entirely.

Daniel kept his head down and his breathing even. He put his purchases on the counter.

Mrs. Anderson, the clerk, scanned and keyed everything in. She and his mother had been friends, and she’d run the store’s only register so long as Daniel could remember. “Have you heard the news about poor Josie?” she asked in her quiet, quavery voice.

Daniel nodded. “Poor thing,” he said, doing his best to sound uncomplicatedly concerned.

“Indeed,” said Mrs. Anderson. Her hands shook now as she placed the purchases in the bag, but she famously refused all attempts at help, so Daniel slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “It’s not right, for children to go missing. It’s just not right.”

Her cousin’s daughter, Myrna Anderson, was the third name on that little garden plaque. Myrna had been a year behind Daniel in school, a chatty thing with bright red glasses. “Yes, ma’am,” Daniel agreed.

“Such a dear thing.” Mrs. Anderson placed the spaghetti sauce on top of the loaf of bread. Daniel knew he’d have to do a little rearranging before he started the half-mile journey back to his house. “A precious bird. And sometimes they fly, fly away.”

Not knowing anymore if she was talking about Myrna or Josie, Daniel nodded. “I hope she’ll turn up safe and sound.”

“Safe and sound,” echoed Mrs. Anderson. “Home and dry. Happily ever after.”

Daniel closed his hands into fists in his pockets. He had been skating the edge of a panic attack all morning, and this wasn’t helping. “That’s right,” he said, for lack of anything else to contribute to the conversation.

Mrs. Anderson paused, as though hearing something strange. She listened to it for a moment, her hands frozen in place, and just as Daniel was about to ask her if everything was all right, she turned and looked straight at him. Her brown eyes were starting to cloud with blue cataracts at the sides, giving her the appearance of a woman much older than she actually was. “But you know it’s not done,” she said to him, her voice low. “This is only the beginning. Only one, and it’s not done.”

The whole store seemed to go a little quiet and a little dim at once, and Daniel knew that nothing had happened to the room itself; it was his own brain, unable to hold on to what was happening at the edges of reality anymore. Tunnel vision, one of his psychiatrists had called it. Down the rabbit hole, Ivanson had said when Daniel had told him about it. But there wasn’t much Wonderland about it.

Instead, Daniel took a deep breath. “You have a nice day, Mrs. Anderson,” he said. Despite knowing she hated it, he reached over the counter and took both of his bags from her bagging table. He was a big boy who had grown up into a big man, and hefting one in each arm was no problem.

“Oh!” gasped Mrs. Anderson, standing back. “Oh, you… you take care now, dearie,” she told him, with not a hint of scolding in her voice.

Daniel made it out of the store and down the walk, all the way back to the little garden before his knees gave out. There was a little bench there, and he sat down hard; his purchases rattled as they came down ungently at his sides. So much for the bread. So much for a lot of things. So much for Andy Blasius, Caitlin Pearson, Myrna Anderson, Zackary Penn, and Charlie Snow, gone now for twenty years, vanished without a trace. Somewhere, in some file cabinet, five little files lay tucked up next to one another, never to be marked closed. In the local cemetery, markers commemorated five empty graves.

It had made big news back in the day, big enough to get a small town like Lawrenceville covered in the big-city press: five children gone. But when there had been neither new developments nor new disappearances after the fifth, the big news had gotten smaller and smaller, until, like the five young people named on the plaque, talk of it vanished. That had taken about eighteen months too, Daniel had realized. Sympathy for all things had its expiration date.

He wanted a drink. He wanted to get high. He wanted to rip the park bench out of the ground with his bare hands. He could certainly do all three, with varying levels of difficulty from idea to accomplishment.

He didn’t want to think about Charlie, so of course that was all he could do. Little Charlie Snow, the only son of the town’s Presbyterian minister, had been born early and underweight, and had never overcome this initial slow start to his physical development. If there was a cold to catch, Charlie would be the first in town to come down with it. From ear infections to seasonal allergies, if a malady could get bad enough to land someone in the hospital, it would land Charlie there. He had spent a whole summer with his legs in orthopedic braces, metal contraptions that his mother was certain would somehow improve his general health. It hadn’t, but no one in the world could have loved walking like a robot more than Charlie had for those three months.

And no one could have loved watching his delight more than Daniel did. They were complete opposites and the best of friends. Daniel’s mom had once called Charlie “that baby bird who fell from its nest”, with the implication that Daniel had all but brought him home and fixed him his own shoebox. Charlie had loved to come over and listen to records Daniel’s dad had left behind, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and all that other “devil’s music” the good Rev. Snow would never have approved of. Charlie hadn’t cared about his dad’s approval, though. Rev. Snow had called Daniel a bad influence on his son, but the truth was that Charlie had always been the bad influence, the risk-taker, the troublemaker. He had loved being alive more than anyone else Daniel ever met, probably because he’d come closer to not being that way more times than anyone else Daniel had ever met.

“You okay there?” asked a gruff voice.

Startled from his reverie, Daniel looked up. Standing there was Magnus Rasmussen – Officer Magnus Rasmussen, more correctly, especially when he stood tall in his sharp-pressed navy blue uniform, as he did now. “Was actually coming to look for you,” Magnus continued. “Mind if I sit?”

“Sure,” said Daniel. He hefted one of the bags to the ground, making room on the bench, and Magnus sat. They’d been the same year in school, and while Magnus had never gotten on Daniel’s bad side back in those dangerous days, they’d never especially been friends either. Still, being able to skirt the edges of Daniel’s adolescent temper said something.

Magnus sat and took off his hat, revealing a shock of corn-yellow hair. “Got a couple questions for you,” he said.

“Am I a suspect?” asked Daniel, hearing the edge in his voice.

Magnus’ cool didn’t budge. “Yes,” he said outright. “Want to answer some questions and we’ll see if you don’t have to be?”

Daniel supposed that was fair enough. “Sure.”

“Where were you last night?”

“Home.”

Magnus scrawled something in his little steno pad. “Can anybody verify that?”

“Nope,” said Daniel. Nighttime visitors were a thing of Daniel’s past, something he’d given up when he’d moved back home.

“Do you know Josie Bennett?” asked Magnus.

Daniel shook his head, then shrugged. “I know her to see her. Her class came to the Historical Society back in… February or March, maybe. She answered a lot of questions. Smart girl. How are her parents?”

Magnus looked into the distance and sighed. “Not great.”

“Yeah,” said Daniel. “Stupid question, I guess.”

“You know them at all?” asked Magnus.

“A little.” William and Angelina Bennett were a good ten years older than he was, old enough that Josie was their middle child. “Am I a suspect for anything in particular, or just for being here and being weird?”

That caught a little smile out of Magnus. “Mostly being here,” he admitted. “That and your record.”

“My record’s got nothing in it about hurting kids,” said Daniel.

“Yeah, but you’ve got one at all, which is more than most people around here do. That puts you on the list.” Magnus looked down at his little pad. “You sure nobody can vouch for you last night? Be real easy to scratch you off if somebody could. We could keep it discrete.”

The implication – that Daniel might be holding back on an alibi because he’d been seducing someone’s wife – made Daniel chuckle. “I wrote about three pages last night, then went to bed. One’s still in the typewriter, mid-sentence, I think. I don’t know if that’s something.”

“Something’s better than nothing,” Magnus said, scribbling another note. “This still the one about Indian ghost stories?”

Daniel didn’t bother to nuance the distinction between Iroquois folklore about the surrounding area and ‘Indian ghost stories’. “Still the one,” he said.

“Well, okay.” Magnus looked at Daniel and gave a very official nod. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you not to leave town, or do anything else like that to make yourself look suspicious.”

“You mean more than I already have,” Daniel said.

Magnus shrugged as he put his hat back on, then stood. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll be laughing about this come this time tomorrow.”

~*~

They weren’t laughing the next day, or the day after that. Josie Bennett’s disappearance stretched out the length of a week, and then into a second one. Search parties became fewer and further between when it became clear they weren’t turning up anything. Rumors grew louder.

Daniel opened all his curtains and moved his desk over by the window so he could be seen from the street as he worked. He kept the lights on and moved around a lot, doing his best to be visible on a regular basis. He wrote like a man possessed and took his new pages to the Historical Society every day, so that no one could accuse him of kidnapping a child and turning out 800 words in a single evening. He wanted to believe this was all useless precautionary measures.

He knew he’d been right the morning he stepped out his front door and saw the street abuzz with activity. The hub of it was three doors down and on the other side of the street, where the Lang family lived. He knew then it had happened again.

He passed through the day like a zombie, barely eating or speaking, trying to keep down the terror that was rising from the pit of his stomach. Josie Bennett had been a single incident. Kevin Lang was a pattern. And he, Daniel Wall, was a suspect, which meant the last thing he wanted to do was to go around screaming his fool head off about how there would be three more children gone after this before it quieted down again.

Why five? He didn’t know. Professor Ivanson would have said that didn’t matter. What the rules were didn’t matter; what mattered was that the rules were rules. They were as arbitrary and immutable as life itself, and arguing them won you nothing. Why does Rumplestiltzkin’s name take him down? Why does Snow White need a kiss to awaken? Stop asking stupid questions, Ivanson said, and kiss her anyway.

Daniel sat at the table in the kitchen that evening and picked at a plate of cold leftover meatloaf. Every nerve in his body felt fried, like he’d stuck his finger in an electrical socket and then refused to take it out again. He felt too sick to eat, and knowing he’d feel sicker if he didn’t eat made nothing better. He forced himself to stick a forkful into his mouth and chew.

Charlie’s mom had made good meatloaf. She’d been a shrewish, vicious woman who believed in the Wrath of God and its ability to punish even the mildest of sinners, but she had made amazing meatloaf. Daniel supposed there was something good in everyone.

He was halfway into convincing himself into a second bite when a box of macaroni fell to the floor.

Despite everything that had happened in the past ten days, Daniel’s immediate response was irritation. What a pain. He got up from his seat and put it back on the shelf, right where it belonged. It was the last box; he’d have to go back to the store eventually and get a second–

The box fell to the floor again.

Daniel stared at it for a long minute. Slowly, he reached down to pick it up.

The box skittered across the floor, fast as if someone had kicked it. It hit against the leg of his table, rattling its contents as it came to a stop.

“Oh fuck,” muttered Daniel.

A second later, the box was off again, this time flipping over as it scrambled across the floor. It looked a little dented on its side, like someone had indeed sent it on its way with a kick. Daniel held on to the wall for dear life as the box moved again, this time with even greater force. When it slammed against the wall, it split open, sending out its contents in a great flood of pasta.

There were rules, Daniel reminded himself. There were rules. All you had to do was know the rules.

“Hello?” he said, forcing his voice to stay even, despite how much he was shaking. “Can you hear me?”

Everything was still.

Daniel cleared his throat and tried again: “Can you hear me?” He paused, and then when no answer was forthcoming, said, “If you can hear and understand me, knock once.”

The kitchen table jumped with the force of a single knock, sending his fork clattering to the floor, a piece of meatloaf still skewered on its tines. This was going to be hell to clean later.

Daniel took a deep breath and held it for a ten-count before letting it out again. “If you can hear and understand me, knock twice.”

Two bangs erupted from behind him, like someone pounding on the pantry door.

“Is this–” Daniel took a deep breath. “Is this Josie?”

No answer.

No, Daniel remembered, there had to be rules to cover all contingencies. They couldn’t communicate otherwise.

“One for yes, two for no,” he said, looking around. “Are you Josie?”

Two knocks. These were a little gentler, as though the force on the other side were getting control of it, slowly but surely.

“Not Josie,” said Daniel. His heart was racing in his chest, so loud that he was afraid he might mistake its beats for the answers he was getting.

“Kevin?”

Two knocks.

“Mother?”

Two knocks, then two again. He didn’t know what that meant.

Daniel looked around, trying to think. He hadn’t been expecting his evening to go like this. “Do… do we know one another?”

One knock.

The bottom dropped out of Daniel’s stomach. “Charlie?” he whispered, barely able to form the word.

One knock.

He was crazy. He had lost his mind. He was seeing things. He was dreaming. He was delusional. He was talking to a ghost.

“Charlie?” asked Daniel again. “Really?”

One knock.

“Have you been here all this time?”

Two knocks, one, and two again. Whatever that meant.

“Is … is it happening again? What happened to you, is it happening again?”

One knock.

“Fuck,” Daniel swore under his breath. He gripped the back of the dining room chair, his knuckles going white from the force. “Charlie, how do I stop it?” No, that wasn’t right; that question was breaking the rules. “Can I stop it?”

Three knocks. Daniel took that to mean uncertainty.

“Is Josie alive? Is Kevin?”

Two knocks, but they were far apart from one another that Daniel could read them as one and one. Yes and yes. Like Little Red Riding Hood in the wolf’s belly, like Pinocchio in the whale’s stomach. If they were alive, there was still time.

A wild thought struck Daniel, and he asked the kind of question one should never ask a ghost: “Charlie, are you alive?”

One knock.

~*~

Daniel called in sick the next day. Half of that was true; he was feeling wretched from not having slept a wink. He had walked around the house asking questions, moving objects, begging for responses, but after the single knock confirming that Charlie was alive, there had been nothing. Nothing he’d said had earned him anything more than silence.

So after telling the Historical Society he wouldn’t be in that day, he opened the doors to the study where his mother had died.

It was musty and horrible and made him want to throw up just to be in there. But he squared his shoulders and took another step anyway, willing himself into a room where none of the clocks worked and sheets were thrown over all the mirrors. Three years, she’d been dead, and the room still looked like she’d breathed her last only moments before. Even the bed was unmade from when they’d taken her body away. She’d been so frail, Daniel could have lifted her with one arm.

Why children? Part of the rules, sure. But there had to be something else to it, or whatever it was would take easier prey – like an old woman dying of cancer. There was something about those children, then, or about children in general and those ones like Charlie just got unlucky. Either way, Daniel figured his best bet was feeling as much like a child as he could.

So he sat on the edge of the bed where his mother had died and thought about what a shitty son he had been.

Six months of taking care of her hadn’t made up for the rest of it, and they both knew it. He’d broken her body and her future just by being born, and then had gone about breaking the rest. His grades had gone from bad to worse to irredeemable. He’d screamed at her in person and over the phone, both when she’d bailed him out of jail and when she’d refused to. He’d been in no shape to visit until it was so close to the end that even moving back home couldn’t change anything.

Maybe he would have been all right, too, if Charlie hadn’t gone. Maybe he would even have been better for taking care of that baby bird, learning to love something that wasn’t himself.

Charlie had been everything, though. He’d been… no, there was no other way to put it; he’d been everything. He’d been the reason Daniel had gone to school and the reason he’d paid attention, so he could explain everything later on the days Charlie was out sick. He’d been the only person Daniel had ever cared about impressing in his whole damn life. Charlie’s disappearance wasn’t like losing a brother; for Daniel, it was like losing half his body and being told to carry on like nothing had ever happened.

Daniel flopped back on the bed, exhausted. Tears streamed out of the corners of his eyes and ran down into his ears. “Fuck you,” he muttered to no one in particular, too tired to be as angry as he felt.

The room didn’t answer. Charlie’s ghost – or not-ghost, if it was telling the truth about being alive, if it was telling the truth about being Charlie at all – either had nothing left to say or couldn’t say anything. Either that, or Daniel had imagined it all and it was time for a nice trip to the fancy place with padded walls. They could give him something to keep the monsters away.

But that wasn’t how you kept monsters away. Drugs weren’t the rules; drugs just made sure you didn’t accidentally see what should be too difficult for most to find. That was no small part of why Daniel had found them so interesting in the first place.

Why do you marry the woman who fits the shoe? Better question: Why do you assume there’s only one woman who fits the shoe? Think of a shoe store and then try to justify what Cinderella’s prince does. Can you find one, pretend you’ve done due diligence, and live happily ever after?

It was when he was thinking about the prince and the shoe and the happy ending that he saw Charlie.

Charlie Snow was twelve years old. He had never gotten to be more than twelve years old, because he was twelve years old when he was eaten by the monster. But there he was, the same thirty-two as Daniel, wearing a face Daniel had never seen before but knew instantly.

Daniel fought the urge to sit bolt upright in the bed. No, there was something here that shouldn’t be happening; best not to draw attention to it. Instead, keeping Charlie only in the corner of his eye, he pulled himself into a sitting position. He stared straight ahead, and would have been able to see his reflection had the black drape not kept the room’s massive heirloom mirror from seeing anything. “Don’t move,” Daniel said, folding his hands in his lap. “Just stay right there.”

“Okay,” said the voice from his dream. It seemed like years ago; it had been two weeks.

Why could the prince remember the shoe and not the girl? Because we understand, Ivanson had said, that appearances can deceive, but some things are true no matter what they look like. “I can hear you,” Daniel said softly.

There was what sounded like a sob, and the shape that was Charlie shimmered. “God,” Charlie breathed. His voice was strangely deep now, deeper even than Daniel’s. Who would’ve guessed that skinny, sickly boy might grow up to be a baritone? “I don’t know – this isn’t – how are we–”

“It’s okay,” said Daniel, hoping the calm he was projecting would connect to Charlie, hoping at the same time that he could hide how close he himself was to shattering into a million pieces. “Something got you. It took you. I know it did.”

“Yeah,” said Charlie. “It’s … it eats.”

Daniel pressed his lips together to suppress the chill crawling down his spine. “Okay,” he said, as much to steady himself as for Charlie’s benefit. “Is it eating again?”

From the corner of his eye, Daniel could see a nod. “I think that’s … that’s why I’m here. It’s not paying attention to me. It’s got a new meal.”

That made three. They were running out of time.

“It eats and sleeps,” Charlie continued. “And … I don’t think it knows that it didn’t finish me.”

“The others it took before you?”

The silence that followed was all the answer that Daniel needed to his question.

“So why … how did you…?”

Charlie gave a rueful little laugh. “I wasn’t much of a meal,” he said quietly.

“Well, you were always a little thing,” Daniel said with forced cheer.

“That’s not it.” Charlie swallowed audibly. “It doesn’t eat bodies. It eats you from the inside. It sucks you dry and then leaves your bones. I guess I was just … already bonier than the rest.”

It hurt Daniel physically, as a tightening in his chest, to hear the sorrow in Charlie’s voice. That had been how Charlie had survived, by his grin and his quick wit. Even in the throes of the worst illness, he’d always had a cheeky comeback. There was none of that now, only the hollow sounds around the words where that light and life had once been.

“How’d you find me?” asked Daniel.

“I forgot a lot of things,” Charlie said. “I didn’t forget your house. Or where you keep the spare key.”

Daniel smiled, and as he did he was surprised to find that he was still crying. He wiped his face and nose on his sleeve, not caring what a snotty mess it would make. “I’m gonna get you out,” Daniel said.

Charlie’s mood darkened so suddenly Daniel could feel the room temperature drop. “No!” he cried. “No, I didn’t come here for that. I just … I wanted to see you.”

“What do you mean you–” But Daniel didn’t even get to finish asking the question. On instinct, he whipped his head around to stare at Charlie straight on, and the second he did, Charlie was gone. Whatever thin place they’d found had solidified again. The shoe didn’t fit after all.

Sinking back into the bed, Daniel slept a dreamless sleep until midday, when a knock on the door told him someone had come to give him news he already knew.

~*~

“You remember Charlie?”

Magnus looked up from the tape recorder he’d just stopped. “Yeah, I remember Charlie,” he said to Daniel. “The FBI’s already investigating connections to the ’62 disappearances, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

Seated in a cold, sterile interrogation room, Daniel nodded. “They think it might be the same person?” He tried to sound casual, but it came out as more of a snap. He supposed he was feeling pretty frayed at all ends.

“They don’t know what to think,” Magnus said. He looked around for a moment, then took his seat again across from Daniel. “There’s no pattern. Usually when something like this happens, the kidnapper leaves clues, some sort of signature hints. Or there’s a reason, some connection with the person or persons abducted. There’s just nothing here.”

“So why am I here?”

“Covering our asses.” Magnus ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“Lock down the kids?”

Magnus shook his head. “Cayla Smith was with four friends at the time, on their way home from school. One second she was there; the next second she wasn’t. While they were crossing the bridge. That’s some high-level kidnapping business.”

It was getting bolder. That wasn’t good. All five of the children abducted twenty years previous had been alone at the time, vanishing on their way from one point to another. It had picked off the ones separated from the herd. This meant no one was safe.

“So you know it’s not me,” Daniel said.

I do,” said Magnus, pointing to the silenced tape recorder, “or I wouldn’t have told you a tenth of what I just did. But the Chief, the FBI … like I said, ass-covering.”

“Wasting time,” Daniel spat. “There’s two more kids in danger.”

“I know.” Magnus pulled his lips into two thin, pale lines. “I can read a map. I know what this looks like. And what it looks like is that either our original kid-stealing psycho is out there, or we’ve got a whole new kid-stealing psycho doing his best impression of the first. But he’s going to screw up. He’s got to. He’s going to try and grab one kid who gets away, or someone’s going to see him lurking around and give us the heads-up. Or one of the kids he took is going to get smart and get away, and find the way back to us.”

“Or you find a corpse.”

The look Magnus gave him was dangerous, and Daniel’s instinct was to meet anger with anger. He bit his tongue, literally, and counted to ten. “Or we find a corpse,” Magnus said at last. “But you know what? A dead body would even tell us more than we have right now. Unless you’ve got some other idea.”

That was the problem: Daniel had an idea. He had about fifty ideas, ranging from silver bullets to talking harps to kissing frogs. But he didn’t know which one would work, and suggesting any of them would be a one-way trip to a rubber room. “Nothing,” Daniel said.

“Nothing?” Magnus frowned at him. “Not even in your Indian legends?”

That brought Daniel as close to a laugh as he had in hours. No, there was nothing like this from pre-colonial folklore. Whatever it was, it had come with whiteness.

Shaking his head, Magnus closed his notebook and stuffed it in his pocket. “Anyway, the usual: Don’t leave town, don’t do anything suspicious, don’t abduct any children, don’t make me have to bring you down here for something more than just another round of the same old questions.”

Daniel nodded and began to stand – then changed his mind and sat again, fixing his gaze on Magnus. “This is more than how I just didn’t take them,” Daniel said. “I want to find them. I want them to come home safe and sound.”

“I know,” said Magnus. “Like I said, I remember Charlie. I know what it did to you. Hell, to his whole family.”

Rev. Snow hadn’t lasted another year at his position. Mrs. Snow had left with him. Rumors had followed of a divorce, infidelity, abuse. It had been for the best, really; Daniel knew that another year or so beyond that of seeing that smug bastard preach a love he’d never practiced for his own son, and Daniel might have killed the foul hypocrite himself.

“But sometimes police work is a lot of waiting,” said Magnus.

Daniel nodded as he stood again, not pointing out that maybe it was a good thing he wasn’t police.

~*~

On the night the fourth child disappeared, Charlie returned.

Daniel was lying flat on his back in his bed, trying to tune out the shouts and sirens from outside. This time it was Amanda Erikson, who lived a few streets over; it had taken her and left her identical twin, Andrea, whose voice could be heard over all the others’, screaming her missing sister’s name. There would be no answer.

“Danny?” said a soft voice.

Daniel opened his eyes and turned to the side. Charlie was there, lying next to him in the bed, even though his weight was barely denting the sheets. “Hey,” he said softly. It was strange how quickly the impossible face of his long-lost best friend had gone from being impossible to being a comforting, welcoming sight.

Charlie smiled weakly, though his eyes had a sadness that couldn’t be shaken. He was wearing rags, Daniel could see now, just tattered things that looked like they’d been tossed out the back of a thrift store. Even in the heat of the evening, he looked so cold, like he had indeed been sucked dry to the bones. “Hi,” he whispered.

“I was wondering if you’d…” Daniel let silence finish the sentence for him.

That warmed Charlie’s smile a little, and Daniel was surprised to find how handsome it looked on Charlie’s adult face. He was gaunt and undernourished and certainly more than a little the worse for wear, but something about it still had a strange beauty. He didn’t want to call Charlie beautiful, having no idea how Charlie would take it, but he liked thinking it. He liked it more than a little, in fact.

“Um,” Charlie began, looking like he was working up the courage to speak. “So, have you heard anything from my parents?”

Daniel shook his head. “They moved away after you…” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, um, no. The answer is no.”

Whatever response Daniel had expected, it wasn’t the smirk that lifted the corners of Charlie’s mouth. “Good,” he said. “Fuck them.”

Daniel was startled into a laugh so loud that he had to clap his hand over his mouth. “Oh God,” he said through his fingers, “I hated your parents so much.”

“I did too,” Charlie admitted, sounding a little more like his old self with every word. “I tried to love them, because I was told that was what I was supposed to do, but … it’s weird, the perspective you get when something kind of sucks all your joy out of your body and makes you totally numb, and you don’t have to be polite anymore.”

Despite the horror embedded in that sentence, Daniel kept smiling. “They hated me too,” he pointed out.

“They hated you so much,” Charlie chuckled. “They hated that you were the best thing in my life.”

That caused Daniel’s cheerful expression to falter a little. “I’m sorry I didn’t keep looking,” he whispered. “That I gave up.”

Charlie shook his head. “It wouldn’t have mattered. There was nothing to find. You could have looked over every inch of the wilderness and not found it. It only comes out when it wants to, and it can’t be woken when it sleeps. And when it sleeps … I kind of sleep with it. Only I don’t think I was supposed to wake up when it did. Nobody else did.”

That thought stabbed right through Daniel’s stomach, and he reached for Charlie – and nearly withdrew with shock when his hand actually made contact.

Charlie jumped as well, his eyes wide; he looked down at where Daniel’s hand rested on his shoulder. “How are…?”

If there were thin places, there could be thick places; if the liminal space could be crossed, then maybe it could be closed behind someone. Daniel splayed his fingers, pushing up the cloth of Charlie’s sleeve. He felt insubstantial and yet present at once, both warm and the temperature of the air. “You keep coming back to me,” said Daniel, his voice barely a murmur. “Can anyone else see you?”

“No.” Charlie shook his head.

“Can you move things when other people are around?” Daniel asked. “Or is it just when I’m there?”

Charlie shook his head again. “Just you.”

Stop asking stupid questions, Ivanson had said. Daniel leaned forward and kissed Charlie hard, grabbing as much of Charlie’s body as he could and pulling him close. It was shockingly hard, like grabbing a cloud of smoke, but Daniel had never been one to do anything the easy way.

And then Charlie was kissing back, and that was something he could feel: Charlie’s hands in his own shirt, his legs brushing against Daniel’s. This was as real as anything Daniel had ever had, as beautiful and tangible as he could recall. If anything, it was more so, because it wasn’t some random hookup from a bar or swap for drugs; it was Charlie, who had been at the heart of everything Daniel had wanted to do since the moment they’d met.

Charlie’s hands were tugging up at the hem of Daniel’s shirt, and Daniel went for the same, tearing Charlie’s tattered top off and tossing it onto the floor so that they could be chest to chest, skin to ink-marked skin. Charlie was still so cool, but getting warmer all the time as they wound into each other’s arms.

He’d said he’d gone numb. Daniel would help him remember how to feel.

“I loved you,” Daniel said, climbing on top of Charlie; he pressed their foreheads together and let his whole weight settle on Charlie’s frame. “I wanted to do this to you back then. I was getting so close to working up the nerve.”

With a quiet moan, Charlie reached for Daniel’s face and kissed him again, leaving no doubt as to what the answer would have been. Fear had made him hesitate, and hesitation had stolen his whole life from him. He shifted his body and slipped his knee between Charlie’s legs, grinning with pleasure as Charlie gasped. Daniel wanted to hear that beautiful baritone voice say all sorts of things, including yes and please and more. Maybe he was greedy, but he wanted everything.

Daniel shimmied out of his own pants, then pushed down Charlie’s so that they were now fully naked against one another, naked and hard. Charlie was trembling, but Daniel stroked his side as they kissed, promising without words that he would be safe. With every touch, Charlie felt a little warmer, a little more solid. Every kiss, every stroke, every press of bodies together, Daniel got back a little more of what he’d lost.

This couldn’t last long, surely, not with the way Charlie was right now, but Daniel could still make it enough. He shifted his weight to the side, taking it off Charlie’s body so that he could wrap Charlie’s cock in one of his large, stroke hands. Charlie whimpered and Daniel kissed his forehead. “I loved you,” he said again, his voice barely more than a whisper, “and I know you loved me.”

His eyes shut so tight he almost looked pained, Charlie nodded. “I did,” he managed.

“Remember that,” Daniel said as he stroked his fingers up the length of Charlie’s shaft. His touch was feather-light, so much that this would just have been teasing for anyone else. But this was what Charlie needed: gentle, loving, just enough to coax him back. “Remember that and remember this.”

“I will,” Charlie promised, bucking his hips against Daniel’s hand. He looked so beautiful like this, so lovely and needy at once, that it made Daniel grin like he was the Big Bad Wolf, coming to huff and puff and blow someone’s house down.

And speaking of…

With a quick kiss to Charlie’s lips, Daniel lowered himself down Charlie’s body. Maybe he hadn’t thought much about this at twelve, but he’d had a lot of practice in the interim, and now he needed to make up for lost time. With a quick wink, he opened his mouth and swallowed Charlie’s cock to the root.

Charlie began to protest, but it was all shades of you don’t have to and it lasted exactly two seconds, until the sensation was too much and Charlie fell back to the bed. He grabbed at the covers, tearing the fitted sheet from the mattress as he pulled and tugged with delight. It occurred to Daniel that not only was this certainly Charlie’s first blowjob, but that that had almost definitely been Charlie’s first kiss before. It was up to him to show Charlie how good it could be, and how much he deserved it.

One of Charlie’s hands grabbed at Daniel’s thick brown hair, and Daniel smiled at the reflex. He’d never been much of one for hair-pulling, but this wasn’t about dominance or show; this was Charlie’s honest reaction, and Daniel wanted all of that honesty. He smiled as he licked around the head of Charlie’s cock, then sucked him deep again, taking him into his own throat. Daniel even had a moment to be amused at how big Charlie had gotten, at least in the equipment department. More than a mouthful and almost a throatful, and that was just the way Daniel liked it.

“Oh, Danny,” moaned Charlie at a careless volume; Daniel figured it was a good thing he lived alone, because the walls of the house were nowhere near thick enough to block that out. “Oh, please, please, Danny….”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out what Charlie was pleading about, and Daniel was only too happy to oblige. He sucked hard, bobbing his head up and down with showy abandon, showing Charlie time and again what he could take. And Charlie obliged by giving him more; after not even a minute of this treatment, Charlie was coming, spilling into Daniel’s mouth with all the heat Daniel was used to. Only now it was better because it was Charlie: really, truly, finally Charlie.

Daniel swallowed as Charlie fell back against the bed and burst into tears, and then Daniel was at his side in a heartbeat, drawing Charlie close to his chest. “I’ve got you,” Daniel murmured into his hair. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

“But–” Charlie began, and Daniel cut him off with a kiss.

“I said,” Daniel said at last, pulling away, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I need you to remember that. Remember that, and remember what this feels like, and remember that I love you, okay? That I’ve always loved you. Remember that and you won’t go anywhere.”

“Okay,” said Charlie, sounding unconvinced. So Daniel kissed him again and stroked his hair, and not long after that, Charlie was sound asleep.

That was step one. Step two was extracting himself from the bed without waking Charlie, which Daniel did with some skill. He bundled Charlie up in the bed, making sure that Charlie was as snug and comfortable as he could be. That would be important.

Step three was getting dressed.

~*~

He didn’t need to go far, just to the end of the street. There was a little copse of trees there, but Daniel knew that anything would do, really. Even the middle of the street would suffice, provided he could get its attention before he got the police’s attention. That was where the trees came in handy.

He stepped inside the shade of the trees until the lights from the houses were eclipsed – and then they were gone entirely, and he was left inside a forest far bigger than the one he’d stepped inside. Charlie had been right; he could have searched forever and never found this.

There was a sniffing sound ahead of him, like some great beast moving unseen among the trees. Good, Daniel thought. He stood there silently, holding himself as small as he could, even though he didn’t think its eyesight was particularly great. What would a thing need good eyes for, if it lived in a place like this? There were other senses that could suffice.

“How do you kill a monster?” Professor Ivanson had asked the class.

They’d all thrown out their answers, recalled from all their different stories: you trick her into her own oven; you stuff him full of stones and drown him in the river; you drop a house on her; you cut the beanstalk from under him and let him fall. The class spent a good twenty minutes putting their heads together, trying to figure out the unified field theory of monster-killing, the proverbial magic bullet that would down any evil.

Then Ivanson had just smiled and, in his wonderful way, told them they were all wrong. “You kill a monster,” he’d said, “by believing that a monster can be killed.”

The thing in the woods sniffed at Daniel, smelling Charlie’s clothes. Daniel had wiped his mouth with them, even spat on them to cover them as best he could with Charlie’s scent. It wouldn’t be much, but he had to believe it was enough. He had to believe a lot of things tonight.

It fed, but not on flesh. That meant it ate something intangible: but not souls, or memories, or anything vital like that, or else Charlie wouldn’t have come back as intact as he was. It hadn’t been until Charlie had mentioned the numbness that Daniel had finally figured out what was making the beast’s meal, and why five bodies could provide twenty years’ worth of food – and why it was best if those bodies started as children on the cusp of puberty, caught in the horrible middle of believing in both the monster under the bed and the world of adulthood.

Charlie wasn’t a child anymore, but he was still a familiar meal. One more and it would be ready for its hibernation, but it couldn’t possibly leave this morsel lying around, could it? Not while it still had a taste for it.

In the darkness of the impossible forest, Daniel could somehow sense that its mouth was opening. It had found its lost little crumb, the last cookie left in the jar, and it wasn’t a messy eater. Practically licking its lips, it spread its jaws and took Daniel inside.

That was its mistake.

It fed on fear. Of course it did: It was terrifying on a primal level, the kind of horrible that formed the core of every cautionary tale any parent ever passed down to a child. That was useful fear, though; this was hungry for blind panic, sourceless horror. It took children and it stole them, and it made them afraid until they died, and every second of that horror was a second the monster feasted. And the only reason Charlie had survived as long as he had was that the fear of death was not unfamiliar to him.

How do you kill a monster? Daniel wished he could go back in time and contribute one more technique to the discussion: poison.

Caught in the jaws of the fear eater, Daniel reached inside of him and up something more than fear. He’d had fear, certainly, but Charlie’s disappearance had taught him something far easier to access, something that even years of clean small-town living and pretended politeness had never been able to wash away.

Daniel thought about his father, that bastard who had abandoned him, who had gone off to parts unknown like he didn’t give a shit. He thought about his mother, who’d had a hard time of it herself, sure, but who had always made it his problem – and then who’d gotten one final kick in the ass from the universe, with the fucking cancer that would take her, but wouldn’t do it quick or painlessly or with any goddamn dignity. He thought about how he’d failed her, how he’d disappointed her, how he’d been a perfect goddamn fuckup his whole life and she’d held it against him to her dying breath.

He thought about the Snows, Rev. and Mrs., who had been such self-righteous, sanctimonious shitheads that they’d never seen their son as anything but either a burden or a prop to pull out to show how the Lord does something or another in mysterious ways. They’d had the most perfect, wonderful son that anyone could ever have wanted and when he’d gone missing, they’d been sadder for themselves than they’d ever been about him. He thought too about the fight that had led to his first assault charge, when Rev. Snow had called Daniel a faggot and said he’d been glad his son had been killed before Daniel could make him a faggot too.

He thought about the drugs, the years he’d spent locked up in one way or another, the fights, bleeding and drawing blood in equal measure. He remembered every time he’d snapped and punched a stranger in a bar for looking at him funny. He’d nearly beat a man to death once for no good reason than that it was the only thing he’d known how to do. He thought about how it felt to see red, to swing and not care what got destroyed when it hit.

Finally, he thought of Charlie: beautiful, wonderful, amazing Charlie, who he’d been working up the nerve to kiss before his whole life had been shattered. Charlie had been his to love and protect, not some monster’s to bleed dry. Charlie was beautiful and wonderful and had been hurt so badly by this beast, this fucker that Daniel wanted to tear from limb to limb, if only to make it see before it died what a terrible thing it had done.

Daniel took twenty years’ worth of anger in one burst and shoved it right down the gullet of a monster who had been looking for a very different meal. It shuddered, and Daniel could feel the world shift around him as it began to writhe feverishly. It was too late, though. Expecting a much more familiar morsel, it hadn’t even noticed anything wrong until it had already swallowed him whole.

“Fucking choke,” Daniel spat.

There was a roar, one so loud that it shook Daniel to his core, and a blast so fierce it blew all the trees back, and then there was nothing.

~*~

“Over here!”

“They’re here!”

“Get the stretchers!”

The first thing Daniel was aware of was the unmistakable sensation of sitting on damp leaves. The next was that his arms and legs were pinned down. He opened his eyes and saw first daylight – and then the huddled sleeping bodies of Josie Bennett, Kevin Lang, Cayla Smith, and Amanda Erikson. Two were on either side of him, curled up against one another for warmth. They looked like they’d been through hell, but he could see chests rising and falling, and he knew they were all alive.

Fucking hell. He’d done it.

He looked up to see Magnus, who was staring down at him with wordless incomprehension. Daniel smiled up at him, then looked at the kids tucked up against him. “Found ’em,” he said. His throat felt sore. Had he been the one shouting? Did it matter?

“Jesus H. Christ,” Magnus swore. He looked over his shoulder, then glanced back. “Rescue’s on the way. How the hell did you get here?”

“Depends on where I am, I guess,” Daniel said, looking around and seeing nothing more distinctive than trees. “Long story. But I need you to do something for me.”

“What?” asked Magnus.

“Go to my place,” Daniel said. “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed, and I think you’ll want to talk to him.”

It was a testament to how strange and miraculous this all was that Magnus didn’t ask any further questions or even hesitate for more than a moment before taking off. He figured there were worse ways to come out of the closet to a small town than sexing up a local boy lost for two decades. So what if people didn’t take it well? He’d slain bigger dragons.

EMTs were charging in through the distant trees, stretchers in hand. Daniel tightened his embrace around the shoulders of the closest kids, Josie and Cayla, then closed his eyes. There’d be questions aplenty, and some he already knew he didn’t have good answers for. He felt like he’d been chewed up and spit back out, too, which he supposed was about par for the course around here. Miserable as he felt, though, he couldn’t keep the smile from his face as he waited for the paramedics to arrive. It was the closest he’d ever been to a happily ever after.

 

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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