After the screaming had stopped, they’d decided that staying in one room together was the best idea. Or well, Alicia had wanted to retreat to her room to process alone what had happened outside the front of their house (and then try calling Matt again), but had been told by her mother that staying together was the best idea. Alicia had thought to argue, but instead offered a deal – she would stay in the living room with them if her mom would tell her what the hell was going on.
Nick was still crashed out on the couch –he had only woken briefly during Mr. Dawson’s attack on Mrs. Cruz before his oxy haze had had him dozing off again– and was drooling slightly on decorative throw pillow his head was resting on. Normally Alicia would have cringed at the sight, but after spending several hours cleaning up vomit (and really, after the whole day in general), she just couldn’t work up the energy to be bothered.
Her mom was sitting on the white bench by the window, her left arm wrapped around the yellow, blue, and white flowered pillow that she’d bought from Ikea specifically for the bench. She was holding it tight to her chest while her other arm was propped up atop the pillow so that she could finger the blinds and look out with minimal effort. A silent sentry, choosing the uncomfortable bench so that she could guard her children against whatever horrors were happening outside. Alicia suspected she was also keeping a desperate watch out for Travis as well. The phone was in her mother’s hand, held against the pillow in a white-knuckled grip despite the fact that service still seemed to be down.
Alicia herself was sitting in the blue chair across from her brother. Her legs were pulled up and she was hugging them tightly. As her brother slept and her mother kept watch, she sat quietly staring at the candles on the coffee table.
She had once found comfort in candles, thought them homey or sometimes romantic, but right now the warm flicker that played across the walls only made things more eerie. As they sat in silence, the screams of Mrs. Cruz echoed through her mind and she shivered, the feeling of a lead weight sitting tensely and nauseatingly in her gut. She wasn’t sure what time it was, only that it was late, but she couldn’t imagine she’d be tired ever again.
She shifted her weight slightly so that she could rest her chin atop her knees. The fact alone that she hadn’t gotten at least a raised eyebrow from her mother for putting her Converse on the furniture spoke to the terrifying gravity of the situation… the situation that had finally been explained to her.
As promised, her mom had told her what was going on, or at least as much as she knew. She’d (more or less) told her what had happened with Calvin and with Principal Costa, though the details of the latter she had left fairly vague.
“His eyes were… dead. He didn’t recognize me or Tobias… and he attacked us.”
“Yes, but…” A tense pause. “But we got away, and I drove Tobias home.”
She’d wanted to know more than just that. She’d wanted to know how they’d gotten away, how exactly he’d attacked them, what he’d tried to do, had he behaved like Mr. Dawson, had they called the cops, was Mr. Costa going to be okay. She’d wanted to know every detail, but the way her mother’s face had drained of all color and the way her voice had cracked with strain just describing what little she had had kept Alicia from pressing for more information.
The only thing she’d asked, after they’d sat there quietly for a time, was, “How do you know it was this… sickness or whatever? Mr. Costa wasn’t sick before. How do you know he wasn’t just like, drugged or something?”
By then her mother had turned to look out the window again, sitting with her back to Alicia so that she didn’t have to turn her head to look at the driveway, but Alicia saw it, the moment she’d asked the question, saw tension suddenly stiffen her mom’s shoulders. There was a pause and then her mom had turned her head toward her. Alicia only saw her face in profile, but her mom’s expression had been distant, a million miles away and pained.
“He had a wound,” she’d said slowly, “to the back of his neck. It looked… it looked like it might have been a bite.”
“A bite?” All she’d gotten in return for the alarmed question was an absent nod and then her mom had looked away.
Silence had returned between the two and her mother’s attention was out the window once more. Nick frowned at something in his sleep and Alicia could only imagine what horrors were visiting his dreams. She wondered if they could possibly be worse than the horrors her mind was making up in that moment.
Since her mother had mentioned the bite, all Alicia could think about was Matt. She had heard them, her mom and Travis, talking about Matt’s wound when they’d assumed she was out of earshot getting Matt water. She’d seen it, of course, after she’d arrived to find her boyfriend lying on the couch, practically dying from his fever. The torn skin of his wound had been peeking out from beneath the collar of his shirt. She’d lifted it to look only to have Matt grab her hand and tell her to leave it, but he hadn’t been fast enough for her not to catch a glimpse.
Her mom had asked Matt if it was a bite and though Alicia hadn’t seen his response, she had the agonizing suspicion that that was exactly what it had been. What did that mean? Was he going to end up like Mr. Costa or Mr. Dawson? Was he going to turn murderous? Was that what Nick had been trying to save her from right before he’d seized on the floor?
She frowned. Definitely not. She just couldn’t believe that. It was Matt! There was no way he would have hurt her, sick or not. He’s the sweetest, gentlest…
Her inner mollification was derailed by a sudden, horrifying thought: what if he’s dead?
Her chest clenched painfully at the idea. There was no way, that just couldn’t be. He hadn’t been responding to her texts or calls, but that was only because he was sick and the cell service was jacked up at the moment. It’s fine. He’s fine. He’s–he’s… She grabbed her phone where she had tucked it against her side and pushed quickly to her feet.
“Where are you going?” her mom immediately asked.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she replied in a rush, strained and breathless, already moving across the living room. She was in the bathroom and closing the door a few seconds later.
She automatically reached for the lightswitch only to be reminded that the power was out. Swallowing down a curse, she fumbled with her phone and turned on the flashlight app, illuminating the small space. She dropped it on the counter, light facing upward, and braced her hands against the edge, dropping her head forward and sucking in choppy breaths. She felt clammy and cold and a little bit sick.
She couldn’t do this, she couldn’t do this, not without Matt. She needed to know he was okay. She needed to hear his voice. She needed– she needed–
Alicia raked her fingers through her hair and clenched her eyes shut. She needed to calm down, that’s what she really needed, and she knew that. Freaking out wasn’t going to help anyone, but still, she just… she kept thinking about Matt’s eyes. Her mom had described the eyes of both Calvin and Mr. Costa and Alicia just kept thinking about Matt’s beautiful, warm brown eyes suddenly milky and glazed over.
She had seen enough horror movies over the years for her mind to conjure up all manner of terrifying possibilities. She imagined his eyes cold and lifeless, imagined him looking at her, but not seeing her, not knowing her. She imagined him standing outside her bedroom window in the dark as he had on so many other occasions, only this time instead of being there to steal a sweet, late-night kiss, he was there to tear her to pieces. She shuddered at the thought.
Matt would have adoringly said that she was being silly; Nick would have told her she was being overdramatic; her mom would have informed her in a very guidance counselor-y way that the stress of the day and the anxiety she was feeling over having to leave Matt was causing her mind to come up with the worst possible scenarios. All of them would have agreed that it wasn’t going to do her any good. She got it, she did. Of the two Clark kids, she was definitely the more centered and rational one, but this was Matt. She just couldn’t help being monumentally worried.
She shivered again and dropped her hands from her hair to rub her bare arms. She’d taken her jacket off (a second time, as the first time had been when she’d had to scrub Nick’s puke off of the floor) after the heat from the candles had started to make things a little too warm for her. She wanted it again, she decided, or perhaps something fluffier, more comforting. A hoodie maybe or a sweater. And she was going to call Matt again, too, or at least try to call him.
She looked at herself in the mirror for just a moment and sucked in a resolved breath before she snatched up her phone, turning the flashlight app back off (to conserve her battery), and headed out of the bathroom.
Given that hers was the first bedroom, there was enough light from both the candles in the living room and the moonlight coming through the windows that she wouldn’t need another light in order to find what she wanted, she thankfully realized. She’d dialed Matt’s number as she’d moved from the bathroom to her bedroom. She paused though just a step over the threshold when the call made a clicking sound, like he’d just picked up really fast, not giving it time to actually ring. “Matt?” she questioned.
She stood there and stared at the shadows the tree outside her window was casting on her floor and up her bedroom walls. There was silence on the other end of the phone, eerie and hollow-sounding. She swallowed hard, her voice suddenly caught in her throat. What if he was outside her window? She couldn’t see for sure because the venetian blinds were only partially open. What if he had turned mindless and muscle memory alone had brought him to her house, to her window?
As her hearing seemed to sharpen with her growing fear, she suddenly swore she could hear labored breaths over the phone. “Matt?” she whispered, voice reedy with anxiety. She didn’t take her eyes off of the window.
She stilled and stood in silent tension, body rigid. There was just no way… He couldn’t be outside. He couldn’t even stand when she’d left him…
So, she rationalized with herself, when she went to the window and looked out, he wasn’t going to be standing there at all. He was going to be home, safe in his bed, with his parents looking after him. Everything was going to be fine. She just… had… to look.
Alicia took a step toward the window, then another. It’s fine. Everything is fi–
Suddenly, a sound from outside nearly made her jump out of her skin.
So startled, she dropped her phone. She took a step back, hand to her chest, heart hammering. She just stood there, staring at the window, waiting to hear it again.
But it didn’t come.
She frowned. “Get it together,” she growled at herself. It was the tree. It was always the goddamn tree. When the wind blew hard enough, the longest branch would scrape the side of the house. It had been that way as long as they’d lived there.
Gathering up the burst of anger she felt toward herself for being such a child, she wrapped the heated emotion around herself like a shield and swallowed down the fear she was feeling. With the adrenaline of the fright still flooding her veins, she marched over to the window and after taking a millisecond to brace herself, yanked hard on the cord, ripping the blinds upward.
She peered out into night and saw… that Matt wasn’t there.
Overwhelming relief poured through her body, loosening the tightness in her chest and making her knees feel like jelly. She started to turn away.
She froze. The sound hadn’t come from above where the branches were, but below…
Slowly, she turned her head back and looked down out the window…
Alicia scrambled away so fast that she caught the edge of her bed with her foot and fell, toppling backward and cracking the back of her head hard against the doorframe. She hissed in pain and curled in on herself, gripping her head.
Before she knew it, her mother was there, crouched before her, coaxing her up into a sitting position. “What’s wrong?” she asked, “What happened? Are you okay?” The questions were fired off in rapid succession, nearing on frantic.
Alicia stared at her for a moment, squinting in pain, and then gestured toward the window. “Gladys,” she croaked.
“The window.” She closed her eyes again as fire continued to lance through her skull. She listened as her mom got up and crossed the room, then gasped, “Oh God.”
Eight year old –nine year old, Alicia corrected herself– Gladys Cruz from across the street was standing just below the window, eyes yellow and lifeless, her throat viciously torn open. The front of her Princess and the Frog pajamas were stained with blood and the tops of her fingers were shredded, her fingernails broken or missing completely, seemingly from where she had been scratching at the side of the house.
Alicia heard the ziiiiiip of blinds being released and the soft clank of the bottom piece hitting the windowsill. She reopened her eyes and watched her mother pull the slat adjusting cord, closing the blinds completely. “Go, Alicia. Go into the hall,” she said quickly, moving to adjust every set of blinds in the room.
Alicia did as she was told, crawling out the door and across the hall to sit against the far wall. She looked over to see Nick sitting up on the couch, a haunted expression on his face, but for once, he didn’t say anything. She pulled her knees to her chest and buried her face in them. She felt her eyes beginning to burn with tears.
Why Gladys was at their house of all places, at her window, Alicia couldn’t even begin to fathom, but she wanted her gone. She wanted it all to be gone, for it to stop. She wanted everything to go back to the way it had been before.
She heard her bedroom door click as it was shut and she felt her mother kneel down in front of her before she even spoke. “Alicia,” she murmured, gently placing her hands on Alicia’s elbows.
Alicia brought her head back up and met her mother’s concerned gaze.
“She’s gone now,” her mom said softly. “Hector was somehow under the house, but he ran back out. She chase– she followed after him.” Hector was the Cruz’s German Shepherd. There was a pause as she dropped her head a little to better align with Alicia’s gaze. “Are you okay?”
Alicia blinked rapidly as tears began to flood her eyes, not wanting them to fall. She had to be strong for her mother, for her brother, just as she’d always been. Her mom was the rock of the family, sure, but she’d had so much to deal with with Nick and with their father… and, well, Alicia hadn’t wanted to add to the burden. That was why she’d always worked so hard to be the best at everything she did, so that her mother wouldn’t have to worry about her, so she could focus completely on Nick and on getting him the help he needed.
Alicia didn’t work hard and do what she was told because she was an overachieving princess (as Nick sometimes called her). She did it because, one, it was really the only thing she could control in the emotional maelstrom that was life at the Clark’s, but also, mostly, because it was the only way she knew how to help anyone. If she was self-sufficient, no one would need to stress over her well-being. She had seen what that kind of stress had done to her mother over the years, as she’d spent day after day worrying about Nick, and Alicia never wanted to do that to anyone.
And now, well,… she didn’t exactly understand what was happening now or what it would mean for the future, but she did know that it was causing her family pain and she didn’t want to add to that any more than she already had. Now was definitely a time when her family was going to need her to be strong.
Her mother seemed to notice the struggle in her eyes because she reached forward, cupping Alicia’s face and asking again with infinite care, “Are you okay?”
Alicia’s breath hitched in the back of her throat. The last time she could really remember her mom speaking to her in such a way, soft, gentle, and full of concerned warmth, was when she had been much younger. As they had gotten older, things had gotten so busy and so insane that there hadn’t been much time to just stop and really …care.
Hearing her mom speak in that time-forgotten tone caught Alicia off-guard. She hadn’t expected it and it was exactly enough to slip through the cracks of need in her carefully constructed armor of strength and independence that she’d built up around herself over the years.
A soft, traitorous sob broke free from her throat and she shook her head, face crumpling. “No,” she whimpered. She was very much not okay.
“Oh, baby…” her mom breathed, coaxing Alicia onto her knees before pulling her forward into her arms.
Alicia pressed her face into her mother’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around her, gripping tight the back of her mom’s shirt. She sobbed softly, for Matt, for Nick, for her mom, for all they had lost, for all the pain they had endured, for what was to come, for so many things.
“Shhh, shhh,” her mom soothed as she alternated between stroking her hair and rubbing her back. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. Shhh.” Alicia could hear tears of her own in her mother’s voice.
They stayed like that some time, even after Alicia had calmed down. Mother and daughter just holding onto each other while brother watched on, silent.
“I thought it was Matt,” Alicia whispered after a while, turning her now splotchy face out of her mom’s shoulder and tilting her head back a bit so she could see her mother’s face.
“What?” her mom asked, still combing her fingers through Alicia’s long hair.
“When I looked out the window,” she quietly confessed, “I thought Matt had come. I thought it’d be him.”
“Oh baby, he’s so sick right now, there’s no way–”
“No, I thought he would be there as one of them, with dead eyes.” Her breath hitched as her throat seized with nauseating dread. “Mom, what if he’s one of them? What if he’s– What if–”
Her mother’s arms tightened around her, almost crushing Alicia to her. “I’m sure… I’m sure he’s okay. His parents are there by now and they’re taking care of him.” She said she was sure, and Alicia knew she wanted to believe it, but her tone, while grasping desperately at shreds of hopefulness, held very little conviction.
Alicia’s heart immediately sank, clenching in agony, and she closed her eyes against the weight of full understanding. She knew it. In that moment, she just knew it. Matt, the boy she had been in love with since 5th grade,… was gone. She felt like she couldn’t breathe and she buckled, her entire weight collapsing against her mother.
Her mother seemed to comprehend what excruciating realization Alicia had just come to because she made a little hiccuped sound of despair, like she was holding back a sob, and pressed a desperate kiss into Alicia’s hair. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry…”
Alicia choked on her sudden sorrow. She wanted to scream. She wanted to throw up and break things. She wanted to cry and cry and cry, but all she could do was sit there in her mother’s arms and shake. Her armor was shattered, all her strength was now gone.