The Prospero Chronicles Book 1
by Fiona J.R. Titchenell & Matt Carter
Genre: YA Horror, SciFi
Under normal circumstances, Ben and Mina would never have had reason to speak to each other. He’s an easy-going people person with a healthy skepticism about the paranormal; she’s a dangerously obsessive monster-hunter with a crippling fear of betrayal. But the small Northern California town of Prospero, with its rich history of cryptid sightings, miracles, and mysterious disappearances, has no normal circumstances to offer.
When Ben’s missing childhood friend, Haley Perkins, stumbles out of Prospero’s surrounding woods and right into her own funeral, Ben and Mina are forced to work together to uncover what happened to her. Different as they are, their unlikely friendship may be the only thing that can save the town, and possibly the world, from its insidious invaders.
“A snapping, crackling, popping homage to classic horror.” —Kirkus Reviews.
“Whip-smart dialogue... genuinely terrifying Splinters, the descriptions of which will have fans of monster films utterly enthralled... A promising series opener, this will satisfy those readers who like their scary stories to be as clever as they are chilling." —KQG, the Bulletin of The Center for Children's Books.
“The stakes are high. The action is intense." —Washington Independent Review of Books.
**only 99 cents!!**
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1. The Funeral Crasher
1. The Funeral Crasher
I’d never been to a funeral without a casket before.
Then again, I’d never known a missing person before.
This trip was full of firsts.
The funeral home had managed to fit about eighty folding chairs into their cramped, stuffy parlor, and they were all full of mourners and well-wishers. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the funeral director’s promise of having the air conditioning fixed in twenty minutes had actually been true. The mid-summer heat had transformed the room into a pressure cooker that smelled heavily of sweat and flowers. I couldn’t leave. I wanted to, if only for a minute so I could clear my head, but I couldn’t because I had to be there for my mother, and she had to be there for the dead girl’s mother.
Missing. Not dead. Missing.
Where a casket would have been stood a large yearbook picture of a pretty blonde girl wearing a nice, not-too-fancy dress. Her smile was gorgeous and hopeful, unaware that less than a year after the picture was taken it would be blown up and surrounded by more flowers and teddy bears than you could count.
We were friends, once. Not close friends, not even good friends—when we were both six, we’d liked each other well enough, and, since my mother was best friends in college with her mother, we got used to playing together during my mother’s infrequent trips to Prospero. It didn’t last long, as we each soon entered the age where playing with the opposite sex was considered gross, but we were nice enough to smile and say hello and spend a few polite minutes together whenever our mothers would force us to.
I wasn’t that choked up about her death (disappearance), but there was still something surreal about actually knowing the person whose funeral you’re attending.
The program said that the services were set to begin in ten minutes. Some of Haley’s friends and my mother would deliver eulogies about how lovely and special a girl she was, about how she had brightened all of their lives, and how the world would be a much worse place for not having her in it. Standard stuff. The kind of stuff that would break any audience into a chorus of tears and moans of grief.
Any normal audience at least. This audience’s behavior was anything but normal.
Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of sadness to go around. About half the audience, mostly high school-aged, probably Haley’s friends, were emotional and, if not already crying, were on the verge of tears. The older members of the audience, on the other hand, the parents, the select representatives of the Town Council who had decided to attend… their reactions were a bit off. While most of them put their best sad faces on, more than anything else there seemed to be an air of fear, even frustration as they occasionally whispered amongst themselves. Even stranger, I could swear that a few of the older people looked happy, as if this were a day of celebration instead of mourning.
This is why I never really looked forward to Mom’s trips to Prospero; it’s just oozing with small town strange. Big city strange I can deal with. I expect it. In all the noise and anonymity, I can avoid it.
Small town strange is another beast entirely, that kind of strange where you know, you just know that everybody’s watching you and judging your every move… I don’t know how anyone could handle that for long without going completely insane. Top it off with Prospero’s tourist-friendly reputation for the bizarre….
I needed some air. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve.
She looked at me, daubing her puffy eyes with a tissue, “Yes, Ben?”
“Can I go get some water?”
She smiled, faintly, looking to the woman wrapped in her arms, “Sure. Could you get a cup for me and your Aunt Christine as well?”
“Sure,” I said as I got up and walked down the center aisle. Late arrivals milled around the back. Among them was a gawky-looking girl in a long-sleeved black dress that might have belonged to her grandmother, who looked like she had only been told how dresses worked just in time for this memorial service. Her curly red hair hung haphazardly around her face, a striking contrast against her pale skin. A pair of thick, black-framed glasses made her eyes look enormous.
I couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to be staring intently at me as I walked into the next room. I’d have been unsettled even if the town itself hadn’t already put me on edge.
In the next parlor over, a buffet table had been set out with a selection of hors d’oeuvres and bottles of water in ice. I grabbed a few, cracked one open, and took a long, grateful sip.
When I turned to head back to the service, the red-haired girl was standing in my way. I was startled, almost dropping my bottle to the floor. Up close, I could see that she stood barely five feet tall, and if it hadn’t been for the intensity of her gaze, I could almost have tripped over her before noticing she was there. She didn’t move.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she replied. An awkward silence followed. Though I could already tell she was hardly the world’s greatest conversationalist, given the day, I wanted to be polite.
“I’m Ben,” I said, holding out my hand.
She didn’t take it. She only said, “I know.”
Again, that unsettled feeling was grabbing my stomach, but being too polite for my own good, I couldn’t act on it. “Well, then you’ve got me at a disadvantage?”
“Mina. Mina Todd,” she said quickly, her eyes leaving me for a moment as if worried someone might overhear her. Satisfied that she was clear, she smiled briefly. As odd-looking as she was, she had a radiant smile.
“Did you… did you know Haley well?” I asked. Though this could have been a minefield, it did seem like the safest conversation topic.
“Better than she knew me,” Mina said, shrugging.
She did not elaborate.
This was getting a little too weird for my tastes. I could have doubled back into the parlor easily, but considering the stifling heat, I decided on a different approach. I reached for my pocket, pulled out my phone, and forced a surprised look on my face.
“My phone’s vibrating, I’ll be right back.”
“No it isn’t,” she said simply.
“It’s very quiet,” I explained, starting to turn away from her to make my escape.
“No it isn’t,” she repeated. She looked at me, worried, clearly wanting to say more. She was weird, I understood that, but something really had her on edge.
I quickened my pace. Thankfully, she didn’t follow.
It was nice outside. Hot, but nice. A faint breeze brought in the scent of the redwood trees that surrounded Prospero. I realized then that, Prospero’s strangeness aside, I could probably deal with summer in Northern California, better than a lot of the places we’d lived at least. Better than Virginia and Texas, and those three weeks we spent in Phoenix. That quick escape was one of the few times I was glad my mom liked to move around so much.
I sighed, took another sip of water. This trip was another excuse. I knew it. Mom wasn’t happy with her job and she hated our landlord. When she said we were coming up here to offer comfort to Aunt Christine and she didn’t know how long we’d stay, I knew, I just knew that it would be her way of quitting her job. Something would happen, she’d decide to stay longer, and then, the way she had at least once every two years since Dad died, she’d say it was time for a change.
If it had been funny, I’d have laughed. Instead, I kicked a stone across the funeral home’s parking lot. It bounced harmlessly off the tire of a Jeep parked near the exit. I watched it skip out into the street, wondering how far it would go.
Then I saw her.
There was a girl walking down the middle of the street, dirty and barefoot, wrapped in a tattered old Army blanket. She looked like a zombie, unmindful of the cuts on her feet, how little the blanket covered up her probably naked form, and the car that was barreling down the road toward her.
It was going too fast, and the driver wouldn’t see her in time around the blind corner.
I didn’t think; I just ran.
The car rounded the corner.
The squealing of brakes filled the air.
I collided with the girl, knocking her off her feet. We fell into a ditch full of dry pine needles by the side of the road. The car swerved, missed us by inches and ran into a lamp post in front of the funeral home. Its hood crunched inward and glass scattered everywhere. I don’t know what was louder; the unending blare of its horn after the impact, or the sound of the lamppost falling down and crunching another car in the parking lot.
I looked down at the girl, rolling off her when I realized, shamefacedly, that she had broken my fall.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I meant to do that better. Are you all right?”
She was coming out of her trance. The vacant gaze was soon replaced by the look of a person coming out of a deep slumber.
Sitting up, I repeated, “Are you all ri—”
Then I saw her face. She’d lost some weight, needed a shower and some shampoo, and was a little bloody, but there was no denying it was her.
“Haley?” I asked.
Her eyes focused on me, shocked and fearful. Letting out an animalistic scream of grief and fear, she wrapped her arms powerfully around me and wept. Comforting crying girls had never been one of my strong suits, let alone beautiful girls who’d been missing for two months and declared legally dead and then showed up naked outside their own memorial services. I like to think I did my best as she hung on to me.
People from the service had started filing outside, checking out the accident. Some were already calling 911, which gave me one less thing to do, thankfully.
“Can you walk?” I asked, getting only loud sobs in response. I took that as a no.
Carefully, I cradled Haley in my arms and picked her up, making sure the blanket covered her. She was so light. Too light. As quickly as I could, I made my way to the accident site and the crowd that had gathered around it.
“We need help here!” I called.
With a car accident to look at, they noticed us slowly, but when they did, we were swarmed. There were all the reactions you’d expect on an occasion like this. Shock. Excitement. Elation. I set her down, and though she regained her footing for a moment, she soon sat down on the curb, holding the blanket around her protectively as people hugged her, questioned her, or just stood around crying. People called for her mother, and soon she came running out with my mom in tow.
Aunt Christine screamed in surprise, tears of joy running down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around Haley and me. She babbled incoherently as she kissed first Haley, then me on the cheek, and though I was soon pulled aside by the crowd for congratulations from a couple dozen strangers, I did catch her saying the words “Thank you” and “hero.”
Within minutes there was a police car parked in front of the funeral home and, five minutes after that, an ambulance to take Haley and the driver to the nearby medical center. By then I’d had my hand shaken and my back pounded so many times I was thinking of asking for a ride over there with them.
It was right around the time they started to load Haley into the back of the ambulance that I felt the insistent poking on the back of my shoulder. I turned around, expecting another well-wisher or congratulatory handshake.
Instead, I got Mina Todd. She looked at me, almost frantic, as she wrote furiously on her funeral program with a marker and thrust it into my hands.
“We can’t talk here. It’s not safe. Just… call me, okay?”
Before I could ask what she meant, she darted off into the crowd and disappeared. I looked back to Haley as she was loaded into the ambulance. She smiled at me, grateful, and for a moment, it almost looked like she said “Thank you.”
I was a hero. A hero. I gotta say, it felt pretty good. They wouldn’t call me a hero for much longer, not the guy who just saw her wandering in the street and decided to help, but I was going to enjoy it while they did.
It was almost an afterthought when I finally looked at the message Mina had scrawled on the back of her funeral program. Beneath her phone number, in large block letters, she had printed three simple words.
THAT ISN’T HALEY
The Prospero Chronicles Book 2
When autumn descends on Prospero, California, Ben hopes the normality of the new school year may offer a reprieve from the town’s paranormal horrors. Mina knows all too well that there are no reprieves and no normality to be had in Prospero, but even she can’t prepare for what the coming year holds.
On top of the vivid hallucinations that have plagued Mina since the attack on the Warehouse, and the brewing Splinter civil war that threatens all of humanity, inside the walls of Prospero High, Ben, Mina, and their expanding Network face a vicious campaign to destroy their friendship, and a mysterious assassin picking off human rebels – an assassin with powers like no Splinter they’ve fought before.
Ben and Mina’s one hope rests with a mysterious old man hiding in the woods outside of town; a living legend who may be able to teach them how to fight this dangerous new breed of Splinter. That is, assuming he doesn’t kill the pair of them himself.
“Titchenell and Carter hold nothing back in this solid sequel that thrills and expands on its predecessor. Aided by swift writing, relatable characters and unexpected scares, Shards is a chill-inducing delight.” —David Powers King, co-author of Woven.
“Maintaining the same level of popcorn-munching fun, Titchenell and Carter are taking The Prospero Chronicles in a promising direction.” —Joe Dell'Erb, Washington Independent Review of Books.
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1. Psychological Warfare
1. Psychological Warfare
Marian Kelly died in a one-car accident near her home in Turtle Lake, Montana, on August twentieth, at the age of forty-two.
Marian is predeceased by her parents, Rand and Millicent “Millie” Kelly, and her brother, Christopher.
Marian was born in Prospero, California, and studied Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. She held black belts in multiple martial arts and was an accomplished member of the Turtle Lake Hunting Club.
I skipped the details of Marian’s perfunctory funeral service, put the newspaper clipping back in the plain, unstamped envelope it had arrived in, and filed it out of sight; not that this did anything to clear the smudged print from my vision. Alone, it was unsettling. In a stack of six other recent obituaries of other Splinter hunters, in six other anonymous envelopes with my name stamped on the front, it sent a very clear message.
I’m no stranger to death threats. At the time of Marian’s death, it had been less than a month since the Splinter posing as my father told me to my face that if Ben or I fought back again, if we even tried to run, the humans would be wiped out of my infested little town of Prospero completely.
I’d fact-checked each obituary as it came in.
Every one of the hunters had died under circumstances that looked very much like suicide. Most of the obituaries didn’t say so, exactly, but after the few that did, omissions of the cause of death and euphemisms like “one-car accident” and “chemical overdose” were easy enough to decipher. Sometimes, when the deaths had been a little more bizarre or had occurred on slow news days, there were more details to be found when I looked up the rest of the news sources in the area.
These weren’t suicidal people. They weren’t quitters. Wondering how someone could possibly have made it appear as if Drake Tymon had slit his wrists and throat alone in an industrial freezer that was later found barricaded from the inside was filling my head quite effectively with distractingly disturbing scenarios.
But the thing bothering me most about the obituaries was the fact that all seven of their subjects were currently loitering around my bedroom.
Sometimes, if I stared directly at them for long enough, they seemed to remember that they were supposed to be dead and vanish accordingly, albeit temporarily. Otherwise I could see them, silently and blankly watching me work, as clearly as I could see my bookshelves, my bed, and the stark beige walls and end tables that, until recently, had held my very large and very useless anti-Splinter amulet collection.
Nightmares are no more new to me than death threats. That’s not what these were. A hunter would die and join the rest of the hallucinations in my room the day after the obituary arrived, and then another one would die and join him without fail. If things carried on this way, my room was going to become unmanageably crowded quite soon.
It wasn’t even as if I were going to miss the hunters. A few of them, like Drake, I’d known pretty well years ago, but I’d stopped assuming they were still alive—never mind still human—long before they’d turned up dead. Others, like Marian, I only knew by reputation in the first place.
Not knowing them well only made it stranger that they were here, after everything I’d lived through and lost without having suffered from any sensory distortions before.
Ready? The text scrolled across my phone’s screen after Ben’s name.
Almost, I texted back.
I wasn’t looking forward to conducting the upcoming meeting for my entire Network, a roomful of people who had nothing in common other than their knowledge of Splinters and their confidence in my judgment and clarity of perception. Ben had insisted, though. A lot had changed, and people needed to be brought up to speed.
Billy was gone, lost to the Splinters, if we had ever even had him. Whatever had been passing for my absentminded ally had been manipulating us to breach the peace, such as it was, for no one knew how long.
Ben hadn’t even met some of the others yet. Our discovery of portals to other parts of the world in the Splinter Warehouse had put an end to the Effectively Certain Non-Splinters list, or had reduced it to a uselessly small number of people. The only people in town I could really be effectively certain of anymore were myself and Haley, since we’d both recently been ripped directly out of replication pods. That wasn’t enough to work with, so I’d had to downgrade my entire Network to Extremely Probable Non-Splinters and start training myself to live with that, because the alternative was not getting anything done at all.
Ben was stubbornly under the impression that Haley’s presence on the list alone qualified her as a Network member. I disagreed.
Most important, we now knew more terms of the Splinter-Human treaty and exactly how precarious our position was. Two human-on-humanoid Splinter kills by the same human would mean all-out war, and Ben and I each had one strike already. And no matter how careful we were, Billy and any like-minded Splinters would find a way to incite that war sooner or later. We were counting on an unforeseen miracle to make the human side a significant power before then.
As someone who doesn’t believe in miracles, this wasn’t news I would enjoy delivering, even on my best day.
I finished up some new touches on the map over my desk—the new world map I’d posted under the map of Prospero to track probable Splinter activity at the other portals—and blinked hard, hoping the illusion of the hunters would fade out at the usual time. Their faces were already getting blurry around the edges, right on schedule.
That was something, at least. I was going to be able to function for another day. If my Network, the few humans invested in finding or building that miracle, found out what was happening to me, it would probably be the end of what hope we had. They would give up on the one thing they all agreed on, my reliability, and maybe they’d be right to do it. I’d probably do the same in their position.
But even if I couldn’t see a difference between the walls and furniture that constituted my room and the dead people that my brain had decided to superimpose in front of them, at least I still knew the difference. I still knew what was rational and what wasn’t. Before the first hunter had appeared, the evidence of my senses had been the basis for almost everything I thought and did. It was going to be difficult to get used their new fallibility, just like the fallibility of the ECNS list. But as long as the inner workings of my mind were in working order, it was worth at least trying to do my job.
Or that’s what I told myself, for the thirty-seventh time, when I recognized Ben’s knock on the front door above.
The Prospero Chronicles Book 3
Growing up is hard, and growing up in Prospero is even harder, but I think we manage. I mean, yeah, my friends and I spend more of our time fighting a race of shapeshifting aliens than we do hanging out, but we have our fun. We go to parties, help each other with our classes, maybe even fall in love…
I’ve no illusions that we live ordinary lives, but they’re our lives, and I’m going to make sure we make the most of them whether the Splinters want us to or not.
The truce is temporary. We will not humor the Splinters forever. It's only until the Slivers can be stopped, until the army of Shards being planted among our classmates can be disassembled, until we get our hands on the thing I'd almost given up believing in.
The humanity test.
For the chance to know, once and for all, who can be trusted, some dealings with monsters must be excusable. Inevitable. Just like this feeling between Ben and me.
And that has to be temporary too.
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At the time, my instincts told me that jumping onto the hood of a moving SUV was a brilliant idea.
After half a second of trying to find something to hold onto, I told myself I’d reconsider my instincts when I got out of this.
If I got out of this.
A voice in my ear—I hadn’t lost my Bluetooth after all. Haley’s voice, by the angry sound of it.
“Ben, what the hell are you doing?”
“I have no idea!” I yelled back, finally grabbing the roof rack with both hands and holding on for dear life, doing my best to block the windshield. The driver accelerated down the empty suburban street, jerking the wheel back and forth, trying to shake me off. I knew behind the tinted glass of this anonymous, plateless SUV were the gray faces of Slivers. Today they were supposed to be kidnapping one of Prospero High School’s nicest teachers from her home, and we were going to stop them. It wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, but we’d done it before and should’ve been able to do it again.
I looked to the sidewalks, trying to spot any other members of the Network.
There was a heavy blow against the windshield near my chest. The tinted glass spiderwebbed beneath me. The Slivers were trying to break through.
Not for the first time, I cursed The Owl.
“Everybody close on the house! They’re still on the move!” Courtney called over the party line.
“Where’s that spike strip?” Haley asked.
“About twenty feet behind Ben before he decided to go Shatner on us,” Greg answered.
The spiderweb of glass expanded as the Sliver continued to force its way through.
The next voice was impossibly calm. “If we can stop this vehicle, there’s every chance we can capture multiple Slivers at once in addition to preventing Ms. Craven’s abduction. Ben, do you think you can slow them down?”
She always asked for the impossible so reasonably.
The windshield broke open in front of me, safety glass exploding outward as a long, muscular arm with a seven-fingered, clawed hand burst through. It raked back and forth, opening up a large gash in the glass that allowed me to see the three Slivers inside. They were of slight frame with gray, hairless heads and bulging black eyes, and they had begun sprouting extra limbs and tentacles to better mangle me.
“I’ll try,” I said, diving into the jagged hole where the windshield used to be.
Their brief, startled pause before attacking was all I needed.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of the cheap stun guns Mina loved to make out of disposable cameras and jammed it into the driver’s chest. The creature shuddered violently, jerking the wheel to the side and stomping on the gas reflexively.
I forced the gearshift into neutral and pulled on the parking brake. The SUV lurched to a violent stop in the middle of the street.
So far so good.
Less good was the sound of snapping wood that came from the passenger seat as its occupant’s body began to shift. Its rib cage broke open into a giant, vertical mouth full of jagged teeth and swirling tentacles. The tentacles lashed out at me, wrapping around my arms and neck, and squeezed. The Sliver in the backseat joined in, grabbing the leg I tried to anchor myself with against the dashboard and forcing me closer to that terrible maw.
The passenger door flew open. The Sliver let out a howl of pain as Julie buried a large meat hook in its back and began pulling it from the car. Courtney wrapped her hands around Julie’s on the hook, throwing her track team muscles into the effort and hardly wincing when the gelatinous Splinter blood began to soil her neatly pressed blouse. The tentacles released me, and soon enough the two girls wrestled the Sliver from the vehicle and tased it.
The driver’s mutated arm reached across my chest and pulled the door shut. It looked deep into my eyes with those empty, black orbs. Its narrow mouth curled into the faintest of smiles as it held me pinned to the seat with that monstrous arm. Though its face was formless, its flesh waxy, I couldn’t help but feel something familiar in that smile and those soulless eyes.
“Soon,” it whispered to me in its chittering, popping voice.
A new arm burst from its shoulder, splitting into two insectoid hands that allowed it to shift gears and disengage the parking break simultaneously. I watched helplessly as Greg and Kevin finally caught up to us with the jury-rigged spike strip we’d built for just this occasion, tossing it uselessly to the ground just as the driver swerved out of the way.
I didn’t know if the Slivers were still going to try for Ms. Craven or if they would content themselves with taking me instead. Would they try to drag me to their Warehouse (assuming the Slivers had a Warehouse) and replace me, or would they kill me as soon as they found a nice, quiet place to pull over?
They weren’t slowing down. If anything, they seemed to be speeding up. They swerved down the street, aiming for the side of an old duplex. Ms. Craven’s duplex.
I took advantage of the driver’s focus to pull one arm free, fasten a seatbelt around me, and brace myself.
The SUV slammed through the duplex’s wall with a crushing impact that knocked the wind out of me and whipped my neck forward. The unsecured driver flew through the jagged remnants of the windshield and landed in what used to be Ms. Craven’s living room. The passenger from the backseat climbed over me with spindly spider’s legs, following the driver out the windshield.
A woman screamed inside.
Slowly, painfully, I undid my seatbelt and crawled through the windshield, landing on the floor in a dazed heap.
Somehow I stumbled to my feet and pulled the mini flamethrower from my back. It wasn’t much—just a kitchen lighter duct-taped to one of those recalled aerosol fire extinguishers that Mina had stocked up on, but it did the job. Flicking the lighter on, I lifted it high.
The driver had Ms. Craven wrapped in a set of tentacles and interlocking claws, lifting her off the ground. Ms. Craven looked at me fearfully, trying to cry out through the tentacle lashed across her mouth. The flamethrower wouldn’t do much good at this range, standing as much a chance of burning Ms. Craven. I was going to have to wait for backup.
“Let her go,” I said shakily. All of my experiences with Slivers so far had proved that they loved to talk. I only had to stall them long enough for Mina and the rest to get here.
The driver looked to the passenger, exchanging a low series of pops and clicks. The passenger nodded, calmly raising one of its three arms and pointing the hand at me, flat. Just like the driver, a small, frightening smile crossed its face.
I lost all feeling beneath my waist, my legs giving out beneath me. Then I could feel again—too well. It felt like every nerve in my body had burst into flames. Violent waves of nausea hit me, and my muscles no longer seemed to be my own.
Two realizations hit me at once.
First: they had a Shard we hadn’t documented yet.
Second: this Shard had remote control of human bodies.
There was shouting, and then Kevin and Greg slid through the massive hole in the wall, brandishing their flamethrowers and Tasers. Less than a second later, a sliding glass door opened in the next room, and Mina and Haley ran in to join us.
Only Aldo, Julie, and Courtney had yet to catch up.
The two Slivers looked at each other, then at us. They could have taken me easily, maybe even two of us. But five of us, well-armed as we were—that gave them a moment of pause. The driver dropped Ms. Craven roughly to the floor. Both of the Slivers raised their arms, and the driver looked at me, curling its lips into that faint, unpleasant smile.
“Soon,” it said again.
Long spikes of bone erupted from each of their chests and backs. They both began to laugh—a raspy, choking sound—as the base of each spike began to pulsate.
“DUCK!” Mina blurted, falling to the floor.
Everyone dropped, dozens of bony spikes narrowly missing us as they erupted from the Slivers’ bodies, lodging in the walls and shattering windows.
By the time we regained our feet, the Slivers were gone.
“Is everybody all right?” Mina asked.
There were murmurs of assent. Ms. Craven was on the floor, sobbing.
Finding out about Splinters is never easy for people to deal with under the best of circumstances, much less while being kidnapped by the extreme anti-human cult of Splinters that we’d taken to calling “Slivers” last fall.
Not that getting kidnapped by regular, garden-variety Splinters was all that much better.
I was confident that Ms. Craven would come out of her shock soon—she’d always struck me as pretty tough. Once this wore off, we’d be able to tell her the truth. Maybe even make her a part of the team.
Assuming, of course, she was really human.
Haley examined my scratches and scrapes. Content that I must have been okay, she smiled and threw her arms around my neck, hugging me close. I don’t know what was more uncomfortable, Haley’s weight against my aching ribs or the look of annoyance on Mina’s face.
“I’m fine,” I assured Haley, pulling away, “though that Shard they have sure did a number on me.”
“One of the ones The Owl showed you?” Haley asked.
“No, this one’s new,” I said.
“Dammit, I hate Shards,” Greg said, shuddering. I didn’t blame him; the last time we’d gone up against a Shard, it had made him feel a swarm of spiders crawling beneath his skin.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“Hey, guys?” Aldo said over the group line.
“Did you secure the other Sliver?” Mina asked.
“Yeah, we got her. No problems there. What about yours?” Aldo asked.
“They’ve retreated. They haven’t doubled back your way?” Mina asked.
“No, we’re clear,” Aldo said. There was something held back in his voice I didn’t like.
“What’s wrong, Aldo?” I asked.
“Uh, I think you need to see this one for yourselves.”
“We’re on our way,” Mina said. “Haley, Greg, keep an eye on Ms. Craven.”
“I got some stuff that might calm her down,” Greg said, patting a pocket on his old army jacket.
“Don’t,” I said.
Greg shrugged. “More for me then.”
I followed Kevin and Mina out the front door. By force of habit, I looked up and down the street, hoping by some miracle that we hadn’t been spotted—or heard, for that matter. It was early Sunday morning, so the streets were mostly deserted. Typical abduction timing. The cops would be here eventually—a vehicle crashed through the side of a house has a way of summoning them sooner or later—but given the Prospero Police Department’s closeness with the main Splinter Council, this would all no doubt be hushed up pretty quickly.
“You’re gonna have to spend some quality time with Mina’s first-aid kit, brother,” Kevin observed.
“I’ve looked worse,” I said.
“You’ve looked better, too,” Mina interjected coldly.
“What’d I do?” I complained.
“You nearly ruined the operation. This didn’t go half as smoothly as our other interceptions,” Mina shot back.
I didn’t have a good defense for that. Ever since she’d started receiving those messages from the Owl, giving us the Slivers’ plans for abductions, we’d had a pretty good (though not perfect) track record of intercepting and stopping the Slivers before they could take their intended targets. Over the previous month and a half, we had managed to save the mayor’s son, Sheriff Diaz’s wife, and the head of the PTA from being taken without their ever knowing anything was going on. Things could have gone better this time, I knew that, but they also could have gone a lot worse.
“I didn’t have a choice. They know what we’ve been doing, and they’re being more careful. I did what I had to do,” I said.
“You could’ve been killed.”
“But I wasn’t!”
Kevin squeezed his way between us and put an arm around each of our shoulders.
“Let us not forget, my friends, that we did stop them from replacing Ms. Craven. It may have been sloppy, and she may have been needlessly introduced to our world, but we saved her. We did a good thing; the forces of evil are in check for another day. We should be celebrating!” Kevin said, smiling that easy smile he always used to defuse tense situations.
Mina sighed. “Please try to avoid unnecessary risks in the future.”
“Will do,” I said.
“There, isn’t that better than fighting like a couple o’ freshmen?” Kevin said.
“So says the senior commencement speaker,” I replied, punching him in the ribs softly.
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you guys are that I actually got the gig,” Kevin said, grinning.
“Right… so how long have you had that speech written?” I asked.
“Seventh grade, give or take a month.” Kevin laughed. “Come on, it’ll be my last chance to try to change a few minds here before I move on to the real world.”
“Freshmen don’t fight any appreciably more or less than any other students,” Mina said as if she’d missed half the conversation, looking a bit lost in thought.
“Really? Maybe we should ask Aldo,” Kevin joked.
Tall tales about Aldo’s secret second life, or third life in our case, had become something of a running joke among the Network, given his habit of accumulating even more scrapes and bruises than the rest of us in spite of spending most of his time behind the scenes, digging for information or tinkering with the equipment.
Underground cage fighting and undercover spy operations were common speculations.
This conversation did lead to one topic that had been eating at me lately: the passage of time. Of the eight members of the Network, Kevin and Courtney were both seniors and were going to be moving on from Prospero within the next six months. I didn’t know how we were going to keep the fight going without them. We would find a way to manage, Mina always had in the past, but it would be rough without Courtney’s organizational skills and Kevin’s ability to put things in perspective.
Julie, Courtney, and Aldo had dragged their captive Sliver to the privacy of Courtney’s backyard, a good five blocks from Ms. Craven’s, and by the time we caught up with them, they already had it tied up in copper wire and were threatening to touch the wire to a car battery. As usual, Julie (her jet black hair streaked with hot pink and red for Valentine’s Day coming up) smiled at us perkily beneath her thick goth makeup.
“Ya all right, Ben?” she asked, eying the scratches on my face.
Aldo’s concerned expression was unsettling. Ever since our fight with Robbie, Aldo had assumed a bravura I’d never known he had in him. He was the first to cheer any victory lately. If he wasn’t smiling…
“What is it?” Mina asked, looking down at the Sliver, which looked more human now despite the few extra limbs it still possessed.
Courtney held the end of the copper wire above the car battery with a plastic pair of tongs. “Show them again.”
The Sliver hissed something in its chittering language that must not have been kind. Courtney and Mina exchanged a glance. Mina nodded. Courtney dropped the wire onto the battery’s contact.
The Sliver screamed too humanly as it shuddered and arched what could best be approximated as its back, and the wire sparked violently. When Courtney took the wire away, it reluctantly took the face of its true, human form with a look of pure spite.
It was the face of Ms. Claudette Velasquez, my calculus teacher. That she was a Splinter was not news; we had known this for a few months.
That she was working with the Slivers was a surprise. The last time we had seen her, she had a seat on the Splinter Council.
“What are you waiting for? Kill me. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” she challenged.
“We’re not that stupid,” I said.
Ms. Velasquez looked at the battery with a mix of anger and fear. “Then what is your plan for me?”
“You’re going to tell us everything you know about the Slivers’ plans,” Mina said simply, taking the tongs from Courtney and holding them a little closer to the battery. “And when we’re convinced you’re not holding out, we’ll hand you over to the Splinter Council.”
Ms. Velasquez’s eyes went wide with genuine fear. “And if you’re never convinced?”
“We turn you over to them anyway, only we don’t tell them how remorseful and cooperative you were.”
Ms. Velasquez’s eyes scanned us, probably trying to gauge whether or not Mina was telling the truth. She must have believed her, because her body visibly slumped.
“Fine. I will cooperate. Just don’t—”
She let out an ear-splitting scream, her eyes bulging—then fell still with mouth agape. We stared, trying to figure out if it was a trick, when the flesh began to melt from her bones in thick gray rivers.
“What the… no, no…” Aldo muttered, trying to scoop bits of dissolving Splinter into one of his specially rigged containment boxes, watching with confusion as the liquid continued to evaporate after the box was sealed.
The entire Splinter corpse down to the bones was deteriorating into nothingness as the raw Splinter matter became incompatible with our world.
“What the hell just happened?” Courtney asked. “She was going to talk!”
“Was she?” Mina asked doubtfully.
“Well she sure as hell wasn’t going to die!” said Aldo, staring at the last vanishing remnants of the body. “Splinters just don’t do that spontaneously.”
“They might if they got one of those in ’em, brother,” Kevin said as he pointed to what was left of Ms. Velasquez’s deteriorating bones.
What looked like a foot-long, white caterpillar made of tumors and small air sacs disentwined itself from around her spine. Slowly, it walked away from the dissolving remains of my math teacher, shaking off bits of gray slime.
Then it started to glow a faint, pulsing white, lifting off the ground and beginning to float away like a plastic bag in the breeze. Mina grabbed it with her tongs.
“That a Splinter?” Kevin asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Mina said.
“Then what is it?” Aldo asked.
The answer hit me before Mina could say it out loud.
“A game changer,” I said. “If they’ve got themselves some sort of alien suicide pill hiding inside them to keep them compliant, we might have to reconsider our capture strategy.”
Capturing a Sliver for information had been one of our dreams ever since we started receiving information from The Owl.
Just when we thought we had the Slivers figured out, they had to come up with something like this.
I would’ve laughed if it weren’t so damn depressing.
The Prospero Chronicles Book 4
by Fiona J.R. Titchenell
This is Prospero’s darkest hour. The few remaining humans trapped within the quarantine zone are all but defenseless against the multiplying forces of the Sliver Queen, Locusta. With Ben missing, Aldo among the enemy ranks, and more steel plates than bones left in her body, Mina’s passing the hours drowning in morphine and throwing heavy objects at her guards.
Stripped of her weapons, her gadgets, and the Network itself, she has just one card left, hidden somewhere under her oft-sutured skin. It might be powerful enough to complete her life’s work once and for all… or to reach the one person who could make her life into more than a means to an end. But playing it will cost everything she has, or everything she believes in.
The final chronicle of Prospero waits in these pages.
1. The Drip
It was Haley who told me.
There was a competitive cooking show playing on the TV in my med center room when she arrived. One of the contestants was yelling about how the other team had ripped off his method for perfectly searing parsnips, while the Occupation guards out in the hallway patted her down for weapons. From the way she stood there with her arms spread, half impatient and half dreading the moment when she’d be allowed across the threshold to see me, I knew enough to make me dread it too.
The drugs wouldn’t let me feel the full, visceral twisting of that dread, but no doubt it was occurring anyway, somewhere in my distant-feeling innards.
One of the guards raised an eyebrow at the contents of Haley’s backpack but eventually returned it and waved her inside. She extended my brutal stay of enlightenment by treading the four feet to my bed as if they were a rickety balance beam.
She wasn’t crying, but her eyes were bloodshot, and her voice came out raw.
“There’s been an attack.”
I waited, and finally the blow came, in an economical croaking of syllables.
“Kevin’s dead, and Ben’s missing.”
My breath quickened, and I found that her raw, blunt voice was more than I could match.
Aldo replaced. Kevin dead. Ben missing.
Responding with words was like trying to slay a dragon with a toothpick.
Kevin wouldn’t have gone looking for trouble. Kevin never wanted to fight. Kevin was going to Berkeley and then into politics to save the world the other way. Kevin’s kindness was inexhaustible, enough to forgive me for killing his brother and to save my life at least twice over. It couldn’t be gone now. He couldn’t be gone. Kevin was always there, from the very beginning, even when I was too preoccupied to thank him, which was always.
One little jab of the toothpick.
I didn’t want to hear the words, and Haley didn’t want to say them, but somehow, inevitably, the ritual of exchanging them demanded to be observed.
“Officially, hit-and-run.” This part came out in a sharp breath. “Unofficially, they beat him half to death and then broke his neck.”
Her breath retreated back in just as sharply, and then started the cycle over again.
“And when his parents challenged the coroner’s report…”
“Dead or replaced?” I asked.
“Replaced, both of them. I mean, we didn’t capsaicin-test them or anything when they suddenly changed their minds two hours later, but—”
“I’ll take your word.”
“We found this next to him,” she reached into her backpack and pulled out a Ziploc full of stiff, bloodstained fabric, “but there was only one body.”
I had to turn the plastic-sealed bundle over twice in my hands before I recognized the shredded remains of Ben’s ‘3 of a Kind’ baseball cap. Something had clawed straight through it.
I grabbed my phone from the bedside table.
“Don’t,” said Haley.
I pushed Send anyway. Ben’s number went straight to a voicemail message that wasn’t his. The sing-song recorded voice of Robbie York cut clean through the drug haze and squeezed my stomach up toward my throat.
“You’ve reached Ben Pastor’s phone. He belongs to the Queen now. What’cha gonna do about it, huh Mina?”
I hung up and threw the phone at the end of my bed, where Haley stopped it from falling off the end.
“We don’t know that it’s the Shard who replaced Robbie last time,” Haley said without conviction. “They could have given his body to a new Sliver, or even made the real Robbie record the message, just to hurt you—”
“It’s him,” I said.
It was, without a doubt. The Shard who had tried to make me kill myself last winter wielded Robbie’s vocal cords with a smug venom all his own. Besides, now that the local Splinter Council was defunct — and with them the agreement we’d made to keep that Shard out of our dimension — his mind-altering powers would make him one of the first weapons the Slivers would want to put back on the table.
“I was going to warn you,” said Haley. “It was just—”
“Too much,” I finished.
Aldo replaced. Kevin dead. Ben missing. The nightmare Shard back in town. The Splinter Occupation threatening us all with replacement if they even suspected we were continuing Network activities.
My body lying in this med center bed in useless pieces that I couldn’t fit back together, a deadweight reminder of my fight with Locusta, if I was generous enough to call it a fight — the Sliver Queen had escaped without a scratch, leaving me barely alive, and worse, without a clue to how I might do anything but lose even more conclusively next time.
It was all the very definition of too much.
“I kissed him,” said Haley.
I’d already charged the dragon the moment I opened my mouth, and there was nothing to do now but keep stabbing at the smallest, loosest scales I could wedge the verbal toothpick under. This one looked as likely as any other.
“You kissed Robbie?” I asked.
Haley shook her head.
“Kevin?” I guessed again, only half hoping. “Were you back together with him when—”
“Not Kevin,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
I pushed the morphine button.
“At the going away party, I kissed Ben, and I’m so sorry, not for the kiss, exactly, it was stupidly innocent, but—”
“I don’t care,” I lied, lowering my voice against the guards outside. “I just need to think. I need to make a plan.”
Never mind the fact that I’d spent the last week trying to think and plan and getting nowhere.
“I wanted it to be there,” she went on. “The spark, the magic, I wanted so much for it to be there, waiting to surprise us, but it just wasn’t.”
“Maybe you should talk to someone else about this.”
“It wasn’t there, and I think that might be why Ben and Kevin went off on their own afterward,” she persisted miserably. “I think it might be my fault they were alone when they were attacked.”
I shook my head. “Ben was only there in the first place because I told him to go.”
I felt like a dog snapping and yanking at scraps of culpability, but here in this bed, waiting for my bones to set around the new pins and plates, guilt was the only thing strong enough to drown out the helplessness. I couldn’t let Haley steal it all for herself.
They might not have been ambushed if she hadn’t kissed him.
And they might not have been ambushed if I’d kissed him instead.
“How much blood?” I asked.
“A lot, but not a certain death lot,” Haley answered readily. “I looked it up.”
That probably meant Ben had been taken away in a vehicle or wrapped in Splinter matter, for what little help that was.
“And it’s all Ben’s?” I asked.
“We don’t exactly have a forensics lab on our side here,” said Haley. “But Kevin wasn’t bleeding.”
And their attackers wouldn’t have bled real blood.
“No sign of a Sliver-Ben walking around?” I asked.
“Not yet,” said Haley. “Is that… good?”
“It’s not anything,” I said.
I wouldn’t have wished replication upon anyone, but if we could be sure it had happened to Ben, we’d at least know where he was. This hadn’t done much good for Aldo; we hadn’t been able to find his replication pod in our last invasion of the Sliver Warehouse. Now, with so few of us left, the Occupation watching over everything, and this debilitating proof of what Locusta could do to intruders, I didn’t know how we’d ever pull off another attempt. But it was almost worse, not knowing.
Ben might be in mid-replication right now, or he might have escaped and gone to hide in the woods until he could find a safe moment to make contact. The Slivers might be holding him for some other purpose more horrible than we could imagine, or he might already be dead.
I didn’t need to voice any of these possibilities to know that Haley had already gone over them all herself.
Haley stepped closer, past the foot of the bed. Her hurt was contagious, and maybe mine was too. I rolled away onto my side to establish a crude quarantine.
“Are you crying?” she asked.
Her voice cracked. “May I join you?”
I scooted forward to the edge of the bed, leaving room for her to curl up behind me.
The sunflower and carnation bouquet on the table next to me was still as fresh and cheery as it had been when Ben had brought it to me in the late morning, on his way to Kevin’s party, when they had both been all right. For a moment, I hoped to see it grow fangs or tentacles or the faces of dead people, or some other surreal nightmare manifestation dripping with the Shard-Robbie’s personal style.
Having him tampering with my thoughts again would be bad enough on its own, but I could almost have welcomed it if it meant the rest of this day, this week, and this news, might all just be part of another cruel illusion.
The flowers, the room, and Haley’s weight on the mattress next to me remained my mercilessly unembellished reality.
On TV, a frantic man with a neck tattoo was grating a piece of ginger into a pan of simmering soy sauce.
I pushed the morphine button again.
I should have said that Haley was the first one who told me.
Before the night was out, Mom called to check on me. She refrained from saying “I told you so” about the fact that, after three years, I’d finally finished destroying the Brundle family.
Then Julie texted, with a few hollow words about how none of the fallen would want us to give up.
Then Courtney sent me the new password to the surveillance feeds she’d been able to salvage from before the Occupation takeover.
Sometime around ten at night, after Haley had gone home, Patrick arrived and stood in the doorway for eight minutes before asking if there was anything he could do for me, and then for another three before retreating down the hall.
The guards pretended not to notice him keeping watch a few paces away from them for a further hour and a half, his shoes squeaking slightly against the floor every time he heard a curtain rustle or a machine beep.
All the visits flickered by, like tides coming in and out over a pier, while I lay there watching the flowers.
That night, I exceeded my drip’s programmed dosage limit for the first time since all my surgeries, no longer bothering to self-moderate for the sake of maintaining any mental clarity. When I ran out of drugs, I took hits of guilt instead, running a fine-toothed comb over every move I’d ever made to bring us all to where we were.
The tines always came away full, making me wonder why I’d bothered fighting Haley for a few traces.
My guilt drip turned out to be unlimited, and yet my tolerance for it, already founded on a lifelong habit for the stuff, spiked even more sharply than my tolerance for the morphine. Soon, even my newfound cocktail of the two became an inadequate masking agent for the absence of action.
So when the morning came, I sat up, shoved the morphine button over the side of the bed, picked up the vase in the less broken of my two arms, and threw it at a guard’s head.
It clunked against his skull, then shattered wetly on the floor at his feet, spreading glass and petals across the hallway.
He turned to look at me as if I’d tapped him on the shoulder. The slight cut I’d left on his scalp reverted to its natural, gray, gooey Splinter state, then healed back into human form. I vaguely remembered him strapping me to a stretcher the day of the Sliver Warehouse raid. Darius, he’d called himself.
“Something I can do for you, Mina?”
His voice was as friendly now as it had been that day, though his towering partner had both hands on her rifle and was glaring at me with rage enough for the two of them.
“Yeah,” I said. “You can tell me what you’re doing to protect my friends.”
The glaring woman snorted. Darius gave me a look of sympathy that was equally useless.
“Your organization ordered mine to cease all anti-Splinter activities,” I said, “not just against you and the local Splinter Council but against the Sliver faction too. You said we’d be left alone. You said not to defend ourselves against our common enemy. You said you had it covered, and a week later they killed one of us and kidnapped another. I want to hear what you’re doing about that.”
“Mina,” said Darius, stepping deftly around the broken vase and into the room, “that’s not exactly what we—”
“How about not blowing your head off right now?” said his partner, raising her rifle. “How’s that for what we’re doing to help?”
“Don’t do me any favors.” I picked up my phone, tapped Send again, and turned on the speaker.
“You’ve reached Ben Pastor’s phone. He belongs to the Queen now. What’cha gonna do about it, huh Mina?”
I waited for the beep.
“Hello, fake Robbie,” I said, not lowering my voice in the slightest. “I don’t know if you’re actually checking this mailbox, but if you are, I just wanted to remind you which one of us was carted off kicking and screaming last time you picked a fight with my head. If you want a rematch, I’m in the Prospero Medical Center, room one-eighteen, bedbound and on a significant quantity of opiates. You might have to take care of a couple of armed guards first, but it’s not going to get much easier than—”
Darius’s partner strode over and knocked the phone out of my hand with the barrel of her gun.
“Margaret,” Darius tugged her back, “she’s grieving. She’s harmless. It’s not like the insurrectionists don’t already know where she is. It’s not worth making a scene.”
“Yeah, Margaret,” I said her name but looked at Darius’s face instead. “I’m just a sick, crazed human. What’s my word worth?”
Without answering my question, Darius picked up my phone where it had fallen, checked it for broken glass, and set it gently on my pillow.
“I could send replacement crews to round up the rest of your cell right now,” Margaret threatened.
“With your luck, they won’t even show up in time to round up whatever Slivers are probably beating them to it right now.”
I didn’t know whom I was bluffing harder or to what end.
I’d had a lot of help the last time I went up against the Shard-Robbie, and it had still been one of the hardest, most painful fights of my life, right next to the one that had put me here. I wasn’t sure if I honestly wanted him to try to get at me past the guards, physically or telepathically, or if I just wanted to needle the smugness out of his voice.
I didn’t know if I wanted to make Darius and Margaret argue amongst themselves or talk to me or shoot me.
All I knew was that waiting for a whole plan to form wasn’t working, and standing still was death, for all of us. That was clearer now than ever.
I’d decided to deal with the dragon of my situation in the same manner as the dragon of my grief — by poking it with a sharp stick until something came loose.
“This is ridiculous,” said Margaret. “Our priority should be neutralizing her before they can try for her again, not cleaning up after her tantrums.”
“The team’ll be here any minute,” said Darius. “We’ll get her moved and call it a night.”
This was news to me.
“Moved? Moved where?”
“Someplace safer,” Darius turned back to me, blocking Margaret behind him.
“Because as you’ve just pointed out, there’s every possibility that the insurrectionists will try for you here,” said Darius calmly. “Especially since they’ve already made an extraction attempt on a caravan carrying your former allies.”
“A successful attempt?” I probed, dropping my voice low enough to make Darius lean unconsciously closer and put a caring hand on the railing of my bed.
“You know I’m not authorized to tell you—”
I clamped my good hand over his, felt his thoughts buzzing through his skin, and snatched at them with my own.
I’d only discovered that I could use Splinters’ contact telepathy against them a few months ago, and I hadn’t exactly practiced. My search of Darius’s mind was little more than a few blind stabs before he jerked away with a gasp of discomfort, but the answer to my question was there in the forefront, easy to find.
The Sliver-Aldo and the Old Man had passed from Occupation to Sliver custody.
“Thought so,” I said.
“I understand that you’re frustrated,” said Darius, standing more carefully out of reach. “And how exhausting it must be to pretend you’re in control when you’re not even sure if what you just learned is good news or not.”
I pulled my hand back from where it still rested on the railing.
“Thought so,” Darius teased, then gave me a nearly apologetic shrug, as if to say, Hey, you meshed our heads first.
It was true; I wasn’t sure whether the Old Man and the Sliver-Aldo were better off with the Occupation or the Slivers, or even whether I wanted them to be better off.
The Occupation, the Slivers, the Old Man, and the creature that had replaced my oldest friend — I hated every one of them, too deeply to call the feeling by any other name.
“I told you she was dangerous,” said Margaret.
“And I told you she’s just scared.”
“Scared animals are the most dangerous kind.”
Footsteps approached along the hallway.
“About damn time,” muttered Margaret.
But it wasn’t the backup team coming to move me to some new undisclosed location. Nor was it a raiding party of Slivers coming for my head.
It was so much worse.
With a tubful of cookies under her arm, Cynthia Pastor stepped apprehensively around the broken vase and looked from Margaret to Darius to me, sizing up the situation she’d just interrupted.
She looked even worse than I felt, her eyes redder than Haley’s had been, and she had the rumpled, faded look of someone who hadn’t seen a bed or a mirror since the day before.
“This is good,” Darius murmured to Margaret while giving Cynthia a cursory pat-down. “Let them visit until we’re ready to go, give everyone a chance to calm down, no one does anything they’ll regret.”
With a few more grumbles from Margaret, both guards retreated to the hallway, leaving me alone with Ben’s mother.
“Am I out of the loop again?” Cynthia asked softly, nodding at where Margaret’s back would be on the other side of the wall.
“No.” I raised my voice to make sure Margaret would hear me. “She’s just embarrassed that my team gave the Slivers more to think about in one night than hers has all week!”
Cynthia took the seat by my bed.
“I meant, you haven’t heard anything….”
She trailed off, leaving room for me to crack open some secret cache of relief she hoped I’d been hoarding. To tell her that Ben was fine, that he was in hiding, that this had all been planned and staged as part of some greater master plan of mine that required her to play the frantic mother with method realism.
“If you’ve talked to Haley, you know as much as I do,” I broke it to her, with one hand on my phone, finally taking stock of the surveillance feeds Courtney had saved for me.
I couldn’t look at Cynthia. I’d just dragged myself out of a self-induced guilt stupor not ten minutes ago, and her sunken, puffy gaze was like a syringe full of my palliative of choice, offering to numb me back into uselessness.
She pulled the lid off the tub of cookies and held it out to me.
“They’re burnt, sorry.”
They were, pretty severely, but I took one anyway, glad for the extra challenge the blackened bottoms added to the act of eating them.
I scraped off the edible top layer with my teeth, hoping the process would nudge my mind into tighter order, the way complicated foods sometimes did. Maybe it would clear a space in the center for me to prioritize the feed backlog, and maybe even figure out the correct way to respond to Cynthia’s presence.
I separated the oatmeal from the chocolate chips with my tongue, cataloguing the comforting flavors and textures of refined sugar and whole grains, which always meant a flow of mental energy would soon follow. I tried not to taste the stiff starchiness of the three o’clock hour Cynthia had spent beating the dough senseless with her egg whisk, drowning her own helplessness in busywork. I made no comment on the bitter charcoal aftertaste of the crucial minutes when she’d clutched the edge of the sink to cry, her own mental dragon blocking her way to the oven mitts.
“How are you holding up?” she asked.
“I threw a vase at my guards today,” I nodded at the glass-littered puddle. “So, better than yesterday.”
This would have made Ben laugh. Cynthia smiled grimly in my peripheral vision as I took stock of the feeds.
There were three bugs in the school and one in Town Hall that hadn’t been discovered by either the local Splinters, the Splinter Occupation, or the Slivers yet. Odds were slim that they’d recorded any plotting that would tell us where Ben had been taken, especially since Courtney had probably already gone over the likely time periods. But there was always the chance that she’d missed something and my luck would surprise me.
Cynthia waited for the eye contact I couldn’t make, then spoke anyway.
For some reason, the term of endearment made my eyes sting.
“I want you to know I don’t blame you for any of this. Present evidence to the contrary,” she added, trying to laugh at the tub of burnt cookies and producing only a spasmodic noise in her chest.
Even knowing that this blow was coming, I couldn’t be ready for it.
I put down my phone, placed the blackened base of my cookie in the empty emesis basin on my bedside table, and crushed my head between my hands, trying to shield the little rebuilding I’d done there from being shaken to pieces again.
“Why…” I started babbling uncontrollably. “Why wouldn’t you…”
“Because I know you a little better than you probably think,” Cynthia answered. “I know you’ve been playing mommy to your friend Aldo for the better part of his life, and I know he was lucky to have you. God knows no one else was making the effort. I know you feel like you have to take care of the rest of the world too, and I’m not going to tell the girl who helped save my niece’s life that
she’s not needed or capable, but listen to me: you’re just one person. You’re seventeen years old. None of that should ever have been your job in the first place. You’re doing more than anyone has any right to expect, and the rest, anything that slips through the cracks, is not your fault. Understand?”
I swallowed to clear my throat. Then, out of options, I held out my good arm for her to hug me.
She did, and I wished I could claim I was doing it for her comfort, or even my own. The truth was that as long as I could keep her hugging me, it meant I didn’t have to feel her looking at me instead.
“You might be right about taking care of the world,” I told the wall behind her, and the few strands of her hair that were fluttering in the draft of the air conditioner. “Maybe even about Aldo.” I had to cough my voice clear again after his name. “Maybe I couldn’t help not being old enough, or strong enough, or smart enough to stop other people from doing things to Aldo. But I did this to Ben.”
Cynthia should have pushed me to arm’s length. She only squeezed me tighter, and I squeezed back.
I couldn’t allow myself to slide back into the guilt wallow, where the weight of everything I’d done wrong became an excuse to do nothing now, but I couldn’t take her misguided absolution either.
“I chose him for this,” I explained. “I chose him, knowing what happens to people I choose. The Slivers only targeted him to use against me. Right from the very beginning, not just now. I could have backed off the first time they threatened him. I could have kept them away from the two of you until you left town last year like you were supposed to, but I kept dragging him further and further in, until he killed that Splinter who was posing as Haley and got you trapped here. I didn’t know that would happen, not exactly, but I knew the dangers, and I knew that once I’d proven the existence of Splinters to him, he’d have to stay in touch.”
I couldn’t tell how much of this Ben had already told her, but there was no way she could know the next part. I’d never even said it to myself.
“I didn’t do it because it was necessary to take care of the world. He’s brave, talented, an asset to humanity, but that was never why.”
Cynthia was very still now in my one good arm, her embrace turning rigid.
“I chose him because I was lonely.”
There were footsteps in the hall, more of them now, purposeful.
“I had Aldo, and I should have been grateful for that, but I wanted a partner my own age again, and Kevin had turned me down. Kevin should have kept turning me down. I got him too in the end. But first, I forced Ben into the Network because I was lonely, and after everything I did to him, he still did his best for me. He would have stayed here with me all day yesterday, but I sent him to that party because even though I’m the one who wanted him in my life in the first place, I was too much of a coward to face what I might say to him if he stayed.”
Before Cynthia could find anything to offer in reply, a dozen armed Splinters stormed into the room, wheeling a med center gurney, with Margaret at the front.
“Sorry,” Darius told Cynthia, gently tugging her away from me while the others began the process of shifting me onto the gurney for transport. “We’ll update the family on her condition as soon as we’ve got her settled in the new facility.”
“New facility?” Cynthia repeated through a thick wall of shock. “Wait…”
“It is my fault your son is missing,” I shouted to her as they wheeled me out the door and beyond her reach. “But I’m going to bring him back!”
F.J.R. TITCHENELL is an author of young adult, sci-fi, and horror fiction, including Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of). She graduated from Cal State University Los Angeles with a B. A. in English in 2009 at the age of twenty. She currently lives in San Gabriel, California, with her husband, coauthor, and an amazing partner in all things, Matt Carter, and their pet king snake, Mica.
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