The sound of the loud, piercing siren filled the air as the police car went screaming past the bus station. Denny Cartland, half-hiding behind a pillar on the front walkway, peeked out to watch the car go by. The eleven-year-old girl wore a heavy sweatshirt with the hood up, along with an actual winter coat with that hood up, gloves, a scarf, dirty jeans that had seen better days, and beaten-up sneakers with a pair of thick socks. Not that she actually needed all that, even with the snow that covered the ground. Temperature didn’t seem to bother her at all, warm or cold. But if she had stood around in a t-shirt and shorts, people would have noticed. People already noticed her. She was a kid at the bus station. It was hard not to stand out.
They especially would have paid attention if her picture had been plastered all over the news. A not-quite-twelve-year-old kid disappearing? Yeah, even she knew what that would be like, with national headlines. She wouldn’t be able to take a step without being recognized by someone.
But she’d had to leave, had to get out of her house and away from her parents. The thoughts she kept having, the dreams that filled her head, they were so awful. She thought about killing everyone she knew as well as strangers. She thought of torturing them, making them cry and suffer. There were vivid memories of killing people. She… she was bad. She was wrong.
She had to get out of there and find someone who could help, someone who could make the evil, bad thoughts go away. She wasn’t sure who or how yet, but the impulse to just get away from her family had been too strong to ignore. Once she was far enough away, once she could stop somewhere safe and clear her head, she might be able to think of how to find someone.
It wasn’t just her own problems she had to figure out, not just the… the impulses and memories. It was also the fact that that girl at the gas station had completely forgotten the monster that was in there. And she wasn’t the only one. In the few days that had followed, Denny had seen several more clearly…. not-human people hanging around different places, and nobody ever seemed to notice. They always acted like the… the non-humans were completely normal, and if she asked about them, they looked at her like she was crazy. She had not yet worked up the courage to approach one of the not-humans, since they seemed to think she would see them as totally normal too and she was petrified of what would happen if they found out otherwise.
The point was, she had to get away from home, clear her head, and find someone she could get some answers from.
And yet, there was that problem of being seen as a runaway. So, Denny… Denny had been evil. She had been bad. She told her parents–she used… she used her voice, the voice that made people do what she wanted. It had taken some time, but she figured out that she had to say her name to make it work. She had to introduce herself, even if they knew her. And after that, they would do what she said. Even to the point of remembering what she told them to remember.
So, evil as it was, with a hard anvil of guilt sitting in her stomach, Denny had used her power to tell her parents to believe that they had sent her to stay with her aunt for a few weeks. She would call back every few days with fake updates about how much fun she was having.
In the meantime, she had used almost all of her savings to take two different buses over the past day and a half. She was somewhere in southern Illinois right now, trying to figure out how she was going to take another bus anywhere useful with only twenty dollars left in her pocket while studiously ignoring everyone around her. She had to ignore them. The less attention she paid to the people she saw, the less vivid her thoughts about killing them would be.
Twenty dollars. Her stomach growled a bit, reminding the girl that she had already eaten the last sandwich she’d packed before leaving the house. Crap. Why didn’t she pack more food? Why didn’t she think of more things? She had been in such a rush to get out of the house before something bad happened that she had barely prepared. The nightmares and horrific daydreams were too strong, she just had to get out of there. But now that she was so far away, the thoughts of everything she had forgotten to do or bring just kept filling her head with self-recrimination.
Self-recrimination? How did she even know that word? She knew what it meant, but… like, how? How did she know it? She’d never read it before, had she? That was the other side of the whole thing. She had all these evil thoughts and impulses, sure, but she also knew things she shouldn’t know. Not just words, but math and history too. She kept thinking about trigonometry. How did she know anything about trigonometry?! Not just the word, she knew what it meant, how to use it. She knew… she knew more than she should, and had no idea how other than some fuzzy memories of sitting in a classroom. But she hadn’t. She had never learned this stuff in a classroom. She was in fifth grade, for crying out loud! How did she know any of this?
“Yo, kid!” A gruff, heavy-set man in an orange parka stood in front of Denny, and had apparently been trying to get her attention for some time. He waved a gloved hand in front of her face. “You waiting for your parents or something? This ain’t the best place to hang around, ‘specially for a little girl.” He gestured to the nearby doors. “Why don’t you go in and sit where the guys in there can see you, just to make sure nothing bad happens. You need money to get a drink out of the vending machine?” He was fumbling in his pockets, and came out with a crumpled dollar.
She wasn’t supposed to lie. She was not supposed to lie. Especially not to an adult who was simply trying to help her. But as with basically everything she had been doing lately, Denny didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t like she could tell this guy the truth. Either he wouldn’t believe her and would decide she was crazy (maybe she really was), or he would completely forget what she had said. Either way, it was either pointless at best or actively a bad idea at worst.
So, with a heavy sigh, Denny accepted the dollar bill and quietly thanked the man. With one last look out at the street, she mumbled something about waiting for her father. Maybe with that, the guy wouldn’t feel the need to stick around to check on her. It was a bus station, he probably had places to go.
She really wished she had a place to go. Denny had been standing there hoping to get some idea of how she could take another bus to get even further away from home. Or rather, trying to get some other idea. Because she knew just how easy it would be to simply use her voice to force someone to give her a ticket, or the money for one. But that was wrong. It was stealing. And she was profoundly terrified that doing anything wrong would lead her down a slippery slope to the very, very bad things that kept popping up in her thoughts and dreams. Even now, seeing the man in front of her, she could imagine stabbing a pair of scissors up into his throat. She could perfectly picture the look of terror and shock on his face as his blood came spurting out while he collapsed. She could hear his panicked gurgling as his body fell, as he–
Physically jerking herself backward, Denny mumbled her thanks and quickly turned to walk back into the bus station. Drink. She could get a drink and think. Maybe that would help, somehow. Making a beeline for the vending machine while feeling the nice man’s eyes on her, she picked out a soda and took it to one of the chairs in the corner of the waiting room.
It did not help. Not really. As she sat there nursing the bottle, all the girl could think about was how easily she could solve this problem. It felt like a voice in the back of her head constantly whispering that she could be on the next bus in two seconds. It would be so simple. All she had to do was use her own voice to get the clerk behind the counter to give her a ticket and forget what happened. It wouldn’t even hurt anybody.
Except it would. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid. Denny knew that people counted money at the end of a shift like that. If the clerk gave her a printed ticket and didn’t have the corresponding money for it, they’d get in trouble. Tickets were like fifty to a hundred dollars, or more. They’d notice that much money missing from the register, and even if they couldn’t track it to a specific ticket, the clerk would get in trouble. She didn’t want to let that happen, and really did not want to do it by using her voice. She had to find another way, but how? Something, there had to be something she could do, someway she could… hold on.
It was still bad. It was so bad. It was still lying and using her voice to trick people. But maybe she could do it without getting anyone in trouble. A rush of thoughts went through the girl’s mind. The guilt was still heavy even at the thought of what she was considering, but she had to move. She had to get out of here and go somewhere that she could get answers, even if she had no idea where that somewhere was just yet. If she found a big enough city, far enough away from home, she just… knew there would be answers there. How she was so certain of that, Denny had no idea. But she was. She just had to keep moving, had to let herself be pulled to the right place.
Taking another long sip from the soda as she turned to scan the room once more, Denny saw no sign of the nice man in the orange coat. So, she picked herself up from the plastic chair and walked out of the waiting room to the depot where the buses were lined up. No one paid her much attention there. The regular people were rushing to get on the right bus, and the employees were making sure that everyone actually getting on the buses had their ticket.
For a few moments, she stood there, letting her gaze pan over the assembled buses. She was looking for the right one at just the right time. Her eyes watched one driver start to close his doors, but a glance toward the windows showed too many faces and heads there. The bus looked full. That wasn’t right. She needed something with less passengers, where her presence wouldn’t bump anyone else off or raise questions.
At first, she was afraid nothing would look right. Then her gaze found a bus in the rear corner. The windows looked only about a quarter full, and the driver was looking at his watch before starting to step up so he could close the doors. That one. Deep inside, she knew that had to be the right one, and a better chance wouldn’t come along anytime soon. Besides, if she waited much longer, the bus depot wouldn’t be as crowded and people might pay more attention to her.
Glancing around just enough to make sure no one was watching or following her, Denny quickly jogged that way, holding up her hand. “Wait!” she called out to the driver. “Please wait, sir!”
The man stopped, turned to look her way as he stood with one foot on the bottom step. “Hey, kid. Sorry, where’s your parents? They already up there?” He started to turn as though to call out to the other passengers to find out who she was with. Which would’ve complicated this.
“Sir!” Denny quickly interrupted, grabbing his sleeve so he had to look at her. Her mouth opened to say what she needed to say, only for the words to catch in her throat. Evil. Bad. Horrible. She couldn’t–couldn’t do that. It was wrong. She was wrong. She was bad, and if she did bad things, she’d do even worse things. Lying and stealing could lead to… to the things in her dreams. No, no, please. She didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want to be that. Please no, don’t be that. The thoughts swarmed through her head, the terror of what she might turn into if she indulged at all.
A confused, then worried look crossed the man’s face as he clearly started to picture having to deal with whatever her issue was. “Hang on, kid, I’ll flag someone down and you can get–”
“No!” Denny quickly blurted. She shoved all her guilt down for the moment. It was now or never, she wouldn’t have a better chance. And now that she was right in front of this guy, he wasn’t just going to walk off again without paying attention and sending someone after her to find out what was wrong. He’d seen her face, he saw the look in her eyes, the guilt and fear. She had to do it.
“My name is Denise,” she announced, staring up at him as tears filled her eyes. “I already gave you my ticket.” She said the words softly, almost too quietly. But the man heard. He stared at her for a brief second before giving an obedient nod. “You already gave me your ticket.”
“And my parents talked to you,” she added in another hoarse whisper, forcing herself to continue despite the violent guilty churning of her stomach. “They want you to make sure I behave and get to… to…” She leaned over, staring up at the sign on the front of the bus. “Milwaukee.” That’s where the bus was going. From Illinois to Wisconsin. That had to be far enough for something better to occur to her, right? It was far enough that she would have no chance of doing anything bad to her parents at least, and as soon as she was far enough away from them, she could focus on learning the truth about what was wrong with her, why she had all these evil thoughts and… and this power. Not to mention how strong she was. An image of denting the gas station pumps inward when she’d hit them the other day flashed through her mind, and Denny blanched, bile rising in her throat.
Somehow, she pushed those thoughts down and climbed up into the bus. Or, at least she started to. But just as she was moving past the driver and looking to the back to find an empty seat, the sound of a yelp caught her attention. It was coming from far off on the opposite side of the depot, past so many noisy people and buses that the girl had no idea how she had heard it. But she did. Her head snapped that way instinctively, gaze searching until she caught sight of several figures at the corner of the building. There were three men and a woman. Two of the men were basically dragging the other man and the woman while they struggled to get free. Just before they went out of sight, one of the men raised some sort of hammer and hit the struggling man in the head, making him slump. Then they were out of sight.
But there was something else about those people. The woman had bright orange skin with small yellow horns, and the man who had been hit looked like he had very light tan fur across his body. Meanwhile, both of the men who had been dragging them around the corner had very thick yellow-green skin and their faces were kind of… pig-like, with big snouts. They looked sorta like the pig-guard guys in those Star Wars movies.
Eyes widening, Denny started to point. “Hey, did you see–” She cut herself off upon seeing the driver simply take his seat. No, he didn’t see anything. And if he had, he’d forget it. Just like Kalia had forgotten everything back at the gas station. He had no idea anything bad was happening right around the corner of that building. No one did.
No one but her. She was there. She knew.
For a moment, Denny stood frozen in the doorway. To one side a seat was waiting for her. A seat on the bus that would take her far away from this place, to where she could make sure her family was safe by staying far away from them. To the other side was a door leading back into the depot, to where those strange, alien-looking people were just around the corner.
No one would help them. No one even remembered they existed. They didn’t know that Denny had seen them. No one would blame her for getting on the bus and letting it take her away from here. She was just a kid. People wouldn’t believe her if she pointed it out, it wasn’t her responsibility… and… and…
Denny stepped off the bus. As the driver called after her, she walked away without looking back. He gave one more half-hearted call, then shut the door with a very final-sounding hiss-clank.
Trying not to think about how utterly stupid she was being, Denny hurried across the lot, weaving between buses and people while keeping her eye on the corner of the building. What was she doing? Why was she going closer? She could have been out of there. She had her seat on the bus, completely free and clear. Why was she doing this? Why was she trying to help people she didn’t even know, people who looked… who looked so different?
Because she had been hoping someone would help her, Denny realized, even as she drew closer to the corner. She had started doing this whole thing, leaving home and going on this stupid trip in the first place because she was hoping that someone would find and help her. How could she possibly expect someone else to help her if she wasn’t willing to help other people?
Stopping at that corner, the girl carefully peeked around. The area here was shielded from the nearby street by a series of tall hedges and bushes. She saw the man with light fur and the orange-skinned woman on the ground, cowering at the feet of the two heavy-set pig guys who were standing over them with what looked like a couple batons raised.
“Think you can run off without paying French what you owe him?” One of the pig guards flipped the weapon around in his hand threateningly while continuing, “That’s not good. Not good at all. And after all he did for you and yours.”
“P-please,” pleaded the man, “we don’t have any more money. We barely have enough to feed ourselves. We just need to get a fresh start. We heard there was a place–”
“French knows what you heard!” the second pig guard snapped, slamming the baton down into his hand with a meaty thunk that made both of the people on the ground cringe backward. “You think you can just run off to some magical fairy land and avoid paying what you owe? Nah, French says if you can’t pay, you can be an example.”
“Stop!” Denny blurted, popping around the corner with her hands up. “Stop it!”
Maybe jumping out right next to the bad guys wasn’t the best idea. The second she spoke, the nearest pig-guy spun, his baton lashing out. Before Denny could even think ‘uh oh,’ the weapon crashed into the side of her head and sent her to the ground with a scream of… of… pain?
No pain. It didn’t hurt. Lying there in the grass while the two pig-guys blurted demands at their victims about who she was, Denny realized the blow hadn’t hurt at all. It knocked her down, but there was no pain.
Feeling dazed from the realization rather than the blow, the girl pushed herself up and turned in time to see the pig-guys notice her. The one who had hit her reared back once more. But Denny lashed out. Her small fist collided with the big man’s stomach with enough force to send him flying backward, even as she herself felt the force reverberate back through her small form, making her stumble back a couple steps. As for the pig-guy, he hit the nearby wall hard enough to crack it, slumping to the ground in a daze.
The other guy came after her with a cry, his foot lashing out to collide with the girl hard enough to send her flying. She felt her back hit the trunk of a thick tree, collapsing at the base of it. But again, it didn’t hurt. She was fine. Her body was so small she could be tossed around at will, but nothing was actually doing damage. Nothing that lasted, anyway. Her gaze rose in time to see the pig-guy spin to lash out with his baton toward the cowering couple, but Denny blurted out a quick, “My name is Denise, stop!” She managed the last word just as the baton was an inch from the back of the fur-covered man’s head.
Slowly picking herself up, Denny moved that way. The voice. The voice in the back of her head was there, telling her to make them stab each other. It would be fun. No, no, make the two of them bite each other’s throats out. They tried to hurt her, tried to kill her. That was fair, right? Right? She could indulge, she could make them regret ever being born, let alone raising a hand against her. She could make them–
“Shut up!” Denny blurted at the silent voice, making everyone jerk in surprise. Forcing those feelings down, she carefully told the two men to drop their weapons where they were and walk away for an hour before they stopped.
As they left, the orange woman stammered a confused, “Th-thank you? What… who… who are…”
Tears in her eyes, Denny turned to face the couple. “Please. Please, I don’t know who to talk to. Something’s happening to me. Please… help. Help me, please. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. You look like monsters but I know you’re not because I’m a monster and I don’t want to be but please please help me.”
The fur-covered man and the orange woman looked at each other, clearly conferring silently. “We could take her with us,” the woman quietly suggested.
“Yeah, we could,” the man confirmed before turning to Denny. “Okay, kid. Umm…
“We’ll take you to the Auberge, to see Mennin Tombs.”