Kalia Pauster

The Runaway 15-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“This feels weird, right?” Koren asked, while the two of us stood at the edge of the gas station parking lot, staring at the place ahead of us. December and Tabbris were talking about some sort of spell nearby in their rapid way, while Rebecca was checking on something in her cannon backpack, giving us time to look the place over before going in. Asenath hadn’t arrived yet. 

“Weird?” I echoed in a flat voice. “Oh, you mean seeing this place in real life after using the PAWS thing to see it in holographic form last year back in Investigation class? Yeah, it’s pretty weird.” I couldn’t stop looking at the specific pump in question, where Denise had originally been murdered by Ammon. It was the furthest one from where we were standing, past a couple other cars that were fueling up. Their drivers were just standing around, having no idea they were so close to a spot where such a horrific act had been committed the year before. Because of course they didn’t know. Even if Mom’s whole thing with Denise hadn’t actually erased the fact that someone had died right there (and I still wasn’t completely clear on how much of those memories were left in the general public, or what they knew about it), these people had no reason to pay much attention to that. Especially over a year later. The thing was just a normal gas pump for them. 

And yet, as I stood there and squinted that way, I could have sworn there was something weird about it. Frowning, I started walking that way without knowing exactly what I was seeing. All I knew was that something was off. But even under the sharp glare of the heavy canopy lighting, it wasn’t visible from where we were. I needed to get a closer look.  

The others followed without questioning it. I crossed the lot, moving around one of the cars to go straight up to the pump itself. By that point, I could see what I had only barely noticed from further away. Dents. There were dents on both sides of the pump. It looked like someone had literally slammed their hands into the thing, caving it inward partway. Not so deep that it was broken, but definitely visible. Frowning, I ran my fingers over the dents, while the others crowded around to see what I was so focused on. 

“What the hell happened to it?” Koren asked, reaching out to brush her own hand over one of them before squinting at me with a very quiet, “It looks like… you know.” 

“Pretty fucked up, huh?” That wasn’t me. It was a thin, pale guy with short blond hair and a scraggly beard in a Coke delivery uniform, coming out of the store while dragging his two-wheeled cart thing behind him. He nodded our way. “Looks like someone went after that thing with a bat or something. Damn cameras didn’t catch whoever it was though. Pieces of junk. I keep telling Zane he needs to upgrade his security. ‘Specially after that poor girl offed herself right there.” He had stopped walking by then, clearly more in the mood to gossip than get back on the road. “Such a goddamn shame.” 

Right, so they did remember that someone died. Hesitating, I asked, “A girl killed herself here? How, why? Uhh, who?” That last one was what I was really interested in, to be honest. I was curious about what exactly was in their heads after Denise’s connection to the situation was erased. Not to mention the little bit about who exactly had punched this gas pump. Because I had a feeling it was connected to our situation. It seemed a little too coincidental otherwise. 

“Oh, yeah, you didn’t hear about that?” the guy whistled, nodding to the pump we were standing by. “Happened right there. Some guy came in and tried to rob the place, but she took his gun and shot him. Guess she couldn’t deal with what happened, cuz she came out here and used the pump to drown herself.” He was grimacing then, shaking his head. “Isn’t that screwed up? I mean, sucks to kill yourself anyway. But why wouldn’t she just use the gun? Drowning herself with gasoline, just–” A sigh escaped the man before he crossed himself. “So screwed up.”  

“Who was the girl?” Rebecca piped up when the man fell silent, clearly just as curious as I was about how that had been adjusted.  

The man, however, simply shrugged. “Oh, you know, one of the girls who worked here. She was from out of town, hadn’t really lived here long. Maybe that had something to do with why she killed herself, you know? No support system, no friends. I don’t think anyone even really remembers her name. And ain’t that just awful? I mean, bad enough to go through something that screws you up that bad, but then no one even knows much about you?” He grimaced to himself, looking a bit shaken by his own words before giving us a distracted nod and heading for his truck to get back to work. 

Which left us standing there, staring at the dents on the side of the pump. My voice was quiet. “Do you think someone or something came trying to find out the truth? Someone with a connection to Fossor or Ammon. Maybe they found the pump and… got frustrated because of the spell that changed people’s memories. If they were trying to find out who the girl who died here was, and nobody could tell them…” I trailed off, mentally working through the possibilities. None of them made me exactly cheerful. Even if that was true, we still had no idea who or what could possibly have been trying to get at Ammon or even Fossor himself. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of people they had made enemies of, and I was pretty sure plenty of those wouldn’t care about hurting Denise on their quest for revenge. Especially if they hadn’t heard about both of them being dead already. Much as I wanted to think that any enemies of Fossor would be friends of ours, that wasn’t necessarily true. He’d pissed off plenty of bad people as well. 

Rebecca spoke up after a moment. “Maybe that’s how they found Denise. If she was having nightmares or just… memories, she might’ve come here. Then whatever made those dents noticed her and figured out she had some sort of connection to Ammon.”

That sounded like a strong possibility, and I was about to say so before Asenath arrived. I sensed someone approaching from behind, and turned to see the vampire girl on her way. She looked uhh, not great. Between her and my mother, I wasn’t sure which was more upset about this situation. What I did know was that I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible when those two found them. I had a feeling the results wouldn’t be pretty. 

In a low voice as she stared at the same dents in the pump, Senny announced, “You think whoever left those is the one who knows where Denise is now? Then I suppose we should find out who, or what, it was.” Glancing to the others, she added, “We probably shouldn’t all crowd around inside to ask questions. Do you think you can look around out here? Check for anything unusual. Signs of magic, anything… odd like those dents right there, whatever might be a sign that something was lurking around this place. There might even be a nest nearby, on one of the roofs or in the alleys. If something was really trying to find Ammon by coming here, it might’ve staked the place out for awhile before seeing Denise. Worth a shot, anyway.”

The others agreed with that, Tabbris mentioning that she had a couple spells that could help check. She and December split off with Koren and Rebecca, all four spreading out to search the surrounding area. Which left me to go into the shop with Asenath. The two of us headed that way together, as I glanced at the (much) older girl. “I wish I could give you a platitude that would mean anything. But I’m pretty sure it would just be insulting. We both know how bad this looks.”

She, in turn, gave a very slight nod, her mouth pressed tightly closed while she opened the door and gestured for me to go in. “Doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.” 

The shop itself was empty, save for the teenage clerk. She had dirty blonde hair and was reclined in a chair behind the counter, paying more attention to her phone than us, though she did take a second to raise a hand in silent greeting when we looked that way. Her thumbs danced over the screen, texting away while clearly waiting for us to  go about our business.  

Exchanging a look with Senny, I shrugged before walking through the store to look around to give the place a once-over. Yeah, it looked just like the simulated version back at Crossroads. And gave me even more of the creeps. Sure, it looked completely normal, but something about the place just… made a chill run down my spine. Probably because I knew what had happened here. 

“Thirsty?” Asenath asked while I was thinking about that. 

“Huh?” I blinked, then looked down. There was a Sprite in my hand that I didn’t remember picking up. “Oh. Uh, I guess.” Frowning briefly, I shook my head. “This place and me picking things up, I swear.” 

“What do you mean?” the vampire girl pressed, squinting at me. 

I shrugged. “It was… well, obviously now we know it was because of the whole Ammon being my brother thing. But back when we were looking into the recreation of this place for Investigation class, I picked up a few different things that happened to be like… the exact stuff Ammon bought when he was here.” 

Asenath raised an eyebrow. “And now you just picked up that Sprite without thinking about it?” 

“Sure, I guess. But… he’s gone,” I pointed out. “I just… picked up a soda while I was thinking about all this stuff, that’s all. I mean, that’s not that weird, right?” 

“Maybe.” From her tone, Asenath wasn’t really convinced. Which was okay, because neither was I.

But, I shook that off for now. Though I put down the Sprite before purposefully walking to the counter where the clerk was. “Hey, uhh, can I ask you something?” Might as well jump straight into things. We needed to find some answers. 

Glancing up from her phone, the girl raised an eyebrow. “You need the key to the restroom? It’s supposed to be for customers only, but you know, fuck that. If you gotta piss, you gotta piss. No skin off my back. Mostly that rule’s supposed to keep the druggies out of the restroom, anyway.” 

I checked the name tag on her shirt. “Uh, Kalia? Right, nah, it’s not about the restroom. But thanks. Actually, we were wondering if anything weird had happened around here lately. You know, anything different from usual I’d say, probably within the past few weeks. Maybe three weeks ago to be specific?” Yeah, I was being about as straight-forward as possible. There wasn’t time to be cute about it, not with Denise’s life on the line. 

Something about the question had clearly immediately struck the other girl, judging from the brief expression that crossed her face before she wiped it away and offered us a squint. “Unusual?  We get a lot of weirdos in here. Comes with the territory. You know, open all night, close to a homeless camp about three blocks that way, and an improv theater about two blocks the other way. Weirdos are like, our number one customer base. So you’re gonna have to be a bit more specific.” Belatedly, she added, “Why, you looking for someone?” 

Well, screw it, time to go all-in on that whole not beating around the bush thing. “A girl, about ten to twelve years old. This tall, dark hair. She would have come in at some point in the past few weeks. And we think she might have, uhh, been hanging around out there to get a look at the gas pump where that, uhh, girl died.” Yup, just jumping straight on into the whole thing. 

Kalia, for her part, blinked at the question. Again, there was something telling in her expression  for just a moment before she shook it off, eyes narrowing. “What, did someone send you in to play games too? Cuz it’s not fun. It wasn’t funny then, and it’s not funny now. So you can just–”

“Whoa, hey.” Asenath held up both hands while protesting. “I promise, we’re not playing games, and nobody sent us in here. What are you talking about? We’re looking for a girl who went missing, and someone said she might’ve come in here and started acting weird. That’s all.” 

I nodded. “What she said. We’re just looking for this girl. But uhh, why do you think someone’s playing very not-funny games with you? What does that have to do with a girl?” 

Kalia looked back and forth between us as though trying to decide if we were being serious.  Finally, she exhaled and answered. “A little over a year ago, a guy came into this place and started to rob it. But the clerk who worked here shot and killed him. Then she killed herself.” 

“Yeah,” I started to confirm, “we heard about that much, but I don’t–” 

“He was my dad,” the girl replied. “He came to rob the place to make up for… because he borrowed money to take care of me. He borrowed it from a really bad guy named Mercer. He’s like this gang boss or whatever. Real lowlife, but don’t let him find out I called him that. He’s scary. Like, really scary. That–that son of a bitch was gonna do–he was gonna do something bad, to me, because he wasn’t getting his money back fast enough. My dad was desperate. He came here and he got killed. The owner gave me a job because I was hanging around just trying to see the place where my dad died. He gave me a chance. But then Mercer kept coming around, trying to get money out of me instead. He wouldn’t leave it alone. Nothing was enough for him. I didn’t–I didn’t have a chance. I kept trying to tell him to wait for me to be paid enough, but he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t–and then he just… he just…” 

Frowning, I asked, “He just what? Did he do something to you?” Oh boy, was I not in the mood to find out about some guy hurting and terrorizing a girl. I was already reeling from the revelation that she was the daughter of the original robber. That was–yeah. Eesh. It complicated that whole situation, that was for sure. And now to find out that the prick who had set the whole thing in motion was still trying to force this girl to give him more money after everything she had already been through? I really wanted to find whoever that was and give him a piece of my mind. And maybe a piece of my staff while I was at it. Fucking piece of shit.  

Again, the other girl hesitated. It looked like she was afraid to get into the details. She had a pensive look on her face and squirmed a little while fidgeting with her hands.

“It’s okay,” Senny gently reassured her, raising a hand to touch Kalia’s wrist while meeting her gaze. “Trust us, we don’t have anything to do with that Mercer guy. We’re not here for him, just looking for the girl. But tell us what happened. Did he hurt you? Has he threatened you again?”  Despite the gentleness of her tone as she tried to keep the girl calm, I could tell that she was just as close as I was to demanding directions to that guy so we could do something about him. 

Kalia, however, shook her head. “No, that’s the thing–I mean he was. He was being really demanding.” A frown crossed her face again. “He was really pushing hard, wouldn’t let up about it. He was supposed to come in the other day. I was waiting for him, but he never… he never came. Then I went to see him, I had fifty dollars. And he… he said he didn’t know who I was. I mean, he took the fifty bucks, but he didn’t know my name. He didn’t know who I was or who my dad was. He terrorized my father into getting himself killed, which–which drove another girl to kill herself because of it. Then he kept pushing me for more money. And then suddenly he doesn’t know who I am?”

Yeah, she was right. That did sound pretty weird. And distinctly unnatural. Before Asenath or I could say anything, however, the girl went on. “And with that girl going on about some tattooed monster coming in, I just–it was a weird coincidence. Especially with you coming in now.” 

“Hold on, a girl asked about a tattooed monster?” Asenath pressed, giving me a brief look. 

With a nod, Kalia confirmed, “Yeah, a little girl like the one you described. First she came in and was asking me about what happened with my dad and that clerk. I mean, she didn’t know he was my dad before. But she was asking about that. Then it was like… she went nuts? She started asking about some monster with scales and tattoos before just taking off and running outside. Then I never saw her again. Hell, might not even be the right kid.” 

To that, I dug in my pocket for my phone. “Hang on, I think I have a picture.” I had a copy of the video that my mother had shown us before when she revealed that Denise was alive. Bringing up a still shot of that, I held the phone out for the other girl to see. 

Kalia’s head bobbed quickly as she pointed at the screen. “Yeah, that’s her. Who is she?” 

“Her name is Denise,” Asenath explained. “And you’re sure you haven’t seen her since that day? She hasn’t come in again, or been hanging out or anything?” 

“I mean, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t,” Kalia replied with a shrug. “She just yelled about the tattooed monster and ran out. I didn’t really think much about it until all the stuff happened with Mercer.  Like I said, he was supposed to show up that day and he didn’t. And he’s got tattoos. Big bright red ones all over his body. No scales though. But I mean, she was a little kid, and kids have imaginations, you know? It’s just really weird. He completely forgets about the whole thing and acts like he’s never heard of my family, right after this kid was asking about stuff related to that and then went off about a tattooed monster? It’s two weird things in one day, and it sort of seems like they might be related. But I just sorta decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Then you guys came in and started asking about it and are you sure you don’t know him?” 

“No, pretty positive we don’t,” Asenath murmured, gazing off into the distance thoughtfully. 

“But I’m starting to think we should.” 

*******

Leaving the store, we met up with the others just behind the building and explained what we’d discovered. Then they told us about what they had found in turn. Apparently December and Tabbris had picked up signs of a big Alter of some kind, probably accompanied by others, hanging around the store several weeks earlier, but not recently. The traces were old and pretty faded. 

“Yeah,” Rebecca put in, “That totally fits with what we heard.” She nodded in the direction of some old homeless guy laying in a doorway across the street. He had a Coke he was sipping that had clearly come from the nearby vending machine, probably courtesy of her and Koren. “Elmer over there, he told us there used to be this guy who is really bad news with tattoos and stuff that came around the station, but he stopped a few weeks ago. And, get this, he saw a little girl with dark hair too, the same day the big guy stopped showing up.” 

Yeah, this was all sounding pretty suspicious. I had a bad feeling that this Mercer guy was related to why Denise had disappeared. Which was a thought that suddenly made me wonder–

“What if Ammon killing that guy wasn’t as random as we thought?” I put in. “I mean, what if this Mercer guy actually had some connection to Fossor after all? Then Denise shows up because she’s starting to remember stuff, and Mercer finds out, so he takes her and… and goes somewhere.” 

“That doesn’t explain why he would forget about the debt,” Asenath reminded me. “This guy hounded her dad into the grave and then kept pushing her about it. And then one day he just stops completely? Not just stops, seems to literally forget about it entirely. And it doesn’t explain those dents in the gas pump, like someone attacked it. There’s something really… strange about this whole bit. It feels like we’re missing something obvious. It’s right there, but I just can’t get a finger on it.” 

Tabbris piped up, “Maybe you could just ask him why he forgot the debt. I mean, possess him and read his mind. We should be able to find his memories from back then, and Mama taught me some about finding lost memories.”

“Right,” I murmured to myself a bit thoughtfully. She had a point, that might be the easiest way to actually get a firm idea of what was going on. “We just have to find the guy.”

“Ohthat’seasy,” December immediately informed us. “Thespellwe… wereusing…thatshowedushe…. washangingaroundhere… wecanusethat… totrackwherehewent.” 

“Uh huh, uh huh!” Tabbris bobbed her head quickly alongside the other girl. “He left a trail we could follow all the way back to his base.”  

“Sounds like a plan,” Asenath murmured, already taking out her own phone. “Let me call Twister, just in case we need a little more muscle.

“Then we can pay this Mercer guy a visit, and find out what really happened that day.”  

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Interlude 12B – Denny Again (Heretical Edge 2)

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The quiet, familiar scritching sound of a small knife blade steadily carving into wood filled the small space of the closet where Denny was crouched. She had closed the door and scrunched herself into the back behind the clothes and toys, invisible if someone simply glanced inside. Between that and the fact that it was the middle of the night with no lights on other than what came through the curtained window near her bed in the main room, the area around her was pitch-black. But that didn’t matter, not really. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. And she certainly wasn’t worried about monsters. 

Because she was a monster. And monsters belonged in the closet. 

She had told her mother that she didn’t want to see that therapist again. For some reason that she couldn’t explain, she didn’t say anything about the woman changing her name to that weird one, or any of that. Denny wasn’t sure why, she just knew it was a bad idea. First her mother had wanted her to give it another try, but then they had gotten word that ‘Megan’ was going on an extended trip and wouldn’t be available. So she had agreed to let her daughter see a different therapist, though that hadn’t actually started yet. She was supposed to have her first visit next week. Which didn’t help the girl right now, as she crouched in the closet, carving into the wall. 

It was also too dark to see exactly what she was carving. But that didn’t matter either, because she didn’t need to see it. She knew, deep in her soul, what was carved throughout every wall of the closet. Two different words, repeated over and over again. One was two letters and the other three letters. Me Him Me Him Me Him. The two words were cut into the walls obsessively. From the look of it, if someone had examined the carvings closely, it would appear as though many instances had one word carved first, and then the other carved almost on top of that. It was an argument, played out through a steak knife that had been borrowed from the kitchen, digging into the wall. 

Him. He was there. She could feel him, could almost hear his voice. She caught glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, and felt him standing behind her. But he was never there when she looked closer. He was always just out of sight, just out of reach. He was right there with her, yet not. 

Grasping the knife carefully in both hands, the eleven-year-old girl stared unseeingly through the darkness at where she knew the rear wall was. With a shaking grip, she reached up and began to carve a much larger word, which would take up the entire wall if she finished it. 

The first letter was A. That was followed by an M. By the time she began to carve the second M, the girl’s hands were shaking so much she actually dropped the knife when the letter was half-done. She reached down, fumbling a bit until she found it. Unfortunately, her hand found the blade first and grasped it, making the blade cut into her palm. Not too deep, barely enough to draw blood. But it made the girl yelp softly. Abruptly, she looked up at the wall again, still incapable of seeing it, yet knowing what was there. The expression on her face, had it been visible to anyone, would have shifted from one of resignation, to intense anger. With the knife held tightly in her slightly injured hand, she ignored the pain and lashed out to cut a deep gouge through the aborted name she had begun to carve into the wall. Once, twice, three times she cut deep lines through it, crossing the unfinished name out. She wouldn’t finish it. She refused. He couldn’t make her. He couldn’t change her. She wasn’t him. She wasn’t. She was Denny. He was–he was–he didn’t matter. He wasn’t here. She wouldn’t obey him again. She wouldn’t be what he wanted. She wouldn’t do anything he said. The whispers, the thoughts, the impressions he left at the back of her mind, they didn’t matter. None of that mattered. She was Denny. She mattered. She was going to do what she wanted to do. She was going to be what she wanted to be. She didn’t have to listen to him. She never had to listen to him. 

The sound of footsteps creaking on the stairs snapped the girl out of her intense fit of repeatedly gouging lines through the partially finished name. Someone was coming. Him? Was it him? Was he coming because she refused to carve his name? Was he coming for her now? No, no, he couldn’t come for her. He couldn’t come, because he was already here. And because he wasn’t. He was here, and he wasn’t, and he never could be. And yet, the rush of terror that filled the girl, the animalistic survival instinct as she heard those footsteps, couldn’t be ignored. 

Straightening, she stepped out of the closet, still holding the knife in her injured hand even as she heard those footsteps steadily approaching her room. Quickly and silently, she moved to stand behind the  bedroom door, safely out of sight as the footsteps stopped. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the knife again. If he was here, if he was real, she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified, yet also furious. A righteous anger, a rage that the young girl could barely comprehend, had filled her at the thought that he was coming. She wouldn’t let him hurt her. She wouldn’t let him control her. No more. Not again. Never again. 

The footsteps stopped outside her door, and for a moment there was nothing but the silence. Then, the door slowly began to creak open. It came about halfway, and from her position behind it, Denny was able to peer through the small crack between the wall and the door itself just enough to see a figure standing there, mostly concealed in the shadows of the hallway. He was there, staring in at the lump of blankets on her bed that made it look as though Denny was sleeping in it. 

She would stab him. As soon as he came through the door and walked to the bed, she would stab him from behind. She wouldn’t let him touch her, wouldn’t let him talk to her, wouldn’t let him do anything. He would never hurt her again. She wouldn’t let him hurt her or control her.

“Is she okay?” Those words, spoken in a hushed tone, filled the air, startling the girl. They came from down the hall, not from the figure next to the door. And the voice was quite familiar. Her mother. Her mother was just down the hall, addressing… addressing the figure there. 

“She’s asleep,” came the whispered response. A whisper she also recognized. Her father. The figure standing just on the other side of the open door, looking at what he thought was Denny lying in bed, was her own father. She had almost stabbed her own father, out of the sheer terror that had been brought on by the thought that the figure from her dreams was standing there.

While the girl was reeling from what she had almost done, the door creaked closed once more and she heard her father walk away to join her mother. She was left standing there in the dark. The knife fell from her grip to the carpet, and she raised her hands to stare at her own palms. In the slight illumination that came through the window, she could see fairly clearly. There was no wound there. The spot of her hand that she had cut was already completely healed, save for the stain of blood that proved it had once been injured. In those brief moments, the wound had entirely vanished. 

Denny’s breathing grew heavy as she stared at her hand, where the cut should have been. Where she had felt it, where there was still blood showing that a cut had once existed. Her voice was a whisper that sounded entirely too loud within the confines of this dark bedroom. 

“What… what’s happening to me?” 

*******

Gas filling her mouth, pouring down her throat, choking her on the fumes. Tears filling her eyes, panic making her want to scream. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t move, couldn’t get away, couldn’t stop the gasoline from killing her, from–

“Yo, kid!” A sudden shout startled her. “You camping out to save a pump for your dad, or what?” 

Yes, Denny had been standing at a gas station right where a car was supposed to park, staring at one of the pumps. No, not just a gas station. Not just ‘one of the pumps.’ The gas station. The pump. The one from her dream that wasn’t a dream. She knew that, she recognized it. It was the gas station her parents sometimes stopped at on the way home, only a few blocks from their house. Standing there, staring at the pump, she knew it was the same one from those dreams. Something deep in her soul told the girl this was the right place. 

No, the wrong place. This was the wrong place entirely. She shouldn’t be here. She really shouldn’t be here. A loud voice in the back of her mind was telling the girl to turn around and run away, to never set foot anywhere near here again. 

And yet, another voice was telling her that she had to be here, that she would never get any better until she faced this and could understand it. She was so confused, so lost, she had to know the truth, had to know what was wrong with her and fix it before she… before she did something bad. 

Still, she didn’t want to get run over. So, she quickly stepped out of the way and let the man in the sedan pull up to the spot where she had been standing. He grumbled while getting out to pump his gas, and the sight of the man holding the nozzle made bile suddenly rise up in Denny’s throat. Pivoting, she rushed to the shop itself, pushing her way inside. As the polite ding filled the air, the girl took a moment to pant and catch her breath, almost doubling over as she tried to stop hyperventilating. No, no, she couldn’t be out there, couldn’t look at the pump. She couldn’t stand there and…

A sudden rush of images filled the girl’s mind. She was being hit, knocked to the ground, kicked repeatedly, a foot colliding with her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t beg. Her stomach hurt, there was something wrong with it, something that made it impossible to breathe properly. Her face was bleeding and broken, one eye swollen shut. The pain was awful, but it didn’t compare to the sheer terror. He was going to hit her again, he was going to hurt her, because he was told to. Because… because he told him to. Him, not the man hurting her, but the… the…

“Hey, hey, are you okay?” It was the clerk, a girl in her late teens who had come around the counter and moved to where Denny had crouched down and started crying. “Uhh, do you want me to call somebody? Are you lost or something?” 

Swallowing hard, Denny pushed herself to her feet and shook her head. “N-no, it’s okay. I just…” She trailed off helplessly then. How exactly was she supposed to explain what had just happened? She didn’t understand it herself. The images in her mind had been so vivid, so real. She could feel the blows, could hear the–him ordering the other man to hit her again, and again, and again. 

Forcing those thoughts down, she clenched her fists while meeting the gaze of the older girl with dirty-blonde hair. “Can um, can I ask you something, please?” She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. 

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Clearly uncertain about what this girl who had just walked into the gas station before falling to her knees and crying was going to ask, the teenaged clerk gestured. “Come on, you can have a soda on me. You look like you need it. What do you need to ask?” 

A rush of confusing and contradictory thoughts ran through Denny’s mind as she followed the clerk over to the counter and accepted the bottle of Sprite. For a moment, she was able to distract herself by focusing on opening it and taking a long sip. But she felt the clerk’s curious eyes on her the whole time, and finally couldn’t wait anymore. So, Denny took a breath before looking up. Her voice caught a little as she forced the words out. “Did somebody die here? I–I heard somebody died here. Um, I think it was… uhh, awhile ago with–what?” The way the clerk was staring at her made the girl a little nervous. Even more than she had already been. 

“Did someone put you up to this?” the clerk demanded, though her voice was more resigned than angry. “Just–just tell me if someone put you up to it. They think it’s real funny just to send–” 

Eyes widening, Denny shook her head rapidly. “No! Nobody put me up to anything, I swear. I just… I heard somebody died here and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it’s weird, but can you please tell me? I swear it’s not a joke or anything. Please.”

There was a momentary pause as the clerk considered, before sighing. “Yeah, somebody died here. But it wasn’t recently, and it wasn’t just one person. Two people died about fourteen months ago. There was a… a robber and the last girl who worked at this place. They said the guy tried to rob her and she… um, she got the gun away from him and shot him. Then she umm… killed herself.” Slowly, the clerk turned to look out toward the gas pumps. Her mouth opened, but Denny didn’t need to hear more. 

“She died from the gas,” the young girl murmured audibly, staring in the same direction. She could smell the fumes, could taste it pouring down her throat, could–could– Shaking herself violently, Denny forced herself to look back at the clerk. “They said she killed herself?” 

“That’s… what they said.” There was doubt in the clerk’s voice as she squinted that way. “It’s kinda weird though, isn’t it? I mean, they said she felt so guilty about killing my–the guy that she had to… to do that.” 

Catching what the older girl had almost said, Denny focused on her and frowned. “Did you know the guy who–” 

“You should leave.” With those words, the clerk pointed to the opposite door from the one Denny had come through. “Go out the back. Get out of here, hurry, go!” Her words were urgent, nearly frantic in a tone shift that startled the younger girl. She was already coming around the counter, taking hold of her shoulder to pull her away. 

Denny started to argue in confusion, when the ding of the bell above the door she had come through filled the air. Both girls turned that way to find an enormous figure crouched down a bit as he pushed his way through the door. Seeing that, the clerk suddenly gave Denny a shove that knocked her to her knees behind one of the display cases. “Hide,” she hissed. 

From her place behind the shelves, Denny lifted her head and peered through the crack in time to see the figure straighten up. Her first impression had been right. The man wasn’t just tall, he was a huge, broad-shouldered man with an assortment of bright red tattoos across his scaled body. 

Wait, scaled body? Denny gave a double-take, eyes widening. Yes, the man had scales. Like… like a really bad skin condition? Her mother had always said that she wasn’t supposed to stare at people who were different like that, but this guy was really different. He wasn’t just tall, he was… he was so tall he’d had to stoop to get through the door. Over seven feet. His body was dark blue-green, with a slightly lighter face. And, again, he had scales. Very thick, obvious scales. His eyes were vertical, like a snake or a lizard. 

“Kalia,” his voice rumbled while Denny shrank back in fear. “You shouldn’t have blown me off this morning. You know I don’t like that.” His vertical pupils narrowed at the older girl. “Your dad did that a lot.” 

“Mercer,” the clerk (Kalia) managed in a clearly weak voice. “I was gonna come find you after work. I’ve got fifty dollars for you.” 

“Fifty?” The enormous, scaled figure gave a heavy, humorless laugh. “Your dad owed ten thousand when he bit the dust. You think fifty’s even a drop in that bucket?” With that, the man paused, looking around. “Come to think of it, kid, you working in the place he died trying to get my down payment is pretty fucked up. And that’s coming from me.” 

Wait, wait, the girl was– Denny was left reeling from that revelation, even as the huge, alien figure stalked forward to close the distance between himself and Kalia. “Now,” he snarled, “Now, you gonna dig deep and find a way to get the money your family owes, or am I going to have to try to pry it out of grieving family member number three?” Before the girl could answer, he snapped a hand down to grab her by the throat. “Maybe what you need is some motivation. Cuz clearly, I ain’t done enough t–” 

“Stop it!” Without even knowing what she was doing, Denny had leapt to her feet and held both hands up. “Stop it, stop!” 

The giant figure did stop, his head slowly turning to look that way. Those vertical eyes focused on her. “Who the fuck are you?” 

“I…” Her throat was dry, a thick lump filling it. She could barely breathe, could barely think. “My… my name is Denise.” 

“Yeah? Good for you.” Mercer’s voice made it clear how little he cared. “Now, if you don’t mind, I–” His grip tightened on the other girl’s throat enough to make her yelp in pain. 

“Stop it!” Denny blurted as terror filled her. “Let her go!”  

Abruptly, the enormous figure did just that. He released Kalia, allowing the girl to suck in panicked gasps of air. Then just stared at Denny. His eyes narrowed. “What… the fuck did you just–” With an animalistic roar, he began to lunge that way. 

Denny, in turn, jerked backward with a panic. “Stop!” she desperately cried out. 

And, again, the figure stopped. He abruptly jerked to a halt, glowering at her. “Listen to me, you little shit. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but–” 

But something had a hold of the eleven-year-old by then, some subconscious realization that she didn’t fully understand. Her shaky voice came once more. “P-put… both hands… above your head.” 

He did, which almost scared the girl more than if he hadn’t. As the man raised both hands high over his head, palms flat against the ceiling, he began to snarl very intricate and detailed threats about what he was going to do to them. 

“St-stop talking!” Denny hurriedly stammered, terror filling her. “I–I–umm… ummm…” What was happening? Why was he obeying her? What was he? He wasn’t normal. He wasn’t normal. “P-please, just… just…” Her mouth opened and shut. Just what? What was he supposed to do? 

There was a… whisper at the back of her mind. A whisper she couldn’t quite hear, but her subconscious knew what the whisper was saying. Some small part of her understood the advice. “Forget you were here,” she finally managed. “Forget that girl there, and anything her family owed. Forget all of it, everything that happened here and everything about Kalia and her family. And… and go away. Walk away, and don’t stop walking until you… until you’re ten miles away.”  

And with that, the horrifying figure obeyed. He turned and left the store, walking away across the lot while leaving both girls standing there staring after him. 

“Wha… what j-just happened?” Kalia managed. “Who the hell–how did–” In mid-sentence, the girl abruptly stopped, shook her head, and then turned back to Denise with a smile, her voice utterly devoid of any fear or reaction to the events from a moment earlier. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?” 

“Th-that guy, who was he?” Denny asked, confused by the girl’s sudden chipper attitude. 

“Sorry, what guy?” Kalia looked politely curious, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t see any guy. Were you looking for someone?”

“The guy who was just here!” Denny blurted. “The big–the monster with the scales and the tattoos!” 

Still, Kalia just stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Are you okay? You’re the only one who’s come inside in like half an hour. Hey, do you want me to call someone? Do–hey, wait!”

But Denny didn’t wait. As a tumultuous rush of confusion and fear filled her mind, the girl raced for the door. She slammed her way through it, ignoring the older girl calling after her. Instead, she ran across the lot and stopped in front of the gas pump. The gas pump. For a moment, she just stood there, staring down at the spot where… where…

Gasoline filled her throat. She saw the boy staring at her, watching, waiting. She felt the terror, the certainty that she was about to die. She felt it, she knew it was coming. Any second it would be too much. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t–

A scream tore its way out of the eleven-year-old girl’s throat, as her hands lashed out reflexively. They slammed into the gas pump with enough force to leave a pair of visible dents on either side.

Seeing that, Denny stumbled away a couple steps. Her hand covered her mouth, as she fell to her knees there on the asphalt. “No, no, no…” she mumbled behind her own palm as tears of confusion flooded her eyes. “Please… please…

“Somebody tell me what’s going on.”

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