In your hands, you find an ornate envelope, rimmed with gold. The seal has been broken and the contents read. This is your invitation to the Midnight Murder Party, Reader.
What is that, you ask? Well, allow me to show you around and introduce you to tonight’s hostess.
You look up from the envelope and find that a beautiful banquet hall has materialized around you. Above your head, a vast chandelier casts little glimmers of light across the hall, the specks dancing playfully across the extravagant red and gold carpet and the deep mahogany paneled walls. Towering windows stare out of the front wall of the manor and into the black night outside. If it were morning, you might have seen a colorful garden sprawled out before the building, but the grandfather clock by the entrance arch hails that the time is now 11:53 at night. All along the walls, and even along the windowed side, tables have been laid out with food and drink of every variety. On one table, various bowls of pasta sit above tiny burners, all behind a sign with the word Intestines scrawled neatly in cursive. A heart is drawn next to the word. Other tables contain juice-bleeding meat with the label Human Flesh or bright red fruit punch with the label Blood or even peeled grapes labeled Eyeballs. All manner of food and drink decorates these tables, flowing with red tablecloths, in anticipation of the guests’ arrivals.
On the far end of the banquet hall, opposite the grandfather clock, the room opens up into a smaller, pentagonal tea room with huge slab-like windows gazing out into the world beyond. A young woman looks out at the blackness from that room, her fiery orange-red hair falling down over her shoulders in voluminous curls. She wears a billowing purple and black dress that clings tightly to her torso before cinching at her narrow waist and expanding again until it nearly skims the floor. As she turns to face you, her eyes widen and she jumps back with a gasp.
“Oh, my. You startled me!” she exclaims, letting a well-manicured hand rest over her heart. A wide grin breaks out and lights up her whole face. “It’s been a while since anyone’s managed to startle me. Ahahaha! You must be a Reader, then. Seriously, those Creators never have you guys knock. They just pop you into existence wherever they please! Oh, but it makes everything so much more lively sometimes. Once, this Reader just went and popped in right in the middle of—” She pauses and clears her throat, resuming a pretense of formality. “Oh, but where are my manners? I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Arlene. I am the hostess of this Midnight Murder Party. As you can see, no one else is here yet. It’s only 11:57, so you’re a little early. That’s alright, though. I’ll use this time to explain the rules.”
She gestures across the great hall towards a golden plaque embedded above the entranceway. “The rules are engraved on there in case you ever forget, but they’re pretty simple, so you should be fine. Rule number one.” A devious smile plays across her face as she leans in. “You will be murdered. Possibly multiple times. There’s no limit to how many times you can die here. In fact, we could just kill you over and over all night long if we wanted to!” She throws her head back in cackling laughter before putting a dainty hand over her mouth. “Oops! Sorry about that. Ahaha. Rule number two. If you die, it’s your turn to tell the next story. We all take turns telling stories. If you die, you’re up.” She pauses and looks at you seriously. There is no humor left in her face. “Rule number three. I’ll warn you right now, if you don’t think you’re up for it, then now is the time to leave. Rule number three is what breaks most of them. What’ll it be?” Even though she couldn’t be older than twenty-five, weary lines of age seem to appear on her face as she surveys you, silently questioning your resolve. She waits only a moment longer. “I guess that decides it then. Rule number three is…”
“It’ll be fun!” She bursts into smiles again and snorts laughter. “I had you going, didn’t I? I totally did! Ahahahaha! Oh man! That was gold!” She wipes the tears from her eyes and tries to regain her composure, still letting little fits of giggling slip. “Oh, but I actually should warn you, given the nature of rule number one, things tend to get… well, a little messy around here, and the stories we tell can be rather disturbing. So if you’re squeamish, fair warning!” Something catches her eye behind you, and she exclaims, “Hey, look! If it isn’t Marc!”
A lanky kid strolls into the room with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans. The purple, skull-checkered shirt hanging from his shoulders looks out of place in the elaborate dining hall, but he doesn’t seem to notice. His eyelids hang at half-mast, as if he couldn’t imagine a more boring place to be, but his smile is amiable.
“How’s things, Arly?” He asks through a toothpick sticking out from between his front teeth.
“Well, you would know if you bothered to stop by once in a while,” Arlene huffs. “I haven’t seen you since the last party! I do hope you’ve enjoyed the party favor I left you with last time, by the way.”
Marc gives her a dumb look and shifts the toothpick between his teeth. “Party favor?”
“Oh, nevermind,” Arlene sighs. “More importantly, why on Earth do you have a toothpick in your mouth?”
“Had somethin’ stuck in my teeth,” he says, diverting his eyes. He plucks it out of his mouth and flicks it into the nearest wastebin. His cheeks have gotten a little red.
“Of course you did.”
“Well, forget that,” Marc interjects, going redder still. “I want to introduce you to my little bro. Come on out and say hi, Aidan.”
A wide-eyed face appears from behind Marc. The kid only reaches midway up his torso. Unlike his older brother, Aidan is garbed in a black suit with a white button down shirt and a black tie that cinches around his neck just a little too tightly. Marc loosens this for him. The kid stares at Arlene for a moment, his light brown hair falling clumsily into his eyes, before shaking his head, squeezing his eyes shut, and ducking behind Marc again.
“Sorry about that,” Marc says, placing a light hand on his brother’s head, “Aidan’s a bit shy.”
“That’s quite alright,” Arlene responds. “I would like to introduce you both to a rather unexpected guest. We have a Reader with us tonight.” She turns towards you, a puzzled expression coming over her face. “Oh my, where has he gone? Or was it a she? I can never tell with Readers.”
Marc raises an eyebrow. “You messin’ with us, Arly?”
“Not at all. There was a Reader here just before you came in.”
“Gotcha.” Marc grins. Aidan peeks out from behind him, squinting at the spot Arlene is looking at. “Well, our Reader friend has probably just stopped being visible to us for a while. Wouldn’t be a first. I’m sure he—or she, I guess—is still in here somewhere.”
“Very true.” Arlene claps her hands together. “Perhaps our friend will show up again later. Until then...” She peers over Marc’s shoulder and smiles at someone behind him under the archway. “It seems that everyone has arrived. And just on time.” She glances sidelong at the grandfather clock as Marc turns around to see who arrived behind him. Arlene continues. “My friends, it is my pleasure to welcome all of you. Now…”
In this moment, several things happen simultaneously. The clock by the entranceway chimes midnight. Marc’s head cracks open and bursts, blooming into crimson flowers across the wall, floor, and clock face with a tremendous boom that echoes through the grand hall. Chunks of clotted, brown hair and brain splatter and stick to the walls. Aidan screams and hides under a table. And Arlene raises her hands into the air and exclaims:
“Let the Midnight Murder Party begin!”
A piercing laugh comes from the entrance to the room.
“Kyehehehe! You got him, you got him good!” A girl, perhaps a few years older than Aidan, stands in the entranceway behind Marc’s corpse as it collapses. Her piercing, emerald eyes stare out from the bloody mask that has splattered across her face, wide awake despite the grey bags that hang under them. She beams at Arlene, not minding the dripping blood. “You’re the best, Arlene!”
The hostess curtsies. “Why, thank you, Marissa. And look at that nice dress you wore today. My opening fireworks seem to have made quite a mess of it. My apologies!”
“No worries,” Marissa says, regarding the mess that has splattered across the front of her outfit with some amusement. Her dress is black with red frills, tied neatly around the waist with an enormous red bow. Below the bow, the dress puffs out until the knees where it meets with white stockings (now speckled with red) that eventually disappear into a pair of black shoes with golden buckles. She pats little clumps of brain off the dress, and they land on the floor with a squick sound. “Gross.”
She wrings some blood out of her hair, twirls the strand in front of her eyes, and smiles at the reddish-brown color before letting it fall back onto her shoulder. With her hands on her hips, she looks down to study the mess that used to be Marc’s head. After a moment of prodding brains and skull around with her toe, her eyes light up, and she bends over to scoop up one of Marc’s marbled brown eyes between her fingers.
“Marc has such nice eyes. Too bad they’re attached to the rest of him.” She snorts a laugh and holds the eye out in front of her, grinning. Arlene walks over, stepping gingerly over Marc’s corpse.
“Very true,” she says, poking it with her pinky to examine the underside. “I’ve never noticed.”
“It’s ‘cuz that dummy keeps his eyes half closed all the time. We’ll have to explode his head more often.” Marissa giggles and stuffs the eyeball into her pocket. “I’m keeping this.”
“Perhaps we will do some arts and crafts later,” Arlene suggests. “You could make it into a necklace.”
“No way! I want an eyeball ring.” The girls look at each other and burst into laughter. Aidan pokes his head out from under the table across the room, and Marissa stops laughing.
“Why’s he lookin’ at me like that? It’s weirding me out.” She glances at Aidan. “Quit starin’ at me, kid. It’s weird.”
Arlene chuckles. “You say ‘kid’ as if you aren’t one yourself, Marissa.”
“Hey, I’m not a kid. I’m a teen. I’m thirteen.”
“Of course. How could I have forgotten?” Arlene chuckles again.
Marissa, pouting, turns back to Aidan, who has retreated behind the red tablecloth again, peeking out with only one eye. “And you, stop gawkin’ at me. Creep.”
A moment of silence passes between them.
“Hi.” Aidan blurts and disappears again.
Arlene grins at Marissa.
“Oh, nothing.” Arlene sings, still grinning. “In any case, it seems everyone is here, so why don’t we all head over to the tea room?”
Arlene snaps her fingers and all the stray pieces of Marc begin to slide and ooze towards his collapsed body. The skull clicks together like a puzzle as brain and blood slide into the openings and reassemble themselves inside. Flesh, muscle, and skin reattach to the skull like pieces of wrapping paper being torn in reverse. Teeth rattle along the floor and socket themselves firmly within the gum. One eyeball pops back into place. The other struggles to escape Marissa’s pocket and follow the trail of blood streaming off of her outfit back to Marc, but she keeps a firm hold. It all stops and Marc sits up, coughing and sputtering, trying to pull oxygen into his lungs. He looks around, dazed.
“Huh...” His remaining eye snaps wide open. “Wait a sec! Arly, that was your party favor? I’ve been running around with a bomb in my head since last time?”
Arlene smiles pleasantly.
“You’re ridiculous,” Marc continues. He pauses with a quizzical expression. “Huh. Everything looks kinda… off. Weird.”
“It’s probably just your imagination,” Marissa says, patting Marc on the back. “Hi, by the way.”
“How’s it going, Marissa? I would’ve said hi earlier, but someone,” he casts Arlene a reproachful glance, “blew my head off before I could say anything.”
“Yeah, it was sweet. You shoulda seen it! Arlene’s traps are the best. She might even be able to catch me in one of them. Kyehehehe.”
“If I don’t kill you first,” Marc retorts, feigning a lunge at the girl. She dodges nimbly to the side.
“Not gonna happen!” Marissa sticks her tongue out at Marc, and he laughs.
“We’ll see, now won’t we?”
“Ahem.” Arlene interrupts the banter. “Shall we move into the tea room to begin the first story?”
The group relocates to the pentagonal, windowed room appended to the end of the hall. Three chairs have been set around a large table in the center of the room which is covered in different types of sweets. Marissa piles a plate high with cookies before plopping down in a seat next to Arlene. Marc sits across from them, his brother peeking out from behind his chair at Marissa.
Arlene summons a servant from the kitchen, a petite girl, about Marc’s age, wearing a black tuxedo with her blonde hair tied in a ponytail low on the back of her neck and her bangs hanging neatly on either side of her face, one side held up by a thin, blue hair clip.
“Would you please bring out another chair for Marc’s brother,” Arlene asks the servant before pausing for a moment. “Actually, make that two chairs, just in case our Reader friend decides to show up again.”
The girl nods politely and makes to leave. “One more thing,” Arlene says, calling the girl back. She beckons her closer with one curled finger and whispers something into the servant’s ear. The girl nods, her sheepish expression turning into a soft grin, and leaves the room.
“Hey, Arly,” Marc says once the servant is out of sight. “She new here? She doesn’t look like your usual servants.”
“Yes indeed.” Arlene smiles. “Her name is April.”
Marc looks at the door the servant disappeared through. “That’s a nice name,” he says after a moment. “Where’d you find her?”
“Just floating about. She had nowhere to go, so I employed her.”
Two new servants—both tall, expressionless, and uncannily identical to the point of looking like they had been made with a cookie-cutter—enter the hall and place the additional chairs around the large table. Next to each chair, there is a smaller table where a decorative, white teacup is placed on a saucer for each guest. April reappears in the hall with a tea cart and begins filling their cups. Marc speaks up.
“Well, I guess it’s about time to get this party started. I’ve thought up some good ones for tonight, so here it goes.” Arlene leans forward in her seat, wide-eyed. Marissa pops a cookie into her mouth and munches away. Aidan peeks out a little farther from behind Marc’s seat. Marc continues. “The title of this story is…”
David woke up at a quarter to six to kick off his covers. Today was going to be a hot one. He flipped his pillow over and placed his cheek against the cool side, except this morning it wasn’t much better than the side he had been sleeping on. Not at all. He sat up groggily and wiped the sticky sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. The room felt oddly quiet, and it occurred to him that the air conditioner had stopped—had probably blown a fuse during the night. He tapped his phone, and the screen came to life. One hundred and one. That’s what the weather app on his home screen told him. At a quarter to six in the morning, with the sun barely peeking over the horizon, it was already a hundred and one degrees out. He groaned, rolled over, and fell back into a turbulent sleep.
When he woke up again, his first thought was that he couldn’t breathe. He gasped in an unsatisfying breath of hot and heavy air and didn’t feel much better. The air conditioner still hung dead in the window. With more than a little effort, he hoisted himself off the bed, leaving behind a body shaped dark spot in the blue sheets where sweat had soaked in. He made his way to the kitchen.
A middle-aged woman slouched over the table, one hand propping up her cheek and the other fanning her face with a paper plate. Her brown hair fell in damp clumps from her head as a steady stream of sweat poured down her face, tracing the usually unnoticeable contours of age.
“Mom, why isn’t the air on? It’s hot as—” David paused, finding the atmosphere too much. It wasn’t humid, but the sheer heat felt just as bad in his throat. He took a slow breath. “It’s really hot.”
She glanced up, and David winced. Her face sagged noticeably, the way elderly people’s skin falls away from the flesh and bone as if it no longer feels any need to hang on. “The power’s out… for the whole block.” She turned away and looked out the window, dragging in a slow breath. “Maybe for the whole city.”
“Oh, come on,” David grumbled. “It’s like—” He looked at his phone. “It’s 117 degrees? Is that even possible?” But he supposed it must be. After all, it felt like 117 degrees. “Screw this. I’m going to the pool.”
He changed into his bathing suit, grabbed a towel from the hall closet, and walked past the kitchen to the front door. “Mom,” he called. “I’m heading out. You should find a way to cool off too. You don’t look too good.” The door slammed behind him.
Even wearing just a tank top, swim trunks and flip-flops, it felt like he was baking in the sun. The sky shone blue and clear, all the clouds burnt away by the wavering yellow-orange orb still approaching its high point in the sky. He passed an ice cream truck, surrounded by whining kids, pushing and shoving to get their turn. The parents seemed too exhausted to care, hanging in place, their hands shielding their eyes from the sun, some even holding umbrellas to shade themselves and telling their kids to hurry up. One kid finally got his treat: a red, white and blue rocket pop that David himself had loved when he was a few years younger. The kid pulled back from the group, clinging to his new treat, and, when he had made it a safe distance from the jealous eyes of the other kids, tore off the wrapper. David thought the face the kid made might have been the most disappointed thing he had ever seen. The pop was already half-melted when the wrapper came off, and the gooey top trickled down in smears of red and white, off the bottom of the pop and onto the ground. David passed by.
Once on his way to the pool, the tip of his flip-flop caught on the ground and folded under itself. He stubbed his toe on the searing asphalt. It left a blister.
By the time the pool gates came into view, the air was wavering in front of David. It gave everything a surreal appearance, as if he were looking at a mirage in a desert instead of a real place. He pulled in another labored breath of the thin, dry air that felt like sand in his throat. A wave of dizziness nearly brought him to his knees, and he thought hazily that it must have reached 130 degrees. His phone screen said 141, then updated to 153.
He walked through the gates and groaned. The pool was packed, well past allowed capacity, but no one seemed to care. Even the lifeguard was in the pool instead of on her stand. David approached the edge. People pressed against each other in the giant tub, some people on top of others, intertwined in all sorts of strange and unnatural ways. There was no room for David.
“‘Scuse me, could I get in?”
No one looked at him. They all looked dazed, staring blankly at the sky or the water or the sweaty back of the person pressed in front of them. Only a fat man with a chin-strap beard who was balding on the top of his head glanced up. “What’s it look like, smart guy? There’s no room. Go away.”
“C’mon, there’s nowhere else to—”
“You deaf kid? There ain’t no room,” the fat man grunted. His skin sagged with the heat. Everyone in the pool seemed to be sagging. David thought of the rocket pop. The little pockets of water surrounding the people had a strange hue to them—skin colored. “Anyway, the water ain’t even cool. It’s too damn hot in here.”
“Ugh, fine.” David groaned, turning around. He wasn’t sure where to go from here, but he thought the park might be the best bet. It had shade at least.
There was no one on the roads now. A couple people sat out on their front porches fanning themselves weakly, mouths agape and tongues lolling out like a dog’s. David thought one old woman had been dripping from the porch-swing onto the wooden floor below. It must have been sweat or something, but with the way his vision was dancing in the heat, it looked almost as if she had been melting. He could’ve sworn he saw a peachy-grey puddle spreading underneath her.
He turned left and continued another couple blocks until the park came into view. His legs felt wobbly and threatened to give out, but he pushed forward, wiping the thick sweat out of his eyes with his forearm. Instead of helping, it felt as if he were just smearing more of that creamy sweat into his eyes, so he opted to just blink it out instead.
His flip-flop landed in a puddle on the sidewalk in front of the park, splashing the molten, brownish water onto the top of his foot. He tried to reel back from the burning puddle, but this time his legs did give out, and he landed on his butt, expecting a thud but instead hearing a splat, as if someone had dropped jello on the floor. His pants and the back of his shirt felt wet, and he thought he had fallen into a second puddle.
But he could only see the one in front of him. Thick, sticky brown with splotches of black and a couple little red chunks floating inside it. Around the edge of the mess, hair stuck to the sidewalk in clots. Some of that hair also stuck to the red blobs in the puddle. David’s mind screamed the word dog before he noticed the collar submerged in the soup. Even as his mind tried to explain what had happened here—a car had hit it, or maybe some sick asshole had done this, or—the word melted rang out strong, just as the word dog had a second before.
He leaned forward and hurled into the puddle, dark yellowish bile swirling in with the brown. Then there was another voice.
“Hey, kid!” It gasped, slurring the words so that kid sounded more like kuuud. “You can help me? So hot, right? I think my head, the heat… it’s messin’, ya know?” David lifted his head, blinking hard to clear the sweat—which didn’t feel like sweat—from his eyes. There was a man stumbling towards him, arms outstretched and dripping onto the pavement. A smeared trail followed behind where the man dragged his feet. “Ya got some cool, eh?” The man droned. “Just little bit, uh huh.” David’s eyes widened. The top of the man’s head looked like the gruesome top of the rocket pop, sagging and melting, pouring red and grey and peach down the side of his face and onto his pink t-shirt. “Comeonman, just got fan or some-tin. Keep thuh het uff.” Another chunk of grey sloshed from the man’s skull onto the ground.
David was on his feet, spinning on his heels, and before the man could say anything else, David took off running. He heard the splashes against the concrete behind him and ignored it. He sucked in another wave of hot air and found himself coughing up thick, pinkish red. Then he was passing by the pool again. He glanced in and didn’t see the people anymore. The water had turned a muddy red, some pockets closer to peach, others darker, but it all looked lumpy, like nearly melted ice cream. Except it was boiling. Violent bubbles burst through the surface of the gelatinous goop, sending it exploding outward onto the deck around the pool and the grass past that.
David closed his eyes and kept going, hearing only the sickening squelching sounds under his own feet. He opened his eyes long enough to see the ice cream truck, sagging and pooling around what used to be tires, and the surrounding human-colored puddles trickling lazily into it.
He fell to the ground with a splash that he didn’t think he liked. His thoughts slowed to a crawl. Something was wrong with his head, but he didn’t know what. It felt somehow… itchy? He reached to scratch his temple and felt the softening fingernails scoop some of it away. It didn’t seem important. For a moment, he wondered vaguely if his mother had ever gone out to cool off. Then his mind seeped out across the pavement.
Marc leans back in his chair, stretching his arms behind his head with a sigh. “That’s it. The end.”
“What a perfectly strange tale to begin the night!” Arlene exclaims, clapping her hands together.
“Well, you know me,” Marc responds grinning. “What did you think, Marissa?”
“Coulda used more blood,” she says, feigning a bored expression, “but I guess it was a’ight.” She smirks. “The boiling pool of humans was pretty nasty.”
“Oh yeah? Was that a compliment from the queen of gore herself?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, dumb-butt.”
“Umm…” Aidan squeaks from behind Marc’s chair. “I liked the dog puddle.”
“Dog puddle!” Arlene cries across the table, bursting into laughter. “Oh, man. That could be the name of a hardcore band, don’t you think?” She puts her hands on her hips, lowers her eyebrows in a mock angry face, and her voice becomes lower and gruff. “Hey, man. We’re Dog Puddle, and we’re here to rock the house ‘cuz we’re so hardcore. Urrrrgghhh.”
“Sounds like a band Marc would listen to,” Marissa snorts.
“Hey,” Marc says. “Dog Puddle has some solid lyrics. And don’t even get me started on their polyrhythms!”
“Poly-whats?” Marissa says. Arlene looks lost.
“Jeez, you guys are musically hopeless. Well, nevermind.” Marc pauses and blinks hard a couple times. “Ya know, I still think everything looks kinda off. Does my eye look alright to you guys? Feels a little weird.”
“Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Arlene offers, smiling.
“Yeah, that’s right!” Marissa chimes in, stuffing her hand in her pocket and rolling Marc’s eye between her fingers. “I don’t see anything at all!”
Hello again, Reader! I hope you’re enjoying the party. I noticed you’ve been awfully quiet so far (what do you mean I didn’t let you talk?), but don’t be afraid to speak up! If you have any comments or questions for the partygoers, go ahead and post them in the comments. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to answer when they’re not busy murdering each other. I’ll start off with some questions from our Beta Readers.
Katie asks, “Hi Arlene! Halloween is coming up. What costumes would you like to wear?”
Arlene: Hello, Reader! That’s easy. I’d be a witch! Or maybe the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella. Oh, trick-or-treating as Gandalf might be fun, too. I’d look awesome with a beard. Ahh, it’s so hard to choose!
Nick asks, “Marc, what types of bands do you like?”
Marc: I like a bunch of different bands, but if I had to pick a favorite genre, it would probably be mathcore or hardcore. Anything with weird time signatures or crazy syncopation, really.
JP asks, “Marc, what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
Marc: What do you mean? African or European swallow?
Steph asks, “Aidan, why are you so adorable?”
Aidan: … me? Oh, umm…
He looks at Marc, who smiles and offers no help at all. A deep, pink flush rises into Aidan’s cheeks.
Aidan: Uhh… I am?
He ducks behind Marc’s chair again. I think you scared him.
Katie asks, “Marissa, what is your least favorite food?”
Marissa: [crunch munch crunch]
She’s too busy stuffing cookies into her face to notice the question. I guess that’s kind of an answer.
Well, that’s all the questions for now. If you come up with anything you’d like to ask our friends, then make sure to post it in the comments. See you next… wait a second, what is Arlene…
“Hey, Arlene. Why do you keep glancing at everyone’s tea cups?”
Arlene: What? Oh, no reason. I mean, I’m not looking at anyone’s teacup! Ahaha...
Well, that wasn’t suspicious at all. In any case, until next time!
Marissa grabs her untouched cup of tea, leans back, and gulps it down in one swig. As soon as it’s down, she jerks forward, choking on the stuff.
“W-what the heck’s in this, Arlene?” she sputters between violent coughs. “It tastes gross!”
“It does taste kinda funny,” Aidan says, taking another sip out of his own cup as if to make up for being impolite.
“As it should,” Arlene agrees, her eyes bright. “That tea you all drank is the beginning of our next game.”
“You put something in it, didn’t ya Arly?” Marc suggests, still reclined in his chair.
“That’s right! I had April add a secret ingredient to that tea. I’m sure you’ll be feeling its effects soon enough. However, I’ve hidden a silver flask with the antidote somewhere in this mansion. There is only enough for one person, so needless to say, if you have any intention of finding it, you won’t want to dawdle.”
“I’m gonna find it first!” Marissa shouts, jumping out of her chair and running for the archway by the grandfather clock. Aidan looks first at Marissa and then expectantly at his brother who nods that he should catch up.
“Wait! Don’t leave me behind!” Aidan calls, running out of the room after her.
When they are both out of sight, Arlene turns to Marc. “Jeez, they didn’t even wait for my clue,” she says, pouting. “Are you not going with them?”
Marc lifts up his cup of tea and swishes it around, grinning. “Didn’t think I’d fall for something that simple, did you? Then again, I didn’t think you’d pull something so simple anyway.”
“Well, it’s early and this is your brother’s first party. Thought I’d give him a freebie. Plus...” She moves closer to Marc and whispers something in his ear, cupping her hand around her mouth so that you cannot make out what she says. When she moves back, Marc looks up at her and nods.
“That’s just like you.”
“Wait up!” Aidan yells across the foyer, panting. Marissa stops before the wide breadth of the staircase and spins around on her heels.
“What? What is it?”
“Umm… where are we going?”
Marissa snorts. “We? Well, I am gonna find the antidote. You can just sit on the steps and wait for the poison to kick in or whatever.” She looks around the wide foyer and then back at Aidan. “What are you still staring at me for?”
“Well,” Aidan says, “I was thinking that, maybe, we could look… together?”
“No way! If you wanna look for it so bad, go search on your own.” Marissa begins to turn around.
“But… uh… where do I look?” Aidan asks, alarmed. He winces as if expecting a blow from Marissa when she turns to face him again.
“I dunno, go wander around. I call the sitting room! Arlene hides, like, everything in there.” She turns and runs across the foyer and under another arch across from the grand hall. Almost as soon as she disappears into the next room, a loud crash followed by shattering glass rings out. Aidan blinks twice, staring blankly at the arch.
“Umm… Are you o—”
“Ha!” Marissa shouts from the sitting room. “Your trap missed, Arlene! I’m getting too good at this! Wait… oh sh—” Another window seems to shatter in the next room.
Aidan stares towards the the sound for a moment longer before shrugging and turning into one of the doors beside the staircase. It opens into a long, T-shaped hallway that stretches across the width of the house behind the stairs and the grand hall, ending on one side with a door to the sitting room and on the other with a window that lets pale moonlight into the hall. In the center, it branches off and extends deeper into the house. Aidan looks left towards the sitting room door and then right towards the window, frowning. “This isn’t a very fun game,” he mutters before wandering down the center hall and farther into the mansion.
The floor here is carpeted down the middle with beautiful red and gold patterns, and along the sides of the hall where the carpet ends, the floor is a dark, polished brown. Aidan’s eyes catch something stretched over the wood—a thin, silver line like a spiderweb pulled taut across the hallway—and he bends down to look at it.
His eyes narrow with mistrustful intrigue as he studies the sliver of wire, and after a quick inspection of the walls around him, he reaches out, warily pokes it, and snatches his hand back with a gasp. Nothing happens. He releases his breath in a slow sigh, stands up again, and steps carefully over the wire.
As he continues down the hall, he glances repeatedly at the ground in front of him, but doesn’t find anything else that looks suspicious. On his right, he comes across an unlabeled door and stops at it, raising his fist, lowering it, raising it again, and then finally tapping lightly. He waits a minute with no response before tapping on it one more time. After another couple seconds, he reaches out and slowly pushes it open, as if expecting someone to yell not to come in at the last moment.
But no one calls out, and he finds himself in what appears to be a small theater. Against the wall to his right, a large screen is spread facing multiple rows of graduated seats. He sidles up to the first row, his eyes still flicking down to the floor every couple seconds, and peers under the seats. “Mr. Flask,” he whispers, “Oh Mr. Flask, are you down here?” Standing up again, he looks at the seat in front of him, pulls it open, and hesitantly reaches into the crevice between the seat and the back of the chair. His face twists uncomfortably as his hand disappears into the darkness of the gap and fishes around against the soft fabric. After a couple seconds, he pulls his hand back still empty, and a dismayed look comes across his face as he counts the rest of the seats in the room. There must be at least fifty, maybe more. He looks into the room for another moment, biting his index finger, and decides to leave and head back to find Marissa in the sitting room.
The sitting room is large, but not quite as impressive as the grand hall. White couches crowd around coffee tables in the center, and off to one side, a large T.V. hangs mounted on the wall. On the other are several sad-looking shattered windows. The inside of the archway has been impaled by barbed spears that jut out across from holes on the opposite wall.
Across the room, Marissa is tearing through the coat check, tossing coats with out-turned pockets all over the floor. Aidan opens his mouth to say something but closes it again without making a sound. Instead, he webs his fingers together and quietly watches the girl with the pretty auburn hair toss coats around. It takes a couple minutes before Marissa notices him standing there with his bashful smile, and she spins around, scowling.
“Didn’t I tell you to search somewhere else? I called this room already.” Aidan tries to say something again and instead only manages a squeak of a “sorry” before ducking behind a couch and peering out at the girl in the black and red dress. “And I told ya to stop staring at me,” she continues. “It’s seriously creepy.”
He ducks farther behind the furniture, and his hand lands on something just underneath the couch.
“Why do you keep hiding behind stuff anyway? It’s so weird. You’re like a stalker or somethin’.”
“Umm…” Aidan manages, pulling a small object out from under the couch. “I found this.” He holds up a small silver box, about the size of a flask.
“What? Gimme that!” Before Aidan has time to react, Marissa closes the gap in the room and snatches the box out of his hand. “I toldya, didn’t I? Arlene hides everything in here.” She tears the box open and stares at its contents with a puzzled expression. “The heck is this?” A piece of paper decorated with flourishing borders lies inside the box. Aidan peeks around Marissa to read it.
I had a feeling you’d run out without waiting for a hint about the antidote, so I hid this hint in the sitting room for you. See the attached riddle... or just give up and die. ☺
Marissa flips the paper and her eyes skim over the riddle on the back. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”
Marc and Arlene are sitting in the tea room chatting. April has brought out new tea for both of them, and Marc takes a sip from his cup.
“If you poisoned this cup,” he says, “then you’ve chosen some good poison.”
Arlene laughs. “Why thank you. I only serve the most high quality cups of death to my guests.”
“But of course. By the way, I don’t suppose you have an eye patch lying around? Having a hole in my head feels pretty weird.”
“Oh, so you did notice! Playing it up for Marissa again, huh? Here, I’ll have April bring you an eyepatch from the costume room. You wouldn’t believe the junk I’ve got in there!”
As if on cue, April enters the room. “Is the tea alright?” she asks mildly.
“Wonderful!” Arlene pipes up. “Oh and would you mind getting an eyepatch from the costume room for Marc? I don’t think we’ll be getting his eye back anytime soon.”
April glances at the gaping socket in Marc’s face, attempts to hide a cringe, and exits the room. Once she is out of sight, Marc turns back to Arlene.
“What’s up with her anyway? She’s not a Figment like your regular servants. She’s human, like us, right?”
“Indeed she is.”
“So, why do you have her working instead of moving into town or joining in on the party?”
Arlene leans back in her chair and sighs. “Well, it wasn’t my first choice! She was in pretty bad shape when I found her, so I put her up in one of the guest bedrooms upstairs. But it took a couple weeks just to get her to say more than ‘thank you’ when I brought her food. She didn’t want to move into town like most people, so eventually I just gave her a job as a servant.”
“Just to keep her mind busy?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Honestly, I think she likes being around the Figments more than being with real people. She certainly wanted nothing to do with tonight’s party when I invited her.”
Marc stands and walks over to one of the giant windows looking out into the night. The overhead fan in the tea room whirs quietly as he thinks. Finally, he turns around.
“We’re gonna get her to join the party... or at least try to,” he says with a grin.
“Oh, I do think it would be good for her to make some friends.”
“Agreed. So, how we gonna do this?”
“Hmm… shall we make a game of it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean whoever convinces her to join—”
“If we convince her to join.”
“Right, right. When I convince her to join, I get to be her best friend!”
“Umm, Arlene, isn’t that for April to decide, not you?”
“Well, maybe, but I really want to be friends with her. Oh, shhh shhh, here she comes.”
April reenters the room holding an eyepatch which she hands to Marc.
“Thanks, April,” Marc says as he pulls it over his head. April seems to relax a little when his eye, or lack thereof, is out of sight. “That feels loads better.”
“Is there anything else I can do for either of you?” April asks.
“You could join the party!” Arlene blurts out. “It’ll be fun! Seriously, it’s one of the rules!”
“No thank you.”
“Well, maybe later?” Arlene tries, grinning uncomfortably.
“I don’t think so,” April responds dryly. “If that’s all, I’ll be heading back to the servants’ room.” She turns around and exits through the door to the hallway.
“Nice try, Arly,” Marc teases. “I guess it’s my turn.”
“Yeah, guess so,” Arlene says, pouting. “Just don’t try to smooth talk her. You might scare her away for good. You remember what happened with Gabby.”
Marc flushes red. “Yeah… let’s not talk about that.” And with that he gets up and presses the servant buzzer in the corner.
“Hey, April,” Marc says into the little microphone. “Arly and I were gonna play Uno, would you mind bringing us a deck?”
From the speaker: “I’ll be there momentarily.”
And as if she had been waiting right outside the door, she enters the room with a deck of Uno cards which she places down on the table in the center of the tea room. “Will that be all?” she asks, already beginning to turn around.
“Actually,” Marc says, “Uno is awfully boring with only two people. Since Aidan and Marissa are off on their antidote hunt, we could really use another player.”
“I see,” April says, nodding. “That’s a shame. Perhaps one of the Figments would like to play with you.”
“Well,” Arlene cuts in, “we were really hoping that, maybe, you would join us?”
“Oh, well, would you mind bringing us some biscuits to go with this tea?” Arlene asks quickly, catching April before she leaves the room. April stops in the doorway, glances at the tables still full of hot food, and sighs.
“Very well, I will make you some fresh biscuits.” She picks up the tray of already made biscuits from one of the tables and exits the grand hall.
“Biscuits? Really?” Marc says with a laugh.
“It was the best I could think of to keep her around,” Arlene says with an awkward smile.
In the kitchen, April shakes her head and takes a bite out of one of the uneaten biscuits. She pulls out some premade biscuit dough from the massive double fridge and begins shaping it into small lumps. Around her, those cookie-cutter, blank-faced Figments run back and forth across the kitchen—some stuffing trays into the oven or pulling finished meals out, others garnishing colorful dishes with various spices and edible decorations. She tosses one dough ball onto the plate and begins shaping another one.
She staggers back, one hand jumping to her heart and breath coming fast as she gawks at an overenthusiastic Arlene.
“How’s the food going?” Arlene continues. “I thought I’d visit the kitchen and help you out! Pass me some dough, yo.” She laughs. “Oh my, that sounded far sillier than even I expected.”
April rolls her eyes, tosses the lump of dough to Arlene, and walks out of the kitchen.
Marc leans against the wall in the hallway outside the kitchen. “I told Arly to leave you be while you were working,” he says as April walks out into the hall, “but she’s pretty stubborn someti— Hey, wait! Where are you going?”
Without responding, April walks past him and turns into the center hallway. Arlene runs out of the kitchen, raw dough still on her hands. She wipes this carelessly on her dress before placing her out turned wrists on her hips and staring down the hall.
“Marc, you let her go!”
“She was practically running away after whatever you did in the kitchen.”
Arlene puffs out her cheeks. “This isn’t working.”
Back in the tea room, Marc and Arlene sip at their quickly cooling tea.
“I don’t know what to do to convince her to join in,” Arlene complains. “I just know she’d have fun if she did, but she’s being so stubborn.”
“You’re pretty stubborn yourself, Arly. You could just let it go, you know.”
“No way. I’ve made up my mind, and she’s joining this party.” She crosses her arms matter-of-factly. “And I’m not stubborn; I’m determined.”
Marc laughs. “Whatever you say, lil miss rich and stubborn—”
“—but I think I’ll have a chat with April myself. I don’t know if I’ll be able to convince her to join us, but I think you’re right; it would be good for her to make some friends.” With that, he stands up from his seat, gulps down the rest of his tea, and leaves the grand hall.
Back in the sitting room, Marissa and Aidan sit on one of the pretty, white sofas staring intently down at Arlene’s riddle, which is laid out on the table in front of them. Marissa leans back and tugs at her hair with a frustrated growl.
“This makes, like, no sense. How are we even suppose to figure this out? Ugh, Arlene did this on purpose. She knows I’m bad at riddles.”
Aidan lifts a tentative finger and pokes Marissa on the cheek. “Boop.”
“What are you doing!?” Marissa yells as Aidan dives under a pillow, giggling.
“Nothing,” he says in the voice of a kid who clearly knows he’s doing something.
“Well, quit it ya little creep,” Marissa retorts as she looks back at the riddle. “And help me figure this out.”
“Okay,” Aidan says, wriggling out from under the pillow, his hair in messy, little tufts and his face glowing red. He turns his attention to the paper on the table.
I am the house of many worlds,
now mark my words in silence:
A two-faced man and lightning's mark.
Between the faces you will find it.
“Hey, look at the last line,” Marissa says, pointing. “‘Between the faces you will find it.’ That’s where the flask is, right?”
“I think so.”
“So it’s gotta be in someone’s head. Oh! Maybe we have to blow up Marc’s head again!” She grins and pulls Marc’s eye out of her pocket, flicks it into the air, and snatches it back. Then she raises her hands to her ears, her fingers pressed together in little pincers, one of them dangling the eyeball below her ear. “Forget the ring, I’m making earrings!”
“But… it says ‘two-faced man’. That doesn’t sound like Marc.”
“Oh, we’re looking for a man? You’re right, that doesn’t sound like Marc.”
“Hey! He’s a—”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, so we need to find a two-faced man and split his head open.”
“Umm… I’m not so sure about that.”
“Oh, yeah? So what’s the little stalker boy think then?”
Aidan winces as she says this and diverts his eyes to the floor.
“Well, c’mon, what is it already,” she presses, a note of irritation digging into her voice. “Maybe you forgot, but we’re on a time limit here.”
“W-well, what if it’s not really a ‘man’ at all?” Aidan finally manages, still not looking up. “Like, what if it’s something else with faces?”
Marissa smirks. “Like what?”
“Umm… well, maybe a dollar bill?”
“It wouldn’t be in between a dollar bill, stupid. And there’s only one face on those anyway.” She pauses and puckers her lips to one side, staring at the last lines of the riddle. “What about a mirror? Like, you look into a mirror and there’s your face and your face reflected in the mirror. So it’s between you and... the mirror?”
Aidan scrunches his face. “But there are probably lots of mirrors in this house, right?”
Marissa frowns. “Yeah, good point. What else has faces, though?”
“Umm… what about a clock?”
“Like the one in the grand hall!” Marissa exclaims. Without waiting, she vaults over the back of the sofa and darts towards the grand hall. Aidan glances at the riddle one more time before following her under the arch.
Marc strolls down the large hallway, glancing at various busts that rest atop stands in the alcoves as he goes. Most of them look like Arlene. He turns down the hall that extends into the center of the mansion without bothering to look at the floor below him. His foot barely skims over the top of the little silver wire that is stretched across the ground, and, none the wiser, he continues past the door to the theater and turns right into yet another hall which he follows to the end. He stops at a small door with a plaque that reads “Servants’ Quarters” and raps on the door with his knuckles. After a moment of silence, the door swings back to reveal April.
She stands half a head shorter than Marc and eyes him warily, but not impolitely, with her cool, grey eyes.
“Is there something you’d like?” she asks in her mild tone. “You didn’t have to come over here yourself, you know. You could have just used the buzzer.” She gestures at a small box on the wall of the servants’ room.
“Well, I figured I’d save you the trouble,” Marc says, peering into the room as if he’d never seen it before. His eyes catch on a game of Solitaire sprawled out on a table. “You like card games?”
She glances back at her game. “I guess.”
“That’s Solitaire, right? My brother and I used to play that together when we were little.”
“Together?” she says, eyebrows raised.
Marc laughs. “Yeah, I guess playing something that’s practically named ‘solitary’ with another person kinda defeats the purpose.” He pauses, looking thoughtfully at the cards. “But we had fun. Had our own set of rules and everything.”
“Not weird. House rules. Hey, how ‘bout I show you how we used to play?”
“I think I’d rather just finish my own game,” she says, half closing the the door before Marc can speak again.
“Woah, wait a sec,” Marc exclaims, pulling his hand away from the closing door.
“Would you mind if I came in? I never did learn to play with the real rules.”
She looks at him doubtfully for a moment and then sighs. “Fine. But leave the door open.”
They move to the couch in the servants’ room. On one side of the room, there are big windows that, during just the right time of day, may cast golden afternoon light across the creamy white carpet that matches the couches. On the other is a folded wooden screen behind which servants could change for work. Though, from the barren look of that corner, Figments needn’t use changing rooms too often.
April studies the cards on the table, plucks out a Four of Hearts and places it down on a Five of Clubs. “You have to alternate the colors,” she says, not looking up at Marc. “You want to get a full stack, King all the way down to Two, if possible.”
“What happens when you finish the stack?”
“Nothing, it just stays there. The stacks are just intermediary. You really want to build the Foundations.” She points at the top right of the game board where three Aces are lined up, some with cards on top of them.
“Doesn’t sound too hard.”
She looks up at him with an expression that seems to say “oh yeah?” and instead says, “It’s harder than it looks. What would your next move be?”
Marc stares at the available cards for a moment before saying, “Just move that Queen onto that King.”
“You can’t. Wrong color.”
“Oh, right. Umm… in that case…” He goes back to perusing the cards, his eyes darting from one card to the bottom of the next stack followed by a subtle head-shake and more studying. “What do you do if you get stuck?”
Marc catches a little smirk on April’s face, and as soon as he sees, it flashes away. “In that case, you have to move more cards into the Waste—to see if there are any more moves you can make.” She pulls more cards from the deck and frowns.
“I don’t see any useful cards,” Marc says.
“I know.” She cycles the deck again. Still nothing. Again a few more times before she leans back and sighs.
“What is it,” Marc asks.
“A losing hand. Not as easy as it looks, huh?”
“Seriously? We lost?”
“That’s kinda disappointing. So what now?”
She casts him a quick glance, gathers the cards together into a neat deck, shuffles them a few times, and begins laying the cards out again for a new round.
“You play this a lot?”
“Jeez, don’t you ever get bored?”
“Sometimes,” she says, laying another card down, “but it passes the time.”
“Seems like a lonely game,” Marc says. “I think I like my version better.”
To this, April only shrugs.
“Do you know any games we can play together?”
“Blackjack, poker, rummy…” She casts him a wry, little grin. “Uno.”
“How about we play one of those,” Marc offers.
April nods at the seat across the table from them, and Marc moves to the new seat. She scoops all the cards up from her unfinished game into a rough pile, straightens it, shuffles again, and begins dealing a hand of Blackjack. “Got anything to bet?” she asks as she places the last card.
“Only my soul,” Marc jokes, attempting to turn out his empty pockets while seated, struggling with the chore for a moment, and finally pulling one pocket out in a clunky motion. A giggle slips out of April’s mouth before her cupped hand snaps to her face to hold the laugh back.
“Sorry,” she says. “That was funny.”
Marc, whose face is now a little flushed, waves it off. “Yeah, yeah. Oh, I’ve got an idea for a bet. Do you have any poker chips?”
April quietly gets up and walks to the closet in the back of the room where she rummages around for a minute before pulling out a poker set.
“I don’t really know how poker chips work,” Marc says, “but ten chips each should be fine. Let’s just say color doesn’t matter.”
She nods and deals them both ten chips.
“So how about this,” Marc continues. “Whoever ends up with all the chips wins. If I win, you join the party with the rest of us. And if you—”
“No thank you.”
Marc falls silent, his mouth hanging where his last word had ended.
“I don’t want to join the party. I’ve said it before, and I would appreciate it if you and Arlene would stop asking.”
The room stays quiet, save for the sound of their breathing, as Marc searches for something to say. Finally, he settles on: “Okay, I get it. Then let’s try this instead. If you win, we’ll all leave you alone. We won’t ask you to join in again if you don’t want to. But if I win, you join only for the next story. You don’t have to speak to us, you don’t have to participate in the actual game, and you can leave whenever you like, including during the story if you are really having a terrible time. Does that sound fair?”
Again the room falls quiet as April looks from Marc to the card game laid out on the table. She furrows her brow as she thinks, and Marc leans back, patiently awaiting her response. Then, she puts one finger on a poker piece, nudges it into the center of the table and says, “Ante up.”
“C’mon, kid. Help me push this stupid clock off the wall,” Marissa says, heaving all her weight into the grandfather clock. Aidan pushes harder, but it doesn’t budge.
“Oh my, what on Earth are you two up to?” Arlene asks, gliding across the grand hall to where Aidan and Marissa stand with beads of sweat forming along their brows.
“Trying… to find… the antidote,” Marissa grunts between shoves.
“Ahh, yes, and I suppose you found my clue?”
“Yeah,” Aidan responds, easing off the clock. “We think that, maybe, the clock has two faces—one on the front and one on the back, only the back one’s hidden. Two faces, like in the riddle.”
“Hey, don’t stop pushing!” Marissa grumbles.
“Ah! Sorry!” Aidan says, leaning into the clock again.
Arlene laughs. “Don’t worry about her, Aidan. She’s grouchy with everybody.”
“Nuh-uh! Only with people who creep me o-...” Marissa’s sentence trails off abruptly, and she sways on her feet. One hand latches onto the wall for support, and the other grabs her head.
“What’s wrong?” Aidan asks with innocent urgency. Arlene laughs.
“It looks like it’s starting to kick in,” she says, casting them a devilish smile. “Better figure out that riddle quickly.” She makes for the archway.
“Wait!” Aidan calls. “Where are you going?”
“Just going to catch up on some reading while I wait for your brother to return. He sure is taking his time. I even went tricking or treating while I was waiting!”
“Oh, okay,” Aidan says, looking a little puzzled.
“By the way,” Arlene adds as she heads for the arch, “that clock only has one face.” She leaves the room.
Aidan peeks around the clock at Marissa, who has regained her balance and is now leaning against the clock with her forehead pressed into her palm and her hair falling down around her face in auburn streaks. “Hey, uh, are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she growls, straightening up and trying to blink the bleariness out of her eyes. “Relax, I just got kinda dizzy. She said it’s not this clock, right? Maybe there’s another clock around here somewhere.”
“Got a problem, kid?”
“I’ve just been thinking...”
“About the riddle. We kinda skipped over the first couple lines.”
“Could we, maybe, go back to it?” He looks at Marissa hopefully and then rushes to add, “You know, only if you want to…”
“Fine, whatever, not that the stupid riddle’s gonna do us any good.” She closes her eyes and massages her temple with the heel of her palm. When she opens them again, that piercing, green sharpness has returned to her glare. “What are you waiting for? Hurry it up!”
They leave the grand hall and head back to the sitting room where they read over the riddle again. Aidan’s eyes skim over the words a couple times. On the third pass, they light up so that the timidness in his face nearly vanishes completely, replaced by excitement and realization. He snatches up the paper and folds it in three places so that the creases separate certain lines of the riddle.
“The hell you doing?” Marissa says. “I’m trying to read that, you know.”
Aidan flinches at her outburst, but doesn’t pause. “Look at the punctuation,” he says, spreading the paper on the table before them again. The riddle now reads:
I am the house of many worlds,
now mark my words in silence:
A two-faced man and lightning's mark.
Between the faces you will find it.
“I don’t get it,” Marissa says, sounding both bored and annoyed, but moreso the latter. “You folded the paper. So what?”
“The punctuation, doesn’t it seem to separate different thoughts?”
Marissa stares at the page again, frowning. “I guess,” she finally says, not sounding at all convinced. “So, you wanna take it from the beginning or something?”
Marissa shrugs resignedly. “Alright, fine. ‘I am the house of many worlds’,” she reads, “whatever that means.”
Aidan doesn’t respond right away. He stares at the first line for a moment before speaking. “I think it’s talking about a place.”
“Well, duh. It is supposed to lead us to the flask, which is, ya know, in a place. That’s if this is even a real clue. I bet Arlene’s just distracting us with this dumb puzzle while we slowly die from poison. Hey, are you even listening to me, kid?”
Aidan hushes her, still staring at the riddle. Marissa glares at him, clearly taken aback, but he doesn’t notice. Instead, he runs his finger across the first line again and mutters, “‘House of many worlds’... Maybe it’s a big place with other places inside it.”
“What? Like a state?” Marissa suggests.
“Yeah, like that!” He pauses, gnawing on his index finger. “Except a state doesn’t really feel like a ‘world’. But what else has places?”
“Dunno, a map, a universe, a, uh, I dunno, country, maybe a—”
Aidan gasps, and Marissa lets out an exasperated sigh. “Yeah? What is it?”
“A universe!” Aidan says. “That might be it!”
“Huh? Isn’t that too big?”
“Uh-huh, but what if it’s like the Marvel Universe? With superheroes and supervillains and stuff?” His face is glowing with excitement. “Arlene has a theater. I saw it earlier. So she’s gotta have a collection of movies somewhere. If we think of each movie as its own universe, or world like it says in the riddle—”
“We could call the theater the ‘house of many worlds,’” Marissa fills in, her eyes growing wide. “Huh, maybe you’re useful for something after all.” She snatches the riddle, hops over the back of the couch, and runs for the theater.
“H-hey! Wait for me!” Aidan calls after her.
Marissa bounds around the corner into the center hall and hops nimbly over the tripwire, yelling “Woah, nice one, Arlene!” as she jumps. Aidan comes around the corner soon after, more careful in avoiding the wire as he follows her into the theater. He climbs up the stairs along the side and into the raised back of the room where Marissa is waiting. Here, there is a plain-looking door that blends in so seamlessly with the walls that Aidan wouldn’t have noticed it if Marissa hadn’t roughly grabbed his shoulder and shoved him towards it.
“Open it,” she states, taking a couple steps back.
“Because,” Marissa says plainly, “if Arlene really hid the antidote in there, then that door is defs booby-trapped.”
“Oh…” Aidan shifts away from the door. “Uh… maybe you should open it?” he suggests hopefully. “You seem really good with her traps.”
“Oh, is the little creeper scared? If I had known all I had to do to get you to stop following me was to go through a door, I would have done that ages ago.”
“I’m not scared,” Aidan mutters, pouting. A note of petulant stubbornness sneaks into his voice. “And I’m not a creeper. It’s just that…” He breaks off and looks away, a pink heat rising in his cheeks.
“It’s just what? Huh?”
“Nothing. Back up, I’ll open the stupid door.”
He grabs the handle and yanks it open. There is a sharp click as he pulls, and he winces. Boing. A spring pops, and Aidan yells, stumbling backwards.
“What? What is it?” Marissa exclaims, also wheeling back away from the door, wide-eyed.
Aidan grabs a seat to steady himself as he stares into the open door. His breath comes in big, gasping sighs and slowly eases back into a normal rhythm. Once his breathing is coming normally again, another unexpected sound escapes his lips: a small snicker. This is followed by another one, a little louder this time, and in a moment he is doubled over laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Marissa shouts as she attempts to peer past Aidan into the room.
“L-look for y-yourself,” Aidan manages between giggles. Marissa closes the distance between her and the door and looks inside. Then, she is laughing too.
“Good one, Arlene!” She shouts toward the theater door as if Arlene can hear her. Then, to Aidan: “I told you Arlene’s traps are the best.”
Aidan nods in agreement, wiping the laughing-tears away from his eyes. Inside the door, atop a spring and still bobbing back and forth like a drunkard, is a jack-in-the-box. The face is painted white with comic dots of red on each cheek and a silly tongue lolling out of its open mouth. Drawn onto its forehead between tufts of orange, plastic hair is the word “Gotcha!”
“Let’s check inside,” Marissa says once they’ve managed to get a hold of themselves again. Aidan follows her in with a nod, and they both begin digging around the small room. On the same side as the door, a projector juts towards the big theater screen. It rests atop a thick wooden desk with a couple drawers. Aidan pulls these open but finds nothing other than some old electrical equipment and a couple broken reels of film that don’t even seem to belong with the projector. He pops these open just in case, but there is nothing inside. Wired into the projector is a small DVD player which proves to be equally empty. Marissa searches the cabinets on the other side of the room, but comes up with the same results.
“It’s not in here,” she groans. “There’s not even a single movie in this room.”
“Where does Arlene usually keep movies?”
“How should I know? Wouldn’t you keep them in the theater? What’s that stupid riddle say anyway?” She pulls the crumpled riddle out of her pocket and reads the first segment aloud. “I am the house of many worlds, now mark my words in silence.”
“Now mark my words in silence,” Aidan repeats under his breath.
“That important or something?”
“Uhh… well, you’re supposed to be quiet in a theater, but still… I feel like we missed something.”
“And what might that be, Detective Creepy?”
“My brother and I used to like doing riddles before—” He cuts off abruptly, glancing at Marissa for a moment before seeming satisfied that she hadn’t noticed. Her eyes have become bleary again, and she shakes her head to refocus. “We used to like doing riddles,” Aidan continues, “and he told me once that the key is to focus on the words. Every detail is important.” He pauses for a moment. “Words. And mark my words in silence.”
“Great,” Marissa says, resting her weight against the wall, one hand on her head, “and what’s that mean?”
“I think,” Aidan says, “that means we’re in the wrong place. Arlene said she was going to catch up on some reading, right?”
“So, where does she keep her books?”
“The library. Duh.”
“That’s it! I kinda got really caught up on the movie idea because I saw the theater before, but a library can be considered a house of many worlds too! And, it says ‘mark my words in silence.’ Where do you find words?”
“In a book?”
“Yeah! That’s what makes it different from a theater. We’re looking for a book in the library.”
Marissa wavers on her feet and grasps the desk with the projector on it. “Let’s hurry. I don’t… feel so good.” She leads Aidan to the library, occasionally groping for the wall to regain her balance. Once, her legs wobble and give out, and Aidan attempts to help her up.
“Quit touchin’ me,” she says weakly, shrugging him off. She claps her hands over her head, shakes herself, and manages to regain her feet. “Let’s go.”
They enter the library.
“Aww, again?” Marc whines as April scoops the small pile of poker chips from the center of the table into her own stack. Marc tosses his cards towards April who slides them back into the deck and begins a well-practiced shuffle. A large pile of chips lies in front of her, neatly stacked in fives. On Marc’s side, there are only four chips, laid out sadly as if they had fallen from April’s stash by accident. “Guess I’m not too good at this game after all. I always was a bigger fan of Uno. Still,” he says grinning, “I’m feeling pretty good about this next hand.” He nudges two of his last chips into the center and leans back as April matches his bet and deals the cards.
He picks up his cards and studies them. Eight and Two. “Double down.” He slides his last two chips into the pool, and April regards him with a dull expression.
“Are you sure? You’ve just gone all in.”
“I told you, I’m feeling pretty good about this hand.”
“You said that about the last eight,” she says, tossing two of her chips into the center and sliding him another card. She takes another for herself.
“Yeah, but I mean it this time. Ready?”
They both flip up their cards.
Marc laughs. “Woah, that was too close! I had a ten, so I doubled down, but that was one lucky ace, huh?”
“Very lucky.” April tosses two more chips into the pot. “Nice blackjack,” she says a little sourly.
“Yeah, now you gotta watch out cuz I’m back in the game!” He pulls the ten chips in the center over to his side. His pile, although messy, is now the same size as April’s. She deals another hand.
“So, April,” Marc begins, picking up his cards and giving them a distracted glance. They don’t seem to hold much interest now that he’s not down to his last chips. “If you don’t want to answer this, I won’t press it or anything, but why don’t you wanna join the party?”
April looks up from her cards mildly. In a furtive voice: “I don’t want to answer.”
“Alright, that’s fine. Hit, by the way.”
She tosses him another card, looks at her own hand again, and then asks him if he’d like to hit or stay. He stays, and they both reveal their cards.
“Bust,” Marc says and raises his palms to the air in a what-can-you-do gesture. April takes the pot and flicks four more cards out in front of them.
“How long have you been staying with Arlene?” Marc asks.
April just shrugs. “A while, I guess. Time’s strange here.” She casts a somewhat hesitant glance at the clock in the corner, notices it still reads midnight, and shudders.
“Still weirds you out? Guess you haven’t been around for too long after all.”
“Guess not. What would you like to do by the way?”
“Oh, uh, stay.”
They both flip up their cards again, and April sweeps the pot into her own pile.
“Jeez, I think I used up all my luck on that double down,” Marc says. “I only seem to get lucky when I bet a lot. Ya bet big, ya win big, right?” He pushes his eight remaining chips into the pot.
April raises her stolid gaze to meet his eyes. “You bet big, you fall hard.” She grins ruefully and deals the next hand. Marc picks it up and frowns. “How’s that lucky hand?” she teases, already reading on his face that the hand was anything but lucky.
“Oh, it’s great. Hit me.”
She begins to deal a card, and Marc cuts her off.
“No, I mean seriously hit me. Right here.” He gestures at his cheek. “For betting that much on this terrible hand.” Marc flinches when she actually reaches across the table, punches him lightly on the shoulder, and laughs into her still curled up fist.
“You have to be careful what you bet, Marc,” she says with a more serious tone. “I learned that the hard way.” Marc seems about to inquire further when she continues. “You asked why I don’t want to join the party. Let’s just say that I bet on the wrong crowd once, and I don’t intend to do it again.”
Marc regards her, a little more seriously himself, for a moment. “Sorry to hear it, but we’re an alright crowd, if that means anything to you. In fact, I’d say we’ve got a pretty awesome crowd. But I won’t push the issue.” He looks at his cards again, clicks his tongue with distaste, and flips them for April to see. “Doubt I can push the issue with this hand anyway. Sixteen.”
April flips hers over as well. “Guess not. Nineteen.” She adds the pot to her pile, not looking up. Marc stands up and stretches.
“Well, I’d better get back to the party then and let Arlene know I’ve gambled away whatever ridiculous invitation she may have been planning for you.” He chuckles at the thought and heads for the door. “It’s been fun playing with you. Maybe I’ll stop by here again if you don’t mind the company.” He pauses, giving her a moment to respond.
“I don’t mind,” she says, smiling softly. “I’d like that.”
“Great! Well, in that case, I’ll see you later tonight. Feel free to join the party if you change your mind by the way. Open offer.” He casts her a friendly smile and leaves the room.
The library spreads out before them, vast and regal, rivaling even the grand hall in size. Polished brown bookshelves stretch across the aisles of the room and tower above the ground, reaching towards the ceiling like small skyscrapers. On either side of the library, spiral staircases jut out of the ground and poke into the second floor. From the ceiling hang golden, glowing lanterns, and the walls are lined with equally decorative lighting making it feel more like a cabaret than a library. In the back, the wall is lined with towering windows, next to which sits a small cafe with seats, little round tables, and couches.
“Where’s the antidote,” Marissa asks with a yawn. She staggers forward a little, catches herself, and shakes her head. “We gotta find it, like, now...”
Aidan eyes her warily, as if she might fall at any moment. And she might.
“This is the last time I’m gonna tell you to quit gawkin’ at me, kid,” Marissa states, though her voice is weak and unintimidating. She snatches the crumpled paper out of her pocket and shoves it towards Aidan. “Make yourself useful and figure this out. It’s in a book, right?”
“R-right,” Aidan says, diverting his eyes from her. He unfolds the paper and looks at it, careful not to accidentally glance at the girl in front of him. “I think this line in the middle must be talking about which book it’s in.” He turns the paper to Marissa and points at the line, which she proceeds to read aloud.
“‘A two-faced man and lightning’s mark.’ Aww, come on,” Marissa groans. “This is, like, the most confusing line ever.”
“Maybe it’s not so bad since we know we’re looking for a book,” Aidan offers. He catches himself looking at Marissa again and takes to studying the riddle.
“Ugh, so you think it’s talking about something in a book,” Marissa says. “I don’t even like reading. My mom tried to get me into reading once. She bought me all these books like Old Yeller, Artemy Foil, something by, what was his name, Steven Kin? Kong? Well, Steven Something-or-other...”
Aidan giggles. “You mean Stephen King?”
“What about Harry Potter?” Aidan suggests. “Everyone at my school read that.”
“She got one of them, but I didn’t read it. The movie was a’ight. I liked the two… faced man. Are you kidding me?”
Aidan’s eyes widen. “And Harry has a lightning shaped scar!”
“Race you there, creeper!” Marissa takes off down the aisle, striding with an awkward and unsteady gait. Aidan calls after her to wait, but she doesn’t stop. Instead, she disappears from view behind one of the enormous bookshelves. Aidan looks up. The sign on the shelf above him reads, “Horror H - J,” and he peers down the aisle.
Arlene is sitting on the floor with a book open on her lap and her outstretched legs crossed over each other. Her brilliant purple dress fans out over the floor drawing a stark contrast from the beige carpeting. For a moment Aidan hesitates, and then he swallows hard and slips into the aisle.
“Hi,” he manages, raising a hand in an awkward wave. Arlene looks up, clearly pleased to have company.
“Oh, my! What brings you here?” She asks with a smile. “Looking for a good read mayhap?”
“Well, not exactly,” Aidan says, rubbing his arm unconsciously. “Do you know where the Harry Potter books are?”
At this, Arlene looks doubly excited. “So, you’ve figured it out, have you?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, right this way!” Arlene says, snapping her book shut and getting to her feet. She slides it back into its place in the shelf. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She snaps her fingers and a colorful bookmark as intricate as the rest of the mansion appears between the pages of the closed book. “Now I won’t lose my place. I once found out a character died thirty pages too early because I forgot to put a bookmark in. There I was, just guessing at pages, and—”
“Oh, I apologize, Aidan. I almost forgot you were in a rush. Follow me.” She leads him a couple aisles down to a set of bookshelves labeled “Fantasy.”
“Thanks!” Aidan calls as he takes off running down the aisle labeled “Q - S.” He scans the shelves briefly for Rowling until his eyes land on “Harry Potter.” Lined up are three copies of The Sorcerer’s Stone. He picks one up, gives it a quick shake, and puts it back. He does the same with the next one. On the third try, shaking it makes a strange, metallic rattling sound, and he opens the cover to reveal the inside of the book. The pages have been carved out, and replaced with a hollow, metal box. He pulls the cover off the box and takes out the small, silver flask that is lying inside.
“Found it!” he exclaims, smiling.
Just then, Marissa careens past Arlene into the aisle and practically skids to a stop in front of Aidan. “How the heck did you get here before me?” Aidan just shrugs and points to Arlene. “Well, whatever,” Marissa continues. “You haven’t even been acting like you drank poison. I need that more than you, so gimme.” Without waiting, she snatches the flask from Aidan’s hands and unscrews the top.
“Umm… Marissa?” Aidan begins, peeking up at her. “I don’t think—”
“What?” she says, cutting him off. “You wanna share or somethin’? Well, maybe I woulda said yes if you hadn’t been so weird this whole time.”
“No, well, it’s not that. It’s—”
Marissa tips the flask over and pours the liquid into her mouth. Aidan winces. No sooner has she downed the stuff than she doubles over, sputtering and coughing and groping at her throat.
“Hey, Aidan,” Arlene says, smiling. “When did you figure it out?”
Aidan looks at Marissa and at the flask, then back to Arlene. “Well,” he says, “you never exactly said you poisoned the tea. You always called the poison a ‘secret ingredient’ or just ‘it.’”
Arlene laughs. “How very astute of you to notice. So you knew from the beginning?”
“Not the beginning,” Aidan says. “But when Marissa started getting sleepy, I thought maybe it wasn’t really poison. Maybe it was something like sleeping pills like my mom used to take when she couldn’t sleep. After you blew up Marc’s head, I guess I thought your poison would be… scarier.” He casts another glance at Marissa who is now flopping on the floor with drool hanging from her mouth. She is gasping in quick, shallow breaths. “Plus, the tea tasted like you just put a lot of pepper in it.”
“Impressive,” Arlene says, clapping her hands together. “You even figured out my secret ingredient! Ahahaha! Not as much can be said for this one.” She gestures towards the flailing Marissa and laughs even harder. “Though I must give her credit for just staying awake this long since she did end up with the drugged cup.”
A crash rings out in the hall outside the library.
“Huh, I wonder what that could be,” Arlene says. “C’mon, Aidan! Let’s go check it out!” She grabs Marissa’s ankle and drags the floundering teen behind her out of the library and into the hall.
On the far side of the hall, slumped against the wall to the foyer, Marc is staked face-first to the wall with one of Arlene’s spears jutting out of his back. Between him and the wall, a vase has shattered across the floor, leaving several broken shards lodged into his chest.
“Oh, dear. What happened here?” Arlene asks, feigning surprise.
“What… happened?” Marc repeats, grimacing as he tries to force air out of his ruptured lung. “Trip… wire.”
“How unexpected!” Arlene cries. “Who would have left such a thing, I wonder?”
Marc grins and coughs up a fountain of crimson which splatters onto his shirt and blends with the spreading reddish stain. “Not… gonna die… twice… in a row…” he manages, wearing a defiant grin that looks distorted and goofy with his cheek pressed against the wall. He twists his head a little farther to get a look at his visitors in the hall behind him. “Marissa… doesn’t look… too hot…” He laughs in a way that sounds more like he’s choking. “She drank it, huh?”
“Yessir,” Arlene says cheerily. “Drank the whole thing. Hmm…” She puts her finger to her lips pensively. “I put the wire here hoping that Aidan or Marissa would run into it searching for the antidote. I never expected you to run into it, Marc. I don’t think there’s any rule about what happens if two people die. What did we do last time this happened?”
“Flipped… a coin,” Marc says. His head dips and then jerks upright again as he struggles to remain conscious.
“Right! Oh, darn. I don’t seem to have a coin on me. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see who dies first. Aidan, how’s Marissa holding up?”
Behind Arlene, Aidan is kneeling on the ground holding Marissa’s head in his lap and petting her hair. “Shhh… shhh…” he whispers as she begins to seize again. He looks up at Arlene. “Uhh… she’s still alive, kinda. I think I like her better this way.”
Arlene giggles. “She is nicer when she’s choking on her own vomit, isn’t she?”
Marissa’s back dives into a sudden arch, and a terrible choking, sputtering noise rumbles in her throat, and then she falls limp. Aidan puts two fingers on her neck and puts his ear to her mouth. After a moment, he sits back up and announces: “I think she’s dead.”
“That means… I win,” Marc says with a pained sigh.
“Ahaha! You hardly won, Marc. You look like you’ve been hit by a bus, or a spear, if we’re being technical. But yes, I suppose you did outlast Marissa.” With another snap of Arlene’s fingers, the spear that has impaled Marc vanishes and the hole in his chest stitches itself closed. He gasps in a lungful of air.
“Phew,” he says, stretching his shoulders. “I thought I was about to lose for the second time in a row just then. But damn, Arly, that hurt like hell.”
“Well, no one told you to step on a tripwire. Oh, did you convince April to join us?”
“Right, about that…” Marc starts with a guilty grin.
Arlene sighs and shakes her head resignedly. “What did you do?”
“I kinda lost our right to invite her to the party in a bet.”
“What.” Arlene punches a tile on the wall, and another spear rockets from the back of the hall, past her head, and lodges itself just next to Marc’s face.
“Hey, woah. I tried to convince her, but, as it happens, I’m not very good at gambling.” He shrugs.
Arlene lets out another sigh, and her expression lightens. “Ahh well. Let’s patch Marissa up. She’s always got an interesting story for us. And who knows, maybe April will join in on her own.” She punches Marc on the shoulder. “Though after talking with you, no wonder she doesn’t want to join.”
“Hey! I’ll have you kn—” Marc pauses, looking down the hall. “Where’s Aidan and Marissa?”
Arlene follows his gaze to a small puddle of drool and vomit where the kids used to be. A thin trail can be made out heading back towards the library. The two in the hall cast each other a quizzical glance and follow it. It leads them into the library and towards the cafe where they find Aidan still stroking Marissa’s hair.
“Hey, Aidan,” Marc says, waving. “Whatcha doin’ in here?”
“Hi, Marc,” Aidan calls back, smiling. “I’m just playing with Marissa. She’s a lot nicer now.”
“I’ll bet,” Marc says, laughing. “But it’s her turn to tell a story, so she kinda needs to be alive for that.”
“Aww,” Aidan whines. “Already?” He looks up hopefully at Arlene with his big, brown eyes. “Can I keep her? Pleeeease?”
Arlene considers this for a moment and then says, “Do you have a story to tell in her place?”
“Oh… umm, not yet. I’m still thinking of one.”
“Well, we need someone to tell a story. And it’s Marissa’s turn now.”
“Alright,” Aidan says, reluctantly sliding Marissa’s head off his lap. He runs to his brother and grabs onto his pants leg. “I’m gonna think of an awesome story so I can keep her next time!”
Marc laughs. “You do that, bro. I’m sure it’ll be the best story of the night.” Aidan smiles at this.
With another snap, Marissa begins coughing, clears her throat, and sits up looking dazed. “Wha... where...” Her eyes snap fully open. “Arlene! You tricked me! You said it was the antidote!”
“That I did,” Arlene agrees. “An antidote to life, if you will.”
Marissa glares at her, pouting. “I’ll meet you guys in the grand hall,” she mumbles as she trudges towards the door to the library. Before she leaves, she turns around and begrudgingly adds, “That was a good one, Arlene.” Then she leaves the room.
The rest follow after her into the grand hall and crowd around the table. April comes in with another tray of tea and some more cookies.
“Not poisoned this time?” Marc asks when she pours him a cup. She grins so that only he can see.
When she is done pouring tea, she retreats to the corner of the room, and Marissa speaks up.
“Alright everybody. Place your butts in those seats and open up your ear holes, I got a story that Captain Eyepatch over there is gonna love.” She gestures at Marc. “It’s called…”
Susan Davies stepped out of Grand Central Station and—
“Woah, wait a sec,” Marc interrupts. “The Eyeball?”
“Yeah, what about it?” Marissa asks, clearly annoyed at the interruption.
“Another of your infamously gross ones?”
“Duh. This is gonna be the grossest one.”
“Oh, I can hardly wait!” Arlene says clapping her hands together.
“I’m pretty excited to see what the queen of gore can manage, but let’s try not to scare our guest off either,” Marc adds.
“Guest?” Marissa asks.
“Don’t worry about it. Just try not to make things too gross.”
Marissa pretends to ponder this for a moment before yelling, “Nope! It’ll be gross. Now shut your yappers. I’ve got a story to tell. As I was saying…”
Susan Davies stepped out of Grand Central Station and into the noisy bustle of mid-afternoon New York. The sun shone brightly on the city, but the air was comfortable. A light breeze rustled her hair, tossing a few golden-blonde strands into her face and carrying with it the thin, sour odor of garbage and the thicker, dull smell of gasoline and exhaust. All in all, it was a pretty nice day in The Big Apple—well, for most people.
Susan slipped her phone out of the pocket of her black jeans and snapped off a quick text to her friend: “meet in bryant by the fountain?”
A moment later: “u got it!”
Susan didn’t like the city. There was something about the crowds that rubbed her the wrong way. Too many people walking slowly, stopping abruptly to take pictures. It was like they didn’t even know how to operate their legs, let alone their phones. But more than that, the city felt dirty. There was always that underlying stench and passing waves of musty air that made it feel nearly toxic to breath in. Maybe it was. Still, having friends across the Tri-State area made it a painfully convenient meeting place, and that’s why she was in this unfortunate bustle today.
It had rained on the way in, and although the storm had subsided by the time she reached Grand Central, there were still brownish puddles pooled on the sides of the road and small trickles of street-filthy water draining from the sidewalk as she made her way towards Bryant Park. It was through one of these puddles that the bus—an overloaded thing packed to the brim with goggling tourists—drove, spraying a jet of the murky water from under the wheel onto the sidewalk and directly into Susan’s eye.
“Ack! Oh, fuck you,” she spouted at the bus, shooting it a gesture that didn’t mean hello. She rubbed at her eye, clearing some of the swampy gunk from her face, but oh god it stung. She tried blinking but recoiled at the attempt to open her eye. The water that had pelted her wasn’t just liquid. It felt gravelly, like poorly filtered coffee. And dirty. She’d probably get fuckin’ pink eye.
She spat on the ground, trying to get the taste of the street water off her lips and continued moving towards the park, zigging this way and zagging the other around the slow-walkers and the mothers, the old folk and the tourists, all the while rubbing her eye, trying to get rid of that annoying itch.
By the time she arrived at the park, the discomfort had subsided a little. She could open her eye again just fine, though it now had an annoying dry feeling to it that didn’t seem to want to go away no matter how much she blinked. It still felt like something was lodged in there, but she suspected it was just irritated. Maybe she’d pick up some Visine or something later.
“Hey, Suze! How’s it hangin’, yo?” A young looking brunette in a purple tank top and tight blue jeans waved at Susan from across the fountain. The way her smile lit up her face and her little round nose pointed slightly upwards made her look more like an eighth grader than a senior in high school. “Jeez, what happened to you? You fall in a lake or something?”
“Hey, Dana,” Susan said, glancing down at her top. Dana was right. There was a huge dark, wet splotch on the top of her blouse, making it almost crimson instead of the airy salmon it had started as. “Nah, some asshole bus driver drove through a puddle. Got that nasty shit-water in my eye too.” As if mentioning it had made her remember, she tried to rub the dryness out of her eye again.
Arlene coughs politely into her fist, interrupting the story again. “Oh goodness. This Susan sure likes to curse a lot. Is it really necessary, I wonder?”
Marc grins. “I think Marissa just wants to get away with saying bad words.”
“Shut up, you’re not my mom!” Marissa growls. Arlene and Marc look at each other and burst into laughter as Marissa huffs. “Now where was I? Oh, right.”
“A good start for the city lover,” Dana teased.
“You’re tellin’ me. Is Lisa coming?”
“Nup,” Dana said in an oddly cheery fashion. “Her mom won’t let her out. She has some chores to do or something, so she might come by later.”
“What about your boyfriend?”
“Double nup. Didn’t invite him.” Dana leaned in and put a cupped hand to Susan’s ear. “Between you and me, I think I’m gonna break up with him.”
“No shit? It’s only been three weeks!”
“Two weeks longer than the last one,” Dana said with an innocent shrug.
“You’re ridiculous. Where we headin’ anyway,” Susan asked.
“I wanna check out this cool clothing store. It’s down by 32nd and 5th, so we can walk it.”
As they walked, Susan kept rubbing at her eye. The dryness refused to go away, and her eyelid occasionally didn’t want to open over the arid sphere. But worse was that sharp, poking feeling in the back of her eye that reminded her of when she had worn colored contacts for Halloween and one of the contacts had folded and slipped into an exquisitely uncomfortable position around the side of her eye.
“You alright, Suze?” Dana asked, craning in front of Susan to get a better look.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just irritated from the crappy city water,” Susan replied, forcing her hand away from her eye. “I’m fine.”
But by the time they arrived at the store on 32nd and 5th, her eye was certainly not fine. Alongside the dryness, a burning itch had set in, and she could not seem to wipe away the water that leaked from the sides fast enough. Of course, no matter how much her eye watered it did nothing to stave off that goddamn dryness. That dirty dryness that had begun to feel less like normal dry-eye and more gritty, as if she had gotten sand in her eye at the beach.
“You sure you’re alright, Suze,” Dana asked. “You’re eye is really red. And I mean, like, really red. Do you wanna leave and, I dunno, get some eye drops or something maybe?”
“Nah, that’s alright,” Susan said, still palming her eye. “We just got here, so we might as well check it out. We’ll stop by a CVS or Duane Reade after this.”
“If you’re sure,” Dana said, a tiny note of concern creeping into her voice.
“I’m sure,” Susan said with a somewhat forced smile.
The girls meandered around the store for the next forty-five minutes or so. Dana tried on quite a few things—a sky blue top that Susan thought looked cute on her (“How’s this look?”), a mini skirt that almost definitely wouldn’t be allowed in schools but would likely get her a new boyfriend in a hurry, a ridiculous pair of bell-bottom jeans (“Look, Suze, I’m part of the Mystery Inc. gang!”). Susan contented herself to watch. She rubbed her eye occasionally, but also carefully, making sure to avoid Dana’s gaze when she did so. It was getting worse, but Dana didn’t need to worry about that. They’d be out soon enough, and then they would track down a pharmacy. She rubbed her eye again, and when she took her hand away this time, there was a thin, sickly smear of yellow pus. Gross.
“I think I’m gonna pick this up,” Dana said, holding up the blue tank top that she’d tried on first. She always returned to the first thing she saw, Susan mused. “Then, let’s head to the pharmacy. I know you said your eye is fine, but it looks kinda terrible.”
Susan could agree with that. She had been rubbing her eye for the last fifteen minutes, not just because of that awful itch—which seemed to get worse as she rubbed it—but also because she’d be damned letting all these people see her eye like this. As much as she wasn’t out to impress these sauntering tourists who seemed perplexed by tall buildings (she wasn’t too concerned about locals; New Yorkers couldn’t care less about her or her eye), she didn’t want to be ogled at for it either.
They got in line with the shirt, Dana holding it up daintily to the sunlight coming through the shop windows and Susan pressing the side of her head where a sudden throb of her eye became a sharp headache. It was the first throb that was the worst. After that, it simmered down to more of a dull ache that felt like it was coming from the center of her eye instead of some external irritation. Somehow, it reminded her of growing pains.
The bad kind.
“Hey, Dana,” Susan said, cutting off whatever Dana had been saying. It had been something about the hundred and one reasons she didn’t think it was going to work out with this guy. Susan hadn’t exactly been following. “I think I’m gonna skip out on this line. My eye’s drivin’ me nuts. I think there was a Duane Reade up the street on 34th or 35th. Meet me there?”
“Oh,” Dana said. She sounded a little surprised to be cut off, but not particularly bothered by it. “Sure, yeah. You ‘kay? Want me to come with you?”
“I’ll be fine. Just meet me there when you’re done.” Susan glanced at the top in Dana’s hand that practically glowed in the sun, winced at the acute pain that accompanied moving her eye, and said, “That’s gonna look really cute on you, by the way.” She tried to offer a smile, but it came out feeling fake and heavy. God, her eye hurt.
She left the store alone and stepped into the flow of the sidewalk crowd, attempting to rub a sticky line of gunk from her eye as a man, who was trying to take a picture of his son in the middle of the sidewalk, backed into her elbow, ramming her knuckle into her eye. The pain was unbelievable, and with it came a bright, white flash.
“Excuse me, sir,” Susan said to the man, who turned around with a stupid “who-me?” look on his face, “but could you watch where you’re fucking walking? ‘Kay, thanks.”
Aidan mutters something so quietly that at first no one hears him, and Marc asks him to repeat himself. When he speaks again, it has a little more force.
“Umm… well, I said… she’s almost as mean as Marissa.” He grins guiltily.
“Oh, snap!” Arlene exclaims.
Marissa appears to be fuming in her seat. “What did you say about me you little brat?” she yells.
“I think you’re just proving his point,” Marc says, and Aidan giggles.
“Ugh, whatever. Where was I… again…”
And just like that, she left the man staring at her back with a dumbfounded look on his face. If he called any expletives after her, which she doubted since he was with his kid, they were lost to the honking horns, the thin squeal of truck brakes, and the busy jabbering of pedestrians. But even if the streets were dead quiet, she never would have heard them because the fiery throbbing had taken on a new extreme that made her want to scream over all these noisy people. Even for grade-A irritation—pink eye, even—this was bad. She found that she couldn’t open her eye again; it just hurt too much.
She brushed past a mom who was lecturing her kid in front of the Duane Reade entrance (this one did have some choice words) and into the back aisles of the store that were labeled things like “cough drops,” “pain relievers,” “antacids,” and “eye care.” She strode down this last aisle and snatched a box of Visine. She didn’t think this was the box that she usually bought—this one was red instead of the normal cool blue—but she didn’t think it really mattered. Eye drops were eye drops.
Without a second thought, she tore the top of the box open and pulled out the tiny bottle of clear liquid. The store workers might not like her opening it before buying it, but she doubted their salaries were enough for them to care. She unscrewed the little fire-cone top and held it in her palm. With one hand, she pried her eyelids open in a deliberate and pained process that set loose that searing pain in her eye again. She winced, hoping no one was watching her and not caring enough to check. It felt so dry by now that it was as if she were actually tearing her eyelid off of the sticky sphere underneath. Then her eye was open, bleary light pouring in and the blurred nozzle of the Visine bottle hovering just above. She hesitated for a moment just like that—standing alone in the aisle labeled “eye care” and looking up at the ceiling with a dropper held above her face. C’mon, don’t be a baby.
She tipped the bottle over and gave it a light squeeze. The first drop that came out missed her eye completely. The second, half made it in, and that lit a fire that nearly forced a yelp out of her throat. The third landed square on the iris, and this time she did yell. She could feel the hot throb in her eyeball with every beat of her heart, and each one felt like her eye was expanding and contracting into something sharp just behind it. Needles, glowing red with heat, being jabbed repeatedly into her eye. That’s what it was. She was sure that was it.
“Suze?” The voice was faint to Susan. With each pulsing beat and each stabbing pain, it was as if sound became muted, as if she had been ten feet from an explosion. Her ears were ringing, and each throb made the ringing louder. “Susan? What’s wrong? Let me see your eye.” She felt a light set of fingers lifting her hands from her eye and found herself staring at Dana. “Oh my god, Susan,” Dana gasped. Her hand clapped to her mouth as if trying to hide her expression, but that was all Susan needed to see. It was bad.
Susan forced a smile onto her face that was meant to be reassuring but came across as more of a grimace. “Well, that hurt like a bitch.” She laughed, and wrinkling her face shot another jolt of pain through her eye.
“I think we should get you to a doctor, Suze,” Dana said, studying Susan’s eye and cringing.
“No thanks,” Susan said. “The eye drops are starting to help, I think.” And that wasn’t a lie. After the initial spike of pain, it had begun to slowly fade, the prickly feeling becoming shallow background noise. That and that painful dryness had subsided a little. There was still a dull ache—the one that felt like growing pains—to contend with, but that wasn’t immediately concerning.
“Not gonna lie, Marissa,” Marc says. “I don’t entirely trust your idea of ‘not immediately concerning’.”
“Good,” Marissa says.
“Umm… I’m concerned,” Aidan mutters.
“You should be,” Marissa responds with a devious grin before returning to her story.
“Well, alrightty then,” Dana said. Susan could hear a note of doubt in her voice, but that was understandable. “But don’t try to tough it out for no reason. If it gets bad, let me know, and we’ll get it dealt with. No need to show off how tough you are, Suze.” This last sentence had a distinct teasing feel to it.
“Now when have I ever done that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dana said, looking at the ceiling and holding her chin. “How about that time at Chris’s party when you cut your hand open and said you just needed a bandaid. How many stitches did that end up being?”
Susan snorted a laugh at this. “I dunno. Maybe seven?”
“Yeah. Or how about that other time at…”
“Alright, alright. I get it. I’ll tell you if it gets bad again. C’mon, let’s get out of here.” She pushed Dana to the front desk where she paid for the bottle of Visine before heading out. As they stepped out of the front door, the latest pop hit began blaring from Dana’s pocket. Susan couldn’t place the artist; she was more of a soft rock girl herself. Dana took the phone from her pocket, flipped it open, and read something on the tiny screen. Susan couldn’t comprehend how Dana was still using a dinosaur phone (like, where did she even buy that thing?). Then Dana snapped the phone shut again and looked up at Susan.
“What’s up?” Susan asked.
“Lisa just texted me. She’s gonna meet up with us in Union Square.”
“Yeah, sure. Let’s walk, though,” Susan said, kneading her eye with her palm. The dull ache still swam around the center of her eye, just where she couldn’t seem to get at it. Everything else was still settling, but the damn ache was stubborn. “No way I’m getting on a subway. There’s—”
“—too many sweaty people that take up space like it’s their job?” Dana filled in, and they both laughed.
As they walked, Susan fell into the best mood she’d been in since she’d arrived in the city. She chatted away with Dana, talking about that cute dress Dana had bought, how Susan wanted to go back later and maybe pick something up herself, and when some bratty kid ran into her, she let him off with just a scowl which Dana laughed at. She only rubbed her eye occasionally, still trying to get at that subtle ache which escalated to more of a throb the more she rubbed at it, and Dana slapped her hand away each time saying “Quit it! You’re only gonna make it worse.” As much as her eye protested, Susan agreed.
It wasn’t until they’d reached 20th that the subtle throbbing turned into an abrupt and steady pulse. It came so quickly and unexpectedly that Susan actually let out a small yelp and clapped both hands to her eye. When they came back, it looked as if that pulse had ejected yellow pulp along her—
“Marissa,” Marc says, “that’s pretty nasty right there.”
“Isn’t it?” Marissa says with smug satisfaction.
“I’m all for nasty, but maybe we should tone it down just a little for our guest?”
“Ugh, who are you even talking about?” Marissa growls, then cuts off her own question with, “She pulls her hands back and they are clean as a whistle. Happy?”
“Yeah, good enough.”
“Bunch of pansies,” Marissa mutters. “I mean…”
“Suze, are you alright?” Dana asked, alarmed.
“It’s nothing,” she said. But it didn’t feel like nothing. The sudden pulsing feeling of not having enough space in her skull to fit her eyeball had been more startling than painful, and it definitely didn’t compare to the burning sensation she had suffered before the Visine. Still, she had a bad feeling about this pulse, which had begun a harsh and steady throb in her head. Somehow, it felt dangerous. She pulled out her phone and tapped a couple words in.
“I don’t like the way you look,” Dana said with finality. “Your eye looks… swollen. We’re going to get that checked out whether you say it’s nothing or not.”
“Yeah,” Susan said, holding out her phone. Google Maps glowed on the screen with a couple red markers pointing out different locations in Union Square. “There’s an Urgent Care center on 13th Street. Let’s meet up with Lisa, and then I’ll head over there.”
“You gonna be alright that long?” Dana asked.
“Don’t have much of a choice either way. I’ll live.” Susan pocketed her phone and continued towards Union Square. She didn’t like the way the throbbing increased so that her eye seemed to beat against her skull. Dana struggled to keep up, and once, Susan forced herself to stop entirely to wait for Dana, though the urge to reach the Urgent Care center nagged at the back of her head. That sense of seriousness didn’t go away.
She came to a halt where they usually met Lisa in Union Square and found herself panting. After a couple moments, a new raspy breathing joined hers as Dana caught up, hands planted firmly on her hips for support and head canted downward as if she didn’t have the energy to lift it yet.
“Jeez, Suze,” Dana panted. “Made me… run those last couple blocks.”
Susan gave her a distracted apology and took to looking around for Lisa. When Dana regained her breath, she glanced around the street too before looking up at Susan.
“Well, I don’t see her,” Dana began. “She’s probably— God, Susan, your eye!” Her own eyes were wide, and her face contorted in an involuntary and brief grimace.
“Yeah, I know. I’m gonna get it dealt with.”
“No, I mean, look!” Dana fished around her bag for a moment before pulling out a travel mirror. She flipped it open and held it out for Susan who stared into it blankly, her mouth agape and her good eye alight with horror. The other one looked a dead, greyish hue with pulsing tendrils of red bursting in from the sides and splattering in gruesome flowers towards the middle. The edges were squeezed in around the hole in the skull, and the front bulged out so that it resembled an overinflated balloon pinched in the middle by a rubber band. She tried to blink and realized with dismay that her eyelid wouldn’t close over the bulging mass that was her eyeball. It throbbed again, and in the mirror she could see it visibly expand and contract.
“Holy shit,” she whispered. Her voice seemed to have left her in favor of a weak, raspy sound, and she swallowed hard. “I’m going to the urgent care center,” she said as her eye bulged again, this time with a bright flash of pain that was far from the dull thrumming she had felt prior. She clapped her hand to her eye again, and when she pulled it away, there was a thick glob of yellow pus.
“Couldn’t help yourself?” Marc asks.
Marissa grins. “Nope.”
Marc sighs. “Carry on.”
It was all because this damn city was so dirty. “You wait here for Lisa.”
“Are you sure you—” Dana began.
“I’m fine. Just wait for Lisa.”
But she wasn’t fine, and as she turned around, another white-hot throb shot through her eye, followed by another, and another. It became a steady drumming inside her head that was almost rhythmic. Thump. Duh-thump. Duh-thump.
“Heyo, ol’ friends o’ mine!” A voice called out cheerily. Susan turned around to face the familiar voice, and found that the girl standing next to Dana was too blurry to make out, at least in one eye. There was a vaguely rotund mass of blue that might have been a sundress and something that looked like dirty blonde hair, but that was all Susan could make out of Lisa with her eye throbbing the way it was. It pounded in her head, over and over, so hard that everything felt almost surreal, as if with each screaming pulse reality wavered just a little bit. Thump. Duh-thump. Duh-thump.
Pus gushed from her eye with each wave of pain, and she could feel it trickling down her face. Were people staring at her? She hoped not. They should just mind their own goddamn business. She barely noticed that Lisa had begun screaming, and Dana was holding onto her arm, ushering her towards the urgent care center. The pain lighting up her brain like a fire was too much. What she did notice, however, was that feeling of swelling, as if with every throb her eye got bigger but didn’t shrink back to quite its original size. The pressure in her skull was enormous, and she found herself thinking, Look out, it’s gonna blow. Gonna pop right outta my fucking head.
The pressure came to a peak, and Susan heard herself screaming as a motherload of pus went oozing down her cheek. Then the pressure vanished, as quickly as that, and Susan collapsed to her knees, then flopped sideways and her face hit the ground. That wasn’t pus. The thought swam in her head, doing little loops around her brain. That was my goddamn eye. How did I just lose my eye? She stared with her remaining eye at the filthy sidewalk that had turned a full 90 degrees, smelled that cool air with the underlying notes of garbage and exhaust, and laughed to herself—a weak, delirious sound. Because this city is so goddamn dirty.
Somewhere in the distance, Dana was calling her name like a broken record. Couldn’t she quiet down for a second? It’s not like Susan was going anywhere. Someone nearby sounded like they were retching, and Susan had a strange feeling it was Lisa. The last thing she noticed before passing out was the gritty texture of the sidewalk against her cheek. Great, my face’ll probably fall off next.
“The end,” Marissa states matter-of-factly.
“I wonder what happened to Susan after that,” Aidan ponders from his seat, which he seems quite comfortable in now that he’s actually sat in it. “I hope she’s okay.”
“Oh, I was wondering quite the same thing,” Arlene exclaims.
“Huh?” Marissa sneers. “Okay? Her eyeball just exploded! You know, like Marc’s head, but with pus and eye goop and a ton of blood and stuff.”
“But could she have lived, I wonder? Perhaps her friends got her to the urgent care center fast enough?”
“Alright,” Marissa allows. “She lives, fine. But…”
Both Aidan’s and Arlene’s eyes widen as they lean forward in sync with each other in a way that can only be described as comical.
“... her face falls off. Just like she thought!” Marissa rocks back in her chair cackling, and before she has the chance to describe it in more detail, Arlene chimes in.
“You mean in a face puddle!”
“We could put it with the dog,” Aidan suggests, giggling.
While the three of them laugh at the idea of a new puddle, Marc glances towards the back of the room. April is still standing in the corner where she was when Marissa started telling the story, and Marc smiles. She had stayed for the whole thing after all. When April notices him looking, she straightens up, resuming an air of professionalism, and slips out of the room.
“Think she’ll join in for the next game?” Arlene manages through her laughter. Marc turns back to face her.
“Probably not,” he says, “but I think she wants to.”
“She better get back here soon,” Marissa interjects.
“Oh, you’d like her to join us as well, Marissa?” Arlene asks.
“No way! I don’t care about that,” Marissa says. “I mean, she can join if she wants, but we’ve got more important problems.” She pops the last of the cookies into her mouth, munches it up, and attempts to talk with her mouth still full. “Wur ou’ uf cookies!”
Arlene blinks once or twice, looking surprised, then seems unable to hold in her laughter at Marissa’s cookie-gorged chipmunk cheeks, and her laughter is contagious. Soon, the whole room is laughing.
Outside the door, even April can’t hold back a tiny snicker.
You know, Reader, I don’t think Marissa has noticed that we’re here yet. Perhaps you should introduce yourself before they start another game.
You appear beside Marissa, who is chugging a glass of milk to wash down the last mouthful of cookies, and tap her lightly on the shoulder. She spins towards you, her eyes blazing and startled, and spits milk everywhere. Two streams of it erupt from her nose as she reels away from you and falls over the arm of the chair. She crashes into one of the small tables, and both her and the table clatter to the ground. Her empty plate of cookies shatters beside her, and her teacup lands beside that, but for a wonder, stays in one piece.
“What… the hell?” she sputters, trying to scowl up at you as she coughs milk out of her windpipe. “Who the hec—” Another bout of coughing cuts her off mid word. “—heck are you?” she finishes after wiping a trail of runaway milk from her face with the back of her arm. She finally gets her breathing back under control and pants slowly, careful to avoid triggering another round of hacking. When she no longer seems to be in imminent danger of another coughing fit, she returns her attention to you, and her scowl is now more angry than surprised. “And what the hell do you think you’re doing sneaking up on little girls anyway? Creep. You’re worse than him.” She gestures towards Aidan, who promptly averts his gaze to the floor. Marissa turns her glare to Arlene. “Who is this creep, Arlene? How’d this—” She looks you over with a cringe. “This thing even get in here? Huh?”
Arlene laughs. “That thing is a Reader.”
“The heck’s a Reader and how do we get rid of it?”
“Another story like yours oughtta do it,” Marc says.
“We don’t get rid of it, Marissa,” Arlene says patiently, her smile thin and amused. “The Reader’s also not an it. Rather, the Reader is a he… or a she, I guess… Marc, did we ever sort that…? Oh, nevermind. It’s our guest.”
“You’re joking…” Marissa looks around the room and sees that no one looks surprised at your appearance. “Wait, you all knew about this creep? And you didn’t even tell me? You all suck.”
“It’s not our fault you weren’t paying attention,” Marc says, raising his palms to the air in a lackadaisical gesture. “The Reader’s been here the whole time, you know…” He leans in, looking directly into Marissa’s eyes. “...watching us. Watching you.”
Marissa shudders. “Ew, ew, ew. That’s gross. Ugh.” She turns towards you. “Weirdo,” she says flatly. She gets herself up from the floor, rights the table beside her, and sits back down in her chair. “If you’re gonna be creeping around the house,” she continues, “then make yourself useful and get me more cookies.”
And as such, you’ve been relegated to serving cookies.
“And don’t you dare try to drug me either,” Marissa calls as you leave for the kitchen, “‘cuz I won’t fall for it!”
“Oh, really?” Marc asks her as you exit the room.
“What’s that supposed to—”
In the hall, you pass by April who looks at you briefly, seemingly a little puzzled, then nods and continues on her way. In her hands is an entire plate of fresh cookies. I guess that means you’re off the hook.
Let’s venture away from Arlene’s mansion for a little bit, for even though the mansion is indeed incredible and you have much of it yet to see, there seems to be something interesting going on far beyond its walls. Outside of the mansion, there is a garden and a hedge maze that doubtlessly towers over some of the taller buildings in the town. And, of course, beyond the garden and the looping metal of Arlene’s front gate, there is a town full of those who are not part of tonight’s party—people who will spend this endless night however they please: some running errands, others gambling away their pennies in one dimly lit alley or another, and some throwing their own parties (these with decidedly less murder). However, what I have to show you lies farther away still, in a place where Arlene’s mansion and this small town and everything else around look like nothing more than twinkling lights in a vast, night sky. Let us venture then, Reader, into the Outside.
The mansion floor falls away from you all at once, and you find yourself staring down at the roof of the mansion. As you rise higher into the night sky, Arlene’s mansion shrinks until it becomes nothing but a pinprick in the darkness, surrounded by a thin halo of yellow light cast from its windows. A darkness surrounds you as the world falls away, and you can feel this darkness on your skin, like a mist. It isn’t simply a lack of light, but something more like a substance—cloudy and thick and somehow… hungry. But worry not. If you were to come here alone, you may indeed have something to fear from this emptiness that writhes and and pulls at the seams of your being like a living thing, but for now you are safe.
In the distance, a thin, playful sound slices cooly through the empty blackness around you. It is light, high pitched, and carries an eerily pleasant melody. Someone—or something—is humming. A moment later, the darkness is broken by a thin wisp of silver. It floats through, humming its unsettling tune, and upon closer inspection, it has an almost human shape—as if it has a form of its own but couldn’t be bothered to show it just now. As it passes by, the sense of coldness that surrounds it is enough to send a shiver through your whole body. And there’s something else as well, something far worse than simple coldness, but that is perhaps better left unknown.
The form stops beside you, and the humming stops as well. The Outside takes on a quiet so complete and so empty that it’s nearly draining—the kind of quiet that makes you want to scream just to fill in a sound, any sound. But the quiet is not to last. It is broken by the ghostly figure beside you, and what you hear is enough to make you wish for the silence back. The icey, giggling sound that the thing makes is both childish and far too old all at once, tinged with a gleeful meanness which could only mean woe for the recipient. Within the Midnight Murder Party, laughter usually heralds good cheer and fun, but this noise holds neither of those things. No, there is nothing good in this sound.
“My, my,” it says, finally. It appears to be looking towards the specks of light in the distance that are coming from the town. “Maybe these next few moments won’t be so boring after all.”
It laughs again, and the humming resumes.
I think we’d better head back to the mansion.