Minerva is still on high alert
The Emeldahm Inn [3/5]
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We drove down the city streets with Minerva in the passenger seat with the window rolled down and Jacob sitting in the back awkwardly twiddling his thumbs. Every time I glanced in the rearview mirror, he quickly averted his eyes like he had been caught stealing.
He cleared his throat.
“Do I have something on my face, bell-boy?”
“I’m not a bell-boy,” he muttered. “I was just thinking about, you know. About Aron. You do look a little bit like him. Especially in that photo.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s crazy,” Jacob said. “I never knew the boys at the station used to be… real people.”
We stopped at a red light. After a moment of silence, I let out a small sigh.
“On that day, we were on our way to meet our parents in the plaza.”
The story hurt to tell, but I had to. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe to prove to Jacob that Aron was a real person.
“Gracie was an old dog, and we were careless kids. We let her get too close to the edge of the platform and she fell down onto the tracks. Aron jumped down after her to save her. But he was a short nine-year-old, and after he helped Gracie up to the platform, he couldn’t get out himself. Not ten seconds later, the jingle signaling the subway’s approach was playing, and then…”
I trailed off. When I glanced in the rearview mirror, Jacob was looking down, fidgeting with his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“The train didn’t stop,” I muttered. “By the time it got to where Aron was, it should have slowed down enough for the conductor to see him and pull the brakes. But it didn’t stop, and when it blew past me, I swear…”
I took a shaky breath.
“I swear I saw the conductor smiling.”
I half-expected Jacob to laugh. He didn’t.
“Percy tried to kill me once with a bus accident,” he said. “He puppeteered the driver and drove the bus into a wall. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was controlling the conductor.”
I looked at him in disbelief. His expression was grim.
“I don’t know how long the boys have been around for, but they sure as hell aren’t ten years old. And if I know anything about them, I know that they love to play with people’s lives. They won’t hesitate to kill.”
Jacob looked at me apologetically.
The light turned green. I turned my eyes back on the road.
We parked at an empty curb a few paces from the station and got out of the car. The entrance to the underground was an escalator that didn’t move.
Minerva paced around me, on high alert. She still didn’t seem eager to be close to Jacob, but she also seemed to have decided he wasn’t going to kill me. As we walked down the broken escalator, we began to hear the sound of chattering voices and peas rattling in cans of spray paint. The familiar scent of paint lingered in the air.
I didn’t know what I expected to see, but Emeldahm Station was largely the same as I remembered it. Ugly white fluorescent lights illuminated the small underground. The ceiling was held up by low concrete arches, and past the rusted turnstiles, a red brick staircase led down to the platform. A security guard’s booth was tucked to the side, its glass windows dark. The sound of a train rushing by the platform rattled through the floor, a train that didn’t stop at this station anymore.
There were a dozen people scattered along the walls with paint rollers and brushes and cans in their hands. The walls were already blooming with color. When we emerged into the underground, the artist closest to the escalator noticed us and waved. He lowered his brush and pulled down his respirator.
“You’re Abigail, right?”
“Yeah. You know me?”
“Of course! I recognize you from the photo on your application.”
Jacob winced. He was already hating this, I could tell.
“My name’s Bill,” the artist said. “Feel free to talk to me or any of the other folks if you need help, but otherwise, just pick a spot and get started. There’s plenty of wall space still. You’re free to go down to the lower level where the platform is, too. And if you ever get hungry, there’s a snack table over by the far wall.”
I thanked him and walked into the station. Jacob kept glancing around at the artists.
“I really don’t like this,” he muttered. “Don’t you feel like we’re being watched?”
“Maybe,” I said, though I didn’t really. “But we need to find Aron.”
“I told you, he’s… he’s changed.”
“Maybe he remembers me.”
Aside from the painters, there was nobody on the top level. As we walked toward the turnstiles, I glanced at the snack table that had been set up against one of the walls. The artists had been prudent enough to put clear plastic lids on the trays of donuts, so that the spray paint dust wouldn’t get in. Next to the trays was a water cooler, and a small basket of wrapped candies.
He looked at me, and then at the snack table. At the half-empty basket of Smarties.
Minerva began to bark.
Half the artists stopped their work and turned toward us, with motions far too synchronized to be natural. Bill pulled off his respirator. He was smiling wide.
“I thought I had told you to stay out of the station,” he said, his voice twisting into a giddy singsong. “Did you want to play that badly?”
All around us, the artists who were looking at us tossed aside their brushes and cans and broke into a sprint toward us. Before I could even try to run, they slammed into me and knocked me to the ground. The concrete scraped hard against my back. Coarse, dusty hands pinned down my arms and legs.
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Through the pile of bodies, I caught a glimpse of Jacob, gripping his pistol between his hands. He was shaking. Unsure of what to do. The remaining artists were looking at us now, their eyes wide. Somebody screamed.
Even as I cried for help, I knew why Jacob wouldn’t shoot. It was the same reason he couldn’t hurt Eileen. Percy’s puppets were innocent people. Perfectly innocent, perfectly regular people. One carelessly placed shot, and they would be dead.
Something was pulling on my waist. Too frantic, too erratic to be a person. Minerva was barking like mad, yanking on her leash.
Bill walked up to me, unwrapping a roll of Smarties in his hand. He giggled like a child.
“Bad girls need to be punished,” he said. “You’ll be much better as a puppet.”
He crouched down and grabbed my face, then wormed his gloved fingers between my lips in an attempt to force my mouth open. I bit his fingers, hard. He recoiled, howling in pain.
“Jacob,” I cried. “I need my arm!”
Thankfully, he understood. I saw him close one eye and fix the other on the lady holding down my wrist. Then he raised his hand and put the barrel of his pistol up against his palm.
He whispered something that got buried in the raucous. I’m sorry.
The crack of a gunshot echoed through the underground. Black blood spurted from Jacob’s open eye. The lady screamed as an invisible bullet punched a tiny hole through her hand. She let go of me, clutching her wound.
Bill slammed the palm of his gloved hand into my forehead, pinning my head down. His other hand came down on my chin.
I drew a can of spray paint from my belt, swung the nozzle up to his face, and emptied a can of Electric Pink into his eyes.
Bill screamed. All the puppets faltered for just a moment. I dropped the can, reached for the side of my waist, and unclipped Minerva’s leash from my belt.
Minerva made a beeline for the security guard’s booth, barking the whole way. I drew another can of spray paint and slammed the bottom of it into the side of Bill’s face. The puppets faltered, again. The hands around my ankles loosened. I kicked off the two painters holding down my legs.
Minerva was scratching at the door of the security guard’s booth, barking her head off. Jacob ran over to it and threw the door open. Whatever was inside, he was ready for it. He closed one eye, the bloody one this time, and put his pistol up to his temple.
The bodies piled up on top of me instantly fell motionless. Bill collapsed to the floor.
I squirmed out of the dogpile and ran to the security guard’s booth. Inside the cramped walls, Percy had collapsed facedown on the floor.
Jacob was bleeding from both eyes. He reached out his hand and I caught it.
“I… I can’t see,” he said.
“No shit. Come on, let’s get down to the platform.”
I pried the pistol from his grip and looked around. In the chaos, the artists who hadn’t turned into Percy’s puppets had all run away, thankfully. I scanned the ceiling until I spotted the smoke detector.
“Here’s hoping I’m a crack shot.”
I cocked the gun, took out a can of black paint, and lobbed it toward the smoke detector. Then I raised the pistol and lined up the sights.
The spray paint can exploded into a spiraling black cloud. The little red light on the smoke detector flared.
High-pitched sirens blared through the underground. Rusted metal shutters began to descend over the arched passageway to the turnstiles. I grabbed Jacob, picked up Minerva’s leash, and made a mad dash for the passageway. As I shoved Jacob through the turnstiles, I risked a quick glance behind us.
The puppets were beginning to stir.
We clambered over the turnstiles, ducked, and slipped underneath the fire shutters just before they slammed down onto the floor, cutting off the top level of the underground.
As soon as the shutters closed, my adrenaline sputtered out, and I almost collapsed at the top of the stairs to the platform. Minerva proudly wagged her tail and skipped around my legs.
I looked at Jacob. His right eye had healed completely. The wound in his left eye was closing remarkably quickly, the torn bits of membrane grafting back together before my eyes. The black blood on his shirt bubbled and evaporated into smoke.
He gawked at me like I’d just come back from the dead.
As he continued to stare at me, the last cut across his iris knit closed, and his left eye returned to normal. He rubbed his forehead and let out a small sigh.
I grinned. “There’s a pinch of insanity in every artist’s soul.”
I handed him the pistol and he pocketed it.
As if by some unspoken argument, we all turned toward the stairs to the platform, even Minerva. At the bottom of the red brick stairs, the fluorescent lights were flickering ominously.
Then, before any of us could say anything, all the lights blinked out.
Minerva started barking, again. I reached out and grabbed Jacob.
In the pitch-black darkness, between the barks and the muted whine of the fire alarm, I began to hear a new sound. It sounded like rain, or maybe like a million snakes slithering over leaves. Goosebumps ran down my arms.
“He’s here,” Jacob whispered.
When the lights came back on, he was there, standing halfway down the stairs and looking up at us inquisitively. My big brother from thirteen years ago. The boy in the photograph. Wearing the same oversized T-shirt and the same dirty jeans he had worn, when he jumped down onto the train tracks to save our dog.
Even after all these years, he was nine years old.
When the boy smiled, he had my brother’s smile from the photograph. When he spoke, he had my brother’s voice. The voice that echoed in my memories.
“Jacob,” he said. “I’m so glad you’ve come to play with us.”
Jacob was trembling. He held one hand in his pocket, gripping his pistol.
Aron turned his eyes to me.
“Who’s your friend? You need to introduce her to me.”
“Aron,” I whispered. “It’s me. It’s me, Abbey.”
Aron cocked his head.
For a few seconds, he didn’t say anything. Then he smiled.
“Nice to meet you, Abbey. My name’s Aron. And I…”
Minerva snarled and pressed up against my leg. I heard a wet ripping sound from somewhere behind Aron. No, from somewhere inside him.
His neck bent at a strange angle, and the skin of his back split open, spilling forth a mass of shadowy black matter.
“I can’t wait for a taste of your flesh.”
Episode 4 comes out on 12/21/2020
Written by magpie_quill