Icicles made of venom dripped out of Gina’s voice. “You invited her.”
“She has a new best friend now,” Gina replied. “One with an erect penis.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m right here!” moaned Susan from the other side of the booth.
“Given your perpetual state of attachment,” Gina said, “I’m surprised that Victor isn’t sitting beside you.”
“I left him in the truck,” Susan told her.
“Really.” Gina craned her neck to get a glance through the diner’s window of her rival’s trademark pickup, and what she saw made her bolt out of her seat and grab her purse. “That is … unexpected.”
Susan followed her the door. “Why the fuck are you being this way about me dating somebody?”
“I guess I’ll pay the bill then,” Jin called after them.
They came to a halt at the sight of a pair of preteen boys pounding on the side of Victor’s truck, shouting, “Let! Us! In!“
“Are those the monsters we’re chasing?” Susan asked.
“The monsters I’ve come to chase,” Gina corrected her.
“They don’t look like much,” she said and charged. She froze immediately when the children turned to face her. “Oh no,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Oh, no no no no no no …”
Even though she’d spent most of the afternoon on Jin’s phone, researching black-eyed children; even though she’d listened twice to the testimony of a near-victim; even though her presence in this town was due entirely to the study of this phenomenon, Gina never dreamed she’d actually have a chance to witness it.
Meters away, a perfect specimen of Midwestern ruggedness and functional muscle cowered away from two children. Closer still, a young woman who had grown up protecting her older brother from bullies and criminals, in the urban decay of the American Rust Belt sobbed an apology to her boyfriend, whom she couldn’t rescue from said children.
The researcher in Gina wished she could simply observe, but that wouldn’t do at all. She reached into her purse and took a step forward, halting when it occurred to her how much danger lay ahead. The only logical course of action would be to retrieve Susan, abandon Victor, and return to the diner. Then again, the threat was so great that it might make more sense to leave Susan behind as well. Gina wasn’t a hero; she was just a spoiled little girl who ran away from home because it was stagnant. And now she was throwing a temper tantrum because her new life wasn’t stagnant enough. Maybe it would be best if she just left.
Jin appeared at her side. “That’s them, isn’t it?”
“Jin,” Gina replied, “I believe we may be at an impasse.”
“Them?” he snorted. “I can handle them.”
“I find that unlikely,” she said.
“You’ve seen it yourself,” he told her. “I’m the phonomancer. All I need are some tunes, and we can talk our way through this like we always do.”
“I remain skeptical.”
He smirked. “I got this.”
He swooped over with a little fancy footwork, singing, “If you speak, you have my ear; just please step away from the truck. State your peace, depart from here; all I ask is—oh, fuck!” Under the scrutiny of those eyes, he began to pant uncontrollably. “Gina, we have to grab Susan and leave. Right. Now. We can hide in the diner—we’ll be safe there.”
She agreed with him wholeheartedly, but there was something that still bugged her. “Safe from what?”
“Susan!” he called out, “we have to go!”
“But Victor …” Susan replied.
“We’re no use to him if we can’t get away!” he told her.
Susan backed toward him, never taking her eyes off of her boyfriend’s pickup. “I’m so sorry …”
Jin grabbed Gina’s arm. “We have to get inside.”
“Why?” she asked. Why was it safe inside? What was it about doors that protected them from the black-eyed children? Doors, of course, housed endless metaphor, and many folkloric races were powerless against them; however, most could cross a doorway if invited. And frankly, who would invite those dreadful apparitions inside?
Actually, who wouldn’t? In every testimony she’d read, the children seemed benign, and their prey had been only moments from admitting them when the latter revealed the extent of their menace. There were no accounts of what happened if they were allowed inside. Why?
Exasperated, Jin pointed at the children, who continued to stare in their direction. “Them!”
He was right. No information existed about their potential fate, because no witnesses survived such an encounter. Their horrors were as dark and mysterious and dead as these predators’ black gaze. Everything about them existed to terrify—their eyes, their voices, the bodies of children they seemed to wear, as opposed to inhabit.
“We’re right here,” she muttered. “Why are they just standing there?”
“Do you really want to find out?” Jin begged.
No, no, no, no, absolutely not. Her curiosity, however, overrode her sense of self-preservation, as per usual. “Yes,” she forced herself to reply.
“Come on, you idiot!”
“Go,” she said.
“You heard the woman,” Jin told Susan as he bolted away.
Gina lashed out and clutched Susan’s wrist. “Not you.”
Susan said nothing, but her face spoke of fear, confusion, and a just a little bit of hope.
“We can save him,” Gina said.
“No,” she replied, “we can’t.”
“I just need to go over and speak to them.”
“Are you fucking insane?” Susan squeaked.
“I won’t be harmed.”
“Are you fucking insane?” Susan repeated.
It was a valid question. This was insane. Since childhood, Gina had been trained to identify and exploit loopholes within the laws of physics. She learned history from vampires, meditation from wraiths, and physical fitness from werewolves. No monster frightened her, except for these children. Instinctively, she understood that they would certainly be death of her.
Nine months ago, she would have abandoned this parking lot. However, she had one thing now she didn’t have before. “Correction:” Gina said; “I won’t be harmed if you are there to protect me.”
“Who’s going to protect me?”
“Why would you need protecting?” Gina asked. “You’re practically a goddess.”
Susan smiled through her tears. “All right, you got me.”
Their fingers laced together.
“Come,” Gina declared, “let us descend upon them as badasses.”
Dread, she told herself with each step, is the fiction of the timid. After an eternity, they stood face to face with the children. Looking them in the eye was the single most difficult thing Gina had ever done in her life, but the situation called for it. “Go home.”
“Can you give us a ride then?” the taller of the creatures asked.
“But we need a ride!”
She was wrong. This would never work. They needed to retreat.
“I’m here,” whispered Susan.
Gina gritted her teeth. “The boy in the vehicle is frightened of you. The woman behind me is frightened of you. I am terrified of you. This is a bountiful harvest. You should be pleased.”
“Take us with you!”
“You’ve feasted enough,” Gina told them. “Go. Home.”
The creatures relaxed, and the speaker patted its partner’s shoulder. “This is lame,” it muttered. “Let’s get out of here.”
Gina exhaled and collapsed against the closest fender. She turned to her friend to celebrate with a mutual grin of victory, but Susan wasn’t there. She had torn open the pickup, yanked her boyfriend outside, and kissed him desperately.
Gina closed her eyes. The status quo, she told herself, is the fiction of the timid.