Bria called it the Cold Place.
Danu called it the Wall of Ice.
Stevie called it the Freezing Dark.
And so forth and so on, all around the cafeteria table affectionately known as “Siberia” because of how far away it was from everything else.
All six of them had a name for it. That place their parents went to when asked certain questions or when certain topics came up. It was like they were frozen in a trance for a couple of seconds. Then they gave their teenaged children a very vague answer before icily telling them to mind their own business because “he hates nosy children”.
And they never said who “he” was, either.
The worst thing to do, they all agreed, was to ask them where they had been or where they were going.
That not only got the freeze reaction but the parents replied by asking their teens a series of very pointed and suspicious questions about how they were doing in school, how popular they were, and what kind of friends they were making among the “people who might be able to do something for them in the future”.
“Wait…. ” April had said, “does anyone here has a GPA below 4.5?”
Not a single hand went up.
“Why do you ask? ” said Anika.
“It’s just… listen, does anyone here remember that Tilly-Amberson girl?” said April.
“The girl with the buck teeth and the horse laugh?” said Stevie.
“Oh yeah, I remember her!” said Danu. Her name was Mercedes. She was in my advanced biochem class for a little while. Sharp as hell and destined for greatness, as my father would say. ”
“Oh yeah!” said Bria. “She sat with the power nerds. I knew her enough to say hi in the hallway but that was about it. Whatever happened to her, anyway?”
“Yeah, where did she go? ” said Danu. “One day she was up front and kicking ass in class, and the next day she was just… gone. ”
“I heard she moved away. ” said Bria.
“Yeah, but from who?” asked April.
Bria shrugged. “I don’t know. Someone. ”
“Was it someone who knew the family? Or a friend?” asked April.
“I don’t know!” said Bria. “I don’t remember, okay? God, what is WITH you all of a sudden, April. Are you on the rag or what?”
“Yeah, April. ” said Danu. “Like, WTF? ”
“I’m sorry, Bria. It’s just that… I am starting to freak out here. And that girl is at the center of why. Because I know for a fact that she did not move away. ”
“How could you know that? ” asked Danu.
“Because… look, you know the Lewiston Outlet Mall?” said April.
Everyone nodded. It was one of those places you couldn’t avoid if you were a kid in the area. Sooner or later, one or both parents would subject their kids to a very boring three hour drive to the Outlet Mall just so their parent(s) could make them try on a zillion school outfits before deciding to get them the same boring crap everyone else was subjecting THEIR kids to.
“Well a couple weeks ago my Mom dragged me there because she had some kind of meeting at the Howard Johnson next door and figured we needed some ‘girl time’. ”
“Oh, gross. ” said Anika, with feeling.
“Yeah, I know, right? Anyway, right before the meeting, she shoves a hundred bucks into my hands and tells me to go shopping, and later, we’d compare our ‘hauls’. ”
April replied to the group’s blank looks with “You know…. like in haul videos?”
Everyone groaned. Another adult trying to be ‘hip’.
“I swear, parents shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. ” said Danu.
“I know, right? ” said Bria. “it should be like, ‘Here’s your beautiful baby girl. And the form you need to fill out in order to get Internet access back when she graduates from college. Congratulations, and goodbye. ”
“Anyway…. ” said April pointedly, “my point is that she gave me money and told me to go shopping. And I wouldn’t be caught dead in outlet mall clothes, so I went to the Salvation Army across the street. And you know what I found there?”
“Old clothes that smell like pee? ” said Danu.
“Old PEOPLE that smell like pee? ” said Bria.
“An old person peeing on clothes? ” said Anika. Then, when everyone was staring, she said “What? I saw it happen once! It was totally gross!”
“I did not need to know that. ” said Stevie.
“Was it a man or a woman? ” Danu asked Anika,
“Does it make a difference!?! ” asked a shocked Bria.
‘It had to be a dude. ” said Danu. “An old woman would have to climb on top of the clothes and squat, but an old dude could just whip it out and… ”
“GOD, Danu! Why are you always so gross?” said Bria.
“Because you’re extra cute when you’re grossed out, my goddess. ”
Bria hmphed and turned away from him. “Whatever. ”
“God, FOCUS, people! ” said April. “What I found was all of Mercedes’ clothes. And I mean ALL of them. ”
“You mean… like, even her underwear and her accessories?” asked Bria.
“Yes!” said April. “AND her jewelry! It was all there!”
“How did you know it was hers?” said Stevie.
“Because I helped her pick out every single item. ” said April. “She came to me one day and said she really liked how I dressed and wanted to get some tips. ”
“From YOU?” said Anika.
“Isn’t that like asking for typing lessons from Helen Keller? ” said Bria.
“Oh ha ha, guys. ” said April, grinning. “Bitches, all of you. Anyhow, so I gave her some tips and she liked them and then she asked me to come over to her place after school to help her pick clothes out of a catalog. ”
“Whoa, red flag. ” said Danu.
“What? ” said Stevie.
Danu used his ‘street smart’ voice to say “Never go over to someone’s house when you don’t know them that well. It’s not normal. Weird things are bound to happen. ”
“Weird things like what? ” asked Anika.
“Yeah, we need the deets. ” said Bria.
“You know…. weird things. ” said Danu uncomfortably.
“Now you’re being weird. ” said Bria.
“No I’m not!” said Danu, now squirming in his seat.
“Super weird. ” said Bria.
“Wait… ” said Anika. “Does this have anything to do with why you don’t hang out with Mark any more?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. ” said Danu weakly.
“You’re right. ” said Bria. “They used to do everything together. Now it’s like they live on different planets. What happened, Danu?”
“Yeah!” said Anika. “Why’d you two break up?”
“BREAK UP?” said Danu hotly. “There was no breaking up! Because there was nothing to break up! We were just friends!”
“Holy shit, dude. ” said Stevie. “Chill. ”
April cried out in frustration. “Come on, guys! Pay attention, this is important! ”
“What, there’s more? ” said Bria.
“Yeah there’s more!” said APril. “Now are you guys gonna listen?
Everyone nodded. They had never seen April like this. Normally she was a perky bundle of fun, But today she looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks.
“Good. Because it’s what happened next that is freaking me out. I bought a couple of Mercedes’ old things that I had always liked, and then met up with my mom and showed them to her, and she FREAKED the fuck OUT!”
Shocked silence. Had April ‘The All American Cheerleader’ Templeton just said ‘fuck’?
“She grabbed the stuff away from me like it was radioactive and screamed at me to tell her where I got it, and when I told her it was the Sally Ann from across the street, she acted like I had just come out of a crackhouse with fresh tattoos! She said she never thought any daughter of hers would ever go to a Salvation Army for clothes, and that if I needed more money all I had to do was ask, and that she was really disappointed in me for being friends with a ‘loser’ like Mercedes in the first place. ”
“Wait, what?” said Danu. “She said that?”
“Those were her exact words. ” said April.
“What? ” said Bria.
“And you hadn’t told your mother about her before that?” said Danu.
“Never came up. ” said April.
“Oh shit. ” said Stevie.
“WHAT? What are you people talking about? ” demanded Bria.
“Bria… how did she know the clothes came from Mercedes?” said Stevie.
“Oh… shit. ” said Bria.
“That’s super fucking creepy. ” said Anika.
“FUCK. ” said Danu, standing up.
“What is it, Danu?” said April.
“I just remembered the last thing Mercedes ever said to me. ” said Danu. Sweat dripped off his face and his hands were trembling.
“What? ” said Bria. “What did she say?”
“It was right after the advanced biochem mid term. I aced it, naturally, and asked her how she’d done. She showed it to me… B+. Would have been an A+ but she had misread the instructions on one of the sections. No big deal… a lot of people didn’t understand the instructions. ”
Danu paused and took a deep breath. “I looked at her and she looked like she’d just seen a massacre or something. Then she looked me in the eye and said… she said.. ”
“C’mon Dan. ” said “You can do this. What did she say?”
“She said…. ‘my parents are going to kill me when they see this. ‘”
Silence fell like a guillotine as everyone took that in.
Everyone turned when Brian cleared his throat.
“Hey, Brooding Brian!” said Danu, far too cheerfully. “You’ve been quiet this whole time. Tell us what you’ve got to say. ”
“I think.. ” he said in his slow, intense voice. “I think I know where they took her. ”
“You do? ” said Anika. “Where is it?”
“It’s this old bomb shelter on some property my Dad owns. ” said Brian. “I go there when I need to be alone. It’s very quiet and calm and peaceful. I like it there. ”
“Sounds nice. ” said Anika dubiously.
“What makes you think she was taken there? ” said April.
“Because the last time I was there, someone had left a huge mess there.” said Brian, voice quavering. ” And not like… a normal mess, like if people had been drinking there or whatever. It was more like… all these brown stains on the walls, and the whole place smelled like copper and chlorine, and there were all these pieces of what looked like pale white porcelain on the ground. ”
“Was it shaped like bones? ” April asked.
Brian shook his head. “I have no idea. I didn’t hang around long enough for a good look. Some kind of instinct must have kicked in because one second I was in the shelter and the next I was running like hell down Longacre, more scared than I had ever been before in my life and feeling like the top of my head would blow off if I stopped running for even a second. ”
“Holy shit. ” said Danu. The rest nodded in agreement.
“It wasn’t till I got home that I realized what I had seen. ” said Brian. “I tried to pretend it wasn’t what it looked like but that didn’t last. My body knew it had smelled death. It just took a while for my mind to accept it. ”
“I’m having trouble with that too. ” said Bria quietly.
Silence for a few long painful ticks of the clock.
“Danu?” said APril. “Did you drive to school today?”
“What? ” said Danu. “Uh, yeah. Why?”
“Because we’re going to go out there and take a look at this shelter – together – and figure out what the fudge is going on in this time.” said April. ” And you’re the only one with a vehicle that can carry us all. So you’re going to drive us there. ”
“Um…. okay. ” said Danu.
“And when we get there. ” said April. “We stick together, okay? Nobody is ever left alone, not even for a second.”
“What do you think is going to happen to us, April?” said Stevie.
“I don’t know. ” said April. “But everyone says my grandmother was a witch, and sometimes I just kind of… know things without knowing how I know. And right now, I know that something really dark is happening in this town… and I know that whatever it is, we will find it at that shelter. So tonight, we ride with destiny. ”
To her surprise, everyone agreed.