“Paxton Shaw…that’s me, right? Yeah,” I mutter to myself, huffing as I walk down the street with my hands stuffed into my pockets, my breath white in the freezing air. Snow swirls vaguely in the wind, tiny flakes sticking to the ice on the lank grass and melting on the street and the sidewalk, leaving them a wet, slippery mess of cracked concrete. I haven’t heard a human voice all morning. Everyone is gone, and there’s no one to talk to but me. Am I going to disappear too? I don’t want to forget me. “I’m Paxton Shaw. My parents are Daniel and Colin Shaw. I have a sister, Ainsley, and she’s six years old. My best friends are Rachel Bishop and Stefan Faulk. Oh…damn it…”
I stop moving, scanning the empty houses in front of me. I haven’t even made it to the end of the street.
How could I have forgotten about Stefan? He stayed with us last night, climbed in through the window and crawled into bed right between Rachel and me. So he’s gone too, then.
No, they’re not gone. I don’t know where they are, but I will find them. I can’t help but see Ainsley’s face, though, her hazel eyes round and wet, her chubby cheeks bright with spots of red like they always are when she’s scared. Is she with Papa or is she just…alone?
I whip around but there’s no one there, no sound but silence and the wind soughing through the trees that rise up behind the houses. Our neighborhood is nothing but a swath of clearing cut into an old forest. That was Stefan’s voice. I’ve been hearing that voice since before I could walk, back when he was a chubby toddler pretending he was big enough to push me in the baby swings.
Nothing but the wind rustling and the sudden flash of snow blowing into my eyes, snow from a cloudless purple sky. I turn to the side, shading my eyes, and I see the house on the corner up ahead, a two-story red brick house, with vines creeping up the sides, clinging to the windows. Stefan’s house.
I run, my chest tight and heavy. I’ve walked up to every house I’ve passed, peering through the blind-less windows and hoping to see Mr. Calgary reading the newspaper at the kitchen table or getting his horde of children ready for school, but no matter which window I’m pressed against, inside there’s always the same thing—empty walls, little or no furniture and the kind of scraps of trash on the floor that get left behind when people move, before the realtor has a chance to come in and clean.
Maybe Stefan’s house is different. Maybe he didn’t want to wake me this morning and went home early before…whatever…happened. Let there be something different there, I think before breaking into a run. I’m tall and bony, all elbows, knees and gangly lines, with few of the curves other girls seem to be growing and even less in the way of breasts. They’re more like beestings than anything else. It’s good though. Long legs and a lean body helps me run faster, helps me sprint the long yards to the corner house in moments. Running feels good, exhilarating. Running makes me feel like I’m actually doing something. It always has.
I stop in the yard, my feet pressed together on a thick granite stepping stone, now overgrown and cracked in half. That door hasn’t opened for me in a year, not since Stefan came out to his parents and his mother decided my dads were a bad influence on him. Now I only see him at school and at night when he sneaks in through my window, leaving again before the sun rises.
Well, it’s open now.
It hangs crookedly on rusted hinges, vines grown wild across the surface of the brick, so thick the brick can’t even be seen in most places.
I push the door wider and squeeze through the crack, but hope falls flat just over the threshold. Stefan’s house is no better than the others. The wallpaper’s yellowed and peeling from the walls, the tile floor cracked and left bare after the gutting of all the furniture. So far my house is the only one I’ve seen with any furnishings left at all, like my family left in more of a rush than the others.
Such a rush that they forgot to take me with them. Swallowing hard, I duck my head and spit out a curse that would make Dad smack me a good one. They didn’t leave me. They wouldn’t.
I head for the stairs, stepping lightly on wood that is probably rotten.
There’s a handprint on the wall near the top, a bright blue one that stands out starkly against the dusty white of the flaking plaster. Be something, I think. Tell me something. I touch me finger to the print, and the very tip pulls away, cold and blue. Paint.
There’s wet paint on the wall.
“Come on, Superboy!” I yell, sounding a lot calmer than I actually am. Anyone could be in the rooms up here, or gone already. All I know is someone with hands bigger than Ainsley’s has been here in the last hour. “Tell me you’re up here trying to work out the new super-symbol you’ll use every time you interrupt a mugging or pull a squirrel out of traffic.”
Still no answer, but why should I be surprised? Whether it’s a dream or the start of a new living nightmare, silence is my new reality. I study the handprint, my fingers tracing just outside its edges, my feet poised on the top two steps. It’s small enough that I know it wasn’t a person Papa’s size, or even Dad’s, which means it was probably a woman or a teenager, someone closer to my size. It’s smeared too, with long finger-streaks of blue trailing away from the fingers of the print and down the hall. I follow them around until they trail into nothingness at Stefan’s door.
“Stefan?” I call, stepping inside.
Fear freezes my muscles and leaves me hollow because Stefan’s room isn’t empty like all the others. Stefan’s room is like it always was, except it’s very, very wrong. Everything is frantically tumbled—dressers drawers pulled wide, clothes strewn across the floor, posters pulled from the walls and ripped apart. Slashes cut through sheets and pillows, glass shattered on the floor, crunching under my feet even just two steps inside the door.
What were they looking for? Did they find it?
Did someone hurt Stefan?
I can’t move. I mean, what am I supposed to hope for here? Did they take something I need, someone I love? Or was it someone I love who was here, doing this? If so, did they find what they were looking for, and will it help me find them? And is it okay for me to just be relieved, even exhilarated that the paint is wet, that the room still looks like Stefan’s no matter what’s been done to it? Is it okay to be happy that someone, whoever and wherever they are, is still alive?
I’m not alone.
I’m not alone, and for the first time today, I’m smiling.
Blue paint is splattered over the pale gray walls, words scrawled in frantic fury: I’m not what I seem.
I turn around, catching sight of the open window and blowing curtains, and the words Find it in dripping paint beside the window, childish finger-paintings of what look like waves or maybe just squiggles dabbled beneath and beside it.
The white closet doors are so splattered with blue it looks like someone dropped a bucket from the ceiling and left the mess behind. I pull the doors open, half-expecting to find Stefan gagged on the closet floor, but it’s just empty. Everything that belongs in his room is in it, as far as I can see, even the half-eaten box of peanut butter cereal that could always be found on his floor. The closet, though, had been completely stripped. I can’t remember what used to be in it, but I know it was never empty.
No, no it’s not completely empty.
I kneel and reach into the back corner, tugging a crumpled piece of paper from its place, half-stuffed under the baseboard and then forgotten. Flattening it out as best I can, I squint at the small, cramped writing on the top half of the page.
Shadow on the wall and I spin toward the window, shoving the paper in my pocket as I run to clutch at the splintered sill, scanning the street and ignoring the eerie, injured sky.
Her skin is darker than my own light brown. It’s that beautiful kind of brown I’ve always wished I had, the brown so dark it’s almost black, so dark it gleams with light even on an unreal day like this, with unnatural skies and snow that falls from clouds that just aren’t there. She clutches her arms, shivering in a pink tank top and pajama shorts, her bare feet stumbling over cracks in the sidewalk.
My heart seizes in my chest and I lean so far out the window as I watch her hesitate in front of the house that I practically leap from the roof. “Ray!” I yell, my voice frantic, like there’s a chance she won’t hear me from fifty feet away. “Ray, I’m up here!”
She looks up, relief evident on her face for a moment, but then her eyes stretch wide and all her muscles tighten with fear.
“Ray?” I call again, looking around for the source of her fear. “Ray, what’s wrong?”
She shakes her head, backs away. Stumbles and falls, chokes out a sobbing scream and takes off around the corner, heading west on Redwood Gates.
I really do scramble out onto the porch roof now, easing my feet across dying shingles and taking Stefan’s long-proven pathway down to the yard. Even with the vines it’s a short, easy drop from the sloping porch roof to the metal toolshed on the side of the house, and then to the ground. I don’t even stop to work the landing ache from my legs before I take off after Ray.
Two blocks on and the road splits in a way I don’t remember. Instead of a straight path ahead and a short street to the right, there’s no street at all ahead. It’s a dead end, with one street branching left and the other right. There are no houses that I can see. Nothing known, nothing familiar, only woods to the left and bare hills to the right, topped with what looks like ice, or maybe sand.
“Okay.” There’s that word again, but what else is there to say? It’s one thing for people to move, for furnishings, cars and clothes to disappear because it happens. People leave, right? They move, and they start new lives. Sometimes they even leave people behind. But entire streets vanishing and others popping up out of nowhere? I’ve lived in this neighborhood for as long as I can remember, and there’s never been a street to the left here, just a little cul-de-sac on the right and Regency Gates, which continues winding forward until it hits the highway. Of course, I’ve also never seen it snow here in September, and yesterday afternoon Ray and I were playing volleyball in Mr. Calgary’s huge impeccable and not even slightly overgrown backyard. A lot can change in a day, more than I thought possible.
Did Ray go left or right here? Forest or beach?
Closing my eyes, I just breathe, thinking. Where is she? Where would I go if I were running from something and had no idea what I was running toward? Where did you go, Ray? Don’t run from me…
I open my eyes and feel the splatter of something wet.
Paint is falling like snow from the sky, leaving wet droplets at my feet and on my skin, splotches of bright blue on the concrete sidewalk, trickling down onto the street itself and tapping a pattern of drops toward the street on the right, more falling with each gust of wind.
I hesitate, step left. Hesitate again and head to the right, running on a thin black path through sand dunes topped with cracked shells of ice.
A scream far ahead and I stumble.
That’s Ray’s voice. Ray is screaming, a wordless blast of anger and fear.
“I’m coming,” I whisper, my throat too tight with panic to yell. I’ve found her. I’ve found her, and something’s trying to take her from me. Hold on, Ray. I’m coming. Just hide somewhere, okay? Hide until I can help you.
I scramble for a weapon, any weapon, and pull a half-buried tree limb from the sand of a dune, gripping it like a club as I run.
The road ends and there’s only sand and hills and wind blowing grit into my eyes.
The sound of snapping teeth and a cold snarl.
I climb a dune and see figures moving in the distance, up against the next sand monolith.
She’s stuffed herself back into some kind of hole in the hillside, a tiny cavern of ice crafted from water that trickled down through the sand and froze there, leaving just enough space for a bent body.
Two dogs snap at her, snarling and trying desperately to shove their heads into the opening of the cave.
“Get out of here!” I yell, running for her. Not close enough. It’s way too far. “Leave her alone!”
The dogs snap again and I see her hands reach past the edge of the cave, shoving at the huge white head.
Finally close enough, I swing my club and keep running, struggling to hit something, anything but Ray.
The white dog leaps at me, its black tongue hanging from its mouth and its teeth closing on my arm, but I swing again and catch it in the hind leg, clip the other one on the chin and it yips, calling to its partner as it takes off, heading for the distant woods that are now behind me. The white one growls and shakes its head, torn between the fight and having to fight alone. I swing again and miss, but the dog drops my arm and slinks away, tail between its legs, whimpering a sad little whuff as it darts back into the blowing sand.
I drop to my knees and shove my head into the little cave, blinking in the glitter of the ice walls. “Ray?”
All I see is movement and a shadow, and then her foot slams into my face.
Nothing but white and pain and the crackle of my nose breaking, hot taste of blood as it drips into my open mouth.
I cough, spit, stagger backward. “Shit.” I cough again and spit blood, blinking to clear the white light from my eyes. “Holy flaming tarballs, Ray, what the hell did you do that for? I’m trying to help!”
Silence from the cave.
Then a sniffle, then the hopeful shift of limbs on ice and sand. Then—soft, tentative—Ray’s voice. “Pax?”